A few months ago, the rain would have meant little to Mianmian - she would continue her usual activities inside instead of outside, but Carp Tower or whatever lavish accomodations the Jin clan had arranged for some journey would feel no more limiting than the outdoors when they were stuck inside its walls. She stood now under the leaky roof of a porch, shivering. She hoped someone was home, because if not, she would need to break in and she did not need that kind of hassle right now.
She had been on the road for a few months now, travelling from place to place, dealing with minor disturbances whereever she could. Sometimes, she would be paid when more wealthy families were being harassed by any variation of ghosts or demons, but most of the time, she didn’t ask for any money. How could she condition someone’s life and safety on their ability to pay her for skills she had no other use for anyway? Especially not now that she was starting to understand just how extravagant the Jin lifestyle was - and how difficult life was without the support of a clan with a seemingly bottomless wallet.
The first time she had been paid, instead of booking a room at an inn, like any reasonable person would have done, she had marched straight to the nearest market and purchased the first set of clothing that was anything but a shade of yellow or gold. She had given her old robes to the first person she had seen begging on the street - a woman whose eyes had lit up in shock at the extravagant fabric. She wanted nothing more to do with the Jin clan, with clan politics, but those robes had been warm, and, standing in this current storm, she hoped that the woman still had the robes, that someone was making use of them, that something good had come out of her life with the Jin clan.
Even this long after storming out of Carp Tower, thinking about the events of that day made her eyes well up in fury. What had happened to the clan she had loved? Why had Jin Zixuan - a man who only a few years before, had been the only one to challenge Wen Chao’s demands for their swords, been silent as she argued for reason to guide the clans’ decisions? What had happened to the friend who had defended her against the evil and sadistic attacks of Wen Chao and Wang Lingjiao?
She knocked at the door again, and sank to the floor, exhausted. She had been sleeping only under trees or, on occasion, in a stranger’s spare room. Neither of these were exactly recipes for a relaxing night. She hadn’t realized how much safer she had felt in her previous life merely because she had always travelled in a group.
She was just contemplating whether it would be better to try and get in through a window or to break through a door when someone approached down the path.
He had an umbrella, and while Mianmian couldn’t see his face, she could hear a gentle, happy humming breaking through the patter of rain. As he turned onto the short path to the porch, he looked up. He was homely, and would certainly not have been made part of one of the entourages of the clan leader and heirs at Carp Tower. He would have been, at best, one of the foot soldiers - cultivators there to make up the numbers, but hardly suitable to impress. Mianmian’s hands curled into fists, one gripping her sword out of habit. She had to stop thinking like that.
Ever since she had left Carp Tower, she had increasingly realized that her previous clan had been missing something fundamental. Beauty, extravagance, and grace - those were nice, but she would not have met half the people she had had the joy of meeting had she followed those principles. She would not have won half her battles if she had valued doing so elegantly over doing so effectively.
The man had stopped humming. “Do we know each other?” He asked mildly. It wasn’t impolite, just, surprised.
His innocent confusion comforted her. This man was not a fighter, was not someone who even contemplated the possibility of someone showing up on his porch to do him harm.
She gave her most diplomatic smile, and rose to her feet, dusting off her pale pink robes, “No, I don’t think so,” she said, unsheathing her sword and clasping her hands together as she bowed, “I am Luo Qingyang of…” she paused, knowing how she now introduced herself, but still not used to it, “Lanling.” No longer of the Jin clan.
She watched the man blink, gaze travelling from her face, to her sword. His eyes widened. The sword was the only thing she had left from her life before. It was extravagant, clearly not something just any traveler would carry. It marked her as a cultivator - and, at that, probably one trained with a fairly prominent sect. That she didn’t introduce herself as part of any clan had raised suspicions against her more than once since she left.
She readied herself to defend her presence, to try and explain why someone who ought to be supported by a clan was begging for free room and board at a random country house.
She wondered whether it would have been better if Wei Wuxian hadn’t saved her from Wang Lingjiao all those years ago. She certainly would not have been invited to be in Jin Zixuan’s entourage after the Sunshot Campaign if she’d had such an ugly brand across her face. Someone else, perhaps the woman she’d once considered a friend, who had been so quick to turn on her as soon as Mianmian saw fit to challenge the majority, would have been at Jin Zixuan’s side instead. If Mianmian’s face had looked like that, perhaps she would not have faced so much skepticism when people learned she was traveling alone. Of course the Jin clan would turn away someone like that, they would think.
To her surprise, the man didn’t comment on the absurdity of the situation. He merely clasped his own hands together and bowed, “I am honoured, my lady. Please, come inside. It is far too miserable for anyone to be alone out here.”
Soon after, Mianmian was seated by a freshly stoked fire, being offered a cup of tea by this rather nervous man. She smiled, and accepted the cup graciously. She took a sip. It was rather weak, but she told him it was delicious. He seemed pleased.
“I was just able to get some of that tea on my most recent journey - it is a specialty of Yiling, very hard to get locally, but - I’m a merchant you know.” He explained beaming with pride. She took another sip and was now able to recognize the tea as exactly what he said, only it had been so inexpertly brewed that she never would have recognized it if he hadn’t told her. She nodded in agreement, embarrassed at herself for even internal criticism of his best efforts to make her feel welcome after she had landed on his doorstep.
The house had only one other door that she could see, and whether it led to a bedroom or a closet, she couldn’t tell. Perhaps her host slept on the blankets piled in the corner. She wondered if the other Jin cultivators of her generation would laugh to see her in such modest accommodations. She took another sip of tea and decided she didn’t care. It was warm, she and her host were slowly drying from their impromptu outdoor showers.
“Tell me about Yiling?” She asked politely. She had overheard gossip at an inn back when she was traveling through Yunmeng that Wei Wuxian had formed a small colony there, followed by a number of details she was sure were exaggerations. She hoped this was not the kind of thing that interested the merchant.
To her delight, he launched into deep descriptions of the environment, the food, the accents, the people. She found herself leaning across the table, lured in by his vivid descriptions of a world totally absent the politics and frivolities of the cultivation world. After a solid 5 minutes of this, and without her wanting it to end, he cut himself off, laughing a bit as he rubbed the back of his head.
“But what about you? I’m sure my little adventures must be terribly boring to someone of your upbringing? I’m sure it all sounds silly to you.”
Mianmian shook her head earnestly, “No. No it sounds wonderful.”
The minutes passed, and they shared stories. The hours passed and they shared histories. Mianmian left the next day but found herself coming back to visit again and again until she thought of the adorably awkward merchant’s tiny house as something of a base. Years passed, and she thought of it as a home.
One day, she had mentioned the concept of cultivation partners in passing. He had looked to her then and asked, “Is that what you want? To go on night hunts with someone by your side? To not be held back by a mere merchant? I don’t want to hold you back. Go if you want.”
“No!” she had said, laughing and offering a quick peck on the lips, “I would never want anything that meant I would have to be with anyone but you.”
“Oh… I meant… well” he blushed, “I would go with you, of course? I mean I wouldn’t be able to support you in battle, but… I would go, I could even try other ways to make money! If you wanted me there, of course.”
Mianmian felt a smile stretch across her face, a smile far from elegant, a smile of pure, unmitigated joy, ungraceful in its genuineness. Such an expression, now familiar to her, would never have been possible in her old life, the one that now seemed a distant memory.
“Yes!” she breathed, “Yes, yes, yes. If you would come, if you would be there, if you don’t mind moving from dangerous place to dangerous place, of coming home only occasionally?”
He laughed, pulling her in close, “If I were traveling with you? As long as I am with you I will never be anywhere but home, safe and sound.”
Even though the cultivation world never spoke of her, and none would ever remember her name, she did not abandon her calling. She would never ignore the signs of a night hunt or cries for help. She traveled the world with her merchant, now her ex-merchant, now her husband, then soon a daughter as well. They would come into a village, leaving joy behind when they left, only seeming to grow their own in the process. It was a smaller world, a simpler world, than the one Mianmian had known in her youth, but ultimately, she thought, this one was far more noble, far more beautiful, than any major clan could ever hope to see.