Skyfire Avenue Chapter 101-110

Chapter 101: Bodyguard, Where Are You?

Tang Xiao stumbled to the floor with a swollen face and bloody nose. It was difficult to see his expression through the results of his beating.

Jin Tao, conversely, sat not far away. His expression was clear
– the satisfaction of a man who’d finally taken a dump after days of constipation. In a way, finally beating on Tang Xiao was just that, release. He hadn’t escaped the fight without a few bruises of his own, but they were few compared to Tang Xiao’s.

“Hurts?” Lan Jue stood at Tang Xiao’s side, looking down on him. The young man looked at his instructor, grunted, and said nothing further.

“Up!” Lan Jue hissed at him.

It was almost by reflex that Tang Xiao shot up. “What the hell is this about!” His words were muffled from the beating.

“Got a problem?” Lan Jue peered at him. “You probably thought he was so much weaker than you. Only reason you lost was because you couldn’t use your Discipline, right?”

Tang Xiao didn’t answer, but the look in his eyes did it for him: You’re damn right!

Lan Jue continued. “As an Adept, as a pilot, your physical abilities are your foundation. Your will to fight is the key to success. You’re fat, but you’re also supple – flexible. You’ve got that up on Jin Tao. So why did you lose? Because you didn’t have his dogged 1 determination. What that means is, if your powers were equal, he’d beat you every time. This was just a little contest. You lose, you suffer a little pain. But if this was war… you’d be dead.”

“So today the lesson I leave you two with is this: Treat every drill like a battle. Treat every opponent like an archenemy!”

The stubborn dissent in Tang Xiao’s eyes slowly melted away. It was replaced with a solemn consideration. He was, after all, a smart and talented student. There was no doubt he’d come to understand. He was twenty-three years old, and already he possessed considerable ability. However despite his innate skills, he’d certainly heard similar things from his other instructors. Perhaps it had never really resonated with him before, or maybe they had never impressed the fact that success would really require physical sacrifice.

“You lost the war of wills. Now do you understand?” Lan Jue concluded.

Tang Xiao lifted his head, and nodded solemnly.

Lan Jue then turned his scowling face to Jin Tao. “Understanding doesn’t mean we’re finished. I never told you to stop.”

This time, Tang Xiao was the one with a malicious, hungry grin on his face.

“Wait a minute, this isn’t right!” Jin Tao howled as  the massive girth descended towards him, like a hungry tiger pouncing it’s prey.

By the time Lan Jue was leisurely waltzing from the NEU campus, both the future Metal Fox and Frenzied Lion Mastiff lay sprawled on the dirt. This time Professor Lan hadn’t lifted a hand, but they were in a sorrier state than the before. It only ended when they had no more strength to fight.

Ah. Teaching really is pretty nice. At the very least, relaxing.

Thinking back on the actions of the two gentlemen, guys not really much younger than himself, brought a smile to his face. Fifteen years ago he first experienced something like they did today. It froze the smile on his face, when the memories came. Fifteen years ago… a pain that went to the bone! Every time it was like that.

Serves you right, sitting there counting cigarette buts in the street! Hmph!

Classes weren’t until tomorrow, and there wasn’t anything he needed doing. It was time to go home. Still there were things to consider. Not only for himself, but for his young ladies as well. If they only worked together their development would skyrocket. Maybe things would be different this time. He wasn’t sure how it would feel treating them like students.

His thoughts were interrupted as a familiar figure crossed his vision, exiting the university’s main gate. He recognized him as his fellow sufferer from earlier in the day. Richard stood a short distance from the entrance smoking a cigarette. He looked glum, and ashamed.

“Oh hey, its you,” he greeted amicably as he spotted Lan Jue.

“Don’t come over here,” Lan Jue snarled. “I don’t know you.” If it wasn’t for this guy he wouldn’t have been so publicly humiliated, abused by that hateful woman.

Richard was sheepish and apologetic. “Look, I’m sorry Professor! But you really shouldn’t be blaming me, that woman really is just a bully. It’s a damn tragedy she’s my lady’s class leader!”

Lan Jue had struggled to bring his anger under control, and was nearly back to his indifferent norm. But hearing him refer to Qianlin as his lady brought it all back bubbling to the surface.

“So what are you doing, casing the place?”

“Nah I’m not loitering or anything. Classes are almost out for the day, and Qianlin will have to come out this way. A gentleman sends his wife home, right?”

“Oh,” Lan Jue replied, “alright then, as you were.” He shrugged dismissively before pushing his bicycle out of the campus and down the street.

Suddenly he felt a heat welling up in his chest. He paused, and then a sound rang through the back of his mind: Bodyguard, where are you?

Bodyguard!

His response was almost subconscious, channeling his psychic energies through the soul-caller gem resting against his chest: Gate of the University.

I’ll be there soon. Send me home! Repel anyone who tries to get near me. That’s your responsibility. Even in his head Qianlin’s voice was cool and dismissive.

Fine. His exodus from the school stopped. It was true – he still had a responsibility to act as her protector for the next couple of years. Nor was her request excessive, and so he had no grounds to refuse.

Not long after their exchange, Qianlin appeared by the gate. She walked by herself, clad in form-fitting clothing with her long black hair flowing down her back. Her face was neutral, but regardless was possessed of a quiet beauty. Her flashing blue eyes glimmered behind the cascading waves of black hair –

certainly attention-grabbing.

“Qialin!” Upon seeing her, Richard sprang in to action. He barreled towards her at a run. “I’m sure you’re tired, huh, Qianlin. Here, my verti-car is parked just over there. I’ll send you home. Oh, but I was invited to dinner by my aunt.”

Qianlin shot him a withering glance. “Great! You go ahead. I have someone here to send me home.”

“Eh?” At first, hearing her enthusiasm his heart nearly leapt from his chest. However, when she finished her sentence a bitter taste filled his mouth. His formerly friendly demeanor suddenly grew prickly as he shot his eyes around. “Whose sending you?”

“That’d be me,” Lan Jue interjected lazily.

Richard looked at him, confused. “You?”

“That’s right.”

“So,” the young man started, “this morning, before the classroom. You were there waiting for Qianlin as well?”

Lan Jue nodded in confirmation.

“You her cousin?” He asked.

Again, he nodded.

Zhou Qianlin had already moved to Lan Jue’s side. She deftly pulled herself up onto the back seat of the bicycle. “Let’s get going.”

“Yup.” Lan Jue watched Richard’s slack features as he pushed off the floor, one foot on the pedal. Sadly Zhou Qianlin’s presence on the back of his bicycle cramped his standard riding style. He had to squat over the seat.

“Cousins…? The hell was he driving, anyway?” He stood watching them meander away for a good few minutes, but still couldn’t quite wrap his head around what had just happened.

Richard didn’t feel threatened by the handsome instructor. Their relationship as cousins – and the fact he was just as easily disposed of as he by Tan Lingyun earlier – made him less problematic. Sure there were plenty of handsome  guys  who were interested in Zhou Qianlin, but how may could boast his personal status? He had a deeply  connected family, a blessed and comfortable life, and an outstanding education. All of this conspired to instill him with a healthy sense of self-confidence from a young age.

Still, in the wake of his recent interaction with Zhou Qianlin he felt something odd. His interest in her, his courtship, wasn’t a new endeavor. In fact he’d fallen in love with her the very moment he first saw her. After their disastrous wedding, his father – enraged from the shame and disgraceful treatment – finally conceded after Richard had used every means at his disposal to convince him to let the young man come back to Planet Skyfire. Through all of this he felt he knew his fiancee very well, and yet for reasons unknown he sensed her overall mood had changed markedly from before.

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Lan Jue pedaled the bicycle, and Zhou Qianlin sat perched on the back. Both were silent. And though their rolling journey through the landscape of Skyfire was picturesque, there existed

a strange barrier between them that made the trip uncomfortable.

For a while it continued in this way, until Lan Jue spoke up. “So, where we going?”

“Grace Hospital,” she replied.

“Got it.” Lan Jue began the journey towards the hospital. He’d only been there once, but the profound effect it had left on him meant he knew precisely how to get there. They continued in relative silence before arriving at the doors.

Zhou Qianlin deftly dismounted from the bicycle’s back ‘seat’. However, she didn’t move towards the door. Instead she lifted her hands, and rubbed her face for a few moments.

“I’m not going in.”

“Don’t go in!”

The two spoke on top of one another. They exchanged a look.

It was Lan Jue’s awkward tones that broke the ensuing silence. “I have a friend coming to Skyfire City. I promised I’d go see him.”

“Your responsibilities aren’t finished,” Qianlin responded coolly. “I’d have to increase your contract duration a few days. Go then, no need to come back. I’ll find my own way home.” With that she turned and pushed her way in to the hospital. As she did, her back turned to her bodyguard, a smile spread across her pretty face. No matter her grievances, or how sour her mood, a smile always covered her features when she entered here. She was here to bring joy to her elderly charges, to make their lives better.

Watching her leave, Lan Jue’s face also twisted unnaturally. “Hera, she’s your sister,” he muttered to himself. “If I didn’t already have you, I don’t know if I’d be able to help myself from falling in love with this one. Helpful, attractive… but my troubles are many, and I wouldn’t want to involve her. But don’t worry. I’ll help you watch after her.”

Chapter 102: The Cathedral Of The Holy Spirit

If you find yourself in some trouble, just call. The message was relayed to Zhou Qianlin via their soul caller gems. Lan Jue said nothing further, and pedaled away in to the distance.

Zhou Qianlin, meanwhile, felt the heat of the gem as she walked deeper in to the old people’s home. The rims of her eyes grew slightly red. She unconsciously pressed her hands to her chest, reminding herself that this was a means of communication only the two of them could hear. She shook her head and puckered her lips, squelching the train of thought running through her mind. That plastered smile reappeared, and she continued on her way.

“Hey! Qianlin’s here. Just off school, right? You really shouldn’t come so often. It has to affect your studies.”

“That’s right! Qianlin, come on over here and have a sip of water. We really are all fine here, you shouldn’t kill yourself coming all the time. We may be old but we can still take fine care of ourselves!”

“Ah ladies. I come so often because I miss you! Are you saying

you don’t look forward to my visits?”

“Of course we do! You don’t know how much.”

“Good then. And what about our new friend, Bess? Is she still shut up in her room? Let me go look in on her.”

“Ah that stubborn old biddy! I don’t know if she’s got some sort of problem, always appearing and disappearing mysteriously. And always with that lascivious air. You see her and you know you’re in for bad times!” A particularly prickly old woman muttered unkindly towards Qianlin.

Another at her side chortled. “Alright, Flores. We all know you’re jealous because Bess is prettier – stealing your title of ‘prettiest granny in the old folk’s home.’”

“Hmph, is that so,” Flores huffed scornfully.

“Mrs. Flores, I brought your favorite for you today. Smoked plums! But you must remember to only eat one a day.” Zhou Qianlin artfully steered them away from the topic, laughing prettily.

“Oh, thank you so much! You really are the dearest girl.”

ζ

“Ugh, this thing really is slow, huh.” Lan Jue muttered helplessly to no one as he pedaled the antique bicycle.

He glanced at the time displayed on his communicator. With some effort he should still be fine, he thought. His destination was the public air hangars, where anyone wishing to cross the planet had to dock. The guy he was meeting there certainly wasn’t using public transportation, but he’d be there nonetheless.

ζ

“General, how long before you plan to return to An Lun?”

“Seventy-two hours,” Lan Qing flatly replied. “Roughly two jumps still ahead.”

“Very well, general.”

“Before I return prepare all the information we have on the Pontiff’s Castle of the Western Alliance. Have it ready for me by the time I get back. Be as detailed as possible, especially concerning their highest-grade members.”

“The Pontiff’s Castle?” The voice that came across the communicator seemed taken aback by the request.

“Do I have to repeat myself?” Lan Qing glowered dangerously at the space in front of him.

“We’ll have it ready for your arrival.”

“Good.”

He broke the call, just in time to let a couple light coughs escape his chest. “When they say smoking’s harmful to your health, they aren’t kidding. But I haven’t been as relaxed as I was last night in longer than I can remember. A-Jue… the Castle!”

Prometheus, the God of Wisdom stared out in to space, murder in his dark eyes.

ζ

Western Alliance. Capital Planet.

It was a gorgeous world, similar to the Earth they originated from. Discovered a hundred and eight years ago and settled by the Western Alliance. It had taken immense resources and manpower, but once they verified the rich resources the planet had to offer, they wasted no time in establishing their capital here.

Capital Planet was more locally known as Eurmania. Seas comprised eighty percent of it’s surface. Only twenty percent was habitable. Strangely, though, in contrast to the Earth it mimicked, the water here was all fresh. The fauna were also markedly different, but despite these discrepancies  the  place was still a perfect place for human habitation. Other than it’s lack of salt, that is. But that was an issue easily fixed through interstellar shipping.

Several notable cities graced the surface of Eurmania. The most impressive of these was located on the planet’s eastern hemisphere, Spiritus Sanctus. It’s opposite, though no less awe- inspiring, lay in the west; Gomorrah.

Part of it’s mythos was that when the planet was discovered, God and Satan carved it to their liking and founded the two cities. Of course only a very few people actually believed in the stories, but the truth of it was it brought the ancient culture of humanity to bear here on their Capital Planet.

Human interstellar travel and planetary terraforming were still relatively young. Still, it was an advancement that has seen incredible progress in a short period. Eurmania is proof of that fact. It was comparable to the East’s own Planet Skyfire, though perhaps even more integral to the West.

Spiritus Sanctus was home to a particularly unique location, where sunlight shined thirty-six hours a day. On this planet, when a day lasted forty-eight hours, the result was only twelve hours of darkness in the area. In the center, often bathed in golden sunlight, was the crown jewel of the Holy City; The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

It was a gorgeous building done in the renaissance style of Old Earth. It was a classical structure with a Romanesque dome and Grecian Corinthian pillars. The building was constructed to look like a giant crucifix when viewed from above in accordance with holy tradition. It was the largest cathedral in all the Three Alliances. The interior was nothing short of resplendent; both bright and dim in places, mysterious, and composed of beautiful

marble. The walls sported countless murals, painstakingly created by chips of colored marble. The project had been strikingly vast.

The archway which lead to the dome was situated on the right hand side of the structure. Although there was an elevator to help lift travelers part of the way, the route to the rooftop gardens near the done still required three hundred and thirty steps to access. It was common knowledge that watching the sunset over the Sanctus Plaza from the Cathedral rooftops was the most beautiful sight in the city.

The central dome was the brainchild of a master architect. The interior of the dual-structure was always brilliantly lit. Beneath it rested the Pontiff’s Altar, over which hung a bronze baldachin designed by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini himself. The twisting column drew every eye that fell upon it. Further below, in the church proper, sat St. Peter’s tomb with a giant marble sculpture of Pope Pius VI done by Antonio Canova kneeling before it. The windows were stained glass, and featured prominently was a massive piece depicting a dove surrounded by an aureole. The inscription below it read Bernini’s Dove of the Holy Spirit. The entrance to the Secret Archives was to the left, within which was housed the holy relics that displayed the wealth and power of the Pontiff’s Castle.

A plaza stretched in front of the cathedral, capable of accommodating over three hundred and fifty thousand city residents. It was three hundred and forty meters long, two hundred forty meters wide and encircled long two long half- moon covered walkways. Each bore a massive two hundred and eighty-four meter tall columns that kept it’s towering ceilings aloft. Said ceiling was adorned with one hundred and forty-two statues, holy men and women of the Castle who watched you as you passed beneath them. Every one was exceptionally life-like.

The Cathedral had taken a total of forty years to construct. The pious believed worshiping here was the greatest of pilgrimages, the highest honor they could achieve in their lifetimes.

Today it was host to an uninvited guest. He wasn’t a tall man, and in fact stooped unflatteringly. A white coat encircled him, as though he were an old doctor fresh from the local hospital. A pair of glasses sat perched on his nose, with lenses thicker than the bottom of a wine bottle. Slowly he proceeded through the Cathedral – a few steps, then stopping, then on again.

Raising his head, the old man quietly admired the murals and frescoes lining the walls. “They really are incredible! Such a pity…”

He continued further in.

“Forgive me sir, but proceed no farther. Within is the assembly chamber for the Curia. I’m afraid tourists aren’t permitted to enter.” The old man had arrived before a set of large doors. Two guards barred further passage.

“Oh? I can’t go in?” The elderly traveler give them a despondent look.

“Do forgive me,” the cassock-clad sentinel repeated, as polite as before. Despite his words, however, he was intractable in his resolve.

“Oh… here then.” The man had thus stopped his trek there, turning his face to look at the majestic pontiff’s altar behind.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises,” the priestly guard continued. A suspicion had grown within him, and he stepped forward to help hasten the man from the area.

“I’m not going anywhere,” the man engaged calmly. “Call that

stodgy Pontiff out here. I’ll wait, but you only have ten minutes. Otherwise I’ll turn this grand cathedral of yours in to a quarry.”

The priest was stupefied. He looked at the old man like he was a lunatic, unable to believe he’d heard such talk from someone with one foot in the grave. The gall, sitting here attempting to threaten the Pontiff’s Castle!

The Castle was, after all, the balance of power in the West. It was large, and famously popular among believers. Even  the Dark Castle wouldn’t be so brazen as to waltz in and make demands. They were locked, socially opposed and unable to overcome the other.

“Are you crazy, huh? Get out of here, I said!” The priest reached out to shove the man’s frail shoulder. But before he could, strange wisps of light emanated from the old man’s body. As the lights washed over the guard, he froze solid as rock like the statues he protected.

“Get out here, Pontiff!” The old man’s voice was no louder than a pleasant conversational volume. The sound was frail, hoarse, almost lethargic. A minute later that same lethargic voice was ringing like thunder through every corner of the Cathedral.

Every ear perked up at the sound. Every worshiper, priest, cleric and meditating patron couldn’t help but sit in stunned silence. At this moment, the whole of the Pontiff’s Castle held it’s breath.

Chapter 103: The Arcane Magnate

“Ten minutes, or this place is rubble. I suggest you encourage your disciples to make for the exits.” The old man stood unmoved before the doors. As earlier, his hard voice reverberated throughout the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

A few minutes of silence ensued. It was broken when the interior of the grand cathedral devolved in to chaos.

Swarms of angry worshipers, clerics, priests and Inquisitors descended upon the man’s location, looking for the source of the disturbance.

He made no efforts to hide himself, and was not difficult to spot standing conspicuously before the  doors.  The  hunters raced towards him at break-neck speed. However, as each figure drew within ten meters of the man they suffered the same fate as the first priest; frozen solid like granite, locked in the corona of light that surrounded him.

“Visitors please clear the area. The Cathedral is now closing.” The sound was clear, dignified and unhurried. The scores of worshipers flinging themselves at the old man slowed to a trickle, and stopped. All became silent once more within the

Cathedral.

In the sudden stillness two figures appeared, flanking the man from two opposite directions. As they slowly walked closer, the doors behind the visitor opened to reveal a third. Three people, from three different directions. Their pace was slow, and exactly mirrored one another’s.

The elderly gentlemen calmly turned to face the figure from behind the doors. His face bore no expression.

“Magnate, I pray you’re doing well.” The man who addressed him was strikingly handsome, with long blonde hair falling loosely down his shoulders. From the back one might think he was a girl. Pretty as a picture, almost like he himself was painted but retained a sense of masculinity. He was clad in a pure white, spotlessly clean cassock, but it was the eyes that stood out. Gold, and as they shone a saintly aura surrounding the newcomer.

“Metatron. Still not good enough. Where’s the Pontiff?” The old man addressed him dismissively.

The golden-haired youth smiled amicably. “He’s  praying. He’ll be with you momentarily, if you would care to wait.” He

spoke with the old man as though addressing an old friend visiting from afar, ignoring his crass manner.

“I said ten minutes. Now it’s seven.” He clasped his hands behind his back, returning his gaze to the murals set within the vaulted dome ceiling of the Cathedral. His expression was one of appreciation, not violence.

Aside from Metatron, the other two approaching figures also arrived at the old man’s location, revealing themselves as two young women The girl on the left was clad in a long white dress, beautiful like an elf. Her skin was fair and soft, almost like milk. Even her long hair was a pure snow white.

The second woman had short blue hair – at least, from this angle. Strangely she seemed like an illusion or hologram, changing color as the time and angles changed. Her features were normal enough, but for that strange discoloration that made her hard to pinpoint with the eyes.

Metatron continue. “Arcane Magnet, sir, we know why you’ve come. This entire situation really is regrettable.”

The old man snorted a sarcastic laugh. “Your regrets can’t

change what happened. Am I right? Let’s see if your regrets can stop me today, shall we? I’ve lived long enough anyway, I’m starting to grow impatient for what comes next. And who can ask for a better coffin than this beautiful cathedral? I’ll have more things buried with me than the kings of old.”

Metatron’s amicable smile began to slip. “Magnate, please be cautious. We don’t tolerate blasphemy of the Father or his home here.”

This earned a scornful snort. “The only god I know is Mathematics. Your god, is bullshit.”

“The audacity!” The girl on his left gasped in a tender, finicky voice. Her mane of white hair began to float around her head, and silvery moonlight emanated from her. The light beckoned six silvery wings which stretched from her back and splayed wide. A suffocating aura of sanctity filled the air.

“And now this, half-assed ‘moon angel’ daring to puff up like a peacock before me.” The old man waved his hand at the young woman as though he were shooing away a fly. The motion elicited strange lights from reality before him. It was a peculiar illumination, that fanned out before him. The instant it touched the moon angel’s aura, the silvery light melted away like ice

before an inferno. The speed with which is enveloped her was staggering.

It was like the air was sucked away, stealing it from her lips and pulling it from her lungs. The silvery girl’s eye’s grew wide in fear.

“Please, be lenient Master Magnate.” Metatron had stepped before the old man, cutting his line of sight to the beleaguered young girl. His hands were raised as if to ward the frail man off, matched at his back by the unfurling of his great golden wings. They were so large, so full that determining just how many Metatron possessed was a difficult endeavor.

His own aura wasn’t flashy, nothing so glorious or brilliant, but was possessed of an incomparable pureness that culminated in the golden halo surrounding his head. It was his turn now, and as his hands raised a light was liberated from their depths, so grand that it was like a sun had been born within the confines of the Cathedral.

“Hmph!” The old man nearly spat. Suddenly his form became ethereal, like a vision, and vanished. However his sudden disappearance did not mean they were safe, for instead the strange light that was slowly suffocating the moon angel

suddenly exploded outward. In the blink f an eye it had surrounded the entirety of the palatial church – and all within found themselves fighting for each burning breath.

“Magnate, you mustn’t!” Metatron shouted through gasps, but the terrifying vacuum surrounding them swallowed the sound before it could manifest. Instead he could only project his thoughts outward. As he did so an orb of golden light fought to expand out, with the angel at the center.

This was no ordinary denizen of the Pontiff’s Castle. This was the one known as the First Among Seraphs, second only to the Pontiff himself. More powerful even than the seven Archangels, and once regarded as the closest to the Paragons themselves. But despite these titles, in the face of this singular old man he was clearly outmatched. This greatest of heavenly angels was not fighting – he was hoping not to upset the elderly visitor further.

“Three. More. Minutes!” The hoary voice arose from every which direction, making it impossible to pinpoint the Magistrate’s precise location. As his voice faded, it was replaced with the sudden, thunderous chorus of angelic singing. It rang throughout the entirety of the Cathedral, and as it did the whole of the interior brightened as though light were pouring from the walls. Crashing waves of milk-white, holy light was coming from the doors behind Metatron in a torrent.

Visions of angels fluttered in the sea of white. The overpowering, sacred aura filled the onlookers with a sense of nirvana. Even the vacuum created by the Magnate diminished in the face of such an aura. The air around them returned to normal, and that suffocating sensation faded in to memory.

“Old coot, as crazy as ever.” Another voice joined the exchange, this one aged and plain. The source was revealed to be an old man, who walked towards them from the large doors. He was clad in luxurious robes, and a pointed hat sat upon his snow white hair. Metatron retreated a step, nodding respectfully towards him. The two women at his side bowed low at the waist.

“Took you long enough. Any longer and you’d have to rebuild this little nest you’ve cobbled together for yourself.” A shadowy figure appeared before the pontiff’s altar. After a few moments it reconstituted in to the now familiar shape of the hoary old man.

The Pontiff regarded him from his location by the doors. “Keeper, this isn’t necessary.”

Indeed it was he. This old man who’d  single-handedly repelled the forces of the Pontiff’s Castle, the one they called the

Arcane Magnate was the same old codger who spent his days on his deck chair in Skyfire Avenue sipping tea.

He scowled at the Pontiff’s remarks. “You should be quite clear on the rules we’ve established on Skyfire Avenue. The Jewelry Master is one of ours, a member of the Council – a fact you knew full well. And yet, you set your trap and tried to have him killed. How do you plan to explain this?”

The old priest watched him with an inquisitive gaze. “I haven’t seen you this energetic in ages, you geezer. Aren’t you afraid of the strain, that it may kill you? You dare to come here alone, even though you must know that in this Holy City my abilities are nigh limitless. I can see what will be, can make it my will.”

This produced a chortle from the Keeper. “I couldn’t care less. Of the Paragons I am considered eighth, and you sixth – you’re already more powerful than I am. But there is something I have over you, and that is pure destructive power. Other than the two greatest among us, none can compare to the obliteration I can bring. How do you think your precious city would look after a blast from my positron assault?”

The Pontiff glowered at his guest, sighing as he spoke. “Very

well. Indeed, in this aspect we are in the wrong. If it wasn’t for his relationship with the Stygian Succubus did you think I’d agree to provoking your Avenue? With that explanation, what will do you? Not to mention your own man is not without fault. The Angel of War is utterly destroyed, and Michael himself gravely injured. He’ll need at least a year before he is fully recovered. By comparison, you’ve suffered no great losses.”

“None of this has anything to do with me,” the old man replied rudely. “I’m here for business the Jewelry Master and I had entered in to, a deal you ruined. Recoup the losses incurred by your meddling, and I’ll turn right around and leave.”

This took the Pontiff by surprise, as his helpless response underlined. “I figured there’d be a reason behind all of this. Fine, you’ll have it. Consider the matter settled.”

As he spoke, he turned towards Metatron and nodded pointedly. The Angel’s brows knitted and he opened his mouth as though to speak, but the expression in the Pontiff’s eyes cut him off.

The Keeper still did not appear convinced. “Since when did the old Scepter start being so agreeable?”

A coldness crept across the Pontiff’s expression. “Undermining this meeting so you can show off your cleverness isn’t the best move here. Take what you’ve come for and leave, and don’t test my resolve in making you if I must. Even if it costs me this place, my life, don’t think I want sacrifice it all if it means protecting the Castle from the likes of you. Even if it means siding with the Dark Tower. Even your precious Avenue couldn’t stand against that.”

“You’re welcome to try,” the Magnate hissed through his laughter.

The Pontiff had begun to lost his temper. This infuriating old coot didn’t know when to back down. With an angry growl he turned, disappearing through the large double doors. Any further interaction here, and he feared his orders would become violent.

Chapter 104: Lili

Both the moon and dream angels looked towards the first of their order, Metatron. He watched the exchange between the Pontiff and the Magnate helplessly. For him, strength was not something to fear – but insanity was. If there was one among the Paragons he would not wish to face in battle, it was the man before him now.

The Arcane Magnate might have been ranked low among his peers, his sheer destructive power was in the top three. Worse still, if the old man had his way no trace would remain of his enemies. If he were to really lose his mind, it was unlikely anyone existed who could stop him.

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Skyfire Avenue, Public Airship Hangars.

Lan Jue trotted in to the welcoming lobby somewhat out of breath. It hadn’t yet reached rush hour, so there were only a few people present.

He was pleased to find he’d arrived just on time. He’d pedaled

valiantly without stopping to make sure of the fact. That bicycle was great for environmental protection, but that lack of speed…

He stumbled to a nearby vending machine set against a wall and stuffed a few coins in to the slot. A water bottle rattled to the bottom, which he took and emptied to nearly half in just a few gulps. He sighed contentedly as the water refreshed him.

In order to recover from the wounds he’d suffered, he had to keep his Discipline tightly bottled up inside. Be it thunder or lightning, their destructive power was too high and his body couldn’t yet handle the strain. As a result his journey here by bicycle was completely dependent on his own physical strength
– something which, also, was affected by his injuries. The wounds he suffered were indeed significant.

As he stood there, water in hand, his mind spontaneously thought back to earlier in the day. Lamentations filled him as he recalled the scene of him being helplessly dragged through the halls. Even the amusing visions of his disciples beating the piss out of each other couldn’t sweep that shadow from his mind. He could only pray that the none of the students who planned to visit his class tomorrow had seen the embarrassing display.

His self-pity was interrupted when the communicator on his

wrist began to buzz. A-Jue, you here? The words scrolled across the screen.

Lan Jue immediately made his way towards the station exit to wait for his visitor. It wasn’t long before he spotted him.

The man who ambled from the exit was a strange sight to behold. He was almost wrapped in layers of thick black tweed. A bulky scarf was wrapped around his neck. His head was covered in a grey skullcap, and half his face disappeared behind a pair of massive sunglasses. From a distance it was difficult to tell if he were man or mummy.

Lan Jue smirked as he waved high to catch the pile of clothes’ attention. The man, presumably peering in all directions, though it was hard to tell, eventually locked on Lan Jue’s position. He trotted towards him, pushing a luggage barrow before him. As he did, however, he still looked clandestinely in all directions as though on the lookout. Or in hiding.

Lan Jue took a step forward to greet him. “Well well, Lili. Quite the appearance. I’m guessing ‘normal’ was not in your wardrobe?”

The mummy man covered his mouth with a hand. “Shh! Keep it down. Let’s get out of here, then we’ll talk.”

It wasn’t until they’d left the station the mummy stood up straighter, and heaved a sigh of relief. The two were of a similar height, though the strange man was a sight thinner.

“Alright, we should be fine here. So, A-Jue, where’s the car?” The man’s voice was soft, clear. It had a strange attraction to it – a voice one would find hard to forget.

“Em…” Lan Jue scratched the back of his head. “I came in sort of a rush, Lili, so transportation’s a little crude…”

“What are we wasting time for? I don’t need any nonsense luxury car. I don’t care what we’re driving – and stop calling me Lili! People’ll start thinking I’m a woman.”

I know I did. It’s worth noting that the ‘Li’ character they use here for his name is the one used in 美丽 – the word ‘beautiful’ almost expressly used for women.

Lan Jue draped an arm around his companion’s shoulder and

pulled him in to a hug. “Fine. A-Li, that good? I’ll go get our ride.”

Mummy-man was caught in the bear hug, and found  it difficult to extricate himself from it. The display of affection dislodged his massive sunglasses and caused them to slip down his face. The brief glance at his eyes showed their surprise while looking at Lan Jue.

Said eyes were striking to say the least; clear, shimmering azure blue orbs which the word ‘deep’ would fail to describe. On a woman they would be almost too pretty, much less on a man. The long, curling eye-lashes only made it worse. Fair skin, straight thin nose, smooth forehead… even with the scarf, glasses and hat it was hard to hide his pretty face! Indeed his charming features couldn’t be described as handsome – only beautiful would cover it. Stunningly beautiful.

Lan Jue slapped his forehead. “Your dad sure knew what he was doing when he named you, huh A-Li. It’s a shame you’re a guy – as a woman you’d be quite the heartbreaker. You’d probably have been my Hera!”

“Get the hell out of here and get your damn car! 3” A-Li hurriedly replaced his sunglasses, trying to peer in every

direction at once. Convinced no one had seen him, he sighed in relief. That relief quickly dissipated when he saw  Lan  Jue return with his bicycle.

“Wh-… where the hell did you find this antique?”

“Oh this,” Lan Jue said awkwardly. “Ah, A-Li, y’see… like I said I came in sort of a rush, so…”

Li cut him off, pushing past him to stand before the bicycle. He lifted his glasses to stare at the ancient thing in careful detail. “Oh man… beautiful! What a nice surprise, A-Jue. Such a thoughtful gift!”

“Hey, stop embarrassing yourself. Who said I was giving this to you?” Lan Jue said in agitation. “Get a taxi, I’m riding this back.”

“No way! I have to experience this marvel of ancient design! You’re taking me.” A-Li left no room for disagreement, as he hurriedly scrambled on to the back of the bicycle.

Lan Jue scowled at him. “Women usually sit on the back!”

“Then I’m a woman!” A-Li said softly, batting his eyelashes enchantingly at Lan Jue. Needless to say his flirtatious glances were enticing. But that was the problem.

“Uerg… A-Li, you keep this up, and we’re never hanging out again.”

“Got it,” he said. “So let’s get moving.” A-Li remained locked in place atop the bike.

“What about the luggage?”

“I’ll carry them,” he replied. “It’s got wheels, right? It’ll be fine.”

One Minute later.

The antique bicycle rapidly rattled along the roadway, pulling behind it two rumbling suitcases dragged by a mummy.

“Woo, this is awesome! What a joy ride! Hey A-Jue, pick up the pace!” A-Li wriggled elated on the back seat.

Lan Jue growled over his shoulder. “Did I call you out here for a sightseeing tour? Aren’t you here to look after me? You know I’m hurt, and still you’re here making me work!”

Li sounded genuinely surprised. “You’re really hurt?”

Lan Jue didn’t answer, the depression in his eyes hidden from A-Li’s view. Although the damage Michael inflected was serious, it was the scheming that cut deepest. A-Li, meanwhile, lifted his free hand and pressed it against Lan Jue’s back. An indistinct sapphire glow shone forth.

A moment later he retracted his hand. His previously excited mood had turned sour.

“It really is this bad? Six of your meridians have been badly injured. Your fu-organs have also suffered some wounds. Something your own Discipline can’t heal on your own, even with three or four months of down time. Who did this to you?”

“The Pontiff’s Castle,” Lan Jue replied. “Because of Mika.”

Li fell silent, as though in contemplation. After a moment he

reached a hand in to his coat pocket and extricated a small, delicate silver communicator.

The face of the communicator housed a large blue gemstone which exuded a gentle sapphire light. A-Li pressed his finger down upon it, and after a second a fair-sounding feminine voice arose.

“Your command.”

“Cancel any current commodities slated for deliver to the Holy City, and sever any further ties. Issue a trade embargo against Spiritus Sanctus. No matter the cost.”

“Confirmed.”

He broke connection and returned the communicator to his coat pocket. Only then did A-Li’s mood normalize somewhat.

“There’s no need for that, A-Li,” Lan Jue said. “It must be an enormous loss for your family.”

“Nonsense, ride your bicycle.” A-Li’s tone was sharp. “Why didn’t you say something earlier? The morons at the Pontiff’s Castle must be tired of living if they dare to strike out at us. Something like this you can’t just decide and forget, yeah?”

“Warning! Warning! Stop your vehicle immediately and submit to inspection! Repeat: Stop your vehicle and submit to inspection!” Suddenly a piercing electronic voice shrilled from behind them. It took both A-Li and Lan Jue by surprise. They turned their heads to find the source of the startling noise.

A black-coated high-alt verti-car was descending from above. Brilliant blue letters adorned it’s side; Police. It spun in to a controlled drift and came to a stop a few meters in front of them. Lan Jue hastily squeezed the brakes, bringing the bicycle to a stop.

The door to the verti-car hissed as it swung open. A helmeted officer slipped from within, a woman judging by her figure.

“Hello,” the officer greeted professionally. “Please produce your IDs for inspection.” She spoke with official tones towards Lan Jue.

Lan Jue handed her his communicator, and muttered almost under his breath. “Did we break some law?”

The officer looked over his ID number. “Are you aware of how dangerous it is to haul cargo with an antique like this?”

Lan Jue blinked with realization. “Oh. I’m very sorry, this is definitely our fault. What should we do?”

The officer looked at the bicycle, then at the bundled man cringing on the back seat. “I’ll need your ID as well. We’ll need to confiscate your vehicle. You can come to the station to sort this all out.”

“No way!” A-Li scrambled from the back of the bicycle. “Pretty miss, don’t be so heartless. We didn’t do it on purpose. It was my first time riding this bicycle, and I didn’t know the rules. There’s no reason to confiscate it. Or how about this, help us with our luggage and send us to our destination and we can sort this all out there.”

The woman’s voice came cold and curt. “Sir, I’m wearing a helmet. How do you know what I look like. I repeat, give me your ID.”

“So be it.” A-Li dropped his head helplessly. He slowly began unwrapping himself; hat, glasses, and scarf.

Chapter 105: The Superstar

“I wanted your ID, I didn’t ask to see your fa-“ The female officer stopped suddenly when she realized who was before her. She stood as though frozen, eyes wide and mouth agape.

Li had risen his head. Locks of pale blue hair ruffled majestically in the breeze as eyes as brilliant as the starry heavens fixed the woman with their enchanting gaze. A small, coy smile played across his fair-skinned face. Perfection, that is what people called it.

When he fixed her with that smile, it was as if everything around them faded in to the background. There was only him, as perfect as a statue, staring in to her soul. Lan Jue’s strength lay in his heroism and nobility, but in raw looks his companion had him solidly beat. A-Li didn’t have the same courageousness, but he made up for it in enticing warmth and empathy.

“Why miss… this is my ID.” A-Li pointed a thin finger at his face, his charming smile spreading wider with a wink.

“Y-you… you.. you… !” The officer’s voice grew higher by degrees with each stuttered word. Lan Jue looked on helplessly from a small distance away. He shook his head at the scene,

realizing now that calling this guy over probably would end up being more trouble than it was worth.

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHH!” The sudden, violent shriek that nearly shattered the woman’s helmet nearly scared the two gentlemen from their skin.

“Poseidon! Y-you’re Poseidon! Aaahhh!!” She shivered uncontrollably as the screams shot through the air. She fumbled manically with her helmet, eventually managing to free her charming face. She wouldn’t be considered terribly pretty, but she was possessed of a certain strength that made her attractive. Although now her eyes was practically heart-shaped, and her courage was hard to picture while she was hoping up and down like a school girl.

“Hush!” A-Li pressed his finger to his lip. “Be quiet! Otherwise you wont be able to enjoy our little meeting just you and me. Do you still need my identification?”

“No, no need, it’s fine. Your face is the best kind of identification. You’re even more gorgeous than on television! Your eyes are just so amazing, and how are your lashes so long! Almost two centimeters. Oh gosh! I’m actually here with you, face to face! I’m so lucky, so so lucky!”

Li turned temporarily from his adoring fan to extricate a small box from his luggage. Like magic, a pen appeared in his hands, with which he signed the box and handed it to the woman.

“This here is my latest acousto-optic three dimensional album special. Here, this will be our fine, how’s that?” He patted the woman’s hands as he took a step back.

“This… this is for me?” Her quivering hands pressed the box to her chest. A-Li had already begun to replaced his hat, scarf and glasses. In response to her query, he stepped forward and patted her shoulder – but making sure to keep a respectful distance. After a brief moment he motioned towards Lan Jue.

The forgotten Jewelry Master swung his leg over the bike and mounted once again while A-Li got one behind him. Poseidon waved majestically at his fan as they pedaled in to the distance.

“Get going. I think it’ll be fifteen minutes or so before she recovers, but after that every cop in Skyfire’s going to be searching for me.” A-Li muttered quietly as he bounced along behind Lan Jue. It sounded like it was something he’d experienced often.

“And what’s there to be proud of anyway,” Lan Jue muttered.

“Usually the people who say such things are just jealous,” A-Li said through a smirk. “Anyhow ninety percent of the people in the three Alliances are like you, hyper masculine. The other ten percent like real men.” A-Li leisurely sat swinging his legs beside the churning bicycle wheels.

“Careful you don’t get disfigured,” Lan Jue  hissed maliciously.

The voice that came up from behind him was not the A-Jue he knew. Instead it was soft, plaintive and crystal-clear. A woman’s voice. “And if one day this one should lose their good looks, would you still love me?”

“Holy flaming crap on a pogostick! Shut your mouth and stop with that voice changing nonsense or I swear on my life I’ll boot you right back into orbit!” He just narrowly missed sending them both careening in to a ditch.

A-Li’s voice had returned to normal. “Have some dignity. You’re injured. If you tried to throw anything it’d probably just be yourself in to an early grave.”

“What kind of brother are you?”

A-Li’s voice changed again, that unsettling feminine quality returning. “We should both go have operations, then we can be sisters!”

“What the… no wonder your dad called you Hua Li. Go do your operation then. So tell me then A-Li, if you’re a woman what’s the first thing you want to do now that you’re here.”

“Make the boys feel gooood,” he said timidly.

Lan Jue was silent for a long time. After what felt like ages he seemed to come out of the haze. With a profound look in his eyes, he resolutely said, “A kind brother!”

It was after dark by the time they arrived at Skyfire Avenue. Lan Jue used his status as a Councilman to fix Hua Li up with a temporary badge. The evening lights hung over the street as the sun slowly began to dip behind the mountains. The magic hour gave the Avenue a classic sort of mystery and beauty.

“Wow, it certainly is nice here. I like this antique feel. I can

see why you lived so easily here for three years. A-Jue, your taste has only improved with age.”

Lan Jue responded lazily. “If my taste was ever anything but impeccable, it was because I was spending time with you philistines.”

“I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?” Hua Li muttered as he cast his eyes around the quickly dimming Avenue.

“What do you want?”

“Anything’s good!” Hua Li said. “I’ve eaten most of what this world has to offer already, so it’s all the same to me.”

Lan Jue shot him a glance. “Sure, because that’s not bragging at all.”

Hua Li’s eyes lit up mischievously. “Like this then. You bring me something delicious I’ve never eaten before, I’ll owe you a favor. Anything you want.”

“Become a transsexual?”

Hua Li plucked his sunglasses from his face, and fixed Lan Jue with that unsettling plaintive stare. As tears welled up in his clear eyes, his voice again took on that moving, feminine quality.

“So long as you’re willing to part with the male me.”

“Sod off!3” Lan Jue shoot a foot towards Hua Li, who hopped nimbly out of the way with a self-satisfied grin on his face. “Stop using this play-acting garbage on me. If you make me worse I’ll have you feel what it’s like to be burnt to cinders by lightning.”

Lan Jue half-heartedly spat the threat while dialing a number in to his communicator.

“What’s up.” A deep voice answered.

“Got something delicious cooking? Something rare, for two.”

“Come.” The connection dropped.

Lan Jue had become accustomed to that baritone, laconic voice. “Your luck’s pretty good. Looks like there is indeed something good for you tonight. I guess we’ll see what in a minute.”

Hua Li nodded. “Not knowing is best. Now I got something to look forward to.”

ζ

Before the small, simple door of a cabin.

As they pushed through the narrow entryway a faint, refreshing aroma greeted them. It smelled something like osmanthus, but not quite. It was a smell that almost seemed to fill you up.

“Scented rosewood?” Excitement lit up Hua Li’s face as he rushed forward. He pressed his nose to the expansive table and took several long, deep breaths. He straightened and stared at the table in surprise.

“Absolutely beautiful. Look at the heartwood grain, twisted like specter faces. Man! It’s almost like tigerskin, and so large. So many beautiful figures in it – no, not beautiful. This is magnificent! Just so amazing, how is a piece this large even here?”

“Please keep it down,” the deep voice entreated.

Hua Li lifted his head towards the voice. The man who stood before him now wore a pair of brown trousers and a black shirt, covered by a brown waistcoat. The Gourmet entered from the kitchen beyond.

The two looked at each other, though it was the Gourmet who was more distinctly taken aback – likely because of his guest’s striking appearance.

“Hello, I’m Hua Li.” He stood straight, and nodded politely to his host.

“Are you… a man, or a woman?” The Gourmet looked at him in utter turmoil.

“Haaah hahahaha!”

Lan Jue’s peals of laughter rang through the small room like a thunderstorm.

Hua Li responded by glaring daggers at him. Then, lifting his head, he pointed dramatically at his adam’s apple.

The Gourmet nodded. “Ah, good. Otherwise we’d have some real chaos on our hands.”

Lan Jue’s grin nearly split his face. “Not much different from now. You’re about the only person who doesn’t pay attention to things outside the planet, otherwise you’d know who he is.”

“Has nothing to do with me,” the cook replied. “You’re a fan of rosewood, then?”

Hua Li’s face underwent a quick and drastic change, from upset at the earlier exchange to excited once again. “Hainan Scented Pear tree, one of the most precious of trees from the home planet. Many household objects were made from their bark, and then were subsequently passed down within the

family as priceless heirlooms. A memory of ancient China. It’s official name is Dalbergia odorifera. They aren’t difficult to grow, but their growth rate is exceptionally slow. Only fragrant rosewoods which have been left to grow for hundreds of years are suitable for use in furniture. This table of yours is about one and a half meters wide and four meters long. The tree it was made from had to have been at least five thousand years old! Even in the ancient times this would be  considered  an absolutely priceless treasure, much more so now.”

“Take a seat. It’s no wonder the Jewelry Master brought you here. You’ve clearly got taste.”

Hua Li sat before the table as instructed, though his features bore a slight uneasiness. “I know there’s no way you’d be selling something as precious as this. But how about this, if there was ever anything in the future you couldn’t handle… something you needed a large favor for, suitably difficult… you can come right to me. If I’m able to help you, then I hope you could allow me to come often and admire your table. And if at any point you are interested in parting with it, I will give you everything I possess.”

“The last person who tried to discus a price with me,” the gourmet said softly, “went flying right out of the Avenue. Luckily I haven’t quite reached that point with you yet.”

Lan Jue, still standing to the side, spoke towards the man in a conspiratory voice. “There is one thing he said that’s undoubtedly true, Gourmet. If indeed there comes a day you start looking to sell this table, he would be your best choice. There simply isn’t anyone with his level of obsession for rosewood. As for his own treasures, very few in the Three Alliances can match him there, either. Eight, ten s-ranked gems… not an issue.”

Chapter 106: Ma La Tang

“Eight or ten s-ranked gems. Are they made of chocolate?” The Gourmet addressed them flatly.

Hua Li’s response was earnest regardless. “If that’s what you want, I can find a way to get it.”

It was then the Gourmet knew he was serious. He looked from the newcomer, then to Lan Jue. For Hua Li to make such a claim, the Jewelry Master must not have been talking nonsense. The very effeminate gentleman before him must indeed be very wealthy.

“Let’s eat,” he said.

Preparation began when he produced a small stove, with a metal alloy plate beneath to ensure it didn’t hurt the table. A covered pot was then placed on top. The fires underneath were lit.

Next, several plates of fresh dishes were brought out before them. Seafood, vegetables and more were arrayed fancily around the stove. None of them bore any special preparation,

but for bamboo shoots which impale the thinly sliced pieces. So far, it certainly didn’t appear to be what you’d call a meal.

“This is… hot pot?” Hua Li’s interrogative voice wafted forth, disappointment in his eyes.

“No!” The Gourmet vehemently shook his head. “This is Ma La Tang.”

Alright, so this is rather lazy, but there really is no way to describe 麻辣烫 in English that makes it sound appetizing or special in any way. ‘Numb Spicy Soup’ doesn’t get the saliva flowing

“Ma La Tang?” The depression faded from his face. “You know how to make it? I’ve had it once before, and I still remember how good it tasted! That fresh, spicy taste is enough to have you eating way past what’s appropriate. But I hear it’s almost impossible to have authentic Ma La Tang these days. Most of the required spices have been lost to us, so the result is a relatively bland copy.”

“Bland?” The Gourmet tasted the word and found it unsavory. “You tell me then, how is one supposed to make Ma La Tang?”

Hua Li did not hesitate in the face of the Gourmet’s challenge. “Ma La Tang was a provincial treat from Former Era China. The base itself is the most demanding aspect. You need garlic, ginger, hot peppers, bean paste, black pepper, white pepper and more. As for the specific proportions of each, I’m not sure. Once your base is completed, however, you boil it in a large pot. You then prepare several dishes as you’ve done here, and you can then place them in the boiling base. Once it’s cooked to your liking, pluck it from the pot, smear some sesame paste on it, spice, and you’ve got yourself a delicious treat.”

The Gourmand, after hearing the loquacious explanation, shook his head. “Were I to give you a base in the way you described, we wouldn’t be having a hot spicy meal. It’d be a boiled spicy meal.”

“Eh?”

“Let me ask you,” the gourmet continued. “What’s the difference between hot, and boiled.”

Hua Li fell silent, apparently unclear on the question. Lan Jue also looked on in uncertainty. As they did the sound of roiling water reached their ears. The lid of the pot rumbled as steam spat from it’s sides, releasing a savory aroma. The thick mist

was heavy with spice and freshness blended together. Just the scent alone raised their body heat, and opened their pores.

The Gourmet stood, and lifted the lid from the pot.

Immediately what was before a faint aroma became a torrent as the steam filled the room. As the smoke cleared, the shifting red soup within the pot appeared before Lan Jue and Hua Li’s eyes. They could just spy the spices rolling around in the boiling broth. As the thick aroma invaded their nostrils, they grew more impatient to try it.

The Gourmet reached down and shut off the stove.

Lan Jue and Hua Li exchanged a glance. They hadn’t yet eaten, they thought. Why urn off the fire?

Under their wondering gaze the Gourmet began to place the morsels of food scattered around in to the steaming pot. He didn’t insert too many, maybe fifteen sticks jutted from the lip of the cauldron.

“The most important distinction between boiling and heated

is this. Boiling intends to maintain it’s state – to keep boiling. One takes advantage of the heat to thoroughly cook the food placed within. Generally speaking, this method of cooking requires one to pair it with delicious sauces. Because of the high heat, you can’t let the food sit within for sufficient amounts of time necessary to absorb the flavors. Rather like the boiled mutton they’d often eat in Former Era China. However there later arose several chefs who chose to employ a different method of cooking food. They deigned to heat the food slowly, and as a result the flavors of the broth were able to infuse the food.”

“So what is ‘heat’ here? Heat is actually this; once the soup has been brought to a boil, it’s easier to fill food with it’s flavors as it cools. Thus, the heat allows for a better overall meal as the spices of the broth and the food’s natural flavors combine. And so I shut off the fire because what we want is hot and spicy. Not boiled. True Ma La Tang does not require any sauce for dipping. What you described a moment ago was in fact spicy hotpot. The sad fact is that due to it’s troublesome nature to properly prepare, even Former Era China saw fewer and fewer people partaking. As a result, the broth and preparation you see here is my special secret.”

Hua Li and Lan Jue each nodded in sudden enlightenment from the Gourmet’s lesson. Hua Li was the first to speak up.

“Today was indeed a good day for me to arrive. I’m a lucky guy. It’s no wonder they call you the Gourmet. A well deserved title, and I admire your knowledge. As for meat, could we employ the same method you described to cook it as well?”

The Gourmet nodded in affirmation. “That is so. When creating stews I am constantly turning the fires off and on. This way they retain even more flavor – and as a result are much tastier than other people’s dishes. Always adding flavoring and sauces simply results in one losing the beauty of expertly prepared food.”

“Well I’ve been schooled,” Lan Jue earnestly piped up.

“Beer’s the best drink to pair with Ma La Tang. It isn’t good for the body, but it’s certainly satisfying. Chilled stout, or light beers made from glacier water are best. I’ve prepared both for us today, so you may pick what you like.” He pointed towards the nearby freezer for emphasis.

Hua Li almost didn’t wait for the Gourmet to finish. He clearly didn’t have Lan Jue’s restraint.

The Stout came in a five liter keg. The glacier beer,

conversely, was offered in a porcelain jug. Neither of them were something one would see often. Of course for the three of them it wasn’t anything extraordinary.

Lan Jue chose the stout while Hua Li chose the light. The gourmet also decided the darker beer was more suited to his tastes.

“Alright, that should be fine. The first round I placed in the pot cooks quickly. The second set will take a little longer. We’ll need to heat the pot twice.”

Stick after stick of vegetables, tofu, beans and more were plucked from the steaming pot. They glistened with beads of fresh, red soup. The spicy aromas surrounded them.

“The special properties of Ma La Tang; numbing, spicy, and hot to eat,” the gourmet said, almost to himself.

At this point it was background noise, as the two younger gentlemen had already begun pulling the food from the bamboo shoots with chopsticks and stuffing it in to their mouths.

“Amazing!” The first bite of Ma La Tang brought with it that full-bodied aroma that had been tantalizing them thus far. It filled them up, bringing with it that special sort of happiness that comes from a delicious meal. That sensation bloomed in the eyes of the Gourmet’s guests.

It wasn’t long, however, before the ‘spicy’ descriptor earned it’s presence. It was like a fire burned viciously in their mouths, paired with just a hint of numbness on their lips and tongue. The three each hurried to take a gulp of their beers. The thick malty tastes mixed with the fresh spices and eased the burn. In the interim the Gourmet had lit the fires once more.

The second wave was a sight to behold. Large chunks of abalone, a full lobster, fresh oysters and all manner of sea food were placed in the pot.

“The various types of foods each require different cooking times. If you’re interested you can remember the order we place them in.” The Gourmet looked from Hua Li to Lan Jue and, seeing the satisfaction in their faces, a smile crept on his lips.

A cook who understood his guests was happiest. To them, cooking was an art form. If the tasters appreciated what they tried, this meant his status as an artist would also appreciate.

“Gourmet, such a disregard for the gifts of heaven! Ma La Tang with so much delicious food, and on top of that an entire lobster!” Lan Jue was almost speechless as he took another sip of his beer. He watched the two spindly feelers sticking from the edge of the pot.

“So stop eating,” the Gourmet rejoined with a smirk. “The most delicious things in this Ma La Tang are the abalone and the lobster. I call it Spiced Numbing Lobster. This is the first time I’ve had you try this, fearing you wouldn’t like the taste. Don’t tease me.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “So why bring it out today?”

The Gourmet shrugged. “Just your lucky day. I’ve actually been lazy the last few days, and haven’t cooked anything. I’ve been eating nothing but soda crackers to keep my stomach acids at bay. I couldn’t stand it anymore. It had nothing to do with you coming.”

Lan Jue chortled. “I guess it indeed was my lucky day.” He turned to look at Hua Li. “Do you know how he manages to stay thin and still cook like this? It’s the thing I admire most about him.”

“’Cuz he’s lazy?” Hua Li replied.

Lan Jue shook his head. “No. Because of his fastidiousness. If it’s not the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten, it wont get past his lips. He’d rather eat soda chips to stave off starvation. That’s how he does it.”

Hua Li blinked, and stuck up his thumb towards the gourmet. “That’s some high moral principle!”

Soon the abalone and lobster were ready to eat. That flavor… simply ambrosial. Lan Jue finally understood that the Gourmet had not overstated his assertions of the lobster’s taste. This meal was positively dripping with pleasure.

Chapter 107: He Returns

That aromatic spice filled the small room. Hua Li and Lan Jue felt covered in it.

“Oooee… that hit the spot. It’s been ages since I’ve eaten this much. If my agent found out I’m eating like this she’d kill me.” Hua Li pressed his hands to his head and stared at the ceiling in contentment. His eyes were half-lidded, his long lashes fluttering. In the fuzzy, indistinct lamplight he looked even more beautiful.

“You owe me a favor,” Lan Jue reminded.

“Hm,” Hua Li said. “Let’s head back to your place. Ah, by the way, how am I supposed to help you here anyway?  You planning to go somewhere?”

They started towards the Jewelry Store.

Lan Jue shook his head. “Not planning to head anywhere.”

“No? So why’d you call me here? What place could be safer

than the Avenue anyway? There wouldn’t be any danger if you just stayed here.”

Lan Jue gave him a bitter smile. “But I do need to teach classes, and I have my bodyguard duties. Xiuxiu and the other girls could do it, but it’d cause them no end of trouble. I also have no way to protect them if it comes to it. So you’re right, it’s safer in the Avenue. For them.”

“Classes? Bodyguard?” Hua Li’s eyes shot open. He looked lost.

“A-Jue, what’s going on? You still need to go classes? And still acting as a bodyguard for someone? If you’re still so interested in guarding, why not guard me! But whatever you need, just let me know.”

Lan Jue waved his hand, strolling slowly ahead. “Nah, listen…” He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s sort of a long story, actually. I owe somebody for something I did, and my payment is to ask as a bodyguard. What’s more, I decided to head out. People shouldn’t always live in the past. I guess too, that if Hera was alive she wouldn’t want to see me living like this. I want to start a new life. I’ll never forget Hera – she’ll always live in the most important part of my heart. But I have

my own life. Maybe the future me will never fall in love with someone else… but life goes on. If I keep avoiding life, I’m not worthy of the title Zeus.”

Hua Li stopped in his tracks. There was shock in his eyes, but joy as well as he stared at Lan Jue. “Go on. I’m a good listener.”

So Lan Jue did. “I’m a teacher at National Eastern University. Teaching Etiquette. You should find a way to enroll as a student. Go with me to and from school, secretly, and help me recover. With you here it should only take about a month before I’m more or less back to normal. And there’s something else. In a few days representatives from the Dark Tower and the Pontiff’s Castle will be coming here. I was supposed to help handle the situation, but I can’t now. I’ll need you to replace me.”

“The Pontiff’s Castle? They still have the balls to come here?” Hua Li’s pretty eyes held violence in their depths.

Lan Jue went on. “What don’t they have the balls to do. I heard the Keeper went over there as well, though I don’t know what happened.”

“The Keeper…?” Hua Li trailed off in thought, but it didn’t take long for him to come to the proper realization. “The Arcane Magnate? The one the other Paragons call the Crazy Magnate?”

Lan Jue nodded his head.

This brought a smile to Hua Li’s face. “Interesting. He deigns to rear his psychotic head for you. The Castle’s really gotten themselves in trouble now.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “It is what it is. How could they know when they set their trap I was collaborating with the Keeper?”

“None of this should be hard to deal with,” Hua Li assured. “I’ll help you work all this out. I’m also curious what you’re like as a teacher!”

“Dashing, of course,” Lan Jue said, standing a little taller. He struck a dramatic pose.

Hua Li sneered in feigned disgust. “Standing next to me you still have the nerve to call yourself handsome? Pitiful.”

Lan Jue snorted. “What you are can’t be called handsome.
You’re a beautiful flower!”

“@%$^@!”

ζ

The rising sun always brought with it hope. It’s faint golden rays washed over the NEU campus as though it awakened the scholarly spirit. Students living on campus were already roused from sleep by the morning bell, and after washing up were in the midst of their various morning routines.

Jin Yan had arrived early, and walked through the campus grounds. Her forehead was creased in worry.

Yesterday Jin Tao had returned home, once again beaten bloody. When she asked what had happened, he still steadfastly refused to tell her. He’d even refused to eat. Luckily their parents were away on a trip and weren’t home to see it.

If things continued like this what good could come of it! A bad student, but a good fighter – worrisome! Ugh, what can I do

about this kid to make me stop worrying?

Suddenly, she couldn’t help but think back to that transitory figure, the man who’d arrived for just one class and then vanished. Still, he’d left quite the impression on her in that short time.

That one class had really got her thinking.

“What is nobility!” Jin Yan couldn’t help but run that sentence over and over through her head. Were it not for his explanation, she’s not sure she would have known what true nobility was. She even still remembered the change that had overcome her younger brother that day, after class – loudly proclaiming he would be a noble.

Unfortunately Professor Lan had only come for the one class, and his person had not been seen since. Reputedly he’d asked for leave, but how could he after his first class had gone so well?
Not to mention he was so handsome…

“Professor Jin!” Someone called from a short distance off. She turned her head towards the sound, and spied meticulously teased hair bobbing her way. Wang Hongyuan, the dance

instructor.

“Professor Wang, you’re also here early!” Jin Yan called out courteously.

Wang Hongyuan responded with a smile. “I’ve got to keep training or I become rusty. Oh, did you hear? Professor Lan returned yesterday.”

“Lan… you mean Lan Jue, that Professor?” She blinked, surprised at the news.

A mischievous light shone in the dance instructors eyes. “That’s right. I heard he came yesterday to report in, then…”

“Then what?” Jin Yan asked impatiently.

Wang Hongyuan continued. “He went to the post-graduated classes, I don’t know what for, and did something that had him dragged to the teaching affairs office by Professor Tan Lingyun. A whole host of students saw the exchange, culminating with her pulling Lan Jue along behind her like a dog. At first he looked like someone with significant personal ability, but I

guess there’s nothing special about him after all.”

Jin Yan overcame her surprise to give her companion a cold look. “Professor Wang, we’re all instructors here. It doesn’t matter that he teaches etiquette and not combat. You really shouldn’t be talking behind someone’s back like this.”

She moved on without waiting for a response. There was no anger in her expression – on the contrary, there was joy. He was back!

As for this business with Professor Tan dragging him to the Director, could it have been some sort of misunderstanding? There were only a few in the school capable of beating on that tomboyish woman anyway.

ζ

“What? Planet Skyfire? When did this information surface?” The sound rang through a magnificent, palatial room. The questions had come from a thin, beautiful woman in white. She looked around twenty five or twenty six, with sharp eyes and an imposing bearing. Her long hair was tied in a bun atop her head. She seemed entirely confident and capable.

“Yes, Miss Mo. We just received this from the intelligence department. They got it from a local police woman.”

“Bastard!” Mo Xiao spat the word venomously. “What the hell is Hua Li doing all the way out there? Doesn’t he know his damn album Poseidon, Sounds of Nature is dropping? He even had the gall to order all sales to the Pontiff’s Castle stopped! Was he raised by pigs? What did he say when he left?”

“He sent a communication from a secure line, saying he wanted to go on holiday, but he didn’t say where. He often grumbled earlier about how difficult work was, so we didn’t pay any attention to it. He could have known he’d disappear an hour later, without taking anything.”

Mo Xiao stood with her hands on her hips, her well-endowed bosom rising and falling with her angry breaths.

“Start preparing. The launch event for the album will be held on Skyfire. We’ll start getting everything ready from there. And call an airship, I’m leaving immediately.”

“And as for his blockade against the Pontiff’s…”

She stopped the assistant with a stare sharp as icicles. “What is this your first day? If he wants something do we ever ignore it? Do what he asked! Even if he wanted to sell you all off there better not be a one who dares do the contrary!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Mo Xiao’s ferocious voice arose again as she spoke to herself. “If he’s off squandering his money, I swear I’ll murder him!”

ζ

As ever, Lan Jue was pedaling his way towards the NEU campus for work. Only this time, he had an extra passenger on the back of his bicycle.

A mask covered the bottom portion of Hua Li’s face, and he’d changed his hair to black. Close inspection would show it was a wig. His eyes had also changed, also black. They were covered by a pair of dark sunglasses. All to make him somewhat less recognizable.

“Your school is pretty obnoxious. It was hard as hell to get a

visiting student’s ID, and I still can’t get in to the post-grad department. And by the way, are you sure it’s alright you wear that to teach a class, A-Jue?”

Today Lan Jue had chosen a dark blue three-piece suit, black tie, white kerchief and handmade Ferragamo leather shoes. He looked like he was dressed for a party.

Lan Jue’s reply was indifferent. “Have you forgotten what I teach? Your older brother teaches etiquette. If one’s own tastes are less than superb, how can one teach young minds? Plus, today I plan to teach them the rules and simplicities of formal wear.”

Chapter 108: Professor Lan’s is Back!

“Professor, you’re here!”

Lan Jue stopped at the gate of the NEU, stuck once more where Jin Tao had blocked his path.

Curiously, today Jin Tao was also sporting a pollution mask, though his was a sight more dramatic than Hua Li’s. The young man’s came almost all the way up to his eyes, hiding nearly the entirety of his face. His pink Mohawk remained, however, as impressive as ever.

“What are you doing here?” Lan Jue raised an inquisitive brow at Jin Tao.

“Waiting for you!” He responded.

“For me? What is it?”

Jin Tao explained. “What are you playing on teaching me today? Look, Fatty Tang’s a lot more powerful than me, so I need something special right? Otherwise how am I supposed to

catch up to him?”

Lan Jue turned to watch Hua Li hop from the back of his bicycle. A sinister grin split his face. Hua Li, seeing the smirk, immediately understood what Lan Jue wanted. He knew his friend well, and whenever that look shone in his eyes it meant something bad was coming. Fortunately this time it wasn’t directed at him.

“Fine. But I still need to train you both together. This afternoon, same place. I have classes though, so make sure you come to listen, and bring Fatty Tang with you. Now that you call me your teacher, you must be sure to act in a noble and dignified manner. You’ll need to become experts in etiquette as well.”

“Yes, absolutely, thank you Professor!” Maybe it was the opportunity, or from excitement, but Jin Tao bowed low to his teacher before racing in to the university.

“That is your disciple?” Hua Li’s tone was decidedly disapproving.

Lan Jue shot him a glance. “What, is there a problem?”

Hua Li’s lips curled in a scowl. “He doesn’t look like much. The energy he emits is minimal, he must have hardly any Discipline. No higher than third rank. Why would you train this sorta guy?”

The smile that turned Lan Jue’s lips this time was a sight less devilish. “In this world there’s this thing we call luck, understand?” With a cheesy flourish he pushed the bike towards the school entrance.

Hua Li did not move. As he watched his friend’s back, a smile of his own crept across his face. “Luck? How could I not understand?”

“A-Jue, send me a message later and let me know  where you’re having class. I’m gunna have a look around.” Hua Li called at his friend’s back.

Lan Jue’s response was displeased. “How about a little professional responsibility, eh, bodyguard?”

“Pfft.” Hua Li was not convinced. He turned and wandered away.

A smile crept on to Lan Jue’s face. After all, who couldn’t appreciate the guy’s wistfulness?

The electives building hadn’t experienced any significant changes since his last visit. As before, as Lan Jue entered in his fine suit and leather shoes, every eye turned to him.

Jin Yan lifted her head at the sound and spotted him entering.
She rose from her desk. “Oh, Professor Lan, you’ve returned.”

“Hello again, Professor Yan,” he politely replied.

“I really enjoyed your last class, it left a deep impression. I was wondering when I’d have another opportunity to listen in,” she said.

Lan Jue replied with a smile. “This afternoon.”

“For most people, having only one class then taking such a long leave, they worry about how this reflects their responsibilities towards their students.” Wang Hongyuan’s biting tone was muttered from a nearby desk.

“It was a temporary emergency,” Lan Jue assured. “I had to leave for a short time. It wont happen again. In fact I’ll be having two classes a week from here on out.”

This brought a smile to Jin Yan’s face. “Then would you mind if I sat in on your class again this afternoon, Professor Lan?”

“Of course not,” he said. “It would be my pleasure.” He ave her a polite smile, and made for his desk by the window. Though he knew what he intended to teach, he still needed to organize and figure out how to present it.

As he was preparing, the school broadcasting system crackled to life: “Students and faculty, this afternoon the electives course for Etiquette will begin once again. Later the classes will be schedules weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at two in the afternoon. Interested parties are encouraged to attend.”

“An announcement so early? It looks like Director Wu was also impressed with your class,” Jin Yan said through a smile.

Lan Jue smiled handsomely in lieu of a reply. Jin Yan, sensing he had no further desire to speak, returned to her own desk.

ζ

Second Year National Scholars Classroom Four.

Zhou Qianlin lifted her head, hearing the announcement bounce around the room. A flash of something danced behind her eyes. So he’s back to class… at last he returns to abide by his promises, she thought. A distinct expression of relief passed across her face, however in the next instant it changed to something more complicated. She supported her chin with her hands, elbows on the desk, and allowed her eyes to wander as she pondered.

Beep! Beep! Her communicator pulled her from her reverie.

“What is it, Xiao Mi?” she said as she answered the call.

“Did you hear the announcement? That etiquette class is back. Last time the professor was quite good, so do you want to go again this afternoon?” Tang Mi sounded excited, her questions coming quick.

“I’m not going. I have a research project,” Zhou Qianlin

replied.

“Eh? Didn’t you say last time you’d be returning for the class?
Why the sudden change of heart?”

“I’m studying, we’ll talk about it later.” Zhou Qianlin cut the connection without giving Tang Mi the opportunity to respond. Her pretty blue eyes flashed as a thought pulsed through her mind. But it passed, and her attentions returned to her textbook.

ζ

“Hey Professor, are you gunna be teaching us this afternoon?” Tang Xiao looked at the masked Jin Tao standing before him.

He didn’t look any better than his opponent. Their scuffle yesterday hadn’t involved any discipline, so their injuries were only superficial. But that fact didn’t convince the pain in the bodies to let up. Still, despite their discomfort they were at school, because Professor Lan had returned. Tang Xiao, similarly masked to hide his beaten face, looked carefully at Jin Tao with an ominous light in his squished eyes.

“You don’t have to go,” Jin Tao said haughtily. Ever since beating on Tang Xiao yesterday, his confidence had been full to bursting.

“You wish!” Tang Xiao flipped dumb-mutt his middle finger. “I’ll see YOU this afternoon. I hope the Professor has us repeat yesterday’s class.”

“Yesterday? You mean when I beat you so hard you couldn’t wipe your own ass?”

Half a day passed quickly.

Wu Junyi, Director of Teaching Affairs, was wandering the campus after lunch. This was a habit of his he developed as he got older. Eat, and do a little exercise to get the digestion moving. Simply resting wasn’t good. At his age, he’d come to appreciate taking care of himself.

His thought turned to this afternoon, and the return of Professor Lan’s Etiquette class. He didn’t know what today’s topic would be.

What is nobility… it hadn’t only filled Jin Yan and the other students with motivation, it had resonated with him as well. If nothing troubled him in the afternoon, he too would sit in. Often electives teachers would work hard in the first class for listeners, and taper off as time went on, regardless of the subject.

If it hadn’t been for that scene yesterday, with Lan Jue being viciously dragged in to the office by the ‘Savage Goddess’ Tan Lingyun, perhaps these seeds of doubt wouldn’t be sprouted in Director Wu’s mind. In truth, in many teachers’ estimation the quality of an instructor was directly correlated with their power. At least approximately.

Afterwards Director Wu had spoken with Tan Lingyun specifically about what had happened. She’d explained that he hadn’t attempted at all to defend himself from her. She’d called him nothing short of a pathetic weakling. Thus did doubt take root in the Director’s heart about his newest instructor. He remembered clearly the first time he met the man – he was modest, and kept his abilities well hidden, but he seemed anything but weak.

His feet languidly carried him towards the electives building as he mind tumbled over the experience.

ζ

The ambrosial flavors of last night’s Ma La Tang still danced like spirits on Lan Jue’s tongue. This morning, Lan Jue’s breakfast had been comparatively bland. As for lunch, the only flavor the school cooks was familiar with was bland. He was a picky eater, and though not as bad as the Gourmet he was still fastidious. Still, even if it wasn’t the most delicious food he’d eat some, just not very much.

A bowl of rice, a plate of vegetables, a thin porridge. This was Lan Jue’s lunch, just enough to satiate.

By this point he’d already spent the morning on his class, and everything was prepared. As he was leaving the offices, with some time to spare, he shot a message to Hua Li then made his way towards his special ‘teaching area’ where he trained Tang Xiao and Jin Tao.

There, by himself, he stood amidst the yard with arms outstretched. He took a deep breath, his nostrils flaring as the air rushed in to his lungs. It was lucky no one was there, for if they were they would be astonished at just how long this inhalation lasted. A series of faint cracks arose from within his body.

A moment later, a slight smile lit up his features and slowly he began to exhale. It lasted several minutes.

Li’s mastery of water is profound. After last night’s round of treatment, my self-healing abilities have improved considerably. Water membranes protect my organs, help nourish. It looks like I wont even need a month to recover. Once I get better I really must work on getting stronger. Otherwise, Hua Li might overtake me.

Last night, after their meal, Hua Li and Lan Jue had returned to the shop. Hua Li had then begun to help him with his recovery. His manipulation of water, and water’s own healing powers helped tremendously. Already, the coagulated blood that had pooled inside him had been pushed out. Water had been manipulated to act as protective screens for his organs, and the result was he’d already much improved over his previously severely weakened state. He could even employ his discipline, if only just barely.

Ding, dong! The afternoon bell echoed through the campus. It was the first bell, alerting students and teachers that classes are almost ready to begin, and to proceed to their classrooms.

Lan Jue made his way to his appointed room. As he entered,

he couldn’t help but stop, and look over the class in surprise. The students who had come to watch his class had doubled since the last one, and although the room had not been filled a good two thirds of the seats were occupied. He quickly picked Director Wu and Jin Yan from the crowd. Of course, Jin Tao and Tang Xiao wre also in attendance. They sat in the front row, strange in their face masks. The worst was Jin Tao, who’ mask was so large they looked like underwear flung over his face.

Chapter 109: The Secrets Of Style

As Lan Jue entered the classroom, all eyes turned to him in constrained excitement.

He strode past them in his perfectly tailored sapphire suit, snow white shirt, black tie and white kerchief. With his impish smile and meticulously kept hair, he could certainly draw attention.

“Good afternoon,” he began. He positioned himself behind the podium, and gave his audience a nod.

“Good afternoon, Professor!” the students replied in unison.

His eyes quickly swept the room, but he found no sign of Zhou Qianlin. Her friend Tang Mi, however, was in attendance, sitting near the back. In total it looked like men accounted for seventy percent of participants.

From the back, Director Wu gave him a nod of acknowledgement, and Jin Yan beamed a pretty smile his way.

“I’d like to begin by expressing my apologies to you all. Unfortunately, a pressing matter arose after my last class that left me with no choice but to temporarily ask for leave. I’ve only just arrived back on Skyfire the day before yesterday.” As he spoke, Lan Jue retreated a step from the podium and bowed respectfully to his students. It was practiced, bearing no flourish or unnecessary flair. The students fell silent.

Most of the students who’d come did so to sate their curiosity. Like last time, many of them were considered the ‘problem students.’ Information passed among the students gave them the impression none of this was to be taken too seriously. Lan Jue wasn’t sure how this class would turn out, but his bow at least assured he showed them the proper respect.

Of course, no matter the quality and status of a university, no instructor enjoyed dealing with problem students. For the NEU, many of the students found entry only by virtue of very stringent entrance criteria. But despite this, the pressure of studies sometimes brought out the worst in them. Likewise most teachers don’t ‘waste’ their time with students who are troublemakers, preferring to focus their efforts on the majority. Anyone other than the best students couldn’t keep up, and would be removed. In the end there were always those who had no means of graduating. Jin Tao was a good example.

Under these unfortunate social constructs a problem student rarely even saw a teacher’s smiling face, much less got a quality education. Although these youths often faced the world with scorn, they were still young men and women! They still had fantasies of being a teacher’s pride, receiving the love and attention of an instructor as a talented pupil.

For this reason Lan Jue’s bow resonated with them. Despite what was to come, in this moment their impression of Professor Lan increased significantly.

Lan Jue straightened and, smiling, went on. “I wont delay you any further. In our last lecture we discussed what it meant, precisely, to be ‘nobility.’ For those students who missed our first class and are interested, you can find a video of my first lesson in the College Forum. From today, we’ll be taking a closer look at the subject of etiquette, examining topics both modern and historical.”

“Basic necessities; as the name suggest, the things required by all men and women. First among them in clothing, and so it is fair to say that what we wear is indeed important. So, today we will discuss just that – what we’re wearing.”

Lan Jue once more distanced himself from the podium and

walked towards the front row. “What do you all think of my outfit today? And don’t worry, speak your mind. You here, young lady.”

“Oh, quite handsome Professor,” the young woman he indicated replied. “It’s a good match for you.” She spoke with her head cradled in her hands, eyes shinning as she beamed up at him.

“Pfft, looks like a flamer too me.” A young gentlemen at her side couldn’t help but interject.

With a smile still on his face, Lan Jue turned to the young man. “Go on?”

“Some kinda crossdressing idiot!” He scowled disdainfully. Judging by the arrogance in this one, he was a particularly troubling student.

Lan Jue only laughed. “Not quite. How about I show you something more along the lines of what you described.” As he spoke, his fingers rose to undo the single button keeping his jacket in place. As he pulled it open, he revealed the  inner lining.

“Waa…” nearly the entire class exclaimed as they peered at him. Students in the back clamored to stand for a better view.

The inner lining of his suit was an eye-popping hot pink. In contrast with the sapphire blue of his suit it certainly was distinctly effeminate.

Jin Tao, seated directly in the front row, blinked his eyes dramatically. “Man Professor, my color-blind dog eyes were blinded by that nonsense!”

Lan Jue closed the jacket and fastened the button anew, hiding the inner lining. He returned his attention to the young gentlemen who’d spoken earlier. “So, what do you think now?”

“A man’s coquettishness shouldn’t be revealed on the surface. It’s considered impetuous. However, if a man hopes to attract a woman he must have some measure of it. The saying goes ‘girls like bad boys’ – without any flirty air, one is simply apathetic. So if a young man would like to have the attention of a young woman, he mustn’t be overwhelmingly seductive, but keep it close to the vest as it were.[1] The proverbial ‘surprise package.’” His devilish grin and the naughty topic elicited a round of laughter from the class.

[ TL Note : [1] = See what I did there?]

He waited for the laughter to cease before continuing. “Today I’ll be discussing clothing, specifically formal wear. Why this specifically? In fact the reason is simple; for the young men in attendance, attracting the attention of the fairer sex through your choice of clothing will bring self-confidence. For the lades, learning more about the clothing choice of a man can help you be more discriminating in your decision-making, making judgments on their character based by their aesthetics.”

“Any successful individual will tell you ‘The Devil is in the Details.’ So that’s where we’re starting, with the details. If you would help me…” Lan Jue indicated a young woman nearby, Tang Mi who was situated directly in front of him, but in the back.

She blinked in surprise, pointing to herself. “Me?”

Lan Jue nodded. “Mmhm. If you wouldn’t mind coming to the front of the class…”

Tang Xiao was also surprised at hearing his sister’s voice and turned to watch her rise. A strange look overcame his face.

Lan Jue hadn’t originally intended to select Tang Mi, but as he spied the figure furtively trying to hide in the back his finger reached out. He couldn’t simply change his mind before the entire class, so Tang Mi it was. He removed his jacket and handed it to her as she arrived.

“If you’d indulge me for a moment.”

Tang Mi took up the jacket. Once more the striking interior was revealed to the students and, although it wasn’t their first time seeing it, wolf-whistles rang through the classroom.

Hua Li, who’d just snuck in, arrived just in time to see that beautiful – if rather effeminate – color revealed. He couldn’t help but lift his hand and give Lan Jue a giant thumbs up. Of course only he and Lan Jue knew his sarcastic intent.

Lan Jue went on. “Firstly, fine formal wear must be handmade. Generally speaking, even though many of the more expensive brands use glued lining for their suits, and although it’s usually hidden from view, it’s nonetheless a glaring blemish in the quality of design. The best lining are done by hand, needle and thread.”

He turned his attention back to Tang Mi, who was holding his jacket between her fingers before the eyes of the students.

“If you’d please walk around the class so they can examine in detail?”

Tang Mi was a prideful one. But for reasons unknown even to herself, she couldn’t refuse in the face of this professor’s charming smile. She did as instructed.

“This isn’t just true for the lining, either. Every buttonhole should be similarly handcrafted. These are the best quality suits. If we’re talking about even the very best tailored suits, they are still only a fraction of the cost of those name brands. What this means is you should absolutely not fall in to the trap of being infatuated with a name [2]. Just because it’s famous doesn’t mean it’s the best.”

[ TL Note : [2] = Irony]

“The second point of interest is when buttoning. One must never fasten up to the top. Whether it’s a vest, cuffs, or jacket the rule remains true. Well, that’s not entirely accurate – you should probably always ensure your zipper is all the way up.”

Again a round of laughter rumbled through the crowd.

“Then it’s on to how precisely to wear a suit. Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, ‘it’s a suit, don’t you just put it on? What kind of ‘technique’ is needed?’ As I’m sure you’ll find, it isn’t that simple. Firstly a suit is classified as either a two-piece, or three-piece. If one is missing a vest, what are their missing? Etiquette.”

“In practice a vest is rarely required. They’re usually employed in very formal occasions. However I must implore you to keep in mind that you must always wear a tie and handkerchief when pairing your suit with a vest.” He indicated his own tie and the kerchief stuffed in his left coat pocket for emphasis.

“All together, it makes a perfect suit. However without a vest neither of the other two are required. You can even unfastened a few buttons, giving yourself a more relaxed look.”

By the time Lan Jue had finished his exposition, Tang Mi had finished displaying the jacket for her classmates. Her own attentions were focused on the item in her grip. Like her classmates, this was the first time she was hearing any of this and it captured her attention.

“All finished, Professor,” she said, returning to his side.

Lan Jue smiled pleasantly. “I’m sorry, but I mist trouble you to hold on to it for a moment longer. Miss, what was your name?”

“Tang Mi,” she replied.

He stepped forward then, suddenly so close they could hear each other’s breathing.

Chapter 110: Secrets Of The Collar Stays

Lan Jue’s sudden appearance in front of Tang Mi took her off guard. She unconsciously lifted her hand to ward him off, but her professor deftly sidestepped and pushed  her  hand  away until she was warding nothing but air.

“Don’t misunderstand Miss Mi,” he said. “I’d simply like you to examine my collar. Tell me if you notice anything.”

Tang Mi was still off-balance, but eventually recovered. Her pretty face adopted a red tint, and her heart sped up.

What man would dare approach her like this! Even Tang Xiao kept his distance. Where he a student, he’d find her foot firmly planted between his legs in the blink of an eye. Of course there was nothing she could do here; he was no student, the Director watched from behind him, and he wasn’t breaking any rules.

As they stood toe-to-toe, Lan Jue half a head taller than she, Tang Mi could smell the Professor’s debonair cologne. With his suit, vest, kerchief and tie this only perfected his refined mystique.

“It looks fine… though the tie is a little crooked.” She took only a cursory glance at his collar before speaking.

“Take a more careful look. See if you can’t spot it.”

Tang Mi muttered a dark curse at herself and, suppressing her displeasure, looked again. This time she saw it.

“Hm, the collar’s ends are at an outward angle, just enough to accommodate the thickness of the tie knot. On either side the collar naturally droops down, giving it symmetry.”

Lan Jue retreated a few steps, clapping his hands. “Very good, a fine observation. So why, then, is my collar like this?”

“Custom made,” a young man in the class offered.

Lan Jue shook his head. “There are different methods of tying a tie. Each one results in different width and thickness for the tie knot. Likewise each one requires a different collar. So does this mean I have custom shirts for every sort of knot I wish to tie? Far too wasteful. In fact my necktie this afternoon is not crooked – it’s the color of the shirt. It isn’t completely fitting

with a very formal tie. As a result I tied this Simple Knot. It looks more… vibrant. And as for the secrets of the collar, I’ll enlighten you…”

As he spoke he fiddled with one side of his collar, extricating something.

“I’m fairly certain everyone here’s worn a shirt. But I’m absolutely sure you’ve never turned over the collar. Take a look.” He opened his fist to reveal a one centimeter wide, five centimeter long strip of metal, rounded on one end and sharp on the other.

“This is called a collar stay. As the name implies, it helps the collar stay in the shape intended. Generally speaking even higher class name brands employ plastic collar stays. The problem with those is that they only keep the collar straight and smooth – they don’t allow for adjustment of the angle. The ones I have here are pure silver [1]. I can make adjustments according to my needs, for whatever necktie I choose. This is how the collar works – not tailored.”

[ TL Note : [1] = Because that’s not wasteful at all.]

The students looked on in rapt attention. Evidently none had heard this secret before. Director Wu fiddled with his collar, partially hidden in the back row.

Lan Jue replaced the collar stay. “If you don’t tell anyone, no one will know your collar stay is composed of a precious metal. No one, except for those with good taste. They’ll take one look at your collar and know precisely how it is you’ve managed that angle. I once knew a local official who used twenty-two karat gold stays, not for anyone else’s satisfaction but his own. He knew they were twenty-two karat gold. Pure gold, obviously, would have been too soft for a stay. Unsuitable unless you add another metal. These weren’t for status, for how could they be if no one saw them? This was his ‘surprise package,’ his hidden coquettishness. Think about it – what if one day your girlfriend has your shirt… for some reason… and discovers a golden collar stay? She’d look at you differently, wouldn’t she? I dare say she’d be more smitten.”

More laughter, this time less forced. Be it male or female student each looked upon him with bright eyes and bright expression.

“Most people think ornamentation and accessories are a woman’s fancy. What use have men for accessories? Isn’t that ‘girly’? Well I’m here to tell you that this sort of thinking is

entirely wrong. In truth a man’s necessary accessories aren’t much fewer than a woman’s.. only, they are less visually available. Collar stays, cufflinks, wrist watches, breastpins, even a delicate bracelet… things easily missed, but when briefly revealed increase your charm and charisma tenfold.”

He paused here and took his jacket back from Tang Mi. He gave her a brief smile, and motioned for her to return to her seat. She looked back at him for a moment before making for the back row.

He slipped his jacket back on. “Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘Professor Lan,’ you wish to say, ‘Unless you’re very familiar with a woman, your girlfriend for example, wont your secret remain hidden?’ In fact, that’s not the case. Take a look.” He turned then and showed his back to the gathered youngsters.

“This particular coat is a double vent. So, say I’m walking down the street and a breeze catches my clothes. The back flaps ever so slightly, and there the lining is revealed. Oops! My secret is known.”

Another ripple of laughter. Jin Yan and Wu Junyi also couldn’t help but lend their voice to the mirthful chorus. Every eye watched Lan Jue, waiting for his next move.

Hua Li sat in a distant corner, watching the lecture from a distance. At some point the mask he’d used to hide his face had been removed, and as he watched his high-spirited friend a knowing smile spread across his pretty features.

Never had Lan Jue expected one day he’d be a teacher, much less Hua Li. But here he stood, standing before a classroom of rapt pupils.

“Now, folding pocket kerchiefs and wearing ties. There are quite a few ways to tie a tie. We have the common, popular knots like the four-in-hand, Windsor…”

He demonstrated each knot as he said them, pulling strips of cloth from behind the podium and passing them around the room. Director Wu took the lull in the lecture as a chance to speak to Jin Yan, beside him.

“Professor Jin, what do you think of this young man’s class?”

“It’s only the second time I’ve attended,” she began without hesitation, “but I can’t not acknowledge my interest. I hadn’t expected one would have to pay such particular attention to a suit. It’s also the first time I’ve heard of collar stays. I feel like

this knowledge, for etiquette and common sense, is of great benefits to the students. What do you think, Director?”

He only gave a small, secretive smile. “At the very least, it’s not a disadvantage.”

Jin Yan continued. “I might as well be one of his students. I’m already looking forward to what he’ll tech next.”

“It’s not just you. Even at my age I’m learning a great deal from his lectures. I’ll probably have to go home and adjust my own suits after this. Show them off to the old lady.”

Time flies when you’re having fun, so the saying goes, and for the students of Professor Lan’s class the saying held true. In what felt like no time at all, the class was coming to an end.

As the bell rang, none of the students were in a rush to leave. After all the Professor still had one style of tie he’d yet to show off. Time didn’t seem a factor, and even Director Wu didn’t remind Lan Jue that he was delaying the students from their other classes. Ten minutes later, all was said and done.

“I really do apologies. First for my classes and then for my time management. Thursday afternoon we have our next class. Frankly speaking today’s class was mostly for the benefit of our male students, but the next one will be aimed at our young ladies. In the interest of advanced notice we’ll be discussing jewelry. There are a wide array of jewelry accessories and one class wont be able to cover them all, but I’ll bring a few pieces to show off. And that’s where we’ll end today. Class dismissed, thank you.”

Lan Jue finished with another formal bow.

“Professor Lan, can you tell me if I did this right?” One of his students rushed at the podium to get his attention. Others followed until it was as though Lan Jue was penned in by a swarm.

Hua Li slipped his mask back on his face, but not before muttering jealously under his breath. “I should be the one getting the star treatment. This guy…”

It took a good ten minutes for Lan Jue to extricate himself from the horde. His suit had been horribly wrinkled in the process, and someone’s dirty fingers had stained the sleeves. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He’d have to send it to the

dry-cleaners when he returned.

“Professor… professor, over here!” Lan Jue spied Tang Xiao’s puffy head peaking from around the corner of the hallway. He waved his master over.

Lan Jue nodded and made his way over.

Jin Tao and Tang Xiao were both waiting out of sight of the others. As Lan Jue came up, Jin Tao couldn’t help but immediately start blabbering. “Professor, what suit do you think would make me look most handsome?”

Lan Jue gently shoved the punk’s head. “Handsome means an absence of grotesque shape. First you have to shave that hideous thing on your head.”

“Got it!” He turned then to the chortling Tang Xiao, repeatedly slapping the kid’s belly. “And what are you laughing about tubby? If we’re talking about grotesque you got some adjustments to make yourself! Five minutes at a hairdressing and I’m golden, but this thing you’re smuggling here? Hah!”

“Not in the face! Are you looking for another beating?!”

“I advise you both to save your strength,” Lan Jue interjected ominously. Suddenly there was another at Lan Jue’s side.

Jin Tao looked at the newly arrived Hua Li. “Oh hi. Are you also one of the Professor’s pupils?”

Hua Li chuckled. “No, I’m… a friend.”

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