“Ugh, I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Ling Qi grumbled as she and Xiulan approached the outskirts of the town at the base of the mountain. The sharp autumn wind tugged at the hem of her gown, briefly revealing the black and silver slippers she wore beneath. It was a testament to her trust in Xiulan that despite her discontent, she was still going along with Xiulan’s request.
Xiulan rolled her eyes above the golden veil that covered the lower half of her face. The wide sleeves and the train of her rose colored gown trailed behind her elegantly. “I do not understand why you are being so childish about this,” she said, exasperated. “It is not as if we are going to kidnap you for a ceremony this very hour.”
“You would if you could get away with it,” Ling Qi sniped, half serious. She knew Xiulan wouldn’t do such a thing to her, but her family… Well, who knew. Talk of betrothals and contracts made her jumpy.
“Spouse theft went out of fashion with the unification, Ling Qi,” Xiulan commented dryly. “Really, who would be so gauche?” She then deliberately changed the subject, asking, “You like the new hair style?”
Ling Qi huffed, reaching up to toy with pale lilac ‘petals’ of the ornament pinning her hair back. Gu Xiulan had helped her pick it out. The clip was silver, decorated with what looked like a live orchid flower. It seemed cultivators could do a lot of frivolous things with formations. With the hair pin, most of her hair was pulled back and hung loose down to the middle of her back.
The Ling Qi of six months ago would have quailed at the price of the medicinal solution Xiulan had coaxed her into using. She had to admit that it had good effects though. Even unbound, her hair was perfectly straight and smooth. “I’ll get back to you. I don’t know if it is going to get in the way yet,” she answered grudgingly.
Xiulan gave her a flat look. “If you cannot manage so simple an exercise in your sleep, I shall eat your left shoe.”
“Not your left shoe?” Ling Qi shot back as they passed the city gates. Feeling a prickle on the back of her neck, she glanced to the side and saw a young mortal boy their age gaping at them from a market stall. He flinched away when he met her gaze and quickly busied himself. Ling Qi felt a moment of satisfaction followed by a twinge of guilt.
Unmindful of her thoughts, Xiulan laughed. “Of course not. To ruin my own pair would be a travesty.”
Ling Qi let out an amused sound in response. She supposed that there had been no reason to glare, but she was still feeling on edge. “So where are we meeting this cousin of yours anyway?” Ling Qi asked as they passed through the street, untroubled by the morning crowd.
“In the square,” Gu Xiulan replied. “Relax. This is a polite offer and enticement, no more. There is no need-”
“Lan-Lan!” A male voice broke over the sound of the crowd, and Ling Qi blinked, looking ahead as people moved aside for the owner of the voice.
Xiulan’s perfectly sculpted eyebrow twitched violently, pulling at her scars. “... Tai, did I not ask you to wait?”
Ling Qi caught sight of the speaker a moment later. Her first impression was that she could see the family resemblance. The young man in the street ahead had the same refined features as Xiulan, but they were of a hard cast and his skin a shade darker, tanned by the sun more than birth. His hair was streaked with lines of dark red, rather than being a solid red, and was bound in a top knot. As he approached, Ling Qi could see that he had a few centimeters on her and a lean build. He didn’t seem to be much older than eighteen or nineteen.
“Asking me to stand around for so long - isn’t that a bit cruel of you?”
“Lan-Lan?” Ling Qi asked in a low voice, barely moving her lips as she glanced at her friend.
The withering look she got in return put to rest any thoughts she had of teasing her friend… for the moment. “I see patience still eludes you,” Xiulan said haughtily, crossing her arms to look imperiously up at the taller boy.
“A curious accusation,” Gu Tai said with a shrug. “Cousin, you know perfectly well that no Gu without gray hairs has a drop of that.”
“At least he’s honest,” Ling Qi said, studying him critically despite her flippant response. Gu Tai wore a loose vermillion jacket patterned like the feathers of a bird over a more tightly fitting black silk shirt with red highlights along its center. A familiar bright red fingerless glove covered his right hand.
“The lady of the hour speaks!” Gu Tai said brightly, offering a bow of greeting. It wasn’t shallow enough to be mocking, but it also wasn’t one which conveyed a great deal of formal respect. “It pleases me to meet you in person, Miss Ling. Xiulan’s letters have been quite colorful in the past months.” Ling Qi wasn’t quite sure how to take that comment so she just gave him a polite smile in response.
Xiulan caught her questioning look and let out a quiet sigh and slight shake of her head. He just had that kind of personality, it seemed. “Tai, I think the both of us would prefer not to turn this meeting into a street show.”
The mortals were very deliberately ignoring them while leaving them space as far as Ling Qi could tell, but a handful of people who read as first realms were watching them curiously. “Yes, I am glad to meet one of Xiulan’s relatives, but this is a little public, isn’t it?”
The older boy nodded easily in response, his good cheer unaffected. “If that is the lady’s wish,” he said politely. “But I am surprised to see you express such a sentiment, La-” Ling Qi was fairly sure that she saw his hair smolder under the force of Xiualn’s glare. “Xiulan,” he corrected.
Ling Qi followed the two fire cultivators further into town, feeling slightly bemused. Given Xiulan’s situation, she had almost expected her relatives to be very proper. This Gu Tai, for all that he was a third realm cultivator, didn’t give that impression. Then again, if Xiulan had told her family so much about Ling Qi, perhaps he was simply acting for her benefit.
She allowed herself to fade into the background of the conversation as her two more bombastic companions traded jibes with an air of long familiarity, only offering an occasional comment when prompted. Gu Tai was difficult to read, his higher realm obscuring much of his nature, but she could get a feel for his secondary element at least. Where the purity of Xiulan’s flames had been mixed with the explosiveness of lightning, her cousin had a strong tinge of wind like a forge fire stoked by powerful bellows.
They soon arrived at their destination, a rather elaborate building near the center of town. It seemed to be a teahouse and restaurant catering to the settlement’s elite. Although the staff of the establishment was still mortal, Ling Qi caught a whiff of first realm qi from the kitchens.
The elderly matron who came out to lead them to their reserved room was early second realm. From the pleasantries traded, Ling Qi picked up that she was the owner. She supposed the Gu family was pretty distinguished. Her own perspective was probably kind of skewed with Bai Meizhen as her roommate.
Soon they were seated in a private room filled with a light flowery scent. An open window and balcony provided light from the pleasant day outside. Ling Qi seated herself next to Xiulan while Gu Tai sat opposite them.
“Have you examined me to your satisfaction then, Miss Ling?” She blinked as Gu Tai spoke up, referring to her directly. “I did not imagine you a shy girl, so I assume your silence was one of thought.”
“I did not want to interrupt you and Xiulan,” Ling Qi deflected, meeting his dark brown eyes. “You two seemed to be enjoying yourselves.”
“We have already caught up well enough over the past week,” Xiulan interjected evenly, eyeing her cousin with irritation.
“Perhaps,” Gu Tai admitted. “Yet I cannot help but feel that I have not yet succeeded in my goals.”
“I am not a child anymore, Tai. Your foolery is unnecessary,” Xiulan snipped. “Do not insult Ling Qi by ignoring her so.”
Gu Tai let out a thoughtful hum and returned his gaze to Ling Qi. “My apologies if that is how it came across, Miss Ling. I am, of course, glad to have your company. You have been very quiet though.”
“It’s no trouble,” Ling Qi said uncomfortably. “I am uncertain about how I am supposed to act,” she admitted.
“Understandable,” Gu Tai said lightly. “I suppose you have not had much experience with betrothal negotiations.”
Ling Qi barely kept her expression neutral, thoughts flashing back to memories dredged up by recent events.
Tai continued speaking though, as if he didn’t notice her discomfort. “... an insult to your grace, of course. What louts these southern nobles must be.”
“Right,” Ling Qi agreed a little thickly. “I… What exactly does this… I mean, what do you want?” She stumbled over her words, and Xiulan shot her a look of confusion and concern.
The young man sitting across from them peered at her carefully, his easy smile fading. “To be blunt, our exalted grandfather has negotiated with the Han for a portion of the new lands opening up in the latest wave of reclamation.” He paused, glancing at Xiulan. “How much does she know of Golden Fields?”
“Little, I expect,” Xiulan replied absently, studying Ling Qi’s face. “Most of our province is ruins and ash. The land is so soaked in warring sun and death qi that it poisons those who attempt to live there.”
“Except the Walkers,” Gu Tai continued, resting his chin in his hands. “Dreadful creatures. However, we have steadily cleansed stretches of land enough to render them… livable.”
Now Ling Qi was confused. “I’m not sure what that has to do with what we were talking about,” she ventured.
“Aside from providing an enticing vision of your prospective home…” Gu Tai said with a bit of humor. “I intend to be among the settlers wrangling the newly reclaimed lands. This would mean beginning a branch house, for which I would, of course, like a lovely and talented wife,” he continued brightly. “Preferably one which would not mind getting her hands a bit bloody at times.”
Ling Qi glanced away, feeling confused. This wasn’t quite going how she had expected it to. She looked to Xiulan for help.
“It is typical to seek new blood in the establishment of branch houses,” Xiulan explained airily. “The Golden Fields bloodlines are somewhat… insular.”
“This did not stop your honoured Father from claiming a bride from the capital,” Gu Tai noted. “It was rather scandalous at the time,” he added in a more conspiratory tone, looking to Ling Qi with a grin.
“Ancient history,” Gu Xiulan dismissed with a sniff. “The Golden Fields have been opening up for centuries now. Even the senior generation has acknowledged the foolishness of continued isolation.”
“I shall be sure to inform Aunt Xiaoli that you consider her to be ancient,” Gu Tai teased. “But yes, as unromantic as it might be, the offer is a practical matter,” he said, returning his attention fully to Ling Qi. “Your talent and rapid growth have drawn my uncle’s eye, and he believes us to be a good match. I have no objections. You are a bit young yet, but by the time negotiations are over, that should no longer be a problem. You will be a lovely woman by then. Your more practical talents are a much more important consideration.”
Ling Qi felt conflicted. At least this time, the one complimenting her appearance wasn’t some disgusting slime like Huang Da. But this offer still felt very transactional to her. She didn’t bother asking the question on the tip of her tongue. Gu Tai was clearly fine with marrying someone he didn’t even know. “I understand. I think. So if I agree, we ship off to Golden Fields and start scrabbling in the sand?”
Xiulan frowned at her, but Gu Tai laughed. “There would indeed be much scrabbling,” he admitted. “But nowhere else in the Empire will you find the possibilities of past treasures and rich resources, lost under a bit of sand and ash,” he said, the lines of thunder running through his qi pulsing. “I am afraid it would be at least two years, more likely three, before any such things were finalized. You would have to remain under the Sect for that time.”
Ling Qi relaxed a little. She didn’t like it - the idea still rubbed her the wrong way and made some part of her feel like she was selling herself - but this offer didn’t feel malicious, even if all she had to go on was gut instinct and a half year’s spotty experience with nobles.
“That sounds like it might be interesting,” she conceded. If marriage wasn't involved, it would be really intriguing actually. The part of her that found joy in her heists thrilled at the idea of plundering long lost vaults. “I hope you do not mind if I do not give you any answer today though.”
“Of course not,” Gu Tai said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I think Xiulan and I have the recklessness quite covered as it is.” He flicked his wrist and a crisp, stiff letter appeared between his fingers, which he held out and offered to her. Ling Qi took it gingerly and gave him a questioning look. “That contains the full text of my uncle’s offer, Miss Ling. Please review it at your pleasure.”
Ling Qi nodded, carefully storing the letter away. By the thickness of the envelope, she had a feeling that she would want some help reading over it. Still, this gave her time to think - and another option, if she felt that Cai Renxiang’s offer was not to her taste.
They continued to chat as the food was brought in, but it quickly returned to the two Gu family members dominating the conversation, despite Gu Tai and Xiulan’s occasional efforts to draw her into the conversation. She didn’t need to make her decision yet. Gu Tai would remain here until the end of the year regardless. Apparently, he was serving as the Gu’s representative in a number of minor negotiations at the moment. If she wanted, she could try to get to know the young man better before she made her choice.