The streets of the town below seemed almost like rivers of fog from the balcony Minister Xiao stood upon. The damp mist which tended to engulf everything at this time of year was certainly not the best feature of this far-flung province of the empire; it had a certain aesthetic beauty. A rustic charm to make such an isolated place feel worth it, he supposed.
...As long as one could quickly return to the dry warmth of their hearth and the comforts therein. He doubted those who had the misfortune of needing to be out and about today could appreciate the beauty. The weather would certainly not help shake off the current lull in trade, either. The Argent Peak Sect would be holding its introduction for new disciples today after all, as well as the advancement tests for the older ones, which meant the the shops and stalls run by the Sect’s more business-minded disciples would be closed. As a silver lining, at least it meant the various ruffians would be out of town as well. Half the inhabitants would likely be out gawking at the new arrivals and guests. He had heard there were several high born candidates this year, and his people did certainly buy into the propaganda of the heroism and virtue of the nobility. He supposed that was as it should be, but as the one who interacted with them directly…
Minister Xiao only hoped that those children would remain in the Sect and leave the troubles of the Imperial court back at their homes. He was quite pleased to have been given the opportunity to leave that viper’s nest behind, despite the greater physical danger he faced here on the frontier. He’d take the simpler and more easily understood threats of the frontier over the deceptively polite plotting back home, thank you very much.
Shaking off sour memories, the Minister sighed and returned his thoughts to the likely low revenues for the day. Running his fingers through the luxurious, if greying, strands of his beard amidst his musings, he turned away from the view of the city to go back inside. He supposed he could not begrudge the Sect its ostentatious behavior. After all, it was due to their efforts that his town could even exist so close to the border. That said, the younger disciples had a terrible habit of breaking things at times. At least the Sect Elders were dependable in regards to paying restitution… though they were often irritatingly condescending in doing so.
He had greater concerns in any case. His gaze flicked to the side as he re-entered his manor, where one of his attendants stood with a stack of ledgers in his arms a few steps away from the balcony door, and silently gestured for the younger man to follow him. No, the real concern was that this day would also bring an inspection from an agent of the Ministry of Integrity. Their agents were… unsettling at the best of times, and could not be offended at any cost. The previous week had been spent going over his records, double and triple checking the accuracy of his accounts. He had never allowed truly large indiscretions in the decade since he had been appointed to this post, and he would not allow that to change this year.
Still, there was always some young fool of a clerk who thought it possible to get away with skimming from the coffers meant for the Imperial Court. Xiao had one such unfortunate young man in the towns cells now, ready to hand over to the Agent when they arrived. It was unfortunate for such a talented young man to meet his end over such a trifle, but corruption was not tolerated in the slightest by the current Imperial Court. It was certainly a far thing from the light hand disciples received for all but the most serious crimes. He was assured by the Elders that punishments for such things were a serious matter, but he sometimes doubted that given some of the repeat offenders over the years. Of course, there were things even a Great Sect could not protect a disciple from, such as the assault or murder of an official like himself, or other serious crimes.
Hopefully there was nothing which had escaped his notice and the Agent could quickly be on their way without any other members of his bureaucracy needing to disappear.
Zhu Qing strode down the misty street, hands clasped behind her back, never needing to so much as slow her steps to avoid the early morning foot traffic. The sight of her plain black and silver gown, white streaked hair fluttering in a nonexistent breeze, and the featureless white jade mask was enough to cause all those before her to give way with a hasty bow and a murmured apology. All was as it should be.
She was fairly pleased with this town. Since she had been assigned as its inspector by the Ministry, not once had she been forced to take any truly drastic action. The mortal bureaucrats were hard working, honest, and obedient to the edicts of the Imperial Court, and its governing minister was a virtuous man.
Meanwhile, the nobles and ministers of the more central provinces assumed far too often their prosperity and position granted them the right to defy Imperial law. Perhaps the difficult life on the border did not afford the time for such indiscretions, or perhaps the policies of the new ruling clan could be credited.
The Agent smiled behind her mask. Not that the Cai were without flaw. No one was, mortal or otherwise.
She knew the minister had caught a thief already, due to the informants she had in his manor, and she was pleased to know that Minister Xiao was as proactive as ever. She would still need to inspect everything personally, of course. The man was only mortal, and he would miss things. She was confident that he need never feel the touch of her Reaper though. The man was too sensible for that.
The thought caused the spirit bound within her to stir, its icy qi pulsing through her spinal meridians for a moment and intensifying the phantom breeze that blew around her person. A man who had the misfortune to be passing by her at that moment shuddered, face paling. He took one look at the frost forming in the wake of her footsteps before quickly hurrying away from the Agent. For her part, she did not spare the mortal laborer a glance, quickly quelling her spirit with ease of long practice. Death aspected spirits were nearly always the most difficult to control, and binding the Reaper had been among the most difficult tests for entry into the Ministry.
Zhu Qing’s gaze drifted to the mountains that towered over the town as she recalled her own days as a disciple of the Argent Peak Sect. It had been an enjoyable time, full of youthful indiscretion, and she still thought fondly of it even now. It was one reason she was glad for the sensibility of the local minister. She would hate for her yearly return to be stained by anything truly… unpleasant. The accountings required for major purges were terribly tedious and time consuming after all.
As it was, she looked forward to completing her inspection so that she could visit her junior sister for tea. It had been too long since she had seen the other woman, who was often out at the more far-flung border forts fighting barbarians. She had been assured in their last correspondence that her friend would be home this year though.
After that would come the meeting with the Sect Head, which she was looking forward to substantially less. He would likely be less than pleased with the response to his funding request, but sadly as much as Zhu Qing wished to see her old home prosper, she knew that the Empress’ opinion differed on this matter.
The Argent Peak was a major sect in this region, but at court, it was considered to be one of the less crucial points in the empire’s defense. With the stirring of the barbarians in the north and west, and the difficulty in reining in the western lords themselves, it simply was not the top priority. Perhaps if the Sect had managed to produce a good crop of Ministry or Imperial Guard candidates, she could have spoken to her superiors on the matter.
There was little to do about it for the moment, though. Zhu Qing knew her duty must as always come before personal feelings.