It was still a little hard to match the two images in his head, Han Jian thought wryly as he watched Ling Qi leave, a fading dot of black in the clear blue sky. The awkward, wary mortal who had approached him at orientation with all the poise of an often kicked cat was hard to reconcile with the current Ling Qi. She was fully third realm now, and wasn’t that a fright. Fighting her had been a nightmare even when she was a second realm cultivator. He wasn’t confident in his chances now, especially if her absurdly good luck had been holding.
‘Shameful,’ Heijin’s haughty voice floated in the back of his thoughts. He could practically see the imperious look on the tiger’s face despite the fact that he didn’t bother to materialize.
“Don’t you start, fuzzball,” he said with a snort, driving the wooden tip of his practice sword into the ground. “I can be honest in my own thoughts, at least.” The best way to deal with the uppity kitten - and he was still that, no matter his growth - was to treat him like the brat he was. That had been his mistake at the beginning of the year, his instinct to be conciliatory betraying him. “Or should I tell her you wanted to have a spar?”
‘...The Cold One is formidable,’ Heijin allowed. ‘So why do you strengthen her further?’
“Because access to the Mirror benefits me more than the Storm does her, I think,” Han Jian said. “If I can master all three, next year should be assured. Taking a step on Sect Head Yuan’s path will help me forge the ties my Father wants here.” And because in the end, Han Jian still felt Ling Qi was a friend.
‘Hmph. Shameful was correct. You have given up,’ Heijin replied coldly, and Han Jian felt the tiger’s displeasure as a churning in his dantian. He grimaced at the discomfort. Heijin was at the peak of the second realm and would likely break through in time for the tournament. Luckily, his family’s Dust King Meditations allowed him to hold a spirit in the third realm, if at inflated qi costs. It was making Heijin arrogant again though.
“There are only so many places,” he said quietly, as much to himself as the cub. ‘... And Xiulan needs it more,’ he added, a silent thought that could only be heard by his spirit companion.
He could feel Heijin’s discomfort. The cub liked her, but Han Jian and Heijin both knew he was betraying his family in a small way by putting her needs over his own. He looked down as he remembered the memory of her tears and then her anger.
He could at least do this, try to help her one last time. Given the caliber of competition at this year’s tournament, reaching partial or full third realm would probably be required to have an opportunity at a slot. He wouldn’t lose anything irretrievable if he held off for one year, waiting until after the tournament to try breaking through to the third. Xiulan would still have to put in the effort and have some luck in her attempts to reach at least partial third realm to gain consideration from the Sect in her matches. Hopefully, this could make up for hurting her the way he had.
He was betraying Fan Yu too, even if he was sure that was for the best in the end. There could be no happiness, or even contentment, there between the two. If he repeated it to himself often enough, he might even believe that was really his reasoning.
He wished things between the Gu and the Han were simpler, that his silly childish promise wasn’t impossible because his Grandfather would never give the Gu another lever of power, not when they were already testing the limits of a viscount house's power and seeking to escape vassalage by ascending to count status. With Gu Yanmei’s prodigious cultivation speed, they may even have a chance of doing so. For once, he was happy for the scrutiny of the ducal Guo, preventing Grandfather from moving to forcefully cement the Han clan’s authority over the Gu.
He heard the thump of flesh on metal and looked up to meet his cousin’s eyes. The taller boy grinned at him and motioned with his hands. ‘The trade went well?’
“It did,” Han Jian said, smiling back. It was so easy to put on an expression he wasn’t feeling that he didn’t even notice doing it anymore for the most part. “We’ll be able to master the first step of the Argent Way now. You’ll definitely get a spot in next year’s tourney.” Between them, they knew that Han Fang would not make the cut this year; the competition was simply too much.
The other boy beamed at him, proud to be praised. It just made Han Jian feel another twist in his gut. It was all too easy to remember a scrawny servant boy, barely more than a mortal, getting his throat cut for trying to ‘protect the young master’ from an assassin’s blade, even after the actual guards had fallen. It had bought Han Jian the last crucial seconds needed for his father to arrive and scour the flesh from the villain's bones.
What a useless thing he had been, just a few years ago. He had been a lazy, spoiled child who didn't even bother to understand the mountains of effort that went into maintaining his family's position within the clan. At least he had gotten Fang an adoption into the family for his deed. He knew Fang wouldn’t approve of his resolve to not stand in Xiulan’s way if it came down to it. His adopted cousin was always a firm proponent of putting Han Jian first. Han Jian could not fault him for that. Even now he was being selfish, doing what he wanted rather than what he should.
‘You’re troubled,’ Fang signed, shooting him a shrewd look. ‘Was the cost so high?’
“Hardly. Ling Qi isn’t the type to bargain hard,” he answered, waving dismissively. “No, just contemplating the vagaries of fortune.”
His cousin clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, signing with his other hand. ‘Considering our poor timing then? That is a fair thing.’
“Yes,” Han Jian laughed. “This really is an absurd year. At least Father will be happy with all the high profile clan heads at the tournament.”
‘Lord Jing will make many deals,’ Fang agreed with a nod. ‘Will we continue practicing our weapon arts then?’
“No, we’ll drop the old stuff for now. I want to get started on mastering the Mirror further,” Han Jian replied. Even if he wasn’t going to make it… he refused to give a poor showing. He still had that much pride at least.