Chapter no 13

Heart of the Sun Warrior

We trailed the guard along the passage that tunneled through the inky depths, the waters merging behind like it was sealing us in—a chill running through me at the thought. The shimmering liquid walls reminded me of the crystal panes in the Fragrant Coral Palace, except here my skin was damp with spray, my pulse racing each time a stray fin or tentacle lashed through the surface. I studied the guard, curious at how the water slid off him instead of soaking his garments. His cloak gleamed brightly, infused with some enchantment. Dragon yarn, the fabled cloth of the Sea Immortals that kept its wearers dry.

At the end of the passageway gleamed a circular door paved with mother-of-pearl and studded with turquoise. Coiled around the frame was an intricate carving of a sea creature. Golden horns curved from its head and bulbous

eyes protruded from its face, its spiked tail curling along the ground. As I pushed the door, it held fast, a stinging pain shooting across my palm. I leapt back, smothering a cry.

“Use the pearl,” the guard barked, as though such knowledge were commonplace.

“Does it also control the passage formation?” Shuxiao

gestured toward the watery wall that had formed behind us.

He nodded, pressing his ring into the small hole dug in the creature’s pupil. The door swung open, its other side

adorned with the same carving. Guards stood by the entrance, uncrossing their spears at the sight of us.

“How does the door open from the other side?” I asked. “The same way,” he said curtly. “Unless it’s sealed.”

“Why would it be sealed?” Shuxiao asked with a wide smile, one which invited the sharing of confidences.

The guard blinked, a little of his hostility easing. “Upon

Queen Suihe’s command, whether in times of peril or when we need to capture an intruder. No one leaves here without Her Majesty’s permission.”

A disconcerting thought. As I glanced ahead, my caution dispersed. Silver flecks dusted the sands, the pathway lined with swaying fronds of emerald seaweed. The seabed was littered with shells in cream, lilac and rose, a few agleam in copper and gold. Some were shaped as fans and stars,

others boasting elegant spires atop slender cones—as wondrous as those from the merchant at the Celestial market, all those years ago. A translucent barrier arced

above, shielding the city from the sea—and this deep in, the lapping waters were midnight black.

As I stepped through the doorway, a slippery softness

clung to my skin like I was walking through a bubble. The air was unexpectedly crisp, and if I closed my eyes, I might imagine I was on the beach instead of hundreds of feet

below. Silk lanterns were strung up along the path, casting their luminous glow all around. We walked past rows of honey-colored stone houses with sweeping roofs of lapis and agate, glowing coral springing up between them, as vivid as wildflowers.

The Sea Immortals were pale, their skin a light yellow, perhaps because the sun could not reach this place. Their dark hair was braided and coiled around their heads, both

men and women alike, and the eyes that turned to us in curious speculation were ringed in shades of blue.

Shimmering cloaks of dragon yarn were draped around their bodies, falling to their ankles like sheets of starlight.

At the center of this glittering jewel of a city rose the Bright Pearl Palace—shaped like a magnificent shell, its

conical spires stretching out like the rays of the sun. Pearls of white, rose, and black studded the golden walls, and

verdant seaweed towered as tall as trees, their fronds undulating in a graceful rhythm.

The guard led us into the palace, through a long corridor that seemed to curve once around the grounds before

opening into a grand hall. Amber pillars climbed from the floor to the ceiling, encircled by strands of jade beads.

Exquisite carpets of blue and emerald silk were strewn across the floor, woven with swirling patterns in silver,

evoking images of the waves above. The immortals were magnificently attired, their robes shimmering with threads of gold, shining jewels plaited into their hair. They formed two lines that led to the dais at the far end, where a woman sat upon a throne of crimson coral, its delicate branches

flaring wide. Queen Suihe, as regal and forbidding as when I had last seen her at Liwei’s banquet.

“Kneel, foreheads to the ground,” the guard ordered

brusquely. “Greet Her Majesty before you dare look upon her.”

I tempered a flash of annoyance as I dropped to my knees, performing an obeisance. Prudence was advisable when one was a stranger to the court.

“Rise.” A command, yet the queen’s rich tones cloaked it in an invitation.

This close to the dais, Queen Suihe’s aura rushed over me

—formidable and aloof, her power grasped at the ready like a spring coiled taut. Her violet robe pooled by her feet,

banded around her waist by a rope of sapphires. An

exquisite headdress rested on her black hair, wrought of

jade leaves and turquoise flowers, a short fringe of coral beads falling over her brow. Her face possessed the soft curves of an apricot, though devoid of its warm blush.

“It has been a long time since Celestials graced our court. What brings you here, particularly in such … disarray.” Her lips stretched into a smile, jarring against the speculation in her eyes.

I resisted the urge to brush the loose strands from my face, raising my head higher. What was this monarch’s

disdain to the Celestial Emperor’s wrath? I would mind my manners as my mother had taught me, but I would not


Before I could speak, my mother stepped forward. Her hair was damp and tangled, her white robe stained, yet she bore herself with as much dignity as the queen. “Your Majesty, we are not from the Celestial Kingdom. I came to bring my friend to her final resting place.”

The queen’s gaze swung to Ping’er’s body. “This grieves me. Her mother is my chief attendant, a loyal servant.” She gestured to a young immortal, who rushed to her side.

“Summon the chief attendant.”

She turned back to my mother. “Welcome, Goddess of the Moon. You have traveled far from your home.”

My insides curled, though it was no secret that Ping’er had been my mother’s attendant. It was unlikely the Southern

Sea would have learned of the emperor’s attack, yet the fewer who knew of our presence, the safer it would be.

My mother inclined her head. “Thank you, Your Majesty.

We are grateful for the kindness of the Southern Sea.”

Queen Suihe smiled warmly. “I congratulate you on your pardon. It was a tale that only recently made its way to our ears, isolated as we are from the rest of the realm.”

“Isolated, Your Majesty?” I tried to conceal the lift in my tone, my surging relief.

“The path here is not easy to traverse, and we have ways of keeping out unwanted guests.” Queen Suihe searched my

face as she spoke to me, her curiosity evident. She did not know me; it had been years since Liwei’s banquet, and I would have been beneath her notice.

“This is my daughter, Xingyin, and her friend Shuxiao,” my mother said.

“The Celestial archer.” Recognition thrummed in the

queen’s tone. “Prince Yanxi of the Eastern Sea spoke highly of you.”

“His Highness is too kind. I was glad to be of aid.” I breathed a little easier. “I no longer serve the Celestial

Army, Your Majesty. I left to return to my mother.” I hoped she would not probe further.

“A dutiful daughter.” She settled back against her throne, satisfied that we were figured out, no longer a riddle where danger might lurk unseen. “The monarchs of the Four Seas are gathering here soon. If you wish, you may remain as our guests until then.”

I was tempted to accept, my exhaustion reaching deep— but I recalled Wenzhi’s warning. “We are honored by your invitation, Your Majesty, but we cannot stay. We do not wish to impose on your generous hospitality and—”

“It would be no imposition,” the queen interjected, a frown flitting across her brow. She was unused to being refused.

She leaned forward, addressing my mother instead. “Your loyal attendant’s funeral will take place in a few days. Do you not wish to pay your final respects to her?”

My mother’s throat worked, her fingers gripping her skirt.

The eyes she turned to me were bright with hope. Oh, I wanted to stay too, to see Ping’er laid to rest. But would we be safe until then? Yet another refusal might rouse the

queen’s suspicions, for who would turn down a royal invitation without good cause? Moreover, I believed the emperor would conceal the attack for now, given he had

acted so furtively before. Which meant we had a few days respite, to regather and grieve.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. We are grateful for your

consideration,” I said, as my mother and Shuxiao lowered themselves into another bow.

Two immortals hurried into the hall then, clad in indigo robes, their hair tucked into silver headpieces. At the sight of the younger immortal, shock coursed through me. There

were echoes of Ping’er in the set of her eyes, the arch of her nose, though her chin was more pointed and her face leaner. Was this her sister? An urge gripped me to embrace her, for no other reason than she was Ping’er’s flesh and

blood … and that she shared our pain.

The pair knelt on the floor to greet the queen, who

gestured for them to rise. “Chief Attendant, this is Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, and her daughter.”

As the woman’s face brightened, her lips parting to speak

—a sharp cry rang out from the younger girl.

“Sister!” she gasped, falling to her knees by Ping’er’s body, holding her in a futile embrace.

The chief attendant staggered back, her gaze swinging to us, hard with accusation. “What happened to my daughter? What did you do to her?”

“Chief Attendant, compose yourself.” The queen’s tone was a knife sheathed in silk. “Allow our honored guests the chance to explain.”

Tears shone from my mother’s eyes, spilling down their

corners. She did not wipe them away. “I am grateful for your daughter’s company for all these decades. Ping’er has been a loyal companion and … my dearest friend. She died,

protecting me from a heinous attack. We brought her here to be laid to rest because it was her final wish.”

Queen Suihe shook her head. “A great tragedy for her family and you. Chief Attendant, you have leave to proceed with the funeral proceedings.”

The chief attendant’s chest heaved, her throat working with unspoken words, but a stern look from the queen

silenced her. “Ping’yi, bring your sister’s body,” she called out harshly.

Without another word, the chief attendant bowed to the queen and left the chamber, her steps unsteady and hurried. I wanted to call to her, to explain, to tell her what Ping’er had meant to us, to share our memories—except that would be a cruelty rather than a kindness. For the life

Ping’er had with us was only possible because she had been parted from her family. Foolishly, I had imagined we would weep over our shared sorrow, a release to the anguish

coiled tight in my chest. After all, Ping’er had intended to leave me in her family’s care here—this was where I might have spent my years if we had not been chased by the soldiers, if I had not leapt to the Celestial Kingdom.

As Ping’yi stared at her sister’s body, her nose reddened, a tear sliding down her cheek. The clear liquid shifted to a milky white, gleaming as it morphed into a pearl that fell to the ground.

Bending down, I picked it up. Smooth and warm between my fingers, it looked just like the one around my neck. Its luminosity reminded me of the laurel seeds, but with a softer glow instead of their harsh glitter. Silently, I passed it to her.

“Thank you.” As she raised her hand, light surged forth to envelop Ping’er, her body rising into the air.

“Wait! Where are you taking her?” I was not ready to let go.

“My sister will be laid to rest with the spirits of our

ancestors, eventually becoming part of the ocean we love.” Her gaze flicked to me, lingering on the pearl around my neck. Unlike her mother, there was no animosity in her

expression, just a deep sadness, which hurt more.

“Why did she leave?” I wanted to learn everything I could; the stories Ping’er never had the chance to share with us.

Ping’yi hesitated. “It was my fault. I was in love with our childhood friend, though he offered for Ping’er instead. We

fought that day. I accused her of selfishness, of scheming to have him for herself. She left the next day.” Her shoulders hunched inward. “I thought she would return after a year or two. Ten years passed, then decades more. When she finally wrote to us, she said she was happy to serve the Moon Goddess and that she had found her place in the world.”

“She was better than we deserved.” My sight blurred, tears catching in my lashes.

Ping’yi studied my face. “Your tears … do they contain a part of you too?”

“No. Why would you think so?”

“Is that so surprising?” Her smile was pensive. “Tears are born of our deepest emotion, whether joy or grief. They are a part of us, just like our blood through which our magic

flows. It is said the tears of some immortals possess great power, that manifests in unexpected ways. For us of the

Southern Sea, our tears can transform into pearls—though it is a rare occurrence, perhaps only once or twice in our lifetime. A gift to our loved ones and also a key to our realm, so they can always find their way back to us.”

My hands moved to my necklace, unclasping it. Cradling it in my palm, I held it out to her, though it pained me to yield it. “I was unaware of its meaning when Ping’er gave it to me. Please take it.”

Her fingertips brushed the pearl’s lustrous surface. “She must have loved you greatly. And no, I will not take my sister’s gift to you.” She inclined her head to me. “I must attend to my mother. She is distraught.”

“I am sorry.” The words were torn from deep within.

“I’m sorry too. For driving her away, for not telling her how much I loved her, and most of all, for not asking her to come home.” Her shoulders tensed, her fingers curling. “I don’t know how she died or why, but don’t let it be for nothing.”

I nodded in silent assent, holding fast to this fragile solace. I would not flinch from the hurt or tuck Ping’er away

in some untouched part of my mind. I would embrace the

pain, for it meant that I loved her—and I would never forget.

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