Chapter no 32

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Shock ripped through me, jagged and sharp. My gaze flew to Wenzhi, his face twisted with horror. Calling for the

guards, he leapt to his feet, grabbing a sword from a nearby soldier as he raced in the direction of where the spear had been flung.

King Wenming’s hands flew up to clutch his wound,

groping at the wooden shaft and tearing it from his body. It slid out with a sucking sound, the spear tip falling away,

dissolving into a grayish, frothing liquid that seeped into his blood. The shaft fell from his hand, his fingers splayed limp. Around him, his consorts fluttered like frantic butterflies.

Only the Noble Consort—Wenzhi’s mother—had the presence of mind to try to seal his wound, her magic pouring from her palms into his body. Yet his blood

continued to spill from the gash, tinted with a dark sheen as though an ink-laden brush had been run through his veins.

King Wenming snarled, a bestial sound, his aura

thickening with murderous intent. “Treachery,” he panted, between stuttering breaths. “You … and your accomplices.”

As he pointed a trembling finger at me, a flash of violet light streaked from it, striking my temple.

Pain shot through me like a hundred needles stabbing my head in a merciless rhythm. I fell to my knees, ripping off my headdress, tearing at my hair—every nerve in my body afire, broken gasps tumbling from my mouth. Grasping wildly at my power, I flung up a shield to protect myself, wrenching away his tethers on my mind—just as I had seen Wenzhi do before. The king collapsed onto the ground,

convulsing, his consorts weeping openly as they clustered around him.

The agony dispersed into merciful nothingness, though I could not stop shaking, the echoes of its torment

reverberating through me. I drew a ragged breath and then another, until my muscles loosened, my strength flowing

back to my limbs. A thought jarred me, that I should not have been able to throw off the king’s attack so easily. I had been clasped in its throes before, suffered his unyielding

power … which meant the king was gravely weakened.

As someone shouted for the healers, a chilling laugh rose above the chaos. Prince Wenshuang. When had he arrived?

“It’s too late. The spear is charmed to drain his energy.” Prince Wenshuang spoke in a bored tone as he stared at his father, spasming in agony.

“You don’t have that kind of power.” Wenzhi stalked back into the pavilion, his body taut with rage.

A feral smile stretched across Prince Wenshuang’s face. “I am capable of far more than you can imagine.”

“Why Wenshuang?” the king gasped as he struggled to raise himself onto an elbow.

“Father,” he spat, each syllable throttled with rage—all semblance of indifference gone. “If I should even call you that after you shamed me before all. Stripping me of my position, replacing me with my half-brother. He is of

common stock, while my mother is the Virtuous Consort of the first rank!”

A high-pitched wail raked the silence. The Virtuous Consort did not seem to approve of her son’s actions.

“This is contemptible, even for you. How dare you do such a thing?” Wenzhi’s knuckles were white around his sword.

Prince Wenshuang threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, I would dare much more, BrotherAcross the generations, many a long-lived king has been hastened to his death by

an impatient heir. The one who sits on the throne dictates the past and shapes the future, and I will no longer stand on the sidelines.”

“You forget one thing. You are no longer the heir.”

Wenzhi’s tone was calmer, though his eyes were shards of ice.

Prince Wenshuang flicked his hand in a dismissive gesture. “A small matter, which will be swiftly remedied.”

“Challenge me if you dare, fight me without hiding behind your soldiers. Show them who is fit to rule. Otherwise, who will support you? Who will respect you? A son without honor, who murdered his father. Who cannot even wield his own


Wenzhi’s words were carefully chosen to stir his brother to rashness. For the days were long past that Prince

Wenshuang could have bested him, and outnumbered as we were, single combat was our best chance of remaining alive.

The guests murmured, the braver ones nodding in

agreement. Still, Prince Wenshuang displayed not a glimmer of concern. “Don’t play your tricks on me; I’ve seen them all before. I don’t need to prove myself to you or anyone. Those who do not obey do so at their own peril. Since Father

rejected the Celestial Emperor’s offer, he was pleased to

accept mine.” His mouth curled into a smirk. “My throne for the Moon Goddess. More than a fair exchange. The emperor even gave me this.” He kicked the bloodied spear shaft to the side.

“You have grossly miscalculated,” I told him with a smile. “My mother is not here.”

You are here, her beloved daughter. She will come. I just have to wait.”

Guards encircled us, my spirits sinking to find their weapons pointed our way. Grasping my power, I held it at the ready, magic flickering at my fingertips.

“My parents have returned to the Mortal Realm. They will not come here again. What do you think Wugang will do to you for failing to honor your promise?” Never had a lie

brought me more satisfaction as rage mottled Prince Wenshuang’s face.

“If that is true,” he ground out, “there is no reason to keep you alive after all.”

Prince Wenshuang lunged at me, his sword thrust forward, scarlet flames rippling across its surface. Cursing my heavy garments, I darted aside, casting a shield over myself. He was indeed a coward, attacking one who was weaponless.

Wenzhi called to me as he grabbed a sword from a nearby soldier, tossing it to me from across the pavilion. Catching it deftly, I tore its scabbard away, swinging around to catch Prince Wenshuang’s blow.

His strikes rained down with brute force, though he lacked the innate grace of the finest swordsmen. I caught each hit, flinging it back—his attacks growing more vicious. A struggle to match him on physical strength alone as I was

driven back, out of the pavilion, upon the bed of violet clouds. As his next blow crashed down, I swerved out of

reach, summoning a burst of wind that slammed him back into a pillar.

He sprang up, his expression murderous as he flung his hand out, a fistful of fiery daggers hurtling toward me. I dropped low just as a furious shout rang out from the

pavilion. Wenzhi, fighting his way to me through Prince Wenshuang’s guards. With a kick he sent one sprawling, thrusting his sword through another. Yet more soldiers

swarmed around him until I could no longer see him in their midst. My heart plummeted. As I started forward, a searing heat lashed my back. I swallowed a cry as I spun to face Prince Wenshuang, my magic rippling forth to quench his

flames. As his energy sparked again from his fingers, coils of air sprang from my palm, flinging him onto his back. A moment’s reprieve before he rolled to his feet, stalking toward me once more. His sword swung down, narrowly missing my face as I dipped back. As he stumbled, I leapt forward, my foot connecting with his gut. A furious gasp

choked from his throat as my glittering energy wound around his sword, yanking it from his grip.

Six of his soldiers rushed toward me, bolts of ice and flame plunging my way. As I grasped my powers, a translucent arrow hurtled past me, sinking into one of my

pursuers with a squelch. I glanced at the soldier rolling on the ground, clutching at the icy shaft speckled with blood. My father’s arrow.

More shouts rang out as Liwei and my father descended from the skies, their cloud soaring toward me. My father’s arm moved so swiftly it was a blur, each arrow striking its mark with unerring accuracy, while bolts of fire streaked from Liwei’s palms, scorching the soldiers. Several scrambled to flee, the braver ones erecting shields and holding their ground.

As their cloud swooped down before me, my father stretched out his hand. “Come, Xingyin! We must go!”

I hesitated. One step, and we would be free of this wretched place—my father, mother, Liwei, and me. Yet I

could not move; I did not want to. If we left … Wenzhi would die. “I can’t leave him here surrounded by enemies.”

Liwei’s face was expressionless as he sprang from the cloud, coming to stand beside me. “Then I will fight with you.”

“Father, you must stay on the cloud, out of reach,” I urged him. “It’s too dangerous without your magic; we might not be able to protect you.” I added the last to force his hand.

My father was not one to remain on the sidelines of a battle.

He nodded grimly. “I will cover you from here.” Raising his silver bow, another arrow gleamed between his fingers.

Guests had fled the pavilion, running across the clouds. Shouts rang out, confused and afraid. My father’s arrows plunged forth in swift succession, our bolts of magic

streaking through the air, crashing against the soldier’s shields as Liwei and I fought our way back into the pavilion. At last I saw him, the tall figure clad in crimson, his robes a match to mine.

Wenzhi and his brother circled each other. Sweat glistened on their faces, light streaming from their palms into their swords. Prince Wenshuang swung his weapon in a wide arc, slashing at his brother’s head—Wenzhi driving his blade up to catch the blow. They struggled, metal scraping, faces taut with strain. Wenzhi’s hands whitened around the hilt, ice

crystals rippling along the blade as he pressed forward,

breaking his brother’s hold—Prince Wenshuang staggering back. Catching his balance, Prince Wenshuang hurled

streaks of crimson flame toward Wenzhi, who summoned waves of water to engulf it. Their magic arced through the air, dazzling and dangerous, their blades crashing in a

frenzied rhythm until my insides recoiled at the sight. While Wenzhi fought with his usual grace and skill, he held back

each blow, tempering his strikes … unwilling to kill.

As more of Prince Wenshuang’s soldiers advanced toward Wenzhi, I channeled my magic to summon a gale, hurling them back. Beside me, Liwei unleashed waves of flame,

keeping the rest at bay. This fight would be a fair one, the victory clean.

Fire and ice scattered in a hellish storm. The combatants were tiring, their skin glistening with sweat and blood.

Wenzhi raised his sword high, only to drop it low at the last moment, spinning around to drive it through Prince

Wenshuang’s gut. Blood spurted out in a crimson stream. Prince Wenshuang cried out, his sword falling from his hand

—as Wenzhi’s arm swung down again, pressing the edge of his blade against his brother’s neck.

Triumph soared through my veins, tempered by a churning unease. Victories tainted by blood were not easy ones to


“Finish it,” Prince Wenshuang snarled, his eyes squeezed with loathing.

I willed Wenzhi to lift the blade, to slice the tender veins of his brother’s throat, to stab the core of his lifeforce. His half-brother had poisoned his father, tormented Wenzhi, plotted against him at every turn, even tried to slay him in cold

blood. Prince Wenshuang had earned his death ten times over. Still, Wenzhi said nothing, even as his hand remained steady and his gaze, hard.

“I will not kill you. In our father’s name, I exile you for eternity. You will take nothing with you, you will say no farewells. Leave now, and never return.”

I did not think he would show mercy to his brother. I had thought, hoped—he would kill him as just vengeance. After today none would fault him. It was what Wenzhi had taught me himself, long ago: To show mercy in a battle was to leave your back unguarded. A lesson I wished he had

remembered today. Yet even as my heart sank, a part of me already fearing this mercy might be his undoing—an undeniable warmth suffused me.

As a shattered gasp broke from the king, Wenzhi’s face

creased with worry. He turned, starting toward his father—a mistake, my instincts screamed—as Prince Wenshuang sprang at him, swift as a striking serpent, a drawn dagger glinting in his grasp. The metal gleamed with an unnatural brightness, coated in a shining liquid—some malevolent

magic or venom. My mind went blank, my arm drawing back as I hurled my sword at him. It sliced through the air,

plunging into the base of Prince Wenshuang’s skull. His eyes went wide, a wet gasp sucked into his mouth, his body jerking violently before crumpling onto the floor. As his

blood pooled, the metallic scent of salt and earth entwined

with the lingering sweetness of flower petals crushed beneath our feet.

Adornments for a wedding, now gracing death.

A scream rang out, racked with anguish. The Virtuous

Consort ran to Prince Wenshuang, falling down to cradle him in her arms, raw sobs choked from her throat. His gaze slid to me, glazed with disbelief, the thrum of his aura fading

away. His mother’s desperate cries stabbed me. I was

trembling, cut by remorse—yet Prince Wenshuang had been a monster. I would waste no tears on him.

A stunned silence settled over the pavilion. Most of the guests had fled, leaving the remaining soldiers and the weeping consorts amid the bodies of the fallen.

King Wenming coughed, a withered, hacking sound.

Wenzhi fell to his knees on the ground beside him, his lips moving in a question I could not hear, though the healers’ sorrowful shakes of their heads were an answer itself.

The king clutched Wenzhi’s hand, pressing it to his chest.

His arms trembled, though his words rang clear. “My true and faithful son,” he rasped. “My heir and … the king.”

He released Wenzhi then as he cupped his hands,

engulfed by a sudden glow. An imperial seal of purple jade appeared within his palms. Then an onyx ring, a bottle

carved of jasper, and finally—the scrolls, slender pieces of golden bamboo rolled together. The treasures the king had guarded with his body, his very life.

Wenzhi’s eyes were bright with unshed tears as he

grasped his father’s shoulders, leaning closer to him. Their relationship was neither tender nor loving, but the bond of parent and child was eternal—even when buried beneath mistrust and resentment. The king’s eyes were wet as his

gaze flicked toward Prince Wenshuang’s body, and I sensed it was with grief rather than rage.

What whispered words Wenzhi and his father exchanged, I did not hear—still, I ached for him. A father and brother lost in a day. No matter how they had treated him in life, sorrow

was inevitable. There would be no chance to repair that which had been broken, of speaking the words that might have healed the hurt. Death was the final parting.

As a shadow fell over me, I looked up to find Liwei. His hand pressed my shoulder in silent comfort, a welcome

relief. As agonized shrieks erupted from the king’s consorts, Wenzhi lifted his head, meeting my gaze across the pavilion, a storm swirling in his expression. Grief warring with

gratitude, shock entwined with knowing.

He knew this had been no accident, that my aim had been true. Prince Wenshuang’s death was on my conscience. This I had done for myself, and for Wenzhi. Prince Wenshuang was a true demon; he would never have stopped until one

of them lay dead. He would have threatened me, too, for his hate went deep. And so I had taken from Wenzhi the burden of slaying his own kin.

He had not lied to me that day, so many years ago, in Xiangliu’s cavern. Killing did get easier.

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