The sight of a giant mustached bear doing such a menial task would have been comical if it wasn’t for the five other cooks in the kitchen who were cooking with more dexterity than I had ever seen. As if their lives depended on it.
They were all mature men and women, but even if they seemed more skilled with their hands than me, I could tell they weren’t blade dancers. Their movements were quick and efficient, but lacked grace and meaning. I found it slightly irritating.
I should ask around if having this class automatically makes you a fighting snob, I wondered. There had definitely not been any feelings of disgust toward my own martial arts.
But maybe that was exactly because they were arts. There was a unifying philosophy behind the moves. A meaning.
The kitchen was clean, which immediately made it look strange in the context of the establishment it was a part of. There was an opening on one of the walls through which they slid the meals as soon as they were completed. They disappeared right after, most going in the direction of the bar’s main hall, others being taken in the opposite direction to unknown patrons. Those had much better presentations and smelled better.
“Edward,” Bokwen said without looking away from his pot, after a moment of me just standing there. “Glad to have you here so that we can finally complete our discussion. Want to eat anything?”
“I think… I’ll pass,” I said, unsure of what was going on. “Are you really the cook or is this all just to mess with me?” I couldn’t help but add.
“A bit of both,” he said with a smile. “How was your meeting with Maru?”
“Brief,” I shrugged.
He slowly shook his head.
“The girl has been shouldering heavy responsibilities for a while now, and I was hoping she would be able to relate with a delver close to her age. Guess it was too soon to expect results.”
He added a pinch of dried leaves to whatever he was cooking before finally getting to business with the same casual tone. “The elders concluded that your idea might represent the safest option for our goal to be achieved. However, more details regarding how exactly you plan to make it happen are needed before it is accepted.”
“Ardos has a mark from his original shard that will allow him to call a private charon,” I said, feeling the need to be as clear as possible. “All that is needed for him to use it is the Delver title, and I’ll help him get it.”
The stirring stopped and he raised his eyes from the pot to mine.
“I see… that is very interesting,” he mused. “Which shard is he from?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “And I don’t think it matters considering the circumstances.”
“Oh but it does,” he said with a chuckle. “I already knew the answer to my question, though. I was simply curious about the nature of your relationship with the temple and it seems that it is purely professional,” he nodded. “However, I genuinely need to know… What help can you offer him in his long quest for the title?”
I almost allowed myself to frown in confusion but managed to contain myself.
Isn’t it obvious that my job is to let him inside the dungeon?
“I will fill the role of his master,” I said.
The bear busted out laughing, startling the cooks in the process.
“You really are something, Edward!” he said. “I wish I could have seen the knight’s face when he realized that it was his only option. He must have been almost as surprised as when he learned that you were a Worthy Delver at your age.”
His eyes lingered on me, but I did not react in any way to the new piece of information. It certainly explained why the number of delvers in the shard had remained unchanged until I came.
Clearing a dungeon with a titled delver wasn’t enough to get the title. The delver of the party had to have the “Worthy Delver” title.
In retrospect, it was obvious that Bokwen learning that I had such a special title was several times more important than my previous ignorance of the title’s value. But there was no way he wouldn’t have figured it out in these circumstances… Unless I somehow convinced him that I had a master hidden in the shadows all this time.
But on the other hand, I simply did not like the idea of him knowing that I was ignorant of certain things.
“Seeing how you have been blessed with that title,” he started,”would you mind also considering-”
“No,” I said in a neutral tone. “And I’d like you to never bring it up again.”
He sighed, “Well, you cannot fault me for trying. Another delver would have been a great addition to the new generation. Very well, I declare our cooperation now fully in effect.”
He would keep the crazy dryad off me and I would bring his people with me. Didn’t feel like such a bad deal.
“Now, it is obvious that you are not yet qualified to enter a dungeon set to test Ardos and I’m sure you can understand our worry that you might die in an attempt to increase your attributes…”
“I’m planning to do it with the help of hunters. It should be safe, I’ve heard.”
“Oh. Yes, safe indeed… or at the very least, as long as you do not join them on their foolish hunt for the skinwalker. Very reassuring,” he nodded.
I nodded back and turned around, ready to leave.
“On your way back,” I heard him say, “I would advise you to make a stop by the bonfire. It is the main reason I called you this late, since there is a lot a young blade dancer in your position could learn from that event… providing they are attentive enough.”
I had spotted several fires on our way down from the temple, but if one of them was called “the” bonfire, it had to be the biggest one, not too far outside the settlement.
I glanced back at him and the frantic cooks, with the feeling that something odd was definitely going on. Why were they so tense? Who was their hidden guest? Had Bokwen’s intention been for me to ask these questions all along?
But in the end, I resumed walking toward the exit, telling myself that I didn’t have to make everything about me.
I opened the door to the bar and was left slightly disoriented by the laughs, shouts, roars and sounds of bottles clinking that suddenly came crashing into me. It felt like coming out of the water.
“Oh, done already?” Laure said, sparring me a glance from her work. “Did it go well?”
“I think it did,” I said.
“Well, would you look at that! Not too long ago you were begging for food and now you’re making a name for yourself and deals with the leaders of the shard,” she said with a one-armed hug. “I don’t know much of the details, but welcome to the family!”
“I never begged for food.”
Now that I stood behind the bar, I noticed that she was wearing pants that covered most of her mechanical leg, unlike last time.
“Sorry if it’s a strange question,” I suddenly said. “But… how do you power your leg?”
Even with the apology, it still sounded like an incredibly tactless question. However, it only made Laure chuckle.
“There is a high-quality mana stone inside,” she said. “All I have to do is go to the temple each festival to fill it up and I’m set for the next six months, depending on the usage. Which reminds me, the next festival should be soon.”
“Well, it’s only logical that if I run, fight or dance often I will use up the mana faster, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it makes sense. Did Bokwen get it for you?”
She turned and looked at me in the eyes, “Yes, yes he did,” she said, before patting my head. “Are you sure everything went well with him? There’s no need to act tough, you know. I feel kind of responsible for whatever happens to you since I recommended you to the temple.”
“Don’t,” I said, before swatting her hand and jumping to the customer side of the bar. “You helped me in more ways than I can say, but I was wondering… when you learned that I was a delver, why didn’t you refer me to the Red Cross instead of the Temple?”
She smiled, “Don’t you remember what I said back then?”
“You talked about outsiders.”
“Yeah… I cannot say more than that without causing problems for everybody. Sorry.”
I sighed. “Alright, thanks anyway,” I said with a wave. “See you later.”
“No worries, take care of yourself out there!”
I quickly located Bo at a table near the door and made my way through much more intoxicated patrons than the last time.
…Why is he surrounded by older people?
“… And then he broke his arm!” he said with a slam of his fist on the table, which caused shouts of disbelief in his audience.
“Not saying the dipshit didn’t deserve it but…”
“Brat’s a delver though. They get crazy items from the dungeons, who knows what he has.”
“We’re going,” I said as I walked past him.
“Gotta go!” Bo said jovially, “Don’t get too drunk?”
“How can you say that when you’re the one who sold us the beer?” laughed one of the men.
We were back on the streets, me trying to figure out how the boy had gotten so comfortable so fast in there and him grinning like an idiot.
“That was amazing!” Bo said throwing his fists in the air. “Did you see that? They were so nice! They told me stories and listened to mine, even though they were all warriors!”
He certainly was more energetic than usual.
Why am I even wondering “how” when the answer is obvious. We were in a bar.
“I hope you’re not drunk,” I said.
“What? Of course not. Unless you mean drunk with power… then yes, I’m drunk! This was better than I ever thought it would be.”
“Alright, you need to calm down now.”
While he seemed to able to walk correctly, I didn’t feel comfortable sending him to the temple by himself in his current state.
“Follow me, we’re making another stop before going back to the temple.”
“Thank you Edward,” I heard him say as we were approaching the rising flame and leaving the settlement behind. “I would have never dared to enter that place by myself, but now that I have I can see how stupid I was.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know… About how… What we talked about earlier with Lima and Sarn. I may not have a class, but it doesn’t mean that what I do will never matter to anyone. I think I have seen a bit of that today.”
I put a hand on his shoulder, “That’s a good enough way to live, I think,” I said in a tone I really hoped was encouraging, but I knew probably sounded distracted.
The closer we got to the fire, the better I could hear the music. A skillful blend of drums and chords creating an infectious melody that seemed to seep under my skin and demand of my body that it lost itself in the dance.
Ikun Omi spoke, and for the first time what I felt from her was a nostalgic longing.
It seems… that what is left of the mortal tribes hasn’t forgotten everything…
There were two circles around the bonfire.
The closest one to the fire was only made of sweating musicians with hands so fast they seemed to fly over their instruments. The second one was several meters away and consisted of kids and teenagers sitting in silence on the ground. Their eyes were following the two people who moved in the no man’s land between the two groups.
Maboru and the man she was with to guide me to Bunker’s theater. They were dancing under the stars with their unsheathed blades reflecting the blaze.
An exquisite performance to the rhythm of the bewitching song of their swords.