Their ambush, combined with several smaller ones targeting the Sun Princess’ remaining followers, proved to be the breaking point. The fortress on the cliffs closed, and raids on the enforcers stopped. Sun Liling’s few remaining followers seemed to enter a fully defensive mindset.
With tensions ramping down, Ling Qi finally had time to complete the lessons she had begun under Cai Renxiang.
Ling Qi grimaced as she set her brush down, peering at the letter she had just finished. She had finally completed the proper forms, and now, she was drafting the cover letter that requested assistance from the head of the local Ministry in Tonghou.
Leaning back in her seat, she reviewed line after line of pleasantry and formality. This was her third draft. This time, it was free of ink smears or ill-formed characters; it was as perfect as she could manage.
“It appears that your calligraphy is at an acceptable level.” She glanced up as Cai Renxiang reached down to pluck the letter from the writing desk, scrutinizing it for errors. “You merely had to take your time.”
Ling Qi restrained the urge to make a face at the heiress, her propriety worn thin by her recent efforts. It had taken the better part of an hour to carefully draft the final copy of the letter due to Cai’s insistence on perfection. Ling Qi hated to waste her time on something so pointless, but good draftsmanship would probably be the sort of thing needed to make a good impression on some high-up legal official.
“I’m just glad this is all done,” Ling Qi said aloud instead. “Thank you though,” she added more sincerely. “I do not want to think about how long it might have taken me to do this without your help.”
“It was little trouble,” Cai Renxiang replied, carefully folding the letter. “These are matters which you will require an understanding, if not mastery, of,” she continued as Ling Qi rose from her seat to follow the heiress out of the study and into the hall. “We all serve the Empire. It is foolish to not understand its underpinnings.”
“I just wish those underpinnings were in good Imperial,” Ling Qi grumbled. Half of her trouble had come from trying to parse the dense legal language everything was written in. “Your explanations are the only reason I ended up actually understanding what I read.”
“It is an understandable trouble for a novice,” the heiress said. “I will send this on the morrow with my recommendation attached. If you would like, I will review any response with you when it arrives."
"I would like that," Ling Qi said agreeably as they reached the entryway. She turned as she passed the other girl and offered a respectful bow. "Thank you for your time and your help. I might not be very close to my Mother anymore, but I don't want to see her troubled."
She caught a flicker of some emotion in Cai Renxiang's eyes, but then the girl simply nodded, her expression stern. "Duty to one’s family is a virtue. Your efforts are commendable. I am glad to aid them. Good fortune to you, Ling Qi."
Ling Qi allowed her eyes to close as she let out a sigh of relief. After so long sitting stiffly behind a writing desk, lowering herself into the hot scented water of the bath felt heavenly. The warmth seemed to seep in, right to her bones, easing away points of stress she hadn’t even noticed. She felt like she could stay here soaking forever.
“My, when was the last time you took the time to let your hair down, Ling Qi?” Gu Xiulan’s voice broke through her reverie, and she opened her eyes to look at the other girl.
The thick steam in the small private room they had rented was no real obstacle to her eyes, so she could clearly see her friend sitting perched on the polished wooden bench that wrapped around the perimeter of the room, still wrapped in a towel with her hair hanging damply around her shoulders. Of course, her eyes quickly drifted to the thick cloth wrapping around the girl’s crippled arm, worn even now, seemingly impervious to the moisture in the room.
“Too long,” she replied, instead of voicing any of her thoughts. “You were right though. This is a good way to cap off the night. What do they put in this water?”
Ling Qi could feel traces of qi and smell hints of medicinal aroma in the air. She knew the feeling of relaxation seeping into her body could not be wholly natural.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Xiulan said with a careless shrug and an amused smile, which stretched the scars on her cheeks awkwardly. “I did not ask the chefs at the restaurant we stopped at which spices they used either.”
“You are such a noble.” Ling Qi rolled her eyes as she leaned back against the edge of the bath. The smooth stone tile of the bottom felt much better than the rough floor of the natural spring. “Aren’t you curious at all?”
“Why, thank you for noticing,” Xiulan answered with mock courtesy. “And not particularly so. I will always have others to take care of such things for me. Why waste my time on it?”
Ling Qi let her friend’s answer pass with only a good-natured grumble in response, letting her head loll back as she stared up at the dimly glowing grey circle in the ceiling which provided the lighting. It had been pretty easy to convince Xiulan to come along with her tonight. The girl’s acerbic demeanor hadn’t faded at all in the past weeks, but she reserved the majority of her venom for Fan Yu and Han Jian. Ling Qi had been mostly exempt from it.
It had been odd and uncomfortable at first, wandering around the center of the city practically in the shadow of the magistrate’s mansion, surrounded by richly dressed mortals and lesser cultivators. It made her fingers itch and her heart race. Some part of her still expected every guard they passed to seize her by the shoulders and throw her out, no matter that her cultivation exceeded all but a bare handful of the armored men and women they passed at their stations. In contrast, Xiulan had walked along through the streets as if she owned them, haughtily staring down anyone whose eyes lingered too long on the scars visible behind her veil.
Even with Ling Qi’s lingering unease, the evening had been fun. They had made chitchat, lingering in various shops debating over the merits of minor things. Xiulan had purchased several vials of perfumed liquids, and she had cajoled Ling Qi into purchasing a few new ribbons to work into her hair. It was all very frivolous, but Ling Qi found it difficult to begrudge the expense. Money just didn’t concern her as much anymore, not when they had each traded a stone or two for a full jangling pouch of silver before even entering the market.
“Did you fall asleep?” Xiulan asked dryly, shaking her loose from her thoughts. “Is the water truly so relaxing?”
“Of course not,” Ling Qi replied. The last time she had slept had been a little nap in the garden outside of Zhengui’s pyre four days ago. She didn’t have time for things like that. “I was just thinking about what I bought today.”
“Those ribbons?” Xiulan moved to sit at the edge of the bath, letting her legs dangle into the partially opaque water. “I told you they would match your eyes quite well. You are going to have to spend more care on yourself if you wish to wear your hair loose though.”
“I know.” Ling Qi huffed. Even now, without certain special oils, her hair tended to turn into a frizzy mess. “It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Yours is always so shiny and straight.”
“Well, of course.” Xiulan smirked. “But I have been taking care of it for years,” she added, fingering the dark length of her hair. “You know,” she began, eyeing Ling Qi critically, “if you lightened how much straightener you used, you might be able to pull off a bit of curl. It would look good.”
“Maybe,” Ling Qi replied noncommittally, not enthused about spending time experimenting to get an effect that looked presentable. Just making her hair behave like everyone else’s was enough.
“Only a suggestion,” Xiulan said carelessly as she slipped into the water, leaving her towel behind at the edge. Ling Qi noticed how she carefully kept her wrapped arm out of the water.
“... Are you feeling better then?” Ling Qi asked quietly. She was hesitant to bring such things up, but she felt that in the end, nothing good would come from ignoring it.
Xiulan shot her a heated look, which she met steadily, not backing down. “I have gotten used to it. For the most part,” her friend answered. “As much as one can. It is more than worth it.”
“That’s good,” Ling Qi agreed, holding in a grimace at the somewhat brittle edge to the girl’s tone. “I don’t just mean the physical stuff though. I guess…” Ling Qi fell silent, struggling with her wording. “... how are you holding up with… everything?”
Xiulan didn’t answer, looking down into the water instead. Ling Qi didn’t press further, hoping she had not offended the prickly girl.
“Mother is horrified at what I have done to myself.” When Xiulan spoke up, it was quiet. She didn’t sound like the bombastic and confident girl Ling Qi had gotten to know. “Father… I think Father understands. But even he thinks that I have gone too far, that I gamble too much and too freely.”
Ling Qi remained silent, letting her friend work out what she wanted to say.
“And that is not even considering what he might say if Fan Yu had a spine to his name,” she added more venomously. “I know I have broken with propriety - that I have been incredibly rude and insulting… I just cannot bring myself to care!” The water around Xiulan bubbled with heat for a moment before she took a deep breath.
“I can’t say that I really get all of that,” Ling Qi said slowly. She understood on an intellectual level because of her recent forays into understanding noble behavior. It wasn't part of her the way those things were for a born noble though. “Didn’t you used to say things about a lady maintaining her composure even if you don’t like it?”
Xiulan sunk further into the water, her expression darkening. “I did, didn’t I? I was always a poor student when it came to Mother’s lessons,” she said bitterly. “Yet another thing Sister Yanmei is my superior in.”
Ling Qi grimaced. “I don’t think you can really be blamed too much for losing your patience in the past couple months,” she consoled.
“It has not been merely since this happened!” Xiulan retorted hotly, gesturing at her scarred face. “Ever since I came here, it seems that I have been forgetting myself, ignoring the things Mother taught me about how a proper woman of the Empire should act.” Her shoulders slumped. “I have been acting little better than a barbarian at times. Is that why Jian rejected me outright so suddenly?”
“I don’t think so,” Ling Qi said uncomfortably. “I think… he is just trying to take his duties more seriously.”
“While I continue to act like a child,” Xiulan said glumly. “Hmph. I suppose it is no wonder.”
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with being upset,” Ling Qi said carefully, “about losing something you’ve wanted for a long time. But you do have to move past it eventually.”
“Look at you playing counselor,” Xiulan teased. “You are too patient for your own good. Sometimes I wonder if you are some long lost cousin of Mother’s.”
“Probably not,” Ling Qi replied dryly. “If you’re thinking silly things like that, maybe you should go cool off.”
Ling Qi hoped her friend would be able to reign herself in a little better in the future. She had a bad feeling things would get messy if she didn’t.