The end of the week and the day of the council meeting both came quickly after that. Unfortunately, things with Meizhen didn’t improve. The girl showed up for their training sessions but vanished just as quickly thereafter, brushing off all attempts to draw her into conversation.
By the time the last day came around, Ling Qi had decided to simply give Meizhen the space she clearly desired. This meant that she ended up walking to the meeting alone. Given the hours she kept, it was perhaps unsurprising that she ended up arriving early to the meeting as it was set just after sunrise.
She found herself at the pavilion with only Huang Da and Xuan Shi present. The studious boy didn’t look to be any help either, sitting with his hands clasped across his stomach and his head down, face hidden by his wide conical hat.
“Good morning, oh lovely night lily,” Huang Da greeted her as she ascended the steps to reach the table. Ling Qi narrowed her eyes at him. Huang Da seemed vaguely sulky to her in the way he slouched at the table. She couldn’t help but assess him. He had reached Mid Yellow and Mid Silver, although his physical achievement seemed recent. At Mid Yellow and Late Silver, she was pulling ahead of him then.
“... Good morning,” she replied a touch sourly as she took a seat a few places down from him. “I haven’t seen you outside of council meetings for months. Have you given up then?” she asked flippantly, watching him for reactions.
Huang Da’s hand clenched into a fist. “My apologies, Ling Qi. I had such plans… but it seems your beauty has outshone me. I have been ordered by my father to cease all pursuits and focus on cultivation.” He sounded extremely unhappy at the order. “Alas, it seems it was not to be…”
Ling Qi gave him a suspicious look but did not otherwise respond beyond making a small sound of acknowledgement. No matter how she looked at it, that explanation set off all sorts of alarms. The creep didn’t seem like the type to give up easily so that order must have been pretty serious. What would provoke such an order?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Cai Renxiang and Gan Guangli. The light that shone around the girl was brighter now, her presence weightier, and her qi radiated from her like the light of a star. The other girl had definitely broken through to the third realm, but it wasn’t complete like Meizhen’s yet. Gan Guangli, for his part, was firmly at the late stage of the second realm as far as her senses could tell. He was also dressed differently now, wearing white and gold under lacquered steel armor. Heavy spiked pauldrons rested on his shoulders and armored greaves and gauntlets concealed his limbs. Only his head remained bare.
Ling Qi’s gaze was drawn to the third person with them, a short, thin boy with feathered black hair and light green, loose robes. A scholar’s cap rested on the unknown boy’s head, and he walked with easy confidence in Cai Renxiang’s shadow, hands clasped behind his back. He wore square framed eyeglasses, which was strange; no cultivator should need such a thing. Perhaps they were a talisman? Ling Qi met his grey eyes and received a smile in return. He was at the peak of the second realm.
Cai Renxiang nodded politely to each of them as Gan Guangli pulled out a seat for her. The new boy seated himself at her side. The others arrived shortly afterward with Meizhen arriving last. She still sat beside Ling Qi and even nodded to her, but Ling Qi couldn’t help but feel the distance between them.
She was sure Cai Renxiang noticed as well since her stern gaze briefly passed between the two of them. Cai Renxiang did not comment though, instead moving to begin the meeting.
“Good morning,” she began curtly, looking at each of them in turn. “Allow me to open the second official meeting of this council and extend my apologies for the interruption of the last. I appreciate the support of each one of you in this difficult period. Before we begin to attend to our business, I must first introduce our new member.” She nodded to the faintly smiling boy at her side. “This is Fu Xiang. He will be representing the interests of the previous year’s Outer Disciples.”
The scholarly boy bowed his head to the rest of them. “Thank you for having me,” he said politely. “I am glad to be given this opportunity to prevent chaos and conflict. I do hope we can all get along.” It was a bland introduction for a somewhat bland boy, but Ling Qi felt that there was something more to him, a sharp edge that belied his friendly words.
Still, she played her part, sending back a polite greeting along with everyone else, even as she shared a glance with Han Jian. She wasn’t alone in her suspicion. Cai Renxiang continued speaking once the greetings were complete.
“The focus of our next month’s efforts will be twofold. First, we must ensure Princess Sun’s ability to cause chaos is curbed as much as possible since she herself cannot be fully pacified,” Cai Renxiang said. “Miss Ling and Miss Gu have made some efforts in that direction already,” she acknowledged, “but we cannot cease putting pressure upon her allies. Her primary conspirators are still at large. Fu Xiang, I believe you have information on this matter?”
The older boy inclined his head. “I do. The rebel Ji Rong has been seen among the older years. It seems he has endeared himself to a certain… formidable lady by the name of Chu Song. Unfortunately, as a ruffian herself, she is unlikely to listen to reason and hand him over,” he said smoothly. “For now, I would suggest patience. Dealing with that girl and her friends would be a poor decision at this point in time. It would be best to leave it until we have further support among my yearmates.”
After a beat to allow the rest of them to digest Fu Xiang’s information, Cai Renxiang continued, “Thank you. In regards to Kang Zihao, his location is well known. Huang Da?”
“The dog cowers in his kennel, licking his wounds. The actions of our wonderful ladies Gu and Ling have cost him support, and the actions I took in support of their efforts have done more still,” Huang Da reported proudly.
Ling Qi glanced briefly at him; she wasn’t sure how to feel about the boy taking his cues from her. She didn’t miss the frost in Bai Meizhen’s eyes when she glanced at the boy as well.
“Well, it’s not quite so clear cut,” Han Jian cut in. “My own sources have seen him creeping out into the mountains. He was spotted making his way into the territory of the great wolf which presides over the region’s packs. It is likely that he is securing a source of spirits for himself and perhaps some of his followers.”
“I see,” Cai Renxiang said, resting her fingers against each other. “Good work, Sir Han. That coincides with reports of increased spirit beast attacks upon disciples under my protection. We will have to resolve this,” she said decisively. “Is there any other information on the Sun rebels?”
“There has been some discussion of supporting her among my peers,” Fu Xiang answered. “Many of them are quite spiteful and resent the imposition of your authority upon them. While the Princess is, by all accounts, somewhat reckless…”
“She is not a fool,” Bai Meizhen interected coldly. “The Sun do not fail to take advantage of rebellious sentiment.”
“Quite,” Cai Renxiang replied. Ling Qi blinked in surprise when a smile that could almost be called warm briefly appeared on the heiress’ face directed at Meizhen. “Which leads into the next topic of discussion, the expansion of my authority over the remaining Outer Sect disciples.”
Ling Qi sighed and leaned back in her seat as conversation ebbed and flowed. She paid attention, but there was little she could add to the conversation. This talk of favors traded and potential weak points in factions was all a bit above her head. At least it seemed like Cai Renxiang had a plan for the potential issue Han Jian had raised.
Eventually, the meeting wound down, moving on to more interesting but less pressing topics like the council’s finances. As a direct member of the council, Ling Qi would be receiving a salary of twenty five red spirit stones a week simply for wearing the band and offering assistance to any other members in trouble. She had a strong feeling that it was meant to be a mostly symbolic salary given the likely amount of resources available to most of the council members, but with Zhengui devouring her previous source of weekly income, she was hardly going to complain. Her finances were starting to get rather tight. The clothing she had been promised by Cai Renxiang was on its way as well and would be delivered at the end of the following week.
That thought in itself was a bit bizarre to her, and she found herself contemplating the vast differences in her circumstances compared to her pre-Sect days as the meeting reached its conclusion.
“Your efforts and time are all appreciated.” Cai Renxiang spoke as she had throughout the meeting, clearly and decisively. “You are all free to leave as you wish.” Ling Qi held back a sigh of relief as she began to stand, along with Han Jian and several others. The heiress continued, “Miss Bai, could I ask that you remain behind for a moment? There is a matter I would discuss with you.”
Ling Qi glanced between them but didn’t pause. Going by the flicker of surprise on Meizhen’s face, she hadn’t been expecting it either.
“That is acceptable, Lady Cai,” Meizhen said slowly as she stood.
“I am glad. Would you accompany me then?” Cai Renxiang replied formally. “I am afraid I must ask that we speak on the move.”
Ling Qi saw curiosity in many gazes, but despite the knot of uncertainty in her stomach, she didn’t say anything as Meizhen glided past her with only a brief acknowledging nod. She was curious what the Cai heiress wanted to talk to Meizhen about, but she had no real reason to follow and listen in. Shaking her head, she began to leave.
“Miss Ling, may I speak with you?” She glanced to her side where Fu Xiang was approaching with a friendly expression.
“Is there a problem?” she asked, a bit more bluntly than she intended. The scene between her friend and Cai was still itching at her thoughts.
“No, not at all,” Fu Xiang said, gesturing dismissively. Ling Qi saw over his shoulder that Han Jian had lingered, signing something to Han Fang. Han Jian caught her eye and offered a smile. She appreciated the silent support. “It is just that I have come to understand that you are the one to speak to in regards to more subtle matters,” Fu Xiang continued pleasantly, drawing her attention back to him.
“I suppose you could say that,” she said warily. “Huang Da isn’t bad either.” The words tasted like ash, but in all fairness, it was true, and maybe he would go bother Huang instead.
Fu Xiang pursed his lips and glanced toward Huang Da, who had already descended the steps and was strolling away. “I would prefer not to entrust more than is necessary to a Huang, if it is all the same to you, Miss Ling,” he said after a moment’s consideration. Ling Qi could understand that.
“Alright,” she replied. “So what is it?”
He eyed her consideringly over the top of his glasses. “There are a number of plans I have for furthering the council’s power that could use your touch. I hoped to invite you out to speak of them, perhaps over tea,” he said. “Not now, of course. I would not be so presumptuous.”
Ling Qi shrugged uncomfortably, feeling awkward. “... I’ll consider it. My schedule is pretty busy.”
“Of course,” he agreed with a dismissive flick of his sleeve. “If you could find the time, I would deeply appreciate it.”
She nodded once and made her excuses. It looked like the council was becoming more active. At least the curse should be out of her system soon.