Zhou Qianlin ate at her own pace. She dropped her head, and slowly placed the dumplings in her mouth one by one.
Lan Jue took the time to find a spot beside her. He watched the sky grow darker over the horizon. He enjoyed the sense of stillness and quiet.
“How is it? Good?” Lan Jue looked back towards her with a smile.
“Mm.” Qianlin nodded her head.
Lan Jue continued. “You know the drawback to eating chives?”
Qianlin looked at him with curiosity in her eyes. “What’s that?”
“Chives have a great deal of nutrients,” he explained sagely. “Unfortunately It does have a detriment. You see the smell is so strong you can’t kiss anyone for a while after eating some.” 1
“Who in their right mind would want to-” She trailed off, her face red with embarrassment.
Her abashment caused her lily-white skin to become pink as a flush crept across her face. Her glance was admonishing and shy. In the dim light of the streetlamp overhead, she looked like a dream.
The two sat close upon the rock as the darkness closed in around them. The smell of the dumplings filled Lan Jue’s nose on occasion. He spoke up, almost without thinking. “Actually, I quite enjoy eating chives.” He was surprised to find himself struggling with the nearly overpowering urge to kiss her.
Qianlin’s face grew redder still.
Lan Jue haltingly produced a travel cup and handed it to her. “What I mean is, when you finish up, drinking some tea will help. It’ll get rid of the smell.”
She tentatively took the bottle from him and loosened the lid. The full-bodied aroma of the tea greeted her.
“Ngh. Smells good. Jasmine!” She took another long wiff.
“Yup.” Lan Jue nodded. “The best for reducing the smell of chives.”
She took a few small sips. Lan Jue sat quietly beside he as she finished her meal.
She did, eventually, finish. Once she had, they got on to the bike and made their way towards Qianlin’s Skyfire Mountain residence.
“Thank god you’re so light,” Lan Jue said in relief.
“Who else have you been driving around,” she inquired.
“A couple shameless bastards.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist for support, and said nothing.
“Why so quiet,” he asked.
“I’m just tired,” she replied. 2
Lan Jue went on. “Right, what’s going on with this educational exchange thing? Why are they forcing you to participate?”
Qianlin shrugged. “Our two schools have always had a rivalry, though what exactly happened to make it this way I don’t know. All I know is, they do this every year. The previous competitions were all mecha combat, an excuse to beat us under the guise of educational exchange. It’s unfortunately not something our school excels at. So we lose, sometimes very badly. Only this year they decided to add R&D, I don’t know why. That’s why they called me in and want me to participate. That is something our school can do well.”
“What’s the competition arrangements?”
“Tomorrow will be mecha combat,” she said. “Each side will dispatch three of their best students and three teachers to compete in the arena. The combat portion itself is separated in to two parts; the first is in a simulator and the second is actual combat. The simulation will be done in rounds of three. The real fights are ‘sudden death’. After all, mechs are expensive. There’s also of course the risk of injury, so they make the real fights one and out.”
Lan Jue nodded in understanding. “So that’s the way it is. Sounds simple enough.”
Zhou Qianlin sputtered an acrimonious laugh. “It is simple, but who can stand losing again and again year after year? Last year only Professor Tan was able to pull out a victory against another instructor. She helped us redeem a little bit of face. We lost every other competition, from every other year, but that one.”
“How do they intend to compete for R&D?”?”
Zhou Qianlin explained. “One teacher comes with three students, one team for each side. Each team comes up with three problems that they present to the other side for them to solve. The winner is the team that can adequately answer the most questions. We’re expecting Lir to be well prepared, since they’ve finally agreed to the competition. This afternoon Professor Le spend a good deal of time going over the plan. I feel like we have a pretty firm standing. Which is no surprise, since this is Professor Le’s forte.”
Once more, Lan Jue nodded. “Good then. Just don’t overdo it. If there’s something you can’t quite get you can always ask me as well.”
“Ask you,” Qianlin said incredulously.
Lan Jue shot her a glance. “What. You don’t think I’m smart enough? When it comes to mechs there’s very little I don’t know. At the very least I can offer a different point of view.”
Qianlin chuckled at him. “Alright.”
It had been a full day since the conclusion of Poseidon’s Sounds of Nature benefit performance. However, the school was still a fairy dreamland and slowly dying indigo forget-me-nots.
The Poseidon entertainment group had yet to clear things away, instead considering it a ‘gift’ of a fine view to the students and faculty of the NEU. Of course this didn’t hold true for the auditorium. The harnesses, decorations and myriad crystal sea creatures had all been safely stowed away. This was to be expected, of course, since this certainly wouldn’t be the one and only Sounds of Nature performance. There were bound to be other shows on other planets.
Even though the show was long over, the excitement remained. Every teacher and student who watched the show left a loyal fan.
Excitement was in the air, but truth be told it wasn’t entirely from the concert. The NEU still had one important event to consider – the educational exchange competition.
A single black high-alt verti-car was parked quietly outside of the campus gates.
An elderly man who had been present for the performance stood inconspicuously nearby. Director Shi and Director Wu were behind him, engaged in conversation.
Upon seeing the car, Director Shi’s eyes lit up. He immediately walked to the car and pulled open a door.
An aged man, tall with a head of silvery hair, stepped out.
He was strikingly tall – very nearly two meters – with his hair slicked back and a fine grey suit to match. An overcoat hung on his shoulders. He was advanced in age, but that didn’t seem to detract from the manly charm of his face, which looked like it had been chiseled from stone. Were he a decade or two younger, he’d be quite the sight.
“Ruchao, it’s been ages!” The stocky, elderly man from the NEU stepped forward to greet the newcomer and vigorously shake his hand.
The other gentlemen responded in kind, smiling amicably. “Not so long I think. Maybe a year. But I must say, Renjian, you look like you’ve put on a few! You need to take better care of yourself.”
Renjian chuckled good-naturedly. “Oh it’s nothing, I just take up a little extra space. So long as the wife doesn’t run off with another man more svelte than I, there’s nothing to worry over.”
An inexplicably sullen expression flashed across the taller man’s face. “Shall we head in?”
The fatter one stepped aside and motioned his friend in with a wave of his pudgy hand. The two of them walked passed the gates shoulder to shoulder. They were a somewhat comical sight – Ruchao was at least a head taller than the other.
After a few long moments, both Director Shi and Director Wu followed behind them.
The newcomer was the Dean of Lir University, Han Ruchao. Of course the fatter gentleman was his counterpart, the Dean of the NEU, Xu Renjian.
Their names rang in the education circles of the Eastern Alliances. Both were responsible for many well-trained graduates, who went on to live successful lives in their own right.
The two traded words as the meandered through the university. “So Renjian, when are the games commencing? Is your university prepared?”
Xu Renjian smiled ever so slightly. “As expected. All the best pilots were stolen away by you, naturally. What can we do about it? We make the best of what we have.”
Han Ruchao laughed pleasantly at the candid remark. “You’re far too humble, my friend. Who knows what the result of this year’s competitions might be! We might all be pleasantly surprised. In fact, why don’t we make the whole ordeal more interesting? Maybe a little wager?”
Xu Renjian’s flabby face twitched at the prospect. Again, he thought ruefully. The last year his friend walked away with a b-ranked power gem. No here he is again looking for more. Of course he couldn’t allow the challenge to go unmet, that would be weak.
“What sort of wager are you thinking?”
Han Ruchao didn’t miss a beat. “Some changes this time since we have two competitions, don’t you think? A b-ranked gem for the sparring part seems fair. Same as last year. As for the R&D, how about something a little more interesting for the inaugural year. How does an a-rank gem strike you?”
Xu Renjian felt a pang of fear in his chest after hearing the offer. He was very familiar with the type of person Han Ruchao was, and he never gambled on something he had a chance of losing. Clearly combat was his school’s specialty, but for such a wager he must be very confident in his school’s chances for success in the R&D competition.
“We’ll forget about the a-ranked gem. You know I’m a man of limited means!” Despite his tone Xu Renjian wasn’t in the least interested in negotiating a fair exchange. He was simply embarrassed at his lot.
“Ahh, I see.” Han Ruchao shook his head piteously at the shorter man. “Never mind then. I was unaware your school was struggling like that – I suppose you haven’t had any decent researchers come through lately. With this being the case, I suppose we’ll just stick with our former arrangement. A b-ranked stone for the winner of the sparring contest.”
Xu Renjian’s brow furrowed as their chat continued.
Is this some sort of cat and mouse game he’s playing? His plan all along, for fear I’d delay the exchange further?
He found himself in a proverbial pickle 3. His hesitation and speculation were not lost on Han Ruchao. As the silence stretched, so too did his enigmatic smirk.
Eventually Xu Renjian spoke up. “We’ll put a b-ranked gem on the R&D contest. After all the combat portion is already stacked against us, bad luck you know. It’s fair this way.”
The old fox! A surprised displeasure took root in the visiting Dean’s heart. He wasn’t fooled, the slippery snake.
“Excellent!” Han Ruchao belted his acceptance with only the slightest hesitation. He’d already gotten what he wanted, anyway.
The two smiled pleasantly at each other. But in their hearts it was a different matter, both with a jagged axe to grind. They laughed and talked as they strolled to the reception hall.
Really, Lan Jue? That’s your line? Come on TJSS, you can do better than that. ↩
See? That’s what happens when you use a stupid line like that chives nonsense. ↩
Not a literal pickle. ↩