“Are you sure you’re ready for this then?” Ling Qi asked Li Suyin as the two of them and Su Ling walked the path down toward the main courtyard. Li Suyin still wore her disciple’s garb, but she had replaced the sash with a light green one patterned with leaves and formation characters.
“I am,” the one-eyed girl responded. Ling Qi thought her stance was stiff and tense, but there wasn’t any hesitation in Li Suyin’s words. The partial breakthrough into the second realm, seemed to have given her confidence.
“I don’t like the idea of being a spectacle,” Su Ling grumbled, arms crossed and pointed ears twitching agitatedly. She had replaced her disciple’s gown with a rather mannish outfit of thick cloth and leather with sturdy woodsman’s boots and sleeves bound by steel-studded bracers.
“It needs to be a spectacle or Xu Jia can just ignore the challenge,” Li Suyin replied firmly, fingering the needles holstered in the pouch at her belt.
“What are you going to do if she ignores it anyway?” Ling Qi asked. She tugged uncomfortably at the gold-lined armband she wore over her gown; although she still wasn’t used to it, the Cai armband would make the chances of something shady happening less likely. Cai Renxiang had started to move fast in the aftermath of the intra-council fight, probably to head off possible rumors of her lacking strength.
“Then I will return here every day this week to repeat it,” Li Suyin said with determination. “If Xu Jia has so little honor that she can ignore that, then I will think of something else.”
Su Ling snorted, and Ling Qi hummed thoughtfully. She still didn’t know the exact details of her friend’s plan, but Li Suyin seemed confident in whatever it was.
Ling Qi grew uncomfortable as they entered the main plaza. There were several pairs of Cai Renxiang’s enforcers about, and there was a noticeable wariness toward them. She saw several older disciples eyeing the enforcers with rebellious or irritated looks.
The enforcers themselves made her feel uncomfortable for an entirely different reason. The way they lowered their heads in deference and respect when she passed by threw her off.
It seemed Cai Renxiang had been spinning tales about the council split - and those involved too, if the murmuring she heard in her wake was accurate. The actions and feats of those who had supported Cai was getting played up. Su Ling gave her a sidelong look as they passed through the crowd. Ling Qi shrugged her shoulders helplessly, which the girl seemed to accept.
The three of them soon reached an open space in front of one of the little gardens that dotted the plaza. Li Suyin brought them to a halt, taking deep breaths to steady herself as she paced along the edges of the meditation space and pausing to place down wooden tokens painted with formations characters. It drew her some curious looks, but nothing more.
Ling Qi, too, watched curiously, standing beside Su Ling as she watched her friend set up and then return to the center of the little square after placing the last token. She felt her friend’s qi surge upward a tiny bit, and the wooden tokens lit up with faint blue light.
Ling Qi almost flinched as her normally quiet and meek companion’s voice thundered in her ears. The volume was as loud as Elder Jiao’s had been at the end of the truce. Beside her, Su Ling grimaced, ears lying flat against her head.
“I, LI SUYIN, NAME YOU COWARD AND BANDIT! RECEIVE MY CHALLENGE AND FACE ME IN THE GREAT PLAZA BY NOON THIS DAY OR BE RECOGNIZED AS THE HONORLESS CRAVEN YOU ARE!”
Ling Qi’s eye twitched as the echoes faded and she felt scores of eyes fall upon them. She would never have thought Li Suyin would have the guts to do something like this. On the other hand, she now knew why Li Suyin was so confident the other girl would show up. It was as good as slapping Xu Jia across the face in public.
Ling Qi could see the minute tremble in Li Suyin’s hands though. The other girl was a lot more nervous than she was letting on. Ling Qi reached out to pat her on the shoulder. “You have this as long as you keep your head. I have no doubt that you’re better than this girl.”
“What she said,” Su Ling grumbled, rubbing an ear with one hand. “Still, weren’t you going to fix that to not blow our own ears up as well?”
“I did not quite manage that part,” Li Suyin said under her breath, glancing back with a nervous smile. “Sorry,” she added apologetically while attempting to keep her shoulders straight and her chin up under the attention of the other disciples.
After a few minutes, people began to move again, although a not insignificant portion remained nearby, keeping a curious eye on Ling Qi and her friends. Ling Qi found herself making eye contact with a pair of Cai’s enforcers. She didn’t miss the way they adjusted their patrol route in response.
Ling Qi began to grow impatient as the minutes ticked by. Was the girl Li Suyin challenged really just going to accept an insult like that? She couldn’t imagine any noble-born disciple actually would. More likely, Xu Jia had simply been far away. Even with Li Suyin’s amplifying formation, Ling Qi doubted that Li Suyin’s voice had reached the entire mountain.
So although it was annoying, Ling Qi simply stood quietly at her friend’s back for the next quarter hour. At last, she saw a group approaching their position with purpose. There were five girls in total, but none of them were particularly impressive to her eyes. Three were entirely in the first realm still, one was partially in the second realm, and the fifth was solidly in the second. The last and strongest one looked a bit older than the others.
It was interesting to watch the way their expressions and approach changed once they got a clear look at Li Suyin and the two girls behind her. Their approach briefly slowed down, and a flicker of worry broke through the anger and indignation on their faces. Ling Qi’s gaze flickered between Li Suyin and the girls. As Li Suyin was glaring at the one partially in the second realm, that girl was likely Xu Jia.
“At least you have some shame,” Li Suyin said, doing her best to look confident and threatening as she stared down the girl. “I was worried that you would not dare to come for a fight that was not an ambush, Xu Jia.”
“That you dare to spew such slander merely shows what a low class drudge you are,” Xu Jia sniffed. A brief glance at the older girl to her right seemed to restore her confidence. Xu Jia was a fairly average looking girl, a bit taller than normal and classically pretty in the way just about every female on the mountain was. “Do not think that I will forgive you. I -”
“You broke into my home, smashed my things, and had your thugs hold down and beat my friend,” Li Suyin interrupted. Ling Qi gave her friend a worried look. Li Suyin was getting worked up, which might affect her discipline in the upcoming fight. “If that is not a bandit, I do not know what is. I do not wish to talk to a thug like you. Step forward and fight, or leave and admit your shame.”
“Hold your tongue, girl,” the older girl spoke up. She had a similar face to the younger girl at her side, likely making her an older sibling. “I do not know who you think you are, but -”
“Are you Xu Jia?” Ling Qi said clearly, raising her voice over the other girl’s and meeting her gaze with steady eyes. The other girl narrowed her eyes angrily, but Ling Qi saw her eyes flick down to the armband she wore and then back to her face. She liked to think she was able to spot the moment recognition dawned. “Then be silent. You can observe, but you have no right to interfere.”
She fingered the smooth curve of the replacement flute Bai Meizhen had given her to use this morning until she had a new one made. It wasn’t as good as her own flute, but it would be enough. Besides, although the girl might edge her out in raw cultivation, she knew well that the simple appearance of absolute confidence was a major deterrent, particularly if Cai Renxiang had spread tales about her council’s battle prowess.
The older girl’s lips thinned in anger, but in the end, she was the one who looked away first. She flicked her sleeve toward the younger girl at her side. “Xu Jia, crush this peasant and be done with it,” she said before looking back up to glare at Ling Qi. “Unless, of course, you do not intend to fight fairly.”
Ling Qi held back the incredulous snort that almost escaped her, but Su Ling was not quite so controlled, drawing disdain from the girls across from them.
“If you do not intend to continue delaying, please step forward,” Li Suyin said quietly.
“Who was delaying? I was merely awestruck at your audacity,” Xu Jia retorted, stepping forward from her group as they backed off. Ling Qi and Su Ling moved back as well, giving the two duelists room to fight. A pair of clawed gloves appeared on the girl’s hands, four lengths of sharp curved metal protruding from each of Xu Jia’s wrists. She supposed that was where the scars on Li Suyin’s cheek had come from.
Only the murmured buzz of conversation from more distant watchers disturbed the silence. The stillness was broken as Li Suyin flung a trio of her combat needles in a wide spread, forcing the other girl to duck under them. Xu Jia’s claws lit up with sickly green qi, extending the blades by several centimeters, and as she came up from under the throw, she darted forward, sped up by the way the stone under her feet seemed to briefly flow, launching her forward all the faster.
Li Suyin sidestepped the initial outstretched claw strike and ducked under the follow up from the girl’s other hand, responding with a feint of flung needles from her off hand while jabbing toward the girl’s shoulder with the ones clutched in her main hand. Xu Jia avoided the stab fairly easily.
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes. What was Li Suyin doing? Li Suyin had never done much throwing with her weapons before when they practiced, and the lack of practice showed with how ill aimed the needles were. It was almost physically painful for her to watch half of the flung needles tumble off course before even getting near the target.
The duel continued with Li Suyin leading the other girl on a circular chase, failing to do much damage to Xu Jia and taking a scratch herself now and then. The scrapes left behind were ugly and bled freely by Li Suyin’s grimace, but her concentration didn’t change. Ling Qi found herself glowering at the older girl’s increasingly smug expression and irritated by the jeers of Xu Jia’s companions.
Just as Ling Qi was beginning to worry that Li Suyin didn’t have a plan though, the two girls clashed again, Xu Jia’s qi enhanced claws screeching off the needles in Li Suyin’s hands while Li Suyin caught the girl’s other set of claws in a gnarled and bark-textured hand. Ling Qi caught Su Ling’s smirk at her side as a tiny click reached her ears. A flash of metal from under the hem of Suyin’s gown drew a cry of pain as the little boot knife slashed across Xu Jia’s shin, drawing a painful looking but ultimately superficial cut.
Such an attack only drew more jeers, particularly since it looked to have mostly just made the other girl angry. Xu Jia pulled out of Li Suyin’s grip and slammed a kick into her midriff, making the blue-haired girl stumble back.
“I hope such a pathetic trick was not what you were counting on,” Xu Jia said haughtily as she fell back into her stance.
“No,” Li Suyin wheezed as she forced herself straighten. “It was a good distraction though,” she added, smiling in a distinctly unfriendly manner. “Mark. Set. Seek.”
As she spoke, Li Suyin formed a symbol with her empty hand, two fingers and her thumb extended upward with the others curled down. Ling Qi felt a pulse of qi, and the needles on the ground rattled briefly and then shot toward Xu Jia on an unerring course.
Xu Jia’s eyes widened as she flung herself away from the closest needles, but there had been nearly two dozen of them on the ground. It was inevitable that at least one needle would manage to strike her, particularly with the way the needles would reverse direction upon missing, honing in like iron filings to a lodestone. The first needle struck… and then exploded. It was no grand blast, more firecracker than rocket, but it still knocked Xu Jia off balance, resulting in more needles striking home.
Ling Qi suppressed a flinch at the sudden chain of explosions around Xu Jia but restrained herself to only smirking at the other side’s suddenly unhappy observers. Li Suyin wasn’t idle either while Xu Jia was stumbling and dodging the needles. In fact, the intact needles were already slowing down as Xu Jia coughed and emerged from the smoke, but Xu Jia’s distraction prevented her from being able to avoid Li Suyin jabbing a trio of needles into Xu Jia’s right thigh with well-practiced precision.
Li Suyin skipped back out of range from the retaliatory slash, leaving her needles behind. Her opponent’s leg buckled underneath her, dropping the girl to one knee and allowing the remaining needles to drive into her back and explode.
The plaza was silent as the echoes of Li Suyin’s explosions faded away, and when the smoke cleared, Xu Jia was lying face down on the ground, gown shredded and her back raw with burns. Ling Qi smiled as Li Suyin approached and then crouched down, reaching for the dull grey ring on the girl’s finger.
“Stop.” Ling Qi’s smile faded as the older girl stepped forward, an ugly look on her face. “I think that is quite enough. If you think to bully my younger sister so, you will have to face me.”
“It’s pretty appropriate for the victor to take a token,” Ling Qi rebutted. “Are you really that poor?”
“And who do you think you are?” the sister sneered. “I am Xu Qiao, eldest daughter of Xu Wen, and I have accepted enough of your rudeness. That little scrap of cloth does not put you above me. Do not imagine yourself above your station!”
“I am Ling Qi, and although I cannot say I have a clan to back me, I have made a friend or two,” she said dryly. Ling Qi didn’t miss that the original enforcer pair from before now stepped forward nor that two other pairs of enforcers did the same. “I will not say that I am above you, but don’t you think you’re being too much of a sore loser here?”
Xu Qiao’s face reddened, and she scowled out at the crowd. “Is this what the Sect is reduced to? Kowtowing to the whims and authority of an unblooded heiress? Are we to allow ourselves to be cowed by our juniors so?”
Ling Qi maintained her confident mien despite the grumbling from the crowd, but she was a bit worried. It was Li Suyin who spoke up next as she carefully removed the ring from Xu Jia’s fingers.
“My apologies if you mistook my intentions, Miss Xu. I intend to only take a reasonable token of victory.” A small waterfall of spirit stones and pills fell from the ring, piling in front of the unconscious girl. “I am no bandit after all.”
Ling Qi wished she could clap Li Suyin on the back, because that did the trick. Although she could still see some older disciples giving the enforcers unhappy looks, it seemed that Li Suyin’s actions had pushed Xu Qiao’s actions even further into ‘sore loser’ territory. It still hurt her a little to see her friend sacrificing so much loot.
Ling Qi raised an eyebrow at Xu Qiao, silently giving her the opportunity to back down. The look she got in return was venomous, but after a moment, the color faded from the girl’s cheeks and her expression smoothed.
“I see,” Xu Qiao said coldly as Li Suyin stood up and returned to Ling Qi’s side. “You two, collect my sister and her things. It seems I have been remiss in my sister’s training. This waste of time has at least had some value in showing me that.”
As they moved away, the unconscious girl in tow, Su Ling’s lips curled. “Bitch,” she spat. “Hope they drop her a couple times on the way.”
“Why didn’t you use your family art there?” Ling Qi asked Li Suyin. “Once you touched her, it would have been over, right?”
“I do not wish to use my family arts that way if it is not necessary,” Li Suyin said quietly. Her expression turned sheepish then. “Ah, Su Ling, could you help me with my shoes? I think the blade is stuck.”
Ling Qi shook her head as Su Ling acquiesced with a grumble. She didn’t quite understand Li Suyin’s reluctance, but she was glad that her friend had found her own kind of resolve.