In the late afternoon light, the laurel gleamed like a pillar of ice. I ran my fingers down the bark, as smooth as marble— as though it had never been ravaged by the axe, as though I had imagined it all.
“Is this where you spend all your time?” Liwei asked as he approached.
I grimaced. “It was where I spent last night. Unplanned.” Without delay, I told of Master Gang’s attack.
His face darkened. “Did he hurt you?”
I shook my head, holding the seed out to him—smaller than my thumbnail, something opaque swirling within like a wisp of cloud. “This fell from the laurel. There is some magic here that I cannot identify.”
He lifted it up, examining it intently. “Cold. Its energy is strong but unfamiliar. Let’s test it.”
As he raised his other palm, the seed floated into the air. Crimson flames engulfed it with a crackle, leaping high then dying out abruptly, leaving the seed charred like a fragment of coal. Relief swept through me that this was no great
treasure after all, no mysterious power. Certainly not worth the efforts Master Gang had taken.
The urgency in Liwei’s tone startled me. The seed was shining once more like it had shed its outer skin, just a trace dimmer than before. For it to have survived Liwei’s fire intact meant its power was strong.
My magic flowed in a shimmering stream, binding the seed in layers of air, clenching harder until thin fractures webbed the surface. I tensed, channeling more of my
energy, intent on crushing it to prove it was of no
consequence—but a brightness flared from the seed’s depths, sealing the cracks.
Liwei’s eyes narrowed as he raised a hand to the tree, more flames erupting in thick waves to consume it. As they swept over the silvery leaves and bark, I recoiled, biting
back my instinctive protest—I had loved the laurel since my childhood, playing in its shade, entranced by its beauty. As Liwei’s fingers closed into a fist, the fire surged hotter, the bark darkening in patches … yet the flames shuddered and
stilled before going out in a hiss of smoke. The gleaming sap spilled forth once again, sliding down the bark in rivulets. A luminous radiance suffused the laurel, the scorch marks fading, leaving the wood unblemished.
“Regeneration. Except I have never encountered anything as powerful,” Liwei remarked, staring at the tree.
I recalled the ease with which my magic had flowed, a far cry from when I had sacrificed my lifeforce to free the
dragons. I had recovered here quicker than anyone believed possible. And now I knew why.
“It healed me too. When I first returned I could barely manage the wards, and now … I am almost as strong as before.” Tangled with my relief was a sinking dread.
“I am glad for it.” Liwei tilted his head to me, “But why do you look so worried?”
“What else can this be used to do? What does Master Gang want with it? Who is he? For he is no harmless musician or petty thief.”
“We will find out,” he assured me. “Have you managed to pluck more of the seeds?”
“No. Weapons didn’t work, whether swords or daggers.
None of them made a scratch, the marks vanishing as soon as they appeared—just as with your fire. I do not know how Master Gang did it.”
“Maybe his axe was enchanted? Do you recall anything else from last night?” Liwei asked.
I paused, sifting through the blur of my thoughts. “He was strong and quick, surprisingly so. His weapon was able to
carve the laurel’s bark, unlike ours, but I sensed no magic around it.”
Something caught my eye then, a cloud descending from the skies, toward the guest wing. Who had summoned it?
Trailing the cloud’s path, we made our way swiftly to Master Haoran’s courtyard. Magnolia trees shaded the grounds, their roots rippling over the grass, their branches weaving
above a round stone table.
As I rapped upon the latticed door, a muffled oath filtered through, followed by the urgent tread of feet. Liwei shoved the doors apart, the panels flying open. It was dark inside, cloth draped over the windows. Light poured in through the entrance that we stalked through. A heady sweetness clung to the air from the crushed blooms piled into silk bags— some tied shut and others left gaping wide, petals strewn
across the floor.
Master Haoran leapt up from where he had been huddled, stacking jars of wine sealed with red fabric into a wooden
box. He blinked, a hand thrown up to shield his face from the glare. “Be careful, the light will harm the petals!”
With a surge of my power, the coverings were ripped from the windows, the sunlight streaming in. “Stop the pretense. You’re not here for flowers.”
“What do you mean?” He stared at me blankly. “Why are you here?”
“We might ask you the same question,” Liwei replied
coldly. “Why are you leaving so soon, without bidding your hostess farewell?”
“A pressing matter has arisen. Family affairs.” His words fell out awkwardly, strung in haste.
Caught unaware, Master Haoran was as bad a liar as I had been, before my own tongue was gilded with deceit. My mind worked quickly, fragments falling into place: his arrival with Master Gang, his eagerness to ply us with wine, his haste to leave. “Why did you come here? Why did you lie to us?” I demanded.
Master Haoran stiffened, then bolted toward the door.
Fiery coils erupted from Liwei’s hand, winding around him like a snake.
“Stop! Spare me! I’ll tell you all I know.” He struggled amid the writhing flames. Yet no stench of burning flesh
tainted the air; the fire did not sear but merely held him in place.
I spoke more gently. “The truth is the best chance for you to leave here unharmed.” However, if he had schemed to hurt us, he would find little mercy.
He nodded jerkily. “Queen Fengjin is not my patron. My wines are the best in the kingdom, but those arrogant
palace stewards refuse to give me a chance. Her Majesty enjoys osmanthus wines and I … I wanted to win her favor.
Master Gang visited my shop and told me of the osmanthus trees on the moon, each flower in perfect bloom. In return, all he wanted was a small favor. It seemed harmless
enough, and it was customary to bring one’s hostess a gift.” “The wine.” I chided myself for drinking it. Master Gang
must have added something to it, to put us all to sleep. If I had drunk it last night, I would have slumbered through, ignorant of all that had transpired.
As I glanced at Master Haoran, his skin a sickly pallor, my anger at him dissipated. He had been used as a mask—his petty lies distracting me, allowing the true villain to roam
unhindered. By fixing on a single sapling, I had lost sight of the forest.
“What else did he tell you?” Liwei pressed.
“Only that he needed to retrieve something which
belonged to him. I didn’t think there was any ill intent.”
Master Gang had said as much when I confronted him. I had thought it bluster, a lie to excuse his actions.
“Who is he?” I probed.
“He didn’t say and I dared not ask.” Master Haoran
gnawed his lower lip. “The first time we met, he wore a jade ornament carved with the sun. I haven’t seen it since.”
The symbol of the Celestial Kingdom. Liwei inhaled slowly as my chest squeezed tight.
“I know nothing else. I swear.” Master Haoran’s voice trembled.
“Let him go. He was tricked too,” I said to Liwei.
As his binds vanished, Master Haoran slumped to the
ground, shaking, yet his gaze lingered on the silk bundles scattered around the room.
“Take the osmanthus. You are free to go,” I told him.
“Thank you.” He bowed to us, then snatched up as many bags as he could cram into his arms. Without a backward glance he fled the room, the wind outside rustling as his
cloud shot into the skies.
Silence stretched taut between us. “Many people wear such an ornament,” Liwei said. “Even if he was from the Celestial Kingdom, it does not mean he is here upon my
father’s command. My father has no need for such devious measures. The moon falls under Celestial rule. If he wished, he could have commanded your mother to accept Master Gang’s presence.”
Not if he wanted his interest to remain a secret. But I nodded, eager to grasp at this sliver of comfort. I had no urge to confront the Celestial Emperor again.
“We must find out more,” I said. “Would Teacher Daoming know anything about the laurel seed?”
Teacher Daoming was one of the few I trusted in the Jade Palace, who had looked out for me, though it had not felt that way in the beginning when I struggled with my lessons.
Only later did I realize she was helping me overcome the barriers of my power, and only after I yielded her my
respect did I earn hers.
“I will ask her,” Liwei assured me.
As he tucked the laurel seed into the inner pocket of his sleeve, the embroidered cranes spread their wings as though poised for flight. His robe was of the finest blue
brocade, fastened around his waist with a silver brocade sash. My gaze drifted up the smooth column of his neck to his black hair gathered into a topknot encircled by a crown of sapphire and gold.
How magnificent he looked. How regal and formal. An irrational desire swelled in me to have dressed with more care, to have coiled my hair in a different style instead of tying it partway down my back. Here, there was little need for finery.
“Are you attending a banquet later?” I asked, despite knowing how he disliked such events.
He shook his head. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you look … because you are dressed like that,” I finished clumsily.
A corner of his mouth curved up. “Does it please you?”
I met his gaze. “It suits you.” It was not flattery; he looked just as the Celestial Crown Prince should, yet the disparity in our positions had never seemed more stark.
His power flickered forth, his crown morphing into a simple circlet of silver, the cranes on his robe stilling before they vanished. “You were never much good at disguising
“Not to you,” I admitted. “And you did not need to do that.” Yet I could not deny feeling more at ease with him.
“I wanted to.” Liwei paused, brushing a stray strand of hair from his forehead. “Xingyin, I would like to show you
The intensity in his voice struck me. “Now?”
He glanced at the darkening skies. “There is no better time. I will bring you back before dawn.”
His fingers clasped mine as he drew me from the room.
Outside, a cloud was already waiting. The wind glided over my face as we soared higher, until my home was no more than a pale orb in the distance. Once before we had flown like this, our hearts entwined before the storms that swept us apart.
As our cloud halted, I looked up, all thought driven from my mind. Stars glittered before us, spanning the breadth of the sky, as dazzling as moonlit frost.
“Liwei, where are we?” My breath misted the cool air. “The Silver River.”
“Are those the stars that parted the Weaving Goddess
from her mortal husband?” It was a renowned legend of the Mortal Realm.
He nodded. “Such a union goes against the laws of our
realm. It was said the goddess fled to the world below, until she was ordered to return to the skies. Her husband braved great peril to follow her and after much suffering, they were finally allowed to reunite for a single day each year. The seventh day of the seventh lunar month, that the mortals
celebrate as the Qixi Festival.”
In the past, I had been entranced by the romance and ethereal beauty of this myth. But after having suffered
heartache of my own, my pity was roused. I could not help thinking of my parents and the similarities in their tale.
Perhaps all such unions were doomed to tragedy, for what future could a mortal and immortal have when death
“Why do you look so sad, Xingyin?” Liwei leaned closer until his head grazed mine. “It’s just a story.”
Yet the mortals believed my father’s tale a myth, as they did that of my mother’s ascension to immortality. Perhaps
the legends that touched us deepest were those spun from a wisp of truth.
“Is it true?” I wished it was not, that no one had to suffer so—their hearts locked in yearning, forever enmeshed in
He was quiet for a moment. “Perhaps, a long time ago? This place is deserted now; there is no one here, but us.”
“Can any love be worth such misery? One night for a year of pain.”
His hand clasped mine, his grip firm and strong. “It depends.”
“On the night,” he said softly. “On what they were waiting for.”
Our shoulders brushed as we stood side by side, staring into the sea of infinite light. Silk rustled as he reached into his sleeve and drew out a hairpin, lacquered in all the hues of heaven, studded with clear stones. The one he had
crafted for me, the one I had returned to him after his betrothal to another. My gaze lifted to his dark eyes, a warmth blooming through my body.
“When I gave you this before, I pretended it was a gift in exchange for yours. I was a coward for not saying what was in my heart then. When we parted the first time, I regretted that so much was left unsaid between us and I feared never to have the chance again.” His voice shook with emotion. “If you would have me, I would pledge myself to you—for now, forever.”
Hope blazed through me, only shadowed by the
remembrance of how we had trodden this path before and the hurt that trailed in our wake. Our families. His kingdom. My cautious heart. Such were the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that lay between us. There would be no exchange of betrothal gifts between our families, no joyous coming together of two households. The last time I had seen the
Celestial Emperor, he tried to kill me. The scars across my
chest itched at the remembrance of the writhing agony,
clinging to my flesh like a web of pain. More than that, how could I leave my mother alone, once more, mired in grief for my father’s death?
In the silence, Liwei stiffened, drawing away. “I thought you wanted this too. Perhaps I was mistaken.”
He sounded formal, withdrawn—and I hated it. I clasped his hand, threading my fingers through his. “I do. I just need time. Your parents detest me, I can’t leave my mother yet.
My words faded, leaving unspoken a new fear which had sprouted in that very moment. For if I married Liwei, I would have to live forever in the Jade Palace shrouded in silk, shackled in gold, and bound by ceremony. While Liwei was not his father, nor was I his mother—we would be fettered by the same gilded tethers. I was not one to be caged. This year of freedom had awakened me to the possibilities of a life away from the confines of the Celestial Kingdom. It might seem a fantasy to many, marrying the prince of the realm and living in a palace among the clouds. Yet with a
mother-in-law who despised me and a father-in-law who had tried to end my life, it was more a nightmare than a dream.
Liwei smiled as he slid the pin through my hair until it was nestled tight. “I will wait. It is enough for me that you feel the same way, but I will tell my parents of my intentions.”
“You will?” My words rang with disbelief.
“The last thing I want is another unexpected betrothal.” The thought needled me, followed by a stab of anxiety.
“What will they do?”
“My mother will rage. My father … I am beyond the age he can discipline me as he used to. I will be a disappointment to him as I have been most of my life. I never did learn my lessons to his satisfaction.”
I was glad he had not, even as my insides clenched at his words. I had felt the force of the emperor’s displeasure; I had seen how he struck Liwei down without hesitation. At
that moment, I loathed the Celestial Empress a little less, relieved that Liwei had one parent who cared for him, who had tried to help him in her own way.
“It does not matter, as long as we are together,” he said.
As he drew me to him, his eyes darkened with an intent that stirred my blood. No, I would not let doubt taint this moment; such joy was both precious and scarce. I leaned against him, inhaling his clean scent. It had been a long
time since he held me so. As his other hand slid around the curve of my waist, fire surged through my veins, a sudden hunger consuming me as my arms wound around his neck to pull him closer. His lips found mine—firm and tender, soft yet relentless. How I had missed this sweetness, this tantalizing sensation of our bodies pressed together. His hold around me tightened as we fell, as one, onto the
billowing folds of the cloud, its coolness a balm to my heated skin.
Closing my eyes, I drifted away upon a tide of dreams, glittering as brightly as this river of stars.