Xu Li is burning; Ling Wen can see that from where she stands, overlooking the capital from one of the high cliffs that ring its valley. She’s close enough to see the flames, to see the dark figures of people running from their homes, or trying to put out the fires, or fighting against the invading army. No one is very successful; the attack came out of nowhere. Not even the scouts realized danger was so close.
Ling Wen knows this, because she made sure of it.
She tells herself it’s for the best. Xu Li was a kingdom in need of upheaval, and after how she was jailed simply for saying so, this is deserved. Yet, even though she’s far enough away that she can’t feel much heat from the inferno leaping from home to home, she’s not far enough that she can’t hear the screaming. She’s not far enough that she doesn’t think of the innocents who may fall to their attacker’s blades.
There’s a sound behind her, and she turns to see him . Immediately, irritation and something akin to regret curl in her gut as Bai Jin stumbles forward, out of breath and sweaty, hair plastered to his forehead as he approaches her.
“A-Jie!” he gasps, making her bristle, though her face remains emotionless. “You have to--you need to leave. We’re evacuating everyone we can. Come with me, I’ll take you to safety.”
He comes closer still, grasping her hands in his. “I won’t let any of them hurt you. I’ll protect you, A-Jie--”
“I’m not going.”
Bai Jin stares. Behind them, the screams continue, and Ling Wen slowly turns them so that Bai Jin’s back is to the burning capital. He looks frantic, nothing like the brave general he’s supposed to be.
“But--if you don’t come with me, they’ll kill you--!”
“A-Jie, please. ” He clutches her hands tightly now, fingers digging into her skin. Not that he notices. He never really notices what she wants, how she feels. He’s only ever paid attention to his own desires.
“I’m going to be taking care of myself from now on.” Ling Wen carefully pulls her hands away, then takes something from within the sleeves of her robes. She holds it up for Bai Jin to see, and when he automatically reaches for it, she gives it to him.
“This is for you,” she says softly. Even in the darkness, light only by the flames in the valley, the sapphire pendant he’d given her gleams. It’s in the shape of a heart, carefully cut and suspended from a beautiful silver chain. Bai Jin stares down at it, his eyes widening, as he reads the character carefully carve into its surface: a clear, undeniable no.
“A-Jie…” She can see the heartbreak in his eyes, how they water as he holds the pendant. How he looks ready to break down and cry right here, even though he should be serving his people. “I don’t underst---”
He doesn’t get the chance to finish his sentence as Ling Wen puts her hands on his shoulders and shoves. As close to the edge as they are, even her small stature, along with the fact that he wasn’t at all expecting it, are enough to have him careening backwards over the cliff face. His reflexes are quick, however, after years of training, and he manages to dig his fingers into the dirt with one hand, holding himself above the precarious drop. Foolishly, in the other he has the sapphire pendant, fist curled around it rather than let it fall to give himself a stronger grip.
“What are you doing!” His cries rise higher than those of the citizens as Ling Wen steps close to him. “A-Jie, what, why are you--”
“Xu Li was broken,” she says softly. “It needs to be fixed.”
“You...you can’t!” Bai Jin finally grabs the edge with his other hand, still holding onto the pendant. “Why would you do this? I love you! I love you so much, A-Jie, please, I’d do anything for you?”
In the dancing glow of the distant flames, Ling Wen’s eyes seem to sparkle. She wears no expression, features neutral, as she looks down at the man who has spent the last few months courting her. The man who ran here to find her rather than look after his own soldiers, his own civilians, putting her life above all others when she’s the one who brought this ruin in the first place.
You are exactly what’s wrong with Xu Li.
“Then perish,” she says, and with a twist of her boot on the back of Bai Jin’s hand, his hold too weak to sustain him while he’s gripping that pendant, he falls, plummeting down to the rocks below.
And Ling Wen watches. She watches for a long time, long after Bai Jin’s body has settled, lying motionless on the valley floor. Then, she turns, and she leaves, never once looking back as she disappears into the night.