Sleep left Ling Qi feeling refreshed. Her side was still numb, but the motion had largely returned to her arm. She took just a bit of vicious satisfaction in the fact that Huang Da wasn’t present at Elder Su’s lecture.
She didn’t allow herself to dwell though. Instead, she focused on Elder Su’s lecture on the function and meaning of the Argent Soul technique. It was interesting if a little hard to follow at times. The Argent Soul technique and its more advanced forms functioned on the principle that every individual was unique and held the potential to find a perfect balance among the imperial elements.
Few ever achieved this potential, but balance remained the core of the technique. It was essentially the reinforcement of the self. The exercises the Argent Soul technique was based on had the purpose of purifying the qi the cultivator absorbed of all elemental essence, leaving only the pure and unadulterated qi of the World. In principle.
What they were actually doing was nowhere near that purity, and their bodies would not be able to handle it if it were. The Argent Soul was designed to allow its users to slowly spread a foundational layer of ‘pure’ qi throughout their bodies beginning with the dantian then spreading to the bones and organs, reinforcing them to handle larger and denser quantities of qi.
What exactly balance meant differed from person to person as every individual was unique. It was implied, Ling Qi thought, that the strong personalities of certain elders was a result of mastering the Argent Soul line of cultivation arts because it magnified the unique quirks of the individual who used it.
As the lesson ended, Ling Qi once again lingered behind to ask a question of the Elder, this time about her recent experience with cultivation pills. The Elder informed her that as someone of simple background, Ling Qi’s body was simply not acclimated to large amounts of medicinal energy. Given her cultivation and her continued use of pills, she should now be essentially fine to use them as she willed although the Elder warned her that some medicines should not be used until certain realms were reached. Ignoring such warnings could have dire consequences.
Ling Qi fell heavily into cultivation as the rest of the week passed. She barely ate or slept as she concentrated on mastering the next exercises of the Argent Soul cultivation art. It was a heady feeling, having the pure qi in her body slowly expand and soak into her bones starting from her spine outward.
With every breath that she spent cultivating, the energy flowed more smoothly and with less loss. It felt like she had been congested her entire life and could only now breathe freely as her Argent Foundation expanded from bone to organ, soaking into and weaving through flesh. It was strange to be so aware of her body and somewhat disorienting at first.
She was glad enough to receive another Qi Foundation pill although it confused her. She didn't think she had advanced enough the previous week to earn it.
Perhaps the Elders were aware of the altercation at the vent after all.
Her lessons with Elder Zhou continued apace as well. She was growing faster and stronger every day, the qi reinforcing her body allowing her to improve faster than a mortal could hope to. She was also beginning to do reasonably well in the spars. She couldn’t claim that she was winning even close to a majority of them except when the team matchups favored her, but she was getting better and better at making her foes work to put her out of the fight.
She could match them if she worked hard enough. That was the real joy of cultivation for Ling Qi: the fact that it was truly possible to claw your way up from the bottom of the heap with luck and dedication. Huang Da was a good stick to measure herself against; he was strong but she could see his level within reach, unlike Bai Meizhen or Sun Liling, who both lay far beyond her ability to even think about matching. In contrast, Huang Da was someone she felt she could beat if she worked hard enough.
He was fast though, and even one hit could be crippling. So in addition to working on the penultimate layer of her Argent Soul, she channeled some of the energy she had absorbed from her Qi Foundation pill toward opening a second channel in her legs. This would enable her to begin learning the next set of exercises for her Sable Crescent Step art.
If there was one thing that hadn’t changed from her mortal life, it was the simple axiom that speed was life. Ling Qi couldn’t get beaten, caught, or killed if her pursuers and enemies couldn’t keep up with her to begin with.
However, Ling Qi did not focus entirely on training. She was aware enough of those around her to see that Li Suyin was not improving with rest. Li Suyin remained downcast and listless as days went by. Although she continued to improve, breaking through to the fourth layer of Argent Soul during their cooperative cultivation. Ling Qi saw the growing bags under the girl’s eyes and the way she fumbled even basic physical exercises Ling Qi had shown her a dozen times.
Honestly, it pissed Ling Qi off although her temper wasn’t directed at Li Suyin. No, she was pissed at that lanky creep who had affected her friend so badly. At least he had been out of Elder Su’s class for a few days now, even if his absence was starting to set off her paranoia.
Li Suyin was only growing more withdrawn by the day so Ling Qi found herself in the unenviable position of needing to start an uncomfortable conversation. She chose to wait until after they had finished cultivating at the vent for the day, leaving Su Ling and Bai Meizhen behind to continue.
After they had descended the cliff face and began to walk the winding path back to the plaza, Ling Qi gathered her resolve to speak.
“You don’t have to keep worrying, you know? We have the vent. We’re going to get those passes and rub his face in it.” Ling Qi intended to do more than that, but there was no reason to alarm the pacifistic girl with violent promises.
Li Suyin startled at her sudden words, glancing at her in askance as they walked down the sun-dappled mountain path. The bruise on her cheek was fading though it still made for an ugly mark.
“I… yes, of course we will,” Li Suyin responded quietly before lowering her head and returning to staring at the ground ahead.
Ling Qi frowned and crossed her arms, leaving her hands hidden in her sleeves, a gesture she had copied from Bai Meizhen. Having one’s hands hidden was a useful thing. She supposed that was why they gave everyone these billowy sleeves. Finally, she sighed explosively.
“Look, I know that isn’t your real problem. But I’m not sure what to say. You did what you had to do. If you hadn’t, he would have put me down next and then done… whatever he wanted to us afterward.” Even if his intentions were probably not vulgar given his insulted reaction, she still felt disgust at the idea of being at the creep’s mercy.
“I’m glad you did it, but I’m not happy that it’s making you so depressed. So help me understand, will you?”
Li Suyin clutched the front of her gown in her hands and didn’t look up.
“It wasn’t right to use my art that way. It is not what it is meant for. I shouldn’t have felt satisfied when I felt his pain. I shouldn’t have felt happy when I saw his blood. I-I don’t want to be like that. Things shouldn’t be like that. We shouldn’t be willing to hurt each other so much over things like this. We’re all imperial citizens. Cultivators are supposed to be virtuous!” Her voice started out quiet, gradually growing louder and more distressed until her last words, which were practically shouted as she came to a stop on the path.
“The law isn’t meant to be to be ignored or circumvented, or...” She gestured helplessly. “Papa… Father always read me to me from the classics, and I thought… I thought cultivators were supposed to embody the Virtues, but… Maybe that’s why Mother never read from those.”
Ling Qi was silent. She didn’t really have any base to understand what the other girl was saying.
“Before I came here, I already knew things weren’t like that,” she began tightly. “The world isn’t fair, and people will trample on others the second they feel like it will benefit them.” Ling Qi kept the guilt out of her voice. She had done the same after all.
“To me, cultivators were just people strong enough to do whatever they want. I remember the first time I saw a cultivator. It was when a couple of guards from the outer gates came by the brothel where my mom worked when I was young. I saw the bruises on her and the other women the day after, saw the shit the guards broke, and saw that the one new girl lost half her teeth when a guard slapped her. No one ever called them on it.”
Li Suyin had looked up and was staring at her in horror. Ling Qi wasn’t surprised. The other girl was pretty sheltered.
“Such excesses are supposed to be... That is… I mean...” Li Suyin trailed off into incoherency. She wrung her hands, clearly having no idea what to say.
Ling Qi let out a slightly bitter laugh. “Yeah. Lots of things aren’t supposed to be the way they are.” Even if Li Suyin didn’t want to talk to her after this, it was fine. Li Suyin couldn’t afford to keep believing in fairy tales.
“The point is: you can wring your hands and complain about it, live with it, or try to do something about it. I’m not the type to try and change things, but maybe you are. You won’t ever be able to do anything about it if you break down the first time you run into trouble. Isn’t facing evil supposed to be virtuous too?”
Ling Qi walked on, grimacing now that Li Suyin could no longer see her face. What the hell was she even saying? She was a bit surprised when she heard the other girl’s footsteps, hurrying to catch up to her.
“I-I’m sorry for making you mention something like… that,” Li Suyin apologized as she caught up. She still looked downcast, but the horror had faded from her expression. She also looked uncomfortable as she peered up at Ling Qi, and that hurt more than Ling Qi thought it would.
“You are right though,” Li Suyin added. “Turning my face away from corruption is hardly better than being a part of it. Father would be disappointed in me if I came home now. I will just need to be careful not to allow myself to grow complacent.”
Ling Qi shot her a surprised look. Li Suyin had been thinking of leaving? That was more extreme than she expected. Shaking her head, Ling Qi bumped her shoulder against Li Suyin’s, feeling relieved when the other girl didn’t flinch away.
“Glad to hear it. Now let’s get going. We don’t want to be late.”
Li Suyin made a sound of agreement and picked up her pace, practically jogging to keep up with Ling Qi’s longer stride.
Although Li Suyin’s demeanor improved after their conversation, the week did not end on such a positive note. On the last day of the week, Ling Qi entered Elder Su’s lecture hall early, only to find herself face-to-face with Huang Da. Li Suyin had split with her earlier in order to retrieve some notes before the lesson so she was alone. Well, they were in a reasonably crowded room, but it didn’t help her feeling of isolation.
“Hello,” Huang Da said in a remarkably friendly manner given how their last meeting ended. He looked rather exhausted as he leaned against the rearmost row of benches, studying her intently. “You are looking more lovely than ever.”
She scowled at him, itching to draw one of her knives. “Go to hell,” she hissed quietly. “I have nothing to say to you.”
The corners of his lips quirked up in amusement, and she had to restrain the urge to punch him. “No need to be rude. I underestimated you far too much. Li Suyin as well, I suppose,” he mused.
“You cost me quite a bit,” he added in a more dangerous tone. “My escape talisman, two dozen red stones worth of treatment… It was really an expensive night.”
“You forgot denying you the prize,” Ling Qi replied vindictively, crossing her arms.
“Why yes, I suppose I did never get the chance to hold you, my sweet night flower.” Ling Qi flushed as he raised his voice just enough for others nearby to hear, drawing looks their way.
“I’m afraid I have been making use of the other thing though,” Huang Da said more quietly. “It’s not as if you and your companions use it all day.”
Ling Qi glared at him. She hadn’t thought of that, and it really pissed her off. “We offered that in the first place, you…”
Huang Da waved a hand dismissively. “What reason did I have to allow myself more competition than necessary?” he asked rhetorically. “In any case, I would rather put that behind us. Would you like to come to dinner with me tonight?”
She gaped at him, poleaxed by his sheer arrogance and delusion. “No, you creep. Why the hell would you even ask?”
Huang Da frowned, managing to look truly put out. “I wanted to celebrate my breakthrough, and as the muse that finally drove me to break through the peak, I thought it only fitting”
Ling Qi stiffened, backing up a step from the boy, suddenly leery. “You’re bluffing.”
Huang Da pushed himself up to stand straight, ‘looking’ her directly in the eye. “I’m afraid not. I achieved Yellow Soul just yesterday. It’s all thanks to you, which is why I’m willing to waive past debts,” he said, a smile playing on his lips.
“Li Suyin was more dangerous than I expected, but you… The two of them could not have even touched me without you. I have decided that I want you,” he continued, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as he raised his hand as if to cradle her cheek.
She swatted his hand away, ignoring the increasing number of stares they were receiving. “Don’t touch me,” she hissed. “And I don’t care what you want.” She turned away deliberately, trusting that he wouldn’t attack her in the middle of the lecture hall.
“That’s fine. I knew you wouldn’t submit easily,” he said, making her flush further. “I hope we can both enjoy the chase.”
It was pretty hard to concentrate on the lesson after that.