Chapter no 31

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Three days slipped by like three hours, consumed by

elaborate plans and preparations. I played little part in them

—nodding when I was asked about the embroidery on my gown, the jewels on my headdress, or the food that would be served at the banquet. A most agreeable bride, a most indifferent one. All the while my mind churned incessantly with thoughts of what lay ahead, of the devastation that awaited us should we fail.

The day of the wedding dawned pale and gray. There was no joy in me, just a sinking foreboding like the moment

before the dark clouds break, when you stumble and know

you will fall. I stared at my reflection in the golden surface of the mirror. The heavy brocade gown was a vivid red, the

color of joy and luck—and blood, my vigilant mind

whispered. Magnificent phoenixes in gold and turquoise, and peonies with jade-green leaves were embroidered upon the cloth. An exquisite headdress crafted with coral flowers was fitted onto my hair, strands of pearls falling to my shoulders. Crescent-shaped brows arched over my eyes, plucked by a diligent attendant who cared little for my grimaces, while my lips and nails were painted a glossy scarlet. A part of me

wanted to laugh at the futility of these efforts, but I merely clenched my jaws with frustration. None of this would help us stop Wugang. What use was soaking in a rose-petal bath or combing my hair with camellia oil until it gleamed like a river of ink? This was my wedding, but I was no bride.

An attendant arranged a red square of satin over my headdress, draping it over my face. For a moment I could not breathe, stifled by the veil, the weight of the ceremonial robes hanging from my shoulders and the gold upon my head. All I glimpsed was a crack of the ground through where the cloth gaped—as an attendant took my arm,

guiding me from the room.

Four bearers carried my palanquin, its latticed windows

covered by thick cloth. Lifting the veil, I peeked through the curtain to find a grand pavilion with malachite pillars rising from the violet clouds. Sunlight struck its arched roof,

glittering across its tiles. As my gaze shifted to the crowd of guests within, my insides twisted into knots. I fell back

against the cushioned seat, my hands clasped in my lap as I sifted carefully through the mingled auras. Finally, I sensed his warmth—Liwei, in the skies above, out of sight. Some of the tautness within me eased, even as my mind wandered to all the things that might go wrong: What if we failed in

our pretense? What if Wenzhi and I wound up truly wed? Would he honor his vow to release me? If this was a trick, another of his schemes, I might really kill him this time.

The palanquin lurched to a halt, the back of my head knocking the wooden panel behind. I hastily rearranged the cloth over my face, sensing the forceful approach of

Wenzhi’s aura. The curtain rustled, then parted, as Wenzhi reached in to help me out. Gold dragons were embroidered over his crimson brocade sleeve, the accompaniment to the phoenixes on mine. A tremor ran through me, my heart

pounding so hard I thought it might burst. Drawing a deep breath, I placed my hand into his and stepped from the


We walked toward the pavilion at a measured pace, the

cloying fragrance of incense and flowers almost stifling me. My beaded slippers crushed the petals strewn thickly across the walkway—a lush carpet of azaleas, camellias, peonies.

As a breeze teased at my veil, I suppressed the urge to rip it away. Why did brides have to be covered in this manner?

Was it so they would not flee at the sight of their grooms?

Before the altar, Wenzhi halted, lowering himself to his knees. I sank down beside him upon the flat brocade

cushion, my pulse racing. Three unlit sticks of incense were pushed into my palm. Three bows were all it would take to seal us into an eternal union. A hiss pierced the silence, heat grazing my hand as the incense caught fire—wisps of fragrant smoke drifting in the air. Together, Wenzhi and I

pressed the incense sticks into the brass brazier.

“The ceremony will begin,” a voice intoned formally, likely a high-ranking official or respected elder in the Cloud Wall.

Whoever he was, I hoped Wenzhi had bribed him well.

“The first bow to Heaven and Earth,” the marriage official cried out.

As I folded over, the weight of my headdress dipped

precariously forward. As I quickly raised myself, the official continued, “The second bow to the parents and ancestors.”

As we turned to King Wenming, I was glad for the veil to hide my strained expression as we bowed. I had made excuses for my own parents’ absence, for I would give the king no more weapons against me.

The official cleared his throat. “The final bow to each other,” he called out, with the barest quiver in his voice.

This was the act that would bind us together for eternity. I should have positioned myself to face Wenzhi, but something in me refused to move as though I had been transformed to stone. As the guests began to murmur at the delay, Wenzhi placed his hand over mine, his thumb

brushing my palm.

“Trust me,” he whispered from under his breath.

I did not. At least, not wholly. Yet something in the intensity of his tone jolted me into movement, giving me the strength to turn toward him. This was not the time to waver. Through the veil, I made out the hem of his scarlet robe, the gleaming embroidery sewn on the cloth. His aura, so close to me, flared fierce and cool, steady and strong. As sweat slicked my hands, I fought the urge to wipe them on the

priceless brocade of my skirt. I was trembling as befitted the image of a docile bride, as I bent my neck—

A gale burst through the pavilion, rustling silk and satin, the scents of azaleas and camellias springing into the air as the carpet of petals was swept high. Gasps broke out from the guests—some delighted, others surprised and irate. As my veil flared up, I caught a glimpse of the petals that rained down like a fragrant storm, brushing my bared skin with a feathery softness. One of the king’s consorts swept a fan before his face to shield him, which he pushed aside with an impatient wave. And then Wenzhi was already lifting his head as he rose with deliberate emphasis—while I let my veil fall back into place and straightened as though I was rising from a bow that I had not made.

The rite was unfinished, the ritual meaningless. We were not wed.

I steeled myself for cries of outrage, for a sharp command to complete the ceremony. Yet there was none. Somehow, it had worked, Liwei’s enchantment having bought us a

precious moment of deception.

“The three bows are performed, the ceremony is

complete. May the couple find everlasting happiness together,” the official called out eagerly. “Raise the veil.”

The satin covering was pulled gently from my face. I

blinked against the sudden brightness, my eyes meeting Wenzhi’s, the pale hue of sunlight in winter.

An exuberant cheer broke out from the guests. The smile that lit my face was unfeigned, my fingers threaded through Wenzhi’s in a hollow pretense of a harmonious couple.

Wenzhi led me toward the king, for once not surrounded by his guards, his consorts seated alongside him. Prince

Wenshuang was absent, I was relieved to find—perhaps in a pique from our last confrontation.

The king’s gaze speared me. For a moment I feared he had seen through our ruse, but then he nodded to an

attendant, who hurried to us holding out a tray with a gilded porcelain tea set emblazoned with the symbol ,

representing the twin joys of newlyweds embarking on their life together. In our situation, it could not have been less


Kneeling on the ground, I picked up the cup and offered it to the king with both hands as tradition dictated. He

accepted it, bringing it to his lips though he did not drink. I waited for him to reach for the bridal gift as was customary

—typically a piece of jewelry or something precious, except the only thing I wanted was what had been promised. Yet the scroll did not appear, nor did he speak, merely staring at me over the rim of his cup.

“Father.” I faltered over the word. “The ceremony is complete. May I have the scroll?”

The surrounding guests exchanged pointed looks of

disapproval. They thought me ill bred. Mercenary. Unheard-of, for a bride to demand her gift, except what did I care for such courtesies when I had been coerced into this farce?

A deep chuckle rolled from the king’s throat. His eyes

gleamed like he had gotten the better of me. “Why the rush, my dear daughter-in-law? There is still the banquet and then, the consummation. After that, I will perform the Divine Mirror Scroll on you whenever you wish.”

I lurched upright, a protest rising to my lips. Before I could speak, a sharp whistling sliced the air, hurtling past me to

plunge into King Wenming. His body jerked violently, his

eyes rounding in horror at the sight of the spear thrust clear through his chest, its pointed tip wet with blood.

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