“Yeah, I guess we should collect our due,” Ling Qi replied absently to Gu Xiulan, glaring at Hong Lin. Despite her words, she still felt ambivalent when she glanced at the other two. It wasn’t precisely guilt because in the end, they had attacked her and her... friend. She couldn’t really think of Gu Xiulan any other way after her words to the crowd although she was still wary of the other girl’s temper and inclinations.
“Zhu Mei, right?” Ling Qi called, studiously ignoring the handful of people still lurking within ear shot. The girl’s shoulders stiffened and her head shot up even as the green glow around her hands continued unabated. “You have till we’re done with Hong Lin to finish up healing your brother. Then you drop the staff.”
Ling Qi glanced to Gu Xiulan for approval even as she spoke. It was a little presumptuous to take the lead, but hopefully, the other girl would be fine with it. Gu Xiulan simply cocked her head to the side slightly, an amused smile on her lips.
“There is no rush. I will keep an eye on her,” she said simply, turning to face down the twin cultivators with her arms crossed in that slightly irritating bust-emphasizing way she had.
Zhu Mei’s face twisted with helpless frustration, but after a moment, she meekly nodded and returned to her work, dropping her gaze from Gu Xiulan’s unimpressed stare. Ling Qi strode toward Hong Lin where the girl had finally managed to sit up. Hong Lin’s legs were burnt badly, and Ling Qi’s stomach churned at the scent of cooked flesh. All the same, she kept her glare unwavering as she flicked a knife into her hand.
“I don’t want anything to do with you or that creep,” Ling Qi said quietly. “But you attacked me, and I won’t just forgive that. I figure you know what comes next.”
Hong Lin sneered up at Ling Qi, but Ling Qi could see the weakness in Hong Lin’s expression and the trembling in the hands keeping her upright. “Of course. Now you rob me, correct? It isn’t as if I would expect anything else from a beggar.”
“Oh, do stop that,” Gu Xiulan said dryly, not turning around. “You soft central cultivators do so love your pretensions, but let us not seriously entertain the notion that you would not be taking spoils in our place.”
Hong Lin sniffed, somehow managing to sound haughty despite the obvious pain she was in. “A token of victory is hardly the same as the robbery you sand-dwelling bandits engage in. Get on with it.”
Ling Qi rolled her eyes, having no further desire to engage with the girl. Hong Lin sat stiffly as Ling Qi scooped up her weapons, only barely managing to avoid lurching under their tremendous weight. Her expression darkened when Ling Qi spotted a familiar grey ring on her right hand and reached down to take it. The last thing that caught Ling Qi’s eye was a pair of glittering silver anklets that Hong Lin wore, shimmering and unburnt despite the state of the girl’s leggings and shoes.
Ling Qi felt bad at the restrained sob of pain that the other girl let out when she removed them, but she crushed the feeling ruthlessly. Just because she had resolved to be a better ally to her friends didn’t mean she had to be kind to enemies. A quick scan showed her nothing else of value, and Ling Qi wasn’t about to escalate to strip searching the other girl.
“Don’t come near me again,” Ling Qi said flatly as she stood up. “I don’t want any further conflict with you. Deal with your own problems.”
Ling Qi could see that her words were futile from the hatred in the other girl’s eyes. Hong Lin rose unsteadily to her feet and turned away, slowly limping off in the direction of the market and the medicine pavilion. Ling Qi would just have to get strong enough that the other girl and her lunatic fiance couldn’t threaten her.
“I will show you how to attune the storage ring when we are done,” Gu Xiulan said conversationally as Ling Qi turned around to face the same way as her. Ling Qi grunted in response, arms trembling as she continued to support Hong Lin’s paired guai.
“You… don’t want it?” Ling Qi asked carefully. She had gotten the impression that storage rings were pretty valuable.
“Father will be sending me a similar one now that I have reached the second realm,” Gu Xiulan said with a shrug. “Now, allow me to take care of this since your hands are full.”
Zhu Fong had stirred to consciousness while Ling Qi had been relieving Hong Lin of her items, and he glared up at Gu Xiulan from the ground. “This won’t be the end of this,” he vowed stiffly as the glow faded from his sister’s hands.
“It should be,” Ling Qi replied tiredly. “You aren’t going to help anyone like this.”
Gu Xiulan smirked, idly brushing a few strands of hair that had come loose from her braid out of her eyes.
“Ling Qi is right. You’ll only waste your time on this nonsense. It is hardly my fault your families lack the expertise to aid her,” Gu Xiulan said dismissively, causing Zhu Mei to flush in shame and Zhu Fong’s scowl to deepen. “Now, place your talismans and pouches on the ground, or would you prefer to be crude like that Hong girl?”
“Bandit,” the boy spat, even as he kicked the sword still lying at his side toward them and began to remove his belt pouch. Ling Qi uncomfortably shifted from foot to foot as she watched the girl set her staff down with a pained look and remove a rather pretty white jade hairpin in the shape of a lotus flower from her hair. Her brother merely unwound his sash and threw it atop his sword. Gu Xiulan collected it all while humming cheerfully to herself, along with the boy’s other sword and Ling Qi’s knife that she had thrown at the start of the fight.
Gu Xiulan dismissed the Zhu twins with a wave of her hand after that, and Ling Qi fell in beside her as they walked away. They were heading back toward the lecture hall to organize and go through their winnings. Ling Qi took the time to take another of her qi recovery pills.
In the first empty room they found, Ling Qi dumped their newfound treasures on an empty desk before turning to Gu Xiulan. “How does this work?” she asked, holding up the little grey ring.
Gu Xiulan looked up from the paired sabers she had been examining. “Ah. Just apply a drop of blood, and channel your qi into the ring. It will attune easily enough.”
Ling Qi frowned dubiously, but there was no point in doubting Gu Xiulan now. She grimaced as she pricked her finger on the tip of one of her knives and let the resulting drop of blood fall onto the dull ring.
The drop was immediately absorbed, and Ling Qi hurried to push a thread of qi in after it. The moment she did, she stiffened when a ‘window’ seemed to open in her mind. It was disorienting at first, like looking out of a third eye, but the disorientation soon faded to the point where it felt more like something hovering just on the edge of her vision.
If she focused on it, she found that she could see the inside of a small hollow stone cube in which pills and spirit stones were piled. Excited, Ling Qi tried to reach for them… only for a dozen pills and a two score or more of stones to rain down on the floor in a noisy clatter and go rolling wildly away.
Gu Xiulan raised an eyebrow, and Ling Qi gave her a sheepish grin. It looked like she would need some practice in using storage rings.
Once they had recovered their spoils from under the desks and benches and piled them up, Ling Qi remained amazed. On the desk before them was more spirit stones than she had seen in her life up to that point, including a few glittering yellow ones. Yellow stones were worth ten red ones, according to Gu Xiulan, but the exchange rate for higher tier stones apparently grew steeply with each level to the point that a single green stone was worth fifty yellow ones.
The pills, which were meant to help someone cultivate metal, mountain, and wood arts, were sadly not much use directly. The two of them agreed to simply split the proceeds on the pills rather than bother dividing them up. Gu Xiulan would get the larger split since Ling Qi had taken the storage ring.
The talismans were another matter
“Do you want to go to the market before we decide what to do with them?” Ling Qi asked tentatively as they considered the small pile of gear. Ling Qi was reluctant to suggest it - and not just because the idea of spending the next several hours being dragged around by Gu Xiulan on a shopping trip was pretty unappealing. She was worried about everyone else. Bai Meizhen had been fighting Sun Liling, and who knew what was happening with Li Suyin and Su Ling or even Han Jian and the others.
Gu Xiulan contemplated her proposal. “I had considered going to see how Jian was faring,” she said thoughtfully. “Or at least find a few of our more insulting peers to put in their place…”
“What was up with that anyway?” Ling Qi asked, idly twisting the new ring on her finger. She couldn't do anything for Bai Meizhen, and her other friends were probably hiding out at this point if she knew them at all.
“I understand why they were insulting me, but what was that ‘desert rat’ stuff? And what were you talking about at the end there when you were scaring them off?” It had slipped her mind at the time, but she was curious now that they had a moment’s peace.
Gu Xiulan sniffed disdainfully., drumming her fingers against the desk she was leaning on. “Childish and outdated insults about my home and nothing more. You are familiar with the tale of Lu Guanxi?”
“Yeah. He was a hero who saved the Empire…” Ling Qi wracked her brain for more details, but she hadn’t exactly had time for bedtime stories after leaving Mother behind. She had recalled parts of this story when she first met Han Jian though.
“From… some huge army of walking corpses,” Ling Qi finished a little lamely, unable to remember the rest of the story. “The King of… Something?”
“The Twilight King,” Gu Xiulan corrected gently. “A pretender to the imperial throne who used forbidden arts to craft abominations of his slain foes. In any case, the Gu family is a surviving branch house of the extinct Lu family. Hence, we are descended from the Purifying Sun.”
Ling Qi was pretty sure she was missing something. Her understanding was that Gu Xiulan’s family was lower status than Han Jian’s. But if they were related to a Founding Family, shouldn’t the Gu be higher ranked?
“Alright,” she replied slowly. “So that explains the speech. What about the insults?”
Gu Xiulan scowled, and the air warmed slightly. “My esteemed ancestor’s actions were necessary, but they were hardly without ill effect. Much of Golden Fields remains an ashen wasteland to this day, and in the first millennia after the Scouring, the surviving houses of the province… struggled to stay competitive with the rest of the Empire.
“Of course, my family has worked long and hard to ensure that we are no longer poor vagrants scrabbling among ruins. Such words betray the speaker’s lack of knowledge and poor education.”
Ling Qi nodded slowly, considering that. Was that why Gu Xiulan liked flaunting her wealth so much? She doubted that was the entire reason, but she suspected this common misconception about Golden Fields might be part of it.
“That’s interesting…” Ling Qi considered how to gracefully segue back into the other subject, and upon failing to think of a way to do so, she just bluntly raised it. “So, the market?”
Gu Xiulan raised her hand to cover her mouth and laughed lightly. “Ling Qi, if you really wish for me to help you get yourself well appointed, you only had to ask,” she said cheerfully. “That gown of yours is so ill fitting. I know. Why don’t we both get ourselves fitted for new gowns? I have had about enough of these dowdy grey things.”
Ling Qi felt a creeping sense of dread as she glanced down at her wrinkled gown with its twice-wrapped sash and too short hems. “This is fine. Really,” she said hurriedly. “Besides, isn’t this the Sect uniform?”
“It really isn’t,” Gu Xiulan replied chidingly. “You aren’t presenting yourself strongly with such things. The soft color works for you in a way that does not for me, but I think you might be better with black and shades of blue instead. You will want to stick the high cut to avoid drawing attention to your more... deficient attributes. Do you have anything against veils?”
“I don’t need to hide my face. I don’t look that bad,” Ling Qi snapped.
“No, no.” Gu Xiulan rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t implying anything of the sort. That said, you could do with making a bit more use of your cosmetics. But your hair is coming along very nicely.”
Ling Qi fingered one of the stray strands that always hung in her face. It’s true that her hair wasn’t quite as lank and stringy anymore, but that wasn’t the point. Ling Qi hadn’t missed that comment about her “deficiencies” either. “Then what did you mean?”
“I mean that you could very well manage the mysterious look with a bit of work, silly girl,” Gu Xiulan said in exasperation. “You know the sort - the ones with veils and trailing lengths of silk that billow with their movements. It would certainly fit with that movement technique of yours.
“Besides, a proper cultivator’s gown will do you better in protection than that ugly thing you are currently wearing under your garments. Did you go out of your way to select the least appealing gear at the market?”
“I got what I could afford,” Ling Qi replied defensively, but her anger had simmered down. Gu Xiulan wouldn’t get her something explicitly worse than what she was already using, even if she’d probably insist on a bunch of silly aesthetic stuff. And Ling Qi did have a lot of stones right now and could have more from her share of the proceeds if they sold a few of the talismans...
Besides, keeping so much money on her felt like asking for trouble. Wouldn’t it be better to get useful things?