To the Sky Kingdom – Tang Qi

She had been feeling completely drained of energy. “It’s because you are carrying the little emperor,” Nai Nai said. “Of course you are tired, Empress. You mustn’t worry.” Nai Nai was her serving girl, and the only immortal in Xiwu Palace of the Ninth Sky who smiled at her and called her Empress. The other immortals all looked down on Su Su because Ye Hua had not formally wed her and because she was not like them: she was just a mortal. Nai Nai opened the window; a breeze blew through the room, and footsteps could be heard outside. “His Majesty has come to pay you a visit, Empress,” Nai Nai said joyfully. With movements like a wooden puppet’s, Su Su pushed herself up from under the embroidered quilt and sat against the bed rail. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but her head still felt foggy. She had only just woken up, but was still sleepy, extremely sleepy. She sank farther into the quilt as the black-haired prince Ye Hua, dressed in black, sat on the edge of her bed. Holding the quilt, she eased herself back. There was silence. She thought he must be angry.

When had it started, this fear whenever she saw him? It had become almost a reflex. You cannot let him know you are still angry with him. You must not of end him, she thought in confusion. “Aren’t the stars bright this evening?” she said quietly. She had been trying not to tremble, but her voice came out sounding shaky. “Su Su, it’s daytime,” he said after a pause. She moved her hand up to her face instinctively to rub her eyes, but instead her hand brushed against the piece of white silk. She suddenly remembered: she no longer had any eyes. No matter how much she rubbed them, all she would ever see was darkness. As a mortal, she had never fit in at the vast Sky Palace, and this was even more the case now that she was blind.

Ye Hua stroked her face in silence for a long time before saying, “I will wed you up here. From now on, I will be your eyes. Su Su, I will be your eyes.” The hand on her face was icy, and though it was a gentle gesture, it felt like a knife being thrust through her heart. She suddenly had an intense recall of last night’s nightmares and became so afraid that she began to tremble and pushed him away. Now she felt even more afraid. “I . I didn’t push you away on purpose,” she hurried to explain. “You mustn’t be angry . ” Ye Hua took her hand.

“Su Su, what’s the matter?” The pain spread through her heart like a drop of ink being sucked into a sheet of thick rice paper. “I’ve sud-suddenly started feeling very tired,” she lied, her teeth chattering. “You get on with your work. I’d like to sleep more. Don’t worry about me.” More silence. She really did not want him to worry about her anymore. What used to feel like a loving embrace from her beloved had now become unbearable. Sometimes she would wonder why if he liked that other girl so much, he had accepted the absurd proposition she had made him back then. Back then .

back then she was filled with regret about not taking a different course of action. After a while, she heard footsteps. Ye Hua left, and Nai Nai bolted the door. She sat there for a time, hugging her quilt and feeling desolate. Once her trembling stilled a little, she lay back deep in her bed. Suddenly her head filled with chaotic images: she saw Junji Mountain in the Eastern Desert one moment, Ye Hua’s face the next, then the blood-soaked dagger and her freshly cutout eyes. Once I have borne this child, I will return to Junji Mountain, she decided within this state of confusion. That’s where I belong. This destructive love will end where it started. Soon it will be over.

She put her hand on the piece of white silk where her eyes should have been, muttering in pain, her voice slightly choked. But she did not cry. She slept some more, until Nai Nai carefully pushed open the door and came in. “Empress. Empress. Are you awake yet?” she asked gently. Her throat tightened. “What do you want?” she spluttered. Nai Nai’s footsteps stopped. “Su Jin’s serving girl has arrived with a message from Su Jin inviting you to take tea with her.

” Vexed, she pulled up the quilt to cover her face. “Tell her I’m asleep.” Su Jin had been fawning on her of late. When she was feeling more positive, she imagined it must be because Su Jin was feeling guilty. Su Jin had been given her eyes; Su Su’s blindness was her fault. Su Jin had made Ye Hua cut out her eyes. These people. She didn’t wish to see a single one of them ever again. She didn’t even wish to acknowledge one. She was not the same girl who had arrived here three years ago, the naive young thing squirming with unease, nurturing the absurd notion she might gain favor with all of them if she tried hard enough.

The sun was dropping down behind the Western Mountains when Nai Nai shook Su Su awake. Dusk was approaching, Nai Nai explained. There was a glorious sunset glowing in the courtyard, and a gentle breeze stirred the air. It was a perfect time for her to sit out in the courtyard. She had been asleep all day, and her bones were probably feeling stiff. A little stroll would do her good. Nai Nai moved a rocking chair out into the courtyard and was about to guide her into it, but Su Su raised a hand to stop her serving girl. She tried to get to it unaided, groping for the table and the wall for support, moving along step by step. Walking was exhausting, and she stumbled a few times, but she could feel a ray of light growing inside herself. She had to learn these skills as soon as possible.

It was essential if she was to return to Junji Mountain and live a proper life. As she sat in the rocking chair, enjoying the breeze, she felt herself becoming dozy again. She fell into a trance, deep and dreamlike. This dream took her back to Junji Mountain, back to the time three years before, back to when she had first set eyes on Ye Hua. A dashing young man had collapsed in front of her thatched house. He had black hair and wore black clothing. He held a sword and was covered head to toe in blood. She stood there in shock for a moment before racing over and dragging him inside. She gave him medicine to curb his bleeding and was astonished to see his wound heal up right before her eyes. In less than two days, his lifethreatening injuries had completely healed.

The young man woke up and quietly looked at her. When he finally spoke, his voice was calm and pleasant. He thanked her for saving his life and told her he was going to repay her. She told him that anyone in her position would have done the same. All she had done was give him a couple of doses of herbal medicine, nothing really. But he was insistent about repaying her. When she told him she wanted heaps of silver and gold, the young man stared at her in puzzlement. “Saving my life is worth more than silver and gold,” he said. In all the ages, there had probably never been a savior who felt as helpless as she. Beaten down, she eventually opened her arms and said, “Why don’t you repay your debt with your body then?” He looked at her in astonishment.

Her absurd proposition led to the two of them becoming lovers, and she soon fell pregnant. She had been living alone on Junji Mountain for as long as she could remember. All she knew were the changing seasons and the spirits of the mountain: the birds, beasts, insects, and fish. She had no husband, and therefore no name. The young man called her Su Su and explained that this would be her name from now on. For days she hid the joy she felt from having been given this name. Later the young man took her back to the Ninth Sky. She learned that he was the grandson of the Sky Emperor. At that point he had not yet been officially named as heir to the Sky Throne. No one in the Ninth Sky accepted her as his wife.

He never told the Sky Emperor he had married a mortal he had met in the Eastern Desert. One night she went to his bedchamber to take him some broth. No one was standing guard. She heard the head concubine, Su Jin, talking in distress. “Admit it, the only reason you married a mortal was because I betrayed you by marrying the Sky Emperor! But what choice did I have? Is there any woman in the Four Seas and Eight Deserts who could resist the Sky Emperor’s affection? Tell me, Ye Hua, I’m still the one you love, aren’t I? You only named her Su Su because it reminded you of my name, Su Jin.” She woke up abruptly, filled with terror and drenched in cold sweat. Her dream had depicted the events of the past exactly how they had happened. She lay there motionless for some time before lifting a hand to stroke her protruding belly. It was nearly three years now since she had been with child. The baby had to be due soon.

Darkness had fallen, but Nai Nai had still not arrived to help her get ready for bed. She could not wash on her own yet, and was forced to call out. Nai Nai came over to tuck the embroidered quilt over Su Su’s legs. “Wait up a little longer, Empress. His Majesty may still come to visit.” She stifled a laugh. Ye Hua had not slept in her bedchamber once since the incident and would never do so again. However, she did not mind. If he did show up, they would just lie there in silence. She might actually end up angering him.

Being here made her extremely vulnerable. She had not realized it before. She had thought he would always be there to watch over her, but that incident had been a front-on attack, and when the person who harmed you was the only one you actually trusted . she clenched her hands, which had begun to shake uncontrollably, making them into fists. If Ye Hua had told her he was in love with someone else when they were still on Junji Mountain in the Eastern Desert, she would never have made the absurd decision to marry him. She had not even been in love with him at that point. She had just been lonely living by herself between the mountain and the emerald forest year in, year out. But he had not said anything. He had wed her in accordance with her custom and then taken her back to the Ninth Sky. That was when things turned murky.

It wasn’t as simple as it had been when it had just been the two of them on Junji Mountain. She caught constant snatches of gossip about her and the head concubine, Su Jin. Su Su had an innate ability to remain positive, and had managed to blot out all the rumors. Anyway, she thought to herself, she was the one he had wed. They had bowed down and praised the great skies and the earth to make their vows. She was carrying his child, and all she could hope for was that one day a love would blossom with Ye Hua. He seemed to have softened toward her of late. Even if he did not love her, she comforted herself with the fact that he must hold some affection for her. But then the incident had happened. And she had been woken up from her dream.

The price had been losing her eyes, losing her sight. It had been a bright day with a gentle breeze. When Su Jin invited her along to the Jade Pool to admire the flowers, she assumed it was an excursion for a group of the palace ladies and had foolishly accepted. She arrived at the Jade Pool to discover it was just the two of them. Su Jin dismissed her palace attendant and led her to the immortal punishment platform, shrouded in mist. Su Jin stood on the platform and gave a frosty laugh. “Did you know that the Sky Emperor is about to name Ye Hua as official heir to the Sky Throne? At the same time as this, he will offer me to Ye Hua as his wife.” Su Su had never understood their immortal rules and games. She felt the blood surging between her chest and her belly, but felt unsure if it had been roused from anger or confusion. The concubine stood there in all her finery and laughed again.

“Ye Hua and I are in love,” she said. “The Ninth Sky isn’t a place for a mortal. Once you’ve had your baby, you should jump down from this punishment platform and go back to wherever you came from.” Su Su didn’t know if jumping off the platform really would take her back to Junji Mountain, and she had not considered leaping from the stage. “Does Ye Hua want me to go back?” she asked in confusion. “I am his wife. I should be where he is.” When she thought back over that conversation later, she realized how much of her own naivety and stupidity she had revealed to Su Jin. Back then her wishful thinking had been that Ye Hua still liked her a little bit, enough at least for a future to be possible. As long as he liked her a little bit, she would stay by his side.

Su Jin gave an amused sigh and grabbed Su Su by the hand. She took her over to the edge of the platform and pushed Su Su’s back, pitching her face over the edge of the platform. Panicked, Su Su’s hands wrapped around the wooden mast of the platform, but instead it was Su Jin who tumbled off the high platform. Before Su Su realized what was happening, a black figure flitted past and leaped down off the platform after Su Jin. Ye Hua stood with his arm around Su Jin, looking coldly across at Su Su, monstrous fury brewing in his dark eyes. “Don’t blame Su Su,” Su Jin breathed weakly from his arms. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to push me. She just . just heard how the Sky Emperor was going to make me your wife and she reacted impulsively.” Su Su opened her eyes wide in disbelief.

She had clearly done nothing wrong. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me! I didn’t push her! Believe me, Ye Hua, you have to believe me . ” Again and again she tried to reason with the young man, sounding panicky and garbled, like a wretched fool. He waved a hand to silence her. “Enough,” he shouted in a deep voice. “I know what I saw.” He was unwilling to listen to her. He did not believe her. With his arm around Su Jin, his brow knitted, and his eyes as hard as ice, he hurried down from the immortal punishment platform, leaving Su Su there on her own. She was not sure how she arrived back at her courtyard.

All she could think about was the blazing fury she had seen in his eyes. Not long after nightfall, Ye Hua returned and stood before her, looking somber. “The evil energy beneath the immortal punishment platform has caused serious damage to Su Jin’s eyes, Su Su, and by the principle of karmic retribution, you must repay what you owe.” He paused. “But don’t be frightened, I will wed you here. From now on I will be your eyes.” After a pause he repeated, “Don’t be frightened. I will marry you here. From now on I will be your eyes.” He had never mentioned marrying her in the Ninth Sky before.

She felt a coldness in her heart, anger and fear welling up as one. She could never have imagined herself losing control like that, gripping his hand in near hysterics and saying, “Why do you want my eyes? She jumped of her own accord. It’s not my fault. Why won’t you believe me?” His eyes were full of bitterness. “Evil forces linger beneath the immortal punishment platform. Do you really think Su Jin would jump down of her own accord?” he sneered. “Su Su, you are becoming more unreasonable by the day . ” She watched in bewilderment as his eyes turned frosty. He was all she had in the Ninth Sky. Since becoming pregnant with his child, she had always imagined that one day, she would stand with Ye Hua, each of them holding one of their child’s hands as they looked out over an expansive ocean of billowing clouds pierced through by a thousand rays of sunset light.

He did not know how important her sight was to her, the significance it held. They cut out her eyes. Nai Nai spent three days looking after her, after which Su Jin came in and stood before her. “You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve put your eyes to good use,” she said with a laugh. It all became clear. This had been Su Jin’s intention all along. Su Su had been nothing but a passerby who had somehow been dragged into the confusion. It had been a predestined mortal world calamity. As time passed, she grew more used to her sightlessness. She no longer confused day with night and learned how to sharpen her ears, to listen out for sounds that helped her distinguish what time of day it was.

She had just finished her lunch when Nai Nai came stumbling into the courtyard. “Empress, Empress,” she called breathlessly. “The Sky Emperor has just issued an imperial decree. H-h-he has decided to offer Su Jin t-t-to His Majesty Prince Ye Hua.” Su Su gave a chuckle. Ye Hua had been officially named as the next Sky Emperor some time ago. It was only a matter of time before this news. But Su Jin could not be Ye Hua’s primary wife. Su Su had recently heard that the Sky Emperor had an agreement with Emperor Bai Zhi of the Qingqiu Kingdom that whoever succeeded him as Sky Emperor would marry Bai Zhi’s daughter, Bai Qian. Ye Hua had never told her any of this.

She could have found it out if she had wanted to. She was not as stupid and helpless as they all thought. She should never have gotten tangled up with these immortals. She suddenly felt a sharp pain in her belly. “Empress, what’s wrong?” Nai Nai cried out again and again. Su Su put her hands on her stomach and managed to stutter the words, “I th-th-think I m-mmight be about to give birth.” She fainted during childbirth, but the pain brought her round. When her eyes were taken out to give to Su Jin, she heard that Ye Hua had stayed by her side day and night. While she was giving birth to their child, she only had Nai Nai with her. Intense pain made even the strongest people weak.

But she stopped herself from calling out to Ye Hua. She was in enough agony already; she did not wish to add any more. “Empress, please let go of my hand,” Nai Nai begged in tears. “I am going to find His Majesty. I’m going to fetch the prince.” She was in so much pain she could not speak. All she could do was mouth the words, “Stay with me a little longer, Nai Nai, just a short while more.” Nai Nai cried even harder. It was a boy. She did not know when Ye Hua arrived, but when she awoke she felt his hand around hers.

His hand was ice-cold again, and even though it made her shiver to hold it, she stopped herself from pulling her hand back. He held the baby and said, “Stroke his little face, Su Su. You’ll feel how much he looks like you.” She did not move. She had carried this baby for three years. He had accompanied her for countless days and nights, and of course she loved her child, but she would not be able to take him back to Junji Mountain with her. She had already decided to leave him behind. She did not want to touch or hold him, to develop any form of attachment. Ye Hua stayed sitting by her side for a long time. He never said a word, not even when the baby fretted and cried.

As soon as Ye Hua left, she called Nai Nai over. She told her servant girl that she had given the baby the name Ali. She made Nai Nai promise to always take very good care of him. Completely unsuspecting, Nai Nai agreed. Ye Hua came to see Su Su every day. He had never been very talkative. In the past, Su Su had been chatty, but no longer. Most of the time the two of them would just sit there in silence. Luckily her silence did not anger Ye Hua. He obviously understood how frail she was feeling after the birth.

During these silences, she would occasionally recall that the last thing she had seen before losing her eyes was Ye Hua’s eyes full of coldness. Whenever she recalled that image, she would give an involuntary tremor. Ye Hua did not say a word to her about his imminent marriage to Su Jin. Neither did Nai Nai. It took three months before Su Su was fully recovered from the birth. Ye Hua brought her a range of different fabrics and asked her to choose the one she liked the best. He wished to make her a wedding dress. “I’ve already explained, Su Su, that I wish to marry you.” She found it strange, his wish to marry her after he had been the one who cut out her eyes. Later she understood.

Ye Hua felt sorry for her. She was a mortal with no eyes, and even though he found her despicable and considered her blindness self-inflicted, he also saw her as in need of compassion. He could have as many concubines as he wished, and giving her the status of his wife cost him nothing. She knew she had to leave. There was no reason for her to stay in the Ninth Sky. Nai Nai came out on strolls with her. The two of them repeated the route from the Xiwu Palace to the punishment platform. Nai Nai found it strange, but Su Su explained to her loyal servant girl that she enjoyed the fragrant lotus flowers along the way. Within a fortnight, she had learned to rely on her senses to navigate her way smoothly between Xiwu Palace and the punishment platform. Deceiving Nai Nai could not have been easier.

Standing on the immortal punishment platform, she suddenly felt light as the wind. Ali was in Nai Nai’s care, so she did not need to worry about him. Standing on this high platform, surrounded by boundless cloud and mist, she suddenly had the urge to explain to Ye Hua one last time that she had not pushed Su Jin, that it was not she who owed Su Jin, but they who owed her. They owed her a pair of eyes and a calm and stable future. While they had still been on Junji Mountain, Ye Hua had given her a beautiful bronze mirror. He had been about to travel to a faraway place to take care of some important business. Scared that she might get lonely, he pulled this treasure from his sleeve and told her that no matter where he was, all she had to do was call his name into the mirror and he would hear it. As long as he was not busy, he would speak to her. She did not know why she still carried this mirror around everywhere with her. Perhaps because it was the only present Ye Hua had ever given her.

She pulled out the mirror. It had been a long time since she had called his name, and it felt unnatural. “Ye Hua,” she said. There was a long pause before she heard his voice by her ear. “Su Su?”

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