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A note from Stephabeni

Hey all, finals are coming up soon for me so the next 2-3 weeks will probably be a bit irregular. I'm still committed to posting at least once a week (most likely Mondays), but might have 'shorter' chapters (~3k words like this one) until testing week passes. Anyway, hope you enjoy! 

Samantha moved as swiftly as she could manage through the streets without drawing attention from other citizens. The robes Thomas had given her were in good condition, but not flashy, so this helped to disguise her among the crowds in the middle-class areas. As she neared the slums though, she feared the cleanliness of the robes would cause her to stand out, so she took some time to muddy the clothes with the dirt of the unpaved streets when no one was nearby.

She ended up returning to the attic where she had spent the night. Instead of jumping up to the attic window with Swift--which would probably cause a stir in broad daylight if anyone saw her--she was able to lift herself up through the 2nd floor ceiling entrance due to her reduced equipment load. The wood groaned and creaked as she gripped the ledge and pulled herself through the opening, but ultimately held. Moving towards the center of the attic (which had the least deterioration from being exposed to the elements), she set up her bedroll, let Silas out to stretch his legs, and sat in the lotus position to do some thinking about next steps.

She had been trying to maintain her positive outlook throughout this whole ordeal, but she was finding that to be more and more challenging as time went on. Virtually nothing had gone to plan once she returned to Yivesh after finding success on her cultivation quest. She had originally left home because she wanted more freedom. She wanted to be able to do more than grovel at the feet of any cultivator that deigned to interact with her, to be able to travel if she felt like it without needing to hire an entire escort squad, to be able to be respected for her abilities instead of viewed only as a marriage prospect… and look at her now. Hiding out in an abandoned building, surrounded by animal droppings, and more fearful and restricted in what she could do than ever before.

She had been hoping that these circumstances were temporary, but what if they weren’t? What if it took Thomas longer than he estimated to help her figure things out? And even if this particular incident would blow over, there was always the possibility of some other issue cropping up after she had registered at the Registrar’s office for the final leg of her quest. What would she do to protect herself after she established herself in the city, when she didn’t have the benefits of her current anonymity to aid her in staying hidden?

Fixating on all the ways things could go wrong going forward was maddening. The more she thought about it, the more that sitting here in this musty attic doing nothing grated on her sensibilities. There was realistically only one solution to her problems she could think of, and that was getting stronger. Strong enough where even members of noble families would think twice about causing her trouble. Only then, would she truly find the freedom that she was desperate for.

So, she needed to decide how to make the most of a bad situation. In a best-case scenario where things would be resolved quickly, even a single week of doing nothing here could be detrimental to her overall growth. Her lucky find with the Rare nexus had given her a head start compared to her peers, but every day that she spent not furthering her cultivation made this gap shrink, and the ones between her and her growing list of potential enemies widen.

Direct cultivation was unfortunately out of the question. With the abysmal qi density in this part of the city, there was just no way that she’d make notable progress. Now that she was able to sense the ambient qi density somewhat with her cultivator’s perception, it made sense how so many people got stuck at Copper if they didn’t have the funds to invest heavily in beast cores or the ambition to constantly venture outside the city to cultivate. If the Rare nexus qi density was akin to swimming in the waters of the river, inside the city limits was like passing through the mist of rolling fog. It was hardly comparable at all.

She could always do some physical exercises to try and raise her stats, but ideally, she would do this while processing elixirs or pills that would enhance her body or cultivation base to speed her progress. She had no idea if such medicines were even sold near here though, since the poverty-stricken mortals in this area would have no use for them.

Sensing her growing frustration, Silas asked what was bothering her.

“I just feel trapped. I’m afraid that anything I do will bring too much attention to me, but if I allow my progress to stagnate then I’ll be in even more danger in the future. So, I need to get stronger, but I don’t have any resources to do so right now.”

“What kind of resources?”

“Spirit pearls, cultivation pills and elixirs, heck, even a proper training ground to push my physical limits without the floor crumbling beneath my feet!" she said, gesturing to the floor in displeasure, "I’m safe in the slums from scrutiny but I have nothing here that can help me grow.”

“Are you sure that there’s nothing? We’ve only seen a small section.”

“These slums are where all the shunned and outcast mortals live. It’s unlikely that they’d have anything that would help a cultivator.”

“Hmm… you know, sometimes, I would find the tastiest herbs in the strangest places! Maybe you’ll find something unexpected if you look hard enough too? Besides, it’s important to get to know your territory as well as you know the spots in your fur. You should look around.”

Samantha smiled at Silas’s attempt to lift her spirits, and lightly pet the soft tufts of his ears as she mulled over his words. It was true that the only things she knew about the slums were rumors from people who admitted they wouldn’t be caught dead here. Could there be more to this place than meets the eye? She had nothing better to do with her time at the moment, so she might as well try to find out.

Rather than trying to do everything on her own, she needed to find someone who’d be willing to show her the ropes. She wondered if she’d be able to find that boy she saw earlier. Something about seeing him run from and outsmart his pursuers with a smile on his face made her inclined to like him, so she decided that she would at least try and track him down.

She entrusted Silas with guarding their supplies and instructed him to scare off anyone who got too close. She warned him not to kick anyone with Thump unless it was an emergency though, as she feared he might have the power to kill them outright. He agreed to notify her if it looked like there would be significant danger to him, and they went their separate ways for the day.

“…and don’t you dare eat all the herbs we brought while I’m gone! That amount is supposed to last you for two weeks, and I’m not sure how much more food I can get you around here!” Samantha sent back as she left the attic behind. A sharp note of embarrassment and disappointment let her know that she had made the statement just in time, and she couldn’t help but chuckle at imagining how pitiful he must have looked at that moment. With this, her search began in earnest.

She started by following the path she saw the kid leave down after escaping the older teens. Several hours had passed since he left this way, but it might be a route he frequented, so there was always a chance that she’d catch a hint of where he’d gone.

Following Silas’s advice to get to know her “territory” better, she looked down or wandered through every alley she passed. Since her bond with Silas allowed her to always know where he was, she had no fear of getting lost in the tight and twisting passageways of crumbling structures and garbage. Using his spiritual signature as a landmark, she tried to move methodically through the makeshift streets and commit them to memory, and eventually stumbled upon the first interesting find of the day. Down one particularly secluded alley, she could hear several men speaking roughly in low voices.

“Green’s hiring runners again. Patch, Scrap, and Colt haven’t had any luck with the latest shipments because they’re too quick.”

“Pah, worthless. The Head’ll be pissed when he hears the take is low again this month.”

“Our boys are born to stand and fight, not chase down couriers. Maybe we can send Green a message to get him to pay up?”

“If we put him out of business, we don’t get anything. We’ll just have to squeeze a little extra out of the others to make up the difference for now.”

“This time yeah, but our profits have been falling. We need a long-term plan…”

Samantha slowed her pace to try and catch more of the conversation. She didn’t know what these men were discussing exactly, but she had a suspicion it was something criminal. Extortion, maybe?

The group debated how much of “Green’s” product they could destroy without ruining him for a while before two of them broke off from the group, saying it was time for them to do their weekly rounds. This left three men standing in the middle of the alleyway, and Samantha peeked around the corner to try and get a better look at them.

The three varied in height, but none could be considered short. All seemed broad and sturdy from this vantage, but she couldn’t tell much else since they wore hooded cloaks that concealed much of their appearance. Their conversation was dying down with the departure of the other two, and in the natural dialogue gaps she could hear something new. It sounded like… running water? And it was originating from somewhere near the men.

Eventually, the three ran out of things to talk about, but instead of leaving the area they continued to stand there, occasionally scanning down either side of the narrow alley. Not wanting to be caught snooping, Samantha kept moving down the main path she was originally taking. She found their behavior odd, and she was curious if she could find the source of the sound of flowing water if she returned to this location later. She mentally noted the location in relation to Silas’s and decided to put it out of her mind for now. She still had lots of exploring to do!

After another hour or two of wandering, searching, and building up her mental “map”, she heard the faint sound of running footsteps. She looked behind her, in front of her, and down the nearby alleys, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary even as the sound got louder. There were several slum residents walking down the same street as her, but none were running. It was when the metal sheet wall of the shack next to her began slightly trembling that she looked up, and the small shadow of a leaping child flew by overhead.

It was a girl, perhaps aged 9, and Samantha was shocked to see the poorly constructed hovels around manage to hold the child’s weight as she precariously leapt from roof to roof. The surprise must have been evident on her face, because an elderly man walked towards her from the sheet-metal hut beside her and laughed at her expression.

“First time seeing little Charlotte deliver?” he inquired. Samantha looked over the stranger carefully as he drew nearer. He looked to be in his late 70’s, and he had an unsteady gait which he stabilized with a smooth stick serving as a walking cane. His expression, though marred by deep wrinkles, was still kindly, and his easy smile revealed several gaps where teeth should have been. Long wisps of white hair clung to the sides of his head, though it seemed to have long abandoned the top of it. His beard was roughly shorn and a bit ragged looking, not unlike the old and dirty robes that he was wearing.

He stopped a comfortable distance from her, and Samantha replied, “Uh, yeah. I was surprised to see these buildings hold her weight, to be honest!” before quickly adding, “no offense meant towards your home, of course.”

He gave light shrug and waved off her concerns, “I know it’s a bit of an eyesore, but as long as it keeps the rain off, that’s all that matters! I haven’t seen you before, are you new around here?” His tone made the question sound relaxed, but his eyes were clear and sharp as he inspected her.

“You ask that like you know everyone.” Samantha half-joked, wondering if he might know where she could find the boy she was looking for. She didn’t want to give too much away, so she gave as vague an answer as she could without outright lying, “I actually live a bit north of here, but I came down because I’m looking for someone.”

“Oh, who are you looking for? I wouldn’t say I know everyone, but I do know quite a lot of folks and might be able to help.”

Samantha decided there was minimal risk in asking for a bit of help, so she described the boy as best as she could remember. “A boy with a stature on the shorter side that’s maybe 12. Very lean, fast, and agile, with short sandy blonde hair. Last I saw him he was being run down by a group of four older teens. I was impressed that he managed to outrun them by utilizing the buildings and roofs like Charlotte does.”

The man’s eyes lit up in recognition at her description, but he suddenly became cagey about the information, “Why are you looking for him? He’s a good boy, so I hope you’re not looking to cause any trouble?”

“No," she quickly assured, "I actually wanted to offer him a job. Like I said, I was impressed by him.”

The man stared uncomfortably into her eyes, searching her expression for any sign of untruth in her words. She gazed back unflinchingly until he was apparently satisfied that she was telling the truth. Grunting and giving her a small nod, he answered, “The one you’re looking for is called Aiden. He’s a bit of a local celebrity around these parts, since he’s one of the fastest and most reliable couriers around. When he’s not out delivering, he helps at his dad’s repair shop ‘All the Fixin’s’.”

“That’s really helpful actually, thank you.” Samantha said, smiling at the elder. “Would you be able to point me in the direction of the shop?”

“Now, now,” the man chided, his eyes gaining a slightly greedy glint, “nothing’s completely free in The Gutter, you know. I’ll need payment for that last tidbit of information before I give you another,” he finished, giving her a sly wink.

Samantha resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She shouldn’t have expected anything less. She wasn’t entirely sure what amount was too much or too little for what she was given, so she decided to rely on her inner merchant to haggle. “Of course! And what would you deem to be a fair price for your information?”

“10 coppers total. 5 coppers a piece.” He answered a touch too eagerly.

3 coppers were around the price of a loaf of bread from one of the bakeries near her house, so it wasn’t a great amount of money for her, but she didn’t want to appear overly wealthy and make herself a target. If this man was someone who consistently gave out information for coin, appearing to be carrying a lot of money may come back to bite her later.

“4 coppers total. 2 for each piece of info.” She counter offered.

The man’s greedy smile faltered some, but he pressed onwards, “I can’t possibly take less than 7. I probably just saved you hours of searching, after all.”

Samantha gave an understanding nod, “You’re right, you did save me a lot of time. How about 3 coppers for the information you already gave me then? I can find the location of the shop from someone else along the way.” Samantha proceeded to slowly reach for the coins she stashed in one of the pockets on the inner lining of the robe when the man urged her to wait.

“Ah you’re a tough one, aren’t you!” he lightly grumbled, “5 coppers total for both pieces. Take it or leave it. Otherwise, I accept your offer of 3 for the first.”

Samantha made a show of mulling over the deal for a few seconds before she conceded. Reaching into her robe pocket, she pulled out 5 copper pieces and placed them into the man’s wrinkled outstretched palm.

He gladly accepted the coins and made them disappear into his sleeve much faster than she would have thought possible for the seemingly frail old-timer. He pointed down the street that they stood on in the same direction she was originally walking, and began giving some basic instructions, “Keep going down this way, then take a left at the fallen building with the blue graffiti. From there, move straight ahead until you see the crowds, and that’s the market. The shop you’re looking for has a sign with a hammer and needle and thread side-by side. It’s towards the right.”

“Thank you…” she paused, realizing that she never asked for his name. Seeing her dilemma, he filled in the blanks.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had a good haggle, so this one is on the house. You can call me ‘Ol’ Man Whisper’. Everyone else does. And who are you, young one?”

Samantha gave him her own sly smile, “with a name like Ol’ Man Whisper, I’m not sure I should tell you. You can call me whatever suits you.”

He snorted at her response, “fair enough, fair enough. Off with you then, child! It’s always fun to do business with new people, but these old bones sure ache after all this standing around. Come on back if you have the need and the coin.” Ol’ Man Whisper then turned his back on her, giving her a lazy wave as he returned to his hut without looking back.

With that, Samantha departed for the market where she might get some clues as to where to find Aiden.

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