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The Frozen Soul Serenade was not a happy song. It was not even melancholy, as Forgotten Vale Melody was. No, it was a primal thing, born from the depths of winter. It was hunger and want and loss, an eternal emptiness that could never be fulfilled. She didn’t think she would ever play it for enjoyment, not the way she sometimes did with the Forgotten Vale.

All the same, she had a talent for it. She felt Zeqing’s fingers of ice on her shoulder as she lowered her voice, the cold of her mentor’s touch no longer stinging as harshly. She had never been a singer before, but it came naturally, her voice echoing out over the cold mountain peak. What she sang were not words, but the meaning came through clearly.

She opened her eyes and saw the snow falling around her. She knew that for once, it was because of her, and not the ice spirit beside her.

“You sing well for a beginner,” Zeqing praised, letting her hand slip from Ling Qi’s shoulder. “Your ice is still slow to emerge, but that will improve with effort.”

Ling Qi nodded, still focusing on the darker feelings stirred up by the song. Frozen Soul Serenade was an undeniably useful art. The first technique, Spring’s End Aria, mantled her in the power of winter, absorbing the energy of incoming attacks to empower her cold further. The second technique was the real prize though. Hoarfrost Caress was a short, lilting passage which would scour the target with supernatural cold, the deathly chill of the technique persisting like poison in their veins. Already, she had seen a beast freeze solid under it, only to shatter as the frozen blood in its veins burst outward. And this was only the first stage of mastery. Still, she held out hope that Xin’s gift would eventually lead to something a little more cheerful.

“Thank you,” she said politely. “As always, I appreciate your teaching.”

“And I, your studiousness,” Zeqing replied before considering her. “Ling Qi, I would like Hanyi to join us.”

Ling Qi’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Really? I don’t mind-” too much “- but won’t she…” She trailed off, not wanting to be rude.

“Hanyi has trouble focusing on her studies,” Zeqing agreed. “It is my hope that witnessing a human surpass her at our natural abilities might bring greater focus to her efforts.”

That made sense. “As I said, I don’t mind,” she hedged.

“Then I will be happy to make time for lessons every week,” Zeqing said knowingly, “So that we might still have our more private sessions.”

Ling Qi was relieved. Sad songs or no, she really did enjoy having some time just to relax with the quiet snow woman.

***

Big Sister, can we go yet?’ Gui asked as he tramped along behind her, disturbing the debris strewn across the ground. There was just a touch of whine in his voice. “I wanna play hide and bite some more!”

‘Foolish Gui, don’t distract Big Sister,’ Zhen scolded, his tongue flicking out to taste the dusty air. ‘Help her look for leavings instead.’

But worm slime is gross,’ Gui sulked, even as he began to dutifully nose at fallen bits of roof.

Ling Qi sighed as she took her eyes off her spirit beast. Zhengui wasn’t much help in this kind of investigation yet, but if she was going out into the woods anyway, she had figured she should pick through the rubble of Yan Renshu’s lair now for anything interesting left behind and clear out any remaining worms.

Of course, she noted somewhat glumly as she turned over a fallen stone which had crashed through a workbench, Meizhen had been rather thorough in destroying Yan Renshu’s possessions. They had been attacked by worms a couple of times, but the worms were weak grade one things which served mostly to annoy and disgust by exploding into smelly acrid mist when killed. For the most part, the worms were busily chowing down on everything vaguely organic that had remained and covering the ground in some sort of sticky film.

This was a pointless waste of time. She kicked the heavy stone she had turned over irritably, sending the head-sized chunk of masonry clattering through the wreckage until it cracked against a retaining wall. That didn’t mean this excursion had to be a waste though.

“Zhengui, can you come here?” Ling Qi asked. “I think I know what we’re going to practice today.”

Gui lifted his blunt snout from the rubble he had been nosing in, excitement gleaming in his bright green eyes. Zhen’s gaze continued to flick around watching their surroundings for threats as he trotted over. ‘What game are we going to play, Big Sister?’ he chirped.

“We’re going to call this one Root Trap,” Ling Qi replied, crouching down in front of him to come closer to eye level. “I know you can move tree roots around, so I want you to use them to catch as many worms as you can, alright? But you can only use the roots.”

They’re so far away though,’ Gui complained. ‘And worms are gross.

“You don’t have to eat them,” Ling Qi said, smiling. “For every one you catch, I’ll give you a fresh core. I bought a lot for today.” The pile of grade two cores she had bought would take up her pill income for the week, but it would be worth it.

What will I do, Big Sister?’ Zhen hissed, his attention now captured. ‘I want to train too.

Ling Qi hummed thoughtfully. “... Each worm Gui captures, I will throw. If you can hit it with your venom, you’ll get a treat too,” she decided. She wasn't sure where to push Zhen’s growth yet, but working on his aim seemed helpful regardless.

Hmph, making me rely on clumsy Gui,’ Zhen sulked.

I’ll catch them all!’ Gui declared, looking up at his counterpart. ‘Lazy Zhen should just stay ready.

“Get along now,” Ling Qi chided them gently. “Now come on. We should move to the middle for this.”

The game proved to be entertaining, if smelly, but Ling Qi could put up with a little stink if it meant improving Zhengui’s abilities. The root grabs were still too slow for her liking, so not combat viable yet, but Gui seemed to slowly be getting the hang of it. She noted that he didn’t always use existing tree roots; sometimes, the roots seemed to spontaneously generate where he needed them. When he did it that way though, the roots tended to be more like creeper vines than tree roots. So the ability must be weaker if he wasn’t within range of any trees.

Zhen, on the other hand, proved to be a very good shot and was all the more smug for it… until Ling Qi remembered to pull the effects of her Zephyr’s Breath art back. It was harder for him when Zhen had to rely solely on his own abilities. But he still didn’t miss often, and the squealing wormlings went up in smelly flames under his venom.

Once they had cleared the field, she took Zhengui hunting for a time, since both of them enjoyed “Hide and Bite” so much. The animals she spooked into his range liked it rather less.

Eventually, they headed home, and Zhengui buried himself in the garden to nap, exhausted by the day’s activity while she cleaned up and prepared to head up to the vent. She had asked Su Ling if they could practice in the early night this week. Su Ling needed a target to practice her illusions on, and for Ling Qi, resisting them while cultivating Eight Phase Ceremony would be a good exercise.

***

After a night of fending off Su Ling’s temptation-inducing visions of succulent food and easily accessible and ill-guarded loot, they parted ways in the morning. Su Ling headed home to tend to her elixirs while Ling Qi headed up the mountain. She needed to follow up on things with Fu Xiang.

Once she had collected the reinvigorated Zhengui, Ling Qi headed back to Fu Xiang’s little cottage nestled in the middle slopes of the mountain. As Fu Xiang was a known information broker, there was nothing suspicious about visiting him.

She was cautious though, keeping a careful eye on her surroundings as she traveled up the beaten dirt path. She could feel Fu Xiang’s presence within the home as well - and no one else - so she approached and knocked without worry.

She did roll her eyes when the door creaked inward on its own, revealing the deliberately flickering lights of the entry hall. She had learned on her last visit that Fu Xiang liked atmospheric theatrics in his home.

She found the boy in his sitting room in front of a wide circular mirror set over his desk. She couldn’t see more than a few cloudy blurs in it, but then again, it wasn’t her art.

“I did not expect to see you again so soon, Miss Ling,” the boy said as she entered his sitting room, turning to face her with a pleasant smile. “Have you heard about that terrible business in the market?”

She gave him an unimpressed look and sat herself on one of the couches lining the room. “Are you just going to leave them to it or are you going to provide ‘intelligence’?” Ling Qi shot back, not happy with her part in this scheme.

“I think I shall let it go for awhile,” he mused, adjusting his glasses. Then, rising from his seat in front of the desk, he rose and stretched. “My, scheming is a bit of a rush, isn’t it?” Fu Xiang commented as he made his way to a more comfortable seat facing Ling Qi.

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Ling Qi said dryly. “Have you been peeking again?”

“Nothing of the sort you are implying,” Fu Xiang replied in a mock wounded tone. “No, I merely mean that being in control of what one's Lord sees and believes. I suppose in the future when I’m gone, you’ll have to ensure that you keep a tight hold on Lady Cai’s intelligence sources.”

Ling Qi kept her face blank. “... Who said I’m going to accept?” she asked evenly. “And I don’t plan on doing things like this often anyway.”

“Not often is not never,” Fu Xiang observed slyly. “Steering the powerful is a dangerous game but quite rewarding. Were I a more ambitious sort, I might be jealous.”

“That’s not why I did this and you know it. We’re even now,” Ling Qi said flatly.

“I suppose we are.” Fu Xiang studied her before briefly appearing disappointed. “Well, while congratulations on your breakthrough are in order, I cannot imagine that you came to me for that. What can I help you with today?” His tone and expression snapped back into bland pleasantness.

“I would like to know more about Yan Renshu in case he maintains his grudge, whether that be evading his oversight for the remainder of the year or in the Inner Sect should he make it there,” Ling Qi explained.

Fu Xiang smiled. “One hundred red stones will purchase you a dossier. Two hundred will purchase an in depth investigation.” At her frown, he simply raised an eyebrow. “We are even now, Miss Ling, are we not?”

Ling Qi didn’t really have a response to that. He did make his living off this kind of thing. “No offense, but Lady Cai’s original information on him was flawed. I assume that came from you. I’m not sure I should pay that kind of price.”

Fu Xiang leaned back in his seat, still smiling. “My apologies on that matter. He did have a truly staggering number of boltholes. I was not aware of the extent of his operations.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ling Qi asked.

Fu Xiang seemed to internally debate the merits of answering. “Very well. A teaser just for you, Miss Ling,” he teased, bringing his hands together. “Yan Renshu is a disciple from the year before mine. He was a bit of a shut-in in my year. Not a surprise given that he had been ruined for offending a young lord of House Wen the year before, according to rumor.”

Ling Qi recalled Yan Renshu’s words and nodded. “So he started operating in the background after that?”

“Quite,” Fu Xiang replied. “He took control of a fair share of the market and recruited crafting disciples by offering relatively cheap aid in gathering reagents in return for a cut. Obviously, the actual breadth of his operations was missed. And now, you and Lady Cai and then Miss Bai have ruined him. Again.”

“He’s hid things before. How likely is it that he may utilize hidden resources to maintain some low-level sabotage against me while under supervision?” Ling Qi asked.

“Miss Ling, consider the breadth of the operations you have ruined so far and the number of disciples on the mountain. Make no mistake. What you uncovered is impressive indeed… but it is also the limit of what an unbacked Outer Disciple could achieve. The Elders would not brook interference with the permanent Outer Sect members’ work, and a disciple can only extract so much wealth from a few hundred disciples. The economy of our little game is limited. All indications show that he has settled down to focus on making it to Inner Sect. With you having sharply limited his resources and destroyed any projects he had,” Fu Xiang smiled blandly, “he will have to work quite hard on a rushed timeframe to do so.”

“Why tell me this? Do you not want to get paid?” Ling Qi asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Do not mistake me, Miss Ling,” Fu Xiang answered, pushing his glasses up. “A cornered rat is at his most vicious. I do not doubt that he nurses vengefulness in his heart, but for this year at least, you have neutered him.. No doubt he will stay on the right side of the Sect rules, as he has thus far, but I’m sure he can be quite annoying in time. Lady Cai and Miss Bai are beyond his reach if he has any sense left, no matter how battered the Bai clan’s reputation might be.”

“... I’ll think about purchasing further information,” Ling Qi said after consideration. “Thank you for your time.”

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