After I learned all I could about the spices housed in Lady Kaguya’s storeroom, I went to work putting some of those ideas into practice in the kitchen. It was eye-opening how seemingly typical flavorings that were added to cooking could have such effects in this world.
I recalled the various guides that my mother had on the office shelves that touted the power of herbal remedies and how they were used in history, but frankly, the idea of them helping more than modern medicine was hard to digest.
However, infusing these herbal remedies with mana made a world of difference. There was nothing more intriguing than chomping down a freshly-baked cinnamon sugar cookie after expending too much mana, and suddenly feeling the ambient mana in the air rush into your body. Or seeing the before and after difference of Lau punching through several more slabs of rock after a dose of garlic-infused stir fry. Or feeling denser, more solid mana shields after guards downed a cup of Thai curry soup before training began.
Though Lady Kaguya had already created a notebook filled with effects that she had personally tested, there were likely many more just waiting to be discovered. Along with an increasing catalogue of recipes of food that she had never experienced, she had gained a fellow dabbler of healing through alchemistic crafting of consumables.
While Lady Kaguya could refine the effects of an ingredient to a high degree, the brews were hardly appetizing – one would pretty much have to force it down like a child pinching his nose at medicine. As a result, people were rather unwilling to become test subjects for her various ‘concoctions.’
However, an experienced chef contained the know-how to counteract and neutralize such strong-tasting ingredients that had been magnified by mana infusion. If it was an ingredient that I was familiar with, there were certainly some ways to mask the heavy taste while keeping the properties intact. If I hadn’t encountered it yet, then there was still the fun of testing it out to see what I could come up with. The path of culinary mastery was a road fraught with countless failures. I would just end up eating those in some corner away from others. The glaring faults stabbed my tongue as a reminder not to go down that route again.
All-in-all, time seemed to quickly pass by as our minds became enriched by the different experiences each side harbored. In addition to leveling up in the kitchen, I started getting used to the pressure point activation techniques for powering up the body. However, these were mainly designed to give temporary boosts in one’s abilities as they would wring the body of its reserves at a faster rate. While I couldn’t say that I was quite there yet, it felt good to suddenly be able to match Lau, blow for blow, even though for only short periods at a time. Perhaps, I could even stand on equal ground with Eryn. That cheap shot that I pulled on her last time couldn’t be counted as a true victory in my mind.
After I had a few days to myself of experimental cooking, a small form started appearing once again, filled with endless curiosity.
“Chrys, you’re not with your master today?”
She shook her head. “Yi Long is reading again. I wanted him to come out and train in the forest with me, but he insists on studying.”
The two of them had been getting along fine in the beginning, due to a mutual interest in each other, but they had different personalities and hobbies. Chrys was an energetic girl who loved nature, preferring to be outside to explore the world. In contrast, Yi Long seemed to be a studious kid that wanted to broaden his mind to compensate for his deficiency of fighting talent. Naturally, their interests clashed.
Though the two of them went outside to train and level up a bit with Ludmila, who was also a lover of nature, Yi Long soon grew tired of it and started hitting the books once again.
“Well, studying is something that he likes to do, right? You can’t expect him to give it up so easily. I mean, you got bored with reading pretty quickly and wanted to play outside. Give him a bit of time for his own interests.”
“But I want to play with him!” Chrys puffed her cheeks cutely.
Children were always hard to deal with, especially when it came to personal space. The best that I could offer was to distract her with something else that she might take interest in.
“How about you give me a hand with dinner? I could use an assistant today.”
Chrys jumped up with a cheer. It wasn’t like I actually needed one, but I had neglected to spend some time with her after getting so focused on my cooking hobbies. Somehow, I got the feeling that I had ignored Ludmila and Katsys a bit too much also.
‘Better make it up to them at some point.’ I did see them during training exercises, but that wasn’t the same. It would be nice to go for a stroll around the capital with them.
As I brought out onions and garlic for Chrys to chop, I noticed a considerable difference in her form and technique. No longer had she been careful and deliberate as she had been when she was unsure of her abilities. Her cuts and chops were forceful, sometimes a bit too much, like she was still getting used to controlling her power. I brought up her status window to check.
“Ah, she’s now level 14. No wonder,” I softly mumbled, understanding where the difference was.
As it had been for Katsys, who needed to adjust her bearings after suddenly skyrocketing in level, Chrys was now in the process of readjusting her senses. Leave it to Ludmila to power level her, as that had likely been the case for herself as well. Ludmila had certainly surprised me with her initial increase in fighting capability, so I had better prepare for something similar to occur for Chrys.
As I pondered this, another young face popped into the kitchen.
“Chrys, that’s where you are. I’m sorry for ignoring you-“ Yi Long recoiled suddenly at the sight of Chrys turning towards him with a kitchen knife. A look of irritation was on her face as she waved it intimidatingly in front of her.
“Hey, put that down! Knives go in food, not negligent boyfriends!” I teased her.
The flat of the knife slammed down onto the counter, a blush creeping on her face as she looked away. Similarly, Yi Long covered his reddening cheeks with his hand.
‘These two kids… are just too cute.’
“Why don’t you join us, Yi Long? It wouldn’t hurt for you to take some interest in your partner’s hobbies, now would it?”
Yi Long nodded silently and took the long way around her workbench before walking up to me.
“Well, what can I even do?” He said, trying to steer the topic away.
“I’ve got to work on this little concoction for the moment.” I pointed to a stack of chili peppers. “But I’ll need some help pounding the meat into ground up bits. Think you can manage that?”
I decided to give him something that he couldn’t really mess up. Tenderizing and grinding meat into little bits was a menial task that didn’t require delicacy, so it was fine for him to have at it. I handed him a pointy meat mallet and showed him what to do.
Turning back to my task of heating up some chili oil, I could hear the rhythmic pounding in the background.
For several minutes, Yi Long kept pounding and pounding and pounding. Though the meat slowly deformed and separated under the weight of the mallet, it was a tiring and monotonous task, one that he grew bored of quickly.
I could hear his blows slow in pace, but I was in the middle of enriching the chili oil with mana, so I couldn’t turn away to look. Chili oil was the core of Sichuan cooking. The boldness of flavor and spiciness defined the cuisine, so it was important to get the balance right. Furthermore, I was interested in what this ingredient would do in this world, as chili oil had a considerable impact on the body even without the inclusion of mana.
‘How spicy and how much of an effect would it give?’ I was curious to know. Therefore, the menu for today would be Mapo Tofu, a staple of the cuisine.
As I finished my enhancement and turned the fire down, I noticed that the pounding had once again started up. However, it sounded much faster and stronger than before. Furthermore, there were no sounds of chopping coming from Chrys’s direction. I turned my head to find the source of my concerns – Yi Long was indeed grinding up the meat, but instead of swinging the mallet with his own arm, a visible appendage of wind was carrying the mallet up and down, at three times the speed as before. Chrys’s jaw dropped as she watched Yi Long work his magic, literally.
“Wait, that motion. Isn’t that Air Hammer?”
Though it looked strange at first, the spell was undoubtedly performing a similar effect to Eryn’s move. Thankfully, it didn’t seem strong enough to break the table.
“Yes, it’s much easier for me to do it this way.” He stared at me blankly.
For someone who supposedly had poor mana control, that was certainly surprising coming from him.
“You can do this, but not fight properly with mana?”
“Aren’t they different systems? Body control of mana doesn’t overlap with magic of the elements. My family thinks I’m weak because I’m no good with my body. But… but something just feels right when I try this.” Yi Long bit his lip, frustration showing on his face.
“I see.” He was like a kid that couldn’t follow with the family business due to having different talents. Being constantly compared to other family members who conformed to the family’s way had left him ostracized.
“Do what you want to do. I was just surprised that you could use Air Hammer to make ground pork.”
A glimmer of hope shone in his eyes.
“I mean, I’ve ran into some magical chefs where I’m from. There’s no shame doing things with magic as long as you’re happy with the results.”
Yi Long nodded happily and continued with his task. At the end, he had ground the pork so finely that I was at a loss as to what to do with it.
“Well, I guess I’ll just hide it in the sauce. The blocks of tofu are what they’ll see anyways…”
It was nice that the two of them found something that they could do together, but I was at a loss of how to deal with him. I certainly was not qualified to teach him how to use magic properly. And his Mag stat would continue to increase quickly because of his bond with Chrys, who had a negligible magic stat.
For now, there was nothing I could do about it myself. Maybe, we would find someone suitable to train him some day. I scooped the completed dish into bowls filled with steaming rice. On the side, there was a second pot of Mapo Tofu sauce that was much lighter in color. I had put it aside and cooked it normally, without the mana infusion. Unless there was a baseline to compare it with, there was no way to tell what kind of effect the mana would add on.
I sighed at the fact that stat bonuses didn’t just pop up over the object so that I could easily see the effects like some Atelier game. Or rather, it was possible to do, but not worth the effort. Katsys had told me that it required intensive appraisal magic to analyze the full impact. Aside from expensive and prized objects, this was not usually the typical procedure. It made it even more pointless to cast analysis magic on a consumable.
“Well, gotta find out the normal way.”
As people gathered around the dining room, I handed out normal Mapo Tofu to those that couldn’t handle the spiciness, while those that loved spiciness eagerly drooled as the scent from the mana-infused one tickled their noses. Having tasted a spoonful, I could tell that this was one of the spiciest batches that I had ever made.
Those that didn’t mind burning tongues dug in at a furious pace, among them were the Sunny Boys, Lau and many of the guards. As I took my first spoonful, I could understand why. There was a strange addictiveness to the taste, despite the intense burning sensation that coated my mouth. I could feel sweat immediately rolling down my forehead. After several bites, I had to huff between bites in a futile attempt to cool down the raging fire in my mouth.
After only five minutes, the ‘spicy lovers’ had all finished their bowl of food at nearly the same time. The chorus of spoons clattering against the empty bowls suddenly sounded like a war drum to me. I looked up from my own finished meal, strangely feeling sensitive to the slight sounds around me. My body felt like a burning sun was radiating from within, and there was an indescribable itch to get up and do something.
Apparently, the others were of the same mind, as we started rising from our seats just then. Clenching our fists, there seemed to be one thing we all wanted to do. With a rush, we dashed towards the courtyard, anxiously barreling down the path to quell the fires that had developed.
Left behind in the dining room, those that had chosen the normal Mapo Tofu just stared blankly. Though there was a slight spice to the food, they were simply eating as normal. No strange urges had spawned. No particular sense of urgency had developed. Lady Kaguya was the first to break the silence, giggling in anticipation at what she believed would happen next.
A loud rumble shook the room just then, as a wave of residual mana swept through the area. For tens of minutes, wave after wave of mana could be felt as the muffled noises of cries could be heard in the distance.
Curious as to what had happened to the group that left, the rest of the diners finished eating before filtering out of the dining room. When they caught up with the source, a rather peculiar scene greeted everyone.
Several men laid sprawled on the ground, sections of their battle outfits having been shredded. A few of them were barely in a state of decency. In the middle of the courtyard, Claude, Lau, Wen Lu and Wen Zhi were having a free-for-all match. Other than Claude, the other three had large tears in their clothing, likely due to the chef’s critical hits striking them.
The men were bruised. The men were battered. Their bodies swayed like they barely had any bearing on their surroundings. Yet, the mana around them flared endlessly, and they continued to attack each other with their fists wildly. Eventually, the continuous weathering of blows were too much for them to handle, as Wen Lu was the first to bow out. Then, the old martial artist lost his aura and toppled over.
“I got you now!”
The chef and the spear fighter clashed, literally butting heads with each other as they had long abandoned their weapons in favor of a crude brawl. In fact, the two of them reared back and headbutted each other at the same time, the clash of their mana blowing the both of them away. But just as it looked like they would get up to try again, their auras went out like a snuffed candle, and they collapsed to the ground.
A heavy silence swept the courtyard as the raging free-for-all had finally ended.
“AHAHAHAHAHA!” Lady Kaguya doubled over in laughter, forgetting her manners at the result. Wiping her tears away, she straightened her clothing before addressing the crowd.
“Well, that answers my suspicions. Sanshiro’s famous chili pepper seeds – when eaten crushed – give people a sense of fearlessness and power beyond their normal means. But when extracted and enhanced, it magnifies into a state of uncontrolled frenzy until the user has spent his reserves. I’ll have to record that in my notebook.”
A few dried leaves blew across the ground, the only noise that could be heard as the crowd froze at Lady Kaguya’s casual remark.
Even Katsys felt a shiver run down her spine. ‘I don’t get like that when I’m hungry for data… do I? Please tell me I don’t!’
No one said a word to break the silence that permeated the area as Kaguya happily trotted away.