She was being ridiculous, Ling Qi knew. She had rushed down here only to falter at the finish. She could do this. Ling Qi wasn’t so awkward and lacking in social grace that she couldn’t even greet her mother in public without causing a scene.
Besides, as much as she might like to hug Mother, looking at her now, mortal and frail, Ling Qi was pretty sure that she wouldn’t want to do anything too sudden anyway. So with that in mind, Ling Qi took a deep breath, composed herself, and resumed walking forward. The two guards watching the street noticed her approach, to their credit, briefly tensing, but then seemed to recognize her. When the two men clapped their fists together and bowed, it drew the notice of the others, including Mother.
She almost paused at the sudden attention and the shows of respect from men years older than her, but then she focused back on her mother. Ling Qi saw the alarm and fear in the older woman’s eyes, and the obvious tension in her muscles as her mother prepared to kowtow. It might have hurt a little, but Ling Qi was sure that she wouldn’t have recognized herself either.
“Mother, it’s so good to see you again!” she called as cheerily as she could sweeping past the bowing guards.
Her mother’s previous alarm dissolved into confused disbelief as the older woman froze in the middle of bowing her head. Ling Qi could practically read her thought process as her eyes flicked back and forth, searching for anyone else who Ling Qi’s words could have referred to. Of course, her mother composed herself quickly, but it made Ling Qi even more aware of how much her senses had changed.
“Ling Qi?” Mother asked, daring to raise her eyes slightly. Her words were quiet and hesitant.
Ling Qi wasn’t surprised that Mother was so worried about giving offense. As far as Ling Qi knew, her mother’s only experience with cultivators were those rough types that had made use of the establishment she had worked at.
“I know I’ve changed quite a lot,” Ling Qi replied instead as she came to a stop in front of the older woman, her gown swaying in the phantom breeze. “But please raise your head,” she added more quietly. She hesitated then reached out to take one of Mother’s worn hands in her own.
Finally, her mother straightened enough to look up and meet her eyes, and although there was still a mix of emotion there, Ling Qi could see the recognition as well.
“Ling Qi,” the older woman breathed for a second time. “You are truly…”
“Momma?” Ling Qi’s attention was drawn downward as a much younger voice spoke up. Looking down, she saw the little girl half-hidden behind her mother looking up at her with wide eyes. “Is that a fairy?” Her grammar and pronunciation was still childish and poorly enunciated but in a way Ling Qi found cute.
Ling Qingge glanced helplessly at the girl, a shadow of her worry still present, but Ling Qi just smiled, and after a moment, her Mother smiled back, even if the expression was a wan thing. It seemed to help that introducing her younger daughter seemed to give her mother something concrete to fall back on. “Biyu, this is your elder sister, Ling Qi.”
Ling Qi reluctantly released her mother’s hand in favor of lowering herself into a crouch to meet the younger girl eye-to-eye. “Hello, Little Sister. I’m sorry we haven’t met before,” she said lightly, glancing back up to meet Mother’s eyes. There was more than one layer to that apology.
Biyu blinked, shuffling a step away from Mother to look at her more closely, her lips turning down in a childish frown. “Pretty sister,” she said, proclaiming her judgement. “Will Biyu sparkle?”
She was never going to hear the end of that, was she?
“Maybe someday,” Ling Qi said, patting the little girl on the head with as featherlight of a touch as she could manage. She stood up again, meeting her mother’s eyes. “Why don’t we go inside? There is no reason for us to all stand outside in the sun while the guards take care of the luggage.”
“If it will not be any trouble,” her mother hedged, glancing at the guards. The guards appeared to be studiously not paying direct attention to them. There were few curious civilian stragglers and at least one Outer Disciple though. “I do not wish to impose on anyone.” The words seemed almost mechanical, a rote response often repeated.
Ling Qi looked to her right, meeting the eyes of one of the two men directly guarding her mother. The guards were both mid second realm with more potent qi than similarly ranked disciples she knew. She supposed that was the benefit of experience. The rest of the entourage was still taking care of the carriage and luggage. “It will not be any trouble, right?”
The man bowed carefully, one hand clasped in the other. “Of course not, Lady Ling. We will stand guard wherever you have need of us.”
Ling Qi pretended not to notice the flicker in Mother’s eyes. It seemed that she was still having a rough time processing the situation.
“I know a nice little teahouse only a few streets from here. I think you deserve time to relax after such a trying journey, Mother.” With the better part of a week stuck in a small area with a child of Biyu’s age, Ling Qi did not feel that she was exaggerating.
“... Of course. Thank you very much, Ling Qi,” her mother replied with a hesitant smile. Ling Qi hoped a soft, mellow blend would help calm her nerves.
Cai was already getting to her, wasn’t she?
Acquiring a private room at the nearby establishment was the easy part, Ling Qi mused. Figuring out how to talk to Mother again was much harder, even once they had left the guards to stand outside the door. Mother seemed as unsure as she was, and Ling Qi did not miss the glances the older woman stole at her now and then in what was probably the closest the older woman could really come to fidgeting.
Biyu was the only one not particularly affected by the atmosphere, quickly distracted by the flowering plants and silk painting decorating the room’s walls.
“There’s nothing dangerous in here,” Ling Qi said, noticing her mother about to call Biyu back. It would take more than a three year old mortal girl to damage anything in a room meant for cultivators.
“As you say,” Mother said quietly. The instinctive air of submission her mother gave off irked her, but the feeling wasn’t directed at the woman beside her. “Ling Qi, I do not-”
Whatever she was going to say was cut off as Ling Qi wrapped the shorter woman in a hug. Ling Qi was careful; she was never more aware of the power her cultivation granted her than in this moment with her arms wrapped around a woman who was no more durable than a bundle of sticks to her. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said softly.
Ling Qingge had stiffened in alarm at first, but those words seemed to erase her tension. After a moment, Ling Qi felt her mother return her embrace.
“Foolish girl. What have you to apologize for?” Ling Qingge’s voice was choked and uneven with emotion.
“Not appreciating the things you did for me. Leaving you alone,” Ling Qi said, closing her eyes. It seemed so obvious in hindsight. Teaching her to read and to comport herself as a lady were not the actions of an uncaring parent. Even Mother’s fretting over Ling Qi’s feminine lackings was hardly unreasonable in that light.
“I did little enough, and you have grown beyond my every expectation,” her mother replied, defeated, leaving unsaid the fact that Ling Qi had done it almost entirely without her. “Your choice was the right one. I could not have-”
“Maybe not, but you would have tried,” Ling Qi interrupted, reluctantly letting go of Mother. “And I appreciate that now.” She glanced over to Biyu, but the little girl was busily peering between the fronds of the potted plant in the far corner. “Let me be the one to do so now.”
Ling Qingge sighed, stepping back from their embrace, a touch of moisture at the corner of her eyes. “Have I truly grown so old already?” she asked, a touch of real humor in her voice. “That I must give myself over to my daughter's care?”
“Of course not,” Ling Qi replied with a smile. “Your daughter merely wishes to share her great fortune.”
There was a faint knock at the door then, in the style Ling Qi recognized as the attendant arriving to take their order. “Let’s sit down. We have quite a lot to talk about.”
After they had given their order, Ling Qi began to explain her experience over the past months in more detail and her situation as things stood now as a retainer to Cai Renxiang. She paused only for as long as it took their attendant to lay out the tea and leave.
“Such things are difficult to comprehend,” Ling Qingge said, looking down at her cup, after Ling Qi finally fell silent. Biyu had since fallen asleep on the padded bench that lined the wall, the fatigue from the trip catching up to her. “That you would speak directly to the heiress of such an exalted house, let alone be recruited by her… You must excuse me. Such things are beyond my experience.”
Ling Qi was glad that she had not referenced Bai Meizhen or their interpersonal troubles. Her mother was too young to have heart troubles yet. “I did notice that you had some knowledge of nobility,” Ling Qi inquired carefully. “You have not said as such directly, but…”
Her mother’s expression grew more tired, but she nodded without looking up. Ling Qi hoped that Mother could unlearn that habit one day. “It is a long tale, but you deserve to know of such matters. I cannot rightly consider you a child any longer.”
“There is no need to get into painful details, Mother,” Ling Qi replied. She didn’t want to burden the older woman even more on her first day. They had plenty of time to talk.
“I will spare such things,” Ling Qingge said. She sipped quietly from the cup in her hands as she considered her words before finally raising her eyes. “I was born under the name He,” she began. “They were no family of import, just one of the many servant clans beneath the Liu family that governs Tonghou and the surrounding regions.”
Ling Qi nodded. That explained why her mother would have the education she clearly did. Bigger clans usually had a bunch of unranked mortal and common cultivator clans beneath them to take care of the day-to-day minutiae, or so she was learning as she slowly got to grips with the details of her new position. “Were any of them cultivators?”
“A bare handful, but I was never considered for such things,” Ling Qingge replied, shaking her head. “So I was not educated in such matters. I will not bore you by speaking of that life, but one day I caught the attention of a young master of the Liu. My father was overjoyed of course and quickly began moving to have me recognized as a concubine. Being a foolish, rebellious girl… I ran.” Mother met her eyes then, a slightly bitter smile on her lips. “You see why I could not be angry at you, Ling Qi?”
“I suppose so,” Ling Qi said, glancing away uncomfortably. “If I may ask, what happened?”
“I lived freely for a few months,” her mother replied wistfully. “I made questionable choices. I do not regret you, Ling Qi, but some of the decisions involved were not my best.” She shook her head, her eyes dropping back to the tabletop. “I could not escape notice forever though. My father expelled me from the family in the hopes of limiting the Liu clan’s retaliation to myself rather than the He clan as a whole. I suppose he succeeded; I did not hear of punishment falling upon the He, and the man who had wanted me was satisfied with ensuring that the only occupation I could find was the one which he felt I deserved.”
Ah, her teacup had frozen; she would have to apologize to the owner, Ling Qi thought absently. Thankfully, the effect had been localized so Mother hadn’t been disturbed. One thing stood out to her though, an opening to a question she had never really considered before beyond assuming the answer to be one of her mother’s clients. “If I may ask, Mother, you said that I came before…”
“Your father was an entertainer from the south who came to the city with a trade caravan,” Ling Qingge answered, understanding her question immediately. “He promised me that he would help me leave the city,” she continued, closing her eyes. “A lie of course. He vanished the day before my father found me. Let that be a lesson, Ling Qi, to not accept the promises of men without assurances.”
Ling Qi sighed. She hadn’t expected anything happy, but it was a little depressing. “It doesn’t matter now,” she said firmly. You are my mother. Anyone who wants to cause you trouble will have to go through me,” she continued with confidence. That was one benefit of Cai Renxiang’s patronage. Ling Qi doubted such a small grudge would be worth crossing that line for a viscount family.
For them, anyway. Ling Qi wasn’t sure how she felt yet.
Mother seemed less sure, but she accepted Ling Qi’s word with an acknowledging dip of her head. Their conversation turned to lighter things after that, avoiding more serious topics. By the time they left the teahouse, more than an hour had passed, and Biyu had stirred from her nap, full of energy once more.
Ling Qi escorted her mother to the house the Sect had arranged for them, a tasteful three floor building with a large garden and a couple of servants to take care of things. After looking over the defensive formations and giving the guards a quick review, Ling Qi left, promising that she would return to help Mother finish arranging furniture and belongings the following day.
Ling Qi felt lighter than she had in some time.