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Thankfully, neither Xiulan nor her cousin were offended by her lack of definitive answers, so her time spent with the Golden Fields group did not become even more awkward. She continued to work steadily toward mastering the Falling Stars Art and kept up with the group’s explorations.

Her thoughts were troubled. Between Gu Tai and Cai Renxiang, she was quickly becoming aware of how ignorant she was of a lot of basic knowledge about the Empire and how everything about it worked. Perhaps she could spend some time in the archives when she found a moment to breathe.

Right now, she didn’t have the time, not if she wanted to keep up with her cultivation. Whatever might come in the future, she would be better off with more power. Her first major task was taking another shot at doing a Sect mission. Tutoring had been very effective for her so far in advancing her skills, but she needed more Sect Points to hire an Inner Sect tutor.

One mission in particular stood out as suited to her skills. Near the Sect mountain was a small river valley with a tree that grew potent Immortal Peaches. It was guarded by a young dragon, and a successful completion gave nearly twice as many points as any other mission on the board. Ling Qi was confident that she could manage.

However, she remained wary of interference by Yan Renshu. After some deliberation, she elected to simply perform the mission before actually registering that she was taking it. That introduced a little trouble for her since she couldn’t get proper directions from the Sect without accepting, but she had a solution to that problem too.

Namely, Fu Xiang. In the wake of their last meeting, he had left her a means of contact in the form of a sheaf of treated papers that worked like the little messenger ‘birds’ the Ministry used, albeit with less range and durability. She sent off a query regarding the valley and received a response by evening, giving her directions to the dragon’s valley.

The second part of her plan to avoid Yan Renshu’s interference involved simply slipping off the mountain in the dead of night and laying out a confusing and convoluted trail. It cost her an hour, but anyone following her at a distance should be thrown off, and if what Fu Xiang had said was any indication, remote viewing could not easily be maintained for such a long time either.

There were probably defenses for that kind of thing. Ling Qi made a note to look into that kind of formation or talisman.

Despite her delay, she traveled quickly once she was off the mountain, blurring through the canopy of trees. She headed south toward the rising rampart of mountains over which the Sect stood guard. The valley lay in the steep foothills.

She came upon it by following the small river that wound its way through the hills, as per Fu Xiang’s directions. Her path took her to the top of a steep cliff where the water thundered down into the valley below. She found herself pausing there at the cliffside as she took in the sight before her.

It was beautiful, a lush, verdant valley, bursting with life. The water of the river was clear and fresh, sparkling under the light of the moon and stars, and mist that drifted from the river lent the place a mystical air. The qi too was rich and wholesome, filling her with vital energy.

This would be a cultivation site unparalleled by any she had found so far, even the Argent vent. Ling Qi felt shocked that Fu Xiang had simply told her about the place. No, she was shocked that this place was not flooded by disciples. The reason for that became clear as her eyes fell upon the grove of fruit trees nestling by a bend in the river.

Coiled around the base of the trees lay the napping dragon. Its body was vaguely serpentine and covered in glimmering azure scales. The middle of its body, between its two sets of limbs, was wider and flatter than a serpent’s with sharp crystalline ridges on its back. It was at least ten meters long in her estimation, although the curling of its long neck and tail made it difficult to tell for certain.

Its limbs were almost stubby in comparison. They were short and thick with muscle and claws longer than her daggers. Its head, resting on an upraised tree root, had a long and narrow muzzle with only a few of its fangs poking out. The rounded horns at the rear of its skull looked like mere stubs, barely grown in, and only a tiny wisp of mossy fur curled from its chin.

What really drew her eye, was the gleaming stone seemingly affixed to its throat. It was an emerald green spirit stone the size of her fist, a perfectly smooth sphere of condensed qi that gleamed with inner light.

The sheer value… Ling Qi shook her head. That alone confirmed her thoughts. She would take the job warning seriously. The young dragon was in the third grade, but if it didn’t have a stronger protector, someone would have come here to harvest it by now. It didn’t seem to show signs of being bonded to a cultivator… which meant it had a notable parent, probably bound to some core disciple or elder.

Ling Qi wanted no part of that, even if it meant this was probably more of a challenge than a legitimate job. She made certain her qi was well muffled as she crept down the side of the cliff.

Ling Qi barely breathed as her limbs turned dark under the moonlight, and she became little more than a fleeting shadow on the rocks. She passed over the river without causing even a slight ripple on the water and flowed over the grass without a rustle. The young dragon remained asleep, its loud breathing like the sound of a forge’s bellows.

It was hard to describe what things were like as a shadow. Her body felt hazy and indistinct in that state, her limbs ephemeral. This did not stop her though. Many, many illusionary obstacle courses under Elder Jiao had taught her to move while in this state, and so she blinked from the grass up into the branches of a tree without pause. She hopped from one to another with barely a disturbance, feeling potent qi in the wood under her feet in her brief moments of solidity.

The dragon seemed even larger as she approached it, closer to twelve meters than ten. Her entire body was smaller than its torso. Its head shifted and its tail flicked, and Ling Qi froze, not daring to move until the creature had settled again. She let out a tiny breath as it stilled and continued forward, leaping from one shadow to another and eating up distance with ease.

After her fumble at the fort and the subsequent Sun Liling pursuit, it almost seemed too easy. She supposed that this was the result of preparation. The little finned ridges on the dragon’s head, which she assumed to be ears, twitched very slightly as she settled on the upper branches of the tree furthest from it. She stilled again, but aside from a low growl and and twist of its tail, the dragon remained asleep.

Moving very carefully, Ling Qi reached out and pressed her hands to the bark. This was going to be tricky. These trees were spirits in their own right and would require propitiation before they would allow her to take the peaches. With a worried glance at the dragon, she pricked her thumb on the edge of one of her knives and pressed it to the bark, channeling qi through her hands.

She closed her eyes, despite her nerves, focusing on conveying gratitude and supplication through the qi that she channeled into the wood. It worked. Barring unusual circumstances, tree spirits were rarely less than docile, and she soon received a feeling of acceptance. The trouble would come if the dragon scented her blood or felt her qi.

She held her breath as the blood smeared on the bark dissolved into black mist, and the dragon… rolled over, making a noise not unlike a man’s snore, greatly magnified. Ling Qi didn’t dare sigh with relief. Instead, she quickly plucked enough fruit to fill her quota before soaring away from the beautiful and deadly valley.

... It would be such a good place to cultivate in though. Surely there was some way she could manage it.

***

Ling Qi panted as she leaned against the icy wall of the ravine where she and Meizhen trained. Welts and bruises stung painfully on her arms, and her vision swam with the light toxin Meizhen had inflicted on her. Meizhen had taken their conversation last week as a signal to use more of her repertoire in spars.

Ling Qi was of mixed feelings about that.

“That was a well thought out attempt,” Bai Meizhen complimented, looking as unruffled as ever. The snow on the ground was torn up in wild patterns from their spar, but Meizhen herself was untouched. Well, she did seem to be breathing a little harder than usual. Ling Qi might have been imagining that though.

“It still didn’t work,” she grumbled as she straightened up, her back twinging. “Did you have to throw me into the wall like that?”

“It was the most efficient non-lethal solution,” Meizhen replied demurely, dismissing her ribbon sword. “You had come quite close to striking me with your final flanking maneuver.”

That ‘maneuver’ had left her pretty drained. Jumping multiple shadows in rapid succession and summoning her worms right on top of her friend to distract her for a crucial instant… It had been hard on her reserves.

“You didn’t even look back when you threw me away,” Ling Qi said grumpily. “Your awareness is just too amazing,” she added to ensure that the other girl knew her complaints were good-natured.

“It is nothing,” Bai Meizhen dismissed, although Ling Qi could hear the slight smile in the girl’s voice. “Shall we rest then? You expended a great deal of qi.”

“That sounds good,” Ling Qi agreed, allowing herself to slide down the wall and sit, a gust of wind blowing away the powder before it could soak through her gown. Meizhen was much more elegant about it. “Meizhen, can I ask you something?”

“You may,” her friend responded. “Is something troubling you again, Qi? You are advancing as quickly as can be expected.”

“I met with Gu Xiulan’s cousin a few days ago. I left with a betrothal offer,” she said bluntly. “I don’t... I don’t like the idea,” she admitted, “but I know that isn’t necessarily rational.”

Meizhen’s expression was blank, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “I see. The offer is hardly an insult. The Gu family is quite prominent,” she said slowly. “However, I believe Cai Renxiang’s offer to be a better choice.”

“Probably,” Ling Qi admitted. “But if it didn’t come with a marriage attached, I’d probably jump on it. Getting to explore places no one has been in a thousand years or more? That’s more exciting than politics.”

“I suppose,” Meizhen huffed, clearly disagreeing.

“It’s…” Ling Qi paused. “It’s an option, you know? Even if I don’t necessarily like it, I’m glad I have the choice.” She was rambling. “The point is - if you have an idea for how I could stay with you, I’d like to know about it, even if you believe I won’t like it.”

Meizhen stared at her in silence before looking away, her right hand clenching on her gown. “It is amazing,” she said quietly, “how cruel your earnesty can be at times, Qi.”

“I’m sorry, Meizhen,” Ling Qi said, guilt creeping into her tone. “I just… I want to know.”

“Nothing would stop me from visiting you in Cai Renxiang’s domain,” Meizhen pointed out. “Given my relationship with her, it is even fairly likely that I may argue to receive assignment to the Duchess’ court as a liaison.”

Ling Qi fidgeted. She hadn’t really considered that. “That’s not the point though.”

“It isn’t,” Bai Meizhen acknowledged. “You foolish, reckless, greedy girl.” The insults had no heat in them.

“I’m sorry,” Ling Qi apologized carefully, although she wasn’t quite sure what it was she was doing it for.

“You are not sorry,” Meizhen said clearly, meeting her eyes once more. “Please do not condescend to me so.” She let out a frustrated breath. “I do not understand you. You rejected me.” Emotion strained her voice.

“Meizhen-” Ling Qi began.

“Let me finish, Qi,” she reproached, her voice cracking like a whip. “You rejected me. Completely. Yet you persist in approaching me - in remaining intimate with me.” Meizhen’s voice trembled slightly. “Friends are not as close as we are. Friends do not reject a position as a province heir’s right hand merely to ‘stay together’. So tell me, Qi, why do you do this?”

Ling Qi’s shoulders slumped. She hadn’t meant to pick at her friend’s wounds. On some level, she knew the other girl was still hurt, exacerbated by their close proximity, but Meizhen showed so little, it was hard to remember at times.

“You were my first friend too, you know?” she said, looking away, not ready to meet the other girl’s eyes. “Before I came here… I was nothing.”

Meizhen didn’t say a word, simply letting her continue. After a beat of silence, she did.

“You know how badly educated I was? Even for a commoner?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s because I was a street kid. I was a pathetic, petty thief, and I could never stop watching my back.”

“I suspected,” Meizhen admitted, “given your proclivities.”

Ling Qi let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Then I came here and met you. You were terrifying, but you were lonely too. And you helped me again and again, even though I couldn’t offer you anything. During Elder Zhou’s test, I decided that I didn’t want to be the kind of person who would spit on that anymore.”

Meizhen’s gaze dropped to her lap. “I still do not understand.”

Ling Qi squeezed her eyes shut. “My mom was a whore, you know? I guess maybe you could call her a courtesan, if you wanted to be polite. The place she worked for was pretty fancy. I don’t want to talk about that, but… I guess, I don’t really have an idea of how people are supposed to relate to each other and where the line between friends and… other stuff is, beyond the obvious.”

“I see.” Meizhen didn’t look up.

“I also… I don’t think of girls that way,” Ling Qi continued uncomfortably, rubbing her arm nervously. “At least as far as I can tell.”

An awkward, lingering silence fell between the two. “Should I defeat Sun Liling publically during the tournament at the end of the year, I believe Grandfather would be willing to grant me a favor if I request it,” the pale girl finally said, plucking at the hem of her sleeve. “To that end, I could take you as my official handmaiden, rather than selecting one from among the Xiao clan, as is traditional for the White Serpent caste of the Bai.”

Ling Qi perked up. “That doesn’t seem too-”

Bai Meizhen shook her head. “Understand, Ling Qi, that the Bai do not countenance weakness. My… feelings for you are a large one. I do not doubt that my cousins would make things incredibly difficult for you, and even making the request would undermine my own position. You would suffer for accepting such an offer. Whatever you might feel, you would come to resent me, and I, you, assuming you survive the internal politics of my clan.” She clutched her sleeve tightly. “Please. Accept Cai Renxiang’s offer - or even that of the Gu Clan, or stay in the Sect. It would be better. For both of us.”

If Meizhen was so certain, it was probably a bad idea. Still, Meizhen’s assessment rankled her. Surely she could handle some backstabbing Bai cousins.

... She wished that she could believe that.

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