Chapter no 18

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Sister?” I repeated in disbelief, examining the woman more closely.

After Liwei’s greeting, she had frozen, eyes widening as she stared at him. Something nagged at me just as before, an elusive twinge of recognition—a memory surfacing in my mind like the chords of a forgotten song.

“Liwei, is she the woman in your painting? Your childhood friend who moved away?” I had wondered about the scroll by his desk, when I first came to the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility.

“Yes.” He smiled with such joy, despite the strain of the night, my spirits lightened. “I did not see her clearly at first, and it has been many years since we last met.”

The woman—Zhiyi—strode onto our cloud, searching Liwei’s face. “Liwei?” His name came out tentatively yet

with undeniable tenderness. “There was only one person who called me ‘Sister.’ It has been so long … you were a child when I left.”

I lowered my bow, the arrow vanishing. Whoever she was, she was dear to him and no enemy of mine. “Is she truly

your sister?” I asked Liwei.

“We are not really siblings. I was a child when I knew her.

It seemed impolite to call her by name, as she was my elder, yet ‘Aunt’ did not seem to fit.”

Zhiyi shuddered. “Definitely not ‘Aunt.’ Now you are grown-up, just my name is fine.” Her gaze slid to the

ground. “How are your parents? Your father, His Celestial Majesty?”

“In good health when he ordered my imprisonment,” Liwei said tersely.

“But you are his favorite; the one who can do no wrong.” She pressed a fist to her mouth, as though fearing she had said too much. How readily she spoke of the emperor’s

relationship with Liwei, like she had turned it over in her mind countless times before.

“Who are you?” My tone was quiet but firm.

“Tell them,” Tao urged her. “Maybe she won’t kill me then,” he muttered, throwing a wary glance at me.

Zhiyi hesitated. “Liwei, I should have told you this before. I wanted to but was afraid of her.”

“Who do you mean?” he asked.

“The Celestial Empress. Your mother. She ordered me to not speak of it.”

I kept my gaze on her as I gathered my energy stealthily. I did not think she meant us harm now, yet my instincts had failed me before. I would balance them with what I knew: that for some reason, the empress had deemed this person a threat to her son.

Liwei frowned. “Why would she do that?”

I stared at her face, those eyes—the same shape as

Liwei’s and as dark as midnight. I was a fool to not have noticed before. “She is your sister,” I breathed.

“Half-sister,” she corrected me, turning to Liwei. “Your father is my father too. Ever since I was a child, your mother detested me. It was partly my fault. I was stubborn, and not as respectful as I should have been to my stepmother. You

and I weren’t close at first. You were the favored one, the

precious heir.” Her words fell out like they had been held in for a long time.

“I must have been insufferable,” he said wryly.

“You were not. I envied you for taking what I thought was mine, for our father’s attention. I was young. Foolish, in so many ways.” She touched his arm. “Only later did I grow to love you. It pained me that I could not tell you who I was.”

“Why did you leave? I searched for you, but no one would tell me where you had gone,” he told her.

She dabbed the corners of her eyes with her sleeve. “Cursed tears, this is a happy day. They did not tell you

because of the disgrace. I could not remain in the Immortal Realm after I chose to wed a mortal. Even if Father had

permitted it, the Celestial Court would have made life a misery for us.”

“A mortal,” Liwei repeated with surprise. “Are you … happy?”

“More than I ever imagined.” A radiant smile lit her face. It vanished abruptly when she bent her head toward me. “And who are you? What claim do you have on the elixir?”

I pushed aside my reluctance to disrupt this tender moment, my fears for my father roused anew. “Tao and I stole the elixir together, then he stole it from me. Now it is mine,” I said plainly.

Beside me, Liwei stiffened. “You stole it?”

“I did not tell you. I was afraid you would stop me,” I admitted to him.

“I would have tried,” he said grimly. “What if you were caught?”

“I had to do this. My father is ill,” I explained.

As Liwei’s face darkened, Zhiyi shook her head. “I need the elixir for my husband. His mortal years are running out.”

Guilt assailed me, mingled with stark hope. “You have the elixir still? You haven’t given it to your husband?”

“Oh, I tried,” she ground out. “He would not take it, sensing something awry from Tao’s expression. The thief is

not quite as skilled a liar.”

“Would you return the elixir to me?” I hardened myself, for my need was no less great. An amicable agreement seemed impossible when neither of us could be impartial, weighing my father’s life against her husband’s. But could I really

fight Liwei’s sister for the elixir?

“Why is the elixir not Tao’s if you stole it together?” she countered.

“He forfeited his rights the moment he took it from me,” I replied.

Her mouth drew taut. “Do you know how long I’ve waited for this? Do you think immortal peaches and elixirs grow on trees?”

“Immortal peaches do grow on trees,” Tao interjected.

She glared at him, so ferociously, he shrank back. “I mean growing wild, on trees like those.” She flung her hand out at the forest we were flying over. “My husband and I are on

borrowed time.”

“I risked my life for the elixir; I earned it. If you wanted it, you should have gone yourself.” I did not speak unkindly but merely recounted the facts, appealing to her sense of fairness—innate in Liwei, perhaps it lay in her as well.

She bit her lip. “I could not enter the Jade Palace; I am no longer permitted to.”

We stared at each other, unrelentingly—I could be selfish too. After a long silence, she reached into her sleeve, pulling out the white jade bottle. It gleamed in her hand, its gold stopper catching the sunlight. Her jaw clenched as she thrust it at me. “Take it. He will not drink it anyway, not if it was tricked from another. Cursed honor.”

I accepted the bottle, clutching it tight. My spirits lifted, even as a new weight sank over them—a heavy burden to have taken the one thing that could save her beloved. And in truth, she did not have to return it to me. Despite her harsh words, this was a gift.

“Thank you.” My voice was raw with emotion. “My father is dying in the world below, and I am almost out of time.”

“Time,” she repeated, with a trace of sadness. “How strange, that we are fighting over what every immortal is born caring nothing for. While for the mortals, wars are waged, lives lost in the pursuit of eternity. An impossible dream for all except a handful.”

“I wish we could both have the elixir,” I told her honestly. “I don’t blame you. Make no mistake, if my husband had

fewer scruples, that elixir would be gone and I’d have felt little remorse.” Her tone softened. “But he would not be who he is, either, and I have some time yet.”

“I will repay you,” I promised, without having the faintest idea how. “If there is another elixir, I will help you obtain it.”

“Thank you,” she said gravely.

We both knew it was an unlikely pledge, yet I did not mean it any less.

“I must go,” Zhiyi said. “The chickens and cows will not feed themselves. I came because Tao’s sister sent a message that he was in danger.”

“Chickens? Cows?” I had imagined her living in some

palace or grand manor as befitted the emperor’s daughter, even one in disfavor.

She laughed. “Does it sound so terrible? I do not mind my life. Titles, crowns, and palaces come with a price of their

own,” she added darkly.

Her words resonated with me. Once I had dreamed Liwei and I might be so free, and now … we never would.

Shortly after, she left with Tao upon her cloud. Alone with Liwei, emotions flooded me—relief that he was safe,

punctured by despair.

“Are you glad you found your sister?” A clumsy attempt to delay the inevitable.

“Yes. To learn I have a sibling is a precious thing.” He studied my face. “You seem sad, Xingyin. Aren’t you happy about the elixir?”

“I wish it had not come at the price of her happiness.” It was one part of the truth.

“As do I. But she would not want your guilt,” he said gently. “Reach for the joy you have, revel in it. For it is scarce enough in the world.”

If only I could.

“How are your mother and Ping’er?” he asked.

Grief surged, crowding my throat and eyes. “Ping’er is … dead.”

He grasped my hands. “What happened?”

“Wugang led the Celestial attack on the moon. He killed her.” I breathed deeply, fighting for calm.

“I am sorry, Xingyin.” He bent his head to graze mine. “She was like family to you. I will miss her too.”

“She was family.”

Shadows crept between us—slithering, dark, and opaque. Yet again, his father’s command had torn my family apart.

“Where is your mother? Is she safe?” Liwei asked.

I nodded numbly. “She is in the Southern Sea. We took Ping’er’s body to her family there.”

“She would have wanted that.” He hesitated, before saying, “Thank you. You saved me again.”

“Did you not say we should not thank each other?” I smiled, my first real one in a long time.

He thought for a moment. “Perhaps I was wrong. Thanking you brings me joy too.”

His hands slid up my arms, drawing me close. I should have pulled away, but I was weak after the turmoil of the past days. Leaning against him, my head settled into the curve of his neck. The feel of him, so familiar yet thrilling,

almost undid my resolve. Blood rushed to my head, my skin tingling with the awareness of him. How I wanted to press myself against the warmth of his skin as we fell upon the soft folds of the cloud. My heart quickened, my arms tightening around him, before I forced them to loosen.

It would be nothing more than a final farewell, delaying the inevitable hurt. I pulled away, hating myself for the

confusion that flashed across his face. His body tensed as his hands fell to his sides. Surely he wondered at the change in my behavior, so different from how I had been on the moon.

As loose strands of his hair fell across his brow, I

suppressed the urge to brush them away. He was not mine; he never would be again. His mother had made sure of that. I thought I could bear it as long as he was safe, but this was far harder than I had imagined.

I braced myself, my skin damp with dread. “I cannot marry you.”

His eyes went wide and dark. “Why?”

I stumbled over the words, for the empress had bound me to lies. “The rift between our families. I thought we could

overcome it, but I was wrong.” The empress’s accusations held a grain of truth that I had never let myself examine, afraid of what I might find. These seeds of doubt had been sown long before, from the moment I fell in love with my

enemy’s son.

“Our parents are not us. I will find a way to make things right.”

As he stepped toward me, I moved away. “Your father tricked mine into surrendering his immortality. Trapped him into a mortal existence.” Anger seared me as I forged

onward, using the truth as a shield. “What of my mother’s imprisonment? The attack on my home? Ping’er’s death? How can I marry into your family when yours only wants to destroy mine?”

The cold vehemence in my voice was that of a stranger’s.

I had never spoken to him this way before, not even when we had fought in the Willow Song Pavilion—when he

accused me of deception and worse. It was not easy; I hurt too. Yet I used every remnant of resolve, every scrap of

resentment I ever bore against his kin to bind myself

together—my nails digging into my palm, stinging, as the skin broke.

Liwei shook his head. “This is not like you, Xingyin. What is the matter? There is nothing you can’t tell me and whatever it is, we can work it out together.”

He was wrong; there was no way forward for us. I had sworn on my mother’s life, and I had done so to keep him safe. I racked my mind for something more to say, something that would irrevocably destroy all we had fought for, all that we were—even though it would break my own heart.

“The way things are … we can never be together.” My words emerged fractured.

“Is it him?” Liwei’s voice was low.

Wenzhi. Who else could he mean?

Liwei’s expression hardened as he leaned away to study my face. “You can’t forget him.” A statement, not a

question. Laced with sadness and irrefutable knowing.

My throat went dry. I smothered my instinctive protest as my mind raced. A torment to see his pain, even as I hurt too

—yet this might be the only way I could fulfill my vow to the empress. Even then I could not choke out the false

admission … in the end, my silence serving as a louder confession than anything else might.

“It is why you let him visit you, why you kept your

distance from me in the past year. You did not pull away but neither did you come forward. Even after all he did”—he

paused, holding my gaze—“you still want him.”

I flinched inwardly, looking away—whether from confusion or guilt, I no longer knew. Lies and truths, interwoven so tight I could no longer tell them apart.

“I’m sorry.” Somehow, I managed to keep myself steady, watching the light in his eyes dwindle until the black was all that remained. How I hated myself for giving Liwei cause to believe this so readily of me, for hurting him, for hurting us.

“What will you do?” he asked.

“Nothing. I cannot be with him after what he did.” A relief, to speak honestly at last. “But you deserve better than a

divided heart, as do I.”

“It would be enough for me.” He spoke with such intensity, it stole my breath. “I could help you forget him. We could go back to what we were.”

“No,” I made myself say. “We cannot rewrite the past, nor can we foresee the future. It would not be fair to make

promises we cannot keep.”

He raised a hand to my face, his fingers trailing slowly

down my cheek. “I told you once, my heart is yours, that it will always be yours. I hope one day you will want it again.”

He moved away from me then, clasping his hands behind his back as he stared into the horizon. The ache in my chest sharpened, almost splintering apart. Just ahead, the curve of the Southern Sea glittered. Before entering its waters, Liwei cast an invisibility enchantment over himself, disguising his aura. Perhaps the guards had grown accustomed to my

presence, for they no longer appeared to escort us through the passageway. Yet I would take no chances, channeling my magic to mask Liwei’s presence from those guarding the


One of them halted me. “What spell is this?”

I stared pointedly at his cloak of dragon yarn. “To keep myself dry. I am tired of getting drenched every time I come through here.”

He waved me aside, his eyes glazing over with disinterest. I strode past him, hiding my relief. The grounds were not as well secured as those of the Jade Palace, because few made their way here without Queen Suihe’s permission.

In the Bright Pearl Palace, I led Liwei to my chamber, halting outside the door. “You may have my room.”

“We are not strangers,” he said with cool civility. “Surely we can stay in the same room together. Take the bed, I will not disturb you.”

I shook my head. It was not him but myself I did not trust.

I left then, making my way to my mother’s room.

Her smile vanished when she saw me. “Xingyin, what is the matter? Why do you look so upset?”

I said nothing, just hugged her tight, catching a trace of the osmanthus that somehow clung to her still. Her arms went around me, her palm stroking the back of my head, just as she used to when I was a child in need of comfort. She did not ask again, nor did I speak—silence was our language of grief.

I had slain monsters, fought vicious enemies, been stabbed and speared and burned—yet the torments of the heart were no less excruciating. Perhaps those who brought us greatest joy, also wielded the power to inflict the most suffering. I did not know how long I wept, until at last my

breathing calmed and I lay still.

My mother brushed aside the damp strands of hair from my face. “This pain you feel … you might believe that you will never recover. And while it might always hurt, the pain will fade a little more each time—until one day, there will be no more tears. Just the memories and the hope, that you might find some joy in them again.”

She was well schooled in suffering. What anguish she must have endured when she first came to the moon, separated from her husband, knowing she would never see him again.

I pulled myself up, wiping away the last of my tears. This was no time to wallow in self-pity. My father needed me. The world below held countless dangers for a mortal: accidents, wild beasts, illnesses that swept in like dust carried by the wind. My fingers brushed the jade bottle tucked into my sleeve. Something stirred in my veins, a precious hope

blooming within the void of my chest, one that had haunted all the days of my life. Too fragile to be spoken aloud as I

dared not tempt the vagaries of fate—that even as my own

heart was broken, I might be able to heal those of my parents.

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