Jīn Líng was on important sect business, not shirking his duties as his uncle would say. Just because he’d slipped out of Koi Tower without his entourage when he knew everyone was asleep did not mean he was acting outside of his rights as Sect Leader either. It was just… simpler this way. A good leader was prompt in giving aid. Jīn Líng had left instructions with the advisors (chosen by the Chief Cultivator himself) and this was a matter well within the boundaries of Jīn territory. The Jīns needed to rebuild their reputation and what better way then to answer the calls of a village too poor and remote to pay for cultivation fees. He nodded to himself. Just because Lán Sīzhuī, Lán Jǐngyí, and Ōuyáng Zǐzhēn would be there didn’t make it any less important.
Jīn Líng rode his father’s sword as fast as he could for the first few hours, just to put some distance between him and any search parties that may be sent out. It was a little more taxing than usual, seeing as he’d packed far too much. He’d thought himself clever for looking up the little town before hand. The reports from the last tax season had revealed how dire the situation in Yumen Valley truly was. Poor harvests for years because of the ever encroaching fierce corpses, left over from some skirmish in the Sunshot Campaign. His grip tightened on the heaviest bag, full of all the medicine he could grab, with blankets to cushion the delicate pots. How long had his family ignored their people?
A fifty li head start seemed reasonable, so Jīn Líng eased how much spiritual energy he was using. There was still a fight waiting for him, after all. He landed infrequently, just to shake out his legs and drink water without having to balance the heavy bags. Jīn lands were prosperous, he’d been told, and they flourished under the Sect’s guidance. Jīn Líng narrowed his eyes at the deeply rutted road and decided he may as well make use of his long flight to evaluate his lands. Who knows what else his- what Meng Yao had falsified. He dug around in his sleeve to see if he had thought to pack paper and was pleased when he found that and a bit charcoal. Good, he wouldn’t have to waste time mixing ink.
Jīn Líng flew lower after that and did his best to stay objective. The bridge he found looked like it would hold a cart’s weight… probably. Just because it was clearly old and missing a few stones didn’t mean it was bad. He’d grown up in the palace so of course everything would look worse than he thought it should. Then he thought of the overflowing treasury and wrote it down anyways. There were experts at Koi Tower, he would send them to inspect it. These were his people and his lands now.
His responsibility as Sect Leader. Jīn Líng frowned at the lightening sky, rubbed his chest. He couldn’t waste time being a child anymore.
The sun rose, shining down on the fields and trees. Beautiful, serene. Quiet unlike his mind. Jīn Líng watched the lands wake up as he continued his journey. The birds sang and he saw some farmers walk out of their homes, stretch, and head for their crops. He himself was never awake at this time unless he’d stayed awake all night for a hunt. It baffled him to see anyone voluntarily waking up at such an early hour (except the Láns, but they were just like that). Jīn Líng squinted at the nearest farmer and decided to land.
“Hey!” Jīn Líng called, then winced internally as the man jumped and grabbed his chest. He was no good with people, no one liked him that didn’t have to, but he needed information. He set down his bags. What would Sīzhuī do? Jīn Líng sheathed his sword immediately and offered what he hoped was a polite salute. “I apologize for startling you, sir. I was hoping you could answer a question for me.”
The man, who looked to be in his forties, just blinked at him for a moment before shaking himself. “You’re one of those cultivators, yeah? What can I do?” He blanched and leaned forward. “There’s not trouble is there?”
“No! No trouble here. I’m just passing through.” No need to tell him he was the cultivator in the territory. “I was wondering if you could tell me the nearest town, sir? I noticed the road and bridge could use some repairs, but I’m not familiar with the area. I’d like to be able to make my report more specific. I apologize for the trouble”
“My name is Feng, no need to be so polite. You must be new to the sect.” Feng grinned, patting him on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t bother with it, the clan doesn’t much mind the roads that aren’t straight to the capital. Not enough important traffic, you see. But it’s a nice thought. The nearest town is Shumu, about five li from here, over the hill. It’s early, but there should be buns to eat.”
Jīn Líng frowned and looked at the road. “It looks well-travelled to me.” Feng just shrugged, scratching behind an ear. “Well, I appreciate the information. I’ll make sure someone comes out to fix this.”
“Oh ho! So much confidence.” Feng smiled at him, clearly humoring an idealistic boy. “Say, what are the bags for, young master? Off to fix someone’s roof next?”
Jīn Líng straightened. “Yumen Valley called for help. They are short on supplies as it is and beset by fierce corpses. Myself and representative of the other clans are going to aid them.” He gestured at the bags. “This is just what I could carry. More will be coming this way. If the roads aren’t in good repair, the clan can’t properly assist the people.”
It was Feng’s turn to frown. “You seem pretty sure, young master. I heard the sect leader just died and the new one is barely a boy. I doubt a place like Yumen is even remotely important right now.”
“It is important.” Jīn Líng insisted, resisting the urge to stomp his foot. “My uncle may not have thought so, but a good leader cares for his people.”
“Your uncle?” Feng tilted his head, then took a step back to look at him. His eyes widened comically. “You?!”
Jīn Líng nodded fiercely. “Me.”
He’d left Feng awkwardly trying to bow and apologize for his tone, but Jīn Líng only thanked him for his honesty. He continued on to Shumu, landing on the outskirts and walking in so he wouldn’t stick out so much. Wasted effort. The fine robes of Koi Tower were made to catch the eye of even the wealthiest cultivators. Jīn Líng was a chestnut hiding among rice grains. Where he walked, people took note. He barely had to glance at the local inn for a waiter to come hurrying out, promising a hot breakfast. Jīn Líng agreed and paid double.
When the waiter brought his food, he asked about problems in the area. Then had to clarify that, no, he was not talking about fierce corpses and ghosts, but other issues. Disrepair, poor harvests, anything that troubled the people. He was pleased when the waiter had some information, more so when other patrons came over to share their complaints. Jīn Líng dutifully wrote them down as neatly as he could. Two whole pages were full by the time he’d eaten his fill and he saluted those who’d helped him. They took his promises of aid with the same indulgent smiles that Feng had.
Instead of correct them, Jīn Líng folded his notes and some basic instructions into a message talisman (he would have to ask Uncle Wèi for more soon) and sent it back to Koi Tower. If the people could not take his word, then they would see his actions. Jīn Líng frowned as he left Shumu, mounting his sword again. He would need to ask Uncle Jiāng how he managed Yúnmèng. His uncle never seemed to struggle with his people’s faith in him. They all knew and respected him. When had the people lost their faith in his clan? But really, when was the last time the Jīns had used their wealth to help their people?
So many wrongs to right.
Jīn Líng’s decision to take stock of his lands meant his arrival was delayed by nearly half a day and he was three more message talismans short. He’d folded the stack of filled papers and tucked them away carefully. The people needed their voices heard, but he needed the last talisman to call for help, should the situation be worse than anticipated. Jīn Líng was both pleased with his progress and greatly disheartened in what he saw. Nothing was unmanageable, but this was not the way he wanted his people to live. Spotting two dots of white in the distance, Jīn Líng hurried forward. It would be nice to see his… friends?
Jǐngyí saw him first and saluted him with great respect. “Young Mistress Jīn has finally seen fit to join us. Quickly, we must find the finest combs for Jīn Líng lest he faint.”
“Sect Leader Jīn.” Sīzhuī saluted him and Jīn Líng scrunched up his face in discomfort.
“Please don’t call me that. Jīn Líng is fine, we’ve fought together many times and you’re here to help me besides.”
Sīzhuī agreed with that soft smile and Jǐngyí made to kick one of the bags. “What are these?”
Jīn Líng shoved him back quickly, standing protectively over his haul. “None of your business!” He inhaled and pressed down his childish urges. “It’s supplies. For Yumen Valley. You almost kicked their medicine.”
Jǐngyí’s eyes widened and he immediately apologized, offering to carry one of the sacks. Then grunted under the weight.
Jīn Líng nodded, feeling a frown form. “More is coming. I couldn’t find a reliable count of people here but judging from the reports, there are at least one hundred people in Yumen Valley, though they’re scattered throughout. It’s difficult to grow grain there, but the river still provides fish. They grow tea but it has declined in quality and quantity through the years. No doubt caused by the corpses.” His friends were smiling now and he flushed. “The Jīn Sect has neglected their duties to the people for too long. I’m going to make it right.”
“You clearly did research. It’s clear that Jīn Líng cares for his people.” Sīzhuī patted his shoulder. “We should continue on foot. Ōuyáng Zǐzhēn arrived before us and went ahead to warn the villagers.”
Jīn Líng nodded and lifted the other bag, filled sturdy fabric and leather. There was work to do.
The situation was much worse than he had thought. Fierce corpses Jīn Líng could handle, as could his friends, but the ground had been poisoned with resentful energy. Unless they could figure out a way to purify the soil, Yumen Valley would lose nearly half its fields. Many of the young men of the village had died trying to force the corpses out and the village proper was falling into disrepair. People feared to stray too far to gather wood. He and the others were crouched in the little hut the villagers had given them (not mentioning what had happened to the previous owners).
Jīn Líng brought his tea cup up, inhaling the steam to calm his mind. He refused to take food from his people, distributing what supplies he had brought. He’d given most of his own rations away as well. The children were too thin. Jīn Líng had accepted the tea though, when it became clear the villagers were overwhelmed. It wasn’t enough by far, but it was a start. Zǐzhēn and Jǐngyí were discussing strategy over a map they had scratched into the dirt. Sīzhuī was taking stock of the talismans they had all brought, several piles in front of him. It seemed Uncle Wèi was generous to his “favorite ducklings”. Jīn Líng turned over the purification issue in his mind. The Jīn sect had little practice in such delicate matters. They used their wealth as a weapon, choosing to out-supply their enemies with expensive, useful equipment. That would not be of use here.
He flicked his eyes over his companions. The Lán sect specialized in something adjacent to their needs, but focused on the human component. Ōuyáng sect practiced similar to Jiāng style, but, again, purification of land was not a specialty. Wèi Wúxiàn was the only one he’d ever heard of being able to truly purify land and that faded away as soon as his Uncle was not there to maintain it. He chewed his cheek and took a sip of tea. What to do.
Sīzhuī stood and joined him, topping off Jīn Líng’s cup before pouring his own. “We have more than enough talismans to dispatch any corpses we find, but we will need to be thorough. The valley has many areas that are difficult to reach. I’m concerned we may miss some if we are not careful.”
Jīn Líng nodded in agreement, watching Sīzhuī gently swirl his tea. His friend had told him the last they were together of his true origins. It was brave, but unnecessary in Jīn Líng’s opinion. It was clear Sīzhuī was a Lán , though the Wèi mischief occasionally shone through. Still, it must be difficult, to be the last living member of the Wēn clan. Had he ever gotten a chance to mourn his lost family? Did he even remember them enough to mourn?
An idea struck him and he slammed his tea cup on the table, startling the others. Tea sloshed over his fingers, but it didn’t matter.
“Mistress Jīn, stop that! I nearly drew my sword. If you don’t like the tea, brew another pot.” Jǐngyí scolded, straightening out his robes as he strode over, Zǐzhēn following. He squinted at Jīn Líng’s face. “What?”
“We need to hold a funeral.” Jīn Líng said with all the authority he could muster.
His face must have been serious because no one laughed.
Zǐzhēn poured himself a cup, slurping it. “Why?”
Jīn Líng took a moment to put his thoughts in order. “These corpses are from the Sunshot Campaign. All reports say that it was a skirmish between cultivators of the Wēn and Jīn clans. That doesn’t make much sense.” He leaned forward, forehead creased in thought. “Why would Wēn soldiers come into this region? It’s remote and produces nothing that would be valuable to war efforts.”
Jǐngyí nodded, gesturing with his tea. “You think it wasn’t Wēn cultivators. The Wēn clan was completely wiped out on Jī- uh, on the new Chief Cultivators orders. Maybe these were just civilians fleeing. They would have plenty of reason to run to such a remote area.”
“Exactly.” Jīn Líng grimaced. “Which means that these corpses aren’t warriors who can only be appeased with blood. They’re- They’re women and children and just people who were trying to live. I think, if we can appease them properly, mourn them as they should have been with our eyes open to the truth, then maybe they will take their resentful energy with them as they pass.”
Sīzhuī nodded slowly. “Just killing the corpses does not solve the true issues we face. If we can ease the reason they were filled with such resentment, then it stands to reason it may fade on its own. It is well-spotted.”
Jīn Líng felt his ears flush. “It might not work. No one’s really done it like this before.”
“Worth a try, though.” Zǐzhēn folded his hands together. “To meet such anger with compassion and understanding, to help not hurt, that’s what cultivation should be about.”
They all nodded and Jīn Líng was suddenly very grateful he had chosen to ask his friends along and not brought Jīn disciples. Jǐngyí could be infuriating, but he was a steady ally and skilled with his blade. Someone he could trust when the battle became difficult. Zǐzhēn had a romantic and soft heart, doing what he thought was right. What he lacked in raw skill, he made up with dedication and a thoughtful mind. He would make a fine Sect Leader someday. Sīzhuī. Sīzhuī was the best disciple in their generation, Jīn Líng thought. Skilled, polite, compassionate. A fine companion.
He didn’t say as much, but he did offer to take first watch and put up the first protection array.
They’d found a large number of corpses trapped between the high river and a cliff, so they started there. While Lán Jǐngyí and Ōuyáng Zǐzhēn kept the bulk of the dead back, Sīzhuī set up a protective array and Jīn Líng hurriedly set up the altar. As soon as it was set, he called his allies to him, kneeling down. Last night, Jīn Líng had declared he should be one of the ones to feed the carefully folded paper money into the fire since it was his clan that had caused such pain. Sīzhuī insisted he be the other, for obvious reasons. Jǐngyí and Zǐzhēn would take up secondary mourner positions and watch for breaks in the array.
The corpse nearest Jīn Líng was a child, no longer recognizably male or female, and he did not have to fake tears. His shoulders shook as he put paper after paper into the little bowl, murmuring his apologies over and over again. The others were equally affected, Zǐzhēn crying the loudest. At first nothing seemed to happen and the corpses beat themselves bloody against the barrier. Jīn Líng couldn’t hold back his sobs.
“I swear!” He shouted, burning his fingers as he pushed more money into the fire. “I swear on my mother’s lotus bell and my father’s sword. The Jīn clan will never be as they were. I will lead them to kindness. We will do right by the world. You will be remembered properly even if I have to re-write the histories themselves. I see you! I hear your pain.”
He bowed, touching his forehead to the dirt, his vermillion mark no doubt smeared. “Please. Please let go. You shouldn’t have to suffer any longer. I hear you. I see you. I know. Please, don’t hurt yourselves any more.”
Silence descended and he barely dared to look up. The corpses had stopped, staring at the boys kneeling before them. They seemed frozen.
“You are survived.” Sīzhuī whispered. His face was red from tears, his white robes starting to stain with dirt and soot. “I hear you and remember.”
They looked at each other and bowed together. Jǐngyí and Zǐzhēn quickly followed.
Jīn Líng heard rustling and his head snapped up. The corpses were caught in a wind he couldn’t feel. One by one, they turned to ash; the wind carrying them away towards their homeland. The last to leave was the child, who stared for a long moment before being swept away. The juniors glanced at each other and reached an unspoken agreement that they would stay and burn money properly.
A thorough search revealed that all the corpses in the valley seemed to have been affected by their funeral. The land was already healing, soil restored, but untamed after so long. Jīn Líng nodded when the village bowed to them, offering only an apology and a promise. No more would the Lánlíng Jīn clan turn from their people or their past. He tried to refuse the gifts offered but wound up with some tea anyways. As Jīn Líng walked with his friends back towards Koi Tower, he wondered if he could really take pride in this hunt. It was successful, his friends were unwounded and the land repaired. But he remembered the wailing corpses and bit his lip until it bled.
What use was pride.
They made quick time back, but it had been nearly a week since he first set out. While Jīn Líng was eager to return home for a proper bath, he also insisted they visit Shumu before finishing their journey. Again, they arrived early and the waiter ushered them in. He paid for the table, waving away any protests.
“You came to help me when I asked, to right a wrong my clan should have over a decade ago. I could not hope for better allies.”
Jǐngyí scrunched up his face. “You’ve been spending too much time with those stuffy elders. We’re friends, idiot.”
Jīn Líng flushed and threw a bun at Jǐngyí’s head, which bounced with a very satisfying noise. Then apologized to the waiter for such rowdy behavior as Zǐzhēn giggled behind his sleeve and Sīzhuī smiled serenely. He called for more tea and caught the waiter’s sleeve before he could leave.
“Sir, I passed this way a week ago. You told me of several problems in the region. Has there been any progress?”
The waiter blinked, squinted at him, then slapped a hand over his mouth. “You!”
“Me.” Jīn Líng said back mildly.
The man bowed deeply. “Feng said that he met the new Sect Leader boy, I mean- Yes, sir! Your generosity is known.”
Jǐngyí and Zǐzhēn snicked, but Jīn Líng ignored them. “It is not generous to do what is needed. Tell me the progress, if you have a moment, sir.”
“Of course, of course. They old bridge is already rebuilt! The day after you left, all these men in fancy outfits came and tore it down. The new one should last through the next dynasty! I’ve also heard that the hospital further up the road has a new roof and shoes were given to every child.”
Jīn Líng nodded, considering. “Good. When I return home, I will make sure that they are evaluating the problems you told me properly.” He stood and saluted to the restaurant (which had become suspiciously full). “I apologize that these problems were not addressed for so long. I hope that in the future the people of Lánlíng know that their calls will be heard. You are my people, my responsibility, and I would see you cared for.”
Many patrons bowed back, loudly praising his work. He nodded and sat back down. His friends were staring at him again.
“What?” He aggressively shoved a bun in his mouth to keep from fidgeting.
“That was so cool.” Zǐzhēn breathed. “You were so serious, like a hero out of a book! The lonely lord, coming to the aid of his people and asking for nothing in return but more work. It’s enough to make me swoon.”
Jīn Líng snorted and averted his eyes. Jǐngyí spoke. “He’s right, you almost looked like you knew what you were doing.” He eyed Jīn Líng appraisingly. “Maybe you’ll be a decent Sect Leader after all.”
“Jīn Líng will be a great one. Barely six months into being thrust into your position and you’re already cultivating such goodwill among your people. You Uncles must be proud.” Sīzhuī offered, hiding a smile behind his teacup.
Jīn Líng flushed deeper and nearly choked on his next bun (not that he was getting misty-eyed and choked up over such measly compliments). “You’re all too much. Why did I even ask you along.”
“‘Cause we’re friends, idiot.” Jǐngyí pointed at him with his chopsticks. Rude. “How many times do I have to tell you? Do you have gold stuffed in your ears?”
Surprisingly, it was Zǐzhēn who stopped their argument from gaining traction. “Having all these duties thrust on you, that’s a lot for anyone. I hope you’ll remember you can always call on us to help, even if it’s just to talk through your problems.” He saluted loosely. “The Baling Ōuyáng Sect offers its sincere aid and friendship, Sect Leader Jīn. You’ve got sauce on your cheek.”
Jīn Líng rubbed at his cheek with the back of his hand, then had to rub the dust out of his eyes. He saluted them all. “The Lánlíng Jin Sect offers its sincere aid and friendship to both the Gūsū Lán and Baling Ōuyáng Sects. Please never hesitate to ask.”
Sīzhuī and Jǐngyí saluted. “The Gūsū Lán Sect also offers its sincere aid and friendship. May our clans flourish.”
They grinned dumbly at each other until someone from another table starting cooing and then they ate as fast as they could. The grannies were smiling at them, Jīn Líng noticed and he felt heat crawl up his collar. This was important sect business! A promise of treaty and aid was not to be smiled at. Certainly not worthy of such soft looks. They finished without choking, surprisingly and tried very hard to refuse the offered rations for the road. Jīn Líng caved once he saw the sweets and accepted the bundles with as much dignity as possible. They all lept onto their swords the moment they were in the street, eager to put some space between them and whatever had just happened.
“So, you decided to come back.” Uncle Jiāng glared at him from his seat. “Did you have fun? Did you and your friends enjoy your night hunt?”
Jīn Líng bristled. How dare his uncle imply he had abandoned his post. “No.” He snapped. Sīzhuī placed a hand on his arm and he inhaled deeply. He saluted. “Jiujiu.”
Jiāng Wǎnyín rose, Zidian crackling. “You can’t just run off anymore, Jīn Líng. You have a responsibility. The Sect needs their leader.”
“So do the people.” Jīn Líng shot back. His uncle crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows. “I received a request from one of our more remote towns. They were under attack from fierce corpses but too far away for any cultivators to aid them.”
Jīn Líng closed his eyes, squaring his shoulders so he didn’t look so much like a child. “Yumen Valley has been requesting aid for nearly two decades, Sect Leader Jiāng. The corpses were from a skirmish of the Sunshot Campaign. I called Lán Sīzhuī, Lán Jǐngyí, and Ōuyáng Zǐzhēn to accompany me as we have fought together before and I could not go alone.”
“Why not call the Jiāng Sect?” His uncle puffed up, but Jīn Líng spotted the hurt in his eyes, the way he had stiffened at the mention of the Sunshot Campaign.
“It’s flooding season in Yúnmèng. Your disciples would be needed if a bad storm hit and people could have died should the barriers not been at full strength.” Jīn Líng lifted his chin. He had actually thought this through. “Yumen Valley has been struggling in poverty for years because of an act of the Jīn Sect. I went myself to ensure that the hunt went well and that they knew my promise of aid was not useless.”
Sīzhuī spoke up. “We arrived to find the situation worse than originally thought. The corpses had been in the area for so long, the soil became poisoned with resentful energy. It was nearly half of their fertile land, Sect Leader Jiāng.”
Uncle Jiāng breath whistled out of him. “So much? How will they farm. How many corpses were there?”
“We’re not sure how many, but farming will not be an issue.” Jīn Líng asserted. “We found a large number in a secluded area and decided to start there. Our theory was that the corpses were putting out the resentful energy and if we could properly appease them, the resentful energy would fade away as they passed on. We-” He glanced at his friends. “We held a funeral for them.”
Whatever Jiāng Wǎnyín might have said got swept away as Zǐzhēn took up the story, describing their plans and approach. Their realization of the identities of the corpses and their encounter. His version was beautifully worded, a riveting tale, and mostly accurate. By the end, his Uncle seemed vaguely impressed.
“Well done.” Jīn Líng felt himself glow with the praise and Jǐngyí seemed to straighten with pride. “You’re still fools but well done. Next time, bring more disciples with you. Being over-prepared for a problem is better than people suffering because you didn’t plan ahead properly.”
They all nodded and saluted his advice. Jīn Líng straightened first and looked at his friends. “Thank you for your aid. Please, rest in Koi Tower as long as you need. I’ll make sure baths are prepared for you.” He waved over a servant and gave Jǐngyí the stink eye to make sure he didn’t fight the dismissal.
When they were gone, he turned back to his uncle. “Sect Leader Jiāng, I would ask your advice.”
His uncle stared at him, then pulled him in for a hug. “I am glad you are well, nephew. What do you need?”
Jīn Líng wiggled an arm free, but refused to move away. Who knows low long until his uncle held him again? He pulled out the stack of papers he’d gathered over his journey. “I need to learn how to help my people, to make them understand that the Jīn Sect will come when they are needed. Too many villages have been ignored in favor of riches and I won’t continue it.”
Jiāng Wǎnyín pulled back but stayed close enough that their sleeves brushed. He took the papers and read through a few lines. “These are their complaints? I’m assuming this is only what you saw on your little outing. If you want to fix Lánlíng, there will be a lot more pages.”
Jīn Líng gripped his father’s sword tightly and lifted his chin. “Then there is work to do.”