Translator: Kell | Editor: Ryunakama
I ended up making lunch with the five river fish Theo caught and some wild vegetables.
Cooking was my job. After scaling the fish clean, I pulled out its innards, stuck the meat through sticks, sprinkled some salt, and grilled them. I had no idea if you could call it cooking, but this was definitely better than some people out there who didn’t bother scaling their fish before grilling.
I chopped up one fish into chunks and simmered it with the wild vegetables. We only had bowls for me and Zero, but I could just give my bowl to Theo and eat directly from the pot.
“Nature is harsh,” Zero said. “We say that the weak are meat the strong do eat, but if a fish with no fangs or venom keeps running away to avoid being eaten, the predator will eventually starve to death. In other words, I lost to a fish.” Chewing on the grilled fish, she looked up at the sky with a serious expression.
Theo, who had been blowing on the hot fish to cool it down, gave an encouraging smile. “If you practiced, you’d be able to catch them in no time,” he said. “Do you want me to teach you?”
“Don’t bother,” I interjected. “Once she learns, she’ll lose interest immediately.”
Zero scowled at me. “That is not true,” she said. She turned her gaze back to Theo and let out a sigh. “You are a good lad. You are good at catching fish, and you know your wild vegetables. Thanks to you, I can eat grilled fish and drink wild vegetable soup. I might not even need Mercenary with you around.”
“Oh, I see. So you don’t want this soup that I made.” I transferred the contents of the pot into a bowl and started eating without handing it to Zero.
“Ah!” Zero reached out quickly, holding her grilled fish in one hand. “That is cruel, Mercenary! That is my bowl! You should know how long I waited for it!”
“Didn’t you just say you didn’t need me?”
“I-I was simply joking!”
“You should not be mean,” Theo said. “I feel sorry for Zero.”
A kid just reprimanded me. Theo and Zero shot me disapproving looks, making me feel like a villain.
“I was just messing around with you a bit.” I practically said the same excuse as Zero.
I handed the bowl to Zero. As I poured Theo some soup, the witch drank the contents of the bowl within seconds and held out the empty bowl to me. As always she was a fast eater.
“Theo. If you hold back, this glutton here will eat everything.”
“G-Got it.” Theo carefully sipped the steamy soup, then looked at me in surprise. “Wow. It’s delicious! You’re a great cook!”
Zero nooded deeply in agreement. “Yes. Mercenary is a good cook. I am certain he will make a good wife.”
I won’t. Actually, I can’t.
“What are you talking about?” Theo said. “A man can’t be a wife.”
Yeah. You tell her, kid.
“Indeed. Things do not go as well as they should because of demons. If Mercenary was a woman and I was a man, I would cast a savage Ma—”
Zero cleared her throat. She was probably about to say Magic or something.
It didn’t matter if Theo was a child. It would be bad if he found out Zero was a witch.
“I would employ a savage method to make her my spouse,” she corrected.
That doesn’t sound less terrifying at all. I’m glad I was born a guy. I had never thanked God as much as I did right now.
“Do you like Gramps?” Theo asked.
“Of course. I would not be traveling with him otherwise. Above all, once you bury yourself in Mercenary’s fluffy fur, you will not be able to sleep soundly in other regular beds.”
“So you only see me as a bed,” I said. “Listen, Theo. When a woman says they like you, don’t take their word seriously. You’ll end up in tears.”
“Nonsense. If I only saw you as a bed, I would have slain you a long time ago and ripped your fur.”
Theo gave a yelp.
See? Women are scary. I nodded slowly to Theo. He nodded back, gravely.
It was at that moment that we hit it off. Somehow I had a feeling that I would get along with the kid.
After lunch, we trudged through the forest on our way to the Holy City of Akdios, where the Saint was said to reside. As soon as we exited the forest and made it out onto the main road, I confirmed our location on the map and saw that we indeed took a decent shortcut, saving us some time.
“I’m pretty useful, huh?” Theo smiled.
He was more than just that. He was a capable kid. Thanks to him, we secured a campsite immediately. I barely had to do anything.
“You want me to be on watch tonight?” he asked.
What he said made me a little angry. It meant that at least one of Theo’s previous employers made a child stay up as a watch all night long, like it was the natural thing to do.
Theo said his father passed away. I had no idea where his mother was or what she was doing, but there was no one to protect him. The boy didn’t know what was normal, what was right or wrong. He only knew how to survive and how to get jobs.
“Gramps?” Theo looked at me curiously.
I sighed. I had no intention to pay him some lip service, but to be honest I felt bad.
Zero took off her cloak and wrapped it around Theo’s body. “Mercenary is a beast himself,” she said. “There is no need to watch out for any wild beasts. A lookout is not necessary. You may use my cloak if you feel cold. Mercenary is warm enough. Am I right?” Zero looked up at me and smiled.
Removing her cloak exposed her deadly beauty. I cast a sidelong glance at her, managing to give a nod.
Theo stared at the cloak wrapped around him in disbelief, then opened his mouth reluctantly. “But what if the fire goes out? We’ll have to make another one in the morning. That’s too much work.”
“You need not worry. I am an expert in starting a fire.”
I forbade Zero to use Magic, except for when we needed to start a bonfire. Her method was much faster than me using flint. During lunch today, Zero found an opportunity to start one while Theo was out catching fish.
If I was Zero’s bed, then she was my flint.
“Sorry, but we ain’t got blankets,” I said. “You’ll just have to make do with that cloak.”
“This is more than enough,” Theo said, overjoyed. “It’s so warm.” He pulled the coat around himself, his face turning red a little.
I was woken up by Zero’s stirring in the middle of the night.
“Mercenary,” she whispered. I opened my eyes and lowered my gaze, meeting Zero’s bluish purple eyes. “I felt mana flowing nearby just now.”
“What?” I lifted my body up. “Wait a minute, what are you talking about? Mana flowing?”
“It is like the wind’s shifting, or the earth’s vibration. Normal humans cannot sense it, but witches can. It means someone used Sorcery, or Magic.”
What?! I almost screamed out loud. When I saw Theo still fast asleep, I lowered my voice.
“The Holy City is still quite a ways away. Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
According to Theo, Akdios was a four-day walk away, which was a child’s estimate. It would probably take us two to three days, but the city was still too far nonetheless.
Zero slowly shook her head. “I said it was close.”
“It will take you less than half an hour to get there. I would not have sensed it otherwise. Will you look into it?”
She probably meant going together. No matter what I said, Zero would go alone. It was her duty, and as her bodyguard I must protect her.
There could be more Mages here in Cleon than just the saint. Without giving an answer, I rose to my feet, sword in hand. A Beastfallen head was the best offering Mages could offer. No harm in being too cautious.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” Theo got up sluggishly.
I motioned him back to sleep. “I’m gonna go on a quick patrol,” I said. “I’m sure there won’t be any trouble, but just in case, stay on top of a tree. You have your knife, right?”
Gripping his father’s memento, Theo quickly stood up and began climbing a tree.
He’s got experience. He probably had to sleep on a tree before to get away from wild dogs. Very reassuring.
I picked Zero up and stepped into the dark forest.