“Where in the world did all of this come from?” Ling Qi asked in amazement as she strode along behind Cai Renxiang and beside Gan Guangli.
The empty fields to the north of the tournament grounds had transformed since she had last seen them. During her brief stint as a cleaner, she hadn’t given the fields much thought besides thinking it odd that so much cleared land wasn’t being put to use. Now, they were crowded with structures and people. Brightly colored pavilions and waving pennants bore symbols and characters declaring allegiance to dozens of clans, standing side by side with palatial structures which seemed to have sprung up overnight.
“The tournament and the surrounding events will consume an entire week. It is only natural that the nobility coming to observe display their wealth and status in their lodgings,” Cai Renxiang replied without turning around.
“I wasn’t referring to that,” Ling Qi frowned, peering up at a towering structure, more castle than palace, bearing the colors of the Xuan. “Is it really so easy to build such things so quickly? From what you’ve given me to study, isn’t establishing settlements supposed to be difficult?”
“You are correct, Miss Ling,” Gan Guangli said. His booming voice was nearly swallowed up by the noise of the visitors’ field and the hundreds of servants hustling on the orders of their masters. “Beautiful and wondrous as such things might be, they are not meant to last and so are unsuitable for permanent settlement.”
Ling Qi nodded as they made their way through the crowd, Cai Renxiang’s presence keeping the path clear for them. Reading between the lines, “instant” buildings were a luxury for showing off, rather than something practical. Given that the vast majority of the clans present were content with elaborate cloth pavilions, the buildings must be extremely expensive.
<Nothing like a little dominance display to keep a gathering colorful,> Sixiang mused. She could feel the spirit observing everything with interest through her eyes.
<I don’t like this, Big Sister,> Zhengui said. She felt as if he were squirming in discomfort in her dantian. <There are too many big spirits here.>
Her little brother had the right of it. The clashing presence of the many, many powerful auras present overlapped and pressed on her from every direction. Human, beast, and spirit - the least of them were her match, and the rest far overhead. Only harried servants and common guards stood below her here.
<They aren’t enemies, Zhengui,> she thought soothingly. She had a feeling that he could feel her own nerves about the upcoming meeting.
The three of them weren’t wandering without purpose. Cai Renxiang was going to present herself to her Mother, here, before the start of the tournament. As the heiress’ retainers, she and Gan Guangli would naturally be present as well.
How could she not be nervous in the face of that?
Busy with her thoughts, it didn’t take long for the three of them to reach the edge of the field where a large space had been left studiously empty, its borders marked by white plumed guards standing ramrod straight at the corners.
Ling Qi let out a soft breath as they came to a stop. “Ah… how will the Duchess be arriving anyway?” she asked quietly to Gan Guangli as Cai Renxiang spoke to one of the guards. Ling Qi observed as the man began to wave some nearby servants to begin unrolling a carpet for them so that when the time came, they would not be kneeling in the dirt and grass.
“Her Grace will arrive in her carriage, I believe,” Gan Guangli said, his wide arms crossed over his shining breastplate. “It is primarily used for her bi-decennial tours of the province’s major holdings and settlements, but it is also a symbol of power and prestige. I cannot imagine that our honored Duchess would arrive here in anything less.”
“Guangli is correct. The Duchess will be here shortly,” Cai Renxiang said as she returned to them, gesturing for them to take their places on the newly spread carpet. “Keep your eyes on the sky, and enter supplication when the shadow reaches the landing area,” she instructed stiffly. Ling Qi was certain that in this instance, the slight nerves that the heiress was showing were no mere affectation.
Ling Qi nervously fingered the flower ornament woven into her hair as she took her place at Cai Renxiang’s left. Xiulan had helped her put up her glittering hair into an actual style, pins and braids giving order to the usual chaos of her tresses, but it was hard not to feel underprepared.
They waited in silence for some time before Ling Qi felt it. A prickling sensation on the back of her neck. A mounting pressure upon her thoughts. Sixiang sunk away into the depths of her mind, curling up and making themselves small like a frightened child, and a low sensation of alarm arose from Zhengui.
It began as a bright dot in the north, a star shining in the day, but rapidly resolved itself into something more clear. Ling Qi had seen the sealed carriages of the nobility in Tonghou, leaving through the gates and given a wide berth by everyone sane. But even leaving aside its flight, this made those carriages seem like the lowest peasants’ rickety wagons.
The Duchess’ carriage was the size of a small house, its frame and shutters carved from gleaming white wood. Its tiled roof was a brilliant green jade from which strings of living flowers hung. Its two wide wheels were shod with some actinic blue metal that shone with an internal light and rolled forward on crackling storm clouds that billowed out from their spokes. The creatures galloping through the sky, drawing the carriage toward them were no mere spirit horses. Their gleaming silver scales and long, curved horns crackling with heavenly power showed them to be qilin, dragon horses, rare and reclusive beasts that inhabited the more lonely stretches of the Wall.
It took only moments for the carriage to go from barely visible to passing overhead. The instant it did, she followed Cai Renxiang’s lead and dropped smoothly to her knees in a supplicant’s pose. All around her, the Duchess’ guards took the knee as well, and servants scurried away.
Ling Qi kept her head lowered as the thunder of sparking hooves pounding against the air approached, growing louder by the moment. The shadow on the ground circled, growing larger with each pass, until finally, the qilins’ hooves and the spinning wheels of the carriage struck the earth, charring the grass as storm clouds began to dissipate from beneath it.
As the carriage rolled to a stop, the great scaled beasts, fifth or perhaps even sixth grade, which had been drawing it tossed their heads impatiently, lightning dancing along the stiff “beards” which grew from their jaws. Then, the door of the carriage swung open, and all thought of the spirit beasts left her mind. Power, thick and cloying, beat down on her back like the weight of a mountain. If she were not already kneeling, Ling Qi doubted that she would have been able to stay standing. It was a fight to keep her breathing even as she saw a set of shimmering stairs form, composed wholly of light, bridging the gap between the floor of the carriage and the earth below. It was nearly invisible compared to the radiance that had erupted from within the carriage at the opening of the door.
A dusky skinned woman in a gown the color of pale rose petals stepped out first, but Ling Qi could not have described her further if asked at swordpoint. The presence which emanated from the carriage was that overwhelming. The first woman did turn though, offering a hand to aid the woman who emerged. It struck Ling Qi as absurd, the idea that the Duchess could need such a thing.
The Duchess Cai was tall, taller than Gan Guangli in his base state, taller than Elder Zhou. She did not have the doll-like proportions of a traditional beauty, but instead a generous and statuesque figure well displayed by the scandalous garment she wore. The pure white fabric clung to her like a second skin, traced by lines of the palest blue, and the butterflies embroidered across the lower half moved, fluttering across rippling silk and even the knee-high slit in the right side of the gown as she descended the steps.
Although she could not see the Duchess’ face at this angle, the tightness of her gown did make one other detail clear. Her stomach held a slight but distinct curve, which, given that Ling Qi had never seen a cultivator put on even a single kilogram of unintentional weight, could mean only one thing.
“Renxiang, you may raise your head.” The Duchess’ voice was smoky and almost casual in tone, but the light and power beating down on her back precluded any notion of relaxation. “It has been some time since last we spoke, my daughter.”
“It honors me immensely that you would choose to come here for this humble daughter,” Cai Renxiang said submissively. Ling Qi saw the heiress rise smoothly from full supplication to kneeling attention, her long hair swaying with the motion. “Please allow me to offer you welcome to the Argent Peak Sect. I hope its hospitality will meet your needs.”
“Minister Linqin?” the Duchess spoke with the touch of a question.
The woman now standing a step behind the Duchess spoke in an easy, professional tone, untroubled by the terrible power churning in the air. “It will be sufficient for your needs, my lady.”
“Very good,” Cai Shenhua acknowledged. “Renxiang, ask the question that burns on your tongue.”
“While I would not dream of demanding information from you, Honored Mother... why have I not previously been informed of your condition?” Ling Qi’s liege asked promptly. Even Ling Qi could see the tension in the girl’s shoulders; she was as off-balance as Ling Qi had ever seen her.
“Do not feel slighted, my daughter,” the Duchess replied easily, but the pulse of the light radiating from her turned even that casual statement into a command. “I have deemed the situation stable, and thus, I will be making the knowledge public as of this day. Rejoice, Renxiang. You shall soon have a younger sister.”
“This is truly a joyous occasion,” Cai Renxiang replied, almost mechanically. “I will look forward to greeting her.”
“I expect so,” Cai Shenhua said, and Ling Qi saw her take a languid step forward, carrying her closer to the three of them. “Now, I have reviewed reports of your progress and found them satisfactory, but for some things, a letter simply does not do. Cai Renxiang, introduce these two that you have deemed worthy of working in our name.”
“I present to you Gan Guangli and Ling Qi, who I believe to be two of our province’s most promising, formerly unattached young talents,” Cai Renxiang answered, visibly regaining control of herself and her voice. “Gan Guangli has shown great talent as an officer and forged the undisciplined Outer disciples into passable military order under great limitations in both time and resources. He has been an able second in matters of combat when my presence was required elsewhere. He has achieved the third realm in only three years of cultivation.”
“This is that soldier boy you picked up during your provincial tour... He has grown, hasn’t he?” the Duchess asked rhetorically, sounding amused.
Cai Renxiang paused, giving her Mother time to speak further if she wished before continuing, “Ling Qi’s talents have few competitors. Through her personal efforts, an entire enemy power block was broken in a single night, and her aid in gathering intelligence against the Sun Princess was invaluable.” Cai Renxiang was laying it on a bit thick, but Ling Qi wasn’t going to complain. “She has achieved her current cultivation in only a single year, having arrived at the Sect as a mortal.”
“Hoh? How nostalgic.” Ling Qi felt her skin crawl as the Duchess’ attention fell on her like a lead weight. “Both of you, raise your heads. I would see the faces of my daughter’s first retainers.”
Ling Qi carefully did so, copying Cai Renxiang’s posture, although she angled her head a bit lower. Given her status, it would be rude to look the Duchess in the eye without a direct command, which “raise your head” was not. Nobles loved to make things confusing.
Cai Shenhua’s gown was even more scandalous than she had first realized. It bared her shoulders entirely, only gauzy lace prevented more than a hint of cleavage from being visible. Her hair was black as midnight, much like her daughter’s, but cut to her shoulders. Glittering, gem-like threads were woven between the strands, refracting the woman’s radiance into a multitude of colors. What little she could see of the Duchess’ features were as sharp and severe as the light radiating down from them.
Ling Qi watched out of the corner of her eyes as the woman casually paced over to stand in front of the kneeling Gan Guangli, every step a promise of order and absolute authority. She towered over him with her arms crossed loosely over her rounded stomach. “Young man, why do you follow my daughter?”
“Lady Cai Renxiang is the woman who will bring about the world I aspire to.” Gan Guangli’s booming voice was somber and serious, all bombastic affectation gone. “For that goal, I will fight for her until my body and spirit lie broken.” Well, maybe not all of it.
The Duchess was silent, and Gan Guangli remained silent as well, his gaze fixed on a point somewhere behind the power standing before him. Eventually, the Duchess gave a shallow nod of acknowledgement. “I see. Do try not to break too quickly then,” she said almost flippantly.
Then she was standing before Ling Qi, and Ling Qi’s breath hitched at the returned force of the Duchess’ attention, which only grew worse when the woman spoke. “Look at me,” she commanded, and Ling Qi could do naught but obey, raising her eyes to meet those of Cai Renxiang’s Mother.
Over the last few minutes, listening to the powerful woman’s casual speech and watching her movements, Ling Qi had begun to believe that perhaps Cai Renxiang’s fears were overblown, that rumor had painted a skewed picture of this woman. Those thoughts vanished like the morning mist when she met Cai Shenhua’s eyes.
There was no pupil or iris there, only pits of burning colorless light in the shape of human eyes, portals through which something vast and terrible peered from behind a shell of human skin. She could faintly feel the sensation of watering eyes, but her vision remained unblurred, tears seared away the moment they dared form. It was as the sun to a mortal, unfathomable and unrelenting, yet there could be no succour, no averting her gaze. There was only the Light, and she knew that she would stare forever, until it scoured her mind and bleached her soul.
“This one, on the other hand… I approve, Renxiang. It seems you have inherited my aesthetic tastes.” Some distant part of Ling Qi’s mind that wasn’t screaming danger at her was confused until the Duchess’ gaze flicked away, drawing hers with it to the other woman present.
Minister Diao Linqin, with her dark skin and neatly combed but clearly wavy dark brown hair, looked back, unamused. “My lady, perhaps now is not the time for jests,” she reminded gently, somehow unphased by the Duchess’ attention.
The woman-monster hummed and gestured for her to lower her head, allowing Ling Qi to quickly fix her eyes back on the carpet. Ling Qi caught Cai Renxiang shooting her a look of genuine apology on the way back to staring at the carpet.
As she gathered her wits, the Duchess spoke once again. “If not among family, then when?" the elder Cai rebutted, a sarcastic twist on her lips. Ling Qi had no idea if it was genuine or if the woman before her was even capable of humor. It made her recall Sixiang's comments regarding the younger Cai. Was this what Cai Renxiang was crafted in the image of? "Allow me to put the same question to you, young lady. Why do you follow my daughter?”
Under that burning gaze, Ling Qi found the pressure to speak her mind increasing by the moment yet. Every bit of coaching she had received flew out of her head, scattered like dust in a windstorm. Ling Qi panicked as she internally flailed for an answer.