“There is no master among intellectuals, and no losers among soldiers. I trust you understand this truth. With so many books, this place attracted my attention. As a result, after I had asked the Clairvoyant my questions, I decided to stay. I hadn’t been here a month and, eager to show my prowess, I read and commented on the collected works you see here. Around that time, I met the Bookworm, and immediately he and I launched in to an academic tirade. I was young then, and confident in my knowledge of all subjects. So our arguments continued, off and on. Before we’d known it, a month had passed.”
“We had a healthy respect for one another. We’d known each other for only a short time, but had already become good friends. In our world of academics, books and learning are the only thing we care to concern ourselves with. That short time, surrounded by books and intellectuals, was of great benefit to me. It’s plausible to surmise that, had my life been absent this exchange, it’s very unlikely I’d have reached the magnitude of success I enjoy now.”
“Around the middle of our second month of discussions, we discovered a significant discrepancy in opinion regarding one academic issue in particular. Both of us were combative, irritable, each unwilling to concede to the other. It became so fervent, so combative that we decided it could only be settled with a wager. Should the Bookworm lose, he would relinquish the Library to me, and remove himself from the Avenue. Where I to lose, it would be my task to pursue and deliver books equivalent to the aggregate cost of those already in stock. More than fifty percent of those would need to be unique volumes, not copies of those that were already owned.”
“To be frank, I was already in love with the Avenue. I agreed on impulse. Immediately we set about soliciting input from every luminary the academic world had to offer. Many came to participate in our intellectual battle.”
At this point in his story, the Keeper paused. His eyes betrayed a look of disappointment. “Of course you can guess the final result, considering I’m still here. He chose exile. Even prior to his exodus, I harbored deep regret even in victory. I told him to disregard our wager, that he could remain as before. But he had a terribly sour temper, and ignored my pleas. He left in silence, alone. We didn’t see him again for thirty years.”
“And then one day he came back. He sought me out, and once again challenged me to a competition. The wagers would be the same as our first encounter. By that time, by virtue of my learning, I had already reached Paragon status. As ever, he was no challenge to me. He lost again. By then his shortcomings were clear to me. I knew that intellectually he was more than capable of competing with anyone, however physically he was constrained and unable to realize growth. As such, I held the advantage.”
“What happened between he and I, even all these years later, is still a regret that lies heavy on my heart. I often wonder how deeply I wounded him by taking his precious Library. This was why I had hoped so desperately for him to return. But I never saw him again after that second encounter. We spoke by communicator, once. He told me he would never be able to better me, no matter how long he studied, even if he spent his entire life in the pursuit. But he made me promise… one day, if his pupil were to defeat mine, that I would pass the Library unto him once I died. He would inherit this place.”
“I agreed. Perhaps I felt as though I owed him still, but the hope he would remain never abated. I’ve tried to follow in his footstep since then, to do and study as he’d have done. As my knowledge and experience increased, I put his theories to work. The more effort I put towards it, the more I admired the Bookworm. Although our experimentation methods were in opposition, the end result was the same. I wasn’t wrong. And neither was he.”
The Keeper seemed more fatigued than before, going so far as to close his eyes. “Still, with his knowledge he’s certain to have found a way to prolong his life, as I have. An invaluable treasure for anyone, but especially a scholar.”
Lan Jue took advantage of the lull to ask him own questions. “What do you need from me?” Lan Jue knew the old man wouldn’t have shared this story with him if he hadn’t needed something relating to it.
The Keeper smirked, bemused by his young compatriot’s tact and intelligence. “Wait until the academic competition at the NEU has concluded. Once it has, I’d like you to spend some time with the Accountant. Go with him to the Bookworm. I’ll be giving you something I’d like you to deliver. Tell him he was not wrong all those years ago. Tell him I’ve nearly reached my time, and he should return to claim his library.”
Lan Jue nearly gasped in alarm. “Keeper, your health…”
Suddenly the old man broke in to a fit of laughter. “I thought you were smarter than that,” he said with a grin. “These small tricks are… inspiration. I could sit and wait for him to show up, but give him a little incentive and the chances increase exponentially.”
Lan Jue heaved a sigh of relief. He was well aware of how significant the Keeper was, to the whole of the Eastern Alliance. This wasn’t just due to his Paragon status, but also due to his immeasurable scientific knowledge. He was a treasure of the academic world, and if something should happen to him, it would be a great tragedy.
He took a small computer chip offered by the Keeper, shooting the impossibly old pedant a grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to be just as convincing when I deliver the ‘news.’”
The Keeper nodded. “Go then. If he should have any questions with regards to mecha combat, I’ll leave that to you. And as for my impetuous grandson, help give him some stability if you can. I imagine he’ll be of some considerable use to you. I’ll find someone to substitute your classes while you’re away.”
Lan Jue was helpless to deny the old man, but inwardly he cringed. Off again. He could count the number of classes he’d taught since taking the job on one hand.
The Keeper was astute, and saw Lan Jue’s reservation written on his face. “Not to worry, it’s close. You’ll be back in no time. At most you’ll miss one class. I hear you’ve acquired quite a reputation at the university already. Though I can’t imagine what benefit this class of yours has on the student population, I have faith you aren’t abusing your position or taking advantage. Anyway, you’re busy, I won’t take any more of your time. Ah yes, and do help my grandson find a woman willing to look at him.”
Lan Jue couldn’t express how much respect he had for the old master. However, he couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head at their parting words.
His certainly was a… unique personality, the Jewelry Master mused.
Lan Jue said his goodbyes, and left.
The Keeper lazily rose to his feet as the young man exited the study. Like a candle sputtering in the wind, on the verge of being extinguished, he hobbled his way to the open window and looked out over the Avenue.
“I’m here waiting, old friend. It’s my hope things go back to the way things used to be! You must know, I’ve done so much, prepared so much, to give to you. How could you pass up an opportunity like that? Come quickly.”
Lan Jue returned to the Jewelry Store. During the trek down the Avenue, Zhou Qianlin told him through the Soulcaller gem that he needn’t come back for her tonight. She was to remain at the school and study.
He wasn’t bothered by the news.
Lan Jue went to the Underground, where Hua Li and Chu Cheng were practicing. He didn’t go immediately to meet them, however. Instead he went to the store front.
“Boss.” Mika greeted her employer with a smile.
“Hey, Mika. What do we have available in our power gem inventory? How many a-ranked specifically?”
“Twenty-three in storage currently, plus or minus a couple. As per your instructions, we’ve been holding on to a-rank gems, barring special circumstances.”
Lan Jue nodded. “Alright. Pick out a few that compliment you and the other girls’ Discipline. Distribute them as needed. As to what precisely, I leave to you ladies to figure out.”
Mika’s eyes lit up. “Planning to take us for another adventure, boss?”
Lan Jue smirked. “Always thinking about going out to play. In fact I will have to make a trip in a few days, but I won’t need all of you to come along. Xiuxiu and Guoguo will be enough. You and Ke’er should stay here and look after things.”
Mika immediately stuck out her lower lip in a petulant pout. “You don’t like me boss? Why aren’t you taking me,” she whined.
Lan Jue gave her a flat look. “Cut it out. You’re the boss down here, so act like it. No matter the circumstances, our store can’t have its doors shut all the time. I’ll take you and Ke’er the next time. Also, representatives from the Dark Tower and the Pontiff’s Castle will be visiting soon. Take that in to consideration when you’re selecting what power gems you need.” 1
The tone in her boss’ voice, and the news of the two Western powers coming here, struck her like a brick. Her coquettish belligerence was gone, replaced with a stoic frown. She nodded. “They’d best not provoke me.”
Lan Jue patted her shoulder. “This is Skyfire Avenue, not the West. There’s nothing to worry about. Alright, well It looks like these guys are gunna be in there a little while still. I’ll head back. Guoguo, we depart day after tomorrow.”
“Yes, boss!” Lin Guoguo was jittery with excitement.
Lan Jue made his way back to his personal apartments. He took up position, cross-legged on his bed, and began to meditate. He’d tried to remain diligent, after his experience on Taihua. And there yet remained many areas where he wasn’t operating at full capacity. He still needed to keep himself steady.
The next morning, Lan Jue was rattling along the road towards the NEU campus. It was a familiar scene, but for the fact he bore a different passenger.
The Accountant beamed in childish wonder at the antique bicycle he sat upon. Smiling, he cried. “Jewelry Master, this bike of yours is a museum piece! Very interesting indeed. How long have you harbored such childish interests, I wonder? Forsaking verti-cars for this novel contraption. Very curious!”
“Brings you closer to nature,” Lan Jue explained. “This way you can actually experience it. Good views and a low-carbon lifestyle!”
The Accountant giggled his tittery laugh. “Yes, ah very good indeed! Next time I’ll fetch one for myself as well. We’ll ride together to school.”
“What, are you planning to stay and take classes after the competition?” Lan Jue inquired.
The Accountant nodded, saying “Of course! I’m an excellent student. I’m only here, really, to experience the lifestyle.”
As he was not carrying Zhou Qianlin today, there wasn’t any reason to stop at their usual corner. He drove instead directly to the gates, and stopped. Two others were already there, looking anxiously at them.
Let me just express my respect for that paragraph, but especially the final sentence. Well done, TJ, I tip my hat. ↩