“Who was that you were speaking to?” Xiulan asked as she came within a polite distance. The other girl had cleaned up well since her match, she had changed into a rather form-fitting gown of crimson silk with black hems and flame patterned golden embroidery and a matching veil. The daring neckline that left her shoulders partially exposed seemed rather tame, now that Ling Qi had seen Duchess Cai’s choice of dress.
Ling Qi repressed the twinge of old jealousy her friend inspired with the ease of practice. “I am fairly certain that that was Bai Meizhen’s father,” she replied, an edge of bewilderment in her voice.
Gu Xiulan blinked, looking perplexed as she glanced over Ling Qi’s shoulder. “Really? I had not thought…” She shook her head, the little ribbons woven into her braided hair swaying with the motion. “Well, regardless, Mother sent me to fetch you. Sir Guo will have a free moment soon.”
“Oh, good,” Ling Qi said, relieved. She had been worried that she might miss her timing by choosing to navigate the party herself. She moved to follow Xiulan as her friend began leading her toward the other side of the pavilion. “How did your match go? I’m afraid I only saw the end.”
“Well enough,” Xiulan proclaimed haughtily. “After I crushed the first few challengers, most of them fled before me until I met with the Chu girl.” She grimaced then, stopping just short of touching her side where Ling Qi had seen her wounded. “Then that execrable little cave dweller struck me from hiding.”
She assumed that Xiulan was referring to Huang Da with that epithet. “I take it you expressed your displeasure?” she asked with a small smile.
“I did,” Xiulan replied, sounding pleased. “Though I was not the one who finished him,” she added grudgingly, her face taking on a more pinched expression behind her veil.
Ling Qi glanced at her friend as they moved through the gathered nobility. “Who did?” she asked, thinking that she already knew given Xiulan’s reaction.
“Fan Yu, of course,” Xiulan answered irritably. “He insisted on sticking to my side,” she grumbled. “I suppose it was entertaining watching him beat that fool unconscious with his bare hands. My fiancé is not without his strengths.”
Xiulan sounded less bitter than usual, but Ling Qi couldn’t be sure if that was due to true feelings or their current environment.
<A little of both, I think,> Sixiang whispered. <Oh, I wish I still had a body…> they mourned, fading back into the background of Ling Qi’s thoughts.
“I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to see it,” Ling Qi said. She had left Huang Da behind in her dust, but she couldn’t say that her antipathy for the boy had disappeared.
“There is a certain pleasure in such things,” the voice of Xiulan’s mother interrupted them, tinkling like bells, as they reached the older woman. Ling Qi’s original estimation of the woman was right. Ai Xiaoli was positively tiny, even standing up. The older woman looked up at them with a serene expression, half-hidden behind a painted silk fan. “The menfolk must prove their value somehow, yes?”
Ling Qi flushed at the implication but bowed respectfully to her friend’s mother. “Lady Ai, thank you very much for your invitation.”
Beside her, Xiulan offered a shallower bow, looking chagrined. “I hope we were not being too casual, Mother,” she said, not raising her eyes.
“Hm, you were within acceptable bounds, dear,” the dainty woman replied, closing her fan with a snap. “It is expected for young ladies to be a bit indiscreet in their gossip,” she continued, glancing toward Ling Qi. “It keeps young men on their best behavior after all.”
“I will take your advice to heart,” Ling Qi said respectfully. She was mostly sure that Xiulan’s mother was having some fun at their expense.
“Be sure that you do,” Ai Xiaoli said airily before beckoning them to follow. “Now come. It would not do to keep Sir Guo waiting.”
It did not take long to reach the rear corner of the tent where the Guo scion himself was holding his court in miniature. As they approached the small gathering, Ling Qi caught her first sight of him.
He didn’t look much older than her, perhaps around the same age as Gu Tai. He was tall with a lanky, athletic build made obvious by the form-fitting sleeveless shirt in the light blue colors of the Guo; the shirt was held closed by onyx clasps that resembled the pincers of a beast, probably a scorpion given the Guo’s ancestor. His pants were of similar make to the ones Sun Liling wore, but they were a light cream shade. He had a fairly handsome face with a rather sharp nose and cheekbones, and he wore his black hair in a single tight braid that fell down to the base of his back, threaded through with gleaming metallic strands.
The Guo scion was flanked by a pair of large men in heavy padded armor, their faces mostly concealed behind fabric wrappings but with alertness in their dark eyes. The young man himself appeared to be chatting animatedly with a third guard, who appeared no different than the others, save for his third realm cultivation. As for the Guo scion himself, it appeared that he was pushing the limits of the third realm himself.
“Oho, welcome, Lady Ai,” Guo Si, the eighth grandson of the current Duke of Golden Fields greeted them as they approached, Xiulan’s mother in the lead. The man he had been conversing with dutifully stepped back, leaving the Guo scion to converse with them alone. “I hope you have found my family’s presentation enjoyable so far!” he said brightly, spreading his arms wide. Guo Si had quite a lot of definition for such a thin guy.
Ai Xiaoli offered a formal bow that was a study in elegance, which Ling Qi quickly followed, along with Xiulan, her cheeks flushing a bit at the feeling of inadequacy that spiked up from watching Xiulan’s mother in motion. “Sir Guo has done amazing work, as always,” the older woman replied demurely. “Truly a credit to the resources of our fine province.”
Ling Qi felt the young man’s gaze brush over her, prickling like the sun on a hot summer day. “You are too kind, Lady Ai. The Gu have provided much to this endeavor as well.”
“Sir Guo gives this one too much credit,” Xiulan’s mother said smoothly. “We wished only to ensure that our province could give the best showing possible.”
“And what a showing it was and is,” Guo Si said cheerfully. “So raise your heads, please. Who are these two young ladies with you?”
As Ling Qi raised her head, she could tell from his tone that he already knew. Letting Lady Ai introduce them was just a formality, albeit an important one. “This is my youngest daughter, Gu Xiulan,” the older woman began. It took effort not to flinch when Ai Xiaoli simply appeared beside her daughter, vanishing from her place in front of them. “As you can see, my husband’s blood burns brightly indeed in her.”
“Very much so,” Guo Si agreed, smiling charmingly at Xiulan and offering a tiny bow of acknowledgement. “Your family has produced yet another beauty, and one of such strength as well. Truly, the house of Gu is blessed,” he continued, a touch of amusement in his voice.
Ling Qi could practically feel the sparks of insecurity flaring up in Xiulan’s aura, but a glance from her mother quelled them. “We are quite proud of our youngest generation. The Gu will be relying upon their talent in the future.”
“And what talent it is,” the Guo scion said, his gaze wandering across her friend’s veiled face. “You gave a fine showing in the arena this day, Miss Gu.”
“Thank you very much, Sir Guo,” Gu Xiulan replied, mimicking her Mother’s demure tones. “I am pleased that you feel that I did not waste your time.”
Nodding in reply, the young man turned his eyes to Ling Qi, who had to hold from swallowing at the spark of intense interest she saw there. “And who might this be?”
“My daughter’s good friend, the Baroness Ling, retainer of the Young Mistress Cai,” Ai Xiaoli said formally. “She requested that I introduce her on behalf of her liege.”
“Indeed?” Guo Si asked neutrally. “I would have happily met with your Lady if she had only asked.”
Ling Qi thought quickly, scraping together a proper response. “I beg that you take no offense, Sir Guo. My Lady’s schedule was made very frantic this morning. In addition, it was this humble vassal’s request to handle the meetings with the Golden Fields.”
Ling Qi held her breath as the young man studied her, his expression neutral. Then, his expression broke into a rueful grin. “I understand, Baroness Ling. Why, with the Bai’s heir, the Twin Admirals of the Xuan, and even that Butcher King in attendance, I feel quite small indeed!” He laughed, but there was a gleam of something else in his eyes that passed too quickly for her to read, even with Sixiang’s help. “I am somewhat surprised that Her Highness did not decide to drop by at this point.”
Ling Qi dutifully laughed at his joke, along with Xiulan and her mother. “I am certain that Lady Cai would make the time to meet with you if you wished it, Sir Guo,” she said after an appropriate moment. “Of course, I do not mean to impose. I merely act as my Lady’s eyes and ears.”
“I suppose you do make quite the herald,” the Guo scion said with a chuckle. “The cold night that comes before her brilliant dawn,” he mused poetically. “Very well. By all means, inform the resplendent Lady Cai that this humble young master would be honored to take tea with her before the week is out.”
Sixiang let out a snort of laughter in her head, almost causing Ling Qi’s eye to twitch as the spirit’s thoughts filtered into her own, helping her assemble the pieces. His interest, that flash of jealous irritation, those flowery and almost improperly humble words…
Letting none of her thoughts appear on her face, Ling Qi smiled demurely and bowed her head. “I would be honored to pass your message, Sir Guo. My Lady will be honored as well, I am sure.”
“I shall look forward to her answer then,” the Guo scion said amicably, turning his gaze back to Ai Xiaoli. “So, Lady Ai, I must ask, just where did you find such a supply of Sparkling Onyx Pomegranate…”
Ling Qi allowed herself a tiny sigh of relief as things turned toward small talk, allowing her to relax a hair, and considered just how to go about breaking the news to Cai Renxiang that Guo Si was a little smitten with her.
There was worse news she could deliver.
“You say that you believe Guo Si wishes to court me?” Cai Renxiang asked, sounding faintly bemused as she leaned back into the padded chair behind her desk.
“That was the impression I received,” Ling Qi replied, sinking into her own seat in her liege’s office. In the aftermath of the festivities, she had come here on the other girl’s request, so that they could discuss things before the tournament proper began in the morning. “Sixiang agrees,” she added, drawing a snicker from the spirit in her head despite the presence of the Cai.
“I will pen a reply before I retire then,” Cai Renxiang noted. “We have never interacted before. What a strange thing. Useful, but strange.”
Ling Qi let out a quiet hum of agreement. “I hope I did not overstep my bounds by telling him you would agree,” she said cautiously. “I know this kind of thing can be uncomfortable.” Although they had parted on good terms, she knew that she had felt pressured and a bit unhappy with the whole Gu Tai business at first.
“No, I would not give offense by refusing such an invitation. You were correct,” Cai Renxiang replied. “It is simply something I will have to keep in my thoughts when we speak later. Physical attraction is a useful lever.”
Ling Qi kept herself from grimacing. She had forgotten who she was talking to. “Do you think it will go anywhere?”
“His advances, you mean?” the younger Cai clarified. “It is unlikely, I think. I do not believe Mother would find such a match favorable. While trade from Golden Fields is valuable, their power is too tied up in fighting the very land in which they live. If I must speculate, I imagine that Mother will arrange something with a man from one of the ducal houses of the core provinces in the coming decade.”
“Not angling for a prince?” Ling Qi asked dryly. The other girl really didn’t think anything of this kind of arrangement, did she?
“The youngest living prince is a century my senior and married besides,” Cai Renxiang denied. “I’ll need to educate you on the state of the Imperial family soon. Mother might arrange something with one of the sons or grandsons of a prince or princess though.”
Ling Qi had been joking, but she should have expected an answer like that. “Well, leaving that aside, I do not have anything else of significance to report.”
“Very good,” her liege replied with a nod, lacing her fingers together atop her desk. “I trust you recall what needs to be done in regards to your own propositions?”
Ling Qi sighed. “I will finish writing up the deferrals tonight.”
“Good. You are wise to put off such choices. Your value will only increase in the coming years. I would suggest keeping the lines of dialogue open with the Bao however. It is clear that they wish to tie themselves closer to the Cai.”
At least her talent gave her some breathing room when it came to matters of marriage and political ties, since her title could still change relatively quickly based on her cultivation achievements. “Did anything of interest happen on your end?”
“I believe I have made a good impression upon Bai Suzhen and the brothers Xuan,” Cai Renxiang said with a touch of satisfaction. “Our current troubles have been mitigated by our own performances for the moment. I have learned that Bai Suzhen will be taking her father’s seat as the Head of the Bai clan in the near future, allowing him to fill the position of Patriarch. I suspect the Bai’s politics will be shifting somewhat as a result.”
Maybe she should ask Meizhen about her aunt the next time she got a chance then. “That’s all a little over my head. Hopefully, that goes well for them.”
“Indeed,” Cai agreed. “In any case, we should discuss the tournament.”
“What should I expect tomorrow?” Ling Qi asked, leaning forward in her seat.
“The tournament will begin with an exhibition between elders,” Cai explained. “The stated purpose is to encourage disciples by allowing them to view what they might aspire to, but it is also a show of strength for the Sect. Following this, the brackets will be displayed, and we will know our opponents, as well as the terrain our battles will be assigned to.”
“Will the matches be fought four at a time again?” Ling Qi asked before correcting herself, “No, I suppose that would make the tournament end too quickly.”
“Correct,” the other girl agreed. “Disciples will be given one quarter hour to prepare themselves and plan, and then the matches will proceed one at a time in sequence. When the first round is complete, we will break until the following day.”
Ling Qi frowned. That prep time would probably work against her. She didn’t really have a sideboard of secondary arts to attune in preparation for specific opponents. “What do I do if I am paired with you?” she asked. There were other worrying match ups, but that was the one that concerned her the most.
“That will not happen tomorrow. It would be a blatant insult to the Cai. If it occurs in a later round though…” She paused. “I will give you the opportunity to display your talents. I cannot afford to display certain abilities before the final rounds however,” she said bluntly, meeting Ling Qi’s eyes.
Ling Qi nodded. It would sting to willingly lose, but Ling Qi was well practiced with casting aside pride. Such a thing would be a minor issue at most. “Alright.Was there anything else?”
Her liege shook her head. “No, I believe we are finished. Rest well, Ling Qi.”
“You as well, Lady Cai,” she replied, rising from her seat to bow. “I will see you in the morning.”