Ling Qi’s next week began with a paper crane fluttering through her window to deposit a letter on the desk in the corner of the room, startling her from her early morning meditation. She stared blankly after the paper construct as it darted back out of the window. It hit her a moment later, and she immediately felt terrible for forgetting.

She had sent a letter to Mother, hadn’t she? Between the egg, the upcoming meeting with Cai Renxiang, and all of her training, she hadn’t even really given it any thought since then. She eyed the neatly folded paper resting on her desk with trepidation. She wasn’t even sure how to feel about the fact that her mother had responded.

She assumed that was what the letter was anyway. Who else would be sending her a letter? Ling Qi padded over, scanning the characters neatly written on the coarse paper of the envelope, but it was just her name and location. She supposed it was possible this was something else entirely.

She hesitated again before plucking the letter from her desk and breaking the plain wax seal. She wouldn’t get anywhere from staring at it all day. Ling Qi felt a twinge of melancholy as she carefully unfolded the cheap paper, revealing meticulously neat handwriting.

Ling Qi,

I too am somewhat at a loss. What does one say to a daughter I thought long dead or worse? What does one say to a daughter who found me so poor a parent that she preferred the gutter to my hearth? How many months did I search and seek, hoping to find you again, hoping you had not met some awful fate?

Yet you remained like the wind, ever beyond my reach, and in the end, I had no choice but to give up… as I always have. In a way, it is perhaps fitting that you ran away. It seems you have achieved a far better opportunity than I could have ever hoped to give you. I am glad you are alive. I know little of the doings of Immortals, but I can only hope that you are healthy and happy.

I do not know what else can be said. I thank you for your gift and will accept it. I do not deserve it - poor parent that I am - yet given circumstances as they are, I cannot in good conscience allow myself to refuse it either. I can offer you nothing in return save my well wishes.

You owe me nothing, my daughter. Please do not feel any obligation toward me. Stay safe and live well.

Ling Qingge

Ling Qi stared down at the paper with warring feelings. She felt guilt and sadness at the melancholy that seemed to have infected her mother in the intervening years, but at the same time, she felt happiness at the simple fact that her mother was still alive and able to write back to her.

Carefully folding the letter, she placed it back on her desk and sat down on her bed. Breathing in and out, she returned to her meditation, turning over what had been written in her mind. What were the circumstances that lead her mother to accept the silver? Had she simply lost her ‘job’? What had she meant about it being fitting that Ling Qi ran away? Her mother’s habit of making indirect statements hadn’t changed since last they talked.

Was the indirectness purposeful? Her memories of the woman had somewhat faded at this point, but she recalled that her mother had not been unskilled at wordplay. She didn’t like to think badly of Mother, but was she being vague to encourage Ling Qi to continue writing and sending silver? Would Ling Qi be upset if she was? Ling Qi thought the depression exuded in the letter was genuine at least.

Ling Qi continued to cycle her qi and breath in time with the pulsations of her internal energies. She would continue sending the silver regardless, but she needed to think of what she wanted to say before sending another letter.

She left her house a few hours later. Han Jian and the others were going to make their first attempt at hunting today, and she wanted to get to the training field early so that she could ask Han Jian some questions. Of all her friends and friendly acquaintances, she felt that Han Jian would be able to give her the most unbiased view of her situation in regards to Cai Renxiang. She had no doubt Meizhen would answer her questions, but the other girl had some rather skewed views in certain areas.

Thankfully, Han Jian was present at the field early as was his wont. He seemed to be engaged in a silent debate with Heijin, staring down at the gold-furred tiger cub with a frustrated look as she entered the field.

“- do you think I am doing? What more do you want from me?” Ling Qi caught the tail end of his words as she passed through the barrier around the field and paused as she heard the uncharacteristic heat in them.

Han Jian stiffened as he met Ling Qi’s eyes, but before he could say something, Heijin turned away from the boy to pad toward Ling Qi.

The slacker should cease shaming the Han and show his decisiveness,’ the cub’s arrogant little boy voice chimed in her head. ‘I will say no more. Songstress! I require head scratches.

Ling Qi gave the cub a consternated look as he flopped down at her feet, but nonetheless, she crouched down to scratch him behind the ears. It was simpler just to acquiesce in this case lest the cub turn the full force of his sad kitty face upon her or decide to side with Gu Xiulan when the inevitable sparring began.

“Good morning, Han Jian,” she said carefully, looking up from Heijin.

“Good morning, Ling Qi,” Han Jian replied tiredly, the frustration and stress that she had seen on his face smoothed away. “You’re here early today.” Ling Qi could sense the slight undercurrent of gratitude in his tone that she chose not to pursue whatever he and Heijin had been talking about.

“I was hoping to talk to you and get some advice and information,” Ling Qi admitted as Heijin butted his head up against her hand, prompting her to get back to pampering the little feline. “I hope you don’t mind. Bai Meizhen has a ‘unique’ view, and Gu Xiulan is … a little aggressive. You seem like you have a more balanced view.”

She flushed a bit as Han Jian chuckled, giving her an amused look as he crossed his arms. She was trying to be diplomatic, damnit. “Well, I can’t speak on the first, but I can understand the second,” he said. “What’s troubling you, Ling Qi?”

“Everything really. It seems like I’m stumbling blindly through a fog some days,” she admitted. “At that meeting with Cai Renxiang, I kept noticing little cues from Bai Meizhen or Gu Xiulan, but I didn’t understand what they meant and I just feel lost!” Her feelings - frustration, concern about her ignorance - burst out in her words like a flood from a dam. “Bai Meizhen taught me a bit of etiquette, but I feel like I still don’t know anything. Now, Lady Cai has invited me to tea, Bai Meizhen seems unhappy about it, and I don’t even know why she’s unhappy or why everyone seems to dislike Bai Meizhen so much!”

Han Jian’s expression grew more serious and contemplative as he regarded her sympathetically. “You know, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that you’re totally in the dark on a lot of things,” he mused. “Let me ask you bluntly. What IS your relationship with Bai Meizhen?”

“She’s my friend,” Ling Qi said simply, idly stroking the purring kitten at her feet as she looked up at Han Jian. “She’s helped me a lot, and she’s had my back against others. I want to be able to do the same for her.”

He nodded, bemused. “It’s really that simple, huh?” he asked, seemingly rhetorically. “If it makes you feel any better, as far as I know, there’s no particular enmity between the Bai family and Cai family. I can’t speak for anything personal between the two of them, but I don’t believe there’s any more pressure there than Lady Cai’s insistence on being the leader of the council.”

That was relieving, but it cast Bai Meizhen’s reaction to the letter in a more confusing light. Did Meizhen think she was going to leave her behind for Cai or something?

“Alright. So why is Bai Meizhen so disliked? I know her aura is a little unnerving and that her family is not in favor right now, but is it really that bad?” One way or another, her own situation was tied to Meizhen, unless she wanted to break away from the other girl.

Han Jian’s expression tightened at her question. “It… kind of is,” he responded slowly. “I feel like you need some history for context if you’re asking that question though. Are you fine with listening to me ramble on this? We should have some time before the others arrive.”

“Yeah. That’s fine.” Ling Qi really needed to become more knowledgeable; her ignorance wasn’t doing her any favors.

“Alright,” Han Jian said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “You’re familiar with Sun Liling and her status? Well, her great-grandfather, Sun Shao, is at the root of the Bai’s disfavor. This was around four hundred years ago, several decades after Ogodei’s invasion and the formation of the Ministry of Integrity. Things were pretty chaotic at the tail end of Emperor Si’s reign.” Han Jian paused to consider his next words. “I won’t go into the details, but Emperor Si was a very… generous and permissive man. He allowed the noble families a lot of leeway in how they handled things.”

Ling Qi gestured for him to continue while placating Heijin, who had rolled over for belly rubs. She wasn’t sure what this had to do with Bai Meizhen yet.

“Right,” Han Jian said, gaining confidence. “So. At that time, Sun Shao was a highly ranked vassal of the Bai clan with lands at the border between Thousand Lakes and the Garden of the Red Sun. The Garden was a nasty place. The barbarians of the jungles were vicious and cruel, and the great spirit they venerated demanded constant blood sacrifice. Sun Shao was - and still is - a peerless general though so he kept their raids and invasions from touching the province interior for over a century in that role. But one day, he returned from putting down an incursion to find his castle aflame.” Han Jian grimaced. “The people of the Red Sun weren’t kind to captives. Sun Shao lost his wife and all of his children save the two adult sons that had been with him on campaign.”

“That sounds awful,” Ling Qi replied. “But what does that have to do with Bai Meizhen?”

“I’m getting there,” Han Jian reassured her. “Sun Shao was understandably furious. He went to his liege, the patriarch of the Bai clan and the great-grandfather of Bai Meizhen. He asked leave to raise an army to punish the barbarians. Now, Bai Fuxi wasn’t unsympathetic. He granted leave to raise a hundred thousand men and burn every Red Sun settlement east of the River Tiesha.”

Ling Qi blinked. Han Jian said that as if a hundred thousand men wasn’t a ridiculous number of people. That was more than the population of her hometown. Han Jian wasn’t finished speaking though.

“Sun Shao wasn’t satisfied with that. He wanted to push into the interior and raze their temple city of Ramu… Rammad... Ramadh…?” Han Jian shook his head after stumbling over the word several times. “Eh, I can never get those names right,” he grumbled, ignoring the disdainful look from the cub at Ling Qi’s feet. “Point is, he wanted to invade further than the River Tiesha and hold the territory too.”

“I’m guessing Meizhen’s great-grandfather refused?” Ling Qi could see how that would play into the enmity between her and Liling, but she wasn’t sure how it tied into the general disdain for the Bai family.

Han Jian gave her a searching look, and Ling Qi’s eyes widened. She’d slipped and referred to Meizhen with more familiarity than was appropriate. She might have done that once or twice before too, now that she thought about it.

“He wasn’t a fan. The Bai had always refused to send anyone over the river at all, let alone try to hold it,” Han Jian continued after an awkward pause. “Long story short, Sun Shao acted like he accepted the refusal, but he was a charismatic and popular man. After he gathered up the army he was allowed to and went on campaign… he just didn’t come back. In fact, he drew on a lot of the Bai’s more dissatisfied vassals - which was most of them - and increased the army he had fivefold by the time he crossed the river. You have to understand, people of the West really, really hated the people of the Red Sun.”

“That’s basically open rebellion, isn’t it?” Ling Qi asked, confused. She didn’t know much about politics, but she was pretty sure that was some kind of treason. “How does that lead to everyone disliking the Bai?”

“They were never all that popular to begin with,” Han Jian said. “But suffice to say, while the casualties of that campaign were pretty ruinous, when the dust settled, Sun Shao had won and come out of the campaign with a stronger army than any individual province in the Empire could easily muster. His weakest soldiers were third realm at that time. Emperor Si had passed away in the ten years or so that the campaign had gone on. When Bai Fuxi went to Emperor An to have Sun Shao punished in the aftermath, the new Emperor declared that Sun Shao’s actions were just and that it was the Bai who had failed in their stewardship by allowing the Red Suns to do as they pleased for so long, instead of punishing the barbarian scum properly.”

“That didn’t go over well, did it?” Ling Qi asked, starting to see the shape of things.

“Yeah, Bai Fuxi was furious and humiliated,” Han Jian confirmed. “He defied the imperial decree declaring Sun Shao’s pardon and new rank and went after the man himself, along with the clan’s best warriors. But Sun Shao had ascended into White during the campaign, and despite being at the same level himself, Bai Fuxi was killed. That was the start of a lot of Emperor An’s crackdowns on noble power and the expansion of the Ministry and the Sects. There’s been more modern incidents involving the Bai too, but going any further would take us all day. The Bai didn’t have many friends in the first place, and a lot of people who would have been afraid to be their enemies weren’t anymore after the loss of a lot of their top warriors. It doesn’t help that since then, the Bai have been pretty cold with the Throne and the West, on top of losing a lot of influence and power.”

Ling Qi shook her head. It sounded like a real mess already, even with Han Jian skipping a lot of details, but she thought she understood better now.

“Alright,” she said. “What about Cai Renxiang then? Why would she invite me to have tea with her, and how should I handle that?”

“At a guess, the same thing she wanted from me,” Han Jian said dryly. “That girl is ambitious, and she wants a solid hold on authority in the Outer Sect. She’ll likely be probing you to see where you stand in that regard. I made sure she understood that I wasn’t interested in contesting her, but you…”

After a pause for thought, Han Jian continued, “Lady Cai’s pretty likely to try and draw you into her own group, I think. You’re a native of her province and show a lot of talent. She and her Mother are pretty big on snapping up new talents. For example, rumor says that Gan Guangli was a commoner too before Cai Renxiang picked him up, and Duchess Cai has been pretty ‘proactive’ in changing the face of her court with new clans beholden to her.”

The two of them continued chatting until the others arrived, mostly about appropriate behavior and etiquette, filling in the gaps in Ling Qi’s knowledge about how to behave properly in formal situations. Han Jian still seemed distracted and stressed, but she was glad to see some of the tension that had been rising between them fading.

However, the hunting trip that afternoon didn’t go well. No one was particularly familiar with the terrain of the forest, and they ended up getting turned around several times, losing track of the trails they did pick up. Ling Qi wasn’t a great help in that regard, having relied on Su Ling for her previous forays into the wilderness. Without any real success and the bickering that followed, Ling Qi could not help but feel that things weren’t really improving.

A note from Yrsillar

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Alright, this chapter is a bit exposition-y, but we're getting some important background in. Ling Qi can't remain an ignorant street rat forever!

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