It was a good thing her first meeting went so well because it left her unstressed for the next.
The Luo representative was housed in more modest accommodations than the Bao. Rather than a house, they set up a number of tents surrounding a larger pavilion made of a thicker sort of cloth. If she remembered her lessons correctly, the Luo controlled a fair amount of pasture land; they and their subordinates bred a few particular types of livestock with special properties. It would make sense for them to use their own products.
The guards at the Luo’s entrance were dressed more like woodsmen than city guards. They had been less polite in their greetings, though still within the bounds of propriety. Ling Qi had been led to one of the side tents to wait on the arrival of their representative. The inside of the tent was comfortable enough, the bare ground covered by thick rugs and colorful cushions, and was lit by the soft light of a floating paper lantern suspended in midair.
<I hope you intend to be a bit more helpful for this one, Sixiang,> Ling Qi thought as she settled in to wait.
<You had the last one handled,> her spirit sent back. <I would have given you a nudge if you drifted off course. It looks like you can manage socializing if you focus though.>
Ling Qi restrained herself from snorting at that half compliment. She couldn’t gainsay the spirit though. It was still difficult not to slip back into more casual modes of speech by accident. She turned her attention instead to Zhengui and prodded him with a feeling of concern.
<Big Sister shouldn’t worry,> he replied in her thoughts, sounding distracted. <Zhengui will not distract Big Sister from important things.>
Now that they were away from the Bao’s garden, Zhengui had returned to being on edge about the sheer number of powerful people she was surrounded by. There was little she could do to reassure him on the matter, not when Ling Qi was bothered as well.
Ling Qi was distracted from her thoughts when the tent flap opened, revealing one of the lightly armored guards holding it open for a much older man. The Luo representative, Luo Jie, was a spindly sort to her eye. He had long limbs and a thin build, partially concealed by the ankle-length cloak of soft leather worn over his shoulders, concealing the rest of his attire. Luo Jie had narrow, severe features, marked by a surprising amount of wrinkles for a cultivator, mostly around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes. His head was clean shaven and bare, but a long thin gray mustache framed his frowning lips.
Ling Qi rose to her feet and offered a bow to the elderly cultivator, trying to ignore the man’s unsettling aura. Luo Jie’s aura felt like being alone and unarmed in the woods at night while predatory eyes gleamed from within every shadow. His realm of power was unreadable.
“Eight Maiden's blessing on you, Sir Luo,” she said calmly, Sixiang’s murmurs feeding her the right words. “I offer my gratitude for this meeting, and the chance to offer my Lady’s regards and well wishes.”
The older man’s head tilted slightly, his already half-lidded eyes narrowing further as he examined her. “May the Dreamer’s attentions remain benign, child,” he grunted, offering only a perfunctory nod in response to her bow as the guard allowed the flap of the tent to close behind him. “You are Baroness Ling then?”
Sixiang felt a little huffy at his response, but Ling Qi forged on. “I am, Sir Luo. I hope that my presence is satisfactory.”
The old man waved a gnarled hand dismissively, picking his way across the thick carpet. “I accept your Lady’s intentions. The question is, do you know them?” he asked, fixing her with a look that told her that he was not yet impressed.
Ling Qi hesitated before straightening up and meeting his eyes. In a more normal situation, it would have been rude, but the families that followed the older ways had their own traditions. “Lady Cai believes that I can more easily relate to you and yours given my own affiliation with the moon.”
Luo Jie smiled thinly in response. “You have a maiden with you, true, hiding in your thoughts, and the scent of moonlight on your skin. Do you imagine that privileges you, Baroness Ling?”
Ling Qi listened to Sixiang’s whispers as she considered her answer. “Sir Luo, I am not of any of the old families, but I do regard the spirit we both revere as a patron. I cannot say I understand all of the differences between your ways and others. I have only just begun to learn the Imperial ways after all,” she began answering, emphasizing that at the moment, she didn’t have a side. “I am, of course, willing to receive instruction on these matters.”
The older man crossed his arms under his cloak. “Mmph, good enough,” he muttered before seating himself cross-legged atop one of the larger cushions. “Any voice not entirely bound by that rigid mindset is a boon. See that you retain your flexibility going forward.”
“You can see which moons smile upon me, Honored Elder,” she replied mildly at Sixiang’s prompting. “I will not lose sight of the value of an open mind,” she finished, seating herself across from him.
Once again, he gave her a thin smile. “Under blinding light, there is little room for shadows, sleep, and secrets. Be careful in your doings.”
“Of course, Sir Luo,” she said. “I thank you for your advice.”
“Regardless, I accept your Lady’s gratitude and regards. Were there other matters you had to speak of?”
“Only a few,” Ling Qi said. “First, I have a proposal from the Wang clan regarding new livestock populations captured in recent action against the Cloud tribes. Lady Cai believes this may serve to improve provincial unity, so she asks that you will give the matter some thought...”
The rest of her meeting went by quickly enough with the taciturn Luo representative agreeing to consider the matters Cai Renxiang had asked her to bring up. Soon enough, she was on her way, dismissed from the Luo compound and its slightly unsettling inhabitants.
She had her final, most difficult task left. How Ling Qi approached the Golden Fields contingent would likely serve to bias future interactions with them. The Golden Fields counted among their number people from the Han, Fan, and Gu, not to mention one of the grandsons of the current Duke Guo. Cai Renxiang had asked her to secure an invitation to meet with the Guo.
She had the most ties with the Gu clan; she was close friends with Xiulan, and she had parted with Gu Tai on good terms. In addition, the representative was Xiulan’s mother, which gave her another connection.
On the other hand, the Gu were the vassals of the Han, and bypassing the Han like that could be considered rude. But she wasn’t as close with Han Jian, so she wasn’t sure if they would be willing to introduce her to the Guo.
Ling Qi thought over the possibilities with a frown. In the end, she was probably going to make someone unhappy. Of course, she could just go straight to the Guo, but even as a representative of Cai, that was audacious given her own rank as a Baroness.
Since her goal was to secure a meeting with the Guo, it made simple sense to go to the family that was most likely to allow her to do so. It would allow her to pay respects to the mother of one of her best friends, and doing so would be a show of filial piety, making the choice to go to the Gu fairly uncontroversial.
She walked through the sweltering heat of the Gu’s “travel home.” It was smaller than the Bao’s near palatial residence had been, but it made up for it in exoticism. It was a single story building crafted whole from the bones and gleaming red scales of a potent spirit beast. Radiant qi emanated from every surface in its interior.
The Gu guardsman escorting her, dressed in a colorful panopoly with his face concealed behind a crimson headwrap and scarf, seemed unbothered by the heat despite being a realm below her in cultivation.
<They really do go all in on the theme, don’t they?> Sixiang mused, looking out through her eyes at a wall hanging depicting a phoenix rising from a barren field, streamers of multi-hued fire trailing its wings. Ling Qi had to agree. Even the rich carpet was patterned with rippling lines that called to mind heat hazes and flames. At least Zhengui was finally enjoying himself; the qi emanating from the building had him all but wriggling in happiness in his spiritual form.
“We are here, Lady Ling,” the young guardsman said as they arrived at the end of the hallway before a doorway blocked off by a curtain of diaphanous silk. “Lady Ai will receive you inside,” he continued, standing aside to give her room to pass.
Ling Qi nodded, taking only a moment to prepare herself. She knew very little about Ai Xiaoli, Gu Xiulan’s mother, aside from the fact that she was originally from the Celestial Peaks and had exacting standards about appearances.
Stepping forward, Ling Qi parted the curtains and stepped inside to find herself in a richly appointed sitting room, not too dissimilar from what she had seen in the Bao residence. She did not let her attention linger long on the decor because the woman, a fifth realm cultivator, seated comfortably on the other side of the small polished table that served as the room’s centerpiece demanded attention.
Her first thought was that Xiulan’s mother looked like a porcelain doll brought to life. Ai Xiaoli was a petite woman, even shorter than her own mother, and was elegant in appearance. She was pale, but not unnaturally so like Meizhen, and her raven black hair shimmered like silk in the light of the room. There was a faint chiming from the dangling ruby earrings and jade ornaments in her hair as the woman turned to look at her.
Ling Qi stood before a mirror-like oasis, its azure waters reflecting the clear desert sky. All around her, golden sand stretched into infinity. The lake was surrounded by a riot of green, and colorful fish darted through the clear waters. And yet, the surface was still, unmarred by a single ripple.
Then Ling Qi blinked and she was simply looking at soft brown eyes beneath long eyelashes. Hastily, Ling Qi bowed respectfully, struck by a nagging inadequacy now that she stood before the living image of what she had been taught a woman should be. The Duchess’ beauty had been harsh and inhuman - and unthreatening for that. It was irrational, she knew, but it really did seem unfair. This was a woman who had five daughters? She barely looked older than Xiulan’s elder sister!
Ling Qi squeezed her eyes shut. Why was she panicking over something so superficial?
“My apologies,” her host said in a soft voice like the chiming of bells. “That was terribly rude of me.”
Ling Qi cleared her throat but didn’t raise her head as she scrambled to get her thoughts in order. “You have my gratitude for allowing me this meeting, Lady Ai. May I ask what that was though?”
“A minor slip on my part,” Xiulan’s mother answered evenly. “My previous meeting was somewhat aggravating.” After a beat of silence, she continued, “You may raise your head, Miss Ling. Please have a seat, and I will send for tea. I am interested in speaking with the girl who has made such an impression on my daughter.”
Ling Qi wasn’t sure if she believed Ai Xiaoli’s answer. She had never seen a higher realm cultivator really slip up, but it wasn’t as if she had much experience with meeting such people. Sixiang was silent on the matter, and she could tell the spirit was studying her hostess carefully. “Of course, Lady Ai. Gu Xiulan is among my closest friends, and I was pleased to know that you would be here for her.” Straightening up, she took her seat across from the older woman.
“It is good to know that Xiulan has found another young lady to spend time with,” Ai Xiaoli replied neutrally, reaching out to grasp a tiny jade bell on the table and ring it once. The woman’s dainty hands were nearly lost in the silk and lace of her voluminous sleeves. “She has always had a streak of boyishness in her demeanor.”
Ling Qi wondered at that. “Gu Xiulan helped me greatly in learning what was expected of an Imperial lady. She took your lessons very well,” she praised. “I am certain she will be more herself when the stress of the tournament is over.”
The woman regarded her from under her thick eyelashes for a moment, and Ling Qi did her best not to squirm under the woman’s piercing gaze. “I am certain you are correct. Although it hurts to see my child in pain, it is… a trial she will overcome,” the older woman said, neither her voice nor her expression betraying a single thought. “And I am thankful for the support you have given her in the matter. Unlike some.”
Ling Qi held in a shudder. Something dark had touched Ai Xiaoli’s voice for just a fraction of an instant. “It might be presumptuous for me to say,” Ling Qi said carefully, “but it is nothing for which I require thanks.”
Xiulan’s mother considered her. “Is that so? It seems Xiulan is not as poor in her judgement of character as I had worried then.” Ling Qi wasn’t sure if she should be insulted by that statement. It had been said mildly and without reproach, but…
<It wasn’t aimed at you,> Sixiang whispered, sounding frustrated. <At least I don’t think it was. Or is that what she…>
Ling Qi tuned out the spirit’s muttering and met her hostess’ eyes, noting the faintest light of amusement there. “Gu Xiulan is hasty at times, but I think her judgement is sound,” she said with just a touch of stubbornness that slipped through her control.
“Indeed. Hastiness is simply in her blood. She is very much her father’s daughter,” Ai Xiaoli mused fondly. “I think that is enough talk of serious topics for the moment,” she continued as the curtains rustled and a servant arrived to set out the tea.
Ling Qi glanced at the servant as she finished setting things out and bowed low, receiving only a bare acknowledgement from Xiulan’s mother before respectfully backing from the room. “As you say, Lady Ai,” she agreed. “Thank you for your hospitality,” she said as she took the cup of shimmering green tea set out for her, the cup hot against her hands.
“You are welcome to it,” the older woman said mildly, leaving her own cup to cool for the moment. “Now, I have heard much of the Sect from Xiulan, but I am certain that she has left things out. Tell me: just what have you children been up to?”
Despite the gulf in cultivation and age between them, Ling Qi recognized the expression so similar to the one Xiulan wore when seeking gossip. Iin some things, Xiulan still took after her Mother. She had no doubt that the woman across from her was fishing for more than personal amusement, but she had no reason not to share. “Well, there are a few things Xiulan might not have been privy to,” Ling Qi replied, taking a careful sip from the steaming cup. The heat of the tea made her mouth tingle pleasantly. “If Lady Ai thinks it is important…”
Her friend’s mother smiled thinly. “Now, now, no reason to hold back, Miss Ling. We are only amusing ourselves after all. I have a tale or to two which might be of interest as well.”
It was amazing, Ling Qi thought as the two of them began to swap gossip, the commonalities that even powerful cultivators retained with mortals. If Lady Ai’s stories were any indication, Xiulan had been a rambunctious child. It was a little hard to picture proud, self-confident Xiulan skulking her way into the family's stables because her father had refused to give her a horse of her own when she was six. Getting into fistfights with boys a year or two older and making them cry was a bit more believable. It seemed Xiulan’s temper had actually cooled a fair bit by the time she arrived at the Sect from both cultivation and time spent with her mother.
In return, Ling Qi shared stories of Sun Liling and the grand “war” between Cai Renxiang and her, and eventually, the meeting ended amicably. She now had an invitation to the gathering the Guo would be holding tonight after the preliminaries ended. She might be starting to get the hang of this after all.
For now, it was time to put politics out of her head and focus on the preliminaries.