Chapter no 20

Heart of the Sun Warrior

It was early afternoon when I made my way back to my mother’s room. I was reluctant to intrude upon my parents’ reunion, but dared not remain in the Southern Sea any longer. With Liwei’s escape and my part in it known to all, the emperor would be furious. He would retaliate, I had no doubt, my stomach churning at the thought.

Moreover, Ping’er had been laid to rest according to the customs of her people. Just this morning, my mother and I had knelt before her ancestral altar to pay our final

respects. A lump had clogged my throat to see the ebony tablet inscribed with Ping’er’s name in gold. While there was a solemn peace in knowing she was among her people

again, the ragged cries of her family and friends wrenched my heart.

We no longer had a reason to linger here, beyond the fact we had nowhere to go. As I entered my mother’s room, I found my father sitting by the table, his hair unbound, falling loosely over his shoulders. There was an ease to my mother’s smile, a new lightness to her movements. How strange it was to see my parents together, strange and utterly wonderful. Yet a slight uncertainty edged their

interactions as though they were discovering each other again, as indeed they were: the way my father glanced at my mother to assure himself she was still there, the slight

widening of her eyes whenever she looked at him. And when their fingers brushed, that moment of hesitation before my mother clasped his hand in hers.

“Daughter, I’m grateful.” My father inclined his head to me. “For your trust, for restoring my life. I had thought it impossible.”

“She is your daughter, Houyi,” my mother said with pride. “She does not walk the path before her; she forges her


Our daughter,” he corrected her, rising to place his palm on my shoulder. “All those years I’ve lost.”

I blinked away the prickling in my eyes. “We have time now, Father.”

“Houyi, you are so somber,” my mother teased him before her expression darkened. “While we speak of years ‘lost,’ how could you let me think you were dead? Did you enjoy watching me weep at your grave? Hearing my prayers for

you? If I had known, I would have put salt instead of sugar in the cakes I made for your offerings.”

He laughed, a full sound that warmed me deeply. “They would have tasted just as sweet. I ate them all after you had gone, though the familiarity of their taste was a bitter

consolation.” He paused. “As for your prayers, I heard nothing from where I hid. They would have been a comfort to me, they would have given me hope that you still cared.”

“Why else did you think I went to your grave?” she demanded.

“From duty? Guilt? After decades of disappointment, I had no reason to hope. I didn’t know you could not come. I tried to stay away, but I confess to going whenever I could. When I saw you again, part of me dared to dream once more.

However, too much time had passed; I could not bind you to

an old man.” As he cupped her cheek with his hand, she leaned into it.

“I would not have cared. I would have known you

anywhere,” she whispered. “If we were old and gray, it would be the mark of a life well spent.”

“Yes, if we grew old and gray together—but we did not. With the little time I had left, I believed it better that way, rather than reopening old wounds. I wanted you to

remember me as I was.”

It was a hard choice he had made, to cut himself from us like the ailing part of a plant without which the rest would thrive. And I understood how he had felt, because his pride lay in me too.

Someone knocked. Unexpected, as we had few visitors. Since our arrival, Queen Suihe had left us alone, as though she had forgotten we were here. We had gladly kept to

ourselves, shunning all banquets and festivities, only

emerging today for Ping’er’s funeral. As I probed the auras before opening the doors, relief and apprehension swirled through me.

Liwei and Wenzhi entered. From their hostile expressions and the way they stood stiffly apart, this was a wholly unwelcome coincidence. Liwei’s gaze slid from my father to me, his expression solemn. A sudden realization sank over me that while I had been reunited with my family, he was torn from his and hunted by his own father.

Liwei inclined his head in greeting, cupping his hands before him. “Master Houyi, it is an honor to meet you.”

Wenzhi shot me a sidelong glare, an unspoken reproach for keeping him in the dark—then he bowed too. “Master Houyi, your return brings great joy to your family.”

My father said nothing, his eyebrows drawing over narrowed eyes in a look that had undoubtedly struck fear

into many a soldier’s heart. What had my mother told him of them? Under other circumstances, he might have inquired

after Liwei’s parents, or that of Wenzhi’s family. However, I

doubted my father had any concern for the Celestial

Emperor’s well-being or that of anyone in the Demon Realm. “I should have believed you when you told me of your

father,” Liwei said. He did not come toward me, and while this new reserve in his manner hurt, it was what I had sought.

“You did not?” Wenzhi’s tone was scathing.

“It seemed improbable even to me,” I said at once.

Liwei ignored him, speaking to me alone. “I am happy for you. I will always be happy for you.”

Was there an additional meaning within his words? Such lies I had told him of Wenzhi, which he had so readily

believed—perhaps because he had harbored suspicions from the start. I glanced at Wenzhi, finding his eyes upon me, questioning and bright. Did he wonder at the distance

between Liwei and me? If so, it would forever be a mystery, for I would never tell him the truth.

“Why are you here?” I asked Wenzhi.

He shook his head as though disappointed by my

question. “Such paltry thanks from you, after I led the

Celestial guards away from the eastern gate last night.”

I stared at him. “You did that? You promised you would not interfere.”

He shrugged. “I promised not to follow you. I did not.” “Did you run into any trouble?” I asked.

“Are you concerned for me, Xingyin?” he tilted his head toward me.

I scowled. “Not in the least. Such a trivial task should be unworthy of your talents.”

“I am glad you think so highly of them.”

As I choked back a rude retort, he smiled. “It was not quite as easy as you would think. These soldiers were far more

dedicated to their posts, nor could I enter the Jade Palace in case it roused an alarm. I had to resort to more creative means to draw them away, leading them on a merry chase halfway across the Celestial Kingdom.”

I stifled a flicker of concern for his safety. “Thank you,” I told him, somewhat stiffly.

“I would do that and more for you.”

“Just as you took her captive?” Liwei taunted.

My father’s head jerked up as he rose to his feet, but then Mother tugged his sleeve, until he sat back down—though his expression remained thunderous.

Wenzhi’s eyes glittered dangerously as he turned to me, ignoring Liwei. “I’m beginning to wish you had not succeeded quite so thoroughly last night.”

“I am delighted to have disappointed you.” Liwei’s lips

parted in an almost feral smile, one I had never seen before. “If I had known, I would have returned sooner.”

“Without Xingyin, I doubt you could have.”

“Enough.” I glared at them. “My father has returned. Do not ruin this occasion.”

A brief silence before Wenzhi bent his head. “If anyone

could bring a mortal back from the dead, it would be you.” “The Black Dragon was mistaken; Father was not dead. If

he was, no elixir in the realm could have restored him.”

Liwei did not look at me, nor did he speak. He must think me heartless, to speak so familiarly to Wenzhi. To him,

Wenzhi was the Demon who had infiltrated his kingdom, tried to destroy his army, and captured me. I would never forget that—just as I could not forget the times he had come to my aid, and the circumstances that had set him along this path. With Wenzhi, the good and bad were woven so tight, it was impossible to pick them apart—a confounding knot of our past and present, all he had been to me and what he was now.

“We must leave,” I said firmly. “With Liwei’s escape, the emperor might summon the other kingdoms to aid in his search. Word will reach Queen Suihe soon.”

“The queen will look to the safety of her own people, as

any monarch should,” Liwei said. “She would not hesitate to surrender us to gain any advantage.”

My mother paled. “Where can we go?”

“My home is open to you,” Wenzhi offered. “No Celestial will set foot in the Cloud Wall.”

“No Celestial would want to,” Liwei said with distaste.

Wenzhi surveyed him coldly. “You are welcome to remain here. I would prefer it if you did.”

“No, not the Cloud Wall,” I interjected. Even if Wenzhi wanted to protect us, would he be able to from his family?

“The Eastern Sea,” my father said. “The dragons will keep us safe.”

Though the dragons were no longer bound to the pearls, they still bore great respect and affection for my father.

Their wisdom would be invaluable, even though they could not fight the Celestial Army.

“The Eastern Sea is allied to the Celestial Kingdom,” I said carefully. “Will it be safe?”

“They will not countermand the dragons’ wishes,” Wenzhi assured me. “They revere them greatly.”

“Will we bring trouble to them with our presence?” I asked.

“In times as these, there is no perfect solution,” my father said decisively. “We must make hard choices, do what we think is right, and not regret the consequences.”

As a leader of mortal armies, my father must have had to make such impossible decisions every day, those that ate at his conscience. How many soldiers had he sent to their

deaths? How many families had been broken? No war came without a cost, and the highest price was often paid by those who had the least.

A loud rap on the door startled us. “Goddess of the Moon.

Queen Suihe requests you and your daughter to attend to her in the great hall,” a voice called out.

I exchanged a guarded look with my mother. “We will

gladly attend to Her Majesty. What is the occasion?” I spoke steadily, to avoid arousing suspicion.

“Our honored guests have arrived, and they wish to meet with you,” the messenger replied.

“Guests?” My mind leapt to terrifying thoughts of the Celestial Emperor.

“His Highness Prince Yanxi of the Eastern Sea.”

My tension eased as I sagged against the table. Had he accompanied his father for the meeting of the monarchs of the Four Seas? Prince Yanxi was a friend, while his brother

Prince Yanming had been in my care during our campaign in the Eastern Sea. Despite the danger and my near death, I had cherished those weeks—for the first time experiencing what it might be like with a younger sibling.

“We will come shortly. We must change our garments first,” my mother replied, buying us a fragment of time.

“Send word to Shuxiao,” I told Liwei and Wenzhi, after the messenger had gone. “Don’t let anyone see you, and wait for us outside the palace.” I hesitated, thinking this was an undeniably bad idea to leave them together, but my father would prevent any foolishness.

“Xingyin, be careful.” Liwei warned. “Make haste, but do not appear to be in a rush.”

“Queen Suihe is most astute; little escapes her notice. You must give her no reason to suspect you,” Wenzhi cautioned.

I nodded grimly. “We will leave as soon as we can.”

As soon as the queen allows us to, my mind whispered.

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