Dawn streaked across the skies as the last flickers of light dwindled from the moon lanterns. I almost longed for the
return of night, as dark as my thoughts. I had come so close to bringing my father home, and now … the elixir was gone. My fingers curled as I cursed Tao and his sister, and myself for trusting them. Yet Tao’s distraught expression as he had vanished tugged at me. Had he expected two elixirs, only to find one? Would I have chosen differently—sacrificed my father’s life, my mother’s happiness, for a stranger’s?
Regardless, if I ever found him again, I would repay his selfishness in kind. I had risked my life as he had; the elixir was no less mine, and his theft had nullified all claim he
once had upon it.
The Celestial soldiers standing guard outside were unfamiliar to me. Feimao’s shift must have ended. Just yesterday I had strode through these doors without hesitation, and now I was forced to break in like a thief. Stealthily, I made my way to the back, clambering up a mother-of-pearl pillar, then swinging myself onto the
balcony. As I discarded my garments and pulled on a lilac robe I had hidden there, my gaze fell upon the realm below,
awash in the soft haze of morning. A heaviness sank over me as I recalled the nights spent in idle contemplation here. Would I ever regain the peace I had known then?
The corridor was deserted as I made my way to my room.
Sliding the doors apart, I entered—startled to find Shuxiao sitting at the table, along with General Jianyun. Their teacups were drained, Shuxiao’s sword lying on the floor. Had they been waiting for long?
“You shouldn’t be here,” I blurted. Recalling my manners, I bowed to General Jianyun. “The emperor’s edict—”
“I heard,” Shuxiao said, her forehead wrinkled. “Where were you? You weren’t supposed to leave.”
I glanced at General Jianyun. He was still one of the
emperor’s advisors, moreover it was safer for him to not know. Though his unexpected presence here sent a sliver of trepidation through me.
“Do you have news of Liwei?” I asked, evading Shuxiao’s question.
“No one is permitted to visit His Highness. The emperor has commanded that he remain isolated in his quarters,” General Jianyun said grimly.
My teeth gnawed the soft inside of my cheek. “Has Liwei spoken to his father?”
General Jianyun shook his head. “His Celestial Majesty refuses to grant him an audience until His Highness
apologizes—which he has not done. Nor will the emperor hear reason from the few advisors who voiced their
concerns regarding the treatment of the prince.”
“But that’s not why we’re here.” Shuxiao’s expression was somber. “Soldiers are assembling as we speak. They are
coming here, led by General Wu.”
Fear jolted down my spine. “Why?”
“The emperor has passed the sentence for your mother. For all of you.” She released a drawn breath. “Confinement in the tower.”
My insides hollowed at the thought of my mother, Ping’er, and me trapped in such a place. The tower was a Celestial prison on the outskirts of the kingdom, where vicious monsters as the Bone Devil had been confined. It was a
place of utter desolation, sheathed in darkness for there were no windows or doors within its walls, nothing to yield a glimmer of light.
“How long?” I choked out.
It was General Jianyun who replied. “No length of time has been set.”
“It could be forever.” Despair writhed in my gut, burrowing deep. The emperor had done this to my mother and to the
dragons, their punishment dragging on indefinitely without a chance for clemency. Our names would be buried,
forgotten, as the years flew by—becoming no more than another cautionary tale of defiance against the Celestial Emperor.
“Some tried to argue on your mother’s behalf. Chang’e had never failed in the performance of her duty before; it must have been an innocent slip.” General Jianyun’s face darkened. “But others twisted our words, arguing that her unprecedented lapse that day, on His Celestial Majesty’s
birthday, must have been intentional. Some took it further, claiming the insult to His Celestial Majesty was treason to weaken his standing, embolden his dissenters, and bring misfortune to his reign.”
“They think too highly of us. It was just a harmless mistake.”
“No mistake is ‘harmless’ in the Jade Palace. Particularly none which earns the emperor’s wrath,” Shuxiao said.
“What will you do?” General Jianyun asked.
“How many soldiers? When are they coming?” I made myself ask.
Shuxiao’s face darkened. “Over a hundred. They will come today or tomorrow, at the latest.”
“A hundred?” I repeated numbly. Did they expect us to fight? This was no invitation to yield but a troop sent to subdue an enemy and to seize what would not be
surrendered. A year ago, Celestial soldiers had stood by me and now … they were marching upon my home.
My deepest fear, my worst nightmare, come to life. “I can’t let them take us.” I spoke on instinct.
A brief silence followed, before General Jianyun cleared his throat. “What of the laurel?”
“They can have it if they leave us in peace.” Rash words spoken with a child’s terror, offering a futile bargain to delay inevitable punishment.
“In the wrong hands, who knows what the laurel can be used to do,” General Jianyun argued. “While we don’t understand its power, neither can we ignore it.”
“How can we fight them? Not just because we’re
outnumbered, but the soldiers helped me once.” I was sickened by the thought of attacking those I had fought alongside before.
“The Celestial Army is not what it used to be.” General
Jianyun’s tone was heavy. “The soldiers who came to your defense that day have been sidelined, their loyalties cast in doubt. Many have left, and the ones who remained were sent to distant borders.”
Their support of me had cost them dearly. A simple
gesture rooted in gratitude, yet striking a keen blow to the Celestial Emperor’s pride. It had been one of the greatest moments of my life, and now it was tainted with guilt.
Precious seconds were slipping away, the emperor’s soldiers drawing closer. I searched General Jianyun’s face, hoping for guidance—yet he remained silent. Sometimes there were no answers, sometimes we had to make them up as we went along.
Cupping my hands before me, I bent low from my waist. “Thank you for warning us. I apologize for the discourtesy,
but it might be safest for you both to depart before the soldiers arrive.”
Lines deepened across General Jianyun’s brow like fingers trailed in the sand. “What will you do?”
I did not answer, my nerves strung taut. All I ever wanted was to be left in peace with my family, and yet all I did
plunged us into more danger.
No, my mind whispered. You wanted more than that. You wanted to help the dragons. You defied the emperor by
attempting to force his hand. You tried to steal the elixir.
Even now you’re trying to think of a way to stop this attack.
You were never content to leave things as they were … always wanting more.
Peace does not flow in your veins.
My teeth sank into my lip, tearing at the soft flesh. I had kept quiet before, trying to avoid the emperor’s wrath, foolishly thinking that past grudges would be forgotten in a decade or so. What did I care for the politics of the realm, these shifts of power? Such things were beyond my paltry influence. However, the seeds of betrayal had been sown
and its harvest needed to be reaped. The emperor did not trust me, nor did I him. My stomach roiled at the thought of the laurel in the emperor’s possession, all the more
terrifying because I did not know the consequences.
If only we had allies of our own, those we might seek
refuge with. Prince Yanxi could not harbor us; they would not risk their alliance with the Celestial Kingdom. I still
possessed the scale the Long Dragon had gifted me. Could I ask the dragons for aid—not to attack the soldiers, but to flee? Yet their presence would be detected, and the dragons had no desire to be pitted against the Celestial Emperor
again. I would not endanger them lightly, not before exhausting every other path.
Doubt clouded my resolve, wavering like a flame caught in a crosswind. Each path before us was fraught with peril. If we fled, the emperor would not forgive us, he would hunt us
across the realm. Nor could we fight, outnumbered as we would be. The only alternative was to remain and accept our punishment—yet dare I trust in the emperor’s benevolence, that he might eventually relent and set us free?
The Celestial Emperor’s words surfaced in my mind, what he had warned me of the day I won my mother’s freedom: As the Moon Goddess it still falls upon her to ensure the moon rises each night—without exception.
This was my mother’s second offense against the Celestial Emperor, and the insult paid a personal one. There would be no mercy, not that he was ever inclined to it. Their Celestial Majesties had no love for my family, and this was an ideal
opportunity to rid themselves of us.
Part of me was glad that Liwei was not here. He would have supported us against the Celestial invasion, setting himself against his father who would view it as an
unforgivable betrayal. This way, Liwei could claim ignorance of my plans—for in truth, they had only just formed.
“We will flee.” My heart was laden with regret, pricked with shame. But I had little faith in the justice of the
Disappointment shadowed General Jianyun’s face.
Perhaps he had hoped I would take a stand to defend the laurel. Perhaps he imagined that a spark of my father’s heroism burned in my spirit. I was neither so noble nor
valiant. Some might call me selfish, but I would look out for my own. I had done my part for the realm, and been repaid by mistrust at every turn.
“I understand. Be careful,” he said at last.
“We must prepare ourselves,” Shuxiao said. “We?” I asked.
She crossed her arms in seeming challenge. “I’m not leaving until you get away safely.”
“How can I let you stay?” I countered.
“This is not your choice,” she said fiercely.
I hesitated, wanting her by my side yet dreaded exposing her to danger. “Thank you,” I managed through the tightness in my chest. I would have done no less for her.
“General Jianyun,” Shuxiao addressed him. “Could you send word to my family? Tell them to go into hiding until they hear from me again.”
Bitterness seared me that she had to do this, that we were forced to flee. But there was no shame in flight; I had done it before. I would not sacrifice us to a cause we cared little for. What mattered most was our freedom and our lives— upon which hope was borne, along with the promise of new beginnings.
I RAPPED UPON MY mother’s door—short, hard knocks. She
emerged from her room, clad in her white robe. I was glad to find Ping’er with her, sitting by the table, pouring tea into two cups.
I wasted no time, speaking urgently, “Celestial soldiers are on their way here. We must flee.”
“Flee? Why?” Her eyes were wide with shock.
“The emperor has sentenced us to imprisonment in the tower. We have been accused of insulting His Celestial
Majesty, of treacherous intent for the lapse in lighting the moon.”
A shudder ran through her body. “They are mistaken. Can we explain?”
“It would not matter. You cannot change the minds of those who do not want to be proven wrong.” I took her hands in mine, inwardly flinching from their chill. She was afraid … as was I. “They want to believe this of us.
Forgetting to light the lanterns was a harmless thing, just as taking Father’s elixir, or the dragons bringing water to the suffering mortals. The Celestial Emperor will tolerate no threat to his pride or standing. To him, appearances matter more than intent.” It struck me then how much he must
despise me—the girl his soldiers had bowed to, whom he would have killed that day.
“Must we flee?” My mother’s voice broke. This place was all she had known of the Immortal Realm—once, her prison, and now her home.
“Yes. His Celestial Majesty will not rescind his sentence, nor will anyone plead on our behalf—at least, none he will listen to. We are a thorn in his side that he is eager to pluck. Moreover, he wants our home, and this is the perfect excuse to seize it.”
Ping’er frowned. “Won’t disobeying his edict anger him further?”
“Undoubtedly.” Reckless satisfaction flooded me at those words. “Though we have little to lose at this stage.”
Beyond our lives. Was I being a fool to risk us all? Was imprisonment not preferable to death? Yet that was not the choice; we were fighting for our freedom, for the chance to live as we chose. And I did not trust our safety in the
My mother lifted her head, her expression calmer. “We will be ready.”
“You must go first, with Ping’er. I will follow shortly, with Shuxiao. We will distract those standing guard here so you can escape safely.”
My mother’s gaze bored into mine. “I won’t go without you.”
“Mother, if the Celestials capture you, you will be their hostage. I can’t do what I must if you’re in danger. And if we flee all at once, they will sense our absence and give chase. Shuxiao and I can evade the soldiers, but as for you and Ping’er—”
“I am weak, I know.” My mother looked away. “I wish I could help. If only I had magic like yours.”
Perhaps my mother’s power was a quieter magic, like Tao’s, or one she was unaware of. Regardless, there was a
core of strength in her that I had not understood as a child; I
had thought her frail and delicate then. However, when I had left my home the first time, I had been a muddle of terror, while her mind remained clear, her resolve unclouded. It was as Ping’er had said: She is stronger than you think.
“No, Mother,” I told her gently. “Magic is not the only
power; we are strong in different ways. You have kept me safe all these years, it is my turn to protect you now. Both of you,” I said, reaching out to take Ping’er’s hand.
My mother drew a deep breath. “Don’t do anything rash.
You must be careful and don’t get caught. Promise me this.” “I promise,” I agreed at once, ignoring the guilt that
There was another part to my plan that I had not revealed, one still forming as we spoke. Shuxiao and I planned a
diversion, but what if we were to set a trap for Wugang instead? Not from spite but the instinctive desire to end this ominous threat—for who but Wugang could harvest the laurel seeds?
My mother and Ping’er moved around the room, gathering a few possessions. At the doorway, my mother embraced me tightly. I closed my eyes, inhaling her fragrance
threaded with the sweetness of osmanthus.
“Be careful, Little Star.” Ping’er’s hand touched my cheek gently. “The darkest of nights is when the stars shine
A lump rose in my throat to hear my childhood name. I breathed deeply, holding my emotions in. Only after they had left, did I crumple to the floor, brushing my fingertips along the stone tiles. A final farewell.
That was all I allowed myself. Rising to my feet, I stalked to my room. The Jade Dragon Bow was the first thing I
reached for. My sword was strapped to my side, a dagger tucked in my sash.
How arrogant I had been, thinking I would never run
again. But this time, I would be ready … and I would take
my loved ones with me.