Softly, lightly, without the slightest sound, Ling Qi stepped from the cliff and flew. The night wind made her gown and loose hair flutter as she soared over the misty lake toward the welcome of the peak. It was the place where she belonged. She knew it. While she could warm herself at the fireside for a time, hide in the darkness, or soar in the sky, none of those were her place.
None of those were her home.
How long had it been since she had a home?
She closed her eyes and let herself drift on the wind, the soft music from the peak washing over her. There was a reason she had kept her mother’s flute, had held it so tightly, and had protected it even when she had nothing else, when the hunger scratching at her belly had made her long to pawn it for a simple meal.
Music was home, safety, love, all the things she had given up for that wretched double-edged freedom. It was the cornerstone of her best memories. Yet for all that attachment, she hadn't been able to afford it.
Not in the city where the sound of a flute would draw the scavengers of the street. Not on the mountain where she needed to scrabble so desperately for strength that it consumed everything else.
She felt arms close around her as she alighted on the mountainside, warm and cold all at once. She leaned into the embrace and opened her eyes. Mother looked down at her fondly, stroking her hair with a soothing touch, as she had done long, long ago. Ling Qi smiled, and they parted, though she still held the older woman’s hand. Warm, smooth scales nuzzled at her other hand, and she looked down to see Zhen and Gui at her side, the little brother she had raised from an egg. She patted his head and he let out a pleased hiss.
And in the corner of her vision stood a pale girl, at once close and distant, watching her with longing.
The mountain stretched overhead, the tune floating down from the peak a thing of welcome. What awaited her at the peak was beyond wretched freedom, beyond power, beyond fleeting companionship. She would hold tightly to her friends, but in the end, such bonds changed. As she set one foot in front of the other, ascending the peak with only three at her side, Ling Qi came to understand that which she truly desired.
A place that was hers, and people to inhabit it.
Her bonds were frayed. Mother flickered in her sight, features changing to one icy and imperious then to one of warm silver eyes. She did not dare invite the girl behind her closer, afraid of what it could mean. Only Zhengui stood solid and wholly real at her side.
She clung to her friends and gave gifts freely, desperate to convince them of her worth, but she also held them at a distance still. She didn’t share secrets of herself, except in the smallest ways. Would they even speak again when the year was up or the one after that? When duty and responsibilities tugged them all apart? Could she hold them to her? Bind them or keep them?
She looked to her right and saw Zeqing’s face looking back. No, that wasn’t right. Things changed, and that was fine. She would have a home one day: a place to return when the adventure ended; a place for the people who would stay with her always; and a place distant friends could come and visit to give her new tales to spin into song.
Ling Qi smiled as she reached the peak where eight maidens danced, sang, and played, remote from the world below. She glanced at Zhengui and the phantoms at her side. One day, she would have a family so lively.
She had but to build it.
Ling Qi awoke feeling refreshed, the memory of her breakthrough trance already fading as she returned to the waking mortal world. She felt light as she stood and looked down at herself with faint bemusement. She hadn’t changed, but since she had only broken through in spirit, that made sense. Still, when she glanced in the mirror on the far wall, she felt like her expression was a bit more assured. When the light struck just right, there was a slight silver gleam in the air around her and the wind seemed to carry a faint tune just beyond hearing.
It had been the better part of three days since she had entered meditation. She would have to hurry to avoid being late to her meeting with Zeqing. Some part of her was embarrassed at the thought of meeting the snow spirit again, but she couldn’t say why.
Pausing only to hug Zhengui and make sure he had been eating well, she collected her little brother and headed out, bounding her way up the mountain with a newfound lightness in her step. She flitted from branch to branch and cliff to cliff. Silver light glittered in her wake, although she found she could suppress that effect with an effort.
She soon arrived at the pool where Zeqing waited.
The spirit was unchanged since Ling Qi had last seen her and greeted her arrival with a curious cock of her head. Zeqing was still an inscrutable nexus of wintery power to her senses, but now, there was something else, a pressure she had not noticed before, surrounding and engulfing her. It failed to touch her, pressing within a handspan of her body but no closer.
“You have grown, I see,” Zeqing said, studying her.
“I have. I hope we can resume our lessons,” Ling Qi said politely, stopping a few paces from the spirit and offering a bow. She ignored the pressure for now, chalking it up to the odd feeling she had since awakening. “I have missed them.” It was easier to say this kind of thing now. She still wasn’t certain what she wanted from the ice spirit, but she knew she enjoyed the inhuman being’s company, and that was enough.
“... As have I,” Zeqing agreed after a moment. “I look forward to seeing what songs you compose.”
“So do I,” Ling Qi replied cheerfully. She had already begun to consider how she could arrange things to give herself time for such things. “May I ask what prompted your invitation?”
“It seemed a good time for it.” The spirit offered her an empty sleeve. “If you would?”
Ling Qi considered then stepped forward. She trusted the snow woman to keep her word, and moreover, she trusted that the spirit held her with no ill will. She took the spirit’s arm, shivering a little at the frost crystals that formed across her gown as she hooked her arm with Zeqing’s. It felt like grasping a bag full of cold air.
Ling Qi had no time to consider that as the world blurred away around her. Icy wind howled in her ears. She clung to the spirit’s arm tightly as the weightless feeling of flight overtook her. Only Zeqing’s calm expression prevented her from growing alarmed.
Thankfully, the flight was brief, and Ling Qi’s feet soon made contact with solid ground. She shook her head, trying to clear the disorientation from the rapid movement. Zeqing waited patiently for her as she took in their surroundings.
They stood at the peak of the mountain. Below, the cliff vanished into the clouds. At the center of the plateau they were on sat a small cottage made of glimmering ice. It looked no bigger than the house she had originally shared with Meizhen and was surrounded by a field of pure white snow from which grew a single tree, a slender thing with long wide leaves and little round fruits. It took her a moment to place where she had seen them before. Memories of snatching little golden fruit from a market stall returned to her. Loquats weren’t too uncommon, but they were always imported and dried in Tonghou.
She was pretty sure that they usually weren’t blue white in coloration though.
As she studied the tree in Zeqing’s yard, she caught motion out of the corner of her eye, a dark shape leaping toward her back. She tensed, ready to move, then sighed in acceptance.
Hanyi’s landing on her back drove the breath from her lungs. The little girl was monstrously heavy despite her small size, and Ling Qi staggered as the girl laughed from her perch. “Hello, Big Sister!” The title was less mocking than the last time Ling Qi had heard it from the ice child’s lips. “It’s no fair that you’ve been playing with Mama but not me!”
“Missed you too, Hanyi,” Ling Qi replied through gritted teeth, looking over her shoulder to meet the girl’s eyes.
‘Get off of Big Sister! She’s mine, not yours!’ Ling Qi blinked in surprise. With a sinking sensation, she noticed the distinct feeling of emptiness in her dantian and looked down to meet Gui’s bright green eyes, which brimmed with indignation.
“Ohhhh! A turtle! A big turtle. Big Sister, can we ride him down the cliffs? Sledding is fun! I promise.” Hanyi seemed to ignore her xuanwu’s words entirely in favor of ogling him, clambering up to sit on her shoulders as she did so.
‘I will only carry Big Sister!’ Gui responded, the usually mild mannered tortoise sounding unusually annoyed. Zhen remained silent, coiled tightly at the rear of his shell, but he shot Hanyi a dirty look. He didn’t seem to be enjoying the cold. ‘She is not your Big Sister either! She’s mine!’
“Nuh uh, I saw her first.” Hanyi finally deigned to acknowledge his words, sticking out her tongue at the tortoise.
“Hanyi, do not be rude to our guests,” Zeqing, briefly forgotten in the argument, asserted herself with a firm command. “Get down from there.”
Ling Qi barely contained a sigh of relief as the barefooted little girl jumped down from her shoulders. She crouched down to pat Zhengui on the head. “Don’t worry. You’re my only little brother, Zhengui,” she soothed. “She’s just playing.”
He nuzzled her hand, blinking his big green eyes. ‘... my Big Sister though,’ he said sulkily.
Hanyi looked like she was about to argue, but between a look from Ling Qi and Zeqing, she deflated. “Big baby,” she huffed under her breath, kicking at the snow.
“Let us go inside,” Zeqing said mildly. “It will not do to keep our other guests waiting.”
“You have other guests?” Ling Qi asked as she stood.
“Just a few friends over for tea,” Zeqing answered as she led them to her door. “I thought you might like to join us.”
Curious, Ling Qi followed closely behind. The door to the cottage opened to a blackness that defeated even her vision, but after Zeqing vanished inside, Ling Qi steeled herself and stepped through. There was a moment of disorientation like she was moving in every direction at once, but it quickly cleared.
Her eyes widened as she saw the large dining hall she had arrived in centered around a table carved from blue ice. Insubstantial spirits of ice and frost flitted between lanterns of cold fire, and the shadows beneath the table and in the corners crawled with life. Three figures drew her attention.
An impossibly beautiful woman swathed in a many layered deep azure gown sat at the far end of the table. Blunt horns branched from her forehead, and dark blue scales lined her cheeks. Dark green, reptilian eyes watched her over a cup of tea with a mild, casual disdain.
A short distance further down sat the hunched crimson form of a massive ape. Even seated, it towered over her. The teacup in its hand looked more like an entire pitcher. The narrow eyes regarding her under its heavy brow seemed a little friendlier than the previous ones though. It took a moment, but she was pretty sure that this spirit had appeared at one of Elder Su’s lectures early in the year.
Lastly, Xin was here, rising from the seat directly across from where she stood with a smile on her lips. “I am so glad you could make it, Ling Qi! Happy Birthday!”
Ling Qi blinked, her mind stalling at the statement. It didn’t help that she was surrounded by monstrous, oppressive auras. She felt like she was freezing, drowning at the bottom of the sea and being hunted all at once. Only Xin’s steadying presence managed to keep her on track.
”... My birthday isn’t for a few weeks yet,” she protested absently, barely noticing as Hanyi and Zhengui entered behind her.
“I arranged for an early invitation,” Xin explained patiently, suddenly appearing at her side. She led her to the table to sit as Ling Qi tried to come to terms with the surreality of the moment. Only now did she notice the spread on the table, a feast of sweets and treats of all kinds.”It would not do to celebrate things late if you were busy.”
“As if the girl should have had a choice in the matter,” the scaled woman sniffed. “This is all very silly.”
“Mama, can I have a birthday too?” Ling Qi heard Hanyi pester her Mother.
“Perhaps if you are good.” Zeqing sounded curious and bemused at the idea.
“It does not do to punish dedication,” the crimson ape said, voice gravelly and deep but also distinctly feminine.
“I suppose,” the scaled woman said languidly. Ling Qi shuddered under her gaze. “I still say that you should not inflate her head so with your attention, Xin. Look where arrogance has gotten that fool son of mine.”
“Worked into a useless fury over a thief he failed to even detect?” Xin teased. Ling Qi’s mouth went dry as she realized who the scaled woman was, even as a steaming bowl appeared before her. The succulent aroma of the long noodles and broth made it difficult to pay the dangerous creatures around her the attention they deserved.
“That is the only reason I am here,” the woman - the dragon! - said haughtily. “I wished to see the child who had so thoroughly embarrassed my foolish son.”
“Do not mind Qingshe,” Xin said, shooting the woman an amused look. “And consider this a celebration of your first step into the third realm as well.”
“How did you know I was going to break through?” Ling Qi asked. Her fear was fading, replaced by a feeling of warmth. It was strange celebrating breakthroughs, but she appreciated it. Xiulan had celebrated with her at her entrance into the second realm, but this felt different.
“Ask the moon how it knows all,” the ape chuffed. “Child, a week will pass before your answer is finished.”
“Hush, Rahki. I am not so bad. This is not the time for those kinds of explanations,” Xin retorted. “Suffice to say, I am a diviner of some skill. Now, do eat. Warmth does not last long here, regardless of my efforts.”
“As it should be,” Zeqing said from over her shoulder. “I do not much understand the purpose of this, but I am told it is what humans do to celebrate important milestones. You have earned this, Ling Qi.”
Smiling despite herself, Ling Qi dug in under the eyes of the powerful spirits. How many years had it been since anyone had marked her birthday?
The rest of the afternoon and evening passed in a blur of sweets and tea. It was strange conversing with so many creatures capable of crushing her with but a thought. It was stranger still to see humanity in them.
Well, it was only an impression. The spirit’s conversations were impenetrable to her, but somehow, the group still reminded her of a circle of gossipy wives and mothers. Unsurprisingly, Xin and Zeqing were the ones who paid her the most mind, prodding her for information on her advancement and more embarrassingly, her relationships.
In the end, she escaped Xin’s clutches by going out to play with Hanyi and Zhengui. The Moon Fairy was dangerous, and Zeqing seemed to easily get swept up in her fervor.
As it turned out, Hanyi was right. “Sledding,” as she called it, was pretty fun. There was a sheer icy slope on one side of the peak that led down into a snowy field, and Zhengui’s smooth belly made him perfect for hurtling down it. He even allowed Hanyi a ride or two. Apparently, the two of them had made up in the manner that children do while she was being interrogated.
Still, eventually all things had to come to an end. Qingshe left first, followed by Rahki, leaving only Xin and Zeqing to escort her back out.
“Thank you,” Ling Qi said as they reached the edge, turning back to bow to the two spirits. Zhengui was asleep in her dantian, and Hanyi was back at the cottage, tired out by the play.
“It was no trouble. I always wanted to try such a thing.” Xin smiled. “Have you worked out my present yet?”
Ling Qi shook her head, knowing what the spirit was referring too. “Not yet.”
“Keep working at it.You will need something new to toy with when you outgrow my sister’s gifts,” Xin said slyly.
“I will be available for lessons this following week should you wish it,” Zeqing added quietly.
“Thank you again,” Ling Qi said gratefully, taking the spirit’s arm.
“Ah - Ling Qi!” Xin’s voice brought her up short as the silver eyed woman called to her.”I am aware that you have already received several offers of employment, some of them quite good. Do consider the Sect, will you? The Moon knows that that husband of mine could use an apprentice to keep him from growing lazy.”
“I didn’t know that offer was real,” Ling Qi admitted. Elder Jiao didn’t seem the type of elder who wanted an apprentice.
“It is a bit of a secret so don’t tell anyone I spoke of it,” Xin replied, stepping forward to look her in the eye. “You humans do so love your regulations. But there is a bright future for you here, and I think the Sect is the best path for you in the long run.”
“I will consider your words,” Ling Qi said, bowing her head in thanks. The Sect, for all of its problems, was something she had thought upon, but… everyone seemed to think Cai’s offer was better, and she was not sure she disagreed.
“That is all I ask,” Xin said lightly. “Good night, Ling Qi.”