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Zhengui was demanding an ever greater share of her attention what with his appetite growing at a ferocious rate. The little fellow practically inhaled cores, and the less said of the massacre of the fruit platter she purchased for him, the better. One of the flower beds in their garden had also met its demise at Zhengui’s maw. The little turtle-snake had chomped and shredded the plants into a carpet and rapidly dug out a hollow for himself.

Ling Qi was glad that she had both studied herself and asked Xuan Shi for help, or she might have been much more worried. Zhengui was preparing to breakthrough to the second realm. Still, it was hard not to fret when Zhengui was acting as if he were in a trance or a fugue, barely responding to her when she spoke.

However, she knew that she could only support him while he broke through. Heedless of the cost, she quickly set about purchasing a great deal of high quality wood, straw, and other plant-based kindling to line his growing nest with. She burned further spirit stones providing materials for security formations around the garden, well aware that Zhengui would be helpless in his hibernation.

After a few days, Zhengui buried himself under a mound of dirt and shredded plant matter, and the feel of his thoughts grew muted and indistinct. A short time later, the kindling began burning, flames shot through with lines of emerald green greedily consuming the offerings in the pit that had once been a flowerbed.

With Zhengui settled in, Ling Qi finally forced herself to leave the garden. She would not do Zhengui any good by stalling her own growth. She had been invited to train and explore with the Golden Fields group, and she planned to take advantage. Having been more than a month since she had picked up the jade slip for Argent Current, it was high time that she actually put it into practice.

It was surprisingly easy to pick up Argent Current during the training sessions between rounds of careful exploration with Han Jian and the others. Argent Current focused on striking a single point again and again until it shattered, like a river breaking through a dam. It rewarded working together with other users of the technique as she found when working with Xiulan. If both of them used the Pressure Crack technique, the qi they poured into it reinforced itself, building off both of their efforts to greater results.

Their efforts at exploration also finally bore some fruit this week as they discovered a set of caverns behind a small waterfall rich in Earth and Water qi. The caverns were littered with bones, not all of which looked animal. The sun was already setting by that time though, so Han Jian decided that it would be better to come back when they were fresh.

In her spare time at the Argent vent, Ling Qi continued to pursue her whim, dangling one of the new Ossuary Scouts she had made down into the crevice at the end of a cord. While the little bone construct mostly got caught in cracks or otherwise got stuck, eventually, after many false starts and failures, her scout finally found the bottom of the vent. It was nothing grand, simply a small chamber slightly over a meter across filled with a bubbling pool of what looked like liquid silver. It was the source of the mist which rose from the vent. Ling Qi collected a few vials full of the stuff via her scout, noting with concern that the construct’s bones seemed to be petrifying with exposure to the liquid. The fourth time she sent it down, it came back up as a fossilized sculpture.

Ling Qi made sure not to directly touch the stuff. It did feel like it was full of incredibly potent qi though, so she left it to Su Ling and Li Suyin to see if they could make anything of it. Her curiosity satisfied, she returned to cultivation.

However, Ling Qi found it hard to concentrate. Between events with Zeqing and the introspection of her cultivation. Ling Qi found her thoughts turning back to her Mother again and again, even as she contemplated meeting Zeqing again. She felt that her communication with Mother was going well, that they were reconnecting, and that made her happy, but all the same…

She remembered the night she had run away from her home. It was a memory that she had long suppressed, which had grown ever more clouded with emotion and self justification.

She remembered the feeling of betrayal, fright, and panic that had consumed her younger self's thoughts. Mother had been all she had, and she was supposed to protect her. Now that she thought about it, her first lessons on how to stay quiet and out of sight and notice had come from her Mother. It hadn’t been enough to avoid notice from customers, not back then.

She remembered how much it had hurt to listen to Mother talk about her like some piece of meat or fatted calf at market, to have Mother smile and titter at the big leering oaf whose disgusting eyes had fallen on her, and to have Mother act like the only problem with the oaf’s proposition was Ling Qi not being ‘ready’.

Looking back with older eyes, she could remember the bruises on Mother’s neck the next morning and the hitch in her step. She could recognize the vapid flirtations as a distraction and the way her Mother had snapped at her in the morning exhaustion. Su Ling had accused her of missing things before, and she wasn’t wrong; Ling Qi knew she had a bad habit of tunnel vision ever since she was a child.

It had been years since she had thought about that night, and she had never really questioned or examined her apparent reasoning for leaving. She had a good excuse, of course; the streets offered little time for introspection… or maybe until now, she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that the basis of so much of her hardship was a wrong assumption.

She was a stubborn girl. She knew that well enough.

... Ling Qi couldn’t regret her decision though. Even if she no longer blamed her Mother, the fact was that she would never have been truly safe with her either, especially as she grew. She could acknowledge now that Mother had been barely more than a girl herself at the time. Even now, Mother should only be a bit over thirty. Could Ling Qi have avoided ending up the virtual property of some overstuffed merchant or petty mortal official if she had stayed?

It was with those thoughts in mind that she put her brush to the page.

Mother,

Your concern makes me happy, and I will keep your advice in mind. While I won’t claim to have not made any mistakes, I have learned to step a little more lightly. Bai Meizhen, my friend, and I have had some difficulties, but I think we have reached an understanding of each other, although I sometimes exasperate her.

Also, you are not so old, Mother, so none of that.

As for the situation which lead me to my spirit companion… It is a bit of a long story. Suffice to say, I made a good impression on his father, who asked me to care for Zhengui on his behalf.

Turning from lighter things, Mother, is there something wrong? Is there someone giving you trouble? I can recognize when you are avoiding a subject. I know you likely do not want to trouble me, but I would appreciate it if we could be candid with each other.

If there are problems, I am not helpless to confront them, even here. I cannot include the details in this letter, but I have earned a few favors from my peers. Even if it was cut short, you did raise and care for me. I will not forget my obligations as a daughter.

As for me, I have been greatly improving as a musician. I have become pretty skilled at the technical aspects, but I’m afraid my repertoire is still limited. My composition skills lack the refinement of use, and I have been advised to work on creating my own pieces if I wish to continue mastering the musical arts. I would be very happy if you might offer some advice on the matter.

Your daughter, Ling Qi

Gazing down at the drying ink of the third draft or so, Ling Qi pursed her lips. Letters were very limiting, especially when she suspected that they weren't entirely private.

Tonghou still hung heavily in her thoughts.

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