Chapter 68: The End?
To Zhou Qianlin, Lan Jue appeared passive and gentle. He did not react to the Accountant’s malfeasance. However, as they turned to leave the Gourmet’s small apartment a tendril of lightning snaked soundlessly along the ground under the Accountant’s feet. Every hair on is body stood on end.
“This wont happen again. Otherwise, I’ll throw you out of the Avenue myself.” The Wine Master had also stood, staring daggers at the offender as he spoke. He left on Lan Jue’s heels.
The Accountant opened his mouth, and a tendril of smoke slithered from between his lips. The muscles of his face twitched uncontrollably. “You have to believe me, I was just having some fun! I didn’t mean anything by it.”
The Mechanist reached out and grabbed the Accountant by the throat. “It’s because I believe you that I want to beat you even worse.”
The Gourmet interjected gently. “Were it not be a waste of my food, I’d beat you myself until you threw it all back up. You better think up some way to make it up to the Jewelry Master.”
The sky had grown dark in the interim. The Avenue was lit only by the lights of the shops that lined it’s sides, and though not bright it added to the rustic charm of the Avenue’s antique construction.
Lan Jue walked in silence, Zhou Qianlin a step behind.
“Are you angry?”
Lan Jue shook his head. “The guy’s just that way, he didn’t do it to hurt me specifically. It’s not really worth getting angry with him over. I’m just thinking of other things.”
“Oh?” Zhou Qianlin watched him carefully.
Lan Jue stopped and turned to face Zhou Qianlin. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
“What?” Her confusion only grew.
“You’re so like her that in my mind, at certain times I forget you aren’t. It’s wrong, Hera is the only one in my heart. You aren’t her replica, not her replacement. And so, I apologize. In the future I’ll be only your bodyguard. After these three years, when my contract ends, we’ll part ways and have no more contact.”
Lan Jue’s voice was distant, detached. As he spoke, even he himself felt he probably went too far.
But he had no choice. Ke’er’s words had woken him up. Had Zhou Qianlin not begun to replace Hera, at least in his mind, would he have agreed to three years as a bodyguard? Would he have become an instructor at a university? And he even brought her to the Avenue, to participate in this special meal. All of this together meant only one thing; she had begun to mean something to him.
The wondrous flavors of the meal still dominated his taste buds, but in spite of their valiant efforts he couldn’t shake these thoughts. Zhou Qianlin wasn’t his Hera. His Hera was gone. Logic told him he mustn’t continue, else one day Zhou Qianlin replace Hera as his most beloved.
It was best to deal with something like this in the beginning. The longer he let it be, the harder it would become to do the right thing.
So he had no recourse but to speak up.
Zhou Qianlin looked at him, speechless. There was no change in the expression of her pretty face. But her eyes couldn’t conceal everything, and the secrets were hidden there.
She gave him a long, piercing stare. Her deep green eyes were deep, as though capable of drinking his soul in to their depths. Under that heavy gaze, Lan Jue’s heart couldn’t help but skip a beat. He felt the pang in his chest, though it was not solely from her look.
“Qianlin, you’re a nice girl. I know what I said hurt you, but…”
“Fine.” She replied softly.
She followed that with a burst of pretty, tintinnabular laughter.
“Are…” Lan Jue looked at her, dumbfounded. “Are you alright?”
Zhou Qianlin shook her head. “You men. You think all women under the sky just love you. Surely you don’t think I felt something for you?”
Zhou Qianlin’s hard gaze kept him pinned. “If you think I like you, or you’re afraid I’ll like you sometime in the future, then you have nothing to worry about. You took my body, which means I’ll have to remember you for the rest of my life, but when I do it will be in regret. You said it, you’re just my bodyguard and nothing more. I’ve never thought of you as anything more. Don’t think of yourself as someone special, got it? This dinner was nice, now send me home.”
The words still hung in the air as she turned to leave, a small smile on her face.
Lan Jue stood in place, frozen for a good few seconds. Eventually he began to follow.
Her face was calm, revealing nothing. But deep in her eyes lived something strange, fluctuating. There was gratification, regret, pain, and something unexplainable that flowed within her.
The entire way back to her mountaintop home was spent in silence.
“Alright, here’s fine.” Zhou Qianlin stopped and smiled towards Lan Jue as she spoke.
“Right,” he said, nodding his head.
“You’re heading out tomorrow, be careful. Oh, by the way, so you don’t misunderstand let me make this clear. I do not care for you, I say this so that you make sure to come back ready to act effectively as my bodyguard.”
“I will.” He nodded again.
“Goodbye.” She waved a hand, and left without saying anything else.
Lan Jue watched her leave, unmoving. After a moment he snorted, and strode away.
He cast the experience away as though it were nothing. Still, for reasons he didn’t understand, a dull ache still remained in his chest.
Zhou Qianlin went directly to her room and sat on the bed. Her face betrayed no emotion, but after a good while a bitterness crept in, and tears began to flow uncontrollably from the corner of her eyes. She made no sound, and the tears rolled down her smooth, white skin unhindered.
Skyfire Avenue was as silent as ever. At night there never were very many stragglers on the street. The darkness had grown, but Lan Jue’s mood had improved as he moved down the chilly street.
“Come to me,” a deep voice intruded in his ear. He jumped slightly from the unexpected sound, then turned towards the Gothic Winery.
“You aren’t calling me here to apologize on behalf the Accountant, are you?” Lan Jue sat beside the Wine Master, smirking.
The Wine Master’s face betrayed a rare smile. “Your current mood isn’t due to what he did. There’s no reason to bother with him. The guy is a clown. No, it’s because of the girl you brought tonight. Am I right?”
Lan Jue looked at his old friend. “It’s done.”
The Wine Master gave a wry chuckle. “If it’s done you don’t need to tell me so. You’re an adult. I’m not your father.”
Lan Jue’s face grew hard. “Why’d you call me here.”
The Wine Master smiled. “Blind taste check. Let’s see if you’re still as sharp as you used to be.”