Ling Qi found herself struggling to push through to the next plateau of physical ability. She had gone rather light on medicines this week, which she suspected might be part of the reason for her struggle. Her dwindling supply of red stones was beginning to limit what she could do, and the pittance of an allowance from the Sect hardly helped in that regard, only barely covering her expenses for this week alone.
She did not let it bother her too much. She wasn’t entirely sure how to resolve the issue, but she wouldn’t let herself fall behind. Her early morning training with Li Suyin continued apace, and the other girl continued to slowly improve, pushing toward late gold and improving her skill with the needles she had picked up as a weapon.
After a bit of thought, Ling Qi offered Li Suyin and Su Ling a chance to learn Argent Mirror as well. She was unsure about the implications of doing so, but Bai Meizhen didn’t seem to disapprove, despite being present at the vent during her offer. Given her conversation with Han Jian, she suspected that Meizhen thought of those two as people Ling Qi was cultivating as subordinates.
It made sense, considering the aloof but not impolite way Bai Meizhen treated the two of them as compared to Meizhen’s slightly more casual and respectful manner around Gu Xiulan. The idea also wasn't really correct, but she wasn't sure how to go about changing the pale girl’s mind on the subject. She supposed the misconception wasn’t harming anything for the moment.
It had been a little difficult getting them to accept though. Well, it had been difficult getting Su Ling to accept; Li Suyin had simply thanked her with her head down, which was a little concerning… but hopefully, the art itself would help with that. Ling Qi had managed to smooth over Su Ling’s suspicions by asking for help and advice with a few things in return. Bai Meizhen had left some time ago, and Li Suyin was currently meditating, working to clear the channels for Argent Mirror.
“The hells do you want with a kiln?” Su Ling asked in confusion, slouched against a tree at the edge of the clearing. “I never took you for a potter.” The fox tailed girl had filled out a bit over the past months, no longer seeming as gaunt as she had when Ling Qi had first met her, although she remained rather untidy with dirty robe hems and unkempt hair.
“It’s weird, I know, but I need it for a… project,” she answered. “I copied down some notes from the archive. The archive texts mentioned some special materials, and I can’t use the ones in the production hall for my project.” Ling Qi spread her hands helplessly. That was the real problem. She didn’t want to bring the egg to the production hall, and she wasn’t sure the mortal town at the mountain’s base would be able to sell her something that could handle the heat she needed.
Su Ling narrowed her eyes, giving Ling Qi a searching look. “Well, it’s none of my business,” she decided bluntly. “But sure, I can help.” She scowled. “Fatty owes me a couple favors anyway,” she grumbled under her breath.
Ling Qi considered this. She didn’t necessarily know Su Ling very well; ultimately, their only real connection was mutual friendship with Li Suyin. Still, the other girl knew a lot more about beasts than she did; it was the whole reason she had approached her after all.
“It’s an egg,” Ling Qi said, drawing a blank look from the beastial girl. “My project. I got my hands on a spirit beast egg, and the books in the archive say it needs really high, sustained heat to hatch.”
Su Ling blinked, straightening. “Huh, is that so? Yeah, I can see why you can’t use the production hall, even if you had the stones.”
Ling Qi watched Su Ling’s reaction carefully but didn’t notice any signs of greed or envy. Of course, Ling Qi hadn’t mentioned how rare a beast it likely was.
“Speaking of, what can you tell me about beast cores?” Ling Qi asked. “You seem to know what you’re doing with them.” She had seen the other girl grinding cores down into pastes and powders before when she stopped by their cave to walk with the two of them to the vent.
Su Ling shrugged. “I have to be. If you’re looking into beast rearing, you should know that cores are the best food for young spirit beasts, right?” She paused a beat for Ling Qi to give an acknowledging nod. “Same goes for people like me. I can get by on mortal food, but only barely. Least I’m lucky enough that I can handle greens if they have a bit of qi in ‘em,” she said with a tinge of bitterness.
“That makes sense,” Ling Qi said. Was that why Meizhen never ate anything she made? “So, for you, preparing cores was pretty much learning to cook?”
“Kinda,” the other girl replied. “Beast Cores are full of energy, but unless you’re like me or the snake princess, the energy is toxic to humans.”
“Please don’t call her that if she’s around,” Ling Qi said, glancing to the side and half-expecting Bai Meizhen to be standing there looking displeased. She didn’t think Meizhen would approve of an epithet that sounded similar to Sun Liling’s.
Su Ling snorted but didn’t disagree. “Right. Anyway, I can eat the cores and get some benefit, but the main thing you use beast cores for is as the primary ingredient in elixirs. You can’t make an elixir without a beast core, and all the preparation and side ingredients pretty much exist to refine the energy and let a human body take in the beast qi safely,” she explained. “That was my big problem: learnin’ to make elixirs that won’t leave other people throwing up blood.”
Ling Qi grimaced, glad that she hadn’t tried to use any of her beast cores like pills. “How do you know what each core is good for though?” Ling Qi asked. She had several, and she wanted to know what she could do with them.
“Take ‘em to get appraised,” the other girl replied bluntly. “Unless you wanna invest the time in memorizing bestiaries, leave it to the hall staff. I can generally pick stuff out by smell, but that’s not really an option for you. You have something you want me to take a look at?”
Ling Qi flicked her wrist, drawing the core of the mimic worm out of her storage ring. It had lost some luster, and once she had cleaned it off, she had come to see that in ripping it out of the corpse, she had cracked it a little.
“How about this?” Ling Qi asked, holding out the small orb.
Su Ling leaned forward to get a better look and sniffed before wrinkling her nose and gagging.
“Ugh, what the hells,” Su Ling gagged, shoving Ling Qi’s hand away, and scrubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “Fucking gross,” she grumbled, giving Ling Qi a dirty look, which quickly faded into simple irritation. “Wood and water. Reeks like a carcass full of maggots though. I wouldn’t touch the thing, but it’s grade two so even if it’s damaged, you could probably sell it for maybe thirty or forty stones.”
Ling Qi gave her an apologetic look as she placed the core back in storage. “Sorry about that. I should have known that thing's core would be gross too. Do you think you can give me some tips on harvesting cores better?”
Su Ling shrugged. “Yeah, sure. You’re the one handing out arts. I can take the time to give you a few tips.”
Between taking the time to learn from Su Ling, her continued training with Li Suyin, and the slowly improving hunting practice with Han Jian and his group, time passed quickly. Ling Qi soon found herself heading out to the pavilion that Cai Renxiang had requested she come to. Being cautious, she didn’t immediately approach, but as far as she could tell, no one was present except the heiress herself, who sat out in the open on a chair in the center of the stone pavilion, facing the entrance of the area. Cai Renxiang showed no sign of concern or notice as Ling Qi lingered behind one of the stone pillars that marked the edge of the field.
Recalling Han Jian’s words, she doubted that Cai Renxiang would begrudge her a bit of wary scouting before she approached since Cai’s mother was said to favor practicality, but that didn’t mean she wanted to push her luck by being late. So after checking the surroundings, Ling Qi slipped away and came back, this time taking the actual path toward the pavilion.
Ling Qi kept her gait even and her head held high as she approached, doing her best to appear confident despite the jittery feeling in her stomach. She took a deep breath as the girl’s dark eyes fell on her but didn’t flinch or pause. Instead, she came to a stop at the base of the short stairs leading up into the pavillion and bowed low as her quick refresher with Han Jian had reminded her to do.
“Lady Cai, I was honored to receive your invitation.” Ling Qi had been getting more practice with speaking formally lately so the words came easier than she expected.
Cai Renxiang, for her part, remained seated, looking imperiously down at Ling Qi. She sat with one leg crossed over the other, which lead to her shimmering white gown riding up slightly to expose the jewel-studded golden shoes she wore. The small wooden table beside her held a fine porcelain tea set with faint wisps of steam escaping the pot.
“I am glad you chose to accept. I trust you found nothing untoward in your inspection, Ling Qi?” Cai Renxiang asked, a hint of reproval in her commanding voice.
Ling Qi raised her head slightly but didn’t otherwise react. She was reasonably confident the other girl was just testing her reaction and making sure that she knew Cai Renxiang had not been fooled by her sneaking.
“I have no objections,” Ling Qi responded carefully. “I thought it appropriate to make sure that the invitation was not a trap by one abusing your name, Lady Cai.”
“A reasonable concern,” the long-haired girl allowed, one hand resting on her knee. “The chaos of the Outer Sect has not yet settled after all. I would not put such foolishness past the petty, small-minded grudges of your lesser peers. Seat yourself. You are my guest, and I would not leave you standing. I am afraid you will have to pour your own tea; Guangli has more pressing tasks than to play manservant today.”
Ling Qi straightened up and inclined her head gratefully, carefully ascending the steps to sit down at the seat prepared for her.
“It is no trouble,” Ling Qi said, knowing that refusing the other girl’s refreshments would be an insult. Besides, if someone like Cai Renxiang wanted to do something untoward, she would hardly need to resort to something like poisoned tea.
“Would you like me to pour your cup as well, Lady Cai?” Ling Qi asked. It seemed like the polite thing to do, and it didn’t cost her anything to offer.
“It would be appreciated,” Cai Renxiang replied, studying Ling Qi intensely. “I am glad to see that you have some knowledge of how to conduct yourself,” she added in what Ling Qi took as an attempt at a complimentary tone.
“It’s best not to offend others unnecessarily,” Ling Qi said in turn, lifting the teapot gingerly to pour the steaming liquid within into the two cups set out. She blinked as Cai Renxiang leaned forward to take a cup, her eyes drawn down to the bright red butterfly wings splashed across the bosom of the other girl’s gown. Had the embroidery just moved on its own?
“My honored Mother’s work is impeccable, is it not?” Cai Renxiang’s voice shook her out of her contemplation, and Ling Qi flushed as she realized that she had been staring at Cai Renxiang’s chest. The gown’s pattern had definitely shifted just then too.
Ling Qi brought her eyes back to the other girl’s face and took a brief sip from her cup to cover her embarrassment. “It is a very fine gown,” she said hastily. “I did not know your Mother did such work. I would think her too busy.”
“You would be correct for the most part,” Cai Renxiang admitted. “Her work is largely reserved for Empress Xiang and a handful of other clients these days. I am honored beyond words that she would bestow such a gift upon me. But we are not here to speak of such things,” she continued, meeting Ling Qi’s eyes unwaveringly. “Tell me, Ling Qi. What do you see when you look upon the Outer Sect? Do not mind your words, and speak from your heart.”
Ling Qi had a hard time not hunching her shoulders at the sudden inflection of absolute command in the other girl’s voice. She regarded the resplendent girl silently, noting the faint corona of light shining around Cai Renxiang’s head even now. Despite their disparity in status, Ling Qi thought the heiress was speaking earnestly about her desire for plain words.
“For the most part, a bunch of desperate opportunists,” Ling Qi found herself saying bluntly. She thought of Li Suyin’s shattered expectations. “I can’t really criticize, but I can’t say it’s very admirable either. It’s not what people think of when they imagine cultivators, that’s for sure.” . Ling Qi was pretty sure she had caught a slight upward quirk of the severe girl’s lips before it was quickly hidden behind a tea cup.
“An interesting statement. You are right that you cannot criticize. Your background hardly allows for that, bereft of virtue as it is.”
Ling Qi frowned at the other girl, who simply raised an eyebrow.
“Lady Cai, I do not think you would invite me here just to insult me,” Ling Qi said, doing her best to keep the irritation out of her voice but not entirely succeeding. “I won’t apologize for my background. I survived as I could and made the best of the situation. Virtue is a luxury for those not living on the edge of starvation or worse.”
She winced, fearing she might have gone too far there, letting her temper get the better of her. When she raised her eyes from the tabletop though, she found the girl across from her regarding her without disapproval.
“Virtue cannot exist without order, and there is little of that to be found in a city’s gutters,” Cai Renxiang agreed coolly. “I will not dispute that. Do you resent those who rule then? For leaving mortals to suffer in squalor?”
Ling Qi stared down the heiress. She could just reply with some platitude, but she felt like she was doing better for being honest with Cai Renxiang.
“Maybe a little,” Ling Qi admitted. “But in the end, that’s childish. There will never be enough resources for everyone. That’s just the way the world is. Complaining about it is useless.” Ling Qi had thought of such things before, but in the end, she didn’t really feel much resentment toward nobles as a group. Why would she? It was like blaming water for being wet. That was just the nature of power. “I’ll keep my grudges to individuals.”
“Interesting - and rather different from Ji Rong’s answer,” Cai Renxiang said thoughtfully.
“Is that why you had him punished?” Ling Qi asked warily.
The heiress shook her head, sending her long black hair swaying. “No. I asked Xuan Shi to punish him for seizing additional funds on top of his enforcement efforts,” she said flatly. “It is unacceptable for a government officer to profit directly from the fines he assigns. Tolerance of such behavior encourages untoward behavior.”
Ling Qi thought that sounded off. "So... what do you do with the funds then?" she asked dubiously. "I mean, no offense, but not many people on this... council even need red stones."
"At the moment, they are being placed into a fund to take care of expenses that may be incurred in the course of our business," Cai Renxiang replied without pause. "This includes expenses like medical care for those injured while enforcing our rules or the cost of purchasing equipment and hiring other personnel as we expand the scope of our duties. I can supplement such things with my own income, but it is only sensible to use the punitive funds for this purpose."
Ling Qi still wasn't sure she was satisfied with that but decided to let it pass for now. “May I ask, what is it you wished to ask me here for, Lady Cai?” She could feel her patience wearing thin because so far it seemed like the girl was just needling her to get her to answer largely pointless questions.
Cai Renxiang took another small sip of her tea before answering. “I desire order. As you have noted, most cultivators are, without a well enforced structure of expectation and punishment, little more than savages and opportunists, hardly better than the beasts we bind.”
Ling Qi found herself fixed under the other girl’s intense gaze as a bit of passion began to make its way into her stern voice.
“If I cannot even command the obedience and respect of such a small number of cultivators, I have no doubt that Mother will remove me as her heir, and I would not blame her. I wish to bring the remaining dissidents and malcontents among us to heel, and I require your aid in doing so.”
Ling Qi blinked. She couldn’t imagine what she could do that the heiress could not. “I’d like to know what exactly you have in mind and why you would choose me to do it,” Ling Qi replied, choosing her words with care. “And I’d like to note that I won’t do anything against Bai Meizhen. She is my friend, and I owe her too much.” Ling Qi wanted to make her limits clear.
“I have no ill intentions toward Miss Bai,” Cai Renxiang said, inclining her head slightly. “Things are not as they were in past centuries. Change is coming, and grudges are washed away with the tides of time.” Ling Qi narrowed her eyes at the vague wording. “Rather, there have been a number of incidents involving attacks upon female disciples in the outer sections of the residential area. The disciples have been beaten and humiliated, robbed down to their smallclothes.”
Ling Qi thought ruefully that she really needed to pay more attention to things going on outside her immediate sphere. Understanding quickly dawned as she considered the other female cultivators that had attended the council meeting. If someone was attacking from ambush at night, they probably weren’t going to come out if Cai Renxiang was around, glowing like a lamp. Ling Qi doubted Sun Liling or Bai Meizhen would be interested in trying to deal with it either.
“Do you know anything about the attacker?” Ling Qi asked.
“They seem to have an art which allows them to avoid my sight,” Cai Renxiang said a touch sourly. “But I will admit, I have little use for subtlety in my personal doings. Other than that, the only confirmed information is that they inflict paralysis with their attacks. They have not struck at any capable of fighting back beyond their initial blow as of yet.” She paused to study Ling Qi. “I am aware that cultivation time is valuable. Should you bring this person to me, I am willing to offer you recompense for your time, as well as my gratitude. Ten yellow spirit stones seems an appropriate compensation.”
“Thank you for the offer,” Ling Qi said. “I hope you will not be offended if I need to consider it for a time?” Ten yellow stones would go quite a long way, especially once she broke through to Mid Silver. But if she could not find and capture this ambusher, she’d waste time she could have been cultivating for no gain.
“Of course not,” Cai Renxiang answered, setting her teacup down. “Know that if you do not undertake and complete the job by the end of next week, I will be forced to entertain other measures. Defiance such as this cannot be brooked.”
Ling Qi nodded absently. This might just be a real opportunity for her.