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With free time before her intended bout with a dragon, Ling Qi decided to visit the Inner Sect market to browse the flying swords available, and Bai Meizhen had invited herself along to provide advice.

The colloquially known flying swords were more properly called domain weapons as they were frequently, but not always, in the shape of a sword. They were a staple of nearly all Imperial cultivators who reached the third realm because they served as a potent training aid for cultivators to develop control over their domain. Using one also allowed cultivators to gain an advantage in combat because domain weapons could act independently, allowing for multiple attacks at once. Now that she was a full third realm, Ling Qi would be able to use one of them.

“Your new spirit lives in your shadow?” Ling Qi asked, glancing down at her friend’s feet. She had noticed how dark Meizhen’s shadow had been recently, but she had assumed it was an effect of an art or her domain.

“It is my shadow so long as our bond remains,” Bai Meizhen replied without breaking stride as they crossed the plaza, heading for the entrance to the Sect’s main office. “Do not tell me something as small as this still surprises you, Ling Qi.”

“I suppose not,” Ling Qi said. “Why not just house it in your dantian like normal though?”

“Because Heartbursting Phantasms are incorporeal spirits and because it will make it more likely for the emerging personality to be complementary to my own if I keep it out,” Meizhen explained patiently. Apparently her Grandfather’s idea of a thoughtful gift was a spirit composed of the congealed terror from an old battlefield from when the Thousand Lakes still bordered barbarian lands.

Ling Qi wasn't sure she ever wanted to look into a Bai storehouse. Something in there would probably eat her. “I guess it won’t be as chatty as Cui then? What does something like that feel like through your bond?”

“It is somewhat strange,” her friend admitted as they passed through the doorway. “The spirit does not perceive things through human senses, and its thoughts remain difficult to parse. I have no doubts about my ability to command it; spirits such as this have little enough ego in their base states.”

“Of course not. You’re far more frightening than any wisp of a spirit,” Ling Qi joked.

Meizhen glanced her way and let out a small, nearly silent, huff of amusement. “Good of you to notice. I have made some efforts in that direction.”

Ling Qi considered her experience with the girl's aura and the spike of intensity she had noticed in it recently. “Is that what you chose to make your domain?”

Bai Meizhen looked at her but didn’t answer. Ling Qi flushed and glanced away. “Sorry. That was rude to ask,” she apologized.

“Do not forget yourself so easily.” Meizhen sighed. “Let us proceed to the market.”

The two of them waited patiently for a free official and showed their passes before being granted passage through the transport formation into the section of the Inner Sect Market where they were allowed. Unlike the Outer Sect Market, this place was quiet and mostly empty. The few stores set up here existed only for the benefit of a handful of Outer Sect disciples that had reached the third realm and so had limited stocks and fixed prices.

“So, what should I be looking for in a flying sword?” Ling Qi asked, breaking the silence as the formation shut down behind them. “What sort of qualities would be best for me?”

“I would discount defensive ones for the moment. Your capabilities in that regard are already adequate,” Bai Meizhen answered as they passed by the quiet pill dispensary and headed toward the most ornate shop in the section. “Your style requires more offense.”

“I’m not sure you have room to criticize there,” Ling Qi shot back playfully.

“And is my blade not sharp and quick as a viper’s fangs?” her friend scoffed pridefully.

“Fair,” Ling Qi admitted. She remembered seeing Yan Renshu’s flying shield crack under a single blow from Meizhen’s flying sword, and the few times Meizhen had brought it out in a spar were quick indeed. “Alright. So I want something stabby,” she continued casually, hiding her grin at the way her words made Meizhen twitch.

At the shop, the two of them looked through the potential domain weapons. There were a fair number and type available for sale, and the two spent some time narrowing down the potential selection. A simple hiltless blade made of plain high quality steel advertised as a relatively cheap practice aid caught Ling Qi’s eye. Meizhen had reluctantly pointed out a curved blade carved from glittering, blue-tinted ice and inlaid with curving patterns of powdered onyx and a long dagger of brilliant emerald as potentials that at least matched Ling Qi’s elements and were within the price range that Ling Qi had specified, but she was haughtily disdainful of the material of the domain weapons. In the end, the two left with Ling Qi buying the Neophyte’s Blade as a stopgap.

“I suppose this is the quality you will need to make do with,” Meizhen said, her expression a tad sour as they left the shop.

“I thought the ones we sorted out at the end were pretty decent,” Ling Qi replied, giving her friend an amused look. “We don’t all have unlimited budgets.”

“My allowance is hardly unlimited,” Meizhen protested, but there was a slight uncomfortable shift in her stance as she continued as if she found the subject distasteful. “And I am… aware of the limits of a new house's finances.”

“It’s nothing to worry about. I need to consider my options anyway,” Ling Qi mused, resting her hands behind her head as she walked. “And I might have a lead on something better.”

“Oh?” her friend asked, glancing her way before returning her gaze to the street ahead, her own hands held in front of her, hidden by her sleeves. “You believe you might have the location of a treasure?”

“I’ve advanced my cultivation art again,” Ling Qi said agreeably. “So I have a new task from the Moon.”

She caught the slight frown that flickered across her friend’s expression but didn’t call attention to it. “And you believe it will result in acquiring a superior flying sword?”

“That would be nice,” Ling Qi mused. “I have always benefited from the tasks I’ve been given from the Moon. I have more than enough arts to train so I believe the prize won’t be one of those. Even if it’s not a flying weapon though, I’ll probably profit and have more to spend on a better weapon next time.”

They walked in companionable silence toward the exit after that, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Nonetheless, you would do well to begin practicing with a domain weapon soon. Less than a season remains to you,” Meizhen advised. “Do not delay overmuch.”

Ling Qi didn’t intend to. She was all too aware of the looming end of the year and the impending New Year’s Tournament.

***

Once she split up with Meizhen, the other girl heading off for her noontime tea and sewing session with Cai Renxiang, Ling Qi went off in search of her other friend, Gu Xiulan. She knew the other girl was dedicated to improving right now, but she wanted to make sure the fiery girl wasn’t going overboard in her training.

Luckily, Xiulan wasn’t particularly difficult to find. Once she had narrowed her search area, the training ground Xiulan was practicing stood out to her qi senses like a literal bonfire. Significant parts of the field were, unsurprisingly, on fire when Ling Qi approached. Flames blazed merrily as they consumed targets and grass alike.

“Xiulan, I don’t think the elders will be happy if you burn the mountain down,” she said dryly as she approached within earshot.

Her friend, who had been leaning on a stone striking post catching her breath, looked up as she approached. Xiulan’s fine gown was streaked with soot, and her hair was in slight disarray, strands escaping from the tight braids she kept it in. “As if I could do such a thing,” Xiulan scoffed. “Besides, the flames are under control.”

Ling Qi was about to voice her disagreement when she spotted motion within one of the bigger blazes. A little humanoid form emerged, dancing from the flickering tongues of flame and trailing sparks from the tendrils of actinic light that made up its wings. It had been some time since Ling Qi had seen Xiulan’s spirit Linhuo, and it showed.

The fairy had gotten much bigger and more defined. Where she was once small enough to fit in the palm of a person's hand, the fairy was now a good sixty or seventy centimeters tall. In addition, the fairy seemed to have taken after Xiulan in its body type. Rather than a vaguely humanoid shape, Linhuo now had the body of a rather… gifted adult woman, shrunk to size and composed of multi-hued flame. The little spirit grinned at her when it saw Ling Qi looking and did a little spin, the dark smoke that made up her hair drifting in the wind, before she darted off into the next fire.

“You would know,” Ling Qi said instead, looking back to her friend. “It looks like you’ve been making a lot of progress.”

“Indeed. Father has been kind enough to ensure that I might take full advantage of my newfound affinity for the Heavenly Arts,” Xiulan boasted, gesturing to a boulder on the far side of a field. A molten hole was bored through its center, the melted stone still glowing faintly with heat. Her proud smirk fell a bit as she studied Ling Qi. “Congratulations on your breakthrough.”

“Thank you,” Ling Qi said, studying her friend. Xiulan was fully in the late stage of the second realm, and even now, her spirit was nearing the peak of it as well. “I look forward to saying the same thing to you soon.”

“Hah. Perhaps,” Xiulan said airly, shooting her a knowing look. “I hardly need the encouragement.”

“Maybe not, but I still wanted to give it anyway,” Ling Qi replied. “I’m glad you’re doing well, Xiulan.”

“Of course I am,” her friend said, her confident expression back in place behind her veil as she crossed her arms. The flinch when her heavily bandaged one brushed against the other was almost imperceptible. “What brings you here, Ling Qi? You must be quite busy yourself.”

“I am. I have a whole backlog of things that I need to cultivate,” Ling Qi said agreeably. “But I was about to take my turn in the White Room. It is kind of sad to do that kind of thing on my own, so I thought I would see if you were free.”

Ling Qi had invited Li Suyin and Su Ling each to the White Room once, but the vast majority of the time, she invited Gu Xiulan. After all, Su Ling wasn’t competing, and the crafters’ competition, which Li Suyin would participate in, was not a competition of cultivation but innovation. Gu Xiulan, though, was competing in the combat tournament, and every cultivation advantage there would be a boon to her chances of making it to Inner Sect, especially because Ling Qi suspected that third realm might almost be a requirement for a slot given the competition this year. It wouldn’t solve the engagement with Fan Yu, but at least Gu Xiulan would have time and space away from him if she made it.

Gu Xiulan pursued her lips, and Ling Qi didn’t miss the warring pride and gratitude in her friend’s eyes. “I suppose I can keep you company for a time,” Xiulan allowed.

“Sounds good,” Ling Qi said brightly, turning toward the entrance. She was glad her friend could put her pride aside and accept help. Then she paused. “Do you want to take care of these?” she asked, gesturing to the guttering fires.

“Let Linhuo have her fun,” Xiulan said airily, moving to walk beside her. “She knows not to get out of hand.”

The crackling giggle that rang out as one of the fires puffed bigger, bright blue at its core, made Ling Qi doubt that.

“So, what is this I have heard about you spending your nights with a handsome, masked gentleman?” Xiulan asked lightly as they left the training ground. “Should I be offended on behalf of Tai?”

Ling Qi’s stride faltered, and she blushed, scowling at Xiulan. “Don’t say things in that way,” she huffed. “Senior Brother Liao is just tutoring me this week.”

“Of course he is,” Xiulan said knowingly. “You lucky girl, there are ladies in the Inner Sect who might fight you for your position. Liao Zhu is a popular fellow. He doesn’t often socialize like that.”

“Weren’t you going to get offended for Gu Tai? How do you even hear about things like this?” Ling Qi grumbled, crossing her arms.

“There is nothing wrong with visual appreciation,” Xiulan said haughtily. “And it’s not as if anything is finalized. As for how… Elder Sister Yanmei does enjoy sharing a bit of gossip now and then. Now tell me, is he as handsome as they say?”

“... He’s never taken his mask off,” Ling Qi said, her eyes fixed on the ground. “Not sure I’d remember though. I have a hard time looking that high.”

Xiulan blinked, staring at her in surprise, only to snort as Ling Qi started laughing herself. “Hmph, so you do know how to loosen up. I was worried I might have to consider you a prude.”

Of course, Xiulan then spent the entire trip down the mountain needling and teasing her after that. It was good to get her friend’s mind off of training; Ling Qi only wished that she didn’t have to make herself a target.

Despite her always foggy memories of the shimmering interior of the White Room, Ling Qi emerged feeling well-rested. She and Xiulan did not hurry back up the mountain, but instead, they spent the time chatting, this time about their own respective training goals. As it turned out, Xiulan did need some help, or at least, a sparring partner, although she was reluctant to admit it.

Ling Qi had a feeling the other girl was feeling a little lonely, frankly. Either way, she was welcome to join Xiulan for training, but she would have to stick with cultivating defensive arts.

After she parted ways with Xiulan in the afternoon, Ling Qi headed back home to prepare herself and ensure Zhengui was taken care of for the evening. She had a dragon to confront.

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