Chapter 42: Rat Stew
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 Chapter 42: Rat Stew

After introducing myself to the village head whilst getting an unexpected sale pitch, Emma and I scrambled away. No. Rather, I pulled Emma out of the ancient-looking store, fearing that the scarred man would sell something else. Despite the thickness of my face, this aunt still knows shame.

What if he offers undies? I’ll die on the spot for sure.

Escaping the village head’s scrutinizing gaze felt great. I also wore the ‘Sakkat’ over my head; the veil waltzing along with the wind.

Emma led me to their house. It was close to the village head’s store. According to the old catkin, a few minutes of walk and we will be there 

I followed her steps, letting the soft breeze flow through me. My shoulders loosened. My brown unwinding. I hugged the wind and enjoyed peace.

Minutes passed, and we finally arrived. I searched for the kittens as soon as we arrived.

Where are you, dear kitties? Saw them. The two kitties tried to hide, but got caught after taking a peek from the wide-open window. Too bad, they forgot to hide their bobbing fluffy ears from my sight.

The catkin’s house wasn’t on the large side. What it had was the ambiance of a warm home. All as if I drifted back to the past when I was still living with my parents. The warmth made me grin. It was soft and embracing. Upon the walls were the scratches of kittens, so obviously loved. The floor was an old-fashioned maple-colored wood with a blend of deep homely scarlet and straw. It had no stairs but had three simple rooms plus a kitchen and a small living room. Staring at the flipped window, you’ll see the endless grasslands. The scent of nature drifting into the air. Two bright lamps shone over the entire house, a tint of warmth flowing, something that soothed right to the soul.

The old catkin smiled as she saw me, lost in thought. She then invited me in. The catkin’s abode was simple if compared to Saria's mansion, but the catkin's house had something I craved for. The scent of family. Something that not even money could buy once it’s gone.

Soon, the supper came. The dining table was enough to accommodate four of us. Emma sat near me while the two little ones kept their distance, sitting at the other end of the table. They still refused to meet my gaze, only taking a peek when I'm not looking. Silly, but cute.

Though their stubbornness didn’t last long. When the old catkin served my portion of their favorite food - rat poop, I mean, rat stew. The duo stared, waiting for me to savor this mangy thing. Two sets of eyes - one crimson, one golden, shone, waiting for me to taste the rawness of their favorite food.

My heart melted once again. Such weak me.

I tested my mettle, scooping a spoonful of the rat stew. This was the first time that I'm going to taste something other than Eyad's cooking in a year. The stew wore a vivid white hue. A few vegetables drifted within the bowl, adding a bit of color. Oh, there was a wiggling tail floating inside.

With an innocent smile, my spoon retreated lightning-flash. Of course, I didn’t show disgust on my face. I had this unique [Etiquette Lvl. 5] skill to plow me through this ordeal.

I lifted my head, planning to say no, wiggling out reasons from thin air. Yet, the bright gazes of the kittens speaking, ‘I'll be tasty alright’, stopped those thoughts. I felt bad letting down the kitties.

Thus, I threw all of my doubts in the air. I scooped, closed my eyes, and went mad.

The taste wasn't that bad. It tasted like combined spiced mutton and chicken meat. Stinging to the tongue, but overall it tasted fine. There was a novelty on its texture - not so thick that it's heavy, but not too light that it feels inadequate. The stinging taste of garlic and salt filled the four sides of my palate.

I gazed at the kittens and smiled, this time with sincerity. “It tastes great.”

“I know she’ll like it!” The scarlet kitten quipped. “See, Coby?”

The golden kitten nodded in response. He ignored the bobbing lass and continued to relish on his portion of the meal. Emma also offered me a few more bowls with a big smile on her face. After dinner, they led me to the little guest room for me to sleep in.

Emma told me we’ll talk tomorrow. For now, I must rest.

Then came midnight. It felt darker than usual.

Along with an untimely roar of shitty clucker, my impression of the rat stew shifted anew. First impressions indeed never last. From a warm, wonderful food, my opinion of Emma’s rat stew changed again. In a bad way.

Emma’s rat stew was the very incarnation of evil. It had the curse of the infamous poop demon. Remembering the stew gave my lingua a good old shiver. It almost killed me as I toiled the night in the outhouse. The wind spirits didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I felt their concern. Alistair and Maggie felt bad that they couldn’t do anything for me.

Soon, my consciousness drifted away, all my focus dwelled on my grumbling stomach. As for the two blobs, they talked with each other all night. I don’t know what it was all about, but I sensed they were going to find someone soon. Who it was? I don’t know.

I remembered the creepy grin of Emma, who continuously offered me one bowl after another. With every bowl, her grin grew wider and wider. With a big smile on her face, she even escorted me to the outhouse, leaving me alone as soon as we arrived. All as if she had been waiting all along for the chance to guide me.

Emma's not a good kitty at all. The poop demon had tainted her. Is this her revenge after I grabbed her fuzzy tail? I wonder why nothing happened to the two kitties. She definitely added something in my bowl, but oh well, consider that my payment for harassing her fluffy tail.

Revenge was best served piping hot. Stew style.

It was already early morning when I returned. I heard the roars of the cluckers as I dragged my weakened body back to the kitten’s house. With trembling legs, I climbed onto my bed.

Before I could even close my eyes, Emma strode towards my room with a big smile. The kitties trailed behind her, rubbing their eyes, yawning.

“How are you, Lady Victoria?” The old catkin asked.

I gave Emma a deadpan stare. “I’m fine.”

“But you don’t look like you’re fine at all.” Emma’s smile bloomed.

Oh, I’m glad she knew. Why ask?

She then offered a cup of water. “Drink.”

Of course, I squinted after learning my lesson last night. I’m not taking anything I don’t know. What if it’s something related to the poop demon again? I’ll die!

Her lips moved, whispering lightly, “It’s safe. Drink this tasty medicine, Coby.”

“Alright, Gran-Gran.” The little lad strutted, taking the cup with ease. He moved the cup towards his mouth, chugging its contents within seconds. He then gazed at me with a smug look. I knew what he was thinking, ‘Can’t even drink medicine like me? Puny.’

I don’t know why, but this aunt’s composed smile flinched. I got triggered. Alright kiddo, I’ll drink.

A picked up the cup with wobbling hands. I almost dropped the cup, but fortunately, the scarlet kitten rushed in and held the bottom of the wooden cup. Leaving a small thanks, I drank the medicine bottoms-up. Then I stared at the golden kitten, chin lifted.

The medicine had a bit of citrus scent and a taste akin to lemon water. Fortunately, this time, poop poison seemed to be non-existent. She also offered me a few sweet fruits. After that, Emma shooed the kittens, allowing me to sleep in peace.

I slept the entire day akin to a dead log. I even dreamt of a bowl of evil rat stew chasing me in wild abandon. Such evil. It even cut off my sleep at least three times. Damn it! What the hell is wrong with that frigging bowl! Can’t even give this aunt some sleep. If I shatter one, two more will come. If shatter two, I’ll run!

 

***

The next day came bursting forth with the pitchy roars of the cluckers. Old kitties and cluckers are evil. Away with them! This is the second day. It was still dark when I stoop up from my bed. I stretched a little to let my blood flow better. I rubbed my stomach and nodded. I’m now fine.

Embers flickered, and the scent of spices dwelled in the house. The scent of warm food drifted over my room. The breakfast was at hand. Please don’t make it rat stew!

I strode out of the room, walking towards the small living room cum kitchen. I saw Emma gazing at me. But this time, her signature amiable smile, gone. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Instead of an answer, she lowered her head. “I’m sorry.”

Eh? I stood, dumbfounded. This old kitty was quite unpredictable. Oh, this might be about the rat stew case. I waved my hands, "It's okay."

Hearing my reply, Emma's smile returned. How could I not forgive kitties? Even if they scratch me bloody, I'll still forgive them. Call it my nature.

“Where are the little ones?” I asked.

"They're already in the meadows pasturing the animals," Emma replied. She invited me to take a seat in front of the ragged wooden table. Soon, a basket of bread fell on the table. There was also a warm soup. The scent of warm milk drifting in the air. The meal made me smile wryly. This might be their staple meal.

I warily glanced at the soup, wondering what’s inside it. I only lowered my guard after hearing her next words, "Not rat stew."

I unconsciously sighed in relief. "How about you? Have you eaten breakfast?"

"I already ate with the little kids," said Emma. "Once you're done we're going to have a long talk. I also have to introduce you to our tiny village."

I nodded.

The thing I need the most right now was information. If this place was indeed not Endramion, then I'll have a lot of troubles on my plate. After all, most of the things I learned were only about Endramion. I'll be glad if Emma and perhaps the village head could fill the blanks for me.

I lifted the spoon and checked the soup’s temperature, scooping and nibbling the tip for a light taste test. I also picked one loaf of bread towards my plate, scrutinizing it. It was rye bread. My eyes glistened at the sight. Alright, time to eat.

When I was about to take a spoonful, Emma’s voice echoed. “Lady Victoria, the word, caution seems to not exist in your vocabulary.”

The words of the old catkin gripped my thoughts. The meaning behind her words halted the spoon charging towards my maw. I raised my head and glanced at her, wondering what she was talking about.

“You just eat everything that I offer to you without even a shred of doubt.” Emma’s eyes constricted. She looked troubled. “What if I added laxatives in your soup again?”

“You did what?” The wooden spoon fell to the ground. I trembled at her words. It was clear admission. She had added something to that rat stew. I knew it!

I cast a gaze, thinking how I should react.

“What if you met someone who has wicked designs for you?” The old catkin uttered emotionlessly. “You’ll be dead before you know it. No. Ending up dead might be a little light. You don’t know how beautiful you are, Lady Victoria? How should I say this?” She squinted. “You’re too easy.”

Wait an experienced spinster? Easy? No way!

Come to think of it, I’ve been treating everything as if I was still in Saria’s mansion. No, I have been treating everything as if I was still on earth. I shuddered. Wait. What if…

“If I was a slave trader, I’ll drug you and sold you on an auction in some city.” Emma shook her head. “You’ll definitely end up as someone’s toy at night. Even if you know powerful magic, if I cut a few of your limbs, you’ll still die.” 

“And even without limbs…” She peered straight, her eyes turning into slits, ”… you’re still going to be lovely.“

I held my chest, trembling, lost in my thoughts. The old catkin’s word shook me. I gaze at my hands and saw it trembling. Too much for a breakfast.

Truthfully, I’ve been treating everything as if it was nothing but a mere dream. Emma’s what-ifs flowed, causing my teeth to chatter. My face slowly turned ashen-white, cold sweat dripped from my back.

My lips quivered. I don’t know how long it took for me to recover. The moment I raised my head, Emma was still there. She wore her signature smile, her eyes returning to their normal homey granny-look. 

I gave her a wry smile. “T-Thank you for your concern.”

The old catkin shook her head. “You still don’t understand, Lady Victoria. What I gave you ain’t a concern, but a warning. You might wonder how the village head determined that you’re a noble. It’s because you look and act like someone who has lived over the stone walls. Innocent…”

“... and easy to capture or kill.”

“I-I see,” my voice wavered. My remaining appetite died along with our conversation. Emma killed it. Not even an ounce of hunger remained.

“You might not know much about the Dirgemeadows, but as of late there are quite a lot of cases of young ladies getting kidnapped by slave traders,” said the old catkin. “You don’t want to add to that growing list, right?”

I responded like a chicken as I bobbed my head.

“That’s good.” Emma sighed. I knew that the old catkin meant well. She then glanced at the wide-open window, watching the vast grasslands welcome the morning. “Lady Victoria, this continent is not the same wherever you might have come from. We call the continent Madlands for a reason.”

I stared back at the soup, forcing out a wry smile. “Thanks…”

It was already cold.

Anyway, what happened to the ‘eat before the long talk’ thing?

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