Yan Renshu was still at large, his location unknown. But they had ruined him.
The puppet they had destroyed was, in Fu Xiang and Cai Renxiang’s assessment, a masterwork, the sort of project that a cultivator of Yan Renshu’s status must have been working on for years. Along with everything else they had destroyed at his workshop and the losses he had already accrued, even years of building up in the Outer Sect could not have given him the resources to recover from these losses.
She was still going to find him, but Ling Qi could rest a little easier for now. But she wasn’t done. Yan Renshu wasn’t her only enemy, and with her share of the loot taken from Yan Renshu’s base, she finally had the funds to outfit herself with some emergency tools.
Finding a trustworthy outfitter was a little troublesome. Ling Qi was, in her opinion, justifiably concerned about sabotage. Su Ling had come to her aid there by giving her the name of a trader she thought trustworthy. So Ling Qi had asked her to pass on a message about what she was looking for. She didn’t want to do her shopping openly this time. Hopefully, her friend’s contact would come through on her request.
The shop’s name didn’t fill her with confidence though. Fatty Hao’s Talisman Banquet sounded like the name of a rigged festival stall.
“I’ve compiled only the best items for your eyes, Miss Ling. I assure you of that.” The smiling young man behind the counter had an easy grin on his pudgy face.
She trusted Su Ling’s recommendation. That girl did not trust easily, and Ling Qi could recognize that the grudging compliments the rough girl had given as the equivalent to high praise from anyone else. All the same, it was a little hard to take someone who used the moniker “Fatty” seriously. It wasn’t inaccurate - the boy did carry a fair bit of extra weight, and his soft, round features gave him a non-threatening air - but it made her wonder at his self image if he could reach early silver and still look like that.
“... If that is the case, why do I just have a list of prices for half the things I asked for? I don’t want to spend this much without seeing the product.”
Fatty Hao, overall boss of several small shops in the market area, gave a serious nod. “As much as it pains me to say, a list is the best I can do. Those items are beyond the skills of an Outer Sect disciple,” he explained cheerfully, leaning on the counter in front of her. “Or at least what they’re willing to sell. Escape Talismans are no cheap thing to acquire!”
Escape Talismans were her primary concern. Little breakable arrays that could rapidly transport a cultivator out of danger, they were popular with the children of nobility for obvious reasons. Ling Qi frowned at the list. The cheapest talisman on there was three hundred red stones. At only one use and with a range limit of half a kilometer, it seemed to cost way too much. “How am I supposed to know this is legitimate if I can’t even see them first?”
He laughed. “Miss Ling, your mistrust wounds me. Do you really think I would cheat you when you are so high in the esteem of so many very frightening people? Why, a word from Lady Cai, and everything my family has built would be gone in an instant!” He seemed surprisingly sanguine about that.
As much as those prices pained her, her own knowledge of formations told her that they probably weren't undue. Transportation formations were hideously complex and required many spirit stones to power, even when placed in a fixed location. Anything meant to transport any significant number of people more than a few kilometers was beyond any but the wealthiest or most skilled people. Something that could do the same while being portable was obviously even more expensive, even if it was limited to one person
“I suppose that’s fine, if it can be delivered quickly,” Ling Qi allowed after consideration.
“No more than a few days from your order, Miss Ling,” the rotund boy replied. “Now, in regard to your other requests, I’ve brought some examples of the work a few of my partners have done. Warding against clairvoyance techniques is an unfortunately common request…”
With her shopping squared away, Ling Qi was left with problems that could not be shot, exploded, bought or punched. The matter of her tutoring with the spirit Zeqing weighed on her. Ling Qi had, in the wake of their last conversation, researched the Sect’s relations with the various powerful spirits that resided on or near the Outer Sect mountain. In exchange for being allowed to live freely in Sect territory, spirits were expected to follow a number of rules. The big ones seemed to be that they were not allowed to do harm to mortals or knowingly allow their get to do so. They were also not allowed to interfere in Sect activities nor to go out of their way to harm disciples out of malice.
Ling Qi suspected that helping her against Sun Liling edged up against the second rule. After all, it had been a ‘duel’. The last rule stuck out to her as well. The malice limitation on the rule seemed like it could very easily be circumvented.
... Like, say, a sad, stupid girl saying that she wished a spirit of dark hunger and possessiveness was her mother. Ling Qi had shivered when she read up on the possible results of that. Being spirited away wasn’t just a story told to scare children. She had been very lucky that Zeqing had restrained herself since Ling Qi had basically just shoved her head into the proverbial bear’s mouth.
Some traitorous part of her wondered what it would have been like. Or perhaps she should have listened to the voices of the spirits on the wind when she was a child and saved herself a lot of pain.
Ling Qi shoved those thoughts into the deepest hole she could imagine as she climbed the mountain. Ling Qi had left the Ma sisters behind in favor of making the climb in stealth. She wouldn’t be so foolish as to move about openly while alone again. Sun Liling’s remaining forces had begun to strike out with a vengeance in the last couple days.
Using her arts and her gown, she wove a trail that would be impossible for anyone ground-bound to follow and worked her way up the mountain. It doubled the travel time, but as she arrived at the pool unmolested, she supposed that it was worth it.
She could already hear Zeqing playing as she approached the ravine, a soft, mournful tune that nonetheless cut through the biting, icy winds of the upper peak as if the spirit was playing right next to her. The song stopped as she arrived to find the spirit patiently waiting for her, hovering above the surface of the pool.
Ling Qi bowed low, hands together in front of her. “Lady Zeqing, please allow me to apologize again for abusing your hospitality.”
Zeqings looked down on her silently with blank white eyes, but after a moment, she made a dismissive gesture with her billowing empty sleeve. “I accept your apology in the sincere spirit it was given,” she said simply. “Speak no more of it, and let the matter rest.”
Ling Qi relaxed. It seemed that Zeqing was fully willing to dismiss any insult she may have offered. She was glad that things could go back to normal between them. Straightening up, she gave the spirit a lopsided grin. “Will do. Would you mind if I tried some new songs today? I received some compositions that I would like to practice.”
“That seems reasonable,” Zeqing agreed, floating down from above the pool toward the stone ‘bench’ they used. “I admit, in recent decades, I have perhaps allowed my pursuit of the arts to stagnate. Hanyi has simply taken so much of my time.”
“Children do that,” Ling Qi said. “How old is Hanyi anyway?” She took a seat and expressed the pages of her mother’s notes.
“I do not track the individual years as closely as a human would,” Zeqing replied thoughtfully. “Some twenty or thirty winters, I think?”
So the little snowball was probably a decade her senior. That was strange to think about. She couldn’t imagine how one could remain a child for so long. Then again, cold and ice qi tended to represent stasis in many qi theory interpretations. She wondered if Hanyi would still be the same brat in another hundred years. “So, what do you think of these?”
Zeqing peered over her shoulder, her chill aura cutting through Ling Qi’s gown like a knife. “Hardly masterful work,” she mused, reaching down to trace the lines with a clear icy finger. She breathed in, and Ling Qi shuddered as she felt the hungry void at the snow spirit’s core briefly awaken. “The emotion put into the work grants it a certain base potency. Longing, despair, betrayal, and weariness… A lovely bouquet. The garnish of hope atop it all makes the combination all the more poignant.”
Ling Qi’s fingers tightened briefly on the pages, her lips setting into a thin line. “You make it sound like it’s a fine wine,” she joked weakly. “Shouldn’t we be talking about the meter and rhythm?”
“I forget. Even with the insight I gave you, you still require certain crutches,” Zeqing commented, leaning away and granting Ling Qi a reprieve from her chill. “You still require a few more refinements of spirit yet to truly grant your own melodies life.”
Ling Qi blinked, looking over at Zeqing. “Do you mean that I could make my own art? Like the Forgotten Vale Melody?”
“In time,” Zeqing replied simply. “For now, let us play. I believe we may be able to refine your work.”
“It’s not mine,” Ling Qi reminded the spirit. “... But I suppose I can make it so.” he spread the pages on the stone between them, eyeing the notes inscribed on the page, as she expressed her flute.
Her mother’s music was a sad one, and as she played, she found herself feeling something like what she suspected Zeqing had, of emotion transcending the crude approximations that mortal composition could lay down. It brought back memories of lying awake in bed at night, hearing the sound of notes floating through the thin walls on those rare nights when Mother had gone to bed alone.
How long had her Mother worked on this?