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Between further tutoring, cultivation, and the Sect job overseeing construction at the outskirts of the village, Ling Qi found her free time limited, and so she did not often find time to stop at home during the week. In what time she did have, she made sure to offer her congratulations to Cui on her breakthrough, along with a small gift. The second grade rabbit had been caught by Zhengui, but he was too embarrassed to make the gift himself. Ling Qi thought it rather cute.

Though it was clear that the younger Bai still didn’t like her much, some of the ill feeling between them had faded. Then again, Ling Qi was perhaps biased; she would be willing to take a great deal of time with a passive aggressive serpent over the mind-numbing duties of the Sect job she had accepted. There was no challenge in it. These lands were too tame for anything really dangerous to come out, so she was left to simply scare away minor spirits and deal with accidents for hours on end. Still, jobs were drying up in the lead up to the year’s end, and points were points.

She was excited to see the end of her shift, and headed up to the vent to train with Su Ling. She was on the cusp of mastering the fifth pulse of the Thousand Ring Fortress art, and the other girl’s help would allow her to reach an understanding of the art’s new technique, Thousand Rings Unbreaking. The new technique drew upon the image of the eldest trees of the Emerald Seas, ancient and nigh invulnerable, akin to living mountains. Successful activation would bolster defenses and allow Ling Qi and some of her allies to become immune to effects which would involuntarily move them or grapple them.

In addition to cultivation though, Ling Qi did have other reasons to be interested in meeting Su Ling.

<What an adorable little girl!> Sixiang gushed as her friend’s new spirit popped her head up out of Su Ling’s hair. The spirit, a black furred bat with red markings, had taken a liking to clinging to the back of her binder’s neck and was normally somewhat hidden beneath the vulpine girl’s untidy tresses.

“Is that why you’ve been growing out your hair?” Ling Qi asked, amused at the picture that had been presented to her.

“No, she’s just a stubborn little fuzzball,” Su Ling grumbled. “She doesn’t like staying in spiritual form, and she won’t go off on her own either,” she continued. Her ears twitched, and she sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You want to watch my back.”

<Avenging Crescent Bats are pretty paranoid,> Sixiang mused. <Your friend must have a strong sense of justice to snag one as a companion.>

Ling Qi supposed so. Her smile faltered when she leaned closer and the little bat gave a hiss and burrowed back into Su Ling’s hair. What was with her friends’ spirits not liking her? At least she could probably put this one down to general demeanor. “Can she not talk yet, or is she just being shy?”

“I’m not sure,” Su Ling answered. “I can understand her, but she won’t talk to anybody else. Thanks again for the info on moon spirits by the way. I never would have thought to go that far away from the mountain on my own.”

“You’re welcome,” Ling Qi replied, taking a step away. “I’m glad to help you out when I can. I know I haven’t been the most sociable, but…”

“You’ve got a lot on your plate. I understand,” Su Ling interrupted. “So do I. It’s not like we don’t keep in contact.”

Ling Qi relaxed, a bit of tension leaving her shoulders. “You’re right,” she said, smiling. They still trained together regularly. Perhaps that wasn’t enough to stay close to Han Jian, but for Su Ling, it was enough. “Shall we get started then?”

“I suppose,” Su Ling grumbled good-naturedly. “You’re lucky I’m not the one who has to re-sharpen the training swords after I blunt them on that wood armor of yours or I wouldn’t do this.”

Ling Qi laughed. “I’m glad the Sect takes care of them then.”

***

Ling Qi whirled among the phantom dancers, her steps carrying her from one narrow pillar to another. Amidst the smoky mist and pulsing beat of lunatic song though, a foreign element intruded. A searing line of light cut through the air above her, forcing Ling Qi to snap backwards, bending until her back was nearly parallel to the ground. A twisting pirouette carried her around a second blinding line, her hair fanning out behind her with the motion as it cut diagonally through the revelling crowd. Ling Qi’s phantoms laughed and danced amidst an ever-shifting web of light, their half-human features cast in sharp relief with each strobe.

Cai Renxiang’s stern voice cut through all the noise as clear as day. “The seven count clans of Emerald Seas. Minimum profile,” the heiress stated tersely, strained as she fought to control so many vectors of light.

Ling Qi grimaced as a trailing leap and a midair spin carried her through a rapidly narrowing gap in the shifting grid of light, and her mind raced, putting together the answers to the question. “Meng clan: controls the western marshes; staunch Weilu conservatives; former ties with the Bai, but then backed Sun Shao; neutral and distant at court; isolanist.”

The dance continued unabated as she strained to speak quickly and concisely without allowing a single rapidly shifting light to touch her. “Wang and Jia clans: smallest clans; territories in the southern hills near the Sects; nominally Imperial conservatives; mining interests; elevated by the Duchess; loyal and supportive at court; pushing aggressive moves against the Cloud Tribes.”

“Very good.” Cai Renxiang hung overhead like a miniature star, tendrils of light snapping and crawling through the air behind her while the sleeves of her gown very slowly unraveled with the qi put into maintaining this regiment breaker of a technique.

Ling Qi lacked the time to acknowledge the praise, but some part of her noticed the movements of her phantoms growing smoother and more natural, the edges of the revel creeping outward with each step. She was coming closer to her goal of mastering the second revel of the Phantasmagoria. “Bao clan: wealthiest of the seven count families; controls the northern trade cities and the routes into Celestial Peaks; Imperial conservatives; mercantile inclinations; heavy production focus; neutral at court; opposes further military expansion in the south.”

The lights began to move faster, and Ling Qi frowned as she danced the steps of the Illustrious Phantasmal Festival faster than ever before to keep up. “Luo clan: keepers of the eastern marches; ties to Golden Fields; on the rise due to recovery in neighbors and increased trade; nominal Weilu conservatives; did not support the Duchess, but did not oppose; found loyal; warrior clan with large presence in military; aggressive in general.”

“And the last?” Cai Renxiang asked from on high.

“Diao clan: rules a portion of the central region; ambitious, but the Cai clan’s greatest supporters; only count clan with an active seventh realm cultivator; young clan; heavy clashes with more conservative factions on various matters; expansionist interests; aligned with Jia.”

The heiress lowered her hand, and the ever-shifting lines of light began to fade. “I am pleased with your recall. That will be sufficient for the moment.”

Ling Qi grimaced as she allowed the phantoms to fade at last. That had merely been the last of the questions; they had been at this for hours, and her meridians burned with the strain of keeping the festival active. But she had done it. She had refined her control enough that the cost of keeping the festival active had dropped to a relative trickle. “I’m not sure I’m a fan of this style of exercise,” LIng Qi joked as she caught her breath.

“Is that so?” Cai Renxiang questioned as she drifted down amidst the dissolving revel, her arms bare to the shoulder. The heiress’ muscle tone was surprisingly sharp, Ling Qi mused. Most female cultivators maintained a softer look. “You seem to retain information much more efficiently under stress.”

Ling Qi huffed, blowing a strand of her escaped hair out of her eyes. “I have no defense against that,” she admitted sheepishly. It was easy for her attention to wander in more scholastic settings, but the threat of searing beams of light had a way of focusing her attention. “I suppose I can’t complain. I’ve definitely mastered this art as far as it can go at the moment.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” Cai replied. “Though the source is a troublesome one, a mastery of such an art will grant you a degree of esteem amongst certain clans.”

<Of course that’s how she sees it,> Sixiang murmured sulkily. <Weft and weave, all in its place.>

Ling Qi paused, shooting a questioning thought toward her spirit but receiving no reply. That was odd; Sixiang was usually silent in Cai Renxiang’s presence. “The Weilu conservatives, right?”

The heiress nodded sharply. “Those clans still make heavy use of the spirits and arts of the Sun and Moon compared to more Imperial clans. You seem to have a talent for dealing with such entities, so I expect you to make use of it in the future.”

“No point wasting talent,” Ling Qi replied agreeably, glancing down at herself. She was mildly disheveled and more than a bit sweaty.

Seeming to read her thoughts, Cai Renxiang turned away. “Come. Let us refresh ourselves. This has been sufficient exercise for the day.”

“I suppose so,” Ling Qi said, stretching her arms overhead as she moved to follow the heiress, skipping from pillar to pillar as they headed for the exit. “Where has Gan Guangli been this week anyway?” She couldn’t say she minded the boy joining them, particularly when they were doing exercises that necessitated leaving heavier armor out.

“Mastering his primary art further in seclusion,” her liege replied, and Ling Qi caught a touch of the dry amusement that passed for humor in the heiress’ tone. “You may have your distraction back soon enough.”

Ling Qi frowned playfully at the girl’s back. She could never tell if the heiress was genuine when it came to the little bits of casual behavior she let slip in her presence.

<Ten million threads to weave a doll, and still it is incomplete.> Sixiang sighed. <Just because she knows how to speak to you doesn’t mean she understands.>

Well, wasn’t that a cheerful thought, Ling Qi mused, hurrying to catch up.

***

“You’re pretty persistent,” Han Jian commented, leaning back against the railing of the balcony. They were on the second floor of the Sect village’s teahouse, overlooking the gardens below.

“So I’ve heard on occasion,” Ling Qi replied in a dry tone, taking a careful sip from the tea laid out on the table beside her. “You accepted the invitation though.”

“How could I refuse when you made the offer as a subordinate of the Cai?” he asked. “I’m not going to forgive you for that stack of correspondence and contracts I have to review and send home now.”

“Sorry,” Ling Qi apologized, her smile giving the lie to that statement. “But isn’t this what you call ‘making connections?’” she asked guilelessly.

Han Jian shot her an unimpressed look. “I think I liked you better as a naive provincial girl.”

“Things were simpler then, weren’t they?” Ling Qi mused. “Well, maybe not, but I’m still thankful for what you did back then.”

“Didn’t we have this conversation before?” Han Jian asked, sounding a touch tired as he crossed his arms over his tiger striped outer robe.

“We did, but I think we’re past the point where we can interfere with each other’s interests,” Ling Qi shot back. “We aren’t close, but I hope we can put some of the tension away at this point.”

Han Jian scrubbed his hand through his hair, looking up at the sky. “Yeah… I think that’d be fine,” he agreed after a moment. “I’m not sure what you expect to get out of this though. We’re not likely to see each other much next year.”

Ling Qi frowned. Those words were awfully fatalistic, all but outright admitting that Han Jian did not think he was going to make it into the Inner Sect. “Even so, do I need to get anything out of it? You didn’t, after all.”

“Fair point,” he sighed. “For what it’s worth, I don’t regret helping you.”

Even though her presence seemed to be the catalyst for a lot of problems, Ling Qi mused silently. True, she could see that all the cracks that had been revealed over the course of the year had been present at the beginning, but it must be difficult not to blame her given the timing.

“I’m glad. You’re kind, I think -” and wasn’t that at odds with her image of wealthy young masters “- and I hope you can do well in the future.” She couldn’t help but suspect that that kind of attitude would not be to his advantage.

<Things aren’t quite so bleak as all that,> Sixiang whispered. <Loyalty and admiration, honestly won, has its own strength.>

“Hmm. I can't quite tell if you’re complimenting me there,” Han Jian noted, reflecting her own thoughts. “In the end though, I won’t compromise who I am. That is what it means to be a cultivator,” he said. “I wish you luck in your future endeavors as well.”

“I will graciously accept your well wishes,” Ling Qi replied. “And in a few hundred years, you can say that the High Chancellor of the Emerald Seas is a friend of yours.”

“Ha! You’ve gotten ambitious, haven’t you? Isn’t making a claim like that a little dangerous?”

“Maybe, but a cultivator has to take a risk now and then, you know?” Ling Qi smirked.

“In that case, let it be said that the Marquis of Han will not forget his youthful ties,” Han Jian replied with a snort.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Ling Qi laughed. “Now sit down. I can hear the server at the bottom of the stairs.”

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