Ling Qi was tired. Her limbs felt leaden, and even opening her eyes seemed like a monumental effort. The dewey grass under her back, and the cool night air at least made her rest comfortable though. She wouldn’t mind lying here forever. It was peaceful and quiet, and that was enough given how frantic things had been.
Ling Qi frowned, finding the thought discomforting. What had been frantic? She couldn’t really remember. Voices yelling, a tearing pain in her abdomen, incomprehensible sounds. It all made her so tired. She didn’t want to think about it. Wouldn’t it be better to just drift away and relax? When was the last time she had slept for more than an hour at a time?
“Isn’t that a little boring though?”
Ling Qi’s eyes snapped open at the sound of her own voice but not from her lips. She lay in the middle of a field of shining white flowers beneath a starry sky and a crooked crescent moon.
She found herself staring up at her own face. Wait, not exactly her own face. It was older and mostly hidden behind a partially transparent black veil. Those were her eyes though, bright blue and piercing. She stared up at her own amused expression for a time but eventually closed her eyes again. Ling Qi felt like she should be feeling something more than exhaustion, alarm maybe, but she just couldn’t manage it. Her older doppelganger seemed content to simply watch her so she could just go to sleep.
There was something wrong with that thought, but she couldn’t say why.
Ling Qi began to drift off, the only sound in the clearing her own breath and the soft rustle of the wind through the flowers. It wasn’t to last. She only had a moment to feel cool fingers brushing up her sides before the assault began. Ling Qi let out an indignant squawk, the leaden feeling in her limbs vanishing as she felt the other’s fingers tickling under her arms. She squirmed away quickly, rolling into a crouch as she glared at the older her.
“Hm, that’s a good face,” older Ling Qi said, her lips twisted into a smirk behind her veil. “Are you sure you want to glare at me like that though? That’s hardly polite.”
Ling Qi shuddered under the sudden, enormous weight on her shoulders.
“What is even - I was resting. Why are you bothering me?” Ling Qi shook her head like a dog trying to shed water, and the feeling of pressure faded. “And don’t touch me like that either,” she snapped indignantly. The older copy regarded her with twinkling amusement in its blue eyes. Ling Qi didn’t like being touched. A hand was fine, but whatever that was…
- She giggled, twisting away from Mother’s hands, knowing that she could no longer pretend to be asleep. But she didn’t care much. Momma was smiling today. -
“Well, it’s hardly entertaining to let you lie there like a lump,” her doppelganger said. “Besides, isn’t it the elder sister’s right to tease the younger?”
“I don’t have any siblings.” Ling Qi glared at the figure accusingly, her fuzzy thoughts moving slowly. Where was she?
“Don’t you?” the veiled figure asked. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
“What do you want?” Ling Qi shot back, growing irritated. “Who are you?”
“That’s a hard question to answer,” the figure mused, tapping a finger thoughtfully against her lips. “I’m you, but also, not really? You wouldn’t understand.” The older-her shrugged. “As for what I want, I guess you could say I’m curious. You aren’t exactly what I was expecting. The determination is good, but you’re so uptight. You’re just puttering along playing by the rules.”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes. “And what’s wrong with that? The rules have been in my favor for once. Why shouldn’t I take advantage? Maybe I want to be better than I was.”
Other-her frowned. “That’s a lie, and not even a good one. You just don’t want to look bad in front of your little friends,” she accused. “Do you really think that you can get by playing nice? That there’s no value in your old skills? You aren’t happy just letting things go either. What happened to your fangs, little rat? Have the snake and the tiger plucked them out?”
Ling Qi shook her head, remembered indignation from the slights she had suffered bubbling back up. “It’s… not important, and I have too much to do. They aren’t worth my time. Not anymore.”
“You’re afraid,” the Moon corrected, eyes no longer blue but solid pools of silver. “Afraid of what others will think of you,” she said, sounding disappointed. “Afraid of being who you are. Do you remember what you felt when you saw that boy’s face as he fell into the well?”
Ling Qi remembered the satisfaction and delight at her success well enough, even if it had been quashed by other feelings shortly thereafter.
“Life is boring without risk,” the spirit continued. “What is the point to a trick or a scheme that has no chance of failure? If all you do is plan and train, you may as well stay home in bed or cultivate in a cave until you are old and grey.” The figure was growing indistinct, more a shadow than a human shape now. “You have enemies now, ones you can’t dismiss as beneath you. I wonder if you will have more excuses… or if you will remember your own fangs.”
“I remember,” Ling Qi replied, scowling at the dissipating mist. “I just remember my other priorities too.” Still, she was reminded now how she had been treated prior to her breakthrough… Maybe she would have to look into getting some payback. Even if she didn’t steal from them, some humiliation might be in order.
Ling Qi coughed from a suddenly dry throat and opened her eyes. She found herself staring at a polished, wood paneled ceiling rather than a starry sky. Her throat felt completely parched, and her stomach throbbed with pain. As she tried to sit up, she flinched and made a rasping sound when she tried to speak.
A moment later, a cup of water was pressed into her hands, and she looked over to see Bai Meizhen sitting in a chair beside the bed she was lying in. They were in a small, sparsely furnished chamber that she recognized as one of the Medicine Hall’s private recovery rooms. It took her a moment to take everything in. Bai Meizhen gracefully set down the pitcher of water she had just used to pour Ling Qi a cup. There was a bundle of silvery-white flowers set in a vase on the table as well.
Surprisingly, they were not the only ones in the room. Cai Renxiang was seated across from Bai Meizhen in a chair with its back to the wall. Her hands were clasped together over her knee, and she wore a soft grey mantle that covered her from the neck down.
“Did we win?” Ling Qi asked after she had taken a swallow of water, glancing between Meizhen’s somber expression and Cai Renxiang’s neutral one. Bai Meizhen gave her a reproachful look.
“The Sun Princess was forced to yield,” Cai Renxiang answered.
“It is always troublesome to determine just how far their kind are from defeat,” Bai Meizhen said sourly. “Barbarians such as her fight at their full vigor even an inch from death. Your art prevented her from recovering the qi she had spent. It was enough.”
“So what happens now then?” Ling Qi asked carefully. “Did Xuan lock them up?”
“Unfortunately not,” Cai Renxiang replied, a hint of irritation leaking into her harsh voice. “Her status prevents me from doing such a thing.”
“So what - she just gets away with starting that huge fight?” Ling Qi asked, incredulous.
“Such is the luck of the Sun,” Bai Meizhen said, her anger barely concealed to Ling Qi. “But no, not this time. She went too far in planting that… corruption on the mountainside.”
“Sun Liling has been temporarily removed from the Outer Peak by command of Elder Ying,” Cai Renxiang elaborated, the drumming of her fingers on her knee the only sign of her emotions. “As for the others, unfortunately, I was instructed that we were not to retaliate further than taking prizes of battle, the majority of which was required for immediate medical costs.”
Ling Qi wasn’t really certain how to feel about that. On the one hand, Sun Liling wasn’t going to be a problem for some time, but it didn’t quite seem like enough. She also had a feeling that she had been the biggest recipient of medical costs given the lack of a gaping hole in her stomach. She glanced over at Meizhen, who looked to be having similar thoughts.
“I would, however, like to thank you for your support in this matter, Miss Ling,” the heiress said. “It seems that I was too naive and soft in my efforts to date. Be assured that I will not make such mistakes in the future.”
“As we discussed, you will have my support, Lady Cai,” Bai Meizhen said cooly. “It would not do to be unprepared for the barbarian’s eventual return.”
“Your support is appreciated, Miss Bai,” Cai Renxiang said, dipping her head in response. “It is earlier than I would have liked, but the preparations are already being made to arm and supply my enforcers. The newer crop of second realm cultivators and older Outer Sect Disciples are useful for that role. You and Miss Ling are naturally exempted from the upcoming changes.”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes. It looked like she had missed some things. “I do not know all the details you might have discussed,” she said slowly, forcing herself to speak carefully despite her throbbing head. “But I would appreciate some consideration for the disciples Su Ling and Li Suyin as they are good friends of mine.”
Cai Renxiang regarded Ling Qi silently but then nodded. “Of course. For your contributions, such a thing is more than reasonable,” she allowed. “Perhaps it might be best if we discussed what will be changing in the future.”
Ling Qi didn’t really feel up to it, but she could hardly say no now. The conversation that followed was enlightening. Cai Renxiang had apparently been quietly organizing things among the newer second realm cultivators and the amenable older disciples using her family contacts to form a proper enforcement group. The meeting arranged for today would have discussed the enforcement group and the rules it would enforce. With half of the ‘council’ gone, Cai Renxiang and Bai Meizhen were the ones whose say mattered.
The rules sounded pretty reasonable to Ling Qi. They included things like enforcing fairness in duels and ensuring that the fighters were not preyed upon by opportunists in the aftermath. Order would be enforced in public areas and during the collection of monthly spirit stones. The possibility of organizing training and providing a certain amount of resources beyond simple spirit stones for those who joined up under Cai seemed like a nice idea as well.
Ling Qi was less sure of the tax the heiress intended to levy to pay for those services despite the fact that she herself was exempted. Ling Qi’s tentative idea of making allowances for impoverished cultivators was met with some approval though. Defiance was likely going to be punished much more harshly, and those who refused to knuckle under would receive no recognition of rights from her enforcers.
“This is all a lot to take in,” Ling Qi grumbled under her breath as their talk wound down. She had begun to go through the contents of her storage ring while Cai Renxiang and Bai Meizhen discussed details that were over her head. It was a habit of hers to make sure all of her possessions were in place.
“I will leave you to your recovery soon, Miss Ling,” Cai Renxiang said politely, briefly meeting Bai Meizhen’s eyes. “There is only one more thing.”
Ling Qi was distracted though. Something was missing. She patted her sleeves and failed to find it there either. “Wait. Where is my flute?”
“It slipped my mind,” Meizhen admitted. “It was broken in the melee. I will ensure you have a replacement before you leave the hall. You really should consider a proper talisman though.”
Ling Qi blinked then clutched her blankets, vindictive anger at Sun Liling rising in her thoughts. “Yeah, I should,” she said flatly. “I don’t suppose you picked it up, did you?”
Bai Meizhen paused while Cai Renxiang looked on with a hint of irritation at being interrupted. “... I did not. It was only a mundane flute,” she replied slowly.
“I will have someone retrieve the pieces,” Cai Renxiang offered cooly. “I apologize if it was an item of importance.”
“I would appreciate that,” Ling Qi said distantly, thinking on the many many times she had kept the old thing intact and in her possession despite the hardship in doing so. “I am sorry. What was the last thing you wished to discuss?”
“Nothing of great importance,” Cai Renxiang said. “I merely wished to once again extend my thanks to the two of you. As loyal members of my council, it is only right that you be rewarded for your contributions. One of my honored Mother’s apprentices is a core member of the Sect. I intend to have garments commissioned in thanks for the two of you and Sir Han. It will take some time to complete. So for now, please simply accept my thanks.”
Ling Qi nodded, knowing she should probably be ecstatic at receiving an item of such high quality, but she couldn’t quite manage it given the loss of her flute.
She was out of the Medicine Hall by the next morning, having been healed quickly at great expense on Cai Renxiang’s funds, the pieces of her flute in her storage ring, and a new, white armband pinned in place on her sleeve. The character for Cai embroidered upon it declared her to be a member of Cai’s group, and the gold lining identified her as a member of the ruling council. It was a strange thing to think about - that she, Ling Qi, was apparently an influential official in a pseudo-government. She wasn’t entirely certain what expectations the other girl had of her. Cai Renxiang seemed reluctant to push overmuch with either Bai Meizhen or Ling Qi.
Ling Qi found her thoughts continually coming back to her flute though. It was the one thing she had carried with her through all her years in the streets, and now it was broken, snapped in half with part of the length pulped, likely by someone’s foot. She should have gotten a talisman or at least a basic flute instead of using it in combat. Yet, she couldn’t quite bring herself to buy another flute, even if the lack of instrument was a weakness.
Dredging up half-remembered plans from before the battle, Ling Qi descended the mountain in a fugue. She needed to begin stockpiling Sect Points, especially now that it had been made clear how far she still had to go. Sect Points could be used to purchase valuable medicines and tutoring from Inner Sect disciples or in a pinch, traded for more spirit stones.
In the absence of her flute, Ling Qi took to the bow as she ranged out to exterminate spirit beasts marked for death by the Sect. Her new archery art proved its worth here, letting her nail down birds and fleeing beasts a hundred meters or more distant.
It seemed she had been underestimating herself. It would probably be a good idea to look into taking harder missions in the future. She had been too cautious to look at anything but the lowest missions before. The funds gained by selling the cores and carcasses could go toward replacing her flute.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to locate Gu Xiulan to discuss the inevitable changes to their plans to challenge older Outer Sect disciples. Xiulan wasn’t at her house or the spring nor did she join the group for training even after Fan Yu had done so, the belligerent boy having finally managed to break through to Silver Physique.
Han Jian was evasive when she pressed him on Xiulan’s whereabouts, saying that she wanted to cultivate alone for a time. Under the effects of Argent Mirror’s Discerning Gaze, Ling Qi thought he felt slightly guilty. She wasn’t sure how to press him on it without being rude so she left it alone.
Somehow, she felt like the turmoil on the mountain was only just beginning.