Gathering herbs and fungus gave Meiling the time she needed to think. Something she hadn’t been doing yesterday. Yesterday, she saw a problem. So she went about trying to fix it. Her father said that it was a good trait to have as a healer, especially in situations where there were multiple people hurt. Categorize the wounded and the sick. Then start working. Concentrate. Focus on the workflow, and then steadily grind it down the best you were able.
It was how she approached organisation. It was how she had approached getting her little brother to eat the vegetables he didn’t like. It was how she had gotten through those terrible nights, full of screams of pain coming from people she couldn’t help.
But while she allowed the task to consume her focus, tended to forget to think about other things. Like using Qi so blatantly.
Jin... well, he wasn’t exactly careful about using Qi, he kept it quieter than jumping in the middle of town, and blasting green on anybody who asked her to.
She was less subtle than her husband. The thought was hilarious, considering how Jin stomped around sometimes.
She had caught a brewing plague in its infancy. Wasn’t that something to be proud of?
Well, what was done was done. She would stand by her actions. And she was fairly certain that Jin wouldn’t care either. At least nobody knew her name except Ping, and even then he insisted on calling her Medical Fairy Sister too.
Except the Magistrate’s wife knew exactly who she was, and had invited her for tea, likely to talk about what she had just done.
She grimaced, and kicked a rock in irritation, jumping when it cracked into a tree a lot harder than she was expecting.
She had met the woman once before. Once. And hadn’t even talked to her. She was Meiling’s superior in every way. From one of the noble families, married to the Lord Magistrate, graceful, respected…
She could already feel herself getting irritated.
She dearly hoped that this wasn’t going to be some sort of subtle posturing and power play. Verbally smacking around one of her juniors was one thing, but she was woefully under equipped to handle somebody like the Lady of Verdant Hill.
She sighed again as she carefully collected some leaves that she would need to grind, and stared at them. She had said that she would give the people some medicine, but… well, realistically, that was a bit of a problem too. Her father was the one who had collected payment. He told her what he needed, and she organised it. She had never had to deal with the merchants who came looking for her father, other than serving them tea. When she went to work, everything was already negotiated.
Should she just give it out for free? Medicine was a job. She couldn’t beggar herself out of good will, no matter somebody else’s circumstances.
She didn’t have enough to just give things away. An idle helping hand to a boy she took pity on was one thing. Taking care of five others…
But... did it cost her anything?
Well, no sense thinking about it. She had given her word, and she would follow it through to the end.
She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, feeling the energy that swirled in her stomach.
One thing at a time until it's done.
She opened her eyes again, and pulled the cloth over the bottom of her face like a veil.
One thing at a time, until it's done.
“This one? No, not this one, it's too big, you’ll look like you’re drowning in it. This one? It was Honourable Grandmother’s.” It was a nice dress. A bit much for Meiling, nearly as decorated as her own wedding dress.
Meihua was whirling around the room, entirely too nervous to be healthy for her state. She was insistent that Meiling be dressed and made up for her meeting, and Meiling deferred to her judgement.
She was sat placidly on a stool, as a servant applied makeup to her face. Her focus was half on her friend talking, and half on the memory of the smiles of the people she had helped.
“Medical Fairy Sister” was almost as good as Senior Sister. Flattering. She didn’t mind it as much as Xiulan seemed to, but then again, she didn’t get these things as often as her friend did. It was still novel enough to be gratifying
“Now, Lady Wu has a mild temperament, so you should be fine. I’ve dined with her a few times, and she is pleasant company.”
Meiling listened, as a servant applied makeup to her face. She was trying to remain calm. She wasn’t a noble. She had barely any idea how this meeting would go, and Meihua was stirring her stomach even more.
It suddenly felt real. That all of a sudden, she was more than just a peasant girl from Hong Yaowu with a strange ability to smell Qi. Jin was one thing. Even Xiulan felt more approachable than the Patriarch and his wife. Maybe because she grew up hearing about his work. Maybe because he was cemented in her head as her superior.
He had clapped her on the shoulder once, and called her a “virtuous young man,” when she had helped with the treatment of the victims of Sun Ken. That memory still stung a bit, but in his defence, she had looked like a boy back then, lanky and gangly and as flat as a wall with her face covered by a mask. The fact that he was willing to be there at all, even getting his hands dirty helping to move the wounded, had been a memory she regarded as important.
That was a ruler.
And now she had been requested, and requested politely, to discuss the matter over tea. It was a bit short notice, but she had assumed the “at your convenience” in the letter to mean “as soon as possible.”
She still felt like this wasn’t someone she wanted to keep waiting. So she was going to look her best, all dressed up for the Lady of Verdant Hill.
She nearly wrinkled her nose, as she felt more powder dab onto her face. “That feels like a lot.” She said to the servant, Lingqi.
“Ah, all the other ladies cover up any blemishes. Young Miss covers her mole.”
Well, it made sense. She had a lot of freckles. She let the girl continue her work.
‘They aren’t blemishes. They’re the best!’ Her Jin declared, while trailing kisses down across the bridge of her nose.
Well, it was the style, so there wasn’t anything to be done.
“You’ll be fine, Meimei.” Meihua said, more to herself than Meiling. “Just so long as you don’t insult her or poison her…. Ah, never mind, you’re doomed.” That last part was said to lighten the mood, but Meiling just winced. Her lips always did get a bit looser when she was nervous or angry.
The makeup finished being put on. She was garbed in the dress.
It felt wrong. Clad in things that weren’t her own.
A burnished bronze disk was brought out so she could see herself.
“It.. well, it looks…” Meihua tried. “Lingqi, go to the market, and get another shade. We’ll try again.”
She gazed at her reflection, the makeup painfully obvious as it coated her face. It didn’t match her skin tone, made for someone much paler than she. She could see the amount that had to be used to cover her freckles.
Combined with the dress, it made her look like she was pretending.
No, this would not do at all.
This wasn’t Hong Meiling. Why should she dress up like that? Why should she use expensive makeup? She was a farmer’s wife, damn it. She wasn’t some noble lady.
“No. It's fine.” She stated simply.
The small basin of water boiled easily enough, and the makeup came off her face. She scrubbed, with Qi infused hands.
She changed out of the lovely dress, and into her last clean set of clothes, before she had to do more laundry.
Meiling took a deep breath, and stared at her reflection. Her back straightened. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
Satisfied, she let out the air she was holding.
“We can still try something else and--oh.” Meihua stopped, as she took in her friend. Her eyes widened, as she looked her up and down.
“That is very, very unfair, Meimei.” She managed to get out.
It was a pavilion on the outskirts of town. Neutral ground. A high garden, built to give a commanding view of the land outside the walls, looking down onto the valley that surrounded the Verdant Hill. It was quiet and out of the way, with no one else on the street at this hour.
The trees bloomed beautifully, the flowers smelled sweet, and the Lady of Verdant Hill waited calmly for her guest.
It had taken some convincing for her husband to agree, but he had eventually given in. The silly man was always so jumpy after the incident. These cultivators had given her no cause for concern yet, but that’s just the way her husband was.
He worried and fretted constantly. Why, if the men of Verdant Hill would hear about his woes, they would surely spit blood! Her lip curled up with mirth at the thought.
She adored him. He was a constant amusement, as were the reactions of the people. To see the dichotomy between the man she knew and the man they knew. The Stern Patriarch of Verdant hill, and the man who would rather curl up into her bosom and moan about how unfair life was. He worked. He struggled, he doubted himself. Others said those were unattractive qualities. Better what he was, than a statue of virtue. She knew men like that. Humorless sentinels, dispensing their justice without remorse.
While sometimes this little village was boring, sometimes, she longed for the hustle and bustle of Pale Moon Lake city, she had to admit, her husband was right about some things
Her hand shook a little, the tremors from that old thing working their way into her limbs. Really, that was the worst part of this whole thing. It came and it went but most days it wasn’t too bad. In all honesty? She liked the grey streaks in her hair. And while the surges were unpleasant, they were worth it. They had let her leave with barely a word to her honoured father. It wasn’t quite an elopement with a common-born man, but a “damaged” woman simply wasn’t worth an argument.
“My lady, she's here.” A guard whispered to her, his eyes set and full of conviction. She resisted the urge to ruffle the young man’s hair. He was about her own son’s age. So eager and loyal,
she graced him with a smile, and thanked him.
She sat up primly, and waited. She did not have to wait long.
Lady Wu hadn’t thought much of Hong Meiling, the last time they met. Thin, with nearly pinched features. Hunched over slightly behind her stunningly beautiful friend, glaring at any who dared to look at her. “A shrewish girl, with a tongue like a dagger” was her description.
Now, as the young woman wearing peasant’s clothes walked towards her, she saw none of that.
The woman walked with a straight back, her head held high. She was not quite what one would describe as classically beautiful. She was a bit too sharp looking for that, with her angular face and intense amethyst eyes. But while her eyes drew one’s gaze… it was something intangible that held your attention.
She had a weight about her. A kind of quiet strength that drew the eye and made one think “this is a woman to be obeyed.”
She knew now why the guards had obeyed her immediately, when the demand came to shut down the well.
But as Meiling drew closer, Lady Wu noticed the slight cracks. Meiling... was young. Young, and not at all prepared for this meeting. Running on bravado and her own grit.
It was quite endearing, and amusing, that a cultivator was nervous to meet her.
But... this girl wasn’t really a cultivator, was she? She wore her simple clothes with pride. Her face was clear of any kind of makeup, for what could a farmer’s wife need makeup for?
Lady Wu clenched her fist, forcing the shakes away, and rose. The young woman cocked her head to the side, her nose twitching, and a brief look of confusion rolling over her features.
“This Wu Zei Qi greets Lady Hong, and thanks her for coming.” She stated serenely, her bow perfect and graceful.
“Hong Meiling pays her respects to Lady Wu.” Meiling greeted politely, startled out of her examination, and returned her bow.
“Please, join me.” the Lady said pleasantly, gesturing, and retrieving a fan from her sleeves.
The younger woman nodded, trying to keep her affection of bland disinterest as the tea was poured.
When that was done, the Lady waved off her servants, both bowing, and departing.
When they were alone together, Lady Wu studied Meiling from behind her fan. The girl didn’t know how to proceed in the silence, shifting a bit. After a moment, she reached out, and took a sip of tea.
“One normally waits for their elder to drink, before drinking themselves.” Lady Wu said arily, and Meiling froze at the gentle rebuke, panic flashing in the back of her eyes.
Lady Wu smirked but took pity on the younger woman.
“Forgive my teasing, Lady Hong. I did not mean to provoke such a reaction.” Her fan snapped closed, and she placed it on the table. The time for games was over. “Come, let us speak frankly on the matter.”
The girl seemed taken aback. Again a subtle thing, but her heart was clearly on display for the whole world, if one knew where to look.
“Firstly, on behalf of our Verdant Hill, this Wu Zei Qi thanks you.” She raised her hands, clasping them before her.
“Thanks to your quick action, a tragedy has been prevented, and the culprit located. We believe it was a cistern. You said it was contaminated water, so we had a search party look for any possible cause. One of the Tanneries uphill had a leak in a cistern that was filled with filth and rotting fat. The guards are still checking, but we believe this is the source of our malaise.”
Hong Meiling nodded along at the explanation, her brow furrowed in thought.
“I’ll check the cistern to see if it feels like what I dealt with earlier. And I’ll make something to decontaminate the well.” She agreed so easily, no, that would not do!
“One must watch what one agrees to, before they negotiate a payment.” Lady Wu said mildly, swirling her tea around in its cup.
This time, the wince was quite visible.
“How much experience do you have, in selling your services?” She asked, and Meiling cocked her head to the side again, debating something…
“Little. Father dealt with them, or they were members of the village.” Meiling admitted, still confused and curious. The interaction was obviously not going the way she had constructed in her head.
Lady Wu nodded. “We shall have to fix that. Send a message when you wish to learn, and I shall teach you, if you wish.” she declared.
“...why?” Meiling asked again, eyeing her with those flinty chips of gemstone. Oh my, that was an intense gaze! It gave her the shivers.
The older woman raised an eyebrow. “Why shouldn’t I? What do I have to gain from antagonising you, save for you ire? Oh, I could probably weave a spell of words around you. Use your nervousness to get you to agree to something you wouldn’t normally. And that would last until you got annoyed, and my hair would probably get even greyer. I know what happens when somebody annoys a cultivator.” She pointed to her hair.
“No, Hong Meiling that would not do. So I, like my husband, would prefer an amicable relationship. There is nothing else to this. I invited you, to get to know you, and thank you for your actions. That is all. Though… I do have questions you could answer, if it wouldn't be too bold.”
Meiling considered her statement, mulling it over in her head, and finding it satisfactory.
“What manner of questions?”
Lady Wu smiled. “Well, this one has been on mine, and my husband’s mind, but it was not Cai Xiulan who slew Sun Ken, was it? Your husband knew before the news was out.”
The young woman nodded, deciding to tell her what really happened. “It was Bi De.”
“….the chicken that my husband asked to kill that pack of wolves?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes. Though the credit was given to Xiulan on purpose. Jkin didn’t want any visitors.”
Lady Wu took a sip of her tea, considering. “Any other dangerous monsters he has taken care of?” she asked whimsically. He most likely slew some Blaze Bear, as things had been remarkably quiet, even for the Azure Hills.
“Last year, Jin killed the Wicked Blade.” The girl said with a shrug, as if this was not an earth-shaking revelation.
It was Lady Wu’s turn to gape, and she realised that this is what her husband must feel like. The odd floating feeling that strained her sense of belief, but absolutely certain it happened.
The food came, as she was still trying to recover from that revelation, the servants returning to bring out meats and pastries for their meal. It was all fine, high quality ingredients… including a stack of those “pancakes”. Meiling seemed quite amused at their appearance.
The conversation started to drift to more pleasant topics, as the girl grew more sure of herself. The growing season, how exactly one went about cleansing a well, to more womanly topics. How birth felt and how to keep one’s child focused.
It was at the end of the meal, when Lady Wu’s hand started to shake again. Meiling’s eyes immediately focused on the limb, her nose twitching.
Slowly, she held out an arm.
“May I?” Meiling asked.
Lady Wu stared at the proffered hand, and obligingly surrendered herself.
The shakes stopped nearly immediately, as their hands touched, and Meiling’s eyes closed. They remained connected, as a somewhat odd feeling crawled up her arm. Slowly, gently, it quested up her arm.
Meiling frowned heavily, and consideringly.
“Could you get someone to clear the table?” She asked. “But leave the teapot.”
“It's in the spine, whatever this is. It's old, and… feels like it’s.. Caked on, for lack of a better word.” The girl mused, her eyes now fully focused on her task. Her voice was gentle, but matter of fact, explaining what was wrong.
Lady Wu frowned, as she asked for chalk, and a piece of copper wire. That sounded familiar.
“Did father, or Uncle Bao try something similar?” She asked, as a formation was drawn on the table.
Something twinged in Lady Wu’s memories.
“Yes. It reduced the intervals drastically.”
Meiling nodded, considering the problem.
“So, what this should do is get the rest of it out. There isn’t much, but it's quite stuck. I have more Qi than either of them now, and I may need to get a bit… well, I apologize, but this might feel a bit unpleasant.”
Meiling dipped the end of the wire into the teapot, filled with fresh water. Meiling placed one hand onto her arm, and one onto her back, against the spine.
Lady Wu braced herself.
Something filled her body. She nearly panicked at the half remembered feeling, wondering why in the hells it was a good idea to do this. Like that time, she felt something foreign invading her body her very soul--
And felt it scrape. It didn’t hurt. In fact, it felt quite relieving. Like peeling off a scab. Something ground something else, the water in the teapot swiftly turning black.
She was sweating, and shaking, as Meiling started whispering soothing words.
“Not much longer now, Lady Wu. You’re doing a fantastic job.” Meiling told her, keeping her in place as she started to shake.
Until finally, after what felt like an eternity, it was done.
She let out a strangled groan, as she felt the Qi retract, collapsing slightly into the younger woman’s arms.
“See? Not so bad.” Meiling said, stroking the back of her head and hugging her, before seeming to realise who exactly she was stroking. Her hand paused for a moment.
And then she kept doing it.
Lady Wu took a shaky breath. It did feel nice. Already, she could feel her heartbeat slowing, and the pain in her back that was so constant she had forgotten it even existed started to fade.
“You’re going to need some acupuncture later… but you said something about payment before.” Meiling said mildly, purposefully putting on a countryside accent. “It's going to cost ya, yanno?”
Lady Wu felt such relief she nearly asked Meiling to name her price-- until she caught the mirth hidden in the back of her eyes.
“I hear lessons from Lady Wu would be quite expensive.” She mused with a cheeky smile.
Lady Wu couldn’t help it. She went from slumped against the smaller woman, to pulling her into a hug.
“However many you wish.” She whispered.
It was several minutes before they separated, Lady Wu regaining her composure. The sun was setting, the food was eaten, and her head felt clearer than it had in decades.
But even this pleasant evening had to come to an end.
“Thank you, Meiling.” She told the smaller woman sincerely. They had just remained seated beside each other, watching as the sun set.
Meiling just seemed satisfied that what she had done had worked, a bit embarrassed by the heartfelt praise.
“Good night, Lady Wu.”
“You may call me Auntie, if you wish.” She offered.
“Good night then... Auntie?” Meiling asked, stumbling a bit. It was common to call older women one was close to that. The wife of the ruler of Verdant Hill? Not exactly a common form of address. “If you feel anything, send for me.”
Lady Wu smiled brightly, as Meiling turned to leave.
“Though, I do have one more question, if you know the answer…. Why did your husband come here?” she asked.
Meiling answered immediately, turning back around to look at her. “He wanted a quiet life. Away from all the intrigue and fighting.”
Meiling let that revelation land, and departed into the night.
Lady Wu sat there. Slowly, her shoulders started to shake. She clapped both hands over her mouth and started to giggle like a girl half her age. It was terribly undignified, as they nearly became great peals of laughter.
Oh, her husband was going to work himself into another frenzy over that little piece of information.