There is a discordant jangle as Meng Yao’s body slumps forward over his guqin, forcing Bichen’s hilt down onto the strings. The bloodied point of the sword is just visible, sticking out of Meng Yao’s back.
Nie Mingjue has one hand on his chest and the other on his throat, gasping, face mottled red from rage and lack of airflow. “Lan… Wangji?”
Lan Wangji, sword arm still extended in midair, turns to one of several besuited staffers who are converging on the Nie conference room in a panic. “Call 120,” he says. Nie Mingjue will be fine with prompt medical attention and some time for the evil energies to wane from his system.
He walks over to the still body and bends to retrieve Bichen. As he turns the body over, Meng Yao’s face is a mask of anger, surprise, and something like misery or maybe disappointment. Lan Wangji will never know the particular twisted story that led him to attempt his employer’s murder. Those details will no doubt be of interest to the Nie, but Lan Wangji has done his job. He was here in time to prevent the tragedy.
“How did you know?” Nie Mingjue splutters. “I never thought… How did you know?”
“He was instructed to perform ‘Clarity’ for you,” Lan Wangji says.
“Meng Yao began ‘Clarity’ as instructed, but then he played four bars of a different song. The song had a negative intention.” To a layman like Nie Mingjue, there would have been no problem. Meng Yao must have been unaware of the Lan family’s long history with spiritual music, or he never would have been so daring. Lan Wangji noticed the difference in the music instinctively - not just the melody but the feeling, the peacefulness curdling into spite.
Bichen comes out slowly, trembling a little from the waves of dark energy it cut through in addition to flesh. When Lan Wangji straightens with his bloody sword, Nie Mingjue is surrounded by a flurry of attendants, offering blankets, water, mobile phones. In the center of the commotion, he is staring at Lan Wangji, a bemused expression on his face, shaking his head slightly.
“Do your hands ever shake, Lan Wangji?” Nie Mingjue asks him the next day, handing him a long, slim envelope, which Lan Wangji slips into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. The hospital cleared Nie Mingjue only hours earlier, and he is already back at the office, firing off questions that sound like a challenge. The sheer aggressive energy of this man could power a small city. It essentially does, considering the number of industries in which Nie Enterprises is a significant player.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji confirms. “Sometimes. Adrenaline.”
Nie Mingjue shakes his head, like yesterday, and moves over to the liquor cabinet. He unstoppers a crystal container.
“I’d like you to stay,” Nie Mingjue says. The way he says it, it’s clear he wishes he could make it a command, but understands that Lan Wangji is one of the few people in this building that he cannot control.
Lan Wangji bows respectfully, deeply, an old-school gesture that not many people offer anymore. But gestures are important to Lan Wangji. Boundaries are important to Lan Wangji.
“I can’t stay, Nie-zongzhu,” Lan Wangji says. “I hope you understand.”
Nie Mingjue draws breath, then huffs out a slightly sour laugh. “I do,” he says. “Lan Wangji must go where the chaos is.”
Lan Wangji personally finds it a little unfair that he should be the only bodyguard to have gained this reputation, considering what the business is like, but he lowers his eyes in agreement.
Nie Mingjue pours himself a shallow glass and comes back over without offering one to Lan Wangji, which is appreciated. He lifts it in a toast and says, “To your next lucky client.”
Lan Wangji returns to the short-term apartment he leased for the duration of the Nie assignment. It’s above a tiny combination grocery and pharmacy, with a metal gate in front of the door and the constant thump of bass from one or more neighbors audible through the floor and walls at all hours.
He assembles a cold dish of vegetables from the fridge and eats it at his little table in the sickly neon light of the cocktail lounge sign across the street. Then he arranges himself on his meditation mat with Bichen and closes his eyes, settling himself into the deep state he will need to be in for the next several hours to cleanse the vengeful emotions from his sword and replenish his core. After a few moments, a few breaths, even the ever-present bass drops away into the dark.
The practice dummy at the gym near Lan Wangji’s apartment is rescued from his merciless attentions by a polite, female cough behind him.
Lan Wangji whirls around and straightens, panting a little.
A lovely woman in a tailored lavender dress stands in the gym doorway. She has perfect posture, shoulders back and level, with her hands clasped demurely in front of her. “Lan Wangji?” she asks, and her voice is delicate and lilting. Everything about her is feminine. Lan Wangji thinks he can even smell floral perfume. Something soft and powdery. Lotus?
“Guniang,” he says with a bow, breathing deeply through his nose to return his heart rate to normal and wishing he weren’t in sneakers and a drenched sweatshirt. “How may I help?”
To his surprise and pleasure, she bows back. “I’m Jiang Yanli,” she says. “I apologize for the interruption. My business is urgent, or I wouldn’t have troubled you at practice. You’re very good,” she adds, gesturing to the dummy.
Lan Wangji lowers his eyes in acknowledgment.
Jiang Yanli pauses only for a moment when she realizes that will be the sum total of his reaction, and moves smoothly on. “I’d like to hire you to protect my brother, Wei Wuxian.” She folds her hands and looks at him expectantly.
Lan Wangji can tell there’s a response he should be giving that he’s not. He’s used to the feeling. “Tell me a little bit about the client,” he says.
A small furrow appears between Jiang Yanli’s eyebrows, and her lips part. “Oh…” she says, and she’s clearly at a loss. “Wei Wuxian?” she inquires, enunciating the name a little. “I’m sorry - I understood that your family has a musical background.”
Wei Wuxian. Music. Lan Wangji thinks he might vaguely know who she means. “Classical music,” he clarifies.
Jiang Yanli’s expression clears. “Ah, that explains it!” she says with a sweet smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to introduce someone to my little brother. Wei Wuxian is a pop musician, one of the most famous.” She smiles again. “I don’t say that to brag, Lan-gongzi. My brother has won almost every award he’s ever been eligible for. All his albums are multi-platinum. He’s likely to be nominated soon for a Golden Horse for a starring role in his first movie. That’s why I say he’s very famous.” Her eyes are shining with gentle pride.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says. He might have heard the name around, but it’s not ringing many bells. More importantly, “I don’t take celebrity clients.”
Jiang Yanli’s face falls. “You - oh. But Nie Huaisang spoke so highly of you. He said you were the best.”
So that’s how Jiang Yanli knew how to find him. “There are several good freelancers available now,” he tells her. “Have you asked Xiao Xingchen, or Song Zichen?”
“Yes,” she says. “Xiao Xingchen is interested. But I was told you are the best.”
There is no best, Lan Wangji thinks, but he can’t think of a way to say this out loud without seeming rude. He says nothing.
“Lan-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli says. A determined look has entered her eye. “My little brother is receiving death threats. He’s terrified. I’m terrified for him, and for his young son. Wei Wuxian asked for you, Lan-gongzi. I’ll pay twice your usual rate to secure your help.”
The money doesn’t matter to Lan Wangji, nor does the idea of a celebrity receiving death threats, which is almost always a lot of trouble for the professionals until it turns out to be nothing. But Wei Wuxian has a young son. Lan Wangji can’t help it; the idea troubles him.
“I’ll… come look the situation over,” he says reluctantly.
Jiang Yanli lets out a relieved exclamation and claps her hands together, suddenly girlish. “Thank you, Lan-gongzi! Let me give you our information. I’m so happy that my brother will be in your safe hands.”
Before his appointment at the Jiang house, Lan Wangji does his research. He watches videos, reads articles, and checks Twitter. Jiang Yanli hasn’t exaggerated Wei Wuxian’s fame in the least - if anything, she was too modest. The number of awards Wei Wuxian has won for songwriting, performance, and videos is staggering. His debut film, Master of the Night, has been number one in fifteen countries for over two months and it’s sweeping the early awards season.
Lan Wangji watches clips of screaming fans grasping, crying, a sea of hands reaching for a slim figure in black, and he feels instinctive revulsion. It’s not the crowd. Crowds are a large part of Lan Wangji’s job. It’s the fever pitch of the yearning in these people’s faces. It’s the possessive, annihilating quality of their attention, obvious even in low resolution videos. Lan Wangji sees it for what it is: dangerous. Disastrous. Lan Wangji wouldn’t be able to stand living in the center of that hurricane.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, appears to thrive on it. His public persona is high-energy, flirtatious, transgressive. Search results come back about shocking set pieces during concerts, or passionately controversial interview quotes, followed by social media posts implying or stating outright that he’s not sorry. Some of the loudest voices discussing Wei Wuxian online express disgust with these antics, and a not-inconsiderable number appear to genuinely view him as a menace to society. Lan Wangji suspects these last are the kind of people who can’t differentiate between a role - the seductively evil Yiling Patriarch in Wei Wuxian’s movie, for instance - and a real person. The sender of the death threats might well be such a person.
It’s not really Lan Wangji’s kind of music, but Wei Wuxian is also indisputably talented, a powerful, versatile singer, an excellent dancer, and - most surprising to Lan Wangji - a virtuoso on the dizi, which features on most of his songs and has become Wei Wuxian’s signature sound. A surprising number sources seem to take it for granted that Wei Wuxian’s dizi channels spiritual energies to enhance the experience at his concerts, which has to be incorrect - Lan Wangji has never heard of any techniques that can be used this way, not to mention it would be an extremely frivolous use of spiritual power.
As is the way with celebrities, Wei Wuxian is also very beautiful, which Lan Wangji can’t say he views as a plus. Part of the reason he never takes celebrity clients is because of the toxic mix of love, hatred, desire, and jealousy they inspire. There are enough variables to consider when ensuring someone’s safety under normal circumstances.
But he goes to the address Jiang Yanli gave him, a sprawling waterfront property called Lotus Pier. The grounds are gorgeous, expensively manicured, and also totally open to anyone that wants to drive their nondescript used car right up to the front gates.
Lan Wangji gets out of his car and sends a short gust of spiritual energy at one of the hinges of the gate. It whines and rattles ominously.
This doesn’t bode well for the general security of the house. Lan Wangji presses the intercom to the side of the gate. The return crackle is nearly unintelligible.
“Lan Wangji to see Wei Wuxian,” he says.
“What?” the static asks.
“Song Zichen to see Wei Wuxian,” he says.
Static. Crackle. “...Appointment?” the static finishes.
“The moon is 283,900 miles from Earth,” he says.
“All right,” the static says, there is a loud buzzing sound as the gate unlocks and swings wide for him.
None of this bodes well at all.
The property continues to be both beautiful and undefended as he drives through to the main house. Exquisite topiary and gauzy curtains obscure the view; low walls abound with corners and curves around which an intruder could hide.
He parks the car in the large garage, where a man with a slightly hangdog face is polishing the lotus blossom mascot on a limousine. His right arm is bandaged, and Lan Wangji can see dark tendrils under the skin of his neck, poking out of his collar. Was he hit with a curse?
“Hello,” the man says, waving a polishing cloth. “How may I help you, gongzi?”
“Are you the person I spoke to on the intercom?” Lan Wangji asks instead of answering.
“No, gongzi,” the man says with a little dip of his head. “But… how can I help you?”
“My name is Song Zichen, and I have an appointment with Wei Wuxian.”
“Oh,” the man says, and for a moment, Lan Wangji thinks that he’s just going to wave him on, but then he hesitates and says, “Excuse me, Song-gongzi, but… who arranged your meeting with Wei Wuxian?”
Finally, a little security, thinks Lan Wangji. “Jiang Yanli.”
“Ah! Okay,” the man says happily, having received an acceptable answer. “I hope your meeting is productive, Song-gongzi.”
“May I ask…” Lan Wangji gestures to the cast. “What happened to your arm?”
The man seems saddened by the reminder. He looks at his arm woefully. “A bomb.”
Lan Wangji looks at him sharply. Jiang Yanli didn’t mention a bomb. The man doesn’t elaborate, however, simply nodding at him a little and going back to polishing the limousine with an even more hangdog air this time.
With rapidly developing misgivings, Lan Wangji continues on to the house.