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Failure tasted like the mud of the village gutters, Gan Guangli thought, looking down upon the arena.

He had known this since he was but a youth, only as high as his weary mother’s knee. It was a taste he had grown used to in those days. In this world, those who stood for justice and protecting the weak often found it their only reward. His father had learned that, and so had he. His stubbornness had certainly earned him enough beatings by peers and adults alike in those days.

So why did it taste so foul now? Was it because he had disappointed the one person who had seen his value? Or perhaps it was because he knew it was his own fault? A thousand explanations whirled in his mind, but they were all so much useless chaff. A man should not make excuses for his failure.

Father had taught him that before alcohol consumed him.

So Gan Guangli could only promise to be better, to meet the expectations of his liege and her mother, no matter how impossible his redemptive task would be. He would need to stand on his own and to succeed at what he had so fumbled doing this year. He would have to become more than a soldier playing at command. The path of the soldier was an honorable one, but it was not one that could carry him at Lady Cai’s side.

Gan Guangli let out a sigh, his wide shoulders rising and falling as he turned his attention to the stages below. At least his mistress would have Ling Qi. For all her habitual thoughtlessness and bouts of whimsy, Ling Qi had a cunning to her and the resolve to be a blade in Lady Cai’s hand.

Deep shame still bubbled in his stomach when he remembered the flicker of disappointment he had glimpsed on his lady’s face when she had asked Ling Qi to leave them alone.

Gan Guangli pushed that memory away for the moment, down with the others that formed the foundation of his resolve. He should carve this match into his memory. For all that Kang Zihao would be in the Inner Sect, the honorless cur would probably be using his connections to cause him a great deal of trouble in the next year.

He laughed aloud, startling the other Outer disciples seated around him. Was that not a satisfying thought? That the scion of Kang had no chance of victory? He had disliked that young man since the moment he had lain eyes upon him.

He could respect Ji Rong after a fashion, recognizing him as a dark mirror. It would be arrogance to think that such resentment could not have been born in his own heart. Even Lu Feng was respectable in his way, underhanded lout that he was.

Kang Zihao though… In his handsome face, Gan Guangli saw everything he despised. He had no honor, only a blind and mindless loyalty to the appearance of decorum and titles with no thought for who held them. He discarded his subordinates as easily as one would throw aside trash. So with another boisterous laugh, Gan Guangli leaned forward a smile on his face to observe what was to come.

Miss Bai was as resplendent as always, clad in whites and soft blues that leant her an air of phantasmal beauty. Her striking eyes gazed impassively upon her foe as a queen might regard a mongrel sniffing at the hem of her gown.

Kang was armored in gleaming silver, presenting as always the appearance of a noble hero taken straight from the pages of the classics. Gan Guangli’s grin stretched wider. It would be truly satisfying to see that shell cracked.

“Do you have no words for me?” Miss Bai said softly as the stage began to activate, shrouding them in mist. “Where are your denouncements now, son of Kang? Do you only have taunts for a woman who can barely walk?”

Kang Zihao looked down his nose at the shorter girl facing him, a touch of a sneer on his handsome features. “There is no purpose for words at this juncture,” he replied haughtily. Gan Guangli heard the tremor in his voice nonetheless.

“I suppose you are right,” Miss Bai said thoughtfully as a radiant river valley took shape around them, the gurgling of the wide, shallow river off to her right almost hiding her quiet words. “I really should cleave closer to tradition, should I not?”

Kang Zihao grit his teeth but did not reply. A few moments later, thunder boomed, and the match began.

A gleaming spear spun into existence in Kang Zihao’s hand, and twin canine forms burst from the air at his side, snarling and snapping. One was the white-furred hound that the boy had at his side from the year’s beginning, grown now to stand almost a full meter at the shoulder. The other was a wolf, shaggy and wild, frost and rime coating its blue-grey fur. The second beast stood almost as tall as Kang’s shoulder.

Bai Meizhen took a single step forward, shimmering green scales flashing in the grass at her feet.

The dog and the wolf burst into motion, dashing in opposite directions to circle and flank the young lady of Bai. Kang Zihao spun his spear into a guard position, and a blazing white shield appeared in his other hand, held forward as a bulwark as if against an incoming avalanche. Potent, mountainous qi crackled through his limbs, and even at this distance, Gan Guangli could feel the sudden ‘weight’.

Bai Meizhen took a second step, and dark water rippled around her shoulders, casting her face in shadow.

Twin mountains of canine bulk howled as their pounding feet tore up the remaining distance, their jaws open as if to devour the advancing maiden. Kang Zihao’s shout thundered as his instep sent a spider web of cracks through the soft earth, and he brought his spear forward, its point alight with blazing qi that howled as it shot toward Bai Meizhen, leaving a blinding trail through the air behind it.

Bai Meizhen took a third step. Her golden eyes narrowed, and she raised her hand, her cloak of abyssal water forming around her.

Blazing light struck black water and screamed, creating an explosion of steam that Kang’s beasts dived eagerly into.

“Heel.”

Her cold voice rang out, and in an instant, a terrible cold pall fell over the brightly lit scene. Twin yelps of canine distress sounded from within the dissipating cloud as it cleared to reveal Bai Meizhen, standing still, her shadow pooled at her feet like a lake of ink. Her eyes blazed from the shadow of her liquid hood, and even from here, Gan Guangli felt sweat break out on his brow and his heart begin to beat erratically.

The dog and the wolf were far less insulated. They crashed to the ground, eyes rolling in their sockets and froth leaking from their mouths. The smaller of the two let out a whimper as green coils emerged from the grass in a flash, and hungry fangs sunk into its throat. Bai Meizhen’s cousin coiled around the thrashing dog in mere moments, and Gan Guangli knew that it would not be getting up again in this fight.

The wolf was, if anything, less lucky. Bai Meizhen’s heel ground into its throat, and a liquid shadow crawled across its form, bringing strangled yelps from the beast’s throat. Bai Meizhen’s gaze remained fixed on Kang, who stood in place, his shield held out as another layer of defensive qi shimmered into place, spreading from the outward edge of his shield.

“How useless,” Bai Meizhen said, removing her foot from the beast’s throat as her shadow engulfed it. “Just what do you intend to protect with that shield, Kang Zihao?”

He did not answer, only tightening his stance.

Bai Meizhen took a fourth step, and it crossed thirty meters in an instant. Her ribbon blades lashed out, the metal strips extended by toxic purple fluid. Kang Zihao batted them aside, and once again, his spear thrust out in a blur, launching three fiery lances toward Miss Bai.

She continued forward, twirling to avoid the first two and swept aside the third with a sweep of her mantle and a hissing burst of steam. The fangs of her weapon came again, whipping in from impossible angles, and Kang Zihao stood strong, his spinning spear and flashing shield knocking away the virulent tendrils that sought his flesh.

Bai Meizhen blurred again, closing the rest of the distance. Although he stood taller than the pale girl, Kang Zihao seemed miniscule in the shadow she cast. The whipping blades returned, twice as fast, and this time, one scored the shoulder of his armor, leaving a bubbling, hissing scar in the metal that revealed the padding beneath, blackening from the venom. Barehanded, Bai Meizhen parried the spear strikes that came in return, splashing water sounding from the points of impact.

Again and again, her blades twisted and hissed through the air, scoring petty wounds, stripping away his gleaming armor piece by piece until it hung from him in tatters and fragments and brackish blood stained his clothing.

Finally, trembling limbs raised a shield a moment too slow. Hungry blades carved open his upper arm, and Kang Zihao’s bulwark dropped from twitching, nerveless fingers. A pale hand darted in to seize him by the throat.

He let out a strangled scream, the spear falling from his other hand as veins of red spread from his neck.

“Still no more than a delay. As expected,” Bai Meizhen said coldly, her voice distorted by the veil of water that rose to defend her fair face from Kang’s desperate strikes.

His struggles ceased shortly thereafter, and the scion of Kang crumbled onto the grass, already dissolving into mist as Bai Meizhen released him.

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