Chapter no 15

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Never did I imagine I would be meeting the Celestial

Empress in a mortal teahouse. I almost did not recognize her—stripped of her splendid garments and ornaments, her dazzling aura muted. She was dressed as any other villager, wrapped in a cotton robe, a wooden pin tucked in her hair.

Gone were the gold sheaths that covered her fingers, but her tapering nails, ending in sharp points, looked no less threatening.

“You came.” An inane thing to say when she stood before me.

She did not deign to respond, disapproval puckering in her brow as her gaze fell upon the worn wooden floor, the

bamboo stools, the unvarnished ceiling beams. Her nose wrinkled as a serving man scurried past, bearing a tray filled with bowls of steaming soup and plates of fish and

vegetables. Had I chosen this place to irk her, who clung to pomp and grandeur like a second skin? Perhaps, without

even knowing it, but mainly to avoid any trap she might have devised in the Immortal Realm, where she had the upper hand. A test, to gauge how far she was willing to go

to save her son—and the fact she was here meant she was as desperate as me.

I lifted the heavy porcelain teapot, pouring her a cup. Not from respect, but my mother’s teaching that I had to show courtesy to an elder, a guest who had accepted my invitation.

She ignored it, lowering herself upon a stool. “Why did you want to meet me here?” Her voice reeked of hostility.

“Where else might we go, Your Celestial Majesty? To the

Jade Palace? This meeting is best left unseen. Moreover, this place gives us both comfort, since magic is forbidden here.”

Her cheeks flushed so dark they appeared speckled with blood. “How dare you speak to me as though you are my equal? You are nothing, whereas I am the empress of the earth and skies. Do you forget who judges what is

permissible here?”

“Your husband. And I trust you do not wish him to learn of this.” Somehow, I managed a semblance of civility. To show my contempt would gain nothing except fleeting satisfaction and lasting enmity.

Her gaze slid to the window. Was she searching for her guards who waited outside? They were hardly inconspicuous, standing stiffly apart from the mortals, a sneer on their faces despite the humble garments they wore. The thrum of immortal auras pulsed through the air, rising above the efforts to muffle them. Why had they not attacked? What was the empress waiting for?

“I know you hate me,” I said without preamble. “My father killed the sunbirds, but he did it to save the mortals.”

“He could have stopped them without killing them,” she snarled.

“He had no choice. It was that or let the Mortal Realm be destroyed. Deep down, you must suspect who aided him, who had the power to do so.” I said no more, unwilling to break my father’s confidence.

Her gaze fixed on her cup though she made no move to take it, likely disdaining the coarse stalks of tea floating on the murky surface. “You asked me to come here. Why?”

“For the same reason you came. For Liwei.”

Her fingers curled on the table. “This is your fault.

Because of you he has become defiant, turning his father against him. You brought him to this pitiful state. Fool that he was, he even refused the betrothal with Princess

Fengmei—for you.”

Her words stabbed like knives. Worse, because I could

dispute nothing. No one could deny that Princess Fengmei was a far more eligible bride, who would have brought along with her considerable charms, an army to defend her

betrothed and an unassailable place on the Phoenix Throne. Unlike me, who had antagonized his mother, stolen from his father, and fled like a criminal.

“Is Liwei in danger?” I went cold inside, my only assurance that the Sky-Drop Tassel had remained still all this time.

She slanted her head back, staring at me down the length of her nose. “He is safe for the moment. My personal guards are keeping watch to ensure there is no foul play. Now, stop wasting my time and tell me what you want.”

“To get Liwei out of the Jade Palace,” I said.

“What if I think he should stay? Beg his father for

forgiveness? Accept the betrothal with Princess Fengmei in exchange for his freedom?” She spoke slowly, savoring the barbs in her words.

I stifled a spurt of anger as I met her gaze. “I am sure you have attempted that, and the fact you are here means Liwei refused.”

“Sometimes, it depends on the stakes.” Her lips curled into a crimson crescent. “Ask yourself, why do you think I

came today? To barter with some useless girl who can offer me nothing, or to gain something I did not have before?”

There it was, her game revealed. I had invited her in good faith, yet she had devised a trap. She wanted to take me

hostage, to trade me for Liwei’s compliance. My stomach roiled in revulsion, and I was relieved for the absence of fear. And most of all, that I had anticipated her deviousness

and was not quite the fool she had expected. In dealing with vipers, I had learned to think like one. I swung with

deliberate measure to the corner of the teahouse where

Wenzhi sat, his great sword lying on the table in full view. As my gaze collided into his, he raised his cup in a mocking toast—even as his other hand clasped the onyx scabbard of his weapon in a barely veiled threat. He need not fear

offending the Celestial Empress; she had no hold over him or his family, which was why I had asked him to come instead of Shuxiao.

The empress’s eyes blazed. “The traitor. Is my son aware of this?”

“Is he aware of your scheme to force his choice?” How liberating to not mind my words, to discard the mask of humility I had been compelled to wear in her presence.

Shoving back the stool, she uncoiled to her full height. “I have nothing more to say to you.”

“I have plenty more to say to you.” I bit back several choice insults. “Tell me, what happened to Liwei?”

A long pause. I thought she would leave, but then she sank back onto the stool. “He’s being held captive, under watch by those who should rightfully bend their knees to him. It would have been prison had I not intervened, he had infuriated his father so.”

“Liwei did nothing to deserve such treatment,” I said fiercely.

“It’s that vile pretender, Wugang, pouring venom into my husband’s ear about our son.”

“Wugang?” Hatred seared me like a burning coal. I drew a long breath to calm myself, to focus on what might be done. “What of General Jianyun? Can he intercede?” Selfish of me to ask, with the general’s own troubles.

“General Jianyun has been retired with an honorary title.

Wugang convinced my husband to grant him full control over the Celestial Army. I always believed that was the

pinnacle of that upstart’s plans. It is now clear he intends to usurp my son’s rightful position as heir—to taint the throne with his mortal blood, and rule after my husband.”

Did she despise me for my mortal heritage too, that I was not merely low-born but “tainted”? I did not care. The

empress was of the noblest blood in the realm, and yet I could not stand her.

“Would the emperor displace his own son for Wugang?” This seemed a step too far, even given his unforgiving nature.

Her lips peeled back into a snarl. As much as she detested me, it was clear she hated Wugang more. “Wugang once

endangered himself, performing a great service for my husband. Since then, honors have been showered upon him.

My husband treasures loyalty above all, and Wugang was

ever compliant, fulfilling his every command. I favored him, too, until his ambition grew clear: his desire to rule instead of serve.”

“Why would Wugang serve your husband after the humiliation heaped upon him?” I probed.

“Would not any mortal be eternally grateful for the gift of immortality?” she asked scathingly.

As the empress glanced at the doorway impatiently, I stifled my curiosity. The answers I most wanted were for myself. “Why did the emperor send his soldiers to the moon? What does he want with my home?” The official

reason—that my mother had slighted the emperor’s pride— felt hollow, incomplete. There was little reason nor justice in this, beyond the fact he wanted us gone. It would not have

changed our decision to flee, but I wanted to learn what else we might have to fear.

The corners around the empress’s mouth creased. “What does it matter, now that it’s done? You do not need to

know,” she replied harshly, yet I caught the crack in her tone. She did not know, and that unnerved me, for the

emperor’s ambitions were a mystery even to those closest to him.

“It does matter,” I ground out. “My home was destroyed, my loved one killed. It means nothing to you, but it is

everything to me.”

“Blame yourself for all that happened.”

“This was not my fault.” I had done all I could to steer clear of court politics; I wanted no part of it.

“You disrupted our peace. The army bowed to you.

General Jianyun came to your defense. Liwei defied his father’s command before the court, as he had never done before. One by one, you destroyed my husband’s pillars of support until just Wugang remained—and now that

ambitious pretender is the only one he will listen to.”

My gut twisted yet I did not look away; to show her any weakness was to invite retaliation. “None of this was intended as a challenge. When greatness runs deep, it need not fear such shallow ripples.”

Her eyes narrowed to slivers of loathing. “Ripples turn into waves.”

“Sweeping them away will only create more. No power is absolute, nor is obedience.”

She drew herself up, her movements taut with fury. “I did not come here to listen to your foolishness. You say you want to help my son. How?”

“Liwei can’t remain at the Jade Palace. Wugang will kill him to secure his position.” Speaking these words sickened me, but I laid them bare in hopes of convincing her.

The empress’s hands clenched on the table. She knew I spoke the truth, perhaps she had suspected it herself but not given it voice. Our worst fears were those we most wanted to silence.

I pressed on. “With the soldiers under his command, Wugang could strike at any moment. He is both ruthless and

cunning; he won’t let this opportunity pass. How long can your guards protect Liwei? Can they stand against the

Celestial Army?” I leaned across the table, close enough to see my reflection in her eyes. “Help me get him out.”

She did not reply. I could almost hear the scales in the empress’s mind weighing the tallies, calculating how to swing this to her advantage. She wanted to save her son, but she would not let me off unscathed.

“Why do I need you?” she demanded.

How she despised the very idea. Yet this question was more than spite—a tool to make me plead for her aid, to turn me into the supplicant. There was little need for that; I would promise her anything I could, for I needed her too.

“The great Celestial Empress should do nothing to risk her position.” I kept my expression blank, masking the contempt in my words. “You don’t want to oppose your husband

openly. Help me and I will get Liwei away, while you remain blameless.”

As her pupils gleamed brighter, I continued, “We both want him to be safe. We want the same thing.”

“We do not,” she seethed.

A mistake, to speak of us together. She would hate the association; she would think it beneath her.

Her nails dug into the table, carving fresh marks on the pitted wood. “I want him to rule the Celestial Kingdom as the most powerful monarch across the realms—his name revered by immortals and mortals from the moment their tongues form words till they fall silent in death. I want him to become the greatest immortal who ever lived, while you just want him for yourself. You will diminish him, as you

already have—before his father, the court, and the realm.”

I shook my head. “I never asked him to give up anything for me.”

“Yet you would have let him turn his back on his position, his heritage and family.” A cruel smile lit her face. “You would not be happy though. Liwei is not meant for the type

of life you crave. My son is used to greatness, to being adulated and revered. His heart is soft; he would not

outwardly blame you, but know this—you, alone, will never be enough for him. Dissatisfaction would sink in, morphing into resentment. And finally … hate.”

Her words bore the malice of a curse. She had seen into my deepest fears and most selfish desires, casting them in a shameful light. Nor could I object when she spoke the truth

—I would have let him. I had almost convinced myself that this was what he wanted, rather than a sacrifice for my sake alone. A cowardly act, for it was easier this way, rather than undertaking a burden I would bear for the rest of our lives.

“I don’t trust you,” she hissed. “You say you want to help him, but you are just afraid to lose your hold over him.”

“I could say the same of you.” I leashed the more vicious responses that surged to my tongue. It did not matter what venom she spat; Liwei’s safety was at stake. “What will it take for you to believe me?” I braced myself, for I had

bargained once with her husband and nearly lost

everything. I would tread carefully this time, though I was certain her price would not be to my liking.

“One condition. Just one, and no other.” Her smile radiated genuine pleasure. “He proposed marriage to you. Swear to me that you will refuse, that you will break it off with him forever.”

“No.” The refusal sprang from my lips, born in the heat of anger yet tempered by a rush of dread.

“You must have your doubts. Why else have you not accepted?” Her tone was silken, her gaze pitiless—a

predator secure in its prey. “You are ill suited for the demands of an empress, unworthy of the honor. The

Celestial Court will not let you forget that every day of your existence. They will scorn you behind your back, sneer at

you beneath their smiles, eagerly awaiting the day that you will be displaced by another—the inevitable fate of an


Spite coated each word, yet beneath lurked pain. The

Celestial Emperor’s infidelities were known far and wide. I ignored the pity stirring in me; she did not deserve it.

“I will not agree.” Strong words, if only my voice had not quavered.

“Then I will keep my son close to me in the Jade Palace.” The empress was wrong, she could not protect him.

However, she was arrogant and vindictive enough to

convince herself that she could. “You would sentence him to death,” I made myself say. “How long until Wugang moves against you? What will happen to Liwei then? If you defy

your husband openly, it will only strengthen Wugang further.”

Her lips pursed. Although I had foiled her plan to capture me, I was still the perfect piece for her to play. All she had to do was feign innocence and malign me, both of which she was adept in doing.

“What choice do you have?” I pressed. “You can’t send

Liwei to your kin in the Phoenix Kingdom, not while they’re allied with the Celestial Kingdom.”

“He would have been safe there had he wed Princess

Fengmei. Do not presume to tell me what I can or cannot do. I don’t need you to protect my son.”

She jerked to her feet again, flicking down the skirt of her robe contemptuously. I had thought the urgency of the situation and her love for Liwei would suffice to persuade her. I had miscalculated, misjudged, tripped myself in my haste by bruising her pride. She would never let me—a nobody—appear to get the better of her. She would leave, for spite was a well that ran deep in her, and she would tell herself this was for Liwei’s sake.

Despair sank over me. Part of me wanted her to go, to

reject her loathsome terms. Yet she had read me better than I had read her. She wanted Liwei to be free of me, and nothing else I offered would suffice. And despite my

protests, she knew I would yield—for I could not toy with his life.

“Wait.” My voice was low. Unwilling. “For this to work, you must break the palace wards which bar me from entering.”

She turned around, her face alight with triumph. “Swear that you will end your relationship with Liwei forever. Swear to never tell anyone of this. Swear this on your mother’s life,” she demanded with ruthless cunning, “and it will be


Fury seared me, edged with pain. Yet her gloating

expression roused me from the depths of defeat. I would not be a fool; I would salvage whatever I could from this

wreckage. I would make her surrender something of value in return.

“I have not agreed to your terms,” I told her. “You have no choice.”

“I do. I can do nothing, and trust in your claim to keep

Liwei safe. If he dies, you will have failed him, you will have killed your own son.” I almost choked upon these vile words, but it sufficed that she flinched.

“What do you want?” she demanded. “I will not relent on my terms.”

“Swear this, then: to never harm my kin and me without just cause.” When she did not reply at once, I added quickly, “One other thing. A small ask, compared to yours.”

“What is it?” she hissed. “My patience is wearing thin.”

It must seem an innocuous request, not one driven from true need. “There is someone in the Celestial Kingdom who offended me greatly. I want you to find him and secure him in the same place as Liwei. I will deal with him myself.”

“What did he do?”

“You do not need to know.” A petty vengeance, to return her earlier words. “But you cannot harm him.”

A curt nod, her mood more agreeable. “Who is he?”

“Tao,” I told her. “His sister is the Keeper of Mortal Fates’

apprentice, but she is ignorant of this matter.” I did not want

to implicate her. All I wanted was the elixir, and I hoped it was not too late.

“A known troublemaker.” A speculative gleam shone in her eyes. “I have heard of this one.”

She had agreed too readily. I searched for something to bind her as irrevocably as she had done to me. Liwei was whom she loved the most, but I could not ask her to swear on his life. So, I would hold her instead to what she most


“Do this, and I will honor my promise to you. However, if

you break your word to me, our deal is void and I will be free of my vow. I will be free to marry Liwei, to take your place as the Celestial Empress.” She would hate the thought of me upon her throne as much as I would; she would do anything to prevent it from happening.

Her chin jutted out. “I will keep my word. You are a fool for ever imagining that you are good enough for him. You will never be the empress.”

“I have no desire to be one, especially seeing the joy it

gives you.” A brutal jab, but she had taken enough from me already. I had driven the hardest bargain I could, and still she had won.

Her face went pale, then flushed darkly. “Are we agreed?” “Yes.” The word left a bitter tang in my mouth.

It was done. Her lips stretched wide like those of a well-fed hyena. “Tomorrow evening. I will weaken the wards and you can enter the palace without fear of discovery. You may mask yourself in invisibility, do whatever you need to get to Liwei. I will keep my husband and Wugang occupied, but

you must dispatch the soldiers guarding my son. I cannot

dispose of them without suspicion. Be warned, I will offer no aid should you be caught. No one will take your word over mine.”

Her gaze shifted to the back of the teahouse where

Wenzhi sat. “The Demon must not accompany you into the palace; I can do nothing about the wards against his kind,

for those are crafted by my husband. Moreover, he cannot be linked to my son; they will accuse him of treachery and worse. You must take no chances with Liwei’s life, nor can there be any doubt that this is your doing.”

I forced my mind to clear, to untangle it from my emotions. “Where will Liwei be?”

“He has been moved to quarters east of the palace. I will ensure the thief will be placed with him. You must move swiftly, plan your escape well; you won’t have much time once the alarm is sounded.” Her tone pulsed with warning. “If anything happens to my son, you will pay a hundred times over.”

I bit down on the inside of my cheek, reining in my temper. “Do your part and I will do mine.”

Without another word, the empress stalked through the teahouse, disappearing through the doors. Only then did the tension inside me loosen, my forehead dropping onto my

palms, pain clawing my heart like she had raked her talons across it.

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