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(Meaning: recommendation, encouragement, advice.)
「You’ve gotten used to wearing that, haven’t you?」
Hans nodded shyly at Nikolaus' words. The brown haired, big-eyed man had resigned from the sentinel corps to start helping at n.o.bu only a few days ago. Despite that, he had unexpectedly gotten easily used to the uniform.
「Do I look good?」
「Much better than when wearing the armor.」
Nikolaus had run into Hans in his blue n.o.bu's uniform at the entrance of the Inns-And-Stables-Street on the outskirts of Aitheria, under the two moons that came together in the cold winter weather. The hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar, an event marking the arrival of winter, had become a distant memory by now. The city was entering its quietest time of the year, with New Year's Day approaching quickly. The days had been so cold that even the thieves and thugs had been laying low, leaving nothing to do for the sentinels. This was why Nikolaus could start drinking early.
The distribution of goods within the city tended to virtually stop during the winter months. People would have food stockpiles at home to see them through the season, but eating the same preserved food day after day was undeniably boring. So, for those who couldn't sate their heart's desire with hard baked bread, dried meat, and sauerkraut, the lights of Izakaya were a s.h.i.+ning beacon in the dark of the night, a lighthouse for those daring to venture out.
Merchants done with a day of scant business and craftsmen who had finished their work early would all prowl the streets in search of delicious food and drink. On Inns-And-Stables-Street, they would be drawn in by the warm light seeping out from n.o.bu's gla.s.s door.
「Are you heading to n.o.bu now, Nikolaus?」
「Of course. Ever since a certain someone escaped, there's been twice the usual work for me to do to make up the difference. I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.」
Although the reply had been a joke, he was certainly getting hungry. A rigorous training session was a meal's best seasoning, and on days like this, he could think of nothing better than eating something delicious at n.o.bu to his heart's content.
The walking pace of the pair naturally aligned as they continued to walk towards the shop. No surprise really. They had been partners for such a long time, after all. Now, in a strange twist of fate, one of them was a customer while the other was an employee of the place they were heading to. Soon, they could smell an appetizing aroma drifting through the air – Izakaya n.o.bu's stew.
When they pa.s.sed under the curtain, they were welcomed by s.h.i.+n.o.bu and Taisho. The place was bustling as usual, with almost all seats occupied. Conveniently, there were two empty stools remaining by the counter.
「Things escalated during your break.」
「Welcome back, Hans.」
Hans, having walked next to Nikolaus all this time, put on his work face as soon as he entered the shop, which somehow made him look strangely reliable. Nikolaus took a seat and started to wipe his hands with the warm towel while the stew's aroma tickled his nostrils. He could see the blood slowly flowing back into his cold, numb fingertips. For him, nothing could beat this warm feeling in the cold nights of Aitheria.
He wondered what he should eat, and ran his eyes along the menu on the wall, recalling various tastes in his mouth as he browsed. Should he charge in with 'Toriaezu Nama' or start off with atsukan? Depending on what he drank, the food would have to be different too…and none of them were easy to give up on. However…
「s.h.i.+n.o.bu-chan, I’ll have ‘Toriaezu Nama’ today too!」
「Yes, one ‘nama’!」
He ended up ordering 'Toriaezu Nama' after losing to the temptation of his throat. Some time ago, his go-to drink in the winter time had been warm wine, but now, he could think of nothing better than n.o.bu's chilled, ice-cold 'Nama'. Other regulars of the shop also preferred it as their first drink of the day. Chilled 'Toriaezu' in a warm room in the middle of a cold winter day was truly a luxurious combination.
He heartily gulped the brew down as soon as he made sure the beer mug had been sufficiently cooled.
*Glug. Glug. Glug.*
Even the sounds from his throat were pleasing to the ear. He could feel the liquid flow down from his mouth, past his throat and esophagus, and into his stomach. This was it. This cup of beer was good.
Even though this was the season when the outside temperature chilled him to the bone, Nikolaus' first choice of drink was this one. As the cold, golden beer vanished down his throat, he could feel the tiredness of the long day vanish along with it. He picked up and took a bite from a properly stewed, firm chicken wing, while thinking that this one cup was worth enduring any kind of harsh training for.
「It’s a good drink, isn’t it, sir?」
The ever-serious Hans always talked to Nikolaus in a very polite manner while in the shop. It did not feel unpleasant, though. When watching Hans in his uniform, as he prepared a dish with s.h.i.+n.o.bu and Taisho, it wasn't hard to conclude that he was probably more suited to be here than in the military. Admittedly, Nikolaus the customer had been worried at first, but Hans was sensible and was skilled with his hands, due to being a gla.s.sblower's son. Now, it was obvious he was more at home here than when wielding a sword and wearing an armor.
Meanwhile, new arrivals to the shop smiled as soon as they received a warm towel from Eva. Nikolaus felt happy, as a regular, to see the moment when their hearts melted. He continued to watch his former colleague work, and brought the beer mug up to his mouth again. His pangs of hunger were stronger now that he had warmed himself up with the first serving of 'Toriaezu Nama', so he turned to Hans to ask what to order from the menu.
「Oh right, Hans. What is today’s osusume?」
「The konabedate, maybe… No, the buridaikon is well cooked today.」
(TL note: konabedate: one pot meal)
Buridaikon. The name itself sounded good. Nikolaus guessed it was probably a kind of cooked daikon.
(TL note: buridaikon = stewed daikon and yellowtail)
「Then, I’ll have that. And, one atsukan too. Whatever brand you recommend, please.」
「Buridaikon and atsukan, is it? s.h.i.+n.o.bu-san, one atsukan that you recommend, please.」
Hans took the order and pa.s.sed it over to s.h.i.+n.o.bu. Even if it seemed like he understood a little about cooking already, recommending a good drink was still too much of an ask. 'Osusume' had become a popular thing in n.o.bu recently. Some customers, like Gernot the Tax Collector, stubbornly stuck to ordering their favorite dishes every time, but there were some who felt like trying the various combinations of dishes and drinks the shop could offer. Since the recommendations changed based on the weather, season, and the day's stock, not a single person in Aitheria could grasp how wide the menu actually was in n.o.bu.
「Atuskan, huh? Which one would be good, hmm…」
s.h.i.+n.o.bu, Izakaya's poster girl, pondered the question with a finger on her chin. The choice had to not only suit the buridaikon, but also take Nikolaus' drinking preferences into account. So far, the girl's recommendations had rarely been off the mark, and there were rumors that she had memorized all the orders ever since the shop had been set up.
「How about ‘Kurous.h.i.+’ (Black Bull)?」
The recommendation came from Leontaine, who, although busy nimbly cleaning tables, still paid attention to the conversations in the shop. She, due to a mult.i.tude of reasons, was working as a waitress now, but she had once been mercenary, a very atypical career for a woman. She was a warrior by nature, so even though she enjoyed certain aspects of this job, waiting tables wasn't a perfect fit for her.
「’Black Bull’ might be good.」
(TL: to not confuse readers, s.h.i.+n.o.bu speaks the proper brand name, while Leontaine speaks based on how the brand is p.r.o.nounced.)
「I’m sure a nurukan ‘Kurous.h.i.+’ would suit the taste of the buridaikon that I tasted a little while ago.」
(TL note: nuru-kan: close to body temperature; ~40 C.)
Nikolaus had heard that Leontaine was a heavy drinker and liked to sample different kinds of liquor in the shop after the closing hours. 「I’d be horrified if I had to say I don’t know the taste of what I sell here,」she had been rumored to say laughingly as she had continued her training, which was not without some personal benefits. In a short period of time, her knowledge of liquor had grown much deeper.
Hans looked a bit discouraged. He was likely thinking that Leontaine was leaving him lagging behind. The two of them had started working for n.o.bu almost at the same time. Even so, it was obvious to Hans what role she played in the place after observing her from the side. She was, in her own way, filling up the gap created when Helmina had taken a pregnancy leave. Where Helmina's customer service was quiet and calm, Leontaine's was flamboyant and lively without being pushy, as could be expected from someone with origins in knighthood. Still, Hans' core belief was diligence. At the end of the day, he believed he was capable of anything Leontaine could do. Nikolaus, a colleague who had interacted with him since the very beginning of his sentinel days, understood that perfectly.
Be it as it might, Hans was already doing pretty well. Normally, it would be impossible for someone to be instantly ready to work in the kitchen just by switching from a sword to a knife. That meant that Taisho had wholeheartedly recognized Hans' work.
「Having heard this, does a nurukan of Kurous.h.i.+ sound fine to you, Nikolaus, sir?」
「If Leontaine recommends it, then it probably will be an interesting combination. I’ll have it please.」
s.h.i.+n.o.bu's recommendations were flawless, but Leontaine's suggestions would usually lead to unexpected discoveries. Either way, the customer tended to return home satisfied. Thanks to this, regulars would pick one of the two depending on their mood that day.
When they couldn't choose between them, they would ask the diminutive Eva. When she was asked to choose, because of her habit of watching the customers closely, she normally chose something that best matched the person's mood at the time. Soon, a sake bottle was brought out and the buridaikon was served on a dish of a muted hue. Nikolaus, having looked forward to it very much, rubbed his hands with glee.
「Doesn’t it look delicious? Was this made by you, Hans?」
「I was only in charge of plating, sir.」
「Heee, so this is arranged by Hans, huh?」
Hans thought he would be made fun of, so he looked away.
「It's a big deal, you know. You’ve managed to enter the kitchen in no time.」
「It’s not like that… It just happened.」
Nikolaus smiled, all the while dividing the daikon into quarters with his chopsticks.
「It’s a big deal to see Taisho, who is strict with the dishes that he serves the customers, entrust this to you, you know. Have some confidence in yourself.」
Taisho, busy carving the fish for the konabedate next to Hans, only managed a silent, strained smile to that, but it was most likely a sign of approval. Nikolaus brought the cut up daikon to his mouth. His taste buds were instantly filled with the sweetness of radish that had absorbed plenty of flavors. He let out a blissful sigh.
「It soaked up the flavors properly… This is tasty!」
While enjoying the meat of the yellowtail, he gulped down the nurukan cup of Kurous.h.i.+. This single mouthful was enough to confirm that its richness went well with this buridaikon. The combination of the strong flavors was perfect for his worn-out body, which craved something like this. The recommendation was clearly correct. In a way, it was amusing. Nikolaus, who had hardly ever eaten fish before visiting n.o.bu for the first time, was now very fond of them.
His hands did not stop moving – from the fatty yellowtail meat, to the Kurous.h.i.+, to the daikon, and then back again. The combination was a bullseye. It wasn't just the atsukan; this nurukan was good too. The taste of the liquor was drawn out well, and its rich flavor went well with the strong taste of buridaikon. Being made aware of these kinds of meetings of flavors was definitely one of the pleasures of n.o.bu's recommendations. Though Leontaine hadn't been here long, he wasn't afraid to suggest that she was well suited for customer service.
「With Hans joining, and Leontaine serving in Helmina’s place, n.o.bu is indeed n.o.bu!」
「I am grateful to hear a regular like you say so, Nikolaus-san.」
Taisho, having finished preparing konabedate for Edwin, rubbed his nose. Delicious food and alcohol. None of this had changed since he had dived under the curtain-sign for the first time that day.
「When the New Year begins, won’t n.o.bu be one year old already?」
It would soon be a year since this shop had been set up by Taisho on this Inns-And-Stables-Street. Many things had changed during that year, but n.o.bu was still n.o.bu.
「Ah, right, Hans, why did you recommend the buridaikon to me instead of the konabedate?」
Hans' hands stopped when Nikolaus asked that question while throwing the last piece into his mouth with apparent regret.
「Because konabedate is meant for someone who is single, sir.」
The follow-up question was interrupted by the sound of gla.s.s door being pulled open.
「Is there an empty seat, I wonder?」
As soon as he heard the dignified voice, Nikolaus knew who had arrived.
「Nikolaus, sir, may I seat the customer at the seat beside you?」
He could only muster an 「Oh.」in response.
「Oh my, we meet again.」
The new guest was the Master of the Waterworks Guild, "Harpy's Shanty", Eleonora.
「Ye-yeah, that’s right.」
For the past few days, he had somehow always happened to share a table with Eleonora. He wasn't complaining, heavens forbid. He just found it strange to have so many coincidental meetings with this unattainable beauty. It was just too good to be true. When he looked at Hans, he could see his former colleague's shoulders trembling as he served the appetizer. The man was laughing. Nikolaus finally figured out why Hans did not recommend the konabedate, which was for singles.
Eleonora asked for recommendations as he had before and also ended up ordering buridaikon. He wondered if this was one of n.o.bu's 'Osusume' too, and was unsure whether it was meant to cheer him up or poke fun at him. After gulping down another shot of nurukan, he suddenly felt much drunker than usual.