There’s nothing like a summer in Yunmeng: the air is hot and humid, and the midday sun shines as if trying to dry people alive.
Jiang Cheng regrets coming. The fishermen's disputes are quite boring to listen to, especially if you are five years old. He wanted to come only to spend some time with his father – a busy sect leader – but now finds himself tempted to leave his father’s side and go exploring, which he does.
The water shines, promising coolness and relief. Father wouldn’t mind – Jiang Cheng is already a good swimmer, and the river looks calm, lazy, even. He peels a layer of the outer robe and disappears in the water with the ease of a small fish.
Jiang Cheng loves swimming and he is good at it, he cuts through the waves without any difficulty, dives in and resurfaces. The more he is surprised when a strong current, unnoticed from the riverside, pulls him against his will and throws here and there as if he was a fallen leaf. He struggles against it, trying to move towards the safer, shallower part of the river, but the pull is strong and he ends up inhaling and swallowing some water. He screams for help, voice muffled from being half-submerged under the waves. The possibility of death doesn’t really cross his mind and yet this is probably the closest he has come to meet it face to face.
And then – something strong pushes him out of the whirlwind and carries him back to the shore, but it's not his father's arms – those are the waves themselves. “Careful, boy,” he hears in his mind. By the time he reaches the shore he's coughing water out of his lungs and is shaking visibly, but the first thing he does when he's on the safe ground again is to crawl up to meet the river.
"Who are you?" He asks, still trembling.
"The River," she says in a deep female voice, and he can feel that if she had a mouth, she would be smiling right now. "I am called Chang Jiang, little Jiang."
"Chang Jiang..." Jang Cheng breathes out and promptly jumps to his still unstable feet, hands meeting in a ceremonial bow.
She laughs loudly in the lapping of the waves. Father runs up to him, worry written all over his face, but when he sees that his son is not in danger, he relaxes.
"Thank you," he says and bows to the River as well.
"Go away you two," she answers without menace or anger. "And don't let him go near the water till he knows how to swim properly."
"I swim well!" Jiang Cheng protests, breaking the bow. The waves come closer to his feet and break with a splash that almost reaches his face.
"I'll be watching him better next time," promises Jiang Fengmian and swipes the kid up into his arms.
"Good bye!" Jiang Cheng shouts as he is being carried further and further away.
"Good bye, little Jiang!" He hears in return.
Turns out, the river has surrounded him his whole life, he just knows how to talk to her now. His father can do that too. He shows little Jiang Cheng a place near Lotus Pier with easy access to the river waters, and he visits her often.
She is old, but her voice is strong and deep, lisping a little bit like waves rustling against the riverbank. She listens to him talking and answers his questions – sometimes.
“Can I see you?” Jiang Cheng asks one day.
“You see me.”
“No, like, you-you. Who’s talking to me.”
“There’s no one else but me talking to you. And you are looking at me.”
“You’re probably too young to understand,” she adds softly, as if that is going to comfort him. Nothing upsets Jiang Cheng more than hearing that he is too young for something.
He tries to imagine what she would look like – tall or not, plump, like his granny, or slender and thin. Whether her hands would be like his sister’s – gentle and skillful – or like his mother’s – precise in their movements and lethal. Yet he cannot think of anything, and any image he constructs is rejected by his imagination. It’s simply her, and nothing else.
“What do you mean you don’t know how to swim??”
Jiang Cheng is utterly surprised. As someone who grew up close to water he probably learned to swim long before he could walk steadily. Wei Ying, on the contrary…
“We could ask father. He could teach you.”
The older boy shrugs uncomfortably at that.
“He is so busy all the time, I don’t want to bother him.”
Well, Jiang Cheng can relate to that, yet he also knows that if Wei Ying asks, then father will do it. Jasmine, Princess, and Little Love were an example of that. Jiang Cheng has been told that they are in good hands now, but he still misses them, even though Wei Ying turned out to be no less fun to play with.
“I could teach you,” he decides.
“You’ll do that?” And here it is, Wei Ying’s inability to believe that someone genuinely wanted to do something for him, to give him something nice. He’s coming more and more into his own self, that turns out to be boisterous and lively, so every time this thing comes back Jiang Cheng just wants to beat it out of him.
“Of course,” he says. “I’m not going to spend such a hot day on the shore.”
“You could swim, and I would wait for you,” suggests Wei Ying.
“Are you stupid? Or afraid?” with that Jiang Cheng pokes the other boy on the side.
“Neither!” evading the attack, Wei Ying laughs. “Come on!”
They strip and go waist deep into the water. The current here is not so strong and the water is quite shallow and warm, which is a pleasant change from the blazing heat of the sun.
“What next?” asks Wei Ying in anticipation, and Jiang Cheng is at a loss of what to say.
For him, swimming is as natural as breathing, a skill that was here his whole life. Now, when he needs to teach someone, he doesn’t know what to do.
“Start with trust. I need him to trust me first, then everything else will be fine,” a voice in his head instructs. Jiang Cheng has an idea.
“Recline on your back,” he says to the other boy. “I’ll support you”. Wei Ying nods and rests his weight on his brother’s arms. He is easy to hold, with most of the weight supported by water itself. And now…
Jiang Cheng slowly removes one hand, then orders “Now lay still and don’t panic,” and removes the other. He quickly catches Wei Ying so the current wouldn’t push him away, but otherwise the boy just floats.
“It’s alright. She is holding you,” Jiang Cheng reassures his student.
Wei Ying jerks his head in reaction, “She?”
“Lay still. The River. She’s holding you.”
“Whoah,” that’s all he says, spread in the water like a giant seaweed.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng thinks, considering their next move. “Whoah.”
With a big splash Jiang Cheng jumps into the water without a care in the world. He missed this, missed this so much, the warm embrace of the river, seaweed nearly touching his legs, the feeling of freedom and lightness only water can give. Cloud Recesses had its springs, shallow and chill, but nothing could compare to this.
“Haven't seen you in some time,” a familiar voice fills his head as he swims. “Have you been well? I see you gained some strength.”
“I’m good,” he answers, content to just be in this moment as long as he can.
“Have you made friends with anyone?” asks the River, and by the faster beat of his heart she knows. “Anyone special?” she smiles, amused.
He smiles too, turning to swim on his back, face towards the sun. Because, well, hasn’t he? It’s just a light crush that will pass soon, but for now he can cherish the memory of a smile directed almost his way, revel in its warmth. Just a while longer.
And then he wakes up on cold earth, night fading around him as the camp is almost up. Last evening they decided to sleep near the river overnight and attack the Wen’s outpost early in the morning. Everyone needed some rest, especially stone-cold Lans, who never showed it, but even in times of war were desperately trying to stick to their routine.
“You are awake,” tonelessly greets him Lan Wangji.
“Could have woken me up a little earlier,” Jiang Cheng grunts, to which the Lan stays silent.
He sighs deeply. This will probably be the closest they’ll come to understanding, and still the man in front of him is a mystery. Doesn’t matter. As long as their goals are alike: to fight the Wens, to search heaven and earth for his probably dead brother – they are fine.
Jiang Cheng really doesn’t need to know whatever has transpired between the two, but Lan Wangji is searching for supposed-to-be-dead Wei Wuxian with the same persistence as Wei Wuxian was pestering second young master Lan in the days long passed, and that means a lot.
He knows one thing: that he is extremely tired. He wants the war to be over, what’s left of his family to be together again, and for his sect to be restored from the ashes. And if he needs to exterminate every single Wen for this, he will do that without hesitation.
The camp is silently getting ready for the ambush and soon there’ll be no time left, so he scrambles up to his feet and goes to see the one he hadn’t talked with in a long time.
“I need a moment.”
The familiar lull has been keeping him company, giving him the sweetest dreams to find comfort in – it would be wrong to leave without a word.
“Hi,” he says, approaching the water’s edge. “Sorry I didn’t come earlier.”
She doesn’t answer. Had he offended her in some way? Did he lost the ability, the right to communicate with her? What if it’s his new core…?
“Hey, hey it’s me,” he bites his lip to fend off the coming tears. They come so easily these days, but he shouldn’t, can’t give in. What will people think of a sect leader who cries like a child?
“Hey,” he whispers in a hoarse voice and dips his hand into the water in a desperate attempt to remind her who he is.
As soon as his fingers are submerged in water, she reaches out to him in return as if gently holding his hand.
‘Little Jiang, it’s you,“ she says with the first droplets of rain falling from the grey sky. He almost has to fight tears for a second time.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“You’ve changed.... you’ve changed so much, my boy.”
If she had a body she would be holding him in her arms right now, as his mother did once upon a time. Jiang Cheng imagines the weight of her embrace on him, and lets himself breathe out. They are heading out soon and he doesn’t have much time left.
“I’m fine, and I will be. And I’m going to come back and restore whatever is left. I promise.”
“I want to ask you a favour,” he pleads, as his father did, sending off the boat with three of them.
“Please,” he says, placing his hand on the back of the wave, as if stroking a stray dog. “If he’s alive…” Jiang Cheng can’t bear to think of ‘if’, but that is an option, and the more likely one, despite what his hope is whispering to him. “If he’s alive. Please protect him, if you can. I don’t have much family left.”
“Stupid boy,” the river replies, not really angry or mean – just stating the fact. “He’s a Yunmeng Jiang. If I only could, I would do anything without you asking, but he’s nowhere near water. If he’s alive.”
“He is. I know he has to be.”
This morning, Sect Leader Jiang wakes up with a heavy heart and goes to check on all the preparations for the day. It doesn’t take long – everyone is aware of their role and place, the gifts are ready, and the simple banquet after the ceremony is also underway. No music, no large celebration this time – they are still in mourning, after all. He’s not going to stop the common folk from celebrating unofficially, though. The River Festival should be a joyful occasion.
Jiang Cheng spends the rest of the morning staring at the ceremonial robes prepared the evening before. There’s also a set of silver pieces – two for arms, two for shoulders, one to wear instead of his usual hair ornament. He cannot do that. He is not ready.
Somehow it’s even worse than the day he was ordained as a sect leader. He barely remembers what happened that day anyway, his mind hazy from everything he felt, coming back home to find ashes, memories of blood and pain. Now his grief is not an open wound, but a festering one, his mind as clear as it can be. And he will have to lead the ceremony.
He wishes that his parents were here, so he didn't have to do it himself, so that everything was normal again, safe again, but he won't get that. He wishes for his sister to be here – but she is in Lanling, trimmed in gold, expecting a child. He wishes – at the very bottom of his heart, where he buries the feelings he despises the most – for his traitorous brother to be here, but he chose other people over being a Yunmeng Jiang.
Therefore, there's nothing to wish for.
Jiang Cheng dresses up, first the robe, then the accessories. The robes were made specifically for him, but the silver has been passed down for generations. The weight of bracelets on his forearms steadies and unnerves him at the same time. So many men and women wore them before, his ancestors, his predecessors. He will pass it down further to an heir of his that will continue the tradition. Sect Leader Jiang is pinned in time between the past and the future, small and insignificant, yet the only thing binding the two together. He breathes in, then out.
Summer sun greets him with excessively bright light while he walks towards the main yard, where every disciple and every sect member is waiting for him. Not that there’s many. But at least those are his people, people he fought side by side and rebuilt this place with; people he can trust. And if he desperately misses some faces – well, that’s the war to you.
The crowd bows to him as one as he asks, “Is everything ready?”
“Yes, Sect Leader Jiang,” answers his right hand man.
“Good,” he says, looking over the crowd, checking for all the necessary preparations. “Follow me.”
He turns on his heels and, without a word, leaves the yard as everyone falls into step behind him.
He could probably walk this route in his sleep. Out of the manor, through the city where every citizen at this hour is out in the streets, watching the procession go towards the outer rim of the city, accompanied by the drums.
Each beat is like a punch in the gut for Jiang Wanyin. He shouldn't be there, it's his father's place, it's him who should be doing this instead, with heavy silver plates on his shoulders and a kind smile on his face. Jiang Cheng knows that his own face is more of a scowl now. Each step takes tremendous force of will to complete, but there's no way he can go back, not with that procession following him to the bridge.
Only three people bearing gifts go with him to the centre of the wooden construction, everyone else is on the shore. The bridge is old, but carefully rebuilt by every generation of the Jiang family. Long time ago, his great-great-grandmother, the first Jiang who founded a sect, bowed here for the first time in respect to the force greater than any human could imagine, and the River saw her as her own, and they became one.
The River's voice in his head is steady and unusually quiet. He knows that tone, exactly the one Yanli talks to him in. They both know the measure of his grief and pain, because they share it, and there is no need to talk directly about it. She knows.
"Hello," he greets her in return, trying very hard not to fall apart here and now. He bows, as deep as he can, then says the words he heard every year of his life. His lips recite a praise for the River, for the harvest and the draught of fish this year, for keeping the people safe and the waters calm, so travel and trade are possible. The voice that might belong to him asks the river to accept their gifts. She hums in return. The procedure is familiar to her as it has been repeated a thousand times, so she knows what follows.
From a servant on his left he takes a jewel lying on a cushion, a rich blue stone the size of a chicken egg.
Jiang Cheng remembers one time he asked her, why would she need the jewels. That year father chose a bright-red ruby that shined under the sunlight like a bloody star. Seeing such a treasure being swallowed by waves made him feel like he was missing something. She only laughed at the question.
“Why, boy? They are pretty. When I get tired of boats and fishes I like to look at them.”
Jiang Cheng accepted her answer and didn't question it further. He especially didn't question it when later that year a family who had a particularly bad season found a jewel in a fish they were preparing for dinner.
A bowl of rice goes down next, instantly attracting all sorts of fishes. That makes more sense to Jiang Cheng. He especially loved this part when he was a child, but now he feels as empty as the bowl he places back on the cushion. One more step is over.
He takes a small cup of wine and spills its content into the river. That’s it. He did his part and just wants it to be over. He steadily puts the cup away on the cushion to bow one last time before saying the final words, as she reaches out to him.
"And a cup," she says in a voice smaller than usual.
“Why,” he hesitates. “Why would you need a cup?”
“The Elder of mermaids broke the last one last week. They have nothing to drink tea from.”
Jiang Cheng laughs at the unusual request out loud, but takes the cup back in his hands and with a delight of a ten year old drops it into the water.
He knows how he probably looks – smile borderline hysterical, youngest sect leader breaking the order of a thousand years old ritual – but he cares not for it. He completes the ceremony, voice loud as he seals the deal between the river and the clan for one more year, and bows once more.
"Thank you. Good boy," the River says as he turns to leave. "You did well."
He wants to cry.
“Be careful!!” cries out Jiang Cheng, but Jing Ling is already in the water, and nothing can get to the boy when he’s swimming. His uncle stays on the shore, watching the child like a hawk in case something happens.
“He’s already seven and swims like a proper Jiang, don’t be so protective,” a familiar voice calms him as soon as he steps closer to the water.
“How can I?” Jiang Cheng asks her. This little boy is everything he has left of his family, the last memory of his beloved sister. He had fought the whole Jin clan for at least partial custody, and when he got it he discovered that he didn’t have the faintest idea how to take care of a child.
Did he do his best? Maybe if he took Jin Ling earlier the boy would be able to hear the River. Maybe if he didn’t, the boy wouldn’t get those sharp edges in his voice – the overtones that Jiang Cheng recognizes anywhere, because they are his. He dreads the day he’ll look at Jin Ling and see his own reflection – bitter and jaded, and alone.
“...also, I'm here. I took care of you, I’ll take care of him,” the River distracts him from this train of thoughts.
“Like that time you shook the boat so much I fell off?” he reminds her. The memory stings immediately like a sharp knife wound because there were two of them, as in most of his happy memories. But now half of his life is tinted with red, anger, death, and pain so extreme he feels like dying every time he remembers.
“But you didn’t drown...” she murmurs.
“Being so eager to win, you compete with others your whole life, but do you know you were supposed to be beneath forever?”
This evening felt like entirely too much even before, but now he almost can’t remember what caused the initial distress. There’s a hole in his chest, there’s something damp on his cheeks and there’s no room for coherent thoughts and actions in his mind.
Jiang Cheng runs, feeling lost in a familiar maze of corridors, asking everyone he meets to unsheathe the damn sword. No one can. Images flare up in his mind, mixing past and present, words come to him, words he just said to Wei Wuxian and what they had said to each other before. Unreasonable, impolite, angry, always second, never, never enough...
He thought he at least had this, whatever he could accomplish after the war, but it was not his, not at all, not for a second. His body feels not entirely his own too, and so he practically forces it to follow one particular route to that corner and via that bridge and out, for gods' sake, out.
Unable to stop himself, he comes to a halt only when he’s knee-deep in the water, pointing Suibian in accusation.
“But did you know about it?!” Jiang Cheng cries.
“Yes,” answers the River, ever calm. What’s his dismay to her, an entity of eternity. “Remember, the day you came back I was hesitant to reply. Something was off.”
“And you haven’t told me??”
“At first, I thought you knew. Then I thought you didn’t, but that it was not my place to tell you. That you should figure that out between the two of you. It seems that you didn’t.”
“How could we?? How could we when he was dead set on making stupid decisions and I couldn’t – I didn’t know why so I thought that that was it.” There’s no air left for him to speak and so he’s forced to pause, swallowing tears that had found their way back into his face again. “I believed what everyone was telling me because believing that he would disobey me and behave like a lunatic is still easier than believing that he– he did that. For me. What a fucking idiot.”
“And you know what’s worse?” Jiang Cheng continues. “He did it. I would have just rotted and died. But he didn't. All what’s here, all what I have achieved– it’s all borrowed, it’s not mine. It’s not me,” he says, voice hoarse from screaming and crying, his hand clutching his chest.
“Silly boy,” she sighs, and the waves, overwhelmed with the urge to comfort him, swirl around his body, as if hugging, as if holding tightly. “Your core– yes, it’s important but what’s more important is what you do with it. You are you. What you’ve built here, what you’ve accomplished – it’s yours, because it was you who did it. Never forget that”.
"I would recognize you in any form, with any core or without it. Because you are you. Everything you did – for your sect, your people, your family – no one can take that away from you. You are you. No more, but no less. Never less".
He takes a deep breath and lets his legs give in, lets the water embrace him, wash away his tears, soothe the burning skin. As soon as he emerges he hears worried shouts “Sect Leader Jiang!” coming closer and closer, and well – ain’t the humiliation of being seen completely deranged and soaking wet just the best way to end this tumultuous evening. He leaves the water and goes back to face the music; the chorus of his subordinates worrying over him intertwines with the chorus of secretive whispers saying:
“Sect Leader Jiang went mad over some sword...”
“Finally, he completely lost his mind.”
“They say he wanted to drown himself!”
…and one voice, broad and calm as the stars looking back at her from the night sky saying, “No more, no less”.