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If she could talk to Xiulan, then surely she could manage to talk with Meizhen, and restore… something of what they had.

In the end, she had to sit up in the front room of the house for most of the evening, doing her best to calmly meditate as she waited for Meizhen to come home. Zhengui was resting, dematerialized for the moment. They were still practicing with it; he got antsy if she kept him that way while he was awake.

It was difficult to keep herself calm, but she somehow managed, practicing the breathing exercises of her cultivation art and breathing in the miniscule filaments of stellar energy that could reach her here. She couldn’t be upset, distracted, confused, or any of the other emotions that wanted to surge out of control when she talked with Meizhen.

She just wanted her friend back.

She hated what Meizhen had done without her permission

She didn’t know if they could go on as they had before.

Was that all the other girl had wanted of her?

It was a chore to clear her thoughts at the best of times, and right now, it seemed truly futile. She drummed her fingers on the tabletop, glancing at the door. Meizhen should be home soon. She usually came back in the evenings, going to her room and then sweeping right back out again. Knowing that much didn’t count as stalking, right?

Ling Qi twitched as the door swung open and her friend stepped in, clad in the snow white gown she had received from Cai Renxiang. It had a near invisible scale pattern with pale blue serpentine coils and waves embroidered about the lower hems. The pale girl paused on seeing Ling Qi but began to immediately walk toward the bedrooms with only a slight nod of acknowledgement.

“Meizhen, can you stay a moment?” Ling Qi asked, breaking the tense silence between them for the first time this week.

The other girl paused again, not fully turning around. “I have a number of tasks that need to be seen to. Perhaps later.”

“Meizhen, please.” Ling Qi’s voice cracked. “We haven’t said a word to each other in days. Please talk to me.”

Meizhen turned around, shoulders tense and pale face set in an expressionless mask. “I am hardly your nursemaid,” Bai Meizhen said coldly. “We lead busy lives.”

Ling Qi clamped down on the angry retort that wanted to come forth, settling for letting out a breath. “Not that busy,” she replied evenly. “You’ve been avoiding me. I can even understand why. The things I wanted to say... They didn’t come out right last time,” she said, her voice dropping with every word.

“I see,” Bai Meizhen said, seemingly unmoved, but Ling Qi caught a flicker of emotion in her golden eyes. “What did you mean to say?”

Ling Qi hated hearing her friend so closed and cold again, speaking to her as if she were a stranger. “I can’t give you what you want. Was that your only reason for treating me like a friend?” she asked quietly. She could feel Zhengui stirring in her dantian, awakening at her distress.

Her question finally had an effect. A flush of shame rose on Meizhen’s cheeks, caught off guard. “No! Of course not! I am not so debased as that,” she said, a touch of anger in her voice.

“Then why?” Ling Qi asked plaintively. “I have said foolish things before. I probably will again. Why does this mean I have to lose my best friend? I don’t want that. Do you?”

“Of course I do not!” the serpentine girl snapped, eyes flashing. Ling Qi met her gaze with barely a flinch, the effects of her training. “Do you understand how difficult it is to… to see your revulsion?” Her voice wavered toward the end, and she broke eye contact. “Clearly, we are both better off without one another’s company.”

Ling Qi could admit that there was some part of her that was uncomfortable around Meizhen now. Oh, sure, girls and women could be just as vicious physically as any of the thugs on the streets, but she had always felt safe that she wouldn’t be assaulted in the way her mother and mother’s … coworkers had been. She disliked the loss of that illusion.

“I may not be able to respond the way you want, but I don’t feel revulsion at all,” she said firmly. “What you did made me uncomfortable, but what kind of garbage person abandons a friend because of a little discomfort?” A person like her, a thought whispered in the back of her head. Ling Qi quashed it; she wasn’t like that anymore.

Meizhen stared up at her, her expression openly hurt in a way that seemed completely alien on the stoic girl’s face. “I should simply leave this instant,” she said quietly. “Whatever you say, the fact remains that my eyes do not lie. I have seen the way you shyaway whenever I grew close. Do you truly mean to lie to me and say that you feel no disgust whatsoever?”

Had she done that in the immediate aftermath? Ling Qi thought back, thinking hard, and… yes, she could recall moments when she had jerked her hand away when they were in danger of touching again or stepping back without thinking. It had never been conscious though. As she met the other girl’s eyes, she could see Meizhen’s resignation. She wouldn’t give up. She willed the other girl to see her sincerity.

“I feel nothing of the sort,” she said clearly and slowly. “I feel sad and pissed off and a dozen other things, but disgust isn’t one of them.”

Meizhen’s shoulders slumped and she looked away. “... Damn you.” The vulgarity was bizarre coming from the normally unfailingly proper girl. “Why are you so persistent?”

“Too dumb to know when to quit.” Ling Qi managed a weak smile. “Can we please try at least?”

“Fine,” Meizhen replied, not looking up. “I will cease going out of my way to avoid you. Will that be enough to satisfy you?”

Ling Qi’s shoulders slumped. Even if she had headed off the worst case scenario, she knew she had a long way to go to rebuild the trust the other girl had for her before. “Yeah, that’ll be enough. I’m sorry for upsetting you so badly, Meizhen.” It was the only thing she could really apologize for.

With Ling Qi’s ascension to Late Yellow last week, she had fully reached the top of the second realm. By the reactions of those around her, it was a prodigious accomplishment given that she was a match for most of the Outer Sect disciples, even those a few years her senior. It seemed obvious to her that there must be something else which was holding back those who wished to take the next step into the third realm. She wasn’t doing anything unusual after all; surely talent didn’t make that much of a difference.

It wasn’t like she spent all of her time cultivating either. She had been incredibly busy over the last few months, but she had more time than ever to act too since she could get by on a single night of sleep every few weeks. Even then, she had been spending a lot of time on her friends and other matters.

She was going to cut down on her extracurriculars this week though so she made her rounds, informing the people who might care to know that she would be focusing on her cultivation this week. Suyin and Su Ling’s cave was empty, but undisturbed, so she left a letter. Similarly, tracking down Han Jian or Han Fang proved fruitless; she left a message with Gu Xiulan when she stopped by the girl’s home to chat about their plans for a little get together on the weekend. Meizhen was going to train with her again so she didn’t need to be informed. That just left one thing to wrap up before she started her cultivation.

She went back to the tea house to meet with Fu Xiang again. Access to another trial site and the potential rewards within was simply too good to pass up. Ling Qi had wondered why Fu Xiang would offer such a thing, but a little investigation into the matter had revealed the likely reason. Namely, trials open to first year disciples were closed to the older ones. The same went for a number of other things, including the Argent Vents and other major sites on the Outer Sect mountain. She supposed that was one more reason that the older disciples could stagnate, even though supposedly, there were still a few trials and other opportunities hidden away for them.

She would worry about the implications of this later. For now, she had to concentrate on the conversation with the cheerfully smug boy sitting across from her.

“Miss Ling, you have no idea how pleased I am to see you again,” Fu Xiang said lightly as the door to the booth closed with a click. “Have you considered my offer then?”

“I will do it,” she replied, then added, “provided you haven’t been hiding something dealbreaking in the details.”

“Understandable,” Fu Xiang acknowledged, idly pushing his eyeglasses a bit further up his nose. “I assure you, I do not intend to hide anything that could decrease your chances of success. However, understand that the target will not be one of my less motivated peers like the unfortunate individuals who rose to Miss Gu’s baiting.”

“I didn’t think they would be,” Ling Qi shot back. “I wouldn’t expect that kind of person to be worth this kind of effort.” She was aware that the target would almost certainly be formidable in some way; this effort to gain leverage on them wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

“Then we remain on the same page,” he said, spreading his hands. Ling Qi could not help but notice the lack of tea on the table between them this time. Was he in a hurry? “The target is a young lady by the name of Wen Ai of the Ebon Rivers’ Wen family, if that means anything to you.”

Ling Qi debated on playing it off like she usually did, but the lack of information would really only hinder her. “I’m afraid it doesn’t,” she replied, leaning back in her seat. “I’m still learning the biggest names.” Her effort to learn the basics of the political scene really only extended to the most important or immediately relevant families.

“They are a fairly new, if wealthy, family,” Fu Xiang explained without missing a beat. “They hold a count title. Nothing that should be too troubling for one of your obvious talent.”

“Why don’t I feel happy at all about being praised like that by you?” she asked dryly before she could catch herself. This guy just reminded her too much of the sort of shady guys who hung out in the corners of bars, ready to figuratively skin a client down to the bone.

“You may take it as you will,” he said with a laugh, seemingly not offended. “The point is, she is well liked among my peers and has many friends.”

“So influencing her means influencing them,” Ling Qi concluded. “You sure blackmail is the way to go about this though? Seems like it could backfire.”

“Perhaps,” Fu Xiang admitted, tapping his fingers on the tabletop. That was another thing she noticed with more observation. The dark haired boy was rarely still, always moving in some small way or another. “However, our Lady is not so crude. She only intends to ask that Miss Wen counsel patience and non-interference to her friends. Such sticks do not make for reliable allies after all.”

Ling Qi hummed noncommittally. Ultimately, she only cared about this faction war insofar as Cai’s regime failing could harm her and her friends. “So what is the target? Just a bundle of letters?” She was curious about what might be in them, but it was probably just love letters or something else socially scandalous. She figured the Elders wouldn’t tolerate anything actually illegal.

“A small jade lockbox full of them,” Fu Xiang replied, his smile growing as he gestured. An ornate jade box about three handspans wide appeared on the table. “Do give Miss Wen some credit. She is not so careless as to leave letters lying about. This is an exact copy of the lockbox, and I expect you to replace the original with it. It should provide a bit of ambiguity as to when her bedroom was broken into, assuming you avoid raising a fuss.”

Ling Qi eyed the box warily. “So you spy on girls’ bedrooms? I’m not feeling my trust growing.”

“My intentions are pure,” he protested, smile unwavering. “Besides, you can hardly complain when it is my voyeurism that will give you the full details of her home’s security to break into at your leisure.”

“That is a good point,” Ling Qi agreed grudgingly. It was a little unsettling though. Su Ling and Li Suyin’s idea of hiding out in a cave seemed better all the time. “Well, tell me those details. I want to get this done.”

“Of course, Miss Ling,” Fu Xiang said easily, a flick of his wrist bringing a sheaf of well folded documents to his hands. “Shall we begin with the alarm line laid at the outer edge of the grounds?”

Ling Qi sighed and leaned forward, glancing over the meticulously copied formation filling the page. She was going to be here for awhile yet going by the number of documents he had just placed on the table. Maybe she should order some tea herself.

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