Chapter no 39

Heart of the Sun Warrior

Dawn broke across the sky in streaks of gilded rose. I glided to the Mortal Realm upon a cloud, landing by the outskirts of the city. A high stone wall encircled it, a black lacquered

plaque hanging above the arched entrance, carved with the words:


It was autumn here, when leaves shed their green to russet red, a crisp coolness threaded through the air.

Despite the early hour, the streets were lined with stalls, bustling with mortals. Some carried straw baskets, others gripping their children’s hands as they wound through the

crowd. Chickens squawked from rattan cages, porcelain jars of wine were crammed onto a table, small wooden toys heaped on another. The savory aroma of crisp sesame

pancakes and pork dumplings wafted from a vendor’s stall, mingling with the remnants of food strewn on the ground, tinged with the sourish edge of spoil. Sugared figurines

artfully shaped into birds and flowers caught my eye, but I hurried past the merchants hawking their wares.

Perhaps I should have waited until I had the elixir, perhaps I should have left Wenzhi to the peace of his mortal

existence—but I could not stay away. My feet quickened along the stone path, though I did not know where I was going. Strands of my hair fell from its coils, curling across

my forehead and down my neck. My heart was racing even as I reminded myself that Wenzhi would not even know my name. Not yet, but he would.

Memories flashed across my mind: the battles we had fought, the times we had saved each other. Our friendship and love, betrayal and enmity, transforming into something new altogether—stronger and more precious by far. I had not believed he could change, I had not wanted to. Only in the terrible moment of his death did it dawn upon me that he was the one who could make me whole, even as he had been the one to tear me apart. For when he had broken me with his treachery, he had broken himself too. Despite my

coldness in pushing him away, my indifference and

resentment, he had fought relentlessly for us, trying to

prove the depth of his emotions, his sincerity and love … a selfless love that I never imagined he was capable of.

A large manor rose ahead, white walls holding up an

arched roof of moss-green tiles, aglitter in the rays of the sun. Pine trees swayed as they towered over the walls, strings of white lanterns dangling beside the lacquered

door, swaying in the gentle breeze. A horse pranced

outside, its reins gripped by a young man as its hooves pawed the ground impatiently.

He was here; I could sense him, just as I had in his kingdom. Mortal or immortal, I would know him anywhere. Stumbling to a halt, I brushed down my lilac robe, adjusting the crimson sash around my waist. Chrysanthemums were embroidered in soft pinks upon the silk, the flowers of the season. Despite my impatience, vanity had roused me to

change. I had missed the pleasure of a fine gown, this desire to flatter my appearance. An urge gripped me, to stride to

the door and knock—but I would be a stranger to him. A

discourteous one, arriving at this hour, without invitation or good cause.

The door swung open as a tall man stepped out, his black hair pulled into a smooth topknot. His robes were of fine indigo brocade, fastened around his waist with a silk sash.

Rooted to the spot, I drank in the sight of him: his sculpted cheekbones, thin lips, his clear eyes ringed with gray. A rare shade for the mortals to possess, one that had haunted my dreams during those long restless nights. There were slight differences in his features and form. One less used to battle though still strong; taller, with a more scholarly air. Yet his keen intelligence shone in his gaze, and he moved with that same effortless grace.

It was him, as surely as I knew my own name. Such aching joy swept through me, surging through my veins, ablaze with the light of the heavens. A smile broke over my face. I wanted to laugh from the exhilaration crashing over me that this was no dream. He was alive.

Wenzhi strode past me, then stopped. As he swung

around, our eyes collided—a tingling rush coursing through me like my skin was brushed with morning dew, a breath of autumn, the fall of new snow. Caught staring, heat flushed the back of my neck. He blinked, taken aback by the intensity of my gaze. No smile stretched across his face; no recognition dawned. He looked just as he did the first time we met: Cold. Unapproachable. Disinterested.

The young man clutching the horse’s reins, bowed to him deferentially. “Minister Zhao.”

As Wenzhi nodded in acknowledgment, I searched for something to say to capture his interest, to stop him from leaving, but then he came toward me, his steps halting as though fighting the impulse.

“I do not mean to offend you, but have we met before?” His manner was guarded.

My mind went blank. “Yes. Long ago. You would not remember.”

His eyes narrowed. “I apologize that I cannot place you. I would not have forgotten.”

Were those hollow words of courtesy? Or was there something more in the dip of his voice, the way his eyes lingered on my face?

A lady appeared through the doorway, moving toward him. Her face was shaped like a teardrop, a sprinkling of freckles across the slender bridge of her nose, her lustrous hair coiled elegantly upon her head. In the crook of her

elbow nestled the handle of a three-tiered lacquered basket that she held out to Wenzhi. “Your breakfast. Don’t forget to eat this time.”

His wife, who else might she be? Something pierced my chest, searing deeper when Wenzhi thanked her, his lips forming a familiar smile. I had no right to feel this way. He had forgotten me, built a new life for himself where he had fallen in love, married, perhaps even fathered children. My joy should have been complete that he lived, that he had found happiness here. It should have been enough, more

than enough … if I were a better person. But I was a jealous and selfish creature, fighting to quell this burst of irrational emotion. Wenzhi had loved me, he had died for me—except I had not wanted his love then and he did not remember me now. I wanted to laugh and weep at the way fate had twisted us around until I was torn between wanting to

embrace him and the urge to kick him in the shin. How could I have hoped for him to remain mine when he had

forgotten my name? When I had faded to an elusive shadow in his mind, the echo of a song he would never recall. At least, not in his mortal lifetime.

Perhaps sensing my avid interest, the lady glanced at me curiously before turning back to Wenzhi. After exchanging a few more hushed words with him, she returned to the house.

“Your wife is thoughtful.” I had always been eager to pick at the scab before it healed, to yank despair into the open.

“Wife?” he repeated, tilting his head to one side. “She is my sister.”

“Sister!” Relief flooded me. This sister was preferable by far to his wretch of an immortal brother. “She is thoughtful to think of your well-being. Most kind and gracious and—” I bit down on my tongue, conscious of my rambling.

“Minister.” The attendant bowed again, adding urgently, “The council is expecting you.”

“I must go,” he told me.

I nodded, though I did not want him to leave. This brief interlude was a drop of water to a parched throat, a star in a solitary night.

“May I see you again?” His words came out tinged with

disbelief, as though he could not believe he was asking such a thing.

My smile was both inviting and warm. “If you want to.”

He shook his head as though trying to clear it, and how I wished I could read his thoughts. “I do. Yet I do not want to impose upon you.” He tensed, before adding, “You are welcome to refuse. I would take no offense though I would be disappointed.”

“Do you make a habit of inviting strangers out?” I asked lightly, even as a thrill coursed through my veins.

“This is my first time. Yet you do not feel like a stranger.” He spoke slowly as though trying to unpick his own thoughts. “If it would put you at ease, I could invite my sister to join us, though she will interrogate you

mercilessly.” Even now he was quick to sense an opening, to secure victory.

“There is no need,” I told him. “Just you will be enough.” “Thank you for your trust.” His expression was grave as

he glanced around the quiet neighborhood. “You might be new here, but much danger lurks in this city. Be careful

whom you accept an invitation from. If there is any trouble, just—”

“I can look after myself,” I assured him.

A warmth spread through me that even now, he still watched out for me. Of course, he did not know who I was, what he had been—that no mortal danger could threaten me. Yet the perils of this realm were great for him and if he let me, I would stay by his side and watch over him, until we were together again in the skies above.

A slow smile broke across his face. “I am certain you can.”

He was silent for a while, before saying, “If you wish, my attendant can accompany you back.”

I shook my head to decline. “I live far from here, up north.

Though I come here often.” I hoped Liwei would not mind the transgression.

“I am glad to hear that.” He swung himself effortlessly

onto the saddle, gripping the reins with one hand as he ran the other over the horse’s neck. “Do you like osmanthus wine?”

“Yes.” My heart leapt at the mention of my favorite drink.

Perhaps—deep down—a part of him remembered me still. “There is a place by the lake, Sun Moon Teahouse. The

view is beautiful at sunset, and it serves the finest wine in the region. Shall we meet there, tomorrow before dusk?” His lips curved into that slow smile which set my pulse racing.

“I will be there.” A promise for today, for all the days after. I stared after him as he galloped away upon the horse,

until he turned the corner at the end of the road. Only then did I lift my head, staring at the sun above. Its golden rays streaked across the cloudless skies, dispelling the lingering shade of night. My path stretched before me, unhindered, ablaze with light. Never had it been so clear before, never had it felt so bright.

I had believed all my hopes buried so deep, they could never be unearthed again. But I found my mind drifting once more to the realm of tomorrow, and the infinite possibilities

that awaited there. My dreams were neither grand nor noble

—not of defeating monsters, of peace in the realm, not even of my mother or father … but smaller and humbler, for myself alone.

Tomorrow, when the sun began its descent, when day

converges into night, I would make my way to the teahouse by the lake. Wenzhi would be waiting for me in the garden, his dark green robe fluttering in the wind as he gazed upon the scenery—as wondrous as he had promised with the scarlet rays of the sun fragmenting upon the silvery waters. As I drew closer, he would turn, his lips stretching into a smile. If a twinge of recognition plucked his heart, he would not know what it meant—and one day, I would tell him.

Beneath the darkening violet sky, we would sip osmanthus wine from porcelain cups, speaking as we used to—openly, without hesitation or recrimination. Perhaps I might even laugh again, for I had almost forgotten its sound. In the days and weeks to come, he would show me this city he lived in: its cypress-lined pathways, the arched bridges, the elegant buildings of stone and wood. Perhaps he would open his home to me and introduce me to his sister. In his courtyard, shaded by pine trees, we would read the classics of the

realm, of ancient legends and poems of beauty. Some evenings we might even play the qin together, our

instruments set side-by-side as our music rippled forth in seamless harmony. And during the festivals when the mortals gathered to light the lanterns they set upon the waters, when they lit incense sticks and prayed to the gods

—I would whisper of my own desires, for the day we would be truly reunited whether in this lifetime or his next.

He was not my first love, but he would be my last.

Such were the dreams I wished for. Such were the memories I longed to make with him, the promise of our future brimming with simple yet profound joy. In the past, when I had grappled with Wenzhi’s betrayal, I wondered how things might have turned out had we been two ordinary

people, our past and present unencumbered. What lay

before us now was a rare chance to start anew. Oh, I was still afraid of the years before us, when he would grow to know me all over again. Would his feelings change after regaining his immortality? Perhaps only heartbreak lay

ahead, but I was never one for surrendering while the battle remained unfought. Whatever time we had here I would

embrace it. I would grasp this chance and hold it close,

because I had known what it was like to have it snatched away. I had lost him once, I would not lose him again.

A voice in my mind whispered that I did not deserve such happiness when the faces of the dead haunted me still. I silenced it, for now I knew better. The time I’d spent in seemingly aimless wanderings had not been wasted. I had needed to heal, to learn to live with my pain, and to uncover the secrets of my heart that had long eluded me.

These wounds and scars would not break me again. I would honor those I had lost by keeping them alive in my heart, not by casting joy from my life, not by refusing to live. No longer would I shut love from my life, in all its wondrous yet devastating manifestations—the greatest power in the world, capable of moving the hearts of mortals and gods to both evil and good. For we were complex creatures of shades of gray, capable of wonderful and terrible things …

of change, because our natures were not fixed like the stars in the sky but flowing as the river toward an unknown horizon.

Everyone knew the tale of how my father had shot the suns, of my mother flying to the moon—yet sometimes in these legends it was not the how but the why. Some might think us weaker for our love, but it gave us strength we did not know we possessed. No longer would I flee, no longer would I doubt. I would step out from the shadows of my past and turn my face to what lay ahead. To live a life with love, was to live without regret.

At last, I was home.

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