Chapter no 12

Heart of the Sun Warrior

The rush of the wind was a mournful lament as our cloud soared onward. My mother’s eyes were veined red, the coils of her hair undone, falling over her shoulders. As my gaze rested on Ping’er’s body, a wrenching pain suffused me.

Without her vitality and warmth, it was nothing but a shell.

Memories flooded me: of Ping’er correcting the fingering on my flute, of her showing me how to pluck the strings of a qin, of her stories that gave me my first thrill of adventure. The times she had tucked me into bed and pressed a kiss to my brow when my mother had lingered too long in the

forest. The tears came then, sliding down my cheeks. I would not wipe them away or flinch from these

recollections, because they were all I had left of her. There was an aching finality to this moment, this immutability of death. For gone were the days that Ping’er would hug me, never again would she call my name. How did the mortals bear such anguish, knowing all they loved would meet this end?

A gust of wind ruffled Ping’er’s sleeves. I smoothed them down, my knuckles grazing her skin—so cold and still. I was

a selfish creature to think of just myself. What of Ping’er’s family? My mother? This loss was not mine alone.

I touched my mother’s arm. “Are you all right?”

“Pain is no stranger to me.” Her eyes were dulled pools of despair. “At least we have each other.”

I wanted to tell her of my father then, to let hope spark in this impenetrable darkness. Yet my vow bound me fast, as did my shame. How arrogant I had been to think I could have helped my father, how reckless to steal from the

Celestial Emperor, to have imagined we could escape his wrath, to have ever challenged him in the first place. For now Ping’er was dead, our home was destroyed—and I was lost.

Wenzhi bowed his head as he intoned formally, “May she find peace in eternity. May you and your mother find the strength to overcome your sorrow.” He reached out a hand to me, then pulled it back, his fingers closing into a fist.

Shuxiao hugged me tightly. “I’m so sorry. I’ll miss her too.”

Grief clawed me, endless recriminations ringing through my mind. If only we had fled sooner, if only I had been swifter—I might have killed Wugang before. Had I treated him with the same mercilessness as he showed Ping’er, his blood would be bathing the laurel and Ping’er would be


“Where should we go?” Shuxiao asked as she released me.

“To my home. You will be safe from the Celestial Emperor there,” Wenzhi offered.

I recoiled from his suggestion, despite the sense in it.

Once, he had brought me to the Cloud Wall against my will, and I had no desire to ever return. Even if Wenzhi truly wanted to aid us, what of his ruthless father? His vile

brother? My nails dug into my palm. No, I would not thrust us into that nest of vipers. I would not lay Ping’er to rest there, in a strange place she had feared all her life.

Would you bring me home? Her words echoed through me, cutting through the fog of misery.

“We have to bring Ping’er back to the Southern Sea,” I said flatly.

Wenzhi frowned. “Queen Suihe is neither benevolent nor tolerant. She will not harbor you if she knows you are wanted by the Celestial Emperor; she will see you as a threat to her people.”

I did not expect a warm welcome from the queen.

Fugitives, with neither friend nor kin there. The bearers of ill tidings. Yet Ping’er had never asked for anything before.

This was a paltry request when she deserved so much more.

While she had never expressed a desire to return, she always spoke of the sea with such warmth and longing, even with her final breath. No matter how far we had

traveled from our home, it was a bond impossible to sever— rooted deep into what we were, entwined with all we would become.

My resolve hardened. “We will fulfill Ping’er’s last wish,” I replied, as my mother nodded in agreement.

“You must be careful,” Wenzhi said gravely. “Fortunately, the queen will not have heard the news yet. The Celestial Emperor will be keen to keep this quiet as your escape

would be seen as another weakness, a failure. Do what you must, then leave as soon as you can.”

“We will,” I told him, even as I longed for a few precious days to recoup our strength, to plan our way forward. To mourn.

“I know you blame yourself,” Wenzhi said in a low voice. “Don’t forget, it was Wugang who struck her. The emperor who ordered the attack on your home.”

I glanced up, catching the tautness in his expression. “How did you learn of the attack?” I asked numbly.

“We have our informants at the Celestial Court.

Unfortunately, this matter was so closely guarded, I only

learned of it after the soldiers had left. I came as soon as I heard.”

“Thank you for your aid.” I spoke formally, listlessly, unable to muster the energy for more.

Kneeling down beside me, Wenzhi laid a hand on my shoulder. I had always thought his touch cool, yet now it burned through my robe. Or perhaps it was because I was frozen all the way inside, nothing but a brittle layer of ice holding me together.

“Cry. Shout. Strike me if you will. Just don’t treat me like a stranger. Don’t pretend to be all right when you are not.”

His blunt compassion was my undoing. My chest caved until I was fighting for breath, my emotions churning within.

Strong arms went around my shoulders; my head folded against his steadiness. My hands moved of their own

volition, instinctively seeking comfort, my fingers clutching at the lapels of his robe as though I were falling. I did not

draw closer, nor did I push him away. How familiar his

embrace and the comfort it yielded … and how I craved it in this moment, drowning in this void of despair. A part of me wanted to stay there, locked away from the devastation of my reality—even as my pride urged me to pull away, to

protest his touch. And though I despised myself for this weakness, I sensed he understood my pain—and so I

remained still until my tension eased, my body going as limp as a vine as the last of my strength dispersed. Ragged breaths and bitter tears spilled from me until somehow, I was no longer stretched to breaking, exhaustion crashing

over me as my eyelids sank shut into merciful slumber.

WARMTH GRAZED MY SKIN. My mind stirred from oblivion, but I did not want to awaken. Already, the ache within was returning, relentless and sharp—each breath a strain. A breeze swept against my face then, cool and fresh, stirring something in me … something that was not laden with sorrow, pain, or

regret. Fragments of memories, good ones—of my first

glimpse of the Eastern Sea and the wonder I had felt then, along with the lightness of hope.

Flicking my eyelids apart, the brightness of day crowded my vision. I blinked, making out my mother staring blankly ahead, Shuxiao sitting beside her. Instinctively, I glanced

around to check no one was in pursuit. As I recalled my lapse into a weeping wreck last night, shame coursed through me. How could I have wept in Wenzhi’s arms, the arms of my enemy? A betrayal of Liwei and myself.

Except, Wenzhi was not my enemy. At least, not anymore. “Where is he?” I asked.

“Your friend said he needed to go home but would return to find us,” my mother replied.

“You seemed on good terms with Wenzhi. Better than I expected after what he did,” Shuxiao remarked curiously.

My mother’s eyes narrowed as she sat straighter. “Is he the one who betrayed you? The Demon you hate?”

A few days ago, I would have agreed at once. Yet the things Wenzhi had said, how he had come to our aid so unflinchingly … these went deeper than I wished. While it

did not make things right between us—nothing ever would— it was no longer pure bitterness in my heart when I thought of him.

“He did betray me. I despised him and worse,” I said haltingly. “But he also helped us, more than you know.”

“Have you forgiven him?” Shuxiao asked tentatively.

“No,” I said fiercely. “Nor will I ever trust him again. But I don’t hate him anymore either.”

“Anyone who deceived you in that manner cannot be trusted.” My mother paused, shaking her head. “However, some tales told of me are little better. It was as Wugang said

—many believe that I wanted the elixir for myself, that I stole it to become immortal. Is that not a vicious betrayal? Was I not a selfish coward, regardless of my reasons?”

I had never heard her speak with such raw anguish, her expression haunted with grief both old and new. Perhaps

Ping’er’s death had wrenched her heart apart, and all the sorrow within had spilled forth.

I reached out to take her hand. “You did it to save us.” “Only we know that.” Her smile was sad and thin. “While

the story remains the same, the picture painted is so vastly different. Your father must have hated me, and the mortals should despise me too.”

“They do not,” I assured her. “Perhaps because they sense your pain. As do I.”

“This is what matters.” She pressed my hand tight. “That those we love understand what we did, and why.”

It would comfort her to learn that my father understood, that he forgave her—but I kept silent. Wenzhi’s reasons for his deception slid into my mind: his brother, a twisted monster, the vicious games of power where only the strong survived. Yet it was not the same—one driven by despair, the other, a calculated betrayal. Wenzhi had asked for us to start over, but it was impossible. All that had been precious between us could never be remade. It was gone, as

irrevocably as an incense stick burnt to ash.

On the horizon, white sands rippled as bolts of pale satin, billowing with the breeze. The turquoise ocean mirrored the skies, its waters flecked with pearlescent foam. Coconut

trees with leafy fronds and golden globes of fruit swayed at the far end of the shoreline. Yet unlike the beach of the

Eastern Sea that flourished with life, this place was starkly desolate.

“Where is the city?” my mother asked, as our cloud descended.

“I heard it lies beneath, upon the seabed itself,” Shuxiao told us.

I stared at the waters, shifting in a ceaseless rhythm. “Can you swim?”

Shuxiao shook her head. Celestials did not take naturally to the water; their lakes and ponds were purely ornamental,

brimming with lotuses, adorned with waterfalls and fountains. What need was there to swim when one could fly?

“I will go. My father was a fisherman. I could swim almost as soon as I could walk.” It was my mother who spoke.

Her father; my grandfather. It was the first time she had mentioned him. She spoke so rarely of her mortal family, the one she had left behind.

“Be careful, Mother.” My stomach knotted at the sight of waves, deceptively mild one moment, cresting violently in the next.

Without hesitation, she strode into the waters until they lapped around her thighs. Diving in, she cut a path through the waves with smooth, sure strokes. I shaded my eyes, staring after her until she was a speck in the distance. As a wave swelled, lifting her high, she vanished abruptly from sight. Dread coursed through me as Shuxiao and I urged our cloud onward, soaring to where she had disappeared. My nerves were frayed thin; I had lost too much already.

Waves churned beneath us, their tops aglitter with the gold of the sun. The opaque waters masked their secrets

well; there was not a trace of my mother or the fabled city of the Southern Sea. My heart thudded in a frantic rhythm as I grasped my magic, twisting the air into a translucent spear that burrowed through the waters, plunging to its


An arm flailed up, my mother emerging as she floundered amid the turbulence. The wind dispersed at my command, the waves calming as I grasped her hand to pull her up onto the cloud.

She coughed, scattering droplets of water as I slapped her back. “Xingyin, what did you do?”

“I couldn’t see you. I thought you were in trouble.” “I am capable of looking after myself.”

She wiped a dripping sleeve across her face, then wrung her hair out, coiling it into a simple knot. Her face was

drawn and pale, yet she looked younger somehow, as

though the seawater had washed away a carefully

cultivated veneer, that of the immaculate goddess. I caught a glimpse of the girl she had once been, echoes of her

carefree youth in the quiet seaside village. My mother had ascended to the skies, becoming a goddess—and given up her parents, her husband, her future. And now she had lost her steadfast companion throughout the long years of solitude and despair. Some might think this was a small

price to pay for immortality, and yet for us, grief was eternal.

A breeze fluttered from my fingers, drying her clothes and hair. “What did you find, Mother?”

“It’s colder, the deeper you get. The current turned stronger, almost like it was pushing me away.”

“Xingyin, over here,” Shuxiao called urgently, pointing at something below.

I followed her gaze—was it a trick of the light or did the waters here gleam brighter, the foam possessed of a

glowing iridescence? Passing my palm over it, I released a surge of energy across the waves, shimmering as though a shaft of sunlight had pierced their depths. A line of

characters formed before us:

Enter our waters with no fear,

for those who possess an eternal tear.

“What does that mean?” Shuxiao glanced doubtfully at the churning waters. “Tears are lost as quickly as they are shed.”

“Ping’er told me the tears of her people can transform into pearls.” I brushed my thumb over the pearl clasped around my neck, the one she had given me. This was not just a gift but a key.

“I miss her,” my mother said in a hollow voice.

I unclasped the pearl from my neck, wrapping the gold chain around my fingers. “Let’s bring her home.”

As I lowered the pearl into the sea, a whistling sprang up, luminous streams of bubbles spiraling forth—twining and melding to form a slender corridor through the waters. Light blazed from the murky depths, surging up to illuminate the pathway.

I wrapped Ping’er’s body with coils of air, tethering her to me. Taking my mother’s and Shuxiao’s hand, we leapt into the passage together. My body braced for a violent descent, but we glided through the tunnel like drifting feathers. At last, my feet sank into the tawny sand, a dampness soaking through my shoes. The air here was heavier, thick with the salt of the sea.

We stood in a circle just wide enough for one to lie across, surrounded by walls of water. The crash was thunderous yet soothing, reminding me of the waterfall in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility. Was Liwei there? How I hoped he was,

and that he was safe. A cowardly part of me hoped that he would never learn of how I had wept in Wenzhi’s embrace. It would hurt Liwei, when it meant nothing—less than nothing, I told myself fiercely. I had been desperate for comfort, weak with grief. I had done nothing wrong, and still … I was


A silhouette appeared on the other side, the water parting like a curtain to reveal a guard. He was not drenched, but

dry, down to each strand of his flowing hair. His black eyes were ringed with pale blue, startling against his yellowed skin. A spear was clutched in his hand, a shimmering translucent cloak flowing over his armor of turquoise scales, rimmed in gold. A pearl ring gleamed from his thumb, set in a thick band of silver.

The guard’s chin jutted out. “Who possesses the pearl?” he demanded.

Wordlessly, I held it out in my hand.

“You are not one of us.” An accusing note slid into his tone as the point of his weapon swung toward me. “How did you obtain this?”

“It was a gift.”

As I gestured toward Ping’er’s body, the guard stiffened. He studied us for a moment, finally jerking his head toward us. “Come with me. Queen Suihe will want to meet you.”

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