In some random corridor of the tenth deck.
One messy blonde guy munched on pint-sized sweets as fed by two luscious ladies accompanying him on either side. Golden rings decorated all his ten fingers and six golden chains adorned his neck hanging all the way down to the chest. The two ladies kept on feeding him sweets as they laughed aloud, fortuitously grabbing the attention of many men.
"What's that Lady Luster doing here?"
"Isn't it obvious? He must have come to buy some ladies again."
"Geez, look at the ornaments he wore. That's pure gold right there. If I can get my hands on them, my life is settled."
"Don't be dreaming more than you can handle. He's part of the Brokers Guild. Touch him and a dozen mercenaries from the upper decks will be on your tail."
As the crowd kept murmuring about him, the man in gold didn't even bother looking at them as they were all males.
"Darling, if you hire another girl, will you abandon us both? One of the ladies wearing revealing clothes asked in an undemanding manner.
"Of course not. You two are my dearest companions," he said in an exaggerated manner, "I think of you both as nothing different to girlfriends."
"Darling, you are so sweet!" The girls were elated and showered his cheeks with kisses.
"Haha, yes… I'm sweeter than the sweets," the man chortled and brushed his lips against their cheeks once every few seconds.
At that moment, two bulky men entered the street and were walking in their direction.
Seeing them, the man snorted and the ladies laughed covering their mouths with hands.
As they got close enough, the man in gold asked in a loud voice, "if I become as big as those two, would you both leave my side?"
"Of course, we don't, darling," the ladies who had already curled their hands around his hands, hugged him tighter. "Besides, we'll never let you become like those pigs."
"Haha, yeah. I will count on you two then. Those thugs look just like pigs. I never want to look like them."
As his laughter echoed in the street, many men frowned and exposed their teeth. But their expressions froze when the two bulky men stopped and turned towards the man in gold.
The two of them trudged their way to the man, making him and the ladies look back.
"Darling, they seem to have heard us." One of the ladies hesitantly said.
"Hmph, so what if they did?" the man snorted and spoke aloud, "you thugs better vanish before I open my eyes again." Saying that he shut his eyes.
"Yeah, buzz off pigs!" the second lady didn't back down. "Unless you want your asses handed to you."
Eyes glistening with animosity the two bulky men glared at the lady who just spoke, making her startle like a cat and take a step back.
One of the men stepped ahead. His footstep was like a stomp, and its sound alone forced the man in gold to open his eyes.
"Having no darling is bad. Having one darling is good. But having two darlings…" He grabbed the head of the man in gold by his hand and lifted him up effortlessly,"... will attract thugs!" He waved his arm and tossed him away as if he were a stone.
The man in gold crashed into the wooden wall and had his eyes whitened in an instant. Spilling a mouthful of blood and a few teeth, nose flattened out of shape, he collapsed to the ground, his face shape-shifted into a grotesquerie.
The ladies and the crowd in the vicinity had their hearts pound in mouths, and guts shake in their shoes. Terror-stricken, some men wet their pants right where they stood. The cold sweat that forced its way out through their skin uneased them in addition.
"An egg can't criticize a chick," One of the two men stared angrily at the ladies, making them visibly shake like leaf, aghast at their brutality, "Call us pigs one more time and I'll make sure you eat alongside real pigs for the rest of your life."
Scared witless, one lady nodded subconsciously. But the second lady picked up her pace in the opposite direction, "you thugs, j-just wait, I'll report on you both!"
"Yeah. Come looking for Darling Twins!" One of the two men replied in a resounding voice that contained no traces of dubiety.
The other lady who stood there scared stiff tried to take a breath, but her knees just won't stop shaking. "Thugs like you deserve to die. I curse that your thug life will one day lead you both to death."
"Ho…" Younger Darling looked at his brother in surprise. "A shivering squirrel, brother. How nice."
Elder Darling leaned forward and checked her legs which were still shaking, "Hmm, shivering like a squirrel indeed." His eyes slowly moved up her body as if he was sort of taking pleasure in doing that. "But, you got one thing wrong, darling. We didn't choose the thug life." He locked his stare with her's. "It chose us."
Her eyes enlarged and knees locked.
Elder Darling turned and began to walk away with his brother.
Younger Darling glanced at his brother and said, "she looked lovely when she was afraid. Should I try asking her out?"
"Don't," Elder Darling's tone was somewhat serious.
"But, she's possibly a shivering squirrel."
"Maybe she can be a great lover, brother." His voice contained an earnest persuasion.
"Enough said," Elder Darling waved his hand, hampering his brother's further attempts. "Forget about being lovers, gold diggers can't even be candid concubines."
Younger Darling dwelled on his brother's words for a few moments and bitterly smiled. "At least, I'll scare her once more."
Eldering Darling nodded an approval.
Younger Darling suddenly turned and took a step — more like a stomp — in that lady's direction, making her, there and then career in the same direction her friend bolted away before without even looking back. Seeing her getting scared witless, Younger Darling felt like the cat that's got the cream. "Fleeing like a flee as well, haha. How amusing."
As the Darling Twins made enough distance, the crowd who just watched everything till then, had their gazes shift towards the man in gold who was knocked out cold, and especially, the gold ornaments that bejeweled his body caught their eyes making them gleam with greed.
A few minutes earlier.
At the test hall.
As Lirzod stepped on the bright wooden floor of the test hall, he caught sight of too many things, albeit one by one, the hundreds of people foregathered around each running field, the animals of various sizes some of whom overshadowed others in the vicinity, the shouting men who haughtily held sacks of jingling coins, the transparent windows and the men watching the ongoing events from the other side, the multiple bread booths being graced by lot of customers, the shabby shoes lying at a corner were being put to use by some poor fellows, the men sleeping on the floor at another corner, the men putting brooms to use as they cleaned the floor at the vacant spots, and the small number of men who sat lazily and smoked. In essence, the atmosphere was akin to a fiddly festival, not facile to fathom.
Walls were calligraphed with dozens of quotations.
"Running creates legs of steel."
"Every step ahead transforms you into a different person."
"Running keeps you hale and hearty."
"For every run, the goal should not only be to beat the other runners but also the one inside you."
"Always make time for a run."
"It's time to run."
There were many such quotations but not one of the quotations, per say, didn't stall his breath; it was the mightily calligraphed diamond-chiseled sign hanging to the ceiling at the center of the hall which made him momentarily forget everything else.
"Hall of fame."
The subtly sanguine words on it gave rise to a euphoria that dispelled his doubts on every negative thought and convinced him that he could succeed in making a name for himself and arrive at the zenith of glory.
A hornet went past his ear and its buzzing sound brought his attention back to the happenings in his neighborhood again.
Howbeit, Lirzod still made a strong eye contact with the hanging sign as he lifted his chin and exposed his neck and thereby the stretching scar on it. The sign his eyes laid on was designed in such a way, no matter where one stood in the hall, the glossy words on it were still greatly visible.
Ambling around, he observed the animals. There were frogs busy in catching flies, fire-bellied toads competing with the frogs, house cats that were as big as leopards but slender like cheetahs, dogs as bulkier as wolves, the jerboa hopping around aimlessly, and all sorts of animals that were mostly domestic.
"So pets can be brought along as well." Lirzod felt a bit of heaviness in his heart and body. "Maybe, I should have let Gouse come along. Well, she should still be doing great at home." Gaining his spirit back, he sauntered to one of the elliptical running tracks each of which was exactly four hundred meters long at the inner end.
The first thing he noticed was the track made of brick-red soil seemingly flattened to sublimity. "Perfect for a sprint." His eyes shifted to the entries running on the track as if their lives depended on it.
"Sprint?" From his side, a rattled tone uttered in a rattling manner. The source of the voice was a small blonde guy, who barely reached Lirzod's shoulder only after adding in his vertically standing twenty-inch long hair. "Did you just say you want to sprint through the entire track? For one mile long?" His full-throated voice made a few heads turn in their direction. "Very well, if you are so confident, then I'm going to bet in your favor." Saying that he patted on Lirzod's spine twice before making himself scarce.
Though the blonde guy left, Lirzod was still puzzled. "What's was that all about?" He could only shrug his shoulders.
However, few people still stared at Lirzod and murmured among themselves.
"The Inch Man is counting on this boy to win. Maybe he's really going to make us rich."
"We are so lucky, let's go and silently bet on him."
Lirzod couldn't catch their chatter but could suss out that they were up to something. However, he didn't bother too much about it, as they all blended into the crowd in haste. His focus shifted back to the event.
From the chitter-chatter of the crowd, he came to learn about various things.
Only five contestants could participate during every round. To participate in it, one must take a token from the assistant referee first. Every time, a thousand tokens were sold, and until all of the thousand tokens were used in the event, new tokens won't be given. Currently, the tokens that the assistant referee was giving numbered around six hundred, whereas the entries playing the event had double-digit numbers. Given that only five were allowed to participate, it would easily take more than an hour for him to be able to participate. Out of the ten elliptical tracks in the hall, twenty parallel events took place at a time and he was at the track where the maximum amount of people clustered. So he wasn't inclined to go and try his luck on another track.
The assistant referee kept shouting in a maddening voice. "Newcomers aren't allowed to carry anything with them. Other than the dress, nothing else is allowed. Nothing should be in their pockets. I repeat. Newcomers aren't allowed to carry anything. Don't waste anyone's time and come to me for the tokens." Although the information he relayed was quite helpful, albeit his voice contained concealed contempt.
Generally, most people put their contempt into their words, but Lirzod was surprised that the assistant referee's words were good but the way he delivered those words by stressing and stretching them was the main thing that annoyed him. It wasn't obvious that the words were meant to be taken that way. Like a doctor that distracted a child by a song in order to inject, the assistant referee used his gestures and duping smiles to camouflage his wishes. It wasn't clear as to how many could see through the facade of things, but at the end of it all, nobody seemed to care.
"Asserting dominance on the new kids on the block, and that too coming from a guy you least expect. Things are getting a bit worrisome," As Lirzod was thinking whether to go or not to go to the assistant referee, a voice from somewhere in the crowd spoke aloud. "Token 101. Just for one silver coin. Offer exists only for the next one minute."
Though initially taken by surprise, Lirzod let out a bark of laughter as he snaked his way through the crowd to the source of the voice.
Before he reached the destination, another guy came out of nowhere and began to bargain.
"One silver is too much. How about thirty copper?"
"Huh? That's not even half," the seller irked and averted his eyes, "either it's one silver or there's no deal." He raised his hand which had the token and shouted, "Token 101 people. Just for one silver. Offer ends in less than a minute."
"Alright, fifty copper," the guy tried his luck again.
"Are you mocking me?" the seller rebuked, his eyes gleaming hiemal light. "I don't have time for brainless bargains. Get lost before your hurt yourself."
The bargaining man left without saying a word but cursed the seller on the inside.
"One man's token can't be shared by many. Only a fool bargains for these tokens," As the seller scolded the guy and turned his head away, this time, a potential customer seemed to have appeared in the form of someone who exposed the bunch of almonds in his hands. "Do you want the token?" the seller hurriedly asked.
"Yes, but can you hold these first?" Lirzod put his hands forward.
"What?" the seller's brows furrowed. "What for?"
"Just hold these. You will know afterward."
"No. Do you have the money or not?"
"If you give me that token," Lirzod leaned forward and said in a low voice, "I'll let you earn more than just a single silver coin."
After pausing a moment, the seller fixedly stared into Lirzod's eyes. "You think you can win?"
"You don't need to doubt," Lirzod replied in a boisterous way as he poured all the almonds into the seller's hand except for a few, and later snatched the token resting between his fingers.
"What if you lose?" the seller's smile appeared tight.
"You can keep the nuts," Lirzod said and turned back to leave.
"You gotta be kidding me," the seller was about to step forward to say that he never actually formed the deal, but before he could say another word, Lirzod pivoted back.
Both their unblinking eyes met.
"If you steal my nuts, I will make sure you will never forget me," Lirzod's eyes let off a labyrinthine light and his voice blew at the seller's face like a wintry withal whimsical windstorm.
Taken by surprise, the seller reflexively nodded and just watched Lirzod walk away. Only after Lirzod made enough distance, the seller blinked once and opened his mouth, "Must be a bloody nut addict." He glanced down at his palms that were filled with almonds. "Mm, these nuts are fairly large," he unhurriedly shoved them in his pockets. Moments later, he went to the assistant referee and placed a bet that Lirzod would win.
As Lirzod waited near the track, the event finished and none out of the five participants succeeded.
The fastest one took thirteen seconds to reach the hundred meter mark. Even so, he didn't seem pleased in the least. "AHH! One second short! if only I had warmed up a bit, I would have won!" He frustratingly screamed and wasted no time in asking the crowd if they could give sell him a token for the immediate next round. Howbeit, no matter how much he begged, none was willing.
"Your form of running was not proper," a guy shouted from the crowd. "If you join my drill, I will make sure you win the next time. I only take ten copper coins per hour. Come to 10-D69 to meet me!"
"I take only nine copper coins per hour!" Another noisy voice came from a different side.
"Ten copper for an hour?" Lirzod sighed. "No matter what sort of techniques they teach, it's just too much. If they want a drill, I can give them for free. Just make a dog chase them. Mm, that should do it," he nodded to himself, "there's no better drill than getting chased by dogs."
As he touched his chin and mused to himself, the people on the other side of the track began to move aside, seemingly making room for someone coming from behind. At that time, Lirzod was looking in the same direction.
A white-furred creature almost as tall as the tallest guys in the vicinity ambled along the path men made for it on their own volition. Seemingly carrying the wind with it, its hazel eyes scanned around and estimated the potential of every life it saw. The smooth and shiny beast had abnormally long fur at its neck. Its scarless sinewy body stopped in a phlegmatic stance. Most men were intimidated by its guise, for the beast their eyes witnessed was a mighty white wolf that could snap their necks and slash through their skeletons before they know it happened. Nobody made an unnecessary sound or movement and watched the wolf without a fuss. It lifted its chin and glanced back.
A whitish petite maiden with a long brown wavy hair descended down from atop the wolf's back and made no sound as her quirky shoes made contact with the floor, which went unnoticed by every man around, for they were focused on something else in all respects. They watched her every movement with utmost attention and care. Her long curly eyelashes fluttered over the light-blue dreamy eyes that shone with diablerie as she bit back her breathtaking smile and gazed around. The painted reddish claw marks on both the cheeks and an almost identical mark on the forehead didn't obscure her face and only enhanced her mien in a way it would enkindle approving emotions in the onlookers.
The claw-studded necklace decorating her sweet-scented neck, the long earrings contrasting her small ears, the bronze bracelets that slid along her svelte arms whenever they moved, the brown buckle belt that held multiple low-key accessories at her waist, the lion-faced masks that sheathed her shoulders, the abstruse breastplate securing her well-turned chest, and the baggy silk pants that enlarged her lower frame to match the light brown woolen coat which hid her slender shape and colorful skin — all of the artifacts commingled and disseminated magnificence thereby exponentially boosting her whole beaut both from in and out.
She was in sooth a natural beauty — prettier than the prettiest pictures. Her sculptural figure filled men's hearts with wonder. Her untaught smile took them by a storm. Her every gesture was easy on the eyes of all men who stared at her forlornly knowing they wouldn't have a chance with a girl like her. Thanks to her splendid shoes, she appeared as tall as the wolf.
Forget about the assistant referee, the referee himself hurriedly made his way to her and stood in a slumped posture, his arms folded across the chest. "Are you here to participate, miss?" his voice contained utmost respect.
The girl didn't reply but the wolf puffed once. The referee nodded and looked at the crowd. "Who wants to give their token?"
Many men, dozens of them dashed ahead — their heads tilted down without fail — but the referee only took one token, which was the first token that would be participating in the next round which should have already started if not for her sudden appearance.
Seeing so many flocking to her to give away their tokens for free, the guy who lost in the previous round by one second, wanted to cry out loud and crawl on the floor like a child. But all he could do was curl the corners of his lips down and curse his own bad luck.
The crowd also finally began to murmur among themselves. Lirzod was still dumbstruck and didn't blink once in the past minute, or move a muscle, albeit a fly traveled in and out of his wide-opened mouth. He seemed like a frozen wood frog that froze up most of its body including the lens of the eye and the body movements, but his heart still pounded steadily and ears still heard the nearby discussions of men.
"That girl… Even the referee ran to her. Who the hell is she?"
"I don't know, but her appearance tells me that she's from the Redguard tribe."
"No wonder, she's getting so much attention. She's from one of the top assemblies."
"That's not all. She is a Repeater as well."
"Oh, that explains the special treatment. Let's see how fast she can finish this round then."
Closing his mouth, Lirzod glanced at the guy who just said those words, making sure only one of his pupils shifted to the side. "How fast do you think she'll be?"
"Mm?" the guy pondered for a moment before replying, "I don't know, maybe seven seconds?"
"That's too long," Lirzod slowly shook his head, without breaking eye contact with her image.
"Too long? I was actually thinking eight would be more appropriate."
"I don't think so. Do you know her name?"
"No, but I would love to."
"Oh, then let me help you."
"How?" the guy chortled. "If you are thinking of asking her, then don't. You better not bother her at all. If I'm correct, she's already reached the fifth —"
Lirzod pushed his way in through the crowd, but before he reached the front lines around the track, the event started with five of the contestants participating. The referee's whistle signaled the start, and most men blinked once in the next second including Lirzod, and her image disappeared from the starting spot of the race. As their eyes shifted towards the end line, and heads rotated as well, the round was already over, with her having crossed the finish line.
The jaws of most men hit the floor.
"How much time did she finish it in?" The ones around the referee were too eager to know the stats.
"Two seconds," the referee stared at the numbers appearing on the wrist cloth tied around his wrist. "A little shy than that to be precise." Even he was pleasantly surprised.
The other four contestants of the round had long stopped in their footsteps and didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"Just two seconds with all that armor on her? That's scary as hell."
"And she didn't even break a sweat. Are you kidding me?"
"Well, she moved like a gentle wind — fast yet hard to feel its force, and barely made any sound. That's how good we have to be to reach the upper belts of the ship."
"Sheesh, you've gotta give it to those official assemblies. They sure can raise their young ones well enough to use Barth at such a young age. Compared to them, I spent my childhood like a donkey wasting away my time in the streets. No, I may be even worse, not even worthy enough to be a donkey dung. Will I ever reach her level? No. Never..." Just like him, many members shook their heads and most of those who just watched her performance couldn't help but feel demotivated.
Lirzod's face didn't show much glow either, for he had missed meeting her. The moment she won the event, her wolf was right beside her, and she wasted no time in retiring from the site. She didn't even bother to look back at the referee to know about the stats. (Che, if only I got a minute with her…) Lirzod pumped his fists.
"Don't be demotivated, man..." The seller from before came and spoke to him. "She's among the cream of the top."
"You know her?" Lirzod grabbed the hands of the seller, startling him.
"Of course not," the guy pulled his hands away and chortled. "How can I? You don't want anything to do with her or her Redguard tribe for that matter."
Lirzod's body slumped a bit. "Do you at least know her name?"
Lirzod stood straight. "Valkyra… what? Come again."
Lirzod coldly stared at him.
"Easy. If you win the event, I will tell her name."
"You are truly a…" Lirzod ground his teeth. He shoved his hand into the seller's pocket, startling him.
"What the —" he reflexively took a step backward.
"Just for some nuts," Lirzod pulled out a bunch of almonds and began to chew one by one. "I will win it, but you must tell her full name the next time. Otherwise..."
"I will smack you with a wet towel till you tell me her full name."
The seller was startled a bit. "Why do you care to know her so much? It's not like you know her. At best you like the way she looks."
"Not just like... I want to hold her hand!" Lirzod said as he walked away.
The seller was left bemused from Lirzod's words. "The heck that's supposed to mean?"
"It means I will do whatever I want." His reply truly baffled the seller.
 Shivering Squirrel: An idiom used to refer to people who shiver their way out of coldness and produce heat, and thereby make an effort to overcome their fear. 'Shiver like a squirrel,' is a well-known phrase particularly used among the martials, for a squirrel overcomes their coldness and generates heat through shivering. So it's seen as an essential trait by the martial talent scouts.
 Redguard: A tribe that's known for their aggressive defense tactics. It's officially ranked among the top ten thousand assemblies.
 Donkey Dung: Despite dung's disposition towards spreading disease, it being one of the most readily available substances, led to its usage in health remedies for its healing properties. It was also celebrated for its ability to ward off evil spirits.
Hope, you've fancied the chapter. Have a great day or night wherever you are.
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