The following days, Ling Qi threw herself into training and meditation to distract herself from the confusion and uncomfortable feelings that filled her thoughts. With such frantic focus, the second level of the Argent Mirror Art came to her swiftly. It was not a comfortable experience; the art was focused on self-reflection and clearsightedness, and further mastery only left her less able to hide from her thoughts.
She found herself thinking over past events. Su Ling’s words came back to her, as did her actions since her stab-induced vision. Had she been more affected by her elements than she thought? On reflection, she did feel like she had changed as of late. Was that due to her arts or simple evolution of the self? Ling Qi wasn’t sure, but she resolved to be more mindful of such things in the future.
The other matter which her self-reflection brought up was more recent: Meizhen and what had happened at the lake. Ling Qi… did not feel that way. She did not think of Meizhen as anything more than a good friend and had felt nothing but surprise and confusion during that moment. But it was clear that her friend did feel differently. Even the clarity of Argent Mirror did not grant her knowledge of what to do about Meizhen’s feelings though.
Ling Qi had time to think while sitting in the Medicine Hall. Ling Qi couldn’t afford to miss her treatment; the curse, while fairly mild in its current form, could rapidly worsen if left unattended for more than a week or two. It was, according to the words of the Medicine Hall disciple treating her, meant to inflict a sort of wasting sickness on its victims. She wondered if its relatively mild first stage was meant to cloak its spread.
That was a matter for Elders. She had more than enough concerns of her own without getting involved in something so far above her head. She wished Su Ling luck in looking into medicines. After the treatment was over, she found herself with a free afternoon.
Ling Qi decided to stay a little longer at the Medicine Hall. She had asked around and been told that Li Suyin was doing chores in the area and should be finishing soon. Upon reaching the doorway with a sign indicating the end of the ‘free’ part of the hall, Ling Qi leaned against the wall to wait, entertaining herself by idling studying the tiny formation characters etched into wood around her.
There was the usual stuff she had grown used to seeing on Sect buildings, simple repeating patterns to ward against basic wear and tear, as well as patterns to increase durability and fire resistance. The somehow orderly tangle of characters etched into webs at each of the four corners were beyond her skill level though; she was pretty sure she would regret tampering with them or trying to bypass the warded door. Which made sense, considering this hall was Sect property.
Ling Qi continued to study the top right inscription circle for potential weaknesses as she waited. It was about a quarter hour later that she heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the doors.
Li Suyin emerged as the door opened, a distracted look on her face. Suyin’s short hair was tied back and hidden under a cloth, and she wore a long grey smock over the front of her gown like an apron. Smudges of dust were apparent on her cheeks, as were blots of ink on her fingers. Ling Qi supposed they must have had her cleaning and organizing things in the storage area.
“Li Suyin, how have you been?” Ling Qi greeted, straightening up from the wall.
Her friend blinked as she glanced up, noticing Ling Qi. “Oh, Ling Qi, hello,” she said, smiling slightly as she let the door drift shut. Ling Qi couldn’t help but note the faint throb of the qi running through the wood as the door closed and the formation sealed itself again. “I’ve been doing well. I’m sorry for not visiting you when you came in,” she apologized, looking chagrined. “I’ve just been kept so busy, and I was assured Su Ling and you didn’t have any serious injuries…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ling Qi replied, following her friend as the girl moved to start walking toward the main section of the hall. She didn’t know how much she could say on the recent mission so she elected to just change the subject. “They must be working you hard. I hardly see you at our place anymore.”
Li Suyin caught her eye, clearly understanding her meaning. “Ah, yes. The mornings are a very busy time for the hall so I have to be available for assignment. Well, for a few more weeks at least,” she corrected. “If I can pass the second exam and officially become an assistant, I will receive a little more latitude in the matter.”
Ling Qi hummed to herself, looking her friend over out of the corner of her eye. “So they make you do a month or two of grunt work before they actually show you anything important?”
Li Suyin flushed, fidgeting with her sleeves. “W-well, I wouldn’t call it that. It’s important not to waste actual Medicine Hall disciples’ time with insufficiently dedicated assistants. Besides, I have been receiving instruction,” she replied a bit defensively. “Even if it’s not exactly orthodox…” she added under her breath.
Ling Qi gave Suyin a concerned look as they rounded a corner, the sounds of the entrance hall starting to reach their ears. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you see…” Li Suyin begun somewhat anxiously as they entered the main hall.
“Assistant Li.” A flat female voice cut off her words before Suyin could continue. Ling Qi swung her gaze around to find the speaker, who had been leaning against the wall herself before stepping out in front of them.
What she saw was… strange. The girl who had spoken was almost as tall as her and was even more lanky and thin than Ling Qi. She was pale with slightly gaunt features and dark circles under her eyes and black hair tied back in a loose and careless tail. Some kind of face mask hung loosely around her neck.
The girl wore a bizarre and almost skin tight dark green silk shirt under a black leather vest with similarly figure-hugging pants tucked into knee-high heavy leather boots. Her arms were likewise covered to the elbow by gloves of some kind of scaly animal hide. Her qi hung about her like a cloud of weblike strands, ominous and twitching; she was fully in the third realm.
Suyin seemed to recognize her given the way she hurriedly bowed her head. “Ah, Senior Sister Bao, my apologies. I did not know you would be waiting.” Li Suyin glanced at Ling Qi, who raised her eyebrows, looking between the blue-haired girl and the newcomer. “Ling Qi, this is Senior Sister Bao Qingling. She has been gracious enough to allow me to assist her.”
“I thought Inner Sect disciples weren’t allowed on the outer mountain,” Ling Qi said a little dubiously, not quite liking the way the older girl had simply glanced over her and promptly dismissed her.
“The rule does not apply to Medicine Hall disciples assigned to this hall. Outer Sect riffraff can hardly be trusted with complex procedures,” the older disciple answered disinterestedly, words that should have sounded malicious or arrogant seeming matter-of-fact.
Li Suyin laughed awkwardly, glancing nervously at Ling Qi. Ling Qi simply gave her a reassuring look. Even if this Bao Qingling’s attitude was grating, she wasn’t going to say something dumb to an Inner Sect disciple just for being abrasive. Besides, she was probably partially at fault for the girl’s presence what with the curse and Sun Liling's recent rampage.
“I see. I guess I should be thanking you for taking care of my good friend Li Suyin, Elder Sister Bao.”
The girl looked at her a little longer this time although her gaze remained apathetic. “Mm. You are welcome. Assistant Li has a good hand for delicate matters. It seems this year’s Outer Disciples are less useless than usual,” she said bluntly. Ling Qi had a feeling that that was as close to an acknowledgement as she would get from the girl. The Inner Disciple’s gaze returned to Li Suyin. “Assistant Li, I require another set of hands for the preparation of today’s procedures. Come along.”
Bao Qingling turned away from them, walking away toward the exit of the hall without even waiting for a response. Li Suyin shot Ling Qi an apologetic look. “... I am sorry, Ling Qi. I will have to talk to you later. Thank you for coming to visit me. We can catch up tomorrow I’m sure.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ling Qi said easily. Maybe she would be bristling if she was the same person she had been when she first came to the mountain, but she had come far enough to recognize the difference between a generally abrasive attitude and targeted contempt. She couldn’t say she liked the older girl though. “Just… don’t get caught up in anything weird, alright?”
Li Suyin laughed quietly, apparently taking her words as a joke and nodded before hurrying after the retreating figure of the older girl. Ling Qi shook her head. Since Li Suyin was busy, she would start preparing to meet the tutor she had hired.
The next day, she received a note to meet an hour after noon at the gate that marked the entrance to the main road of the outer mountain. Her tutor would be a boy named Ruan Shen. It wasn’t far from noon by that time so she was soon on the path down the mountain. Sore and fatigued as she still felt, she stuck to the road instead of using the more direct path of hopping down the cliffside, but even then, it wasn’t a long walk anymore.
The gate was a tall arched structure, a dozen meters high or more, stretching over a road wide enough for several horses to pass side by side. She wasn’t the only disciple on the path but neither was there a crowd or heavy foot traffic so her gaze quickly caught on a figure that seemed likely to be her tutor.
Ruan Shen looked a few years older than her, although she was aware of how little that could mean, and was fairly tall with a head of shaggy and untamed black hair that faded to light blue at the tips. His bangs hung down over his eyes, concealing his face somewhat as he plucked at the strings of a lute of some kind.
Ling Qi always had trouble remembering the exact names of the different instrument types, but now that she thought of it, his name on the note had been written with the same character as the instrument, the ruan, so that seemed a likely guess. He glanced upward as she approached, idly scanning the light traffic with a lazy gaze.
She could admit her tutor was pretty handsome. Clearly, he kept up on his physical cultivation given what she could see due to the loose blue and white robe he wore. It hung pretty far open in the front; she had no idea how he kept it from falling off his shoulders. Ling Qi averted her eyes from that quickly enough, any admiration she might have felt quashed under awkward memories of Meizhen’s lips and the resurgence of her own insecurities.
Shaking her head, she dismissed such thoughts and picked up her pace. It didn’t take long before the older boy’s gaze came to rest on her, his eyes assessing despite the seemingly permanently amused expression on his face.
“Hey there. I suppose you’re Ling Qi?” he asked, raising a hand in greeting. A few of the other disciples passing by glanced their way but only momentarily.
Ling Qi crossed her arms, some awkwardness surfacing despite her efforts to keep her thoughts in order. “Yeah, that’s me,” she said, before wincing. She pulled out the note with the Sect seal to show him. “I mean, yes. I am Ling Qi. Thank you for taking the time to teach me, Senior Brother Ruan,” she corrected, coughing into her hand. “I suppose they must have given you a description?”
He chuckled slightly, pushing himself up from the pillar he leaned against and lowering his instrument to his side as he fished a matching seal-marked note from his pocket to confirm his identity. “Yeah, they did. No reason to be so stiff though. You can call me Shen if you’d like. It won’t bother me.”
“Senior Brother Shen,” Ling Qi responded after a moment as she stopped in front of him, dipping her head. If he said it was fine, she could relax a little. “I haven’t done this before. What exactly are we going to do?”
He hummed thoughtfully, looking her over, and Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t that he was being a pervert or anything, but his eyes were disturbingly piercing. It almost felt like he was looking through her, but she was having trouble feeling his qi at all.
“Well, as much as I like the idea of having a cute little junior sis,” he began before pausing and giving her another look over. “Or not so little as the case may be.”
Ling Qi frowned at him. ... Some errant part of her mind felt the need to point out that he hadn’t retracted the cute descriptor. “Is there a problem?” she asked politely.
“Nah, nothing like that,” Ruan Shen said, waving his free hand dismissively. “I’m just gonna need to test you a bit. Gotta see what kind of melodies you have in your repertoire before I can teach you. Not too many disciples follow the musician’s path so I hope this isn’t just a whim on your part. That’d just be real sad.”
Ling Qi drew herself up, summoning her flute to her hand. “I’m not an amateur,” she said with a hint of fierceness. “And I’m not just dabbling. My music is one of my best skills.”
Her tutor studied her expression then laughed. “Well, I’m glad. Why don’t we find a better spot though? As much as this bunch would enjoy the free concert, I think we’d do better to go without distractions today. Follow me.”
She wasn’t entirely certain what to make of the other disciple. But for all that her instincts cried out at the idea of following a stranger to an out of the way place, he had the Sect seal, and tutors doing something untoward with their authority was supposed to be punished pretty heavily.
In the end, she followed him out a short distance into the foothills, and they stopped in a small clearing at the top of a steep hill studded with several large boulders. For the first day, Ling Qi played for him, first with her flute then with other instruments as he tested the limits of her musical knowledge and ability.
Ruan Shen was mostly unreadable that day, offering little except simple instruction and the occasional pointer on improving her technical skill or correction for errors, but… she thought he seemed impressed or at least, not disappointed. Her tutor cheerfully instructed her to meet him at the same spot the next day.
Things settled into a routine. Ling Qi would work on cleansing a head meridian at the argent vent in the morning then swing by the Medicine Hall to chat with Li Suyin when the girl had time. Despite the less than stellar introduction, Li Suyin was apparently enjoying playing assistant to that Qingling girl. She was mostly tasked with preparing ingredients and helping with time-sensitive tasks, but the older girl apparently thought aloud enough that Li Suyin was picking up a fair bit of knowledge just from listening in, along with the occasional borrowed scroll.
In the afternoons, she would go to her tutoring sessions, which seemed to largely consist of improvised duets and musical tests accompanied by discussions on music theory and its relation to qi and cultivation. In the evenings, between hunting with Han Jian’s group and training with Meizhen, she reached Late Silver.
Sometimes, the training with Meizhen even managed to only be half again as awkward as they had been before the lake celebration.