Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
Gu slammed two large bowls of hot, fuming meat broth on the table’s surface.
Thales and Little Rascal, who were washing their faces with cold water in the corner looked up in puzzlement. They ogled the expressionless Gu.
The feeling of hunger, which had been masked by terror and fright earlier on, was rekindled in the prince’s stomach.
“I heated them up with Eternal Oil—the smoke will fade indoors. No one will find out that we’re here,” Gu said flatly as he sat down opposite the two of them. He raised his thick right eyebrow meaningfully. “Of course, it’s not cheap. I’ll make sure to add this to the fees you owe me.”
Little Rascal’s stomach growled just in time.
The girl glanced at the boy beside her timidly—Thales swallowed.
Gu stared at the two stupefied children, frowning. He then said impatiently, “Are you waiting for me to offer you napkins and serve you some grape wine, my young master and lady?”
The moment he had said this, Thales as well as Little Rascal exchanged glances and blinked at one another.
At the next second, the two of them leaped onto the chairs like horses being rid of their reins. They lifted their bowls and gulped the meat broth.
“Drink slowly.” Watching them gobbling their food, Gu heaved a sigh.
“When you’re done, we’ll talk about the important stuff.”
Within a few minutes, the two starving children had finished their meat broth. They leaned back in their chairs, rubbing their bloated bellies and panting.
Little Rascal even let out a loud burp. She lowered her head nervously.
Thales exhaled contentedly.
“So…” Gu placed his right hand on the back of his left hand. His fingers moved up and down like ocean waves, slowly tapping the table.
Before Gu finished, Thales caught his breath. Looking up, he anxiously said, “We-We need help!”
“Yeah, I can see that…” Gu scanned him from head to toe. His eyes were filled with disdain. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
Holding Thales’ gaze, Gu said with indifference, “For example, in this chaotic night, where it’s nearly dawn, why are there two children wandering in Armor District, which should already have been evacuated much earlier?
“And you even did so in a humiliating manner, like dogs with tails between their legs.”
Thales was slightly taken aback, and instinctively said, “We…”
However, his words died in his mouth. The prince opened his mouth hesitantly, then decided to shut it for good.
His instincts and experience as a prince told him that one could not always trade all of his or her intel for sincerity and understanding: He learned from the examples set by Serena and Black Sword.
“We got into trouble.” Thales took a deep breath, and said seriously, “We need to head to Heroic Spirit Palace in secret and without catching anyone’s attention. Can you help us?
“We will reward you!”
Gu stopped tapping his fingers. His hands were clenched into fists and he stared at Thales without once moving his body.
The man’s gaze was calm, like an undisturbed surface of a lake. Nevertheless, it unsettled Thales.
He could not help but sat up properly and straightened his clothes.
‘This Far Easterner…
‘Why is he giving off a strange vibe?’
As Thales was about to lose it, Gu slowly began to speak, “Heroic Spirit Palace?
“Is this another power struggle among the nobility?”
The corners of Gu’s lips curved in a cold, cryptic smile.
The Far Easterner’s black eyes were deep and dark. Thales could not see his pupils clearly.
“Sneaking to Heroic Spirit Palace from Armor District… Do you know how difficult it is? The distance, the hill, the city gates, the road blocks, and the blockade set up since yesterday…”
Gu stared at Thales in the dim light.
“I can clear up some space for you and let you stay here. But sending you into Heroic Spirit Palace without being noticed, and getting dragged into a political scuffle between nobles?”
The Far Easterner shook his head. The coldness in the corner of his eye chilled Thales to the bone. “Sorry, I don’t owe Kaslan that much.”
Thales turned his head, glancing at Little Rascal worriedly.
They could not just stay there and wait for trouble to catch up.
Lampard’s operation, Nuven’s assassination, the unfortunate events they encountered, these issues needed to be…
“What about contacting someone?”
Thales looked up and said while feeling uneasy, “You can’t send us over, but can you contact someone on our behalf?”
Facing Thales’ worried gaze, Gu smiled.
“It will not be easy, but it is not impossible.” Gu narrowed his eyes. “Who shall I pass your message to?”
However, as he opened his mouth and the words were about to be said, Gu interrupted him.
“Choose with caution, kid. Don’t choose the ones I can only reach by shouting from Heroic Spirit Palace’s front gate.” Gu lowered his head slightly. Due to the dim light, his eyes were enveloped by the darkness. He then said meaningfully, “If you’re really in danger, it’s better to choose someone you can trust, who’s less attention-grabbing. After all, I too am not keen on getting myself into trouble.”
Listening to Gu’s advice, Thales was puzzled.
The first person who came to his mind just now was Putray.
Aida said the vice diplomat sent some men to look for him. Perhaps, he could also send someone…
The prince shook his head internally.
Thales did not know how tight Lampard’s surveillance was in Dragon Clouds City, but if the current situation was as bad as he expected, then the Constellation diplomat group led by Putray would become the huge target of Lampard’s attention.
Their presence would be especially striking in the now calamity-ravaged city, with each district under curfew. Even if they managed find his location, they would most likely be stopped by the enemy halfway.
The same could be said of the people loyal to King Nuven, such as Nicholas.
He needed another candidate.
Thales frowned. ‘A trustworthy person, someone who has secret dealings with both King Nuven and Lampard but appears neutral. This person will therefore seem unnoticeable.
‘Preferably, this person should have some useful tactics and connections, so that he or she will be able to take action after receiving this man’s message.’
Thales’ eyes focused.
Thales took a deep breath, returning Gu’s gaze. “Actually, I have a name in mind. He has numerous connections—you will definitely be able to contact him.”
Gu’s eyes were fixed on him.
Five seconds passed, and the Far Easterner nodded slowly.
Thales gave a sigh of relief.
A few minutes later, Gu put on a hooded cape and stood at the doorstep.
“I’m not certain how long I’ll be gone. After all, it requires time to locate contacts maybe dozens of minutes, maybe longer than that,” the Far Easterner said grimly. “Before that, stay still. Do not touch anything in my store.”
Thales could only nod, implying that he understood.
Gu surveyed the outside through the wooden window. When he was assured of the situation, he grasped the door knob.
“Mister Gu.” As the light crept into the butcher’s shop while he was about to leave, Thales blurted out, “Thank you.”
Gu had a cryptic expression as he turned his head, and glanced at him.
The Far Easterner gave Thales a half-smile, nodding.
Nevertheless, Gu’s last words before he walked out of the shop unnerved Thales.
“Please wait patiently.” Gu turned back around and his faint voice trailed off. “Your Royal Highness.”
As he finished, Gu shut the small door. The darkness engulfed the butcher’s shop once again.
Thales was left stupefied where he stood.
The prince turned his head to Little Rascal, who was sitting at the table. The two gawked at one another.
‘So he knew my identity all along?
‘That’s why he didn’t ask me about it.’
Staring at the small door that Gu walked out of, Thales pressed his hands on his forehead, sighing in anguish.
‘What’s so conspicuous about a scruffy kid running on the street?
‘Asda, Black Sword, Gu… Why does everyone know who I am at first sight?’
Thales pivoted on his heels, glancing at the chopping blocks and boning knives around him. He shrugged helplessly and dejectedly.
He climbed into the chair by the dining table with difficulty, lifting a wooden mug and drinking a mouthful of water.
He caught a glimpse of Little Rascal next to him.
The girl was gazing at the table’s surface with a vacant look in her eyes. Her face was without expression.
Thales sighed internally.
“Take a nap.” Thales put down the mug, and said, “You must be exhausted.”
As though she was abruptly awakened, Little Rascal recovered from her stupor and stared at Thales.
Thales pursed his lips, shaking his head helplessly.
“You need rest. We may have to get back on the road soon.” Gazing at the absent-minded girl, Thales tried to speak in the softest voice he could manage.
Little Rascal on the other hand, merely ogled him.
“Thales,” the little girl said dolefully, “I feel as if I’m in a dream.”
Little Rascal lowered her head. “A nightmare, a never-ending nightmare.”
There was a slight pause in Thales’ breathing.
Little Rascal spoke haltingly, “At first it was Lady Alex, then there was the monster in Dragon Clouds City, now His Majesty…”
The girl’s eyes were glistening behind her lenses.
“All of this… when will it end?”
Thales closed his eyes. His heart was laden with unspeakable gloom and sorrow.
She was just a child.
She was only a little older than Coria, Ryan, and Sinti.
She was forced to witness all of this.
Thales heard himself say blankly, “Soon, everything will come to an end… It’s going to be fine…”
However, a dark, gloomy voice in his heart was saying an entirely different thing.
‘The moment you become a Walton, everything you’ve seen…
‘Will never end.’
He heard himself say words he did not agree with, “When we’re back with the Walton Family, and back among the people serving the Waltons, we’ll be safe. Regardless of their purpose, they will protect the bloodline of the Dragon Spear Family.”
Hearing this, Little Rascal shuddered.
The sobs in her voice became more obvious. “Thales, I-I don’t want to be-be Saroma. I’m not a Walton… What His Majesty told me to do, I can’t do it…”
Thales did not speak. He merely clutched his fist, staring at the ground.
“It’s true.” Little Rascal sniffled. Her eyes were red. “I’m just a servant girl who was picked up from a house full of orphans, not… not Lady Alex.”
Thales remained quiet.
“Besides, I’m a girl.
“This is Northland. Throughout history… aristocrats or commoners have never allowed a girl to be an archduchess.” Little Rascal took off her spectacles, shaking her head in dismay.
“Let me go. I can’t do as His Majesty ordered… To… With me… I’ll mess it up. I don’t know anything!”
Looking at the weeping Little Rascal, Thales slowly lifted his chin.
Little Rascal’s sobbing stopped in an instant.
She looked up, and with a lingering whine in her voice, she asked in bewilderment, “What?”
Thales flatly said, “You can leave.”
Little Rascal was startled.
“King Nuven has passed away. It’s uncertain if Nicholas is dead or alive. As for Mirk…” Thales gazed at her calmly, getting off his chair, and striding forward. “Now, no one can force you to be Saroma Walton.”
Thales approached her slowly.
Slightly shocked, Little Rascal recoiled toward the back of her chair.
“You have the chance to stay away from this mess. Dragon Clouds City is in turmoil. A missing servant girl hardly catches anyone’s attention.” Holding Little Rascal’s astonished gaze, Thales continued, “Moreover, so many things have happened in Heroic Spirit Palace alone…”
Little Rascal sniffled fiercely.
The girl’s voice was laced with a hint of shock and doubt, which later turned into fright and fear. “But… why are you…”
Thales stopped, standing a few steps away from her chair.
He loosened his clenched fist, staring into the girl’s green eyes. His lips then curved upwards.
“Because you are you.
“Perhaps there is not much leeway, but everyone can, and is supposed to choose who they want to be…”
Thales shut his eyes, then flipped them open again.
“You will become the person you choose to become.”
In that instant, Asda’s prying words, the story that Lady Jines told him, Yodel’s confession in the Path of Shadows, Gilbert’s agitated expression as he stood before the portraits of the Three Constellation Kings, and Kessel’s lonely silhouette in the Jadestar Family Tomb flashed across his mind.
Deep in his thoughts, he went on subconsciously, “Despite the fact that we are often coerced by life, by others, by society, by overarching power to become… someone they want us to be.”
Little Rascal gawked at Thales as the strange boy gave her a bitter smile.
Wiping her face clean, the girl blinked and asked instinctively, “Like… becoming a prince?”
Thales’ gaze stiffened.
He stared at Little Rascal in silence, and sighed. “Yes.
“Like a prince.”
“Therefore, if you want to run away, if you want to give up, if you want to stay away, I will not stop you—I will even lend you a hand.”
Little Rascal was clearly astonished. She froze, her gaze transfixed on Thales.
Kessel’s words rang in his ears.
‘”After being conferred the Jadestar surname, to battle for Constellation, die for Constellation, and… live for Constellation.”‘
He refocused his gaze on Little Rascal, staring directly into her eyes.
“But before that, have you thought about yourself, who you really are, who you want to become?”
Little Rascal’s eyes widened. “What?”
Thales shook his head, ignoring her puzzled look, and continued to speak.
“Are you Little Rascal? A servant girl who completed homework on someone’s behalf? A bookworm in the library? Are you Saroma Walton? Are you a poor unfortunate soul who was unwittingly dragged into this mess?”
Little Rascal froze in her seat. Her breathing became ragged.
“In Alex’s eyes, you are her inferior servant girl; in King Nuven’s eyes, you are the last hope of the Walton Family; in the eyes of the Queen of the Sky, you are an interesting girl who unknowingly wore her spectacles,” Thales said calmly. “But who are you in your own eyes?
“Who are you?” he asked her the same question he asked when they first met.
Little Rascal’s eyes were gradually clouded with uncertainty.
“Slipping back into Little Rascal due to fear and past habits; choosing to become the noble Walton girl due to vanity; choosing to run away from everything due to pressure— I think these choices are of the same nature. They are not what you truly want, but because you are being forced to be someone you are not ready to become.”
At that very moment, silence shrouded the small butcher’s shop.
Little Rascal sat in her chair in a daze, staring at Thales who was standing before her.
Her eyes were brimming with confusion and panic.
“What about you?” A few seconds later, Little Rascal lifted her chin in confusion. She looked like a person who was struggling her way out of the water, seeking a lifeline. “Who do you think I am? Am I supposed to be a servant girl?”
He shook his head. “You are a luckless, poor unfortunate soul who’s been dragged into all kinds of troubles with me.”
Little Rascal’s eyes dimmed. She lowered her head and pouted.
Thales looked her in the eye and exhaled softly.
“But, you are also a brave and strong-willed girl who’s been through nightmares and hell with me. In fact, you’re still sticking around after all that.”
Thales gave her a sad smile of gratification.
“If you become an archduchess, I think you’ll be much better than King Nuven and Archduke Lampard.”
Little Rascal looked up again. Her eyes shone with astonishment and surprise.
“From what I’ve seen, you aren’t completely unequipped to become a Walton.”
As Little Rascal kept her gaze on him, Thales continued.
“You’ve been reading for years in Raikaru’s library. You can memorize every book you read, and you know every historical event like the back of your hand. You finished Alex’s homework, and perhaps did it better than her. Besides…”
Thales recalled what happened yesterday as though it had long passed. The images in his memory had become like yellowing pages in a book.
“In times of despair, when we faced those horrid monsters and when I was in the gravest danger, you did not once abandon me—despite the consequence being the possibility of a painful death.”
The prince looked Little Rascal in the eye.
Little Rascal pursed her lips, wiping the trail of tears off her cheeks.
“I’ll tell you another secret,” Thales began.
Little Rascal blinked.
A robust, sturdy figure surfaced in his mind, along with a pair of menacing azure eyes.
“When I became a prince, my… father asked me a similar question.” Thales’ eyes were vacant and unfocused. His soul was no longer in the butcher’s shop. It had drifted off to the faraway Eternal Star City.
“‘Are you prepared?’— he asked me.”
Without realizing, he chuckled.
“How did you answer?” Little Rascal asked expectantly.
Thales turned, returning her gaze. “I said, ‘No.'”
“And then?” The girl’s eyes gleamed. “What was your father’s reaction?”
Thales stared into Little Rascal’s eyes in silence while remaining still. In the end, the latter looked away, feeling slightly embarrassed.
A few seconds passed.
“He said, ‘It is fine.’
“Because ‘fate will prepare everything for you.’
“That’s what he told me.”
Little Rascal was stunned.
Thales exhaled a puff of air through his nose as though he had just gotten rid of the biggest shackle on him.
The prince smiled in a way that he believed looked like the most confident smile.
“So, don’t be scared. Don’t panic. You have lots of choices.” Thales held Little Rascal’s hand gently, and earnestly said, “When we get out of here, you can find out who you really are, choose who you want to become—it doesn’t matter if you want to leave or stay, I won’t stop you.”
Little Rascal stared at him, mouth wide open in a daze.
“Before that, you don’t have to think about anything. Now, you are just a loyal companion of mine in our journey for survival.” Thales fixed his stare on her.
Little Rascal gaped at him as if this was her first time meeting him.
Little Rascal sniffled, and as if she still did not quite understand what he meant, she said, “Okay.”
Thales arched an eyebrow. “Now, take a nap. We need energy and stamina.”
Little Rascal nodded obediently.
Thales then heaved a sigh.
He had calmed her down at last.
Thales turned around and climbed into his chair.
Gu’s chair was soft—the kind of wood it was made of was unknown.
“Thales,” Little Rascal muttered behind him, “thank you.”
“No.” He lowered his head in dejection. “I’m the one who dragged you into this.”
‘Or else, she would have just been a servant girl who hid and read in the library, and all she needed to worry about was Alex.
The two children lay in their respective chairs, shutting their eyes for now, with temporary peace in their minds.
Amid the darkness, Little Rascal’s timid voice sounded, “Thales, are you really just seven?
“Why do you know so much?”
Hearing that, Thales, who was adjusting his sleeping position snorted with laughter.
He opened his eyes, seeing Little Rascal in her chair. She was lying on her side with her eyes shut.
It reminded Thales of when she was sound asleep by his bed in the guest room.
“Who knows?” He slipped off his chair, and headed to the corner of the room. “Maybe I’m already thirty-seven.”
As usual, Thales lay down against the corner wall. His head was pillowed on his hands. Feeling the double protection from the ground and the wall, he felt much calmer. “I just don’t look old.”
Little Rascal’s giggle sounded beside him.
‘Choose for yourself. Choose who you want to become—’ he repeated this to himself in his mind, recalling what he had told Asda before the Mystic left.
‘I shall survive this ordeal.
‘I shall stay alive.
‘Then I’ll choose who I want to become.
‘No one can force me.
‘No one can stop me.’
He closed his eyes gently.
Drowsiness and fatigue washed over him.