Ling Qi frowned at her reflection in the mirror, turning this way and that to get a good look at herself. The thread from Liming had radically altered her gown.
Overnight, the layers of the gown had multiplied, and the cut had become far more ornate. The hems were now outlined in stark white, and the smooth black silk had somehow grown even lighter and smoother, feeling almost like water to the touch. It had a decorative panel hanging down from her waist now with white petaled azalea flowers, spots of red at their core, dotted among curling vines.
She even had a mantle, a thing of dark blue silk split in the middle to hang like wings over her back. Ling Qi stared into the mirror and concentrated, the mantle vanishing.
“I believe it makes you seem distinguished,” Meizhen said from behind her.
Ling Qi turned to look at her friend, who was seated on her bed. Meizhen looked back at her with an amused twinkle in her eyes from over the rim of her tea cup. Ling Qi glanced down as the gown rustled softly while the hems floated as if on a drift of breeze just above the floor, never quite touching it despite the trailing train of blue black silk.
“It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” Ling Qi asked, rubbing the back of her neck. “This feels like something an Imperial courtier should wear.”
“It is wholly appropriate,” Meizhen rebutted. “Even if you need to do some growing into it yet.”
“I don’t think I want to get any taller.” Ling Qi grimaced; she already towered a full head or more over most of her friends.
“That is not what I meant, and you know that,” Meizhen said unamused as she set down her cup on the side table with a clink.
“I know,” Ling Qi sighed, looking back into the mirror. The girl staring back at her had changed so much over the course of this year thus far at the Sect. Yet somehow, she was still the same gangly, awkward thing. It seemed there were some matters that even cultivation could not fix.
“Stop that,” Meizhen commanded, rising to stand beside her. They seemed like total opposites in the mirror.
“Stop what?” Ling Qi asked.
“Thinking poorly of yourself,” Bai Meizhen sniffed. “You are a fine Lady of the Emerald Seas.”
Ling Qi blew a curly strand of hair out of her eyes then turned away. “If you say so.”
Spending the morning on a high cliffside breathing in the crisp mountain air and practicing her singing made for a nice, relaxing morning. Her own voice still paled in comparison to Zeqing’s, but she felt that she was improving quickly.
Hanyi, who was also attending the lesson, stubbornly pushed through simpler voice exercises. Zeqing really did understand her daughter well. The little ice child had a wide competitive streak and really hated losing. Ling Qi thought Hanyi’s behavior rather cute if she were being honest, but that might be due to Zeqing preventing the little girl from sulking too much.
With the sun passing its zenith, she headed down the mountain, planning to meet up with Suyin for some research time. Though it had fallen by the wayside, Ling Qi hadn’t forgotten some of the ideas she had thought up in regards to the guardian formations. She met her friend at Suyin’s home and joined her in her workshop.
“So you won’t be staying in the Sect?” Li Suyin asked as she sketched out a potential design on a wide sheet of paper that was splayed over the same worktable that had doubled as a medical bed.
“Yes. I felt like it would be foolish to pass up such an opportunity,” Ling Qi replied with a sheepish shrug, her own inkbrush scribbling in details within the wider pattern.
“I can see why. To think the heir to the Duchess herself would offer you such a position,” Suyin wondered, her lips pursed as she carefully laid out the strokes to one of the larger characters.
“What about you, Suyin? Gotten any offers yet?” Ling Qi asked lightly, not wanting to seem like she was rubbing her good fortune in her friend’s face. Suyin had reached mid yellow in her spiritual cultivation some time ago, and from the intensity of her aura, her reserve of qi was becoming pretty respectable as well.
Suyin glanced away, seeming embarrassed. “One or two. Senior Sister Bao’s comments on their quality were rather colorful though. I think I will remain with the Sect for a time yet. Father spent a decade of his savings and took on a hefty loan to pay the tuition, so I want to learn as much as possible before making any further choices.”
Ling Qi was glad her friend wouldn’t be forced onto the front lines. Suyin might not be the gentle girl she had been at the start of the year, but Ling Qi couldn’t picture her as part of a military unit.
“Speaking of low quality,” Ling Qi added thoughtfully, “did that Huang Da keep bothering you after he stopped sniffing around me?”
Li Suyin grimaced. “Yes. He’s certainly bemoaned his father’s orders publicly enough, but he seems to have followed them. I have not seen him recently, but I’ve heard some talk around that he has gone into closed door cultivation.” She shook her head then, dismissing the subject. “Shall we try activating the new mobile formation then?”
“Yes,” Ling Qi agreed. “I’ll handle the North and East Gates.”
“And I, the South and West ones. Start at the end of the three count,” Li Suyin instructed, looking down at their work intently. They counted down together and channeled qi into the openings around the patterned circle.
The muffled explosion that followed blew the shutters on the workshop’s windows open and scattered the birds roosting the roof.
It was a good thing that they had decided to practice with paper first, leaving them covered in fine ash rather than showered with splinters or shards of stone. Ling Qi grimaced as she brushed the smoldering embers which had landed in her hair onto the floor and stamped them out.
Li Suyin’s spirit chittered worriedly from atop her cultivator’s head, having rushed out of the cozy nest built into the ceiling the moment the blast had been unleashed. The fuzzy pink arachnid was two hand lengths across now, but she still looked at Ling Qi with eight glistening eyes brimming with suspicion.
“I am fine, Zhenli, “Li Suyin soothed despite her face being splotched with soot. She gently shooed her spirit down onto her shoulder where the fuzzy arachnid clung like a particularly sullen shoulder pad. “We didn’t make any errors. I am sure of it,” Suyin said, sounding frustrated.
“There must be some problem with our theory.” Ling Qi sighed. “I guess this means we start over from scratch?”
“We have little choice.” Li Suyin huffed, brushing her hand across the ashen tabletop. It shimmered wetly as moisture rose from the wood and carried the mess into a bucket at the far end of the table. “Perhaps we should modify the scouts first? We might gain some insights into the more complex formation that way.”
“Maybe,” Ling Qi frowned. “But you know, I think I might be able to save us some time.”
“How so?” Li Suyin asked curiously.
“There’s someone I know who might be able to give us some advice.”
“I am not sure if it is appropriate to bother a person of his rank like this,” Li Suyin fretted as they walked the path toward Xuan Shi’s workshop. A quick visit to Gan Guangli at the training fields had pointed them to where the reclusive boy had holed up in recent weeks. “I am sure he is very busy.”
“He might not seem like it, but Xuan Shi is a pretty friendly guy,” Ling Qi reassured her as the building came into view. It was more of a low hill of rock than a building with a pair of smoking chimneys disgorging fragrant, qi-charged smoke. There were no windows, but there was a single wooden door on the front side. “I don’t think he would mind answering a few questions. Besides, he could probably use a conversation if he’s really been in seclusion for a month.”
Li Suyin sighed, sounding pretty similar to the way Meizhen sighed when she felt Ling Qi was being unreasonable, but she let it pass without comment. “I will trust your judgement,” she said instead, sounding more like she was trying to convince herself.
Ling Qi came to a stop as they reached Xuan Shi’s doorstep, and after a moment of searching, she found the formation Gan Guangli had mentioned and put her finger in the center of it. Channeling a tiny thread of qi into it, she was pleased when she heard the deep ringing of a bell echoing from the inside. That was a useful little trick.
She waited patiently as there was no immediate response while Li Suyin shifted nervously beside her. Eventually, she caught the sound of movement and the faint tinkle of the metal rings on Xuan Shi’s staff. Ling Qi stepped back to give the door room to creak open, revealing a blinking Xuan Shi in his usual high-collared robe, though she could see his hat hanging from a peg on the wall behind him. He seemed politely bewildered by their presence.
“Sister Ling?” he greeted her after a pause. “The council lays silent, and the mountain peaceful. Has the Princess of Strife broken her bond?”
“Nothing so serious,” Ling Qi reassured him. “This is merely a personal call.”
She saw him glance over at Li Suyin, who smiled weakly and offered a silent bow of respect. “... Is that so,” he said, his expression unreadable. “What quest brings you to this one’s abode then?”
“Well, it’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I was hoping for some advice again,” she explained, catching a flicker of something in his eyes as she did. “My friend and I were working on a formations project, and I was hoping you might have a word of wisdom or two.”
She nudged Li Suyin, who very much did not squeak in alarm like a frightened mouse. “Ah - Honored Brother Xuan, we are having some trouble modifying a house guardian formation toward greater mobility. While I would not dare ask for your personal secrets, I had hoped that you might be able to point out which portions of my general knowledge are lacking.”
Whatever strange expression he had before, Xuan Shi now looked down at the back of Li Suyin’s head with resigned amusement before looking back to Ling Qi. “A boon of knowledge then. Enter, and partake of my hospitality, such as it is. This one has some hours to spare while certain processes complete.”
Li Suyin seemed relieved, but Ling Qi just nodded. For all his demeanor, Xuan Shi was a generous sort.
Xuan Shi’s home was small and a bit claustrophobic for Ling Qi’s taste, but it was clean and somehow well ventilated despite lacking windows. The furnishings were spartan, and the table they sat at to have tea was a plain thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in the lower ring of Tonghou, its state of repair aside.
Xuan Shi was able to help them through their block, pointing out some faulty assumptions in the foundations of their logic for the modification. Suyin’s hands were little more than a blur as she took down every word Xuan Shi said in her notes.
Of course, there were downsides. A formation like the Li Silk Guard was not meant to be mobile, and while it could be made so, it came at cost. Such a formation would only last a day or so at best before the strain broke things. So it would be rather expensive to, say, mount one on Zhengui, even if she did have some idle dreams of Zhengui becoming a small fortress with guards. Maybe one of the other formations she and Li Suyin were working on would be both effective and cost-effective.