I trust that you do not speak in jest. I have trouble accepting your words, even knowing this. Yet I cannot deny that recent events have shown that you are able to call on resources unimaginable to me.
When an elderly gentleman arrived at my doorstep wearing the uniform of an arbitrator, I felt some hope. He was very kind and patient, reviewing my case with utmost care, yet still, I worried that it would not be enough.
Then those loathsome men arrived, and upon a word from my elderly guest, they hurled themselves to the floor in kowtow. I was nonplussed. While I do not profess to fully understand the conversation that transpired then, I understood the title they referred to him by. What in the world did you do to bring the Senior Judge-Magistrate for the entire central region of the Emerald Sea province to the outermost district of Tonghou?
I feel that we need to speak to one another face-to-face so I will accept the invitation. While I would never consider leaving the city in a normal situation, I have no further doubts about the safety of any transport.
It will be good to see you again. Ink and paper is well and good, but seeing my daughter’s face once again will do my heart well, I think.
Ling Qi shut her eyes after she re-read the letter. She’d half-expected Cai’s recommendation to cause something a little ridiculous, so she supposed it wasn’t completely surprising that a man only a step or two down from the actual Minister of Law for the entire Emerald Seas province had shown up at her mother’s residence. And with that display, it meant her mother was willing to make the trip to the Sect.
...She could admit to herself that the idea made her nervous. She wanted to include her Mother in her life again, but would all those ugly feelings that had kept her in the street well back up once she actually spent time with the woman again? How much of her conviction to reconnect with her mother was rooted in reality instead of rationalization?
“What deep matters trouble you so, Junior Sister?” The smooth male voice, sounding right in her ear, was nearly enough to make her leap from her seat like a startled cat. It was a testament to the hours of practice and effort put into her composure since arriving here that she managed to resist the urge, only the tightening of her grip on the parchment in her hands betraying her surprise. She had been expecting someone before the letter had arrived, fluttering through the twilight sky.
She stood up from the stone bench she had been seated on and turned to face the center of the hilltop where a white marble table sat in the center of eight benches. On the central table lounged a young man, one leg hanging loosely off the edge.
He was, to put it bluntly, strangely dressed. The loose dark red pants of the same kind Sun Liling often wore and simple slippers were common enough, but the open, sleeveless black leather vest, in which dozens of matte black knives were holstered, was much more daring. Or maybe it wasn’t the Inner Sect? He might be trying to emulate Elder Zhou going by his chiseled musculature.
Not that she stared. Not at all.
He was wearing a weird mask, a thing of silvery metal sculpted to look like the uneven fangs of a mountain demon. It covered his face from the nose down, the black fabric beneath trailing all the way down his neck. Perhaps the most shocking though was the vibrant red crescent tattoo marked with tiny formation characters along its inside edge that curled around his right eye.
The young man rested his masked chin on his hand as she regarded him. “Do I meet your expectations, Junior Sister?” he asked lightly, raising an eyebrow.
Ling Qi quickly bowed her head, clasping her hands together as she went through the formal motions. “My apologies, Senior Sect Brother. I was just startled. I could not feel your presence at all.”
It didn’t hurt to pay a compliment, especially if it was true. To her qi senses, he might as well have been part of the table.
“Aha, you will have to excuse me. I have been performing missions for some time,” the young man said easily, a breeze tugging at his shaggy black hair. “You are lucky that you posted your request when I, the sixth-ranked disciple, Liao Zhu, was on mandatory leave, for no others could fulfill the request you have laid out, Junior Sister.”
She was about to respond when his qi flooded over her like a blanket of cloying mist, tainted by the scent of copper. It made her skin prickle uncomfortably, but she maintained her composure. He was at the seventh stage of the third realm. Despite the unsettling feel of his qi, he didn’t seem like a bad sort. Prideful perhaps, but it looked like he had a right to be.
“I thank you for using your time to instruct me, Senior Brother Liao,” she replied evenly. “I will not squander my good fortune.”
“Hm, a dutiful response,” Liao Zhu mused, looking her over. “Well, I suppose I give you credit for your composure. Maintaining dignity in the face of arrogance is an important skill.”
Ling Qi slowly straightened up, meeting his eyes with a wary look. “I am sure your pride is well founded, Senior Brother Liao.” She wasn’t falling for a trap.
“True enough,” he agreed. “But my phrasing was deliberately grating. I had heard that the current crop of talents was a quarrelsome bunch, but it seems that may have been exaggerated. No matter.” He made a sharp gesture, dismissing the subject. “I am Liao Zhu, practitioner of the Soaring Sanguine Crescent, the Twinned Star Discourse, and the Sable Moon’s Veil. Introduce yourself.”
Ling Qi straightened her shoulders unconsciously. The young man’s words felt odd. They were commanding, but she couldn’t manage to muster up any offense at the blatant demand. She supposed sharing the names of her arts was fine. He could hardly teach her if he didn’t know what she was cultivating. “I am Ling Qi, practitioner of the Sable Crescent Step and the Forgotten Vale Melody,” she replied, following his lead. “I would like to add Phantasmagoria of Lunar Revelry to my abilities.” The Phantasmagoria art had been in the jade slip the Dreaming Moon avatar had given to her for her apparently successful performance at the moonlit gala. She hesitated before continuing, “My cultivation art is moon-aligned as well, but…”
“Eight Phase Ceremony?” he finished, more a statement than a question.
“I wasn’t aware that it was so common,” Ling Qi replied, feeling disgruntled. She had thought it a rare art, being a gift from a Moon avatar.
“None of that now,” her tutor chided. “The only soul on this mountain aside from the two of us with access to that art is Elder Jiao himself. I only recognize a fellow walker of the moonlit path.”
That did take the sting out a bit. “I guess I should have expected that, since I asked for a moon tutor,” she said, dipping her head in his direction.
“It might be the primary starting point for moon art practitioners, but it is a varied thing. I have no doubt that your ceremony diverges from my own,” Liao Zhu said with a slight shrug. “You chose the Grinning Moon, I think, and you are on the verge of another choice.”
Ling Qi nodded, listening closely to his words. He had the air of a teacher about to begin a lecture. “You chose the Bloody Moon?” she asked, glancing at the tattoo around his eye.
“I have always had an affinity for delivering final justice to the wicked, yes,” he answered, a satisfied tinge to his tone despite the morbid implication. “Do not be too frightened, Junior Sister,” he added, apparently picking up on her unease. “I chose the Reflective Moons next, that I might guide others before they fall from the path of virtue or ease those who have already erred but have not yet committed any unforgivable acts.”
“That’s kind of you,” Ling Qi said, doing her best to keep any judgement out of her voice.
“We all have our paths,” Liao Zhu replied, seemingly unconcerned with her thoughts. “Regardless, let us begin. The first thing you must understand, is that all moon aspects are one. They are mutable and flow into one another, and so your cultivation must remain as flexible as possible. To do this, you should…”
Ling Qi listened closely as Liao Zhu lectured, committing his words to memory, and later, when he offered demonstration, the fluctuations of his qi as well. Even if he made her somewhat uncomfortable, he truly was a gifted teacher.
Soon, Ling Qi mastered the parts of the sixth phase of the Eight Phase Ceremony that had escaped her. She had needed to take a firmer hand in molding the lunar qi she absorbed because she had been allowing too much to escape in her gentleness. The moon was ever-changing, but in the moment, it held definite form. She had been treating it as if it were wind or water. With his advice, her efficiency in absorbing and refining stellar qi improved by a magnitude.
She found herself stymied though. Part of the art’s potential was once again locked away by a will beyond her own. Liao Zhu showed her how to continue her cultivation of the art in that incomplete state so her efforts were not wasted. But she suspected that as Liao Zhu had alluded to, she would need to choose another moon and complete that moon’s quest before she could proceed further.
Under Liao Zhu’s tutoring, she also picked up the first revel of the Phantasmagoria. The art seemed to call upon the memories of that night at the Dreaming Moon’s chaotic revel. With the Illustrious Phantasmal Festival technique, Ling Qi could use her qi to impress her memories of that night on the world around her. Ghostly dancers would coalesce from a many colored mist in a riot of color, laughter, and movement, allowing her to slip in their midst and hide from any who sought to target her.
With the next technique, Lunatic Whirl, Ling Qi could even have her dancers physically assist her by gathering around an intruder in the festival, forcing them to join the revelry. Once caught, the intruder would be moved randomly to another location within the festival, and the frenetic pace of the revelry would even drain their qi if they were unable to successfully disengage.
It didn’t really work all that well on Liao Zhu - not that she expected it to with the difference in their respective cultivation - but she could definitely see the potential in the art. The Phantasmagoria was not as polished as Forgotten Vale Melody yet, but it was at the first stage of nine compared to the Melody’s fifth stage of eight. Perhaps in time, it could become, as Xin had suggested, another staple art of hers.
In the morning, with her tutoring over with, Ling Qi returned to the Sect’s main office on the Outer Sect mountain to hash out the details of getting her mother moved to the Sect village. It took a few hours, but eventually, she had all the forms filed for transport and residency. The Sect covered all the costs, but Ling Qi felt uneasy about her family’s safety on the journey from Tonghou. She took the option to pay a moderate sum of yellow stones from her own pocket to hire additional guards. It was pricey, perhaps, but it would do her nerves well.
All told, according to the junior Sect advisor, the journey should take a bit more than two weeks, three at the outside. She would have a chance to talk with her mother before the New Year’s Tournament.