“Say something about the food. Come on, Nox. We’re almost finish with the deserts but you barely said anything about the food.”
“I told you it’s good. What else do you want me to say?”
Estella pouted. Even though Nox was more open to her, there were still times when he would like his old self, barely saying what was on his mind. It was annoying, really. But it was also part of his charm. She just loved unraveling his thoughts and making him put them into words.
With a smile, she bit into a slice of apple pie. “Fine. But I can tell you really like it, especially the main dish. You kept staring at my plate after you finish.”
It could have been her imagination, but she thought his cheeks were slightly red. “I’m not,” Nox said indignantly.
“Yes, you are,” she said with a smirk. “I told you, right? I don’t mind giving a portion to you.”
“I’m full, Ella. I can’t even stomach another bite of this cake anymore.” He looked down at his plate where two-thirds of the blueberry cake he had ordered still sat uneaten.
She shrugged. “Okay. I’ll finish it for you.” She started to reach for it.
“No, wait.” Nox clamped his mouth shut. He stared at her for a moment, indecision flashing in his eyes. Finally, he said, “I’ll, uh, finish it.”
A triumphant grin spread across Estella’s face, and she retracted her hand. “I take it this is your first time going in a fine dining restaurant?”
He nodded slowly while chewing. After swallowing, he said, “I don’t have the money for luxuries like this. Good thing I got a scholarship to attend the Academy. Otherwise, I might have enrolled into one of the public academies.”
Estella paused mid-bite to stare at him in surprise. “You’re a scholar?”
“Yes,” Nox said with a nod. “I got in easily because Shadow Wielders are rare.”
“I know. The library didn’t have all the information I was looking for when I was researching about your element.” She smiled. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. At least I could see your powers firsthand.”
An amiable silence passed between them. Estella gazed at the full eastern side of Sildas spreading beyond the balcony, sipping her wine. After a minute, Nox asked, “You like it here that much?”
She looked at him. “Yes. Aside from the food, I like the view. It reminds me of home. My mother and the king always eat together with me on one of the castle’s terraces that overlooks the capital.” She paused briefly. “At least when Mom was still alive.”
His gaze softened. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s fine.” She waved him off. The pain was still there, but Estella had learned to live with it. Changing the subject, she said, “So, where do you want to go next?”
Nox raised an eyebrow. “You’re the one who invited me. I assume you already have a plan in mind.”
She did. She had thought about it since yesterday. They had the whole day to themselves, and she would spend it fully with him.
With another smile, she said, “Actually, I have an idea.”
It took them almost half an hour searching for it. Sildas wasn’t by any means a huge city, but the main thoroughfares were clogged with foot and wheeled traffic that it was task just moving along the streets.
Still, it didn’t bother Estella. Talking with Nox as they walked was enjoyable, and she was glad for every second of it. And throughout all of it, he was often smiling. That sight alone was worth the delay.
Finally, they reached their destination. The entertainment district took more than a fifth of Sildas, and it was here that most people went to unwind. It was still a week before Foundation Day, but many colorful banners were already fluttering in the wind, and every archway, window, and door was wrapped in flowers of every hue and size.
“Let me guess. We’re going to play games?” Nox said, eyeing the various establishments blankly.
Estella smirked. “Why not? We’ve been always studying. Besides, you couldn’t defeat me in our practices. Maybe this time, you could.”
A fierce light seemed to sprang in Nox’s eyes. “You sure you really want to say that?”
Her smirk widened to a grin. “I always mean what I say, Nox.”
Thus, they visited all the gaming establishments they could, trying out various games they saw. Estella had saved up for this very day, and she didn’t regret nearly emptying her purse. Nox possessed a competitive streak she had not seen before; he didn’t back down from all the challenges she made.
“You’re good at this,” Estella muttered as she missed the pink target for Shoot The Rabbit for the third time. Her arrow went off, embedding itself on the wooden plank three inches away from the mark.
Nox snorted. “I was a hunter in my village. I know how to hit my target.” To prove his point, he let loose and his arrow struck the blue mark.
It was kind of unfair. Estella looked at her toy bow, pitifully small compared to the longbows of the Royal Army, and said as she threw it back on the rack, “Fine. Let’s try another game.”
“You’re just pissed you couldn’t hit it even once,” he said, lips twitching as he held up the stuffed reindeer he had won as a prize.
With a grumble, Estella snatched it from his hands, hugging it to her chest as she walked away briskly. She heard him chuckle, and that alone was her prize.
Her squire’s proficiency in gaming was astonishing, but that didn’t mean she was left behind. If anything, Nox’s constant wins urged Estella to do better, and soon she was acquiring prizes of her own. By the time the sun was setting, their arms were overflowing with bags filled with toys and other things they had won.
“We won’t be able to carry all of these,” Nox said.
“No. That’s why we’ll hire a coach.” She glanced around the intersection. It was almost time for them to leave, but she wanted to visit one more place. “Hey, I want you to see something before we leave. Do you mind?”
Nox looked at his arm then shrugged and said dryly, “No, as long as I don’t have to carry these things.”
“It’s good practice for your muscles,” she said, smiling.
He grunted. “Yeah, no. I’d rather use my arms for other things.”
Chuckling at that, they soon found a coach driver and left the items in his care while Estella led him to the central district of the city. Sildas sat on a sloping hill, and there were parts where one could have an unobstructed view of the area for miles around.
They came upon a long flight of stairs. A trail of tourists went to and fro from the top to the base. “The Thousand Steps,” Estella said. “They say you will have a thousand days of luck if you get to the top without taking a rest.”
Standing beside her, Nox frowned. “You believe that?”
“I climbed this two months before Selection Day.” She took the first step and began to ascend.
Her first attempt so many months ago left Estella exhausted and sore when she reached the top, but now it barely strained her legs and feet. Nox easily matched her strides, and she smiled at the thought of her squire keeping pace with her.
When they finally reached the top, the sun was halfway down the horizon, showering half the sky with a burst of gold and pink. The other half was submerged in pale violet that was gradually turning black as night approached.
They stood at the edge of the railings that encompassed the viewing platform. Soon the sun disappeared, and the sky was fully consumed by darkness. And like so many stars in the sky, Sildas’s lights blossomed one by one, bathing the city in a silvery glow.
Estella glanced at Nox, and her breath caught. He stared ahead with a soft expression, so soft and serene that she wanted nothing more than to preserve the image in her memory, and her heart most of all.
“It’s beautiful,” he said quietly.
“Yes,” she murmured as she drew close and draped her head across his shoulder. “It’s beautiful.”
And there they stayed in utter silence until it was time to leave.
Thank you for reading!