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Her efforts to help Su Ling took place at night. She met the fox-eared girl at the vent, and they went from there, taking the narrow natural paths that lead higher on the mountain.

“Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something weird with that girl Li Suyin is training with,” Ling Qi said as the two of them climbed a short cliff face with mostly effortless ease.

Su Ling grunted in response, easily finding foot and hand holds as she moved up the rockface herself. “Not really my business. Suyin’s actually pretty secretive in her own way.”

“I guess so, Ling Qi said grudgingly, eyeing the top of the cliff. She tensed her muscles and pushed, leaping up the remaining five meters or so to catch the edge and pull herself up over the cliff edge. Her recent push through to Late Silver was a nice increase in ability. “It still bugs me that she won’t talk about any of the details of what that girl has her doing.”

“Might be because you can get pretty nosy about the shit you do care about,” Su Ling called up, giving her an annoyed look. Ling Qi simply grinned cheekily down at the silent accusation of ‘showoff’. “You’re not her mother. Let her do her own thing.”

Ling Qi made a dissatisfied sound and crossed her arms. “Maybe I’m just being paranoid,” she admitted.

“Yeah, you don’t see me prodding you about whatever you’re getting up to with that guy you’ve been hanging around with,” Su Ling said as she pulled herself up over the edge and stood, dusting herself off.

Ling Qi rolled her eyes at the implication, but she got the point. “You know it’s just music practice.”

“Course I do,” Su Ling replied, unruffled. “Which is the point.” Ling Qi lowered her head a bit in acknowledgment as they started out through the scraggly trees clinging to the steep mountainside. “Not that I’d blame ya. From what I saw, that is a pretty fine hunk of meat,” Su Ling added blithely.

Ling Qi shot her a withering look. “You too? I get enough of that from Gu Xiulan.”

“Eh, nothing wrong with lookin’.” Su Ling shrugged. “Anyway, still not sure why you’re doing this, but-”

“Because I want to help my friend since I know she’s taking on extra work,” Ling Qi cut in irritatedly.

“... Yeah, alright,” Su Ling acknowledged. “I need to collect a lot this week since I’m gonna be trying to break through to the second.”

“Good for you,” Ling Qi said encouragingly as they wove through the rough terrain. “So, how is the kid from the town doing?” She didn’t want to get too involved, but it was important to Su Ling.

“He’s not great, but he’s stable,” Su Ling replied. “I can’t produce the quality of pill that the Medicine Hall can, but I guess he didn’t get the full whammy either. Makes sense since the asshole was planning to use the kid. Wouldn’t do much good if the kid kicked it just from being near to the ritual.”

Ling Qi could only nod at that. She was glad the other girl was doing well at her self-assigned task. Conversation lapsed after that as they instead focused on gathering the herbs that Su Ling needed.

Between her nights out with Su Ling and more sporadic hunts with Han Jian, she managed to pull in a decent amount of spirit stones thankfully. Ling Qi had been spending them like water for the past few weeks, so it was good to stock up.

She didn’t have much time to dwell on her financial woes though because every waking moment not dedicated to one of her other tasks was being spent keeping the kiln burning on full blast as the egg inside wobbled and twitched on occasion. According to the research she had done, the most likely time for hatching was the hours leading to dawn or just after, so the last segment of her time vanished just like that. Ling Qi was extremely glad that she could go a week or two without sleeping at this point.

On the third day of her tutoring, they finally moved past mundane music practice and qi theory to beginning to work on their art techniques. Ling Qi was reluctant to show off Forgotten Vale Melody, but well, that cat was firmly out of the bag she supposed.

Ling Qi didn’t hold back as she filled the sunny hilltop with mist and stalking shadows and the haunting melody of the forgotten vales. Sitting still like she was, unworried about combat, she could almost see the misty mountain valleys and frightening vistas the song was meant to depict. It was beautiful in a dark way, or so she liked to think.

Ruan Shen, for his part, hadn’t moved from atop the flat-topped boulder he used as a seat during their lessons, his normally smiling expression thoughtful as Ling Qi allowed the notes to fade and the mist to disperse, floating away on the breeze.

“That’s not a bad tune you have there,” he mused, idly scratching his chin as his eyes followed a wisp of dissolving mist. “Not really my style, but no, it’s not a bad one at all. It seems a little sad for a beauty to be pouring her heart into something so melancholy though.” Ruan Shen idly strummed a chord on his instrument.

“Please stop that, Senior Brother Shen,” Ling Qi said, giving him an unamused look. Ruan Shen liked to tease her and get sidetracked on pointless things. The first few times, she blushed, but by now, she didn’t even react. “I didn’t come here to get teased.”

He just grinned at her, which simply made her eyebrow twitch in further irritation. “Heh. I’ve said it before, right? Every lady that cultivates is a beauty in her own way,” he said easily. “And man, that title just doesn’t get old. I’ll say it again, you’ve got a real good tune there. I won’t ask where you got the work of a master; it’s none of my business. But I gotta ask, have you played anything else before you started these lessons with me?”

Ling Qi frowned, rubbing her thumb thoughtfully along the cool wood of her flute. “Not recently. I haven’t had time really. I just have so much to do.”

“Kinda figured,” her tutor replied, his normal expression of amusement returning. “Aside from that one, your songs are stiff. You’ve got the technical stuff down, you don’t miss any notes, and you know all the little details of how to play when it comes to your flute, but today’s the first time I really felt any soul in your music. You were alone for a long time, weren’t you?” he asked casually, even as Ling Qi stiffened at his assertion. “Yeah… lonely, afraid, hungry, and hurting,” he continued blithely. “Whoever gave you that song matched it to you well.”

Ling Qi’s grip on her flute tightened, and she scowled at the older boy. “Don’t just assume you know things,” she snapped.

“Ha, what a scary look.” Ruan Shen chuckled. “Sorry, don’t be mad, my little junior sister. I won’t pry into things. Music really is one of the purest expressions of the spiritual arts. At least, so I’ve been taught,” he mused, strumming a cheerful ditty on his ruan. “It’s the closest you can come to a pure expression of emotion and feeling without the weirder stuff, and that makes it great for channeling your qi. You’ve noticed that song of yours is pretty versatile, right?”

Ling Qi forced herself to relax. “Yes. So why doesn’t everyone use music?”

“Not everyone’s got the right attitude for it, and not everyone agrees. Plus, musical arts need a fair bit of set up to really get going. It takes time to reach your crescendo and a lot of stamina and concentration to pour out your heart all through a fight too.”

Ling Qi nodded. It made sense from her own experience. Musical arts were versatile but also time consuming and qi intensive. “So, what’s your advice, Senior Brother Shen? How can I improve?” The weird delight her tutor seemed to get out of her calling him “Senior Brother” was kind of annoying, but it was also useful for getting straight answers. She could tell that he was playing up his reaction though; the sharp-eyed boy was a lot more perceptive than he let on.

He grinned down at her. “I can show you a few things: how to really get a feel for the qi going into every note and the way it flows from your fingers and breath. What you need the most, if you're gonna focus on this though, is some time on other songs. You gotta cheer up a little, write something yourself, something that you can really put your all into.”

She frowned suspiciously up at him. “What - I’m supposed to develop a new art myself?”

“Nah, nothing like that. Even I’m not ready to do that yet. I guess I should ask: is that all your music is to you? A tool for fights?” he asked, an out-of-place serious note in his voice.

Ling Qi fell silent. It was true that she had played almost nothing but Forgotten Vale Melody since she had arrived on the mountain, but she was simply so busy, she didn’t have time for frivolous things.

Yet she had made time to take Meizhen out swimming. She had let Gu Xiulan drag her along shopping or trying out sweets. So that wasn’t exactly true.

She felt a pang of sadness. Playing her flute had been one of her few pleasures before she came here, something she could only do when she was sure she was safe. But now that she could sleep soundly and walk openly and unafraid, she had stopped doing it, except to fight or train.

“... I don’t want it to be,” she said, breaking the silence that had fallen.

“Well, there you go then,” Ruan Shen said brightly. “Let’s get started on a couple little exercises…”

From there, her tutoring took on a more active turn, and she found herself fixing a number of little errors and bad habits in her more qi-dependant musical skills. More than that though, she found herself relaxing a little and having some fun with her music again as she was encouraged to try new things and play new pieces.

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