“I know you can do it. Just a little more!” Ling Qi encouraged from her place at the edge of the clearing.
At the center of the gap in the small forest copse, Zhengui trembled, his shell glowing a bright emerald green. The grass at his feet was lit as well in a distorted circle around the young spirit. On advice from Xuan Shi, she had decided to explore Zhengui’s wood affinity more. It seemed that ‘normal’ xuan wu usually had some ability to manipulate their environment, such as altering currents, creating small sinkholes, or at the higher end, outright manipulating the weather, causing earthquakes, and sinking or raising islands.
In Zhengui’s case, he seemed to mainly affect plants. They hadn’t exactly figured out the limits of what he could do yet, but he could apparently repair nicks and damage to his shell. Ling Qi refused to test that any further. With focus, his wood affinity also extended his awareness, allowing him to feel things from further away. This awareness had a greater range if there were trees nearby.
Now they were seeing if he could actually manipulate plants. Ling Qi watched Zhengui carefully as the young spirit shook in place, paying close attention to the feeling of his qi so she could stop him if it seemed like he was overexerting himself.
The grass around him glowed and twisted as if caught in a breeze, and the snake-tortoise’s glowing shell briefly flared, a rippling circle of green qi flowing out in a rough circle. When it faded, Zhengui lay on the ground, his serpentine tail twitching as Zhen peered down at his other half, who lay on the grass, stubby legs splayed out. The grass in the circle was several centimeters longer than it was everywhere else.
“Good job!” Ling Qi praised as she quickly crossed the clearing, her feet barely disturbing the still rustling grass, even as it grasped weakly at her feet. She crouched at his side and scooped him up. Zhengui was getting big enough that it was a little awkward, but she smiled nonetheless.”I bet you’ll be able to do all sorts of fun things soon.”
Gui blinked tiredly up at her. That had taken a fair bit of his energy. “... Catch… everything,” he chirped, nuzzling his head into the crook of her arm.
“I was better,” Zhen insisted, looking up at her with gleaming red eyes. “I did good too. Right, Big Sister?”
“Of course you did,” Ling Qi soothed, eyeing the black scaled snake with amusement. She had told him so when he had managed to sustain his fire breath long enough to actually do more than scorch the bark of the target tree. She had to dive in to save him from having the sapling fall on him, but that was fine. “Now, why don’t I let you both take a break? I have some treats for you,” she offered slyly.
Gui perked up, immediately casting off his exhaustion as he wriggled in her arms. “Yay! Treats from Big Sis!”
She laughed as she sat down and withdrew the ‘treats’. Since she had started getting stones from the pill furnace deal, she had spent some of them on some grade two cores from wood and fire beasts.
There was no reason to be excessive, but she could afford to treat her little spirit when he was doing well. He needed a break before they started trying to work with his ash, which was more difficult since it required both of his halves to work together. She continued to smile as Gui happily nibbled on the core in her palm, and Zhen coiled himself around her other arm, resting comfortably as he swallowed down the cherry red core she had offered him.
Her smile dimmed a little as she thought back to the council meeting she had left just a short time ago. She still felt wrong-footed around the heiress, and the meeting, for all that it had mostly been boring, despite the good news, had left her with a feeling of gnawing worry.
Things seemed to be going too well for Cai’s faction. Resistance to Cai’s efforts were dying down among the older students, and some second or third years had even been inducted into the ranks of their enforcers. Disciples older than that were mostly not a concern since ‘permanent’ outer disciples were usually full-time workers for the Sect.
Yet Sun Liling remained at large, and it seemed she wasn’t rushing out to attack anymore. Instead, she was offering herself as a rallying point for anyone who refused to kowtow to Cai, promising protection and supplies in open defiance. Three enforcer pairs had already been trounced and hung up from the trees around the market in naught but their underclothes.
Fu Xiang had painted a picture of quite a tough nut to crack. Chu Song had definitely sided with Sun, along with a fair number of relatively strong second realms and several lesser players. Kang Zihao was in seclusion, which probably meant he was trying to break through to the third realm.
The fortress itself sat on a high cliff and was, Ling Qi noted sourly, surrounded by some kind of formation that left it constantly as bright as a high summer day. It looked like she had gained a reputation after the destruction of Yan Renshu’s faction. For the moment, they didn’t have much more information beyond the basic external plan, but Fu Xiang was trying to persuade the production students in the market supplying Sun’s faction to desist and turn to Cai Renxiang.
“Big Sis?” She jerked at the feeling of Zhen hissing in her ear, his forked tongue tickling her cheek. “No worrying,” the snake declared. “Will bite anyone who bothers Big Sis.”
Ling Qi blinked then let out a short laugh, reaching up to stroke Zhen’s smooth, warm scales. “Is that so? I’ll be counting on you in the future then,” she grinned. “You’ll have to work hard and become strong.”
She could feel the determination radiating off the young serpent as he turned to heckle his ‘brother’ for taking so long to eat his core. Zhen was a little more taciturn and definitely more reckless than Gui, but it gave her a warm feeling to know that her spirit cared for her as much as she did him. She was sure he would keep his promise once he had some more practice.
Even with copious amounts of food, Zhengui was still quite young so he tired himself out well before noon, leaving her with time to pursue her other tasks. Meizhen had agreed to train with her that evening, but since she had little else in the way of obligations today, she wanted to start on a batch of scouting constructs.
Although the formations in the pale tome had been altered, it was still unpleasant work. No matter that she was decent at it, Ling Qi wasn’t a big fan of breaking down her kills, and the smell left over from boiling the mice bones clean was hardly pleasant either. Etching the formations into the tiny bones made her fingers cramped and sore.
Happily, the formation effects drew the pieces back together in functioning order, and soon, she had three mouse skeletons curled up in a pouch on her belt, ready to be deployed. A bit of testing showed that they could follow simple instructions like ‘go here and come back in ten minutes.’
With that done, she turned her attention to her second project, one which had been gathering dust in the hidden space under her bed for a few weeks. The last of the shaman’s pouches had better protection than the others and would take a lot of work to unlock safely.
Picking out the characters stitched into the pouch with a needle took several hours and quite a few close calls that left her fingers tingling with the dangerous qi of the safeguards built into the pouch. Eventually though, the last of the protections fizzled and died, allowing her to safely open the drawstrings.
Her finds were quite disappointing at first. The pouch seemed like it was full of junk. There was a clay jar full of polished and painted bone dice, a torn headband worked with elaborate embroidery and beads, the broken halves of an unusably tiny bow, and other such things. They were all burnt or bloodstained too. Ling Qi couldn’t imagine why trash like this would be so well protected. As far as she could tell, they weren’t even broken talismans. It was almost like...
No, he had been pretty unhinged. They were probably some kind of creepy trophy from his victims.
Ling Qi continued to dig through the contents, discarding scraps in her search for something useful. Finally, near the bottom, she found two vials.
The vials, one a bright azure and the other milky white, were obviously potent medicines; she could tell from the moment she unwrapped the little roll of hide they were hidden in. It took significantly more effort to recall what the effects were. When she did, Ling Qi couldn't help but grin.
Medicines that affected breakthroughs were rare and extremely expensive, so much so that Elder Su had only briefly mentioned how to recognize them. She had to hide these and keep quiet about it. There was no way she wanted anyone knowing she had these.
... Well, of those who might want them right now, only Ji Rong and Kang Zihao were likely dangerous. But there was no point in being incautious. The vials went into her storage ring, and she stuffed the rest of the junk back into the shaman bag. She’d dispose of it later.
It was already growing late by that time, so Ling Qi elected to spend the remaining time taking a breather. She had been working hard lately, and a meal at a nice restaurant in the market was a good reward for that. She hadn’t eaten anything since her treat run with Xiulan several days ago.
She was back by sundown to spar with Meizhen in the garden of course, and it was as rewarding - and difficult - as always. Her friend’s defenses were nigh unbreakable, and her senses sharp, making Ling Qi work hard for any opening she could find. Ling Qi frequently found herself on the defensive when Meizhen quickly turned the tables on her, punishing failed attacks. Meizhen was also, Ling Qi found to her chagrin, more than capable of still dispelling her mist. Whatever earth art Meizhen used to drain away the Melody’s hostile qi into the ground was pretty potent.
For Ling Qi, it also served as practice for actively taking in the lunar and stellar qi drifting down from the night sky. The next phase of Eight Phase Ceremony demanded a more active mastery, and trying to absorb it even during a trying battle was pretty good practice.
After the spars, the two of them sat on the porch overlooking the garden, sipping tea and relaxing. They rarely had time to do that anymore, but Meizhen was pensive. Ling Qi suspected that she knew of Cai’s offer.
Still, she was a little reluctant to break the tranquil silence between them, so she simply sat for a time, leaning back and watching the stars. She idly swirled the dark tea in her cup as she considered how to approach things. As usual, she decided that it was best to just be direct.
“I’m going to guess you know what I got offered the other day?” Ling Qi asked, looking at her friend’s pale face out of the corner of her eye.
Meizhen inclined her head slightly, a few locks of her white hair falling down from her shoulder as she did. “Cai Renxiang offered you a position as her retainer,” she said before turning golden eyes her way. “Congratulations. It seems your talent has been recognized.”
Ling Qi hummed noncommittally. “I guess. I’m not sure what it really means. So I’m not certain what to think.”
“It is a rather distinguished honor,” Meizhen explained, as elegant as ever. “A young lady in your position would not normally begin receiving such offers until you had some history of service behind you.”
“That’s not what Xiulan says,” Ling Qi said. “Apparently I should be beating off suitors with a stick.” Ling Qi would have missed it if she didn’t know the girl so well, but she saw her friend’s eyes narrow slightly.
“Such might be the usual tactics of low noble rabble,” Meizhen acknowledged. “Happily, between your talent and associations, you have avoided being embroiled in the schemes of such trash.”
“That doesn’t really answer the question.”
“It is not the same thing,” Meizhen replied simply. “Cai Renxiang’s offer acknowledges your ability, potential, and character.” The other girl turned her head to look her fully in the eye. “You may in time reach the heights of fourth realm at an early age, but even then, you would not directly answer to the heir of a province.”
“I get that,” Ling Qi said, trying to work out how to state her reservations. “It just feels really fast. I don’t even really know all my options yet. I understand that I’m gonna be a noble, but I don’t really know what that means or how her offer is different. I don’t know if it would be better than staying in the Sect, or…” She trailed off in frustration.
“I suppose you might find it fulfilling to remain in the Sect.” Meizhen frowned slightly. “It is not a dishonourable position, but…”
Ling Qi gave her a curious look. “What’s wrong with the Sect?”
Meizhen remained silent for several long moments. “The Great Sects are somewhat new as a part of the Empire’s governance. Sects have always existed, of course, as centers of learning and competition for noble youth, but the power they hold now worries some. It may be wise to consider that such a position may be… unstable.”
Ling Qi felt like she had missed some subtext in her friend's words, but she could also tell that Meizhen wouldn’t say more on the subject. “So, what would it be like then, being her retainer?” Ling Qi asked, changing the subject.
“You would likely be given a fief near the capital of Emerald Seas - or wherever the Duchess elects to send her heir if she chooses not to keep her at court.” Meizhen relaxed fractionally at the change. “You would be expected to perform tasks for your lord and attend her in official capacities, as you would in any other noble position,” the other girl continued. “However, you would receive rather more significant resources toward the building of your house. Cai Renxiang has every reason to desire vassals who are more than the fodder new houses often become.”
“... Why have you never asked me to join you like that?” The words slipped out before she could really think about it.
Meizhen stiffened beside her, a trace of an unhappy expression marring her ethereal features. “Please do not ask me such things, Ling Qi.”
Ling Qi was unhappy herself for bringing the atmosphere down. “I don’t think I would mind so much if it were you,” she continued regardless. “I don’t really know her. How am I supposed to trust someone who never stops playing to the crowd? Someone who I know is trying to manipulate me into liking her now?”
Meizhen lowered her head. “I would enjoy showing you the Thousand Lakes, but you would not enjoy being under my family,” she said quietly. “And while I am a member of the main family, I do not have the authority to make such offers on a personal level.” Ling Qi caught a flicker of something in her faintly glowing eyes. There was a ‘but’ there, left unspoken. “Cai Renxiang is a straightforward person. Service under her would suit you well… and I think her good as well, for what that is worth.”
Ling Qi looked at her friend, and after a moment’s hesitation, she reached over to rest her hand on top of Meizhen’s, looking away uncomfortably as she did so. “I’ll give it some thought then,” she promised. “But Meizhen, you know I’ll stay in contact no matter what, right?”
“... Of course you will.” She couldn’t see her friend’s face, but she could feel the warmth of her hand. “Thank you, Qi.”