“This is all increasingly farcical,” Sima Jiao said irritably. Strands of shadow curled around his fingers as they drummed on the polished surface of the meeting table. “Are we truly to allow matters in the Outer Sect to continue like this?”
Across from him, Hua Su had the good form to grimace briefly. Though there was no sign of stress on the seemingly middle-aged woman's face, nor a single hair out of place in her severe bun, Sima Jiao could see the little burrs in the flow of her qi: irritation, unhappiness, dissatisfaction. “I must concur. While I have received a larger than usual crop of disciples interested in the medical arts, the reasoning is somewhat... “
“Has it really gotten so bad?”
Sima Jiao shot the speaker a scowl, but Zhuge Gen merely returned it with a jolly smile. Of middling height with a bald head, a cheerful mein, and a fat belly, the man was hardly the image of a soldier. His pretensions at being a monk and red cassock only irritated Sima Jiao further. Nonetheless, Elder Zhuge was Zhao’s adjutant, here to represent him while Guan Zhao personally supervised the pacification of the Rushing Wing Cloud Tribe.
Tch. Perhaps he should call upon a little more power. Let’s see how the welp grinned then. That musclebrained ox Guan Zhao had his faults, but at least he was not quite so self-absorbed as this twit who had not even passed his fourth century nor stepped into the Sixth Realm. Sima Jiao should have been done with this kind of idiocy.
“Brother Jiao is correct,” Shi Ying said quietly, her hands clasped in front of her face. Her tiny, plump, and grandmotherly form was at odds with the feeling of looming weight that hung around her. Jiao was, of course, unaffected, but the poor lad in the corner taking minutes looked about ready to soil his robes. “The Outer Sect is a proving ground, meant to test for entry, but this… ‘war’ is excessive. The degree to which certain disciples are being allowed to bend the rules is excessive.”
“It is beginning to damage our reputation,” Hua Su said, looking to the head of the table. “There are those saying that the Argent Sect has grown lax and undisciplined.”
Sima Jiao felt his lip curl as he turned to look as well. Unlike the others, he did not lower his head before Yuan He.
The Sect Head was an old man with a healthy head of snow white hair and a spry sort of energy despite the deep wrinkles on his face. In his grey eyes still churned the fury of a storm, and the thunder of his cane striking wood still silenced the room. Despite their disagreements, of all the people in this room, Yuan He was a man who Sima Jiao still respected. In the lightning that crackled in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders, and in the churn of his spirit, there remained a shadow of the man who had led the shattered remnants of the South Emerald Seas for decades as those Hui degenerates drank and danced. The man who had struck the final blow against Ogodei from atop a mountain of his comrades’ corpses was still there.
It was just too bad that Jiao was all too familiar with the sight of a man who had thought to change the world and bent in the doing.
“I am aware of the troubles regarding the new rules,” Yuan He said sternly. “However, until this year’s end, they remain necessary.”
Funding The words he would speak regarding the benign neglect of the Southern Sects would likely earn him an Imperial censure, Sima Jiao thought sourly. To see His Highness’ plans, so carefully crafted, already beginning to show wear around the edges…
But Emperor An had ascended, and now, it was the Empress’ will. Not for the first time, Jiao felt a grinding pain in his spirit like the broken edges of a rib shifting.
“Duchess Cai’s aid has been invaluable in maintaining our programs and core cultivation,” Hua Su began carefully. “But surely, this chaos is not her intent.”
“Oh, I do not know about that,” Zhuge Gen mused. “We are seeing an unusually large group of prospective third realms emerging.”
“And how many careers have been quashed and Ways bent?” Shi Ying asked darkly. “That Yan child, he had potential before we allowed his Path to devolve as it has. And he is only a prominent example among others.”
“Let us not be blind here. In a year where a scion of the Bai, the child of the Tyrant of Radiance, and the Butcher King’s great-granddaughter were present, there was never going to be a shortage of third realms,” Sima Jiao scoffed. “And that is not even getting into the convergence of other prestigious families.”
“Not many people dare speak the name the Hui gave to our Lady Duchess anymore,” Zhuge Gen said with a nervous chuckle. “Aren’t you being a little irreverent, Senior Brother Jiao?”
“Only because most people are cowards.” Sima Jiao flicked his sleeve dismissively at the younger man. “The woman never banned it. Indeed, she finds it quite amusing as far as I can tell.”
“Enough,” Yuan He said, his voice booming with an undercurrent of finality. “Your concerns have been heard, but the matter is closed. Unless you can convince all of your colleagues to halve their cultivation salaries…?”
And that was the rub. The Argent Sect had a frankly absurd concentration of power. Two active Seventh realms - himself and the Sect Head - more than ten sixth realms, and many more of the fifth. Supporting such cultivation was beyond the means of any polity smaller than a county. That was not even considering the standing military the Sect maintained. The lands gifted to the Great Sects were rich - but not that rich.
Yuan He regarded them all in silence until one by one, the others lowered their heads. “We will resume the more stringent rule structure in the following year, as per the agreement with the Duchess. Turn your attention to the matter at hand.”
Hua Su frowned, and another burr of dissatisfaction formed somewhere in her channels. Hopefully, it would not turn into a full-fledged heart demon. The woman’s father was half in the grave already, and the Medicine Department required a firm hand. “The tournament. It is going to be troublesome this year.”
“That is understating matters,” Shi Ying said grimly. “The Duchess, a King’s simulacrum, a delegation from the White Serpent Caste of the Bai, the Admirals of the Savage Seas…”
“I understand that the Han will be bringing a guest from the Guo as well,” Sima Jiao smirked bitterly. “And even the Zheng have expressed an interest in attending.”
Zhuge Gen grimaced. “... Only the Jin and the Imperial House are not attending. Six of the eight ducal houses. By the Conquering Sun, what are we going to do?”
“We will prepare the campgrounds and stadium and demonstrate an organized administration. No matter how great our guests’ status, they are just that. Guests.” Yuan He stated calmly. “Remember the purpose of the Great Sects. We must at least present ourselves as a neutral ground.
And wasn’t that easier said than done, Sima Jiao thought with a scoff. This year just kept getting longer.