The domain of Reichenstein was not far, adjacent to the outer rim of residences belonging to the lower nobility in which Eryn and I resided. Stepping into the main town of this domain, Eryn and I saw the faces of people happily conversing on this chilly morning.
It was the beginning of the new year. A fresh start for many. People got together to celebrate the arrival of the new year and renew connections with family and acquaintances. What other time would be perfect to hold an event outside with a landscape that exemplified the majesty of winter?
Large statues made of ice decorated the main pathway, each forged by a different artistic style. Eryn had told me on-route that magicians from all over the kingdom were invited to display their skills at magical ice sculpting.
I passed by intricately formed knights gallantly displaying their forms and beauties frozen in alluring positions. Further down the path, previously empty walls had been transformed into murals of natural scenic beauty. A man looking down from a mountain top towards the kingdom of Sistina – Ships riding the waves of a fierce storm – Children playing Ring Around the Rosie in the town square – these were visions of artistic appreciation all created in ice. It was a sight that existed nowhere else in the world.
Even with my usual indifference of artistic sense, I couldn’t help but marvel at these attractions.
“It seems to get better every year,” Eryn exclaimed, seeing my eyes shine in wonder.
“How long has this been going on?”
“This should be the fourth year? I believe Cornelius proposed it not long after he started becoming famous for his ice magic. Ice magicians sought this event as a way to compare their skills with the kingdom’s rising star.”
“What a way to show off. He really is a corny, rich guy.”
As soon as those words left my mouth, a voice of complaint was directed at me.
“So that’s how you see me. It makes me quite sad, as I have grown rather fond of you.”
I nearly jumped at Cornelius’s voice. That was probably the first time that he had heard me refer to him by the nickname I had thought up.
“Thank you both for coming to my domain. I do hope you enjoy yourselves.” Cornelius returned to his usual smile. “By the way, you’ll find a special surprise today. The centerpiece of this event. A masterpiece crafted by yours truly.”
“I can’t wait to see it!” Eryn exclaimed with excitement.
Seeing her like this, I was already glad that I had dragged her out of the house to come. Pietro had sent me to wake her up this morning, but neither gentle prodding nor shaking did much more than elicit a kick from her before going back to sleep. With her attack power being so high, that casual sleep kick had bowled me over, especially since I hadn’t seen it coming.
Hearing a crash from upstairs, Carina came by to check on me.
“I see. Let me handle it then.” She shooed me out of the room.
Before I managed to take the first step down the stairs, a high-pitched scream made me trip over my foot, nearly sending me flying down the stairs.
Having caught myself on the banister, I wondered just what Carina did to the poor girl.
Of course, neither one would tell me.
With our curiosity from Cornelius’s comment weighing on our minds, we followed him straight to the main event. The sound of music playing grew louder as we approached the square. However, we didn’t need to get very close before catching a glimpse of the grand scene that stretched out across the open area.
“Oh…that’s…” I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t a sight to behold. However, the subject matter that it modeled had caught me off guard.
The figure of a demon covered in broken knives cowering in defense – A second figure of a chef, relentless and brave – A romanticized recreation of my battle with the demon had been the star attraction of the Ice Festival.
“I don’t recall myself being that amazing!” I blurted out.
Sure, my memory had been fuzzy during the assault, but rather than feeling brave, I had been frantically pummeling the demon with everything I had, almost in desperation. The charming figure of a man in the midst of a heated battle did not suit me at all! Not to mention that the ice statue of me showed signs of exaggerated muscular definition where the clothing had been ripped. I had gotten a lot more fit since I arrived here, but I was nowhere as ripped as that battle chef.
“I simply transferred what these eyes saw into ice. No one else had a better view than I did.” Cornelius looked at me with a bright glint in his eyes.
“Isn’t that Demon Cleaver?”
“No way! The hero?”
All of a sudden, a swarm of girls who had been admiring the centerpiece had filled the space around me, reaching out to touch me. With their chatter blaring around me, I had no idea how to handle the situation.
Looking over to my companions for help, I instead saw Cornelius pulling Eryn away from the crowd. The two of them walked on, ignoring my pleas for help. Cornelius took a moment to look back with a triumphant smile, having grasped the chance for some alone time with Eryn.
“Hey! Wait! You traitor! Get back here!”
My cries were drowned out by the noise around me, as I felt my body being petted and probed. Wait, someone just squeezed my butt!
I turned around and saw some old ladies had joined the chaos. One of them had a particularly suspicious smirk on her face.
I quickly dug myself through the swarm of fondling hands. As soon as an opening had formed, I broke out into a dash. Disregarding the other curious onlookers, I tried to lose myself among the crowd of people.
Unfortunately, a person in a chef’s outfit was rather easy to spot among the townspeople, so I wasn’t having any luck. Rounding a corner, I suddenly ran into a couple of food stands that had been set up.
“Perfect!” I muttered as I stopped to pick up a box behind one of them.
Acting like it was perfectly natural for me to be standing there, I waited as the crowd of women ran by, never stopping to check the tree hiding in the forest.
When the coast was clear, I set the box down, but apparently, a new voice called out and stopped me from leaving.
“Hey newbie, what are you doing over there? I need help with the orders!”
Looking around and seeing no one else, I had realized that he had been referring to myself.
“I ain’t paying you to stand there and gawk! Man the fire, now!”
Due to his threatening tone, I reflexively moved as he commanded. It was probably best that I hide out here for a little bit to give time for my admirers to give up the chase.
Looking around the makeshift kitchen, I could immediately tell that the shopkeeper was selling a stir-fried noodle dish. In addition, the spices available looked very similar to the ones being marketed recently. Well, I shouldn’t have any trouble here.
“What’s the holdup? I need two orders right away!”
My hands immediately moved after that command. Straining the noodles that had been stored in water with one hand, I tossed oil into the pan with the other. The damp noodles hit the pan, creating a puff of steam and a sizzling noise. Working quickly, I sprinkled the other ingredients from the bins and tossed the noodles up into the air before catching them again in the pan, making sure that the flavor mixed uniformly.
Within minutes, two dishes of spicy chow mein had been plated and set at the front counter. The customers picked them up, and their eyes suddenly lit up with anticipation as the scent of the dish hit their noses.
“Next, another one!”
The next person in line placed an order, so I immediately started the work on that.
As time passed, more and more people showed up, seemingly increasing in pace. It wasn’t long before a large queue had formed up at the stand.
“What the hell is going on here? They just keep coming!” The shopkeeper had grown flustered by the flood of customers, having to help hand out food now in order to give me the time to continuously cook up orders.
Within the hour, I had exhausted all of the ingredients on hand. With nothing else to do, I plated the rest of the noodles to speed up the delivery to customers.
“Oh! Found you. Thought you might have ended up here, Claude.” Eryn had chosen that moment to show up. “Why am I not surprised to see you cooking? Well, come on. Let’s go.”
I dropped what I was doing and followed Eryn as we walked away from the booth. I kept one serving of noodles for myself.
Seeing that a magic knight had casually walked up to me and pulled me away, the shopkeeper stopped tending to the customers for a moment and stared at our backs. Rushing over to the remaining stock of cooked noodles, he grabbed a bite for himself to try.
“This…this is much better than anything I could make…no wonder…” The shopkeeper mumbled to himself, realizing that his shop had been aided by the famous Demon Cleaver.
“Hey! Where’s our order?” A customer yelled, catching his attention.
Biting his lip, the shopkeeper turned back to the crowd and continued passing out the remaining food.
“This is the last of it! I’m closing up after it’s gone!” He yelled out as the remaining people in line gave a collective groan.
While he could run back and replenish his ingredients, he wasn’t able to live up to the expectations that his customers held at this moment. As he turned away the remaining crowd, he swore to himself to improve before the next festival began.
“You sure you don’t want any? I think I did a pretty good job.” I held the dish of noodles out to Eryn.
“No thanks. I prefer not to burn my tongue.”
Eryn had a low tolerance for anything spicy. Instead, she had grabbed a loaf of sweet bread from a nearby booth and had been munching on it.
As we finished our food, the two of us reached an open area filled with energetic, young people. The area had been decorated for entertaining children, as it appeared to be a playground containing miniature buildings molded with ice. A layer of thick snow coated the ground only in that location, inviting children to come play in it.
“I miss being a kid sometimes. Free of responsibilities.” I sighed, watching the children run around with gleeful expressions.
“I don’t. There are many things that I couldn’t do as a child. Many things.” Eryn replied with a wistful expression.
Having lost her parents at an early age, she had no choice but to be thrust into adulthood soon after. As she continued to look on with a sad expression, I snuck over to a large embankment of snow and gathered some into my hands.
Packing it lightly, I tossed it at the unsuspecting girl. The snowball hit her squarely on the cheek with a splat, crumbling to the ground afterwards.
Eryn slowly turned to me with a look of surprise, then annoyance. “You!”
I ran away at that point, seeing that Eryn had snapped out of it and chased after me. It wasn’t long before she had caught up with a fresh snowball in her hand. Yielding to her payback, I stood still to allow for the incoming snowball to impact me.
As it approached, a thought suddenly dawned on me. Didn’t throwing a snowball count as an attack? My question was soon answered by the sharp pain erupting from my forehead as the packed snow collided there. I had forgotten about the weird system of this world, where one’s attack stat came into play only when an action was deemed as an attack. With Eryn’s high attack stat, it was no surprise that my body fell over and my vision started to fade.
“Claude, that’s some mess you made.”
I looked around at the assortment of parts on the ground that my friend pointed out to me. Having broken the controller that I had been using, I had grabbed some tools to dissect it, in a childish attempt to try fixing it. Before I knew it, all the parts had been separated, revealing that the mechanism for a button had been broken. I tried gluing it back together, but then came the task of putting everything back in its proper place.
“Uhh…how did these fit together?” I looked at the parts in my hand puzzled. I could easily take things apart but had issues remembering how to put them back.
“Lemme see that. You really suck at putting things together. Seems like all you do is break things.” My friend chided me.
“I can’t help that I just seem to hit it at exactly the wrong place.” It was a poor excuse, but there were times that I wondered how unlucky one could be. It’s like I had the propensity to damage things that were in my hands. My parents had their own ways of training those clumsy tendencies out of me, but it seemed to be part of my nature.
As I watched my friend piece the controller back, the scene faded to white.
I felt a warmth on the back of my head. Reaching my hand there, I felt the ruffles of clothing and smooth skin on my fingers.
“Hey! Watch where you’re touching!” A voice yelled as my hand was smacked away.
I opened my eyes to see Eryn staring down at me, a slight blush on her cheek.
The ground was strangely close to my head, which made me realize that I had been lying down. Turning my head to the side, I saw that I had in fact been resting on Eryn’s lap.
‘A lap pillow!’ My mind blared at this realization. I bolted up afterwards in panic, while Eryn simply brushed her legs off.
“You should’ve blocked that, you know.”
It took me a moment to realize that she had been referring to the snowball.
“Well, in my world, there was no way for a snowball to knock someone unconscious.”
Ignoring my reasoning, she got up and extended her hand to me.
“Well? We haven’t seen enough yet, right? Hopefully, there will be no further distractions.”
Taking her hand, we exited one of the ice buildings that Eryn had apparently pulled us into after I was knocked out. We ignored the playful jeers of children peeking from behind their hiding places.
It wouldn’t be long before we returned to the busy days of adventuring and business that came after the holiday was over. It would be best to enjoy this break as much as we could. Hand-in-hand, the two of us continued exploring the festival until evening.