Today, on the outskirts of Spring Town—a town with a population of several million—it was surprisingly busy. For two months now, one of the King’s armies had been encamped there. Every morning, at the central square, a crier would invite everyone to come try their hand at the exam.
There were a lot of people that did just that.
All sorts of individuals were represented among the men and women streaming toward the center of the army camp—from ordinary vagabonds, who expected to be fed for free, all the way to dashing adventurers. But, mostly, they were either the younger sons and daughters of large families or those who hadn’t found something else to do in town.
Some were motivated by their hunger or poverty. Some had been lured in by the promise of power or by the prospect of advancing in the ranks, as the crier had described. He’d promised that anyone who signed up could have general’s armor and regular dinners in the capital in a couple of years.
Alas, only a few of those who wanted to join the military could pass the entrance exam.
A tall, young man stood in line, slowly moving in the direction of a huge parade ground in the center of the army camp that resembled a labyrinth of tents. He towered over the others around him, which surprised him a little.
His long, thick black hair had been gathered into a ponytail and fastened with a leather strap. He was garbed in plain, blue clothes instead of a shirt or a jacket, like most of the other men wore. They were dirty, torn and didn’t look like noble robes. Instead of a belt, he had a rope, with a wooden bottle filled with water tucked into it.
He didn’t wear any proper shoes or boots. Instead, he wore strips of cloth wound around bast shoes, fastened there with wide ribbons.He held a rusty sword and was smoking a pipe. A wide straw hat covered his face.
“Is your tobacco from the western plantations?” Somebody asked.
Hadjar turned toward the speaker. Next to him was the only other person as tall as he was.
The young man was dressed decently—a leather jacket, high boots, black pants made from a durable fabric. However, he didn’t have any weapons, or even a knife.
He was quite handsome—wide cheekbones, a strong chin, with a determined and calm look in his gray eyes. Like Hadjar, he had long hair, but had elected not to tie it into a ponytail.
The young man held a pipe as well. But the smoke coming from it was completely different.
“Probably,” Hadjar shrugged.
The young man blinked several times.
“Don’t you know what you’re smoking?”
The Prince only smiled inwardly. Back on Earth, he would’ve just left a cigarette smoldering next to his bed. So it was hard to say that he had ever truly ‘smoked’.
“My name is Nero,” the young man introduced himself, holding out his hand.
The young man’s handshake was firm, but his skin was soft. Judging by his appearance and the absence of any calluses, he was probably the youngest son of a merchant. Or a young nobleman who had escaped from overly protective parents.
“I see you’ve brought your own weapon,” Nero nodded toward the rusty sword.
Hadjar noticed a slight hint of mockery in his companion’s calm gaze.
“The road was long, so I had to defend myself from bandits.”
“Hmm... “ The young man said. “You mean they saw how poor you were and ran away immediately?”
The Prince laughed.
“No, they gave me some money and bread first,” Hadjar added, snorting.
Nero chuckled, and then they both started laughing loudly, which annoyed the people around them.
“Where are you from?” Nero asked, putting the pipe back in his pocket.
“From a village. It’s about a month away on foot. And you?”
“I’m a local,” Nero waved his hand around. “From Spring Town.”
Hadjar looked at the parade ground. Another group of people who wanted to try out was being gathered there. According to his more optimistic estimates, it would be at least another quarter of an hour before it was his turn.
Some friendly banter would hopefully make the time fly by.
“Have you run away from your bride?” Hadjar smirked, putting his pipe away as well.
“I wouldn’t run away from my bride... I would...” Nero sighed dreamily. “By the way, who runs away from a woman? Women... No, Hadjar of the village, I haven’t run away from anyone.”
“Why then do you want to join the army?”
“My family’s making me,” Nero shrugged. “It’ what my kin do - serving.”
“As part of the fighting forces?”
“As an official. A low-ranking one, but an official. Some of my family work in the court, others in the port’s administration. Apparently, there wasn’t a civilian job available for me. And so they sent me to the army.”
“Well, it’s always good when there’s a military officer in a family of officials. You always know who to bribe.”
Nero squinted at him and smiled.
“Did you say you were ‘from a village’? What kind of village do you come from, Hadjar, that you would think like that?”
The Prince shrugged.
“Well, I did travel for a month to get here. I’ve managed to learn all about the urban lifestyle.”
They looked at each other and smiled again. Sometimes, you may feel like you’ve met a kindred spirit. You chat, laugh, part and then never remember that other person again. But while you’re talking to them, it seems like you’ve known this person your entire life and even longer than that.
Such people are said to be connected by the ‘red thread’—the thread of fate woven around everything in this world, be it living or not.
“Why do you want to join the army, Hadjar? Do you think that the army, like those bandits, will feed you for free?”
“Not just feed me,” Hadjar corrected him, “but also dress me, give me a roof over my head and replace this sword.”
Nero stretched his neck slightly and looked at the tents all around them. They were simple, one-person tents, and all of them were white. A few of the officers had more luxurious shelters, and some even had large enough tents that they had actual entrances.
If one squinted, it was possible to spot the tents of the top commanders and the largest one, which belonged to the general.
“I also heard that they have women of easy virtue on Fridays,” Nero smacked his lips.
Hadjar laughed again.
“Do you want to join the army because of your family or because of women?”
“In this life, everything I do is because of women, my new friend. What is the point of living, if not for the sake of enjoying women? Their magnificent and firm breasts, their long legs, those wide hips, that satiny skin...”
The young man licked his lips and made some girls, who were standing nearby, blush.
Unlike the villages, the world in general wasn’t sexist. If a person was good enough at cultivating their martial arts, then their gender wasn’t important.
“If you hold me, Hadjar of the village, you’ll be sleeping in not just a soft but also a warm bed.”
They turned and looked at the ladies behind them. The girls blushed and almost growled in annoyance. “Bastard!”
“Me or him?” Nero asked immediately. “I want to emphasize that my incomparable handsomeness is known throughout Spring Town.”
“And I was the best catch in my village.”
“That doesn’t matter, my new friend. Spring Town is much bigger than a village. Therefore, my good looks are more objective.”
“But the girls are prettier in our village.”
Nero clutched his chest.
“The girls are more beautiful than the ones in Spring Town? You must take me to your homeland!”
“I'm afraid you would end up stoned if you went there...”
“So be it! Even the threat of such a cruel fate will not deter me! I must get to these fabulous creatures!”
The ladies behind them were already reaching for the canes tied to their belts. They’d probably brought those canes with them to avoid feeling ‘inferior to the men’. Or maybe they just couldn’t manage without a cane...
Hadjar shook off these thoughts. I’d best avoid that particular rabbit hole.
“Hey, you two!” A soldier in black armor barked.
Exhausted from the heat, he was trying with all his might to move the breastplate away from his body and looked silly doing it.
“Go to the parade ground! Damn, why is it so hot…”
“Well, it was nice meeting you, Hadjar,” Nero extended his hand.
“You too,” Hadjar shook it.
Then they went in different directions.
There were too many people interested in joining the army, so the parade ground had been divided into four parts. In each of them, separate groups took the same tests. Hadjar went up to the table where four people who looked like Scholars were sitting.
Just ‘looked like’, mind you, because compared to South Wind, they were ordinary quacks. They had big bellies, shifty eyes and fat fingers. The Scholars showed Hajjar the large skull of some creature.
“Put your hand in there,” one of them said. “If it doesn’t bite your hand off, your age and stage are suitable.”
“What are the requirements?” Hadjar asked, to make sure.
In all honesty, he was simply stalling for time, because he wasn’t sure how the skull might react to his neural network.
“To become a private, you should be no lower than the sixth stage of the Bodily Nodes. And under the age of eighteen.”
“How do you check that?”
The Scholar was about to answer when his colleague interrupted him.
“Peasant! Don’t delay the queue! And you! Put your stinking stump in the skull or get out of here.”
Hadjar shrugged and put his hand inside the mouth of it, feeling a small, cold, stone sphere in there.
“The Bodily Rivers, the first stage. The age is under eighteen.” The third and most sensible of the Scholars wrote this down in a huge scroll immediately. “Name?”
“Listen to me carefully, Hadjar,” the Scholar made his well-rehearsed speech in a bored tone. “Your level of cultivation allows you to take an officer’s exam. It’s much more complicated than a private’s exam, but your salary will be higher and the conditions will be... better. You’ll start with a low rank—junior lieutenant. Of course, you won’t have anyone to command straight away.”
“And if I fail?”
“Then you’ll be a private.”
Apparently, he wouldn’t lose anything if he tried to become an officer.
“I accept,” Hadjar answered without hesitation.