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A mess of strings

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She has never seen such a tangled mess.

Shin Siyun blinks several times at the chaos of red strings in front of her. Since childhood she has been able to see the red strings that connect people to their soulmate, like only very few persons can. In all that time she has seen some messes, with marriages in families of power still more likely to be a political move than an actual love match. But this surpasses everything that came before. Granted she was aware that cultivators were the most complicated when it came to that and more often than not end up with someone who is not their soulmate. Not that having a soulmate means that they need to necessarily become lovers, in some cases they are fine with staying best friends.

However sitting in front of the four sect leaders she is shocked by what their strings tell her. She was only dragged to the Discussion Conference because she is supposed to be a witness to what happened to a village in the Jin Sect area that was razed and burned down two weeks ago, despite the fact that she left that town before anything happened. She answers their questions mechanically while her she is unable to focus on anything but the strings only she can see.

The small leader of the Jin Sect, Jin GuangYao, even she knows that name, smiles at her softly but she can’t look him in the eye. He is certainly not connected to his wife who sits next to him, her own string cut off. The cut is mostly a clean one however so she probably barely knew her soulmate. Instead her husband’s string leads to an intimidating, large man with dark green robes and a fierce scowl on his face. However instead of a healthy string like the two white and black clothed men who accompanied her inside share, this connection is gnarled. The string looks nearly black and it’s twisted, fraying at some points and twisting like it is trying to choke the life out of someone at others. There are dark stains on it that look like blood. She can’t contain her shudder. This connection is beyond unhealthy. While usually soul bonds strengthen the persons they connect when it has turned into such a twisted thing, it will only cause more pain and breed more anger and resentment. To even get to this point many things must have gone wrong between those two. Someone should cut this string or it might just end up killing one of the two cultivators.

Next to Jin GuangYao sit two nearly identical white-clothed men. Both tall with long black hair that falls down their backs. Their only differences are the colours of their eyes and the expressions on their faces. While one of them is smiling kindly, the other sports a blank face, that hides pain behind a façade of ice. She looks for the stoic one’s string for some time, trying to find where it continues after tangling with his brother’s. Only to come up short when she realises that she can’t find where it continues because it doesn’t. The string is cut off as well. But other than the one from before this one is frayed and torn at the end, unravelling where it rests on his pristine sleeve. A few sprinkles of blood decorate the end as well as the usual leaching of colour that comes after the partner’s death. The non-clean cut proves that unlike the Jin mistress, this man knew and loved his soulmate before they died, a painful death judging from the sprinkles of blood. Loved but never told, most likely from how fast the colour seems to have leeched. That does not mean the man does not love his partner anymore as that would result in a new clean cut but instead the thread is fraying with how much he is suffering. It certainly explains the hidden pain in his golden eyes.

The other brother’s string is still intact and a normal red. That means at least his relationship with his soulmate is not a bad one. However the thread is thin and the red isn’t strong or anywhere near glowing like complete relationships do. In addition to that, there is no direct connection. Instead the string weaves around cultivators sitting further back, creating a path that would be fit to guide the way out of a maze, until it returns to the front. It brushes his brother’s broken end and even tangles worryingly with the Jin Sect leader’s mess of a connection. That means he still has a far way to go until he can reach his soulmate and life will throw them plenty of curveballs until they arrive. If they ever do. With a string this confused it could very well be that they will forever remain mere acquaintances despite the fact that they would most likely be very good for each other. The string does eventually end though, at the hand of a glaring young man in purple robes with a golden-clothed toddler sleeping in his arms.

Is that why they are so far from each other? Because the purple one has a wife? But no, even she knows this piece of gossip. This is the leader of the YunmengJiang Sect who took in his nephew and is now raising him on his own. The two brothers are most likely the Twin Jades of Lan but she has no idea which one is which. She absolutely does not keep up with news in the cultivation world. In fact she swore herself to have to do as little with cultivators as possible, but here she is.

Nonetheless she now understands why any Weaver, as people who can see the red strings are called, who worked with cultivators before told her to keep away. They had enough disciples come up to them and ask whether the bride they were marrying in a few weeks was their soulmate, only to get angry or sad when the Weaver said that they weren’t. But that is nothing in comparison to what you see when you find yourself faced with the top of the cultivation world. In fact in this room of more people that she can count, she can see only one couple (except the two men who brought her in) who actually has a properly healthy connection, glowing and red as it should. The rest comprises of torn ends or weak connections like the Twin Jades’, with more unhealthy ones sprinkled among them than she feels comfortable with. Cultivators marry for power, she has learned, and hide their feelings until only tangled messes like these remain.

Not that actually marrying your soulmate is a guarantee for happiness. She has seen the previous leader of the Jiang Sect and his wife at several points, watching as the string that connected them turned from a normal red to dark red and eventually black enough that it probably started to poison anyone around it, their children included. One look into the sour face of their son strengthens that theory. Whichever Twin Jade is connected to him has a lot of work ahead of them.

Said man’s voice thanking her for her help and allowing her to leave rips her out of her stupor. She nods absentmindedly, returning his smile. A breeze from outside rushes through the room, throwing his brother’s loose string in the air and making his own twist around itself several times before the weak thread resettles. She gets up on slightly shaky legs as the white-clothed man from earlier, who introduced himself as Xiao XingChen helps her. She carefully bows to the cultivators then he leads her outside where he reunites with his partner. After the mess inside these two are a welcome reprieve. She lets herself calm down with their connection, not yet a complete one, but strong and healthy nonetheless.

He looks at her and thanks her before apologising for the trouble they put her through. She laughs and says it’s no bother. After all which cultivator would normally apologise to a dirty woman who just barely makes enough money as a travelling Weaver. She can’t leave them without a last warning however, so she grips one of his hands and one of the black-clothed man next to him.

“Always stay by each other’s side,” she says intensely, “Cherish each other.”

Xiao XingChen smiles at her when she pulls away while the other only stares in confusion and with a hint of suspicion. She ignores that and bows to them a last time before leaving the Koi Tower.

From now on she decides to pay more attention to cultivator gossip, she tells herself.

~ * ~

The first change she sees while still in LanLing. One day Jin GuangYao passes by where she is sitting on her blanket. The gnarled string is gone now, but instead of turning back to a healthy colour it is now completely black and the end is messily cut off. He doesn’t seem to notice anything different as he discusses something with a disciple of his. Shin Siyun is not sure whether he is better off like that or not. While she suggested to cut the string, this was clearly not done by an experienced Weaver like it should have. It looks more like the other partner perished and from the string’s colour it’s very likely Jin GuangYao himself had a hand in it. She was afraid of that poisonous connection killing on of them already when she saw him the first time. Nonetheless she hopes that maybe it was just an incompetent Weaver who did the cut.

Four days later she hears of the Nie Sect Leader, Nie MingJue’s death.

And her hope leaves her.

~ * ~

By now, several years after that Discussion Conference, she can tell the two Twin Jades apart, so she knows it’s the younger brother Lan WangJi who she sees in a tea room in Yiling. His string is still torn and has frayed even further since then, a sign that he still loves the person and seems to wait for them even though it’s impossible. She wants to approach him and say something but has no idea what, so she only watches from afar as the man orders a meal far too spicy for him and stares at the dish with sad eyes.

~ * ~

Over the years she watches his string fray and knows it is driving him mad with grief. He seems incapable of letting even the smallest bit go and accepting his soulmate’s death. Even now, eight years after the first time she saw him, like he still waits for his partner to return. His brother has not fared much better, his string thinning out to barely anything as the distance between him and the Jiang Sect leader seemed to grow. It’s still technically a healthy colour but so thin that it’s difficult to so much as spot it. They must not have said much more than distant greetings to each other for years, except maybe sect-related business.

Talking about Jiang Wanyin, his scowl seems to have deepened over the years, now a permanent fixture on his face. The man is sad, angry and tired. He could use another person’s care more than anything but is probably unable to accept it due to his past. She sees him with his nephew once, the fourteen-year-old boy kind of a brat which only hides more insecurities and loneliness behind a mask of arrogance. The boy, Jin Ling if she remembers correctly, has a string tied around his finger, but it rests dormant. He has not met his soulmate yet, but she doesn’t worry about that since he barely in his teenage years.

She also spots the new Nie Sect leader, Nie Huaisang, the ‘Head-Shaker’ as everybody calls him. But since Weavers possess the ability to see past facades and acts just like they can see the real connections between people, she sees the intelligence in those eyes and the way he plans the revenge for a brother he loved. She also sees that he has no string, no soulmate. That does happen, though it’s rare. Often those people can see the strings themselves as Weavers always have no soulmate. Whether Nie Huaisang can see them or not however, she does not know.

By now Shin Siyun is also an older woman so she does not travel quite as much, which means she does not encounter many cultivators anymore unless they pass through the area she has decided to stay in.

~ * ~

More than another year passes before she suddenly sees the Second Jade again and to her utter surprise his string is reattached. The torn end has been replaced by a complete thread that twists and turns a bit still, but in general retains a healthy colour. Gone is the constant overlay of pain in the other’s eyes, instead a cautious happiness has settled in. She can not explain it in any other way than that his soulmate actually came back. She can see no one with him but he disappears back into the mass of people while she sits back on her blanket with a smile. At least one of them has hopefully found happiness.

~ * ~

She travels a bit further and ends up encountering him again as he arrives in town with a group of juniors from several different sects in tow to book one night at an inn not far from her current place.

Among them is Jin Ling, the Jin Sect heir. His string has now awoken, still tentative but in no way blackened. Fiddling his out between all the other juniors', where most either still lay dormant or lead to far away places, lands her with a gentle looking boy from the Lan clan, cloud-patterned ribbon pristine as he tries to calm the more energetic junior next to him. In the boys’ rush to get inside, the two soulmates are shoved against each other. Jin Ling turns to snap at the person whose shoulder he rammed into but closes his mouth when the other cuts him off with an apology, all the while smiling gently at him.

“SiZhui, stop bothering with the young mistress and come inside. Otherwise the others are gonna eat all the good food,” the energetic Lan disciple calls out to them and under loud protests from Jin Ling they disappear inside.

While looking at the juniors however she seemed to have missed HanGuang-Jun passing her. Smiling when she hears the children cheer from inside, she settles back against the wall behind her as a young woman approaches her, most likely with a question about her soulmate.

Later that evening though, she sees the Second Jade come around the corner of the inn again to her surprise, this time dragging another man behind him. The other has a white ribbon tied around his wrists which contrasts starkly to his otherwise completely red and black attire. It takes her a moment and a few blinks before she realises that it’s the other’s forehead ribbon. Once she gets over that shock, her eyes land on Lan WangJi’s red string again, only to see that it has strengthened since she last saw him a few days ago. And most certainly connects to the man he is pulling along with him. She studies said person for the short time before they disappear inside but he does not look like he just came back from the dead. On the other hand there is a well of pain even deeper than his partner’s behind his eyes. It seems like he lived through something that no one else would understand, so maybe he actually did die and come back.

As long as the Second Jade of Lan is happy, everything is good though. Weavers are not allowed to take action on their own anyway without being asked directly.

~ * ~

They leave the inn the next morning, the juniors chatting excitedly. Jin Ling is glaring in a pretty good impression of his uncle, but his face softens just the slightest bit when his soulmate taps his shoulder to ask something. HanGuang-Jun’s string shines in the morning sunlight, healthily red, only a few weaker spots left. He gives the black-clothed man a soft look as the other grins at a junior with a light green robe.

~ * ~

More time passes and the cultivation world seems to devolve into chaos as the title of public enemy number one shifts from the infamous Yiling Patriarch to the Jin Sect Leader Jin GuangYao. Shin Siyun doesn’t listen too closely to all the crimes he is suddenly supposed to be responsible for when the same people were still singing his praises a few months ago. It’s moments like these that she is beyond glad that she is not part of the cultivation world as it seems that former allies can turn on you within seconds in that cut-throat world.

What she does pay attention to though is the fact that the respectable HanGuang-Jun is set to marry the Yiling Patriarch of all people. She thinks back to the smiling young man in red and black clothes with the pained eyes who she saw with the juniors. He didn’t seem evil in the least and certainly didn’t live up to the monster everyone made him out to be. At least his soulmate seems to have stood by him even during all the time he was hated and dead. It also fits the timeframe of the Yiling Patriarch’s life and death. The infamous demonic cultivator died thirteen years ago. She first saw the First Jade’s torn string a few years after that and now that he has come back to life, Lan WangJi’s string has reattached itself.

She smiles as she watches the sunset, happy at the fact that at least one of the mess of strings she saw back then gained a happy ending.

~ * ~

His brother is not as lucky though. She has heard that ZeWu-Jun went into seclusion after everything that happened. That means it falls to Jiang Wanyin to reach out, which does not particularly give her much hope for their connection.

She has now settled in a small house in the village closest to the Cloud Recesses. From there she has seen Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi pass by, both together and apart. Their connection is incredibly strong, their string glowing red and thick. It’s beautiful to watch these two. The way the smaller smiles at his husband so brightly, while the other’s cold eyes soften the moment they land on his partner.

She has also seen Jin Ling and Jiang Wanyin. They seem to be guests in the Cloud Recesses way more frequently than she expected. The boy seems to be going on night hunts with his soulmate and that loud disciple often. The bond between the two boys grows slowly but becomes stronger with each time she sees them. They are going in a good direction.

~ * ~

It takes over another year before he sees the first strengthening in the other Jade’s string. She doesn’t see the Lan cultivator himself, but she sees Jiang Wanyin walking past in the process of scolding his nephew, but for the first time in years, his string actually sets itself off properly from the surroundings instead of getting lost in the colours of the background.

It takes a long time but very slowly that string strengthens as well, growing into a healthy connection. By the time she hears of the Jin Sect Leader’s marriage to Lan SiZhui it has grown into something resembling sworn brothers or the beginnings of love.

She nearly doesn’t live long enough to see the connection which seemed so weak the first time she saw it, bloom into a full bond. Their marriage is not broadcasted far and wide like his nephew’s but since she lives close to the Cloud Recesses she catches the preparations for the ceremony.

It draws a last smile on her face as she thinks back to that mess these people used to be. Of course not everyone got their happy ending. The former leaders of the Jin and the Nie Sect are both still dead and all the broken connections she saw back then are still gone. However the two Jades of Lan at least both managed to reunite with their soulmates, hopefully giving both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin a chance to heal.