Chapter no 25

Heart of the Sun Warrior

The sun had dwindled to a crimson ember. We waited upon our clouds, hidden from sight, our auras masked. It was no easy matter to gain passage to the Fragrant Mulberry Grove

—we had been too slow before, the pathway darkening before us, an impenetrable barrier forming that we could not breach. Since our grace period from Wugang had

lapsed, we were on constant guard for fear of discovery. A hard task, when my mind kept drifting to the sight of Prince Yanming in his brother’s arms. And when I closed my eyes to block out these searing images, his frail gasp echoed in my ears.

“Xingyin. Be ready,” Liwei warned.

As a rush of power stirred the air, a gleaming chariot of white jade streaked past. We shot after it, our clouds speckling the skies as we chased the simmering trail of heat, keeping out of sight yet careful not to fall behind. The phoenix soared with breathtaking speed, each feather a curl of writhing flame, sparks scattering in its wake like a cloak

of stars. A stately immortal rode upon it, her black hair

coiled into a gold and topaz headdress, her vermilion robes billowing in the wind. A shining harness was fastened

around the phoenix’s neck, its strap wound around her hand. As she flung her other arm forward, blazing ropes of flame uncoiled, lashing the phoenix. It let out a piercing shriek as it raced onward, dragging the chariot after it.

This burst of speed had caught us unaware before, but we were ready this time, our clouds surging ahead to keep

pace. Already, the curtain of dusk was descending, the glare from the chariot waning. For the first time, I caught a clear glimpse of the creature sheltered within—a being of incandescent light.

The sunbird, the last of its kind. Sorrow gripped me as I imagined the sunbird’s existence, as solitary as my

childhood had been—but with the added pain, the yawning ache of knowing all it had lost. Did it relive the horror of seeing its siblings struck down, their wings stilling as they fell from the sky, their light fading to dark? I had felt the

agony of losing a loved one, but dared not fathom the loss of nine at once. My father had saved the world, yet he had

also taken these beloved children from their family. An act of greatness did not lessen the sorrow inflicted, for love could not be tallied and weighed.

Every hero was a villain to the other side … and to them, my father must be the greatest monster of all.

Just ahead, towered a luminous wall of yellow marble that surrounded the Fragrant Mulberry Grove. Gold spikes ringed the top like the teeth of a comb, a powerful magic winding between the points in gleaming rivulets, seeping into the stone itself. The chariot dashed through the arched

entrance, the doors sealing shut after it. Its circular panel was split into two, carved into phoenix wings on each side, the tips of their gilded feathers weaving together in a seamless embrace. Twin bodies arched along the frames, their necks grazing in the middle from where they curved into opposing directions.

As we landed, my flesh prickled with foreboding. A foolish thing to enter the dwelling of my father’s enemy uninvited.


The Celestial Empress remained on her cloud. “Liwei, let them go on. Come with me to the Phoenix Kingdom. We must convince Queen Fengjin of the threat Wugang poses to the realm. Only with the armies of the Phoenix Kingdom can we reclaim what is ours.” She spoke clearly, intending to be heard. “Queen Fengjin is still keen to renew the betrothal.

Our alliance is more crucial than ever. A marriage would

bind them to us and we will have a place there, even if we lose the Celestial Kingdom.”

I looked away, trying to calm the erratic beat of my pulse. The empress was shrewd, striking while Liwei was ignorant of the bargain she had forced upon me. He believed I did not want to marry him, that I had given him up of my own will … that another lay in my heart, one whom he despised above all. The empress’s offer would be undeniably tempting: Why should Liwei not marry the princess? Why should he not do what was best for himself, his family and kingdom—as he had done before? I could not be selfish; I had no right to be. What was another loss today?

“No, Mother. I will not barter myself for a crown.” Liwei spoke with such resolve, the tautness in my chest loosened.

“Don’t be a fool,” the empress cried. “You can have it all back—your position, your power. Now that you know what it’s like to be without.”

He drew away from her, his expression hardening. “Don’t ask this of me again.”

“Unfilial child! What about your family? You must do this for your father and me.”

Her desperation shook me. How would Liwei feel hearing it, when she had always been so haughty and unyielding


“Mother, I will honor and protect you. I will fight to reclaim our position. I will ask for Queen Fengjin’s aid as our ally,

but no more,” he said. “What I will not do is marry someone I do not love.”

She cursed then, spewing hateful words. Liwei turned from her, his eyes opaque, my chest caving at the sight. The

empress raised a hand after him, then let it fall—her face twisted not with rage or cunning, just a wild fear that she might have driven away the one who was most precious to her.

But she was never one for self-recrimination. As she spun to me, I flinched from the blazing hatred in her gaze. “This is all your doing. You cleared the way to Wugang’s rise.”

“This is not Xingyin’s fault,” Liwei said at once.

It is, my mind whispered. While Wenzhi had spoken the truth before that I had not guided the choices of others, neither had anyone forced my hand. I had wanted to free my mother, to save my father, to help the dragons.

Wugang’s actions were his own to bear, but mine had enabled his ascent nonetheless.

“My dear son.” The empress’s tone was iron. “You

discarded the engagement that would have secured your

position. As the heir to the Celestial Kingdom and son-in-law to Queen Fengjin, you would have been unassailable. Your feelings for this insignificant girl have brought you as low as she is. Daughter to the villainous Houyi and that grasping mortal Chang’e—she is unworthy of you.”

Rage surged through me as I stalked to the empress’s

cloud. My days of being scorned by her were over. I was not afraid of her, for what else could she do to me that she had not tried? “I know my own worth and that of my family. My father saved the Mortal Realm. My mother saved me. And while I may not have the gilded lineage you so admire, I am worthy—” I stopped before I spoke Liwei’s name; my vow to her had stripped that right from me.

“It is you who is unworthy to speak my parents’ names,” I said instead.

Heat sparked in the air. Spurred by instinct, I darted aside

—just as tongues of vermilion fire sprang from the

empress’s palms. Magic rippled from my own hands, arcing

over her flames, glazing them like frost. Her mouth clamped tighter, eyes pinched as she bore down with greater force.

My teeth ground together—a struggle to keep steady under her assault—yet I held my ground, my energy pouring forth in waves to engulf her flames, throttling them into thick spirals of smoke.

My hand fell, the last glimmers of magic fading to dark. The empress and I stood facing each other, her expression pitted with fury. A part of me had always known it would

come to this one day—that she would try to kill me, or I her.

I could have shielded myself instead of smothering her

attack, but I had wanted to challenge her, to prove that I was more than what she believed me to be. That my power rivaled hers in the way that mattered more than any meaningless title and crown—both of which she had taken such pride in, both of which she had lost.

Wenzhi released the hilt of his sword as though he had been about to strike, while Liwei rounded on the empress. “Mother, how could you?” His tone pulsed with rage.

The empress lifted a shaking finger at me. “You tricked me. You plotted this all along.”

I stared at the empress blankly, until her meaning sank in and a weight fell from my chest. She had attacked me, though I had given her no cause. She had broken the terms of our pact in the mortal teahouse … which meant my vow to her was void. With one stroke, I could sever the misunderstanding between Liwei and me, setting us free of his mother’s malice. We could be together again. The words hovered on my tongue: my promise to his mother, my

coldness in pushing him away, the lie of Wenzhi.

Yet as I stared at the empress’s pale face, taut with

distress, I found I was not so cruel as to savor a moment that brought such pain to another—even one I despised as much as her. I did not want to widen the rift between Liwei and his mother. This was not the time to divide us further when the threat of Wugang loomed over us all.

But in truth, that was not the sole reason. I was not so noble to keep my silence for the empress alone. There was another reason folded deep in my heart, one I was afraid to examine too closely, ashamed of what I might uncover … that the lies I had told Liwei to set him free—I was no longer sure what they were. Try as I might, I could not forget how I had wept in Wenzhi’s arms, how he had comforted me in my times of greatest need, how his words had eased the

anguish that almost broke me then. It meant nothing, just a momentary weakness, I assured myself—yet still I would hold my tongue. The empress’s spiteful accusations were ringed with truth. I was unworthy of Liwei, not because of my lineage but because he deserved better than my divided heart. And I would not offer it again until it was whole, until I was certain, and until we were safe.

I fixed the empress with a hard stare. “I plotted nothing; it was you all along. But no matter the hatred and wrongs

between us, you are Liwei’s mother. That means something to me, even if it’s nothing to you.”

As some of the color returned to the empress’s face,

Liwei’s gaze searched me. “What do you mean, Xingyin?”

“Just that we should stop turning on each other, for it only aids our enemy.” I looked away from him, so he would not

discern the lie.

Wenzhi glared at the empress. “While this has been undoubtedly fascinating, we still need the key to enter the grove. Will you give it to us?” His voice hardened as though expecting objection or trickery.

The empress spun to Liwei. “I will give you the key, my son. All I want is a small favor in return.”

“You would bargain with me?” he bit out.

“Only because you will not see sense.” Her tone was

almost cajoling. “Come with me to the Phoenix Kingdom to meet Queen Fengjin. You cannot enter the Fragrant Mulberry Grove.”

“I must, Mother,” he said. “I cannot let—”

“You will not go,” the empress repeated vehemently. “I would rather destroy the key than leave you at Xihe’s mercy. Xihe hates me. Vengeance runs thick in her blood.

She will spend her rage upon you, my son, in repayment for what she believes are my offenses. In her mind, I failed to

protect her children. She blames me for their deaths.”

“I am not afraid of her,” Liwei said. “If you won’t give us the key, we will find our own way in.”

“You would not survive three steps into the grove without it,” the empress warned. “Only those who possess the key may enter. Only one of you.”

“We need the key,” Wenzhi said to Liwei, his arms folded across his chest. “Will you do as she asks, or should we take it from your mother?”

When Liwei did not reply, the empress added shrewdly,

“You promised to protect me. Wugang’s soldiers caught me at the border to the Phoenix Kingdom the last time. They will be keeping a close eye there, and it is safer if you

accompany me.”

Liwei’s jaw tightened as he nodded. “I will return here

after we’ve spoken to Queen Fengjin, no later.” He extended his palm to his mother. “Where is the key?”

She looked at Wenzhi and me. “Which of you will enter?” “Why does it matter?” I countered.

An impatient sigh slid from her mouth. “I must relinquish the key to the one who will enter. No other.”

“I will go,” Wenzhi said at once.

“No,” I told him. “It should be me.”

“Why?” he challenged calmly, his gaze boring into mine. “That would be an unnecessary risk. Lady Xihe bears me no ill will; she has no reason to harm me. I have the best

chance of persuading her.”

“It is true, Xingyin.” Liwei added acidly, “His skills are uniquely suited to deception.”

Wenzhi’s eyes narrowed. “At least they are of some use.”

His offer tempted me. More than the sense behind his suggestion—I did not want to see the goddess and her sole child, to witness the misery my father’s deeds had wrought. But I could not be a coward now.

As I stepped forward, Wenzhi moved swiftly in front of me, extending his hand to the empress. She seized Wenzhi’s wrist, pressing their palms together. As a flash of scarlet light sparked between them, he recoiled.

“What was that?” His voice thickened with suspicion. “The key is in my hands. It was why Xihe could not

retrieve it.” A trace of sadness clung to the empress’s tone, her shoulders drooping before she straightened. “I cannot give it to you. The key cannot be yielded to any who intend to harm the goddess.”

“I don’t want to harm Lady Xihe. All I want is the feather,” Wenzhi said tersely.

The empress laughed as she threw a sly look my way. “You were ever single-minded and ruthless in your purpose,

Captain. Regardless, you cannot enter the grove.” As she swung to me, the empress’s smile widened. “Daughter of the Sun Slayer. Will you enter the home of your greatest enemy?”

In response, I raised my hand. Swiftly, the empress

pressed our palms together, heat rushing from her skin into mine, a soft white glow suffusing us unlike the harsh light that had jolted Wenzhi before. When she dropped her hand, I examined mine, discerning no visible difference.

“It is done,” she said flatly.

Striding to the entrance doors, I pressed my palms against the carved feathers to push them apart. They tingled, flushed with sudden warmth, amber light rippling across the golden wings of the phoenixes. Slowly, as though awakening from a dream, the phoenix heads twitched, twin beaks

parting as their eyelids snapped open. Rubies glittered from their pupils, tiny flames dancing in their depths as their

wings lifted away, leaving the path clear to the domain of the Goddess of the Sun.

Liwei caught my sleeve. “Don’t tell Lady Xihe who you are.

If there is even a hint of danger, leave at once. We will find another way.” He added quietly, “I cannot lose you.”

“You must be careful too.” I wished that I could say more, that I could promise him what he wanted to hear.

“Come, Liwei,” the empress urged. “We must go.”

He strode stiffly toward the empress’s cloud, stepping upon it. As it soared into the night, he turned around once to look at me.

“He is right,” Wenzhi said, after they had vanished from sight. “Under no circumstances must you reveal your identity to Lady Xihe. Wait till she is asleep, then take the feather and flee.”

It would be the safest way. If I stole the Sacred Flame Feather from the slumbering sunbird, I could escape

unscathed in both mind and body. It would be a kindness for us all … except it would be rooted in cowardice. Such an act would only feed Lady Xihe’s wrath, thicken our enmity, and we would end the worse for it.

What if the goddess did not survive? an insidious voice within me whispered. Was this not a worthwhile cause, to save the realms above and below? Was this not the choice my father had faced? Yet a sharp ache pierced my chest at the remembrance of the goddess’s grief, the sight of the lone sunbird in the chariot when once there had been ten. I could not wrong them further. I could not do this craven thing; I would be as contemptible as Wugang if I did.

I did not believe Wugang had been born evil. Perhaps the seed of it lay in us all. But while Wugang had been betrayed, most cruelly—he had chosen this path. So much in life was left to chance. Some had to curve and twist to get ahead, forced to bend with the wind to remain standing, suffering storms that left others unscathed. Yet we could not blame fate for the choices we made—the rewards were ours to

reap, as were the consequences ours to bear. And it was moments as these that formed who we were … what we would become.

“I can’t,” I told Wenzhi. “Not after all we’ve taken from her and her family. I will ask it of her.”

Wenzhi stiffened. “Xingyin, consider this carefully. Lady Xihe is no benevolent immortal who will stroke your hair and praise you for your honesty as she sends you on your way, feather in hand. She has nursed her pain for as many years as you have lived. If she learns who you are, she will kill

you.” His voice roughened with emotion. “And if she does, rest assured that will kill her.”

A tremor ran through me at the vehemence in his tone.

Was this why the key could not be given to him? “I won’t tell her who I am. I will convince her of our need.”

“You would lie to her but not steal?” Wenzhi’s eyes blazed. “Xingyin, what is honor to your life?”

“What is life without honor? Untethered, we are no better than Wugang.”

“No better than I was,” he said bitterly.

“That is not what I meant.” Once I had believed it of him. And now, I was no longer sure. “Lady Xihe will see reason; Wugang is a threat to us all. If she tries to attack me, I will defend myself.”

Wenzhi sighed as his hand came down on mine. Before I could pull away, his power enveloped me like a dense mist, tingling and cool—a powerful shield gleaming from my skin.

“This will help protect you. If she attacks you, run. I will wait for you here. She cannot fight us both together.”

I nodded, concealing my trepidation. If Lady Xihe

discovered who I was, she would never yield the feather, she would seek vengeance—and I dared not imagine what she would take from me in recompense.

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