Chapter four: The butterfly
I’m waiting outside in the cold waiting for Yobu to open the door.
It’s snowing, a rare sight out here. Little children are running around with gloves and hats, but I don’t have either so I keep my arms crossed, tucked tight to my sides to keep them warm. I lean against the door, eyes fixed on the tower clock.
He’s ten minutes late already, I hope nothing happened to him.
As if the old man has a feel for dramatics he comes running around the corner followed by a girl with long black hair and an even longer black skirt with flowers round the hem.
“Sorry we’re late, the frost broke the elevator down at Heya and we had to go around.”
“That’s great, let me in I’m freezing.”
“Right, right.” The old man scrambles to find his keys while the girl waits patiently behind him.
The door to the restaurant swings open with a creak.
“I’ll fetch the three of us some tea.” Yobu kicks off his shoes and hurries off towards the kitchen leaving me with the girl.
We take off our shoes and coats and then sort of wait. She can’t be much older than me, but she’s a good head taller. Then after an awkward minute of simply standing around, she bows to me “My name is Himowa, It’s nice to meet you, Hui.”
“I didn’t give you my name yet?”
“Yaye told me about you on the way, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Yaye? Yobu is your grandfather?” I knew the old man was old but not that old.
At that Yobu comes crashing in, serving tray in his hands. “Hui I want you to meet Himowa, my granddaughter. She’ll be helping out around here.”
“We already did the introductions yaye.” Himowa giggles.
“Right, well, in that case, sit down, the both of you and have some tea.”
I hold my teacup in my hands gratefully feeling the heat seep into my frozen skin.
“Himowa will be taking care of the guests so I don’t have to.
Normally she’ll come in when the restaurant opens but I made her come early today to meet you properly.”
“So that means I’ll just be taking care of the back right?”
“And morning prep, and don’t think you’re out of doing dishes, but no more watching pots or tending bar anymore for you.”
“Nice.” I take a sip of tea as silence dawns over the table.
“Himowa, is there anything you want to tell Hui about yourself?” Yobu asks in an attempt to keep the conversation going.
The girl shrugs “I like swords.”
All right, I didn’t expect that “You’re not a Kashuya-fan are you?” I ask warily, though I doubt Yobu would ask her to come work for him if she were.
“What? No!” she shoots back indignantly.
“Then you’re good as far as I know.” I get up and bow to her “It’s nice to meet you Himowa.”
The girl looks suprised for a moment, then smiles a perfect smile.
Yobu nods approvingly and after that, the three of us get started on another day of work.
Two days later I’m traversing the tunnels of the badao.
It’s an underground settlement built when the war with Cygne was at its fiercest. Rebels long-dead spent years digging, creating a sprawling web of tiny rooms where they could hide with their families or traverse the city unseen as they smuggled weapons and information.
Of course, those days are all gone.
The war is lost, the only rebels left are stories and the tunnels are a cheap place to stay for the ones who have little to spare.
The blue flame in the fat lady’s lantern is dim and meagre. She opens a heavy wooden door and shows me in. As she sets the sad flame on a low coffee table it illuminates all five square metres of the underground room.
“The rent is sixty Chui each month, I live next door on number eighteen, just toss the money through the letterbox. But be sure to write your name on the envelope cause I got more tenants and if I can’t check your box on my list you’ll be out on the streets before you know it. I’ll come to check once in a while to see if you’re taking good care of the place so no funny business, no painting ceilings or digging in the walls. Water and steam will be paid separately, I’ll send a guy your way to explain but be sure you got about five Chui on hand every week. Any questions?”
I shake my head at the fat lady “No ma’am.”
“Then here’s the key and that’ll be sixty Chui.”
I pick the money from my purse and take the key, it feels cold… and kind of icky.
My new landlord counts the money in her palm then smiles “Congratulations kid, enjoy the place.” She then turns and walks out without another word leaving the lantern on the table. I search my bag for some extra oil and lift the shield to feed it, as it flares up the fire changes from blue to yellow and the shadows disappear.
The place is a dump, even for the Badao, the pump is rusted, the floor is covered in sand and the sinkhole doesn’t even have a lid.
No wonder this place is so cheap.
But I don’t care, there’s an old couch to sleep on as I save for a proper mat, and I won’t be spending much time here anyway, too busy working.
Then the door flies open and Takeyo rushes in, eyes wide, his face ashen with worry. “Tell me you didn’t.” His voice is hoarse from exertion, I shook him off good this time.
My mouth curls up in glee “Takeyo welcome to my house.”
He shakes his head incredulously as he gasps “You’d rather live in the Badao with the junkies and prostitutes than in a mansion with your family?”
“Absolutely.” I grin at his discomfort.
“Look I have to take you home again, dingy apartment or no-”
“I’m not coming home with you again Takeyo, as you can see I have a place of my own.”
“I don’t care about Hashiro, or Migako or any of you. I have my house, I have my job, it’s high time you all leave me alone.”
“Little brother you-”
I drop my bag on the floor with a thud “Don’t ‘little brother’ me. You choose to all be dependent on the Kashuya, I decided to build a life for myself.”
“This isn’t a life!” Takeyo scoffs dismissively while pointing at the terracotta-coloured ceiling “This is just your little rebellion against Hashiro and the Kashuya!”
“The door is over there Takeyo, I must insist you walk through it.”
“Look you may think you can just cut ties with us, ignore your family. But the harder you pull away the nastier they’ll be when you have to join up.”
“I don’t have to do anything Takeyo.”
“You can’t stop ageing Hui, when you’re eighteen they’ll come for you whether you like it or not.”
I yawn, sit down on the threadbare couch and signal at the door.
“I’m telling you, you’re gonna regret this.” He says in an attempt to sound intimidating.
“Save it for the people who are actually scared of you brother.”
The door closes with a mighty slam, followed by a thud on the wall.
“No slamming with the doors, you’re gonna bend the hinges!”
“Yes ma’am. Sorry, ma’am!”
It falls silent.
I take off my shoes, put my feet down on the coffee table and enjoy the silence.
Back in the restaurant things are going much more smoothly with Himowa’s arrival. Three pairs of hands make lighter work than two and everything feels a lot less rushed.
We eat dinner together now too after the last customers left.
It’s nice, I feel at home here.
Somehow these two people feel more like family than any of my brothers and sisters ever could.
One day I’m taking stock behind the bar when I overhear one of the customers making a fuss.
“This sefai isn’t cold. It’s room temperature at best! With cheap booze like this, I’d at least expect it to be cold, this is unpalatable.”
I watch the customer as he slams the cup onto the table splashing the drink all over the table.
Himowa bows apologetically. “I’m so sorry sir. Let me fetch you a new cup on the house.” She picks up the cup and quickly dries the table with a towel she keeps on her sash.
The man huffs “It better be cold.”
She rushes towards the bar somehow not losing any grace while doing so and then takes a deep breath before setting the cup down on the bar. “Can I?” she asks pointing at the bar.
I jump aside “of course.”
She then grabs a glass, fills it with ice and grabs a jar of salt from under the counter. Taking a small spoonful and sprinkling it over the ice.
I watch in confused intrigue as she fills it with water and then sets the little cup in the middle before pouring the sefai in. She then closes the bottle and explains “salt makes the water colder. It’s a trick I learnt from yaye.
I nod my head in admiration. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Well to be fair neither do I, there’s some science behind it but he never explained that part.”
“I was talking about not killing the rude customers.”
“Oh, that’s easy. Just kill them in your head.” She then winks, plucks the cup from the glass, wipes it off with her towel and heads back to the table.
As she walks away I wonder if she’s joking or not.
Perhaps I should give it a try?