Chapter 15

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“How much?” The first person asked after Stepha approached him.

“Give as much as you think this performance deserves,” the girl said, smiling as she did so.

The man, despite wearing simple clothes, appeared to think on it a bit and then gave her nine silver coins. Moving to the side, he winked at Hadjar, who gave him only a brief nod in return.

It was their subtle way of tricking people—they didn’t ask for a fixed price, but for “as much as they thought the performance deserved.” Tourin, the same man who’d bought Hadjar when he’d still been in prison would always pay first.

The ruse worked and the crowd ended up paying no less than six coins per person. This meant that the owner of the circus had earned a whole one and a half gold from just one of Hadjar’s performances. That was a lot of money; a peasant family of five could live off of that for a month.

Hadjar had earned only two silver coins and a piece of meat. Well, the other freaks hadn’t earned even that much. They didn’t get any money or a hearty dinner. They would just get more abuse. That was why they hated Hadjar, but he didn’t really pay much attention to them.

After the performance, Hadjar’s cage was covered with a dark blanket. It was then wrapped up in the same fake chains he’d been put in and dragged into a large wagon. At the owner’s insistence, they kept up the charade for as long as they were within ten miles of the city. Only after getting far enough away the freaks were allowed their so-called freedom.

The ruse was closely guarded and no unnecessary risks were taken. People could have their suspicions and think whatever they liked, but every measure possible was taken to prevent them from finding out the truth.

Hadjar didn’t complain. Truthfully, he couldn’t. The owner could electrocute any one of them if they messed anything up or tried to ask for too much. With that kind of threat looming over them, they became much more docile and careful.

They’d been traveling down a bumpy country road for about an hour now. The farther they got from the city, the worse the roads became. Despite the army becoming more powerful, the country itself was falling apart. Entire villages and even small settlements had already disappeared.

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People either fled their villages and moved to the cities, where they eked out a miserable existence or were enslaved. The Imperials always needed more labor for the mine, which had become absurdly huge.

Hadjar would often hear about some new pestilence sweeping the country or people starving to death when such news reached the cities. Needless to say, the number of bandits on the roads had increased exponentially.

In the old days, each village, despite the extreme scarcity of resources necessary for their development, always had at least several practitioners. Well, they’d be, at most, at the upper levels of the Bodily Nodes, but that had still been enough to protect people from wild animals and bandits.

Now, with the villages and towns disappearing, these ‘warriors’ rarely joined the army. More often, they went to pasture and became useless. That’s why the circus caravan was being guarded by a group of mercenaries: seven men and five women, to be exact.

They considered themselves a powerful force and couldn’t understand why Hadjar didn’t fawn over them as everyone else did. He only smirked at their stupidity. If he ever managed to take up the sword again and hear the call of the wind, three minutes would be enough for him to kill all of these arrogant a******s that never missed an opportunity to mock the freaks.

“You can come out now, Hadjar,” he heard Stepha’s voice and then she pulled the blanket off his cage.

It wasn’t surprising that Hadjar hadn’t come up with another name for himself. After all, to the locals, his name was quite ordinary. The Queen hadn’t been particularly ingenious when naming him, and there were certainly a lot of other Hadjars roaming the world.

The former Prince took off his chains and stretched out his aching arms. An ulcer on his elbow burst due to the motion, which nearly caused Stepha to vomit. Being nice, she tried to hide it but wasn’t successful.

“Could you come up with another ending for the story?” She turned away and tried to change the subject, instead.

Hadjar got down from the wagon and found himself in a spacious meadow. The coachmen had already arranged the wagons in a semicircle, and a fire had been lit in the center. The craziest freaks, such as the hairy girl or the birdboy, had been left in their cages. They were mindless, so it was dangerous to let them roam.

The rest huddled around the hastily constructed cesspit. They’d been given a bit of soup with crusts of bread and were now looking at Hadjar enviously. None of them could even dream about talking to Stepha.

“Why? Don’t you like the part with the transformation?” Hadjar asked her.

It wasn’t difficult to guess what fairy tale he’d used as the inspiration for his ‘marketing’. His current goal wasn’t only to make as profitable of a story as possible, but also one that was as noticeable as possible. That was the only way he could get what he wanted. He’d succeeded if today was anything to go by.

That old nugget of wisdom was true—People will follow the path of least resistance if they can.

“It’s just so… sad,” Stepha took his arm, trying not to touch the skin directly.

Hadjar really didn’t look good, to put it mildly—he was wearing simple short pants to better show his wooden stumps, along with a shirt with short sleeves, which served the same purpose, and some black cloth, which he would be wrapped in. He wore it when he left the cage. Or, to be more precise, he was made to wear it in order to not ruin the appetite of others.

“People, even if they won’t admit it, love tragic endings,” Hadjar shrugged. “Compared to those, their own lives don’t seem as bad. Especially if there’s some hope to go along with the sorrow.”

Stepha looked at him oddly, after he said that.

“You’re quite good with words, Hadjar.”

“Possibly.”

She led him away from the central fire. There, the other circus performers were playing musical instruments, drinking, eating and having fun. They were kind of jealous of the freaks, because they brought more money to the circus, despite the regular performers being more numerous. But no one would’ve let just a crowd of ‘monsters’ into a city, so the owner kept the regular performers around as well.

Hadjar was given a wooden bowl filled with chowder, that also had a piece of meat in it. It was kind of fatty and far from good, but it was still better than what most of the freaks had.

This time, the former Prince ate slowly and savored his meal. If he’d planned well and calculated everything correctly, then this would be the last time he’d be eating with these vagrants.

“Status,” Hadjar ordered. The neural network promptly obeyed.

Name:

Hadjar

Level of Cultivation:

None

Force:

0,01

Dexterity:

0,03

Physique:

0,002

Energy points:

None

Hadjar just shook his head and continued eating. Despite everything, he’d continued his ‘training’. His weak, almost disintegrating body hadn’t been capable of much. But, after five years of ‘training’— it was a little stronger than before.

He did three pushups every day. A trifle, even for a simple child, but for Hadjar, it was a titanic feat. And he often managed to keep going only thanks the neural network sending him messages like this:

[Physique: +0,0001]

For the sake of these infinitesimal gains, he would torture himself for weeks on end. It was better than simply waiting and hoping that his plan would work.

Whatever the case, it was better to do something than to give up.

“Come on, you can’t be serious!” A knife thrower laughed drunkenly.

He was a thin, weak-looking man, but he could throw two dozen blades at once and not miss a single target. Hadjar would’ve been happy to scan his level of cultivation, but he was too weak to do so.

“I swear it! When I was sixteen, I killed a Fierce-Bull!” The broad-shouldered mercenary roared back.

His name was Brombur or Bromvurd… something like that, and, despite being quite short, he was famous for constantly trying to ‘use’ someone. Both figuratively and quite literally. He was always trying to trick people and take their money and visited the brothels in the cities whenever possible.

“A Fierce-Bull, even a young one, isn’t below the level of Awakening in power!” The thrower continued to argue. “Which is definitely higher than the middle levels of the Bodily Rivers!”

“You don’t believe me?” Brom-I-don’t-remember-his-name threw a blade in front of the doubting man’s feet.

The thrower immediately bent down and picked it up. He was thin, but, nevertheless, was quite powerful. In fact, except for the owner himself, he was the one who visited Stepha the most regularly and stayed with her the longest. Nobody really dared get in his way when he did so.

“Analyze,” Hadjar ordered mentally.

Bald Brom, let’s call him that, threw off his shirt, exposing his stomach, which was impressively firm. He held a sturdy, curved sword in his hands and wielded it as if he were a windmill and the weapon itself one of the windmill’s blades.

Name

Bold Brom

Level of Cultivation

The Bodily Rivers, Stage 3

Force

1,3

Dexterity

1,24

Physique

1,86

Energy points

1,9

Two “adepts”, and each of them, according to the neuronet, wasn’t below the Bodily Rivers’ third stage. They waved their pieces of iron enthusiastically at each other. The loud hooting of the others, the sound of wooden mugs and the rhythmic music of the lute player encouraged them.

The company had nothing to do in the evenings. Everyone had been f*****g everyone else for a long time now since there weren’t any new people (only the freaks would be new, but no one wanted to go to bed with them). They’d grown tired of frequently getting drunk, so these kinds of scenes weren’t rare. The truth was that the fights were mostly to alleviate boredom.

Hadjar looked even at this stupid performance with a slight longing.

Their strikes were slow and inaccurate. They struck at random, without even thinking about it. It was a fight between idiots. A true Master was no dumber than South Wind. Defeating a worthy opponent was only possible if your mind was a few dozen moves ahead.

The way they moved their feet resembled the process of stomping on grapes to make wine. They stayed in the same place and had almost no control over their center of gravity and balance. They possessed neither the grace nor elegance that was so essential to the art of the Sword. The art that, despite being used for murder, had art to its lethality.

It was as beautiful as a soaring falcon that had spotted its prey. It was as elegant as a tiger crawling through the grass, lurking, then pouncing swiftly.

They weren’t swordsmen—they were just practitioners who didn’t see the forest for the trees.

Most warriors were like that.

The Master had said that even some of the Heaven Soldiers weren’t able to grasp the “peaceful unity” required to truly be at one with their weapons. It was necessary to have both talent and perseverance, as well as a certain worldview to achieve this. Nobody really needed a lot of intelligence to stuff themselves full of precious resources and rely on others’ expertise.

Anyway, that’s what his mentors had told him.

He wondered what had happened to them and the Nanny, as well.

“What’re you grinning at, freak?!”

A slight slap brought Hadjar out of his reminiscing. Falling down and dropping his bowl, along with the half-eaten meat, Hadjar saw the figure of Brom towering above him.

The mercenary could’ve easily killed him if he’d used even a tenth of his power.

“Nothing, venerable warrior.” Hadjar looked down at the soup he’d spilled and tried to look respectful.

He could eat meat that had fallen on the ground. He was hungry, so he decided to try and eat it all.

“Do you think I was lying?!” The mercenary stepped on the meat, flattening it into the ground and mixing it with the sand and dirt. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, freak!”

He lifted Hadjar’s chin with his boot. He then staggered back, falling onto his ass comically. For a moment, he’d thought that Hadjar didn’t look crippled, but like an ancient, fierce animal. His cold, blue-eyed glance had been frightening.

However, when the people who’d witnessed the incident started laughing a moment later, he stopped seeing the rage and determination that had unbalanced him, and instead only saw subservience and meek deference.

“You think you’re better than me, huh?!”

Brom made Hadjar get back on his “feet”, then handed his blade to the freak. Someone tried to object to what was happening, but, alas, Stepha was the only one who could’ve stopped what was happening. Since she was already in the owner’s wagon and unlikely to come out in the next hour, Brom kept his abuse up.

“Well, show me what a freak you are, ‘legendary beast’!” The mercenary laughed, trying to conceal his fear.

“Damn it, damn it!” Hadjar thought, hardly able to lift the sword, despite the fact it would be light even to a common man. “Not now, not when I’m so close!”

After all, Stepha hadn’t gone to visit the owner alone, she’d been accompanied by a person who could bring Hadjar one step closer to his cherished goal—freedom, and justice.

But he was now faced with a new problem.

A problem in the form of an angry, humiliated mercenary who clearly didn’t intend to leave things up to chance.

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