As the sky began to take on the colors of dawn, Ling Qi slipped away, heading further up the mountain. Li Suyin and Su Ling had been very busy lately, but the two girls had not yet broken away from mortal habits and sleep schedules. If she stopped by this early, she should be able to catch them for a chat before they departed for the day.
She was right of course, which lead to a sleepily blinking Li Suyin staring at her owlishly from the entrance to their cavern home when she came knocking. Shortly after, she was seated inside at a makeshift table laid out in one of the interior chambers, sipping from a warm cup of tea.
Li Suyin sat across from her, fretting over the teapot. She was still dressed in her rumpled white bedclothes. Su Ling, on the other hand, was dressed normally, save that her boots were off in the corner of the room.
“So gonna guess there isn’t any immediate trouble since we’re sitting here drinking tea,” Su Ling said dryly. “Want to fill us in on why you felt like stopping by at the crack of dawn?”
“Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve been able to talk to either of you.” Ling Qi pointed out, cup half raised to her lips. “I wasn’t sure of your schedules, and I wanted to thank you again for helping me the other day.”
“It was nothing,” the rougher of the pair grunted, looking away.
“You are welcome, Ling Qi,” Li Suyin said a bit more graciously, even as she covered her mouth to stifle a yawn, crinkling the soft grey patch that covered a third of her face. “I am glad I could help you out for once.”
“You really did,” Ling Qi agreed. “Where did you get that spider ball thing anyway? Are those for sale somewhere?”
Her friend’s cheeks flushed a bit, and she looked pleased. “Um… They aren’t for sale unfortunately. It was something I had been helping Senior Sister Bao with. When Su Ling came to get me, she said that I may as well take it for testing.”
“That workshop is a damn creepshow,” Su Ling muttered, hunching her shoulders and shivering.
Ling Qi glanced at her with raised eyebrows. She hadn’t thought Su Ling squeamish. “Did Bao teach you that movement art too?” Ling Qi asked curiously.
Li Suyin shifted uncomfortably under Ling Qi’s scrutiny. “Well, yes. She said that the one I was using before was t-trash,” she said, looking slightly ashamed. “And that I would need to master something better to be her assistant. Parts of her workshop are very vertical,” she hurriedly explained.
Su Ling just huffed under her breath and took a long drink from her cup. “She’s kind of a bi…” the fox girl began, only to fall silent at Li Suyin’s look. “Don’t think I didn’t notice the way you came back in tears at first.”
Ling Qi frowned, but Li Suyin spoke up before she could. “And I remember telling you it was fine, Su Ling,” she said warningly before looking back to Ling Qi. “Senior Sister Bao is very harsh, but no more than she needs to be. Please do not trouble yourself over this.”
Ling Qi toyed with the end of her braid but nodded. It was Suyin’s business. “That’s fine. Just remember me if you need help, alright? I wanted to talk to you two about something else anyway,” she said, changing the subject.
Li Suyin seemed relieved, and Ling Qi had a feeling the two of them had argued over this before. Su Ling just had her normal disgruntled expression as she waved Ling Qi on. “I want you two to come back to the residential area,” Ling Qi stated firmly, after a beat of silence. “With Sun Liling running around again, on top of everything else, it isn’t safe out here.”
“And it’s is safe in there?” Su Ling incredulously, scowling as she sat up straighter. “We’re doing just fine.”
“It is safe. Safer than it is out here,” Ling Qi replied, meeting her gaze and refusing to back down. “Like it or not… people associate you with me, you know? The residences are under Lady Cai’s control. No one still living there would try anything.”
“You’re getting a pretty big head,” Su Ling retorted. “I’d say that mess recently shows that plenty of people will pick a fight with her.”
“They will,” Ling Qi admitted, her tea cup coming down on the table with a clunk. “So what do you think will happen if they find you two isolated out here?”
“We can handle it,” Su Ling snapped, her lips curling to reveal sharpened teeth. “We don’t need-”
“I think it might be for the best,” Li Suyin interjected said quietly, fiddling absentmindedly with the hems of her sleeves. “I’ve had the same thought. I didn’t want to bring it up. But we can’t go back to a little hovel like we had. Both of us need space for our projects now.”
“There are plenty of empty houses now,” Ling Qi pointed out. “I can find you two something. It’s just - I don’t want the two of you to get hurt because of me, and I think I picked up some enemies recently, you know?”
Su Ling still looked unhappy, but after sharing a lingering look with Li Suyin, she gave a grunt of acknowledgment. “... I’ll think about it.”
Ling Qi gave a sigh of relief at that; it was less difficult than she had feared. She stayed to chat with her friends a bit longer, discussing their schedules and other minor things. She got their agreement to come looking through empty houses the next day, as well as aligning their schedules to allow them to train together at the vent again as they once had, although the sessions would have to take place in the afternoon now rather than the morning.
She left alongside them as they went to take care of their own tasks and headed to the market to restock on healing supplies. It would eat up her council income for the week, but she was doing well enough on rewards not to worry too much about it.
Ling Qi wasn’t able to turn her attention fully to cultivation just yet; she still had one more obligation to take care of. Namely, she had a pending meeting with Cai Renxiang, who had sent a messenger indicating that she had something to speak with her about. Ling Qi was a little wary of the meeting, given her feelings toward the girl’s government.
It certainly had nothing to do with Meizhen’s apparent closeness with the other girl and the incredibly convenient timing of that development. That wasn’t her business, even if it pained her to think that. Between Han Jian and Meizhen, it seemed as though many of her friends were growing away from her these days.
Ling Qi quashed the ugly feeling that thought gave rise to as she headed down to the entrance plaza to meet the heiress. They were going to walk and talk, apparently. When she arrived, she found Cai waiting by the great archway that marked the start of the road, empty-handed but impeccable as ever. There was no sign of the damage she had taken in the battles a few days prior.
Gan Guangli stood at her side, clad in the same armor he had worn the last time she had seen him, although his helmet had been left off. The muscular boy gave her an acknowledging nod as she approached, and Ling Qi bowed her head in turn, clasping her hands in front of her respectfully as she did so.
“Lady Cai, thank you for your invitation,” she said formally. “Might I ask the purpose of this meeting?”
Cai Renxiang regarded her thoughtfully before gesturing for her to raise her head.
“Thank you for attending me on such short notice. I will explain the situation on the way. Walk with me.” The tone carried the ring of command, but Ling Qi found her demeanor slightly less aloof than their last private meeting.
As she fell in a step or two behind the girl, even with the trailing Guangli, she wondered if that was genuine, or something meant to set her at ease. The girl was hard to read. “Of course, Lady Cai,” she said respectfully. “Will we be going to town?”
She was surprised to see the heiress gesture for her to step up and fall in beside her, but she supposed it made a degree of sense if they were to continue talking. “That is my destination. I have certain matters to attend to. Using the travel time for our meeting was merely efficient.”
Ling Qi glanced at the girl’s stoic features measuringly. That didn’t seem right. If Cai was worried about time, they wouldn't be moving at this sedate pace; the girl could probably reach the town in a minute or two, less if she decided to fly. A thought struck her then as she glanced around, noting the other disciples on the path. “And if it shows you to be unconcerned and unharmed, all the better, right?”
“Quite,” the other girl responded succinctly. “I am sure you are aware of the power that lies behind reputation.”
Ling Qi nodded easily enough. She liked to think that her actual strength was what had forced the change in her peers’ behavior, but she was aware that it was not all of it. “It is not everything, but I understand,” she agreed. “How long do you think we have before things come to a head again?”
Cai Renxiang was silent for a time as the two of them strode down the mountain path, Gan Guangli’s heavy footfalls pounding the ground behind them. “That is the matter that I wished to speak with you about. I have been remiss in some of my duties,” she admitted, inclining her head very slightly. “Despite bringing on Fu Xiang, I have underestimated the power of intelligence and focused too much on the obvious.”
“Nay! Lady Cai, the fault remains mine,” Gan Guangli said, sounding pained. “As your shield, it is my duty to guard you against such cowards!”
Cai Renxiang glanced back at him and gave a thoughtful hum. She was definitely behaving more casually; it was strange. “You are a fine shield, Gan Guangli, but no bulwark is without its weaknesses,” she said simply, her gaze returning to Ling Qi as they began to stroll down the first of many switchbacks. Ling Qi felt a pang of sympathy as she saw the tall boy lower his head and clench his fists.
“Fu Xiang is a skilled set of ears and eyes, but some things are beyond his notice,” Cai Renxiang’s expression clouded, her tone briefly voicing her displeasure. “For one reason or another.” She paused for a moment, considering. “I would like you to aid me in ensuring that our enemies cannot collaborate beyond our sight again.”
That was along the lines of what Ling Qi expected when she came here. She mulled it over, taking her turn to walk in silence. “I’m not necessarily against the idea,” Ling Qi replied eventually. “But I would like to know more about what you intend for me to do.”
Cai Renxiang folded her arms across her chest, her hands vanishing into the confines of her wide sleeves. Her gaze remained straight ahead. “I would have you gather intelligence on the movements and composition of Sun Liling’s forces, as well as those of Outer Disciple Yan Renshu,” she said evenly.
“I’m guessing they’re operating in some kind of blindspot for Fu Xiang’s arts?” Ling Qi asked rhetorically, receiving a confirming nod in turn. “So you need me to do more hands-on scouting,” she thought aloud. It wasn’t a bad idea; she had to poke around in Yan Renshu’s business anyway due to her patron’s quest, and she hadn’t forgotten the disciple’s attempt to frame her either.
“I suspect that they remain in collusion, given the similarity in their camouflage,” Cai Renxiang explained, light flickering in the air behind her shoulders. “Clairvoyance and divination have failed, and so more mundane means need be utilized. Will you perform this task?”
“It’s not an easy thing,” Ling Qi cautioned. “I won’t have results immediately, especially if I am starting with nothing.”
“That is acceptable,” Cai Renxiang acknowledged. “We have time, I believe. I struck Yan Renshu a blow, despite the fact that he was not truly present. Sun Liling was similarly damaged. They will be licking their wounds for a time and regrouping.”
“I will do what I can,” Ling Qi agreed. It was dangerous, but ultimately, keeping an eye on her enemies was just good sense. There was no point in refusing what she was likely to do on her own anyway. It just meant also investigating Meizhen’s enemy as well, which was fine with her.