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“So, do you think I should be concerned?” Ling Qi asked, balancing on her toes atop one of the thinnest pillars in Cai’s training grounds. She had made enemies in the Sect, and she worried for her frail mortal family.

“No, most likely not,” Cai Renxiang replied. She was seated cross-legged on a much wider pillar, the wide blade of her saber laid across her knees. “While true feuds merit such concerns, it would be highly irregular for mere Sect competition to endanger outside parties,” she continued. “Breaking the Sect’s protection in such a way would demand a harsh response.”

Ling Qi nodded. She had thought so when reviewing the Sect’s rules, but it was good to receive confirmation. She carefully threaded qi up from her precariously balanced toes to slowly spin out into the many rings of her armor. It was slow going, fighting against the stony mountain qi that suffused this place. While this place wasn’t specifically good for cultivating wood-aspected qi, its nature did provide resistance that was useful for refining control.

“I’m glad. I think I will still be adding more security to the house anyway.”

“It cannot do harm,” Cai Renxiang agreed. “However, in the future, unless you wish to walk the path of a professional formations artist, you will want to contract such work out.”

She narrowed her eyes then huffed, knowing that the serious girl did not mean any insult to her skills. Ling Qi could admit that formations were more of a hobby than a serious part of her skillset. Well, crafting them; she thought she was quite good at breaking them.

“Will I be troubled for what I did?” Ling Qi asked.

“Any who would begrudge you a filial greeting to your Mother will already have a low opinion of you due to your lack of pedigree,” Cai said bluntly. “Simply be aware of such things, and act accordingly.” She stood smoothly, her saber now grasped in her right hand. “Did your review of my tax collectors go well?”

Ling Qi nodded shallowly as dark green qi coalesced, a shell hovering just over her skin, patterned like ancient bark. “They never saw me,” she said. “More specifically, they didn’t recognize me.” Her skills at disguise had been left to rust somewhat so it was good to get some practice. “Not that I mind, but the task was kind of sudden. Why did you decide to check in on them now?”

“It does officials well to be inspected both openly and secretly,” the heiress explained, running her finger along the blade of her saber. “It is one of the duties you will have in the future as well.”

Ling Qi sighed and hopped over to a slightly wider pillar where she could put both feet down. “I wrote up what I saw. Did you want that now?” That kind of thing was somewhat boring; she wasn’t sure how she felt about having to spend time watching coin counting types do their thing. She knew what Cai would say though; if she didn’t feel that doing a job herself was the best use of her time, she would just have to find a competent, loyal subordinate for it.

“When we are finished here,” Cai replied evenly. “Are your defenses prepared?”

Ling Qi felt the heavy wood-natured qi thrumming along her spine, layers of defense spun in the air over her body, and nodded. Even then, it was difficult to fight her instinct to dodge when Cai’s heavy saber crashed down on her like an avalanche. She was forced to flex her knees, bending with the power of the blow as she caught it on her crossed forearms. The sharp report of the stone cracking under her feet rang in her ears as she pushed herself back, leaping to a thicker and sturdier pillar.

Cai didn’t give her any reprieve, and this time, the edge of her blade burned with heavenly light, carving a blinding arc through the air as it struck her side, eliciting a grunt of pain as it carved through the layer of verdant armor conjured by the Deepwood Vitality technique with a high-pitched metallic shriek. Even then, the slash failed to draw blood. Ling Qi moved with the power behind the blow, letting it fling her a few meters to the side to alight on another platform.

“Such a defense,” Cai mused, standing with her blade in both hands on the pillar where Ling Qi had been standing. “One would not expect it of you.”

“That is the idea of training this. Besides, why not be able to dodge and block?” Ling Qi replied, renewing her defensive arts and feeling her way toward the refinements that would carry her to the next level of mastery in Thousand Ring Fortress. She was still a survivor at heart, whatever other trappings she might have picked up.

“An admirable view, if one has the dedication to cultivate both. Allow me to apologize for underestimating your ability.” For a wonder, there was a note of genuine contriteness in the other girl's voice. Ling Qi didn’t find it comforting though. They were both limiting themselves, Ling Qi to defense and her Argent arts and Cai to her saber arts, but…

Cai Renxiang blurred in her vision, and Ling Qi flung herself to the side as the white gowned heiress crashed down on her previous position, splitting the top of the pillar in twain under the force of her strike. Ling Qi raised her arms into the stance of the Argent Storm as rock tumbled down into the water below and Cai’s blazing saber carved an arc of molten light through the air toward her side. The power of the blow sent a jolt of pain up her arm as she deflected it and struck out with her free hand, a boom of thunder accompanying the blow.

She struck Cai just below the ribs and winced as she felt her knuckles bruise. She may as well have punched a solid block of steel. She had only a moment to react as Cai turned her deflection into a spinning chop, her long hair fanning out behind her as Ling Qi was once again forced to cross her arms in a hard double block. She felt bruises forming across her forearms as she was flung downward, cracking the side of the pillar her feet impacted against as she caught herself. A few graceful leaps between pillars carried her back to the top where Cai waited patiently for her.

Her arms already felt like jelly. Ling Qi grimaced. Still, this was only a spar so her liege waited patiently as she caught her breath.

“You know,” Ling Qi grumbled, shaking her right arm to return feeling to her hands, “why is it that you’re the one of only a few disciples I’ve seen with a saber? It sure seems effective.”

“The straight sword is considered the more noble weapon, complex, elegant, and beautiful in motion,” Cai Renxiang said serenely, the light behind her sparkling pleasantly. Ling Qi thought she was enjoying this. “In contrast, the single-edged blade is a commoner's weapon, developed from tools rather than created as a weapon whole cloth.” She flicked the curved saber in her left hand, flinging the rock dust that had accumulated on its gleaming surface away. “My honored Mother disagrees with that notion, that there can be no beauty or depth to the saber’s motion,” Cai continued, bringing her hands back together in her two-handed starting stance. “She is correct in this, I think.”

Cai’s motions didn’t have Meizhen’s sinuous grace or Sun Liling’s frenetic motion, but Ling Qi could see her point. Cai’s attacks brought to mind an avalanche that she had watched from a high cliff with Zeqing, the unstoppable flow of tonnes of snow and rock rumbling downward.

“I can hardly disagree, but melee weapons are not my strong point,” Ling Qi replied.

Cai inclined her head fractionally. “Your skill at archery should be sufficient to silence detractors in that regard. As a matter of status, you will want to reach at least a mortal’s mastery in one of the four noble weapons in the future,” she said without recrimination. “Are you prepared to continue?”

Ling Qi nodded, resuming a fighting stance. “Yeah. You can go a little harder though.” She knew she would regret those words, but Meizhen had shown her that she grew the quickest when fear was in her thoughts.

“I see,” Cai Renxiang said thoughtfully. “Very well. I will cease holding back.”

***

That set the tone for her training that week between hard sessions with Cai and increasingly strict lessons with Zeqing. Zeqing seemed to regard her growing mastery of Frozen Soul Serenade with a sliver of pride that only made her an even harder taskmistress. Ling Qi found her singing abilities growing quickly under Zeqing’s effort, and though she couldn’t match the snow woman’s haunting, heart-stirring voice, she knew that her singing was probably better than any mortal could hope to be at this point.

In her rest periods, she made sure to continue visiting her mother regularly, helping her settle into her new home. There were some moments of awkwardness when Ling Qi displayed inhuman ability, such as entering via a second floor window, hefting an entire wardrobe without strain, and other such things. It was so easy to forget the limits of what a mortal could do after spending most of a year immersed in cultivation. Taking little Biyu for a short flight probably didn’t do Mother’s heart much good either, even if the little girl had been overjoyed.

She would be more careful in the future.

Another relaxing session in the White Room was enough to unseal another of her meridians and ensure that she would have Zeqing’s art available at all times. Ling Qi was feeling more confident in her abilities than ever.

This made the difficulties with Zhengui all the more frustrating.

“Don’t wanna practice anymore,” Gui muttered rebelliously, scuffing at the grass with one of his front limbs. “It’s boring, Big Sister. Can’t we do something fun?”

“Hmph. Lazy Gui is right,” Zhen hissed, looking incredibly bored and a bit hungry. “For once.”

Over the course of the week, Ling Qi had found her spirit’s cultivation plateauing. With all of his basic abilities worked out, there was only the long haul of polishing his abilities a little bit at a time, and Ling Qi was being swiftly reminded that Zhengui really was a child still. It didn’t help that he was surrounded by tasty things he couldn’t sample in the vale. Still, this was the first time he had really defied her like this.

“It might be boring, but it’s important,” Ling Qi scolded, looking down on Zhengui with her best disappointed expression, the way Zeqing did when Hanyi was slacking off. “Didn’t you say you wanted to be able to protect me?”

“But Gui is already tough and strong!” the tortoise protested, craning his neck to look up at her.

“And Zhen’s fang’s are sharp! Big Sister should hunt with us instead,” Zhen added.

It really was odd, this rebellion. Ling Qi narrowed her eyes, studying the young spirit and the emotions she could feel through their bond. “... Zhengui, are you jealous?”

Gui shuffled his feet, looking ashamed, but Zhen met her eyes defiantly, sparks dancing in the air around his flickering tongue. “Big Sister does not need to play with the Ugly River Eel. Big Sister should play with Zhengui.”

Ling Qi’s eyebrow twitched as she heard the rumbling of the water in the river behind her. She spun around, jabbing a finger in the direction of the looming reptilian beast rising from the waters. “Do not even start!”

“You expect me to simply accept such an insult?” Heizui scoffed. “There are limits to my hospitality, human!”

“He is a child,” Ling Qi replied flatly, not letting her gaze waver. “Is your pride truly so fragile?”

“Zhen is not a child!” the ashen serpent hissed petulantly, making Ling Qi frown more deeply.

“You see, the little worm is an adult. Let him speak his insults without clutching your skirts, human,” Heizui taunted.

“You will both stop,” Ling Qi snapped, shooting the dragon a dirty look before turning back to face Zhengui. “Gui, I am disappointed. I worked hard to give you the opportunity to train here. You are going to make your Big Sister sad if you waste the chance.” The tortoise looked down, chastised. “Zhen, do you think I will be happy if you start a fight you cannot win?”

“Zhen can-” the serpent began, affronted.

“You can’t,” Ling Qi interrupted bluntly. “Heizui is nearly as strong as me.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the smug expression the dragon had developed since she began scolding Zhengui sour. “Do you think you can beat your Big Sister?”

Zhen still looked defiant for a moment, but then his head drooped. At mid yellow, Zhengui was still quite a ways from taking on a green realm. “... No.”

“Then you need to keep working hard,” Ling Qi said, crossing her arms. “You are going to have to help me fight many strong opponents. I do not want you to get hurt, so you need to toughen yourself. If you do want to do fun things, you will just have to make progress, won’t you?”

“Sorry, Big Sister,” they apologized. Ling Qi detected only minimal sulkiness. If Zhengui worked hard for the rest of the week, she would give him a break to do something fun though.

Ling Qi turned back to Heizui as Zhengui got back to training. “And you,” she said, glaring up at the dragon, “do you not have anything better to do? You aren’t going to get stronger by lazing around, staring at Zhengui and I.”

“I am ensuring the little glutton does not damage anything,” Heizui scoffed, sinking back down into the water.

Ling Qi gave him an unimpressed look. “I am sure,” she said blandly. “Zhengui is a good boy, and I am here. You should stop slacking off.”

“You speak as if you are not doing the same. Do you not owe me a song, human?” Heizui shot back, baring his fangs at her.

“Which I will give you later,” Ling Qi replied. “And my name is Ling Qi. There is no need to speak to me that way.” She raised her chin a bit to give the impression of looking down on him. “If you want to hang around, you can at least contribute. Zhengui could use something to defend against.”

“Oh?” Heizui asked imperiously. “Not afraid that I would hurt the precious little child?” Ling Qi saw Zhen twitch, but her spirit didn’t speak up beyond some low grumbling.

“I trust that you will be reasonable, or I will have to tell your Honorable Mother that you are bullying children instead of training.” It was a bluff. She could give a message to Zeqing, but she had no idea if the elder dragon would even care.

Heizui just grumbled, and Ling Qi shrugged, turning back to Zhengui. Her own mastery of the Thousand Ring Fortress art was useful in instructing him on improving his defenses.

By the next day’s session, her efforts bore fruit, and the young dragon deigned to join in. Heizui seemed to enjoy irritating Zhen, and Ling Qi didn’t see a reason to stop it. The dragon’s provocations inspired Zhen to cultivate hard. Gui’s determination was quieter, but after the first time the dragon bowled him over with minimal effort, he too doubled down on his training.

Ling Qi was pleased with the results. Zhengui was becoming quite durable.

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