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636 A Battle Between Men

 Barter's costume quickly became the center of attention, where even Chairman Lauren frequently turned toward Barter as he was giving his speech. It was apparent that Barter's dress up was too shocking for the mercenaries. But even though most of them were perplexed, they still behaved appropriately, knowing the purpose of the Winter Ceremony.

Just as Rhode had expected, Chairman Lauren represented the Mercenary Association in giving an evaluation of the mercenaries' performances over the year. Everyone should have been cheery, but the atmosphere was rather tense due to the Southern rebels. The two most formidable guilds in the South had been disbanded and the mercenaries involved in the rebellion were mostly executed. Therefore, the mercenary leaders representing the South were sick at heart. Chairman Lauren had also received instructions from the Royal Family to request all leaders to watch over their men strictly.

Chairman Lauren didn't bring up the issue regarding Rhode's identity and he announced the integration of the Southern mercenary forces. Rhode's Starlight didn't receive jurisdiction over the southern mercenary forces while Purple Lily Guild and Cole Falcon Guild would temporarily replace the management of the Sky Sword Guild and Liberty Wings Guild. Although it wasn't explained in detail, everyone knew that this was a transaction between Rhode and the Mercenary Association. They knew that grumbling wouldn't change anything since the decision had been made and no one dared to mess with Rhode.

After the brief interlude, the banquet began with a merry rhythm. The carefree nobles danced with their female partners in the glorious hall as harmonious music played while chatting idly with their fellow nobles. The mercenaries weren't interested in such boring activities. They would rather indulge fully in good food and drinks.

The cold and cheerless hall as a result of Chairman Lauren's speech had gradually livened up. Many of them raised their alcohol and conversed loudly. Melodious music flooded their ears and perhaps they couldn't even hear each other if they didn't raise their voices.

However, the clamor wasn't as disruptive on the upper deck of the banquet hall. Although there were three men seated, it was in a strange silence. The mercenaries who lifted their cups high and drinking their fill instinctively lowered their volume when they passed by the trio.

Viktor sat back on his seat and toyed with the cup of alcohol in his hand. However, he wasn't enjoying the moment. He was considering how to pick up the terrible mess left behind by the Sky Sword Guild. Unlike Barter, Viktor was politically sensitive and he sensed from the Royal Family's intervention in this matter that the Munn Kingdom might use this chance to change the traditions of the Mercenary Association. If he was able to manage the situation, Cole Falcon might gain control over the mercenary forces forever. For that to happen, he would need to attain some achievements to gain the recognition of the Royal Family and Royal Highness Lydia. He might also receive commendations and rewards from the Royal Family like Rhode...

Viktor turned to his side and Barter's loud voice sounded.

"Come, kid. Have another drink!"

Barter's expression restored quickly after the ceremony had began. His wide grin was as though he had forgotten about his humiliation. However, Viktor knew that he wasn't convinced to admit defeat just yet. It was obvious from his behavior that he intended to regain his reputation using another method.

"Come, kid. Go on. Hahaha. How is it? The alcohol's great, eh?"

Barter burst into laughter and poured another cup for Rhode. Barter admitted defeat like a true man and since it was said that the loser of the bet would need to refill drinks for the winner in a female costume, it wasn't strange that Barter was doing so.

But... whether it was done in moderation was another matter.

The cups used in banquets for mercenaries weren't as exquisite as the crystal glasses for the nobles. Strictly speaking, crystal glasses were more for tasting than drinking due to their tiny capacity. The mercenaries weren't keen on such a humdrum way of 'drinking', which was also why the cups used in this banquet were about the size of their fists, manufactured by coarse wood and secured with a round of iron hoop. Mercenaries loved to have their cups filled to the brim, lifting their heads high to pour everything down their throats in one go. This was the most comfortable way of drinking for men.

However, even the best drinkers among the mercenaries would reach their limits before the twentieth cup.

"Haa..."

Viktor shook his head helplessly and observed Barter's 'passionate' smile while pouring Rhode's alcohol cup to the brim once more. Of course, he knew what was going on in the head of his buddy. No mercenary could beat Barter in drinking. Not even three buckets of strong alcohol could. Barter had also set a heroic achievement for making every mercenary drunk in the Winter Ceremony by repeatedly filling their alcohol cups. It could almost fit a nightmare. All the mercenaries laid flat on their stomachs and couldn't stand on their feet while Barter laughed heartily on his seat in perfect condition. Thereafter, all the mercenaries knew that they shouldn't compete with this monster in drinking. Because it wasn't blood flowing in his blood vessels. It was all alcohol!

It was apparent that Barter had intended to fill Rhode drunk and humiliate him before everyone as payback. However... Viktor gazed at the empty alcohol buckets and the corner of his mouth perked up.

Is it that simple?

Rhode showed no responses. He maintained his poker face and drank all that Barter had poured.

"Great!"

Barter stuck out his big thumb and poured another drink for himself. He lifted the alcohol cup up and gush it all down his throat. Then, he cheekily showed Rhode his empty cup and continued to pour another for Rhode.

The bustling banquet hall quietened gradually. The 'competition' between Rhode and Barter above had caught the attention of the feasting mercenaries. Four empty alcohol buckets laid sideways on the ground, but the two guild leaders were still taking turns drinking as though they couldn't stop. The mercenaries finally understood the reason why Barter was wearing such an insane choice of costume, but this scene let them astonished.

Everyone was aware of Barter's drinking capacity and it seemed that Rhode would be drunk anytime. Most of them were resentful toward him and were anticipative in watching him humiliate himself. The nobles were just a bunch of effeminate, weak fellows to the mercenaries and they looked down on Rhode's feminine appearance. If it weren't for his impressive performance at the Midsummer Festival, perhaps no one could imagine that he was a Swordsmaster.

The mercenaries had been waiting for Rhode to slip down his seat hilariously with weakened knees and they would at least have something to mock him about in future. However, the sky had darkened as time passed and there was an unprecedented change to the situation. They looked in disbelief and even Viktor turned around with a curious gaze.

Seven empty alcohol buckets rolled around Rhode and Barter, but they didn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. However, Barter appeared a little flushed and he was slurring his words. What about Rhode?

"One... One more, kid... Y-You're good..."

Rhode calmly lifted the full alcohol cup that Barter had pounded before him and finished it in a go. Rhode was still as steady as ever. He placed the empty alcohol cup at the side. But his expression was as fair as before without any signs of flushes.

Just how insane is this young man?!

Several mercenaries cursed inwardly. The alcohol provided here was strong and wasn't shoddy alcohol mixed with water. Although the alcohol was delicious, they had a strong kick afterward. Perhaps the mercenaries would forgot their surnames after gushing down two buckets. However, both of them had drank almost 10 buckets! Oh, Lord. Even if they weren't drunk, the amount would have stuffed them to death!

"Good...!"

Barter shook his head and stood to his feet to show a thumbs up. He lifted the alcohol cup and finished it instantly. Then, he displayed a cheeky smile and stooped over for another bucket. But his knees weakened. His head crashed on the table and the loud impact shocked everyone. As the mercenaries once again looked up, Barter had shut his eyes and gone into slumberland...

This scene was comical. A burly man donned into a tight, pink dress with white stockings and a lace head accessory had plunged his head on the table, extending his tongue while kneeling on the ground. The strong smell of alcohol and sweat was all over his miserable self, but no one ridiculed him. This was the first time that they saw this man drunk... What about Rhode?

Rhode gazed at Barter, but he didn't collapse as they had expected. Instead, he stood up and arranged his attire leisurely before nodding to Viktor.

"Mr. Viktor, I'll leave Mr. Barter to your care."

Rhode left his seat and exited the banquet hall under bewildered gazes. Only when he vanished at the end of the passageway did the mercenaries return to their senses and exchange perplexed looks with one another. Rhode didn't seem affected at all. But... How was this possible?

The heavy doors closed in a resounding echo and separated the stillness in the banquet hall from himself. Rhode headed to the corridor along the courtyard. He turned his palm around and a white radiance flashed. Celia emerged beside him.

"Master, is anything the..."

She paused and frowned.

"Master, you're..."

"Ah... Celia, please send me back. I don't think I can make my way back myself..."

Rhode waved to Celia and turned the other direction. The latter swiftly grabbed his arm.

"Master, there's a railing! Are you drunk?"

"A guy tried to make a joke out of me, so how can I... Blargh...!"

Celia finally dragged Rhode back to his room and no one spotted them along the way, fortunately. But Rhode couldn't hold it in anymore. He didn't enjoy drinking alcohol to begin with, and even if he had to drink, he often drank grape wine or red wine only. But this time, he didn't avoid Barter's taunt. He knew that many of them were hoping to see him make a joke out of himself, so he had to ensure that they wouldn't have a chance. Fortunately, although Rhode didn't know what attributes he possessed, his constitution values were on the high side, which guaranteed his victory in the drinking 'competition'. Even ordinary poisons weren't able to harm his strong constitution, not to mention strong alcoholic drinks.

But there were limits to everything.

Drinking 10 buckets of plain water could take one's life. In fact, when Barter was about to collapse, Rhode sensed that he was reaching his limit too. He was even prepared to 'suffer a mutual death' with Barter. But he was fortunate that Barter gave in earlier and he got the final laugh. However, it was merely the pot calling the kettle black.

"Master, please wait..."

Celia let out a sigh. She had never imagined to facing this situation as a summoned spirit. She thought that Rhode had summoned her out for the same reasons-to discuss what happened in the Saint Monastery. However, she wasn't willing to talk about it, at least for now. She didn't expect that... she would face such a situation.

"Master, please take care of yourself. Drinking too much will take a toll on your body. My sacred spells can alleviate your pain, but it can't sober you up..." Celia extended her right arm and suddenly, Rhode lost his balance and pushed her from the front..

"..."

The room was in complete stillness. Celia widened her eyes in shock, gazing at Rhode above her. After a few moments, she let out an awkward cough and pushed Rhode away. But Rhode sprung open his eyes and grabbed her right hand.

"M-Master?"

Celia was bewildered. She gazed blankly into Rhode's pitch-black pupils, but she didn't know how to respond. Before she had the chance to retaliate, Rhode lowered his head and pressed his lips against hers.

"...!"

Celia felt that her head was in a blank. The heavy alcoholic smell and his unique scent assailed her nostrils, leaving her slightly dizzy. However, that wasn't all. Rhode caressed her body gently and pressed his palm on her chest armor.

"... Ah!"

Celia trembled to his touch and at the same time, Rhode lifted his head and blinked to gather his focus.

"What... It's Celia... No wonder... it feels harder than Celestina's..."

Rhode closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep, leaving Celia with a red blush across her cheeks...