The rising sun peeked above the horizon while the chickens greeted it brightly. As sunlight broke through the wavering morning clouds, it bathed the stone-paved road in light.
Daybreak in the little town was still shrouded in thin mist.
I stretched lazily, secured my apron and began wiping down the tables and chairs in the store. When that was done, I went to the kitchen and took inventory of our ingredients.
"Good morning, Little Almond."
"Good morning, Grandma! Breakfast is over there. Eat it while it's still hot!"
With that, I pushed open the store's main door and let the morning crowd flood in.
Oh, and as for this plainly-dressed, kind-faced grandma? That's my Master Attendant, the one who summoned me.
"Big Sister Almond, good morning! Mother said she wants to reserve five of your purple yam balls today!"
"Good morning, Little Wen! Okay, be careful on your way to school!"
"Morning, Little Almond! I want a cup of peanut and almond tea!"
"Big Brother Ah Ze, good morning! Here you go! Careful, it's hot!"
The shop was already bustling with customers early in the morning, but I took my time taking their orders. To see their bright smiles when they taste our desserts - it made me feel like everything I'd ever done was worth it.
I have to work hard in Grandma's store so that more people can taste these delicious desserts! With that goal in mind, my heart felt just a little fuller.
"Little Almond, what's making you so happy today? You're bubbling over just like this pot."
"Big Sister Calamus? Wah?! I forgot to turn off the stove!"
"Hahaha, seems like business is good as usual. Oh, right - have you made any progress in memorizing the medical theory I taught you last time?"
"Wow, Little Almond is really amazing!"
"Calamus, you're here." Grandma slowly hobbled in from the courtyard.
"Good morning, Grandma. Do you feel better after trying the previous medical prescription? Should I adjust the formula?"
"No need, no need. I feel much better. Thank you for your hard work, Calamus."
Big Sister Calamus is just like me - she's also a Food Soul. But unlike our customers, she drops by the store every few days to visit Grandma and prescribe her some medicine.
Big Sister Calamus is always kind and generous, and a brilliant herbalist on top of that. Under her watchful eye, Grandma has remained in good health.
But as Grandma's Food Soul, I can't always have Big Sister Calamus doing everything for me. So, I have decided to learn some medical theory from her. That way, I can take better care of Grandma in the future and develop nourishing snacks for her.
Gazing at Big Sister Calamus's back, I reminded myself that I must work even harder.
Night fell. As the streetlights surrounded the little town in a halo of warm yellow light, yet another busy day slowly gave way to the chirping of cicadas in the breeze.
After cleaning up the storefront, I walked into the courtyard and saw Big Sister Calamus sitting by the stone table, head in her hands. Her brows were locked together in deep thought.
"Big Sister Calamus... are you okay? Is something wrong... Do you want to try some of the new desserts I made today?"
I walked over and put down the date cakes I was carrying. "They're really sweet!"
"Thank you, Little Almond."
Big Sister Calamus smiled like she always did, as if what I'd just seen was simply a trick of the light.
"Big Sister Calamus... Why do you always come to see Grandma...?"
After a brief silence, I asked one of the questions that had long dwelled in my heart.
"Grandma treated me very well in the past - she always took care of me and gave me sweets to eat. Now that Grandma is old, I need to return the favor."
Grandma once told me that she used to be the servant of a very important person, but she never told me who that person was or where she came from. Big Sister Calamus's answer seemed to connect some dots.
"Oh - so Big Sister Calamus stayed there, too?"
"There? What did Grandma tell you?"
Big Sister Calamus wrinkled her forehead, sounding alarmed.
"Grandma never told me... She only said that it's all in the past. Did they... Did they bully Grandma there?"
I don't know why, but Big Sister Calamus displayed the same strange facial expression as Grandma when I mentioned that place.
A sense of foreboding welled up in my heart.
Yet Big Sister Calamus just patted me on the head.
"No, that person... he treated us very well. Look, I learned all my medical knowledge from him. That person also really liked Grandma's sweet desserts."
I felt the warmth from Big Sister Calamus's palm in each pat. Even though I still had some lingering doubts, my spirits lifted as I thought of everyone around me.
Grandma always wishes for her dessert store to bring warmth and happiness to everyone; To be a place where all their fatigue and worries can be left behind, even for a while.
I made a silent promise to myself - I will not let Grandma down.
Some time later, Grandma fell sick. She had always been perfectly healthy before, but now she couldn't even leave her bed.
I could not find Big Sister Calamus, so I could only ask the Big Sister from a neighboring shop to take care of the store while I consulted each of the town's doctors in turn. But none of them could diagnose this strange illness. They merely prescribed some medicine that even I could tell would be useless.
After saying goodbye to the last doctor, I paced about the room anxiously. I wanted to go out and find Big Sister Calamus, but I couldn't leave Grandma by herself.
Seeing the pained expression on Grandma's face as she lay prone on her bed - in that moment, a feeling of anxiety and worry crept over me.
Suddenly, loud shouting and clattering footsteps sounded from the store. Before I even had the chance to go and look, those footsteps were already at the door.
A few people in black robes pushed it open roughly and barged in without a sliver of hesitation.
I spread my arms out protectively, guarding by the bedside.
"Who are you...?"
"You don't need to know that. All you need to know is that we're here to punish a defector," the black-robed man, who appeared to be their leader, said coldly.
"There is only one outcome for a slave who dares to abandon their master."
A flash of silver light reflected off his knife as the man slashed towards Grandma.
With my weak soul power, I could barely block it.
"Huh, so it's just a weak little Food Soul. Everyone, attack!"
The black-robed man glanced at me with a disdainful look. The others also started pulling out knives and rushed my way.
There was no way I could let them hurt Grandma!
Just as I was about to make my last stand, a familiar figure appeared before my eyes and the black-robed men toppled neatly to the ground.
It was Big Sister Calamus!
"Calamus Wine? Aren't you afraid that our master will punish you?" Their leader glared viciously at her.
"Hmm? If I were afraid, I would not have came."
She raised her hand to reveal several silver needles.
Seeing that they were at a disadvantage, the black-robed men scrambled to their feet and scattered away.
The bed sheets rustled as Grandma opened her eyes with some effort. She must've been woken up by the noise.
I rushed to her side.
"Grandma, Little Almond, I'm sorry. I arrived late..."
"Little Almond, Calamus... [cough] You're... all here... [cough]"
Grandma just barely managed to get those words out before succumbing to a spasm of violent coughing.
Big Sister Calamus and I let out shocked cries in unison. After Big Sister Calamus's administration of medicine, Grandma slowly stabilized.
"Big Sister Calamus, I..."
"It's okay. I know what you're going to ask."
Big Sister Calamus sighed, then glanced towards Grandma.
"Now that it has come to this, I can only tell you the truth."
"That person... was my Master Attendant too. He was someone with great medical skills and of high status, and was also extremely strict. It was through him that I first learned medicine, and I was often scolded and punished by him."
"At that time, I had a strange medicinal smell around me, and most people would not approach me. There was just one old lady who was willing to speak to me, comfort me and even make sweets for me to eat. That was when I met Grandma."
"Later on, I learned that the person had poisoned all his servants from the very beginning. He was the only one with the antidote. This poison would take effect after a certain amount of time, depending on one's condition. If it progressed quickly, it took three to five years; If it worked slowly, it might take ten years."
"When the poison took effect, the servants would not die immediately but they would experience endless pain... Many people would willingly submit themselves to that person just for the antidote, and that was exactly how he controlled his servants."
"Of course, he wouldn't give the antidote to everyone who begged for it. If that person thought the poisoned individual was of no use to them, he would let them die. As if... as if they were dolls to be played with."
"Later on, they discovered that I was looking for the antidote for Grandma. I was afraid he would create trouble for me, so I lied that Grandma had already died and secretly sent her here."
"And so, Grandma set up this store, and now she has your help too. At first I thought... everything was resolved, and all I had to do was find the antidote..."
"But who would've guessed, that person investigated my whereabouts. It's my fault for not being cautious enough. Don't worry, I will settle this matter."
Big Sister Calamus's voice seemed a little hoarse as she clenched her fists tightly.
I was quiet for a long while, unable to speak.
"It was me... who brought this upon you..."
Grandma said with great difficulty, before raising her hand to beckon us closer.
"If it weren’t for Calamus helping me run away, if it weren’t for Little Almond helping me take care of the shop, how would I have had such a life? You are the ones who’ve worked the hardest... I'm old, I can't do much anymore..."
"What... it was never too much for us! Big Sister Calamus is so strong! She will definitely have a plan. Grandma will definitely live to be a hundred years old!"
I could not stop the shaking of my shoulders. My tears splattered on the edge of the bed.
Even Big Sister Calamus started to choke up.
"Grandma, I will definitely find the antidote formula."
"Silly kids, it's not like I don't know what that person is capable of... Thank you... You are all good children. I also know that my days are numbered..."
Grandma reached out to hold us, gently touching us with that warmth.
"But I am already so very content... In the future, you must take care of yourselves.."
Not too long after, Grandma passed away.
Big Sister Calamus took care of the funeral proceedings for me.
"Little Almond, you... What are your plans after this...?"
"I don't know... I want to continue making Grandma's sweets."
I suddenly thought of something.
"Big Sister Calamus... I'd like to know... the people like Grandma, are there many of them... Are they... are they also struggling..."
Big Sister Calamus stayed silent for quite some time before answering me.
"There's a place... Perhaps it can help them, and it will also allow you to continue making desserts. I know the person in charge there. Would you like to go?"
V. Almond Tofu
In a small town in Light Kingdom, there was a famous sweets store. The owner of that store was a kind old lady, and she had a Food Soul named Almond Tofu.
Almond Tofu has a talent for making desserts and a hard-working attitude. She took on all the miscellaneous chores and errands of her own volition, regardless big or small.
The two ran the store perfectly. The desserts they made were numerous in variety and delicious in taste - and so, they were very well-regarded by the townsfolk.
When the store owner passed away under unforeseen circumstances, the store was acquired by a businessman and later became a local specialty.
Meanwhile, in a place called the Ink Pavilion, Dongtang was showing Almond Tofu around.
"Chrysanthemum Wine, the ancient books say that excessive drinking harms the spirit and weakens the blood, with consequences being illness or even death. So on this day, how much wine have you drank?"
"Then you should also know that in the ancient books, they say wine can clear the meridians, purge cold humors, and fix chills. It is truly a one-of-a-kind treasure."
"You... I speak of quantity, not of quality."
"Ah, then what does it have to do with me?"
Almond Tofu looked at the yellow-clothed young woman and the white-clothed young man walking towards her, and blinked at them curiously.
"They are Chrysanthemum Wine and Laba Noodles. Ah, they're always like this - don't take it seriously," Dongtang said, smiling.
"Big Sister Chrysanthemum Wine, Big Brother Laba Noodles, hello! I'm Almond Tofu. If you'll like to have some desserts, you can always come to me! And I can do a lot of chores, too!"
"Are you the Little Almond Dongtang spoke of? You certainly are a cute little sister. Ah... don't worry, you'll have Laba Noodles to help out with all the chores in the pavilion. By the way, do you drink wine?"
"Little Almond, let's go over there~"
"Ah? Oh, okay!"