White followed the cracked sidewalks splashed with lurid graffiti, sometimes having to hop over a few small canals.
Supposedly, they were originally used as drainage channels from the city districts. But it seems that most of them were clogged, and now served as nothing but inconvenient indents on the ground. It had also done nothing for the place’s sanitation; a lingering sewer stench followed the young man wherever he went, and it only got more unbearable as he walked on.
There was a noticeable increase in squatters as he went in deeper.
From every covered doorway came the dejected, and sometimes conniving stares of men and women in their pathetic cardboard sleeping bags. A few hookers stalked the streets in their skimpy outfits and high boots looking for work. There were also a few small heads, poking out from the alleys they had been playing in; children with threadbare clothing that barely covered their blighted skin. Some of them had slave collars over their necks. As he walked past them, those curious and distrustful eyes followed their guest’s every move.
Thus caught without a break by the constant onlookers, it was only after he'd made his way to a less populated area that White was finally able to loosen the tension in his body.
He stretched for a little bit before continuing.
Eventually, White arrived at a humble stall near the entrance of another alleyway.
A lemonade stall, or a fruit punch made with berries he’d never seen before. From the looks of it, it didn’t seem very professional or at least, made by an adult. The sign of the stall was carved with childish handwriting. Much of it wasn’t even built properly, as White had noticed that the front counter was actually replaced with a bunch of wooden crates stacked on top of each other. It extended beyond an open door behind the stall as White saw glimpses of a separate room behind the dirty drapes of a curtain.
A small head bobbed out from underneath the counter as White approached.
It was a little girl, looking probably less than half his age. White waited patiently as she climbed up the tall chair behind the counter in a clumsy manner. She lifted up a half jar filled with a florid-looking cherry liquid.
“Hello, onii-chan. Would you like a glass of Cinderdew? Please buy one? It’s really delicious!” Her expression beamed.
〚 ♦ Red Experimental Concoction ♦ Uncommon Grade ✠ Consumable: Lowers HP recovery rate by 43% temporarily. May cause drowsiness.〛
“...” White rummaged his pockets and, finding what he was looking for, silently placed a small crumpled piece of paper on the counter without replying to her sales pitch.
It was questionable whether he would remain in one piece after drinking that suspicious-looking thing.
Catching the hint, the girl received the paper and scrutinized it briefly.
"Ah, this. Yuri jii-chan sent you here? You shoulda' said so earlier!" A strange accent came out of the little girl.
It was no paper note, but she smiled nevertheless. It was a different kind of smile compared to the first. She climbed down the long chair, much more nimbly this time. And after beckoning for White to enter, the girl disappeared behind the curtains.
“Grandmother, we have a customer!”
White enters the room behind the fake stall and catches whiff of medicinal herbs and incense. The girl was hugging a figure on a hunched back, resting self-importantly on a worn-leather sofa.
An elderly woman clothed in a saggy tribal tunic, golden bangles covering her neck. Her face was wrinkly from old age, sharp eyes smudged with slight traces of weariness. Hideous carbuncles also stretched all over her skin, a telltale condition of some kind of skin disease.
“Mm,” The elder nodded and rubbed the girl’s head, to which she giggled and returned to tend to the counter in skipping steps.
"So, Yuri recommended you?"
White nodded silently and rummaged his pockets.
“i heard you could forge me a card for the Mercenary Guild.”
A single gold coin was placed before her.
The old lady’s eyes narrowed, her gaze following his.
"...It'll take a moment. Sit down for now."
It was not her place to meddle in the affairs of her customers, thus she simply took the money and called for the little girl. Business was usually short and simple for people in this trade.
"Here. It's finished. Our transaction is done."
"Tha- Pleasure doing business with you."
The process took a few minutes, and White left the broker with a falsified identity for Halvan’s underground guild.
He paid off a few more people to make sure he had the right information, and left the slums immediately after.
The sky was completely dark, and stalls were just about closed wherever he went. Looks like it was already pretty late. However he also noticed that there was an increased number in patrols wandering about. News of his release from prison must’ve already been spreading.
White hid his face under his hood even more obscurely to hide the cold eyes underneath. His feet plodded on the pavement where it began to be coated with a layer of drizzle.
It was starting to rain.
In the Yunosu Diner, Evie and her father quarrelling fondly over something insignificant. The atmosphere in the restaurant was just as lively as before. One could hear laughs and glass clinking even from the queue outside.
As night fell, the diner was no longer as busy. And it finally regained its moment of silence as the last customer left for the day. Evie relaxed on a stool right beside her co-worker Sharon.
“You’re not going home yet?” Evie asked as she poured herself a drink.
“...Just a little… I think... I’m just gonna have some shut-eye for now… ugh, wake me up an hour from now.”
“There there, you worked hard today~ Just rest for now.” She patted Sharon’s head, to which she slowly closed her eyes blissfully and began drifting off. Sisters after a long day at work, the two shared such a relationship.
Her father was still working the dishes at the back, so Evie who was now left alone, looked outside the watery window panes.
She had worked in the restaurant for a few months now. And in the blink of an eye, the Moonhalo festival had already begun. Evie couldn’t help but reminisce about the customers she’d met.
Somehow or another, her mind drifted to the days where she’d first spotted a customer who came to the restaurant. A young man who had an unusually timid demeanor the entire time he sat to eat.
At first she thought that was the end of it. She’d taken notice of the young man because of his peculiar features, but when she sneaked a peek at the side the young man seemed expressionless as he ate.
He must have disliked our food.
It was reasonable. The restaurant had only been open for a few days back then, and Evie and her father were just starting to adapt to the tastes of the locals here. So she thought that he would never visit again.
But then he came again on the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
Opening up slowly as he gave comments of praise, openly calling out to her…
The young man kept changing with each passing day. He was speaking better, dressed better and looked better. At some point, even Evie who was known to have little to no interest in men, had started to take a deeper notice into him.
White, as he was called. He was a Stray. An adventurer. She learnt more things about him, and in turn he did too. She found out that he was unexpectedly a bookworm who visited the library quite often, and despite his busy days as an adventurer, still found time to taste her cooking.
Towards that youth, Evie held some semblance of ‘like’. She enjoyed his company, as much as he did hers.
Evie looked forward to his visit every day.
... ...But then, things changed between the two of them. Evie wasn’t ready for the sudden appearance of the girl White had brought along with him one day. To make matters worse, she was a beast-kin.
Evie sighed as she took a small sip from her drink. Her heart felt complicated as she thought about that day.
“I wish… things could’ve gone about differently back then.” She smiled self-depreciatively at herself. Perhaps she would've reacted differently if she hadn't been so prejudiced from the start.
As she said that, Evie thought she saw a familiar figure outside the window.
But as she blinked her eyes, the shadow was gone.