The ceremony in which they had received their rankings had been overly long and grandiose in Ling Qi’s humble opinion. She was perhaps biased, burned out from so much time making nice to an ever growing number of people, repeating the same polite gestures and words over and over again. Yet despite the lengthy reception, speeches, and meetings with other Inner Sect disciples, Ling Qi had left with a feeling of satisfaction.

Eight hundred and thirty. That was to be her initial ranking in the Inner Sect. It placed her as fourth among the combat tournament’s disciples and sixth overall when counting the production disciples. Bai Meizhen, as the winner of the tournament, had received the rank of 800, the highest possible rank for a new Inner disciple, and Xuan Shi, the best of the production track, had taken the rank below. Sun Liling and Cai Renxiang had been awarded the ranks of 805 and 810 respectively. The second place production disciple and the last new disciple ranked above her had been a boy she did not recognize, named Du Feng.

At her current ranking, she would receive a stipend of ten yellow spirit stones every week, as well as the rights to a home and cultivation site centered around one of the first Inner Mountain’s lesser argent vents. In addition to that, ranking above 900 gave her the right to freely attend the lessons of the elders on the first mountain and freely peruse the first floor of the Inner Sect’s archive.

Yes, she could be satisfied with her current rewards for now, at least until she had time to read the rules handbook she had been given and plan for increasing her rank. She didn’t want to be one of those disciples still stuck where they’d started when next year’s batch of tournament winners came in.

Unfortunately, that would have to wait. The Duchess had called for them in the wake of the ceremony’s end.

She kneeled now, forehead pressed to the plush carpet which lined the floor of Cai Shenhua’s temporary accommodations. Cai Renxiang kneeled just ahead of her, allowed to raise her head from the ground but no more. The weight of the Duchess’ presence pressed down on Ling Qi, blurring her vision and granting the white-draped room they were in a dreamy sort of quality. The woman herself lounged in the center of the room, lying upon a powder blue divan. The Duchess seemed to have no care for propriety in this moment, wearing what Ling Qi could only call a loosely wrapped shift that rode up scandalously with the crossing and uncrossing of her marble white legs.

“Eight Hundred Ten,” the woman mused, resting her cheek in the palm of her hand as she looked down upon them, the light of her gaze burning on the back of Ling Qi’s neck despite not resting directly upon her. “Hardly a beautiful number. Are you satisfied with it, my daughter?”

“I am not, Mother,” Cai Renxiang replied, keeping her eyes on the ground. “It will serve well enough as a first step in the coming year.”

The lounging Duchess gave a thoughtful hum, drumming her gold painted fingernails on her hip. Ling Qi shivered as her gaze briefly passed over her, feeling the silent Sixiang shrink further into the back of her thoughts.

“A good attitude,” she said easily. “You have made errors and miscalculations in both this year and your preparations for it,” she assessed.

“Your daughter can only apologize for her failings, Mother,” Cai Renxiang said quietly, lowering her head. Ling Qi resisted the urge to squirm in discomfort. It did not feel right, being here while her liege was being chastised.

“So long as you acknowledge them,” the radiant monster said in a tone that could almost be construed as kind. “Despite certain childish stumbles, I am satisfied. Your time in the Sect has given you valuable experience to carry into the future. It is for that reason that I have spoken to Sect Head Yuan. You will be spending an additional year in the Inner Sect.”

Ling Qi blinked, keeping otherwise still, confused but happy nonetheless at this revelation. With this extension, she would have two years in the Inner Sect to enjoy the fruits of her labors and to spend with mentors like Zeqing.

“As you wish, Mother,” Cai Renxiang acceded. “May I know what you wish for me to accomplish given the additional time?”

“You will achieve a rank above 525 by the end of your stay,” Cai Shenhua ordered, the light radiating from her gaze intensifying. “I would place your sights higher, but there is no purpose in demanding impossibilities of you.” Ling Qi shuddered at the woman’s tone. It was playful, but there was an edge of cruelty to it, made all the worse by the lack of any malice. “Not yet.”

“It will be done, Mother,” Cai Renxiang promised.

“Of course it will be,” the woman replied languidly. “In regards to your boy, the one who failed, I expect him to maintain the shape of your Outer Sect order in the following year. He will enter the Inner Sect at a rank no less than your current one in the next tournament. If he cannot even manage that, I will assign you a superior vassal.”

“... I will convey your words to his ears, Mother.” There was a fraction of an instant’s hesitance in Cai Renxiang’s voice this time.

“As for you… Ling Qi, was it?” Cai Shenhua asked, her burning gaze falling fully upon Ling Qi’s back. “Raise your head. You have performed well and proved the worth of my daughter’s judgement.”

“This one is humbled beyond words at your regard, Honored Duchess,” Ling Qi said, carefully raising her head from the carpet but keeping her eyes down as her liege was doing.

“Good. I feel little need to offer you specific instruction,” the ruler said lightly. “End your time no more than five ranks behind my daughter.”

“Of course, Duchess Cai,” Ling Qi replied evenly. She could do that.

“What a good girl you are,” the woman said with a throaty chuckle. “Lastly, in eighteen months, the next competition between my province’s three Great Sects will take place. I expect you to assemble a suitable group with which to win the junior division.”

Ling Qi considered the order. She knew that there were competitions between the sects, but that didn’t sound like a straightforward combat tournament if they needed a group.

“I will not disappoint you, Mother,” Cai Renxiang promised again. “I thank you for offering me such chances to raise our family’s name.”

“You are welcome. Now go. Your new sister is being somewhat disagreeable,” the Duchess said, lazily gesturing toward the exit to the room.

Ling Qi waited, preparing to rise just after Cai Renxiang did, but the girl remained. Surprisingly, she saw the weaker light which radiated from her liege grow brighter, if only fractionally. “Mother, may your humble daughter ask of you a question first?”

She felt more than saw the Duchess’ radiant eyes widen fractionally. “Hoh? Very well. You have earned that much.”

“I simply wish to understand Mother’s reasoning in aligning so openly with the Bai clan and making true enemies of the Sun,” Cai Renxiang said, her gaze remaining steadfast on the ground.

“Do you believe I have made an error? I thought you fond of Miss Bai,” Cai Shenhua replied.

“I only wish to share your wisdom, Mother. I would never presume to believe that a friendship between children would drive such choices,” Cai Renxiang said.

The older woman laughed, a rich throaty sound that echoed in the hazy interior of the room. She sat up in a single smooth motion, her loose robe clinging precariously to her shoulders after the sudden movement. “True enough. Do not sell your efforts short though, my daughter. Your friendship offered a seam in the armor of the ancient indifference of that clan.”

“I am glad to know that I was of some small use to Mother,” Cai Renxiang said.

“But I have not answered your question, have I?” Cai Shenhua mused. “It is true that the Sun are dangerous and powerful. Sun Shao retains many friends in Celestial Peaks, and the Jin stand firmly on his side, forever jealous as they are of their absolute control of the Empire’s harbors being interrupted by the Bai. Although his immediate children are dead, there are many nephews, nieces, and cousins who may yet carry the banner of the Sun family as well,” she said, a sharp smile on her lips. “And Sun Shao’s weaknesses are also his strengths. His sentiment, passion, and tactics led to the sacking and conquest of the Temple Cities and brought low Bai Fuxi and his siblings.”

Ling Qi listened carefully, knowing that when it came to Imperial politics, she was still woefully ignorant.

The Duchess’s smile faded then. “Indeed, the departed Emperor An saw that man for what he was: a chance that would only come once in history. Yet in the end, that opportunity has run out. Tell me what you know of the relationship between the Zheng and the Bai, my daughter.”

“Their enmity runs deeper than history,” Cai Renxiang answered slowly. “They have been rivals since the day that Bai Xiao Lin slew Zheng Fu from ambush at Jinyu Pass.”

“Correct, of course, if not wholly right,” Cai Shenhua tutted. “It is true that the Zheng clan was pleased to see their rivals humbled. However, there is a limit to that. In the end, the Bai and the Zheng are the last remnants of pre-Imperial days. There is a kinship there, even in the depths of enmity. Once, the Ministry of Integrity might have risen as a counterbalance to the eventual Zheng interference, but their rising star losing his Way ended that path. As things stand, a realignment was inevitable. Do you understand, Renxiang?”

“... I do, Mother. Thank you very much for explaining in such a way that I might understand,” Cai Renxiang replied, rising to her feet. As Ling Qi followed her out, she couldn’t help but feel that the future was not going to be peaceful. It seemed that she would be living in interesting times.

But she had been tempered by the forge that was the Outer Sect. Come what may, Ling Qi would meet the future and survive.

A note from Yrsillar

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