Author's note: Good morning, everyone! We have updates! I've made some revisions to the original chapters, so I've posted revisions up through Chapter 2. 3 thru 5 will hopefully go up some time next week, and then (depending on my beta) 2 – count 'em! – 2 new chapters! (And there was much rejoicing!) In truth, I'd hoped to have these chapters done 6 months ago, but 2 long illnesses and a new kitten later... well, better late than never.
In the meantime, I want to thank everyone who's reviewed and/or added me to their favorites during my long absences. Those notices always make me grin, even when I feel like crap. Thanks! :)
And now, on with the show...
Disclaimer: Jade Empire belongs to Bioware, but if they wanted to give it to me I certainly wouldn't turn it down.
Nestled in the quiet town of Two Rivers, the school was a beautiful, serene place. Small wooden buildings and open air pavilions surrounded a small training arena that was central to the school's purpose. Students sat nearby, absorbed in their studies, or practiced their movements in the shade of the trees. And in the arena, a young man and woman engaged in a friendly sparring match.
The visitor watched them for a long moment. The boy performed adequately, but was nothing special. The girl, on the other hand, was a superb fighter. She moved with the fluid grace of a dancer and struck each blow with precision born of a lifetime of training. Although she couldn't be more than 18 years old, she was more skilled than most warriors twice her age.
The fact that she was more skilled than the majority of his personal guards only helped fuel the anger that had brought him here.
Gao the Greater scowled and allowed his gaze to wander in search of his son. Young Gao's most recent letter had concerned him greatly. His son was furious over Master Li's obvious favoritism towards some orphan girl and claimed that his education was lacking as a result. Gao the Greater had no doubt he meant the girl in the ring; she fit the description perfectly: small and thin, black hair pulled back into a simple bun at the nape of her neck, and dressed in dark blue silk with gold accents.
He couldn't deny that the girl was talented, but it was no excuse for neglecting his son's training. He had sent young Gao to this school purposely so that his education would be accelerated. The Black Leopard School in the Imperial City had become so mired in politics and scheming that receiving proper martial training had become almost impossible. He had been certain that sending his son to this quaint little school at the edge of the Jade Empire was the perfect solution, only to be saddled with yet another unaccommodating master.
And so he had been forced to leave his fortress near Tien's Landing and come deal with the situation in person. Everyone had a price, and he was willing to pay anything to see that young Gao had the best martial instruction possible.
He spotted his son limping down a hill ahead of another boy. Both were sporting bruises that suggested they had been sparring, and clearly his son had not been the victor. Gao frowned. This was unacceptable. His son was strong and able to harness his chi to create powerful magical effects; there was no reason he should be losing to this boy, let alone that slip of a girl in the arena.
Gao knew the moment his son spotted him. The boy paused, straightening his posture with a grimace and forcing himself not to limp. His son turned and walked to him, careful not to let on that he was in pain. Gao smiled faintly at the show of strength.
"Father," Gao the Lesser greeted him, bowing slightly. "I'm surprised to see you here."
"Well, I was concerned by your last letter, my son. I decided it was best to deal with your Master Li in person."
Young Gao smiled darkly. "It's about time someone put that old man in his place. If he didn't spend so much time coddling her, he would have many promising students instead of just one."
Gao listened to his son's tirade in silence, his eyes drifting back to the arena. "That's her?" he asked, nodding to the girl in blue.
"Yes, Father. Master Li's little lapdog. His prize pupil. The senior student. You should see the way he fawns over her. It's disgusting."
Elder Gao nodded thoughtfully. "Where can I find your master?" His son pointed to a modest house that overlooked the training arena. "Return to your studies, son. I will speak to your Master Li."
Young Gao bowed. "Yes, Father. Maybe then I can finally get some education at this school."
He took a moment to watch his son walk away before turning his rotund form toward Master Li's house. It was a modest building, and from what he could see through the open screens, Li had little in the way of personal possessions. That could work against him. If this master felt he had no need of personal wealth, purchasing his cooperation would be difficult.
Gao sighed; such high-minded individuals annoyed him. What was the use of duty and honor if one couldn't afford to eat? If the man wasn't such a brilliant teacher he'd remove his son from the school on principle.
Gao marched up the steps with purpose; this Master Li needed to understand that he was used to being obeyed. Defiance would not be tolerated.
But as he caught sight of the famed master, he abruptly halted. Recognition surged through him, followed quickly by disbelief. He had aged, certainly. The years had lined his face and turned his beard and topknot white, and there was a long scar that began just below his right eye and disappeared into his beard, but there was no mistaking him.
The Glorious Strategist.
He had only seen Sun Li once, decades ago at a function in the Imperial City, but no one who had met the man would ever forget him. His very presence seemed to exude power, to command respect. And although he was dressed in the simple, unadorned garments of a peasant rather than the armor of the leader of the Imperial Army, there was no mistaking him.
Gao instantly composed himself and made a decision. With a look of arrogant condescension he said, "You are Master Li?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued. "I am Gao the Greater. I've come to speak with you about my son's schooling."
"Of course," the old man replied in a quiet, cultured voice. "May I offer you some tea?"
"No tea. I wish to know why my son's instruction is being delayed."
"It is not being delayed," Li answered calmly.
"Then how do you explain the fact that you are instructing some peasant girl in advanced techniques while my Gao is left studying basic styles."
"Martial skill cannot be forced. Each student here studies at his or her own pace, and I instruct them in styles they have the skill to master. You son has neither the focus nor the self-control to learn the styles I am teaching the senior student."
"How dare you!" Gao's anger flared; the man's perfect serenity as he detailed young Gao's flaws was infuriating. "That girl has received preferential treatment and my son has suffered for it. I will not allow him to be a victim of your obvious favoritism any longer!"
"Your son is a victim of his own petty ambition and predictable temper, nothing more."
Any doubts he might have had about exposing the man for what he was died in the wake of his fury. "You will accelerate my son's training or I will remove him from this school and my house will have no more business here!"
"You are free to do as you see fit," Master Li replied evenly, "but your son will do little better elsewhere. True skill cannot be bought."
Gao's eyes widened at the blatant insult, and he had to forcibly restrain himself from assaulting the man. Turning on his heel, he marched out of the house, roughly pushing aside the student walking up the steps. Li's arrogance was astounding, but he would have the last laugh.
He crossed the lawn to where his son was practicing his movements. "Go collect your possessions, son. We're leaving."
Gao the Lesser blinked in surprise and opened his mouth to speak, but his father's frown silenced him. With a simple bow, he turned and headed for the dormitory.
This insult could not go unanswered. He would show Master Li that he was not a man to be trifled with.
He would take his son from this place and then Sun Li would feel his wrath.
Master Li knelt on the floor of his home, meditating on his encounter with Gao the Greater. The man had recognized him; there was no doubt in his mind. He had seen the flicker of recognition in his eyes. He vaguely wondered when they had met, but in the end, it was inconsequential.
He had always known this day would come; he just hadn't expected it so soon. Still, he had planned for every contingency. The only question that remained was whether his pupil was ready for the destiny that was about to be laid before her.
Li rose and stood in the doorway, looking out at the practice arena. He didn't think she was ready. She was skilled, certainly, the most talented fighter he had ever trained, just as he had intended her to be. But the fact remained that she was barely 18 years old. She would be forced to confront evils that no one else had, that no one else could. And it was not a challenge she was ready to face.
On the other hand, sometimes experience was the best teacher. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. It could prove a useful opportunity to accelerate her training. And the sooner she was prepared for the destiny that awaited her, the better off the Jade Empire would be.
"Master," a voice said, pulling him from his thoughts.
He turned to the boy. "Yes, Jing Woo, what is it?"
"Master, Merchant Fen Do asked me to tell you that the items you ordered have arrived."
Master Li smiled; yes, this could prove to be quite a blessing indeed. "Thank you, Woo; you may go. And if you have a moment, please ask Lienn to come see me."