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With the tournament looming closer by the day, Ling Qi’s days swiftly became a blur of cultivation and training, but busy as she was, Ling Qi did not forget to keep up with her obligations and responsibilities. She made sure to have a talk with Zhengui regarding Hanyi and the importance of maintaining friendships, and although she didn’t have time to watch over their interactions, the snow spirit seemed much less grumpy when Ling Qi next visited.

In regards to the young river dragon, she finally felt confident enough to request the right to invite someone else. The arrogant young dragon hemmed and hawed for a time, but a demonstration of her growing mastery of the Frozen Soul Serenade reminded him of where they stood relative to one another. It was enough for the dragon to agree to meet the person she wanted to invite anyway.

Ling Qi still wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the meeting between Bai Meizhen and Heizui. The boastful river dragon seemed almost immediately cowed by Meizhen’s presence and spent the day alternating between staring at her with wide eyes and diving into the river when Ling Qi called him on it.

Her friend’s aura must be much more powerful than she thought it was.

Still, the river dragon didn’t object to Meizhen coming back, so with that resolved, Ling Qi turned her focus fully to her training. That didn’t mean that she kept solely to herself. Between training sessions with Cai Renxiang and Su Ling, Ling Qi also requested a tutor for the week, and given the subject matter, she hoped to catch the interest of one of her previous tutors, a hope which she found fulfilled when she received the paper crane with the details of the meeting place.

“A good day to you, Junior Sister Ling,” Inner disciple Ruan Shen greeted her, waiting in almost the same place he had met her the first time. “I see the last few months have been kind to you indeed,” the handsome boy added, pushing himself up from the pillar he leaned against to stand straight and offer a shallow bow.

His eyes were as sharp and evaluating as they were before, but Ling Qi restrained her reaction to a slight blush and offered him a smile and bow in return. “It was more a matter of hard work than kindness,” she said lightly, studying him in turn. Ruan Shen was at the fifth level of the third realm, and his aura felt more intense than the last time she had seen him. “Senior Brother Ruan has not been idle either, I see.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “A paltry accomplishment when placed against the beauteous flowering you have undergone, Junior Sister. You have proven yourself a talent to watch, or so I think.”

“Thank you, Senior Brother,” Ling Qi replied, keeping the awkward, fluttery feeling in her belly from touching her voice. Did he have to sound so earnest when praising her like that? “You are too kind.”

“As the lady says,” he said, amused. “Would you walk with me then that we might discuss your curriculum?”

“Of course,” she replied. “I hope you weren’t put off by the simplicity of my request,” she said as they moved away from the main road to walk one of the paths through the lightly wooded lower reaches of the mountain.

“I admit to some confusion,” he agreed amicably. “What is it about the subject of meridian cleansing which troubles you?”

She didn’t want to admit that that particular request was partially to avoid selecting something he was not knowledgeable in, so thankfully, she did have some legitimate questions as well. “To be honest, it is in regards to the White Room Lady Cai has so generously provided us,” she elaborated.

“Such good fortune,” he mused with a sigh. “Ah, that I might have been a few years younger. I’m afraid the workings of such a wonder are beyond me.”

“That is fine,” Ling Qi replied, enjoying the play of sunlight through the leafy canopy they walked under. “It’s just… While it is a great boon, I do not understand why it is as sought after as it is.” She hadn’t wanted to ask Cai herself and potentially insult her. “What I have been able to find says it has to do with its effects on meridians, but that does not seem as if it would be enough.”

Ruan Shen regarded her with a raised eyebrow, pausing in his stride. “I understand that you have quite a talent, but… Ah, I think I might see from where your confusion springs,” he concluded, pounding his fist against his palm. “Fifty four.”

Ling Qi blinked in confusion. “Fifty four…?” she asked. “Is that some limit on the number of meridians one can have?”

“There is no hard limit, and the number varies somewhat for certain cultivators, but any cultivator will reach the point where clearing further channels becomes exponentially more difficult. The difficulty escalates greatly again at around one hundred and eight. A tool such as a White Room is invaluable at that level where medicines which can boost one’s efforts become rare treasures,” her tutor explained patiently.

That was what was meant about it having greater value at higher realms, she supposed. “And I suppose that this is such common knowledge that no one bothers to say it.” Ling Qi sighed.

“As you say,” he agreed. “Do not blame the Elder teaching the basics too much though. It is hardly something relevant to most who would need to know.”

In other words, it was unlikely that most commoners would ever reach that limit in the first place. “Let us just find a place to play, Senior Brother.”

“Very well. I would not deny a lady’s request,” he acceded cheerfully. “I saw in your request that you wished to continue mastering the Melody of the Forgotten Vale. I am curious what other songs have found their way into your repertoire.”

Ling Qi glanced away, embarrassed, because she remembered the last time Ruan Shen had tutored her and his words about the Melody. Spirits above, he was going to think her a gloomy girl indeed, just as Sixiang had said, if all she could show was the bleak Frozen Soul Serenade.

“Well…” she began, toying with a loose strand of hair. At the same time,it wouldn’t do to make him think she still only had one melody though. “I do have one other,” she admitted reluctantly.

He gave her a curious look. “So reticent… Just what manner of song have you learned, Junior Sister?”

“I suppose I can just show you,” Ling Qi said, taking in a deep breath as she prepared to sing the first wordless note of Frozen Soul Serenade.

Seeing her song freeze over the clearing and end the life of flowers and small animals alike did not exactly do much to disprove Sixiang’s assertion. It was far easier to pretend that the Serenade was less bleak when singing in the middle of a blizzard. Thankfully, Senior Brother Ruan took it in stride, strumming a tune that melted away the ice and brought new flowers into bloom.

***

The rest of the week passed quickly enough with her qi reserves soaring day by day as the powerful medicinal energy of the Sable Light Pill pulsed through her channels and dantian. It was hard to feel like she hadn’t wasted her earlier pills, even though she knew she couldn’t have achieved what she had without using them back then.

Musings on medicinal efficiency aside, Ling Qi did find herself distracted one final time toward the end of the week as she began to prepare her purchase list of cultivation aids for the next week. Su Ling, who had been helping her practice and master the third breath of the art Ling Qi had stolen from Yan Renshu, Abyssal Exhalation, asked her to meet up at the outskirts of town where she was preparing for another expedition with the Ma sisters. Apparently, Su Ling wanted some advice before they set out.

Curious, Ling Qi made her way down to their encampment, pausing to greet Mother and Biyu on the way. She had been too busy to visit her mother much in the last few days, but she fully intended to rectify that starting tomorrow. She could tell that Mother was starting to feel restless.

Ling Qi soon found her way to where Su Ling and the other girls were camped, following the trail of their qi. Su Ling had recently brought her cultivation up to the mid second realm, making her qi stronger and easier to track down.

Ling Qi tried not to take too much amusement in the jolt of alarm that went through the three girls as she dropped soundlessly from the trees, casually deflecting the impromptu missile of a skinning knife that Su Ling had flung her way.

“Hey, that’s a little rude, don’t you think?” she asked playfully to her friend, crossing her arms.

“Don’t jump out of the trees like a spook then,” Su Ling huffed. “Give me back my knife.” Ling Qi laughed at her irreverent tone.

The knife was embedded to the hilt in the tree behind her, but a quick tug pulled it out. She tossed it back to Su Ling, who caught it between her fingers. “So what did you want to ask me about?”

“Moon spirits,” Su Ling said bluntly. “I know you cultivate that kind of thing, and I’ve seen you chatting with that moon spirit that’s been poking around everywhere.”

Ling Qi blinked, nonplussed. “What for?” she asked. “I don’t really think you should hunt those…” Ling Qi was uncomfortable about the idea of harvesting moon fairies for cores, even if she knew intellectually that it wasn’t any different from hunting grade one or two beasts.

Su Ling shook her head though, slipping the knife back into her belt as she stood up from the tree stump she had been seated on and dusted off her pants. “Nah, I’m looking to bind one. There’s… like placation rituals and offerings and such, right?”

“I didn’t really think that moon spirits would be your type of spirit,” Ling Qi mused, glancing over the camp. Ma Jun and Lei were packing up their things as they prepared to move on. “I don’t mind, but do you mind if I ask why?”

Su Ling grimaced, her pointed ears flicking irritably. “My mother is a master of illusion. If I’m not gonna develop that stuff myself, I need a partner who can, right?”

Ling Qi nodded, understanding now. She doubted Su Ling would be comfortable binding a fox spirit so a moon spirit would probably be the next best thing for that kind of role. “Sure thing then,” she agreed. “I know a good place to attract moon spirits.”

“Thanks,” Su Ling replied. “I can’t show you much else when it comes to tracking, but…”

“Consider it payback for the lessons I already received,” Ling Qi replied. “Or donate a few cores to Zhengui. He’s going to eat me out of house and home, I swear.” Ling Qi huffed. “How about you two? Are you going to be binding moon spirits too?”

Ma Jun glanced at her, the bells in her hair jingling. “Perhaps? If I could bind a spirit skilled in song like Sir Sixiang, that would be wonderful.” Ling Qi watched the girl’s cheeks flush with a flat expression. Had Sixiang been flirting around the mountain again?

“Heh, Sis can’t get a boyfriend, so she wants to make one,” Ma Lei teased, causing her sister to splutter. “Don’t worry about me. I’m gonna save up and buy myself a puppy,” she said with a serious nod. “It’ll be great! And adorable!”

Ling Qi stared at the excitable, tomboyish girl, and some part of her mind imagined the girl with floppy ears and a wagging tail. “... Fitting,” she said. “Well, like I said, there’s a tower a long ways south and east of here where you can probably attract some spirits, but you absolutely can’t go inside.”

Su Ling and Ma Jun approached, listening intently while she explained the proper rites and offerings while Ma Lei finished packing up the camp. Ling Qi made sure to reiterate her warning to avoid the tower’s interior several more times, just to be sure, but she was pretty sure that they got the idea. Su Ling was more cautious than her anyway.

Ling Qi saw them off after she had told them what she knew then headed back to the mountain to prepare for the next week.

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