Perhaps it was the influence of the qi locus they had found, or the burning of medicinal energy in her dantian from the pills and notes Li Suyin had gifted her, or simply her determination to succeed, but Ling Qi found the cultivation of the third stage of the Argent Soul Art coming to her easily.
In the third stage, Ling Qi had to compress the qi she cultivated, carefully pressing it against the surface of her dantian until it began to congeal into a flexible layer reinforcing her dantian against rupture and damage. This thick qi could then be drawn away in strands and woven into muscle and bone, further fortifying her body.
Ling Qi spent her afternoons between lessons on this process, gradually accumulating the Argent Qi in more potent quantities as she mastered the third stage.
In the evenings, Ling Qi tutored Li Suyin in physical cultivation. Li Suyin’s own efforts had taken her close to a breakthrough. Once she had grasped Elder Zhou’s initial lessons as relayed by Ling Qi, Li Suyin reached the first level of the Gold Physique.
Elder Su’s lessons continued to be trying due to Ling Q’s other classmates, but they were fruitful as well. The Elder was beginning to delve into more complex aspects of qi, which included something that had confused Ling Qi. Namely, she got an explanation for what a ‘Yin Aspected’ art was. Despite there being dozens of qi types beyond the basic elements of earth, wind, water, fire, mountain, lake, thunder, and sky, all arts fell into one of three categories.
Yin, Yang, and Balanced.
As the basis for everything which existed, the study of these concepts was a deep and complex subject, and even Elder Su’s lessons were only a beginner’s primer. Yin was reactive, passive, or absorbent and was more used in internal and support arts. Yang was active, aggressive, or impenetrable and was more used in the ‘flashy’ external arts typically associated with immortals.
There were many details and many exceptions due to the sheer number of arts and the unconventional ways in which qi could be expressed. Ultimately, the most important thing was that Elder Su taught them how to feel the difference between Yin qi and Yang qi.
Argent Soul, the Sect-given cultivation art, was an example of the third option, Balanced. Balanced was neutral with Yin and Yang equally present.
Her other arts were exclusively yin. That wasn’t particularly surprising for the moon arts she had gained - given the moon’s traditional association with yin - but she had been unsure about Zephyr’s Breath.
Ling Qi thought she had caught Elder Su eyeing her and Li Suyin speculatively once or twice over the course of the week. She had a good feeling about placing in the top five for the prize. She needed to keep striving for excellence. Despite how busy she was, Ling Qi had not forgotten the other task which she had set for herself in the lead up to Elder Zhou’s test. She was more determined than ever to find a way to give back to Bai Meizhen.
One cold and windy evening when their schedules had coincided in both of them being home, she found her opportunity to ask.
“Are you sure you don’t want any?” Ling Qi asked as she loaded her plate with the meal - extravagant for her - she had cooked. A few months ago, the idea of roasting an entire chicken for herself would have been ridiculous. Even if she had managed to steal and strangle one of the vicious, feathery little monsters, she certainly wouldn’t have eaten the whole thing. Now, she found that even if she didn’t eat often, when she did, she tended to be voracious.
Bai Meizhen eyed the well-cooked poultry on Ling Qi’s plate with ill-concealed disgust from across the fire. It was a little insulting. Ling Qi didn’t think her cooking was that bad, especially since she had access to decent seasoning.
“I am sure. Thank you,” the pale girl responded politely, belying her expression.
“Alright.” Ling Qi wasn’t going to push, even if it was a bit depressing that she couldn’t even give the other girl back something as simple as a meal.
“So… About those two from my physical cultivation lessons…?”
They had already spoken earlier on Fan Yu’s… injury. While the poison Bai Meizhen had inflicted would permanently cripple a mortal, someone with qi could apparently clear the paralysis after a time spent circulating their energy and meditating. The other girl had seemed baffled at the implication that even that might have been excessive.
“Kang Zihao, I have not personally heard of,” Bai Meizhen said, nursing a cup of tea as she usually did, Cui coiled loosely around her neck like a jade choker. “The Kang family is prominent in the capital and well favored by the Imperial court. I believe Kang Guanzhi is the current head of the Palace Guard, although that is a position with a high rate of turnover. I’m afraid I could not say if he is one of the man’s younger sons or merely a cousin however. As for Cai Renxiang, I am somewhat shocked that you do not know of her.” Going by Bai Meizhen’s raised eyebrows and stern expression, Ling Qi felt like she was being scolded for ignorance again.
“Why would I know of her?” Ling Qi asked defensively after she finished swallowing her current mouthful of food.
“One should at least maintain basic civic awareness,” Bai Meizhen responded with disappointment. “Really, if this is the state of education in these southern cities…” Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably, suddenly reminded that she had never really clarified exactly how low her birth was.
“Cai Renxiang is the daughter and heiress to the Duchess of this province,” Bai Meizhen said. “The Cai family is very new, of course, at a mere three generations from their first cultivator, but Cai Shenhua is the youngest White cultivator in the Empire. It is not surprising that the Cai seized the governorship of a province.”
Ling Qi really hoped that the girl’s interest in her wasn’t malicious then. “Er… I think I can guess, but what exactly does being a ‘White’ cultivator denote?”
Bai Meizhen sighed.
“It is the eighth and highest realm of spiritual cultivation one can achieve in the mortal plane. To go beyond it or the physical equivalent is to become a great spirit. There are typically around ten such cultivators in the Empire at any given time.”
Ling Qi had thought it was something like that, but the idea still boggled her mind. A person could become a great spirit? “Has that ever actually happened before?”
“Of course. In fact, the last ascension was quite recent. The previous Emperor ascended to become an aspect of Death and is now the Great Spirit Inexorable Justice.” Bai Meizhen’s tone was grudgingly respectful even as she spoke of something absurd.
Things like that were way too far beyond Ling Qi for her to worry about. She needed to bring the conversation back to the real reason she wanted to speak with her housemate
“Right. That’s… Thank you for the lesson. Putting that aside, if you don’t mind, I wanted to ask you about something else.”
Bai Meizhen nodded, seemingly content with the change in subject, although she wrinkled her nose as Ling Qi continued eating.
“Go ahead. Is there someone else you feel concerned over? I noticed that you seem to have stirred up the rabble of lesser nobles somehow.”
“Nothing like that,” Ling Qi responded.
“Actually… I talked with Cui a couple weeks ago because I wanted to do something for you since you’ve been helping me so much, you know?” The little serpent flicked her tongue at Ling Qi as she awkwardly stumbled through her statement.
Bai Meizhen glanced down at her companion, who flicked her tongue a few more times and twisted her head to the side.
“That is unnecessary, but I suppose I thank you all the same. I am somewhat surprised that you managed to speak with Cui. She is impatient and lazy after all.” Ling Qi didn’t think she had ever seen a snake manage to look affronted before.
“I really do want to do something,” Ling Qi responded quietly. “Cui mentioned that you had your eye on a talisman? A jade dragon pendant some girl was wearing? I can get it for you if you want. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard.”
Bai Meizhen blinked, then blinked again, apparently trying to remember the girl in question. This didn’t do much for Ling Qi’s confidence that Bai Meizhen actually wanted the talisman.
Then, something strange happened. Bai Meizhen’s golden eyes widened, and she… blushed? Her unnaturally pale cheeks went pink, and she glared down at Cui.
“T-that won’t be necessary. Cui was simply exaggerating a passing interest.” The last words came out almost as a hiss and seemed to be directed more at her serpent companion than Ling Qi. It was odd to hear Bai Meizhen sounding almost flustered.
Ling Qi didn’t really understand what was going on between Bai Meizhen and Cui, but surely, there had to be something she could do.
“Alright. So you don’t want the necklace. Is there something you do want?”
The flush was already fading from Bai Meizhen’s cheeks as she considered Ling Qi’s question.
“... I am sorry, but there is nothing at the moment.” Ling Qi’s shoulders slumped slightly. Was she really that useless? “Once you break through into the Yellow Soul or Silver Physique however… There is something you can assist me with then.” Bai Meizhen seemed slightly uncomfortable with making the request.
“... Alright,” Ling Qi responded, looking down at her half-finished meal. “I won’t take too long.”
Ling Qi felt surprisingly warm when Bai Meizhen nodded as if she really believed her.