Claude gazed at the shy Kefnie and rolled his eyes at Eriksson. Was this the surprise?
Eriksson didn't get what he was trying to convey at all; he just thought he'd done his friend a huge favour.
"Surprise! You didn't expect this, huh? Alright, Kefnie, I brought Claude over. Look after him! I've got to go take a look at some stuff. See you later!"
"Hey..." Claude shouted, but the troublemaker was already gone.
The two supposed lovebirds stood awkwardly. Claude had been quite the player back on earth, but he was just an inexperienced teen now.
"Cough... Ahem, good to see you, Kefnie. I didn't think I'd meet you here," Claude coughed while he tried to figure out how to extricate himself from the situation and give that bastard a good beating.
Kefnie's already pink face turned crimson from collar to hairline.
"I'm glad to see you too... Want something to drink?"
Claude stared at her for half a moment, then realised she was holding a tray and wore a waitress's uniform.
"You.. You're... here..."
"This is The Mermaid's tent. I'm helping my sister out for the night."
The girl spoke with surprising uncharacteristically bold pride.
"I see..." Claude mumbled.
Thank goodness she wasn't there on a date with someone else. He must just have been overthinking things. Eriksson had probably brought him specifically because he heard she was working there. He supposed it made sense. His former self had had a serious crush on the little thing and his friends had read every bit of courtesy towards her on his part as a continuation of that crush.
"What do you have? I am a little thirsty," Claude continued, somewhat less awkward now he'd figured things out.
His friends had put in all this effort, so he might as well use the opportunity to catch his breath.
"Have a seat," Kefnie said as he led him to an empty table, her face suddenly a bright sun, "We have honeyed milk tea, honeyed flower tea, honeyed apple juice, honeyed cucumber juice, honeyed mixed berry juice, honeyed blueberry juice, honeyed orange juice--"
"--Why is everything honeyed?"
"It's new year's eve, of course everything has to be honeyed! Especially here--" The girl's cheeks reddened again. "--where all the kids are looking to make couples."
Honeyed drinks for a sweet night? Claude accepted his defeat before the simple reasoning.
"Let me have a cup of honeyed milk tea then."
"Alright. That's five sunars," Kefnie said, staring at Claude.
Five sunars? Claude nearly spat out the tea he hadn't drunk yet.
A cup of honeyed milk tea was usually just one sunar. Now it was five times that?! Sweet night indeed! He sighed and took out the money, He should not have walked in here without checking prices first, he chastised himself.
"Thanks. Just a moment." Kefnie chirped and left.
The tent was pretty big, around 30 meters square. At least half of that was just the counter, however. It stood in the middle like a continent and the tables dotted the space around it like islands. A row of bar stools also hugged the counter.
Kefnie returned about a minute later with his tea.
"Business doesn't look that good. The wargod shrine is chock 'n block," Claude started awkwardly, trying his best to keep the awkward silence in their hearts at bay.
The girl giggled.
"It's still early, that's why. It'll pick up a lot later tonight. It'll be so packed I won't even have space to walk! The high prices will actually attract more people, not less, since the boys will take the chance to show off how wealthy they are."
Claude stared at her.
"D'you come up with this?"
"No, my sister did. She's over there--" Kefnie poked an elbow in the counter's general direction.
"Makes sense," Claude shrugged, "You learn something new every day--" Claude took a sip of his tea and flinched. "--Too sweet. How much honey did you put in?
"Is it really sweet?--" The girl blinked frantically. "--I added two extra spoons for you. If you think it's too sweet, I can add a bit more milk tea."
"Oh? You offer refills?"
"No, this is special service since you're my first customer tonight."
"Can you bring an empty cup instead?"
She glanced at him, a little confused, but did as he asked. He poured half the sugar concoction into the empty cup and held it out to her.
Kefnie vanished for a few moments and returned with a full cup.
"What about the other one?" she asked.
"Could I ask you to join me for a drink, beautiful lady?" Claude asked in a somewhat overly dramatic voice.
The girl didn't humour him, instead she just picked up the cup and took a sip.
"Whoa, it really is too sweet. This won't do. Let me fill it up!"
She vanished again, returning with another full cup, and the two sat and sipped their tea for several, long, awkward moments.
"Warm tea is great in this cold weather." the girl remarked when she could no longer stand the awkward silence, "My father gave me rides on his shoulders when I was younger, and I went to the earth goddess shrine every year with my mother and sister. I always loved sipping milk tea with them on the way back the most. I never thought I'd end up the one to sell the tea."
"...Sorry for reminding you..."
Claude found some habits harder to unlearn than others. If he hadn't transmigrated yet, he would not hesitate to listen to the girls by the bar talk about their past for a good hour or two while he doused them with a few glasses of alcohol. It kept him from having to sleep in a cold bed. Now he was young again, no more than a child, and he lived in a much more conservative world. He treated her to a drink out of habit, but he'd kept his more sensual habits in check.
"It's not your fault," the girl half-smiled, cup clasped tightly in her hands, her eyes somewhere else. "I think back often enough. How wonderful it was when my parents were still around. We were so happy... But, one day, Uncle Manaro told us my dad had died... The sky fell on our heads that day. Mother became ill that same week and left us a year later.
"Sister hugged me the whole night, but I couldn't stop crying. She found a job and I was left at home, alone. I don't even remember how many times over I soaked my teddybear. My sister kept telling me to be tough because one day I'd have to look out for myself. She wants me to find a good man to look after me."
"I'm sure you will. You're a fine girl, you know; you're mature, a good listener, and you're very cute," Claude consoled.
He nearly ran away. She obviously had the hots double and back for him; a shy girl like her didn't open up to just anyone, especially not just any boy her age, about those kinds of things. He didn't want emotional complications in his life right now though, bad or good. All he wanted was to study magic. And once he knew magic, he wanted to travel the world. He couldn't do that if he had to leave a girl behind.
And then there was his father's plan to send him off to Nubissia with the military... There just wasn't a future for him and Kefnie.
"Thanks..." The girl squeaked quietly, her cheeks red as she snuck an obvious glance at him, "Sorry, I don't know why I suddenly told you all that... I'm so embarrassed..."
"No worries. We're schoolmates. What can we do if not listen to each other?" Claude said, giving the word 'schoolmates' particular emphasis.
"Thanks. Oh, someone's calling!" The girl darted away, her still half-filled cup left on the table.
Claude finished his cup and watched as people started pouring into the tent. Kefnie was right. Rich boys and young men were flocking to the tent in droves, potential lovers in tow, to spend their money.
Kefnie couldn't stop and chat anymore, but she kept sneaking glances at him every chance she got. His back started sweating after the nineteenth glance, so he prepared to leave, but Eriksson and Welikro sauntered into the tent at that moment and caught sight of him and the two cups.
"Who's is this?" Eriksson asked.
"Kefnie's. I treated her to a drink but things have gotten too busy so she's back at work," Claude answered.
"Looks like you're making good progress!" Eriksson smiled, "You better thank me later!"
"Where's your sister?" Claude asked Welikro instead of gracing Eriksson with a reply, "Didn't your dad ask you to keep an eye on her?"
"She told me to buzz off because I was 'chasing all the good boys away' I think were her words," Welikro shrugged helplessly.
Eriksson burst out laughing.
"Your dad didn't ask whether you could actually keep an eye on her when he asked you, did he? Your sister's a bear, not a human!"
Welikro's sister looked more like a bear than a woman, it was true. Unfortunately she still had a vixen's witt. Welikro's father often lamented the fact that his daughter wasn't a boy, she would have made the perfect son. Alas, she didn't have the right jewellery, so she was instead a terrifying daughter.
"Stop mocking his sister. What d'ya wanna drink? My treat," Claude quickly interjected.
Welikro might fully agree with Eriksson, but that didn't mean he would allow him to voice their shared thoughts. No one was allowed to mock his sister, even with a truth with which he fully agreed. It was a slight to his honour since she was his sister, and that he would never tolerate.
Eriksson knew that as well, so he accepted the change of topic and ordered honeyed blueberry juice. Welikro took the mixed fruit option. Claude ordered another cup of tea, red tea this time, and asked nothing be added.
They sat and chatted as they waited for the night to finish.
"Come to think of it, why did Baron Robert have to greet Sir Fux? Isn't he a baron? Sir Fux is only a baronet, he should have to greet Baron Robert, he's only a half-step peer, after all," Claude asked.
Eriksson clicked his tongue.
"Mayor Robert is the last in a three-generation limited-peerage. His grandfather was made a peer because he fought under Stellin IX in the civil war. Unlike your father, or Sir Fux, he didn't get his position through hard work or talent, he got it thanks to his title and the connections that came with it. Thanks to all that, he doesn't have a foundation in the town, not one comparable to Sir Fux who's Whitestag's only member of the Council of Dignitaries, after all."
Claude nodded thoughtfully. No wonder his father didn't bring Mayor Robert into the talks regarding the new trade route.
The new year's bell rang and announced the new year, and, with it, Claude's second year in this world.