The event would take place in the town hall at the city's center. With a simplistic design from the Silanka Era, three centuries old, it didn't look particularly impressive from the outside, but it had a certain sort of antique charm. Inside, suspended over the center of the banquet hall was a chandelier carved from a single piece of sun-crystal, bigger than could be believed. Joshua tried to estimate the amount of energy contained within, and realized that this decorative novelty could fully supply a complete set of magical equipment with fire-elemental energy.
However, right now it was just being used as a big lantern.
These dwarves tended to inadvertently remind you that they were nothing like how they appeared—not the least bit lacking in wealth, in fact they were loaded.
Shaking his head, the warrior banished such thoughts from his mind.
As the key guest and main figure of this event, Joshua was invited by Moreila to sit at the head of the main table, but Joshua politely declined—as a compromise, each of them sat at either end of the main table instead. The dwarven orchestra began to play their distinct form of music, and the party got into full swing.
Quite a number of people were in attendance: besides officers from the various administrative departments, there were several dwarven people of note as well. True to their role as the central pillar of northern dwarven society, they generally showed deep respect to Moreila as the Lord High Blacksmith—this could be clearly seen in their every movement and expression—but they didn't seem to think of the warrior as any big deal, only extending him a few perfunctory courtesies.
The rumors about dwarven hostility towards outsiders had been true. Although Joshua's name and deeds had been heard of even here, some people still stubbornly disapproved of their so-called count—and they didn't exactly go to great pains to hide it from the warrior.
The food they were served made for a truly sumptuous feast, despite how neither the humans nor the dwarves of the north were renowned for their culinary achievements. For this occasion, however, in order to welcome Joshua, the assortment of delicacies which had been prepared for him appeared truly appetizing indeed. Be it the smoked meat of Tyrant Sand Worms or the small cooked sausages, everything was tantalizingly delicious. Being able to actually taste these foods, which had previously only existed in the game, even Joshua couldn't hide his delight.
As the party carried on, the mood grew ever merrier. Of course—this being a dwarven feast—the main highlight was not so much on the eating, but the drinking.
"I make this toast to the earth and the magma!" A dwarf stepped forward—seven metal discs in his red beard, and appearing to be somewhat drunk already—and raised an enormous cup in Joshua's direction.
Dwarves were the children of the earth and the mountains, born from the steel-essence in the deep places underground, legends said, during the first millennium when the Initial Flame had come alight. The earliest dwarves were said to have appeared on the shores of a vast underground pool of lava. Drawing upon the light and heat of the lava, they searched through the deep caverns, discovering a variety of mineral deposits, as well as a profound understanding of the earth. These were the foundations upon which they built a civilization, so whenever there was anything worth celebrating, the dwarves would always use the phrase "To earth and magma!"
Raising his glass without hesitation, and then downing it all in one go, Joshua felt a fire burning down his throat and into his gut, but he didn't let it show on his face, smiling for all to see.
The dwarf seated opposite stared at him, his beard quivering with surprise. Outwardly, Joshua didn't appear to realize (although he was truthfully well aware) that when Moreila ordered the best wine to be used for this party, it meant in other words to bring out the strongest, fiercest 'Deep Fire' liquors. Brewed by the dwarves themselves, it was exceptionally potent, and anyone besides a dwarf—for example, an elf or a human—would usually be floored after one cupful. Even a habitual drinker like this dwarf, after downing his drink in a single gulp, was already red in the face, his vision blurring.
This human before him… how could the wine seem to be having no effect on him at all?
As for Joshua—to tell the truth, he was feeling great!
"Looks like the dwarves this time aren't weaklings like Brandon and Vale Dani." The warrior found himself nodding as he thought this, the taste of the wine still burning on his tongue. "I can get into this!"
Without drawing upon his Combat Aura to resist the effects of the alcohol, Joshua wasted no time drinking down every dwarf who came forward to offer him a toast. Every one of them a terminal alcoholic, they could see with their own eyes that their human count was holding his drink through sheer physical ability.
"This is the toughest constitution we've ever seen in a human in perhaps two centuries," a dwarf was whispering to his companions off to the side, although his booming voice really couldn't be lowered that much after all—everyone else nearby shook their heads as they overheard, but in their hearts they bore the same sentiment.
"Not merely the best, gods above—every human from the past two centuries combined couldn't drink as much as he!"
Not far away, Joshua continued to drink. Beholding this with some awe, the dwarf stroked the steel-drill mole at his side, exclaiming in praise, "He has an iron stomach!"
The steel-drill moles were the dwarves' companions, much like a knight's warhorse. Many dwarves ate and slept alongside their moles, who helped them with everything, from digging and excavating to searching for ore, and even finding their way around. The mole at the dwarf's side nodded solemnly at its master, as though in agreement.
Meanwhile, while clanking cups and drinking hard with another dwarf, Joshua noticed something had changed with the surrounding dwarves—though at first their prejudice had been obvious, the way they were looking at him now was tinged with a shade of acceptance.
As his gaze swept over them, the dwarves raised their cups in acknowledgement.
Joshua smiled, knowing full well what was going on.
Though regular drinkers the dwarves may be, they had little respect for those who got drunk out of their wits. As a race who prided themselves on intricate skill at smithing, carefully planned engineering and so on, it was not the volume of alcohol consumed which mattered, but rather the ability to stay on your feet and in control after a bout of heavy drinking—that was what really commanded their respect.
A person who allowed themselves to get drunk was someone who had no grasp of their own limits, and who likely had little mastery over their own body or wits—people of this sort, with so little understanding of themselves, were completely unworthy of trust. Conversely, someone who could drink a lot without getting drunk was considered to be of clear mind and firm resolve, always in full control.
Elsewhere at the party, while Joshua and the other dwarves were plying each other with drinks…
… Moreila and Clyre were having a chat.
"Clyre, I never thought I'd see the day when you came back to the northern lands again. It's really been too long." The venerable dwarf's expression showed no trace of joy at his reunion with an old friend—quite the opposite, his resentment was clear to see. His brow deeply furrowed, he spat the words through gritted teeth, "It's too bad Joshua doesn't know the truth about your background, or else he'd never have brought you here!"
"Time heals all wounds. It's been so long that they've already completely forgotten about me —even if they knew, they wouldn't still be clinging onto bitter memories, like you're doing." The elf spoke calmly in reply to Moreila, appearing to be untroubled by the dwarf's naked hostility. "What happened that time… no one was at fault. Since you chose to hold to your oaths, there's no need to bare your fangs at me."
"In that case, why did you come back here?"
"I just felt like coming by, to check on this land they're watching over, that's all…" Saying this softly, Clyre sighed, the elven druid observing the old dwarf's hardened gaze. She said, with sincerity, "I've spent a century studying about Balance, understanding the relationship between Order and Chaos… only now do I understand the horror that we faced back then; but they have always been stationed here, on guard, constantly holding those powers at bay… by comparison, this quarrel between us is like dandelions blowing in the wind—hardly worth clutching after."
The elf continued lamenting, "Centuries have passed us by, and humanity has cycled through several generations—already, his descendant has grown to be a match for either one of us… I only returned to these northern lands to cleanse away any remnants of Chaos energy, and maybe check up on old friends along the way, that's all."
The old dwarf made no reply, only downed another cup of wine, and then silently turned his head to watch Joshua steadily gaining acceptance amongst the dwarves.
"It was like this back then, too—he could really drink…" He sighed. "His power has already surpassed that man's own—if we'd all had the kind of power we do now, right from the beginning, then things surely wouldn't have turned out…"
"What's the use of talking about it now?" The elf, seeming by appearances to still be quite young, said in a laid-back manner, "You're a dwarf, the best among blacksmiths—you should understand this principle: the heredity of humans is like Damascus steel— it must be hammered well and forged repeatedly, in order to make it stronger and tougher. In this way, from one generation to the next, the results could eventually be nothing short of Legendary tier…"
She raised the wine cup in her hand and offered him a smile. "This is a party to welcome Joshua. Don't be like this. Come, drink with me."