XXIV.

What was that? Lyra wasn’t sure why she was there, sharing an old mercenary’s bloody remembrance. Then she realized she was drowning, perhaps in the little boy’s tears or his people’s blood or the boiling water or the still, green glass surfaces.

Then from the bottom of the water she looked up, blurry visions still not murky enough to obscure the impression of a spot of light. It drew closer then focused to a flickering light. She shifted, her drenched hair pasted to her face, veiling the torch before her. Still, she tugged against the bonds, spiteful of the chair that held her captive.

“Apologies for our…crude methods, Princess Lyra,” Her eyes swept the puddle by the foot of the chair, her soaked clothing then up to the bucket empty in a soldier’s hands.

She scoffed.

“Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see that you’ve survived,” The man added, and she surprised herself when her voice bit back.

“I am not so seasoned in deceiving the Creator, Lord Claud: there is not a string of pleasantness in meeting you again.”

“I have no time to indulge in your useless musings, princess,” The grand priest snapped, shifting the light from one hand to another since a sliver of flame nearly scorched him. “I’ve only sought you to obtain the seal: where is it?”

What seal? Lyra dared not vocalize her ignorance, “I wouldn’t tell you even if it costs my life.”

“Perhaps you only say so in jest. But, you know me, Princess, I’ve prepared for the worst.”

The priest gestured for one of his three soldiers to lead in…children, bounded with chains, terror and a similar origin: the burnt village. She found the girl whose thanks was an angel’s requiem, her voice cracking, “Big sister Lyra…” The soldier struck her small face for silence.

“Please…Lord Claud…”

“No child has to die for your sake if you tell the truth, princess. Where is the seal?”

She could hear teeth chatter in fear awaiting the soldier’s sword to lop off their heads, “I don’t know what you speak of.”

The priest sneered, gestured, and the soldier stepped forward, his sword mechanically drawn to descend. A swish, the girl’s screams buried Lyra’s curses and cries; tattered rags of a dress dyed a fresh crimson.

“You demon!” She wrenched against the chair. “I don’t know what the seal even is, now let them be!” She couldn’t stop the tears, her voice hoarse with anguish.

At the most inopportune time a scout burst in, a stumbling mess with his cape and hood bloodied and awry, “Intruders, my Lord, they’ve wiped out the entire watchguards.”

“Intruders of what nature?”

“I didn’t catch a clear look, my Lord…”

“Ready the steeds, make haste,” The priest shooed the scout away, though the latter was reluctant; turning to one of the soldiers Claud gestured at the children, “Get rid of those.” Seeing that the scout stayed unmoved, he began, “What–”

–She wasn’t the only one who detected it, the air splitting as the scout drew his sword and flicked the executioner’s swing at the unarmed children. Another slash, the soldier stumbled, while the scout leaped forward. She saw the midnight wings unfurl from the stolen uniform, spun, deflected, and cornered the three soldiers from their leader.

Aldebaran seizing the Priest by his collar and slammed him into the cell’s wall, “Where is Eridani?” He growled. “You are her contractor…summon her, now.

“Release Lord Claud or the Princess should die,” Of course, how could Aldebaran forget? The runes about his neck ached.

Lyra gasped, shivering against the weight of the edge pressed against her neck. Should this be her end? It only makes sense for him to choose his sister instead.

To her amazement he released the Priest, but before anyone could react he drew a dagger from his inner pocket, and it found home in the head of her abductor. He darted past the other soldiers, took to her side to make quick work of her binds.

“How did you get here…” She attempted to stand, but the earth was impossible to grasp.

Aldebaran moved in instinctively, giving her an arm to learn on and wrapped his wing about her shoulders while he deflected an incoming strike, “We will talk later.”

One of the soldiers thrusted a blade at them, the other slashed, their Lord Priest ran. Reinforcement arrived, and the chain of children was buried in the chaos. While she gathered her wits and strength under Aldebaran’s wing she watched his blade crossed the other two, the clangs and flashes of violence lost to her as she thought his techniques familiar but couldn’t quite place it. More importantly she was…for the first time in too long…warm. Not the same warmth that Jiube and its fluffiness provided, but the kind from a memory she no longer held…was it…

Aldebaran disarmed one guard and gutted another, and as the last one struck the ground she snapped back to reality, embarrassment only settling in now.

“I’m sorry…I…” She thought about struggling out of his wing, but hunger and isolation made her knees protested against the exercise.

He caught her and in a single motion sheathed his blade and swept her off her untrusty feet, “We must leave…” She saw the flicker of doubt cross his eyes, was it about his decision to lose the clue to his sister to save…her? He caught her staring, “What?”

“No…it’s nothing…” If she looked only into the dark fabric of his tunic the passage of the dungeon and stairs wasn’t as nauseating. “Thank…you.”

He took the precaution of shielding her light-deprived eyes from the unforgiving, setting sun, her gratitude almost unnoticed. He looked into her eyes shaded under the shelter of his wings, their brightness rivaling…no, dimming his least favorite star, the sun.

He snapped away after bidding her to hold tight, taking flight with the blush of the sky behind them.

North Italia

While most Italian restaurants are composed of tables with red checkered clothes and jolly familial atmosphere, North Italia offers a modern take on classics while keeping the originality of quality and tastes that I find most admirable in Italian food.

 

Zucca Chip: the more mediocre appetizer reminiscent of kale chips, possibly with too many pinches of salt.

Calamari: a non-traditional, arugula-ridden plate of fried batter similar to onion rings, on squid that is surprisingly delicious.

Wild Mushroom Polenta: while I’ve very limited experience with polenta, this dish opened my mind to a world where chard could be awesome, after all.

Pizzas: the thin crust is wonderful, and I’ve always ordered the daily specials to find myself pleasantly surprised each time.

Daily soups: from my past visits I’ve come to a conclusion that their soups are typically of a puree quality drizzled with olive oil. It’s always very refreshing and soothing to the palate.

 

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Tiramisu: their balls of chocolate is a first for me, and the ladyfingers and delicate layers are just as heavenly as any other tiramisus that I’ve ever loved.
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Arancini: these fried balls of mushroom risotto resting in homemade marinara contrasts the rich textures and tastes reminiscent of truffles with a hint of cheese and crispiness.
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Short-rib radiatori: the tender pork and creamy sauces checked by the crunch of bread crumbs and arugula is one of my favorites.
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Bombolini: the Italian donuts perfectly freshen up your palate with its lemon curds and sweetness.
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Chef’s Board: this small plate is a carnival of pastrami and cheeses, prosciutto, breads, jam and nuts litter the actual board for you to pair and snack on.
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White truffle garlic bread: this appetizer does it job too well, always making me scrape the bottom of the cast iron pan.
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Strozzapreti: this creamy concoction of noodles and mushrooms is a delightful harmony.
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Squid Ink Mafaldine: the sauce has a punch of passion, a hint of spice to lighten the chewiness of the noodles.
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Burrata Tortellini: this cheesy dumpling paired with nuts and vegetables is yet another irresistible combination.
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Bolognese: this house specialty may seem plain at first sight, but its delicate textures of tomato and meat sauce strikes just the right chord in my heartstrings.

The Mucha Collection

It was yesterday, the Saturday before the 2017 Oscars when I found my life bridged together in the Fullerton Museum Center.

Hours before the merge I was competing in a journalism competition alongside my family of school newspaper staff. Finishing laying out my page (for that is the category of my competition) with an hour to spare and no space in my bladder to spare, I chose my selfish needs over my usual prioritization of the school newspaper as its Editor-in-Chief, turning in my entry early while my school’s main rival team chuckled behind me.

The rest of the day was the majority of our competing staff wandering around Fullerton awaiting the awards ceremony too many hours away. As per tradition, our advisor took us to a dainty burger place, while the large group took over a thrift shop, invaded a cafe daintier than the burger joint, then headed for the museum expecting a music exhibition.

“I wanted to see the guitars,” Our advisor said, a curt smile brimming with excitement before he took to a soliloquy about awesome guitars.

Little did I know that after I paid the $4 and stored my bag in the wooden shelves against the wall to the doors that swung open to me I would find in the place of guitars paintings…no, lithographs of most intricate colors and shapes, or women with wild hairs and their artist’s mind wilder.

“Mucha,” Someone said, while I wanted to know why these lines seem so familiar, so right in my memories. “Mucha,” I repeated.

I stared at each of those splendid flower, each ornate detail, patterns. It can’t be a mere gallery of deja vu. The curve of those porcelain hands hooked…reminiscence.

I couldn’t quite place it until hours later, after I settled in my mother’s car following the excitement of the awards ceremony with yours truly earning a 1st place to spite the chuckling team while my team placed 2nd overall. I walked her through our tour, showing her (the feature photo) my favorite Mucha piece in the exhibition.

Mucha!” She said in Chinese before I started talking. “Do you remember?”

The moment those translated characters rolled of her tongue my thoughts dashed back home, my root country, my old house, the shelf by the guest bedroom that is part makeup table and part-time writing desk when I return. WIthin the drawers were notebooks we’ve gathered over time, lined pages untouched out of admiration.

I recalled sifting through them, armed with a new self-worth to dare to pick out these notebooks and bring them over to the States. One of such I’ve exhausted.

But more importantly, two of such are these, relics from an exhibition around 13 years ago.

I don’t remember much beyond flashes of paintings buried in the sea of people rushed here only because visiting exhibitions were rare. My mother bought the two little notebooks since she thought them worthy mementos, and I held them in my hands now.

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The notebooks

What are the odds that an exhibition that is one of my earlier memory of art and opened my perception to the multiplicity of colors should meet me on a grey afternoon of my journalism competition? Had the moment crossed the ocean and time to remind me of how far I’ve gone?

From a four years old pulling my mother places to one nearing eighteen leading a crowd of her peers to the same artist, looking at the same wild hair and porcelain hands, I said to myself, “Mucha.”

Reflections

He didn’t like the sun when he was a boy, thinking it scorched his raven wings. Only later did he learn, that it was his wings absorbing the sun all along.

Still, he begrudgingly played outside with the other children — whose only reason to be so welcoming and warm to him was either because of their parents’ commendation towards his “geniusness” and his most esteemed breeding — just so baba doesn’t have to worry. Made friends, even, who all seemed so interested about what spells he could wield instead of what feelings he was emoting.

It didn’t matter, for their smiles are infectious, and for the most part he can pretend entertainment. By the time other children were bound to go home he would wonder to the ponds, comparing the orange reflections of the setting sun to the bright blue of the day in recent memory. The murky bottom seemed more settled in the latter, but he still used to prefer the former for it meant the approach of night, when mama and baba will finally return home from their lengthy excursions to the human world, or really wherever the Creator send them.

One day, he found himself holding his father’s hand before the pond, the little boy’s reflection smiled idiotically at how beautiful even the murky bottom of the pond looked with its faint reflection of a bright blue backdrop clouded by the snowy white of his father’s wings.

“Baba, watch this!” He was a bundle of idiotic joy, reaching out for the pond to call forth first a ripple, then others that followed, before a clear bead formed, spiraled into a sphere that glided its way to its summoner.

In the middle of it were several small silver fish, wondering why their world moved so but mostly in excited indifference.

He recalled the way his father ruffled his hair, admired his control of the life forces, then asked him, “Do you remember why the Creator give you such an ability?”

“To protect!” He recited, only realizing then his father guided his hand down, setting the water sphere back to its rightful place.

“You have to remember what that means,” It wasn’t a reproach, but a statement that he was privileged enough to hear as a boy.

He asked himself what that meant even today, “to protect.” Was it for his family? His kind? No matter what he seemed to be failing, sinking into the murky bottom of a pond he never remembered so deep, becoming food for silvery fish.

The Fire

The night was dark, the flames were not. Sweet dreams and promises cracked with each lick of the tongues of fires, reaching, seizing, then pulling the entire building into its fiery embrace.

The fire trucks took too long to get there, the fundings (or lack of) to blame; the hoses were too short, the ladders even shorter. She was merely strolling by the streets that day, refusing to return to the company of her…roommate in fear of what he would say. So, when she saw the fire she was almost glad, “I can prove that I am useful, to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what he thinks.”

While bystanders put themselves to use by screaming at nothing, she blended into their collective panic, making her way towards the edge of the building, past the fire trucks, beyond the reach of the warnings of all those that cared enough.

She went into the main entrance of the building, its jambs yet to collapse along with other stronger supports, the heat a welcoming reminder of what she could do. A flame offered a sliver of a hand, she seized it, and melted into the fiery. Then she was part of the building…no, part of the flames that is so much of the building…no, no….she was the fire. While she tasted the hunger for destruction, saw all corners of the apartments, smelled the rancidity of burning mold she felt the life dodging in between the choking fumes, running to higher grounds, mortified. She tried her best, and her best sufficed, and drew herself into the center of the building, gathered herself, collected the flames, compress, push, until nothing is left but a ball of fire, then she transformed again, back to the form humanity more or less find it easier to accept.

She grumbled to herself that she didn’t think it through before she used her power as such…the bystanders wondered, the firefighters paused before claiming credit, while the survivors scuttled out of the remnants of the catastrophe to thank their heroes and mourn their losses.

She brushed off the ashes and debris before walking off, continuing her stroll into the night and down the street.

The Candle

He watched them dance, flirt, test the patience of fate. The thinnest tendrils made them hold hands, waltz, then just as fast when the light of passions should pass they would break aside and squirm away. Their stage melted beneath them, slowly trailing away from the heat of scrutiny to solidify again, forming arms and sinews like those jagged rocks like water droplets frozen mid-fall from the ceiling of the cave.

He dreamt about sniffing out the dance of the strange candle with its twisted wick that allotted space for two flames, a bright duality, wavering in the faintest winds like reminiscence of young love. Time will come when the candle of life should all just be a waxen puddle, the cotton line blackened or drowned. Then, then, the two flames will already be one, be forgetful of their life before. And, maybe, just maybe, be distinguished as one, if the world sees fit.

He scoffed at his naivety, stopped dreaming, and extinguished it.