Chapter no 17

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Cloaked in invisibility, I flew above the walls of the Jade Palace. I held my breath, half expecting a trap—for the guards’ heads to snap up, their eyes squinted with

suspicion. Yet they remained at ease, fingers loosely clasped around their weapons. The empress had kept her word; the wards were down, though escape would be infinitely harder.

The rosewood lanterns were extinguished at this hour, the corridors bathed in shadow. With each step, the shells in my pouch clinked softly. I worked swiftly, placing one in the soldiers’ quarters near my old room, one in the garden

beyond. Another in the Outer Court, nestled between the

flat gray stones that formed the path. My chest tightened as I slipped into the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility, achingly still without Liwei except for the crash of the waterfall.

Memories beckoned, but I dared not linger, tucking a white shell between the roots of a peach-blossom tree. I left

quickly to hide another outside the empress’s courtyard, then two more in the Chamber of Reflection and the Hall of Eastern Light. One last shell I clutched in my sweat-slicked palm. With careful steps, I made my way to the Eastern Sun Courtyard, the Celestial Emperor’s quarters. During my

years in the Jade Palace I had never ventured there, only too glad to keep my distance.

The doors were adorned with gold filigree in an ornate scrollwork pattern, interspersed with discs of jade. I scaled the pale stone wall, dropping into the garden. The air seemed cooler, infused with threads of the emperor’s power.

Gingko trees shaded the vast garden, yellow lotuses

blooming upon a large pond. Crouching down, I tucked the final shell—a small crescent of ivory—between the satiny petals of a lotus. Rising to my feet, I summoned a cloud.

Soldiers would flood this place in a moment.

Raising the Jade Dragon Bow, I drew its cord, an arrow shining between my fingers. I silenced the caution in my mind, that of Wenzhi’s scathing disapproval—letting the arrow fly, blazing a trail through the dark. It struck a tree, light crackling over its bark, the leaves shivering as they

fell. Power tingled through my veins, surging free as a gale hurtled through the courtyard, tearing through the

branches, rippling the pond until the lotuses trembled. A spectacle, impossible to ignore. It had been a wild idea, uttered in jest—but what better way to draw every soldier in the palace? I would stir a tempest of chaos to mask our


Shouts broke the stillness. Slinging my bow over my shoulder, I whisked the flute to my lips, a song flowing

through the jade—the one I had gifted to Liwei. As footsteps pounded toward me, terror clung to my insides, my feet instinctively lifting for flight. I dug my heels back into the

ground. Not yet. I would keep my promise to be the empress’s willing scapegoat.

Stemming my breath, I halted the song. Boots thumped louder, a rush of auras descending as soldiers streamed into the courtyard, thankfully none of whom I recognized. Shouts rang out as they lunged at me, swords and spears glinting, hands raised to summon their power.

Magic surged from my fingertips, concealing my presence as my cloud shot into the skies. Below, the soldiers mounted their clouds, the quickest already soaring above in pursuit.

Plucking a tendril of air, I hurled it into the shell by the lotus pond—my song flowing from it, each note as clear as when I had played it earlier.

The soldiers closest to me stared at each other in

confusion, one gesturing wildly below. “The emperor’s courtyard. She’s there!” he cried.

“We saw her fly above,” another argued.

“A decoy! She must intend to harm His Celestial Majesty!”

I uttered a prayer of thanks for the last soldier’s misplaced conviction—as the rest swung around, their clouds

descending once more. They raced back into the courtyard to join those who had remained. Together, they trooped through the garden, hunting beneath the trees, trudging through the flower beds. A diligent soldier even wove

threads of magic into a glowing net to comb the pond,

perhaps imagining I was submerged within the dark waters.

The emperor’s elegant courtyard was utterly ravaged; mud slopping from the pond, lotuses ripped from their stems, rough holes pitting the ornamental path. A rash urge to laugh gripped me as I imagined His Celestial Majesty’s wrath, though this was small recompense to what we had suffered at his hands.

As the song ended, the soldiers stilled, muttering among themselves. Some stalked toward the entrance once more, others clambering onto their clouds. Ten long seconds I

counted silently, before flinging a dart of air into the shell in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility. The melody burst forth again, fainter this time, from farther away.

“His Highness’s courtyard! Quick!” Someone called out.

Footsteps thudded below, heading to my former

residence. More soldiers followed, drawn by the commotion, some of their clouds brushing so near, I dared not breathe.

Only after they had all descended and the skies were clear did my tension ease.

I strung the Celestial soldiers on this frantic chase, triggering one shell and then the next—my song winding in a ceaseless refrain through the courts, circling the palace walls itself. A dangerous game; one I could not afford to lose, and I was running out of time. Someone would figure it out, or I would make a careless slip. Exhaustion was stealing upon me, dulling my senses, weighing down my limbs. As the soldiers swarmed toward the western side of the palace, I made my way east, to where Liwei was held.

I slipped into the small courtyard lined with clusters of

bamboo, a lone crabapple tree shedding its pale petals upon the stone table beneath. Several guards were clustered

outside the entrance of a low building, more patrolling the grounds. They exchanged curious whispers, wondering at the chaos, yet remained at their posts.

A lantern within the room threw the silhouette of a man

across the window. Liwei. My heart leapt at the sight of him. I studied the courtyard, counting twelve guards on duty. I would have to move swiftly, mercilessly, to dispatch them

before they had a chance to cry out. A risk even then, as I quelled the remorse that rose in me. As I gathered my magic, a hand clamped down over mine. A stranger’s. I

grabbed her wrist to throw her off, but she twisted out of reach, catching my arm from the other side.

“Wait,” she whispered urgently. “It’s the change of shift; more guards are coming.” As she spoke, another dozen soldiers entered the courtyard.

I shook off her grip and faced her. Arched brows, a

delicate mouth, a slight flush to her skin. She looked like she had stepped out from one of those scroll paintings depicting the classic ideals of beauty. Something about her face seemed familiar, though I could not place her. A sword was strapped to her back and her dark garments blended into the night. As her head darted up, she raised a finger to her

lips in warning. Her movements were deft, with a fighter’s grace, which meant she must be trained. Yet she was no Celestial soldier, as eager as I was to avoid detection.

“Are you one of the empress’s guards?” I asked carefully.

The woman’s nose wrinkled. “The Celestial Empress would rather see me dead.”

Something we shared. I warmed to her, though my suspicions were still roused. “Why are you here?”

She glanced at the silhouette by the window. “To get him out. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

I nodded. “How do you know him?” “He’s an old friend.”

At the affection in her tone, my tension eased, though curiosity pricked me. I wanted to trust her, yet some

alliances were a fragile bond, snapping beneath the slightest weight.

Her gaze fell on my sword. “Now that we’ve decided not to kill each other, shall we work together?”

There was an arrogance to her manner like she had been born to privilege. “I have not decided anything,” I said


She shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. “Very well. You may dispatch all the guards on your own.”

I glared at her. “Can you handle your weapon?” “As well as you,” she returned.

“A battle, even a quick one, will draw attention. Someone might call for aid.”

“If you hold them steady, I can handle the rest,” she said confidently.

“Will you kill them all?” A slight tremor in my voice. She sighed. “Keep them still, and I will try not to.”

We waited till the first group of guards left the courtyard.

Only then did I unleash my magic, forming coils of wind,

encircling the guards and binding them tight. Their mouths gaped, their cries stifled as more layers of air wound around them like a cocoon. A struggle with twelve; my body tensing

from the strain. I glanced impatiently at the woman,

streams of glittering energy already flowing from her palms and swirling over the guards. They lingered across the

centers of their foreheads, the hollows of their necks, their wrists and knees. The guards struggled wildly at first— soundlessly—before going limp, their bodies slumping to the ground, their chests rising and falling in a steady rhythm.

“What did you do to them?” I asked.

“An enchantment on their meridians. If they had so much as twitched, it would have struck the wrong place.” Her nose wrinkled. “It would not have been pleasant.”

She was skilled in Life magic. Before I could ask her another question, the hairs on my skin sprang up, the sudden awareness of danger pressing upon me.

When had the music stopped?

“Quick!” I urged her. “We must hurry.”

Together we ran to the room, throwing the doors apart. Liwei was there and Tao too, his eyes widening in shock. Relief crashed over me as Liwei crossed the chamber and reached for me—but I reigned in my emotions, shaking my head.

“We must go.”

“You!” Tao gasped, his face ashen. “How did you—”

I stalked to him, grabbing his arm. “Do you have the elixir?”

Before he could reply, the woman’s voice rang out from behind me. “Release him!”

Her magic flashed, streaking toward me. Taken aback, I swung aside—too slow—as it struck the side of my neck, blisters erupting over the skin with stinging pain. Tao

wrenched himself free and darted away, cowering behind the woman. As Liwei pressed his palm to my wound,

channeling his power across it, the pain eased at once. My breathing came labored, shock mingling with anger at her unprovoked attack—along with a dawning realization.

I pointed at Tao. “You’re here for him.”

She opened her mouth, but then her head snapped to one side. I sensed it, too, the swell of auras beyond the

courtyard. The woman bolted outside, pulling Tao after her,

Liwei and I racing after them. As a large cloud swooped down, summoned by Liwei, we sprang upon it. Celestial

soldiers called out, gesturing at us—a few already climbing upon their clouds to give chase. My energy flowed forth as I wove an invisibility enchantment, shielding us from sight as we soared toward the eastern gate. Turning around, I hurled eight bolts of flame into the shells across the palace,

burning them to cinders and ash. I would not draw the

emperor’s wrath to Master Bingwen and the Southern Sea.

Liwei’s power merged with mine, channeling a gale that sped us onward. As we neared the eastern gate, I braced for battle, for the guards there to try to stop us—yet it was strangely abandoned, no one rushing forth in pursuit as we shot into the skies. If this was the empress’s doing, I was

glad for her foresight.

Only after the Celestial Kingdom’s borders were far behind us did I allow myself to relax. My heart was beating much too quickly as my gaze met Liwei’s. Without speaking, he

closed the distance between us and pulled me into his arms. I softened against him, inhaling his scent. A lightness spilled through me, the relief of being with him again, though it was speared by dread of what would come.

I pushed away from him, ignoring the sharp pang in my chest—my vow to the empress ringing through my mind. I

dared not allow myself even this indulgence. Liwei dropped his arms and stepped away, his eyes shadowed with hurt.

Reluctant to answer his unspoken question—to lie—I turned to Tao, only to find a cloud sweeping beside ours as the woman leapt upon it, Tao’s hand clasped in hers.

I lunged forth, seizing Tao’s other wrist. “Who are you?

What do you want?” I demanded of her. “It’s none of your concern.”

“It is, when he stole from me,” I shot back.

“You must be angry at me,” Tao began.

Angry does not capture it when I have been lied to, cheated, and left with the blame.” I rounded upon him. “Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t intend to! I believed there were two elixirs, not one,” he stammered.

As I recalled his strange reaction when he opened the box, a little of my anger dissipated. “Where is the elixir?”

“I … I no longer have it.”

I breathed deeply, fighting for calm. I had earned the

elixir, bled for it as he had. Perhaps, if he had not tried to cheat me … it was no use thinking of that; the only thing

that mattered was retrieving the elixir, if it was not too late. “Tell me where it is.”

Tao’s tongue flicked over his lips as his eyes darted toward the woman. I swung to her. “He gave it to you. Is that why

you’re helping him?”

“Release him, before I make you regret it.” Menace coiled in her voice as she raised her hand, a wave of glittering magic rushing through the air.

I sprang back to evade it, letting go of Tao. At once the woman pulled him over to her cloud. As they soared away, I whipped the Jade Dragon Bow free, training it upon the

fleeing pair, a beam of light pulsing between my fingers— “No.” Liwei moved in front of me.

“What are you doing? They’re getting away!” I cried out in frustration.

“Xingyin, I know her.” An unfamiliar eagerness pulsed in his voice as his magic surged forth, ropes of flame lashing around the woman’s cloud and dragging it back to ours.

As her face contorted in fury, she raised her hand to

attack us again—just as Liwei called out, “Sister Zhiyi, it is good to see you again.”

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