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A low growl escaped Sun Liling’s throat as she stalked toward the planning room. She couldn’t deny it. She’d been totally outplayed. She could blame a lot of things. The passivity of the Outer Disciples, Cai Renxiang’s freaky ability to coordinate a bunch of factitious, distractible, and lazy teenagers across the mountain, that damn Renshu’s ridiculous blackmail book, her own fraying temper; these and more could be blamed for her failures.

That Ling Qi girl was a big part of it. Her mist had messed with her sunflowers, her sneaking had turned up Puppet Boy’s indiscretions, and her attempt at a redux had made her look like an idiot when the defenses she had blown her allowance on had failed, and she’d only been caught because Ji Rong was a prickly, paranoid bastard who knew when he was being watched.

Sun Liling huffed, stuffing her hands in her pockets as she forced herself back into a casual slouch. And she’d still underestimated the girl. She shoulda just lead with the Heart Rooted Thorn technique, overkill or no. She coulda got Ling Qi to medical before she bled out.

“This sleepy mountain has dulled your bloodlust my sister. It is a sad thing to see. You are a Princess! Even if she had died, so what?” Dhartiri whispered sulkily. She hadn’t much enjoyed trying to bull through the blizzard.

Sun Liling rolled her eyes as she booted the door open, revealing a low stone room and a rough hewn table, around which sat her own ‘council’. ‘Not gonna murder some girl, no matter how irritating she is,’ she thought back to the spirit. Maybe the Bai, but that was different. She knew the snake would cut her throat in an instant if she had the chance. That Ling girl didn’t have a killer’s eyes.

“Princess Sun,” Kang Zihao greeted, standing to bow his head like a good little dog. He was useful, but by the Thousand Gods did his brand of brazen hypocrisy wear on a girl after awhile.

“Sup Princess,” she almost snorted at Ji Rong’s casual greeting as she slouched past him, where he balanced on the back legs of his chair, feet on the table. That’d been a surprisingly good investment. Rong wasn’t a bad sort, good in a scrap, good instincts for leading a small squad. He reminded her of the sons of Gramps’ household guards, always squabbling in the yard, not afraid to give her a black eye or two when she jumped in.

Didn’t stop her from kicking his chair leg and sending him tumbling to the floor with a yelp though. Feh, he liked the view from down there anyway, the cheeky bastard stared at her ass like a man entranced when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.

“Princess,” Lu Feng bowed low as he pulled out her seat, and she gave him a single nod. Unlike Kang, his respect wasn’t a show. Lu Feng would follow her into hell, just like his Great Grandfather had done for hers. Was too bad he spent so much time on his hair and chasing boys. At least he had the good taste not to go for Rong.

She dropped into her chair. “What’s the damage?”

“The ‘lamps’ were largely destroyed, but our infrastructure is mostly intact,” Kang Zihao replied smoothly, resuming his seat a moment after her. “Overall, while this was not a victory, our losses were truly minimal.”

She glanced to Lu Feng, who smiled self deprecatingly. “Sir Kang truly led an impassioned defense, but he perhaps downplays matters. Morale among our grassroot support has been rather shattered.”

“That damn glow lamp let us go,” Ji Rong spat as he climbed to his feet, shooting her an irritated look as he righted his chair. She smirked at him and cocked an eyebrow, giving him a silent challenge to do something about it. He turned his head away, and the flush on his unscarred cheek wasn’t all anger. “I don’t know what they were thinking, they had us.”

“If they had pushed any further, we would have exacted a toll,” Kang Zihao said stiffly, sitting ramrod straight in his chair. Managing that particular trick of looking down Ji Rong, even sitting down.

“They didn’t want the Elder’s getting involved,” Sun Liling drawled. “The Sect is being weirdly permissive, but we can’t overdo it, you know?”

Ji Rong looked like he’d bitten into a lemon. “Bullshit, they didn’t care before.”

She shrugged. It was what it was. There was some kinda game afoot behind the scenes here. Probably the Duchess messing with things to test her daughter, that sounded about right from the rumors she had heard. “Regardless, I underestimated that sneak of theirs,” she grumbled.

“The Ling girl?” Lu Feng asked.

Her temper twinged, but she just rested her cheek on her hand. “Nah, woulda had her before she got away, but that glasses boy involved himself. Sensed his qi on the transport formation she used to run.”

“Fu Xiang is a dishonorable sort,” Kang Zihao said, and she almost laughed in his face. "I would not think him so dedicated to Lady Cai’s cause."

“Fu Xiang is an opportunist, and he is quite loyal to a paymaster with such a well endowed purse,” Lu Feng replied delicately. “It seems our window for subverting him is likely closed.”

“Yeah,” Sun Liling grunted. “You get anything out of this, Feng?”

He smiled. “A few of Cai’s enforcers went home with my friends attached, yes.”

“Good, gather intelligence for our next move then,” she replied, drumming her fingers on the table. They were losing, every instinct and bit of training she had told her that, but they couldn’t just roll over. “Kang, go closed door. We need another third realm.”

“Yes, Princess,” he seemed pleased, and why not, she’d basically excused him from duty.

“Rong, go out there and see how many of our boys are salvageable. See whose gonna tuck tail and who wants to bite back,” she continued without missing a beat.

“We don’t need a bunch of cowards anyway,” he scoffed. “I’ll figure out who’s who.”

Sun Liling kept up her facade, ‘cause that was what a leader did, but inwardly she stewed. She had made mistakes, lots of little ones, and they were all starting to catch up to her. If chasing Ling Qi had been like snapping a twig and sending the prey running every which way, her earlier, more fundamental mistake had been mistaking what she was hunting entirely. She had misunderstood Cai Renxiang badly. That girl had more than just her pride on the line here.

No wonder she was losing. Her enemy was playing for keeps, and she had started off by just messing around.

She would make them work to beat her however, perhaps Yan could use some funding to get back his feet? That’d distract them for a bit.

She’d just have to make a good show, and make up for the loss in the tournament.

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