The three of them left the cave some time later when Li Suyin had cleaned up. They stopped first at the medicine hall for the supplies they could afford, then headed up to the vent. There, Bai Meizhen was meditating. She no longer wore the customized disciple’s uniform she had previously worn. Instead, she wore a conservative snowy white gown with a deep blue sash and embroidered wave patterns along its hems.
Ling Qi spent less time on her own cultivation that day than she probably should have, but Li Suyin was determined to learn more unarmed fighting from her. Ling Qi taught Li Suyin the basics that Ling Qi had learned in Elder Zhou’s class, and helped her work through the problems her wound caused.
Once Li Suyin had exhausted herself physically, Ling Qi entered a deep meditation, focusing on the qi cycling exercises detailed in her Argent Soul Art. She knew she was coming close to mastery. The penultimate level of the cultivation art was within her reach. Yet, for all that, the exercises were growing more difficult and complex.
Ling Qi found the argent qi soaking into her body growing more solid and complete, and her production of the potent energy growing quicker. On top of that, she soon felt her spiritual cultivation reach the same blocking point that her physical had. By the time the sun was falling, she felt like she was ready to attempt breakthrough to the Yellow realm. But before she could do that, she and Bai Meizhen needed to secure a new residence. She wanted to get her other friends a place to stay as well, but… It seemed Su Ling and Li Suyin intended to stay where they were. Su Ling was already planning ways to make anyone who approached the cavern uninvited regret it dearly. So with some reluctance, Ling Qi went her separate ways with them.
Which lead her to where she was now, walking alongside Bai Meizhen as the sun sunk below the horizon and re-entering the residential area. Ling Qi found herself glaring at other girls, wondering if one of the ‘ladies’ walking around in the streets had been among those who had hurt Li Suyin. It wasn’t a productive thought so she sought something to talk about with her silent friend to take her mind off of it.
“So what should I know about what happened yesterday?” Ling Qi asked, turning to more immediate matters.
Bai Meizhen pursed her lips, glancing at Ling Qi as the other disciples parted before them.
“It did not involve you, but I suppose that man has made it your business when he chose to strike at you,” she responded slowly and thoughtfully. “I am going to kill him, of course,” she added as if she were merely commenting on the weather.
Ling Qi almost came up short, blinking rapidly.
“Are you sure you want to commit to something like that?” she asked. Even Li Suyin didn’t want to kill her target as far as Ling Qi could tell. Murder as a response seemed… excessive.
Bai Meizhen regarded her silently until Ling Qi began to feel uncomfortable under her slit-pupiled gaze.
“It is not excessive at all. But do not be mistaken. I am in no hurry. A Bai must always have patience,” she said serenely. Cui slithered out of the collar of her robe to coil loosely around her neck, once more shrunk to her tiny size. “As for yesterday’s situation, what do you know of the inner provinces?”
“It’s where the tax carts go after they hit our capital, and it’s where the Imperial Court is.” Ling Qi shrugged. “You know I don’t exactly have much education about this kind of thing.” It felt easier to admit ignorance to Bai Meizhen now.
Bai Meizhen arched an eyebrow.
“Quite,” she replied dryly, ignoring the duel going on in the street to their left. “There are three ‘core’ provinces, which have no foreign border. My family’s province, Thousand Lakes, is one; the Imperial homeland of Heavenly Peaks is the second; and the third is the Ebon Rivers province. That Huang fellow you have grumbled about is from a prominent family there.”
Ling Qi’s expression soured. She would put that one last on any hypothetical list of places to visit then. “Okay. So all of those people were from the other core provinces?”
“Yes. As you are no doubt aware, my family is not well liked for a number of reasons. Suffice to say, many look upon the rich fields and lakes of my homeland with greedy eyes, in addition to…” Bai Meizhen narrowed her eyes at a girl who had been slow to move out of their way. "... other reasons best not spoken in a public street.
“My presence here is actually a concession made by my clan in order to increase unity between the provinces.” The sneer on her lips told what Bai Meizhen thought of that. “Obviously, the disciples from the scavenger clans around us have taken it as a chance to strike at us. I doubt my cousins are faring better in the sects that they have been sent to.”
“I should avoid people from the inner provinces then,” Ling Qi said simply, scratching her cheek. “Why are you so hostile to Sun Liling and she to you then? The Western Territories aren’t core.”
“Sun Shao is a large part of the reason these problems exist at all. This is not the appropriate venue for such a history lesson. Do you have a preference for what residence we seek out?” Meizhen deflected.
“One of the nicer homes, I think,” Ling Qi replied, feeling a stab of loss at the memory of their first house. “I don’t think staying humble is going to help. Not at this point with so many people after us. We should make a statement.”
Bai Meizhen’s lips quirked upward slightly, her expression almost warm as she nodded at Ling Qi’s words. “Well said. While I have little use for frivolous luxuries, it seems that I must remind these scavengers of the truth of our positions,” Bai Meizhen said. “I had intended to find something similar to our previous domicile, but perhaps this is better.”
“How about a house near Gu Xiulan’s home? She’s a friend, and it can’t hurt to have another ally close by, right?” Gu Xiulan lived in one of the houses in the second best tier, the ones with multiple rooms and full yards. The only nicer house was the mansion in the center occupied by Sun Liling.
“Gu… from the Golden Fields?” Bai Meizhen asked curiously. At Ling Qi’s nod, she made a considering sound. “That is a good family, if one that has regressed somewhat into mercantilism. Acceptable. Do you know where she resides then?”
Ling Qi nodded again and took them down the street. Once they had reached the inner street, it was simply an issue of selecting a target. The acquisition didn’t quite go down as she had imagined it would. In reality, Bai Meizhen simply had a very calm discussion with the current owners, who turned over the home in exchange for a pouch full of spirit stones for their inconvenience.
Even Ling Qi picked up on the unspoken threat of what would happen if the two girls they evicted didn’t take the payment and clear out though. That aside, for all that the two girls left white-faced and trembling with their things packed on their backs, they didn’t seem too upset. That had been a pretty large pouch. It seemed her concern that Bai Meizhen would do something excessive was unfounded.
This left the two of them to settle into the well-appointed home and allowed Ling Qi to finally retire to a proper meditation room. She had already told Li Suyin and Su Ling what she would be attempting back at the vent and had asked Bai Meizhen to convey her intentions to Gu Xiulan should she see her. With those final worries out of the way, Ling Qi had little to do but begin working on her breakthrough.
As Ling Qi meditated, turning her perception inward, her sense of time faded away. The little aches and pains leftover from yesterday’s exertions slowly vanished. Even niggling things like hunger and thirst, reduced as they were, disappeared. All that existed was her spirit, embodied by the shining silver skinned orb that was her dantian, and the narrow branching channels that flowed from it. Blacks, blues, and soft, nearly translucent greens flowed through her being, mingling and separating in time with her heartbeat.
As Ling Qi cycled her qi, feeling it strain against the invisible barrier that prevented her from growing further, she contemplated her experiences as a cultivator so far. The initial wonder, what little there had been, had faded quickly. She had been thrust into a hostile environment, where she had many enemies and few friends. And yet, that number of friends was still more than she had before.
She was more free now, despite the restrictions that remained, than she had ever been on the streets. The shackles of base need had fallen away but had been replaced by new ones: the desperation for resources; and the driving need to grow stronger so that she would not be pushed around by her peers. The friends Ling Qi had made were a shackle in a way, if one she wore willingly. Her guilt about leaving Mother alone was another. Her thoughts churned on that.
She desired freedom, the ability to choose as she willed, and the ability to go where she wished, drifting on wind. Yet… there were limits to that. True, complete freedom was an impossible ideal and one that she could not truly decide whether she even wished to achieve. What would it really even mean? She couldn’t really comprehend such an existence. For all that her spirit yearned for the endless open sky, the thought of abandoning the things that bound her to those around her was something she feared, but so was allowing them to truly bind her. Was this what the well spirit had referred to when it spoke of her broken wings and damaged roots?
Ling Qi breathed out as she contemplated these thoughts and began to cycle her qi and expand her dantian.
The strain she felt grew greater with each cycle, pain blossoming somewhere in the body she could barely feel. The contradiction in her own nature occupied her thoughts. Here in this state, she could think clearly in a way she could never manage while conscious, and she wondered if she could truly have both. Her Wings and her Roots. Freedom and Connections. Would trying to hold onto both hinder her Path?
Ling Qi did not know, but she wanted to try. Total freedom was a useless and empty thing. The sky was empty without any perch on which to land. She needed power to ensure that her wings could carry as much weight as she wished.
With the answer came a distant feeling of chains broken and spread wings. Her qi surged, and Ling Qi opened her eyes to a world that felt richer than ever before.
But thoughts in deeper meditation were as dreams to the waking mind. Only time would tell if her feet could continue to carry her on that Path.