This was unacceptable, thought Kang Zihao for the thousandth time. He paced restlessly through the sitting room, his handsome features set in a scowl, and his arms behind his back. All of this was unacceptable. Confining him to his house like this, as if he were some wastrel or miscreant who had shamed his family in public. How could Lady Cai countenance such overreach among her servants?

Stopping in front of his window, he rubbed his jaw irritably, remembering the phantom pain from the blow that had knocked him out. That brutish commoner Gan, taking advantage of his distraction in fighting off phantasms and echoes. He would have recompense for that insult. Kang Zihao clenched his fists at his side as he looked at the street outside of his window. Nothing had gone as he had planned since the end of the truce. The Sect should have been his opportunity to shine, to bring the light of the capital in this backwater of a province.

It had all started with his plan to subjugate that serpent. He knew he had not been the only scion of the Imperial City given quiet instruction to make the lives of the Bai youths scattered among the Sects unpleasant, to make them understand, that for all their pride, they were beneath the Celestial Peaks. Some of his earliest followers in this place had arisen from such. With the heir of the Cai, a new ducal family deeply in debt to the Imperial Throne, and known modernizers and centralists at hand, he had assumed that things would proceed smoothly.

Yet Lady Cai had interrupted him then, ruined his plan. It should have been his warning that something was amiss. Instead, he had assumed it was an error on his part. He had lost his temper somewhat, striking at the Bai’s pet commoner like that had been a tiny bit unseemly. Lady Cai was simply the type to take certain proscriptions on noble behavior too far, misunderstanding their real purpose. That was fine, a little difficult to work around, but perfectly reasonable.

But then, there was the Council she had started. The idea was not a bad one in theory, it would be good to establish a system by which they could take the authority that was theirs by right of strength. However, the ones she had invited were... He glanced down at the windowsill, where characters burned with sea green qi, a dense array that he knew extended around the perimeter of his home, making the only exit the front door, where he knew the Xuan boy slouched with his nose in a book.

He turned away from the window, pacing back across the room, his lips twisting in a sneer. The Xuan, more spirit blooded mongrels, without even the claim that they had been among the first to join the Sage Emperor to grant them legitimacy. They crouched on their little wet rocks in the sea, barely deserving to be called a province. At least the remnants of the Golden Fields had some historical claim to glory. It was worse still that Lady Cai had invited the Bai as well. Did she truly not understand that the key to imperial unity, the dream of the throne since time immemorial, lay in breaking the pride and autonomy of those clans…?

So his objections had not been terribly strenuous when Princess Sun had approached him. She was more than a bit rough around the edges, though he suspected it was at least partially an act, to fit her new provinces martial reputation. However, mannerisms aside, she did understand what was at stake, who the true enemy was. King Sun understood the Thrones position well, and had received many honors for his part in advancing it.

Kang Zihao let out a frustrated growl and turned on his heel, stalking toward the small kitchen. And now with their challenge failed the council was overreaching itself more and more, trampling on the rules and the purpose of the Outer Sect as a proving ground. Pushing violence away from the residential areas was one thing, but the growing list of rules they had begun to enforce was growing absurd. Then there was what had been done to him! He was a superb duelist, more than a match for any of those cowards who had attacked him, rabble that they were, the Han rat aside. Yet it meant nothing when there were so many of them and he had not yet secured more followers, even his spirit beast had been away, remaining with the wolf pack he had been seeking to recruit among to give incentive for new second realms to follow him.

Taking a cup down from the shelf, Kang Zihao paused as he felt a faint tremor through the floor. He looked around, frowning as he felt a second. There was a faint rumble, and window pane rattled. He knew that the formations around his home dulled sound, so as to prevent him from passing or receiving messages easily, so what in the world was making all that racket? The doorframe rattled, and he turned fully to face it, instinctively drawing upon the steel and stone that ran through his spine to bolster his flesh.

Despite the sound dampening, he heard a shout then. Then the door detonated violently. Kang Zihao did not flinch as sharpened wooden shrapnel clattered against his clothes and skin, skittering off qi enhanced flesh.

“I was going to pick the lock,” an irritable voice sounded through the smoking, sparking doorway, and it took Kang Zihao only a moment to place it. Lu Feng, Sun Liling’s second.

“Or I could just break it and save us yer fiddling,” came a second voice, sounding mildly out of breath. No, it couldn’t be. The Princess had only broken him out as a tool, a weapon, drugged up with some foul elixir rendered from the red jungle.

“You’re lucky to still have what is left of your face, you hooligan,” Lu Feng grumbled. “Did you even look at the formations array on the door?”

“Nope,” the thug Ji Rong said from the ruins of his doorway, smoke still rising from his crackling fists. “Hey, pretty boy, you just gonna stand there? We don’t have all day here!”

“What is...” he began.

“We really do not have time Sir Kang,” Lu Feng interrupted him. The boy’s refined features were twisted with strain. “The Princess is back, she thought it’d be polite to free you.”

“Dunno why, all he did was stand there and get wrecked by the snake chick,” Ji Rong snorted. “Those two he brought with him were fuckin useless too. ‘Least I fought turtle boy to draw.”

“You dare,” Kang Zihao said, still off balance from the surreality of the situation, but the thug had the temerity to turn his back. It was only his long meditation on the element of metal in his confinement that allowed Kang Zihao to not attack him then and there. “I will not be spoken to like that,” he spat.

“Then stay in your cage,” the scarred boy called back over his shoulder, already jogging away. “C’mon Lu Feng, gotta get outta here before that guy busts outta your vines and the rest of the goons get back.”

Lu Feng shot him an apologetic look. “...Crude as he is, he has a point. You can duel him later if you like Sir Kang.” Then he was gone too.

Kang Zihao hesitated only a moment, spitting out a curse. Why had everything gone so wrong?

A note from Yrsillar

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