Chapter no 19

Heart of the Sun Warrior

The sky was aglitter with stars, as though the heavens were trying to distract from the absence of the moon. Following the directions my father had given me, I made my way to his home—the whitewashed walls gleaming against the slate gray roof. As I approached, light flared from a window, throwing my shadow across the ground. Had he sensed me, though I’d made no sound? After all, he was no ordinary mortal.

The wooden door swung open. He stood in the entrance, the glow from the lantern casting a sheen of gold over his silver hair. At the sight of me, he blinked as though taken aback, even though few things could catch him unaware.

“You came.” His tone lifted with surprise as he stepped aside to let me in.

Did he think I would not? Eager to shed the burden of a mortal parent, easily forgotten in the realm where the years had no meaning and illness dared not trespass? He did not know me, but we had time. All the time in the world.

His house was furnished with an elegance that was

unexpected, given its unassuming exterior. A blue-and-white porcelain tea set was laid on a table of prized zitan wood, its

barrel-shaped stools tucked beneath. Scroll paintings hung from the walls, some depicting scenes of temples and

pavilions amid lush pine forests. One caught my eye, of a woman—my mother—I realized with a start. Not the

goddess flying among the clouds in ornate silk robes, as the mortals often depicted her—but clad in a plain robe, standing in a garden of peonies. The artist had captured the graceful curves of her face, the tilt of her eyes, and more than that, the radiance in her expression. Mortal and incandescently happy.

I inhaled sharply, catching the scent of incense in the air.

Only then did I notice the lacquered altar before the

painting, laid with plates of pears, oranges, and sponge cakes. A brass burner sat among them, crowded with incense sticks already burned down.

“Why this? Mother is alive,” I blurted.

He stared at the painting, his shoulders hunching inward. “They say the incense smoke carries our prayers to the

gods. I did not think it was true, yet I lit them every day in hopes my words would somehow find their way to her.”

It was a trait we both shared: dreaming of the impossible, reaching for it all the same. Something caved in my chest.

For all these decades, despite the irrevocability of their parting—my parents had yearned for each other. The

sorrow, regret, and misunderstanding that tainted their past had not diminished their love.

“Father, you do not need the incense. You will see Mother again soon. You can tell her yourself.”

Light flared in his pupils, impossibly bright. “Did you find the elixir?”

I pulled the jade bottle from my sleeve and offered it to him with both my hands. As the filigree goldwork in the stopper caught the candlelight, it glowed like it was afire.

“This belongs to the Celestial Emperor. How did you get it?” he asked hoarsely.

“I stole it.” I felt no shame in taking the elixir from the

emperor, though I had been drowned in remorse to accept it from Zhiyi. His Celestial Majesty had taken enough from my family: my father’s immortality, my mother’s freedom, and now our home.

“It was a great risk, my daughter,” he said gravely.

I smiled in reply. I would not tell him what I had risked for this; there was no need to burden his conscience. It was

enough that he would be restored to us.

He took the bottle and tugged out its stopper. The scent of peaches wafted forth, so lush and indulgent, my senses were drenched in it. Closing his eyes, he lifted the bottle to his lips and tipped it all the way back, his throat convulsing with each swallow. He moved without hesitation, with an

eager impatience. After all, he had waited over half his life for this.

Silence fell, punctured only by our breaths. I kept my head down, almost afraid to look up. Light stroked the walls in rich shades of amber. Had the sun risen? My gaze darted to the windows. No, it was still dark, not a glimmer of dawn on the horizon.

As my father’s breathing quickened, I swung toward him. He was stooped over the table, shaking his head as though dazed. “Bitter, when its fragrance was so sweet.” His head darted up to mine, a shiver rippling through his body. “Is it cold?”

Springing to my feet, I searched for a cloak, doubts raging through my mind: Was this some mortal ailment? Could the emperor have planted a decoy in place of the elixir? Yet the fragrance of those peaches was unmistakable.

Tossing open the cupboard doors, I grabbed a heavy cloak from within. I spun to my father—finding a stranger before me. The lines on his face had vanished like sand smoothed by the tide. His eyes were clear, their whites brilliant, the mark in his chin more prominent than before. Yet his jet-

black hair was winged with white at his temples, marks of mortality that even the elixir could not erase.

“It worked. My aches, my pains are gone.” He clenched and unclenched his fingers, raising them to his face in wonder. “Daughter, only those who have lived a mortal life till its tail know never to take this for granted.”

Relief flooded me, thawing the stiffness in my limbs.

“Father, immortals fear death too. We can be weak, we can die,” I reminded him.

“You are right. Danger lurks in both realms, but time is a faceless and merciless foe. It is no fair battle when the

enemy is inexorable, and your defeat inevitable.”

I searched him for any sign of injury. “Did the elixir hurt?”

He crouched down to pick up the empty bottle. “Like a hundred thorns were scraped across my skin. Your mother must have suffered, too, yet she is strong.” His tone softened.

I thought back to when my mother had taken the elixir, the fear that must have shadowed her heart. Though some claimed she had been selfish, there had been bravery in trying to save us—in reaching for a new life and plunging into the unknown, leaving behind all that she loved. For I knew better than anyone, despite becoming immortal, a

part of my mother had died that day.

Pain is no stranger to me, she had said. That did not mean it hurt any less.

Soon, I would bring my father back to her. Such lightness swept through me that, for a moment, all my sorrows

receded. They would return, but for now, it was a relief to be freed.

“Daughter, I thank you.”

I bowed, searching for the words that would not come, my chest swollen with emotion. It struck me then who he was: Houyi, Slayer of the Suns. The Dragon Lord. My mother’s husband. My father. We were little more than strangers,

bound by name and an intrinsic connection. But then he

reached out and wrapped his arms around me … my father, holding me just how I had dreamed all those years.

Sunlight streamed through the window in shafts of pale gold. Morning had crept up; this was no dream that would vanish with the night. I dared not linger any longer. What if someone had sensed our presence? The elixir’s power?

A guttural sound broke the quiet, throbbing with anguish.

My head snapped up to my father, who was shaking, the veins protruding from his neck.

“Are you ill?” I took his arm to help him to a chair, but he stiffened, his palm pushing me aside.

“Stay back!” He staggered forward, almost falling over the table. His hands tightened around its sides, knuckles whitening as he struggled against some unseen foe. The

door rattled as though assailed by a storm, yet the skies

beyond were calm. Ignoring his warning, I gripped his arm— his body lurching into the air like an invisible fist had snatched him up by the ankle. As his hand slipped from mine, I squeezed harder, holding fast.

“It’s the elixir,” he rasped. “All mortals who ascend to the skies must attend the Celestial Emperor.”

I dared not imagine what would happen if my father were to appear in the Hall of Eastern Light. “It’s too dangerous.

The emperor attacked our home. He’s hunting Mother and me.”

His jaw clenched, his throat working. “I can’t hold on. It’s too strong.”

“Your magic!” I cried, even as I grasped my own.

He shook his head. “There’s nothing.” Shock flushed his tone.

Was the elixir not complete? Had the emperor left it unfinished, missing some vital step only he could perform upon its gifting? My power surged forth, seeking the force that had ensnared my father. I was careless of discovery, of the Celestial soldiers who might be on their way to us, of

everything except halting my father’s ascent. What did the

laws of heaven matter at a time like this? As my energy flowed, fatigue locked my limbs, my power already tapped by the events of today.

“Don’t let go.” Each word was uttered in a disjointed rhythm.

Silver light streamed from my fingers, enveloping him in a gleaming shield. It was not enough, the enchantment that

dragged him away strengthening. His eyes rounded like marbles, his hair streaming wildly across his face. I clasped his hand harder, numbed from the strain.

“This pull … it’s coming from inside me,” he said breathlessly.

Of course. This was not some force that had swooped in from the heavens but flowing through his veins, from the elixir consumed. I chided myself for thinking it would be a simple matter of my father drinking it and us returning to the skies to reunite with my mother. I should have learned by now that things were never that easy.

Closing my eyes, I reached for my magic again, casting it down his throat this time, after the trail of the elixir that

glistened like a shimmering serpent. A thudding filled my ears—his heart, beating much too fast, pumping the elixir through his blood. Gold threaded through the crimson,

brighter than any mortal’s blood—suffused with that honeyed fragrance, grown sickly sweet like fruit on the cusp of spoil. My power rushed through his veins, prying him free of the elixir’s hold. A painstaking effort, like trying to untangle a folded cobweb. Choked sounds wrung from my father’s throat, still I pushed on. Was I hurting him?

Undoubtedly, in the way he flinched, yet I dared not stop. A moment’s pause and he would be ripped from my grasp, hurtling toward the Celestial Kingdom and into utmost peril. Fatigue sank into my bones, an ache crawling from the base of my spine to my neck, until I could barely stand.

Clamping my jaws, I quelled the instinctive urge to halt my power, streaming forth untamed, burning the taint of the

elixir away—until at last, the pull on my father eased. The blazing gold that ran through his veins dissolved into

pinpricks of light, his blood now shining as that of any other immortal’s. The scent of peaches faded, leaving only that of wood and earth.

My father’s body shuddered as it descended, his feet sinking to the ground. Still, I would not let go.

“Do you want to bring anything?” I asked.

He shook his head. “All I have longed for is in the realm above.”

Together, we dashed outside into a clear morning, the sky a vivid aquamarine, the air glazed with warmth. I summoned a cloud, which we leapt upon, a rush of wind spiraling down to bear us along. Neither of us spoke, our

breaths unsteady—the anxiety of the night only just

beginning to subside as the shores of the Southern Sea glistened ahead.

Before entering the waters, I cloaked my father in invisibility, just as Liwei had done before. The guards at the palace entrance cast only a cursory glance our way, and we slipped into the Bright Pearl Palace without incident. Yet the farther we walked, the more his steps lagged.

“Father, are you all right?”

His lips lifted into a smile, as bright and fleeting as a shooting star. “It has been a long time since I felt this way.” He brushed a shaking palm over his hair. “How do I look?”

His question surprised me. I almost laughed aloud, suddenly as giddy as he was. “Don’t be nervous. Mother will be overjoyed.”

“I’m not nervous.” The slightest tremor shook his voice. “Does she know about me?”

“I didn’t tell her. I kept my word.”

His fingertips brushed his cheek, as though tracing the lines that had once creased their surface. “My face,” he said haltingly. “A foolish thing to worry about.”

I picked up a silver plate from a table, inlaid with coral along its rim. Wordlessly, I lifted it to him so he might see

his reflection—a face more strong than handsome, the one my mother loved still. He stared at it for a long while, though I did not think him vain. There was no pride in his expression, just—wonder.

His eyes darted from the mirror to my face. “I see us, my daughter.”

My heart soared. Now that we were safe, it finally sank in: my father was home.

He rapped his knuckles against my mother’s door. As it swung open, she stood in the entrance, her gaze moving from me—to my father.

No one spoke, no one moved, as though we had been turned to stone. In all my fantasies of reunion, I had not imagined this stillness. And I had dreamed of this day,

dreams so secret and burrowed so deep, I had never dared to speak them aloud. There was none of the violent joy I had anticipated—of tears and gasps and loving embraces. Had too much happened? Fifty years to an immortal was gone in a blink, and yet to a mortal it was over a life half-lived. They had spent more time apart than together; perhaps they needed to learn to be with each other again. And though I

could not bear to think of it, there lay too, the unspoken rift between my parents, as vast as the skies that had once

divided them. My mother’s theft. My father’s anger. His

deception in not revealing himself, letting her weep by his grave. The decades of regret, recrimination, and sorrow, which might not be so easily forgotten.

“Houyi?” At last she spoke, the frail whisper rising from her throat. “Is it really you?” Her shock morphed to

disbelief, and then … rapture.

“Chang’e, my wife. I have returned at last,” he said quietly, an unreadable expression on his face.

Her cheeks flushed like camellias, her eyes glistened like dew. But then she froze, bending her head. “I’m sorry,

Houyi. I took the elixir, your elixir. I was so scared … I thought I was dying, and our child too. The doctors frightened me, and the pains came too early. I was all

alone.” Her words tumbled out in fragments. Her anguish as raw as though it had been yesterday.

He did not speak. Was he still angry despite what he had said? Could he forgive her? Perhaps a spark of his rage had remained unquenched, flaring to life when confronted with her. Perhaps he blamed her still, even without knowing it.

And a part of me wondered, how could he not?

“I was furious,” he began in a low voice. “Wretched in my grief. Those were my darkest days, worse than any battle I had fought, any loss I had suffered. Betrayal cuts deepest when it stems from those you love. For then you feel twice a fool, broken and hurt—all at once. For then you do not even have the solace you most crave. I tormented myself, wondering if that might have been your scheme all along, that you desired immortality more than me.” He spoke slowly, as though these words were wrenched from him. “And when years passed without a sign from you, a single message—I almost hated you then.”

A strangled sob erupted from my mother, the back of her hand flying to her mouth. I stiffened at my father’s harshness, yet I also wanted to weep for the suffering knotted in his heart all this time. While my mother and I had each other, it was he who had been left alone. And I understood how he felt, his words stirring in me an echo of my own betrayal at Wenzhi’s hands. Yet I had seen my mother’s suffering and anguish, and no matter what my father had gone through, I would not let him hurt her.

Before I could speak, my father took my mother’s hand. “I first saw you at my grave a year ago. I restrained myself

from confronting you, for I believed you faithless. A part of me was also ashamed of what I had become, while you

remained as luminous as the day we wed. I told myself it

was enough to know you were well, that you remembered me. That you wept for me still. At last, I would find peace.”

He paused. “I was wrong. It was then I realized the last of my anger had vanished, and only the sadness remained. I told myself not to go again, for it was a cruel torment—one I could not resist. To feel both relief and disappointment on the days I did not see you, elated and desolate whenever I did.”

“I could not come,” she wept. “I could not leave. And even if I could, I did not know where you had gone. Whether you were alive.”

He reached for her then, embracing her so tightly it was as though they were one. “I am sorry too,” he whispered fiercely into her hair. “For leaving you alone and not listening to you. I was thinking of myself and what feared

and wanted to be true. I would have given the elixir to you. I should have offered it to you before. I would never have let you or our daughter die. You made the choice I was too selfish and afraid to make.”

Silence stretched wide and deep. Lightning could have struck the ground, wild beasts could have rampaged through the corridor—yet nothing could have torn them apart. My mother gazed at him like he was light and warmth. The sun, moon, and stars. As though everything

else, including me, had receded into the shadows … and I was glad for it.

I left then, trying not to make a sound. Behind me, no more words were spoken, there was just the creak of the door as it slid shut. This was a moment for my parents

alone. I would have my chance later, with the three of us together. For the first time in my life, a profound and unfamiliar sense of oneness filled me—that we would finally have time enough for us to be a family, to know one another as we would have done had we lived in the Mortal Realm without the sunbirds, capricious gods, and enchanted elixirs.

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