Chapter no 27

Heart of the Sun Warrior

I healed my wounds as well as I could, though my body still ached from the ordeal. Only then did I leave the grove, the wings of the entrance closing after me, the carved feathers weaving together into a tight embrace. Wenzhi was pacing outside, alone—the tautness in his expression easing at the sight of me.

“Has Liwei not returned?” I asked.

As Wenzhi shook his head, light flared from my pouch, a sudden heat scorching me. The enchantment around the feather was weakening. I thrust my hand into my pouch, my thumb brushing the scalding surface of the sphere, my

energy flowing to seal the fractures. Despite the warmth which permeated this place, a shiver ran through my flesh. I sank onto the ground, almost trembling from exhaustion.

Wenzhi shrugged off his outer robe, draping it over my shoulders. My eyes darted up to meet his, my face flushing against my will. I looked away, at his robe instead, a dark

gray silk embroidered with clouds. A memory drifted into my mind of the last time he had done this—on the rooftop of the Jade Palace when we had pledged ourselves to each other … before his treachery tore us apart.

Never again, I swore to myself, discarding his robe. We were allies now, friends, perhaps—but no matter these uncertain murmurings of my heart, I would never allow myself to be his pawn again. Trust, once broken, was impossible to restore; the cracks remained even when

glazed anew.

Wenzhi’s eyes were a forbidding gray. “Did Lady Xihe hurt you?”

As another wave of heat slipped free from the orb, I winced. “No, it’s the feather. It burns.”

“Let me help.”

As I dug it from my pouch, he plucked the sphere from my grasp. A relief to yield it to another, even as I resisted the urge to snatch it back. The sight of the feather in Wenzhi’s hand reminded me uncomfortably of the pearls he had once taken. The feather seethed with fire, its barbs quivering like they were alive. As Wenzhi lifted it up to examine it, a streak of flame surged from within, piercing the barrier to strike his shoulder. He did not flinch, his grip tightening around the sphere, light flowing from his fingers to wrap the orb in frost.

My eyes followed the feather in his hand as he sat down beside me. Before I could demand its return, he held it out

to me. The orb was cool to my touch as I slipped it back into my pouch, knotting the cords.

“Thank you,” I said stiffly. “For shielding me earlier. For … this.”

“It was the least I could do when you bore the brunt of facing Lady Xihe.” His voice dropped dangerously low.

“What did she do to you?”

I did not reply, glancing at his wound from the feather, the skin a mottled red. “Does it hurt?”

A small smile played across his lips. “Are you concerned for me?”

I shrugged, feigning indifference. “No. It would be an inconvenience if you died.”

“An inconvenience,” he repeated slowly. “Such unfeeling words.”

I would not be baited into a reply, turning to stare at the grove. An unearthly radiance emanated from the trees, the mulberries blazing like they were afire. Their light rippled through the night, brushing the sky with crimson and rose. Soon, Lady Xihe and her daughter would be mounting their chariot.

Wenzhi leaned back against a tree, his eyelids drooping shut. He rarely showed signs of discomfort. Had the feather’s power caused some internal injury? The marks across his shoulder were as glossy as melted wax. I

frowned, unable to stop myself from reaching out to inspect them. As I halted, wary of causing discomfort—Wenzhi’s

palm swept up, pressing my hand to his chest.

Heat flared across my neck. As I snatched my hand away, his gaze searched mine. “What are you afraid of?” he asked.

“Not you.” I lifted my head higher. “Liwei will be back soon. He will heal your wound.”

“I would rather suffer your inept ministrations than those of the most accomplished healer in the realm.”

“I did not offer to tend to you,” I told him tightly.

“Nor will the Celestial Prince, for that matter. He would be glad to prolong my suffering, no doubt. As it would give me great satisfaction to do for him.” A wry smile spread across his lips.

“Liwei would not do that.”

“Of course not.” An edge slid into his tone. “He is the

perfect one. The noble one. The one who would never hurt you.”

My silence was a reproach. Wenzhi knew how hurt I had been when Liwei betrothed himself to another—a different kind of pain from his own calculated betrayal.

“That was thoughtless of me.” He inclined his head as he rested an arm upon his knee. “I used to believe we would spend the rest of our lives together—when you were mine

as I am yours. These days, I barely have a moment alone with you.”

“The way we are now … it is far more than I ever thought we would be again,” I told him.

“Yes. To hear you say my name without hate or wariness, is a desire that has haunted me for the past year. Some

days I thought you would despise me forever—as I

deserved.” A drawn breath slid from him. “I should be grateful, but I can’t help wanting more.”

“Never.” The barest crack in my voice. “You destroyed what we had. By right, I should hate you forever.”

“Hate me then, for I would rather have your hatred than indifference.” His eyes were the shade of wintry rivers,

glints of light traveling in their depths. “The past can’t be undone, but my hope lies in our future. Trust me with your heart again and you will find the truth of mine. For you are the reason I rise each day, for you I live and breathe.”

His declaration, spoken with such unflinching passion, struck all thought from my mind—an unexpected warmth flaring through me. I swallowed hard, fighting to conceal how shaken I was, hiding behind a mask of indifference. “Words are easily spoken.”

His gaze pinned mine. “Then let me express them through deeds.”

My pulse was racing, my breaths shallow. I did not know what emotions churned within me, nor did I want to

examine them too carefully. He leaned forward, drawing

closer—slowly—like I might startle. I should have moved, yet I did not. His breath grazed my lips, his scent filling my senses with pine, with the night breeze, with too many things I wanted to forget. Could he hear the thud of my heart? The evidence of desire I tried so hard to suppress?

My eyelids lowered, a tantalizing warmth coursing through my blood. But then he stopped, raising his hand to cradle my cheek.

“Do you want this?” His low voice curled at the edge of my hearing.

I should have moved away. Stumbled to my feet, and fled. Yet my head tilted toward him instead, as though tugged by an invisible thread. Something shifted in his expression,

darkening with desire. His throat worked, a moment before his hand slid down the curve of my neck. His touch was firm yet tender, drawing me to him with a restrained passion that broke the last of my defenses. His mouth pressed

against mine, seeking and fierce. My lips parted as he

deepened the kiss, clasping me to him with a hunger that stole my breath. As his arm tightened around my waist like a band of iron, I arched closer, the press of his body firm

and cool. Heat jolted down my spine, light flashing before me like the stars afire. Perhaps this spark had been there all along, muted, not extinguished. Perhaps it was my longing to feel something other than fear or despair—even if it was these confounding emotions he roused in me. Or it might have been his heartfelt words, the hurt I sensed deep within him.

Excuses. Lies, to shroud myself from the shameful truth that a part of me wanted him still, even after all he had

done. A weakness that I wished I could undo. Almost shaking from the effort, I pushed against Wenzhi. He released me at once, breaking the embrace—his grave expression devoid of the triumph I expected.

“I had wondered all this time if it was him, alone, in your heart. How I longed to know if I was there too.” A fierce light shone from his eyes. “You still feel something for me, even though you’re too stubborn to admit it. Or are you afraid to?”

“Desire is not love.” I was eager to dismiss what had

passed between us, to cheapen it and cast it from my mind. Why was it that I advanced readily into battle yet remained a coward in such matters?

“It is not,” he agreed. “But you, Xingyin, would not desire someone you care nothing for.”

My blood simmered at the assurance in his tone, yet I could not find the words to deny it. As his gaze flicked

behind me, I swung around to find Liwei standing there, as still as stone—staring at me as though I were a stranger.

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