Chapter no 6

Heart of the Sun Warrior

My mother was not home. I stared at the smooth covers of her bed, my slender hope that she had overslept shriveled away.

“Could she be in the forest?” Liwei wondered.

“She’s not there; I searched for her aura as we flew over it.” I turned to Ping’er. “What did Mother say when she left?”

“She asked me to summon a cloud for her. I had done it

before and taught her how to ride it.” Her face was ashen as she clasped her hands together. “Is the emperor angry?

Surely it can’t be that great an offense, forgetting to light the moon once in all these years?”

“I will light the lanterns in her stead,” Liwei offered, evading her question.

“What use is that now?” Despair welled up as I recalled the empress’s outrage, the guests decrying the “ill omen,” and General Wu’s spiteful accusations, all fanning the

emperor’s temper into a raging blaze.

“Better late to a task than to leave it undone,” he said, striding toward the door.

I flushed at my thoughtless words. “Liwei, thank you,” I called out to him.

He stopped by the entrance, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Xingyin, I have said before, there is no need for thanks

between you and me.” Without another word he left, his back straight, his shoulders pulled more taut than usual.

I searched my mother’s room, as neat as always, the wooden shelves uncluttered except for a few plants and

ornaments. A book lay on the table beside her bed, with an archer and the ten suns painted on its cover. The story of my father’s legend, of how he had slain the sunbirds. A folded piece of paper lay beside it. I picked it up, startled to see the characters in unfamiliar strokes—who would have written to my mother? A violation to read something

addressed to another, but perhaps this was a clue to her disappearance. Smoothing out the paper, my eyes darted across the characters:

Tonight, you will find what you seek in the realm of mortals.

My chest clenched with foreboding. Racing to my room, I grabbed my bow, heading outside to summon a cloud.

Careless, to not think of this before. Since regaining her freedom, there was one place my mother returned to whenever she could get away. Even though it was frowned upon, even though she risked punishment by entering the Mortal Realm without permission.

At the point where the two rivers merged, near where the Black Dragon had been imprisoned, rose a hill covered with white flowers like snow half-thawed in spring. A marble

grave lay upon it, curved like a crescent, the characters of my father’s name gleaming in gold. Ash crumbled from the glowing tips of incense sticks recently pressed into the

brazier, their heady scent coiling in the air, thick with hope and grief. Offerings of apples, leafy mandarins, and sponge cakes were piled beside it, along with a slender sprig of

osmanthus, its pale petals already rimmed with brown. My mother had been here, except where was she now?

With magic forbidden in the Mortal Realm, I ran down the hill, calling for her—along the river that smelled of earth and rot, before plunging into the forest where shadows darker than night crawled. Was I mistaken? Was she not here? It was then I sensed it, her aura fluttering like the wings of a frantic moth. Sprinting toward it, I almost crumpled with

relief to find her wandering the outskirts of the forest, her steps stumbling and uncertain, her gaze hollow.

“Mother!” I embraced her, flinching from the chill that

glazed her skin. “What happened? The lanterns were not lit tonight.”

Her lips parted to whisper, “I received a note. It told me to come here.”

“I read it,” I admitted. “Who was it from?”

“There was no name. It was left on my table.”

“A trick. Why else would someone leave a note this way, to deliver it in such a furtive manner?” If only I had sensed the intruder coming through the wards, but my attention had been diverted at the emperor’s banquet.

“It was no trick. I saw your father. His hair was gray, he looked different … but I would recognize him anywhere.” She lifted her eyes to me, huge and dark. “Why would he run from me? Why would he hide?”

Something prickled along my spine. “It’s not possible.

Father is dead.”

“I know what I saw.”

The tremor in her voice gave me pause. I stroked her

back, trying to soothe away her anxiety, a reversal of the times she had comforted me before. I did not mention the emperor’s wrath or the accusations flung our way. The

damage was done, and what mattered most was that she was unharmed.

“I will help you find him,” I told her.

Together, we combed the forest, the riverbank and hill— but there was no sign of life beyond the wild creatures who fled at our approach. When the golden shafts of dawn speared the night, I summoned a cloud to bring her home.

“I won’t leave. It was him.” Her words fell out in a cry. “Mother, you must return,” I said.

“Your father—”

“I will continue the search,” I assured her. “You should leave. Rest. The Celestial Emperor might summon you at any moment.”

She paled at the mention of the emperor, climbing upon the cloud without further protest. “What should I say?”

I thought quickly. “Tell him you overslept. Don’t mention anything about coming to the Mortal Realm. His Celestial

Majesty would not look kindly upon it. It is better he believes us incompetent than a challenge to his authority.”

She nodded as her cloud ascended, borne upon a gentle breeze—though her eyes remained fixed below until she

vanished into the heavens.

Guilt pierced me for sending her away, yet I could move quicker alone. More than that, I wanted her back in the safety of our home, fearing this had been a ruse to distract her into forgetting her duties, to incite the emperor’s wrath

… though I did not know why.

I scoured the forest again, alert for any trace of immortal energy or danger, following the path along the river until it wound toward a village. Only then did I turn around, making my way back to the hill. Beneath the lightening sky, before my father’s grave, I knelt upon the stone. The faded

paintings upon the marble were the mortals’ renditions of my father’s heroics: aiming an arrow at the ten crimson suns in the sky, riding at the head of a great army, battling a monstrous bird. A heaviness stole over me as I sank back onto my heels, tucking my hands into my lap.

“Father, I wish I knew you.” I was unsure why I plucked these words from my heart and spoke them aloud. Perhaps

it was the break of dawn, the moment despair is edged with hope. Or perhaps my guard was lowered, comforted by my father’s presence even though it was just his bones that


A twig snapped. I leapt to my feet, dragging the bow off my back, suppressing the urge to draw an arrow. Its magic might attract unwanted attention, and besides, there was little that could hurt me here.

A mortal stood at the bottom of the hill, long past the

prime of life. His hair was the soft shade of ash, bound with a long strip of cloth. His skin was weathered and lined,

bitterness reeking in the curl of his lip. Yet his shoulders were broad beneath his black robe, and he carried himself like a cypress. His steps toward me were measured, with a seasoned warrior’s grace. As his eyes fell upon my bow, they widened visibly.

“Who are you?” Few came here these days. Perhaps when my father’s deeds were fresh in their minds, the mortals had come in droves, bringing offerings of flowers and food. It was how the Black Dragon had learned of this place.

However, mortal memories were short-lived. I did not doubt they still told the tales of Houyi in the teahouses, a fine legend to stir the crowds—but who would make the lonely trek here to honor a hero long fallen?

The man did not answer, his gaze startlingly bright as he stared at me. His chest heaved, his throat worked, though I could not tell whether he was trying to speak or stifle his words.

“Daughter, you are full grown,” he said at last, his voice breaking with emotion.

I froze, forcing back that cresting lightness within. It could not be true. Oh, I wanted to believe him, I had dreamed of such a moment so many times before, until the Black Dragon’s news had crushed my hopes. But I had learned

deceptions could be uttered with a straight face, a warm

smile might conceal malice, and that the most dangerous lies were those we most desperately wanted to be true.

“My father is dead,” I told him flatly, quelling the pang in my heart.

He flinched like I had struck him. “He might as well be.” The man swung around, his robe flaring as he strode away.

I stared at the bow slung over his shoulder, intricately

carved from silver, the points of its limbs curved like fangs. Something pulsed through me, reminiscent of the first time I had seen the Jade Dragon Bow—though there was no pull this time, just the thrum of power.

This was no mortal weapon.

“Wait!” I cried out. “Your bow. Where did you get it from?” He halted but did not turn. “It was given to me.”

“By whom?” I found myself bracing for his answer.

“You know him as the Celestial Emperor,” he said slowly. “Though it was poor recompense for everything else he took.”

It was as though the breath was knocked from me, the strength sapped from my limbs. I sank down, shaking, though I was not cold—battling the reckless hope surging within when all I wanted was to unleash it, to write my future anew. One with my family whole, with both my mother and father.

“Impossible,” I whispered.

His eyes creased with sorrow. “Daughter, you are mortal-born, yet immortality flows in your veins. Your home should be here, yet you live on the moon. You, more than anyone, should have learned that nothing is impossible.”

I forced my mind to clear, to piece together the fragments of my thoughts. He was an archer. A mortal in the early winter of his life. He carried the silver bow from the legends

—the one painted on my mother’s book, upon this very

grave. He knew who I was. And as I stared at his features, at the cleft in his chin … I knew him too.

This was no trick. More than anything I had reasoned, this was knowledge that sprang from within. There were so many things I wanted to say, countless more I had whispered in the solitude of my mind, and yet nothing

emerged except this one, halting word from my throat. “Father.”

I bowed, fighting back the emotions that flooded me, the hot tears surging into my eyes. He was almost a stranger; he had never been a parent to me, as I had never been his daughter. We lacked the memories, the living, that gave such a bond its strength. And yet, deep down, there was this undeniable link between us—forged through flesh and blood and something more profound, impossible to decipher.

A brightness glazed his own eyes, a smile breaking out, softening the harsh angles of his face.

“My name is Xingyin. Mother named me for the stars.” A strange thing for a daughter to tell her father, but perhaps he did not know and was unsure how to ask.

“A good name,” he said hoarsely. “You’re taller than your mother, though you have her look about you.”

His words were tender, yet a jarring reminder that while we had been ignorant of his existence, he had been aware of us all along. “Mother grieves for you; she thinks you’re dead. You must have seen her here. Why didn’t you speak to her?” I could not suppress the accusation in my tone for the misery he might have spared her.

“I could not.”

Was it regret that flashed across his face? Yearning, sorrow, or anger? I thought of how she had taken the elixir

from him—the one he had earned, the one he had forsaken for her.

“Do you blame her? Me, for endangering her life?” A tentative question that I both longed and dreaded to learn the answer to.

He released a drawn breath. “I will admit, I was furious at first. When I saw her flying to the skies, I wondered, had it

been her scheme all along to become immortal? A goddess? Only later did I realize my own mistakes: letting my fears silence hers, ignoring the doctors who said what I did not want to hear, which terrified me more than any battle I had fought. That’s what comes of being revered—you start to

believe you’re infallible, that you can bend fate to your will. But there are some things in the world no power can alter.”

He fell silent before adding, “I would have given the elixir to your mother had she asked it of me. I should have done so before.”

“Why did you let everyone believe you had died?” I probed.

“In my last battle, I was struck down and lost

consciousness. When I recovered, I found myself abandoned in a strange land. It took months before I made my way

back, a shock to find news of my death abounded. However, there was also freedom in this, a chance to live for myself

again without being commanded or begged to go where danger lurked.” His gaze dropped to the ground. “I also

hoped your mother might hear of my death. For even if she no longer loved me, she might come to pay her respects— out of obligation, if nothing else, so I might see her again.”

A shadow fell over his face. “I waited. Eagerly at first, my mind turning over all we would say. I need not have

bothered. The years crept up on me before I knew it. My hope grew tarnished with dread, then shame—that she would see me this way while she remained untouched by

age. And when I finally saw her, it was too late.” The tips of his fingers brushed his cheek, tracing the lines on them.

A tightness gripped my chest. Despite their parting, my

parents loved each other still. “Don’t blame her, Father. She could not come before.”

“Why not?” He hurled the question as though it had haunted him all this time.

“She was punished by the Celestial Emperor for taking the elixir. She could not leave the moon until a year ago.”

His fingers curled into a fist. “I should not be surprised. It was the Celestial Emperor who deceived me, sending me from my home with false promises and lies. Not this place, but my real home, in the Eastern Sea.”

You were immortal?” The moment the words came out, I flushed from their thoughtless cruelty.

“Long ago, before this mortal life.”

“Father, what happened to you? Why did Mother not tell me?”

“She didn’t know. Nor did I, then. When immortals are reborn in the world below, they lose their powers and memories—only regained once they are restored to the

heavens.” He unslung his bow as he lowered himself to the ground beside me.

“Was it common for immortals to be sent to the Mortal Realm?” I asked.

“It was most rare. While it can help strengthen an immortal’s powers, few are willing to undergo the trials of a mortal life. It is only done in the gravest of circumstances with the Celestial Emperor’s consent, for the elixir is needed to restore them to the heavens.”

I glanced at the Jade Dragon Bow in my hands, recalling the recognition that had lit his face, the inexplicable bond that had always existed between me and this weapon.

“Were you in the Eastern Sea with the dragons?”

His expression turned distant. “Some called me their ruler.

A hollow title, as I never commanded them for my own ends.”

My father was the fabled warrior who had saved the

dragons, binding their essence to the pearls. How strange this cycle of fate that had led me down the same path, but to free the dragons instead. Was this why the bow had

cleaved to me? As I ran a hand across its limb, light rippled through the jade. It pulsed in my grip, for the first time

pulling away with a sudden eagerness, dispelling the last flicker of doubt from my mind.

I held it out to him, the jade bow lying across my upturned palms. “Father, is this yours?” Regret coiled in my stomach; I did not realize how attached I had grown to it.

A brief hesitation, before he pushed it away. The bow stilled, its light fading. “It is yours now. I have grown

accustomed to mine; we have been through much together.”

Relief—selfish and shallow—trickled through me as I lowered my hands. “Father, how did you end up in the Mortal Realm?”

A dangerous gleam sparked in his eyes. “The Celestial Emperor had long coveted the dragons’ might. Maybe he was unaware of the constraints on their power, that they

would die if he turned them into instruments of war. Maybe he didn’t care. He was wary of me, though I gave him no

cause, for I had no ambitions to rule as he did.”

Dread traced its spidery touch along my skin. Another

entanglement between Liwei’s family and mine. Would we ever be free of them?

My father rubbed his fingertips against his brow. “The emperor summoned me. He brought forth the most

respected elders in the kingdom, who swore the Mortal Realm faced a grave threat and that only I could save them.”

“The sunbirds,” I said slowly. “They were the cherished kin of the Celestial Empress. I thought the emperor allowed them to roam free to avoid angering her, but what if this was his ploy to trap and weaken you? To seize the might of the dragons?”

He nodded. “Such schemes would fit his nature, both cunning and grasping.”

“Why did you believe him, knowing what you did?” I asked.

“Fool that I was, I did not ask too many questions—my pride stroked at so noble a cause. I believed those

respectable Celestials who told me that to protect the

mortals, I had to become one of them. Perhaps the emperor tricked them too—there is no better liar than those

convinced they speak the truth. The emperor vowed he would protect me, that he would grant me the elixir once I fulfilled this quest. A sacred and unbreakable oath, sworn upon his honor and the lives of his descendants.”

He drew a heavy breath before continuing, “And so, I accepted. I returned the pearls to the dragons—the last

thing I did before drinking the tea of oblivion, which erased my memories before I was cast down to the Mortal Realm.”

“How do you remember this if you drank the tea of oblivion?” I asked.

“A drop of elixir remained in the bottle. After your mother left, I swallowed it—though sometimes I wished I had not.

It’s no blessing to have such memories restored. Rage and grief are pitiless beasts that devour the heart and mind.”

Something jarred me. “The dragons’ ruler has been gone for centuries, while the sunbirds were shot down just a few decades ago.”

“That was the depth of the emperor’s deception,” he seethed. “I was sent down far too early, living one mortal life after the other. Until finally, the foretold calamity arose, the ten sunbirds taking to the skies. An immortal appeared, gifting me this bow and a jade pendant to protect me from the sunbirds’ flame. Even emperors must keep their word,

especially those sworn upon the lives of their kin. Moreover, the dragons were no longer a threat to him, nor was I.”

My fingers brushed the pendant around my neck, pulling it out. It was cracked, its power gone, though I wore it out of sentimentality. He stared at it, his throat working with sudden emotion.

“I gave that to your mother. I told her it would keep her safe, but I was wrong. No amulet could have protected her from the danger which threatened her,” he said in a low

voice. “The rest you’ve heard in the tales. I shot the

sunbirds; I fulfilled the quest, believing myself a hero when I was the Celestial Emperor’s dupe.”

His face flushed with anger. Yet if he had not been tricked, he would never have met my mother. It was hard for me to mourn that which had given me life.

“I do not regret it,” he said firmly. “Because of Mother?”

“Because of you both. When the emperor bestowed the elixir upon me, I thought it a magnanimous gift, ignorant of the true reason behind it. Even if I had, it would have

changed nothing.”

“Except it was Mother who drank the elixir.” Had the

emperor’s anger at this turn of events been a pretense to satisfy the court? Perhaps it was also to instill fear in those who thought of disobeying him. It struck me then, my father had been better protected as a mortal from the Celestial

Empress’s wrath, for immortals could not strike them without just cause.

“I should not have come,” he said. “I stayed away for a while because to see your mother gave me as much pain as it did joy.”

Tendrils of unease unfurled within me. “Why did you come today?”

“I received a note. I was curious, even as I sensed something amiss. Your mother seemed different today.

Restless, like she was searching for something. Caught off guard, I was careless. She saw me before I hid.”

Who had sent the note? Who had plotted for my mother to forget her duty? Wugang’s gloating face swam across my mind, his readiness in accusing my mother of treachery at the banquet. Moreover, he knew our home, where to plant the letter—he could easily have instructed one of his servants. And he was familiar with this realm, having been mortal himself. Was this an elaborate scheme to give the

emperor an excuse to fault us? My throat went dry at the thought.

“Daughter, it was selfish of me, but I wanted to speak to you just once. I didn’t know if I would get another chance.

Don’t tell your mother. I do not wish to cause her more grief, to have her mourn me again.”

A fit of coughing came over him, his body heaving as he pressed a piece of cloth to his mouth. When he dropped it down, it was soaked with a dark liquid. Blood. My insides wrenched tight.

“Father, are you ill?” When he did not reply, I imagined the numerous ailments that could end a mortal’s life. Taking his hand, I channeled my magic sparingly to avoid detection.

While I was no healer, I possessed some minor skills. I

searched his body, seeking the cause of his discomfort. Yet I could find no bone to heal, no wound to staunch. Those sicknesses bred within the body, those ingrained in the

flesh, I could not heal—for immortals did not suffer them. And even if I could, I could not protect my father from the greatest threat to his life, I could not return what time had stolen … unless I restored the immortality he had lost.

“Will the emperor give you the elixir again?” I asked urgently.

“He has fulfilled his obligation to me, he will never relinquish it again.”

Despair swelled through me, heavy and bleak. “What can I do, Father?”

His smile struck the years away; I saw the man my mother had loved, with gentle humor and warmth in his eyes. Then the shadows descended once more, cloaking him in gray.

“This is enough, more than I had hoped for—to see you this once, to hear you acknowledge me. Don’t endanger

yourself. There is nothing you can do, for the doctors say I have just a little time left.”

I lifted my chin, studying the paintings of his

accomplishments upon the marble grave. A miracle, and yet almost a curse, that I had found my father only to learn he was dying. Joy, tainted with the promise of sorrow. No, not a

curse, I corrected myself—an opportunity. It was not too late, not while he lived. We had a chance to be a family

again, to mend that which had been broken. A prize beyond my wildest dreams, though I did not delude myself into thinking it would be easily won.

“I am your daughter,” I told him. “And I will bring you home.”

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