Like he said earlier, the house was indeed a run-down, two-storey wooden house. The plaster had peeled off the walls, revealing the foundation underneath. The dilapidated roof indicated the roof leaks were rather bad.
There was an animal shed, but it seemed to have been unused for a long time now. No ducks for meat, no chickens to lay eggs, no goats to milk, and no donkeys to carry load. There was only the faint smell of rats in the air.
“Extreme poverty,” Zero muttered.
The man—his name was Credo—stroked his rain-soaked hair in embarrassment.
“Fewer and fewer inns hire me for work lately. I had to slaughter our last chicken the other day for food. I managed to buy some bread, but I don’t know how long it will last.”
“Why do you not sell that thing around your neck then?” Zero pointed at the necklace hanging around Credo’s neck.
It had a small teardrop-shaped pendant that looked like a real gemstone. It would fetch a decent amount of coin.
“Oh, my wife gave this to me,” he said, holding up the pendant. “I can’t sell it. Besides, not a lot of places buy marriage tokens.”
“A marriage token?” Zero cocked her head curiously.
“You trade precious stones, basically,” I said.
Wedding customs differ from region to region. Zero, who hadn’t even heard of kissing as an expression of love, was unfamiliar with romantic affairs.
“In this region,” I said, “when you grow up to be about ten years old, your parents give you a gem. You give it to the one you want to marry and if they give one back to you, you get wed. If they don’t want to, they send it back.”
“You sure know a lot,” Credo said, raising an eyebrow. “So you’re around these parts?”
“Not really, but I was born in the south. In my village, when you turn fifteen, your parents give you a bracelet. You then give it to the person you want to marry.”
“Oh. So do you have a bracelet to give to your desired mate?” Zero asked.
“I don’t have one. I left the village when I was thirteen.”
“That is unfortunate. I would have accepted it if you had one.”
“Oh, that so. Cool.” I turned to Credo. “Are you sure about letting me in, though? As you can see, I’m a Beastfallen.”
It might be a little too late now, but if his wife was faint-hearted, she might pass out the moment she saw me.
“We too have our own circumstances,” Credo said. “Beastfallen don’t really scare us that easily. Come on in. We’ve only got the attic available, though. Liza! I’m back, and we’ve got guests!”
Shouting over the sound of the rain, Credo opened the door with great force and scampered into the house. Zero and I followed.
Looking around, I found that the inside was in a much better condition than the exterior suggested. There were two leaks, both of which were used to collect water in a huge washing bowl. There was laundry in it. Very smart. The rain leaking through the roof was a blessing as the well was quite a long way from the house.
There weren’t a lot of candles, which made for a dimly-lit house. The only furniture was a shelf, a table, and three chairs. There was another room in the back and a staircase leading up to the attic.
I wrinkled my nose, and strained my ears. I could smell rat in the air and hear tiny footsteps scuttling all around.
We might get nibbled at in the attic. Can’t really be picky, though.
“Oh, my. You’re drenched!”
I heard quick footsteps coming from the room in the back. Zero and I lifted our heads.
“You dummy. Use your head a little! You can’t work if you catch a cold! How can we afford bread then? And what do you mean by guests? Wait, I’ll get you something to wipe up with first, so stay where you are!”
It was a woman in her late twenties. She had black hair tied up in a tight bun, and she wore an air of a hardworking lady.
This must be Liza. She was wearing a necklace similar to Credo’s around her neck, so it was safe to assume she was his wife.
Credo gave a strained laugh. “She’s a strong-willed woman.”
Liza came back with dry cloths. She first put one on her husband’s head, then pushed one to me and Zero as well.
Perhaps because she’d been moving around so much, but she didn’t seem to realize that I was a Beastfallen. I pulled my hood down lower, preferring to remain unnoticed if possible.
“So what do you mean by guests? Did you accept some kind of a job?” Liza asked.
“No, no. We’re renting out our attic to them.”
“Attic?” Liza asked dubiously. “When did you start an innkeeping business? Why aren’t they staying at a proper inn anyway? Shady people will only spell trouble for us!”
She’s a strong-willed woman, all right. She was right, though. Suspicious guests could cause trouble. I gave a shrug.
“Now, now,” Credo said, patting Liza on the shoulder. He put two silver coins in her hand. “They’re not shady fellows. If they were, they wouldn’t try so hard to find a place to stay. They just arrived by ship today. The young lady has silver hair.”
Liza’s eyes widened, and she looked at Zero. She grabbed Zero’s hood and pulled it off. Her eyes widened even more when she saw her silver hair. I thought she was going to scream when she opened her mouth, but Liza started laughing.
“Oh, my! Real silver hair!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen such lovely hair before. Are you a princess traveling secretly or something? And such beauty as well. No wonder no inn would want to rent you a room.”
“Yes,” Zero said, frowning. “The moment I entered their establishment, they called me a witch and drove me out.”
Credo gave a wry smile. “A group of witches appeared in a nearby village recently.”
“Right under the Church’s nose?” I asked.
“Yes. They seem to have wandered in from somewhere, and there’s a rumor that their leader has silver hair.”
“The Knight Templars have been looking for them for a month, but they haven’t been able to find them. Since they weren’t making any progress, Dea Ignis was summoned.”
“Sounds like a serious problem.”
Rumors about witches reach the Church almost immediately. The Church then dispatches the Knights Templar to subdue them.
If the knights were not successful, adjudicators from Dea Ignis would be assigned the task. Trained to single-handedly hunt down witches who pretended to be saints, their very existence had been brought to question, since there weren’t a lot of witches nowadays. So the Church began to assign adjudicators ordinary witch-hunt missions as well, which usually resulted into something so gruesome that you’d wonder who was actually the witch.
Terrified citizens provide all the information they can to keep themselves safe. When an adjudicator embarks on a witch-hunt, the execution rate of witches is said to be almost ten percent.
There was a cathedral in Lutra and the immediate vicinity was under the Church’s territory, yet the witch matter remained unsolved. They probably called in an adjudicator to save face.
“I’ve heard that there are many kinds of adjudicators,” Liza continued, “but this one is the worst.”
“I don’t know much about them, but people call them the Gravedigger, because when they visit a village or town, the number of graves increase. That’s why no one wants to get close to a silver-haired woman, let alone rent them a room.”
“I see,” Zero said. “It makes sense now.” She looked at Liza. “In that case, would it not bother you if we stayed here?”
“It would. I don’t know how someone can be so thoughtless.” Liza punched Credo on the shoulder. “We already draw attention as it is.” But she wasn’t angry. They looked like an intimate couple just joking around. “Nothing we can do about it now, though. You’re already here. Turning you away wouldn’t really matter much. Two silver coins for renting out the attic for a night is a good deal too.”
“It’s five pieces,” Credo corrected. “The two silver coins is advance payment.”
Riza was shocked. “In that case, you’re more than welcome here! It’s been a long time since we fed the child good food. I’m going out for some shopping.”
What an expressive woman. She was strong-willed, yet also amiable. She must have been very popular when she was young. As I stood there staring at her, Zero suddenly grabbed my tail.
I yelped, and pulled my tail back from her. “What was that for?!”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, Mercenary.”
“Why is a witch like you quoting the Church’s teachings?! And I am not coveting anyone!”
“You should be admiring me more than the neighbor’s wife.”
“Ha, good one. I can’t even look directly at your face.” I grimaced.
“Beauty is a sin,” Zero said in a somber tone.
As Liza was preparing to leave, she turned to Credo, as if remembering something. “Did you tell our guests about the girl?”
“Not yet, actually.” Credo looked at me with a complicated expression on his face.
Liza raised her eyebrows in dismay. “So you don’t know?” she asked.
Apparently Credo kept crucial information from us.
“What’s up with your kid?” I asked.
“It’s a bit complicated, like your situation.” Liza answered, smiling. “It’ll be faster if we just showed you. Are you two fine with rats? You’re not going to scream as soon as you see one, right?”
“I might if it bites me,” I said.
“I quite like them roasted,” Zero added.
“That’s good to hear. Let me introduce you to my little girl. You can’t eat her, but she’s so adorable that you might want to take a bite. Lili, come out for a minute.”
There was no reply. My ears caught the sound of footsteps scuttling from within the house. Something zipped past the room and hid behind Liza, clinging to her. My jaw dropped.
Zero smiled. “My, this is a pleasant surprise.”
“No wonder it smelled like rats,” I said.
Big, round ears. White fur. A long, hairless tail. It was a rat Beastfallen, no doubt. She was about as tall as Liza’s waist, and the fur on her head had grown long enough to look like hair.
“Yes, our child is a Beastfallen,” Liza said. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t bite things randomly. She’s smart, kind, and timid. She wouldn’t let anyone get hurt. But as you can see, she looks like a rat. If you don’t like that…”
“It is quite all right,” Zero said flatly, brushing aside Liza’s concerns. “We do not have prejudices against Beastfallen. In fact, this is a relief.”
However, Zero was too quick to dismiss the woman’s worry that she couldn’t help but feel suspicious. “Why would my child being a Beastfallen be a relief?” she asked.
“Actually…” Credo trailed off. He was still wondering if he should tell his wife.
I guess there’s no point in hiding it now.
Quietly, I pulled my hood off, revealing my face. “I’m a Beastfallen too, that’s why. I’d feel better if there was my kind around.”
Liza’s breath caught in her throat. Both of her eyes widened more than ever, the color fading from her face.
Shit. I should have said something before I showed my face.
“Hey, wait a minute. I’m not gonna eat you, so please don’t screa—”
Before I could finish, Liza quietly fainted.