Chapter 7:

Menu 6: A Family Outing and Salma's Secrets

BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls

I came home from a rather bizarre evening working at Scarlett to see that Caroline was in a slightly better mood than the day before—I guessed that Ryotaro had talked things over with her. She was watching a drama on TV with Paddington snuggled in a blanket next to her on the sofa. “You excited about tomorrow?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Sorta. I wish someone from my school could be coming with us…it’s just that they all have their own things to do,” she said.Bookmark here

“Salma-chan is really nice,” I said. “I’ve told her a lot about you.”Bookmark here

“So she’s an exchange student? How is she liking life in Japan?”Bookmark here

“Not really sure…there’s a lot about her I don’t really know,” I said. I didn’t want to tell Caroline about the picture I saw on Quickiepedia that I swore had Salma in it. “But she does have a bodyguard.”Bookmark here

“So she’s a member of a diplomat’s family? A few people at my school have them too.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know, but maybe,” I said. “I don’t really want to pry, but I do want to get to know her a little better, and not just through Gourmet Battles. She’s really good, by the way.”Bookmark here

“I know, I heard,” Caroline said. “Must’ve been tough to be defeated by a no-star in their first battle.”Bookmark here

“It wasn’t that bad, honestly. She said she’s been cooking for a very long time,” I said.Bookmark here

“Hey, I’m…I’m sorry I yelled at you the other night,” Caroline said, quietly.Bookmark here

“It’s okay. You’re going through a lot of stress…I can only imagine,” I said.Bookmark here

Caroline nodded. “Dad and I are talking about going back to England for a little while during summer break to visit everyone,” she said.Bookmark here

I nodded. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”Bookmark here

“Well, it’s still in the planning stages but at least 2 weeks. And then you have to factor in the flights to and from so it’s even less time…”Bookmark here

“You two excited about tomorrow?” Bookmark here

I looked up to see my mother had approached the couch from behind, wearing her plush robe and carrying her usual glass of after dinner red wine. “Definitely,” I said. “I told you we’re meeting my friend Salma-chan at the expo center, right?”Bookmark here

My mother nodded. “She’s the exchange student you were talking about, right?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Mm-hmm.” We turned back to the TV and continued watching.Bookmark here

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“Wow, this place is huge!”
As the train pulled into the station adjacent to the Expo Center, we could see huge banners advertising the Tokyo World Gourmet Fest fastened to the side of the building, billowing in the breeze. The center was right next door to a huge hotel and shopping complex, with various glass-covered walkways connecting the two buildings.Bookmark here

“I think I see the logo for Heavenly Pretty,” I said, pointing to one of the windows of the shopping complex that was covered with a lacy overlay and the indistinct logo of one of the Lolita fashion brands that Caroline often wore.Bookmark here

“Yeah, they have a store here,” she said.Bookmark here

The train pulled into the station, and we followed Ryotaro and my mother off the train and up the stairs into the station proper.Bookmark here

“She said she’d meet us under the black iron clock—oh, there she is! Salma-chan!” I said, waving.Bookmark here

I saw Salma standing under the black iron clock that was in the center of the main station’s terminal. She was standing next to the woman I had seen her with the other day at school. She was wearing a long skirt with a loose white shirt over it, along with casual sneakers, and had her hand on her cane. She looked excited.Bookmark here

“Hello, Vanilla-chan!” Salma said. “I’m glad I got here in time.”Bookmark here

“This is my family,” I said, stepping aside to let everyone get a look at her. “My mother, father, and younger sister, Caroline.”Bookmark here

“And this is my bodyguard, Siska,” Salma said. The woman named Siska nodded. “She doesn’t really speak Japanese, but she does speak a little English.”Bookmark here

“Good morning. It’s very nice to meet you,” Ryotaro said, in English. Siska blushed slightly, hiding her face with her hand.Bookmark here

“Yes…very nice to meet you too,” she said. (There is a reason why Ryotaro’s been acting ever since he was in his early teens. At least, that’s what all the ladies’ magazines say.)Bookmark here

“Salma-chan, right?” my mother asked. “My name’s Sayuri Koizumi, and this is my husband Ryotaro.”Bookmark here

“Nice to meet you, Koizumi-san,” Salma said, making a polite formal bow to my parents.Bookmark here

“Likewise,” Ryotaro said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tickets, handing them out to each of us. He turned to Siska, but she shook her head, and pulled out what appeared to be some sort of ID card from her pocket.Bookmark here

“That’s a diplomatic ID,” Salma explained. “So Siska will be coming with us but following at a distance. She sends me text messages if there’s anything amiss.”Bookmark here

“I see. We were thinking about getting a meal here and looking about the center for a few hours and leaving in the afternoon. Was there anything you have scheduled?” Ryotaro asked Salma.Bookmark here

“No, not really,” Salma said. “But I do want to be home before six.”Bookmark here

“That’s fine.”Bookmark here

“Have you been here before?” Salma asked me, and I shook my head.Bookmark here

“I’ve never even been here,” I said. “This place is so new to me.”Bookmark here

The five of us (with Siska always shadowing us from behind) made our way inside the expo center. There was a huge sign labeled with a map, with squares denoting tables run by various food production companies, magazines, tableware companies, appliance makers, and the like. One whole row of the center was color coded in red, denoting the food court—where cuisine from almost every corner of the world was being represented.Bookmark here

“Is there an Ashwargandhan food booth here?” I asked, looking up at the map.Bookmark here

“I don’t know if there would be,” Salma said. “They’ve kind of put a tight control on their borders. It was hard enough getting a student visa to study here.”Bookmark here

“That’s a shame,” I said. “I really want to try some of your country’s cuisine.”Bookmark here

“Well, next week during lab I can make some for you!” Salma said.Bookmark here

My mother, father and Caroline were still perusing the map, trying to decide amongst themselves on where to go, until Caroline spoke up. “Perhaps we should let our guest choose,” she said.Bookmark here

“That is a good idea,” my mother said. “Salma-chan, come up to the map and see what’s available?”Bookmark here

Salma carefully stepped over to the map and started looking it over, until she pointed at a square marked Kolkata Curry House. “I’d like to go here! I love curry,” she said.
“Curry, huh?” Ryotaro said. “I guess it’s settled, then.”Bookmark here

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After wandering the booths and fighting temptation every step of the way, we arrived at Kolkata Curry House and were seated at a simple folding table. There was a canopy over the eating area that was made of sheer cloth was decorated with all sorts of Indian imagery. The menus were passed around, which were laden with pictures of delectable curry dishes served with either fluffy white rice or naan. “I have to admit, I’ve wanted to try Japanese style curry ever since I got here,” Salma said.Bookmark here

“Well, this place probably serves better stuff that’s in the supermarket,” I said. “Although, if you ever want to get some supermarket curry, I’d be more than happy to give you a recommendation. I used to work at a supermarket.”Bookmark here

“Oh, that must’ve been fun! What was it like?” Salma said. She sounded excited.Bookmark here

“Well…I swept, and I put away produce, and rang up peoples’ purchases. That’s pretty much it,” I said.Bookmark here

“Salma-chan, what is Ashwargandhan cuisine like?” my mother asked.Bookmark here

“Well…it’s mostly based on rice and vegetables, just like Japan,” Salma said. “Although we do eat a lot of meat as well. We don’t have a very big coastline, but we do have lots of rivers and lakes, so there’s some freshwater fish that we eat. Our national dish is a fried rice dish made from our red rice. I’ll show you a picture of it.” She pulled a photo up on her phone and passed it around. I saw a dish that was filled with colorful vegetables—chopped carrots, what appeared to be snow peas, bean sprouts and bits of mushrooms mixed into a mound of rice that was the color of red brick.Bookmark here

“Wow, red rice,” I said. “What is it like?”Bookmark here

“It’s very tough,” Salma said. “Nothing like Japanese rice. Many foreigners that eat it say that it reminds them of eating seeds and nuts.”Bookmark here

“I’d like to try some someday,” I said, as the waiter came over to take our orders.Bookmark here

After we had our fill of curry, we started wandering the booths together. Now that our bellies were full, it was easier to avoid temptation, and we spent a couple hours exploring all of the expo center’s offerings together.Bookmark here

Finally, Ryotaro and Caroline guided us to a booth that was presenting an English tea company’s line of black teas and shortbread. “I’ve been wanting to try this for months,” Ryotaro said, somewhat excitedly.Bookmark here

“Are you doing all right?” I asked Salma, noticing they had small tables set up for people to enjoy a cup of afternoon tea. “Are we going too fast for you or anything?”Bookmark here

“No, it’s fine!” Salma said. “My physical therapist encourages me to walk as much as possible,” she said. “Although I would appreciate some time to sit down and rest.”Bookmark here

“Why don’t we all get some tea, then,” I said, as I pulled a chair out for Salma and Caroline. My parents got a table for themselves. Caroline got up to show me a tin of one of the teas the company had on offer. “This is one of my favorites, Royal Wedding Rose,” she said. “It’s a blend of English Breakfast Tea with dried rosehips, and it’s a blend they produced for the royal wedding a few years ago!”Bookmark here

“Oh, is that Koizumi-san?” said a familiar voice.Bookmark here

I turned around to see two girls standing behind us. Both of them were wearing frilly dresses with tons of lace and ribbons, with fluffy petticoats underneath and chunky high heeled shoes with ribbon and rose bows on the toes. The girl in the pale pink dress was Nadeshiko Enomoto, one of my sempai when I started at Umami Gakuen. She’s the daughter of a sugar company president and has a Lolita wardrobe that was the envy of all others. Next to her was a girl that I vaguely recognized, who was wearing almost the same ensemble as Nadeshiko, except hers was entirely in black. Her lips had a beautiful deep red lipstick on them, and she was staring at everything with a blank, doll-like expression.Bookmark here

“Enomoto-sempai! It’s been a while. How have you been?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Quite well, thank you very much,” Nadeshiko said. “I’m here to buy some tea that I shall be using in some of my cupcakes.”Bookmark here

“Oh, that’s right! How’s the cupcake business going?” I asked.Bookmark here

Nadeshiko smiled cunningly. “Patisserie Violette has become quite the rising star,” she said. “Of course, it’s all because of my expertise in not only baking, but marketing.” I noticed the girl standing next to her elbow Nadeshiko in the side gently. “And of course, I have Sumire-chan to thank. The store’s named after her, after all.”Bookmark here

“Oh, I remember you,” I said. “You came to my fortune telling booth at the school festival a few years back. You’re a first year in the Yogashi Division, right?” Sumire nodded, with the slightest hint of a smile.Bookmark here

“Nice to see you again, Koizumi-sempai,” Sumire said.Bookmark here

Salma stared at the two girls in awe. “I didn’t know people in Japan wore clothes like this!” she said. “You two look like you stepped out of a fairy tale!”Bookmark here

Nadeshiko’s expression soured. “Who is your friend here?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Salma Zhimalan-san. She’s studying abroad and is in my homeroom and the Yoshoku Division,” I said.Bookmark here

“Oh, so you’re the one I’ve been hearing about,” Nadeshiko said. “Nice to meet you! I hope you’ve been enjoying Japan so far.”Bookmark here

“Yes, it’s…different,” Salma said. “I’m learning and discovering new things every day, like people that dress in fairy tale clothes.”Bookmark here

“Fairy tale clothes?” Nadeshiko shrilled. “I’ll have you know, this is the best in Japanese haute couture, designed by the great and illustrious Angel Shiratori herself! A plebian like you could never—” Salma could barely keep up with the rapid fire Japanese, and looked frantically at both of us for help, until Sumire placed her hand on her sister’s shoulder. Nadeshiko suddenly shrieked and looked over at Sumire, who stared at her with the same doll-like face she had made earlier.Bookmark here

“They are staring,” Sumire said.Bookmark here

“All right,” Nadeshiko said. “It’s good to see you doing well, Koizumi-san. Of course, not as well as I am, of course.” She gave a haughty laugh, and I saw Sumire roll her eyes.
“Have a good day, you two,” I said, as the two of them walked off.Bookmark here

“Well, that was a…distraction,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

Salma still looked a little shocked, until Caroline started to explain. “It’s called ‘Lolita’ style,” she said. “Of course it has nothing to do with Vladimir Nablokov, but it’s meant to embody the modesty of the Victorian-Edwardian era…”Bookmark here

Caroline’s explanation was going to be long winded. I sat back in my chair and breathed in the fragrance of my Royal Wedding Rose tea.Bookmark here

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“Girls, were you interested in going around yourselves?” my mother asked as the three of us finished our tea.Bookmark here

I glanced at Salma and Caroline, and we all nodded. “Yeah, we’re fine with that,” I said.Bookmark here

“We’re thinking about meeting at the entrance of the expo center in an hour and a half.”Bookmark here

“That’s fine,” I said.Bookmark here

We watched my parents head off together as Caroline brought our empty cups over to the garbage and Salma eased herself up with her cane. She pulled out her phone and started tapping a message into it.Bookmark here

“I’m telling Siska about what’s happening,” she said. “Where do you want to go?”Bookmark here

“Well…are you two still interested in looking around here?” I asked. “I think I’ve seen pretty much everything I need to see here.”Bookmark here

“Hmm…well, I would like to check out that shopping center,” Caroline said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Gotta see if Heavenly Pretty has the latest print out, after all.”Bookmark here

“Do you think they might have an athletic gear store?” Salma asked. “I want to get some slip-on sneakers.”Bookmark here

“They should. Come on, I think it’s this way,” I said, pointing at one of the glass covered walkways.Bookmark here

The mall was a fairly modest one, and luckily the place where we wanted to go was right near the entrance. I could see the entrance to Heavenly Pretty, and right across from there was a shoe store.Bookmark here

“It looks like this would be good,” I said, pointing the shoe store out to Salma. She nodded.Bookmark here

“Well, if you two don’t mind, I’ll meet you after I’m done looking in here,” Caroline said, looking towards Heavenly Pretty.Bookmark here

“No problem. See you later,” I said.Bookmark here

Salma and I went into the shoe store and strolled down the aisles until we reached a section where Salma stopped and started looking at a few pairs of slip-on walking shoes. “Everything here is so expensive,” she sighed. “I only have a limited allowance each month and most of it goes to school fees and food…”Bookmark here

“Yeah, it’s hard,” I said. “The only reason why I was living by myself for a year and a half was because my mother helped me out with the rent. I saved everything I could.”Bookmark here

Salma picked up a few pairs of shoes. “These are on clearance, I could buy them…I have to see if they’re in my size, though. Do they have the thing that measures your feet here?”Bookmark here

We walked up the aisles in search of one and met up with a uniformed associate. “Good afternoon, ladies. Can I help you?” he asked as we approached, looking at me expectantly.Bookmark here

Salma spoke up. “I need my foot measured, please. I need to know my Japanese shoe size,” she said.Bookmark here

“Certainly, miss. Right this way,” said the clerk. He led us towards a small bench and instructed Salma to sit down. As she did, the long skirt shifted a bit, and I noticed scarring on her lower leg. It looked fairly recent—the flesh was still slightly pale, and I could see the imprint of what appeared to be surgical staples on it. That must be why she has so much trouble walking, I thought.Bookmark here

“Miss, if you could stick your foot out onto this plate here? Thank you…” The clerk slid the dial to measure the length of her foot upwards. “Ah, I see. You wear a 23.5. Was there something you had in mind?”Bookmark here

“Oh, yes,” Salma said. “Let me show you.”Bookmark here

I watched as she carefully got up and walked back towards the aisle where she had discovered the shoes in her side, and watched as the clerk looked at what she had been interested in, picked up a box and went towards the back of the store. I went back towards Salma. “He’s going to check in the back for me,” she said.Bookmark here

“That’s good. Do you mind if I head up to the front? I want to check out the sneakers,” I said.Bookmark here

“Sure,” Salma said.Bookmark here

I went back up to the front and started perusing the canvas sneakers, looking for a pair that was banana yellow, when I heard a snatch of conversation in a language I didn’t recognize. I looked up to see a man entering the store, wearing a red polo shirt and blue jeans and with what appeared to be a wireless headset in his ear. He was talking to someone—and rather loudly—in a language I didn’t understand, making everyone turn and stare at him. He started looking around the store, and then stopped as his eyes locked on Salma, who was turning around to face him after making her purchase at the counter. He started pointing and yelling, and I watched as Salma suddenly turned pale.Bookmark here

I knew that look and I knew that feeling: this man was trouble. He approached Salma, shouting at her. She shouted back frantically, looking around her (I’m pretty sure she was searching for Siska.)
“Miss, are you all right?” the clerk behind the counter said as Salma grabbed her cane in a defensive pose. But it wasn’t enough as the man grabbed her arm and tried to pull her close to him. She shrieked in pain.Bookmark here

“HEY!” I yelled as I sprinted across the store. I had no idea who this person was, but how dare they try to manhandle Salma! The man saw me coming and let go of Salma’s arm, backing off. He didn’t look like he could understand Japanese, so I decided to switch to the most threatening and violent English I could think of.Bookmark here

“F*** YOU! MOTHERF***ER!” I screamed.Bookmark here

I heard a paper bag dropping to the ground, and Caroline ran into the store. “Come on!” she said, taking Salma by the hand and leading her outside while the man continued to look at me in disbelief. As he realized Salma was being led away, he backed off and exited the store.Bookmark here

“What was that all about?” said a store clerk as they approached me. “Did you know that man? Why did he try to grab that foreign girl?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know, but…” I looked over to see that Caroline had led Salma to a bench outside and was sitting her down. She looked pretty shaken up. “I need to go talk to her. I’m sorry.” I bowed in apology and rushed outside to join the two of them.Bookmark here

“Salma-chan, are you all right? Who was that guy?” I said.Bookmark here

Salma was sobbing, clenching her cane in both her fists as Caroline sat beside her, with a hand on her shoulder. “Where did he go?” she said.Bookmark here

I looked around up and down the corridor for the sign of a telltale red shirt, but couldn’t find anyone matching it. “I don’t see him,” I said.Bookmark here

Salma sighed. “I need to call Siska,” she said. “She…She should have been watching over me…”Bookmark here

“Salma-chan, who was that guy?” I asked.Bookmark here

“He…” Salma swallowed and rubbed tears from her eyes. “He’s my fiancé.”Bookmark here

“WHAT!?” we shrieked.Bookmark here

“That guy who just tried to kidnap you?” I said.Bookmark here

Salma sniffed back some more tears. “I have no idea why he’s here…right now emigration from Ashwargandha’s tightly restricted. And I haven’t spoken to him in a few years, ever since…” She grew silent.Bookmark here

“Maybe…Maybe we’d better talk about this somewhere else,” Caroline suggested.Bookmark here

“There’s a coffee shop nearby,” I said. “It looks like they’ve got private booths.”Bookmark here

“Let me call Siska first,” Salma said, pulling out her phone and pressing a direct dial icon. She held the phone up to her ear, and we listened as it rang, but then went directly into what we thought was voicemail. Salma said a few words in her native language, and then hung up, looking up fearfully into our faces.Bookmark here

“She usually picks up right away! What could have happened…” she said, as her eyes threatened to spill over with tears again.Bookmark here

“Then…we’ll hide in the one place that I know no guy would ever dare to venture inside,” I said.Bookmark here

“You mean…” Salma asked.Bookmark here

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We found the nearest ladies’ restroom, which was actually pretty nice inside: there was a separate powder room set with tables and chairs with a floor-to-ceiling mirror and a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, with a door opening to the beautifully tiled restroom proper. It wasn’t too busy, and I don’t think anyone would have reported three girls looking like they had just had a brush with danger as suspicious characters.Bookmark here

Salma sat down on one of the upholstered chairs, trying to calm herself down. I could see that her hands were trembling.Bookmark here

“Did Siska-san call back yet?” I asked, and Salma shook her head.
“What should we do?” Caroline said, checking the time on her phone. “Do you think we should get the police involved?”Bookmark here

“No! No!” Salma shook her head frantically. “Please…Don’t involve the police.”Bookmark here

“Are you sure? He grabbed you pretty forcefully,” I said.Bookmark here

“No…the less people know that I’m living here in Japan, the better. Trust me,” Salma said.Bookmark here

“All right,” I said, nodding. “Do you want to head back? I can call my parents and they can meet us outside here.”Bookmark here

Salma looked down at her lap, weighing the options in her mind. “But…I don’t want to ruin your day out,” she said.Bookmark here

“You’re not going to ruin it!” I said. “I know you’re scared. We want to make sure you feel safe here.”Bookmark here

“Salma-san, it’s okay,” Caroline said. “We’ll even escort you home if you want.”Bookmark here

Salma was silent, and then finally spoke up weakly. “Okay…but I need to know what happened to Siska first,” she said.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, Salma’s phone rang. “Oh! It’s her…” She fumbled for it, and pressed the button. Her voice grew frantic and then quizzical, as her expression changed to one of shock. The conversation continued as Caroline and I stared at Salma, wondering what she was saying. Finally, Salma put the phone down, looking at us with fear etched into her face.Bookmark here

“Someone pickpocketed her! She had to chase them down to get her phone back…”Bookmark here

“Is she all right? She’s not hurt, is she?” I asked.Bookmark here

“No, she’s not. And she’s coming this way to get us,” Salma said. She looked so much more relieved.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, the door to the bathroom opened and Siska stepped inside. She looked a little more rumpled than she had been when she first met up with us. Salma got up and ran to Siska, hugging her tightly and talking to her a mile a minute. “She must be telling her about what happened,” I whispered to Caroline as the two of us followed Salma and Siska back into the mall.Bookmark here

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The four of us arrived at the front of the expo center, where my parents were waiting. Naturally, Ryotaro was holding a huge bag of his purchases from the tea vendor, while my mother appeared to have a package from one of the houseware vendors. “Ah, there you are,” Ryotaro said. “How is everything?”Bookmark here

“It’s good, but…some creepy guy tried to hit on Salma-chan,” I said.Bookmark here

“Are you all right?” my mother asked.Bookmark here

“It’s okay,” Salma said. “Siska came over and put and end to it.” She smiled. “We’re going to be headed home now. Thank you so much for having me.” She bowed formally to the four of us, and with a nudge she got Siska to do the same.Bookmark here

“It was a pleasure meeting both of you,” my mother said. “I hope we’ll see you again.”Bookmark here

“Yes, I had a lot of fun! Thank you so much for letting me come with you.” Salma smiled. “See you Monday, Vanila-chan.”Bookmark here

We parted ways as she and Siska walked back towards the parking garage while we continued on our way to the parking garage. “I hope she’s really all right,” Caroline whispered to me as I watched her walk off.Bookmark here

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Our trip for the day finished, Caroline and I decided that a long talk was in order once we got home. So I started a hot bath for the both of us, knowing our parents would not meddle in our business, and the two of us prepared for a long soak.Bookmark here

“How well do you know Salma-san?” she asked, as she rubbed her hair down with her cherry blossom scented shampoo.Bookmark here

“I don’t really know that much about her, really,” I said, as I lathered myself with banana-milk scented body wash. “Except she’s really good at cooking. Probably just as good as I am.”
“You think so?” Caroline asked.Bookmark here

“Don’t be surprised. She’s got a lot of prior experience, even if she’s a newbie in the Japanese ranking system,” I said, rinsing myself off with the shower nozzle.Bookmark here

Caroline asked for the shower nozzle and she held it over her head, rinsing out her hair. “She seemed so scared when that guy was confronting her,” she murmured.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t want to pry or anything like that, but…there’s a lot more about her than she’s letting on. I could’ve sworn I saw her in a photograph I saw online of the Ashwargandhan royal family.”Bookmark here

“Well, that would explain having a bodyguard,” Caroline said. “Do you think maybe that whole confrontation was planned?”Bookmark here

“Yeah…her bodyguard said she was mugged and I’m pretty sure that chasing the mugger down distracted her long enough,” I said as I eased my way into the tub. The warm water was so soothing, and I had added some scented bath salts (lavender and eucalyptus) beforehand, so the steam was giving off a wonderful, relaxing aroma. Caroline finished washing her hair and joined me.Bookmark here

“Hey, Caroline,” I said. “Do you really just want to go to England for a couple weeks?”Bookmark here

She shook her head. “The truth is…I’m starting to think about moving back there permanently. I’ve been talking to some of my friends about possibly living with them once I finish my last year of school.”Bookmark here

I nodded. “What did Dad have to say about that?”Bookmark here

“I haven’t really told him about my plans yet. I’ve been trying to save up some money for living expenses over there, so I’ve been doing shopping services for my friends back home.”Bookmark here

“How much have you gotten so far?”Bookmark here

“I’ve got a couple hundred pounds. If I sold a lot of my dresses and accessories on the secondary market, I could probably get a little more, but there’s a lot of sentimental value in a lot of them.”Bookmark here

“I see…”Bookmark here

“I’ve had to compromise on things the past few years, and I figure it’s time that I get what I really want,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

I nodded. “Yeah…I can only imagine how hard it was for you to start living here.”Bookmark here

“Compromising is such a grown up thing to do, isn’t it…”Bookmark here

“Yeah…”Bookmark here

We leaned back and breathed in the fragrant steam drifting up from the hot bath water.Bookmark here

“What do you want to do after high school?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I’m taking a gap year and then enrolling in college. The school that my father studied abroad at has a really great theater program,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

“A gap year?”Bookmark here

“A lot of people do that nowadays,” Caroline said. “I haven’t seen anyone in Japan doing it, though…it has such a negative connotation.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said, remembering how one of my sempai had to become a “ronin” after not being accepted to any of the higher education institutions he had applied to, and spend a whole year studying to retake the exams. It completely demoralized him. “Hey, Caroline-chan?”Bookmark here

“Yeah?”Bookmark here

“I think you should tell your father about what you’re planning. I don’t think he’s going to be mad at you or anything, but…parents like it when their children are truthful with them.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…I should,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

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“If this will make you happy, Caroline-chan…I’ll support your decision.”Bookmark here

“Really?!”Bookmark here

“But promise me you’ll spend your gap year doing something productive. Taking time to backpack around Europe is all right, but make sure you’re putting money away for college expenses.”Bookmark here

“I think the theater that you and Mom used to perform in is always looking for interns,” Caroline said. “I don’t know if it’s paid or not, but I will find out.”Bookmark here

Ryotaro smiled, and there was a hint of sadness behind it. His daughter, his only connection to his late wife, was beginning to spread her wings and fly from the nest.Bookmark here

My mother reached over to him and took his hand in hers, looking at him with an expression of pure love. It was something that I never even saw her do with my father. “You’ve raised such a wonderful daughter. I’m sure her mother would be as proud of her as I am,” she said.Bookmark here

Ryotaro looked back at her and smiled. I glanced over at Caroline and smiled at her, as if to say, “See? It all worked out in the end.”Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, in AshwargandhaBookmark here

“She was in Tokyo?”Bookmark here

“Yes,” the man with the red polo said. He was on a video phone call with General Luac, Yoshiaki Sakamoto and Shinji Tenmyouji. “I tried to get her to come with me, and she refused…and then this crazy girl started yelling at me in English.” He paused and his eyes widened. “Come to think of it…she kind of looked like you, Sakamoto.”Bookmark here

“What did you say? Describe her for me, please,” Yoshiaki said.Bookmark here

“She had light brown hair in braids and purple eyes. Looked to be about 17 or 18.”Bookmark here

Yoshiaki stepped back from the computer, shaking his head. “Of all the people in the entire city…”Bookmark here

“Vanilla-san?” Shinji said.Bookmark here

“You know this girl?” the man with the red polo said.Bookmark here

“She’s my daughter, Alman,” Yoshiaki said.Bookmark here

“Wait, your…daughter? What happened that separated you?”Bookmark here

“Long story…anyway, it’s better that she believes that I’m dead. It’s probably better for her mother, too…from what I know, she’s already moved on.”Bookmark here

“Anyway…I had to back off,” Alman continued. “We were beginning to draw a crowd. The diversion I had arranged worked, though.”Bookmark here

“A diversion?” General Luac said.Bookmark here

“I paid a young man to stalk her bodyguard and attempt to steal her phone. He managed to succeed, at least.”Bookmark here

“Do you have any information about her bodyguard?” General Luac said.Bookmark here

“Yes. She’s a member of the Royal Guard Company. Siska Panaro. Proficient in martial arts and small firearms.”Bookmark here

“I see…Panaro, huh…” General Luac had a smile on his face. “Thank you, Alman. I promise you she’ll be warming your bed soon enough.”Bookmark here

The video call ended. “You two are dismissed,” General Luac said. “But I do want to speak with you later, Yoshiaki, regarding this daughter of yours. If she has become friends with Salma, we may be able to use that to our advantage.”Bookmark here

Yoshiaki nodded hesitantly. “Yes, sir.”Bookmark here

The two armed guards marched up to Yoshiaki and Shinji and escorted them out of the meeting room as General Luac turned back to his computer and pulled up a database. The Panaro family’s information was displayed on the screen and he scrolled down the listing of the members of her family. Parents…grandfather…younger siblings. One of Siska’s siblings was ten years old.Bookmark here

The smile on General Luac’s face grew larger and wider. This would be the perfect way to get the princess back on home soil—and back in his influence.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.