Red Grace Inn (1)
Two large bags were slung on each of Norton Lorist's shoulders, with another large shoulder-width rucksack hanging from his bag. His left arm held a yellowish-green rattan box while his right was wrapped around a bunch of rolled up beast skins which were resting on his shoulders. A red double door with a white wine glass painted on top of it was kicked open by him; he looked like a big, clumsy bear as he toiled and stumbled, struggling to squeeze himself through the doorway which was wide enough to let two bulky men go through at the same time.
It was three in the afternoon. This was the time when the inn was at its quietest. The main hall of the inn only had three people in it. The red-nosed bard old Mike, who's had a little too much to drink, slept very soundly face down on the table. At the table beside the fireplace sat old Hope the cobbler and the retired postman old Tom, both of whom were previously immersed in a card game, stared wide-eyed at Lorist who had just barged in.
Nodding at Hope and Tom, Lorist laid his luggage on the ground in front of the counter and stacked them up into a pile. He placed his bear fur cap on the table and shed his black leather jacket and subsequently removed two swords of different lengths that were slung on his waist and laid them on the table. He let out a long sigh, knocked on the table and called out. "Old Char? You here? Where is he... Hey, your wine barrel's being carried away!"
"My god, it's Locke..." said Tom as he finally recognized Norton Lorist without his jacket.
Hope couldn't resist anymore and stood straight up. "Hey, Locke. It's been quite some time now, about... half a year? We thought something happened to you. Did you bring back some star-spotted deerskins that I wanted?"
Pointing towards the beast skins on the floor, Lorist said "I got three of them wrapped up inside. Go check it out yourself."
A thin and tall old man emerged from the door behind the counter. Seeing Lorist standing at the counter, his glum face lighted up with a hint of a smile. "You're back!"
This old man was the boss of the Red Grace Inn, Brennan Charlando, whom Lorish referred to as Old Char. Don't take his limping walk for granted; nobody could even conjecture that this expressionless, quiet old man behind the counter was actually a One Star Gold Swordsman. Most of the patrons of that inn never had a clue.
"Hey, Old Char. Get me some blackcurrant ale. Oh, and ask McDuffin over there to cook me a big meal. For half a year I've been having meager rations... I miss the food here so much!" said Lorist without a shred of hesitation.
"I got it." Charlando served Lorist a large mug of blackcurrant ale. "Drink some of this first. I'll go wake McDuffin up."
"Oh, and, could you check the goods out for me? I brought a bunch of things back from this excursion. I wonder if it matches up." said Lorist as he watched Old Hope fumbling through the beast skins.
Charlando nodded and disappeared behind the door.
"Yawn..." A sleepy-eyed woman subsequently came out from the door. "Who is it? Don't you see that everyone's taking a nap? You must have a screw or two loose if you come at this hour for a meal, sheesh."
That busty woman was dressed in tight clothing which accentuated her curvaceous figure. This was the head serving girl of the inn, Louise.
"Cough..." Lorist choked up and blushed. No matter who it was, there was no way of completely staying calm when faced with the first woman they had a physical relationship with. That was especially the case with Lorist, who was even more nervous in front of Louise. Back then during his twentieth birthday, the drunk Lorist had his virginity taken by Louise, who said that it was her gift for his "passage into adulthood". Some amount of fear still lingered in Lorist's heart even after all these years.
"Oh my! Our Locke's back! I've missed you so much over these six months... Come, give your big sis a hug." Louise's eyes gleamed as she saw Lorist and all traces of sleepiness vanished from her eyes as she spread her arms and leapt towards him.
Louise hugged Lorist over the counter and forcefully planted two kisses on his cheeks.
"Did you return just recently? Look at you, poor Locke... You've gotten so much thinner and tanned during the past six months! All of were worried about you and couldn't get our minds off you. You didn't send us any letters for so long. We were really worried something bad happened to you..." Louise started chattering on.
"Come on, aren't I back here safe and sound? This expedition to the Relic Islands brought me far overseas, there was no way I could contact you. And, don't you know the ferry to the Relic Islands only operate once every six months? What are you worried about? Don't you guys have any confidence in my abilities?"
"With your Three Star Iron power level? Haven't you heard about all the Silver Swordsmen who perished on the Relic Islands... We hear a lot of stories like that in the inn." said Louise without holding back at all.
"Eh? But I, a Three Star Iron Swordsman, has never lost a match to even one Silver Swordsman..." said Lorist as he scratched his nose, embarrassed.
"Those are just sparring matches in the academy! How could those compare to life and death battles with magical beasts? Your competitors were just going easy on you. I really don't get what those old bastards at the academy see in you. They could've just picked one Silver Swordsman out of so many others... Why did they bring you along as a bodyguard instead?" Louise felt that it was extremely unfair to Lorist for him to be expected to carry out tasks meant for Silver Swordsmen given his rank as an Iron Swordsman.
Lorist could only laugh bitterly. Louise was only concerned about him. How could she understand the pain of having his Battle Force stuck at the Iron rank for so long? In order to join this expedition, Lorist had to pester and bug Academy Head Levins and was even forced to agree to multiple unfair terms including serving as the assistant for the whole expedition team before the old bastard agreed to bring him along.
The adventurers of the Grindia Continent all knew that it was suicidal to visit the Relic Islands without the power of a Silver Swordsman. Granted, non-combatant researchers who were protected by bodyguards were exceptions. Although Lorist had to serve the researchers throughout the expedition, he ventured just as much as the rest of the Silver Swordsmen. He managed to traverse a number of dangerous areas, even those that were potentially lethal to Silver Swordsmen.
The time taken for the trip to and from the Relic Islands took up two months while the actual time spent on them was four months. Lorist himself felt that his abilities had improved nevertheless after experiencing all those life and death battles with the magical beasts and walking the tightrope of life multiple times. His swordsmanship got sharper and his movements got more agile. Even the sensitivity of his senses improved. But the sole goal he had aspired to reach during this trip was never achieved; his Battle Force didn't manage to break through the Iron rank. He was still stuck at the peak of the Iron rank.
How he had regretted his decision back then. For some reason unknown to even him, he decided to use Ki-refining principles he remembered from his previous life to cultivate his Battle Force. One focused on the meridians pathways while the other focused on the blood flow. One trained the internal parts of the body while the other trained the external. They were akin to oil and water! His brain must have cramped up for him to even decide to do that! In the end, even with the high class Blazing Battle Force technique passed down by his family throughout generations, he ended up at a dead end and has remained stuck at the Iron rank for three years now, unable to progress to the rank of a Silver Swordsman. Originally a universally praised genius in swordsmanship, he has become a joke in the academy.
"Hey, brother Locke, you're finally back. So glad to finally see you again..." The fatty who snapped Lorist out from his self brooding was the head chef of the inn, McDuffin. Wearing a mottled blue apron, he struggled as he squeezed his large belly through the door behind the counter.
"Hi, McDuffin. Man am I glad to see you too." said Lorist as he raised his cup of ale. "Do you have any nice food around? I just got back and haven't even had my breakfast and lunch yet. The only thing I had back on the boat was a black wheat bar."
"Oh my, why didn't you say so earlier? Stop drinking that ale, it won't go down well given your empty stomach. McDuffin, is there anything you can serve up quick?" Louise said.
"Hmm, there's some roasted goose in the oven, but it's still unseasoned. In the wok we have some bean and ribs but it's still cold, I'll have to heat it up so it'll have to wait. Ah, right. I have some goat meatballs still steaming over there which I can get you right away. Louise, go into my room and look into the chest beside my bed. There should be some cream bread inside. I was planning on having that for tea, but I guess you can go get that down for Locke..." said McDuffin who seemed reluctant to part from his cream bread.
Louise went off in a hurried manner.
"Alright. I'll have some roasted goose and ribs. McDuffin, fry me a herring, make me some green bean bloodwurst, fried eggs with shrimp, cabbage and mushroom as well as another glass of fruit ale." said Lorist as he made his order.
"That much? Can you finish them?" McDuffin looked at Lorist with a hint of doubt.
"I'm so hungry I can swallow a cow whole. Go make the food, after that we'll have a good drink together."
Just after McDuffin returned to cooking, Louise brought a plate with some steaming hot goat meatballs and two pieces of cream bread over. "Eat these quick. You don't want to upset your stomach."
"Whoa, Locke... This is great! These are the skins I want! Look at all these star spots..." Before Lorist managed to stuff the bread into his mouth, Hope's praises rang out from behind him. He was raining praises upon the three beast skins he cradled so very dearly in his arms.
"Oh, I better go back to get some cash. I'll be right back." Old Hope let the deerskins down and rushed out of the inn with a speed that was unfit for a man of his age.
"Eh, why's he in so much of a rush?" mumbled Lorist with his mouth stuffed with meatballs. Louise only shrugged.
"This old bastard was talking about you nonstop that I actually thought he was worried for you. Turns out he was only looking forward to the skins you promised him..." said Tom the retired postman as he raised his ale cup and took a swig.
Just as Louise served up the green bean blood sausage, old Hope burst through the door, sweaty and huffing ragged breaths as he rushed over to Lorist's table. He took out fifteen gold coins from an intricately striped leather purse, counted them meticulously and instantly got ready to take the deerskins home.
"Hey, wait a second old Hope. Are you sure you're paying the right price?" Without others noticing, Boss Charlando appeared in front of Hope and pressed down on the skins on the table.
"What's wrong with you Charlando? Locke doesn't have any objections, does he?" said Hope, glaring fiercely at Charlando.
"Just because he kept silent doesn't mean he doesn't have any opinions on the price. Right now, a skin like this costs 7 gold and 8 silver Fordes. Don't you think it's a little much to take three away for only 15 gold Fordes?"
Old Hope's face turned red. "But six months ago we set the..."
"You didn't set any exact price when you ordered the skins at that time and arbitrarily decided it to be at the market price back then. You'll have to have some rather thick skin to suggest a market price from six months ago. Right now, the supply of star-spotted deerskins on the market is getting lesser by the day, giving a significant boost to its value. I believe he can easily get eight gold Fordes for one of these skins in the market. The shoes you make with these can already sell for ten Fordes and you can make ten of theme with these. If you don't agree, you better give up on buying it and I bet I can get a better price for Locke if I sell them at the market."
"That's right. Two days ago there were two mercenaries who said that purchasing the star-spotted deerskins from the Relic Islands would cost 5 gold Fordes a piece. Think about the shipping and import fees. Aren't you just taking advantage of him? Locke got you three quality skins from so far away! You can't just do this to him!." said Louise as she rushed up to Hope with a fierce gaze and rolled her eyes.
Old Hope bitterly went back to Lorist's table and took out another seven gold coins. "I didn't bring any silvers with me..."
One gold Forde was worth twenty large silvers. Old Hope still owed four silvers.
"It's alright." Lorist shrugged with magnanimity.
Seeing Old Hope rushing to leave, Louise felt really dissatisfied. "You didn't have to be so generous. That old one got away good. You could get a great meal with four silvers."
Lorist smiled and said "What? Old Hope got on your nerves?"
Louise instantly exploded. "That miserly bastard... He feels up all of our serving girls and doesn't even give them any tips! And he orders a cup of ale worth five coppers and stays at a table for the whole afternoon!"
It wasn't weird for serving girls in the inn to be felt up by patrons. It's just part of their job, to serve and to flirt. But patrons who don't tip well was always met with the disdain of the serving girls. Those patrons were the most unwelcome kind.