The churning sounds of gravel echoed through the empty streets of the waypoint, causing the inhabitants who were still awake, to draw their curtains and look for the source of the soft disturbance. To their surprise, ten aether cars, which were a rare sight in the town, were driving on the streets in a single file. Each vehicle was draped in mud and dirt, which prevented the aether cars from looking like the luxury commodity that they were. Additionally, the first car had its back door ripped open, revealing its contents.
The cars drove slowly, to prevent disrupting the sleep of the citizens, and eventually, the caravan exited the residential area of the waypoint and entered its commercial hub. Unlike the residential area, the streets weren’t as deserted. With much more lanterns lighting up the vicinity, shops that operate in the night, such as pubs and gambling dens, had opened their doors wide to attract business. Ladies of the night waved their handkerchiefs and showed off their ample bosoms to lure lustful demons into their lair. Drunkards found empty alleyways to empty their stomachs of the disgusting swill that plagued their system.
And throughout the hustle and bustle of the nightlife, no hooligans or mobsters were roaming the streets. Instead of hoodlums, constable patrols were inspecting every nook and cranny, on the lookout for potential crime. It was a testament to the safety of the waypoint that even in the most crime-prone area, there wasn’t even an inkling of a gangster.
Driving through the commercial hub in a convoy of aether cars pulled eyes from everywhere. Residents who were enjoying their after-hours fun time stopped what they were doing and looked that the unusual sight. One gaze became two. Two became four. Until eventually, everyone on the street was looking at the aether cars. Even the patrol guards dropped their duties to monitor the situation.
Being in the leading car and with their back door sliced open, naturally there were multiple people who focused their attention on Shin and Junius, who were the only two passengers of that car. With so many eyes on them, Shin felt like he had become some sort of exotic zoo animal that was put on display.
‘Arghhhh!!! So embarrassing…’
Shin mentally shouted. He wasn’t even in the waypoint for a day, and he had already become the centre of attention. But no matter how ashamed he was, the number of onlookers only increased.
Thankfully, he didn’t need to be watched for much longer. After a minute, the aether car came to a halt.
“Alright boys, welcome to your new home!”
Ines, who was sitting in the front seat, glanced over her shoulders and pointed her right index finger outside.
Shin and Junius turned their heads, tracing the direction of her finger.
Shin gasped in amazement. The aether cars had stopped in front of a grandiose, lavish building that stood over five stories tall. A metal fence with sharp tips encircled the construction that prevented any unwarranted trespassers from entering. Surrounded by buildings that were far smaller than it was, the marvellous piece of architecture stood out like a sore thumb in the already posh commercial district.
Once the vehicles stopped in front of the elegant building, the onlookers started to connect the dots and realised what was happening. As if it were like magic, the spectators gradually dispersed and continued with their happy hour activities.
“Welcome to the Mushinkei!”
Ines introduced the place with a wide grin on her face.
“The Mushinkei serves as an anchor store for the Frie Clan in Chilyoja Waypoint. We send supplies here, and the store sells them for a profit. The Mushinkei is also a place where operatives of the Frie Clan working outside the mountain can congregate and rest. Hence, there are plenty of empty rooms here for your picking!”
Shin wasn’t able to hear a word that Ines had said as his head was still in the clouds after looking at the exquisite building. Fortunately, Junius still had a clear mind.
“Senior Ines, we get to choose our rooms?”
“Of course! You get to choose whichever rooms you like! The top two floors of the building are all private rooms, and the majority of them are empty. Come, let me bring you around.”
Opening the front door, Ines beckoned the two orphans to follow her. Junius got on his wheelchair and tapped Shin on his shoulder to bring him back to reality.
“Hey, Shin! Snap out of it! We need to leave!”
“Huh, ah! Right! Sorry, I was kind of amazed… Are we really going to live in such a luxurious place?”
From young, Shin had been staying in a plain and simple house. The orphans were not being mistreated though, it was the Frie Clan policy that all lodgings not be too extravagant to keep their members humble. However, that policy was only enforced on Frie Mountain. The Mushinkei, on the other hand, was a piece of architecture that was located in the heart of Chilyoja Waypoint where government officials and members from other clans frequent.
To leave a firm impression that the Frie Clan were part of the elite, the upper echelons of the clan had invested heavily in dolling up the Mushinkei. Bringing in the best artisans, the clan paid a hefty sum in constructing the building. They also bought timeless art pieces to decorate the front desk, further bleeding out the money in the vault.
Wheeling Junius down from the aether car, Shin noticed that there was a cleared patch of land opposite of the Mushinkei. In the commercial district, there were rows upon rows of buildings. Hence, it was highly unusual to see an empty lot of land. The longer he stared at the empty space, the more intrigued he became.
“Senior Ines, why is there an empty space there?”
Even Shin didn’t know why he voiced that question. Initially, it was just pure curiosity, but after a few seconds, he felt an instinctive urge to find out more about that empty lot.
The unexpected query came at a shock to Ines. Her feet stopped moving as she bit her lip. Gulping down a mouthful of saliva, she turned to look at the direction that Shin was pointing at.
‘To think that his first question is about that…’
Her pupils began to dilate, and her gaze started to waver. Looking at the empty patch of land, she deliberated on how to answer the boy who was asking an innocent question.
“The previous owners of the lot were unable to make rent, so the mayor’s office confiscated their property and demolished the store. It’s nothing of importance. Come, let us find you a room first.”
Ines quickly answered Shin’s question and diverted his attention to the Mushinkei standing right in front of them.
Pushing Junius, who was still mandated to remain on a wheelchair, Shin followed Ines through the iron fence and into the dazzling building. As they edged closer to the entrance, the polished wooden doors creaked open, revealing a tall, bony man. His leathery face complemented his receding hairline. His hazel coloured eyes showed a tinge of compassion and warmth as he looked at the two orphans heading towards the building.
“I’ve been expecting your arrival, Ines. Where is Lou?”
Brushing off the dust on his butler’s uniform, the tall man asked for the Instructor’s whereabouts.
“He left once we arrived. We ran into some trouble on the way and apprehended some of the troublemakers. Lou is bringing them to the authorities.”
“Oh good lord! Did they manage to hurt you?”
“Hmph! Of course not! I’m offended for you to suggest that Marshall!”
“I’m just worried for your safety, that’s all.”
The butler named Marshall giggled at Ines’ animated response.
“I believe the two handsome young boys standing behind you are Shin and Junius, am I correct?”
Putting on an amiable smile, Marshall bent down to greet the duo.
“Pleased to meet you, senior. My name is Junius, and the boy pushing my wheelchair is Shin.”
“Pleased to meet you, senior.”
Realising that the butler was talking to them, Junius gave a respectful introduction.
“Hohoho, there’s no need to be so formal. Just call me Marshall.”
Bowing to the two orphans, the butler requested Shin and Junius to drop the formalities.
“Boys, Marshall here is the head of the Mushinkei. He is in charge of the maintenance of the building and its everyday operations. He knows everything that happens in the Mushinkei. So he’s kind of a big shot here!”
“I don’t want to hear that from the famed Frie Nutcracker… Do you know I still get worried customers asking if the Nutcracker is in? Your famed exploits have even reached the neighbouring cities.”
“No way?! Surely you jest?”
“Of course not. Since you’re staying here for a month or so, you will be able to confirm that for yourself.”
“Arghhh!!! I don’t want that kind of reputation!”
Up till this day, Ines was still single. She had many potential suitors before, but once they heard her infamous title, they immediately scurried away to protect their family jewels.
Shin and Junius were standing right next to Ines. Hence, they naturally heard the conversation. Their faces turned vermillion red as they tried their best to stifle their laughter.
“Oh dear, why are we still standing in the cold? Come on in! Shin, Junius, I have personally selected some of the best rooms that we have for you. Please, come and take a look!”