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“So, what do you think?” Ling Qi asked as the last notes faded into the evening air. She hadn’t come up with something satisfactory on her own so she had simply returned to practicing the compositions Mother sent her.

“I think you have surpassed me by a great deal,” Ling Qingge replied wistfully. They sat on a blanket laid across the porch overlooking the garden that lay behind the house. To Ling Qi’s eye, Mother’s condition had not improved too much. Part of her mother was still expecting a reversal, not for any logical reason but out of habit.

“Maybe,” Ling Qi allowed, knowing that there was no point in dissenting on the matter. “But that doesn’t change the skillfulness of your composition,” she said with an encouraging smile. “I would like to hear your own take on the composition, if you don’t mind.”

Mother looked hesitant as Ling Qi offered her the flute, but after a moment, she reached out to take it, though she did so gingerly as if handling something priceless. It was only after the flute was in her hands that her mother’s brows furrowed. Ling Qingge traced her fingers over the wood. “This is…”

Ling Qi glanced away, embarrassed. “... It was yours, yes,” she admitted. “I am sorry. It broke after it was knocked from my hands in a fight, and I wanted to be able to keep using it.” She left out the fact that it had taken a spear through the stomach to disarm her.

Ling Qingge looked down at the polished instrument in her hands, a mix of nostalgia and concern on her face. “It is a small thing,” she said quietly. “Why would you have a flute in your hands during a… fight though?” her mother asked, uncertain and out of her depth.

Ling Qi smirked. “My music is one of the most feared weapons on the mountain,” she boasted. “Men cower and dragons bow before my melodies!”

Ling Qi’s not inaccurate boast had the desired effect of making her mother smile, but she had a feeling her mother didn’t quite believe her. “I see. If this old flute has given you some protection, then I have no complaints.” Ling Qingge’s fingers lingered on the mouthpiece, the most intact part of the old flute.

“It did,” Ling Qi agreed, looking out over the garden lit by the colors of sunset. “I would really like to hear you play again.”

Her mother hesitated a moment longer before raising the flute to her lips, and as she began to play the first melancholy notes of her song, Ling Qi closed her eyes and let herself focus on the music. Ling Qingge really was very good, near as good as a mortal could be, even with the little hitches and hesitations born of a skill that had fallen into disuse. It fed another ember to the resentment in her heart that had been born of her mother’s story. Mother could have made a living from her skill, if allowed.

It made her dream what things could have been like. Perhaps that was simply the nature of the song she was listening to. The song spoke of mistakes made, opportunities lost, and the wish for something better.

Eventually, the song came to an end. Ling Qi and her mother sat in comfortable silence, watching the sun sink beneath the horizon.

“I have lost my touch,” Ling Qingge mused, breaking the silence. “Perhaps it is for the best that this is yours now,” she continued, slipping the flute back into Ling Qi’s hands.

“You have time to practice again if you would like. You are better than you give yourself credit for,” Ling Qi pointed out, bringing her thoughts back to the present. “Mother, is there something lacking here?” she asked. For all that Ling Qi had changed, she was still blunt.

“How ungrateful would I have to be to say that there was?” Ling Qingge asked, raising an eyebrow. “I have a home, equal to any in the middle districts of Tonghou. I have everything I need to care for Biyu, coin for luxuries, and even household servants to perform every task.”

Ling Qi shifted uncomfortably. Household expenses were only a few red stones shaved from her pill furnace income. She hadn’t considered how excessive that might seem to her mother. How quickly she forgot the value of a silver coin. “Yet you aren’t happy,” Ling Qi countered. “I try to make as much time to visit as I can, but with the tournament approaching…”

“Ling Qi,” her mother began, sounding pained. “Do not ever think that you have done wrong.” Ling Qi was surprised to see her mother reach out and put one of her hands over Ling Qi’s. Mother was still reluctant to initiate physical contact most of the time. “I simply do not know what to do with so much free time. The men and women working in this household hardly need oversight from one such as I, nor do I know them well enough to be comfortable in giving it.”

“Even with Biyu running about?” Ling Qi asked with a smile.

“Even so,” Ling Qingge replied dryly. “That girl is too much akin to you. She does not appreciate it when I hover.”

Ling Qi let herself laugh, when she had come by earlier in the week and taken the task of watching her younger sister, only to be bored silly watching the little girl intently searching through the garden. Biyu refused help as she attempted to hunt down and catch one of the little frogs which lived in the central pond.

“Should I dismiss some of the servants? They work for the Sect so they would not be losing their livelihoods.”.

“No, you are a noble lady now, and having a household staff is part of such things. What message would it send to your peers to have your mother doing menial tasks?” There was no arrogance here, simply understanding.

Ling Qi blinked. She hadn’t considered her reputation when seeing to the household. She just wanted her family well taken care of. “To be honest, I hadn’t thought of that… but if it would make you happy, I wouldn’t mind losing a little face,” Ling Qi admitted. “In the end, I won’t receive much respect until I make some achievements for myself.”

Cai’s patronage would prevent her from being openly dismissed, but Clan Ling consisted of one cultivator and two mortals. She could see how families with dozens or scores of members would regard her as little more than an upstart, even ignoring her own young age.

Her mother pursed her lips and shook her head. “I would not demand such, not merely for my own satisfaction,” she answered with finality. Silence fell between them again after that, Ling Qi and her mother both falling into their own thoughts.

Ling Qi broke the silence. “I mean what I say. Perhaps I am overcompensating, but Mother, if you want something, please just ask.”

Ling Qingge shook her head slightly. “You are too generous, Ling Qi. You will have to reign in that impulse, else Biyu will become a spoiled girl.”

“Maybe so,” Ling Qi replied in an amused tone, letting the deflection and change of subject lie. “You know,” Ling Qi began, “if you need something to occupy your time, you could always attempt to cultivate, at least a little.”

Ling Qingge frowned, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes deepening. “I was given to understand that I am too old for such things.” And not talented enough to be selected to begin with was left unsaid.

“I’ve been doing some studying on that,” Ling Qi replied. “In your situation, it shouldn’t be completely impossible.” Highly unlikely maybe. It would be a struggle to even awaken given the dearth of medicines that an adult mortal could safely handle and the reduction in the capability of the medicinal energies from all the impurities, but she had come across oblique mentions of a few options. “It might take a very long time, but even a little cultivation would…” She trailed off, not able to put it into words. It would let Mother live a little longer and healthier.

Mother met her eyes for a moment before looking away, expression wistful. “If you believe it possible, it would be rude of me to refuse,” she said. “What would I need to do?”

“I can show you a couple of breathing exercises to begin with,” Ling Qi replied, a hint of excitement entering her voice. “First, you should close your eyes, and focus on the feel of the air entering your lungs…”

There was no progress that night of course, but Ling Qi couldn’t bring herself to care.

***

Ling Qi made sure to visit Mother every evening, whether to chat, visit Biyu, have a cup of tea and discuss music, or try again on getting Mother to feel her dantian. It was a nice way to wind down after a day spent in rigorous cultivation. She reached new levels of understanding in both of her musical arts under the tutelage of Zeqing and her hired tutor alike.

Zeqing’s proud smile when she managed to properly unleash the power of Forgotten Vale Melody filled her with a paradoxical warmth. The art’s potency had increased greatly with her mastery of the sixth measure, the phantoms of dissonance growing from shadowy flickers to ominous wraiths and it was easier to strand others in her mist.

She also met up with the tutor she had hired with some of her Sect points. It seemed that the Inner Sect either lacked in prominent darkness cultivators or none of them were up for tutoring. The lesson on domain effects and spiritual matters was helpful anyway, and the heavily veiled and shrouded young lady who answered her request had a few insights to offer on Ling Qi’s arts, even if the tutor only used darkness techniques in a tertiary role.

The third cycle of Frozen Soul Serenade enabled her to bring more damage to bear with her songs, especially with her mastery of the completing half of Spring’s End Aria, Winter eternal Cadenza. With Spring’s End Aria active, Ling Qi would be able to unleash, if briefly, the absolute cold of winter without end.

Things didn’t all go well though. Ling Qi had taken to checking on Xiulan every other day or so to see if she emerged from seclusion, and what she found one morning turned her stomach. Her friend succeeded in breaking through but reaching the Green Soul stage exacerbated her wounds due to Xiulan’s greater spiritual power. Flames openly burned on the girl’s arm, snapping and crackling loudly and carrying the scent of burnt flesh from a limb that was nearly skeletal.

It was clear her friend felt every inch of the ruined limb because when she helped her friend from the meditation room to her bedroom, Ling Qi saw tears of pain in the corners of her friend’s eyes. Thankfully, the resistance to heat granted by her connection to Zhengui was enough to let Ling Qi safely help Xiulan rewrap the limb in the flame retardant linen bandages.

She knew her friend, and so Ling Qi didn’t express a word of pity, only congratulations for Xiulan’s accomplishment. She strongly suspected that the proud girl was thankful for it.

Ling Qi wondered if it was a good thing that she could now easily hide her disquiet to have a cheerful little celebration in Xiulan’s dining room, even after having just witnessed that. Then again, her composure was hardly something to be considered compared to Xiulan’s, who was back to her usual self in barely any time.

Ling Qi was surrounded by reminders of the time passing. Zhengui was growing again, visibly so as his cultivation rose in potency. When she sparred with Meizhen,she couldn’t help but notice the increasing definition and independence of her friend’s shadow, and Cui had once again vanished to wherever it was that she went when she was growing and shedding.

Most urgently, she had begun to notice a certain wispiness about Sixiang while trading musical tips. The edges of the spirit’s body were growing blurry, trailing away into smoke whenever the spirit’s attention wandered. It was increasingly obvious that their time was coming to an end.

Knowing this, Ling Qi thought to ask Sixiang if there was anything they wanted to do before they lost the chance. It was a decision she came to regret almost immediately when she saw the speculative gleam in the spirit’s glittering eyes.

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