Chapter 251: The Pauper
“You know my problem,” the Gourmet said. “If it isn’t delicious, I won’t eat it. I’d rather starve.”
“Oh I know,” Lan Jue answered indifferently. “But I also know, that noodles are your favorite. It’s something we have in common. Go on, give it a try.”
The Gourmet chuckled, then in order to appease his guest began to eat. He recognized all the ingredients, especially the spices which were his favorites. He nodded in appreciation, then ate some more.
It was a mistake to assume cooking chili oil was an easy process. In reality, the degree and duration of heat employed while preparing it was integral. It had to be precise, but it appeared Lan Jue had a natural talent for it.
The dish was a smattering of oil over noodles, drenched in vinegar. It was simple, direct, and unparalleled.
After a few minutes of hearty slurps, the contents of the two large bowls was gone. Lan Jue heaved a contented sigh, wiped his mouth, and sunk further in to his chair.
“As ever, your spices make the dish. So what do you think, my craftsmanship isn’t bad, eh?”
The Gourmet curled his lips. “You managed, after a fashion. But I have this young guy here who shows up out of the blue, and offers to make me a meal. It isn’t impossible to imagine you have some ulterior motive. Speak, what do you need.”
Lan Jue chuckled at the crotchety old man. “As I’m sure you’re aware, soon the Pontiff’s Castle and the Dark Tower will be visiting Skyfire Avenue. There will be talks and spars and group battles. Unfortunately, we’re missing a few participants; one for the five on five group fight, and three for the one-on-one battles. Which would you like to participate in?”
The Gourmet looked at him, stupefied. He spoke softly in response. “My reward is a bowl of noodles?”
Lan Jue shrugged. “What else do you want?”
He thought for a moment, then said, “I recall the Wine Master mentioning once a bottle in his possession. A vintage from the great wine masters from the Former Era, called Richebourg.”
Lan Jue’s eyes nearly popped from his skull. “My dear Gourmet, you’re asking for my life here. That’s more precious to the Wine Master than his own eyes.”
The Gourmet shrugged. “I guess you don’t want to try it.”
“Not too hasty,” Lan Jue said with a wry smile. “How could I not?”
“When pairing for a meal, go all out,” the Gourmet said sagely. “As for wines, have you had anything that could be its equal? I’m fairly certain even the Wine Master hasn’t tried it. I reckon that means we have a chance.”
Lan Jue’s face twitched. “You aren’t going to ask me to steal it, are you?”
The Gourmet chortled. “Of course not. We’re cultured, distinguished gentlemen. Just wait for me to puzzle out a solution, and help me execute the plan when it’s ready. I swear it won’t end with the Wine Master beating you to death.”
“Yeah… never mind, I’ll find someone else.” Lan Jue vehemently shook his head.
Taking from the Cosmagus was like snatching food from the mouth of a tiger – he wasn’t that stupid. What the Gourmet was asking was a death wish!
Suddenly, Lan Jue felt his whole body go cold. The Gourmet’s small cabin became dark as oil, and a chilling aura permeated from every direction. It was like they were suddenly transported to another world.
Lan Jue backed away a step.
Everything around them had gone black. Only the Gourmet remained, seated calmly on the other end of the table. However, the jovial man he’d known for so long was gone – his mood had changed drastically.
“When?” Lan Jue asked, almost without thinking.
“When you get back,” the Gourmet answered, his voice soft and pleasant.
Lan Jue heaved a sigh, then shot his compatriot a thumbs-up. “Alright, I’ll do it.”
Everything around them turned to normal. The Gourmet was seated opposite the table like nothing had happened, his empty bowl situated in front. The scent of spice still hung in the air. But even though the surroundings were back to normal, Lan Jue could see something had changed in the Gourmet’s eyes.
“I’m off,” the Jewelry Master said, rising to his feet.
“I’ll join your five-man team,” the Gourmet said, quietly. “Find someone else for the singles.”
Lan Jue nodded. “Any recommendations?”
The Gourmet nodded. “The Pauper, and the Pharmacist. The rest are up to you.”
“Got it.” Lan Jue nodded his farewells, then left the Gourmet’s small home.
Once outside, he wandered down the street with an excited sparkle to his eyes and a knowing smile on his lips.
The two castles… bring it on!
The group battle was already finished, and the single fights were short only two.
The Pauper… is it that guy? He isn’t a committee member…
After taking the elevator to the Underground, Lan Jue let his intuition guide him down the street. After a few minutes of walking, he found his target.
It was difficult to determine his age, due to the dirt and grime. Tendrils of oily and disheveled hair hung over a dirty face. He was covered by an overcoat so filthy, the last time it was washed must have been the former era. It was only an overcoat by generous description, anyway, as it appeared to be mostly patches covered by more patches. The Pauper rested lazily against the corner of a wall, looking half asleep.
Were it not for the Gourmet’s recommendation, Lan Jue would never have considered this man. He approached the poor man and stopped a short distance apart.
The Pauper’s eyes were closed, but as Lan Jue approached his hand flashed out. Lan Jue reacted by snatching it out of the air.
It was a tarnished metal plate. Words were scrawled across it: Permit to Panhandle. Underneath was the seal of the Skyfire Avenue standing committee.
The Pauper waved a hand at Lan Jue, as though shooing away a fly.
Lan Jue answered with a soft smile. “I’m not with the enforcement team,” he said, “you don’t need to show this to me.” He threw the plate back.
The Pauper caught it effortlessly, then opened his eyes.
His eyes bore the same lackadaisical sense as the rest of him, to where his dark eyes almost seemed dim. He sized the young Jewelry Master up once or twice, then shut his eyes again.
“The Gourmet said I should come find you. There’s something I was hoping to get your help with.” Lan Jue said.
At mention of the Gourmet, the Pauper opened his eyes once again. This time, though, they were clear as day.
He swallowed a mouthful of saliva. “Is he inviting me to eat?” The Pauper’s voice was exceedingly pleasing to the ear; deep, sincere, masculine.
“Whether or not he plans to, I can’t say.” Lan Jue shrugged. “But he did ask me to find you, so I’m sure he has his reasons.”
The Pauper’s mouth curled in to a frown. “What reason could that be, hm? To bother me, whatever it is. I’m not going. No food, no drink, no Pauper. Three years the beggar, not once the king – heard the expression? I need sleep, so leave me in peace. Stop bothering me.”
“The Gourmet told me the Wine Master has a particularly excellent vintage on offer – a Richebourg,” Lan Jue mentioned off-hand.
This time the Pauper’s eyes glittered, like sunlight on a snowy bank. “Really? That stingy old goat has one squirreled away? How come I’ve never heard this?”
“If I’d have let know, I imagine the ensuing chaos could be heard from Planet Luo. His whole cellar is theft-proof.” The soft voice came from behind Lan Jue, and he didn’t have to turn his head to know the Gourmet had made a personal appearance.
“Can you give us a bit? Just a sip? With that penny-pincher, who knows how long he’s had this fine wine locked away.” The Pauper complained.
The Gourmet responded in placating tones. “If I distract him, would you be able to find a way?”
The Pauper’s eyes twinkled. “If I had an hour. Could you manage that?”
The Gourmet nodded. “Done.”
The Pauper replied with a hungry grin. “What are we having with it?”
“Snowflake beef and white truffles,” the gourmet answered. “Along with pan-seared blue lobster.”
The Pauper swallowed once again. “It’s a deal. When is it happening?”
“When you’ve finished your other responsibilities,” the Gourmet said. He looked pointedly at Lan Jue.
Lan Jue took his cue and explained. “The Pontiff’s Castle and Satan’s Fortress are coming for a sort of exchange. We’re missing some people for the one-on-one battles, and we were hoping to getting you involved.”
The Pauper’s brow furrowed, but he answered positively. “Fine.”
Lan Jue nodded with a smile, and the Gourmet simply left with the business complete.
The Pauper watched him go with a piteous expression on his grimy face. “Can we throw in another boiled lobster? It’s been so long since I’ve eaten anything with a decent flavor…”
“Clean yourself up and I’ll boil a second,” he said, without looking back.
The Pauper nodded. “Alright,” he said with sincerity. “Wait for my news.”
Lan Jue caught up to the Gourmet. “I’ve never heard of this Pauper before.”
The Gourmet laughed softly. “He’s an interesting character. He used to be an incredible talent, then one day something happened that altered his mind. Some sort of stimulus. He’s been a beggar here ever since, for twenty years. He was here even before I. Other than food and drink, he is interested in nothing.”
“I tried to figure out his abilities, but I couldn’t find a way to ascertain how powerful eh is,” Lan Jue said.
At this, the Gourmet smiled. “If the Archangel Metatron should make an appearance, it would be a good idea to send the Pauper out to greet him.”
“Alright.” Lan Jue was shocked at the revelation. Metatron was on the very cusp of being a Paragon – and the Gourmet was telling him the Pauper was his match?
“Some things defy logical explanation,” the Gourmet said with a grin.
“I guess the Pharmacist is next on my list,” Lan Jue said.
The Gourmet replied. “This time I won’t go with you. Whatever price you offer him, I’m sure the council will pay.”
The Gourmet went off on his own, leaving Lan Jue behind in the Underground. He walked down the Avenue until arriving before a particularly antiquated building.
It was built in the ancient Chinese style, simple and pleasing to the eye, but with a classical atmosphere. A horizontal, inscribed board bore the name in golden print: Hall of Supreme Harmony 1
In all the Avenue, this store ranked fifth among the area’s impressive architectural achievements. It was almost as large as the Skyfire Museum.
People walked in and out of the hall in an endless stream. Even though the overall tourism to the Avenue had slowed recently, it didn’t appear to have any negative effect on the hall’s patronage.
No sooner had Lan Jue entered the shop, then a young man in clerk attire approached. He greeted him respectfully. “Jewelry Master, you’re here? Please, come in.” As he spoke, the clerk stepped aside and motioned for Lan Jue to enter with a sweep of his arm.
Lan Jue nodded and moved further in.
The interior of the hall was even more in tune with the classical style than its façade. It was all red wood, cool stone and antique ornaments gathered together to create a truly unique atmosphere. Walking through the store was like being transported back to ancient China.