→ Mealtime Drama in Tantalus ←
“Did I or did I not warn you about swiping food?!”
I scolded Azzy with feigned anger. Her eyes darted around, devoid of an excuse. I had faced backlash before when I accused her without proof, but not this time. I found her just as she was sneaking about the cafeteria and lifting the lid off a pot, even though it wasn’t mealtime. I caught her red-handed.
“No wonder it felt like food’s been disappearing in the night. It was you all along!”
“Woof? Not a thief, not me!”
“Don’t talk back!”
I quashed her protest before heading to the stove, leaving her behind.
“If you’re hungry, just tell me instead! So that I…!”
Clink. I uncovered the pot, revealing glistening golden rice—celestial rice, each grain so filling that just one could satisfy a whole meal. While slightly exaggerated, its quality was that remarkable.
In the pot was risotto, a mixture of ground beans and celestial rice, simmered slowly in a broth infused with herbs and meat. It just looked like porridge for a dog, though.
After transferring it to a new container, I gave it a quick sauté in a frying pan. I didn’t use much oil since Azzy wasn’t a fan of greasy food. Instead, I blended in some canned bean soup from the billy pot for thickness before pouring it onto a plate.
Having grown accustomed to eating together at the table, Azzy quickly took her seat. I set the dish in front of her and gave my bell a ring. Dingle.
“…Can I warm it up for you!”
Hearing the ring, which had become a signal, Azzy promptly buried her face in the place. Didn’t people say generosity comes from wealth? Thanks to the contributions of the regressor, we had obtained more lavish ingredients than ever before, and we began to live it up like nouveau riche.
The caution we initially exercised with these ingredients, of which we’d only heard rumors about, didn’t last long. We had already grown accustomed to them, abandoning our previous conservative stance and embracing innovation. We weren’t afraid of failing; we applauded creative attempts and tossed thriftiness out the window.
While I was at it, I scooped some risotto onto a plate for myself and took a spoonful. It wasn’t a refined flavor, but the liberal use of premium goods gave it a wildly intense taste that left a lasting impression.
“Even dog food is tasty with good ingredients.”
Since I was slightly wasteful this time, I decided to make something a bit more stable next. I could just give it to Azzy or Nabi if it turned out inedible, after all.
“Meow. It’s still just doggy food in the end.”
Suddenly, Nabi appeared in the cafeteria, licking her paw. She scowled at the contents of the pots and pan.
“Meoow. It’s all unappetizing for mew. Only dumb doggies would like it. It’s too bad to put in my mouth.”
I tilted my head, posing a question.
“Didn’t Mr. Shei give you your medicine? Why’d you come all the way here to make a fuss?”
“Mew is complaining about the food, servant! Mew can only endure the stuff once!”
“You, a beast, call me servant?”
“You provide food and do the chores. What are you if not a servant?!”
Nabi waved her paw in frustration.
It wasn’t like I couldn’t understand her. Nabi was a carnivore, reluctant to eat anything other than meat. I mainly used grains in my cooking, as we had more of it than meat, and that was probably what brought her over in dissatisfaction.
Of course, that was no reason for me to put up with a junkie cat. I signaled to Azzy, who gulped down her food before getting up. Meanwhile, Nabi carried on grumbling about the food, oblivious to the shadow looming over her.
“Meoow! I’ve had enough of this! For the next menu, I want something more fitting for—”
Azzy had stealthily crept up from behind and nipped Nabi’s neck. In an instant, her life was held hostage. Her fur stood on end, and she froze as if she had been stuffed. Her only moving part was her eyes, flickering around anxiously.
After using Azzy to instantly overpower Nabi, I walked over to her while shaking my head from side to side.
“You, little rascal, would’ve been the first to go if our investor hadn’t been so generous with the food ingredients.”
“Myahah, myahah, myaha…”
As Nabi began to cry pitifully, I advanced menacingly, reaching into my chest pocket. Her eyes grew even wider than before.
“A man can skip his own birthday, but he shouldn’t forget when his boss’ dog was born. We can’t treat our investor’s pet carelessly now, can we?”
I pulled out a can, but it didn’t contain chimera beans.
Anyone with skill in alchemy could recycle the State’s special compression cans. I opened the can I made last night and held it out to Nabi. Inside was a special treat for cats: salted meat mixed with canned beans for a watery texture.
“It’s practically shameful for a human to go to the trouble of cooking for a mere animal… But understand that I’m doing it specially for our dear investor. This isn’t my usual routine. Got it?”
As I offered the canned food, Nabi ventured out to give it a test, despite being held by the neck. She began to lick it over and over, seeming to like it.
As Nabi got busy eating her snack, Azzy had nothing to do, so she slowly released the former’s neck. Then she stared at me with a resentful bark.
“Huh? Hey, what’s wrong?”
“I listen well… I’m good… Woof… But…”
Azzy gazed at Nabi and the canned snack, as if feeling betrayed by the world.
I threw a question in disbelief.
“You eat the same food as we do. You even share the table.”
“Woof! That’s food! This is a treat! Woof-woof!”
“Really? A dog differentiating food and treats? You should just eat whatever’s given.”
This was why people shouldn’t pamper animals, to begin with. I should’ve set boundaries at the earliest opportunity.
With a sigh, I slowly moved the can in my hand and Nabi’s face followed as if glued to it. As I placed the can on the table, her face ended up buried in the table like Azzy earlier.
Afterward, I pulled out another can from my pocket and handed it over.
“…Fine. You can have some too, pig. But I’ll only open it if you finish your meal.”
It seemed she didn’t want to spend any time barking, even. Azzy immediately started munching on her food, a paw carefully placed on top of her can.
I sighed again, wondering how to manage these creatures.
Just then, the undying and Callis entered the cafeteria. The latter had recovered enough to walk around, though she still needed assistance. She was being helped by the undying as usual…
?Rasch is a barbarian in name only. Although he’s not shy to touch, he’s too considerate. I’ve recovered enough to do some gymnastics, but I’ll pretend otherwise and stick close to him until I’m all better. 3 months. That’s enough time to…?
Well, that’s how it was.
The undying strode into the cafeteria, oblivious to Callis’ thoughts.
“What! Everyone was eating! Is it already mealtime?”
“You can hardly call it mealtime for beasts. They just eat when there’s food in front of them.”
As I spoke, I glared at the two animals sitting amiably at the table, devouring their snacks. The undying let out a hearty laugh in response.
“Haha! They eat so well. Teacher, you will surely be blessed! It is said that favors bestowed upon a beast lass return twofold!”
“I can’t even afford favors for myself, so what bestowing could I do? I just give what’s left over.”
“You make a knife-sharp distinction! I doubt anyone sees the beast misses as animals like you do, Teacher!”
“But they’re Beast Kings. They are animals, I’m telling you.”
Rasch carefully seated Callis in a chair as he spoke, then headed over to the pots. He filled a plate with food as he continued.
“Nevertheless, these young ladies have taken human forms to communicate with humans! They can talk and understand intentions, so why treat them just like any other animal?”
“How would you treat a letter that stands up and starts talking to you, Rasch?”
“I do not believe I could treat it like a letter!”
“And you wouldn’t treat it as human either. It’s kinda like that.”
The undying scratched his head.
“Haha! You have me there! But tell me, do all people from the Military State speak as eloquently as you?”
“Yes, I represent the State’s average.”
?What a lie…!?
A rude thought echoed from Callis, which was puzzling. My lie was still better than hers. Wasn’t she pretending to be sick when she was well enough to carry out State-standard gymnastics?
“Callis! Can you eat something solid today?”
In response to the undying’s question, Callis deliberately hesitated before answering with feigned strain.
“Rasch, I’d like—ugh, soup, please.”
“You are still not fully recovered? Haha. This is why those who die easily must be cautious.”
Shaking his head, the undying ladled bean soup into a bowl from the large billy pot and placed it in front of Callis along with a spoon. Then he inquired about her condition.
“How do you feel? Can you manage to eat on your own?”
Callis raised a weakly trembling hand, appearing as if she had yet to fully heal… though the tremor felt oddly artificial. Regardless, the undying failed to catch on as he had never experienced trembling hands himself.
Callis gave up on holding her spoon and observed Azzy and Nabi on the other side of the table, scraping up the last bits of their canned snacks. She muttered a reply.
“…I’m okay. If I lean over and eat like the Beast Kings… Ugh.”
“Haha. How can someone who was stabbed in the stomach eat while hunched?”
The undying clicked his tongue and picked up the spoon. He filled it with soup to the brim and brought it to Callis’ mouth with delicate care that contradicted his tough looks. The stirring spoonful of soup halted just before touching her lips, not a single drop spilling.
“Dig in. Ah, it may be hot, so cool it down first. I do not know how dangerous hot things can be, you see.”
“Your arm will hurt….”
The undying vigorously shook his head. Despite the forceful motion, the spoon remained perfectly steady.
“I am an undying. I do not experience pain or fatigue. I have never experienced arm pain or numbness. And sometimes, I do not even know if my right arm is attached.”
“So what I mean to say is, holding the spoon is no problem for me! Cool the soup as much as you want until you are ready to eat!”
Callis’ expression dimmed momentarily at the undying’s small gesture of radiating warmth.
?…He’s too big-hearted for me. But I’m used to having dreams beyond me. If only to achieve that…?
Having made up her mind, Callis opened her mouth, extended her tongue, and slowly licked up from the bottom of the spoon.
The undying didn’t show it, but he was slightly conscious of her action.
?…Do all Military State officers eat like this? The officers are worse. Other people seemed to eat normally!?
?Soup alone isn’t enough after all… I’ll need to sneak here tonight again to grab a bite, if only to quickly recover and seal the deal.?
It was you? You were the one swiping food?
I sighed for the umpteenth time. Well, that food was meant for her anyway. Considering the fixed number of diners, I could tolerate it as the cafeteria’s guardian.
I rose from my seat before the others and carried my empty plate to the kitchen sink.
But right at that moment, Tyr entered the cafeteria with that pitch-black coffin of hers.