Chapter 119: Sorry, Richard
The Soul-Caller Gem warmed.
“Come get me at home.”
“It’s so early. I’m still sleeping.”
“A bodyguard must fulfill their duties! Nobles must abide by their promises!”
“A-Jue, what are you doing so early?” Hua Li pulled himself to a sitting position on the couch, watching Lan Jue wash his face with drowsy eyes.
“You don’t have class today either. Where are you running off to? You wouldn’t need to get up this early to train your disciples either.” Hua Li’s questions were fussy at the early hour.
Lan Jue’s response was muttered, almost to himself. “A bodyguard must fulfill their duties! Ugh, nonsense.”
“I despise you,” Hua Li sighed dejectedly. He grudgingly pushed himself from the sofa.
Ten minutes later.
The antique bicycle rattled speedily along the road. Hua Li’s morose expression stared at the passing ground as he sat behind Lan Jue. “A-Jue I’m starving. It’s not good to skip breakfast. Gives you energy for the day.”
“Shut up, I’m hungry too. And I’m the one pedaling. Already a crappy day!” Lan Jue glared ruefully as they trundled along.
“So why are we up so early anyway?”
Lan Jue was silent, answering a few moments later in a miserable voice. “I’m telling you, you better not laugh.”
“I’d never!” Hua Li’s assurances came without hesitation.
“Not long ago a woman came in to my shop…” As they made for Zhou Qianlin’s house, Lan Jue recounted the tale of Pearl, stealing the Chief Minister’s daughter, and the things that followed.
Hua Li listened aptly to the tale, but upon hearing the tale, he shook almost hard enough to tip the bicycle. His eyes nearly popped from his head.
“Hairy hippos in a jelly tub! You sure you got that right?! How the hell did you mix that up, after being with Hera for so long you’d figure you’d know what she looks like! What kind of moron are you?” Hua Li stayed true to his promise, and didn’t laugh. He was mad!
“Hey, whose side are you on, I’m already miserable about this. Shouldn’t you be here comforting me? Still just accusations and interrogations? Hera’s dead… for three years do you know how I’ve been able to keep on? Living like a drunk man, like in a dream, or nightmare. Wallowing in regret and loss. She was gone so suddenly, and then to hear just as suddenly that she wasn’t dead, do you think I’d be in my right mind? That I could keep a level head? Even you who’ve known me for so long, after three years you start to forget what one looks like. Zhou Qianlin and Hera are very, very similar. Exactly the same. I was nervous, excited, scared, she’d been drugged. I didn’t know at the time, but when I found out it was already too late.”
Hua Li was near enough the only person Lan Jue could be this honest and open with. He held nothing back.
“That’s all well and good, but that’s not what I mean,” Hua Li said. “Using this opportunity you find yourself in to have her act as Hera’s stand in, is. Sure she looks like her, but is it fair to her, or you, to act this way? To make her fill that whole in your heart?”
Lan Jue’s smile was bitter. “If only it were that easy. You must know, in my heart Hera is absolutely irreplaceable. And what happened… was my fault. She wouldn’t have…”
“Alright, no use dwelling on it,” Hua Li interrupted. “I’m actually curious what this Hera impersonator is actually like. Knowing you I wont be sorry acting as her bodyguard for a while as well.”
Lan Jue let out a sigh. “Maybe it really is as you say. Sometimes I do forget she isn’t Hera, it’s happened more than once. Suddenly it’s like she’s here by my side again. I know she’s just a substitute but, deep in my heart, I long for it to be real – for her to be Hera. But I figured this out quickly. I’ve been keeping my distance.”
“Are you scared you two will develop feelings for one another?”
“Maybe,” Lan Jue said. He found himself growing irrationally agitated at the thought.
Hua Li patted his back comfortingly, and said nothing further. In emotional situations like this, trying to persuade the heart otherwise was a pointless endeavor. The only cure was time enough to figure things out in your own head.
The foot of Tian Mountain
An excessively fancy verti-car was parked at the base of the towering mountain. Richard, clad in a fine white suit, stood not far off. An arrangement of roses were clutched in his hands.
Suddenly, his eyes grew bright, and his left hand left the flowers to check his moist, greased-back hair. He shuffled forward a few steps, and gently called out: “Qianlin.”
Zhou Qianlin stopped, her expressionless face turned to Richard. “What are you still doing here? I’ve already made our situation quite clear. We could never work, nor would your family allow a soiled woman in to their midst.”
Richard regarded her in silence, sorrow clear in his eyes. “Qianlin,” he finally began, “I have to admit what you said hurt me deeply. When you said what you did, it was like I was drunk. I couldn’t think, but the pain… but I slowly sobered up. I thought about you, about the pressure you had to suffer, the wrongs you endured. What happened wasn’t your fault. The blame lays entirely with that despicable Zeus. It was he who ruined our union, ruined everything. No, you’ve done nothing wrong, and in my eyes you’re still that perfect, pure Zhou Qianlin. Qianlin, my love, my feelings haven’t changed from the first day I met you. My love is just as strong. It doesn’t matter what’s happened. All of that is in the past. In our future, as a man, I will do whatever is in my power to protect you from whatever comes. No one will ever separate us. If you agree, I will persuade my family to throw you the most incredible wedding the universe has known. I’ll bring the whole might of my family to bear, to protect you. You’ll never again suffer the slightest harm.”
Zhou Qianlin looked in to Richard’s eyes, at the sincerity brightly living within them. The rims of her own began to redden.
Suddenly, she almost collapsed as she bent low before him. “Richard, I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to see you like this. I made the wrong choice. I should never have accepted your proposal. If I hadn’t you’d never have suffered all of this trouble. You’re so kind-hearted, suffered so much, all because of me. But I’m so, so sorry Richard. I simply can’t accept. I beg you to forget me.”
She scrambled to her feet and ran from Richard, down the mountain. The young man stood frozen in surprise. He was at a loss, so much that he was struggling to understand what she’d said.
“Here!” Suddenly a voice arose from behind him.
Richard turned his head in time to spy an antique bicycle squealing as it came to a stop. Two gentlemen dismounted, among them the man who’d suffered the same fate as he at the hands of that awful Professor Tan, ‘the Savage Goddess.’
The two moon looked at once another, Lan Jue’s eyes falling to the roses clutched in Richard’s hands. They then swept to the tearful Zhou Qianlin.
Hua Li looked wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the girl who looked so much like the lost Hera. His large sunglasses slid askew on his straight nose.
She really was a mirror image. It was no wonder A-Jue couldn’t distinguish the two at first. She was nothing short of Hera’s clone! Unlike Hera, she released no significant waves of energy from a discipline – but otherwise they were alike in every way. Of course, Hera also possessed the ability to hide her powers from view as well. He couldn’t fault Lan Jue; were it he who’d seen her first, he’d have mistaken her for Hera as well.
Zhou Qianlin ran directly to Lan Jue, pulling herself on to the back perch of the bicycle. Her voice, thick with sobs, called to him. “Get me out of here.”
“Right.” Lan Jue nodded, shot a glance at Richard, then began pedaling the bicycle down the mountain.
Richard slowly walked to where Zhou Qianlin had made her escape, in a daze. He stopped just at Hua Li’s side.
“So that day, when he said he was there for his cousin… that really was Qianlin he was talking about?”
“Well shit! What am I supposed to do? A-Jue you unabashed sexist!” Hua Li, suddenly aware of his lot, shouted indignantly at the rapidly disappearing figured of Lan Jue and Zhou Qianlin.
“Hey, have you ever been dumped before?” Richard turned his pitiful face towards Hua Li.
Hua Li shoved his sunglasses higher on his nose. “You’re alone in that, brother.”
Richard responded with a sigh. “I was going to give you a lift, but… well, the miserable only seek the company of the like-minded.”
Hua Li’s mood instantly changed. “I have been dumped, actually! A-Jue you rat-bastard… Come on brother, let’s get out of here.” He muttered curses as he made his way towards the verti-car. On the way here he’d spotted no means of public transportation.
Lan Jue silently pedaled the bicycle, Qianlin bumping along behind. She, too, remained silent. The atmosphere was suffocating. The gentle breeze set her long silken hair to fluttering, brushing against her sad face.
“I’m sorry. I brought all this trouble on you. I swear I’ll keep to my word, and be a competent bodyguard.” At last, Lan Jue broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Richard is a good man. I shouldn’t have hurt him,” Zhou Qianlin muttered, her words barely audible.
“It was I who hurt you both.”
Zhou Qianlin looked at his back. “You’re making up for it. Stick to your promise, and everything will be fine.”
“Alright. I’ll come get you every day, and bring you to school. While you’re studying, I’ll be there at the ready.” As the words left his mouth, he felt a sense of relaxation flood through him, as though a weight was lifting.
As the words reached Qianlin, even though the two were hardly close, it felt to her as though a gap had widened between them.
They rode in silence for the rest of the trip to the campus. As before, Lan Jue dropped her off at that corner not far from the front gates. Lan Jue watched her go, letting her gain some distance before pushing his bicycle towards the school.
“Lan Jue!” A figure rushed at him from the side, grabbing him by the throat.
“Ach! Hua Li, when did you learn how to magically teleport?!”
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”
“Quiet! Teachers are looking, I’ll call the teaching affairs office for help! I’ll tear off your disguise! Let go, I can’t breathe!”