The meeting Cai called took place near noon on the fourth day of the week and was the last thing Ling Qi intended to do before secluding herself for her breakthrough attempt to Silver Physique. As she and Bai Meizhen walked the path to the pavilion Cai Renxiang’s message had indicated, she continued to pepper Bai Meizhen with questions, which the pale girl took in stride.
“Do you know what the test is for becoming an Inner Disciple?” Ling Qi asked. Elder Su had mentioned that there was a test, but she didn’t really know what the test consisted of. Presumably the older disciples on this mountain were the ones who failed.
“A tournament,” Bai Meizhen said evenly. “As is traditional. The top eight performers are accepted into the Inner Sect with their tournament placing determining their initial Inner Sect rank. There is also a production contest with similar rules.”
“So sixteen people total,” Ling Qi mused. It would almost certainly have to be the combat tournament for her. Even if she did find formations interesting, she doubted she would get good enough at them to become a top talisman crafter by the end of the year. “Is it just our year or…?”
“The older Outer Disciples may join either test, although typically those more than a year or two older than us have reached the plateau of their potential in the Sect,” Bai Meizhen answered as they reached the top of the path. Ling Qi peered ahead, seeing perhaps a half-dozen people already present, but they were too far away for her to make out any features.
Ling Qi frowned; the entry of older Outer Sect disciples would make the competition stiffer.
“What would it mean?” Ling Qi asked, drawing a glance and a raised eyebrow from her companion. “For me, I mean,” she clarified. “Since I have to serve in the army for eight years.”
“A higher placing in the tournament may mean a higher and better starting position within the Sect’s military branch,” Bai Meizhen replied thoughtfully. “I would not assume too much however. While it is true that you must serve, it need not necessarily be with the Sect.”
Ling Qi glanced curiously at Bai Meizhen, but there was no time for further questions because they had arrived at the perimeter of the pavilion. The building itself featured a wide stone platform with several steps carved into the sides. Thick wooden columns painted silver had been slotted into the corners to hold up a tiered and tiled roof overhead. The platform was well furnished, but it now centered on a set of four tables pushed together and surrounded by chairs.
At the head of the table sat Cai Renxiang, serious and severe as ever. Gan Guangli stood to her right, carefully pouring his lady a cup of tea.
Seated further down on the left was the crimson-haired Sun Liling, slouched with her elbow on the tabletop and her cheek in her hand. Lu Feng sat beside her in a still casual but less rude slouch wearing a bright red robe embroidered with gold thread. His sharp gaze swept over Ling Qi and Bai Meizhen, evaluating them before returning to the others.
Unfortunately, Kang Zihao was also present, sitting stiffly across from Sun Liling and regarding everyone else present with an aloof expression, his arms crossed over his chest. Two boys she didn’t recognize flanked him.
Ling Qi was surprised to see Han Jian sitting at the far end of the table flanked by Han Fang and Gu Xiulan with Heijin asleep in his lap. He raised a hand in greeting as he caught her eye, and Gu Xiulan gave her a sharp-edged smile.
Other surprises were less pleasant. Huang Da was seated a short way down from Kang Zihao. For once, he wasn’t paying her any mind. His usual grin was twisted into a glower at Ji Rong, who sat across from him. The scarred boy was idly polishing the thick iron plate of the cestus on his right hand with the sleeve of his left while staring down Huang Da.
She didn’t recognize the last person present. He sat between Kang Zihao and Cai Renxiang, and at first glance, he seemed to be asleep. His arms were crossed over his broad chest and his face concealed under a wide brimmed conical hat painted with a tortoise shell pattern.
“Tch. Just like a Bai. Makin’ everyone wait without a care in the world,” Sun Liling drawled as the two of them approached the remaining empty seats.
“Our method is certainly superior to one which leads to rushing heedless into the jaws of ruin,” Bai Meizhen said coolly. Bai Meizhen drew a few surprised looks when she pulled out a chair for herself. Ling Qi wondered if they were expecting her to do it.
“Is that so,” the redhead said glibly. “Not seein’ it, personally. Which one of us is a princess?”
Bai Meizhen gave her a look of condescending pity as she sat down, turning up her nose slightly as if to say that this conversation was beneath her. “A matter of debate. I suppose even barbarians enjoy pretensions of class in their huts of mud.”
“And snakes like playin’ at strength while hiding in their burrows,” Sun Liling responded heatedly before glancing at Cai Renxiang, who had turned her attention to the two of them. “But this ain’t the time for this grudge. S’pose I can give Miss Cai some face and leave it till later.”
Ling Qi sat down carefully and quietly, doing her best not to draw any further attention to herself.
“Thank you, Princess Sun,” Cai Renxiang said calmly as Gan Guangli took up a position looming behind her with his arms crossed over his muscular chest. “As worthwhile as it might be to witness such a battle, I do not wish for this meeting to devolve into a brawl.”
“Lady Cai, might I interject before we begin?” Kang Zihao asked, dipping his head respectfully in her direction.
Cai Renxiang turned her severe gaze to him, staring him down for a full three count before inclining her head slightly. “You may. What is your objection, Kang Zihao?”
“Thank you, Lady Cai,” he replied. Ling Qi might have even thought him sincere if she didn’t know better. “While I can understand an exemption for that one as we all have our seconds” - he glanced pointedly at Ling Qi before directing his gaze to Ji Rong - “but what is that doing here?”
Ji Rong fixed Kang Zihao with an unimpressed look; he seemed much more confident than the last time Ling Qi had seen him. “You wanna have a go, pretty boy? If you’re talking to me like that, then you know damn well that I killed a Mid Red Realm when I was a mortal. You really want to try your luck?”
Huang Da’s expression grew more sour. “Do not brag as if it were some achievement, scum. Only luck saved your miserable hide.”
“That so,” Ji Rong said, cracking the knuckles on his uncovered hand. “The way I hear it, luck is just another kinda strength. The creepy fuck shoulda been more alert while he was going around playin’ vampire.”
“You…” Huang Da looked ready to lunge over the table at Ji Rong when Cai Renxiang rapped her knuckles once on the surface of the table.
“He has been invited because this is a matter of strength, as all things are.” Her voice cut through the echoes of her thunderous knock. “I will not comment on whatever personal disputes you might have, but the criteria for an invitation was simple. If one reached the second realm, they were to be invited, provided they were not vassal to another,” she announced evenly. “I am glad, in this instance, that you came regardless, Miss Ling. I had not been informed of your breakthrough.”
Ling Qi froze as the girl’s eyes turned to her, along with everyone else’s. She fought down the urge to squirm under the attention, doing her best to imitate Gu Xiulan and Bai Meizhen by sitting as straight as she could and keeping her expression serene.
“It is no trouble,” Ling Qi said distantly as her heart pounded in her ears.
“The Bai have sharp eyes at least,” Sun Liling grumbled. “Can we get on with this then, Miss Cai? I gotta feed my spirit soon. She’s getting testy.”
Ling Qi eyed Sun Liling curiously. She didn’t see any kind of spirit beast in the girl’s presence. It must be hidden away.
“Of course, Princess Sun,” Cai Renxiang said. “I have brought you together in order to discuss matters of the chaos unfolding around us. Property is being destroyed en masse, and banditry is becoming common. It is frankly unacceptable.”
Ling Qi felt a stab of vindictive pleasure as she caught a scowl on Kang Zihao’s normally serene face. “Is such not the will of the Elders?” he asked. “It is, after all, meant to winnow the chaff away.”
“I agree. It does make things rather more exciting,” Huang Da added, having apparently gotten a hold on his temper. To Ling Qi’s eyes though, there was still an edge to his normal expression.
“Yeah, not gonna say I haven’t enjoyed the time since the gloves have come off,” Sun Liling added with a shrug. “Guessing you’re not exactly complaining about that though.”
No one else seemed inclined to speak up. Han Jian looked a bit uncomfortable just being at the table with the rest, Bai Meizhen seemed content to keep her peace, and the ‘sleeping’ boy had barely stirred.
“You are correct,” Cai Renxiang replied. “I have no objection to tests of martial valor. However, some limit need be applied to the venue lest we find ourselves crouching amidst rubble by the year’s end. Personally, I believe that this is yet another test to see if we disciples will allow ourselves to descend into barbarity if left unchecked.”
“That does seem pretty accurate, I think,” Han Jian spoke up lowly, glancing around the table. “Everything I’ve seen says the Sect takes a pretty hands-off approach, but they’re paying attention to what we do with our freedom.”
“The moon has eyes, and the clouds stand vigil. Even the mountain lives and breathes,” an unfamiliar voice said slowly as if choosing his words carefully. Ling Qi followed the sound of the voice to see that the boy who had been ‘asleep’ had raised his head. She could see his somewhat blocky features now, but most disconcerting were his eyes. The whites were dark grey, almost black, and his irises were an odd grey-green shade. She could also see a few patches of dark green, nearly black, scales peeking out from under the neck of his robe. “We are judged.”
“Exactly so, Sir Han, Sir Xuan,” Cai Renxiang replied, setting her cup down soundlessly. “I propose that we impose a penalty on those who begin battles within the residential areas. It would be a fine of some significant sum of spirit stones or if need be, confinement for repeat offenders.”
“Well, I’m not gonna apologize for my own actions.” Sun Liling smirked challengingly at Cai Renxiang. “And I don’t really think it’s an issue. What d’you have to fear about camping? Not like the grass ann the trees are gonna eat you here.”
“It is hardly anyone else’s fault that you reside in a demon haunted jungle and have no standards,” Bai Meizhen cut in. “I second this proposal. There has been far too much noise as of late.”
Kang Zihao scowled before nodding. “That seems reasonable. Any who attempt to use such a ruling to hide from the winnowing will find their cultivation stunted regardless.”
Ling Qi scowled as she caught Huang Da ‘looking’ in her direction. “Agreed. We all deserve to sleep peacefully,” Huang Da said smugly.
Ugh. Was he watching her sleep at night? No, boys were still barred from the female residences and vice versa, but the idea was still unsettling.
“Who’da thunk that I’d find myself agreeing with a Huang?” Ji Rong drawled. “Sure. I guess you want us to smack around anyone who breaks the rules?”
“It would be best to give them a warning to cease first,” Cai Renxiang said. “But yes. If need be, perpetrators are to be subdued.” Her expression then grew cold. “However, should I find any of you abusing such privilege, I will see it as an assault upon my person.”
Ling Qi relaxed a little as the conversation continued. It seemed that things were actually going to stay civilized. Cai Renxiang was focused on curbing the most obvious chaos first and foremost. Ling Qi thought that was to her credit, even if she was obviously angling to expand her authority and control from there. It was refreshingly honest, all things considered.
There was a lot of dickering over what exactly the punishments would entail and how they would be enforced. It was eventually decided that the initial fine would be thirty five spirit stones, doubling on each subsequent offense until the fourth when the perpetrator would find themselves confined for two weeks.
Confinement would be handled by the Xuan since formation barriers were apparently his focus. It was agreed that the actual fines would be in Cai Renxiang’s care to avoid the temptation to abuse the authority being granted. The only other thing agreed to was that there would be another meeting in a month’s time.
Until then, everyone at the meeting would have the authority to levy fines. It was a strange feeling, having potential authority over others.
However, Ling Qi didn’t test whether that authority actually granted any respect. Instead, in the wake of the council meeting, she rushed home for one purpose. She needed to breakthrough to Silver Physique now more than ever with others’ attentions on her as a cultivator herself, rather than an extension of her roommate.
Ling Qi sealed the door to the meditation room and began to cultivate.