It was as if time had stopped; white skirt, black hair, slender fingers, plum blossom teapot, the faint scent of tea. If you were to just see the contours, it was as perfect as a painting.
The tea was poured into two matching cups, red as the teapot. Just enough tea for one mouthful.
“Are you just going to stand there?” Zhou Qianlin lifted her head, looking at the frozen man before her.
White trousers, pale green shirt, short black hair, sender build. But his most arresting feature were those eyes, full of reminiscence.
“Oh.” Lan Jue was shaken from his haze and approached, sitting in the rattan chair set before her.
Zhou Qianlin motioned towards his drink, lifting her own cup. As the scent wafted towards her, she lifted it to her mouth and took a sip.
Lan Jue lifted the cup to his nose, then took a sip. “Jin jun mei, Lapsang Souchong black tea.” He’d always liked the nice things of this world, the ceremonial tea traditions from Former Era China with centuries-old history and culture. It was full of countless principles and traditions, so naturally he’d enjoy it. Contrary to most tea lovers who preferred green tea, he always enjoyed the black.
Green tea was for the scent, black was for warmth.
A small sip, and the aroma washed over him, like his body was transparent. For a moment his worries melted away.
“Good tea,” Lan Jue said praisingly.
Zhou Qianlin poured them both another cup. The small containers could only hold a very small amount. One sip, and more must be poured.
He took another drink, and placing the cup on the able before him, looked at the person adjacent.
Bright azure eyes, calm and impassive, quivering eyelashes.
“Let’s try this again. I am Lan Jue, proprietor of Zeus’ Jewelry Store on Skyfire Avenue.” He reached a hand towards Zhou Qianlin to shake.
Zhou Qianlin regarded him coolly, her eyes serene but distant.
Lan Jue awkwardly retracted his hand. In fact he’d barely managed to keep himself from asking how she was. Clearly that wouldn’t have been appropriate.
“I didn’t ask you here for a fresh start. We should talk about our situation.” Her voice was as pleasant as ever, but there was a distinct chill to it. Perhaps her cold nature was the reason she had chosen black tea, he thought to himself.
“Fine.” Lan Jue nodded.
Zhou Qianlin fumed. He acted like nothing had happened! Honestly…
“Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, you promised me a favor,” she said.
“Indeed. And you’ve thought of one?” Lan Jue stared at her. Zeus had made that promise, surely her request wouldn’t be an ordinary one.
Zhou Qianlin nodded. “I have.”
Lan Jue was anxious to resolve this. His face was calm, but it didn’t mean he’d forgotten. In fact he had never known this level of guilt.
“I’m a student,” Zhou Qianlin began, opening the lid of the teapot. She poured in more hot water and continued. “National Eastern University, National Scholar, Junior.”
National Scholar? Amid the beating of his heart he remembered the video they had sent, the first time he’d seen her. She had been moving between classes.
He’d heard of the National Eastern University, a top school in the nation. It was a mecha-piloting university. Everything they taught was related to mecha. However only the mecha branch was famous for combat, so the whole school wasn’t named a military university.
Considering the background of the Eastern Alliance, the NEU was the single best institution of higher learning. A four year bachelor’s degree and you could find any related job immediately after graduation. With this sort of education background you were guaranteed social progress, and a stepping stone to success in the military. Of the bachelors, the particularly talented were selected to continue their studies. They were the National Scholars.
National scholars, too, studied in a four year program, but they were the elite of the four alliances. They were assured an important position in their field, moreover it was very possible they would see further advancement in a very short time.
In the Eastern Alliance there were only a handful of institutions who trained National Scholars, thus every year less than a thousand such graduates were produced. As a result, National Scholars were highly prized. It was the same in the other two alliances as well.
“I didn’t know you were a National Scholar.” Lan Jue smiled.
“I haven’t graduated yet,” Zhou Qianlin replied, “You can’t call me that.”
Lan Jue said, “If I’m not mistaken, the NEU is a mecha-piloting university. As you’re a graduate student, did you want me to train you in regards to mechs? This I can do, though it wont be easy.”
It was the first thought that crossed his mind, though she may not know of his identity. However she had seen his capabilities the day he’d captured her, she looked like a smart girl.
But what she said next left him stunned.
“I don’t need a mecha teacher,” Zhou Qianlin replied dismissively. “You think I’d want a teacher who was rude and boorish to me?”
“Rude.. boorish?” Lan Jue felt the hair on the back of his neck rankle. No one had ever called him that before.
“We’re nobility, how could I possibly be boorish?” Lan Jue’s breath came uneven.
“Aren’t you,” Zhou Qianlin snapped back. “You don’t even know what a hospital is, and you aren’t boorish? If you aren’t, what else could I call you…?”
Lan Jue looked like he’d been slapped, his agitation beaten out of him. He frowned and leaned against the back of his chair. He said nothing else – there was never else for him to say – there was nothing he could do to erase his sin.
“What do you want,” he asked. He just wanted to leave, quickly. The woman across from him made him feel impotent. He didn’t feel like Zeus – he felt like minced meat on a cutting board.
“It’ll be some time until I graduate. Two years. Because of what happened a week ago, the Western Alliance is likely to seek reprisal against the Eastern Alliance. Especially my family. I’m worried about my safety. You’re rash and infuriating, but you’d do well as a bodyguard. Until I graduate, I’ll need you to protect me at school.”
“Bodyguard?” His voice raised an octave. He’d absolutely never expected her to ask for something like this. He’d thought Zhou Qianlin would disregard his offer, but now he felt like there were ten thousand alpacas stampeding through his head.