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Her efforts to unlock the shaman bags nearly made her late to her meeting with Su Ling, so she abandoned the project for now to meet with her friend at the vent. Since Su Ling intended to practice with her sword, Ling Qi thought it appropriate to cultivate her Thousand Ring Fortress Art. Ling Qi felt like she was really beginning to get the hang of the art, even if it was against her usual inclinations.

Of course, that turned out to have its’ own problems....

“Fuck! It feels like I hit a mountain.” Su Ling grimaced as the practice blade fell from her hand. “I can’t feel my fingers,” she complained as she shook her hand

“Are you alright?” Ling Qi asked,lowering her own hands from a guard position.

“It’s fine,” Su Ling said grumpily, glaring down at her trembling hand as if to still it by sheer force of will. “I guess I forgot just how ridiculous you are.”

Ling Qi looked away uncomfortably. Su Ling had actually landed a pretty good hit, driving her blunted blade into Ling Qi’s gut while she had been distracted trying to fully activate of her Thousand Ring Fortress techniques. It just… hadn’t mattered. Between her greater physical cultivation and the layers of defensive qi woven into her flesh, she had barely felt it.

Was this what Meizhen felt like when sparring with her?

Dismissing that odd thought, Ling Qi suggested, “Why don’t we take a breather then? You still haven’t told me what brought this on. I don’t mind practicing with you, but I’m curious.”

Su Ling huffed and bent down to pick up her weapon, twin tails swishing behind her with agitation. Ling Qi didn’t miss the still unhealed wounds and patches of torn fur. “I need to get better at this. I’ve been relying on my illusions too much.”

“Yeah, I can understand how that might be a problem,” she said noncommittally. Ling Qi suspected it was less a matter of necessity and more a desire to avoid using the illusionary skills granted from her heritage. “That said, do you have an art lined up? Mundane swordplay will only get you so far.”

The girl’s pointed ears twitched violently, and her expression grew sour. “I have some points stored up,” she said gruffly. “Gonna go to the second floor. I just figure it’s no good to get an art if my skills are still crap.” Ling Qi couldn’t help but feel that there was something Su Ling wasn’t saying.

“Have you considered a tutor?” Ling Qi asked tentatively as she moved to sit down by the vent. She needed to cycle her qi to solidify the gains she had made with her defensive art. “I can barely hold a sword without stabbing my own foot. Sparring with me won’t help with learning swordsmanship.”

“Too expensive,” Su Ling answered, sitting down herself to cycle. Ling Qi could see the bruises on her palm start to heal already. “Just getting an art is gonna cost me.”

Ling Qi hummed in response. That was true. Inner Sect tutoring was pretty pricey. She didn’t regret trying it herself though. “Well, if you think so…” She trailed off awkwardly, and an uncomfortable silence fell between them.

“What’s bothering you?” Ling Qi asked bluntly after a few minutes. “You’ve been really wound up,” she added, looking at the other girl out of the corner of her eye. “It’s not about the sword arts.”

Su Ling kept her eyes on the stars overhead. “I just wanted to hit something for a while. Got the damn silly idea to ask you, and all I managed was to hurt my hands.”

“What’s wrong, is someone making trouble for you?” Ling Qi would take care of it if so.

Su Ling snorted. “No, and if there was, I’d tell ya to stay out of it. The usual assholes aren’t bothering me. I got someone else to sell my stuff through. Just… been thinking about things.”

“That usually makes me want to hit something too,” Ling Qi quipped. “... I’m guessing it has something to do with your breakthrough?” Ling Qi waited for Su Ling’s answer in the silence that followed.

“I’m fucking tired of not having any choices on my path,” Su Ling admitted quietly. “Seems like I can only get stronger by being like that fucking fox. But, well, you can see that I’m pretty shit with a sword.”

“You’re not great, but it’s not like you’ve been practicing long either,” Ling Qi pointed out, knowing that Su Ling wasn’t in the mood for pretty lies.

“Says the girl who picks up a bow and starts tagging bullseyes a few hours later,” Su Ling replied dryly. “Nah, I’ve worked at it, and I can tell. I’m just not good with it. All I’m good with are illusions and hunting techniques. I wanted something that was mine, and I don’t want to give up on the sword. At the same time, I feel like an idiot wasting resources on something I’m not much good at.”

Ling Qi didn’t really have the experience to speak on this. She hadn’t really failed at anything she had tried her hand at since coming here.

“I think it’s too soon to begin giving up on swords. Besides, what it comes down to is that you enjoy using a sword, right? It’s worth doing just for that. We don’t have so little that we have to put everything into just getting by anymore.”

“Hmph. Easy for you to say,” Su Ling retorted, but there wasn’t any heat in it. “You ready to keep going, or are you just gonna sit around all night?”

Ling Qi looked back to see the other girl standing up and dusting off her pants, ready for another round. “Sure,” she laughed. “I can always use the exercise.”

The two of them practiced well into the night, and soon, sparring and cultivating with Su Ling at the vent in the evenings became another part of her routine. The rest of the week flew swiftly by.

However, there remained one thing to do that Ling Qi had been putting off. Namely, she had to compose a response to her mother’s last letter. She honestly wasn’t certain what to think of the idea of a younger sibling. Despite what she had told Zhengui to call her, she had only the vaguest idea of what siblings were supposed to do. She was glad her… younger sister was apparently healthy, as was her mother, and that her support was helping them both. At the same time, she was even more unsure of what to say.

The tone of her mother’s letters also bothered her. Her mother was good at talking in circles and not saying what she meant. It was hard to tell what she was really thinking, especially through the medium of letters. Ling Qi wished she could meet her face-to-face again and have a proper conversation.

Unfortunately, meeting in person just wasn’t possible. Ling Qi could probably pay for transport, but the presence of her sister complicated any plans. A child that young had no business going on such a trip, and even without a child, travel between cities was deadly for mortals. They were just so… fragile.

That in itself was a slightly discomfiting thought. When had she started thinking of people that way? Ling Qi did not particularly care for that line of thought and wasn’t sure what to do with it frankly. She shook her head and began to compose her letter.

Mother,

I was glad to hear back from you, even if the contents of your letter was a little shocking. I admit, I have little idea of what to do with the knowledge that I have a sibling. I am glad the two of you are healthy and well.

I enjoy my life here at the sect, but it does have its own troubles. I have made a few friends among my fellow disciples. I never thought that I would end up mingling with nobility, but my best friend is a member of a ducal family. She has helped me a great deal in fitting in. I also had some trouble with a very persistent boy for a time, but that trouble seems to have passed.

Right now, I am training hard to prepare myself for the end of the year tournament, as well as supporting my allies’ own preparations. Much of my time is spent taking care of the spirit I have bound. Would you believe that I hatched a xuanwu, Mother? I did not even think them real before coming here. Zhengui is adorable, if endlessly hungry, so his care can be taxing. It is well worth it though.

Oh! I seem to have discovered a real talent for archery, as well as music. I cannot thank you enough for the lessons you gave me. I do not think I would be where I am now if you had not taken the time to teach me the flute.

I miss those lessons very much.

So in turn, let me ask you, Mother. How are you? What are you doing now that you no longer need worry about money? I do not know you as well as I should, but I would like to rectify that.

Ling Qi

It had taken her a few tries, but eventually, her letter was composed and sent. She was unsure about blatantly discussing cultivation matters with her mother, and she certainly wasn’t going to tell her about the fights she had been in, but this… It felt like something a child should write to their parent.

She would look forward to the response, and perhaps, in the not so distant future, she would find the occasion to visit Tonghou City again. She wondered if any of the guards would recognize her when she did.

She hoped so, if only to see what their expressions would look like.

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