With a gang of bandits looming ahead, Loren believed it would be better if they just turned back. However, Tizona didn’t have the luxury to make that decision. She wanted to depart as soon as she got out of bed the next day, but Gula and Lapis stopped her.
“We haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
Gula said. Last night, the innkeeper told the party that he hadn’t stocked up much food because he didn’t have many customers these days. Moreover, their party had arrived late, and most of the food had already been used for earlier customers. He exhausted his remaining stock to make them supper, but of course it was nowhere near enough for Gula. She made a fuss about it, but calmed down after the innkeeper said he would go to the market first thing in the morning and buy something especially for her. So, she was quite determined to have breakfast, and until she did, she wouldn’t budge no matter what.
“Breakfast aside, we still haven’t restocked at all. It’ll be another two days until we reach our destination, right?”
Lapis added. They had used up almost all the supplies they prepared at Kapha before reaching this town. Therefore, Lapis told Tizona that if they didn’t restock now, their travel condition would become very difficult.
“Can’t we just hunt for food on the way?”
“I’m fine with that too.”
Loren was also worried about Tizona’s pocket, but if they let Lapis and Gula go hunting, he had no idea what they might bring back. Hunting would be their best option if they could get normal human food. Tizona probably wasn’t aware of that other prospect though.
But Tizona reluctantly nodded:
“It can’t be helped. Just stop saying you’re hungry.”
Tizona made her decision quickly. Even though it would add to her financial burden, she didn’t say they should save money at all. Loren thought she didn’t seem to care at all, and he respected her a little for that.
“Gula, your tendency of overeating is really too much.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll work hard instead.”
She didn’t sound to be very sorry. Tizona sighed heavily, but Loren couldn’t do anything but pray for her to not get bankrupt.
The innkeeper really kept his promise. He came back from the morning market with a large amount of food and immediately started preparing breakfast. The scene was so unsettling that the other guests began feeling suspicious, but Gula just waited for her meal with a smile on her face. Lapis turned away as if she didn’t care about breakfast at all, while Tizona held her head in her hands as if bearing a headache.
Loren believed that Gula really needed to think about how to manage her eating habit if she wanted to continue travelling with them.
Gula made short work of her breakfast, which was so huge that it even attracted attention from other customers, whereas Loren and the other two had normal helpings. Then, they left the donkeys at the inn and went to the town center.
The post-town, despite being small, did have a proper town center. Several stores were opened for travelers, so they went to the grocery store and set about tossing goods into their shopping baskets.
“Uhm, don’t you want to choose what to buy?”
Tizona asked, seeing that Loren and Lapis were just picking up a multitude of goods casually, and rather irresponsibly. Lapis nonchalantly answered:
“It’s all good as long as we get enough food. We can choose what we like from the pile later, and shove the rest to Gula.”
“Is that alright?”
“It is. Anything is fine for her as long as it’s edible.”
Lapis’ remark was harsh but true, so Loren couldn’t object to that. He just continued to help her in silence.
“Still, the food selection here is not very good.”
Lapis grumbled while inspecting the vegetable she had picked from one side then the other. Loren had no idea if that vegetable was of good quality or bad, but seemed like Lapis had deemed it to be bad. He reached for another one, and the store owner apologized:
“We don’t have that much choice, since our supply is limited.”
“Does it have anything to do with the bandits we’ve heard about at the inn?”
Typically, farm produce like vegetables would be transported to large towns via multiple relay points. Loren didn’t know how many towns there were near Kapha or how big they might be, but products from nearby villages must go through a few connecting points before reaching places about the size of this town. If the product selection here was not of good quality, then something must be going on at the villages.
“Yeah, they’ve been quite brazen. Even worse, they seem to be expanding their range. If the Kingdom doesn’t act soon, they’ll reach this place sooner or later.”
“What about the soldiers stationed here?”
“There are some, but not that many. If the stories are true then, when the bandits come, they’ll all be killed before they can do anything.”
Soldiers dispatched to remote areas of course didn’t have much of combat abilities. And seeing that there weren’t many here, Loren couldn’t think of any defense measure that would be effective against a bandit attack that relied on numbers.
“I really want to close the store and run away, but I don’t have the luxury to do so. I can only pray that they won’t come.”
Lapis gave up on choosing better quality vegetables – all of them were about the same anyway. She
tossed the one she was holding into the basket and bargained with the store owner:
“If I buy all this, will you give me some discount?”
“Sorry, but I can’t afford to.”
The owner replied with a wry smile. But Lapis didn’t give up, of course, and continued to haggle. Tizona watched them in surprise while Gula, who was leaning against the wall, looked on with no interest, as long as she got the food, she didn’t care about price or quality at all.
The restocking issue seemed to have been solved for now, so Loren left the haggling to Lapis and went out. He looked up at the sky, the weather was good, and it seemed like today’s journey would also go well.
A girl’s voice rang up in his mind just then:
[‘Onii-san, do you know the saying, ‘Speaking of the devil’?’]
It came from a girl who was temporarily residing within Loren’s body. After a certain incident, she had become the King of Death, the highest-ranked undead, and lost her own body.
Shayna’s words gave Loren a bad hunch.
[‘I don’t. Sorry, but I’m uneducated.’]
[‘Onii-san, look behind you to the right. It’s probably from the south of here.’]
Loren looked over his shoulders in the direction Shayna had told him. There was a grocery store that had just opened, next to it was another store, the type of which Loren couldn’t determine. There was nothing particularly unusual though.
[What has Shayna sensed?]
Loren titled his head in puzzle, wondering if he had overlooked something. He observed the ground, then the stores again, but he only understood Shayna’s warning when he looked up at the sky.
In the clear blue sky there was a thin column of gray smoke. It couldn’t be mistaken for clouds at all.
“Something is burning, but not in this town.”
Gula looked at the sky and said. She had followed him out of the store, and seemed to have noticed the smoke immediately.
If something happened in this post-town, there would surely be an uproar by now. But if it happened somewhere else, it wouldn’t be strange if no one noticed.
However, some townsfolk did take notice of the smoke. They came out to the street and started pointing at the sky, which began to attract the attention of others.
“It seems to be close by.”
The smoke would be thicker if it came from within the town, but considering the clarity of the thin smoke column, it couldn’t be from too far away.
“Right. From my feeling, it’s the neighboring village.”
Gula’s guess was not good news.
From the current states of affairs, if something happened at the neighboring village, which resulted in something burning, then it was very likely that there had been a bandit attack. It depended on how big the raid was, but if the earnings at the village wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be strange if bandits continued on to this town. Realizing that, a group of armed personnel, probably the town’s guards, rushed towards the direction of the smoke.
“How does it look?”
Lapis looked at the sky and asked. She had immediately stopped the haggling after noticing something unusual was going on, paid a reasonable amount for the food and took some out. Behind her was Tizona, who seemed to carry most of the food they had bought in a large sack on her back. The sack got caught at the door, and she couldn’t get out no matter how much she struggled.
“Can’t say anything from here.”
It hadn’t been confirmed to be a bandit attack yet, but from Lapis’ way of speaking, it seemed like she had already decided it to be one. If she was acting while expecting the worst-case scenario, Loren thought he probably should do the same. He worked the gears in his brain:
“If we go back to the inn, take the donkeys and leave now, we’ll probably make it, don’t you think?”
“Depending on how those bandits operate.”
Loren believed it was better to run if they could. If the bandits came, they should protect themselves from any possible dangers, if not, they should leave things in the hands of people who had been prepared to deal with such situations. Their party should just leave as soon as possible.
Whether the bandits would let them leave was another question though. It was extremely unlikely that the bandits would distinguish townsfolk from travelers.
“Let’s just hurry back to the inn and pack for now.”
When the situation was still unclear, it wouldn’t help to panic. The only preparation they could do now was putting their things in order as soon as possible.
The other three members of their party nodded at Lapis’ suggestion.