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Ling Qi stood uncomfortably behind Cai Renxiang with the rest of the gathered council. She still wasn’t used to this, being the one with authority. However, with Yan Renshu kneeling on the ground, his hands bound and his head down in front of them, she could not deny that there was a certain satisfaction to it.

He had been healed, his wrist no longer twisted and broken, but the manacles on his wrists suppressed his qi, rendering him effectively helpless before his peers.

Cai Renxiang’s expression was impassive. “Do you have any words to say in regards to the charges leveled against you?”

“Would it matter if I did?” Yan Renshu sneered. “Do as you will.”

Beside her, Fu Xiang pushed his eyeglasses further up his nose, lenses glinting in the light cast by Cai Renxiang. . “You have seen the evidence and the records prepared, my lady. The case is clear.”

The heiress closed her eyes briefly before she pronounced, “You are guilty, Yan Renshu, of poison and sabotage used against one of my subordinates. You are guilty of a truly staggering amount of blackmail and false contracts. You have refused all offers of honorable surrender.”

Yan Renshu remained stonily silent.

“This is the Sect, so your actions are mitigated by the nature of our competition, but you must still be punished,” Cai Renxiang continued after a beat. “You will remain under house arrest until the end of the year. You will be observed at all times, and your work scrutinized by experts to ensure compliance. Your remaining funds will be divided and given to those whom you defrauded. That is my judgment.”

“Oh, I will still be allowed to work and cultivate. How generous,” Yan Renshu said darkly.

“Indeed,” Cai Renxiang said with narrowed eyes. She glanced at the enforcers flanking him. “You may return him to the Medicine Hall.”

Ling Qi watched as her enemy was led away, and Cai Renxiang turned to them to speak. The full council would be having a proper meeting soon, and Cai Renxiang would have something to announce at that time. However, it was hard to worry about that as she caught Meizhen’s eye.

They needed to talk. As the others left, Ling Qi approached Meizhen. “Do you want to do this now?” she asked quietly.

“... Yes. It would be best to put any further misunderstandings behind us,” Bai Meizhen said stiffly.

“Up to the pool, you think?” Ling Qi asked carefully.

Meizhen gave a shallow nod. “I think so.”

They changed their course without further conversation, the two of them lost in their thoughts as they ascended the mountain. Neither of them found the climb a strain any longer, and soon, they arrived at the dead end which contained the still, frozen black pool, far from prying eyes or ears.

Ling Qi came to a stop at the edge of the pool while Meizhen continued on, gliding steps carrying her across the slick ice. “How do you want to do this? I know I suggested it, but I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to say to each other.”

Meizhen turned to face her, the pale girl’s blue and white gown billowing in the icy wind. “I would have you attempt to make me understand why you think my methods wrong,” she said plainly. Ling Qi watched her raise her hands, falling into the loose stance she took on those occasions she fought unarmed.

“Meizhen, you know I can’t beat you. I don’t think that’s going to help,” Ling Qi said, crossing her arms.

Her friend closed her eyes, letting out a long suffering sigh. “Qi, do not be such a mortal. We may speak and spar at the same time,” she explained, not moving from her stance. “If your hands cannot reach, then you must simply give greater thought to your words.”

“This is one of those things I don’t quite get yet, isn’t it?” Ling Qi asked rhetorically, nonetheless falling into the simple unarmed stance that Elder Zhou had taught them at the beginning of the year upon seeing that her friend would not be moved on the matter.

“Conflict is the core of all things,” Meizhen said quietly. “Not many truly recall that in these modern days. We are born from it, live it, and in the end, die from it.”

“Unless you ascend, of course,” Ling Qi joked as she eyed Meizhen’s defenses. There were no real gaps to exploit. There never were. She brought her foot forward and stepped, snow bursting up behind her as she snapped out with a palm to strike Meizhen in the stomach. Her hand was deflected easily by Meizhen’s own. It seemed that they were sticking to basics for this.

“Even spirits are not eternal, as we understand such things,” Meizhen replied. Ling Qi rolled to the side of the retaliatory knife hand that struck through where her shoulder had been. “But that is not the conversation we came here to have,” she continued as they traded blows.

“No,” Ling Qi admitted as their spar worked a slow circle around the surface of the pool. Meizhen was still taking it easy on her; she simply wasn’t the girl’s match in unarmed combat, even using the more refined movements taught in Argent Current. They continued in silence as she gathered her thoughts. “I don’t know if I can say you are wrong. But for me, I want you to be. I told you before, didn’t I? I ran away from home. I left my Mother behind, convinced of my own righteousness, but it just left me alone.”

“I do not understand the connection in what we speak of,” Meizhen replied, not unkindly, as she nearly sent Ling Qi tumbling, her foot having almost caught Ling Qi’s ankle.

“It matters because it wasn’t the only time that I made a choice like that,” Ling Qi shot back as she regained her footing and counterattacked, finding herself perfectly deflected each time. “I don’t know how much you can understand what it’s like, living like I did. In that situation, you’re barely better than an animal. You scrabble and fight just to live, throwing aside everything that doesn’t help you in the immediate present. You betray and you hurt and even…” She cut herself off, letting out a ragged breath as she fell back a step to recover her stance. “I want to be better than that.”

“You will have a difficult path then,” Meizhen said. “I will admit that I cannot understand what you speak of,” she continued as she stepped forward, shifting into offense, a probing jab whistling past Ling Qi’s ear. “I have known hunger, pain, and privation, it is true, but only within the context of survival exercises.” She paused thoughtfully, although she didn’t let up physically. “Some part of me knew that no matter how harsh Grandfather might be, he would not let me die in such a pathetic way.”

“Pathetic, huh,” Ling Qi snorted as she wove through her friend’s deliberately slowed offense, sneaking in ineffectual counterblows. “That’s a good word for it.”

“I meant no insult,” Bai Meizhen said evenly.

“I didn’t take it as one. It’s accurate. I do not want to be pathetic anymore though,” she said stubbornly, offering up a feint. This time, anticipating the deflection, she twisted her wrist, managing to grasp Meizhen’s own and pull her out of guard.

Ling Qi whipped a short, open-palmed hook towards the momentary opening, only to grimace as Meizhen twist-stepped in time with the motion, sweeping her ankle out from under her with casual grace and catching the striking arm in her grasp. The girl’s pale fingers locked around her forearm, and she seamlessly followed through with the rotation, a combination of raw strength and the momentum of her own strike yanking Ling Qi from her feet. She managed to right herself in midair from the throw, landing on her feet behind Meizhen, who was already pivoting to face her.

“I don’t want to have to treat everything like a matter of survival. I don’t want to have to kill someone just because we are in conflict.”

Meizhen spun away from her charge, graceful steps carrying her across the ice. “Even if it causes you more harm in doing so? I do not ask that you become some petty tyrant, but you have no reputation. Before you may grant mercy, you must make it known that you are capable of doling out consequences, else it will rightfully be seen as weakness. You will be exploited.”

“Why are you pushing this so hard?” Ling Qi asked irritably. “Do you really think a conflict in the Outer Sect is worth that much escalation? To violate the rules of the Sect? To put into jeopardy the relationship with Cai Renxiang?”

“I think teaching my best friend the value of proper action is more valuable than the life of some craven miscreant!” Their physical actions receded in importance as they continued speaking, strike and counterstrike happening more by rote than conscious action. “And Cai Renxiang would understand,” Meizhen tried.

Ling Qi could not help but scoff at that, and Meizhen grimaced.

Meizhen was quiet for a time. “I do not want others thinking that you may be trampled upon so freely.”

“Nothing he was doing was outside the Sect rules. I was handling his sabotage,” Ling Qi replied in exasperation.

“You should not have had to!” Meizhen answered, anger in her voice. “Escalating small matters to the death is foolish, but what you did to him was no small harm! Your luck will not hold indefinitely, Qi!”

Ling Qi fell back, pushed by both words and physical blows. “I’m not just lucky,” she snapped. “It’s not like I was planning to let it go forever!”

“No, you would have simply dithered about, getting distracted by new things like a magpie in a gem mine,” Bai Meizhen said in frustration. “You cannot treat a vendetta so lightly.”

Ling Qi replied through gritted teeth, “Let’s say you’re right and I was being too flippant. Why does it matter so much to you?”

Meizhen’s golden eyes glared at her as they broke apart. Neither of them was breathing hard, but they were tense. “Because I understand what happens when one’s reputation for retaliation is damaged,” she said finally. “You recall what that wretch Kang Zihao said that day he ambushed us?”

Ling Qi eyed her friend warily, staying in stance as she thought back. “... Something about a clan member of yours being executed,” she replied, a cold feeling settling in her stomach.

“My Mother, Bai Meilin,” Meizhen clarified stiffly. “ She was executed for the assassination of the Sixth Prince. Her name was struck from our clan rolls, and Grandfather was forced to denounce her. No one would have dared make such an accusation if we were still feared as we should be.”

Ling Qi stared at her friend before words escaped her, prompted by her friend’s word choice. “... Did she do it?”

“Grandfather would not have wasted his youngest daughter’s life on a known wastrel,” Bai Meizhen said contemptuously. “We had nothing to gain from such a death, nor would Mother have been caught if so. She was our best…” Meizhen looked away, finally falling out of her combat stance.

“... I understand,” Ling Qi said finally, straightening up herself. The bruises from their spar were already fading. “But I think you are projecting in this matter. And what could I possibly do to become as feared as the Bai anyway?”

“Maybe I was,” Meizhen admitted. “You can’t do anything to become as feared as the Bai, but that does not mean that you should not try. Be merciful, if that is your wish, but make your example first. Prove that crossing you is not to be lightly done.”

“I won’t let anyone trample on me, but please let me do things my own way,” Ling Qi said. “Next time you think that I’m overlooking something, tell me instead of acting behind my back.”

“I will do so,” Meizhen said. “But I will also inform you when I believe you are acting in error.”

“And I will try to listen,” Ling Qi replied, bowing her head in thanks. “Meizhen, thank you for everything you have done. I can’t put into words how much I appreciate it.”

Meizhen looked away, unable to meet her eyes. “Honestly, Ling Qi, there is no need for that.”

Whatever else could be said, Ling Qi was glad that Meizhen was her friend.

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