“And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what ?”
A thoughtful murmur went through the audience chamber of Carp Tower. The pompous minister drew himself up and shook out his sleeves. “Surely Jin-zongzhu will admit that as sect leader, he has a duty to present an example of harmonious stability to the people--”
Jin Ling stopped listening. A marriage. A marriage.
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea. It was actually a rather good idea, even at first glance. The problem with the pompous ministers was that they thought they were smarter than him, and they didn’t take him seriously. Some of them had been in office since before he was born, and still thought that he might as well be an infant, no matter how rigidly he sat on the throne and how stubbornly he held his composure.
“You’re right,” he said decisively, cutting the minister off. “I should get married.” He rose to his feet. “You’re all dismissed. Return tomorrow.”
Murmurs of surprise--they probably thought he was being impulsive, but he’d show them. They all rose and bowed and filed out, and Jin Ling charged through the doors on the side of the chamber and strode back to his rooms, his mind already on fire with ideas.
Marriage would solve all of his problems. They’d be forced to see him as an adult, and then he’d have a partner on his side, someone to stand with him against all of the boring ministers and all the insidious secret enemies who thought they'd do a better job--
He’d have to choose carefully. One had to, when picking allies. An ill choice could mean disaster. He had been accused of impulsiveness often enough that he was sick of it, but even he could see that this was one time to use strategy and tactics, like a cunning general commanding his troops.
When he got to his rooms, he got out ink and paper and brushes, and made a list of all the qualities that his ideal spouse ought to have:
They’d have to be loyal to him, of course, that nearly went without saying. They’d have to be clever, to be a useful ally against the ministers. They’d have to be likable. Kind. Obedient. Principled. Diplomatic. A talented cultivator, naturally. Well-educated, well-spoken. Of good family and good breeding too, yes--the Jin sect leader couldn’t go marrying just anybody, now could he? It would be nice if they were also beautiful, though Jin Ling was willing, he supposed, to marry someone plain if their value as a political asset was strong enough.
Ought they be a woman? Jin Ling paused, tapping the end of his brush against his chin. Not necessarily. Heirs could be adopted, after all, or chosen from a line-up. Then you could be sure to get someone good at the job, just like you could be sure to get a good spouse by weighing their qualities carefully--like appointing a minister to office, or appointing a talented soldier to a generalship. And besides, his requirements for a spouse were already quite exacting--it might be difficult to find a perfect fit if he cut the field down by fifty percent so quickly.
He reviewed his list. Obedient, kind, likable, of good family, a talented cultivator…
He thought of a face, a name--and blinked. Could it have been that easy? Was he missing something? He didn’t think so...
He set down his brush and sat back, looking at the page before him.
Lan Sizhui. He met all the requirements. Loyal, yes--he had called Jin Ling friend within days of meeting him. Obedient, principled, a talented cultivator--all of that was true too, practically guaranteed by his surname, and speaking of carrying the weight of Lan : Good family, good breeding, well-spoken and well-educated.
Besides that, Sizhui was… very kind. Kind enough to have embarrassed Jin Ling on more than one occasion, kind like it cost him nothing to care about the people around him, kind like it came as naturally as breathing. He’d had Jin Ling’s back on more than one occasion while night-hunting, and they’d saved each other’s lives a dozen times; he could be counted on to do the same in politics. And he was pretty, which was nice. Jin Ling didn’t have many friends, but he supposed Sizhui was one of them.
Jin Ling nodded. A perfect choice, really. That was too easy.
He visited Lotus Pier as soon as he could, before the week was out, and when he sat down to a meal with his uncle, he put his hands on his knees, tipped up his chin proudly, and said, “I have an announcement.”
“Oh?” Uncle said. “What’s that?”
“I am going to get married.”
“Oh,” Uncle said, chewing a bit of lotus root thoughtfully. “Well, we’ll have to make a list of requirements. You’ll want someone pretty, and smart--but maybe not too smart--and obedient, and kind--a talented cultivator, of course--”
“I,” Jin Ling said grandly, “have already made a list. And I have already thought of the perfect person.”
His uncle paused and eyed him. “Who?” he demanded.
Jin Ling gloried in a little frizzle of excitement. “Lan Sizhui.”
Uncle’s face darkened like a storm cloud and he opened his mouth. Jin Ling braced for a shout, but then the storm dissipated and uncle deflated. “He’s a good boy, isn’t he,” he admitted begrudgingly. “For all that his parents are the two most obnoxious people I know.”
“We would have to deal with them anyway, whether or not I marry Lan Sizhui,” Jin Ling said. “I have calculated it, and there would only be a tiny increase in the amount you would see them, compared to now.”
Uncle grumbled under his breath and served himself more rice. “Don’t know how a boy that nice came from parents like that,” he said. “I really don’t.”
“Consider,” Jin Ling continued, “the value of strengthening our alliance with the Lan sect.”
“All right, all right!” Uncle said loudly. “I’m convinced, I’ve accepted it!” He fumed into his bowl for a moment. “You’ll have to court that boy properly. The Lan will take any excuse to turn their noses up at you and decide you don’t meet the standards. Be a perfect gentleman, understand?”
“Yes, uncle,” Jin Ling said, nodding firmly. “I thought of that too.”
Uncle shoved another bite of rice into his mouth and chewed slowly. “Does that boy--”
“Does that Lan Sizhui like you?”
“He called me friend,” Jin Ling said proudly. “And he is always kind and warm to me.”
“That’s something. Not completely hopeless.” Uncle rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone want to marry a Lan ?” he said, sounding utterly bewildered. “What in the world do people see in them? First Wei Wuxian and now--” He harrumphed. “Well, never mind. Court him graciously, as I said. Buy him… I don’t know. A comb.”
“Ah!” Jin Ling said, sitting up quite straight. “Yes, that’s a good idea! A comb is a perfect first gift. It is personal without being too intimate--the height of romance!”
“Exactly,” said Uncle.
Jin Ling was so pleased that they had an accord.
He began by writing letters, one every week, so that Lan Sizhui would know that Jin Ling was thinking of him, and so that he would be obliged to think of Jin Ling in return.
Lan Sizhui, said the first letter, I am very bored in Carp Tower lately, and far too busy to go out night-hunting. Have you fought any interesting beasts lately?
Lan Sizhui wrote him back a long cheerful note about several thrilling expeditions that he and the other juniors had recently been sent on. The letter was four pages long, and Jin Ling was thrilled that such a simple question had gotten such an effusive reply. I’m sorry to hear that you’re bored, the letter ended. I hope that this helped. Maybe you can join us sometime soon if your duties become less pressing! I would like to see you again!
Jin Ling spent a long time admiring Lan Sizhui’s handwriting--just as expected from a Lan, it was perfect, neat, and elegant. Just like Sizhui, really. He found himself lingering over the last sentence, a glow of satisfaction settling in his chest. This really was going very well.
After a month, during which time Sizhui had sent six letters to Jin Ling’s four, Jin Ling wrote: I really don’t know when I’ll be able to escape from these administrative meetings long enough to come to Gusu, what if you came to Lanling?
He’d meant what if just-Lan-Sizhui came to Lanling, but a week later he had a dozen Lan juniors on his doorstep, with Sizhui at their head beaming so hard he was twinkling with it, and Jin Ling couldn’t be annoyed. Just seeing their faces was such a wonderful change from staring down the pompous ministers that it was all Jin Ling could do to restrain himself from tackling the whole group of them and hugging as many of them as he could get his arms around at once. He greeted them with all the munificence and grandeur that was appropriate to the Jin sect leader, and had servants show them to the nicest rooms in Carp Tower, and that night he fed them all an excellent banquet, and when he toasted them and was toasted in return he felt more grown-up than he ever had before.
And the whole time Sizhui was smiling and laughing and relaxed, and complimented Carp Tower and the rooms he’d been given (at a decorous distance from Jin Ling’s own, of course), and Jin Ling reflected that this really was going very well indeed.
“Lan Sizhui, would you like to see the garden?” he asked after dinner the next day. “I’m thinking of having it redone and I would like your opinion.”
“Oh,” Sizhui said, clearly startled by the request but not displeased. “I don’t know very much about gardens, I’m afraid, but I can do my best!”
Jin Ling tucked his hands behind his back and led them out to the gardens--they were the height of elegance, of course, but it had been several years since they’d been updated, and it wouldn’t do for anyone to think that the Jin sect was falling behind fashion.
“The koi pond was installed by my great grandfather,” Jin Ling said, his chest puffed up with pride. “And over there, that rock garden--my grandfather’s. The lotuses in the pond were planted by my father with his own hands, to honor my mother. The new walkways and the pavilion, my uncle’s.”
Sizhui looked at all of it with bright, interested eyes and nodded. “I see.” He smiled like a little ray of sunshine. “Jin Ling must want to add something of his own, I suppose!”
Jin Ling stopped and blinked at him. He’d had a whole speech prepared, and that had upended him. “What?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I offend? I just meant that… All of this is yours, isn’t it? You’re Jin-zongzhu!”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well… You must want to continue their work, and make it even grander? So your heirs can one day walk through here and say, my great-great-grandfather had the koi pond installed, and the rock garden was my great-grandfather’s, the lotuses my grandfather’s, the pavilion my great-uncle’s, and this thing right here was my father’s idea.” Sizhui grinned at him. “What sort of thing are you going to add?”
Jin Ling found himself flustered, his cheeks hot and a squirmy feeling in his stomach. “I don’t know yet. What do you think?”
Sizhui thought for a moment, a finger on his chin, studying the garden. His face softened. “I like the koi pond best, I think. You could expand it, and add a waterfall at one end, or make a little river with some bridges to wind through the rest. But I’m biased--there’s lots of ponds and streams in Gusu, that’s all,” he added with a laugh. “I get seasick when I’m on boats, but I still think it’s strange, sometimes, when I’m too far away from a river to hear the sound of the water.”
The squirming feeling in Jin Ling’s stomach had intensified. “A waterfall might be nice.”
“Oh, but you mustn’t just take my idea to be polite!” Sizhui said quickly. “It was only a suggestion.”
“No!” Jin Ling said. He was sure he was blushing now, but fortunately the twilight was darkening enough that perhaps it wasn’t easily seen. “I like the koi pond too,” he said in a rush.
Sizhui’s face softened into another smile. “Oh,” he said. “Good.”
“I have a present for you,” Jin Ling blurted. He fumbled for the pouch at his belt. His fingers were trembling a little. “Here,” he said, shoving the cloth-wrapped little parcel at Sizhui. “For you.”
Sizhui’s eyes had widened. He took it slowly. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m honored. What is it for?”
“No reason,” Jin Ling said. “Or--well. Maybe because I’m grateful for your letters. Or you’re my friend. Or I respect you as a cultivator.” He could hear his voice sharpening against his will. “I don’t have to have a reason,” he ended with a snap. “It’s a gift.”
Sizhui ducked his head, smiling, and unwrapped the cloth.
Jin Ling was suddenly and inexplicably more terrified than he’d ever been in his life. He’d faced down all manner of dreadful enemies, but nothing had ever made him want to turn and flee like waiting those interminable moments for Sizhui to open the parcel, look at what was inside, and say something.
It was a comb--the very nicest comb Jin Ling had been able to find. It was solid gold in the shape of a pair of fish, with glittering chips of diamond for eyes. Looking at it, gleaming like a handful of fire in the light of a nearby lamp, Jin Ling was suddenly and crushingly aware that it was far, far too extravagant a gift for propriety, that he’d likely given away his whole strategy in one blow, and that, moreover, Lan Sizhui would never, ever use it. It was Jin colors. He probably shouldn’t even take it back to Gusu, in case someone found it in his belongings or in his quarters and--probably it broke a dozen or more Lan rules. What had he been thinking?
“If you don’t like it,” he said, and was relieved to hear that he sounded careless and unshaken, “then I’ll get you another one. Or something else. Maybe you don’t need a comb.” He forced himself to stop talking.
“Um,” said Sizhui, which was the most crushing syllable Jin Ling had ever heard anyone speak, ever, in his entire life. “It’s very beautiful.”
“You don’t like it.”
“I do!” Sizhui cried.
Jin Ling shook his finger at him. “It’s against the Lan rules to lie, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but--it’s beautiful, and I do like it--it reminds me of the koi pond--I just--Jin Ling, this is far too much!”
Jin Ling tipped his chin up. If there was one thing he’d learned from Uncle, it was that you should never back down once you’d committed to an action. “It is a symbol of my regard for you,” he said stubbornly. He’d already probably given away his plan, so what did it matter? “Compared to you, it is worthless. Here, I’ll prove it, let’s go throw it in the koi pond together.”
Sizhui clutched it reflexively to his chest. “Jin Ling,” he said, shocked.
“I will pick another that you will like better. Silver,” he said pointedly. “So you can use it.” What had he been thinking, buying Sizhui gold? It was like hanging a sign on him that said Property of Jin Rulan in big bold characters. He held out his hand. “Give it here, we’ll throw it away.”
“No,” Sizhui squeaked. “No, don’t throw it in the pond. It’s--” He spluttered for a moment. “It’s wasteful!”
“Which Lan precept is that?”
“One hundred and six,” Sizhui said without hesitation. “I can’t let you do it.”
“Well, you can’t take it back home, either, or--is there a precept against wearing excessive ornamentation?”
“Yes,” said Sizhui in a small voice.
“There you have it,” Jin Ling said. “It’s going in the pond, and that’s the end of it!”
Sizhui scuttled back a step or two, and Jin Ling strode forward to follow him, palm still outstretched expectantly. “Please don’t,” he said, sounding so alarmed and desperate that Jin Ling huffed, and dropped his hand, and turned away.
He turned back a moment later and bowed formally. “I’ve embarrassed you. I apologize.”
This seemed to strike Sizhui like a thunderbolt. He scrambled himself into order and bowed in return. “No, not at all,” he said hurriedly. “I’ve been ungrateful. I should apologize.”
“I have awful taste in gifts. I should apologize.”
“It’s lovely,” Sizhui said. “And I don’t want it thrown in the koi pond. But…” He stopped, looked down at it again, traced his fingertips over the intricate scale patterns, the curl of the fishes’ tails. Jin Ling watched him, trying valiantly to maintain an air of dignity. The squirming in his stomach had reached such a degree that he felt rather sick with it.
“Leave it here, then,” Jin Ling said. “In Lanling. I’ll find a box to put it in, and whenever you visit, I’ll have it put in your rooms for you to look at, or not, or you can throw it away, or--whatever you like.”
“Don’t throw it in the pond.”
“It deserves to be with the other smelly fishes,” Jin Ling said firmly.
Jin Ling drew himself up. “I promise I won’t throw it in the pond until you tell me to.”
Sizhui nodded. “Good. Good. Thank you. This is--the nicest thing I’ve ever gotten.”
“It’d be nicer if it was at all useful to you,” Jin Ling said bitterly. “What’s the point of it, just sitting in a box here in Lanling where you can’t even look at it?”
Sizhui let out a long breath and glanced at him, smiling a little. “I’ll just have to visit again so I that can.”
Good old Sizhui, always knowing just the thing to say to fix everything. All the bitterness and anger went out of Jin Ling in a rush. He scuffled his feet a little. “Of course you’re welcome to come whenever you like. You don’t even need to send word, you can just show up if you want. Jin hospitality. Friends are always welcome.”
Sizhui beamed at him then, and tucked the comb away in his belt-pouch, and Jin Ling collected what remained of his dignity in both hands and finished the garden tour. He walked Sizhui back to his chambers at the end, and bid him goodnight, and went straight to his own bed to bury his head in the pillows and die , just a little bit.
When he had finished dying-just-a-little-bit, he thought of Sizhui in his rooms. Maybe he’d be sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at the comb. Maybe he’d be touching it, rubbing the burnished scales with his thumb. Maybe he’d lock the doors and sit in front of the mirror to try it on.
This last made Jin Ling feel like he was dying again, but in a different way, and then he thought how well Sizhui would look if he wore the comb out night-hunting, how it would shine against his dark hair and flash like the edge of his sword. He spent a long time thinking appreciatively and respectfully of Sizhui’s skills as a swordsman, and then he thought of how nice Sizhui would look if he were wearing nothing but the comb--and then he scrambled away from the rest of that thought, because Uncle Jiang had charged him to court Sizhui as a perfect gentlemen, the picture of courtesy. Probably the Lan sect could smell lewd thoughts on a person.
So there had been one slight bump on the path--perhaps all this not quite as easy as he’d thought it would be, but considering how much of an idiot he’d been, it was the best outcome he could expect.
“May I call you A-Yuan?” he asked the next day, boldly.
Sizhui’s whole face lit up with his smile and he nodded. “Yes, of course!”
Any missteps had been forgiven, then. This really was going extremely well.
Sizhui and the others left at the end of the week, and Jin Ling went right down into the city to buy another comb. This one would be the most Lan comb possible, and he found one that was lovely and elegant, with an understated pattern of bamboo, worked in silver as bright as Sizhui’s smile.
He sent it with his next letter: A-Yuan, I found this and I think it would suit you better than the other one. You’re not the gaudy sort anyway.
The reply came almost too quickly to be believed. It’s perfect. You’re such a good friend, A-Ling.
Jin Ling had to retire to his bedchamber to meditate furiously, because the thought of Sizhui calling him A-Ling was just… too much to bear.
After three months, Jin Ling went back to Lotus Pier.
“Well?” said Uncle. “Report.”
“It has been going very, extremely well,” Jin Ling said.
“Did you give him a comb?”
“I gave him two combs.”
Uncle looked faintly impressed, and Jin Ling felt a warm rush of delighted pride. Faintly impressed from Uncle Jiang was like wild applause from anyone else. But then Uncle said, acerbically, “If it’s going so well, what are you here for?” He took a sip of tea in a way that Jin Ling felt was needlessly sarcastic.
“Strategizing!” Jin Ling said. “And because I need you to go, you know.... talk to his obnoxious parents.”
Uncle slammed his teacup down on the table. “Do it yourself!”
“Un cle ! You have to!”
“I don’t have to do anything, boy! You think yourself a big grown-up sect leader, you picked your own spouse, you’re swaggering around showering the boy with combs--go finish the job yourself!”
Jin Ling scowled fiercely. Uncle Jiang scowled back, twice as fierce. “Fine,” Jin Ling said. “But you have to come along for moral support, or it’ll make us look bad.”
Uncle shouted at him for that, but in no part of his shouting did he say, “No, A-Ling, I won’t do that,” so that was as good as settled.
Really all of this was going incredibly well. Jin Ling wondered why everybody else made such a fuss about how difficult it was to get married.
They went to Gusu. Jin Ling brought an extravagant retinue, and Uncle brought himself and a couple of his best guards and a thundercloud scowl. They were admitted into the Cloud Recesses with all the appropriate politeness, which was just as expected from the Lan sect. Hanguang-jun came to greet them personally, with his obnoxious husband sauntering just behind him. He did not, Jin Ling noticed, bow. Neither of them did.
He supposed when you were Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch, you didn’t have to bow to anybody. Hmph. Well, one day Jin Ling wouldn’t have to bow to anybody either.
“What is your business?” Hanguang-jun asked them flatly. “My brother is in seclusion.”
Jin Ling instinctively looked to Uncle Jiang to speak, but Uncle only raised his eyebrows and made a this is your problem, go ahead sort of gesture, so he straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin and said, “I’m here to speak to you, actually. Both of you.”
“Eh?” said Wei Wuxian. “What for?”
“It’s about Lan Sizhui.”
He saw their eyes flick over him, up and down, almost in unison, and then scan over the crowd behind him, Jin gold and the scattering of Jiang purple. Hanguang-jun’s face became stonier; Wei Wuxian’s grew first incredulous and then suffused with delighted hilarity. “Is this what I think it is?” Wei Wuxian said, putting his fingertips to his mouth to hide a grin.
“Lan Sizhui is night hunting. He will return tomorrow,” Hanguang-jun said. He turned in a swirl of white robes and stalked away.
“Aiya, this is definitely what I think it is,” Wei Wuxian said. “Well, come in. We’ll have rooms made up for you.” He visibly fought down his grin. “Be sure you follow all the rules. It’d be a shame if we had to throw you out for disobedience.”
Uncle Jiang made a scathing noise in his throat and hissed, “You’re one to talk!” but Wei Wuxian only cackled, turned on his heel, twirled his flute in his fingers, and capered off after Hanguang-jun.
This was not a setback. This was exactly as expected. Jin Ling set his jaw and his resolve. All was still going according to plan. Uncle had said they were the two most obnoxious people he knew, after all. It was bound to be the most annoying and tedious part of the process.
Sizhui and the juniors arrived, as expected, the following morning. Advance messengers announced them, and Jin Ling ran out to the courtyard to meet the group, closely followed by Uncle Jiang and a few members of their retinues. Hanguang-jun and his awful husband were already waiting when they arrived.
The juniors all looked tired and worn as they trooped into the courtyard, and they were rumpled from the road. Worst of all, Sizhui wasn’t wearing his silver comb, which made the bottom drop out of Jin Ling’s stomach, but then Sizhui, rising from his deep bow of greeting to Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian, caught sight of him and lit up. “A-Ling!” he said. Jin Ling saw Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian exchange a significant look, and Jin Ling’s face absolutely burned with a blush. “What are you doing here?” Sizhui said, coming towards him. “You should have said you were coming!”
Jin Ling clenched his hands into fists to keep them from shaking, stood as tall as he could, and said, “I’ve come to ask for permission to marry you,” he declared, loud enough for the whole courtyard to hear.
Sizhui stumbled to a stop and stared at him. “Um,” he said, which was once again the most devastating syllable Jin Ling had ever heard from anyone, ever. “What?”
“Oh no,” he heard Uncle mutter from behind him.
He bowed formally to Sizhui, and then to Hanguang-jun. “If it pleases you, I would like to marry Lan Sizhui,” he said, still loud enough to be heard by everyone. He was a Jin, he wasn’t going to be made nervous by some common disciples.
“Sizhui,” Hanguang-jun said.
Sizhui whirled towards him. “I don’t know anything about this, I promise! I was--I just--we’re friends!”
“Mm,” Hanguang-jun said. His eyes flicked once to Jin Ling. “Denied.”
“What do you mean you don’t know anything about this,” Jin Ling said, aghast. “I gave you a comb. Two combs!”
Wei Wuxian finally broke down into laughter, leaning on Hanguang-jun’s arm while he wheezed. Sizhui looked back and forth between them and Jin Ling, clearly flustered. “You said it was a gift of friendship!”
“I have been courting you! You didn’t notice?”
“Ahh, Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, he takes after you so much,” Wei Wuxian was gasping in between gales of laughter. “A comb. Did he think of that all on his own?”
Sizhui had a thunderstruck look, and Jin Ling could practically hear Uncle’s teeth grinding. Everything was not going well. Everything, in fact, had not been going well at all, he now saw.
He shook out his sleeves and bowed again, deeper, to Sizhui and Hanguang-jun, who was quietly holding up his wretched husband by the arm so he didn’t fall over from mirth. With the very last shreds of his dignity, Jin Ling said, “I understand. Please excuse me,” and fled the field of battle with all haste.
He hid himself in the woods and wept--mostly from humiliation, partially from the crushing horror of defeat. He shook so hard his teeth chattered, and by the time he’d mostly finished weeping, he felt hollowed out inside, like he was an oyster and someone had scooped out all his soft parts.
He dried his eyes on his sleeve and thought that the next thing to do was almost certainly to walk into the wilderness and become a rogue cultivator. He’d probably have to change his name--he couldn’t in good conscience continue being Jin Rulan, because soon everyone in the entire world would know that Jin Rulan had humiliated himself and his sect. He would have liked to go in mourning for this journey into obscurity, but for the fact that a cultivator in white would certainly be mistaken for a Lan at first glance, and he didn’t know if he could tolerate being reminded of his shame so frequently.
He heard footsteps crunching through the deadfall and froze. His first thought was that it must be Sizhui, coming to be kind at him, and his second thought was a swell of sharp yearning, and his third thought was an equally keen swell of horror. He could not allow it. He would be dignified, and if he failed being dignified he’d--he’d--
His usual method of drawing his sword and shouting at an offender to draw theirs too wasn’t going to work in this situation, he realized with a sinking despair. He didn’t want to draw a blade on Sizhui.
But it wasn’t Sizhui, he saw a moment later. A flash of black and red through the trees, and then the figure resolved into fucking Wei Wuxian, who smiled and said, “Hi.”
“If you’ve come to mock me,” Jin Ling snarled, “then--then how dare you!” He put his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“No mocking,” Wei Wuxian said, holding up one hand. “I promise. I just thought you could use an uncle, and in this situation I might be slightly less shitty of a choice than Jiang Cheng.”
“How dare you!” Jin Ling shrieked again. “Don’t you disrespect my family!”
“Our family,” Wei Wuxian said. “He was my brother before he was your uncle, and I can disrespect him if I feel like it. Sit down. I might be helping you.”
“What?” He slowly took his hand off the hilt of the sword. “Helping? Why?”
“I won’t leave my nephew all alone in his hour of need with no one to give him any advice except, apparently, ‘combs’.” Wei Wuxian fought back a grin. “Let’s talk about this.”
“There is no need,” Jin Ling sniffed loftily. “I’ve already decided what to do. You and Lan Sizhui will never have to see or think about me ever again. I will go become a rogue cultivator in the wilderness.”
“Nice,” said Wei Wuxian, nodding approvingly. He perched himself on a rock and crossed his legs at the knee, leaning back on his hands. “I highly recommend that path. You could go take over Yiling if you wanted.The Burial Mounds are a great place to be wistfully, yearningly deep in unrequited love. You can stand on a hill and look out at the landscape and murmur to yourself, Ah, it is barren and empty, like my heart. I have done this many times. Can’t be beat.”
That was not the sort of practical-uncle-advice that Jin Ling had been expecting. Uncle generally just shouted at him a bit, or clapped him on the shoulder and told him to buck up because it would all be fine and there usually wasn’t anything to be done about it, and Jin Guangyao had usually just told Jin Ling what emotions or thoughts he ought to have, even if Jin Ling had different ones to start with. This placid embracing of Jin Ling’s feelings was… uncomfortable, and he didn’t quite know what to do with it.
“I’m not in unrequited love,” he blurted.
Wei Wuxian put his head on one side. “Aren’t you? Didn’t he just say you were friends?”
“Yes, but--I mean, I’m not in love with him.”
Wei Wuxian sobered. He gazed coolly at Jin Ling for a terrifying amount of time and finally said, “I recommend not saying that in front of Sizhui and Lan Zhan.”
“He’s--a good match! Politically! I made a list and--”
“Stop being Jiang Cheng’s nephew for ten seconds,” Wei Wuxian said, holding up a finger to stop him. “You want to marry him for politics?”
“He’s a good match for me,” Jin Ling said again, stubbornly. “And I like him. And--”
Wei Wuxian pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay. Shut up. First of all, do you know where Sizhui and Lan Zhan are right now?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “They’re holed up in the library, being stressed at each other, because they’re Lans and they think they know everything about everything, and now they’re under the impression that you’re in love with Sizhui-- a thing they didn’t know about. It’s very unsettling for them. I am here,” Wei Wuxian said, aggrieved, “because I don’t need that kind of drama in my life--”
Jin Ling spluttered.
“--and frankly because I thought that if you were in love with Sizhui, you ought to have backup, and--well, you can’t put Lan Zhan up against Jiang Cheng in matters like these. Jiang Cheng would be crushed into dust.” This last was said with an air of great fondness and satisfaction. “But if you’re not in love with Sizhui then I’m not going to bother arguing your case.”
“What!” Jin Ling squawked. “After all that? Why not?”
“Because they’re Lans,” he said, as if that explained everything. Usually it did explain everything, but Jin Ling felt like it was going over his head this time.
“So what? The Lan play politics as much as anyone else. I’m a good match for Sizhui too! I’m--I’m the Jin sect leader, I brought so many gifts and--and betrothal presents--there’s ten bolts of silk brocade in my room for you.”
“Are there?” Wei Wuxian said, surprised. “Me? What colors?”
“Red and black, obviously,” Jin Ling snapped. “And books and a two-hundred-year old guqin for Hanguang-jun. And a box full of gold for the sect,” he added with a careless wave. “But I thought it’d be gauche to lead with that. Why won’t you argue for me?” he demanded.
“I said already. Because they’re Lans.”
“Secret romantics, the lot of them,” Wei Wuxian said with an accusing gesture back towards the Cloud Recesses. “You get all settled and comfortable and then suddenly they ambush you with a pure and genuine emotion or they write a song for you, and you have to scramble around trying to maintain your dignity in the face of absolutely unforgivable sincerity.” He shook his head. “Run while you still can,” he said mournfully. “Before they catch you and make you fall in love with them.”
Jin Ling bent to pick up a stick and hurled it at his head--Wei Wuxian blocked it effortlessly. “Stop talking nonsense!”
“I hardly see how it’s nonsense. Sizhui has romantic notions, and you don’t, so no matter how good of a political match it might be, it’s all for nothing. You’d both be miserable, and I can’t argue for something that’s going to make my little A-Yuan and A-Ling unhappy. Sorry, kid.”
“If you’re not going to help me, then go away!” Jin Ling roared. “If I can’t marry Sizhui, then I can’t marry Sizhui, and that’s--” His voice cracked a little, “--fine.”
Wei Wuxian tilted his head curiously. “Hm. Well,” he said, standing up and brushing out the skirts of his robes. “Glad to have clarified things. I’ll just go tell my boys they can stop, respectively, clenching their jaw into the middle distance and wringing their hands to nubs. No harm done. No hearts broken, right? Just politics.”
“Just politics,” Jin Ling echoed. A thick lump had lodged in his throat. “Tell them I’ll--leave. Immediately. Before lunch.”
Wei Wuxian nodded mildly. “Well, don’t be a stranger, eh?”
It took another hour before Jin Ling could collect enough of his courage to stitch himself back together and return to the Cloud Recesses. He had the servants start packing up all his things and preparing to leave, and then he went to find Uncle.
Uncle was meditating in his rooms--or, at least nominally meditating. He was seated with his legs folded, his hands in his lap in the mudra of peace and mental tranquility, and he was scowling harder than Jin Ling had ever seen, his forehead all knotted up and his lips pressed together into a thin line.
He cleared his throat, and Uncle’s eyes shot open. “I’m… going to leave,” Jin Ling said. “I’m going back to Lanling. Um. Did you want to come with me?” Uncle glared at him. Jin Ling was too emotionally exhausted to care. He dropped his eyes and kicked the ground with the toe of his boot.
“I,” Uncle said. “Cannot believe.” He took a deep breath. “That.” Another long silence. “I came all this way. To watch you. Fuck it up like that.”
Jin Ling nodded tiredly. “Yeah. Me neither.” He ducked his head. “Sorry, Uncle.”
Uncle breathed angrily through his nose. “I want to demand why you’re giving up so easily. I also want to demand why you were so convinced you could do it all yourself when you clearly can’t.”
Jin Ling only bowed silently. He was too drained to argue.
“Next time, we’re doing it properly,” Uncle snapped.
Jin Ling went back to his rooms. The servants were bustling around packing, but he fetched out his writing case and settled at the table.
Lan Sizhui, greetings, he wrote in his finest, most formal language and his neatest handwriting, I offer my sincerest apologies for the misunderstanding earlier. I beg you to forgive me and to accept my assurances that this changes nothing in my regard for you or your clan. The thick, horrible lump had come back into his throat again. He forced his hand to write without shaking, and forced himself to write down the words: Of course my offer of hospitality remains open to you and the other Lan disciples. And then, on the side of the letter in much smaller characters, cramped right by the edge where someone might not even see them: I hope we’re still friends , and then he felt something in his chest break and he had to send the servants out of the room so he could sob into his sleeve again.
Of course they couldn’t just abscond quietly without anyone seeing. Of course propriety and the Lan sect rules demanded that guests and their hosts bid each other a formal farewell upon parting. It took all of Jin Ling’s strength to keep his chin up and his face smooth. He bowed deep to Hanguang-jun, to Wei Wuxian at his side, to Sizhui on the other. Sizhui had found time to scrub off the dust of the road and change into fresh robes, and he looked as perfect and composed as a white crocus blooming in the snow. He was wearing the silver comb in his hair, clearly a gesture of being kind, and Jin Ling hated him for it just a little bit.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he said. “I hope to see you all again in better circumstances.”
“Mm,” said Hanguang-jun. “Safe travels.”
Jin Ling nodded. Wei Wuxian was watching him with eyes as sharp as scalpels, and he was trying to avoid looking at him. He took the letter out of his pocket, cleared his throat, and held it out to Sizhui with both hands. “Don’t read it until I’m gone, please,” he said.
“Alright,” Sizhui said. He looked a little pale and shaken, but he took the letter. “Travel safe,” he echoed faintly.
Jin Ling bowed again to them, stood up, and walked out of the Cloud Recesses with his chin high and his back stiff. They’d all say that he’d embarrassed himself and his sect, but they wouldn’t be able to say that he’d slunk away in shame with his tail between his legs.
He took an entire week off from sect administrative duties to go night hunting, but even that wasn’t a sufficient balm for his pride. He knew he was being childish about it, stalking around Carp Tower and snapping at people, but there were just so many feelings inside him and absolutely nowhere to put them.
He couldn’t even bring himself to be angry at Sizhui, or Hanguang-jun--it was one of those awful situations where he could see that it really was all his own fault, and that nobody else had contributed at all to the sheer enormity of his fuckup. I did that. Me. I did it all on my own. Nobody else.
Sizhui didn’t write to him. He didn’t write either.
Four days after he returned to Lanling, he opened the box that held Sizhui’s golden comb, and he took it out to the garden, clenched in his fist so tight that the edges of it dug painfully into his palms, and he hurled it with all his strength into the koi pond.
It hit the water with a splash-plop and flashed once from below the surface before the murk swallowed it up.
And as quickly as it had vanished, so too did all his fury and rage, leaving only a hollow ache in his chest.
It wasn’t like Sizhui would care that he’d broken his promise to keep the comb safe. It wasn’t like it would matter to him in the slightest.
Jin Ling wiped his eyes on his sleeve, took a deep breath, and shoved it all away. He was the leader of the Jin sect, and he’d had a week and four days of indulging his feelings. Uncle wasn’t around to bark him into good posture and comportment--if he was old enough to get married, then he was old enough to do it himself.
Wei Wuxian showed up out of the blue two weeks later. “Hi, nephew,” he said, having evidently invited himself in and climbed over the roofs straight into Jin Ling’s own wing of the house and into Jin Ling’s private chambers.
Jin Ling swore and flailed and upended an inkpot all over himself and his third-best set of robes, now his least-best set. “What the hell are you doing here! Get out!”
“Don’t be like that,” Wei Wuxian wheedled. “Look. I brought you alcohol. I’m the best uncle ever. Say it.”
“Say I’m the best uncle ever.” Wei Wuxian dangled the jugs of alcohol at him. “Go on.”
“You’re a creepy asshole, why are you in my house?”
Wei Wuxian pouted. “Don’t have any other nephews and I felt like annoying someone, and Lan Zhan is getting too tolerant these days. He spoils me, you know, it’s very bad of him.” He sat himself down at the table and uncorked one of the bottles, pushing the other over to Jin Ling. “Also I thought to myself, Wei Ying, you’d best go make sure that boy is getting an education in the fun parts of life, because you know Jiang Cheng has gotten too stiff in his old age to be any good at it. If you don’t want to get drunk, we can sneak out of the house and find some trouble in the city.”
“I am the Jin sect leader,” Jin Ling hissed. “I’m not going to sneak out of my own house.”
“Whatever,” Wei Wuxian said, and took a huge draft from the bottle. “Aah. Good stuff. Anyway,” he said brightly, “how is my favorite nephew? You must be my favorite, I’ve only got the one.”
The polite and correct thing would be to say I’m fine, how are you? Jin Ling was not about to be polite and correct to the madman who had wandered into his house without invitation, trampling all over the bounds of propriety and respect. “I’m not happy to see you,” he said bluntly. If Wei Wuxian was going to flout all etiquette and respect, then why shouldn’t he? “I’m upset. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I don’t have any friends.”
“Mm,” said Wei Wuxian thoughtfully. “That’s your own fault.”
“How is it my fault?” Jin Ling shouted.
Wei Wuxian winced and flapped a hand at him. “Pipe down. I mean you’d have more friends if you weren’t such an appalling little twit, that’s all. Don’t know what Sizhui sees in you, honestly.”
“He doesn’t see anything in me,” Jin Ling snapped. “He’s not my friend anymore either.” That horrible lump came back into his throat.
Wei Wuxian frowned. “Drink some of that,” he said, pushing the jug towards him again, and Jin Ling huffed, snatched it off the table, and chugged.
It burned like ungodly fire down his throat and settled in his stomach with an incredible bloom of warmth. He wheezed for breath.
“Nice,” said Wei Wuxian. “Now why do you keep changing your mind? I don’t know how you expect anybody to keep up with you.”
“What?” he gasped, coughing.
“You told him in that letter that you wanted to be friends, and now you’re saying he isn’t your friend.” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Aiya, if even I can’t keep track of this…”
“No one would want to be friends with me after--after that.” Jin Ling shook his head sharply. “This never happened. Get out of my house.”
“Shout for guards if you want me gone,” Wei Wuxian said, sipping innocently from his own bottle. There was a beat of silence.
Thing was, nobody else talked to Jin Ling like this. Maybe it was because Wei Wuxian had been dead for his whole childhood, and so he only saw Jin Ling as he was right now, a real person, instead of the person he’d been five, ten, fifteen years ago.
Jin Ling didn’t like him. He might never like him. But then, he supposed, lots of people had uncles that they didn’t like. He looked at the bottles on the table. At least Wei Wuxian brought better gifts than Uncle did.
He picked up the bottle and drank again. It burned less the second time, and Wei Wuxian crowed with delight. “Nephew! Yes! It is not too late for me to teach you the best parts of life! Now, do you know how to camouflage your pornography?”
Jin Ling choked. Wei Wuxian helpfully slapped him on the back until he stopped coughing.
“I suggest putting a cover on it that says something like Methods of Agriculture, Turnips: Volume VII,” Wei Wuxian added.
“Get out of my house.”
“I can’t, it’s dark, I’ll get lost,” Wei Wuxian whined, as if he were a child half Jin Ling’s age. “Don’t be mean. Why do you think Sizhui won’t be friends with you now?”
“Why would he want to?” Jin Ling demanded. “Hm?”
“Because he is a good sweet boy. Don’t know where he got it from, to be honest. I’m definitely not sweet, and Lan Zhan,” he paused and sighed with a disgustingly soppy look on his face, “is a huge bitch . Must have skipped a generation or something.”
“Maybe,” Jin Ling said, scathingly, “it has something to do with how he’s not your actual son.”
“That’s hurtful,” Wei Wuxian said primly. “Don’t be rude, A-Ling. I bore A-Yuan with my own body."
“Literally not physically possible,” Jin Ling snapped. “I’m not a baby, I know that.”
Wei Wuxian smirked and wiggled his eyebrows. “You think you know everything demonic cultivation can do? Sometimes when a cultivator and a second cultivator love each other very much, they--”
Jin Ling squawked and flailed his ink-stained sleeves at him, and Wei Wuxian nearly fell over cackling. “Shut up! Shut up! I don’t want to hear it! Get out of my house!”
“I was only going to say, sometimes they find a baby under a turnip leaf! Don’t kick me out of your house, A-Ling.”
“Say something useful, then,” Jin Ling hissed. His face was flaming, both from his embarrassment and the alcohol.
Wei Wuxian thought for a moment, set aside the bottle, put his elbows on the table, laced his fingers together, and leaned forward. His voice when he spoke was low and serious. “You did well telling him that you want to be friends. The letter was good. But if you really mean it, you have to keep trying.”
Jin Ling fumbled to get ahold of the conversation--the wind direction had changed too quickly.
For weeks now, there had been a softly trembling thing deep in his chest, and now, like the warmth of that first gulp of alcohol, it bloomed out through the rest of him. He took a shaky breath, his eyes stinging. “I can’t. It’s horrible.”
“Yes it is. But you can.”
Jin Ling shook his head sharply. “What would you know, anyway?” he snapped. “You didn’t do that.”
“No, I didn’t,” Wei Wuxian said, very quietly. “And then I died and left my best friend alone for sixteen years.” The weight of that swung in the space between them like a pendulum. “There’s a couple things in my life that I’m never going to be able to forgive myself for. That’s one of them. Leaving Lan Zhan all alone like that.”
Jin Ling could feel his heartbeat thudding in his chest. He was looking down at the tabletop and he couldn’t look up, even to glance at Wei Wuxian. A moment of vertigo overtook him, thinking of the sheer span of all those years and years and years . What would it feel like, to miss Sizhui for that long? His heart thudded again, wrenching--and for a whisper of a moment that felt too horribly presumptuous for words, he felt a lump come into his throat at the thought of Hanguang-jun, of what he’d endured, of his faith and loyalty which had not once ever wavered.
“The horrible thing about having a Lan in your life,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice still quiet but now with a note of dreamy philosophy, “is that they’re just so much better than you. You hate ‘em for it, sometimes.”
Jin Ling thought of Sizhui wearing the silver comb to say goodbye and felt the shivering ache in his chest grow sharper.
“And the great thing about them, ironically, is also that they’re so much better than you. Once they love you, they love you for always. Stubborn, intractable assholes. You show them you’re sorry, and that you mean it, and they’ll forgive you again and again, even when you know you don’t deserve it.” His voice was no louder than a whisper now. “Sixteen years. You’d think that would be too much for anybody to forgive. And yet...”
“He did,” Jin Ling whispered. “He forgave you.”
“They,” Wei Wuxian said. “Both of them.”
Lan Sizhui, he wrote.
I was wondering if you could make me a few light talismans? I’ve tried to make my own but they keep catching fire instead. I’ve enclosed an example of one without spiritual energy--if you can spot where my mistake is, I would be grateful.
I hope you are well. Please give my greetings to Wei Wuxian.
The reply came in a very seemly amount of time:
Jin Ling -- right, good, thank the heavens that it hadn’t been Jin Rulan, at least.
Your only error is that you’ve missed the amendment character in the west quartile which would remove the heat--that’s why it’s catching fire. Add the character for empty beneath the eighth sigil and it should work. (Alternatively, use the character “light” in place of “lamp”, but instead of canceling out the heat of the fire radical in “lamp”, you’ll have to add parameters for brightness and color. Wei-qianbei says it’s a good way to spoil your night vision if you don’t do it perfectly, though, so don’t use the “light” ones if you’re running around in pitch dark. The reddish light of “lamp” is better for that.)
As requested, I have included a dozen talismans, plus one without spiritual power so you can keep it for reference.
I hope you are well too. Wei-qianbei was very happy to receive your greeting, and sends his own in return.
A month and a half (or two letters) later, a servant came to tell Jin Ling that several Lan disciples had arrived without warning or invitation, and what would he like to do with them?
He sat straight up, his heart pounding, and told her to invite them inside; to give them anything they asked for including rooms, food, or money; and to tell them that he would come down to greet them as soon as he could.
He was horribly nervous, sick with nerves, and the very last thing he wanted was to go down there and look Lan Sizhui in the eye.
He was Jin Rulan. He wasn’t a coward. He wasn’t afraid of anything.
He went down.
It was a smaller group than last time, just four of them--Sizhui, Lan Jingyi, and two others that Jin Ling didn’t know. They all bowed as soon as he entered, and he hurried to do the same. Sizhui rose from the bow with a careful smile. “I hope we haven’t come at a bad time.”
“No,” Jin Ling said. “No, I said to come anytime, didn’t I?”
“We were traveling back to Gusu and--”
“We needed a place to crash,” Lan Jingyi said brashly. “Sizhui said you’d let us stay.”
“Yes,” Jin Ling said. “Of course. The hospitality of Carp Tower is always open to friends.”
Sizhui’s careful smile warmed and relaxed, and Jin Ling felt a few of the tense knots in his own nerves loosen a little too.
After dinner, he went back to his room to spend an hour or so staring at the wall and trying to calm his racing heartbeat, when a little paperman talisman floated into the room and whispered, with Sizhui’s voice, “Jin Ling? Are you awake?”
He licked his dry lips and swallowed several times before he could speak enough to murmur the words to make his own paperman and send it back to Sizhui’s room. “Yes?” he said aloud.
“Ah--ah, your paperman is so cute, Jin Ling! Oh, look at--” He heard Sizhui stop and clear his throat. “Sorry. I was just wondering… my comb?”
Jin Ling’s stomach fell into the center of the earth. “Oh. I…” Sizhui wanted his comb. Probably he wanted to throw it into the koi pond himself. Jin Ling felt sour all through his core. “I’ll… go get it for you. I’ll bring it to--” He stopped himself. “I’ll have it sent over to your room.”
“Oh, thank you,” Sizhui said. “No rush!”
Jin Ling made some vague noise of assent, cut the line of power to the paperman, and slammed out the door, running at full tilt to the gardens.
He kicked off his shoes, threw off his outer-most robe, tied back his sleeves, hitched up the skirts of his underlayers above the knee, rolled his trousers up to match, and lowered himself into the cool water of the koi pond.
The mud at the bottom squished horribly under his feet and between his toes as he waded out to the middle of the pond. He couldn’t remember exactly where he’d thrown the comb. He squished and sloshed back and forth, increasingly panicked. How long had Sizhui been waiting? What if the comb had sunk into the muck and he couldn’t find it? Why was he such an idiot?
He clenched his jaw, hitched his skirts higher though they were already sodden and wrecked, and kept searching, feeling with his feet as he went for anything hard and sharp and pointy. His motions kicked muck up into the water, muddying it still further so that his clothes were filthy and even if the sun had been directly overhead, he wouldn’t have had a hope of finding the comb.
He looked up, guiltily, from the middle of the pond. Sizhui stood on the bank.
Neither of them said anything. Jin Ling ducked his head and sloshed meekly to the edge of the pond. “Hello,” he said in a small voice. “What are you doing here?”
“It took a long time. I had a bad feeling,” Sizhui said. He knelt so they were closer to eye level. Jin Ling risked a glance up at him and winced--Sizhui looked… crestfallen. Like Jin Ling had let him down. “You threw it into the koi pond,” he said. His hands were clenched in his lap.
“Yeah,” Jin Ling said. “I was… upset.”
Sizhui bit his lip and looked away, even more wretched now. Guilty? Sad? Jin Ling couldn’t read him in the little sips of glances he allowed himself. He hung his head and fixed his eyes on the mud-spoiled layers of his silks floating in the water around him.
“I’ll have it sent when I find it,” he said.
“If you find it.”
“ When. ”
Sizhui sighed. “It’s… it’s fine, Jin Ling, you don’t have to.”
Jin Ling huffed, turned around, and waded back into the middle of the pond. “Try and stop me, Lan Sizhui.”
He was nearly back to where he’d been working when he heard the sound of disturbed water and looked back in horror.
Sizhui had done just what Jin Ling had--taken off his shoes and outermost robe, hiked up his skirts and trousers--
“Get out of here,” Jin Ling screeched. “You’re in white! You’ll be all-over stained!”
Sizhui hadn’t bothered to tie up his sleeves, though, and they floated behind him, not yet sodden enough to sink below the surface. He kept wading out.
“Lan Sizhui!” he said. Oh heaven. Hanguang-jun would surely kill him if he could see this. “Lan Sizhui, get out! Don’t come any nearer, the water’s filthy--”
“Is this where you threw it?” Sizhui said. “There’s no current, so it probably hasn’t gotten pushed aside. Unless one of the fish tried to eat it.”
“Lan Sizhui! Out! Out! I’ll find it! It’s--it’s my fault anyway.” His voice went small. “Please, Sizhui, please go. I’ll find it.”
Sizhui ignored him.
Stubborn, intractable assholes, he heard Wei Wuxian’s voice murmur in his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said, in an even smaller voice. “Sizhui, I’m sorry.”
“You threw my comb in the koi pond,” Sizhui said.
“You promised you wouldn’t.”
Jin Ling cringed and bowed so low that his sleeves, even tied up, got wet. “I’m sorry. I’ll find it, even if it takes all night.”
“Don’t throw my comb in the koi pond again.”
“I promise I won’t. I’m sorry.”
“In the Lan sect, it’s forbidden to break an oath.”
Of course it was. If he’d carried any remaining hope of ever marrying Sizhui, that would have unquestionably disqualified him. It was… vaguely comforting to know that now he’d really never have a chance.
“I’ll never do it again,” he said. “Really, Lan Sizhui.”
“I won’t believe you,” Sizhui said. He still wasn’t looking at Jin Ling, just moving slowly back and forth, the mud coming up in clouds around him and making his pristine white silk all… dingy. His voice was thick with emotion, but he was keeping it off his face, nearly as stony as Hanguang-jun. “I won’t believe you until you call me A-Yuan again.”
Jin Ling stopped dead still. Sizhui kept wading around him, eyes fixed on the water.
Jin Ling swallowed several times. “I’m sorry, A-Yuan. I’m sorry I broke my oath. I won’t do it again.”
Sizhui stopped too. He was facing mostly away, but Jin Ling could see just enough of his face to glimpse the briefest flicker of a smile. “Alright. I forgive you, Jin Ling.”
So he hadn’t yet earned back “A-Ling.” Right. That was something, though.
They didn’t speak again for two hours, and then Jin Ling’s littlest toe brushed up against something that wasn’t mud or pebbles--
He gasped hard and, before he could think better of it, plunged down into the water, reaching with his hands to grasp at it while the water closed over his head. He surfaced with a triumphant laugh, his hair streaming into his face and his clothes entirely, entirely ruined. “Found it! Here! Here it is!”
And then Sizhui was beside him and they were both fumbling for the comb, their hands wet and clumsy, and they almost dropped it again.
Jin Ling stopped, stepped back, and bowed. He held the comb out to Sizhui. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
Sizhui plucked the comb out of his fingers. “Forgiven. I already said.”
Jin Ling straightened and looked at him. Sizhui was holding the comb close to his chest, looking down at it like it was a great treasure. There was mucky water on his face. He was dingy up to his elbows, up to his waist. The ends of his hair were wet, and the tails of his forehead-ribbon.
He was smiling.
Jin Ling’s heart thumped painfully in his chest and seemed to wrench an inch to the side, wrenching the whole world with it, and if he hadn’t been standing quite still, he would have staggered or tripped.
When Jin Ling was awake, he was thinking about Sizhui. When he was asleep, he was dreaming of Sizhui. When he closed his eyes, he saw Sizhui’s face as if painted on the backs of his eyelids.
Was he in love with Sizhui?
He went to Lotus Pier.
“Uncle,” he said desperately, because he was the person Jin Ling trusted most in the world, “Uncle, help me.”
Uncle frowned at him--not a scowl, for once, but an actual frown. “What’s the matter?”
“I need help.”
“Yes, I’d gathered. How?”
“I need to marry Sizhui.”
“Get out,” said Uncle.
“You don’t understand,” he said, clutching at Uncle’s sleeve. “I need to.”
Uncle took him by the arms and shook him a little. “A-Ling. Pull yourself together.”
“Uncle,” he wailed.
“A-Ling,” Uncle said, more patient than he had sounded since Jin Ling had been knee-high on him. “If you want to throw yourself on the doorstep of Cloud Recesses and make a spectacle of yourself, go right ahead. I’m having no part of this.”
Uncle probably had never been in love with anyone in his life, Jin Ling reflected wretchedly, watching him stride away down the hallway. If there was anyone in the world with fewer romantic notions, then Jin Ling couldn’t even imagine them. Uncle had never even gotten married. How was he supposed to know about the wretched yearning of love?
Dammit. Dammit, Jin Ling knew what he had to do. Dammit.
First, he went back to the Burial Grounds. They were extremely creepy, just as he remembered, and Jin Ling did not like them any better now than he had the first time, but he found a little hill, and looked out at the dreadful, weather-raw landscape and thought to himself, Ah, it is barren and empty, like my heart.
Hm, that was oddly satisfying.
He went to the Cloud Recesses. He took no retinue with him, and no gifts, though he did wear his second-best robes. He dawdled at the gate for several long minutes while the guards watched him with amused curiosity, and then he strode up to them and said, with more bravado than he felt, “Jin Rulan. Here to see Wei Wuxian.” He swallowed hard, and added, “Please.”
“Right,” said the guard slowly. “You’re allowed in. You can just… go in.”
“Oh,” said Jin Ling.
Five minutes later, the guard said, “So…?”
“Right,” said Jin Ling, and marched in. He grabbed the first servant he saw and said, “Excuse me. Where can I find Wei Wuxian?”
“Ah…” she said, giving him a strange look. “It’s only half past seven so… he’s probably still asleep? In the Jingshi?”
“Where’s that? It’s urgent.”
The Jingshi was a remote little house back in the woods, and Jin Ling was relieved to find that the path was deserted. He stormed up the steps and banged on the door. “Wei Wuxian! Wei Wuxian, wake up!”
“Mngh?” he heard from inside, and then the rustle of cloth. “Who’zit?”
There was a long silence. “Alright,” Wei Wuxian said, warily. “Come in.”
Jin Ling flung the door open and himself into the room. Wei Wuxian was sitting up in bed, bleary-eyed and rumple-haired, and evidently stark naked under the sheets and blankets. He had a massive purple love-bite on his collarbone. Jin Ling squawked and clapped his hands over his eyes.
“You were the one who came barging in,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “Ugh. What time is it?”
“Almost eight,” Jin Ling squeaked. “Please, it’s urgent.”
“Don’t see how anything can be urgent before eight in the fucking morning,” Wei Wuxian muttered. He sounded just like Uncle Jiang. “Lan Zhan, what did you do with my--oh, there it is.” Another rustle of cloth. “Alright. I’m decent.”
Jin Ling risked a peek between two fingers. Wei Wuxian had put on a loose white under-shirt. It did not cover the love-bite. Jin Ling lowered his hands but averted his eyes. “It’s, um. It’s about Sizhui.”
“Is it,” Wei Wuxian said flatly. “What about Sizhui.”
“I need to marry him.”
“Daresay you don’t need to do shit,” Wei Wuxian said darkly. “Especially not before nine in the morning. Who let you in?”
“Gonna kill ‘em.”
“Please,” Jin Ling said, and fell to his knees. He bowed his head to the floor. “Please help me.”
“I told you, kid,” Wei Wuxian sighed. Jin Ling pushed himself up, his eyes stinging. Wei Wuxian was giving him a regretful, pitying look. “I told you why I couldn’t take your side.”
“Uncle,” he said, and for a heartbeat it seemed like even the bamboo outside stopped rustling, even the birds stopped singing, even the sun stopped in the sky. “Please. I love him.”
He was looking right at Wei Wuxian when he said it, and so Jin Ling saw the light turn in his eyes like a hawk wheeling around in the sky when it spots prey, saw the sleep melt off him like snow off a roof, saw him straighten and smile like he’d just won a bet. “Well then. That changes things, doesn’t it? Close your eyes until I’ve got some pants on. And while you’re waiting, tell me when you had this great epiphany.”
So Jin Ling closed his eyes, and he told Wei Wuxian--Uncle Wei--about the comb and the koi pond, about Sizhui’s muddied robes, about the wet ends of his hair and his ribbon, about the way he’d smiled. Jin Ling told him about how his heart hadn’t felt right in days, and maybe it wasn’t love--maybe he was just actually dying--about how he’d gone to his other uncle and been denied, about going to the Burial Mounds to look at the barren empty landscape, about how he’d stood on the doorstep of the Cloud Recesses since the blue part of dawn because he was scared.
And all the time he talked, he heard Uncle Wei moving around the room, putting on clothes, splashing water on his face, the thump of boots as he put them on, the sound of the brush through his hair.
And finally, Jin Ling heard him stop and stand just before him. He heard Uncle squat down, felt his thumbs on his cheeks, wiping away a stray tear or two. “Ah, none of that,” he crooned. “No, no, we didn’t fight wars so little boys would have to cry for love.” And then there were strong arms around him, pulling him into a hug until his face was pressed into skin and fabric at the warm crook of a neck that smelled like incense ash and salt, and a little like Uncle Jiang, and a little like something achingly familiar and long-forgotten that made Jin Ling’s heart wrench in his chest and think safe like a single ringing note plucked on a guqin.
He didn’t notice he had been clutching at the back of Uncle’s robes until his hands started hurting. He didn’t know how long they’d been there, but Uncle was rubbing his back and petting his hair and humming a song that was dragging a sixteen-year-old silent howl out of Jin Ling’s heart.
He pulled away, wiped the snot and tears from his face. Wei Wuxian let him go but didn’t move back, kept one hand rubbing softly at his shoulder and upper arm. “What’s that song?” Jin Ling said thickly.
“Ah,” said Wei Wuxian. “It’s…” And then, delicately, he said, “My shijie used to sing it for me, when I was unhappy.”
It hurt with a dull, familiar throb that went right through the center of him. He took a steadying breath. This hurt, at least, was old. He inched forward the tiniest bit-- please? again? --and Uncle hugged him so tight that Jin Ling’s spine popped and his ribs creaked, hugged him hard enough to reach right to his soul, right to his golden core.
“There now, no more crying,” Uncle said at last, sitting back on his heels and using his own sleeve to wipe Jin Ling’s face dry. “Nobody’s going to want to marry you if your face is all blotchy, Jin-zongzhu, no matter how much money you have, or how many pretty combs.”
It startled a weak little laugh out of him, and then Uncle was patting his cheek and pointing to the washbasin, scolding him like an old grandmother to clean up and get himself together, and it was just what Jin Ling needed, just the balance between Jiang Cheng’s shouting and something softer and sweeter. “Foolish child, throwing a fortune into a pond for no good reason! Aiya, what a stupid boy! Next time, pawn it for wine money and buy your uncle some Emperor’s Smile!”
Jin Ling noticed that Wei Wuxian’s eyes were red-rimmed too, a little bit.
Wei Wuxian fussed over Jin Ling’s hair, tidying him until he was presentable, even though his tear- and snot-soggy sleeves were a total write-off. “There,” he said. “There, you’ll do. Don’t know what you see in this boy, though, what’s his name again? Lan Sizhui? Never heard of him. Whoever he is, it’s hard to imagine someone that could possibly be good enough for my A-Ling.” And that made Jin Ling scoff and swipe at him so that Uncle Wei had to dance back out of reach, laughing.
Wei Wuxian tucked Jin Ling’s hand into the crook of his elbow and dragged him out of the Jingshi. “Now, no promises,” he said, softer and more serious. “But I’ve been talking Lans into ridiculous things since before you were born, so I’m the expert.”
“You…” Jin Ling stopped walking, and Wei Wuxian was forced to stop too, or else let Jin Ling’s hand slip off his arm. “You don’t have to turn against them for me.”
“Taking your side doesn’t mean leaving theirs,” he said lightly. “I can’t resist an underdog, that’s all. And besides, arguing with Lan Zhan is one of my very favorite things, right after looking at him, and talking to him, and kissing him, and taking off his--”
“Shut up!” Jin Ling said, trying to shove him away, but Wei Wuxian only slung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer, cackling.
Wei Wuxian led them without hesitation to the administrative offices of the Cloud Recesses and paused just outside the door. He took Jin Ling’s face in his hands, looked deeply into his eyes as if searching for something in his soul, and nodded, apparently satisfied. “Remember,” he whispered. “You don’t have to make the scary one budge an inch. He won’t, unless he wants to. You only need to convince A-Yuan.” He squeezed Jin Ling’s shoulders. “If Hanguang-jun tries to put his foot down, we’ll all three of us call him an old fuddy-duddy and we’ll run off to go night-hunting together, and leave him to pout here by himself until he comes to his senses.”
And then Wei Wuxian whirled around, slammed the doors open, and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Good morning , love of my life, you owe me money!”
Hanguang-jun looked up without moving, his brush poised and frozen over a sheet of paper. Jin Ling saw his gaze flick between the two of them just once, and then he lowered his eyes to his paper and said, “I do not.”
“You do too,” Wei Wuxian said, swaggering into the room. “Look who came back! Little A-Ling!” He perched himself on the edge of the desk and draped himself halfway across Hanguang-jun’s letter. “Pay up, gege. Five talents.” Wei Wuxian held out his palm.
“I did not take your bet.”
“You did so.”
“Gambling is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
“If you’d won, you’d say, ‘Oathbreaking is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, Wei Ying.’ You’d say, ‘Running out on a debt is forbidden, Wei Ying.’”
“If I had taken the bet. But I did not.”
Wei Wuxian clucked his tongue reprovingly and hopped off the desk, sitting himself more formally on the opposite side from Hanguang-jun. “Come along, Jin Rulan,” he said, gesturing to another cushion beside him. He cleared his throat, overlapped his hands before him, and bowed. “Hanguang-jun, greetings.”
Hanguang-jun eyed him. “Yes?”
“I am here to represent Jin Ling, courtesy name Rulan, leader of his sect and son of Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli. My nephew ,” he says, with more pride than Jin Ling has ever heard someone say those two words before.
Hanguang-jun narrowed his eyes. “Wei Ying.”
“Jin Rulan would like to offer himself in marriage to your son, Lan Sizhui.”
“Wei Ying,” he said again, his voice darker, warning.
Wei Wuxian held up one hand. “I know you must have some objections. We understand completely. Perhaps you’d like to summon Lan Sizhui? He may have important contributions to the conversation.”
Jin Ling held his tongue and glanced back and forth between the two of them. His heart was thundering in his chest. Hanguang-jun looked furious. Wei Wuxian looked quite calm, and as Jin Ling watched, his cocky attitude dropped for a moment, like a lowered fan. “Lan Zhan,” he murmured, and something in Hanguang-jun’s eyes flickered.
With a flick of his hand, he sent a paperman talisman shooting out the door, dart-fast. He didn’t look away from Wei Wuxian even once. The only thing he said was, “Certain?” and Wei Wuxian nodded slowly, once.
After a minute, Wei Wuxian turned to Jin Ling. “Tea?”
“Food and drink is prohibited in the administrative offices,” Hanguang-jun said crisply.
Wei Wuxian gave him an adoring look, hid his mouth from Hanguang-jun with a cupped hand, and mouthed to Jin Ling, Huge bitch.
There wasn’t time for tea, anyway, because there were hurrying footsteps outside, just a touch too slow to be considered running. Running, after all, was also forbidden.
Sizhui rounded the door and was halfway into a bow when he saw who was in the room and froze. His face went pale, and then bright red. He finished the bow. “You called me, Hanguang-jun?”
“Yes.” Hanguang-jun gave Jin Ling a long, cold look, and then turned his attention back to Sizhui. “Yiling-laozu is here to represent his nephew Jin-zongzhu’s offer of marriage. Speaking generally, do you wish to be married, A-Yuan?”
Sizhui’s face got, if possible, redder. It was blindingly obvious against the white of his Lan uniform. “Ah. Speaking generally…”
“Yes,” Hanguang-jun said.
“I’m not… against it.”
“Hanguang-jun,” Wei Wuxian said. “Invite your son to sit. There is no reason for him to hang around in the door like a servant.”
A single muscle in Hanguang-jun’s cheek spasmed, but he gestured silently to a cushion on his side of the table, and Sizhui came to sit. He didn’t look at Jin Ling, but then Jin Ling was having a hard time looking at him too, and he expected his face must be just as furiously red.
Wei Wuxian leaned forward, put his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. “Eh, Hanguang-jun, weren’t we just talking the other day about how kids these days have no respect?”
“And we reminisced about how back in our day, even if we broke a single precept, even if we didn’t cover our mouths to yawn, Lan Qiren would have us beaten with big sticks with rusty nails sticking out of them and then he’d make us walk up the mountain in the snow, barefoot the whole way, and eat nothing but rocks and dry grass for three days, and sleep in a bare hole in the ground?” He shook his head mournfully. “Ah, kids these days have it so easy, don’t they?”
There was a very strange shape to Hanguang-jun’s mouth. Incredulously, Jin Ling thought he might be fighting off a smile. “They do,” Hanguang-jun said.
“So impertinent and precocious. No notion of hardship and suffering.”
Wei Wuxian slapped his palm on the table. “So tell me, wise and sage Hanguang-jun, how I came to be sitting in the same room with the only two respectful and upstanding young cultivators in all the country?”
Without missing a beat, Hanguang-jun said, “You mean myself and Lan Sizhui?”
Wei Wuxian paused, then shrieked a laugh. Sizhui ducked his head to hide a grin too, but Jin Ling was too incredulous to react other than to let his jaw drop. Had Hanguang-jun joked?
Wei Wuxian shook a finger at him. “We’re hardly young anymore! Ey, ey, Hanguang-jun, are you going to play it like that? Shall we get jugs of wine and hammer it all out while we’re drunk like old grandfathers?”
“No.” Hanguang-jun folded his hands on the table. “Present your case.”
Wei Wuxian shot Jin Ling a sly look out of the corner of his eye and sat up straight, hands on his knees. In tones like the most perfect of scholars, he recited the litany of Jin Ling’s lineage and titles and distinctions, his lands and assets, the minor clans who were allied to him, the number of cattle owned by his farmers, the acreage of his fields, the amount of tax collected annually from his tenants, the notable temples and roads and landmarks within his borders. He praised the long and noble glory of the Jin sect like he’d been paid to do it.
Jing Ling listened first with tension, and then confusion, and then terror. He jabbed Wei Wuxian’s knee under the table, and he risked glances at Hanguang-jun and Sizhui: The former was as still and expressionless as Jin Ling had ever seen him; the latter… nearly the same. And that was horrifying. Sizhui was listening with calm, serene politeness. His spine had grown as straight as Hanguang-jun’s, and his blush had completely gone. That, right there, was Lan Sizhui. There was nothing to be seen of A-Yuan.
Jin Ling tugged more urgently at Wei Wuxian’s sleeve under the table and was flicked off like an annoying fly.
He began, quietly, to panic. Wei Wuxian continued to drone interminably about grain tariffs.
“Uncle,” he hissed, finally.
Wei Wuxian stopped abruptly and looked to him in surprise, twisted so far that his face was almost completely turned away from Hanguang-jun and Sizhui. “How dare you! After all I said about you being such an upstanding and respectful young man, you interrupt your own uncle? I suppose you’re going to accuse me of having forgotten some trivial matter? What could you possibly have to say that the esteemed Hanguang-jun and his ward might care about more than these very important matters of state? Hm? What do you have to say for yourself, eh?”
“I’m in love with him, to start with,” Jin Ling snarled. “So stop fucking this up for me.”
With the eye that Hanguang-jun and Sizhui couldn’t see at this angle, Wei Wuxian winked.
Jin Ling realized that he’d been played. Then he realized that every person in the room had been played.
Wei Wuxian turned back to the table as if amazed and shocked. “How about that! All those impressive names and titles and things, and he’s in love with A-Yuan. Fancy that!”
If Jin Ling was going to die on the spot, or possibly be swallowed up by the floor, then he would go with his dignity clenched white-knuckled in both fists. He allowed himself to fantasize, vividly, about running away to become a rogue cultivator or possibly a hermit in the Burial Mounds. He didn’t move a muscle. He tipped his chin up, and silently dared Sizhui to look at him.
Sizhui didn’t. Hanguang-jun had sat back, and Sizhui was bright red again, and he too looked like he wanted to die. They were glancing at each other.
Jin Ling watched them steadily. Underneath the table, Wei Wuxian tweaked a finger against his knee. Jin Ling shot him a poisonous look out of the corner of his eye, but Wei Wuxian only grinned at him and mouthed: Good job.
Uncle Jiang Cheng had been right the whole time. This was the most obnoxious person Jin Ling knew.
“A-Yuan,” said Hanguang-jun.
“Yes, Hanguang-jun?” Sizhui squeaked.
Hanguang-jun was silent for a long time, gazing at him. “I will be unavailable the rest of the day,” he said at last. “We will recommence tomorrow.” He stood, and swept out of the room.
Wei Wuxian stretched hugely, yawned, and leaned back on his hands. “Not a bad day’s work, especially before noon.” He cracked his neck. “I think I’m going to go back to bed.” He rolled to his feet, shook out the skirts of his robes, and drawled as he walked out the door, “Don’t bother me unless something’s on fire.”
Jin Ling realized, with equal parts dismay and delight, that he’d been left alone in the room with Sizhui.
For a long time, neither of them said anything. Jin Ling fought down his impatience and impetuousness. He wanted to move. He wanted to run or shout or-- something .
He was in the Cloud Recesses, and probably all of that was forbidden, and Uncle Jiang had told him that he must be a perfect gentleman. He smoothed the skirts of his robes over his thighs and folded his hands neatly. He looked at Sizhui.
Sizhui was already looking at him with wide, dark eyes, his soft mouth half-open as if he were about to speak, or had been about to speak for some time now.
Jin Ling fought down another wave of instinct: Babble, chatter, bury the enemy in bluster and bravado until they were subdued.
Sizhui wasn’t the enemy, and he still looked like he was about to speak. Any moment. Any moment now.
“Is it true?” Sizhui said eventually.
Jin Ling gave him a calm look and said, in as close to an imitation of Hanguang-jun’s tones as he could, “Lying is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
Sizhui’s cheeks went pink again. “Is it true?”
“I’m in love with you, A-Yuan,” Jin Ling said, because it was the truth, so what did he have to be embarrassed of, anyway? A strong man stood for honesty.
Sizhui covered his face with both hands.
From his belt pouch, Jin Ling took the golden comb. He set it on the table with a click and pushed it across to Sizhui. “This is yours.”
Sizhui peeked between his fingers, saw what was on the table, made a strangled noise, and hid his face in his sleeve. “Please take it away.”
Jin Ling’s heart fell. “You don’t want it?”
“I want it safe. I--” He lowered his hands slowly. His face was still bright red. “Before. Last time. Hanguang-jun saw the silver comb and he said it wasn’t right for me to keep a gift if I’d turned away the--suitor--” His voice cracked a bit on the word, “who gave it to me. He told me to send it back to you.”
Jin Ling’s heart rose again, slowly and hopefully. “But you didn’t.”
“I was very busy!” Sizhui protested. “And then I… pretended like I’d forgotten, and he didn’t ask me about it, so I just… didn’t wear it. I thought it would be alright to keep it as long as I didn’t use it?” He bit his lip and looked at the gold comb. “I don’t know what he’d say if he saw this one. It breaks too many rules.”
“Why did you keep it?”
Sizhui ducked his head. “I… don’t know. Thinking of sending it back to you made me sad.”
“Well, good that you didn’t, because I would have thrown it into the koi pond too.”
“Why do you want to marry me?” Sizhui blurted.
Caught off guard, Jin Ling said the first thing that came to his tongue: “Because you got into the koi pond with me to help.”
There was a beat of silence, and he swallowed, and he realized that it was true, it was the whole essence of why he’d thought of Sizhui in the first place.
“I made a mistake and I had to fix it,” he said, “and you climbed in with me, even though it was gross and muddy and it ruined your clothes. In the future, I… I’m probably going to make other mistakes that I have to fix.” And maybe you’ll climb into the koi pond with me again, he couldn’t quite say.
“You didn’t need my help, though,” Sizhui said quietly. “You were the one who found it, in the end.”
“It’s not about who found it,” Jin Ling said, heated. “It’s about--” He didn’t have words for it. It was just about Sizhui being there . It was about how Jin Ling didn’t like making mistakes and didn’t like it when anyone saw, but if someone had to see it, he wanted it to be Sizhui. “Wei Wuxian came to my house to get drunk once. A few weeks ago. He called Hanguang-jun his best friend.” He swallowed and dropped his eyes for the first time in minutes. “You’re my best friend, A-Yuan.” That, at last, made Sizhui smile. This gave him such a rush of hope and courage that before he could think better of it, he said, “Do you think you might want to marry me?”
Sizhui froze, coughed. “I think… that Hanguang-jun was right and I need the day to think about it.”
“I understand,” Jin Ling said. And strangely, he did. He’d spoken the truth, and he’d had Yiling-laozu, the world’s leading expert on talking Lans into ridiculous things, speak for him too. It was the best showing he could make. “Is there anything else I can do? Or say? To--prove it?”
“You don’t need to prove anything,” Sizhui said, so gently and kindly that Jin Ling wanted, again, to be swallowed up by the floor. “I said I’d believe you if you called me A-Yuan, didn’t I?”
“I suppose,” Jin Ling said. He stood abruptly, bowed as deep as he could, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow, A-Ling.”
He drifted aimlessly around the Cloud Recesses that day. He tried to go back to the Jingshi to find his uncle and hang off his sleeve and bemoan his fate--surely he would die before tomorrow, surely no one had ever suffered like this in the whole history of civilization--but upon approaching it, he heard some unspeakable noises and expended half of his energy in the single portal spell he’d been able to get Jin Guangyao to teach him, teleporting halfway across the Cloud Recesses in a single instant of pure, concentrated nope .
Around midafternoon he went back to the chambers he’d been given and settled into meditation on the shade of the back porch, facing the trees. He must have gone quite deep, because when he opened his eyes again, the angle of the shadows had moved noticeably and Sizhui was sitting beside him reading a book.
Jin Ling flailed and nearly fell off the porch, pressing a hand to his chest to keep his heart from bursting out of his chest. “What the hell, A-Yuan,” he gasped. “Why are you here? It’s not tomorrow.”
“I know,” Sizhui said, putting his book down. “I wanted to ask you something.”
“Alright,” Jin Ling said, trying to get back even a fraction of the inner tranquility he’d had mere moments ago. “What is it?”
“Could I kiss you?”
Jin Ling nearly fell off the porch again. “What,” he shrieked. “What!”
Sizhui was frowning, concerned. “I wasn’t sure if it was fair to ask you, considering everything,” he said. “And if it costs you anything to do it, then I don’t want to at all. But…”
Jin Ling stared at him, speechless.
Sizhui folded his hands in his lap. “I was trying to think about it all logically, and I know Wei-qianbei pointed out all the--what did he call them?--matters of state and so forth, and I just thought--” He wasn’t even blushing, the absolute bastard. Was this what Wei Wuxian had meant by pointing out that sometimes you hated a Lan just a little tiny bit for being so much better than you? This must be. Damn the Lan sect. “--I just thought, I don’t really know how I feel, and I don’t really know how to figure it out--it’s like a math problem with too many unknown variables--but I thought if I could kiss you, then at least I’d know how I felt about that.” Sizhui nodded. “But then I thought it might upset you, if I decided that I didn’t… like it.”
Jin Ling reflected on what might well be his single opportunity to kiss Sizhui, and indeed what might well be his single opportunity to ever kiss anyone. If tomorrow went poorly and he had to go back to the Burial Mounds to be a hermit and stare at the barren empty landscape (like his heart) then there certainly wouldn’t be anyone there to kiss.
“Well,” he said, scowling, “fine, but you can’t hold it against me if I’m bad at it, because I haven’t done it before.”
“Me neither,” Sizhui said seriously. “There’s not even any books about it, not that I can find.”
There were, in fact, several books about it, and Jin Ling owned some of them, hidden under his mattress in Carp Tower, but he was not going to start thinking about Sizhui and those books in the same context, and he was not about to risk his entire life and future happiness by daring to have a single lewd thought right in the middle of the Cloud Recesses, in front of a Lan who could probably smell it on someone. So with no great composure, he said recklessly, “Yes, sure, okay,” and leaned in to press his lips hard against Sizhui’s.
It hurt a bit, his teeth against the back of his lips, and their noses were in the way, and for a wild moment Jin Ling was fairly sure even he wouldn’t really care whether or not he did this again, and he certainly wouldn’t blame Sizhui for passing on it either--and then Sizhui made a soft protesting noise, and the pressure was suddenly better, and then Sizhui opened his mouth and Jin Ling was dead, he was just dead. That was it, no more Jin sect, his line had ended right there on the back porch of the guest house of the Cloud Recesses.
Sizhui took his face between his cool hands and Jin Ling felt like he was about to burst into flame or shatter into a hundred thousand pieces like a delicate porcelain vase flung against a stone floor. Jin Ling pulled back after a few moments, sitting on his heels, and he was about to say, “I hope that helped, I’m going to go drown myself in the nearest body of water now,” when Sizhui said, “Wait, let me just--” and kissed him again, pushing forward until he was half leaning over Jin Ling.
His mouth was unbearably soft, and Jin Ling thought wildly that he didn’t know how he was going to have any brain left to think of anything else but Sizhui’s bottom lip, the way he tasted like green tea and smelled like rain and the bamboo forest and fresh soap.
Jin Ling pushed him away firmly and thought of absolutely nothing, nothing at all, nothing whatsoever, because if he let even a single whisper of a thought into his head, it was going to be a lewd one and then that was it, everything was over.
Sizhui was staring at him. “Did you--”
“What,” said Jin Ling, sharper than he should have.
“You didn’t like it?”
“Did,” said Jin Ling.
“Oh. Good. Then can I just--” and Sizhui leaned forward again.
Jin Ling scrambled back. The Lan sect was made of demons. “That’s enough to be going on with, isn’t it?” he asked desperately.
Sizhui sat back, clearly disappointed. “I guess .” And then, a moment later, “We could keep going, though, if you wanted.”
It was as if every single uncle that Jin Ling had--too many for any reasonable person to tolerate--appeared in his head at once and screamed at him not to do it (except for Uncle Wei Wuxian, who was only standing off to one side of his mental landscape and laughing to himself. Traitor.)
Rather choked, he said, “It’s probably forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, isn’t it?”
“Oh, only in public and on holidays. We can go inside if you want.” Sizhui bit his lip and glanced at the door to Jin Ling’s bedroom. Jin Ling thought about telling Sizhui that if he wanted his lip bitten like that, then Jin Ling would do it for him.
The mental choir of uncles screamed at him again, but Jin Ling’s libido screamed louder, so he said, “Fuck it,” and grabbed Sizhui by the front of his robes.
When he bit Sizhui’s lip for him, Sizhui made a broken sound and pushed him onto his back, and then Jin Ling got his hands in Sizhui’s soft hair and--
It was something like meditation, in that he must have lost time, and that the rest of the world sort of drifted away and all that existed was the damp rush of their breath between them, the maddening silk-softness of the inner side of Sizhui’s lip, and the prickling fire that burst along his nerves wherever Sizhui touched him. It felt nothing like using spiritual energy--it was as if his whole body was a conduit of lightning.
They quickly got good at it (in Jin Ling’s opinion), and he could have kept going for hours and hours more, Sizhui above him with his hair falling out of its topknot and spilling around their faces, his tongue in Jin Ling’s mouth and his hands on Jin Ling’s face and his ribs, and Jin Ling was just beginning to think about how nice it would be to bite that beautiful white neck when someone said, “Sizhui.”
They scrambled apart, and Jin Ling knew it was all for nothing, because Sizhui’s hair was a mess and his forehead ribbon askew and his mouth was kiss-swollen and the color was high in his cheeks and his clothes were all disarrayed and wrinkly because Jin Ling hadn’t been able to keep himself from grabbing at them, and because he had recognized that voice, and it was Hanguang-jun, and he was dead.
Jin Ling flailed himself onto his knees and flung himself into a bow, face-down against the floorboards of the porch.
“H-hanguang-jun, what are you doing here?” Sizhui said. His voice sounded rough. Jin Ling squeezed his eyes closed and waited for death.
“Looking for you. It is dinnertime,” Hanguang-jun said. “Come.” Jin Ling couldn’t read a damn thing in his voice, except that it sounded ice-cold and full of doom. He was dead, he was dead, his heart was still beating but he was so incredibly dead.
“Ah.… Yes, Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui said meekly.
Jin Ling didn’t dare move or look up for several minutes after Sizhui had climbed down from the porch and shuffled off after Hanguang-jun. He remained in his deep bow, quite unable to believe that his head was still attached to his body, and even after he’d sat up, slow and tentative, he couldn’t bring himself to move from the back porch.
It was minutes later that he heard running footsteps and Wei Wuxian jogged around the corner, spotted him, and stopped, hands on his hips and breathing heavily. “Well,” he said. “Not ideal. Not really ideal.”
“Should I… leave?” Jin Ling said, voice wavering.
“Abscond in the night? No. Well. Not yet. I’ll let you know by midnight. Let me go a round or two with Lan Zhan about it first.”
“He’s being an old man about it, that’s all,” Wei Wuxian said firmly, sitting on the edge of the porch near Jin Ling and leaning back against one of the wooden pillars. “Aiya, look at the state of you. Did Sizhui drag you backwards through a thornbush?”
“I didn’t do anything, I swear, it was--”
Wei Wuxian held up a hand. “I don’t need the details and I also don’t give a shit. Sizhui’s trying to take all the blame, what are your thoughts on that?”
“That’s not true!” Jin Ling shouted. “Why are you here? Go get him out of trouble!”
Uncle Wei waved a hand dismissively. “Ah, he’s fine, he’s holding his own. He got himself into it, so he can get himself out.”
Jin Ling toppled over to one side and curled into a ball. “If Hanguang-jun forbids me to marry him--”
“Then you elope into the sunset and make rude gestures at him as you go. I give you permission,” Uncle said, magnanimous. “And he won’t be able to say a damn thing, because that’s what he and I did to Lan Qiren.”
“It’s different,” Jin Ling said despondently. “I’m a sect leader. I can’t afford to make an enemy of the Lans.” He sniffled hugely. “Especially in the current political climate.”
Uncle spluttered with laughter. “You sound like one of those horrible people who always speaks at diplomacy banquets,” he wheezed. “Oh, my sides. A boy your age has no call to be using words like that when he’s just been caught kissing somebody. The current political climate, ah, help me.”
Jin Ling pushed himself up. “I need you to be serious right now!” he howled. He banged his hands against the floorboards. The shock and embarrassment was starting to wear off and now he was left with a dawning sense of horror, an awareness of how it might look from the outside. “You don’t understand,” he said in a smaller voice. “I think I just made a… a really, really big mistake.”
Uncle gave him a fond and pitying look. “You kissed a boy you liked. It’s not the end of the world.”
“No--no but it is,” he said. He was staring unseeing at the floor, thinking of… of everything he knew about politics, about the alliances of the clans, about the ways that bonds could be forged or broken with a mere whisper--and this was so much more than a whisper. “Hanguang-jun could destroy me with this.”
Wei Wuxian gave him a very strange look. “What are you talking about?”
His brain was moving faster. “He could, he--all he’d have to say is that I harassed his ward, or pressed my suit and--”
“Whoa, slow down, that’s not--”
“ Shut up ,” Jin Ling snarled. “Shut up, stop, listen to me!” He panted for breath. “How many generations of scandal do you think the Jin sect can survive?”
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian said. “Calm down. Nothing will happen.”
Jin Ling hurled a cushion at him--Wei Wuxian caught it easily, staring at him in bewilderment. “Is it nothing if people die because of this? You told me that the politics don’t matter, except--except they do, the politics are everything--”
“Where in the world did you get an idea like that?” Wei Wuxian said.
And Jin Ling snapped, “My uncle Jin Guangyao,” and Wei Wuxian went quite, quite still. Jin Ling watched him, his hands fisted in the fabric of his robes. “He says--he used to say--that the higher you go in society, the fewer choices you get, because the more constraints there are. There are people watching you, lives that depend on you. Choices you make cause ripples that can topple emperors.”
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian said, very softly.
“Listen to me,” Jin Ling said, and Wei Wuxian obligingly shut his mouth. Jin Ling scrubbed away a couple angry tears. “I--I can’t elope with Sizhui, even if he wanted to. Because if I did, then Hanguang-jun hates me, and turns against me, so then all of Lan Sect is against me, and he’s Chief Cultivator, so then all the other sects turn against me, and then--how long is it going to take for there to be a war over this? The other option is that I just… I just leave, I just give up and go home, but maybe Hanguang-jun still hates me, and--and tells someone that I...” He swallowed hard. “That I pressed my suit when it was unwelcome. That I harassed his heir.” He was shaking now, shaking to think of how easy it would be for someone to believe that there was just poison in his line, and that he had it in him, just as his uncle and grandfather had. “Jin Guangyao could have torn down a sect to its foundations with less than that. Rumors kill people. Politics matters, and you told me--”
“A-Ling.” Wei Wuxian surged forward, seized him by the shoulders, and shook him until his teeth chattered. “Shut up. I am telling you it will not happen. This is all nonsense.” He sounded so firm and so sure, and Jin Ling shoved him off.
“It isn’t! It isn’t nonsense! It’s not just my life, it’s--hundreds, thousands of people’s lives that I just--”
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian said. Uncle Jiang Cheng would have shouted it. Uncle Wei Wuxian said it so softly that Jin Ling stammered to a stop. “You’ve missed something. You’ve missed the most important thing.”
What? He hadn’t. He hadn’t missed anything, he--he’d practically had Uncle Jin Guangyao’s voice in his ear, whispering all of it, pointing out the threads of influence and consequence as they spread like fractures in a mirror all the way across the country. He should have listened better to those lessons. He should have seen them for what they were, a great gift that Uncle Jin Guangyao was trying to give him, and a warning--still dreadfully true advice he needed to heed, even though the memory of it was… tainted. How wretched to have learned such an important lesson from someone who he had loved so much , yet who had himself so horribly misused the very tool he’d given Jin Ling.
“What did I miss?” he said in a very small voice. Could it possibly get worse?
“You missed… pretty much everything about Lan Zhan by a margin of several miles.”
“Yep,” said Wei Wuxian. “All of it. Personality, motives, philosophies, life experiences, goals both as a public and private individual… Everything you said, it won’t happen. I guarantee it. That isn’t the man I’m married to.”
“Want a worst-case scenario? He’s a huge, huge bitch about it. Sizhui decides you’re not worth the headache. I take you out and get you blind drunk, and then we sit down with your Uncle Jiang and think of someone else for you to marry. That’s it. That’s the worst that can happen. A bit of heartbreak and some quality time with your family. Nobody’s going to die.”
“But,” Jin Ling tried, again.
Wei Wuxian held up a finger and smiled. “Let’s remember what’s happening at the other end of the Cloud Recesses right now, right at this very moment.”
Jin Ling eyed him carefully. “What?” he asked.
“Sizhui is trying to take the blame.” Wei Wuxian laced his fingers together and set them on his crossed knees. “I didn’t stay to hear much. Lan Zhan snapped at me about my rake of a nephew taking liberties, and Sizhui--I got the impression Sizhui had repeated himself five or six times and was not being heard, because he got right up in Lan Zhan’s face and said in no uncertain terms that that wasn’t what happened, and that he didn’t want to hear anybody talking about you like that. He is defending you.” He beamed at Jin Ling. “Good timing for my little A-Yuan to show how he takes after me, eh?” Jin Ling didn’t know what to say. Wei Wuxian hummed a silly little song, swaying back and forth a bit, and added in a murmur, “Told you so.”
“Told me what?” Jin Ling said faintly.
“That you only needed to convince Sizhui, not the scary one.” Wei Wuxian’s smile turned impish. “You must be a pretty good kisser, kid.” Jin Ling hid his face in his hands and Wei Wuxian laughed. “See? Not the end of the world. On behalf of all your uncles, I’m confident in saying that we’re all very proud of you: You kissed a boy without starting a war. Well done.” He uncrossed his legs, slid off the edge of the porch, and stretched. “Now, if you don’t need me for anything else, I have to go get ready for negotiations tomorrow and break into the Lan administrative offices so I can rifle through their ledgers and record books. Gonna figure out how much land and money I can ask Lan Zhan to settle on A-Yuan for a dowry, considering that yours is… you know, Lanling and associated territories. It’s okay, you can say it--I’m the best uncle.”
Jin Ling perhaps lacked faith.
He tossed and turned the whole night, catastrophizing and trying not to catastrophize, wondering where Sizhui was, wondering why Sizhui didn’t sneak back to see him and tell him what had happened, wondering whether assassins were even now coming to throw him off one of the beautiful and picturesque Gusu waterfalls.
He finally slept just as the pitch black of night was beginning to turn blue and grey, and woke to a pounding on his door.
He rolled out of bed, pulled on his clothes, and said, “Come in.”
Wei Wuxian swept in, immaculate in perfectly-tailored black and red as if he were attending a high diplomatic summit. He looked Jin Ling over and frowned. “You wore that yesterday.”
“I didn’t bring luggage,” Jin Ling said, bleary. “I just came straight here.”
Wei Wuxian groaned and walked right back out the door. Jin Ling went back to bed.
Wei Wuxian let himself in the second time and shook Jin Ling awake by the shoulder. “Up, little bunny, up.”
“I thought you hated mornings.”
“I do. I didn’t sleep. Put these on.” He dropped a pile of fabric on Jin Ling’s head. Jin Ling spluttered and pulled them off--black trousers and a red under-robe.
“These are yours,” Jin Ling said.
“Obviously. Get up, get dressed.”
“I can’t wear these.”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “It’s fine, just wear your Jin robe over the top. What else are you going to do? You didn’t bring clean clothes.”
Jin Ling shuffled out of bed and behind the dressing screen. The trousers were too long, but they could be stuffed into the tops of his boots. The red robe was nearly the right size around the torso--Wei Wuxian was very slender, and Jin Ling strong for his age--but the sleeves were long too. He turned the cuffs up as neatly as he could and pulled on his gold-and-cream outer-robe with the Jin sigil on the shoulders and looked down at himself.
Lanling Jin and Yiling Wei. He was missing-- “Go find a purple sash,” he said.
“Just do it,” he snapped. Then he’d be Lanling Jin, Yiling Wei, and Yunmeng Jiang, and that felt right.
Uncle came back, a purple sash around his own waist to match the one he’d brought Jin Ling, and he brushed out Jin Ling’s hair for him and tied it back neatly, narrating in a low murmur about everything he’d found in the Lan account books, and when he’d finished, he dropped a kiss on the top of Jin Ling’s head.
“Too nervous to eat?” he said. “Have a bit of tea. You look like you didn’t sleep a wink.”
“Speak for yourself,” Jin Ling said. His teeth were practically chattering with nerves.
Uncle scoffed. “I crawled back into bed at fifteen minutes before five this morning, right in time to yawn very cutely for Lan Zhan when he woke up, just as if I’d been there all night, and he didn’t suspect a thing . I look great.”
He practically poured tea down Jin Ling’s throat, nagged him into eating two entire bites of food, and bundled him out the door. Jin Ling trembled harder with every step towards the administrative offices, and Uncle threw an arm around his shoulders and hauled him up against his warm side. “Worst that can happen is a bit of heartbreak,” he murmured. “Lan Zhan won’t even dare to scold you, and if he does I’ll remind him about… oh, Phoenix Mountain, for one.”
“You don’t want the details,” Uncle said, winking. “Let’s just say that I will not be tolerating a lick of hypocrisy today, and that I have spent years of my life tenderly gathering blackmail material on the esteemed Hanguang-jun. There’s probably a Lan precept against fighting dirty, and I will break it if necessary.” He let out a sigh of satisfaction. “Ah, this is going to be fun.”
Jin Ling wanted to die.
Hanguang-jun was waiting at his desk with his hands folded. Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian sat across from him, as they had yesterday. “Where’s A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian asked, settling himself comfortably on the cushion.
“Coming,” Hanguang-jun said.
They only had to wait a few minutes, and then Sizhui strode into the room, immaculate and beautiful as ever, with a stubborn expression on his face. He gave Hanguang-jun a look and kicked the fourth cushion from beside him (directly opposite Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian) over to the third side, close enough that Jin Ling could have reached out and taken his hand. He bowed silently to one side of the table, then to the other, then sat himself decidedly on the cushion, his posture impeccable, his hands neatly folded in his lap, and--Jin Ling now saw--the silver comb in his hair.
Jin Ling’s heart beat so hard in his chest that he could feel it against the backs of his ribs, and he had to fix his eyes on the table and bite the inside of his cheek to keep from moving.
“Sorry for making everyone wait,” Sizhui said. “Please begin.”
Hanguang-jun’s jaw clenched.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, isn’t this fun?” Wei Wuxian said, putting his elbows on the table. “Isn’t this nice? We didn’t have anyone doing this for us. I suppose eloping is very romantic, though--saved us the annoyance of a big wedding too, lots of benefits to--”
“Wei Ying,” Hanguang-jun said flatly, and Uncle stopped with a grin.
“Oi. A-Ling,” Uncle drawled. “You wanna marry that Lan boy, Sizhui?”
Jin Ling managed, barely, “Yes.”
Hanguang-jun deigned to sigh, and after a long, horrible silence, he said, “Sizhui.”
And in a warm, clear, firm voice, Sizhui said: “Yes,” and Jin Ling nearly fainted on the spot.
Wei Wuxian rubbed his hands together with glee and scooted close to the table, grabbing for ink and paper and brushes. “Good, very good! Now to the best part! You two can go now, bye,” he added, flicking his hand at Jin Ling and Sizhui dismissively. He cracked his knuckles, pushed back his sleeves, and gave Hanguang-jun a cheeky grin. In a horrible, horrible voice that Jin Ling absolutely never wanted to hear ever again in his life, Wei Wuxian said, “Negotiate with me, gege.”
“Wei-qianbei,” Sizhui said sharply. “Please be serious.”
Jin Ling turned to him and grabbed his sleeve. “Let’s just go,” he said in a low voice. “Let’s leave. Right now. This is already getting weird.”
“No,” Sizhui whispered back. “We can’t.”
“It’ll get weirder if we’re not here, and then it’ll never get finished,” Sizhui said. “I’m sorry. Please be strong. Just try not to listen.”
“Are you both still here?” Wei Wuxian said airily.
Sizhui gave Jin Ling a look of despairing but determined resolve and nodded at him once. Jin Ling nodded back, and Sizhui put his hand over Jin Ling’s, still on his arm. “Please be serious, Wei-qianbei,” he said, and Wei Wuxian, draped halfway across the table, turned to give them a filthy look, shoving himself back onto his cushion with a huff.
“Children have no respect,” Wei Wuxian muttered. “None.”
“None,” Hanguang-jun agreed. “Tell me about grain tariffs,” he said.
Wei Wuxian made a noise that Jin Ling definitely never wanted to hear again. “Fuck the grain tariffs,” he said, in a breathy tone that somehow suggested the grain tariffs were, very possibly, himself. “Give A-Yuan and A-Ling twenty percent of the Gusu Lan canal tax, to start with, collected quarterly; seven hundred thousand acres of settled farmland bordering the Lanling Jin territories, and including the villages of Qian’s Spring, North Crossing, and Zhouzhang, fishing rights in the Xinyi River.” He scrawled it all down as he went and shoved the paper across the table to Hanguang-jun.
Hanguang-jun pushed it back without looking at it. “Seven percent canal tax, four hundred thousand acres including the villages Qian’s Spring and North Crossing, no fishing rights.”
Wei Wuxian hummed, took a fresh sheet of paper, and used the edge of the desk to tear it into eight neat rectangles. “Ten percent, five thousand, the villages of Qian’s Spring and Zhouzhang, yes fishing rights, and a fifty-fifty split of the profits of any mining operations done on the land.” He bit his finger and used the blood to scrawl identical talisman sigils on each of the papers. Jin Ling didn’t recognize which one it was.
Hanguang-jun glared at him. Jin Ling was fairly sure it was a glare, anyway. He was trying not to look, or listen. He and Sizhui were still clutching each others’ hands.
Wei Wuxian smiled, shuffled the eight talismans into a neat pile, and set them aside. “Well? We certainly can draw this out if you’re feeling like… mmm… taking your time,” he purred. “Two hours, three… We can bicker about the fishing rights for as long as you want. But we both know this is both more than generous and well within Gusu Lan’s means.”
Hanguang-jun’s glare got stormier. “What does Lanling Jin give in return?”
“Lanling Jin waives tariffs on Gusu’s grain for five years, commissions a bridge to be built over the Xinyi River, and Jin Ling personally gifts you a two hundred year old guqin, or so I hear. I haven’t seen it myself. Oh, and they pay the full initial cost of establishing mines at Qian’s Spring, plus all operational fees.”
“Mines,” Hanguang-jun said.
“Silver,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m sure. I checked. Not that the Jin sect needs any more money, but there it is, and we’ll have half of it.”
“Done,” Hanguang-jun said.
“Get the fuck out,” Wei Wuxian said with the barest sideways glance, and then he was throwing his eight talismans against the walls as Sizhui bodily hauled Jin Ling to his feet and scrambled for the door like the room was on fire.
Sizhui slammed the door closed after them and leaned on it, palms pressed together and eyes shut tight, fervently praying, “Please remember number eight, please remember number eight,” under his breath.
“What do those talismans do,” Jin Ling said, more alarmed than he could ever remember being in his life, and a moment later there was the signature pop and hiss on the other side of the door as a talisman activated--abruptly an eerie, muffling quiet fell over the room within.
Sizhui slumped with relief, then turned and drew a warding talisman across the door, a simple one that even little children could learn which did nothing but tell other cultivators do not enter . “Silencing talismans. One at each of the four compass points, one on the ceiling, one on the floor, one on the window, one on the door.” He winced. “Sometimes Wei-qianbei gets distracted and… um. Forgets the last couple.”
That had all happened very fast.
“Are we engaged?” Jin Ling said forlornly.
“Yes,” said Sizhui, and then he held out his hand. “Give me my comb.”