Chapter 149: A Simple Cook
As I lifted the tent flap, I caught sight of the guard stationed outside. As soon as our eyes met, his giant body stiffened into a frantic salute. “G-Gen—”
“Remember…” I reminded, winking at the terrified guard as I pressed my finger to my lips.
Without waiting for a response, I made my way back to the growing cluster of soldiers cheering louder than before.
The fight between the half-elf girl named Cedry and the long-armed Jona seemed to have come to an end as a new pair of fighters brawled it out on an earthen platform a conjurer had erected.
The casual spar of the two soldiers had escalated into a full-blown event as the audience moved logs and tree stumps to make seats. Some of the more enthusiastic members of the crowd began making wagers with their peers, from the meat slices of their next meals to more precious resources like alcohol that they had smuggled inside hidden water pouches. All in all, the encampment had a jubilant atmosphere that was unbefitting of this continent’s current circumstances.
Blending myself in with the crowd, I made my way toward the front of the makeshift arena where I found Cedry and Jona spectating from the ground.
“It was a good fight,” I remarked, taking a seat next to the dagger-wielding soldier named Jona. “Who ended up winning?”
The half-elf who fought using gauntlets. just like my father. looked at me with a victorious smile as she raised up her hand flauntingly in front of Jona.
Jona ruffled his short, disheveled hair in frustration. “One time, Cedry. You’ve won one time.”
“The first victory of many to come,” she snickered.
I chuckled, looking at the two of them bicker. “I wish I could’ve seen how it ended.”
Letting out a laugh, Jona stuck out a hand. “My name is Jona, and the immature girl next to me is Cedry. I don’t think I’ve seen you around. Are you a new recruit?”
“I guess you can say that.” I shook both their hands. “You can call me Arthur.”
“Well, Arthur, judging by how things are going, it looks like we’ll be able to enjoy a lot more fights tonight,” Jona said, focusing back at the fight currently taking place.
The fight had just ended with a large, bear-like augmenter finally landing a finishing hit on his light-footed opponent. As the defeated soldier jumped off the stage, nursing his stricken cheek, my gaze fell on Jona and Cedry once more. Jona’s features were fairly ordinary, with sharp angles and a slight, beaked nose. Cedry, on the other hand, stood out a bit more. With her radiant gaze that seemed full of life and her playful demeanor. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were popular with both men and women. Just in the short time I’d sat down next to them, at least a dozen or so peers walked by, making jokes or congratulating her on her win.
“—country bumpkin! Get your head outta yer ass,” a loud, gritty voice snapped.
I turned toward the source of the voice only to see the bear-like augmenter staring back down at me.
I looked around until I realized that he was talking to me. “Do I really look like I came from the countryside?” I asked Jona.
“Stop going after fresh recruits, Herrick, and grow the balls to at least spar with someone in your weight class,” Cedry hissed back, eliciting a howl of laughter from the rest of the crowd.
I got up to my feet. “It’s okay. We’re just having fun, right?”
“Y-Yeah,” the balding Herrick quickly agreed. “I’m using this chance to show the new recruits some pointers!”
Taking off my cloak with Sylvie inside, I hopped up to the elevated stage and held out my hand. “Well then, please give me lots of pointers.”
Herrick grabbed my hand, squeezing it a little too tightly for it to be a warm gesture. “ I’ll give you the first move.”
Letting go of my hand, he spread his arms out with a smug grin pasted on his greasy face as his eyes glanced over toward a group of girls seated in the audience.
While Herrick’s body seemed a bit too round to be efficient in battle, the layer of mana enveloped around him told me he was a competent mage.
Wanting to see how he fought, I limited the amount of mana I willed into my body as I stepped in range to attack.
As my fist approached his abdomen, I could see the mana gathering where he thought I’d hit. The giant augmenter barely flinched as my fist sunk into his heaping stomach.
“You’re going to have to try harder than that, country brat!” he chuckled as I pulled away.
I shook my hand. “So strong.”
“Now, let me show you some pointers.” His smile grew as he glanced again at the group of girls watching us.
He swung a giant hand to swat me off the platform. Taking the hit, I landed on my bottom rather embarrassingly but without any injuries. “Oh man, I couldn’t even react.”
There was a bit of irritation on my opponent’s face as he assumed I’d go sailing off the stage, but his arrogant smirk was still there. “You’re lucky I held back or you would’ve gone flying. Those Alacryan bastards aren’t going to go easy on you, though.”
“You’re right. Thank you.” I tried to sound enthusiastic like a country bumpkin who was now part of a military filled with mages of noble blood but it was becoming tiring.
The fight went on for several more minutes with Herrick trying to swat me out of the arena using his meaty hands while I pretended to get the full brunt of his attack only to stumble a few feet.
“Come on, Herrick. I know you’re going easy on him but don’t baby him all day!” a soldier cried out while his peers agreed.
“I-I just don’t wanna to hurt the twig, you know?” he replied, his frustration evident on his face.
So far, I’d gathered that by the callouses on his hands and the way his arms naturally attacked, he used a heavy axe as his primary weapon. However, besides his decent control in body-strengthening, he had no other tricks up his sleeve. Deciding that my assessment of him was over, I used the chance when Herrick reached over to grab me by twisting my body and tossing him over my shoulders off of the arena.
The whole act looked like one big blunder. Even Herrick was surprised to see himself looking up at me from the floor.
“W-Wait, I tripped!” he cried, looking around desperately as he waved his hands. “That doesn’t count.”
The crowd erupted into laughter and jeers as they mockingly booed Herrick away from the stage.
Even while only using ten percent of my mana and withholding any use of elemental spells, Herrick was a joke. But I couldn’t say that out loud, of course.
“Looks like I got lucky,” I said helplessly up on the stage while scratching my cheek.
“I wanted to beat Herrick’s giant ass, but I guess it can’t be helped.” A tall woman with her black hair tied back tightly behind her head jumped up onstage. “Let’s see if you really were just lucky, greenhorn.”
“Please go easy on me,” I said placatingly.
My opponent was well over six feet, just a few inches taller than me, but her thin and toned frame made her look even taller than she actually was. With a dark complexion and sharp, narrow eyes to complement her straight black hair, she looked like a panther ready to pounce.
“I’m used to fighting with a staff so I’d appreciate it if you used a weapon as well,” she said as a wooden staff appeared out of the dimension ring on her finger. From the ring she had just used and the rich colors of her clothes, it was obvious that she was a noble but that fact seemed trivial to her.
“Don’t kill the kid, Nyphia!” her friend cried out in genuine concern.
I chuckled timidly. “Sorry, the smith is repairing my sword right now but I can—”
“Someone give the boy a sword his size,” Nymphia snapped impatiently as she stretched her neck.
An unfamiliar soldier threw me his short sword still in it’s sheath almost immediately. I let out a sigh as I carefully slid the blade out of its scabbard and covered it in mana to dull the edges.
Unlike Herrick, my new opponent didn’t let her guard down as she dropped to a low stance. She held her wooden staff out with it’s tip aimed at the ground while her feline eyes peered straight into me.
“Poor boy, getting marked by Nyphia,” someone muttered behind me.
Letting out a sigh, I took a stance as well. I was hoping to use this casual event to get a sense for some of the soldiers here but this girl seemed to have other plans. “Are you ready?”
The dark-skinned augmenter let out an irritated scoff, as if I’d somehow offended her. “Are you ready?”
She pounced on me like a bolt of lightning as soon as I nodded in reply. Her body remained low even as she was in range while she pulled her staff in close to her body, ready to strike me.
Just from her first strike, I could tell what sort of fighter Nyphia was. Her control over mana was excellent—on a different tier than Herrick—but she lacked real experience. Her moves were fast but also obvious. Her intent all but leaked out of her body with each attack she attempted. Most likely, she only had experience fighting against guards or other professionals too scared to hurt her, which didn’t help her short temper and over-inflated confidence.
Each lunge, swipe, thrust, and swing she threw at me, I parried or dodged—but just barely. On the outside, it looked like I was getting pushed back as I desperately tried to keep up. To Nyphia, her temper reached a new high after each failed attempt to land a solid hit.
As my back foot leaned off the edge of the platform we were on, I used the momentum from Nyphia’s over-emotional thrust to send her out of bounds to end the match but she kept her balance with the help of her staff.
Leaping back to the center, she shook her head. “Not this time. Amber, raise a cage around the arena!”
“This is just a friendly competition, not a death match,” I argued.
She disagreed. “No, this is practice for the war that’s right in front of our noses. And in war, there are no ‘out-of-bounds’”—she whipped her head over her shoulder—“Amber. The cage.”
Her friend, or lackey, stood up and raised an earthen gate around the arena with a short chant and a wave of her wand, locking me up with this rabid cat that thought herself a mighty tiger.
I looked around and while some of the soldiers shared glances of concern, none of them spoke up. I was beginning to regret this whole idea of ‘blending in’ and was tempted to just blow apart the arena and walk out but I held myself back. With the possibility of an Alacryan ship, or several, veering down to this shore, I didn’t want to take any chances.
With experience from my past life, I’d come to realize that people become complacent when in the presence of a powerful ally. They come to expect to be spoonfed victory from the comforts of the backline when someone as revered as a lance is amongst them. At least, that was the case in my life. I might have it backwards here—who knows, maybe having a lance with them would give them the confidence and zeal to fight harder, but I was skeptical of that.
“You make a good point,” I faked a smile, staying in character. “Please teach me well.”
With our weapons at the ready, we began once more. A real fight, especially if it involved a sharp-edged weapon, took only a matter of seconds to draw to a conclusion. But with mana as abundant as it was in this world, making mistakes more forgiving than it did in my previous world, fighters did little to correct their flaws and instead, focused on making their strengths even stronger. Even I had succumbed to that mistake when I first came to this world; that is, until that was beaten out of me by the asuras back in Epheotus.
Nyphia dashed toward me once more, this time feinting left before using the other end of her staff in a quick, ascending swipe.
I dodged close enough to smell the oaky smell coming from her polished staff and countered by pushing her staff up with my free hand. This threw her off balance; I finished by sliding my foot behind her back foot and pushing forward.
With the strength of my assimilated body along with the added mana, Nyphia was sent tumbling backward. The crowd of soldiers that had become tense since the cage had been conjured let out cries of dumbfounded amazement at the turn of events.
Glaring at me balefully as her face turned bright scarlet with embarrassment and anger, Nyphia was unable to form the proper words to express herself when a mellow husky voice rang from the crowd. “Mind if I join in on the fun?”
“You’re not joining anything! I just trip—” the dark-skinned noble’s words got caught in her throat as she realized whose voice it was. “M-Madam Astera!”
Nyphia lowered her head as she spoke. “Forgive me for my rudeness!”
The woman that my opponent referred to as Madam Astera was none other than the head cook that regarded me with a respectful nod when I had first arrived here. The chef hopped up over the cage with a nimbleness that made Nyphia’s movement seem infant-like.
I gave a quick bow, remembering to keep in character. “May I have the pleasure of knowing who I’m sparring with?”
Madam Astera bobbed a quick curtsy with her apron. “Just a simple cook.”