Nero could feel the sugar running in his veins. He was drunk on the white stuff. It reminded him of the tale of two goblin siblings, Hun and Gret, that found a [Witch]'s house made of candy, ate it all and then robbed, beat, and ate the poor [Witch] in the end. A bedtime story to make kids behave. The bear-kin patissier was disappointed. Rhynne's life as a mother in a backwater village wasn't glamorous or full of excitement. Patricia, on the other hand, had a decade's worth of the latest gossip in the County. Who married whom, the kids' people had, not necessarily in wedlock, who got eaten by monsters, the likes. She made Nero call her "aunt Pats" and wouldn't stand down. They were welcome back anytime. He sighed in relief. She didn't ask about their Level cap.
He was giggling as he walked, arms locked with the girl of his dreams and the girl that shared the burden of his nightmares with him. Drunk on sugar and syrup they reached the cobbler.
To call that shoe designer a cobbler was to call a pegasus mule just because both were equine and had four hooves. One was stinky, full of flies and stubborn, the other gleamed in the sunlight and soared the skies.
"Is this the..." Altia didn't even finish her sentence, awestruck she was.
"Yes, the place where you can get shoes that won't ruin your delicate feet, my dearest daughter-in-law," Rhynne chirped. "To be," She added after a while.
"How about we leave you ladies to shop for shoes and dresses while Nero and I visit the barracks? I want to see my own old friends too," Byron suggested. "We lost too much time in that bakery."
Maybe calling Patricia's fine patissière a bakery was also like calling that shop a cobbler.
Rhynne smiled. "You do that, you. That's wonderful. This way you can't complain while I splurge on shoes for our lovely Altia here."
Byron just nodded, clapped Nero's shoulder and drove both of them in the direction of the castle. All he could do was wave his girlfriend maybe fiancé goodbye as she smiled sympathetically.
Nero walked in silence beside his father once he regained his freedom and the fleeing on his left arm. He was treading carefully around Byron, metaphorically speaking. The man's mood took a heavy drop ever since his Level cap was revealed and the young man had no idea how to get his father to look up to him again. He felt his father deemed him a failure and every single interaction with the old man reinforced that feeling.
They reached the barracks and Nero didn't pay attention as Byron barked orders to the sentries like he owned the place. Soon a minotaur in officer fatigues came to meet them and the two big men clasped each other's wrists and did a bit of impromptu tug-of-war using their arms.
"... this is Karse, captain of the Count's guard and an old Adventuring acquaintance. Karse, this is my son, Nero."
Nero nodded. "Pleased to meet you, sir."
The minotaur grinned, showing his square teeth, "Polite and disciplined. An Adventurer to boot. Is he bloodied already?"
"Spent four days in the Dungeon and came back with a thousand crystals," Byron boasted.
Nero was appalled. Was that pride he felt from his father?
"Ah. Did he pick a Class already? I see his sword, must be some deadly weapon. [Warrior], maybe?"
"No, not yet. We came here to trade for good Class cards." Byron lied by omission.
"Well, come inside. Let's talk, and maybe see what the lad can do."
They entered and the combined smell of metal, wet straw, sweat, manliness, and athlete's foot was overwhelming. Soldiers trained in the courtyard, with straw dummies or archery targets. All of them had Arbitrii. Karse took them up a flight of stairs and into a balcony on the second floor that overlooked the whole training area. The whole building was made of stone and looked sturdy.
"Here we are training the soldiers that will join the levy for the King's army," Karse explained. "Young Nero, all able youth are welcome to join. We have exclusive rights to several Dungeons of varied ranks around the County and we can raise you to your level cap in no time. Our quartermasters also have assorted cards--"
Byron pinched the minotaur's shoulder and growled. "Enough. You are not recruiting my son."
It was one of the few times Nero saw his fathers' muscles bulge. He also thought that the minotaur winced for a moment but it was hard to read his bovine features. The big soldier chortled and then moved a half-step back. Byron also relented.
"I have orders to extend an offer to all able youngsters. Especially those from promising families that the Knights haven't snatched away. Young Nero, the choice is yours, nobody will pressure you. Now, shall we go to the training area? I'm eager to see what kind of training Byron gave you."
Nero felt trapped between these two powerhouses. Worse yet, his father's reputation was at stake and the man's opinion of the young Adventurer. It was 'do or die'. Nero nodded.
"Yes, of course. I switched weapons two days ago, so if the Captain has any pointers to give, I'd be glad. We can use a training sword if using my sword is not okay."
It spiked Karse's curiosity. "Let me see your weapon."
Nero saw his father was displeased in the corner of his eye. He drew the clockwork sword and the minotaur whistled.
"It's been a while since I saw one of these. Not a popular weapon but one that can be very useful in the right situations. Let's find us a training dummy. Is it charged?"
Nero nodded. "I'd never carry my weapon without enough charge. Should last enough."
"Good answer, kid." They went downstairs to the training area and the soldiers parted as they saw the captain and guests arriving. He pointed at a training dummy. "You can attack this one. Don't worry, weaving straw to make more dummies is a good character-building exercise for the recruits. Go wild."
The uncommon weapon in Nero's hands drew even more attention and soon a circle of recruits formed around them. Nero took his stance, remembering the sword forms his father drilled into him from a tender age. He usually fought with a shield so he didn't go for a two-handed grip. He weaved the buzzing sword for a while, feeling the improved Strength activating and then took a swing. The weapon ground the dummy in half cleanly, creating a small dust cloud as it went by and showering some unfortunate recruits with fine sawdust. Nero returned to a defensive guard and held the textbook stance for a few moments before turning off his weapon, using only one minute's worth of Essence.
The minotaur clapped his hands. "Excellent. Two days only?" He raised his voice to address the soldiers. "Remember this, you rabble. There are no bad weapons, just unskilled warriors. This is called the clockwork sword, a rare kind of powered weapon. It has great damage but its strength lies against armored enemies, for each blow can shred out armor even if it causes no damage. The downsides of the weapon are that the teeth are prone to breaking as they are too thin to withstand the impact.
"That's the reason this weapon is not commonly used. It also uses Essence as fuel, so it cuts into the profits of the wielder. However, look at the clean-cut of this training dummy. The result would be the same were it be wearing mail armor or anything weaker."
Nero felt pride welling up inside him, a rare resource nowadays for him. He forced it down and didn't let it show. He had to be as stoic as his father. The big man was unreadable and with a stone mask, blending into the soldiers even though their clothes mismatched.
Karse continued. "Now, young Nero, if you allow me, a few pointers. I can see you are adapting to the weapon and you already know how to strike directing the shrapnel away from you. That's good because in a real fight you'd get covered in gore and blood."
"You tell me," Nero joked, disgusted. Some soldiers laughed. Karse also laughed, albeit delayed.
"I noticed you weaved the weapon a bit before striking, is it some kind of misdirection technique?" He asked, seeming genuinely intrigued.
"No, sir. The weapon has a strength enhancement only while it is being swung, so I move it around a bit to activate it before committing to a blow. It helps not putting me off-balance."
"that's not good. You are giving away an important tell on when you'll strike. An intelligent enemy will soon learn your pattern, and then you'll have a tougher fight. You should learn to adapt to the boost as you swing. Do not form bad habits. Now the next issue. Let's imagine you have to bring down a tree. You have a saw. Would you chop the tree as if you had an ax? Probably not," He answered himself before Nero could react.
But it was enough. Byron's teachings were not in vain and Nero was introduced to a wide array of weapons by the [Armsmaster]. He understood enough. The clockwork sword does not benefit as much from the swing strength as an edged weapon like a sword. Actually calling it a sword was a disservice. It really had more in common with a saw than a blade.
"So I should strike in a way to maximize contact time, is that it?" He asked, remembering some fights against the stone serpents where the weapon performed better.
"Indeed. The longer the weapon remains in contact, the more damage it causes. Also, avoiding sudden impacts will make the teeth last longer. It would get very expensive to adopt this weapon as your preferred type, as you will need to get replacements for the teeth. I see this one has seen very little use, as its teeth are unblemished."
Nero shook his head. "It has a self-repair enchantment."
"My son is no fool, Karse," Byron broke his silence. "When he committed to summoning this weapon, he went all out and made the best combination he could."
Karse was being patronizing, but it was kinda his job as captain. And his advice, combined with Nero's recent experience with the weapon sounded true. His swaying pre-strike was a dead giveaway. The low-level monsters he was fighting so far were basically brainless but if were he to fight against a person or an intelligent monster, he'd be at a disadvantage.
"Anyway, I am grateful for your time, Captain. Even though I won't be joining the military as my calling is in delving."
"Ho, that's a fine lad. I wish half my soldiers were as disciplined as you are. Byron, you raised a fine warrior! I hope you find the right Class card and let me tell you, as thanks for the demonstration of an exotic weapon my men would never have the opportunity to witness, if you later have any specific need of a card, I promise to see what I can do to trade with you."
"That's enough, Karse. But I appreciate you taking your time to give my lad a few pointers. Let's go, Nero. Before your mother run us bankrupt with her shopping spree."
After saying their goodbyes and another ignored attempt at recruiting by Karse, they left the barracks. Nero thought the minotaur was very kind going out of his way to offer to trade cards with him from the army's quartermaster but Byron quickly knocked it out when he pointed out.
"He wants to create a connection. Even if you do not join them ever, you could be persuaded to "help" them with a mission later. I bet the fool was drooling to learn your Level cap, as he knows both mine and your mom's. Remember when he mentioned the Knights? He was narrowing it down, as he knew that if you were above two hundred, Glom would've been required to report to the Kingdom. But to the military, a soldier with a high cap and without a Class chosen is like flour in the hands of that baker friend of your mother."
"Patissiére, father. She doesn't make bread."
"Big difference," he snorted. "I can call her a fancy baker if you want."
They reached the shoe boutique, or Cordwainer's Atelier if one wanted to use the fancy and proper denomination and found no trace of the women. Byron pointed and they went down a street where several shops catered to the high society of the city. Fancy carriages, butlers and footmen wearing livery, and rich ladies with frilly parasols and too many petticoats leisurely strutted up and down, parading for the delight of one another. And criticism. Some of it directed towards them.
"... hairless ape-kin. Disgusting."
"their naked pink skin is so..."
"Is that a nose or a beak?"
"Don't stare too long, you'll get cooties."
"How can they walk straight without a tail?"
As Nero walked down the street, he could overhear the venomous comments these ladies wove for one another and especially to him and his father. Some were literally strutting as he saw a few avian ladies like a garuda and a harpy. But the two exotic male ape-kin was drawing a lot of attention. Even from some ladies in very fancy dresses, across the street. They were waving at them and waitasecondthatsmymom.
Nero took a false step and almost stepped into someone's thick green tail. The ladies watching the scene, no, spectacle, were giggling and hiding their faces with their folding fans. Byron put his big hand on the boy's back and pushed him to cross the street, Nero moving like some defective automata.
"Hi, Nero," The lady next to his mom greeted them. Was it another acquaintance from the city? How many people did they know and why was this pretty and fancy lady with face paint using his name with so much ease.
'She reminds me of Altia,' Nero mused. 'Maybe some distant relative, where is Altia'...
He froze as his brain connected the dots. His neck turned and his jaw dropped. He recognized those eyes and smile. Altia was becoming bashful from all the attention he was giving her and Nero allowed his gaze to slide down to take in her whole figure. She was wearing a leaf green dress with blue and yellow accents, along with a deeper green stole carefully embroidered with sylvan motifs wrapped around her arms. Off-white gloves and a sunday hat casting shade on her face.
"You, eh, ah... it is gorgeous." He mumbled.
He was enthralled by her. Altia was giggling and blushing. "Only gorgeous?" She pressed.
The ladies parading in the fancy street were nothing to scoff at. But that moment, seeing Altia in that dress was something Nero would remember forever. He engraved every detail, every curve, lace and embroidery to memory.
"Say something. Don't just stare!" She complained.
As if he could form words. Nero had no idea what to say. "It's amazing," He finally blurted out. "You are the prettiest young lady in this whole street." And he meant it.
"Tehee. Thanks!" She said, as out of breath as Nero. Probably because of the corset.
Behind them, the other couple was having their own moment.
"That's an expensive dress," Byron remarked from behind them.
"She bought it with her own Essence, dear," Rhinne appeased her husband's worries. "It is like when you bought your first set of plate armor with your own money, do you remember?"
"Oh, I was handsome wearing it, wasn't I?"
"Too bad it became disgustingly battered, dented and bloodied."
"Bah. It gave the armor character."