Slowly, Ling Qi found consciousness returning to her, the foggy logic of dreams segueing into the solidity of waking. She didn’t have long to contemplate her dreams.
<Big Sister is awake!> Zhengui’s excited thoughts blasted away the remnants of sleep. <Did you see it, Big Sister! I caught him! I did! Even after he kicked me!>
<I saw,> Ling Qi thought groggily. An immaterial nudge from Sixiang brought her to awareness of the other presence in her room. <You did great, little brother. Just give me a moment.>
Opening her eyes, she looked to the side, her eyes drawn by the light shining down on her face. Cai Renxiang looked back at her, expression neutral. The girl was seated at her bedside, hands folded neatly in her lap. “I see the medical apprentice’s estimates were correct,” she said.
“My apologies for not offering the proper respect,” Ling Qi responded, peering up at the other girl. That unsettling emptiness remained, but it seemed lesser. Perhaps that was merely wishful thinking though. “Your own match went well then?”
“You are excused,” Cai Renxiang said. “My duel with the Gu daughter was completed honorably with my victory.”
Ling Qi paused, an awkward silence forming between them. “Lady Cai,” she began, glancing around the empty room. “Are you well?”
The girl’s gaze sharpened, her brows drawing together as she frowned. “Is it so obvious?”
“Perhaps not to everyone,” Ling Qi replied carefully. “You seem troubled.”
Her liege’s expression twisted into a grimace. “No doubt Mother has already planned for my showing of distress,” she muttered, more to herself than Ling Qi. “I can only hope that she does not see it as meriting punishment regardless.”
Ling Qi looked away, feeling a twisting in her stomach. That helpless feeling. She hated it, but there was nothing she could do for the other girl in this situation. “I do not think you were lacking in composure,” she posited, looking back. “You said your match went well?”
“I granted Gu Xiulan the appropriate mercy for a lower ranked potential ally, and she understood the situation,” Cai answered, her expression evening out. “As I had been instructed.”
Ling Qi felt some of her worry drop away. “I believe you should be fine. It was only my familiarity and proximity which allowed me to see your mood.”
The other girl nodded stiffly. “I see. I suppose there is no purpose in fretting now. In any case, I wished to ensure you were well. You have done honor to my name and yours today.”
Ling Qi’s lips twitched upward in the ghost of a smile. “You are too kind, Lady Cai. I only performed as expected.”
To her relief, the corner of the heiress’ lips quirked up as well. “Quite so. A mere ruffian could hardly be expected to keep up with your dance.”
Despite the cheer in her expression, Ling Qi did not feel very happy. Clear of distractions, she had finally understood why the look in the girl’s eyes had unsettled her. It was a look she remembered well from her earlier life, looking on bruised and downcast faces, one that she had feared that she would also wear one day. It was wrong for Cai Renxiang to look like that.
Pushing those dismal thoughts away, Ling Qi continued smiling, but she could tell that Cai had noticed her troubled thoughts. “I am glad I did not fail to live up to your expectations, Lady Cai.”
“Yes,” the heiress replied, giving her a searching look. “My expectations,” she said. Her frown returned, and with it, that unsettling hurt. “On the morrow, you should know that it is acceptable for you to surrender once the princess has struck you a solid blow.”
Ling Qi blinked, surprised at the almost unnoticeable edge of concern in Cai’s voice. When she smiled, it was more genuine this time. “Thank you, Lady Cai. But I intend to continue until I am unable.”
Cai Renxiang closed her eyes for a moment. “You must wish to see Bai Meizhen savage me.”
“I am a big girl,” Ling Qi replied with an almost petulant huff. “Bai Meizhen will understand my resolve.”
“I suppose she might, at that.” Cai Renxiang shook her head. “Very well. I will not gainsay you on this.”
“I don’t want her to win,” Ling Qi admitted. “Even if I can’t beat her. Every trick she uses on me is one that she cannot surprise either of you with.”
“I see,” the other girl replied. “Then I commend you on your resolve. You have no obligations to me tonight, so feel free to rest as you need.”
“I am still feeling sluggish.” Ling Qi sighed. Her ribs which had been broken, still felt numb and her whole midsection tingly. “Are any of my other friends here?” she asked, only to wince at her slip.
Cai Renxiang did not respond to it, her expression not changing, but the light radiating from her shifted, sending the shadows in the room dancing. “Gu Xiulan is recovering as you are. The other two girls went to attend the ceremony for the winners of the production tournament.”
Of course Meizhen couldn’t openly visit her, Ling Qi thought a touch bitterly. Her dark thoughts were banished by the feeling of Zhengui’s warmth in her thoughts, her little brother snuggling close at the feel of her discomfort. “Are there any events I should know about tonight?”
“You are free of obligation, as I said,” Cai Renxiang repeated. “If you wish it however, there will be an event allowing our seniors in the Inner Sect to meet and mingle with us. There will be another post-tournament after the rankings have been announced.”
Ling Qi hummed. In truth, she wasn’t looking forward to another social event, and she had not gotten to cultivate in days. There was not enough time for a proper session, but perhaps in meditating on her matches thus far, she could refine her techniques, if only a little. Her match with Sun Liling loomed.
“I will leave you to your choice,” her liege said, standing up with a rustle of cloth. Smoothing her gown, she moved toward the door. “Be well, Ling Qi.”
“You as well, my lady,” Ling Qi replied, watching the girl go. “... And hang in there. The tournament is coming to an end soon.”
Cai Renxiang paused at the door, looking back. “As you say,” she replied, her voice stiff and a touch awkward.
Then she was gone, and Ling Qi was left to her thoughts.
Ling Qi let her eyes drift shut, relaxing into the comfortable softness of the bed beneath her. She had been doing her duty thus far, meeting people, attending events, and acting like a proper lady or something close anyway.
<You don’t give yourself enough credit. You’ve held up pretty well,> Sixiang teased.
<Yes! Big Sister is great!> Zhengui agreed, though it was clear he didn’t really understand what she was thinking about.
Ling Qi let out a small laugh under her breath. “The point is, I think I’ve earned an afternoon off,” she said aloud. “No one can blame me for getting a little cultivation in.”
<Sure,> Sixiang said, amused. <You shut-in.>
Ling Qi let out a snort. “Quiet, you. I’m diligent is all.”
<Zhengui will cultivate too, so he can protect Big Sister tomorrow!> her little brother cut in excitedly.
Ling Qi did her best to mask the spike of worry at the thought, instead surrounding the young spirit with a feeling of encouragement. No matter what, they were going to be going through a lot of pain tomorrow.
<I’ll leave you two workaholics to it,> Sixiang said faintly, fading back into the back of her thoughts.
Giving only a slight nod in response, Ling Qi turned her mind inward toward the flows of her qi and the cycles of energy within her body. Slowly, awareness of the outside world faded away, sequestered to a corner of her thoughts, and taking with it, her sense of time. It was no wonder that older cultivators could vanish into meditation for years, decades, or even centuries. Even back in the second realm, hours could vanish in a flash and whole days could go by if she weren’t careful. She suspected that the feeling of distorted time would only grow with her cultivation. These thoughts were but distractions though.
She began to cycle the energy in her dantian, sending her thoughts racing along her opened meridians with the flow of her spirit. She could feel the marks left by her injuries, faded by the power of the Sect’s medicine, a jagged feeling, where her ribs had fractured, and a messy snarl in her abdomen where lightning had surged through her still fragile organs.
She understood now why Elder Jiao had mentioned the possibility of her going into shock. Her stomach and viscera had received ruinous electrical burns, and although her reflexive qi flows had allowed the damage to be ignored, it would have grown worse with time. She might have been unconscious for the rest of the day.
Thinking of her wounds turned her thoughts to her defense and her actions in her last fight. She had stood her ground against Ji Rong, accepting blows instead of retreating and dodging, as was usual for her, changing her tempo in an effort to throw off whatever counters he might have devised to her usual flight tactics.
Thousand Ring Fortress had allowed her to do so, if at cost. Ling Qi had somewhat conflicted feelings on the art, if she was honest. It was definitely powerful, its quality incontestable, and yet it was at odds with so much of her skillset. No, rather, the personal portion of the art was. The ability to toughen her allies so greatly was a potent tool in her usual tactics. Briefly, she wondered how Gan Guangli would have fared with such an art bolstering everyone. Perhaps if he had passed, she would have faced him today.
Letting that thread of thought drift away, Ling Qi turned her thoughts back to the simmering channels of vital qi that flowed through her spine and spread outward from her heart. She changed the cycling of her qi from the basic exercise of the Eight Phase Ceremony to the more rigid and regimented practice demanded by the Thousand Ring Fortress. Subsuming her thoughts into the pulses of qi, she allowed all other thoughts to fade.
Unyielding vitality. The core of the Thousand Ring Fortress art, a defense that would grow back more quickly than it could be damaged and could weather any storm or assault. Even if it broke under siege, so long as a single chunk remained, the fortress could return to full strength in time, just as a forest could regrow from a single seed. She had not mastered it yet, so some portions of that power were missing.
Yet its defense was rigid and unbending. It belonged to the sort of stout arboreal guardians which would shatter before bending, and that was not her. She had played at such, today and in previous training, but in the end, the mindset of holding her ground come what may and refusing to fall back was just too alien. Ground could be surrendered, and people could retreat. It was better to let an enemy push her back and in doing so, overextend themselves than to repulse them with sheer force.
Or so she thought anyway.
To truly change a masterful art such as the Thousand Rings Fortress was beyond her, but perhaps applying its lessons elsewhere was not. In the opening rounds of a battle, she had to choose whether to put her effort into becoming one with shadow and slipping away, risking great damage, or channeling her effort into armor, trading on the certainty of a weakened attack. If that could be solved...
With a new focus, Ling Qi concentrated her thoughts on that idea.
By the time Ling Qi opened her eyes, night had fallen, but she had succeeded. The ability to defend from more potent arts had been etched into the very core of her spirit. It was sloppy, lacking the structure granted by a full art and less efficient than her Ten Ring Defense technique, but with this, she could improve her early defense without having to sacrifice her opening offense to as great a degree.
Sitting up in bed, Ling Qi stretched her arms overhead, feeling invigorated, the last soreness from her wounds having faded. Peering around her temporary room, Ling Qi could not help but smile. On the stand by her bed was a little basket full of flowers, sweets, and distinctly wood-scented pills. The note laying in the center confirmed her thought. Li Suyin had seen that she was deep in cultivation and elected not to disturb her, leaving instead her congratulations and a little victory present.
Ling Qi grinned as she let the first of the pills dissolve on her tongue, the rich flavor spreading as quickly as the vital warmth of the medicinal energy. Perhaps she could improve her efficiency even more by morning like this.