When Xuan Ji walked outside in the morning, she was more than a little surprised to see the farmers standing in single-file rows in the mud instead of working in the rice fields. Moreover, they were holding not their usual shovels and plows, but what she could distantly recognize as wooden training swords. They were chattering among themselves, and the atmosphere felt anticipatory.
Xuan Ji strained her eyes and eventually spotted the Rain Master standing near the back of the line, her slender silver sword in hand. As usual, she had not bothered to situate herself according to her status. Xuan Ji grit her teeth in irritation and marched towards her to demand an explanation for the change in routine. The flat bottoms of her stilts made squelching noises as she skidded through the mud, and she sensed multiple curious eyes tracking her movements--an unfamiliar feeling in this territory, as the Rain Master’s followers were generally good at minding their own business.
“What’s going on here today? Another bonding activity?” she sneered. Her irritation rose again when the pushover in front of her failed to show any reaction to the impolite greeting despite their difference in status.
The Rain Master smiled placidly at her and gave a royal salute instead. “Good morning, Xuan Ji,” she said, as if Xuan Ji was a mortal who slept at night. “You are here just on time--we need to ask you for a favor.”
“A favor ,” Xuan Ji’s voice rose to a dissonant high-pitched cackle in her surprise. “You are asking for a favor from me??!”
“If you are willing to grant it,” the Rain Master plowed on as if Xuan Ji was not still shrieking with laughter. “Many of my followers pray to ask for protection from bandits and crop thieves leading up to the harvest. It would be ideal to train some of my own followers on combat for that purpose, so that they can either chase away the bandits or teach self-defense to the harvesters. But it has been difficult to find someone with martial experience willing to stay here for a long stretch of time. Pei Su taught them some basics during his stay, but there has been little progress since he became busier. But now we have you.”
“You want me to...train your followers in the martial arts?” Xuan Ji’s shock broke through her voice, an ugly cracked thing.
“I would like to take the lessons myself as well,” the Rain Master said. Xuan Ji’s head would have started to hurt at this point if she was still alive.
“What if I say no?”
“Then we will not have the training.”
“Just like that?” Xuan Ji looked at the long lines of expectant people and swords. It feels like a shame to dismiss such a packed training ground, a small and forgotten voice said in her head.
“There are no other options,” the Rain Master said matter-of-factly. There was a long moment of awkward silence until Xuan Ji realized she was not planning to say more. The Rain Master did not try to persuade Xuan Ji at all, and it made Xuan Ji’s blood boil in a familiar way to see such little assertiveness in such a high-ranking figure.
She made a quick decision. “I will supervise, but only if you do the demonstrations for them.” She broke into a darkly amused smirk, imagining the hilarity that would ensue.
Xuan Ji was not laughing.
Like a gentle mountain spring, the Rain Master moved with a quiet grace--surely one that had developed over the centuries, since Xuan Ji remembered the sixteenth princess’s footwork to be a little clumsy. She followed Xuan Ji’s instructions with solemn eyes and brows drawn together in concentrated focus. Her sword forms were delicately precise, flowing through the sequences like an intimate dance, with a smooth surety that belied a long and diligent life dedicated to cultivation. She showed absolutely none of the aggressiveness one would need to actually drive away a rogue bandit. Xuan Ji was starting to see the problem.
She moved to tighten the god’s grip on rusty instinct, and felt a jolt of something unfamiliarly familiar as her fingers landed on the Rain Master’s--Yushi Huang’s--exposed forearms. The muscles under the tanned skin felt strong. Not in the carefully sculpted way her own used to be once, and not like his , but a calloused, reliable strength that could only result from centuries of laboring honestly under the sun and coaxing life from the earth. It was a kind of strength she had never known.
Her gaze flitted over to Yushi Huang’s face, and she inhale sharply as their eyes unexpectedly met. Yushi Huang’s warm brown eyes showed no curiosity or expectancy, only a deep-rooted contentment that did not shift even as Xuan Ji’s sharp nails scraped her skin. There was a splatter of dirt on her nose, kicked up from the exercise. Xuan Ji felt familiarly untethered, like something was drawing her out from the sky towards the earth; but instead of hurtling towards the sharp-edged ruins of a barren kingdom she was sinking into the soft and welcoming mud that nourished even the most stubbornly guarded roots, and cleared the way for them to sprout when they were ready to face the world.
Xuan Ji spun away immediately and took an appropriate amount of satisfaction in how her stilts splattered more dirt on Yushi Huang’s green robes. She launched herself at the equally hopeless followers with ferocity.
Over the next hour, four of the younger girls moved on to advanced forms, six men keeled over from exhaustion, and Yushi Huang’s anthropomorphized ox broke down in tears. At one point, after she had impatiently grabbed it to demonstrate a hand movement a few too many times, Yushi Huang’s sword made its way permanently into Xuan Ji’s grip. Yushi Huang herself eventually moved back into her initial position at the back of the crowd, quietly taking her ox’s wooden sword for herself and sending him off to graze with a pat on the back. Xuan Ji’s voice crescendoed over the field as she barked out commands with an assured authority she was sure she had forgotten.
The session ended with a minute shift of the sun that suddenly had everyone packing up their swords and moving as one towards breakfast, and Xuan Ji’s scolding fell on deaf ears. She humphed in annoyance and turned her head to see that Yushi Huang had somehow procured a handful of turnips to be replanted. Her gaze was locked on Xuan Ji’s face, and showed the same unsettling contentment as before.
“What do you think you’re staring at?” Xuan Ji snapped, glad for the very first time that her ghostly pallor did not allow her to blush.
Yushi Huang shook her head as if in amusement (she's never had a sense of humor! Right?). She ignored Xuan Ji’s protests as she shoved five of the turnips--roots and all--into her unexpecting arms and marched off towards the newest turnip fields, forcing Xuan Ji to skid along the soft ground to follow.
“It is good to see your smile again, General,” she called out, and kept walking at her unhurried pace as though she had not frozen Xuan Ji to the ground.