Chapter no 16

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Our cloud climbed the skies toward the Southern Sea, leaving the Mortal Realm behind. The night was sunken in

gloom, devoid of moonlight, for who would tend the lanterns now my mother had gone? Certainly none who could do it as well. While I had helped her on occasion, the lanterns flared brightest upon my mother’s touch, their light purer and more luminous. What did the mortals make of these dark nights? Soothsayers and fortune-tellers must have been summoned to many a royal court to decipher this mystery, all likely concluding that such a thing was an ill omen indeed.

They would not be wrong.

“That went well.” Wenzhi’s mouth tilted into a wry smile. “By well, I mean the empress did not command her guards to arrest you, nor did you draw a weapon.”

“It was close,” I said tightly. “We were always a breath away from attacking each other.”

“You might want to reconsider the family you are marrying into.”

“I will not be marrying into that family.”

As he stilled, his eyes darkening—I added hastily, “Don’t be so quick to judge when your family has their own


“I don’t recall offering my family as an alternative,” he countered lightly.

I flushed, turning from him. “The empress agreed to help Liwei escape. I will get him out.”

We will get him out,” he corrected me.

“No, I must go alone,” I told him flatly. The empress would not have lied, not for this—she would want me to succeed, especially after securing my vow. “The palace is warded

against your people. I can’t risk Liwei being accused of conspiring with the Demon Realm.”

“You would rather get caught? Because of what people might say?” he asked tersely.

“Your presence might be what gets us caught,” I told him. “You can’t do this alone. Every soldier will be on the alert.

Who will speak for you should trouble arise?” He stepped closer to me, and I made myself hold my ground. “Don’t punish yourself for what happened on the moon, for what you think were your mistakes. You don’t need to save

everyone in some misguided attempt to right these wrongs, out of a sense of obligation.”

“I’m not doing this out of duty. I want to save Liwei, more than anything.” My voice was hoarse with suppressed


His expression shuttered. “I spoke out of turn. I know your feelings for him.”

I looked away, the hurt inflicted by the empress still raw. For even if I succeeded, she had ensured that I would still lose. “I have a plan. There will be no danger.”

When he stared at me, unspeaking, arms folded across his chest, I added, “Maybe just a little danger.”

“Don’t be a fool.” Wenzhi’s tone dropped dangerously low. “Don’t call me a fool when the worst thing I ever did was

to trust you,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t imagine

you alone have all the answers. I have seen and done as much as you, I have guarded your back as you did mine. I tricked you once, and would do it again.”

We glared at each other, our robes fluttering in the breeze, the wind teasing our hair. His eyes shone so brightly, the only stars in this bleak night.

“You are right. I am the fool for imagining anything could change.” He held my gaze. “Tell me, then, how you will invade the Jade Palace singlehandedly with just a little

danger.” A shred of humor lifted his words.

“There will be no invasion. I intend to draw their attention away, like you did the last time, except within the palace


“If only I had not helped you then,” he said with feeling. “Causing a small diversion at the gate is not the same thing as wreaking turmoil in the heart of the Jade Palace. What will you do?”

“Shoot a few arrows into the Hall of Eastern Light?” I stifled a laugh at the expression on his face, equal parts incredulous and anxious. While the thought had crossed my mind—undoubtedly satisfying—it would be dangerous

beyond measure. “I don’t have a plan yet,” I admitted. “But I will.”

He inclined his head. “I did not mean to offend you earlier.

You might be somewhat reckless at times, though never a fool.”

Something stirred in my chest that I quelled. Silence fell between us as we entered the Southern Sea, making our way through the watery tunnel. The guards at the entrance did not question us when we displayed our pearls for their inspection. As we strode to the palace, a shell caught my

eye. Snow white, spiraling into a cone, just like the one I had given Liwei. As I crouched down to pick it up, a memory surfaced, of the vendor proudly displaying his wares in the

Celestial market.

These were picked from the deepest waters in the

Southern Sea … enchanted to capture your favorite sound, music, or even a loved one’s voice.

My mind spun with the beginnings of an idea. I stopped the first Sea Immortal passing by, a plump woman draped in lilac brocade. “Is there a merchant here who sells shells?

Enchanted ones?”

She blinked, taken aback by my urgency. “Master Bingwen owns the shop by the coral fountain. You will recognize his store when you see it.”

As I thanked her, Wenzhi stared dubiously at the shells strewn around us. “Why would anyone want to buy one of those here?”

“Not everyone can do what he does.”

Away from the palace, the streets widened, lined by undulating fronds of jade-green seaweed, interspersed with coral in jeweled tones. The walls of the buildings shimmered with a pearlescent hue, their arched rooftops adorned with delicate sculptures of sea creatures in turquoise, gold, and silver. Circular gateways opened into lush courtyards, though a few remained locked behind gates of lacquered wood. As a soft rush of water drifted through the air, we followed its trail to find a fountain formed of azure and lilac coral.

An elegant building was situated beside it, its mahogany pillars carved with a pattern of shells. The latticed windows were shut as was the door, but I rapped on it, my nerves frayed. When there was no response, I pushed against the wooden panel that swung open smoothly. At the entrance, I hesitated—reluctant to enter without an invitation, yet I had little time to waste. It was dark within, a damp heaviness

clinging to the air, clogging my lungs with each breath. Glittering flecks darted through the air like fireflies, and red lacquered chests of drawers were pushed against the walls.

Glancing down, my eyes widened to find the floor submerged beneath a layer of luminous seawater. Its

glowing tendrils crept up the sides of the drawers, seeping into the wood like shining veins. Bracing myself, I stepped into the room, the ice-cold water sloshing around my ankles. At once, a brightness suffused the chamber, the lanterns hanging from the ceiling flaring to life.

“The store is closed. Who are you?” an irate voice demanded.

An immortal strode in from a doorway at the far end, the broad-faced merchant from the Celestial market. As he

caught sight of me, his forehead furrowed like he was trying to recall something.

“The musician!” A smile broke across his face as he came forward, wading easily through the water. “I never forget a face. Especially not someone I made a good trade with.”

I had met him only once, years ago. Yet his features were etched in my memory too—one of those encounters that left a mark, no matter how fleeting. I raised my cupped hands to him in greeting. “Master Bingwen, I hope you will excuse our intrusion.”

“Customers are always welcome.” He waved at the water lapping around us. “I apologize for the inconvenience. It is necessary for the enchantment to take root, how the shells retain their sound. This was why the store was shut today.” He paused. “Now, tell me, how may I help you?”

“I have urgent need of a few shells.”

His eyes twinkled beneath raised brows. “Urgent need? I can’t recall anyone ever requiring my wares so pressingly. What do you have to exchange today?”

If only I had kept a little of the gold, silver, and precious stones that found their way to me. But there were few needs immortals could not satisfy on our own, whether

coaxing a tree to bear fruit or conjuring water from the

purest spring. It was whether we chose to make the effort,

as drawing upon our magic was often more tiring than using our hands.

I pulled my flute from my pouch, twirling it once between my fingers. “The same trade as before?”

“A song for a shell,” he agreed. “How many do you need?” “Eight. The smaller and plainer, the better.”

“Done.” Master Bingwen clasped his hands as he hurried to a chest, tugging its drawers open.

“What enchantment is in these shells?” Wenzhi asked.

“They can retain any sound that can be replayed at will.” “How did you learn of it?”

I did not answer right away. The morning Liwei and I had spent wandering through the market was one of my most cherished memories, one of our few days of unsullied happiness together. “I met Master Bingwen at the Celestial market, where I exchanged a song for a shell.”

“He got the better end of the deal,” Wenzhi remarked.

Master Bingwen returned, balancing two trays in his hands. “For your selection.” He offered me one of the trays crammed with shells of white, gray, and pink, each no larger than my thumbnail. The other, which he set aside, had only eight exquisite shells, with elegant curves and graceful spires. Some were spiked or dusted with gold or silver,

others with the radiant blush of a sunset.

I drew out my flute, my gaze sliding to Wenzhi’s. “You don’t have to listen.”

“It would be an honor.” It was what he had said when I offered to play for him the first time. He spoke with no

anger, just a small smile on his face as he added, “Though I will be more cautious about accepting a cup from you.”

My eyes narrowed. “Caution, is a lesson we have both


As he settled himself upon a wooden stool, his palms

resting upon his knees, I looked away from him, drawing my attention inward. The song must be flawless, for I would

earn this trade. As I lifted the jade instrument to my lips, its familiar touch calmed me. Taking a deep breath, I released it to flow into the flute, the melody thrumming with the joy of

spring awakening, the warmth in the air, the birds bursting into song. The next was a plaintive melody, each note ringed with sorrow, reverberating with loss. I kept my mind on the tune, not daring to think about its meaning, for then the frail hold over my emotions might snap. Eight songs I

played, into the eight shells before me, my emotions swelling and crashing with the rise and fall of the melodies— until at last, I was spent.

As the final note faded, the merchant bowed. “Thank you.

I confess I have obtained the better bargain once more.” “That you did,” Wenzhi agreed, his eyes alight.

I returned Master Bingwen’s bow. “It was a fair trade. The best kind.”

As Wenzhi and I left the shop, heading back to the palace, I clutched the silk-wrapped package of shells in my hands.

“What will you do with them?” he wanted to know.

“A decoy,” I said slowly, unraveling the plan in my mind. “To make the soldiers think I’m where I am not.”

He halted in his tracks, facing me. “Let me help. Let me go with you,” he asked again.

“You can’t. And I find it hard to believe you’re eager to help Liwei,” I said, concealing my own trepidation.

He made an impatient sound. “Not for him; for you.” “You must not follow me,” I told him.

“If that is what you wish. Though there is one thing I want in exchange for my … compliance.”

“I would rather—”

“Just a promise, in exchange for mine. That you’ll stay alive.” A corner of his mouth lifted. “What did you think I would ask for?”

Heat crept across the back of my neck. “I fully intend on staying alive.”

“If anyone hurts you, they will regret it,” he declared ominously. “But it is a good plan,” he conceded.

High praise from one who had plotted each step so meticulously that he had fooled the Celestials for years, and

betrayed me so thoroughly. We were on civil terms, now. Allies, almost? Yet whenever he spoke, I could not help weighing his words for deceit. Trust was infinitely easier to destroy than restore.

Still, I had to know one thing that ate away at me whenever I saw him. “The Celestial soldiers who marched to your border—would you have killed them all?”

“No,” he answered without hesitation. “The mist was meant to confound them, to make them easier to subdue. Hostages are of greater use, to force the Celestial

Kingdom’s surrender. Some would have died, an unavoidable circumstance of war, but I would have spared those I could. The effects of the mist were unexpected in the chaos of battle—inflaming bloodlust, inciting violence. I take no pleasure in tormenting others. That is my brother’s specialty.”

The mist had affected me too. I had been disoriented, frightened, confused, until the Black Dragon bore me to safety—but felt no urge to hurt another.

His gaze bored into mine. “Did you really think I intended to kill them all?”

“Yes,” I said bluntly. “For I did not think you would lie, steal, and imprison me either.”

“I would have released you after the battle with the

Celestials; I could not risk our soldiers’ safety before.” He paused, speaking with emphasis, “I am sorry, Xingyin.”

“Would you do it again?” I demanded. “If so, you do not truly regret it.”

“I am glad to be free of my brother’s control, that those I care for are safe. I feel no remorse in betraying the Celestial Kingdom—they are my enemy; they have hurt and

threatened us. In the end, both our kingdoms have wronged each other and there were no true heroes in that war.” His expression turned contemplative. “The Celestials are the

glittering saviors of the realms, sweeping in to destroy monsters, graciously lending a hand to allies, dispensing aid

which varnishes their glory—yet how often have they ignored those no less in need? Why do they get to dictate who is evil and not? While there is good in what they have done, as much wrong has been concealed.”

His words struck deep. I thought of my mother’s

punishment, my father’s exile, the dragons’ imprisonment— of how long Xiangliu had been left to terrorize the villagers, the sunbirds destroying the Mortal Realm. Was it a callous

cruelty or indifference? To cultivate desperation, so the savior might be twice as celebrated? Yet I said nothing,

giving no hint that our thoughts might be aligned—not liking these unsettling emotions he roused in me.

“Yes, you know well the power of perception. How easily you vilified me when it suited your needs,” I said instead. Scorn was a useful shield.

“If they believed ill of you so quickly, their good opinion is not worth having.”

“You should hear what they say of you.” A petty response for I had none else.

He shrugged. “It does not bother me. The only opinions that matter are from those I care for. Yours, for one.”

“You would not like to hear my thoughts.”

He tilted his head toward me. “Is that an invitation?” I recoiled at once. “Never.”

“I would not, without your consent, but I confess to being most intrigued.”

“You would be sorely disappointed,” I retorted.

A faint smile. “Perhaps. Though I hope you are mistaken.” As my throat went dry, I forced my mind to safer ground.

“The Celestial Emperor might be wrong, but that does not make you right.”

“At least we do not portray ourselves to be the heroes we are not.” He added pointedly, “I feel no shame for defending ourselves, just as you did not when fighting against those invading your home.” A breath slid from him, soft and

drawn. “I do not regret the fruits of my endeavors, but I wish I had done it differently.”

“Why?” I asked without thinking.

“You know why. As much as you try to ignore it, to pretend what lies between us does not exist.” The ache in his tone

caught at me against my will, against all sense.

“You say these things because you want what you can’t have. You just want to ‘win,’ ” I said harshly, echoing what Liwei had said once.

“Oh, I could have had you.” He spoke with infuriating

assurance. “I could have taken you and your beloved that day by the Jade Palace. A tempting thought, and I would

have done it, if all I had wanted was to ‘win.’ I want so much more than that; I want you to want me, too.”

I swallowed hard, reminding myself of his capacity for deceit. “You want the impossible.”

“You are stubborn, Xingyin. Except you are not as indifferent to me as you claim to be.”

Anger seared, and I was glad to cling to it. “Even if I felt

anything for you, it would not matter. I could never trust you again.”

“You trust me enough to guard your back,” he pointed out. “I trust that you do not want me dead. At least, not yet.

When we want different things—that is the moment when trust really matters, when its true worth shines,” I said


He stepped closer, his sleeve grazing mine, his voice

deepening with intensity. “Believe this, then—for I swear it upon my family, my kingdom, and my honor. When I won the crown and lost you, it was a hollow victory. I regretted all that was lost between us, all I had destroyed—for nothing was worth losing you.”

He spoke with such fire and passion, so different from his usual restraint—kindling something in me that I struggled to suppress. And though the walls I had built against him went wide and high, his words still pierced my heart. I rebuked

myself for my wavering resolve. If I had learned anything from the past, it was that promises were easily made, twisted, and broken. I was no longer an easy dupe; I would accept his help, and no more.

“Don’t speak to me of such things. They belong in the

past.” The barest quaver shook my voice, which I hoped he did not hear.

His eyes searched my face. “Can’t we leave the rest in the past, too—the hate, mistrust, and lies?”

“No, we cannot. Do not ask me for more than I can give.” “I will be happy with any part that you will give me.

Though it will not stop me hoping for more, for all of you, however long it takes.”

I did not reply, ignoring the quickening of my pulse as I strode ahead. And though I could feel his gaze upon my back, I did not turn. I would not allow such emotions to

cloud my heart or dull my resolve. For the path before me was fraught with danger, and even should I succeed, rife with pain.

Yet one thought burrowed into my consciousness, that while nothing Wenzhi said or did could excuse what he had done, while he had never been the honorable immortal I had once thought he was … neither was he quite the monster I had believed him to be.

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