“Thank you for agreeing to come along,” Ling Qi said to Meizhen as they left the house, heading for Xiulan’s home.
“It is no trouble,” Bai Meizhen replied, briefly glancing up and down the street before turning to follow Ling Qi, her hands hidden by the voluminous sleeves of the white and blue gown she was wearing today. “I require a number of items from the market myself. I do not mind advising you on appropriate footwear along the way.”
Ling Qi grimaced. Even if she could stamp her foot on a sharp stone and not feel much more than a bit of pressure, she could admit that she looked a little silly walking around barefoot. “I’m more worried about all this hair,” she grumbled, blowing a few stray strands of her curly hair out of her eyes. “It’s always a pain to deal with, but I’m not sure I want to cut it short again.”
“You should not,” Meizhen agreed, sending a few girls scurrying out of their way as they continued up the street. “It is inappropriate for a lady. I am afraid I cannot offer much advice however. I have never cut or altered my hairstyle. It is against tradition to do so before marriage or achieving the Green Soul realm.”
Ling Qi gave Meizhen a surprised look, eyeing Meizhen’s snowy white locks. Meizhen’s hair was long, almost to the middle of her back, but that still didn’t make sense. “You have to have had it cut at some point. Your hair would be down at your feet otherwise.”
She tried to ignore that Meizhen wasn’t the only one receiving looks of wary respect, concern, and other not entirely negative expressions as they walked down the street. It still made her feel awkward.
Bai Meizhen offered a tiny shrug. “Our hair grows very slowly. That’s why it is traditional to refrain from making hasty changes before one can be considered an adult.”
Ling Qi hummed thoughtfully as they approached Gu Xiulan’s door. She supposed that made sense; she’d be kind of reluctant to do anything to her hair either if it would take years to grow back.
Ling Qi knocked twice on the door and then stepped back to wait beside Meizhen. Gu Xiulan answered the door quickly, opening the door to reveal herself dressed in the gown she had picked out when she had last gone shopping with Ling Qi.
“Ling Qi, good morning,” Gu Xiulan said brightly. Ling Qi thought there was a hint of something nervous in Xiulan’s tone and expression though. The other girl turned to Bai Meizhen and clasped her hands together, bowing her head. Ling Qi vaguely recognized the posture as one of deference to a social superior, although the precise degree of deference eluded her. It looked weird coming from Gu Xiulan. “Miss Bai, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Bai Meizhen dipped her head in acknowledgement. “Gu Xiulan, I am pleased to make your acquaintance as well,” Bai Meizhen replied formally before glancing at Ling Qi. “But please, refer to me by name. This is an informal gathering for the benefit of our mutual friend.”
Gu Xiulan looked pleased, a slight smile curving her painted lips as she straightened up. “Of course. Thank you for the courtesy, Bai Meizhen,” she said just as formally, but some tension had drained out of her. “Ling Qi can be somewhat of a handful, can she not?” Gu Xiulan asked, a bit of her normal teasing entering her tone. Despite that, Ling Qi thought she still sounded wary. “She can be so stubborn about such basic things at times. I cannot believe it has taken her this long to stop wearing those ratty sandals.”
Bai Meizhen pursed her lips. “Quite. I suppose I have you to thank for her no longer dressing like a vagrant,” she said, allowing her tone to grow less stiff as well.
“I’m standing right here,” Ling Qi grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest and frowning at the two of them. “And there was nothing wrong with my needlework. Those disciple uniforms needed more pockets.”
The two of them paused and looked at her, Gu Xiulan’s smile regaining its sharp edge while Bai Meizhen simply regarded Ling Qi with her usual coolness.
“She is rather stubborn, isn’t she?” Gu Xiulan said conversationally, seeming to ignore Ling Qi’s interjection. “I cannot tell you how much of a fight it was to get her to clean up a little in the first place.”
“Willfulness is hardly a negative trait,” Bai Meizhen conceded. “But in this case, I find it misplaced. I believe her capable of learning.”
“Oh, I’m going to regret introducing you two, aren’t I?” Ling Qi sighed. “Can we just get going?”
Despite the teasing, this was going better than she had feared given the last time she had attempted to introduce her friends. She suspected Bai Meizhen was making an earnest attempt to be friendly by her measure, and Gu Xiulan was afraid of offending Meizhen. The three of them set off toward the market, quietly chatting as they went. Ling Qi mostly listened to the two of them as the two made polite inquiries about the wellbeing of each other’s family.
Most of it went over her head beyond a vague understanding that Gu Xiulan’s father was overseeing a major expansion into ‘lost lands’. Bai Meizhen only spoke a little of her own home. There was something about pearl exports and new island outposts and a need for good steel…
By the time they had left the residential area, their chatter had turned to more immediate things, both of them seemingly coming to an unspoken agreement to let more serious matters lie. Ling Qi was glad. She had been feeling lost so even if the new topic wasn’t her preferred subject, debating about needlework and embroidery with Xiulan or cuts of clothing with Meizhen was still better than the odd back and forth they had begun with.
Their shopping trip took up a fair portion of the afternoon, but Ling Qi didn’t mind the time spent. She was able to pick up a few comfortable pairs of shoes, mostly the soft-soled slippers that both of her friends insisted were proper wear for a young lady. She could admit that she liked them, particularly the pair with the silver flower embroidery, but she still insisted on picking up a nice pair of hardier boots too.
Her hair was more difficult, as it always was, frustrating the hair stylist with its unmanageable nature. In the end, she settled for simply having it gathered and pulled back, pinned with a few understated ornaments, including a silver crescent moon that she had taken a liking to, with the main length into a neat braid that hung down to the middle of her back. It would be somewhat of a pain to redo it herself later on, but she was growing used to the idea that presenting herself well was important.
Ling Qi idly toyed with the loose hair at the end of her new braid, which was currently hanging over her shoulder and down across her chest. “Does it really look alright?” she asked for what was probably the fifth time, still feeling self-conscious. For all that she knew it was important, it still felt frivolous and a little silly. It had taken nearly an hour for the braiding to be finished, mostly because her hair kept trying to escape it, so the stylist had to use some kind of straightening oil on her hair to stop the incessant flyaway strands from springing free.
“It is significantly more elegant. Be at ease, Ling Qi,” Bai Meizhen said with just a touch of exasperation.
“Indeed. Do you doubt my judgement so?” Gu Xiulan sniffed dramatically, a small bag of purchases swinging from one hand. “Really, if I did not know you better, I would be offended. I am sure with a bit of effort, you will begin catching eyes everywhere.”
“Who says I want to?” Ling Qi replied with a playful snap. She knew the other girl wasn’t being serious so it was easier to keep down her offense at the implication.
“There is obviously no need to consider courting at this age,” Bai Meizhen added coolly. “Your prospects will only grow with your cultivation.” Gu Xiulan’s smile faltered at that.
Ling Qi rolled her eyes, choosing not to comment on Xiulan’s reaction. “Yeah, I think I can stand to wait for a good, long…”
“Miss Ling?” A male voice, sounding slightly out of breath, called from her right. She blinked in surprise, looking over to where a rather plain-faced boy of middling height was approaching nervously. He ended up standing in front of them, a letter clasped in his hand. No. There was no way.
“What is the meaning of this?” Bai Meizhen asked, disdain on her features. The boy was only a red soul so it was unsurprising that he shuddered, paling under her regard.
“I am sorry to interrupt your conversation,” he said quickly, bowing low, far lower than Xiulan had to Meizhen. “I am only a lowly messenger with a letter of invitation for Miss Ling from Lady Cai.”
Meizhen’s expression darkened while Xiulan looked thoughtful, but they both ceded the next response to Ling Qi. She felt awkward under her friends’ stares, even if she also felt relieved that it wasn’t a courting letter. Straightening her shoulders, she stepped forward and held out her hand.
“Give me the letter and be on your way,” Ling Qi said, doing her best to sound dignified.
The boy nodded hastily, looking more than a little relieved himself as he pressed the clean, white paper into her hand and backed away, bowing several more times. He did not quite run away once he had gained some distance.
“Well, what does it say?” Gu Xiulan said impatiently, peering over her shoulder. Bai Meizhen stood with arms crossed, waiting with apparent patience.
Ling Qi flipped open the letter and scanned the contents, feeling nonplussed. “Cai’s inviting me to join her for tea at the pavilion on the west side of the mountain in two days. It doesn’t say for what though, and the invitation is just for me,” she answered. She would suspect a trap, but Cai Renxiang really didn’t seem the type.
Gu Xiulan’s eyebrows climbed high on her forehead. “Well, I wouldn’t refuse such an invitation unless…” She trailed off, glancing at Bai Meizhen.
“Ling Qi has no obligation to me. Who she chooses to associate with is her own choice,” Meizhen said precisely.
Ling Qi frowned. Meizhen sounded unhappy. She felt like she might be missing something, but she didn’t want to sound foolish by asking. “… I’ll think about it,” she decided. “Let’s go home for now. I want to put away my things.” She raised the bag full of shoes hanging off her arm.
The walk back was quieter but pleasant enough. Even with the surprise at the end, the afternoon had gone well. Maybe she could make a habit of bringing the two girls together? They could invite Meizhen along the next time they used the springs?