Chapter 7:

The calm after the storm

Toaru Ramen no Hanashi

"Uhg..." the boy sighs. Haircombed his hair multiple times, then scratched it all over again.Bookmark here

"Hey, hey. What's wrong? Dandruff problems?" asked Gourmet.Bookmark here

The boy reacted, a little annoyed. "Umm, please don't turn our intermission into a shampoo commercial skit."Bookmark here

Disappointed with the boy's retort, Gourmet's shoulders went limp. "Why did you shut me down like it's the most normal thing to do? Are you bored? Are you really bored?"Bookmark here

The boy smiled a refreshing one and gave a friendly tap to his old seatmate. "I think I can actually represent everyone's opinions here." he paused, looking at the entire roster of regulars. "We don't have time for your random jargons, Gourmet-san."Bookmark here

Like a direct arrow to the heart or a precise headshot by a sharpshooter, Gourmet's enthusiasm hit rock bottom. He felt his body was turned into fine sand, all white and drained, swept away by an invisible wind that also blew a random passerby's skirt outside the establishment. Coincidentally, a random "Kyaa" sound from a woman can be heard from behind the door which brought a weird mood to a reinvigorated Gourmet. "I saw some heavenly stripes just now. I wish I could be reborn as a wind."Bookmark here

All eyes were on Gourmet when he blurted such line. Eroi and the ramen shop lady in particular showered him with a contempt look. After a brief silence, the sliding door entrance opened. Entering from the outside, the bright lighting from the streetlights mixing with some neon signs, a figure can be seen as if being emphasized by a spotlight.Bookmark here

"Geez, that naughty wind. I feel a bit chilled just now."Bookmark here

An unusually large-built lady, safe to say in her senior years evident with her wrinkled skin, wearing exaggerated getup of ultra-fit red skirt on the shorter side, a matching red coat housing a beige-pink blouse, heels of almost half-foot in length and a very tolerable cosmeticized face. With impeccable confidence, she headed towards the counter with a larger-than-life catwalk and happily gave the ramen shop lady a friendly high-five before sharing a deep embrace along with a few cheek kisses.Bookmark here

As the ramen shop lady and the sudden visitor chatted inaudibly in the kitchen, the boy along with the other regulars couldn't resist giving Gourmet a divisive set of looks. Ultimately, it was Bocchan who inadvertently delivered the punchline without uttering a single word by slowly playing with his skirt in front of Gourmet. The old man who couldn't bear the poking eyes centering him, just buried his face to his cowboy hat.Bookmark here

"I get it! I get it, okay? I'll stop praying to the heavens hoping I'll be reincarnated as a wind." he complained, still ruing his earlier statement.Bookmark here

After a few moments, the visitor left the establishment without making a similar impact compared to her entrance. It was uneventful to the point, Gourmet had to retort obligatorily. "What did that old bag came here for?!"Bookmark here

A light knuckle felt to the old man's head. "You crude fellow. Don't you dare disrespect my predecessor, you flippant old-timer wishing to be reborn as a wind." said the ramen shop lady, covering her mouth for some reason.Bookmark here

"Oh, why are you covering your mouth, Ane-san? Don't tell me..." Gourmet inquired, looking worried that a bunch of sweat can be seen forming in his forehead.Bookmark here

The ramen shop lady casually averted her attention. "Don't mind me, I have to help my husband in the kitchen."Bookmark here

Gourmet jumped off the wooden ledge and reached for the ramen shop lady's apron. "Just laugh at me, will you? I can't stand being a comedic relief with everyone here stifling their chuckles."Bookmark here

The boy and the other regulars, in fact, are trying their best to contain the desire to just let go. Even the stoic ramen chef himself, is shaking on his spot, preventing himself to burst into laughter.Bookmark here

"Huh? What are you talking about?" the ramen shop lady faced Gourmet, her face wearing its usual graceful expression, except her lips twitching like ocean waves during a storm.Bookmark here

Upon seeing her mien, eventually the inevitable happened. Exactly after two minutes, Gourmet left the scene as if he was snapped to oblivion by a certain villain, in a certain universe of a multi-billion dollar project by a Hollywood franchise.Bookmark here

It was until the boy gave the old man another friendly tap on his back. Still with watery eyes from all the excessive laughing he just unleashed, the boy calmly look at Gourmet with a soft and warm smile. "And so, another set of wild zephyrs blew upwards that..."Bookmark here

"Boy, please that's enough. My poor old heart can't take any more damage." Gourmet pleaded.Bookmark here

"Old man, I'm very sure that stripes you just saw earlier would stay forever in your memory lane. Ah, you better not forget the complimentary "Kyaaa" as well." Eroi said, with her usual perkiness.Bookmark here

The damage kept on piling on Gourmet's poor condition. "Geez, you heartless lots. Can you go easy on an old man like me? I feel like my HP already shifted to negative digits!" said Gourmet, rubbing a part of his chest. "Do you want to hear the rest of the story? If yes, then stop this cruel treatment at once!"Bookmark here

"Now, now... Actually, have mercy on the poor old chap." said the ramen shop lady, gracing the regulars from the other side of the counter.Bookmark here

Gourmet's mood can be seen lightening and his usual energetic self slowly recovering.Bookmark here

"Ane-san..." murmured a gratified Gourmet. "Thanks, Ane-san! You're really the bes..."Bookmark here

"Oh by the way, senpai asked me if I could help her setup a blind date, so I gave her your number." she stated, dropping a bombshell with a very casual tone and a friendly grab on Gourmet's shoulder. "Yoroshiku, Gourmet."Bookmark here

None blabbered a word, none released any sound. The only notable elements inside the establishment were the humid air being mitigated by the circulating fans and the recurring silence that had played for the umpteenth time.Bookmark here

"WHY?!" screamed a panicking Gourmet, his hands all over his head.Bookmark here

"Don't worry your little head. Senpai is a very sweet person." replied the wife of the owner, holding a circulated aluminum tray in her right hand. "Besides, it's not like I gave her your number for fun. Ahem, well, maybe just about a tiny bit of entertainment but nonetheless, it's just a friendly outing."Bookmark here

"Ane-san, do you hate me? Did I do something to you that would make you do such cruel thing to me?!" asked a sobbing Gourmet, clasping his roughed, long and old fingers in front of his conversation partner.Bookmark here

The wife of the boss, could only sigh. After a second, she reached for the shaking hands of Gourmet. "Of course not. You're an old friend, thus I can tell you that I care for you." she said, with an angelic aura and a voice so soothing that entranced all the spectating regulars.Bookmark here

"Ane-san..." Gourmet replied, with a touched mien.Bookmark here

"...But while I don't hate you, I still want to put you to some sort of misery due to your constant riling at my workplace. Imagine, you're almost like here everyday. You even stay here until closing times. You always put on a show, well I don't really mind since I kinda like listening to your stories, but you always, always... always..." said the ramen shop lady, suddenly looking peppy with a slightly annoyed tone. "Makes some sort of ruckus of such random doings. I always warn you sternly, but you keep on doing your rowdy pranks, rallying the crowd to do loud cheers accompanied with handclapping. Do you realize how much complaints we have to deal with other customers? Especially, from the younger women side! They find it hard to come back since there's always a rowdy ambience, centering a random old man, talking about the most random of topics. They think you're some sort of cult leader promoting some sort of dubious religion or a swindler who sells the worst drugs in the black market. At any rate, you're basically the reason why only the weird ones stay here as regulars!"Bookmark here

After hearing an unexpectedly long rant from the usual calm lady, the usual boisterous and rowdy crowd was stiff and cramped in silence. As the ringleader, Gourmet tried to answer back, but was unable reply.Bookmark here

Sighing deeply, the ramen shop lady resumed. "Oh? Did I hit a nerve?" she asked, looking at the guilty party of regulars. After a while, she then went to the boy. "I sure hope you find some time to return some day, boy. Albeit our shop is a bit..." she paused, shaking her head.Bookmark here

Without speaking another word, she went back to the kitchen. For a while, she was there chatting with her husband. Moments later, it was the ramen chef himself, who sat on the cash register, that talked to his regulars. "What's the matter? Where's the usual loud gang here making fusses like there's always an ongoing beer-drinking festival?" he asked from behind the counter.Bookmark here

Gourmet along with the other regulars just sighed. After exactly a quarter of a minute, it was their representative who responded.Bookmark here

"Are we really that annoyingly loud?" Gourmet paused then exhaled a single sigh. "But geez, I think I finally pissed off Ane-san."Bookmark here

A hoarse chuckle then escaped the boss mouth. "Nah, it's nothing like that... but since we took over this ramen shop, she always had a vision of filling the store with a variety of people. Particularly, younger women like our very own Eroi here."Bookmark here

"You want to turn your shop into a cabaret or something?" Gourmet inquired to which he received a glare, from both Eroi and the ramen boss. "Fine, fine, that's just a joke. Lighten up, will you two?"Bookmark here

Gourmet eased his posture, his head a bit plopped.Bookmark here

"But surely, Ane-san knows that ramen in a genuine ramen shop is not really such a hot topic for younger girls." Eroi contributed from her seat. "Especially with some mainstream fastfood companies putting their own ramen menu recently. While I don't consider it an authentic bowl, it's still plenty flavorful and comparable to the old style ramen recipes."Bookmark here

The conversing party traded gazes to each other, trying to grasp the concept of how ramen is faring into the current times.Bookmark here

"Actually the other day, I had some at a food court in the mall. There was tons of unique flavoring, like cheese, butter, margarine, even ice cream, curry, milk and chocolate." Bocchan said, as he showed a set of photos from his vlog entries.Bookmark here

After thinking of the aforementioned flavors, Gourmet and the boss in particular, suffered a short stint of goosebumps.Bookmark here

"I can't help but respect those who dared to create it, but I'm afraid I can never find its appeal." the ramen boss said, rubbing his shoulders.Bookmark here

"I'll bet your late pops would go freaking cry in his grave if he learns that his shop would serve those recipe someday." Gourmet replied, doing the same shoulder rubbing.Bookmark here

"You bet he will." the ramen boss responded with a chuckle. "But at any rate, I'm not gonna add those to my menu. I have my stubborn pride to thank for that." he added, puffing his chest with soft taps from a clenched fist.Bookmark here

"Good grief, boss. If only you could not mess up your toppings and the ratio of broth-stock mixture once in a while, I'm sure this place will be the talk of the town!" Gourmet slide in a snide.Bookmark here

"You old rascal. But despite my inconsistency, you still drop in here almost everyday. Are you really that obsessed to my recipes? Do you belong to the "M" faction?" the ramen boss retorted.Bookmark here

Gourmet was expectedly surprised upon hearing such comeback, but soon noticed the boss' red ears. "For crying out loud, don't get embarrassed from a joke you blurted yourself."Bookmark here

The boy let his sight wander and like the ramen shop lady mentioned earlier, Eroi remains the only female among the customers. "To be honest, my idea of a ramen shop is also male-oriented. It's not really a place where young women would want to spend their time to chat about fashion and other girly conversations." he added, attracting everyone's attention.Bookmark here

For a while, there's an ongoing discussion among the regulars, sharing their own experiences, views and even their interpretation on why there's mostly male regulars in their ranks, to which Bocchan took offense. "There's two lovely ladies in here, Eroi and me. You should go back to pre-school and learn some math." he proudly declared.Bookmark here

But the regulars reaction was just a blank sigh and without even a second passing by, Bocchan's notion was utterly disregarded evident by the natural continuation of conversing as if Bocchan didn't utter a loud statement.Bookmark here

"I actually tried to invite some of my girlfriends, but they always end up ganging up on me and says that ramen shops are a gathering place for old sweaty virgins wearing shabby track jerseys, who will keep stealing glances at a heartbeat while fidgeting awkwardly in their seats."Bookmark here

Gourmet stood up, this time flashing a glare to Eroi. "Hmmp, what's with those ridiculous prejudices? Bring them here and I'll show them a proper gentlemen my fellow regulars can be!"Bookmark here

With a half-smile, Eroi replied, lightly scratching her cheek. "No need. I don't really want to bring trouble in this place. Besides, regardless of their misguided view of a ramen shop, I truly enjoy everyone's company here and that is a fact supported by my regular visits of 5 years."Bookmark here

A short but warm silence slid in.Bookmark here

"Damn you, Eroi. You might be a cheeky lass, but I'm proud to say you're one of my fellow regulars here." Gourmet said, wiping the side of his eyes with a handkerchief. "Such a good girl, our Eroi here. Please make sure to treasure her and never make her cry, you hear me?" he added, directing his last statement to the boy who couldn't help but chuckle awkwardly.Bookmark here

Eroi tried to downplay Gourmet's usual teasing but before long, the ramen shop lady finally returned to the counter. With a single cough, she instantly enthralled everyone's attention. After an exact ten seconds of intermission, she opened her lips. "Well, you know... I was unnecessarily harsh earlier..." she stopped, fiddling the hair behind her ears. "Erm, just so you know, I don't mind having you lot as our shop's regulars... so to show my utmost appreciation, or rather a sincere apology from my inconsiderate outburst, please enjoy a serving I made myself."Bookmark here

A faint redness in the ramen shop lady's cheeks brought everyone in a stupor. The beauty in her 50's, wearing a shabby apron and a bandana, became a shining figure to the regulars' eyes whose tears inevitably fell feeling a warm emotion in their chests. The boy included, despite just his first time visiting the establishment, felt a lot of admiration and gratitude to the lady's grand gesture.Bookmark here

"ANE-SAN! YOU'RE THE BEST!" said the regulars acting like they're reciting a football cheer. Gourmet in particular, out of nowhere, was raising a flag with a heart signature, a headband plastered to his head with blue and green neon sticks stuck on it, a motorcycle gang coat with a lioness design on the back and a bouquet of assorted flowers in his hands.Bookmark here

"Ane-san, I swear on my life. I, no, we... will always be your followers! Ane-san, banzai!" he again recited the cheers that made the lady surrender in the ongoing rowdiness.Bookmark here

"At least, say you're regulars, stupid Gourmet. You make it seem like I'm still the gang leader from before!" she said. "But whatever, if you lot want your serving, just hit me up. Aside from that, just tell your story as you've already wasted another couple of pages doing your whimsical commentary." added the ramen shop lady, who sat herself in front of the cash register machine.Bookmark here

Gourmet straightened his posture and cranked his neck on his seat. "As the lady boss said, we might as well resume the story."Bookmark here

The boy, along with Eroi and Bocchan, with the participating regulars also fixed their positions in their respective spaces. As soon as Gourmet saw the usual attentive gazes in his listeners' eyes, he took a deep breath.Bookmark here

"Alright. So..."Bookmark here

*Bookmark here

The setting sun resulting a darkening atmosphere, the unstable blows of the whimsical winds, and the unchanging dire circumstance around Alliona, Helen and the attendant played interactively in the current timeline. A gasping young hunter with a slingshot in her hands, stretched and aimed, continues a staredown to the brutal bandit leader who earlier issued an ultimatum.Bookmark here

"Hey, hey, what's wrong? Just let go of your grip and let the stone fly!" the bandit leader urged Alliona, who is seemingly trying to prevent herself from getting provoked. "Look, the sun is about to set. Just try and get a hit before you lose your sorry lives. Either you pathetically jumped off the cliff shouting your regrets or you get yourselves beaten up, then get violated before getting your throats slit, it's up to you. I'd let you dictate your own terms in respect to the bravery you three have shown me." the vile woman said, still trying to get under Alliona's skin.Bookmark here

Alliona inadvertently coughed multiple times. Her exhaustion and her deteriorating senses is inevitably progressing. With her arms swaying and her eyesight getting duller, her mind is gradually insinuating ideas of complete surrender.Bookmark here

A displeasing chorus of cackle from the bandits made Alliona resolute to let go of her shaking grip on her slingshot. She is conscious enough to realize that it will be her last effort to put a retaliation before she succumbs to the unbearable fatigue that burdens her entire being.Bookmark here

But before she could fire her slingshot, a loud holler emerged from the bandit ranks. Moments later, it can be seen the one who shrieked was pierced in his midsection by a halberd, so sharp that it later cut the bandit in half without much force applied.Bookmark here

Entering the commotion are the capital soldiers who easily subdued the remaining small number of bandits. It did not take long before half of the small number of bandits were killed, prompting the other half to pull another drastic escape. But before the bandit leader herself could outmaneuver her pursuers, Alliona exerted herself to have a go at her assailant and shot the bandit leader from a blind spot that resulted a resounding bullseye dropping the bandit lady on the ground. Soon, the bandit leader could be found resisting the shackles the soldiers put on her hands, feet and neck. Within the next minutes, everything was settled. Another resounding victory for the capital soldiers.Bookmark here

Realizing the dire states of Alliona, Helen and her aide, the considerate soldiers immediately attended to them. With a medic among the soldier ranks, they were soon tended and were patched to a great extent vital to their recovery. Helen, as the adult, expressed her sincerest gratitude to their saviors. Despite her beaten and bloodied appearance, her sheer beauty is enough to ignite the soldiers' self-consciousness.Bookmark here

Amidst the improving situation, the inhibited bandit leader with chainlocks on her neck, hands and feet released a loud scream. As the involved party allowed their consciousness to be taken by the loud noise, they soon found a horrendous display of brutality administered by none other than the high-ranking official who is needlessly stomping his foot to the bandit leader's head.Bookmark here

"How do you like it, huh?!" he yelled. "I will exact the same pitiless treatment you gave me during the times of my imprisonment." added the official, who finally removed his foot on the bandit leader's head. But before the spectators could breath a sigh of relief, the official dunked his heavy built on the lady bandit and forced her face to the rocky ground, smashing it twice that naturally resulted a gory sequence of bloodstained scenes.Bookmark here

The appalling behavior of the official finally snapped the soldiers' courteous approach as they straight away impeded the unjustified and inexcusable viciousness they are forced to witness. As expected, the official flaunted his authority indiscreetly to warrant his actions, but the soldiers already had enough of the refractory attitude of the man they are forced to follow. They voiced the laws written in their parliament to constrain the official who, despite unwilling, finally seemed to back down on his intent to exact revenge on the bandit leader who is grimacing in the ground with a bloodied face.Bookmark here

Alliona and Helen, even though they had a rough event with the bandit leader, felt pity on the female rouge shouting at the top of her lungs, cursing the capital cavaliers who caught her in captivity.Bookmark here

In the following quarter of an hour, the soldiers who held a brief meeting among their ranks, consulted Alliona and her party about their next step. As the soldiers laid out their intentions to return to the capital to hand over the bandits who notoriously disrupted peace and performed savage acts oppose to their mandates, Alliona and Helen expressed another round of thanks and told their plans to resume their travel to Manzhouli. The soldiers respected the will of the ladies and soon gathered their numbers to initiate their way back to the capital.Bookmark here

Then after a few minutes, Alliona's party decided to stay put and recuperate inside the nearby forestry, particularly in their previous resting spot. With the attendant most likely needing a couple of days to regain her lost vigor, Alliona and Helen sorted their belongings in a corner to prepare themselves to relocate. However, another curveball took event that shook the peace that was slowly rooting itself into another haunting occurrence.Bookmark here

The culprit was none other than the pigheaded official who once again resumed his unreasonable act of bullying, though this time his effort seemed to have upped a notch as he snatched a bandit club and clobbered the lying bandit leader on the ground. After his sudden savage deed, seeing the bandit leader going down to the ground, almost unconscious, he initiated kicking the bandit lady towards the ravine. Despite the best and quick efforts of the soldiers, the official looked like he will finally achieved his hellish inclination to put the bandit leader to her demise. However, his luck finally ran out. As he kicked the bandit leader to the edge of the ravine, the lady at door's death, pushed herself to commit a final maneuver to end everything with a bang. She bit the clunky leg of the official with everything she had left, down to the bone. Naturally, a torrent of gushing blood oozed out like a leaking faucet from the wound sustained by her desperate crunch to the official, who in return, panically swung his other leg to the devil's face dragging him towards the free fall of inevitable death.Bookmark here

A few seconds later, they fell together. Nothing followed after a short sequence of echoing weep that vanished within the following moments. Due to the thickening mist and the tricky terrain, the soldiers despite their initial intention to recover the body of the official, opted to do the otherwise. Afterall, everyone who witnessed the vivid happening was in a state of shock evident by their inability to utter a word for a while. After an ample set of minutes, the soldiers in their half-daze, bade their wordless farewell and resumed their homecoming trip back to the capital.Bookmark here

Two days after, Alliona who made an ample recovery just returned from her hunting trip. With an infant fox in her hands, already bloodless. She instantly whip it directly to the fire after skewering it with a broken shotel left by the bandits. The past two days were uneventful, but all the more reason they were able to appreciate it. The beaten attendant, despite still feeling the aftereffects of her broken bones and bruised muscles, was able to rest up but was restricted to resting as Helen ordered her not to exert any effort doing chores. This left Alliona doing most of the work, while Helen conducted herself to some share of the burden by tending to the attendant on her own.Bookmark here

Alliona though, found the cooking experience enjoyable as she was exposed to the cooking paraphernalia such as the soy sauce and the dried herbs from the attendant's belongings. With a whisk of the black fluid into a certain ingredient, the flavor gets rich. The herbs as well, adding good fragrances and tinges of savory zest that ultimately pleased Alliona despite her piling obligations to her party.Bookmark here

Helen who finished tending her attendant, sat beside Alliona. "I think it'll be better if you can make soup as well."Bookmark here

Alliona looked at Helen whose intention can be read literally as she is gazing to her sleeping attendant. "As you wish, milady. Here's hoping it'll help her recovery."Bookmark here

Helen patted Alliona's head to express her gratitude. And after a while, they were able to partake a decent meal and spent another day doing nothing but recuperate.Bookmark here

Morning came and it's a fairly hot one. Due to the season of little-to-no rain, Alliona woke up with buckets of sweat in her back. Same with Helen and her attendant, who woke up sweaty as well. After having a light breakfast, they discussed their plans to resume their travel after getting a good cleaning from a nearby warm stream of water.Bookmark here

Before they could restart their way to Manzhouli, Helen insisted that she carry the young attendant off her back, but as expected, her notion was instantly declined. The attendant, despite her partial recovery, refused Helen's goodwill, but with a fair reason to which Helen acknowledged without much fuss. Alliona, in her own way to support the attendant's pluck, handed a straight wooded cane akin to a shepherd stick. With the minor issue resolved, the party of three treaded their way slowly, taking a step at a time while descending the higher plains. After half an hour of light trek, they were able to return to the flat, sandy and barren open space they were supposed to take three odd days ago. Alliona began scouting the vicinity and soon led her party onwards the flat route.Bookmark here

The journey itself, regardless of the scorching temperature of the sun, was relatively easy. With a few encounters with some wildlife, particularly creatures of venomous nature, they were able to tread a good amount of distance before prompting to take a rest after a good six hours of walking.Bookmark here

As the night took the day's authority, they settled to camp out in the vast open space with no regard if the spot they chose can be classified as cozy or not. Alliona setup a tentlike housing and soon ignited a fire to do her cooking chores. With her getting used to it, she was able to put together another decent meal that ultimately stuffed them.Bookmark here

After dinner, Alliona once again pondered her thoughts concerning her gold coins beside the bonfire. With a sole coin in her hands, she was silent for a long while until Helen, who put her attendant to sleep, joined her in the quiet and refreshing night.Bookmark here

"Let me guess, you still don't know what to do with your coins, correct?" Helen asked, looking directly to the glowing fire in front of her.Bookmark here

Alliona nodded, tossing the coin in the air. "Mhmm..." she paused, catching the coin back to her hand. "...I'm just lost as to how I'll spend it. If I only have a single gold coin, maybe I could buy a new set of clothes, then buy the foods I want to eat. If there's still some changes, I would..."Bookmark here

Helen chuckled in her seat. "You're really such a darling, Alliona. You don't really have any selfishness in you."Bookmark here

Scratching her hair, Alliona replied with a strained half-smile. "More like, I've lived frugally in the border, played in the pastures, herded some livestocks and grew up without spending that much money. Then all of a sudden, I've got enough gold coins to live in luxury for years."Bookmark here

"I see. Yours is almost like the exact opposite of my childhood then." Helen said after a chuckle, sitting in a hunchback posture, hugging her knees closely. "You see, I was born and raised in an oligarch family. I grew up lavishly, getting everything I want with just a single request to my parents. I never felt hungry, never experienced inconvenience. Of course, I don't know the first meaningful thing about poverty. In short, I was totally ignorant about the side of those who live with almost nothing. Then fast forward, after getting my inheritance when I reached my coming-of-age year, with barely enough knowledge on how to tread business, I left my hometown to pursue a growing curiousity. That is to learn how much money is 'enough' money for one to live happily without regrets."Bookmark here

Helen continued discussing her life story. She divulged everything, even including the extremely personal matters that put Alliona in a perspective.Bookmark here

The older lady, casually retelling a life almost the reverse to her younger counterpart bared everything. The fallout with her siblings and other close relatives, her heartbreak leaving her parents behind and the trigger to her reason of pursuing a life of a travelling merchant.Bookmark here

Alliona carefully listened. She didn't miss even the little details to Helen's minuscule movements. She attentively absorbed everything Helen shared especially the part where the older lady disclosed the tragedy that changed her outlook to life.Bookmark here

Almost seventeen years ago, when Helen was in her last teen year. After celebrating her birthday with a luxurious jamboree, she dived into her bed, tipsy to say the least. She was the third of a five sibling family consisting of three females and two males. Her eldest sibling is a woman in her late twenties, already married to another prominent family. Her oldest brother, three years ahead of her, is an outstanding person in the field of academics. Her younger sister and brother, both in their early teens, are identical twins with a disparate attitude between them. The older twin, the sister owns a severe attitude, to the point of being mean, while the youngest, the twin brother is a kind soul that shares a tight bond with Helen.Bookmark here

After the aforementioned party, Helen succumbed to her bed after sharing an extravagant night with her guests, comprising mostly of people belonging to other oligarchies and friends born from distinguished families. Before reaching her coming-of-age year, Helen, who is gifted with both beauty and brains, indulged herself to a few drinks while prudently conversing with everyone who attended with her usual grace and a good showing of her finessed decorum. Naturally, a lot of suitors have come to express their desires to have a hand with her, but Helen, blessed with innate poise shared a safe yet noncommitted approach with her admirers and carefully played her cards to turn them down without coming out as rude in the end.Bookmark here

Due to some circumstances, her eldest sister, was unable to attend the celebration due to the fact that she was in a faraway place dealing with a familial matter. Later, it will be known that the husband of her sister, was performing adultery much to Helen family's chagrin, but due to their shared reputation with the family of the husband, the marriage despite utterly broken continued in the surface to dismiss the rumours that will hurt their public image.Bookmark here

His oldest brother, was able to attend. His gifts however, didn't please Helen. Thick, hardcovered academic books of certain topics gave Helen a reason to complain to his older brother, who was never one to act haughty for as long as she remember. Despite her initial displease, the fact that his renowned brother found time to attend even with hectic schedules helped Helen to continue her jovial celebration without much worry. Her younger sister though, tried to upstage her by playing her flamboyant attitude without filter. However, even though the younger sister owns a comparable beauty to Helen, she is notoriously well-known as an ill-mannered youth who does nothing but bring shame to their family. Finally, his sweet younger brother, gave her a boquet of flowers he himself planted to the ground, plucked from the stems and even arranged resulting a majestic display. The combination of colors, the mixing of different fragrances and the sincerest emotions behind the gift had Helen overjoyed as she and her darling brother shared a warm embrace.Bookmark here

The party itself progressed without mishaps. The smooth transition from start to finish pleased everyone who attended and when midnight hit the clock, the venue was peacefully vacated with only the servants sorting out the place afterwards.Bookmark here

In the middle of her rest, Helen found herself parched. She called for an immediate relief, but no one from the maids working in her family responded with the usual claypot filled with cool water in their hands. Annoyed to an extent, Helen decided to walk her way towards the kitchen to fetch herself a mouthful of water. On her way down the extravagant stairs of her castle-like abode, she suddenly heard offbeat noises coming from the study of her father's, with light seeping out of the edges of the closed door. With her consciousness still half-working, she stepped onto a trail and when she arrived at the doorstep gestured a knock. But before she could tap the door once, she overheard a familiar chuckle, belonging to his father who is coversing to another person which turned out to be his older scholar brother.Bookmark here

Helen soon finds herself unable to move or even make a sound. The words she heard coming from the mouth of both his closest family members brought a nauseating sensation from her gut, partly due to the alcohol content she had consumed earlier. In the father and son talk, it involved topics on how to exploit the tax system, on how to manipulate the market for profits, on how to control the masses and oppress them without them realizing they're being oppressed. In short, it ultimately showcased the greed of wanting to increase what was already excessively bountiful in their family; power and luxury.Bookmark here

With Helen's connated intellect, she understood every word and the matter being discussed completely. The light attitude of his closest relatives speaking intricate affairs as if it's nothing significant brought Helen to a realization. This is how her family operated throughout the years, the previous generation did it and so on. This is how they planted their roots to opulence, by taking advantage of those who are weaker than them, by taking something other people owned by force, by flaunting authority while practicing secrecy, skillfully removing suspects that could eventually pose as obstacles. Helen, standing shakily, could no longer tolerate hearing another word from the discussion. She silently walked back to her room forgetting her sense of thirst and sat in one corner of her room, hugging her knees closely.Bookmark here

The following morning, Helen woke up from her sitting position. It was still early by Helen's standards and due to the dry sensation in her throat, she subconsiously called for her housekeep. Arriving with a jug of cool water, a young maid who has already worked for almost a decade in Helen's family, carefully attended Helen's need and extended a porcelain glass before serving the water.Bookmark here

Helen chugged the water ardently, with some of the excess wetting her sleep clothes. The maid gracefully put the jug to a table in the room and wiped off the water from Helen's chin down to her neck. She afterwards smiled and greeted her mistress with a pleasant voice a "Good morning, milady" and helped Helen get dressed in her usual fancy clothes.Bookmark here

Helen curiously followed the maid all day long, whether she's working in the kitchen, doing some cleaning in the vast living space of the mansion, carefully wiping some expensive vases in the hallway and sorting books in his father's study. Due to last night's event, Helen felt uncomfortable upon entering the aforementioned venue as she felt weak on her knees dropping herself to the carpet. The attentive maid immediately came to her rescue and helped her mistress back to her feet.Bookmark here

"Are you okay, milady? Are you hurt somewhere?" the maid asked with a worried wrinkle between her eyebrows.Bookmark here

Helen thanked her maid and straightened up her posture. It was around noon when the clock in his father's study chimed, signalling the maid to come down and help prepare the bountiful lunch of the family she is serving.Bookmark here

Then came the afternoon, Helen continued to sneak like a stalker behind the prominent walls in her house, watching the particular maid attending her chores without mistakes. Despite the hefty workload, the maid presented herself with grace and is very generous with her smiles as she can be seen wearing one almost all the time.Bookmark here

After hours of ample watching, the sky was dyed in orange color and like clockwork, the maid went to the kitchen to help the three-man chef and two cooking assistants prepare dinner. Helen still in her stealthy mission, silently opened the huge kitchen door and entered furtively to the point she was tip-toeing in her pricey shoes given to her by her parents in her past birthday.Bookmark here

The said kitchen itself is spacey, divided into three sections. The expertly-carved cabinets filled with spices, herbs, flour and other miscellanions ingredients are in the far right aligned cleanly beside a small window. The small dark room in the middle that was the storage for their meat rations and the likes and the wooden crates set aside in the far left, overflowing with a huge variety of vegetables either bought or plucked from the garden in her castle's vicinity. To put in a perspective, the kitchen space can be compared to the living quarters of multiple servants working in her family. Helen found herself hiding behind the cabinets sneaking a preview to the work of her servants.Bookmark here

Proficient in her chopping work, Helen couldn't help but admire the maid. During that time, she was also able to strike a lively conversation with the kitchen staff, even jabbing jokes smoothly earning a few giggles from her listeners. Her amicable personality and dexterous ability to perfectly balance her chore and her conversation only added to growing delight felt by Helen towards her.Bookmark here

With Helen totally focused on the maid, the young lady of the house couldn't notice one of the kitchen staff who was surprised to see his employer crouching in a corner, hiding in a cabinet. The young assistant predictably express his surprise earning everyone's attention. The kitchen staff along with the maid immediately stopped their jovial conversation and attended Helen, asking if she has demands to be met. Helen immediately dismiss that notion and expressed her desire to join the cozy conversation from earlier. Unsure at first, the hesitant servants find themselves tense for a few minutes, that is until before Helen cracked a joke herself.Bookmark here

"Where can you find a green livestock?" Helen cheerfully asked, with bright eyes seemingly expecting answers from the house servants. It didn't took that much time before the servants gave up the riddle and asked their lady for the answer.Bookmark here

"Of course, you can find one in Mosscow!" she proudly stated, tilting her head in a thirty degree angle with an accompanied wink.Bookmark here

An awkward silence persisted for a few moments before the kitchen personnel opted to loudly clap their hands and release a set of jolly chortles to acknowledge Helen's efforts even though they genuinely thought the joke itself was a fatuously cringe. Amidst the requisited reaction of the kitchen staffs, a candid laugh erupted that can be traced back to the maid, trying her best to discontinue her actions by pressing her sides. Tears can be seen coursing in the side of her eyes validating her amusement to Helen's cliched pun. The lady of the house, despite red-faced, enjoyed the moment highlighted by the upfront sight of the laughing maid.Bookmark here

After a full minute, the maid still feeling some follow-ups of her titters, apologized posthaste for her behaviour, to which Helen shrug off the notion of her being disrespected.Bookmark here

"It's no matter. A lame gag is a lame gag nonetheless." Helen said, flashing a natural smile.Bookmark here

The maid who finally composed herself, replied. "Thank you, milady..." she stopped, flashing a radiant beam as well. "But seriously, you need a lot of ground to cover. That was one terrible joke to remember." added the maid, before succumbing to the continuation of her laughter.Bookmark here

A little peeved, Helen gave the maid a friendly poke to her sides. "Geez and here I thought I made a clever one."Bookmark here

Feeling the electric of the poke, the vivacious maid jumped out of her seat. Helen couldn't resist the opportunity to strike back and launched her slender fingers to the sides of the maid that put the maid into a submission of sorts. After another minute, the maid expressed another apology that made Helen sigh.Bookmark here

"Like I said, it's fine. I'm good at playing banters." she said with a playful mien before extending her right hand in front of the maid. "May I have your name?"Bookmark here

The maid felt a little irresolute to reciprocate Helen's gesture, but after locking another gaze to the lady of the house, she tenderly reached for it. "My name is..."Bookmark here

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