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Ling Qi’s slightly warped reflection stared back at her from the pink tinted metal of her new knife before disappearing under the oiling cloth in her hand. It had been an impulsive and expensive purchase, but Ling Qi couldn’t really regret buying the set. The knives were rather pretty and better than her old, increasingly broken set.

Of course, then she had ended up buying a new bow as well. Ling Qi was not used to having the money to simply buy things she wanted without much thought. It was a strange feeling, and it made some part of her uncomfortable like she had done something wrong. At the same time, she had worked hard, hadn’t she? She deserved to buy something nice every once in awhile. A little frivolous spending was a fair reward for what she had accomplished.

... Was this how Xiulan felt when she bought a new dress solely because she liked the cut? Ling Qi thought it might be. She brushed her finger over the polished metal of the wavy blade and smiled before slipping it into the hidden sheath on her wrist. Just this once, she would try not to overthink things.

As she picked up the next knife in the set that lay in a gleaming line across her desk though, she caught a faint movement in the air by her window and looked up in caution. She blinked in surprise as a paper doll bearing the seal of the Ministry of Communications fluttered through her window. It was the size of her hand and folded to look vaguely like a bird. It circled her twice before landing on her desk and promptly unfolding. A moment later, the paper disintegrated with a weak flash, leaving behind a letter.

Ling Qi turned her attention to the letter. The plain wax seal gave way easily, and Ling Qi unfolded the letter.

Ling Qi,

I am proud to know you are doing so well, despite everything. I cannot help but feel worry in my heart though. I will not speak against the friends you have made of course, and the doings of immortals are beyond my limited understanding, but all the same… Be cautious in entering the dealings of nobles. It is so very easy to make mistakes or to give offense and suffer for it. I fear that your straightforward nature might be ill-suited to such dealings.

Forgive an old woman for her worries, but please be careful.

I can offer little but bewilderment in regards to the next subject of your letter. How did you come into contact with one of the Guardians of the North? It is a very large improvement over the frogs and lizards which you used to hide under your bed. I trust that you are making every effort to take good care of him. I do not precisely understand the implications. Is your stewardship a sign of favor from your Sect?

In regards to myself, I find myself somewhat overwhelmed, if I am to be honest. It is still somewhat difficult for me to accept the circumstances I now live with. I have focused upon caring for Biyu. She is a curious little thing and is at that age where children grow willful. It is rather terrible for my heart. She has no sense of caution, much like her elder sister.

I suppose that trait must be a fault of mine then.

I have had the time to compose and play again in the evenings. I am glad I was at least able to give you an appreciation for music. Perhaps now that matters are not so dire, I can find the time to compose something again.

Ling Qi smiled slightly. The letter felt more personal this time; she was glad Mother was easing up on the apologies and self-deprecations. The warm shape under her desk that had been keeping her feet cozy shifted then and gave a hungry little cry. She would write back to Mother soon, but for now, she had a hungry child to take care of, a meeting to attend, and then a lot of cultivation to do. It was going to be a busy week.

***

“Miss Ling!” Gan Guangli’s booming voice greeted her as she approached the pavilion. “I would congratulate you on your part in bringing down the foul miscreant, Yan Renshu.” The broad-shouldered boy bowed his head to her, his metal clad hand clasped over his heart.

Ling Qi felt a little awkward at the loud and sincere declaration. “It was hardly any trouble. I could hardly just let him carry on with a scam like that, right?” she replied, dismissing the praise.

The tall boy nodded seriously as he straightened up. “Indeed. It is our duty as Immortals to be sure that no such corruption can take root,” he said gravely. “Still, fine work deserves praise,” he added, expression lightening.

“Well, thanks,” she replied, a little lamely. “Er, am I early for the meeting, or ...?”

“Ah, my apologies,” Gan Guangli said, stepping aside. “Lady Cai will receive you now, Miss Ling.”

The council pavilion’s furniture had been rearranged to accommodate smaller meetings, and Cai Renxiang waited for her at the top of the steps, seated much as she was the last time the two of them had met one-on-one. Her presence seemed greater now, even with the harsh light that backlit the heiress at low ebb, barely a halo around her dark hair. The fabric of her white and gold gown seemed to ripple like a thing alive, and Ling Qi could feel the attention of the spirit in the cloth. The wings of the ‘butterfly’ splayed across Cai’s chest felt more like eyes than ever.

Also, unlike their last private meeting, another girl stood by, head down as she served out tea to the two places set at the table. It looked like her stock had risen since then. Ling Qi stopped at the top of the pavilion steps and gave her best proper bow. Best to be polite. “Lady Cai, thank you very much for agreeing to meet me on such short notice.”

“It is a small enough thing for you to request,” the heiress said evenly. “Please, sit and avail yourself of the tea. It is a fine blend, if I may be trusted as a judge of such things.”

“Thank you,” Ling Qi replied, keeping her head bowed for a moment longer before straightening up and taking a seat. She took a polite sip from the steaming cup in front of her. It wasn’t bad; there was a bit of spice to it that she didn’t recognize, but then again, tea mostly tasted the same to her. “I did not have the chance to follow the aftermath as closely as I might have liked. How was the response to the revelation?”

“Many of those held in unjust and false bondage were furious of course,” Cai Renxiang answered, appearing satisfied as she lifted her own cup. “And, with proof so solid, none could gainsay my words openly. Obviously, those who truly oppose me were unmoved, merely denouncing the villain themselves and claiming ignorance of his dealings.”

That was about what she had expected. “I am guessing Sun Liling was among them?” Ling Qi asked carefully, briefly glancing at the girl who had served the tea as she bowed and left.

“Princess Sun was among the loudest in announcing her opposition,” Cai Renxiang agreed a touch sourly. “She made it quite clear that such villainy should not be an excuse for my ‘tyranny’ to spread. She was among the fastest to gather up Yan Renshu’s stray followers.”

“We still got the majority though, right?” Ling Qi asked, before wincing at her own lack of decorum. “I mean, we were still able to prevent most of his victims from being further taken advantage of?”

Ling Qi caught a touch of a smile on the heiress’ lips before it was hidden by the teacup.

“Of course. The Princess Sun's efforts aside, few saw reason to refuse my protection. Enough about that trouble for the moment. That will be the focus of next week’s council meeting. I believe you had a proposal?”

Ling Qi nodded, taking a moment to go over her request in her head again as she did. The tea made a good cover for the pause. “I recently acquired a large asset, and I was hoping you could aid me in making the most of it.”

“Oh? Would this be related to the pill furnace which vanished from Yan Renshu’s holdings?” Cai Renxiang inquired, putting down her cup and leaning back in her seat. “The boy in charge of that facility was quite distraught,” she added, meeting Ling Qi’s gaze evenly.

Ling Qi smiled sheepishly. “That’s the one,” she replied a bit nervously. “Please do not hold that against me. At the time, it was enemy property.”

“I am not so poor as to demand that my agents take no spoils of their own,” Cai Renxiang said without heat. “I am not the avaricious tyrant that our enemies speak of.”

“Of course not,” Ling Qi hurried to reply. “I was just unsure of the protocol.”

“Understandable. Such things vary widely.” Cai didn’t sound like that pleased her. “Know that I have no intention of being the sort of leader which demands such tribute.”

“I am glad for your generosity,” Ling Qi said slowly, studying the other girl’s serious expression. She didn’t think the heiress was lying. In any case, it meant she could go ahead. “I propose to offer it to our production students to use at a markdown from the Production Hall’s fees. In return for your help in protecting it and enforcing the fees, I would offer you a fair portion of the fees involved.”

“Oh? Would it not be better for our faction to allow its use freely? I would be able to compensate you fairly,” Cai Renxiang questioned. Ling Qi felt something odd in her words. It wasn’t dishonesty, but… more like it was a leading question?

“I have friends who are pillmakers and who have earned a personal furnace,” Ling Qi explained. “I do not want to undercut their livelihoods and hard work that way. I imagine they aren’t alone in their position either.” She didn’t necessarily care about people in the marketplace who might have their own furnaces, but there was no reason to piss them off. “By making it free to use, it would disrupt things at the market a lot too.”

“Acceptable reasoning,” Cai Renxiang said. “I would have you speak with my subordinates in charge of finances regarding the exact details, but I find your proposal to be reasonable.”

“Thank you, Lady Cai.” Ling Qi had to fight down a grin. She was sure she would not have to worry about spirit stones for the rest of the year now!

“You are welcome,” the other girl said with a tiny nod. “Would you, in turn, answer me a question?”

Ling Qi blinked. “Ah, of course, what did you need?”

“What do you intend to do in the future?” the heiress asked simply.

Ling Qi hadn’t really thought about it. She knew she had years of army service ahead; it seemed pointless to plan beyond that. Although she would receive an Imperial writ, she had no idea what that really meant in practical terms. “I’m still considering it,” she replied after a moment. “After all, I don’t know what opportunities I’ll have yet.”

“Allow me to offer one then,” Cai Renxiang said warmly, meeting her eyes unflinchingly. “Join me. I have no doubt that you will achieve the third realm in a matter of weeks or months. Your talent is obvious, and your recent escapades have cemented the truth of your ability in my mind.”

“I am already a member of your council,” Ling Qi pointed out dubiously.

“A temporary and impersonal relationship,” Cai Renxiang acknowledged, the ever-present light behind her building in brightness. “I would instead offer you a place as a direct vassal of the Cai clan, a position similar to that which Guangli will enjoy, pending his breakthrough.”

Ling Qi fell silent, trying to figure out where the catch was and why the heiress would be offering this. “I am flattered, of course,” she said to buy herself time. “But I am unsure as to why you would trust me with such a position. Wouldn’t the Lady Duchess need to approve such offers?”

Cai Renxiang’s gown rippled slightly, shimmers of gold moving through the white. “My purpose in this Sect is twofold: to gain experience with authority, and to build my own base of power,” the heiress replied frankly. “To that end, the Duchess has granted me certain privileges, including the ability to offer direct vassalship. As for trust…” Cai Renxiang said, a considering tone entering her voice. “Bai Meizhen speaks well of you.”

Ling Qi felt a spike of irritation. “Is that so?” There was no way they were that close.

The glowing girl across from her furrowed her brows, studying her face. “You misunderstand. It is not her good word, so much as the insight those words give me, along with my own observations. I am aware that you feel little to no personal loyalty toward me at the moment.” Cai Renxiang spoke confidently and without doubt… and seemed unbothered by her words.

“Why then?” Ling Qi asked warily, hands resting on the table, her tea forgotten. There wasn’t much point in denying it when the other girl so clearly believed it.

“Because what loyalty you have is beyond reproach,” Cai Renxiang said without hesitation. “That is a trait which is difficult to find in retainers, your other abilities aside,” she continued, leaning forward. “I am capable of earning such loyalty with time, if you would grant me the opportunity." Cai Renxiang spoke with absolute conviction.

Now, Ling Qi just felt uncomfortable. “I have to think about this.”

“I do not expect an answer right now,” Cai Renxiang agreed, the light behind her dimming. “Please consider it for the future. I shall ask again when you achieve the third realm.”

Ling Qi made her excuses soon after that, departing the meeting place to hash out the details of the pill furnace agreement with the production disciples who would actually oversee it. She got a pretty good deal, considering that she was offloading pretty much all of the work involved. Ling Qi would receive forty percent of the profits and retain full ownership of the furnace, meaning she could take it back at any time, although she would have to give a week’s notice before doing so. She also had the right to blacklist users, just in case someone decided to piss her off.

Despite the success, she still felt uncomfortable. She didn’t really like the Cai heiress very much. She was stiff and unyielding, and to be frank, Cai Renxiang unnerved her a little bit. All the same, the offer from the Cai heiress wasn’t one she could easily discard. She wondered just what the girl thought would be involved in ‘earning’ her loyalty. It was a bit bizarre to be praised for something like that when all she did was stick by her first friend.

Ling Qi found herself unable to get very far in her meditations that night, distracted by thoughts of a future that she had never even considered.

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