Wei Wuxian is approximately two months into his journey when he first hears about the story. With neither a goal nor a destination, the days are starting to blur, sunrises and sunsets melting into each other like the swirling ink in a painter’s pots. It’s easier to count time by the distance from the Cloud Recesses, the ever increasing number of days it will take his most recently dispatched letter to travel from his hand to Lan Zhan’s.
He misses Lan Zhan — not with the bitter ache that still taints his memories of Lotus Pier, or the gnawing hollowness of the empty pit where his golden core used to be, in his first life. It’s a softer longing, almost sweet, that tugs his gaze towards every white-robed figure that passes by, and stills his steps whenever he catches the sound of a qin.
The letters help, though his nomadic wandering means that Lan Zhan cannot send back his reply. It’s still entertaining to imagine Lan Zhan’s expression as he reads Wei Wuxian’s meandering anecdotes about the places he has visited and the people he’s met, the night hunts he’s joined (with no injuries, he reassures, usually truthfully). Most of his letters are dotted with little illustrations — sketches of a particularly stunning landscape or caricatures replicating a dramatic encounter — to amuse Lan Zhan while he fulfills the unenviable duty of wrangling sect leaders.
A few days ago, when a sudden rainstorm trapped him in an inn for the day, Wei Wuxian drew from memory a portrait of Lan Zhan: pouring tea, hand pulling back a white sleeve to reveal a pale, elegant wrist, unbound hair spilling like a silken waterfall across his shoulders. He intended on sending it to Lan Zhan, as a replacement for the portrait that Lan Zhan had let slip that he’d actually kept from their school days until Wen Xu had burned everything down. In the end, however, he couldn’t quite bear to part with it, and the painting has lived between the folds of his robes ever since.
He’s sheltering in another inn from another rainstorm, sipping his wine — decent, but of course nothing like his beloved Emperor’s Smile — and idly eavesdropping, when a familiar name snags his attention.
“—course he did, can you imagine anything else from Hanguang-jun?” a young woman says excitedly, her pretty face alight with admiration.
Her two dining companions, a man and a woman, heave a besotted sigh. “Truly a man without peer,” the young man agrees, with a glowing smile that brings back memories of the junior Lan disciples every time their esteemed Hanguang-jun so much as breathed in their direction.
Wei Wuxian grins into his cup, then picks up the jar of wine, and makes his way over to their table. “Friends, may I join you?” he asks, offering both the wine and his most charming smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing — were you speaking of Hanguang-jun? The cultivator Lan Wangji?”
“Of course!” the young woman says, gesturing to the empty seat at their four-person table. “Do you know Hanguang-jun?”
“A humble person like me could not possibly claim to know such an exalted gentleman,” Wei Wuxian says, eyes lowered modestly. “I have only heard tales of his kindness, his bravery, his unrelenting righteousness…”
Their smiles brighten, and Wei Wuxian happily pours them wine, readying himself to memorize as much of this conversation as possible for his next letter.
I know what you’re going to say, he’ll write, ‘Wei Ying, praise is unnecessary; I will follow my conscience in the performance of my duties regardless of public opinion.’ But consider this, Lan Zhan: I am in the unique position to be your voice for the common people! And honestly, you at least deserve some encouragement for taking on the thankless job of being Chief Cultivator.
“Hanguang-jun indeed possesses all of these qualities, and more!” the young man says. “To think, there can exist a man who is this outstanding and so steadfast in love!”
Wei Wuxian’s hand jolts, spilling a drop of wine onto the tabletop. “Love?” he croaks, then clears his throat and tries again. “Lan Zh— uh, Hanguang-jun, in love?”
“Have you not heard the story?” the other young woman asks, looking pitying. “You must, it is a truly heartrending tale of star-crossed romance and mutual pining — go to any storyhouse in town, everyone has been requesting a reading of this book.”
“There’s a book?” Wei Wuxian says blankly. Then his sense of priorities finally kicks in and he asks, more pressingly, “Who could be the unparalleled person that is the object of Hanguang-jun’s affections?”
The young man leans in close, eyes sparkling with delight. “Incredibly, it’s the Yiling Patriarch!”
Two months ago
Lan Jingyi is perfectly aware of the fact that he possesses many qualities that set him apart, rather unfavourably, from the rest of the Lan clan. He admits that he is brash, and loud, and so talkative that he has on more than one occasion overheard an elder question his Lan heritage. But (despite Master’s best efforts) their sect motto is not “be silent;” it is “be righteous,” and in that, Jingyi is no less than any other Lan.
Which is why he is utterly horrified when he and the other junior disciples finally pry from Jin Ling all that was revealed in the Guanyin Temple.
“So you’re telling us,” Jingyi says, aghast, “that it was Lianfang-zun all along? And Su She?”
Jin Ling grimaces, and nods. He looks tired, though he still holds his head as high as before. Jingyi knows that Hanguang-jun has been using his position as Chief Cultivator to support Jin Ling, and presumably Jin Ling’s scary uncle is doing the same, but being suddenly thrust into the role of sect leader can’t be easy, especially a sect whose reputation is in tatters.
Jingyi vows to never call him Young Mistress again, even when he deserves it. At least for a little while.
“What about Wei Wuxian?” Lan Song asks. “Everyone still thinks he’s a monster!”
Jin Ling’s face darkens even more. "He says it’s all in the past. As long as he knows the truth, he can live with a clear conscience and greet his loved ones in the afterlife without shame.”
“And the grown-ups are just going to let him do that?” Jingyi demands. “After hating and vilifying him for sixteen years?”
“My father says that even if we tell people what really happened, it won’t make a difference,” Ouyang Zizhen says, sounding disgusted. “They’ll just accuse him of other things so they can keep hating him.”
“But,” Jingyi protests, frustration beating against his heart like a caged bird. “But that’s unfair! And unjust."
“Don’t you think I know that?” Jin Ling snarls. His hands clench into fists at his side. “It’s not like I can just go around beating up everyone who slanders him.” He makes a face. “I can’t believe that idiot was right — I really should have beaten up more people when I still had the chance.”
I could do it, Jingyi thinks mutinously, even as he knows that he would never — it would reflect badly on Hanguang-jun, and then Hanguang-jun would be disappointed in him.
Maybe if Hanguang-jun didn’t find out… He could wear a mask. Wei-qianbei wore a mask. There’s precedent.
Although he’d have to take off his forehead ribbon, and maybe even stay out past curfew , so perhaps masked vigilantism isn’t the way to go. There are a few other options, but they all require a trusted accomplice to cover for him, and Sizhui is out travelling with Wen-gongzi.
He’s still wrestling with this problem when Master Lan hands back their most recent homework assignment.
“A passable attempt,” he intones severely, as he holds out Jingyi’s analysis of the relation between nature and morality in the poems of Lan Hui, third leader of the Lan clan — which Jingyi accepts with both hands and a bow.
At the top of the first page, Master Lan has written, Too florid, but otherwise competently argued, which is as close to excessive praise as Master Lan can get (since excessive praise is, of course, forbidden in the Cloud Recesses).
“I wish I had your talent with words, Lan Jingyi,” Zhang Ping says, sighing wistfully at the innumerable corrective marks that Master Lan had left on his own composition. He flops onto his desk, letting the pages drape over his face like a fallen flag.
Jingyi blinks. “Me? Sizhui’s the one with the top marks.”
“Lan Sizhui’s good at being concise,” Lan Xiaoying says, her own ink-festooned composition in hand. “But Zhang Ping is right — your writing is so vivid, it’s like you’re telling a story.”
Around him, a few of the other students are nodding as well. Jingyi looks down at his work, and considers the possibilities.
That night, he gets to work.
When Sizhui and Wen-gongzi return to the Cloud Recesses a week later, Jingyi greets them at the gate with a wide smile and a sheaf of papers.
“This is… thoroughly researched,” Sizhui says, flipping through the pages.
Jingyi beams. “I went through all the records we have. And talked to Jin Ling. And Master Lan. Now I just need you to talk to Hanguang-jun—”
Sizhui’s head snaps up. “Wait, me? Why can’t you talk to him?”
“I tried!” He’d even almost succeeded, until he lost his courage at the last minute and ran away before he could knock on the Jingshi doors. “But since you’re his son—”
“I'm not really his son—”
"Since you’re his son," Jingyi insists, “you should ask Hanguang-jun about what Wei-qianbei was like when they were young. And Wen-gongzi!” The man in question jumps, looking like a startled rabbit at being addressed, and really, Jingyi can’t believe he used to find the Ghost General frightening. “You spent a long time with Wei-qianbei at the Burial Mounds, right? I have questions for you too.”
“I don’t know,” Sizhui says reluctantly. “Hanguang-jun doesn’t like to talk about the past.”
“But this is for justice," Jingyi says, beseeching. He clasps Sizhui’s wrists. “Justice for Wei-qianbei. You can’t say no.”
In the end, Sizhui doesn’t, of course. He is, after all, a Lan.
“This is amazing,” Ouyang Zizhen says in awe, without looking up from the page.
“Thank you,” Jingyi says, two weeks worth of exhaustion melting under the warmth of his pride.
This is, without question, the best thing he has ever written: the true story of the Yiling Patriarch. It’s an unflinching exploration of the difference between perceived goodness and actual goodness, a scathing criticism of society’s tendency to be blinded by prejudice and fear, and a glowing acclamation of the strength that lies in unbreakable bonds of friendship.
If not for the fact that the mere mention of Wei Wuxian would send Master Lan into an immediate qi deviation, Jingyi would submit this masterpiece to be included in the Lan education curriculum, so that his words may guide the next generation down the path of truth and justice.
It’s that good.
“It’s just so romantic," Ouyang Zizhen continues. He clasps the pages to his chest and sighs, eyes glittering with unshed tears. “I always thought there was something between Wei-qianbei and Hanguang-jun, but to think that they have a twenty-year love story—"
“What?” Jingyi says. “What are you talking about? Hanguang-jun and Wei-qianbei aren’t in love.”
Sizhui had interviewed Hanguang-jun. Sizhui would have told him if Hanguang-jun and Wei-qianbei were in love.
“But it’s so obvious!” Ouyang Zizhen says, looking confused. He flips through the pages and points to a section of text. “Just — here! Their first meeting: a passionate duel under the moonlight.” He keeps flipping. “Their life or death battle against the Xuanwu of Slaughter, where they were trapped in a cave, alone, for seven days." He raises his eyebrows at Jingyi meaningfully — though what meaning, Jingyi isn’t entirely sure.
“Hanguang-jun must have mourned Wei-qianbei all the years he was gone,” Ouyang Zizhen continues, cradling the manuscript sorrowfully. “But the heavens were clearly moved by their love, for they were given a second chance! Why else would Hanguang-jun defend Wei-qianbei so ardently, even when the entire cultivation world was calling for Wei-qianbei’s second death?”
Jingyi opens his mouth, and closes it. He thought he knew the answer, but now… “Because it was the righteous thing to do?” he asks hesitantly.
“Because they are in love," Ouyang Zizhen says. “What could be more righteous than true love?”
Hanguang-jun and Wei-qianbei in love… it would actually explain a lot, like why Hanguang-jun had brought Wei-qianbei to the Jingshi that first time, to his private bedroom that even the servants didn’t dare enter. And the absolute trust they had in each other’s abilities at the Burial Mound battle. And just the way they look at one another, as though they’re the only two people in the world.
A sudden realization makes him gasp. “That must be why Wei-qianbei left the Cloud Recesses. He knew what his reputation was like, and with Hanguang-jun being the Chief Cultivator—”
“Of course!” Ouyang Zizhen agrees, looking stricken. “Wei-qianbei, who always puts everyone else’s needs before his own, and Hanguang-jun, torn between his duty and his love—”
“I have to publish my book,” Jingyi says firmly. “Not just for the Lan sect, but for everyone. We have to clear Wei-qianbei’s name.” He meets Ouyang Zizhen’s eyes, and the fire of conviction there that matches his own. “Ouyang-xiong, will you help me?”
Ouyang Zizhen shifts the manuscript onto one hand, then holds out the other to clasp Jingyi’s shoulder. His grip is strong, his expression resolute. “I would be honoured.”