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The luxury cruise liner was constructed by Vinlan Corp. The country’s insignia was all over the interior upholstery, on the life ring buoys that lined the deck in case of a man overboard, and even on the napkins of the restaurants. It was a sleek setup compared to Xin and Ming was impressed. “Whoa, I’ve never even seen a boat with restaurants inside. We don’t have this in Xin!”

Krystal nodded. She was not so impressed with this shiny smooth metal hulk of a boat. Boats back in Xin were exquisitely handcrafted with wood and made resistant with tar sealant, and it was an art to sail them skillfully.

The two made their way around the restaurant shop fronts, stopping to check each menu. There were cafes with exotic cuisine, fresh seafood and live performances, each packed to the brim with guests merrily laughing and eating. It almost seemed like the street food scene in Xin, only less chaotic and with proper seats.

“I don’t see a single ramen shop!” Ming’s joy was short-lived. “Look at all these queues, how are we ever going to get food?!” He wailed, crestfallen.

“Look,” she said, pointing at a tiny food stall with only three dining seats by the bar. A round chef snored away, slumped over the bar counter. The sign above the stall read “Freedom Fries” in bright pink neon lights.

Then, almost as if he had smelled customers, the chef awakened from his slumber.

“Come try my freedom fries! They’re fresh and hot, made to order!”

Freedom fries! What were those? Ming looked quizzically at his sister, who shrugged in response. They decided to give it a shot, sitting down.

“Do you have ramen?” Ming cut in before Krystal could ask what freedom fries were. Maybe there were some noodles in the back.

The chef frowned. “I don’t know what that is, but I can offer you some delicious freedom fries.”

Ming turned towards his sister, disappointed. “Sis, I think this place is no good.”

The chef was not intimidated in the least by his unwilling customer. “Hold up, not so fast. Let me serve you guys a plate and you can decide for yourselves!” .

He got to work in a flash. He sliced potatoes, tossed them in seasoning and flour before throwing them into a vat of hot bubbling oil. Before long, a golden-brown crispy exterior had formed around the stringy potatoes. The smell of deep fried greasy goodness wafted towards the siblings. With a flourish, the chef poured a sleeve of fries into a basket lined with wax paper, and presented it in front of Krystal. “Here you go!” he said, winking at Krystal. Ming was mildly offended.

Krystal smiled at the chef and looked at the dish. It smelled divine and was dripping in goblets of fat. She opened her purse to retrieve her own personal pair of metal chopsticks, and used it to clasp a single stringy freedom fry.

The chef was stunned. He had never seen such a contraption before. His freedom fries were usually eaten with fingers… Why go through all that trouble to eat?

Krystal brought the fry to her lips, chewed and swallowed. Her face lit up beaming, eyes wide. She immediately grabbed a huge chunk of fries with her chopsticks and shoved them into her mouth. It was more than enough of an endorsement for Ming, who immediately asked for his own basket of fries.

Krystal was not done yet. She pulled out from her purse a small bottle of hot sauce. It was sambal, a Xin specialty that anyone serious about their food would carry with them. Krystal and Ming ate it with literally everything. She poured some of the gloopy sambal on the fries, and continued eating.

Intrigued by the bottle, the chef asked Krystal for a taste. Cold from the bottle, the paste contrasted the heat of the freedom fries with spice and a taste of the sea. The chef’s mind was running wild with inspiration. This was an excellent combo! How exotic! It tasted like a brand new dish!

“This is sambal,” Krystal explained.

Sambal was made with red chilli, fish sauce, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, lime juice, shallots, and curry leaves: a Xin specialty.

Before long, the trio were stuffing down their fourth basket of freedom fries.

The chef suddenly mentioned, “By the way, you kids need to be careful. There was a murder on the ship yesterday. A poor girl was killed in her room on the eighth floor, and the murderer is still on the loose.” His face was upset.

Krystal’s brain fired up an alert on opportunity. Dead, eh? That meant a corpse was available. Bones.

She got up from her seat. “Thank you for the meal.”

***

Minister Glover stood in the dimly lit cargo hold of The Challenger. There was a strange mix of smells in the air - from fruit and vegetables to other live animals all placed on board for passengers’ gourmet meals in the multiple restaurants.

“Miles, you’re a genius!” he exclaimed to himself happily. He had made it onto the ship together with his cargo at the last minute thanks to his suggestion.

His cargo nodded, as if to also thank Minister Miles. Three pairs of yellow eyes were calm but deadly, twinkling in the dark. They belonged to his pride and joy: his panthers from Al Tehar. These Tehari panthers were a specific breed of wild hunting animals with an excellent sense of smell. But their most intimidating feature was their skeletal system, which extended out from under their skin sharply. Their shoulder blades jutted out, and their elbows had extra sharp protrusions. Deadly hunters with an exoskeleton.

“Boys, it’s time for you three to shine,” Minister Glover soothed them, reaching into the cage and gently caressing their fur. “I paid a good amount to get you all. Show me my money’s worth!”

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About the author

PlayingGamesOfDespair

Bio: YA fantasy book series created by Kabir Singh & Judy Goh
Sypnosis: Tournament of the century, ordained by God. Who will prevail?

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