Ling Qi still found it odd that Meizhen considered something so common as fishing to be a noble hobby.
“So you’ve found more treasures then?” Meizhen asked calmly from her seat at the lakeside, her white gown untouched by stains of dirt or grass. Meizhen glanced only briefly at Ling Qi as she sat down beside her friend, her own gown billowing around her legs in a faint breeze.
“It’s less fun when you don’t react,” Ling Qi complained half-heartedly after she had finished retelling her expedition.
“I am no longer surprised by your fortune,” Bai Meizhen said dryly. “And you did sound quite certain when we left the market. As for the rest, I do not find it shocking that the Sect has access to a Weilu tomb. That clan left many ruins.”
“Weilu?” Ling Qi asked curiously. “I came across that name a few times looking around, but the books never explained what it was.”
“The Weilu were the rulers of Emerald Seas during the time before the Sage,” Meizhen explained. “They were the Horned Lords of the South and also the first of the founding families to fall.”
Ling Qi frowned, feeling slightly alarmed. “Ah, is that so? I didn’t mean to do anything so disrespectful. I assumed the corpse was a barbarian or a spirit.” She was surprised the Sect would so easily allow the defilement of the tomb of such an important figure.
“The overwhelming pride and isolationist nature of the Weilu was well known. Few were sad to see them fall. I feel no offense. The Bai do not worship the dead the way others do,” her friend replied, and Ling Qi boggled at how bad the Weilu’s pride must have been for a Bai to comment on it. “I presume if the Sect allowed you entry that there is no crime against propriety either.”
Ling Qi nodded readily enough, dismissing the subject for now; ancient history was just that. With a flick of her wrist, she expressed her first treasure, the one which had called to her most strongly. The shard of blackness was the length of her forearm with the texture of smooth rock. She held it gingerly, not wanting to cut her fingers on the edge as she had done when dredging it up. The way it had drunk in her blood was unsettling.
“Well, anyway, I wanted you to take a look at this. I think this will make a good material for my flying sword from what I’ve read in the Archives.”
Meizhen looked her way fully, examining the length of black material held across her open hands. “I do not disagree. I suppose you were able to pick out the grade?”
“After some studying, yeah.” Ling Qi grimaced. Reading the auras of objects in such detail was hard. “It’s fourth grade material, right?”
“Only just,” Meizhen replied. “Yet it is still above the resources one would expect of a new baronial clan. It is likely that you will not be able to fully access the power of a weapon crafted with it as you are.”
“Like with your own sword,” Ling Qi mused. She knew her friend was still teasing out its abilities, but Meizhen’s sword came from the scale of a seventh grade spirit beast, so that was to be expected. She dismissed the shard, frowning at the oily, clinging sensation it left in her hands as if trying to drag her qi into the ring with it. “If you agree that it’s good, I’ll ask Lady Cai to contact a craftsman.”
As she spoke, she drew gingerly on the energies of another treasure.
“What about this?” she asked, expressing the mirror pane. She avoided looking down at the grinning skull it reflected back. “I couldn’t find anything in the Archive on this.”
Her friend’s lips briefly curled in disgust. “Fourth Grade as well, but I would not suggest keeping it. Death qi is notoriously unwieldy and unpleasant.” Meizhen looked away, and Ling Qi noticed unsettlingly that the mirror did not reflect her friend as a worn skeleton but as a pair of greedy golden eyes staring up from a pit of abyssal dark. “You would do well to contact an auction and use the proceeds to fund your fief and cultivation, but if you must use it, a ward against curses and spiritual assaults would be the best use.”
Ling Qi dismissed the mirror back into her ring. “What makes death qi worse than any other uncommon element?” Ling Qi asked
Meizhen was silent then shook her head. “Life and death mark a cultivator more deeply than other elements and with less investment. I will say no more on the matter,” she said with a note of finality.
Ling Qi nodded. To be frank, the mirror made her skin crawl. She would probably follow Meizhen’s advice.
The last treasure, she had sussed out herself. The withered grey pod was filled with thorny black seeds. They were from a third realm plant, and in the future, she could probably have them cultivated to sell the proceeds. That would only come after she had received land though so they would remain in storage for some time yet.
Falling silent for a time, Ling Qi observed her friend out of the corner of her eye, noting the slight signs of tension and stress visible. There was another reason she had arranged to meet Meizhen.
“May I ask what has been troubling you lately?” she asked, leaning back to look up at the darkening sky. “You haven’t even been having your tea in the mornings lately. I kind of miss you, you know?”
Meizhen didn’t visibly react to her words, and the silence between them stretched. “Familial concerns. There is nothing which you might help with.”
Ling Qi held back a grimace, glancing at her friend again. “Maybe not, but if it’s nothing secret… I can still listen,” she offered carefully. She didn’t want to press too hard and offend Meizhen.
She caught a faint sigh from the pale girl. “I have learned that my Aunt Suzhen will be coming to observe my performance at the tournament,” Meizhen explained quietly. “I do not wish to disappoint her when she is taking time from her important duties for such a frivolous thing.” Meizhen paused a beat, her brows drawing together. “My father will be coming as well,” she added as an afterthought.
“I’m not sure where the problem is,” Ling Qi responded with a frown. Meizhen rarely spoke of her family, but when she did, the aunt she admired was the one who came up. “You aren’t losing confidence in your ability to match Sun Liling, are you?”
“Not as such,” Bai Meizhen replied, not looking up. “I worry about what it means. Despite my childish wishes to be acknowledged by her, now the implications of it seem more dire.”
Ling Qi did her best to hold back an exasperated sigh. “You are going to have to explain that one to me.”
Meizhen shot her a disgruntled look, and Ling Qi felt a faint chill in the air, not born of any physical source. “Despite my dilute blood, I bear the colors of the White Serpent Queen. I am expected to have the ability to lead .Yet I would much prefer to simply cultivate in peace, rather than taking part in struggles for rank. Until now, I was largely able to do so because of my circumstances.”
Ling Qi began to understand. It was hard to remember that her friend's clan wasn’t just a family. Much like the other oldest clans, their members could fill several large cities on their own, if all the sub-clans and branches were considered. If she remembered the texts correctly, the Bai. in particular. had some kind of odd ranking system based on coloration and physical traits too. “So… you’re worried about getting drawn into your family’s politics more, win or lose?”
“It seems you are capable of listening,” Meizhen said tartly. “And so, I am torn between pride and concern for the future.”
“I do pay attention when you speak… most of the time,” Ling Qi shot back teasingly. “But all the same, you can only control your own actions.” Meizhen had not given her a positive impression of her peers in the Bai, though she only spoke about such things obliquely. “Do you really think you would have escaped that sort of thing forever?”
“No,” her friend said, closing her eyes. “In the wake of this last year, it simply seems real, rather than a far-off worry for the future. As it is, it is already too late for me to remain on the side of the struggles for position among my cousins.”
“Then you should be pleased that you’ll be starting with an advantage,” Ling Qi said firmly. “Will any of them have defeated the granddaughter of your clan's great enemy?
“That assumes my victory,” Meizhen pointed out dryly.
“If you lose, it’ll only be after you batter that top-heavy, bloodthirsty bimbo to the edge of death,” Ling Qi said crassly. “Do you really think that won’t count for anything?”
Ling Qi felt a thread of satisfaction as Meizhen gaped at her, the fishing pole in her hands drooping as she clapped a hand over her face. “Ling Qi, you cannot speak of a princess in that way! Were you not paying attention to a single thing I have taught you?”
Ling Qi thought this was a little rich considering that Meizhen called Sun Liling a “ barbarian,” but she supposed her friend was the one with higher status.
“I did. I just know how to ignore it when I need to break my friend out of a rut,” Ling Qi replied, sticking out her tongue childishly. “Seriously, Meizhen, do you have any reason to step off your Path at this point?”
“I never stated that my worries were a matter of logic,” Meizhen noted a bit waspishly, adjusting her grip on the slumping fishing pole.
“Sorry,” Ling Qi replied. “But I don’t think I’m wrong.”
“Of course you don’t,” her friend said with a faint shake of her head. “Still, even if I feel you underestimate the stakes involved… thank you for your encouragement.”
“I would be a poor friend if I didn’t at least try to cheer you up,” Ling Qi said before allowing silence to lapse for a time. “... On that note, do you think Cui has forgiven me yet?”
“I would not pin too many hopes on that, “Meizhen said dryly. “Perhaps in another year or two.”
Well, that was unfortunate, but at least Meizhen’s cousin didn’t seem to extend the grudge to Zhengui.
She stayed with Meizhen for the rest of the evening, quietly mediating. She departed the lakeside only when Meizhen did to spend the rest of the night intermittently cycling her qi and musing on new melodies.