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Ling Qi idly kicked her legs as she watched Li Suyin grind the mixture in her mortar into a fine paste from her seat on an empty work table. Her friend had been hard at work since she recovered from the ceremony at the ruined tower, and this morning was no exception. So Ling Qi patiently waited while Suyin finished, examining the work room that the two girls had set up in their home.

Su Ling’s pill furnace rested on the opposite side of the room, the clay and bronze construction releasing a slow simmer of sweet smelling medicinal mist as whatever lay within bubbled quietly. Shelves lined every spare bit of wall, themselves covered in jars and vials, and above, a hammock of white spider silk held still more containers.

Li Suyin herself kneeled on a straw mat at the far end of the room in front of a low workbench cluttered with bones and herbs. Ling Qi eyed her friend curiously as she worked, studying the flows of qi that were now visible to her senses. Li Suyin’s aura was jumbled; Ling Qi wondered if that was what she appeared to others’ senses as well. Li Suyin had a strong base of wood and earth, but there were other bits of various elements scattered about like water, lake, and even a bit of fire and heaven.

There was also a tiny vein of some element or aspect which she couldn’t identify. It made her feel vaguely uneasy, and her skin tingled whenever she focused on it. Her eyes flicked away from Suyin instead of trying to decipher that again.

The little pink fuzzball that was Li Suyin’s familiar crouched on the table, skittering in place beside her mortar, pedipalps wriggling excitedly over the mixture. She could feel something happening there as the tiny earth spider continued her vaguely ritualistic looking shuffling, but Ling Qi wasn’t familiar enough with medicine production to say what though.

The quiet sound of grinding came to a stop, and Ling Qi saw the tension leave Li Suyin’s shoulders as she scraped the light blue paste left behind by her work into a small clay container and affixed a seal onto the container.

“My apologies for making you wait,” Li Suyin said as she stood up smoothly. Ling Qi didn’t miss the easy and natural way that Suyin allowed her companion to scamper up her hand and cling to her sleeve.

“It was no trouble,” Ling Qi dismissed. “I’m the one who came calling early,” she added as she hopped down from the table, taking a few steps to meet her friend in the middle of the room. “What were you working on anyway?”

Zhenli, the spider, had made it up onto Li Suyin’s shoulder by that point and puffed herself up as if to make herself appear bigger and more threatening. Ling Qi supposed it was kind of cute, if a little concerning, that Li Suyin’s companion seemed like she wasn’t fond of other people.

“Ah, I was just finishing a batch for the Medicine Hall,” Li Suyin explained, pulling her attention away from the spider. “Senior Sister Bao has been grumbling about how needy this year’s disciples are. I had heard that you came to the Hall with severe wounds. Then again for lesser injuries yesterday. Are you-”

“I’m fine, just some hunting damage,” Ling Qi replied a hair too quickly, leaving a brief awkward silence to hang between them. “... The first one was a run-in with Sun Liling. She wasn’t exactly playing nice,” Ling Qi expanded reluctantly. “I was able to take care of it myself - mostly.” She probably could have gotten her treatment paid for by Cai, but she had money now, as strange as that was. It felt good not to have to rely on charity.

Li Suyin peered up at her worriedly, and Ling Qi belatedly noticed that she had replaced her eyepatch. It was no longer a simple piece of gray cloth, but an embroidered patch of white silk with an eye-catching geometric pattern, which seemed to shift from moment to moment. A new talisman?

“Here,” Li Suyin said firmly, thrusting the clay container she had just filled into her hand. “This isn’t for sale outside of the Medicine Hall, but I would feel better if you took it.”

Ling Qi blinked, looking at the container. “I don’t want you to get in trouble. Didn’t you say you were making this for their stocks?”

“I was able to make more than expected, thanks to Zhenli,” Suyin said, reaching up to pat the little arachnid, who wriggled under her hand but somehow managed to look satisfied all the same. “Please.”

“Alright,” Ling Qi replied, feeling awkward. If the Medicine Hall was keeping this stuff to itself, it had to be valuable. Now that she thought about it, it looked like the stuff they had put on her spear wound. That stuff - Heavenly Bliss Salve or something - had cost nearly her whole week’s income from the pill furnace. “Heh, you’ve gotten kinda pushy, haven’t you, Li Suyin?” She covered up her discomfort with a joke.

She would have to be careful with this salve - she had felt weird and clumsy for quite awhile after it had been applied - but it had dealt effectively with the stubborn wounds that Sun Liling’s brand of attacks dealt. Left alone, they bled freely and did not clot or scab. She had only noticed later that the wounds had frozen over in Zeqing’s presence, allowing her to ignore them for a time. She hadn’t even been able to cultivate properly in the recovery ward due to her fuzzy thoughts.

Not privy to her thoughts, Li Suyin averted her one-eyed gaze, twiddling her fingers. “Ah… I’m sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that.”

Ling Qi smiled faintly. “I was just teasing you,” she reassured her friend, ignoring the way that Zhenli waggled her fangs at her. She hoped the little spider didn’t get in trouble with that overprotective instinct. “Anyway, any progress on that vault warrior formation?” she asked as she headed to the door, Li Suyin falling into step behind her.

“Well, it had to be reworked significantly.” Li Suyin grimaced as they entered the hallway. “Using human remains is unacceptable of course, but the arrays need significant alteration to work on the bones of animals…”

Ling Qi nodded along as her friend’s speech grew more technical, and they exited the home to begin heading up toward the vent. She nodded politely to the pair of enforcers who began to trail them at a polite distance. It was still uncomfortable to be guarded like this. Oddly, Li Suyin seemed much more accepting of it, but she supposed that her friend was from a wealthy mortal family.

She would prefer to simply stay out of sight when traveling, but that wasn’t an option if she wanted to walk with Suyin so she was glad for Cai’s consideration, even if it had been weird to walk out of her house this morning to find disciples waiting for orders. There had been an awkward moment where she just stared at them before one of the two had politely explained that Cai Renxiang had put them at her disposal.

It didn’t really make her feel much more secure; a pair of Mid Yellows would barely slow Sun Liling down. Then again, barely had been enough for her to slip the noose before, and her arts were good for bolstering allies.

She dismissed her distraction and focused on Li Suyin’s speech, listening intently as they headed up to the vent to train.

Training with her two friends at the vent was a relaxing way to spend the morning. Su Ling’s swordwork was coming along pretty well, as was her cultivation of her sword art, and Li Suyin even joined in now and then when they switched to unarmed sparring. Her scholarly friend had gotten faster and more precise since the last time they had trained together, although the little jabs she landed seemed weak. But as they were meant to be vectors for poison, she supposed the strength of the blow hardly mattered.

All too soon, they had to part ways, and Ling Qi headed back down to the residential area. She knew that Cai Renxiang left her home around now, and it was about time that she stopped delaying and started to make an effort to better understand the heiress before she had to respond to her recruitment offer.

Heading down, she found the enforcers who had been playing bodyguard were still waiting at the end of the path where she had left them. The two girls were probably cousins or maybe siblings. They both had dark brown hair and thin willowy builds, but the girl on the left had it cut short while the one on the right kept it long but tied in several loose trailing tails.

The short-haired girl wore something like Su Ling’s mannish outfit with sturdy trousers and a shirt under piecemeal bits of leather armor dyed in earth tones. The long-haired one wore a proper gown of light airy blue. The white, shimmering ribbons in her hair were pretty, and Ling Qi wondered if she should try wearing her own hair loose instead of braided as well. Gu Xiualn was getting to her if she was thinking stuff like that.

“Miss Ling?” the long-haired girl pulled her from her thoughts. “Shall we escort you again?” The other girl had been seated, cultivating as she approached, but she opened her eyes, standing up hastily as Ling Qi approached.

“Uh… sure,” Ling Qi replied awkwardly. She had been intending to shortcut through the wilderness as she had assumed these two would have gone home. “Sorry, I should have been clearer. You two didn’t have to wait for me.”

“I told you she was dismissing us,” the short-haired girl grumbled, shooting the other girl an aggrieved look. “Sis, you’re way too literal.”

“Be polite, Lei,” the other girl admonished before bowing her head toward Ling Qi. There was a faint jingle as the tiny bells woven into the girl’s hair sounded. “My apologies for misunderstanding.”

The awkwardness Ling Qi felt intensified sharply. “... It’s fine. I suppose you can walk me back. I’m heading down to talk to Lady Cai.”

‘Lei’ nodded brightly, taking up a position ahead of her, and her sister bowed again, falling into step wordlessly behind and to her side. The awkward feeling didn’t change.

“What are your names?” Ling Qi asked after wrestling with some indecision. Since they had spent the last couple hours waiting for her, Ling Qi should at least learn their names.

“Ma Lei,” the girl ahead of her greeted lightly.

“Ma Jun,” the girl behind her greeted more quietly.

Ling Qi gave a hum of affirmation and fell silent, staring ahead. She hadn’t really thought about what it meant for Cai to have put them ‘at her disposal’. The idea that these two would follow her commands as if she were a noble was strange. She really had no idea how to interact with them. Well, for now, she supposed she would do her best to act dignified and not embarrass herself.

It was time to get a better look at Lady Cai.

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