His fist struck steel, and steel gave way.

The man behind it did not.

“You’re improving!” Gan Guangli laughed.

The young man behind the raised shield straightened up. He eyed the round steel shield in his hands ruefully. It was rather more concave than it had been at the start. “Sir Gan is too kind… but I believe that was the last practice shield.”

“I suppose we’ll have to do some other exercises, until the smithing disciples can recycle the steel,” Gan Guangli chuckled. He clapped a hand on the young man, Gun Jun’s shoulder. “Go ahead and take a breather my friend!”

Gan Guangli turned to observe the rest of the field as Gun Jun bowed and turned away. He was feeling well today. There was nothing quite like good, healthy physical exertion to clear the mind and buoy the spirit! Watching the council’s enforcers practicing around him only reinforced that. By keeping them together, helping them together, he had helped to forge these dozen odd disciples into more than disparate individuals. They were friends and siblings in arms, and he could not be prouder of their progress!

He saw some few notice his attention, and he beamed cheerfully, offering an encouraging wave. Some held that a captain should be dour faced and stingy with praise, but that was not his way. These people, his people, looked to him for encouragement. Some called him crude and foolish. He knew that his laughter stiffened their spines, and his cheer hardened their resolve. That was what he wanted to be, an example, a rallying point, a ray of light in an often grim world. He wished to help others believe that justice was real.

Gan Guangli wished to provide others with some small portion of the hope which Lady Cai instilled in him.

That was the duty that she had given to him two years ago, on that last day in his village, when she had offered her hand and asked him to follow. She had shown him that justice was not just a word, that law was not merely the cudgel of the strong, but the loom on which the fabric of a good, prosperous society could be woven. Gan Guangli clenched his fist.

He would live up to her belief in him, even if it cost him his life.

“Everyone is doing well,” Gun Jun said quietly falling in beside him. He was a good man, loyal and true. “But is it going to be enough?”

His only flaw was a certain predilection to pessimism. “You are all certainly strong enough to maintain our lady’s peace. But you mean the tournament, don’t you?” Gan Guangli asked

“I do. I am not so foolish as to think I have a chance at the inner sect in a year with so many titans, my worry is for you Lord Gan.” Gun Jun said. “Should you not be focusing more on yourself and your own strength? The time which you spend on us…”

Gan Guangli’s smile faded. “Gun Jun. You and the others have supported me since the earliest days of the council. I will not abandon you for my own strength now.”

For once there was no laughter in his voice. He looked down at his friend, noting his pained expression. “Spending my efforts like this is no sacrifice. I would not tarnish my Way with such selfishness, right at its beginning.”

For many, the third realm was a time of finding oneself, and choosing a path. It was not such for Gan Guangli, who saw his road with clear eyes. He knew what he wanted, and though there might be unexpected turns in his path, he knew his destination.

“Lord Gan…” Gun Jun began, his face still troubled.

“Come along now Gun Jun,” Gan Guangli laughed, clapping the smaller man on the back. “Haven’t I told you that there is no need to give me such titles while we practice? If you truly wish to help me, come along and lets have a spar!.”

To his credit, he didn’t stumble. He would have a few months ago, Gan Guangli thought proudly. Instead, he sighed. “Of course Lord Gan. May I request that you not hurl me out of the training grounds this time?”

“Come now, Gun Jun, you don’t know that your foes in the future will not catch your spear that way!” Gan chuckled, his long stride already eating up distance to a clear pitch.

“Perhaps, but I feel as if we would both gain more from the spar if you restrain yourself somewhat,” Gun Jun said dryly.

“Hmm, Hmm, your captain will consider this request,” Gan Guangli said with good humor. Really, it had been one time. He had been overexcited about his mastery of one of his arts and forgotten to hold back properly. “Perhaps you would prefer that I bring Miss Ling back for an exercise or two instead?”

Gun Jun winced visibly. “I don’t think that will be necessary. Lord Gan may sometimes forget his strength, but Lady Ling has no restraint at all.”

“There is value in that,” Gan Guangli said more seriously. He did not regret requesting Miss Ling’s help. It was necessary for his people to learn the terror of an un-countered spiritual specialist. That she had some particularly distressing arts really just drove the lesson in better.

The beasts and spirits that lurked in the dark places of the Emerald Seas would not be any more merciful.

“...It is so,” Gun Jun agreed, catching his more serious tone. “Do you believe we need another such session?”

“Not just yet,” Gan Guangli replied, stepping into the sparring circle. “Besides, Miss Ling is quite busy.”

They did not quite know each other well, and he knew that she had not joined his Lady with the same zeal that he had. This did not bother Gan Guangli. She would come around, and until then, she was not the sort to betray another’s trust, once her word was given, he thought. He did not begrudge her for focusing on her own cultivation.

Her way was not his. This was as it should be. The Cai could not transform the broken place that was the Emerald Seas with only soldiers and light. There was a place for shadows and song.

Gan Guangli set his feet, and brought his gauntlet clad hands together with a crash of steel on steel. “Now come Gun Jun, and show me what you can do!”

A note from Yrsillar

Next Patreon bonus poll will be up next week. Also going to have some more art for the story incoming soon!

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