Chapter 10: Red-Haired Chu Cheng
Planet Luo, Astro-Continental Hotel, Executive Suite, Balcony
Lan Jue quietly leaned against the balcony balustrade, peering into the distance. As a platinum member of the hotel, he could enjoy the executive treatment from any Atro-Continental while only paying a pittance.
Held between the thumb, middle and index finger of his right hand was a Former Era Cuban cigar from the El Laguito factory. A 6.5 inch, 56 ring gauge Cohiba cañonazo extra, also referred to as a 1966 Edición Limitada, a rare and precious limited edition. While red wine required different spaces and techniques to properly store, this cigar needed only a humidifier to last for a few hundred years, with a pronounced smell like nanmu. In reality it’s date of production wasn’t 1966, but was in fact 2012 of the Former Era. As to why it was called 1966, no one knew for certain. One flawless, limited edition 1966 was worth one-third a bottle of Romanée-Conti, King of Wines.
Lan Jue had never known poverty, but this sort of precious, rare commodity he rarely deigned to partake in. But today, the end of this 1966 Edición Limitada glowed intermittently with fire. A deep inhalation, the smoke never passing the throat, remaining in the mouth to roll from the tip of the tongue to the root, savoring, then gradually exhaling.
The intense flavor of coffee beans and the marvelous, burning taste in his mouth was mesmerizing. The entire cigar was covered in cream flavor, and the taste of leather, but once smoked for a time became full of the sweet taste of milk chocolate. It was irresistible. A moment of intense satisfaction filled his heart.
Though the high-grade cigar would mean abstaining from wine for at least a week, to immerse himself in the taste of the 1966 Lan Jue was as ever powerless to resist.
“So fragrant, so fragrant, only… ‘tis better to enjoy together than partake alone, Third Brother*. Surely you don’t plan to keep it all to yourself?” a languid voice wafted forth. Suddenly there was another beside Lan Jue, bent over the balustrade and peering with him out over the distance.
The man appeared comparable in age to Lan Jue, with medium-length red hair that hung freely to his shoulders, and pink eyes that made him look like some evil spirit. The corners of his mouth were turned in a impish grin. He wasn’t as handsome as Lan Jue, but his features weren’t without their own charm. Black shirt, black jeans, black shoes; it was as if he intended to blend in with the night, only his red hair bobbing like a flame through the darkness.
“If you really want me to call you by this method also, keep calling me Third Brother.” Lan Jue didn’t look at his companion, his voice faint.
The grin upon the red haired man’s face suddenly slipped away. “Why would I possibly want to be a few months older than you? Why would I want to be second? Fine, A-Jue**, I wont call you Third Brother!”
At last Lan Jue turned to face the red haired young man, who was of similar height to him. “A-Cheng, I apologize.”
The red haired man shook his finger in admonishment. “You meant to let your feelings slip, just as you meant to stay on Planet Luo to wait for me. You aren’t sorry. If you wanted to conceal your feelings no one would be able to guess them. I’m just curious… You’ve lived in seclusion for three years, what price inspired this legend of the mercenary world to come out of retirement?
Lan Jue took another drag of his cigar, then gently exhaled the plume of smoke. He then said the four words on that piece of paper that inspired him to leave Planet Skyfire. “Hera is not dead.”
The red-haired man’s body shook visibly, and he unconsciously stood a little straighter. “Really?”
Lan Jue nodded his head. “This price that drew me out, is her whereabouts.”
The red-haired man took in a breath, raising a hand to pat Lan Jue’s shoulder. “Right. Your older brother will help.”
Lan Jue looked up at him and smiled, warmth in his eyes. “How bad was the loss?”
Casually the man responded, “My family only holds a thirty percent stake in the Heavenly Auction House.” As he said this, the man snatched the 1966 from Lan Jue’s grip, placing it in the corner of his mouth. “And this is mine. When you do wrong, there’s always a price!”
Lan Jue’s face twitched. “I only brought the one.”
“Nonsense.” The red-haired man reverently puffed the cigar.
Lan Jue lifted a hand to his forehead. “Chu Cheng, ya nothing short of a bandit!”
Chu Cheng’s eyes grew large. “Ya JUST stole from my family, and you call me a bandit? Aren’t ya a noble? What kind of noble says ‘ya’?
Lan Jue puffed out his chest. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Hera’s there, do you need my help?” Chu Cheng said.
Lan Jue shook his head.
Chu Cheng let loose a peel of laughter. “Yeah, if you couldn’t manage, neither could I.”
“Joining me tonight?” Lan Jue shot him a glance.
“Alright.” Chu Cheng took another drag from the 1966, nodding emphatically.
Lan Jue returned to the room, while Chu Cheng leaned against the balustrade once more, the smile on his face never wavering.
After a short while Lan Jue returned, bearing a bottle of brandy and two glasses. He stood beside Chu Cheng, placing the glasses on the ledge between them before pouring. At once a heady, fragrant aroma wafted forth.
Chu Cheng’s eyes shone. “A-Jue, luckily you still remember your older brother’s fond of spirits, brandy especially. This bottle of Hennessy XO isn’t the highest caliber, but it’ll still go down well.”
Lan Jue offered a small smile. “Aren’t you always on about the disadvantages of being older? How are you going to drink this in one gulp. Do you think this is the Former Era? Finding an XO bottle of brandy is already very difficult. The X means ‘exceptionally’, and the O means ‘old’. Exceptionally old brandy is already quite rare.
As he spoke, he poured approximately thirty milliliters in to each glass.
“Bring some ice cubes!” Chu Cheng said, lifting his glass.
Lan Jue shot his brother a disdainful glance. “We of the nobility always appreciate brandy a little warm.”
“Brandy can be heated?” Chu Cheng said with astonishment.
Lan Jue indicated the glass before him, saying nothing.
Chu Cheng flicked his left wrist, and two small flames appeared beneath the brandy glasses. After a moment, Lan Jue extinguished the flames with a flourish.
Lifting the glass in his fingers, Lan Jue lightly sniffed the contents, the full-bodied mixture of grapes and alcohol filling his nostrils. Taking a sip, the aromatic grapes and warm current slipped past his throat. Indeed you couldn’t enjoy wine after a fine cigar, but pairing it with brandy was beyond compare.
“Not bad at all!” Chu Cheng praised the brandy while taking a drink.
Chu Cheng continued. “A-Jue, you know… When I’d learned a person named Zeus had stolen from the Heavenly Auction House, my first reaction was joy. But seeing you here now, makes me even happier. My brother’s back.”
Lan Jue drained his glass in one gulp. “I’m sorry I worried everyone.”
Chu Cheng looked shocked. “Oh I was fine. But Elder Brother… you haven’t kept in touch with him at all? Surely you don’t still blame him? You must know he realizes what you did.”
Lan Jue trembled, and shook his head. “Drink.”
“Right, drink! Tonight I’m here with you, let’s get wasted!”
Chu Cheng had left, leaving only a slip of paper.
“I know you have the ability to open the Cipher Box, but why go through the trouble of doing it yourself? Find Hera, tell me the good news. Bring her back to drink with me.”
Under the sentence was a three-line password.
*Editor’s Note 1: For those unfamiliar, oriental families take considerable stock in seniority, with the elder siblings often bearing the brunt of responsibility. Thus, Third Brother Jue is third of his familiar, and Second Brother Cheng must sadly deal with more of the headaches of familial strife.
**Editor’s note 2: A-Jue is an affectionate term for a brother or companion, used as one might call their brother Stewart ‘Stewey.’ It’s deceptively difficult to find a cutesie way to say A-Jue.