Chapter Thirteen: St. Helena (Part 1)
Daniel waved his hand in front of her. "Are you alright?"
Without answering she stood up from her seat.
"I...." she looked around, unsure of what to say next. Words wouldn't come out from her mouth. It refused to.
How could fate play such a cruel, tragic trick?
Alexandra, she thought, Alexandra died to protect me. And now, I'm leading Daniel to do the same.
Lifting her head, she found Daniel pointing to the window behind her. She turned around to find the most amazing fireworks display dancing spectacularly into the deep of the night. They must have been talking for so long that she didn't realize the quiet ascent of the moon.
Her eyes melted into the fiery colors of the firecrackers in the sky. Glorious arrays of reds and orange encircle each other into array of blooming flowers, expanding widely as it goes up before lighting up the sky into small pieces as it slowly falls down.
Others formed into flickering stars, while some formed into diamonds. What caught Anna's attention was the striking image of a long-tailed orange beast assenting above - a dragon. As if someone above was using a string to make it move, the fiery, majestic dragon roamed around each and every flower with meticulous sway of its body, before it descending its way up the night sky. She watched as the beast exploded into a glowing display of shooting stars that fell slowly on the grounds.
The sound of crackles and pop had to turned to a halt, but it followed the sound of excited clapping from the many people watching it.
"They are celebrating their independence from the territories," explained Daniel as he joined her beside the window. He held a flyer in his hand, spelling out "St Helena Foundation Day" in big, bubbly letters.
"St. Helena is a village in the middle of Freeman's Land, unassociated with any territories in the Zuwan Kingdom. The people here have been living freely for ages, with no sign of soldiers and guns. Although there is a fight for more lands between the six territories, there seems to be a quiet agreement between them not to lay a finger on this village. If you think about it, their lifestyle matches well with Siho."
"But It's the existence of the National Guards in Siho that separates the two."
From the window, Anna could see down to the crowds of people that gathered in the square. As Daniel said, no uniformed men are found. Just a crowd of villagers enjoying a pleasant night.
"They seem so happy," mumbled Anna.
"They are," he replied as he coolly rested his head on her shoulder. "I'm happy too."
Happiness, the word crossed her mind. Was she also allowed to feel that way?
"Did you know that the best way to speak to God is after a fireworks display? It's a saying I heard when I was a kid," remarked Daniel. "People would find ways to light up the sky with beautiful colors to attract his attention. And once they did, they would tell them what they want to say. Do you think these people reached him?"
Anna took a glimpse of the children's happy expressions as they ran with long strings of colored ribbons wrapped around in sticks for them to hold. Men and women held each other as they danced to a cheerful tune coming from assortments of drums and guitars, surrounding the large bonfire that lit up the square.
"They've reached him," she concluded.
"Then, let's take this chance to talk to him too."
Surprised, she looked at Daniel, but he had already shut his eyes. What could he be asking? she thought.
"Close your eyes, Anna."
She did, and quietly she thought about what to ask God.
Hello... she said awkwardly. I... might be the last person you want to hear from right now. But I hope you can grant my selfish request. She swallowed nervously.
Give me two days to be with him, and I will no longer ask for anything else. I will do everything to get my father back, but in these two days, let me be selfish and stay by the lieutenant's side.
Because by the end of this journey... I will tell him the truth.
That I was the one who caused Alexandra to die.
"Chop, chop you lovebirds."
Snapping their heads up, they both turned around to find the innkeeper standing in the opened door. They must have forgotten to close it.
"My goodness, young man!" She covered her eyes with one hand while waving him off with the other. "Put on a shirt before I put one on you." She snapped her head to Anna's hand, and into the vase that had fallen off. "Is your hand alright now, darling?"
"Yes, Madam. I didn't notice the vase when I swung my hand as I was trying to change."
"All right then. Well, get yourself something to eat downstairs. I didn't cook anything as I expected everyone staying here to eat the food they've set out outside. You two obviously don't live here, but I'm not gonna ask questions."
She pointed at Daniel again.
"When do you plan to wear that shirt?"
"I'm heading to my room now, ma'am." Quickly Daniel ran off from the room and into his own.
When he closed his door, the old woman walked up to Anna and gave her a plastic bag. Opening it, Anna found a charming cotton dress with long sleeves and a scoop neck. The vibrant pink color must have had has faded overtime, but in turn it produced a beautiful hue of pastel.
She looked at the innkeeper curiously.
"I told myself I wouldn't pry, but it looks like you two have eloped from somewhere, "she confessed. "I thought it would be a good idea to spend your time recklessly tonight with a more comfortable outfit. Besides, it looks to be your size. My daughter once owned it, but she had long passed away. "
Anna had fallen for the garment, but she couldn't take it.
"It's beautiful, but the thought of stealing someone else's dress..."
"Oh, nonsense!" The woman exclaimed. "You didn't steal it, I'm giving it to you. And besides, such a small dress won't fit my body now, would it? Now, go on. I'll leave so you can change into it. Your lover should be done very soon. You know how men are, they wear the first pair of clothes they see."
"Thank you, I really appreciate this, madam." Anna said with flushed cheeks.
"Call me Betsy," she replied. "I'll be downstairs."
After Betsy closed the door, Anna took a while carefully watching out for her left hand. Then, she quickly dried herself off before slipping on the dress.
The dress was comfortable, not too tight nor too big. It went a few inches past her knees, the way she preferred it.
She grabbed a hair tie and fiddled her hair into a simple side braid. Looking at the mirror, she realized that her hair had gotten longer, with the tail of her braid reaching the top of her breast.
Anna didn't obtain her charcoal-colored hair from her father, but from her mother, who passed away when she was younger. She has no recollection of her mother other than a photo of her parents when they were still younger. Emilia Elixon was the most beautiful woman that Captain Elixon admitted to have laid his eyes on. Although both were born and raised in Siho, they have never met each other until they both turned eighteen and had bumped into each other in a crowded street.
It was safe to assume that their story started there.
Closing the door to her room, Anna made her way downstairs where she found Betsy speaking to a tall woman, a visitor, judging from her more elegant, sophisticated clothing. She watched as the innkeeper took a pair of keys from the board behind her, and then made her way towards the staircase, leading the guest to her room.
Betsy stopped in front of Anna, and she pointed outside.
"He's outside if you're looking for him," she said.
Thanking her, Anna moved to the side to give them space to get up, and the woman gave her a pleasant nod before walking upstairs.
What a beautiful woman, thought Anna as she continued to walk outside. It was a bit difficult for Anna to find Daniel, as he was standing on the corner of the meadow a few steps away from the inn.
He stood there, speaking in hushed tones with another man who Anna could recognize quickly.
"You understand, Lieutenant Han, that you must separate with the Captain's daughter an hour before sunrise on the third day. We will come pick up in this meeting point," instructed Jacob Wells, another promising Lieutenant of the National Guards and a member of the Recon Division. She remembers seeing him a few times with Sahl as they've done their training together. Yet, he never once showed a friendly face to Anna.
Tonight, she spotted him holding a map and pointing to a marked location.
"How will she get there then?" Questioned Daniel. "You can't expect me to leave her alone. Not like this."
"But that's what you're going to do," demanded Wells. "She knew this would happen too. Your assignment ends as soon as you've brought her here." He pointed to another marked location.
"Judging from your expression, this seems to be the first time you're hearing it."
Daniel lifted his head as he let out a restless grunt. "I knew... but I didn't know it would be her."
"Don't make this hard, lieutenant."
"Is it really impossible to lead her there myself?" He pleaded with gritted teeth.
"Why, did she ask you to?" inquired Wells. "She sure likes to make men work things out for her- you and Mcintyre both."
Anna fell silent from Well's remark. It made her angry that he thought of her that way, but more than anything she felt uncomfortable having to be there to hear it herself. She thought about turning back around when she noticed something twinkle on her right arm.
It was the bracelet Daniel had tasked Gil to give her. She was wearing it tonight, and for the oddest reason, the pink gemstone began to light up. When she turned her head to the two men, she discovered that Daniel's wrist had lit up as well.
"You've got to be kidding me," sighed Wells. Immediately he turned his head around and spotted Anna standing by the corner. "Are you guys a pair of magnets?"
Anna almost jumped at the voice that came from the shadows. It was no other than Gil, who had been keeping watch of the perimeter. "It's handy, really. The bracelets light up when one gets close to another at a certain distance, just like it did now."
Pressing his hands to his forehead, he glared at Gil. "You knew she was here?"
"She's not a threat," replied Gil as he took his hat off.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, Lieutenant Wells." Anna said as she walked towards them.
Had she not seen Daniel first, she would be completely oblivious of the presence of the other two men in their party. Both Wells and Gil wore black coats to camouflage themselves in the dark, their handguns strapped hidden underneath.
"Forgive my words, Ms. Elixon, but you should understand my... feelings about you."
Anna forgot one thing about Wells: that he doesn't mince words.
"I do," she replied. He hates me.
"I refuse to lose another one of my colleagues for a woman's favor," he stated, "even if the woman is you. "
"LIEUTENANT WELLS!" Daniel bellowed angrily. Gil must have predicted that Daniel would begin to advance his feet because he leapt quickly to stand in the middle.
"Realize your positions, lieutenants."
Huffing furiously, Wells turned around and walk away.
"Be safe, the both of you," said Wells as he smiled. "I'll see you in two day's time, Han."
Once they were gone, Anna walked towards Daniel.
It was the first time she had seen him wear anything that wasn't a uniform. Tonight he wore a navy blue fleece jacket that molded liberally into his broad shoulders. Casual-fitted trousers covered his legs, while a pair of brown loafers protected his bare feet from touching the ground.
You're supposed to blend in with the crowd, not stand out. She sighed.
"Why don't we get something to eat? I'm starving!"
Grabbing Daniel by the arm she led him back to the square. At this point the crowds have scattered in multiple groups. Some settled themselves in playing games that included ring toss, darts and rifle games, others stayed around the bonfire to dance. Anna decided to join the cluster that settled in the food tent.
She sat Daniel in one of the tables before running rampantly to find something more filling than caramel apples and soft pretzels.
Luckily she found a booth that served fresh vegetable soup using greens the jolly old vendor personally picked from the village garden. He had even added pieces of chicken in the stew, then handing it to Anna with pieces of warm sourdough bread.
As Anna came back to the table, she found the soldier still brooding like a child whose toy was stolen from him. She sat down and placed all the food in front of them before chowing down a few spoonful of the soup. Feeling the watchful stare of the man in front of her, she looked straight in those consoling brown eyes.
"Aren't you mad?" He finally asked.
"Of course I am."
"But I would have been angrier if you had done something to Lieutenant Wells."
"Why are you thinking about that bastard now?" He hissed, and she stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth.
"You know, when I heard what he said about me," she sighed, "I couldn't help but think - wow, I must really be a loose woman."
She took out the bottle of rice liquor she had purchased earlier. Grabbing one of the two small glasses she brought, she poured herself some and drank it in one flick of her wrist.
"If you're loose, then I'm a madman."
Anna raised an eyebrow as she watched Daniel pour himself a drink. He looked like a fish as he downed three rounds of shots before Anna could finish her soup.
"Hey, lieutenant, you're working you know." She reached for the bottle, but he slapped her hand away and poured himself another.
"You're working too." He replied. Then, Anna watched in horror as he stood up to lift his jacket before sitting back down with a lopsided grin.
No gun, she sighed in relief.
"We're partners, aren't we?" He continued. "And I drove really, really far away to bring you here. So keep an eye out for me."
Anna leaned to steal the bottle away, only to be swatted away by Daniel's hand once again. "You can't have any!" He reminder her.
Giving up, she closed her eyes and leaned her head down to the wooden table, her cheek feeling the coldness of the mahogany.
How childish, she thought irritably, yet at the same time she couldn't help but feel happy for having seen a new side of the lieutenant. Who would have thought. .
"You look beautiful tonight."
Anna's eyes flipped open, and heart began to thump in an instant.
"It reminded me of the way I felt when I saw you the first time. Even Wells was flustered, that bastard."
She lifted her head to confirm whether she heard, but instead she found Daniel already swaying his body with flushed cheeks.
He really can't drink, huh.
"I wish I could punch him. Mm... that prick."
She rested her head on the palm of her hand, elbow on the table, watching him mumble more with an amused expression.
"I'm learning a lot about you tonight," she beamed.
He didn't answer, but a wide smile crossed his face.
"Hey, lieutenant, are you drunk?"
"...No," he replied, but the bobbing of his head revealed the latter.
"Hey lieutenant," she called him again.
"I love you."
She leaned in closer to him. "I said.... I love you!"
Anna didn't expect a reply, and it was good that she didn't, because it was in that moment that Daniel collapsed to the ground.