Chapter no 36

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Wugang was dead. His army gone. Yet the scars of his brief reign remained, some reaching so deep, they might never heal. Would it have pleased him to know this? I believe it would. He had achieved immortality in a way he would

treasure more than the infinite years bestowed upon him, that he had squandered in vengeance and hate. He did not deserve this; he deserved to be forgotten, his name trampled to dust along with his body. As for me, I would cast him from my mind, for he was unworthy of a place there

alongside those I had lost, whom I still cherished with every breath I drew.

I glanced around the Hall of Eastern Light, my gaze falling on the Celestial Empress’s body in the coffin of clear crystal upon the dais. She had died in battle—a hero’s death, with songs already composed in her honor. When I knelt before her body today, it was the first time I had ever meant the respect the gesture conveyed.

Her magnificent silver brocade garments were

embroidered with gold phoenixes and their rainbow-hued tails—a splash of color in the sea of white mourners, like winter had descended upon the Hall of Eastern Light. A

crown of pearls and gold feathers glittered from her hair— was it the one that had captured my childish imagination before? Her hands were clasped across her stomach, her nail sheaths glinting against her pale skin. A skilled artist had painted her face until her cheeks were radiant, her

closed eyelids swept with gleaming powder. She looked beautiful, for eternal slumber had eased the perpetual tension from her features. Or perhaps, I saw her now

through new eyes: who she had been, what she might have become had life taken a different turn.

How strange it was to be stirred by her, this unfamiliar pity unfurling in my chest. The Celestial Empress had

threatened my mother, forced my flight from home, scorned and schemed against me at every opportunity. She had

driven Liwei and me apart. She would have sent me to my death without a second’s hesitation. I had feared her,

resented and despised her, even. And yet, she was Liwei’s mother and she had loved him too. Now that she was dead, all that had been wrong between us seemed of less

consequence, like chasing shadows through the night. I

could never have loved her, but neither could I find it in me to hate her still, no matter what she had done.

Beside me, Liwei shifted. He sat straight with his shoulders thrown back, his head held high before the

endless stream of mourners who came to pay their final

respects to the empress. His mother would have been proud of him, not a flicker of weakness did he show.

I reached out, wanting to comfort him—but with the weight of all the eyes upon us, I drew back. It was not my

vow to his mother that restrained me, for it had been voided the day she attacked me. There was something else … this ceaseless pain in my chest, since that day of loss on the moon.

The Celestial Emperor was present, for once without his crown. A pure white band of mourning was tied around his brow, the same one Liwei wore, the long ends grazing his

back. It was the first time I had seen the emperor since his ill-fated birthday celebration. Before, I had marveled at the agelessness of his face, and now it was lined in sorrow, his body stooped like something vital had been lost. Strange that his wife’s death should affect him so, when he never seemed to have much affection for her before. Perhaps we only valued something once it had gone. I buried the thought, a pang striking me deep.

The emperor and Liwei rose to their feet, approaching the dais with measured steps. Behind them, followed Zhiyi,

Liwei’s half-sister. Funerals were a family matter, bringing together even those estranged. They knelt before the coffin, pressing their palms and forehead to the ground—once, twice, and thrice. A final obeisance to the empress. When

Liwei rose, he raised his hands, his power sheathing the coffin in light. It floated into the sky, toward where the spirits of deceased Celestials lay, in the restored Divine Harmony Sky. As my gaze followed the coffin, a stream of glittering sparks burst forth, forming the shape of a fiery phoenix that soared alongside it into the heavens.

Once the ceremony concluded, the mourners surrounded Liwei, a few nodding to me in acknowledgment. My

presence confused them, that I sat with the royal family

despite having no official position. Their attention troubled me less these days, my mind already drifting to matters of greater import—lingering on precious memories, past

regrets, and the faces of the fallen. They would haunt me for the rest of my days.

THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED passed in a blur. Liwei had offered me quarters of my own, but I chose to stay in my old room in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility, across from his. Perhaps a part of me hoped to find the peace I had known before, to regain some of what had been lost. This place had been my haven once—yet now its walls pressed closer around me with each passing day, the fragrance of flowers clogging the

air. Nightmares tore me from slumber as I jerked upright— trembling, cold with sweat—trying to block the recollection of the feather’s heat searing my veins, the chill glazing Ping’er’s skin, of Prince Yanming’s lifeless body … and the light fading from Wenzhi’s eyes.

The Celestial Emperor did not return to court. He stayed in his courtyard and admitted few visitors. Was he still in mourning or recovering from his imprisonment at Wugang’s hands? I doubted he had been treated well. I doubted his

pride would ever recover from being held hostage by one he had disdained as a mere mortal. The burden of the realm fell on Liwei more, to drag his kingdom from the claws of terror it had been clutched in. To repair frayed alliances and rebuild all that had been destroyed.

His cares were great, his responsibilities onerous. It was no easy thing to be a monarch, or at least a good one.

Fortunately, he had sound advisors by his side like General Jianyun and Teacher Daoming. At Liwei’s urging, I

accompanied him to court as we listened to endless

petitions and briefings. I stayed by his side, offering what support I could—though inwardly I recoiled from the hard stares of the courtiers, the constant jostling for favor, the tedium of matters I had little interest in. Some days I could not bear it, wanting nothing more than to flee to the quiet of my room. Though even there I found little peace, trapped in the bleak solitude of my mind.

The nights were the hardest, for the shadows that enveloped me stretched longer, thickening until the

darkness was all I saw. I tossed in bed, inhaling great gulps of air laced with the fragrance of spring, though there was nothing but winter in my heart. A longing consumed me whenever I thought of my home. My mother and father did not come to the Celestial Kingdom, perhaps because they wanted to be alone after all they had endured. Perhaps they had too many unsettling recollections of this place, of the

gossip and spite, the secrets and lies. I understood how my parents felt, because I loathed it too.

The favor Liwei showed me fanned the boundless speculation that a betrothal was imminent. He did not speak of it to me, nor did I ask. Whenever I tried to imagine my future, my chest would cramp, wrenched with unspeakable longing. The threat of Wugang had clouded my future once, yet it was nothing to these torments I now faced—for this was a battle I could not win, an enemy I could not fight. For these demons … came from within. My only solace was when Shuxiao was with me, although she was leaving soon to return to her family. Everyone was moving on to seek their own happiness. Everyone except—

I shoved the ungrateful thought aside. It was a miracle that I was alive, to be surrounded by those I cared for. Yet why did I feel so empty inside?

On Shuxiao’s last evening, we shared a meal together. It was just like we used to, except for the pair of attendants standing behind me. They lurched to attention whenever I so much as cleared my throat, their eyes constantly darting up to check that our cups and plates were filled. When I

gently suggested that they leave, they exchanged such aggrieved looks, I could not insist.

I sighed, my head beginning to ache from the weight of gold and jade ornaments in my hair, the ones I let my

attendant adorn me with. I went through my days in a state of apathy, not caring what I wore or did—with no desire for anything that had once brought me pleasure, whether music, food, or wine. I found myself thinking of the Celestial Empress more, and if she could live her life over, whether she would have chosen differently. I would never know these answers … and perhaps neither did she.

Shuxiao frowned as she placed a piece of braised beef on my plate. A pile of stir-fried beans and shrimp followed,

along with a plump wedge of fish steamed in ginger and wine.

“Why aren’t you eating?” she asked. “Are you

disappointed that a wedding date hasn’t been set? Or worried the emperor might not give his permission?”

I lifted my cup, draining it in one gulp, the wine burning a path down my throat. “Maybe I should be alone,” I said listlessly.

With love came pain, and I had drunk my fill of it.

Shuxiao glanced at the attendants, lowering her voice. “Don’t you want to marry Prince Liwei?” she asked with her usual bluntness. “Just imagine those arrogant courtiers who’ll have to bow to you then.”

“A pleasant thought.” A thin smile stretched over my lips as I imagined striding into the Hall of Eastern Light, the

entire court falling to their knees like a rippling tide. An

alluring temptation, to elevate those who had stood by my side and humble those who had scorned me before. Yet such satisfaction would be short-lived. This was not the life I wanted, not even with its trappings of power.

Shuxiao searched my face. “Why have you been so unhappy? Not just today, but since we returned here.”

I had not told Shuxiao of my feelings for Wenzhi. I had only learned them myself, still grappling with what he

meant to me, what I had lost. Turning around, I gestured for one of the attendants, suddenly glad for their presence as a shield against these probing questions. She hurried forward, bowing low to me, her cupped hands stretched out. Such

reverence unnerved me more than it pleased, but I had learned to feign indifference.

“Could you bring us some glutinous rice balls? The ones dusted in crushed peanuts and sugar.”

Minyi, who headed the kitchens, had sent some over with the afternoon meal. I had eaten them alone at this very table, stabbing one pillowy sphere after another with a jade pick, as though I could drown my misery in sweets. It had not worked, my stomach churning at the memory—even as

a weak part of me craved the distraction, the fleeting pleasure on my tongue.

“Shuxiao, must you leave?” I asked. “General Jianyun leads the army again. Wugang’s sycophants have been dismissed. Things will go back to how they were.”

“I did not like it much, even then.” She laughed, resting her elbows on the table. “Even if I did, am changed.”

As am I. Once, I had wanted nothing more than my family reunited, my home restored, a life with Liwei. And now, all those things were within my grasp, yet happiness eluded me still. Victory was not as sweet as I had imagined, or

perhaps it had cost me too dear. “Where will you go?” I asked.

Shuxiao’s eyes glazed over, a faraway look in them.

“Home. I have been gone far too long. My brother will take my place here. He is of age, and this is what he wants. For me it was always a matter of duty.”

I basked in the warmth of her joy, though I would miss her dearly. “What will you do then?”

“Nothing.” She drew the word out, savoring it. “It would be good to spend a few decades doing just that.”

My chest clenched with envy, that I might never be so free. Shameful, for she deserved better. “Nothing?” I

repeated with a smile instead. “What does your new friend, the formidable General Mengqi, think of this plan?”

It had been nothing more than a teasing guess. Together, they had orchestrated the rescue of the Celestial Emperor and the prisoners from the Jade Palace. Somehow, the

animosity that had sparked between them had morphed into a grudging respect. Shuxiao spoke of the general several times after, in friendship I had thought, if not for this deep flush spreading across the back of her neck. I had never seen her so affected before, and I was both thrilled

and afraid for her. Shaking my head, I cast my trepidation aside. Love did not wound all who reached for it.

An answering smile lit Shuxiao’s face. “She will join me, now that … things have changed in the Cloud Wall.”

I flinched. Now that Wenzhi is dead, was what she would have said, had she not suspected I grieved for him still.

“I am happy for you,” I told her as she rose to leave.

She leaned over and hugged me. “Let yourself be happy.”

It was what Wenzhi had told me with his final breath. A wish for my happiness, alone, knowing he could not be with me. Tears pricked my eyes, which I blinked away, the pain in my chest piercing so deep I could not breathe.

Someone knocked on my door, an attendant rushing to slide it open. Zhiyi stepped into the room, the hem of her brilliant green robe almost brushing the floor. Lilac orchids were embroidered on the skirt, along with azure birds that stretched their wings as they chirped.

She inclined her head in greeting. “I am leaving tomorrow and wanted to bid you farewell.”

I concealed my surprise. “That is most thoughtful of you.”

An immortal peach gleamed in her hand. Ripe, with a luminous blush from its stem to tip, a radiance emanating from its skin. “Liwei gave me this for my husband. If a mortal is not suffering any internal illness, this will extend their life. We will have time to wait for the elixir. Liwei has

promised it to me, though it will be years before it is ready.” “I am glad you will have it,” I told her with feeling. It still

weighed on me that she had given up the elixir, that my

parents’ happiness had come at the cost of hers. I had not forgotten my vow to her—it was one I would keep even though she had not demanded it of me, even though the urgency had passed. The most binding vows were those from the heart.

“I must go,” Shuxiao said, rising to her feet.

“Safe travels.” As I extended my hands to her, she

clasped them tight. I did not want to let go, but then she released me and left.

Zhiyi’s gaze slid across the attendants hovering behind me. “Leave us.” She did not raise her voice, yet it was laced with unmistakable authority. Without a protest, they hurried out, closing the doors after them.

“Are all royal children born with that skill?” I asked.

She sat down, arranging her skirts as they pooled on the floor. “When I lived here, I preferred to be alone. There were too many who spied on me, on my stepmother’s behalf.”

“I am sorry they did.” Not for the first time, I was grateful for my own childhood, simple and solitary though it had


“When your wedding date is set, I will return.” Her smile

dazzled, an echo of Liwei flashing in her black eyes. “We will soon be sisters.”

Wedding? I reeled from her words, spoken with such sincerity and certainty, unlike the whispers of the court. “Liwei and I are not betrothed.”

Her smile vanished. “Why do you look so frightened? I thought you wanted this, that you cared for my brother. It is certainly what everyone else believes.”

I met her stare without flinching, tired of strangers prying into my affairs. “That is between Liwei and me.”

Her face hardened as she stood. “A warning then. Do not toy with my brother’s heart. I will not forgive you if you do.” Without another word, she strode toward the door.

“Wait!” A question sprang to my lips, one I had not known I wanted to ask. “Do you regret it? All you gave up to live in the Mortal Realm?” The crown had been her heritage, but it would be my shackle.

She did not speak at first, toying with the jade bangles on her wrist. “No, because what I gained was far more. It’s not a sacrifice when there is love enough.” Her eyes fixed on me. “A question in exchange for yours. Do you love Liwei?”

“Yes.” The barest pause, but it was the truth. I would always love him—yet doubt tugged at me still.

For while I had loved Liwei first, I had loved another after.

One who had given his life for mine, whom I could not forget. I was learning that death had the kindness of

diminishing one’s sins, allowing one to remember the good in them. When Wenzhi had been alive, all I recalled were his treachery and wrongs. But now I could finally think of him without the taint of bitterness, and it gave new clarity to all he had said and done since I let him back into my life.

“I am glad.” She hesitated, before adding, “If not, it would be a greater kindness to end things now.”

I did not reply, irked by her presumption—my temper had grown shorter of late. And yet there was also a trickle of

relief that there was another path. I had a choice, difficult though it would be.

IT WAS A CLOUDLESS morning, the sky a brilliant azure. Liwei and I sat inside the pavilion in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility. The waterfall rumbled into the pond, peach

blossom petals drifting from the trees. Liwei waved away the attendant, lifting the teapot to refill my cup—just as he used to when we studied together, when it was just the two of us. The attendant’s gaze lingered on him with reverent

admiration as he bowed, leaving us alone.

“It is the autumn season in the Mortal Realm,” Liwei said. I nodded, returning his smile. As he set my cup before me,

his sleeve brushed my hand, the embroidered silver herons soaring through the blue brocade. His hair was pulled into a gold and sapphire headpiece, just like the one he used to wear. I could almost imagine we were heading to the

Chamber of Reflection after this, instead of the Hall of

Eastern Light where Liwei governed the realm. Emperor in all but name.

He handed me a wooden box, painted with a woman in green robes, a crimson sash around her waist and gold

ornaments in her hair. Clouds swirled around her feet, a silver orb gleaming above.

I traced my fingers over it. My mother, the Moon Goddess, as depicted by the mortals. As I pried the lid open, a rich, honeyed scent slipped out. Four golden-brown mooncakes were nestled within, their tops molded into a pattern of

dragons and phoenixes. Liwei lifted one out and with a small knife sliced it into eight plump wedges. He offered one to me, a vermilion crescent of egg yolk glistening from the

dark-brown filling. The lotus-seed paste was dense and sweet, the crust crumbling against my tongue. The yolk added a salty grittiness that cut through the sweetness, balancing the flavors perfectly. I closed my eyes as I

chewed, imagining the mortals eating this as they listened to the tale of Houyi and the ten suns, and of Chang’e flying to the moon. A tightness clutched me; a longing to see my parents.

“Liwei, I want to go home. I cannot stay here.” As I spoke, an urgency rushed through me. This was the way out from the nightmares that haunted me—to get away from the Jade Palace with its endless ceremonies and rules, the courtiers

and attendants, the burdens of the kingdom.

His face paled, his fingers curling on the table. “Xingyin, I was going to ask you to marry me. My father is retiring to a life of isolation. He asked me to ascend the throne, to

become the emperor.”

I stared at him blankly, something tightening around my chest like I was being suffocated. This had always been his

heritage, but even when I had dreamed of a future with him, I thought we had centuries more until his father relinquished the throne. It had been my one hope and consolation.

“I know this is a lot sooner than we imagined. That this is not what you want.”

“I must go.” The words came slowly, the decision

crystallizing as I spoke—and I knew it was the right one, even as the ache in my heart sharpened.

His eyes blazed as he grasped my hand. “Why must you leave?”

“I want to go home,” I repeated, pulling free of his hold, not from petulance, but because I could not allow anything to sway me.

A heavy silence settled over us as we stared at each

other. “I know you are not happy here. I wish I could go with you,” he said at last. “But I can’t abandon my father and my kingdom. There is no one else who can rule in my stead.”

“I understand.” This was no hollow sentiment, for it was his choice as much as mine. We had to do what was right for ourselves, yet how it hurt that our paths had diverged. “Your place is here. There is no one better than you to rule. I would not have asked this of you.”

“You have every right to ask anything of me,” he said fiercely.

“I do not want to add to your cares.” Yet if I had not done this, I would not have known what I truly wanted—what I needed that he could no longer give me.

I swallowed hard, pushing myself to my feet. “Perhaps it is too late for us, Liwei; we can never go back to what we were.” There was no resentment in these words, only

sorrow, for they hurt me too.

Liwei stood up, clasping me into his arms. I let myself lean against him—one last time, delaying the inevitable moment of pain. Yet though his warmth seeped through my robe and skin, it could no longer reach my heart.

“I’m sorry if I failed you,” he whispered into my hair. “You don’t have to decide this now. You could return home and

come back whenever you are ready. I will wait for you.”

“You did not fail me; failed us.” My voice cracked then. “Once I had accepted this as our life. And now I cannot bear it. I am weaker than I thought. I am tired of trying to be

strong. And I … I cannot forget him. I do not want to.”

“You don’t have to face this alone.” He spoke with such fire, a little of the coldness within me thawed. “I will help you forget him. We will be happy, just as we were before. You would be a fine empress.”

I would not.

The life he offered would be a fairy tale to many, but a nightmare to me. A shudder rippled down my spine as I imagined eternity yoked to the cares of the Celestial

Kingdom, the weight of the crown growing heavier with each year. The endless struggle for favor and power, the restless and judgmental stares trained upon me—impatient for the timely emergence of an heir. Would I grow shrewish, trapped in such a life? How long would it take for our love to be tarnished? How long before it turned to resentment, and then … hate?

I pulled away to gaze into his handsome face, those dark eyes so dear to me. Was my heart strong enough to be shattered again? Somehow, I managed to speak through the agony that tore me apart. “I can’t marry you. I can’t live here. I would not be happy, and I would make you unhappy too.”

He was silent for a while. “I tell myself that the past no longer matters, that I should not envy the dead. However, seeing you both in Lady Xihe’s grove, seeing how you grieve for him … I cannot help but wonder, would you have chosen him, had he lived?”

I would have thought it impossible before, yet my despair was a rude awakening. I could not deny that my feelings for Wenzhi had gone far deeper than I’d known. I could not

deny this pain in my chest when I thought of him, the sharp ache of loss.

“He should not have died, least of all for me,” I said dully. “I don’t think he would have done it for anyone else.” He

studied my face, speaking gently. “Do not blame yourself for his death. Do not cling to misery, pushing everything aside, thinking you don’t deserve happiness. He wanted you to be happy.”

Then he should have lived.

I silenced the impossible, ungrateful thought. As I looked up into Liwei’s face, the ache in my chest swelled. It would

have been so easy to ease our suffering with a single word, a touch, a promise. But it would not be right; it would not heal what was broken inside me—if anything ever could.

There was no room in my heart for love while it overflowed with grief. Tears clogged my throat, so tight, like it was

being squeezed. Spinning around, I strode from the

courtyard, not daring to turn—even as my limbs shook, and a chill glazed my skin.

A frightening thing to surrender a future, to plunge alone into the unknown. But this was my life, and I would claim it

… the darkness, hurt, and all. Once you had looked death in the face, every moment after was a victory—a new hope, a new beginning. And I was no longer afraid.

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