Skyfire Avenue Chapter 161-170

Chapter 161: Fusion Of The Amazons

Zrrggt! There was a flash of lightning, and suddenly Hua Li felt his body go numb. In the length of time it took for the light to flash, Lan Jue had moved behind him, and was slamming his fists in to the entertainer’s back.

Hua Li’s defensive capabilities warded the first six strikes, but the seventh and final snuck through. With his water Discipline nearly exhausted, the strike sent arcs of lightning coiling up his body.

He suddenly felt the ice-cold kiss of a blade at his throat, which lead him to quickly declare surrender. “You got me,” he said matter-of-factly.

Lan Jue was on the move instantly. The electric cage that surrounded them parted just as the Jewelry Master dissolved in to a stream of light. The glimmering pillar raced through the cage’s small opening, stopping before Chu Cheng who stood alone in the distance.

Mika was close behind. With a grunt, she was off again racing towards Chu Cheng and Lan Jue. Her speed made her look like nothing more than a streak of crimson.

Then gold, then blue as Lin Guoguo and Ke’er took their cue from the Stygian Succubus. The three were vicious streams of violent energy, racing to their boss’ side.

Chu Cheng shot his hands forward, whipping through the air. In response, the air shimmered as a vortex of raging flame appeared in front of him. It’s swirling depths brought with it a powerful suctioning force, which brought Lan Jue to a stop.

Chu Cheng took advantage of the slight reprieve to grope out his right hand. Empty space parted, and plumes of smoke preceded the arrival of a flaming sword which fit perfectly in his palm. It was a similar blade to the one he’d revealed while channeling the Spirit of Hades, with the only difference being the color.

He feinted towards Lan Jue and the three streaks of energy rapidly approaching his direction. In response, the trembling weapon belched a curtain of fire at his enemies.

Hua Li may have lost, but he’d set up Chu Cheng with a chance. That was good enough.

Lan Jue was tumbling through the air to avoid Chu Cheng’s

strike. Sufficiently free from danger, he stopped mid-air, just long enough to swipe his own strange shimmering blade of light.

The weapon he gripped was a little over a meter long, the blade and pommel making a cross shape. It’s long and narrow blade was white as snow, indented down the middle with a blood funnel.

He hung in the air, hovering above the field of battle with blade in hand. A strange, dark figure was indistinctly visible near the sword. It was black, and writhing like it was composed of black lightning.

But it wasn’t. In fact, closer inspection would reveal they were fissures, where the blades stupendous sharpness had cloven reality around it. If Lan Jue released it, one feared the blade might slice through space and simply vanish as it fell.

Hua Li’s quick and no-nonsense surrender was largely due to the presence of that sword in Lan Jue’s hand, for that was no ordinary weapon – it was Xiuxiu, become the Asura Godblade!

Xiuxiu was not new to Zeus’ Amazons, not even close. Her

work for him had spanned years, ever since she first entered the mercenary world. From the onset she was at his side, which earned her the name Blade-maiden.

Both Hua Li and Chu Cheng were both well aware; with Xiuxiu at his side, Zeus was at least three times as powerful.

Lan Jue flicked his wrist. The godblade flashed, and released a torrent of energy all its own. The power raced outward as Chu Cheng’s own energies were converging on his position. Two different, opposing energies, and as they clashed in mid-air both the energy and Chu Cheng’s sword were knocked aside.

In the same instant Mika, Lin Guoguo and Ke’er appeared at their boss’ back.

Mika was the first to arrive. She had transformed in to a ball of molten fire during transit, and landed unto Lan Jue’s back. As she did, a glorious flaming cloak wiped out behind her boss. It flowed where there was no wind, and anything that came near was instantly assailed by a suffocating demonic aura.

Next was Ke’er. The blue light that was her raced to Lan Jue’s side and settled on his left arm. When the shimmer light abated,

a gun barrel with a caliber the size of a chicken egg glinted against the tan skin of his arm. A heavy sapphire aura surrounded the weapon, and it seemed ready to launch its attack with the slightest provocation.

The golden beam of light was the final one to show up, and settled itself atop Lan Jue’s head. It shone brilliantly like a crown or halo.

It was gorgeous beyond compare, more than any normal crown certainly. Resplendent beams of light shone forth from it in all directions. Still the most striking aspect was the oval stone set in the center. It was almost like a single golden eye that watched all with its unblinking stare.

“This is somehow acceptable?” Chu Cheng glowered at the sight before him. The burning flames that covered him like a coat dimmed visibly, with a hint of gray light swirling through them. The atmosphere of the entire arena chilled.

A single plume of fire launched outward from him. In a few short seconds is was hanging over Lan Jue, its temperatures so hot that the floor below started to melt in to magma. With the fire above and the lava below, Lan Jue was in clear danger of being swallowed in to one or the other.

The golden eye set within Lan Jue’s crown flashed. Suddenly Chu Cheng felt a dizziness rise up within him. It was enough of a distraction that the power of his attacks were diminished.

In the same instant the burning cloak at Lan Jue’s back released a wave of fire. It was a strange flame, with black and red racing through it like veins. As it spread forth, it kept the encroaching flows of magma at bay.

The Jewelry Master then hoisted the godblade, and his body fractured in to a host of lightning bolts. His figure reconstituted inches before Chu Cheng, with the godblade tracing a deadly arc towards him.

The ear-splitting sound of reality being rent asunder filled the air. Where the godblade passed, a thin vacuous line of darkness followed.

Chu Cheng’s body dimmed, just as the deadly sword cut him in two. But as they began to crumple to the floor, both disintegrated in to pillars of flame that shot high above. Once they towered out of reach, they joined once again to form the red haired youth.

Chu Cheng’s flaming blade was once more in hand. He stared chillingly down at Lan Jue, with all his fancy toys. With an intimidating yell, he became a claw of flames that reached inexorably for his golden crown.

Lan Jue’s godblade hung in the air, in the middle of its follow- through. Only his left hand was available, and so it was with that that he reached towards the sky. The action spawned a massive hand composed of lightning. The two elemental appendages clashed.

The subsequent blast of errant energy whipped madly in all directions.

Lan Jue’s crown flashed once again. Chu Cheng was valiantly pressing the attack, his fiery power in contest below with Lan Jue’s electricity. However, he was visibly weakening.

“Erupt!” Chu Cheng’s voice rang through the arena. The column of energy he commanded exploded at his command, destroying Lan Jue’s summoned claw with it. The air cleared, the dust settled, with neither of the powerhouses’ Disciplines in evidence.

However, even though he’d managed to halt Lan Jue’s riposte, it wasn’t over. Chu Cheng’s pupils contracted as he saw the dark barrel of the gun flash, and a dazzling blue orb hurtle his way.

His impressive display in fending off Lan Jue had drained him. He was in a weakened position, and as such did not possess the ability to dodge the oncoming assault. All he could do was bolster his defenses, and hold. He grit his teeth as Ke’er’s attack hit him smack in the chest.

Booommmm!

Chu Cheng went sailing in to the distance. He tumbled head over heels, caught in a tempest of energy.

This was the true might of Ke’er’s attacks. She was an eight level Talent, but with her power fully stored before use she was as frightening as any average ninth level. Chu Cheng hadn’t taken that in to account – and he was feeling the results of his mistake.

Lan Jue – mercenary and Skyfire Avenue – knew an opportunity when he saw one. He also knew how to exploit it.

As Chu Cheng went barreling through the sky, Lan Jue was on the move. In a flash he was above the unfortunate mercenary, with the godblade in his hand. Only now, the blade’s body was a shimmering violet. An infinitely sharp bolt of lightning, cutting a bloodthirsty arc towards its target.

Chu Cheng’s energies had only just managed to deflect the main force of Ke’er’s blast, and so when the godblade came tumbling his only recourse was to raise his hands in defense. Xiuxiu’s impossibly sharp attack landed directly in the palm of his hand.

CRACK! The deafening peal of a thunderstrike accompanied the blow. Paralyzing bolts of lightning raced along Chu Cheng’s body. As they did, reality split before the red haired  young man’s chest, spreading open in to a void.

But before Chu Cheng could react or employ the opportunity, Lan Jue was there. The godblade had reverted to its normal white hue, with it arriving a beam of pure light. That beam struck Chu Cheng, pinning him viciously to the ground.

“I give…” Chu Cheng hissed, and those words stopped any further abuse from Lan Jue.

.....

Five minutes later.

“Godamnit, A-Cheng. When’d you become such a dunce?” Hua Li shook his head at his companion, whose face was slowly swelling. “That was an embarrassing display.”

“A-Jue, you and I will never recover from this.” Chu Cheng’s angry voice was somewhat obscured by his unnaturally puffy face.

Lan Jue looked down on him, arms crossed over his chest and a smirk on his face. “Interested in another go?”

“Only a damn moron’d agree to that. No class – so many people against just me! You all should be ashamed. A-Li, help me out here man, otherwise how am I supposed to eat later?”

Hua Li summoned a gentle ball of blue light, whereupon he then unceremoniously smashed it in to Chu Cheng’s face. The water splashed in all directions, and when it dripped away Chu Cheng’s features were already markedly better.

Lan Jue turned then, looking down at the four ladies who had reverted to their natural states. “Is this what you girls have been practicing?”

Lin Guoguo tittered. “Like you said boss, we’ve been focusing in our cooperation. We were listening to Xiuxiu, talking about how she can turn in to your weapon. That got us thinking. See, we’re all the boss’ bodyguards, right? And if Xiuxiu can do it, so can we. Mika and I are already ninth level, so we have the ability to become our Discipline, like your Fulmination. A token aspect of being a ninth level, unless you have a Discipline like fatty Tang who can change at will. So Mika and I got to talking; what can we change in to that would most benefit the boss? I chose the crown. Mika chose the cloak. Cool right?!”

Ke’er blew a raspberry. “Although I can’t change in to my Discipline yet, it already possesses the ability to change shape. Any sort of energy weapon, I can do. I figured I could give the boss another long-ranged attack at his disposal! The three of us, with Xiuxiu as your sword, and we become your super suit!”

Lan Jue smiled at them. “I was definitely pleasantly surprised. I can see all the hard work you put in to this. Keep it up. Once we get your cooperation up to snuff, mecha combat will be next. For that you should all study from Xiuxiu. Her piloting skills are already excellent.”

“Got it,” Mika replied.

Tang Xiao had lumbered over to Lan Jue’s side by this point, though he was careful to choose a spot out of Chu Cheng’s direct line of sight.

“And what are you cowering for,” Lan Jue said, narrowing his eyes at his pupil.

The young man replied in a whisper. “Professor… do you think he’s mad at me?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. With me here he won’t be doing anything. But if you see him when I’m not around… hide further away.”

Chapter 162: Girly Music

The swelling of Chu Cheng’s face had gone down, and was back to normal. He followed Hua Li, rubbing his face as though it still hurt.

“Too rough, A-Jue, jeez. You’ve been planning this for a while, I’ll bet.”

Lan Jue shot him a glance. “Premeditated, no, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to stomp your face for at least a few days.”

Chu Cheng flipped him the bird, then tried to glare a hole in to the fat young man to one side. “Hey fat-ass, I’ll remember this. Did your good-for-nothing teacher train you with that loud mouth?”

Tang Xiao’s reply was quiet, timid. “Professor Lan didn’t teach me that, I came up with it myself after some research. I believe we should stop at nothing when in the heat of battle, anything it takes to win. The process isn’t important, just the result. Please don’t be upset, teacher! I’m just trying to be self- directed.”

Chu Cheng snorted, hard. Hua Li took up the conversation, his own voice betraying displeasure. “So have you shared this little story of yours with your Professor?”

Tang Xiao blushed at the accusation. “The first time we fought I did. He beat me pretty badly. I haven’t since.”

Hua Li’s white-knuckle fist raised as he glared daggers at the fat kid.

Tang Xiao coughed uncomfortably. “So, Professor, if there’s nothing else maybe I should just head out. Oh, and I’m sorry but I’m not sure I’ll have the opportunity to come over the next few days.”

“Oh?” Lan Jue gave him an inquisitive look. “Look kid you don’t need to be scared. These guys wouldn’t dare run around bullying the younger generations.”

Tang Xiao quickly shook his head. “That’s not it. There’s a school training assembly I can’t get out of. People from our rival school, Lir, are coming. They’ve chosen me as a contestant in a little sparring match. I’m supposed to be drilling mecha combat over the next few days to bone up.”

“Lir University?” Lan Jue looked at him questioningly. “What are they doing coming all the way over here?”

Tang Xiao enlightened him. “They’re a mecha piloting university, it’s their primary major. Planet Lir isn’t too far from Skyfire, I heard somewhere that the deans were rivals, after the same girl years ago. Later, it was our dean who came out on top. They’ve hated each other ever since. So, every year they send their crack students our way, supposedly for ‘educational exchange.’ Really it’s a chance for them to show us up.”

Chu Cheng was in higher spirits, then, forgetting his previous indignation. “Sounds like fun, what sort of exchanges are we talking?”

“Mostly mecha combat,” Tang Xiao replied. “And truth be told I don’t know what the dean is thinking, agreeing to it. They specialize in mecha combat! Our university’s focus is research. We’re miles behind them in regards to mecha piloting. Every year it’s the same – a cruel beating. They aren’t concerned about face either. Students compete, sure, but the teachers do also. If it weren’t for the Savage Goddess, we’d have precisely zero showing at the exchange. Professor Tan is the only one to ever really have a chance at winning the thing.”

“Originally we were to have some time before the competition, but then Lir University heard about the NEU opening up their doors for some Poseidon guy’s concert. So they pushed the schedule up. What’s there to hear in this damn concert anyway, retards.”

Hua Li shoved his large-framed glasses higher on his nose. “You’ve never heard one of Poseidon’s songs, have you?”

Tang Xiao stuck out his prominent belly. “Uncle,” he started proudly, “I’m a real man. Who listens to that girly stuff anyway
– just deviants and young girls.”

Chu Cheng’s features were a strange blend of surprise and mirth as he looked at Lan Jue. “Taunting is just in this kid’s blood, isn’t it? A skill he was born with.”

Hua Li’s expression was cool and dangerously indifferent as he, too, addressed Lan Jue. “Don’t say I never give you face, got it?”

Lan Jue gently patted his forehead before speaking earnestly to his apprentice. “In fact I originally had waned to give you the day off but it looks like we’ll need to continue your special

training. By my estimate we’re looking at double time. A-Li, take it easy on the kid right? Don’t break him.”

Hua Li nodded as he made his way to stand before the slack- jawed Tang Xiao. The entertainer plucked off his hat and glasses, revealing his sinister grin and dark eyes. “Tell me though, fatty. Do I look familiar to you at all?”

“Huh? O-oh….”

“I’ll make YOU a deviant! How about we make YOU girly?!”

“Ah! Ow! Ahhh!”

ζ

The Gourmet’s tiny boutique was clean, tidy, and quiet, with a classical beauty that stayed with a person.

Hua Li, Chu Cheng and Lan Jue had all changed by this point, and where making their way there.

Someone else had beat them there, a beautiful young woman.

“Seamstress,” [1] Lan Jue greeted amicably with a smile.

[tl: [1] = She was introduced as Tailor before in chapter 65, but Seamstress is a much more fitting title, I feel. ↩ ]

The woman rose to her feet and welcomed the three young gentlemen with a smile. “Hello. Ey? Isn’t this…” The Tailor’s pretty eyes swept over Hua Li.

It was becoming abundantly clear that Hua Li attracted a great deal of attention without his disguises in place.

Hua Li only chuckled, his response gentlemanly. “Salutations, beautiful madam. I’m Hua Li.”

Chu Cheng also nodded a greeting to the tailor. “Hello,” he said, “I’m Chu Cheng.”

Lan Jue cast an inquisitive eye unto his friend. “A very tepid greeting, A-Cheng. I expected different from you.”

Chu Cheng glowered at his companion. “Going out anywhere with A-Li is the worst. You think we get any attention with this guy around?”

The Seamstress covered her mouth with a dainty hand and laughed. “Not so! Poseidon is even more striking than his holograms, true, but you two aren’t slouches either. You and our Jewelry Master are a special kind of man. Plus, I like men with a good build – suitable as a mannequin.”

That devious light shined in the depths of Chu Cheng’s eyes. “You’re a madam with exceptional taste, that much is clear. Some people are born fine to look at, but it takes a smart person to realize their treasures run only skin deep.”

“It’s been a few years since we were in High School,” Hua Li cut in with a cool voice. “How about we act like it?”

Chu Cheng sneered, looking for a place to sit.

“And what do you mean by that,” the Seamstress replied, grinning broadly.

Lan Jue chortled. “High School, the first awakenings of love. They are used to feeling inadequate, and resort to protecting their fragile egos in front of their lady friends by tearing others down.”

A laugh bubbled up from the Seamstress, true and uninhibited. “You all are quite the interesting trio. The Gourmet is still in the back preparing, why don’t you all take a seat.”

Hua Li picked the seat beside Chu Cheng. Lan Jue, meanwhile, made his way towards the back. “Is there anything I can help with, Gourmet?”

“No need,” the man’s voice responded, wafting towards them from within the kitchen. “I’ll be finished shortly.”

“You called the Wine Master?”

“You just contacted me actually. He said he had something that needed doing, and wouldn’t be able to make it. Looks like it’s just us tonight.”

“Ah man,” Lan Jue lamented. “That means no good alcohol!”

“Let’s try something different today. His liquor isn’t suitable for our meal today anyhow.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “So what were you doing even inviting the man if his alcohol isn’t suitable?”

The Gourmet didn’t care to continue the exchange, and the only sounds that came from the kitchen then were the sounds of cooking. His nostrils flared as the pungent aromas of the meal wafted towards him.

“I’m still waiting for that young woman you introduced to me the last time, Jewelry Master.” The Seamstress regarded Lan Jue from her position across the table. “We were supposed to make some fine clothes for her, but not a peep.”

Lan Jue slapped his forehead. “I forgot, forgive me. After the last meal there were a few things that needed handling. It must have been forgotten in the aftermath. Next time, I’ll bring her around to your shop.”

This brought a smile to the Seamstress’ lips. “She has an incredible figure, one I’d love to work with. You make sure you do.”

Not long after, the gourmet appeared from the kitchen, supporting a large dish with his arm. The succulent scent of cooked meat accompanied him.

Six dishes, each with their own magical allure. Six were meat, and one vegetable. The gourmet indicated each as he introduced the meal.

“Braised pork with preserved vegetables in a soy sauce. Wine- soaked crab over glass noodles. Sichuan style roasted duck. Spring chicken in jams and butter. Sweet and sour mandarin fish. And pan-seared crowndaisy chrysanthemum. All home cooked, but with a complex and pleasing taste.”

Lan Jue’s mouth had already begun watering. “Each one a dish I love. What did we deserve for such a meal, eh Gourmet? If you need something from us, just come out with it – no need for bribes.”

The Gourmet chuckled. “And what need have I of you? I guess

we can call it a celebration, of the fact you’re not dead yet. There’s also a soup, but that one is for you alone. I apologize to the rest of you.”

“Uncle!” The startled and strange-sounding voice interrupted him. Every eye in the room turned towards the source.

At the onset the Gourmet had had his full attention on the food, however as the voice greeted him he lifted his head to look with no small measure of surprise.

Chu Cheng was already standing, a shocked expression on his face as he stared at the Gourmet.

The older gentleman’s eyes narrowed, his pupils shrunk. “I don’t know you. Either sit and eat, or get out.”

With that said, the Gourmet retreated back in to the boutique’s back rooms.

Chu Cheng’s expression was dark, and unsure. However, after a few moments he sat back down.

The Gourmet reappeared with a bowl of stew in hand. This time the easy smile that had been on his face was gone, replaced with a gloomy haze.

This didn’t stop the Seamstress’ smiles, though. “I seem to recall, once, you telling me that a cook must be in a good mood to work properly, Gourmet. Only in that way can one create true delicacies, you assured me. Cooking in a bad mood infuses the food with your glum aura.”

The Gourmet looked at her, and grudgingly nodded his head. His expression softened, but he never once looked Chu Cheng’s way.

Chu Cheng uttered not a sound. Contrary to his traditionally loud-mouthed behavior, he kept still land silent.

“Gourmet, the drinks? I’m assuming since these are very traditional, Former Era Chinese dishes, the drinks of our ancestors would pair nicely. White rice wine, perhaps, or millet wine?”

“Mn. You’ve only just gotten better, so nothing too strong. Let me heat up some millet wine for you,” the Gourmet said as he

rose to procure some. He returned a moment later with another tray.

Atop the tray was a small coal-burning stove, which on top of that sat a finely crafted copper tea kettle. The vestiges of its crafting were still evident along the copper body, dents and divots skillfully beat in to a pleasing pattern. The lid was shaped in the form of a coiled dragon – simple and exquisite.

Five black cups were arrayed around the small stove. The Gourmet flicked his wrist, and the cups flew gracefully from the tray to his diner’s sides.

Finally, there was the last delicate china bowl on the stove’s other side, filled with rich dark plums.

Chapter 163: The Gourmet’s Story

Lan Jue beamed in admiration. “Copper kettle, charcoal fire, black pottery… the perfect combination for millet wine! Add a few slices of ginger while boiling the alcohol, and that’d be especially beneficial.” As he spoke, he took the initiative and plucked up the kettle. He poured out a glass of wine for the Gourmet first before filling the others’ cups.

He followed this by taking a smoked plum from the tray, and dropping one in to each glass.

“Drink the stew while it’s hot,” the Gourmet instructed.

“Alright,” Lan Jue said. He pulled the lid off of the bowl and was immediately met with a blast of steam and a pleasant scent. He peered inside, but despite his love of food was unable to determine what the clear stew was made of.

The stew was a pale yellow, and boiling hot. A single spoonful, and Lan Jue felt it like a flood through him, a clean rejuvenating sensation. It warmed him to his core.

He even felt as though his internal energies were revitalized

by the tasty soup. A small amount of steam was even lifting off from his forehead.

“What is this?” Lan Jue asked inquisitively.

“Wild grown dendrobium officinale, left untouched for a hundred years, is the main ingredient.,” he replied. “In addition we have phoenix chicken from Taihua, and a dozen sorts of medicinal herbs. It serves to nourish the five primary organs, as well as the qi and blood. Make sure you drink it all.”

Medicinal culinary arts are a popular thing in china. Chinese Traditional Medicine differentiates a food or herbs’ efficacy based on its taste and reaction. For instance, chrysanthemum tea is often drunk in summer because of its cooling and heat- draining abilities – drink some chrysanthemum tea and you can almost taste it’s clearing and soothing ability. Some restaurants, even ‘fast food’ chains, will put a dishes’ medicinal effect next to it on the menus. The primary organs are what they call the five Zang organs; the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and spleen. They are paired with the six ‘fu’ organs with which they exchange qi energies and consolidate healing effects. Those are the pericardium (the ‘bag’ that surrounds the heart), the stomach, small intestines, large intestine, the gallbladder, and the Triple Burner/San Jiao (the three empty cavities in the trunk of a person, i.e. the plueral, thoracic and abdominal cavities.).

Lan Jue blinked. “Pheonix chicken? You actually found some? And where’d you get the mature dendrobium officinale? It was one of the Nine Immortal Herbs used in Former Era traditional medicine. Didn’t they die out a long time ago?”

The Gourmet shook his head. “All of this good food, and here you are occupying your mouth with nonsense. Just eat!” He punctuated the order by taking a sip of his wine, picking up his chopsticks, and getting to work on the meal.

Lan Jue took another sip of the soup, whose warmth filled him up. He then took a sip of the pleasant wine. Its own warmth, the ginger slices and the smoked plum all served to raise his temperature.

The various dishes arrayed around the table looked simple, but each were specially crafted delicacies. The stifling atmosphere from moments ago was entirely dispelled as they tucked in to the amazing food. Hua Li and Chu Cheng were happily munching away with the rest of them.

Lan Jue’s favorite was certainly the crab and noodles in wine sauce. It was thick with juice, an amalgamation of high-grade Shaoxing wine and crab juices. Spread over the smooth, pleasantly textured noodles it’s taste defied explanation.

It ended up Chu Cheng and Hua Li both squabbled over the final piece of the braised pork and soy sauce. Eventually they settled on splitting the final piece in half. In no time at all, all six dishes were empty. Even the sauces and juices weren’t safe, for the three young visitors sopped that up with rolls of steamed bread.

The Gourmet chuckled at the display. “Be a little careful, next time. I’d hate to lose such a foodie and drinking buddy. Once you’re full you guys can head out at your leisure. The next time try to avoid bringing outsiders…”

“Alright,” Lan Jue said with a small chuckle. “We’ll head out first, then. How about you, Seamstress?”

The pretty women looked up from her plate to reply. “I’ll help the Gourmet tidy up some before heading out. Something we ladies are quite adept at.”

Chu Cheng shot an inconspicuous glance  towards  the Gourmet before wordlessly jabbing Hua Li in the side with an elbow. His friend knew the indication, and both wandered out from the Gourmet’s boutique together.

By this time the Seamstress was already standing, and gathered several plates with her slender arms. The Gourmet remained seated, chewing on a cigarette that had somehow appeared in the interim. It hung unlit from the corner of his mouth.

“Go on and smoke, it doesn’t bother me,” the Seamstress said.

The Gourmet snapped a finger and, with the motion a flame sprang to life on his fingertip. He lit the stick and almost immediately the room filled with the scent of burning tobacco.

The Seamstress continued to work in silence, with no statements or questions offered. She just grabbed up the soiled plates, and moved them to the kitchen.

“All arranged and where they’re meant to be,” the Seamstress said once everything had been put away. Make sure to get to bed early, and don’t smoke too much. I’m on my way out.”

The Gourmet nodded, following her with his eyes as she left.

He sat alone in the boutique, coiled plumes of tobacco smoke

swirling around his narrowed eyes. The light living in them was complicated, but a clear pang of discomfort was easily discerned.

ζ

Hua Li, Lan Jue and Chu Cheng slowly ambled down the Avenue towards Zeus’ Jewelry Shop.

“Nightcap?” Chu Cheng looked at his two dinner companions.

“Alright.” Lan Jue pushed his way past the store in to apartments. He returned a moment later with a bottle of brandy and three glasses.

Chu Cheng helped himself by snatching the bottle from an Jue’s hands. He poured himself a glass and downed it right away. “Ah, brandy really is something special! Millet wine’s too weak, not suitable for me.”

“What the hell was that about,” Hua Li piped up, cutting through the garbage. “Your uncle? Your real uncle?”

Chu Cheng nodded his head. “I never would have thought to look here. No wonder we haven’t been able to find him. He disappeared two years ago.”

Lan Jue looked over his way. “If it involves some secret of your family, you don’t need to share it.”

Chu Cheng smiled indifferently. “Something I can’t share with outsider, but you two? You’re family. As a matter of fact, my uncle’s story is now almost more a legend. Are you aware of his strength, A-Jue?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “Only that it’s fire based. I’ve never actually seen him use it seriously. Still, he’s one of the Avenue’s eighteen councilmen so that has to mean something, even if he is lower on the tier list. Really all we know is that he’s an amazing cook. It’s strange, though, that he only ever cooks on occasion. He’ll go for weeks without cooking anything nice. I’ve probably been his most common guest these last few years.”

“That’s because he feels the two of you are similar,” Chu Cheng revealed.

“Oh?”

The red haired man continued. “My uncle’s story is almost like something out of a book. His generation only had him and my father. You know about my family and the inheritance that comes with it – this is also true for the power of our blood. Only for their generation there was something… different. My father only inherited a small bit of Hades’ power, to which my grandfather was very disappointed. He started with my dad right away, to cultivate his powers to a useful point and train him to look after the family business. Then my uncle was born, and my grandfather discovered he was stronger than any Adept in their family in the last hundred years.”

“What about compared to you?” Hua Li asked curiously.

Chu Cheng’s voice dropped. “According to grandpa, uncle’s powers are even purer than mine.”

Both Lan Jue and Hua Li couldn’t help it, and sucked in a breath in surprise. Both of them were quite familiar with Chu Cheng’s level of power. Today, with the help of the amazons, Lan Jue may have soundly defeated Hua Li and Chu Cheng. But this was a game, a test. If it had been a real life-or-death battle, one where their full abilities were employed, Lan Jue’s situation would have been much more dire.

During those early years, when they first met, Lan Jue was only just unlocking the secrets of his Ascension. Chu Cheng was only in his early twenties then, but was already  able  to command the Spirit of Hades.

Now he’s saying the Gourmet’s powers are even purer than his? What did it mean? The Gourmet was also at peak age for an Adept, and had years of cultivation over Chu Cheng.

“He isn’t a Paragon, is he?” Hua Li asked.

Chu Cheng shook his head. “I don’t know. What I do know is that when he left twelve years ago, he was already a ninth level eighth rank adept. Much stronger than I am even now. I’m only seventh rank currently, and he’s got fourteen years on me. Judging by this information, I’d say it totally possible that he’s a Paragon.”

“So what happened back then,” Lan Jue encouraged.

“Uncle’d become pretty renowned when he was younger,” Chu Cheng said. “The family had placed all their hopes in him. As you’re well aware, my family and Satan’s line are mortal enemies, always have been. His power forced us to flee to the

North. Otherwise without their bastard lineage, our family would be the greatest Force of Darkness in the West. The Dark Tower really should be Hades’ Tower. It was grandpa’s hope to train my uncle, to make him in to his generation’s greatest Paragon. Satan was already old then, and it was his hope that with a new Hades, we could recapture our old glory.”

“Until he was twenty, uncle never left the family. He had all the resources of the family at his disposal, but he also had to bear tremendous hardships in his training. He grew hard and cold from it. After he was twenty, grandpa finally allowed him to leave the compound. He wanted to toughen his son up out in the real world. He wanted him ready for the shock his body would go through once he became a Paragon. In truth, age plays only a small role in an Adept’s power. However, it is common knowledge that breaking through to Paragon before forty is best. That is when an Adept is at their most potent. Such was grandpa’s plan.”

“At first everything was fine. Uncle would leave, travel for a year, then return home for  a few months. Almost every time he’d come back significantly stronger than when he’d left. He grew stronger, and the family’s hopes and  dreams  grew brighter. And then, fourteen years ago, when uncle was twenty- eight, they encountered a problem.”

“Grandpa had lost sight of what was important. After all, my uncle was a man, not a machine. The stress and expectations were too much. He had no freedom, no way to channel or release that pressure. Grandpa never even considered finding uncle a partner or wife. To him and the family, their only concern was that they’d finally have a new Hades.”

“But he was a thinking, feeling man! And by that time he was already very strong, handsome. Naturally he’d attract some female attention. Of course for the first twenty years, he’d never even been out of the house. He was a stiff, and it was difficult for him to get his head around things from the outside world. But as time went on he grew up, became accustomed to the sensations real life had to offer. When he left at the age of twenty-seven, he’d found a girl he liked.”

The fiery glint of gossip sparked behind Hua Li’s eyes. “So your grandpa finds out about this woman, and forbids them to be together. It’s like the plot of a movie.”

Chu Cheng laughed wryly. “Even more melodramatic, in fact. When he was twenty-eight, he brought the woman back home to the family. At that point their relationship had had no negative impact on his cultivation, so even though grandpa was unhappy he still allowed it. He knew uncle was getting older and needed a family of his own. But in true tragic fashion,

eventually grandpa discovered the truth; the girl uncle had chosen, had Satan’s blood pumping through her veins.”

Chapter 164: I Am Just The Gourmet!

“Ah?” Hua Li and Lan Jue cried out in unison.

Chu Cheng nodded his head, indicating he understood their shock. “You heard right. She was related to the Prince of Demons. What’s more, her power was as pure as his. She was Satan’s daughter.”

Lan Jue looked at him, slack-jawed. “Then it must have been exceptionally dangerous for your uncle’s lover, once grandpa found out.”

Chu Cheng sighed. “You bet! Grandpa was furious. He thought she must have been there to spy on us, sent by Satan. He wanted to kill her on the spot – to him, it was absolutely unthinkable to let her leave there alive. By then uncle was in love with her, head over heels. He would risk his life for her, and so he did… by raising his hand against his father. If uncle had chosen to go all out, not even grandpa would have been able to stand against him. But uncle focused on defense alone, protecting the girl as they made their escape. In the end they made it out, but not without suffering grievous injuries.”

“Grandpa sunk in to depression. The entire family was

thrown in to panic. They had to rely on protection from the North’s army. After that day, uncle returned home just once. With red eyes he asked grandpa why he had tried to kill the girl. I was there with my father and grandpa when he asked, and we all just stood looking at him in surprise. Without any explanation or discussion, grandpa threw him out. Since then uncle has never come back home. I never would have thought, twelve years later, I’d find him here on Skyfire Avenue.”

“And that’s all I know. I never heard of what happened afterward. Though once when I went back to visit grandpa, he told me he never did send someone out to kill the girl. He only sent out people to find them, but none came back with any actionable intelligence. He got sick after that, and handed the reigns of the family to my father. He lived in seclusion since then.”

Hua Li looked on with a strange expression. “That’d explain your playboy nature. If you treat women like garbage your pops won’t be afraid you’ll go the way of your uncle, am I right?”

Chu Cheng shrugged his shoulders. “As possible an explanation as anything else, I guess. In this regard the family has never made any attempts to control me. Nor has anyone ever given me too much pressure. Their only stipulation is I don’t leave the North too often. Since we’re under protection,

the Dark Tower wouldn’t dare come to the North and start trouble. They probably know where I am anyway, but taking me on directly is no picnic. Plus, Satan’s been pretty absent these last few years. We don’t know if he’s training, or it’s something else.”

Lan Jue’s brows furrowed as he took in the information. “I had no idea the Gourmet would have such a history. So sad!” After listening to Chu Cheng recount the tale, Lan Jue couldn’t help but commiserate with the Avenue’s cook. Perhaps the Gourmet felt the same way.

Chu Cheng went on. “This is information I have to report to the family, A-Jue. Will this influence you in any way?”

Lan Jue let a few moments of silence go by. “Give me some time. I should ask him.”

After a moment of thought Chu Cheng replied. “Give me an answer before tomorrow. This has to do with our lineage. I know my dad only wants him to come home, so…”

Ding ding ding! The familiar chime of the jewelry store’s doorbell interrupted their discussion. A decidedly upset looking

Gourmet entered.

All three of the young men straightened, rising to their feet when they saw who it was.

The Gourmet paid no attention to the others. He fixed Chu Cheng with a cold glare while speaking. “Tell them I won’t be going back. I have no relationship with the Chu family. I have no interest in ever seeing you, or any other member of the Chu family ever again. If I do, you can’t blame me for my actions. From this moment on, all I am to you is the Gourmet of Skyfire Avenue.”

With that said, the older man turned on his heels and left.
Ding ding ding!

As the tintinnabular sounds hung in the air of the shop’s interior, both Hua Li and Lan Jue silently turned their eyes to Chu Cheng.

The young Chu family member didn’t appear much changed from the exchange. In truth he’d expected just this result. “I figured this would happen. Oh well, at least we have an explanation for where he went. At the least he’s still alive.”

“Do you plan to give him an explanation, on behalf of your family,” Lan Jue asked.

Hu Cheng’s laugh was bitter. “You saw how he is. Do you think he’s ready to listen to any sort of explanation from me?”

ζ

Early morning, and Lan Jue was pedaling his bicycle to the foot of Skyfire mountain. He sent a small message through the Soulcaller gem, then waited quietly in the shade of the trees.

Chu Cheng had gone to find Hua Li, reputedly to watch his rehearsal.

Before long Lan Jue spied Zhou Qianlin descending the mountain in her school uniform. Her pretty face was still pale, but contrary to when he had left for Taihua her smooth features bore a smile. She looked like she was in a good mood.

“What’s got you in such high spirits?” Lan Jue called to her, a smile of his own on his face.

“Guess,” she said through a grin.

“Eh…, how am I supposed to guess? Fine, is it because that guy isn’t around bugging you?” He was of course referring to Richard.

“I’ve been home sick for a few days,” she said. “He doesn’t know when I’ll be returning to school. A few days of giving him the cold shoulder, and he was gone.”

Lan Jue shrugged his shoulders. “That’s good then. No more pointless trips in to the bush.”

“What?”

Lan Jue chuckled. “Nothing. Just something between guys. My concern as your body guard. Don’t worry about it little miss.”

Zhou Qianlin glowered at him. “You know my name.”

Lan Jue jerked his head towards the back. “Let’s get going. I

wouldn’t want you to be late.”

“Ok.” She plopped on to the back of the bike. Her right hand naturally slipped around his waist.

Lan Jue was surprised at her, this change in behavior, but pedaled forward without bringing attention to it.

“Qianlin.”

“Hm?”

“These last few days you’ve been uncomfortable, has there been anything that feels… different?”

“Actually yes,” she said. “It actually feels like there’s something more within me now. I don’t know.”

Lan Jue nodded. “How about I help check it out later?”

Zhou Qianlin remained silent.

“What is it?” he asked.

Her response was quiet. “I saw in a movie somewhere that men who speak like this to women are no good. They harbor bad intentions.”

The bike wobbled precariously, and Zhou Qianlin quickly clutched tighter to him. “What are you doing?!”

Lan Jue chortled. “You think I’m that kind of person? You think I regard you so cheaply?”

He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth.
Flashes of the first time they met raced through his mind.

The awkward silence stretched for half a minute. “Alright,” Qianlin finally replied.

“Huh?” Lan Jue twisted his head to look back at her.

She looked back at him. “Didn’t you say you’d help me check?
So I said alright.”

Lan Jue broke in to a smile. “After your studies we’ll head back to mine. I bumped in to the Seamstress yesterday, and he asked me when I would be bringing you around to have some clothes made. She said she was excited to work with you.”

Zhou Qianlin looked as though she wanted to speak further, but chose not to. Instead, she only nodded her head.

Since he’d started regularly picking up Zhou Qianlin, Lan Jue’s skill with a bike had improved markedly. In no time at all the familiar gates of the university pulled in to view.

They were approaching their standard corner when suddenly a huge dark figure roared passed overhead. Its speed was so great that a fierce gust of wind followed in its passage. The gust nearly pushed Lan Jue of the road.

He fought valiantly to keep the bike under control. There was no danger of throwing Qianlin from the bike, but she yelped in surprise nonetheless.

The two of them scowled at the passing shadow, a sort of blimp. As they watched it pulled up to the universities’ gates and stopped. It was a white ship, whose underside undulated

strangely like sea waves. It gave the illusion the ship was floating gently in the water.

“Lir University?” Zhou Qianlin muttered unconsciously.

Lan Jue brought the bike to a halt. “Think they’re arrogant enough? Driving so fast in the city, not the best representation for this school.”

Zhou Qianlin nodded her head in agreement. “Lir University is ranked among the top five mecha piloting schools. So of course they have a lot of great pilots. Not to mention their military ties. As a result, they are rather unscrupulous.”

Lan Jue interjected. “I’ve heard people say they were coming for a competition, is that right? They major in mecha piloting, and us on research. What grounds could we possibly be competing on?”

“Mecha piloting of course,” Qianlin said. “Clearly to show they’re only here to bully.”

Lan Jue snorted. “I guess it’s a good thing you aren’t a mecha

pilot. Go on then, anything you need call me through the soulcaller gem.”

“Alright.” Qianlin made her way towards the university’s gate.

Lan Jue pushed his bicycle behind her as she left, following at an inconspicuous distance.

The ship that had brought Lir University’s ‘diplomats’ hadn’t been allowed to enter the school grounds. Just outside the gates, its doors opened and scores of students in light blue uniforms disembarked. Interspersed were older passengers – teachers, surely.

The NEU had already arrayed a welcome party for their guests. Chief among them was, of course, teaching Director Wu Junyi. Another twenty-some were with him, university big- wigs.

With their flashy arrival, the only entrance to the school was clogged up tight. Qianlin approached as near as she could, but had to eventually come to a stop.

Lan Jue watched them as well, though he retained a natural and easy posture as he approached. To him, it was paramount that no one knew he was escorting Zhou Qianlin.

“Ah, Director Shi! Welcome, it’s been ages!” Wu Junyi’s greetings were pleasant and polite, but the look on his face was a serious one.

The man with whom he spoke was similar to him in age, but he was a fair amount taller. He was covered in a well-fitted turquoise suit that accented his sleek power haircut. He reached out a hand to grip Wu Junyi’s in greeting, flashing a wily smile. “It really has! A whole year. We were starting to worry we weren’t welcome here anymore.”

Director Wu chuckled good-naturedly. “Of course you’re welcome.”

Director Shi continued. “That’s excellent then. This year we’ve come fully prepared, and I’m eager for you to appreciate the skill of our teachers and students.

Wu Junyi’s expression began to slip. He cleared a path, and welcomed them in with a sweep of his arm.

Chapter 165: Goddess, Friend

Director Shi did not shirk his duties as guest, nodding pleasantly as he entered the university campus. The array of students and teachers who also arrived from Lir followed at his heels.

“Eh?” A lanky student’s eyes twinkling lustily as they fell upon Zhou Qianlin.

It was always a surprise that, even though everyone was wearing the same school uniform, Qianlin was invariably picked from the crowd. She was ever the center of attention.

“Oh man look, that girl’s smokin’ fine!” The skinny student stopped dead in his tracks and whispered to a tall friend nearby.

The second student stretched over two meters tall with a head of sandy brown hair. He had a solid, strong face and copper- colored skin. Overall he was the very picture of health. He followed the skinny one’s eyes, immediately finding what the fuss was about.

His eyes were penetrating, to the point where Qianlin was

instantly aware of his attention. She unconsciously looked his way.

He wasn’t the most handsome man, this tall student, but his looks were almost heroic; strong jaw, hard lines, stoic, with a pair of piercing black eyes that seemed capable of looking right through her.

Those eyes were bright with interest as they snaked over Qianlin’s alluring figure. He made no effort to conceal his intent, either, instead breaking rank to walk her way.

Qianlin froze, trying to decide whether to flee or stay. She eased perceptibly when the familiar voice rang through her mind.

“It’s alright. I’m here.”

As ever Qianlin had more than one pair of eyes cast her way, No small number of male students from her own university tried to block the tall outsider’s approach in various ways. This was their Goddess, and they aimed to ‘defend’ her even though only the older students knew much of the rivalry between the two schools.

“Get out of my way!” The man growled coldly at the wall of young men who’d suddenly appeared. The aura of his discipline flared, pulsing outward to intimidate the others. It was a strange sensation, almost more like a presence. The students of the NEU were forcibly pushed to either side. The power receded before it encountered Qianlin. To the others looking on it simply appeared as though the young men were doing as commanded, moving out of his way.

However, with the path before him opened the tall student made no further advance. He stood back a ways, staring at Qianlin. When he spoke, his voice was boisterous. “Hey there cutie, my name’s Xiao Han. You sure look good enough to be my girl.”

The surrounding students exploded in a chorus of indignation. No small number of young men approached threateningly.

Xiao Han’s voice was loud, loud enough for both Wu Junyi and Director Shi to hear despite the fact they were already on campus.

Both of them stopped the instant they heard it.

Qianlin, however, seemed unaffected. She was still, calm, and beautiful as ever.

“I’m not interested in little boys.” Her smooth, melodious voice was biting. Her rejection clear, she made for the gates.

“Heh, you heard her guys. All you little boys go run home to momma, now.”

“Sod off back to Lir University!”

“Our goddess is a person of character! Long live our school goddess!”

Xiao Han’s face grew dark. Once more his aura reached out, even more oppressive than before.

At this moment, Director Shi’s voice stopped the inevitable escalation. “Alright, Xiao Han. Save your energy for the competition.”

Xiao Han froze in reaction to the voice behind him. His

expanding Discipline suddenly vanished. He turned on his heels without a word and returned to the dwindling group of outsiders. His exit was cheered on by a chorus of sniffs and curses from the NEU students left behind.

“The young have no sense of social responsibility, Director Wu.” Director Shi shook his head, laughing easily at the situation. “Young-uns, am I right? So full of piss and vinegar, all raging hormones. But we weren’t much different when we were young, eh? Heh heh.”

Director Wu’s response was measured and calm. “Mm, hormones. More like a group of beasts. Isn’t your university supposed to be for mecha pilots?”

“You-!” Director Shi suddenly let his good-old-boy facade slip, but as quickly as he’d lost his temper he was back to normal. “It looks like teaching the young is definitely a passion of yours! I’m eager to see how they perform during our competition.”

“Oh you’ll see it, alright,”Director Wu replied.

Lan Jue followed the bulk of students as they pushed passed the crowd to enter the campus. He worked valiantly to keep

Zhou Qianlin in sight.

He was unpleasantly surprised to see her in this sort of situation. Every man that looked upon her was like a fiend, with a strange madness in his eyes. And yet none dared come within two meters of her. It was like they were a group of would-be white knights protecting their queen as they moved as one disjointed unit further in to the school.

What a place, this Lir University! They were so uncouth and aggressive. The relationship between the two large educational facilities was interesting, at the very least.

Lan Jue made sure Qianlin was safe before making his way to the electives building. As ever, all eyes turned to him as he entered.

He stopped amid a round of applause, nearly frightened out of his skin.

“W-what is all this…?”

Jin Yan rose to her feet and approached, a small smile lighting

up her cute features. “We’re happy to have you back safely, Professor Lan. This time it was really frightening for all of us.”

Lan Jue laughed it off. “Wasn’t it? Making it back alive was a miracle! And you’re doing alright, too, Professor Jin?”

She shook her head, and it was then he noticed the red tinge to her eyes. She was fighting the urge to wrap him in an embrace. “Fine, only going through this, surviving, certainly makes it clear how much of a treasure life really is.”

“Exactly! And we’re family here, friends and colleagues in hardship. Isn’t that right, Professor Lan?” Wang Hongyuan spoke up emphatically as he approached from behind Jin Yan. He clapped a hand on to Lan Jue’s shoulder. Though it looked like a gentle greeting, the expression was more forceful than it appeared.

Lan Jue retained his composure, shooting the dance instructor a glance. “It’s good to see you also made it back alive, Professor Wang.”

The two gentlemen’s eyes met. Each saw the caution and admonition within the glance of the other.

Jin Yan tittered at him. “Alright, Professor Wang. Professor Lan just got back, let’s let him rest up a bit before we start beating on him.”

“There’s actually something Professor Lan and I have something to discuss, right Professor?” Wang Hongyuan smiled disarmingly. “Would you might speaking with me for a minute in the hall?”

“Absolutely!” Lan Jue knew what this was about, and if he hadn’t had been approached by the dance instructor, Lan Jue would have eventually sought him out himself.

The two men exited the office under the suspicious gaze of Jin Yan. They smiled pleasantly until they walked a ways down the hall to a secluded window. Then Wang Hongyuan threw a punch at Lan Jue.

The etiquete teacher didn’t move, effortlessly knocking the hand aside.

“You moron,” the skinny man spat. “What the hell were you thinking? I’m honestly flabbergasted you made it out in one piece.” Wang Hongyuan hissed at him in a whisper.

Lan Jue’s response was equally as agitated. “No wonder you wanted me to make it back. You don’t know what happened after you left.”

Wang Hongyuan continued, his voice quiet. “How the hell did you get so strong so suddenly? What did you take?”

Lan Jue give him a bitter smirk. “Not even worth it to keep asking. All you need to know is I very nearly died from that fiasco. It really was a miracle I was able to make it back. I do need you, though, to keep the fact that I am an Adept and a mecha pilot a secret.”

Wang Hongyuan nodded. “No need to even say it. Just make sure you keep my own secret under wraps!”

Lan Jue’s answer displayed his uncertainly. “I’m curious myself. After all, you revealed your secret to us on Taihua. No one checked up on you or said anything when you got back?”

It was Wang Hongyuan’s turn to smirk. “Of course they checked up on me, but for better or worse I stayed behind to save people. Nor do they know I’m a mecha pilot. So in the end we came to an agreement. So long as I keep my Discipline under

wraps, I can continue teaching dance. There were some provisions, but basically it boils down to this; so long as I stick to the university’s rules, I’m fine. Otherwise I’m out.”

Lan Jue smiled at him. “The humanity! If the school knew you were that great hero from the news they wouldn’t dare punish you for anything.”

Wang Hongyuan shot back with a sarcastic rebuttal. “Enough. You know I’m still single – I’ll need to get engaged soon, and that anchorwoman looked pretty good. You should think about it, actually. I can’t, since it’d kill my girl.”

Lan Jue’s eyes widened in surprise. “You mean Jin Yan? Since when were you two a thing?”

Wang Hongyuan’s posture straightened with pride. “You didn’t know about that, eh? A friend in need is a friend indeed is what they say, right? I actually took her out for a meal yesterday. As a result our relationship is better than ever. All I need is for you to be scarce for a little while, and there’ll be no problems. Oh, that’s right – you can leave now.”

“Leave?” Lan Jue looked at him in confusion and irritation. “I

have classes to prepare! There’s a class tomorrow.”

“We just got the news,” Wang Hongyuan continued. “Due to this concert, all electives courses for the next three days have been canceled. The concert is the day after tomorrow. You think anyone will actually be interested in coming to your class under these conditions?”

Inwardly, Lan Jue cursed Hua Li for his interference. “I won’t complain about a day off. Who doesn’t like a little relaxation. Fine, I’ll head out. Good luck!”

With that said, Lan Jue starting walking down the hall to leave. Lately he had a wealth of things to handle, a mountain of things to prepare. Not the least of his worries was the competition approaching in DreamNet. Aside from the implications for humanity, the more immediate concern for him was the honor of the Four Divine Monarchs – a reputation on the line. He had to make sure to get back and practice his mecha combat skill set.

“Professor Lan!” Wang Hongyuan called after him.

Lan Jue stopped and look back. “What’s up?”

The dance teacher’s mouth curled in to a grin. His voice was clear, but sounded as though it were being whispered directly in to his ear. “You’re part of Skyfire Avenue, aren’t you. Are you still looking for members?”

Lan Jue shrugged a shoulder lazily. “Whether or not they do, I have no idea. I can make some introductions, though. Ah, right, and later just call me by name. You forget what I told you on Taihua? If we made it back alive, we’d be friends.”

Wang Hongyuan laughed amicably. “Get out of here. Keep away from my lady, you hear me?”

Lan Jue waved and made his exit.

Wang Hongyuan remained where he was, watching Lan Jue leave.

I got a friend, huh, he thought.

Not a bad feeling.

Chapter 166: Still Worse Than Trash?

Lan Jue exited from the teaching affairs building, and made his way quickly back towards Skyfire Avenue. He was curious to learn more about Zhou Qianlin through their check-up. However, that wasn’t until later tonight. He had time enough to practice mecha piloting in DreamNet.

The entire campus of the NEU was a mess of chattering students and busy workers, all abuzz over the upcoming concert. It was, after all, the first time something like this had happened at the university. Hua Li was called the First Man of the Alliances – and that was hardly an exaggeration. Be it personal ability, looks, or his family’s spending power, he was far and beyond the ken of your average person.

“Professor Lan.” As he moved towards the university’s gates, a cold greeting stopped him in his tracks.

“Hm?” Lan Jue turned his head to find the source of the voice. His eyes fell upon Tan Lingyun, walking towards him in a black dress suit and black-rimmed glasses.

Was his fortune really so bad? Just a few more steps and he’d have been free! His expression was stiff as he addressed her.

“Ah, Professor Tan. Hello, hello.” He was clearly loathe to engage in conversation with this ‘Savage Goddess,’ but he had to at least say hello.

“Where’d you go that day? Weren’t you aware we’d stayed behind to find you? Do you have any idea of the cost?” She hissed at him in fierce and angry tones, the light of anger slowly growing brighter in the depths of her eyes.

Lan Jue glowered sheepishly as he spoke. “I was only thinking about helping who I could.”

“Dumbass!” She screamed at him.

Her voice rang against the sides of the buildings, and invariably drew the eyes of passing teachers. Lan Jue’s own sights were desperately searching for a place to hide or escape.

“Professor, we’re intended to be role models. Surely cursing at someone in public isn’t –“

“Cursing? I ought to beat you! About the only thing saving you from it is the fact that you’re normal, and wouldn’t be able

to protect yourself from my power. Not to mention taking out the trash myself will only bring my status down. You know, its people like you I hate the most. Worse than trash, a pure coward. Make sure you keep yourself out of my sight, I don’t want you poisoning my eyes!” She unceremoniously kicked him in the shin before turning, and stomping off.

“Hssss!” Lan Jue hissed in pain and grabbed his lower leg protectively. He hopped up and down on his good leg like a cartoon character.

DAMNIT! Why?! Why is it I end up suffering every time I run in to the Savage Goddess?

Lan Jue slinked out from the campus. Under the curious eyes of the teachers and students he passed, he quickly clambered up on top of his bike and raced away.

After a few kilometers he settled down, and slowed. He was no longer the center of everyone’s attention. But it still stung – this was the second time that awful woman left him the battered victim in front of everyone. The first time, of course, being that day in the hall with Richard.

If that’s what she wants, then so be it. She doesn’t want to see me, and I sure as hell have no interest in running in to her again.

Still, he had to respect how frank and straight-forward she was. There was also a reason for her anger. She’d almost died that day, running through the forests to find him and Wang Hongyuan. In the end it came down to him, and he was the reason for everything that happened to her.

Little by little, the depression and anger within him subsided, replaced by a sense of hopelessness. There was nothing he could do about Professor Tan, but she had her heart in the right place. She was at least a person with a strong sense of responsibility.

Thinking on it made him sad.

Lan Jue made it home, entered his private DreamNet cabin, and proceeded to clean house. The results were heard later throughout DreamNet.

ζ

Nightly DreamNet News. Zeus – powerful mercenary and legend of DreamNet has appeared suddenly after an extended absence. From ten in the morning to three in the afternoon, for five continuous hours, Zeus defeated one hundred and three challengers without a single defeat. No one was able to stand against his explosive power – and in fact, none even landed a blow.

ζ

“Why do you look so tired?” This was the first thing Qianlin said to him, when she met Lan Jue at their corner after school.

“It’s nothing,” he replied. “I did some exercise, maybe a little excessive.”

Zhou Qianlin nodded, as though coming to a sudden realization. “I see. Well remember to consider your age, and not overdo it.”

Lan Jue’s face darkened, but when he looked towards her he immediately spied her impish grin. “Fine,” he spat good- naturedly, “go ahead and call me old.”

“Cousin, it looks like you have a short memory.” For the second time today, Lan Jue was interrupted by a rude voice from behind.

Only this time, he didn’t have to turn his head to know who it was. Without a moment’s hesitation, he spun around and took several long strides towards the source.

Richard’s face was a mask of displeasure. Zhou Qianlin had been out of school for some time, and it was his hope to reconnect with her once she returned. He hadn’t expected to stumble across her and Lan Jue bantering flirtatiously.

“Richard,” Lan Jue growled, “this is the last time I’m telling you: leave my family be. If you don’t, I’ll beat you so badly your father won’t even recognize you.” He shook a fist under the young man’s nose, then turned away with a practiced and dismissive grace. He climbed up on to his bike and beckoned for Qianlin to follow.

Richard was truly stunned. Lan Jue’s viciousness, his ferocity was a complete paradigm shift from the gentle and learned professor he was accustomed to. For a second he didn’t know how to respond.

But by the time he recovered and had a fair comeback on hand, Lan Jue had already ridden off in to the distance with Zhou Qianlin.

“Bastard!” Richard angrily stomped a foot. Suddenly, a dark and mysterious figure appeared at his side.

“Master,” the shadow hissed, “would you like me to take care of him?”

Richard cut him off with a wave of his hand. “That won’t do. He’s with Qianlin. If we want to deal with him, it’ll have to be at a time when there’s no one around to see. We have to be especially careful Qianlin doesn’t trace it back to me. I’m not only interested in her body. I want her heart, too.”

ζ

Lan Jue pedaled evenly along the bumpy road, a smile on his face. “Pretty intimidating, huh?”

“Oh yes,” Qianlin said. “Like a hoodlum, the kind that might kidnap girls. And when did I become your family, anyway? My

family name is Zhou, yours is Lan. Have some dignity.”

Lan Jue replied, ignoring the jabs. “I’m your bodyguard. Of course we’re family. At least so long as I’m on the clock. It’s my job to protect you, and he wanted me to stay away from you. I have to force him to leave if I’m to effectively do my job.”

Zhou Qianlin’s response was muted. “The Austin family is the most influential family in the West. You should be careful.”

Lan Jue’s grin widened. “Take it easy, don’t you worry. I’m a competent bodyguard, I promise.”

Zhou Qianlin suddenly changed subjects. “I’m planning on going to Grace hospital tomorrow. Are you coming with me?”

“Yup! I quite like it there actually. It feels like a good, wholesome cleanse of body and soul.”

Zhou Qianlin’s sweet laughter hung in the air as they trundled along the mountain path.

Chapter 167: The Driver

As the two arrived at the entrance of Skyfire Avenue, Lan Jue didn’t take Qianlin directly back to his place. Instead they made a quick stop at a nearby store.

The façade was a sight more modern than the shops on Skyfire Avenue. The black wall sported a semicircle pattern, with a series of line below it drawn in to a sharp corner.

Below those, were a series of letters: Wendy Wong.

“Where are we,” Qianlin asked. She looked quizzically at Lan Jue.

“The Seamstresses shop! I told you she was urging me to bring you by yesterday. I called ahead and told her you were coming.” Lan Jue punctuated the sentence by sauntering  towards  the shop.

Zhou Qianlin followed behind. “This is a clothing shop?”

Lan Jue replied. “In the interest of truth, this is specifically a

custom tailor’s shop. The Seamstress’ earnings are very good indeed, and the clothes she makes earn universal praise. I get most of my suits from her.”

“Great!” Qianlin said delightedly.

The door was closed, prompting Lan Jue to press a button discretely placed to one side. After a few moments, the Seamstress appeared from within.

She was clad in a fine white shirt with a lacey neckline, tucked stylishly in to black pants. The clothes outlined her slender figure. With her sleeves rolled up, she looked ready to work.

As she opened the door, the Seamstress beamed a pleasant smile at Zhou Qianlin. “Hello, Qianlin. We meet again!”

“Hello Seamstress,” the young girl responded in equally pleasant tones.

The Seamstress chuckled. “You aren’t one of these stuffy Avenue types. Call me by my name, Wendy.”

“Alright.”

The Seamstress stepped aside, allowing her two guests to enter the shop. It was a small place, by comparison, with only a few mannequins with finished suits dotting the interior.

The interior wasn’t as modern in appearance as the outside suggested. In fact, the decor had a much more classical feel. High-quality planks of wood covered the floors and walls, specialty-made cabinets occupied the corners, a dais with three full-length mirrors dominated the center and an Italian office desk was pushed to one side. It wasn’t large, but it screamed refinement. Cozy, would be a fine way to describe it.

There was another in the shop, other than the Seamstress as the two made their way in. A man, in gray pants and a vest covering a white shirt, sporting a fine tie. He looked resolute and dignified, but with the slightest hint of a wild side.

He nodded ever so slightly upon seeing Lan Jue. “Jewelry Master. It’s been a long time.”

Lan Jue was surprised to see the man. “Driver, when did you get back? I heard you were out participating in a competition.”

The one they called the Driver smiled. “That’s right! Once the competition had concluded, I heard the Avenue has a few things on its plate to deal with soon. I rushed back to offer my help.”

Lan Jue nodded in understanding. He turned to Zhou Qianlin, who was standing quietly nearby. “This is Skyfire Avenue’s resident racecar driver. We call him the Driver. And this is Zhou Qianlin, my friend. She’s here to get some clothes done from Wendy.”

“I’ve actually been waiting here for you,” the Driver revealed. “Would you like a glass?”

Lan Jue smirked. “Sure! And why haven’t I ever seen you around the Wine Master’s place?”

The Driver shook his head. “I’m not overly fond of sharing a drink with that old fuddy-duddy. I much prefer drinking with people my own age.” He skillfully plucked a few bottles from the nearby cabinet as he spoke, as though he already knew well where everything in the shop was. He placed a couple whisky glasses and the bottles on the Italian table between them.

“And you, Miss Zhou?” The Driver raised a questioning brow

towards the young woman.

She smiled back at him. “Water is fine for me, thank you.”

“Very well.” He answered by producing a bottle of water and putting it before her. Lan Jue took a seat opposite him.

The Seamstress snatched up Zhou Qianlin’s hand and pulled her toward the back before she had a chance to sit. She pulled shut a curtain to give them some privacy. “Let me take your measurements. Don’t pay any attention to the boys.”

The Driver indicated the bottles he extricated from the cabinet. “Which would you like?”

Lan Jue shot his companion a big thumbs-up. “You are certainly more fun to drink with. At the very least you aren’t as stingy as the Wine Master.”

The Driver’s bright laughter filled the store. “Make sure you tell him that the next time you see him.”

Lan Jue snickered as he took up a previously opened bottle. He pulled the cork free and poured himself and the Driver a small bit. “We’ll try this one first, an eighteen-year Glenfiddich. It’s got a smoother taste. Only malt whisky of the highlands.”

The Driver smiled at his drinking buddy’s expertise. “Starting easy, it looks like your plan is to finish everything in front of you!”

Lan Jue tapped his glass against the Driver’s, the crystalline chime hanging between them. “You took them all out right? If I don’t drink them, you’ll lose face!”

Both of them lapsed in to silence as they partook of the rich golden liquid. Its warmth filled their bellies, spreading out to cover their whole bodies in a comfortable heat. The rich malt scent opened up their pores.

Lan Jue sighed contentedly. “A little while ago I’d asked the Wine Master to drink his 1985 Talisker with me. He got so upset he almost kicked me out, so we settled on a Talisker 18.”

The Driver laughed. “That certainly sounds like the crotchety old man. With all the liquor he has, you could drink yourself

blind every night and still have enough to last a lifetime. He doesn’t get it; you spend all your time trying to get more great alcohol, you’ll never be satisfied with actually drinking it.”

“He isn’t entirely wrong though,” Lan Jue said in the old man’s defense. “After all, most of the great alcohol from the former era can’t be reproduced. Drink it, and it’s gone forever.”

“I hear your recent visit to Taihua was a dangerous one,” the Driver said, changing the subject.

Lan Jue nodded. “Yup. I was still recovering from an earlier injury, and was lucky I got back. Fortunately, the Doctor and Wine Master rushed over and saved me. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t be sharing this fine bottle.”

The Driver shook his head. “More specifically, no one with an even temper to share this bottle with. Come, another glass.”

They finished off their small glass before the Driver reached out to snatch up the second bottle. He didn’t bother to change the glass before pouring out another round for the two of them.”

“For our second bottle, we have a very traditional McCarran
25. Rare and excellent,” the Driver explained.

Lan Jue nodded. “Indeed! The McCarran label has a long heritage stretching back it to the Former Era. It was called the King of Whiskies. In fact, not everyone enjoyed it’s fair and placid taste. But at this age it has a beautiful rich flavor, and a lingering after-taste that comes in layers. Complicated. I myself am a very big fan. And when drinking spirits, we’re doing it properly – one doesn’t need to finish the entire bottle in one sitting, and in fact can try a breadth of whiskies by spreading them out. Different beverages give the drinker a different sensation, yes? It doesn’t have as many rules and requirements as red wine to properly enjoy.”

.....

Within the back room.

The Seamstress continuously praised her younger counterpart as she busily measured Qianlin’s figure. “Oh, your figure really is perfect. Perfectly proportional, it’s uncanny. And all the charms of a proper woman to boot.”

Zhou Qianlin’s pretty face adopted a blush. “You’re too kind, Miss Wendy.”

Chapter 168: Body Check

The Seamstress tittered. “Making clothes is my hobby, and for people like me we don’t simply like to make clothes for anyone. No, we prefer doing so for people with the proper physique. Those are our most appreciated clients. For a good tailor, a set of clothing is only as beautiful as the person wearing it. So for you, I’ve got a formal dress and a summer dress in mind. What color do you prefer?”

Zhou Qianlin thought for a moment. “Um… white?”

The Seamstress beamed. “Excellent. White suits you. It goes well with your pale skin, and sets off your blue eyes and black hair. I don’t believe it will need any ostentatious decorations or primping, either – just a few adjustments to really accentuate your body type. You’re already really very beautiful, you know. And nothing too fancy, that’d take away from your natural looks. Steal the show, darling. Redundant, no? Simple is best I think, yes.”

“I trust your judgment,” Qianlin offered.

The Seamstress continued speaking as she measured and recorded Qianlin’s measurements. Her voice dropped a few

notches in volume. “Don’t you find it odd that the Driver would be here waiting for the Jewelry Master?”

Zhou Qianlin nodded her head.

The Seamstress continued her work while speaking. “Actually this store isn’t entirely mine. Part of it is owned by the Driver. That makes him part owner and manager, darling.  He  loves suits you know – obsessed – to the point where our store’s profits aren’t enough to keep up with his demand. He also likes to smoke his cigars and drink his booze here. He  and  the Jewelry Master are old drinking buddies. He heard two days ago that our young Jewelry Master would be stopping  by,  and stayed specifically to speak with him. Men, darling – nothing but smoke smoke smoke, drink drink drink. I’ve even developed an affinity for the damn stench.”

Lan Jue’s voice wafted towards them from beyond the curtain. “… 1985 Talisker original cask for the third bottle. It’s an old one, and I like the smoky taste…”

ζ

“Alright, so let’s pour you out a little more of this one.” They

heard the Driver laugh as the third bottle’s cork popped away. “Then what do you think, hm? What order should we follow.”

“Stronger and stronger, naturally,” Lan Jue instructed. “The Bowmore would be good, and the last I think. A nice, strong taste without that disinfectant fluid finish. There are other things for me to do today, so this will be enough.”

“Got it!”

Half an hour later, the Driver and Seamstress stood at the front of their store, wishing Lan Jue and his guest farewell.

“Take it easy, we’ll be back another time for more,” Lan Jue said, waving happily to the two behind him.

The Driver chuckled. “We’ll be here waiting. Next time no restrictions, I’ll have ten bottles of whisky waiting.”

Lan Jue responded with a hearty laugh of his own. “A few bottles over forty years old are enough. The Dalmore from a while ago was quite fine, if I remember. The one with antlers on the label. Find us that one.”

The Driver’s expression warped as he twitched. “No wonder the Wine Master hates calling you over. You’re a real bastard! Always the most expensive bottle!”

Lan Jue snickered sinfully. “Be glad I’m not asking for the 60th Coronation whisky. You could race for years and not have the money for one. So good.”

“Go, get out of here! I’m scared of you already.” The Driver grabbed the Seamstress and pulled her inside. He certainly looked like he had changed his mind about inviting him for another round.

“Ahaha!” Lan Jue’s carefree laughter rang along the street as he took Qianlin back to his shop.

He went directly to the back, Qianlin in tow, under the watchful and curious gaze of Xiuxiu and Ke’er.

After the door closed, Qianlin turned a skeptical eye unto her host. “You brought me back here for a body check?”

Lan Jue shrugged. “Yup, I’ll just do a quick check myself. Is

there somewhere else you’d prefer?”

Qianlin was almost speechless, but replied all the same. “Fine, let’s get started then. Afterwards it’ll be time for me to go home.”

“Alright, then why don’t you sit cross-legged on the bed,” Lan Jue instructed.

“The bed?” Her eyes drifted to the furniture as a blush crept across her face.

Lan Jue finally caught the implication and spoke up hastily to his defense. “Sorry, no that’s not my meaning. Don’t misunderstand!”

Zhou Qianlin rolled her eyes at him, then plopped on to the sofa. “Here.”

She sat cross-legged on the sofa, her back perfectly straight. Lan Jue stood at her side, and from here he could spy her perfect neck, drawing a fine line down to her back. His eyes traced further, down her spine to the pleasant curve of her

backside.

His depression and sadness had served to quell any interest in women, any emotion at all. But since meeting Qianlin, he found he couldn’t entirely suppress those feelings as he once could. In fact, every time they met, he had to make sure he didn’t look at her too much. He feared he’d forget himself, and imagine she was Hera again.

Zhou Qianlin waited for what seemed like ages with no sound or motion coming from her side. She turned her head eventually, and caught him gawking.

As Lan Jue met those sky-blue eyes, he shook himself from his stupor. He sat cross-legged behind her, reaching his hands towards her back.

He paused for a moment, and took a long deep breath. He took the time to stabilize the chaos in his heart before finally pressing his palms against her.

Even through her clothes, he could feel how soft and smooth her skin was. He stopped again to take a breath and ease his heart then slowly, gently reached out with his Discipline in to

her.

The Soulcaller gem against his chest warmed.

“Relax.”

“Mm.”

In reality, Lan Jue had already checked her once when he’d stolen in to her house. This time was mostly so he could reconfirm, and remember.

After a moment Lan Jue retracted his hands. “I’m sure of it, you weren’t actually sick before. It was a symptom of your Discipline awakening.”

“Discipline awakening?” Zhou Qianlin rose to her feet. “I’m not very familiar with Adepts, but aren’t I too old for a Discipline to be awakening?”

“It’s not unheard of,” Lan Jue assured, “just rare. Strangely, though, I can’t pin down what your Discipline actually is. But

whatever the case, this is a good thing. It means your Discipline won’t be terribly strong, but it’ll certainly make your body better. Would you like me to help you with your Discipline cultivation?”

She shot him a sidelong glance. “So long as it doesn’t take away from your bodyguard duties, sure.”

It was Lan Jue’s turn to roll his eyes at her. “You really take me for that kind of person?”

Zhou Qianlin’s face split in an impish grin. “Who knows?”

Lan Jue could feel it. There was something inexplicable, some feeling that sprang up instantly within him whenever they were together. There was a world of difference from now, in this time of peace between them, and when they were upset.

“Alright, I’ll teach you. We’ll start with some meditation techniques. Practice every day when you get home, and you’ll slowly start to feel the changes in your body. Later, if you feel as though there are some significant changes, tell me and we’ll adjust your cultivation schedule.”

They spent the next few moments going over the fundamentals of message. She was a smart girl – Lan Jue only needed to explain twice before she had it down. They practiced together a few times before she found her center, then he let her slip in to meditation for an hour before bringing her back.

“Time to send me back,” she said as she blinked her eyes.

Lan Jue hesitated. “Would you like to get something to eat?”

Qianlin looked at him. “If it’s as good as the last time, absolutely.” Of course, she referred to the Bluefin tuna she’d enjoyed at the Gourmet’s house all those days ago.

Lan Jue shrugged helplessly. “Unfortunately no. Compared to the Gourmet I’m not even worthy of being called an amature. Simply things are fine though. It’s already dark, aren’t you hungry?”

“What’s for dinner then?”

“Whatever you like.”

“You’re making it?”

“What,” Lan Jue contested, “do I not look like I know how to cook?”

Qianlin nodded her head without a moment’s hesitation. “Exactly right, you don’t. I won’t get poisoned?”

Lan Jue’s face twitched. “I won’t need to. I sorta feel more like strangling you, so what can we do?”

“Take your best shot!” Qianlin smirked at him, getting up in his face.

Lan Jue lifted his arms and made as though for her throat, but stopped an inch away and let them drop in bitter defeat. He stomped towards the kitchen.

“Wait a little while, should only be a minute. It may not be delicious but it won’t kill you.”

Qianlin covered her mouth as she giggled, ignoring him and

trotting in to the kitchen.

“What do you have here?” She leaned against the door frame, peering in to the small room.

Lan Jue simply pointed towards the refrigerator.

She slinked over and pulled the door open. She gave its contents the once over before speaking. “Well, at least we’re sure you don’t have any rats.”

“Why.” Lan Jue grunted as he pulled a pot from a cabinet.

“It’d probably starve,” she muttered.

Lan Jue made his way over and, sure enough, less than eighty percent of his fridge was barren. A few eggs, some drinks, and a tomato. That was about it.

“Ehm… how about we go out for some food, hm? Of nothing comes nothing, am I right!” He spread his arms and shrugged sheepishly. He didn’t often go out for groceries, as that was

usually Xiuxiu’s responsibility. He hadn’t been home lately, so naturally there’d be little in the house.

“Do you have noodles? Enough spices?”

Lan Jue winced. “I… actually have no idea. But! When I went to Taihua I thought we’d be munching on wild stuff, so I actually bought a fair amount of spices. Take a look.”

He swept his arm, and with a bright silver flash there appeared a bevy of items on the table. The light and items had come from Thor’s Promise.

He was pleased to find that he not only had all manner of ordinary spices, but also cloves and other more exotic fare. All were fresh and ready, kept so by virtue of their interdimensional storage.

“I think we may also have noodles,” he offered before pulling a bag of noodles from a nearby cabinet.

“We won’t need to go out to eat. You go out and wait.” Zhou Qianlin rolled up her sleeves, then shoved Lan Jue out of the

kitchen.

Chapter 169: Hand-Rolled Noodles

“Do you need any help?” Lan Jue popped his head in to the kitchen and called the question to Zhou Qianlin’s back.

“No need, if you help it’ll just take longer.” She waved him away, then began to rummage through his cabinets. She began pulling out the things she’d be needing.

She began by washing all of the utensils – after all, she had no idea how long it’d been since they’d been used. When she was finished, she poured some flour in to one of the cleaned pans. A little water, and there she had some dough which she immediately began to knead.

“What are you making?” Once again Lan Jue poked his head in to the kitchen, curiosity getting the better of him. He recalled the earlier days; when he and Hera had only been together a short time; when he’d only just started his road to fame in the mercenary world; when he took on any and every job they threw his way. During that time, he wasn’t so picky and was simply pleased to have enough of something tasty to fill his belly.

His more discerning tastes didn’t develop until after he’d

made the move to Skyfire Avenue. Over the last three years the bulk of his time was spent in decadence, learning about the finer things, and with the exception of lovemaking had all he needed to forget his sorrows.

As such it was strange to him to watch Zhou Qianlin, busily pacing around the kitchen as she worked. It filled him with an odd sensation he couldn’t quite describe.

As far as he could remember, he and Hera had never cooked or eaten together. It had always been up to the individual as to when and what to eat.

Zhou Qianlin spoke to him without turning her head. “Get out. The kitchen is no place for a man. I have everything I need.” With that, she shut the door in his face.

Lan Jue wandered back to the living room, where he settled himself down on his sofa. He was surprised to find a sense of excitement and expectation welling up inside of him. It wasn’t alltogether different from the excitement he felt when going to the Gourmet’s for a meal.

Of course that peculiar sensation persisted through the

excitement. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.

If only she were Hera, he thought, then all would be perfect. A thought suddenly flashed through his mind.

Ten minutes later

A hiss rose from the kitchen. Lan Jue, almost without thinking, immediately made his way to the door to discover what happened. He pulled it open and peered inside.

He was immediately struck with a gentle but alluring scent, of raw onion in peanut oil. That was the source of the noise.

Zhou Qianlin was in an apron, carefully placing the chopped onions in to the frying pan. She slowly stirred the sizzling veggies with a wooden spoon before repeating the process with a plate of diced and peeled tomatoes.

That hiss again, louder, as a plume of steam arose from the pan. The humming ventilator over the stone sucked it all away. The astringent scent of the onions and the fresh tomato mixed

and mingled in the air around him.

Lan Jue took a deep breath through his nose. “Mm, smells good!”

Qianlin didn’t attempt to expel him this time, busily stirring the pan’s contents. After a moment she threw in another handful of raw onion and continued.

“That’s an awful lot of onion.” Lan Jue looked at the pot skeptically.

She nodded. “It’s no good without enough onion. More is better.”

She stirred a little while longer, then stepped away just long enough to pick up a small pot half-full of water. She put it on the stove, and set the fire underneath.

Lan Jue’s culinary studies kicked in, then, and he immediately knew what was happening in his kitchen. He spied the noodles laying across his cutting board, too. “Hand-rolled noodles! I’m impressed, I didn’t know you could make noodles.”

Zhou Qianlin rolled her eyes in faux exasperation. “There’s a whole lot you don’t know, huh?”

The tomatoes boiled until they became a paste, then water was added. It was brought to a boil to thicken, then salt was added. Next, the fire was turned down and eggs were added. When all was done, the contents were poured together in to the fried onions.

Red, yellow, and green suspended in a light pink broth. A fine gravy of tomato, egg and onion.

With the slightest dab of sesame oil, the dish was complete. Qianlin sighed pitifully. “A shame there’s no shrimp. If we did this would be much better.”

The second, smaller pot had begun to boil, and the noodles steamed within. She poured cold water within and waited for it to boil anew. She repeated the process two more times, then shut the fire off.

Two bowls; one big, one small, both filled with cooling noodles. Their surface dripped with the aromatic red sauce. A simple but fine dinner.

Lan Jue watched Qianlin as she worked. Like floating clouds over flowing water she moved from one action to another with a natural grace. But there was no wasted movement, no redundancy. Beautiful and efficient. By the time the dishes were on the dining table, the kitchen had been tidied.

She handed a pair of chopsticks to Lan Jue, and noticed his stupefied expression. “What are you looking at? Eat your food.”

“Oh.” His head dropped to look at his bowl. He swallowed, then tucked in.

Hand-rolled noodles had a special texture that machine products didn’t possess. Paired with the thick tomato, egg and onion gravy, and it was quite the treat. Qianlin was only a few noodles in to her plate before Lan Jue finished. Not even the vestiges of gravy remained.

She furrowed her brows at him. “Eat slower. Noodles are easy to digest but you’ll still get the hiccoughs.”

Lan Jue wiped his mouth with a nearby napkin. “Mph, delicious. I didn’t know you were so skilled. You should come stay in the Avenue, steal the Gourmet’s job.”

Qianlin poured half the contents of her bowl in to his. “You still look hungry, have some more. If it’s still not enough I don’t know what to tell you. There aren’t any more tomatoes or eggs.”

Lan Jue was surprised by her generosity. He looked down at his bowl, then to her, then to his bowl again. She was too busy eating her noodles to notice.

Lan Jue ate without any further words of thanks or praise. He took his time with this helping, and by the time he’d finished so had Qianlin.

She gathered the bowls and walked back in to the kitchen.

Lan Jue leaned comfortably against his chair, never moving from his spot next to the dinner table. His eyes were alive with contentment.

After the bowls had been washed and returned, Qianlin exited the kitchen. “Alright, time to get going.”

“Alright!” Lan Jue pushed himself to his feet.

They exited in to the store to find it still open, with Xiuxiu and Ke’er in attendance. Xiuxiu spoke up as she saw them leave the apartments. “Ah, boss. Are you two heading out?”

Lan Jue nodded. “I’m sending her home. I’ll be back later.”

“Be careful on the road,” Xiuxiu entreated.

Ding ding ding! Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin disappeared from sight. As they did, Xiuxiu’s pleasant expression slipped, and her eyes adopted a far-away look.

Ke’er spoke, her voice a whisper. “I’m sure there’s nothing going on, sis.”

Xiuxiu’s features snapped back to normal. She shook  her head. “I’m fine. Whether or not they do is no business of ours! Anyway, it’s closing time.”

ζ

Lan Jue stood by his bicycle, watching Qianlin’s figure

disappear up the mountain path. The whole way home neither had spoken, choosing to respect the comfortable silence. There was no pressure to speak, only that strange, yet familiar, sensation.

ζ

National Eastern University.

Today was the beginning of Poseidon’s benefit performance for his Sounds of Nature album. Students arriving early for class were surprised to find their school transformed in to a sea of sapphire blue.

Hundreds of thousands of bright blue forget-me-nots poured from every corner of the university. With the exception of the roads needed to make it to class, every available space was covered in flowers.

The gentle scent of flowers, and that soothing blanket of blue, brought peace and contentment to everyone who entered the university.

Even this early in the morning the university gates were congested with people. Dozens of representatives from media outlets based in all three alliances were on hand, their vehicles narrowing passage to the school and bringing traffic to a halt. Of course members of the East’s police services were also on hand to maintain order.

In fact, both the police and Gobi’s own security detail were in attendance. They spend the majority of their time keeping the reporters at bay. The concert was slated for two in the afternoon, and none but students were permitted to enter before one.

Some journalists tried to sneak in under the guise of being a student, but none were able to fool the keen eyes of the security personnel.

Clearly the level of excitement here was palpable, but beyond that there was also something else in the air. As far as the media knew, the concert was to be held in the school’s expansive auditorium. Other than that, however, they had no idea what to expect. Gobi Entertainment’s media division definitely knew what they were doing.

“Look at this siege. It’s certainly busy enough.” Lan Jue

stopped his bike at the corner and watched the hodge-podge as Qianlin scrambled off the back. A strange and happy finding was that Richard was nowhere to be found since their last confrontation two days ago.

“Yeah!” Qianlin said, eyeing the crowd. “I’ve never seen it so busy. Gobi really is a major business. Of course a lot of this is because it’s a benefit performance, but it’s a good thing.”

Lan Jue smirked. “It looks like you aren’t a fan of Poseidon.”

She shook her head. “I’ve never really been one for idols.”

Lan Jue gave her a thumbs up. “You have good taste.”

“What does this have to do with taste,” she asked. “Anyway, I’ll go in first.” She didn’t wait for an answer, just slung her book bag over her shoulders and made for the school.

Lan Jue waited until there was a hundred or so meters between them before pushing his bike towards the campus entrance.

Zhou Qianlin was inexorably caught by a group of reporters, who surrounded her and peppered her with questions before she could escape in to the confines of the school.

Lan Jue could only look on helplessly and pat his forehead. It really was a chore to look so good. No matter where or what, you attracted eyes. Lan Jue thought it might be best to suggest she, like Hua Li, wear a mask whenever she left the house.

He pushed his bike past the crowds with no troubles. He used his bike like a weapon to cut a path until he was free.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the media. Please do not harass our students as they attempt to make it to classes. If you continue to bring trouble, I will submit a request to the school and they will refuse you entry in to this afternoon’s concert.” His righteous voice cut through the din, infused with his discipline just enough to capture people’s attention.

Lan Jue took the opportunity to shepherd Zhou Qianlin safely in to the campus.

Chapter 170: Big Boobs. No Brain.

“Qianlin!” The shout startled her, and she turned to see Tang Mi racing towards her. But her escape was cut off by a particularly pushy journalist.

Lan Jue frowned in agitation. “This isn’t acceptable. This concert shouldn’t be affecting our students’ ability to study. I’m going to find Director Wu.”

“No need, I’m already here.” Wu Junyi’s bassitone voice interrupted him. Lan Jue then saw the serious looking older Director approach. He arrived with an entourage of security guards.

With a flourish of his hand, they rushed out the gates and forced the numerous congregated reporters to either side. This opened up a path for the students to enter unmolested.

“I apologize Professor Lan. I hadn’t expected this level of trouble for hosting the concert. Just this morning we had over five hundred reporters at our gates. And I hear there are twice as many on the way. From the school’s perspective, we already regret opening our doors to Gobi Entertainment.” Wu Junyi himself appeared helpless to do much against the onslaught of

the media. The higher-ups of the university all underestimated the people’s response, and Wu Junyi as one of their number felt equally responsible. It had been a long time since any of them had been chasing their idol’s coattails, so they hadn’t imagined Poseidon’s following would be so massive.

Lan Jue smiled disarmingly. “It is what it is. It’s too late to turn them down now. We’ll make the best out of it, and try to keep order. I think if we requested further police from the authorities, things would be better.

Wu Junyi nodded his agreement. “Just so. Go on in, Professor. I’ll handle this.”

Lan Jue continued into the campus. Tang Mi and Zhou Qianlin where nowhere to be found.

ζ

“Qianlin, what were you doing with Professor Lan?” Tang Mi chattered ceaselessly besides Qianlin as they walked through the sea of forget-me-nots.

“We just ran in to each other on the road.”

Tang Mi stuck out her tongue impetuously. “Who believes that! It isn’t the first time I’ve seen you two together. Go on! There’s something between you two, isn’t there?”

Qianlin shot her a look. “Yup.”

“Really?!” Tang Mi’s eyes looked as though they were ready to pop out of her head. “Prfoessor Lan really isn’t bad looking. Still, I’ve been thinking, and I still prefer Zeus. The Professor has class, but he’s no good in a fight. I heard he got yelled at again by your Savage Goddess. They say he was lagging behind in Taihua, and nearly got Professor Tan and another instructor killed. Hummm. Men must at least have the strength to protect a woman, otherwise how are they supposed to feel safe! So, I decided to give up my fantasy with Professor Lan.”

Zhou Qianlin could only cast her helpless gaze towards her friend. “Alright, we get it. Don’t turn in to some bimbo.”

Tang Mi’s voice dropped to a whisper. “So is there really something going on between you two? I’ll tell you, Richard is pretty offended. If there isn’t anything going on, you should

really stay away from the Professor for a little while. One look at Richard and you can tell he’s a jealous sort, you don’t want to bring any trouble on Professor Lan.”

Qianlin stopped in her tracks. “Tang Mi, I’m honestly surprised at how smart you’re becoming.”

Tang Mi glared at her. “Huh? You’re saying I wasn’t smart?”

Qianlin snickered, her face bright with malicious intent. “You know what they say. Big boobs, no brain.”

“Ahh! You’re begging for a beating! Qianlin!”

ζ

Lan Jue lazily pushed his bike along the campus paths towards the electives building. The trek struck him speechless. He couldn’t imagine where Gobi Entertainment even got all of these flowers. They likely picked them because their blue color, which matched Poseidon just fine. The amount of money to pull this off…

Lan Jue’s eyes fell to his communicator as it buzzed.

“You here A-Jue?” Hua Li’s voice crackled out towards him.

Lan Jue’s response was less than friendly. “Don’t you think all of this is a little excessive? You’re poisoning this university’s scholastic atmosphere. The school’s already dissatisfied with all this nonsense.”

Hua Li laughed. “Take it easy. There’s no one in the known galaxy with more experience in this sort of thing than us. Mo Xiao has already sent over five hundred additional security personnel as backup. They’ll be there in half an hour. They’ll keep the peace. We’ve also been in contact with the local police authorities, so they’ll be helping too.”

“I heard the concert’s free for students,” Lan Jue said. “I thought this was a benefit performance. Where are you going to get donations?”

It was Hua Li’s turn to get annoyed. “You’re an idiot when it comes to this stuff, guy. You think those reporters aren’t paying to come in and broadcast the show? Are you at all aware of how many sponsors have already committed to this? On top of that,

twenty percent of the total profits from Sounds of Nature are going directly to Taihua for help and recovery. It’s a pretty astronomical figure.”

Lan Jue’s response was inquisitive. “Astronomical seems a bit dramatic. How much can you really expect from twenty percent?”

“Not much, only about enough to buy an  Expedition Warship,” Hua Li stated tepidly.

Lan Jue was silent for a time. “Hua Li, be my sugar daddy.
You got the money for it.”

Hua Li chuckled. “Alright! Your wish is my command.”

“Ugh, forget I said anything.” Lan Jue laughed softly as he cut the connection. He shook his head with a mirthful sigh. Poseidon and his people were definitely worthy of their title as the richest business group in all the alliances. Discussing money with them wasn’t annoying, it was downright nerve-wracking.

When Lan Jue arrived at the electives offices, no one was to be

found, evidently because they were given the day off. He was happy to have the opportunity to prepare his next few lessons in peace.

However, plans changed when, after only a few minutes of work, his mind started to wander and an uncomfortable sensation overcame him. He leaned back in his chair, fingers netted behind his head, and he stared out the window to the gardens beyond.

Yesterday he and Qianlin had visited the old folks home once again. They worked well together, organized and efficient without much need for talk. The entire ordeal left him feeling replenished.

Their grateful smiles, inquiries over his health, and familial actions were all very warming to the spirit.

He still had two years of service as Qianlin’s bodyguard, and now more than ever it was clear he wouldn’t be able to completely extricate himself from her. But so long as things were like this, peaceful and easy, then he could live with it.

.........

National Eastern University Reception Hall.

The building was well decorated, like a hotel. It was expansive, and was used primarily to welcome guests to the university. Currently the teachers and students of Lir University called it home.

The Assembly Room.

Lir University’s Director Shi was seated before a long table, in the place of honor. The various students and teachers taking place in the competition were sat on either side.

“All of our mechas have arrived safely?” Director Shi turned his head just enough to address the elderly professor at his elbow.

“They’re all here. In this area at least, the NEU does a passable job. There haven’t been any problems, deliberate or otherwise.”

Director Shi nodded his head sagely. “Today is Poseidon’s concert. Tomorrow, the competition. This year’s games have been separated in to two sections; academic, and martial. We

are always criticized for picking on them, since they aren’t a mecha university. So we must trounce them, in both categories. There must be no doubt who the superior school is. The dean will also be in attendance tomorrow, for the entire thing. I don’t imagine I have to spell out for you what this means. Not to mention rewards for students and staff who distinguish themselves.”

“Xiao Han!” Director Shi’s eyes swept towards the far end of the table. There stood the young man who had harassed Zhou Qianlin earlier, pale as a sheet.

“Director Shi.” He stood straight as a statue, his face a mask.

The Director growled at him. “You are our school’s trump card, so act like it. I want you to save that energy for the games, and then destroy them – especially in simulations. Let them know what an absolute defeat tastes like.”

A cold light flickered through his eyes. “That’s what I’m good at.”

Director Shi smirked, and nodded his head. He waved for the youth to sit. His attention then turned to another, a man in his

thirties who looked as normal as any other. He spoke warmly to him. “Professor Su, we’ll be relying on you in the instructor’s matches.”

“Mnh.” Professor Su said nothing further, only nodding his head. He made no motion to rise.

Strangely, Director Shi didn’t seem to mind the disrespect, though there was a shine to his eyes.

As the Lir University faculty were having their clandestine collectives, members of the NEU were also eloping to secret meetings.

“Tang Xiao. Tang Mi. You two better put on a good show this time. Our investigations show that Lir has brought no less than three Emperor-Class pilots with them this time. Tang Xiao, you’re already close to first rank. And Tang Mi, you’ve got the strength for a second rank. You two, constitute our main force. Along with Geng Yang, you are our wild cards. It’s your first time entering in to the games, so make sure you work to earn it!”

Geng Yang was a young man not far removed in skill from

Tang Xiao. He looked experienced, but young and handsome. He had a head of fiery red hair, which complemented his smoldering crimson eyes. He nodded in agreement.

Wu Junyi swung his head from side to side, regarding his fellow instructors. “Professor Tan, we’ll be relying on you for the instructor’s matches. We’ll simply have to make the best of our situation in the combat arena. Just make sure you don’t get hurt. Luckily we’re a shoe-in for the academics portion. Ziqian, you were in charge of this. What have you got?”

Le Ziqian was the deputy director of Mecha Construction and Maintenance studies, and the director of the R and D Department. He was thirty-five this year, and being honored as the youngest accomplished researcher at the university. He was the famed name behind their school.

He once represented the whole of the Eastern Alliance at a scientific exchange between the other two groups. Thanks to his vision and innovation he was widely lauded by the community.

He was a citizen of Skyfire, actually. This was fortunate, for of course there was no end to the universities that wanted him, or their promises. However, in the end he went with his home, and decided to stay on Skyfire as part of the NEU. It wasn’t excessive

to call him the school’s greatest treasure.

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