“Haah!” Ling Qi let out a cry of triumph as the guandao in her hands punctured the stone pillar in front of her with a thunderous crash, sending up a cloud of powdered rock as she pulled it to the side. The gleaming metal blade carved through the stone, trailing an afterimage of glittering white light. The pillar was but one of many ruined and broken around her, and with no more in easy reach, Ling Qi leaped lightly to another pillar, the corona of light surrounding her causing the shadows among the pillars to flicker madly.
While the guandao had been a passing fancy of the first realm when she was just coming into the superhuman strength of a cultivator, Ling Qi had found herself choosing it once again for this exercise. Maintaining her Sable Crescent Step under the burning weight of Cai Renxiang’s Glorious Heavenly Legion art was like weight training in a way. Swinging around a weapon was more entertaining than just jumping about, and it let Cai practice more of her own art’s techniques while they were at it.
Cai herself was seated atop one of the tallest pillars in the lotus position, and to Ling Qi’s sight, she was essentially a blazing star fallen to earth. Only the improvement of her senses allowed her to see the girl’s silhouette in the center. As Ling Qi landed on top of an intact pillar, the stone beneath her quaked as a massive shadow leapt from the cloud of rockdust on the opposite side of the pillar field.
Gan Guangli landed atop a pair of pillars as well, one foot on each one. He towered nearly four meters high and glowed with the same light as Ling Qi. The exercise was coming to an end though so that light began to fade.
“Report improvements,” the heiress said crisply, her voice ringing over the field.
“I could truly feel your burning wrath infusing my fists!” Gan Guangli announced, thumping his fist against his metal-clad chest. “It was as if nothing could stand against my might!”
Ling Qi shot an amused glance at the boisterous young man as she spoke up herself. “I’m not the strongest physically, but I was able to cut through stone as easily as I could dirt or wood. I think you have it.”
Cai Renxiang let out a pleased hum, opening her eyes to survey the destruction the two of them had wrought. “Very good,” she said with a nod. “Gan Guangli, center yourself and consider insights you have gained toward the nature of Light. Ling Qi, let us resume our discussion of court etiquette and clan structures. We will resume active exercises in one half hour.”
Ling Qi allowed the effects of her art to fade, finally ending the irritating itching that came from the two conflicting elements, and let out a sigh of relief, stretching her arms over her head. The pillar field shook as the shrinking but still gigantic Gan Guangli took a seat on one of the largest pillars.
“Lady Cai, if you don’t mind, may I ask you something before we start our discussion?” she asked as she hopped to a pillar closer to the heiress’ position.
“You may,” the girl replied, the only sign of her exertion from covering the entire field in light a few beads of sweat on her forehead.
“Why focus on an art like that right now?” Ling Qi asked. “Something like that isn’t going to help in the tournament much.”
Cai Renxiang considered the question. “There is no danger of failure for me,” she stated bluntly. “I have no doubt that the Sect and the Duchess have arranged things such that I will place highly, and while taking the top place might be a boon, it is more important to set the foundations for my future as a commander and ruler.”
Ling Qi blinked as she took a seat on a pillar across from the heiress. She had an inkling that the tournament brackets would be arranged, but hearing it stated aloud still left her with a slightly sour feeling. “... I see,” she said, and some of that ill feeling must have escaped into her tone because Cai peered at her with a slight frown.
“I do not say these things in boast,” the other girl noted. “To be frank, I regard dueling ability as tertiary at best. I am merely grateful that I have the opportunity to focus on other things.”
“That’s a little odd considering the Duchess’ policies, isn’t it?” Ling Qi asked lightly to show that her disquiet had simply been passing irritation.
“If I come to occupy the pinnacle of power that my Honored Mother does, it will be many centuries hence,” Cai replied dryly. “I cannot rely on overwhelming power as she does.”
“Still, are such techniques really so important?” Ling Qi asked. “In the end, aren’t armies only important for holding territory since the greatest cultivators cannot be everywhere at once?”
“You underestimate the Imperial armies, Miss Ling,” Gan Guangli interjected, looking up from his own meditations. “A well led division might be able to match and slay even a fourth realm cultivator or spirit if that cultivator or spirit lacks strong support of their own. They may even hold the line against one of the fifth until a counter can arrive.” Ling Qi didn’t miss the way her fellow vassal’s eyes and voice lowered as if recalling something painful.
“Such considerations break down at the highest reaches of cultivation, but Gan Guangli is correct,” Cai Renxiang said smoothly. “But the theory remains valid even then. The difficulty at higher reaches lies in gathering so many of the fourth realm and above together in such a group. Even then, a cultivator with an army at their back will always prevail against a lone peer or near peer, barring rare circumstances.”
Ling Qi considered that. She supposed putting a few hundred yellow cultivators together with even fairly weak support arts could create a pretty frightening increase in power, although there were still limits in that, as implied by Gan Guangli’s comments. She inferred from his tone that “holding the line” against a fifth realm cultivator probably involved less fending off and more not instantly being destroyed.
“Alright, looks like I’ll have to study tactics a little too,” Ling Qi said. “My apologies for the delay in our discussion, Lady Cai. What was it that you wanted to discuss today?”
“The structures of a conventional Imperial clan and the titles and rankings therein,” Cai replied. “While there are many variations, it is important to understand the basic template first and foremost that you might understand those who are now your peers.”
Ling Qi nodded, settling herself into a more comfortable position. “Understood. So how does it differ from how mortals organize their families?”
“There are many similarities,” Lady Cai admitted. “The mortal ways in the Empire originate from the same source.”
“The Sage Emperor,” Ling Qi concluded thoughtfully. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“Indeed,” her liege replied, seeming satisfied. Lecturing was something Cai Renxiang enjoyed, Ling Qi had come to understand. “The culture of the Sage’s original kingdom became the bedrock of the Empire you know today, although it has changed in many different ways due to intermixing with the practices of other kingdoms and the simple passage of time.”
“So, how do Imperial clans differ from mortal families?”
“The differences are rooted in the greater lifespan and personal power of cultivators,” Lady Cai explained. “Namely, the generational strata of clan positions. At the peak of any clan is its Matriarch or Patriarch, whose position is determined by raw cultivation level and age. Their peers are, in turn, the clan’s ancestors. The ancestors are the eldest generation of a clan, typically those in their last century or half century of life.”
Ling Qi had a feeling that such people were significantly more potent than the doddering, invalid grandpas she would associate with the concept of eldest among mortals. “So what is the difference between a Patriarch and a Clan Head?” Ling Qi asked. “It sounds like those people would be in charge.”
“In theory, they are,” Cai answered. “In practice, the eldest generation is focused solely on cultivation and emerges only in times of trial for a clan. The day-to-day operation of a clan falls to the next generation, the Clan Head and the Elders. It is the cultivation of this generation which determines a clan’s rank among the nobility, although a Patriarch is, in practice, never more than one realm above their Clan Head.”
“Why is that?” Ling Qi asked with a frown before answering her own question. “Ah… I guess at that age, climbing two realms would be pretty difficult.”
“That is true,” the heiress replied. “However, the simple matter is that such a Patriarch or Matriarch would almost certainly emerge from seclusion to use their newly extended life to resume command and reinvigorate the younger generations.”
“Understood. I am guessing that doesn’t happen often though,” Ling Qi said thoughtfully. “It sounds like that would be… chaotic.”
“Such times are great opportunities but also great risks, yes,” Cai agreed. “The lower ranks are more mixed, and indeed, in lower ranked clans, are typically one and the same. Below the Clan Head is the Clan Heir, and the heir’s contemporaries are the lifeblood of the clan, performing most of the necessary duties, such as serving in the military, working in Ministry employ, or working in a clan’s crafting houses. Beneath them are those known as young masters and misses, cultivators of age with us or somewhat older, who have yet to accept much responsibility and who are given freedom to develop their cultivation.”
It would make sense for there to be more and more of a divide between the young master and clan heir tiers as a clan’s top level of cultivation, and thus lifespan, grew, but there must be a lot of exceptions. “Just how old can one be and still be a ‘Young Master’?” Ling Qi asked, thinking of her mother’s history.
“It varies,” Cai Renxiang replied. “Among the highest ranked clans, many do not receive serious responsibility before their first centennial, but among most clans, the topmost age of such individuals is closer to thirty or forty.”
“I’m not going to be taken seriously at all, am I?” Ling Qi said with a rueful grin. No wonder new clans had such troubles growing. Any established clan head would probably see her as a precocious child at best.
“I will not deny that such considerations are an issue,” Cai said stonily, drawing Ling Qi’s gaze back to her face. She supposed that her words applied to Cai Renxiang as well. “While few in the province will dare be openly contemptuous, achieving true respect and recognition will be difficult for all three of us.”
“Just one more mountain to climb,” Ling Qi said flippantly, breaking the somewhat somber atmosphere before it could form. “They’ll respect us when our feet are trampling their heads.”
“Well said, Miss Ling!” Gan Guangli laughed, and if Ling Qi’s eyes didn’t lie, she even saw a hint of mirth in Lady Cai’s eyes.
“Such sentiments are best reserved for times of privacy, but I will not disagree,” Cai said, fully serious again after barely an eyeblink. “Did you have any further questions before we continue?”
“A couple,” Ling Qi replied, her own smile fading. She was reluctant to seem ignorant, but this question niggled at her; evidence on it seemed contradictory at times. “What sort of status do women have in normal situations? Those like the Duchess and yourself are obvious exceptions to any rule, but among mortals…”
Cai Renxiang simply nodded though. “A reasonable concern. I will not lie. The typical Imperial clan favors male inheritance and position, but not to the extent of excluding truly talented women,” she explained in an unhurried tone. “Typically, women are favored for inward facing positions, managing internal clan assets and activities, while men are favored for outward facing ones.”
“Which naturally includes leadership roles,” Ling Qi noted wryly.
“Just so,” Cai replied. “Keep in mind that this varies greatly by clan, depending on their origin and descent. I speak only of the common practice of clans influenced by Celestial Peaks.”
“I do wonder just what variations there are that you see the need to keep bringing them up,” Ling Qi mused.
“I could speak of the labyrinthine and impenetrable relations between the eight sub-clans of the Bai,” she began in a measured tone. “I could speak of the Zheng and their Matriarchs, who recognize no patrilineal descent nor marriage and whose male scions sow bastards as a farmer sows rice. I could speak of the many, many legal snarls that result from the Xuan’s unique interpretation of land rights and propertyor the knots of legality that arise from differing spirit pacts in our own Emerald Seas..” She met Ling Qi’s eyes then. “Any of these subjects could occupy a day or more. Let us focus upon the foundations first.”
Ling Qi briefly saw Gan Guangli slowly shaking his head over the heiress’ shoulder, his expression grave, and laughed nervously. “Ah, of course, forgive my musing. Please resume your explanation, Lady Cai.”
Who knew the infinite variation in custom and law was such a sore spot for the girl.