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In a harshly lit garden of tall yellow flowers at the center of the verdant compound which belonged to the Sun family, the heir of Sun Shao scowled at her reflection in the pond.

She hated mirrors.

These meditative ponds were supposed to help with reflection, but all they ever did was irritate her. Her reflection scowled back at her from the pond, and looking at its soft, feminine features twisting into that ugly expression just made her mood worse. Snorting, Sun Liling turned away and closed her eyes, letting out a breath in accordance with her art of cultivation, allowing a trickle of energy to cycle through her Ajna chakra and calm her emotions.

It was so damned annoying how useless these Easterners were. Things had been going well enough at first. She had asked, and Grandpa had agreed, to lean on the Sect for favorable preliminary brackets. She was never going to let Lu Feng live down getting jumped like that, but at least Cai’s right hand and acknowledged retainer had been publicly eliminated in front of the Emerald Seas nobility in an Emerald Seas tournament.

Grandpa had advised her that it would be better if the boy had his squad of enforcers with him, and upon thought, she had agreed. Gan Guangli losing a one versus two peer fight was expected, and Cai could probably spin it well if he had put up a good fight in his defeat. Gan Guangli losing with his squad when he outnumbered her representatives and had held himself out as a commander-type cultivator … That was another matter entirely.

Those useless twits who had been up against Ling Qi though! She hadn’t expected them to win. She had only really expected them to wound and embarrass the girl, but they couldn’t even manage that. Instead, the girl had waltzed through the preliminary and spent the time having a flashy, if ineffective, battle against another third realm one stage higher. As it was, that Cai witch wasn’t looking half as bad as she had wanted.

Sun Liling cursed her own poor judgement. Looking back, if she had just spent a bit of effort being friendly, she was sure that the lonely commoner she had met that first day of the Sect would have latched on to her as strongly as she had done so to the Bai. And even if she had rebuffed the girl, she could have stayed on the council and politically isolated the snake, rather than allow Cai and Bai to form a working relationship, much less the regular tea parties she had heard of. While neither were decision makers in their respective clans, who knew what could come out of Sect friendships formed before cultivators got set in their Ways.

Letting out a breath, Sun Liling opened her eyes. There was no use in stewing on past mistakes. From what she could feel approaching, she had much more important concerns. As the door at the edge of the garden opened, a genuine smile bloomed across her face as she sprang over the pond, running toward the man who had just entered the room.

Her great-grandfather caught her easily as she embraced him, not rocking back even a step. Right here, with his beard tickling her cheek and his heavily calloused hand resting affectionately on her head, she could forget the troubles and humiliations of the past year. Even if his true body was back in the capital of the Western Territories, it still felt the same. This was the one place in all the world where she was utterly safe and could allow herself a little weakness.

“Grandpa, I’ve missed you so much,” she murmured, her voice muffled by the thick red fabric of his robe.

“Likewise, my little warrior,” the elder cultivator replied quietly, his deep voice softened by affection. Though she wasn’t looking at his face, Sun Liling knew that the dark crimson eyes and stern, craggy features which sent courtiers and soldiers alike scurrying would be lit by love that belonged only to her.

For a moment, they stayed like that, content under the harsh light of the false sun that lit the garden, before Sun Liling reluctantly stepped back and bowed her head to her great-grandfather. As wonderful as it was to see him again, she couldn’t put this off.

“Great-Grandfather, I must apologize. Your unworthy great-granddaughter has failed to live up to the name of Sun,” she said. The words tasted like ash in her mouth. Even if she knew he would be understanding, it only made it worse. Grandpa doted upon her, and she failed to bring him glory.

She heard him sigh, his wide shoulders rising and falling, and he raised a hand to stroke strands of the wide white beard which hung over his chest. “I will not blame you overmuch for the impetuousness of youth,” he said, his rumbling voice serious, “for that is the purpose of the Sect. Have you learned your lessons in this?”

“I have, Great-Grandfather,” Sun Liling replied, not yet raising her head. “I relied too much upon direct force and neglected my preparations and intelligence. My timing was too impulsive.”

“Then raise your head,” Sun Shao directed. “It is my failure as well. I neglected your education in strategy in favor of tactics and combat. I did not expect your time in the Sect to require such things.”

“The Cai heiress is no easy enemy,” Sun Liling agreed bitterly, “for all that she is the lesser in a fight.” It was only that Cai gown which even gave that girl a chance of standing up to her in a fight.

“Do not lose sight of the real enemy, Liling,” Sun Shao warned. “We have no true quarrel with the Cai, despite her daughter's distasteful choice in allies. It is the Bai girl whom you must focus your efforts on. Everything else is but a minor game.”

“Of course, Great-Grandfather,” Sun Liling replied, lowering her eyes. She knew that the Sun could absolutely not afford to look weak in the face of the increasingly resurgent Bai. While the Imperial throne was still against them, the will to continue antagonizing the ancient clan was growing weaker by the year.

“As long as you understand,” Sun Shao said gravely. He stepped forward to once again rest his hand on her head. “Family is everything,” he said quietly.

“Everything for family,” she repeated back formally.

The older man let out a chuckle. “Enough of this. You have mastered the Scarlet Devil Raiment and begun the Sanguine Ashura Armament, have you not? I think it is time that your old Grandpa showed you a new trick or two for the elimination rounds.”

A grin lit Sun Liling’s face, and she followed Grandpa deeper into the garden.

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