Ling Qi enjoyed a few hours of relatively relaxed training and study with her friends, but soon enough, it was time to start heading up the mountain to meet with Elder Jiao for the week’s training. The paintings had changed again, this time depicting fancy halls filled with people in elaborate and expensive clothes mingling. They remained eerily lifelike, but it wasn’t as distracting as the twisted eye and mouth-studded shapes that they had depicted the week before.
Ling Qi took her usual seat and clasped her hands neatly in her lap to wait, silently rehearsing the lines she had come up with to convince the Elder to teach her to be a better thief. The room was silent as Ling Qi practiced her lines, hoping to perfect her speech so as to avoid offending the prickly old man teaching her.
Given her distraction, Ling Qi jerked in surprise when a cool hand fell on her shoulder, instinctively jumping out of her seat to turn and face the person who had touched her. Unfortunately, she put too much force in the motion and practically launched herself out of her chair, only to crack her head against the low ceiling of the cavern.
Ling Qi managed to land on her feet but winced as she rubbed the top of her head, which throbbed with the force of the impact. She peered warily through the gloomy room to see who had startled her so. It took only a moment to recognize the person in question; a portrait of her had been staring at her all last week after all.
Xin stood beside her seat with a bemused expression, one hand on her hip. She wore a gown of dark blue and black, which glittered with starry light at her every movement, and her white hair was styled in an elaborate updo pinned in place with glittering onyx pins and jewelry.
“Feeling a little wound up, dear?” Xin asked compassionately, although Ling Qi could see the twinkle of humor in her red eyes.
Ling Qi wrestled her breathing back under control and did her best not to glower at the older... woman? Spirit? “My apologies,” she said with a bow. “I was only startled by your presence, Honored-”
Xin clicked her tongue and for lack of a better word, flickered, appearing directly in front of Ling Qi to peer down at her. Had the woman been tall enough to do that before? “Don’t be like that, young lady,” she admonished, examining the point where Ling Qi had banged her head. “There is no call to speak to me so formally.”
“Ah… Sorry?” Ling Qi tried, thrown off-balance as she felt Xin’s cold hand come to rest on top of her head, washing away the minor ache with a feeling like cold water being trickled down her neck. “Why are you here?” she blurted out, feeling tongue-tied in the woman’s presence. “I mean, did something happen with Elder Jiao?”
Xin took a step back, examining her with a critical eye. The gaze made Ling Qi feel vaguely childish, like it was her mother standing in front of her, checking to see if she had torn one of her gowns.
“Oh, he’s just a little delayed,” Xin replied dismissively, finally meeting Ling Qi’s gaze with her own slightly luminescent one. “You have grown so well, haven’t you,” she said warmly. “I can hardly compare you to the skinny, dim spark you were when last we met.”
“Thank you?” Ling Qi asked. It was true that she was no longer quite so malnourished, and she had grown much stronger. “You’re looking well too?” she tried again, only to remember Elder Jiao’s words at the end of the second part of Elder Zhou’s test. “I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
“It was nothing, dear,” Xin said, waving her hand carelessly to brush off the apology. “Becoming a voice for my greater self is merely uncomfortable at worst, and you have grown for it.” Xin’s gaze drifted downward to fix on Ling Qi’s stomach, or rather, Ling Qi’s dantian. “Well, I did have some hope of poaching you for myself. But the Grinning Moon will not treat you poorly.”
Right, Xin was an aspect of the New Moon, Ling Qi thought. It made sense that Xin could tell what choice Ling Qi had made. “I hope not to fail in meeting her expectations. I did consider your offer strongly as well.”
Xin looked pleased, raising her eyes back to Ling Qi’s face. “I suppose we will see. You are hardly ready to choose a Way properly regardless. You’re still in that experimenting stage, trying anything and everything,” she said impishly. “Your spirit is quite muddled as of yet.”
Ling Qi’s expression grew concerned as she looked down, as if to examine herself. “... Is that bad?” she asked cautiously. “And what do you mean about choosing a Way?”
“You simply haven’t found your true drive yet, which is hardly unusual for your age,” Xin reassured. “As for a Way, all cultivators must eventually choose the concept which defines them. It is impossible to advance beyond what you call Cyan without…”
“XIN.” Ling Qi flinched as Elder Jiao’s voice boomed through the cavern, rattling the furniture. The shadows in the room roiled and swelled, tendrils of absolute darkness, opaque even to her vision, writhing across every surface as the light of the lantern flickered wildly. Worse still were the eyes, wide and glaring, gleaming like kaleidoscopes, that opened by the dozen across the shadows in the room.
“Oh, bother. I really thought that would hold him longer than this.” The spirit sighed, resting her cheek in one hand but otherwise unperturbed. Ling Qi shot her an incredulous look.
“Twelve layers.” The Elder’s voice no longer rattled the furniture, but it was still painfully loud. The shadow of the divan boiled upward, bubbling like a pillar of tar as it took on Elder Jiao’s features. He ignored her entirely in favor of glaring at Xin. “Why would you leave a twelve-layered dream cage around the workshop, you insufferable woman?!”
Ling Qi quietly scuttled off to the side, not wanting to be in the Elder’s line of sight. As it was, his qi was nearly suffocating.
Xin crossed her arms, turning a frown on the Elder. “Do not take that tone with me, and cease the dramatics. You’ll scare the poor girl to death.”
Ling Qi hunched her shoulders, instinctively trying to appear small as the Elder glanced her way. Elder Jiao let out an irritated huff, but the twisting, reaching shadows receded,along with the oppressive weight of his qi. “Did it occur to you just to ask if you wanted to accompany me?” he asked Xin pointedly, still sounding irritated.
“Is it not my duty as a wife to ensure that my husband does not grow lax?” Xin asked flippantly.
The Elder stared at Xin, unmoving, unbreathing, and utterly still. “I am ignoring you,” he declared abruptly, as if handing out a proclamation from on high. “You,” he continued, pointing at Ling Qi, “will also be ignoring her, or this lesson will end.”
“That is hardly fair,” Xin protested. “Come now. It wasn’t that bad.”
“Which of my teachings do you seek this week, Disciple?” Elder Jiao asked airily, as if he hadn’t heard Xin.
Ling Qi glanced between the two, feeling terribly off-kilter. Somehow, her image of the Sect’s Elders had been changed in a fundamental way. She fumbled with her words, trying to remember her rehearsed speech. “I… That is… I was hoping for the Honored Elder’s advice on the matters of retrieving enemy resources from guarded locations or containers, as well as their person.”
The “Honored” Elder gave her a flat look. “You want me to tutor you in the arts of thievery. Is that truly what you want to ask?”
Ling Qi shuffled her feet, ignoring Xin’s laugh. “... Yes,” she said in a small voice.
“My, what an insightful girl,” Xin said smugly.
Still ignoring Xin, Elder Jiao merely palmed his face. “Why not? Come, Disciple,” he said, flickering from the divan to the doorway.
“What are we doing?” Ling Qi asked, hurrying after him. She cast an apologetic look at Xin, who drifted after them, no longer pretending to walk.
“Live targets are required for this training,” Elder Jiao said. “You shall be testing yourself against your fellow disciples at my instruction. You will, of course, be required to deal with the fallout of failure on your own. You will not mention your training.”
Ling Qi grimaced. She really should have expected something like this. She supposed she would just have to do her best to avoid getting caught.
What followed was… tense. Elder Jiao would set her a task like pilfering stones or pills from a disciple or slipping into a home unnoticed and planting tokens in specific locations. There was nary a hint of advice, only a few casual pointers for improvement in the aftermath of such tasks. The difficulty ramped up quickly as they proceeded to the part of the mountain where many of the older disciples lived. Ling Qi switched the contents of people’s bags, broke locks, planted pills and tokens in bedrooms and bathrooms, and rearranged furniture and knickknacks in the instants when their owners were out of the room.
... Somehow, she managed without getting caught once, even when the Elder commanded something ridiculous, like replacing a girl’s hair pins from her dressing table without her noticing while the girl was putting them in.
Her success did seem to put the man in a better mood at least, and with each success, his advice on improving her cultivation of the more larcenous parts of her Sable Crescent Step art grew more useful. Indeed, the insights she gained from the Elder was enough to finally master the usage of Crescent’s Grace technique even under the light of the sun, albeit at an increased qi cost. Xin was encouraging as well, but sadly, she had to ignore the spirit. Xin did not appear to take offense, focused as she was on needling Elder Jiao, who ignored her every attempt with great dignity.
It was, overall, quite a useful evening.
... Even if the news which reached her later of a spree of paint bombs, surprise hair dyes, and other prankish things, as well as fights breaking out over stolen property, made her desperately hope that no one ever discovered what she had been doing. She knew those tokens the Elder kept handing her were suspicious!
Ling Qi quickly fell into her week’s routine after that. She spent the early hours practicing her music on the mountain top, meeting with Li Suyin and Su Ling in the afternoons, and receiving tutoring in the evenings. At night, she scouted and prepared for her eventual raid on Yan Renshu’s base.
Translating the manual was slow going, although Li Suyin assured her that they were making great progress given the limited amount of time spent on it. It appeared to be a manual on the creation of formations constructs, focused around the use of bone as a medium, but the details and actual technical instructions still eluded them.
More important than any of that though was her upcoming outing with Meizhen. Well, she hadn’t really billed it that way or actually told Meizhen that they would be having an outing. But since she knew that Meizhen was intending to go out, she simply rearranged her plans to walk with her to the market.
This… was a little awkward because Meizhen clearly hadn’t expected her presence. Not that anyone else could tell Meizhen felt anything out of the ordinary at a casual glance. The pale girl beside her still moved with an effortless grace that made her seem as if she were gliding across the ground, all ethereal and fairy-like. Meizhen would look like a princess out of a storybook, Ling Qi mused, if not for the aura of gut-wrenching animal terror she radiated.
Ling Qi couldn’t really compare to the other girl’s poise. Though her balance was good, her strides were long and obvious, kicking up the hems of her dark gown with each step.
“What, precisely, did you need at the market?” Bai Meizhen questioned without taking her eyes off the path ahead of them as lower realm cultivators made way for them on the road. Meizhen did not acknowledge them.
“I thought I would shop around among the pill makers again. It’s been awhile since I’ve stocked up,” Ling Qi said. “And I might need to trade up on knives soon. My old set is subpar.”
Meizhen gave a quiet hum of acknowledgement. “I see.” To anyone else, it probably sounded like simple disinterest, but Ling Qi could read her friend a little better than that. Meizhen was uncomfortable.
“How about you?” Ling Qi pressed on. They could do this. Things didn’t need to be awkward between them. “I don’t think you’ve ever gone to the market with the intention to buy.”
“My own resources are typically superior,” Bai Meizhen acknowledged. She looked like she was going to fall silent again, but Ling Qi caught her eye and raised an eyebrow. Meizhen let out a near inaudible breath in response. “It is a matter of recreation. Nothing I would bother my family with.”
Ling Qi blinked, her other eyebrow joining the first. “Really?” she asked with a hint of incredulity. “Just what kind of hobby would catch your attention?”
The pale girl stared ahead, her bearing stiff. “I have decided to improve my embroidery. It is a useful exercise in manual dexterity.” Ling Qi wasn’t sure who Meizhen was trying to convince with that excuse.
“Huh. I never expected you to pick up something so… delicate.”
Meizhen furrowed her brows slightly. “What are you implying? It is a perfectly acceptable recreational activity for a young lady.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it,” Ling Qi apologized. “Did you practice at home?”
“... No,” Meizhen admitted. “I had other priorities in my limited free time.” Ling Qi suspected that those other priorities had been things like ‘sleep’ and ‘extra training’.
“Well, I don’t know too much about embroidery,” Ling Qi said slowly. Mother had only just started teaching her that when she had run away. “But I can use a needle and thread well enough. Maybe we could practice a bit together?” She didn’t miss the way her friend’s shoulders subtly hunched inward, a sure sign of even greater discomfort in the reticent girl.
“... Cai Renxiang has already offered instruction,” Meizhen finally said. “I am afraid I will have to decline.”
Ling Qi’s expression fell as they passed one of the milestones on the path to the market before she masked her disappointment. “Oh, well, that’s fine. I can hardly compete with that. So you’re going out to pick up a sewing kit?”
“I am,” Bai Meizhen said, looking at Ling Qi out of the corner of her eye. “... I will still be available for our spars,” she offered awkwardly.
“I’m glad. I just wish there was something we could do together that wasn’t just work or practice,” Ling Qi said, surprising herself with her own honesty.
“I do not see it as such,” Meizhen said thoughtfully. “We are cultivators. Polishing one another’s arts as we do together is hardly without its own… intimacy.” Ling Qi hadn’t thought about it like that. In the end, the one Meizhen showed her techniques and arts to in their entirety was Ling Qi, not Cai Renxiang.
“I guess so,” she said, feeling better. “I’ll tag along for your purchase all the same though. Even if you have all the money in the world, it’s important to get a good price,” she said, giving a sage nod at her own words.
Bai Meizhen let out an amused huff. “What manner of pampered songbird do you imagine me to be?” she asked scathingly. Her tone didn’t hold any real heat though.
The shopping trip was quite fun. Meizhen could certainly make the disciples running the shops sweat, making it all the easier for Ling Qi to haggle them down. It made for an amusing diversion, and in the end, Ling Qi found herself glad that she had decided to tag along anyway.