Ling Qi began her first morning as a disciple of the Sect blearily rummaging through the tiny kitchen for something simple to eat. She was quite happy that they had stocked up the previous night; she would hate to have to trudge out to the storehouse before she had a chance to properly wake up.

Honestly, it still felt a little bizarre to think that she no longer had to worry about where her food would come from. Her musings served as ample distraction while she finished preparing breakfast. She was a bit surprised to note that Meizhen’s door was still closed, and there was no sign of the other girl waking up yet. Ling Qi hadn’t really read the girl as being the type to sleep in like this.

A quick glance out the window as she sat down to eat showed that it was a good hour past sunrise. Even after she had finished eating and gone back to her room to make a futile effort at taming her hair and cleaning up for the day ahead, her roommate’s door remained closed. Ling Qi considered knocking, or even cracking the door open to check on her, but the other girl’s warning lingered in her mind.

Instead, she decided to spend her morning continuing to work on the exercises given for the Argent Soul technique until it was closer to noon. Sitting cross legged in the darkened meditation room simply breathing was oddly relaxing once she had managed to still her thoughts, and Ling Qi quickly found her tiredness fading.

Without using a spirit stone, she didn’t feel any increase in the fragile flicker of warmth remaining from last night’s meditation, but it still felt good to sense it ‘breathing’ along with her. For the first time in recent memory, she felt like she was genuinely good at something. She knew it was probably just wishful thinking on her part, but she allowed the thought to linger anyway.

When she emerged from the meditation room, she found that Bai Meizhen had finally awakened. The girl was seated by the hearth sipping from a cup of water, looking just as immaculate as she had the day before. Ling Qi felt a twinge of jealousy at the seeming ease with which the other girl maintained her appearance. She had long since resigned herself to her own peculiarities.

More importantly, the pale girl was different in one major way; the snake she had seen hints of was now fully visible, looped loosely around Bai Meizhen’s neck. It was an eye catching thing with bright green scales that reminded her of expensive jade. It was also quite small, only being about as wide as two fingers held together.

The snake and girl looked up with eerie synchronicity as Ling Qi emerged, and she couldn’t help but notice that the little snake’s eyes were the exact same shade as Meizhen’s. Before the silence could become awkward, Ling Qi looked back up to her roommate’s face.

“Oh, you’re up then. Good morning.” She didn’t feel the need to try and speak better around the other girl, who seemed to have no reaction to it either way.

“Good morning,” Bai Meizhen responded evenly, not breaking eye contact… or blinking. Ling Qi really wished she would blink more often. “Did your cultivation go well?”

Ling Qi shrugged, feeling a bit self conscious. She liked to think so, but she had nothing to compare it too. “I think so. I mean… I don’t think I managed to ‘awaken’ but I think I can feel something in my ‘dantian’ now?” Ling Qi stumbled over her words more than she would have liked.

The pale girl simply nodded slightly in response, setting down her now empty cup. “That is expected. It would be highly unusual for you to have broken through to the Red Soul stage in a single night of cultivation without significantly greater resources.” She reached up to idly stroke the tiny spade shaped head of her serpent with one finger as she spoke and the reptile pressed itself against her touch.

“I cannot imagine you will fail to achieve it by the end of the week should you put the effort in,” she added. Her tone was as bland as ever, but Ling Qi thought she was going for encouraging. Maybe. She also might be putting an ultimatum down; it was hard to tell.

Despite that, Ling Qi had a feeling that this girl’s views on natural progression speeds might be a bit skewed. “I know I’ll manage it,” she responded with more confidence than she actually felt. “I have to go out though so I’ll see you later.” She’d like to ask more about some of the things the other girl touched on, but she’d be late if she did.

Bai Meizhen responded with a small nod as Ling Qi turned to go, turning her full attention back to the serpent around her neck. The last sight she had of them was the bright green snake raising its head and hissing in Bai Meizhen’s ear, almost as if whispering to her.

It was a clear, bright day, though the autumn chill was quite strong. Ling Qi was relieved to find that her disciple’s uniform was warm despite the fact that it was hardly winter wear. It really was the nicest set of clothing she had ever owned. She still wanted to modify it a bit, if only because of the poor fit. Perhaps she could see about breaking in the sewing kit she had been provided.

Such thoughts were kept to the back of her head as most of Ling Qi’s focus was on ensuring that she didn’t run across trouble on the way to the plaza. She didn’t know if her ‘friendship’ with Bai Meizhen would be enough to invite real reprisal, but she didn’t feel the need to take chances.

With no one actively looking for her and the lack of real crowds, it wasn’t difficult to simply take a circuitous route to the edge of the area. Once there, she skirted around the perimeter until she reached the entrance path carved into the mountainside. She kept her head down and slouched subtly to hide her height, making it out without trouble.

 It would get harder as time went on, but for now, her little tricks for avoiding notice were sufficient. Luckily, there were few people on the path to the plaza, and those that were traveling it were fairly scattered and too occupied with their own thoughts to pay her any mind. The plaza itself was more populated, and it was here that she first saw older disciples. There were even more of them than students her own age. Where had they come from?

She stuck to the edge of the plaza for a time to observe but eventually relaxed. None of the older disciples seemed to have any interest in those from her group. In fact, they seemed to be almost pointedly ignoring them as they went about their business. Most headed into the large lecture building, but others simply stood around in groups chatting or heading off down the other…

Those hadn’t been there yesterday. There were now four other gates - two on the eastern side and two on the western side - marking paths that wound up or down the mountain. Ling Qi shook her head at the sight. More magic. She really was out of her league. The confidence she had felt last night and this morning was ebbing quickly. Eventually, she moved out of the shade of the gates and begin searching for Han Jian.

She knew it was foolish, but between her embarrassment with Sun Liling and her roommate’s… taciturn nature, she really was looking forward to some simple, friendly interaction. She couldn’t really bring herself to be suspicious of the handsome boy.

This was the only reason she paused rather than leave entirely when she caught sight of him already having a conversation with another disciple. It was another boy, shorter by a head than the two of them, but significantly broader at the shoulder and wider at the waist. If anything, he seemed almost Han Jian’s opposite: squat and brawny with fierce features and spiky black hair.

She wasn’t close enough to hear them over the low murmur of sound from the rest of the plaza, but she did see that the shorter boy was doing most of the talking, gesturing wildly. He seemed to have a rather bombastic personality at first glance.

Han Jian’s smile seemed pretty fixed. Han Jian met her eyes then, noticing her where she had stopped in the shade of one of the scattered peach trees. For an instant, Ling Qi saw something like relief in his eyes. That was enough to get her moving again. Once she had gotten closer, Han Jian raised a hand, interrupting the other boy.

“Ling Qi! Over here! Glad you could make it.” That was one way to excuse oneself from a conversation though she wasn’t too pleased about the attention it drew to her. For his part, the shorter boy turned quickly in the direction of Han Jian’s gaze, an eager expression on his face… only for it to fade as soon as his eyes landed on her.

Ling Qi suppressed her frown and instead nodded politely to Han Jian as she closed the distance.

“Good morning, Han Jian. I’m sorry if I was late.” With him, she felt she should at least make an effort at politeness.  

Ling Qi glanced at his companion. He was frowning unhappily at her. What was his problem? “Who might your-”

“Really, Jian?” the shorter boy interrupted, giving the other boy an incredulous look. “When I heard a heartbreaker like you was coming out to meet a girl, I thought I would have a chance to meet a beauty, not a stick with pretensions!”

His words were loud and coarse, even discounting their content. Ling Qi felt her expression freeze on her face even as Han Jian winced almost imperceptibly. If she hadn’t already noticed his discomfort with the other boy, she might have done or said something unfortunate. As it was, she held back, but only just, by clenching her teeth. In the silence that followed, Han Jian managed to rally.

“...Yu, isn’t that a bit much? There’s no call to be rude to another practitioner. Besides, I told you that it wasn’t anything like that.”

“That was definitely more than a bit much,” Ling Qi interjected sourly, glaring at the shorter boy, and ignoring the unpleasant twinge that Han Jian’s words brought for no reason that she would acknowledge.

‘Yu’ simply waved a dismissive hand at her words, making her temper flare further. He didn’t even look at her. “She’s just a commoner, Jian. You can tell by looking. Are you really going to waste time on this?”

Ling Qi didn’t bother saying anything this time though her expression grew darker. She couldn’t do anything about this now, but she would certainly remember the insult. Han Jian’s expression was wary as he responded.

“I’m not going to break a promise, Yu.” It was probably the least friendly thing she had ever heard him say.

The shorter boy snorted in response. “Fine. I suppose I won’t begrudge you your tastes, Jian. Just try not to waste too much time. I won’t stand for a brother of mine falling behind!” He stomped off on his own as his words faded into the morning air, leaving the two of them standing in awkward silence. Well, Han Jian seemed awkward. Ling Qi was seething internally.

“So… brother?” she asked dully, fixing Han Jian with an unimpressed expression.

He winced, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. It was only then that she noticed the tiger cub was nowhere to be seen. “Not by blood. It’s just…” he trailed off, seemingly searching for words. “Have you ever had a peer that your parents pretty much ordered you to make nice with? It’s like that.”

Ling Qi hadn’t ever had that experience, but she could understand what he meant. She had ‘made nice’ with less pleasant people during her time living in the streets. She felt her temper cooling. It wasn’t Han Jian’s fault.

“Heartbreaker?” She quirked an eyebrow.

Now, the handsome boy just looked tired and exasperated.

“It’s a stupid joke that started a few years back because of a friend’s sisters. Yu just takes it too seriously because...” He trailed off and gestured helplessly at his handsome face. 

Ling Qi thought he sounded sincere, but she couldn’t help but be a bit more wary now. Although if she were being more reasonable, it was a little silly for a fourteen year old boy to be considered a ‘heartbreaker’. “So, what happens now?”

He sighed. “I can give you a few tips on starting your cultivation, and if you would like, and I can help you practice a bit like I said I would,” he responded sincerely. “I’ll be going to the classes the Elders are holding in the afternoon though.”

“So will I,” Ling Qi said, feeling a bit relieved. “Will this be a one time thing then?”

“I figure I can spare an hour or two every few days if you’d like.” Han Jian really did seem almost too nice. His ass of a friend did have a point though. She was just a commoner; why was he willing to spend time on her? She would like the answer to be that he simply liked her, but she wasn’t sure she could believe that.

“I would like that.” Linq Qi considered just asking him, but she couldn’t risk offending him and losing his aid. She needed every resource she could get right now. She felt a little sad that the encounter with the other boy had made her suspicious, but it was for the best.

“Where should we start?” she asked. “My roommate helped me get a feel for my dantian, and I think I have the first breathing exercise down.”

“Oh? That was fast,” Han Jian said, eyebrows rising. “I assume you mean the Argent Soul exercises,” he continued, to which she nodded. “I’ll leave finishing that to the Elder later. If you understand your dantian…”

“I’m not sure I do,” Ling Qi admitted. “She kind of… brute forced it. I get that it’s your spiritual center and where you store qi, but…” She trailed off, spreading her hands in a gesture of helplessness.

He gave her strange look, leaning back against the trunk of the peach tree they were standing under.

“...Right, that is the gist of it. The dantian’s not a physical organ like your heart or your stomach, but exercising and expanding it is at the core of improving your ability to hold and use qi. Think of it as the heart of your spirit.”

Ling Qi was aware vaguely of the body’s organs, from a half remembered diagram in a physician’s text that she had stolen and pawned off last year. She wracked her thoughts for information from a text she had only flipped through in a moment of idleness while waiting for a fence.

“Does that mean that once I awaken it, it will start moving qi through the rest of my body?”

He smiled, and despite herself, she felt a little warmer.

“Yeah. But unlike your physical veins, you will have to open your meridians manually. It’s... pretty difficult and painful, but you’ll need to bear with it because your qi won’t be able to affect the world without any open channels.”

Cultivation wasn’t easy it seemed. Ling Qi took a seat on the bench beneath the tree as they continued to talk, discussing the basics of cultivation.

There were a very large number of potential meridians in the human body and which ones she chose to open would affect which techniques and arts she could learn. Arts were what cultivators called their magic, and techniques were individual spells within an art. Much of it went over her head, but she thought she understood the basic idea.

Han Jian had wind-aligned meridians open in his legs, as well as fire-aligned meridians through his heart and spine. A practitioner essentially had a limited amount of space in their body to use for channeling qi, which allowed the use of arts. A meridian could only channel a single type of qi at a time, limiting the number of arts a cultivator could use. As one grew in power, their body could withstand the opening of more meridians, allowing them a greater breadth of techniques.

It did mean that Ling Qi, who was just starting out, would be limited to a single art at first. That was troubling. If the classes turned up nothing on the matter, she might have to ask Bai Meizhen for advice.

For all that she did enjoy the time she spent with Han Jian, it couldn’t last forever. After an hour or so, she had a slightly better handle on things, and he had corrected some mistakes she was making with the Argent Soul exercises. It was with somewhat restored confidence that she walked alongside him to the lecture hall as the sun dipped past its zenith and the time for the afternoon lessons began.


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