The exhausting routine of Elder Zhou’s training the next day passed by in a blur. The Elder worked them to the bone, drilling the basics of unarmed combat into her and the other students unfamiliar with it on top of the usual physical conditioning and qi diffusing.
The training was rewarding. Ling Qi could feel herself gradually growing stronger and tougher with every day even as her dantian continued to grow as well.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t relieved to finally settle into the mineral spring with Gu Xiulan afterward. The water felt amazing as the warmth seeped in and sapped the aches and fatigue from her limbs.
She almost felt a little bad for kind of tuning out on what Gu Xiulan was actually talking about. Gu Xiulan had gone off on a tangent about some kind of skin cleansing and protecting oils from her home province, how she wished she had brought more to the sect with her, and how she was worried she might begin to tan. Ling Qi wasn’t foolish enough to actually ignore the other girl, but it could be hard to keep her attention on Gu Xiulan’s inane ramblings.
“That aside, I hear you managed to receive a prize from Elder Su yesterday afternoon. Congratulations. It’s good to see that you aren’t satisfied with only excelling in one branch of cultivation.”
Ling Qi forced herself to focus on the blurred form of her companion through the steam rising from the gently bubbling spring.
“Ah, yeah. I need all of the advantages I can get, right?
“Thank you. I just wish I hadn’t had to stand up in front of everyone and make even more of a target of myself.” Ling Qi sank further down into the water with a gloomy expression.
“I will never understand your aversion to attention.” Gu Xiulan responded with a sigh, resting her cheek in her hand as she looked at Ling Qi through the steam. “But I suppose that is a different kind of charm. Perhaps it is for the best anyway.”
Ling Qi didn’t want the other girl to start rambling again so she quickly changed the subject. “Why don’t you attend Elder Su’s lessons anyway? I’ve seen Han Jian there a couple times and now that I think about it, Fan Yu and Han Fang as well never you though. How come?”
“Well as much as an Elder’s teaching is useful, I know the majority of what she is teaching already.” Gu Xiulan shrugged, idly brushing a few damp strands of her loose hair out of her eyes.
“My family has a strong focus on the spiritual arts so I have quite a lot to practice as it is. I intend to master the second technique of my clan’s movement art soon. I have been preparing to open another channel for it this week.”
“Oh,” Ling Qi responded, leaning back against the wall of the chamber. “Should I be focusing more on arts instead of the lessons?”
“No. For one of your station, they are quite necessary. I imagine I could learn quite a lot about the theory if I took the time to attend. I admit, I have no talent for such things, and I have little use for academic minutiae,” Gu Xiulan said. Ling Qi had a sneaking suspicion that Li Suyin and Gu Xiulan wouldn’t get along.
“Spiritual cultivation should be a thing of passion and instinct, not rote memorization and repetition. I could hardly master my clan’s arts with such a mindset.”
Ling Qi frowned, feeling a little offended on Elder Su’s behalf, but she knew Gu Xiulan probably had more reasons than she was sharing. “Alright. Do you know if Han Jian has any free time?”
Gu Xiulan gave her a sharp, dangerous look, and Ling Qi winced.
“I was wondering if you and the others were getting together for any training is all,” Ling Qi hastily clarified. “I - I thought that we could try to share some insights and work on our group tactics or… something?”
Gu Xiulan’s expression softened, and she nodded.
“Hm. Now that Yu has come back out from seclusion, I believe Jian was considering something like that for this afternoon. I suppose you can come along.”
Later, when descending the mountain with Gu Xiulan, they met up with Han Jian and Han Fang.
“Oh, Ling Qi?” Han Jian greeted politely. “I didn’t know you were coming.” Han Jian’s cousin merely gave her a curious look from where he stood behind Han Jian.
“I shall have to take responsibility,” Gu Xiulan replied airily. “I thought I might like another sparring partner.”
“Well, that’s fine,” Han Jian said with a pleasant nod.
“Congratulations on winning Elder Su’s contest this week,” the tall boy said sincerely.
“Thank you,” Ling Qi replied with a small bow.
“If you’re going to join us, you should know that I’m going to be absent for most of next week,” Han Jian said with a wry smile. “So this will be the only session for a little while.”
Ling Qi fell in beside Han Fang as they began to leave the training field, returning the mute boy’s friendly nod as she did so. “What do you mean? Did something happen?”
Han Jian’s smile grew proud. “I plan to break through to the Yellow Soul Realm soon. I’ll have to inform Elder Zhou just in case the breakthrough stretches on a bit,” he responded cheerfully. “Maybe once I do, I can get that so-called tiger of mine to actually join me instead of lazing around the house like a big furry lump.”
“Hmph. Heijin is adorable and you should not speak of him so,” Gu Xiulan replied playfully. “Still, I am happy for you, Jian,” she added with a genuinely affectionate smile. “I will not be far behind you.”
It looked like Ling Qi couldn’t get complacent. Even if she was advancing, everyone else was too. She watched quietly as Han Fang clapped his cousin on the back.
“Congratulations, Han Jian,” she said afterward. “Where are we going though?”
“There’s another training field further down the mountain that’s a little more private. It has a view sealing formation and everything. I managed to reserve it,” Han Jian explained.
“A sealing formation means nobody can watch the field from outside, at least not with the sort of arts young cultivators like us have access to. It’s better not to show off all your tricks in public, you know?”
Ling Qi nodded in understanding. That was a good thing. She certainly couldn’t trust random observers to have benevolent intentions. She glanced at Gu Xiulan, wondering what the other girl thought of it. She preferred showing off, didn’t she?
Gu Xiulan caught her look and pouted at her. “Come now. It’s not as if I cannot understand the importance of timing and presentation. New moves should be revealed when properly mastered, not when they are half finished.”
“Sorry,” Ling Qi responded, not quite joining in as Han Fang cracked a smile and Han Jian chuckled.
“Will Fan Yu be joining us?” she asked. It was probably better to get this out of the way.
“... He’s probably already there,” Han Jian responded, smile fading. “Yu’s been going a little nuts with training since the test.” She thought he looked conflicted.
“Look… We talked to him so try to keep calm, alright?”
She nodded, but she would be lying to herself if she said that she didn’t dread this a bit. The rest of the walk went by quickly enough, their chatter turning to idle things until they reached a set of high gray gates that opened onto an empty grassy field.
It was surprising watching Han Jian vanish as he stepped between them, but she had already decided to trust the group, so she didn’t hesitate to follow. She felt an odd tingling on her skin as she passed through the gate and entered the field, bringing the others back in sight.
That included Fan Yu.
The broad shouldered boy stood opposite Han Jian, a heavily weighted training spear on his shoulder. He was positively drenched with sweat, and she briefly wondered just how long he had been here. It only took a moment after she entered the field for his eyes to shift to her.
Ling Qi found herself growing tense as his expression soured. She clenched her fists, but nonetheless, she spoke up, keeping any quaver out of her voice. She didn’t want to let this jerk ruin things between her and the others.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” she said flatly. “And I’m sorry that Bai Meizhen went too far.” She did her best to sound sincere despite not really feeling it.
Fan Yu’s nostrils flared and he scowled, his own fists clenching. “It is nothing,” he ground out. “I apologize for my accusations.”
“Well,” Gu Xiulan cut in, voice light. “Let us not dwell on such minor things. We are all friends here.” She gave her fiance a pleading look.
Ling Qi had to hold back a snort of laughter as the other boy’s expression immediately softened. Gu Xiulan had the boy wrapped around her fingers.
“Alright,” Han Jian spoke up.
“So, this training thing… I was thinking that we’d work on our coordination and response times and get used to working with everyone’s arts running at the same time. Between Ling Qi and I, the increase in everyone’s ability is pretty significant, and that can throw us off if we’re not used to it.”
Ling Qi let out a breath and relaxed. Fan Yu obviously still disliked her, but he was willing to hold his peace for Gu Xiulan’s sake. She almost felt a moment of pity for the boy. It was becoming clear that he had actual feelings for the other girl, which she was almost certain were not returned by Gu Xiulan.
She put such thoughts aside as Han Jian began to direct them to different positions. She spent the rest of the afternoon with Han Jian and the others practicing her marksmanship with Gu Xiulan’s help and improving her ability to act in concert with others while following Han Jian’s commands.
It helped to simply get more combat experience as well. Despite the other girl’s statement, she found herself sparring mostly with Han Fang. Han Jian, perhaps wisely, put Gu Xiulan and Fan Yu together while switching in and out of the pairs himself when someone needed a breather.
For all that he easily faded into the background, Ling Qi found that she enjoyed Han Fang’s company. The mute boy was patient and good natured about her occasional blunders in their spars and partner work. She could appreciate the quiet, which allowed her to concentrate on her own efforts.
She really felt that she was improving.