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He had left at 1:35 in the morning. Late enough that he would have normally gone to bed but early enough to be woken up had someone come to check on him. Lining his departure up with the change in patrol had been easy. 

Leaving without saying goodbye had not.

It hurt knowing the last time he might ever see his family was during an argument, but the knowledge of what he had to do quelled his thoughts. No matter what any of them wanted, it doesn’t change the fact that Wei Wuxian going to Gusu is the best option for their country right now.

 

Yunmeng and Gusu have been at war since before Wei Wuxian had even been taken in by Jiang Fengmian. Cultural differences, moral debates, and minor skirmishes had all built up into a powder keg that finally exploded with a battle where no one knows for sure who shot the first arrow but where both sides were intent to shoot the last one. Yunmeng was in a superior position at first with their fluid and responsive tactics overwhelming the traditional restrictive Gusu style. A perfect example of the new outshining the old. Gusu had even lost an emperor.

However, that saying goes both ways.

Shocking the world with his careful strategy and ruthless efficiency, the new teenage emperor of Gusu, Lan Wangji, created an upset in the war that tipped the balance in Gusu’s favor. While Yunmeng quickly adjusted to the change in combat, what they could not account for was the hearts of the people. Lan Wangji was a rare example of an honest man to lived by his principles rather than his objectives. A stark contrast to previous generations, he made his own decisions rather than relying on the word of his council. If he said they would not confiscate the crops of the peasantry for the war effort, you can be sure it was forbidden from that moment with a sure punishment for any violators. With his silent charisma and endless talent added on top, morale among Gusu skyrocketed along with support for the war effort. It doesn’t need to be said how much it can benefit a war effort when your people actually want to fight.

Wei Wuxian can understand. The first time he saw Lan Wangji across the battlefield it was like looking at the incarnation of the Dragon Emperor. One glance was enough to know one can never defeat him.

So Wei Wuxian took on the challenge.

The day Wei Wuxian joined the war was another turning point. His sister had always hearkened the emperor and Wei Wuxian to two sides of the same coin. Despite seeming to be complete opposites, Wei Wuxian had earned the same respect and admiration for many of the same reasons.

 

Originally appointed the commander of a royal unit, Wei Wuxian quickly earned the role of General for their army. Every town he passed adored him and every unit he led swore absolute loyalty to him. Along with his genius Wei Wuxian even had an advantage with his inventive and observative nature, the few years he spent in the army producing more technology and innovation than the last hundred years of Gusu’s history. Some would say he should be winning, yet it took everything he had just to maintain a stalemate.

One of the benefits of the strict hierarchical Gusu is how unified they are under the ruling authority and more importantly the emperor, though much can be credited to Lan Wangji’s own charisma. When the emperor makes a decision, it is followed. When he sustains a victory his entire court celebrates. When he suffers a defeat the entire court joins to find a solution. 

And where Gusu is united, Yunmeng is divided. Stretching all the way back to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan’s very engagement, the Yunmeng court can never agree almost on principle. Jiang Fengmian has a faction, Yu Ziyuan has a faction, their son Jiang Cheng has a faction, there’s even a surrender faction. And now Wei Wuxian has a faction.

Wei Wuxian’s faction has the support of the people and it drives Madam Yu up the wall. And it shows. Unlike Lan Wangji, when Wei Wuxian sustains a victory it cannot be celebrated too enthusiastically for fear of madam Yu’s wrath. When Wei Wuxian suffers a defeat he every action is thoroughly scrutinized and cricisized. When they need to be supporting each other, instead they fight for control.

Wei Wuxian is only one man. While he can set his rules and manage his territories, he does not rule the kingdom. His men may not rape or pillage Gusu bordertowns, but that does not mean all Yunmeng troops do not. His men might not burn villages to the ground to flush out the enemy, but other troops might.

The people might support Wei Wuxian but that does not mean they support Yunmeng.

Maintaining their morale in such a delicate balance of power requires absolute confidence. Wei Wuxian cannot show any weakness, not to his troops, not to their people… and not even to his family. Preventing the stress and fatigue from showing had been difficult, but every victory picked him up, every villager’s cheer bolstered him forward.

He may not be a Jiang, but these are his people and he’s going to protect them.

 

It took Wei Wuxian’s full genius and determination to match Lan Wangji in the war effort. And if he were honest it was exhilarating, tapping into his full potential after having finally met his match, using his every resource, stretching the very limits of his creativity. This rivalry pushed Wei Wuxian to limits he never thought possible. It even overpowered Madam Yu’s scolding him for smiling so brightly in the midst of a wartorn battleground. 

Wei Wuxian would like to think the emperor felt the same. Despite never seeing the face behind the Gusu Lan imperial headdress, Wei Wuxian could read it in the intensity of Lan Wangji’s movements, in the hours of planning necessary to combat Wei Wuxian’s tactics. In the strange pattern of movement that would guarantee they would meet on the battlefield soon. Lan Wangji is no general, he is a ruler who lives in the capital and tends to his people, and as such has few opportunities or even reasons to join the battlefield. Yet when the opportunity arises, instead of sending a trusted commander Lan Wangji will meet Wei Wuxian in battle personally. 

Jiang Cheng calls his theory ridiculous, but why else would such an important man do such an unnecessary thing unless he felt that same sense of rivalry?

So although it felt like the war would never end, a small part of Wei Wuxian didn’t mind. That was, until the Venerated Triad appeared.

Lan Wangji had an older brother with peerless talent and charisma as well, who also had a skill in maneuvering politics. Having managed many of the late emperor’s responsibilities as well as being entrusted with the throne whenever Lan Wangji is out, it confused the world in more than one way to see him hand the throne to his brother instead. Clearly a wise decision, but confusing all the same.

And this prince, Lan Xichen, is very personable. He shares many of Lan Wangji’s positive traits while also having a special social competence, leading to having many friends. Two such friends are as close as brothers and the three share a loyalty rarely seen in the world. And no one knows how, but Lan Xichen somehow got their territories, the previously neutral Qinghe and Lanling Kingdoms, to ally with Gusu. Although they didn’t throw even half of their resources into the war, both Jin Guanyao and Nie Mingjue had talents and abilities beyond the norm, and their tactics filled the gaps the Gusu army left. With both Lans able to manage the army from different directions and the Nie and Jin compensating any weakness, what was once a one-on-one battle of equals became a four-on-one dogpile. You could even compound their effectiveness as 8x The strain Yunmeng was facing before.

Wei Wuxian is only one man.

But he will not give up. No matter the odds, no matter the struggle, he will not abandon his people.

The impossible is only something that hasn’t happened yet .

With all his genius and creativity seemingly exhausted just to match Lan Wangji, all Wei Wuxian had left was pure effort and his bottom line. What was he willing to sacrifice?

 

There were a lot of services Wei Wuxian’s army was providing that needed to either be cut or entrusted to another division. Neither of these was ideal, but he hoped leaving it in Jiang Cheng’s hands would be the next best option. He can’t blame Jiang Cheng for being upset about it. He’s been building achievements in battle, but with Madam Yu’s inability to give a compliment, nothing he did ever seemed to be enough because Wei Wuxian would always be left with the bigger responsibilities. Although the reports of those programs not being given the proper attention and resources had been a blow, what can Wei Wuxian say when he himself recalled those very same resources?

Morale was decreasing while casualties were growing. The decisions he was making became harder and faith in him began to waver. It was fine to be so lenient on the Gusu people before when Lan Wangji was lenient on the Yunmeng people, but why continue that kindness when the Jin and Nie follow a different set of rules? Why spare the Gusu villages that could give us necessary resources when the Jin have no qualms about pillaging ours? Why waste time giving the Nie soldiers proper burials when they tear our soldiers apart and leave them to rot?

What was once heralded as heroic acts now became a hero complex. Such a quick turn it gave Wei Wuxian whiplash. 

There was not one moment Wei Wuxian let the confident smile leave his face.

It’s not as if he’s lost the support of the people yet. Most of the grumbling comes from the other factions and some soldiers. Even then, many of them simply think him naive or idealistic rather than being genuinely upset with him. He’s young and innocent, and he’ll realize the other side isn’t worth it soon. As if he hasn’t been fighting a war for years.

So Wei Wuxian smiles and shoulders the weight of his country’s expectations, his people’s needs, and his own principles, no matter how close he is to being crushed.

He manages, somehow. With extensive planning, nights without rest, and risky maneuvers that rely on the blind trust of his loyal subordinates, Wei Wuxian manages to resist the barrage of the Triad’s assault. Often making it through by the skin of his teeth, and sometimes having to swallow his pride and retreat without a fight, but surviving regardless.

The other factions were doing less good. Some were winning by bleeding troops, while others were straight up losing. Jiang Cheng was doing well as a support for Wei Wuxian’s forces, but he couldn’t stand having to be on ‘standby’ when they were already lacking numbers. He would take any chance he could get to dash in and join the battle, not seeming to understand the vital importance his forces play in Wei Wuxian’s very delicate plans should even the slightest thing go wrong. Sometimes it helps them win. Other times it makes them lose. Wei Wuxian’s plans are either to win or abandon the position and retreat. Jiang Cheng thinks there’s no difference if they’re going to lose the area anyway, and he just can’t seem to understand the difference between losing and not winning. 

As Wei Wuxian is their most effective war force, more and more of the responsibilities and troops are placed under his command. However, just because he can tell them what to do doesn’t mean they’ll listen. These aren’t the people he trained and gained a camaraderie with, they’re other factions. And as their commander, anything they do becomes his problem to deal with. 

So when one important noble’s son with relations to the Jiang clan gets himself and his troops captured by the enemy after not following orders, Wei Wuxian is the one who must endure the beratement of the council and lower his head to negotiate for their release.

 

It made him nauseous, to enter the enemy camp unarmed and ready to give away resources they did not have because some jackass thought he was more capable than anyone else just because his daddy made everyone clap at his school play. Wei Wuxian didn’t know what the Lan would demand in exchange, but he was prepared for anything. Money, supplies, cultural heirlooms… people. People worth more than that piece of shit ever could be.

Wei Wuxian was more surprised than he probably should have been to see the emperor of Gusu at the far end of the negotiation tent. They stared at each other in silence for a few moments, Wei Wuxian struggling to maintain a neutral facade. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore,

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet your highness formally. I just wish it were under more... joyous circumstances.” He grinned.

The emperor only stared at him, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian took a steadying breath, “So, let’s just get this over with. What do you want in exchange for Yunmeng’s troops?”

The emperor did not respond, only gesturing slightly toward the tea cup in front of Wei Wuxian. Picking up his own, the emperor took a slow, elegant sip of the fine tea, clearly in no rush at all. Wei Wuxian clenched his fists tight in his lap. In another time, he too would have wanted to take his time after finally meeting his archrival, but that time is long gone.

Now he just feels powerless and humiliated.

It takes everything he has to keep his hands from shaking as he picks up the tea cup. To drink something poured by the enemy is reckless at best and goes against every logical decision he should be making. Wei Wuxian doesn’t fight it. Lan Wangji has never been anything less than honest and straightforward. He wouldn’t poison Wei Wuxian’s tea, nor would he let someone else poison his tea. He’s not worried about drinking it. Wei Wuxian just hates that he has no choice but to drink it.

He takes the smallest sip he can, more touching the liquid to his lips than actually ingesting any. A small, petty show of resistance but it’s the best he can manage.

They sit in silence for a few more minutes, silent aside from the gentle tap of the cup whenever Lan Wanji sets it back on the table. Wei Wuxian glances back to check on Wen Ning. His closest ally and best friend, despite being gentle he becomes more bullheaded than anyone when it comes to Wei Wuxian. Even out of all of Wei Wuxian’s stupidly loyal retainers, Wen Ning is many times more stupid and loyal, having been the only one to follow Wei Wuxian to the Lan camp no matter how Wei Wuxian tried to lose him. He was Wei Wuxian’s right hand, and the one person he could not afford to take to the Lan camp.

Wen Ning was not good in these kinds of socially nerve-wracking situations. And true to form, he was tense, though he was holding on well compared to usual. Wen Ning caught his eye and gave a small nod of reassurance. Wei Wuxian huffed a bit.

A slightly louder tap snapped Wei Wuxian’s attention back to the emperor, kicking himself for getting distracted, even if it was literally for only a second.

“Does General dislike the tea?”

Wei Wuxian blinked, unsure of how to answer. He gave a wry grin, “Sorry, I always saw tea as for the study and wine as for the lounge. Social occasions need social drinks!” he laughed.

“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Wuxian’s smile froze before settling into something a little less genuine, “I see. Forgive me, I did not realize the Cloud recesses moved to Yiling. My mistake.”

The emperor tilted his head slightly and Wei Wuxian kicked himself for losing his temper.

What were once small cultural differences intensified with the bitter fires of war into a vital part of a kingdom’s identity. Just a few years ago something like drinking alcohol didn’t matter, but as the two sides became increasingly more antagonistic towards each other, their views polarized against each other.

What a stupid thing to get upset about. Knowing Lan Wangji he was probably just giving an explanation, no deeper meaning to it. It’s not even a Gusu thing, just a Royal Court rule. Hell, Gusu’s Caiyi town makes the best alcohol in the entire known world, clearly heir emperor doesn’t mind other people drinking it.

Wei Wuxian looks down at his tea cup, “Then again, I’m just a guest in your majesty’s territory. It might as well be the Cloud recesses, who am I to complain?”

“Is it important in Yunmeng?”

“Hm?” Wei Wuxian perks up.

The emperor somehow seemed to straighten up a bit in attention despite already having a perfect posture, “Drinking wine with guests.”

Wei Wuxian blinked and tapped his finger against the rim of his cup. Does it matter?

“Well, I wouldn’t say important , it’s just something we do.” They didn’t have any rules or etiquette about such things, it’s not the Yunmeng way, “We just like to eat and drink and have a good time. You can’t make friends if you don't have fun!” Wei Wuxian grinned at the end, remembering many a banquet turned drunken karaoke night. His smile softened thinking of those good times.

Looking up, it faded into a polite but neutral expression. Those times are not now.

Wei Wuxian noticed the emperor’s hand clench slightly and hoped he didn’t offend him further. He gestured to the emperor’s cup, “Your cup is empty, do you need another one?”

The emperor doesn’t respond for a moment before raising his chin purposefully, “No need.”

So we’re finally getting to it, huh. Wei Wuxian stops fiddling with his full cup and sets it aside with a light thunk. Let’s get this over with. He looks up with half-lidded eyes, “Name your price, then we can negotiate.”

“Do you have a choice?”

Wei Wuxian froze, anger twitching a challenging smile onto his face, “I’ll try anyway.”

The emperor just hummed in response, but Wei Wuxian got the impression that he was pleased. At the very least, he’s not upset by the insolence if Wei Wuxian’s danger sense says anything about it.

The emperor tapped on the table two times before turning his head to face Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian tensed. He has one unmovable bottom line and that is his loved ones. Screw the consequences, if he damnads Wen Ning in exchange for those fools then Wei Wuxian will just say fuck it and leave.

“A Wen remnant?” the emperor tilts his head in interest.

Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes, “A citizen of Yunmeng.”

The emperor hums, “Indeed.”

Turning to face Wei Wuxian as if examining him one more time, the emperor eases back into a more relaxed though no less formal position, “Give me this city.”

Remembering the army camp surrounding them right outside the gates, haven’t they basically captured it already? Wei Wuxian scrunches his brows in confusion. Even if they didn’t, why Yiling? A ragged wartorn area, Yiling is more ruin than city, never having had the chance to recover. There’s no real resources of interest to Gusu, and it’s not a particularly helpful position to hold against Yunmeng anymore. 

Is there something hidden in Yiling that he doesn’t know about? Past experience proves it’s possible.

Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrow dramatically, “Pardon my lack of manners, but why would his Highness be asking Yunmeng for a dump Gusu already caught?”

The emperor quickly replied “Not asking Yunmeng,” As Wei Wuxian’s face began to scowl, the emperor continued with purpose, “asking General.”

Wei Wuxian blinked at him. There’s no difference?

The emperor seemed to realize his confusion, “The Yiling Patriarch.”

Wei Wuxian huffed out a bemused laugh, “That’s just a name some random people gave me. Just because I spent some time here doesn’t make me own the place.”

“The locals say otherwise.”

Wei Wuxian looked down. Yiling was one of the many projects he had to abandon when the war ramped up, “Well what can I say, the royal court all looks the same to them. The dress code doesn’t help!” He inclined his head, “And you never answered my question. Yiling is more trouble than it’s worth on a good day. What’s so good about this place that has his majesty the Emperor negotiating hostages for it personally?”

The emperor looks at him, “...Yiling has value to me.”

Wei Wuxian sighs under his breath and slumps into his seat, “If you want it then fine, not like I can take it back anyway.”

“I want to hear it.”

Wei Wuxian looks up. Though he can’t see through the fine veil, Wei Wuxian can almost feel the intensity of his gaze. He hears Wen Ning take a small step forward just in case, but it’s as if the emperor no longer noticed his presence, so focused was he on Wei Wuxian, “...I want to receive it properly.”

Wei Wuxian was silent, hesitating for a moment before straightening up, “Your Majesty-”

“My name.”

Wei Wuxian paused at the uncharacteristic interruption. The emperor inclined his head meaningfully, “Not from general to emperor. From Wei Wuxian to Lan Wangji.”

Wei Wuxian tilted his head with a confused smile. This guy is surprisingly whimsical, how interesting, “Well then, how about I just drop the formalities then?” 

He didn’t expect the emperor to actually nod, “...In that case,” Wei Wuxian threw his head back and held his hand out toward the emperor, “Lan Wangji. Yiling is a giant pain, but it is this Laozu’s giant pain. Return Yunmeng’s troops, and I will give it to you.”

Whatever you plan to do, treat her well.

The emperor looked at his hand for so long Wei Wuxian began to wonder if that’s not what he meant after all. Then, hesitantly, he stretched his hand over and lightly clasped Wei Wuxian’s own in a painfully gentle grip before instantly letting go and whipping his arm back down by his side.

Wei Wuxian was sure the trembling he felt was his own, even now feeling the urge to close his hand and savor the feeling. Somehow his hands were soft and calloused at the same time. A little cold, but not unpleasantly so. Despite looking so refined, it was noticeably larger than Wei Wuxian’s own.

Snapped out of his reverie by Wen Ning’s awkward fidgeting, Wei Wuxian hid his hands in his lap, “Then, is that all?”

The emperor replied with calm, “No.”

As expected. No way something that ridiculous would be enough. The emperor was quiet for a moment almost as if deliberating whether or not to speak, then seemed to reach a conclusion, “A token.”

Of what? Of Yunmeng Royalty’s? Of the General’s? Something representing their defeat? It’s not uncommon for one side to display a sign of the other’s loss to humiliate them and showcase their superiority.

Wei Wuxian gripped his Clarity Bell tight. Every member belonging to or serving the Jiang Royal family receives one, with the appropriate ornamentation befitting their status. Each person only gets one, with each promotion adding carvings to the surface. An absolute expression of ability, the clarity bells are the source of pride for anyone who has one. Few things are as humiliating as losing your bell to the enemy. Of course, you get another one made for you but it doesn’t erase that mark of shame.

The emperor’s voice stopped him, “Something personal.”

Wei Wuxian gave him a look, “You’re going to need to be more specific.”

The emperor tilted his head up, “Yiling is valuable to me. Now, something valuable to you.” he added after a moment, “Sentimental.”

Does that mean Yiling is sentimental to Lan Wangji? And what kind of a demand is that coming from an emperor at a hostage negotiation?! Wei Wuxian brought gold and valuable resources, not his childhood toys!

“Haha, this may surprise you but this one did not come prepared for such a request. Not many personal items on me.” The way Lan Wangji clarified his meaning when Wei Wuxian grabbed his bell must mean that’s not what he was looking for. Wei Wuxian’s relief is quickly replaced with confusion. So what does he want?

The emperor observed him in silence before motioning to Wei Wuxian’s head, “That ribbon.”

Wei Wuxian froze for only a second before tugging the ribbon off, his hair cascading across his shoulders. This guy sure knows how to pick them.

Wei Wuxian’s mother came from a reclusive mountain community under the leadership of a rumored immortal. Cut off from the outside world, they have their own unique culture preserved from hundreds of years before. They are a strange but respected people.

Not much is known about their rituals aside from their red ribbons. Signifying love and family, a strip of both the groom and the bride’s wedding robes are embroidered together with good luck charms and bestowed onto their child at birth.

Wei Wuxian keeps his face carefully neutral as the ribbon disappears into the emperor’s sleeve.

It was the only thing he had left of his parents.

No longer able to look at the man, Wei Wuxian jerked his head to the entrance, “Can Yunmeng have its troops back now?”

The emperor inclined his head, “You may.”

Ignoring the noble’s indignant screams to report this to his father on their way back, never had throwing someone out of the army felt so good.

Although things were extremely tense afterwards, especially amongst the Jiangs who understood the ribbon’s meaning, Wei Wuxian acted the same as ever. As if nothing happened and there was nothing to worry about.

In such a delicate situation, how could he afford to show weakness? 

At least it would be a while before he saw the emperor again.

 

Never did Wei Wuxian expect that just a week later the emperor would ride up to the border of their camp with only a few guards, demanding to see him.

Gently handing Wei Wuxian a beautifully crafted box after they entered the tent, the emperor inclined his head, “Apologies. We did not understand its value.”

Wei Wuxian’s eye widened at the ribbon carefully arranged like a jewel on a pillow within the box. Not a crease in sight and without even a change in scent, the ribbon must have been treated with the utmost respect and consideration, even more than Wei Wuxian himself bothers.

Taking a shaky breath, Wei Wuxian faced the emperor with warmth bubbling in his chest. Ah, of course he would be this way, “Your Highness… You have my gratitude, but I cannot accept this back. A deal is a deal and leaving loose ends would not do any of us good.”

The emperor shook his head, “No.” 

Then seeing Wei Wuxian prepare to retort, “A substitute.”

Wei Wuxian turned to the entrance. Something personal, huh, “Wen Ning, bring my stuff here!”

Flinching at being caught eavesdropping, Wen Ning scurried off and quickly came back holding a trunk. As he walked past Wei Wuxian to return to his post, Wen Ning whispered, “Don’t worry Young Master, I didn’t take anything important.”

The emperor tensed as he looked inside, asking tersely, “Everything is yours alone?”

Wei Wuxian waved it off, busy tying his ribbon up and ignoring the emperor’s gaze, “Yup! All mine, had it for years. Are they too exotic for His Majesty’s refined tastes?”

The emperor turned his attention back to the trunk, seemingly satisfied.

Taking a glance, Wei Wuxian was surprised to find it really was just some random possessions he carried around. A thought struck him as the emperor excused himself after taking something while Wei Wuxian was distracted. If the emperor originally thought his ribbon was just some scrap of fabric, then why did he want it?

Well, all royalty have their quirks.

With his ribbon back, it’s as if Wei Wuxian regained a lost chunk of strength that carried him through the next few debilitating assaults from the Venerated Triad Alliance. Now truly understanding the gravity of the splintered situation, Wei Wuxian rallied as much of the army under his banner as he could. After advising the Council that anyone not under his command was no longer his burden, Wei Wuxian spent the next few months running through as many plans as he could. 

The negotiation incident seems to have left a deep impact on Jiang Cheng. No longer did he look for opportunities to gain achievements, becoming much more cooperative to Wei Wuxian’s plans. As proud as Wei Wuxian was to see his growth in maturity, despite their 5 day age difference, it was just another reminder of the desperate situation they found themselves in.

 

As the days grew, so did the Triad’s strength. And so did the tension among the Wei Wuxian’s personal advisors. Arguing about which directions to take, Wen Ning had to hold Wen Qing down from needling Jiang Cheng into a coma when he suggested using the Demonic Text.

A product of desperation mixed with unrestrained creativity, the Demonic Text is a secret book of ideas Wei Wuxian had been cataloguing since his first experience with war. Containing everything from torture methods to biological warfare, it is a cold bundle of pages with no respect for any form of life. After denouncing it with his inner circle, Wei Wuxian used it as a sort of grave to dump all his dark ideas so he could put them out of mind and focus.

Never did Wei Wuxian think he would consider using it again.

And in actuality, he wasn’t considering it. He refused to consider it. This war against Gusu is different and for all the bitterness and animosity between the two, Gusu has done nothing to deserve such extreme methods. The problem is that Gusu was not their only enemy now. Even Qinghe, despite their brutal thirst for victory, didn’t warrant the Demonic Text especially with their prior friendly relations.

Lanling is different. Much of the ruling Jin family was greedy and self-serving. Despite being as fractured as Yunmeng, their desires for a common interest unify them just enough. Although Jin Guangyao has so far left a good impression on Wei Wuxian, Koi Tower is poison to the soul and he’ll keep his guard up against any Jin until the day he dies. If anyone was likely to employ the kind of cruel actions that would warrant the Demonic Text, it would be Jin Guangshan. 

Shaking his head to erase the thoughts, Wei Wuxian helped pull his favorite wet cats apart so they could finish this strategy meeting and get a drink.

 

The next few battles tempted Wei Wuxian to reconsider. The Jin had gone all out to seize a vital position from Yunmeng, cutting down anyone in their way. Cruelty is the nature of war, but that doesn’t stop Wei Wuxian’s fists trembling from anger as he directed survivors from a nearby razed village to the medical tent. Wei Wuxian caught Wen Qing’s eye as he passed and knew from the tick in her jaw that she was thinking the same. But in the end there’s no way that text could ever be used. Having no regard for life goes both ways after all.

In the following days thoughts of the Demonic Text plagued his mind, traitorous voices in his head pointing out how page 83 could have won that battle or torture method #42 could have saved those people. The repercussions of losing that position to the Jin were taking their toll. 

Every day Wei Wuxian grew more exhausted.

He thought he was hiding it well, but either it shows more than he thought or the emperor is inhumanly perceptive. Jiang Cheng thinks it’s all in his head, but Wei Wuxian can feel how the emperor’s gaze lingers on him longer each time they clash. He seems more restless recently, as if he wants to say something but stops just short. Especially when Wei Wuxian suffers a loss, he can feel the emperor’s gaze on his back even long after they’re out of sight.

 

And then the day comes. They finally get desperate enough to open the Demonic Text.

Word from their spies said that Lan Xichen, the absolute worldly genius that he is, had discussed giving Lanling a piece of Yunmeng territory and leaving the care of any remaining Yunmeng soldiers under Jin Guangyao’s authority. How could he be so naive as to think that’s in any way a good idea?!

Wei Wuxian looked over at Wen Ning and Wen Qing. 

As if he’d let that happen.

Wei Wuxian lets the others pour over the text on their own while he stands off to the side. He may suck at remembering people, but his memory in all other areas is top-notch. He wrote that book, and he knows every word written by heart.

He decides on a plan just as the argument heats up, breaking it apart when MianMian gets ready to choke a bitch. They have work to do.

 

It was an utter failure. Nothing else could justify the nauseating agony numbing Wei Wuxian to his core as Jiang Cheng leads their forces in a cheer at retaking the Jin’s position. He lets Jiang Cheng take over shouting out orders as Wei Wuxian kneels to close his Sixth Shidi’s eyes.

He lost 22 of his most loyal men that day, 14 of whom had followed him from the very beginning.

That’s not counting the other casualties.

And for what? To get back to their previously still desperate position? All this sacrifice for so little in return?

Wei Wuxian is not so foolish that he went this far without a long-term plan. These situations are his specialty. They can win.

He let his bangs cover his face as he gripped Sixth Shidi’s hand, heaving breaths through clenched teeth.

But at what cost?

Feeling a gaze on his back, Wei Wuxian turned to see the emperor looking at him from across the field. Unable to meet his eyes, for the first time, Wei Wuxian looks away.

 

The following weeks were quiet as both sides gathered to discuss next steps. While the position was good for Yunmeng, it didn’t necessarily affect the Alliance. They had enough time to learn the terrain and create alternate routes that they had already recovered by the time Wei Wuxian returned to Lotus Pier for their strategy meeting. What it did do was prove to Yunmeng that we’re not over yet.

Dinner was a more lively affair than it had been in recent months. The Jiangs were clearly encouraged by the results of the battle despite it’s bitter nature. Wei Wuxian can’t blame them. At this point they’ll do anything to get out of their desperate situation.

Just then, a letter arrives from the Cloud Recesses.