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?”
“I’ll make YOU a deviant! How about we make YOU girly?!”
“Ah! Ow! Ahhh!”
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.
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.
She was introduced as Tailor before in chapter 65, but Seamstress is a much more fitting title, I feel. ↩