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Sparring with Su Ling made for a good counterbalance for a relatively lazy morning. They spent the afternoon circling the clearing, the sounds of Su Ling’s efforts to crack her reinforced shell of wood qi echoing. The only offense Ling Qi allowed herself was her clumsy first efforts at wielding a flying sword.

Using a flying sword with her domain was like having another arm, if one atrophied and weak from disuse. The inexpensive Neophyte’s Blade, which she had purchased with Meizhen’s help bobbed drunkenly through the air. Its thrusts and slashes were painfully obvious, but gradually, Ling Qi was picking up how to wield it without distracting herself. She could feel her control of it growing more natural over the course of the spar.

In the end, when Su Ling’s qi reserves flagged, the two girls sat down, leaning against Zhengui’s warm shell at the edge of the clearing. Ling Qi’s spirit had elected to take his nap after cultivating all morning.

“You’re ridiculous,” Su Ling grumbled. “I can split a boulder, but you throw up that armor and I feel like a mortal that just took a swing at a mountain.”

“It helped you get a better grip on Argent Current’s pressure crack technique though, didn’t it?” Ling Qi grinned. She was beginning to gain confidence in her defense between this spar and the fight with the dragon. The specter of Sun Liling’s thorn-laden spear prevented that from growing into overblown pride. “You’ve really put a lot of effort into your swordwork.”

“I like doing it, and I picked up another couple sword arts from the archives. Gotta cultivate my body before I can advance though,” Su Ling replied, her ears drooping with exhaustion. Ling Qi supposed that explained why Su Ling had only just reached mid silver, if she had been focusing so exclusively on arts in her cultivation. “Not as much time for that as I might like. Gotta also keep up with my pills.”

“Are you still not even going to try for Inner Sect?” Ling Qi asked, looking up at the sky. “If you can make something like those Silverblood pills, I think you could make it.”

“That was Suyin as much as me,” Su Ling rebutted shortly. “I’ve told you I don’t want to get tangled up with the Sect.”

“What do you want then?” Ling Qi asked, her thoughts drifting to her own future choices.

Su Ling glanced over at her but didn’t move from her relaxed position. “I want to get strong, get some real fighting experience in the army… and then I want to go chop my mother’s head off.”

Ling Qi grimaced. “Doesn’t it seem a little petty to just focus on revenge like that? There has to be something more you want other than that.”

Su Ling snorted. “If you had said that six months ago, I’d have punched you,” she said bluntly. “But you’re not wrong. I’ve done some research since I came here. It’s not just revenge.”

“What do you mean?” Ling Qi asked, propping herself up on her elbow.

“I mean that the bitch has a fucking moniker and stories ‘n shit about her,” Su Ling spat. “She’s been murdering people like my dad for half a damn millenium, and since she mostly avoids botherin’ cultivators, doesn’t disrupt trade or anything, no one who could stop her bothers to give a shit. I’m going to end that.”

“You still haven’t answered what you want to do after,” Ling Qi commented. It was hard to emphasize. Su Ling had never even known her father, for obvious reasons, so why did she care? While something like a murderous spirit was an ugly thing, there were a million and one things just as bad or worse in the world, and most of them were human.

“Fuck if I know,” Su Ling said, her expression rueful. “She’s a fourth grade spirit. I’ll probably have a hundred years to figure that out.”

“That’s all the more reason for you to advance, you stubborn girl,” Ling Qi huffed, flopping back down onto Zhengui’s back. “You’ll have more resources and a place to stay and train.”

“And more people to object if Viscount Lazyfuck decides he doesn’t want a mongrel starting fights with a powerful fourth grade spirit on his lands,” Su Ling shot back. “Ling Qi, you’re a good friend, but I think you’ve bought into the bull peddled by the Sect and the nobles. You know the only reason they pay you any mind is ‘cause of how fast you’ve grown, right?”

Ling Qi frowned at the aspersion that implied on her noble friends, but she couldn’t say that was wrong. Neither Bai Meizhen nor Cai Renxiang would have noticed her if she hadn’t made good on the talent she had shown. “What’s wrong with being appreciated for your abilities?”

“Nothing,” Su Ling replied, sounding tired. “I’ll think about trying for the Inner Sect next year, alright? Leave it be.”

Ling Qi would have to take what she could get, and she wasn’t sure she could criticize Su Ling much. Ling Qi couldn’t really envision the passage of a hundred years nor was she very clear on her own path.

“Alright,” she said, dropping the subject. “Same time tomorrow then?”

“Yeah, same time tomorrow,” her friend agreed. “And thanks for the training.”

“Thank you for the pills,” Ling Qi replied in a lighter tone. “I have plans for those…”

***

All too soon, they parted ways, and Ling Qi headed down the mountain for the last thing she had planned today. It was a rather more serious matter than cultivating with Zhengui or Su Ling - Cai Renxiang was expecting her answer. That the girl hadn’t demanded it right after her complete breakthrough to the third realm was something she was grateful for, but Ling Qi was aware that the heiress would probably ask soon if she didn’t bring it up herself.

Seated in Cai’s guest room, Ling Qi was uncomfortable. It was not a particularly large room nor ostentatious in design, but she felt out of place here. The lacquered wood of the tabletop was so polished that she could nearly see her reflection, and the white upholstery of her seat felt like she was floating upon a cloud. Around her, the walls were hung with elaborate tapestries depicting fragments of the history of the Emerald Seas, scenes that she only barely recognized from fairy tales, and there was nary a wrinkle to be seen. Even the position of the chairs, the setting on the table, and the pattern of the carpet held an almost unnerving symmetry. Ling Qi felt like she was breaking something important just by shifting her chair.

It was a few minutes later that Cai swept into the room, the shimmering form of her white gown gleaming in the girl’s ever-present backlight. Ling Qi rose and bowed, as was proper, clasping her hands in front of her. “Lady Cai, thank you for choosing to see me on such short notice.”

“It is no trouble,” the heiress replied gracefully, inclining her head just enough to acknowledge Ling Qi’s show of respect before she proceeded to a high backed chair, set apart from the rest. Taking her place, Cai Renxiang seemed to slot into an unseen hole in the room, like the last thread of a now-complete canvas. “Please, be seated. I had meant to call on you next week, but I am glad enough to have this meeting now.”

Ling Qi acquiesced, falling back into her own slightly smaller chair. Carefully, she reached for the porcelain tea set, spooning the dried leaves into the pot to begin brewing their drinks. “Yes, although I still have some questions.”

Cai considered her for a moment. “What yet troubles you?”

“First, I would like to ask what exactly you wrote in that cover letter for my legal request,” Ling Qi said. As much as the image of her mother’s harassers slamming their heads into the ground in kowtow amused her, she could admit that it was probably excessive.

Cai’s eyebrows drew together in a frown. “I indicated that I would be personally grateful if the matter was treated with due consideration and seriousness. Has there been a problem?”

Ling Qi studied the other girl’s face and was, in that moment struck by how perfectly symmetrical Cai herself was, down to the way the very strands of her hair rested upon her shoulders, perfectly placed, like the woven figures on the tapestries around them. She supposed she couldn’t talk, what with the sparkles in her own hair. As always, she detected no hint of dishonesty, so it seemed the overreaction lay with the Ministry. “No, not precisely. My mother was merely surprised by the level of attention she received.”

“It is to be expected,” Cai Renxiang replied, the light around her dimming ever-so-slightly as the disinterested gaze of the eye-like markings of her gown drifted lazily around the room. “The expansion of the Ministry of Law, such that arbitrators are more available in some capacity to even less wealthy mortals, is among my goals for the future, but for now,” her lips twisted in distaste, “flaws remain.”

“You know,” Ling Qi said absently, drumming her fingers on the armrest of the chair. “Why do cultivators bother with mortals at all?” Her conversation with Su Ling lingered in her mind. “It seems like they could do without them entirely and be pretty much fine.”

“It is our duty,” Cai Renxiang replied immediately, as if that explained everything.

“Why though?” Ling Qi asked, raising an eyebrow.

The heiress furrowed her brows. “You do not… No, I suppose such stories might not filter down. You are familiar with the origins of the world at least?”

“The story of the Nameless Mother and the Nameless Father, yeah,” Ling Qi said.

“The protection of mortals was the cost for the first secrets of cultivation whispered to our ancestors on the last of the Father’s breath,” Cai Renxiang explained. “It is the original reason why we are superior to the barbarians, who cast their weaker children aside to die en masse. Many might fail to live up to the true spirit of the agreement, but none would fail to see the cities and towns as a whole be protected.”

Looking at Cai Renxiang’s expression, it was clear that whatever the truth of the story, it and the duty cultivators apparently bore was one that Cai Renxiang believed in. “I see. Thank you for the explanation,” Ling Qi said politely.

“I am always pleased to discuss and explain the foundations of Imperial law,” Cai said, a hint of something akin to actual warmth touching her expression.

“I might take you up on that later.” Hopefully not. That sounded like a dull philosophical conversation, but it was the polite, expected response. Ling Qi cleared her throat. “In any case, getting back to the matter at hand… Why do you want an answer to your offer so soon? You have previously mentioned that you do not intend to leave the Sect immediately following this year.”

Cai Renxiang briefly closed her eyes. “The Inner Sect will be a much greater challenge than the Outer, and I have no doubt that my Honored Mother will set me difficult milestones. I wish to know concretely what assets and allies I will have available for the following year.”

“Not worried that I will fail in the tournament?” Ling Qi asked curiously.

“I think that such a result would be a mark of ill fortune and not ability,” Cai answered easily. “And you would remain an asset regardless should you fail. Nonetheless, I hope such a thing does not come to pass.”

“That makes two of us,” Ling Qi agreed.

In the end, of the three offers, Cai’s was the most tempting. She liked Gu Tai, insomuch as she could like someone that she’d first met within the past few months, but she was not ready to marry and move to the Golden Fields for life. She was very tempted to stay with the Sect; it was familiar, it had provided her the opportunities to better her life, and she liked Xin and even Elder Jiao. But she would not be able to establish a home of her own for her family.

Well, she supposed technically, there were four possibilities as she could reject every offer, but the Empire did not look kindly on unattached cultivators, and she was not prepared to leave everything behind.

Of Cai Renxiang’s offer, the pros and cons had already been laid out in front of her for some time.

The Cai were famously supportive of their retainers, and they had the resources to do so. Ling Qi had done her research; she knew that two of the current Count clans had been raised to that status for loyally following and supporting Cai Shenhua in her rise. The Cai’s backing would offer her stability and security in a way that no new-founded barony could match; most smaller clans would hesitate to move openly against her over minor slights, and most importantly, any marriage would be into her clan, rather than the opposite.

As a new, ascendent ducal clan, it was very much in the Cai’s interests to support their retainers well - of course, the retainers in question had to match the great expenditure with similarly great results. She would have little margin for error and many eyes upon her. Her performance would reflect on Cai Renxiang’s ability, and similarly, Cai Renxiang’s performance would impact her own prospects.

“I am not the kind of person who lives up to the ideals you talk about,” Ling Qi said, breaking the silence that had begun to stretch on. “But you know that already, right?”

“Your recent collaboration with Fu Xiang was not ideal,” Cai Renxiang acknowledged.

Ling Qi paled. When had… No, how had Cai found out? Had she just walked into a trap?

“I am not wholly blind to intrigues,” Cai Renxiang continued pensively. “And Fu Xiang is somewhat less clever than he estimates. Unlike the market’s investigators, I am aware of Fu Xiang’s aid in your escape of Princess Sun and your likely response.”

Ling Qi swallowed. “I suppose the offer is off then?” But Cai Renxiang surprised her.

“An ideal is the end of a path, not its beginning. I myself am flawed, purposely so, but this remains true. Your loyalty to your allies is part of what I sought in you, but you see now the injustice that clannish selfishness can bring when not tempered. If I did not believe you capable of regret over your actions and of being better, my offer would have been withdrawn. My offer remains.”

“I’m not even sure I believe it is possible to achieve the world you want,” Ling Qi confessed.

“Yet you are not certain that it is not,” Cai Renxiang rebutted shrewdly. “The question lies solely in whether you would walk the long path toward justice at my side. If I have been unclear before this point, Ling Qi, answer me this question. Are you truly satisfied with the world as it is?”

“Talking about the world is a little grandiose, don’t you think?” Ling Qi asked. “Affecting such a thing is beyond my reach.”

“Is that so?” Cai Renxiang replied, the eyes splashed over her chest now focusing upon Ling Qi. “I thought you more ambitious than that. Do you not seek the highest levels of power?”

“In cultivation, of course,” Ling Qi answered, frowning. “But that is a personal matter, not trying to affect the entire Empire.”

“You will never achieve those heights then,” the other girl said, the light around her strengthening with the conviction in her words. “Cultivation affects the world around you. Even those who focus inward shape the world with their steps, even if those effects might be small. The notion that a man or woman may live only for themselves unlinked to the world is childish and pathetic. Leave such thoughts to barbarians and those lonely souls who would rather spend a thousand years in a cave or a meditation chamber seeking power without purpose beyond its own propagation.”

“I would probably call it beastly, rather than childish,” Ling Qi said after a moment. “A child simply doesn’t know better, but adults can still be the most vicious beasts of all.”

“You would know better than I, perhaps,” Cai admitted. “This is why I reach out to those such as you and Gan Guangli, to ensure that my path does not become corrupted in ignorance. I do not have my Mother’s perception. Many things are hidden from my eyes and ears. I do not expect to achieve my ideal without struggle or pain. So I will ask again. Are you satisfied, Ling Qi?”

Ling Qi remembered the sick feeling in her stomach when she heard the cries from the market. She remembered being alone and cold and hungry on the streets. She remembered the bruises on her mother’s and other courtesans’ faces.

“No. I’m not.” Ling Qi sighed, closing her eyes. “I am selfish though and often thoughtless toward others. Is that truly what you want in a retainer?”

“I believe you do yourself too little credit. There is potential in your resolve,” Cai Renxiang replied, rising gracefully from her seat and looking down at Ling Qi. “Should you stumble on the path behind me, I will see you guided back.”

Ling Qi stared at her, feeling conflicted over those words. Such a statement of confidence in her character… it felt misplaced. She knew that she was a talented cultivator, but she couldn’t really say that she was a good person. “You really think I wouldn’t go behind your back again?”

“I believe you will not,” Cai Renxiang said bluntly, holding her gaze.

Ling Qi closed her eyes. She felt a flutter in her stomach. There could be no walking back this choice. Carefully, she rose and clasped her hands, bowing to the waist. “I will accept your offer, then. Lady Cai Renxiang, I swear to serve you in honour and good faith as retainer until my Way ends.”

“I am glad. Raise your head, Baroness Ling. There is much to do to confirm your position, but there are some matters which must be resolved before we leave this room.”

Ling Qi straightened up. “Fu Xiang?” she asked, resigned but resolute.

“That and also ensuring that you have a regalia worthy of a retainer of the Cai clan,” Cai Renxiang answered. “Your collaboration with Fu Xiang may have been in line with the mores of Outer Sect competition and the letter of my rules, but it was not in spirit. The Cai have traditionally offered a gift of sorts to their retainers at the start of such relationships. Yours will instead be discreetly donated as compensation for the harm to the two disciples in question.”

Cai Renxiang paused as if for comment, but Ling Qi just nodded in silent agreement.

“As an Outer Sect matter, it will be viewed as a child’s squabble, and you had not yet become my retainer.” Her tone brooked no disagreement, and Ling Qi had no illusions that such a thing would be acceptable in the future.

“As you say, Lady Cai.”

“Very well. Let us speak no more on this,” she said crisply. “As I have done for Gan Guangli, I will do for you.” As she spoke, the Cai heiress looked down and plucked at her sleeve, working the fine cloth between her fingers. “However, in this, I also give my second command. You will not speak of this to anyone.” She met Ling Qi’s eyes, her voice stern.

“I can keep a secret, Lady Cai,” Ling Qi said.

“Good. It is not my displeasure you risk should you reveal this.” Surprisingly, a thread quickly came loose from the weave of Cai’s gown, a glowing string so bright that it was difficult to look directly at. It coiled around Cai’s fingers like a living thing. “Take this. I will bring you to a room where you may disrobe and leave your gown for the afternoon while Liming’s thread integrates itself.”

Ling Qi tentatively took the thread from the heiress’ offered hand. It pulsed with warmth against her skin, beating like a heart in a way that was slightly unsettling. She quickly stored it away in her ring, but the warmth remained, heating the plain iron band on her finger. “Thank you. May I ask if there is anything else we need to see to?”

“Naught that can be done here,” Cai Renxiang said serenely, heading for the door. “Come. Let us get you changed so that we may go to the Sect’s office while your garments are adjusted.”

“Why do we need to go to the Sect office?” Ling Qi asked curiously. She knew she would need to adjust the way she spoke to Cai in public after this, but the heiress didn’t seem to mind her continuing to be somewhat casual in private.

“To take care of the paperwork of course,” Cai Renxiang said blandly, opening the door to the room. “There is a significant amount which needs to be done to legally bind our arrangement, transfer your tuition debt, and other such matters. I am afraid your presence will be required for a few hours yet.”

Ling Qi’s eyes narrowed even as she felt coldness in her gut. Just how much paperwork were they talking about? She couldn’t shake the feeling that she had glimpsed a slight smile on the other girl’s face as she turned away either. Was this girl relishing the thought of putting her through this…?

Cai Renxiang had a disturbing number of spare outfits squirreled away in her wardrobes and closets. As the outfits were made in many sizes, the light blue gown she picked out fit with only a few adjustments. Leaving her gown behind in Cai’s mansion was uncomfortable but less so than the mind-numbing hours that followed, reading through page after page of legal documents and signing again and again.

In the end, things would not change a great deal in the immediate short term. She would be expected to join Cai Renxiang and Gan Guangli for training and review of Cai’s “government’s” status each week, above and beyond anything brought to the attention of the overall council. But the major task that Cai Renxiang wanted her to accomplish was to place well in the New Year’s Tournament, which meant focusing on her cultivation.

Ling Qi did not intend to fail.

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