Chapter no 9

Heart of the Sun Warrior

I crept through the corridors, keeping my steps light. The soldiers were not attuned to my aura, but I masked it nonetheless. As I slipped through the entrance, I halted at the sight of Feimao standing outside. He was clad in his

armor, with a bow gripped in his hand, and from memory he was an excellent marksman.

“Why are you here?” He spoke with polite indifference, as though I were a stranger.

“Enjoying the night air,” I replied steadily.

“With that?” He stared pointedly at the wooden bow slung over my shoulder.

Fortunately, I had not brought the Jade Dragon Bow, for fear of someone recognizing it. “A habit, just as yours. Why are you asking me these questions?” I met his gaze without flinching. “Minister Ruibing said you were here for our


A short pause. “I think both of us know better than to believe that.”

His frankness surprised me. “I hear much has changed in the Celestial Army since I last served there,” I said in a

warmer tone. A reminder that we had fought together, once, in Xiangliu’s cavern.

Feimao nodded, standing a little easier. “There is a divide in the Celestial Army where once there was none. Past loyalties have called into question our current ones.

Punishments meted out are swift and harsh, and often without proper investigation.”

His words echoed those of Shuxiao’s. “Can no one intervene?”

“No one dares to gainsay General Wu; the few who did were relieved of their positions or sent away.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” I said softly. “I’m sorry for it too,” he replied.

I was tempted to ask more, but he inclined his head to me. “My shift ends at dawn. That is when the rest will

awaken.” Without waiting for my response, he strode toward the forest.

I discarded the suspicion that his warning might be a trap.

Feimao was an honorable soldier, loyal to General Jianyun, and he had stood by me against the Celestial Emperor’s wrath. Out of caution, I waited until he had vanished

between the trees. Only then did I call a cloud and a brisk wind to spur it along.

The Jade Palace loomed on the horizon, the dragons on its rooftop leeched of color in the night. As a sudden gust tossed my hair across my face, I spun around to find an immortal soaring after me, his eyes as bright as twin stars. I halted my flight to end his chase, wary of alerting the

Celestial guards. As Wenzhi drew closer, the violet tendrils of his cloud trailed over mine.

“Why are you here?” I demanded.

“I was on my way to see you, only to find you leaving.” “Did you follow me?”

“Call it ‘chasing after’ you,” he said with a small smile. “You were always the swiftest with the wind.”

His praise sparked a flicker of warmth, that I quenched.

His opinion meant nothing to me. “What do you want, Wenzhi? I have little time to waste.”

“I heard what happened at the Luminous Pearl Lake.” His lips set into a thin line. “I confess to being disappointed. I had hoped he would be a fool, again.”

I flushed at his meaning, even as impatience pricked me at this delay. “Your sources are to be commended. I must go now. Do not follow me,” I warned.

His gaze swept over me, lingering on the sword strapped to my side, the bow over my shoulder. “You reek of

recklessness, Xingyin.”

“It is no concern of yours,” I returned coldly.

“It is of great concern,” he corrected me. “It must be a terrible thing indeed if you are here alone. What are you hiding from the others? What are you afraid of your beloved discovering?”

When I did not reply, he strode forward, stepping upon my cloud. As the hem of his dark green robe grazed mine, I fought the urge to move back, refusing to show how much his presence unsettled me.

“Why are you going to the Jade Palace?” he asked. “You can’t get in; they will sense you at once.”

“What do you mean?” My tone was guarded.

“The wards around the palace have been altered tonight.” He paused, adding, “I heard of Minister Ruibing’s visit. He was a pompous fool from what I recall. What did the minister want?”

“How do you—”

“I make it my point to know these things,” he interjected. “The defenses of the Celestial Kingdom. Your well-being.”

The tips of my ears burned. I ignored his earlier question, asking, “Are you telling the truth about the wards?”

His eyes thinned in a familiar look of exasperation. “If you don’t believe me, by all means go ahead. You will be stopped before you get a foot through the gates.” He

cocked his head to one side. “I think I prefer it that way,

putting an end to your scheme. Attempted entry would be a far lighter offense than whatever you have planned.”

“I can’t be caught. I’m not allowed to leave the moon.” I clamped my mouth shut, regretting my words. If I was

discovered defying the emperor’s edict, it would endanger us tenfold. And if I attempted to break the wards, that might sound an alarm, summoning a trail of suspicious soldiers upon my heels.

Wenzhi lowered himself into a mocking bow. “Perhaps I might be of service. I have some experience getting into places I’m not supposed to.”

I stared at him. “Why would you help me?”

“As I told you, I wish to make amends. I also prefer that you remain alive and not locked away in some Celestial

prison. It would be much harder to extricate you then.” He added with emphasis, “You would owe me nothing. Think of this as recompense for my wrongs.”

“Nothing you do will ever make up for your wrongs,” I said scathingly.

Part recompense, then,” he amended, even as an unreadable expression flashed across his face.

I did not like accepting favors from him, nor did I trust him enough to share my plan. Yet I would not risk discovery upon a point of pride; I would not gamble with our lives.

“Help me get into the palace, but you cannot follow me,” I told him.

“Will you tell me what you’re doing?” I smiled brightly. “No.”

He released a sigh. “What do you want me to do?”

“Break the wards around the Western Gate.” Heat glazed my face at my hypocrisy. I had railed at him for such

treachery before, and now I was enlisting his aid to do the same.

“Unless you possess an invading army, the palace wards can’t be tampered with from outside,” he told me.

I had not known this. My assignments in the Celestial Army had always taken me beyond the Jade Palace; I had never guarded its walls.

“Could you draw the guards away from the gate?” I asked. “A diversion to distract them?”

“I would prefer a harder task.” When I did not reply, he inclined his head. “As you wish.”

“Thank you.” Gratitude for him sat uneasily within me. “If you are not out by sunrise, I will come for you.” His

eyes shone silver bright.

“I don’t need your help to get out,” I said curtly.

“Yet you need it to get in.” He raised a hand, stalling my retort. “I trust in your abilities, but sometimes luck can get in the way.” Without another word, he returned to his cloud, taking flight into the night.

Recalling Tao’s warning to mask myself, I wrapped a piece of black cloth across my nose, knotting it at the back of my head. Far from an impenetrable disguise, but I was not

adept enough to create an enchantment over my form, much less sustain it. And I had learned not to scorn the simplest disguises, for they were often the most easily overlooked.

A stream of energy coursed through the air, powerful and fierce. Shouts erupted from ahead, a cluster of immortal

auras rushing away, drawn to the commotion. Wenzhi had struck the gates with ruthless efficiency. My insides wound tight as I plunged through the unseen barriers, instinctively recoiling from the anticipated discomfort. Yet there was just a coolness grazing my skin like a drizzle of rain—and then I was over the walls, back in the Jade Palace.

No clouds climbed toward me in pursuit as I soared across the lush gardens that divided the Outer Court from the Inner Court, flowers and trees blotting the landscape like spilled ink. A faint rumbling curled through my ears, that rhythmic rush which had soothed me to sleep those countless nights before. I glided lower, inhaling the sweetness of jasmine and

wisteria, for a moment lost in the warm echoes of

remembered joy. Was Liwei there? Was he safe? I longed to search for him, yet any attempt to do so might plunge us into greater danger, casting more suspicion over him. This was not the time to indulge reckless impulses. The empress would look out for him, and no matter what, he was still the emperor’s son.

Beyond the Inner Court lay the heart of the Jade Palace: the Hall of Eastern Light, the Chamber of Reflection, and the Imperial Treasury, spread out across the sprawling grounds. A circular building of red marble rose from the grassy lawn, like a ring of copper dropped onto a bed of silk. Intricate

carvings of vines, leaves, and flowers were etched upon its walls. The lacquered doors were studded with gold and

flanked by a pair of carved stone lions, while the roof was paved in lapis tiles which slanted into a graceful slope.

Glazed by moonlight, all was drenched in silver and white. Celestial soldiers in gleaming armor were stationed at the treasury entrance, the rest patrolling the grounds.

As my cloud landed within a grove of camphor trees, I folded myself into the shadows, making my way quietly toward the lone figure in black.

Tao’s teeth gleamed as he gestured at the cloth covering my face. “Have you been reading too many mortal tales?”

“Did you not ask me to disguise myself?” I thrust a piece of cloth at him. “Better this than letting someone catch a glimpse of your face.”

“I don’t need it.” He waved it aside disdainfully as a shimmer glided over his skin, like I was looking at him through the glare of the sun. Except his eyes were more

close-set, his lips thinner, his nose squat and broad. If I had not been staring at him, I would have thought he was a

different person. Still, his aura remained unchanged, flickering faintly, almost imperceptible.

I frowned. “How did you do that? I sensed no magic.”

“It is a skill I was born with, the only useful one I have.” His breathing was labored as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Useful, for my profession.”

“Is this like the magic of fox spirits?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Mine is weaker. I can only distort my own form to avoid recognition, while fox spirits can mimic

another’s appearance. I’ve also heard of rare enchantments that can mirror not just one’s physical attributes, but their

aura and voice as well.”

“A dangerous skill. Though undoubtedly useful in moments as these.” I looked at him hopefully. “Could you disguise my features?”

“No. My powers are not strong, which allows me to avoid detection. It would be a strain for me to maintain two illusions.”

I nodded, shrugging away my disappointment. “How do we get in?”

Tao pointed at a panel in the wall ahead, a shade lighter than the rest. I had thought it a shaft of moonlight, only now noticing others were scattered in regular intervals across the marble walls.

“Each of these leads to a different chamber in the

treasury. That is the one we want.” He handed me a jade disc carved with a peach blossom. “I’ll draw the soldiers

away. Once you enter, leave the key on the ground for me. Don’t draw attention to yourself and use your magic sparingly to avoid alerting the guards.”

“What of the other enchantments guarding this place?” It seemed unlikely that nothing else lay between us and the treasury.

“There are none. The items within protect themselves better than anything else could.”

The back of my neck prickled. “What do you mean?”

Yet his form was wavering, fading from sight. A distance away, the trees rustled—Tao, already at work. The guards

jerked to attention, most of them hurrying over to inspect the disturbance, leaving just two by the entrance.

Bending down, I grabbed a handful of pebbles, flinging them as far from me as I could throw. They scattered with dull thuds, the guards’ gazes swinging away. At once, I sprinted toward the entrance, pressing myself against the walls. Just beside the panel was a hollow carved with the same flower as on the jade disc, blending seamlessly into the carvings. My pulse raced as I pressed the ornament

against it, sliding smoothly into place. As the panel shimmered, dissolving into nothingness, I tucked the key behind a clump of grass and slipped into the chamber.

Behind me, the door solidified into stone once more. The air within was stale and heavy, like no living creature had entered the room for decades. I examined the vast

chamber, larger even than the Silver Harmony Hall of my home. A round mahogany table lay in the center, carved with an elegant floral pattern, books and scrolls stacked in neat piles upon it. There were no stools, perhaps because there were no visitors here—certainly none of leisure. The walls were lined with elmwood shelves, crammed with

exquisite sculptures of mythical creatures and ornaments of gold, porcelain, and jade. Along the walls were miniature trees barely knee-high, with spring-green leaves and

elegantly curved branches.

As the door shimmered once more, Tao stepped through.

Without a word, he strode to a shelf at the far end of the room. As he ran his fingers across a painted panel, a low crack ruptured the silence. A space appeared behind it,

holding a round lacquered box roughly the size of my palm.

It was exquisitely carved into a peony, its crimson petals

clustered tight. Six jade dragonflies perched over its petals, crafted with translucent wings, iridescent bodies, and

golden antennae.

As I reached for the box, Tao grabbed my arm, his fingers like bars of ice. He was trembling as he pointed at the

dragonflies. “Those creatures sting. Their venom is excruciating. I barely escaped the last time.”

“The dragonflies?” Doubt layered my tone. They were

beautiful, so well made, I found myself listening out for the thrum of flight. As I leaned closer to inspect them, they twitched—wings fluttering, rubies flashing from their eyes as sharp stingers slid from their slender abdomens. I leapt

back, the stirrings of a gale on my fingertips to sweep them away—

“Careful, the guards will sense magic,” Tao hissed, nodding at my bow. “Can’t you use a weapon?”

I drew my sword instead, just as the dragonflies shot forth with an ominous whir, the edges of their wings glinting like sharpened knives, a pale liquid glistening from their stingers. They hovered before us, those blood-red eyes fixed on Tao and me. My skin crawled as I forced my arm up, slashing at them—yet they darted aside with startling speed, hurtling toward me once more. I twisted aside to

evade them, stabbing frantically at the one nearest to me, its wings breaking off with the clink of sawn glass. My blade flashed in a silvery blur as I hacked at the rest until all that remained were broken shards, strewn across the floor.

I breathed easier—too soon—as the lumps quivered.

Bodies lengthened, wings and heads and limbs sprouting forth until every disjointed fragment had formed a new

creature, springing into the air and humming like a plague of locusts.

Tao’s eyes went wide. “I had no idea they could do that.” “You should have told me about them in the first place,” I

bit out.

He flushed. “I told you I needed your skills. I … I was

afraid you wouldn’t come. You had enough reservations.” “Tao, we’re going to have a long talk after this.” I did not

look away from the grotesque vision of gleaming stingers

and fiery pupils, my ears ringing with that damned whirring and clicking like the gnashing of pincers.

The swarm plunged toward us. I grabbed Tao’s arm, racing away, knocking the mahogany table onto its side as we

crouched behind it, rolling it to a corner of the room. The dragonflies slammed into the other side, some of their

wings wedged into the table—the pointed tip of one already splintering the wood. My throat constricted, my stomach

churning violently.

I grabbed a brass urn enameled with yellow

chrysanthemums from a shelf, shoving it at Tao. “We must catch them.”

His hands shook as he took it. “What? Why?” he asked in an anguished tone.

“We can’t use magic. They can’t be killed. If you have

another idea, I would welcome it,” I said fervently. “I’ll catch, you trap them. Keep the lid shut at all times.”

I shook free the binds around my wrists, grateful for

Liwei’s transformation of them—those creatures would slice through silk in a blink. The cords sprang into the air, weaving into a small net upon my command. Without a

pause, I grabbed the net and swung it at the dragonflies. Three caught in the weave, struggling wildly, the rest swerving aside before hurtling toward me once more. I

dipped back low, yet their wings scraped my neck and

cheeks. My wounds seared like fire, my heart thudding as I emptied the net into the urn, shaking it roughly to dislodge the creatures. As the last one fell in, Tao slammed the lid

over the opening, his hold steady though his face was gray.

It was a frantic dance, my net spinning through the air to ensnare the dragonflies, then releasing them into the urn. Once, Tao was too slow—a cluster of them darting out that we had to catch all over again. Another slipped through my grasp, its wing slicing Tao’s ear.

“I’m sorry,” I gasped as blood trickled down his neck. The whirring grew louder as though the dragonflies thrived on its hot scent.

“Don’t miss again,” he said faintly.

Finally, the dragonflies were all trapped, their wings scraping against the brass, an eerie, grating sound that tore at my nerves. Tao leaned over the urn, his arms wrapped tight around the lid. Pulling a cord free from the net, I wound it around the vessel, strapping it shut. Once the knots were secure, I shoved the urn away, where it rattled before falling silent.

Tao sank down beside me, trembling as he wiped the blood from his ear. “I’m never doing that again.”

Ignoring the heaviness in my limbs, I tugged his sleeve. “Come, we must go.”

Rising to our feet, we stumbled to the lacquered box on the shelf. Each peony petal was perfectly formed, curling slightly around the edges. Tao picked it up, a mirror image on both sides. Holding it firmly between his palms, he

twisted it apart. The petals quivered, then unfurled to reveal a topaz-studded core. Something clicked, a crack streaking all around like an apricot wrenched into halves. As the scent of honeyed peaches sprang into the air—an intoxicating sweetness—my mouth watered with a sudden craving.

Tao peered into the box, his breath quickening. “Are the elixirs there?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes.” His head swung up as he took in the wreckage of the room. “Best to clean up after ourselves.”

I moved swiftly around the room, rolling the table back to its original position, piling the books and scrolls upon it once more. Then I straightened the shelves, finally shoving the shards of broken ornaments to a dark corner of the room.

Far from perfect, but hopefully enough to escape a cursory inspection.

“Do you have them?” I asked Tao.

He nodded as he replaced the box on the shelf. As we moved toward the door, light rippled across the stone. Panic clawed me as Tao and I darted behind the nearest shelf,

crouching amid the miniature trees, the urn just beside us.

The panel vanished. Two soldiers entered, broad-shouldered and tall. Was this a routine visit, or had someone heard us? The soldiers paused, one slanting his head back like he was listening for something. I drew a shaking breath, the cloth quivering over my mouth as my grip tightened

around the hilt of my sword. A loud rattle jarred the stillness, the urn shuddering upon the ground. At once the man swung toward it, his hand locked around his spear.

My limbs froze, yet I shook myself from the stupor.

Lunging for the urn, I snatched it up and ripped away the cords—tearing its lid free and hurling its contents at the

guards. The dragonflies shot out, whirring louder as though enraged. The soldiers’ faces paled, yet they were well trained as their arms flew up, their spears carving the air with rhythmic blows—one of them calling for

reinforcements. As the dragonflies fractured—some already re-forming—more guards raced into the room, crowding the entrance. The creatures plunged toward them, stinging their faces and necks. Swollen bumps pushed through their skin, a reddish violet hue, as the soldiers gasped in pain. Tao and I raced toward the door just as a solider leapt forward to

block our path, swinging his sword at my head. I slashed at him feverishly, driving him back. We were running out of time. Soon the soldiers would overwhelm the dragonflies, they would stop us … the air already stirring with the

beginnings of a spell.

Gripping the hilt of my blade with both hands, I flung it up to meet the soldier’s blow—my arm throbbing as I shoved his weapon away. He staggered back, weaving to catch his balance, his sword arcing toward me once more. I twisted

aside, his blade sliding across the air where my chest had been. Crouching lower, I kicked at him, my foot colliding with his stomach. He gasped even as he dove forward to

grab at my face covering. I darted out of reach, dragging my blade across his arm, slicing his flesh. Blood gushed out, a

cry wrung from his throat—the whirring from the dragonflies escalating into a frenzied pitch.

My energy surged, summoning a gale to knock him aside

—no need for subterfuge or caution now. At least our faces were still concealed; we had a chance of escaping unscathed, though the odds were rapidly diminishing.

“More soldiers are coming!” Tao yelled.

We bolted from the chamber, sprinting across the grassy lawn. Magic flowed from my hands, calling down a cloud as we raced onward in a jagged path to evade the soldiers. As we scrambled upon our cloud, an ominous whistling sliced the air. Tao and I ducked low, holding our breath as arrows hurtled over us. Sweat dripped from my brow, my limbs

ached—yet I dared not pause, channeling more energy into the wind that swept us upward in a twisting route to throw off any pursuers.

We soared in silence for a long while, our eyes searching for any sign of danger. Only once the luminous glow of the moon lit a path through the night did I tug away the

covering from my face. It had seemed a foolish idea before, but I was grateful for it. If someone had recognized me … I shivered at the thought.

Tao’s arms were wrapped around his body. “We were lucky. Beyond lucky, to have escaped.”

I nodded, inspecting the cuts from the dragonflies

crisscrossing my skin in a bloodied web. Tao, beside me, nursed a deep gash across his arm, blood still dripping from his ear.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“No.” There was a slight tremor in his voice.

“Let me imagine your wound,” I offered, wondering if it went deeper than it appeared.

He shook his head. “It’s not severe.”

“Do you have the elixirs?” I was already imagining my father’s face alight with pride. My mother’s joy when I

brought him home.

Tao slipped his hand between the panels of his robe, drawing out a small bottle the size of my thumb. It was

crafted in translucent white jade, with delicate gold filigree adorning its stopper. A glowing liquid swirled within, its honeyed scent almost drowning my senses.

I smiled, reaching out for it—but then Tao’s shoulders slumped as the air around him shimmered, his face and body blurring like he was shrouded in mist.

“What’s the matter? Are you all right?” I reached for his arm to steady him, but my fingers passed through his flesh like smoke.

“I … I’m sorry. There was only one.” His face crumpled, his voice cracking with remorse as it melded into the rushing wind.

I stared numbly back at him, dread crashing over me. To have risked so much and come this far! Anger blazed as I sprang at him, clawing at the shadow of the bottle in his hand, but it was like trying to grasp a shred of sky.

It was too late; he had gone. I had been played for a fool, risked myself for nothing—and worst of all, I had failed my father.

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