Lan Jue dialed in the Keeper’s com number, and shared the situation in a few short sentences. The Keeper answered with a single, irritated sentence: “These idiots – they only ever spoil what they touch.” He cut the connection, and Lan Jue knew the situation was handled.
Originally, Lan Jue had planned to visit the Wine Master tonight and explain the situation with the wine. However, upon second thought he decided to get him the morning of their drinking date instead. He could get everything done together, and would instead spend the night eating something small and meditating.
Ever since returning from Taihua, Lan ue had felt as though his progress had quickened. He felt stuck at the edge of ninth rank seventh degree, but if this trend continued he would reach ninth rank ninth degree at his brother’s age. As an Adept with two disciplines, that would make him especially dangerous.
Lan jue meditated through the night, solidifying the electrical power that had strengthened around his Core after the recent battles. When he awoke, he had a glass of water and two pieces of plain white bread. He didn’t want anything tasty that might influence the wine he was about to enjoy. He finally left for the Gourmet’s small residence.
The roster was the same; the Gourmet, the Seamstress, and the Pauper look like they’ve been waiting anxiously for this moment.
The moment he saw Lan Jue, the Pauper shot to his feet. “Alright! Everyone’s here, let’s get to drinking.”
The Gourmet nodded. He rose and approached his wine cabinet, extricating the Cros Parantoux from within.
“Alright, so whose dropping the knife or fork.” It was wine nomenclature 1, and it was describing a means to open a bottle of wine. Traditionally, one would use a corkscrew to achieve the desired result, but using two forks or knives inserted in the edges worked just as well. The most important thing in opening wine was making sure that one removed the whole cork.
The cork itself was a type of oak bark. So long as its integrity remained, the wine inside was protected. Sadly, those bottles which had been poorly corked may find the stopper broken, or reduced to pulp. The residual cork in the wine and it’s aeration promptly ruined it. So, opening bottles was a delicate art, and in a group of friends it was always the one with steady hands who handled the bottle.
In the new era, good corks from fine were a pricey commodity. This was of course especially true for the cork from a legendary wine like the Cros Parantoux. Both it and the bottle would fetch a good price at auction. They were, after all, rare antiques. There was no small number of people who would pay handsomely to add these to their collections.
The Pauper raised his hands, as though to ward him away. “They call me Cork-Killer for a reason, so don’t hand that to me. If I ruin it, I’d have a room of very angry people to contend with. Can’t you use your Discipline to remove it?” the Pauper asked.
The Gourmet shook his head. “Drinking wine like this requires a process. It’s like a pilgrimage. The path is pure, with only the tools they used in the old days. How could we defile this moment with cheating, by using our Disciplines? It’s a shame the Wine Master isn’t here – he’s the most wise and practiced about these things. In all honesty I don’t entirely trust myself to open it! Jewelry Master, what about you?”
“Remove the foil and let’s see what condition the cork is in,” Lan Jue said.
“Alright,” replied the Gourmet.
The foil was a thin sheet of aluminum metal wrapped around the bottle’s neck. It’s purpose was to help seal the bottle for future consumption.
Judging from the look, the Henri Jayer masterpiece still seemed well sealed. It was astonishing that a bottle from nineteen ninety-three would have survived so well. Burgundy was much harder to properly store than Bordeaux.
The Gourmet produced a small utility knife which, among its several functions had a knife specifically for removing wine foil. It was a fancy looking thing, with a cover that looked simple but masterfully carved with decorative designs. Lan Jue could recognize immediately that it was made of mammoth tusk, which was exceedingly rare even in the former era.
There were other differences as well. The corkscrew was longer, specifically designed for opening older bottles. Often the older ones had longer corks. A corkscrew had to almost fully penetrate a cork to extricate it successfully.
Two quick circles of the serrated knife, and the glass beneath was revealed. They could see the cork inside. When they saw it, all four onlookers’ faces changed.
“It permeated.” The gourmet’s brows furrowed.
The cork was no longer brown, as one might expect. Now it was a puce hue. The bottom of it was almost black. The wine had, over such a long period, seeped in to the cork. Thankfully the contents looked clear – a turbid wine would have caused Lan Jue to fear for it.
Any wine that had too much sedimentation or was simply stored too long would spoil. Too aged, was the phrase used often – directly saying a wine had gone bad was disrespectful to the wine.
The Gourmet plucked up a clean towel from nearby and carefully wiped the bottle clean, along with the black condensation on the cork. It wasn’t dirt, but old wine that had penetrated through.
“Should you or should I?” he asked.
Lan Jue took a deep breath. “Let me.” In the moment of truth, Lan Jue took on the responsibility. He didn’t have the culinary mastery of the Gourmet, but when it came to wine he had a wealth of experience. This wouldn’t be the first rare bottle of wine he’d opened.
The Gourmet handed the bottle and utility knife to Lan Jue.
“So if I get the cork out without issue, you’re going to give me this knife right?” He wouldn’t be able to take the cork or bottle as a souvenir, the Wine Master would certainly want those.
“You are nothing short of a wretched bastard, did you know that?” the Gourmet snarled. “So long as you get that out, you can have it. What if you don’t, though?”
A smile crept across Lan Jue’s face. “Then I owe you no less than three bottles of thirty year old whisky.
“It’s a deal.”
Lan Jue pulled the corkscrew out, then placed the bottle flat on the table before him. He put all his focus on the bottle. His breathing slowed. Both the Pauper and Gourmet nodded inwardly in appreciation as they watched. The Jewelry Master may have been young, but he was mature and level-headed.
With the steady, slow hands of a surgeon Lan Jue brought the corkscrew down. It’s tip pierced the cork in it’s exact center, and Lan Jue carefully pressed down while turning the utility knife, forcing the corkscrew deeper in to the compromised cork plug.
He pushed and turned, keeping a steady rhythm that saw the corkscrew slowly dig further and further. It stayed dead center, not deviating. When it was eventually lodged deep in the cork, Lan Jue placed the metal lever against the lip of the bottle. Now, was the moment of truth. It was time to pull it out.
This was the most likely time for the cork to break. Breaking it wouldn’t ruin the wine, but it would be a great pity.
Lan Jue picked up the bottle, held it horizontally, and only then began to pull. Anyone with experience in opening wines would know this method was the least likely to ruin a cork.
The Pauper and Gourmet’s eyes watched, unblinking.
Slowly, the cork began to creep out from the neck of the bottle. Lan Jue kept the pulling strength constant, and didn’t rush. When finally the sides of the cork peaked from the top, everyone inwardly sighed in relief. Though permeated, the cork’s sides had not been dissolved. They wouldn’t have to worry too much about causing the cork to break apart.
The revelation caused the three onlookers to be overcome with joy. This only proved the exceptional quality of the wine they were about to imbibe.
Ever so slowly, the cork inch out until – at last – it was free from the bottle. Entirely in one piece. When the cork was free, Lan Jue smiled in triumph. With his experience and steady hands, this was no problem.
Phomp! The muffled pop of air rushing in to the ancient bottle hit their ears. But just them, a flashing silver light appeared that blocked the bottleneck.
“Aw damn. It’s been marked.”
The whole of the small shop was suddenly awash in brilliant silver light. A booming, furious voice thick with pretension howls from within.
“I’ll kill you bastards!”
Lan Jue was the first to react. He raised his hands high, the bottle cradled within. “Hey hey hey! Don’t do anything crazy, think of the wine!”
The dangerous aura that had strangled the room eased, as the Wine Master’s eyes fell on the bottle. Lan Jue’s other hand had the utility knife, with the cork still impaled on the corkscrew. The bottle was open, but there was no scent.
“You bastards… my treasured wine!” The Wine Master’s whine was sad and tortured, as he snatched the bottle away. He did it quick, but ever so carefully. He looked upon it like a man would his lover.
The Pauper and the Gourmet exchanged a wide-eyed look, their expressions awkward. The plan had been to call the Wine Master once the bottle was open, but that was also supposed to be after they’d had a sip. They had feared he would prevent them from having any at all. After all, they hadn’t exactly asked before taking this particular bottle.
“Give it here!” The Wine Master roared.
Lan Jue winced, and quickly handed him the cork. “Look, don’t scare the wine! It’ll change the scent.”
The Wine Master glared him down with a look that could murder. “I knew you’d be here as well.” He snatched the cork away and looked carefully at it. He could still clearly discern the name stamped on it, Henri Jayer.
Upon seeing that the cork was still whole, the old man’s dark glower eased somewhat. He turned his attention to the Gourmet next. “Well, why are you looking at me like an idiot? Get out your best glasses.”