Chapter no 28

Heart of the Sun Warrior

I scrambled to my feet, fumbling for words that would not come. What could I say?

This is not what it looks like. I can explain.

It meant nothing.

Except it was what it looked like, nor could I explain what had just happened, not even to myself. As for the last … I could not utter that lie. Whatever it was, it meant something, no matter how I wished it did not.

“Is this what you want? Have you decided?” Liwei asked steadily, his eyes devoid of light.

“No.” An ache stabbed my chest at the hurt in his expression.

“Decided, what?” Wenzhi demanded. I had not told him how I ended things with Liwei, the false things I had said of us.

“He is unworthy of you,” Liwei said forcefully.

“I could say the same of you.” Wenzhi uncoiled his legs

and rose to his feet. “You, who gave her up to wed another. A fool’s choice, something I will never do.”

“You just wanted her on your own terms.” Liwei stalked closer, his movements stiff with anger. “Are you even

capable of love, or is it just possession you are after?” “What exists between Xingyin and me is none of your

concern. Look to your own faults before you imagine mine.” Wenzhi’s face hardened. “What kind of life did you intend to offer her? Did you think she would be happy in the Jade

Palace with the Celestial Court? Would you have fastened a leash on her, turning her into an ornament for your life when you would never have deigned to become part of hers? You are not strong enough to do—to surrender—what it will take for her happiness.”

I laughed in disbelief as I rounded on Wenzhi. “You locked me up. You took away my power. You tried to impose your will upon me, and you dare speak of my happiness?”

“Yes, I did all that, and I was wrong,” Wenzhi answered fiercely. “A part of me knew it then, but I was selfish and afraid. I did not want to lose you. I wanted us to have a

chance together, away from all else. From him.” He turned his back to Liwei, closing the distance between us, speaking to me alone. “But I have looked into the mirror since, and not liked what I saw. I have changed, if you would only see that. If you can believe he will not hurt you again—why not me?”

“Because what you did was unforgivable,” I said bitterly. “It does not matter whether you’ve changed or not, nothing can change what you were, what you did, and what you


He flinched like I had struck him, but his gaze remained steel bright. “Then let’s build something new together.”

“Enough with these lies.” Liwei’s tone was harsh with scorn.

As his long fingers clamped over Wenzhi’s shoulder,

Wenzhi seized his wrist and flung it off, swinging around to face Liwei. “Try it again if you dare, Your Highness. I fought

my first battle while you were studying calligraphy and painting.”

“Your lessons were sorely lacking in many regards,” Liwei flung back as his hand went around the hilt of his sword.

I moved swiftly between them. “Enough. We are not the enemy.”

They glared at each other, finally stepping apart. Liwei looked at me, his unspoken question hanging between us— how could he not wonder after what he had seen? I could have claimed confusion or remorse. He would have

accepted them without question, yet we all deserved better, for such lies would yield just a temporary salve … even though lies were all I had to offer now, even to myself.

But this could not go on; far greater matters were at stake. These knots could be untangled later, once we had the leisure to do so. For if we failed … none of this would matter.

I faced them both. “Nothing is more important than stopping Wugang, an impossible task in itself. For what lies ahead, we must be strong, and we are stronger together than apart.” As I rubbed the back of my neck unthinkingly, I flinched from the discomfort of my wounds.

They did not speak at first, finally inclining their heads.

“You are hurt. What happened with Lady Xihe?” Liwei asked. “Old debts repaid. She was merciful.”

“Merciful?” Liwei’s tone twisted in disbelief. “Your wounds run deep.”

“I had to fight the phoenix. It was Lady Xihe’s challenge for the feather.” My chest cramped with the remembrance of her sorrow. “She knew who I was; she could have asked for more. Nine of her children are dead.”

You did not kill them,” Wenzhi reminded me. “Nor did she kill me,” I countered.

“How did Lady Xihe find out who you were?” Liwei asked gravely.

My fingers curled at the reminder of his mother’s trickery, but this was not the time to cast blame. Once we had dealt with Wugang, I would not let this pass. “The Sun Goddess knows all within her domain.”

“You were lucky to make it out alive,” Wenzhi said.

“Yes, along with this.” I pulled out the feather, curled in the orb like a fragment of the sun. Flames simmered along its shaft, its tendrils clawing against the barrier. I felt no triumph—rather, an almost unbearable burden to have taken more from those who had lost so much.

“We must get the feather to the laurel. How do we get past Wugang’s soldiers on the moon?” I asked.

“The moon is closely guarded against intrusion,” Liwei warned. “I heard the soldiers speak of this while I was imprisoned—they wondered at the troops sent to secure the place when fewer efforts were taken to protect the Jade


My home, in Wugang’s possession. Bitterness gnawed at me as I imagined the Pure Light Palace, so tranquil and

peaceful—now at the center of these devastating plots. Another thought struck, one even less welcome. “My lifeforce regenerated so swiftly because of the laurel’s

power. What if Wugang’s soldiers are stronger there too? How can we attack them at the heart of their might?”

“We can’t,” Wenzhi said decisively. “Even if we mustered an army to aid us, Wugang would sense the moment our forces approached, and he would crush it with everything at his disposal. It would be carnage.”

“It would also alert Wugang,” Liwei cautioned. “If he knows we intend to destroy the laurel, he will stop at nothing to keep it safe. We would never be able to reach it.”

“Then we must endeavor to keep him in the dark,” Wenzhi agreed.

My spirits lifted to hear them speaking this way, without resentment or hostility. “In the Eastern Sea, we had to

entice Governor Renyu to come to us,” I said to Wenzhi.

“What if we could trick Wugang into bringing us to the laurel?”

His lips pressed taut as he pondered my words. “There is only one person Wugang will let near the laurel,” Wenzhi said finally, a trace of reluctance weighing his tone.

I stilled, catching his meaning. There was only one person Wugang would allow near the laurel … not because he trusted her but because it would mean the fulfillment of his schemes.

My mother.

“No.” The air seemed to close around me as I searched for the flaws in his suggestion.

“We will protect her. She will come to no harm.”

Wenzhi was not one to shy from hard decisions. A part of me wanted to lash out at him, even as my mind whispered that he was right. This was our best chance … perhaps our only one.

“Wugang’s soldiers do his bidding, but they will not hurt her,” Wenzhi said. “You saw how they acted on the beach.”

“Perhaps, but Wugang will have no qualms in doing so,” I argued. “He will draw my mother’s blood to harvest the seeds. We cannot let him take her—not just because I won’t let anyone harm her, but because once she is in Wugang’s power, he wins.”

I continued, plunging onward. “Mother has no magic, nothing to either conceal or release the feather’s power. Wugang would sense it on her at once, if it doesn’t destroy her first, and if we lose the feather—we will have failed.”

I was shaking, I only realized it then. Liwei touched my arm. “You are right. We will find another way.”

“What if we disguised someone as your mother?” Wenzhi proposed.

I had done it before; pretended to be Lady Anmei in the Eastern Sea. Except such a ruse would never work here. “Wugang is far more astute than Governor Renyu; a mere

change in clothing would not suffice. He knows my mother

from his stay with us—her voice, mannerisms, and aura— and he will not forget.”

“What about an enchantment?” Liwei suggested. “Though the few I am aware of are merely surface deep, an illusion of the face and form.”

I recalled Tao’s enchantment when we had broken into the Imperial Treasury, and what he had told me of another. “I heard there is a rare magic that can replicate not just one’s appearance, but their aura and voice too.” I added slowly,

“If so, I could disguise myself as my mother.”

Liwei frowned. “Auras are as unique to us as the whorls on our fingers. This must be an ancient magic, for no one speaks of such a thing these days.”

“Ancient and forbidden,” Wenzhi said gravely. “The Divine Mirror Scroll is one of the most powerful Mind

enchantments. For as long as it holds, it would be almost impossible for someone to detect the difference.”

“A forbidden scroll?” Liwei’s tone was one of revulsion. “One of many your father destroyed,” Wenzhi replied

coldly. “Fortunately for us, they were restored.”

“Where is it?” I asked Wenzhi. Perhaps Liwei thought me a hypocrite, willing to use whatever means necessary to win. With such stakes, he might be right.

“The scroll is with my father. It is one of his most treasured possessions.”

“Will he give it to us?” I asked, doubt flashing through me. “I will ask, but he will be wary of my request. My father

doesn’t trust anyone. Neither his courtiers nor his consorts, and least of all his children. The greatest threat of betrayal is when there is the most to gain or lose,” Wenzhi said


Something flickered in his expression. Did he recall how he had betrayed me for the dragons’ pearls? Greed,

ambition, and fear were powerful forces that could cloud one’s heart and mind.

A bird trilled, a vigilant herald of dawn. Wenzhi glanced at the lightening skies, of crimson and rose. “I will return to speak to him before he heads to court.”

“We will wait for you near the border of the Eastern Sea. I dare not linger here, as Lady Xihe will be emerging soon.”

Wenzhi nodded, raising a hand to summon a cloud.

Tension gripped his body, his expression somber. Did he dread the confrontation with his father? What a strange

relationship these royals had between parent and child. Was it power that muddied the bond? Those onerous

expectations of duty? The Celestial Emperor had disparaged Liwei for his lack of ruthlessness and blunted ambition, while Wenzhi’s father feared his son had too much of it.

NEITHER LIWEI NOR I spoke as we flew toward the Eastern Sea. It struck me that this was the first time we were alone since

our flight from the Jade Palace—just days earlier, yet it felt like decades. I was no longer the girl who had entered the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility; I was not even the same one who had helped him escape. Some years swept by, leaving little mark on our lives, while a single moment sufficed to upend them.

Death had ravaged an intrinsic part of me. With this constant weight bearing down, happiness seemed an

elusive prospect. Liwei stood a palm’s width away, though it might as well have been ten, with a wall between us.

Strands of his long black hair fell across his face as he stared into the sky.

“Do your wounds still hurt?” he asked.

“No.” The discomfort was a welcome distraction to my other pains, those unseen.

He leaned forward, taking my hand. The warmth of his

energy surged into my body, healing the last of my injuries and replenishing the well of my power that had sunk

dangerously low. I breathed easier as the strength returned to my limbs.

“What happened in the grove?” he asked, drawing away. “Lady Xihe and her phoenix are powerful. How did you withstand their attacks?”

“Wenzhi helped. He shielded me.”

His face shuttered. “You are right that this is not the time for such matters, but I must say this—if you are confused, that is his doing. He is a master of manipulation.”

“No,” I said slowly. “My feelings are my own.”

His dark eyes held mine, unfathomable, when once I had read them so clearly. “Did you want to kiss him?”

I looked away then. “I wish I had not.” Not a full answer, and not what he wanted to hear.

“What you feel now … I believe it will pass. Do not let him cloud your feelings.”

The intensity in Liwei’s tone startled me. As I searched his face, I found new lines across his brow, the corners of his mouth. These days had taken their toll on him too. “Liwei,

are you well? You must be worried for your parents.”

“Mother hides her worries, though she is afraid. As for Father—” His voice trailed off. “I must return to the Jade Palace. I must help him—”

“You would just be walking into a trap. Few things are more precious to usurpers of thrones than displaced heirs,” I said bluntly.

“He will kill my father.”

“No, Wugang is prudent. He will keep your father alive until his own position is secure. He is vulnerable as long as he doesn’t have you.” I added solemnly, “If Wugang wanted to kill your father, he would already be dead.” The unvarnished truth sometimes offered the greatest comfort.

How strange that a few weeks ago, it had been the Celestial Emperor who struck terror into me, whom I

loathed. Yet compared to the senseless cruelty of Wugang, the Celestial Emperor was the preferred choice for the realm

… although I could not help thinking Liwei would make a far better ruler.

“Will Queen Fengjin stand with your family?” I asked. “With the situation so uncertain, the Phoenix Queen is

hesitant to move against Wugang. It is no longer a question of defending our position but of wresting it back—a far

harder exercise, requiring far greater conviction.” A bond stronger than an alliance.

“You should marry Princess Fengmei.” These words almost choked me, but the princess could give him more than I

ever could: A kingdom, a crown, a future. While all Liwei had ever asked me for was my heart, and I could not even yield that.

“Do you want me to, Xingyin?” A note of sadness threaded his tone.

I stifled my instinctive protest, forcing myself to say, “You must do what is best for you and your family.”

He clasped my hand tightly, and for a moment I was lost in the remembered warmth of his touch. “You have always fought against what life threw at you, whether you had a hope of winning or not. You dreamed of the impossible, making your own way when there was none. Don’t give up on us now.”

“I’m not who you think I am.” My voice was low. “I have made so many mistakes. I have hurt those I cared for, failed those I would have given anything to save.” These

confessions were torn from the deepest part of me.

“No, Xingyin—for you have been tested more than most.

Those forged through fire form the strongest blades.” He smiled at me, an echo of the companion of my past, then his expression turned somber once more. “I will not give up as long as you don’t, and I will stay by your side for as long as you let me.”

My emotions wound tighter, on the brink of snapping. I

craved his strength, his comfort and kindness—all of which I had fallen in love with, that I loved still. “I don’t know what I want. And right now, it does not matter.”

“Just tell me, am I in your heart?”

“Yes.” I did not hesitate, for it was the truth.

“As you are in mine.” He tilted his head toward me. “Not knowing is not the same as not wanting. While there is hope, I will wait.”

Before I could reply, something pulsed through the air. My head darted up as I searched our surroundings. “The wind has shifted direction. Swifter. Colder.”

“Clouds, heading our way,” he confirmed grimly. “We must flee. They must be Wugang’s soldiers.”

“They could be Wenzhi’s. Another trap.” His voice was edged with suspicion.

I shook my head. The feather would have been a great temptationyet when I had emerged from the grove,

weakened and hurt, Wenzhi could have seized it with ease. I did not know what lay in his heart, but it was not treachery

—at least, not anymore.

As our cloud swept higher, a force struck from behind, yanking us to an abrupt halt. I staggered, catching my

balance as our cloud was reeled back like a fish caught on a hook. We were harnessed. Trapped. I spun to find Wugang’s undead soldiers upon our trail, six of them—vacant-eyed,

yet set with deadly purpose. Ominously silent, their lips sealed shut. Their armor gleamed gold and white, their translucent skin almost silver, the luminous web of veins on their faces aglow in the awakening dawn.

Had Wugang learned of the feather? No, else he would have sent his entire army to retrieve it. Not even the

dragons had been aware of its existence, just the empress— for she, alone, had been close to the Sun Goddess. This must be one of the patrols sent to comb the skies for us, as Wugang would be searching for my mother.

The soldiers soared toward us, pale hollows shining in their eye sockets like twin lanterns. As they raised their hands in unison, their guandao thrust in our direction—light crackled from their blades, leaping across the sky to strike our cloud.

As it shuddered violently, fire erupted from Liwei’s palms, coiling around one of the soldiers. Yet the creature did not scorch and break as on the beach. A white glow pulsed through its skin, healing its injuries—as the remaining

soldiers slashed through Liwei’s flames like ribbons. Drawing my bow, I released an arrow at a soldier, a bolt of Sky-fire

plunging into the disc on its chest. The soldier stumbled back from the force, yet the jade did not fracture. Had it been reinforced? I shot another arrow after it, but a shield

sprang up around the soldiers, holding fast against my blow. “They’ve learned to defend themselves. They’ve learned

to help each other,” Liwei said, his voice strained.

My gaze fixed upon the nearing soldiers, my skin crawling at the sight of the guandao in their hands, agleam with malevolent power. In a moment, they would be upon us.

“Then we must strike hard, all at once,” I said.

Fire blazed from Liwei’s palms, arcing toward the soldiers, churning above like a flaming cloud. The soldiers’ heads swung up in unison, their faces blank with a chilling

detachment. A shiver rippled across my skin, but I forced my hands to steady, releasing an arrow at Liwei’s flames.

Sky-fire stuck, splintering the seething mass, cascading over the soldiers in a fiery torrent. The air reeked with an acrid

bitterness, of scorched flesh and skin—if they were made of such things. Yet the soldiers did not utter a sound as pale wounds bloomed upon their bodies like mold upon rotted fruit.

Liwei drew his sword, slashing at the unseen tethers that bound our cloud. As their hold snapped, our cloud shot into the skies. Magic coursed from our fingers, channeling a wind to spur us onward. Our robes fluttered wildly, my hair whipped free from its coils. I glanced behind to find the soldiers standing just where we had left them, an eerie light suffusing their bodies—already regenerating.

My gut twisted. They were the perfect weapon: tireless and fearless, swift and strong. An army of them would cut

through the realms like a scythe through barley. We had

escaped this time, but what of the next? What if there was nowhere left to run?

We soared swiftly southward, above the lush forests of the Phoenix Kingdom, staying far from the borders of the

Celestial Kingdom. Finally, the sands of the Golden Desert glittered on the horizon. A tall figure was flying toward us upon a violet-gray cloud.

“I sensed your presence,” Wenzhi said as he drew nearer. “Why are you here?”

“Wugang’s soldiers found us. They’ve grown stronger; we barely escaped,” I told him.

“They won’t be able to enter the Cloud Wall,” he assured me. “We have ways of keeping out unwanted guests.”

“Whatever they are, they might not work on Wugang’s soldiers,” Liwei warned.

“Perhaps,” Wenzhi agreed, his forehead furrowed. “Let’s hope Wugang has no desire to test us for now. He has

enemies aplenty throughout the rest of the Immortal Realm.”

“Did you speak to your father? Will he help us?” I asked him.

His eyes were the shade of a storm-tossed sea. “There is a price to his aid.”

I should not have been surprised. It seemed to be the way of kings and queens—those who possessed the most, unwilling to relinquish anything without advantage.

“What does he want?” I asked warily.

Wenzhi’s gaze pinned mine, his voice deepening with intensity. “Xingyin, I tried everything I could to get my father to change his mind.”

Dread gaped within me. “What do you mean?”

“My father will give us the scroll … as a wedding gift.”

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