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my age has never made me wise

Chapter Text

They part at the border of Gusu at the height of summer, under the indifferent eyes of the sky that stretches above them. The grasses around their feet sway with the eastern wind that carries with it the sweet scent of the valley below. With the goodbye still lingering on his lips, Wei Wuxian tightens his grip on Lil’ Apple’s reins and goes his own way. They are not parting forever—they are not parting for sixteen years marked by death and mourning, measured with scars that will never fade—but their goodbye is bittersweet nonetheless.

Still, as Wei Wuxian plays the familiar melody, he does not look back. He can’t, if he really means to leave.

The path takes him down the slope of the mountain and into the valley that stretches for many li north in the direction of Lanling. It’s as good a direction as any, and if he’s lucky, maybe he will be able to convince Jin Ling to put up with him for a week or two and send him on the road with some supplies and a full money pouch. Not that Jin Ling doesn’t have better things to do these days, as the youngest Sect Leader in recent history, but Wei Wuxian is good at insinuating himself into the lives of others. Too good, sometimes.

He wasn’t lying, though, when he told Lan Zhan that he didn’t know where his steps would take him. Who knows, maybe he will change his mind as soon as he reaches level ground, and he will make for Moling instead. There is nothing to tie him down, nothing to dictate a direction. He is a leaf in the wind.

He spends his first night alone at a small inn in a village at the foot of the mountains. It’s packed full of locals drinking their problems away and playing games over cups of wine and bowls of peanuts. The proprietor is a harried middle-aged man with a thinning beard that reminds him of Lan Qiren, who shows him to the last unoccupied table, pressed against the wall just next to the kitchen entrance, then disappears in a hurry.

“My good man!” Wei Wuxian waves him over when the proprietor bumps into him for the third time on his way back from the kitchen. “Could I bother you for a jar of wine and some food? And a room for the night. I’ve been on the road for a while.”

He dusts the pretend dirt of the road off his clothes and makes a tired face for show. It’s just his bad luck that the grumpy proprietor is probably completely resistant to his charms. Still, he tells Wei Wuxian that he will have his room, and his wine will come in just a moment.

“Emperor’s Smile, if you have it!” he shouts after the man. This close to the Gusu border, they are still bound to serve it, and sure enough, after another fifteen minutes the proprietor reappears with a white ceramic jar and a single cup on a tray.

“Here you go, young master,” he says, setting the tray on the table with a loud clang, followed by a bowl of congee bland enough to mistake it for genuine Gusu cuisine.

Something like longing clenches its fist around his heart. Ridiculous. It hasn’t even been a day since he and Lan Zhan parted ways on that mountaintop. It hasn’t even been a day since he left Gusu. There is no reason for him to feel homesick for a place that is not even his home.

He’s halfway through the jar when the downpour starts, banging furiously against the windows like an army of fierce corpses. A group of villagers who looked like they were about to head home a moment ago sit back down and flag the proprietor for another jar of wine and more food.

It’s still pouring outside when the door opens with a groan of the hinges and two people walk in, shaking their hair out like dogs in wet weather.

“Ah, what a cursed storm,” one of them says, taking off his cloak and hanging it on a peg by the door to dry. “Boss,” he calls out, “do you still have free rooms for the night?”

His companion says nothing, looking around for a free table and finding none. Before he knows it, Wei Wuxian raises his hand and waves them over.

“There’s still room over at this table!” he says with a smile, his voice cutting above the din of the room.

The two men are not cultivators, but their clothes look well-made and well-kept, and Wei Wuxian can think of worse ways to spend the evening than talking to the two of them, subtly cajoling them into buying more wine. Who knows, maybe they will even catch him up on local gossip. It’s been strictly sect business ever since he stepped foot inside the Cloud Recesses again, to accompany Lan Zhan in his ascension as Chief Cultivator, and he hungers to know what the rest of the world has been up to in his brief absence.

The two men look to each other, then back to Wei Wuxian, who raises his cup to them and gestures to the two unoccupied seats.

“Thank you, young master,” says the older one, bowing before he takes a seat across from Wei Wuxian. Now that they have come closer, he can see the family resemblance—father and son, most probably. The younger man makes himself comfortable in the seat to Wei Wuxian’s side and inclines his head as well. “We were caught in the downpour on our way to Gusu. Thank Heavens we found this place.”

“Gusu?” Wei Wuxian sits a little straighter at that, abandoning the embrace of the wall. “I’m just coming back from Gusu. What business brings you there?”

“Ah, sad business, I’m afraid,” the older man says. He speaks with the familiar cadences of Lanling, his speech distinguished, educated. “Forgive us, young master, our lack of manners. I am Zhong Qiao, and this is my son, Zhong Li. We are going to Gusu to seek audience with His Excellency.”

Wei Wuxian chokes down the mouthful of wine before it has the chance to go down the wrong pipe.

“And what do you want with the esteemed Hanguang-Jun?” he asks, his face once again a picture of composure. “The Cloud Recesses are notoriously hard to get into, from what I’m hearing.”

On instinct, he reaches into the pocket of his outer robes, his hand closing around the jade token Lan Zhan left with him, a tacit understanding that Wei Wuxian is welcome there whenever he decides to pay a visit.

“There have been strange things happening in our town for a while,” Zhong Qiao explains. “People going missing, strange sounds coming from the abandoned compound. We sent missives to Lanling, asking for assistance, but with everything happening, no one ever came. And with us being so close to the Gusu border, we hoped that maybe His Excellency could intervene…”

Wei Wuxian leans forward on his elbows, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

“I don’t think you need to bother His Excellency with this.”

He thinks of his money pouch, still full after Lan Zhan refused to let him go without enough money to last him at least a month. A little income on the side wouldn’t hurt, though, and if he got rid of whatever was plaguing the town, people would be all the more eager to buy his talismans.

“What you need is a rogue cultivator, and you happen to be sitting in the presence of one.” The words sting his tongue more than he expected. It’s never a good thing to be reminded he has no place to call his own now. No matter, though. What’s done is done. He turns his thoughts back to the issue at hand, continuing, “If you take me back with you, I can get rid of the problem for you. I just require some food and lodging in return.”

The young one—Zhong Li, Wei Wuxian recalls—looks at him with suspicion.

“Forgive me, young master,” he says, good upbringing trampling over his distrust, “but are we to believe that you, alone, can handle something Lanling would have sent an entire group of cultivators to fight?”

Wei Wuxian twirls the chopsticks in his hand. “So far, it seems like Lanling has sent no one,” he says, leaning back against the wall. “So between me and them, and trying to get into the Cloud Recesses without an invitation, it looks like I’m still the winning option.”

In the end, they agree to take him back to their hometown, two days’ worth of travel to the north-west. Wei Wuxian can still see apprehension in Zhong Li’s eyes, but his father seems to be content enough with the arrangement.

With a belly full of wine and food, he retires to his room just before midnight, but as soon as his head touches the pillow, he finds himself wide awake. The bed feels too cold and empty now, too big for just one person. He’s had the time to get used to sleeping alone at the Cloud Recesses, but now that he’s back on the road, it’s like his body has suddenly remembered that the lack of another person next to him should feel wrong.

He tosses and turns, tells himself not to be silly; there wouldn’t be anyone sleeping next to him from now on.

Eventually, the sleep comes, but far too soon he’s being woken up by the sound of knocking on his door.

“Young master,” comes Zhong Qiao’s voice from the other side, “we are ready to depart as soon as you are ready.”

With a groan, Wei Wuxian drags himself out of bed and dresses in haste, before grabbing his bags and joining his new travel companions downstairs. It’s already nearing ten in the morning; Lan Zhan has been too lenient on him, letting him sleep in instead of sending one of the junior disciples to wake him up in his guest quarters, and now Wei Wuxian has become used to languishing in the sheets past any reasonable hour of the morning.

How scandalized people would be to know that his awful sleeping habits are all Hanguang-Jun’s fault! He amuses himself with that thought as he goes to check on Lil’ Apple, who’s happily munching away on a bale of hay and makes his displeasure known when Wei Wuxian drags him away to saddle him.

“Now, now,” he says, patting him on the muzzle. “There are whole bushels of apples waiting for you on the other side of that journey, so you just be patient. It’s not like they didn’t feed you well in the Cloud Recesses, either. I saw Lan Jingyi sneak out with an armful of apples on more than one occasion.”

In response, Lil’ Apple only brays and stubbornly refuses to move. Wei Wuxian sighs and leans in until they’re almost nose to nose.

“Can’t you be a little nicer?” he implores.

“Young master?” A voice comes from behind him, and sure enough, when Wei Wuxian turns around, Zhong Qiao is there, eyeing him with curiosity.

Wei Wuxian just laughs and pulls on Lil’ Apple’s reins again, patting his backside with the flat of his hand to get the animal to move.

“Ah, don’t mind me, don’t mind me,” he says. “It’s just that this donkey is the most stubborn creature known to man.”

“You could always sell it,” suggests Zhong Li, joining his father and Wei Wuxian outside. “And get yourself a horse.”

The very thought of leaving Lil’ Apple behind for good makes something clench inside his chest. He waves a hand. “Ah, I could never,” he says with a smile. “We’ve been through too much together.”

They get on the road eventually, which weaves north through the valley for the first day before Zhong Qiao takes a left at a fork in the road and leads Wei Wuxian down a path he’s never trodden until now. It will be good for him, he thinks. This is what his departure from the Cloud Recesses was supposed to be about—roaming the world, free of any constraints for once.

“Young master,” Zhong Qiao says as they stop to make camp for the night in the absence of any inn nearby, “it just now occurs to me that we never caught your name. May we know whose presence we are in?”

People like them are too trusting for their own good, he thinks.

“Wei Zhan,” he says, the words rolling easily off his tongue as he busies himself with making the fire. The talisman burns to ashes quickly, and a moment later, the small pile of twigs and dead grass begins to smolder.

“And where do you hail from, Master Wei?” the man continues unperturbed.

Wei Wuxian makes a broad gesture with his hand. “All over,” he says. “It’s been a long time since I had a place to call home, but such is the life of a humble rogue cultivator. We go where the road takes us.”

Zhong Qiao nods sagely at that.

Wei Wuxian smothers a laugh in his sleeve. Then he remembers Song Lan, roaming the world with what’s left of Xiao Xingchen’s soul in his qiankun pouch, and the smile dies on his lips.

The town of Henyi hugs the edge of a forest on one side and a small lake on the other. They arrive close to sundown and Zhong Qiao points Wei Wuxian in the direction of the abandoned compound before he and his son leave him to get himself settled for the night at the local inn.

The bed still feels too big, and it’s too quiet. It doesn’t matter. He will get used to this.

The morning welcomes him with fog and clouds hanging low on the horizon. His pants keep clinging to his legs in the hot, muggy air, and even the proprietress, who was a positively agreeable woman the evening before, welcomes him with little more than a grunt of acknowledgment. It’s not even the right season for monsoon weather.

The tavern is surprisingly empty despite the fact that apparently a minor trading route to Moling goes right through the town. Though, Wei Wuxian supposes, if the word got out that the town was being plagued by some sinister forces, it’s no surprise that traders would rather brave the elements for one night than stay here.

He heads for the abandoned compound after breakfast, towering over the rest of the buildings from the hill it was built on. The gates to the house are closed and barred with wooden planks wider than his thigh, but Wei Wuxian just hoists himself into the air to land on the other side as quietly as he can. He can sense the resentful energy coiling on the other side of the door even from the center of the courtyard. Whatever hides there is old and powerful, and angry.

Not wanting to open the front door, no doubt old and rusted around the hinges, he finds a window instead, landing softly on his feet inside.

The yaoguai, as he soon finds out, takes the shape of a panther that towers over him, eyes glowing red in the dark, the growl deep and reverberating in its throat.

That explains the noises, Wei Wuxian thinks, and people going missing.

When he stumbles out of the house a while later, dragging the panther’s limp, dead body behind him, there is a gash on his arm from a furious claw he didn’t manage to avoid in time, and he can’t help but think that none of that would have happened if only Lan Zhan was still with him. He’s come to rely on Lan Zhan’s sword-fighting skills and the deadly notes of his guqin since his return to the world of the living, and he takes an indulgent moment to imagine the clash of steel and claws, the flash of a white robe in front of him, Lan Zhan taking the brunt of the impact. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It’s a childish, petulant thought, though, because Lan Zhan has better things to do than go wandering around the countryside with Wei Wuxian just for his amusement, but he has never claimed to act his age.

There are more people in the streets nearby when he emerges from beyond the gates, and the stares and whispers follow him all the way back to the tavern where he’s supposed to meet Zhong Qiao and Zhong Li at noon. For once, though, people are not looking at him with fear and distrust, even if some balk at the corpse dragged behind him; it’s a nice change of pace, Wei Wuxian has to admit.

“It was a yaoguai,” he explains once Zhong Qiao gets himself seated opposite him at the table, his son at his side. “Malevolent energy possessed the body of a panther that must have come down from the mountains at one point and made its lair in the abandoned house. But it is dead now. I left the body outside, if you want proof.”

For the first time since he met them, Zhong Li wipes the suspicious look off his face.

“Thank you, Master Wei,” he says. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

Wei Wuxian spends the next two days nursing his wounds at the tavern. He has nothing better to do, and the gash in his arm still feels tender to the touch, so he figures he can spare himself the discomfort of the road for just a little while. After all, there is no destination to this journey, no date he needs to meet.

As predicted, on the second day people start to approach him for talismans and protective spells, and by the time he finally leaves Henyi, he has more money in his pouch than he did when he first arrived.

Not a bad deal, all things considered. Minus the blood stains on his inner robe and the undershirt that was impossible to salvage.

From there, he travels further north, making for Lanling. He passes long stretches of the road that wind among fields and trudges through grasses that come up to Lil’ Apple’s belly when he gets bored of the beaten path. That has always been the case with him, never one for the wide road ahead. He sees no reason to stop now, especially not when the countryside is so beautiful, and the weather has improved.

He spends most of his days on the road, riding at a leisurely pace with his flute at his mouth, twisting the sounds into new melodies meant to amuse rather than destroy. This, too, is a nice change of pace.

After one week turns into two, turns into three, Wei Wuxian finds that he doesn’t mind this aimless roaming very much, at least for the time being. There will come a time, he knows, when the longing for roots to put somewhere in the soil will most likely return, but for now, he is content.

Whenever he passes through the towns and villages hidden away from the main roads, there is always work to be done: fierce corpses to get rid of, talismans to sell, malignant spirits to chase away. He gives different names, when people ask, but never his own. It’s an old habit and hard to shake. Mo Xuanyu’s is the name he gives most often. He likes to think of it as paying him back for the second chance he never expected to get. Young Mo Xuanyu wanted to be a cultivator, once upon a time, before he traded his own life in exchange for Wei Wuxian’s, and now there are people in this world who will remember the young rogue cultivator bearing his name, who came through their village and left it a little safer than he found it. That needs to be enough.

It hasn’t even been a month since he and Lan Zhan parted ways at the border of Gusu before he writes the first letter.

Dear Lan Zhan,

I bet you didn’t expect me to wait so long to write! You must be very busy with your Chief Cultivator duties and probably don’t have time to read my rambling letters, so I tried to hold off for as long as I could, but the weather has taken a turn for the worse again and I’m bored out of my mind, holed up at an inn in a small town north-west of Moling, waiting for the rain to pass. You wouldn’t believe it was still summer! I think I can smell autumn in the air, though, and so can Lil’ Apple, if his increased stubbornness is any indication. It’s like he knows the harsh months are coming.

I’m taking the scenic route to Lanling, not wanting to waste the opportunity to annoy my one and only favorite nephew with my presence. And maybe even this time I won’t get kicked out of the Koi Tower! What a refreshing change that would be—to leave it without any injuries for once.

My awful habit of sleeping in continues and I blame you for it entirely. If you hadn’t been so lenient with me when we returned to the Cloud Recesses, maybe I would have become the model follower of the Gusu Lan Sect principles. Ha! Imagine the face Lan Qiren would make! There are many things to miss about the Cloud Recesses, though, even if your early rising is not one of them.

Speaking of the Cloud Recesses, how are my favorite juniors? Last I heard, they were setting off with Wen Ning again. I’m glad that they seem to enjoy his company, even if I need to miss him in return.

I’m meeting so many interesting people on the road, though, to make up for it. Imagine that just last week I traveled for two days alongside a fortune teller from Baling, a woman so stern that she would make even your uncle feel like he broke all of your five thousand rules at once if she so much as looked at him. But she couldn’t resist my natural charm and good disposition. She even told me I would have a long, happy and fulfilling marriage! Can you imagine?

Even so, some things don’t change, and if people had a name to put with the face, many of them would not be so friendly anymore. Did you know that apparently the Yiling Patriarch caused an entire herd of cattle to fall ill and die overnight? And elsewhere, he caused a river to flood a couple villages and a small town in retribution for the local sect leader’s vocal opposition to his vile misdeeds. I had no idea I have been such a busy man, Lan Zhan! I’m sure I will soon find out that if the hens suddenly stop laying eggs, that’s somehow my fault as well. I have to admit, though, I’m impressed with my prowess in causing long-distance catastrophes.

Lan Zhan, you know that I like to joke around, but don’t think I’m so carefree as to forget about the most important things. How is your brother? I hope the seclusion eventually brings him some peace of mind and much-needed healing. Zewu-Jun is too good a person to suffer like that. It runs in the family, it seems.

I’m almost out of paper now, and the innkeeper won’t lend me more, so I must finish here. Hopefully this letter will find you well and not too fed up with the obstinacy of the venerable sect leaders who, no doubt, are causing you a lot of headaches still. You’re doing so well as Chief Cultivator, and I’m sure even the most stubborn of them will eventually come around.

I’m hoping the rain stops soon and I can move on. I’m getting fed up with this town and this inn, and this room, but I want to be rained on incessantly even less. I will write again soon, I’m sure, because as much as Lil’ Apple likes to keep me company, he’s not much of a conversationalist.

Until then, be well.

Wei Wuxian

The weather finally improves two days later and Wei Wuxian leaves the small, sleepy town behind, following the road north in the direction of Lanling. He doesn’t stray from the path this time, predicting that the ground will be too waterlogged after four days of constant rain to travel comfortably.

Now that the clouds are gone, the late summer sun makes him sweat under his robes, and at midday, he finds himself almost longing for the freezing waters of the Cold Spring at the Cloud Recesses.

He comes across the pond on his third day back on the road, tucked away behind an outcropping of rock. It’s a hot day, bound to get even hotter as the sun rises in the sky, and Wei Wuxian is tying Lil’ Apple’s reins to the nearest tree and undressing before he can even think about it. Under the shade of the trees that form a small grove around the pond, the water is blissfully cool when he submerges himself up to his collarbones.

His hair immediately escapes the messy topknot he tied it into before jumping into the pond, weighing him down, but he just dunks his entire head and emerges a moment later, spluttering.

“Nice donkey,” a female voice comes from behind him, and Wei Wuxian turns around so fast the world before his eyes begins to spin.

He’s still mostly submerged in the water, but his clothes are the laid out on the large rock by the edge of the pond, so he remains where he is for the time being, water dripping into his eyes. The woman, dressed in a grey robe and with a sword at her side, doesn’t seem to be particularly fazed by her discovery.

“Ah, if I’d known I’d have company, I would have made myself more presentable,” Wei Wuxian says, laughing weakly.

“Don’t mind me,” the woman says. “I just wanted to refill my waterskin. Then I found you instead.”

When she turns around, pointedly making her way to where Lil’ Apple has been tied to a tree, Wei Wuxian hoists himself onto the grass and begins to dress in a hurry.

“Lil’ Apple!” he shouts as he ties his inner robes around his waist. “Be nice! Behave!”

At that, the woman turns around. “Lil’ Apple?” she repeats incredulously.

Wei Wuxian only shrugs with a smile and puts his outer robe back on, then ties the sash. If this was Lan Zhan, he would take so much longer to do this, Wei Wuxian thinks, with the ridiculous amount of layers he always insists on wearing. But then again, Lan Zhan would not be bathing completely naked in a pond in the middle of the day. Or night, for that matter. Wei Wuxian can’t even imagine him doing something so shameless.

Unless he were drunk, he amends in his mind, but Wei Wuxian would like to think that if that were the case, he would be there to get Lan Zhan out of the water and make sure the esteemed Hanguang-Jun doesn’t accidentally slip and drown.

Once he’s properly dressed, the woman gives him a long, measured look.

“I don’t think we have been properly introduced,” she says then, before bowing to him formally. “I’m Jia Daiyu, of the Baiyin Jia Sect. I never thought I would get to meet the famous Wei Wuxian. But here I found him, naked in a pond in the middle of nowhere.”

“Ah.” Wei Wuxian gives a short, breathy laugh and bows as well. He doesn’t know if he should prepare for a fight.

The Baiyin Jia Sect has been a minor one at best since its beginnings, located further west than Wei Wuxian has ever been, and so they were not directly involved in the events that followed the Sunshot Campaign. That doesn’t mean they don’t hold a grudge or two, as life has taught him.

“Aren’t you afraid of me?” he asks nonchalantly, reclining against the rocks now that all the pleasantries have been exchanged, knees splayed wide, with little regard for propriety. He twirls Chenqing between his fingers, observing the play of sunlight filtering through the cover of leaves as it gleams against the black varnish of the dizi.

“Why would I be afraid of a man the Chief Cultivator himself holds in such high regard?” Jia Daiyu parries without a moment’s thought. She comes closer and kneels at the edge of the pond, an empty waterskin in her hands. She uncaps it and begins filling it with water.

“Ah, he only indulges me, I’m afraid.” Wei Wuxian waves a dismissive hand, playing with a blade of grass that he’s plucked. His hands can’t seem to stay still. “Hanguang-Jun is too good. But, Jia Daiyu, it’s a long way back to Baiyin. What are you doing here, so far away from home?”

She quietly finishes filling the waterskin and puts the cap back on, then settles by the pond in a kneeling position. “I was sent with missives to Yueling, and now I’m going back home to my cultivation partner,” she says. “She has been busy with her duties and couldn’t come with me.” She gives Wei Wuxian a curious look. “I’m sure you know what that’s like.”

Wei Wuxian is not entirely certain what she means. It is only natural to miss people while apart, and it is only natural to miss some people more than others, but it’s not an experience unique only to the two of them. And even if he does miss Lan Zhan terribly, it’s not like their situations are comparable. They are not, after all, cultivation partners. It’s completely different.

He clears his throat, gone tight all of a sudden, and realizes that he’s actually starving. There are enough supplies in the saddle sacks to share comfortably, and so he invites Jia Daiyu to eat with him.

They talk some during the meal, and Wei Wuxian tells her the stories of eating alongside Lan Zhan, trying to goad him into breaking the Lan rules, or about Lan Zhan managing to silence little, unruly a-Yuan with just one sentence.

“Those Lans and their ten thousand rules,” he says once they’re done eating, shaking his head. He’s half-sitting with his legs outstretched, leaning back on his elbows, letting the gentle breeze cool him down in the shade of the trees. “It’s a wonder anyone marries willingly into their sect.”

Jia Daiyu gives him another strange look. “Yes. It’s a true wonder,” she says, then adds, “Master Wei, thank you for the meal. I’m afraid I need to get back on the road, though. I dawdled here for too long.”

Wei Wuxian gives her a wistful smile, raising his face to meet her gaze. “Ah, of course,” he says. “Love awaits. But, please, don’t tell anyone you saw me naked in a pond.”

In response, only a corner of her mouth rises. With another smile of his own, Wei Wuxian climbs to his feet, then gives her a formal bow.

“Be well, Jia Daiyu,” he says.

“And you, Master Wei,” she replies with a bow of her own, then unsheathes her sword and in a matter of minutes disappears behind the crest of the hill.

Dear Lan Zhan,

I’m still on my way to Lanling. It’s taking me a rather long time to get there, but I have no complaints. There is no rush, after all. The Koi Tower will still be there when I arrive, whenever that should happen. It has survived worse.

I met a cultivator from the Baiyin Jia Sect last week on the road. Her name was Jia Daiyu and she was traveling back home to her cultivation partner all the way from Yueling. Can you imagine? Being away from your cultivation partner for so long! What torture this must be. Ah, but maybe I am just a romantic at heart, after all.

She recognized me, too, almost immediately, and it must have been the first time since we parted that I used my real name in conversation. I half-expected to be challenged to a duel for the honor of the entire cultivation world, but we had a pleasant meal instead before parting ways. Also, she first caught me swimming naked in a pond to cool off, but I made her promise she wouldn’t tell anyone, so, please, don’t repeat this information! Ha, I can only imagine your face now. You must think me completely shameless. But it was really hot that day, and I was so sweaty under my robes! And there was no one there when I went into the water to bathe.

The weather has taken a turn for the cold these past few days, though, and we scarcely see the sun anymore. At least it’s not raining, and Lil’ Apple is definitely happier not to be carrying me around in such heat. He doesn’t even complain too much when I go to saddle him in the morning. Only the usual amount. Autumn is definitely coming now, though, I am sure of it.

Ah, Lan Zhan, but I miss our travels together so much! I have grown used to having you by my side, and now there is no one to keep me company while I enjoy my evening drink, and no one to scold me when I talk with my mouth full. By the time I come by Gusu again, my manners will be positively nonexistent without your careful instruction. What a good thing Lan Qiren can’t make me copy the Gusu Lan rules anymore as punishment. Though, now that I think about it, since you’re Chief Cultivator, you could, in theory, still make me do it. But I hope you will be merciful, and I promise to be on my best behavior when I come to visit the Cloud Recesses!

I have been drawing a lot these days to pass the time on the road. I see so many beautiful places every day, and cross paths with so many interesting people that I don’t want to forget about them without committing them to paper. I have decided to send two of my drawings along with this letter, so I hope they reach you safely. One of them is a drawing of a waterfall I saw three days ago—it reminded me of Gusu, so, of course, it reminded me of you. The other one is a portrait of you, drawn from memory, so you need to forgive me any imperfections. But last night I suddenly remembered that time I drew a portrait of you instead copying the Lan Sect rules at the Library Pavilion and felt compelled to try and do justice to the older you. I’m sure that as soon as I see your face again, I will realize all the mistakes I made, but for now it has to suffice.

There is, however, one tragedy even greater than my inadequate attempts at capturing your essence on paper, and that is the fact that this far north of Gusu, they don’t serve the Emperor’s Smile anymore! Can you imagine the depth of my sadness?

Some days I feel like I never should have left.

Ah, forgive me, Lan Zhan, but I’m becoming maudlin now, which is a very good sign that I should end this letter and go to bed.

If I don’t dally too much, I should reach the Koi Tower in a week, maybe less. I will send this letter from there, to make sure it reaches you as soon as possible. It’s harder to come by reliable postal service in those smaller towns and villages, but I’m sure the Lanling Jin Sect employs dependable messengers.

You can expect more of my ramblings soon, and until then, be well.

Wei Wuxian

According to his calculations, he’s about four days’ worth of travel away from the Koi Tower. He’s traveled further west than he initially anticipated, his journey taking him to Lanling in an arc rather than a straight line, but it has been a long time since he last wandered these lands freely, and this is exactly what he’s wanted all along. This freedom of being a kite in the sky, barely tethered to the ground.

And so he doesn’t rush.

He walks most of the distance, guiding Lil’ Apple by the reins, and when his feet start to ache, he gets on the donkey’s back and rides the rest of the way. Sometimes he stops for an hour or two, to eat and draw, and sometimes to write a line or two of another letter to Lan Zhan.

He should really stop pestering him all the time with his ramblings, but that would be doing him a disservice, really. Now that he’s Chief Cultivator, his life at the Cloud Recesses must be even more tedious and frustrating, and Wei Wuxian would like to imagine that his letters provide Lan Zhan with much-needed respite from the world of cultivation politics and childish sect squabbles. In fact, if he really thinks about it, Wei Wuxian is doing him a favor.

He’s two days away from the Koi Tower when he realizes that he will have to spend the night camping outside, as there are no villages in sight and the sun has almost set. There is a forest that stretches to the north and west, and further to the east lies his destination, but he will have to make camp soon.

Lil’ Apple starts to protest as well, stubbornly trudging alongside Wei Wuxian in starts and fits, and it takes half an apple from the dwindling supplies and a promise of fresh grass to get him moving again.

Not too long later, Wei Wuxian notices the unmistakable flicker of a campfire burning in the distance. He approaches cautiously, Chenqing at the ready, when his eyes catch the familiar white and gold of the Lanling Jin robes. They have camped out in a small clearing at the very outskirts of the forest, together with a few cultivators from other clans. Wei Wuxian briefly thinks he recognizes the colors of the Baling Ouyang Sect and some people from Leling.

The first person he sees as he comes closer is the equally familiar figure of Jin Ling, his back turned to Wei Wuxian, relieving himself behind a bush.

Wei Wuxian urges Lil’ Apple on, but the stubborn creature just digs his hooves in. Resigned, Wei Wuxian ties him to the nearest tree and makes it three steps towards the camp before Lil’ Apple makes his displeasure at being left behind known loud and clear.

The sound carries in the evening air.

“Who’s there?” Jin Ling demands, hastily straightening his robes and reaching for his sword.

“Sect Leader Jin,” Wei Wuxian says, leaving the cover of the shadows and bowing with exaggerated seriousness, “I didn’t expect you to send a welcoming party, and without me even having to send word!”

“Oh, it’s you.” Jin Ling only rolls his eyes, sheathing Suihua. “Of course it’s you. What are you doing here?”

Wei Wuxian takes another step forward and touches Chenqing to his temple, tapping a few times. “Ah, Sect Leader Jin, that is indeed a good question,” he says. “But an even better question is: what are you doing here?”

Jin Ling puffs his chest out. “We’re here on official Jin Sect business.”

“Must be important, if the Sect Leader himself leaves the Koi Tower,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning lazily against a tree. “And brings reinforcements from other sects. Is that Ouyang Zizhen?” He gestures with his chin to the familiar-looking figure sitting by the fire. Then he remembers something and stiffens. “Where is your dog?”

“Fairy?” Jin Ling’s mouth takes on a mean slant. He turns over his shoulder and opens his mouth.

“No, no, no, don’t call it over!” Wei Wuxian clamps his hand over Jin Ling’s mouth, wishing really hard he had the foresight to ask Lan Zhan to teach him the Lan silencing spell. Well, too late now.

Further at the camp, Ouyang Zizhen rises from his place by the fire. “Senior Wei?” he asks, coming closer. “I thought I heard your voice!”

“Don’t call the dog,” Wei Wuxian hisses at Jin Ling, showing an index finger in his face for emphasis, then releases his mouth and turns on his heel to face the other boy with a wide smile. “Ah, Young Master Ouyang, how lucky that we meet again. I was just saying hello to the venerable Sect Leader Jin.”

He can hear Jin Ling scoff behind him. To his surprise, Ouyang Zizhen bows politely, but then fixes his expectant gaze above Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, waiting. “Senior Wei, is Hanguang-Jun not with you?” he asks once it’s clear no one else is coming.

Wei Wuxian frowns. “Lan Zhan? Why would he be with me? He has much better things to do back at the Cloud Recesses,” he says with a short, breathy laugh. “It’s not like he would take a break from his duties as Chief Cultivator just to indulge me and accompany me in my travels.”

Ouyang Zizhen exchanges a strange look with Jin Ling, then looks back to Wei Wuxian. “Right,” he says, sounding relatively unconvinced. “Of course, that would be unwise. But, Senior Wei, what are you even doing here?”

“What else? I’m visiting my dearest nephew, of course!” For a moment, Wei Wuxian enjoys the way Jin Ling’s face twists in a grimace, but then the familiarity of that expression hits him right in the stomach. He squashes the feeling deep inside. “But you still haven’t told me what you lot are doing here. Is the life of a Sect Leader so boring you snuck out for a night-hunt?”

Jin Ling narrows his eyes. “If you must know,” he says, sticking his chin up, “we are investigating the people-eating forest.”

The part of Wei Wuxian that abhors boredom and craves adventure pushes its way to the surface as his face stretches in a wide grin. “A people-eating forest?” he says. “Now this I need to hear all about.”