By the time Ling Qi made it back to the tournament stadium, the sun was on its way toward the horizon’s edge, painting the sky the colors of sunset. Being cleared by the Inner Sect medics staffing the underground hospice took some time.
As one of the winners and continuing participants in the tournament, Xiulan was afforded a private room to rest in, unlike the losing disciples. Some of the losing disciples had already been released into the custody of family present, who would be responsible for any trouble caused by the released disciple. The rest would be allowed to leave only after the semi-finals were completed.
Ling Qi knocked lightly on the door to Xiulan’s room in the wing set aside for tournament participants. A moment later, she heard her friend’s voice inviting her in and slipped in.
The room was well appointed, its stone walls and floor panelled with finely polished wood softened by decor. A small “window” set into the far wall lit the room, giving a view of the tournament grounds despite the room’s position underground. The only furnishings were a small end table, a narrow but comfortable looking bed set against the rightmost wall, and a pair of padded chairs, one in the corner and one near the bed.
Her friend was sitting up in bed as she entered, her back against the headboard, which left her facing Ling Qi. Her hair hung loose down to her shoulders, and rather than her usual gowns, she wore a soft silver robe similar to the ones Ling Qi had worn at the start of the year.
“Only you would still be looking good after a match like that,” Ling Qi joked as she shut the door behind her.
“As if I would allow a few wounds to mar my poise,” Xiulan replied with a haughty sniff, setting aside the book which had been open across her lap. “My foe had the worst of it by far, I’m sure,” she added with a cruel smile.
“I wonder if she will have to shave her head to fix all of that burnt hair,” Ling Qi laughed, taking her seat in the chair near the bed.
“Unfortunately not,” Xiulan said with an exaggerated pout. “There are many elixirs for that kind of thing.” Her smile grew sly then. “Then again, I was hardly the only one inflicting wounds today. How easily you got under that Chu girl’s skin.”
“Well, it wasn’t a difficult weakness to exploit,” Ling Qi noted. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about her statements in that match for all that it had been easy to do in the moment. She didn’t say anything she didn’t believe in, but they had been deliberately inflammatory.
“Oh, indeed,” Xiulan laughed. “Still, it is good to see you dipping your toes into that sort of combat. Perhaps I might tutor you next year,” she added brightly.
Ling Qi smiled at the other girl’s enthusiasm for having made it into the Inner Sect. “Perhaps. Friends should help one another after all,” she said lightly. “Will you be well for the matches tomorrow?”
“Normally, such wounds would leave me bedridden for several days,” Xiulan acknowledged. “However, the Sect makes use of greater resources in cases like this, so I will be well by morning. You would not believe the itching,” she complained, plucking at the hems of her robe with nervous motion.
Ling Qi suspected that “itching” would be the least of her worries if she had suffered the wounds she had seen Xiulan take. “I’m sure you will survive somehow,” she said instead.
Xiulan hummed in agreement. “Where have you been, by the by? I had half-expected you to be hovering over my bedside when I awoke,” she teased, settling her hands in her lap.
“I had thought to leave that to your family,” Ling Qi replied. “I’m sure that your Mother wished to speak with you.”
“... She did,” Xiulan admitted, a complex mix of emotion in her eyes. “But you did not answer my question.”
“I wanted to see the presentations of the crafters,” Ling Qi explained, letting her friend’s discomfort slide. “Li Suyin will certainly be joining us in the Inner Sect.”
“That little mouse?” Xiulan clarified with a small grimace.
“She has more of a bite than you might think,” Ling Qi said glibly. “Just ask how Xu Jia and her friends have been doing.” She felt a little bad about revealing something Li Suyin wasn’t proud of, but she wanted her friends to be friends - or at least not sniping at each other. One had to strike where there was opportunity.
“I see,” Xiulan said, studying Ling Qi’s expression. “Well, I have been wrong before. If she does not get left behind either, I shall admit that your eye is the better one on this matter.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Ling Qi said playfully. “In all seriousness though… Congratulations, Gu Xiulan. I knew you could do it.”
“Of course I could,” Xiulan boasted. “I will not let you leave me behind so easily,” she huffed, meeting Ling Qi’s eyes. Silence stretched between them before she looked away. “... And really, there is no need to be so formal in private, Qi.”
“Oh, you do not mind if I call you Lan-Lan now?” Ling Qi asked with a grin.
Her friend scowled at her. “I will find a way to set you alight, no matter how fine your defenses.”
Ling Qi laughed, leaning back in her chair. “You would too,” she mused. “Sorry, Xiulan, but I had to.”
“Tai is going to pay for that nonsense when I see him next,” Xiulan grumbled, crossing her arms.
She stayed with her friend for a little while after that, chatting about minor things, but all too soon, it was time for her to go. Xiulan needed her sleep, and Ling Qi had a gathering to attend. As she left the tournament grounds to meet up with her liege, she considered the question her liege had asked earlier that day in light of having to face Ji Rong next, and if she prevailed against him, Sun Liling the day after.
She was well stocked with everything easily available, and she had no other arts in the first place, so that left picking up some qi cards that were loaded with the Abyssal Exhalation worm constructs and to request her liege charge another card with her techniques, if Cai Renxiang were amenable.
“The qi cards will be all I need,” Ling Qi finished with a bow toward her liege as they prepared to leave the girl’s Outer Sect residence for the visitor’s grounds below.
Qi cards could store techniques for later use, opening up more options in a fight. They were falling off in use now. Cards which could store techniques more potent than the earliest Green Realm arts grew rapidly rarer, so she should make use of them while she could.
“I see. You intend to alter your usual strategy then?” Cai Renxiang asked absently as they stepped outside, her feet lifting from the ground a moment later. The light emanating from around her head and shoulders made the evening shadows flicker wildly.
Ling Qi followed suit, luxuriating in the sheer ease with which she could maintain flight in the other girl’s presence. “I just wish to keep my options open,” she said. She wasn’t quite sure of exactly how she would approach her battle with Ji Rong yet, but the worm constructs were effective in bogging down a melee attacker like Ji Rong. They were usually too qi-expensive to use out of the blue in her matches, but in a qi card with the qi expended ahead of time, they would be a potential option.
“I hope my last request wasn’t too presumptuous,” she added carefully.
Cai Renxiang kept her eyes forward as they soared silently toward the foot of the mountain, the cool night air tugging weakly at the hems of their gowns. “It is unusual but not unheard of. You have earned that much favor. Rather, given my resource restrictions, such a thing is only reasonable. Allow me a time to consider which my techniques might complement your skills best.”
Ling Qi let out a near silent sigh of relief. She hadn’t been sure if asking for a qi card charged with her liege’s art would be appropriate, but she remembered that she had turned a fight against Huang Da with Meizhen’s technique earlier in the year. “I see. Moving on then, what are your plans for your mother’s gathering, my lady?”
“We will present ourselves to Mother first, of course,” her liege replied as their flight path began to angle downward toward the twinkling lights of the ostentatious tents and homes built in the visiting area. They were heading toward the vast construction of white silk which now sat at its head. “After, I will speak with those dignitaries I have not yet had time to visit. I cannot give an absolute itinerary.”
“How surprising,” Ling Qi said lightly. “That must bother you a great deal.”
“Quite,” Cai Renxiang agreed, a subtle sour note in her voice. “You will attend to me for the duration of the party. I am certain you know the required etiquette.”
“I do,” Ling Qi reassured her, repressing the urge to sigh. This was going to be a long night, wasn’t it?
“Recall that this is to your benefit,” Cai Renxiang reminded her, briefly glancing back as they neared the long carpet spilling out over the grassy field from the entrance of the Cai’s great pavilion. “Good impressions upon those I will speak to will serve you well in the future.”
“I remember,” Ling Qi said, repressing a sigh at the reminder as they alighted on the carpet. “I did well yesterday, did I not?”
“Hmm. I suppose,” Cai Renxiang allowed. “Just do not go drifting off,” she added with a tiny touch of dry humor.
Ling Qi held back a grumble as she smoothed her gown. She was not that bad. The two of them entered the pavilion a moment later, the two guards flanking the entrance saluting and bowing in unison, their polished armor and white plumed helms gleaming in the resplendent light radiating from within.
The interior of the grand pavilion nearly took her breath away. In the center was a great marble fountain, water rising and falling in glimmering spouts from the mouths of entwined dragons picked out in lifelike detail at their center. Smaller fountains dotted the grounds as well, and from the frothing waters rose glimmering rainbows that cast shifting light on the crowd below. The pavilion was well furnished with long tables groaning under the weight of delicacies lining the rear of the tent and well upholstered couches and chairs occupied by chatting nobility surrounding the various fountains.
On the far left of the tent, there was a raised stage where a beautiful woman in a many layered gown played a serene melody on a harp as large as her body. A pair of dancers in trailing silk scarves performed on either side of her, the motions of their limbs and the silken fans in their hands perfectly symmetrical.
Ling Qi didn’t have much time to observe the festivities. Cai Renxiang proceeded further in without pause. Ling Qi put her focus on maintaining the proper distance and pose: two steps behind her liege and just slightly to her left, head very slightly tilted down, and back straight, her hands clasped in front. The pose still felt a little awkward since she was so much taller than Cai Renxiang, but that couldn’t really be helped.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose as they moved further in, exchanging polite greetings as they went. She was more used to the riot of spiritual sensations now, but even here, among so many nobles, she could feel Cai Shenhua’s presence bearing down upon her, an oppressive weight draped about her shoulders. It grew more intense as they reached the Duchess herself, reclining upon a long plush cushioned chaise lounge beside Minister Diao.
Ling Qi shuddered as those empty pools of colorless radiance which served as the woman’s eyes chanced across her face, ducking her head a little more. The Duchess had seemingly shed the outermost layer of the gown she had worn this morning, leaving the pale marble-like skin of her shoulders exposed, although the floaty silks and lace which remained left her figure tastefully ambiguous.
As Cai Renxiang smoothly bowed to her Mother, Ling Qi did the same, her bow much lower of course. It took a moment to drag her attention away from the Duchess and note that the woman was not alone. Seated in a wide arch around her were a great many people who made Ling Qi very nervous indeed. To her left sat Bai Suzhen and Bai Meizhen, the older of which was studying them coolly over the rim of a teacup and the younger of which was studiously not paying her any mind. To her right were a pair of heavily garbed figures with wide tortoiseshell patterned hats seated in individual chairs. Those would presumably be the Xuan admirals she had heard about.
At the “bottom” of the arch was Guo Si and one of his guards, and opposite him was a massive bear of a man with wild red hair and a short beard of the same shade, his bare and muscular arms thrown out casually over the back of his couch. It was hard not to feel as if all eyes were on her, even if she knew they were actually looking to Cai Renxiang.
“Greetings, Mother,” Cai Renxiang said. “Your humble daughter presents herself for your inspection.”
“So you have,” Cai Shenhua replied, the light of her gaze falling upon Cai Renxiang’s back and casting her face in shadow. “Still using that same style, I see. Really, you should do something different once in a while, young lady. That austere look of yours…” The Duchess sighed, resting her cheek in one hand.
Ling Qi did her best not to twitch nervously. This conversation wasn’t one she had been coached to expect in this kind of situation. Thankfully, her liege seemed more prepared for her Mother’s statements.
“My apologies, Mother,” she said evenly, maintaining her picture perfect bow. “I did not feel that I had the time or skill required to make worthy changes to your designs.”
“I suppose so. We will have to have a little mother-daughter time tonight then. I am certain you will look stunning on the morrow,” Cai Shenhua said. Ling Qi couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity at the nigh invisible tremble in Cai Renxiang’s hands which came in the wake of those words. “But I am being rude. Raise your head and greet our guests.”
Ling Qi carefully straightened up a beat after her liege, but she kept her eyes down as was appropriate given the company. Following Cai Renxiang’s lead, she offered shallower bows to each of the guest groups in turn.
“Honored guests, thank you very much for attending,” Cai Renxiang intoned. “As you know, I am Cai Renxiang, and this is my retainer and attendant, Baroness Ling Qi. I hope you have all enjoyed your stay in the Emerald Seas thus far.”
Guo Si smiled, bowing his head in return as he answered first. “The trip was worth every step, I assure you, Lady Cai. The beauty of your home is beyond compare.”
The red-haired giant let out a rather uncouth guffaw, pinning the Guo scion with a look of amusement. “The entertainment has been a bit lacking,” the mountain-like man said baldly. “Your girl gave the closest thing to an amusing show, Guo. Your youngest generation is slipping, Bai Suzhen.”
The aforementioned woman shot the red-haired man the sort of look Ling Qi had only seen on the faces of wealthy women encountering the filth of the street. “As crass as ever, I see, Zheng Po,” Bai Suzhen retorted coldly. “My niece has a kind heart. That is hardly a fault in moderation.”
Ling Qi had to struggle to maintain her even expression at that statement. Bai Meizhen was her best friend, but to call her kind…
“Now, now, do not get distracted now,” Cai Shenhua interjected lightly, raising a cup to her lips. The clear glass in her hands glimmered, the rainbow-hued liquid within shifting hypnotically. “You are greeting my daughter, not airing old grievances.” Ling Qi had to struggle to keep her shoulders straight as the weight of the woman’s aura spiked.
Zheng Po grinned at the Duchess. “As you say, Matriarch,” he laughed. “Young Cai, I look forward to your matches going forward. The young Gu looks like she will at least put up a fight.” He then shot a sly look the Guo scion’s way. “The ladies of Golden Fields are at their best when they are trying to kill you after all.”
“I will be sure to take your compliment home, Sir Zheng,” Guo Si replied blandly, crossing his bare arms over the fine vest he wore. “My aunt will surely be glad that you remember her.”
Bai Suzhen ignored the two men’s byplay to look straight at Cai Renxiang, only briefly glancing over Ling Qi. “You have done well, young lady, despite some early obstacles. I am certain you will give my niece a good match,” she said, briefly resting her hand on Meizhen’s as she spoke.
“I look forward to facing you on the field of battle, Lady Cai,” Meizhen said smoothly, dipping her head very slightly to the other girl.
“A more impressive sight I am sure we will not see this year,” Guo Si agreed, ending his staring contest with Zheng.
“Your words are too kind,” Cai Renxiang replied in the beat of silence that followed. “I will be certain not to disappoint any of your expectations.”
“You have been very quiet, Sir Xuan Ci, Sir Xuan Ce. Do not tell me that you have fallen into torpor on us,” Cai Shenhua said. “Have you been enjoying the festivities?”
“Nay, O radiant one,” the leftmost of the heavily cloaked men spoke. His robes shrouded him almost entirely from view, the space between his high, stiff collar and the lower edge of his hat only just enough to leave his stormy grey eyes visible, along with a band of pale flesh marked by black scales. “My brother and I agree…”
“... thy governance has been a great boon to this weary land,” the other said, his voice softer than his brother’s. “Though, we admit…”
“... that the dance of limbs and blades are not to our interest,” his brother finished. Ling Qi found herself stiffening then as his gaze fell on her, the sight of a storm-tossed sea, frothing and violent, flashed before her eyes. “This one is most curious where thy daughter’s hand found a Brother in these southern climes.”
“It is a matter the Sect would prefer not be aired openly,” Cai Shenhua answered smoothly, saving her the need to try and explain.
“In that case, we shall have to share words with the venerable Yuan He,” the rightmost brother said, turning his gaze to Ling Qi as well. “This one shall hope he needs not inform the young lady of the honor she bears.”
Ling Qi bowed more deeply. “Zhengui is precious to me. I have raised him from his egg with diligent care. I do not intend to give him anything but my best.”
“Zhengui?” the rightmost brother asked, his stern voice sounding faintly bemused. “I see.”
Ling Qi’s cheeks flushed. “It… Ah, his name…” Suddenly, the pun did not seem quite as funny.
“It is fine, young wraith,” the leftmost brother replied. “Worry yourself not over such things.”
“Hah! So even the Xuan have a sense of humor. How surprising,” Zheng Po laughed, glancing at Ling Qi briefly.
“As always, you mistake reserve for humorlessness,” Bai Suzhen said with a sniff.
Cai Shenhua smiled thinly, her radiant eyes narrowing. “Well, my daughter, I am satisfied with your greeting. You are dismissed for the moment. See to our other guests, and ensure that they find our hospitality acceptable.”
Cai Renxiang bowed deeply to her mother once more. “As you command, Mother. It was my honor to be allowed to greet such esteemed guests. Ladies Bai, Sir Zheng, Sirs Xuan, Sir Guo, please excuse us.”