Jiang Yanli first meets Jin Zixuan at eight.
Summer has enveloped Koi Tower in a blanket of golden sunshine. The birds are singing, the cicadas are humming, the dragonflies are skimming along the lake where their little boat has docked. Jiang Yanli clambers out of the boat, careful not to splash water onto her dress, and stares down at the petulant golden-clad six-year-old boy glowering up at her.
“Well?” Mother asks. Jiang Yanli wants to make a face, but one look from her mother makes her school her lips into a smile. Mother nudges her forward on the dock again, so encouraging it’s basically insistent. At the other end, Madam Jin looks pointedly at her son.
Jin Zixuan takes her hand, and, with an obviously pained expression on his face, kisses it. “So happy you could come,” he intones.
Jiang Yanli’s own smile grows pained, as she realises that this is but the first day of the rest of her summer. “So happy to be here,” she replies shortly.
“Already getting along so well,” sighs Madam Jin. Jiang Yanli makes a throat-slitting gesture at Jin Zixuan behind her back. To his credit, he looks taken aback.
This is not her idea of fun, but she’ll have to make do.
“I’m not going,” says Jiang Yanli at ten, folding her arms at dinner the night before. “The boats to Lanling are too bumpy and the horses even worse!”
“Out of the question,” says Mother, Zidian crackling ominously alongside her temper. She would never use it on her daughter, but heavens know they’ve had some close calls. “We cannot keep the Jins waiting.”
“He doesn’t want to see me,” says Jiang Yanli, “and I don’t want to see him.”
“This has been arranged a long time ago,” Mother insists. She sends a glance to Father, as if asking him to back her up. He merely makes a noncommittal ‘nn’ from over his cup of wine.
“But I’ll miss A-Cheng and A-Ying,” insists Jiang Yanli, looking over at where her brothers are gleefully trading lotus seed pods. “And I have to take care of them too, you know.”
“That’s why we have servants,” Mother snaps. “They can take care of A-Cheng and A-Ying without you.”
Maybe that’s why you don’t want to listen to me, Jiang Yanli doesn’t say, though her face gets red with the words she’s trying to bottle in. You left me to the servants too, when I was little!
In the end, she’s practically carried to Lanling by the guards, boxed into a palanquin by her exasperated mother. “Maybe it won’t be so bumpy for you now,” she says as she draws the curtains. The guards hoist the palanquin onto their shoulders with a grunt. It’s the height of luxury to anyone else in the world, but as far as Jiang Yanli is concerned, it’s a prison forcing her onwards to destiny.
In Lanling, Jin Zixuan barely kisses her hand this year. His cousin Jin Zixun is here this year as well, and between the two of them life in Koi Towers turns into a living hell. Jiang Yanli lives each night in fear of finding a carp in her bed, each morning in fear of finding a worm in her teacup.
After a while, she snaps, and tackles them both down the steps of Koi Tower, resulting in numerous scrapes, cuts, and broken bones.
The ensuing lecture from Mother is not her idea of fun, but at least she gets to go home early.
“Why does A-Li have to go to Lanling every summer?” A-Ying asks, his little thief-hands swiping a piece of mantou from her plate before she can protest.
Jiang Yanli is now thirteen, and her little adoptive brother is one of the brightest lights of her life. She looks up from where she’s been experimenting with the soup, a sad smile on her face as she says, “Your shijie has to visit Lanling every summer because of an arrangement with a boy in the Jin family.”
A-Ying frowns. “What’s an arrangement?”
“Well, in shijie’s case, it’s because she has to marry that boy someday.” The words taste bitter, like the soup. She must have put too much of that melon.
“Why?” asks A-Ying.
“Because Mother is friends with the boy’s mama, and they made the arrangement.”
“But why?” asks A-Ying.
Jiang Yanli laughs. “Honestly, I don’t know.”
That summer, armed with a newfound knowledge of how to deal with younger boys, Jiang Yanli swans into Koi Tower and takes none of Jin Zixuan’s nonsense. He may call her names and look down at her, but whenever they play weiqi he keeps losing spectacularly.
“Maiden Jiang has a higher score,” announces the tutor refereeing what must be their sixteenth game. Jin Zixuan slams a fist onto the board, disrupting the stones. Jiang Yanli smiles serenely across the table from him.
“You’re a very reckless player,” she remarks. “Maybe you should be more careful.”
“I don’t need your opinion,” sniffs Jin Zixuan. Jiang Yanli shrugs.
“Suit yourself,” she says, already starting to find some amusement in seeing him so humbled.
“This is not my idea of fun,” he retorts. She only smiles wider.
“I can’t believe we’re all going to Lanling this summer,” A-Ying says, with an arm around A-Cheng’s shoulders as they hop out of the ferryboat. Jiang Yanli rolls her eyes as she follows behind, mindful of her mother’s hawk-like glare.
She’s sixteen now, and every summer has passed much the same — spend the summer at Koi Towers, putting up with the immature buffonery and disdain from Jin Zixuan. Recently he’s been turning his mind more and more towards cultivation, his glares frosty with what he probably presumes is a ‘sense of detached otherworldliness’. As if he could ever compare to the Jades of Gusu Lan or something!
“So glad to receive you once more,” he drawls this year, barely even looking her in the eye.
“I’ll buy you a tanghulu if you punch him in the face,” says A-Ying to A-Cheng.
Jiang Yanli has to stifle her own laugh as Jin Zixuan’s expression darkens at that. This summer definitely looks like it’s shaping up to be lots of fun.
“It seems my son is getting along with your brothers,” Madam Jin tells her later that afternoon, as they watch the teenage boys fight with one another on the training grounds. Jin Zixuan may have some of the best cultivators in Lanling teaching him sword tricks, but he’s clearly no match for A-Ying’s scrappiness or A-Cheng’s determination. Jiang Yanli smiles, pride filling her chest as she watches them.
“Perhaps,” she says. Still doesn’t mean I’d marry your son, she adds quietly.
It’s their last summer as children, she knows. Soon, the boys will all be going to the Cloud Recesses to study cultivation with Lan Qiren. They will all become men, great men destined for great things.
Her own destiny should be great, too, but all it does is fill her with dread.
Naturally, the ensuing summers see her in Koi Towers only for a week, when Jin Zixuan is on break from his studies. They are perfunctory, polite, distant.
A-Ying’s fight with Jin Zixuan in Gusu breaks off the arrangement completely.
Many summers pass before Jiang Yanli meets Jin Zixuan again, at the base of Baifeng Mountain. He’s filled out in her absence, muscles and courage alike, resplendent in his golden robes as he calls for her to stay.
“It was my idea,” he says, red-cheeked yet solemn. “Please forgive me.”
Somehow, just the sight of him makes her knees start to buckle. She staggers backwards, towards the trees, lost for words. He had been the one to invite her to this hunt, after all. Even after all these years, after the sour words against her that had ended their arrangement —
“I have thought of nothing but you in the years before this,” Jin Zixuan pleads. “I did not think — I did not realise, for so long, that you were the one I’ve been dreaming of.”
Jiang Yanli slowly sinks to the ground. Jin Zixuan sinks down with her, amid the summer grass and the blooming wildflowers. The hunt continues elsewhere, in the forest all around, but as far as she’s concerned the world contains nothing else but them.
“Please forgive my own haughtiness,” she says. “I did not realise your intentions.”
His hand is warm against her own. Jiang Yanli looks up, just as Jin Zixuan starts to help her back to her feet. “I should have been clearer,” he admits. “I… I have treated you so badly in all of our years together. Every summer —”
“We were children,” says Jiang Yanli. “We did not understand.”
“Please forgive me,” repeats Jin Zixuan.
“I have,” she replies. He takes the hand holding hers, presses a soft, lingering kiss to her knuckles.
“Our arrangement?” he asks. She nods, and the brightest smile slips onto his face, like the rays of the sun after a cloudy morning.
And as Jiang Yanli leans forward to kiss her new fiance, she can’t help but think perhaps this truly is her idea of love.