It was over at last.
Bao Qingling allowed herself a sigh of relief as the entrance to her workshop closed overhead, shutting out the light and noise of the outside world. Thick gloves and heavy boots dissolved into wisps of qi, allowing her to feel the welcoming thrum of the threads beneath her fingers and toes as she descended the tunnel. The wispy threads of qi spread invisibly through the air around her faded away, unnecessary here in her nest.
Vibration and movement of the air on her skin carried all of the information she needed. Bianzhi was deep below near the underside of her nest, fangs deep in a struggling wind spirit’s core. Her meal was in the lowest reaches of the third grade, Bao Qingling noted idly, going by its pleading.
Her workroom was just as she left it, her furnace's formations set at an idle burn that would purify the reagents within in preparation for a new batch of elixirs. In the little tunnels of the lower nest, Bianzhi’s sons and daughters sported with Li Suyin’s constructs, making a game of testing the skeletal thing’s reactions and programming.
It was comforting to be back here where every thread was an extension of her senses. Bianzhi’s awareness brushed against her own, mingling with hers through the medium of their shared work. Yes, there were few things which could match the feeling of being perched in her web after an extended time skittering about outside.
It had not been as bad as her time before the sect. She still remembered vividly her life in that hatefully bright and crowded estate. She remembered her many episodes quite clearly. The shaking, the inability to breathe, and the blurring of weak mortal eyes with tears as her chest grew tight and her extremities grew numb. She remembered the feeling of being surrounded and crushed by the weight of the presence of the people around her.
Her alterations to her senses had helped. With her arts active, she could not see the mocking faces and the looming intent of threat in those around her. Experiencing the world in a primarily tactile and spiritual fashion served as a successful filter, even if the practice necessary to ensure that her eyes and expressions still behaved properly had been irritating. This week could, therefore, only be classified as a success.
Yet her mood remained sour. Her brother, Bao Quan, was still convinced that she could be ‘fixed’ and made normal. He cared for her and genuinely so. But he made not the slightest effort to understand her, assuming that she would be better if she were just as bright and gregarious as the rest of the Bao. A Bao who could not gaily talk a dragon into selling its jewel was not a Bao at all, after all.
It was infuriating.
She paused, hanging loosely from the ceiling of the main hall. Her attention brushed over Li Suyin’s workshop where the skeletons of beasts twisted into the shape of men and garbed in drifting silks performed the menial labor of packing up her things.
It had been a strange mood which had led to her taking a ‘student’. She had chosen to oversee the Outer Sect’s Medicine Hall out of a desire for the staggering number of Contribution Points which the position offered, despite its troublesome and time-consuming nature.
During the exams to enter the Medicine Hall, she found herself moved from her indifference. If it had merely been a pang of sympathy for a girl curled in on herself, weathering the bluster and bullying of the trash around her, it would have ended, a fleeting flash of emotion, quickly forgotten. Yet as she oversaw the test, she had seen shaking hands ruining a delicate cut, a stumble spilling a limited reagent, and other little things. Each of them occurred shortly after a downcast blue-haired girl had passed by.
It was nothing above the threshold for which she was meant to prevent, and so she had said nothing as the shy, mutilated girl had ruined the chances of a half dozen entrants. Ultimately, it was the shame and self-loathing she had seen in the girl’s eyes as she turned in her perfect finished project that had moved her to action.
There was nothing wrong with putting trash in its place, and everything wrong with suppressing a true self for the sake of mere social expectation. That was the reason behind her idolization of the Duchess Cai. How could she do anything but admire the woman who had, rather than bending to fit the world, instead bent it to fit her?
Shaking her head very slightly, Bao Qingling moved on, descending into the lower tunnels. A brief and rare smile crossed her pale lips as Bianzhi’s grandchildren skittered over her hands and face, the ticklish feeling of tiny legs on her skin quickly spreading across her arms and neck as they welcomed her home. Li Suyin had some ways to go yet. She was still held back by shame, refusing to admit to the pride she took in ruining her enemies.
As she dropped from the ceiling, casually slowing her slide down the sloped tunnel leading into Bianzhi’s nest with one hand, Bao Qingling felt the last of her irritation ebb. Yes, even the unpleasant parts of this week had proven fruitful. Her student was in the Inner Sect. Her brother, for all of his misplaced concern, had conveyed Father’s satisfaction with her work and a commensurate increase in her allowance.
And the drugs suppressing her cultivation and qi were, if not foolproof to her peers, then close to it. None of her peers would suspect the advances she had made this year.
With the contribution points she had earned this year, a rank in the upper five hundreds was in reach.
It all seemed so small at this height. Hou Zhuang peered out the window of their vessel at the cloudscape below and the flashes of green and blue beneath. From this altitude, all seemed at peace. The world had many lessons yet to teach in deception.
“Are you truly satisfied, Hou Zhuang?” Bai Suzhen’s attention was an executioner’s blade pressed against his throat, a blade fit to crack mountains and sunder seas. He blinked tiredly as her words cut through the pressure that had been upon him since their vessel had reached the cloud line. He looked down at his hands, trembling involuntarily from the pressure. It was too bad that there was not enough left of him to feel the same fear in his mind.
Bai Suzhen was the perfect image of a Bai Matriarch, her steel grey hair woven through an elaborate headdress of blades and her lithe figure wrapped in layers of blue and white silk that shifted like the coils of a serpent. The tall woman looked down upon him from her seat, not bothering to hide her disdain.
He bowed his head and spread his trembling hands. “I am an open book, am I not, honored cousin?”
There were no secrets he could hide from a seventh realm cultivator who wished to look. He knew what she spoke of, and in his mind’s eye, he saw his daughter’s eyes. dismissive, contemptuous, and apathetic. Bai Meizhen had grown up well. He was proud of her maturity. Those were the eyes, so like her mother’s, that he deserved.
“You shame Meilin,” Bai Suzhen said. Hou Zhuang winced at the feeling of wetness on his cheek where the words had cut him. A spark of anger flared in his empty heart, but such sparks could not be maintained without fuel. It faded.
“You are correct, honored cousin. All the same, I will serve as well as I can,” Hou Zhuang replied, lowering his head.
Serving was what he was. Like the sword immortals, raised to kill, he had been raised to hide and to see. He was an important tool for his clan’s rise, or so he had thought. How absurd it had been for his half brother to fear his cultivation. He could not want power in that way. Even back then, there was no part of him which could have had such ambitions. Then again, perhaps that was incomprehensible to one raised to rule. He supposed that it was good that the clan had elected to marry him off rather than disposing of him.
The Bai were cruel and unkind to outsiders, but he had not minded at first. His marriage had been brief in the time spans of cultivators, merely a few decades. There had been no passion, no grand romance, between Bai Meilin and Hou Zhuang. Yet she had been a friend, his partner, in her way, far more than the family which had sold him. Her death had severed something in him, and although that loss had allowed him to step into the fifth realm, he had become unworthy of their daughter.
A more worthless father than this old man would be difficult to find.
Bai Suzhen regarded him with the eyes of a serpent staring down at a particularly scrawny rodent. “So be it. I am proud of my niece. I will do what you cannot. Her performance severs the last barriers in the path. I suppose your fecklessness serves some purpose at least.”
Hou Zhuang smiled wanly. It would not be long before his daughter had proper parents again. “Meilin’s network will remain at your disposal. I will not allow her inheritance to rot on the vine.” With their work passed on, he could rest.
“What are your thoughts on the events of the tournament?” Bai Suzhen asked, her clipped tone brooking no disagreement on the change of subject.
“Your timing in bringing out the proposed alliance with Cai Shenhua was a masterstroke,” Hou Zhuang replied. “It will be worth the double agents burned to keep the matter secret. Emerald Seas maintains a strong resource economy, but their ability to leverage it remains limited. The benefits to the alliance are obvious.”
“I did not ask for your praise,” Bai Suzhen rejected.
“The trouble remains our domestic situation,” Hou Zhuang continued, not missing a beat. “Cai Shenhua has her own troubles with unruly vassals not wholly brought to heel, but many of your brothers, sisters, and cousins will be incensed as well. There is already much correspondence flying about.”
“Mm. I assume Anxi is making noise again,” Bai Suzhen said, her attention on him finally growing lighter as she looked to the side in thought, the ornaments in her hair jingling softly. “The conservatives will not countenance him. Two male clan heads in a row has already caused many to grumble. Three would be beyond the pale, no matter his policies.”
“I believe he is throwing his weight behind Bai Zhilan,” Hou Zhuang noted, absently reaching up to wipe the blood from his cheek. “She has a great deal of support from the Red and Green lines as the General of Zhengjian.”
Bai Suzhen’s lips twitched down in distaste. “I see. My planned expansions to our port and naval capacity should bring the Violet lines to my side, and the Blues as well with the infrastructure projects and repairs of the interior. Place your agents among the lesser lines, and begin pushing the alliance. I will see to my brothers and sisters.”
“As you say, honored cousin,” Hou Zhuang said with a tired sigh. “You should know that the discontent is not wholly manufactured by your sisters. Old organizations are beginning to move among the other castes.”
Bai Suzhen frowned. “I am aware of those. We allow the lesser bloodlines their outlets so long as they only grumble. Should they act, we will crush them, as we have done many times before. It would be unfortunate to waste so many Bai lives at this time though. Make certain that they do not move beyond grumbling.”
Saying it like that made it sound easy. As if the growing rumbling from the commoner castes was not growing worse with each passing day. Meilin had been so much better at this. Her understanding of the psychology of the Bai peoples had been much more visceral than his. It would be difficult to quell the spread of further xenophobic sentiment, particularly as the more conservative white serpents fanned the flames.
But he had not remained behind doing this work just to falter as the end approached. His daughter was coming into her own, and Bai Suzhen would soon take her own final steps. He only needed to work for a little longer yet. A worthless father this old man was, but he would make sure that Bai Meilin’s work remained ready for her daughter.