Much of her time and attention still went to Zhengui, keeping him from wandering off, eating strange things, or any number of other troubles he tried to get himself into. She was glad she had gotten more patient since she began cultivating or Zhengui probably would have driven her to her wit’s end.
Luckily, Zhengui seemed to be very much a creature of the day so by the time the sun had fallen and the bright half moon had risen, he was well asleep for the night atop the hearth, granting her the free time to visit the archive for a proper study session. Recent events, her own actions, and the vision she had after the intra-council battle had made her worry about what exactly she was getting into with her cultivation of Eight Phase Ceremony.
Her knowledge about great spirits was quite low. She was never a particularly devout person, and the only reason she had never stolen from a temple or a shrine was because it was obviously and objectively bad. People got cursed that way; she had seen it happen once or twice.
She could vaguely recall her mother making offerings to the Bountiful Earth or the Winds of Mercy for health and good fortune, but those were things everyone did. It was just good sense. Those two were the most popular spirits among mortals, even if the average person only knew enough to avoid offending them.
She herself had made an offering to the Grinning Moon after observing some members of a street gang doing the same while talking about a big job. The sight of a half dozen dirty, rag-clad men clustered around a crudely painted white crescent on the wall of an alley had stuck with her. They burned sticks of expensive incense and rice cakes while praying for good fortune. When some fellow street rat had stolen her flute and pawned it off, leaving it sitting in a heavily guarded antique shop, she had felt the need for some luck herself and for revenge against the ass who had taken it in the first place. After her offering to the Grinning Moon, she had gotten both.
What was happening now was more than a casual offering though, and she wanted to learn more about her apparent patron spirit before she went any further with Eight Phase Ceremony. This brought her once more to the seat across from Xuan Shi. This time, the odd boy actually looked up from his book, Voyages Of Yu Long: The Thorny Heart.
Ling Qi considered her approach and decided that formality would be for the best here. She had gotten used to being casual among friends, but with the upcoming meeting, she felt that she should probably polish her etiquette.
“Brother Xuan,” she greeted with a slight dip of her head. “Could I trouble you to speak with me for a time?”
He regarded her silently, but after a brief glance down at his book, he set it aside. “Speak, Sister Ling. What troubles cloud your thoughts?”
He didn’t exactly sound enthusiastic about speaking with her, but she supposed he never did.
“Quite a few things. I won’t trouble you with most of them,” Ling Qi replied dryly as she took a seat. “Do you know what this council meeting is intended to be about?” She figured she could break the ice with something that would concern both of them. And besides, she was curious about a few things outside the moon.
Xuan Shi did that thing he often did, staring at her silently before answering. “The words are not mine to speak. No storm lies upon the horizon to my knowledge.” He drummed his fingers on the table top thoughtfully for a moment. “The vagabond has gone silent, the bloody princess remains caged, and the hound licks his wounds and trains, seeking ascendance.”
Ling Qi took a few moments to parse that and nodded slowly. So the meeting should be untroubled, unless something else came out of nowhere.
“You know, I think I understand everyone else’s motives, but why do you stand with Lady Cai?” she asked thoughtfully. “Your family is important enough that you don’t need to subordinate yourself, right?” Ling Qi had begun to pick up basic background knowledge by this point in the year. Savage Seas might be the smallest province in the Empire, but a ducal family like the Xuan was still a potent backing.
Once again, silence reigned for a time before she received any response. “Ships do not spring from stone and barren cliff,” Xuan Shi answered in a measured tone. “Few can match the quality of those built of the Emerald Sea’s bounty. Masts line the straits as thick as graves. Always more are needed to hold back the ravages of the Sea Folk.”
That was, Ling Qi recalled, the name for the barbarians of the northern islands, out past the safe seas on the Empire’s coast. She supposed that was a sensible enough reason to stay close to the Emerald Seas’ heir; relationships between major families were important for trade. She suspected he wasn’t telling the whole truth though, even if she couldn’t place a finger precisely on why.
She hummed to herself in response, and this time, it was her turn to remain awkwardly silent. She had gone through her prepared topics for small talk.
“Well, I guess I’ll get to the point,” she said eventually. “You mentioned some interest in moon arts when last we spoke. Could I ask you for some information on the Phase Spirits or some advice on which books to read about them?”
Xuan Shi furrowed his thick brows. “A strange request,” he said. “The Guiding Moon is the matron of sailors and those who journey. It lights the night, providing safety and comfort, banishing darkness, and showing one’s true path when things lie occluded. Even here, this should be known.”
“I had a pretty spotty education,” Ling Qi replied evasively. “What about the Grinning Moon and the Bloody one?”
“The waning and waxing crescents are dangerous spirits,” he replied shortly. “Mercurial and unmerciful… yet not to be ignored. A captain who plans a night attack or ambush without an offering to the Grinning Moon is a fool. I will not speak of the Bloody Moon. Although it be in favor at court, such skullduggery is foul.” Xuan Shi shook his head then pointed over her shoulder, indicating a set of shelves in the far right corner. “Knowledge of spirits can be sought out on the shelves yonder.”
“Thank you for your time, Brother Xuan,” she replied politely as she stood up. “My apologies for interrupting your reading.”
“It is no trouble,” he replied to her back as she moved off to begin her research in earnest. “Have care in your search.”
Ling Qi paused and then nodded. She wasn’t sure why she would need to be careful, but she would take the warning to heart.
Over the course of the next few days, Ling Qi’s cultivation improved steadily with the help of a reduced number of pills and elixirs while she practiced her other skills. She continued gaining further mastery with the bow as she reached the third star of the Falling Stars art, mastering a Meteoric Shower technique that allowed her to fire several arrows in rapid succession. In the evenings, she studied or played music, sometimes playing a light tune while deciphering particularly dense blocks of text and sometimes keeping Zhengui from trying to gnaw on the pages.
Her study of the moon phases bore fruit, even as her studies forced her to incidentally grow more familiar with a number of other spirits and information about their worship.
The Guiding Moon, or full moon, was, as Xuan Shi said, widely well-regarded. Reputed to be a boon to travelers and sailors in particular, it was strongly associated with divinatory techniques. If all phases of the moon were related to mystery in some way, then the Guiding Moon was about ‘revealing mystery’.
The Hidden Moon, or new moon, was its exact opposite, a spirit that thrived on secrets and lost or hidden knowledge. It was a spirit that hoarded and coveted knowledge and arts.
Information on the two crescents was more difficult to find. Information in the older books seemed to match what she already knew. The Bloody Moon, or the waxing crescent, was regarded as the spirit of vengeance and assassins, of lives taken in the dark, unseen. The Grinning Moon, or the waning crescent, loved tricks and thievery, rewarding cleverness and ingenuity. Newer books painted both moon phases differently though. The Bloody Moon smiled upon those who sought out and dealt justice to those who committed misdeeds And the Grinning Moon smiled upon clever investigators who unveiled the foolish conspiracies of those who violated Imperial law, Ling Qi wasn’t sure what to make of it. It didn’t seem to fit what she knew.
The Reflective Moons, the two half moon phases, were regarded as one entity. They were linked to self-reflection and contemplation and peace and togetherness. Diplomats often invoked them at the beginning of volatile negotiations.
The last two phases were discussed in a summary fashion; the author apparently did not think much of the two gibbous phases. The Mother Moon, or the waxing gibbous phase, had a somewhat obvious area of interest given its name. And lastly, the Dreaming Moon, or the waning gibbous, held dominion over creative arts, altered states of mind, and “other such frivolity and decadence.”
With so much to focus on and Zhengui taking up much of her time, she had little time to tag along with Han Jian and the others, especially since they seemed to be getting busier themselves. She and Xiulan met for lunch each day of course, but that was for relaxation. Xiulan would brag about the duels she had won and Ling Qi would pester Xiulan for thoughts on her clumsy, initial attempts at musical composition. They avoided more serious topics.
Still, she did find a chance to get down to the training field and speak with Han Jian early on the day before the council meeting. Ling Qi arrived to see the ground being torn apart by the passage of Heijin, set to the sound of Han Jian’s commands. The young tiger had accompanied the hunting group a few times over the past couple of weeks, with an irritable air.
It seemed the cub had finally acquiesced to actually following orders though, given that the two of them were practicing combined combat maneuvers. Ling Qi only watched for a moment before turning her eyes away and loosening her hold on her qi; she didn’t want to seem like she was trying to spy on them. She loudly cleared her throat as well, but she doubted the sound would reach the pair through the dust and winds kicked up by their practice.
Zhengui watched the scene from her shoulder with curious eyes. It had taken some practice, but he could perch there without falling as long as she wasn’t moving erratically. It had taken a bit longer to convey to him that her hair was not edible. She glanced at her spirit to make sure he wasn’t slipping then raised a hand to wave to Han Jian, who had paused to look over at her, the golden glow around his shoulders fading.
“Ling Qi, I’m surprised you had the time to come this early,” he said in greeting, lowering the practice blade in his hand as Heijin padded over to sit by his side. The tiger cub eyed Ling Qi, or rather, the xuanwu on her shoulder, warily. The two spirits’ first meeting had involved Zhengui taking a nip at Heijin’s tail. She was coming to realize that her spirit was a bit of a biter, in addition to being a glutton.
“I have been pretty busy,” Ling Qi admitted. “It’s been awhile since we’ve had a chance to talk on our own, hasn’t it?”
Han Jian smiled ruefully. “Yeah, things have changed a bit in the last few months,” he replied easily, a touch of something like regret in his tone. “So, looking to chat about what our lovely overlord is plotting this month?”
“Is that your type?” Ling Qi asked with a raised eyebrow and a slight smile. “I wouldn’t have guessed.” She bit back a comment about not letting Xiulan hear him say that, not sure if it was appropriate given how strained the relationship was between them.
Han Jian gave her a flat look as he sheathed his sword. “No. Not at all. Please don’t joke about that kind of thing,” he said, deadpan.
Ling Qi couldn’t help but laugh a little and shook her head, drawing an irate hiss from Zhengui as he wobbled with the motion. She ‘heard’ Heijin grumble something indistinct, but he quieted at a sharp look from Han Jian. Something had changed between those two since the battle with Sun Liling.
“I actually just wanted to know what’s wrong. You’ve been distracted lately, and I’m pretty sure I've seen you signing things to Han Fang when the rest of us are busy. Are you planning to do something on your own?”
Han Jian’s smile faded. “You’ve gotten perceptive, haven’t you?” he asked rhetorically, glancing away. “I do things outside the group too.”
“You do,” Ling Qi acknowledged. “I should know after all.” It was Han Jian who had decided on his own to meet and help her in the first month at the Sect. “I just thought I could offer some help.”
“It’s something private,” Han Jian answered quietly. “I think we both know that everyone has their little secrets.”
This time, it was Ling Qi who broke eye contact. Given that she had been disappearing along with Bai Meizhen and her other friends every day for months, some conclusions were obvious. Han Jian had never brought it up before. It made her a little sad, but she had never mustered up the resolve to try and work something out between the two groups after the rocky joint training session.
“I didn’t mean to pry. I really did just want to see if you needed help with anything,” Ling Qi said apologetically.
“I know,” he replied with a slight shrug. “You’re a surprisingly honest girl when it comes to some things, Ling Qi. ... I do have to look out for my charges first though. We are in competition.”
“Well, I guess I can only wish you good fortune then,” she said with a slightly forced laugh. “How will this affect the upcoming weeks then?”
“We won’t be around for hunting next week,” Han Jian said, turning to head toward the benches at the edge of the training area. Ling Qi fell in beside the boy. “After that, I was thinking we would start exploring some more dangerous areas. Less focus on hunting and more on discovery. You’re welcome to come along if you have the time.”
“Sounds fun,” Ling Qi said breezily. Just because they had to compete for an Inner Sect slot didn’t mean they couldn’t still be friends. “Did you have a location in mind?”
“The upper peak might be a good spot to start. There has to be a few things hidden up in all that snow,” Han Jian said lightly, seemingly relieved that she had taken the conversation well.
Ling Qi blinked then let out a laugh, drawing a curious look from Han Jian. “Well, you’re probably not wrong, but let me tell you a story about a little girl and a blizzard…”
She didn’t much appreciate her plight being laughed at, but… it was nice. She was glad Han Jian was understanding about her keeping secrets.