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Starlight and beams of moonlight trickled into her channels like droplets of clear, pure water. The slim crescent moon shone faintly overhead, no less potent than her sisters in the qi that streamed down from the celestial body.

On her rooftop, Ling Qi breathed in and cycled her qi, letting the new energy mix with her own. Once, twice, a score and more, she kneaded the celestial qi until it merged with her own. At this point, the act of taking in the moon’s qi did not require heavy concentration, but Ling Qi wanted to think. The inkbrush and paper laying on the folding tray on her lap remained unused as of yet.

She had known this was coming, but the reality of it was different. She had a noble title. It still felt bizarre to her. Just a year ago, she had been scrabbling for scraps. Now, she had authority. She could, if she were so inclined, command rich, mortal men who would have had guards throw her scrawny urchin self out on the street with a beating for her trouble to grovel and kowtow in the dirt.

In theory anyway. Bullying mortals was looked down on in noble circles, Ling Qi thought wryly. It would make her look weak and childish unless she contrived to make it look like they had committed some major offense first. It was more trouble than it was worth, and frankly, she didn’t care all that much anymore. How many faces from Tonghou did she even recall?

Well, there were one or two at least.

She needed to inform Mother of this. Even if they were still distant, Ling Qi’s noble title affected her mother a great deal because as a mortal, her mother was effectively Ling Qi’s ward. Her lips twisted into a frown. It still felt wrong and bizarre that she could treat her own mother like a child and expect it to be backed up by legal force.

Would the older woman resent her for it? Ling Qi didn’t think so, but at the same time, for all that they had begun communicating again, how well did she really know her mother? Even if she didn’t resent her consciously, the simple fact of her authority would be a specter haunting their future interactions.

Or maybe she was just overthinking things and a woman who had lived like her mother had would understand and accept things as they were. Ling Qi let out a breath, allowing the flow of her qi to slow. Picking up her brush, she smoothed the paper down. No more second guessing.

Mother,

It has been some time since my last letter, so I hope the aid I arranged for you has been helpful in resolving the issue you spoke of in your last letter. If the necessities of drafting that aid are any indication, I do not blame you for being too busy to write again.

I am writing because some things have changed for the both of us. Due to my advancement in cultivation, I have received a noble title.

It sounds ridiculous, right? Someone like me being a baroness. Even if I have military service to the Sect to perform before I take up any actual duties, it still seems absurd. Our family is apparently now “The South Emerald Seas Ling Clan,” presumably because there are already other Ling families in other regions. I think there are forms which can be filled out to change our clan name or maybe the name is just an affectation of geography. I’m not sure; I haven’t read all of the relevant documents in full yet.

I’m rambling a little, I can tell. I don’t really know what to think of all this. Getting to the point though… Mother, you probably already understand what this means as well as I do. Don’t think I’ve missed the hints that you have some idea how nobles work. I won’t ask you to tell me why in a letter, but I really do think we need to have a proper talk.

So… would you like to do that? I can arrange transport. My Sect advisor offered it, but I am not sure if it is a good idea or not. The trip could be dangerous, and being near the Outer Sect could also be dangerous. In a few more months, I should be free to come visit, one way or another. It might be best to wait.

I’m not making any demands. I don’t want to either. I just don't want to ruin what we’ve just started to fix, just because of the authority this title gives me. I would really like to hear your thoughts on what we should do, Mother.

Ling Qi

The missive was short, but Ling Qi didn’t really feel like it would be appropriate to mix other things into the subject of this letter. Looking down at the drying ink, Ling Qi sighed and closed her eyes. She would send it out in the morning when she had finished cultivating. Hopefully, her mother would respond promptly.

She also needed to deal with Xiulan’s family. Looking back, it was probably more than a little rude to not even speak to Gu Tai after their introduction, as awkward and lacking as it had been. She would send him a message tomorrow as well, asking to speak.

Ling Qi stood, dismissing her writing implements back into her ring. For now, she wanted to get her weekly sleep in.

***

The next morning, Ling Qi headed down to the village with Zhengui in tow and made her arrangements at the local branch of the Ministry of Communications, sending off her letter and a tithe of silver. She also had a message sent to Gu Tai, asking to meet at his convenience. She didn’t want to be pushy.

That done, she left the village to do some work and training with Zhengui. She intended to take him out to the more wild part of the woods for some more intense training and cultivation later this week, but for now, the outskirts would do. Zhengui was growing well, and by the end of the week, she was sure he would advance to the middle of the second realm if she kept feeding him as she did. Thankfully, heading deeper into the woods meant that she would be able to harvest quality second grade cores too at the same time.

It wasn’t the most active activity though. Zhengui was maturing, and he needed less and less help to hunt. It left Ling Qi open to idle thoughts as she perched in the boughs, watching her little brother. What was she going to do in the future?

Ling Qi had a very difficult time picturing herself as a baroness, as any kind of ruler really. Yet that was now what she was. She could stay with the Sect of course, maybe even become a permanent member. In a few hundred years, perhaps there could even be disciples calling her Elder Qi.

Ling Qi laughed to herself at the thought. Zhengui erupted from the dirt, and Zhen’s fang’s caught a frightened rabbit. Unlike in his younger days, the beast did not escape. Picturing herself as a Sect Elder seemed just as absurd as being a baroness.

She really didn’t know what path she wanted to walk to build her home. She only knew that she wanted to keep climbing the mountain that was cultivation, to strengthen the wings she had so that she could carry any roots she chose to take on.

Ling Qi passed a few hours like that, musing on the future. A bit before noon, she received a fluttering note in reply from Gu Tai, agreeing to meet her. The note gave directions to the inn he was staying at as well as a time. She rather hoped he wasn’t intending to meet her in his room.

She knew she was being silly. That would be all kinds of inappropriate, and whatever else she thought about the matter, Xiulan’s cousin had not seemed like the type to do that. The indicated time was a couple hours from now, so Ling Qi ended her training session shortly thereafter and Zhengui settled sleepily into her dantian. While she wasn’t going to go overboard, she should probably at least make sure she didn’t have leaves in her hair or mud on her shoes when she went to see him. She had taken at least a few of Xiulan’s lessons on presentation to heart.

When she arrived at the inn, she found her initial knee-jerk concern unfounded, as she thought it would be. Upon informing the attendant at the front desk of who she was here to see, a serving girl had led her out onto a sunny little veranda overlooking the building’s central gardens. There were a few tables scattered across it, but it maintained a quiet and serene atmosphere.

Ling Qi didn’t miss the subtle formation work carved in the borders of the polished wooden boards that made up the floor. At a glance, she could see that it was meant to insulate each table from sounds rising from the others, essentially creating bubbles of relative privacy despite the open floor. Gu Tai was seated at the table situated in the far left corner of the veranda overlooking a clear pond studded with white water lilies.

Xiulan’s cousin wore a deep crimson tunic decorated with fine gold embroidery depicting images of dancing flames and soaring phoenixes and baggy white pants tucked into polished black boots. As she approached, he looked up from the object he had been toying with; she recognized it as a paixiao, a set of pipes constructed out of more than a dozen wooden tubes of varying length. His was made of some kind of odd milky crystal.

“Miss Ling, I was glad to receive your invitation,” he greeted as she passed the line of silence around the table and the server bowed and took her leave. “I see you have been making good use of your time. Congratulations on reaching the third realm so soon,” he continued with a smile.

“You are too kind,” Ling Qi replied politely, pulling her eyes away from the instrument to meet his gaze. He didn’t seem offended at her delay in reaching out to him, so that was good. She took her own seat across from him, folding her hands in her lap as she leaned back in the comfortably padded chair. With her newly sharpened senses, she could feel that he was in the fifth stage of green and the fourth of bronze. “The last few months have been very hectic,” she said cautiously. “I appreciate your patience and hope you haven’t been inconvenienced overmuch.”

For just a moment, the handsome boy's smile took on a self-deprecating edge. “Do not concern yourself. I am not losing time on anything important at the moment. I have other duties to my clan to resolve in addition to making my offer to you.” He glanced down at the pipes in his hands and set them down on the table with a light clink. “Tell me, is it true that inner province girls swoon over musicians?”

Ling Qi blinked at the sudden change in subject. “I wouldn’t know,” she commented dryly, “being a girl from a border province. Was that the plan?”

“No,” he laughed. “I thought it might serve as a conversation starter, but it seemed a bit too obvious. I haven’t practiced in years either. I would not want to embarass myself.”

Ling Qi regarded him curiously. “Why did you stop?” she asked.

“It is seen as a rather effeminate hobby in the Golden Fields,” Gu Tai admitted freely. “And other things took precedence,” he continued, running his fingers over the crystal pipes. “If I may be blunt, Miss Ling, you do not find our offer very attractive, do you?”

Ling Qi winced. “It is a very good offer, and you aren’t lacking in any way.”

He waved off her conciliatory words. “There is no need to spare my feelings,” he said with a wry grin. “I admit, I have done a little information gathering of my own. I strongly suspect you have at least one offer with which I cannot hope to materially compete with, even with the Gu clan’s significant prestige and wealth.”

Ling Qi remained silent. Cai had asked her not to mention anything about her offer.

“The company you keep does make things rather obvious to one who knows the proclivities of certain parties,” he continued airily. “And with your breakthrough, I doubt you will find the Sect’s rewards lacking should you advance to the Inner Sect.”

“It seems like you have things figured out,” Ling Qi replied. “Are you giving up then?” she asked. Somehow, that seemed a little disappointing.

“No.” Gu Tai’s blunt reply surprised her. “Perhaps it is just my temperament, but it would gall me to surrender without a fight. I know that the Golden Fields are not an attractive prospect, but I would like you to seriously consider it all the same.”

“I’m not sure what there is to consider,” Ling Qi admitted. “I can’t say I dislike the idea of exploring, of discovering new things, but I don’t know you. This whole marriage thing - It’s-” she broke off uncomfortably.

“I suspected that might be the trouble. I forget, sometimes, that other provinces are not as staunchly traditionalist as our own. Somewhat ironic, considering,” he mused.

“Considering what?” Ling Qi raised an eyebrow.

“My own position,” he answered. “As much as I believe in the reclamation and its great importance to our province, I admit that part of the appeal is freeing myself of our clan politics. Xiulan’s father and mine were… rivals, and I suspect the only reason he tolerates me is due to cousin Yanmei’s obvious genius.” He shook his head. “Regardless, I could promise you that I would be an attentive and productive husband, but I suspect that would not reassure you.”

“Not really,” she said uncomfortably. “As I said, it’s not really a problem with you. I’m just not really comfortable with the idea of marrying so early, and with so little…” Ling Qi trailed off.

“I do find you an attractive prospect in many ways,” Gu Tai continued after a moment. “Your talent and determination both do you great credit. Yet I am not the kind of man to press my attention where it is not wanted.” He met her eyes with his own, expression uncharacteristically serious.

“Thank you, I think,” she replied tentatively. He must have drawn entirely wrong conclusions from her words. She may have let the young man’s generally lax attitude make her forget that he was a cousin to Xiulan with all that implied. He had very intense eyes when he was fired up. Silently strangling that thought, Ling Qi clarified, “For the compliment and not being… pushy.”

“It is no more than you deserve. From my observations and Xiulan’s words, you are a rare gem indeed,” Gu Tai said, the fire fading from his voice as he allowed his posture to once again grow lax. “Might I ask what I could do to improve my suit in your eyes, Miss Ling?”

“I don’t know,” she evaded. “I think getting to know one another better might help?” She felt flustered, if she were being honest with herself.

He looked her over, brows furrowed in thought. “Your spirit beast is fire natured, is he not? I can feel his qi clinging to you yet.”

“Partially,” Ling Qi replied, feeling a little more on balance with this subject. “Zhengui is fire and wood. I suspect he is aligned with the concepts of cyclic growth and destruction.” Her reading had introduced her to the fact that stronger beasts aligned with certain Ways, as Xin had previously hinted cultivators must become as they advanced through the realms.

“Interesting,” Gu Tai said, resting his chin on his hands. “Let me offer this then: my own spirit has a somewhat similar theme. Would it be acceptable for me to join you in your lessons? I might have some useful advice on how to develop his abilities.”

That did sound good. Even if his cultivation wasn’t that much higher than hers, he did have years more experience. On the other hand, some part of her was still deeply uncomfortable with the situation.

“Thank you for your kind offer. Might I have some time to consider it?” she asked, leaving other thoughts unsaid.

“Certainly,” he agreed, relaxing in his seat. “I will not press you any further. Would you care to stay for lunch?”

Ling Qi politely declined and took her leave after that, filled with an undefined feeling. She really wasn’t used to being complimented, even though she knew objectively that Gu Tai hadn’t even been very heavy-handed about it.

... She was just going to lock herself in the meditation room and start working on breakthrough for a while.

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