“Alright, I think that was everything. Right, Mother?” said the little god with eyes like ice. Her casual manner as she dusted her hands off was at odds with the scintillating power that suffused every motion.
“Yes,” Ling Qingge agreed, but though she was sure that her daughter could sense her unease. It was said that one could conceal nothing from an immortal after all. “You need not tarry here. You must have other business to attend to.” That much, at least, had not changed; her daughter still wore her feelings openly, and she had seen her eyes flicking toward the sky through the open window, measuring the position of the sun.
Ling Qi smiled at her, and for the second time that day, Ling Qingge felt herself swept up in an embrace from her long absent daughter, an embrace which she carefully returned. It was impossible to miss the careful tension in that embrace though, as if Ling Qi were worried that she might shatter if the young girl wasn’t careful. Maybe she would, at that.
“I have missed you,” Ling Qi said quietly. “Thank you for coming, Mother.”
“There is no need for that,” Ling Qingge replied quietly. “I am the one who should be giving thanks.” It was strange. None of the silly stories told to little girls were about a prodigal child coming to sweep one away. She thought she might prefer this though. “Now go. I am sure you are busy.”
Her daughter stepped back, examining her with eyes that Ling Qingge had trouble meeting, and then nodded. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Get some rest, Mother. You deserve it.”
And like that, Ling Qi was gone, a flash of shadow and a rustle of the dining room curtain the only sign of her passage. Biyu was asleep in the bed prepared for her, and so for the first time in many days, Ling Qingge was alone.
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a shuddering breath. It was hard to accept that this was real. Ling Qingge had thought herself prepared for what it meant to have a cultivator for a daughter. After all, she had some experience. The guardsmen she had served were not so different than mortal men, though the bruises they left often lasted longer. So a cultivator was stronger, perhaps, and with an intensity and vigor that normal folk lacked but not fundamentally different.
She could remember her great uncle, the clan head of the He, a graying man said to be nearly two hundred years old. But even the authoritative patriarch she recalled from her early memories paled in comparison to her daughter. For all that he had seemed an unshakable pillar of the clan, he was still just a man. Her daughter on the other hand... It was difficult to describe.
Ling Qingge had felt Ling Qi before she had seen her, a presence like the first kiss of winter cold drifting on the fall wind, like the feeling in one’s bones when the rains were coming and the mist would soon drift in, casting the world into a dreamlike haze. That feeling had only intensified upon seeing her, and it made Ling Qingge wonder. The old judge who had visited her did not seem so intense, save for a moment when he had dismissed a frivolous excuse from one of her creditors. Was making oneself seem human merely a skill her daughter lacked or did she simply not see any reason to bother?
She supposed, if she still knew her daughter, that it was more likely that the girl simply wouldn't have considered the matter. Ling Qingge could not quite put into words what made her daughter seem inhuman now. Perhaps it was the too quick movements of her limbs, the faint glow in her eyes, or even the strange way that she breathed, so slow and shallow, the rise and fall of her chest barely visible to the eye. A hundred little things made Ling Qi seem more like a spirit from a cautionary tale than a young girl.
Yet it had all faded away when they embraced. Beneath the cold and unsettling breeze, Ling Qi was warm and welcoming, a blazing hearth on a cold winter night. Embracing her reminded Ling Qingge of better times and uncorrupted memories of her own long deceased mother, singing her to sleep while the cold southern winds rattled the shutters. She had accepted it then, that this strange spirit girl truly was her daughter.
If only she could feel confident that she could be a mother to such a person.
Reaching the pantry, she began to absentmindedly look through the things she had been given, eventually plucking a bundle of tea leaves from the little drawer that contained them. The variety made her shake her head. How long had it been since she could afford anything but the cheapest blends?
It made her wonder where she would have stood today, if she had not been so foolish all those years ago. Objectively, Ling Qingge knew that she had made the wrong choice back then. Whatever rumors that the servants spun of Master Fong, it would have been better to submit. One rough man would have been preferable to an endless parade of them. Perhaps she might have even had a modicum of respect
Would Ling Qi have been exalted for her talent, a respected rising star within the House of Liu? The Liu had been the only place where she had ever glimpsed those with a presence like her daughter’s. She thought of her daughter’s smile then and her bright blue eyes. Even touched by ice, they brought to mind another set. Her lips twisted into a scowl as she retrieved everything she would need to prepare her tea.
That man… Even now, thinking of Ling Qi’s father made her heart hurt. It made her wonder if seeing those eyes and that smile had made her harsher than she should have been with her young daughter’s poor attention span and flighty demeanor. He had promised her so much. He had promised to take her far away from the petty politics of Tonghou. Then one morning, he had simply never arrived. He had lied. His caravan had been scheduled to leave the night before.
She supposed that in the end, it was a silly thing to consider. The past could not be changed, and Ling Qi would not be the same girl with a different father. Besides, she had apparently hitched her fortune to the House of Cai.
That alone was an absurd thought, making the situation all the more surreal. Dukes and duchesses were as far beyond the Liu as the Liu were the He. Ling Qingge could still recall the day that the Duchess had come to Tonghou when she was a young girl of six. She could remember huddling between Mother and Father in the family compound with the rest of the mortal members of the clan, and although she had never seen the Duchess Cai, she could remember the terrible, crushing presence that had descended upon the upper ring of the city and lingered there, oppressive and heavy, making it difficult to so much as breathe.
Some tiny part of her, the part that had taken a certain vicious pleasure in seeing those Liu lapdogs driven off like whipped dogs by the old judge, imagined her father's expression if he knew now where her daughter stood. It was only a small part for Ling Qingge had long moved past such childish fancies.There were far more imminent concerns.
She feared for her daughter, feared that her little deity would offend one far greater and suffer all the more for it. She was afraid that this dream would shatter and leave her once more at the cruel mercy of the men of Tonghou.
What could she do though? She was just an old and soiled woman, here only because her daughter still retained some affection for her despite her failures. Ling Qingge had nothing to offer, nothing to do. At best, she could give some feeble advice and listen to whatever woes her daughter deigned to share.
All of this was more than she deserved, and if not for Biyu’s sake, she might have refused the offer to come to the Sect out of a simple shame. She could not imagine that associating with her would do much for her daughter’s standing in the eyes of her peers.
Yet how could she be anything but pleased to have her family whole once more?
Truly, Ling Qingge thought as she began to prepare her tea, she was a selfish woman, through and through.