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“I am sorry for sullying the clan's victory with vulgarity and brawling,” Bai Meizhen apologized. Her voice sounded small in her own ears. She lay beneath a thin sheet in a private recovery room for tournament participants. Her skin prickled with the numerous salves under her bandages, meant to ease the aggravated damage inflicted by the Sun’s tainted blood. She could still taste it on her tongue.

Beside her sat Aunt Suzhen, the picture of Bai poise and pride. Her expression was properly impassive, her hands folded in her lap. In this plain, tiny room, she looked as out of place as an Immortal in a peasant’s hut. She watched Bai Meizhen as she finished her apology, her first words after waking up.

Bai Meizhen closed her eyes, preparing herself to be scolded. Although she had won, it had been a messy, bloody thing, unbefitting of her station.

She didn’t regret it. The memory of Sun Liling’s outraged face as Bai Meizhen brought her fangs down would warm her heart for many a night.

Yet it had been a vulgar display all the same, and so she was prepared for her scolding.

She felt a cool touch on her forehead.

“I am proud of you, Bai Meizhen,” her aunt said. Her expression had not changed, but there was a faint warmth in her stern voice. Meticulously, she brushed the mussed strands of Bai Meizhen’s hair from her fevered brow.

Bai Meizhen felt her cheeks pink. She was too old for such displays of affection, and she had no claim to her Aunt beside. She kept silent, but warmth bloomed in her chest.

“Pride is important. Poise is important. Presentation is important.” Her aunt’s voice was stern, and Bai Meizhen shrunk into the bedding, casting her eyes down. “But my niece, victory is the most important of all.”

Bai Suzhen cupped her cheek affectionately as she leaned in to whisper soft words. “Protect your flanks from hidden fangs, and be aware of your foes and their whispers, but know that I, Bai Suzhen, recognize that you have crushed the scion of our great foe. Bai Meilin would be proud of her daughter.”

Poise was important, this she knew. However, Bai Meizhen believed that for a brief moment, the prickling in the corners of her eyes was acceptable. “You honor me, Lady Suzhen.”

Bai Suzhen withdrew her hand, and Bai Meizhen wished that the moment could have lasted just a little longer. The older woman tutted. “Aunt.”

“Yes, Aunt Suzhen,” said Bai Meizhen. For just a moment, she imagined that she saw her aunt’s steely expression crack into a tiny smile.

“Do you wish for me to send for your Father?” Bai Suzhen asked. “I had given him a task, but if you are awake-”

“There is no need to bother,” Bai Meizhen interrupted, only to wince a moment later. Her good mood plummeted. “My apologies, but there would be no purpose for it.”

She had no intention of bothering with that man now, after all these years. The bare minimum of filial piety was enough.

The air hissed, and for an instant, Bai Meizhen felt the kiss of a hundred cold blades on her skin. Her interruption had been tremendously rude, especially after her aunt’s kindness.

“Very well,” Bai Suzhen said. Bai Meizhen peeked up at her. She did not make any mention of the interruption. Bai Meizhen was thankful that her aunt was being so forgiving this day. She would compose herself much better after this meeting.

“In that case, we should discuss matters of your future,” her aunt continued, as if the previous few seconds had never occurred. “Naturally, your stipend will increase. I will see the matter through myself, should obstructions arrive. I believe I may be able to negotiate your return if you tire of the outside.”

“I would like to stay,” Bai Meizhen replied tentatively. “To assist with Aunt Suzhen’s plans. I believe I have made significant connections to the Cai.” And others, she thought, hoping that her aunt would not see fit to peer beyond her face.

There was a spark of warmth in the older Bai’s eyes. “Very good. You have earned a return, but it is good that you have made this choice. Things will not be as they were, Bai Meizhen. Do you understand this?”

“I do,” Bai Meizhen replied. She knew that her aunt and the duchess had put something very significant into motion at this tournament. She had to wonder how it was that her aunt had managed to convince Grandfather and the other elders to go along with such a thing.

“And niece?” Bai Suzhen continued. “It is not wrong to form lasting connections to outsiders. That you have been able to do so on your own is a credit to your adaptability.”

It looked like her thoughts had not been well hidden enough. “As you say, Aunt Suzhen,” she acknowledged demurely.

“Lastly, we will need to discuss the matter of your handmaiden and their enrollment here. You are a lady grown, and so it is unacceptable for you to remain unattended,” her aunt said crisply. A sheaf of documents appeared in her hand. “I have selected a number of promising candidates from the current generation, all of the purest bloodline. Peruse them, and I will arrange for the interviews to take place when you have made your selections.”

Bai Meizhen eyed the stack of neatly written papers with trepidation. Was she really ready for such responsibility?

“I am aware that it is unusual for this choice to be made at such a young age,” Bai Suzhen said gently, setting the stack of papers on the table at her bedside. “However, if you are to stay beyond the borders of Thousand Lakes, the usual acclimation period will not be possible, and you will require support.”

Bai Meizhen nodded and took a deep breath before reaching out to grasp the documents and bring them closer. She had made her choice. She would not shirk her responsibilities.

***

“And the winner of this year’s placement tournament, Bai Meizhen, shall receive the rank of eight hundred, and a place at the pinnacle of the first peak of the Inner Sect…”

Sect Head Yuan’s rich voice rang out over the gathered disciples, functionaries, and elders. It was, of course, nothing that Bai Meizhen did not already know.

She stood at the center of the raised stage upon which the winners stood with the others fanned out behind her. She could feel Sun Liling’s hatred on her back.

It was an incredibly satisfying feeling.

Bai Suzhen stood with the other visiting dignitaries on a balcony overseeing the pit where the Inner disciples gathered to greet the newcomers, and the pride in her eyes warmed Bai Meizhen’s heart. Rank in the Sect meant nothing to her. This was her true prize.

Her gaze flicked briefly to her right where a tired shadow stood a half step behind her Aunt. She met her father’s dull eyes and saw his weak, tired smile. Even now, having explored the bonds which connected her to others, she felt nothing.

No, the habitual bitterness she had come to recognize remained. What bond could one have with a father who could neither protect, nor teach, nor comfort? Filial duty guided the small, acknowledging bow she gave at his attention, and nothing more.

The praise of Sect Head Yuan He washed over her as the ceremony continued, and she graciously accepted the carved wooden badge engraved with the number Eight Hundred, but her thoughts went elsewhere to the girl who could, in her mind, be credited with the turning in her path which had led to this place.

Ling Qi still frustrated her. She did not dare turn her head to look at the other girl, standing in the third rank of winners, just behind and to the left of Cai Renxiang and opposite Ji Rong. She knew what she would see though. Ling Qi had grown skilled at putting on a mask of polite interest that hid the fact that her airy thoughts were beyond the reach of mere Immortals.

As the ceremony lapsed, they were released to mingle with the Inner disciples present while the elders danced the final dance of politics with the visitors. A surreptitious glance showed that her surmising was correct. Ling Qi was already gone from this place in all but body. It was somewhat amusing. At least she had gotten good enough at dissemblance that it was no longer obvious to peers.

With the ease of practice, Bai Meizhen swept aside the dark feelings which bubbled up in her heart when she looked upon her friend and offered a polite smile to the boy from the Qiu clan who was greeting her. As a scion of one of the Bai’s remaining pair of vassal counts, it would be unfortunate to give him a bad impression.

... She may have failed to hide her dark thoughts entirely going by the sweat on his brow and the hastiness with which he excused himself.

“I do not believe you made an error,” a familiar voice said from her right. Turning her head, she saw Cai Renxiang standing there, looking quite regal in her adjusted gown. Bai Meizhen very carefully did not allow her eyes to stray to the contours displayed by that masterpiece of tailoring.

“My domain has perhaps grown more quickly than my control,” Bai Meizhen replied, turning to face her second and last friend. She would not make the same mistakes with this one, not when the first time had nearly cost her so dearly.

Cai Renxiang inclined her head slightly. “The potency of your presence merely requires some acclimation, Sect Sister Bai.”

Bai Meizhen smiled in amusement. “As you say, Sect Sister Cai.” Such silliness. As if paltry bonds of organization could match those of family or choice. She understood why the Zheng would have no truck with the sects, perversion of their own blood bonding rituals that it was.

Cai Renxiang looked off to her right, and Bai Meizhen followed her gaze to Ling Qi once again. The tall girl chatted with a handsome boy with a closely shaven head. Wen something or other, if Bai Meizhen recalled correctly. Some part of his expression and the way he looked upon Ling Qi made her want to let loose her grip on her domain.

“She is doing well,” Cai Renxiang said blandly. “Had I not seen her practicing…”

“Quite,” Bai Meizhen agreed a touch sourly, turning her eyes away. The killing urge faded quickly enough. She was too mature to be beholden to her instincts. Hopefully, Cui would catch up soon; her sister was too childish at times.

“In any case, I must thank you for your support this year, Sect Sister,” Cai Renxiang said seriously, meeting her eyes.

“It is I who must thank you, Sect Sister,” Bai Meizhen replied. “I hope that our good relationship may continue going forward.”

Aunt Suzhen had some plans for loosening the current stance of the Bai clan, she had gleaned. It was now more important than ever that she maintain ties with the Cai heiress.

It was hardly an imposition.

“I do not doubt that it will, Sect Sister,” Cai Renxiang said with a small smile. Bai Meizhen ignored the fluttering feeling in her stomach as best she could. “We both have our work set out for us, I suspect. My retainers and I will look forward to working with you in the new year.”

Bai Meizhen gave a thankful nod.

She, too, was looking forward to being able to speak with both of her friends again.

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