It was slowly becoming a new normal for Ling Qi to no longer go around alone - at least any time she was in the open. The Ma sisters served as constants while she was down among the main parts of the Outer Sect. More and more often, she found herself trailing around in Cai Renxiang’s entourage, watching the girl work.
One thing she was beginning to notice was that Cai Renxiang was almost always working. Her only breaks seemed to consist of taking tea in the early afternoon and the hour or so she spent with Meizhen every other day. Somehow, that still annoyed her, but Ling Qi had to grow past that. Meizhen was right; Ling Qi wasn’t being fair to her. She couldn’t - shouldn’t - try to keep her friend all to herself. That would be selfish, not to mention kind of weird and clingy.
Although Ling Qi might spend more time cultivating, Cai Renxiang was even more of a ‘workaholic’, as Su Ling might say, than she was. She just spent a lot of time on stuff that seemed petty and pointless to Ling Qi. Managing people the way Cai did would probably drive Ling Qi to distraction.
It was really difficult to get a read on Cai Renxiang. The face Cai presented to the world simply didn’t slip. There were no gaps, no hesitation, no hints of falsehood. Even Ling Qi was beginning to doubt that the girl was not exactly what she presented herself as: a diligent, straightforward, and mostly fair administrator.
While Cai Renxiang was much better at etiquette and social manipulation than Ling Qi, Cai was ultimately about as blunt and subtle as a sledgehammer. Ling Qi struggled to continue telling herself that Cai was anything less than sincere in her stated intentions toward her. When Cai made definitive statements, it seemed like she meant them.
As she shared tea with Cai one day, Ling Qi found herself considering taking the initiative in conversation with the girl. The times she found herself partaking in tea with the girl were usually quiet with conversation limited to polite inquiries into each other's cultivation. Ling Qi had a feeling that this was deliberate on Cai’s part. Cai Renxiang probably thought Ling Qi would take badly to perceived pushiness and was choosing to be passive to let her grow comfortable at her own pace.
... It rankled a little that it was working.
“Why do you do so much yourself?” Ling Qi asked, swirling the liquid in her cup. Today's tea was white, almost like milk; it had a pleasingly sweet flavor. “I feel like you could delegate a lot of what I see you do.”
Cai Renxiang considered the question as she drank from her cup. The eyes half-closed expression the girl had when tasting her tea was the closest Ling Qi had seen her to being relaxed. “I suppose I find it useful to experience such direct leadership while I can. As my responsibilities grow, delegation will, as you say, become an increasing necessity.”
“So you enjoy listening to people complain all day?” Ling Qi winced at the sarcasm that had slipped out. “Er… My apologies. That was rude.”
“It was. Just a little,” Cai Renxiang stated, and if Ling Qi didn’t know better, she would have thought she was being teased. Cai inclined her head slightly, the light behind her glimmering and casting her shadow across the table. “One who has not the patience for the base will find themselves unable to reach the peak.”
Ling Qi placed her cup on the table with a faint clink, drumming her fingers on the polished stone tabletop. “Well, I gue - suppose you take your lessons on the lower tiers of leadership seriously. Does it really matter though? At the top, you can just command whatever you want, and it’ll happen.”
“Within limits, that is true,” Cai Renxiang acknowledged. “The natural hierarchy of strength is ultimately immutable, but many things slip through the cracks in such a view. Details, though small, can add up to greater turmoil and lessened prosperity. Even the mightiest ruler is ultimately fleeting. Harmony and order must be tended to carefully, or they will crumble the moment that one’s gaze turns from them.” Cai paused to allow the girl attending them to pour her another cup before continuing. “I must understand the tasks at each level in order to know the qualities I must seek in my subordinates and the adjustments to organizational structure that are needed.”
They were retreading old ground. “What I’m trying to ask, I think, is what you get from it,” Ling Qi said slowly. “Let’s say you’re right - and I’m not saying you are not - and things are overall better if everyone acts in their place, fulfilling their duties.” She felt a little dubious about the feasibility of that idea. Surely, a great number of people would chafe badly at that. “Why does that matter to you? I’m pretty sure that all this little stuff doesn’t really touch the people at the top.” Everyone had personal reasons for their goals. People just weren’t completely selfless, and the fact that she couldn’t work out Cai’s reason was part of what bothered her about the other girl.
Cai Renxiang placed her cup on the table, regarding Ling Qi coldly. Ling Qi worried that she might have overstepped her bounds as the silence stretched on. Slowly, Cai Renxiang’s expression changed, her intense stare dipping down to the tabletop as she laced her fingers together. The fabric of her gown rippled and shimmered under the light of her aura.
“Although we might be called ‘Immortals’, we are anything but,” Cai stated with conviction, looking back up to lock her eyes with Ling Qi’s own. “One should seek to have works which endure beyond death or ascension. How many geniuses have had their work swept away in a mere few centuries or less, their great work forgotten the moment a new generation arrives to supplant them?”
“And you think the order you want to build would endure better?” Ling Qi asked, cocking her head curiously. That seemed almost foolishly idealistic.
“It is possible,” Cai Renxiang replied. “The Empire in which we live is testament to that. Even…” The heiress paused, her gaze briefly flickering to the attendant. “Even if the players change, the framework has endured.”
“That’s a pretty lofty ambition,” Ling Qi said, hiding her frown. That was the first hint of uncertainty she had seen from Cai, but she couldn’t quite work out what it meant. “I suppose this practice must be pretty frustrating, if that is what you want.”
“No artisan produces their masterwork on the first attempt,” Cai Renxiang said with a touch of a smile. “But yes, it is somewhat frustrating to know that the nature of the Sect means that my efforts here will inevitably collapse.”
Ling Qi hummed thoughtfully. “Do you mind if I ask you what you know about the Ministry of Law?” she asked, changing the subject. Cai’s views on order still twinged at something in her, but she didn’t have the articulation to argue for it.
The heiress’ brows furrowed. “They are arbitrators, judges, and scribes who handle legal functions below the notice of lords. It is typical for most rulers to retain a number of Ministry advisors to aid them in properly drafting new laws and decrees. It is an important function, and they serve as a check on the Ministry of Commerce due to their authority over contracts,” Cai Renxiang recited. “They also serve to ensure that provincial law does not conflict with Imperial law. They also comb the records to ensure that contradictions between older and newer laws are brought to the attention of relevant lords, so that the lords may decide which is to remain valid.”
Ling Qi blinked. She had caught and understood most of that, but the answer was rather more thorough than she had been expecting. That explained her mother’s request. “If I needed to make a request of the Ministry, how would I go about doing that?”
“I could, of course, contact the Ministry for you and ensure that your issue is represented,” Cai Renxiang said, peering at her over the lip of her cup. “But that is not what you ask, is it?”
“I really should learn this stuff. It’s not good for me to just leave it to others,” she said sheepishly. It really wasn’t. After spending time around the heiress, it was beginning to dawn on her what responsibilities she was going to have as a lord in the future. “I wouldn’t complain if you put a word in to make sure my request is taken seriously though. I haven’t quite broken through to the third realm yet.”
Cai Renxiang nodded approvingly, the halo of light behind her head gleaming. “I will make time to tutor you on legal matters. I believe you are active at night?” Ling Qi nodded in response. “May I ask what the issue is? I assume it is a family matter.”
Ling Qi’s instinctive reaction was to clam up, but if Cai Renxiang wanted to find out, she would. And hiding the problem would only hinder her efforts to help her mother. “My Mother is being harassed by false creditors. I’m not sure why, but I’d like to help her if I can.”
“I see,” Cai Renxiang said, looking unhappy. She always did when the subject of corruption came up. “The Sect’s protection would not extend that far. Please give me two days to make arrangements.”
Ling Qi nodded happily, glad that this new matter could be taken care of so easily. Now it was time to speak of Yan Renshu, which was the original purpose of the meeting. Yan’s sabotage had stopped, but she was sure that was only because of the heat brought down on him by Cai’s faction.
He had chosen to not take his defeat and leave her in peace, Ling Qi would just have to personally see that he understood the mistake he had made in pursuing his vendetta against her.