A Strange Woman (Part 1)
The hoarse voices of street vendors could be heard in the distance.
Since it was gradually getting warmer in the Old Capital, many people walked by on the road in front of the store at dusk, when it was cooler, to heal their fatigue from work.
Izakaya Nobu also benefited from this, since it became busier by drawing in not only the regulars, but also newcomers, who came in after glancing around when it was open. During winter, warm dishes like stew were favored, but now that it was spring, rich and vibrant dishes had become the trend.
Shinobu had received ten orders of sansai tempura from curious customers on this day alone.
(TL: sansai: mountain herb/vegetables)
Even though the tempura in “Nobu” was exceptionally delicious eaten with its specially made tenstuyu sauce, it was also delicious when paired with salt and ale.
The crunchy texture that resulted from Taisho’s skill in deep-frying tempura, something he took pride in, and the slightly bitter aftertaste of the mountain herbs were best when paired with ale.
Hans and Nicholas, who were occupying the seats by the counter, were relishing the tempura and their cups of ale.
They usually came after the sun had completely set and the sky had turned dark, but these past few days, they had been visiting the store before dusk and carousing after work.
「Is this alright, you two? Drinking this early?」
「Don’t say such gloomy things, Shinobu-chan. I came only after finishing my training and normal work properly.」
「As Hans said, we’re not doing anything that would make us feel guilty.」
The only reason these two could talk like that and get drunk in such a carefree manner was because the Company Commander, Berthold, had left for the northern port city.
According to the news they had received the day before yesterday, the matchmaking interview had been a success. It seemed that he would only return after completing the marriage ceremony on the other side.
Since the ‘Demon Commander’ was not there, training ended early.
「But…won’t Berthold be angry when he returns? Saying that you have slacked off or gotten dull.」
「Don’t say such scary things, Shinobu-chan. Since we’re drinking here, let’s avoid thinking about it at all.」
「Wouldn’t it be unpleasant if we drank more every time something unpleasant was said?」
Shinobu just smiled at their words and returned her attention to the store.
Were there any empty glasses or plates? Were there any guests who wanted to order? She could provide good hospitality by grasping these things instantaneously. If she offered the customers a place to relax and time to rest, there wouldn’t be any dissatisfaction.
It was so ingrained into Shinobu’s body that you could already call it a subconscious habit.
The way Shinobu weaved between laughing guests as she served drinks at each table made her look like she was dancing.
While she was exchanging a customer’s mug, she noticed something strange.
There was a rare, female customer in Nobu, and her orders were strange as well.
「Is there anything wrong, Shinobu-chan? You look like someone cheated on you.」
「Ah, it’s not really a big deal, Hans-san.」
「What? What is it, Shinobu-chan? Don’t be shy, tell this big brother Nicholas.」
「No, it’s really nothing.」
While saying so and refusing them gently, she looked at the lady customer again. As expected, it was still a strange. The woman was around twenty years old, had blonde hair, and was wearing clothes similar to those of a merchant’s wife. She was definitely a beautiful woman surrounded by a nice atmosphere.
「Hmmm, is there something wrong with that customer?」
Hans noticed Shinobu’s line of sight and quietly whispered to her.
There was a piece of fukinotou tempura held in between his chopsticks. Hans seemed to have liked it so much that he had ordered another helping of assorted mountain herb tempura.
Since there were other guests around, she responded with an ambiguous nod.
(TL: Fukinotou is butterbur sprouts. It looks similar to brussel sprouts, so I’m guessing that they are in the same family?)
The dishes that the blonde woman ordered were all dry foods.
Dried squid, nuts, and cheese; all of these could be stolen and taken out of the store.
If she had ordered sake with them, it could have been explained as personal preference. However, she had not ordered a single drop of alcohol since stepping foot into the store.
Nicholas muttered while snatching a bracken tempura from Hans’ plate.
「Strange? What is?」
「The woman that Shinobu-chan is watching, the blonde one. She has been peeping at her surroundings since a little earlier.」
「She certainly doesn’t seem like she is eating her meal calmly.」
Hans agreed as he stole a piece of assorted skewered meat from Nicholas’ plate. Certainly, once they started paying attention, she did seem strange.
People normally only looked around the store in the beginning, since the store offered a new and unusual experience.
「Is she plotting something?」
「Stop it, Nicholas. She doesn’t look calm enough to be plotting something.」
「That’s true. Even if she is plotting something, what is there to plot against in a tavern?」
「I don’t think she’s plotting something in the tavern. There is also the possibility that it is an investigation.」
「Investigation? What is there to investigate?」
Nicholas looked around in an unnatural manner, before lowering his voice and whispering.
「The supply route in the Old Capital.」
「Shinobu-chan might not know this, but the neighbourhood has a suspicious atmosphere around it nowadays.」
Hans nodded as he tossed the kogomi tempura into his mouth.
(TL: kogomi: ostrich fern, another mountain herb)
「Although merchants might have various methods to earn profits, liquor vendors have their own methods.」
Nicholas continued as he skillfully ate the kebab, which was dripping with meat juices, with one hand.
Liquor vendors made contracts to supply the military, as well as mercenaries who had been hired by royalty and nobility, with goods in exchange for payment.
They often had to travel through dangerous areas, so they made a sizable profit.
「When a war breaks out, a quick-witted liquor vendor will send scouts into town and predict where the army will go, in order to investigate what goods can be bought cheaply, or what required goods are hard to obtain. Something like that. Doing that makes trading easier when the army arrives.」
「You sure know strange things, Nicholas.」
「Shut it. I had an ex-girlfriend who was the daughter of a liquor vendor. Continuing the story…」
Recently, there had been rumours that some northern territories were planning to withdraw from the Empire.
The rumors had already been around for some time, and there were supposedly plans to merge several territories into one. It was said that they would go back to how they looked before the Empire was formed.
Although only a minority thought that it could be done, rumors of an external collaborator had begun emerging. The neighbouring countries believed that the power of the Empire had dropped, and Nicholas suspected that the Eastern Kingdom was the one manipulating things behind the scenes.
「Either way, this neighbourhood has become a little suspicious. It even caught Commander Berthold’s attention…」
「If a real liquor vendor has appeared, the stories are more than just a rumour, Nicholas.」
Nicholas nodded as he downed the jug of ale, and his face changed from that of a drunkard to one of a soldier.
From behind the counter, Nobuyuki and Eva curiously watched the three people whisper secretively.
‘For Taisho and Eva’s sake, as well as the store’s continued peace, I must determine that woman’s true intentions.’
Shinobu had made up her mind.
However, where to start?
As she considered this, the blond woman raised her hand..
「Excuse me, may I order?」