Alphonse (also known as Evan) gathered the necessary information concerning the siblings. Emily and Liam also allowed him to check some other personal documents as well. Normally, there was little point since this was their first official quest, but every bit of information mattered to Alphonse.
They had just reached the appropriate age of eighteen for becoming adventurers. They gained a little experience fighting monsters outside the capital's walls when they left their old village. Further training was received at the sparring grounds in the lower districts. Liam's trainer was actually his father, a former soldier injured during the aftermath of the western war some two decades earlier with the push of the border. Their mother knew some basics of healing, but Emily was mostly self-taught and possessed a natural talent for earth magic, despite a low mana pool.
He looked up and noticed Emily staring at him as he scanned her file. It was fairly common with people he interacted with.
He managed to avoid most of the patrols wandering the streets that initiated random monster screenings on suspicious individuals thanks to the Siren Incident. They didn't typically run advanced appraisals, but there was no point taking a chance in case a spellcaster decided to be extra thorough.
Kaede slid a copy of his terms and conditions to the new adventurers, and they signed.
“Hey, Evan,” Kaede said. “Wanna see the other requests?”
He frowned. “'Other requests?'”
Cynthia opened a drawer full of files embedded in the wall and presented a stack of letters to him. There were at least a dozen.
He impassively watched as she set them down in a neat pile on the desk. “Okay, is Anya just a blabbermouth, or are people finding out about us a different way?”
Kaede grinned. “No idea.”
I thought the Siren Incident would actually leave a bad impression, Alphonse thought. He dismissed this speculation almost immediately when he realized that most people probably didn't know about their involvement just yet, even if his catgirl companions stood out. They spent so much time on quests and making themselves scarce in other instances that it slowed down specifics fixated towards them. He had hoped that time would turn facts into seemingly baseless rumors, but it was obvious that their direct engagement would be reinforced as news spread among higher-ranking individuals in Forgedalk, especially those involved with Tevilandis's High Council.
He didn't doubt the High Council members knew about Kirie and Asa being demihumans after the questioning, since they held close ties with the field investigators. And with guild leaders on the council, word would spread even further.
But if it placed GRIM in a positive light, then everything would fall into place.
Helping out the two new adventurers also yielded benefits. Not only did GRIM assist larger guilds, but it also aided those with less experience. This allowed for more expansion into new jobs. It spoke of versatility. Accepting so many quests was clearly not plausible, but having records of them displayed some amount of competence.
Alphonse stared at the stack of letters. Maybe we should slow down and take a look at some of these.
He knew they could only remain as a three-person guild for so long.
“Alright,” Alphonse said. The brother and sister stood rigid as he spoke. He found their apprehension rather amusing. “Welcome to the party. We need to take a short rest from our last quest. Give us a few days to recuperate.”
“Yes, of course,” Emily said. She bowed to him. Her brother mirrored her after tearing his gaze away from the catgirls. Alphonse grinned, but the scarf hid it for the most part.
“Normally, we would meet here at the Guild Union, but I have another place in mind. There's a tea shop near the eastern edge of this district, just within the demihuman area,” Alphonse said. “It's impossible to miss it. We'll meet there three days from now. Same time.”
The brother and sister raised their heads and stiffened further when he mentioned the demihuman district. Their mouths slightly parted as they glanced at each other. Alphonse had expected the reaction, but his tone of plain finality kept them mute on the subject.
“Y-yes, sir,” they both said in unison.
He broke eye contact with them and crossed his arms when they added the honorific. This is going to take some getting used to.
The capital city of Forgedalk adhered to a distinct hierarchy during its rapid growth for a period of twenty years. The monarchy had collapsed almost as quickly as its establishment when the monsters flooded the land with chaos. From the still-smoking debris rose a governmental system with a closer relation to a constitutional monarchy as bits and pieces from the old order birthed the High Council.
The unofficial rankings continued to the present amidst a curtain of disarray laid by the High Council's chairman with approval from its parliamentary body. It was broken into three levels based on residence, wealth and, occasionally, sullied propriety. It was not grounded on any particular laws but emerged through the majority of the populace influenced by politics, occupation and other influential factors.
The lower suburban districts of Forgedalk became home to the majority of the population among lesser classes. This included those classified as a sort of peasant group based on previous occupations outside the city: small-time traders, farmers and individuals who worked and traveled the land with humble lives.
The middle sections of the city held a more prominent prosperity. The marketplace and shops chose this central location, so as to be easily accessible by all ranks of citizens. Merchants, veteran adventurers, larger business owners, blacksmiths and many others similar to the latter trade frequented this part of the city more than those in the lower suburbs.
However, residing in the middle district was another eastern section home to most businesses frequented by the small population of demihumans that chose to remain in the Central Kingdom, rather than flee east beyond the crescent shape of the Barrier Mountains following the monster war. Some stayed for personal obligations, or due to already establishing a certain stature. Some remained as an act of defiance against the oppressive humans. It was also no mystery that many acted as spies to keep the Eastern Kingdom of demihumans informed. And then there were a few who strove for a solidified peace between the races rather than the tenuous truce of the present.
Alphonse had traveled to this eastern area for more than just simple curiosity. With two demihumans in his guild, it was only natural to gather more information and interact with the secluded denizens using Asa and Kirie as the icebreakers.
The discovery of their existence by the High Council following the Siren incident would inevitably become common knowledge amongst the populace. It would travel down the winding roads of the districts like a directed stream of water.
Alphonse wanted to stay ahead of the flow before it cascaded.
A better grasp on the precarious (and sometimes outright hostile) relations between humans and other races of Hovestile was crucial. Alphonse's plans were not restricted to just adventuring. Whether the ruling humans liked it or not, demihumans had a role to play in their society. The demihumans were also a constant reminder of the dark history the Central Kingdom attempted to sweep under the rug. But the rug would start to stick up like humps on a camel. When it would happen was always a mystery, but Alphonse knew, based on his own world's history, that it was inevitable.
Alphonse wanted to visit the tea shop before their meeting with the siblings. He figured that building relations was key first since he was a human. It would make things easier when more of his kind showed up.
He stood before the tea shop and examined the small, timbered building. It was a modest place, but certainly well-maintained compared to some of the other businesses in the quiet eastern section of the middle district.
Herbal plants lined the wide wooden railings with pots hanging above holding an assortment of flowers. Azaleas and coneflowers grew in small gardens next to the carved stairs leading up to a front porch with two squat tables and matching chairs. It separated itself from the broken cobblestone of the road with short metal barriers to hold claim of the fresh soil, as if the stones would contaminate it in some way.
Alphonse ascended the stairs and looked to either side of the porch and noticed what looked like miniature trees in containers. They reminded him of something similar in his world -- an art known as bonsai, if he recalled correctly.
Kirie and Asa's eyes lit up as they broke off from him to look at the trees.
“They're so small!” Kirie squealed.
“Interesting.” Asa rested a hand on her chin as she examined it. “How does it look like a full-grown tree instead of a sapling?”
“Because it is not cultivated from a seed,” a voice said.
The front door of the tea house was open and a young woman stood with arms crossed over her chest. Her face held no expression as she observed them. She wore a peculiar outfit that appeared to be a mix of cotton and coarse lace befitting a maid and gardener simultaneously. The clothing had frills propped up near the collar with two straps and a dark green apron protecting the front. A pair of leather gloves covered her hands. At her feet was a sealed metal box.
Alphonse hadn't even heard her footsteps, or even the opening of the rough door. It was true that the plants caught most of his attention, but he still found it impressive, given his increased perception.
Need to focus, he cautioned himself.
The movement on the top of her head seized his attention. A headband pushed back her hair with two furry ears that stuck straight up. A fluffy, dark brown tail flowed back and forth behind her with a touch of white fur at the tip.
The woman noticed his eyes wandering and frowned. “What? Are you not familiar with other demihumans?”
Alphonse forced his eyes to meet hers and shook his head. “Sorry, I've become used to catgirls but not...” he trailed off as he attempted to discern what type of demihuman she was.
“Fox,” she finished for him. She looked past him and noted the metal accessories on Kirie and Asa's heads. “And you two are clearly the catgirls.”
Alphonse examined her a bit more as she became distracted by his comrades. She seemed a little older than him – closer to her thirties. Her hazel eyes were intense. He recalled seeing her only briefly when he scoped the place a few times during the past week. Granted, it was during hours a little closer to evening when he could better avoid patrols, but he made a mental note to consider scouting areas through multiple times of day when running his investigations.
“Yes, we're demihumans. I'm Kirie. Nice to meet you.” Kirie made a playful salute.
Asa bowed and introduced herself.
The fox woman smiled. “A pleasure, I'm sure. I'm the owner of this tea shop. My name is Ashliv Diavelia. Ash is fine.”
She glanced at Alphonse. He didn't sense any hostility in her look, but there appeared to be a bit of caution and uncertainty. It didn't take long for him to realize that it was probably similar to the look he gave others when he analyzed them. Not entirely unfriendly, but plenty of wariness. He was also a human, so he didn't blame her.
He held out his hand to her. “Evan McCarthy.”
She didn't move to accept his offer, instead maintaining the same stance with her arms crossed. “A normal human with two demihumans,” she said simply.
“I don't consider myself as normal,” he said with an air of confidence. He left his hand out. “Is this how you normally greet customers?”
“I leave the pleasantries to my employees.”
“You aren't leaving them much to work with.”
The fox girl narrowed her eyes. Her expression softened when she realized it wouldn't faze him in the least. She let out a short laugh. “A sense of humor. Good.” She worked one of the leather gloves off and finally clasped his hand. Her eyes never left his, and the hand didn't move in a typical greeting, but tightened to match his grip. After a few seconds, she looked down at their joined hands and nodded approvingly.
“Strong hands,” she said. She pulled the leather glove back on. “You wield a bow?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“That's an impressive observation,” Alphonse said.
She placed her hands under her flowing brunette hair and started to tie it into a ponytail as she spoke. The ears on her head flicked proudly a few times. “I'll admit, it was an educated guess. I noticed some thin marks on your fingers, your natural stance and the type of gloves in your pocket, among other things.”
He looked at his waist. Sure enough, parts of his gloves were sticking out just barely. He looked at his hands and noted the thin red marks near the upper joints. “I see. And your weapon of choice?”
There was the barely perceptible movement of her mouth that almost gave her surprise away, but it was the lowering of her ears that really caught Alphonse's attention. “What makes you think I wield a weapon?”
“The reflexive step back you took, those calluses aren't made from gardening and the scimitars behind the counter in your shop have seen some use, if I'm not mistaken. But that last part is just a guess.” He smirked. “Among other things,” he added.
The look on her face told Alphonse that his venturous gamble paid off.
“Hm, are you sure you aren't a demihuman?” she asked.
“I see. A scout?” She looked to the two catgirls and tilted her head in Alphonse's direction. “This one's a keeper. Never thought I'd meet an outworlder who values his other senses over sheer force.” Then she added as an afterthought, “Or most humans for that matter.”
It was Alphonse's turn to be genuinely surprised. “How did you know I was an outworlder?”
She grinned and pressed her fist against his chest. “Only very special native humans have that kind of sight. But you aren't one of them. I bet you used some of those weird stat things your people are known for. Plus, we also have our eyes and ears around the other districts. That's all.” The ears on her head twitched again almost as an affirmation. She reached down, grabbed the metal box and started making her way to the small bonsai trees. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to take care of. I won't be long. Have a seat wherever you like.”
Alphonse waited as Kirie and Asa entered the tea shop first with an extra spring in their step. He lingered for a few more seconds as he watched the fox woman make preparations for tending to the plants.
After a bit of deliberation, he had a sneaking suspicion that this woman had seen him when he passed by all those times, even with all his careful prudence and sneaking ability enhanced by stats.
He knew this woman was more than she appeared to be from the start, but he never imagined she'd be this much of a challenge.
Shit. She might even be dangerous, Alphonse thought.
Alphonse let out a relieved sigh when they entered the tea shop. Truth be told, some of his observations concerning the fox woman were a bit of a shot in the dark.
Shaking hands wasn't just meant as an act of greeting. The rough calluses on her hands that marred their softness might certainly have been from some gardening work, but she didn't need to know that part. Bluffing and utilizing inconclusive evidence was another form of observation in his opinion. It was observation with a gamble -- establish a number of possibilities and weigh the odds. Even if the other person wasn't entirely sure of the validity, a bit of confidence went a long way.
But he did know that the twin scimitars sitting at the counter were meant for combat rather than decoration. Whether they belonged to her or not was another blind shot, but one with a bit of spare light for his guess. He had seen the blades through the window on a previous evening. They were in a different position from back then, and he now saw a whetstone that was previously concealed from outside. The handles of the scimitars were unremarkable and the the grip worn from use. Not old use. It wasn't the kind of old where an honored sword from history is revered and passed down. It was a sword that cut frequently. He had assumed they were hers based on personality and her ability to appear without his notice. Not much to work with, but enough for an educated guess.
What he didn't expect was her own powers of deduction.
My perception really has improved quite a bit though, Alphonse thought. Even without the active skills using mana, a high enough perception gives me a lot to work with.
He saw things that others observed and more, but he deduced the meanings behind why a setting appeared as it did using his own natural abilities.
As they walked through the tea shop, he noted the pair of windows positioned perfectly on the angled ceiling to let in the most light for all times of day. The shop gave the appearance of untidiness even though not a speck of dust was visible. The side with the tables for customers was immaculate and provided a view outside through clean windows. The counter was empty, with everything required hidden behind in cabinets or organized on low shelves. Even though it was a tea shop, Alphonse first assumed there might be some miscellaneous wares or boxes of tea bags for traveling out on display, but nothing was represented.
There were a few customers in the shop. Two demihumans, a young girl and an older man with cat traits, sat at a small table in the center of the room. They seemed to be father and daughter judging by the way they spoke. They didn't seem to notice the trio that entered the shop, absorbed as they were in a pleasant conversation. A pair of older fox demihumans, both male, sat near a window and didn't pay them much mind either, save for a brief glance.
Alphonse preferred to not wear his scarf in the shop if he could help it. The look didn't fit in many settings, but here he felt it would taint the atmosphere more than usual. It wasn't likely there would be anyone who knew him from the time before he made his contract. Simply lowering it also didn't disable its effect to conceal his stats.
It's worth the risk, he thought.
“Asa, check and see if anyone here has appraisal capabilities,” he said. "And make sure there isn't anything strange about their information."
Asa nodded. “Will do.”
“Don't forget about Ash, or anyone else that shows up.”
If the appraisal returned negative, he would lower the scarf. If not, then he would have to stay appearing as an edgelord, even if it seemed overly paranoid. He heaved another sigh when he thought of the word. He was getting tired of the persona as of late.
“Welcome to Ash's tea shop!”
Alphonse turned to the enthusiastic voice. The air caught in his throat and his heart skipped a few beats as a demihuman appeared from the stairs leading to the second floor. She stepped gracefully around the side of the counter to stand in front of them. She spread her arms out delicately to her side and made a respectful bow.
The demihuman wore a similar outfit to the one they'd seen on Ash, but this one held all the qualities of a serving girl. The charcoal tone of the dress hung to her ankles with a purposeful slit in the side to reveal one of her legs, almost up to the thigh. The upper portion was tied together near the waist by overlapping string in the front.
Alphonse found himself staring at her a few seconds longer than he intended. He averted his eyes from the white top of her dress with short frills that covered her generous chest. Her black, furry ears with tinges of white at the tips flicked happily, and her well-groomed, thick tail swayed through her long black hair with similar elation. She lifted her head, and Alphonse got a clear look of her golden eyes with thin pupils that seemed to sparkle.
Alphonse silently thanked Rinka once again for the scarf she'd given him. It was a wonderful gift that concealed his stats and appearance, but it also hid his expression for times like this. He pulled the scarf further up on his face on reflex.
His mind screamed, She's adorable! How can people hate demihumans?
Of course, not all demihumans were like this one. They all had their own appearances, individuality, dreams and morals. Her ears and tail reminded him of his time in the forest on Earth. He'd seen them many times from a familiar animal he came across.
“My name is Kureha.” She lowered herself into a curtsy this time and gave him a radiant smile. “I will be the one serving you today.”
Alphonse barely heard the rest of the introduction as her charming personality dealt a critical blow. He turned away slightly and saw the stabbing glares of Kirie and Asa behind him. Kirie's stance was more pronounced as she leaned forward a bit with her arms straight at her side, while Asa assumed her usual straight, dignified posture with only the slight narrowing of her eyes.
Alphonse coughed to feign some composure and turned his attention back to the wolf girl. “Ah, thank you, Kureha. We appreciate it.”
He attempted to ignore the stares from the catgirls, who quickly stepped up to either side of him.
Kureha didn't seem to notice the atmosphere grow tense at all. She led them to a table near a window a respectable distance from the two other groups of demihuman customers.
Along the way, Alphonse felt the pressure to either side of him, and not just from the catgirls' gazes anymore. He walked somewhat awkwardly to the other side of the shop as the catgirls moved closer than he was comfortable with. They practically pressed him between them at one point, and he was unable to move his arms. They didn't move away from him until Kureha offered them their seats.
A thought occurred to him as they refused to look directly at him when they sat down. Cats could be pretty possessive animals. He wondered if their animal traits had something to do with their behavior. Perhaps they felt threatened with so many demihumans around.
Yeah, guess that makes sense, Alphonse thought.