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Ling Qi twisted away from the hold, years of practice at escaping informing her movements even as she drew on dark qi, the light of early dawn barely dim enough to allow it without greater qi cost. She dissolved and flowed out of his grip, but in doing so, she felt her finger bend, caught in his grip despite her current state. She grit her teeth and pushed on anyway, biting back a cry as she felt something snap. The blade buried in her back tore free, trailing starry blackness and blood.

“Not good enough,” she snarled in response, restraining the urge to cradle her broken finger. She still had her ring, and that was what mattered.

A second pair of puppets had attacked Xiulan from below, grappling and blocking the girl from coming to her aid with their bodies even as she burned through them like firewood. Ling Qi would need to hold out on her own for at least a few moments. She dropped her bow in the grapple, so the flute was her best option now.

The possessed mannequin’s response was a furious growl that echoed as if from the bottom of a well. It lunged toward her again, violet mist leaking from its joints.

Behind it, light bloomed, a near blinding radiance that shone with every color and cast the shadow of the puppet over her. The puppet’s outstretched hand flew by her face, tumbling end over end, no longer attached to its arm. Then its head tumbled past as well, green fires guttering out as the puppet crashed to the ground at her feet, falling to pieces.

Cai Renxiang stood on the roof where the puppet had been, lips set in a thin line. Her eyes were narrow with controlled anger, and now fully in the third realm, her permanent backlight blazed brightly, casting the combat in shadow. The other girl’s gaze focused on Ling Qi. “I take it your message was not idle boasting.”

“He is pretty unhappy with me. But we need to help…” She glanced to her right in time to see the last puppet assaulting Xiulan fall as her friend drove her burnt hand into its chest, molten metal streaming from the hole as she tore a yellow spirit stone out. The enforcers who had taken down the other attackers were eyeing Xiulan with some concern as she straightened up, static crackling in the air around her. “... Never mind.”

“This matter is under control,” the heiress agreed as she lowered her saber, allowing the point to rest on the rooftop. Cai Renxiang looked thoroughly unamused at the chaos on her figurative doorstep. “I would have you report in more detail upon what you found to provoke such a foolish assault. Of course I am not ungrateful for your efforts. You have more than proven your value,” she said seriously, thread spooling from the hilt of her saber to weave her scabbard anew. “I shall see you provided with care for your wounds first.”

“I am grateful, Lady Cai,” Ling Qi said politely, still tense even as she watched the remaining puppets being dismantled one by one by the growing number of irate disciples who had their morning disrupted. Blood dripped from the wound in her back, and her broken finger throbbed. She started slightly as Gu Xiulan stepped up to her side. This close, she could see the tracery of burn scars on the girl’s face more clearly and the blood seeping from her blackened arm as the aura of flames around it guttered low. “There are some matters I still need to verify before I can present them to you, but I would be happy to detail what I witnessed in Yan Renshu’s lab.”

Cai Renxiang studied her, eyes flicking briefly toward Gu Xiulan, who met her gaze with only a slight dip of her head. Whatever her friend had done, it had restored her prideful demeanor in full.

“Understood. I will see that rat’s den cleansed then. You will have such protection as you need until it is done,” the heiress said, turning away and gesturing for them to follow. “I would hope that you can resolve the remaining matters quickly though,” she added more quietly.

“By evening,” Ling Qi replied easily. “I wish to draw on Elder Jiao’s wisdom before I move forward.”

Gu Xiulan frowned slightly at the mention of the Elder’s name but simply turned her head away and scoffed when Ling Qi glanced at her. Cai nodded once and leapt nimbly to the next roof, gesturing for the two of them and the enforcers who had aided them to follow, which she did. Sitting tight, surrounded by Cai’s people, sounded like the safest way to spend her day until she could talk to Elder Jiao.

“What happened to you?” Ling Qi asked quietly, glancing at her friend as she landed on the next roof beside her.

“I decided to stop being left behind,” Xiulan sniffed. “Though it cost me,” she added, glancing down at her scorched limb, which she held close to her chest. With the adrenaline of battle fading, Ling Qi could see the trembling in her friend’s shoulders indicated that it likely hurt exactly as much as she would expect from its appearance.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the Medicine Hall?” Ling Qi asked. “That looks like you could lose it.”

“I won’t,” Xiulan scoffed. “I was going to wrap it and apply a salve, but someone decided to interrupt.”

Ling Qi winced and ducked her head in apology. “I didn’t know. Still, why are you so reluctant…?”

“This and the other scars will heal when I achieve steel, the fifth realm of physique, and not a moment before,” Xiulan said tightly. “My body is simply too weak to fully contain my gift yet. I will endure.” Ling Qi could tell that she didn’t want to talk about it. “I suppose I will have to invest in a better veil though. That flimsy thing could not handle even a bit of combat.”

“I’m not sure you need it,” Ling Qi said, allowing the other subject to be dismissed. “It’s not like you have anything to be ashamed of.”

“Perhaps not, but such blatant markings are hardly beautiful,” Xiulan replied as the group landed in the street in front of Cai’s mansion. Ling Qi could not help but notice with some discomfort that the network of scars on Xiulan’s face extended down her neck and under her collar. There were probably a lot more hidden beneath her clothes. “I do not regret it,” the girl beside her breathed out, and Ling Qi was not sure of who she was convincing.

Xiulan stayed with her while Ling Qi was healed and made out her report for Cai on the lair. She added the names she had memorized to a list for the heiress, indicating only that they were potential spies and enemy agents who needed to be watched.

By the time she was done, she felt much better. Her wounds were reduced to a few dull aches and a stiff ring finger by the effort of a Medicine Hall disciple in Cai’s employ. Xiulan’s arm was no longer in plain view after being wrapped in tight cloth soaked through with medicinal elixir. Cai Renxiang had been amenable to sending a few enforcers to check on Su Ling and to inform Li Suyin that it would be best to stay with her mentor for the day, so her other concerns were addressed as well.

Ling Qi didn’t much like staying in the guest room at the heiress’ home for the rest of the day, but she could deal with it for one afternoon. And it did give her time to see to the opening of another heart meridian.

It felt good to be able to relax behind Cai’s defenses, and Ling Qi added modifying her and Meizhen’s home with similar protections against intrusion when she had a chance to her to-do list. People rushed to and fro dealing with the rising problems, and Ling Qi kept an ear out for the happenings. Bai Meizhen had apparently lead a purging force into Renshu’s lair. There had been attacks all over the mountain from Yan Renshu’s faction, but it seemed defensive at this point. There was even a rumor that Sun Liling had been spotted, making off with people and resources before Cai’s enforcers could seize them. There was another attempt on the mansion - or rather on her, Ling Qi assumed, but it was repelled by the heiress herself, who was ensuring that any violence that flared in the residential area was crushed quickly.

Soon enough, it was evening, and she was on her way toward the cavern where Elder Jiao’s lessons took place under the guard of four Mid Yellow enforcers with at least some skill at stealth. They only needed to get her there after all; it wasn't like she would be attacked in the Elder’s presence.

Surprisingly, when she arrived, Elder Jiao was already seated on the divan at the far end of the room. The paintings had changed again, now showing landscapes under starry skies, some of which contained holes that resembled freshly dug graves.

“This year certainly has been noisy,” the grey skinned man commented as she entered, leaning idly against the arm of the divan. “It is almost notable. You are quite the little agent of chaos, are you not?”

“I am thankful for your attention, Honored Elder,” Ling Qi replied, her tone a bit dry. “But I can hardly be blamed for Brother Renshu’s poor security and ensuing panic.”

“Hah!” The older man let out a snort of laughter. “Brave enough to jape in my presence now, are you? It is good to have a little spine, but do not get above yourself.”

“Of course, Honored Elder,” she said, glad that her little slip hadn’t offended the fickle man. “Might I ask you for advice on a related matter before we begin training?”

“I suppose I can allow that,” Elder Jiao said, resting his chin in his hand as he regarded her. “You have proven to be not entirely dull.”

She bowed her head in thanks and expressed the book, crossing the small room to present it to the Elder. “I wished to know the legality involved with this book. Such contracts must be outlawed, or else everyone would use such things, right?” she asked, her formal speech slipping toward the end. The book really did bother her.

The book vanished from her hands to appear in his, and the older man sat up to begin paging through it. Ling Qi received no answer as the Elder studied the first contract, and she began to shift nervously.

“It is against Imperial law,” he said finally, looking up from the book, “to hold any member of the Imperial government under coercion of any kind. This includes the heads of noble households and their spouses.” Elder Jiao sounded bored as he snapped the book shut. “Of course, none of the Outer Sect Disciples falls under that rule.”

Ling Qi furrowed her brows. “Then why doesn’t…”

“Why do we not have great webs of cultivators bound to one another? Why do we require Ministries and investigations into lawbreaking at all? Because this is a rather grand bluff, workable only due to the ignorance of those involved.”

Ling Qi blinked, startled as she cocked her head to the side. “So… they’re fake? Surely someone would have figured that out by now.”

“Not quite,” the Elder explained, tossing the book back to her carelessly. “Compelling another cultivator is possible, but it is hardly as easy as this. One need be at least a realm higher to begin with. Distance greatly weakens the bond, and the qi invested in such an endeavor is similar to what is required for the binding of spirits and grows with each additional bond.”

“So…” Ling Qi frowned, looking down at the book. “There’s no way all of them are real. He couldn’t have that much qi at third realm.”

“Oh, I do not doubt that he can use those things to cause discomfort or pain as a way of furthering the bluff, but not the outrageous penalties within.” The Elder shrugged. “One or two are real, going by the invested qi. Such things have fallen out of favor millenia ago. Maintaining the bonds are simply too much trouble, and those who use them are ill-regarded. I suppose a common-born boy would not necessarily know that though.”

“Thank you, Honored Elder,” Ling Qi replied after some thought. She would have to investigate the book further and break the ‘one’ or ‘two’ that were real, but she was satisfied with revealing this to Cai and letting her dump mud all over Yan Renshu’s reputation.

Perhaps this week wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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