Chapter no 2

Heart of the Sun Warrior

My fingers stilled above my qin as I stared out the window.

Master Haoran was heading toward the forest as he had done every evening for the past week, a bamboo basket strapped onto his back. His whistling pierced the air, its pitch scraping my nerves. Silver scissors glinted in the

evening light as he twirled them deftly. Would his fingers be equally nimble when wielding a weapon?

“This song you are playing is one even can attempt.” My mother’s voice from behind interrupted my thoughts.

I smiled faintly, pushing the qin aside. My mother had neither skill nor interest in music, which was why it had been Ping’er who instructed me.

She sat down, clasping her hands on the table. “You don’t seem fond of our guests.”

“Just one in particular.” I tilted my head toward the window.

“Why don’t you like Master Haoran? He is well-mannered and considerate.”

I had no real cause to dislike him. It was just a feeling, like the shift in the air from an immortal’s aura, the prickling sensation of being watched. And, as Liwei had said, I should

trust my instincts … or at least not silence them in favor of what I wished were true.

I did not want to be right; I did not want any danger to come to our home.

“He is guarded. Tense, as though he is hiding something,”

I explained haltingly. “Whenever I ask him a question, he deflects it, moving the discussion from himself.” Evasion was something I was attuned to, having spent years

concealing my identity.

“Maybe he is unused to company. Some people feel uncomfortable talking about themselves; some prefer to listen.” My mother added, “Master Haoran is afraid of you.

Do you realize how you look at him? Eyes pinched, lips curled.” She touched my hand gently. “Xingyin, I know you’ve been hurt. If you suspect everyone, you might eventually be proven right—but you will end up

disappointed nonetheless. Sometimes, by treating others with mistrust, you invite it upon yourself. By refusing to see the good in them, you might lose something precious that you never allowed yourself to find.”

Her words rang true. These days I caught myself finding a sneer in a smile, menace in a frown. Searching for enemies in every shadow.

She rose, smoothing out the folds of her robe. As her

palms grazed the cloth, the tips of the embroidered silver lotuses glinted brighter. Was it a trick of the light? I did not think it was her power; it had never manifested in any other way.

“I came to tell you Shuxiao is here.”

My spirits lifted. Apart from Liwei, she was my most frequent visitor, and always welcome. “Where is she?”

“In the dining hall, plaguing Ping’er for food.”

I headed there at once. The floor was paved with gray stone tiles, covered with a silk carpet in shades of violet. A round table with curved legs rested in the center of the

room, surrounded by barrel-shaped stools. The rosewood

was inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl, forming scenes of flowers and birds. Eight could fit comfortably around the table, and in my childhood I never imagined the day would come when it would be too small.

A warm, savory aroma wafted from the food already laid out: a thick soup brimming with chunks of meat and sliced lotus root, whole eggs stewed in herbs, tender pea shoots, fish fried to a golden crisp, and bowls of steamed rice.

Simpler fare than in the Celestial Kingdom, yet rich with

flavor. Master Gang took the stool beside my mother, while the sisters from the Golden Desert sat on her other side.

Master Haoran was absent, as he had been for the past week—though his jars of wine were on the table, our cups already filled. It was an excellent brew tinged with the sweetness of plum. Though I still doubted his tale, his skill as a winemaker had not been exaggerated. The last few nights I had emptied my cup without hesitation, falling into a deep and untroubled sleep, although I awoke in the mornings with an ache that pounded at my skull.

I filled two bowls with lotus-root soup, then made my way to Shuxiao. Though she smiled, it did not reach her eyes.

“What is troubling you?” I wasted no time in pleasantries, sliding one of the bowls toward her.

“Things have been tense in the Jade Palace,” she

admitted. “The new general keeps a tight rein on us.” “General Wu?” The minister’s recently acquired title was

stiff on my tongue.

She nodded. “With General Jianyun sidelined, General Wu is now the real power behind the army. He is rigid and harsh. Rules are enforced to the strictest letter, with

punishments meted out for the slightest offense. It’s

considered a lapse of our duties to converse with another, even during mealtimes. Now we just sit there in silence, not daring to look at each other, like we’re children again with the fiercest tutor in the realm.”

An army divided is easier to control. An unwelcome thought. Was the Celestial Emperor wary of the soldiers uniting against his will again? The soldiers had not realized their support of me could be seen as a challenge to the

emperor—they were ignorant of what I had done to earn his wrath. My true defiance of the emperor that day, my

calculated misinterpretation of his command to bring him the pearls, was something only the two of us knew. And likely, the newly elevated general, his most trusted advisor.

“Is that the worst of it? Quiet mealtimes?” I spoke lightly, trying to brighten her mood despite my own reservations.

She wrinkled her nose. “It’s hard to keep track of the rules when new ones are added each day. Soon, it will be an infraction to leave the palace without permission. I won’t be able to visit then.”

The thought unsettled me. How things had changed since I left the Celestial Kingdom. How I would have chafed

beneath these restrictions. The worst punishment I could recall was a stern rebuke from General Jianyun or Wen—I recoiled, casting aside the unwelcome memory. “What happens if you ignore the rules?” I asked.

“Kneeling. Confinement. Lashings.” Her voice cracked over the last word.

My fingers clenched around the bowl. “You must be careful.”

“Oh, I am. I’ve never been so circumspect before,” she said with feeling. “But they seem to be keeping a close eye on me, particularly after General Wu’s elevation.”

“Why?” When she did not reply, I probed, “Is it because of our friendship?”

She looked down, stirring the soup with her spoon. “It is others, seeing threat where there is none. It changes nothing; I will not pander to them.”

Remorse gripped me. This was what I had dreaded all this time, that she might come to harm for simply being my

friend. “If things are that bad, if they’re looking to punish you, why stay?”

“I can’t leave yet. While I serve the emperor, my family is safe. We have no powerful friends who would speak for us should trouble arise again. My younger brother hopes to join the army when he comes of age, and if I resign, he will lose the chance.” Her gaze turned distant. “Sometimes, steering clear of trouble doesn’t keep you safe. Pebbles by the side

of a path still get trodden by careless feet, and idle words carry too much weight when whispered into the wrong


“There is room for you and your family here,” I offered at once. “The eyes of the Celestial Kingdom are far away.”

But they are still fixed here, a voice inside me cautioned. “I wish I could,” she said wistfully. “But my family will be

reluctant to move. These roots we have set down are not so easily wrenched free.”

A familiar longing swept over me. During my years away from home, I had often felt adrift—a weed, sprouted in strange and hostile soil. I glanced around the hall, taking in the familiar furniture, the worn carpet, the stool I had sat on as a child. Countless memories thronged this place, each

precious and irreplaceable. Yet what mattered most were the people within these walls. Family, whether through

blood or bond, who gave a place its heart. And that was more important than any tile or brick, whether of gold, silver, or jade.

The lilting strains of a flute drifted into the air. Master Gang was playing, the tassel on his instrument swinging with each breath he took. The chatter in the room quietened as the others turned toward him. He played exceptionally well, his notes soaring pure and true.

When the last note faded, my mother said, “Thank you, Master Gang. Your music is a gift.”

“You are too kind, Goddess of the Moon.”

“Do you play often for your family?” she asked.

“My wife. She was fond of music.” He smiled as he turned to me. “I hear your daughter is a skilled musician. When might we have the pleasure of listening to a song? I would be glad to share some of my compositions with you.”

“Thank you, Master Gang, but I would be hard pressed to follow your performance.” I did not decline out of modesty, but because I preferred to play for the audience of my


As an awkward silence descended, Shuxiao asked,

“Master Gang, have you found much inspiration for your music here?”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Ah, Lieutenant, this place is wondrous indeed: the wind rustling the leaves, the rain

beating on the roof, even the soft fold of soil beneath my feet. I am inclined to stay a while longer, if my hostess


“Stay as long as you wish,” my mother replied with faultless courtesy, though I caught the hitch in her tone. Perhaps she, too, missed the solitude of our home.

After the meal, I accompanied Shuxiao outside. The veil of night had cloaked the sky, though the lanterns had yet to be lit.

As she stepped upon her cloud, I touched her arm. “Be on your guard. Don’t do anything you should not.”

“As you so often did?” Her laugh rang hollow as she shook her head. “I’ve reformed my ways. I’m now a paragon of


I passed her a silk-wrapped parcel. “Osmanthus flowers for Minyi.” When I had studied with Liwei, she prepared our meals and had become a friend.

Shuxiao tucked it under her arm. “Your trees will be bare soon with every winemaker and cook knocking on your

doors. How do they even know of the flowers?”

I did not reply, raising my hand in farewell as her cloud sped away. She would be safe, I assured myself, as I strode to my room. Shuxiao was astute, she had many friends in

the palace, and Liwei would watch out for her. Though as I lay in bed, her question lingered in my mind, my last thought before I drifted off to sleep: How had Master Haoran heard of our osmanthus? Most of our guests did not trouble themselves to walk through the forest, and I had not offered to show it to them.

THUD. THUD. THUDA silvery rustle followed like the tinkling of a wind chime. Rhythmic but muffled, as though it came from far away.

My eyes flew open, blinking in the dark. From the deep quiet it was either late at night or far too early in the morning. Had I imagined those sounds? Perhaps I should have drunk some of Master Haoran’s wine, my slumber might have been as restful as the nights before.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

I jerked upright in bed, straining my ears to listen. This was real, like something solid being struck. And what was that rustling that trailed after like a persistent echo? Tossing aside the covers, I strode to the open window, inhaling the cool air laced with a delicate sweetness. The sky was dark, the ground infused with moonlight. In the distance, the

laurel towered, its branches swaying as though assaulted by the wind—yet the osmanthus trees remained still.

Fear slithered through me, cold and hard. My fingers shook as I pulled a robe over my inner garments, knotting it around my waist. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my bow, and climbed out through the window. My gaze was pinned

on the quivering laurel, my feet flying over the ground— stumbling, almost falling over. Once, twice, thrice, those strange knocks sounded again, sending the tree into

agonized spasms. Just before the clearing I halted, my grip tightening around my bow.

A man stood beside the laurel, with his back to me. The aura that rippled from him was thick and opaque, like

congealed grease. There was an odd familiarity about it, my

senses prickling in warning. A glint snared my attention, moonlight catching the silver curve of an axe blade, a green tassel swinging from its bamboo handle. It swept down, striking the laurel, the metal splintering the bark. Something dark trickled from the woodcutter’s palm onto the tree—was it blood? Had he wounded himself? But then the tree shuddered violently, pale leaves rustling as a seed fell to the ground, glittering as a fallen star.

I drew a blazing arrow and stepped out from the shadows, my heart pounding to a frantic beat. As the man swung

around, a sharp breath slid between my teeth as I swiftly trained the arrow at his head.

Master Gang.

Gone was his meek demeanor and stooping posture—his brown eyes gleamed like those of a predatory hawk. An

adept disguise, I thought wrathfully, as he had also masked his powerful aura. I should have known better than to be tricked by this simple enchantment, the same one Liwei and I had used to slip out of the Jade Palace undetected. If I had sensed this before, I would have drawn a sword on him instead of offering tea. My suspicions of Master Haoran had blinded me to the true menace among us. I cursed myself for letting Master Gang’s frailty lull me into thinking he was no threat when I should have learned by now, things were not always as they seemed.

“Are you here to exchange compositions?” he taunted, making a mockery of his earlier offer.

“I have no interest in the music you play,” I replied, my

gaze fixed on his axe. Small, round holes were carved along the slender handle—it was his flute, I realized with a start.

My insides churned to think he had brought this weapon into our home, my fingers itching to release the arrow, but I wanted answers first. “Don’t move, don’t reach for your magic. Tell me who you are, and why you came here.”

“Why should I?” His eyes crinkled in seeming amusement, even as they lingered on my arrow. “You have no right to

ask me anything. What I’m after does not belong to you.” One of his hands unclenched briefly, revealing thick scars winding across his palm, dark ridges of raised skin glossy with blood.

A moment’s distraction. My head snapped back to him, too late—he was already springing toward me, his axe swung high. I spun aside, releasing my arrow as he dipped back, the shaft whizzing harmlessly over him. As his axe flashed before me again, I darted away, twisting out of

reach as his blade sliced a stray lock of my hair, scattering it like shorn grass. A second later and I might have been

cleaved apart.

A shiver shot down my spine, the bowstring biting into my fingers as I drew another arrow, releasing it at once.

Lightning hissed, scorching a path through the air as it

plunged toward him. Something shimmered across his body

—a shield—just as my arrow struck. Veins of white light crackled across the barrier. As it fractured, his energy

surged forth to seal the crevices. Drawing back his arm, he hurled his axe at me, spinning through the air in a silvery

blur. I dropped to the ground, pressing my cheek and palms into the powdery earth. The axe whistled over my body, slamming into the trunk of an osmanthus tree, petals scattering down like rain. As I rolled away and sprang to my feet, his weapon twitched before jerking free and plunging back into Master Gang’s grasp. Light sparked ominously

from his hand as another arrow formed between my fingertips, already soaring toward him—even as he swerved deftly, the bolt vanishing into the night.

“How many times can you do this?” His tone was pleasant, almost conversational.

“As many as it takes to kill you.”

Sweat beaded my skin as I grasped my energy. He swung at me again, but this time, I held my ground. Magic surged from my palms in glittering coils of air, binding him fast.

With a flick of my hand, he was flung against the ground,

the back of his head striking a rock. A groan spilled from his throat as his eyelids fluttered shut, his axe falling from his grip. I approached cautiously with an arrow drawn, my

nerves jangling. He seemed too strong to be felled so easily, and I had been taken in by his pretense before—

A gasp broke the silence. “Master Gang! Are you hurt?” Ping’er cried from behind me, rushing to where he lay.

“Ping’er, get back!”

I leapt out to block her path—too slow—as Master Gang’s eyes flicked open. He sprang up, seizing her arm. As his axe flew back into his grasp, he wedged its monstrous blade

against her neck.

“What are you doing?” As Ping’er struggled against him, he tightened his grip, the edge slicing her skin. She froze at once, her chest heaving.

“Let her go.” I drew a deep breath, quashing the urge toward recklessness.

“Drop your bow and step back,” he warned me. “Let me leave, and no one will be harmed.”

“What will stop you from killing us then?” I demanded. “I give you my word.” He spoke as if it were worth

anything, as though he had not come to our home clad in deceit.

As I hesitated, his weapon dug into Ping’er’s flesh, a dark trickle of blood streaking across her pale robes. A strangled sound slid from her throat, though she remained deathly still.

“Hurt her again and you’ll regret it tenfold,” I said in my most menacing voice. “I need no weapon to make you pay.”

His teeth gleamed as his lips parted. “Of course. I would not dare take on so renowned a warrior.” A hint of derision glazed his tone.

I stifled my anger, letting my bow fall to the ground. At

once, he shoved Ping’er at me and dashed away. As I caught her, a cloud swept down, bearing him into the skies.

I would have given chase but Ping’er gasped, clutching at her neck. Her palm came away wet with blood as she

dropped to the ground. My stomach lurched as I crouched down beside her, folding her icy hands between mine. I released my energy to heal her wound, the torn flesh

closing into a thin white line. Clumsily done, but there was no one around who might do better.

Ping’er groaned as she rubbed her temples. “Xingyin, what happened? Why … why did Master Gang do that?”

I frowned. “I don’t know. He is a liar and a thief.”

As she pushed herself up, something fell from the folds of her yellow robe—an oblong pearl hanging from a thin gold chain. It shone with inner fire, almost like that of the

dragons’ pearls, but without a trace of their immense power. Had she always worn this? Had it been concealed beneath her garments all this time?

“Ping’er, what is this?” I brushed a finger along the pearl’s lustrous surface, warm to the touch.

Her face clouded over. “This formed the day I left my home. For Southern Sea immortals, only the tears sprung from our deepest emotion transform into pearls.”

“Do you miss your family?” A thoughtless question, a foolish one. Of course she did, though Ping’er had never returned there, not once in all these decades.

A brightness surged in her eyes, which she blinked away. I turned aside, giving her time to herself. Something glittered among the blades of grass—a laurel seed. I picked it up,

rolling it between my fingers, its cool, hard surface familiar to me, yet it was the first time I held it untethered from its branch. A pulse of energy grazed my skin. Why had Master Gang wanted this? Why had he gone to such lengths? My gaze darted to the laurel, its trunk riddled with deep

grooves as though it had been clawed by some beast, and smeared with a dark liquid. Was it his blood? Had he hurt himself while chopping the tree?

A woody fragrance suffused the air, a lustrous golden sap seeping from the crevices to spill over the bark. The edges of the splintered wood lengthened, braiding together till they merged seamlessly once more. My gaze drifted upward to the laurel seeds that glistened like silvered frost, peeking between the leaves. I had always thought them beautiful.

Precious and rare. Yet a coldness shrouded me as I wondered what secrets they concealed within their shimmering depths.

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