Sima Jiao tapped his foot to the beat of the music echoing through his chambers. It was all horns and drums, full of a frenetic energy. The recording tablet stood upright on the stand to the right of his plush chair. It was an older model, but he found the faint scratchy distortion to the original sound to be superior to the ones made by that upstart Master Ren. The old model changed the images and emotions that it impressed on his thoughts just enough to make something different of the piece. It really was too bad that the musician had been executed so early in his career, he would have liked to see how his style developed.
Putting aside idle musings on music, he inhaled deeply from the pipe between his lips and then breathed out, blowing out a complex symbol of sparkling smoke and squinted up at it, guiding it to join the growing array that hung in the air in front of him. The feedback issue that had been plaguing his latest attempts to improve upon Grandmaster Wu’s work on steering arrays was truly vexing.
“Perhaps you should focus on your toys at a later date dear. You are on duty at the moment,” Xin said from behind him.
Sima Jiao did not do anything so base and mundane as turning his head. Instead, the vast shadow cast by his chair rippled and a single additional eye opened in it’s depths. His presence suffused the entire back half of the room, dozens of eyes gazing upon each of the clairvoyance arrays set up throughout the viewing chamber, showing scenes of battle and petty teenage rivalry that were playing out on the mountain below. In truth, there was no need to make an additional viewpoint at all, but it paid to give his wife direct attention. Especially when she took on that sly tone, the vexatious vixen.
Xin’s avatar lounged distractingly atop a couch of silvery lunar mist, bobbing her head absently to the music as she looked down on the most advanced array, which tracked the overall chances of lethal injury among the barbaric little urchins they were overseeing.
“You know perfectly well that I can do both,” he replied dryly, not bothering to move the lips on his own avatar, his voice rang out instead from multiple sources in the shadow around her.
“But you are not really paying attention,” she chided, giving his newly formed eye an impish smile. “Oh, no one is going to die, but you’re hardly enjoying the show with me.”
“It was entertaining for perhaps the first quarter hour,” he scoffed. “Then it just began to remind me why strict law is such a necessity,” he knew they were taking a lighter touch this year, but the little beasts were going to reduce the mountain to smoking rubble and be forced to live like barbarians in the ruins at this rate. It had almost been enough to make his old instincts stir from slumber.
“It is not so bad as that. Structure rises from anarchy. I am sure the children will manage to find an equilibrium in the coming days,” his wife replied musingly. “I can feel the first ripples propagating into the future already.”
“I shall take your word for it,” Sima Jiao replied. For his part, he expected that the path was rather clear, given the pieces in play, but teasing the details of approaching events out had always been her talent. He began to turn the greater part of his attention back to his developing array. His wife was clearly up to something, but if she wished to draw him into her meddlesome plotting she would have to try a bit harder.
“That Ling girl is doing well so far,” Xin interrupted again. “She’s begun to master both of her arts and won a duel. She was out shopping with a friend using her spoils while the rest were scrabbling. It was quite adorable.“
He grunted in response. That one was talented, but so were all the commoners brought in, the ministry wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. Heavens knew that was one policy he had supported whole heartedly. Left to fester in squalor those sorts inevitably became trouble, shaping themselves into engines of ever greater destruction and chaos the longer they survived. Much better to nip it in the bud and bring them into the system early, before one needed an entire squad of Ministry Agents to bring the boot down on some power mad would be neo-sage emperor. With the conscription program they could get suppressed, snapped up by a clan, or made new nobility.
“Nothing particularly special about that one. If she doesn’t end up a retainer to the Bai, she’ll spend her life building up a village somewhere in the back end of the province,” he added, knowing that his wordless reply wouldn’t be sufficient.
“That is hardly fair,” Xin protested. “She has the potential to be a core disciple in the future with a little good fortune.”
She got like this sometimes, attaching her attention to a disciple. They always ended up a disappointment.
“I heard that,” Xin replied with narrowed eyes, and Jiao cursed silently at his lack of care with his thoughts. “Really, you impossible man, just get over here and watch things with me.”
Sima Jiao silently raised his eyes to the ceiling, stopping short of offering a plea to the great spirits. It would hardly do him any good, given his wife’s lineage. She was obviously going somewhere with this, and wouldn't allow him his peace until he humored her. Instead the man in the chair and the chair itself dissolved into smoke and shadow, and he reformed a body atop the couch next to Xin, who sat up to make room.
He was reminded why he bothered with his body at all as she leaned against his shoulder and slipped an arm around his waist. A glance down at her slyly grinning face told him that she knew perfectly well what he was thinking, even if he had shrouded his thoughts properly. Sima Jiao simply rolled his eyes at her antics, even as he loosed his hold on his spirit and allowed it to mesh with her own spiritual self, tinging the rooms shadows with silver.
“Show me what I’ve missed then,” Sima Jiao said, gesturing at the array.
“It is not so much what you have missed, but what you would have missed. Someone is about to drop a stone in the stream,” Xin laughed, resting her cheek against his shoulder. She gestured toward the array, and Jiao eyes, all of them, widened as information began to pour through their connection. Future paths, some dying, never to be, and others blooming into new possibility. White hair and mist, radiance and blood.
Sima Jiao, esteemed Elder of the Argent Sect, Head of the Talisman department, dropped his face into his hands and let out the groan of a man who had just seen his workload double.
Xin just laughed and laughed.