Chapter no 33

Heart of the Sun Warrior

I stood by the malachite pavilion, surrounded by violet

clouds. How different it appeared, devoid of the crowds—the petals swept away, the bloodstains scrubbed from the stone floor. My hair swung across my back in a loose tail when just a few days ago it had been coiled into a headdress of coral and gold. I had knelt before the altar to be married, and since then, the Cloud Wall had buried a king and crowned a new one. Wenzhi had moved with ruthless swiftness,

elevating those loyal to him and removing those he mistrusted. His mother, the Noble Consort, was raised to the rank of Dowager Queen—an unassailable position of

authority, second only to his. While Captain Mengqi, whom I had escaped from in the past, was now the general who led the army. I had not attended either funeral or coronation. My existence was best forgotten, for I was an ill omen; a bride

drenched in blood.

How they must have sighed with relief that I was not their queen. Our farce of a marriage had been officially annulled before the court. No questions had been asked, for the

deference accorded to a king was different from that to an

heir. A prince could be questioned, plotted against, supplanted—while a king was to be obeyed.

There was no time to observe the customary mourning period. News had reached us that Wugang’s forces were

advancing upon the Cloud Wall, gathering along the border. How strange the turns life could take—when I was last in this place, the Celestials had been my savior and now … they were our promised doom.

Had Wugang heard of the recent shift in power here?

Unlikely, as Wenzhi had sealed the palace to prevent news from slipping out. Or was Wugang eager to claim the prize Prince Wenshuang had promised him? The keys to infinite power would be an irresistible temptation. The only thing

certain was that the kingdoms teetered on the brink of war as precariously as a coin rolling on its edge.

Sensing the presence of other immortals, I turned to find Liwei coming toward me, along with my parents. My mother and Shuxiao had arrived just before Wugang’s forces closed

in on the Cloud Wall. A relief to be reunited, yet I might have been more at ease with them away—for this had become the most dangerous place in the Immortal Realm.

“Wenzhi has studied the Divine Mirror Scroll. He will cast it when I am ready,” I told them without preamble. “With Wugang so near, we must move quickly.” A chill glazed my skin, yet there was nothing to be gained from dreading the inevitable—the best I could do was ready myself for it.

I recalled Wenzhi’s frown when he had inspected the

scroll, holding the slender bamboo strips up to the light. He did not like this plan any more than I did, but if there was

another way, none of us had thought of it. “You must be

careful,” he had reminded me. “While the scroll will confer your mother’s attributes upon you, you must heed your

actions and words. You must trick Wugang’s mind, as well as his eyes and ears.”

My mother cleared her throat, her fingers digging into her skirt. “I can do this, if you tell me how. Don’t risk yourself

when it is me he wants.”

“No, Mother,” I said gently. “Without magic, you can’t bear the Sacred Flame Feather, you can’t unleash it. Wugang will use your blood to harvest the laurel seeds—an endless

cycle, as new ones will sprout. Even if the entire realm was to unite against him then, it would be too late.”

“What about you? What if you fail?” my father pressed. “Wugang will show you no mercy.”

“Then at least Wugang won’t get the laurel seeds.” My

voice faltered, but I leashed my terror before it devoured my fragile resolve.

My mother placed her hand on mine. “We could leave this place, return to the Mortal Realm. Our real home. We do not have to stay here.”

My mind drifted to the indulgence of a dream, a life without the cares of discovery, capture, or danger. Without the unwelcome fate of the world crashing upon my shoulders—not an honor but a burden. There would be no shame in running away, for what did I owe the Immortal Realm?

I shoved aside these dangerous wants. A temptation to leave such weighty matters in the hands of greater people. Yet those were the fantasies of someone with no ties to the world. It was my loved ones whom Wugang hunted, whom he had hurt … and the Immortal Realm had become our home.

I did not want to do this, yet who else could? It was not arrogance or pride that drove me, but the irrefutable fact that I alone had the best chance of deceiving Wugang, of

getting the feather close enough to the laurel, of destroying it. If I did nothing, I would lose everything, and all whom I loved would die.

Was this how my father had felt the day he set out to face the sunbirds? I had always believed greatness ran through his veins, that he was brave and wise, just as a hero should be. He had been lauded for his courage, but surely he must

have been a little afraid—of death, of never returning to his family? Yet no one else could have wielded that bow, no

other marksman could have brought down the sunbirds. If he had not gone, the Mortal Realm would have been

destroyed, along with my mother and me.

Perhaps, at its core, heroism was a less pretty tale. Words like honor and valor, gilded over necessity and the harsh truth—that there was no choice.

“I must do this.” I searched my father’s face, hoping for a nod, any sign of assurance. Perhaps it was what most

children sought, regardless of their age, this precious validation only their parents could bestow.

My father’s forehead creased as it did when he was deep in thought. How I relished learning his moods and gestures, gathering these threads and weaving them into a pattern that took shape until he was more than a name in a book, a silhouette in my dreams. And how I resented having this

chance snatched from me after we were finally reunited. “Daughter,” my father said, “I will do it. The Divine Mirror

Scroll would work on me too.”

I shook my head. “It will take more than physical

resemblance to convince Wugang. You know Mother as your wife, the mortal. I know her as the Moon Goddess. Wugang won’t be easily fooled, but I can convince him. Is that not what matters in times as these? Do you not assign soldiers to the tasks they are best equipped for?”

“Wugang will kill you,” my mother cried out.

“Not if I kill him first.” I lifted my head. “I am not going to die; I am going to end this.”

“How will you keep Wugang from sensing the Sacred Flame Feather?” Liwei asked.

My smile was bright, my voice infused with false

confidence. “The same enchantment that allows me to bear it.”

“It won’t work,” Liwei said flatly. “I sense the feather on you now.”

He was right. Even bound by these enchantments, heat radiated from the feather in waves, thrashing against its shield. “I will keep it in here.” I tapped my temple lightly as though it were a simple matter.

Within your lifeforce? Just like how King Wenming kept his artifacts?” Liwei’s tone was incredulous. “One slip, and the feather will incinerate you.”

“There will be no slip.” I had become a fine actress; my

gaze unwavering, my tone calm. For if I quailed, if I showed the slightest flicker of unease, they would redouble their efforts to stop me. And I did not know if I had the will to withstand it.

Finally, he relented. “I will be close by. If you are in

danger, I will come to you.” His fingers strayed toward the Sky Drop Tassel by his waist, brushing the clear stone.

My mother tugged at my father’s sleeve. “Houyi, come.

Let’s go.”

“I have more to say—”

“It can wait.” Her voice was laden with meaning as she turned away, my father following her.

Liwei stared after them. “After all these years, they finally found their way back to each other. A great love story, as the mortals might say.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Though my parents would have preferred the joy without the suffering.”

“No love is perfect.”

“Only in fairy tales,” I conceded. “And if it were so for my parents, no one would know their names.”

“Is that a fair price?” he asked.

“Not to me,” I said pensively. “Fame is how the world sees you, what they imagine of your life. A fleeting thing, as

capricious as smoke, and as easily reshaped through malice.”

Liwei’s face darkened—did he recall how swiftly he had been maligned and abandoned by his court? Nor could I forget how readily others had believed the rumors of me.

“True happiness springs from within, a contentment with oneself. And while it may be humbler and quieter, there is nothing more precious and lasting,” I added.

“We could have that,” he said gently. “We could be happy again, if you would let us.”

I drank in the sight of him: the sculpted planes of his face, the way the light fell upon his eyes, glittering over their dark surface. As he moved toward me, his blue robe swirled in the breeze, the glossy tail of his hair swinging behind him.

He looked just as he did when we first met by the river. So much had changed since then, and yet he was still the

young man brimming with compassion, as I was the girl with fire in her heart. Although this time, the blaze might

consume me.

I dropped my gaze, folding away these wistful

recollections. “Let us get through today before we think of tomorrow. We must keep our minds on what lies ahead.”

His hand touched my chin, lifting my face to his. “I wish I could tell you not to do this.”

“I am glad that you do not.”

Wordlessly, I rested my head upon his chest, sliding my arms around him, stealing his warmth for a moment of

comfort. As he clasped me tighter, my fingers glided lower to his waist, brushing the smooth orb of the Sky Drop Tassel.

A faint flicker of my power, almost imperceptible, and my energy was leeched from the stone—our link severed. As I pulled away, breaking the embrace, regret yanked at my heart until I thought it would break.

“I don’t want to lose you,” he confessed in a low voice. “I am sick with fear.”

There was so much more I wanted to say to him—tender assurances, words of promise, yet they stuck in my throat. For in truth … I was sick with fear too.

SLEEP ELUDED ME THAT night. From the deep stillness it was far from midnight, closer to the edge of dawn. Rising, I crossed

the room to throw the windows open. As the cool air rushed in, the rustling of unfamiliar trees teased my ears, my skin prickling with unease. I felt like a child again, afraid of the

monsters lurking in the shadows. Even then, I had wanted to drag them out into the open, to look them full in the face— as nothing could have been more terrifying than the nightmares in my mind.

Not this time.

Someone knocked softly upon my door, unexpected at this hour. Light streaked from my palm, illuminating a lantern, as I hastily pulled on a yellow robe and tied a sash around my waist. My hair, unbound, fell over my shoulders.

“Come in.” I grabbed my bow from the table, more a force of habit than from expecting any real danger.

The doors slid open, Wenzhi standing in the entrance. I lowered the bow at once.

“Are you sure, Xingyin?” He asked gravely. “Not too long ago, you wanted to shoot me.”

“Not too long ago, you deserved it and worse.” “What about now?”

That inflection in his tone, the light in his gaze stirred something in me. “Why are you here, Wenzhi? Don’t you have other things to do this late at night—petitions to read, court officials to terrify? Sleep, perhaps?”

Concubines to bed. The unwelcome thought seared, and I discarded it at once.

“Undoubtedly,” he agreed, leaning against the doorframe. “There are many other places I should be, which would be far more welcoming than your cold reception.”

“Perhaps you should seek them out,” I said icily, closing the door, but his hand shot out to grip the wooden panel.

Only now did I notice his attire, unused to seeing him in such finery. His moss-green brocade robe was embroidered with dragons that reared up amid swirls of silken mist, a belt of silver links fastened around his waist. A crown rested on

his head—different from his father’s—a carved gold headpiece set with an emerald.

“I could not sleep either,” he confessed. “Would you come with me?”

I hesitated. “It’s late.”

“It’s not far,” he assured me.

As I nodded, moving away from the entrance, he strode into my room toward the windows. A cloud was already hovering there, as though he had known I would agree.

“Why not through the door?” I asked.

His nose wrinkled. “I’m not my father. I do not want or need a guard tailing me at all times.”

And there were few threats he could not handle on his own.

He climbed through the window, dropping onto the cloud.

I did not take the hand he offered, grasping the wooden frame as I slipped out. The cloud soared high, circling the

palace, the wind gliding through my hair. When we came to a halt, I turned to him, my eyebrows arched. “The roof?”

“I know your fondness for them,” he said lightly.

Something tightened in my chest. He meant the times I had found solace upon my rooftop in the Jade Palace, as I stared into the sky longing for home. And yet it was also where we had pledged ourselves to each other, and where I had almost shot him to make my escape. I shrugged aside the past, both the good and the bad—for with tomorrow so uncertain, I would yield them no place tonight.

The tiles here were carved of iridescent stone that

gleamed like they had been dipped into a rainbow. Yet the true beauty of this place lay in the endless horizon

encircling it. Glowing lanterns floated through the air, borne on some enchanted breeze. The arched roofs of the

buildings below shone like jewels. And beyond the bank of violet-gray clouds curved the Golden Desert, aglitter as stardust.

The wind teased at Wenzhi’s hair, draping long strands across his face. “Thank you for coming with me. This is

where I came whenever I wanted to be alone. I’ve wanted to bring you here for a long time, even before I knew what it meant.”

He lowered himself upon the tiles, resting an arm upon a raised knee. While his expression had always been aloof and unreadable, there was a new gravity set into his features.

“What is troubling you?” I asked.

“I have wanted to be king ever since my brother began tormenting me and those I cared for. Each insult, every injury drove me to seek my father’s favor, through any means necessary.”

He spoke so rarely of his past—once before, when I had first learned of his treachery. I had not wanted to hear him then; nothing could have excused his actions. This time, I listened without acrimony or anger—for the first time in a long while, without seeking lies in each word.

“My father was neither doting nor kind, but he was more ambitious than cruel—always pushing us to better

ourselves. Partly because he remembered what it was like when we were weak and downtrodden, the outcasts of the

Immortal Realm.” Shadows darkened his eyes. “And now, he is dead and I wear the crown. There is no triumph in this.

Even though it might have been inevitable, I never wanted to wade through my family’s blood for the throne.”

“Nothing can change that,” I said quietly. “You will be a good king.” These were no empty words of solace. The

Celestial soldiers had revered, respected, and loved him. A rare combination that few rulers could attain.

He paused. “There is another reason I came. Somehow, news got out about my brother’s and father’s deaths.

Wugang has demanded that we surrender your mother. If we comply, he will leave us in peace. If not—he has

threatened swift retaliation.”

“What will you do?” What could he do? A monarch’s responsibility was to their kingdom. Wenzhi had always

made clear where his priorities lay, and what was I to him? Not even a false bride anymore.

“My advisors want to concede. Before, Wugang’s eyes were turned elsewhere. He would not have attacked us while more attractive prospects lay before him for the taking, while he believed we might ally with him. But that has changed.”

“Will you surrender us?” I did not think he meant to betray us—but that he could not harbor us, that we could no longer count on his aid.

“It is what my father would have done. We are unprepared. An attack now would be catastrophic. We

should buy time so we can stand against him another day.”

A hollow gaped in my chest, though I should not have

expected more. But I would try to reason with him as I would have done with another. “You were never one for a quick

victory at the expense of the greater scheme. Yielding to Wugang is not the answer.”

“You mistake my meaning,” he said at once. “It was what I was advised to do, what my father would have done—but not what I will do. Surrendering your mother would merely offer a temporary reprieve, for it would make Wugang invincible. He will sweep through the Immortal Realm like a pestilent plague, and when it is barren, he will devour us then. He might be an ally at present, but he is undoubtedly our future foe. My father realized this too—which is why he preferred to aid us, though he would also have dealt with Wugang to further his own ends.”

His gaze held mine. “Yet that is not the only reason. I

confess, you are a strong inducement to think of another plan.”

I steeled myself against letting my heart soften. “This can be an opportunity. We might be able to use this to our


He nodded reluctantly, for he had thought of this too. “I do not want this. It will be dangerous.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “But less so than letting Wugang rampage unhindered.” Still, it was too soon. I was not ready … if I would ever be.

“It’s the best way. I can’t appear in some inexplicable

coincidence; Wugang would suspect a ruse at once.” I spoke quickly before terror stifled my words. “Do what they expect of you, what any cautious ruler would when faced with this threat. Surrender my mother. Except it will be me in her stead. Let Wugang think he has us where he wants us, that victory is in his grasp. It will lull him into a false sense of security and—”

“You will make him pay,” Wenzhi finished my sentence for me, his expression grim. “Except Wugang will not accept our acquiescence easily. He believes that I—unlike my father or brother—would be loath to accept an alliance with him. He knows that I would never surrender the Moon Goddess willingly, for no other reason than the fact she is your mother.”

I remembered what Wugang had said to us before, the knowing looks he had cast at Wenzhi and me. “This will not work if Wugang has a flicker of suspicion, if he tests my

disguise. What if you refuse his terms? Have one of your

courtiers offer the information to Wugang in exchange for a reward. I could allow myself to be captured, let him bring me to the laurel.”

“An illusion, mirroring what he expects.” He nodded. “That could work. Either way, we must prepare our forces to stand against him—in part to fit our ploy, in part for defense. I

believe he is set on attacking us. Too many of his soldiers have gathered along the border for this to be a simple excursion.”

He spoke the truth, yet the thought of battle turned my stomach. “That would be prudent. It would also distract Wugang and divide his forces, to keep his mind occupied so

he doesn’t question or examine anything too closely. He will be impatient to harvest the seeds to seal his victory, and therein lies his weakness.” I frowned as another worry struck me. “How will you withstand his army? You will need allies.”

“We will send word to the other kingdoms. However, we have been isolated for so long, I doubt any will heed our


“A common enemy turns adversaries into allies.” Just as I was protecting the same soldiers I had fought against


Who else might we count on? The dragons were no tools of war yet could be invaluable for defense. Their support might swing the Eastern Sea to our side, though their court was deep in mourning. The Southern Sea had declared their allegiance when they attempted to capture us to win Wugang’s favor. We had no contact with the Western and

Northern Sea, and there was no time to cultivate relations with them. The Phoenix Kingdom had always been a firm

ally of the Celestial Kingdom—yet it remained to be seen if their loyalty lay with the ruling family or the kingdom itself. If they joined Wugang, it would be a grave blow.

“I will send word to Prince Yanxi, and Liwei to his mother.

Perhaps she can sway Queen Fengjin,” I said.

He rose to his feet and inclined his head. “Thank you. I apologize for disturbing your rest. Let me bring you back.”

As his gaze met mine, a sigh slid from him. “I promised myself I would say nothing; you have made your choice. But I will never be free of you. Perhaps that is my penance.”

“I do not wish that.” I pushed myself up to stand beside him, ignoring the pulse of hurt within me. “We are friends, after all. Those who want the best for each other.”

“Friends?” he repeated, after a moment’s pause. “Yes, I would welcome your friendship. I would welcome any part of yourself that you choose to give me.”

Before I could respond, he drew me into his arms—his skin, usually so cool, burning me. I did not protest, closing my eyes, inhaling the crisp scent that rolled off his skin. And when his arms loosened, there was a prickling in my eyes which I blinked away, a part of me mourning the end of something precious … that never truly had a chance to


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