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“I appreciate the help,” Ling Qi said sincerely, meeting Bai Meizhen’s eyes from across the table.

“And yet you are going to disagree with my methods,” Meizhen replied coolly.

Ling Qi nodded reluctantly. “I don’t know exactly what you intend, but it’s probably going to skirt the Sect rules, right?” When Meizhen failed to disagree, Ling Qi continued, toying with the cup in her hands. “I don’t want you to be taking a risk like that for me, even if it’s a small one given your status. Why don’t we just drag Yan Renshu to Lady Cai? Let her spin it as a victory and stuff him in a hole until the end of the year.”

Meizhen pursed her lips, not happy with the idea. “This is a personal matter. While I do not doubt Cai Renxiang’s skill nor her ability to create a convincing narrative, why bother her with such a thing? Restraining a third realm cultivator is neither cheap nor easy.”

“I just don’t think going any further than that is necessary. The Sect… Iit’s all supposed to be a big game, right? ” Ling Qi said. It tasted like ash to say, but that really did seem to be how it was. “Even if Yan Renshu has done some really unpleasant things, I don’t-”

“A game?” Bai Meizhen asked flatly, interrupting her. It was startlingly rude for the usually reserved girl. “Shall we go visit that retainer of yours, so that you may tell her the loss of her eye was only part of a game? That she should cease her efforts to ruin her rival?” Cui nuzzled her cheek affectionately as Meizhen closed her eyes in frustration. “While the Imperial court has transformed the sects into a playground for the lesser families, that is not true for cultivators such as yourself.”

Ling Qi scowled, the reminder of Li Suyin's situation making her temper flare. "Maybe I don't want to be the kind of person who cripples someone, then makes some half-assed excuse about it," she snapped. "And I want to ask that of you even less. Don't get me wrong; I'm going to help you. But I want to actually follow the rules, and not just the letter of them."

“... It is your vendetta,” Meizhen agreed unhappily. “You are being too soft, but I will not gainsay you on this.” Meizhen clearly wanted to though. “I had intended to settle the issue three nights from now. Is that acceptable?”

Ling Qi nodded. She didn’t like displeasing her friend like this, particularly when she was just trying to help. “I’m thankful that you were willing to put in so much effort for me.”

Bai Meizhen simply nodded, elegantly rising from her seat. “Thank you for the tea. I am afraid I have cultivation to catch up on. If you will excuse me?”

Ling Qi sighed, standing up herself. “I do as well. See you in a few nights, Meizhen.”

“I will see you then, Qi,” Meizhen said as she paused in the doorway, glancing over her shoulder briefly before heading toward her room.

Ling Qi hoped that she hadn’t offended her friend too much with her refusal. Glancing down at the dregs in her cup, she drained the rest of the tea with an inelegant gulp and stood. She had three days to wrap up the rest of her plans for the week.

Ling Qi started by heading to the roof to cultivate under the stars and work on deciphering the puzzle that the Moon, or perhaps Xin, had left her. The polished and lacquered wooden slats had moved easily under her fingers as she meditated under the stars, drinking in the stellar and lunar qi. The edges clacked against one another quietly as she lined up the patterns painted on the box’s sides. It had taken some time, but she managed to complete it easily enough. It had almost been disappointing in its ease.

That had been a foolish thought. When the last slat had fallen into place, the box shook in her hands, giving off a single, high, clear note. The outer layer of wood then collapsed, transforming into crumbling leaves which had fallen from her surprised hands, only to be blown away by the next breeze.

Left behind was a smaller box, this time of polished and worked silver with deeply inlaid patterns of onyx. Curious, she moved the first piece, sliding it smoothly into a new position. A soft twinkling song began to play and surprised, she stopped to examine the apparently musical box.

Then the tune cut off, and the piece she had moved snapped back into its starting position, almost pinching her finger.

To her mounting frustration, Ling Qi found herself unable to keep up with the second box’s timed resets, and by the time the sun had begun to rise over the horizon, she was more than ready to put the irritating box away. She would come back to it tomorrow night, but for now, she was going to meet up with Su Ling, not to mention she first had to get Zhengui up and moving. Her spirit was still terribly lazy in the mornings.

Actually, with Zhengui awake again, perhaps she could have a bit of fun with her friend…

***

Upon giving it a second thought, Ling Qi could admit that surprising her friend with Zhengui might not have been the best idea.

It was still pretty funny though.

“I’m sorry!” she called up, from where she stood on Zhengui’s back, balanced on the spikes of his shell. “Please don’t be mad. It was just a joke.” Dust and grit still drifted across the clearing, stirred up from when Zhengui had burst from the ground.

Su Ling glared down at her, still clinging to the uppermost branches of the tree she had bolted up, ears and tails both standing on end like a startled cat. “Ha. Ha,” she stated flatly. “What the hells made you think that would be funny!”

Gui peered up at her guilelessly. “Big Sister? Why did the fuzzy girl go up the tree like that?”

“Why do the prey run when you jump out, foolish Gui?” Zhen hissed from behind. He smugly peered up at Su Ling from over Ling Qi’s shoulder. At least someone thought the prank was funny.

Gui blinked and appeared to be thinking hard for a moment. “Ah! I’m sorry! Don’t worry. Big Sister won’t let Zhen bite.”

“She’d better not,” Su Ling grumbled darkly, giving Ling Qi one last glare before dropping from the tree. She landed in a crouch, easily rising back to her feet. “Seriously, leave the jokes to other people, will you?”

“I suppose I’m not really good at it,” Ling Qi muttered. She had figured Su Ling wouldn’t be fooled by Zhengui’s trick, but the other girl’s guard must have been down. “No harm, right?”

Su Ling ran her fingers through her tangled hair and gave a frustrated sigh. “Sure, no point in getting mad at you. Anyway, I had something to give ya, if you're done trying to give me a heart attack.”

Ling Qi hopped off of Zhengui’s back, leaving the spirit to bicker back and forth between himself. It would be some time before they were done. “Oh, did you guys manage to do something with that liquid from the vent?” she asked curiously.

“Yeah. Made a pill that’ll give your spiritual cultivation a pretty strong boost and make working with Argent Arts easier.” Su Ling’s ears twitched as the other girl tossed Ling Qi a small pill case. “I can’t refine more than one a month, so use that well, alright?”

Ling Qi inhaled deeply from the medicinal vapor which escaped when she cracked the case to peer in. She was already at peak Yellow so it wouldn’t do her much good at the moment, but once she broke through, a pill like this could be a real boon.

“That’s pretty impressive,” she complimented. “I’m glad you guys managed to do something with it. Are you sure you just want to give it to me though?”

“First one’s free,” Su Ling said, showing a bit of tooth with her smile. “Suyin has gotten some good use out of the stuff with her project too, and you were the one who found the main ingredient.”

“Thanks.” Ling Qi tucked the case away in a pocket. “How about you? Thinking about what you're going to do yet?”

Su Ling frowned, her eyes briefly flicking over Ling Qi’s shoulder. She glanced back, only to see that Zhengui had wandered off to dig into a fallen log, the loud crunching of the wood echoing over the clearing.

“I told ya I’m not worried about that,” Su Ling said dismissively. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

Ling Qi nodded, unsurprised. “Fair. That’s why I’d like to ask you something.” She was worried about her friend. If things went well, Ling Qi and Li Suyin would both enter Inner Sect, leaving Su Ling alone on the Outer Mountain. Meizhen’s reminder of what can be done by high nobles to commoners without protection pushed that worry further to the fore. “What do you think of those girls who have been following me around?”

Su Ling wrinkled her nose. “I get why you let ‘em. You’ve pissed a lot of people off.” Ling Qi simply continued to look at her; the girl knew that wasn’t what she meant. “They’re fine, I guess? They seem nice enough. Haven’t traded more than a word or two with ‘em though.”

“So you wouldn’t mind them joining us for training?” Ling Qi asked cheerfully. “Not here,” she added, gesturing toward the vent, “but in general.”

“I... guess?” Su Ling raised an eyebrow. “They’re not like that snob you hang out with in private, right?”

Ling Qi frowned at the insult directed at Xiulan but let it pass. It wasn’t wrong. “No. Ma Jun is a little prickly about politeness, but that seems like a personal dispute with her sister.” She paused to find the best way to articulate her reasoning. “I just think you could use more friends.”

“I don’t need that kind of handholding,” Su Ling said, irritated at the implication.

“Maybe not,” Ling Qi shot back. “But have you really thought about what it’s going to be like if Suyin and I both graduate?”

Su Ling frowned, her ears flat against the side of her head. “Yeah, I have. Doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want to be pitied.”

“Just give them a chance, you stubborn girl,” Ling Qi said, exasperated. “I’m offering to introduce you to some friends, not giving you a treasure.”

“Fine,” Su Ling conceded. “Now, are we gonna train or what?”

“Sure,” Ling Qi replied cheerfully. “Have you thought about what you want to trade me for Argent Current yet?”

“... Yeah,” Su Ling answered reluctantly. “Will a second one of those pills be good for a down payment?”

It would pay for it in full considering that she had wanted to give it for free, Ling Qi thought, but any argument would just make Su Ling insist on paying more. Instead, she nodded, glad that her friend would be a little better armed.

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Heyo everyone. Hope your still enjoying the story. Obviously there's going to be a bit of controversy here, so all I can ask is that you trust where I'm going with this.


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Yrsillar

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