Chapter 64

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written by Miniorchid, with inserts from Chimera
edited by Chimera


Mortal Realm...

"Li Ying, you need to rest."

"No," she shook her head.

"You've been awake for two days now."

"I don't want to go to sleep yet."

"Why?"

"I'm afraid..." she nestled her head against his throat, inhaling his scent, memorising his warmth, "I'm afraid of closing my eyes. When I wake up, you'll be gone."

"We still have time," Die Feng told her as he brushed his hand over her cheek, "There's still another day."

"But...the candle is almost out. I can feel it." she tightened her hold on him, "Die Feng, let me stay awake a bit longer."

****

West Sea Royal Palace

The second coronation of the Crown Prince of the West Sea was less festive than the first, Die Feng couldn't help noting. Not feeling like mingling anymore, he had left the guests to his parents and headed straight to the beach, away from crowd. Da-ge's coronation had been attended by all the kings of the four seas, as well as delegations from other tribes. This time the coronation was attended only by close members of the royal family and those guests who could make it at the last minute for the festivities of the royal wedding, which would take place the following day. The coronation ceremony had been a somber affair with scandal and war looming over their heads. The King of the East had demanded that the wedding date be moved up without delay, making it clear that the alliance depended upon it.

Before returning, Die Feng had visited his brother in the mortal realm, finding him according to instructions left by Li Ying. Da-ge had been living with his bodyguard in a small hut and for the first time in a long time, he looked carefree and happy.

But like a thief, Da-ge's face drained of colour when he saw Die Feng. "I couldn't do it, little brother," he said before Die Feng could begin. "Not after I found love," he glanced at his bodyguard who was silently chopping wood in the backyard. "I never wanted the throne and its burdens. From the start, you were the one suited to be king."


All these years, while shouldering numerous responsibilities on his own, Die Feng had never let himself feel resentment towards his brother. But anger rose in him today. How easy it was for his brother to pass the burdens to him. "You speak, Da-ge, as if it is no sacrifice for me."

Die Yong closed his eyes in shame, "Forgive me, brother. But you don't know love yet. You prefer the company of women. There is still a chance for you and the East Sea Princess to find conjugal harmony together. You're better suited for this marriage than I ever was."

"I-" Die Feng wasn't sure what to say. He couldn't refute any of these claims. Except, the scent of basil lingered at the back of his mind and his anger didn't cool. "Do you know how worried mother and father are?"

"Please don't ask me to go back," Die Yong pleaded. "Before I left, I felt so trapped that I wanted to die."

What could Die Feng do after that? Drag his brother back knowing that doing so would make Da-ge miserable? Die Yong had never asked for anything. He had never needed to. Die Feng had always taken care of it. The scandal had broken out already. After the elopement, the East Sea King would not find Die Yong suitable for his sister.

He closed his eyes once and looked up, forcing his voice to remain calm. "It is best if you don't return to the Crystal Palace for a while, Da-ge," he said. "Let the scandal die down and the politics get resolved."

Die Feng's parents were not happy when he returned without Da-ge, and were taken aback by his decision to step into the groom's role. Of course, the King of the East Sea would not be satisfied unless his sister was married to a Crown Prince. For three days, Die Feng had to try and convince his parents that it was the only way to appease their ally.

The Queen of the West Sea was known to dote on her eldest son. Die Feng had always been aware of her affection towards his brother. But what he never expected were the reproachful looks his mother had been giving him these past few days. She was upset, furious that Da Ge's position as Crown Prince had to be changed to appease the King of the East Sea. Fortunately, his father was more understanding, and had taken it upon himself to reassure his wife that Die Feng was doing what was best for their kingdom.

The two Kingdoms had always been amicable on the surface but at odds in private, rendering marital ties necessary and stalling further impossible. Desperately needing to prepare for war, the Celestial tribe could no longer afford infighting amongst the Four Seas. Within a few days of Die Feng being back, his 10th junior had arrived with a message from the God of War, asking about the current alliance of the Four Seas. Die Feng had reassured his junior that the situation was under control, and that Celestials would have their full support. The alliance would hold; he would make sure that it did.

As he reached the shoreline, Die Feng stared at the setting sun along the distant horizon of the West Sea Kingdom. He never felt as connected to the kingdom as when he was by the shore gazing at the never ending sea. All of this, this water and sand, this vegetation, its creatures, its people, they belonged to him. He was responsible for them in an entirely new way now and yet, this responsibility, it felt familiar. Perhaps he had been Crown Prince in truth already long before the title was bestowed. He couldn't let his people down or put the Celestial Realm at a disadvantage. More than ever they needed him, now that Die Feng had sealed his fate by formally accepting the title of Crown Prince.

A decision he did not regret, despite what had happened with Li Ying. They would soon become enemies. The thought of meeting her at the battlefield had occurred to him. But, given his protectiveness, the Yellow Demon King was unlikely to allow Li Ying to enter battle. Die Feng had steeled himself to move forward and focus on the tasks at hand.

She was a distraction, a disturbance to his mission and for days he had been pushing thoughts of her to the side. From the moment she had entered his life, he had never felt more out of control of his own destiny. His path had always been laid out, and he never had a second thought that his life would deviate, change, or stir. It was his own fault that he allowed their friendship to cross such a line. That was what he had been telling himself ever since their last encounter, yet, now that he was alone with his thoughts, those words no longer rang true.

Why? Why did he continue to feel her presence, her scent, and worst of all, her touch? He had wanted to seek her, to make amends, but he couldn't, because nothing he could say or do would make things the way they had been before.

"Congratulations on your coronation," Li Ying's voice broke through his thoughts.

Die Feng turned around to see her standing behind him.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, unable to believe she was really there.

Li Ying glanced at the far off festivities. "I heard the wedding is tomorrow. I'm here to give you a wedding present," she told him with a half smile, which Die Feng couldn't return. He stared at her warily. She shouldn't be there but, as usual, when it came to the Yellow Demon Princess, he was powerless.

"Don't be anxious, I'm only here for a candle of your time," she said.

"A candle," his eyes narrowed.

"We won't ever see each other again, but you still have a debt to pay. You should be able to marry tomorrow without the burden of owing a debt to an enemy of your clan. As my wedding gift to you and your future bride, I only ask for a candle of your time."

Enemy. When had they come to this? But he could tell her words were sincere.

His voice was low as he asked, "Is that what you want?" To sever our ties?

"Yes."

There was so much he wanted to ask, but something in her eyes held him back. He looked past her, his eyes drawn to the world beyond where the festivities were about to come an end. Soon, the Crystal Palace would be decorated with wedding finery. Tomorrow, the Kingdoms would be united, his power secured, and his fate sealed. Tomorrow, there would be no going back. Fleeting though time may be, he found himself silently nodding his consent.

Cheerfully smiling at his acquiescence, she grabbed his arm and conjured a burning candle sheltered by a protective glass, which she placed on the sand. And then she cloud jumped them away from the West Sea Palace.

"Where are we going?" he asked as they flew above the clouds.

"One candle is not going to be enough time here. Don't worry, no one will notice you gone."

Die Feng continued to frown at her response.

"We're going to the mortal realm," she answered with her mischievous smile.

Mortal realm? "You've tricked me?" Die Feng accused her, keeping the amusement out of his voice. He should've known nothing was straightforward with her.

"It's not deception, the candle is still burning by the shore. It's just that it's in a different realm."

Before he could argue further, they arrived at their destination. "What is this place?" The small simple lake house rested by the shore, surrounded by yellow lotus, with a bridged walkway leading to the doorstep.

"As you know, I have always been interested in the lives of mortals. Yet, lately, I've begun to envy them. Mortals are short lived but-" she gestured at the house, "here we don't have to worry about clans, war, or who we are." Li Ying held his hand as, surrounded by the morning fog, they walked onto the bridge.

"Of all the mortal lives I've tried, I've never been the wife of a poor scholar before, though it is one of the most common love stories in mortal plays. Let's pretend, for the next seven days, you're studying for the civil services exam, while I am your dutiful wife who earns money to support your schooling."

Die Feng shook his head, but his grin gave him away, "Li Ying, you want to spend seven days watching me study?"

"Don't be silly," she rolled her eyes. "I won't be watching you study the whole time. A poor scholar's wife is not an easy role to play, you know."

"You can't be serious," he half-protested.

But she was, because she magically changed their clothes to mortal garments. Gone were his royal coronation robes, replaced by casual light blue scholar clothes. Dressed in plain mortal clothing, like yellow chrysanthemum, Li Ying still glowed.

"Husband, why are you standing there, idling? I purchased new books for you," she said, dragging him into the lake house and straight to the study room. It was setup exactly like his study at Kunlun, down to the dolphin paperweight.

"These are important books. There are only seven days left until you leave for the capital to take the exam." She forced him to sit down, and immediately left to attend to her chores.

Die Feng looked over the books she had collected for him. These were books for statecraft, likely to aid him as a future monarch. He had known of these texts, but never felt the need to study them in depth before, sticking to tactical and military strategy, martial arts, diplomacy, and philosophy. The texts Li Ying had gathered included Han Feizi, Mencius, Guoyu, the Book of Lord Shang and many more.

It was oddly thoughtful; his studies here wouldn't be for naught. He was still trying to comprehend how Li Ying's brain had to work in order for her to hatch this wild scheme when she popped her head back into the room. "The scroll on your right contains the backstory of our mortal lives. You should read that first, while I prepare snacks for your study session," she told him before disappearing again.

Die Feng sighed in defeat. Just moments before he had been coronated as the Crown Prince of the West Sea, surrounded by wedding guests congratulating him on his impending nuptials. Somehow, he was now sitting in the study room of a lake house, dressed as a mortal, and given the task of studying for the civil services exam. Staring at the scroll she had instructed him to read, he realized Li Ying had known he would agree to this. She had planned everything down to the smallest detail.

It now struck him that the thought of refusing had never crossed his mind. That was unsettling. How was he so easily led? Why didn't he question her further? What power did she have over him?

But then, Die Feng reasoned, seven days in the mortal realm were a small price to be paid for having their slate wiped clean. It was necessary to have closure before the war drew nigh. He would not fail in this task, and no further debts would exist between him and the Demon Princess.

****

Incorrigible when she was determined, Li Ying took her task seriously--preparing their meals, cleaning the living quarters, and working on her silk spinning wheel, at which, he had doubted her ability at first, but was intrigued to find that she excelled. She played the dutiful wife of the scholar splendidly. He knew of the many mortal lifetimes she had lived in the past but watching her in action was something else. She even insisted that they bind their powers for the next seven days, so that they wouldn't be tempted to use magic, and truly assume the role of mortals. He had agreed to all her demands, despite his initial reluctance.

That day, she left right after lunch to deliver her silk to the local merchant as if she had done it hundreds of times. He could barely keep up with the persona she had created for herself. But he played along as best as he could, regardless of how he felt about the strange situation. Truth be told, he had grown accustomed to this life more quickly than he had thought he would.

True to her mortal role, Li Ying came back in the evening soaked from head to toe.

"Li Ying, you're all wet! Where is your umbrella?" Die Feng asked in bewilderment, hurrying to the door.

"I forgot it at the merchant's. Don't fret, it is only a drizzle," Li Ying said through chattering teeth as, behind her, thunder crashed and rain continued to pour in torrents.

Rolling his eyes, Die Feng ushered her into the lake house. "I'll draw you a warm bath," he declared, heading towards the kitchen.

"We don't have enough firewood for a bath," she said sheepishly. Die Feng turned around with a scowl. "I didn't think we'll need...ACHOO!"

"Then let's change you out of your wet clothes first." He went straight to the closet, and pulled out a set of robes. When he turned around, Li Ying was already turning blue from the cold. Cursing, he helped her sit on the bed. She began to pull at the straps of her dress but her clothes were soaked through, becoming hard to remove with her trembling fingers.

He pulled her frozen hands away. "I'll help you," he offered without hesitation.

Her eyes widened as he pulled at the ribbons of her clothes. "Die Feng, are you sure?" she asked through quivering teeth.

"I believe this is the husband's duty; to take care of his wife," he gave his logical reasoning. Her cheeks flushed at his words. He didn't understand why, but she averted her eyes. Taking that as an invitation, he began to remove her wet outer robe. When he reached for the straps of her inner robe, her eyes closed completely. Puzzled by her reaction, he paused.

"Li Ying, what's wrong?" he asked.

Her face was now scarlet, despite her shivering from the cold. "A newlywed wife would be shy in this situation," she answered, voice timid.

Die Feng inwardly groaned. She had managed to make the task more difficult now with her virginal charade. This was the Demon Princess who'd had no qualms falling into his bed or his bath, nor had she ever been shy in his presence no matter how awkward the situation. He found himself flustered, hesitant to perform the task he had volunteered for. He wanted to remind her that this wasn't the first time he saw her in this state, but she was too into her role--he couldn't bring himself to break her out of the story she had created. Die Feng had never expected this day to arrive, but he found himself half-wishing for the bold, uninhibited Princess to emerge. Heavens knew that would make his task easier.

Clenching his teeth, he forced himself to take a few deep breaths before continuing. She was obviously at her most vulnerable right now. If he didn't finish the task soon, her health would deteriorate. In her mortal body, with her powers sealed, she was at risk of hypothermia. The thought sent a chill through his own body.

So he did what he had to do and removed the second layer of her robe. Her ice cold fingers fumbled after his. If only he could get her to stop trembling. He paused for a second to rub some warmth into her hands. And then ignoring her flushed face, he moved to the ties of her undergarments. Her body continued to shiver from the cold, while his was on fire, but he ignored that too. Worst was removing the skirt of her dress, which was difficult, and required her to place her hands on his shoulders. For a moment, it brought him back to the night at the tent. The scent of their drenched garments then had been no different than now. Fighting back the impulse to pull her close until her body soaked in his warmth and stilled, he bit his lips to wake from the spell of those mesmerizing memories. He couldn't, he wouldn't, it wasn't right for either of them. Steeling himself, he lifted her slightly to remove the heavy skirt.

Before he could move away from her embrace, her eyes flashed open, her arms still holding his shoulders. He could hardly breathe; her bright violet and brown eyes had him paralyzed. That night the hut was dimly lit, but he could see them clearly. Had she cast an enchantment, he wondered.

He swallowed hard before collecting the willpower he still possessed. "You said newlyweds would be shy in this situation," his voice was hoarse.

"True, but I'm also cold." To prove it, she pulled him closer, absorbing his warmth, as his breathing grew ragged against her half clad form.

"I'm remedying that, let me..." he tried to pull away again, but her grip tightened.

She shook her head, her gaze heated. "I want you."

Her eyes demanded his attention. If Li Ying had made further advances, he may have succumbed. But she didn't. Scanning his face, she waited as a moment of stillness engulfed them. He knew what it was she truly wanted. But it was a step he had no right to take, because he had sealed his fate with another.

It must have been a sign from fate when she sneezed and released her hold on him, beginning to tremble again upon the loss of contact with his heat. With a sigh, he reached for the blanket behind her, and wrapped her in it.

"What you need is hot tea. I'll be right back." He headed towards the kitchen.

"Die Feng," she called out, making him halt at the door. He turned around with an enquiring look.

Li Ying did not look at him, her head lowered; avoiding his gaze. "Thank you."

***

For days after Li Ying returned to the Demon Realm, she had closed herself off to the world, until she finally understood there was nothing she could change. She had learnt that the Demon Ancestor had cut all ties from the God of War soon after they left Kunlun. She could feel the changes within her realm, they were in preparation for war, like Die Feng had told her. Things she had ignored in the past had become clearer as she once again settled back into her home. Gossip and rumors she had never paid attention to surfaced like a tsunami, as she tried to piece her world together. A world no longer carefree as she had once thought due to her brother's sheltering ways. How had she been so naive? Why had her brother kept so much from her?

It had become clear to her that a future between her and Die Feng could never come to fruition. Die Feng had clearly told her in the past about the type of bride that would suit him--someone with an alliance beneficial to his kingdom; a Celestial, a blushing virgin. Li Ying did not qualify on any of those counts. Instead, she was just the opposite in every regard. Soon to be enemies? No, their clans had always been enemies.

Had she not sought to know him in person, would she have ended up in such a state? Did she regret all those moments--their joy, their laughter, their conversations, their working in tandem, their kisses? No, she did not. Of course she did not. They may not be fated, but that did not mean their time together was meaningless. She continued to capture every moment, to be forever etched in her mind.

Time...the root of mortal existence.

Regret? No, she wouldn't regret her decision to be there, because at that moment, with Die Feng nursing her back to health with his gentle touch and caring words, there was nowhere else she wanted to be. She had known he would not turn her down before her arrival at his coronation. But she had also known he would put his duty above all else. He may not be hers, but she would take a part of him with her. The time here was truly precious; nothing could compare to the simple yet enduring lives of mortals. Li Ying smiled as he spoon fed her rice porridge.

"What's so amusing?"

"I was supposed to take care of my husband, but now it's reversed," she said with a rueful smile.

"You took away our powers temporarily," he sighed, "but I didn't expect your body to be weak as well." The spoon paused in his hand as his eyes narrowed at her, "You overused your powers to cast the spell on both of us, didn't you?"

"It wouldn't feel real if we were not truly mortal," she shrugged. The one thing about mortal life was that nothing was set in stone. No matter how much she planned in advance, nature-- no, fate, would intervene.

Die Feng glowered with disapproval, but her smiled never wavered. They locked eyes, mock glaring until his stern facade broke into chuckles. It was only day three, yet their time together was reducing fast. He settled her back into bed and set his bedding on the floor, next to the bed. The first day, he slept in his study, but yesterday, he had stayed nearby because of her cold. It was midnight now, neither had fallen asleep, and her mind continued to swirl within the darkness, skirting past memories as unvoiced desires took hold once again.

"You know, the bed is big enough for two," Li Ying pointed out as she stared at the worn cotton of her bed canopy. The night was quiet as the sluggish waves mingled with the soft breeze rustling through the heavy lotus leaves, and only the sound of crickets from afar could be heard.

"I'm very much aware of that," he answered, his deep voice seeming to reverberate around the room.

She turned her head to look at him. "I promise I won't ravish you in your sleep."

He stifled his laugh before answering, "You already promised me you won't the first day, and the day after that. Besides, you're too weak in your current state."

Li Ying looked him squarely in the eyes. "Then why are you still sleeping down there?" she demanded.

His smile disappeared, a glimpse of yearning entering his eyes before he turned away. After a pause, he answered. "I never promised I won't."

"What did you say?" Li Ying sat up, but his back was to her as silence filled the room. "Say that again," she demanded, but there was no answer.

Impatiently, she climbed out of her bed, and despite the cold air, hovered over him. "Say it again," she repeated. His eyes were now closed, feigning sleep, the stubborn man refusing to answer. She lifted his blanket, but his hand caught her wrist.

Die Feng turned to face her, his expression dark when he finally spoke, "Li Ying, I am not made of stone."

"You could've fooled me," she said with a cough. A chill wind had entered the room, making her shiver.

He gazed at her with worry. "What are you doing? Return to the warm bed before your health worsens."

Her eyes sparkled at his order and undeterred, she continued, "I'll heal faster if you warm me up. We can pretend you're a hot stone."

"Li Ying, don't make light of this," he told her, refusing to relent, but his concern was obvious.

"It was you who said a husband's duty is to take care of his wife."

Die Feng hesitated, his gaze uncertain, because she had used his words against him. Then his eyes turned dark again. He immediately got up, sweeped her into his arms before she could protest, and settled her into her bed.

For a moment Li Ying thought he had returned to his makeshift bed, but she smiled when he lifted the blanket and settled beside her. It was warm, familiar, as she molded her body against his. She had become familiar with his scent, the details of his soft features when he slept, and the large arms that held her. But it was also different, in a way that she couldn't put into words. She didn't have the strength to seduce him, nor would she, because she had given her word. But she felt his body react, prompting a reaction from hers in turn and making her wonder how long he would last under the situation.

How he dealt with it was unexpected.

"Are you chanting buddhist mantras?" she giggled against his chest.

Die Feng didn't answer her, but continued to chant under his breath. Her smile disappeared, replaced by solemn understanding when she realized the extent he would go to to please her. The mantra, though foreign to Demon ears, was peaceful to the soul. Li Ying began to chant with him, which made him pause. He looked down, as she lifted her head to meet his questioning gaze.

She gave him her usual smile before explaining, "A good wife shares her husband's burdens."

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