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The focus of the lessons remained on her connection with Zhengui, the way her own qi affected him and vice versa. While Zhengui was too young to benefit from any such lessons, he did get to enjoy the fruits of the Elder’s garden. The little xuanwu was kept occupied during the long sessions of meditation by gnawing on fruits half the size of his own body. Ling Qi was glad her gown was self-cleaning, else it would probably have ended up quite stained.

She felt her connection to the little spirit growing more refined and with it, her ability to communicate with him. His thoughts were still simple and direct, but she was beginning to see signs of greater development in the curiosity, affection, and other more complex emotions now blossoming alongside simpler ones like fear and hunger. Elder Ying believed that he would begin grasping some of his abilities in no more than a month. Strong spirits did not remain in a state of infancy for long. Indeed, when she examined him, Ling Qi was sure that Zhengui was already several centimeters longer than he had been at hatching. For now though, she could only continue caring for Zhengui as he grew.

In the wake of her lesson, she had other tasks. Ling Qi still shied from the thought of facing Meizhen and forcing the talk that she felt had to happen and her other friends remained unavailable as well so she decided that she might as well see what the boy from the council meeting had wanted. It would be rude to ignore him, and she did have some free time in the afternoon.

It helped that she had received a note the previous day, left on her doorstep. The venue he wanted to meet at, a little sect run teahouse in the market area, seemed safe enough. The location meant it couldn’t be an ambush since as far as she could tell, the market area was the one place on the mountain where violence was absolutely banned by Sect law. She would keep an eye out on leaving, but the meeting itself should be safe.

The teahouse in question was a humble place toward the edge of the market area with a dim interior populated by a scattering of tables at which disciples chatted and mingled. Simple paper dolls flitted about serving the disciples, somehow supporting the weight of dishes and tea. Ling Qi gave the place a wary once over as she paused in the doorway, but no one even looked up at her entrance.

She entered, skirting the edge of the room to head for the line of closed booths lining the rear wall. Fu Xiang had said he would be taking his tea in the third booth from the left.

She carefully pushed the door open, the simple bamboo and paper screen sliding easily on the track. Inside was a small polished wooden table surrounded on three sides by a bench upholstered with a simple, unadorned set of light green cushions. Fu Xiang sat on the right side, and looked up as she opened the door, idly adjusting the lenses perched on his nose with one hand while cradling of a cup of dark, red-tinged tea in the other. The pot and a second cup rested on the tabletop.

“Oh, Miss Ling. I was beginning to imagine that you had decided not to come,” he said lightly. “I am glad I was wrong.”

Ling Qi’s lips almost twisted into a frown. The booth was smaller than she liked, but she was already here.

“I was delayed somewhat. I am currently taking lessons from Elder Ying,” she replied evenly. “I could hardly end such things early.” She stepped inside and seated herself across from the boy. She paused briefly when the door rattled and began to close on its own but brushed it off as a formation effect.

“Of course. It was a little thoughtless of me to set the meeting time without your input,” he apologized. “In my defense, you are somewhat difficult to track down. Please do not think poorly of me, Miss Ling.”

Ling Qi studied him; Fu Xiang’s unfailing good humor rubbed her the wrong way. It was a slight thing, but she found herself wary of the older boy.

“It was not any real trouble,” she replied carefully and was surprised when he moved to pour a cup for her. It was a weirdly humble action, and it threw her for a second. Going by the amused sparkle in his eyes when he met her gaze, he was aware of it too.

“It is a local blend. I’ve grown quite fond of it,” he commented idly as he set the pot back down. “Would you care to order anything before we begin?”

She accepted the cup with only a slight suspicious glance and shook her head. “No, this is fine. What did you want from me?” she asked, a bit more bluntly than strictly necessary.

“I suppose being direct is fine too,” he said, taking a sip of his own tea. He gestured, and Ling Qi stiffened as she felt a shift in the air. “Just a precaution,” he assured her, meeting her gaze. “We won’t be overheard now.”

“Is that really necessary?” Ling Qi asked, arching an eyebrow in her best impression of Meizhen’s skeptical face.

“It is better to be over prepared than under,” he shot back. “I think we both understand how a lack of caution can lead to ruin. I know better than to think the world will be so forgiving.”

“You aren’t wrong. You also haven’t answered the question. What do you want from me?”

“A little cooperation, no more. I have, if you will excuse the arrogance, very good eyes and ears,” he said with a touch of pride. “I know many useful things, and yet, without more… tangible evidence, making use of those things can be difficult. My word is not exactly of high worth,” he continued blithely.

It wasn’t hard to work out the implication. Ling Qi took a careful sip of her tea, keeping an eye on him over the rim. “So I suppose you want someone to acquire that ‘tangible evidence’ of yours?” she asked dryly. “Are you sure Lady Cai would approve of that kind of underhanded dealing?”

“I am quite certain,” he replied with a slight grin. “Justice cannot be dealt to those who hide their misdeeds after all. Investigation into corruption is an important task, and it is why the Lady approached me. I am, for example, close on the trail of the one who attempted to frame you, Miss Ling.”

Ling Qi stilled but then nodded. “So what is your proposal exactly?” she asked. Information brokers and climbers - she knew his type well enough, and she had a measure of how far she could trust the boy. It might be worth helping him out though; it would give her leverage for favors in the future, if nothing else.

“You are a cold one aren’t you?” he commented idly, examining her. “You could at least give me a little more reaction to work with.”

“I’d rather not,” Ling Qi replied dryly.

“Fair enough.” He shrugged. “At the moment, I require a cache of letters from the home of a young woman in my year. They contain information that will grant Lady Cai leverage in future meetings. I hope you will not mind that I do not share more exact details just yet.”

“Understandable,” Ling Qi said. That didn’t sound too onerous, even if preparing properly would probably be time consuming. There was obviously something more personal in it for Fu Xiang though. “What’s in it for me?”

“Besides the glory of working for Lady Cai’s cause?” he asked rhetorically, leaning forward slightly. “Knowledge of a trial site that has yet to be uncovered this year. We are not in competition after all.”

So Fu Xiang was aiming for a production slot for the Inner Sect? That was useful information. The idea of another trial was appealing too; she had come out quite well from the last one.

“I’ll consider it. I hope this isn’t too urgent. I am already very busy this week. I intend to participate in the subjugation of Kang Zihao tomorrow, and I still have my lessons for the remainder of the week.”

“Of course,” he responded, dipping his head slightly in acknowledgement. “If you have not made your decision by the end of the week, I am afraid I will have to seek other avenues though. It is somewhat time sensitive.”

Ling Qi nodded tersely, taking a longer sip of tea. It was pretty good. She was thankful that Fu Xiang’s request was relatively straightforward. She doubted he would renege on their deal if she went through with it. For all that he said his word wasn’t worth much, if he didn’t at least keep his deals, she doubted Cai Renxiang would have brought him onto the council.

Ling Qi lingered a bit longer to be polite and finish her tea, but they soon parted ways. Ling Qi had cultivation to do. Specifically, she needed to begin thinking seriously about which phase of the moon she would like to follow for the next phase of her cultivation art.

Ling Qi considered them all as she meditated and drank in the starlight from the yard of the archive building. The Grinning Moon had been good to her, and the thrill of her last job had reminded her of how fun it could be to slip in and out of danger. She had shied away from danger as a mortal… but maybe she didn’t need to any more.

She was not yet sure, which might be why the thread of dark qi nestled in her dantian since her encounter with the Grinning Moon after the fight with Sun Liling’s forces faded away. She had little time for introspection come morning though as she was met with the irresistible force that was Gu Xiulan on the warpath.

Well, that might have been an exaggeration, but apparently, since they were both going to be participating in the subjugation mission against Kang Zihao today and Ling Qi’s new gown had been delivered that morning, they absolutely needed to go out together beforehand to ensure that they looked their best.

Ling Qi was dubious of why precisely it was important to look good when hunting down and beating up an enemy, but she didn’t grumble. Gu Xiulan’s cheerful, if overbearing, banter was better than the silence of the past couple days.

It did mean she had the displeasure of feeling like a doll again as Gu Xiulan insisted on fussing over her while she changed into her new gown. The gown that Cai Renxiang had commissioned from a Core Sect apprentice of Duchess Cai was a garment far more luxurious and complicated than any Ling Qi had ever worn before. The gown had many layers of black silk hemmed with white, and a dark blue mantle wrapped around her shoulders, hanging down her back like a pair of wings.

More importantly, she could feel the power in it, the way the formations woven throughout the fabric empowered dark and water natured qi as it flowed through her channels. The sheer toughness of the silk, superior to even steel, stitched itself back together when it was cut. And if she focused enough qi into the mantle, her feet would leave the ground, granting her flight for the short time her qi reserves allowed.

Of course, Gu Xiulan chose to comment on none of this first.

“It is so understated,” Gu Xiulan said with a pout as she looked her over with a critical eye. “I would have expected something flashier given Cai’s own propensities,” her friend added, plucking at the waist-length cloak that covered Ling Qi’s shoulders. “And really, what is this? I can hardly see you under there.”

“I like it,” Ling Qi mused. The wide mouthed sleeves hung over her hands, and there were several concealed pockets in the lining. They were bigger on the inside too. It was nothing like a storage ring, but it would certainly make carrying her knives easier. She idly fingered the white sash cinched tightly around her waist. The layers of the gown should have left her feeling overheated, but instead, she felt pleasantly cool. She turned and the fabric swirled lightly around her legs, not catching or impeding her motions despite only being modestly split up to her calves. The motion created the illusion that the dark violet flowers decorating the lower half of the gown were blowing in the wind.

“I suppose the shoes are rather nice,” Xiulan admitted grudgingly, crossing her arms under her chest as she considered the soft-soled calf height boots included with the outfit. “Still, it is a little plain…”

“Right? Who could have imagined that someone I’ve spoken directly to all of twice would have a better handle on my tastes than one of my friends?” Ling Qi said dryly, quickly stepping over to the end table to catch Zhengui before he fell off the table. Zhengui had been trying to reach the dangling end of a potted plant placed on a higher shelf.

“I only want what is best for you,” Xiulan replied haughtily. “It is hardly my fault that you fight me every step of the way. If you had your way, no one would ever look at you.”

“And if you had your way, I’d catch fire from embarrassment,” Ling Qi retorted, turning to face her friend as she flicked her wrist, drawing out one of the sticks Zhengui liked to gnaw on. She rolled her eyes as she saw Xiulan give her a sly look, parts of the other girl’s hair sparking and igniting as she opened her mouth to speak. “You know what I meant,” Ling Qi cut in before Xiulan could speak. “Besides, look, the cloak comes off easy enough.”

She breathed out, and the qi infusing the garment shifted, the darkly colored mantle dissolving and exposing the back of the gown, which was embroidered with white flower petals.

“That is better, I suppose.” Xiulan allowed the fires in her hair to fade, leaving not a single hair scorched. “You could still do with something more eye catching. Perhaps a few hair ornaments…” she mused, eyeing Ling Qi’s braid speculatively. “A bit of silver wire woven through your braid might catch the light well, or perhaps a gemstone clasp at the base.”

“If you have any suggestions, I suppose I can take them,” Ling Qi sighed. “Just remember, we do have to be at the meeting point on time.”

“Of course,” Xiulan said dismissively. “We have more than enough time to pick up a few complementing accessories and touch things up a bit. Presentation is a must when cowing one’s lessers after all,” she added brightly, the golden ornaments in her hair jingling as she took Ling Qi by the wrist and turned to lead her out.

Ling Qi rolled her eyes but smiled despite herself. It might be fun to try something new with her hair, she supposed. She was on a rather tight budget at the moment, but window shopping would be a good way to relax before the action started.

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