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“Who gave you permission to touch me?!” Gu Xiulan snarled, slapping Fan Yu’s hand away from hers. She ignored the throb of agony that traveled up her blessed arm with a mere grimace and clenching of her teeth.

Fan Yu cringed, and she hated him all the more for it. “Xiulan, I am sorry for forgetting myself,” the weak-willed fool apologized. “I only wanted to assure you that no matter what, I will stand by your side…”

She felt her hair moving, heat rising from her skin in response to her growing temper. The secondary displays of her qi had always been prominent, and her recent trials had only increased the tendency. The fool continued to babble on, as if he could offer her anything. He was weak, and his insinuations that she needed protection, like the sort of fragile simpering dolls that the Fan family called daughters, was infuriating.

“If you have time for such declarations, perhaps you should dedicate yourself more fully to cultivation,” Xiulan snapped, tiring of his words. She turned on her heel, her new crimson red veil fluttering with the motion. “I have training to do. Cease wasting my time.”

The stout boy’s defeated expression as she stalked away from him only deepened her contempt. Han Jian would not stand for her speaking to him that way. He was a proper man and a proper lord. Where was the pride of Fan Yu?! He blustered and shouted in front of the weak but had no spine for his peers.

She would leave him behind soon enough, so it didn’t matter. Her scars throbbed as she stomped away, heading toward the training fields. She stopped and took a shuddering breath, forcing herself to calm. Her temper had been burning much hotter since she had come down from the mountain peak, and it would not do to start lighting the grass on fire by accident, like a child just accessing their dantian.

When she resumed walking, it was at a more sedate and ladylike pace, and her fierce scowl had been smoothed away, replaced by a bland and peaceful expression. Embers still flickered in her hair though, and wisps of smoke escaped the binding on her arm.

The featherlight feeling of her spirit Linhuo offering comfort in her thoughts helped. Although she did not speak, the fairy had been her only companion when Xiulan had lain broken and sobbing on that mountaintop. The spirit’s encouragement had been what stoked the flames of her will high enough to offer herself to the tribulation of lightning for the final time.

“You and Ling Qi,” she murmured quietly, raising her hand to her chest. To have a close bond with one’s spirit was nothing unusual, but she still found it strange that she had become so close to another girl.

The plain, bumbling peasant she had thought to groom as a handmaiden in a fit of fancy hardly existed any longer. Xiulan should hate her. That immense talent that had left her far behind should have been more than enough of a reason, especially now that she had sacrificed her beauty, the one advantage she had retained over Ling Qi.

Her lips twisted into a scowl at the thought. She was an ugly thing now, scarred and broken. That would take some mental adjustment on her part and particularly... particularly in regards to her Mother. She could already picture the horror on Mother’s face when she next presented herself. Her sisters were rivals, obstacles on her way to ascendancy in the family, and to escaping Fan Yu, but Mother…

Her shoulders drooped slightly before she regained her poise. At least Father would be proud. She was strong now. Everything came to her more easily. She had broken through on several of her arts in the process of regaining control of her qi. She would be strong, and although she had no doubt that Ling Qi would beat her to it, she no longer doubted that she could reach the third realm within a year. She would not fall behind Yanmei.

Again, her arm throbbed, interrupting her thoughts and forcing a hiss of pain from her lips as the constant low level agony flared higher. She closed her eyes, refusing to let the tears prickling at the corner of her eyes fall.

It hurt so much.

She had half expected to die up there, at the peak of the mountain where it was said that Sect Head Yuan had met and bonded his spirit beast, where the heavenly qi lay as thick as the shed alabaster scales. After the first bolt of lightning had struck her upraised arm, she had screamed. By the tenth, she had wished for death. Only Linhuo’s encouragement had let her raise her destroyed limb again after that.

Gu Xiulan shuddered at the memory. Compared to that, what was a little ache? She was being weak again, and that thought was enough to make her shove the feeling down and resume walking.

The ranged combat training ground she had been using since her return was once again pristine, the targets unburnt and the ground unmarked by the pockmarks left by stray lightning. With a thought, Linhuo drifted free of her, emerging from her back like a pair of brightly colored wings formed of raw electricity before her fiery body emerged as well. The tribulation had changed her spirit as well, Linhuo’s wispy form more defined and humanoid. Xiulan watched the newly grown fairy, now a bit more than thirty centimeters tall, flutter off to play with the lanterns lighting the area.

Xiulan then turned to face the target range instead, focusing on the roiling qi that filled her channels now. Flames licked at the wrappings around her arm as she focused, pushing away other thoughts, and a bolt of blue leapt from her fingertips, incinerating the nearest target… and the one next to it as well.

Gu Xiulan grit her teeth. Her control was still lacking, the thunder and lightning that pounded in her veins demanding greater shows of might and passion.

Instead of firing again, she instead sat down cross-legged and closed her eyes. Meditation and control exercises first then.

... It was just so hard to concentrate. Oh, the complex weaves of fire that made up the Wildflowers’ exercises came with relative ease, flames flowing from her fingertips like ink from a pen. But the infusion of lightning unsettled her and made it hard to follow the rigid patterns the exercises demanded.

Xiulan felt the urge to create new images instead of weaving patterns. Han Jian’s face smiled down at her from the flames, warm and accepting the way he had been when they were younger. Red flames twisted into the shape of a girl with a flute, standing at her side as they faced a powerful foe, whose features shifted by the moment.

She was dimly aware that the grass was on fire and Linhuo was fluttering in a circle, containing the flames from spreading. Gu Xiulan shut her eyes and breathed out harshly, snuffing the flames and all the images woven from them.

She didn’t know what she wanted anymore, and that stung. She had sacrificed so much for power… but for what end?

Han Jian did not want her. She should have known better than to put stock in childish promises. She had ruined herself for court, and even with all this sacrifice, she knew that she would still be chasing the shadow of her sister and Ling Qi.

She wanted though. She wanted more, even if she did not know what that looked like. She wanted Father to never again lament his lack of sons. She wanted Mother to approve of her. She wanted to stand above her sisters, one and all, to shine so brightly that even Grandfather would rise from seclusion to acknowledge her as heir. And one day, she wanted to return the Gu to their rightful place at the top of Golden Fields.

She just wondered how much she would need to feed to the flames to achieve that.

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