Alex watched the evening get darker and darker as the light in the sky faded by the second. He could feel that the prince's sadness even from where he sat on the sand.
He turned around to find his solemn look staring into the horizon.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Prince," Alex said from the side. "I can't say how one feels when losing his mother, but I did lose my master early on. Her death had been sudden and unexpected, and it tore me for quite some time."
"Your master?" the Crown Prince asked.
"It was... a long time ago," Alex said. "She was my master for just about a year, and... even with just a year, she became someone close to me, and then I lost her. That was over 50? No, 60 years ago now."
"60?" the Crown Prince thought for a moment. "That was around the time I lost my mother too."
"I heard she was diseased with something incurable," Alex said. "It must've been hard on the Emperor, being an alchemist and not being able to make a pill to cure his wife."
Alex looked away, staring at the blue lake that was as wide as a sea. The lake was created by an Immortal, so the serenity he felt was artificial. He knew it. Still, he couldn't help but enjoy it.
He remembered his master and how she got poisoned. If he had been as good back then as he was now, could he have saved her?
The poison they were both afflicted by was a strong one from Immortal lands, so Alex wasn't sure just yet. There was a possibility for sure still.
He could tell the Crown Prince was lost in his own thoughts as well. As he hadn't said anything.
Or so Alex thought until he looked at the prince again and saw him staring back at him, with eyes filled with confusion.
"Is... something wrong?" Alex asked him.
"What do mean my mother was diseased?" he asked Alex.n/(O((v)(e(/l-.b/-I--n
Alex paused for a second, not understanding the intent of the question. "Your mother... she died of an incurable disease... right?" he asked. He went through his own memories to make sure he was remembering it correctly.
And he was. The Emperor had told him that the first empress had died some time ago of an incurable disease. That was why he had remarried with a woman he didn't even care about just so there was an Empress next to him.
"My mother was no weakling to die of some disease," the Crown Prince said. "She was the strongest person on the continent, second only to maybe my father. She was even younger than him, so she should count as more talented."
Alex stopped slumping and got straight. "Strongest?" he asked.
"My mother was someone at the peak of mortal cultivation," the Crown Prince said. "I can understand you not knowing about it as we don't flaunt our cultivation bases around, but still... you couldn't believe that she died of some random disease, do you?"
"I believed what I was told," Alex said. "I had no reason to not trust the information."
"And who gave you that information?" the Crown Prince asked, getting confrontational.
The Crown Prince was taken aback at the answer. "What?" he asked. "My... father?"
"Yes," Alex said. "Your father. He told me that very early on when I met him. Since no one else talks about the Empress at all, I had no choice but to believe him. Did he lie?"
"Yes," the Crown Prince said without thinking. He seemed lost in his thoughts, trying to understand why his father did what he did.
Alex was curious now as well. He was already surprised to hear that the Empress was as strong as she was, and now the reason for her death had been lied to him as well.
"How did she die?" Alex asked the Crown Prince, bringing him out of his stupor.
The Crown Prince seemed to have a hundred different thoughts going through his head that he had to push aside to answer Alex's question.
"She died during her lightning tribulation," the prince said.
It took Alex a moment to register what the Crown Prince had just said. "Wait... lightning tribulation?" he thought for a moment, and then his eyes went wide in shock.
The Crown Prince looked at him, thinking that was the appropriate response to the thing he had just revealed. He nodded in return.
Alex looked around, making sure no one was close enough to hear them speak.
"Your mother... she died while trying to break through to Immortality?" Alex asked. In the 13 years he had been on this continent, he had maybe thought of the Empress twice, and in both of those thoughts she was either a mother or a wife.
Never had he thought of her as her own person. And to think such a massive event was hidden from him so close by at that.
He gulped down the surprise and asked, "She failed, huh?"
"Yes," the Prince said. "She was so close to it... and yet so far. Sometimes I wonder if maybe that was why Father didn't try to break through to Immortality."
Alex knew that wasn't the reason, but maybe it indeed was a part of it.
Doing nothing was living. Trying to break through was hanging life on a thread in front of a tall cliff which led to death. The Empress got nothing by trying to break through when she could have perhaps lived for another few millennia with her children and maybe grandchildren.
The two of them got silent and Alex started thinking about everything that he just learned. At first, his mind went over everything he learned, thinking nothing about anything more than that.
But then as he thought more about it, in context with everything else he knew, the things the Crown Prince said had some inconsistencies to it that Alex couldn't put his finger on.
He went through his thoughts, parting the hundreds of strings of thought, until he found the one that led him to a loom at the end of it. This was where the inconsistency in the information was originating from.
"Did your mother go to the ocean to break through?" he asked.
"Ocean? Why would she?" the Crown Prince asked.
"I was just curious," Alex said. "You said your mother went through her lightning tribulation, but if it was on land everyone would've seen it. Which was why I asked."
"She did it on land," the Crown Prince said. "And everyone did see it. Not everyone knows what it was, but they all saw it."
"They all... saw..."
That was what had been bugging him. That one piece of information that he hadn't thought of until now, and the moment he got it, it fit right into place.
That was the missing piece that let him know that the puzzle was wrong from the very beginning.
Because the only lightning strike that had been seen around the time the Empress had died, 60 years ago, was the Heavenly Judgment that Alex believed had killed the Azure Dragon.
"Do you mind telling me where your mother initiated her breakthrough?" he asked.
The Crown Prince shrugged. "She needed a safe space, so Father took her to a place where she would have no reason to worry about outside influence," he said.
"The Azure Dragon's secret realm."