Unlike Lance, eight-tenths of Chino was occupied by humans. Most of the continent's land was also fertile and scenic. If humans were the main race on Lance, they were the rulers of Chino. They formed two large powers on the continent; namely, Hocke and Stok. However, only one empire, Stok, existed on the continent a century ago. It was colloquially known as the southern empire and its territory spanned almost the whole continent.
Stok was already a thousand years old. The imperial capital used to be Sorn, but with the passing of time, people began to forget its original name. The city eventually got the name, Millennium Capital.
Millennium stood on the southern end of the continent. The continents northern and southern ends had very different cultures. Perhaps because they were influenced by the highland barbarians to the extreme north, the northern Chinoans valued martial prowess very highly. It wasn't as extreme as every household training in combat, but impetus-capable individuals occupied the same rank as a magus of similar power.
The southerners didn't think that way at all. Muscle heads were just barely more than barbarians as far as they were concerned. They worshipped the arcane art of magecraft. Only the brainless became warriors. Their disdain extended also to those that valued physical strength and martial prowess. The northerners were uncultured idiots in their eyes.
These differences grew until it became irreconcilable hatred between the two peoples. The two sides fought minor wars for centuries but the north didn't rebel against Stok until a few decades ago when a duke in the region declared himself, his land, and his people independent of the empire.
His name was Hector Hocke, the father of the current emperor, Larwin, and founder of the empire. He led the northerners against the south quite successfully and eventually forced the south to recognize their independence. With their victory, he declared the formation of the empire, with Melindor as its capital.
The family insignia was a golden eagle with spread wings.
Hector passed away five years after founding the empire. His only son, Larwin, just 26 at the time, succeeded him. He'd inherited his father's intelligence and bold personality, and quickly quelled the chaos that broke out in the wake of his father's death. Stok had also seized the opportunity to retake their lost land, so he then marched against them.
It took two years to calm everything down, but he held the empire firmly in his iron grip by the end. In the years that came after, Larwin didn't expand the empire. Instead, he expressed sincere and friendly attitudes towards the barbarians to the north and Lance. The chubby, middle-aged emperor knew how weak the newly founded empire was and that he had to prepare a safe environment in which to build its foundations first.
In all the decades of his rule, he had yet to do a single impressive military thing besides calming the empire shortly after his succession. But he oversaw the empire's greatest economic growth in the region's history, even going as far back as when humans first settled the land. The growth saw dividends for even his poorest subjects, which made him a very beloved emperor.
The south had not stopped watching, however, and they knew what the emperor was thinking. Over the years they'd kept trying to spark another war, but the emperor had never taken the bait. They could not play games any longer, however. If the empire was allowed to continue its current growth, it would soon be able to fight with them on equal footing, so they decided to throw all pretense to the wind and openly declare war.
"So that's the story..." Vera murmured.
The group was preparing to register for the tournament. They did not doubt many would try their hand for the winning prize, but the three were still shocked at the line stretching blocks away from the registration office. Fortunately, it was autumn, so it wasn't very hot. Otherwise, the Kurdak would have bailed. The sod could endure torture but not a slight tease on the thermostat.
The three chatted as they queued. Their conversation eventually turned to the empire's history, which Leguna was happy to narrate. He'd heard almost everything he had told them thus far from the old man. He was young at the time, but his environment forced him to mature quickly. So he had listened carefully and painstakingly remembered every details of the old man's stories.
He and Vera were surprised to find out that Kurdak knew quite a bit about the continent despite being from Lance, even correcting Leguna a few times.
"Have you been here before?" Leguna asked curiously.
Kurdak only smiled.
"It's almost our turn."
Leguna turned his gaze to the office to see a beautiful, sweet girl at the booth. She had been working for many hours today, but a warm smile still dominated her face as she called for the next applicant in a practiced manner.
"Good day, youngster," she smiled. For some reason, Leguna didn't want to show his real appearance, so he'd disguised himself. His change was only minor, enough to not be recognized, but the broad strokes were still similar, especially his age. He still appeared in his teens. He'd crafted a slightly more rugged face for himself, he certainly wouldn't be able to crossdress with it as he could with his real face.
"Good day, milady," he smiled back.
"Oh, you look a bit older," the girl smiled again. The kid must have lied about his age, not that it really mattered.
The age restriction wasn't absolute, more like a guideline. As long as they were not just barely strong enough to qualify, they could be one or two years older. So she didn't question him further, as long as he wasn't more than a couple years off.
"Yes, I'm younger than I look."
"Taking part in the low-order segment?"
She'd trained a bit herself and could tell the kid didn't have a strong aura. He should be around the seventh or eighth stratum. While the mid-order segment was open to participants with seven to fourteen strata, no idiot with just eight would actually dream of competing in that category. Eight may technically qualify them for the mid-order, but they could never compete against the people who were at the upper edges of the category. A six stratum difference could not be overcome with skill. A rabbit could be as skillful as it wanted, it might be able to run away, but it could not kill a lion.
As a result, the real border of the mid-order segment sat at around ten to eleven strata.
The girl was pretty certain the kid would join the low-order segment, but asked just in case, and it was good she did.
"No, the mid-order segment."
"The mid-order segment."
"But… Forgive me, but you need to be have eight strata at the very least to participate. You..."
"You can test me if you want."
Leguna wasn't intent on revealing anything. Being able to develop fourteen strata at 18 would draw too much attention. So he revealed only his first eight.
"Eighth-stratum impetus! You qualify," announced a middle-aged appraiser.
"Are you sure you want to join?" the girl again.
"Thanks for the concern, but I'm sure."
She had no interest in fighting with a registrant. If he wanted to join the mid-order, then so be it. It was just her job to note down all the details, not to convince people one way or the other. She asked Leguna for some other details and quickly filled out the form.
"The fee is one gold."
Leguna took out and handed it over. The mid-order segment's fee was one gold, the low-order segment ten silvers. It was enough to dissuade weaklings from trying their luck, but not so much to scare away decent prospective competitors.
"Thank you. The competition starts in eleven days, and you'll fight on the first day. Prepare thoroughly in the meantime."
Leguna stepped aside and waited for his friends to register as well. Their registration went smoothly as well. They were a little on the young side for the mid-order segment, but far less of an oddity than Leguna.
The girl suspected Kurdak wasn't as young as he said he was, and eventually gave up trying to get his real age and just wrote down 30.
"Hey! That's six years older than I really am!"
Kurdak almost jumped over the counter in anger.
"It's still ten years younger than you look, Sir," the girl replied in her disarming smile.
Kurdak stomped off protesting under his breath after paying the fee, persuaded by his companions who could barely contain their laughter.
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