Sixiang wanted to attend a human party. Among the older years, there was a bi-weekly gathering of various semi-important disciples. This was the group that she and Fu Xiang had helped Lady Cai pacify in a time that seemed very long ago. Sixiang had attempted to attend previously, but they had been rebuffed at the door.
Much to her regret, getting an invitation was as simple as speaking with Cai Renxiang. Lady Cai was on the invite list, but she was too busy to attend for the most part. She suspected that her liege was a little too pleased to pass off the invitation to her.
At the party, Ling Qi ended up standing at the edge of a banquet hall, feeling incredibly awkward as she held a conversation with Wen Ai, the girl whose bedroom she had broken into during her first mission from Fu Xiang.
“It is regrettable that Lady Cai herself could not afford to attend,” said the perfumed, impractically dressed count scion, seemingly perfectly sincere and polite. “Not that I am displeased by your presence, Miss Ling. It is a delight to have a rising star such as yourself attend in her place.”
Ling Qi kept her expression pleasant, doing her best to keep her eyes on the girl’s face and not the ridiculously elaborate arrangement of flowers and ornaments in the girl’s hair. It was hard to look at Wen Ai and not feel a pang of old jealousy. The girl was more than a head shorter than her, dainty and pale, the very picture of a traditional beauty.
“Lady Cai expresses her great regrets in being unable to attend,” she replied. “And I thank you for accepting my humble presence in her stead,” she added with an appropriate bow.
The hall was full of a score or so of late second realm disciples. Wen Ai herself was the only one who had pierced the barrier to reach the third realm, a full breakthrough at that although her aura had the slightly wobbly feel of a recent breakthrough. Wen Ai’s smile had an indulgent cast, Ling Qi thought, but perhaps she was just being unkind because she didn’t want to be here.
“I do not mind at all. It is a shame that you have not had a chance to attend more of these little gatherings given your talent,” the girl continued on, her voice sweet, melodious, a touch empty. “And your companion! Where did you find such a rare spirit?”
Sixiang, standing beside her, glanced over, their head cocked slightly in curiosity as they examined the little clumps of people quietly conversing throughout the hall. The spirit’s expression was bemused and somewhat disbelieving.
“Just a bit of good fortune. I am afraid I might find myself in some trouble if I were more exact,” she replied.
“Of course,” Wen Ai allowed, seeming to accept her answer. “We all must keep our little secrets.” There was an edge there; Ling Qi wasn’t just imagining it. Wen Ai knew or had suspicions as to Ling Qi’s involvement in Cai Renxiang’s leverage over her during the faction war with Sun Liling. “In any case, please enjoy the party, Miss Ling. I am afraid I must greet the next guest. I do hope we can speak later though. I am honored to finally be receiving some further attention from Lady Cai.”
Ling Qi murmured an agreement as they were allowed to get out of the entranceway and proceed into the banquet hall.
“Why isn’t anyone dancing?” Sixiang asked, nonplussed.
“I do not believe it is that kind of party,” Ling Qi replied quietly, tweaking the flows of air around them so that their words remained audible only to them.
“How can you have a party without dancing?” Sixiang gasped.
“You did say that you wanted to see a human party,” Ling Qi shot back. At least she wouldn’t suffer alone. “This is how human’s do it,” she said. “We stand around and talk while pretending we like each other.”
She flushed as a young man nearby shot her an amused look over his cup. Even if people couldn’t hear her, they could probably read her lips or even hear through more esoteric means. Thankfully, he waved off her budding apology with a gesture of his hand. She had been lucky there. No one else seemed to be paying attention.
“The wine is even watered,” Sixiang muttered, part of the right side of their face briefly dissolving into multihued mist. They stopped near the refreshment table.
“I am sure there will be music later,” Ling Qi offered in consolation. There was a small stage for that off at the other end of the hall.
“Maybe I should go up there,” the spirit said thoughtfully, narrowing their eyes.
“Sixiang, do not use any weird techniques to liven things up,” she said flatly. “You wanted the proper experience after all.”
“Hmph. You’re surprisingly mean-spirited,” Sixiang huffed, giving her a mock glare.
“I don’t want to have to explain a sudden riot to Lady Cai,” Ling Qi riposted smoothly.
“Fair.” Sixiang crossed their arms as they observed the people around them. “I wasn’t expecting it to be like home, but still…”
“There are parties, and there are parties,” she replied with a shrug. She was going to have to mingle at some point. It would look bad for Lady Cai if she didn’t. “It’s a context thing.”
“Well, how was I to know that?” Sixiang pouted.
“I’m sure you’ll learn,” Ling Qi consoled. “Well… I don’t know how things will be, after you… dissolve?” She wasn’t sure of the correct terminology.
“I think I might like a human binder, at least for a time,” they mused. “Of course, I wouldn’t really be all that useful in combat, so who knows if someone will be interested?”
“What do you mean?” Ling Qi asked. Sixiang had the highest cultivation she had seen among disciples and their spirits.
“I am just into the third realm myself. The additional cultivation was Grandmother making sure I could handle trouble on my vacation,” they explained. “Plus, you know, I am a muse. I don’t like fighting much.”
Sixiang had a point. Many disciples would want a more combat oriented spirit, especially with the upcoming tournament. Ling Qi glanced at them in consideration. “Wish me luck. I need to go have a chat with some of these fine ladies and gentlemen,” she said a touch dryly.
Sixiang chuckled. “I can give you some advice if you’d like.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Sixiang waved a hand. “No one will hear. Besides, even if it’s not as much fun, sweet-talking is in my realm, gloomy girl.”
“Don’t call me that,” Ling Qi retorted. “I’m not making any promises about following your advice, especially if it’s weird.”
“Of course,” Sixiang replied, lips curling up into a too confident smirk.
Ling Qi wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disgruntled by the end of the party. Finding out that an inhuman fairy was better at small talk with other people than she was stung.
“I am disappointed,” Cai Renxiang said as Ling Qi closed the door to the girl’s office behind her. The heiress was seated behind her desk with a slightly larger than normal amount of papers and forms stacked in front of her.
Ling Qi furrowed her brows. She hadn’t even said anything yet, so what did…? She winced as the answer came to her. “I admit that I didn’t give my best showing there. I had my mind on other things.”
“I had thought that you wished to begin building your own connections, not merely entertaining the whims of a spirit.” Her liege’s tone was displeased but not angry. “Did you at least accomplish your actual goal?”
“I would say so?” Ling Qi offered tentatively, taking a seat across from Lady Cai. Now she understood why Cai had been so pleased to pass her the invitation. It seemed Ling Qi had projected her own dislike on Cai’s motivation. “Let me apologize for my poor conduct.”
“Your apology is accepted.” The heiress’ lips remained set in a frown, but the disappointment in her tone lightened. “Thankfully, while your disinterest was obvious, it did not veer too far into insult. I will expect better in the future.” She gestured, and a slip of paper fluttered from one of the little shelves atop her desk to land in Ling Qi’s hands. “I will be holding a gathering two weeks from now, one month before the tournament. You will have an opportunity to repair your image there.”
Ling Qi dipped her head and banished the invitation into her storage ring. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but this was part of the path she had chosen. She had been too flippant before. “Thank you, Lady Cai, for your understanding.”
“It is best to get these misunderstandings out of the way now while the stakes are low. I will think nothing more of it,” Cai replied, leaving unsaid that this was conditional on Ling Qi handling things better in the future. “Now, what is it you wished to see me about?”
“I wanted to ask you if something had gone wrong with my pill furnace,” Ling Qi started. “The take has been declining. Has there been trouble with it?”
“Not of the sort you speak of,” Cai answered. She glanced down at her desk and the papers there shuffled themselves, a document from near the bottom rising to the top for perusal. “The end of the year means disciples have less use for such a public option. We cannot provide the privacy and security of the Sect’s furnaces without exorbitant expense.”
Ling Qi, frowned. She understood and wished that had occurred to her. Of course a furnace in a public place wouldn’t be much good for major projects, and people’s care packages from home were probably ramping up in preparation for the tournament, lowering the demand for common pills.
“I see. I will just need to plan my spending carefully then,” she said, a bit blue. She had gotten used to that income though, and she would have major expenses coming up in upgrading her equipment before the tournament. Thankfully, Cai Renxiang had agreed to pay for an artisan to create a domain weapon from the umbral shard she had found during the Hidden Moon quest. “Is the domain weapon complete?”
“Yes,” Cai Renxiang said. A long thin box of dark wood appeared in her hands. Laying it on the desk between them, she gestured for Ling Qi to take it.
Ling Qi did so, only to pause with her fingers centimeters from the lid. Even from there, she could feel the frisson of cold, dark qi across her skin. Lifting the lid, she peered inside.
The blade that lay on the cushion inside of the box was of normal length, but it was exotically constructed. The blade was not solid, it was a hollow helix, and from within the gaps, faint fingers of dark mist drifted. As she took up the simple and unwrapped hilt, she felt the blade hum, whispering a song of hunger and envy.
She released the hilt and raised her eyes. “It’s perfect. Thank you, Lady Cai.”