Let me set the scene.
Sundown is an idyllic little village, a hole in the mountain you could say, surrounded by leafy shrubs, trees, and wild flowers. Unpaved roads of bright reddish mud as far as the eye can see and colorful brick houses with blue tiled roofs line the streets. On one side of the village you can view an endless splay of misty hills and mountains. On the other, the towering city of Little Sungao, with their gray skyscrapers looming in the distance like petrified giants. It's a village between two worlds, the savage wilderness and the concrete jungle. I've lived around these parts my whole life, but hesitate to call it home.
No, my home is a shabby two-story way down the south side of the nearest mountain where it's a miracle some random mudslide hasn't taken it out yet. It's isolated from most everyone else--just the way I like it. If I could live off the fat of the land like a real mountain man, these people wouldn't smell the underside of my shoe. But alas, I'm a mountain cream puff, so I walk here once a week to get groceries and pay my water bill.
I adjust my face mask just as a stranger narrowly misses bumping into me, hardly paying attention to anything not-his-girlfriend. Those people are the worst.
What's so great about it? Dating, love, marriage. Even having friends is so much work. Let me tell you, as someone who has none, life is so carefree. I stay home all day immersed in the world of fiction novels and snacking on chips--no siblings either, so I don't even have to share. Ahh...I want to be home right now.
My spirit picks up a bit at the sight of my favorite grocery store. It's small and ramshackle, but it's the closest one within walking distance from my house, so it's by far the best. The store owner always forgets my face too, so that's bonus.
I duck inside quietly and browse around for the usual. Rice, bread, butter. The simple things in life. Chips. Can't forget chips. But I can only afford one... Which should I get? BBQ is my favorite, but I've been craving spicy things lately.
"You're so bright and pretty today. As usual," the crackly voice of the old store owner barely distracts me from my internal debate, however the voice that responds back instantly raises my hackles and has me hastily plucking up the collar of my hoodie.
"Thank you... Now, the letter...?"
"Oh my. I had it here just a moment ago... Must have dropped it. Your beauty is so distracting!"
I know exactly who she's talking to. Amon Thulo, our "friendly" neighborhood guard. Mister Popular. They continue jabbering on about some nonsense while I'm here with my back turned trying to sneak around the isles, waiting for that nightmare on legs to leave so I can pay. For the love of all things hellish and holy, how long are they going to--
"Ash, what are you doing, dancing around like that?"
My blood runs cold. Aaand he's got me.
The voice was so close behind, I jumped and dropped the rice bag--which promptly burst open on the floor. For heaven's sake! "W-what does it look like I'm doing?" I tried to sound confidant but my treacherous mouth stuttered at the first opportunity.
"Destroying store property without purchasing first is a crime," says the man nonchalantly.
I swallow hard, desperately trying to salvage whatever's left of the bag. Full price for half the value, just like I intended. Under his bored stare, my armful of goods suddenly feel like a boulder's worth of weight. I can hear the old woman behind the counter tutting to herself, probably annoyed she'll have to clean up the mess later. Well sorry... Pursing my lips together and avoiding all possible eye contact, I maneuver around the armed guard and drop the items on the counter. He's just... staring at me the entire time. I'm gonna get beaten up, aren't I? Gods, I hate this village.
"Wait," he touches my elbow and for a brief moment, our eyes actually meet.
I hate to admit it, but he really is beautiful just as the store owner said. Tall, slender, dark, with long lashes and full lips. Even though short hair is in fashion these days, he keeps his sapphire locks long, always tied up in a high ponytail. I tell you, his hair is long and lustrous like a shampoo commercial, with fluffy bangs framing his face like a high class doll. To top it off, he's got a reputation for being kind, gentle, and just. Women and men alike go crazy for him.
What a load of crabs. He's never been any of that to me.
And I know why.
"Can I help you?" I look away again, not wanting to anger him even by accident. This is the first time he's put his hands on me in any way and it's got me all tense.
Still holding my elbow, he leans down. "Why are you wearing that mask?"
I squirm under the open scrutiny, wanting nothing more than to vanish into thin air. Maybe teleport to outer space. I hear things die quickly out there. I blink rapidly while my brain goes into overdrive, "I'm sick." I throw in a fake cough for good measure.
One pregnant pause later, he mercifully releases me. "That explains the sweat."
I waste not 1 millisecond hauling ass out of there.
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