As they left Cai Shenhua and the highest ranking guests behind, Ling Qi allowed herself a tiny sigh of relief as the weight on her shoulders lessened. Just standing there in their presence had been stressful. Being ignored completely by her best friend hadn’t felt good either.
“Do you require a moment?” Cai Renxiang asked, pausing to look at Ling Qi.
“No, I am fine,” Ling Qi reassured her. “Please do not delay on my account.” The last thing she wanted was for the other girl to give her mother a reason for complaint.
Cai Renxiang replied with a tiny nod, turning her gaze forward once more, resuming her path back toward the more crowded parts of the pavilion. The next few hours passed in a blur of names and faces as Cai Renxiang made her way through the guest list, trading pleasantries and small talk.
Ling Qi found occasion to speak much less than her liege, but all the same, maintaining the mask of stiff politeness and subservience was exhausting. It was like studying law all over again. She was sure that she was going to forget half of the people she had met tonight, if only due to the blandness of the rote exchanges which passed between them and Cai Renxiang.
How was it that so many people, who she could feel were all unique, their auras a riot of color and imagery, could turn into the same faceless crowds?
<Grandmother says that you humans make your little social rituals for the sake of peace,> Sixiang commented casually as Ling Qi headed for the refreshments. Cai Renxiang had noticed her wandering attention and set her to the task of retrieving drinks for the both of them. She was grateful for the break.
<I’m not sure I see the connection,> Ling Qi thought glumly as she looked over the array of tea blends, ciders, and watered wines available.
<I didn’t understand what she meant either, before,> Sixiang admitted. <But I think I might be starting to see. If a few spirits tear each other apart after offending each other, it’s no big deal, you know? You humans don’t get better from that kind of thing though.>
Ling Qi placed her order with the attendant. Cai Renxiang could have her tea; Ling Qi preferred something cold. Briefly, she wondered if she had developed that from her association with Zeqing. <If everyone acts the same on the surface, I guess it reduces clashes.> It was a grudging thought.
<Mm, well, I don’t disagree with that it seems awfully boring,> Sixiang mused in response to her mood. <I wonder if it’s really the best way. Things weren’t like this in the oldest days.>
Sixiang’s musing faded into her thoughts as Ling Qi headed back toward the beacon that was Cai Renxiang’s aura, two cups in her hands. Weaving through the crowd was second nature. The verbal acknowledgement of the people she was slipping around was less so, but she was growing used to it.
However, as she approached her liege, she paused as she saw the company Cai Renxiang was now with. She was no longer speaking to the viscount functionaries she had left her with, but rather with one of the Xuan admirals, indistinguishable from his brother. Ling Qi held back a grimace. Hopefully, she could avoid a situation in which it became clear that she couldn’t tell the two of them apart. Unless Sixiang…?
<Sorry. I couldn’t tell you either,> Sixiang replied to her unspoken query. <I’m pretty sure that they’re doing that on purpose.>
Not unexpected, Ling Qi thought glumly, resuming her stride toward the two. It wouldn’t do to stand here gawking; she would just end up looking rude that way. So, fixing her expression into one of pleasant subservience, Ling Qi returned to her liege’s side.
“My apologies for my interruption, Lady Cai, Admiral Xuan,” she said demurely as they turned at her approach, lowering her head in a bow. “Your request, my lady,” she added, holding out the drink Cai had sent her to retrieve.
“Thank you, Ling Qi,” the shorter girl said politely, accepting the cup of steaming tea. “Admiral Xuan Ce, please continue.” Ling Qi fell in appropriately a step behind her liege as the other girl’s attention turned back to the high-ranking guest.
“Enough words have I spoken of the avaricious Jin already,” the man replied, briefly glancing at Ling Qi. “My brother and I trust that the withered channels tying the great wood seas to the harbors of the north shall see their blockages crumble.”
“I will do all in my power to ensure it, should Mother choose to trust me with such responsibility,” Cai Renxiang replied evenly. “And I will speak with the Bao on the matter in any case.”
“We are thankful,” the heavily cloaked man said, his hat tilting slightly at his nod. “Treacherous is the sea of imperium when sailing alone.”
“As you say, Admiral Xuan,” Cai Renxiang said. “My honored Mother understands the value of strong ties in times of trouble, and I have personally witnessed the steadiness of your house.”
“The hatchling,” the older man chuckled, his laughter little more than a rasp. “Yes, my grand nephew has exceeded the measure laid for him by elder eyes.” There was a twinkle of amusement in his storm-grey eyes. “It is this old one’s hope that the young miss will offer him support in turn.”
“Xuan Shi is a valued ally,” Cai Renxiang agreed. “It would be my pleasure to do so.”
Ling Qi kept herself from fidgeting through an effort of will as the two of them spoke, keeping herself alert by surreptitiously noting the faces of the guests passing nearby. She could not match names to most of them, but she figured that it would be good practice regardless. She was careful not to let her attention wander too far, and she was glad for that when Admiral Xuan’s gaze turned to her.
“And what of thou, little Baroness?” the man asked. “I would hear thy thoughts on the young one.”
Ling Qi’s eyes widened marginally. Why was he asking her? She was acquainted with Xuan Shi, but they hardly knew one another well. “Sir Xuan is a dedicated and hard working young man,” she said with only a slight pause. “While we have not had many opportunities to speak, he has provided me with helpful advice on the matter of caring for Zhengui. He is a good ally and a credit to your house.”
Cai gave her a faint look of approval out of the corner of her eye, so she hadn’t screwed that up too badly. Still, she couldn’t help but feel that the elder Xuan looked faintly disappointed, which was alarming. There was no sign of it in his voice when he spoke next though.
“Yes, the precious one,” he chuckled instead, making Ling Qi flush. “Perhaps thy wings should carry the two of you north in the future. It would do the child good to meet his kin.”
“I would have no objection,” Cai Renxiang interjected smoothly. “I would need to request that you not borrow my retainer for too long, Admiral Xuan.”
“I am no thief,” the older man huffed, glancing at her again. “... Yet I must express disappointment in my grand nephew’s lack of rigor in some matters,” the man said with a sigh.
“Your words are too kind. I would be pleased to visit your lands alongside Zhengui in the future,” Ling Qi said politely. “I am undeserving of such attention.”
“Hmph. This suthron dance can be tiring,” Xuan Ce grunted, showing a bit of irritation for the first time. “Perhaps to those without Sight, thy words might be true. Portents swirl about this place, forming the seeds of a hurricane, and yet I see thee clearly amidst the gathering winds. The Star Child and Moon Wraith both will know no simple future."
Ling Qi swallowed thickly at the ominous words, sharing an uncertain glance with Cai Renxiang, who responded carefully. “My retainer and I both thank you for sharing your Sight, Admiral Xuan.”
He waved a hand, very slightly shaking his head. “Nay, I will take no thanks for such a prediction,” he said , turning his attention back to Cai Renxiang in full. “Allow me to commend the sharpness of thine eyes one last time, young lady Cai. However, this one must attend to other business.”
“I will take your kind words to heart, Admiral Xuan. Please enjoy the rest of the evening,” Cai Renxiang said, bowing at the waist as the older man took his leave.
Ling Qi let out a breath as he vanished into the crowd, glancing down at the cup of cider she held, now growing warm in her hands. “Should I be worried?”
Cai Renxiang frowned, pausing to finally take a sip from her cup. “Divinations regarding the distant future are hardly reliable,” she said quietly. “Regardless, did you not know that the path you have chosen to follow me on was treacherous?”
Ling Qi nodded. “I suppose I should study up on northern customs then,” she said, changing the subject.
“In the future perhaps,” her liege replied, turning to lead her elsewhere in the pavilion. “Such a visit is far away, and the present yet demands your attention.”
“Of course,” Ling Qi said, straightening her shoulders, mentally preparing herself to return to a state of polite blandness. “What is our next appointment?”
“The Lord Xu,” Cai Renxiang answered. “I will require your presence for only a short while longer, Ling Qi.”
Ling Qi carefully did not express her gratitude for that, simply nodding in response. It would be good to get out of here. Even if she was growing used to it, the presence of so many powerful cultivators was still giving her a faint headache.
Soon enough, Cai Renxiang made good on her word, dismissing her for the evening and returning to her Mother. Looking at the other girl’s back as she went, Ling Qi wished that she could offer some words of comfort, but there were none she could speak in such a public place given the reason for the girl’s stiff shoulders and blank expression.
As she flitted away into the night, little more than a scrap of shadow passing beneath the stars, Ling Qi could not help but ponder on it. She had, for a very long time, resented her mother a great deal with the unfair mindset of a child, but some part of her had never really doubted the woman’s affection for her. Yet for all that she was powerless, in the past and especially now, Ling Qi could not rely on her.
The thought was sour, but Ling Qi could not help but think it. Cai Renxiang though… Her mother was strong, as strong as it was possible to be and still walk the material world. Only a bare handful of people could even question her authority, let alone force her to do anything. Ling Qi envied that, at least a little bit. Yet, she could not envy Cai Renxiang, having looked into that woman’s eyes.
Who could even tell the difference between affection and cruelty coming from something like that?
So as she landed without a sound before the doors of the house she had arranged for her mother and passed wordlessly by the Sect guard at the gate, Ling Qi felt only a faint relief. The light tingle of the house’s alarm formation passed over as she slipped inside, recognizing her qi and falling quiescant, welcoming her home, such as it was. She followed the faint light and sound of fire toward the house’s sitting room. It was a rather chilly night for a mortal.
She found her mother seated by the fire in a soft chair, a book open in her lap. Ling Qi saw the weariness in the older woman’s drooping eyes, but she also saw the determination to stay awake and the faint worry in the lines at the corners of her eyes. Very deliberately, Ling Qi placed her next footfall to make the floorboards creak.
“Sorry I am so late, Mother,” she said softly, entering the room.
Her mother had looked up at the sound of her footfall, and a faint smile broke out on her tired face as Ling Qi spoke. “There is nothing to show concern for, Ling Qi. I am sure that important matters occupied your time,” she replied ruefully, shutting the book in her lap as she stood.
“That is only so much of an excuse,” Ling Qi said wryly, crossing the room in a few long strides to wrap her slim mother in a carefully controlled hug. “I made it into the Inner Sect, Mother.”
Ling Qingge twitched at the sudden contact, as she often did, but all the same, Ling Qi felt her mother’s small hands come to rest on her back. “I am glad for you. Does that mean that you have won your… tournament?” she asked awkwardly.
“Not quite,” Ling Qi said, withdrawing from the embrace after another moment. “I, and seven others, have qualified for the Inner Sect. Now, we will fight to determine our starting rank.”
“I see,” the older woman said, looking up at her with some concern. “It feels strange to me still, to hear my daughter speak so easily of fighting…” She trailed off, looking uncertain as to how to express her concern.
“No one gets hurt too badly,” Ling Qi said, adjusting the truth. “My friend Xiulan had the worst of it today, and she will be fine by morning. The Sect’s physicians are very skilled.”
“Of course,” Ling Qingge replied, sounding relieved. It made Ling Qi feel bad, but there was no good to be had in getting into the gory details. It would only distress her mother for no reason. “Is it the duels which take up the whole day?” the older woman asked, pulling her attention back to the present.
“No,” Ling Qi admitted. “I have been attending parties and meeting all sorts of people,” she said with a grimace. “I almost wish it was more duels. I have so many letters to pen, abstaining from different offers.”
Her mother smiled, seeming more comfortable with this topic. “I see. I am glad your lord is taking care to give you such a good grounding. Does she already have someone in mind for you?”
“Not yet,” Ling Qi said evasively. “That sort of thing… It’s best to wait. I will only get more valuable in the future.” She still felt kind of gross, saying things like that.
Ling Qingge looked pensive. “I suppose so. I believe I had a cousin who awakened. She was not groomed in the same manner as the rest of us.”
“Right,” Ling Qi agreed, seeking a change from the uncomfortable topic. “How is that going by the way? Have you felt anything yet?”
Now, it was her mother’s turn to look uncomfortable. “A certain warmth, a time or two, but no more. I fear you are only wasting resources.”
“It’s never a waste,” Ling Qi replied firmly, meeting her mother’s eyes. A few red stones was a paltry cost for giving Mother a chance to live truly healthy and well. She would give her family as much health and luxury as she could afford. “Please, Mother, keep trying. I don’t want to…” She looked away, not finishing the sentence.
“I will not waste your generosity,” Ling Qingge said quietly. “Let us not speak of such things though,” she continued with a weak smile. “Please, sit down. Tell me a little of your victories.”
Ling Qi recognized the effort to change the subject. She had done the same a few moments ago, but she just smiled, going along with it. “You’re right. No need to talk about heavy things right now…”
Her mother might be but a mortal, but sitting here by the fire, telling slightly embellished stories of the last couple of days, she found that it didn’t matter. She was glad to have her family again.