June 18, 2028, 8:10 am
Justice Law Offices — Apollo’s Apartment
Despite the dawning sun’s rays just barely starting to pass through the window of the small apartment room, Pearl was wide awake and groaning in frustration. Her body had still not gotten the memo that she was running on Khurainese time and had decided that the best thing to do would be to wake her up at four in the morning for no good reason.
The exhausted spirit medium of course tried to go back to sleep and slept on and off for several hours, but gave up when she realized that is was utterly impossible to get back all those hours in one night. Instead, she decided to get up and brew herself some tea-so-bitter-you-lose-your-tongue to hopefully shake off some of the residual fatigue of jet lag.
As she got up from her spring mattress to go to the kitchen, Pearl picked up her phone and switched it on, intending to call Apollo, but instead, she practically jumped into the air upon seeing the time.
Gah! I overslept!
She was supposed to be up by seven to go join Apollo for breakfast at one of the cafes surrounding the bazaar.
Pearl practically dashed from her bed in a hurried attempt to go the bathroom to wash up and get ready to leave, only to discover that the occupant of the adjacent bedroom was still fast asleep, his limbs splayed chaotically, snoring like Mr. Nick did whenever she stayed over with Trucy. How she hadn’t heard him while she was tossing and turning, she didn’t know.
It didn’t surprise her in the least, though: Apollo had said that he would be staying up late to do some research for a trial tomorrow and had probably forgot to set his alarm.
She exhaled a small sigh of relief, clutching her chest; at least she wasn’t the only one. The frenzied pace of her routine slowed as she no longer had to worry about rushing to the cafe to meet Apollo.
As she was getting ready in the restroom, Pearl wondered if she should wake Apollo up to make him come with her. Apollo had commented once that he hated to sleep in while there were many things to do around the office.
However, Pearl thought it would be better for him if he could enjoy this temporary state of peace from the exhaustion she had witnessed while with him. Besides, she could always bring something back with her, so he wouldn’t entirely be left out.
She opened the closet, examining her choices for clothes that day.
Eh, let’s go for it...
Instead of her customary pink and purple kimono, Pearl decided in a pair of blue jeans and a pink blouse. After a few moments’ hesitation — she did have to start training in freezing water soon, after all — she added a sky blue hoodie to better protect herself from the typical morning chill. Making sure not to wake Apollo, she opened the door and ventured into the streets of Khura’in.
Due to the office being in the center of the city, finding the bazaar itself proved to be no trouble even to someone as unfamiliar with it as Pearl. All she had to do was follow the cacophony of sounds that all converged in one central area.
The immense size of the place was something she didn’t expect.
Her eyes widened, seeing so many different things happening all at once. Oxen were pushing carts laden with heavy goods. Various vendors were hawking their wares to passersby as tourists and regulars alike tried haggling with them for the various trinkets and toys on display. Their children ignored this commotion all the while, continuing to play with each other, Khura’inese or foreign-born alike, all thoughts of nationality seemingly forgotten. She even spotted the occasional monk coming down, looking for a bite to eat before heading off to perform their religious services.
She trudged along, trying her best not to look like she was rubbernecking as she tried to find what she was looking for. Navigating through the crowds was relatively easy thanks to her stature. However, it was then that Pearl realized that among all of the chaos of the bazaar, she had forgotten where the cafe was. Was it two blocks down Sauk’e Street and a block to the right on Tehm’pul Street? Or was it the other way around?
And this is why I should have taken Apollo with me...
As she struggled to figure out her bearings, Pearl was swamped by hawkers trying to get her to buy anything from exotic perfumes to some sort of sweet bun that was shaped like a magatama.
No closer to finding the cafe after getting distracted with the purchase of a cute lion statuette, she started pulling out her phone to help her out with directions. But try as she might, she couldn’t get the blasted thing to work. Why had Mystic Maya and Trucy talked her into buying it? And why in Ami’s name had she accepted?
As continued fumbling through the map menus — mumbling vitriol against her lack of expertise along the way — Pearl spotted the figure of a young boy approaching her from a distance. Thinking that it was someone else trying to sell another trinket, she mentally prepared herself to politely inform the boy she wasn’t interested — not that it did much good for the other vendors — but was instead was met with a different kind of offer.
“Excuse me, ma’am! You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Wh-what makes you say that?”
He giggled, covering his mouth with both his hands. “Well, you were looking around all over the place and it looked like you were struggling with that device.”
He pointed at the phone in Pearl’s hand, causing her to blush lightly and look down at the floor. “Oh — umm…”
He flashed her a wide grin — revealing a missing tooth — before fumbling through his bag in order to find something, his tongue stuck out in the effort. “Would you be interested in taking a tour of some of the sights here in Khura’in?”
Finally, he held out a blue brochure in his right hand and she got a chance to properly look him over. Although it was blue and white rather than the traditional Kurain pink or purple, this boy’s priestly-looking garb wouldn’t seem too out of place in the village. In fact, if it was just a few shades lighter, that purple sash would really fit right in. She continued looking at him until she realized that she was staring.
Pearl gently pushed the brochure away from her and gave him an apologetic smile. It felt a bit wrong to deny him, but now wasn’t the time for that. “No thank you, I’m not in the mood for sightseeing right now. I’m just looking for a cafe around here.”
The boy nodded in understanding, but frowned lightly all the same, his eyes darting to the side. “I see. Well, if you do want to come and do some sightseeing later, keep me in mind!”
She nodded. “I’ll do that, then!”
He extended his hand in greeting, grinning once again. “My name is Ahlbi Ur’gaid. What’s yours, ma’am?”
Her eyes widened in recognition, but she returned the gesture with a surprisingly firm grip — just as Mr. Nick taught her to do with handshakes. She might have been a bit too firm, judging by the boy’s light wince. “Oops, sorry about that. My name is Pearl Fey.”
At the mention of her last name, Ahlbi jumped back with his hands in the air and exclaimed, “ P-pohlkunkaaaa ! A-are you related to Ms. Maya?!”
She giggled at Ahlbi’s silly reaction, bringing one hand to cover her mouth so it wouldn’t seem disrespectful. “Yup! Mystic Maya is my cousin.”
With a look of pure awe on his face, he gave Pearl a deep bow, bringing his hands together in the typical Khurainese greeting pose. “It is an honor to have you here in Khura’in. Hap’piraki, Ms Fey! What brings you to the bazaar this morning?”
“Well, I was trying to get some breakfast this morning, but I couldn’t find the cafe I was trying to go to. I think it was called The Lotus Tea Shop or something like that.”
Scratching his hair and closing one of his eyes, Ahlbi hummed in thought as he tried to recall a cafe by that name. “Hmm... Lotus…Tea?”
His eyes lit up in recognition as he remembered where it was. “Oh! You must mean the Littl’otus Tee’shope! Ah yes, I know where that is! A friend of mine likes to go there.” He pointed to what Pearl assumed was the general direction of the cafe. “I can lead you there if you want.”
Pearl clasped her hands together and gave him an appreciative smile. “That would be most appreciated.”
“Alright! Follow me!” Ahlbi took the lead, weaving his way through the crowd as Pearl tailed him in quick pursuit. It was quite lucky that they were both near the same size, otherwise, she might not have been able to keep up. Ahlbi was definitely not the type of person to loiter or walk slowly.
Nevertheless, she was relieved that she didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of wandering aimlessly through the streets and risk finding herself even more disoriented in an unfamiliar location. And another bonus was that she may not have to eat alone after all!
Inviting Ahlbi would be the proper thing to do after he’s given me so much help.
Ahlbi turned around, tilting his head to one side. “Yes, Ms. Fey?”
“How would you feel about getting breakfast with me?”
Ahlbi’s eyes widened for a moment — likely amazed at her graciousness — and he seemed to be at a loss for words. Then, clutching tightly his stomach, as a gleam of disappointment became apparent in his eyes, he slowly shook his head with a solemn frown and informed her, “Um…I’d like to, but my duty as your humble tour guide is to serve the customer first and myself, second!”
Pearl rolled up a sleeve, her skin immediately protesting the lack of warmth, but she ignored it — it was as clear as the sky today that he was starving. “Nonsense! I insist on you coming!”
“But I can’t do it, Ms Fey!”
Ahlbi held his bag in front of him, leaning forward. “Because then you’ll have to pay for my eating and it would feel so horribly wrong. No tour guide steals food from their customer!”
“But it’s not stealing. I’m giving it to you.”
“Even then…I just can’t.”
She would have to use her last resort.
“Well then, I’m disappointed in your service.”
Ahlbi looked up at her, gaping before beginning to squeeze his bag tightly. Pearl swore she heard it growl back in response, but she ignored it, feeling upset that Ahlbi was ignoring his own well-being for her sake. This was something that she would not allow.
“I-I see,” mumbled Ahlbi, voice cracking as though he was about to burst into tears.
“The best way for you to serve me right now would be to eat breakfast with me. You need to take care of yourself more. And—” She flashed him a small smile, knowing it would cheer him up. “—I can tell you how Mystic Maya’s doing, too!”
As though the entire conversation had never happened, he leaned forward and Pearl swore she could see glittering stars in his eyes. “Then I’d love to! I want to hear more about you, Mr. Wright, Ms. Maya, and everything!”
Smiling at his enthusiasm, Pearl chirped, “Alright then — it’s settled! Let’s go have a great breakfast!”
After weaving their way through the crowds for another five minutes, the two of them arrived at the traditional cafe, with its Japanese-style windows and wooden railing. Pearl had been told that this one in particular was Apollo’s favorite because of the warm welcome — and huge discount — he received for having gotten the owner’s son acquitted in a burglary case.
Ahlbi and Pearl placed their orders for their own meals — along with an extra meal to take back for Apollo — and sat on one of the small, circular kotatsus, both of them sighing in relief for the warmth of the futon below. Pearl opened the wrapper for her chopsticks, keeping an eye on Ahlbi, who had already started munching away on the food before him like a ravenous lion.
She would have been about the same age as Ahlbi was when Mystic Maya and Mr. Nick would do simple things like this for her — like going to Gatewater Land, an experience that still made her smile to this day. It had made her feel like she had a full, happy family again. Judging by Ahlbi’s need for a job, it was clear that — even if he had a family — they were far too impoverished to properly take care of him.
Pearl placed a small clump of rice into her mouth with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She realized just how much time had passed since she was growing up in Kurain, knowing absolutely nothing about the outside world apart from the bits and pieces that she got to see through trips with Mr. Nick. And now here she was, half the globe away and doing the same sort of thing — in fact, the exact same sort of thing, considering how much she fumbled with her phone.
The younger boy seemed eager to talk to Pearl about his friends and excitedly started asking, “Ms Pearl, how’s Ms Athena doing?! How is your village doing with Ms. Maya’s leadership?! And how are she and Mr. Wright doing back in the US? Any exciting adventures ?!”
Pearl was struck from her daze at the vigor and speed of his questioning and gave a small, confused start before shaking her head and giggling slightly at Ahlbi’s enthusiasm — much to the young boy’s chagrin, as evidenced by him harrumphing and puffing out his cheeks — and implication of the sorts of ‘adventures’ Mr. Nick always seems to get wrapped up in. “ Well, Athena’s doing fine, though she still misses Apollo a bit.”
“I could see that they were really good friends!” chirped Ahlbi, with a huge grin.
“That they were…” she said distantly, looking at nothing of particular note. Her appetite had suddenly flown away, but she managed to keep her face straight.
“What about Ms Maya?!” Ahlbi actually leaned forward at this, his eyes glinting with awe.
“Oh, she’s been doing great! In fact, Mystic Maya is one of the greatest leaders we’ve had since—” She stopped suddenly. She was about to say Mystic Misty, but...she couldn’t. Even years after the fact, that pain was still too raw. Ahlbi quirked an eyebrow in confusion, but didn’t ask anything further.
She shook her head and cleared her mind of the memories. “And about Mr Nick, no, nothing like that. He’s just enjoying his time with Trucy and Mystic Maya”
Ahlbi nodded with a smile. “I’m glad to hear they’re doing well! Especially after that mess over here last month.”
Pearl thought back to the stories Mr. Nick and Mystic Maya had told them before she left. She smiled dryly, for if it had been anyone else, she’d have thought that most of it was part of a tall tale. But she was grateful that they didn’t seem to exhausted or troubled by it.
“Yes, I am too.” Pearl sighed and took a sip of the tea that she had ordered — you can never have too much tea , she thought happily — and placed it back onto its saucer. For a time, no sounds were heard except for the comedic banter between the owner and his son, the various ramblings of the customers walking in and out, and the clink of the cup being placed back onto it’s saucer as she ate in a slow, calm manner — quite unlike Mystic Maya.
“I wish they could come over again some time. It’d be great to see Ms. Athena and Trucy again, too!”
Pearl gave the younger boy a small laugh in response. “You’re telling me! People have assumed me and Trucy were siblings for ages . They still do. And I can honestly tell you that they’d be glad to see you too, Ahlbi. Maybe one of these days we can all take a family vacation over here.”
“Yeah, and then I can really get to show you guys everything !” Pearl smiled at his child-like excitement as he took a moment to wolf down some more food before looking back up at her to ask, “And you, Ms. Pearl? What brings you to our country all by yourself?”
I guess I’d better not beat around the bush.
“W-Well, I wanted to get a headstart on some of the Khurainese training that the Master and other high ranking members of the village have to go through.”
“ Pohlkunka! So that must make you kind of like Her Benevolence here in Khura’in.”
“Ah yes! I guess it is kind of like that.” Despite only having heard stories about her from Mr Nick and never actually seeing her in person, it was hard to miss the various images of the royal priestess plastered around the country. She even had a surprising habit of showing up in the Steel Samurai knock-off — now she knew how Mystica Maya managed to survive two years in an isolated country in the middle of the Himalayas.
Ahlbi’s eyes shone as he took in the information. “That’s really cool! Are you going to train for two whole years like Ms. Maya did?”
Pearl jumped slightly at the bluntness of the question, but eventually went on to shake her head. “No, not for two years, I think. I’m just here for the summer.”
He looked a little disappointed, but quickly recovered as he said, “I guess it wouldn’t be easy being here for two years without any of your friends or family back home.”
“Don’t look so glum, Ahlbi. I may be here for just the summer, but I can always visit again to do some more training.”
She offered Ahlbi a warm, wider smile. “Besides, I just got here. I still have plenty of time before I have to leave again.”
The two walked outside after having finished their meals, with Pearl getting ready to trek back to the office. Just as she was about to communicate as much, Ahlbi looked up at her with a wide grin. “Is there anything else that I can help you with? Walking you back? A tour? Anything?”
Pearl checked her phone — it was about half past ten already and there was still no response from Apollo. She didn’t have to be at Ta’key Falls until the evening anyways. And with a tour guide at her disposal, she thought it might do her some good to see some of the sights before she had to buckle down and train.
“Actually, there is something else you could do for me, Ahlbi.” Pearl pulled out her wallet, thumbing through the dahma bills. “How much is it for a tour?”
Albhi’s ears perked up at the mention of tour, a smile beginning to cross his face, but upon seeing Pearl counting out the dahma bills, he froze stuttered out, “N-no, you don’t have to pay for it, the breakfast is already more than enough.”
However, Pearl was not going to have any of it. She crossed her arms and gave him a stern look. “... Ahlbi…”
Ahlbi gave a low, resigned sigh, looking down and murmuring, “Alright . ”
“Thank you,” she replied. Relaxing her expression, she handed him the money and clasped her hands together. “Let’s get going! Where to now?”