In the Nine Heavens, Jing He sat at the table in the main room of his palace, blankly looking at the window leading to the garden.
A whole week.
A whole week had passed since he woke up from his trial. To him, it also felt like a week had gone by since he last saw Qiu Ling. For the man he loved, it might have been even longer since he saw him since he went out to get the flame heart for him and also left for the battle in the dragon realm. And yet, he still hadn’t come back to see him and be it only for a short glimpse.
Jing He lowered his head and rubbed the hem of his sleeve. If it had been him, he felt that he would have wanted to see Qiu Ling immediately. Even if he couldn’t stay, just one glance would be enough to reassure him and allow him to leave again with his worries put to rest. But apparently, Qiu Ling didn’t feel like that at all.
Thinking back, in the ten years they had known each other, there had only been two times when they hadn’t seen each other for such a long time. Both times, he had been worried sick that he would never get to see that man again. Of course, Qiu Ling had always returned to him. He had also had his reasons for staying away for so long and it wasn’t like he hadn’t mentioned it before he even left.
This time, the situation was somewhat different. Qiu Ling hadn’t had a chance to inform him prior to leaving so he would naturally be even more worried. If this was anything like the last two times though, then he should soon see him again. He really hoped this was the case. He didn’t want to wait any longer. Not seeing Qiu Ling was more agonizing than not remembering what had happened on his trial. And the feeling got worse with every day.
He got up with a sigh and walked over to the cupboard on the other side of the room. He picked up the teapot and quietly filled it with water, slowly steaming the tea leaves.
There was nothing much to do for him and even if there had been something to do, he wasn’t sure if he could focus on it. Thus, these seven days, they had all been spent like this: Whenever he wasn’t accompanying his parents, he would quietly sit in his palace, drinking tea alone while staring outside. Sometimes, he might go to his study and paint for a while but seeing that face pinned onto the paper only made him feel lonelier. Thankfully, there was at least An Xin to accompany him.
He smiled faintly and turned to see where the small mythical beast had run to this time. Usually, it would stick to him to get petted but every so often, it would feel cramped in his arms and run off to play in the garden or bask in the hot brazier. Thankfully, by now, he had managed to get An Xin to see the advantages of a hot bath so he managed to collect the small beast after playing and give it a good scrub so he and the palace wouldn’t end up dirty as well.
He finally spotted An Xin in the study. This time, it wasn’t lying on the brazier though, and was instead poking around in the study, sniffing at his calligraphy brushes one moment, then inspecting the paper next before leaving the desk and jumping onto the shelf to take a closer look at the books gathered there.
Jing He smiled, his gaze softening. Seeing An Xin made him feel Qiu Ling’s care toward him. The flame heart was meant to protect but also accompany him when he couldn’t. Now, wasn’t it precisely such a moment?
He turned away with a smile, put the teapot on the tray, and carried everything over to the table. There were still two cups on the tray, even though his hope that Qiu Ling would arrive soon was slim. Putting down the tray, he carefully placed the teapot and one of the cups on the table before hesitating about what to do with the second one. Putting it on the table as well seemed so presumptuous …
He turned back to look out the window and sighed deeply. The action brought the smell of smoke with it and Jing He hurriedly turned to the study to see if An Xin had set something on fire again. To his surprise, he couldn’t see any flames. He couldn’t spot any smoke either. Instead, the flame heart had already left the study.
Jing He took another breath to see if he had imagined things after being troubled by An Xin’s behavior for a week but the smoke persisted. He couldn’t see it but he could smell it clearly.
His brows furrowed lightly. He looked through the palace, worried to find some other corner on fire but there was nothing. His gaze turned puzzled and he finally called out. “An Xin?”
The flame heart looked up from where it had just returned to the small box Jing He had prepared for it and made a soft sound to respond.
Jing He turned and looked at it in a daze. Around the flame heart, he still couldn’t see any signs of fire as if he was indeed just imagining things. His brows furrowed more tightly and he took a step only to stop in his tracks. There was a sound ringing in his ears, flowing and ebbing as if it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to come from far or near.
“Ah, this …” Jing He had a faint inkling of what was going on but before he could come to terms with it, a burst of pain came from his heart.
He reached up and clutched his chest with one hand while reaching out to stabilize himself on the edge of the table. His hand missed, brushing one of the cups down instead while his body followed. He gave a choked sound but no words could follow. The palace around him vanished from his eyes as well and instead, what he saw was a familiar face with a few traces of blood marring the perfect image.
It was a pity that the name the man said … was not his own.