A soft wind blew, cold and brisk. The flakes began to fall, dancing like airy crystals under the pale silver light of the moon. The cold wind blew from the mountain high where the eternal cold lives, and with the wind descended the maiden of winter, the daughter of ice. With a train of purest white and lilting song, the maiden descended to the valley below, and with her came the snow.
Peace, whispered the wind. Peace.
And the snow did fall.
Branches bare of leaves swayed in the soft, cold wind, and they whispered along to the maiden’s song as the flakes fell to paint the world in white. Across the valley brook danced the maiden with long hair of black, woven with crystal flowers. In her steps trailed calm, burbling waters falling silent under the spread of ice. In the forest around did the tall and tired trees bow at her passing, branches heavy with snow. They passed into slumber well earned through the year, and the creaking of wood joined the song of the wind and snow.
Under falling snow, the detritus of fall hid away, painted smooth by drifting white. Under maiden’s feet did signs of toil vanish, leaving only a land pristine and stark. Under the light of the moon, the maiden sang the silence of winter sleep. O beautiful maiden, most lovely of all; gone was the wilting decline of autumn, and distant were the chaos of spring and the toil of summer!
O winter, time of preservation and tales, when all the world quiets.
O winter, when the people gather and share the spoils of a year hard won.
O winter, time of remembrance, when past becomes present in the mind, and memories of days gone by warm the soul.
O winter, the time of cherishing, to hold tight what you have in the face of the cold.
O winter, who lives eternal upon the high mountaintop, forever and ever.
Outside danced the maiden. Her train was the wind, and her laugh, the rattle of window frames and the groan of roofs heavy with snow.
Outside was the maiden, who would never return home. Daughter of ice eternal, the drifting snow, and the whispering wind, who belonged now to the valley below.
Ling Qi breathed deep as the song went on, the images of deepening winter dancing in her mind’s eye. Hanyi had been a little dishonest to say that the maiden was not her.
“I think I’ve been trying too hard to be different from Momma,” Hanyi had said dejectedly. “I want to do new things and live like she said, but I still want to be her daughter.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Ling Qi had said. “It can be hard to find the right balance between who you were and who you want to be.”
“Especially when most of us can’t even easily say what we want to be,” Sixiang had interjected, their voice a chime among the hanging ice.
Hanyi had nodded, scuffing her foot in the dirt. “I’m not like Momma, but I’m still the winter. I don’t think I can be anything else. And I don’t really wanna be.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Ling Qi had said, resting her hand on Hanyi’s shoulder. “So, let’s figure out how to work that feeling in, okay?”
Ling Qi closed her eyes as the song reached its climax, a clash with the oncoming spring, a doomed battle that the maiden could not win.
With the spring came the melting of the snow and the rain, deluge, and chaos.
But winter would be back, and peace with it, if they only endured.
Polite applause rang out through the hall. Ling Qi gazed around her and saw that the guests seemed in good humor. Most did not seem particularly excited or touched by the song, but here and there, a few were.
Beside her, Meizhen offered quiet applause with a thoughtful look, and somewhere behind them, she heard Wang Chao giving loud approval.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Meng Diu, her expression indecipherable. As she watched, she saw the older woman shake out her sleeves, revealing dainty hands as powder white as her face. Meng Diu clapped three times.
On the stage, Hanyi beamed as she lowered her upraised hands and bowed to the audience as the curtain fell.
In the time after the show, Ling Qi mingled with the rest of her guests. Hanyi stayed at her side the whole time and was unfailingly well behaved, almost sweet. It took Ling Qi a bit of effort not to laugh at what an inaccurate picture these young men and women were getting of her spirit, but she wasn’t going to ruin Hanyi’s fun.
Eventually, things wound down, and guests got on their way, leaving Ling Qi with her spirits and Bao Qian backstage. Hanyi sat balanced on Zhengui’s back, who had shrunk himself down to the size of a big dog to avoid doing any damage, and Bao Qian stood before them, counting out the night’s proceeds.
“And this is your share, Young Miss.” Bao Qian theatrically placed a small pouch in Hanyi’s hands. “A wonderful first performance. I hope you are ready to compose more songs in the future.”
“Uh huh!” Hanyi said excitedly, tugging the drawstrings of the pouch open. Inside were many glittering yellow stones and a single green one, shining like an emerald.
“That’s surprising for just entrance fees. How does this place stay open, charging in green stones?” Ling Qi asked. It didn’t seem like the clientele was that wealthy.
“They do not,” Bao Qian answered. He cast her a searching look. “However, Lady Meng approached me to commission the first recording. That includes Miss Hanyi’s part of the initial fee.”
“Oh! Somebody wanted to buy my song already! Isn’t that great, Big Sis?” Hanyi said happily, picking through and counting her stones.
“Mmhm, Hanyi is good!” Gui agreed cheerfully.
Bao Qian gave her another look, and Ling Qi just smiled. “I’m glad. You’ll definitely be really popular,” Ling Qi said, reaching down to muss Hanyi’s carefully arranged hair. “Did anyone else see Lady Meng buy?” she asked Bao Qian.
“They did, although I am certain no one immediately recognized her. She was quite restrained.” Bao Qian said shrewdly, “I shouldn’t be surprised if word gets around however. I may have to prepare more materials.”
Ling Qi nodded. She was definitely involved in matters beyond the Sect now, and it was way too late to go back.
“The situations you embroil yourself in never cease to amaze,” Meizhen said dryly. The embroidery needles in her hands danced, picking out the stitching of a pattern depicting a violet serpent arranged in a spiral on a background of blue.
“I can’t wholly be blamed for this one,” Ling Qi defended. Her own work was much slower going. Individual snowflakes on a field of black were a bit fiddly.
“Indeed. That the Meng would make such an offering is both encouraging and troubling,” Cai Renxiang put in. The pattern of a sun crowning a stylized depiction of the tree of Xiangmen marked the pure white cloth in her hands.
“I suppose they cannot entirely be blamed for having dealings with the Sun,” Bai Meizhen said grudgingly. Her needles stabbed into the cloth with a touch more force than necessary.
They all sat around a table perched on a rock outcropping at the base of Zhengui’s hill. The air was cool and brisk, and the leaves of the forest were a riot of autumn colors. The sky was still dark, but this far out, the storm clouds were light.
Ling Qi glanced sidelong at her friend. “Lady Meng said some things regarding their feelings on the Bai. Do you have any insights from the other side?”
“I do. My aunt has been providing me with study material regarding historical diplomacy, which I have absorbed swiftly. One must pursue their ambitions diligently.”
“Naturally,” Cai Renxiang said absently, looking down at her project with a judging eye.
“Naturally,” Ling Qi agreed, picking out the pattern of a new snowflake.
“The clan has, at times, been somewhat… high-handed with outsiders,” Bai Meizhen admitted. “The Emerald Seas especially. It has often been seen somewhat negatively by my ancestors. The Meng bore the brunt of this.”
“Not the Bao?” Ling Qi asked. Remembering maps of the province, she knew that the Bao shared a border as well.
“The Bao’s expansion to their current borders was recent. They absorbed significant amounts of the Hui lands in the west during Mother’s rise,” Cai Renxiang explained.
“Ah, that makes sense,” Ling Qi said. When she did look into history, it was usually in regards to older events.
“Indeed. So, while there have been border and trade disputes begun by both sides, I must reluctantly admit that many negative feelings for my clan among the Meng are likely legitimately founded.”
“I never imagined I would hear you say that,” Ling Qi said in surprise.
“I would not, were I not in private among trusted allies,” Meizhen replied.
“Do you believe allowing them influence on this matter will trouble the Bai?” Cai Renxiang asked.
“I am not yet an expert regarding the Bai clan’s internal affairs,” Meizhen said with some frustration. “I do not believe my aunt’s supporters will be troubled. They are somewhat forgiving of petty grudges. Others are less so.”
Ling Qi wondered what exactly counted as a petty grudge among the Bai and what it meant to be “somewhat forgiving.” She still remembered Bai Suzhen praising Meizhen’s kindness. “Do you think the Bai are interested at all in recent events?”
“My aunt approves of Duchess Cai’s swift subjugation of one of her enemies,” Meizhen replied immediately. “Regarding your matter… I believe reception is mixed.”
“Not unexpected,” Cai Renxiang said, setting her needles aside. “As the saying goes however, success needs no forgiveness.”
“Indeed,” Bai Meizhen agreed.
It was at that moment that a fluttering paper message bird descended, landing before Cai Renxiang at the table. They fell silent as the heiress read the message.
“It seems that General Xia is arriving shortly. We will have to end our session prematurely.”