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Her tutor, Sect Brother Liao, seemed bemused when she arrived at their meeting point, practically skipping, but had let it pass without comment as they wrapped up their time together. She felt that she had impressed the older disciple with her growth and rapid mastery of her new Phantasmagoria art, although perhaps she was just seeing what she wished to see.

After, she headed to Fu Xiang’s to follow up with him with regard to the market’s investigation of the sabotage. After her last discussion with Cai, Ling Qi had told him that she was not interested in allowing the third to be framed, and Fu Xiang had reluctantly agreed.

“Let me apologize again for the inconvenience of the last minute change,” Ling Qi said, dipping her head toward Fu Xiang where he sat in front of his mirror and other scrying gear. He had replaced his chair with a padded, levitating disc of dull grey metal since she had been to his cottage last. It had allowed him to swivel to face her without ever standing up.

“It was more disappointing than troublesome,” Fu Xiang replied from his seat, idly adjusting his glasses. “In the end, my employment under Lady Cai is a temporary measure.”

“I am not sure what you mean by disappointment,” Ling Qi said slowly, taking one of the open seats in the room herself.

“I had thought our interests might overlap somewhat, but it seems you are more principled than I had imagined.” Fu Xiang shrugged, folding his hands in his lap. “I suppose it is good to get that sort of misunderstanding out of the way early before we move beyond children’s games in the Outer Sect.”

Ling Qi restrained a grimace. “May I ask how the market will resolve the matter?”

“As I have refrained from pointing fingers at a certain crafts competitor,” Fu Xiang eyed her pointedly, “the market’s investigators have been unable to pinpoint a culprit. They had considered you at one point.” Fu Xiang paused, his lips quirking into an amused smirk.

Ling Qi just stared back flatly.

“But,” he preened, “while you are one of the few on the mountain with the stealth skills for the sabotage, you were determined to have a lack of motive to do so. You are, of course, well known to be aiming for a slot to the Inner Sect via the combat tournament. Further, the way the sabotage was conducted indicated a sophistication and understanding of crafting that was surmised to be beyond you.”

Ling Qi rolled her eyes at Fu Xiang’s dramatic retelling. “And?” she asked impatiently.

“At this time, the market’s investigators have concluded that the sabotage was carried out by a fellow crafts competitor in the market itself. They would have the motive, and unlike crafts competitors outside the market, such as myself, they would have the opportunity to both know of the particular projects in question and to access them for sabotage.”

Fu Xiang continued, “The market is not interested in conducting an investigation within the market itself, potentially causing further opportunities for sabotage and destabilizing profits for other stores in the markets and hence, its own profits. They have notified the sabotaged crafters of the conclusions from their investigation and closed their investigation.”

“I see,” Ling Qi said. Blaming the matter on an unidentified competitor was better than ruining a third uninvolved person.

After some polite pleasantries, Ling Qi took her leave from the informant’s cottage and headed back home to pick up Zhengui from his usual morning napping place. It was time to begin profiting from her efforts at the dragon’s vale. She only hoped she could impress on Zhengui the importance of not taking nibbles out of anything at the vale, but especially not the fruit trees, while providing her promised musical entertainment to the dragon as well.

... It was going to be a fairly long morning.

***

The vale was lovely under the early morning light. The sun shone off the bubbling surface of the river, and the wind carried with it the sweet scent of fruit and flowers. The colors were vibrant, and the qi in the air pulsed with vitality.

“Alright, Zhengui,” Ling Qi said crisply as she crouched in front of her young spirit. “You worked really hard these past few weeks, and you followed instructions well. So I want you to do the same now. Keep cultivating your body so that you can be tough and strong for Big Sister.” Zhengui’s performance against Yan Renshu’s spirit beast had been admirable given the cultivation disadvantage, but she remembered Zhengui crying out in pain during that fight.

Big Sister does not need to worry. Zhen will not let the feckless Gui’s attention wander,” Zhen hissed, even as his bright red eyes wandered curiously over the vale. She wondered if he was picking up new vocabulary from Cui though.

And Gui won’t let lazy Zhen sneak any naps,” Gui chirped, causing his ‘brother’ to twitch in irritation. She supposed that she was just glad that their antagonism was mutual, instead of a one-sided bullying relationship.

“I’m sure you both will,” Ling Qi replied with a slight smile. “Now, there is a new rule today,” she continued as sternly as she could manage in the face of her adorable little brother’s earnestness. “You can’t eat anything here if you get hungry. I will give you a core, but you have to promise not to eat anything else until we leave, got it?”

The dismay in Gui’s bright green eyes shook her resolve, but Ling Qi stayed strong. “Promise me, Zhengui,” she said, not flinching from his gaze.

... We promise, Big Sister,” they both promised, albeit sulkily.

“I’ll be sure to treat you to something nice when we’re done,” Ling Qi said gently, leaning forward to embrace Gui’s thick neck. “I know you can do it, so train hard for Big Sister, alright?”

Zhen nuzzled her cheek, his forked tongue tickling her skin, and Gui made an assenting sound. After a moment, she let him go, and with one last pat for each head, she went to take care of the other half of her business while Zhengui got to his cultivation.

“It is beneath the dignity of a Xuan Wu to be coddled so,” the dragon huffed as she sat down by the riverbank, his voice distorted by the waters. He had been watching their conversation, half-submerged in the water, and he eyed her flute warily as it materialized in her hand.

“He is my precious little brother, and he is not even a year old yet,” Ling Qi replied, looking down to meet the dragon’s golden gaze. “He deserves some spoiling when he’s being good.”

“No wonder that child has no pride,” Heizui grumbled, sounding annoyed. “Raised by a human.”

Ling Qi merely raised an eyebrow. “If you want head pats, you will have to ask your Mother. It would be entirely inappropriate for me to offer,” she said primly, fighting down the smirk as the young dragon spluttered.

“You overstep yourself. I am not a child,” the dragon scoffed, rising to bring his head wholly above the water to stare her down from an even height. “Do not insult me so.”

“My apologies, Honorable Heizui,” Ling Qi replied, knowing not to tease him any further. “In turn, I will ask that you not insult my little brother.”

“Very well,” he said grudgingly. “You should still teach him some pride. It is unseemly for one of his kind to lack such.”

“I will take that under advisement,” Ling Qi said, just a touch dryly. “Now, what sort of song would you like me to play today?”

“Play me a song expressing the beauty of my vale,” the dragon demanded, settling himself on the riverbank, his long head resting atop his claws and the jewel at his throat pulsing with emerald light.

Ling Qi cast a look out over the sunny vale and nodded, raising her flute to her lips. The lesson of the dreaming moon was spontaneity, and even if she hadn’t chosen that path, she could still improvise a good melody.

For the next few hours, time crawled along as Ling Qi played a bright but slow tune that spoke of sparkling waters, fruit trees swaying in the wind, the scent of spring flowers in the air, and bright blue skies overhead. It was a nice change from her usual, and it was easy to simply relax and let the music flow.

She kept part of her attention on Zhengui, his aura bubbling with determination and cheer as he cultivated in the rich environment of the vale. The other part, she kept on the young dragon, whose tail swayed in time with her music.

By the time she was done, the dragon was snoozing away on the riverbank, his whiskers fluttering in time with his breathing. He was surprisingly trusting, or at least incautious. Maybe she should mention that to Zeqing to pass it along to his mother? Heizui was arrogant, but she didn’t think the young dragon to be bad-natured when it came down to it.

She spent another hour cultivating. She was going to be working on her Thousand Ring Fortress art while training with Su Ling later, and she wanted to soak in the ambient wood qi for a time to allow that to advance more easily.

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