Ling Qi breathed deeply, following the exercises held in her jade slip. She knew that she had overreacted. She knew that the stress of being chased by Sun Liling had cracked her emotional control. She knew that objectively, she was quite strong and that there were very few people on the Outer Sect mountain who could push her into a corner like Sun Liling did.
So why did she still feel so weak? It was ridiculous. There would always be someone stronger than her. But remembering the snarling visage of Sun Liling’s helmet makes her feel like a frightened girl cowering under a pile of trash again.
Her hands clenched on her knees. She forced herself to maintain her breathing exercise and push down that corner of her mind still consumed by gibbering panic and the desire to flee and hide. She just had to -
“How commendable of you, Miss Ling!” Her introspection was shattered by the sound of Gan Guangli’s booming voice. She grimaced sheepishly. She had been waiting for him to finish drilling a group of new enforcers, and she had gotten carried away.
She opened her eyes, looking up at the tall boy from her seat on the bench at the edge of the field.
“Excuse me?” she asked, a little confused. Had she missed some context?
“Your devotion to cultivation,” the golden-haired young man explained with a grave nod. “Few can find the focus to cultivate even in such a short period.”
“Ah.” Ling Qi felt awkward. What else was one to do while waiting? This place was as safe as could be given how many of Cai’s people were around, and sitting around doing nothing was wasteful. “It’s nothing praiseworthy.”
Gan Guangli shook his head. “I think you are mistaken, but I will not press the matter. Regardless, you wished to speak with me, Miss Ling? Do you require aid in some endeavor? Have you uncovered another villain to smite?”
Ling Qi shook her head, smiling just a touch. It was hard to get all broody with that kind of attitude staring her in the face. Gan Guangli was at the peak of second, brimming with Mountain and Heaven qi woven through with threads of Metal. He had already been late second realm over two months earlier. Was he having breakthrough difficulties? Or perhaps he was still building his foundation for the attempt?
“Nothing like that. Even I can only uncover one major villain a month,” she joked.
“Of course. My apologies,” he replied, moving to sit on the bench across from her rather than continuing to loom. The tiny characters carved into the wood flared as the seat creaked under his weight. “My excitement at the possibility of further glory surpassed my sensibility.”
Well, at least someone had gotten to enjoy yesterday, Ling Qi thought. The thread of bitterness didn’t last.
“I was actually hoping to ask you about that,” she said, glancing around. There were still enforcers practicing in the field, but they were keeping a respectful distance. “What actually happened when you attacked the fortress? Why didn’t Lady Cai finish them?”
Gan Guangli crossed his arms over his brawny chest. Ling Qi tried to casually look away; he had worked up a sweat. “A good question. I admit, retreating galled me somewhat,” he rumbled unhappily. “I tore their gates asunder, and those foul contraptions failed to absorb Lady Cai’s light as our men sacrificed themselves in destroying them. We could have crushed the rebels in detail!” His voice rose, and she saw a few enforcers glance their way.
“So why didn’t you? Did the Princess make it back?” Ling Qi leaned forward. Then his words registered with her, and suddenly feeling wary, she asked, “Wait - what do you mean by ‘sacrifices’?”
“She did not. Miss Bai prevented that. Those infernal orbs around the fortress absorbed the qi of light and the heavens, but even destroying them was a trap for they returned the attack which shattered them twofold,” Gan Guangli explained, waving his oversized hand bombastically. “Several brave enforcers volunteered to do the deed and received commendations and rewards commensurate with their valor.”
Ling Qi was glad she hadn’t decided to try shooting one. “... They really volunteered for that?” she asked incredulously.
Gan Guangli chuckled. “Of course! To earn the personal praise of Lady Cai is no small thing!” Ling Qi did her best to hide the dubious expression on her face. Then again, guys could be kind of dumb like that. “Alas, total victory remained beyond us.”
“Why?” Ling Qi raised an eyebrow curiously.
Gan Guangli leaned forward, his seat creaking ominously. “In truth, Lady Cai wished for Princess Sun to be occupied with reconstruction. She feels it is a poor idea to push her entirely into a corner.” He spoke in what was, to him a conspiratorial whisper, so it was essentially a normal person’s speaking voice. “In addition, she was somewhat concerned that the Elders may have stepped in if she captured and imprisoned so many promising disciples. The rules of this wargame vex me at times.” He added the last with a grumble.
Those were actually pretty good reasons, Ling Qi supposed. “We did get some benefits though, right? Don’t tell me I got hunted through the upper peak for nothing.”
Gan Guangli shook his head firmly. “Not for nothing. We captured several key members of their supply chain and demoralized them greatly, along with the material damage. Chu Song retreated in disgust in the aftermath, taking even more of their supplies. We have split the resistance in twain! While we received few converts, many have simply abandoned the effort,” he explained. “Those of low virtue are rarely willing to openly fight the hand of justice once its strength is shown.” A sneer of disdain briefly crossed his expression.
At least the Sun bitch was paying for coming after her. “I’m glad,” she breathed, closing her eyes for a moment. “Do you mind if I ask you something else?”
“By all means, Miss Ling. You have more than earned whatever answers you might ask,” he replied, his boisterous tone returning.
“Why do you follow Lady Cai?” she asked. “You’re… probably aware of what she asked of me, right?”
Gan Guangli nodded, a proud expression on his face. “Indeed. In deference to your pending choice, I shall not express my congratulations aloud,” he said. “My reasoning is simple. Lady Cai is Justice.”
Ling Qi stared at him. “... Do you mind explaining a little?”
He grinned, and she narrowed her eyes. Had Gan Guangli actually just messed with her? “Disorder is the root of evil,” he continued, his tone more serious. “Lady Cai wishes to bring order to our province and to purge the rot that sinks as deep as its very foundations. I follow her because I believe wholeheartedly in her cause,” he said with absolute conviction.
“So she’s just that benevolent, huh?” Ling Qi’s irreverent words slipped out before she could fully think them through.
“You doubt, and that is fine,” Gan Guangli responded seriously. “You have seen hardship so trust does not come easily to you.”
She glanced at him, startled. That wasn’t the kind of statement she expected from a boy like Gan Guangli. “Oh? I guess you guys have gone sniffing around my background.”
“Lady Cai most assuredly has,” he agreed. “I am no noble. My Father was a soldier of no great talent but considerable valor.” Gan Guangli’s expression grew thunderous. “When he was crippled defending our town, he was thrown away like so much trash.”
Ling Qi frowned. “Why are you so devoted to Lady Cai then? Most people would blame her, since her Mother runs everything.”
Gan Guangli frowned deeply, and for a moment, Ling Qi worried that she had given offense. “Miss Ling, I do not wish to speak of my own personal story here and now.”
“I understand,” Ling Qi replied, glancing around the practice field. She wouldn’t want to air her own past around this many people either. Still, it irked her; she was no closer to understanding his devotion to Cai than before. She began to stand.
However, Gan Guangli raised a hand to halt her. “That does not mean I will not speak on the matter. How much do you know of our Emerald Seas history?”
“Very little,” Ling Qi admitted. “I did not have time for those kinds of lessons.”
“I understand,” the boy replied, and Ling Qi found herself believing him. “Know then that the history of Emerald Seas is one of strife. Since the days when our founding clan vanished beyond mortal ken, the clans of Emerald Seas have fought with one another. When the emperors of the second dynasty raised the Xi clan and commanded our civil wars to halt, it ended only the largest and most obvious conflicts.”
“I thought the previous ducal clan was the Hui,” Ling Qi said. Li Suyin had mentioned that once.
“Indeed,” Gan Guangli boomed. “The Xi did not last. The moment their Imperial backing faltered, their vassals tore them apart and resumed feuding. The Hui rose to the top of that chaos. Do you know what their solution was?”
“I imagine it wasn’t a good one,” Ling Qi replied dryly.
“I would barely call it a solution at all,” he spat. “The Hui cared only to be acknowledged as the strongest and receive their petty tithe. So long as that was done, the clans could do as they willed and the Hui would remain in their palaces and endless revels. As one would expect, the clans took their cues from their ‘ruler’ and acted much the same. Each clan behaved as if they were petty kings and violently resisted any attempt to curtail their power or impose responsibility. It took Ogodei to change that.”
Ling Qi shivered despite herself, the image of a vast funnel of wind consuming an entire city playing through her mind’s eye. “... So you think the Cai are good for imposing law in comparison to what came before?”
“Hmm, that is not incorrect, but it is perhaps a bit too simple,” Gan Guangli said. “I believe in Lady Cai because I believe she is right. I believe in her because she and her Mother have made things better. However, some complain of their trampled rights and seized titles, and others who have finally been punished for their crimes, corruption, and irresponsibility toward their people whine.”
“Things are hardly great in the present,” Ling Qi commented with a bitter twist, remembering the filthy slums that clung to Tonghou’s outer walls and the things that happened out there.
Gan Guangli dipped his head in agreement. “Indeed so, Miss Ling. You must understand, we speak of nigh on ten thousand years of rot and chaos. Even the mighty Duchess Cai cannot fix such things in a mere century or two. So it is that I support her daughter in her efforts, that she might one day build upon her mother’s foundation. We must seek to leave the world better than we found it, else there is no point to all of this. Power is worthless if it does not improve people’s lives.”
Gan Guangli was surprisingly naive, Ling Qi thought. It was hard not to be infected at least a little with optimism by his words though. He had that sort of presence.
“Thank you for explaining,” Ling Qi said politely, standing at last. “I understand better now why you act as you do.” She had to wonder what the real story was though. She had no trouble believing that the local nobility and government were corrupt, but she had to wonder what the Cai family was actually after.
“It is no trouble, Miss Ling. If you would like to speak again, I am not a difficult man to find,” Gan Guangli laughed, turning back to his ‘soldiers’. However, there was something in his expression that told her that she had worn her thoughts on her face.
The pity she had glimpsed there was her imagination obviously.