“You said the White Ghost Concubine? Are you sure?” At this distance, Jiang Cheng clearly sensed the palpable killing intent emanating from the armed figure slowly approaching them, who could not be described as a concubine in any way, shape or form.
“Or maybe they meant to say the White Ghost Sword? Couldn’t tell…” Wei Wuxian laughed, a little nervous, backing up until he bumped into Lan Wangji standing behind him.
Sword and concubine did not even remotely sound the same, but Jiang Cheng had come to expect this from Wei Wuxian and just sighed. He cautiously studied the rumored ghost, tall and slim, sword sheathed at their back, dressed in worn white robes with a tattered greyish veil draped over their head and shoulders like a funeral shroud. The ghost did not seem to be a phantom nor a fierce corpse, judging by the imprints left on the earth where they walked and the lack of rotting smell. A living human then, likely possessed by evil spirits which gave off a terrifying aura that scared hapless villagers almost all the way to the gates of Lotus Pier before they chanced upon Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji on the road. If this person were indeed possessed, Jiang Cheng had one (almost) surefire way to find out.
Zidian sparked and sizzled from where it twined around Jiang Cheng’s finger, and as soon as the ghost came into range of their attack, the three of them dove into action, as if the sorrows of the intervening years had not affected their cooperation.
But Zidian unbound wrapped uselessly around the ghost’s forearm, the purple lightning raging without any effect on the shrouded figure. Chengqing and Wangji’s melodies neither slowed nor confused the ghost; it instead took advantage of the three’s momentary shock to yank Zidian towards itself.
Jiang Cheng immediately tried to pull the whip back, holding onto the weapon with all of his strength. Startled, Wei Wuxian stopped playing and grabbed onto Jiang Cheng to help him stand his ground. It was only when Lan Wangji, in response to Wei Wuxian crying out “Hold onto me, Lan Zhan!” while Jiang Cheng took a moment to roll his eyes, latched stoically onto Wei Wuxian’s waist and dug his heels into the ground that they finally stopped getting dragged towards the implacable ghost.
The ghost let go of Zidian all of a sudden, and the three nearly tumbled backwards. Approaching them, stopping just out of striking range, the ghost uttered one word. “Pathetic.”
Furious, humiliated, Jiang Cheng lunged for the edge of the ghost’s veil and pulled it off. He had meant to yell out something cool to regain some momentum, something like “Reveal yourself, villain!” or similar, but the words died on his tongue.
After a moment of stunned silence, Wei Wuxian commented to no one in particular, “Maybe I did hear it right the first time?”
Because the creature standing before them possessed a divinely gorgeous appearance, enough to take one’s breath away, repeatedly, unto suffocation, and that was even taking into consideration having witnessed Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen at the height of their attractiveness which, according to any female cultivator you ask, was still ongoing. But the Twin Jades of Gusu Lan had been lauded as paragons of ideal masculine beauty, whereas this person’s looks surpassed mortal understanding of what the concept of “beauty” meant, if “beauty” was even real. The only possible flaw in that lovely face would have to be the glare in those eyes that predicted a painful and swift death.
“Niang-niang,” Wei Wuxian called out with a charming smile, and the glare now directed at him promised a painful and slow death, but he continued with all the bravery of someone who already did experience a painful and slow death. “Niang-niang, our apologies. Witnesses reported a ghost in this forest, not a righteous cultivator, and certainly not a beauty.”
Trying to take over the conversation before the ghost thought to tear their throats out, Jiang Cheng said, “My name is Jiang WanYin, sect leader of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, and that is my brother Wei Wuxian and his… cultivation partner, Lan Wangji of Gusu Lan Sect. If we have injured you, I will make amends.”
The oppressive killing intent had almost dissipated by now, and the beauty’s expression finally settled onto mild distant scorn, indicating that not only were they not at all injured, the three of them were fools to think they could have landed a single scratch at their current levels. “You may call me Liu… Cheng… Luan,” they said in a low, cold voice. “Not Niang-niang.”
That was the fakest name he had ever heard, but Jiang Cheng decided to just go with it at this point. Better than “Niang-niang” anyway. “Master Liu, if you are passing through our territory, I can provide an escort to the border to prevent any further misunderstandings among bystanders.”
The fine sweeping brows creased slightly, unsure, at a loss. “Everything I know is gone. I no longer have a sect nor clan, no home to return to.”
No one said anything until after a while, Wei Wuxian nudged Jiang Cheng gently in the side. It sounded as if the beauty had either traveled far or stayed in seclusion for a very long time, and if his sect had gotten decimated during the war while he was separated from them, then they were partly responsible for his current situation.
“In that case, you can stay at Lotus Pier with us as a guest,” Jiang Cheng grudgingly offered, even though he still had his doubts about whether or not the White Ghost Whatever was a demonic cultivator. “We’ll look into what happened to your sect and clan, and find you someplace to belong.”
“Not we, just you,” Wei Wuxian corrected under his breath. “Lan Wangji and I are leaving tomorrow.”
“Are you now?” Jiang Cheng’s eyes, already red-rimmed, narrowed dangerously. Depending on Wei Wuxian was a fool’s mission on a good day, but he thought surely Lan Wangji would be responsible enough to see the night hunt to its end. They were not even staying to collect the reward from the villagers. “You must stay until we resolve this, in case you two end up as his escort.”
“There is no need for that, didn’t you just say he will be staying with you?”
“Only for a little while,” Jiang Cheng returned, feeling aggrieved. “And what about the reward?”
“You keep our share, spend it on your guest, we have plenty of funds,” Wei Wuxian insisted.
“I’m trying to say…” A thousand bitter, angry, yearning thoughts ran through Jiang Cheng’s mind, but the time to say such things to his brother had passed long ago, and Wei Wuxian would not care anyway. “…Never mind.”
Liu Cheng Luan, who had been listening in on this subdued conversation with a growing frown, gathered the discarded veil and stuffed it into Jiang Cheng’s hands decisively.
“You are the one who took off my veil, so I am yours to deal with,” Liu Cheng Luan stated. “Take responsibility.”
“Responsibility? For what?” Jiang Cheng protested, red-faced, crumping the veil in a fist. “This is just a funeral shroud, you’re not dead, you’re not even injured.” It was not like he pulled off a maiden bride’s veil in public or anything like that, what need for what responsibility?
Wei Wuxian meanwhile started laughing like a maniac. “Jiang Cheng,” he wheezed out in between giggle-screams, “consider your reputation, be responsible for Niang-niang.”
“You dare?!” Jiang Cheng ground out, but Lan Wangji was the one who responded.
“Out of us you are the only who can do anything for him.”
And he could not deny that. Outnumbered, Jiang Cheng had no choice but to welcome the White Ghost Sword (or Concubine, whichever) into his home.
“Is that your sword?” Jiang Cheng asked sullenly, staring at the weapon the other had yet to draw out. It looked a little more elaborate than the ones they carried, but still recognizably a spiritual sword.
Liu Cheng Luan nodded.
“Good, we don’t have to walk back or find horses.” The sooner they got this over with…
“Wait, you ought to carry Niang-niang in your arms, don’t let him fly by himself,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, dodging Jiang Cheng trying to smack him on the back of the head. “Hey, you did attack him.” Even though they all agreed ahead of time Jiang Cheng should go first due to Zidian’s ability. “If he should fall, that will be on your shoulders…”
“Sorry about my brother, just ignore him,” Jiang Cheng muttered. Clenching his fist, he continued, “But I will have to ask you to fly with me.” If he was going to host this kind of person, he would not let them potentially flee out of his sight, nor draw such a weapon, not until he completed the investigation and got plenty more backup.
Liu Cheng Luan snorted. “I should be carrying you, all of you.” But he obediently let himself be maneuvered onto Sandu behind Jiang Cheng.
Sometime later, the four of them made it back to Lotus Pier in one piece, Jiang Cheng a little bit behind the other two due to his guest’s weight and suddenly problematic hand placement around his waist mid-flight. He descended close behind his own courtyard to avoid attracting attention, but Wei Wuxian was already announcing aloud they had subdued the White Ghost Concubine and had brought the beauty back for questioning.
Several clan members gathered to the main courtyard, hearing something about a beautiful concubine, curious if their bachelor sect leader had decided upon another path if you will, and every one of them who saw the two emerge from the front of the building almost promptly swooned from witnessing Liu Cheng Luan’s beauty. Fortunately, this caused a backup at the main gate and no one else who was conscious could get in. Jiang Cheng hurriedly shoved Liu Cheng Luan into a side room, slammed the door shut, and then ordered whoever was still upright and in control of their senses to drag the fainting people out, there was nothing to see, and even less to gossip about to others unless they want their legs broken.
He then remembered the veil tucked into his sleeve and slid the ball of silk fabric into the side room, warning Liu Cheng Luan that he must cover his face at all times in public.
“I know. Like my sister,” Liu Cheng Luan muttered, and another pang of sympathy struck Jiang Cheng’s heart. This one… lost his sister, too…
“Stay here for now. I will get you some clothes and food and we… will talk.” Then he marched over to where Wei Wuxian was watching with the biggest grin on his face.
“I’m really gonna kill you!” Jiang Cheng hissed, resisting the urge to strangle him.
“Didn’t you already?” Wei Wuxian replied blithely, before adding, “But I, your devoted brother, will still support you any way I can. Not all of us got to tame a wild beauty and carry them home, your fortunes have truly changed for the better.”
“Shut up. This isn’t like that, you know that.” Rather it was preventing a rogue cultivator from causing further terror and chaos among the villagers, recruiting a potential ally for his still recovering sect, just being… nice. Which they were always griping at him to be nicer, weren’t they?
“All right, but keep an open mind,” Wei Wuxian advised him, as if they were still siblings and not antagonizing each other to death more so than siblings usually antagonized each other to death. “Someone who is clearly much more powerful than any of us decided to quietly follow you back home instead of demanding compensation for getting attacked. Be a little more grateful, okay?”
“Or he could be acting all honorable while waiting for the perfect chance to murder me in my sleep and take over the sect,” Jiang Cheng retorted. Plenty of that going on in recent years.
“Fair enough. But there is something you can propose that could prevent that, if you know what I mean.”
“What? What should I propose?”
Wei Wuxian had been winking so hard it looked like he was going to have a seizure but Jiang Cheng was not understanding at all so he gave up with a sigh. “We’ll leave you to your Niang-niang,” he said, withdrawing with Lan Wangji for the time being to think of another strategy and return later for an assured victory.
“If he assassinates me, my ghost will haunt you for the rest of your second life,” Jiang Cheng called out after them. If he got killed, then he probably deserved it, he would not lie to himself about his own abilities compared to this person. In the meantime, because he kept his promises and also didn’t want to paint a target on himself if he did not have to, Jiang Cheng found a set of Yunmeng purples that would fit and brought them to Liu Cheng Luan. Who refused to change until he got a chance to bathe, as he had crawled out of a half-collapsed cave, swam through a lake and walked through dense forests and overgrown fields for days before being spotted by some farmers.
“Fine. I’ll get you the bath myself. Come along.”
He had just finished filling the large tub in his own room with warm water when Liu Cheng Luan started stripping and Jiang Cheng nearly jumped backwards in consternation.
“Wait until I leave!” Jiang Cheng scolded, trying to find a folding screen to place between him and his guest. Liu Cheng Luan just eyed him and continued taking off his clothes, and Jiang Cheng was not able to avert his gaze in time. Which actually was fine, as he could confirm for himself they did not invite a fox spirit into Lotus Pier and that Liu Cheng Luan was human, a fine if somewhat travel-worn specimen of one, from head to toe. Curiosity addressed, Jiang Cheng sat on his bed and faced the wall properly while Liu Cheng Luan washed up.
To distract himself, Jiang Cheng interrogated his guest, but a little more gently than he normally would, no whipping or horrific metal devices or cruel bindings or water clocks that dripped ever so slightly irregularly which drove everyone crazy and could get even the torturer to confess to mass murder and so they eventually had to ban those. Too bad for him, Liu Cheng Luan had been trained by his sect leader to resist interrogation or he was just naturally antisocial and answered with one-word replies, if anything at all. After a while, the sounds of splashing water ceased, and Jiang Cheng looked back to see Liu Cheng Luan standing beside him, clean and dressed, combing out his long hair.
He looked just as stunning in purple, and so much more real and tangible than before when dressed in funeral white. The old robes and veil were saved to be washed, as Liu Cheng Luan seemed reluctant to part with them, perhaps the only things other than his sword remaining from his past life. As he had lost the hair crown and pin he normally wore, Jiang Cheng let him borrow a ribbon to tie up his hair, as well as a straw hat to partly cover his face for the time being.
Soon afterwards, servants arrived bearing small dishes of snacks as well as tea, then had to leave disappointed once they realized they would not be allowed even one peek at the beauty. Jiang Cheng resumed his questioning while his guest dug into the flavorful food like a starved wolf. Very like a starved wolf, he noticed, because Liu Cheng Luan did not grip utensils properly, simply stabbing the meat and dumplings on as if he was eating off a skewer, then shoveling rice from the bowl into his mouth.
“Did you really come from a noble clan? How did no one teach you any manners?” Jiang Cheng muttered in slight disgust. He would not consider himself the epitome of refined culture, but at least he knew how to use chopsticks and did not gulp his tea.
“My parents were cultivators and practiced inedia.” As if that were an excuse. “My grandparents and aunts and uncles, too.” All right, that could be an excuse…
“And so what, your clan let you run free with a wolf pack as a child?”
Liu Cheng Luan paused and then nodded. “Yes.”
“This person is not normal!” Annoyed, Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and schooled his expression into one of sternness. He did grow up alongside Wei Ying and he raised Jin Ling, he had been molded after his unyielding mother and attended to his great-hearted sister. Teaching one wild cultivator was nothing near so difficult.
“Let me show you how to use your utensils properly.”
“If you intend to stay in my sect,” Jiang Cheng said grimly, “I will not have you disrespect my family’s sacrifice by behaving like a beast in our home. Unless you are a demonic cultivator?”
Liu Cheng Luan seemed to startle at those words, his expression disgruntled but no longer resistant when Jiang Cheng scooted over to his side with a triumphant smirk.
“I didn’t think so.”
So despite the willful arrogance, the beauty did have a bottom line, something he could not tolerate, which would be a lot more useful than trying to gamble on so far unpredictable deference to a sect leader’s position.
A little while later, Wei Wuxian randomly opened the door to Jiang Cheng’s bedroom to see his brother sitting intimately close to the beauty, who was re-dressed in his own clothes, their fingers intertwined, in the middle of feeding each other snacks. Well, it seemed more like Jiang Cheng was trying to force-feed vegetables into Liu Cheng Luan’s mouth by his own hand. At any rate, getting this close this quickly was unlike Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian could not refrain from expressing his best wishes for them before scampering away behind Lan Wangji as Jiang Cheng surged to his feet and tried to stab his brother with a chopstick.
So it seemed, but in actuality, Jiang Cheng was using this opportunity to slide a piece of folded paper into Wei Wuxian’s hand. “Wei Ying,” he whispered, “when you leave pass this message to Nie Huaisang as soon as you can. I need him to investigate this person.”
Grasping (almost) the seriousness of the request, Wei Wuxian glanced at Liu Cheng Luan leaning over to finish off Jiang Cheng’s half-eaten food and murmured back, “…What’s going on with Niang-niang?”
Jiang Cheng, ignoring the niang-niang for now and forever, explained, “This person is an immortal. A god of war, he called himself. Assuming he speaks truth, then he must have been in seclusion for hundreds of years and lost contact with his sect that way.” It would make sense, Zidian would surely have no effect on a god, a real actual deity, who would have experienced heavenly tribulations of getting struck by a hundred lightning bolts or something similar, who apparently lived so long ago, the world looked completely different, and the twelve lofty peaks he once called his home became an island in the middle of a lake near Yunmeng territory.
“You are certain about this? Not even the great sect founders have lived so long,” Lan Wangji said quietly. Most cultivators passed away after a few centuries or disappeared from human knowledge to never return. No one could be confirmed as having ascended into true immortality for the last few thousand years, and the ones who did become gods rarely descended to the earthly realm. This only made the circumstances they found Liu Cheng Luan in even more mysterious.
“Maybe Niang-niang is delusional? Or misremembering?” But that wouldn’t explain how a complete stranger could brush off a full-on whip from Zidian like it was nothing, when Zidian could easily strip the flesh right off anyone’s bones and temporarily cripple a cultivator’s meridians, when it could lay even a recognized family member to the ground, Wei Wuxian thought, again from personal experience.
“That’s why I need Nie Huaisang to look into it, he would be able to find out more than we can.”
“Understood. We’ll leave first thing tomorrow to Qinghe Nie sect. While you wait for his reply, take care of yourself.” Wei Wuxian clasped his brother’s shoulder, gazing at him soulfully. “Like get a bigger bed in here, the two of you can’t fit on such a small bed, how would you have room for activities?”
Smiling with bared teeth, Jiang Cheng grabbed Wei Wuxian’s fingers with crushing strength and sent the two back to their own quarters.
“…What happened to my food?” Jiang Cheng muttered, returning to find the bowl of rice he had set aside for himself had been polished off, along with all of the remaining snacks, while Liu Cheng Luan stared at him guilelessly, as if to imply it couldn’t have been him who ate all of the food, he practiced inedia like his family and did not need much sustenance, but if it had been him who ate all of the food, then he definitely used the best table manners and it was Jiang Cheng’s own fault for not looking. Liu Cheng Luan would have appeared a lot more innocent except for the grain of rice stuck by the corner of his mouth.
“This person is a god, really?” Jiang Cheng wondered to himself, smiling in disbelief as he brushed at his cheek to get Liu Cheng Luan to wipe his own face until eventually he had to brush off the rice himself with a handkerchief. He ordered more dishes, guessing that even the most ascetic of cultivators would probably need a lot of sustenance after what, a few thousand years of seclusion. This time around, he got to eat a little, but mostly he watched Liu Cheng Luan, his heart touched by such pure, almost childish selfishness. It had been some time since he got to see anyone enjoy something so simple so unabashedly, without any care for losing face or what others might think. Not like what he had to endure all these years. He was so deep in thought he did not notice Liu Cheng Luan moving to his side until a beautiful male god face appeared in his vision, so close he could almost feel the warmth of his breath, saying in a low voice, “…Are you going to eat that?”
The sun had only just set by the time they finished eating, and as of that moment, there were no suspicious noises coming from wherever Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had claimed as their room, but one could never be too cautious. Clearing his throat, Jiang Cheng suggested, “It is a little early, but I think we should get ready for sleep before it gets too dark.” And those two start going at it like cats in heat.
Stuffily, Liu Cheng Luan insisted he was not tired, gods did not need to sleep, and in the past he would meditate instead of going to bed. That being said, his rather cute yawns resulting from a very eventful day started to affect an equally tired Jiang Cheng, who went to retrieve fresh blankets and pillows from storage for the side room, not once considering calling a servant to do so. The side room now designated as Liu Cheng Luan’s was modestly sized, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and violet accents, included a narrow but comfortable bed intended for someone needing to keep watch over the master and mistress of the sect, such as when the midwife stayed to attend Jiang Cheng’s birth. There was not much else to the room, and feeling a little embarrassed, Jiang Cheng promised to grab some books and stationary and such to make it more suitable for someone of Liu Cheng Luan’s status.
“This is fine. Better than my house at the sect,” Liu Cheng Luan declared, setting his sword within reach of the bed.
“You don’t want your own suite?” Jiang Cheng asked, raising an eyebrow. He had assumed Liu Cheng Luan would be treated well as a ranked officer in his old sect even if he had lived rather neglectedly within his family’s mansion, but perhaps not. “There are plenty of empty rooms in the main building, you can pick any of them you like.” He would not be seen as inhospitable or cheap.
“Want to stay here. You’re responsible for me, remember?”
Could he not use that phrase so casually, Jiang Cheng thought, veins throbbing at his forehead. “Don’t complain then,” he said sourly, then left his guest for the evening.
Though Jiang Cheng felt drained physically and mentally and spiritually, as what always happened whenever he reunited with Wei Wuxian these days, sleep did not come to him easily.
For so many years, Jiang Cheng had to live within Wei Wuxian’s shadow, overlooked by his father and harangued by his mother. When he was a teenager, he witnessed the destruction of his sect by the Wens, then had to work for years to rebuild his home. Jiang Cheng struggled all of his life to be recognized by his own merit, to not constantly seem like a failure surrounded by others who shone so much brighter. How was he so unlucky as to play host to a god, a peerless beauty and skilled warrior, glowing with a light as pure as the moon? In the next room slept the definition of “superior,” while he could not consider himself anything other than “inferior.” And yet, Wei Wuxian’s teasing stirred up a hidden hope within his heart he dared not ponder too closely in the fear that it would slip away. That even though this god was extremely rude and not very bright and if truly a martial god, probably committed at least one instance of small-scale genocide or wiped out an endangered species of creature in his mortal lifetime… This god thought he was worthy to look after him. Jiang Cheng. Not Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji or anyone else. Just Jiang Cheng.
All right, most of this probably resulted from the veil yanking rather than any real belief in his abilities to provide. But still… In the end, Jiang Cheng drifted off into a dreamless slumber, for once not plagued by doubts or suspicions, only the memory of someone’s arms around his waist, someone’s breath against his lips…
During breakfast with Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, Liu Cheng Luan more or less ate like a civilized human, much to Jiang Cheng’s pleased surprise. As expected, Wei Wuxian approved of their guest’s relishing the spicy cuisine he and his siblings preferred, and so happily chatted to him in a mostly one-sided conversation all throughout the meal. However, the only dish Liu Cheng Luan seemed reluctant to try was the pork rib and lotus root soup, not appearing fond of the lotus root slices or vegetables in general.
“Try the soup, Niang-niang. Jiang Cheng made it himself.” Then with a smile harking back to his Yiling Patriarch days, Wei Wuxian pushed a fresh steaming bowl of soup over to Liu Cheng Luan and enunciated very carefully, “It was our sister’s recipe.”
After that, it was not such a struggle to get him to eat his vegetables, and Jiang Cheng proudly refilled Liu Cheng Luan’s bowl with soup twice.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji left soon after breakfast, promising to return once they completed their journey. Though the brothers had fallen out ever since the siege at Burial Grounds with no hope of reconciling even after Wei Wuxian’s rebirth and the revelations that ensued, after this night hunt, they seemed to have reached a point where they might not fully understand or agree with each other’s life choices, but through their combined efforts, their sister’s soup recipe had now been tasted and judged as worthy by a god. If they never got along again, so be it, but now they would be able to die and let Jiang Yanli’s soul in the afterlife know the good news.
Jiang Cheng waved the couple away, sounding surly, but the smile that alighted on his face once he realized they had to come back and help him with his probably-psychotic guest never quite faded, not even after they had rounded a bend in the road and were lost to sight.
“Lan Zhan… What do you think? Have I done the right thing?” Wei Wuxian mused aloud to his ever-present, ever-constant husband. “He and I can no longer be together, our paths have diverged too much. But if someone else could walk with him for a little while in my place…”
“You did your best for Jiang Cheng,” Lan Wangji said solemnly at his side. “We will continue doing what we can, together.”
“You’re right, of course.” Wei Wuxian could never hope to atone for all of the suffering he had caused in his previous life, those choices he made that ended up hurting those he cared about. This had been a completely chance meeting with a stranger who knew nothing of their trials, yet with luck and maybe some prodding from himself, he believed Jiang Cheng’s destiny could still be turned around before he ended up overcome by bitterness. “Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian thought helplessly, “it’s up to you now. Don’t fuck this up.” He then paused, considering. “Unless…? Do fuck…? …Heheh.”