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When she arrived at the main plaza, she found it quite busy, many of the Sect’s visitors drifting toward the main hall at a casual pace, deep in conversation with other visitors. The doors of the hall were thrown open and inside, Ling Qi found the Sect’s attendants and advisors out in full force, providing guidance and service to the visiting parents and relatives. Ling Qi made her way quietly through the crowds, keeping her pace sedate to avoid giving offense to any of the older cultivators present.

A sign laid out on the Sect’s job board pointed her toward the lecture hall in which the judging for the crafting competition would be taking place. Privately, Ling Qi wondered just how so many people were going to fit into one of those rooms and still fit the competitors. She felt a bit foolish for thinking that when she entered and found the room which she had spent so much time in learning the basics from Elder Su utterly transformed.

The lecture hall had been expanded several times over in a way that was impossible given the outer dimensions of the building. The tiered seating where the students had been seated remained, but the plain wooden benches and desks had been replaced with more comfortable seating. The pit where Elder Su had previously lectured from was now partitioned into numerous sections for the competitors participating in the crafting competition. Disciples were busy putting the finishing touches on displays containing various works of talisman-craft or medicine.

Ling Qi spotted Li Suyin’s light blue hair off toward the right corner, fretting over a table holding a long silver pill case and some kind of odd, flat bone talisman. She met the girl’s eye, and her friend smiled nervously back at her.

Glancing across the rest of the competitors, she spotted Fu Xiang with an array of mirrors in various sizes, Xuan Shi standing in the midst of three terracotta discs, lazily circling around him, and Yan Renshu with a series of vials full of oddly-coloured liquid. She even spotted Su Ling’s friend and supplier, the pudgy boy whose name escaped her at the moment.

Out of the corner of her eye, Ling Qi glimpsed a fluffy black tail through a gap in the crowd. Su Ling was seated in the furthest right corner of the spectators’ area, glancing at the crowd with both irritation and nervousness. Ling Qi smiled to herself, and she made her way over.

Su Ling spotted her as she approached, and she spotted a flash of relief in the girl’s eyes. Su Ling had obviously put a fair amount of effort into cleaning up. Her tangled mop of hair had been combed into wavy ringlets that hung neatly down to her shoulders, and her clothing was free of the scuffs and dirt that usually marked them. Ling Qi could still see the way her pointed ears twitched with ill-concealed nerves though; the furry tips of her ears were constantly in motion as if seeking a threat.

“Good afternoon, Su Ling,” Ling Qi greeted as she approached. “Would you mind if I took this seat?”

Su Ling paused in the process of greeting her, furrowing her brows for a moment before understanding dawned. “... Right. Good afternoon,” she replied gruffly, trying to keep her words polite. “I don’t mind at all. You here to see Li Suyin, I guess?”

“I am. I’m sure Li Suyin will be among the winners,” Ling Qi announced casually as she sat down beside the fox-girl. “Senior Sister Bao wouldn’t have spent so much time on her if she weren’t talented,” she added smoothly, mostly for the benefit of the people who had glanced her way when she had sat down with Su Ling.

Su Ling pursed her lips, eyeing Ling Qi before giving her a faint nod. “Yeah, Li Suyin is a smart girl,” she agreed.

“How are you?” Ling Qi asked more quietly. “You seem a little out of sorts.”

Su Ling held back a snort of laughter. “I suppose. Crowds just aren’t my thing. There have been a few rude individuals around too,” she said, not looking at anyone in particular.

It was hard to remember sometimes, given the company she usually kept, that people like Su Ling weren’t the most well liked. Ling Qi had never quite understood how the prejudice against spirit-blooded worked since so many old and prestigious families were the same. From what little she had gleaned on the matter from studying law with Cai Renxiang, it had to do with an edict by one of the early Mu emperors. It was something about ‘preserving Imperial character’. Whatever that meant.

“That is unfortunate,” Ling Qi acknowledged. “I’m sure it was a passing thing.”

“Right,” Su Ling said, a slightly bitter smile exposing a few sharpened teeth. “You were busy yesterday then?”

“I was. I wanted to make sure my opponent Shen Hu didn’t feel slighted by our match,” she admitted.

“I bet you did.” Su Ling gave her a sly look. “He looked like a pretty fine gentleman.”

Ling Qi changed the subject, controlling her expression. “You were watching the preliminaries then?”

“I was,” Su Ling said, graciously letting the other subject go. “You are pretty scary, you know?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ling Qi said with a glib smile. “What were the crafting preliminaries like?”

Su Ling hummed thoughtfully, drumming her blunt claws on the polished surface of the desk in front of her. “It was kinda interesting. First, there was a timed written exam with a few hundred questions,” Su Ling said, the twitching of her ears finally calming down.

Ling Qi winced. That sounded highly unpleasant. “Short or long form?” she asked morbidly.

“About half and half from what I saw,” her friend answered, shaking her head in amusement. “The ones who finished in time were then given a chest full of reagents to appraise and organise by their uses.”

“On a time limit as well, of course,” Ling Qi guessed wryly.

“Yeah,” Su Ling confirmed. “Final part was using the provided reagents to create a product, which was more fun to watch. Once everyone was done, the elders totaled up the scores for all three rounds. The twenty highest scorers made it to this round.”

“What was Li Suyin’s rank?” Ling Qi asked, casting a glance across the rest of the room. The seats were filling up, so the competition would probably be starting soon.

“Fifth,” Su Ling replied with a touch of pride before looking Ling Qi’s way. “I almost forgot. Did you win your match today?”

“Flawlessly,” Ling Qi said with a grin. “We should probably quiet down though,” she said, noting the shift in the rooms atmosphere as a familiar figure materialized at the fore of the competitors area. Su Ling followed her gaze and nodded, leaning back against the padded back of her seat.

Ling Qi felt an odd ripple in the air surrounding the pit where the competitors were setting up. Her view changed enhanced as if she were sitting in the frontmost rows rather than the very back. Elder Su stood before the competing disciples, facing the audience. The Elder looked much the same, a poised older woman with greying hair but an unlined face. She wore a simple three-layered gown of dark green marked with embroidery depicting a tracery of leafy vines.

“Welcome, honored visitors and observing disciples alike,” the older woman said crisply. “Before you stand the brightest of the Outer Sect’s potential craftsmen and physicians.” There was a touch of pride in her voice as she allowed her gaze to move along the lines of the seating. “Where our more martially inclined disciples form the blade which defends the Empire, it is these young men and women who form the haft which allows that blade to be wielded effectively. I humbly request that you remain silent during the presentations to come out of respect for their efforts. Time for questions and meetings will be allotted after the completion of the exam.”

Elder Su’s words were met with an agreeable silence. Disciples would hardly contradict her, and it seemed that this request was already known and expected by the adults in the room. After a beat of silence, Elder Su gave a shallow bow to the audience and turned on her heel to face the competitors. “Disciple Rank Twenty, Zhu Qing, prepare your presentation…”

Ling Qi leaned back in her seat as the wooden floor of the pit shifted and rotated, bringing a vaguely familiar girl to the fore. If they were starting at twenty, she had some time before her friend’s presentation came up. While she knew it would be rude not to pay attention, she couldn’t rightly say that the actual exam interested her much; the competitors were hardly going to be showing off the actual formations work involved for her to copy after all. Not that she really could. Advanced formations required personalization as much as cultivation did. It wasn't as simple as copying a master’s work to reproduce something great, or so she understood.

So as disciples presented their end-of-year projects, a wide variety of medicines and talismans, Ling Qi kept a polite front of attention while her thoughts wandered. Once she was done here, she would visit Xiulan and congratulate her. After that, would she have time to stop by her mother’s house in the village? She supposed it would depend on how long this exam took. If not, she would have to send Mother a note and give her the good news after the party tonight.

As she considered her crowded schedule, the exam proceeded, one presentation after another passing by. Elder Su remained neutral throughout, showing no approval or disapproval to the nervous disciples.

She glanced over at Su Ling as the other girl leaned forward and then back down at the competitors. It looked like Su Ling’s other friend was up. The pudgy boy was waxing poetic about his project; the thick, paired books weren’t flashy, but apparently they were linked and would remain so even at significant distance. The spiel about its benefits didn’t seem all that impressive to her, but then again, she was pretty sure Cai Renxiang’s book of Imperial tax law was somewhere in the range of fifty kilograms of paper, wood, and leather. So maybe a creation that would record transactions and finances and automatically calculate taxes and fees would actually be pretty helpful.

Ling Qi wondered who would be doing the actual scoring. Elder Jiao was the head of the Talisman Department, so presumably he was lurking about somewhere, and Elder Su would obviously be involved. Perhaps the other judges would be the Sect Head or Elder Ying? But she didn’t even know if the judges would announce the results immediately. A competition like this was probably hard to judge compared to the relatively straightforward result of a series of fights.

Ling Qi found a frown creeping onto her lips as Fu Xiang’s turn came up as the sixth ranked disciple. Her relationship with the older boy was complicated. She didn’t see him as an enemy, but she couldn’t really see him as a friend either. She was glad Li Suyin had beaten him.

Fu Xiang’s project was a communications array. Sets of linked mirrors in various sizes would allow two people to converse across long distances and even record short messages, among other features.

Soon enough, Li Suyin’s turn came, and although her friend looked a little pale as she was brought to stand before Elder Su, she still stood confidently beside her project.

“Disciple Rank Five, Li Suyin,” Elder Su greeted as the floor stopped moving. “Do you swear that your project is your own work?” she asked. She had asked that of every disciple thus far.

“I do,” Li Suyin answered, her head bowed in respect.

The Elder gave a tiny nod of acknowledgement, as she had done every time before. “Then raise your head, and present your work.”

“Thank you very much, Elder Su,” Li Suyin replied, taking a deep breath to steady herself. She turned toward the table beside her and carefully picked up a silver pill case. Flicking its latch open with her thumb, she opened the case, and a faint silvery mist leaked out, forming strange geometric patterns in the air as it dissolved. Laying within the case were three pills the size of a thumb, each one sparkling under the light of the room. They resembled nothing more than balls of liquid silver.

“My project consists of two parts. First are these pills, which I have dubbed Argent Web Pills.” Li Suyin swallowed then, glancing at Elder Su. “I hope the name is not presumptuous.”

“We will see,” Elder Su said noncommittally, her eyes focused on the medicine in Li Suyin’s hands.

Li Suyin waited a beat to be sure that the elder would not continue speaking. “The primary ingredients are the fluid found at the base of the mountain’s Argent Vents and the spirit core of Moon’s Eye White Condor,” she continued, slowly building confidence as she spoke. Setting the case down, she plucked one pill from its resting place and placed it in her mouth, pausing her speech long enough to swallow. “When taken, the pill spreads its medicinal energies throughout the user’s one hundred and eight primary meridians. At this potency, it only affects the lesser fifty four.”

Li Suyin then grasped the leather-wrapped handle of the odd bone instrument that was presumably the second part of her project. Looking closely, Ling Qi noted that it wasn’t bone but some kind of white chitin, and the wider end was wrapped tightly in a thick layer of spider silk. Squinting, she could see that there was a hole carved in the chitin beneath the silk, containing several marble-sized lumps.

“The medicinal energies cling to the impurities which fill unopened meridians, and if left alone, they will eventually cause painful swelling and minor lesions across the body,” Li Suyinsaid matter-of-factly, carefully shaking back her sleeve to expose her pale forearm. “However, by applying the Impurity Devourer to the appropriate part of the body,” she said, pressing the silk-wrapped end of the device against her own arm and gritting her teeth, “the talisman will apply significant pull to the medicinal energies, not only putting the vast majority into the desired channel, but also…” Suyin winced, slowly moving the device up and down her arm from elbow to wrist. “With some minor discomfort, it will draw much of the channel’s impurities out through the pores.”

“I see,” Elder Su said, her eyes following the motion of the talisman. “Precisely how much would you say?”

“R-roughly fifty percent,” Li Suyin answered, losing her confident tone briefly as she finally lowered her arm. The round lumps beneath the silk were darker and more visible now, and the white silk had some faint gray stains. “Many impurities remain too heavy or thick to draw out through the skin with the talisman.”

“Side effects?” the elder questioned.

“A lingering soreness and sensitivity in the affected area,” Li Suyin replied promptly. “In addition, certain components require cleansing and replacement with repeated use.”

“Hardly something unknown in our field,” Elder Su commented mildly, which caused Li Suyin’s expression to brighten. “Very well. A fine display, young lady,” she said, moving back onto the script she had used in previous entries. “Please step back.”

Ling Qi was happy for her friend. Even she had been starting to have some trouble with opening meridians before she had gotten access to the White Room, she could only imagine how much making the process faster by half would help others. Li Suyin would get a spot into the Inner Sect with a project like that.

The remaining presentations went by quickly enough. Yan Renshu, who was ranked third after the crafting preliminaries, presented a series of medicines which greatly increased the growth rate of lower grade spirit beasts. The second ranked disciple, an unassuming boy named Du Feng, presented a flying carpet. Well, flying was a bit much; it hovered a set distance above the ground and moved at the pace of a swift third realm horse. Still, it was impressive.

Xuan Shi, the highest ranked disciple, presented his constructs. Ling Qi was glad that the ducal scion wasn’t participating in the combat tournament. The talismans made by Xuan Shi worked in sets of three and reactively defended against attacks, almost like a defensive domain weapon. However, with each attack they blocked, they would grow stronger against techniques of the same element. With enough sets chained together, he claimed they could defend a whole troop of men or even the hull of a small ship or a fortress gate.

With the last presentation over, Elder Su announced the end of the testing. The results would not be announced until tomorrow.

Ling Qi caught Li Suyin’s eye again as the crowd was released to mingle with the disciples, offering her friend an encouraging smile. As she and Su Ling rose to their feet though, her friend’s attention was quickly drawn away by the approach of an older gentleman with a rather luxurious beard, and he wasn’t the only one queing up to speak with her friend.

“Well, I guess she made a good impression,” Su Ling noted, looking down at the sight. Suyin wasn’t the only one with a bevy of older cultivators looking to speak with them, but she was one of the more popular of the crafting competitors.

Ling Qi was happy for her friend of course, but it looked like she would have to wait some time before being able to speak with Li Suyin. Ling Qi would just have to visit her mother after the gathering tonight.

***

“Congratulations, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi said with a smile as she approached her friend. They had to wait for some time to reach her, but Ling Qi thought that it was worth it to see her friend so clearly happy. “There is no way that you will fail to make the Inner Sect with something like that.”

“I do not want to be arrogant,” Li Suyin demurred, but she could not wholly hide her smile. “It does seem to have been well received though,” she continued brightly. “I am glad you had time to see my competition, Ling Qi. I am sorry I was not able to return the favor.”

“You haven’t missed too much yet,” Ling Qi said. “My real fight is going to be tomorrow, I think.” She wanted to ask her friend how things had gone with her family, but this wasn’t the place for that. Suyin’s mood gave her the answer she needed anyway.

“She’s right. It’s easy to forget how strong this girl is,” Su Ling huffed, glancing at Ling Qi. “You worked out the thing with the ‘pearls’ then?”

“The volatility is much reduced, yes,” Li Suyin answered, clasping her hands. “Your advice on the matter was invaluable.”

“Don’t go leaving me out here,” Ling Qi cut in dryly, heeding the nudge from Sixiang to keep her friends from getting into technical talk here. “How long is the waiting list going to be before I can get one by the way?”

“Well…” Li Suyin began, a fretful note in her voice. Su Ling coughed into her hand, giving their mutual friend a meaningful look. “It will be some time before more devices are ready. Gathering materials is somewhat time-intensive,” Li Suyin finished.

“Well, just let me know if I can help,” Ling Qi said easily. “I’d like to earn a discount if I could.”

“Thank you, Ling Qi,” her friend replied after a moment. “I will be sure to let you know when we prepare the next expedition.”

Ling Qi raised her eyebrows, glancing between her two friends. “Expedition? Just what have you two been up to?”

“Senior Sister Bao provided direction, so…” Li Suyin trailed off as Su Ling met her eyes.

“Probably not the best place,” the fox girl said gruffly.

“Of course,” Ling Qi said, chagrined, glancing at the crowd all around them. “I forget myself.”

“Please do not trouble yourself,” Li Suyin reassured her. “I am looking forward to spending more time with you again, Ling Qi.”

“It has been awhile since we have had our study sessions, hasn’t it?” Ling Qi said after a moment, remembering those first months at the Sect, working out the bare basics of cultivation with Li Suyin. “I will look forward to it as well.”

“Hopefully, it won’t be as exciting as the last time I went out with you,” Su Ling interjected dryly.

“Hopefully,” Ling Qi agreed. “Congratulations again, Li Suyin. We should probably move on though. We don’t want to hold things up too long.”

“Of course,” Li Suyin acknowledged. “I will be cheering for you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Li Suyin,” Ling Qi replied formally, offering an appropriate bow. “Farewell for now.”

As she and Su Ling began to work their way out of the building, the other girl spoke up. “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing you act like that.”

Ling Qi directed her attention toward Su Ling without turning her head as they made their way out of the entrance hall and into the plaza. “Does it bother you?”

“Not anymore,” Su Ling said. “It’s just the way things are, isn’t it? Like the changing of the seasons. Maybe I should start reading Suyin’s books on etiquette.”

“You could always get some points together and hire me as a tutor next year,” Ling Qi quipped, not bothering to hide her grin.

“Shove off,” Su Ling replied with a huff. “... Take care of yourself next year,” she added.

“I plan to,” Ling Qi said. “You too, you know?”

“Alone with assholes around every corner?” Su Ling laughed. “Sounds like home.”

“You’re not going to be alone.” Ling Qi rolled her eyes.

“I know,” the other girl said, shaking her head. “In any case, see you later, Ling Qi.”

“See you,” Ling Qi agreed as they parted ways at the gates.

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