Ling Qi knew that it was unreasonable of her to be frustrated after a mere two weeks of failing to reach bronze. Many, many people failed to manage it entirely, and most took months at minimum for their own breakthroughs. Yet she could not help but be irritated by her own failures.
At least she had made progress this time. Some of the purified stellar qi had actually settled properly into her bones and tissues, forcing out further impurities, but she had lost control of the densely packed qi. Ling Qi had ended up covered in painful blotchy bruises from dozens of burst blood vessels and coated in a film of oily filth for her trouble.
For all the benefits, breaking through was a thoroughly unpleasant experience at times.
She was afraid her own frustration had caused her to go a little overboard though. Ling Qi studiously looked away from the scene playing out in front of her, idly toying with a strand of hair that had escaped her braid. It had been getting unruly again since she had left meditation.
In the training field, half a dozen boys in the lower second realm lay on the ground, pale and covered in frost. One lay curled up in a ball, eyes wide as he glanced around in a panic. She felt a little bad, but he had been starting to rally the others so she had trapped him with her elegy to prevent the group from beating the exercise. Even now, her mists still lingered on the field, clinging at the hems of her gown, and her breath came with particles of sparkling ice.
“This concludes the initial exercise, men. Engrave in your minds the effect of being unable to resist an enemy spiritualist!” Gan Guangli stood beside her, looming above like a pillar of polished steel. His arms were crossed over the shining breastplate of his armor. “Now stand and thank Miss Ling for her efforts on your behalf!”
Ling Qi glanced up at him then away as she saw the honest grin directed down at her. The boys in the field stumbled to their feet, still shivering as the obeyed Gan, lining up to bow and offer a discipled, and only slightly wobbly, shout of gratitude directed at her. As awkward as it was, she managed to perform the proper bow in response.
“Very good! You have one hour to meditate and cultivate upon what you have learned. Drilling will resume then. Dismissed!” Gan Guangli’s shout echoed over the field, and his subordinates scattered. She didn’t miss the way they avoided her gaze as they all but fled from the field.
... Definitely overboard.
“I do apologize for the poor showing, but thank you for your help all the same,” Gan Guangli spoke again when they were well out of earshot, his normally shouting reduced to merely ‘loud.’
“It was no trouble,” Ling Qi replied, tucking her flute away. “After failing to break through for three days, I needed the exercise.”
“Hah! Truly, it is a troublesome thing, breaking into a new realm,” Gan said with a laugh. He himself was her opposite, having finally broken through to bronze but lagging in the spiritual. “I hope my subordinates served well.”
“They need to work on their perceptive arts,” Ling Qi commented, reluctant to criticize others. “Only half of them really resisted much at all.”
“And I will see that they are rewarded for that,” Gan said agreeably. Ling Qi blinked as he tossed her a small metal canteen. She caught it and raised an eyebrow in question. “Playing for so long is thirsty work,” he said in reply to her unasked question. “My preferred mineral water encourages the quick recovery of one’s qi as well. It is the least I can do.”
“Ah, thank you,” Ling Qi replied, a little nonplussed. She unscrewed the cap and took a sip. She would distrust such an offer from another source, but Gan Guangli wasn’t the type to spike a drink. The water had a crisp taste to it, cleansing the last of the sour flavor left over from her failed breakthrough, and she felt her somewhat depleted qi begin to cycle more smoothly. “Can I ask why you’re still doing this though? The open fighting is done, and Princess Sun’s allies are mostly focused on physical attacks.”
He caught the canteen as she tossed it back. “It is my duty as Lady Cai’s right hand to not only be a great warrior in my own right but to be a leader as well,” Gan stated gravely. “And to be honest, the lack of discipline and coordination among them irritates me greatly.”
Ling Qi let out a quiet laugh. “I suppose you were marching in good order from the moment you could walk?”
“Very nearly,” he responded, entirely straight-faced but with a hint of humor. He turned, giving her a questioning look as he headed toward the exit of the training field. She fell in beside him easily enough; it was a warm day and good for a stroll.
“You didn’t answer the second half though,” Ling Qi pointed out.
“A lack of defense against spiritual arts is common among lower realms,” Gan explained, clasping his gauntleted hands behind his back as they walked. With combat over, he had gradually shrunk, reaching his normal height only a head taller than her. “Such arts are not as common nor as enticing to new cultivators as more obviously offensive arts.”
“I suppose,” Ling Qi said, thinking of Argent Mirror. She supposed spiritual attacks were fairly rare in the Outer Sect. “Why is that though?”
“It is a matter of resources,” he said bluntly. “Even cultivators who can reach the third realm in their lifetime may only use so many arts in tandem. Those like you and I - or Lady Cai and MIss Bai - are exceptions, not the norm. The issue is even worse among common cultivators for whom the resources to open more than perhaps ten meridians in their lifetime is a dream.”
“That seems like a pretty obvious gap in capability,” Ling Qi mused. “Doesn’t that mean the Empire’s common soldiers are vulnerable to spiritual attacks?”
“They are, and spirits of that sort can become a long-running plague on the regions they inhabit,” he answered with a frown. Ling Qi’s thoughts turned to Su Ling’s background. The girl didn’t often talk about it, but she knew that Su Ling deeply resented her ‘mother.’ “Some nobles choose to invest more in their soldiers, but most are content if they can repel assaults from the more common sort of beasts. It is shameful. I admire the sects for training and equipping their forces with proper regularity and discipline!”
“Well, I’m sure you won’t let this province’s forces be lax,” she said lightly.
“One day, all of the Emerald Seas will have soldiers as well drilled as the White Plume Regiment of General Xia Ren! On my honor, I swear it.” It seemed Gan had taken her comment seriously. He had stopped, raising a clenched fist to the sky as he spoke.
“You know, you’re really good at switching that on and off,” Ling Qi commented, eyeing him shrewdly as they resumed walking.
“A man should be open and passionate,” Gan said with a wide grin, “so that his followers may be inspired, but I know that there are times for solemnity.”
Ling Qi shook her head. “I think you just like shouting,” she said, smiling a bit.
“You have discovered my secret, Miss Ling. I must ask that you hold it close to your heart,” the taller boy replied with utmost seriousness.
“I’ll think about it,” she shot back. “Let’s pick up the pace though. I’ll get us something to eat before we have to head back. I never did pay you back for punching out Kang.”
“A task for which I hardly need a reward, but I am not one to refuse a maiden’s gratitude,” Gan agreed. “Lead the way, Miss Ling.”
After dealing with so many closed-off and complicated people, it was nice to just spend some time chatting with someone so open.The food at the market tea house was good, and she had to admit, there was a certain appeal to torturing - that is, training - subordinates.
Things really did feel peaceful now.
As much of an exercise in relaxation as it was though, between speaking with Gu Tai and then spending time with Gan Guangli, Ling Qi’s thoughts could not help but turn to Cai Renxiang. The time was soon coming when she would have to accept or reject the girl’s offer. Even with her recent troubles, she doubted that she would take more than a month before completing her breakthrough.
Yet she still knew so little about Lady Cai. She was convinced that the girl’s espoused views were genuine, but that wasn’t really the same.
No, they still needed to talk. Ling Qi’s steps took her toward where she knew Cai Renxiang would be. If nothing else, the girl stuck to her schedules like clockwork unless there was an emergency.
Ling Qi found Cai Renxiang, unsurprisingly, on the road between the market and the residential district surrounded by her usual small tableau of unctionaries. Not doubting that the other girl could sense her since she was making no effort to hide, Ling Qi took up a position a polite distance down the road and waited for her to approach.
Sure enough, she felt Cai’s gaze lock onto her the moment her group crested the hill she waited at the foot of, and when they walked near enough to speak without shouting, the heiress raised her hand to halt and silence her followers. “Ling Qi,” she said by way of greeting. “What news brings you here? Have you heard of the recent problem in the market?”
Ling Qi did not show the slightest hint of the twinge of guilt that passed through her at those words. Cai Renxiang trusted her subordinates too much. That was probably going to get her in trouble one day.
“I have,” she responded instead. “But I am sure the market’s investigators can handle it. Unless the Cai faction has been asked to participate?”
“I had offered, but it was declined,” Cai replied, expression stern. “The market guards its independence and its own specific rules fiercely. What brings you here then?”
Ling Qi took a deep breath. “The matter that you gave me to deliberate over. If it would please you, I would like to discuss it. I believe the time to make the decision is coming soon.”
The other girls with Cai glanced between them curiously, but the gaze of the heiress herself remained focused on Ling Qi’s face with laser-like intensity, the faint halo of light behind her brightening by degrees.
“Very well,” she said simply before turning her attention to her followers. “Continue and complete the requisitions in my absence. I will review them in the morn. I will be beginning my evening cultivation somewhat early today.”
Ling Qi watched with a raised eyebrow as the girls surrounding Cai Renxiang did the little social dance of accepting Cai’s dismissal and did her best not to react to the furtive, curious, and calculating glances sent her way. Only when they had bustled off, leaving her alone with the heiress, did Ling Qi speak again.”Is that really going to be alright?” she asked. “I don’t doubt that some rumors just got kicked up.”
“It is inevitable,” Cai Renxiang agreed, looking up at the sky where streamers of color had begun to spread with the setting of the sun. “This is a matter of import though. I offer you my congratulations on reaching the third realm.”
“Thank you very much, Lady Cai,” Ling Qi replied, offering a polite bow, her hands clasped. “I admit, I almost expected you to be waiting in our dining room with Bai Meizhen to receive my answer.” She kept her tone even but tentatively teasing. Cai was serious at all times, but she seemed to accept a little bit of impropriety in their interactions.
“I am not so impatient,” Cai answered a touch dryly. “You have not yet completed your ascension either. I will not rush this matter further than I already have.” She turned on her heel. “Come. I do know your specific concerns, but they are best not aired in the middle of the road.”
Ling Qi blinked in surprise as Cai’s feet left the ground, tendrils of light blooming over her shoulders, but hurried to follow. The mantle she wore over her gown fluttered as she rose into the air as well, trailing streamers of black mist. She caught up to the heiress quickly, bobbing gently in the air beside her as the wind washed over them. She wasn't sure where they were going so she just followed Cai Renxiang’s lead.
“You are confident in your reserves,” Cai mused, glancing her way. “Good.”
“Flight still drains me quickly,” Ling Qi warned, subconsciously manipulating the rushing wind to prevent it from interrupting her words. “As much as I wish it didn’t,” she admitted, looking at the mountain now spreading out below them. She still loved the sensation of flight. “Where are we going?”
“To a training ground of mine,” the heiress answered. “Do not concern yourself with the drain for now. Liming’s presence bolsters its lesser kin.”
For a moment, Ling Qi didn’t understand what Cai Renxiang meant, but then she glanced at the pure white gown Cai wore and met hungry red ‘eyes.’ “That’s new,” she replied cautiously. Now that she knew to pay attention to it, the drain on her qi was a trickle compared to the usual. “What is Liming? I admit that I lack understanding in the matter.”
“An artificial spirit created by my Lady Mother,” Cai Renxiang replied shortly, her stern gaze passing over the landscape rushing below. “Object spirits are unreliable things, their formation difficult to predict and their rate of growth slower and more easily disrupted than other spirits. Duchess Cai has fixed many of these problems, but the cost of doing so puts the creation beyond price. Aside from Liming, only three others of the same quality currently exist.”
“I assume that Duchess Cai has one, and I suppose the Empress has another. Who has the third?” Ling Qi asked curiously.
“You are correct in your assumptions,” Cai Renxiang approved. Her lips thinned as she continued though, which was as close to a scowl for the stoic girl as Ling Qi had ever seen. “The third belongs to Mother’s greatest supporter among the province’s nobles.”
Ling Qi remained silent as they banked in their flight path, curving around the mountain. She elected not to push the topic further. “That reminds me. Before the Sect, I had never left Tonghou. What is the capital like? You would have grown up there, right?”
“Xiangmen is unmatched in its beauty, save by the Imperial capital itself,” Cai replied, easily shifting to the new topic as they began to descend. “I suppose each ducal family thinks the same of their seat.”
“Perhaps, but that just means they are biased, right?” Ling Qi quipped.
“Of course,” the heiress replied, her serious tone never wavering. “Regardless, it is likely difficult for one of your background to picture. The city of Xiangmen was the original stronghold of the Weilu clan, and as such, the whole of it is built into and on the Divine Tree, the last of the great Heavenly Pillarwoods.”
Ling Qi furrowed her brows. “The city is built into a tree? How…”
Cai gave a slightly amused huff. “As I said, it is difficult to picture for those who have not seen it. The Divine Tree is kilometers across at the base, and its canopy breaches the sky itself. The view from the ducal palace looks down upon the province like the seat of a divine judge. The city resides in hollows within the trunk and branches as well as terraces carved into the exterior and passages woven through the roots.”
“That must have been scary as a child. Do a lot of people fall from the tree?” Ling Qi asked, trying to imagine living so far off the ground even as she was hundreds of meters in the air herself at the moment. The two of them began to descend.
“Mortals are confined to the lower reaches, including children,” the heiress explained as the downward arc of their flight grew steeper, “for their own safety. A mortal would suffocate in the upper portions of the city.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Ling Qi said as the two of them landed in a strange field of tall, narrow stone pillars, wide enough only for a single person to stand upon. The pillars rose from a pool of shimmering, clear water, charged with a potent qi.
Cai Renxiang stood straight and tall on the highest of the pillars, closing her eyes as she breathed in deeply from the placid atmosphere. Ling Qi could feel the rigid qi that filled this place flowing toward the heiress, and her gown rippled, the fabric sparkling under the dying light.
“This place is private,” she said as she opened her eyes. “What is it that you wish to ask?”
Ling Qi restrained the urge to scuff her foot against the smooth surface of the stone pillar beneath her. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time around you now. I think I understand your goals, at least on a surface level,” she began slowly. “I am grateful to you for your help in understanding Imperial law, although I have a long way to go.”
“What troubles you then?” the other girl asked without hesitation.
“Despite all that, I feel like I don’t know you,” Ling Qi replied just as bluntly. “You said you wanted my loyalty, the kind I extend to Bai Meizhen, Li Suyin, Su Ling, or Gu Xiulan, but… I know things about them - personal things - and they know details of my own life that I don’t easily share… We do not have that between us.”
“I see,” Cai Renxiang said with a slight frown. “You know, of course, that I have investigated your background.”
“There’s that,” Ling Qi agreed, crossing her arms. “I’m sure you know everything about me that the flapping lips of Tonghou could reveal, but I know nothing of you beyond the obvious.”
Silence fell between them, and this time, Ling Qi did not bow her head, keeping her gaze locked with Cai’s own as she waited for the heiress’ answer.
“I have few frivolous details to share,” Cai Renxiang started after a long silence. “I do not have time for leisure. My life has been spent solely in preparation and training for the fulfillment of my role. I have no ‘hobbies.’ I could speak, I suppose, of my preferred blends of tea or the minor projects in tailoring I use as part of my meditative process, but I suspect that would not solve your concern.”
“I probably wouldn’t understand,” Ling Qi freely admitted. “All teas taste pretty similar to me, and my needlework is limited to repairs.”
The other girl's eyes flashed, the light behind her intensifying, casting her shadow across Ling Qi. “That will change, should you join me. The foothills of the Emerald Seas produce most of the Empire's tea. It is a matter of court etiquette to recognize the various blends.”
“Is that so?” Ling Qi asked, twisting a stray strand of hair between her fingers. Honestly, that sounded awfully like a hobby to her. “I suppose taste testing teas is better than straining my eyes on books that could be used for paving stones,” she murmured before shaking her head. “We’re getting off track.”
“True,” Cai Renxiang agreed. “But I do not understand yet what you desire from this conversation.”
“I’m not sure either.” Ling Qi grimaced. “You know that my mother was a prostitute and that I spent most of my life as a thief. You probably have a bunch of records that mention the things I did in more detail than I remember. I want to know you before I make my choice. Not the heiress of Cai, not your goals. I just... want to know why Cai Renxiang seeks the things she does."
The red ‘eyes’ splashed across the other girl’s chest looked down at her, no longer with hunger but with suspicion. Cai’s face was a blank and stoic mask. Some part of Ling Qi felt relief. She would be rebuffed and go on with her life.
“You ask for much given your position,” her voice was cool. “And you do not even pretend to have made your decision.”
“I know, but this is what you wanted from me,” Ling Qi answered defiantly, despite the worm of guilt in her gut. She wasn’t treating Cai Renxiang completely honestly given the scheme with Fu Xiang. "I can't guarantee it to be a revelation, but if you did, I would speak of myself as well. It would only be fair."
Cai Renxiang regarded her with a frown. “There is a story I can share which could help you understand. It is not a secret. You could find it on your own if you had the resources to investigate.”
Ling Qi was silent. Was Cai Renxiang trying to convince Ling Qi or herself?
“When I was very young, I heard many things of my Mother’s greatness,” Cai Renxiang began slowly. “But I had never met her. It was not possible for a mortal to attend the court at Xiangmen, and it was impractical for Mother to descend. However, childishly, I sought to meet my Mother. I was allowed to attempt cultivation very early. I was very… excitable at that age.”
Ling Qi had some trouble imagining the stoic girl in front of her as a small, excitable child. However, she also wasn’t sure where this story was going. Was Cai Renxiang just explaining in a roundabout way that she idolized her mother? If so, that was surprisingly normal.
Cai Renxiang paused, seeming lost in thought. “I worked tremendously hard despite the difficulties a child of the age of six faced in attempting cultivation. My minder, one of Mother’s apprentices, encouraged and helped me, and soon, I had Awakened. I was very proud. With my first wisps of qi, I learned to power the talisman that would allow me to survive the environs of Xiangmen’s court.”
“So you succeeded. I guess you really are talented,” Ling Qi said. Really, she couldn’t imagine a six year old having the focus and discipline to cultivate. No wonder Cai Renxiang could maintain her cultivation while doing so many other things.
Cai Renxiang didn’t acknowledge her words. Instead, she turned to face the descending sun, and the halo of light around her withdrew and grew dim. “I met my Mother and looked upon her face for the first time. I nearly died.”
Ling Qi blinked, then blinked again, poleaxed by the sudden swerve.
“I cannot realistically describe the experience to one who has not felt Mother’s gaze,” Cai Renxiang continued. “Mother gave me the attention I requested, and it broke that foolish child. I humiliated both myself and her, bleeding and crying on the carpet of the throne room. But there was some value in the experience.”
“And what was that?” Ling Qi asked thickly.
Cai Renxiang turned back to face her. “I gained a small fragment of understanding, both of my Mother and this province. Emerald Seas is a broken place, Ling Qi. It is scarred and twisted by millenia of civil and martial strife, as well as deliberate malice and misrule. The task my Mother has accepted is to attempt to repair that. It is a titanic task and an admirable one, but the means to do so are not kind.”
Ling Qi really did not like where this was going.
“My Mother is a tyrant,” Cai Renxiang said bluntly. “She is a builder and an administrator beyond compare, but that is not her core nature. She is a breaker. She breaks institutions, traditions, and people alike. She crushes them to dust, so that they may be built anew to her specifications, as I was when she fitted me to Liming in the aftermath of that day in the throne room.”
“And you want to follow her example?” Ling Qi asked warily.
“No,” Cai Renxiang replied emphatically, the light around her flaring. Her voice reverberated with power and conviction, rattling stones and sending ripples through the pools below. “Many things need to be broken, but you cannot go on breaking them forever. New people will be born to new institutions and new traditions. Tearing them down again and again will only bring misery. I wish to be the one who can work with the systems my Mother has built, to maintain and reform, and most of all, to make sure that such breaking is not necessary again. That is my core drive, Ling Qi, why I wish to rule, why I act as I do. My Mother’s actions are not wrong, but they are only the first step of many to real prosperity and good. Do you understand?”
Ling Qi thought of Tonghou and all the many miseries and abuses which were perpetuated in that nasty, crumbling little city. Some part of her wanted to believe that Cai Renxiang was right, that Tonghou was not merely the way of things, as immutable as the rising and falling of the sun.
She couldn’t quite do it, but looking at Cai Renxiang’s face, hearing the echo of her words, she was finally convinced that Cai Renxiang did.
“You said she rebuilt you.” Ling Qi asked. “What is that supposed to mean?”
The red silk cloth splayed across Cai Renxiang’s chest rippled, and the eyelike spots on the butterfly's wings twitched, somehow conveying a vicious smugness. Cai Renxiang looked pained. “... I do not imagine that my Mother is unaware of my aspirations or my disagreements with her Way. Her eyes see all. Everything she does is deliberate,” she said quietly.
That was unsettling, implying that the Duchess knew perfectly well what would happen to her daughter when they met. It implied that Cai Renxiang’s beliefs, the insight she had taken were a deliberate manipulation, that they could be changed again, that the girl before her was no more than a puppet on strings.
“That’s just how people are, isn’t it?” Ling Qi contended. “We don’t decide how we’re going to be. We just change in response to the things that happen to us. I didn’t steal and hurt and starve because I set out to do so. I won’t try to waive responsibility, but being like that… it’s just the natural result of my conditions. One of those ‘systems’ you talk about.”
“While it gladdens me to have you acknowledge the systemic nature of such problems, I do not think you wholly comprehend my words. Such things are not equivalent to the machinations of a cultivator at the peak of their Way.”
“Aren’t they?” Ling Qi asked. “Isn’t that the whole goal of cultivation, to ascend and become part of the way the world itself functions?”
“That is not wrong, but I believe your conclusion on the nature of ascension is misleading,” Cai Renxiang said with a frown.
“Maybe so, but I think you’re overthinking matters too. Do you know why I’m so generous to my friends? Why I do everything I can to stay close to them? It’s because caring is hard. Su Ling calls me an airhead sometimes, that I miss things too easily, and she’s right.”
“Hardly an uncommon trait, if a flaw to be certain,” Cai commented. “I am not certain I understand the relevance.”
“Because I don’t care. Not about most things, not about most people,” Ling Qi responded. This wasn't something she had articulated before, but it clung to the edges of her understanding all the same. “Until I’m close to someone, I have to work to care. I have to focus and stay focused, or I just… move on,” she continued, frustrated.
Because dwelling on things in the past was painful. Because forming connections meant accepting loss.
“At least what you want - for people to live better, safer lives, to improve government, and make things more fair - is a virtuous goal.” She didn’t stop speaking, leaving no room for Cai to interject. “I’m just a selfish girl who wants to keep her friends and family close, so I never have to be alone again, and damn anyone who gets in the way of that. That aspiration comes from what I experienced before.”
There was a reason she got along so well with Zeqing and why she found it so easy to play Zeqing’s songs. Ling Qi knew on some level that the way she acted was wrong sometimes. The way she simply allowed Li Suyin’s quiet hero worship without gainsaying it. The way she felt a tiny sliver of satisfaction from knowing she was the only real friend Gu Xiulan had anymore.
Most of all, the way she treated Meizhen. On some level, she knew that her friend was fragile… and she took advantage of that. Instead of flatly rejecting her interest in the days following that incident, she had instead given a half-hearted response that left room for hope. It wasn’t even conscious really. She just wanted her friend to stay as close as possible.
Cai remained silent even after she had stopped speaking, regarding her with furrowed brows. “You posit that the source of an aspiration is less relevant than the aspiration itself,” she said after contemplation.
“Yes,” Ling Qi shot back. What was she even trying to say? Even if she was right, it didn’t fully address Cai Renxiang’s fears. “Look, I don’t care much about laws, and to me, justice is whatever the nearest strongman says it is, a meaningless word for people who want to sound like heroes in their own head and compel everyone to keep their heads down and obey.”
“Anarchy and lawlessness are harbingers of suffering, as you should well know,” the heiress replied.
“I do know that,” Ling Qi said with a grimace. “That’s why I almost want to believe in what you say.”
“... Justice requires order, but order is not justice. Not on its own. Therein lies my disagreement with my Honored Mother,” Cai Renxiang said quietly. “The clannish selfishness you spoke of is the root of much evil as well. Do you know what horrors have been wrought by those who think of family above all else?”
“I can imagine,” Ling Qi replied, her head bowed.
The light around the other girl dimmed, and Ling Qi thought she saw the other girl’s stiff shoulders droop fractionally. “Do you know what I have regretted most since arriving on this mountain?”
Ling Qi closed her eyes, considering the events of the last half year. “Trusting Sun Liling to keep her word?”
Cai scoffed. “Not at all. The West is volatile, and that girl more than most. No, I regret the harshness of the penalty inflicted upon Ji Rong.”
Ling Qi hadn’t even considered that the girl might regard that as something worth regretting. “Why?”
“Because it accomplished nothing,” the heiress expanded. “Some might say it solidified the appearance of my authority, but I think this position is wrong. Detestable as it is, the simple overwhelming force of my council was enough for that.”
“I thought the point was to make sure everyone understood that corruption was unacceptable,” Ling Qi replied, thinking uneasily of her own crime.
“It is,” Cai agreed, dipping her head. “However, it is the duty of the lord to consider circumstances, and in that incident, I was overzealous. In doing so, I destroyed any chance that he might have come to be educated properly. Like Mother’s order, it was overwhelming and absolute… but I wonder at times, what is lost when its crushing weight comes down.”
“You believe this is what she wants you to think,” Ling Qi said shrewdly.
“Quite. I was shaped to find the flaws which are beneath her notice,” Cai agreed.
“I wonder about that,” Ling Qi replied, feeling subdued. “I have never met the Duchess Cai, but even the Sage Emperor wasn’t omniscient. I don’t think anyone, even Great Spirits, really control everything around them, no matter how hard they try.”
“You do not know her.” Cai’s response was immediate, and Ling Qi shuddered at the fear which touched the stoic girl’s voice. It felt discordant and wrong to hear that sort of childish, all-consuming fear from Cai Renxiang.
“You’re right. It isn’t my place to speak of it.” Ling Qi sighed. “For the record, next time we have a friendly chat, maybe we should stick with discussing tea.”
The shadow on the heiress’ features disappeared, and her expression returned to normal. “I believe that may be for the best.”
“... Is your offer still open with what I said?” Ling Qi asked tentatively.
“If I believed that others could not be brought to see the truth of my justice, I would not be worthy of my name,” Cai Renxiang replied, her confidence back in force.
Despite the heiress’ words, Ling Qi was troubled as she left Cai’s training ground. Her assistance of Fu Xiang didn’t violate the text of the Sect’s or Cai’s rules - sabotage was well within the playbook of competition in the leadup to the New Year’s Tournament and the targets were part of the market faction, rather than Cai’s - but it probably violated the spirit. Could she really commit to Cai while also committing to the lie she and Fu Xiang had crafted? She didn’t know.
She was going to talk to Fu Xiang. The first two could no longer be helped, but she would ensure that the third would not be unjustly framed. Two competitors knocked out of the crafting competition was already beyond what Fu Xiang had asked of her. She wouldn’t betray someone who had helped her, but she didn’t want to participate in the scheme any further.
It made her feel dirty, as if she had never escaped the gutter in the first place.