The ball rebounded off the tree trunk and shot off into the air. With a lazy effort, she tracked its arc as it bounced between branches and finally shot back toward her. It hit her palm with a satisfying thump. Idly, she tossed it lightly up and down. Sun Liling had to admit, she kind of missed the weight that the silly old toy used to have. She looked down at the pale grey ball, running a calloused thumb over the simple formation array that made it always return to her hand.

Here, without any of these foreigners around to see, she allowed herself a moment to feel homesick. Dad was gone and her Mother had run off back to the Peaks barely a moment after the funeral had ended, but she still missed Kailasa. She still missed her little cousins, the dumb scrappy little twits, and Grandfather most of all. She missed the sunflower fields and the tension in the air, knowing that every speck of dirt outside the crater walls would try to kill her given half a chance. It was too damn cold here in the east.

With a twist of her wrist, she dismissed the ball back into storage, as well as her petty complaints. She really had been stuck here too long if she was whining like that, Sun Liling thought wryly. The cage she had been stuck in was gilded well. A nice little manor house in the hills, probably some lifelong disciple’s summer retreat or something. She hated it, hated not being able to go past the ward stones that marked the yard, hated just having to sit around. These easterners might be able to just sit inside all day to cultivate, but she needed to move, needed to run and fight and kill.

She let out a disgruntled sigh as she slid off of her perch on the roof, landing in the garden with a thump. It was her own fault. She’d let her blood get too heated and gone a little too far in her fight with Cai and her cronies. It had been a dumb move to open up her bond that far with Dharitri. As she thought the spirit’s name, she felt awareness blossoming in her thoughts, blooming like the petals of a hungry flower.

‘And why should you have hidden the full panoply of your glory, my dear battle-sister? Why should the fear of the soft children of the east shackle you?’ The musical voice of Dharitri echoed in her thoughts. ‘You have wept and bled and killed for your power. Why should you not wield it?’

Because of what happened,’ she drawled back silently. Hadn’t Grandfather told her that folks in the east still saw the Lady of the Sunflower Fields as a foreign, hostile spirit? But she had forgotten in the heat of the fight. She’d worn Cai and that monster she wore down, Kang was crumbling in the face of the Bai, and when she thought about facing that nasty little snake and crushing her in a fight, she’d just gotten too excited.

So here she was, grounded for a month to this insultingly peaceful manor. The worst part was that she couldn’t even complain, not without looking spoiled and making Grandfather look bad. Putting her arms behind her head, she began to stroll through the garden. It wasn’t much, but it was better than sitting entirely still.

The Sect wouldn’t dare do more than this, and it wasn’t like her cultivation had really suffered for it…  much. The lack of battle had slowed her down, but the experience of fighting most of the relevant folks in her year had given her enough to chew on for the most part. 

Losing galled her though, despite the circumstances. She shoulda just taken a hit from Cai and speared that girl, Ling whatever, as soon as she summoned that mist. It had been a surprisingly effective battlefield technique, coming from a nobody.

‘The Kang losing to the snake was expected, but the Lu should have done better. You should punish him,’ Dharitri grumbled. Images of broken flesh and bright flowing blood flickered through her thoughts.

Sun Liling rolled her eyes. She’d give Lu a good kick and a ribbing, but that wasn’t exactly what her bloodthirsty spirit had in mind. She’d long since dismissed Dharitri’s whispering invitations to cruelty as background noise. In her thoughts, Dhartiri sulked at her dismissal in an affected way and returned to her own meditations. She would be fine, once they were able to kill something again. 

Maybe she should try to get in a little more cultivation today. Maybe the Sun Facing Petals? That one was pretty sedentary, as far as her arts went. Sun Liling paused then, glancing toward the boundary stones. Looked like she had something to take care of first.

“Quit lurking,” she barked at the empty space below the trees. Whatever it was, there was not a drop of blood in its veins, but the warmth of flowing qi was not so different at this range. There was a long moment of silence in which Sun Liling continued to give the empty space a supremely unimpressed look. Finally, something shifted and a young man stepped out, the air around him shimmering with tendrils of purple mist. 

Well, it looked like he did anyway. She considered the possibility of an illusion, but Dharitri hissed a negative in her ear. Some kind of body double construct then?

The man was tall and thin, handsome in that effeminate way that was all the rage in court. He wore robes of dark black and green, and she didn’t sense a weapon on him, not that that meant much. But it wasn’t like a disciple was going to attack or challenge her when she was on time out, and if he turned out to be an assassin, well, he was bad at it for a start, and it wouldn’t be her first run-in anyway. She was aware of the sort of protections Grandfather had bound to her person after Dad fell in the north.

“Greetings, Princess Sun,” the construct said, offering an obsequious bow.

She raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms under her chest. “Sup,” she replied drolly. The whole affected barbarian thing was a pain, but that was the persona the easterners expected. “What brings you out to my pretty little cage?”

He straightened up, and Sun Liling narrowed her eyes as she studied his face. There was no point trying to read the expressions of a fake, but the fluctuations in the qi that carried his words worked just as well. 

“I believe we may be of some mutual aid to one another,” he said carefully. “I am an individual who finds the Cai heiress’ imposition of order to be disagreeable as well.”

“Oh, why do ya think I’m bothered by it? I had my challenge. I wouldn’t say I lost, but neither did she. I can respect that,” Sun Liling said carelessly.

“Then why did you rebuff her attempt at reconciliation in the aftermath?” he asked, raising a perfectly manicured eyebrow.

She considered him for a moment. It looked like he might actually be well informed. The Cai had been as subtle as she could be, coming out here to talk. Of course, Sun Liling’s condition of kicking out the Bai in exchange for bringing herself and Kang back in had been roundly refused; the heiress hadn’t even considered it. She could say a lot of things about Cai Renxiang, but the girl bought her own propaganda. It made her pretty predictable. 

“Hmm,” she considered, drawing out the hum. “You’re going to have to give me a reason why I should bother working with someone who just came out of nowhere.”

“Of course,” he replied, and she sensed a bit of piqued pride. Something she had said? Nah, it just reminded him of something. “My contacts throughout the Outer Sect are quite extensive. Many of my peers rely upon my ability to swiftly gather resources to avoid wasting their own precious time on mundane matters so they are willing to listen when I speak. With my infrastructure and connections and your funds, charisma, and leadership, I believe that it should not be difficult to end Cai’s farce of a government that her supporters are attempting to impose. Will you allow me to present my case?”

She supposed that she didn’t have anything to lose. It wasn't like she was opposed to going another round. “Sure thing. Gonna need a name first though.”

He bowed again. “My apologies, Princess Sun. This humble craftsmen goes by the name of Yan Renshu.”

A note from Yrsillar

Thanks again for all of your support everyone, vote for the next bonus will go up next week. I'm really glad so many folks have signed up for the preview chapters too!

Also since it seems this is unclear. This is a foreshadow-y chapter, don't worry if you do not know who this guy is.

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