Amidst her preparations, there was one thing Ling Qi was chagrined to think she had forgotten about as the end of the week approached. She had not spoken to Gu Xiulan for almost two weeks now, and she needed to make sure that the haughty girl did not think she was being snubbed. She couldn’t afford to alienate one of her tiny number of allies.

Ling Qi suspected she would have to finally go along with Gu Xiulan’s not-so-subtle prodding to clean herself up further to earn forgiveness. At least she would finally get a chance to see the outer sect market. She really hadn’t had time to explore the mountain’s amenities in the past two months. This was why she found herself making her way over to Gu Xiulan after Instructor Zhou’s lesson ended.

One thing she had noticed while spending time with the girl and observing her during lessons was that Gu Xiulan seemed to genuinely lack any other close female friends. She chatted and mingled with the others far better than Ling Qi ever could, of course, but there weren’t any other girls she invited along to their soaks at the mineral spring, for example. Ling Qi wasn’t too surprised to catch the other girl alone as the sparring groups broke up.

Ling Qi had been paired with Gan Guangli again today, which she generally liked. He was still very loud, but she appreciated his politeness and good nature. Their arts worked reasonably well together too, and he didn’t seem to resent her when they lost, bidding her farewell at the end of the sessions with the same booming enthusiasm he greeted her with.

“Gu Xiulan,” Ling Qi called out as she approached the other girl. Gu Xiulan somehow managed to look as pretty as ever, even glistening with the sweat of their recent workout.

“Are you busy today?”

Gu Xiulan glanced up, having paused at the edge of the training field to adjust the laces on her elbow-length glove talisman.

“Oh, Ling Qi? Have you joined the rest of us in the land of the living then? I had worried that you had been replaced with a corpse doll,” Gu Xiulan said reproachfully.

Ling Qi hunched her shoulders defensively.

“I’m sorry about that,” she mumbled, looking away. “I underestimated how strong the pills I was using were. And I’m also sorry I haven’t talked to you in a while. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

Gu Xiulan hummed thoughtfully as she gave the laces one last tug. Satisfied, she stopped toying with the glove and faced Ling Qi properly.

“I was a bit put out,” she admitted, meeting Ling Qi’s eyes and resting her hands on her hips. “Really, if one is going to perform heavy cultivation, it is only polite to inform your friends first. You are such a difficult girl sometimes.”

Ling Qi thought that was a pretty unfair assessment coming from Gu Xiulan, but she chose not to say so.

“I’ll remember next time,” she assured the other girl. “I’ve just been really focused. I really am sorry.” She wasn’t used to apologizing, but it seemed the right thing to do.

“I will forgive you this time. I suppose allowances can be made given the situation.” Gu Xiulan waved her hand, already seeming to have dismissed her irritation.

“Did you wish to accompany me to the mineral spring today? I did notice you had been using it in the last week. Have you gained a preference for late night baths?”

Ling Qi glanced around. There were still a few people in earshot so she decided to keep her answer vague.

“It’s been helpful with what I’ve been cultivating lately. Thank you for showing me the place. I wouldn’t mind a dip, but I actually wanted to see if you wanted to do something else today.”

Gu Xiulan raised an eyebrow.

“Water, then? I suppose that does suit you,” she mused quietly. “Well, I don’t mind doing something else although I hope you will show me the fruits of your labor at some point. I am quite curious as to what has caused you to be so driven.

“What did you have in mind then?”

Ling Qi grimaced internally as she steeled herself to say the words that would bring her doom.

“I was thinking about what we’ve talked about, and… I wanted to ask for your help.” She clasped her hands in front of her stomach and bowed, remembering Bai Meizhen’s chiding lessons on etiquette.

“Do you think you could help me… ah, clean up a little?” she continued awkwardly, raising her head and gesturing vaguely to her hair.

She didn’t like the way Gu Xiulan’s eyes lit up or the teasing grin that appeared on her features.

“Really?” Gu Xiulan drew the word out as amusement danced in her eyes. “And what brought this on? Ah, is it that Gan fellow? Or maybe the Zhang boy?

“I had noticed the way you stare at Instructor Zhou on occasion. I had thought your attention seemed unusually rapt. Is that your type then? I personally prefer a more refined kind of man, but I suppose the rough and burly look isn’t bad.”

Ling Qi let out a strangled sound even as she flushed darkly. Who even was this Zhang person Gu Xiulan mentioned? If Gu Xiulan had noticed her looking at Elder Zhou, did that mean other people had seen her looking at Elder Zhou? Had he noticed? Damn her nonexistent ancestors, of course he had; he was an Elder.

“N-no, I mean, I’m not really. I just get distracted sometimes and focus too much on the lesson-” She found herself gesturing uselessly with her hands.

“And this is really nothing like that! I just thought it would be-” She couldn’t exactly say she was just doing it to appease Gu Xiulan, which lead to her trailing off rather pathetically.

“No worries now. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating fine sights. It’s not as if you are the only one,” Gu Xiulan said comfortingly. “Why don’t we go clean up, and I shall see what I can do to help afterward? It’ll be fun.”

Gu Xiulan seemed pretty pleased so Ling Qi supposed that was mission accomplished.

She wasn’t a fan of the teasing though. Even if she could get… distracted sometimes, she shouldn’t even think about things like that given who she was. It was the same reason why she was reluctant to do this outing with Gu Xiulan in the first place. The last thing she wanted was to give the impression that she was willing or interested in being someone’s accessory or even worse.

Even a noble like Gu Xiulan couldn’t escape it. Gu Xiulan was engaged to that jackass Fan Yu after all. In comparison, Ling Qi wouldn’t even have the advantage of getting any respect due to her family name.

Still, Ling Qi had set herself on this course so she endured Gu Xiulan’s teasing, eventually steering the conversation to other things while they took the time to soak a bit. Once she had been deflected to other topics, chatting with Gu Xiulan was more pleasant and allowed her to catch up on what she had missed in recent days.

Han Jian had advanced to Yellow Soul, and was preparing himself to begin working to advance into Silver Physique. He was actually off with Han Fang working on that now. The mute boy’s spiritual cultivation lagged, but it seemed he too was ready to begin the physical breakthrough.

It wasn’t too hard to detect that Gu Xiulan was a little miffed to be left out of that. She would need a little more time to ready herself for Yellow though.

As for Fan Yu… he had thrown himself into training hard. Gu Xiulan didn’t seem interested in talking about him.

It wasn’t too hard to convince Gu Xiulan to show Ling Qi around the mountain’s market area under the excuse that she wouldn’t want to always have to borrow things from the fiery girl. It did unfortunately steer things back to the topics she had been avoiding as they walked the wide path that wound around to the south side of the mountain’s base.

“...The price is a tad much, but I really would suggest the rose petal oil I mentioned. You’ve let yourself grow so unkempt. You really need something with rejuvenating qualities to fix those split ends before we worry about straightening.” Gu Xiulan chatted cheerfully at Ling Qi’s side as they approached the large stone gate that marked the beginning of the market.

Ling Qi could see a number of other disciples, many older than her, moving through the neatly laid out streets beyond the gate. A waft of strange scents reached her, along with a mixture of perfume, medicine, spice, and other things that often plagued open markets.

“I suppose,” Ling Qi responded noncommittally. “How much are we talking about? I have no idea how much a spirit stone is worth as money,” she added with more interest since that was more useful information.

Gu Xiulan paused, giving Ling Qi a look of slight frustration. Ling Qi winced. She really needed to work on appearing more interested in what the girl was talking about.

“Well, you should not worry. I can spare a few stones to allow you to have the necessities,” Gu Xiulan said dismissively. “The ban on communication will be ending along with the truce soon after all.

“But to answer your question… I think it’s about one hundred silver to a red spirit stone? That sounds right if I recall my lessons correctly.”

Ling Qi’s eye twitched at that blithe statement. One hundred silver… she had felt rich after stealing close to thirty. She was pretty sure you could feed a family of six or seven on one hundred, or rent a room on a nice street for a year.

“Oh,” she responded faintly. “How much do the things you were talking about cost?”

They had passed under the gates now and were among the crowd. For once, Ling Qi didn’t feel nervous. It seemed the older disciples either didn’t know or didn’t care about her.

Or they were better at hiding it.

“All together? Perhaps two or three spirit stones once we haggle them down a bit. No more than a trifle. I still have a good supply of the allowance Mother and Father gave me.”

It was hard for Ling Qi to not let out a frustrated sigh at that answer. Even now, with the value of hundreds of silver in her pockets, she was still poor.

“You don’t have to buy me anything,” Ling Qi said as they passed a stone hut advertising ‘Fatty’s Medicine Feasthall’. What kind of name was that for a shop?

“I don’t know when I’ll be able to pay you back.”

Gu Xiulan gave her one of those measuring looks out of the corner of her eye.

“And I have said that you need not worry about it,” she replied lightly. “Something as small as this is not worth quibbling over. Of course I want you to look your best - and not just so you can catch the eye of those rugged fellows you like so much.”

Ling Qi’s cheeks colored again even as she hunched her shoulders.

“I told you it’s not like that. But fine. I won’t keep refusing,” she relented, knowing that the other girl would probably feel insulted if she kept refusing. “Anyway, do you know if they buy talismans here?”

The noble girl blinked at the sudden change in subject as the two of them turned a corner, moving away from the smaller shops near the entrance to enter a street lined with signs advertising less practical and more feminine products.

“I suppose so. If at a price much reduced from the value. Have you made an acquisition recently?” Gu Xiulan asked curiously.

“Well… I was thinking about that staff I got during the test. I’m not sure it’s really suited for me, you know? I thought maybe I could trade it for something that fits me better.” Ling Qi really hoped the other girl wasn’t going to take offense. There were other reasons to get rid of it too, but she didn’t want to say them aloud for fear her companion labeling her a coward.

Gu Xiulan tilted her head to the side as she continued to lead Ling Qi through the street.

“Is that so? I suppose I can understand now that I know you better. You are rather unsuited to Wood techniques.

“Still, you will lose most of the value of an item like that by simply selling it. A direct trade might be better if you could manage it. Perhaps a Water enhancing talisman? That would be appropriate for someone in your position as that element contains many useful support arts.”

Ling Qi was relieved that Gu Xiulan hadn’t taken offense.

“That would probably work better,” she replied. “So I’ll just have to try and find someone willing to trade?”

Stopping in front of a particularly flowery shop, Gu Xiulan smiled.

“Yes, that would likely be for best, but let us leave that aside for now. We are here,” she continued cheerfully, heading for the door. Ling Qi sighed as she followed her. At least she knew where the market was and could come back on her own.

The next couple of hours were spent pretty unproductively. Ling Qi did her best to remain interested and invested as Gu Xiulan showed her a dizzying array of scents and oils and other cosmetics, chattering happily about their effects and which ones would suit her best. In the end, she ended up with a small leather case containing a number of little clay bottles, application brushes, and other things she wasn’t quite sure what she was meant to do with.

That didn’t mean she was done. Gu Xiulan insisted on at least helping her get her hair in order, which was a nerve-wracking hour where she had to sit still with another person’s hands on her scalp. The ‘rejuvenating’ hair oil Gu Xiulan had bought her was applied, followed by her recalcitrant locks being braided in a manner similar to the other girl’s style. It didn’t really look bad, she supposed, after looking into the other girl’s mirror. Her normally frizzy hair was shinier and less flyaway.

Ling Qi begged off of using the rest of the stuff, citing the need to get to her lessons. She was not going to be able to avoid it forever though. She was pretty sure Gu Xiulan would feel unhappy and insulted if she ignored her gift entirely. Honestly, she would feel guilty for spitting on the other girl’s generosity. She would just have to try and keep it simple.

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