Chapter no 5

Heart of the Sun Warrior

The evening was clear and calm; not a single cloud would have dared to mar the Celestial Emperor’s celebration. Liwei and I landed by a mirrored lake, embraced by lilac-gray mountains and graceful cypresses. Gold-tipped lotuses

bloomed upon the waters, illuminated by hundreds of floating candles, their light spilling across the waves like ribbons of flame. A crowd of immortals had already

gathered within a large pavilion, its roof of malachite tiles gleaming beneath the starlit sky. Stone peonies encircled the base of each gilded column, so intricately carved and painted, they seemed to spring from the ground. Glowing lanterns were strung up between the trees from which

clusters of bells cascaded, tinkling with the breeze.

My spirits lightened at the sight of the gaiety, having

dreaded another stiff banquet in the Hall of Eastern Light, a place that brought back too many troubling recollections.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Luminous Pearl Lake. When the moon is full, as it will be tonight, its reflection upon the waters is exquisite,” Liwei said.

I straightened the sash around my waist that held together my azure silk robe. As my fingers brushed the embroidered magnolias, they swayed like a breeze had swept through, raining silken petals that morphed from white to rose. It was beautiful, yet for this evening’s

company I would have preferred my bow slung across my back.

When we entered the pavilion, the conversation dwindled to a hush. Guests turned to us before stepping aside,

clearing a path to Their Celestial Majesties. They appeared as twin pillars of flame, seated upon carnelian thrones,

draped in vermilion robes sewn with dragons and phoenixes encircled by rolling clouds.

Sweat broke out over my palms. I wanted to leave but forced myself onward. Before the thrones, I clasped my hands and lowered myself to the floor. As I bowed my head, the silver pins in my hair pinched where they pulled tight.

Ping’er’s deft fingers had twisted my hair into intricate coils that lent me the illusion of belonging amid this dazzling

crowd, at least for the night.

“Your Celestial Majesties, I wish you a joyous celebration.”

My greeting paled in light of the other extravagant

compliments offered, but anything more elaborate would have stuck in my throat.

A long silence followed before I lifted my head to the

emperor. Strands of pearls clicked above those stony eyes, glinting with the embers of a simmering wrath. My skin

prickled with an echo of the torment the emperor had inflicted upon me, his Sky-fire stabbing like a thousand tiny blades.

“Rise. You are welcome.” The emperor’s tone was

gracious, his expression morphed into a mask of calm. Had I imagined that flash of rage? He acted as though we were meeting for the first time, as though I had never defied him and he had not tried to kill me for it. Perhaps it was better this way … if only I could believe it was true.

The empress did not hide her emotions so well. She uttered no words of greeting, her lips mashed into a scarlet bud. The gold headdress on her hair was exquisitely crafted into peonies, studded with pink tourmalines that darkened to the shade of congealed blood as though reflecting her thoughts.

A smile hid my turmoil, the dread entwined with hostility I had always felt around Their Celestial Majesties. They would never be as family to me, yet for Liwei, I did not want us to be enemies. I was glad when another came forward to claim their attention, relieved to leave so cold a reception. I had expected no less, and how I wished the evening had already ended. Would this be my life if I married Liwei—this endless churn of unease, of hollow words and false praise? How would I bear it?

Someone called my name, rousing me from my daze. It was General Jianyun, and for the first time tonight my smile was unfeigned.

I cupped my hands and bent from my waist in greeting. “Have you been well, General Jianyun?”

“Well enough. I trust His Highness has informed you of the recent events? The coils are tightening, though around what I do not know.”

There were lines on his face that had not been there

before, etched with new cares. “Perhaps the emperor will see reason,” I said, trying to ease his worries.

“While I have angered His Celestial Majesty on occasion, I have only ever acted in his best interests and those of our kingdom. Which is more than I can say for others.”

General Jianyun was typically discreet; he must be under great strain indeed to make such revelations. As his gaze shifted behind me, his mouth drew taut. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of gray brocade, gold

embroidery winking from the hem and sleeves. And those gloves—only one person in the Celestial Court wore them.

“General Wu.” General Jianyun’s head dipped in a curt nod.

This close, his aura swept across my senses—opaque, dense, and oddly reminiscent. Hardly surprising after our

encounters at the Celestial Court, my insides knotting at the recollection of the vile things he had said of my mother and me. He was already turning my way, his lips peeling back into a grin, the jade ornaments clinking by his waist.

Something else was nestled among them: a bamboo flute dangling from his sash, its tassel a bright green.

My gaze darted to his eyes. How could I have overlooked their sharp glint, even shaded by white brows and masked by a lined face? Anger pulsed at my forehead, a redness

descending over my vision as I reached out to grab his

glove. He jerked back as I wrenched it free, revealing dark scars streaked across his palm, the same ones on Master Gang as he had hacked away at the laurel.

“You!” At the thought of him sitting beside my mother, speaking and laughing with her—bile rose in my throat.

“Xingyin, what do you mean?” Liwei’s tone was guarded. A reminder that I had few allies here, and none the emperor might listen to.

Whispers slithered all around. I steeled myself for

condemnation, for the guests to rush to the general’s

defense. None did. While some glared at me, just as many scornful glances lingered upon General Wu as though savoring his humiliation. Some raised their sleeves,

exchanging malicious whispers. I had always felt an outsider at the Celestial Court, but was not the general one of their

own? Why did they not accord him the same deference as General Jianyun?

The glove was snatched from my grasp. General Wu tugged it back down over his hand, his fingers shaking a little. “Your manners leave much to be desired.”

“Courtesy is reserved for those who deserve it. Not for liars and thieves.” I spoke as steadily as I could.

“Xingyin, have you mistaken the general for someone else?” General Jianyun asked.

“There is no mistake.” I turned to Liwei. “Those scars on his hand are the same as Master Gang’s. Don’t you

recognize his flute?” It was the first time I had seen it on him. Perhaps it was not something he wore with his

ceremonial court attire.

Liwei frowned as he stared at General Wu, as though searching for the resemblance between this haughty

courtier and the frail visitor to the moon.

“He masked himself, his hair and face.” A simple disguise, yet cunning, as a more elaborate enchantment might have been detected.

General Wu faced Liwei as he asked in ringing tones, “Your Highness, do you wish for your father’s festivities to be

disrupted by these groundless accusations?”

He was a master at deception, his expression conveying nothing but righteous outrage. I struggled to contain my

anger, tempering my words. “I know what I saw. I know what you did.”

Liwei’s fingers tightened around mine in a reassuring grip. “General Wu, if you tricked your way into the Moon Goddess’s domain, it would be a violation of hospitality. A

dishonest and underhanded act.” He spoke in his cold, imperial voice—edged with a calculated detachment. This was one of those court games where he had to appear impartial to sway opinion.

General Wu spread his hands wide. “I am your father’s loyal servant who obeys his every command. If my actions have caused offense, Your Highness should address your

concerns to him.”

A veiled threat that he had the emperor’s support. And he must be high in favor, to show such little respect to Liwei.

“Be certain that I will,” Liwei replied tersely.

General Wu bent in a shallow bow. “If you would excuse me, Your Highness. I must attend to your father.” Without

waiting for a dismissal, he strode away.

“Wugang has grown bold,” General Jianyun remarked with distaste. “Few would dare gainsay him now when he, alone, has the emperor’s ear.”

“Wugang?” I repeated uncertainly.

“General Wu,” General Jianyun explained. “Wugang is his rightful name. How I first knew him, though he prefers not to be called so.”

General Wu. Master Gang. He had not lied; both names were his. The devious courtier turned ambitious general. The woodcutter and the thief.

“Why do you think Wugang came to my home?” It gave me a petty satisfaction to use the name he disdained, and a part of me wondered whether the noble general felt the same way.

“It must have been at the emperor’s command. He does nothing without His Celestial Majesty’s permission.” General Jianyun added, “The emperor would send no other there, for Wugang is most familiar with the moon, given his past.”

I stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“It was long before your mother ascended to the skies.

Wugang was a mortal then.”

“A mortal? I did not hear of this.” Liwei echoed my surprise.

“As Wugang is the current favorite, His Celestial Majesty prefers that such humble origins be forgotten. Wugang is ever obedient, discarding part of his name to disassociate himself from his past.”

“The mortals would be glad of it,” I said with feeling, smothering my ire at how immortals often disdained those in the world below. In truth, the mortals could teach us far more in resilience and strength of will, as they bore the trials that came their way.

General Jianyun smiled faintly. “I would agree.”

“How did Wugang come to our realm?” Liwei asked.

The corners of General Jianyun’s eyes creased like he was reaching deep into his thoughts. “Wugang was a common man with an uncommon grudge. His wife had an affair with an immortal, the son of a Celestial courtier. When Wugang discovered her infidelity, he did not confront the

perpetrators—instead, he set off to Kunlun Mountain.”

I quashed a flash of pity for the hurt he must have felt. “Did he venture there to seek recompense? Was that how he became immortal?” Kunlun Mountain possessed a

powerful mystical energy, and was the only place in the Mortal Realm where immortals were permitted to dwell.

General Jianyun shook his head. “The only way a mortal can become immortal is through His Celestial Majesty’s

elixir. Wugang’s plans were far more nefarious. In Kunlun, he befriended an immortal and learned our secrets: that we were not invulnerable, that we could be killed by the weapons and magic of our realm. After that, he stole the immortal’s axe, using it to slay his wife and her lover.”

My skin crawled. How cold and ruthless he was, how terrifyingly patient. My wife. She was fond of music, he had said, speaking of her in the past. I had thought nothing of it then because of his unwavering calm—when in truth, he had murdered her with his own hands.

“He should have been sentenced according to mortal law,” General Jianyun continued. “Except the victim’s father, the Celestial courtier, beseeched the emperor for

vengeance, citing the shame of an immortal killed by a weak mortal. Persuaded by his pleas, the emperor summoned Wugang to the Jade Palace and sentenced him to chop down the everlasting laurel, using the very axe he had taken.”

A lump formed in the pit of my stomach. “The laurel on the moon?”

“It was different then, its leaves as green as jade. There were no seeds, not as there are now. Yet it was no ordinary tree, possessing the power to heal itself. And Wugang soon

discovered that this undertaking was a futile, never-ending torment.”

An impossible task. “How did Wugang earn the elixir?” “He was given an Immortal Peach at first, not to prolong

his life but to extend his suffering. The Elixir of Immortality was promised, if he succeeded. A disingenuous offer, for how could a mortal perform such a deed? For over a hundred years, Wugang toiled, without a moment’s respite. ‘Wugang the Woodcutter,’ the court mocked him, as they lauded the emperor’s cunning. Some arranged viewing

parties where they would laugh as he strained over his labor. I attended one and wished I had not. There is no pleasure in taunting one brought low, who cannot fight back.”

Little wonder that the Celestials treated Wugang with a mixture of loathing and fear, and their malice must have

been worse before he rose to power. “Did the emperor take pity on him and rescind the punishment?”

General Jianyun’s expression was grave. “Perhaps it was inevitable after the years of hacking at the laurel that a

bond was formed between the tree and its tormentor. Wugang discovered that his blood could halt the laurel’s healing—at least temporarily. He requested the emperor’s presence to witness the fulfillment of his task, despite

knowing failure would earn him a death sentence. The court followed eagerly, many certain it was an empty boast. How frail Wugang looked, worn to a shadow of the strapping mortal who had arrived, his hands ravaged by welts and wounds.”

“Is that why he wears those gloves? To hide the scars?” I asked.

General Jianyun nodded. “Wugang is proud, though he conceals it. He would loathe such a visible reminder of his

humiliation.” His tone grew heavy. “I recalled his face as he slashed his hand: blank with despair, devoid of hope—like he did not care whether he lived or died. Blood spurted out,

splattering the laurel’s bark, sinking into the soil around its roots. In the next moment, he swung his axe into the tree. Again and again, without pause, as though his labors had granted him an inhuman strength. Until, at last, the laurel came crashing down, the sound so loud the mortals must have heard it.”

I frowned. “But the laurel still stands; it was not destroyed.”

“His Celestial Majesty’s command was that Wugang had to chop down the laurel, not to destroy it—if such a thing

can be done at all. It only took a few moments for the laurel to regenerate, new shoots sprouting from its withered stump, springing up until the tree was full-grown once more.

Except its leaves were no longer green but silver-white, its bark so pale, like it was encrusted in frost. As though in its throes of death, the laurel had shed spring for winter.”

My mind spun. This must be why Wugang had such an

avid interest in the moon, a personal one—studying its aura, discovering my presence. Why he had not troubled himself with me until he learned my identity. “The laurel’s power must be immense to regenerate so quickly, to restore my lifeforce too.”

General Jianyun’s expression was somber. “We thought it could only heal itself. We did not realize it could heal


“What does the emperor want with it?” I asked.

The corners of the general’s mouth dipped. “I have lost His Majesty’s trust. He no longer confides in me.”

Something else picked at me. “Wugang’s blood was on the laurel the night I caught him. While there were grooves in the bark, the tree was otherwise unharmed. I can’t imagine how he could have brought it down before.”

The general’s lips pursed. “Since that day, the energy in the tree has changed. While the laurel’s power has

strengthened, its bond with Wugang might have weakened. Maybe he can no longer harm it as before.”

“Only enough to harvest its seeds.” An unwelcome thought. “Why would His Celestial Majesty send Wugang? The emperor could have seized our home if he wished.”

“Because His Celestial Majesty’s position is no longer unassailable. Too many eyes are upon him, and voices that were long silent have been roused to question.” General

Jianyun paused, rubbing his chin contemplatively. “The gods among us bear an additional burden—the desire to be worshipped, whether through fear or love. While they might believe themselves above such things, they dread its loss.

Other immortals, such as us, have fewer concerns. We care less how our actions appear to the world, and whether we will be maligned or adulated.”

“Too jarring a move might also alert our enemies,” Liwei observed. “If they descend upon the moon, it might cause an unwanted tussle. My father’s hands are tied for now, unless he has just cause.”

I would not give it to him. While the laurel’s power seemed benign, to heal instead of harm—I did not trust the emperor’s intentions.

A clang reverberated through the air, a gong struck by a mallet. Everyone turned toward the thrones where the

empress had risen, raising her jade cup high. “A toast to His Celestial Majesty, the Emperor of the Immortal Heavens. To ten thousand years more of his glorious reign. Tonight, the moon shines brightly in his honor.”

With a sweep of the empress’s hand, the malachite roof disintegrated into shards—scattering into the night like

emerald fireflies. Yet where the moon should have glowed in its full glory was a void of darkness.

As I searched the sky frantically, gasps erupted from the

guests, their upturned faces taut with shock and foreboding. Whispers swirled through the air like a pestilent wind.

“Where is the moon? It should have risen long before.” “An eclipse, on His Celestial Majesty’s birthday? An ill

omen indeed!”

“What does Chang’e intend with this insult?”

At the last, ice seeped into my bones. My mother … what had happened to her? Never had she abandoned her task of illuminating the moon—not through heartbreak, grief, or loss. I spun to the entrance but my feet would not move, as though they were embedded in stone.

“Daughter of the Moon Goddess, what do you and your mother mean by this?” The empress’s fingers were clenched around her cup.

“I must go to my mother. She might be in danger!” Again,

I tried to move, struggling against her enchantment. I

gathered my energy to break it but caught Liwei’s eye, that slight shake of his head in warning. To use my magic here would be in blatant defiance of Their Celestial Majesties’

command. I had to tread carefully, at least for now.

General Wu stepped forward, his features arranged into a veneer of solemnity. “Chang’e is daring indeed to bring

about such an ominous omen, this terrible insult to our

beloved emperor. Unsurprising, as we are all aware of the Moon Goddess’s grudge against Their Celestial Majesties.”

How dare he malign my mother who had treated him so graciously? I swallowed a furious retort, casting my eyes

down in a guise of humility—though inside, I burned. It was safer if Their Celestial Majesties thought us meek and afraid, rather than vengeful and proud.

“My mother bears Your Celestial Majesties no ill will,” I protested.

“What of you?” General Wu interjected.

“I … I do not wish Your Celestial Majesties ill.” The barest crack in my tone, yet all in this discerning court heard what remained unspoken: that I did not wish Their Celestial

Majesties well either.

Liwei clasped his hands together and bowed. “Honorable Father, Mother. Xingyin and her mother are no threat to you. Allow us to find the Moon Goddess, to ensure her safety and request an explanation.”

The emperor’s expression hardened, his knuckles white over the carnelian armrest. “Liwei, do you not care for your own family and the insult paid to us today?”

That tone, curling with menace, was the one that echoed in my worst nightmares, the moment before he had struck me down.

“Honorable Father, they mean you no harm. Those of the moon only wish to protect their home.” Liwei spoke calmly, and I was glad for his steadiness in times as these, when my emotions crested and broke.

“Enough, Liwei,” the empress said sternly, despite her pallor. As she threw her hand out, the air between us

gleamed with magic, the enchantment on my feet loosening. “She can go. You must stay for your father’s celebration.”

“You say they mean no harm, Your Highness,” General Wu said silkily to Liwei. “How do you know what thoughts lurk in their minds? Or perhaps you do not care, your loyalties

clouded by your feelings—”

“Remember your place, General,” the empress snarled. “Do not reach above yourself. My son is not to blame.”

“Of course.” He bowed, even as an insidious smile stretched over his lips. “His Highness must have been deceived.”

How strange to see them at odds when they had united against me in such accord before. Yet the empress was

vigilant against those who threatened her son, even past allies. My throat closed tight at the skillful picture General Wu was painting: my mother and I, treacherous and false,

while Liwei was a fool whose opinion was to be disregarded.

I raised my voice to be heard. “This is an innocent mistake, Your Celestial Majesty—”

The emperor’s hand shot up, silencing me. His lips were ringed with white, his eyes bulging. “Liwei, where do your loyalties lie? With your family and kingdom, or this deceitful

girl? I warned her once, there would be no mercy if Chang’e, or she, ever shirked their duties.”

“Imperial Husband, Liwei does not mean that,” the

empress began, but when the emperor swung to her, she shrank back against her throne.

I tried again, desperate to leave. “Your Celestial Majesty. Let me find my mother to explain. Liwei is loyal to you—”

“His loyalties lie with you.” The emperor’s voice broke like thunder. “Liwei, you have been secure in your position for too long. Denounce her now, and prove your loyalty to your family.”

Silence followed, unsullied by breath or whisper. It was as though a spell had been cast over the gathering, transforming everyone to stone. Could any father be so unfeeling toward their child? It was not a command—not yet

—but a threat, a line drawn clear in the ground.

I touched Liwei’s arm gently, my turn to caution him

against rashness. “Stay here; I will go.” I did not want to fracture his bond with his family, even as dread sank over me that it might be too late.

His hand covered mine, squeezing once before letting go.

Sweeping his silver-and-white robes aside, he sank to his knees, folding over to press his palms and brow to the floor.

“Honorable Father, I am your loyal son and subject, but I will not denounce her. She has done no wrong to you or our kingdom.” He rose to his feet, taking my hand—his skin no longer warm but like it had been pressed in the snow.

General Wu’s eyes shone with a keen light, while a muffled cry slipped from the empress, her pale knuckles

pressed against blood-red lips. Liwei’s expression was bleak as we turned away, leaving behind the magnificent splendor of the Celestial Court.

Joy and sorrow twined like fire and ice in my chest—a crushing weight, a soaring lightness. While I had wanted Liwei unfettered by his obligations, I would never have

asked this of him; his family and heritage were an intrinsic

part of who he was. And though fear shadowed me at how the night’s events had unraveled, for the moment, I indulged my wild dream of us living as freely as two cranes soaring into the boundless sky.

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