Lan Sizhui brought in an inkpot from a vendor in Moling. It was a curious object. From what he had determined from observation, it had been the spirit of a particularly frustrated poet -- furious that his work had gone unrecognized, he’d taken to using the always filling contents of the pot to scrawl his work all over the walls of any person who had the misfortune of buying the object.
Unfortunately, the object itself was quite comely and expensive, resembling one of the last works of a particularly well regarded craftsman. As a result, it had passed through quite a number of hands, and wrecked more than a few estates before at last Lan Sizhui had Inquired as to the ghost’s nature, snapped a talisman over the lid to keep it from spewing its contents all over his flawless white robes, and removed it from the premises.
“Neatly done,” remarked Lan Wangji, when Lan Sizhui related the adventure, which had ended in only one room covered in ink and not a drop on himself, while Lan Jingyi was tragically covered in terrible fish metaphors.
Lan Sizhui was many years out from his days as a junior, and too disciplined to beam openly, but a faint light hit his eyes under that praise. “Thank you, Hanguang-jun. But I’m afraid I was not able to determine what might satisfy the spirit.”
Lan Jingyi cut in. “It likes attention.”
“Most lousy poets do.” Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi both looked past the Twin Jades, to the man in black lounging in the door. Neither was wholly surprised to see him. Wei Wuxian had long since been an accepted fixture of the Cloud Recesses, and where Lan Wangji could be found, the Yiling Patriarch was seldom far behind. He offered Lan Sizhui a mild flick of his fingers in greeting, but there was a deep warmth in his eyes when he saw him. “I’d be curious to know how long he could keep going. Will he run out of ideas, or would he just repeat himself?”
Lan Sizhui bowed, smiling ruefully in return. “I wondered as well. It may be best to archive it, for the time being. With your permission, of course.”
This he directed to Lan Xichen, who had up until this point remained silent through most of the report.
“Granted,” he said, “But since you are so curious about it, Wuxian, why don’t you lead some of our new disciples in best practices for appeasing it? It will be a good opportunity for them.”
It did prove an excellent learning opportunity -- Wei Wuxian’s practical lessons were especially popular, and there were many volunteers. It proved an excellent opportunity in learning from failure as well, when one of the new students, a second son from the Ouyang Sect, missed a few key notes in the composition, resulting in ink spraying the hall.
“I’m so sorry,” cried the disciple responsible. “I’m so, so sorry!”
One of the female disciples began to pick her way through the group, collecting their stained over robes.
The last notes of Wei Wuxian’s flute echoed in the hall. The inkpot was once again still. Lan Wangji -- who had stepped in front of him the moment it had begun to go wild, lowered his arm.
“You took liberties with the arrangement,” he remarked, tonelessly.
The young disciple burst into tears again.
“Now, now, Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian. “Don’t destroy his spirit just yet. A bit of creativity is not in of itself something to be ashamed of -- but ah, yeah, that was a bit too out there. Now I know I am a bit wild--”
“A bit,” said Lan Wangji, eyebrows climbing.
“--just a little. But even I had to spend three months submitting to the harshest of harsh Lan discipline to get to where I am.”
“Submitting,” muttered Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian, to his credit, only grinned. “So, we’ll rein it in a bit and try again in the future, yes?”
“Well said,” said Lan Xichen, lowering his own flute. Even in his spot of observation, from the back, he’d not escaped the splash.
The female disciple gathering everyone’s robes stopped in front of him with a polite bow.
“Zewu-jun,” she said. “May I take your over robe?”
Lan Xichen blinked, and looked down. A particularly filthy set of characters ran down one of his sleeves. The inkpot spirit had expanded into erotic poetry, it seemed.
“Ah,” he said, folding his arms discreetly. “There is no need to trouble yourself.”
The young woman grabbed one of his hanging sleeves before he could tuck it completely away.
“It will stain if we do not wash it right away,” she said, with a hint of iron in her voice. She had come from the Nie Sect, and was not easily dissuaded, even behind her bright smile.
“I appreciate your concern. I shall tend to it as soon as I am able.”
“And it will tear if you do it yourself,” said the girl from the Nie, graciously.
Lan Xichen blinked at her. Despite the murmurings and shufflings of the ink-spattered disciples, a strange hush filled the room. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the leader of the Lan Sect did, in fact, shrug out of his overrobe and hand it to the waiting disciple. Beaming, the girl bowed one more time and rushed from the hall, careful to step around the filthy limericks as she went.
“My, my,” murmured Wei Wuxian. “Lan Zhan, who was that?”
Her name was Nie Minglin. She had come to the Cloud Recesses for the latest discussion conference just that month, at the insistence of her uncle: Chief Cultivator Nie Huaisang.
She was not a niece directly by blood. After all, the entire cultivation world knew that Nie Huaisang’s one brother had died many years ago, under the most lurid circumstances still sometimes gossiped about in certain circles. This niece was actually a younger cousin of a branch family -- but her parents had succumbed to backlash not long after her birth, their swords commended to the ancestral tomb. Nie Huaisang brought her into his household. Ever since, the most common thing he said of her was one thing:
“Ah, A-Lin is so disagreeable.”
Take, for instance, the episode that had brought her to the Cloud Recesses: The Chief Cultivator had held a banquet at the Unclean Realm for a number of council members who had passed through to discuss the recent decision to expand smaller night-hunts among the larger sects -- modeled off of the Lan’s growing practice of sending seniors out on regular expeditions, sometimes with their juniors. As the Lan had no interest in appearing as though they were exerting power over the other Sects, they had politely declined the invitation: but the leaders of the LanlingJin sect and the YunmengJiang sect arrived together, and following their example, even more minor sects like Yao, Luo, and Ouyang had been in attendance.
Nie Huaisang’s reasoning had been simple: More smaller night hunts mean less large ones in the future. Who wants to deal with so many huge monsters?
It was a solution that was practical, if lacking in opportunities to establish one’s martial glory. Thus tensions were already high that evening. With so many Sect Leaders in one place, a little drama was expected. Some had even expressed a hopeful dread that perhaps the Yiling Patriarch might put in an appearance, for old time’s sake -- but alas, Wei Wuxian had been off night-hunting with his husband somewhere in Yunmeng, and not nearly close enough to be blamed for anything.
Instead, the incident was one of a much more mundane sort. The Sect leaders finished their meal, and settled in for their conference, when a terrible cry rang out from the training fields. Nie Huaisang winced, fanning himself at a greater speed. At which point Nie Minglin had politely excused herself from the hall.
The screaming and shouting went on for an uncomfortably long time, until at last it was cut off suddenly -- at which point, a smiling Nie Minglin returned, and apologized for the disturbance.
The next morning, a cultivator from the Yao sect was discovered tied naked to the weapons wrack in the yard, struggling against a scarf stuffed in his mouth.
Evidently, he’d been two-timing a young woman he’d been courting in the Qin sect with a male cousin. He’d been discovered making time for the cousin behind the weapons rack. What had followed was a terrible argument, which had resulted in both the cousin and the young woman determined to murder him and cut him into pieces. This was the scene Nie Minglin had entered upon.
Nie Minglin hated too much of a fuss. Hadn’t she devoted her life to minimizing her uncle’s complaints? The matter she came to was elegant. Since the young Yao son had been so keen to make time behind the weapon’s rack, Nie Minglin had decided to oblige his desires and tie him to it using a binding technique. After which she had politely offered the young woman the promise of anonymity -- and the contents of the young man’s change purse as an apology. The young male cousin had gotten the young man’s weapons as a love gift. After that, all three had departed, leaving the young man to his fated humiliation.
It had indeed, spared the evening of noise and far more lethal consequences. But it was terribly embarrassing for Sect Leader Yao, who had spent much of the evening bragging of his Sect’s discipline and composure. He’d demanded recompense for his nephew’s humiliation. After all: the whole thing was clearly a misunderstanding. Why should he have to suffer for some woman’s inability to control her emotions?
Nie Huaisang had responded with his typical decisiveness: “Why don’t you try talking to her? She never listens to me.”
The elderly Sect Leader Yao had visibly hesitated. Nie Minglin’s smile was notoriously sharp. “Nevermind that,” he huffed. “She’s your charge!”
To which the Chief Cultivator shook his head and batted his fan -- but he wrote Lan Xichen the very next day, begging him to take her on.
So it was that Nie Minglin arrived at the Cloud Recesses and Nie Huaisang rid himself of a most troublesome ward.
In observation, Nie Minglin was the most oddly agreeable problem child to ever trouble the Cloud Recesses doors.
Exhibit #1: Her arrival. In which she introduced herself to the Lan masters, in perfect form and perfect good manners. The students still whispered about it.
It was not because she was a woman. After all, in the years following Lan Wangji’s daring decision to live openly with his own spouse, more and more Lan disciples had asked that their own partners be allowed to live alongside them. Since most of these partners were women, the result, over time, had been the near complete elimination of gendered courses -- save for particular lessons held by the most conservative elders of the sect. Most of the disciples now trained together, regardless of the specific quantity of yin or yang energy each possessed.
The habit had spread, too, in the disciples arriving from the other Sects. Many of the gentry refused to have their daughters receive less than their rivals. Thus, a veritable arms race of daughters, cousins, and nieces had found themselves entering the Orchid Pavilion. Grand Master Lan Qiren had more cause to pull his beard, but he had long since resigned himself to another assault on the tradition he had so painstakingly guarded all these years. At least none of them could ever be another Wei Wuxian.
Nie Minglin was simply the latest in the line.
True, she possessed a particular poise. She could move in smooth, small steps, without a bob in her head. She stared straight ahead, like a woman twice her age -- though she herself was no older than sixteen. Nevertheless, there was little else about her to draw the eye. It was said she was quite beautiful when she wanted to be: she had glossy dark brown hair, and wide eyes like a deer, but she arrived with only minimal make-up, and her hair tied up in a tidy, plain bun. Her only accession to vanity was the small gentian tucked into her hair pin. She bent at the waist, thanked the Sect Leader and the Grand Master for their invitation, and presented her gift: an ornate silver and black envelope, which she unfolded obligingly.
A letter? The students murmured among themselves. They themselves had brought bells, and broaches, and lacquerware. Why would a daughter of a major sect bring a letter?”
“The gift may be best understood if I read it out,” she explained. “My deepest apologies, Grandmaster, Zewu-jun. The collection was too large for me to bring every item into the pavilion. This is an itemized list of every text the Nie Sect wishes to donate to the Cloud Recesses Library Pavillion.”
She handed the envelope to Lan Xichen. His fingers brushed hers as he took the paper, and oh did the girls and some of the boys shiver in annoyance at that.
The list that folded out was long, indeed. The Grand Master peered over his nephew’s shoulder and muttered quietly.
“Your uncle is being more than generous,” murmured Lan Xichen. “This is enough to occupy its own wing.”
Nie Minglin smiled, and a shiver ran through the onlookers. It was a bright, ready smile, dripping with intent.
“You will see on the next sheet, I have provided a list of recommended contractors,” she said. “Most of them operate out of Caiyi Town and the surrounding regions. I have reviewed and approved them myself. They each have their own familiarity with the Cloud Recesses and its construction. I have taken the liberty to request design proposals from the top five candidates on that list. They are the architectural houses that aided in its reconstruction following the Sunshot Campaign, all those years ago. Our sources tell me they have inherited their skills admirably, and their work is quite good.”
Another severe whisper began among the students. Some of them hadn’t known the Cloud Recesses had ever burned. Some of them were surprised she had the nerve to remind the aging Grand Master and his nephew of such a dark time, which they themselves had suffered personally.
A few more creases appeared on old Lan Qiren’s already creased forehead. Lan Xichen began to page through the project proposals, his face growing increasingly drawn. Nie Minglin only beamed.
“You need not worry about the cost of such an addition,” she added. “I will be managing the budget on my uncle’s behalf. It will, of course, be at our expense. What gift comes without its box, after all?”
“A box.” Now, Lan Qiren stared openly. “Since when has Nie Huaisang been so generous?”
“Please, do not feel as though it would place you in his debt.” To which Nie Minglin bowed again, hiding her face behind her arms. “It’s coming out of my dowry, after all.”
“Bullshit!” cried a Jiang disciple, in the back.
“Not at all,” said Nie Minglin, pertly. “I don’t intend to get married. It might as well have some use.”
Exhibit #2: The incident in Dali Lake Town, in which a group of juniors inadvertently stumbled upon the ghost of a dead captain, determined to stir up a militia to ride to the defense of a mountain fort which no longer existed.
“Appeasement should be our first goal,” explained Lan Sizhui. “What does the ghost want?”
The nearest junior answered dutifully: “To march on Fort Wan.”
Lan Sizhui smiled. “Very good. And why does the ghost want to do that?”
The next along the line said: “To warn it of the attack before dawn!”
It stood to reason, his students wisely concluded, that they would have to bring the ghosts bones to the top of the mountain by dawn. Only then would it stop banging drums in the middle of the night. Lan Sizhui was pleased with this latest crop of juniors. They cut to the truth of things very quickly.
“Master Sizhui... “ began one, uncertainly. “Didn’t those farmers say there is no fort up on the mountain anymore?”
“That is true,” said Lan Sizhui. “But there was one once, a very long time ago. Ghosts do not always understand that time moves on without them.”
The ghost wanted to finally reach the fort before dawn. The juniors were stumped, and a little tired. Walking the bones up the hill the night before hadn’t worked. This ghost demanded a fully supplied set of horsemen. But the lake town was a small farming commune with no weapons, and no war horses. They had a stable full of tea horses and some farming equipment.
Lan Jingyi emerged from the nearest house, scowling. Lan Sizhui quickly joined him, where they could confer quietly -- well, as quiet as Lan Jingyi could ever be.
“We should try another house,” grumbled Lan Jingyi.
“No luck here, either?” asked Lan Sizhui.
“And I got a lecture about privilege,” burst out Lan Jingyi. “Like we’re not their landlords!”
“We’re not, though,” said Lan Sizhui, making a very subtle little ‘tone it down’ gesture with his hand Lan Jingyi only occasionally obeyed. “Technically we’re a little outside of--”
“And I said we’d give them back,” continued Lan Jingyi, glaring fiercely at the door as though he might burn a hole in it with his eyes. “And we’re trying to help them. Could we get Wen Ning to scare them into it? Just a little--”
“Wen Ning doesn’t like to do that…”
“Well, these people like their drums, don’t they!?” Lan Jingyi could have kept going, but one of the visiting disciples came up to them, and he quickly pulled himself up in an attempt to look more like the graceful, solemn senior he was supposed to be now.
“Excuse me?” asked the disciple. It was Nie Minglin, head tilted to one side as she tried to get their attention. She was particularly wide-eyed, which was particularly impressive, considering how tired everyone was at that point.
“Yes?” asked Lan Jingyi, suddenly the picture of aloof control. Lan Sizhui tried not to smile.
“Is there a problem?”
“Not at all,” said Lan Jingyi. “These things sometimes take time. Patience is an important part of the process.”
“I see,” said Nie Minglin. “It’s just -- if there were an issue. I may have an idea.”
When they returned to the Cloud Recesses, the ghost duly appeased and peace restored in the countryside, Nie Minglin visited the administrative offices and presented a bound sheaf of papers to Lan Xichen’s table.
“Receipts,” she reported, “From Dali Mountain Town.”
“Receipts?” The sect leader blinked. The list was very well organized. Each had an item and a cost estimate beside it. Each was signed by either a scribble or a character.
“For the items we were required to borrow for the night-hunt,” she explained. “The villagers were happy to lend their supplies -- so long as we could guarantee some form of reimbursement.”
Exhibit 3: The case of the spectre wood. Some hundred years ago, a man had murdered his rival by pinning him against a tree. The man’s soul had moved on, but the tree had grown corrupted from the blood that seeped through into its bark. It grew a taste for it. As it was a tree alone in the woods, this might not have been an issue -- unfortunately, it was cut down from lumber, and a musician had made the mistake of buying some of that wood to fashion a guqin from it.
The result was an exceedingly hungry instrument. It had fallen into the hands of a rogue cultivator, the instrument had killed him, but kept his corpse to keep playing it. What’s more, it desperately resonated with other objects made from the same wood. What had been assumed to be a basic wicked spirit had turned up an army of cursed objects, a number of which had proven unfortunately to be the handle of knives, shovels, and axes. The patrol that first discovered the dead cultivator had called immediately for back up. Lan Xichen answered the flare immediately, alongside Lan Jingyi, and several students who had been taking music lessons in the hills nearby.
The instrument craved blood. Appeasement would be impossible. The sealing proved difficult -- the instrument had no issue with abusing the dead cultivator’s abilities to summon an army of resonating objects to defend it from attack. The drumming of each of these objects drowned out almost even the calming sound of Leibing.
At least, until one of the students jammed a saber into the ground and ran a dagger the wrong way up its side. The scream of metal caused a brief disruption in the horrible song. The objects paused, shivering, before they flew outwards in a berserk rage -- but they’d left the central station unguarded, and in that moment Lan Jingyi was able to surge forward and cut the strings of the nasty thing.
An assortment of kitchenware, furniture, and tools tumbled to the ground. Leibing did the rest. Lan Jingyi threw his overrobe over the remains of the instrument. He made a point of giving it a kick as he did.
“And if you’re going to murder everyone with it, at least don’t play it so flat,” huffed Lan Jingyi.
“Now, now,” murmured Lan Xichen. “But well done.” He checked the rogue cultivator first. The man was confirmed dead -- and had been for some months now if he had to guess from the condition of the corpse. Proper identification and burial would be one of their priorities. In the meantime, he checked on each of the students. For many, it was their first time confronting something like this outside of the protection of the Mingshi. A few had suffered some bruises and cuts from the instrument's makeshift army, but most were standing.
In the backline Nie Minglin sat in the grass beside her saber. She’d dropped the dagger she’d used to scratch it. The winds of the spirit’s last attack had blown her bun out. She was trying, one-handed, to tie it back. Lan Xichen knelt across from her. She jumped.
“That may be the first time I have seen you draw that blade, Miss Lin,” he observed mildly.
“Ah, Zewu-jun.” She shoved her hands into her sleeves, her cheeks coloring. “There is a reason for that, I’m afraid. I’m not terribly skilled in my sect’s method of cultivation. My apologies for my cowardice.”
“Please, there’s no need,” said Lan Xichen. “I should hardly call what you did just then cowardice. You used your weapon to interrupt the instrument’s frequency, didn’t you?”
“I can’t imagine that was unintentional.” Lan Xichen smiled, softly. “It was quick thinking. Where did you learn that?”
Contrary to the pertness she’d shown when handing out receipts or presenting obscenely elaborate donations, Nie Minglin turned even redder and held herself tight around her waist. “Opposing frequencies can clash and drown one another out,” she recited quickly. “When playing together, one must be careful to harmonize, rather than overpower. Thus, it stood to reason, a discordant note could -- if just for a moment -- it’s what you taught me. Taught us. In class, of course.”
“...you are a very quick study, Miss Lin,” said Lan Xichen. He held out his hand. “Now, before you try to take your saber back -- may I see your wrist?”
“You’re favoring it. I assume you jammed it.”
She’d shoved the saber deep into the ground. Unpracticed as she was with it, it was unsurprising she’d hurt herself drawing it so suddenly. She’d had to shove her whole body against it to keep it in place.
“It will be fine. Surely Zewu-jun has far more important matters to attend--”
“I consider the wellbeing of my charges important. Let me see.”
Embarrassed, the young Nie woman drew her bruised wrist out from her sleeve. Lan Xichen took it carefully, rubbing some ointment into the sprain. She stared resolutely down at the grass.
Exhibit #4: He was still holding her arm as they walked through the gate.
Normally, this would not have wound up the talk of the Cloud Recesses -- the sect leader was known, after all, for his compassion and skill at field medicine, but compared to Lan Wangji bodily dragging Wei Wuxian by both of his wrists and his headband while Wei Wuxian vocally whined about how Lan Zhan was so mean, how much meaner would he get -- how much meaner could he get? This could hardly be called scandalous.
No, what transpired was the following:
“If it’s a matter of swordsmanship, we would be happy to consider an alternative. I imagine a lighter technique would suit you better.”
“You needn’t bother,” said Nie Minglin. “Even assuming my uncle wasn’t…..who he was, I promise you I’m entirely hopeless on a front line.”
“You did admirably today.”
“I was lucky today,” said Nie Minglin. “Part of politics is finding your moments of opportunity, isn’t it?”
“That is one way to look at it,” said Lan Xichen, as they passed through the dappled shade of the fall trees and under the great wall of Lan precepts, a weariness clouded his eyes. “I always liked to think of it as finding a clear path through a foggy mountain.”
Not unlike the foggy mountain pass they moved through now, weaving their way up towards the main administrative buildings.
“That’s a beautiful thought,” admitted Nie Minglin, with a tight smile.
“‘A pity that is not often how the world works,’” Lan Xichen finished for her. “Was that what you were thinking?”
Sheepishly: “That is a more worldly observation than I would have expected from you.”
“Truly? Mm. I suppose that is fair.” Though he had on occasion left the mountain in the last number of years, the Lan Sect leader had grown notorious for his withdrawal from the political scene. He appeared when the Four Major Sects met, as was required, but he had removed himself from nearly all other public functions. He often sent his brother’s son, Lan Sizhui, alongside Lan Qiren’s grandson, Lan Jingyi, as proxies. “The path of cultivation is one of spiritual clarity and infinite patience -- and yet the leaders of that world must accept a much stormier reality. But I suppose you know that well.”
Nie Minglin looked away. “I suppose I do.”
“From your work as your uncle’s assistant, yes?”
“I -- yes.”
Noticing her hesitation, Lan Xichen paused. “You know, Miss Lin, if you have fallen out of favor with him--”
She stared at him. Her eyes got wide, and then wider, and then she burst out laughing. “Oh -- oh -- Zewu-jun, no! There is no need to intercede on my behalf. I didn’t think you did that anymore.”
“I don’t, really,” he admitted.”But your uncle’s ideas are sometimes -- well, I’d hate to think you feel you’re being put to waste.”
“It’s nothing like that,” said Nie Minglin, emphatically. “Really, compared to running my uncle’s offices, I find the GusuLan devotion to such discipline refreshingly simple.”
“Simple? My, that is a new way of looking at it,” Lan Xichen gazed up at the wall. There had been many additions in the last ten years. There would be many more. Gazing up alongside him, Nie Minglin covered her face to rein in her laugh.
“Such a harsh white light,” she said, “I don’t have to worry at finding my way… also there is far less paperwork.”
“Your report on Dali Mountain Town was 50 pages, Miss Lin.”
“Nie Huaisang,” she said, without blinking, “Had twenty years of untouched personal expense reports. Please understand that that entailed. 316 silk robes, 1034 fans, purchase of a private garden, and what’s more...”
“He never added up a single line of it.”
“Ah,” said Lan Xichen. “That sounds like a very vigorous exercise. I hope you enjoy it here.”
“I do, Zewu-jun. I very much do.”
“But have you considered...mm. A more tranquil hobby?”
“Have I--” She blinked. “Eh?”
“Like gardening, perhaps.”
He didn’t have a chance to elaborate. By then Lan Jingyi had returned down the steps, and waved at them from around the bend. They’d stopped to talk without realizing. The rest of the students stood in an uncertain, shifting half circle at the top of the stairs, wondering if they were dismissed.
Only then did he remember to let go of her arm.
Exhibit 5: Lan Jingyi--
Well, Lan Jingyi.
“Zewu-jun was talking to that weird new disciple!” blurted Lan Jingyi. “In the herb garden! His herb garden!”
“Jingyi, we really shouldn’t gossip,” said Lan Sizhui. But he did pause. It’s not that he was trying to be too nosy about his uncle’s habits, but Lan Wangji had worried he’d return to seclusion that winter, and he’d been keeping an eye out for the signs. “Are you sure?”
Lan Jingyi nodded rapidly. “I’m sure. You know, the one who wrote down all that stuff about that junk we borrowed for the ghost captain. That bossy niece Nie Huaisang wanted to get rid of.--”
“Jingyi, it’s not nice to tell stories about people. Especially students.”
“I’m not the first one who said it.”
“Jingyi, she really helped us with those receipts.”
“But why is she here?” said Lan Jingyi. “And why does she talk like an overbearing auntie? And why is Zewu-jun taking her to his personal garden!”
“Jingyi--” Lan Sizhui paused. “That is a little strange. But, really, Jingyi. We shouldn’t gossip. It’s forbidden.”
A dark shadow appeared between them: Wei Wuxian, plopping his elbows down on the table and sprawling out like a cat.
“It’s rule 80,” he said, taking advantage of their momentary shock to steal a peanut out of Lan Jingyi’s startled hand. “Tell me everything.”
Actually, it went a little like this:
“Zewu-jun,” reported Nie Minglin, coming up the steps. “I have a note from the contractor. I have reviewed their final design proposals. Would you like to see them?”
“Oh, yes, I would be happy to see them. Thank you --” But as she turned to make for the administrative offices, he paused and said, “But do you mind if we detour for a moment? I have a small duty to attend.”
“I would be happy to wait there.”
“No. I think you ought to come with me.”
The ‘small duty’ turned out to be a series of little planters set out in pots in the inner courtyard behind the Cold Room, filled with fresh earth, little packs full of seeds and pots of water were arrayed on the deck beside them.
Nie Minglin stared. “Zewu-jun?”
“I did mention gardening, didn’t I?” asked Lan Xichen, airily. “Nie cultivators need clear minds. I would like it if you joined me.”
“Zewu-jun-- Zewu-jun your sleeves--!”
He let her tie those back at least. She ended up trailing behind him, handing him seed packets as he carefully buried them in each little pot.
“What are these?” she asked. The bags of seeds were unlabeled. He seemed to know them by feel.
“Medicinal herbs, mostly,” he admitted. “Some seasonings, for my brother. His husband is not the most, hm, tolerant of our traditional meals.”
“But doesn’t GusuLan keep extensive gardens in the back mountain for such things?” And didn’t they have a number of juniors to work them, rather than the Sect Leader himself? She left that addition unspoken.
“We do. But I like to keep my hand in such things. Besides, these I can keep indoors for the winter.”
Nie Minglin’s lips twisted, wryly. “So, Zewu-jun can convince plants to bloom even out of season?”
“Nothing as amazing as that. It is simply a skill I picked on some time ago, when I worked as a doctor in a city one winter in Yunping. When it comes to people’s immediate needs, you cannot afford to wait for spring.”
He held out his hand behind him. Nie Minglin remembered, belatedly, to tip the seeds into his waiting hand.
He peered over at her. “You are wondering when I had the time for such things?”
She stiffened. “The sect leader does seem terribly busy--”
“You can ask, if you’d like,” he said, pressing the seeds into the earth, and smoothing the soil back over with a particular care. “Yes. It was a time when the Cloud Recesses was barred to me.”
She didn’t have to wonder at the event he was referring to. It had been decades ago, now, but it had long entered the history lectures of all Major Sects, her own included. Despite the biases each imposed on this particular piece of history, the burning of the Cloud Recesses, much like the destruction of Lotus Pier, was held up as a particular example of Wen cruelty, and a particular point of validation for what came next. All of it.
Nie Minglin shut her eyes. “Ah, I knew this,” she said. “Please, you needn’t drag up such sad memories on my account.”
“I was going to offer you advice on finding calm in the face of greater conflict,” admitted Lan Xichen, gently. “But I suppose that would be overly fussy. I don’t mind remembering small things like that. It was a terrible time, but it had its moments of peace.”
“Yes,” said Lan Xichen. “....and I had company, besides. Would you like to plant a few yourself?”
“I…” Nie Minglin swallowed. “Yes, Zewu-jun. I would enjoy that.”
This, maybe, was some cause for concern.
“Miss Nie! Miss Nie! A moment of your time?”
Nie Minglin paused on her way to the library, peering over a truly impressive armfull of scrolls.
“Hello, senior, may I help you?” She really did have the biggest, darkest eyes. Like a deer, one might say. She tilted her head sideways to see him as Wei Wuxian came strolling up to her, a merry bounce to his step.
She readjusted the pile in her arms to attempt a bow. He placed his hand over the scroll at the top of the pile. Somehow, the veritable temple did not collapse.
“I should be asking you that,” said Wei Wuxian, tilting his head to follow her movement. “Who has saddled you with such a load, hm? I hope no one is bullying you. Has someone pawned their chores off on you? People who avoid work should do it honestly, not give it to others. Let me know, I’ll sic my husband on them.”
Nie Minglin bent back to readjust the pile in her arms, conveniently stepping out of Wei Wuxian’s reach. “The one man wearing black in the Cloud Recesses, with no regard for propriety and an impressive husband. Truly, you are the Yiling Patriarch. It is an honor to have finally earned your much sought after attention.”
“Much sought after!”
“Yes. The disciples are always talking about the adventure you bring,” said Nie Minglin. “And the chaos.”
“Now, now. That’s not right. We go where the chaos is. Not bring it.”
“Nevertheless, I fear I cannot be nearly so interesting. I am acting very much on my own.”
She attempted to step around him. But all Wei Wuxian did was backstep to move with her, marching backwards along the walkway, scattering junior and senior disciples alike as they wove their way across the compound.
“A sole perpetrator! A bold declaration,” said Wei Wuxian. “But you must have a destination in mind.”
“Yes. The administrative building. These are texts donated from an old temple uncovered in Qinque,” said Nie Minglin, obediently. “On behalf of my uncle.”
Wei Wuxian turned in a circle, as though dredging the information from memory. “That would be… Nie Huaisang, yes?”
Nie Minglin sighed. “The very same. I believe you are familiar with him. He is certainly familiar with you, Senior Wei.”
“Oh, how nice! Isn’t it good to know we are still friends! Since you know we are old friends, you should probably know -- those books -- eeeh, you are taking them to Zewu-jun, aren’t you?”
“To sort them.”
Wei Wuxian leaned in. “‘Sort’ them.”
“You miiight want to sort those yourself, first.”
“Why is that?”
“Your uncle’s taste in literature, it … eh, did not always meet Lan approval.” In one smooth motion, he pulled one of the books off the top of the pile, flipped it open to a random page. “Oh, my!”
Nie Minglin turned too quickly to follow him. The entire pile nearly went over. It was only because he put his arm out that neither her or the books went pitching. He showed her the text.
It was a basic music book. He put it back on the stack. He kept his hand there, to keep it from going over again.
“Master Wei,” she said, in a measured voice. “If you wish to harass me, I might remind you that you are very spoken for. Married men are of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever, and I have no interest in upsetting Hanguang-jun.”
“How good,” sang Wei Wuxian, mimicking the lilt in her voice. “I have absolutely no interest in that, either. But you -- you are very curious. I have heard you are a cold beauty. I have heard you have rejected over a dozen suitors.”
She sighed. “My uncle has his pastimes. Trying to marry me off is one of them.”
“Your uncle this, your uncle that. You don’t much look like him. And you know, the Nie once prided themselves in their martial prowess! Who knew they were hiding such grace all this time?”
“I resemble my late mother.”
“Yes, you do,” said Wei Wuxian, pointedly.
Nie Minglin dropped her arm full of books, whirling to face him -- but she was alone on the walkway. The Yiling Patriarch had vanished, like a ghost.
Sighing, Nie Minglin put her face back on and knelt to reorganize the stack.
The female disciples were gossiping about it by nightfall, as they walked back from their meditations.
“Senior Wei took an interest in Nie Minglin?”
“Ah, how odd! I thought he’d left those ways behind.”
“She seems to be everyone’s exception these days. Do you see how Zewu-jun favors her?”
“Yes! He is categorizing the new texts. And she is helping him. And when he gives lectures, have you noticed how he calls on her when no one else knows the answer?”
“But Zewu-jun is above such things…”
“So they say, so they say…”
“And Senior Wei is--”
A new voice interrupted them: “A complete cutsleeve. You should think men who bother only each other would be much more tolerable, but it seems the Yiling Patriarch remains an exception in all ways.”
The girls jumped.
One of them began: “Oh, Sister Lin! We were just saying--”
Nie Minglin batted her eyes. “So who am I sleeping with? Senior Wei or Zewu-jun?”
The other shrank. “Ah, that is--”
“You don’t need to worry. Your handsome men will remain untouched,” said Nie Minglin, walking past them. “Men are of no interest to me.”
“They are like horses,” said Nie Minglin, brightly. “They must be broken to be ridden properly.”
The two girls stared at her stiff face, and shivered.
“Just kidding,” added Nie Minglin, after a beat. “Have a good evening.”
She moved on, shoulders squared as she disappeared in the general direction of the living quarters.
“...Sister Lin sure can be scary.”
“Why does she interest you?”
Lan Wangji appeared behind him without a sound. Wei Wuxian bumped into his chest as he turned. He decided he may as well stay there, steadying himself on his husband’s shoulder.
“Why doesn’t she interest you?” asked Wei Wuxian. “She interests Zewu-jun.”
“That is one thing,” said Lan Wangji. “This is another.”
“Lan Zhan!” gasped Wei Wuxian delightedly, wiggling closer. A couple of disciples turned the corner, saw them, and immediately reversed course to find another place to be, but neither of them gave that much attention. “Ah, ah, ah. Have I given you cause for jealousy? Oh, no. Will you punish me? I am completely innocent -- but you should punish me anyway. I don’t mind crying for my innocence if it’s you -- but deeefinitely not her. She’s not you. And also, basically a baby. And besides all that, her face -- haven’t you noticed?”
Lan Wangji shifted slightly. It was his only admission to discomfort on this topic. Not jealousy, this time, but rather that thread of suspicion he’d been harboring himself -- and had been holding back, on account of his brother’s feelings, which mattered to him dearly, when all was said and done.
“We’ve seen it before, haven’t we?” asked Wei Wuxian. “Well, I have. But so have you. In a different way.”
Lan Wangji’s expression darkened. He put his arm around Wei Wuxian’s face reflexively. “Ah.”
“Yes,” said Wei Wuxian. “We should probably look into that.
And so, the case of Nie Huaisang’s very troublesome niece began.
Case #1: Jiang Wanyin
“Her level of cultivation isn’t very high.”
“In other words, Jiang Cheng’s perfect woman.”
“What do I have in common with a Nie problem child?” huffed Jiang Cheng. “It was only a political suggestion. The Chief Cultivator only considered it because I was an obvious prospect. I humored him because I had no excuse not to.”
“In other words, she rejected you flat.”
“....who the fuck let you in anyway?”
Jin Ling shoved open the doors to the inner chamber, flanked by two junior disciples in gold.
“Uncle,” he called, with the carelessness of a young man who -- while long grown -- had never quite given up the casual way one approaches a childhood home. Then, with a more adult timbre, he bowed, folded his arms behind his back, and continued: “We’ve returned from the hunt. My people have received Hanguang-jun and the Yiling Patriarch out on the docks. I intend to accept them as my guests. Will you receive them as well, or….?”
Wei Wuxian waved merrily from behind Jiang Cheng.
Jin Ling froze. As far as he had known, he had left his other uncle back with Lan Wangji, awaiting a response. “How did you--”
Jiang Cheng’s hand came down over the lotus seat. “Don’t go inviting people to someone else’s house! You want the company of idiots and men who marry idiots, take them to the Koi Tower.”
“We’re not at the Koi Tower.” Jin Ling crossed his arms and raised his chin in great confidence, as befitted the reputation of the mighty Jin Rulan, the Golden Child who had revived the Jin Sect from the brink of complete destruction. He’d mercifully left his horse-sized monster dog in his room. “We might have handled that shipwreck on our own. But their aid was invaluable. What am I supposed to do? Make them stay in an inn? The Jin sect is not inhospitable!”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “You are not the master here,” he grumbled, leaning his cheek against his fist. “Yet.”
Jiang Cheng was yet unmarried and childless. Jin Ling remained the last direct blood relative of the Jiang inner family. Years of hard-won courage and authority faltered in the face of a more filial loyalty and the reminder of his uncle’s mortality. Jin Ling slouched, setting his hand on his hips. “So, should I kick them out or…?”
His eyes trailed to Wei Wuxian, questioningly. Wei Wuxian waggled his eyebrows expectantly.
Jiang Cheng ignored him. “Of course not. I’m not inhospitable.” His eyes traveled back to Wei Wuxian, reluctantly. “But you are not allowed to do those indecent things with your husband under this roof.”
Wei Wuxian whistled. “Ah, Jiang Cheng. That warning -- may have come a bit too late…”
Jiang Cheng lunged forward in his chair. “What? When?!?!”
“My, my. Do you really want to know?”
“No. Never. Jin Ling, take him away! To his room!” And then, after their retreating figures, he shouted: “And you are coming to dinner. All of you. Don’t you even think about escaping, Wei Wuxian!”
He did care, after all.
Case #2: Jin Rulan
Out along the docks, Jin Ling finally breathed out. He said a quiet word to his disciples. They bowed -- gratefully leaving them to his family business. They retraced their steps through the halls. Jin Ling knew it better than him. He’d grown up here after it had been rebuilt. This was the Lotus Pier he knew by heart. Wei Wuxian had long made his peace with the fact his own childhood house was a place only in his memories.
“Ah, Jin Ling, you have evolved. Successfully pushing around your subordinates,” observed Wei Wuxian. “I am so proud. Be careful. They may start expecting you to do it to other Sect Leaders. So what do you think about her?”
“About who?” blinked Jin Ling.
“The troublesome niece Nie Huaisang shipped off to Gusu.”
“Oh, her.” Jin Ling managed, through a great show of will, not to roll his eyes. “Yes, I do know her. If you want to get Headshaker to do anything you have to go through her first. She’s all right. She’s been around since she was ten or something.”
“Ten! What a prodigy!”
“More like a busybody. She used to sneak notes to me,” grumbled Jin Ling. When Wei Wuxian gave him a sideways look he added quickly. “Not like that! Meeting notes! Political essays! My favorite candy -- I don’t even know how she found out about that! She’s basically a glorified clerk -- why are you asking so much about her anyway? I know you don’t want to marry her.”
“And was Uncle Jiang actually serious about the suit?”
Jin Ling made a face. “Oh, eck, no. Why? She’s half my age.”
Mo Xuanyu’s mother had only been sixteen. “That doesn’t stop some men.”
Jin Ling shuddered. “It stops Uncle Jiang. No one thinks it was a serious prospect. Nie Huaisang just wants to marry her off to stop her from stepping on his throat. He asks everyone.”
“Did he ask you?”
Jin Ling turned as red as he did as a teenager. “No! He knows Uncle Jiang would kill him -- fine, fine, he asks everyone except me. But he’s been joking about it for years now. Once she is somewhere far away, he says, he can finally be free to…”
Jin Ling paused at the steps. A terrible thought flashed across his face.
“Resign,” finished Wei Wuxian, summoning up the dreaded word with the same lightness with which he could command a corpse. “So he really wants to do it, this time.”
Nie Huaisang had served as Chief Cultivator ever since the death of his predecessor -- a death he had a peculiar involvement with, no less -- heh, sixteen years ago. He’d been elected by the other sect leaders under the assumption he’d be ineffectual and thus reduce the position to a mainly ornamental one. He would exist to be bossed around by the council of sect leaders established under him. Between the general crying and whining, he’d surprised everyone by being confusingly resilient, even efficient at it. His general ethos seemed to be: if I can keep things running smoothly, I don’t have to do as much.
Jin Ling, who’d had the misfortune of having a front row to those politics since the near-collapse of his own sect, stopped. The color drained out of his face.
“Oh, no,” Jin Ling swore. “He’d better not. I would kill him. Uncle Jiang would kill him. Everyone would kill him. Then we would need you to resurrect him so he keeps doing his job.”
In truth, since the second Siege of the Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian had devoted himself wholly to the pursuit of four things: avoiding the greater politics of the cultivation world, instructing his juniors, night hunting alongside his extremely attractive husband, and sleeping with said extremely attractive husband. This was generally agreed to be a wise decision. Firstly, the farther the infamous Yiling Patriarch stayed from politics, the harder it was to convince the general populace he was interested in anything foolish, like raising an army of the dead to march on the Unclean Realm.
Secondly, his husband was, indeed, extremely attractive.
“I don’t know,” said Wei Wuxian, thoughtfully. “Isn’t it a good thing, to have someone in power who isn’t interested in stockpiling it?”
“Yes, fine, that’s great,” said Jin Ling. “But who do you think they’re going to say should take it next?”
Wei Wuxian patted his arm. “Invite me to your succession ceremony.”
Jin Ling squeezed his eyes shut. “Enough. It hasn’t happened yet. Anyway, try not to antagonize Uncle Jiang anymore, all right? I think he is actually happy to see you. Maybe you and Hanguang-jun could cool it? A little bit? Just for now? Until after dinner, at least?”
Unfortunately, they came around the corner to the main courtyard, where Lan Wangji waited patiently to be summoned. He stood in quiet contemplation, gazing down at one of the ponds. The wind stirred his hair. He turned minutely as they arrived. His pale eyes passed once over Jin Ling, stopping on Wei Wuxian. Something in his jaw loosened, just a little bit. One had the impression of flowers breaking through mountain snow.
“Lan Zhan,” called Wei Wuxian, breaking into a run. He grabbed his husband’s arm with maximum shamelessness, leaning around him to hold his gaze. “Lan Zhan! I told you it would be fine, didn’t I?”
“Augh,” said Jin Ling. “Can you two at least wait until I go?”
Wei Wuxian beamed. “No.”
Case #3: Nie Huaisang
“What about her? She’s not here, is she?! Where, where?” The Chief Cultivator cowered in his seat. There was a lot of seat to cower in. It had, after all, once belonged to his brother, who’d been a much larger man.
Wei Wuxian cast a glance around the assembled Nie disciples. Not a one of them looked terribly surprised or even disgusted by their Sect Leader’s blatant show of gutlessness. This was business as usual for the Unclean Realm.
Fewer held blades then they once did.
Wei Wuxian exchanged a glance with Lan Wangji, who nodded quietly.
“Chief Cultivator,” said Wei Wuxian, chipperly. “She’s not here.”
“Oh, good,” sighed Nie Huaisang, casting a silent glance up towards the heavens. This uncharacteristic bit of piousness was cut short by a yelp as Wei Wuxian crossed the hall without any regard for proper decorum, grabbed him by the collar, and swung a companionable arm around his shoulder.
“But the Chief Cultivator’s looking awful pale,” said Wei Wuxian. “Are the hours long?”
“You have no idea,” sighed Nie Huaisang.
“A lot of work?”
“Too much, it’s always way too much. Do you know how hard it was to get the other Sect Leaders to agree on those patrols? The Lan set too high of an example. It took forever to get them to realize they ought to be in competition with you, and not me,” Nie Huaisang nearly melted backwards in his seat. “It was so much. And that was even before A-Lin decided to destroy that man in the courtyard…”
“Well, isn’t it good your old school friend is here to relieve your burdens,” said Wei Wuxian. “And how nice of you to offer us your best wine -- and teas, for Lan Zhan. Got a preference?”
Lan Wangji lifted his chin, very slightly, in a manner which Wei Wuxian quickly translated to: I trust your judgment.
“Great, thank you!” said Wei Wuxian, lifting Nie Huaisang to his feet. Lan Wangji swept after them, arms folded politely behind his back. No one dared to move against him as they marched Nie Huaisang, leader of the Nie Sect and Chief Cultivator, off his throne and into his private study.
“What have I done!” wailed Nie Huaisang, once the door was shut and it was clear no one would actually hear him whining. When Wei Wuxian sat down after raiding his wine stock and started setting the table, he lowered his fan from in front of his face and reached across for his own cup. “What has she done? You’re not sending her back here, are you?”
“Her fate is presently in the hands of the heavens,” swore Wei Wuxian, toasting solemnly as he knocked it back. “And Zewu-jun.”
“He is too good for this world. Truly a candidate for ascension.”
“And from what I have heard in the Cloud Recesses, so is your niece.”
“That is a lie. She is the bane of my existence.”
“How so exactly?”
“Do you know how many meetings she scheduled for me? And made me go to?!”
“Isn’t that part of being Chief Cultivator?”
“Well, yes. But sometimes, there are some people I’d sooner avoid,” Nie Huaisang rubbed his temples. “And don’t even get me started about the time she poured out all the liquor in my cabinet.”
“Okay,” allowed Wei Wuxian, “That is pretty damn evil.”
Lan Wangji’s brow gave a small, indignant twitch.
“I only missed two interviews! Two! One from drinking, one from the hangover! … I hope my replacement stock is to your liking?”
“Very much, thank you! Anything else?”
“Let’s see, she makes me review accounting sheets non-stop, makes me read the hours from the endless meetings, asks ‘are you sure’ every other sentence whenever she takes dictations…”
“Isn’t that just a very good secretary?”
“She’s been doing it since she turned eight.”
“Huh,” said Wei Wuxian, tapping his nose in thought. “This problem child sure has a thing for civil service.”
“Oh, she would marry her work if she could. Do you know how many men I have tried to have take her on? Do you know how many she has rejected completely?”
“I can name at least one….”
“Five marriage interviews! Five! I am only trying to be a loving uncle. I want her to be happy. And well cared for. And someplace, far, far away from me….”
“But, er, weren’t you the one who brought her into this household?”
“Of course I was. No one else wanted to handle her. No one else could handle her….”
“Wasn’t she like an infant at the time?”
“Yes, yes, and she has been my karmic punishment from that day on.”
“Aah, so you think it’s a matter of bad fortune. Lan Zhan. Maybe we should try our hand at fortune telling? Tell me,” said Wei Wuxian, pouring himself another glass and peering at Nie Huaisang’s reflection in the liquid. “Ah, what day was she born?”
Nie Huaisang paused. “Eh?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile got a little sharper. “You see, because I looked. For me, I think, it is a bit of an auspicious date. It is the day that Lan Zhan and I declared our intentions. Do you remember, Lan Zhan? I do. I promised I’d never forget.”
Lan Wangji, still lurking in the corner of the room, nodded once in ascent.
“I...am happy for you?” offered Nie Huaisang, glancing between them both rapidly.
Wei Wuxian leaned forward on his arm, lazily, letting his head roll a little. “I suppose in a way it is an auspicious date for you, too. A belated congratulations on your appointment, Chief Cultivator.”
Nie Huaisang fidgeted awkwardly with his fan. “Thank you?”
Wei Wuxian sat back and crossed his arms. “So, why did you send this girl back to the Cloud Recesses?”
“Because if anyone can do anything for her, it’s the GusuLan sect. I’ve failed enough of their exams to know how rigorous they are--”
“And do you know if she remembers her past life?”
The fan paused, but only for a split second. The years hadn’t dulled Nie Huaisang’s wits. He smiled, thinly, and gave a weak little laugh. “Ah, Wei Wuxian, you’re really funny. Who could ever know something like that? But perhaps…”
His eyes hardened.
“Someone with a very sharp memory might have some such recollection,” said Nie Huaisang continued. “...that someone is definitely not me, though! Who’d want that? It’s hard enough remembering all I have to do in this life! To remember everything I had to do in the last one? That just sounds like torture.”
“Torture,” murmured Wei Wuxian. He looked up over his shoulder at his husband. “Mm. Maybe. It worked out for me in the end, didn’t it?”
Lan Wangji’s eyes warmed. “Yes.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile started soft, and turned wolfish. “So, maybe there is something to be said for that Lan discipline, eh?”
“I’m sorry,” said Nie Huaisang. “But er… is this a sex thing for you two? Because, if so, while I am very flattered--”
“Nah,” said Wei Wuxian. “I’m just curious. Who do you think it’s harder for? The person who remembers all they did or the person who remembers them?”
“I think you’d know better than me.”
“Oh, I have my unique experience in that field,” said Wei Wuxian. “But I’d love your input on the subject.”
Nie Huaisang touched his fan to his bottom lip and, for a rare moment, considered his answer. “...the one who remembers what they did, definitely. Keeping track of all the grudges held against you must be very hard, indeed. You’d be constantly looking over your shoulder, constantly looking for a place to escape. I can’t imagine what that would be like.”
“Not at all. Brother Wei has my complete admiration for being able to manage so well.”
“And you have my admiration for not setting the cultivation world completely on fire.”
“Thank you. I try to do as little as possible.”
“I know. How are those retirement plans going?”
“Oh, you know…” Nie Huaisang wobbled his fan noncommittally, but when he tilted his head, there was a certain guile in the set of his jaw. “But, ah, Brother Wei, why the interest in politics? Thinking of presenting Yiling Wei as a candidate?”
“Never in a thousand years,” said Wei Wuxian, he exchanged a nod with his husband and stood, downing the rest of the wine for the road as he swaggered for the door. He paused. “Although -- who are you thinking for your successor?”
“Jin Rulan,” said Nie Huaisang, simply.
“Oh, he’ll kill you,” said Wei Wuxian. “But perfect. Yes, definitely, never in a thousand years. With him in charge, you won’t need me, anyway. Best to leave this business to the young, you know?”
Case #4: Nie Minglin
It had gotten dark. Nie Minglin set her writing materials down. She’d been taking dictation for the better part of the evening. Nie Minglin had a gift for sharp, quick script. She knew how to pause for Lan Xichen’s lapses in memory, and how to remind him where he was in his line of thought -- but now she stopped, allowing him to trail off into silence. He glanced back at her. She folded her hands in her lap.
“Zewu-jun,” she said, gently. “It may be best to stop here.”
“My apologies, I’ve taken your time--”
“No, it is simply that it is close to nine, and I am certain the Sect Leader would not wish to break curfew.”
“Ah, that’s right, that’s right.”
Nie Minglin stood and bowed. “I will come again after tomorrow’s lecture, if Zewu-jun has the time for me.”
Nie Minglin stepped out into the night air. Blessedly, the rest of the disciples had returned to their quarters for the evening, and there was no sign of the Yiling Patriarch lurking about -- and so she could make her own return mostly unremarked.
A man waited on the path. He stood facing away, his hands folded behind his back. He did not turn as she approached, but somehow he projected the distinct aura that he had been waiting for her -- and had been content to do so well past curfew if necessary.
“Hanguang-jun. If you are looking for your husband, I have not seen him, I’m afraid. You will have to search elsewhere.”
“No, I will not,” said Lan Wangji, “I was looking for you.”
“Oh, not you too--” began Nie Minglin, before she caught herself, drawing herself into a more composed state. “How might I help you? It is close to curfew, I do not wish to be in violation of the Lan disciplines. I am, after all, a guest. You have been very hospitable.”
“My brother,” he said, “Is beginning to rely on you.”
Nie Minglin glanced warily back and forth before smiling again. “I am flattered that Huanguang-jun would think so. I am simply trying to make my presence worthwhile. I know my uncle has placed you all in a difficult position--”
“It is not Nie Huaisang.”
Lan Wangji glanced over his shoulder at her. His eyes were all ice, but he chose his next words carefully. “It is not Nie Huaisang who troubles me. It is not Nie Huaisang who you trouble, either.”
“I’m afraid I do not understand.”
Ruthlessly: “You understand.” Then, quieter: “It is my brother, who you trouble.”
“Hanguang-jun,” she said, “I know that there are rumors, but please rest assured. I have no designs on Zewu-jun.”
Nie Minglin’s eyes got very big. “I never-” she cried, as though wounded. She caught herself too late. She tried to pull back, clutching at the front of her robes. “Your brother sees me as capable. Nothing more. I have no use for men. That is why I’m here, isn’t it?”
“Mm,” said Lan Wangji, with as much suspicion as one could inject in such a simple syllable. She almost thought it was the end of it, but as she moved to continue on behind him, he said, low enough that only she could hear: “I do not know why you are here. I do not care. But he has not been happy since the day you were born.”
Nie Minglin paused. Anyone would have. It was a very strange, harsh thing to say, and he didn’t wait for a reply. He turned on his heel with that hard, soldierly grace. He spared her just one sharp glance, out of the corner of his eye.
“Be honest with this life,” he said. “You will not be allowed a third.”
He strode off down the walkway, straight-backed as ever. The ends of his headband lashed in the wind.
Nie Minglin had plans for everything. She was good at them. She’d been good at them for as long as she could remember -- and perhaps even longer. It only took her a minute or so to recover, and consider her options.
First, she returned to her quarters. Second, she chatted with her roommate, offering her a very nice tea with a sedative mixed in. Next, after her roommate settled into a deep seat at the table, she neatly folded all of her most basic travel clothes and packed them in most portable satchel she could find. She removed the savings box she’d kept in a hollowed out scroll case and tucked at her waist. She changed out of her disciple whites, into the least fancy set of travel clothes she could find. She drew a noise dampening talismen on each of her slippers. Then, quietly, she took the pack, and the money, and a little bit of her dinner, tucked in a napkin, and crept out through the door. After that….
First things first.
She did not follow the main path down to the gate. Too much risk of the senior disciples, doing their last round. Too likely they’d start their on the path down from the mountain and the surrounding towns, once the search began. So she went the opposite way, to a quiet corner of the Cloud Recesses, following the white pebble path to the house of purple flowers.
It was not a well-known spot in the Cloud Recesses, far from the main residence and administrative buildings. It had survived much conflict in the intervening years. No one lived there, but it was well-kept, the garden of gentians planted around the front well-tended over the years by its few visitors--
--one of those visitors stood outside the cottage just at that moment. The deep, sad songs of a flute traveled through the crisp night air. Nie Minglin stopped to listen. It reminded her of the stories that abounded the Cloud Recesses: Of how Lan Xichen had returned to the mountain after a great loss. Of how he’d spent many years in intense seclusion, only emerging when his brother had returned to the Cloud Recesses.
He didn’t hear her come up. He didn’t have to. All he had to do was open his eyes, and she was there.
She’d only meant to listen for a moment or two.
Lan Xichen lowered the flute.
“Zewu-jun,” she whispered.
He frowned. “Nie Minglin. You are out terribly late. Has something happened?”
Once, it would have warmed her to hear him assume the best of her. She’d been basking in his general praise and companionship for the last three months, hadn’t she? Three months. Three whole months.
“I never meant to stay this long, you know,” she murmured. “I always meant to leave once I saw you. The matter with the construction could be settled by anyone. It will be. I did check out those contractors. I really did. I just wanted things to be right. I wanted to do right by you. It really was just that.”
Lan Xichen’s face slowly transformed from mildly confused to deeply concerned. His mouth pursing. He tucked his flute into his belt, but as he approached she took a quick step back, holding the strap of her travel pack.
He took quick catalogue of the veritable deluge of excuses, caught ‘leave’ and managed: “Has your uncle summoned you? He didn’t send word.”
At the word ‘uncle’ she snapped up a little straighter. “That man has nothing to do with this! Please, understand I had to stay to be sure. But after that, I would have gone. Then with the weather being what it is -- and you did seem to need some help with those papers-- I-- I just -- It isn’t that I meant to hide anything from you.”
Deeply concerned transformed into mild alarm. He covered it quickly, but she could recognize that slight parting of his lips for what it was. She’d once trained herself to notice it.
“Nie Minglin,” he said, in the perfect, calm warmth befitting the serene master of the Cloud Recesses. “Why don’t we walk together? It seems we have much to discuss.”
“Much to...” She laughed, she couldn’t help it. “Please, you needn’t coddle me any longer, Brother. In fact, I thank you for your time.”
He caught her arms as she tried to bow. He’d closed the distance in the moment she’d glanced down.
“A-Yao?” he asked, wonderingly.
“You didn’t know,” she whispered. She took a stumbling step back. “You really didn’t. But how -- if you didn’t -- he would have -- he didn’t tell you?”
And, uttering a curse, she shouldered her pack and broke away in a run. The graceful buildings and lanterns of the Cloud Recesses blurred as she stumbled down the mountain. She didn’t dare look back, not until she reached the stairs and the memory caught up to her: Lan Xichen’s face, lips parted in confusion. Lan Xichen’s eyes closed in resignation, blood on his cheek, blood on his robes. Her blood. No, not her blood. A man’s blood.
Her foot caught a rock. She pitched forward. It was probably karma. She must’ve rolled down five or six before steps she stopped herself, scraping an arm and a leg and a bit of her cheek. At least by now she knew how to tuck her chin.
All she could think as she stared hatefully up through the trees, listening to her hammering heartbeat, were two things.
The first was: “Falling forward hurts a bit more.”
The second was: ‘Maybe, this time, I deserved that. Just a little bit.’
Hands gripped her shoulders and helped her into a sitting position. She ached all over. She looked up -- and yes, it was Lan Xichen. He had wasted no time in following her. He was faster than her, after all. This, too, hadn’t changed.
“You can say it,” she muttered.
“We should do something about the cuts,” he said.
“Something besides that, Zewu-jun,” said Nie Minglin, exasperated. “You can’t possibly think I would go back with you.”
“Because you know now,” she said. “You know-- you know everything--!”
He pressed his sleeve to her bloodied cheek.
She blinked rapidly. Her eyes seemed to burn. She looked left and right, as though trying to see if the others had come with him. But it was just him. “Don’t. It’s dirty. Those robes are expensive.”
“And I should have known the moment you offered to wash them that first time.”
She remembered how he’d looked at her. “I’d wondered if that had been what gave me away.”
“No,” he said, wryly. “I just thought of how warm it was to hear it again. But I am afraid it escaped me entirely why it should have felt so familiar. I suppose I have missed the tree in the forest again. How absent-minded I have become. But I have had a lot of time to reminisce. That was the best time for us, wasn’t it?”
“The simplest. For me,” said Nie Minglin. As simple as anything ever was for her. “The worst time, for you.”
“There have been harder since,” admitted Lan Xichen. And Nie Minglin resisted the urge to throw herself the rest of the way down the mountain. He lowered his now bloodied sleeve. “Why did you come here?”
“My uncle sent me,” said Nie Minglin. Then, in a lower voice. “....and I thought, ‘I would like to see him. Just one more time.’”
Lan Xichen peered at her with a long, aching smile.
“So you have seen me,” he said, softly, “What did you plan to do next?”
Nie Minglin’s eyes were empty. “Why, I would leave, of course. I really did mean to disappear all those years ago. I will leave anyway. I’ll go peacefully. I won’t bring disaster upon the Lan. I have never once wished to hurt you. I said--”
Lan Xichen raised his hand, tiredly.
“Someone said it,” said Lan Xichen. “Perhaps they even meant it. But nothing worked out for that person, in the end.”
“Nie Minglin, the term hasn’t ended. If you wish to withdraw, we will of course respect that decision. But I feel obligated to remind you that you have performed well among your peers and have required no discipline. I’m not sure how to broach the topic with your uncle.”
Nie Minglin stared at him, expression suddenly wild. She shook her head.
“My uncle,” she said, understanding dawning. “But surely-- you can’t think of me as just some disciple.”
“No,” he murmured. “I consider you more than that.”
Even in this life, she’d come to know his habits. The things he didn’t say with words. So this made her stare even more wildly. “Zewu-jun,” she said, in a pained voice. Then: “Lan Xichen. Why won’t you let me make this easy for you?”
“You are many years too late for that.” And there, beneath all the years and care, something hard came into the Sect Leader’s eyes. “And I wouldn’t believe it.”
Here, the girl gave a deep sigh and sank down, folding her head against her knees. She stayed there for some time, her scraped hands clenched over the stone and her head bowed. It would have been easy to think she had just been turned down in love.
She thought he might walk away and leave her to the hell that was her swimming memories. But she heard the grass whisper instead, and his shadow fell over her hands. He gathered them up and held them to his chest.
“Nie Minglin,” asked Lan Xichen. “What have you done to deserve to be dismissed from the Cloud Recesses?”
Her eyebrows came up. “Where do I begin? Nie Mingjue--”
“Was killed by Jin Guangyao. And I have heard his reasons.”
Nie Minglin began to shake. “Qin Su--”
“That, too. I know the crimes committed by the previous Chief Cultivator. But what has Nie Minglin done?”
“Specifically,” added Lan Xichen, gently.
His thumb pressed the back of her hand in a gentle reminder. Nie Minglin took a shuddering breath and sat up a bit straighter. It was much too late to look her typical neat and tidy. She’d knocked her bun askew when she’d fallen down the stairs. A sliver of hair now pressed against her cheek.
She explained, tonelessly. “When I was thirteen, I had a man’s face cut in five places.”
“That is a brutal punishment.” Lan Xichen nodded, grimly. “Why?”
Nie Minglin looked away almost bashfully. “He’d raped a servant,” she said, in a quiet voice. “And his father was rich.”
She stuck her chin up defiantly. “When I was fifteen, I nearly killed Uncle--” Here, she caught herself. She no longer had to pretend. “Nie Huaisang! I nearly killed Nie Huaisang. I thought of poisoning his fan. So that he would die slowly and miserably. I thought of stabbing him through the eye with my hairpin, so that he would bleed to death at his dinner table.”
“I should think you’d already know the answer to that, at least.”
“I have some idea why Jin Guangyao would have done it.”
Nie Minglin gave a beleaguered sigh.
“There have been no end to his games, even in this life. Why do you still care for my reasons?” she muttered. But when it was clear that this was not answer enough for the Lan Sect Leader, her shoulders dropped. “He suggested that I ought to marry Jin Rulan.”
“And you found that objectionable?”
She jerked, visibly. “Yes?!?!”
“It would not be a poor match, politically speaking,” said Lan Xichen, with a blank expression. Nie Minglin stared at him in a mix of confusion and outrage, shaking slightly. “It does not seem he advanced that project.”
“He set me up on a date with Jiang Wanyin instead,” she said, bitterly. “Why are your eyes laughing? You know how hard it is to hold a reasonable conversation with him over anything.”
“That is exactly why,” said Lan Xichen. “But I notice the Chief Cultivator is still alive. As is Jiang Wanyin, and Wei Wuxian, and my brother, and myself--”
She shifted on her knees. “You?! You still think I’d--”
“Try to speak plainly,” said Lan Xichen.
She reined in her face, tilting her head in a way to affect a certain noble woman’s haughtiness. “I should think that much is obvious. There is no way I could take such action and live. Not in this life. Not while I was just one woman. Not while I was completely under Nie Huaisang’s power.”
“So you admit you value this new life.”
“You see? I am vain!” Nie Minglin laughed bitterly. She drew herself up in a weak attempt at pride. “Doesn’t everyone love to talk about what a beauty I am? I completely agree. Every time I wake up in the morning, I see this face in the mirror, and I think, ‘ah, so lovely! So young and healthy! It would be a shame to see it twisted in death.’”
“Because it is Meng Shi’s face.”
Nie Minglin froze.
“The Temple of Guanyin,” he reminded her.
Nie Minglin shrank away, but though he did not hold her too tightly, she did not seem able to slip out of his hands. There were so many questions she wanted to ask: How did you know? I never told you that. I told you so many things, but never that. Who told you that? How did they know? Why would they bother? Why would they care? Why, why, why? She would begin to sound like him.
Instead, she said: “You’ve learned a lot about me, Zewu-jun.”
“Not everything, I’m afraid. Is there anything else?” asked Lan Xichen, with such a mild expression Nie Minglin had to look away.
She did her best. She dug around for every offense she could find, no matter how petty. That time she dismissed one of her handmaidens for calling another one a whore. All the strong words she’d levelled at her would-be suitors. The time she woke her uncle by pouring a bowl of wine over his head, mistaking it for tea. The time she burned all the pornography in his personal library. How annoying it was, she could find nothing nearly so impressive as the deeds she’d started with -- she could only blame Lan Xichen, for turning those crimes away so unthinkingly.
Finally, she looked at her hands in his and said: “And I have acted shamelessly in the Cloud Recesses.”
Here, she thought she had him. “Absolutely. Attaching myself to the Sect Leader, a man several times my age. Making so many demands on his time. Making myself indispensable, so I might always be with him, after I have rejected all other suitors. Even assuming this girl is not interested in power, which of course she would be, certainly she would be interested in your looks. Why, haven’t you noticed what they are saying about you, Zewu-jun? You have taken such interest in such a young, beautiful woman. She is not even a terribly skilled cultivator. Why, it’s very unlike you, who has always kept yourself apart and pure, the Lan ideal. It will ruin your reputation, keeping the company of a woman with a face like mine.”
“Is that really what they’re saying?” He blinked, genuinely oblivious. “But that is terribly unfair to you. You’ve been very helpful. I have enjoyed our conversations. I thought it was kind of you to humor me. I am sorry, if you have suffered anyone’s inappropriate assumptions.”
“They’re not inappropriate. I am inappropriate.”
“Helping me categorize books is inappropriate?”
“Zewu-jun,” she said, sighing deeply. This last confession was the worst of them all: “I lied to you again.”
The bewilderment faded, replaced by an old ache. “You did.”
“Do you want to know my reasons for that?”
“Do they matter?”
“To me, yes,” she said, choking a little. “I really did mean to leave after I saw you again -- ah, but you have no reason to believe me? But I did, I did. I meant to just leave when I thought Lan Wangji had given me up. Oh, but that is obviously a lie too. I am here now aren’t I? The truth is really, really pathetic. I just liked being here. I liked walking with you. I liked carrying books for you. I liked being a silly young woman, with a silly young crush on a magnificent man. … I suppose that’s the hardest thing to believe of all.”
“You are a young woman, in this life.”
“Nie Minglin and Jin Guangyao are the same,” said Nie Minglin, bitterly.
“Mm. This life has had its own troubles for you,” said Lan Xichen. “To be a young woman, born into a good family, to live comfortably, your place in the world completely unchallenged. And yet it seems you have spent it looking over your shoulder, terrified of what only you knew.”
“Of course I did! You know who my uncle is! He brought me into his household, just to make sure I’d never rest.”
“And you haven’t.”
Nie Minglin looked down. “Shall I cry on your shoulder about it, Lan Xichen? Would you let me do that in this life?”
“Quite a punishment,” murmured Lan Xichen. “And like most things, you have largely done this to yourself. You know that, don’t you?”
“...” Nie Minglin’s lips moved.
“Is it fitting, though?”
“Is it a fitting punishment?”
He closed his eyes and sighed. “We both know I am hardly the judge of that.”
In the end, Nie Minglin got off her knees and pushed herself onto the step beside him, stretching out her scraped legs. She tilted her head back and looked upwards. They stayed like that for some time, listening to the crackle of the wind through the leaves, the crickets, the general sounds of night. She almost wished it would rain.
“Nie Minglin,” said Lan Xichen, very carefully. “Are you trying to convince me to let you go or let you stay?”
“I don’t know anymore,” said Nie Minglin. She dropped her eyes, the corner of her mouth turned up, just a little. “Haven’t I always liked to be pitiable?”
“It’s only…” Lan Xichen tipped his head in thought. It was somehow a crime in of itself, that he should be allowed to look so calm under the circumstances. “If you are so consumed by the desires of your past life, I can see why you would prefer to flee. But if you’re trying to convince me that you are a dangerous person, inclined to walk a wrongful path -- I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to stay.”
“It would not be the first time we have offered sanctuary to a known criminal. It would not be the first time we have offered sanctuary to one with a darker past than present, even.” Lan Xichen peered over his shoulder, up the mountain path. “And hasn’t it been said that our teachings might turn even the most wicked of men into a model student?”
“Please don’t mistake me. I don’t intend to detain you. And I don’t know you well enough in this life to take your word on anything just yet, Nie Minglin,” said Lan Xichen. “So. I will recommend you at least attend a few more lectures. Consider our teachings, before we consider sending you home. When the term is up, whether you stay or go will be under your own power. The choice will be yours.”
At which point, Nie Minglin buried her face in her hands and began to sob in earnest. Sighing softly, Lan Xichen pulled off his over robe, and draped it over her heaving shoulders. She let him tug her to her feet and guide her, carefully, back up the steps to the Cloud Recesses proper. She did not try to run again.
Dawn found Lan Xichen outside the door of the Cold Room, seated in meditation. Inside, Nie Minglin slept soundly, aided by the sedative she’d implored he slip her (“You still keep it in that box by the door, don’t you? I’d really prefer not to dream, just now.”). After making sure her injuries were tended to and she was truly at rest, the Lan Master stepped outside and shut the door behind him. He waited there the rest of the night.
As the skies over the rooftops began to rouge, the floorboards creaked beside him. A second weight settled next to him. He opened his eyes. He didn’t have to turn his head.
“You knew?” asked Lan Xichen, without looking.
“From the start?”
“I thought you seemed pained, lately. Is that why you and your husband have been so busy of late? I knew you couldn’t be that interested in Nie Huaisang’s retirement.”
Softly: “I wanted to be sure. You seemed happy.”
Now, Lan Xichen looked at him. “Did I.”
“Yes. I did not wish to ruin it.”
“Truly, we have come full circle, haven’t we?”
They sat together a while longer.
“I find myself at a loss,” Lan Xichen admitted, at last, with a gentle bitterness that caused his brother to look at him sharply. “Wangji. Your judgement has proven clearer than mine on such things. What do you think I should do?”
Lan Wangji hesitated. His brother waited, patiently.
In this, at least, there was nothing new. It took Wangji time to compose himself, both in word and in manners. It was others who demanded immediacy. Once, in a quieter, lonelier time, it had been Lan Xichen who had been his primary interpreter, as he hid behind structure and unfailing, icy formality. Xichen pressed his hand and looked calmly up at their uncle and said, ‘What A-Zhan means to say is…” When there weren’t words, there was a look, and when there was a look, there was his older brother. But the years had gone on like passing clouds -- storms of war, and a fog of grief, seclusion, marriage. Now, Lan Wangji had many people who could understand him with merely a look, and Lan Xichen stared down at the grey fog from above, pondering that agonizing line between right and wrong.
“Do not live like father did,” said Lan Wangji. It was one of the most oddly bold things he’d ever said between them. They stared up through the courtyard at the breaking dawn. For a while it was enough for one to know the other was still with them.
“So shall I live like you?”
“That is a very long path,” said Lan Wangji. His mouth pressed into a grim line, but his eyes were soft as he added: “And a noisy one.”
“I see,” said Lan Xichen. “I will consider it most carefully.”