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Ling Qi,

It seems you have grown a great deal. I can easily recall the days when you had no eyes for anything outside your obsession of the day. Your Sect has done what I never could - or perhaps it was the time in between? I apologize if my words seem terse, but you did request that I be candid.

Biyu and I are well. I did not lie; your gifts are enough for us to live in comfort, even allow the occasional luxury. However, things are rarely so simple in Tonghou. I suppose you can imagine that I did not come to my position at the brothel of my own will. I would not burden you with the details in a letter, but suffice to say, your old mother has few friends.

My previous occupation was the only one which would accept me, despite, if I may be so prideful as to say, my passable skills in some fields. That is an old complaint though, and not one which bears revisiting. It does relate, however, to current troubles. A number of creditors have begun to darken my doorstep of late, speaking of debts unpaid. While I will not say that I never borrowed, I am quite certain that it was never so much.

You recall my efforts to teach you your numbers, I am sure, albeit perhaps less than fondly. I am not so lax as to make so many errors. I still hesitate to say this, as some small pride remains to me, but it would be helpful if the Ministry of Law could be made to bear an interest in a poor old woman, if only for a short time.

It seems I am in the habit of using many words to say little, despite your admonishment. I, too, look forward to speaking with you face-to-face once more, my daughter. As you have said, certain matters are best left to such a meeting.

Let us speak no more of that for the moment. I am glad that studies (?) are going so well and that you are making some good connections. You were always such a flighty girl when you were younger,. I worried you would have trouble tying yourself to others. However, the young lady you mentioned by name… The characters you wrote were not in error? No other clan dares use that character.

Finding out that my daughter found herself in ‘difficulties’ with a member of the Bai is not good for my heart, Ling Qi, but I suppose the rest of your words reduce that worry. The two of you are still friends then? I hope that you remain careful not to cause offense.

As to your request, I am, of course, willing to share my humble attempts at composition. You are likely better than I by now, but it gladdens my heart that I may be of some help to you.

Ling Qi smiled slightly as she folded down the front page of the letter, revealing the first page of the rest of the sheaf. Musical notation in her mother’s neat hand filled the revealed page, and carefully formatted notes hugging the margins of the page explained her mother’s thoughts on the composition.

“Can we get started again?”

Ling Qi looked up from her letter to see Ma Lei looking at her expectantly, bouncing on her heels. She had decided to get a feel for their abilities, and to that end, she had come out to a training field to spar with them. They had just been getting started when the letter arrived.

“Lei, be patient,” her sister chided, peering at Ling Qi worriedly. “Let Miss Ling finish reading her letter.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Ling Qi said. “I brought you here for a reason. I can practice my mother’s compositions later.” She dismissed the packet of papers into her ring and stood up from the bench. She was feeling pretty happy with her mother’s gift. Even if her mother was having trouble and being evasive about some matters, her mother had shared something personal with her.

“Oh, is your mother an entertainer?” Ma Jun asked curiously, fingering the strings of the small zither cradled in her hands.

“... Something like that.” Ling Qi gave a small cough. “Ah, how about you two? What does your family do?” The Ma sisters didn’t come across as nobles to her; she doubted they’d be so cheerful about having to trail around behind her all day if they were.

“Dad is a potter,” Ma Lei replied with a shrug. “He makes fancy vases and stuff.”

“Father is a popular artisan in our hometown,” Ma Jun replied more demurely, shooting her sister a chiding look. “And he worked very hard to send us here.”

Ma Lei grimaced at her sister’s look. “C’mon, sis, you know I’m not being disrespectful.”

“You still need to consider our position, Lei,” Ma Jun stressed before turning back to Ling Qi. “My apologies, Miss. We should not squabble in front of you.”

They were better off than her, but who wasn’t? Still, if their father had ‘sent’ them here, that implied wealth over what a mortal could usually access. She supposed that the Ma family must be ‘common’ cultivators, like the people in town who were three times her age but still first realm.

“It’s fine,” Ling Qi said after an awkward beat, dismissing the apology.

It was bizarre to think of people whose status was so high above her a year ago as ‘common’. Even a first realm physician or artisan was highly sought after among mortals. Ling Qi briefly wondered how many people from who had troubled her when she was a thief would void their bowels if she gave them a glare now. Maybe she could give Meizhen a tour?

... Well, that would be childish, and the Ma sisters were waiting on her. She dismissed the tangent her thoughts had gone on. “In any case, I thought it would be good to get to know your fighting style, so we can work together better if Sun Liling’s raiders decide to hit us.”

The crimson princess wasn’t taking her loss lying down. They were hitting Cai Renxiang’s enforcer patrols, striking from stealth with overwhelming force and leaving Cai’s people stripped and humiliated.

“We won’t let you down, Miss,” Ma Lei said cheerfully. “Bring it on!”

The confidence was good at least. “Since you two are supposed to be bodyguards, I figured the two of you could defend yourselves from me and show me what you can do.”

Ma Jun looked concerned. “If you think that is for the best,” she said nervously. “I hope that we can meet your expectations.”

“Sounds great!” Her more boyish sister spoke right over her. “Fighting someone tough without having to lose my stuff will be nice.”

“This is why I do not allow you to carry our money any more,” Ma Jun sighed. Her sister either didn’t hear her or ignored her words.

Ling Qi glanced between the two, amused. “... Right. For our first bout, I’ll let you two have a ten count to set up before I attack.” She wouldn’t break out Forgotten Vale Melody yet since most people who would attack the three of them were likely to be physical types. She backed up until there was a good twenty meters between her and the Ma sisters and then gave them a nod. “Let’s start.”

Ma Jun bit her lip but nodded, and Ling Qi watched and listened curiously as the girl began to pluck at the strings of her instrument, beginning a soft, slow melody. The air gained a feeling of solidity and weight as natural wind qi was displaced by heavy earth qi. The bells twined in Ma Jun’s hair chimed, and her music grew louder, the qi pouring from her zither gaining greater potency.

Ma Lei grinned and fell into a combat crouch. A solid, heavy square shield made of fired clay appeared in her right hand, and an iron mace appeared in her left. The ring on her right hand glimmered as well, and clay burst forth, slithering up her arm to form a heavy looking vambrace, seemingly in counterweight to her shield. It then began to spread further, making the beginnings of a breastplate, but...

The ten count was over. Ling Qi moved. She crossed the distance between them in a flash. There was resistance as she closed in - her limbs felt heavy, and her feet seemed to be slogging through thick mud - but she adjusted quickly. Ma Jun’s eyes widened as Ling Qi lashed out with a knife hand aimed at the girl’s throat.

Ling Qi was surprised when she found herself having to abort the attack as Ma Lei’s shield appeared in front of her. Her fingers had only barely brushed the clay of the shield before the curved surface erupted in grasping, muddy tendrils and spikes of baked clay, forcing her back a step.

Ma Lei was now standing where Ma Jun had been, her brow furrowed in concentration as the tempo of Ma Jun’s melody grew more energetic. Some kind of switching technique?

Ling Qi flowed right into her next attack despite her musings. Steam rose from her skin as she fell into the movements of Argent Current. She drove Ma Lei back with a heavy flurry of attacks that had the girl desperately blocking and playing defense, unable to retaliate as her qi began to drain under the assault. Cracks started appearing in her clay armor.

Ling Qi felt the moment that changed. Vitality suddenly flowed into the other girl, repairing her armor even as she took one of Ling Qi’s strikes head on and used the opening to swing the heavy head of her mace toward Ling Qi’s head. It wasn’t fast enough to hit her, but it did disrupt her pattern. The breeze that ruffled her hair spoke more of a boulder than a fist-sized lump of metal swinging past her.

Ling Qi dissolved, shooting into the shadow of a training bench at the edge of the field. Time to see how they dealt with harassment.

As she emerged from the shadows, her bow appeared in her hands, and she let loose three shots before the Ma sisters could even spot her. Ma Jun cried out as three blunted training arrows struck her in the back, causing her to stumble, her song faltering. Ma Lei moved with admirable quickness to prevent her follow-up shots, but once Ling Qi really started to move, the girl couldn’t keep up with her, even with her sister scrambling back to her feet to resume support.

For the next several minutes she continued to snipe and harass, using the spar to practice with her bow, she drove the two sisters from one end of the training ground to the other. Until at last Ma Lei panicked and pulled up a fully enclosing dome of earth to give them time to breath.

It ended with the two collapsed on the ground, sweaty and depleted of qi, while Ling Qi simply took a Wellspring Pill to top herself off as she strolled over from the edge of the field.

“Your endurance is pretty good,” Ling Qi complimented. You were supposed to do that in this kind of situation, right?

“That’s my job,” Ma Lei panted, pushing herself up onto her knees. Her clothes were covered in bits of clay, and Ling Qi suspected that the girl was bruised from her arrows. “I take a pounding and keep on going.”

Her sister muttered something that sounded distinctly unkind to Ling Qi’s ear, despite being little more than a garbled mumble. “T-thank you for your instruction,” Ma Jun managed as she too pushed herself off the ground with shaky limbs. “Do you… have any suggestions... for improvement?”

Ling Qi scratched her cheek, glancing away as the Ma sisters stood and comported themselves. “You two are kinda slow and immobile. It’s fine, I guess, given your current job. But one of you should probably have some kind of answer for ranged attacks,” she pointed out. “Um, oh, that big dome of earth you pulled up at the end was good!” Praise was important too. “It took three solid shots to break through that.”

“... That took a third of my qi,” Ma Jun mumbled glumly.

“I guess we just have to work harder,” Lei said cheerfully, clapping her slimmer sister on the back. “I’ll spend some points looking for a ranged counter.”

Ling Qi thought the spar went fairly well. The Ma sisters were well suited for a guard and delay role. Sure, Sun Liling or Meizhen would tear through them in seconds, but that was true for most people. Maybe she should assist Gan with his plans for a counter ambush on the raiders.

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