“Will you cease your fidgeting?” Gu Xiulan chided irritably, working her hairbrush through the veritable bird’s nest that the other girls hair had become.
Ling Qi grimaced and stilled herself, clutching the arms of the chair she was seated in with a white knuckled grip. “Sorry, not used to this,” she replied stiffly.
“So I gathered,” Gu Xiulan replied haughtily. At least the other girl was less tense than she had been earlier, while Gu Xiulan had been applying the rejuvenating elixir. She supposed that it was good to know that Ling Qi was so weak to physical contact. It was important to know the flaws in allies as well as enemies after all.
That was rather the point after all. From what she had observed, Ling Qi was rather easy to manipulate. A small show of equitable treatment and a few stones spent on charity were enough to cement a positive relationship. She was rather glad that she had restrained her more aggressive instincts in that regard.
Mother would be proud of her, she was sure, Gu Xiulan thought smugly as she fought the mess the other girl had made of her hair. It was just good sense to acquire those of good talent. Gu Xiulan had always wanted a handmaiden of her own after all.
“Are you sure we can’t leave it at this for today?” Ling Qi asked, squirming a bit in her seat.
“What did I just say?” Gu Xiulan replied. “This will be for naught if we leave things half done.”
Besides, there was a certain amusement to this. Gu Xiulan had no younger sisters, but doing this did remind her of time spent with younger cousins. She smirked at the memory of little Xu-Xu complaining while she put ribbons in his hair and used him as a dummy for testing her cosmetics.
Ling Qi was certainly oddly childish about this kind of thing, for all that she had proved a competent cultivator. Gu Xiulan chalked it up to the pride of the deprived. Many lesser clans in Golden Fields that had not recovered as well as the Gu still refused the trappings of civilization, as if they were somehow better for choosing to act like filthy sand diggers, barely better than roving beggers and bandits.
Well Ling Qi was sensible enough not to be stubborn about it, which was one thing that she liked about the other girl. Though she came across as a bit of a cringing coward at times, Gu Xiulan had seen the ruthless pragmatism that lay at the core of her. Though her father had taught her the methods to strike at the body to inflict maximum pain, and her mother had taught her the art of honing word and gesture into weapons, their lessons agreed on one thing. Once one had decided what they wanted, achieving that goal came before everything else.
Honor, face, and prestige were useful tools, but that was all that they were. She suspected that Ling Qi knew that lesson well, even if she hadn’t the skill with the tools Gu Xiulan’s parents had given her.
Gu Xiulan pursed her lips as she at last pulled the brush free, eyeing Ling Qi’s still curled locks with a critical eye. This was probably as good as could be achieved today. It would take more applications of elixir to straighten her hair entirely. “Well, I suppose that will have to do.”
She did not comment at the way Ling Qi brightened up. Really the girl could be such an open book. They would have to work on that. Gu Xiulan would just have to keep heckling her she supposed. “Really? Ah, thank you for your help Xiulan,” she hurriedly amended her excited declaration.
“Now, now, I did not say we were done,” she replied sweetly, laying her hands on Ling Qi’s shoulders. “There are a few braiding techniques you should learn first. You need to be able to take care of your own appearance after all.”
Ling Qi pressed her lips together, clearly restraining a grimace. “Alright, well that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, friends are supposed to do that kind of thing for each other sometimes, right?”
“Why of course,” Gu Xiulan replied smoothly. Ones immediate retainers and maids were often the ones a noble was closest with after all. She knew that she cared more for Mother’s head maid than she did for her actual aunts after all. She would have to work on Ling Qi’s vocabulary though.
“I wonder if Bai Meizhen would let me help her,” Ling Qi muttered.
Gu Xiulan felt her smile freeze for a moment. That was the biggest problem with her plan. Ling Qi was tied to the Bai scion, and if it came down to opposing her or allowing her plan to fail there was only one choice. Pursuing a goal with ones full abilities did not mean being willing to dive into a poisonous oasis for it. Still she thought her chances good. The Bai were an insular bunch, they rarely recruited their households from those outside their branch clans. “Perhaps,” Xiulan said, not letting her concern enter her voice. “In any case, are you ready to begin?”
Ling Qi nodded firmly, and Gu Xiulan grinned, plucking thoughtfully at Ling Qi’s hair. “Hmm where shall we begin then…”
“Nothing too complex I hope,” Ling Qi replied looking back over her shoulder.
“Of course not, there is no use in moving directly to advanced forms when the student doesn’t even have the stances down,” Gu Xiulan replied haughtily. “Well, perhaps the swordmaiden’s braid would be the simplest starting point, Neither of us has the art or skill for maintaining the more complex patterns in a fight…”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Ling Qi replied dryly, and Gu Xiulan narrowed her eyes at the slight jibe. Yes, Ling Qi was one to keep.
“As you should,” she replied with a sniff. “Well to begin with, gather your hair at the nape of your neck…” Gu Xiulan began, keeping her motions slow so that Ling Qi could follow.
It was good to have a subordinate one could unwind with.