Chapter no 37

Heart of the Sun Warrior

A small rabbit bounded between my feet, its fur gleaming like the purest white jade. Crouching down, I gathered it into my arms. As I stroked its head gently, the rabbit nestled

closer, its long ears lying against its body.

I carried it as I walked toward my home, restored from the devastation wreaked upon it. The roof shone silver bright, the cracked tiles replaced. Gone were the scorch marks on the stone walls, and the broken mother-of-pearl columns were whole once more, rising proudly from the earth. If only the other wounds inflicted then were as easily mended.

The doors swung open, my parents appearing. My mother had discarded her habitual white robes for one in a brilliant rose, tied around her waist with a lilac sash. A red peony was tucked into the coils of her hair, just as she always wore it. As they came toward me, their warm smiles chipped

away at the lump in my chest.

My father nodded at the rabbit in my arms, burrowing its nose in the crook of my elbow. “I thought your mother needed some company after you left.”

“I was replaced by a rabbit?” I was affronted, and yet an urge to laugh gripped me. A precious lightness, a thawing of

the cold that clung to my core.

My mother smiled. “The rabbit is more peaceful.” I could not disagree. “What is her name?”

“We call her Yutu.” My mother traced the characters in the air: .

“Jade Rabbit. It suits her well.” The rabbit’s ruby-red eyes fixed upon me as I stroked her head again. When I set her

down, she bounded once around my mother, before leaping into the forest.

As I entered the Pure Light Palace, I discovered new touches—a wooden side table in the corridor, silk carpets in vivid hues to replace those charred by flame. Scroll

paintings of horses and soldiers hung from the walls,

alongside porcelain vases crammed with stalks of fresh osmanthus. Had my father cut those for my mother?

My father strode beside me, the Jade Dragon Bow slung across his back with a soldier’s caution. Its power brushed my consciousness, more a gentle greeting than the eager tug of old. It did not fly into my grasp, content where it lay. And despite the pang in my chest, I had no regrets.

“Father, have your powers returned?” I asked.

His fingers flexed wide, then closed again. “A little. I can draw the bow easier, but it’s like climbing a steep hill.” A crooked smile spread across his lips. “While there’s not much need to use it here, it’s a comfort to have it again.”

If the laurel still thrived, it might have hastened my father’s recovery, as it had mine. But it was gone,

disintegrating to nothingness after it had expended the last of its powers to restore me. I glanced through a window that overlooked the osmanthus forest, a void of sky where the laurel had once towered.

“Where is Liwei?” My mother had exercised great restraint to not ask before.

“In his home, as I am in mine.” I did not say more, my emotions raw.

“Was this your decision?” A dangerous note slid into my father’s voice.

“Yes,” I said hastily. “I wanted to come home. He is not at fault.”

“You are always welcome here.” My mother hesitated

before adding, “Do you intend to go back? I thought you and Liwei—” Her voice trailed off as she exchanged an anxious look with my father.

“No, Liwei will ascend the throne. And I … will not,” I said flatly.

My mother said no more, wrapping her arms around me. I closed my eyes, feeling a little of the heaviness within me lessen. Oh, I was lucky to be here, fortunate beyond measure to have my parents, and our home restored. But I was hurting inside; I needed to heal. I had no idea how, but it was not by becoming the Celestial Empress, living a life that was not mine.

Settling back into my home came as easily to me as a fish darting through the water. It was just as I remembered …

and yet not. Some nights I awoke in bed, fogged with slumber, sweat pouring down my face, a half-formed cry

curled in my throat. I almost expected to hear Ping’er’s firm footsteps padding along the corridor. When a door creaked, I turned, my heart leaping at the impossible hope that it would be her—before plunging at the reality that she was

gone. Yet there was comfort in knowing a part of her would always be here, interwoven with our memories.

There were good changes too. At last, I fulfilled my cherished dreams of walking beside my father in the osmanthus forest, the three of us having our meals

together. We talked of mundane things: what we would cook next, the improvements to our house, what flowers we might plant—and it was music to my ears. I began training archery with my father. We set up targets in the forest, and he would correct my posture, the way I held my bow as I

released my arrows. And if there were things I felt he could

have done better, I kept them to myself as any dutiful daughter might—at least for now. Such moments were precious indeed, and though they did not quite fill the

existing hole in my heart, it replenished it in other ways,

yielding me a different kind of happiness to what had been lost.

Some evenings I took over my mother’s task, lighting each lantern by hand, glad for the work to divert me—for

the opportunity to indulge in my thoughts. As each lantern flared to life, I imagined the light of the moon shining

brighter upon the world below, the mortals turning their heads up to the skies.

Those nights, I did not dread being alone with my memories—falling asleep, mercifully spent. For the light in my father’s eyes whenever they fell on my mother, the

answering smile that spread across her lips—these things suffused me with joy and a nameless pain. For despite what I told myself, I could not help longing for the love they shared. The love I had disdained, discarded, and destroyed.

A YEAR FLEW BY and then another, sweeping like rainfall until I lost count of them altogether. Those were good years, when we grew as a family, in a way that we never had the chance to do before. The healing of the mind was slower than of the body, for these wounds cut deeper and it was harder to mend what was unseen. I did not know when it began, that these fractured pieces of me slowly began to come together again—healing, if not perfectly, at least enough so I felt

almost myself. I no longer woke, gasping the names of those lost, reliving the fire searing my veins or the terror freezing my flesh when Wugang’s axe had descended upon me.

My memories were kinder, cruel remembrances blunted, interwoven with fragments of remembered joy: Ping’er, telling me the stories of the Immortal Realm as I sat rapt

before her. Prince Yanming, his face alight as he swung his wooden sword.

And Wenzhi …

All the parts of him that had touched me not once but twice, even through the barriers I had built against him. His intelligence and indomitable will, his ruthlessness and tenderness, the softening of his expression when he looked at me. And most of all, how he had loved me and then died for me.

As the pain dulled, its edge worn off, something else stirred in its place. A restlessness—just as I had felt as a

child, craving the horizons beyond. A relief, that this spark in my soul was rekindled, that the hollowness in me had

begun to fill with a yearning … for more.

A simple truth, a cruel one, that this was no longer my home.

I left to visit Shuxiao. She lived with Mengqi by the southern curve of the Celestial Kingdom, in a quiet place ringed by bamboo, shadowed by blue-gray mountains. The sight of the stone house with its arched roof of red tiles warmed me—the home my friend had always dreamed of, along with the companion of her heart. It soothed my spirit to sit with her and talk as we used to, beneath the shade of the trees in her courtyard. I was glad for the love she had found, even as it made me long for my own.

Impossible, my mind scoffed. There had been two great loves in my life, and there was no room in my heart for more.

I steeled myself for my next destination, the Eastern Sea.

It was something I had to do, to quell the merciless voices within, to satisfy the grief that tore at me still. I did not know if that young soldier had been Prince Yanming—I never would—and wherever his spirit lay, I hoped he had found the peace he deserved. The dragons’ promise was a great

comfort, and on the days when I was kind to myself, I imagined that he found some joy with the creatures he most loved, and that they loved him too.

The sight of the Fragrant Coral Palace sparked in me the same wonder as before, with its luminous rose quartz walls rising from the sapphire waters. Yet a weight bore down upon me, my feet dragging along the crystal archway which led to the entrance. The guards did not allow me in, an

attendant dispatched in search of Prince Yanxi, yet I did not have long to wait. Prince Yanxi greeted me warmly, though his smile was somber. The sight of me would have brought back unwelcome recollections, those that hurt. When I shut my eyes and breathed in the salt-laced air, I could almost hear his brother’s bright gurgle of laughter, the patter of his footsteps as he ran toward me. My head lifted, my pulse

quickening in anticipation, but then other memories crashed upon me—of his pale face a heartbeat before the guandao

plunged through his chest. Ah, the pain cut deep. It was as Ping’er had once told me: Some scars are carved into our bones. And I thought to myself, some might even break them.

“May I see him?” My voice was tentative, part of me

expecting a refusal. What right did I have to come here? I was neither kin nor close relation. But I had loved his

brother and mourned him, and was that not a right in itself?

To my relief, he nodded. “Yanming would like that. Seeing you always made him happy.”

I followed him through the palace, my insides tightening with trepidation at what I might find. A cold stone altar tucked away in a lonely room? I need not have worried.

They had built him a beautiful remembrance in a garden of coral, warmed by the rays of the sun. A lacquered altar of ebony and mother-of-pearl stood in the center, and upon it lay a single sandalwood plaque inscribed with Prince

Yanming’s name, flanked by twin candles, their light unwavering even in the breeze.

Prince Yanxi and I stood unspeaking, our heads bowed, our hands clasped before us. There was no need for the incense the mortals lit, hoping it would bear their words to the

heavens. Nevertheless, I whispered a prayer for him, imagining that the wind might carry it to wherever his tender spirit lay—whether one with the ocean he had loved, with the dragons, or here, in his beloved home. Tears trailed down my cheeks. Even after all this time, I had not wept myself dry.

A hoarse sob tore from my throat. “I promised to protect him. I failed.”

Prince Yanxi’s voice was gentle and grave. “I blame myself too. If only I could relive those moments, I would not have

brought Yanming to the Southern Sea. I would have gotten him to safety earlier. But this was not our fault. We must

end this cycle of remorse, which leads only to despair.

Yanming would not have wanted that. He was a joyous spirit, filled with love and laughter, and that is how I want to remember him. Not how he died, but how he lived.”

These words of his were a balm to my pain, a reminder that while there was death in life, there was life in death too. That all need not be lost. Prince Yanxi fell silent,

perhaps giving me time to gather my battered composure. Like him, I had tormented myself in the solitude of my mind, wondering whether I could have saved Prince Yanming had I been quicker, if I had killed Wugang the first chance I got. A hundred ifs, unknowns, and possible endings haunted me,

as fleeting and intangible as the mist at dawn. All the regrets in the world would not change the past.

We remained there for hours, until the moonlight caressed the place in shades of silver and white. At last, I rose to my feet and bowed. “Thank you,” I told Prince Yanxi. “I will take my leave now.”

“Where will you go?” he asked.

There was no invitation to stay. And even if there had

been, I would not be so callous as to accept. I would spare his parents the sight of me. I had not killed their son. I would have laid my life down for him—and yet, his blood stained my hands.

I left the Eastern Sea with a violent hunger gnawing at me for someplace new, untainted by the past. Gripped by a

desire to wander and roam, to drown my senses with unfamiliar sights across emerald forests, silver mountains, and untouched oceans. There was one place that called to me stronger than the rest, one place I had stayed away from, afraid of reopening old wounds that had never quite closed.

Finally, I yielded, traveling to the Golden Desert, trekking across the glittering dunes as the sunrays beat down upon my head. If the Celestial Kingdom was spring, the desert was a pitiless summer. I slept in the afternoons and walked in the evenings when it was cooler, beneath the light of the moon. Some nights I fell asleep upon the rough sands, only awakened by the fierce glare of day … and those were the times I slept best of all.

At the border of the Cloud Wall, I froze—jolted by the sight of those shifting violet clouds, emotions crashing through me. Through snatches of news that trickled my way, I heard there had been a great power struggle after Wenzhi’s death. His mother, the Dowager Queen, had emerged victorious,

ascending the throne and proving she was a capable and wise ruler. Just as her son would have been, had he not the misfortune of loving me.

The Cloud Wall prospered, no longer the outcast of the realm. Immortals ventured freely to this place they had

feared for so long, and the name “Demon” was uttered less. A sudden urge seized me to journey there—where I had known both anguish and hope. But Wenzhi’s mother would rightfully cast me from her presence, the one who had cost her son so dear. No, I could not impose myself upon her, stirring up grief anew. She was no friend of mine; I had no

claim to her patience, even as I longed to grieve with her for what we had both lost. The greatest service I could do for her was to disappear.

There was fragile solace in knowing that after an immortal’s passing, their spirit lived on in our realm, whether in the skies or the Four Seas. Even though their

consciousness was gone, at least they were not wholly lost. Death was a strange thing for an immortal to ponder, yet how could I not when it had claimed those I loved?

I lifted my head, inhaling deeply. Something in me—the part which still hurt—craved the very air here, the trace of him I sensed among these clouds. A hard thing to grasp, impossible to define. Was I attuned to it because of our

closeness, because we had been tethered by the

enchantment that killed him? Or perhaps, it was merely the kindness of my mind, conjuring illusions to ease the hurt.

I dropped to my knees as I gazed upon his land, indulging in my memories. There was a time I wanted to forget

everything to do with him, and now I pressed each

remembrance close to my heart, even those that wounded me—because they were all I had left. I had thought I hated him, eager to tear him from my life, unaware that the roots of my feelings went deeper than I knew. Each time he had fought to recover what he’d so recklessly destroyed, I had shoved him away, too afraid to examine the feelings he

roused in me.

“I am sorry,” I said aloud. I was forever apologizing these days. “I was too proud and stubborn to realize what I felt, to understand what you tried to tell me before. I loved you then … and I miss you still.”

Clasping my hands before me, I pressed my forehead to the prickling sands. A crisp breeze blew over me, laced with the faintest scent of pine, so familiar and dear—the ache in my chest tightened until I could not breathe. Closing my

eyes, I lifted my face to the wind, breathing it in until the clawing pain subsided, whispering of broken dreams and hopes, those that would never come to pass—and I imagined wherever he was, he heard me.

Such fairy tales, I told myself then.

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