Ling Qi grimaced slightly as she felt her knees tremble, the cursed qi in her system still hampering her every effort. She took a moment to adjust the weight of the bag she was carrying on her shoulders to be less awkward then hurried to catch up.
Han Jian and Gu Xiulan both shot her looks of concern from opposite sides of the path. Gu Xiulan had returned to their group training, but things remained awkward. Xiulan kept away from Han Jian and avoided talking to him, instead paying more attention to Fan Yu. It seemed to bewilder the shorter boy, but he didn’t exactly seem unhappy about it. Xiulan was actually walking beside Fan Yu now.
The usually abrasive boy had been positively cheerful, relative to his usual attitude, since this week’s sessions had started. It probably helped that he had finally broken through to the second spiritual realm too. Han Fang was as inscrutable as ever, simply walking by Han Jian’s side with their largest catch, a white furred stag, on his wide shoulders.
“Just a little twinge,” Ling Qi said dismissively in response to their looks. “The last mission I was on got a little rough.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s fine,” Han Jian said. He seemed a bit tired; there was a certain tightness to his expression and other signs of stress in his stance. “Do you want to pause for a minute?”
“Ling Qi does not require such coddling,” Gu Xiulan said with a haughty sniff, not looking at Han Jian.
Han Jian simply sighed and nodded, adjusting his own load. Ling Qi glanced between them with concern, but as socially awkward as she could be at times, she could tell that this was not something that would be helped by her sticking her nose in. So instead, she changed the subject. “I’ve been meaning to ask, what do you think about the things going on around here lately? I don’t know enough to understand if all this stuff with Cai Renxiang is normal or not.”
Ling Qi caught Han Fang glancing at the white band pinned to her sleeve and the similar one that Han Jian wore. It was Fan Yu who spoke up first though. “It is not how the Sects are supposed to be,” he grumbled. “They are supposed to be free of such things.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” Han Jian said carefully. “Blocks always form; it’s just the nature of things… The Lady Cai is going further than usual though in the level of authority she is trying to build.”
“And you are supporting it, Brother Jian. Just where is your pride as a son of Golden Fields?” Fan Yu shot back, disgruntled. It was weird seeing his stern expression almost immediately go soft and dopey when Xiulan smiled at him. Ling Qi rolled her eyes. Fan Yu was still an abrasive jerk, but she had a hard time maintaining her initial dislike for him. He was just too easily manipulated.
“Well, considering that Father agreed with my decision in our correspondence and commended me for acquiring armor of Cai make, I’d say my pride is right where it belongs,” Han Jian replied dryly, but there was something a bit sharp in his response and Fan Yu lowered his head slightly. Han Jian sighed, brushing a hand through his hair, which had grown out lately, becoming a bit shaggy. “Golden Fields is still a long way from doing things on our own. You guys know that.”
Ling Qi felt awkward as everyone else lowered their eyes too with expressions ranging from chagrin to irritation or simple somberness. “Isn’t she the heir to the province though? I mean, doesn’t this sort of thing happen pretty often when those kinds of people show up at the Sects?”
Han Jian shook his head. “Cai Renxiang’s situation is unusual. Ducal clans are usually much, much larger than the Cai. Someone her age would never be the heir normally, but the Duchess Cai does not have any living siblings nor any other children,” he explained. “Even when heirs are young, it usually isn’t a settled matter.”
Ling Qi frowned but nodded; she got what he was trying to say… although she recalled that Cai Renxiang herself didn’t see her position that way. Ling Qi kept quiet.
“She has made the Sect a duller place,” Gu Xiulan said irritably. “I suppose we can still find our own entertainment though.” Xiulan shot a grin at Ling Qi, which she returned as she remembered the frustration on the faces of those who had lost to Gu Xiulan and the expressions on the faces of her own targets the next day. That had somewhat made up for the markdown on the stolen talismans.
“Things are probably going to get rough before the year is out. Even with her position, the older Outer Disciples aren’t just going to knuckle under peacefully, and Sun Liling isn’t gonna be in confinement forever,” Han Jian reminded them. “I have a feeling that everyone will get their fill of violence by the time the tournament comes around.”
Ling Qi gave Han Jian a thoughtful look; he sounded more determined than usual there. Fan Yu’s expression darkened again at the mention of the tournament. Gu Xiulan’s expression had changed as well, teeth bared in something that was definitely not a smile, even as a few strands of her hair let off wisps of smoke.
She glanced at Han Fang, but he showed no indication of nerves or determination, simply walking calmly at Han Jian’s side. Han Fang was fully in second realm as well at this point and not too far behind Han Jian, who had recently hit the mid point in both realms. It seemed at least some of her friends hadn’t given up on the Inner Sect. She would not fail to compete.
After the hunt was over, Ling Qi returned to meditation.Under the effects of the elixirs and pills she was using, purchased with her spoils, Ling Qi found her cultivation continuing to steadily rise and her dantian expanding. The growth seemed almost glacial compared to how quickly she had grown in the first months of her cultivation, but she was pretty sure she was still doing well. She was nearing another plateau in her physical cultivation after all.
Her spiritual cultivation had a long way to go though, and her meditations at the vent seemed a little empty with Li Suyin’s absence. The other girl was apparently focusing on a job and receiving some tutoring which kept her very busy so they rarely saw one another. It did leave her some time to actually try and talk with Su Ling though. Ling Qi was still unsure as to where she stood with the girl in all honesty. It was difficult to read what Su Ling actually thought under her bluster and coarseness.
Her attempt lead her to where she was now, leaning against a tree while she watched Su Ling skin and clean the corpse of a rather large bear. She had helped the girl haul the beast out of the pit used to trap and kill it, but she then stood aside to let the girl with more expertise work. Ling Qi wrinkled her nose at the smell that rose from the partially skinned corpse.
“Does it always take this long?” she asked, watching the other girl rinse the gore off her hands before returning to the task of freeing the hide from the flesh and muscle beneath.
Su Ling shot her a flat look. “If you want to use everything, then yeah, it does. There’s not really any way to speed up this kinda thing that I know of. Who knows. Maybe you can buy yourself a magic skinning knife or something,” she answered flippantly.
“Probably not,” Ling Qi grimaced. “It’s taking everything I can do just to keep up with the cost of cultivation medicines nowadays.”
Su Ling grunted, which Ling Qi took as agreement. Ling Qi remained silent after that, watching the fox girl’s deft hands as she took the beast apart with practiced ease, wrapping and storing it with the materials she had brought along.
“Why’re you doin’ this anyway?” Su Ling broke the silence, not looking up from her work.
Ling Qi blinked, cocking her head to the side. “Well, these are good skills to have, right? I need beast cores for the spirit beast I’ll be raising soon.”
“I already showed you how to harvest the cores,” Su Ling pointed out. “And it’s not like you can’t just haul the rest to market. ‘S not like you really go out hunting for income after all; the difference in payout isn’t that much for you.”
Ling Qi frowned, crossing her arms. “Well, sure, I guess. It’s still good to know for when I need it. Besides, we’ve known each other for awhile, but we haven’t exactly talked much. That mission was… not the best situation, but I was hoping to get to know you better.”
Su Ling looked up as she reached for a waterskin to rinse her bloodstained hands with. “Yeah, that’s what I don’t really get. Why now? We don’t exactly have anything in common,” she said bluntly.
“Why do I need a reason?” Ling Qi said defensively. “And… it’s kinda nice to chat with someone who I don’t have to worry about my words around,” she added more quietly.
“Really? I wouldn’t have figured,” Su Ling said. “Outta all the commoners here, you’re the one who slipped right into place with the noble types. I figured you were making a break for it.”
“There are other commoners here besides Ji Rong and us?” Ling Qi asked, the words slipping out a moment before she thought better of it. “... That probably makes your point, doesn’t it?” she said sheepishly
Su Ling waved a hand dismissively. “Nothin’ wrong with that. It’s just why I figured we were on different paths. Then you started followin’ me around,” she said with a shrug. “Besides, it’s kinda inevitable given how ridiculously fast you’ve shot up.”
Ling Qi nodded, accepting her words. “I suppose. I don’t really see how that means we’re on different paths though.”
Su Ling grimaced and glanced at the remains of her kill, little more than bloody bones and offal at this point. “Look, I’m not saying that we aren’t friends of a sort. You have Suyin’s back, and I respect that. Heck, as long as I didn’t get into it with somethin’ dumb, you’d probably back me up as well, I think.”
Ling Qi nodded, furrowing her brows. “So what’s your point?”
Su Ling scowled and distractedly brushed a few strands of hair out of her eyes. “I guess, that art you gave me… It made me think about what I want to do. I don’t care about all the politics and stupid games Immortals like to play. I don’t care about governments and empires and clans ‘n shit,” she said, stumbling once or twice. “But they have one thing right. Mortals need all the protection they can get. From monsters, from us, even from themselves. Especially kids who don’t even have a say in the shit they deal with.”
Ling Qi stared at her. That was the most she had ever heard Su Ling say at once. “I’m still not sure I understand where that separates us.” She could see where Su Ling was coming from. She had no doubt the girl’s own childhood had been at least as, if not more, shitty than her own.
“What was the kid’s name?” Su Ling asked, crossing her arms and giving Ling Qi a patient look. There was a beat of silence between them as Ling Qi narrowed her eyes; she was sure she had heard it mentioned… “How about his dad? You know the guy bowing and scraping to us?”
“... I get it,” Ling Qi replied. She glanced to the side. “Well, no, I suppose I don’t really get it,” she admitted grudgingly. “I don’t think I could handle worrying about everyone, not when I’m still trying to just worry about a few.” She had spent years focused only on herself and her own survival. She wanted to be better than that, but she was still working out what that actually meant.
Su Ling grunted again and turned back to her task, gathering up the bones to be bundled. “And like I said, that’s fine. I just wanted to get a real answer out of ya. You’ve gotten to dancing around with words too much. You can tag along as you like. I don’t mind showing you stuff.”
Ling Qi sighed. She was sure that she had the other girl’s friendship, such as it was, but she had a feeling that growing any closer would be hard due to their different goals.