CHANGE OF PLANS
While Lino remained slouched in the back over a chair, panting and heaving as though he were a boar of a man who’d just ran a cross-country marathon, the audience quickly converged onto his creation, inspecting it with a rather prevalent delight in their eyes. Edward’s eyes danced between the lance and Lino, while Jack’s also included Edward in a strange, triangular relationship his eyes had developed.
“This is truly magnificent!” a voice exclaimed among many others. “A perfect General Weapon! If we market it properly... it could go for as high as five hundred mid-quality Qi Stones.”
“Might go up to a whole thousand if we auction it after marketing.” another voice chimed in.
“Screw that, I want it for myself!” another voice chimed in.
“You? You can barely wield a freaking spoon without getting the soup all over yourself!”
“M-marie!! It-it happened just once guys, I swear!!”
“Indeed. Once a day...”
“Ha ha ha...”
“... what do you think Jack?” Edward asked the man standing next to him.
“A nice find--nay, a magnificent find,” Jack said, smiling faintly. “He’s so young yet so well-versed in the crafts.”
“What about the lance?”
“We’ll put it up for the Annual Display of Arts and Crafts in the Capital.” Jack’s words seemed to startle Edward whose eyes quickly widened into eggs.
“A-are you serious?! Weren’t we going to skip this year?” he asked in a hushed tone.
“Alright, alright, calm down. Let’s go talk with your protege.” Jack said as he quickly hobbled over to Lino who was still recovering.
Is there really no way to lessen the drain during array inscription? He contemplated with a frown. This sure is one hell of a masochistic profession... sounds of approaching footsteps startled him from his short dream. He somehow managed to strain his neck and look forward but couldn’t find anything, slowly lowering his gaze until it met two pairs of eyes. One he recognized -- Edward’s -- but the other man was unfamiliar, though Lino quickly guessed that it must be Edward’s brother.
“... you know,” realizing that the two were not saying anything, Lino decided to break the silence. “I don’t mind if women ogle me till the sun burns out, but I do have some pensiveness over men looking like they wanna chain me in the dungeon and have their way with me.”
“... ah! Sorry!” Edward quickly recovered from his stupor, apologizing. “It’s quite rude of us. This here is my older brother, Jack, the best blacksmith of our smithy.”
“Hoh? Really?” Lino mumbled with a faint smile as he saw Jack extend his arm for a shake, replying. “It’s an honor.”
“Honor’s old man’s youngster,” Jack said with a smile. “To think someone of your quality would walk into our humble smithy and apply for a job. Forgive Edward for his rudeness -- as well as mine. We have failed to recognize your true aptitude.”
“Yeah, would be kind of hard without me crafting anything.” Lino said.
“How about we move to my office and talk?” Jack asked as he realized the rest of the audience was growing slightly restless. “Edward, secure the lance and join us after.”
Lino merely nodded and forced himself onto his feet, following Jack. Much like his brother, Jack also barely reached Lino’s thighs, but was similarly stout and wide in his build, with slightly grayed hair and beard and far more wrinkles to account for.
“Are you a Dwarf or just a really short human?” Lino asked innocently.
“Hoh? You really don’t pull your punches, do you?” Jack asked back, glancing at Lino and smiling. “I’m afraid I’m just a really short human. To my knowledge, the Dwarfs had long since withdrawn from the contemporary world into mines and mountains.”
“... I can’t imagine it’s been easy to start this whole thing up, then.” Lino commented lowly.
“It wasn’t,” Jack nodded as he led Lino back to the second floor. “Both Ed and I grew up on the streets for the most part. Ah, right, he’s not my real brother. But, I’ve known him since he was six. For all intents and purposes, he was the only family I’ve ever had.”
“... sorry to hear that.”
“Hah, don’t worry about it,” Jack spoke out dismissively. “Harsh reality taught us early on that we won’t get anywhere in life if we wait for an opportunity. So, one day, I came across a smith who was looking for some laborers. While working for him -- mostly carrying stones, weapons, materials and such -- I observed him to the best of my ability and practiced whenever I had free time. Eventually, he realized it and apprenticed me... and Ed after I asked him.”
“... sounds like a decent man.” Lino commented as Jack stopped in front of a rather ordinary-looking doors, taking out the key and opening them.
“He was,” Jack nodded. “He was tough and firm... but fair. He taught us earnestly until he passed away... leaving Ed and me his name and pride.”
“... Hellenguard Smithy?” Lino asked with a soft exclamation.
“Aye. It was named after his wife,” Jack said. “After his passing, most of the staff left as they didn’t believe Ed and I could run it. It’s been forty years since then.”
“You sure showed them wrong.” Lino entered a rather sparsely-populated room; save for a desk and a couple of chairs, there were only a pair of bookshelves on each end of the wall with the window on the other end being the only source of light.
“Ha ha, you could say that. Please, sit.” Jack pointed to the chair while he himself sat on the other one. “I just hope I did him proud.”
“... I’m sure you did.” Lino smiled faintly.
“Anyway,” Jack took a deep breath as he took out a parchment from the desk. “I will be honest with you--”
“--Lino. You are far too talented for our little piece of heaven,” Jack said earnestly. “You’re young -- from what I’ve noticed not even thirty yet -- you’re talented, already have a masterful foundation and knowledge most lifetime smiths can’t even hope to reach. When Ed told me about you, my initial plan was to take you under my wing regardless of how you did, as someone so young and with so much potential is rather hard to come by. However, it didn’t take me long to realize you already have a Master,” Jack added with a bitter smile. “One that’s skies and skies beyond of what I can do. Rather, I wager that within a couple of years you will already surpass me, and then some.”
“...” Lino didn’t butt in, merely listening.
“So, if you still insist on working with us, I can really only give you one position.”
“Custom Crafter,” Jack said, pushing the parchment over to the Lino’s end of the desk. “Currently, only Edward occupies the position as I’m too busy with management to be able to craft full time. Though it’s not a fancy title, the position is rather lucrative. Rather than doing mass-produce items, you’ll be tasked with specific orders. Say, someone wants a sword that’s perfect for them -- they come to you. They tell you their preferences, their battle style, cultivation Qi and so on, and you design the item based on that information.”
“... interesting.” Lino mumbled as he quickly looked over the parchment; it was just a contract, he quickly realized, and a rather lucrative one. “These terms really don’t give you much, do they?”
“It’s a standard Custom Crafter Contract,” Jack said. “All smithies in town at least have a couple of them and they aren’t really a source of income, but more of a promoting tool.”
“It’s simple, really,” Jack smiled, noticing Lino’s confusion. “The better items a Custom Crafter can craft, the more lucrative the smithy he belongs to becomes for ordinary people. After all, very, very few people on the entire Continent are able to afford that lance of yours. If we put your crafts into the general shop, they’d mostly just hang on the wall as an eye-candy. Anyway, the Contract’s mostly designed to offer the Custom Crafter enough incentive to remain with the smithy.”
“... you’re rather honest.” Lino said, smiling.
“Ha ha, it’s alright, you can say I’m a fool.” Jack smiled back. “However, if it was someone much older than you, I would be far more shrewd. To me... it’s of greater sin to limit someone as talented as you than it is to lose some potential customers. The entire industry of blacksmithing had grown rather stagnant... even on the Holy Continent. Save for a few legendary figures that had long since withdrawn from the world, we haven’t had a true star in a long while. Most smiths are just replicating the efforts of their ancestors, rather than striving to create something new. You... rather, in you I see that potential.”
“... I’m flattered.” Lino said as he took the quill and quickly signed his name at the bottom.
“... you’re quite honest yourself, aren’t you?” Jack asked as he looked at him oddly.
“No need to exploit people who offered such generous terms without any pretense,” Lino smiled. “I may be a rather corrupt person morally, but I do have some base principles, you know?”
“Ha ha ha, very well! I’ll gladly accept it!”
“Right, I overheard something about the ‘General Weapon’. What’s that mean?” Lino asked out of curiosity.
“... hah, you really aren’t from around here, are ya’?”
“It’s self-explanatory, really,” Jack said as he suddenly reached into his desk yet again and took out a bottle. Though Lino didn’t recognize what alcohol it contained, he was immediately drawn to it. “Weapons are called ‘General Weapons’ when only really strong people -- hence ‘General’ -- can wield them. For instance, the requirements on the lance are simply impossible for any old street cultivator. Even those brats in the Sects and the Titan Empire stand absolutely no chance of meeting the requirements any time soon.”
“Ah. So that’s it. Brats, though? I hear you can be hanged around here for that sort of a language.” Lino commented as he took the offered glass and inspected the drink; its scent reminded Lino of aged wood and vanilla.
“Ha ha, I suppose it’s true. Though, to be fair, people have been hanged for far less around here. However, I do have some fame, you know? Both the Empire and Sects severely lack top-tier smiths, which is why they’re a bit more lenient with us when it comes to what we say... so long as we don’t yell it in their faces.”
“What about if we whisper it?” Lino asked, taking a sip as a fiery sensation quickly began sweeping through him.
“Ha ha, I can’t imagine them enjoying it all that much either. Anyway, here,” Jack raised his glass. “To our new partnership.”
“Aye.” Lino clanked and quickly emptied the rest of it. “What’s the general situation like on the continent?” he asked, figuring Jack might know a thing or two.
“... hmm. I’m not too sure either, any more,” Jack said, sighing. “Things are a whole lot more tense recently. There are more soldiers patrolling the streets, a few platoons even came here a few days ago and began ‘searching’ for something -- well, not something, I learned they were searching for Demons and Devils.”
“Huh?” Lino exclaimed softly as his gaze hardened.
“Aye, I couldn’t believe it either,” Jack shrugged. “I mean, I did hear there was some mess over on the Western Continent, but it’s been eons since Devils dared to stir anything big over here. Hah, who knows if even that is true...”
“... aye.” Lino nodded faintly, his thoughts spinning. “Anyway, I still haven’t checked into an inn, so I’m gonna go and do that. I’ll come here tomorrow morning. Is that alright?”
“Aye, aye,” Jack nodded. “I’ll see if we have any custom orders and let you know. Oh, right, are you fine with us displaying the lance during the Annual Display of Arts and Crafts?”
“... uh... sure?”
“Great! I’ll see you tomorrow then!”
“I’ll see ya’.”
Lino left quickly, completely ignorant of the gazes directed his way. Though he had already suspected as much, it really seems as though the Devils are hellbent on following him wherever he goes. He had barely landed on the continent and they’d already begun plotting and scheming. The last time, however, left Lino with quite a bitter taste when it comes to their helping hand; rather, even till this day, he had hardly sated the anger in his heart.
While Jack seemed rather dismissive of the idea of Devil Invasion, Lino wasn’t as certain. If they’re beginning to crop up left and right, it means they’re fairly certain of what they’re doing. The Devils are many things, Lino had realized, but morons isn’t one of them. Looks like we can’t stay here as long as I had hoped, he sighed inwardly as he raced through the packed streets. Ava will probably kill me, but... south’s not an option anymore. Great Descent... here I come...
END OF VOLUME VII - BEYOND WEST