Chapter 22: His Story
“Mm, good stuff.” Lan Jue was a little drunk. He breathed in the scent of the alcohol, detecting hints of smoke and peat. His eyes looked dulled.
Before him was a table capable of seating eight and, though small, was quite magnificent with a classical style. It was composed of parqueted wood, inlayed with gold tooling and of very fine texture.
The Wine Master sat at the head of the table, Lan Jue to his left. To his right sat the Gourmet.
Today the Gourmet was clad in a fine black suit and white shirt, though differing from Lan Jue in that he also wore a u-shaped waistcoat. He was the very picture of the gentry.
The cuffs of his shirt had been rolled up. In his right hand he held a long knife, it’s blade thirty centimeters long with a sandy beige handle. Were an expert present their eyes would bulge from shock – not from the beautiful moiré pattern on the blade, but due to the fact that the handle was made from mammoth tusk, exceptionally rare even in the Former Era.
The Gourmet’s slender fingers moved deftly, cutting the Iberian ham in slices as thin as a cicada’s wings and flicking it in to the ceramic whiteware clutched in his other hand. Beneath the plate a candle burned, causing the ham to adopt an almost crystalline texture.
The Wine Master first looked to the Gourmet, then to Lan Jue. “You’ve had nearly half a bottle of Talisker already, are you ready to share your story?”
Lan Jue swirled the whiskey glass in his hand, picked up a piece of ham and popped it in his mouth. A thick, yet not oily taste filled his mouth. He took another small sip of Talisker single-malt, the fine whiskey like fire down his throat, spreading through his every pore.
“The particular thing about Talisker is the strong taste of peat, a specific trait of an island. It is an untamed and legendary vintage spirit. For those who truly love the flavor, they can’t help but partake.”
“You want to tell me a story about whiskey?” The Wine Master muttered.
The Gourmet finished heating another plate then sat, motioning with his knife as though he would bury it in the fine tabletop. The Wine Master shot him a glare, to which the Gourmet smirked and replaced the knife to it’s wooden sheath.
Reaching out, the Gourmet gripped the half bottle of Talisker in his hand, it’s golden contents shimmering with a faint halo in the light.
“Don’t give him any alcohol and he’ll tell you on his own,” he said, pouring himself half a glass. He placed the bottle to one side.
The Wine Master nodded approvingly.
Lan Jue looked disappointed, downing the contents of his glass is one gulp. “I’m a little tired, I think I’ll just go home and sleep, so…”
The Wine Master’s eye twitched. “Then go.”
“Will I be able to come back later?” Lan Jue said with a small smile.
“What do you think,” the Wine Master responded, looking at him obliquely.
Lan Jue leaned against the back of the chair, speaking calmly. “I’ve been here three years, right?”
“Three years, one month and three days,” the Wine Master responded studiously.
The corners of Lan Jue’s mouth curled bitterly. “I had a beautiful wife. She was gentle, kind, gorgeous… when you were with her it was like a spring breeze. From the moment I saw her I was lost, loved her instantly.”
“We were the envy of everyone. Everything was perfect, we enjoyed each other’s company, did everything together. It was so natural being together, so natural that we just felt happy with one another. She was my whole world. When she was with me, the entire universe seemed more colorful.”
“But they say good days are brief. Three years ago because of an accident, she left me forever. Even now, I don’t know if it really was an accident or was somehow orchestrated. According to all evidence she vanished in a giant explosion. I couldn’t find her, she left no trace. It was like she never existed in my life at all.”
“She was gone so… my heart was empty.”
“As a result I came here. I like the tranquility of Skyfire Avenue, like living here. In my early years when I’d visited here I liked it. I’d planned to bring her here with me, but she was gone so suddenly.”
Lan Jue related the story calmly, his eyes reflecting his even temperament. It was like he was simply telling a tale, a story he wasn’t involved in.
“Not long ago someone came to the shop, left me a note. It said my wife wasn’t dead. It contained a video. I believed it. How could I not believe it. Even though I knew I was lying to myself, even though I knew it was impossible, I believed it.”
“I helped them, and they told me my wife’s location. And they told me she was going to marry someone else. You are men… I think you must understand what I was feeling.”
“So I went after her. Took back my wife. I was so happy. She was like a paintbrush, bringing life and color back in to my life.”
“But I’d deceived myself. She just looked like my wife. She wasn’t… her.”
Lan Jue stopped there, the trace of a smile on his face. But the emptiness in his eyes was unsettling.
The Wine Master looked at the Gourmet, beckoning towards him with a wave of the hand. A faint light, and suddenly the Talisker bottle was in his hand.
Removing the cork, the Wine Master quietly poured Lan Jue a glass, then lifted his own.
Lan Jue picked up his drink, threw his head back and downed it. The high-proof liquor burned through him. But the burning in his throat couldn’t touch the pain he felt. He felt like he did those three years ago, when he learned of the accident.
“I’m off.” Lan Jue placed his glass on the table, and left.
Neither the Wine Master nor Gourmet asked him to say. A man’s pain wasn’t so easily resolved through talking.
Lan Jue was worn out, dispirited. He’d even lost interest in seeking revenge against the people who’d given him the false news. No matter what he said, they had filled him with a great hope, only to deliver greater despair. But at least, for those few precious moments, he’d thought Hera had returned to him.
The Wine Master and Gourmet said nothing to one another, finishing the drinks in their glass. The Gourmet finished the last piece of ham.
“I’m leaving as well,” he said.
“Mm,” the Wine Master faintly responded.
As he stood the Gourmet’s brows rose. “Eh, he didn’t pay for the whiskey did he. I thought he said he would.”
The hand with which the Wine Master held his glass froze suddenly, as though by magic, paralyzed.