Jin Mu-Won ladled up bowls of steaming hotpot and handed them out to everyone.

“Huuuh!? This is delicious!”

“WOW!”

The escorts who tasted Jin Mu-Won’s hotpot couldn’t help but exclaim out loud.
At first, only a few people were willing to try Jin Mu-Won’s cooking, but in no time at all, all of the escorts were scrambling to get a bowl before the food in the pot ran out.

“Are you hungry? You haven’t eaten yet, right?”

“I’m fine.
I pinched some food while cooking.”

The senior escort loudly complained, “If you’re fine with it, then from now on, you’re in charge of cooking.
These guys’ cooking tastes like shit compared to yours!”

“Oi!” When the escorts who had formerly been on cooking duty heard him, they immediately objected, and the dinner conversation quickly devolved into an argument.

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Jin Mu-Won nodded silently in response to the senior escort’s question, but his presence was all but forgotten at this point.

Whether he liked it or not, he'd have to spend the next two months with these people.
Although he did not need to put any effort into getting to know them, he didn't have to purposely distance himself from them either.

After dinner, Jin Mu-Won and the other young escorts were tasked with washing the dishes in a stream near the campsite.
When they were done, he sat down and leaned back against one of the wagons, hugging Snow Flower.
He looked up at the night sky, feeling as if he were drowning in the mysterious sea of dazzlingly bright stars.

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Suddenly, someone walked up to him and said in a low voice, “I heard that you’re a great cook.
Everyone’s talking about it.”

Jin Mu-Won turned to face the speaker.
It was a beautiful woman wearing clothes made from snow leopard fur.
The large scar running down from her neck to her chest left a strong impression on him.

She looked at Jin Mu-Won and continued, “Is it okay if I sit down next to you?”

Jin Mu-Won nodded and recalled Gong Jin-Sung introducing this woman to him.
He said, “You are… Vice-Commander Chae Yak-Ran of the Iron Brigade?”

The woman sat down and replied, “Just call me Chae Yak-Ran.”

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“My name is Jin Mu-Won.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Master Jin.”

Jin Mu-Won stared blankly at Chae Yak-Ran, surprised by her politeness and unassuming manner.
She had no reason to go out of her way to talk to him, as she was one of the powerful warriors hired by the White Dragon Merchant Association, while he was just a random tag-along.
Their statuses were just too different.

Being specially hired hands, the Iron Brigade were given special treatment by the Association.
They didn’t have to do any of the chores, and even the food they ate was specially made by an escort who was the son of a chef.
Both the type and quality of the ingredients used were far superior to that given to the escorts.

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When she saw Jin Mu-Won’s shocked expression, Chae Yak-Ran calmly said, “Next time, I want to try your hotpot.”

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“It’s just a simple dish.
I’m nowhere near as good as a professional chef.”

“I like simple foods the best, though.
They’re easy to eat, and the nutrients are well-balanced,” replied Chae Yak-Ran.
Unknown to Jin Mu-Won, she was a martial arts maniac.
Whenever she had free time, she would train.
She loved training so much that she felt it was a pity she had to give up several hours a day to eating and sleeping.
If she could save some time eating hotpot instead of having some complex meal, while still getting all the nutrients her body needed, she would definitely choose the hotpot.

“Okay, I’ll be sure to prepare your share of hotpot next time.”

“Thank you, and I’m sorry to request this of you since your work as an escort must be tiring as well.”

“I am not an escort.”

“Huh?”

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“I’m going to Yunnan on personal business.”

“Ah!” Chae Yak-Ran exclaimed, panicking.
She had talked to him casually because he looked like one of the escorts, but if he was an important person, then…

Jin Mu-Won felt slightly amused by her anxious expression.
He explained, “I’m just helping with the chores since the Association is letting me travel for free.
Besides, making one more person’s worth of hotpot is no big deal, so please don’t feel bad about it.”

“N-No…I’m so sorry, I really thought you were one of the escorts…”

“You don’t have to apologize.
It’s just a simple misunderstanding, and I guess that most people would think I’m an escort at first glance too,” Jin Mu-Won said, smiling.

Chae Yak-Ran stared closely at Jin Mu-Won's face, saying, “You're a very unique person, Master Jin.”

Bewildered, Jin Mu-Won asked, “What do you mean?”

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Jin Mu-Won couldn't understand what made Chae Yak-Ran say what she did, but to her, he was the one who lacked common sense.
She was the only woman in the Iron Brigade, a small but very well-known mercenary group within the gangho.
There were many who envied her, looked up to her, lusted for her, or were just interested in gossiping about her.
Thus, she was used to always receiving odd looks from people who were meeting her for the first time.

However, Jin Mu-Won was different.
She was sitting right next to him, but he expressed no interest in her beauty or any curiosity about her appearance at all, including the scar that she so proudly displayed to the world.

Chae Yak-Ran observed Jin Mu-Won.
The amount of chi that she sensed from him was about the same as the rest of the escorts.
That meant that although he knew some martial arts, he wasn’t very strong.
If there was anything unusual about him, it was his eyes.

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As she looked into his dark eyes, she felt like she was staring into the deepest depths of the ocean, but no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t see the ocean floor where his true feelings lay.

…This man?

“Noonim.” 

Suddenly, she heard someone call her from behind.
She turned around to see Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan, who had approached her while she was lost in thought.

“What are you doing here?”

“Hmm? Ah, about that…”

“We still have much to discuss, and many things to prepare before meeting up with the commander.
It would be a problem if you kept slacking off and didn’t get back to work.”

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Chae Yak-Ran sighed.
People often called Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan the “Methodical Strategist”, but to her, he was just a naggy little brother.
Still, she couldn’t ignore his nagging.

She stood up, patted the dirt off her butt, then smiled at Jin Mu-Won, saying, “I have to go now, but I’m really looking forward to your hotpot tomorrow.”

When Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan saw Chae Yak-Ran’s smile, his eyes widened in shock.
The Chae Yak-Ran he knew was not a woman who would say something nice like that.
She was pretty, but she was also more serious and competitive than anyone else.
Most importantly, she never smiled!

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“See you tomorrow then!”

Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan looked at Jin Mu-Won with a complicated expression, then suddenly said, “I’d like to try that hotpot, too.”

Jin Mu-Won furrowed his brows and looked up at Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan, who grinned and added, “Thank you in advance.”

With that said, Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan turned around and walked off together with Chae Yak-Ran.
Jin Mu-Won stared blankly at them as they left.
For some reason, his head was starting to hurt.

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Nights in the wilderness tended to begin earlier than in the city.
The area illuminated by the campfires was limited, and most of the campsite was shrouded in darkness.
This was the perfect environment for wolves and bandits to ambush their prey, so the escorts had no choice but to take turns keeping watch.

It was getting late, but the mercenaries were still awake and busy discussing how they would go about conducting the search in Yunnan.
Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan, the strategist of the group, did most of the talking, while Chae Yak-Ran and the other mercenaries listened quietly.
Im Jin-Yeop occasionally raised an objection, but his ideas were quickly shot down by Jong-Ri Mu-Hwan's sound logic.

Whenever that happened, Im Jin-Yeop would shrink in embarrassment, causing the mercenaries to burst out in laughter, “Hahaha!”

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On another side of the camp, the escorts had also split up into several groups and were sitting around chatting beside the fires.
While hugging himself tightly in the cold, Kwak Moon-Jung approached Jin Mu-Won and said, “Brr, it's freezing!”

“Is it time to switch shifts already?”

“Yes, and we’re free from now till tomorrow morning.”

Although he was still a teenager, Kwak Moon-Jung treated his work as an escort seriously.
He did his best to pull his own weight and do the same amount of work as the others, because only then would they treat him as their equal.

While observing Kwak Moon-Jung, Jin Mu-Won was suddenly assaulted by a wave of nostalgia.
His situation was quite different from the boy’s, but he also had to become independent at a young age and mature much more quickly than other children.
Looking back, he wouldn’t be the person he was today without that harrowing experience.

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Instead of turning in for the night, Kwak Moon-Jung sat down and crossed his legs.

“Are you going to meditate?” Jin Mu-Won asked.

“Yes.”

That’s unexpected.
It’s common sense not to meditate unless one is alone in a quiet and secluded place, and this noisy campsite is anything but ideal.
There’s no way Kwak Moon-Jung doesn’t know this, so why is he choosing to meditate here and now? If his concentration is broken during meditation, there’s a chance that Chi Deviation might occur, resulting in permanent disability.

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“Why don’t you wait until we’re in a quiet place before you meditate? It’s impossible to maintain your concentration here.”

“Uncle Hwang said that the meditation technique he taught me can be practiced even in this kind of noisy place.”

Jin Mu-Won’s eyes lit up at Kwak Moon-Jung’s unexpected answer.
He asked, “Uncle Hwang said that? Would you mind telling me the name of that meditation technique he taught you?”

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“He said that it was called the Three Origins Meditation Technique and that it would lead me down the path to becoming a martial arts expert.”

“The Three Origins Meditation Technique?”

Jin Mu-Won’s eyes trembled.
Dazed, he looked up at the sky and mumbled, “Uncle Hwang…”

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Footnotes:

 Master Jin (Jin-sohyeop): The honorific used here is -sohyeop, which is an honorific that is unique to the wuxia genre.
Hyoep = Xia (俠) in Chinese, and loosely translates to chivalrous warrior, or hero.
Sohyeop is used for young warriors, and Daehyeop for great (middle-aged to old) warriors.
The closest English equivalent would be “Sir”, but I dunno if that reminds one too much of European knights.
Gimme your feedback!

 Noonim: Honorific for “older sister”, used by men.

 Uncle Hwang: Kwak Moon-Jung calls Hwang Cheol “Hwang-ahjussi”, while Jin Mu-Won calls him “Hwang-suk”.
Both mean “Uncle”, but -suk is more affectionate than -ahjussi, meaning Mu-Won is much closer to Hwang Cheol than Moon-Jung is.

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