Night cloaked the sky in darkness, draping shadows across the earth. While this was the time of rest for the mortals, on the moon, our toils were just beginning. Winter white flames curled from the splint of wood in my hand. Crouching down, I brushed away a stray leaf from the lantern, wrought of translucent stone and twisted strands of silver. As I lowered the splint to the wick, it caught fire with a hiss. I rose, shaking the soil from my robe. Rows of unlit orbs stretched before me as pale as the osmanthus which flowered above
—moon lanterns, one thousand in all, that would cast their glow upon the realm below. Through wind and rain, their light would not falter, until they were extinguished at the first breath of dawn.
Each time I lit the lanterns, my mother urged me to be diligent, to perform the task by hand. But I had not her
patience. I had grown unused to such quiet work, to peace and calm. Reaching inward, I grasped my energy, the shining magic that flowed from my lifeforce. Flames rippled from my palm, streaking across the lanterns, leaving half
ablaze in their wake. My Talent lay in Air, but Fire was useful at times as these. The ground now glittered like stardust,
and in the world below, the mortals would be lifting their heads to the curved wedge of light in the sky, its face
Few wrote poems about the half-moon or immortalized it in paintings—devoid of the elegant arch of a crescent or the perfect wholeness of the orb. Clinging to both light and
dark, and lost somewhere in between. It resonated with me, a child of mortal and immortal heritage, in the shade of my luminous parents.
Sometimes I would find myself slipping into the past, threaded with a sliver of regret—wondering what if I had
remained in the Celestial Kingdom, reaping glory across the years, each accomplishment strung to my name until it shone like a strand of pearls. A legend in my own right,
revered as the heroes like my father, Houyi, or beloved and worshipped like my mother, the Moon Goddess.
The mortals honored her during the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, a celebration of reunion, though this was the day my mother had ascended to the skies. Some prayed to her for good fortune, others for love. Little did they know my mother’s powers were limited, perhaps untrained or a
remnant of her humanity—shed when she had consumed the Elixir of Immortality, the one gifted to my father for slaying the sunbirds. When she had flown to the heavens, my parents were parted as irrevocably as though death’s
blade had severed them, and indeed it had, for my father’s body now lay entombed in a grave. A sharpness pierced my chest. I had never known my father, cherishing him as an
abstract figure in my mind while my mother had mourned him every day of her immortal existence. Perhaps this was why the tedium of her task did not trouble her; relief to a mind splintered with regret, easing a heart clenched with grief.
No, I did not need renown and reverence, just as my parents had not asked for them. Fame was often
accompanied by suffering, the thrill of glory came entwined
with terror, and blood was not so easily washed from one’s conscience. I had not joined the Celestial Army to chase
dreams as fleeting as the dazzle of fireworks, leaving a
darkness twice as deep in their wake. I would temper this restlessness, untangle such desires. To be home again with
my mother and Ping’er, to have love in my life … these were the things that made me whole. It was what I had dreamed of, what I had fought for, what I had earned.
To many, this place might be humble compared to the opulence of the Jade Palace. Yet there was no place more
wondrous to me—the ground shimmering as starlit waves, the osmanthus blossoms hanging from branches like clumps of white snow. Sometimes I woke in my bed of cinnamon wood, taut with uncertainty whether this was just a dream.
But the sweetness curling in the air and the soft light of the lanterns were gentle yet unassailable assurances that I was here, in my home, and no one would tear me from it again.
As a breeze wound through the air, something clinked
above. The laurel, its clusters of seeds aglitter as ice. In my childhood, I had longed to string them into a bracelet for my mother but could never pull the seeds free. From habit, I wrapped my fingers around one, translucent and cool. I tugged hard, but while the branch dipped and swayed, it held fast as before.
The air shifted with the presence of another immortal, though the wards remained undisturbed. I reached instinctively for the bow slung across my back. After this peaceful year at home, my lifeforce had recovered much quicker than anticipated. I no longer strained to draw the
Jade Dragon Bow; I no longer feared an intruder’s trespass.
But almost at once, I lowered the weapon. This aura was one I knew as well as my own—shining, summer bright.
“A warm greeting, Xingyin.” Liwei’s voice rang out, tinged with laughter. “Or are you keen for another challenge with the bow?”
I turned to find him leaning against a tree, arms folded
across his chest. My pulse quickened though I kept my tone steady. “You might recall, I won our last challenge. And since then, I’ve had a lot more practice compared to Your
Highness, spending all your time at court.”
An intended gibe for he had not visited in weeks. Yet I had no right to expect more. While we had grown closer of late, no promises had been exchanged—we were at once more than friends and less than what we had been. The seeds of doubt once sprouted were much harder to uproot.
The corners of his lips curved into a smile. “Our tally remains even. I might win.”
“You are welcome to try,” I said, lifting my chin.
He laughed, shaking his head. “I prefer to keep my pride intact.”
He strode toward me, stopping when the hem of his lapis-blue robe brushed mine in a soft rustle. A gray length of silk encircled his waist, from which hung an oblong jade tablet and a crystal sphere, agleam with the silver of my energy.
The Sky Drop Tassel, its twin swinging from my sash.
I fought the urge to step back, as much as I did the pull forward. “I did not sense your arrival. Did you adjust the wards?” A simple matter for Liwei to circumvent the
enchantments that guarded my home, for he had helped me to craft them. While they were not as powerful as those of the Celestial Kingdom, a warning thrummed through me whenever the boundaries were crossed. I was not concerned about those familiar to us; it was the strangers I was wary
He nodded. “If they are disturbed, I will sense it, too. An inadvertent outcome is they now recognize my presence.” “Does it matter when you are so rarely here?” The words
fell out before I could stop them.
His smile widened. “Did you miss me?”
“No.” Yes, but I would not give him the satisfaction. And I would never admit it—not even if someone pressed a knife
to my neck—that since his absence, a hollow ache had gaped within me, that only now began to subside.
“Should I leave?” he offered.
How tempting to turn my back on him, but it would be like kicking myself in the shin. “Why did you not come sooner?” I asked instead, which was what I truly wanted to know.
His expression turned grave. “An urgent matter arose at
court; the appointment of a new general to share command over the army with General Jianyun. My father’s relationship with him has grown tense of late.”
Guilt burrowed in my chest. Did Their Celestial Majesties bear a grudge against General Jianyun for defending me a year ago, the day I won my mother’s freedom? They
rewarded those who served them well, but insults were repaid in full.
“Who is this new general?” I asked. “Minister Wu,” he said grimly.
A shudder coursed through me at the recollection of the courtier who had argued so vehemently against mercy for us. If he had his way, the emperor would have clapped my mother into chains and sentenced me to death that day.
Had I offended the minister without knowing it? Or did he really believe us a threat to the emperor, to whom he was
undoubtedly loyal? Whatever it was, my stomach churned at the thought of him wielding such influence over the
“I did not realize the minister harbored these aspirations,” I remarked. “Is he qualified for the position?”
“Few would refuse so illustrious an appointment whether they are capable or not,” Liwei said. “I stayed to lend General Jianyun my support in hopes of changing my father’s mind, but he is adamant. While Minister Wu is a loyal subject of my father’s, I have always felt uneasy
around him, even before he spoke against you.”
“Unclouded by emotion, instinct can be a powerful guide.” As I spoke, my insides knotted at the memory of Wenzhi’s
betrayal. Who was I to preach such things when I had stifled my own instincts, seeing only what I wanted to believe?
Something pulsed through my mind like a soundless
drumbeat; someone had come through the wards. I probed the stillness, sensing the unfamiliar flickers of energy.
Immortal auras, several of them, yet none familiar to me. As I stiffened, Liwei’s eyes narrowed. He had sensed it, too, these strangers who had come to my home.
Since the moon was no longer a place of exile, many immortals visited us. An unfortunate outcome of the
emperor’s pardon was having to suffer their curious stares
and callous remarks like I was some object to be paraded for their amusement.
How did it feel to be struck by Sky-fire? a Celestial courtier had asked breathlessly.
A miracle that you survived. A face alight with anticipation.
While another had wondered in a too-loud voice, What of the scars? Do they still hurt? I hear those will never heal.
Feigned concern. Gloating commiseration. False sympathy.
As hollow as those puppets wielded by street performers in the mortal world. If I had detected a fragment of genuine
care, I would not have resented them so. But all that spurred their interest was greed, for a scrap of gossip to share. How my fingers had itched to draw my bow,
summoning a bolt of lightning to send them fleeing from our hall. I would not have released it but the mere threat would have sufficed. Only my mother’s glare and the manners she had instilled in me since I was young kept me fixed to my
Yet better by far their idle curiosity than those with malice in their hearts.
A crash rang out, something shattering against stone. Lifting my skirt, I sprinted toward the Pure Light Palace.
Each time my feet hit the ground, kicking up clumps of
powdery earth, the Jade Dragon Bow thumped against my
back. Liwei’s footsteps were never far behind as he ran after me.
Shining walls rose ahead, then the mother-of-pearl
columns. I stumbled to a halt by the entrance, examining the porcelain fragments strewn on the floor, drenched in a pool of pale-gold liquid. A sweet and mellow fragrance
wafted in the air, soothing and languorous. Wine, though we kept no stores of it here.
Liwei and I stalked through the doors, along the corridor that led to the Silver Harmony Hall where visitors were
received. Jade lamps cast their soft glow upon the strangers, seated in wooden chairs around my mother. As I entered, their heads swung my way as they rose to their feet.
The jade tassels on my mother’s vermilion sash clinked as she came toward us. “Liwei, we have not seen you for a while,” she said warmly, dropping his title as he had long urged her to.
“Forgive me for my lengthy absence.” He bent his head in courtesy.
As I greeted our guests, I studied them in turn. Their auras were not strong, which meant any trouble could be easily subdued, nor were there any ominous flashes of metal or subtle thrums of magic held at the ready—only discernible if one was searching for them. A frail immortal stood beside my mother. His eyes were the shade of a sparrow’s coat and his hair and beard gleamed silver. A bamboo flute with a
green tassel hung from his waist. Beside him were two women in lilac robes with turquoise pins in their hair. The hands they lifted in greeting were smooth and unblemished, that had never wielded a weapon or done a day’s work. I
breathed easier until I caught sight of the last guest. The hard planes of his features seemed like they were chiseled from wood, while his neck was corded with muscle. Beneath his fine brocade robe, his shoulders were thrown wide, yet his fingers twitched restlessly.
A prickle of warning slid over my skin as I smiled to conceal my concern. “Mother, who are our guests?”
“Meina and Meining are sisters from the Golden Desert.
They wish to stay for a few weeks to observe the stars.” She gestured to the elderly immortal beside her. “Master Gang, a skilled musician, has come to seek inspiration for his latest composition. And this is …” She paused, her forehead
creasing as she stared at the younger man. “I am afraid we were interrupted before I could learn your name.”
He bowed to us, holding out his clasped hands. “I’m honored to be in your company. My name is Haoran, and I’m a winemaker from the Phoenix Kingdom. My patron, Queen Fengjin, requested a new wine for which I require the finest osmanthus. It is said the most beautiful ones bloom in your forest, and I humbly ask your permission to harvest some of the flowers. I would be eternally grateful for your boundless generosity, that is famed throughout the realm.”
I recoiled inwardly from the obsequious flattery in his words, the way his eyes darted around the room. Something about him set me on edge like a tune played in the wrong rhythm—and it was not just that he was from the Phoenix
Kingdom, the closest ally of the Celestial Kingdom and the home of Liwei’s former betrothed. A refusal hovered on the tip of my tongue, an urge rising to send him away. Not just Haoran; all of them. We were safe here, our peace hard-won.
As though sensing my unease, Haoran turned to my mother. “It would be no more than a few days. I brought a humble gift, several jars of my finest wine, one of which was unfortunately dropped outside,” he said with artful cunning.
“Master Haoran, you are most courteous but there is no need for any gift,” my mother replied graciously. “We welcome all of you. I hope you will excuse us for the simple way we live; we do not entertain in a grand manner.”
Master Haoran inclined his head again. “I am grateful.”
The others bowed in acknowledgment before they followed my mother from the room, leaving just Liwei and me in the hall. As I sank onto a chair, pressing a fist to my lips, Liwei took the seat beside me.
“What do you think of Master Haoran?” I asked. “I would like to try his wines.”
I was in no mood to jest. “Perhaps I’m searching for trouble where there is none. Perhaps I’m used to it.”
Liwei leaned toward me, his face grave. “Trust your instincts; I do. Keep watch over them. If anything happens, send word to me at once.”
As his eyes dropped to the Sky Drop Tassel by my waist, his expression tightened. Memories crowded me—of a dark cave, a taunting laugh, the tip of Liwei’s sword pressed to my flesh … and how close we had come to losing each
I stared through the doorway until the footsteps receded to silence. For the first time ever, strangers would reside
beneath the roof of my home. I forced from my mind the
recollection of the last time I had felt this way here—a child hiding from the Celestial Empress, pressed against the stone wall, half frozen with fear.