It had been some time since she had actually seen the full Outer Disciple Council together for a proper meeting, Ling Qi thought as she took her seat at the far end of the table. She had attended a few meetings out of politeness and when shadowing Cai Renxiang, but it had become fairly rare for everyone to get together once things had started running smoothly. Hopefully, Cai Renxiang’s announcement wouldn’t be the start of more trouble. Ling Qi wanted to resolve her most pressing social concerns then settle in to attempt to break through this week.
Yet here they all were. Xuan Shi sat to her right with his hands folded in his lap and his head tilted down, his wide conical hat shading his face. He had broken through at some point since the last time she had seen him, but it wasn’t complete yet; his physical cultivation lagged his spiritual.
On the far side was Huang Da, who she hadn’t given a thought to for months. She still felt a hint of revulsion when she looked at him, but it was a fleeting thing. He was solidly in the middle of the second realm with his spirit just on the edge of late, putting him firmly in the position of having the lowest cultivation on the council, a fact he was no doubt aware of given the signs of stress in the blind boy’s body language. He was tense and on edge.
Across from them were Han Jian and Fu Xiang. Han Jian seemed to be in a better mood than usual, perhaps because his cultivation had finally gotten to the late second realm or because Xiulan had been restraining her temper better. Fu Xiang, on the other hand, had the same blandly pleasant expression that he always did. He seemed to have gotten new robes, deep emerald green ones with embroidered scrollwork resembling eyes on the hems.
Fu Xiang met her eyes briefly, and she became uncomfortably aware that she had made no effort to repay his favor yet. He didn’t seem bothered by her delay, but when did he ever? She gave him a polite nod and turned her eyes back to the head of the table. Meizhen sat beside her, eyes closed in low level meditation as Cai arrived, Gan Guangli at her back.
The heiress strode up the steps into the pavilion with the same unwavering poise that she always did, but her expression was different. The set of her features remained stern, but there was a hint of pride there, usually absent.
“Thank you all for gathering here upon short notice,” she announced as she reached the top of the stairs and Gan Guangli stepped forward to pull out her seat. “I would not see any of you left out of this announcement.”
Ling Qi looked at her curiously, as did everyone else, but no one spoke up. It was obvious that the heiress was simply allowing a beat of silence for effect as she took her seat.
“Princess Sun Liling has surrendered to my authority, effective as of one day ago.” Cai’s words cut through the expectant silence of the pavilion. Ling Qi leaned back in her seat, surprised and a little suspicious; she didn’t take that girl for the type to give up. And why would they trust her word anyway?
She glanced around at the other council members, whose expressions conveyed varying levels of surprise as well… except for Fu Xiang, who simply seemed a touch more smug than usual. Had he already known?
There was some murmuring among them, but it was Meizhen who spoke up first. “If I may impose a question. What assurances have been given for her surrender?”
“The princess has agreed to make a public concession this evening at the front square. She will give her word, on her family’s honor, that she will not seek to oppose my authority or seek vengeance upon myself or my subordinates for the remainder of the year.”
Ling Qi didn’t miss the emphasis Cai put on the word “family.” She understood enough about how this worked to know that including that kind of caveat made things more serious. From Meizhen’s look of satisfaction, she thought the assurance was enough as well.
“There will be the traditional material concessions as well, of which you will all receive a part.”
“That’s good,” Han Jian interjected next. “What happens to her subordinates in lock up?”
“They will be released into her custody at the end of the week,” Cai said calmly.
“We are just going to let that beast Ji Rong run free?” Huang Da said unhappily. As loathe as she was to do it, Ling Qi found herself agreeing with Huang Da, but she wouldn’t have put it the way he did. Capturing Ji Rong in an ambush like that wouldn’t happen again. “You would allow an unrepentant bandit to potentially steal the place of one of your supporters in the Inner Sect?”
Han Jian didn’t look terribly happy either, but he remained silent. Cai Renxiang, on the other hand, frowned at the outburst, and Huang Da’s expression briefly became sheepish.
“I did not begin this endeavor for solely selfish purposes,” the heiress said frostily. “Ji Rong’s banditry has been punished, his ill gotten goods confiscated, and his ransom paid. He will compete as fairly as any other.”
“That is not to say that you cannot still challenge him yourself, Sir Huang,” Fu Xiang said lightly. “Duels are still allowed. We must simply all operate within the rules.”
“The rules change, but conflict remains. Such is the world,” Xuan Shi said, sounding unworried.
“... It’s not that bad a thing - to give him the same benefit that anyone else in lockup would get,” Ling Qi said, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. Past the initial dislike and worry at having her position in the tournament threatened… wasn’t it good that he wasn’t going to be disproportionately punished?
“As Miss Ling says, Justice must be even-handed,” Gan Guangli supported.
“I agree on this, but why not let Lady Cai finish?” Han Jian said politely, his expression once again smooth. “I am sure she is aware of the full implications of her actions. There is no need for clamor over it.”
“Thank you, Sir Han,” Cai Renxiang said. “Our war has not ended without gain. Even if one does not value peace and order within the Outer Sect, I am not without means. I understand the true worry that without constant harrying, the Princess and her remaining followers will grow stronger than they might have.” She paused, looking around the table to meet each of their eyes in turn. “Let them, I say. I shall not fail to provide similar opportunities to my own.”
Meizhen cocked her head to the side, a look of interest in her eyes. “The matter we discussed before?”
“Indeed,” Cai said. “My lady Mother is satisfied with my progress, and as such, she has granted me a boon. I have elected to request the use of one of our clan’s White Rooms for the remainder of the year. It will be prepared by next week.”
Ling Qi glanced around, noting that everyone else seemed to know what that was. She met Meizhen’s eyes briefly, and she gestured subtly, indicating “later.” Ling Qi nodded slightly; she wouldn’t have to interrupt the meeting to ask and appear ignorant. Given the way the meeting turned to discussing how the time in the place would be divided, it seemed like it was some kind of artificial cultivation site.
Other than that, there was only attendance to Sun Liling’s surrender to discuss. It wasn’t mandatory, but Cai Renxiang strongly indicated a desire for their presence. Ling Qi did not intend to miss it.
Still, she did not speak up again until she and Meizhen were heading away from the council meeting. “... So, White Room, huh?” she asked casually once they were well on their way. “Is that as fancy as the name would indicate?”
“Quite,” Meizhen said evenly, keeping her gaze straight ahead as they walked side by side. “They are cultivation aids in the form of medicinal spas contained within pocket spaces. They were the Cai’s primary income source before their ascension to a ducal house. Lady Cai Shenhua would rent their use to powerful cultivators reaching bottlenecks. It is an unusual opportunity for mere second and third realms to be able to use one. I suppose it is a return to norm for Cai Renxiang herself, as the Cai Manor maintains one of the two permanent Rooms.”
“The Duchess must be pretty happy with Lady Cai then,” Ling Qi mused. “I admit, it’ll be pretty nice to see Sun Liling eat crow in public.”
“Very much so,” Bai Meizhen agreed, a slight smile curving her lips. “As much as I might wish to see her further hindered, this is the best realistic scenario.”
In the end, Sun Liling’s surrender to Cai Renxiang was both satisfying and not, Ling Qi thought. She and the rest of the council stood behind Cai in orderly ranks with a number of enforcers spread out further behind them. Overall, it was a big, ostentatious display of strength, and Ling Qi had a feeling that some poor low ranked grunts were probably pulling double duty to make up for their superiors’ absence.
Cai stood at their head with Gan Guangli by her side as the Princess’ significantly smaller procession approached. Sun Liling had only two individuals with her, Lu Feng and Kang Zihao. The Princess was dressed more femininely for once, wearing a clingy green dress worked with floral embroidery. Unlike most gowns Ling Qi had seen here, the sleeves were not long and billowy nor did the hem trail behind her.
Kang Zihao had cropped his hair short and acquired a suit of polished armor with breastplate, bracers, and greaves forged from pale white steel. He had also, Ling Qi noted sourly, reached Bronze, if only recently going by the slightly erratic feel to his qi. Lu Feng, on the other hand, still wore plain, dark red robes with only thick leather bracers as a concession to defense. He was fully in the late second realm now.
Cai Renxiang watched the three of them approach silently, no trace of the victorious smile that had touched her expression at the council meeting present on her face. Sun Liling and the two boys with her came to a stop a respectful distance away, giving every appearance of not noticing Cai’s train or the “audience” of other Outer Sect disciples observing from a safe distance.
... Which was apparently a good hundred meters away. Fair enough.
“Princess Sun, I have received your missive and agreed to offer you truce in order to speak.” Ling Qi refocused her attention as Cai Renxiang began to speak. “You have my assurances of safety until the cessation of negotiations.” Ling Qi supposed they were putting on a show even though the terms had already been decided as part of the deal.
“You are too generous, Lady Cai,” Sun Liling replied, her usual drawl mostly absent as she offered a short but visible bow. It was bizarre seeing the redhead acting so formally. “I was in error to doubt your abilities.” Ling Qi glanced at Meizhen, who looked exceptionally pleased at what she was witnessing. Relatively. She still maintained her emotionless and solemn expression, but Ling Qi could see the signs.
“I was unproven at the time. I can understand your doubt,” Cai said generously. “Princess Sun, you too have acquitted yourself well.”
“But not well enough,” Sun Liling said, and Ling Qi liked to imagine she could hear the gritted teeth behind that statement. “I have come here today to offer my concession. Although our conflict was not a simple duel, I hope you will accept my surrender.” She could definitely hear the bitter anger in the redhead’s voice now.
Ling Qi tuned out as the two began to bandy terms back and forth, looking over her fellow council members and their audience. There were a lot of whispering and meaningful looks going around in the observers, but mostly, she saw weary resignation as they looked upon Cai and her supporters. It looked like the time of open conflict really was ending.
The amount of spirit stones Sun Liling paid in reparations was enough to make her atrophied sense of greed flinch. Even her part of it was more wealth than she had ever had in her possession at once. She might have to start looking into what could be ordered from crafters outside the Sect in preparation for the tournament, especially once she broke through.