Ling Qi stared down at the pale green cut of wood in her hand, expression growing steadily more thunderous. The wood groaned as the pressure of her grip increased. Poisoned. An idle comment from Cui was the only thing that had made her take a closer look at the wood that had been delivered today.
The wood bent and indented around her fingertips. She had almost put poison infused wood into Zhengui’s bonfire. Someone had sent her poisoned materials. There was a crack, and an explosion of splinters and wood dust as the wood cut exploded under the pressure of her grip. The breeze that kicked up around Ling Qi kept the grit from her eyes.
“Ling Qi, what in the world are you doing out here? I can sense you from the meditation room,” Meizhen’s voice distracted her, sounding from the porch that overlooked the garden.
Ling Qi turned to look at her friend, still feeling light-headed. “Someone tried to have Zhengui poisoned. Thank Cui for me. I wouldn’t have noticed without her.”
The other girl’s eyebrows rose almost to her hairline. “What? Who would dare?”
There was only one person who she had angered enough to skirt Sect Rules and who was in any way subtle, Ling Qi thought. Sun Liling would have burst in with weapons drawn, and so would her allies. But there was one person she had personally offended and who had already begun to perform smaller acts of sabotage.
“Yan Renshu,” Ling Qi breathed, and the wind kicked up, sending the hem of her gown fluttering.
On the porch, Meizhen’s expression fell into a frown. “... I see. Do you require assistance?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, could you dispose of the woodpile?” Ling Qi asked absently, turning away. “I have some traders to speak to.”
Ling Qi stomped out of the shop, her hands balled into fists.
“No luck?” Ma Jun asked worriedly. Ling Qi looked up at the two ‘bodyguards’. Ma Jun and Ma Lei really took their jobs seriously it seemed, seeing as they had chased her all the way from her house to the market after she had stormed out.
“He insists that the wood was fine before he sent it off,” she grunted. She believed the young man too, or at least believed that he had inspected it. She had gotten worked up, played up the white and gold armband she wore, and threatened to make her complaint public through Cai’s people.
“Well, um, perhaps the one who performed the delivery?” Ma Lei asked tentatively.
“I got some names,” Ling Qi replied shortly. They fell in behind her as she began to swiftly walk up the street to find the disciples who had supplied the raw wood and the group that the trader contracted to do deliveries. She was going to figure out where Yan Renshu had wormed his way into the supply chain. But it was going to take quite some time to do so. There was a lot to investigate. She grimaced. She had planned to join Han Jian and his group this afternoon to explore a cave they had found, but maybe she should cancel…
She glanced back at her guards. They could split up to cover more ground, but Ling Qi didn’t think that was a good idea. They both seemed a little… naive. She would rather look the people she was questioning in the eye herself.
“Is something wrong, Miss Ling?” Ma Lei asked.
“No, just pick up the pace,” Ling Qi replied.
Unfortunately, the investigation only grew more difficult. Many of the disciples who acted as suppliers were permanent members of the Outer Sect, common born cultivators who had served their military time and settled down in the area. They didn’t tend to live on the mountain itself. She thought it unlikely that Yan Renshu would be able to influence someone like that, but it wasn’t impossible.
The courier group proved even more of a dead end, stonewalling her questions despite her complaints. She had a feeling the group’s leader was unsympathetic to Cai’s council. His neighbors had closed ranks in solidarity at her attempts to ask questions too.
Ling Qi scowled as she left their building in the market, her arms crossed over her chest. With her initial anger cooled, she wasn’t particularly surprised by this. Obviously, it wouldn’t be easy to track down something like this, but it was still frustrating. She really couldn’t afford to spend days tracking down every woodcutter or courier to question in person either. However, she couldn’t just stop. Ling Qi frowned, only to glance up as a light fell over her
“Ling Qi, what is it that motivates you to disrupt the market so?” Cai Renxiang asked, standing in her path. A handful of other female disciples stood in her wake.
She really had been deep in thought if she had missed Cai Renxiang, Ling Qi thought wryly. Some part of her was suspicious though. Wasn’t it awfully convenient for Cai to be here now, just as she needed help?
“I’m investigating. Someone is sabotaging me,” she answered shortly. “Did me asking a few questions really draw you out to confront me?”
Behind her, the Ma twins shifted uncomfortably, and the girls with Cai Renxiang frowned and muttered at her disrespectful tone. Cai Renxiang, however, merely raised an eyebrow. “As you should well know, this is the third day of the week when I make my rounds through the market.”
Ling Qi grimaced and glanced up at the position of the sun. The other girl was right; she had even accompanied her the week before. Yan Renshu’s act had made her overly paranoid. “... My apologies, Lady Cai. I am still distressed, and it is affecting my manners.”
“Excusable,” Cai Renxiang replied with a small nod. She gestured toward the side of the street, and Ling Qi followed her so that they would not block the path. “Explain the issue more clearly.”
Ling Qi took a deep breath. The girl’s commanding tone irked her, but since she had been throwing the girl’s authority around to try and get her answers, it would be pretty stupid for her to complain. She laid out the events of this morning and the efforts she had undertaken to find her answers.
Cai Renxiang remained silent as she spoke, a tiny frown marring her otherwise impassive expression. It was only after Ling Qi finished that she spoke. “Troubling. You believe Yan Renshu is using his connections in the market then?”
“That is the only thing I can think of,” Ling Qi admitted, spreading her hands helplessly. “I’m sorry if I overstepped my authority with my questioning.”
“You did not,” Cai Renxiang said flatly. “I am more troubled by their resistance to your questioning. If he is able to strike at you this way, it is a threat to many of our less fortunate members. I will place Fu Xiang on alert and have this matter investigated more closely. You said you had names?”
“I do,” Ling Qi replied, surprised. She hadn’t expected the heiress to take up her personal vendetta. “Ah, is it really fine? I can investigate myself.”
Cai Renxiang raised an eyebrow as she turned back from her followers. One of them was already running off with a message. “Such connections by a criminal element are a threat to the council. Leaving that aside, however, you are a valued member yourself. The Cai do not allow trespasses against their own to pass unpunished.”
Ling Qi read between the lines easily enough even as she bowed her head and thanked Cai Renxiang. What followed was a little bewildering. The disciple in charge of the courier group, who had so easily stonewalled her, caved in like wet paper to a few clipped words from the heiress, even if he looked like he was biting into a lemon the whole time. In seconds, she accomplished what Ling Qi had spent nearly an hour failing at. They got their names and they got their schedules.
It was unsubtle, a straightforward hammer of social force. It felt bizzarre to see it exercised on her behalf. She appreciated the sentiment even if she knew it only served the wealthy girl's ends. It was hard not to be at least a little satisified at watching the person who had given herself trouble squirm. The trend continued as she followed Cai Renxiang lead into the market. It was like watching the cockroaches scatter in front of someone waving a torch.
Yan Renshu wouldn’t get away with this.