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The days passed quickly, long hours of cultivation passed by in moments as she progressed toward new levels of mastery.

The mountain was peaceful. Even the constant background noise of sanctioned duels faded away as more and more disciples entered closed door cultivation, pushing for some last edge or skill increase. Ling Qi wasn’t much different in that regard, although her training with Lady Cai was taking on a more academic edge.

Instead of sparring or receiving the heiress’ techniques, she found herself spending a lot of time in the market gathering information on the activity of the disciples there and polishing skills she had left to rust over the course of the year. It didn’t hinder her cultivation too much, but it was hard work to stay focused when dealing with uninteresting things like sales numbers and inventories.

Most of her remaining time went toward the Sect job she had accepted. Frankly, it wasn’t something she normally would have taken, but the job board was growing emptier by the day, and it was one of the two highest paying jobs left. Thankfully, she wasn’t stuck doing the tedious work alone. Li Suyin was among the other disciples who had taken the job to replant the scar in the forest.

The sun shined and beat down on the field of crumbled rubble and dirt where the ground had collapsed. The fine gray dust that had covered everything had been replaced by dark loamy soil at some point since the last time Ling Qi had seen the area. Ahead of her and Li Suyin, Zhengui trudged, happily breathing out clouds of drifting, wood qi infused ash that settled into the soil as they passed. Around them, a half dozen skeletal birds of various species fluttered through the air, scattering various seeds from pouches hung from their bony forms.

Ling Qi and Li Suyin both had more expensive satchels crafted with space expanding formations to allow them to hold seedlings from various tree species. While their companions took care of the more indiscriminate work, the two girls would stop every so often to plant a new tree at the proper flag-marked points in the dirt.

“I see you’ve really improved those scouts,” Ling Qi said as they crouched down at the next flag. She began to prepare the ground for planting.

Li Suyin glanced up to watch one of her constructs. The skeletal bird was nearly organic in its motion with only a hint of the jerkiness that marked Ling Qi’s own constructs. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve figured out several improvements for them, and if you have time today, I’ve received permission from Senior Sister Bao to invite you to the workshop. The constructs have been very useful for my anatomical studies, so I have been giving them some focus.”

“But not all of it, I hope,” Ling Qi teased.

“I have been getting out,” Li Suyin huffed, but even the response to her teasing seemed muted.

“What’s bothering you?” LIng Qi asked as she finished the hole she had been digging. “Every time I’ve seen you for the past few days, you’ve been fretting over something.”

Li Suyin looked away, even as she placed the seedling and began to pack the soil back in around its roots. “Have I? I know I have been a little distracted, but…”

“I am sure the only reason Su Ling hasn’t called you on it is that she’s been off-kilter herself,” Ling Qi interjected. “So spill. What’s wrong?”

“It is nothing so bad as you might be thinking,” Li Suyin replied. “It’s just… My family is coming to visit for the tournament.”

Ling Qi frowned. “I thought mortals weren’t going to be allowed at the arena?” she asked. “Ah, is it different for the production track?”

Li Suyin shook her head and brushed the dirt from her hands, standing back up. “No, Mother and Father just want to be here to support me, even if they can’t observe directly.”

“I’m not sure what the problem is,” Ling Qi said as she stood up as well,moving to the next flag. She had never heard her friend speak of her parents in less than glowing tones.

Li Suyin shifted uncomfortably. “I haven’t told them some things,” she admitted in a quiet voice, and Ling Qi didn’t miss the way that Suyin’s left hand twitched as if she wanted to reach for her eye. “I’m just afraid that they might be disappointed with the kind of person I’ve become.”

Ling Qi kept her expression neutral. “You probably shouldn’t have left something like your eye as a surprise,” she agreed. “But I don’t understand what you mean. You’re still the same good person you were to begin with.” She glanced up at the constructs circling around. “Maybe hold off on showing off your workshop. I don’t know how squeamish your parents are.”

Li Suyin laughed, but she didn’t sound particularly amused. “I do not think greeting Mother and Father from atop a palanquin hefted by skeleton soldiers would give the right impression, no,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.

Ling Qi shot her friend a narrow-eyed look. “Since when do you do sarcastic?” she asked. “Wait, is that an actual thing? I want a ride if so.”

<At least you have your priorities straight,> Sixiang mumbled sleeplily. The light of high noon had left the bodiless spirit drowsy.

“I was working on a design with Senior Sister Bao, but we could not get the animation of legs done with proper coordination and balance…” Li Suyin shook her head, cutting off her own tangent. “No, Ling Qi, the point is… I have not been a good person,” she said. “It might be beneath your notice, but I have been going out of my way to make sure those girls are miserable whenever I have the opportunity. I know it isn’t right to pursue a grudge so, but… I just cannot let it go.”

Ling Qi shot her friend a wary look. “You haven’t broken Lady Cai’s peace, have you?”

Suyin shook her head, her expression bitter. “No, and that makes it worse,” she huffed. “I have become one of those people who spit on the spirit of the law while obeying its letter. How can I face Father like this?” she fretted.

“Li Suyin… what have you been doing?”

The other girl looked down as they reached the next spot. “It started with using Senior Sister Bao’s connections to ruin the market for them,” she mumbled. “Price gouging, refusing sales, purchasing rare reagents I know they need before they can acquire them - that sort of thing.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Ling Qi asked dubiously.

“Senior Sister Bao said that it was good practice. She doesn’t see anything wrong with my vendetta as long as it doesn’t cross the line into illegality.” Li Suyin didn’t stop with that worrying statement. “Then after I had time to bond with Zhenli, I started making deals with her kin… I traded them things to ruin those girls’ Sect jobs where possible or just to ambush them and leave them to hang in the woods for a few days, cocooned and helpless. I made sure that they were never badly hurt, but...”

“If you want me to scold you, you’re speaking to the wrong person,” Ling Qi said, cutting her off. “As long as you aren’t doing anything permanent…”

“I am not like them,” Li Suyin fiddled with the strap of her eyepatch.

“Right. You won’t hear me speaking poorly of you… but you’re worried that your parents will,” Ling Qi’s first notion was to suggest not telling them, but she was fairly sure Li Suyin wouldn’t accept that.

“Nobles and cultivators should be above this sort of pettiness, even though I know they are not,” Suyin said glumly.

“You’re being too hard on yourself like always,” Ling Qi said with a touch of exasperation. “You all but said that you know you’re being unreasonable,” she added as she began to work on the next planting.

“I know it is not reasonable, but I cannot change my own feelings.”

“If your Mother and Father are half as good as you hold them up to be, they’ll understand,” Ling Qi said, meeting her friend’s eye. “There’s nothing wrong with giving someone who hurt you their comeuppance.”

Her friend closed her eyes for a moment. “... As you say. Let us get back to the task at hand though. We have much work yet to do today.”

“So we do,” Ling Qi sighed. The things she would do for Sect points…

***

After completing the Sect job and receiving their rewards, Ling Qi accepted Li Suyin’s invitation to Bao Qingling’s workshop to show off the other improvements Suyin had made with the scout formations. The journey to Bao Qingling’s workshop took them deeper into the Wall. It was not far enough to intrude on the Inner Sect, but it was about as far in as the dragon’s vale.

Ling Qi and Li Suyin landed at the top of the bulbous structure which clung to the wall of the canyon below. It was shaped vaguely like a gourd with a smaller bulb stacked atop a larger one. Chimneys of metal and stone poked out of the structure at odd angles, billowing colorful and aromatic medicinal smoke. Most of the structure, however, was composed entirely of thick white webbing. Somewhat disturbingly, Ling Qi could see disturbances in the air where spirits of wind had been captured in the webbing, and even as she watched, arachnid legs as long as her arm poked out to drag a struggling spirit inside.

Happily, she didn’t have too long to contemplate this as Suyin opened an entrance in the top of the structure. Webs parted smoothly to reveal a ladder leading down.

Suyin politely invited her in, and Ling Qi followed her down the ladder. The tunnel leading down into the workshop was kind of claustrophobic, and the feel of so many skittering spirit spiders all around them gave her a case of goosebumps, but otherwise, their entry went by in comfortable silence. A quick walk down the rightmost tunnel at the three way intersection at the bottom of the ladder brought them to a room slightly larger than Suyin’s workshop at her home. The room was furnished with tabletops and other worksurfaces glued to the walls, often at heights and angles that left them impossible to reach from the floor. It was also positively saturated with the skeletons of birds, ranging from tiny to huge.

It was also occupied. Li Suyin’s mentor, Bao Qingling, looked much like she had the first time Ling Qi had met her at the Medicine Hall, an unhealthily pale girl with dark circles under her eyes with black hair gathered into a thick braid wrapped twice around her neck. Rather than a gown, she wore a set of dark brown, bulky leathers, including boots and gloves that left her looking a bit shapeless, especially with the thick work smock she wore, stained and scorched in many places.

Unlike before though, Ling Qi could feel the Inner disciple’s qi more clearly. Bao Qingling was at the fourth level of the third realm, and her aura felt jagged and murky like a deep pit full of sharp stone concealed by thick, clinging mist and webs.

“Senior Sister Bao,” Li Suyin greeted as she caught sight of the older girl. “Thank you for allowing me to bring my friend here today.”

“Thank you for having me, Senior Sister,” Ling Qi added politely, offering a bow of her own.

The Inner Sect disciple studied her then nodded once crisply. “You are welcome - in this room. I ask that you remain in this room however,” she said, her words uncolored by anything but polite disinterest. “It would be unfortunate if excessive curiosity were to cause us friction,” she added. Ling Qi supposed she could understand; the story of what she had done to Yan Renshu was probably open knowledge at this point.

“I will, of course, respect Senior Sister Bao’s privacy. It would be very rude for me to repay your kindness to my friend and hospitality with treachery,” Ling Qi replied.

“Quite,” Bao Qingling said without humor before nodding to Li Suyin. “Do not forget your schedule, Junior Sister Suyin,” she said. “Junior Sister Ling, give my regards to Lady Cai if you would.” Bao Qingling stamped her foot once on the floor. The webbing under her feet parted with an odd stretching sound, and the older girl vanished into the resulting hole. Ling Qi caught a glimpse of chitinous legs and gleaming eyes, as well as a pair of oddly human hands composed of gleaming black chitin in the moment before it closed again.

“Huh. I wonder what that was about,” Ling Qi mused, warily eyeing the floor .

“The Bao family is a count clan which administers the north under the Cai family,” Li Suyin answered. “I’m sure that Senior Sister Bao was just offering her respects.”

“I really do have to do some more research,” Ling Qi sighed. Perhaps she could speak to Cai about that; learning from her would probably be more fruitful and interesting than poking through books on the matter, and she could pick up what the heiress thought of the various players. “Well, why don’t you show me what you’ve been working on?”

“I’ve discovered how to activate the fusion formations in the advanced scouts without untoward amounts of blood,” Li Suyin explained, leading her over to a wide surface scattered with a score of tiny bird skeletons and strewn with papers packed with notes and calculations. “As you can see here, it was simply a matter of…” Suyin went through her proofs as Ling Qi leaned over her shoulder and followed along.

While Ling Qi felt that she wasn’t really suited to formations mastery, in a situation like the tournament, it would be good to have a few tricks up her sleeve that were outside her main skillset. A combat construct could certainly be that.

She watched as Li Suyin demonstrated her new formation, merging a great swarm of little sparrow skeletons into a bony horror in the vague shape of a large eagle.

“You really are great at this kind of thing, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi commented, peering into the empty “eye” socket of the “eagle” now perched on Suyin’s work surface. Its head was made of a dozen tiny skulls partially merged together like the crow she had seen during the Sect mission with the shaman. It was a creepy effect.

“It is not just size either,” Li Suyin pointed out. “The more complex array matrix allows for more advanced effects as well.”

The skeletal eagle on the workbench let out a shrill cry, and its bones pulsed with a faint blue light. Ling Qi blinked as she felt the activation of an actual technique, some kind of defensive water art.

“You made a construct that can use techniques?” Ling Qi asked.

“Well, only one, and it has to be pre-encoded by the user so it can’t be changed in battle,” Li Suyin admitted.

Regardless, Ling Qi could see the use in that. If she had a construct that could cast defensive or support techniques on her, it would allow her to focus on her offense in the tournament.

“Are you sure you really want to just show me all of this?” Ling Qi asked, dubious. “You’ve done all the work on this. You practically had to rebuild the entire formation from scratch!”

“I don’t mind at all,” Li Suyin replied, shaking her head. “It is your treasure that allowed this anyway, and… I do not feel as if there needs to be transactions between us.”

Ling Qi eyed her friend, sensing no insincerity from the other girl. “I won’t complain then,” Ling Qi said. “It’ll definitely be a useful surprise to pull out in the tournament.”

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