I will not do it,” I told Wenzhi, the moment we entered my room. Fortunately, it was not the same chamber I had been locked in before, this one furnished in mahogany and rose brocade, with ink washed paintings of mountains hanging from the walls.
Wenzhi shut the door behind him. “Xingyin, I know you do not want to marry me. Despite my feelings, I have enough pride that I won’t force you into a union.” A wry smile broke across his lips. “I’m certain you would make my life an unpleasant hell if I did.”
I breathed out, a little of my tension easing—though something picked at me still. Was it resentment, to have been forced into this predicament? Anxiety for what lay
ahead? Pulling out a stool, I sank onto it, my head beginning to pound. The king demanded that we wed, but I had no intention of obeying him. Yet if I refused, he would not aid us. Meanwhile, Wugang was hunting my mother, and soon, his gaze would turn toward the Eastern Sea. The Immortal Realm teetered on the brink of destruction, and our paths were closing rapidly.
“Do you think your father will ally with Wugang, or is it an empty threat?” I asked.
“My father is no fool. The pretense of an alliance will suffice to keep us safe, for now.” He paused. “Father is playing a double game, the type he plays best. Keeping Wugang at bay with hollow promises while working to
advance his own ends.”
“Why won’t Wugang attack you?”
“Because he would rather have an ally than another
enemy,” Wenzhi said. “The Celestial Kingdom knows better than to underestimate our abilities again; they do not understand our magic. Moreover, our wards protect this
place. While Wugang’s soldiers might not possess a
consciousness of their own, something exists that enables them to accept his commands—which we might be able to harness, should the need arise.”
I searched his face. “Why is your father set upon this marriage? Surely there are more suitable candidates out there?”
“Few kingdoms in the Immortal Realm would consider a betrothal with us, a circumstance I am glad for,” he said with feeling. “Like it or not, Xingyin, this would be a
powerful alliance for us—one which would be mutually
beneficial.” He added quietly, “One which could be happy.”
His words reached deeper than I wished—a temptation to accept the aid offered, the easier path. Yet beyond our fractured past, I would hate being bartered in marriage; I would never give such an accursed union a chance. I now understood the strain Liwei had been under when he agreed to the betrothal with Princess Fengmei, and why he was
adamant on refusing it this time. I would not marry Wenzhi; I would not be a pawn for the king’s twisted machinations.
This was my life—and it was love, or even the promise of it, that gave it meaning.
“Can we delay the wedding, or try to reason with your father again?” My imagination soared. “Disguise someone
else to complete the ceremony?”
Wenzhi’s expression shuttered as he leaned against the
door. “Once my father’s mind is made up, he will not relent.
And I will not bind myself to some stranger, not even for you.”
“That was thoughtless of me,” I admitted, even as my mind still sought a way out. “Could you perform the
enchantment instead of your father?”
“Yes, if I study it,” he replied. “But the greater problem is how we might obtain the scroll. I must tread carefully. If I jeopardize my position, my mother will be left to the mercy of the other consorts. The Virtuous Consort has grown spiteful with the displacement of her son as heir. She would seek any opportunity to harm us.”
In a family as venomous as his, the safest place was on top. It was why Wenzhi had gone to such lengths to secure his position. Why should he pit himself against his father, risking it all? I, myself, was reluctant to sacrifice anything so precious on my part—whether my mother, my freedom, or my love.
Yet what if there was no choice? Could I let my mother face Wugang alone and defenseless? Could I do nothing as Wugang unleashed his soldiers? No. Never. I was not so heartless, nor reckless enough to risk the fate of the realm.
As my resolve wavered, I rebuked myself. There must be
another way. If I kept thinking there was none, I would stop searching—and then failure would surely follow.
“What if I steal it?” I offered, as desperate as a fisherman down to his last bait.
“You can’t. My father keeps the Divine Mirror Scroll on him at all times. In here.” Wenzhi tapped his temple.
I stared at him. “How is that possible?”
“It’s not easy,” he conceded. “It consumes a vast amount of energy. Only the most powerful among us are capable of such a thing, and only certain artifacts can be hidden so.
But it is the most secure place, as the items can’t be stolen
or taken by force, not without killing the vessel and destroying the artifact.”
“Why didn’t you hide the dragons’ pearls that way?” I asked.
“Oh, I considered it. I’m glad I did not. I might be dead, and not by my brother’s hand.”
I lifted my chin. “Do you think I would have killed you?”
“Yes, maybe without even knowing it. The item is tethered within the core of one’s lifeforce, and opening its pathway weakens one immensely.” He paused, before adding, “As
you did once.”
I had done it to sever the dragons’ bond with their pearls, to set them free. The agony, the wrenching loss, were not things I was eager to relive.
He continued, “It is a drain on one’s power to keep the
artifact intact, shielded from our internal energy. I could not have risked it then, not with the looming confrontation with the Celestials. The slightest slip in my concentration and the pearls would have been destroyed, and me along with them. This is why my father does not venture from our borders, why he is always surrounded by guards.”
“You could have given your father the pearls for safekeeping,” I remarked.
“Trust is something which goes both ways. I had always plotted for and taken what I wanted before. It was the only
way to survive here—to thrive.” He held my gaze. “I learned too late there was another way, that trust need not be a weakness. If only I had been honest with you from the start.”
“It would not have mattered; I would never have agreed to what you did.” Such righteous words I spoke, though the
anger that should have accompanied them had faded. “Perhaps,” Wenzhi said slowly. “But I would like to think
we might have found our way together. That you might have understood, and that we could have helped one another without hurting each other.”
I hardened myself. “A fairy tale.”
“My mother always said that I never believed in fairy tales. It was because I had known monsters since the day I knew my name.” His lips curved into a small smile. “Indulge me. Let me tell you how it played out in my mind on the
days I allowed myself to dream.”
My emotions warred within; one part of me curious, the wiser part afraid.
“You have no love for the Celestial Kingdom,” he began. “Perhaps I could have offered my father something else in place of the pearls. Perhaps I could have renounced my
claim to the throne once I secured my mother’s position. We could have left this world behind us and made our own way, whether in the realm above or below.”
“You would have given up your crown? After all you did to secure it?” My voice lifted in disbelief.
The light in his eyes rivaled that of the moon. “I would give it all up for you, if you would only ask.”
My mind went blank, an ache writhing in my chest. Yet he was cunning enough to say what he thought I wanted to hear. “I will not ask.” Somehow, I managed to speak steadily. “For it would change nothing between us.”
A shadow fell over his face. “What you told my father just now … are you really promised to the Celestial prince?”
“No.” I could not lie.
He pushed away from the door, coming to sit beside me. “I must ask, would you give this a chance? We could wed to please my father, to obtain the scroll. Once we defeat Wugang, we would have eternity before us. I would release you from your vows anytime you wished—whether a month,
a year, or a decade after. We could live as you choose, doing nothing you did not want to. I will do everything in my
power to make you happy, even letting you go whenever you wish because … I love you.”
He spoke plainly, haltingly, his voice catching a little over the words—and this moved me more than any practiced
declaration. I could not feign ignorance of his intentions; he had implied them a hundred different ways. I had tried to
avoid this, cravenly preferring to tread the surface of what we were, rather than risk drowning in its depths again.
Something else pierced me, something unexpected—a sliver of joy that he loved me still. Amid the rubble of our ruined dreams flickered the embers of something that could not be extinguished, no matter how I had tried. I had loved him, and then despised him—I believed I would hate him forever. Yet how could I truly hate someone who had saved me, whose life I had saved in turn, whom I had loved once? As I stared at his face, so grave and solemn, heat flashed through me at the recollection of our kiss—beyond desire, there was something else that frightened me, that could
destroy all I had fought for if it was unleashed again.
My pulse quickened, an erratic pace. I almost despised myself for these thoughts, a betrayal of Liwei and myself.
But I could not deny these feelings, nor should I be ashamed of them—for they were a part of who I was. The heart was
an unfathomable thing that could not be tamed to one’s will. Some might think I was toying with them. That I was selfish, or a fool? In truth, I hurt too, for with my heart cleaved I would lose either way. Breathing deeply, I reined in my
emotions. I could not allow such distractions to cloud my mind or weaken my resolve … to make me want things I could not afford.
“I will not.” I ignored the pang in my chest. “We have no future together.”
He stiffened. “Because of Liwei?”
I shook my head. “Because regardless of my feelings—I could never trust you again, not in the way that matters.”
“You are unforgiving, Xingyin.” A trace of sadness threaded his tone.
I lifted my head. “There are worse things to be.”
The light in his gaze dwindled, like the fading of stars come dawn. “Thank you for your honesty.”
“I thank you too.” A sudden tightness pressed around me, a hollow gaping within. A door shut, a path untrodden. A future unlived.
“What do we do now?” I asked. “How do we persuade your father to give us the scroll?”
“My father expects a wedding, so we will have to give him one.” His smile did not reach his eyes. “Try not to look so
distraught at the prospect of marrying me, Xingyin. A wedding need not mean a marriage.”
THIS TIME, THERE WAS no barrier upon my window, no guards
outside my door. After Wenzhi had gone, I left to meet Liwei in the Golden Desert. The sky glittered with sparks of white flame, starlight casting their radiance upon the sands—yet even they could not dispel the void left by the moon’s
absence. As we stood there, a warm breeze wound between the dunes, tinged with a rich sweetness.
“A wedding?” Liwei repeated stonily, his pupils darker than the night. His expression had grown thunderous after hearing the Cloud Wall king’s demand.
“He will not relent. This is the only way to get King Wenming’s help,” I explained.
He searched my face. “Is this what you want, Xingyin?” “How can you think that?” I countered. “The last thing I need is some devious monarch dictating my future. This is
only a means to an end.”
“Or is it a convenient excuse? You do not seem particularly unhappy, when you broke our own union with such ease.”
His anger stung. “I tried to refuse. King Wenming was
adamant. He threatened to form an alliance with Wugang, and worse.”
“Don’t go through with this,” he said. “What if something goes wrong?”
“Wenzhi promised not to hold me to anything.”
Liwei’s expression hardened. “You must not believe him.”
“I trust my own instincts, not him. He does not want to be forcibly wed to me either,” I assured him. “Nothing will go wrong, though I will need your help.”
“Anything.” A faint smile formed on his lips. “It would give me great pleasure to incapacitate the groom.”
“If he plays me false, I will help you.” Despite my answering smile, there was little humor in my tone.
With a step, he closed the distance between us, clasping me into his arms. My eyelids drifted shut as I leaned against him, the warmth of his skin sliding through the layers of silk. Part of me wanted this moment to last forever—just the two of us, as we had been in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility, the fragrance of peach blossoms drifting in the air, the lightness in my heart when I awoke each day. A pure and uncomplicated joy, an undivided heart. If only I could shut
out our past, our doubts and regrets. The troubles that bore down upon me, the searing heat from the Sacred Flame
Feather even now burning its way through the
enchantments woven around it. A constant struggle to keep it whole, to keep it from destroying me.
“Let him go,” Liwei whispered into my hair. “He’s not good enough for you; he never will be.”
I fought the urge to wind my arms around him, to ease his hurt and mine. To let us find some joy in the little time we had. The dream of happiness was at once a strength and a terrible weakness, and I dared not succumb while the future was so bleak. I would make no promises I could not keep.
As I drew away from him, his eyes shadowed with pain. Hurt wrenched me within, twisting and sharp—yet I forced myself to walk away, even as I sensed his gaze upon my back. I did not turn, no matter how much I yearned to.
The wind howled mercilessly against my face as I closed my eyes, letting the tears slide down my cheeks. I did not need to conceal them anymore, for no one could see them. Despite the heat of the Golden Desert, a shiver coursed
through my flesh. For a life without love was a night without stars, and only the darkness awaited me now.