Sable Crescent Step. It was one of her first arts, among the three gifted to her by the Grinning Moon at the beginning of the year. With it, she learned to move through shadows, how to move through spaces she could never have fit through, and how to glide between blows with the grace of a dancer.
After she got her dress from Cai Renxiang, she had thought about the art less. The flight granted by her robe made the mobility of Sable Crescent Step less important. But the Sable Crescent Step remained one of the foundations of her combat style.
And she had not yet mastered it.
Like all of the arts granted by the Moon, it was a little odd; it contained more techniques, more lessons. Looking back, the early parts of the art she had cultivated in the first realm seemed incredibly simple. Meditating on those old, crude techniques, Ling Qi felt like she had been a child being propped up by the parent while taking their first steps.
But now, in the third realm, she was nearing mastery. She could finally comprehend the final lessons of the art.
It was hard.
It was so hard not to let her dress pick up the slack of her movements as she ran through the upper mountains, bounding between cliffs and over icy gorges, but slowly, she was refining her mastery.
Darkness was absence, and she was learning to truly become it. Once, she had to make an active effort to avoid leaving footprints in the snow; now her steps left no trace, even when she ceased circulating qi entirely. A hair, separated from her body, would dissolve into inky smoke and be gone in moments.
She was truly traceless to anyone without more esoteric senses. But the technique that would coalesce the Crescent’s Grace and Formless Shade into a single Sable Crescent Step technique remained beyond her. She would soon be able to step and cross space as if the intervening distance did not exist, regardless of barriers, formations, or terrain or lack of shadows. It was the culmination of moving without moving, if at a hefty cost to her qi.
She wasn’t there yet, but she would be soon.
<“You should focus on the task at hand,> Sixiang whispered. <You don’t want to slip up here, you know?>
Ling Qi rolled her eyes at the chiding as she peered down at the chattering band of black furred monkeys, the silver crescents on the fur below their eyes marking them as the culprits who had stolen the products she was to retrieve. She searched among the beasts as they chittered and hooted softly, eating, grooming, and otherwise showing no indication that they were aware of her presence.
She had elected to do this without violence. Grinning Crescent Monkeys were not particularly dangerous. They liked to trick, humiliate, and steal, but it was rare for them to do any permanent harm to humans. She might be biased though given her leanings toward moon spirits.
She wondered if she would have sought to bind one of the monkeys if she had not the good fortune of finding Zhengui.
<Not even a thought about me. Should I be hurt?> Sixiang mused.
She didn’t dignify the spirit’s complaint with a response as her eyes fell on a dark lacquered wooden box that despite some chips and scratches, remained sealed and held the mark of the local clan which sold the fruits in question. At the moment, the biggest of the monkeys, which was perhaps the size of Biyu, with a greying tinge to its fur was seated on top of the box, picking bugs out of the fur of a smaller female at his feet. That would make snatching the box a bit trickier.
She could just wait. The monkey would move eventually and give her an opening. She could even use brute force; the monkey was only Mid Yellow. But that seemed a little boring. Ling Qi began to circle through the trees, getting closer to her target. In preparation for her heist, she had pocketed a few pebbles on the trail, and she scanned the rest of the troop.
Picking one with an aura that had a hair more fire than the others, she cast the pebble at the back of the monkey’s head and imitated the beasts’ high, mocking cries, throwing her voice so that it seemed to emanate from within the troop. It only took a few repetitions before the monkeys were worked up into a dander, screeching and chittering at each other.
It was as simple as waiting for the bigger monkey to wade into the developing brawl to crack a couple heads at that point. The box was gone before a single one of them noticed.
... If only the gala Cai was hosting tomorrow could be conquered so effortlessly.
The planning stages hadn’t been so bad. Investigating the guests and subtly poking around for potential ill intentions or troublemaking was even kind of fun. Sun Liling had snubbed Cai’s invitation, but that was the extent of her hostility as far as Ling Qi was able to find. Kang Zihao was going to attend, but to all indications, he seemed to be trying to repair his own social position.
No, it seemed that this gathering was going to go off without violence, which left Ling Qi in the position of having to prepare herself for it. She knew that she was being unreasonable and that she had been rude at the last gathering but it was still hard for her to care. Despite her efforts to psyche herself up and Sixiang’s chatter, she couldn’t say she was looking forward to the gala.
Taking place around one of the pavilions dotting the mountainside, the party started off well enough. She stayed near Cai Renxiang, offering greetings and pleasantries to guests as they arrived. With the occasional whispered aid from Sixiang, Ling Qi thought she did an adequate job. The spirit, for all of their lack of knowledge regarding human etiquette, was very good at picking up what sort of comments people would take as compliments.
Of course, the easy times didn’t last, and soon enough, she was left to her own devices to mingle. Her first task was to soothe the feathers she had rustled in her last outing.
“Let me first apologize for my previous distraction at your gathering,” Ling Qi said smoothly, offering a short bow to Wen Ai. The older girl was just as fancily dressed as the last time she had seen her. “At the time, I was deeply involved with convincing the spirit that had been accompanying me to allow themself to be bound.”
Wen Ai smiled pleasantly, but the expression didn’t feel genuine. “Of course. I can understand,” she replied, gesturing dismissively with the closed silk fan in her hand. “I am not so ungenerous that I cannot forgive a little irregularity for one new to such things.”
Ling Qi smiled through the condescension in the other girl’s words, helped by a guiding prod from Sixiang. In this situation, the dream spirit did not speak distracting words but merely offered flashes of thought and insight. “Thank you for your kindness,” she said politely. “And allow me to offer my late compliments to your abilities as a hostess. I hope this gathering meets your expectations?”
“Lady Cai’s organizational skills are without match,” Wen Ai complimented easily. “I would be pleased to offer my own skills as a decorator the next time,” she added, glancing at the colorful banners strung from the arches and pavilion pillars. “I understand the preference for more plain accoutrements here on the borders, but still…”
“I will convey your offer,” Ling Qi said. “I am afraid there may not be time for another gathering with the tournament upcoming,” she said, keeping the cheer in her voice perfectly bland and not vindictive at all.
Wen Ai smiled, her expression a touch brittle. “My, there is so very little time left until then, isn’t there?” she asked, and it didn’t take Sixiang to read the underlying bitterness to the words. Wen Ai knew well that as a second year, she would have a more difficult path to getting in through the combat tournament this year compared to the first year third realms like Lady Cai or Ling Qi herself. “Ah, might I offer my compliments on the change you have made to your hair?”
Ling Qi blinked, restraining the urge to reach up and touch the silver petaled lily flower helping to pin her braided hair back. Ling Qi had taken the time to update her gear and purchased a couple talismans, one of which was a hairpin with a stylized flower which had replaced her old pin.
“Thank you very much. Ah,” She hesitated before continuing, “Your new necklace brings together that dress very well too.” Thank you, Sixiang, for noticing that new bit of jewelry.
“Thank you,” Wen Ai replied. “I am glad to see you put those rumors to rest.”
“What rumors?” Ling Qi asked with a frown.
The other girl regarded her with wide eyes and a touch of a smile before raising her hand, cupping her mouth as if to hide a secret. “Why, that terrible rumor you might be a barbarian foundling unable to dress or groom yourself properly without Lady Cai’s or Lady Bai’s help.”
Ling Qi felt her eye twitch. “What a rude rumor. Well, I suppose given my cultivation schedule, it can’t be helped that the less dedicated might say foolish things like that.”
“Success does often bring its own troubles,” Wen Ai agreed, perfectly pleasant once more. Neither her nor Sixiang were quite certain if the girl had made that rumor up on the spot.
“Miss Wen, might I have your attention?” a smooth male voice asked, causing them both to turn toward its source. Ling Qi felt her smile become even more strained as she saw Kang Zihao standing there in immaculate white robes, looking none the worse for the wear despite the trouble they had given him.
“I would be happy to speak with you, Sir Kang,” Wen Ai said before glancing back at her. “Miss Ling, might I be excused?”
“You may,” Ling Qi replied. “I hope you have a pleasant evening, Miss Wen, Sir Kang.”
Kang Zihao glanced at her, his disdain obvious in his eyes, if not his expression. “Certainly, Miss Ling. I am glad that our previous encounters have not engendered bad feelings between us.”
LIng Qi smiled, remembering the spear speeding toward her that weekend after the truce had ended. “I would never hold a grudge over something so minor,” she said sweetly. She would leave that to Meizhen.
After the two of them walked away, she let herself take a steadying breath. She had known what she was getting into, joining the Cai. It didn’t mean she enjoyed the reality. She glanced across the field, her eyes landing on Han Jian and Fan Yu. There was her chance to take a breather before forcing herself back into socializing.
She was looking forward to going to the village to spend time with her family after this though.
To an outside observer, Ling Qi would appear the very picture of poise and calm. Indeed, to any of the mortals respectfully stepping out of her path as she proceeded up the road toward her mother’s house, there was not even the slightest indication of turmoil.
<Big Sister, does Zhengui have to stay small the whole time?> Zhengui complained, his mental voice an odd mix of his two voices.
<For today,> Ling Qi thought soothingly. <It would make your Big Sis very happy if you could make a good impression on Mother and Biyu.>
She felt a whiff of dissatisfaction from him, but Zhengui was mature enough not to complain further. <Zhengui will not fail Big Sis,> he said determinedly instead, tone bleeding over closer to Zhen. <Zhengui is ready to meet Big Sis’ other family.>
Ling Qi almost shook her head. His last statement wasn’t directed at her, and the haughty way he said it… She might have given the wrong impression.
<You sure are,> Sixiang chirped cheerfully inside of her head. <A cute, strong little guy like you couldn’t fail to impress.>
She felt Zhengui doing the telepathic equivalent of spluttering. <Obviously! Just you watch!>
Ling Qi had seen and felt this scenario play out several times over the past week, ever since the first time she had dematerialized Zhengui and introduced him to Sixiang. Whenever the young snake-tortoise started winding himself up over the new spirit’s presence, Sixiang would deflect and deflate him with playful compliments or simply by agreeing with him in a flattering way.
Her little brother was really weak to flattery, or at least unprepared for it.
The latest rub had been her decision to avoid introducing Sixiang to her family for now, namely because she didn’t want to try to explain to her mother that the voice in her head was a separate person. Zhengui had thus been disgruntled about being the only one who had to clean up and prepare himself to meet the family.
Paying only a bit of mind to the mostly good-natured back and forth between the spirits, Ling Qi turned down the street where her mother’s house was. Soon, she passed by the two men standing guard at the street entrance and the servant attending the door. It was amazing the sort of changes one could get used to in only a year.
“Sis!” She found her mother and sister in the sitting room where the little girl had been seated on her mother’s lap. The older woman let out a mild sigh as she closed the book she was holding and lifted her arm to allow Biyu to wiggle out of her grasp.
“Hello, little sister,” Ling Qi said, falling into a crouch as the little girl crossed the room to stand before her. “Have you been behaving for Mother?”
“Mhm!” the little girl responded, bouncing on her feet. “Sis fly now?” she asked excitedly.
“I had been getting her ready for her nap,” Ling Qi’s mother said, her tone faintly chiding as she approached Ling Qi as well, the storybook that had been in her hands now tucked under her arm.
“I forgot the time, I guess,” Ling Qi said with an apologetic smile. “Maybe we can fly later, little sister. I wanted to show you and Mother someone very important today,” she continued more seriously.
Biyu puffed out her cheeks in disappointment, but her mother only frowned slightly. Ling Qi caught the older woman peering into the hall behind her searchingly. “Ling Qi, you should have given us time to prepare for guests,” Ling Qingge fretted. “Please tell me that we have time.”
“It’s nothing so formal,” Ling Qi reassured her. “It’s only family after all.”
As she spoke, she gave Zhengui a mental prod, and the young spirit’s essence flowed from her dantian. The air at her feet shimmered, the temperature rising slightly as the solid form of the little snake-tortoise coalesced from thin air. In this shrunken form, Zhengui was the size of an adult tortoise and Zhen, coiled atop his shell, was no larger than a small garden snake.
“Hello!” Gui chirped cheerfully, breaking the surprised silence.
“Hmph. They cannot understand you, foolish Gui,” Zhen hissed lazily, examining Mother and Biyu as he did.
Ling Qi smiled. Her little sister’s eyes were wide, and she was emitting a wordless excited sound. “Magic turtle!” she exclaimed, crouching down to peer at the shrunken snake-tortoise.
On the other hand, Mother’s brow was creased in both concern and wonder as her gaze traced the length of Zhen’s coils to their point of termination. “I recall you mentioned such, but…” She shook her head in disbelief, taking a step closer as Biyu began to reach out to pet the “magic turtle.” “Are you certain it is safe?”
“Zhengui is as intelligent as you or I,” Ling Qi replied, sending a silent message to Zhengui to be patient with Biyu. “Biyu, remember he isn’t a toy. Petting is fine, but don’t grab.”
<Little humans sure are incautious, huh,> Sixiang mused. <Well, they probably still have better survival instincts than your average fairy, so I guess I can’t say anything.>
“Big Sister should not worry,” Zhen hissed, pleased at the little girl’s attention. “The little sister is safe with Zhen.”
“Mhmm! Leave things to Big Brother Gui,” his other half chirped, leaning into Biyu’s petting. “Gui will not disappoint Big Sister!”
“I will trust your word,” Ling Qingge said, oblivious to the conversation going on as she leaned down herself to peer over Biyu’s shoulder. “Greetings, Honored Spirit. Please be welcome in our home.”
“No need to be so formal,” Ling Qi said, standing up. “Zhengui is a little brother to me. Please treat him as family,” she continued even as she saw Zhen preen at the treatment. Between Sixiang and Mother, a little ego deflation might be necessary.
“Grandmother is silly but nice,” Gui chirped. Ling Qi twitched a little at the implication.
“... Sis, turtle makes whispers.” Ling Qi blinked as her attention was drawn back to Biyu. The little girl had fallen back on her bottom and was peering at Zhengui with wide eyes.
“Can you understand him, Biyu?” Ling Qi asked, sharing a surprised look with her mother.
“Nuh-uh.” The little girl shook her head. “Too quiet,” she added as she climbed back to her feet, pouting at Zhengui. “Turtle, speak up!”
“Will that help?” Gui asked, confused. “Should Gui yell, Big Sister?”
“No, yelling won’t help, Zhengui,” Ling Qi replied. “You’ll have to wait until you’re older to hear him clearly, little sister.”
Biyu continued to pout but then glanced up at her mother, or rather, the book under her mother’s arm. “Like the princess!” she said, clapping her hands as if that explained everything.
Ling Qi shared another look with Mother, who seemed rather off-balance. “... Why don’t I see to having tea and refreshments prepared?” The older woman needed a moment to collect herself.
“Sure,” Ling Qi replied agreeably. “I can watch Biyu. Please don’t worry about Zhengui. I have his food with me.”
“Of course,” her mother said faintly, turning away.
Ling Qi supposed that the question of whether her little sister would be able to cultivate was answered.
Thankfully, there weren’t any more surprises that day. Biyu enjoyed playing in the garden with Zhengui, and Mother’s nerves just needed a cup of tea. Her family was settling into the Sect village well, which almost made her regret that she would have to move them again in a fairly short time.
Ling Qi was sure that she could make a home just as comfortable wherever the Duchess assigned them though, so she didn’t worry over it too much.