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151 Slums

 The northern side of Lancaster City was its rundown slums.

This was once a residence for the common citizen. Although it was not as elegant and noble as the southern aristocratic district or as prosperous as the trade district at the east, nor was it too different from the rather chaotic western black-market district-but everyone could live well.

Until the fall of Tierra.

Lancaster wasn't destroyed by much then-but that only applied to the noble residences and the trade district.

The residential area of the common citizens had been struck most heavily, and the lack of management or maintenance reduced it to battered slums. Many buildings devastated by the fires of war then were left as it was, about to collapse at any given moment even though so long had passed since then.

And in the ruins of one of those houses, three shivering children were surrounding a dying bonfire, doing all they could to draw a little warmth from the cinders.

Simba was an orphan whose parents had died in the war years ago. The house they left had been occupied by local thugs, and not only was he unable to fight back at his young age, he was chased out after they had taken every last bit of valuables.

In the end, he was left adrift, ending up int the wreck of a house, doing odd jobs for merchants in the trade district day after day with some theft on the side, but always barely surviving.

Even so, winter was longer than expected this year. All the food, firewood and every last coin they had prepared before it was used up, and yet the sun seemed to have no intention of revealing its face amidst the clouds.

"Fire's dying. Add some wood," Zazu suggested hesitantly.

Simba shook his head. "No. We can't take anymore planks off this house-it's already weak enough, and any wind would topple it if we keep dismantling it."

The prolonged winter had bloated the price of wood at the shops to one rion per stack, something Simba and his brothers simply couldn't afford.

"Brother..."

Nala's eyes were closed as she leaned on Zazu. The skinny and sickly little girl was drifting between dream and consciousness and mumbling very softly. "I'm so hungry..."

The two boys looked at each other, but there was nothing the adults could do, much less children like them.

"If push comes to shove, I'll get some wood from outside the city." He gritted his teeth as he made his choices. If I could just get a handful of stacks, we'll have wood to burn, and food for Nala!"

"Don't be reckless!" Zazu's face dropped as he quickly tried to warn off Simba. "The forests are as wild as it is fearsome, and few of those rion-thirsty lumberjacks ever come back. Even experienced hunters and well-equipped city watch have been killed! I've even heard from the mercenaries at the taverns that they had spotted a rare Dragonfang-those things are much scarier than saber-toothed tigers!"

"But there's no other way," Simba said in anguish. "There are no odd jobs to be done in winter, and there's no one on the streets to even steal from ..."

Zazu was about to retort when both he and Simba promptly stopped talking-they heard footsteps outside.

The weight on those steps were light-the boys would never have heard anything if it wasn't for the crunching sound of thick snow.

Could it be slave traders?

The boys shared a look and quietly picked up large stones which were half the size of a head from the ground, their hearts quickening in nervousness.

Their lives would be over if children like them were captured and sold as slaves-no slave owner would want sickly, scrawny and filthy children like them, and they would definitely be sent to illegal mines and be worked to their deaths, or simply fed to the monsters of various gladiator arenas...

However, both Simba and Zazu breathed in relief when that person finally arrived by the door, and they remained alert although not as much as before.

The person was a tall and skinny middle-aged man who calls himself Mufasa. The sword he carried over his back was distinctly different from the thick, heavy weapons of other mercenaries: it was weirdly long and narrow, not to mention that it only had a single edge. Moreover, despite the cold weather, he was only dressed in something simply sewn out of sackcloth that resembled a tramp.

But to call him a tramp would be wrong: those rags were actually very clean and unsullied in any manner, just as it was so flat that there were no signs of wrinkle over those clothes.

Considering that both washing and ironing would take a lot of effort, Simba wondered if something sewn out of broken rags need to be washed.

This wasn't the first time Simba and Zazu had met him.

***

When the winter season first began, the middle-aged man had excitedly asked if they wanted to join a mysterious church. He did not mention which church it was, which was why Simba ignored him, believing that it was a cult that must not be named.

He did want to drag Zazu and Nala into some bizarre cult, and then be used as offerings to evil gods.

Fortunately, Mufasa did not keep pestering them and left after Simba declined.

He returned a few times, however, but would still quickly leave whenever his preaching failed.

And now, Mufasa raised his hands in surrender when he saw the youth and the stones in their hands, indicating that he meant no harm.

"It's goddamned cold around here. You wouldn't mind me using the fire too, yes?" He then said, self-indulgently approaching the fire as if he did not notice Simba and Zazu's hostile looks.

However, none of them saw what they did but the fire suddenly bloomed. The radiant flames shone in the house that only half a ceiling left as warmth extended, with Simba feeling as comfortable as having a warm water bath-and he could no longer remember when was the last time he had one.

Meanwhile, Mufasa spied a bull femur in a corner that was riddled with bite marks[1] and could not help but lift a brow.

Hence, he whipped out a helm-like cauldron out of nowhere and put it over the fire, before going outside to scoop up clean snow to boil in it. After that, he took out some spice Simba did not know the name of and put it into the cauldron, before finally drawing out a piece of bacon which he cut into paper-thin slices with his long sword that he cooked inside.

Simba couldn't help but blink. Is that really long sword a knife to cut meat with instead? Wouldn't it hurt others, given how lengthy and inconvenient it looked?

But soon enough, the sweet scent of meat soup extended, leaving Simba and the others salivating.

[1] bad Simba! Go back to your slimy yet satisfying stuff