From the Mortal Realm, the moon shone like a silver disc against the black of night. My mother had completed her task, though it would do little to assuage the Celestial
Emperor’s wrath—a stark reminder of its absence yesterday. My spirits sank at the thought of my mother and Liwei cast in his disfavor; it would have mattered less had he been infuriated with me alone. I had confronted his wrath before and survived—though barely.
I could not let that daunt me now. My father was ill. Dying.
I had to help him, and who knew more about the mortals than the Keeper of their Fates? He had been a teacher to Liwei and me before, if only I had been a more attentive
student. I could have sought him in the Jade Palace, except there were too many prying eyes and loose tongues.
Fortunately, I was familiar with his routine and how he descended to the world below each night.
I searched the sky eagerly but there was no sign of him. Flicking the long blue panels of my robe aside, I sank upon the cloud. A wide belt was fastened around my waist from which hung my pouch and tassel. The sleeves tapered at my wrists, bound by silk cord, enchanted to hold fast or unwind
upon my command. While less flattering than the gown I had worn to the emperor’s banquet, this attire was far
better suited to my current needs. Ping’er had helped me craft this garment with deliberate sighs and shakes of her head. I had returned home only briefly to change—keen to
avoid my mother and Liwei, and the probing questions they might ask.
The air stirred, a cloud soaring ahead. A white-haired immortal clutching a jade staff stood upon it, with a younger woman beside him, her black hair coiled into a neat bun. I frowned, wishing the Keeper were alone. Stealthily, I tailed them through the skies, landing at the outskirts of a mortal town ringed by a gray stone wall. All was quiet at this late hour, dinners long eaten and beds filled with dreamers.
Leaping to the ground, I followed them at a discreet
distance. When they stopped abruptly, I drew back into a cluster of bamboo, their stalks silvered by the moonlight.
“Who are you? Immortals are forbidden from coming here without good cause.” The Keeper of Mortal Fates’ tone rang with reprimand.
I stepped out, cupping my hands before me and bowing from my waist. “Honored Teacher.” While he had not taught me for a long time, this bond linked us forever.
“Xingyin?” He spoke slowly, fragmenting my name. “Why are you here? Where is His Highness? Many are concerned for him.”
I recalled the dense silence when Liwei had knelt before the thrones. “Perhaps they should have spoken up when it mattered.”
“That is unfair. Only a year has passed since you left the Celestial Kingdom, surely you have not forgotten how things are there.” His tone was stern, as though he were instructing me once more. “Who can challenge His Celestial Majesty without fear of repercussion? Would it have
changed anything if another spoke up, or merely stirred the emperor’s wrath? Do not scorn those who bide their time,
awaiting the right opportunity to act. Not all battles are won at the point of a sword, nor are they decided at the first strike.”
I dropped my head. “Forgive me. I spoke rashly.”
The Keeper sighed. “Please inform His Highness that while the predators are circling, there are many who would support him upon his return. Bear in mind, His Highness is most vulnerable when absent.”
My teeth caught my lip as a selfish dread consumed me. I would have been glad to see the last of the Celestial Court. Happiness seemed an elusive prospect, trapped beneath the censorious judgment of Their Celestial Majesties, bound to a duty that did not call to me. I had no loyalty to the
Celestial Kingdom. What did I care for the power that came alongside royalty, the chance to leave your mark on the
realm, to mold it to your beliefs? I would choose a flowering forest or a tranquil shore over all the banquets in heaven.
Yet Liwei’s heritage was an integral part of him, interwoven with his identity, honor, and pride. The emperor and empress were his family, the only one he had. I could not ask him to give them up, not even at the price of my happiness.
“I will tell him.” I glanced at the woman, hoping she would leave so I could speak freely. As the Keeper turned toward the mortal town, I discarded caution. “Honored Keeper, I have a private matter I wish to seek your advice on.”
His gnarled fingers stroked his beard. “I trust Leiying, my apprentice, in all matters.”
Did he desire a witness to our meeting? I dared not imagine what the emperor might do should he discover my father was alive. I had to tread cautiously.
“Is the elixir the only way for a mortal to become immortal?” I kept my tone light as though this were idle curiosity.
My heart sank though I expected no less; it was as General Jianyun had said. “How might one obtain the elixir?”
The question came out too quickly, my urgency unmistakable.
His gaze shuttered. “Why do you ask?”
How easy it would be to use Liwei’s name to gain the Keeper’s compliance. He had been his student far longer, their bond went deep—yet I could not choke the lie out. I
could not risk harming Liwei’s reputation further, inflaming his father’s suspicions should the Keeper report our
“I can’t say,” I admitted. “Though it is important to me.” “Such information cannot be freely shared.”
I clasped my hands, resisting the urge to plead. What did pride matter when weighed against my father’s life? Though from the set of the Keeper’s face, it would be futile. Before I could speak, the woman shook her head, flicking her eyes toward the bamboo grove in an unmistakable invitation.
Hope flared. As the Keeper’s apprentice, she might have the information I sought and be more willing to share it. There would be a price, undoubtedly—but less onerous than
others had demanded of me before.
I bowed to the Keeper again, concealing my eagerness. “Honored Teacher, thank you for your guidance.”
“Xingyin, these are strange and uncertain times,” he said gravely. “Be careful. Watch over His Highness.”
“Always,” I replied.
The Keeper left then, striding toward the town with his
apprentice following behind. I slipped between the bamboo trees and sank upon the ground. The stillness was broken by the occasional rustle of leaves, the scurry of small creatures. I drew a long breath, my head spinning from the scents of this world—the fragrance of rainfall laced with the decay of wilted leaves, the gritty undertones of salt and earth.
Hours slipped by, still there was no sign of the Keeper’s apprentice. Just when I rose to leave, thinking I had been
mistaken—the air shifted, a pair of immortal auras drawing closer. A man walked beside Leiying, of a similar height, though with a more slender build. His face was striking with its high cheekbones, full lips, and sweeping brows, and his assured smile showed he was well aware of his charm.
“I apologize for the wait. My brother, Tao, takes too long to ready himself.” Leiying’s tone was at once resigned and
He ignored her, his gaze moving from the top of my head to my toes, then to the bow I carried across my back. “You’ll do,” he said drily.
“I’m not sure you will.” I raked him with an appraising look of my own, taking in his teal brocade robe and gold sash, which were as ornate as any royal’s.
He grinned as he slanted his head back. “My sister told me that you seek the Elixir of Immortality? If so, we can aid each other.”
“What do you mean?” I asked carefully.
Leiying’s tongue clicked impatiently against the roof of her mouth. “We want the elixir too.”
My eyes narrowed. Was this a trap, to rid themselves of a rival? “How many are there?”
“One for each of us,” Leiying replied. “I do not know when His Celestial Majesty will create another, for their crafting is a strain on his power.”
“Why do you want the elixir?” I asked.
“Someone we care for needs it,” Tao said. “Who?”
Brother and sister exchanged a cautious look. “You came seeking help. We offer it. We’ve already told you what we can.” Tao added pointedly, “Just as we’re not asking why
you seek this. It is safer this way, the less either of us divulges of our plans.”
He spoke the truth, for I had no wish to reveal my own intentions. And I was reluctant to antagonize my newfound
allies even as I wondered what they concealed. “What is your plan?”
“We steal the elixir.”
A shiver coursed through me to hear the words spoken so baldly. My heart raced with the possibilities, even as my mind urged me to refuse. “Where is the elixir kept?” I found myself asking.
“In the Imperial Treasury,” Tao replied.
I recoiled. “You want the three of us to break into the
Imperial Treasury? That is madness.” In all my years in the Jade Palace, I had never ventured there. While I had been curious about the place, I had not wished to invite scrutiny through an unplanned visit—and what I most desired then did not lie within its walls.
“Two of us; you and me,” Tao clarified, undaunted. “I won’t jeopardize my sister’s safety.”
“This will never work.”
“How else do you propose we obtain the elixir? Do you think the emperor will give it to you?” Leiying countered. “I’ve scouted the Jade Palace for years, waiting for the
right chance. I’ve been close enough to the elixir to inhale its fragrance,” Tao assured me. “I can get us in and out of the treasury undetected.”
“How?” I pressed. “If this is going to work, I must know everything.”
“I have a key.”
“Where did you get it from? Will it work?” Perhaps I hoped he would give me a reason to refuse, something to bolster my wavering will.
“The same way I got anything I’m not supposed to.” He ran his fingers across his fine garments. “You’ve got a suspicious mind. Rest assured, the key will work. I’ve used it before.”
I ignored his gibe. “Why do you need me?”
“To dispatch a small nuisance guarding the elixir. It would be nothing to a competent fighter such as yourself.” He
lifted his hands, smooth and fine-boned. “My skills lie in procurement, not combat.”
I bit the inside of my cheek, my father’s image flashing through my mind—not the powerful warrior from the tales, but worn in both body and spirit. There was not much time left, for what if he died?
“I’ve heard that an immortal’s memories are restored upon their return to the heavens. What of a mortal’s memories?” I asked the Keeper’s apprentice.
“Death erases all mortal memories,” Leiying said gravely. “Once gone, those can never be regained.”
A cold knot of dread formed in my chest. My father had not known my mother as an immortal. If I did not save him in his mortal lifetime, he would forget my mother and their love. He would not know me. He would be a stranger to us.
Temptation warred with caution. “If we are caught, it’s not me alone who will pay the price,” I said, thinking of my mother and Liwei.
“We won’t be. I know the palace like the back of my hand, and I have no desire to rot in a Celestial prison for eternity.
They do not look kindly upon thieves.” Tao grimaced. “Disguise yourself and conceal your face, as an added
precaution. Guard my back, and I’ll do the rest. The time has never been better. With the recent changes in the army leadership, the palace defenses have been weakened.
Fewer guards are on duty; the wards are not as strong as they once were.”
General Wu was undoubtedly a poor replacement for General Jianyun. “Have you told anyone else of your plan?” I asked, wary of discovery.
Tao cocked his head at me. “You’re the first person we’ve approached. We asked you because you want it as much as we do, and you’re competent with that bow, by blood if nothing else.”
I stared at the pair, sensing nothing but an urgency that matched my own. And if we were caught, all of us would
suffer the consequences. The thought of stealing from the Celestial Emperor flooded me with trepidation. Yet beneath, coursed a more profound terror, that I might lose my father just when I had found him.
“Very well,” I agreed.
“Tomorrow night. We’ll meet within the grove of camphor trees, just south of the Imperial Treasury.” Tao exchanged a guarded look with his sister. “One more thing. You can’t tell anyone else about our plan, especially Prince Liwei.”
Tao’s eyes flashed. “What if His Highness tried to stop
you? What if he spoke to the Keeper of Mortal Fates about my sister? If you can’t promise us your discretion, we’ll take our chances elsewhere.”
My gut twisted as I nodded tersely. I did not want to lie to Liwei, even as I struggled with how to tell him the truth. Yet this was my best hope to help my father, and I would not fail him.
My worries consumed me throughout the journey back. As I stepped off the cloud, I found Liwei leaning against one of the mother-of-pearl columns that flanked the entrance.
Waiting for me, undoubtedly.
His eyes slid over my garments, my fingers itching to smooth my robe, crumpled from those hours spent hunched in wait. A far cry from the embroidered silk dresses I had worn in the Jade Palace.
“I like what you’re wearing,” he said quietly. “It suits you.”
Warmth flared in me at his words. I tapped the silk cord
around my wrist, which sprang free, writhing in the air. “It’s useful too. They have been enchanted to tie themselves.”
He caught my wrist, catching the end of the cord to wind it back into place. “This is too delicate; you might need something stronger,” he observed, running a finger across it. The threads glowed with his magic, hardening to
gleaming strips of chestnut-brown, which crisscrossed over my wrists. From the pulse of energy thrumming against my
skin, this was no ordinary material; more pliant than leather and yet sturdier.
“Thank you.” I held them up to examine them. “What is it?”
“This can withstand even the sharpest blades, though not for long.” As his gaze searched my face, I tensed. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you all day,” he asked.
“The Mortal Realm. I was at my father’s grave.” My deceit lay in concealment.
His eyes darkened with understanding. “I know how much you grieve for him.”
I hesitated, before asking, “Liwei, what have you heard of the Elixir of Immortality?” I did not want to steal from his father. If there was another way, I would seek it—but if not, I would not falter.
“Its creation is something only my father is privy to. He
guards it well, for such a thing might change the fate of the world below.” He paused. “Why do you ask?”
A longing swept through me to confide in him, but I had given my word to Tao. Yet I would tell him what I could, for I wanted no other lies between us.
“My father is alive. I met him in the Mortal Realm,” I said haltingly. Even now it seemed a dream, though all my hopes were entwined with fear.
Liwei stared at me, wide-eyed. “The Black Dragon said he had died. Why do you think he’s your father?”
“He’s of the right age. He carries a bow of our realm. He knew my past and my mother’s.”
“Many a fortune hunter will claim anything for the chance to win an immortal’s aid,” he cautioned.
“I know my father here.” I pressed my fingertips to my chest.
Liwei clasped my hands in his. “You want to believe him, Xingyin—but this could be mere coincidence or contrivance. Many mortals are familiar with your parents’ tale, countless more are of the right age. Perhaps he obtained that weapon
from Kunlun Mountain. At least consider the possibility that this mortal is not who he claims to be.”
His reasoning was sound, though his doubt stung. Yes, I wanted this to be true, yet I was not oblivious to the facts. Once before, I had allowed this to happen. But while my trust was bruised, I believed the part inside me that sensed the truth—my father was alive.
“He is my father. The Jade Dragon Bow—”
“Are you asking about the elixir for him?” Liwei’s grip tightened. “It’s too dangerous. We must find out more about this mortal; this is not something to rush into.”
My father’s cough rang through my mind, his crimson
blood staining the cloth. Time was something I did not have. “He is ill. He needs the elixir.”
“My father will not yield it, neither to you nor me,” Liwei said heavily. “We have few allies left in the Jade Palace, and we cannot act rashly. Don’t risk yourself until you know for sure.”
My lips formed a smile as I nodded in seeming assent, despising myself for the trickery. Liwei did not believe the
mortal was my father—I could not blame him for the dragon had told us he was dead, and it was impossible to explain the certainty of a feeling only I sensed. I could not ask more from Liwei, nor could I add to his concerns or pit him further against his family. And the greatest reason I held my tongue
—one I shied from myself—was the worry that he would
object to my plan, that he would try to dissuade me … and that I would proceed regardless.
He was right; the emperor would never give me the elixir, which was why I would take it from him. And if I failed, it was safer for my loved ones if they did not know, for I was certain the Celestial Emperor had his ways of extracting the truth.
“Have you decided what you will do?” I asked him, shifting the conversation to safer ground. “I met the Keeper by
chance in the Mortal Realm. He said there are many at court who would support you, should you return.”
“I have no plans to return. Not yet.”
I breathed easier, though there was little joy in that which caused him pain. “I know your family is precious to you; I never wanted to make you choose.” I paused, asking, “Do
you regret it?”
“No. This time there is no threat to the kingdom, no
pressing alliance to secure. This time … you will not be rid of me so easily.” His eyes darkened. “Though I wish I had not
parted with my parents on such terms, to have disappointed them.”
Your father disappointed you, I wanted to tell him. Liwei need not have been forced into a choice where all would undoubtedly lose.
“I meant what I said to you those years before, in the market.” There was a wistful note in his voice.
The stalls in the clearing. The woody fragrance of tea winding through the air. A white shell nestled in my palm. His words drifted back to me as though it were yesterday: We could travel the realm, stopping where we choose and leaving when we grow restless.
“It would be a good life.” I repeated what I had said then. “As long as we’re together.” His dark gaze held mine, my
heart quickening. “Though I fear for myself sometimes, wanting to bind myself to one as fierce as you.”
“It’s not too late.” My tone sharpened. “I have not agreed.
You are free to make your escape.” “I will never be free of you.”
Drawn by the warmth in his tone, I tilted my face up to his. He lowered his head, his lips brushing mine tenderly, then pressing harder. His hand cradled my cheek, his fingers threading through my hair. Heat kindled in my veins as he
drew me closer. I melted against him, reveling in his touch. Neither of us spoke again but for the language of our
tangled breaths, silencing the voices in my mind, burying all thoughts of the perils that lay ahead.
At least for now.