On a moonless night, you break the ward.
You breathe out three times on the key carvings in the northwest corner, then flick spring water from from your right hand with a few murmured words: the silver trip-line springs into visibility. Without the moon, it shines bright, and you easily avoid it when climbing over. You avoid, too, the secondary trip-line a few feet away. Then you climb over the ridge and follow a narrow trail along the back, threading through the bamboo forest. You have never come down this exact path before, but you have heard enough about it that you recognize -- the rock shaped like a rabbit, the twisty pine tree with lower branches that tempt climbing.
Carefully, you navigate down the slope through a garden, cursing when you slip on some loose gravel and rocks rattle. Heart in your throat, you hold still, waiting for lights to come on, but none do. Nobody comes to investigate.
So you slip down the rest of the way, keeping to the shadows. You whisper a stealth charm to yourself, and are gratified when you see the shape of your feet and hands blur. They have only ever given you white to wear, but in a trunk, you found the clothes that you had been wearing when you came to the mountain, and you are wearing those again tonight.
Eventually, you make your way to the building itself. Outside the window, you make, softly, the noise of a bird from the village where you were born, but that you have never heard here. After a moment, you are about to whistle again when the window slides open and a small face looks out: your younger son. His eyes widen when he sees you.
You have two sons, taken from you at a week old, returned for one day each month.
Two months before, you came to the gate and opened it to find only one of your sons standing there. You thanked the servant for bringing him, then brought your older son inside. When the gate was closed again, you turned to him.
"A-Huan, where is your younger brother?"
He looked at you, quiet and steady. "He is unwell."
"Ill?" You say. "A fever?"
He shakes his head. "No, he is -- " He pauses to find the right words, like the future sect leader he is. "He erred in his lessons."
"So they beat him?"
"It was the third time this week."
"Hard enough so that he cannot come? When did it happen?"
"Uncle beat him the day before yesterday." He struggles with his face for a moment, but before he turns away, you see something in his eyes that reminds you: one of your sons is capable of giving the appearance of bending, but that does not mean he actually bends.
You have two sons, when you never expected to have any children: you did not love their father, but you respected him enough to carry both children in your body for month after month. After their birth, you held them in your arms for a week, nursed them for a week, stared in wonder at their small, crumpled faces for a week, lay on your side and faced the wall, barely moving for months after they were taken. You never sat with them through an illness or soothed them through a nightmare, so you have never been a mother to them in that way, but --
You have two sons, but they beat only the younger badly enough so that he cannot stand. Only your younger son hides bruises almost every time that he comes to visit.
You also know: if you take the heir, the Lan will hunt you and him to the ends of the earth.
So you whistle only at the window of your younger son, and after a moment, he opens the window and comes out of the window eagerly into your arms. He is about to say something, but you press your finger to your lips before setting him to the ground. He whispers: instinctively, he understands that you are not supposed to be here, but is so happy to see you that he will not question it.
"Where is elder brother?"
"At the bottom of the mountain already," you lie. "We will meet him."
"Are we leaving?"
"Will we be rogue cultivators?"
"Going from village to village. Like I did before I came to Cloud Recesses."
His face lights up, and he takes your hand with happiness.
"Cover your eyes," you say, and he does.
Halfway down the hill, though, your luck runs out. The patrols are out now, alerted either by the blown ward in Gentian House or the missing child. A pack of six encircle you with swords out, and your child is frightened, so you pick him up into your arms, even though he is large now, too heavy to hold for long. You tighten your arms around him, breathe in the smell of his hair, feel his cheek tremble against yours, all while trying to hold onto the sword that you took from the disciple.
Eventually, with the swords of the six still drawn, a servant comes into the circle. He is not armed, but he is large. Strong. He tears your son out of your arms.
You do not want to let your son go, and he does not want to let go of you. They have begun to train him son with the sword, with martial exercises, so there is real strength in his body now. Terror gives him further strength, because he understands what the swords mean. It is one of the strictures: draw only with intent. He screams for you, over and over, all the way up the hill while being carried away. He is -- tears spring to your eyes. He is shrieking that he will behave. He will never make a mistake in lessons again. He will be good.
"He will remember," you say, when you cannot hear his voice anymore.
"At his age, there are ways to ease memories," Lan Qiren says.
"What will you tell him?"
"That you have gone away."
"And how many times will you beat him before he accepts it?"
Even without the moon, you see the ripple of real anger on his face. He believes in what he is doing. He believes in the Lan way of doing things: while his elder brother was alive, perhaps this encounter would have ended with you being sent back to Gentian House with additional wards, additional traps. It happened the first few times you tried to escape and were caught. One time, you almost made it off the mountain, as the gates were meant to keep intruders out, rather than hold people in. But Qingheng-Jun died over the summer. This time, you tried to take one of the children with you.
You know it was a risk when you took the first sip of water to start the charm to seal the trip-line. You knew this was a possible ending from the moment that your son put his right hand in yours.
"You are a murderer twice over now," Lan Qiren says. "You killed your teacher, and the disciple that you struck on the path is dead."
You look at him for a long moment.
"Come on, A-ren," you say, knowing that your sword is a step away on the ground. It fell out of your arms when they took your son, and there are six swords drawn against you already. You are too tired, though, to be gentle anymore. "Or are you still a coward?"
There are six of them, along with Qiren. It has been years since you had a sword.
Years later, your younger son will sit in a pavilion you never saw, despite living in Cloud Recesses for the last decade of your life. His legs will be folded underneath him in the correct way, the first two joints of each finger of his right hand resting on the table in front of him in the approved manner for a gentleman about to communicate serious news. He has come to talk about the future: word is spreading that his brother is in seclusion in Gentian House, and a letter has arrived from the leaders of certain key minor sects, hinting that they would support a Lan claim to the position of Chief Cultivator.
Before he can say any of these words, though, Wei Wuxian will ask him to leave Cloud Recesses and join him on the road, rogue cultivators going from village to village.
Without understanding why, Lan Wangji will suddenly think of a moonless night and rapid steps. Who held his hand and told him to look away?