In and out. The needle plunged into the meat of her forearm, drawing the weeping edge of the wound closed with a glittering thread of colorless qi. Blood that flickered with phosphorescent light glittered like jewels on the table below.

Cai Renxiang was silent and still, save for the near mechanical motion of her other hand as she repaired her self-inflicted wound. Mother had carved the lesson into her bones. Perfection was, as always, a prerequisite. Scars and blemishes were unacceptable, and she had not the skill to spin new flesh wholesale as Mother did.

So she stitched, drawing the torn flesh of the cursed wound together a little more with each precise motion. This was her penance for allowing matters to grow so far out of control. For failing to anticipate the red princess’s plot. For needing a desperation technique at all.

No that was not right, she supposed. This was the punishment for being insufficiently prepared. That Sun Liling would return and raise chaos had been a foregone conclusion. Her subordinates declared her victory outside now, but she knew better. She had not been defeated, truly, but Sun Liling had bloodied her nose. Although the princess was not fool enough to face her forces again yet directly, this had been a draw at best. Her throne was maintained, yet bandits wandered at the very border. What would Mother think?

Mother had tasked her at the beginning of the year with uniting the normally chaotic, fractional Outer Sect into a functional psuedo-government with limited resources and connections. It was playacting; something similar to what Mother had been forced to accomplish in her rise to the ducal seat, albeit on a much smaller, inconsequential scale. Failure was…

Cold fingers, harder than diamond, dug into her small shoulders, nearly drawing blood, and she trembled. The terrible, inhuman radiance of Mother’s eyes made her heart seize in her chest. Babbled apologies fell from her lips, but there was no mercy, only the consequences of failure.

… unacceptable.

Cai Renxiang let out a soft breath as she finished her work, laying aside the needle for a delicate pair of scissors as she finished the seam. With Mother’s thread, the wound would be gone by morning, and no mark would remain. The worst was prevented.

It was immensely frustrating, she mused, as she began to clean and put away her tools. Intrigue was not her strong suit, she knew that. There was very little plotting at Mother’s court because Mother knew. She always knew, and the men and women who installed themselves in her court and bowed and scraped and danced for Mother’s amusement knew that she did. They were mere hand puppets for the county lords, mouthpieces and sycophants who knew little of value.

The lords had taken the lessons of Mother’s rise well. The Chu had been her first example, their refusal to accept the new order and the curbing of their rights ending in the erasure of all save their youngest generation, whose dantians had been crippled instead.

This brought her problems now, if Bai Meizhen’s words were true. She had thought the name familiar when Fu Xiang had mentioned her, but only later had she matched it to those Chu, those ragged remnants reduced to common soldiery, left alive as an example to Mother’s other vassals.

It seemed that would be changing though with this Chu Song; having reached third realm under seventeen years of age, the Chu would be rising to the barony level. Yet another small issue, which, with the others, was quickly becoming a mountain.

Her base of power, at least, was secure. The son of Xuan was a solid ally, asking little in return for his service. That was a simple matter of trade politics, unlikely to change, although she had caught his eyes lingering on her from time to time. If he bore an attraction, that only tied him all the tighter to her mission.

The Huang boy was a simple creature, easy to predict and guide. His hated foe lay on the other side of the divide, and that would be enough. She found him distasteful, but she was not in a position to make that known. Yet. If need be, she could promise some small aid to his ailing house. Mother had granted her a limited set of resources to secure such alliances after all.

Similarly, Bai Meizhen’s familial enmity with Sun Liling would inspire her to take action against the Sun faction.

The eastern bloc was trickier. The Han boy was more intelligent than his indolent reputation would have indicated, and he had a strong group of supporters.

Cai Renxiang rose from her seat without swaying, despite the lightheadedness that came from feeding too much blood to her gown spirit, Liming. The rolled-up sleeve of her gown fell down, concealing any sign of her wound.

Liming stirred, silk brushing across her skin as the eyes on her chest shifted and a susurrus of hungry voices whispered in her thoughts. She crushed the intrusion with the ease of long practice, and her gown stilled.

She crossed her dimly lit room and placed the teakwood container back on the shelf, taking a moment to ensure its exact placement. Turning on her heel, she extended a hand and her saber rattled briefly before flying to her hand.

She could not simply sit and think. There was a schedule to keep. She had a meeting with Fu Xiang to review intelligence and plan future operations, she would need to speak words of encouragement to her many lesser supporters as Guangli began training them, and then she would need to focus upon her own cultivation. Her lagging physique galled her.

She reached the door and cast it open, striding across the symmetrically perfect hall that lead from her chambers to her home’s sitting room. She would have to begin refitting the mansion Sun Liling had abandoned, if she could find a moment and resources for it. She had previously left it alone in the vain hope that the barbarian would settle down after her punishment.

Bai Meizhen had been right in that. It had been a futile thought to pursue reconciliation, and she resolved to listen more closely to the girl’s advice on the matter in the future.

Acquiring the goodwill of the Bai daughter was a windfall. She did not know the details of what had occurred to leave the girl so distraught, but she was thankful for it in a way. The distant, distrusting Bai were notoriously difficult to wrangle into alliance. That she could acquire a tentative closeness with one merely with a sympathetic ear and her mid-afternoon tea time was nothing short of heaven-sent providence.

... It had nothing to do with Bai Meizhen being a not unpleasant conversation partner to spend her tea time with. The girl was well-educated and politically savvy, even if she lacked the initiative to make use of it. The alliance with Bai Meizhen was useful and would be into the future if maintained. Mother understood that, and so did she.

A house like the Bai would not stay down for long. Even at their lowest, no one save the Imperial house had dared make any direct moves. Reviled as they might be, power was power, and whatever rumor might say of the Bai’s treatment of their ‘allies’, her measure of the pale girl said that she would remember her friends well indeed.

The Bai’s friend, Ling Qi, was also swiftly shaping up to be very valuable. A swiftly rising commoner talent was exactly the sort of thing that Cai Renxiang was looking for, and she had been specially granted permission and authority by her Mother to recruit at the Sect.

She had Guangli and he was a pillar of her faction, but more support was invaluable. Mother’s limitations on her available resources and connections were likely to continue after her time in the Outer Sect, and Cai, as a relatively newly established house, had no longstanding allies or personal retainer clans to call upon. Mother had raised the Wang and Jia clans to the status of counts through similar sponsorship.

If the girl’s progress continued, she would consider extending an offer. It would have the benefit of being a minor favor to Bai Meizhen as well, given some of the concerns the Bai had confided with regard to offering vassalship under her own ducal family.

As Cai Renxiang left her home, plans and schedules and numbers and names all swiftly flowed through her thoughts, assembling the order of her future.

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