I pulled the gossamer curtains around the bed, sinking upon the soft mattress. Exhaustion pressed upon my limbs, yet sleep eluded me—the pain in my chest sharpening each time I shut my eyes. A gentle clinking broke the stillness, the strands of beads that fringed our doorway knocking together with the breeze. This deep underwater, how could there be a wind? Perhaps it was some enchantment like the glowing coral that illuminated our room, or the floor, speckled like sunlit sand.
Finally, I rose and headed to my mother’s chamber, just down the corridor from mine. She had changed into a fresh
set of garments, provided by the attendants. The pure white brocade was a color my mother often wore, yet devoid of her usual vivid underrobe and bright-colored silk ornaments. She was winter, snow, and ice. The moon in mourning.
“Could you not sleep?” I asked.
A shudder ran through her. “There would be no rest in it.”
She was right, for too many nightmares would haunt us tonight.
We sat by the table, crafted with flat pieces of mother-of-pearl layered together like the scales of a fish. Small plates
of food were laid out: tarts brimming with yellow custard, pastries of crushed almond and honey, glistening discs of sweetmeats. Though I had not eaten all day, their rich scents turned my stomach.
As my mother lifted the teapot, her hands trembled, the amber liquid spilling.
“Let me, Mother.” I took it gently from her, filling our cups. My training had taught me to feign strength when there was none, and to strike with a steady hand even when fractured within.
Someone knocked, sliding the doors apart. Shuxiao entered, Wenzhi following her, as he stooped to avoid colliding with the beads.
“What are you doing here?” His presence startled me, though I should have grown accustomed to him appearing when I least expected him to.
“He came looking for you and found me instead,” Shuxiao said with a smirk. “A careless mistake.”
His lips formed a sardonic smile. “I asked the attendant for the room of the fierce one, the one who looked ready to
attack upon the slightest provocation.”
“Only those who deserve it.” I glared at him, even as a part of me was relieved to feel anything other than this hollow ache. “How did you get here?”
Wenzhi lifted an ornament by his waist, a black pearl adorned with an amethyst silk tassel. “A gift from Queen
Suihe so our messengers could enter her domain. When we challenged the Celestial Kingdom, we rose in her esteem.
Since then, she has cultivated cordial relations with us.” “Are they your allies?” I asked, surprised.
“The Southern Sea has no formal alliance with us, nor with any kingdom in the Immortal Realm. While they did not
come to our aid in the war, neither did they rise against us.
Queen Suihe has kept the Southern Sea free of many a
battle. Yet while they have few enemies, they have fewer friends.”
“Which are you at the moment?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Neither. Both. Queen Suihe is a
consummate diplomat, something my father appreciates. She switches directions as ruthlessly as the wind, with a keen sense for the winning side.”
My gut churned. Such shifting loyalties gave me little comfort.
My mother fixed Wenzhi with a cold stare. “I thank you for your aid. However, you have much to answer for in your
treatment of my daughter.”
“It is my greatest regret,” he said gravely.
A tense silence fell over us, but I would not let myself dwell on his words. “Do you have news?” I asked him.
“Just that you can rest easy for now. No official
proclamation has been issued regarding the attack on your home—if the Celestial Kingdom wanted their allies’ support, they would have sent word by now. Nevertheless I wanted to ensure Queen Suihe had not tossed you into prison upon a whim; she will not hesitate upon the slightest whiff of suspicion. There are many cells hidden within this palace, impervious to magic, impossible to escape from.”
“I trust you know such places well,” I remarked.
He smiled. “Well enough to know that you’d find my home far more comfortable, and infinitely safer.”
“I will not go to the Cloud Wall,” I told him bluntly. “I do not trust your kin.”
“Neither do I,” he agreed. “But an enemy in the open is safer than a friend who might turn on you at any moment.” “The Cloud Wall?” My mother repeated in a dazed voice.
“Where is that?”
“The Demon Realm,” I said.
My mother recoiled. All she knew of the Demons was how they were depicted in the tales—as evil, vicious, hideous
creatures who feasted on the flesh and suffering of others. In my childhood, it had been a comfort to believe such monsters were tucked away on the outskirts of the realm,
where only the overly brave and foolhardy ventured. I now knew that was an illusion. Demons were everywhere, by
deed if not by name, and they did not wait for you to seek them out.
“The Demon Realm used to be called the Cloud Wall, part of the Celestial Kingdom. They were exiled for their magic, which the emperor had decreed forbidden. They are … just like other immortals,” I explained.
I had not told my mother much of my time there, eager to forget it myself. Moreover, few spoke of this, particularly in the Celestial Kingdom. History was rewritten as it pleased the victor or buried when it was an inconvenient truth.
Those of the Cloud Wall had done terrible things; they had destroyed and hurt others—but who had not in a war? The
Celestial Kingdom was not blameless either, and fighting for one’s home was something I could comprehend.
“Was this magic so dangerous?” my mother asked.
“All magic is dangerous, particularly when wielded as a weapon,” Wenzhi said.
“Though some can cause far greater hurt.” I repressed a shiver as I recalled Liwei’s blank gaze, the moment he had thrust his sword into my heart.
No, I could not forget what Wenzhi had done, these unseen wounds he had inflicted—the fruits of his devious schemes. A fragile truce was the only thing I would allow us, as far as forgiveness went on my part. I would trust him only when our interests were aligned, and I would not hesitate to use him to our advantage just as he had used me before.
And if he was to turn on me again … this time my arrow would find its mark.
“We will leave right after Ping’er’s funeral,” I told him. “Have you heard any news of Liwei?”
A line creased Wenzhi’s brow. “His Highness has been moved from his courtyard and is being held under guard.”
The fear caged within me broke free, images flashing through my mind of Liwei locked in a windowless cell,
tormented into some baseless confession. “Why would they do this?”
“His Highness has recently acquired a startling number of enemies. His position has never been so vulnerable, and many see a rare opportunity in the tussle for power.”
My insides twisted, imagining assassins dispatched to murder Liwei, poison in his cup, carefully orchestrated “accidents.”
Sensing my distress, Shuxiao wrapped an arm across my shoulders, hugging me to her. “No one will dare to harm him.”
“Because of his position?” My tone was hopeful yet dulled. “Because of his mother,” she said wryly.
I found no levity in this wretched situation, that the
Celestial Empress was now my best hope to keep Liwei safe. For once, I was glad for her devious cunning and ruthless spite. Few in the Jade Palace would dare cross her.
“Can she protect him?” I asked Wenzhi.
“The empress is trying but her hands are tied. The true
power lies with His Celestial Majesty and she cannot be seen to defy him, for it would endanger her own position and safety.”
“Where is Liwei confined?”
Wenzhi’s eyes narrowed. “You can’t get into the Jade Palace. Not even with my aid.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“After the Imperial Treasury was breached, new wards have been woven around the palace, barring entry to all outsiders except those allowed by General Wu.” Wenzhi threw a cautious glance my way. “More guards have been stationed around the walls. They will not be easily led
astray, when the threat of whipping or worse hangs over them.”
“I must rescue Liwei,” I said flatly.
“How, if the palace is so tightly guarded? If you are
captured, they will never let you out again, and you will
make things worse for His Highness,” Shuxiao warned.
“I need someone inside the Jade Palace to help,” I said slowly. “The wards cannot be broken from outside.”
“Can your informants aid us?” Shuxiao asked Wenzhi. “Not for so dangerous a venture; they will not risk their
position. I am privy to their briefings, but they answer to my father alone. He will not lift a finger to aid the Celestial
Crown Prince.” He added contemplatively, “It would not help anyway. You need someone of sufficiently high rank to
breach those wards.”
General Jianyun might help us, but his own position was precarious. Unease crawled over my skin as just one other idea surfaced—repellent, yet it offered the best chance of success.
“I need your help to get a message to someone in the Celestial Kingdom,” I told Wenzhi.
“Who would that be?” he asked carefully.
I paused, holding his gaze. “The Celestial Empress.” My steady tone concealed the uncertainty that shook me.
As my mother paled, Wenzhi studied my face. I swallowed to moisten my throat, showing none of the doubt which beat through me. “Will you do this?” I pressed when he did not
He leaned toward me. “If this is what you want. If you have thought this through.”
“Xingyin, is this a joke?” Shuxiao asked. “The empress will never meet you, much less help you.”
“Not for me,” I said. “For her son.”
I was not so deluded as to imagine the Celestial Empress would grant me a favor, when a year ago she had clamored for my death. Yet something bound us that went deeper than hate—our love for Liwei, for we would do all in our
power to save him … even stooping to deal with those whom we most despised.