Improved senses were a detriment in some cases, Ling Qi thought, trying not to grimace as she walked the dirt path that wound between the fields on the outskirts of the town at the base of the mountain. The scent of the goats grazing in the rocky field to her right wasn't even the worst smell she passed so far. As bad as the city streets could be, Ling Qi had always preferred them to fields and farms.
She could still remember the first time she had stolen a chicken. The vicious little monster had clawed her arms to ribbons before she was able to wring its neck. No, she much preferred picking pockets to rustling livestock.
Yet here she was among the mundane fields around the town, heading toward the cultivator farms that were further out. The note from the tutor she had hired said that they would meet out there so Ling Qi had little choice but to walk quickly and try not to linger near recently fertilized fields.
At least the scenery got more interesting once she passed by the mortals fields. Livestock grew more exotic and colorful. Even the plants were more unique, a riot of color compared to the endless brown and green that had come before. Still, she continued south where the land began to rise in hills. Ahead of her stretched entire hillsides covered in dark green and deep red hummocks of plant life, grown in curved but orderly rows.
Tea fields, Ling Qi mused. She supposed they must need a lot of it given how popular the stuff seemed to be. She peered around as she walked, searching for her tutor. There were plenty of men and women scattered around, wide straw hats granting them shade from the sun. The vast majority were only a step into the first realm with a handful at the middle stage.
It made it rather easy to search out who she was looking for. The potent aura of a third realm cultivator stood out like a bonfire.
The young woman’s attire also made her stand out. Where the other field workers wore coarse and shapeless clothing, the tutor wore a clinging, emerald green dress, plain and unembroidered with a mantle of what seemed to be living flowers worn over her shoulders. Her face was concealed by a rose colored veil, but her hair was put up into an elaborate arrangement held together by what again looked to be living flowers.
To make her presence stand out even more, she was riding sidesaddle on the back of a three-tailed red fox the size of a small horse. The fox carried her at a sedate pace through the lanes between the rows of tea plants. One hand rested on the fox’s neck, but the other was held out, a faint sparkle in the air as something fell from her hands. As she drew closer, Ling Qi could feel the heavy, vital qi infusing the earth as the tutor was carried along the rows, and she imagined that she could see the plants swelling in the girl’s wake, healthier and more robust.
The girl looked up as she approached, and the fox stopped. She waited patiently for Ling Qi to cover the remaining distance while observing her serenely.
Once Ling Qi had reached a polite distance, she stopped and bowed formally. “Would you be Senior Sect Sister Bian Ya?”
“I am,” the girl replied, her voice light and lilting. “You would be the Junior who requested assistance then?” Bian Ya’s mantle rustled as the flowers shifted of their own accord. The fox she was mounted on briefly sniffed the air as she spoke before making a low whuffing sound and turning up its snout. The gesture seemed contemptuous.
Ling Qi eyed the fox warily but bowed a little lower. “Your Junior Sister greets you, Senior Sister Bian.”
“I am glad to see you are punctual. Rise and walk with me, if you would,” the girl said, patting her mount on the neck. “I would like to complete my morning stroll.”
Ling Qi straightened up and hurried to follow as the fox turned in the lane between the tea plants to resume their walk, falling in just behind. “May I ask what you are doing, Senior Sister?” she asked, observing the mixed flows of wood and wind leaving the girl’s outstretched hand. Now that she was closer, she could see the scattering of vibrant qi was being thrown quite far, falling over plants like a light spring rain even hundreds of meters away.
“Bringing health to the fields. It is Outer Sect work, I know, but I do not find it unpleasant.” The girl raised her free hand and waved, drawing Ling Qi’s gaze to where she was looking. At the edge of the field, several young men struggled with a heavy totem on a sledge, dragging it uphill. It was sweaty, dirty work, Ling Qi could see. “The scenery is not unpleasant either,” Bian Ya added, as if reading her thoughts. “The Inner Sect can be stuffy at times.”
“Senior Sister knows best, I am sure,” Ling Qi mumbled, averting her eyes and ignoring the heat rising on her cheeks. She really should be better than this by now. “I understand the use of wood qi for your task, but what are the wind flows accomplishing?”
“Does not the wind carry seeds to their destination? Conceptually, weaving the two together only makes sense if you wish to scatter the effects of your wood qi far and wide.” The girl’s airy tone became more serious. “The odd combination you requested was almost passed over. I am no archer, nor is wood a common element among those who are.”
“I was worried about that,” Ling Qi admitted, watching the girl’s back and her mount’s flicking tails. “Thousand Ring Fortress art has saved me several times though, and it doesn’t feel right to leave it behind while I master others.”
“Wood, or at least its yang aspect, is solid and dependable like that,” Bian Ya agreed, turning her head to look over her shoulder. “You are from a common background?”
“I am,” Ling Qi said, a bit of defiance entering her tone as she met the older disciple’s gaze.
“Nothing wrong with experimenting then,” she said, seemingly taking no notice. “I may not be an archer, but I do have some insights on wind to share which may be of use. That is why I chose to accept your request.”
Ling Qi was glad that she had good luck with tutors so far. She hurried her pace to keep up as the girl in front of her began to speak in an idle tone, describing her insights into the elements which Ling Qi had requested tutoring for.
Unlike her previous tutor, there was no explosive training or tests of endurance. Bian Ya seemed to take a more theoretical approach, inviting Ling Qi to speak her own thoughts as they discussed the vagaries of wind and wood qi. Her tutor continued to trek across the fields as they did, occasionally pausing to chat with a group of workers. This was occasionally uncomfortable when the older girl got into a bout of playful flirtation with particularly handsome farmhands, but Ling Qi endured.
They didn’t cultivate at all that first day, but Ling Qi was fine with that. She left the fields feeling as she had gained a greater understanding of the elements her arts used, and that would speed her private cultivation later.
In the time not spent on tutoring and cultivation, Ling Qi continued to work on ensuring her safety for the rest of the year. She explored the mountain and its surroundings, learned its paths and terrain. Ling Qi focused on finding places where she could hide or escape. She mapped out ravines, crevices, and other pieces of difficult terrain where her Sable Crescent Step and its shadow walking would give her advantage.
She also, for the first time, took an interest in Cai’s enforcers, learning their patrol routes and schedules with the same detail that she had learned the patterns of the various forms of security in Tonghou. For rather opposite purposes, of course. After all, the law was on her side now.
LIng Qi did not let her work on identifying escape routes get in the way of training. She continued to work with Xiulan and the others in the afternoons and Meizhen in the evenings to improve her arts and unlock further meridians. There was no repeat of her singular failure this week. With the aid of a Highsun Pill, she returned to opening her channels with ease, the excess from her cycling settling into her bones and muscles, pushing her closer to the absolute peak of second realm.
Her work on the successor to her very first art came to its conclusion as well. With mastery of the final exercises of the Zephyr’s Breath, she could now create a gust of wind powerful enough to send an enemy flying far away beyond the meagre pushback of her earlier techniques. The dummy she had used to practice on ended up smashed to splinters against the mountainside. Even better, this Fleeting Strike technique could catch a whole group and force them away if she tagged them with the art’s first technique, Against the Wind, beforehand.
If only her other training was so easy.
Ling Qi stifled a sigh as she turned the page of the massive tome in front of her. The book, if one could call the mammoth slab of parchment and leather that, probably weighed half as much as she did. It would take a strong mortal just to lift the hateful thing.
Perhaps that was to be expected of something titled “Unabridged History of Financial Regulation of the Modern Age.” Page after page of tax codes and contract laws had been branded into her thoughts. She saw numbers and tables when her eyes were closed. This book was not merely a record of current laws. It included the evolution of those laws over the last thousand years and had page upon page of scholarly dissertation about each and every change, as well as its effects, current and projected.
“Have you completed the introduction to credit law?” her tormentor asked blithely.
Ling Qi looked up, suppressing the glower that wanted to surface, and met Cai Renxiang’s steady, unshakeable gaze. The heiress was seated behind a heavy desk, working through a stack of letters and papers half the size of the monster on the table in front of Ling Qi. The brush in her hand continued its motion across the paper in front of her as she waited for Ling Qi to respond.
At first, Ling Qi had felt nervous about entering Cai’s home, worried that she would give offense. That feeling had faded within a day or two. The heiress’ living quarters were as rigid and regimented as the girl herself. Everything was arranged to perfection within. Ling Qi had not seen a single thing that was not actively in use out of place since coming here. Even the flower arrangements and other decorations had an angular, geometric feel to them.
“Almost,” she replied grudgingly, glancing down at the precise, tiny text in the book open on the table in front of her.
Cai Renxiang observed her, the brush in her hand pausing. “Do you require assistance with a passage?”
LIng Qi rubbed the bridge of her nose as she glanced from the book to her notes, already turning into a hefty sheaf themselves. “... Not right now, no,” she admitted. “I just needed to pause to absorb the information.”
“You are doing well,” Cai Renxiang complimented after a moment, making Ling Qi feel as if she were back at home, wanting praise and a treat for doing her sums. “You took in the essentials of filing and interacting with the Ministry bureaucracy quite quickly.”
Ling Qi grimaced at the minutiae she had already memorized, forms and files and types of address. “Why is that all so complicated anyway? I thought knowing etiquette for nobility would be enough, but now there’s this whole other-” Ling Qi gestured at the weighty tome, searching for a word, “- culture and language to learn!”
The other girl glanced at the tiny window of her study then set her brush down carefully. “You are not wrong.” Cai Renxiang interlaced her fingers together in front of her face as she continued to observe Ling Qi. “The Ministries are a necessity of our society. While the right to rule rises from personal prowess and enlightenment, those abilities do not always lend themselves to administration.”
Ling Qi glanced down at the book in front of her, which was currently discussing Emperor Yi’s decrees revising the standards of record keeping for lenders and the massive upheaval that had caused as millions of debts were rendered invalid. “I can understand that. So the Ministries are there so the nobility can focus on cultivation and war?”
“That is oversimplifying things somewhat,” Cai Renxiang said, a touch of dryness to her tone. “They also serve as an honorable occupation and a place to slowly seek advancement among the lower class of cultivators, as well as a place for the less martially inclined scions of the lower and middle nobility.”
“That makes sense,” Ling Qi mused. “Even among cultivators, not everyone wants to fight. Still, don’t the Ministries end up in a lot of conflict with the lords? What’s to stop a high noble from just overriding them? As you said, the strong rule.”
“Tradition carries a strength of its own,” Cai answered smoothly. “To treat one’s ministers poorly is to court the disapproval of one’s peers. And while any titled cultivator outranks any but the highest members of the various Ministries, they do have their own strength and their own methods of leverage. The Ministry of Law, in particular, is the most venerable of the Ministries. It is not lightly crossed. Under the proper circumstances, mastery of law may be far more deadly than mastery of blade or fist.”
Ling Qi considered her own mastery of music then Xin’s words about choosing Ways and concepts. She wondered just how metaphorical the heiress was being. “I guess I better get reading then,” she grumbled. “Ten thousand strikes to become a master, huh?” she said under her breath.
“Far more than that, sadly,” Cai Renxiang answered without looking up from her work. “Let me know when you have completed the introduction. I will help you find the appropriate statutes under which you may file your request for investigation.”
Ling Qi turned her eyes back to the tome in front of her. She could have asked Cai to write the cover letter and fill in the proper forms for her, but she had wanted to do it herself. She had asked for this. She had no right to complain. And now, here she was.
At least once she finished reviewing the introduction, she could just flip through the actual laws. She had never been happier to see a table of contents.