Chapter no 21

Heart of the Sun Warrior

We walked toward the throne room, our measured steps masking our trepidation. As a close ally of the Celestial

Kingdom, would Prince Yanxi be aware of our situation? Would he be obligated to inform Queen Suihe? I could not refuse the queen’s invitation, though my bow, wrapped

discreetly in a piece of silk, was a comforting weight against my back.

The queen’s throne was flanked by brocade-lined chairs and red-lacquered tables. Porcelain tea sets rimmed in gold were laid upon each table, alongside plates of crisp seaweed, glistening walnuts roasted in honey, sesame-

encrusted pastries, and almond cakes topped with a flaky crust. The amber pillars shimmered like sunstruck gold and the carpets were newly enchanted, the embroidered silver waves undulating in a soothing rhythm. Crystal vases were

filled to the brim with glowing shells, emitting a sweet floral fragrance underlaid with the opulence of musk. A haunting ballad was sung by the performer in a corner of the hall, her painted nails expertly plucking the strings of her pipa, its rippling strains the perfect accompaniment to her pure tones.

Queen Suihe was resplendent in rich folds of amethyst silk, embroidered with orchids in copper thread. The filigree gold and ruby flowers on her headdress quivered as she nodded to us in greeting.

“My honored guests are eager to meet you,” she said in her melodious voice.

Before I could reply, someone hurtled into my side, small arms locking around my waist. Staggering back, I caught my balance. “Prince Yanming!” I bent down to hug him tightly.

“You’ve grown taller, Your Highness.”

“Maybe you shrank.” He laughed as he released me. “I hear that happens to the elderly.”

“If I’m elderly, you need to treat me with a lot more respect,” I replied, prodding him lightly in his shoulder.

“Yanming, behave yourself. What would Her Majesty think of you?” Prince Yanxi chided him.

As we both straightened, I cupped my hands to bow to the prince, conscious of Queen Suihe’s watchful stare. “Your

Highness, this is a welcome surprise.”

“My father sent me in his stead. I would have left my brother at home, but he begged to come, and I had no peace until I agreed.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught Prince Yanming twisting his lips into a mock scowl, which vanished the moment his brother turned to him.

Prince Yanxi’s face softened as he ruffled his younger

brother’s hair. “Yanming, enough. What would Father say?”

I envied them, their unrestrained camaraderie. Their close bond, knitted with affection and the familiarity of a shared

past. “I am glad to see you both, though much has changed since our last meeting.” More than they knew, I hoped.

Prince Yanming sighed. “It’s been so dull since you left. No one will spar with me or tell me any good stories. Lady Anmei shrieks whenever I touch a sword, even the wooden ones.”

Prince Yanxi turned to my mother and inclined his head.

“Moon Goddess, this is an unexpected honor. I had heard of your release but am surprised to find you here, so far from home.”

The prince was sharp, not easily duped. He had aided me before when I sought to help the dragons, though I suspected that stemmed more from his reverence of them than any desire to foil the Celestial Emperor.

“My mother was attacked, and her attendant killed,” I said carefully, even as my voice hitched over the words. “She was from the Southern Sea, so we brought her home.”

“I am sorry for your loss.” He hesitated, lowering his

voice, “I heard news, unconfirmed reports of an attack by—” “It was unfortunate,” I said quickly, my insides clenching.

“Intruders to our home. They attacked us without cause.” I held his gaze, widening my eyes in a silent warning that I hoped he would heed.

“A difficult time for you and your mother. I hope you will find peace, wherever you are.” His words were layered with meaning.

“We intend to seek it, when Her Majesty allows us to depart.” A hint of our peril.

Prince Yanxi nodded gravely. “Her Majesty should have no reason to delay you. She will have other things on her mind, the gathering of royals, for one.”

I breathed easier at his words. Whatever the Eastern Sea prince knew, he would not expose us.

“Your Highness,” Queen Suihe called out. “You seem well acquainted with my guests. Would you share your

conversation with the rest of us? It appears most engaging.” A note of impatience rang in her voice. Monarchs were unaccustomed to sharing attention in their throne rooms.

The prince shot her a dazzling smile. “We were

exchanging old stories from when the First Archer aided us during Governor Renyu’s uprising.”

“Your Majesty.” I bowed to her, concealing my haste. “We are grateful for your hospitality. Unfortunately, my mother and I must depart, as we have pressing news from home.”

“Your home that was attacked?” There was the slightest inflection in her tone.

“The perpetrators have fled,” my mother replied, covering my slip. “The moon has been dark without me.”

The queen leaned back against her throne, her lips

pursing. “Will you not stay for the festivities tonight? My guests from the Eastern Sea will be disappointed if you

depart so soon. The monarchs of the Northern and Western Seas will also enjoy meeting you, our elusive Moon Goddess.”

“While that is true, matters of home should always take precedence,” Prince Yanxi said smoothly.

The queen nodded. “Very well. If you wish, some of our guards could accompany you there.”

My mother bowed. “Thank you for the kind offer, Your Majesty. However, we have troubled you enough and my daughter is a fine warrior.”

Prince Yanxi smiled. “Indeed, she is.”

Someone tugged at my sleeve, a small hand slipping

around the curve of my elbow. I glanced down to find Prince Yanming, his face alight with hope. “Can I come with you? I want to see the moon,” he whispered. “It’s so dull here.

Eldest Brother is always in meetings and won’t let me go out without him. And he’s always ordering me to hold my tongue.”

I crouched down to look him in the eyes. “Maybe it’s

because you say such outrageous things, Your Highness? My mother often advised me to speak with more care if I wanted my words to be given weight.” How solemn I sounded when all too often my words trampled courtesy in their wake. Yet something about him sparked in me the

desire to keep him safe, to counsel him to be better than me.

“Brother, you are being discourteous to our hostess,” Prince Yanxi said pointedly. “Moreover, Xingyin is too busy to entertain you, as she is leaving.”

I released Prince Yanming’s hand gently. “When things settle down, you must come for a visit. I will show you my home with its silver roof. The osmanthus forest, and the thousand lanterns which you can help us light.”

Empty promises to trick children into behaving better, my mind scoffed, even as despair enveloped me. The last I had seen of my home were the flames devouring it. Did any part remain? I did not know … and perhaps, I never would.

Prince Yanming’s smile stretched across his face. “Promise?”

Liar that I was, I nodded.

Footsteps clicked across the tiles, growing louder. An immortal entered the hall, clad in familiar brocade robes, a black hat upon his head adorned with a piece of flat jade. A Celestial messenger. My fingers inched toward my mother’s hand, clutching her in warning.

The messenger knelt before the queen, holding up a scroll between his palms—thick yellow brocade rolled around twin bars of sandalwood—just like the one we had seen before.

As an attendant took the scroll and presented it to Queen Suihe, my mouth went dry.

Yet there was still a chance; the messenger did not know us. I forced myself to smile, though I was trembling within.

Our only hope lay in a swift exit. “Your Majesty, we thank you again. We will take our leave now.” My voice was low,

intended to be overlooked, as my mother and I backed away from the throne.

Queen Suihe nodded, her gaze fixed on the scroll, her

attention already shifting to matters of greater importance.

As we turned from the throne, Prince Yanxi engaged the queen in polite conversation. I thanked him silently for the distraction, for delaying the inevitable moment when she read the missive from the Celestial Kingdom. I did not know

what was written within, though my instincts prickled in warning. We strode briskly past the rows of courtiers, toward the entrance, as I suppressed the urge to run.

“Halt!” Queen Suihe’s voice rang out, sharp with command.

The guards before us crossed their spears at once,

blocking our way. The pit of my stomach folded inward as I swung to the queen.

Bright-red splotches mottled her skin. “To have my kindness repaid with dishonesty is a grave disappointment,” she seethed, crumpling the unraveled scroll in her hands.

“Word has been sent across the realm that you and your mother are traitors to the Celestial Kingdom, fugitives from justice. Any who harbor you are threatened with stern

reprisal. Do you know all I have done to keep us safe? Only to have it all threatened by a pack of liars who sheltered here under false pretenses.”

Prince Yanming pulled free of his brother’s grasp. “Xingyin is not a liar! The Celestial Emperor is a—”

“I apologize for my brother’s rudeness, Your Majesty,” Prince Yanxi interjected, casting a stern glare at his brother. “Perhaps you might listen to what the Moon Goddess and her daughter have to say?” His tones were carefully modulated to show no partiality.

The slightest dip of Queen Suihe’s head was the only indication that I should speak. From the hard set of her face, she was not inclined to listen, yet I would try.

“We did not lie, but we did not tell you the whole truth— that it was the Celestial Kingdom who attacked us,

unprovoked, and drove us from our home. For that, I am sorry. We did not intend for any harm to come to your

people and were about to leave to avoid trouble.” Despite her hostile expression, I plowed on. “Strange things are happening in the Celestial Kingdom: unexpected shifts in

power, loyal and trusted advisors being sidelined. Change is on the horizon, and not for the better.”

Queen Suihe’s eyes blazed, an enigmatic smile upon her lips. “You are right about one thing—change is on the horizon, and I intend to be on the right side of it.” She turned to the Celestial messenger. “Inform His Celestial

Majesty that I have apprehended the Moon Goddess and her daughter upon his request. They will be imprisoned here to await his justice. In return, I ask that he remembers the

value of our friendship.”

The messenger bowed, yet he did not leave as I expected. His hand shimmered with a greenish light as he touched the jade on his hat. A soft chime rolled through the silence, the stone glowing brighter, before dulling once more. “His

Celestial Majesty commanded us to inform him the moment we had news. He will arrive shortly,” he intoned.

“We will prepare a suitable welcome for His Celestial Majesty,” Queen Suihe said.

A chill sank through my veins. The Celestial Emperor was coming here? Was it because of Liwei? All knew my part in his escape. As the messenger left the hall, I addressed the queen. “Your Majesty, would you reconsider? If you let us leave, you will have a loyal friend in us forever.” A paltry offer, but I had little else.

A shrill laugh broke from her, scraping like nails over my nerves. “Leave? That you will, except under my terms. I far prefer the friendship of the one who possesses the might of the Celestial Army to yours.” Her hand flew up in a curt wave to the guard. “Take them to the cells. Find their friend and lock her up too.”

Relief flooded me that I had told Shuxiao and the others to leave the palace. I hoped they would flee for there was no sense in us all getting captured. They could return for us later, and I had no doubt they would.

Turquoise armor clinked, golden blades flashing as two guards moved toward me. Wenzhi’s warning of their

impenetrable prisons flashed through my mind. I could not let them take us. As a soldier reached for my mother, my

leg lashed out, kicking him aside with brute force. At once, I snatched up my bow, stripping its bindings free, a beam of light forming between my fingers.

Panicked cries erupted, guests stumbling over themselves as they rushed from the hall. As Prince Yanxi’s anxious gaze met mine, I jerked my head toward the doorway, mouthing for him to leave. As an ally of the Celestial Kingdom, his loyalties were bound. He had already tried to distract Queen Suihe on my behalf, to persuade her to listen, which was more than I could have hoped for. Prince Yanxi lifted his

brother in his arms and dashed through the entrance, away from the tumult.

My grip tightened around the bowstring as I trained my arrow upon the queen, the only one who could ensure our safe passage. “Order your soldiers to stand back. Let us leave and do not follow.” My voice was low with threat.

Queen Suihe’s lip curled as her magic surged, jagged shards of ice plunging toward my mother and me. I shielded us at once, dropping my arrow tip to her shoulder, aiming to wound rather than kill. As I let it fly, it streaked through the air, just as a luminous barrier encircled the queen. Her face twisted with contempt as she threw her other hand out, a

gleaming wave of power knocking my arrow to the ground.

Sky-fire scorched the carpets, blackening the intricate

embroidery, gouging a crude hole in the floor. As a tremor shuddered through the ground, the crystal vases tipped

over, the scattered shells trampled beneath the feet of the fleeing courtiers.

Several of the queen’s soldiers broke away to surround my mother and me. I aimed another arrow at them, hardening myself to strike Ping’er’s kinsmen—but something whistled through the air, a translucent arrow hurtling into the guard

closest to us.

“Chang’e! Xingyin!”

My father’s voice. My heart swelled as he raced into the throne room, his silver bow already drawn. Liwei, Wenzhi,

and Shuxiao followed close behind. Shouts erupted, the

queen’s guards rushing toward them. Swiftly, I summoned a burst of wind to sweep aside those nearest to us.

Magic coursed through the air, the clash of metal

reverberating through the hall. My father sheltered my mother, releasing arrow after arrow, his hands moving at a dizzying pace. As a soldier crept up behind him, her sword swung high—I shot her down, my arrow spearing her chest, her body jerking as light crackled across her armor.

Wenzhi and Liwei were encircled by Southern Sea soldiers, their swords flashing in a blur of silver and gold as they made swift work of their opponents. Shuxiao was locked in a ferocious tussle with another guard, his spear clanging

against her sword.

Queen Suihe pointed a trembling hand at Liwei. “The

Celestial Crown Prince! The emperor will reward us well for this. Call for reinforcements!”

Three guards detached themselves, running toward the

entrance. I did not let myself think, an arrow springing from my fingers to strike one, then the next. As I drew another

arrow, the last soldier dashed through the doors, shouting for aid.

I cursed myself. In a moment, more guards would swarm the room, barring the only entrance. Already, they might be barreling through the corridors. I frantically searched for an escape route—not the walls, for the throne room was deeply ensconced within and we would have to fight our way

through the sole pathway. An impossible feat when we were vastly outnumbered. My eyes flew to the domed ceiling,

recalling its decorative spires and low structure from the outside—just a single layer of stone separating us from freedom.

I signaled to the others to raise their shields, even as I strengthened the ones around my parents. Only then did I draw my bow, raising it high, releasing a bolt of Sky-fire at the arched ceiling. It struck in a blinding flash, a web of

fissures tearing across the stone with ominous grinding sounds. Another arrow of ice—my father’s—plunged after mine. The ceiling shuddered, the cracks splitting wider as clouds of dust showered down. I choked, coughing to clear

my lungs as stone fragments fell away, cascading like hail— one crashing through my shield, knocking a gasp from me

as it struck my shoulder. More shields arced around me, pulsing with Liwei’s warmth, gleaming with Wenzhi’s cool

energy—just as a spire crashed by my feet, disintegrating into shards. Above us, through the jagged hole torn in the roof, midnight waters embraced the barriers arcing over the city. They had never seemed so inviting before, nor had the air in this place ever pressed on me more.

Shouts rang through the chamber, the remaining courtiers scrambling for shelter. The guards no longer attacked us,

channeling their energy to form protective shields around the vulnerable. I spun to the dais to find Queen Suihe’s gaze locked on mine, burning with loathing. She would neither forget nor forgive this destruction, a shiver running through me at the thought.

I turned from her, rushing toward my parents. Wind spun from my fingers, weaving coils of air which swept us high— Shuxiao, Liwei, and Wenzhi doing the same. Together, we soared through the tear in the roof, landing upon the

outskirts of the palace. My breathing came labored, for it was a great strain to fly without a cloud.

Fortunately, all seemed calm outside. The alarm had not been raised, perhaps because we had left the throne room in such chaos. Yet at any moment, the queen’s soldiers might be rushing forth to apprehend us, or the emperor’s troops might arrive.

“We must be careful,” I warned the others as we approached the passageway. “If the guards suspect

anything, they will seal the tunnel—the only way out from here. We would be trapped like fireflies in a jar.”

Four soldiers guarded the entrance, none of whom I had met before. “Who are you? What business do you have here?” one of them demanded brusquely.

“We are Queen Suihe’s guests,” I replied as calmly as I could.

Another studied us, her eyes narrowing. “Her Majesty commanded that the passage be kept clear for the royal guests from the Four Seas. You must wait your turn, until their arrival.”

“Queen Suihe gave us permission to leave today,” Shuxiao said with a smile.

As the guard shook her head, light flared from Wenzhi’s hand, hurtling into the point between her eyes. The other soldiers aimed their spears at us, yet Wenzhi’s power arced wide, striking them swiftly. The soldiers’ eyelids sank shut as they collapsed upon the ground like limp pieces of string.

“Why did you do that?” As I pressed Ping’er’s pearl into the carved creature’s eye socket, the door swung open.

Wenzhi shrugged. “They were rude and suspicious. Better to catch them by surprise.”

I stared at the unconscious guards. “Are they—”

“They are asleep. I know your preferences in such things, Xingyin,” Wenzhi replied.

“You know nothing of her,” Liwei said coldly as we slipped into the tunnel.

“Is that right?” The mocking lilt in Wenzhi’s tone was intended to infuriate. “Xingyin and I spent years together, battling creatures beyond your nightmares, seeing places you have only dreamed of. We have camped beneath the skies, at the foothills of the Mortal Realm, in palaces and in tents. I know more of her than you ever will, sitting in a

classroom surrounded by teachers.”

I burned hot and cold at his words, anger rising at his presumption. “None of what we had was real; none of it meant anything.”

“It was real,” Wenzhi said quietly. “Lie to me all you want, just don’t lie to yourself.”

An ache pulsed in my chest. When he spoke to me in this earnest manner, it chipped away at the barrier I had built against him. But I would never relent, I would guard myself better this time—my heart could not withstand more hurt.

Rushing sounds ruptured the silence, growing louder, the streaming wall of water looming before us—a sliver of the

ocean’s crushing force. As I raised Ping’er’s pearl before me, the waters parted. We dashed through the corridor, our magic flowing forth to summon clouds to bear us to the surface, the ring of blue sky above a welcome sight.

The sun blazed down, warm and bright, beginning its descent across the heavens. As we soared through the

waters, a breeze surged into my face, infused with the salt of the sea. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply—but then an unseen force coiled fast around us, yanking us toward the shore so swiftly we tumbled upon the sands.

I rolled up, springing to my feet—the dazzling brightness of sunlight striking the white sands almost blinding me. Ice plunged down the base of my neck. No … it was not the

beach that glittered so but the white-gold armor of Celestial soldiers, led by an immortal twirling a bamboo flute

between his scarred fingers.

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