<Focus.> Sixiang’s mental voice sounded tiny in her thoughts, an echo of an echo, but it was enough. Ling Qi knew she was better than this. Hadn’t she mastered the Argent Mirror? Wasn’t she supposed to know herself?
That was the trouble though. The Mirror couldn’t provide answers on its own; it was only a tool reflecting what was there. Ling Qi had many reasons for joining Cai Renxiang but no easy way to distill her motivations down to a single statement. Taking a breath, Ling Qi put her thoughts in order and began to speak.
“Your daughter offers me strength and a solid foundation from which to grow for both myself and my family,” she said, careful to speak evenly. “And I think I would like to live in and up to the sort of order she wishes to create.”
Ling Qi kept her eyes on the ground, trying not to give any indication of her nervousness as the beat of silence that followed her words stretched on. Had that answer been good enough?
Ling Qi felt her shoulders stiffen as the Cai matriarch made a thoughtful sound. “I do not hate such pragmatic attitudes,” she mused. “See that you do not allow yourself to waver in your devotion to our order.” There was something in the older woman’s tone, some thread of amusement directed at her, that raised the hairs on the back of her neck in alarm.
She felt that Duchess’ radiant gaze turning away from her and nearly sagged in relief. “Minister, see to our lodgings. If I recall, Sect Head Yuan requested that he be allowed a meeting when I arrived.”
“You are correct, my lady. I will ensure that there are no troubles here.”
“Very good,” the Duchess allowed languidly, the silk of her dress swishing faintly as she turned back to Renxiang. “I am satisfied with your performance, Renxiang. I expect that to continue.”
“Of course, Mother. I will not bring shame to our clan,” the younger Cai promised, a hint of tightness in her voice.
There was no further response as the Duchess vanished in a literal flash, searing a line of radiance into Ling Qi’s vision as the beam of light that she had become receded into the distance toward the mountains, taking the terrible oppressiveness of her aura along with her. Ling Qi let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding and began to raise her head.
As she did, Minister Diao Linqin, who had turned to watch the Duchess go, turned back to them. Absent the overwhelming presence of Cai Shenhua, Ling Qi was able to actually focus on the other woman. Ling Qi noted for the first time the wreath of pink roses woven into the coiled braids holding the woman’s hair and her slim dancer’s figure. Diao Linqin was a riveting beauty in her own right, despite her atypical features. Ling Qi wasn’t quite sure how to categorize the feeling that gave her, given the Duchess’ earlier words.
Her thoughts were interrupted as the older woman’s demure expression took on a colder edge as she surveyed the three of them. It reminded Ling Qi that this woman was a power in her own right - seventh realm, and the head of a count clan. Ling Qi felt her breath catch as their eyes met, and for the briefest instant, she felt small, a tiny flower barely bloomed, rooted in the midst of the twisting, thorny vines of a garden of transcendently beautiful roses which extended far beyond her senses. The roses were prepared to strangle the life from her and from any other upstart which dared encroach upon its bed.
The instant passed, and she was once more looking at a woman, beautiful and elegant, but no more than that. The Minister’s green eyes rested on Cai Renxiang, who met her cool look with one of her own.
“You are all dismissed,” the Minister said after a moment. “I trust that you know what is expected of you, Cai Renxiang?”
“Of course, Minister Diao,” Cai Renxiang replied calmly, her poise recovered. “Please continue to take good care of my Lady Mother.”
A flicker of a smile touched the older woman’s lips as she turned back to the carriage with a sound of swishing silks. “Continue to make yourself valuable, Cai Renxiang,” she said in clear dismissal.
Ling Qi stood alongside her liege, glancing between the two of them before Cai Renxiang led her and Gan Guangli away. She held her tongue until they were well away and cloaked by the noise of passersby to boot.
“... May I ask what that was about?” Ling Qi asked, pitching her voice low.
“The good Minister is not fond of our Lady,” Gan Guangli answered, his voice a low rumble. Even his boisterous spirit was subdued in the wake of that encounter.
“It is nothing to be concerned over,” Cai Renxiang said. “Diao Lingqin’s loyalty to my Mother is absolute. If she is acting against me…”
Then they had bigger problems, Linq Qi finished, but she wasn’t sure it was so simple. She wondered why a grown woman of such power would openly dislike someone Cai Renxiang’s age. Ling Qi re-focused on the tension she could see in the heiress’ shoulders.
“I am sure the Duchess is simply further solidifying the foundation of the Cai now that you have proven that you can be trusted to do well on your own,” she offered as they passed between a pair of ostentatious tents.
“Indeed,” Gan Guangli agreed. “With a second daughter of your caliber, the position of the Cai is only more secure.”
She caught a glimpse of the other girl’s face as she glanced back at the two of them. There was a vulnerability there that seemed alien. “... Of course. Mother prizes efficiency above most else,” she said before turning her eyes forward once more. “It is only sensible that she begin developing other resources as well.”
<Don’t push it any further,> Sixiang murmured, giving the impression of peeking out of a hiding place. <Not here and now.>
It was nice to hear that her spirits hadn’t fainted, Ling Qi thought wryly. She had been worried that she was alone for a moment there.
<Zhengui is sorry, Big Sister,> her little brother said. <The light was...> His thought trailed off into a shudder of unease.
She sent him a feeling of reassurance; she hadn’t meant to imply that she was upset with him. Ling Qi turned her attention back to her human companions as they reached the central “square” of the campgrounds.
“Our time until the opening ceremonies is short,” Cai Renxiang said as she faced the two of them, her usual expression firmly back in place. “As we discussed, we will be splitting the duty of providing greetings and regards to those visitors relevant to the interests of the Cai.”
“I will ensure that the Wang and Jia clans, as well as the other Sect contingents, receive their proper welcome,” Gan Guangli agreed, thumping his gauntleted fist against his breastplate.
They had spoken about this on the way over to the campgrounds. There were a number of groups only here because Cai Renxiang was or who were simply important enough for the Cai to give them face. Ling Qi was still trying to keep it all straight.
“And I will see to the Bai and Xuan,” Cai Renxiang agreed, for it would be insulting for anyone less than the heiress to show up at the doorstep of the ducal clans. It still rankled a bit that she couldn’t be the one to greet Meizhen’s family.
“And I have the Bao and the Luo,” Ling Qi said. Ling Qi would greet the Bao because she was at least acquainted with the third daughter of the house, and had the responsibility for the other because she expected her moon ties to be the most helpful there.
“And the Golden Fields?” Cai Renxiang asked, raising an eyebrow. “I am aware that the matter is somewhat complex, but you do have the strongest connections there as well.”
Ling Qi glanced away, pursing her lips. Cai had spoken to her about being the one to go and offer their regards to the far flung province’s contingent, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to insert herself further into the politics of that place. She knew Cai Renxiang would shoulder that burden if she didn’t, but she was giving Ling Qi the opportunity to further those ties if she wanted. Given the cursory nature of the meetings with the two count clans, Ling Qi would have time for a third meeting.
“I can handle the Golden Fields,” Ling Qi replied after a moment’s thought. Even in her own head, her concerns regarding the matter seemed petty and ill founded. If she couldn’t deal with a somewhat awkward meeting, she should probably give up now.
Her liege nodded once, and to Ling Qi’s eye, she seemed satisfied with her answer. Leaving Cai Renxiang with only two meetings would give her a moment to recenter herself before the tournament. That was another reason not to increase the other girl’s burden.
“I wish you both good fortune then and will see you at the opening ceremonies of the tournament,” Cai Renxiang said, meeting their gazes. “Remember what I have taught you of the province’s politics.”
Once the two of them gave their affirmative responses, the three of them split apart. They had gone over the locations and the best order of visitation before even coming to the campgrounds, so Ling Qi already knew where to go. Her first destination was the Bao, who was both the larger clan and the one better connected with the court in the capital. The man they had sent was their clan’s young master, the eldest son of the current head, whereas the Luo had sent an older cousin from a branch family.
Thei Bao’s space was placed on the west side, a short walk from the grand pavilion of white silk being erected for the Duchess. The Bao had elected for an expensive temporary structure, a small guest house that was nonetheless larger than the three story home she had provided her mother in town. It was surrounded by a low curtain wall and a built-in garden. Its roof was tiled with green jade, and the walls were carved from a dark, nearly black wood, polished to a gleaming shine.
A man and a woman dressed in light lacquered armor over finely padded gear in the Bao’s colors stood guard at the gates. Their stances, alert and at attention, straightened up further as she approached.
LIng Qi stopped at a respectful distance, just off the main path where she would not be impeding traffic, and gave a very small bow appropriate to greeting the subordinates of a cultivator who outranked her.
“Baroness Ling, presenting herself to offer greetings and well wishes to the representative of the Bao in the name of the Cai clan,” she said smoothly, remembering the line by rote.
The woman, who looked to be the older of the two, bowed in return. “This humble sentry will be honored to carry word of your presence to the Young Master, Baroness Ling.” The reply had the same air of practised ease as her own line. “I must humbly ask for your patience in the interim.”
Ling Qi reviewed her etiquette lessons in her head. The guard’s response was a bit more respectful than was strictly necessary given the difference in ranks involved here. Knowing that, she adjusted her response accordingly.
“Do not trouble yourself with undue haste,” she said. “Please give your Master my personal regards for his courtesy.” Talking like this all the time was going to be tiring, Ling Qi thought.
<The moon does not have any one face, and neither should you,> Sixiang whispered, amused at her internal grumbling.
That didn’t exactly square with the lessons of Argent Mirror, Ling Qi mused as the guard bowed again and went inside, leaving her under the watch of the other one. Then again, that was likely her inexperience speaking. Sect Head Yuan, the inventor of the Argent arts, surely had experience dealing with courtly matters; she doubted that his art would conflict with such an essential part of cultivator life.
She was not kept waiting long. The guard returned to escort her inside, letting her pass through the gates and into the garden. It was lovely, filled with all sorts of plants which she did not recognize, making Zhengui forget his woes regarding the earlier meeting with the Duchess in favor of drooling over the array of treats.
The decor of the Bao’s guest home was one of understated luxury, but she was almost brought up short as she left the entrance hall and caught sight of what could only be the man she had come here to meet. Bao Quan was a man of middling height with a heavyset build and cheerful features. He was also more extravagantly dressed than any male cultivator she had ever seen before, not counting the abominable robes that Elder Jiao favored. Threads of precious metals she only recognized from books were woven into his robes, and jade rings adorned his fingers. Even his luxurious, chest length beard was kept in place by clips carved whole from valuable gemstones, and the black scholar’s cap he wore had a diamond the size of a child’s fist embedded in the cloth, set right above and between his eyes.
This flashy guy was the older brother of Li Suyin’s dour and reclusive senior sister?
Despite her surprise, she remembered to keep her manners as the guard who had led her into the room where the Bao representative was seated bowed low to her master. “My lord, may I introduce Baroness Ling, as requested.”
Ling Qi bowed in turn, bringing her hands together respectfully as she did so. “Sir Bao Quan, you honor me with a direct meeting,” she recited. “This humble retainer of the Cai would like to convey her liege’s thanks and well wishes toward your personage and your clan.”
The older man was only silent for a beat before he rose from his seat, a jovial smile on his thick features. “I hear and accept them, young Baroness,” he replied cheerfully, flicking a hand in dismissal toward his guard. And why not? He was in the fourth realm of cultivation, his aura a glittering, gleaming thing that spoke of the untold wealth of the earth. “I suppose the Lady herself is entertaining the Bai and Xuan delegations?”
“She is, Sir Bao,” Ling Qi answered, straightening up after an appropriate interval. She couldn’t let her guard down just because he seemed friendly. “I sincerely hope that you do not take my presence as a slight.”
“Of course not,” the man scoffed. “I am aware enough of my own position. The Xuan are our greatest external customers, and opening up those reclusive Bai to further relations would be quite a coup. This turmoil between provinces has been terrible for business,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “But I am being a rude host. Be seated, be seated,” he continued, gesturing at the other seat in the room, a richly upholstered chair that probably cost more than her house.
Ling Qi waited a beat for her host to take his seat first before doing as he instructed. Sitting in it felt like sinking into a cloud. “You are too kind, Sir Bao.” The constant refrains of humility were a little irritating, but she could put up with something small like that. “My lady Cai would like to express her gratitude at your arrival here to witness her graduation.”
“I look forward to seeing the Young Miss’ triumph. The Bao could hardly offer the insult of ignoring such an occasion,” he said with a small chortle. “Besides, it does give me a chance to visit my adorable little sister.”
Ling Qi paused, picturing Bao Qingling’s unhealthy pallor, dark ringed eyes, and expression of bland disinterest. She wasn’t sure of any definition of the word “adorable” which that girl fit. Thankfully, she kept any of that dubiousness from reaching her expression. “Miss Bao is doing well,” she said instead. “I am sure she will be pleased to see you.”
The older man looked at her with some interest, folding his hands over his stomach. “Ah, yes, I do believe she mentioned you once in her letters. A friend of her little project, was it?”
“Just so,” Ling Qi replied, feeling a little put out at the mildly demeaning description of her friend. “I have visited her workshop once or twice. It is very impressive.”
“Such an industrious girl, my sister,” Bao Quan said, looking pleased. “So shy though. I shall have to pay her a visit.” He shook his head slightly. “So, Miss Ling, before we grow too distracted, was there any other business the young Lady Cai had to convey?”
“Only a few small matters,” Ling Qi demurred, producing a small bundle of letters from her sleeve with a flick of her wrist. A slight flexing of the air around her carried the letters into the older cultivator’s hands. “Lady Cai has asked me to convey to you these recommendations for production disciples which might be worth some small attention...”
Her talk with the Bao representative went on for a bit longer as they reviewed the small matters Cai had asked her to convey and engaged in polite small talk. For what it was worth, Bao Quan did seem like a genuinely cheerful and mostly pleasant man, so Ling Qi thought the meeting went well.