Ling Qi awoke to a faint fluttering sound and the feeling of something slapping against her face. Letting out a surprised yelp, she thrashed in her bed, bolting upright. Her right hand was already on the hilt of the knife she had slipped under her bedding. Then, the thin sheet of paper that had covered her face fell away, leaving her blinking and confused in the faint pre-dawn light filtering in through the tiny window of her room.
Yawning groggily, Ling Qi plucked the page from her lap and squinted down at the words written there. It first informed her that Elder Zhou’s lessons would begin in one hour’s time. Second, it said that Elder Su’s lessons would be moved to the afternoons so that lesson times would no longer conflict.
Grumbling, Ling Qi sleepily climbed out of bed and began to prepare for the day. She had gone through too much trouble to be late for her first day. The first thing she did was check her shoulder, discarding the bandages when she found that only a thin white scar remained of the wound. Nothing was left of her more minor injuries.
Slipping outside, Ling Qi supposed that the one benefit of being up so early was the small number of her fellow disciples who were out and about. It allowed her to quietly leave the residential area without any unfortunate encounters. All the same, every small sound and flickering shadow was making her second-guess herself.
Arriving at the training field, Ling Qi spied her much reduced class, now numbering just over twenty. Han Jian, his cousin, and Gu Xiulan were all present, as were Sun Liling and the boy who had approached the red-haired girl after the second test. Of the others, the only ones she recognized were the long-haired girl who had stared her down during her walk to the stage, the girl’s looming male companion, and the scarred boy. She could also feel the unfriendly looks of at least a half-dozen others.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, given the atmosphere, she had no time to greet her… friends - if they could still be called that after her encounter with Fan Yu. After her arrival with the last few stragglers, Elder Zhou barked out an order to follow him as he turned and began to run.
What followed was the single most grueling half hour of running Ling Qi had experienced yet. Elder Zhou lead them on a run at a punishing pace even as the narrow road carved into the side of the mountain grew steeper and colder until her breath was coming out in puffs of steam. Straining to keep up, she used the sight of Gu Xiulan’s back to motivate herself to not slow down. As the exercise went on, she was gratified to see that she was neither the only one struggling nor at the rear of the pack, managing to stay near the middle of the group until the very end.
The run ended in the middle of a wide, grassy field, strewn with pale blue flowers that she didn’t recognize. When Elder Zhou finally stopped and called for a halt, she nearly stumbled but managed to stay upright. She wasn’t the only one gasping for breath or swaying on her feet, and even Han Jian and Gu Xiulan were red-faced and breathing heavily.
“With this, the days warm up run is complete!” Elder Zhou announced, looking as if he had not exerted himself in the slightest.
“It is now time for me to speak to you of my expectations and the differences that will exist between this class and the lesser one for those who failed the third test.”
Ling Qi frowned. Those who failed the third were still receiving lessons of some kind? That was… remarkably generous. She doubted Elder Zhou was teaching them though.
“These lessons will not be easy. I will not coddle you as I have done in the last month.” That was ominous. “You will report to the field at the same time every day until the end of the course. I will not tolerate tardiness. If you fail to arrive for the lesson without clearing the matter with me, do not bother coming back.
“However,” he added, his stern gaze scanning over the recovering disciples, “you have earned the right to further resources to aid your training in addition to my teachings.”
Ling Qi blinked as Elder Zhou made a sweeping motion with his left hand. An entire table laid out with cups filled with steaming black liquid appeared on the grass in front of him, settling in with barely a clink or a ripple. How...?
She squinted then noticed a pale gray ring on the Elder’s finger. Han Jian had mentioned something about dimensional rings before, but she had not fully considered the breadth of their utility. Ling Qi eyed the piece of jewelry with fascination and greed. The things she could do with something like that…
“This is Bear Marrow Elixir,” Instructor Zhou continued, unaware of Ling Qi’s longing thoughts. “Each of you will be granted one cup each morning after the warm up run. It will fortify your body for the trials ahead and enhance your cultivation of qi to build the foundation necessary to break through to higher ranks. Be thankful to our Medicine Department for their kindness!”
“Sun Liling, Cai Renxiang, Kang Zihao.” He announced three names, raising a finger to point at each disciple in turn. The first Ling Qi obviously recognized. The second was the girl with the intense eyes from before. The third was a boy of middling height with a proud bearing, handsome features, and shoulder length dark brown hair.
“A higher ranked elixir, more appropriate to your cultivation, has been prepared for you three. Come forward first.”
She supposed that she now knew who was at the top of the class. Lining up with the rest, Ling Qi came to be thankful that she had not been at the front. Even with the disgust of her fellow disciples as a warning, she was barely able to restrain herself from gagging as she chugged down the viscous, incredibly bitter liquid.
She could not complain at the effect. Her fatigue vanished within seconds, and she felt her body burning with energy. Her muscles quivered as if in anticipation of being used.
The lesson that followed was much more in-depth than what Instructor Zhou had provided before. Many of the exercises were the same, but he now combined them with more detailed and interactive explanations and corrections on how to control and diffuse one’s qi to strengthen the bones and tissues. It was more in line with Elder Su’s educational lectures than the taciturn Instructor Zhou’s previous lessons.
The exercises themselves took on a more martial bent. In the latter half of the lesson, the group was divided in two. Ling Qi found herself among a group comprised of roughly one third of the class, none of whom she recognized. It became clear why they had been separated from the others when Elder Zhou began their instruction.
While the other students were paired off for sparring, their teacher began to harshly drill Ling Qi and the others in basic unarmed combat techniques. Again and again, Ling Qi was put through her paces, learning simple blocks, footwork, and other foundational exercises.
When the lesson finally wound down hours later, Ling Qi felt wrung out physically and mentally. The constant exertion and the focus required to keep her qi circulating and diffusing during those exercises was tiring, but she didn’t allow her exhaustion to distract her from her goals.
Knowing that she had made a mistake the previous day with Fan Yu, Ling Qi knew she had to approach the others and offer an explanation. She would have to hope that she had not burned this bridge; she had so few people willing to consider taking her side as it was. So as the other disciples sat down in the field to rest and meditate, she hurried over to where the three Golden Fields disciples stood.
“Han Jian, Gu Xiulan, Han Fang,” she greeted them as she approached, doing her best to sound cheerful, despite her tiredness and the worry stewing in her gut. “I’m glad all of you made it through.”
Han Jian smiled at her, but she thought it looked just a bit strained. “It wasn’t easy, but yeah, we made it.” He scratched the back of his head. “I don’t blame you for not waiting for us. I heard things were a little hectic outside.”
“Yes, I did hear about a bit of a scene,” Gu Xiulan drawled, studying Ling Qi.
“I am sorry for my fiance's temper. His failure was not easy on him,” she continued apologetically, although the words didn’t sound genuine. “Luckily, things were broken up before they got too far. I admit, I was surprised when I heard what had happened.”
Han Fang’s response was simply to shoot Ling Qi a concerned look before continuing to idly scan the rest of the field. Ling Qi was glad that she had been given a chance to explain herself even if some part of her had foolishly hoped the issue would be dismissed.
“Yes. I… guess I lost my temper too.” She didn’t like admitting any fault for the situation. “Is he alright?” she asked carefully. While she had only seen him go pale and silent, it couldn’t hurt to ask.
Han Jian grimaced, looking distinctly uncomfortable, and even Han Fang looked briefly troubled. It was Gu Xiulan who answered though.
“His right arm was still useless when we emerged.” She sounded somber when she spoke, but Ling Qi was sure she saw a flicker of some other emotion in the other girl’s eyes.
“I didn’t know you were an ally of the Bai family,” she added in a lighter tone. “Do you know if he will recover? I’m afraid that after we saw him and confirmed your story, he stormed off somewhere. I have not seen him since.”
Ling Qi felt her eyes widen even as she tried to mask her reaction.
“I - Ah - We’re just housemates and… kind of friends? She didn’t mention doing anything. I thought that he had just frozen up like everyone else usually does around her.” Ling Qi responded in a rush. Had Bai Meizhen actually crippled someone for laying hands on her? She wasn’t sure if she should feel horrified at that or not.
Things were quiet between them as the group digested that until Han Jian spoke up.
“I… think he should recover fine. The Bai family’s toxin arts are very precise in their effects. I doubt she would openly break the Elders’ truce. “I’ve met members of her clan once or twice. They aren’t really the type to do something excessive out of passion.” There was a hint of doubt in his voice. Ling Qi wasn’t exactly sure what he was doubting though.
“Father did entertain Bai Suzhen during the last great expedition into the Solar Wastes,” Gu Xiulan mused, studying Ling Qi with a hooded gaze.
“It was quite an extravagant event, but that woman was the picture of control and moderation,” she continued thoughtfully. “I am certain it is nothing serious. I will have to console my poor Yu whenever he rejoins us.”
Ling Qi caught Han Fang glancing at the other girl with a hint of disapproval as she dismissed the possibility of her fiance’s injury, but it was gone so fast she couldn’t be sure if she had imagined it. Ugh. She really didn’t know what to make of this group’s internal politics.
“I will apologize to him the next time we meet.” Despite the awkwardness, Ling Qi forced herself to press forward. She needed all the allies she could get.“In any case, I was wondering if your invitation was still open, Gu Xiulan? This first day was pretty difficult so I thought…” Ling Qi cursed the way she had bumbled awkwardly through that sentence.
The other girl’s eyes brightened and she smiled, seeming genuinely pleased. “Oh? I admit I had been a bit disappointed when you refused before. I have not had a chance to relax and chat with another girl since I came here. It’s so difficult, you know, keeping these three focused and civilized.” Her tone was light and teasing as she gestured at Han Jian and his cousin.
“Is that so?” Ling Qi responded with well-masked doubt. She found the idea that Gu Xiulan didn’t already have other friends among the female disciples… unlikely.
“I thought it might be fun myself,” she added, not quite lying through her teeth. She was still too suspicious of the other girl’s motives to really consider letting her guard down around her. “I haven’t really done anything relaxing since I got here.” Unless one counted playing her flute at night.
“Well, you girls try to have some fun then,” Han Jian said. “I guess Fang and I will finally have a chance to get up to some proper manly things since you won’t be tagging along, Xiulan.” Ling Qi really wished she was better at reading people. He had seemed annoyed before, but now, he was friendly and playful again. “What do you say, cousin? Want to go find a few bears to wrestle?”
Han Fang shot Han Jian a bemused look and shook his head, gesturing up toward the mountain peak, before following it up with some odd gestures.
“I guess climbing up there would be a pain. Doing some grilling does sound like a better idea,” Han Jian responded cheerfully, clearly understanding what the other boy ‘said’.
“Really. Just try not to get into any trouble, you two,” Gu Xiulan said with a theatrical sigh. “And do not follow us. Lechery will be punished with execution,” she added with a queenly air.
It really did make Ling Qi feel like even more of an outsider when Han Jian brushed off the ‘threat’ with rolled eyes and a laugh. As much as she liked to think they were allies and Han Jian a friend, she still didn’t really understand them.
Gu Xiulan glanced at her then and smiled, gesturing for her to follow along as Han Jian and Han Fang set off back toward the residential area.
“You really are too tense, you know,” she commented lightly once they had set foot on one of the paths leading further up the mountain. “You are going to give yourself wrinkles that even cultivation won’t fix.”
“I think I have a good reason to be on edge,” Ling Qi pointed out peevishly. “Given how things have been going.”
“Perhaps so,” Gu Xiulan allowed. “But a lady should do her best to smile and be charming. It is one of our most valuable tools.”
“Well, maybe for you. Not all of us have the talents for that kind of thing.” She knew perfectly well where she stood in that regard. She was not going to start messing about with ‘charm’ now.
Gu Xiulan arched an eyebrow at her. “Talent is but one part of the result. A little work can go quite a long way. I still believe you may wish to relax. Things are likely not as bad as they seem.”
“How do you figure?” Ling Qi responded dubiously as the two of them rounded a corner and passed by a pair of male disciples. She could feel their greedy, calculating gazes on her back as they left them behind.
“Half the mountain is going to be looking to stab me in the back,” she added dejectedly. She still half expected Gu Xiulan to be one of them.
The other girl pursed her lips as she took them down a weedy side path.
“You are not exactly alone. Bai Meizhen is a powerful ally. I am hardly someone to be ignored either.” She gave Ling Qi a look of playful reproach.
It was Ling Qi’s turn to fall silent while studying the other girl intently. She didn’t understand her.
“Why would you side with me? I humiliated your fiance, nobody else seems to like Meizhen, and it would just get you a lot of enemies. And don’t tell me you aren’t interested in what Elder Jiao said.”
“Less than you might think,” Gu Xiulan responded with a haughty sniff. “Besides, Jian is hardly the type to approve of betrayal.” That sounded more believable to Ling Qi.
“That doesn’t answer the rest,” Ling Qi replied.
“Fan Yu is… headstrong and prone to fits of temper,” Gu Xiulan began carefully. “But he values the opinions of Han Jian and I. He can be brought to see reason. After all, it was merely a small matter of two tempers getting the better of their owners, was it not?”
Ling Qi didn’t quite believe that, but she gave a grudging nod anyway.
“As for the rest... I think you have the potential to complement me quite well, and I do feel a certain excitement at the idea of being in the center of the little storm that our esteemed Elder has kicked up.”
Gu Xiulan flashed that same vicious, predatory expression she had right before she immolated the girl who had flung ice shards at them. Strangely, Ling Qi found that frightening expression relieving. It seemed more honest than any of the girl’s other faces.
Conversation quieted down as Gu Xiulan lead her on a circuitous path that passed through a small wood full of brambles and undergrowth. They soon arrived at a narrow crack in the mountainside from which the bubbling sounds of a spring issued.
Actually soaking in the spring with the other girl was a mixed experience. With no obstructions, it was even clearer how much Gu Xiulan exceeded Ling Qi in the realms of femininity. At the same time, the other girl seemed content to just chat with her about nothing of any particular relevance.
The warm water tingled nicely on her skin, sapping away her fatigue and fortifying her qi. Gu Xiulan seemed content to carry the conversation with only minimal input from her, going from minor gripes about their male teammates to prodding her about things she hadn’t thought of in years like hair care and the sort of cut and colors she liked in her clothes.
It was a little disheartening not to have much in the way of answers, but it was nice even if she had a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t be able to avoid Gu Xiulan sitting her down to style her hair ‘properly’ if she continued going out with her. Gu Xiulan seemed like a pushy girl.
She could put up with that if it meant having another ally on this mountain.