The scent of sandalwood clung to the air, wafting from the bronze incense burners scattered around the room. Rows of silk lanterns, strung from the ceilings, cast their fiery glow upon the obsidian walls. All around, the guests lounged on
brocade cushions as they sipped from gilded porcelain cups. Small plates of food were laid before them on low mahogany tables: steamed dumplings topped with glistening crab roe, thin slices of roast pork drizzled with a ginger and scallion sauce, delicate spring rolls fried to a golden crisp.
The Cloud Wall immortals seemed to favor vivid colors, clad in jewel tones of amethyst and emerald, ruby and
aquamarine. I must have appeared a drab flower among them, though the palace attendants had offered me a
dazzling array of garments. In no mood for gaiety, I had
chosen the most somber outfit I could find—a green silk so pale, it bordered on gray. Yellow chrysanthemums were
embroidered on the skirt, nodding their heads as though tossed by the wind that swirled through in silver curls of thread. My neck and wrists were unadorned, my hair pulled through a plain band of silk, the long ends brushing my
“We are a matched pair,” Wenzhi remarked from beside me, a small smile on his lips.
“We are not.” I was in no mood to be agreeable. My insides knotted from being here, a place I never imagined I would return to. The incense fragrance clogged my nostrils, the dark walls seeming to close in tighter—unsettling memories surfacing that I clung to, reminding myself to never lower my guard.
“I meant our clothes are matched,” Wenzhi said, his smile widening.
He had changed, too, into a high-collared moss-green
robe, a pattern of leaves embroidered along the hem in gold thread. The color highlighted the angular planes of his face, the darker hue of his skin. As my heart quickened, I crushed the treacherous impulse.
I was not here upon a whim. We needed King Wenming’s aid, and I hoped to sway him from his outrageous condition. I had not come to play the role of a docile daughter-in-law. I would be a thorn, a viper, the falcon Wenzhi had likened me to once.
King Wenming sat on an ebony throne upon the dais, his back straight, his gaze alert and assessing. An ornate gold crown rested on his head, fringed with amethyst beads that fell over his brow. His robes were a muted ash, in startling contrast to the brilliant garments of the three women who stood behind him, their exquisite robes of vermilion, coral, and lapis studded with pearls.
Wenzhi led me to a low table in the front. As we sat upon the flat brocade cushions, my eyes darted around the room yet always returned to the dais. According to rumor, King Wenming had no queen but numerous wives, and I assumed the three present were the most favored.
“My mother is the Noble Consort of the third rank, the one dressed in coral. While the Virtuous Consort of the first rank is Wenshuang’s mother,” Wenzhi explained as he lifted the
porcelain jug and filled our cups with wine. “Having multiple consorts is as common here as in the Celestial Kingdom.”
“Why settle for one when there are so many?” My
question emerged in a more biting tone than intended. It did not seem fair; so many attending to just one, whether
queen or king—unless it was by choice. For if not, this jostle for affection and position was an unenviable situation.
Wenzhi’s fingers toyed with the rim of his cup. “There might be a field of flowers, yet all I need is one.”
“Some flowers have thorns,” I said coldly. “If you pluck them, you will get pricked.”
His gaze flicked to mine. “Those are the most precious of all.”
I ignored the leap in my pulse, shifting my attention back to the dais. As a shadow fell over us, I looked up into a pair of yellow eyes, as bright as a serpent’s. Prince Wenshuang. Something hot and bitter crowded the back of my throat, my stomach churning violently. The memory of how he had pressed his body against mine rushed over me, of his foul breath against my neck. My hands reached instinctively for a weapon I did not have, before clenching helplessly in my lap.
Prince Wenshuang’s brocade robe glittered with
amethysts, his hair tucked into a gold headpiece. Ornate rings encircled his fingers, the same ones he had slammed against my cheek and ground into my flesh. Panic crested, but I forced it back. I would not cower from him; he should run. He had hurt me when I was weak and vulnerable, and I had beaten him nonetheless.
“Our sparrow has returned,” he sneered. “Did you miss my company?”
My hand itched to strike his face. Instead, I raked him with a look of scorn. “The carcass of a rat would be better
company than you.”
Prince Wenshuang’s skin mottled with rage. “I could have you flayed for that.”
“Try it. Just remember what I did to you without my
powers.” My tone was hard, showing neither the revulsion nor fear he roused in me.
“Get lost, brother.” Wenzhi uncoiled to his full height, his voice thick with menace. “Do not forget what I did to you the last time—you’re only standing because of Father’s intervention. I warned you then and I’m warning you now, stay away if you value your life.”
Prince Wenshuang flinched as he stepped back. A fierce satisfaction coursed through me as he stalked away without another word.
“I should have protected you from him,” Wenzhi said. “After I drugged you and left you for dead? How noble you
are.” I spoke flippantly, trying to steady myself from the repulsive encounter.
He sighed as he extended his hand to me. “Only with you, Xingyin. I wish you did not evoke such inconvenient sentiments in me.” When I did not move, he added, “For the sake of appearances, if nothing else. My father believes we are to be wed.”
I nodded, placing my hand in his lightly, his fingers closing around mine. My breathing quickened as we approached the dais, the guards shifting to allow us to pass, though their watchful stares never left us. Following Wenzhi’s lead, I
bowed to the king from my waist. This close, his aura swept over us, as slippery and opaque as a frozen pond. As I lifted my head, my eyes collided with his—almost white, with a shimmering iridescence like that of opals. The lines of his face were sharp, while his body was lean and long. Thin
reddish streaks formed his lips, which curved into a humorless smile.
“You are welcome here, daughter of Chang’e and Houyi.”
His greeting was cordial and his voice silken, though my insides flinched at the sound. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
One of the women stepped forward—the Noble Consort, Wenzhi’s mother. Jade hairpins were tucked into the coils of
her dark hair, strung with chains of coral that cascaded to her shoulders, the same vivid shade as her robe. Her round eyes were the rich brown of chestnuts, set in the oval of her face. Despite the delicacy of her features, a quiet strength emanated from her.
Wenzhi bowed to her, his voice warmer than when he had addressed his father. “Mother, you look well tonight.”
She beamed at him, radiant in her joy. “Thank you, my son. I am glad you are here. The Virtuous Consort said you would not come.” Wenzhi’s mother glanced at the vermilion-clad lady behind her whose mouth was curled into a sneer.
I kept my expression calm as Wenzhi gestured toward me. “This is Xingyin.”
“I have heard much of you.” A laugh thrummed in her
voice, one of humor not scorn. She pulled off a jade bangle from her wrist and held it out to me, the stone a vivid translucent red. “A gift for you.”
“Thank you, Noble Consort. I must decline.” My refusal
came out stiffly, discordant to the generosity of the gesture.
A frown puckered her brow as she slipped the bracelet back over her hand. Perhaps she thought me shy, or more
likely, believed me ill-mannered. Except I really did not want it. I was never at ease accepting gifts from strangers,
particularly when I did not know their true price.
“Did my son tell you of my terms?” The king’s words hurtled like darts, his keen gaze upon me.
“Yes, Your Majesty, but I do not understand the need for this union,” I said carefully. “Wugang is a grave threat to us all. We should unite to defeat him.”
King Wenming’s fingers tapped the armrest of his throne in a ceaseless, unhurried rhythm. “My son has shared this and more. According to him, Wugang’s army is almost invincible, capable of destroying an immortal with a single
strike of their blades. They might even be impervious to our magic, though that has yet to be fully tested.”
I took heart from his words. Perhaps we might be able to convince him of our urgency. “Wugang does not seek to rule just the Celestial Kingdom but the entire Immortal Realm.
He will cast his eyes toward the Cloud Wall too, it is only a matter of time.”
“Indeed,” the king agreed smoothly. “Yet the fact remains, you have a favor to ask of me.”
I swallowed, pushing through the thickness in my throat. “We need the Divine Mirror Scroll to stop him.”
“You make it sound like a simple request. Many have sought this to further their own ends. What do you intend to do with the scroll?” His tone hardened, his fingers stilling
against his armrest.
Did he think me a liar? Plotting with his son to usurp his
power? “If Your Majesty performs the enchantment on me, I can get close enough to Wugang to end this.” I did not
reveal the rest of my plan; I did not trust him with it.
“Father, I would have no part in this,” Wenzhi emphasized. “You would perform the enchantment on her alone.
Moreover, Xingyin has no talent in our magic; she is no threat to you.”
“I will be the judge of that,” the king said, raising his hand.
Before I could decipher his meaning, violet light streaked from the king’s palm toward me. I reached for a shield, too late, as it struck—jarring, like dust blown into my eyes. I writhed as the discomfort sharpened, stinging like splinters pressed into my scalp. My pulse stuttered, my fingers
clawing at my head, trying to wrench myself free of this enemy that had crept in unbidden, unheard, unseen. I
grasped my powers, scrambling to erect a barrier—a task as hopeless as plastering sand onto porcelain. The force slammed harder against my consciousness, the pain stabbing deeper, a scream forming in my throat—
The fury and terror in Wenzhi’s voice pierced my daze. His magic surged forth in a dense mist that swept over me,
prying loose the malevolent hold on my mind. As he
grasped my hand, holding me steady, his power rushed through my veins with a reviving force. My breathing eased yet I could barely move, my senses still scattered from this vicious intrusion.
“Treachery!” the Virtuous Consort snarled, pointing at Wenzhi. “How dare you attack your father, our king?”
“I did not attack.” Wenzhi spoke with stony calm, his eyes glittering dangerously. “No one is allowed to hurt her, not
even you, Father.”
His words stirred a warmth in me, underscored by the
urge to disdain his protection. But I kept silent from caution, for this place was no less perilous than the Celestial Court.
“The Virtuous Consort makes a wild accusation. She must be drunk on wine,” Wenzhi’s mother said with a bright smile, as she bowed to the king. “Your Majesty, my son did not attack you. He was merely protecting the girl, his intended.”
The king’s face was taut with displeasure as he faced Wenzhi. “I will forgive you this once, but never raise your hand to me again. Guard your feelings better if you intend to rule.”
As the last of the agony subsided, I was shaking, hunched over from the ordeal. Nauseated, feeling violated from within. But I raised my head to meet the king’s gaze. “Never do that to me again,” I warned him, despite the remnants of fear that scraped me.
The king smiled as though savoring my discomfort. “She is strong,” he mused aloud. “However, no talent in our magic, as you said.”
“Next time, Father, accept my word instead of resorting to this.” Wenzhi’s hands were still clenched by his sides.
“I trust only my own eyes and ears. You should learn to do the same, once you ascend the throne.”
Anger flared, that the king had dared to do this
contemptible thing to me, as carelessly as flicking a speck
of dirt from his robe. I bit down on my tongue, tempering my rage, relieved to not have yielded my thoughts to him
during our brief struggle.
He would not have liked what he saw.
A shudder ran through me to think of Wenzhi’s early years
—a brother who would have gladly murdered him, a father who scented treachery everywhere. It was little wonder he had grown into such a ruthless strategist; he had been
practicing since he was a child, against his own family, no less.
“Father, have I not proven my loyalty?” Wenzhi
demanded. “I wish to rid our kingdom of this threat—a far greater danger than the Celestial Kingdom ever was.”
Silence hung in the air. The king leaned back against the throne, a cunning gleam in his eyes. “This is a great favor
you ask. How can I be sure you are no Celestial spy? Did you not serve them before?” The accusation slid out, sudden
Such winding thoughts from the king … I almost missed the blunt fury of the Celestial Emperor. “Your Majesty, this is no trick. If I lied, would you not have sensed it?” A challenge tossed down so lightly, I hoped he would take the bait.
He shook his head as though to say: Not good enough.
Balancing an elbow on the armrest of his throne, he rested his chin upon his fist. The Virtuous Consort offered him a
cup of wine, which he refused with an impatient flick of his wrist.
“The Divine Mirror Scroll is a precious treasure of our
realm. It can only be used once. A difficult enchantment to perform, one which comes at great cost to the caster. Are
you worthy of it? Can I trust you, an outsider, unbound to us by blood or name?” He spoke slowly, with deliberate measure. “If you were family, that would be a different matter. You know my condition for the scroll.”
“Why do you want this, Your Majesty?” Part of me dreaded his answer.
The king’s laugh was like rocks ground together. “You have no kingdom nor title, though your lineage is strong—as is the power that flows in your veins. I have heard of your
accomplishments from my own informants: your standing in the Celestial Army, the dragons, and yes, even your flight from our hospitality.”
As muted laughter rippled through the room, Wenzhi swung around. His glare quelled them as effectively as a
drawn blade, yet his face gave no indication of his thoughts.
The king leaned forward, his gaze fixed on mine. “Marry my heir, and the scroll is yours.”
“No.” The refusal sprang to my lips before I could stop it. To hear his demand spoken in such an implacable manner jarred me. But I bit back my harsher words, for I could not risk offending the king. To him, this was not so unreasonable a request. Royal children often married to suit their parents’ preferences—whether to secure an alliance, strengthen ties, or settle old rivalries.
Except I was no royal and I was never one for obeying commands, particularly those issued by overbearing monarchs.
The king’s mouth slanted in a cunning smile as he
gestured at Wenzhi. “Come, now. My request is no hardship. My son is not displeasing to look at. Moreover, he is no stranger to you; you liked him well enough in the past.”
I gritted my teeth as Wenzhi shot me a warning look. I did not need his reminder; I would not lash out like some
petulant child. “Your Majesty, you honor me.” The words crumbled like stale bread in my mouth. “However, I am
promised to another.” I had no compunction about lying to him. Beside me, Wenzhi tensed, his face impassive.
The king shrugged. “Such things change as quickly as kingdoms are lost.”
“Spouses are not as easily traded as heirs.” My furious reply rolled off my tongue.
“Ah, you are wrong, my dear.” The king shifted, resting his palms upon his knees. “The heads of both can be just as
The threat plunged into the silence like a brick tossed into a pond. Relief flooded me that Liwei was waiting in the Golden Desert, safe from the king’s ruthless machinations.
“Your Majesty must be mistaken,” I tried again. “I am no matrimonial prize. I can bring you neither power, a kingdom, nor allies.”
“That is not quite true.” The king lowered his tone to a conspiratorial whisper. “I know who your father is—the
dragons he used to command, the heavenly creatures he slew. His blood and strength flow in your veins.”
“The dragons are freed of their bond. They no longer answer to him.” I was guarded, unsure of his intent.
“Such ancient ties are not easily broken. If he calls, they will come. Besides, the Cloud Wall needs such strength as you can bring to our line, the children you will bear.”
Red flashed through my vision at his words. I would not dwell on his meaning; rage would engulf me if I did. “The urgency is to defeat Wugang. Now, before he becomes unstoppable.”
“Perhaps he is already unstoppable.” The king spread his hands wide. “Wugang has offered us an alliance. It would be prudent for us to accept. At least for now.”
I glanced at Wenzhi, who shook his head.
“My son knows nothing of this. I will accept the newly
crowned Celestial Emperor’s offer if you refuse mine. I have no love for the Celestial Kingdom; it gladdens me to see them brought low. Yet Wugang’s rise threatens us too. Not now, when there are greater prizes to seize, the jewel of the Celestial Kingdom for the taking. But new horizons will
beckon to him soon, his thirst for conquest unquenched.
Such as he will not be satisfied with one kingdom when there are eight.”
“Then we must stop him—”
“Among all the kingdoms in the Immortal Realm, the Cloud Wall alone has the choice to bide our time,” the king interjected. “To study our enemy, to fortify ourselves when
others are weakened, to eliminate enemies of the past—and to strike when it is least expected.”
“Wugang will only grow stronger,” Wenzhi cautioned. “His army will multiply with none to stop him, and once the other kingdoms fall, their armies will be his to command.”
“Whatever is left of their armies.” The king spoke with a brutal callousness. “Nor will we be idle; we will prepare
ourselves for any eventuality. This new order might be to our favor, for we are weary of being the outcasts of the realm.”
“Father, surely you do not believe that—” Wenzhi protested.
The king’s hand flew up. “Enough. My patience is wearing thin.”
Perhaps the king had been isolated in his domain for too long, not comprehending the danger to the realm. Or
perhaps it was a cunning tactic to force our hand. My hand, I thought wrathfully.
“If we are to risk defying Wugang, we must be well
positioned to share in the spoils of victory after,” the king declared. “Not to be discarded after our usefulness is gone. The Dragon Lord was revered throughout the kingdoms.
Now he has returned, a union with your family would benefit us greatly.”
“Father, I’ve told you I do not want this,” Wenzhi said adamantly. “Not this way.”
The intensity of his tone caught at me. Despite his
assurances, a part of me had wondered if this had been his plan. He always played to win, bending the rules in his favor
… however, this was no act.
“Don’t deny that you want her.” The king’s words slithered around us like the coils of a snake. “This is how you hold a throne; this is how you seize what you want. I thought you understood, which is why I named you heir. I forgave you for losing the dragons’ pearls, but do not disappoint me again.”
Menace coated his tone as he added, “Don’t forget, I have another son.”
“Never,” I spat, my stomach lurching at the thought.
The king leaned back against his throne, his eyes glinting like shards of ice. “There are ways to secure your
I recoiled at the reminder of what he had done to me a moment earlier. Wenzhi had promised to never use such magic on me, but his father possessed no such scruples.
Wenzhi’s eyes widened with a silent plea for my trust
before he bowed to the throne. “Father, thank you for your wisdom. We accept your decision.”
I did not wholly trust him, yet there was no choice. If I
refused, the king would either cast his lot in with Wugang or force me into marriage with Prince Wenshuang—a fate worse than death.
Victory in his grasp, King Wenming accepted a cup of wine from the Virtuous Consort, lifting it in a toast. “The wedding will be in three days.”
“No.” I grasped wildly for a way out. “We must move on Wugang now. The wedding can be held after.”
“You do not get to decide this. Learn your place if you wish my favor. Be careful,” the king added, “lest three days
I held my tongue, inclining my head in seeming
acquiescence—even as despair flooded me like I had been swept into waters too deep, and could no longer feel the
ground with my feet.