Skyfire Avenue Chapter 61-70

Chapter 61: Professional Ethics

“Here.” Lan Jue handed a strip of golden cloth to An Liu.

The silver woman tenderly opened the cloth to discover seven fingers and a check inside.

“Did you pay as well?” An Liu looked pointedly at Lan Jue.

“I can, but you’d have to pay me back,” he responded, beaming a smile at her.

“Fine.” An Liu grunted, her eyes softening somewhat.

Lan Jue went on. “Show these gentlemen out of Skyfire Avenue. Make sure they aren’t allowed back in.”

She nodded once again, straightening her posture before offering a formal bow. “I will be submitting a report concerning this dereliction of duty, and will await punishment.”

Lan Jue lifted his hand, wanting to pat her shoulder. But his

hand stopped in the air when he saw her eyes. “It’s fine, don’t be so grave. Off you go, you’re busy.” He dropped his hand, turned, and made his way in to the jewelry store.

Ting ting ting!

“Welcome back boss,” Lin Guoguo greeted pleasantly.

“Clever Guoguo. Where’s Mika?” he asked.

“Mm,” Lin Guoguo grunted. “She’s over there sulking.”

Lan Jue chuckled and made his way behind the counter to spy Mika. He gave her a smile. “If you keep getting angry during working hours I’m going to have to dock your pay!”

Mika lifted her head to glare at Lan Jue. “When have you ever given us a paycheck?”

“Eh…” Lan Jue rubbed his nose defensively. “I actually don’t know how much the store makes… but what’s mine is yours!”

Mika’s eyes adopted a lascivious glint. “Is that true for people, too?”

“Certainly not!” Lan Jue straightened with feigned indignation. “I’m a man of high moral integrity!”

“Pfft!” The sound didn’t just come from Mika.

Lan Jue rubbed his face. “Right, don’t be mad. You know why I didn’t let you get involved.”

Mika frowned, her voice carrying distinct hints of a pout. “To bully me.”

Lan Jue gave her a wry smirk. “Your power is simply too dangerous. If you lose control think of what it’d do to the Avenue. Don’t you like it here?”

Mika shot to her feet. “What do you think. Here!” She threw a memory stick at Lan Jue.

“The location of the power stone deposit?”

“Mm.” Mika nodded her head.

“You two shouldn’t always be so secretive! I get jealous!” Lin Guoguo pressed closer, her pink lip jutting forth.

Mika giggled, throwing her arms around Lin Guoguo and pecking her on the mouth. Lin Guoguo’s face grew red, her eyes widening in surprise. She gave Mika a chastising look.

“I didn’t see anything. I’m leaving.” Lan Jue covered his eyes with one hand, and pinched his nose with the other for fear his nose would start bleeding. He turned quickly and left.

A common anime trope, seeing something sexy or exciting causes the viewing character to suffer explosive nose bleeds

“Coward,” Mika mumbled.

“Miikaaa!” Lin Guoguo’s furious voice rang through the store, causing Mika to jump.

“Fine, fine! I wont make you reciprocate.” She quickly dodged

around the corner, out of Guoguo’s reach.

“You stole my first kiss!”

“Nonsense. Didn’t you take advantage of him while he slept, kissing him after saving you that one time?”

“How did you know!”

“I was only pretending to sleep!” Mika said around a devilish smile.

“Mika! I’ll kill you!”

ζ

Early in the morning, after washing her face and teeth, Zhou Qianlin began her morning run.

Most were still in the grip of dreams at this time of day. She loved her morning runs; they swept away the sleep from her

body, got her blood circulating, so she had spirit for the rest of the day.

However, compared with her usual demeanor, her mind was racing faster than her body.

He was an electives teacher, so he needn’t come for class every day. She’d forgotten to ask yesterday what his schedule was.

She hadn’t thought the guy would so readily help her look after her elderly friends.

At the memory she couldn’t help her pretty face from adopting a small smile.

“What are you thinking about, that’s making you smile like a little fox.” The voice suddenly arose from behind her, making her jump. She turned her head and spotted someone set not far off, arms crossed over his chest.

“You, what are you doing here?” The mountain was home to many of the most rich and notable. The security was supposed to be impeccable.

Lan Jue spoke up. “You know, if this mountain is so hard to get on to, how am I supposed to protect you?” He swept his eyes over her figure as he spoke.

She wore a plain white jumpsuit, and a similarly pale handkerchief pulling her fine black hair in to a ponytail. She wore no make-up, allowing her natural beauty to shine forth.

Zhou Qianlin frowned. “You know this over-inflated ego of yours is terribly unattractive. You don’t think I’ll call security?”

Lan Jue looked shocked. “You wouldn’t. I’m taking you out to dinner tonight, I deserve some slack.”

“Hmph!” Zhou Qianlin was highly amused by his apparent trepidation. But she quickly recovered. “Go on. Why’d you come out here so early in the morning.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “I’m a bodyguard aren’t I? Of course I’m here to send you to school.”

Zhou Qianlin responded, “I find it hard to believe you.”

“It’s true,” he said. “I don’t have any classes, so I wont be going to the campus. I have something else to take care of. But I figured I’d come early to send you there. I’ll come back tonight to bring you out to dinner. We can take my bike like yesterday.”

Zhou Qianlin stared at him openmouthed. “Well look at you, being responsible!”

Lan Jue stuck his chin out proudly. “It’s called ‘professional ethics’!”

“Well then wait for a little while. Let me change then we’ll go.”

“No hurry. I imagine you haven’t eaten breakfast yet. Eat, then we’ll leave. I’ll wait for you here.” Lan Jue smiled at her.

“Alright,” she responded, then turned and ran back towards her home.

Bai Xiao watched her daughter bounce in to the room. It was strange, she thought. “What’s got you in such a good mood, Linlin?”

“Am I happy?” Zhou Qianlin replied.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen that smile from my daughter, like a thousand lilies blooming,” came her response.

Her face grew red, and she stuck her tongue out at her mother. “Oh really?”

Bai Xiao nodded earnestly.

“Is breakfast ready, mom?” Zhou Qianlin quickly attempted to change the subject.

“Yup. You got back early this morning. Your father just got up.”

Zhou Qianlin giggled. “Alright, I’ll go eat firs then!”

“Sure. Qianlin, do you want the car to send you today?”

Zhou Qianlin gave her mother a helpless look. “Mom, why do

you ask the same questions every day. Our house and car all belong to the Eastern Alliance. They aren’t ours for personal use! I’ll send myself to school.” She spoke over her shoulder as she made her way to the dining room.

Watching her daughter’s retreating figure Bai Xiao couldn’t help but smile. “Little minx, you’re so pretty! Your mother doesn’t feel safe! Although… never mind. So long as you’re happy. Maybe the breaking of that marriage contract was a good thing.”

Chapter 62: Spirit Caller Power Gem

The early morning was a little cold, but fresh and clear.

Lan Jue pedaled his antique bicycle, leisurely meandering towards the university campus. Zhou Qianlin sat behind, smiling prettily. She would, on occasion, pull funny faces at his back.

“What are you going to do today?” she asked casually.

“It’s a secret.”

“Fine then.” Zhou Qianlin huffed. “By the way, how often are your classes?”

“Two days a week,” he replied.

“So few? That’s intentional, right? You make a terribly incompetent bodyguard.” She muttered in malcontent.

“I’ve done some looking around,” he said. “The campus looks

relatively safe. Besides, I can’t usually leave Skyfire Avenue. If you need something I’m a call away.”

As he spoke he managed the bicycle with one hand and reached back with the other to hand Zhou Qianlin something.

Zhou Qianlin reflexively reached up and took it.

In her hand was a pendant of some white metal, inlaid with an occidental topaz. It was simple and delicate.

“What’s this,” she said crankily.

“It’s a power gem. Called a Spirit Caller. C-Ranked. Two gems are linked together, and when worn share their thoughts with the person on the other end. The link can’t be broken or interrupted. I’ve already linked it with another, and it should work anywhere on the planet. So long as we’re both on Planet Skyfire, all you need to do is infuse it with your will and you’ll link up with me.

“So this is a Spirit Caller power gem.” Zhou Qianlin turned the pendant around in her hand, staring at it appraisingly.

“You know about them?” He sounded surprised.

Zhou Qianlin nodded. “I’ve heard of them. Even though they’re ranked as a C, their rarity and function makes them no less valuable than your average B-ranked power gem.”

Lan Jue chuckled. “Are you impressed?”

“Nope. Standard for a bodyguard.” Her tones were matter-of- fact, but she didn’t hesitate to slip it around her neck. The pendant was cold, she could feel it through her clothing. It drew a small shudder from her and he thought that the pendant had just been in Lan Jue’s hand caused her to blush.

“If that’s what you think then throw it away!” Lan Jue growled. He pressed hard against the pedals and the bike shot forward.

ζ

Five hundred meters from the NEU.

Zhou Qianlin’s sleek hair swung as it was caught by the wind.
She called towards Lan Jue. “I’m off!”

“Mmhm. I’ll be here to pick you up tonight.” Lan Jue was still in a poor mood.

She gave him a cunning grin. “Bodyguard, if you aren’t afraid I’ll make you lose face, I’ll just wear my school uniform to attend your dinner.” A fair, clear laugh tumbled from her lips as she turned and made her way towards the university.

Lan Jue stared at her back, slack-jawed. “Am I bodyguard or a baby-sitter? I must have been having a stroke yesterday, why else did I invite her to dinner. Now I’m responsible for how she dresses? Ugh! Let me go get you a bikini, see if you dare wear it!”

By the time he’d ridden his bicycle back to Skyfire Avenue, the day was in full swing. Beams of radiant sunlight beamed down upon the street. The fine buildings were blanketing in the golden glow of the sun.

He went directly to Zeus’ Jewelry Shop. As he entered and the melodious doorbell sounded, four pairs of pretty eyes turned

towards him.

Today it wasn’t just Ke’er and Xiuxiu who manned the store, but Lin Guoguo and Mika were in attendance as well.

Each of the four beauties had their difference, but at this moment they stood in one line, a team in fine black skirts. Lan Jue stared back at each of them in silence.

Mika, with her flowing red hair, pink eyes and black-framed glasses.

Lin Guoguo, adorable with her short green hair and pale green eyes.

The elegantly beautiful black hair and eyes of Xiuxiu.

Finally, the cute and vivacious Ke’er, her short blue hair matching her deep blue eyes.

Four gorgeous women, four styles of hair, four fine pairs of eyes. Each looked beautiful and refined in the work uniform,

the sort of beauty that could make a man shudder.

Where each to turn around, they’d reveal the golden lightning bolts sewn in to their skirts.

“Hey boss!” All four, with hands folded before their skirted waists, bowed as he entered. The sudden inundation of bosom shot his blood-pressure in to the red.

“Eh…” Lan Jue took a frightened step back. “Whaaat’s going on here?”

The four women rose in unison. Ke’er spoke first. “Nothing! This is how we’re supposed to act, isn’t it?” She giggled prettily.

Lan Jue rolled his eyes. “You all never show any respect, and suddenly this? There must be a reason, so go on spit it out.”

Each young woman smiled devilishly at the accusation. Lin Guoguo covered her mouth, speaking in quiet tones. “Boss knows us well. Really it’s nothing, just… if you’re planning to go somewhere we’d like to come along. It’s be so long since we’ve traveled to any other planet.”

“Knock it off,” Lan Jue muttered helplessly. “You guys get three holidays a year. Where do you want to go that you can’t get to?”

It was Mika’s turn. “How is that the same? We go by ourselves, or the boss takes us out to play. Boss, I was the one that found the mineral vein for the power gems. If  anyone should go along it should be me.”

“I wanna go too!” Ke’er’s pretty face was scrunched in discontent.

Lin Guoguo batted her big, pretty eyes at Lan Jue. “Boss, you should do what you like,” her pretty voice whispered. “If you don’t want to bring Guoguo, that’s fine.” Her eyes had grown watery as they trained on him.

Only Xiuxiu stood quietly, smiling at Lan Jue. But her eyes alone spoke volumes.

Lan Jue shook his head. “I knew it. Wolves in sheeps clothing, all of you.”

Mika snickered, and bounded to Lan Jue’s side. She pulled at his wrist. “Boss, you’ve been different lately. More energetic. We just want to help that grow! Come on, taking us along will only make you look better – we’re all pretty girls!”

Lan Jue looked defeated. “Alright, alright. First we’ll research the location of the mineral deposit. If we really go, then we’ll all go. I guess it has been a long time since I’ve taken you all out.”

“That’s right, Zeus’ Amazons left the mercenary world years ago. We’re afraid people will have forgotten about us! Even to the point people even dare come in our shop to cause trouble. Hyaa!” Ke’er jabbed her tiny fists fiercely through the air.

Lan Jue motioned with a flourish. “Shut the doors. To the back room, let’s see what’s going on with this mundus ore vein.”

“As you wish, boss!” The four women called in chorus, excitement filling their sweet voices.

Chapter 63: Shattered Starfields

“Boss, according to the information from the man called Oliver, I’ve narrowed the location of the Mundus vein to somewhere in this region.” Mika pushed her glasses further up on her nose, lending her a distinctly intellectual appearance.

A curtain of pale yellow light appeared before Lan Jue and the four women. The orb it created was alive with twinkling lights – a star map.

“It must be there. The Shattered Starfields.” Lan Jue narrowed his brow.

The Shattered Starfields. It was a place Zeus and his Four Amazons were intimately familiar with.

It was situated in the very center of humanity’s three Great Alliances. By size alone it was larger than any one of the Alliances. It effectively cut off each from the other, requiring a wormhole to circumnavigate.

The interior was riddled with asteroid belts, each of them unstable. They moved without rhyme or reason. What’s more,

strange planets resided within. The Three they were called, nestled within the depths of the belts themselves.

But there was more than these three planets and their belts, of course. A multitude of smaller planets could also be found. They were also unsafe and unstable, damaged from repeatedly passing through the shifting asteroid belts.

It was this instability, and the very real danger of destruction that ensured no large-scale airship ever dared sail through.

It was also why the Shattered Starfields had become a pirate’s playground. Larger ships were unable to pass, but smaller ships could traverse without incident owing to their increased maneuverability and the experience of their pilots. The three large planets hidden amidst the asteroid curtains were all hearth and home to pirates.

Pirate clans both large and small dominated the area. The smallest counted barely a hundred strong, while the largest could be separated in to several divisions. The largest were housed on the three main planets, but the smaller ones also were home to smaller pirate clans. The more stable the planet, obviously, the more powerful the clan it was home to.

The Moonfiend Pirates were the first among the buccaneers. Their Moonfiend Empress was also known among them as the greatest of the Pirate Kings. Her strength and reputation is what allowed for those like Gao Yong to give in to their arrogance, and attempt to assault Skyfire Avenue.

Lan Jue looked upon three planets Mika had narrowed their search too. His face grew darker still. “If we want to go to any of those, we’ll have to visit the Three first to resupply. They also keep moving, so we’ll need to find a specific bearing to get to them. We’ll need accurate starmaps from the Three to proceed.

Mika nodded. “Of course. So to find the Mundus vein we’ll need supplies and maps from the Three, then we can get started. In my estimation the collision from the asteroid belts, and the friction it causes, would lead to the creation of all sorts of material. We should find a sizable vein.”

Xiuxiu’s apprehensive voice chimed in. “Even assuming we find it, extracting it will be no small problem. After all the starfields are pirate territory.”

Lan Jue’s pensive expression shifted, and he smiled. “It will indeed, but we’ll have some help there. The Keeper and I have entered in to arrangement, sharing the proceeds. He’s sure to

lend some aid.”

“That old scientist?” Lin Guoguo sounded taken aback.

Lan Jue nodded. “We’re all denizens of the Avenue, aren’t we? It would be rude not to share.”

Ke’er stuck out her lower lip in defiance. “We don’t need Skyfire Avenue’s protection anyway.”

Lan Jue only smiled, but Xiuxiu gave her a reprimanding poke.

Lin Guoguo went on. “Boss, give the word. When are we heading out?”

Lan Jue shut off the projector and turned to face the four girls. “Are we really all going? We’re leaving no one to keep shop?”

The women each looked at one another, but it was Xiuxiu who eventually dropped her head and spoke. “I can stay, boss.”

Mika wrapped her arm around Xiuxiu’s shoulder. “Stop being such a goodie-goodie already. It makes it hard to tease you.”

Ke’er spoke up. “Don’t tease sister Xiuxiu!”

Lin Guoguo winked an eye. “We have to pass out of the alliance, three million kilometers from the planet before we can jump through a wormhole and passed the alliance defenders. Then we’ll have to jump again through the collapsing wormhole. Then we’ll be in range of the Shattered Starfield. We’ll need seven days to get there, then considering travel within the system and a return flight, we’re looking at twenty- five days to a month so long as we don’t run in to any problems. Closing the shop for a month isn’t so long.”

“That’s right!” Ke’er vigorously nodded her head.

“Fine,” Lan Jue said. “Start preparing. Since we’re all leaving, we’ll leave as early as we can. Tomorrow morning.”

The women each looked at each other, their pretty eyes filled with excitement. “Thank you boss,” the spoke in unison.

Mika: “I’ll make sure we stick to the plan.”

Lin Guoguo: “I’ll prepare the airship.”

Ke’er: “I’ll be responsible for supplies.”

Xiuxiu: “I’ve got the equipment and resource assignment.”

Seeing the girls so excited caused Lan Jue’s smile to grow brighter. “This is all on us. Our own mission. We’ll call it Operation Crystal Incursion.”

“Yeah,” the girls answered together. It was like they’d all changed, a fire roiling in the depths of their pretty eyes.

Yes! Zeus’ Amazons. Three years of waiting, three years of silence. The sleeping giant was finally awakening. How could they not be excited? It was as though the universe had suddenly opened up before them.

They each had the urge to shout it towards the heavens. Zeus is back!

ζ

It was afternoon, and already the sunlight wasn’t as dazzling as it had been in the morning. The sun had begun it’s trek to the horizon, and below it studies had begun to end for the day in the National Eastern University. Zhou Qianlin and Tang Mi were making their way from the campus.

“Where are you heading to tonight anyway, Qianlin? Why aren’t you leaving with me?” Tang Mi asked in curiosity.

“I’m going to the beautician with mother,” Qianlin answered. “She’s coming to pick me up. You can go ahead and head out first.”

Tang Mi continued suspiciously. “Skin like yours and you’re still going to a beautician? If that’s the case what am I supposed to do? Anyway, I’ll head out then. I don’t know what my brother’s been up to either. Yesterday he let someone beat him to a pulp, and today he didn’t even bother to come to school. I’ll go home and look for him.”

“Alright, I’ll see you later.”

Zhou Qianlin began walking. Five hundred meters later she saw a familiar antique bicycle.

Chapter 64: Hera?

“Let’s go!” Zhou Qianlin had become a natural sitting on the back seat of the bicycle. Lan Jue pushed the bike forward off the tip of his toes.

Lan Jue was garbed in simple attire; blue jeans, white leisure shoes and a white shirt. Simple and stylish.

Sitting behind him, Zhou Qianlin asked, “How long have you been waiting?”

“Only a little bit,” he replied.

“When’s your second class?”

“Actually there won’t be a second class for a little while,” Lan Jue said. “I was actually just going to tell you, I’m afraid I’m going to have to play hookie for a little while.”

“Huh?” Zhou Qianlin shot a confused gaze at his back.

He continued. “There’s a matter I have to deal with. I was just at the teaching affairs office asking for leave.”

For a moment she was speechless, but eventually found her voice. “You have one class, then ask for leave? Aren’t you afraid the school will dismiss you?”

Lan Jue smiled bitterly at the road before him. “They wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss me. But the Dean Wu’s face certainly wasn’t pretty.”

Zhou Qianlin chuckled. “Director Wu’s face is usually like that. But if you’re just going to leave like that what about your bodyguard responsibilities?”

“This is also something I wanted to ask you about. What do you think? This is a very important matter, something I have to handle in person. I have to head out to another planet so it’ll be a while.”

A tremor of anxiety thrilled through Zhou Qianlin’s eyes. “How long?”

“If there aren’t any troubles, about a month,” he said.

Zhou Qianlin fell silent.

Lan Jue didn’t speak either, and the atmosphere became somber.

“I’m sorry! I really am a person of my word, but I really do have something that I must deal with. We’ll just add the time to my service. However long I’m gone, we’ll add that much time. And I’ll find someone else to look after you during this time. You definitely wont be in any danger.”

Zhou Qianlin shook her head. “I don’t need anyone else to look after me. We’ll just postpone the time.”

“Hey, since when did you become so pliable?” Lan Jue was quite surprised at the change.

She huffed at him. “I’m not in the mood to haggle with you. But I need your guarantee, whatever you’re doing can’t interfere with your teaching qualifications. Otherwise doing your job is going to become much harder.”

“Not a problem,” he said without hesitation.

With the atmosphere once more light-hearted they continued, but a touch of anxiety still lingered in Zhou Qianlin’s beautiful jade-green eyes. On the occasions her eyes landed upon Lan Jue, their depths grew even more complicated.

It didn’t matter how strong Lan Jue’s genetic talent was, he couldn’t see the changes in those beautiful eyes.

The trip to Skyfire Avenue from the school wasn’t a short one.
The sky had already grown dark by the time they arrived.

Lan Jue dismounted the bike just outside of the Avenue. Even though the bike was man-powered, it was stilled considered machinery and thus was banned from use in Skyfire Avenue. But it could be pushed in, since it was – after all – an antique.

As a councilman, he also had the authority to bring ‘normal’ people in without incident.

Passing along the brick-lined, elegant simplicity of the Avenue caused Zhou Qianlin to swing her eyes every which way in

curiosity.

“They’re beautiful.” She couldn’t help the tones of amazement in her voice.

Lan Jue’s face betrayed a small smile. “The pride of Skyfire Avenue.”

“It’s deserved. What are we eating tonight?”

“First we’ve got to change clothes,” Lan Jue said.

She stopped in her tracks and turned to face him, wide-eyed. “You really prepared clothes for me?”

“That’s how reliable I am!”

Zhou Qianlin snorted a sarcastic laugh. “You’re such a sweetheart.”

“If you’d give me back those clothes I lent you that night, it’d

be even better,” Lan Jue probed.

Zhou Qianlin raised her pretty brows. “Those are my sisters, not yours! Can you wear them? If you can fit then I’ll give it back.”

Lan Jue’s mouth curled in to a frown. “Forget I said anything…”

The whole of Skyfire Avenue stretched two thousand and eighty meters. It wasn’t long before the sapphire door of Zeus’ Jewelry Shop appeared before them.

“Compared to the other places, your shop is hideous.” Zhou Qianlin sneered at the door.

“Just missing a little of that rustic charm,” he said helplessly.

Ding ding ding! The bells above the door heralded their entrance.

“Hello and welco-” came Ke’er’s fair voice in greeting, though

the final word caught in her throat as her eyes fell upon them. They grew large in disbelief.

“What is it, Ke’er?” Xiuxiu stopped tidying to look up at the sound of Ke’er’s strange voice. In an instant she, too, was as stupefied as her co-worker. For a moment her pretty face looked like she had a stroke. She looked almost frightened.

“H-hera?” Ke’er and Xiuxiu called out, almost on top of one another. Their disbelief was so strong that they feared even speaking her name might make her disappear.

Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin stood shoulder to shoulder. His voice raised slightly as he spoke. “Finally it isn’t just me who thinks that. Let me introduce you, this is Zhou Qianlin. Hera’s little sister. They’re just very similar. Qianlin, these two are my work partners, Xiuxiu and Ke’er.”

Zhou Qianlin gave them both a shy smile. “Hello.”

The two women still hadn’t totally recovered. They exchanged glances, still unsure of what stood before them.

“You.. you really aren’t Hera?” Ke’er asked.

Zhou Qianlin gave a small laugh. “I’m Zhou Qianlin. A student at National Eastern University.”

Ke’er pat her chest. When she spoke a tinge of fear still lingered. “Oh that scared me! I was going to say, how could Hera survive standing on an exploding planet!”

“Ke’er!” Xiuxiu caught Lan Jue’s dark expression, hurrying to shut her up.

Ke’er instantly became aware of her mistake, wincing and sticking out her tongue in embarrassment. “Hi, miss Zhou, please come in.”

Lan Jue huffed a small sigh and helplessly shook his head. “Xiuxiu, please bring miss Zhou to the back. I’ve already prepared some clothes for her. Please have her change. I’ve invited her to eat at the Gourmet’s tonight.”

“Right away.” Xiuxiu dropped her head respectfully, motioning for Zhou Qianlin to follow.

Zhou Qianlin followed on her heels. Watching her leave, Ke’er then quickly jumped to Lan Jue’s side. She put on her gossip voice. “Boss! Miss Zhou really isn’t Hera? She’s really her sister?”

Lan Jue forced a smile. “What do you think? If she were Hera, I’d be happier than anyone. Unfortunately that’s not the case.”

Ke’er leaned in, speaking cryptically. “You’ve been so different lately boss. You’ve been in a better mood. It’s because of her, isn’t it?”

“Eh?” Lan Jue’s eye’s narrowed at her.

Chapter 65: The Gourmet’s Boutique

Elegant dinner jacket, knee-length white skirt, all the same hue, all masterfully made. Her pretty face was lined with silken black hair, and her blue eyes – the color of the sea – twinkled radiantly. She was like a painting, beautiful and moving.

“Not bad.” Lan Jue nodded his head approvingly.

Zhou Qianlin’s face grew red. No young woman could resist pretty clothing. “Thank you.”

“You’re young. It wouldn’t do to accessories with jewelry that’s too fancy. A simple necklace will suffice.” Lan Jue smiled softly.

She shook her head. “I’m not interested in any jewelry.”

“Jewelry is a woman’s best companion. Wearing jewelry isn’t about displaying wealth or luxury, but to set off your own natural beauty. Your clothes are cut with a v-neck. It’s not deep, but it requires a necklace. It’ll show off your complexion, and even further improve the disposition you exude.”

“I guess I’ll wear one then.” Zhou Qianlin fumbled through her bag to produce a small pouch. She opened it and produced the Soul Speaker gem Lan Jue had given her earlier.

Lan Jue looked surprised. “I’d actually prepared you a nice sapphire necklace.”

“No need, I’ll wear this,” she insisted.”

“Alright then.”

“Help me put it on.”

“Lan Jue took up the necklace and positioned himself behind Zhou Qianlin. He slipped the necklace around her throat and fastened it.

It was simple, unadorned, with no fine metals or ornamenting gemstones. The soul speaker gem itself emitted a gentle yellow light, but it did not clash. It added the final touch, highlighting Zhou Qianlin’s pure and simple temperament.

“Let’s go.” Lan Jue offered his right arm, and Zhou Qianlin responded by slipping her hand around his elbow. They pushed the door open and stepped out.

ζ

“I really had no idea Hera had a little sister,” Ke’er was saying.
She turned her head when Xiuxiu offered no response.

Xiuxiu’s frail form, stooped over the counter, jerked suddenly.

“Xiuxiu, what’s wrong?” Ke’er hastened to her side.

“I’m fine,” she responded, though her voice was hoarse.

Realization came over Ke’er suddenly as she looked at her co- worker. “You’re worried about the boss and miss Zhou. She isn’t Hera! Don’t think too much.”

Xiuxiu gently shook her head, sitting a little straighter. She rubbed away a tear that had begun to creep down her face. But it didn’t hide her reddening eyes.

“But she looks exactly like her.”

Ke’er spoke softly to her. “But that doesn’t make her Hera. Think about it. Her voice, her mood, her mannerisms all are different. Not to mention younger. But I don’t know why the boss found her.”

Xiuxiu shook her head sheepishly. “I’m sorry Ke’er. I think too much.”

“Ke’er wrapped her arms around Xiuxiu and gave her a hug. She sighed as she continued. “Xiuxiu, I’ve actually been wanting to tell you… when the boss looks at us, every time you can see how much he cares!”

Xiuxiu lifted her head, and that normally tender light in her eyes was undercut by a current of determination.

ζ

If one were trying to find the most unimpressive structure on Skyfire Avenue, the old Chinese-style shop with it’s carved purple door would probably be it.

It couldn’t accurately be described as a shop. Only a minority of Skyfire’s residents understood that this particular building held the greatest delicacies on the planet. It was, after all, the Gourmet’s personal boutique, not open to the public.

The store here on the Avenue and it’s sister in Skyfire Underground were as alike as apples to oysters. While this one was small and narrow, the Undergrounds was no less expansive than the Keeper’s pharmacy – and that place served nearly all the Adepts who visited Skyfire. This place was simply used for the Gourmet to entertain friends.

Lan Jue pulled open the door and motioned for Zhou Qianlin to enter.

As Qianlin entered she was immediately met with a distinct fragrance. It wasn’t pungent, but unique. It almost filled her up.

A long, simple wooden table stretched the length of the room, and at it’s sides sat five people. As she made her way inside, every pair of eyes turned to fall upon her.

Zhou Qianlin felt like a pauper beneath their gaze, but each rose politely to greet her. They all nodded and spoke kind,

respectful greetings.

Lan Jue had entered at that point, and stood at her side. “When there’s good food you all certainly don’t waste any time! Introductions, this is my friend Zhou Qianlin.”

“Hello everyone,” she greeted with a small smile, nodding to those gathered.

Lan Jue pointed to the one furthest from them, dressed meticulously with the head of silver hair. “This is our Wine Master, who manages the Gothic Winery on the Avenue.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said again politely.

“Welcome, beautiful lady.” The Wine Master stepped forward, and in accordance with noble custom bent to kiss her hand.

Lan Jue continued, indicating a tall and stocky man in his forties. He rose a good head taller than Lan Jue, and his white shirt was stretched taught over his stalwart frame. His face was craggy, his skin tanned bronze, covered with a finely sculpted

beard.

“This is our Mechanist. We also call him the Blacksmith.”

“Hello,” she said gracefully.

The Blacksmith bubbled with laughter. “This is the first time the Jewelry Master has brought someone along, welcome!” He did not move forward, but instead gave her an amicable nod.

“This is our Coffee Master.”

“And our Tailor.” Lan Jue indicated the other woman present besides Zhou Qianlin.

The Tailor was herself a beautiful woman, of medium build with long brown hair. She was clad in a simple white blouse with the sleeves rolled to her arms and a tight black skirt.

Upon introductions her eyes grew bright. “Qianlin, you really are gorgeous. I simply have make you some clothes.”

Zhou Qianlin laughed prettily. “Thank you very much, miss Tailor.”

“Please sit,” Lan Jue said, pulling free a chair for her.

Zhou Qianlin hesitated. “But there’s one other you haven’t introduced.”

“That one doesn’t need an introduction,” Lan Jue said casually, “so as to save us all his blathering.”

“Jewelry Master! My best friend!” An agitated voice bubbled up from across the table, a pale man with indignant expression. His voice was muffled from the lollipop stuck between his lips.

He stood and made his way towards Zhou Qianlin, his expression changing to adopt a wide smile. He began speaking fast enough to make Zhou Qianlin dizzy. “Hello there pretty lady, I am the universally popular and wisest among us. You an call me: the Accountant! Do you have a boyfriend? It’s can’t be this Jewelry Master right? Don’t be fooled by his finery, inside he’s all rubbish. A normal plebian. But me, I’m the young one with all the potential!”

Chapter 66: The Bluefin Tuna

“Slow it down, there’s no hurry,” Zhou Qianlin said good- naturedly.

“Shut up, or I’ll beat the crap out of you!” The Mechanist’s growling voice thrummed through the room as he shook his large fist under the Accountant’s nose.

“Only cowards resort to violence!” The accountant shot back.

“Call me a coward and you’ll regret it. All I know is, you keep running your mouth and I’ll crush you to paste, then scrape you out the door!” The Mechanist’s harsh voice threatened.

The Accountant’s face paled. “B-bowing to superior physical might is the wise decision. I’ll tolerate it, for now!”

Zhou Qianlin struggled to stifle her laughter at seeing this strange man. He was a bit of a clown.

The argument was punctuated with the rise of the back curtain. The Gourmet appeared bearing a large tray, upon

which were perched eight delicate square-shaped plates. Each bore a large seaweed roll, though their contents were unclear.

“Here comes the delicious food! What is it? What is it?” The Accountant nearly jumped for joy.

“Shut up!”

The Gourmet placed the platter atop the table. “Our appetizer is a minced handroll. Help yourselves. Made from the left-over pieces while I was carving the Bluefin, wrapped in seaweed. There is no seasoning, just the delicious original flavors of meat itself combined with the faint additions of the wrap. One for everyone.” As he spoke he took up one for himself. One bite, two, and then it was finished. Afterwards his eyes fell upon Zhou Qianlin, and he smiled amicably.

“This is the Gourmet,” Lan Jue introduced.

“Hello, thank you for hosting this lovely dinner,” she said, turning towards him.

The Gourmet chuckled. “No need to be so polite. Welcome,

welcome, please eat. “He motioned for her to choose a wrap, then turned and left.

The Accountant was first to reach out for a wrap, but his hand was slapped away by the Mechanist.

“What now?! I can’t use food to plug up my mouth, isn’t that what you want?” The Accountant fumed.

The Mechanist pointed towards the Wine Master, who had stood and walked off to the side. He stopped by a box.

Lan Jue’s eyes grew bright, and rose to his feet as he followed the Wine Master with his gaze.

The silver metallic box opened, and from within a faint white wisp of air emanated forth.

“Sherry,” Lan Jue stated, a grin plastered on his face.

Zhou Qianlin gave Lan Jue a curious expression. “How do you know that’s sherry?”

“Temperature and grade,” he said. “Different types of alcohol each have specific suitable temperatures at which to drink them. For red wine, that’s fifteen degrees. The incubator wouldn’t have released steam like you saw at that temperature. White wine, on the other hand, is best at five degrees. Which of course would produce that sort of steam. Champaign is often enjoyed at a similar temperature, but it wouldn’t be suitable for this meal, clearly. And so, it must be sherry. It’s only white wine that can cause the natural flavors of seafood to blossom forth.”

The Wine Master first produced eight glasses from within the box, followed by a bottle of wine. It was significantly larger than an average bottle – roughly three liters. However, Lan Jue’s face dropped when he spotted the label. “A common blend.”

The Wine Master shot him a withering glance. “For Bluefin Tuna, cold and dry sherry is best. What would you prefer?”

Lan Jue smirked. “It’s fine. And quite the bottle. It should be of adequate quality.”

The Wine Master gave the bottle a gentle push, and it slid towards Lan Jue. He tossed him a bottle opener.

Lan Jue skillfully opened the bottle, and lifted it up. He placed his thumb in the punt and wrapped his fingers around the base before moving to the Wine Master’s side and pouring him a few fingers.

The Wine Master picked up the glass and gave it a swirl before bringing it to his nose. He inhaled deeply, took a sip, and in the midst of appreciating it’s aftertaste gave Lan Jue a small nod. “It’s a relatively ordinary village wine, but of fine status. The advantages of a larger bottle.”

“A large bottle can be that good?” The Accountant asked.

The Wine Master cast him a dismissive glance. “The wine is wasted on you.”

The Accountant glowered dubiously, but dared not say anything before the Wine Master.

Lan Jue laughed in spite of himself. “In a larger bottle the total volume is much higher. When preserved it retains it’s flavor for longer. If we assume the average bottle is about seven hundred and fifty milliliters, which could be stored for around thirty years, then a one point five liter should last over forty.

This three liter can last even longer. In regards to taste, since it’s all the same wine in higher volume, it can stand longer exposure to oxygen. The taste will change over time. And so, higher volume bottles of wine are held in higher esteem, and are of higher quality. This is particularly true of older wines.”

As he spoke he’d arrived before the Tailor. He poured her approximately two fingers before moving to Zhou Qianlin, then the Wine Master, Mechanist, Coffee Master, Accountant and himself.

His method of pouring looked simple, but followed the rules of etiquette; women first, followed by seniority.

Zhou Qianline swirled the wine in her glass, and the faint scent of the sherry wafted up to fill her nostrils. She took a small sip, and was immediately swept up in the sweet burn as it slipped passed her throat. She felt it tingle through her whole body. Her pretty eyes sparkled.

A pink meat filled the wraps, not something that appeared terrible attractive to eat. There was no distinct scent, either. Zhou Qianlin turned her head to look at Lan Jue. It was her first time trying something like this.

Lan Jue smiled at her. “Go on and try it. We only get this opportunity about once a year.”

The Accountant couldn’t help but interject. “Jewelry Master, what’s so nice about this particular fish? This is also my first time partaking.”

The Coffee Master rolled his eyes. “Letting you worm your way in was a mistake. But for the sake of our two beautiful guests I’ll educate you.”

“Bluefin Tuna live in the deep ocean, and are considered mature when they reach fifty pounds. In truth, freshly pulled from the water they aren’t at their best. Five days on ice is the sweet spot. It gives it time to release it’s amino acids. After five days of acid discharge is when they reach the highest point of deliciousness – which is the point we’re at right now. As for the richest part of the tuna, that would be the area around it’s belly. Made in to a paste, as it is in the wraps, it isn’t as ambrosial as the belly, but it certainly is still something special to eat.”

Chapter 67: Gluttonous Feast

The flavor! It was the first thing that filled Zhou Qianlin’s mind as she popped the roll in to her mouth. She couldn’t imagine how she’d never had something so delicious before. She took a quick sip of that sweet and spicy wine, which elevated the flavor to even greater heights.

For a long moment Zhou Qianlin tried to contain herself, but soon couldn’t help but lean towards Lan Jue. “Amazing,” she said in quiet tones.

“The best is yet to come,” he whispered in her ear.

His breath in her ear caused her pretty face to redden ever so slightly. She moved away.

Not long after the wraps had been finished, the second course arrived. Everyone was provided a small copper pot with an alcohol burner in it’s base to heat the plate. Within the ‘hot pot’ simmered a simple kelp soup.

Next were provided several plates, upon which were long strips of fish. They were of a slightly darker hue than those used

in the wraps.

“Mid-abdominal meat. Place the strips in the water. After it’s boiled and the meat turns white, then it’s ready to be eaten. But don’t let it sit too long.” The Gourmet sat to join his guests. Lan Jue poured him a glass of wine.

He then turned to Zhou Qianlin. “Also part of the fish belly, but not as rich. You can eat it raw or boiled. For balance we don’t want the oily sensation from eating it raw, so we’ll have it b oiled.”

After providing each of the diners with a helping of sauce, the Gourmet took a sip of the sherry. He shot the Wine Master a quick glance.

The Wine mastered responded with cool indifference. “Don’t give me that look. There are too many people.” More people meant more wine would be consumed. And for each bottle enjoyed that was one less bottle in store. This was especially poignant for his rarer stock.

The soups began to boil, and the fish was placed inside. In only a few short moments pink became white and the fish was

extricated from the hot water to be eaten. It was smeared with a vinegar-based sauce, enhanced with secret ingredients before bites were taken. The outside was boiled white while the depths remained red, like frosted hawthorn cakes.

The meat didn’t have the flavor of the upper abdominal slices from before, but when paired with the sauce it’s taste was almost beyond compare.

Side dishes of pickled vegetables were then scattered across the table to be paired with the meal.

The hot pots were cleared away and slices of fish sashimi were prepared, from all parts of the fish. Light pink, light red, deep red – they were brought out in waves, in pieces large and small. It was presented with horse radish and wasabi, and everyone lapsed in to silence as they enjoyed the food.

The fifty-two pound fish was truly too much to finish despite there being eight of them. However, the Gourmet had already accounted for this, and planned to bring the remainders down to the Underground for when he entertained other distinguished guests.

“The final course. Fried fish head and neck.” The Gourmet returned with a massive platter, atop of which was the head and neck of the tuna roasted to a golden hue. He set it before the watchful eyes of the guests.

The face itself was ferocious, and compared to what had come before looked a sight less appetizing.

“It certainly doesn’t look very good. Does it really taste alright?” The Accountant eyes the platter, unconvinced.

But no sooner had he asked than two of the other guests had already tucked in. Two pairs of old Chinese-style chopsticks had plucked clear the eyes, and returned only a moment later to begin plucking away at what meat remained.

“Wow, the face even.” The Accountant still eyed the fish head with uncertainty. On the other hand he knew the others to be accomplished foodies, especially the first two to partake – Jewelry Master Lan Jue and the usually restrained Wine Master. With the evidence presented to him, the head had to be delicious.

The others were also quick to move, and it took only s short

time for the head to be reduced to nearly nothing.

Zhou Qianlin watched Lan Jue as his fingers shot out like lightning to snap up the fish, and even though her taste buds were still full of the taste of the dish from earlier she trusted Lan Jue’s judgement.

“Fish eyes, they clear vision and nourish the eyes. Make it like crystal. Have some.” Lan Jue placed the eye he plucked free upon Zhou Qianlin’s plate.

Her face scrunched in to a look of distaste, and she pushed the small morsel back unto his plate. “You go ahead.”

Lan Jue gave her a flat look. “You aren’t scared are you?” The eye was passed back like a ping-pong ball.

Zhou Qianlin’s face grew red, but she said nothing.

“Alright, try this then.” He exchanged the eye for a bit of face meat.

The Gourmet chuckled to the side. “Gluttons know what good food is. The average person wouldn’t be interested in trying fish head or neck. It’s usually greedy chefs who safe that part for themselves. Bluefish Tuna, as a deep sea fish, doesn’t have a lot of meat in it’s face. Instead it’s composed of colloid, the tastiest part. Best of the best.

Sure enough, as the morsel slipped past her lips Zhou Qianlin was overcome with the mingling pungent flavors of the meat and the distinct texture of the colloid. The explosion of taste would forever be branded in to her memory.

The Accountant had begun to participate, but was unable to procure much for himself. His strength and dexterity were a far sight less capable than the others around the table. It was a failing of his genetics that, though he was not considered slow, his natural abilities were less in comparison. Compared with the fact that the Mechanist kept shoving him out of the way, this left the Accountant with only the crispy brown skin of the fish left to enjoy. The skin was delicious in it’s own right, but did not have any of the colloid the others were reveling in.

The wondrous feast came to it’s conclusion, and though there was bitterness evident in the Accountant’s eyes, no one paid him any mind.

“Thank you, Gourmet. I’m going to head out.” The Tailor stood, nodded politely towards the Gourmet and turned to leave. She paused, however, to face Zhou Qianlin. “Qianlin, please remind Lan Jue to bring you by my shop sometime. You have an excellent figure, you need a set of fine garments to match. I’ll be thinking on it, and when you come by we’ll take your measurements.”

“I’ll send you off.” The Coffee Master stood and joined the Tailor at her side. She shot him a disparaging glance but said nothing. She said her farewells and left.

Lan Jue also stood. “It’s our time to leave as well.” There was no need for him to offer thanks, his relationship with the Gourmet didn’t require it.

“If you come across any particularly tasty morsels in your travels, you keep me in mind,” their host said.

“Hm?” Lan Jue blinked, giving the Gourmet a suspicious glance. “How’d you know I was going on a trip?”

The Gourmet rounded on the Accountant. “With this one’s big mouth hanging around, how could I not know?”

Lan Jue’s features darkened as he looked at the Accountant, making the man shiver.

“You dared to spy on my business?”

“Eh… J-jewely Master, listen. It wasn’t on purpose. I just sort of chanced upon the information. I just know that you and those pretty workers of your are up to something unconventional, hehe, n-no idea what you want to do exactly!”

Chapter 68: The End?

To Zhou Qianlin, Lan Jue appeared passive and gentle. He did not react to the Accountant’s malfeasance. However, as they turned to leave the Gourmet’s small apartment a tendril of lightning snaked soundlessly along the ground under the Accountant’s feet. Every hair on is body stood on end.

“This wont happen again. Otherwise, I’ll throw you out of the Avenue myself.” The Wine Master had also stood, staring daggers at the offender as he spoke. He left on Lan Jue’s heels.

The Accountant opened his mouth, and a tendril of smoke slithered from between his lips. The muscles of his face twitched uncontrollably. “You have to believe me, I was just having some fun! I didn’t mean anything by it.”

The Mechanist reached out and grabbed the Accountant by the throat. “It’s because I believe you that I want to beat you even worse.”

The Gourmet interjected gently. “Were it not be a waste of my food, I’d beat you myself until you threw it all back up. You better think up some way to make it up to the Jewelry Master.”

The sky had grown dark in the interim. The Avenue was lit only by the lights of the shops that lined it’s sides, and though not bright it added to the rustic charm of the Avenue’s antique construction.

Lan Jue walked in silence, Zhou Qianlin a step behind.

“Are you angry?”

Lan Jue shook his head. “The guy’s just that way, he didn’t do it to hurt me specifically. It’s not really worth getting angry with him over. I’m just thinking of other things.”

“Oh?” Zhou Qianlin watched him carefully.

Lan Jue stopped and turned to face Zhou Qianlin. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“What?” Her confusion only grew.

“You’re so like her that in my mind, at certain times I forget you aren’t. It’s wrong, Hera is the only one in my heart. You

aren’t her replica, not her replacement. And so, I apologize. In the future I’ll be only your bodyguard. After these three years, when my contract ends, we’ll part ways and have no more contact.”

Lan Jue’s voice was distant, detached. As he spoke, even he himself felt he probably went too far.

But he had no choice. Ke’er’s words had woken him up. Had Zhou Qianlin not begun to replace Hera, at least in his mind, would he have agreed to three years as a bodyguard? Would he have become an instructor at a university? And he even brought her to the Avenue, to participate in this special meal. All of this together meant only one thing; she had begun to mean something to him.

The wondrous flavors of the meal still dominated his taste buds, but in spite of their valiant efforts he couldn’t shake these thoughts. Zhou Qianlin wasn’t his Hera. His Hera was gone. Logic told him he mustn’t continue, else one day Zhou Qianlin replace Hera as his most beloved.

It was best to deal with something like this in the beginning. The longer he let it be, the harder it would become to do the right thing.

So he had no recourse but to speak up.

Zhou Qianlin looked at him, speechless. There was no change in the expression of her pretty face. But her eyes couldn’t conceal everything, and the secrets were hidden there.

She gave him a long, piercing stare. Her deep green eyes were deep, as though capable of drinking his soul in to their depths. Under that heavy gaze, Lan Jue’s heart couldn’t help but skip a beat. He felt the pang in his chest, though it was not solely from her look.

“Qianlin, you’re a nice girl. I know what I said hurt you, but…”

“Fine.” She replied softly.

She followed that with a burst of pretty, tintinnabular laughter.

“Are…” Lan Jue looked at her, dumbfounded. “Are you alright?”

Zhou Qianlin shook her head. “You men. You think all women under the sky just love you. Surely you don’t think I felt something for you?”

“…”

Zhou Qianlin’s hard gaze kept him pinned. “If you think I like you, or you’re afraid I’ll like you sometime in the future, then you have nothing to worry about. You took my body, which means I’ll have to remember you for the rest of my life, but when I do it will be in regret. You said it, you’re just my bodyguard and nothing more. I’ve never thought of you as anything more. Don’t think of yourself as someone special, got it? This dinner was nice, now send me home.”

The words still hung in the air as she turned to leave, a small smile on her face.

Lan Jue stood in place, frozen for a good few seconds.
Eventually he began to follow.

Her face was calm, revealing nothing. But deep in her eyes lived something strange, fluctuating. There was gratification, regret, pain, and something unexplainable that flowed within

her.

The entire way back to her mountaintop home was spent in silence.

“Alright, here’s fine.” Zhou Qianlin stopped and smiled towards Lan Jue as she spoke.

“Right,” he said, nodding his head.

“You’re heading out tomorrow, be careful. Oh, by the way, so you don’t misunderstand let me make this clear. I do not care for you, I say this so that you make sure to come back ready to act effectively as my bodyguard.”

“I will.” He nodded again.

“Goodbye.” She waved a hand, and left without saying anything else.

Lan Jue watched her leave, unmoving. After a moment he snorted, and strode away.

He cast the experience away as though it were nothing. Still, for reasons he didn’t understand, a dull ache still remained in his chest.

Zhou Qianlin went directly to her room and sat on the bed. Her face betrayed no emotion, but after a good while a bitterness crept in, and tears began to flow uncontrollably from the corner of her eyes. She made no sound, and the tears rolled down her smooth, white skin unhindered.

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Skyfire Avenue was as silent as ever. At night there never were very many stragglers on the street. The darkness had grown, but Lan Jue’s mood had improved as he moved down the chilly street.

“Come to me,” a deep voice intruded in his ear. He jumped slightly from the unexpected sound, then turned towards the Gothic Winery.

“You aren’t calling me here to apologize on behalf the Accountant, are you?” Lan Jue sat beside the Wine Master, smirking.

The Wine Master’s face betrayed a rare smile. “Your current mood isn’t due to what he did. There’s no reason to bother with him. The guy is a clown. No, it’s because of the girl you brought tonight. Am I right?”

Lan Jue looked at his old friend. “It’s done.”

The Wine Master gave a wry chuckle. “If it’s done you don’t need to tell me so. You’re an adult. I’m not your father.”

Lan Jue’s face grew hard. “Why’d you call me here.”

The Wine Master smiled. “Blind taste check. Let’s see if you’re still as sharp as you used to be.”

Chapter 69: The Legend Of The Gods Of Wine

A taste test, obviously, was determining the type and quality of an alcohol by taste alone, without the benefit of seeing it’s bottle or label.

“Taste test? Great!” Lan Jue smiled. “Just don’t give me anything too nasty. If it’s too bad I wont be able to stomach it.”

The Wine Master chuckled and extricated a bottle from the wine cabinet at their side. He placed it before Lan Jue. The bottle was without adornment, covered in a thin layer of dust. The only hint to it’s contents was it’s deep red color.

A bottle opener was produced and the bottle was opened. Two glasses were spread before him, within which the Wine Master poured a small amount from the bottle.

Lan Jue didn’t immediately reach for the wine, instead taking a sip of plain water from a separate glass. He then took up the wine and passed it under his nose. He swirled the contents, breathing deeply.

In a flash Lan Jue’s expression underwent a tremendous change. Shock, appreciation and disbelief flitted across his features.

“This… this is…”

He lifted the glass higher and peered at it through the light, checking it’s opacity.

It wasn’t the ruby shine of your average red wine. Instead it appeared almost turbid. But despite the unconventional appearance, Lan Jue’s gaping expression managed, “Burgundy Domaine de la Romanee-Conti?”

The Wine Master was silent, simply sitting there with a smile.

It wasn’t long ago Lan Jue had nearly given the Wine Master a stroke by drinking one of his ‘celestial elixirs’, a Romanee- Conti. A masterwork of red wine. The pride of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Abbreviated as DRC, it was a wine-producing area in Burgundy, ancient France. It was home to the best ever made, from one of the most famous and storied manufacturers.

It was unique, and required only a sniff from Lan Jue to determine it’s nature.

“Try it,” the Wine Master said, motioning for him to take a sip. He took up his own for emphasis.

Lan Jue took a large sip, holding the liquid in his mouth. In the brief moment on his tongue the high-grade flavors of the wine burst free, rich and aromatic. The spectacular taste filled every corner of his mouth, and although it didn’t have the heavenly flavor of the Romanee-Conti from earlier it remained an astounding experience for any wine connoisseur.

The lingering tastes stayed with Lan Jue for a long moment. Finally he found his voice. “Excellent vintage. Only the people of ancient Burgundy could make something with this sort of flavor. Flowery, fruity, plum… enduring and excellent. From the tip of the tongue to it’s base and back again, the texture is wonderful no matter where it lands. The tannins are smooth – not silky like Romanee-Conti but not far off.”

“So, in your estimation, what are we enjoying?” The Wine master inquired.

Lan Jue answered without hesitation. “DRC La Tache, or possibly Grands Echezeaux. As for the year, I’d say 2012 Former Era, about.”

The Wine Master burst in to peels of laughter.

“Wrong!”

“Wrong?” Lan Jue blinked, stunned. “Was it the wine that’s wrong or the year? There’s no way it can be anything else! DRC wines are very rare and I’ve had very little, so I suppose there’s the chance I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s a Richebourg, or a St. Vivant? It’s not a St. Vivant is it? St vivant isn’t as good as this is…”

“Wrong, wrong, all wrong.” The Wine Master sat smugly before him. He took another sip of his wine, appreciation plain on his face.

“Wine Master, it’s no fun if you play tricks on me.” Lan Jue was fairly certain of his abilities.

The Wine Master leaned closer. “How many ranks of

Burgundy exist?”

“Four,” Lan Jue replied. “The Lowest is called AOC, Appelation d’Origine Controlee. Then there is communal, or village-level. Next are premier cru, and finally grand cru. These are the DRC level wines. Romanee-Conti is chief among the grand cru, king of wines.”

“What you just tasted, was village wine,” the older gentlemen said indifferently.

“What?” Lan Jue rose to his feet, nearly knocking over his chair. Such was the surprise he felt from the Wine Master’s revelation.

“Impossible, how can a simple communal wine possess the taste of a DRC? Like a Romanee-Conti? Wine Master, you know very well that wine is my most important hobby. You mustn’t tease me about these things.”

The Wine Master only laughed. “We had the same reaction, you and I, when I had it first. My first sip of this wine I was completely taken aback. More shocked even than you. It must be a trick, I thought. However, later when the truth was

revealed to me, I knew I wasn’t wrong in my original estimation. Nor was there are trickery. Because, the village wine in your hand indeed should be that good. It is a communal wine, but if I tell you it’s name you will understand how it is like it is.”

“The average connoisseur knows Romanee-Conti as the king of wines, but ancient France had three ‘Gods of Wine.’ Did you know that?”

This information is mostly true, with some bias.  You  can learn about the ‘three gods of wine’ by looking their names up in Wikipedia. If you’d like to learn more about Burgundy classifications, famous vineyards and naming practices, you can check out this excellent resource here. It’s a good start on the basics of wine appreciation

“You mean the three burgundy wine masters of the time, the ones honored as the Gods of Wine?”

The Wine Master nodded his head in affirmation. “The three gods of wine as recognized by the world were Aubert de Villain of DRC; former co-owner of the DRC Lalou Bize-Leroy; and independent vintner Henri Jayer.”

“Aubert de Villain is credited with the creation of DRC’s dominance, the most famous of which is the Romanee-Conti. His masterpiece. He was fully deserving of his status as one of the Three Masters, and further displayed that with his excellent management capabilities.”

“Mrs. Lalou Bize-Leroy was originally co-owner of the DRC domain. However, eventually creative differences on how the vineyards should be managed brought her in to conflict with Aubert. She was eventually elbowed out of the board of directors and became an independent vintner, of the Domaine Leroy. She made it one of the most sought-after wines in the world, and thus also grew to be successful. So goes the story. She was also instrumental in creating new biological brewing methods with Aubert.”

“Finally we come to Henri Jayer, whose name is mentioned least among the Three Masters. However, in the world of wines he is held highest of all. Should his name be mentioned within any auction, you can be assured the item will be it’s biggest draw. If it is said that the Romanee-Conti is the King of Wines, then Henri’s three top wines are the King of Kings. Stranger still, his crowning achievement was not a grand cru, instead being a premier cru. The Cros Parantoux. A name difficult to pronounce, and impossible to match.”

Lan Jue took another look at the unlabeled wine set before him. “You can’t mean this is a wine created by one of the Three Masters,” he nearly whispered.

The Wine Master stood, chuckling. “That’s exactly what I mean. This is a village wine, but the man who made it was the best of the very best. One of only several hundred bottles made per year when the master, Henri Jayer, enjoyed success as the God of Wine.”

Chapter 70: Possibilities

Shock! At the last words of the Wine Master Lan Jue felt the surprise vibrate to his very core. He stared slack-jawed.

For an avid lover of wine to have this opportunity – to taste a wine actually created by one of the Three Gods of Wine – it didn’t matter what the ‘rank’ of it was, it filled him with something almost unspeakable. He was happier even than that day he’d had the Romanee-Conti.

In the former era, bottles of Romanee-Conti were produced in the thousands per year. Products of the Master Henri Jayer, however, only numbered in the hundreds regardless of classification! It was an experience that could not be measured with any amount of money.

“Thank you,” Lan Jue stated, simply and earnestly.

The Wine Master smiled contentedly. “Come, drink.”

“I don’t really want to.”

“It’s already opened,” the Wine Master insisted. “It’ll spoil otherwise. It has to be finished as soon as possible.”

“Actually, I meant I’d rather take it home and enjoy it carefully,” Lan Jue said. “What do you think?”

“… …”

The bottle had done it’s job. Before discovering it was the product of Henri Jayer, he knew only that it was a village wine from 1997. It’s low classification didn’t detract, however, from those wondrous tastes that had nearly caused him to forget his troubles.

“So go on then, what do you want me to do?” Lan Jue finished the last drop from his glass and, setting it down, stared pointedly at the Wine Master.

“You’re that sure I want something from you?”

Lan Jue’s eyes narrowed, similar to his expression the first time he’d sipped the exquisite wine. “It can’t be easy to part with a wine from one of the great masters. If you were really

that generous I’d be truly happy.”

The Wine Master laughed. “You always talk about how stingy I am. But how could a miser suddenly be so generous? So in fact you guess correctly, there is a request I’d like to make of you. The Clairvoyant has discovered that someone from a nearby planet is attempted to acquire another bottle from one of the Three Masters. I’d like to go see for myself, and present them with a gift. In the three alliances there are only a select few who possess such exemplary wines. I hope that through these discoveries we can uncover the secrets of these masters, and bring their gifts back to modern man.”

Lan Jue’s eyes widened and grew bright. “Truly?”

The Wine Master nodded. “Wine isn’t just my hobby, it’s my only hobby. This isn’t something I’d joke about.”

“Two questions,” Lan Jue began. “First, you’ve had wine like this the whole time and you’ve never shared before?! And second, you actually take advantage of the Clairvoyan’ts powers to find wine?”

The Wine Master gave him a hard stare. “What are you trying

to say?”

Lan Jue broke in to a peel of laughter, shooting his old friend a big thumbs-up. “Good on you!”

The two men exchanged a look, before starting to howl in laughter.

“So you agree?” The Wine Master asked again, recovering from his guffaws.

Lan Jue shrugged. “With your powers, you still need my help?”

“The Clairvoyant’s divinations were somehow cut short near the end of his vision,” the Wine Master said. “You should understand what this means. ‘A wise man doesn’t stand beneath a collapsing wall’, and more than that how could you enjoy the fruits if you don’t do the labor?”

The phrase here means a wise man has the ability to recognize and protect himself from potentially dangerous situations. Also, when finding oneself in a dangerous situation, having the

ability to extricate oneself quickly

Lan Jue sighed. “Fine, what can I say. This Henri Jayer has fed my wine addiction, this will be my reciprocation. But, it’ll have to wait. I have to head to the Shattered Starfields. I’ll be gone about a month, when I get back we’ll discuss where to go from there.”

“Not a problem.” The Wine Master smiled. “I’m in no hurry. I still have some in stock.”

“I’m off!” Lan Jue rose, waving his head.

ζ

A shadow swept passed, and a dozen seconds later rolling thunder followed. It was a McKelly p12 high altitude verti-car. Only a car like that could reach such break-neck speeds.

“Mika, slow down! I’m getting car-sick…” Lin Guoguo’s face was pained, and she had a white-knuckle grip on the car’s grip handle.

Lan Jue sat in the back middle seat of the car as it roared along. Xiuxiu and Lin Guoguo sat on either side of him. In front, Mika sat behind the wheel, peering through red hair and black- rimmed glasses while Ke’er cheered her on in the passenger’s seat.

Mika’s driving style was anything but conservative as she was squeezing every drop of horsepower from the car. She’d broken the sound barrier long ago.

“Fine, fine. Weak. The boss didn’t say anything…” Mika grumbled.

“I just lost my lunch,” Lan Jue said lazily, leaning against the seatback.

Xiuxiu giggled. Ke’er turned back to look at Lan Jue at stuck out her tongue.

Mika huffed. “We’ll be there shortly. Hold on.” The car suddenly took a handsome drift to the side before suddenly losing altitude. Instruments inside helped regulate the weightlessness of gravity, but that didn’t stop their stomach from jumping in to their throat.

Lin Guoguo screamed, followed shortly by Xiuxiu.

Ten seconds later the car was pulling steadily up to the public airship hangar of Planet Skyfire.

Beep, beep, beep! A harsh alarm filled the interior. Several uniformed guards suddenly gathered round. An electronic voice joined them: “Speed violation, classification; severe. Please exit the vehicle immediately, and submit to an inspection.”

The McKelly p12 high-altitude verti-car’s doors folded open like a pair of butterfly wings. The four gorgeous women stepped out in tandem: Fiery Mika, Blue-haired Ke’er, Xiuxiu the raven- haired beauty and green-bobbed Guoguo.

The four all wore their jet-black, close fitting flight suits. The contours of their slender figures were outlined perfectly, every curve and valley. Though they were wearing helmets you could almost hear the guardsmen take a collective gulp as their heads figuratively exploded.

“Is there a problem, handsome gentlemen?” Mika swept her flirtatious gaze from one officer to the other.

“M-miss, you broke the speed limit,” one officer stuttered.

“Oh, I’m sooo sorry! Can you be a dear and watch the car for us? We have some… business.” Mika waved a delicate hand at them, turned, and strode off. The three women at her heels followed her lead.

Lan Jue stood in their midst, a distinct swagger to his gait.

A few moments later, watching them leave, one of the officers came to his senses.

“We’re wearing helmets. How would she know if we were handsome?”

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