Ling Qi was left feeling contemplative after she parted ways with Gu Tai. She walked the path back toward the Outer Sect mountain at an unhurried pace. She knew that things were going to be changing soon. She had not even been on this mountain a full year, so why did it feel painful to think about leaving?
This last year felt more vivid than the last three combined. Her life before the Sect had been a blur of hunger, fear, and pain. Even at this year’s lowest when she had been stalked by that creep Huang Da, hunted by Sun Liling, or frozen in the midst of a blizzard, it didn’t compare. Fleeting moments of helplessness couldn’t compare to years of hiding and scratching in the dirt for scraps. Their greatest impact came from reminding her of older memories.
However light their touch had been this year in enforcing the rules, the Sect had been the one to give her the opportunity to become more than another flickering, ephemeral mortal existence. She grimaced a little at that thought. It was arrogant, and she felt guilty for having it. She was expecting her Mother soon after all, and she was a mortal; Ling Qi shouldn’t think of them that way.
“Is that the heady aroma of brooding I sense in the air?” a light voice said from right next to her ear.
Ling Qi stiffened but very deliberately did not spin around to face the sudden source against her side. “Sixiang, you shouldn’t startle people like that,” she said tightly, giving the rainbow-haired spirit a withering look.
The spirit laughed, and Ling Qi could tell that the spirit was male at the moment from the slightly deeper tone of their voice and the lump on their throat. “Shouldn’t I? Aren’t humans at their most honest when surprised?”
“Even so, it’s kind of rude, not to mention likely to get you attacked,” Ling Qi replied, resuming her walk. She heard the flutter of cloth as Sixiang followed after her, falling in at her side.
“I’ve never died before, so that could be interesting too,” the spirit said with a smile, their black eyes glittering with mirth. “I wonder how it compares to the ending of a dream…”
Ling Qi shuddered. The utter guileless curiosity in the spirit’s voice was unsettling given the subject matter. “Dying is a more permanent thing. You don’t get to just go on afterward.”
“Are you sure?” Sixiang asked, cocking their head curiously. “How do you know? A dreamer cannot return to a dream after it ends. Even Grandmother cannot do such a thing.”
Ling Qi wasn’t a pious sort so she had never strongly considered such a question. Supposedly, after death, the soul of a human could dissolve or return to the world, lingering in an ancestral shrine or at the site of death. She supposed she knew now that a cultivator could also become a spirit.
“Are you saying that no one has ever dreamed the same dream twice? That seems unlikely,” Ling Qi said.
“Of course you can’t,” Sixiang replied, sounding bemused. “Since you will have become different by the time you next dream, the dream will have changed as well.”
Ling Qi narrowed her eyes in thought before shaking it off; This conversation was distracting. “Did you need something then?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Well, no,” Sixiang said with a shrug, and Ling Qi twitched as the spirit shifted slightly before her eyes, losing a few masculine features and gaining a few feminine ones. “I just have a nose for the mood of artists, you know? You’re definitely in the sort of mood which breeds new works.” A smile touched their thin lips as they spoke. “It’s positively… enticing,” they added eagerly.
Sixiang wasn’t wrong though. She was expecting Mother to arrive sometime today. Ling Qi had been lost on what to do while waiting, but perhaps some time composing would clear her head.
“You might be right,” Ling Qi admitted. “I was intending to seek you out later anyway. Do you want to come along and give me some critique?”
Sixiang clapped their hands in delight, the air around them glittering with her emotion. “Of course! I was hoping you would ask. I’ve wanted to try the making of the friends! We can speak of attractive males and tie each other’s hair in the braid knots!”
“... Too much,” Ling Qi said flatly, stopping to stare dully at the display.
“Was it?” Sixiang asked, pressing a finger to the corner of their lips. “I thought it was fairly tasteful.”
“I know you can speak proper Imperial,” Ling Qi said dryly. “Messing up your grammar on purpose is just silly.”
“I see,” Sixiang mused. “The glitter was good though?”
“I am in no position to object to the glitter.” Ling Qi sighed. “Come on. I know a few good places to compose.”
Sixiang nodded happily, following after her as Ling Qi resumed walking. “Is hair braiding completely out of the question though?”
“Why?” Ling Qi asked, eyeing Sixiang’s shifting rainbow locks. “Can’t you just make it look however you like?”
“I could, but where would the fun in that be?” Sixiang asked, giving her a dubious look.
“Maybe another day,” Ling Qi said, shaking her head and giving up on trying to understand the spirit’s motivations for the moment.
Whatever one could say about Sixiang’s conversational habits, they were rather good at critiquing performances, and over the course of the next few hours, Ling Qi was sure she had figured out where her performance of the Frozen Soul Serenade’s flaws were. She would have to wait until she had time to speak and practice with Zeqing to be sure, but it seemed that she had finally learned to call the ice for Spring’s End Aria quickly, mastering the second cycle of the art.
She would have continued on to more recreational pursuits then, but the arrival of a fluttering paper bird put an end to Ling Qi’s idle cultivation. Her mother’s carriage had arrived.
It took only a few minutes to fly down the mountain, the wind making the silk of her gown flutter and snap as Ling Qi sped down, a dozen conflicting thoughts and scenarios going through her head. Thankfully, she managed to calm herself enough to avoid causing a stir by flying right over the town, setting down a short distance outside the walls.
Even on foot though, she didn’t waste any time, weaving her way through the town streets, paying only minimal attention to her surroundings. Very soon, she reached the other side of town and caught sight of the gates where a carriage surrounded by a small troop of first and second realm cultivators was being unloaded.
She caught sight a moment later of her mother standing a few strides away from the carriage. The sight brought her up short.
Ling Qingge was still a short, dainty woman, but it seemed all the more exaggerated now. Her mother’s head would probably only come up to Ling Qi’s chest, even counting the braided bun her hair was tied up in. Her clothes were plain but clean and unfrayed, a step up from how she had looked the last time Ling Qi had seen her.
Her face had more wrinkles than Ling Qi remembered, lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth, and she no longer had the doll-like pale skin that Ling Qi recalled being popular among the… clientele at the brothel. Instead, her skin looked coarse and rough to her eyes. None of that was what brought her up short though. Rather, it was the firm reminder that Mother was mortal.
Ling Qi hadn’t paid any mind to mortals in months, not since reaching the second realm really. In her mind, they were basically just slow moving graceless obstacles to move around when she came to the village with Xiulan, but seeing Ling Qingge drove home how much Ling Qi herself had changed and how wide the gap between mortal and immortal was.
Her mother’s aura, something she had become used to seeing as just another part of the people around her, was a flickering, weak thing, a single sad and worn musical note whispered on the breeze. She could read the older woman’s face like an open book and see the mixture of wariness and cautious wonder she regarded the cultivators guarding her with.
Ling Qingge felt helpless and afraid. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop even now like a dog that had been kicked too often, but there was an ember of hope there too. Ling Qi’s eyes followed her mother’s gaze down to where a small hand grasped at her mother’s dress.
That would be her half-sister then, Ling Biyu. The tiny girl stuck close to Ling Qingge. She wore a simple child’s dress, much like Hanyi’s save in quality, and wore her hair in a pair of pigtails. She also had more of her mother in her than Ling Qi ever had in features and complexion. The little girl was peering around with the sort of open wonder that only a child could manage. She couldn’t be more than three years old.
For what seemed like ages, Ling Qi stood there, frozen with hesitation. Could she really just walk up to her mother after all these years and say hello? What was she supposed to do?