Lan Jue gave a morose sigh. “What can I do? Once more I’ve lost my freedom. I still have so much to do, and now with my strength so low…”
“Take her with you.” The Wine Master’s response was frank and curt.
Lan Jue lookd his way. “But she doesn’t represent the Avenue.”
“Enough,” the Wine Master said in irritation. “That isn’t even an issue. It takes no effort to introduce someone to the Avenue. It sounds like you’re finding excuses not to bring her.”
“Men have responsibilities,” the Gourmet responded with serious countenance. “You have things to accomplish.”
“I-“ Lan Jue fought to tell them there wasn’t anything between he and Zhou Qianlin, but the words wouldn’t come. If they didn’t, how could they have become so entangled in this mess? Suddenly the woman who’d cheated him so long ago appeared in his mind’s eye, the one who set him on his path to Qianlin. If he ever found her or her organization, he thought, they’d have hell to pay. If not for them, how else would this nonsense have happened?
“I have to think about it. I need quiet.” Lan Jue had to accept the reality of what was going on.
He returned home and settled down to meditate. He had been assured that no outward power was going to free him from this prison. His only option, then, was to try and earn freedom from his own power.
He focused on cultivating himself throughout the night, and when he opened his eyes he felt refreshed. Indeed, he felt a little stronger. However, his face was still dark. The seal remained firmly in place. It never moved, much less released. Despite an entire night’s efforts, nothing changed. It was strange, though – during the night he’d sensed that that silver seal had actually absorbed some of the cultivating energies he’d focused toward his Core. It meant that the stronger he grew, the stronger the seal became as well.
Was it truly only possible to be free once he broke through to Paragon? It was practically impossible! Even the highest level adepts needed decades of training and no small amount of luck to achieve this dream.
Lan Jue’s dour mood put him off breakfast. Instead, he got ready and left directly for the University on his antique bicycle. There were still things to do, and time waits for no man.
He sought out Director Wu, and sure enough the school was preparing them for another trip. The destination, the Barrows.
“I have to trouble you with something, Director,” Lan Jue ventured after some thought.
“Of course.” Director Wu had bent head over heels since discovering part of Lan Jue’s identity. Any issue was immediately solved, most recently being the leak about the ARC. Since discovery of the culprit, the military had ceased any overt attempts at taking away their students. In fact, a representative had expressed their apologies to the University’s Dean. He assured him that they need not worry over their students’ future.
The circumstances had actually helped Wu Junyi come to a greater understanding of Lan Jue. He was even further convinced of the young instructor’s superior abilities. Not only was he a powerful Adept individually, he also commanding staggering resources. If someone like this was interested in teaching here, who was he to deny him anything?
Lan Jue let the silence stretch for a moment before going on. “I’d like to participate in this trip. But, I was hoping to bring along someone else. I wasn’t sure if this would be alright?”
“Of course it’s alright,” the director responded without hesitation. He didn’t even care who Lan Jue was bringing.
He – as the etiquette teacher – had no classes. Through discussion both he and Wu Junyi agreed to pause it temporarily. In truth they had no option but to do so. The Barrows trip would take time, then Lan Jue had to get to the Northern Alliance. He wasn’t even sure when he’d be getting back. Even if they had a couple classes now, what would happen in the future? When would they be able to start them back up again? No, the best option was to simply wait until these matters were settled before starting in full swing. The students would understand this.
Once his business with Director Wu had concluded, Lan Jue did not return directly to the Avenue. He wandered absent-mindedly to his desk in the electives building.
His long night of cultivation had not produced the results he’d hoped for. He would indeed have to continue examining this with Qianlin, so that they could at least seamlessly join their powers when needed. This was his life now – what option did he have but to deal with it? Thankfully Zhou Qianlin was a sensible girl, so he didn’t need to fear being summoned for no reason.
“Professor Lan! It’s been so long!” The surprised call caught his attention. Lan Jue lifted his head, whereupon he spied Jin Yan walking his way with an arm full of textbooks.
“Professor Jin. Hello.” He greeted her with a polite smile.
“I really must thank you for everything you’ve done for Jin Tao,” she said with an excited tone. “Are you busy recently? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you around. I was afraid you might have stopped coming for classes.”
Of course, Lan Jue couldn’t tell her about the ARC classes. “Family matters,” he lied, “I had to ask for a little while off.”
She snickered. “Well you chose the perfect time to come back. The University is preparing another trip for us. We’re leaving the Alliance and heading to the West for twenty days. It’s a ten day trek there and back, but still not bad at all.”
“Aren’t you afraid of running in to any more monsters?” Lan Jue asked.
She shook her head with a smile. “come on. I’m a realist – I don’t believe in luck, good or bad. I believe in probability, and the chances are a coincidence like that are slim to none. Anyway, there are dangers wherever one goes. I’ve never seen the Barrows’ dangers. Will you be going, too?”
Lan Jue nodded. “Yes, I’ll be going.”
“Professor Jin. Professor Lan.” Another voice interrupted their conversation.
Wang Hongyuan, his face bearing a smile, walked their way. Ever since he and Lan Jue had become friends, the negative cloud hanging over him had dispersed.
Lan Jue gave the dance instructor a lopsided grin. “Professor Wang! It’s been a while.”
For the briefest instant, Wang Hongyuan’s face bore a hint of confusion. They’d just spent the last few months together! Was the cruelty he subjected everyone to not enough to have him remember? Of course he couldn’t say anything – he’d just ‘been on vacation’ as well, and he couldn’t let Jin Yan know they were together. The charade would have to be maintained.
“Yeah! It had been a while, Professor. Are you going on the trip?”
Lan Jue nodded. “I’ll be going with you all. You’re going to have to protect us while we’re there, Professor Wang!”
Wang Hongyuan’s prowess as a pilot and Adept were not well known, but of course they knew this. After all, their experience on Taihua had been a telling one for all of them – and Jin Yan had been there to see it. It just hadn’t been brought up since they got back.
Wang Hongyuan shot Jin Yan a glance. “Nothing to fear,” he said. “If those monsters show up again, I’ll protect you.”
Jin Yan tittered prettily at him, and nodded her head.
Lan Jue looked at Wang Hongyuan, then looked to Jin Yan. Evidently their relationship was improving nicely, though they still weren’t very close. It appeared to him that Wang Hongyuan just needed to step up his game.
Jin Yan flashed them both a smile. “You guys chat. I have some things to clear up and classes to prepare.” She had been in a particularly fine mood lately. Her younger brother was home at last, and although he hadn’t told her anything about the ARC class he was clearly changed by it. Whatever the situation, Jin Yan and the others were all very pleasantly surprised.
In only a few months, Jin Tao had actually grown roughly a head taller. His physique had also improved dramatically. That fierce, feral air that he’d become known for was gone, replaced with a steady calm. He’d grown up. His speech and behavior saw the most improvement, and he was no longer as flippant as he once was. He was an entirely new person.
Jin Yan knew all of this had to have something to do with Lan Jue. After all, it had been Lan Jue that took him away. Although she didn’t know the specifics, both of them had been gone for the same length of time. Now, her baby brother was somehow inexplicably part of the elite ARC students. She knew very well that only the most promising students were enrolled in that program. She’d never have believed her ‘good-for-nothing’ brother would have been a part of it.
Naturally, Jin Tao’s family was ecstatic at the changes. Jin Yan, also, was very happy. She’d wanted to ask Lan Jue more about it, but Wang Hongyuan had arrived by then. She decided to keep her questions to herself for now.
As Jin Yan left for her desk, Wang Hongyuan saddled up to Lan Jue. He spoke in low tones. “Professor Lan, the ARC class is done and the students have all gone back to their lives. What should we do?”
“What can we do?” Lan Jue asked.
“You know, I really wanted to thank you,” Wang Hongyuan said. “Although I’ve never been treated so terrible in all my life, I’ve also never improved this fast. Finally, I can see some hope in continuing my training. I’m sure the students feel similarly. This is especially true after you piloted that battleship all by yourself, and protected our escape. I could see that it filled them with appreciation and respect. With the cohesion they’re feeling now, it would be a shame if we just let them go their separate ways.”
Lan Jue nodded. “Yeah! We should follow up with more. They’ve got a really stable foundation by this point, and the program really set them apart. Their next step should be practical application. If they can work together like the An Lun soldiers, then there’s no limit to their potential.”
“So you’re saying you want them to join the army?” Wang Hongyuan asked.
To that, Lan Jue hook his head. “Military service may not always be the best option. Certainly not right now. The Eastern Alliance’s military has its own problems, and they aren’t strong enough to protect themselves. Joining now would ruin their prospects. My hope for them is that they join once they’re strong enough to handle it. By then, no one would be able to control them.”
Wang Hongyuan blinked. “So what’s the plan?”