With less than pleasant thoughts about Yan Renshu in mind, she returned home.
Settling into her meditation room, Ling Qi began her preparations for her next breakthrough attempt. Sealing the door, and adjusting the lighting, then finally, taking a dose of the pain killing elixir that Li Suyin had brewed for her. Just in case things went poorly again.
Unfortunately, it did. To break through into Bronze Physique, she needed to weave qi into her flesh and bones, fortifying her body beyond it;'s current limits. Again, she had failed to keep control. The qi had splintered under the strain of the attempt rather than merging with her tissues as it should have. Ling Qi was left breathing raggedly, covered in painful, splotchy bruises and filled with a bone deep ache.
It took her a few hours of meditation before she could stand without a wobble. She hated to imagine how long it would have taken if she still healed like a mortal. That she would have to recover the lost cultivation was another bitter pill to swallow; Ling Qi found she didn’t much like the feeling of failure nor the time it would cost her. Still, she supposed she could take this time to see what Cai’s white room could do. It wasn’t difficult to convince Xiulan to come with her.
The Room itself took the form of a great, three peaked tent of cloth set up outside of the village shrouded in shimmering rainbow mists that seeped from underneath. There were more than a few mortals and common cultivators gawking at the grand construction when she and Xiulan approached, but the onlookers were kept out by guardsmen who surrounded the field the white room had been set up in.
It wasn’t simply city guards either. Although they made up the bulk of the perimeter, mixed in among them were men and women clad in sleek, white lacquered armor over fine chain and pointed helms with white plumes. Showing her personalized council armband was sufficient to allow her and her guest to pass through the cordon and enter the misty interior of the room.
It was difficult to describe the inside. Ling Qi could vaguely recall diaphanous sheets of silk and bubbling baths, scented oils and and incenses, and inhuman white clad servants who she couldn’t clearly recall any details about.
... Frankly, it was a little unnerving. But when she emerged, she felt more refreshed and full of energy than ever before, and her cultivation had fully recovered. Xiulan looked to be quickly closing on the late stage of her physical cultivation.
With her recovery complete, Ling Qi had just one last thing to do before making another attempt at her physical breakthrough: a meeting with a Sect official regarding the Imperial Writ she had earned by breaking through to the third realm. Odd as it was to think about, she was now a noble, and she needed to understand what that meant.
Ling Qi did not often linger in the main building of the Outer Sect. She had not ever elected to spend her points on the lessons offered there, and accepting and receiving rewards for Sect missions only involved a single room. So today was the first time she had gone to the second floor. Unlike the ground floor with its wide, spacious rooms and decorated halls, the second floor seemed duller.
The floors were still polished to a gleam and the halls well lit, but there was little decoration. Rather than opening into many large rooms, the halls were lined with little doors leading to little rooms. Fluttering paper messenger birds flitted along the ceiling.
There were very few people her age up here. Instead, going by the prevalence of graying hair, the place was populated by men and women much older. Most were in the late second realm or the first few stages of third, though she had trouble determining the exact stages for the third realm cultivators. If she concentrated, she could faintly feel burgeoning third realm domains. Compared to the potency of Zeqing, those who worked here were barely visible, papering whispers of order with any sharpness worn away by decades of peaceful toil.
She reached the office that her message had specified at the end of one of the narrow hallways. The room was well lit by a wide window that looked out over the plaza. Shelves full of books and scrolls lined the walls, and a small potted tree grew in one corner.
In the center was a heavy wooden desk, its surface covered in neatly organized stacks of paper, one of which was in the process of folding itself into a messenger bird. A small circular mirror on a bronze stand occupied another corner of it. Behind the desk sat the room’s sole occupant, a thin man with lightly lined features and a black minister’s cap worn over grey hair that retained only a few traces of black. He had a thin mustache, a neatly groomed beard, and piercing grey eyes. At the fourth or fifth stage of green soul, the Sect advisor must be among the stronger employees up here.
“Greetings, Miss Ling,” the Sect advisor said in a polite and cultured voice. “I am Hou Cheng. It is good to see a young lady who is prompt in seeing to her responsibilities. Please, come in and sit.” He gestured to the finely upholstered chair that faced his own.
Ling Qi offered a polite bow, remembering Meizhen’s lessons on etiquette. “Thank you for your kind words, Honored Elder Sect Brother.” As she moved to step into the office, Ling Qi noted other little details: the inkbrush scribbling away without any input from the man behind the desk, a plaque displaying a handful of polished bone arrowheads hanging from the far wall, and the flicking tail of a cat, lounging half beneath the desk.
Then she stepped across the threshold and paused, blinking as she felt the man’s domain wash over her. It felt like the archive but more so. The musty scent of preserved parchment and drying ink tickled her nose. The odd sensation quickly passed, and Ling Qi took her seat, resting her hands neatly in her lap. “And thank you for taking the time to instruct me.”
“It is no trouble,” the elderly man replied, steepling his fingers together as he studied her. “My duty to the Sect is to instruct my juniors. Given your rate of advancement, it seems likely that you will outrank me soon.” He seemed remarkably unbothered by that, and Ling Qi had to fight back a frown. The taste of contentment in his qi, in his domain, bothered her. Could one really cultivate properly feeling like that? “In any case,” he continued as the silence stretched, “your writ, Junior Sect Sister.”
A scroll of snow white paper wrapped by a string of violet silk materialized in his hand, and Ling Qi accepted it tentatively. “What changes now?” Ling Qi asked as she gingerly tugged the silk ribbon, loosening it so that she could unroll the scroll. Her gaze met incredibly intricate borderwork and fine calligraphy declaring the establishment of the Clan of Ling in dense legal terms.
“In the immediate sense, very little,” Advisor Hou answered. “As a beneficiary of our scholarship program, your responsibilities and title are held in trust until the end of your service. As a baroness, you will be entitled to an officer position immediately, unlike those of lesser ability. The exact details of those matters will be left to the commander where you are stationed. You are exempt from your tithes and taxes until you have established a holding, so do not worry over those matters.”
Ling Qi blinked. She hadn’t even considered that she would suddenly owe taxes because she became a noble. “The Empress is wise and generous,” she said for lack of anything better. “May I ask then, what becomes of my mortal family?”
“Ah, yes,” he said, glancing at a sheet of paper to his right. “Your mother, Ling Qingge, and a younger sister, Ling Biyu, no father recorded.” There was a tinge of disapproval to the old man’s voice on that last part, and Ling Qi felt the urge to speak up and defend her mother. “Your status overrides traditional propriety. You are the head of the Southern Emerald Seas Ling Clan, and as such, as the head of the family, you will have full legal authority over mortal members.”
“What does that mean?” Ling Qi asked, leaning forward.
The Sect Advisor studied her, his expression hard. “I will be frank. Mortals have few rights of their own. As the head of the clan, you may do with your family as you wish.” Ling Qi felt disquieted at the implication of that statement. Hou Cheng’s expression softened at her reaction. “If you would like, I will arrange for the Sect to transport and house them here in the Outer Sect village.”
“... I would have to write her first,” Ling Qi deferred.
“Simply submit the application when you have made your choice,” the older man said kindly. “Now, continuing with your introduction, I must warn you that your actions and interactions will be taken far more seriously from this day forward.”
She frowned. “In what way?”
“The mistakes and insults of the common born are not typically treated seriously, even by the least of families. It is beneath them as a clan, even if their scions choose to hold personal grudges,” Advisor Hou explained frankly. “As the head of a fledgling family, however, your actions and any slights will be seen through the lens of family honor. It is a common mistake for new nobility such as yourself to build more grudges than they can endure. I only warn you so that you may choose your words and actions with greater care in the future.”
Ling Qi held back a grimace. Hopefully, her relationships would shield her from too much pettiness. “Are there any laws or rules in particular I should be concerned about?”
“All Imperial laws continue to apply to you in full,” he answered, a paper messenger bird taking flight from his desk to flit out of the window. The next message immediately began folding itself. “The primary effect of your new status, I will repeat, is that your actions will be taken more seriously, as an adult’s would. Should you wish it, I will have a copy of a text on common law and aristocratic etiquette made for your perusal.”
“I will accept your generosity,” Ling Qi said. Meizhen had given her some lessons, but it couldn't hurt to have another point of reference.
“Very good,” Advisor Hou said with a slight smile. He glanced to his left, and a small slip of paper shot off of his bookshelf to flutter out the door. “Now, your new status does come with certain privileges as well. You will receive limited access to the markets of the Inner Sect to ensure that your cultivation does not unduly stall due to a lack of access to the appropriate resources, and you will be granted the right to receive a single green spirit stone per month at a discount.” He flicked his sleeve, and Ling Qi caught the small ivory badge he threw to her. “Take this to the front desk downstairs when you wish to access the Inner market or receive your green stone.”
“How much of a discount?” Ling Qi asked curiously, briefly examining the badge before tucking it away.
“At the current exchange rate…” Advisor Hou considered. “With the Sect discount, it is two hundred red stones for one green stone.”
That was less than half the usual exchange, if Ling Qi remembered correctly. With her pill furnace income, she could even afford it reasonably often. “Can I purchase more green stones than just the one?” she asked eagerly.
The advisor peered at her carefully. “Should you have the funds, yes. Such transactions would be at the full price, subject to market fluctuations. You must be quite industrious.”
Ling Qi flushed a little at the examination and subsequent praise. “Thank you for your kind words,” she replied. “I know this may be blunt… but may I ask what incentives the Sect offers for people like myself to stay rather than going to seek their fortunes in vassalage?”
“It is a fair question,” the old man said, unbothered. “You must understand that we in the Argent Sect do not wish to conflict with our noble patrons, however much we might wish for young talent such as yourself to stay with us even after the end of your debt period. In this humble advisor’s opinion, the Sect offers the best opportunities for education and cultivation. The archive of the Outer Sect is but the least of the Sects’ collection of knowledge passed down since the second dynasty, and our Talisman Department, headed by the Venerable Elder Sima Jiao, is the jewel of the south and produces wonders and advancements by the decade.” He sounded pretty sincere in his pitch. “In addition,” Advisor Hou said, lowering his voice, “the Sect is a place largely free of the more delicate politics one finds in the greater province.”
Ling Qi nodded, lowering her eyes in thought. “That is how most new houses fall, isn’t it? They run afoul of more established clans?”
“Not as often as you might imagine, but it is a heavy concern,” he admitted. “More often, I find, new clans are simply folded into others by marriage or adoption, or their new heads put themselves into fatal positions in efforts to expand their new and usually barely tamed holdings.”
“I guess ruling even a small village is harder than it sounds,” Ling Qi said wryly.
“Very much so.” Advisor Hou chuckled. “You cannot imagine the work I do every day, and I am but an assistant to Venerable Elder Ying. The lands nearby do not remain relatively passive without effort nor do the roads and totems maintain themselves. Ruling is a heavy responsibility. Should you choose the path, do not allow pride to be your fall. The spirits of this land have been civilized by many millennia of effort. It is likely that any holdings you receive will not have that advantage.”
Ling Qi had to wonder just how bad it would be if he considered the spirits around here civilized. “Should I have further questions, where might I go to have them answered?”
“Simply come here and present the same badge which gives you access to the Inner market. While I may not often be available, one of my subordinates will be pleased to answer any queries,” he answered. There was a rustling of paper as a little bird fluttered through the open door, bearing a heavy book. “It seems the text I sent for has arrived. If it pleases you, might I point out the most relevant passages for study?”
“Of course. Thank you, Senior Sect Brother,” Ling Qi replied. At least it wasn’t a monster like Cai’s law texts.