Mercenary Black Mamba - Chapter 4
Mu Ssang’s mood soured. The officer most likely wouldn’t be laughing out of goodwill; he must be mocking him. Mu Ssang had misunderstood. The international force received applications from all over the world, but they never considered language barriers much of a problem.
Asian applicants were usually Chinese or half-Chinese. That was the reason why the guard had asked if he was Chinese.
Mu Ssang completed the application and was immediately transported to the nearest military division where, over the next three days, he was examined for diseases and signs of drug abuse.
On the fourth day, he was flown to Marseille Provence airport with four other applicants. A Jeep was waiting for them outside the airport to take them to Aubagne International Central Headquarters, 15 kilometers east of Marseille. At the headquarters, they examined his psychological state, gave him an IQ test, a physical, and subjected him to two weeks of orientation.
The qualifications for Legion Etranger were strict. Only 20 percent of those who applied passed the tests and training to earn the “Kepi Blanc” (white hat).
Amongst the 60 people who gathered at the headquarters, most were disqualified at the background check or testing stage. Only 15 would go on to the Ecole (School) of Castelnau Bridge and receive the Kepi Blanc.
Mu Ssang was 182-centimeters tall and weighed 75 kilograms. He was tall for an Asian, but here, he was considered small. The white and black candidates were usually around 190-centimeters tall, so he disappeared among them.
“Hey, monkey, move.” A huge black man with a wrinkled nose pushed him out of the way with his huge, rock-like shoulder. Mu Ssang pushed down his temper. When he didn’t react, others were tempted to intimidate him.
A yellow-bearded man grabbed the back of his neck and pushed. Mu Ssang gathered his balance in the lower half of his body and resisted. When he didn’t move, standing like a boulder, the yellow-bearded man’s hand moved.
His palms were now caught in Mu Ssang’s hand. He pressed down.
Craack— It was the sound of bones shattering.
“Aarrrgh!” yellow beard’s shout resounded across the grounds.
“You bastards, mind your manners. I’m trying to be nice. Got it?” Mu Ssang turned around with his sharp gaze, and the larger candidates around him disbanded in a hurry.
He had left his hometown because it was such a dirty place, but it seemed like wherever he went, people were the same. They picked on the weak.
Legion Etranger did not pay that well. The salary was around the same as that of manual laborers in France. On top of that, they had to buy the necessary materials. Even the machinery they were given was basic. Accessories and additional parts had to be purchased with one’s own money. In other words, they were underpaid.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of applicants. Some were lured by the romance of the military, and some were applying as a way to put food on the table. Anyways, there were lots of applicants: Arabs, East Asians, Africans, and South Americans — they all flooded in. Most had been living in harsh conditions.
In becoming a soldier for Legion Etranger, the most important components were identity checks and physical tests. The physical test was the next key step.
The first test was a 20-minute run since running was the basic measure of one’s physical strength. They had to run the perimeter of the training grounds, which was around 800 meters.
Then the examiners decided that instead of choosing to set a distance goal for the time limit, they were going to see how far the applicants could run in the time given. Those who failed this running test would have to pack their bags and leave. The examiners, called EVs, were strict.
With the signal, these healthy men started the run; they were like bulls being released into a rodeo arena.
Mu Ssang got out ahead of the pack from the very beginning. He didn’t want to be between those tall men. He was a man who used to run with two truck tires tied to his waist, so he would be comfortable running around the training grounds for three days and four nights. This test was like child’s play to him. He carelessly ran at a speed that was slightly faster than the others’ paces.
He ran the first lap, and from the second lap onwards, the men were lined up behind him like ants in search of food. By the fourth lap, many dropped out. Mu Ssang passed the back of the line on his fourth lap.
The enlisting officer, also a warrant officer, Collogne Aschdanchef, pushed up the brim of his hat and narrowed his eyes. A strong Asian was running past the last group of enlistees. He clicked his tongue and assumed that Mu Ssang was one of those foolish ones who didn’t make considerations for long-term running and the consequences of giving their all from the beginning. Such people usually led the run for a while but eventually dropped out sooner than the others. Disinterested, Collogne looked at the files in his hand.
Collogne later turned his attention back to the training grounds and tilted his head. The Asian was still in the lead and running at a constant pace. Collogne called for the officer with the list.
“Who’s the one in the lead?”
“He’s the South Korean, Park,” the corporal who remembered his face pulled out his documents.
“Korean? Korean mafia!”
The mafia that Collogne talked about wasn’t a crime organization. Korean applicants were rare. Throughout the entire Legion Etranger, there were only ten. But despite their small numbers, Koreans trained themselves harshly and banded together tightly, earning the nickname “mafia.”
While they were talking, the Korean passed the end of the line twice. Collogne’s eyes, which observed the Korean, glinted. Contrary to the rhythmical movements of his lower body, his upper body was stable. It was as if springs were attached to his feet, as he ran like a horse stomping the ground.
“Ha, he’s the real deal,” Collogne was impressed. It seemed as if there would be a record-breaker for the first time in a long time. There were rare times when such a genius entered the Legion. It was worth keeping an eye on that Korean.
“Mon dieu, c’est pas vrai!” Collogne’s mouth, after reading the report from the corporal, fell open.
The Korean had run 9,900 meters in 20 minutes. The average run of the enlistees was 6800 meters. Even that was beyond normal. This record was one that not even the most world-famous marathon runner could boast. Collogne became excited. Here was a monster in his reach. There was no need to run any more tests.
“Hahaha, Pieff is going to drool over him,” he thought of his friend, Captain Pieff, who was working as the commander of the Ecole of Castelnau Bridge. His nickname was “The Collector.” He was a commander who brought anyone that he deemed a genius onto his team.
He grinned, thinking of his friend who would do anything to have this Korean as his soldier. If Collogne knew that Mu Ssang was dedicating very minimal effort to the test, his expression would have been quite a sight.
Mu Ssang ended the other tests at a level that would not stand out: 100-meter swimming, 10-meter diving, push-ups, sit-ups, six-meter rope walking, etc. He actually had tried his best in the swimming test but only ended up with a score in the middle of the pack since he could only dog-paddle.
The only problem with the other tests were the foreign language and culture sections. All that had evolved in Mu Ssang, after meeting the skull on Wol Song San, was his physical strength.
He had no problem with the food. He had once eaten rotten larvae and had centipedes as his main dish in the cave. There was nothing he couldn’t eat.
He did miss the spicy Kimchi stew and sweet bean paste soup that his mother used to make, but he could be satisfied with the food given in the Aubagne headquarters. In fact, it was too grand for a country boy like him.
On his first day at Aubagne, Mu Ssang was confused by the several types of bottles before him on the cafeteria table. He had thought that they were miniature table decorations. But once he learned that they were various sauces used to spread or sprinkle on food or dip food into, he realized he was experiencing culture shock.
The only Korean sauces that he knew were bean paste, soy sauce, and pepper paste. If necessary, there was also Makjang, Jipjang, and chili paste. The French, however, seemed to have a sauce for everything. Countless sauces for unknown purposes left his head whirling.
The headquarters’ restaurant wasn’t Michelin graded since it was just a cafeteria. Despite that, the fresh vegetables, meats, fruits, and seafood were satisfying.
Mu Ssang was used to unexpected meals after a period of starvation. So often, he was used to taking a risk to be fed; he was accustomed to being more desperate than a hyena to end his hunger. And because his taste buds had often been deprived, most foods elicited praise from him. He wasn’t picky about his food, at all. Even the military cafeteria food was heavenly to him.
He wasn’t, however, able to sample the representative foods of France, such as escargot, foie gras, and truffles. Despite that, he was happy with French food. He patted himself on the back for choosing a French base.
There were some foods served by the cafeteria that he especially enjoyed: ratatouille, bouillabaisse, crepes, and Coq au Vin. The strange names were hard to remember, but the fact that he did recall them was proof that he liked them.
Ratatouille was made with eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, squash, and several other herbal ingredients sautéed in olive oil. It was perfect to eat with a baguette or sandwich.
Bouillabaisse was made with a white fish broth, similar to a shabu-shabu. Crab, shrimp, oysters, tomato, asparagus, white wine, and olive oil were thrown in with it, then it was boiled, and seasoned with salt and pepper. It was the only seafood he was able to digest as he didn’t like fish oil, but it was disguised in this concoction.
The crepes were a dish where cheese, meat, and several vegetables were sandwiched in a pancake. The Coq au Vin was a chicken and vegetable dish boiled in wine, a very traditional French food. It was similar to the Korean Dak-Dori-tang.
His body was in France, but his mind and taste were helplessly Korean. He sought out food that was similar to the food he had eaten in his hometown.
When else could a country boy eat such dishes? His wish, after being stuck at his uncle’s house at the age of nine, was to eat whatever he wanted. He had become even more attached to food after his body underwent the change in the cave.
He was satisfied, if not sometimes overwhelmed, by French food. Compared to French food, Korean food could be considered simple. He wanted to show these foods to his master who was stubborn about his dedication to natural, simple dishes.
Mu Ssang’s wish of eating well was achieved in France, several thousand kilometers away from home. He had never been good at studying, but he had naturally taken an interest in food and had researched a little himself. He could discern some differences between cooking skills: France’s innumerable ingredients and extravagant cooking style were a tier higher than Korea’s cooking style.
The tastes were quite distinct. In the “History of Food,” written by Jean-Louis Flandrin, was a section where he learned more about the various types of sauces and one of the first sauces used.
In the 15th Century, French people used a green sauce on their meat. The recipe for this green sauce was strange: one teaspoon of oil was added to every ten teaspoons of vinegar. It was, in fact, diluted plain vinegar rather than a sauce. If someone ate meat with the green sauce, today, they certainly would detest the flavor.
Koreans have little tolerance for sour flavors. Accustomed to spicy and salty flavors, their taste buds are sensitive to sweet and sour flavors. Even Mu Ssang, who wasn’t picky about his food, would have run to the bathroom after eating that 15th-century green sauce alongside a charcuterie (slices of cured meats) with which it would have been served.
Even the seasonings were similar to the sauce. Cloves are herbs with a caramel scent but a stronger smell and taste than pepper. The book explained that 80 grams of clove seasoning were used in one chicken in the 14th century. 15 stems of cloves were needed to make 1 gram of the seasoning, which meant that at least 1,200 stems were used for one chicken. It was the type of food that only upper-class French society in the middle ages could afford to enjoy in their obsessive desire for delicious food.
Mu Ssang was astounded by that recipe since 80 grams of pepper in one chicken would make a person faint and leave them in tears.
“Imagine eating 80 grams of cloves, stronger than pepper in taste, in one chicken. It was death,” he thought. “Thank goodness that the cafeteria uses only around 0.2g of cloves in one chicken.”
To him, it seemed as if the taste buds of the middle ages were in a different dimension all to themselves. However, these differences in tastes could be found across regions in Asia. Koreans didn’t like Chinese food that was full of oil and grease, and Chinese people complained about how plain Korean foods were. No one could judge another culture’s dish by their cultural standards, nor were they qualified to do so. Each food had a history and culture attached to it.
Although it might not meet a person’s standards, it was polite to savor the food. Eating the same food as others and enjoying it also created a way to bring people closer together. Being happy with rice and fighting for anything to eat as a child, Mu Ssang the adult easily became accustomed to French food. Because of his adeptness in acclimatizing to his new culture, he might be considered a mannerly gentleman.
The foundation of humanity was communication. Wasn’t the infamous cause of failure in human civilization the miscommunication in the building the tower of Babel? Mu Ssang felt the wall of miscommunication in his first two weeks at Aubagne. He didn’t know the meeting times, was always in a hurry, and got lost trying to find the restroom. When he had opened up the introductory brochure, the words were merely black marks on white paper.
He felt deeply that communication was a primary part of human survival, and here he lacked the ability. But it was too late to lament not studying French. How could he have known that he would end up in France after all he had been swept up in by fate?
Ten days before going to France, he had begun his study of the French language. But the academic skills that most university students in Korea possessed didn’t help him. French flew rapidly over his head like a song. He couldn’t understand a sentence.
The language traveled a distance between his ears and brain that was as far as the distance between France and Korea. All he heard was -en, -on, -gne, -ain, -chon, -ang, and -ing. He couldn’t tell much of a difference.
“Shouldn’t I be able to hear distinct things before understanding them?” he wondered and was about to burst from frustration.
The black and white European applicants could understand basic French. He, a “yellow” applicant, felt a sharp awareness of racial prejudice.
After a while, he learned how the black and the white trainees could understand French. Many of them had been born in French-speaking regions of Africa or were French. His perceived shortcomings had no connections to prejudice or to him being Asian and having been born on a different continent.
But even so, he wasn’t able to get rid of his awareness. Including him, there were 10 of them who couldn’t understand French—all of the Asians trainees.
It didn’t help, either, that the French instructor lacked teaching skills. He made them memorize words and didn’t care about their level of comprehension. He implied that they had to study the language themselves.
At this rate, he wasn’t going to understand someone shouting, “Get down!” and would be hit by an incoming bullet.
Mu Ssang became fiercely determined. From 6 pm to midnight, he spent all his energy on learning French. It was only through communication that he could fit in and then get ahead of others. To survive in a place so far from home, he had to at least start talking.
Fortunately, there were English pronunciations listed in the textbook, which helped him memorize the words. He spent the same energy he had used in fighting the leopard to fight for his communication skills.
Even when he was on the toilet, his French flashcards didn’t leave his hands.
“Je faim. (I’m hungry.)
J’aime ça. (I like this.)
Ou sont les toilettes? (Where is the toilet?)
Un restaurant bon marché. (A cheap restaurant.)
Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?)
Est-ce que je peut fumer ici? (Can I smoke here?)
Qu’est que ce? (What is this?)
C’est vraiment délicieux. (It’s very tasty.)
Merci beaucoup.” (Thank you.)
He could hear laughter in the stall next to him. It was the teacher of the French classes. He was embarrassed that he had heard him, but he couldn’t dwell on it.
“Korean, you’re working hard,” the teacher said, laughing and slapping Mu Ssang’s shoulder during class. He also gave him some additional basic language materials and dictionaries.
Among new food, a new language, black and white faces, and healthier physiques, Mu Ssang knew that he was in an entirely different world.
Several EVs complained that their schedules were too harsh. But Mu Ssang had never had a military life before. He couldn’t tell whether it was harsh or lax. All he could tell was that the day-to-day life in Aubagne was relaxing for him.
After checking in at 6 am, they went immediately to eat petit déjeuner (breakfast). They began their morning exercises at 7:30 and began their déjeuner at twelve. They began their training at 14:00 once more, and their dinner came at 18:00. Then they had free time before going to bed at 21:30. If anyone felt this was a rigorous lifestyle, they must have been from the Tang dynasty’s military.
He could eat food that was nutritious and tasty, receive elementary physical training, relax with cool-down exercises, and go to sleep on a comfortable bed. It could be heaven for him except for the communication issue. But he still felt that he could sing the gyeog-yang-ga praises and shout about how satisfied he was.
Aside from training and education, there were also outside activities. The curriculum also included working at the Legion Etranger museum and volunteering at the retirement center. It wasn’t a boring life, after all.
The Legion Etranger retirement center was 60 kilometers north of Aubagne, in Puyloubier. There were about 250 retired soldiers there. They had received their pensions and were living in peaceful retirement. Here, there were full-time doctors to care for them and also a cemetery. It was heaven for soldiers in their old age.
The houses had two or three stories and were designed so that air and sunlight could come in easily. The retirees made commemorative objects connected to their days at Legion Etranger and took care of a vineyard, enjoying their days.
The wine they made was given to the new soldiers or was sold for an affordable price. The facilities and atmosphere of the retirement village made one wish to remain there for the rest of his life. MuSsang wanted to talk to those retired soldiers but couldn’t since he didn’t even know more than basic phrases in French, and, therefore, he could only dream of talking to them one day.
The retirees received this amazing treatment because the Legion Etranger wasn’t some average mercenary group. The Legion Etranger had been created as a part of the French military, a central force to fight for France.
The members served under French military rules for the 5 years of their contract. They were immediately punished for going against the rules or stepping out of line.
Normally, mercenaries were people who received money to fight on behalf of others. They could be soldiers or guards who moved according to their pay and reward. All there was between a mercenary the person who hired them was money. The mercenary was hired, they completed their assignment by any means, received a reward, and moved on.
Once the money was exchanged, that was the end of the relationship. Bluntly put, it was an act of putting one’s life on the line for money. Therefore, yesterday’s employer could be the mercenary’s target tomorrow.
The mercenaries were part of a private unit. They couldn’t become nationalistic, nor did an individual’s belief or an organization’s goal come under consideration. Mercenaries had to protect themselves since they couldn’t be protected under the Geneva Convention if held hostage. Usually, once a mercenary was captured as a hostage, they were assassinated for not doing their job.
Soldiers in the Legion Etranger were considered mercenaries since they received money for their services, but they were also a part of the French military. So they were protected by the Geneva Convention and were loyal to France. Simply put, they were a main military unit that was paid to fight.
On Friday of the third week, the remaining 15 trainees boarded the train for Castelnau Bridge. The Ecole (school) where they would be training was southwest from where there were, just north of the Pyrenees mountain range. Other members who had passed and become EVs also boarded the train.
Considering that most of the members were previously part of special forces or in the military, the competition was a bit skewed. Mu Ssang arrived at the Ecole but had to wait for another week to begin the training. It was because they reorganized members every two weeks. His neighbor had once said that the military was all about waiting, and it was true.
The week was a repeat of eating, sleeping, and waiting. Mu Ssang kept boredom at bay by choosing a new menu for every meal. Today, he chose steak as his dejeuner.
At his first lunch date with Hae Young, he ordered the steak. Back then, Western food was trending, and steak was the best Western food being offered. The restaurant he went to in Dae-gu dongsungro had been disappointing, though.
Mu Ssang wasn’t picky, but his taste buds were sensitive. Back then, the steak he had eaten was the price of ten black noodle bowls. But he didn’t feel half as satisfied by the steak compared to what he would have felt if he had eaten the black noodles. He had sliced away at the steak saying that it was delicious, but inside, he was extremely disappointed.
The meat hadn’t retained any of its juices, so it was tough. At the same time, a chemical-like smell of the seasonings resonated. His expectations set him up for a letdown. Since then, he considered steak horrible food. Of course, it was never on the menu in the places he usually ate, so he never had to eat it again.
One expects expensive food to be worth the price. So, of course, he was angry, since it wasn’t any tastier than neighborhood market food. Yeok-jun’s garak noodles gave him 1000W worth of satiation. When word of great-tasting food spreads, a restaurant becomes a well-known place and is constantly filled with people. Such a restaurant’s food should give the diner their money’s worth of flavor. Anything less than that, and the restaurant would gain only curses from the customers.
The customer always wants quality that matches the price. No one was going to complain that some cheap sauces were used for the tteok bok gi bought from a neighborhood cart. No one was going to be mad at a cook for using a shortening sauce in black noodles. Both were cheap foods, and the customer didn’t expect high-quality from cheap food.
So, Mu Ssang hadn’t eaten steak at Aubagne. But his misconceptions about steak were rectified once he tried the steak at Castelnau Bridge. There, steak was amazingly delicious food.
The tenderloin was the most expensive cut of beef. From a 600-kilogram steer, only 10 kilograms of tenderloin could be made. The steak that he had eaten at Dongsungro was not tenderloin. They might have used sheep meat treated with tenderizers.
The juicy tenderloin was immensely delicious. The mustard sauce blended with the medium-rare steak to create a sweet and salty combination. Since he loved the food, the Legion Etranger’s cafeteria at Castelnau Bridge was heaven.
Mu Ssang ate five servings of steak before enjoying his full belly. The steak was so tender that it had melted in his mouth. He wanted to learn how to make it so that he could make it for his master.
“Ha!” Mu Ssang shouted in surprise. Did he really want to make it for his master instead of Hae Young? Was his love for Jeong stronger than romantic love?
Only a year had passed, but his overwhelming emotions had calmed down. He couldn’t decide whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps it was because he had meditated for a year with the wooden fish….
Was Hae Young doing well in the States? he wondered, and his heart suddenly constricted.
Enjoying the break, some trainees were being rowdy and some were relaxing on the grass in front of the dorms. Jang Shing, the tall Chinese guy from Aubagne, was laying on the grass dozing.
He had gotten to know Jang Shin. China was a communist country, so it was an enemy of the Korean Republic, but there was no such feeling between this Korean and this Chinese national in the foreign legion. The Legion Etranger was funded by the French government. Loyalty for their motherlands meant nothing.
“And there’s Talko, Jjakgwi, Suka? Seems like there’ll be trouble again,” he said to himself, noting the rowdy bunch on the grass.
Mu Ssang frowned.