The carp-man servant bowed politely and took me to a kitchen that wouldn't have been out of place in a Chinese period drama.
As expected of a mansion's kitchen, it was massive, taking up what felt like a small gymnasium's worth of floorspace. And that wasn't counting the expansive pantry, wine cellar, and icebox. Literally an icebox, a basement pit filled with blocks of ice, each larger than me.
Despite the lack of modern amenities, it was exceptionally well-stocked, with a back shelf filled to the brim with the finest produce I'd ever seen.
Besides, it wasn't as though I needed a modern stove; I'd cooked in plenty of worse environments.
I clapped my hands and turned to face my new apprentice. I took a deep breath of the kitchen air and let the familiar aroma of herbs, spices, and oils energize me. "Alright, Laura, you ready for your very first cooking lesson?"
She quirked an eyebrow at me. "Wasn't that the steak thing?"
"No, don't be silly. That was just a primer. There is so much I need to teach you if you want to be a competent chef."
"By your standards or everyone else's? I feel like they're very different things."
"Mine, what else? I'm your master so my standard's the only one that matters." I made a face. "Besides, why would you want to be mediocre? Food is life! Cooking is art! Cuisine is history! A chef who settles for mediocrity is doing himself a disservice!"
"Right, right, master," she said with a sardonic drawl. "Weren't you trying to fix my magic or whatever?"
"We're doing that, but there's no reason I can't turn this into your very first lesson."
"Okay, got it. Cooking lesson. Get superpowers. Neat. So what're we doing? This place doesn't even have a stove?"
I snapped my fingers, twin sparks of fire qi igniting the space between. "Not a problem for me, but… You're right. That's okay though! There's a lot more to being a great chef than just using the stove."
"Joy, so what am I doing?"
I smiled. Despite her outward sarcasm, I could hear her pulse beat a little faster. She was excited for this, if only a little. It was a skill she could use that had nothing to do with murder or spreading her legs, something to distance herself from her past.
"Well… I could teach you all the ins and outs of every single herb we have in the pantry." I glanced at the wooden tablet nailed to one all, an inventory of all the kitchen's supplies. "We'll cover the first fifty today and move on from there."
Her eyes widened in panic and I saw the excitement die a little. "D-Do we have to?"
"Nah, just fucking with you. In a professional kitchen, you could spend months or years just peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables, or washing rice, but that's no fun. The best way to learn to cook is to cook!"
"Oh, thank god…"
"So, what do you want to make?"
"Huh? How should I know? I just ate rations, fast food, takeout, and whatever I could dig out of the trash."
"Doesn't matter. You should still have an idea of what you like," I insisted. "Pick something. It can be just a picture you saw on a sign that you've always wanted to taste."
"Oh… I guess… A pot pie."
"Yeah… I heard it was a comfort food and… That's not weird, right?"
I smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Of course not. A good chicken pot pie sounds nice right about now actually."
The two of us started working. First things first, I looked for a kitchen knife to give her, but the knives used by the servants of the Lunar Palace were Chinese, meaning they were more akin to cleavers in the western fashion than a typical chef's knife.
I flipped my own knife and gripped it by the point, holding the handle towards her. "Here, use this. I'll use the cleaver; those are a tad tricky to use and I'm going to start you on classic chef's knives anyway."
"Oh, okay…" She took the knife and hummed appreciatively as she ran a finger along the edge. "It's sharp. Very sharp. How often do you sharpen this?"
"Never. It was a gift from my fiance and is enchanted to hell and back. It's not going to dull."
"Huh. So kind of like my claws? They're coated in some kind of experimental metal developed by the Facility."
"Doubt it. I'm fairly sure my knife is sharper."
She poked a claw out of her knuckles. "Can I test it?"
"No, you may not mutilate yourself in the kitchen," I drawled. I picked up a stalk of celery. "Okay, watch carefully because there is a technique to cutting quickly, accurately, and safely."
"I don't need safe, I regenerate."
I flicked her on the forehead, making her lean back with a hiss of pain. "You might regenerate, but you also taste disgusting. If you get bits of yourself in the food, I'm going to have you do nothing but chop vegetables for the next year."
"Alright, fine, teach me, oh master."
Magnanimous bunny that I was, I chose to ignore her cheek and proceeded with the lesson. I had her chop mirepoix, a vegetable medley of celery, onions, and carrots. Despite her natural dexterity, it took her a while to finish. She wasn't just cooking for us two after all; I wanted to make plenty for Jade and Chang'e as well.
While she did that, I began to mix a blend of butter, flour, salt, and water to make a flaky pie crust. It could take as long as four hours to sit, but I was a cheating cheater who cheated. Normally, you rested dough to allow the gluten to relax. In my case, I gently filled the dough ball with yin qi, chilling it and accelerating the process.
After Laura finished with the vegetables, I pulled out two large chickens and deboned them in front of her. I didn't think she'd be the squeamish sort, but it was good to get confirmation.
I slid the knife between the shoulder joint and cut it free with a satisfying pop. With a satisfied smile, I laid out two thighs, two breasts, and two wings, setting aside the ribcage for stock. "See? Easy, right?"
She nodded. She took her own chicken and promptly dismantled it into all perfectly. Her knife moved through the carcass with a fluidity I'd seen on trained chefs decades her senior. If I didn't know any better, I'd never have believed she was an amateur. "Yeah. Anatomy is the same on everything, I guess."
I blinked. That certainly explained it. Moving on, I showed her how to peel the dark meat from the legs and wings before telling her to cut the meat into bite-sized chunks. "The exact size isn't important, so long as you can fit it in your mouth comfortably," I lectured, "the important part is making sure that all the pieces are the same size. That way, they all cook at the same speed."
"Got it. I can do that. What do we do with the ribs?"
"Normally, I like to save them so I can boil them for stock. Most professional kitchens do this."
Time flew by as we worked. I took a wok, heated it with fire qi, and showed her how to fry off the carrots and chicken. I then added in the rest of the vegetables, onions, celery, peas, and corn because I liked the pop. Then, when the onions were translucent, in went the celery seeds, salt, and pepper.
After I had a good stir fry, I poured in some milk and chicken stock the staff already had on hand. I stepped back and handed her the wooden ladle.
"Here. Stir it every few minutes. Scrape the bottom so none of it sticks there."
"Do you normally cook pot pie in a wok? I feel like we're doing things a little weird."
I poked her side, making her squeak. Ticklish? That was good to know. "Are you the chef or me?"
"Hey, just saying. Isn't this supposed to be southern comfort food? As in America?"
"It's also popular in British and a bunch of other places too. But yeah, it's European broadly. Don't worry, I'd normally cook this in a stew pot, but we're here and woks are what we've got. The steps are basically the same anyway so long as I control the heat evenly."
"Cool. So how'd I do?"
"Cutting vegetables? You did fine. A stewed filling like this doesn't need you to be too precise so it's a good starter recipe I think."
Almost forty minutes later, I deemed the filling had reduced enough, leaving a chunky, white goop I knew would taste heavenly once baked through.
I had her load the food into an iron pan before covering it with the pie crust. then I cracked two eggs and separated out the yolk before mixing it with a spoonful of water. Taking a brush, I lathered it on the crust.
"Why do you do that? Will an egg really make a difference?" Laura asked.
"It's egg wash. And in terms of flavor, no, not really. There are some people who are sensitive enough to taste it, but most cannot. What it does is it makes the pastry look more yellow when it comes out of the oven. You know that golden-brown look? That."
"Huh… So what do you do with the whites?"
"I'm sure they'll find a use for it," I told her as I set it aside. Taking my knife, I cut in some vents. "If not, I can make a quick merengue too."
"Right. And the holes in the crust let steam escape?"
"Yup. Otherwise, it'll build up until it tears the crust on its own. That can make it cook unevenly so leaving vents in any kind of closed pastry is important."
I placed the pie in a prepared wooden oven. It was a bit tricky to control the heat, 425 for 35 minutes, but I managed, filling the kitchen with the savory aroma of my baking pie.
I cut out half for myself and Laura then passed off the pan to the carp-men to preserve for Jade and Chang'e whenever they weren't busy.
One of the servants then took us to a dining room.
I could see her practically salivating. "Excited?"
"Yes," she said with a wide grin, none of her usual reservation to be found. "I can eat, right?"
"Aren't you forgetting why we started cooking in the first place?"
"To teach me to cook?"
"Oh, right. Well what now?"
"Now this: Mine is the secret of the Way of all things. Unto my creations I impart the sagely treasures of the Queen Mother's garden. Peach Blossom Alchemy!" The Lunar Palace seemed to thrum with a mysterious resonance as my Authority enchanted the food.
My magic filled the Lunar Palace as my Authority settled into place. It felt natural, like the morning dew settling onto the forest floor. The palace hummed with my magic, almost as though it was welcoming me home.
"W-What the hell was that?" Laura gaped, slack-jawed. She looked around nervously, claws half unsheathed.
"That was my Authority, a divine blessing on the food. It'll fix your mana pathways, improve your regeneration, and protect your mind. I leaned pretty deeply into water, tranquility of spirit and all that. You won't have to worry if you ever meet someone who tries to mind control you."
"Y-You mean that?" she stammered. Her hands were shaking, pulse racing. Somehow, it seemed I'd stumbled on a landmine. "Nothing controls me?"
"W-What about a chemical response? Can scents and hormones control me?"
"No, not unless it's another god doing it. Nothing works on an Authority except an Authority. Why? What's wro-"
I couldn't even finish before she shoveled her quarter of the pie into her mouth. She wasn't chewing. I didn't think she even registered the flavors. I wanted to be upset, but this, this was clearly something special to her. I decided to let her have her moment and brought a forkful to my lips.
I sat across from Laura as she began to tremble. "Why?"
"Why now? Why couldn't you find me sooner?" she sobbed. She looked up at me, her green eyes blurred with tears. A dozen emotions flashed across her face. Anguish. Grief. Pain. Joy. Relief. "Why couldn't you save her?"
"Laura…" I didn't know what to say. Something about what I said obviously triggered the girl. Manipulation? Did the Facility use some kind of chemical signal to hypnotize her? Was that even possible? No, of course it was possible. I knew better than to doubt magic by now.
"You said you could handle the Facility before. I… I didn't believe you but now… after everything… Help me. Help me destroy them."
"Okay? That's it?"
"Okay, I'll help you. It really is that simple. I assume you know where they are?"
She nodded, taking slower bites now that she'd calmed down somewhat. "They have a base on the border of North Dakota and Canada. It's… It's not a happy place."
"Yeah, I figured. I have to settle some things tomorrow, but we'll go as soon as we're finished in New York. Fair?"
I shrugged. "I mean… Yes? It'd be a bit more problematic if their main base was elsewhere, but it's in my territory. I can't just ignore something like this. I could just send the SSIU, but I figure you'd want to see this through personally."
"I do," she said firmly. "What's the SSIU?"
"Sorcerous Sacrilege Investigations Unit. I know, a bit of a mouthful, but they're really good at handling the magical side of things in the US. I'm meeting two of their leaders tomorrow so we can hash out the plan then."
"No problem. Now eat your pie while it's still warm. And be proud of it. You did a good job for your first time."
"Yeah… I'm a chef now…"
"Hey now, don't get cocky. You're a chef-in training."
She snorted. "Right. Please teach me well, master."
After we ate, I took the plates and stacked them before placing them in Laura's hands. "Here."
"What do you mean what? Go wash them."
She stared at me like I'd grown a second head. "But… This is a mansion. There's got to be servants to do the dishes, right?"
"Of course there are." Reaching up, I ruffled her hair. "And here's one right now. Go do the dishes."
"Because you're a commis chef and that means you do the chores."
"This blows," she grumbled, but stood anyway.
"It does," I agreed wholeheartedly. Mom had me do it too. I remembered those days fondly. "It builds character. Chop chop!"
Fluffles and I chuckled as we watched my new chef stomp back to the kitchen. It was honestly adorable how she could go from contemplating mass murder (admittedly to well-deserving parties) to pouty college-aged girl too lazy to do chores.
Alas, not doing dishes was one of the perks of being the chef de cuisine. Sharing that particular misery with my new apprentice was one of the joys of having an apprentice at all.
After a mid-afternoon pot pie, Laura and I toured the gardens for a while before I realized something: I could visit Luo Hao. the Lunar Palace was currently over the western half of China. Running to Mount Lu from there would be a cakewalk.
"Say, Laura," I called. "Come on, we're going back to the kitchen."
"Again? We just ate."
"Yeah, I need to cook some picnic food."
"We're going to visit my fiance and I refuse to go empty handed."
"Yeah, I have one, remember?"
I could see the exact moment Laura decided to just give up and go with the flow. "Sure, let's go see your fiance. Is she in the palace somewhere?"
"Nope. In China."
"For the record, I don't speak Chinese."
"That's okay, both Luo Hao and Yinghua speak English just fine."
"Alright, fine. Let's go. What are we making?"
I hummed as we entered the pantry again. Looking around, I saw a nice, meaty hunk of pork and got an idea. "You know what a banh mi is, Laura?"
"Not a clue."
"It's a Vietnamese sandwich. Roast pork, liver pate, picked onions and carrots. Cucumber slices. Sweet-savory sauce. All on a French loaf that's a little like a smaller baguette."
"Huh. Sounds good."
"It is." I picked out some onions and carrots. Taking one at random, I tossed it her way. "And, it's a wonderful chance to teach you about julienning vegetables."
She grabbed the onion out of the air and placed it on a cutting board. "Alright, let's do this. Show me how to Julie-whatever."
"Julienne. It's the name of a cutting technique."
"What'd Julianne do to you? Why is it called that?"
"Nothing. I don't know why it's called that actually."
Laura let out a mock-gasp. "Tianyu doesn't know something about cooking? Gasp. Gasp, I say."
"Keep it up. I'll have you on bunny-sitting duty for weeks."
"Please impart upon me your wisdom."
"That's better. Now, julienning is done like this…"
After picking the vegetables for an hour, we took some of the pork the palace had on hand and roasted it quickly. Ideally, it would have been cooked yesterday, roasted low and slow until the pork belly was crispy, but I didn't have that luxury.
So, I cheated.
I cut the pork into thin slices, marinated it while the carrots and unions pickled, and prepared the dough.
Then, while the French bread dough rose, I held each individual slice of pork and roasted it with fire qi until it was tender. Thinner slices, faster marination and cooking time. Even then, it wouldn't have turned out nearly so well without my magic to speed it along.
The end product was one of the greatest sandwiches ever made, alongside the Reuben and the Cubano. Of course, I could only pair the iconic Vietnamese sandwich with Vietnamese coffee.
After loading it all in a picnic basket, I took Laura by the hand. "Come on, let's go meet Luo Hao."
She pulled against me. "Do I have to? I mean, I'm just your apprentice. Do I really need to meet your fiance?"
"It'll be fine, Laura. Luo Hao's a sweetheart."
Next to me, Fluffles choked on thin air. "Sweetheart, right. The woman called Ruler of the Martial Realm is a 'sweetheart.'"
"Hey, she's nice to me."
"She likes petting your ears."
"And? I don't see the point you're trying to make."
"You've been engaged for a little under two weeks now and you're already bringing home a girl. You sure about this?"
"She's my apprentice, Fluffles," I huffed. "It's not like I'm fucking her."
"Right here," Laura grumbled. "I'm right here. And are you seriously arguing with your rabbit?"
"Fluffles thinks Luo Hao might be upset that I'm bringing home a girl even though we've only been engaged less than two weeks. But it'll be fine, her senior disciple is a man anyway so it's not like she can complain."
"She has disciples? Plural? Enough to have a senior disciple?"
"Yup. She's crazy strong and has her own martial arts cult. Basically, just think of her as a kung fu movie protagonist and you'll be on the right track."
"Lovely… Is she going to make me wash her car in the name of training?"
"No, she doesn't own a car. She's faster than me. Why would she need a car?" I asked, befuddled. "She did make me chop firewood with a penknife to teach me flexibility and cutting technique."
"Oh…" Laura sighed and did a full one-eighty. "Nope. Nopenopenopenope. I'm not going. You can go meet the kung fu girl. I'll be right here."
"Come on," I said, dragging her behind me by the scruff of her neck. "She's nice, I promise."
"Fluffles shook her head. I'm pretty sure you're lying."
"Fluffles is on her back. She's pointing at me and laughing. I think you're lying."
Laura went limp in my hand. "I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
Laura looked up at the temple with a wary frown on her face. "Kung fu movie protagonist, you said. You sure she's not the villain?"
"Of course not!" I protested. I felt the need to defend my fiance. "Luo Hao is a righteous and benevolent leader who embodies the fivefold Confucian virtues… though I admit her temple can be a little intimidating at first glance…"
"It's red. There are red lanterns everywhere and the lighting makes everything look like it's been covered in blood. The brickwork looks ancient. There's even one of those octagon-door thingies you only see on palaces that belong to evil overlords."
I rolled my eyes and continued to tug my apprentice along. "And you're a former assassin with Authority-enhanced regeneration. Are you actually nervous or are you just bitching for the hell of it?"
She shrugged in my grip. "A little of column A, a little of column B. Seriously, you're already a freak of nature. I don't want to meet anyone stronger than you."
"Well too bad because she already knows you're here."
"Though you're right, she's not really a kung fu movie protagonist. If anything, she's that secret sage the protagonist goes on a quest to find so they can train him."
"Are you calling your fiance old?"
"She's more than two hundred years old. I don't think she cares about her age. She's not Aisha."
"Other Campione, remember? Third oldest after Voban and Luo Hao. She apparently insists to everyone that she's eternally seventeen."
"Wow… That's… Kinda pathetic. Isn't she more than a hundred years old?"
"Hey, don't judge," I chided, flicking her nose lightly. "We all have our quirks."
That was as far as I got because the crimson gate my grumpy apprentice pointed out swung open on flawlessly oiled hinges. It was so silent that even my enhanced ears barely caught it. What turned Laura's attention back to the temple was not the gate swinging open, but the raw, impossibly dense qi that flooded out like the roar of some great beast.
I smiled as my fiance's presence enveloped me, a welcome greeting far more intimate than any words could say. It was warm and heavy, like a weighted blanket that wrapped around me protectively. Beside me, Laura shivered and shrank in on herself.
"This is qi right?"
"Impossibly dense, divine qi from arguably the single most powerful individual alive, but yes. I'm not surprised you can feel it even without training; Luo Hao's qi is just that dense."
"You don't feel like this."
"A few reasons. To start, I'm a lot weaker than she is despite both of us being Campione. Second, I control myself. Luo Hao isn't typically considerate of others. Because everyone here is a martial artist, shaman, or some other flavor of powerful supernatural entity, she doesn't usually have to be."
"Well it's scary, like being covered in guts and stuck in the lion's den."
"You'd grow back."
She swatted my arm. "You get what I mean."
"I do, but I promise it's fine. You need to get used to sensing qi anyway. Like it or not, you're in a very different world now."
"Fine." She took a deep breath. "Let's do this."
"Yup," I held out the wicker basket full of delicious sandwiches and cheered. "Picnic time!"
"It's barely dawn. What picnic?"
"Hence the Vietnamese coffee, duh. Besides, this temple wakes up a few hours before dawn anyway. Let's go."
We passed a host of servants who kowtowed to me. They offered guidance but I knew the place well enough by now. I could feel Laura's eyes on my back as I awkwardly waved. I felt for her. I was in her place not two weeks ago, when I first realized just how influential Campione really were in the world. It was one thing to be given the rundown, but a whole different matter to experience it firsthand.
We moved through the compound at a brisk pace. I knew where Luo Hao would be. For all her power, she was a creature of habit. At this time, I knew she would be meditating in one of the many courtyards after having gone through her first bout of exercise for the day. Yinghua was probably with her.
The inner courtyard was beautiful. It was paved in large, interlocking slabs of granite with an inch or two of space left between them intentionally for verdant grass to peek through. Combined with the parallel rows of stone lanterns, the effect was simultaneously tranquil and freeing.
I found Luo Hao and my… junior brother… there. It still felt strange to call him that, especially since he was far more experienced than me. The two were seated facing each other, legs crossed in stereotypical lotus position. To my surprise, Yinghua's qi signature was far larger than it was since I last saw him. He was clearly still dwarfed by his mistress, but he now had a vibrance that he'd lacked prior.
My fiance didn't keep me waiting. Even were I a stranger, she would not have; she was above pointless power games and posturing. Yinghua once told me about the only man who'd ever tried to pull one on her: He was a leader of the Communist Party who thought he could keep her waiting while he slept with his secretary.
She strolled straight through his reinforced walls, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and dragged him off, leaving two Luo Hao-shaped holes in the walls. They found him four days later beneath a waterfall in a nearby mountain, head shaved, in kneeling posture, with an enchanted stone statue on his lap that would not move until he recited the six virtues of Confucius eighty-eight times.
Luo Hao opened her eyes and offered me a gentle smile. "Beloved, you have come to visit."
Grinning, I walked over and gave her a hug. "Hey, Luo Hao. Miss me?"
She stood and ran her fingers along the edge of my ears. "I missed these. They're really nice to hold in bed."
I heard Yinghua cough behind me. "The hag's a furry?"
Faster than either of our students could see, her foot kicked high, launching her slipper with the force of a sniper round. It collided with Yinghua's face with a deafening crack, sending him sprawling.
"You deserved that," I said, amused more than anything.
"He did. I am not a hag."
"You're also not a furry."
"What is a furry? Am I being insulted?"
"Ah… Shit…" I groaned. How did you explain furry culture to a woman born a full century before the first World War? "Furries are…"
"People who like bunny ears," Laura quipped. I could hear her heart beat a little faster, but the bratty little shit just couldn't avoid poking fun.
Luo Hao nodded confidently, as though she'd arrived at some hitherto unknown truth of the universe. "Indeed. Tianyu's ears are divine. I like Tianyu's ears. Therefore, I am a furry."
I groaned. "No you're not. Furries are… something else…"
"Your assistant lied to me?" she asked dangerously. Her eyes narrowed, studying Laura. "Brave. And foolish."
I saw Laura pale as the air in the courtyard turned distinctly less friendly. A part of me wanted to let her cash the check her mouth wrote, but alas, she was still my disciple, for whatever that was worth.
"No, she didn't lie… It's just… not a complete definition. She was making a joke."
"Hmm… Very well. She seems somewhat lacking in training." One moment, she was holding me. The next, she was by Laura, poking and prodding my student. Laura dressed as she typically did, with a black, form-fitting tank top that showed off her toned midriff and dark skinny jeans. She tried to squirm away but a single paralyzing glare from my fiance kept her in place. "She has adequate muscle tone and is a veteran of many battles, but I can see that none of her prior masters were true warriors."
I shrugged. "Doesn't matter much now, she's my commis chef."
"So she is. Tell me, beloved, why have you taken her under your wing? Her hands are stained in blood."
"I don't know?" I held Don Fluffles out to her. "Fluffles dragged her to me one day. I fed her and now she won't leave so I've been treating her like a pet cat."
She let out a pretty snort, I didn't think that was possible. "Oh? Curious. Will you instruct her in the martial dao as well as the culinary dao?"
"Maybe. If she wants to learn, sure, but I'm not going to force her. It's good to focus on cooking I think, especially as a beginner. She didn't know what good food was until I fed her so I want her to at least have the foundations down."
"Indeed, a wandering mind can lead to regression on the path." She turned and pointed a finger in Laura's face. "Listen well. You are a student of my beloved fiance, Tianyu, the Heavenly Chef! Thank your ancestors for your blessed fortune for you have the luck of the heavens! Dedicate yourself to the culinary dao and know that you can find no greater master!"
Laura stood there, frozen with the sheer weight of the moment. I could tell, she'd never felt this awkward before. Whatever this so-called "Facility" taught her, it sure as hell wasn't how to deal with hilariously overpowered, melodramatic kung fu nuts. She glanced at me, eyes wide and pleading in silence. I tried not to bust out laughing at her predicament.
Fluffles had no such reservations, squeaking and rolling on the ground with a paw pointed at my hapless disciple.
"Fluffles, knock it off," I said, swiping her from the ground and putting her on my shoulder.
"Is your familiar laughing at your assistant?" Luo Hao asked.
"Yeah. Right now, the hierarchy of the Lunar Palace goes something like me, Chang'e, the first Jade Rabbit, the Four Divine Beasts, Fluffles, and then Laura."
"Oh, fuck you too, boss," Laura huffed.
"You exalt your rabbit higher than your disciple? Though I suppose you did say she was dragged to you by Fluffles. Hmm… Perhaps she is weaker than even my generous allowance. Are you sure you want her as your disciple?"
Laura glared at Luo Hao but my fiance paid it no mind. What was the glaring of a kitten before a dragon?
I stifled a laugh. "It's fine. I don't need her to be strong."
"If you say so, beloved. Now, what do you have in that basket of yours?"
I grinned ear to ear. I was always happy to talk about food. Mom once said that she became a better chef because she loved cooking for dad, that sharing the fruits of your hands with someone you love could push you beyond your limits. I didn't get it much then, I was a snot-nosed teenager more interested in trying (and failing) to impress girls, but no longer.
I understood now. The thought of letting Luo Hao enjoy my cooking made me almost giddy with anticipation.
"It's a picnic basket!" I cheered. "I figured you haven't had breakfast yet so I thought we could share a meal together."
Yinghua chose that moment to walk back, having recovered from Luo Hao's slipper of doom. "Senior brother, welcome back. I had not gotten to greet you before the ha-my exalted mistress saw fit to abu-show me pointers."
I laughed. "Hey, Yinghua. Care to join us for food?"
"I would be honored to partake, senior brother."
"Sure, I made four with you in mind anyway. Did you want to eat here or should we go somewhere else?"
"Elsewhere," Luo Hao said. "Good food should be enjoyed with equally good ambiance."
I bowed to my lovely fiance's wisdom. "As you say, Luo hao. What did you have in mind?"
She took us out of the temple to a gazebo atop a mountain. We could see a scenic mountainscape for miles. The forest below us was verdant with life and the barest hint of the sunrise peeked out over the eastern horizon.
Luo Hao stood atop the steps and flung her arms wide. "Behold, beloved! Student of beloved! Is not the majesty of China breathtaking? Does it not broaden your heart and lighten your burdens? What greater place is there than this to share a meal between friends?"
I laughed, her exuberance was contagious. Setting the basket down, I began to take out each sandwich. "I'm glad I went with a banh mi. I thought about making something a bit more formal but this fits perfectly. Thank you, Luo Hao."
"Hoh? A dish from my southern territory? Splendid! It has been many decades since I enjoyed one."
"Does it come with coffee?" Yinghua asked. "I remember you saying the best coffees come from Vietnam and Turkey, senior brother."
"They do indeed, Yinghua. I'm glad you remembered. And yes, of course I made coffee."
"You're the best."
"And don't you forget it. Laura! Stop standing around awkwardly and come sit with us."
Laura shuffled forward and took the thermos full of coffee before pouring out four shares into paper cups. She handed them out and I gestured for her to serve Luo Hao first.
Luo Hao nodded magnanimously as she took the cup from her. "Hoh? Laura is your name then? It rolls strangely on the tongue as western languages are wont to do."
"Yeah, the closest person I had to a mother gave me that name."
"Then it is a splendid name, all the better suited for the memories it inspires."
I clapped my hands and gestured to the spread. "Dig in, everyone. Banh mi is fairly traditional with pickled carrots and onions, pate, roast pork, and cilantro. There's a hint of peanut sauce I put on the opposite bun but that's about all the customization I made to it."
"It looks amazing," Yinghua said, "but is there any particular reason you settled on Vietnamese food?"
"Not really. I figured that since Laura's new to cooking, I'd start her on a few key recipes but otherwise stick to cooking techniques. Julienning food is kind of a staple and I wanted to teach her how to do it with different vegetables."
"Yup. Everything's a lesson," he nodded sagely.
"Heh, yeah. Remember when Luo Hao took away the firewood so I'd learn to harness fire qi?"
"Yup. She did that to me too, back when I as a kid."
"You're still a kid."
"I'm eighteen," he huffed.
"Then why does Luo Hao call you 'Little Eagle?'" I asked with a teasing grin. "When will you be 'Big Eagle?'"
"Because she's an evil ha-" Luo Hao glared at him warningly, making him close his mouth with an audible clack.
I chuckled and took a sip of my coffee. "You know, Luo Hao, I should thank you again for the knife."
"I used it to kill my second heretic god. And of course, it's an excellent chef's knife as well."
She brightened at once. "Truly? You must regale me with tales of your first battle, beloved!"
"Well, it went like this…"
I told her everything. Putting it to words, I realized how eventful the last several days had been. I visited my parents' graves for the first time in years and cleared the burdens on my heart. I met a lovely girl with some impressive precognitive powers. I engaged two gods in battle, killing one within minutes of his descent. I helped John Pluto Smith kill the second. I encountered two members of the "greatest heroes in the world," only to find them utterly disappointing. Most of all, I became one of the two Campiones in charge of North America.
Luo Hao beamed at me proudly and I felt my heart fill with warmth. "You have established yourself in the land of your birth and acquitted yourself well against two gods, protecting the land against their rampage. Truly, my eyes did not lie to me; I have chosen a worthy fiance."
"Glad you approve, Luo Hao."
"Indeed, I feared you would have locked yourself in some kitchen and not emerged for days on end, and even that only to acquire more ingredients."
"Heh, that sounds like heaven actually."
"You must show restraint, love."
I cocked an eyebrow at her. "You? You're telling me about restraint? You do nothing but practice kung fu."
"Untrue," she sniffed, "I also teach my many disciples and ensure that my territory is at peace."
"She's also been cooking," Yinghua quipped. "She wants to impress you with her cooking and said she doesn't want to disappoint you, senior brother."
"Be silent, traitor."
"Hahaha, is that why you want me to cook less?" I laughed, poking her side with a finger. "Do you think you can reach where I am on the culinary dao if I simply stop cooking for a day or two? Do you think so little of me, my lovely fiance?"
"Of course not, but perhaps we should see if you had been practicing the techniques I showed you last, beloved. Care to trade pointers with me?"
I backpedaled. Campione I may be, but I wasn't dumb enough to spar with Luo Hao. "Nope, not a chance in hell."
"Ufufufu, I am indeed mightier than all the warriors of the Underworld."
"Yup. One of these days, Yama is going to descend as a heretic god and when he does, you're going to club him to death with his own book before conquering the Underworld."
"Of course! Your faith in me shall be rewarded when I reign as Empress of Life and Death," she boasted, jutting out her chest in ways that caught my eye.
Beside me, Fluffles rolled her eyes and muttered something about "bunny-genes," but I didn't care. My fiance was gorgeous and it was my right to ogle, damn it.
We ate in companionable silence as we watched the sunrise. Luo Hao was right; there was something about the vastness of the vista before me that broadened my heart and left me feeling lighter than I had before.
"Say, Luo Hao?"
"What was your childhood like?"
"Hoh, you wish to know more about me?"
"Yes, I do. I know who you are now but not how you became this way."
She smiled. It was a gentle thing, different from the bombastic, confident smirks she typically wore. "Very well then, it is only right that my fiance hears of my past. Though truthfully, there is little worth telling. I grew up in a family of martial artists. My parents were overjoyed to find a prodigy in me, but we were not well-known before my ascension. They were virtuous folk, but not particularly gifted; I surpassed them in short order.
"Though they were proud of me, they cursed their luck, for they lacked the wealth to hire a tutor more appropriate for my potential. Thus, I did what I do now: I trained alone. I trained and fell in love with the martial dao until training no longer felt like training, until I had no equals on the mortal plane."
I nodded. "A man who loves his job doesn't work a day in his life."
"Indeed. It is a wise saying, and true of me. Then, the heretic god Vajrapani descended. We did battle and I emerged victorious, but nothing of my old life remained. I buried my family there and paid my respects before secluding myself in solitary cultivation."
"I'm sorry for bringing up painful memories."
"Do not be sorry; it is in the past. I was afraid, not for myself, but for those around me. My esteemed father taught me the Confucian virtues and I could not suffer such a wonton waste of life again."
"So you hid until you could surround yourself with capable martial artists," I finished for her.
"Indeed. I needed my students to be powerful in their own right, powerful enough to flee if they must."
Her story was a sobering one, a reminder that power alone couldn't protect everyone. I pulled her into a hug and smiled as she nestled into my side. "Say, Luo Hao?"
"What's your favorite food?"
"Everything is about food with you."
"Of course. Food is life."
"Of course. Although, I admit I have no true preference. I developed a fondness for duck during my years in seclusion and plums remind me of my mother, but there is no singular dish that I crave. Did you wish to cook for me?"
"Always," I said earnestly. "Cooking for someone I love can elevate my skills, mom told me that."
"She was a wise woman. Fight for those you love and you shall uncover power you had never known you had before. I don't see why cooking would be any different."
"I guess that means I have to come back and feed you more often."
"Ah, what a tragedy has befallen me," she waxed poetically, slumping to the side so she could rest her head on my shoulder.
Laura and I remained with Luo Hao for several hours. We told her about Chang'e and Jade. Luo Hao urged me to seek out the divine beasts, if only so I knew there would be no revolt in my own domain. She also expressed interest in training Laura, especially when she found out that my new disciple was effectively a regenerating punching bag.
Laura was… considerably less enthusiastic at the comparison.
Luo Hao and Yinghua returned to their duties after a time and left us to Fengjun, the daughter of the shamanic family who explained much to me that very first night. We spent the rest of the morning being introduced to the very basics of divination magic. Though neither of us could cast a single spell, I couldn't help but feel learning was well within our capabilities should we dedicate the time.
When it came time to leave for good, Luo Hao and Yinghua saw us off.
To my surprise, my fiance had a farewell gift for me.
"Take it," she said, holding out a scroll that wouldn't look out of place in a museum. It was yellowed and worn but still readily legible. "It contains the basics of single-bladed sword techniques. You said you possessed the fang of the serpent you slew."
I took it with a wide smile. "Thank you, Luo Hao. I'll be sure to practice."
"You had best not, beloved. I would be disappointed if my gift went to waste."
"Don't worry, I'll come back soon so I can show you what I learned."
"See that you do, beloved." She then turned towards Laura. "Child, should you ever find cause to walk the martial dao once more, these gates shall remain open for you. For my beloved's sake, I extend this honor and shall welcome you as a privileged acolyte."
So saying, she turned and strolled back inside the temple, leaving Yinghua. He bowed from the waist. "Senior brother, thank you for visiting."
"It was my pleasure, Yinghua."
"The old ha-my mistress would not say, but the scroll was first penned by the ancestors of the Luo family. Though not famous throughout Chinese history, their saber-techniques should provide an excellent foundation for the creation of your own style."
I heard what he wasn't saying: Luo family. Luo Hao's family.
"Thank you for telling me," I told him sincerely. "Please extend my gratitude to Luo Hao. Her ancestors taught a woman like her; I'm sure I will find nothing lacking."
"I shall convey your words, senior brother." He then held out a hand to Laura. "You have much to learn, both of this world and of cooking. Do not slack off in your training."
"You don't have to tell me that," Laura huffed. She still shook his hand.
Then, Yinghua squeezed, bringing her to her knees.
"Yinghua," I barked.
"My apologies, senior brother," he said, though with a distinct lack of sincerity. He turned back to Laura. "Campione often have seconds, their right hands if you will. Just as I serve at her eminence's right hand, Smith has Annie Charlton, Doni has Andre, and even that thief Alec has the one called Iceman. It is a position of both great honor and great danger, Laura Kinney. Like it or not, you now occupy this coveted place by the Seventh King. Many will try to ingratiate themselves to you. Many will use you. Many will try to usurp your throne, for it is indeed a throne in its own right. Are you ready to stand by his side?"
Laura stood and held out her hand again. She balled it into a fist as her bones audibly cracked back into place. Her claws emerged with the snick-snick noise of grinding bone as two beads of blood ran down the back of her hand. "I'm not afraid to fight for what's mine."
He met her eyes for a long moment. Then, whatever he saw, he must have approved because he nodded with a satisfied smile. "Good. It is good that you have spirit. Senior brother loves peace but is destined to find war. Good luck, Laura Kinney."
Having said what he wanted, he too followed his mistress inside. The temple gates closed before us, as soundless as they had been when they opened.
I sighed. "Sorry about that."
"No, I get it," Laura said. She looked at me. Her eyes were filled with resolve. "I'm weak. I get it. I thought I was hot shit but the world's a big place."
"That it is, Laura. That it is…"
We're officially caught up with the quest. I still think this story isn't as good without the pictures but this somehow became way more popular than I expected. Thanks for following along on one of my free-write projects.
Now for the animal facts... Don't know if I used this one already (I make a lot of these), but some varieties of spiders, especially jumpers, have metal deposits in their teeth that make them fracture-resistant. Scorpions, crabs, and funnily enough, beavers, also have metal deposits in claws and teeth.
Anyway, thanks for paying for my groceries, guys. Daniel Aasa, Jaykay2307, Angel, AjiTae, Anon, voljin2, Archaicx1, xerzate, Ash, caleb boggs, Aspect of Chaos, Ramzawing04, Arakhil, Trespitry, darien page, Austin, Keith Miller, Adam Albright, Shirou0emiya, Stephon Harris, Metro Man, Mischief_24, TC, Heraclitus, JchuckS, Fred-Ole Nyborg, Ahmet KoÃ§ak, Michael og, Harry Williams, Simmie, Matthew McRoyall, Hazza Vanderbyl, ReadingOverSleeping, Alsb, Jeffrey See, Jonathan Seah, Meda, Griffin J, JustaLurker, NatureKills, Brock Humphries, Softee, Amonre9, DogmaPiece, My name is Klondike, random_debuff, Gloxinia, Tyler, Drew Kerstens, Taire, Garrett Conley, Sparkz, Christopher Magrath, Nick McKelvey, MochiLeaf, Nicholas Commisso, Raptor, obviousPenname, T4ndoris, Tactical Paladin, Mrsnuuggles88, Adam parker, tien, Martin Franco, Incraze, Barry Zimmerman, Streetwise, Frank, Marco, Shurukkah, Bapping, Manowargs, Temmie, Xisaro, Legion_13, Alex Black, AnonymousJohn, AJ, Cc, Ore0man, Ab9999, Flipflop, Dicky wongsonegoro, Kcx1, Master Kuma, Brian, Jorge Benedicto, NorthMountain, AblazedNightmare, Mp Gaming, Baron_Dio, Edgar, Dan B, Trent Cannon, dark helmet9, KDN, Drake_Azathoth, Dang Tran, Dull Pen, Nick Gabbard, Julian Rivera, Amon, Thobitor, Paul Becker, CrusaderElmo, Non Non, Sam Richardson, BookDragonling, Retexks, abdd, M, Jakob Lefevre, , Mateusz, Alexander Beers, mouad maataoui, Yuri Latten, SpeX, Ramon Diaz, Spencer seidel, Deteriator, Johnworm, ilovebullets, Narasan, Tavernlandlord, Sean Feeney, Evelyn Antoinette, Primordi, Adam Bell, Jake Hand, Oddfall, r3d3v3, AbyssalMage, Daniel I Beer, Coalman95, Blyth Septimus, PbookR, Drake, JayK, Amadi238, Helios, Starfall20, Anh Duy Ly, Matthew Powell, oliman, Bookmaggot, Paul Mouttet, Uriel Torres, victor a lopez-barron, DeValve, jack kreutner, Savagesmiley, Andreyebidu, Apallo Berryman, Big ToFu, John Dale, Noctis117, costochondritis, Sage Berthelsen, Zerak, Kraxus, fluffybutt, Euth, Phong Truong, Night Drifter, NazNar21, Khetsun XD, abdullah khan, Hunter Rhoades, Hector Gregorio, Rairarku, and Chrishenk.