Ling Qi rubbed her eyes, trying to banish the blur of exhaustion. Scattered on the table before her were a half dozen opened scrolls, dense with text and diagrams. The archive supervisor had been able to explain the Archive’s organization, but even limiting her search to arts which only needed a single heart meridian for the initial level, the number she had to sift through had been vast.
There were no windows in the archive, only hanging lanterns that burned without flame, but Ling Qi suspected that it was nearing sunrise. There were simply so many options, and she could only take a single one. Each art would allow her to perform feats that she could not have imagined a scarce few weeks ago.
The Burning Heart Art would allow her to inspire courage and banish fear, as well as project blazing heat in the wake of her movements. The Earthroot Art would fill her limbs with strength and slow enemies with the weighty energies of the earth. The Crimson Flowing Art would allow her to sense the flow of blood in things around her and staunch her own wounds with a thought.
And these were only a few of the available arts!
Ling Qi’s gaze drifted to another scroll on the table. Zephyr’s Breath Art was a set of techniques for manipulating the currents of air around the user to speed allies and impede foes. It was an art for making projectiles fly true and for avoiding direct confrontation.
In other words, it fit her well. But did she want it? She was a cultivator now, she could… should do whatever she wanted. Did she want to keep running away?
Ling Qi let out an explosive sigh. She was being silly; looking at her peers, she had no business being able to simply do as she pleased. Elder Su had mentioned that her qi had a natural wind nature so Zephyr’s Breath really was her best choice for being able to quickly defend herself.
It was only a first choice after all, and meridians could be re-attuned. Ling Qi decisively snatched up the scroll. She wavered as she stood up but shook her head, took control of her breathing, and cycled her qi to push the exhaustion back for the moment.
Once she cleaned up and traded the scroll for the jade slip encoded with its contents, she could get some sleep. She just hoped that she didn’t end up missing Elder Su’s lesson by oversleeping.
Days passed, and Ling Qi found limited success in getting her new art to work. The finesse required to create more than directionless bursts of wind eluded her yet, and channeling the flows of qi left her feeling exhausted, her single meridian burning with discomfort. It seemed that her body needed more tempering yet.
She was not yet ready to make use of her art, but that day would come soon if she kept working hard. She was sure of it. Elder Su’s lessons were slowly improving her ability to cycle and manipulate qi. Mastering the next stage of Argent Soul also promised great improvements to her stamina, and in a few days, she was going to be meeting that girl, Li Suyin, to share cultivation ideas.
As for Elder Zhou... Well, his lessons continued to be both blessing and trial.
Ling Qi’s limbs trembled with exhaustion, her muscles burning from the strain of holding herself in the difficult pose Instructor Zhou had forced them to take up for meditation this week. The meditation had begun with simple stretches but had quickly progressed to difficult and highly uncomfortable exercises.
Muscles she didn't even know she had were sore, and the sweat trickling down her forehead despite the mountain chill kept stinging her eyes. Ling Qi doggedly kept her attention on Instructor Zhou as he paced between the rows of disciples, muscular arms clasped behind his back.
“As a cultivator, you cannot afford to neglect any part of your body. Physical cultivation is, at its core, an endless exercise in balance and unity. Lose that balance or cultivate some part out of sync and you will tear your own body apart,” the elder lectured, pausing now and then to not so gently nudge a disciple back into proper position.
“At this low stage of cultivation, you may suffer torn muscles, broken bones, and other minor injuries.”
One of the boys on the elder’s left collapsed mid-movement, his leg giving out beneath him. The elder waved the boy off to cool down.
“The repercussions for failure only grow with your cultivation. You do not wish to make such mistakes when you begin reinforcement of the major organs.”
Ling Qi gritted her teeth as the muscles in her back cried out from being extended for so long.
“One’s foundation of understanding is vital to cultivation. This is the sole reason that Elders such as I are spending our time teaching you.
“The key to physical cultivation is Unity!” His voice boomed out over the field, and another person collapsed in a heap.
“The body requires Unity and Balance.” Even in her current state, Ling Qi could hear the odd emphasis that he put on those words.
“Flesh, bone, muscle, blood, the organs major and minor. No part of the body functions well without the others supporting it! And so all must be cultivated to achieve true strength.”
He rounded the end of the row and began to walk down the one occupied by Ling Qi.
“The same can be said for the Sect and the Empire. No province would find the same prosperity or the same safety on its own.” Ling Qi’s breath hitched as she felt her body begging to be allowed to collapse.
“No soldier survives a battle on his own. He survives with the support of his squad, which survives with the support of its battalion. A General without his men is no better than a head without a body. An army without a general is no better than a body without a head!
“But all the same, cultivation is also about removing the impurities from the body. It is about ejecting weakness.” He stopped a scant dozen steps from Ling Qi’s position to survey the field, towering over the hunched and bent students.
“I have said it before; I am not here to train court cultivators, who sit in their clan homes and play the games of politics. I train the soldiers who will stand as the bulwark of the Empire. This is your warning. In two weeks, the lessons I give freely will end.”
Murmurs of alarm sounded at that, but none dared anything more.
“The week after next, I will oversee a test. It will not be one that solely tests personal strength. You will be organized into squads and set against one another in various tasks. I intend to accept no more than thirty disciples into the remaining lessons.”
He resumed walking then, and Ling Qi bit her lip as she concentrated on not falling. Not now. She didn’t want to fail just as the Elder walked by…
As the Elder moved toward her, she let out a breath and closed her eyes.
No. She would not let herself fail.
She felt her qi blaze in her dantian and resonate with the Argent Soul Art, the steady outward flow dispersing into her bones and muscles briefly increased and dulled the ache of exhaustion. When she opened her eyes, she found herself meeting the instructor’s eyes, if only for a second, as he swept his gaze over her.
“We will see which of you has the potential to be worth more of my time then.
“At ease, disciples,” Elder Zhou said as he reached the end of the line.
“Perform your cooldowns and go. Prepare yourselves well.”
The tension in the air as he left the field was palpable. Ling Qi eyed her fellow disciples with new wariness. Their competition was no longer implicit. In two weeks time, they would be enemies.
Ling Qi left the day’s lessons in a daze. With this new deadline hanging over her head, all of her progress seemed paltry. It wasn’t fair. How was she supposed to compete in something like this when she had only just begun?
She reminded herself that life was not fair and had never been fair. She would just have to find a way to succeed.
It was a group exercise at least, and Elder Zhou had never said that it would be direct combat. Perhaps she could group with Meizhen? It felt unpleasant to have to rely on someone else’s strength, but pride was a luxury of the strong.
In the wake of Instructor Zhou’s announcement, Ling Qi had been tempted to discard her current plans for cultivating the Argent Soul Art in favor of spending more time on the Zephyr’s Breath Art. In the end, she decided against it. Had the instructor not said that the foundation was the most important? Right now, the Argent Soul was her foundation so she would improve it no matter what.
She did come much closer to canceling her meeting with Li Suyin. However, she had already set the date, and there was no point in alienating one of her tiny handful of friendly contacts. Certainly not for a few hours of fumbling solo cultivation.
So unlike most days, instead of ducking out the moment Elder Su opened the door, she hung back. She watched Li Suyin carefully pack up the various writing tools the girl always brought to the lessons.
Ling Qi had started paying attention to the other girl since the day Li Suyin had approached her. The girl never seemed to be without her implements and carried them in an expensive looking case at her side. It was the only real proof that the girl had any wealth.
Ling Qi could see the appeal of taking notes. More than once, she had wished she could better recall Elder Su’s instruction even with her improved memory. Sadly, such things were laughably out of her reach financially. And while she could read, her writing ability was far too slow to keep up with the Elder’s lecture.
When Li Suyin finally noticed her looking, her eyes widened momentarily before she hurried up, the shiny wooden case holding her notes and implements clutched against her chest.
“I’m sorry! Were you waiting for me? It’s just - I needed to blot the ink and -”
“It’s fine,” Ling Qi cut her off a bit rudely. There was already attention being directed at the two of them, and this wasn’t the place for idle chatter.
“Let’s walk while we talk,” she added, turning away to head for the door.
She heard Li Suyin murmur a response and hurry to catch up with her. Apologizing as she moved around and between other students.
“W-why are you always in such a hurry to leave class?” the blue-haired girl asked as she finally fell in beside Ling Qi. Li Suyin was even shorter than Bai Meizhen, the other girl’s head barely came up to Ling Qi’s chest. Just another reason to feel awkward and out of place.
“I like staying in practice,” Ling Qi responded. “The truce the Elders put down will only last less than two and a half months longer, and I am not popular.” Left unsaid was that Ling Qi didn’t have any family reputation to act as a buffer either.
“Oh, well, um…” The answer seemed to have surprised Li Suyin.
“I… surely no one will do anything excessive, right?” At Ling Qi’s incredulous look, the shorter girl hurried on. “I mean, there will be… duels and such obviously, but we are all disciples of the same sect.”
“... Maybe,” Ling Qi allowed, but she doubted it would be so civilized. If one dumped a few scraps of meat into a pen of starving dogs, they wouldn’t nicely share it either, and in her view, that was a pretty close approximation of the trickle of resources supplied to the outer disciples.
“What’s the plan?”
Li Suyin blinked at the sudden change in subject as the two of them hurried out of the lecture building.
“I was thinking that you could come to my home, and I could ask you a few questions before observing you while you cultivate,” Li Suyin responded nervously. “I… I have been told my senses are quite good. It is hard to discern anything in the lecture hall when there is so much interference,” she said while gesturing vaguely to the other disciples around the two of them.
Was Ling Qi getting set up for a trap? Even if Li Suyin seemed genuine, she didn’t like putting herself in the other girl’s space.
“Why don’t we do it at my place instead?” Ling Qi asked challengingly to see how the other girl would respond.
The blue-haired girl’s eyes widened almost comically, and Li Suyin hunched her shoulders. “I… I’m not sure…. Would your housemate really allow that?” she asked, reminding Ling Qi of a frightened rabbit.
“It’s my home too,” Ling Qi responded stubbornly. She honestly wasn’t sure how Meizhen would react to someone else in their home.
“Besides, why is everyone so afraid or disdainful of Bai Meizhen?”
Now Li Suyin was the one looking at her incredulously. “She… does her aura not affect you?” Li Suyin asked before frowning.
“No, it must not. How else would you live in the same home,” Li Suyin mumbled to herself. “Is it just acclimation though or…”
Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably. Her heart still sped up sometimes when she was startled by Bai Meizhen’s presence, but it was mostly something that she had almost forgotten about given her constant proximity to the girl.
“It can’t just be that,” Ling Qi said, cutting off the other girl’s inquisitive mumbling. “I mean- it’s a little unnerving, but we’re all cultivators here.”
Li Suyin grimaced slightly, turning her attention back to Ling Qi.
“I do not fully understand the matter myself… Father is only a regional minister of finance and was elevated in the exams. I’m not - not really a noble,” Li Suyin admitted uncomfortably.
“The Bai family is… They frighten people and upset things with their disagreements with the Imperial Court. There are only a handful of ancient bloodlines left in the Empire, you know?”
Ling Qi didn’t know, but she supposed she would have to take the other girl’s word for it.
“...We’ll do this at your place then,” she decided. In the end, her instincts told her Li Suyin wasn’t leading her on. She supposed it was a poor idea to invite someone over without asking Bai Meizhen. Her housemate could be prickly at the best of times.
Ling Qi followed Li Suyin to her home, a tiny stone hut on the edge of the residential area. It was… cramped. A single room with a hearth in the center and thin pallets laid out on either side.
One side clearly belonged to Li Suyin. It was neatly made and surrounded by paper and books. The other side was a mess of balled up blankets and discarded clothing, as well as a few other random knick knacks: a battered belt knife, a few stone dishes, and implements for grinding and mixing herbs. There were also fine, silky strands of hair on everything. Did the girl Li Suyin was rooming with have a cat or a dog?
In any case, Li Suyin mumbled apologies for the mess her housemate left and ushered Ling Qi into the only other room, which was essentially the equivalent of the meditation room at Ling Qi’s home but… downsized.
Once the two were seated in the dim and cramped room, things started off simple enough. Li Suyin asked various questions about Ling Qi’s cultivation and how Ling Qi felt while performing different exercises. Li Suyin scribbled down the answers on the paper spread across the wooden board she had laid out across her lap.
Ling Qi found herself relaxing as time passed and nothing untoward happened even as the other girl’s questions grew increasingly difficult. Things like the number of qi circulations in each ‘push’ on her meridian or the exact number of breaths she took per minute when meditating… Ling Qi couldn’t answer many of them since she didn’t really pay attention to such issues herself. It was frustrating to be unable to answer again and again.
“Does any of this actually matter?” Ling Qi finally asked, cutting off Li Suyin’s latest inquiry about whether Ling Qi circulated her qi clockwise or counterclockwise or some mix of both when clearing her meridian.
The other girl paused in writing and shifted uncomfortably where she was seated only a short distance away.
“I… don’t know,” Li Suyin admitted.
“I ask questions in the lessons, but there is never enough time for everything I want to ask,” she added with a hint of frustration. “There is just so much that I do not know.”
“Why ask me then?” Ling Qi asked, leaning back against the wall. “There are probably other girls who actually know these answers.”
Li Suyin looked aside, twiddling nervously with her ink brush. “But would they answer me?” she asked, expression bitter.
“At least you are willing to sit down and answer questions instead of calling me foolish.”
“That’s… fair,” Ling Qi admitted.
“I don’t know that I’ll be able to do this often. I need to cultivate, and the Argent Soul isn’t going to master itself.” Ling Qi didn’t dislike the other girl, but she was also finding it difficult to think of reasons why she should continue.
Li Suyin’s face fell, but then her expression settled into one of determination. “Would - would you care for a look at my notes? I’ve done a fair amount of work on studying how the Argent Soul art works, as well as deciphering the meanings behind the koans and more opaque instructions.”
Ling Qi frowned but eventually nodded. She was already here, and it couldn’t hurt.
Li Suyin’s notes were densely packed, but at the same time… they were pretty insightful. Li Suyin had ideas for achieving the improved qi generation of the second stage of the Argent Soul art that Ling Qi hadn't even considered.
Now that Ling Qi had been presented with them, it made all too much sense. With the new insight in mind, she barely gave Li Suyin a thought before closing her eyes to cultivate. If Li Suyin was right about the last step of the second stage, then it was more than worth a little observation from Li Suyin.
When Ling Qi opened her eyes, the sun had fallen beneath the the horizon. She felt incredibly refreshed. She could not yet maintain the second stage with any stability, but she had advanced in leaps and bounds compared to the muddled attempts she had made previously on her own.
She still jerked back in shock at the first sight she saw. Li Suyin had leaned in far closer than Ling Qi was comfortable with, hands hovering a hair’s breadth over Ling Qi’s stomach. Just how out of touch was Ling Qi when cultivating?
“Back up,” Ling Qi commanded in a voice that was definitely not an embarrassed yelp.
Li Suyin startled at the sound of Ling Qi’s voice and flushed a deep red when she met Ling Qi’s eyes. Li Suyin hastily jerked back with wide eyes as her hands flew up to cover her mouth.
“I - I’m sorry!” Li Suyin squeaked out. “I just lost track of things while observing your qi and I think I’ve nearly managed to open the meridian in my arm and I got better results when I was closer and...” she rambled defensively.
“Just - just don’t do that again,” Ling Qi interrupted shakily. She didn’t care for having her personal space invaded.
“... I don’t mind coming by again sometime,” Ling Qi said in the awkward silence that followed. “As long as you keep sharing your notes,” she added hastily.
Ling Qi couldn’t but feel a little pleased at the bright smile that overtook the mousy girl’s expression. How long had it been since someone had been genuinely happy to see her?