131 RTYY 131 - A Memory of Home

ZenTar sighed and took a seat, pouring a cup of fresh water from the jar left atop the table, placed there at the guests' disposal.

"Who would have guessed … We more or less struck gold, back there," he sighed. "Besides that one, there are three other inns in town, and we had to end up exactly there."

He downed his cup of water.

"On the other hand, now there are no doubts left. We are definitely in the right place. And so, even though I know you will probably want to bite my head off for saying this, won't you please ease up a bit on the kid? I know he also wanted to come here, but still, I'm sure it can't be easy."

Nox ZaiWin stood silently, looking out the window, at the streets and people walking back and forth. The town wasn't as small as he'd imagined from Snow's descriptions, but it was still small when compared with big cities like Weiin.

"That place. Was it the place that woman told us about?"

"It would seem so. A few years back it was a well known pleasure house. People would even travel from other villages to enjoy the entertainments they provided. Apparently that woman had always had an eye for the business," he added with sarcasm. "But I'll ask around for details. About dates and any unusual occurrences."

ZaiWin nodded.

"But about the kid …"

"I noticed you received news?" ZaiWin asked, clearly changing the subject, and ZenTar sighed. "Were they from LaoTar or VinWei?"

"LaoTar. He wanted to let us know that they have finally crossed into Wen. They will soon arrive at Wenin. After that we probably won't receive any more news from him for a while."

"So the hunt finally begins. Could you please let VinWei know that we've arrived at Woodbridge? She needs to know that her time is running out as well."

"Have you decided what you're going to do next, if what we learn here only confirms that this entire matter was just one big coincidence?"

"Unless VinWei comes up with a better solution in the next few days, I'll just have to test this bond-between-Celestials-and-Chosen-Ones-thing, won't I?"

"Can't you wait a little bit longer? Maybe we can find an answer …"

"The Nai Calzai can only be the temporary Governor of Nox for three months without interference from the Palace. If I don't act before then it will be too late."

"You still have roughly a month and a half! Why the rush? Let's just look for a solution somewhere else!" ZenTar pleaded. "I heard that the oldest Temples of the Empire are located in the Province of Hen. Maybe we could take VinWei there, so that she can take a look at their scriptures. Who knows? Maybe the answer is written in some old, forgotten scroll!"

ZaiWin shook his head and looked up at the orange-tinged sky. It would be night soon. Another day was gone.

"The more I delay this, the worse it will get. I have the feeling that if this goes on much longer I'll soon be unable to move according to my own will. I'm in constant conflict with myself and its getting tiresome. I really don't know how those pompous bastards can stand this!"

ZenTar took a deep breath and studied him for a moment. Maybe it was because he had known him since the day he was born. Or maybe because he had practically raised him from the time he was six. But he could clearly see why the El'Gin, the pompous bastards as he'd called them, could stand it. They didn't give a damn about anything. All they had, all they possessed, was there because it was righteously theirs, Tien'Elhar included. And even though ZenTar held no love for the Tien'Elhar, he couldn't help feeling sorry for those frail-looking, golden-haired girls. But the child he had raised was different from them. Too different for his own good. And ZenTar couldn't help wonder and fear what would happen if they were ever able to sever the link between him and Snow; to fear what ZaiWin would see after he successfully cleared away that unbreakable excuse.

The sudden way ZaiWin turned around left him immediately alert, halfway reaching for the sword strapped to his back.

"That fucking brat!! I will definitely kill him!" was all ZenTar could hear, before a strong blast of wind tore through the small bedroom, tilting the jar of water and throwing the empty chair in front of him against the wall. In the next instant, ZaiWin was no longer there.

When Nox ZaiWin stepped out of the darkness that had carried him there, anger was still boiling in his chest, his head turning from right to left until he finally found him.

The brat was still wearing his cloak, the hood pulled over his head, which had made him a bit harder to see, standing all the way down there, on the riverbank.

For an instant ZaiWin almost jumped down, ready to grab him by one arm and drag him back to the inn. But then he took in his surroundings, the wide wooden bridge in front of him, and the angry river running bellow it, its waters tinged orange like the sky above his head.

ZaiWin had never been to this place before but, somehow, the scenery before him was strangely familiar. And he could hear the brat's whispering voice again, as he told him about the bridge where he'd been beaten up, and about the river where he had almost drowned to death.

His anger fading away, ZaiWin slowly descended the small slope that led to the riverbank.

"I used to live here …" he heard him whisper the moment he got close enough. "Right there, under that bridge."

ZaiWin followed his gaze but saw nothing but a few old pieces of driftwood and other garbage.

"Sand built us a small shack, using planks of wood she found in town, straw she stole from other people's barns, and whatever else she could find." Snow went on in a small voice. It was unusual that he would take the initiative to talk without being questioned, and so ZaiWin just stood there, silently listening to him.

"We slept on the ground, but we had a small table. Sand always made sure I ate at the table, using a proper bowl and spoon, even though the bowl had such a large crack on it that it could not be filled past midway, or everything would spill. Every night she would make sure my clothes were washed and mended, so that I would always be clean. But they were so old and so badly stained, that even though she washed them as best as she could, they still looked like dirty rags. During the day I would normally stay here, trying to catch some crayfish when the river was a bit calmer. In the spring I would go to the forest and gather wild berries, and mushrooms, and burdock roots. But in winter … everything gets frozen in winter, and the river almost overflows because to the rain. There was nothing to eat. And so I would go into town to search for food. Whatever food I could get."

Snow took a deep breath and turned to look up at him, to look up at those bright-blue eyes that he would soon leave behind.

"I knew she worked in that place. I followed her there a few times. Although I didn't know exactly what kind of work she did. I always thought that she was serving tables, like the boy from the food stall on the main street. Or clean floors, like the lady from the third house around the corner. I knew she worked very hard, and I knew that I was a weight on her life. Madame … and all the women that were in that place when I went there to search for her, they all thought I was her child. And I know I was too small but, somehow, that doesn't feel right.

"Sand was a beautiful, innocent girl. She was probably not much older than I am now. She always had a smile on her lips. Even when things got really hard. Even when we didn't have anything to eat. Even when I thought we wouldn't make it through another cold night. She never said a word. As I got older I more or less concluded that she couldn't speak. But she would always hum a song to help me go to sleep.

"Like what happened with you, our paths must have somehow crossed, and she just wasn't able to abandon me like she should have. She could barely take care of herself, and yet she decided to take care of a baby as well. How silly can one person be?" he asked, lowering his gaze, and ZaiWin almost reached out to him, to place a comforting hand on his head. Taking a deep breath he quickly pulled himself together, averting his gaze towards the forest on the other side of the river.

"Now all that is gone. She is gone. Our home is gone. The people that scorned us and tormented us are gone as well. I know that you will probably want to check all I've told you. But I'm not sure anyone will still remember some dirty kid who used to beg in the streets," Snow added, peering sideways at him, and ZaiWin couldn't avoid the feeling that something was off about him.

The brat looked and sounded unexpectedly firm, all traces of the fear and uncertainty that had forced ZaiWin to drag him away from that inn completely gone. Despite what ZenTar had told him, and taking all things into account, Snow sounded surprisingly calm and collected.

Taking a deep breath, Snow turned to face him, his pale eyes like icy pools, solid and unwavering.

"Also, I'm sorry I ran all the way out here without telling you. That I made you chase after me. It will never happen again," he simply declared and, without another word, started climbing the slope leading back to one of the main streets.

ZaiWin stayed behind for a moment, studying him in silence. With a last thought he looked under the bridge, trying to picture what Snow had described, the place where the small child he'd been had lived, the gentle smile on the face of the woman who had cared for him. There was nothing left for him to do there, nothing left for either of them. And so he turned and followed him back to the now much quieter streets of Woodbridge.

They didn't exchange another word on their way back to the inn and, without being said to do so, Snow went to his new bedroom and closed the door behind him, leaving ZaiWin just standing there, outside, in the corridor.

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Every time Snow talks about Sand I really wish I could meet her 😢

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