The sky was a tapestry of dark storm clouds hanging low over the icy mountain peak. Howling winds and driving snow both flowed around the black pool and its ravine, guided away by an unseen force that allowed no more than gentle flurries to fall, drifting among the notes of the song played by its occupants.
Ling Qi sat beside the icy spirit Zeqing upon a bench of ice sculpted from the permanent frost of the mountain peak and played a melody of forgotten places and loss. She wondered briefly if an observer might think her a spirit as well, given the similarities in garb she shared with her teacher. Ling Qi had gotten used to proximity with the snow woman; the perpetual chill that surrounded Zeqing was hardly a bother, and even contact was merely uncomfortable, rather than painful.
She allowed her thoughts to drift elsewhere as she played, gazing up at the churning sky. Her weekly schedule remained densely packed, and juggling everything she wanted to do was difficult. But beyond anything else, she wanted to reconnect with her friends this week. Training was all well and good, but she couldn’t repair her relationship with Meizhen with such impersonal actions. There was Li Suyin and Su Ling to consider as well. Xiulan’s continued absence worried her, but there was little she could do about that for the moment.
She did not want to end up alone again.
“Are you well?” Ling Qi nearly jumped out of her skin when Zeqing’s cool voice reached her ears, interrupting her thoughts. She hadn’t even noticed the spirit ending her own melody. She met the spirit’s empty white eyes.
“I’m sorry for my distraction,” Ling Qi apologized, dipping her head in a brief bow. What did it say about her Sect’s Elders that she was more comfortable acting casually with an inhuman spirit of ice and winter?
“It was not unpleasant,” Zeqing responded, her hair billowing in unfelt winds as she turned her gaze back to the pool of black ice. “Those thoughts, whatever they were, resonated with the melody.”
Ling Qi grew quiet at the unspoken question, fiddling idly with her flute as she gazed down at her lap. “I was just thinking about my friends and the distance between us lately. I’m going to fix it, but I suppose I’m still worried.”
The snow woman let out a thoughtful hum. “I see. I suppose you speak of the serpent child you brought to this place?”
Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably on her icy seat. “Among others. I apologize for not asking permission.”
“It is nothing,” the spirit assured, her nearly transparent fingers of ice making a clear clinking sound as they tapped thoughtfully against the body of her flute. “While I would be displeased to see half the Sect traipsing about, a companion or two in a private rendezvous is acceptable.”
Ling Qi flushed slightly. “It’s not like that,” she replied, deflecting the spirit’s implication. “I just… There’s been a bit of trouble between us lately, and things haven’t been quite the same.”
“Troubling,” Zeqing mused. “I see your plight. That one’s blood is far too strong for the most obvious methods of retaining companions. She could not be easily bound to your side.”
Ling Qi shivered, reminded that the creature at her side was not human. “That… isn’t really the problem,” she said, choosing not to engage with that statement more than necessary.
“Isn’t it? Your core is not so distant from mine. Of course you would desire to keep your… friends at your side for all time and ensure that they may never leave you,” Zeqing said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“I suppose,” Ling Qi said carefully, avoiding Zeqing’s empty white eyes. That wasn’t wrong, but it sounded bad somehow when it was said like that. She didn’t really want to talk about this any more. “Where is Hanyi’s father then? How do you keep him around?” she asked, deflecting the subject from herself. She was a little worried at the possible answer but was also curious.
The temperature plunged, and the light grew dim. Ling Qi winced.
“I devoured him spirit, blood and bone, so that he could never betray me again,” Zeqing replied in a voice more akin to the howling of a blizzard wind than a human voice. She regained herself almost immediately, and the ominous feeling faded. “Beware those who come to ply you with gifts and flattery,” she said, now appearing merely unhappy rather than murderous. “Far more reliable are those you bring and keep through your own efforts.”
That sounded about right. It was much better to be the one in control of any given situation. It wasn’t entirely right though in that a relationship couldn’t be entirely one-sided and be any good. “Well, let’s not dwell, right?” she asked, her voice perhaps a touch high. “Will you show me that altered sequence for Diapason again?”
The spirit of cold hunger at her side inclined her head, gown billowing. “Of course. No need to let unpleasant things stain our recreation.” Zeqing raised her flute to her lips once more. “Listen closely.”
It was harder to get comfortable practicing again. It wasn’t as if Ling Qi was unaware of what sort of spirit the snow woman was; Tonghou was far enough south to sometimes see heavy snows in the winter, but hearing Zeqing casually discuss devouring someone was unsettling. Even if it was in the context of attempting to offer helpful advice.
Well, when she thought about it, that actually made it worse. Awkwardness aside, her time up on the peak was an enjoyable break from her hectic schedule,and she reluctantly descended the mountain peak after her lesson to return to her other tasks.
Not that it was unpleasant to spend more time with her friends. But while she may not have agreed with the extremity of the spirit’s statements, Zeqing wasn’t fundamentally wrong about her motivations.
When she arrived at the vent for the meeting she had arranged with Li Suyin, the other girl was already present, seated in the grass with an open text on her lap. Suyin looked up when Ling Qi arrived at the edge of the clearing and smiled brightly, raising her hand in greeting. “Ling Qi! It is good to see you again.”
“And you as well,” Ling Qi agreed, feeling happy at the genuine warmth she could see in the other girl’s expression. She knew she was being silly. “We didn’t exactly get a chance to talk at our last meeting. How is your arm?” she asked as she crossed the clearing to approach her friend.
“As good as new,” Li Suyin replied cheerfully, flexing her formerly broken arm to demonstrate. “How have you been, Ling Qi? Su Ling said you were well, but said you didn’t speak much of yourself.”
“I’m doing alright,” Ling Qi said, dropping to the ground beside her friend and allowing herself to sprawl without worry for dignity. “I’ve been really busy, but I’d like to think I’ve made some real gains from it. I managed to eke out some attention from Elder Jiao.”
Li Suyin’s eye widened in surprise and she smiled, reaching down to close the book in her lap as she did. “How wonderful for you! I am so glad to see you getting the attention you deserve.”
Ling Qi glanced away, embarrassed at that assertion, but quickly forged on, sitting up straight as she summoned the manual she had found in the shaman’s bags out from her storage ring. “That isn’t the only thing I’ve gotten ahold of. I figured we could have a bit of fun working this one out together.”
Her friend blinked but accepted the tome Ling Qi pushed into her hands. Suyin carefully opened the blank cover to peer at the somewhat crinkled pages inside, scanning across the odd blocky text. “How strange. Where did you get this?”
“I just found it while exploring,” Ling Qi lied, remembering Elder Ying’s warning not to speak of the shaman shehad encountered. “It was tucked away in some ruins,” she elaborated. It was better to avoid outright falsehoods if she could. “Why is it strange?”
“Well, it looks like the script of the hill tribes in this region before they accepted Imperial rule,” Li Suyin explained, interest lighting up her eye as she paged through the book. “Father had a handful of fragments in his collection, but nothing so complete.”
Ling Qi cocked her head to the side. She had expected it to be Cloud Tribe writing. She hadn’t been aware of any other languages in this area. “Oh? Your Father collected stuff like this? Are you from this province then? I never really asked.”
Li Suyin looked up from the open manual and nodded. “I am from Jizhou,” she said easily, only to grow sheepish at Ling Qi’s lack of recognition. “Um… It is the northernmost city in the province and the primary hub of trade for goods going to and from the central provinces. Jizhou is second only to the capital seat of the Emerald Seas in splendor and size.”
Ling Qi remembered that Suyin had mentioned that her father was some highly placed scribe. If she was from a place like that, her family must actually be pretty wealthy by mortal standards. “Ah, well, I’m just a bumpkin from Tonghou. Nothing exciting I can really say about the place.” Nothing appropriate for company anyway.
Li Suyin chewed her on her lower lip. “... Well, there isn’t anything wrong with that. Tonghou is still an important stop on the central north-south routes, even if the mines in the region are played out.”
“You would know better than me,” Ling Qi acknowledged, not feeling any need to talk up her old home. “So, our project,” she continued, steering the subject back on track. “Can you read it then? This might be easier than I thought.”
“Not… really. I know some of the characters, but I am hardly fluent,” she admitted sheepishly. “But the language is very closely related to some of the older dialects of the Imperial tongue, so it should not be overly difficult to learn,” she said more brightly.
“Hm. Maybe I can check out the archive and see if they have anything,” Ling Qi mused. Before coming to the Sect, she would never have considered something like learning a language to be ‘easy’.
“I can give you a list of useful texts to look into,” Li Suyin agreed.
“Yo. Sorry I arrived a little late,” Su Ling called as she approached from the edge of the clearing, making them both look up in surprise. Su Ling’s qi was familiar enough that it tended to blend into the background if Ling Qi wasn’t paying attention. “I had to finish up a batch of pills.”
“No worries,” Ling Qi said. “Suyin and I were just catching up. We have a project to work on together.”
“Mm, it seems like it will be fun,” Li Suyin said cheerfully. “Will the two of you continue working together as well?”
“That’s the idea,” Su Ling said gruffly, glancing between the two of them. “Assuming it’s not gonna interrupt anything?”
“I figured we could take turns between physical practice and studying,” Ling Qi replied, standing up and brushing the grass from her gown. “Anyway, Su Ling, I wanted to give you something. I got my hands on an art that I think would be great for you, and I figured I could save you some Sect Points.” Ling Qi summoned the jade slip containing the Argent Current art to hand.
“Is that so,” Su Ling said, her expression growing conflicted. “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s no trouble,” Ling Qi said. “You can pay me back later if you feel the need,” she added, hoping to assuage the girl’s pride.
Su Ling frowned. “That’s…” She trailed off, frustrated, then glanced at Li Suyin, who was looking at her worriedly. “That’s not really the point,” she said finally.
“What do you mean?” Ling Qi asked, lowering her hand.
“I want to find my own path,” Su Ling said bluntly. “How can it be mine if I just take what you give me? I know you're not gonna take advantage of a debt, but all the same, I’d rather learn an art that I earned and picked out for myself.”
That was understandable. Ling Qi may have gotten a little ahead of herself. “Well, the offer is there if you want it,” she said, vanishing the slip. “We can just continue sparring with you practicing the sword then.”
“Sounds good,” Su Ling replied, looking relieved. Was the other girl really so worried about offending Ling Qi?
With that awkward moment past, the three of them were able to make an enjoyable afternoon of it, advancing their skills and cultivation. The translation efforts were off to a slow start, but that would improve once Ling Qi had time to swing by the archive for references. There was no rush because Li Suyin would be busy in the latter half of the week with an attempt to breakthrough to Silver.