‘This is boring, Sister Meizhen.’ Cui complained. ‘Why do we need to do such a thing?’
“We are hardly doing anything,” Bai Meizhen replied sourly. “I am the only one capable of performing this task. You need not stay for this.” She stared hard at the block of grayish brown clay in front of her, mocking her with its mundane and inert nature.
‘Where else would I go?’ Cui grumbled childishly, and Bai Meizhen felt her coils shifting around her neck. ‘It is cold outside, and Sister Meizhen has forbidden me from doing anything fun.’
“I have forbidden you from playing tricks or eating pets and familiars, yes,” Bai Meizhen said dryly. “Now hush. I must concentrate.”
‘Hmph. If Sister Meizhen wants to play in the mud so much, Cui will just be silent then,’ Cui said in a tone that Meizhen knew meant she would have to placate her with something tasty later.
Bai Meizhen returned her attention to the clay, narrowing her eyes. She did not even disagree with her cousin. She felt that this was a pointless waste of time, but it was also a task assigned by an Elder. She just wasn’t certain whether the insufferably cheerful woman was mocking her by giving out meaningless tasks instead of real training.
Elder Ying confused her, and it was not a feeling she enjoyed. The woman was far too informal and behaved more familiarly with her than was appropriate. She had certainly not been condescended to so blatantly in… ever, really.
Cool, dry hands brushed affectionately through the soft fuzz of hair that had just begun to grow out, and a cold voice was tinged with rare warmth as Mother chided her for some childish misdeed.
Bai Meizhen pushed away that fragment of memory; such sentimentality was pointless. Even if it was mere pettiness, she would not fail her lessons. She had been given a block of qi-absorbing clay and told to tease out the true shape hidden within it as she meditated on her relationships and connections with the world. Bai Meizhen had never learned to sculpt as it was not among the artistic endeavors considered necessary for her station. As a cultivator, her work would outstrip all but the best mortal craftsmen, even without tools, but that was hardly the point.
What did the woman even mean? What did she want her to shape from the clay? Bai Meizhen was aware that earth was the element of acceptance and community, but she already knew her place in the world. What did she have to consider here? Was she meant to create some pro-Empire image then? An offer of loyalty and solidarity from a treacherous Bai to prove that their program was working?
She felt her lips curling in disdain and Cui’s coils tightening in response to her emotions but calmed herself. It was beneath her to react so. She would simply perform the task as instructed.
Closing her eyes, she considered where to begin. Family was the single most important connection a cultivator had. So who among her clan did she feel connection and ‘affection’ for?
Her thoughts turned first to her grandfather, and his cold and pitiless eyes flashed through her thoughts, disapproving as they always were. Grandfather had trained her - as he had the rest of the youngest generation of the Bai in the hopes of teasing out outstanding talent. No, that was simply the bond of familial duty; instinctively, she felt that it wasn’t what Elder Ying was looking for. Grandfather had rarely ever even spoken to her directly, save for an occasional correction or word of grudging praise at success.
Should she consider Father then? She felt a twist of bitterness at even considering the thought. Father was an embarrassment to the clan, a rabbit in the den of serpents and a concession in the name of financial concerns.
Bai Meizhen breathed out, clearing her thoughts of such unfilial musings. That was unfair. Father was an outsider, married into the clan. It was unreasonable to expect more of him. She wished he could manage a simple family dinner without looking as if he were going to faint though.
Should she consider her cousins then? She allowed memories of familiar faces and rivalries to pass through her thoughts one at a time. No, they were rivals for position in the clan. There might be a degree of polite cordiality and the acknowledgement that they would back one another against outsiders but little else. She had been too busy with her cultivation to engage with the little cliques that had formed among them, and she was aware of the various minor resentments many in the clan held toward her for one reason or another.
Aunt Suzhen then, the hope of the clan, said to have the greatest chance of breaking through to White and restoring a degree of the Bai’s honor. It was thanks to her Aunt that she had Cui, had been awakened, and had mastered the Abyssal Mantle art so well. It had disappointed her in her earliest days that she had little talent for the metal arts which her Aunt made such prominent use of. Despite that Aunt Suzhen, of all her family, had shown her the most kindness and consideration, but her aunt was incredibly busy with the business of the clan and her provincial government duties. Meizhen could count the times she had spoken to her aunt on the fingers of one hand.
Cui was the obvious answer, and she unconsciously raised her hand to run her fingers along her cousin’s cool emerald scales. Cui, for all her gluttony and sloth, was a good sister. Her lips quirked up in amusement as she felt Cui’s tongue flick against her throat irritably. It seemed she had been thinking a little too loudly there.
Meizhen traced her fingers over the clay thoughtfully. Was that the answer then? She scowled at the block, feeling like she was still missing something.
Her hands jerked slightly as the door banged open, and she quickly raised her head, ready to stare down an intruder. Likely, it was that vulgar Sun witch, back for another round. She had been focused too hard on her task if she had failed to notice the approach of a rival. Her gathering qi scattered a moment later when she found herself looking upon Ling Qi instead.
Her housemate currently resembled a wet cat, soaked to the bone as she was. Meizhen pursed her lips as she examined the skinny girl. Really, it had taken long enough for Ling Qi to start dressing properly, but the other girl still showed little care for her dignity, appearing with brambles caught on her dress and twigs in her flyaway hair. It was frustrating.
“What happened to you?” Meizhen found herself asking, distracted from her task.
“Played tag with a snow spirit, then had to run from a pack of wolves,” Ling Qi muttered tiredly, absently kicking the door closed behind her.
Bai Meizhen glanced away, not wishing to take advantage of the girl’s slovenly state to stare. Ling Qi was practically indecent right now. Meizhen hoped that Ling Qi at least had the presence of mind to stay out of sight and avoid scandal on the way back. The other girl was so oblivious to the importance of appearance and presentation.
“... I see,” she said, returning her gaze to her project. “Were you able to complete your mission regardless?”
Ling Qi was unhurt so there was not much reason for concern. She had worried that the other girl would find trouble, going out alone among her fellow disciples, but she had not voiced it. She would not stunt Ling Qi’s growth by coddling her.
“Yeah. It went fine honestly,” Ling Qi said, glancing briefly at her as she passed through the room, idly brushing strands of hair from her face. Ling Qi’s braid had come loose, and her hair was now clinging distractingly to the curve of her neck. “I really want a hot bath and a nap though so I’m going to turn in. G’night Bai Meizhen.”
“Good night,” Meizhen replied as the girl slumped off into the hall leading to the baths. Ling Qi… She did not know what to make of the girl at times. The girl had bouts of incredible good fortune and was clearly talented, but she simply refused to fit into Bai Meizhen’s understanding of things.
‘The mouse is getting in trouble again. Perhaps I, Cui, should accompany her next time she goes out to play. Better than poking at mud,’ her cousin suggested.
“Do as you will,” Bai Meizhen said. “I doubt Ling Qi will have any patience for your gluttony either.”
‘Sister Meizhen is cruel,’ Cui sulked. ‘Maybe I should tell the mouse that you find her legs distracting.’
“You will be hunting for yourself for the foreseeable future then,” Bai Meizhen hissed quietly. She did not think of Ling Qi in that sense, but the girl was simply so indiscreet. It didn’t help that she had been growing more distracted by such things since coming to the Sect. It was frustrating, but she was aware that it was simply a foible of her age and development.
No, Ling Qi was complicated.
She called Ling Qi her friend, and the other girl seemed to return the feeling. Friendship with outsiders was a matter of convenience though, favors offered for favors owed. That was how their relationship began. She had not been so foolish and conceited as the lesser nobles. She knew that an unawakened commoner brought to the Sect would obviously be of high talent. The Ministry would not bother taking her in and bringing her here otherwise.
It had cost her little to offer Ling Qi some minor favors at first, explaining simple things as one would to a child. The girl would likely rise to some degree of prominence and be a useful contact when she left the Sect, provided that Ling Qi made it through her tour of service.
Meizhen had even toyed with the idea of offering her vassalage. The Bai were certainly short on vassals still, lands lying fallow and abandoned by the treasonous scum who chose to serve the barbarian Sun. She suspected Ling Qi would not have asked for much if she had brought it up in the beginning.
Something had held her back though. The casual way the girl interacted with her was refreshing in a way. Meizhen enjoyed it and hadn’t wanted to end it by placing a clear and obvious delineation in rank between them.
Ling Qi’s vulgar behavior was also frustrating. Meizhen wondered sometimes if the other girl had been raised by wolves like some barbarian legend, but it was not her place to pry into personal matters. Things changed gradually, and she grew comfortable with the status quo between them. She grew complacent.
Then they had attempted the trial together, and she had been faced with the betrayal of the thing wearing the girl’s face and the subsequent revelation of the girl’s apparent death.
Her rage had been unseemly. The Bai were a clan famed for their self control - and for good reason. A Bai’s fury was as cruel and destructive as the great storms spawned by the dreams of Grandmother Serpent. She did not regret making that creature beg pitifully for death, but she did regret the weakness it represented in her.
She had grown too attached to an outsider, too invested in her well being. The Bai had been shown time and again that they could only rely on themselves. Outsiders would fall to the siren call of power, whether it be to the Imperial Throne that had used them for so long or the murderous drumbeats of the Red Garden. Grandfather would be so disappointed in her if he knew.
She could not say she loved Ling Qi as she did Cui, who was her sister in all the ways that mattered, but she would be lying to herself if she said that Ling Qi was not important to her. Lying to herself was a greater sin than even the existence of a bond; lies would stifle and slow her cultivation if left to fester.
It was fine. Ling Qi could stand on her own and had gained the attention of the Cai heiress. They could remain in contact even after parting ways, and Bai Meizhen would not have to show such a glaring weakness to her family. She shuddered to imagine Ling Qi behaving with her usual Ling Qi-ness in front of her clan or, ancestors forbid, Grandfather.
Still, perhaps these thoughts were what she was meant to think of for this project. She turned her attention back to the clay, focusing on finishing the task. She would need to complete it by sunrise, for her next lesson with Elder Ying.