“I can’t believe I blacked out. How embarrassing.”
Not long after her husband tended to her, Liza woke up, and immediately went out in the rain to buy tons of food. As soon as she returned, she went straight to the kitchen and began preparing a meal with great finesse. She didn’t even bother taking a rest.
“I thought I was used to Beastfallen, but I didn’t expect them to be this scary. I mean, that mouth and those claws! My Lily is so adorable.”
Liza snatched up a piece of steamed shrimp and tossed it into the mouth of the rat Beastfallen helping out in the kitchen. Lily squinted as she savored the delicious shrimp.
Zero said Beastfallen are warriors created by witches to make humans stronger.
“Is there a point in creating rat Beastfallen?” I whispered to Zero.
“They are resistant to diseases,” she replied. “They are also omnivorous, resistant to pollution, and can survive for long periods of time without water. Maybe they were created for labor, not fighting.”
Lily was about half the height of Zero, with thin arms and legs. She didn’t look like she had the stamina and physical strength. She was, however, fast. First I thought she was on my right side, then she was suddenly on my left. I took my eyes off her for a second and she was gone, only to come back from another room, carrying something.
“Looks like she can do three people’s jobs at once,” I said.
Credo, rummaging around in the attic, peeked down from the ceiling. “Our daughter is a hardworker.”
“So you heard us.”
“What can I say? My ears just naturally catch compliments about my daughter.”
His proud smile tickled the back of my mind. It reminded me of my family.
Zero looked at Credo from below. “You said you have been losing work lately. Is she the reason?”
Even without any incidents happening, people hate a house with a Beastfallen kid. They were probably living in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town because of the usual persecution.
Credo shook his head firmly. “It’s not her fault. In fact, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just that everyone’s on edge because of the whole witch thing, and she tends to get the blunt of it, but it’s definitely not her fault. Right?” He regarded me for some reason.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “There’s plenty of reasons for people to despise me.”
“Excuse me!” said a voice from below.
I gave a jerk. Lily was looking straight at me with her red eyes, unblinking.
“Mom said you should taste it.”
She was holding a small plate with red liquid on it—soup made of stewed tomatoes and fish. Her hands were covered with leather gloves, her hair tied back, and a cloth was wrapped around her mouth, as if she was worried about being a rat.
When I hesitated, Zero reached out from the side, dipped her finger in the soup and licked it. Her face turned serious all of a sudden, and she looked at me, her gaze intense.
“We have a case in our hands, Mercenary,” she said. “It is more delicious than your cooking!”
Now I’m not saying that there’s no one who can make better food than me, but I’m also the proud son of a tavern owner.
I took the plate from Lily and poured the soup onto my tongue. The sourness of the tomatoes and the flavor of the fish. It was spicy and appetizing, with no fishy taste at all.
I handed the plate back to Lily and moved silently behind Liza. She was adjusting the heat when my shadow loomed over her.
Liza yelped. “Wh-What are you doing?! Please don’t stand behind me like that!”
“I’ll help,” I said.
And I will steal your secrets.
Liza looked confused, as if she didn’t understand a word I just said.
Zero popped up from behind me and said, “My mercenary is a good cook. He can make food a lot better than the average restaurant.”
“With a face like that?”
“My face has nothing to do with it!” I bellowed, then quickly closed my mouth.
There was no point in arguing. I took out my favorite cooking knife from my bag and cut a carrot that was lying around into the shape of a flower.
“Wow,” Lily said, her eyes glistening. I didn’t even realize she was watching right beside me. She shot Liza an expectant look.
Without saying a word, Liza picked up a knife, and with a fluid motion, created a three-dimensional flower out of thinly sliced radish. It was a work of art. Liza looked at me triumphantly as her daughter cheered.
We stared at each other for a moment. Liza then quickly moved to the side to make room for me in the kitchen.
“Don’t get in my way, big guy,” she said. “I don’t care how scary you are. If you get in the way of my cooking, I’m going to tear you apart and throw you in the pot!”
“Bring it on!” I replied.
“Whoa. What’s going on here?” Credo asked, looking at Zero.
“I have no idea,” she replied. “But I am looking forward to dinner.”
Countless plates filled the table.
Lutra was a port city rich in seafood. Ideaverna, while also a huge port city, was no match for Lutra in terms of food abundance.
If Ideaverna was a “marine transportation city,” then Lutra was a “sea paradise,” where you could get just about anything you could want from the sea—fish, salt, pearls, and corals.
Liza knew how to get the best ingredients at the cheapest prices and how to cook them perfectly.
As I watched her cook, I tried to resist the urge to ask her questions, opting instead to steal her techniques secretly. She would stare at my cooking with a frown, taste it, and mutter, “Interesting,” as if talking to herself.
No one could stop us as the number of dishes kept on increasing.
First was my specialty, potato soup. Then Liza’s fish and tomato stew. Steamed white-fleshed fish. Grilled small fish with salt. Roasted bivalves with melted butter and salt. Fresh oysters sprinkled with lemon juice.
Before we could finish cooking everything, the other three had already started to eat. Zero and Lily emptied their plates at a furious pace.
“Yum!” Lily said.
“Scrumptious!” Zero added.
Credo ended up being the server. Liza and I watched the battlefield from the kitchen, picking at the leftovers and making a small toast to the success of our work.
“I’ve never heard of a Beastfallen who can cook,” Liza said. “Where did you learn?”
“I was born to a tavern owner,” I answered. “I also learned a lot in my travels. What about you?”
“You might not believe it, but I cooked for a noble.”
“No wonder you’re so skilled. What’s in this tomato stew? There’s a secret ingredient, right?”
“I can’t tell you. It won’t be a secret then. My recipes are mine alone.”
Cooking techniques are the property of a chef. If you could make a soup that no one else could, you might even be summoned to a castle solely based off of your skills.
“With your skills, your employer wouldn’t have let you go. Meals are an important leisure.”
“He was a small-minded noble. When they found out I was adopting a Beastfallen, they fired me.”
“Adopt?” Lily was the only Beastfallen in the house. I glanced at the white and fluffy child. “I thought she was your kid.”
“No, she’s mine. Well technically, she’s my sister’s daughter, so I guess she’s my niece, but she’s mine now.”
“Where’s her real mother?”
“She’s dead. So is her father. An epidemic wiped out all the children in the village, and she was the only one who survived. What do you think happened then?”
Rats carry plagues. If all the children in the village died except a rat Beastfallen, then the anger and hatred of the parents who lost their child would be directed at only one person.
“I’m surprised she wasn’t killed.”
“I got a letter from my sister saying she was ill, and when I went to the village, she was already gone. Her child was tied up in the graveyard. They were going to let her starve to death, I guess. She hadn’t eaten or drunk for seven days and seven nights, but she didn’t die. And you know what she said when she saw me?”
I didn’t mean it as a joke, but Liza laughed. “She could have said that, but she said she was sorry. Sorry for killing the people in the village. She didn’t even do anything wrong.”
Suddenly the image of a bloody corpse flashed in my mind. An old memory, where bandits attacking my village for my head killed someone. Softly I closed my eyes.
I heard a voice repeatedly saying, “It’s not your fault.” But the guilt still lingered. The lifeless body sprawled on the ground seemed to be staring at me with vacant eyes full of hatred.
“I took Lily back to the mansion, but my employer was furious. I was thrown out, and Credo, a servant, helped me. Then we drifted to this port city.”
But a family with a Beastfallen child is treated almost the same way anywhere.
“I tried to find a job, but no saint would hire a cook living with a Beastfallen. Not even in the Church.”
Yet they didn’t abandon the child. She wasn’t even their own kid. In Credo’s case, they weren’t related by blood.
“You’re idiots.” I voiced what I really thought. I meant it to be offensive.
They should’ve just abandoned her. Beastfallen can survive by munching on tree roots, drinking river water, or even becoming a mugger. They’re much stronger than ordinary human children in many ways.
Rather than be angry, Liza laughed. “Yeah. We dote on her.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what people around me say or think, I love Lily, and I would do anything for her. She’s still convinced that she’s a filthy creature. She thinks she’s a dirty rat who carries disease. I tried to take a bite of her half-eaten fruit, and she got so mad she cried. It took years to get her to eat at the same table.”
Liza’s mouth twisted in self-mockery. “It’s so sad, really,” she continued. “She still doesn’t trust me completely. That’s how deep her emotional scars are. I can’t hurt her any more than she already is. So I’m telling you this now. If things go sideways, I won’t hesitate to sell you out to the Church.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
It was then that I heard unsettling words.
“Over here, Father!”
As a Beastfallen traveling with a witch, it was enough to make the hairs at the end of my tail stand on end. There was only one reason someone would bring a priest here.
“I saw a Beastfallen and a silver-haired woman here. She has to be the witch you’re looking for! Please arrest her!”