Thankfully, her ‘guards’ were happy enough with silence and did not try to engage her in further conversation. It was still awkward, but silence was better than fumbling in unfamiliar territory. Soon after reaching the residential area, she spotted Cai Renxiang
The heiress was trailed by a train of other girls hurrying along in her wake and walked with her hands clasped behind her back, posture stiff and straight. Ling Qi raised a hand to wave to the other girl for attention.
“Lady Cai, good morning!” she greeted politely.
Cai Renxiang halted outside the gates that marked the edge of the residential zone, eyeing her speculatively. “Ling Qi, good morning,” she greeted in return, her train waiting patiently behind her. “It is rare to see you on the road.”
“I suppose so,” Ling Qi admitted sheepishly, restraining the urge to fidget under the faintly glowing girl’s regard. “I was hoping I could accompany you for a time?” She left unsaid her reasons why, despite the curious looks from the other girls with Cai and her own ‘guards’.
If the heiress was surprised by her request, she didn’t show it on her face. She simply nodded briskly, her long hair swaying with the motion. “Of course, I would not refuse such a minor request from you.” Her words were quick and without embellishment. She gestured and the other girls fell back a step, giving Ling Qi room to fall in beside Cai Renxiang. “Are the subordinates I assigned you performing to satisfaction?” the heiress asked as they began to walk.
“... Yes, I have no complaints,” Ling Qi replied formally, despite her discomfort at the notion. She did her best to ignore the way the Ma sisters seemed to brighten at her half-hearted praise. “Thank you for your consideration.”
Cai Renxiang dipped her head fractionally. “Given your contributions, I could not do less. If you require something, please ask. If it is within the realm of reason, I will grant it to you.” Her eyes remained ahead as she spoke, but Ling Qi saw the corners of her lips quirk up. Ling Qi suspected the other girl was feeling quite pleased that she was showing consideration and interest; no doubt Cai was aware that Ling Qi had asked Gan Guangli about her as a liege.
Ling Qi ignored the respectful and admiring looks from the girls around them. It was mostly directed at the heiress, but she could feel eyes on her own back as well. Instead, she focused on Cai Renxiang, testing her improved senses. The girl was a perfectly sculpted pillar of mountain stone awash in blinding white light. She looked away before her eyes could start to water. “You have my thanks,” she said again, wondering what to say. “So, where are we going at the moment?”
“I must attend a meeting with the market suppliers over bulk purchases,” Cai Renxiang said. Her gown rippled briefly, the eye-like wings of the butterfly splayed across her chest narrowing. “Following that, I will go to the council pavilion to hear petitions for a time before I begin reviewing reports from Fu Xiang.”
That sounded… incredibly boring, if Ling Qi was honest, but she nodded agreeably anyway. She had come to see what Lady Cai’s day-to-day operations were like. As it turned out, Ling Qi’s suspicion was right. Watching Cai Renxiang cow unruly Outer Sect merchants with her stern disapproval over their attempts at gouging her agents was kind of amusing, but that was the last of the entertainment. Listening to second and third year Outer disciples complain, cajole, and flatter Cai could hardly keep her attention. It did give her a somewhat unsettling idea of just how far the heiress had gone in establishing herself as an authority though.
It left her thoughtful as one of the girls attending to them laid out tea for both her and Cai Renxiang. She cast a glance out of the pavilion as she waited for her tea to cool. The line of petitioners was gone, leaving only the enforcer guards. Ma Lei was making eyes at one of Gan Guangli’s subordinates while her sister seemed to be trying to set the other girl’s hair on fire with disapproval. Gan Guangli himself stood at attention at the bottom of the stairs sternly looking over the field.
“You had a question.” Cai Renxiang’s voice drew her attention back to the girl sitting across from her. The heiress looked at her evenly over the rim of her cup, sipping from the still steaming liquid.
“Yeah,” Ling Qi admitted, lifting her own. She supposed that she really didn’t need to wait for the tea to cool; hot tea was hardly going to hurt her. Her eyebrows rose as she took a sip. The flavor was much stronger than last time. It was actually pretty good. “Wasn’t some of that stuff too petty for you to be dealing with? Those merchants and half of those petitioners… Shouldn’t you have someone else taking care of that?”
“Perhaps,” Cai Renxiang agreed. “But I am no Duchess yet, and a mountain cannot stand upon a foundation of gravel.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brows as the girl watched her. “So… what? You want to have experience with the lower level things as well?”
“I wish to see the order of my province perfected,” Cai Renxiang answered. “Even the Lady Duchess cannot be in all places, nor be all things. Order depends upon delegation, and I must understand these lower positions in order to best select the ones to hold them. In my youth, I toured villages and forts at the edges of civilization. Here, I hold a position similar to lesser nobility. As a Cai, I refuse to approach this task with any less than full effort, regardless of what my position may be.”
Ling Qi leaned back in her seat, taking a sip from the steaming tea to give herself time to consider. That was understandable, if a little obsessive. “When I was inside Sun Liling’s fortress, I heard Lu Feng call all this a ‘game’. Is that really all this is to you and other nobles? A training exercise?” It grated that for people like her, this conflict had real consequences.
Cai Renxiang considered her answer, the constant light shining behind her pulsing quietly. “Yes, it is,” she said frankly, meeting Ling Qi’s gaze straight on. “Ultimately, the purpose of the Outer Sect is for it to be a place for young nobility to compete and play at their adult roles in an environment of relative safety and few consequences.”
Ling Qi scowled. “So I guess people like me just have to keep our heads down?”
The girl across from her set her cup down with a soft clink. “The ascension of talented commoners is a secondary purpose at best,” she admitted. “It is also, you may find, not an inaccurate training scenario for surviving among the ranks of the least nobility where houses rise and fall in mere months and years rather than decades and centuries.”
It wasn’t fair, but neither was what came after she became a landed nobility. Ling Qi let out a long breath. She was being childish. The world wasn’t fair, and it never had been. She knew that well enough.
“What is it that you actually want from me?” Ling Qi asked. “You know my background so you know how ignorant I am in some ways. What will taking your offer really mean?”
Interest sparked in the heiress’ eyes, and the eye-wings splayed across her chest narrowed hungrily. “It would mean being my hand in many matters.” The light behind her sparkled, increasing in intensity. “The Lady Duchess has, in her generosity, indicated that I will be granted a fief from her holdings in the borderlands should I prove myself worthy within the Inner Sect. Rather than serving your term within the Sect’s forces, you would instead serve among the forces of that holding.”
“So I’d still get a little patch of mountains to call my own?” Ling Qi asked, only half-joking.
Cai Renxiang took her question seriously. “You would, of course, retain all privileges of a normal vassal. In the interest of development, I would waive the standard property taxes until you have become established.” She paused. “Primarily, you would be among those who attend to me when I must visit the capital or other similar functions.” Left unsaid was what sorts of things she’d probably be asked to do there. Ling Qi knew what talents she was valued for.
Ling Qi looked down at her own empty cup then back up. “Thank you for answering me frankly,” she said after a moment’s thought. “May I be excused then, to think on it further?”
The other girl let her leave easily enough, not pushing for an answer, thankfully. Ling Qi dismissed her own guards as they left the pavilion area and set off into the woods, cloaking her presence as she headed down the mountain.
Her destination lay at the base of the mountain. She had put in the request and paid the points for tutoring, receiving a response promptly. Her tutor, Zhong Peng, would be available in the late afternoon, and he would be waiting for her on a hilltop a little way to the east of the main road.
She was brought up short when she caught sight of him standing at the top of the cleared hill. Zhong Peng didn’t look like an archer with his build more like Gan Guangli than Han Jian, but the massive recurve bow slung across his back said otherwise. The bow looked like someone had uprooted a small tree and bent it into a bow; it would be as tall as the tutor when drawn.
The boy himself looked to be eighteen or nineteen years old with rough, blunt features and sun-darkened skin. His hair was a fiery red cut close to his scalp, and the beginnings of a beard grew on his chin.
“Good effort, but quit lurking.” Ling Qi startled as his sharp eyes locked onto hers. She was still more than a hundred meters away, hidden in the shadows of the trees. It wasn’t like she was going all out to hide, but… “Girl, are you here to train or gawk?” He frowned at her, crossing his arms over his wide chest.
“Sorry,” Ling Qi apologized, stepping out of the shadow. She didn’t raise her voice, but he seemed to have no trouble hearing her. “I wasn’t trying to be insulting. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get waylaid on the way here.”
“Things have been loud down here this year - or so I’ve heard,” he acknowledged, impatiently gesturing for her to come closer. “Too many big names in one place,” he added in a grumble that she barely heard.
“Just a little,” Ling Qi replied, doing her best to keep her voice from going dry. She hurried closer, quickly reaching the top of the hill. Zhong Peng was a good head taller than even her. “Do they pay much attention to the Outer Mountain in the Inner Sect?”
“Depends on the disciple,” he said with a dismissive wave of one meaty hand. He peered carefully at her. “Your qi is a mess, but I can feel the Sect arts well enough. Mirror is a powerful tool for perception, but not an archer’s. Your range will be crippled as things are.”
Ling Qi blinked, startled. “How did you…?” She cut herself off. That was a silly question. Of course perception arts could read that kind of thing. “Thank you for your advice, Senior Brother Zhong,” she replied politely. “I will keep that in mind. Will it impair my training?” She hoped not; she didn’t have the Sect points or the time to go hunting down another art right now.
She met his hard gaze evenly as he continued to study her. “No, I will simply not bother with the distance training. What archery art do you practice?”
“Falling Stars Art,” Ling Qi replied. The older disciple was brusque, but that was fine with her. He seemed knowledgeable enough about archery.
He grunted thoughtfully, but she thought that she saw a hint of approval in his eyes. “It is a good foundation. I mastered it myself in the Outer Sect. It is just a foundation though. Do not be content with only that.”
“Of course. How will we begin, Senior Brother?” Ling Qi asked. She was glad that she had picked a good art at least.
“With a run,” he said, turning away. “You said you wished to work on your conditioning and speed as well. Thrice around the mountain, and then we will begin shooting.”
Ling Qi held back a sigh. She did put that on the form where she requested a tutor.
She would come to regret that request in the coming hours as she found herself unable to keep up with the third realm disciple. Apparently, a hail of exploding missiles was an appropriate way to encourage her to pour on more speed.
She couldn’t let herself be slowed down.