Chapter no 38

Heart of the Sun Warrior

I no longer counted the times I returned to the Cloud Wall border; it had become a ritual without which I felt lost. This place I had once despised was now the only balm to my

grief, though not without pain of its own—to sense a wisp of Wenzhi’s spirit, forever beyond my reach. Perhaps I was

being cruel to myself; it would be a kindness to forget … but I would not let his memory fade.

The wind rolled in fierce gusts today, roiling with unrest. Magic flowed from my fingertips to steady the cloud I rode upon. Strange weather in our realm, unease churning in my stomach since I had left the moon this morning. Ahead, the Golden Desert appeared leeched of color, tinted with ash

beneath the darkening skies. It would have been prudent to turn back, yet impatience spurred me onward. No enemy

could be worse than those I had faced, nor those that lurked in my mind.

Leaping down, I strode toward the clouds ahead. My insides clenched as I lifted my chin, bracing for the rush of memories, the braided comfort and torment that had drawn me back each time like an invisible cord wrapped around my heart.

There was nothing.

I picked up my skirt and ran onward until it was no longer the crunch of sand beneath my feet but the soft embrace of the clouds. Reckless, to venture into the Cloud Wall, yet I did not care. I closed my eyes, searching frantically for the echo of Wenzhi’s presence, that gentle graze against my

consciousness—only finding a hollow stillness. Had I lost my mind or finally regained it? Perhaps there had been nothing all this time, just the false manifestation of my desires. If this was healing, I did not want it.

No, whatever it was it had been real; I was not one to be satisfied with delusions and dreams. Fear and resentment rose bitter and thick, that even this had been taken from me. I did not know what had happened, but I would find out. And there was just one person who might have the answers I sought, or the power to demand them.

I summoned my cloud, soaring northward through the skies. The carved dragons upon the Jade Palace rooftop

glittered like they were afire as I made my way up the white marble stairs, between the great amber pillars that bore the three-tiered jade roof. Pale tendrils of incense coiled from the jewel-studded burners, the scent of jasmine springing in the air. The guards at the entrance did not halt me, allowing me through without a word.

It had been years since I was here, yet my feet still knew the way. I strode through the Outer Court and Inner Court, toward the Hall of Eastern Light. At this hour the court would be in attendance upon the Celestial Emperor. By the

doorway, I hesitated. This would be no easy confrontation. More than the avid scrutiny of the court, this would be the first time I would see Liwei since I had left. While it had been my choice to leave, it hurt me too. Wherever I had journeyed, there was news of him—the young Celestial

Emperor of whom dreams were made. Benevolent and wise beyond his years, and though no betrothal was yet

announced it was only a matter of time. Emperors must have heirs.

The thought pricked me—an old habit that faded as

abruptly as it began. As I stepped into the hall, a hush fell over it. Courtiers swung my way, some stiffening in

recognition, while those more recently appointed scowled at the disruption of my presence.

“Petitioners must wait outside until they are summoned,” a courtier warned me, his nostrils flaring wide.

Another cupped his hands and bowed to Liwei. “Your Celestial Majesty, shall I summon the guards?”

“No.” Liwei’s voice rang with irrefutable command. “She is always welcome here.”

Thinly veiled envy shone in the eyes of the courtiers, while some smiled with sinuous ease. As I passed Teacher Daoming and General Jianyun, I bent my head low in

greeting. It gladdened me to find them here, high in favor. Wise advisors with the courage to speak their minds were rare indeed.

As I approached the dais, Liwei’s aura swept over me: warm, bright, and achingly familiar. Lifting my eyes to the jade throne, a tenderness suffused me, threaded with

remorse—yet devoid of regret. I would not have been

content by his side here, nor could I have made him happy when I was yearning for something that no longer existed.

Liwei’s features were arranged into a regal mask,

betraying none of his thoughts. His yellow brocade robe was embroidered with azure dragons, a heavy gold and sapphire crown upon his hair. The pearl strands of his father’s crown were gone, and I would be glad to never hear their ominous clicking again. How magnificent he looked, like the emperor he was, granting an audience to a commoner.

I clasped my hands and lowered myself to the ground, stretching my cupped hands before me. He had not

demanded it, yet it was expected by all, and I would not diminish his dignity here. As I lifted my head, I caught the

slight narrowing of his eyes as he gestured for me to rise.

He did not like this any more than I did, his fingers curled in his lap. If he were still the prince, he might have sent them all away—the attendants, courtiers, and guards. But an

emperor was at once elevated to greater power, yet bound tighter to ceremony, decorum, and the weight of infinite

expectations—at least for a ruler who strove to be worthy of their position.

“Why are you here, Xingyin?”

“I have something to ask of Your Celestial Majesty.” I spoke formally, my tone guarded. Every word uttered here would be weighed and turned over. How I missed the ease

of the past when it was just the two of us in the Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility, but those days were gone as irrevocably as water slipping into the soil.

Liwei inclined his head. “Ask anything you wish.”

Restraint was prudent, but I was too anxious for news. “Your Celestial Majesty, what does it mean when an

immortal spirit leaves our realm?” A pause, before I added, “I can no longer sense him.”

He straightened, his shoulders seeming to clench beneath his robe. “Whom do you mean?”

“Wenzhi.” His name fell out like a broken chord. While I had dreamed it, whispered it in my mind—I never thought I would speak it aloud again, and certainly not in this hall of Celestials.

“Have you been searching for him all this time?” A note of sadness weighed his tone.


“What did you find?” he asked.

“The shadow of his presence, like a dream without a face.” My voice shook as I remembered Wenzhi’s eyes

closing, his chest hollowing with his last breath. “I know he is dead. But I thought … I believed part of his spirit

remained in the Cloud Wall—until now.” I fell silent, realizing the foolishness of my words, already regretting the

impatience that had led me here, clinging to nothing but a mirage.

It was so quiet in the hall, surely all could hear the rustle of my sleeve, the breath which slipped from my mouth.

Liwei leaned forward, his eyes dark and opaque. “He is in the world below, but not as you know him. Not yet.”

I could not move, staring at him, wide-eyed and numb.

And then his meaning sank in—a blazing lightness sweeping me up, even as a hundred questions slammed through my mind. Disbelief warred with a wild hope that refused to be tamed, for it had been caged far too long. I was trembling, my heart still piecing together what my mind was beginning to grasp. My father had spoken of the few times when immortals had been sent to the Mortal Realm at the

Celestial Emperor’s behest, just as he had been sent to slay the sunbirds. A rare exception, requiring the emperor’s

permission, and the promise of restoration.

Liwei was the Celestial Emperor now.

“Wenzhi is mortal? How is that possible? He died,” I said haltingly.

“He was fortunate. His consciousness was preserved along with his immortal spirit, something we had never seen


“The laurel.” A lump formed in my throat as I recalled the fading remnants of its sap scattering over Wenzhi’s body. “It brought me back. It saved a part of him too.”

“Why did his spirit only leave now? Why not before?” My voice shook, the enormity of the revelation still unfolding in my mind.

The Keeper of Mortal Fates stepped forward, approaching the dais. “We could not do it at first. His spirit was greatly weakened; we were unsure if it was strong enough to sustain a mortal existence, the only way he could return without losing his immortal self.” He stroked his long beard contemplatively. “Yet over the years his spirit gradually

strengthened, as though something was helping him heal—a

most unusual circumstance. Only then, could he be sent to the Mortal Realm.”

“But that was after the laurel was destroyed, its power is no more.” Even now, I dared not wholly believe it, afraid it was not real, that this happiness would be snatched from me again.

“Not the laurel. You,” Liwei said gently.

All the times I had returned to the Cloud Wall … had Wenzhi sensed me too? Had he found comfort in my

presence as I had in his? Had he been fighting to return to me? I should have known that he would haunt me if he

could. Tears surged into my eyes, falling to the stone floor— when had they gathered? How I hated crying in front of the court, but nothing could have tempered my emotions—the elation cresting through me, this incandescent joy.

Liwei raised his hand and motioned for me to ascend the dais. As I stepped forward, an attendant rushed to set a

chair beside the jade throne. A relief to be able to speak to him away from the ears of his court, though their eyes

remained on us still.

“Why did you not tell me?” There was no resentment in my question, just wonder.

“We dared not raise your hopes. Nor could I send him to the Mortal Realm until after I had assumed the throne, until I was sure it was safe,” Liwei explained.

“Thank you, I am grateful.” How inadequate these paltry words. “I will repay you,” I added fervently.

“You don’t owe me anything, not even your thanks.” His mouth stretched into a faint smile. “For if we were to keep count, my debt to you is greater. What matters is your happiness—you deserve it more than anyone.”

“You did this for me?” An aching gratitude swelled within. “What other reason could there be? It was certainly not for

him. I saw how you grieved; you were a shadow of yourself. You must have … you must love him greatly.” A breath slipped from him, drawn and soft. “Any hardship he endured

in the world below was essential to strengthen his immortal spirit, to hasten his return. It is no trivial matter to overcome the adversities of the Mortal Realm, whether illness, loss, or heartbreak.”

My insides twisted at the mention of the last. I would bring him back. “I have a boon to ask of the Celestial Emperor,” I said slowly.

He did not hesitate. “Ask it from your friend, instead. We are friends, are we not?”

“Always.” A promise and a farewell.

Something wrenched from my chest, a weight I had been carrying all this time. Such lightness bloomed in its place, relief that this rift in me would finally heal—even as a pang struck my chest, a part of me still reluctant to surrender the dream of us that I had cherished for so long. Liwei had been

so deeply entwined in my life, it was like tearing away a part of myself. Yet he would not be lost to me. I would always love him, even though my heart no longer beat to his.

As Liwei raised his hand, the entire court bowed before him. He wanted them to hear what he said next, to

extinguish all doubt. “Xingyin, daughter of the Moon Goddess and of the Sun Warrior, for your service to the realm in destroying the everlasting laurel and the traitor Wugang, ask your heart’s desire and it shall be granted.”

I rose and made my way to the front of the throne.

Cupping my hands together, I bowed low before him. I would play my role; I would honor him this way so none could fault him. I had earned the right to ask this and I would do it with pride. “Your Celestial Majesty, the only thing I wish for is the Elixir of Immortality.”

Liwei nodded. “It shall be yours. One is almost ready—” His words cut off, unease flashing across his face.

A memory surfaced, penetrating my haze of emotion: Zhiyi showing me the peach, the joy in her face when she spoke of the elixir for her husband, the one Liwei had

promised her. And what of my own pledge to her? But there

was no urgency, she had an Immortal Peach, my mind whispered—for I did not want to wait.

I turned to the Keeper of Mortal Fates. “Is Wenzhi safe?” Honor dictated my action, but if it came at the cost of his life, I did not think I could do it. If there was just this one chance, I would not relinquish it, though it would stain my soul.

The Keeper nodded. “He is in good health, living in a place called Silver Cloud City. Even should he encounter danger in the realm below, even should he die—it will not affect his true self. Once he is restored to the skies, he will regain his immortal form, his memories and power.”

His words were intended as assurance, yet my hands

clenched at the thought of someone hurting him. Mortal or not, they would pay. Yet I forced myself to calm, to think.

Wenzhi was alive, he would be restored to all he had lost, he would return to me.

I searched Liwei’s face, catching the wavering light in his eyes. If I asked for the elixir, he would not refuse. His sister need never know of this; she lived in the world below.

Silence ensued, my desires battling the better part of me, a voice within screaming at me to not be a fool, to grasp the happiness that lay within my reach—I had waited long

enough. And yet, could I dishonor my promise when I owed her my father’s life? Could I burden Liwei with this decision? For it would grieve him to break his word. He had done so much for me, I could not take more.

As long as you are mine as I am yours, we have all the time in the world.

It was what Wenzhi had said to me when I had asked him to wait, when he first learned of my identity. The beginning of our unraveling, and yet buried beneath the deceit—the

emotions had been true. We would have time; I would make sure of it. It would be far more meaningful, far more

precious, if our joy was untarnished by shame and guilt. For it would haunt me that I had twice taken what another had

claim to, that I had broken this promise. I would not be

giving Wenzhi up, I could never do that—rather, I would be delaying our reunion.

We had done so many things wrong, this we would do right. We would start anew, upon a stronger foundation, to give us the chance we never had. The one we deserved.

I lowered myself into another bow. “Your Celestial Majesty, I wish for two elixirs. The first for your sister, and the second for myself.” The words were bitter on my tongue, my heart sinking when a moment ago it had soared. I was not so noble that I could yield this easily, my insides curling with

resentment and longing.

Liwei nodded, the tension easing from his bearing. “Are you sure? It will be years. Decades, perhaps.”

“I repay my debts,” I said. “As long as there is another elixir, I will wait.” Perhaps I had finally learned the art of patience, after all.

“You will have it, I promise.” A solemn vow before his court, though I did not need it from him.

My gaze met Liwei’s, a warmth spreading through me at the understanding I found there. A single thought consumed my mind: Wenzhi was alive, and it was Liwei who would

restore him to me. My world had been turned inside out, and yet it had never been more perfect.

Liwei rose and strode toward me, his power coiling around us to form a shield of privacy. No one could hear what he spoke next. “There is something else I want to say. I wish I had not let you go the first time, for even when you came

back to me your heart was no longer mine alone. Later, when you left, I should have gone with you. I should have helped you heal.”

“I did not expect you to come. You have your obligations,” I said.

He shook his head. “You should have come first, above all else. You should not have needed to ask. I knew you were hurting, that life here would not make you happy. I believed

—selfishly—that if we were together, that would be enough.”

“It would have been enough, more than enough—but I have changed, as have you. Life has shaped us in different ways.” My voice was thick with emotion. “I will always be grateful that you took pity on a girl who had nothing and shared your life with her.”

He inclined his head. “As I am forever grateful for you, Xingyin.”

My fingers reached into my sleeve, closing around something I carried with me always. The lacquered hairpin, his promise of a future that was no longer ours. I handed it to him, feeling like a knife was sliding between my ribs—or was it being pulled out?

“I don’t deserve this.” I did not mean to be cruel, but it was the truth. I did not deserve his love because I could not offer him mine.

His eyes were ink and shadow. “Keep it, as a gift of friendship. It belongs to no one else. Go to him. Be happy.” His hand reached out to graze mine, his remembered touch sending a sliver of pain through me.

Except it was the good type, where healing lay on the other side.

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