Darkness had not been among the elements described in her lessons with Elder Su. Ling Qi had often wondered, while practicing her related arts, what the Elder would say if asked what qualities the element had.
Now though, after immersing herself in it, she felt she knew. How could she not? Even if her transformation was still unstable and immature, she could very briefly become little more than a shadow. She had often felt muted calm while practicing her darkness arts, but with the deeper understanding brought by her practice of Sable Crescent Step, she felt like she had comprehended some of its true essence.
Darkness was absence. It did not really exist, except as a gap left by something else. It was the empty spaces in the earth, the lack of light, and the void where even the wind did not reach.
But that was not its only aspect. The void ached to be filled. It was want and desire and avarice, ever hungering for more to take in and absorb. She had never felt a stronger urge to go out thieving and take the unearned profits of her lesser peers for herself.
... Yet Ling Qi remained in control. She breathed out, banishing the dark qi flowing through her channels for the moment. She was glad she did not practice these arts exclusively.
Ling Qi had other arts to practice, and the coursing energy of the heavens surging through her arms did much to dispel the lingering feelings brought on by her greater mastery of darkness qi. With a proper archery art in Falling Stars, she found the barrier between herself and the bow crumbling all the faster.
Ling Qi had charred quite a few training bows to ash in the process, but she found herself quickly picking up proper qi channeling methods, her previous practice with guiding the wind aiding her ability to create lanes of still air for her arrows to be fired down, unimpeded by natural winds. Infused with the explosive power of lighting, her arrows could blow craters in stone and pierce the hides of tougher beasts with ease. It felt good to have that kind of power at her fingertips, and although the art might be lacking compared to her spirit-given ones, she was sure she could master it quickly and greatly improve her ability to do damage.
With her improved ability in combat, Ling Qi felt confident enough to begin taking minor sect jobs, hunting troublesome spirit beasts in order to earn Sect Points that she could use later for medicines or tutoring.
However, most of her free time went toward taking her first serious steps in weapon use. With Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan both absent for much of the week, secluding themselves for breakthrough, Han Jian was a great help with that, which gave her an opportunity to talk to him as well. Han Fang was hardly intrusive after all; it was pretty easy to forget the large boy was even there outside of battle. He had a habit of fading into the background that she suspected was at least partially deliberate. Still, she didn’t worry about him listening in on her questions.
“So, what’s on your mind?” Han Jian asked as he batted away the blunted head of her training spear, angling his sword to let her spear slide off to the side and circling to her right with light steps. “Guessing you’re worried about the upcoming meeting?”
“Something like that.” Ling Qi grunted as she ducked under his lazy swing and managed to draw back her unfamiliar weapon, dancing back to open up space. “It’s more that I don’t even know what I don’t know, you know?” She set her right foot and made another thrust, but this time, Han Jian just leaned out of the way. Based on his reflexes, Ling Qi was sure Han Jian had reached Mid Silver.
“I know that ‘know’ doesn’t even sound like a real word anymore,” Han Jian replied with amusement, stepping inside her guard in a blur and testing her defense with a slash. “I suppose if you aren’t raised in it, all the rules and little things guiding society must seem pretty foreign.”
“Right.” Ling Qi would have nodded if they weren’t in the middle of a spar. “Like, I don’t even know what’s expected of me really. People seem to assume that I’m Bai Meizhen’s retainer or whatever, but I don’t know what that means. You say I’m on track to become a noble, but I’m not sure what that means either.”
“It’s not really a bad thing,” Han Jian pointed out as he continued to work over her defenses, forcing her to rapidly twist and spin the spear shaft in her hands to keep him at bay. “Being considered a retainer, I mean. It’s not really a big deal yet, but folks, especially talented and clanless ones who don’t have any connections or obligations, make people nervous. I figure that Ji guy is gonna get himself in trouble that way eventually - more so than he already has.”
Ling Qi grimaced as his blade pressed down on the haft of her spear, unable to contest the tall boy’s greater strength. She swung the butt of her spear up, angling it to force his blade to the side and making him step back to avoid being cracked across the ribs.
“I get that,” Ling Qi acknowledged. She could kind of understand why unattached cultivators were viewed with caution; individual cultivators would probably be ridiculously destructive at higher realms. “Like I said, I don’t understand what it means to be a retainer though. The obligations and stuff?” she asked uncertainly as Han Jian avoided another clumsy thrust from her. “Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan are your retainers, right?”
His lips thinned briefly. “The Gu family are subordinate to the Han,” Han Jian said carefully, warily circling around her. “Fan Yu’s father and mine are just very close friends and Sect Brothers though. The Fan family is pretty close to the Han in status.”
“Alright,” Ling Qi said. “So what do they do for you? And what do you do for them?”
“Well, we took the Gu in when their lands were destroyed,” Han Jian answered, feinting to the right before spinning left and almost catching her out with a straight thrust. “They administer territory for us and pay a portion of their income in taxes. In return, we support them in disputes against other clans and if they run into trouble.” He jumped over her countersweep, and this time, she wasn’t fast enough to stop the blunted training sword from slipping through her guard and tapping the side of her neck.
Ling Qi huffed in irritation and lowered her weapon. “That’s your win again,” she grumbled.
Han Jian shrugged, falling back into an easy stance, training blade dangling loosely from his fingers. “Only because you’re playing around with new weapons, and we aren’t using arts,” he said ruefully. “I’m honestly not sure I could take you in a fight anymore, even with my progress on my family arts,” he added with some frustration, scrubbing his free hand through his hair.
Ling Qi shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. “I don’t know. It would probably be down to a bit of luck,” she hedged. Han Jian’s sword art was reasonably good, leaving trails of shimmering heat that transformed into blade mirages in the wake of his attacks, but she wasn’t sure it was enough given her fighting style. “Anyway,” she said, changing the topic, “I get that clans are subordinate to others, but how do ranks work? You said the writ would get me the lowest one. What rank is your Father?”
Han Jian gave her a look that told her he saw through her ploy. “There are five noble ranks. The lowest one is Baron, then Viscount, Count, Marquis, and Duke,” he listed off. “My family holds the title of Marquis, but my father doesn’t. He’s the heir right now.” Ling Qi detected a hint of something troubled in his tone when he said that. “We’re only subordinate to the Duke of the province. Our title is pretty uncommon in the core regions since it’s mostly granted to families administering hostile borders.”
Ling Qi leaned on her spear, idly wiping sweat from her brow as she nodded in understanding. “So, what about the Sun? Where do ‘Kings’ fit into that list?”
“Generally speaking, they don’t,” Han Jian said with a grimace. “The title was usually used to placate the losing branch in imperial disputes. Before Sun Shao, no one had been awarded that title in a very long time. In the past, the understanding was usually that the rank wasn’t hereditary, and the clan would revert back to its previous rank after the claimant passed.”
Ling Qi shook her head. This was just the surface, she knew. Before she got into questioning him about further details though, she had something else that had been bothering her. “Thank you for answering my questions. I know they must seem pretty childish,” she began.
“It’s no trouble,” Han Jian replied with an easy smile. “It’s nice to feel like the learned one once in awhile,” he added with a chuckle.
She nodded and glanced away briefly asking awkwardly, “... Can I ask why you’re avoiding Gu Xiulan? It’s driving her nuts.”
His smile froze before fading. “Will you accept that it’s personal?” At her look, Han Jian raised his empty hand defensively. “I just need to think about how I’m going to say some things. Heijin is right. I… need to stop being indecisive.”
Ling Qi gave him a hard look but eventually nodded. “That’s fine,” she said without conviction. Shaking her head, she moved to set her spear back on the weapons rack. “So back on what we were talking about…”
Ling Qi spent a fair bit of time in their pre-hunt spars chatting with Han Jian about various etiquette and trivia. Apparently, achieving Indigo, the fifth realm of cultivation, was enough to automatically raise a cultivator to the rank of viscount. Achieving Violet would raise a cultivator to count. However, a family would also be demoted after a grace period if they no longer had cultivators of the appropriate realm.
There were a lot of responsibilities that came with ranks too. The ruling clans were tasked with ensuring the stability of all anti-beast formations in their region, overseeing tax collection, and a dozen other duties that sounded pretty intimidating to her. At the lowest rank, that usually just meant keeping an eye on a village or two, but the amount of territory that a family would be responsible for increased greatly with each rank.
For once, Ling Qi was thankful that she had a nice long stretch of time in the military to think about whether she even wanted such a thing. She had other options after all. She could join some other family or stay a wandering cultivator. Who knew. Maybe she could even travel beyond the Empire’s borders after her service ended. It was just too far away to think about at the moment.
Aside from hunting and discussing politics with Han Jian, Ling Qi continued her efforts to cultivate at the vent. Although Suyin was absent early in the week, Su Ling was back and cultivating again. Ling Qi was glad to see the other girl had broken through to the second realm of cultivation.
More worryingly, she heard a rumor that Ji Rong had disappeared from the archive path, and no one was sure where he was. Despite her concern, Ling Qi remained too busy to investigate the matter herself since she was continuing her training with Bai Meizhen, this time to further temper her physique.
The spars were just as brutal as last week. Bai Meizhen was merciless when it came to training, and although Ling Qi felt she had improved, her friend had broken through to Green Soul, and the breakthrough had only further intensified her aura, increasing the potency of Meizhen’s techniques. The air itself seemed to darken around the pale girl when she fought now, twisting and bending under the weight of her qi.
It didn’t stop Ling Qi from seeing the complicated emotions in the girl’s eyes when Meizhen beat her into the ground again and again. Nor was the aura going to stop Ling Qi from confronting the issue, even if it took a couple sessions to work up her nerve.
Ling Qi panted heavily, sweat stinging her eyes and arms trembling from exertion as she pushed herself up from the ground. She could feel dozens of stinging cuts on her limbs where Bai Meizhen’s metal ribbons had tagged her. Her hair had long since come loose, sticking to her shoulders and neck from the sweat and blood streaking her skin. She felt completely drained, mentally and physically.
Yet she managed to raise her head to look at Meizhen, who stood serenely at the other end of their house’s training room, looking down at her with a blank expression. “Are you spent then, Ling Qi?”
It took every drop of willpower Ling Qi had not to flinch away from her friend’s dispassionate gaze, but she gritted her teeth and maintained unblinking eye contact. The simple animal part of her mind still gibbered in remembered terror of the visions inflicted by the snake-like girl’s techniques, but she refused to allow that to show on her face. Instead, she offered a tired smile.
“Yeah… You’re still way too strong,” Ling Qi replied, doing her best to sound upbeat as she shakily worked to make it back onto her knees. “Congratulations on your breakthrough by the way.”
Bai Meizhen inclined her head slightly. “Thank you. It was a trifling thing, but I am glad that the first real milestone of my growth lies behind me. Can you stand?”
“Y-yeah,” Ling Qi said, forcing her trembling muscles to obey as she rose to her feet, swaying. “And Bai Meizhen, I really want to thank you. I know this isn’t easy.”
Meizhen raised a snowy eyebrow at Ling Qi’s statement as she dismissed her weapon back into storage. “Such simple training does not trouble me. You are progressing acceptably, I think,” she replied, either not understanding or more likely, ignoring Ling Qi’s actual point.
Ling Qi grimaced. She wasn’t good at subtle when it came to social things. Her instincts had improved and her thoughts seemed to race faster these days, but she wasn’t sure what to say in this case. The last time she had implied that Meizhen cared about her, Meizhen had gotten angry.
“That’s not what I mean,” Ling Qi said quietly. “I know you don’t like doing this.”
Ling Qi could recognize the signs of Bai Meizhen’s temper rising in the slight narrowing of her eyes and the set of her shoulders. “It is somewhat tedious, yes -”
“No,” Ling Qi interrupted, managing to not flinch as the other girl’s irritation flared and her fear aura intensified. “I know you don’t like hurting me like this, but I asked for it.” Ling Qi blinked as she spoke and almost laughed at her own words.
“Literally,” Ling Qi added. “I need to get stronger, and you’re doing a lot to help me do so. I’m still weak now, but I won’t stay that way. So don’t feel guilty for putting me on the ground or even making me cry. I’d much rather you do it now than an enemy later.”
Bai Meizhen stared at her, her expression flat, before letting out a soft breath and shaking her head. “Your determination is admirable, I suppose,” she drawled.
“It’s kinda all I had to work with for most of my life,” Ling Qi said wryly, managing to finally make her legs stop shaking. “But seriously, I’m improving, aren’t I?”
“You are,” Bai Meizhen allowed. “However, I hope you intend to pause and reinforce your foundation before attempting the next bottleneck. It would be disappointing to see someone who did so well on the first rush the second.”
“I won’t,” Ling Qi assured her. “I’ve already started working on an archery art, and I have my eye on some others as well.”
“Is that so?” Bai Meizhen asked. “Well, it seems I have no complaints then. Allow me to fetch the medicinal salves for you.”
“Thanks,” Ling Qi said, moving over to one of the stone benches set into the wall to sit down. “Bai Meizhen?”
“Yes?” Meizhen asked, looking over her shoulder, a hint of impatience in her golden gaze.
“I’m going to take you out to celebrate your breakthrough at some point. You deserve it,” Ling Qi said. “So you better consider what you want to do if you don’t want me to decide.”
The pale girl blinked, looking nonplussed. “There is no need for you to spend time on such a thing.”
“There is,” Ling Qi said firmly. “I won’t back down on this.”
Bai Meizhen narrowed her eyes but then sighed, shaking her head. “I will get the salves. Do try not to hurt yourself in the interim,” she said, stepping out of the room and cutting off the conversation.
Ling Qi frowned at the doorway. This might be a little harder than she thought. Maybe she could enlist Cui if Meizhen wasn’t going to cooperate? For now, all she could do was close her eyes and begin diffusing qi into her muscles and tendons for further reinforcement.