It’s 10 in the morning. The sun beams down on the somber alley. We walked up the winding street. There are many unknown paths like this in the Backstreets; uncharted streets not shown on any map. Walking into an unfamiliar street poses a great risk. As is the case with the Nests, each area of the Backstreets has its own culture. Unexpected savagery could be waiting around the corner.
Walking down the street for around fifteen minutes as Han Hee-joon instructed, I could see a sign that read ‘Quercus Village’. He didn’t bother to give me a detailed description of this town. What are the cultural characteristics of the village, are there any taboos, anything… Will it be okay for us to readily set foot in this village? It probably will be. As much of a shady creep as Han is, he’s not the type of person to lead us into death in such a primeval way. I took some time to smoke at the entrance before entering the village.
“Detective! Detective! Do you want me to prepare for combat just in case?”
Ezra asked, and I shook my head.
“Because we have no idea what this place is like, we shouldn’t let ourselves look nervous. Let’s act natural and pretend that we’re travelers.”
“Seonbae would be perfect as a food tourist exploring local eateries.”
YuRia added. I smiled a little. That certainly does fit Ezra well.
“That doesn’t sound bad. We’ll disguise ourselves as traveling writers who tour small restaurants hidden in the alleys and street corners around the City. My work is to cover the venues and evaluate the quality of their food. As for you, Ezra, you can be my traveling partner and bodyguard. A person who goes around corners of the Backstreets would need someone to escort them, which justifies your use of force.”
“Gosh… I love that idea! I wanna be a bodyguard that also judges food!”
“Do as you wish. And YuRia, don’t say a word outside of emergencies, and keep your voice low when you do have to talk. It’d be a hassle to explain how a teddy bear can move and speak to the townsfolk.”
I ashed my cigarette in the portable ashtray.
“Alright… Time to head in.”
When I entered the town, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s a quiet and cozy place. And lush flowers and grass line the streets. I see houses and buildings in vibrant colors that don’t match the grey tone of the City. Brick houses that are about 2 to 3 stories tall. Wooden roof. This beauty and peace is what you’d expect in a Nest somewhere. How could a town outside of the Nest be so calm and pleasing? I know that there are many alleyways known to only few, but I have never visited a place in the Backstreets that is as snug and tranquil as this fairy-tale town. Perhaps it’s my knowledge that is shallow. Maybe there are more places like this out there.
Ezra seems to be struck with amazement as well. I looked around to see if there was any villager I can talk to. Not a single person outside. Perhaps it’s obvious. This is a weekday. The townspeople likely have jobs to do and money to earn. Even then, this is eerily quiet. Looks like I’ll have to poke around the buildings in the town. A restaurant should be an ideal starter.
“Ezra, look for eateries nearby.”
“…Gasp! Will do!!”
Ezra takes the lead with brisk steps. She seems quite excited. I lazily follow her along. This town appears to have about fifty households. The population would be around 80 people. A diner, cafe, or pub. There had to be at least one of those venues.
“Detective! Detective! Over here, I found one!”
Ezra waves her hand at me. Looks like she found something. I see a door with a sign that reads ‘De Mar Teahouse’. Hearing the clanging of chimes, Ezra and I entered the café. It’s a small venue with four tables and a floor space of 15 pyeong.
“…Oh? We-Welcome to the shop!”
The voice did not seem to expect a guest.
“Is this place open right now?”
“Yes, yes. Of course~”
“I presume you don’t often get customers at this hour?”
“Ahaha, you see, our town is in a rather remote spot, so I rarely had any visitors outside of the townspeople here.”
Oh dear. They are a little wary of us. I suppose this is a closed village as I suspected.
“I must say, I was surprised as well. I never thought I would stumble upon such a beautiful town in an unexpected place like this. Ah, pardon my manners, let me introduce myself. I’m Momo, a traveling gourmet who seeks out unknown restaurants in obscure locations. And this is my partner…”
“I’m Miss Momo’s partner in travel! Name’s Ezez!”
That’s a false name just as elaborate as mine.
“You were travelers, I see! Ahaha, our town certainly is pretty, but I’m afraid it’s not famous for its food.”
“It’s fine. Finding new restaurants on the streets I’m visiting for the first time is a genuine pleasure to me on its own worth.”
“I’m Dewey, owner of De Mar Teahouse. Oh, let me bring you the menu.”
We chose a table and took a seat. It’s a charming little teahouse. I can feel the warmth of a wooden construction. The afternoon sunlight shined through the windows. A sense of serenity and relaxation which is a rarity in the City. It’s like a luxury that only those in affluent areas can have a taste of.
“Here’s our menu. Take your time, and give me an order when you’ve made up your mind.”
“Whoa! It’s only just that a true alley-restaurant connoisseur should try out every dish on the menu, right, Miss Momo?!”
Ezra, you glutton…
“Hahaha, slow down, Miss Ezez. Did you forget that our rule is to only try three dishes the chef recommends?”
I lightly pinched Ezra’s hand. She frowned a little in response. Dewey looks at us with a smile, seemingly amused by our little banter.
“Oh hey! Isn’t that doll… Kkomi the Red Bear?! It’s a teddy bear character that was famous for a while before it got discontinued!”
Kko…what? I was confused by the question that came completely out of the left field.
“…What’s a Kkomi?”
Ezra naively asks. You idiot… We’re supposed to go with the flow, not ask questions about what is common knowledge to them right away. This will only make us look more suspicious.
“Oh, right, you said you’re travelers. I guess you come from a pretty far away place. The character was still pretty popular in its time, though…”
YuRia slightly trembles on my shoulder. She must have a thing or two to say about that.
“Haha, this was a gift from an acquaintance of mine, actually. I understand that you’re a big fan of cute characters like this, Miss Ezez, didn’t you know about this one?”
I gave Ezra a subtle signal.
“Oh, err… Kkumi! Kkumi the Red Bear! Yup, I do. It’d be a crime for me to not know Kkumi.”
An awkward pause ensues. Honesty is the only way out of this.
“Hahaha… We’re from the northern side of the City, so we don’t know much about what goes on down here in the south.”
“The north?! You’ve come from so far away! I’ve never left District 11 in my life, let alone gone anywhere near the northern areas.”
“Well, you could say the same for most people in the City.”
I gave a serviceable response. It’s time to change the topic.
“Well then, Dewey. I’d like to order three dishes of your suggestion.”
“Okay, please wait warmly.”
Dewey went into the kitchen. I could hear the sounds of tableware rattling. I looked out the window. There’s still no one out on the town streets.
“Is this town always so quiet?”
I talked to the kitchen with a somewhat loud voice.
“Ah, right now is the season for the harvest festival of our town. People who’ve got time to spare are preparing the ceremony at the town hall.”
A period of celebration… A closed village and unique customs. Not a good combination. Things like this usually follow a formula. And the formula usually ends with creepy cannibalism ceremonies or cultic carnage parties. However, if this was one of those predictable cases, Section 2 of the Seven wouldn’t have bothered to entrust me with solving it. I’ll take a straightforward approach.
“A harvest festival? Could we join that festival, if you don’t mind?”
Depending on the villager’s reaction, this can be categorized into one of the two types: rejecting outsiders, or actively inviting them to participate. In the case of the latter, there’s a high probability that the outsider ends up being the sacrificial lamb. This one being a welcoming kind would be much more convenient for us to resolve this mission. It’s simply too much of a hassle to try and sneak into a festival that excludes outsiders.
“Of course! A festival becomes merrier with more people enjoying it.”
Dewey came out of the kitchen with food for us. Black tea, pancakes, and omelettes. Looks plain. Ezra’s eyes sparkled.
“Well then, enjoy your food. I’ll go ask everyone in the town hall.”
Smiling, Dewey left the restaurant.
“Ezra, what do you think?”
“It was quite orthodox.”
“You think so, too.”
“Yep. A fairly sweet vanilla flavored pancake, a moderately soft omelette, and a moderately fragrant cup of black tea. All standard.”
Sigh… I placed my hand on my forehead. I guess I should just leave her to fill her stomach for now. I ran my eyes over the teashop again. I still don’t see any apparent anomalies. This is nothing more than a cozy teahouse. Some time has passed. Door chimes rang as Dewey returned to the teashop.
“Miss Momo, Miss Ezez. The townspeople all gladly agreed to let you participate. Shall we head to the town hall if you’re done eating?”
Quite the welcoming kind. I have no reason to refuse it. The faster this job is dealt with, the better.
“Will do. Miss Ezez, how did you enjoy the meal?”
“It was overwhelmingly satisfying, Miss Momo.”
We left the restaurant to follow Dewey. The time is just past 1 PM. This village is a fascinating sight to behold. If I ever earn the right to retire and live to an old age, perhaps this is where I’d choose to spend the rest of my life. While I was immersed in such thoughts, we arrived at the town hall. This appears to be the widest building in town.
“Everyone! Here are Miss Momo and Miss Ezez, the visitors I told you about earlier.”
Ezra and I nodded a greeting. There are about 40 people inside the building. Each of them bids us a welcome. …This is not good. I looked at Ezra, and back at the townsfolk. …Now I understand why Han Hee-joon gave me this job.
“A pleasure to meet you. I am Domis, head of this village. I heard from Dewey that you two are travelers.”
“Yes. We’re travelers who search for restaurants around the corners of the streets. I’m Momo, and this is Ezez.”
Ezra cheerfully greets them.
“Thank you for allowing strangers like us to join the festival of your village.”
“Haha, that’s the charm of traveling, isn’t it. Besides, festivals are more fun when there are other people to celebrate together.”
The townspeople are making effigies out of tree branches.
“We’d like to help you out with the preparation.”
“No, no. You’ve come from a far place, you deserve some rest.”
“I believe participating in all stages of a festival starting with its preparation is the way to truly enjoy it as you mentioned.”
“You raise a good point. Then I’ll tell the people here that you two are helping out as well.”
We helped the townsfolk with preparing the festival for a while. I carefully watched them while we worked. What I see confirms that the suspicion I have is not just my imagination.
“Is there a place where I can smoke in this village?”
I asked a villager standing next to me.
“Oh, you’re free to smoke outside as long as there’s no one around. Just make sure not to throw the cigarette butt on the ground.”
I stepped out of the town hall. The clock struck four. There’s still not a single person out in the town streets I can see. I went to a remote place and pulled out a cigarette. And I placed a hand to my forehead.
“Detective Moses, did you figure out anything?”
I puffed out smoke.
“Yes… I cannot see the Distortion from any of the townspeople here.”
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