“You led me quite a ways astray,” Gu Tai jibed, glancing over at Xiulan as they walked the path out past the village outskirts.

“Honestly, she isn’t normally like that.” Xiulan frowned. “I have no idea why she was suddenly so skittish.”

“Mm, I recall you said that she had some trouble with a pushy suitor. Perhaps it affected her more than you had thought?” he asked curiously. Gu Tai grimaced as a breeze blew through the trees. The Emerald Seas really was chilly; he would have to take some time to acclimate himself.

“It was never such a serious matter,” Xiulan said with a sniff. “That Huang fellow was certainly a cad, but it’s clear that her association with the Bai caused his clan to put their foot down.”

“Perhaps something in her background then,” Gu Tai mused. That skittishness, flaring up as it did, was not born from minor incidents. He was quite certain that she had some rather negative experiences regarding marriage. “Well, it’s not my business I suppose.”

“I would say it certainly is,” Gu Xiulan said dryly as they turned off the path. “Are you saying that Father did not collect a dossier before penning that deal?”

“And have you read such a thing, dear Lan-lan?” he teased, following her lead deeper into the forest. They were headed out to the cultivation site cousin Yanmei had shared with her. Gu Tai was quite looking forward to luxuriating in a bit of proper warmth.

She scowled at him from behind her veil. “Do not call me that. And obviously not.”

“Quite. It would be poor form to start a relationship with spywork,” Gu Tai replied. Even with her disappointing reactions, he didn’t dislike Ling Qi. He hadn’t been jesting that her cultivation relative to her age was the most important point. To found a house in the wastes, he would need a partner who was both hardy and ambitious. She had made him doubt the former, but the latter certainly wasn’t in question. One did not rise so swiftly in cultivation without a core drive.

“I suppose,” Xiulan huffed, smoke curling from her ears. An obvious sign of annoyance - and a worrying one.

Not for the first time, Gu Tai examined his cousin with great concern. Gu Xiulan should have better control than such displays indicated. Her channels sang with lightning. The heavenly energies churned through her body and spirit, and the marks were clear. It was a minor miracle that she had not lost that arm entirely. It was hard to hide a scowl, but he did so anyway. Xiulan, his precocious, proud, and domineering little cousin, would not appreciate pity.

“I do honestly think you would make a good match,” Xiulan said quietly as they strode through the underbrush, weed and bush alike withering before their passage. “You are certainly sentimental enough for that girl, even if you are a tad scrawny for her tastes.”

“And it has nothing to do with wanting to bring your best friend home with you, I am sure,” Gu Tai teased back. As if he was scrawny. ‘Athletic’ was most certainly the right word. Just because he was not some bulging brute did not mean he lacked strength of the body.

“Ling Qi is not-!” Gu Xiulan snapped, glaring at him as they stepped into the clearing where the volcanic vent lay.

“Lan-lan, do not be coy with me now,” he interrupted. “You have not spoken so positively of another girl since the first time you saw cousin Yanmei in the training yard.” Ah, youthful hero worship.

“Hmph,” Xiulan sniffed, and Gu Tai could not but imagine a baby-faced young girl who had toddled after him, insisting that they play in the garden when they both should have been studying. “It is a good match.”

“I don’t necessarily disagree,” Gu Tai chuckled. If this Ling Qi came out of her shell a bit, it might not be so bad. He didn’t think she was really one of those dull, shrinking violet types. She had just been… off-balance. “But enough of that for now. I believe you wanted me to show you a few pointers regarding the Vermillion Regalia art?”

“If you would,” Xiulan replied, acquiescing to the change in subject. They both stepped up to the smoke-spewing chasm lit by dull red from within. Almost as one, they grinned as they bathed in the native fire qi. “I have had some troubles keeping the constructs stable while using other techniques.”

Much more homely, Gu Tai thought as he took a deep breath of the cloying black smoke. It tingled pleasantly in his nose and throat, particulates breaking down into pure qi to be circulated through his lungs. He could do without the smell introduced by the earth-based elements though. “Well, show me what you have accomplished so far.”

Xiulan nodded sharply, taking a step back through the sulphurous smoke. She closed her eyes, falling into a traditional battle stance. Her veil fluttered as she breathed out, sparks escaping from her lips, and deep red flames erupted along the lines of her gown. They raced across the silk hungry and consuming, tongues of flame growing and merging into the wavering shapes of armor.

Then with a snap and a hiss, the scars on Xiulan’s face sparked with electricity and static, leaping from her marred skin. The whole construct exploded outward in a rippling display of heat and static.

Gu Tai lowered the hand he had raised to shield his face and glanced down at the embers burning on his shirt, snuffing them with a thought. “I expect you do not need me to point out the obvious problem,” he said dryly.

“No,” Xiulan hissed, stamping her foot in frustration. “I know the lightning is interfering. But the technique is destabilizing before that.”

“It is,” Gu Tai said. The Vermillion Raiment art was an unusual one in the Gu roster, an attempt to turn fire to an unusual and unfitting task. “The art requires a delicate touch. Let me show you.”

It was good to see his cousin again. Even if things might fall through with her friend.

He rather hoped they would not. Gu Tai supposed he would just have to bend his efforts to setting his potential wife at ease. It would be an interesting challenge.

A note from Yrsillar

Sorry for the slightly wonky release times folks. My sleep schedule has gotten a bit messed up recently. In any case, enjoy. normal chapter tomorrow.

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