Chapter 203: Tribute

    Chapter 203: Tribute

    Lan Jue smiled, but did not answer.

    The Bookworm's voice betrayed his skepticism. "And how can I trust you, hm?"

    "Let me answer by offering tribute. A gift, for our first meeting. I'm confident that, once you see it, you'll understand why I think you have the opportunity to defeat the Keeper."

    Lan Jue placed something on the desk in front of the older man.

    The Bookworm snatched up, turning it around in his fingers. It looked like a precision data disk.

    His pockmarked right hand tapped the armrest. Suddenly, the front and back of the desk in front of him separated from the body of the furniture. Large flat screens rose from the cracks. State of the art optical computing equipment followed suit, until the desk was a modern technological mainframe.

    The Bookworm slipped the disk in to the computer. The towering screens flickered to life, revealing line upon line of seemingly disconnected data.

    Watery eyes narrowed as the old man speedily read through the endless cascade of information. His hands raced across the keyboard, a blur of dancing digits until the information shifted and reordered across the six screens overhead.

    Lan Jue watched the old man, suddenly alive with motion. His eyes were crisp and clear, and he moved like a man in his twenties. He stared at everything in front of him with a single-minded purpose. He could see the flows of data reflected in his eyes.

    A flush gradually rose through the old man's pallid cheeks. He stared wide-eyed at the screen, and a shiver had crept in to his hands.

    "How in the world did you get this?" His hands stopped shaking, and his sharp eyes swung to Lan Jue.

    The Jewelry Master grinned. "None of your concern. I suppose I can tell you, once you've confirmed you're willing to go along with my plan."

    The Bookworm's breaths had started to come quicker. "I'll need time to look this over in its entirety. Come back in two days. For now, you can go."

    Lan Jue nodded. He stopped to pick up the Accountant, who's motor functions had completely shut down.

    The young man was livid beyond expression, but that didn't stop him from trying to share a few choice words. Unfortunately, his body wasn't responding - he could only lay there in his attacker's arms and glare daggers at him, twitching madly.

    "Leave him here!" The Bookworm croaked.

    Lan Jue nodded, visibly pleased by the request. He handed him over to Su He, then turned and left.

    As Lan Jue exited, Lin Guoguo and Xiuxiu fanned out behind him. They didn't stop until they were well past the doors. By then, Lin Guoguo couldn't contain her curiosity any longer.

    "Boss, you can't be serious. You don't really intend to team up with this Bookworm to take on the Keeper."

    Xiuxiu just huffed incredulously. "Silly Guoguo. You still don't understand our boss at all. You mustn't ask such a stupid question 1. That was the boss making himself look needy and weak to lure in the enemy. Plus, he couldn't even read the information."

    Lin Guoguo suddenly came around. "Oh, but we left the Accountant there. Aren't you afraid the Bookworm's salty relationship with his grandpa could lead to some trouble?"

    Lan Jue shook his head. "He wouldn't. If he did, he'd be far beneath the Keeper's help. These men were involved in intellectual combat, nothing physical. And this old man himself was a committee member back in his day, he knows better! As for the Accountant, he's a master at self-preservation. Don't you doubt that."

    Lin Guoguo shrugged. "Alright, so what should we do now?"

    "Wait. Someone will come and show us our rooms," Lan Jue assured.

    They hadn't even finished speaking before the doors to the library opened and Su He came trotting out. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw Lan Jue waiting outside.

    "You scared the crap out of me," Su He grumbled, giving his former classmate a sarcastic thumbs up. "But well done!"

    Lan Jue chortled. "Seems like Mentor caught on."

    Su He shrugged helplessly. "We're researchers. We analyze everything we come across. I weighed the possibility of your proposal's success, and guessed less than fifty percent. If I still didn't understand by that point, wouldn't that make me a fool?"

    "You're a hateful bunch, scientists," Lan Jue said with a helpless shrug.

    Su He laughed. "Like you I'm no scientist. Obsessive maybe. At first I thought the professor would figure it out pretty quick, but he's in there now pouring over everything. And don't fret, I've arranged to have your friend brought out later."

    "Let the bookworm have his time with the data," Lan Jue said, "our job's half done. We'll be back in two days. Hopefully I could bother Mentor to help us find a place to stay. Then tomorrow we could all visit the auction."

    Su He nodded, and smiled. "Alright. And tonight we'll treat you to a fine example of Lir cuisine. I think you'll find it very interesting."

    "Excellent," Lan Jue responded, smiling in return.

    The hotel they'd prepared for Lan Jue and his crew wasn't far from the Bookworm's Library copy. It was located in a simple but sophisticated looking building.

    The interior was furnished with fine antiques, none less than three decades old. The rooms were large, and like everything else were decorated in shades of blue.

    By the time they were settled in, it was already night.

    "Would we be able to bring the Accountant with us for dinner," Lan Jue asked. "I don't know if the Bookworm has wised up or not, yet."

    "Whether or not he has, I'm afraid that's unlikely. It's the professor's custom to ask exhaustive questions as he goes over the data. After all, as the Keeper's grandson he knows more about the paragon than anybody. I'm afraid your friend's stuck in there for the next two days. It usually takes three or more to starve, so he should be fine."

    "The Keeper explained it to me before we left, that he wants his grandson to suffer some of what life has to throw at him. This is probably a good opportunity for growth, don't you think?" Lan Jue nodded in agreement with himself.

    Su He burst in to laughter. "Alright, let's get something to eat. I've already made reservations."


    Lir's 'interesting cuisine' was indeed that.

    Every living thing in the planet's vast oceans was blue. They stayed that way, even after being cooked. They didn't have the fishy flavor one would expect from seafood, instead bearing a taste and consistency more in line with vegetables. Very strange indeed.

    Lin Guoguo and Xiuxiu, who preferred lighter tastes, ate quite a lot.

    After dinner the two girls left first, returning to their room to rest. Su He walked with Lan Jue back to his room.

    "Would it be too bothersome if we spoke for a moment," Su He asked.

    "Not at all," Lan Jue answered. He coaxed his former classmate on with an encouraging gesture.

    The two of them entered Lan Jue's room, Su He picking a seat on the couch.

    Lan Jue sat across from him. With a wave of his hand, a silver light flashed, and floating before the two of them a silver box appeared.

    Lan Jue plucked it from the air, and opened it with a practiced hand. He extricated two whisky glasses from within, along with a bottle full of golden-amber liquid. The bottle itself bore an elegant design, and its contents cast a pleasing amber hue as the dim lights shone upon it.

    "Single-malt?" Su He asked.

    Lan Jue smiled and nodded. "That's right! Alcohol is first among my many hobbies."

    Su He chuckled. "Not so many I think. I've a few myself. This eighteen year Macallan isn't a product of the former era, but is no less a classic among classics. There's a reason they call it the king of whiskies. Looks like I lucked out today."

    Lan Jue opened the bottle and poured out about an ounce of whisky each for him and Su He. "It got the title not just because of its pedigree, but also its outstanding yield. In reality it isn't a particularly special whisky but it is mild, traditional and proper as far as whiskies go. Best to drink when one's mood is calm and even. The alcohol content isn't outrageous, either. Come, drink."

    The two young men raised their glass in a toast, then drank the whisky down.

    Su He was first, and took a sip from his glass. It was smoky, with a malty undertone and a hint of cream. Breathing in, the flavor took on a freshness. As it slipped passed his gullet, a warmness sprang up from within him. More comfortable than he could express. Like being covered in a warm blanket.

    "Good stuff. You certainly know how to enjoy life! In this aspect you certainly have me beat." As the words left his lips, the shadow of disappointment flit across Su He's face.

    Lan Jue smiled. "Mentor. You're a man, not a machine. You need to relax every now and again. When your full effort is needed, you should give it your all no doubt. But where does it come from? It comes from resting, recovering, so that you have the energy when you need it. You're too high-strung, too careful. If you want my opinion, I think you need a good long vacation. At least three months. Find a girl you like, ramble around some... open up a little, let go. Don't lay a finger on a mecha in those three months, don't worry over some research problem or another. Just take the time to relax and be in the moment. After that, you come back rested with a better mindset, and your opportunity will come to you."

    Su He listened patiently as his classmate spoke. "I'm used to this robo-centric lifestyle."

    Lan Jue shook his head. "No. In fact your accustomed to being appreciated. You were the favorite one, all those years ago. But after you were beaten by my brother, you became exceptionally harsh on yourself. Ever since, all the time, you stretch yourself too thin. I remember my brother telling me once you weren't far from God-ranked. But here we are, years later. I still trust my brother's judgement. So why haven't you broken through yet? Have you put your big brain to that?"

    Su He didn't answer. He sat in silence, thinking. Every now and again he'd quietly sip his drink. He felt like this sip was stronger, with more body. The malt flavors overpowered his taste buds. Once again that false warmth encroached upon his whole body.

    1. Harsh!
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