“I’m not dressing up like some dancer,” Ling Qi said stubbornly as she walked beside Gu Xiulan down one of the streets in the market. “I just want something practical.”
Gu Xiulan gave a put upon sigh as she led them around a corner; she apparently knew where she wanted to go for this so Ling Qi simply followed her.
“You are such a difficult girl,” Gu Xiulan grumbled. “I do not think I have ever met another young lady so stubbornly opposed to improving her appearance.”
“Probably because I’m not a ‘lady,’” Ling Qi replied waspishly. “There’s no point in trying to pretend to be something I’m not.”
“Isn’t there though?” Gu Xiulan shot back immediately, seeming frustrated. “No one will respect you if you choose to continue behaving and appearing the way you do.”
Ling Qi frowned at the other girl. “If I get strong enough, they will. That’s the point of cultivation, isn’t it?”
“And mastering one’s appearance and its effects on others is a form of strength,” Gu Xiulan argued passionately. “When a lady can halt aggression or guide those around her with a smile and a few honeyed words, that, too, is strength. Similarly, the ability for a man such as Han Jian to inspire loyalty and awe with his words and presence is also strength.”
“I suppose,” Ling Qi grudgingly replied. “I don’t like it though. I’ll just follow your lead. I’m not wearing something that’s going to take an hour to put on though.”
Gu Xiulan smirked at her victory, and Ling Qi hunched her shoulders in irritation. She knew the other girl was right. Choosing to refuse the trappings of culture and wealth wasn’t going to do her any favors in the long run. Was that what Mother had been trying to do? Ling Qi had thought Mother was just grooming her to follow in her footsteps at the brothel, but… If she was honest with herself, Mother had never mentioned anything of the sort.
“Gu Xiulan, the Sect said we could communicate with those outside the Sect now, right? Do you know where I would have to go to send a letter, even if I’m... not sure where the recipient is?”
Her companion blinked at the change in subject but recovered quickly. “I suppose there should be an office of the Ministry of Communication in the town at the base of the mountain. They rarely fail to deliver their messages to the intended recipient,” Gu Xiulan replied slowly, eyeing Ling Qi curiously.
“And is there a way to trade a red stone or two for silver?” Ling Qi asked tentatively. It hurt to spend her scant resources on something that didn’t immediately help her, but she remembered her conversation with the spider spirit in the well. She also remembered how thin and listless Mother had looked the last time she had seen her. There hadn’t been that much grey in Mother’s hair when Ling Qi had left home. Mother’s profession wasn’t exactly one kind to aging, even if, or indeed because, looking back, the… establishment Mother worked at was pretty high class as those things went.
Gu Xiulan pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I suppose you would be able to do that in the same place. The Ministry typically handles such things as part of their business dealings. Why would you wish to waste your stones so though?”
“Why do you think?” Ling Qi asked irritably, giving Gu Xiulan an unimpressed look. “You know I am a commoner. I just… I didn’t part on great terms with my Mother, and I thought I could help her out a little.” She had to be careful. Too much money at once would just make Mother a target… Maybe she could set up something to mail her a little every month?
Gu Xiulan paused in the street. “Ah. That is rather obvious in hindsight. How obtuse of me. Well, I don’t see that being a problem. Interfering overmuch in mortal affairs is frowned upon, but no one would rebuke you for seeing to the care of family.” Gi Xiulan furrowed her brows. “Why would you not know the location of your own mother?”
Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably, barely avoiding bumping into one of the passerby. “I… kind of ran away from home when I was… ten,” she replied slowly. “Yeah, I had just recently turned ten. I’ve only seen her once or twice since so I’m not sure if she still lives in the same place.”
Ling Qi saw a flicker of genuine surprise on the other girl’s face. “I… see. Yes, that would be a problem,” Gu Xiulan replied neutrally while giving Ling Qi an appraising look. “No wonder you act like a ruffian. You will apologize, of course. I know not your circumstances, but to abandon family in such a way is shameful.”
Ling Qi scowled defensively, but then looked away, shoulders drooping. “...Yeah, I know. That’s the idea.” How does one go about apologizing for that kind of thing?
‘Hi Mother. It’s me, Ling Qi, the daughter you probably assumed was dead in a gutter years ago! Turns out I’m an immortal now so you shouldn’t worry. Here’s some money because giving it to you hardly costs me a thing. Sorry for being a selfish and disobedient daughter!’
As Ling Qi held back a snort of laughter at her own musings, Gu Xiulan came to a stop. “Leaving that aside for now, we are here. I am going to make a lady of you yet,” Gu Xiulan said with cheerful determination.
Ling Qi felt a spike of regret that had nothing to do with her lack of filial piety.
The next few hours were a drag of poking, prodding, needles and cloth, and more than a couple of fairly heated disagreements with Gu Xiulan over the exact specifications of what Ling Qi wanted. In the end, Ling Qi managed to avoid all the gauzy scarves Gu Xiulan wanted to dress her in and came out of the whole mess with something she could actually feel comfortable wearing.
Her new gown was high-necked and covered everything below her collarbones. It had the same long and billowy sleeves she had gotten used to. The outer layer was dark blue, nearly black silk with embroidered patterns of silver flower petals being blown in the wind across the chest. The hems were silver embroidery as well, but they were arranged in patterns of formation characters rather than flower petals. The sash and underlayer of the gown were a lighter blue.
Most importantly, the new gown fit her perfectly, which was nice from a comfort perspective even if Ling Qi felt awkward about the way the cloth tightly hugged her hips, and while it helped that the formations woven into the gown meant that right now, she was better armored than most guardsman, there were still a couple features she wasn’t very happy about.
“Was it really necessary to have it slit so high?” Ling Qi said self-consciously as they strolled out of the dress shop, clutching the silky cloth closed in her hands. The slit nearly came up to her knees!
“Do stop that. You’re going to wrinkle the dress,” Gu Xiulan chided. Her own gown was all reds and golds and cut significantly lower than Ling Qi’s to boot on top of having tighter and less open sleeves. “You said you wanted practicality, did you not? It will not hinder your movement at all.”
“I feel like the second I really start moving or a breeze kicks up, I’m going to be flashing my legs like some kind of deviant,” Ling Qi grumbled. “...Thank you though.” For all her complaining, this thing was worth it from what the tailor had told her of its abilities. On top of the base level toughness it would enhance the effects of techniques using water qi, like her Forgotten Vale Melody.
“It’s a good thing you have some command of the wind then,” Gu Xiulan replied dryly. “So that you may ensure that you only flash your legs when you wish to. You’re welcome. I suppose this is a good start, but one dress hardly makes a wardrobe.”
Ling Qi blinked, feeling sheepish as she smoothed the wrinkles in her dress and instead took hold of the currents of air around her.
“Right. Forgot about that,” Ling Qi mumbled, feeling foolish. She would have to practice to avoid doing anything embarrassing. “I’m not going to do it on purpose.”
“If you say so,” Gu Xiulan replied dubiously. “Now, shall we go about ridding ourselves of our remaining load?”
“Yeah, let’s. I’d rather have some space in my new ring,” Ling Qi agreed. “I actually want a couple of the talismans so I was thinking…”
The two of them chatted about the details as they shopped around for good prices on the talismans Ling Qi wasn’t interested in keeping.
Despite being tempted by some of the more expensive pills and elixirs, Ling Qi spent only a small amount of her stones on them given that she planned to attempt breakthrough in the near future. She did, however, stock up on qi recovery pills and healing salves.
The majority of her take went to the purchase of the only dark qi-enhancing talisman she had found in the entire market. It was an innocuous thing, a ribbon of black silk meant to be worn around the neck like a choker. Merely putting it on let her feel the qi in her dark-aligned meridians flowing more smoothly.
Still, despite the shopping trip with Gu Xiulan being surprisingly enjoyable, her other concerns niggled at her mind more and more as the day wore on. Were her friends alright? Had Bai Meizhen won her battle? Ling Qi began to feel guilty for spending so much time on something like this.Gu Xiulan seemed to pick up on her growing disquiet and so with the last of the spoils they intended to sell gone and their purchases made, the two of them left the market and headed back toward the female residences.
The bad feeling in the pit of her stomach only grew as they drew close enough to see the smoke rising from the residential area.