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Ling Qi found her afternoon free. She would have to make sure she left herself time to get ready for the Golden Fields gathering tonight, but that still left her time for her own interests.

Ling Qi considered seeking out Meizhen or Li Suyin, but eventually, she decided against it. The two of them would be busy with their families, and she didn’t want to butt in there. She could visit her own Mother, but she thought that she would rather wait until she actually had her Inner Sect placement secure.

She did have an idea that had occurred to her in the aftermath of her preliminary today. It had been nice to face someone in a real match and not come out of it as enemies.

Of course, her idea ran into some trouble when it came to actually tracking the boy down. Shen Hu had wandered off almost immediately when the victorious disciples had been excused. Still, with so many people around, a few polite inquiries eventually gave her a lead.

His trail led her down off the mountain and out into the lowlands. She found Shen Hu at the side of one of the little rivers that wound its way through the Sect’s lands, standing barefoot and ankle deep in the mud as he poured water out over the bubbling mass of muck that was his spirit beast. Said beast rumbled dangerously, the marsh reeds growing from it rustling as she alighted on a tree branch a few meters upriver from them. Shen Hu looked up at that sound, lowering the wooden bucket in his hands.

“Hello. Did you want something?” he asked bluntly but cautiously.

Ling Qi allowed herself to drop into a seated position on a lower branch, the thin limb flexing under her weight but holding steady. “I wanted to congratulate you on a good match,” she answered. Now that she was here, she regretted that she hadn’t planned this out better; she wasn’t sure where to take the conversation.

<Stop laughing, Sixiang,> she thought grumpily.

Shen Hu stared at her then nodded, turning to refill the bucket from the river. Ling Qi caught sight of formation characters glimmering on the inner edge as it took in water. “Well, thank you,” he replied, glancing up at her with a neutral expression. “A straightforward fight would have been more fun, but that’s probably because I’m better at those.”

Ling Qi nodded, smiling slightly. “I won’t apologize for sticking to what I’m good at,” she said. “Is your spirit beast doing well? It did suffer the brunt of things.”

Shen Hu hummed in agreement, pouring out the water over the mud beast’s bubbling body. The water he poured sparkled with an almost unnatural purity now, unlike the rather mundane river water. “Lanhua is fine. She just needs a good rest and feeding, don’t you, girl?” he said with a touch of warmth. The living mud pit below him let out a burbling rumble that somehow sounded content. Shen Hu glanced back up at her then. “How about you?” he asked slowly. “You didn’t get hurt, but I remember you having a beast too. He alright with getting left out of things?”

Zhengui had been dissatisfied at not getting to help, but in the aftermath of the preliminaries, he had fallen into a light doze, so she hadn’t really chatted with him about it. “He wanted to help, but he’ll get his chance starting tomorrow. I doubt they’ll set up the singles to give that much advantage to one of the fighters.”

It would be ridiculous for her to expect to be given so much free reign to set up again. Besides, running around for the whole match would be less impressive in a duel.

Shen Hu simply nodded in response, turning back to his own spirit beast. Silence remained between them before Ling Qi broke the silence. “Did you really just miss last year’s tournament on your own?” she asked somewhat incredulously. Even as dedicated as she was to cultivation, something like that would be extreme.

He paused in the process of bending to refill his bucket, and Ling Qi studiously looked skyward. Shen Hu’s pants were riding a little low there. Perhaps it was the weight of the mud dragging at the hems. “My friend Nan Ju was supposed to wake me, but he never showed up,” he said simply as he resumed his work.

“Did you ever find out why?” Ling Qi asked curiously.

“I suppose we weren’t friends after all.” Shen Hu hummed then, looking down in satisfaction as he emptied the bucket onto Lanhua again. “He made it to the Inner Sect. We haven’t talked since.”

“Shouldn’t you be a little angrier about that?” Ling Qi pointed out, giving the boy a side-eyed look as he adjusted his sash, fixing the error she had noticed.

“I was pretty mad,” Shen Hu admitted, turning to face her. “That is why I left to cultivate on my own. It was my own fault for relying on one person like that.”

<Running off like that probably left him weaker than he should have been,> Sixiang noted. <You humans need tutors and such to learn your abilities, don’t you?>

Ling Qi didn’t reply to Sixiang’s musings. “I hope you aren’t going to just become a hermit,” she teased lightly. “That’d be kind of a loss, wouldn’t it?”

As Lanhua settled into a more even pool at his feet, bubbling more slowly in a facsimile of sleep, Shen Hu nodded. “Mm, I probably got a little carried away. I can’t repay the Sect if I just wander off,” he said seriously.

“Yeah, you would not do anyone any good like that.” Ling Qi considered what else she could say here, and with some prodding from Sixiang, she eventually continued, “In any case, it’s been nice talking with you, Shen Hu. If we both make it into the Inner Sect, I wouldn’t mind training together some time.”

Shen Hu blinked, and then, after a moment, he smiled. “Yeah. You’re Ling Qi, right? I wouldn’t mind that.”

Ling Qi looked away, feeling oddly self-conscious. “I should go back. I have to prepare for a big gathering tonight. I’ll see you at the tournament tomorrow?”

“See you there,” he replied with a nod.

As he turned back to the river, Ling Qi took flight, the swaying of the branch she had been seated on the only remaining sign of her presence.

***

Ling Qi had not been prepared at all for what a gathering hosted by a ducal clan was like. Comparing it to the parties she had attended at the Sect was like comparing night to day.

At the far end of the grand pavilion of light blue and black silk floated the twanging notes of a zither played with skill that Ling Qi could not honestly say was inferior to her own. On a raised stage to her right, a pair of women clad in trailing scarves and jingling bells danced, curved swords in hand; the flash of metal and the swishing of silk drew appreciative comments from the watchers nearby.

There were a dozen little stages like that, each containing their own display of entertainment and skill. A man in a bright feathered cloak in Gu colors performed acrobatic tricks with a pair of whirling, burning batons, tracing out images of legend in the heat haze around him. Opposite him, a heavyset man with a passing resemblance to Fan Yu skillfully sculpted the pillar of stone sharing his stage into shape after shape upon request from his viewers.

Her fellow attendees themselves were a riot of sensation. They were bewildering not simply in a visual sense, though there was certainly plenty of variance in that. Brightly colored and adorned robes and gowns formed an ever shifting sea of color and conflicting patterns. For Ling Qi, the truly dizzying part was the overwhelming nature of their spiritual auras. Unlike at the Sect, she was surrounded by people who were at the worst, her peers in cultivation, and at the best, far, far above her ability. Although their qi was politely restrained, even so, flashes of dozens of domains nipped at the edges of her senses, making it difficult to focus on her efforts to mingle.

It seemed that she had made a positive impression so far with her performance in the preliminaries. Ling Qi kept her smile through the congratulations and the probing questions, some more subtle than others, regarding both her and Cai Renxiang and their future intentions. Then there were the “commiserations” regarding Gan and his loss, many which sounded less than sincere to her ear. Sixiang’s whispers helped her here; with the knowledge that she was being prodded and tested to discern her temperament and weaknesses, she kept her composure. And, well, she didn’t truly expect Golden Fields courtiers to be sympathetic when it was a Golden Fields competitor that advanced from that arena.

Then there were the betrothal offers. Middle-aged men and women alike offered to introduce her to younger cousins or sons. Generally, they insinuated that now would be a good time to start thinking about the future and wouldn’t the so-and-so family be a fine connection for a young up-and-coming baroness. Ling Qi managed to politely deflect those for the most part, citing the need to consult with her liege and her need to focus on her personal cultivation in the immediate term, but it was a hard reminder that she would start having to think about such things sooner than she liked.

Some encounters were more pleasant than others. Her chat with the jovial Bao Quan was refreshingly pleasant, even if the jolly man did manage to slip his own offer in. Apparently, his youngest nephew was about her age. For all that she knew intellectually that it was a surprisingly good offer given the status of the Bao, Ling Qi couldn’t bring herself to do more than stall and excuse herself. She really did need a moment to catch her breath.

<It looks like humans really can throw a ball after all,> Sixiang commented as Ling Qi stepped out of the crowd, finally reaching the refreshment table near the rear of the pavilion. <It’s not home, but this isn’t bad either.>

Ling Qi was glad someone was having fun, she grumbled internally. She just felt wrung out. Sweeping her eyes over the wide array of sparkling, many hued drinks available, she followed the table toward the non-alcoholic ones. There were plenty of those, including juices of exotic fruits and distillation of nectars and stranger things. Eventually, she chose to stick with something simple, a gleaming cider made from certain apples in the Ebon Rivers province according to the label.

Turning away from the table after the attending servant filled her cup, Ling Qi took a step back toward the crowd, mentally preparing herself for another round, only to bump into someone after just a couple of steps. The superhuman grace that she had acquired in the past year saved her from fumbling the cup in her hand.

Ling Qi had managed to run into someone she was quite sure hadn’t been there a moment ago. She cursed internally as the man she had run into began to look back over his shoulder at her, already running through the ways to apologize while trying to figure out who he was and what kind of status he had.

The man was tall and wiry in build, if a bit past his prime going by the thinning grey hair at his temples. Something about his demeanor struck her as strange. In this party, she had not met a single person who seemed less than absolutely self-assured. The man in front of her though looked withdrawn, his posture subtly folded inward and his expression tired and worn. He had probably been handsome once, but his aristocratic features were worn by wrinkles and a handful of fading scars that tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Ling Qi did not recognize him from her briefings with Cai Renxiang, but his white silk robes looked to be of incredibly high quality to them, she noted nervously. Deciding to err on the side of caution, she bowed low and formally. “My deepest apologies, Honored Sir. I hope that my clumsiness has not troubled you overmuch.”

There was a beat of silence in which she waited on tenterhooks for his response before she heard a brief dry chuckle. “Raise your head, young lady. It is this old man’s fault for losing himself in thought.”

Ling Qi straightened up, relieved. “Please do not take the blame. It was my lack of attention at fault.”

He shook his head slightly, and for a moment, Ling Qi found her eyes sliding past and away from him, leaving her wondering just what she had been doing and why… He snapped back into focus then, a tired smile tugging at his scarred cheeks. “You understand then,” he said gently. “Think nothing of it.”

“I see,” Ling Qi said hesitantly, processing the implications of an art, or more likely, a domain, like that. “Thank you for your understanding, Sir…?”

“Hou Zhuang, representing the Bai at this gathering,” he replied with the slightest incline of his head.

Ling Qi blinked, her thoughts grinding to a halt as she belatedly noticed the tiny serpentine patterns woven through the hem lining of his robes. Did that mean this was…?

The older man snapped his fingers, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “Ah, you would be the Baroness Ling, correct?” At her silent nod, he continued, “Might I ask how Bai Meizhen has fared? I believe she chose to support your liege’s bid in the Outer Sect.”

She had to wonder why he didn’t ask her himself, but she wasn't going to voice a thought like that to him. “Miss Bai is among my lady’s most trusted allies,” she answered diplomatically, pausing as a whisper from Sixiang crossed her thoughts. “She is Lady Cai’s only true peer.”

“I see,” the man said neutrally, his eyes wandering over her shoulder. “It is good that she is representing the family so well.” His words were polite, but Ling Qi thought, just for a moment, that she saw disappointment in his expression.

It was perhaps not the most prudent move, but…

“Miss Bai has prospered greatly this year,” she offered, knowing that someone so far above her in cultivation could not fail to read the familiarity in her words. “I think that she has found her time at the Sect most rewarding.”

She stiffened as the man’s wandering gaze focused on her, and she felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck as if the man was looking through her. “That is good to hear,” Hou Zhuang said a moment later, lifting the uncomfortable sensation. “I believe you have someone seeking your attention though, young lady,” he said gesturing off to the right. “Do not let this old man keep you.”

Ling Qi looked over to see Xiulan trying to get her attention. It seemed it was time. She offered a slightly nervous smile to the older man and another quick bow.

“By your leave, Sir Hou.”He waved her off, turning back to watch the mingling crowd of nobles with a distant expression, and Ling Qi turned away, striding toward where Xiulan waited, her good hand on her hip and an eyebrow raised in question.

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