When her vision returned, Ling Qi breathed a sigh of relief. Fu Xiang had been honest with her; nothing strange had happened. She couldn’t sense Sun Liling any longer, but that didn’t mean she was safe yet. She took off at a run the moment she got her bearings, heading for her meeting point with the powerful ice spirit, Zeqing.

As she expected, Zeqing waited for her at the black pool, floating at its edge and gazing into its depths. She turned around as Ling Qi arrived, looking curious as Ling Qi collapsed to her knees in front of her, breathing heavily as her techniques finally lapsed.

“Lady Zeqing,” she gasped out. “I’m sorry for being late. An enemy waylaid me on the path.” She ignored the pain of her wounds. The first thing she needed to do was to spin this in such a way that the spirit would be inclined to ward off her enemy. It was the biggest gamble of her choice frankly. She thought the spirit liked her, but she didn’t know how far that went.

“I see that,” Zeqing replied, floating closer to her on a gust of frigid air. Blank white eyes peered down at her with a touch of maternal concern, or at least Ling Qi liked to imagine so. “You had trouble prevailing over your foe?”

“I escaped with some help,” Ling Qi said carefully, considering her next words with as much precision as her tired, fear-frazzled thoughts would allow. “They would not take no for an answer, and after our last session, I did not want to miss speaking with you.” She wasn’t lying, but she was certainly bending things. “I was hoping... that you might keep them away from here while we speak? I do not wish for my troubles to affect you.”

The snow spirit regarded her thoughtfully. Time seemed to crawl as Ling Qi held her breath, praying to the Grinning Moon that the spirit would accept her request.Then Zeqing’s silver hair billowed briefly in the wind, and the screaming howl of the storm outside the ravine grew louder. Ling Qi sagged with relief.

“Ling Qi.” She looked up to see Zeqing crouched in front of her, and Ling Qi could not help but note that the way the gown bent with the motion was subtly wrong. The spirit’s tone was serious though, and some of her earlier nervousness returned.

She shivered slightly as Zeqing reached out, a quickly forming hand of clear crystalline ice cupping her cheek. Her skin burned at the contact, and the little cuts only made it worse.

“I apologize for my presumption and misjudgement,” the spirit said kindly, “but I still think my actions were for the best.”

“I understand, and I apologize for my overreaction,” Ling Qi replied quickly, meeting her blank eyes. “You were only trying to help. But please do not do something like that without asking again.” She didn’t know if pressing this point was a good idea, but she wanted to keep coming up here to play music with Zeqing, and she couldn’t do that without assurance.

Zeqing inclined her head slightly. “That is agreeable,” she replied easily. “But…” Her next words were sharper, albeit still not unkind. “I am not your shield. You are not Hanyi. You are not [Mine],” she chided. Her final word reverberated strangely in Ling Qi’s ears. “There are compacts with the Sect which I must follow, and I do not appreciate being made to skirt them.”

“I’m sorry,” Ling Qi apologized. “I couldn’t think of anything else. My friends were too far, and she - my enemy - would have been expecting me to run downward. You were the only hope I could think of, and I still needed help just to get here.”

Ling Qi had started to think herself strong, but that had been foolish. When Sun Liling had been able to force a direct confrontation with her, she had been crushed. Bare luck had saved her from being beaten bloody in a matter of seconds. The emotions held in check by adrenaline bubbled to the surface, and Ling Qi clenched her fists in the snow at the memory of cutting, whirling red blades and fleeing like a frightened rabbit from a hunter.

She wasn’t strong. She was still just a sneak who could only run away and steal. She had allowed her success to make her arrogant.

Her skin prickled as as she felt an icy finger brush away the tears that had begun to leak from her eyes. Zeqing was looking down at her with narrowed eyes, and for a moment, she felt a thrill of fear. Had her show of weakness set the spirit off? The moment passed though, and the dark cloud on the spirit’s expression passed as well as she allowed her hand to dissolve and stood up, turning away.

“Do not trouble yourself. I will wait for you to regain your comportment, and then we may both relax without interruption.”

“Thank you,” Ling Qi replied, wiping her face. That had been embarrassing; she should have controlled herself better. It was just so frustrating to have her illusions broken so easily yet again, particularly with her recent reflections. “Hanyi is lucky. I wish I had someone like you to rely on.” The words were a thoughtless musing, slipping out without intent.

The temperature dropped in the wake of her words, and she looked up in alarm at Zeqing’s back.

“Be cautious with your words, mortal child. I do not think you have considered them carefully,” Zeqing said stiffly, not turning around. “It is best not to offer such enticements.”

Ling Qi hastily nodded, but some tiny part of her wondered what would happen if she reaffirmed her statement. The thought would niggle at her throughout their session and even after she left, escorted from the edge of Zeqing’s territory by Meizhen and a handful of enforcers.

Sure enough, an assault had been mounted on Sun Liling’s fortress while the girl had been absent. Even with Bai Meizhen personally chasing after the Sun Princess on the mountain, the assault had done heavy damage. For whatever reason, Cai Renxiang didn’t press the attack to the point of destroying Sun’s faction, but the Sun thugs had lost people and supplies.

Ling Qi hoped the red-haired bitch regretted haring off after her now.

A note from Yrsillar

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Hey guys, short one today, but wel'll be back to longer chapters starting on the next one. Thanks for all your support.

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