When Ling Qi emerged from her meditation, she found that three days had passed. She would never admit afterward that her first thought was the simple, overwhelming hunger that struck her. Bai Meizhen had congratulated Ling Qi on her breakthrough to Yellow Soul and then politely ignored the way Ling Qi had wolfed down every edible thing in the house. Despite the slightly vulgar start, Ling Qi could not help but feel that she had only taken her first real step on her Path of Cultivation.
Still, practically floating with excitement, Ling Qi could not help but want to visit her other friends and give them the good news. Gu Xiulan was closest, and Ling Qi was soon at her door.
“Can you believe it, Gu Xiulan? I did it! I had been worried I would be stuck for weeks trying to breakthrough, but I managed on my first try!” Ling Qi exclaimed happily. “Everything feels so much more now.”
Gu Xiulan smiled up at her, but Ling Qi thought her expression seemed a little stiff.
“How wonderful for you,” Gu Xiulan said brightly. “Do come in. You have gone and caught me by surprise, but I believe I have some sweets left from our last celebration.”
Ling Qi couldn’t help the feeling of elation that had her practically bouncing on her feet as she stepped past Gu Xiulan. When was the last time she had really felt so accomplished?
“Sorry about that,” Ling Qi said, turning back to face her friend as the shorter girl eased the door shut. “Did Bai Meizhen get a chance to let you know what I was up to?”
Gu Xiulan’s expression screwed up oddly.
“... She did. I admit, that was somewhat surprising. Bai Meizhen informed me that the two of you had taken the house three doors down?” Gu Xiulan asked.
“Our old one got wrecked in her duel with Sun Liling.” Ling Qi frowned, peering around the open sitting room. “I guess I should have asked. Is your roommate around? I don’t want to bother her.”
“It is no bother,” Gu Xiulan replied, seeming to recover her poise. “That girl spends little time here. Don’t concern yourself over it.”
“If you say so.” Ling Qi thought it a little odd, but ultimately, it was Gu Xiulan’s business. Ling Qi followed Gu Xiulan into the dining room. “How have you been holding up? Things have been a mess since the truce ended. I hope it dies down soon. If things keep going like they are now, the whole residential area is going to be wrecked.”
“That is a concern,” Gu Xiulan agreed as she led Ling Qi to the table. “I suspect the Cai heiress’ call for a meeting between the more important parties may have something to do with that.” As Ling Qi sat down, she continued on her way toward the pantry. “As for myself, I have had a few scuffles, but nothing worth speaking of.”
Ling Qi let out a relieved sigh. Although she had partially broken through to the second realm in spirit, she really didn’t want to have to jump into any major conflicts yet. At the same time, she wouldn’t just let one of her friends be hurt.
That turned her thoughts to her other reason for coming here. She wasn’t exactly sure how to bring it up though. Once Gu Xiulan returned with a few plates with rice cakes and sweets, Ling Qi allowed the topics to drift to lighter and simpler things, like ways Ling Qi could style her hair as it grew out and other such frivolities.
Eventually, conversation turned to Han Jian and the others, who were doing well. Han Jian and his cousin, Han Fang, had broken through to Silver Physique. In addition, Fan Yu had finally reached the peak in physical cultivation for Gold Physique.
From there, conversation turned to their own current cultivation goals.
“I will be ready to begin my breakthrough to Silver in two weeks at most, I think,” Gu Xiulan mused, daintily nibbling at the edge of a rice cake. “Elder Zhou’s lessons were helpful in that regard. After that, I think I shall seek out a spirit to bind.”
“Your family isn’t going to send you one?” Ling Qi asked, fiddling with her cup of well-watered plum wine. Perhaps it was her dearth of examples, but she had assumed most noble families kept to a theme.
“No, I’m afraid not. I shall have to find something to suit me. I should ask my Elder Sister where she found her own spirit. My storage ring and a few other gifts from Father should arrive by the end of the week though,” Gu Xiulan said, sounding pleased. “He had only praise for my progress.”
“I’m happy for you,” Ling Qi said sincerely. “How will that work by the way?” Her question drew a questioning look from Gu Xiulan as she finished her cake. “Talking to your older sister, I mean,” Ling Qi clarified. “I know you can use sect points to get lessons, but is there some restriction on travel? There are older disciples on the mountain but I don’t think those are inner disciples?”
“Outer Disciples like the two of us require a pass to go to the Inner Peaks,” Gu Xiulan explained easily, taking a sip of her own drink. “Inner Disciples are not allowed onto the Outer Peak except in special circumstances to avoid... undue suppression. If I meet with my sister Yanmei, it will have to be in town.”
Ling Qi frowned briefly, staring into the rippling liquid in her cup. If she read between the lines correctly, that meant that once she left the Outer Sect mountain, she wouldn’t necessarily be safe from meddling via Inner Disciple. It was something to remember.
“Well, that makes sense.” Ling Qi sipped her drink and cast a considering eye over the array of sweets before selecting a pastry she didn’t know the name of; it had some kind of delicious fruit paste filling though. “Do you have any advice on breaking through to Silver Physique?” Ling Qi asked absently.
A flicker of surprise crossed Gu Xiulan’s expression.
“Oh? Are you approaching that point yourself?” she asked. “My, you are quick about things.”
Ling Qi gave her a confused look.
“I reached the peak of Gold before the end of the truce. Didn’t Han Jian or one of the others tell you?”
Her friend paused in the middle of raising her cup to her lips.
“No, I’m afraid it never came up,” Gu Xiulan said faintly, something unidentifiable in her tone. Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably as Gu Xiulan studied her; the other girl’s gaze was sharp and calculating, the way it had been when Ling Qi first met her. “You would be quite offended if I attempted to introduce you to one of my male cousins, wouldn’t you?” she asked grumpily.
Ling Qi stared at her, thrown by the apparent non-sequitur.
“I don’t see why I…” Ling Qi blinked and then frowned as understanding of what Gu Xiulan was implying reached her. “Oh. You mean… No, I don’t want to get involved in anything like that.” She shot the other girl a dirty look. “Why would you even ask?”
“Hmph,” Gu Xiulan replied glumly. “I am quite cross that you do not even understand the extent of your good fortune. Rising rapidly through the first stage of cultivation is one thing. Even breaking through in one aspect after such a short time might be dismissed as luck. But both? That is rare talent. I suppose you did not notice the sudden number of girls chatting excitedly over that Ji Rong fellow after his dual breakthrough last week,” she continued tartly. “Even at a slightly slower pace, you will likely need to fend off suitors with a stick once mention of your ability slips out in correspondence.” Gu Xiulan seemed to grow more irritated as she spoke.
“I haven’t actually broken through yet,” Ling Qi pointed out, alarmed at the scenario Gu Xiulan painted. “I mean, it might take me a few more weeks or even a month or two.”
Gu Xiulan laughed humorlessly, shaking her head.
“You really do not understand, do you?” she asked, the jealous anger fading from her tone. “Even if it took you another month, such breakthrough speed would be attention catching, if less so. To think I would be outshone by you so…”
Ling Qi felt more than a bit of worry at the way the other girl’s hand tightened around her cup.
“Gu Xiulan,” she began awkwardly. “It’s not like I did it all on my own. Bai Meizhen has helped me, you and Han Jian have helped me, and so have Li Suyin and Su Ling. Do you think I would have made it into Elder Zhou’s class without your help? I barely knew how to dodge an attack until you taught me.”
“You were quite hopeless for all your fire,” Gu Xiulan muttered, peering up at her with narrow eyes. “... My apologies. That was unsightly.” Her dark expression seemed to clear as fast as the clouds of a summer rain shower. “I suppose I shall simply have to increase my efforts.”
“Right. It never happened,” Ling Qi agreed quickly. She knew Gu Xiulan’s temper flared easily, and the last thing she wanted was to alienate one of her friends. “That actually leads in pretty well to the other thing I wanted to talk to you about.”
“About breaking through?” Gu Xiulan asked. “It is different for every person. I would strongly suggest having several buckets of soapy water on hand before you begin though.”
“Got it,” Ling Qi said, recalling when she had reached mid gold and found herself covered head to toe in oily grime. “I actually wanted to talk to you about Li Suyin.”
Gu Xiulan wrinkled her nose.
“That meek little creature? I do not understand what you see in her. She is a weight dragging you down,” Gu Xiulan said hotly before the heat faded. “Or perhaps not, given your progress.”
Ling Qi grimaced. She had suspected that Gu Xiulan’s hostility was something like that, which made it harder to be angry at her. The other girl thought she was doing Ling Qi a favor by driving off ‘hangers-on’. Well, Ling Qi also suspected a large part of it was simply possessive jealousy. “Can you give her another chance? I really think Li Suyin’s going to do better; she had a… wake-up call at the end of the truce.”
Gu Xiulan huffed, looking unconvinced. “Very well. I will trust your judgement in this.” Ling Qi thought she was telling the truth. “In exchange, may I ask that you at least be polite in letting down any members of my family that Father sets to court you?” Gu Xiulan’s voice turned back to teasing; the other girl’s moods really were mercurial.
Ling Qi spluttered. “You aren’t actually serious about that. I refuse to believe it. Anyway, let’s stop messing around. I was hoping I could keep training with you and the others. Are you doing that today?”
“In the afternoons,” Gu Xiulan answered, giving Ling Qi an amused look. “I doubt anyone will object. Even my Fan Yu is not foolish enough to deny that you deserve a place if you wish it.”
Ling Qi spent much of the next few days in the company of Han Jian and the others, training and practicing combat skills in spars, as well as refining her use of Forgotten Vale Melody. She would then spend each evening with Gu Xiulan soaking in the bubbling qi of the mineral spring and chatting with the other girl. She spent some time playing her flute as well. She found it awkward to do so while bathing with Gu Xiulan, but it was relaxing and even serene. A good way to round out a day of hard training.
She idly wondered if Gu Xiulan would mind if she invited Bai Meizhen. The pale girl had been looking somewhat harried lately. A good soak would probably be good for her.
Ling Qi was sad about the growing distance between her and Han Jian. Han Jian was throwing himself into training more and more, and she suspected it was partially her fault. More and more, he seemed frustrated and angry with himself and his progress in cultivation. Han Jian still put in a show of good cheer, but Ling Qi couldn’t miss the strain in his smile and the occasional looks of envy she caught him giving her. Despite that, her training with her other friend was still far more stressful.
“Li Suyin, we really should take a breather,” Ling Qi sighed, having just swept Li Suyin’s feet out from under her and knocking her to the ground.
“I can keep going,” the blue-haired girl panted out, her face red from exertion as she struggled to rise back to her feet. Li Suyin had changed, having shorn her hair short so that it ended just below her ears and having acquired a proper, if plain, eye patch that covered much of the right side of her face with dark grey silk.
“But you shouldn’t,” Ling Qi said, crossing her arms. She cast a glance at Su Ling, who sat in quiet meditation with twin fires behind her head with a third struggling to form between them, and Bai Meizhen, whose surging qi sent a thrill of fear up her spine as the girl stood stock still, her shadow churning in a dark pool at her feet. “You have to cool down and meditate on your actions or your qi won’t be able to imprint the experiences on your body properly. And that’s ignoring that you’ll just hurt yourself if you push too far all at once. You should know that.”
Li Suyin looked down while trying to catch her breath. They had been sparring hard with pure unarmed combat for the last hour and a half, and although Ling Qi felt fine, she could tell that Li Suyin was on the edge of collapsing. Elder Zhou had always made sure disciples who reached that state sat down to meditate and dispersed their qi properly into their bones and muscles. He had said that doing so was how they were able to learn and master weapons so much more quickly than mortals.
“I’m sorry,” Li Suyin said, shoulders slumping. “I’ve asked you to teach me, and here I am, acting as if I know better. How ungrateful of me.”
Ling Qi grimaced, looking down herself. The other girl had been like this all week, swinging from determination to depression like a pendulum. Ling Qi wasn’t sure what to do about it. Li Suyin was advancing quickly enough - she knew how to throw a punch, the basic tells necessary to dodge simple attacks, and even a few throws and counters - but Ling Qi was concerned about the girl’s mental state.
“It’s not a big deal,” Ling Qi assured her friend. “Just remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, all the training in the world won’t help, alright?”
Li Suyin nodded, and to Ling Qi’s relief, she sat down to rest and meditate.
“I think I might be able to decrease my recovery time with the next layer of my art mastered,” Li Suyin murmured to herself as Ling Qi sat down across from her.
“That would be good,” Ling Qi said, even if she wasn’t certain whether something like that would be healthy in the long term. “How is your cultivation going anyway?”
“I think I should reach late gold within a few more weeks,” Li Suyin replied as she calmed her breathing and closed her eyes. “I need to open a spine meridian though before I begin working toward the peaks. It’s difficult to decipher, but I think grandfather’s art contains more combative techniques… It’s just so difficult to piece everything together.”
Not for the first time, Ling Qi wondered at just what kind of art Li Suyin was using. It sounded more like several arts all mashed together to her. Maybe it was; who knew. It would make sense for a clan to have a whole tree of related arts, she supposed. Maybe what Li Suyin had inherited were all the fragments that were left?
“I’m sure you’ll get it,” Ling Qi replied confidently, which made Li Suyin smile just a little as she meditated.
Ling Qi needed to get her own cultivation in so she closed her eyes and focused on absorbing the qi-infused mist of the vent to strengthen her argent foundation. If she kept working at it, she would master the technique within the month and finally be able to learn just what the Eight Phase Ceremony cultivation art in the jade slip she received from Xin did.