Ling Qi’s next few days were marred by long periods of exhausting meditation interspersed with frightening brushes with mortality when control of her qi slipped and sent her heart beating erratically. Carving open a channel for her qi was a painstaking task.
Completing it meant that she could begin learning to attune it to an element and practice the simplest arts. Time spent in lessons and in private cultivation blurred together as she focused on her goal.
Her breakthrough finally came during the last of Elder Su’s lessons that week. With the lecture over, the class was allowed to cultivate under the Elder’s watchful eye. In her seat at the back of the room, Ling Qi slowed her breathing and continued to push her qi through the slowly opening spiritual channel.
At first, things proceeded as normal, her qi pulsing in time with her heartbeat. Suddenly, her breathing hitched as she felt something within her crumble. With no more spiritual detritus blocking its way, her qi gushed outward. Engrossed in the sudden feeling of soaring freedom, she was only vaguely aware of startled gasps and the sound of rushing wind from around her.
Ling Qi opened her eyes, blinking in wonder at the new feelings. She suddenly felt so… aware. She could feel the smooth material of her uniform on her skin and the tiny motions of the air around her. She could hear the sound of rustling cloth as the person on her right side shifted away from her and her own clothes flapping in an invisible breeze.
“Please settle yourself, Disciple Qi.”
She was startled from her contemplation by the sudden presence of Elder Su in the aisle to her left. Even with her new awareness, she hadn’t been able to feel the Elder approaching. Her cheeks coloring slightly at the mild reprimand, she did her best to follow the instruction, trying to reign in the flow of her qi. The phantom breeze weakened but did not die as she worked to regain control.
The Elder continued up the steps of the aisle, stopping as she came to stand beside Ling Qi’s seat.
“It seems your natural qi has a tinge of wind to it,” the older woman said quietly. In the silence of the room, her words rang out clearly. “Do you require a moment outside to compose yourself?”
Ling Qi felt uncomfortable as she felt the attention of the other disciples settle on her. At the same time, she felt pride from the fact that Elder Su was addressing her directly and unprompted at that.
“No, Elder Su.”
The matronly woman fixed Ling Qi with a gaze that seemed to peer through her.
“I see. You have been doing quite well so far.” The older woman flicked her sleeve, and Ling Qi blinked as an odd jade token appeared on the desk in front of her.
“Take this to the archive. The supervisor there will allow you to take a copy of one of the arts from the first floor.”
Archive? She had no idea where that was. She had no idea there even was an archive, but Elder Su was already moving away. She didn’t want to make herself appear foolish by having to ask so she remained silent. As pleased as she was to be given this, she was well aware that any chance she had of muddling along beneath notice had just vanished.
“Thank you Elder,” she managed to say, lowering her head in respect, even as she carefully hid away the jade token she had been given. It looked mundane, but she wasn’t about to risk losing it.
The rest of lesson proceeded normally. Ling Qi used her remaining time to practice getting used to the feeling of qi flowing through her open meridian. As Ling Qi hurried to disappear into the crowd of disciples leaving the lessons, she was brought up short.
“Ah… Miss Ling! Miss Ling, can you please wait a moment?” An out of breath female voice called from behind her.
Ling Qi glanced behind herself warily and slowed down. She had made it out to the plaza and there were many people around so it was unlikely that someone was going to try something. What she saw when she turned her head was a girl she recognized from her lessons with Elder Su. Li Suyin, if she recalled correctly.
Li Suyin had long, light blue hair and the sort of slim, petite figure that most of the female disciples did. She was rather plain though, much like Ling Qi herself. The girl lacked the obvious cosmetics or accessories that the wealthier girls used to show off, but Li Suyin was still too pale and unblemished to be a commoner.
She was also red faced from exertion. It looked like she had run to catch up with Ling Qi, and she didn’t seem very fit physically.
“What do you need?” Ling Qi asked. The other girl had never been rude to her or jostled her in the halls so she could afford to be polite.
The other girl seemed relieved that Ling Qi had stopped. “I am glad I caught you today. You always disappear so quickly after lessons,” Li Suyin said between breaths, smoothing her gown nervously with her hands. “I… well. I was hoping you might consider helping me?”
Ling Qi stared at her. What could Li Suyin want help with? The other girl had awakened earlier this week so Ling Qi wasn’t exactly far ahead of her.
“I don’t see how I could help,” Ling Qi replied bluntly.
Li Suyin fidgeted under her gaze. “W-well... You have advanced so quickly. It took me a month to reach this point. I was hoping that we could discuss the differences in our methods, and that I could observe your cultivation in private.” Her voice seemed to get smaller and smaller as she went on. By the end, Li Suyin wasn’t even looking her in the eye anymore.
“...I’m sorry. I’m aware that that is a very rude request.”
Ling Qi felt awkward about being asked for help. She was also more than a little suspicious. She couldn’t imagine that she would be much help to the other girl either.
“I’ll think about it,” she said. “Give me a few days to consider.”
“Of course,” the other girl said hurriedly. “Um - well, if you want to, we can meet after lessons.” She glanced back up at Ling Qi’s skeptical face for a moment before her shoulders slumped a little. “I will… stop bothering you. It’s obvious that you are very busy.”
Li Suyin began to hurry away, leaving Ling Qi to wonder if the girl’s nerves were truly genuine. It didn’t feel like a deception. She couldn’t see herself benefitting from the discussions either, but… her thoughts returned to Han Jian, where the situation was reversed.
“Li Suyin,” she called out. “I’ll make some time in a few days, alright?”
The nervous girl, having stopped at her call, beamed at her, offering a hasty but grateful bow. “Thank you very much!”
When Ling Qi returned home, she was surprised to see the light of a lit hearth in the window. Bai Meizhen kept erratic hours. Sometimes, Ling Qi would never even see her arrive at their shared home in the evening.
Bai Meizhen also had strange habits. Ling Qi had never once seen the girl eat a single grain of rice or so much as sip from a bowl of soup for example. Even when Ling Qi offered to share her meals, they were refused.
...She had seen the other girl with a trickle of blood on her chin on one late morning, but Bai Meizhen had wiped it away moments after meeting Ling Qi’s stare. Ling Qi had not felt brave enough to ask about it given the other girl’s frosty expression.
Oddities aside, Bai Meizhen was… helpful in her taciturn and condescending way. As Ling Qi settled in for the evening and finished her simple dinner, she ended up speaking with the girl, resuming their ‘lessons’ on the boring minutiae of noble etiquette.
“I’m still not really sure I understand, but… are you saying all noble families have a ‘Sublime Ancestor’? Is that some kind of tradition? That someone has to… marry a spirit to make their line noble?” Ling Qi’s expression was strange as she tried to parse Bai Meizhen’s explanation on how ranking and position among noble clans worked.
“All of the truly well-established families have or had such a non-human ancestor. Only an exalted few can claim to have a Sublime Ancestor,” the pale girl explained with a hint of impatience.
“I do not understand why you have such trouble with the idea,” Bai Meizhen added irritably. “A few Sublime Ancestors have died or disappeared, but this should still be common knowledge. The relationship between a powerful cultivator and their bound spirits has always been close.”
Ling Qi had found that Bai Meizhen had strange ideas on what constituted common knowledge.
“What do you mean by bound spirits?” Ling Qi asked, eyeing the green scales visible just under the neckline of Bai Meizhen’s gown. “Is that why Cui seems like she shares your qi?” She still wasn’t very good at feeling other people’s energy but she was around the two of them often enough to feel the oddity.
“When a cultivator reaches the second stratum… the Yellow realm, it becomes possible to bond with a spirit whether beast or pure. This serves to strengthen both parties, allowing them to cultivate together and share growth to a degree. It also serves to humanize the spirit, making it easier for the spirit to interact with and understand us.”
Ling Qi nodded thoughtfully, reaching out to warm her hands at the hearth. It was beginning to get cold in the evenings. She didn’t follow everything Bai Meizhen had just said, but the gist was simple.
“Oh. So he’s at that point…” she murmured to herself, thinking about Han Jian. She hadn’t thought he was that advanced.
“That boy is not yet bonded with his familial partner,” Bai Meizhen’s voice shook her out of her contemplation. “He yet remains at the peak of the Red realm.”
Ling Qi blinked, turning back to Meizhen. “How did you know who I was thinking of?”
The other girl’s unsettling gaze slipped to the side. The silence quickly became awkward.
“... I have observed you with him once. It seemed obvious who you were thinking of,” Bai Meizhen replied eventually.
Well, it wasn’t like she had cause to complain. She had done some shadowing too.
“Right… Anyway, you were telling me about how noble families rank against each other? Is it just who has the strongest ancestors or is it determined by Heavenly Mandate like the Imperial Seat?” She might be an uneducated peasant but even she was aware of some things.
Bai Meizhen’s lips curled in disdain. “I forget sometimes the prevalence of imperial propaganda,” she muttered more to herself than Ling Qi.
“The clan holding the Imperial Seat is chosen by who can hold it against their rivals. The current dynasty's hold is maintained by their control of the supply of spirit stones in the great mines of Mount Tai, as well as the web of alliances the mines have given them.”
Ling Qi’s eyes widened at the casual and disdainful description. It was uncomfortable to hear someone speak of the Imperial throne that way. It just… wasn’t done.
“But… doesn’t the Dragon Throne incinerate false claimants?” There were all sorts of stories of wicked schemers destroyed for daring to touch the throne.
“Certainly,” Bai Meizhen responded, her irritation showing in the sibilant undertone that colored her words. “However, the first emperor and creator of the throne was a very promiscuous man. Almost every noble family of any pedigree is descended from him.”
Feeling rather uncomfortable with the subject matter, Ling Qi soon changed it, but she now felt she had an inkling of why Meizhen might be isolated. Was her family out of favor with the Imperial Court?
The thought was unsettling enough to cut into her sleep that night.
This was very unhelpful the next day as she trudged toward the training grounds before sunrise for another lesson with Elder Zhou. If she were honest, these lessons were probably her least favorite times on the mountain. The man was a merciless taskmaster and every time she attended, she went home exhausted, sore, and filthy with sweat and dirt. She wasn’t afraid of getting dirty, but Ling Qi had never imagined she could be that tired.
She felt some pride in that she was one of only a score or so of the girls who regularly showed up and kept up. She saw Meizhen once or twice, as well as Sun Liling, both of whom were irritating in different ways. Meizhen because the snow white girl never seemed to tire properly and never sweated at all, no matter how hard she worked Sun Liling because whenever she showed up, she got the instructor’s personal attention.
There were no more incidents like the first day. No student spoke back or interrupted Instructor Zhou again, not even the boy still nursing a bruise from last week.
Their instructor spoke little. When he did, Zhou’s lectures were oddly mundane, in that he spoke little of cultivation matters but more on fitness. Actual exercise was needed alongside meditation to allow qi to properly seep into the muscles and bones, and he constantly reminded them that keeping their bodies in the peak of mundane health was necessary for laying the foundation of their physical cultivation.
A cultivator’s body degraded slower than a mortal’s, much slower as they grew stronger. Once she reached the peak, it wouldn’t be difficult to stay there, but here, at the beginning, she could not afford to slack at all.
Not that she intended to.
Ling Qi was all too aware of how much she would benefit from having an Immortal’s body. Sickness, disease, starvation. All the ugly things she had spent her life worrying about could be cast aside and forgotten if she just exercised hard enough. How could she not put her full effort into it?
So despite her difficulties, Ling Qi stubbornly pushed on with her cultivation, doing her utmost to focus her qi into her exhausted muscles during her periods of meditation. Today, despite its miserable beginnings, her cultivation paid off.
It happened as she was in the midst of a set of push ups, a cool down from the more intense exercises. It was as if she had been straining against a great weight tied to her back, only for it to suddenly vanish. Vitality flooded her tired limbs, banishing her fatigue and lingering tiredness like morning mist before the sun. Her body felt lighter than it ever had before, and aches she had forgotten she even had faded away.
“Good. Get up and join the third group,” Ling Qi’s gaze snapped up as she found herself staring at the veritable mountain of muscle that was Instructor Zhou. How did Elders do that?
Hastily nodding, she stood, not trusting herself to respond without stuttering something embarrassing. No matter how harsh he was, the older man was very… distracting up close.
Moving toward the group of students who had reached the Early Gold stage, she paused as Elder Zhou spoke again.
“Do not slow down. You are still far behind your peers.”
His words stung but… they were true. Gritting her teeth in determination, Ling Qi set herself to driving her body to exhaustion once again.
After Elder Zhou’s lesson, Ling Qi dragged her tired body up the narrow path which lead to the archive. She had learned its location by listening in on the other groups of disciples coming and going. Although her muscles ached and her lungs burned with exertion, she did not want to put this off any longer.
She wished the location was more convenient. The archive was a rounded tower rising from the top of a cliff, and the path she walked was a narrow switchback carved into the face of it, steep and dangerous. Even as tired as she was though, Ling Qi felt no concern. Though her limbs dragged, her balance was more perfect than ever.
Reaching the top, she took a moment to catch her breath and then proceeded forward. It took a moment for her to figure out the door. Apparently, she needed to slot the token Elder Su had given her into it, but once slotted, the door swung open, opening the archive to her.
Soon, she would have an art of her own.