A ringing through my mind yanked me from the embrace of slumber. Someone had come through the wards. My eyes flew open as I probed the intruder’s energy. Familiar to me, yet fury flared hot and bright.
I would not see him; I would ignore him as I had done all the times before. He came more often now, disrupting the wards with careless abandon when he could have unraveled them with ease—just as he had done with those of the
Celestial Kingdom. Perhaps it amused him to have them
clang through my mind like a gong newly struck. Perhaps it saved him the trouble of rousing me himself. He never
ventured to my chamber; maybe he did not know where it was, though I preferred to think he did not dare to. After the initial disturbance, silence would ensue. Yet his presence on the balcony of my home irked me relentlessly like dust in my eyes. Wenzhi was ever patient, only leaving with the
approach of dawn.
From the beginning, I resisted the urge to chase him from our grounds. Ignoring him would be the best recourse,
denting his iron pride. And I did not like the bitterness and
rage his presence roused in me, the memories that seared.
Those were sleepless nights as I tossed until the silken coverlet was twisted around my body, my only solace imagining his own futile wait.
The lilting strains of a zither drifted into my room.
Beautiful and haunting, yet played so softly I would not have noticed had I not been awake. Each drawn-out note melded into the next, reverberating with restrained passion. The melody stirred an ache within me, an image sliding into my mind of the last time I had heard it—of Wenzhi plucking the strings of his qin just before I had drugged him to make my escape. Rage seared me. How dare he come here? How dare he play this now?
Scrambling off the bed, I pulled on a robe, fastening it with a length of silk tied into a clumsy knot. Snatching my
bow from the table, I slung it onto my back, tucking a couple of daggers through my sash for good measure. I moved swiftly but quietly, to avoid awakening anyone—making my way along the corridor, up the flight of stairs. At the top, I
pushed the doors apart, stepping onto the balcony.
Wenzhi sat cross-legged on the ground with his red-lacquered qin laid across his lap, his black robes pooling over the stone floor. His long hair was partly drawn into a
jade ring, the rest spilling down his back. I could not see his face, bent down, as his hands slid across the instrument’s strings deftly. His fingers stilled—halting the music—as his
gaze swept up to mine. My insides twisted at the sight of his eyes, their silvery hue a jolting reminder of his betrayal.
I struck first, channeling coils of air that spiraled toward him. As he leapt to his feet, his body swerved gracefully in evasion. Without a pause, I lunged at him, a dagger in my hand—but he caught my wrist in midair, in an iron grip. I snatched the second dagger from my sash and slammed its tip against his chest just as a shield glimmered over him. It sparked against the blade, a shock coursing through my
arm. As my fingers jerked apart, the dagger fell, striking the
floor with a clatter. We stood there, locked in place, unsated rage swelling in my chest until I could barely breathe.
“This is a better reception than I anticipated.” He grinned unrepentantly. “If you really wanted to kill me, you would have used your bow.”
“A dagger would hurt more.” Gritting my teeth, I drove my knee into his gut. As he flinched, I wrenched free of his hold
—stepping back, out of reach. At once I cast a shield over myself, gleaming as it settled over me.
He tilted his head to one side. “Did you like my playing?” “As little as I did the last time.” My fingers curled by my
side. “Leave. Don’t come back.”
“After all these months of hiding away, of avoiding me, did you come here just to tell me that?”
“I was not hiding; I have no wish to ever see you again.”
His expression was inscrutable. “You seem angrier than the last time we met here.”
“What do you mean? Was it not a dream?” I demanded. He paused. “Yes and no.”
“An infuriating answer,” I said scornfully. “What despicable magic did you use?”
“I would not do such a thing to you,” he said tightly. “I did not toy with your mind, just your surroundings.”
I did not want to ponder his words nor the meaning in them. “A needless effort.”
“I disagree.” He spoke with an infuriating assurance. “You would not have come otherwise.”
My eyes narrowed as I recalled the silver pin, lying in the drawer I had tossed it into. “Why the pin?”
A small smile formed upon his lips. “I thought you might appreciate the memento. You almost ripped my throat out with it.”
“It was a shame I missed.”
“You did not miss. I stopped you.”
“How brave you were, restraining a helpless captive,” I taunted.
“You are anything but helpless.” His smile widened. “Call it self-preservation on my part. I liked my throat where it was, intact.”
As he moved toward me, I unslung my bow. “Another step, and you’ll get that arrow you so richly deserve. Why are you here? You must know I want nothing to do with you.”
He tensed, almost imperceptibly. “To offer my congratulations. When is the wedding?”
“There is no wedding,” I replied unthinkingly, regretting the words once they were out.
Light flared in his eyes, startlingly bright. “Did he not
propose or have you not accepted? According to the rumors, few could conceive of you refusing, though nothing would
delight me more.”
“I did not refuse.” My tone was sharp, my nerves taut. He had a way of stirring me that I did not like. “I will accept,
once we resolve certain matters.”
“Like how you might stop Their Celestial Majesties from trying to murder you, their intended daughter-in-law? Ask
yourself, does the present empress appear content with her lot? Or whether you could really be happy, locked in the
gilded cage of the Jade Palace for the rest of your days?” “Fine words from the one who locked me up before.” I
infused each word with scorn, concealing how close he had struck to the mark.
A dull flush crept up his neck. “Xingyin, don’t marry him.” “How dare you,” I seethed. “You are nothing to me, less
than nothing after what you did.”
“Could you forgive me?” A strain in his voice, which was usually so steady. “If only we could start over—”
“There is no starting over, it is over, Wenzhi.” Something pulsed through me as I spoke his name. A vestige of the
past, something I must learn to quench. “I am happy. You thought you knew me but you did not. You only saw in me what you wanted, a tool you could mold to your liking.”
“As you did in me,” he countered. “Did you ever see the real person behind the Celestial Captain? Did you ever try? Or was I just a stand-in for—”
“Enough.” I raised my voice, careless in my fury. “We were both mistaken in each other, and regardless, ‘we’ are at an end.”
He shook his head. “We had a bad start, you and me. Both of us were liars and frauds, hiding who we really were.”
“Bad start?” I repeated disdainfully. “Don’t play word games with me. Don’t try to diminish what you did. And don’t you dare compare us. I did it because I had to, not because I wanted to.”
“As did I.”
“You did it for yourself. Your ambition. To take a crown.”
His jaw clenched. “I’m not one for futile tolerance, to meekly accept my lot. I seek my own opportunities, make my own luck. Why should I let myself and those under my protection suffer when my brother was the heir? Why shouldn’t I reach for more?”
His words mirrored uncomfortably what I had felt before; the ambition burning in me when I had fled to the Celestial Kingdom. Could I truly fault Wenzhi for this? Perhaps I had not suffered as he had—who knows what I might have been driven to do, to keep myself and my loved ones safe. Who knows what darkness might have bloomed in my heart, the honor I might have discarded to survive.
No, I told myself. I had been tempted, I had faced unspeakable danger and yet, I had not lost myself. I was not like him.
“This is not about ambition. I fought for what I wanted, but never intended to hurt anyone. While you—” I could not finish the sentence, choked by the memory of his betrayal.
“I never wanted to hurt you.” His eyes pierced mine, pale ash in the moonlight. “I was mistaken in thinking there was nothing more important than the crown. I know now, there is nothing more important to me than you.”
He spoke with such sincerity, as though he had not lied to me and taken me captive, stolen the dragon pearls, and
along with them, my hope of freeing my mother. Not to mention his vicious plan of destroying the Celestial Army. He had let Liwei and me go, but that did not erase what he had done. I could never forget how he had clasped my hands in his and promised me his heart—and how much I had desired it then, ignorant of the treachery that lay within.
I dug my nails into the flesh of my palm. “I do not care. I want nothing from you.” If I was vicious, he had made me so. His was no minor offense that could be swept aside; my nature was neither so magnanimous nor forgiving.
“Then why are you here? Why are you talking to me?” He was relentless. Yet there was a shift in that he did not push forward, merely standing his ground.
“Anger. Curiosity,” I flung back. “Why do you come here?
Not just tonight, all the nights before.”
“Need you ask? For a chance to see you.” A harsh breath slid from him. “I regret what I did to you.”
“Easily said when you have accomplished everything you set out to. You are your father’s heir; the kingdom will be
His gaze pinned mine. “Ask me to relinquish it. Tell me what you want.”
“Would you truly give up your position?” My voice rang with disbelief.
He did not flinch. “Is that what it will take for you to give me another chance?”
“More word games, Wenzhi? Must you always play to win?”
“You play the same way.”
“You are wrong,” I told him. “There are some games I will not play. Sometimes those who think they have won are the greatest losers.”
“I just want to understand the stakes,” he countered. “It’s finished. We both lost.”
He regarded me in silence for a moment. “I did not think you would run. I never took you for a coward.”
The silken bite in his tone stung. It was what he wanted, to goad me into retaliation, into saying something I should not, but I reined in my emotions. “I am not a coward, just not a fool.”
He sighed. “I don’t want to fight with you, Xingyin. I wronged you. I wish to make amends if you will let me. If there is anything you desire, you have but to ask.”
He was so proud, I never thought to hear such an admission from him. Even knowing all I did, my pulse
quickened, a familiar ache rising within. If only I could erase the foolish, sentimental part of me that still cared, that should have died the moment I learned his true nature.
But could we truly hate those we had loved before? I was learning that such a transformation was not as seamless as I had hoped. Wenzhi was right; I had wanted to hurt him, to
chase him from my home, to cut him from my life … yet I did not really want his death. Not then, and not now.
However, forgiveness was a different matter. I was still furious; I could never trust him again. Any tenderness I had felt, any hope for a future was irrevocably destroyed. Yet I could not deny that his offer tempted me, for I was not one
to toss away an opportunity. If danger lay ahead, I would do all I could to arm myself against it.
I walked to the balustrade and rested my elbows against the cool stone, staring at the luminous earth that stretched beneath us like the starlit sea. “I am only speaking to you now because you let Liwei and me go, because your plan failed. If you had truly cost me my freedom and that of my mother, I would shoot you now without hesitation.”
“Would you really?” His voice lifted with challenge.
Anger seared me as I spun to leave, but he moved in front of me.
“Wait. I’m sorry.” He stretched his arms wide. “You may aim at your leisure.”
I glared at him, my fingers tightening around my bow.
“That I don’t, for now, does not mean we’re friends or even less than enemies. Nor do I despise you any less.”
“Not friends. Less than enemies?” A mocking lilt to his tone. “You are generous indeed.”
“More than you deserve. But know this: I will never forget your treachery. I will never forgive you. This is as far as things will ever go between us.”
He inclined his head. “I understand, though I will endeavor to change your mind.”
The wind surged then, tossing my unbound hair, our robes fluttering wildly. He shrugged off his outer robe and offered it to me. I did not accept, staring at it like it was a venomous snake.
“I need information,” I said instead. “What recent news have you heard of the Celestial Court?” As the heir to the Demon Realm, his reach went far; they would be certain to keep close watch over their greatest rival and foe.
He sighed as he pulled his robe back over himself. “There was another reason I came tonight. Why I was more … insistent. Beware the newly elevated Celestial general.
According to my sources, he has a keen interest in you.” “General Wu? Beyond the fact he wanted the emperor to
sentence me to death?” My gut clenched. Wenzhi was not one to issue such warnings lightly. Moreover, I had been
unsettled ever since learning of Shuxiao’s troubles. “Why do you believe this?”
“He keeps a careful eye on those close to you, on your home. He studies books of this place. He has turned the emperor’s attention here.”
A coldness spread from the pit of my stomach. Part of me wanted to confide in him, just as I used to. Though I bore the scars of his deceit, he might know something of use.
Slowly at first, I told him of the laurel, my words flowing easier toward the end.
“Was the intruder trying to destroy the tree or harvest its seeds?” he asked.
The first possibility had not occurred to me, but I recalled Master Gang’s deliberate pause after each strike. This had been no frenzied attack intent on destruction. “He wanted the seeds. Fortunately, it seemed a laborious task, taking several blows to dislodge one. There was blood, his blood, staining his hands and the tree.”
“Why don’t you show me the laurel?” When I did not reply, he added, “I just want to help you. I swear this on my life.”
“You have sworn many things to me before.” “I am not who I was then.”
I did not believe him, already probing his face and tone for trickery. I did not think he had changed; he would say
anything to obtain what he wanted. However, I wanted the assessment of his keen mind. Something gnawed at me, that it would be a betrayal of sorts to allow him into my home—both of Liwei and myself. But I was on the alert; I would not be caught unaware. And if he betrayed me again, he would pay in full this time.
ALL WAS SILENT, EXCEPT for the careful tread of our feet. I was relieved for the lateness of the hour, that everyone was asleep, that I did not need to explain his presence to my mother or Ping’er. Wenzhi stared at everything intently— whether a silk-paneled lamp, the painted screens, or a
carved wooden table. Outside, he paused, gazing at the silver roof, the glowing earth, the forest of moon-white osmanthus.
“I have wondered about your home,” he said quietly. “It is beautiful.”
I nodded curtly in reply, unwilling to engage in conversation with him.
As we walked through the trees, the light from the lanterns threw our shadows across the ground. Neither of us spoke again until we arrived at the laurel, its seeds
glistening like fallen stars caught in the web of branches. Wenzhi pressed his palm against the smooth bark before yanking hard at a seed. It did not break away, though the leaves trembled and the branch dipped from his force.
“The energy in this tree is strange. Cold, as most things
are here, but also discordant—as though there are two sides to the whole,” he observed.
“What does that mean? What can it do?”
“I’m not sure.” He frowned. “Upon your return here, did you notice anything different?”
I hesitated before saying, “My lifeforce recovered quicker than anticipated. I thought it some mysterious power only obvious to me now that mine had been unsealed.”
His hand swept toward the laurel. “Except it came from this.”
Regeneration, Liwei had said. Why would the emperor
crave such power? The Jade Palace thronged with healers. I stole an assessing glance at Wenzhi, trying to discern if the light in his eyes was concern or avarice—
“Xingyin, do you suspect me still?” His mouth twisted into a wry smile. “I have no wish to be your enemy again.”
“What of next time?” I asked. “What if our desires were to collide once more? Undoubtedly your self-interest would
“It will not,” he said flatly. “How can you be certain?”
“Because I will not allow it. To set myself against you, would be akin to going against myself.” He paused. “When I hurt you … it hurt me too.”
I stared at his unyielding face, taken aback by the implacable way he spoke. No words rose to mind, neither protest nor insult.
“Despite what you think, I’m not bloodthirsty by nature.
Nor do I crave power for its sake alone. Now I hope to
convince my father that peace is the best recourse. The price of war is far too high, even for the victor.”
In our battles together, Wenzhi had never taken undue pleasure in a conquest or relished an enemy’s defeat. His
decisions were calculated to reduce bloodshed, even when he served in the army of his enemy. And I believed that at least for now, he wanted to help, that he did not mean me harm.
His head jerked up, his eyelids lowering. I stilled, sensing the approach of an immortal’s aura, though there had been no warning from the wards.
Liwei was here.
A knot formed in my chest. I had no desire to repeat their last encounter when swords were drawn. While I had my
years of comradeship with Wenzhi to balance against his offenses, Liwei would view him—rightfully so—as a traitor and a threat.
Wenzhi inclined his head. “I have no wish to cause
trouble.” Before I could respond, a shimmer glided over him, shrouding him from sight. A moment later, a light breeze wound through the trees as Wenzhi’s aura vanished. He had left as suddenly as he had appeared.
My tension eased, even as guilt followed swiftly on its heels. Liwei emerged from the trees, coming toward me. A gray robe was thrown over his white inner garments, knotted loosely at the waist. He must have left in haste.
“I sensed someone coming through the wards. At this hour, I wanted to make sure it was nothing untoward.” He smiled. “Was it another uninvited ‘guest’?”
It was the first time Wenzhi had visited since the wards were altered. My head poised to nod, a ready lie springing to my tongue—how easily they came to me now. Yet I could not deceive him so lightly.
“It was Wenzhi.” I braced for disapproval. A brief pause. “Has he come before?”
His face was calm despite the tautness in his tone. I
almost longed for his anger instead. Something to rouse my
own emotions from this sinking sensation of having disappointed him.
“He has,” I admitted. “I refused to see him.” His expression was stony. “Why this time?”
I fell silent, reluctant to tell him of the music. Of the things Wenzhi and I had spoken on the balcony.
“Did you ask him to come?” he pressed. “No.”
“You did not turn him away either.”
Liwei thrust a hand through his hair, the dark strands
gleaming against his white robe. How this reminded me of the time he had rushed to my room from his bed, in the
Courtyard of Eternal Tranquility. When he had kissed me with such hunger and tenderness, awakening the passion that burned in me still. Yet tonight, his expression was far from that of a lover’s.
“I thought you despised him, that you never wanted to see him again. And now I find you taking a midnight stroll together—”
“It’s not like that,” I said tightly, fighting back the sting of shame. “He wanted to see the laurel. I thought he could help.”
“You told him? You trust him? After everything he did?” His shock rang clear.
I lifted my chin. “I don’t trust him, but he might be able to aid us. He wants to make amends.” How feeble this sounded when spoken aloud; lies told to children to secure their trust.
“All he is doing is playing a different game because the rules have changed, and he still wants to win,” Liwei
“He is not a friend, but he might be an ally. Isolated as we are, I am in no position to turn any away,” I said steadily.
“You have me by your side.” Liwei clasped my hand. “I trust you; it’s him I don’t trust. Promise me you will be
“I will,” I said gravely.
“Perhaps I should adjust the wards again, to bar certain unwanted intruders.” His voice lightened; gone was the last trace of anger.
I laughed, relieved that the worst had passed. “Perhaps all
outsiders should be barred from entry.”
“I hope to not be an outsider for much longer.” His knuckles brushed my cheek, feather-light, gliding down my neck. “Next week is my father’s birthday celebration. Would you accompany me?”
I swallowed hard, biting back my instinctive protest. It felt more like an invitation to an execution than a banquet.
He drew away to stare into my face. “This is a chance to mend bridges and heal old wounds. For them to know you as I do.”
“I will go,” I said, even as my insides curled. I could not insult his parents with my refusal; I could not make Liwei
choose between us. By accepting him, I accepted them, and somehow we would have to learn to exist together, no matter our past offenses.
I just hoped they understood that too.
Perhaps at the banquet I might be able to soften the
Celestial Emperor’s suspicions, to show him I was no threat
—it was easier to malign those unseen and unheard. And if not, I might learn something more of his intentions. Too many things were happening at once: the shift of power in the Celestial Army. The theft of the laurel seeds. The
emperor’s interest in my home. The pieces were set on the board, and I only wished I knew what game was being
One thing was for certain; I was done being a pawn, and if I moved, it would be of my own volition.