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the thing with feathers

Chapter Text

He’d failed them again, all of them. Half the juniors were dead including A-Yuan, Jiang Cheng was crippled, and Lan Zhan… 

The fight was over, but their bodies lay still in the mud. He could hear Jingyi sobbing. 

Wei Wuxian didn’t let himself cry, even as he stared at what was left of Lan Zhan. It was his fault; he hadn’t acted quickly enough.

He’d been working on an experimental array. Several, in fact, that he never expected to use—like the soul array Mo Xuanyu had used. 

But never was now.

Quickly, he used blood from his wounds to draw an array, mixing several ideas. Temporal transmigration was unlikely, but it was the only option. If it failed, he’d die, but he didn’t want to live in a world without his husband and son anyway. If it killed him, maybe he could be reincarnated and he and Lan Zhan could find each other again. 

“Wei Wuxian, what the hell are you doing?”

He looked up to see Jiang Cheng struggling to drag himself over and smiled. His brother must have seen something in that smile, because his eyes widened.

“No, no, no! Don’t you fucking dare! Someone stop—“

Wei Wuxian didn’t give anyone the chance. Instead he activated the array and let darkness take him. 

——

Madam Yu watched, silent and glaring, as the disciples went through their drills. She hated that the wretched son of a servant showed more grace than a-Cheng, but there was no denying that, even having only been at Lotus Pier a year, the boy had the potential to be one of the best cultivators of his generation. 

He was still more trouble than he was worth. They’d only just managed to break him of the unseemly habit of hiding food in his room, and he was still smaller than he should be for his age, and he ran around and played ridiculous pranks if not carefully kept busy.

If only he wasn’t Cangse Sanren’s son, she may have welcomed Wei Ying—no, Wei Wuxian; he’d earned his spiritual sword and the courtesy name his parents had chosen before their deaths, and she refused to call him by his birth name any longer. She wouldn’t imply an intimacy that wasn’t there. It was bad enough she’d had to harangue Fengmian, as he’d been stupidly insistent on giving Wei Wuxian both before his own son!

The boy in question suddenly staggered, dropping his sword.

“Wei Wuxian! Back in formation!”

Instead he clutched at his head and screamed, coughing up blood.

She found herself rushing onto the training field before she realized it.

“Too young,” he muttered. “Too much. Can’t. Seal.”

The words he babbled didn’t make sense, but a darkness surrounded him, engulfing his small body. She realized abruptly that this was resentful energy, that somehow her disciple was being attacked right in front of her on her own training ground. The energy dissipated, and then he collapsed, convulsing in the dirt, blood trickling from his nostrils, bloody foaming spittle on his lips.

Whatever this was, it was no prank, and the child needed medical attention. 

Madam Yu wasted no time, only gathered the ailing boy into her arms. “A-Cheng, get your father. Jinzhu, run and let the healer know. Yinzhu, help me with the boy.”

Regardless of how she felt about Cangse Sanren, she wouldn’t let her child die.

Chapter Text

By the time she got him to the healing pavilion, Wei Wuxian had gone completely limp in her arms, and it was like lugging a dead body. The tiny dead body of a child. She was only reassured because his breath was coming in pants, so she knew he was breathing. His forehead against her arm felt unnaturally hot.

Fengmian tried to take him from her when he joined her halfway, but Ziyuan didn’t let him. She didn’t let go of him until they reached Lotus Pier’s head healer, Kang Liqiang, who had her set him on an examination table.

“It was an attack, Fengmian,” she said once she let go of the boy. “Resentful energy at Lotus Pier.”

Before he could answer, Wei Wuxian let out a shriek of pain, calling for help, begging someone named Lan Zhan “don’t leave, I’m sorry, don’t leave me alone!” and actively fighting the Yunmeng Jiang healer, trapped in a sort of hysteria. 

“Jinzhu, Yinzhu. Hold him down,” Madam Yu ordered. “Gently.”

They scrambled to help Healer Kang, who quickly sedated Wei Wuxian with needles. The boy went limp, tears still leaking from the corners of his eyes. Despite the drugs, he still slurred out broken pleas.

She turned to Fengmian. “Write the Gusu Lan sect. Their cleansing is renowned, and they might know who this… Lan Zhan is. At the least, they can send healers familiar with resentful energy damage.”

Fengmian looked startled for a moment, then smiled at her in a way that he hadn’t in years, like he truly saw her. “Of course, my lady. I’ll write a letter to be carried by messenger right away.”

She huffed at him, uncomfortable with his attention. “See to it! I will not let an attack on our sect, on our disciple, go unchecked. The boy is a Yunmeng Jiang asset and he will be healed.”

The smile stayed with her after he left, and she noticed A-Cheng peering in from the door. 

“Have you told A-Li?” she asked him. 

He shook his head mutely, pale, his eyes on Wei Wuxian’s still form. He saw the whole thing, she realized as did most of the disciples, and especially given his closeness with the boy, he must be traumatized. For months, they’ve been inseparable, and now… 

She squatted gracefully, bringing herself to his level; her son deserved compassion. “A-Cheng, the healers will take care of him. Go to your sister; it wouldn’t do for someone else to tell her what happened. Be strong.”

He straightened, clearly glad to be given a task, even if it took him from Wei Ying; but she knew as well that he was afraid to be here, to watch the boy he calls ‘brother’ in this condition.

“Yes, a-niang.”

Ziyuan watched her son leave, and turned to the healer. The assistants were filling a tub with water, and the healer himself was starting to strip Wei Ying.

“His fever is dangerously high, Madam Yu,” Healer Kang informed her. “If we don’t bring it down, he will die.”

She nodded. “Fengmian is sending a messenger to Gusu. The Lans may be able to help with their music cultivation, if nothing else.”

He only nodded. Her attention was drawn to ugly pink and white scars on Wei Wuxian’s legs. Some punctures or cuts, but one long thick one down his right thigh. On his left calf, a divot of missing flesh.

“Those scars?” 

She had never had occasion or need to see the boy without his trousers, had no idea he bore such scarring so young.

“Dogs, Madam Yu,” a healer’s assistant answered as they lifted Wei Wuxian from the examination table and carried him toward the bath. “Some of them were infected when he first arrived at Lotus Pier.”

The boy whimpered, reacting to the word even semiconscious. Ziyuan grimaced, uncomfortable with the pity swirling in her gut, regretting having so angrily opposed the removal of A-Cheng’s dogs. She had thought Wei Ying unreasonably hysterical at the time, but these wounds showed she was the unreasonable one. The child had ample reason to be terrified of dogs.

Ziyuan could imagine Cangse Sanren’s reaction to her pettiness toward this child, and could only be glad her late rival decided not to haunt her for it.

Wei Wuxian shrieked as he was lowered into the tepid water, thrashing futilely in an attempt to escape before going abruptly limp. 

She heard the pounding of feet against wood headed closer, and turned to block the door; Wei Ying deserved privacy in this moment, at least. As expected, A-Cheng and A-Li were hurrying to the healing pavilion.

“They have him in a bath to bring down his fever,” she told them before they could ask.

“A-Niang, what happened?” Yanli’s voice was tremulous, and she looked like she was holding back tears.

A-Cheng’s face was wet with tears, his mouth set in a thin line. He had likely explained, but he was also a child; A-Li was simply seeking the comfort of a parent.

Ziyuan took a moment to compose herself, realizing abruptly that Yinzhu and Jinzhu had taken positions on either side of the door into the pavilion. She knew they were guarding her, but it was nice to think they were also guarding the boy within.

“We don’t know, A-Li. Your father is sending a messenger to Gusu Lan for aid.” She sighed. “They are best equipped to deal with the impact of resentful energy.”

“But A-Xian…?”

A voice called out behind her, Healer Kang. “They may see him.”

When Ziyuan turned to look, she realized the healer had covered the tub with a blanket up to Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. She nodded at Healer Kang, appreciative of his understanding that they would wish to be at his side. She moved from the door, holding out her hand in a gesture to usher the children in.

They didn’t hesitate, both of them rushing to either side of the tub, though once he settled to his knees, a-Cheng seemed frozen.

Wei Wuxian was murmuring again, that Lan name, apologies, pleas, all barely coherent. His face was pale, though his cheeks were flushed with fever, and his eyes were fluttering in a sort of half-conscious haze. His shivering made it clear the fever was quite high, his body interpreting the water as cold when it was just tepid.

“Oh, A-Xian,” Yanli whispered, reaching out to brush a lock of hair from his face.

“Shijie…?” It was barely a croak. His eyes briefly opened, but were glassy and unfocused. He murmured more apologies, tears tracking down his face.

A-Li wiped them gently with a sleeve and turned to Healer Kang. “If… If we wet his hair? Will that help?”

“Ah, yes. Very good, young maiden Jiang.” 

She blushed and smiled under the praise, Ziyuan noticed.

Healer Kang motioned to his assistants, and one began carefully pouring small cups of water over the boy’s head.

Ziyuan couldn’t help the pride she felt in Yanli’s observation. Truth be told, while the girl had a golden core she was too physically delicate to be a cultivator and had largely given up on cultivation.

“A-Li, perhaps if you return to cultivating, you could work to become a healer,” she said. “Your brothers get into enough scrapes.”

Only when the children stared at her, A-Cheng’s mouth open in shock and A-Li smiling, did Ziyuan realize she had, for the first time, referred to Wei Ying as family to them. She had, at no point until this attack on her ward, allowed that he could become family, only ever seeing him as a representation of her rival come back to vie for Fengmian’s attention.

The boy deserved better, and she allowed herself to feel shame for her behavior over the past year.

A throat cleared behind her, and she turned to find Fengmian in the doorway, smiling at her warmly. The expression was so rarely aimed toward her, and she found herself basking in it.

“Your mother is right, A-Li. You can focus your cultivation on learning to be the best healer possible, to support your brothers and Lotus Pier. Not all cultivators fight monsters. Healer Kang may be willing to help train you, once A-Ying is better.”

A warmth spread through her at her husband’s support for her suggestion.

“The messenger?” she asked.

“The fastest we have, sent,” he replied.

Ziyuan nodded briskly, then turned to the healer. “Whatever the boy needs, let us know. It will be provided.”

Healer Kang bowed to them. “For the moment, the fever is the most important issue. Once it’s under control, we can work to find what caused it and treat it.”

“As I said, there was an attack. Resentful energy,” Ziyuan told him.

“But he stumbled before that, a-niang,” A-Cheng murmured, still staring at Wei Wuxian. “He dropped his sword. And he coughed up blood before, too.”

Fengmian looked to Ziyuan, and she nodded to confirm. 

“You have a good memory, A-Cheng,” he praised. “I think if you can write down everything you remember, it will help Healer Kang.”

Ziyuan found herself smiling as A-Cheng soaked it in, straightening in the way only a proud ten-year-old could.

“I will, a-die.” The boy bit his lip, looking back at his adopted brother. “Is… Wei Wuxian. He’ll be okay, right?”

He looked afraid, hopeful, and it tore at Ziyuan that she would have to tell him they didn’t know, that his life was as fragile as anything else in this world, and maybe moreso given the trauma he had suffered before Fengmian found him, that time starving and on the streets.

Fengmian spoke before she could. “A-Ying is strong, son.”

Though it wasn’t an answer, A-Cheng nodded, accepting that readily. A-Li seemed to recognize what it meant, though, her hand coming to her mouth, tears overflowing. She had herself composed by the time A-Cheng turned back, though, strong in her own way, offering her brother a weak smile.

Ziyuan had to just hope Wei Ying was strong enough.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren did not like the idea of taking his nephews with him to Lotus Pier, not if there had been an attack of resentful energy. But the fact that Jiang Fengmian’s adopted son was calling for one of them in the throes of fever after the attack…

He had no idea how the boy could know Wangji, especially enough to call for him by his birth name. Qiren recalled the boy was Cangse Sanren’s son, named Wei Ying. The cultivation world had gossiped idly that his father must be Jiang Fengmian for him to take the boy in, but such idle talk was more than likely ridiculous.

Qiren did not have the fondest memories of Cangse Sanren, but he would not leave a young child to suffer over a grudge against a dead woman—such grudges were forbidden, regardless. And truly his heart went out to a child who was orphaned so young. The decision to send help was immediate; his decision to join the retinue was carefully considered. 

Ultimately, after passing duties to appropriate elders, he brought a contingent from Cloud Recesses that included his nephews, the head healer, and several accomplished musicians familiar with both songs of cleansing and those of healing. 

While flying with children was usually something he would not consider, the message from Yunmeng Jiang had come on their swiftest flyer, and he had clearly exhausted his spiritual energy to speed the trip. This combined with the contents of the message made it clear time was of the essence. 

Qiren himself was the most experienced flyer and thus insisted Wangji ride with him. Though Xichen had started to ride Shuoyue, Yunmeng was too far for the boy; he had the head healer, Lan Shirong, carry him. 

Gusu Lan was among the closest sects to Yunmeng Jiang, and so the flight was relatively short. Of course, relatively short for a child was not so, but neither boy complained and Qiren praised both for their discipline during the flight. Dusk had already fallen, night quickly on its way. 

They were immediately escorted by several disciples, one of whom broke off to fetch Sect Leader Jiang. The youths looked shaken and unsteady, but still performed their duties with efficiency. Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan had clearly trained them well. 

Fengmian met them at the main hall, greeting them with as much decorum as possible.

“Master Qiren, thank you for coming. I apologize for the lack of a proper greeting. In other circumstances, tea and conversation would be appropriate.”

Qiren waved the concern off. “The healers should see to the boy immediately. Please, lead us.”

He hadn’t seemed to notice the children, Qiren noted, and he could only assume the boy’s condition was not good for Fengmian to overlook such a detail. Normally he would prefer to keep his nephews away from this sort of situation, but if this Wei Ying was calling for Wangji, it was best to determine how he knew of him sooner rather than later.

Fengmian quickly led them to the infirmary, explaining along the way, “Healer Kang is trying to bring the fever down. He believes A-Ying’s body is fighting the resentful energy, but we have no way of knowing.”

He was leading them at a speed just short of a jog, and his voice betrayed his worry.

“‘Cleansing’ may help,” Qiren mused. “But Healer Lan will want to examine him as well—the damage that can be done by resentful energy cannot be taken lightly.”

Upon entering the healing pavilion, Qiren had to pause for a moment. The boy lay prone on the examining table, clad only in a light shift with cooling talismans affixed. Ugly scars marred his legs.

Even at his young age he looked so much like Cangse Sanren, it was almost painful to look at him. She had been a prankster, had shaved his beard while he slept, but she had been so full of joy and life and it had been a blow to learn the world had lost such a light.

A low moan from the boy had Healer Lan moving around him, hurrying to the patient, immediately starting to tap his hands across Wei Ying’s meridians in the practiced movement of one used to examining and healing qi. The child seemed nearly delirious, whimpering unintelligible murmurs, limbs twitching, tears streaking his face.

“The children were… upset with his condition. Ziyuan is keeping them away from the infirmary.”

Qiren turned to Fengmian. “Your missive said he was calling a name.”

Fengmian nodded to the Jiang healer, who gently removed a needle from the boy’s forehead. Almost immediately, he cried out, writhing and reaching out, and Qiren realized they’d had him sedated. Dangerous for one so young, but if he had been like this for hours...

“Lan Zhan. Please don’t leave me, Lan Zhan.”

The words were broken by sobs.

WangJji stepped forward, a strange look on his face. He seemed almost drawn to the boy, but Qiren was shocked when his nephew took Wei Ying’s hand. He could hear Fengmian take a surprised breath, as though he had just realized who ‘Lan Zhan’ was.

“I am here.”

His nephew, who eschewed touch and rarely spoke, was doing both now.

The child’s eyelids fluttered, his face turning toward his voice, though his eyes never fully opened.

“Lan Zhan,” came out in a relieved whisper. “Don’t go.”

“I will not.”

There was a soft exhale, and the boy went still, his breath deepening.

The Jiang healer looked relieved at the change. Qiren could only guess this meant Wei Ying had likely struggled and cried out like that most of the time since the attack when not sedated.

“You recognize him,” Xichen said, the first he had spoken in hours, and Qiren noted it wasn’t a question. 

“Yiling,” Wangji’s answered simply.

“Is he the one you gave the rattle drum to, A-Zhan?”

Wangji nodded. 

Qiren remembered his nephew going missing for the span of about half an hour, and finding him without the toy, but he hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, too relieved to have found him. Clearly he had told his brother more. Somehow in that short time he had found Wei Ying and never spoken of it to him. If he had, Qiren could have acted.

“That was three years ago, Wangji,” Qiren murmured.

“Three years?” Fengmian looked pale. “I only found him just over a year ago. He was on the streets so long…”

No one really knew exactly when Cangse Sanren and her husband had died. Neither their bodies nor their weapons had been found, and though everyone knew they must have died it was only due to their disappearance.

Qiren knew Fengmian had searched for a year before finding the boy, but knowing he had been subject to homelessness for at least twice as long was horrifying.

“Wangji is sorry. Wangji should have told shufu. Shufu would have helped.”

His nephew’s tone was more emotional than it had been since his mother’s death, his hand still holding Wei Ying’s. Qiren felt frozen, inept, unable to comfort the boy now just as he had failed then. 

Fengmian stepped forward, kneeling to come level to Wangji and place a hand on his shoulder.

“You would have if you had known he needed help, right?” he asked, his voice gentle.

Wangji nodded.

“Then you did all you knew to do. A-Ying won’t blame you for that. Your gift probably brought him joy.” Fengmian offered a small smile. “We cannot change the past, young master. We can only strive to improve ourselves in the future.”

Wangji’s gaze moved to the scars on Wei Ying’s legs.

“He was hurt.”

“By dogs,” Fengmian says softly. “Not by you.”

Qiren repressed the urge to wince. So many scars from dogs, living on the streets. The boy’s survival was a miracle.

Wangji only frowned, and Qiren was relieved when his brother stepped forward, smiling gently.

“A-Zhan, you can be A-Ying’s friend now and help him get better. He was calling for you, and you helped him already.”

That seemed to do the trick, mollifying Wangji, and his expression turned resolute. Of course Xichen would know—giving Wangji a task to complete would help him.

“Sect Leader Jiang?” Healer Lan interrupted. He was standing at the head of the examination table, his hands on Wei Ying’s temples. “The resentful energy seems to have… for lack of a better word, gathered in his head.”

Fengmian stood, alarm apparent on his face, and Qiren couldn’t find fault in that; maladies of the mind were hard to treat, the complexities of the brain too little understood even in the cultivation world.

“We should start ‘Cleansing’ as soon as possible,” the healer continued, “to remove as much as possible, but also play songs of healing as well. The resentful energy is too thick to see what damage may have been done. The fever is his body trying to fight the invasion.”

Qiren nodded to the musicians to get started, then turned to his nephews. “We should have a repast and rest. It is nearly hai, and the journey has been long.”

To his surprise, Wangji shook his head, shifting closer to the examination table and Wei Ying.

“Promised. Won’t go.”

Stubborn. Why did the boy have to be so obstinate? Qiren could only be reminded of the habit only just broken—of Wangji kneeling in front of his late mother’s seclusion house every month, refusing to accept her death.

Truth be told, Qiren wasn’t certain it was wise to let Wangji get attached to Wei Ying, with his condition so uncertain. He mourned so deeply. But he knew it was too late the moment his nephew stepped forward to take the boy’s hand.

The Jiang healer stepped forward placatingly. “We have beds in the next room. If the young master wishes to sleep here, it could be arranged. A light meal can be sent for him.”

“Only your nephew has been able to calm A-Ying,” Fengmian added. “His presence may comfort him if he wakes, or if the fever worsens.”

Qiren took a breath, finding his center and exhaling slowly. He could not make a liar of his nephew.

“For tonight. Wangji, you must abide the healers, and stay out of their way.”

He waited only for a nod of acknowledgement, then beckoned Xichen to the door.

Chapter Text

A few days of “Cleansing” dissipated the resentful energy enough for Healer Lan to determine there was no damage to his brain physically beyond some swelling. Whether there was damage to his mind and spirit would not be answered until he woke.

Qiren ordered the continuation of “Cleansing” and the supplement of healing songs.

A routine was established. In the morning, he taught Wangji and Xichen their lessons in the infirmary, the former still refusing to leave Wei Ying’s side. Wangji had simply very quietly said “no,” and then stoically stayed silent until Qiren had given up. 

Wangji took lessons on the giqin in the afternoon, playing without imbuing the music with spiritual energy. Xichen practiced his xiao privately in the guest quarters the Jiangs had set up for them. Qiren meditated or practiced forms on the training ground, and sometimes discussed Wei Ying’s condition over tea with Fengmian and occasionally Madam Yu.

The Jiang healer had taken young Jiang Yanli under his tutelage, teaching her to wet a sponge with broth or water and gently press it to Wei Ying’s lips, how to massage his throat if he didn’t swallow automatically, and even had her learning how to check his qi with her own.

Young Jiang Wanyin was another story entirely, at turns sullen and angry that his brother had been hurt, but thoughtful in other ways. He had written an account of what he had seen happen on the training field when Wei Ying’s attack, as detailed as any report Qiren could expect from a ten year old, and then had bullied the other disciples who had been present into doing the same. 

From the sound of things, it hadn’t taken much bullying; it was clear to Qiren that despite having only been at Lotus Cove a year, Wei Ying was well-loved, something he had in common with his mother. Disciples often found excuses to pop into the infirmary, whether to deliver meals to Wangji or Jiang Yanli, or to just sit with him, telling him about training or their adventures in his absence. Even without Wangji’s constant presence, the boy would never have been alone.

But the days stretched into a week and then beyond, with Wei Ying showing no signs of waking. His sleep was calm and unbroken, his eyes occasionally moving under his eyelids. Otherwise he was still, his face slack.

The Jiang healer started to teach Jiang Yanli how to massage his muscles to prevent atrophy. He drew the line at letting her bathe him, but allowed her to wash his hair and comb it with a fragrant oil. She had styled it in a braid that would keep it out of the way, weaving a red ribbon between the sections of hair with the argument that he should still look presentable even in illness, that it was important he be cared for like this. She washed his face several times a day.

She spoke to him as she cared for him, telling him what the disciples were doing, how she was training to become a healer, what she was doing to further develop her golden core. 

Qiren found her dedication admirable and tasked himself with utilizing time in the afternoons giving her advice on meditation techniques and ways to channel her qi toward furthering her cultivation. He even recommended she try musical cultivation, perhaps the guzheng or konghou, both of which would be appropriate for a young lady of her station. 

He was quietly pleased when she began to call him “Lan-laoshi.”

Healer Lan reported that there were fragments of resentful energy deep in Wei Ying’s brain, and somehow “Cleansing” was having no further effect.

“The swelling has abated, and his golden core is strong for his age,” the healer commented. “When he wakes we can teach him techniques that will help him cleanse the rest.”

“How long until he wakes?”

Qiren was mildly surprised the question came from Yu Ziyuan, and that she sounded concerned. 

He tried not to listen to gossip, but in only the week they had been there he had learned she had harbored a deep enmity toward Wei Ying—rumors that the boy was the product of an affair between Sect Leader Jiang and Cangse Sanren had sparked the rage, and the perception of favoritism toward the boy, including his year-long quest to find him, had not helped.

And yet she had spent time at Wei Ying’s bedside, had helped her daughter feed him, had placed damp cloths on his forehead during his fever. Her concern for him was apparent. 

The reports from the disciples and young Jiang Wanyin had revealed how terrifying the event had been, coming from nowhere. He could imagine the sight of the boy suffocated in resentful energy, bleeding from the mouth and nose, convulsing in the dirt… That would awaken parental instincts in anyone.

Healer Lan, sadly, had no answer real answer for her. “When he is ready,” was all he said. 

It was a diplomatic answer, Qiren recognized; the child might never wake. The effects of the resentful energy could keep him in a coma. 

In the middle of the third week, lessons for Wangji and Xichen were interrupted by a low groan from Wei Ying. Qiren barely had to glance at Xichen; he rushed from the room to alert the healers.

Wangji was hovering at Wei Ying’s side uncertainly by the time Qiren looked back. The child was curled in on himself clutching at his head. 

“Give him space, Wangji,” he said softly. 

The boy was training to be a cultivator, and if he remembered the attack could easily lash out in defense of himself. Qiren was relieved when his nephew obeyed.

The Jiang head healer rushed in and after a glance murmured instructions to an aide. He knelt at the bedside and carefully passed spiritual energy directly to Wei Ying’s forehead, likely to ease what had to be a terrible headache.

“This medicine will help with the pain,” he said softly when the aide returned with a bowl of medicine.

Wei Ying required help sitting, unsurprising after so much time unconscious and only the minimum food intake. His eyes were still clenched shut, and he drank from the bowl without complaint.

Fengmian and Ziyuan were the next to arrive—Qiren could only assume Xichen had been tasked with fetching them—followed quickly by Healer Lan. Xichen kept to the doorway, peering in with the Jiang children.

“A-Ying,” Fengmian murmured, “A-Ying.”

The boy’s eyes blinked open, and he stared around, his gray eyes looking blank and lost.

“A-Ying,” the sect leader repeated, almost as though he was on the verge of tears, like he was so relieved he was incapable of saying more.

“This one’s name is A-Ying, da-shu?” 

The query was hesitant, his voice soft, and the title by which he called Fengmian was that which one would call a stranger. Qiren felt a dawning sense of horror.

Sect Leader Jiang seemed stunned, his relief dashed.

“Your name is Wei Ying, Wei Wuxian,” the Jiang healer told the boy. “Do you remember?”

Qiren had not known the boy’s courtesy name before now, and he found himself wondering if it had been chosen by his parents, or by Jiang Fengmian. Without envy. He could imagine Cangse Sanren choosing the name, could almost hear her ‘My child will want for nothing’ as an explanation for the name. ‘Why should he envy?’ He could imagine her laugh from so long ago.

She would not be laughing, were she alive now.

The boy eyed the healer for a moment in complete silence, his expression edging toward fear.

“No, daifu.”

There was a frozen element to the room, as though everyone was suddenly holding their breaths, the silence broken only by a spark from Zidian in response to Yu Ziyuan’s emotions. Somehow the boy understood that the Jiang healer was a doctor, knew the polite address, but did not know his own name.

Wei Ying looked around the room again, taking in the expressions, clearly picking up on the wrongness of not remembering, as though he did not know it himself.

The child burst into tears.

Chapter Text

Of all the outcomes Yu Ziyuan had considered, amnesia had not been among them. But if the boy didn’t even remember his name… likely he remembered little to nothing. 

Likely he had lost the precious few memories he had of his parents.

With Wei Wuxian sobbing, confused and lost and afraid, Ziyuan found herself moving forward, sitting on the edge of the bed beside the boy. 

She glanced around the room, finding her own children crying in the doorway, the older Lan child looking on sorrowfully while the younger one, the Lan Zhan Wei Ying had called for in his fever, stood still beside the bed, seeming uncertain and concerned. A part of her wanted to know if Wei Ying remembered the boy, but calming him was a priority.

Ziyuan met Qiren’s eyes and jerked her chin toward the door. Though the boy had refused to leave Wei Ying’s bedside for the duration of his coma, citing the promise he made, Lan Zhan reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled into the next room. 

“A-Li, A-Cheng, come in here,” she called, then looked pointedly at Fengmian.

He had frozen at the realization of Wei Ying’s condition, but her glare snapped him out of the fugue, and he led the children to the bed.

The healers had, for the moment, backed off, though Ziyuan knew they would want to examine him further. 

They could damn well wait until he was comforted.

“Wei Ying,” she said softly. It was a voice she had never used with him.

He turned to her, looking at her with large gray eyes. 

She could remember the first time she had seen him, in Fengmian’s arms over a year ago, a tiny waif of a child who had offered her a sunny smile. 

He didn’t smile now, and Ziyuan hadn’t realized how accustomed she had become to his vibrancy. 

“I know you’re afraid,” she told him. “But you’re safe here. The healers will help you.”

“We will help you,” Fengmian added, taking Ziyuan’s hand and squeezing it. She could feel the gratitude in the gesture. 

The boy looked between them, still sniffling, but calmer than a moment ago. He had sunk back to the bed, likely far too weak to stay sitting after convalescing for so long.

“Mama? Baba?” he asked, his voice uncertain.

Ziyuan dreaded telling the child he had lost his parents. But she had no right to replace Cangse Sanren, nor did Fengmian have the right to replace Wei Changze.

“Your parents were Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze,” she told him gently.

Fengmian reached forward to place his hand on Wei Ying’s shoulder. 

“They passed away on a night hunt,” he added. “Your father was one of my closest friends, so I came to find you. You’ve been living here for a year now.”

“A-Ying is alone?”

“You’re not! You’ve got us!” practically exploded from A-Cheng, making Wei Ying flinch at its intensity. 

A-Cheng flinched too at his reaction, his expression closed. Ziyuan knew her son could come off as aggressive, but the poor child was insecure with himself, and probably feared the boy he’d come to love as a brother could reject him now, without his memories.

A-Li reached forward and took the boy’s hand. “My name is Jiang Yanli. I’m your shijie, A-Xian.”

Wei Ying blinked. “This place is… Lotus Pier? The Yunmeng Jiang sect?”

For a moment there was a silence, almost a bated breath as they waited, hoping his memory of them had been jogged. For Yu Ziyuan this was complicated; the boy deserved his happier memories, but selfishly she didn’t want him to remember her cruelty toward him.

But he said nothing more, waiting. Wei Ying had retained some knowledge, but lost the details of his own life, apparently. 

“Yes. I’m Jiang Fengmian, sect leader. You may call me shushu. My wife, Madam Yu Ziyuan.”

Ziyuan took a breath; this was a new beginning, should she choose it to be. She could insist he call her the distant Yu-furen that separated him from the family, or...

“You should call me shenshen,” she told him.

Fengmian’s hand squeezed her, and when she looked at him, his face was adoring. A-Li was smiling so widely her eyes were barely crescents. A-Cheng looked… satisfied. Pleased. 

The way she had treated Wei Ying had clearly strained her family, and she had failed to notice. 

Wei Ying hiccuped, drawing their attention back to him. He was looking at A-Cheng. 

“Are you my gege?”

A-Cheng’s jaw dropped, his face reddening not in anger, but in embarrassment. Ziyuan could tell he was flustered, but also happy to be acknowledged.

“Y-you’re actually older than me,” he mumbled. “But you can call me that if you want. My name is Jiang Cheng.”

“Cheng-ge,” Wei Ying said, as though trying it out. “If… if I don’t remember anything, you’re older now, right?”

Ziyuan couldn’t help but smile at the strange logic and the way A-Cheng puffed up at the idea of technically being the older brother now.

She was amazed how Wei Ying had somehow managed to cheerfully find a way to bring A-Cheng out of his shell so easily, even with no memories. Perhaps that was an innate characteristic of the boy.

“If I’m your gege, it’s my job to help you,” A-Cheng said decisively. “And protect you... didi.”

Wei Ying smiled his sunny smile, and Ziyuan could feel the tension slipping from the air.

They could navigate this. She could do better. 

She would do it for her family, and for Cangse Sanren, and for Wei Changze, and most of all, for Wei Ying, to preserve his smile. 

And when he remembered the ill way she had treated him, though he had borne it all without bitterness, Xiyuan would apologize for her behavior, for it taking his near death to correct it. 

He would forgive her—he was that kind of person. But she would only deserve it if she treated him the way he deserved. 

“A-Xian, you’ve barely eaten a thing for two weeks,” A-Li said with her soft smile. “You’ve gotten so thin. Shijie will have to cook you lots of soup to help you recover.”

A far-away look came over the boy’s face. “Lotus and pork rib soup, right?”

A-Li gasped in happiness. “You remembered!”

Her face fell as a bead of blood trailed from one of his nostrils. 

“Just that… just that it’s good,” he murmured, his voice weaker. 

His eyes slid shut, and his body relaxed. A cold feeling washed over Ziyuan at the sight of blood, the fact that the boy had paled a bit. His breath was soft and even, but it had been most of the coma.

Fengmian’s hand tightened on hers. She could see fear on A-Cheng and A-Li’s faces, fear that his waking was only temporary, that the storm wasn’t over.

She hated feeling helpless, hated feeling out of control. This wasn’t something she could attack or destroy with Zidian, or something she could yell into submission. She couldn’t fix this, and she hated it.

Healer Kang was at the bedside immediately. “I’m sorry, Sect Leader, Madam Yu. He may just be tired and overstimulated, but we need to make sure.”

She could only hope he was being honest and not just kind. 

Ziyuan helped usher the children out, intent on finding Qiren to have him send one of the musicians to play their healing songs again if needed.

As she left, she could hear Fengmian suggesting A-Li cook soup for when Wei Ying woke again, asking A-Cheng if he wanted to polish Suibian for the boy, to see if seeing his sword would help. 

She smiled; he would keep them busy, would distract them from their worry. She could trust him with that.

And she could trust that, come what may, they would face it together.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji was displeased to be led from the room by shufu, though he didn’t know what to do for the crying boy he had watched over for nearly three weeks. He was about to sit outside and simply wait to be allowed back in, but Xichen turned to shufu.

“Uncle, I would like to take Wangji to the market, to purchase a rattle drum for young master Wei.”

He immediately understood: the gesture might help Wei Ying’s memory. If he truly remembered nothing, as seemed to be the case, giving him the toy again might remind him. 

If nothing else, it might make Wei Ying smile. 

Shufu frowned.

“Please,” Wangji added, hoping the politeness would convince him.

Qiren glanced back at the room, where the Jiangs were trying to comfort Wei Ying, and then took out his purse to give some silver bits to Xichen.

“It may comfort the boy. Buy only that and return immediately.”

Wangji made sure to bow to his uncle to show his gratitude, then let Xichen lead the way.

“Thank you, xiongzhang,” he said softly as they wound their way around Lotus Cove.

Xichen smiled. “Of course, Wangji. Back then, when you mentioned giving your toy away, I was surprised. He will be a worthy friend. You even told him your name.”

Wangji frowned. While Wei Ying had been calling his name, without a doubt, he had not given it to him. Though he had recognized him, that had been a surprise.

“I didn’t,” he finally said, adhering to the Lan principle regarding lies. Lies of omission were still lies.

Xichen’s smile faded a bit at that. He looked thoughtful, concerned.

“And he may not remember how he knows.”

Wangji nodded. Asking would do no good. 

“Shufu would worry,” Xichen said as they left the compound. “But if this works, maybe young master Wei will remember how he knows it.”

Wangji could think of no reply, so only nodded again. Fortunately, his brother was familiar with his silence, and has never minded that he didn’t speak much. 

Lotus Pier was a lively place, far louder than what Wangji was used to, having largely stayed in Cloud Recesses. But even Caiyi wasn’t as loud, the people of Yunmeng far more boisterous than those in Gusu. 

Before long, they found a stall with colorful children’s toys, including grass butterflies, kites, stuffed animals and exaggerations of monsters and mythological creatures, and an array of simple musical instruments.

There were a variety of brightly painted rattle drums on display, and Wangji found  himself drawn to one with wood stained a deep red, carved with lotuses around the drum, with rabbits painted on the heads—a white one on one side, a black one on the other. The beads were affixed to the drum with slender black ribbons, and the beads themselves made of wood carved, again, to resemble lotus flowers and painted purple. 

He appreciated the auspicious colors—red to ward off evil and for happiness, black for stability and protection, and purple for spiritual awareness and healing. They added to the message he wanted to send through the gift, said what he could not.

He picked it up and tested it, pleased when it also sounded well-made. Wangji’s closer examination of the details revealed the carvings were well-rendered, and the wood had been carefully stained and sealed to avoid splintering. The craftsmanship was admirable. 

“That one?” Xichen asked. “I’m sure young master Wei will like it.”

When Wangji nodded, he turned to the vendor to discuss payment.

“This is for young Wei Wuxian?” the vendor asked.

They learned the boy was popular at Lotus Pier, someone who was sweet and kind to everyone, regardless of class or circumstance. Rumors of his illness had swirled, apparently, and the townspeople had worried. 

The vendor clearly wanted to ask about his health but was holding back. After all, such questions would be inappropriate. He did tell them that some had left offerings at local shrines hoping for his recovery, further proof of how well-liked he was.

“We can pass on your well wishes,” Xichen said diplomatically. 

Wangji admired his brother’s ability to know what to say in these situations. He knew Xichen would be a fine sect leader in the future, something he was not suited for in the least. 

The vendor tried to refuse payment, but Wangji couldn’t help but selfishly want this gift to be from him. 

“Exquisite craftsmanship deserves payment,” Wangji told the vendor.

The man actually blushed at that, thanking him profusely for the compliment, letting them know the construction was a joint effort between himself and his wife, who painted and stained and selected material, while he carved and constructed the pieces. 

Eventually the vendor accepted two silver pieces for the rattle drum but insisted on giving them a simple bamboo child’s dizi carved with lotuses and stained black to give to Wei Ying as a gift from himself and his wife. 

Wei Ying was apparently known to fashion his own from raw bamboo, hence the gift. Xichen asked the man’s name to pass on.

Wangji and Xichen bowed to the man, then began the walk back to Lotus Cove. Word had spread, somehow, of their link to Wei Ying, and they were approached by other vendors with gifts of candy and food. One vendor even presented them with a lovely brush “for him to paint with while he recovers,” and another with charms for luck and good health.

It was odd to learn so much about Wei Ying in this way, through the types of gifts. Lotus pods, candied haw, cakes wrapped in lotus leaves, steamed buns “his favorite, extra spicy,” shaobing, sesame balls, fresh loquats, and jujube juice. 

Shufu frowned when he saw all they carried but calmed when Xichen explained the people at the market insisted on giving gifts for them to bring to Wei Ying.

“He has a good reputation, shufu. They were quite insistent and concerned for him.”

Finally shufu nodded, stroking his beard. 

“He has fallen asleep,” he said, though his tone indicated it might not be so simple. “We will place a talisman on the buns to keep them warm, if he’s permitted by the healers to eat them when he wakes again.”

He escorted them back to the healing pavilion, where Madam Yu was waiting. Healing music drifted through the air. 

She actually smiled when she heard of the vendors’ gifts but huffed as though irritated and commented about Wei Ying’s ability to charm people.

Wangji was confused by her—at times she seemed caring, and at other times she seemed to regard Wei Ying as an annoyance. To be fair, he was confused by Jiang Cheng for similar reasons, and their shared blood could mean they had like personalities. 

Jiang Fengmian arrived and he and Xichen were shooed into the other room to place their parcels on a table. Wei Ying was still and pale on the bed, the Jiang healer leaning over him and checking meridians.

Wangji let Xichen, who was further along in his talisman studies, handle the issue of the buns and other food. He put the rattle drum in the pocket in his sleeve before he took his seat near Wei Ying’s bed again.

He could hear shufu speaking with Clan Leader Jiang in the other room, and although it was against the rules to eavesdrop, he could not  help that they were speaking at a volume he could hear.

Learning that the boy in the bed had retained at least some knowledge, and that bits of memory had returned in the short time the Jiang family had spoken to him sounded promising. Then he heard of the nosebleed and quick fade into sleep, and his concern returned.

The Jiang healer seemed to notice, and offered him a soft smile and a wink, as though he knew Wangji had eavesdropped and was unbothered by such poor behavior. 

“Sect Leader,” the healer called, and Wangji tried not to flinch. “His meridians are unchanged, and he seems to be sleeping normally. It isn’t a coma like it was before, but a healing sleep. He will likely sleep quite a bit in the coming days as he continues to recover.”

Abruptly he realized his behavior would not be reported. Perhaps the healer was simply glad Wei Ying was cared for. 

Sect Leader Jiang entered the room and sat on the bed, reached forward to cup Wei Ying’s cheek. The boy sighed softly in his sleep.

“Sleep as long as you need, A-Ying,” he murmured. 

When he turned to him, Wangji felt a bit flustered.

“Second young master Lan, thank you for staying with him all these days. I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to speak with him.”

This seemed to require a response.

“He will wake again,” is what he settled on finally.

Xichen stepped forward. “I took Wangji to the market so he could get a rattle drum for young master Wei.”

That got a smile. 

“You mentioned you gave him one when you encountered him in Yiling. When A-Li mentioned making soup for him, he remembered she makes lotus and pork rib soup. Your gift may help him remember you.”

Wangji only nodded.

“When we were at the market, several vendors asked us to deliver gifts to him,” Xichen reported, gesturing to the table where he had arranged them.

“Your ward seems well-loved by the people of Lotus Pier,” shufu commented from the doorway.

The sect leader rose to see what has been gifted, and his smile widened. 

“He has a smile for everyone, always kind and friendly.” His hand alit on the dizi. “I only learned recently he spends his allowance buying food for the street children and cheers them with music.”

Wangji took in this new information, glancing toward the boy on the bed. The boy was generous and thought of the needs of others.

“‘Charity, like the sun, brightens every object on which it shines,’” he offered after a moment, quoting Confucius.

Shufu looked pleased, he realized when he glanced over, clearly happy Wangji’s studies were going well.

“A-Ying has a sunny disposition,” Sect Leader Jiang said, nodding approval at him. “You would never know he has suffered such hardships, but maybe those are what has made him so kind.”

Wangji remembered the smile from so many years ago, how it had lit up the alley, felt like summer warmth on that cold winter day. That smile had propelled him forward to give the toy.

“‘Giving to others selflessly and anonymously, radiating light throughout the world and illuminating your own darkness, your virtue becomes a sanctuary for yourself and all beings,’” Jiang Fengmian murmured, looking at the sleeping Wei Ying. “I only learned because one of the street children asked a disciple about A-Ying, and he came to me.”

Wangji recognized the quote from Lao-Tzu and tried not to be too pleased with himself. Which was rather easy when he instead ruminated on whether he lived by this part of the Tao.

Shufu cleared his throat. “Is he as… free-spirited as his mother?”

From the way he said ‘free-spirited,’ Wangji gathered that shufu saw it as a bad thing. But his uncle was a strong advocate of the need for rules to walk the right path, and ‘free-spirited’ seemed like someone who would live by no rules.

And yet from everything he heard, Wei Ying walked a righteous path.

The dichotomy confused Wangji.

“He is very well-suited for Yunmeng Jiang sect,” Sect Leader Jiang said with a soft laugh.

Wangji was further confused; was Yunmeng Jiang so different from Gusu Lan when it came to rules? He knew their motto is ‘attempt the impossible,’ but he hadn’t studied their rules despite having been here almost three weeks.

“How many rules does Jiang sect have?” he found himself asking, to his own surprise.

“We, ah, believe that it’s better to be honest and unrestrained. We have a few guidelines regarding harm to others, but we ‘attempt the impossible,’ which isn’t possible if one is constrained by rules.”

Shufu’s expression revealed to Wangji that he disagreed heartily with the ways of Yunmeng Jiang.

“A-Ying’s mother was a rogue cultivator,” Jiang Fengmian continued. “She was a disciple of Baoshan Sanren, and married one of my closest friends, my sworn brother. They would have taught him themselves, had a night hunt not claimed their lives.”

“Outside of a sect?”

Wangji couldn’t help the incredulousness in his voice, but the sect leader didn’t take offense, only nodded.

“Yes. The life of a rogue cultivator is free, but dangerous. No one knew they were missing, at first, or that a-Ying had survived and was an orphan,” he explained.

“Which is why it is far more practical to join a sect,” shufu added. “Really, what they were thinking travelling the world with such a young child…”

“‘Do not speak ill of others,’” Sect Leader Jiang responded.

Shufu opened his mouth, then closed it again before turning on his heel to leave. Wangji glanced at Xichen, who looked just as surprised as he felt. No one spoke to shufu like that, even when he was breaking rules.

Jiang Fengmian sighed when they were finally alone. “Ah, I will have to apologize to him.”

“Shufu broke a rule,” Wangji said softly. 

“You only corrected him,” Xichen agreed.

The sect leader smiled slightly. “Ah, it doesn’t quite work like that between clans and clan leaders, boys.”

He clapped them both on the shoulder and left the room.

Xichen turned to him Wangji when he was gone. 

“I need to go practice the xiao. Will you be okay, Wangji?”

Wangji nodded. Once Xichen was gone, he turned to watch Wei Ying sleep. 

The boy hadn’t moved in the time they’d been back, his head slightly turned on the pillow, one arm beside his body and the other crossing his belly over the blankets. He looked peaceful, as he had throughout his coma, and Wangji was relieved to remember the Jiang healer’s words—he was sleeping normally now. 

He eventually moved to his own bed to pull out his guqin, practicing a lesser healing song without the use of his qi until he was satisfied with his performance. He glanced up to check Wei Ying every so often as he played.

When he judged enough time had been spent practicing, Wangji shifted to the score of a gentle traditional tune he had learned not too long ago. 

He was nearly halfway through it when he glanced up to meet gray eyes peering at him from the bed. He was startled enough to stop playing.

Wei Ying smiled at him, just a small one, but a smile nonetheless.

“That’s a pretty song. What’s it called?”

Wangji felt unduly flustered, though perhaps he should have expected to eventually have an audience, playing here. Maybe all along he had been playing for Wei Ying.

“High Mountains and Flowing Water,” he said after a moment.

The boy’s brow furrowed a little.

“That one’s famous, isn’t it?”

Wangji nodded, and waited, but Wei Ying added nothing more.

“It represents friendship,” he said. “Boya.”

“Oh, right. Zhiyin,” Wei Ying murmured, then frowned. “I don’t know how I know that. It’s weird to know stuff but not know how.”

Wangji set his guqin aside and returned to the chair beside the bed.

“Sect Leader Jiang said your memories have started to return.”

“I guess, if remembering soup counts,” he said ruefully. “Do I know you, gege?”

He hesitated for a moment, uncertain whether it was his place to say. But ultimately, Wei Ying had called his name. If not him, then who?

“You called my name when you were feverish. But we only ever met once.”

Wei Ying’s brow furrowed again, and he bit his lip.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “I don’t remember.”

“Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji.”

There was no spark of recognition, and Wangji found himself disappointed. 

“Lan Zhan… Wangji…”

Wei Ying tried the names out, then looked at him apologetically.

“Maybe I’ll remember later?” he asked hopefully. 

Wangji nodded, then pulled the rattle drum from his sleeve, holding it out for Wei Ying.

The boy blinked, his gaze moving from the instrument to him and back again, before he reached out to take it, their fingers brushing slightly. An odd look crossed his face as he twirled the drum weakly.

“It was cold,” Wei Ying whispered. “Really cold, and I was sad. And you gave me one of these.”

Relief shot through Wangji. He hadn’t known how much he wanted this person to remember him until just now.

“Mama and baba were gone, and A-Ying was alone.”

His voice sounded hollow.

Wangji hadn’t realized memory of him would be connected to such sorrow, but he should have. That time for him was marred by his own mother’s death, the fact he was only told she was ‘gone,’ and his confusion over the idea that she would leave permanently. He wondered if Wei Ying had struggled as well, but he dared not ask—sad memories could make him cry, and he didn’t want that.

“I didn’t know you were alone,” he told him, “or I would have asked shufu to help you.”

Wei Ying smiled brightly at him, the same smile that had drawn him to approach him in the alley, clutching the rattle drum to his chest as though it was the most precious thing in the world.

“It’s okay. Lan Zhan gave me a gift, and it made me less sad. And now you gave one to me again and it helped me remember. And this one has cute bunnies on it, too. Thank you.”

He wondered if he should correct Wei Ying, tell him to call him by his courtesy name, but decided against it. He liked how he said it, and he himself thought of him by his birth name after these weeks at his bedside.

Wangji nodded. Regardless of how Wei Ying learned his name to call out for him, he was glad it happened, glad he came, glad he had watched over Wei Ying’s convalescence.

“Will you play the guqin more, Lan Zhan?”

In answer, he returned to his instrument, starting the song again and considering what else he might play for him. 

Perhaps it had been no accident he had passed by that alley and seen Wei Ying, had given him the toy. Perhaps it had not been by chance that he had been playing ‘High Mountains and Flowing Water’ when he awoke. Perhaps Wei Ying calling for him while grievously ill… 

Perhaps it was yuanfen binding them together.

Chapter Text

Wangji played the guqin for another few ke, with Wei Ying chattering at him intermittently about the music. He seemed to particularly enjoy a piece Wangji hadn’t yet mastered, “Jiukuang,” which was more lively than many guqin pieces, as well as “Guangling San.” He didn’t seem to be bothered that Wangji didn’t speak much, and he found himself enjoying his voice.

Jiang Yanli brought a tray of food for a late lunch with enough for both of them. Wei Ying’s arm shook after only a few bites when he tried to eat, his muscles unsteady after such a long coma, and she took it upon herself to feed him. 

“I’m sorry to trouble you, shijie,” he murmured, sounding embarrassed.

“My A-Xian is no trouble at all. Shijie is happy to help you recover.”

Jiang Yanli gently pinched the end of his nose, startling a laugh from him. His laughter was bright and happy like birdsong and fit his smile.

The soup, as Wei Ying had promised, was delicious. As Wangji adhered to vegetarianism, he placed the meat from his portion into the bowl Jiang Yanli was feeding him, as the extra protein would do him good. He knew the broth was pork, but the issue was more textural for him.

Healer Kang returned as they were finishing and gave permission for him to eat some of the treats gathered in town and preserved with stasis talismans by Xichen. 

The healer insisted Wei Ying get out of bed to be helped to the table under his supervision.

“You’ll need to work to rebuild the muscle you’ve lost, young master Wei,” he said.

Wei Ying didn’t complain, though his movements were slow and unsteady and he didn’t bear all his own weight. Wangji found himself trying not to hover, concerned. 

But the boy’s bright smile when he made it to the table and sank down on a cushion, looking at his gifts, filled Wangji with a simple joy of his own.

“The vendor who gave these said they were extra spicy, your favorite,” Wangji reported, gesturing to the steamed buns. 

Wei Ying took one and bit in, and the strong scent of chilies and spice filled the air. Though it was strong enough to make Wangji's eyes water, Wei Ying let out an appreciative sigh.

“Popo’s buns are the best,” he said. “She always sells out early.”

Then he paused, glancing between him and Jiang Yanli in wonder. “I remembered! She’s not my popo but she insists I call her popo.”

Jiang Yanli nodded, clearly too overcome with joy to speak.

“Would you like to try some?” he offered them.

She laughed, covering her mouth with a sleeve as befitting a young maiden of her station.

“Oh, A-Xian, you like them so spicy none of us can eat them without crying.”

He smiled again at the information.

Wangji set a small bottle of the jujube juice in front of Wei Ying, pulling the stopper for him.

Wei Ying sampled bits of each of the gifted food, insisting on sharing the cakes and candied haw and shaobing and sesame balls. Jiang Yanli unpeeled lotus seeds for them to share. Wei Ying and his shijie chattered at each other, and she discussed learning about healing and improving her golden core, referring to shufu as Lan-laoshi. Wangji was certain shufu was pleased to take on a student, particularly one who seemed as eager to learn as Jiang Yanli.

“Oh, you should bring some to Cheng-ge, shijie,” Wei Ying said abruptly, as though he had just realized his martial brother was missing.

Wangji could see a bit of guilt and embarrassment on his face at that realization—though he could not be blamed for the gaps in his memory. Jiang Yanli reached forward to pat his cheek affectionately, and it washed away under a smile.

“He’ll come visit later and you can share with him then,” she said. “He’s training now.”

When Wei Ying seemed finished with the food, much of it still remaining, Wangji slid the brush, charms, and dizi forward. He could see now, as he hadn’t when Xichen accepted the gift on behalf of Wei Ying, that the dizi wasn’t all black, but had carved lotuses painted a deep purple. For a child’s instrument, it was quite beautiful. He wondered if it had been crafted with Wei Ying in mind when word of his illness reached the vendor and his wife.

Wei Ying took the health and luck charms and slipped them in the sash of the simple sleeping robe he was wearing. He clearly recognized their purpose and took their intention seriously.

Wangji had expected to have to explain, but it was interesting what his mind had retained and what it had lost. At least from a purely academic perspective. For Wei Ying, less interesting and more disconcerting, as with their conversation about recognizing music.

When Wei Ying examined the brush, his eyes unfocused a bit. 

“Did… did I paint your picture, Lan Zhan?”

Wangji shook his head, surprised by the question; prior to his arrival at Lotus Pier, he had only met Wei Ying briefly in a Yiling alley.

“It’s weird. I get an image of painting you, and painting a flower in your hair, but you’re older in the painting, so it can’t be a memory.”

Confusion passed over Wei Ying’s suddenly-pale face, and a drop of blood began dripping sluggishly from his nose.

“Oh, that happened earlier!” Jiang Yanli said, fretting.

She called for the healer, and Wangji steadied Wei Ying as he swayed on the cushion.

Healer Kang wasted no time, bundling him back to the bed.

“Maiden Jiang, if you could get your father—”

She bowed quickly and scampered off. 

“Lan Zhan, I’m scared,” Wei Ying murmured, his voice a bit slurred. “Don’t go.”

At the healer’s nod, Wangji sat at the bedside, took Wei Ying’s hand when he reached out. He could see tears in the boy’s eyes.

Wangji remembered what he had overheard in his time in the infirmary, that Wei Ying had been attacked by resentful energy, that some was in his brain. He didn’t understand what that meant, but he knew it was bad, that it could be causing this.

He could only watch as Wei Ying fought to keep his eyes open, his grip weakening.

“Don’t let go,” the boy whispered, and Wangji squeezed his hand to try to reassure him. 

The healer checked his meridians quickly.

“Young master, don’t fear,” he murmured to Wei Ying, whose breaths were short and frantic. “You’re simply exhausted. I pushed you too much, I’m afraid.”

A tremor passed through Wei Ying, and a tear slipped down the side of his face. 

“Don’t want to forget again.”

His voice was weak. Wangji squeezed his hand again, understanding his fear immediately. Though he had slept peacefully only hours before and had woken without more memories lost, it was a natural fear.

“If you do, I will remind you, Wei Ying,” he promised solemnly.

The boy’s eyes alit on him, filled with a mix of fear and gratitude, eyelids drooping despite his obvious fight against sleep.

“Sleep may help you recover more memories,” the healer said. “You need more rest to heal.”

The reassurance didn’t stop Wei Ying from fighting sleep, but he succumbed anyway before a minute was up, his hand loosening in Wangji’s grip, his eyes fluttering shut.

“He will be fine, second young master Lan,” Healer Kang said. 

His voice was soft in that way adults spoke to reassure children, but Wangji found he didn’t mind—he wanted that reassurance. 

“But the blood?” he asked.

The healer pulled a piece of cloth from his robe to wipe it away. It wasn’t much blood, just a drop that had already partly dried against Wei Ying’s upper lip and philtrum. He wet a corner of the cloth in a basin next to the bed and gently removed the remainder.

“The resentful energy caused his brain to swell,” he said as he worked. “He’s still recovering from that. He may be susceptible to nosebleeds for a little while as a result, but his meridians don’t indicate any further damage.”

Wangji appreciated that the healer, even with the gentle tone, was speaking to him on this level. He stood to offer a small bow, though he didn’t let go of Wei Ying’s hand to make it proper.

“Wangji appreciates the explanation, daifu.”

Jiang Fengmian arrived before the healer could reply, Jiang Yanli in his wake.

“A-Ying?” he asked, his voice tight with concern.

“Asleep again. Overexertion and a nosebleed. As I was explaining to second young master Lan, they seem frightening but there is no damage. It may be a byproduct of the swelling on his brain, but Healer Lan and I will monitor him.”

Jiang Yanli moved to the other side of the bed, making soft concerned noises as she reached out to brush her hand over Wei Ying’s cheek.

“He ate, at least. A good meal. We were showing him the gifts sent for him, and he got confused,” she told her father.

“He asked if he had painted me,” Wangji added. “He thought he remembered doing so, but he has not.”

“What would cause that?” Sect Leader Jiang asked.

The healer sighed softly. 

“At this point there is no way of knowing. His mind may be piecing together bits of memory to try to make sense of them, but I will confer with Healer Lan. I am sorry, Sect Leader, but he only woke today, and we simply don’t know yet.”

Jiang Fengmian nodded, though he still looked unsettled. Wangji didn’t blame him—he, too, felt troubled. He kept hold of Wei Ying’s hand as he settled back in the chair beside the bed, reluctant to let go even bow. He had asked him not to, after all.

But he realized the sect leader was looking at their joined hands, and he felt his ears heat.

“He was afraid,” Wangji said reluctantly. “Asked me not to let go.”

“Afraid? What is A-Ying afraid of?”

“Forgetting again.”

A grimace passed over Sect Leader Jiang’s face.

“We’ll help him remember, Father,” Jiang Yanli said, her face set in a determined way.

“I told him,” Wangji added with a nod to her. 

Young maiden Jiang gives him an approving smile, and though his concern for Wei Ying is not for the sake of approval, hers is appreciated. The sect leader also looks pleased with him. 

Though he technically only promised Wei Ying he would remind him, he was promised help. Wangji was glad the Jiangs would offer theirs as well.

Pounding footsteps caught their attention before a disheveled and sweaty Jiang Cheng rushed in, clutching two swords.

“He’s asleep?”

The boy sounded disappointed.

“A-Xian ate,” Jiang Yanli told him. “But he had another nosebleed and fell asleep.”

Jiang Cheng stepped forward a bit further, peering at Wei Ying in concern. Jiang Fengmian put a hand on his shoulder.

“He needs lots of rest to recover, A-Cheng. But I’m sure he’ll be glad to see his sword when he wakes again.”

The sect heir nodded and set one of the swords on the bed beside Wei Ying. Its hilt and pommel were wooden and sleek in shape, its sheath matching with an embossed silver design. Simple and elegant, and not ostentatious like the swords many cultivators carried.

“The townspeople sent gifts for him,” Wangji found himself saying. “Wei Ying wished to share with you.”

Jiang Cheng grinned, and Wangji couldn’t help but notice his smile was not as bright as Wei Ying’s.

“I’ll wait until he wakes up again and eat with him,” he said decisively. “I bet they sent all his favorites, and he likes to poison everything with spice. Plus I’m too hot from training to eat now. I’m all sweaty and gross. I just wanted to give him his sword. I polished it and everything.”

With that, the boy dashed from the infirmary. Wangji realized he’d come straight from training in hopes of catching Wei Ying awake, and a sort of fondness swelled in his chest. Blood or not, Jiang Cheng was a good brother to Wei Ying.

“I meant to ask, second young master Lan. Did he remember you when you gave him the rattle drum?” Jiang Fengmian asked.

Wangji nodded. The rattle drum rested on a table next to him, and he took it with his free hand to place it beside his pillow, something Wei Ying could see when he woke, that might re-invoke the memory if he had lost it as he feared.

“He remembered A-Li’s soup, but none of us,” the sect leader said, sounding pleased. “It’s good for him to have someone he remembers nearby.”

He realized he needed to tell at least the sect leader the truth. Lying was forbidden, after all, even by omission.

“Sect Leader Jiang… when I met him in Yiling, I never told him my name. He did not recognize it when I told him earlier. I do not know why he called for me.”

He shifted uncomfortably when the two Jiangs and the healer stared at him but he added nothing more.

“But you still went to him?” Jiang Fengmian asked. “And stayed with him?”

Wangji didn’t understand why that would be surprising. Had he been in Wei Ying’s state, he would have wanted comfort as well. Denying him would have been cruel.

“He was afraid, and sick, and crying. And I didn’t help him in Yiling.”

“As I said before, you have no reason to feel guilty for that.”

“I know,” Wangji said with a nod. “Wei Ying told me. But I still want to help him.”

Sect Leader Jiang sighed, turning to look at Wei Ying again, this time with a concerned frown. The boy was still asleep, unmoving and peaceful.

“We may never know how he knew your name, why he called for you,” he said after a while. “But I appreciate the information, and A-Ying is fortunate to have your help.”

“A-Xian really seems to like you,” Jiang Yanli added. “I’m glad you’re his friend.”

Wangji blinked, a little startled. Had he so easily become friends with Wei Ying? In less than a day of him being conscious? But Wei Ying had remembered him, and the sect leader had said he was the only person he remembered right now. Maybe that, too, was yuanfen, bringing them together.

The boy didn’t seem to mind his silence, had enjoyed the guqin music he had played, had shared his treats from the townspeople, had smiled at him.

Aside from xiongzhang, Wei Ying would be his first friend. He was surprised to find the prospect pleasing. 

“I will be his friend,” he avowed.

Wangji would help him, as he hadn’t in Yiling; though the Jiangs and Wei Ying himself did not blame him for his inaction, he now had the chance to do better. Perhaps they were meant to ride the same boat in this lifetime.

Chapter Text

Wei Ying was as flabbergasted as Wangji upon learning his sword was named Suibian, but then he laughed.

“I guess I couldn’t come up with a name,” he said with a shrug. 

This was later confirmed by Jiang Fengmian, who told them Wei Ying had agonized over a name, creating lists for weeks, and when it came time he was so frustrated he had said, ‘Just name it whatever.’

“And so, I did. You laughed and laughed when you saw that, A-Ying.”

Apparently, Sect Leader Jiang had an odd sense of humor, one Wei Ying seemed to share.

“Just think,” Wei Ying said to Wangji later. “Cultivators will ask my sword’s name and when I say Suibian it’ll be fun to see their faces.”

Wangji thought it disrespectful toward a spiritual weapon to name it thus, but Wei Ying treated his sword with courtesy, taking care to tend and polish it regularly, even though he couldn’t train with it until he recovered further. 

He showed Wei Ying Bichen, and was pleased when his sword was complimented as being beautiful.

“Your sheath has silver patterns, like mine,” Wei Ying pointed out, seemingly tickled by the similarity. “Maybe we can spar when I’m better.”

The suggestion pleased Wangji, who had found as the Second Jade of Lan few people wished to partner with him to spar at Cloud Recesses.

The days settled into a sort of routine. In the mornings, shufu gave Wangji and Xichen lessons while healing music was played for Wei Ying. Often, he was asleep for much of it, still healing from his ordeal. The Jiang sect seemed to rise later than mao shi anyway. The healers always brought all of them a meal of congee when Wei Ying woke.

Wei Ying’s clothing had been brought from his room, and he was encouraged to dress after he’d eaten. Rather than wearing the blues and purples of the Jiang sect, many of his outfits had red and black as the primary hues.

“They were the colors your mother favored, and your father wore them when they became rogue cultivators together,” Jiang Fengmian said when Wei Ying asked. “Your mother liked to wear a red ribbon in her hair. I thought you might prefer to dress in their colors.”

Wangji wondered if Wei Ying had retained any memories of his parents, but he didn’t ask. His face had gone thoughtful and sad at the sect leader’s words, his fingers touching the red ribbon that tied off his braid.

Once Wei Ying was awake and alert, he listened to the lessons enough to ask questions. At times, it seemed he had lost the memories associated with the information shufu was covering, assuming he had learned it to begin with, and asked the sorts of questions a complete novice might ask. At other times, his questions were pertinent, revealing a sharp mind and someone who had begun to learn the six arts and was excelling. 

Wangji was relieved when shufu patiently answered Wei Ying’s questions; during the argument with Sect Leader Jiang, it had seemed like he might decide to judge the boy harshly. He was glad that wasn’t happening. Shufu even treated him like a student, insisting Wei Ying take notes, which he did with a shaky hand that grew stronger, his calligraphy less messy as the days passed. An altered writing desk was brought for him to use without the need to get out of bed while he recovered. Eventually, he was able to start joining them at the table for lessons, his stamina recovering enough to allow him to sit without support for longer periods of time.

During the time between lessons and lunch, Wangji often practiced sword forms empty-handed in the empty space between their beds. The space was sparse, but that merely added obstacles for him to work with. Wei Ying watched or painted. He once tried to write a list of what he had remembered since waking, but became frustrated early in.

“It’s hard to remember what I already remembered and what I remembered later,” he said with a dramatic sigh, flopping back on his pillow.

“What matters is that you are starting to remember, Wei Ying,” Wangji told him, and was rewarded with a smile and a sunnier mood.

After lunch, which Wangji usually enjoyed in the infirmary with Wei Ying and sometimes Jiang Yanli, Jiang Cheng, and xiongzhang, the healers had a routine for Wei Ying to regain his strength. Much of it involved swimming, which the Jiang Sect healer insisted would help him rebuild his muscles more quickly. 

Wangji had listened with interest as the healer explained this to Jiang Yanli, discussing the added resistance of the water, as well as the ambient pressure compared to air. He learned from this that one should not swim too soon after eating. 

Sect Leader Jiang petitioned shufu, arguing the importance of proficiency in swimming for night hunts, and so Wangji and Xichen often joined Wei Ying in a pond devoid of lotus for the purpose of improving their skills. 

He was not particularly fond of the requirement that they strip to trousers, but they were told their heavy robes would only hinder their ability to improve, so he endured it.

Wei Ying seemed to have more energy in water, not requiring the help he sometimes needed on land. He was graceful and swift in the water, having remembered the skill very quickly. And although he tired quickly, he was adept at floating with minimal energy output, something Wangji had difficulty picking up. 

“Jiang Cheng says it’s because I’m full of hot air,” he chirped when Wangji mentioned it, then cheered at having remembered something new.

When Jiang Cheng occasionally joined them—a rare occurrence as he was often practicing sword forms or archery—he and Wei Ying occasionally devolved into splash fights. Wangji didn’t see the appeal, but they made Wei Ying smile and laugh.

By the time swim lessons and Wei Ying’s water therapy were over, the boy was often so exhausted he required a nap.

Wangji played the guqin for him as he fell asleep, and then practiced various pieces until Wei Ying woke, usually half a shichen to a full shichen later. 

Wei Ying often woke hungry, and Wangji found he usually was as well, likely from the exercise of swimming. They quickly worked through what remained of the gifts from the townspeople, but Jiang Yanli anticipated their need for a small afternoon repast, and brought various treats each day for them to enjoy. Some she modified for Wangji’s Gusu palate, as they discovered he could only handle a fraction of the spice used in Yunmeng, and far less than Wei Ying enjoyed. 

Jiang Yanli also brought music books from the Lotus Cove library at their request, ones for both the guqin and the dizi. Wangji discovered then that Wei Ying couldn’t read music—whether he had forgotten how as a result of the attack and his illness or had learned by hearing and experimentation, he didn’t know. 

So Wangji took it upon himself to teach him. Shufu walked in on his lessons once, and simply nodded approvingly, watching them work together for a while before leaving them to it. At the start, these lessons occurred on Wei Ying’s bed, but they were eventually able to shift to the table.

Wei Ying was a quick learner, and before long they discovered music they could play together. Wangji found that he enjoyed playing with Wei Ying as much as he did Xichen. A few times Xichen joined them, adding the more sedate tones of the xiao to the mix, but more often he left them to play together. Sometimes they played at the table. Other times, if he was particularly tired, Wei Ying was propped against pillows on his bed, and Wangji sat on the foot of the bed with his guqin. There was ample room, as the bed was meant for an adult.

Xichen, he learned, was helping shufu teach Jiang Yanli how to read music for the konghou so she could learn musical cultivation. Sect Leader Jiang had commissioned an instrument from a renowned local luthier, one that would befit young maiden Jiang’s station, and had in the meantime procured one more suited for a beginner for her to start learning. Once she had the commissioned instrument, she would name it and begin imbuing it with spiritual energy as he did Wangji and xiongzhang did Liebing.

Wangji wondered if perhaps he should ask Sect Leader Jiang or shufu if Wei Ying should also get a dizi that could become a spiritual instrument, as opposed to the child’s dizi he played now. Wei Ying played well, and musical cultivation would also suit him.

But Wangji hesitated to ask; while Madam Yu was clearly making an effort to be kind to Wei Ying, she had a tendency to compare him and Jiang Cheng, even with Wei Ying in the infirmary. 

They were little comments, but he could see the way they made Wei Ying cringe, how Jiang Cheng was surly afterward.

One day, she entered while Jiang Cheng was listening to them play during a break in training, and chided him for not learning to play an instrument.

Wei Ying took it upon himself to comfort the younger boy—he insisted on calling him Cheng-ge, claiming he was now younger because he’d lost his memories, a logic Wangji didn’t understand. 

“I bet you’d be great at the paixiao or the hulusi. Or if you want to try a stringed instrument, the ehru might be fun? Just not the sheng. Those sound weird.”

Jiang Cheng sighed. “Is it so bad if I don’t want to learn an instrument? I like listening, but I’m not interested in playing. A-Niang eventually plans to give me Zidian, so I’ll need to learn to use a whip, anyway. Why an instrument, too? I’ve only got two hands!”

His disinterest in learning an instrument was a bit shocking to Wangji, for whom it had never been a choice, but Wei Ying took it in stride.

“You don’t have to learn just because shijie and I are, Cheng-ge. Just tell shenshen you’d rather start training with whips, then. I bet she’ll be happy about that and forget about the music. You’ll just have to train with her instead of listening to us or shijie play.”

The idea immediately cheered Jiang Cheng, and Madam Yu was pleased when he told her that night at dinner that instead of an instrument, he would like her to train him to wield a whip. She agreed readily, clearly happy he had taken an interest in her fighting style.

Every evening, one of the healers or assistant healers would help Wei Ying to the pavilion to eat with the Jiangs. As honored guests, shufu, Wangji, Xichen, and the other visiting Lans ate with them as well. 

Meals were different at Lotus Pier, with conversation taking place as they ate. Discussion of the events of the day: Jiang Yanli’s studies, Jiang Cheng’s training, Wei Ying’s recovery—often including recovered bits of memory. 

Dinner at Lotus Pier was a family time, and sometimes featured play arguments between Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying, mediated by Jiang Yanli as Jiang Fengmian smiled indulgently and Madam Yu rolled her eyes and scoffed in mock-irritation. 

Shufu, Wangji knew, wanted them to adhere to the principles, and so the Lans never joined the conversation. 

In the beginning, Wei Ying was visibly wilting by the end of the meal, but as time went on his stamina improved, and he slowly was able to walk back to the infirmary with minimal assistance. 

Wei Ying was, by that point, able to bathe without aid from the healers, and Wangji usually took a bath at the same time behind a different privacy screen on the opposite side of the room.

Every night Jiang Yanli visited to comb and braid Wei Ying’s hair. Often, he played with the rattle drum and chattered while she did, and they made an effort to include Wangji in their conversations, something that left him feeling a blossoming warmth in his chest.

Wangji liked this routine; in the beginning he had expected being at Lotus Pier would be something of a hardship. But while he missed his home, he was comfortable here, something he hadn’t anticipated.

Always, by hai shi, Wei Ying was already tucked in bed and falling asleep, his day so full he was exhausted. Often Jiang Cheng or Jiang Fengmian, or sometimes even Madam Yu checked in to wish him a goodnight with varying degrees of affection.

“Let us know if anything you remember upsets you, A-Xian,” Madam Yu said one night, a week and a half after Wei Ying first woke.

For a moment, Wangji wondered what upsetting things he might remember, but then remembered Wei Ying had lost his parents and had lived on the streets for several years. It was oddly easy to forget what he had suffered with Wei Ying’s good cheer.

“I will, shenshen,” Wei Ying promised. “I know you said bad things happened after my parents died.”

Madam Yu nodded, and for a moment hesitated as though she wanted to say more, but instead she patted his arm, wished him a good night, and left.

That night, Wangji woke suddenly around chou shi, confused at the interruption to his sleep. Then he heard soft sobs from across the room.

“Wei Ying?”

The room went silent. Wangji sat up and lit the candle beside his bed, rising to check on Wei Ying. He could see the tears on his face reflecting the light of the flame before he saw him. The boy stared at him, his breathing erratic.

“Wei Ying?”

“Lan Zhan,” was almost a relieved breath.

Wangji had little time to brace himself before Wei Ying launched himself from the bed and hugged him tightly. He was lucky not to drop the candle, and he almost chided the boy for the dangerous act before he realized Wei Ying was shaking.

“I’m sorry I woke you, I’m sorry,” the boy babbled.

He put the candle down on the bedside table next to the rattle drum and awkwardly patted Wei Ying’s back, trying to console him.

“It is no trouble,” Wangji assured him. “What happened?”

“Nightmare.”

From the way he was still trembling, it must have been a terrible one. Wangji occasionally had nightmares, but he’d never reacted this strongly to them. Wei Ying is clinging to him, his breathing ragged and terrified.

“I was falling,” Wei Ying croaked. “And I hit the ground and then there was darkness all around, but the darkness was alive, and it was swirling and there were voices calling my name. And then I woke up and it was all dark, and you called my name and I didn’t know if I was still dreaming.”

“You’re awake, Wei Ying,” Wangji told him.

“The darkness hurt. It felt real, Lan Zhan.”

Wangji remembered the conversations he’s overheard in the month, particularly the ones while Wei Ying was in a coma, about the dark resentful energy that had engulfed him while he was training and left him bleeding from the mouth and nose, convulsing and delirious with fever. He had never seen resentful energy personally; there wasn’t any in Cloud Recesses. But from the descriptions, this could be a nightmare that wasn’t a nightmare at all. 

Wei Ying could be remembering the attack, something the healers and Sect Leader Jiang and shufu will want to know.

But that was an issue to deal with later. Right now, Wei Ying was panicked and terrified, and that was Wangji’s main concern.

“It was a dream,” he told him anyway, not sure if he told a lie and not sure if he cared if it calmed Wei Ying. “You’re safe. We’ll keep the candle lit.”

When he tried to pull Wei Ying back to his bed, the boy resisted.

“I don’t want to go back,” he sobbed, clinging to him and burying his face against Wangji’s shoulder. “What if I have another nightmare?”

Wangji tried to remember how his brother would calm him after a nightmare. Sometimes it involved chamomile tea, but he didn’t know where to go for that, and he couldn’t remember ever being quite this distraught. But the other thing xiongzhang had done was stay with him, at least until he fell asleep, although sometimes he would wake at mao shi and he would still be there. He had always appreciated that.

“I will stay with you,” he finally said. “If you have a nightmare, I will be there.”

Wei Ying was quiet for a bit, as though considering whether Wangji’s presence would help. Finally, he nodded.

“I’m sorry for troubling you,” he murmured, sniffling.

“You are not troubling me,” Wangji told him, and realized it was true; he was more concerned for Wei Ying’s well-being than troubled by his behavior. “We will still leave the candle lit. That way if you have a nightmare, you won’t wake in the dark. You will see I am there.”

“Thank you.”

The way he said it was as though Wangji had saved his life, as though he was unworthy of his help, and it bothered him.

“There is no need to thank me,” he said, gently pulling him toward the bed again. “You are my friend.”

Wangji was relieved when Wei Ying let himself be tugged to the bed, when he smiled tremulously at being called a friend. The boy wouldn’t let go of him, even getting into bed, which made things difficult, but Wangji stayed patient.

Despite his clinginess, Wei Ying didn’t try to snuggle close as Wangji thought he might, but instead kept hold of his hand, curled on his side to keep him in eyesight. He realized it was not necessarily contact he needed, but the simple visual reassurance Wangji was there. He listened as his breathing calmed and was surprised when the boy fell asleep within minutes despite his earlier protestations—but the panic and fear had probably worn him out.

It took longer for him to fall asleep, but listening to Wei Ying’s soft, even breathing allowed him to slip toward it soon enough.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren could only stare at the scene before him: his nephew, still asleep after mao shi in Wei Ying’s bed, with Wei Ying curled close and holding his hand. 

He closed his eyes, hoping perhaps he was simply hallucinating somehow, but the scene was still present when he opened them again.

Xichen was the one who acted first, rushing forward to wake his brother.

Wangji immediately rose, pulling his hand from Wei Ying’s, and bowed deeply and formally.

“Wangji apologizes for waking late, shufu. Wei Ying had a nightmare. It may not have been a dream, but a memory.”

Lan Qiren blinked. That absolutely explained the scene he’d entered to find: Wangji had of course comforted the child, as was proper.

“Why do you think it’s a memory?” Xichen asked.

Wangji glanced toward Wei Ying, who was still sleeping soundly, drooling slightly on his pillow, his arm outstretched, fingers curled as though still holding his hand.

“He dreamt of being surrounded by darkness, but it was alive and talking to him and hurting him. Resentful energy is dark, right, shufu?”

Lan Qiren felt like his blood had frozen. According to the reports the Jiang heir had gathered from disciples who witnessed the event, resentful energy had indeed surrounded the boy, and had absolutely caused harm. 

If Wei Ying had remembered the attack through a dream, he could answer many questions, perhaps including who had attacked him. But it could also be traumatizing for the boy.

This was a matter to take to Sect Leader Jiang and the healers immediately. 

He patted Wangji’s shoulder in praise, pleased when he didn’t shy away from the contact as he often did even when Lan Qiren was the one initiating.

“Thank you for telling me, Wangji. Your decision to comfort him is commendable and sleeping late was unavoidable as a result. Please dress. I need to inform Sect Leader Jiang and the healers.”

He didn’t wait for Wangji’s response, knowing his nephew would likely immediately move to comply. Instead he swept out of the infirmary. Lan Qiren knew Jiang Fengmian was likely still asleep, but he would want to be informed of this without delay. 

With that in mind, he knocked at the door to the sect leader’s chambers, counting to a full minute before knocking again. After three rounds, Jiang Fengmian opened the door, wearing a hastily donned outer robe, blinking at him blearily for a moment before his expression turned to concern.

“A-Ying?”

Lan Qiren was glad to get to the heart of the matter; Sect Leader Jiang knew there was only one reason he would wake him so early. 

“He had a nightmare, possibly about the attack. Wangji comforted him in the night, but you and the healers may wish to be there when he wakes today.”

Fengmian’s expression retained the concern, while also becoming far more serious. Lan Qiren was aware that the investigation had stalled on the attack, and it had frustrated Madam Yu greatly. While traces of resentful energy—mere wisps, really—had been found on the training ground, there had been no way to track it. It seemed almost as if it had appeared from nowhere, as a curse from afar might.

But who would wish to curse an orphaned ten-year-old child?

“I will rouse Healer Kang and Ziyuan,” Fengmian said. “And I’ll leave you to gather Healer Lan. Is A-Ying awake?”

Lan Qiren shook his head.

“When I left the infirmary, he was still sleeping.”

Jiang Fengmian nodded, retreating back into his quarters, undoubtedly to get dressed.

Within a kè, everyone was gathered in the infirmary, and one of the musicians was playing ‘Clarity’ on the guqin to ensure Wei Ying woke up calm. Wangji was sitting on the bed beside the boy, having resumed holding his hand.

Healer Lan cleared his throat softly.

“Young master Wei may be a little overwhelmed waking to find so many people here. Perhaps some of us can wait in the other room?”

“Usually when he wakes only myself and my nephews are here, starting lessons,” Lan Qiren offered. “We would have started by now, but…”

Yu Ziyuan sighed, and motioned to Fengmian to vacate the room.

“Fine, but Healer Kang should stay, in case he wakes poorly. We still have no idea what that resentful energy is doing to his mind,” she ordered decisively. 

Though Lan Qiren privately thought Healer Lan had more experience with resentful energy injuries, which was why the Jiangs had sent for aid in the first place, he knew now was not the time to quibble over such details. 

The others retreat from the room, aside from the guqin player and the healer. Wangji’s body language made it clear he had no intention of leaving Wei Ying’s side, and Lan Qiren didn’t particularly feel like fighting him. He had no idea how Wangji had been woken in the night, nor how long it had taken for Wei Ying to calm down; for all he knew, the stubbornness was earned.

And so instead he and Xichen relocated cushions to the bedside, and Lan Qiren kept his voice lower than he usually did so as not to disturb Wei Ying’s slumber. He could hear conversation in the other part of the infirmary, as the others waited for the boy to wake, but ignored it.

Unfortunately, neither of his nephews were able to stay focused on the lesson, particularly Wangji, who was distracted by every small movement by Wei Ying. Xichen seemed lost in thought, his brow creasing in concern. Lan Qiren did his best to stay patient with them; under the circumstances, their distraction was hardly surprising.

Another ke passed before Wei Ying stirred, murmuring unintelligibly as he started to wake. Wangji immediately abandoned the lesson to move a bit closer and squeeze his hand to remind him of his presence. The guqin player faltered and stopped playing.

“Wei Ying?” Wangji called softly. 

The boy let out a small sound of protest at being awake, and Lan Qiren had to school a smile from his face at how undeniably cute it was. Wei Ying turned his head in the direction of WangJi’s voice, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Lan Zhan?” he murmured, the name slurred so much it almost sounded like ‘A-Zhan.’ “Morning?”

“Yes.”

Finally, Wei Ying opened his eyes, blinking at them blearily. His gaze drifted to the scrolls on the bed, then to Lan Qiren.

“This one apologizes for sleeping late and missing lessons, Lan-laoshi,” the boy said softly.

“It is fine,” Lan Qiren said, clearing his throat uncomfortably at the boy’s apology—it was unnecessary under the circumstances, and troubling for reasons he can’t quite articulate. “And understandable. Wangji said you had a nightmare.”

A ghost of fear flickered over Wei Ying’s face, and he nodded.

“From what Wangji said of it… The dream sounds like it could be about what happened before you fell ill. Do you feel up to recounting it for Sect Leader Jiang, Madam Yu, and the healers?”

Immediately, Lan Qiren knew he had said the wrong thing, had failed to temper his words, when the child crumpled.

“I d-don’t want it to be a memory,” the boy managed between gasping sobs.

Lan Qiren felt frozen, but the musician immediately picked up ‘Clarity’ again in an effort to calm the boy. Yu Ziyuan stalked by on the other side of the bed, leveling a scowl at him he knew he deserved. 

To his surprise, Madam Yu gathered the child in her arms and rubbed his back comfortingly. She had never struck Lan Qiren as a particularly nurturing woman, but clearly he had passed judgment on her unfairly. He resolved to copy Conduct three times for his ill thoughts on her character. 

“It may not be a memory, baobei,” she murmured. “We just want to make sure.”

Lan Qiren glanced at Jiang Fengmian and found him looking at his wife in adoration. He wondered if, after all, his judgment had been correct, and these circumstances had brought about a change in Madam Yu. After all, it was well-known the two were not a love match, and other cultivators passed gossip about their fights around like fine wine. 

He would copy Conduct once while doing a handstand, he revised. 

Wei Ying kept hold of Wangji’s hand, clearly finding his presence a comfort, but he also clung to Madam Yu.

“It was scary, shenshen. I don’t want to remember any more.”

It took nearly half a shichen of gentle coaxing by Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian for Wei Ying to tell the details of his dream, one that sounded nothing like what was described in the disciples’ reports.

His dream was infinitely more horrifying than the reports Lan Qiren had read. 

Wei Ying had dreamt of being high in the air, someone telling him to look down, telling him he would never escape Luanzang Gang. Of falling and finding himself surrounded by a black fog in a place littered with broken tombstones and bones. The fog had called his name, had whispered to him and asked if he wanted revenge, had buffeted and hurt him. He’d felt the hilt of a sword, and tried to wave the fog away, but found a long bone in his hand instead. 

Then he found himself in the bed in the dark, uncertain where he was and terrified.

“Lan Zhan called my name, but I didn’t know if it was the dark. But then he lit a candle and I knew I was safe.”

The dream was disturbing, and it was a wonder they weren’t all that woken in the night by the child screaming in terror. Everyone knew of Luanzang Gang, the horrors that lurked in that dark place and the cultivators who tried to put the spirits there to rest but had never returned. The Wen clan had resorted to sealing it within wards which needed periodic strengthening, but rumor had it wisps of resentful energy leaked out and caused mayhem in Yiling sometimes. 

Lan Qiren could tell from Wangji’s expression, minute though it might be, that this was a more detailed version of the nightmare than he heard in the night. If his nephew had heard some of these details, perhaps he would have gotten no sleep at all. He had in the telling shifted closer to Wei Ying, looming as though he could protect him.

“Was it real?” Wei Ying demanded, still shaking and crying. “Is that what made me sick?”

“No, A-Ying,” Jiang Fengmian answered. “You’re here with us now, so it couldn’t be a memory.”

Lan Qiren silently agreed with his assessment; had the boy been thrown into Luanzang Gang, he would be dead, possibly just another resentful soul in a sea of it. Maybe no longer a soul at all. He hoped Wei Ying didn’t catch that extra meaning in Sect Leader Jiang’s words.

The child sagged in relief, sobbing again against Madam Yu. She pursed her lips, her expression an odd mixture of horror and relief.

“A-Xian,” she said softly, “your shushu found you in Yiling, which is where Luanzang Gang is. Probably you heard stories about it, and someone threatened to take you there before shushu found you. That’s probably what you remembered, and it turned into a nightmare.”

She sounded rather like she wished to find the person who would threaten a child with Luanzang Gang and use Zidian on them. She sounded possessive, as though she had claimed Wei Ying as hers.

Sect Leader Jiang cupped the boy’s cheek in his hand, waiting until Wei Ying looked at him to speak.

“Your shenshen and I will protect you, I promise. No one is allowed to threaten you like that ever again.”

Wei Ying nodded, hiccupping.

“I’m sorry for troubling you, shushu, shenshen.”

Madam Yu clicked her tongue at him, hugging him tighter briefly.

“You silly boy. You needn’t worry about that,” she told him.

“We would be more troubled if you didn’t let us know when you’re upset, A-Ying,” Sect Leader Jiang added.

“I just don’t want to be a bother,” Wei Ying murmured.

Lan Qiren realized abruptly what had been bothering him earlier; this child felt as though he was a burden. He couldn’t imagine such a thing being so ingrained that it would stay through amnesia, and no one had intimated that Wei Ying was a burden that he had seen. But the boy believed it nonetheless.

“Last night I told you to let us know if anything you remember upsets you,” Madam Yu said softly. “But you can let us know if anything upsets you. You needn’t suffer in silence. You can also tell A-Li and A-Cheng.”

“Wei Ying can tell me, too,” Wangji said earnestly.

Lan Qiren nodded his approval, and Jiang Fengmian favored the boy with a smile.

“You can tell any of us, A-Ying,” the sect leader said.

Madam Yu deposited Wei Wuxian next to Wangji but continued to rub his back comfortingly. He immediately latched onto the boy, who didn’t protest, enduring the smaller child’s clinginess without complaint. Wangji generally eschewed touch, and young Wei Ying was the first he had opened to outside his family, particularly since the death of his mother. This friendship could improve his social skills.

“Children are never a bother,” Lan Qiren offered after a moment, not sure whether it was his place to say so but knowing his nephews could also benefit from the words. “I would want Wangji and Xichen to feel comfortable coming to me if they are upset as well.”

When the boys both blinked at him, their expressions briefly startled but quickly schooled into blankness, he wondered if he had failed them in this regard. He remembered Wangji’s stubbornness in returning to his mother’s house and kneeling to wait for her every month as though she hadn’t died, and he thought perhaps he could have handled it with more patience and grace. Certainly, the principles stated that one should not grieve in excess, but what was excess but a subjective idea?

It was an uncomfortable realization, that his nephews might feel they must hide their feelings from him. They, like young Wei Wuxian, were essentially orphans, having lost their mother young and rarely seeing their secluded father. They may not have lost their memories like this child, but they had their own trauma.

And yet, even in the midst of his grief, Wangji had given his late mother’s rattle drum to a homeless Wei Ying in an alley in Yiling, willingly parting with a precious object for the benefit of a stranger in an act of charity and compassion. 

Perhaps he was too hard on them.

He sighed softly, knowing he would need to meditate on these thoughts. 

“I believe perhaps we should suspend lessons for today,” Lan Qiren said finally. “After this, a day of rest and leisure is in order.”

As his nephews looked at him in shock again, Jiang Fengmian smiled.

“I believe your nephews have only visited town once since arriving. I’m sure A-Li and A-Cheng would be happy to accompany them and A-Ying—assuming he is cleared with the healers.”

Healers Lan and Kang glanced at each other, engaging in silent conversation briefly.

“Perhaps an adult should accompany them, in case young master Wei tires, but otherwise he is healthy enough for a small excursion,” the Jiang healer finally said. 

“Fengmian, I think it would be best if you accompany them,” Madam Yu stated. “You could use a day off, and you’ve stayed in Lotus Cove so much lately, the townspeople might not remember what you look like.”

The smile Jiang Fengmian leveled at her could best be described as coquettish, and Lan Qiren suddenly felt as though he was intruding on a private moment. 

“And would my lady wife care to join us on this excursion?”

A blush spread across Madam Yu’s cheeks and the harsh angles of her face softened when she smiled, making her look a bit like a maiden instead of the imposing woman she was. She offered him her hand, and he took it.

“Certainly, my lord.”

It came out as almost a purr, and Lan Qiren could feel his face heating at the blatant shamelessness of it.

He decided he should also copy Virtue. Twice.

Chapter Text

Living at Lotus Pier had been strange for Xichen for many reasons, not the least of which was spending so much less time with Wangji. He knew he wasn’t unwelcome by any means—Wei Wuxian always greeted him with a smile and was happy to include him in lunch and their afternoon music sessions when he stopped by. But Xichen had always been friendly with his fellow disciples and had his friendship with Nie Mingjue; Wei Wuxian was Wangji’s first friend, the first person he’d allowed close enough, the first person who didn’t seem intimidated by what had often been interpreted as coldness.

He was afraid, during the weeks Wei Wuxian was unconscious, that whatever Wangji had seen in the boy that had led him to give him their mother’s rattle drum all those years ago would lead him to grieve just as hard for this boy as he had their mother if he died. But he had woken, and despite the amnesia had glommed onto Wangji, as though by virtue of being the first person he remembered, he had imprinted, for lack of a better word. And Wangji seemed happy with their friendship.

So Xichen joined them for lessons each morning with shufu, often finding himself fascinated by the questions Wei Wuxian asked, questions no Lan would think of. Though it isn’t clear how much was memory loss and how much was a freer upbringing, he could tell those questions sometimes challenged shufu, though he never lost his temper.

The most fascinating one so far was “Who decided what’s right and what’s wrong? What if they’re wrong?”

Shufu had asked for an example, and clearly hadn’t expected the boy to come up with one, but he had, a far-away look in his eyes.

“Like one part of a clan does something really evil, and people decide to wipe out the whole clan so it can never happen again. And everyone says it’s justified, but they let kids and civilians get killed. But if anyone tries to stop it people say they’re bad.”

Xichen had just stared, glancing finally at his uncle, who looked nonplussed. Shufu even asked if Wei Wuxian heard of this occurring, and the boy just shrugged.

“The cultivation world can be wrong,” shufu finally answered, “and can fail in our obligations to the people. No human is infallible.”

Wei Wuxian sometimes seemed to be far away during lessons, head tilted as though deep in thought, but shufu was quite tolerant of this given that he was still recovering, and given that he still seemed to take in what they were learning.

Overall, Xichen found Wei Wuxian fascinating, and thought he was the right person to bring Wangji out of his shell. Already his brother was trying new things: foods, music, swimming lessons. Sect Leader Jiang had asked if both of them would like training in the Jiang style sword forms, even, and Wangji had nodded. Wangji smiled, even tiny ones most people didn’t notice, more in the last few weeks since Wei Wuxian woke than he had since their mother died.

Even shufu seemed impacted by Lotus Pier. Xichen was able to help teach Jiang Yanli to read music and adjust to playing the konghou, the first time he was allowed to teach. He had never played one himself, but teaching her to read music had been fun, and he found her company pleasing—they were never unaccompanied as it would be inappropriate, generally with shufu overseeing or one of Madam Yu’s maids in the room. She had already gotten blisters from playing her beginner konghou but seemed unbothered by them. 

“I had to get used to developing callouses from chopping vegetables,” she confessed to him. “I know this is part of the process.

He had the opportunity during lunches with her, Wangji, and Wei Wuxian in the infirmary to enjoy her cooking—her talent in that regard was unmistakable. She was also a quick learner, and he admired her commitment to becoming a healer, particularly after learning she had to commit to improving her weak cultivation to do so. Xichen had actually learned several techniques from listening to shufu advise her.

He found her quite admirable. 

But more, shufu just today invited Xichen and Wangji to be open with their emotions with him, where he’d previously lectured them on excessive emotion. And he had cancelled lessons for the first time since Xichen could remember!

They were sent off with the Jiangs and Wei Wuxian to enjoy the town, the first time circumstances had allowed it. Madam Yu’s somewhat scary personal maids and a couple disciples accompanied them, all carrying baskets for purchases. 

This excursion was significantly different from the one he and Wangji had undertaken shortly after Wei Wuxian woke. For one, they had no clear goal, the pace leisurely. For another, it was the first time Wei Wuxian had left Lotus Cove since the attack and his illness. He carried his sword as he had not in Lotus Cove, his recovery having exempted him from the custom. In many ways, this was him rejoining the world as a cultivator. 

Immediately, townspeople reacted to seeing him, and the younger boy was clearly a little overwhelmed, clinging to Wangji’s arm and attempting polite smiles. Wangji, for his part, frowned at people who got too close. Jiang Wanyin flanked Wei Wuxian’s other side, a bit like a bodyguard. Jiang Yanli walked in front of him, greeting the people kindly and letting them know her brother was still recovering. When gifts were given, she placed the parcel in one of the baskets carried by a disciple or maid. 

Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu were at Jiang Wanyin’s side, arm in arm, politely greeting the people as well.

Xichen walked beside Wangji, watching the proceedings with interest; the people of Lotus Pier clearly had great affection for the Jiangs. It was a relationship that differed greatly from that of Cloud Recesses and Caiyi, the nearest town. But Lotus Cove was nestled aside the city and aided most of the commerce in town. It was a symbiotic relationship, and the gifts represented the esteem the town held for their role in its success. 

“Yingying!” rang out across the market, coming from an elderly woman manning a baozi stall. “Come give popo a hug.”

To Xichen’s surprise, the boy brightened and broke away from Wangji’s side to approach the woman, who pulled him into her arms in a gentle but firm embrace.

“Popo was so worried. I heard you were sick.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, looking up at her.

“I… Popo, I lost all my memories,” he admitted. “But you sent the baozi and I remembered you.”

The woman looked up at Sect Leader Jiang, who nodded grimly. Tears filled her eyes. 

“Oh, you poor child. That must be frightening. Let me wrap up some baozi, extra spicy for you and some mild for your siblings and friends. You can come to popo anytime.”

She released him from her embrace and then handed Wei Wuxian a fresh bun. Watching him eat reminded Xichen none of them had breakfast, but the woman handed out buns to each of them.

“You Lan don’t like meat, as I recall, so here are some stuffed with bok choy, mushrooms, and tofu.”

The woman wrapped up more, ignoring her customers, who didn't seem upset, instead chatting with the Jiangs animatedly.

The baozi was delicious, though spicier than Xichen was used to. Wangji and the Jiang children seemed to similarly enjoy theirs. Popo gave Wei Wuxian one last hug and then waved them off with an order to come visit more.

Madam Yu and Sect Leader Jiang alternated between talking to townspeople and looking at each other in a way Xichen sometimes saw between courting couples. He tried not to watch, instead paying attention to the people who approached and the wares in the stalls they passed. 

Wei Wuxian’s admission to popo was spread as quickly as word had spread of Wangji and Xichen’s connection to Wei Wuxian the day they bought the rattle drum, and people were gentler in their approach to the boy, offering their names and details to help him.

Largely they were met with blank looks and apologies, which they waved off amiably. But occasionally Wei Wuxian smiled widely as a shred of memory returned, and he greeted them as well as he could. These moments were precious, he came to see, both to the townspeople and the Jiangs. 

The toy maker they visited greeted him enthusiastically and after a whisper from Wangji, Wei Wuxian thanked him for the dizi, bowing properly with his sword. 

“I play it every day,” he told the man, who beamed proudly. “Lan Zhan plays the guqin with me.”

“When we heard you were ill, the wife and I made it with you in mind. You’ll want a proper dizi eventually, but we hoped it’d cheer you up.”

Sect Leader Jiang paused at that.

“A proper dizi?” he asked.

The toy maker bowed to the sect leader.

“For musical cultivation, if young master Wei decides to do that,” he clarified. “I’m afraid I don’t have the skill to craft spiritual tools, only toys.”

Jiang Fengmian looked thoughtful, and Jiang Yanli spoke up.

“It would be lovely to learn musical cultivation together with A-Xian, a-die.”

She shared a glance with Wangji, and Xichen realized they had been discussing this matter.

“I’m learning to wield a whip, too, so it makes sense for him to learn that,” Jiang Wanyin added.

Xichen realized they were glancing at Madam Yu surreptitiously, and he could guess this was a sore spot.

Wangji once, in a rare moment when Wei Wuxian was otherwise occupied, had expressed concern over Madam Yu’s occasional hostility, and Xichen had noticed the same. She seemed to be trying to do better, but from what he had heard from disciples while training on the field, she held resentment for Wei Wuxian. She had changed since the attack, but old habits were hard to break.

Madam Yu, though, made a thoughtful noise. 

“He could potentially learn the songs that have helped with the resentful energy. Could that aid in his further recovery?”

Xichen realized the question was directed at him and scrambled to answer.

“I don’t know, but it would give the Jiang sect a second musical cultivator who could help with such matters,” he said, striving both for diplomacy and to help the Jiang siblings and Wangji with their quest.

“Xingan, what do you think?” Sect Leader Jiang asked, looking at Madam Yu.

She blushed when she realized he was speaking to her. The term of endearment seemed to take her by surprise, and she smiled in a way Xichen hadn’t seen before. 

“A spiritual instrument is a good investment in his future cultivation,” she finally said. “I hope to have A-Cheng training with Zidian in the next year as well.”

“We’re raising fine children, my lady,” the sect leader said.

Her smile grew, the flush spreading across her face, but she turned to Wei Wuxian.

“A-Ying, we’ll find someone to make you a dizi that will serve as a fine spiritual tool.”

The boy smiled up at her, clearly happy with the idea.

“Thank you, shenshen. I’ll work hard.”

“Not too hard until you’re better,” Madam Yu said, patting his head affectionately.

The Jiang siblings shared a triumphant look with Wangji and Xichen caught Jiang Fengmian looking at them indulgently—he clearly recognized their plot and had played into it while allowing them to believe they were being sneaky.

Xichen had never seen adults act like that before, but he was certain it instilled confidence in the Jiang siblings and perhaps even Wangji, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was a bit dishonest but with good intentions, an odd grey area. 

The adults approached several stalls and purchased gifts for the children—even Wangji and Xichen, to his surprise. Wei Wuxian was given a new guan for his crown, an elegant lotus carved of deep purple lavender jade, something that seemed almost a message, Madam Yu picking it out personally. 

Jiang Wanyin received huwan to protect his wrists during whip training, elegant with purple lacing and metal inlaid for extra protection. Maiden Jiang received mortar and pestle for learning to make medicines, crafted of a light lavender jade that had variation in color ranging from white to deep purple. The gifts were clearly meant to show support for their recent cultivation decisions. 

Wangji and Xichen were gifted matching purple and blue tassels with a lovey carved medium-hued lavender jade lotus attached to hang from their belts beside the charms that allowed them in and out Cloud Recesses.

“To remind you of your stay,” Sect Leader Jiang told them.

It seemed he was unaware of the significance of the jade tokens they wore, and of the rule against unnecessary adornments, but Xichen was certain shufu would be fine with them. After all, they were a representation of the connection they had forged to the Jiang sect. 

“And to serve as an entry token if you need to revisit Lotus Cove,” Madam Yu added. “Our disciples will recognize the gift.”

He noticed they had purchased more, and that the seller didn’t have them available publicly, and realized perhaps they did know, even if their tokens didn’t have the same properties as the Lan ones. Likely the extra tokens were for shufu and the healers. 

Xichen examined his, noting the craftsmanship of the lotus, how real, if miniature, each petal seemed. It was set into a silver disc through which the tassel’s cord threaded, held in place with knots and flat paler purple jade beads carved to resemble the Jiang sect flag’s lotus symbol.

Wangji, he saw, was already affixing the token to his belt to hang beside and behind his Lan token. Xichen did the same, then he and Wangji bowed to Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu in thanks for the gifts. 

The tokens didn’t have the Jiang clarity bell the sect wore, but that was unsurprising; unless he or Wangji joined the sect, they would not receive one. Yu Ziyuan had reminded Wei Wuxian to don his today, on his first trip out of Lotus Cove, and it hung from his belt.

“I won’t lose it,” he had promised, three fingers raised to make it a vow, that odd far-away quality to his voice. 

Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu had exchanged concerned looks.

“See to it you don’t,” Madam Yu had finally replied, then stepped forward to fuss over the way his robes hung. 

As he had lost weight from his ordeal, they no longer fit properly. Little could be done about that; as the boy recovered, the robes would fit him again, barring a growth spurt. 

The sound of barking jolted Xichen back to the present. Wei Wuxian went pale, moving closer to Wangji, hiding his face against his back as though it might hide him from the dog. The Jiang children took positions around him, ensuring he was surrounded and protected. 

“It’s okay, didi,” Jiang Wanyin murmured. “You’re safe. We’ll keep you safe.”

Xichen abruptly remembered that Wei Wuxian had been attacked by dogs and had scars. The fear was clearly so deep-seated that his amnesia hadn’t removed it.

The dog came into view, a scraggly cur, and a child dashed out from behind a stall to chase it off with a stick, others similarly armed joining from nearby. 

When the dog was gone, the children returned, and Xichen could tell from their appearance they were street kids. 

“Wei-xiong, we chased it away,” the oldest-looking boy called softly. “Sorry we let it get so close.”

When they didn’t get an immediate reply from Wei Wuxian, the child looked at the others, six of them who could have ranged between four and eight. The youngest was a little girl, and the rest were boys. 

“Like Wei-xiong taught us,” he said, his voice authoritative. 

The children broke into an approximation of a proper bow.

“Greetings, Jiang-zongzhu and Yu-furen,” the children chanted.

The adults exchanged a look.

“Greetings,” Jiang Fengmian returned after what seemed to be a silent conversation between himself and Madam Yu. “You know A-Ying?”

The eldest-looking nodded, clearly having elected to speak for the group. 

“Wei-xiong buys us food and taught us to stick together so the dogs and bad people won’t get us and is teaching us to read and other stuff,” the boy explained. 

From the way the children were peering at Wei Wuxian, still hiding behind Wangji, they were terribly worried about their young friend. 

“You’re the ones he plays the dizi to?” Xichen asked gently.

The children nodded.

“What other things was A-Xian teaching you?” Jiang Yanli asked softly.

“Like how to feel qi so we can use it to stay warm in the winter,” the eldest boy replied, then bows quickly and politely. “Jiang-guniang.”

“I miss Wei-xiong,” the little girl said, her voice tremulous. “Is Wei-xiong better now?”

“He might not remember us, A-Lian,” another boy said softly. 

The children had clearly heard the news spreading through Lotus Pier of Wei Wuxian’s amnesia.

Wei Wuxian peered out from where he had hidden his face against Wangji, cautious despite the dog having been driven away.

“A-Lian,” he murmured, pronouncing the name slowly. “I… I found you. By a lotus pond. You were all wet and crying.”

He stepped out from behind Wangji, moving as though in a trance, lost in a newly returned memory.

“You said your name was A-Jī (圾, trash),” and Xichen couldn’t quite hold in a gasp at a child believing such to be their name. “And so, I said you were a gift from the lotuses and should be named A-Lian.”

The little girl rushed forward, crashing into him.

“Wei-xiong,” she sobbed, her little arms around his waist. “You were gone for so long and they said you were sick, and I was scared.”

Wei Wuxian looked dazed and overwhelmed, and Xichen realized that a trickle of blood was oozing from his nose—it hadn’t happened in a few days, but he had been overstimulated today with this outing… 

Wangji also noticed and put an arm around him as he swayed dangerously, keeping him upright. Wei Wuxian’s grip loosened on his sword, and Jiang Wanyin took it before he could drop it, murmuring that he’d carry it for him. 

To Xichen’s surprise, Madam Yu lifted both Wei Wuxian and the urchin girl into her arms. Neither resisted, the boy’s head lolling against her shoulder. She didn’t even bother looking at Fengmian. 

“It seems we’ll have a few new disciples, then,” she said, huffing as though irritated, but it had less impact with two children in her arms. “We’ll see whether A-Ying has good instincts, but we certainly can’t have homeless children in Lotus Pier.”

Xichen had to avert his eyes at the intensity of Sect Leader Jiang’s adoring look toward Madam Yu. He clearly approved of her decision, but the level of ardor in the way he looked at her was too much. 

The locals who had gathered murmured amongst themselves, the words of surprise and admiration carrying. That the Jiangs would see fit to solve the problem of street urchins by adopting them into the sect was almost unheard of—but they had done so with Wei Wuxian. Why not the urchins of Lotus Pier?

From what Xichen could hear, it raised the admiration of the people toward Jiang Fengmian, and their opinion of Madam Yu, who apparently had up to now had a reputation for being cold. But here she was in the marketplace holding Wei Wuxian on one hip and a little girl in tattered clothing on the other. It was softening her image to the people and making them doubt the rumors of an unhappy marriage. 

The street children looked confused, uncertain, and Jiang Fengmian addressed them more gently. 

“Would you become disciples of the Yunmeng Jiang sect? You would live at Lotus Cove, receive an education, and fed and housed and clothed. Even if you do not have the talent to become cultivators, you would not be homeless,” he told them. “A-Ying and A-Cheng and other older male disciples would be your shixiongmen, and A-Li and other older female disciples would be your shijiemen. You’d also have shidimen and A-Lian would be your shimei.”

The children seemed to realize they were being offered adoption, of a sort, into a martial family. Into the Jiang clan. There was a cautious sort of hope spreading among them. 

“Really?” the oldest boy asked, his voice almost hollow with awe. “You really want us?”

“Young man, we would not offer if we didn’t,” Madam Yu snorted. “If A-Ying is already teaching you to read and how to circulate your qi, we would be remiss if we didn’t continue your education.”

The children looked at each other, their growing excitement obvious. After a moment the eldest boy bowed deeply, almost a kowtow, and the other children rushed to copy him.

“This one thanks Jiang-zongzhu and Yu-furen for your kindness. We unworthy ones are happy to accept your generous offer.”

“Whether you’re unworthy has yet to be determined,” Madam Yu responded sharply, almost a scold at the boy’s self-effacement. “I expect you’ll prove worthy.”

She handed the little girl to Jiang Fengmian, who settled her on his hip, so she could get a better grip on Wei Wuxian, who seemed barely awake and unable to hold onto her well. One of her maids stepped forward and gently dabbed at his nosebleed with a cloth.

“I think A-Ying has had quite enough excitement for today,” Madam Yu announced, patting his back gently.

“And we have some new disciples to settle in at Lotus Cove,” Jiang Fengmian added with a smile. “Time to go home.”

The sect leader offered his free hand to Jiang Wanyin, who tried and failed not to look thrilled at his father’s attention as he took it.

Madam Yu’s maids led the way, the children between them, Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian following with the Jiang children in tow. Wangji stayed close to Madam Yu and Wei Wuxian, who seemed to have fallen fully asleep, and Xichen focused on following him. The accompanying disciples followed behind him.

Xichen barely noticed the way more people in the market approached to place items in the baskets the disciples carried as they walked back to Lotus Cove, or the way Maiden Jiang thanked each person by name. He was too busy considering what he had witnessed. 

He was aware that many in the cultivation world doubted that commoners could be taught to cultivate, but the very fact that Wei Wuxian, a mere ten-year-old, had taught them the basics enough to ensure they could circulate their qi to keep warm… He wondered if perhaps that was just an attempt to keep a sort of class or caste system. There was no benefit to society to have children starve in the streets, as Wei Wuxian had, without hope. 

Ren would seem to dictate the need to better the world through acts of altruism like Wei Wuxian had been practicing and which had been demonstrated by Madam Yu and Sect Leader Jiang today. Xichen‘s studies had covered multiple philosophers. Mengzi dictated the need to show compassion to orphans. Mozi, though controversial to the Lan for his rejection of music as frivolous, called for inclusive and universal caring, doing so beyond family boundaries. Laozi saw loving through giving as a necessary virtue. 

Xichen was constantly aware of the duties he would eventually take on as clan leader and the rules within the clan he was expected to uphold, but the events of today had him wondering if perhaps he should start thinking about the role of Gusu Lan in the larger world. Acts of charity, taking in orphans, working to better the world at large.

These thoughts kept him occupied on the walk back, and he was only broken from them by the look on shufu’s face at the unexpected addition to their party—confusion, but also a sort of thoughtfulness as Sect Leader Jiang briefly explained. 

Perhaps shufu was also having similar thoughts. Maybe Xichen could speak with him about them at some point. 

For now, he followed Wangji as he trailed after Madam Yu toward the infirmary. The voice of Jiang Fengmian ordering disciples to help settle in their new peers with baths and clothing and a good meal, organizing the new additions to Yunmeng Jiang, faded behind them. 

When Madam Yu left them in the infirmary, Wei Wuxian in the care of Healer Kang, the quiet was welcome. The healer settled the boy in his bed after a brief examination. 

Eventually, Xichen realized Wangji was watching him in concern and offered a smile he knew was weak.

“A little overwhelmed,” he said, and knew Wangji, who so often was overwhelmed by the noise and furor of the world, understood.

Wangji gestured, settling on a cushion near the table in a meditation pose, and Xichen smiled, mirroring him.

He had time to ruminate on the events of the day and how they might inform his future actions. The best course for the moment was to find grounding and calm while they waited for the chaos that had overtaken Lotus Cove to settle. 

Chapter Text

Yu Ziyuan tucked Wei Wuxian into the infirmary bed and let Healer Kang know what had occurred, but she had felt strangely distant from the world. Her split-second decision to take in the children had shocked even her, but that wasn’t the cause. 

Fengmian’s loving look at her after her pronouncement, despite the way her decision was made without consulting him—or was it because of that?—was what had left her reeling. 

If a ten-year-old had started to teach these children, they could have bright futures. They seemed eager to learn. This would make them loyal to Yunmeng Jiang, not merely disciples but wards. It was a smart move, one that would result in fewer street children. Even if these children did not form golden cores, they could be educated to take on a trade and strengthen Lotus Cove regardless. 

But that wasn’t why she had done it. Today, seeing those children in the market, remembering the bright and curious waif Fengmian had brought home, it was like another second chance had presented itself to her. A chance to make right.

Ever since the attack on Wei Ying, she’d felt soft toward the child, watching him in his coma those weeks, seeing him as more than just her rival’s son. 

Truly, Cangse Sanren had not been a rival, as she had never sought Fengmian’s attention. In the time of Wei Ying’s convalescence, Ziyuan spent time considering her treatment of the boy, the way her children reacted when she treated him well, the way A-Cheng seemed to shrink in on himself when she compared him unfavorably with Wei Ying, whose reaction was much the same, as though she had found him unworthy. In comparison, the way both boys seemed to blossom under A-Li’s affection… 

Old habits were hard to break, and she had let herself fall into them again, despite her desire for a new beginning.

Ziyuan knew she was all sharp edges, often cutting people with her words and attitude. Often it was useful with sect business, being able to slice through the bluster of some of the other sect leaders. These sharp edges, though, cut her children, cut young Wei Ying, made her a figure they often shrank from, expecting to be hurt.

She had watched Wei Ying reach out to her in blind trust, her transgressions forgotten. She had heard his words to A-Cheng from outside the infirmary, encouraging him to take interest in whips if he didn’t want to play an instrument, advice that had gifted her time with her son to train him individually… 

Somehow the boy had, in mere weeks, wormed his way into her heart, though perhaps he’d always been there, and she’d walled it off in useless bitterness. 

But a child who would teach those less fortunate to read and cultivate enough to survive, who would feed them and take care of them on his own time… Such a child deserved more from her.

She came back to herself as Fengmian approached her, the little girl still in his arms.

“We likely won’t have clothing that will fit A-Lian,” he said. 

Ziyuan studied the girl briefly.

“She will fit into some of A-Li’s old clothing temporarily. I can have Jinzhu or Yinzhu find it in storage while I bathe her.”

Movement behind her told her one of the two had left to do just that. Fengmian smiled at her, and she felt warmed by it. 

“She also does not remember her surname,” he commented. “The boys were able to recall theirs and are added to the register as disciples, but she…”

The child watched them solemnly, clearly accustomed to watching and listening quietly. Ziyuan took her from Fengmian and settled her on her hip. 

“We will ask A-Ying,” she said after a moment of thought. “He found her, and as such she should take his name if he wishes it.”

Fengmian looked surprised at the idea but nodded.

“Wei Lian,” he said, as though testing out the name. “Adoption rites. She could become his sister.”

Ziyuan nodded, turning the things that should be done over in her mind.

“If he consents, we will need his parents’ tablets. It would be appropriate to place them in the ancestral hall, anyway.”

She was surprised to see tears spring to Fengmian’s eyes.

“My lady, I… Changze was my sworn brother. I would be happy to place them there.”

Abruptly, Ziyuan wondered if Fengmian saw Wei Changze when he looked at Wei Ying, not Cangse Sanren, if she had misinterpreted his interest in the boy all along. He always encouraged the boy to call him shushu, had never sought to replace his father. Yet she had assumed she saw the boy as the son he had wanted to have with Cangse Sanren, not a nephew he was raising in Wei Changze’s place. 

Perhaps all this time he had been grieving his sworn brother, not a lost love. 

“Then it should be done,” she said softly. “And should have been done years ago.”

It was the closest she could come to an apology, but she could see from Fengmian’s reaction that he knew it for what it was.

“Thank you,” he whispered, then surged forward to kiss her softly on the cheek. “I will ensure our new disciples settle in.”

“This one is a little young to be a disciple yet, but she’ll be able to start her education sooner,” Ziyuan said, trying to will herself not to blush. “I’ll handle her.”

As she parted ways with Fengmian, she resolved to never again fail to communicate and instead assume. Her assumptions and bitterness had harmed her family. 

A-Lian was well-behaved and seemed happy to be getting clean, clearly delighted with the warmth of the water and the scent of the oils Jinzhu selected for it. Possibly it was the first time she could remember having a warm bath. 

Among the ragged clothing she had worn was a makeshift bag with the sort of treasures a child might have—pretty stones and shells, along with crushed bits of food that would no longer be needed, and several rough dolls made of dried grass. Ziyuan sorted through the mess and set aside the pebbles, shells, and dolls for the child to keep, and set the rest with the ragged clothing to be destroyed. A better bag would need to be found to house them, but in the meantime she created a small pouch out of a kerchief to hold them. 

The child had some small scars but had clearly not suffered any major injuries. She was too skinny for her age, but not as malnourished as Wei Ying had been when he had arrived at Lotus Cove—and Ziyuan knew the boy was likely the reason A-Lian was healthier. 

Likely all the children were healthier than they would otherwise be, having been encouraged to stick together to avoid dangers, having been fed out of Wei Ying’s allowance. Some of the treats he was given by shopkeepers who liked him had probably gone to them, if not all of them.

In the year he had been here, he had used his good fortune to help these abandoned children.

Truly, he deserved better from her. 

Yinzhu returned with a small stack of clothing as Ziyuan and Jinzhu were washing A-Lian’s hair. Before long, her maids were drying the child and combing her hair while Ziyuan looked through the pile. She had chosen even clothing for sleeping, which was well-considered. 

Ziyuan could remember little A-Li wearing each article of clothing, and the idea they would be worn again made her smile. 

She chose an outfit, and dressed her in lilac silk zhongyi, then a silk ruqun of a darker shade of purple with embroidered lotuses. Linen would be more practical, but she couldn’t restrain herself from the urge to see the child dressed in finery when she had just been wearing rags. Yinzhu and Jinzhu styled her hair in tight buns on either side of her head using red ribbons, like an homage to A-Ying. For a split second it was like looking at A-Li when she was that young. 

She gave the girl the kerchief pouch of her belongings, and the child treated it like a gift, bowing clumsily and thanking them. It was heartening to see her awareness of manners. Ziyuan was reminded that the eldest child had mentioned they’d been taught proper greetings by Wei Ying as well. She found herself fighting a smile, imagining the rambunctious and oft-rebellious boy teaching others manners. 

“Is Wei-xiong okay?” a-Lian asked softly, pulling Ziyuan from her thoughts.

“He is recovering,” she told the child gently. “I will take you to him, if you want.”

All the children needed to be seen by Healer Kang, truthfully, and she suspected some of the boys might need medical care of some sort or another. Even A-Lian could have parasites from bad food, potentially—she doubted the child had lice; Jinzhu or Yinzhu would have said something.

A-Lian nodded, and Ziyuan lifted the child onto her hip, taking the small bundle of A-Li’s old clothing with her other hand. They would have to determine where the girl would sleep, as she was far too young to join the disciples, but there would be time for that. 

A-Ying was still asleep when they arrived, and the Lan boys were quietly meditating. Ziyuan turned A-Lian over to Healer Kang with orders she be examined. 

“When the others have bathed and dressed, they will be brought for examination as well,” she told him. “They have been homeless for a period of time, so they may have some of the afflictions A-Ying had when he first arrived.”

She settled the bundle of clothing on the table near a-Ying’s bedside. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully, and she took a moment to study his features, trying to remember Wei Changze’s face. The boy had his chin, she thought, square and strong, and perhaps his brow, but Cangse Sanren’s high cheekbones. His nose was his father’s at the brows, shifting toward his mother’s near the tip.

She could see now how Fengmian could see his sworn brother in A-Ying, where she had only ever seen her rival. She had disregarded Wei Changze entirely, seeing only Cangse Sanren, when the child was both of theirs.

Ziyuan felt like a jealous fool.

Jealous of a dead woman and taking it out on her son. On her own family. 

Wei Ying murmured in his sleep, and she sat beside him on the bed as he stirred.

“Shenshen?” he asked blearily. “We’re home?”

She heard quiet footsteps and the rustling fabric that indicated the little Lan had approached, the boy having been adhered to A-Ying’s side since he awoke. She ignored him.

“I’m afraid the outing was a bit too much for you,” she told him, reaching forward and tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear. “But I decided those children will be good disciples, especially as you’ve already started their education. Their home is Lotus Cove now.”

“Really?”

The boy sat, looking stunned, confusion and relief on his features. He didn’t even remember most of the children, but he still cared. Ziyuan knew that sort of empathy could be turned against someone, but she couldn’t fault him for it. She would just need to teach him to guard his heart.

“And there’s the matter of A-Lian. She has no family name. Perhaps you should take responsibility and share your name with her. Adopt her as your meimei.”

The confusion swept away under a huge smile, one of his sunniest, and he nodded.

“I will! Thank you, shenshen.”

He threw his arms around her, launching himself against her in a hug she didn’t expect. It was, she realized, the first hug he had ever initiated with her, though he was always tactile with Fengmian, A-Cheng, A-Li, the young Lan boy, even his martial brothers and sisters… 

She couldn’t help but wonder if he would still hug her if he remembered how poorly she had treated him, had nearly let herself fall back into treating him.

Ziyuan let herself wrap her arms around him in return, pulling him in close, and sent a mental apology to Cangse Sanren for her ill treatment of the boy, promising better. 

She held him until she was absolutely certain she was no longer in danger of letting tears fall.

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren had at first been surprised to have respect for the son of someone as wild as Cangse Sanren, but it had grown over the weeks at Lotus Pier. The boy, despite his lack of memories, did his best in his studies—studies he wasn’t even required to take part in, having joined voluntarily if only because they took place in the infirmary due to Wangji’s reluctance to leave during the coma. 

Continuing them there had been a matter of convenience, and despite the fact that they did not wake Wei Wuxian he still tried to pay attention when he did wake. 

From a purely academic standpoint, it was interesting to see what he had retained despite the amnesia. Sometimes it was unclear what was a memory breaking through, but often the boy recognized when that occurred—or, on unfortunate occasions, he suffered a nosebleed. 

Healer Lan was of the opinion that it was a combination of the swelling of his brain following the attack and perhaps the impact of the resentful energy they had been unable to remove. 

“It’s possible the amnesia is the impact of the resentful energy, and when he remembers there is backlash.”

The issue was concerning, as too much backlash could potentially cause permanent damage. Jiang Fengmian had expressed concern regarding Wei Wuxian’s future if it persisted; were he to become ill on a night hunt, for instance. 

Fortunately, at only ten, they would be supervised on night hunts, and his condition could be monitored. As he grew, perhaps the episodes would lessen. There was no way to tell.

Wei Wuxian had impressed his nephews barely days into his consciousness. At first Lan Qiren had been skeptical, but the boy’s questions during lessons had been thoughtful and evidenced a quick and curious mind. He had brought Wangji out of his shell more than anyone aside from Xichen. And hearing of Wei WuXian’s good reputation around Lotus Pier and his kindness toward orphans assured him of his character. 

Lan Qiren had never even considered that a ten year old would teach cultivation to street children to help them survive, let alone that the Jiang clan’s response would be to take the children on as disciples. 

The youngest had even become the adopted sister of Wei Wuxian, the ritual performed properly in front of his parents’ tablets, which had been given their own altar in the ancestral shrine. Wei Changze had apparently been Jiang Fengmian’s sworn brother, affording him and his wife a status befitting the decision. 

Another side of Wei Wuxian had emerged since the event, with a sister barely older than a toddler clinging to him. He doted on her, including her when she was present. Though she was staying in Jiang Yanli’s quarters, there were times she would find her way into the infirmary in the night, still confused and uncertain and seeking comfort. On those occasions Lan Qiren discovered them curled together when he arrived in the mornings. 

When Sect Leader Jiang suggested that as her adopted brother, Wei Wuxian should choose her courtesy name—perhaps not something like Suibian, the boy disappeared into the library and made extensive lists in his free time, conversing with Wangji and Xichen as well as the Jiang children over the possibilities. He took the task seriously, as befitting a brother. 

Over a week later he approached Jiang Fengmian and proposed A-Lian bestowed the courtesy name Lianxin (莲心) when she came of age. Lotus heart. 

“She came from suffering, but she emerged untainted from the muck, not sullied nor debased,” the boy said. “A-Lian has the heart of a lotus.”

Lan Qiren was impressed by the reference to Zhou Dunyi’s poetry. To think Wei Wuxian had been on the streets a year ago but could now reference poetry like a budding scholar!

Sect leader Jiang and Madam Yu seemed similarly pleased, and the courtesy name was approved. 

He had also had the opportunity to watch the boy as he returned to training with his fellow disciples, who welcomed him back eagerly. His archery was truly outstanding, and though he was still recovering his stamina he was a splendid swordsman with good footwork—even if he had named his sword something ridiculous.

(Lan Qiren tried not to think of how that would have made Cangse Sanren laugh, especially if she knew Jiang Fengmian had been partly behind it.)

Wei Wuxian had to be shown the Jiang footwork only once and then his muscle memory had taken over, showing just how many hours he had put into his training in just a year. 

The son of Cangse Sanren was an able budding cultivator with a bright future. 

Jiang Fengmian invited them to accompany the family to a well-known instrument maker for a flute to be commissioned for Wei Wuxian, and Lan Qiren accepted. It would, he felt, be a valuable learning experience for his nephews, even if neither of them played the dizi.

The instrument maker was in the city of Yunping, not too far from Lotus Cove. Since the children could not reliably fly there, they traveled by boat through a series of lotus lakes. 

On the way, the Jiang children and Wei Wuxian showed A-Lian, Xichen, and Wangji how to determine whether a lotus pod was ripe, how to pick them, and how to de-shell and peel the membrane from lotus seeds, and how to remove the bitter germ at the heart of each seed before eating. 

“You don’t have to remove the germ,” Jiang Yanli explained. “It’s just a bit bitter, so many people prefer it be removed. Healer Kang says eating it benefits the heart, though.”

Sect Leader Jiang explained softly that he would reimburse the owners of these lakes for the pods eaten, which satisfied Lan Qiren’s concerns of theft. 

By the time they reached Yunping, the bottom of the boat was littered with empty pods and shells, and the children were happily sated. 

The shop was past the inns in the city, though not too far into the less savory parts. 

On display were a variety of demonstration instruments; Xichen was immediately drawn to the xiao, and there were also panxiao, sheng, hulusi, and a variety of others. 

The head maker herself greeted them, clearly notified of their visit in advance. She was an older woman, and introduced herself as Lu Zhu, which implied she was not a cultivator but an artisan. 

The maker explained that while traditional dizi were carved bamboo, it was not the best material for a spiritual instrument as bamboo was prone to cracking. While a spiritual instrument would strengthen with time spent cultivating, she recommended Wei Wuxian select a different material for the sake of durability. 

“You are not simply using this to play music,” she said, “but as a spiritual weapon. It must be durable.”

First, he was instructed to select a key, and the maker demonstrated the sound of each key on sample bamboo dizi. The gentle folk tunes she played on each had A-Lian clapping happily. 

Wei Wuxian selected the D key—which was one of the more typical keys, Lan Qiren knew.

He was learning much from the artisan’s explanations and gaining a better appreciation of the dizi. It was perhaps too hastily dismissed as a peasants’ instrument by cultivators.

The maker then demonstrated the sounds of different materials in D key, moving between various types of wood and ending with jade, having Wei Wuxian feel the weight of each as well. The boy included his siblings in the latter like a game, and even Xichen and Wangji hefted each dizi out of curiosity.

“There’s little point in choosing a material you find too heavy,” the instrument maker told him.

He immediately ruled out jade as too heavy, and eventually was focused on choosing between rosewood and sandalwood based on the sound and weight.

When Wei Wuxian raised the sandalwood dizi to his lips experimentally, he got a concerningly faraway, almost grieved look that only disappeared when Jiang Fengmian touched his shoulder in concern.

“Sandalwood,” he said softly. “I like how it smells.”

“A-Ying, what’s wrong?” Sect Leader Jiang asked.

Wei Wuxian abruptly looked far older than ten, his face lined and tired.

“I don’t remember, but I miss something,” he said after a moment. “Something important.”

The scent of sandalwood, Lan Qiren realized, had jogged not a memory, but the feeling associated with the memory. 

“Would you prefer the rosewood, A-Xian?” Jiang Yanli asked. “If sandalwood makes you sad…”

He shook his head and smiled. 

“Maybe the smell will help me remember.”

When presented with samples of different colors of sandalwood, Lan Qiren was unsurprised when he chose red sandalwood. Equally unsurprising, the boy selected black oxhorn as the material for his instrument’s ferrules. 

Most of Wei Wuxian’s clothing was black and red, making his decisions predictable. 

“Your dizi’s name?” the instrument maker asked.

Wei Wuxian looked startled for a moment, as though he hadn’t thought to consider a name. But then he looked distant again.

“Chenqing,” he whispered.

Lan Qiren was impressed with the name, especially given Suibian, but perhaps he shouldn’t have been given his consideration of Lianxin. In some ways Chenqing, to express feeling, was almost an obvious name for a spiritual instrument, but the name was also impressively wrapped with literary meaning. 

“And the poem you want inscribed?”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze became distant again, and he recited, “願為雙飛鳥, /  比翼共翱翔。 /  丹青著明誓, /  永世不相忘。 (Couples of birds in flight, / Paired wings soaring. / Cinnabar and green pigments record a vow: / ‘I'll never forget you for all eternity.’)"

The lines were by one of the Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Ruan Ji, Lan Qiren recognized. The last verses from one poem among a series he had written regarding the “blossoms of peach and plum” of cutsleeve relationships.

It was an odd choice for a child of ten.

Lan Qiren knew the text was in the library at Cloud Recesses, but Xichen and Wangji did not seem to recognize the poem. He was unsurprised by this, as it was not a text generally assigned in classes, and though Wangji was a prolific reader of poetry he could hardly have read through the entire library at his age.

Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu exchanged looks, clearly recognizing the poem. 

“A-Ying, are you sure?” Madam Yu asked. 

Wei Wuxian nodded, still looking distant.

“I forgot someone. Someone important. I want to remember them.”

The child was so ridiculously romantic he could be a Lan himself. Somehow this poem was a vow for him to remember, a shift on the last two lines. Lan Qiren wondered if perhaps he wished to remember his parents, and this poem spoke to him despite being about lovers. 

Lu Zhu finished writing the lines down.

“Would you like the inscription in black, then?”

Wei Wuxian shook his head, his countenance still distant as it often was when his mind was recovering memories.

“Gold. They were gold.”

“What were gold?” Sect Leader Jiang asked.

He looked concerned, and Lan Qiren couldn’t blame him. None of them had expected this trip to have this sort of impact on Wei Wuxian. Picking out a dizi seemed so mundane a task, yet it had not been.

The boy blinked, the distance in his eyes gone. He looked almost despondent.

“I don’t remember, shushu. But… I think they’re gone.”

Jiang Yanli stepped forward, but surprisingly it was Madam Yu who pulled Wei Wuxian gently into a hug.

“So the poem is an homage to them. That is a worthy decision,” she told him.

Wei Wuxian nodded.

“Even if it hurts, I want to remember.”

The boy didn’t shed any tears, despite the grieved note in his voice. He was, Lan Qiren reflected, handling his situation remarkably well, but he also had little other option. 

Not true, he had to amend himself; it would have been far too easy for Wei Wuxian to slip into sorrow and self-pity, and perhaps a lesser person might have. The child had lost so much, but had the inner strength, somehow, that many grown men lacked. 

Regardless, when Madam Yu released him it was easy to see the slight tremors in the boy’s body, less from weakness than from emotion. 

He was pleased when Wangji stepped beside him, his nephew’s eyes filled with concern. 

“We will play together when your instrument is complete. Perhaps music will help you recover those memories.”

Wei Wuxian offered him a tremulous smile.

“It should be done in a week, perhaps two,” Lu Zhu said. “Once complete, I will have an apprentice bring it to Lotus Cove. The shop next door has tassels and charms, if Wei-gongzi wishes to attach one to the dizi.”

Sect Leader Jiang bowed politely to the artisan and extended a purse of money to her. 

“We will return to the shop when the dizi is complete. A-Ying will want to choose a charm that matches his instrument, I’m sure.”

Lu Zhu returned the bow.

“Thank you for selecting my humble shop, Jiang-zongzhu. It is my honor to create a spiritual instrument for your ward.”

“Nephew,” Madam Yu corrected, her voice surprisingly gentle. “A-Ying is our nephew.”

The woman smiled.

“I am glad your nephew has recovered from his illness.”

Even beyond Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian’s illness was known, it seemed. News and gossip traveled swiftly. 

The Jiangs insisted on visiting the market, while Sect Leader Jiang excused himself to check in with the city magistrate to see if any matters needed to be brought to his attention since he was here. 

Though the lotus seeds had assuaged the hunger of the Jiang siblings, Xichen, and Wangji, A-Lian and Wei Wuxian eyed market stalls with clear interest. Both of them were underweight, the boy not quite recovered yet and the girl malnourished from her time on the streets.

Madam Yu noticed this as well and bought them meat buns, then once they had finished, she had all of the children choose spun sugar animals at another stall. Wangji and Wei Wuxian both chose rabbits. Jiang Wanyin chose a dog. Jiang Yanli selected a bird. Xichen, a turtle. Little A-Lian chose a fish.

They continued through the market, Madam Yu occasionally purchasing items either for the children or perhaps herself.

When Jiang Fengmian returned, he looked disgruntled, and pulled Madam Yu aside. Whatever he had to say clearly angered her, as Zidian flashed on her hand.

Sect Leader Jiang turned to Lan Qiren and bowed.

“I apologize, but there is an issue we need to resolve here. We may be several hours, and if you would like to take the children back to Lotus Pier instead of waiting for us, we can rent a boat later.

Lan Qiren stroked his beard, noting that Madam Yu’s maids seemed intent on accompanying her to resolve the issue, which left him in charge of six children alone. This was not unusual in the Cloud Recesses, but the Jiangs were spirited. 

“A-Niang, perhaps we should rent a room in an inn?” Jiang Yanli broke in. “A-Lian will go down for a nap soon, and I’m sure A-Xian could use some rest after so much today. I could stay with them, and Lan-laoshi could continue to explore Yunping with A-Cheng and his nephews.”

The girl glanced at Lan Qiren questioningly, and he nodded minutely. 

Madam Yu seemed taken with this idea, and gave Jiang Yanli enough for a room and, if necessary, meals. 

Before they split off, Sect Leader Jiang gestured Lan Qiren to the side.

“There is an issue with a ghost at a local brothel,” he said, keeping his voice down so the children wouldn’t hear. “Yunmeng wasn’t notified because of the nature of the establishment, but it would be remiss not to handle the situation.”

Lan Qiren nodded his agreement; regardless of one’s station in life, it was a cultivator’s job to put the dead to rest. Truly, if the spirit was one of a prostitute, he hoped they could be liberated to enter the cycle of rebirth, perhaps to a more fortunate life. 

“I appreciate your willingness to stay with the children. Had I known there was an issue in Yunping I would have brought disciples.”

Truth be told, Lan Qiren preferred not to be seen near a brothel, though he would certainly aid in the liberation if necessary. He had an inkling Jiang Fengmian was aware of that fact and was allowing him to save face.

“It is no trouble,” he said.

Jiang Fengmian bowed respectfully in thanks, as did Madam Yu and her maids, and he watched them head off.

When he turned back to the children, Jiang Yanli was carrying A-Lian on her back, the child tired following what for her was a large meal and an active day. He herded the children toward a nearby inn, only for Wei Wuxian to point to a different one, his expression distant again. 

“That one has better food.”

He swayed alarmingly, and Wangji rushed to steady him. Jiang Wanyin took his sword, as he had when this had occurred in the Lotus Pier market.

“We’ve never been to that inn,” Jiang Wanyin said.

Confusion passed over Wei Wuxian’s features. Wangji kept careful hold of him, clearly concerned the boy might collapse. Thankfully, his nose did not bleed as it had on other occasions, and he finally shrugged.

“I don’t know how I know, but I know.”

Jiang Yanli made the decision for them, hefting A-Lian higher on her back and heading toward the inn Wei Wuxian had indicated.

Shortly they were gathered around a table in a well-cleaned and simply furnished room. A-Lian was tucked into one of the beds in the room, and although he protested when his martial sister led him to another bed, Wei Wuxian was shortly asleep as well. 

Lan Qiren was not terribly surprised when Wangji asked to stay behind at the inn; his youngest nephew hated crowds, and the market was quite busy. Instead he recommended Wangji meditate. On the way out, he asked the innkeeper to send up tea for Jiang Yanli and him.

The day was pleasant, having only Xichen and young Jiang Wanyin to look after as they browsed the market. The latter was clearly taking advantage of the lack of his siblings to pick out gifts for them, using his spending money to make purchases of small practical things like ribbons, dizi membranes, empty sachets for herb mixtures, and even a little doll, presumably for A-Lian.

He wasn’t quite certain how Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu would find them, given they didn’t know which inn they would select, so Lan Qiren kept an eye in the direction they had left for them.

It was late afternoon, and he was considering returning to the inn and ensuring the children ate a good meal, when there was a stir from that part of the marketplace. Lan Qiren urged the boys to stay close and headed in that direction.

To his surprise, the sect leader and his wife were leading a group of perhaps ten or fifteen women dressed in cheap courtesan robes. The women were all carrying makeshift bags, and one of them was holding the hand of a young boy about Wangji’s age, perhaps younger. Madam Yu’s Zidian was crackling on her hand, perhaps indicating her temper.

Before Lan Qiren could ask any questions, one of Madam Yu’s maids asked Jiang Wanyin to bring her to his siblings, clearly meaning to collect them, but perhaps also to remove the boy from the conversation. He considered whether he should send Xichen with them, but his nephew could perhaps take a lesson from what had occurred.

Jiang Fengmian’s smile was tired, and he gestured to indicate they should walk toward the boat; ideally, this meant the townspeople would not listen into the conversation. It was clear not everyone would fit on the boat they had brought, and so they would likely need to charter a second.

“We were able to liberate the spirit,” he said to begin. “As it turned out, the brothel had purchased these young women into sexual slavery, and the ghost was likely a victim.”

“All these women were victims,” Madam Yu huffed angrily, cutting in. “They had to buy themselves back but pay exorbitant prices for their room and board and received no earnings. Unacceptable.”

Lan Qiren glanced at the women, many of whom seemed exhausted and wrung out. He wondered if this was also a practice in Gusu, or if it was limited to Yunmeng, but he had a feeling he would not like the answer.

“And what will become of them?” he asked eventually, glancing at Xichen, who was listening with wide eyes.

“They will be educated, if they wish, or trained to have better future prospects,” Madam Yu said. “These young ladies wished for that. A few others decided to ply their trade elsewhere.”

He nodded, nonplussed. He had never heard of any cultivation sect doing anything like this, had not considered that could be an answer. 

“‘Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others,’” Xichen murmured. “Ren.”

Lan Qiren was startled by his nephew’s acuity in making the connection to the teachings of Confucius, though he immediately felt badly for it—Xichen was an exceptional student, and he had no doubt the teen had been thinking about this since the Jiang sect had taken in the street children Wei Wuxian had been teaching. There was a depth of ren in those actions, and in this.

“Truly, ren,” he replied to his nephew softly, and was gratified when the boy beamed.

He wondered how this might impact Xichen’s view of his role as future sect leader and thought perhaps the Jiang sect’s free spirited impulsivity was not always a bad thing.

“It is the virtue of my lady wife,” Jiang Fengmian explained proudly.

Madam Yu blushed and huffed.

“It’s barbaric,” she muttered. “And the practice should be stopped.”

She was speaking of sexual slavery within brothels, he realized. Lan Qiren got the impression Yu Ziyuan intended to see it halted personally.

“The boy is, according to his mother, the son of a cultivator,” Madam Yu continued. “She is literate and taught him. She is willing to teach our newest disciples to read and write.”

Sect Leader Jiang smiled widely.

“As you surmised, Lan Xichen, Jiang sect is enlarged in this action, and all of Yunmeng by my lady’s benevolence.”

He wondered how all of that would be handled, but before he could ask further questions, Madam Yu’s maid rejoined them with the children, and the conversation turned away from things inappropriate for children so young. 

Jiang Fengmian introduced them to their new shidi—Meng Yao, apparently—but said little about the women. Though Jiang Yanli looked at them with curiosity, she held her questions for later, instead greeting her newest shidi with a bow, which encouraged Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin to do the same. Even little A-Lian bowed, and the new boy broke into a dimpled smile at the sight. Though Xichen and Wangji were not of Yunmeng Jiang, they too bowed and introduced themselves.

As they neared the dock for the journey back to Lotus Pier, Lan Qiren imagined they made quite a colorful group, the townspeople watching them as they left the city.

He couldn’t find it in himself to mind.

Chapter Text

Yu Ziyuan had never expected to even be content in her marriage, so happiness was a complete surprise. Her new understanding of Fengmian’s connection to Wei Ying, that he truly saw the child as a nephew and not the son he wanted with the woman he had wanted, had settled something in her.

Fengmian courted her, buying her gifts and inviting her to sit in the pavilion for tea. He looked at her with ardor, something she had given up on. He was even supportive of her desire to investigate Yunmeng’s brothels and rescue women who needed it. 

She had no idea what had shifted, but she was grateful for it—she felt fulfilled, something she had lacked for many years now. At times in the past, she felt as though she stalked Lotus Cove like a resentful ghost; now there was warmth and laughter at dinner, children seeking her attention instead of shying from her. 

She felt differently toward Wei Ying as well, taking quiet pleasure in his smiles, in his almost hyperactive curiosity about nearly everything. The child had lost everything—his parents, his memories, nearly his entire identity—but he still managed to be cheerful and kind. Sometimes her old bitterness welled up, but far more often Yu Ziyuan was glad the boy was in their lives. 

He had taken to being A-Lian’s big brother with gusto, and A-Cheng doted on her as though she too was his sister. A-Li had dragged out all her old clothing and childhood toys, and had immediately welcomed the child into her quarters, as she was too young for the disciple dormitories. A-Lian still sometimes found her way to the infirmary in the night, but not as often as she had at first; sometimes she crawled into A-Li’s bed for comfort instead. 

Wei Ying had encouraged A-Cheng to seek whip training, and as a result she was able to spend more time with her son. At times, Fengmian joined them to watch, complimenting the boy and giving encouragement as he had not in years—that, too, had shifted somehow. It was as though the attack on their ward had made him more aware of all his family. 

A-Li’s musical cultivation was progressing well, as was her understanding of medicines—the mortar and pestle set had started to gain use as Healer Kang had her make simple remedies she learned. She soaked in Lan Qiren’s advice like a sponge. Yu Ziyuan had all but given up on her daughter’s cultivation, but the girl had run to her to show how her golden core was gaining a little strength, and had once, when she had complained of a headache, proudly presented her with a remedy she had made herself. She would never be a strong cultivator, but doors Yu Ziyuan had never imagined were opening for her.

The street children, cleaned up and dressed in sect colors, were indistinguishable from the regular disciples. And although they were still learning to read and write from Madam Meng, and thus would be a bit behind on learning talismans, as well as gentlemanly arts like calligraphy and poetry, they were eager. She thought perhaps Yunmeng Jiang could benefit from helping more children, something she hoped to bring up with Fengmian. 

Further, Madam Meng’s son, though small for his age, was blossoming under the tutelage of the Jiang sect teachers. He had a good basis in the arts, though his cultivation would begin late. He was bright and curious, but somewhat skittish, as though he feared their fortunes would shift again. 

Madam Meng herself had been helping her plan to rid Yunmeng of sexual slavery, something she hoped to implement. She had recommended partnering with different industries that would be interested in training young women to become skilled in a new profession. Some of the women from Yunping had begun joining the new disciples during lessons so they too could learn. It was clear she could become a teacher if she so desired, which would be of benefit to Lotus Pier as a whole. 

The Lans were starting to discuss leaving as Wei Ying’s recovery progressed, and Yu Ziyuan had to admit she would be sorry to see them go. She had become accustomed to seeing the two boys participating in training, the younger especially attached to Wei Ying. And a part of her worried that things would go back to the way they were, that the happiness she had found would disappear. 

She just had to trust that neither she nor Fengmian would slide back into their previous behavior, their miscommunication. If they failed, it would harm the children. 

With the afternoon training session over and the older disciples overseeing archery training, they had retired to her private pavilion over the calm water of one of the lakes for tea and lotus cakes. 

Though she had never been one for idleness, during these teas she and Fengmian were able to discuss sect business, the regimen of training for disciples, and her desire to end the slavery brothels in Yunmeng. The latter required determining logistics—the rescued women would need to be housed at least temporarily and potentially educated or trained in a skill so they could be self-sufficient given time. Some could likely be employed as servants at Lotus Cove, but there was a limit. 

They were just discussing the possibility of building a new dormitory for the women when they heard yelling. Ziyuan immediately recognized Wei Ying’s voice, not boisterous as it usually was, but tinged in panic, calling for her.

“Shenshen, shenshen!”

He came into view, and she could see him leaning on Lan Wangji, blood trickling from his nose, his face pale.

She was on her feet immediately, Fengmian close behind, and she closed the distance quickly. 

“There’s a yao in the river,” he said. 

Ziyuan frowned—no one else was with him to raise the alarm, and that was the older disciples’ responsibility. With his nose bleeding as it was, it was possible it was a tangled memory, but there had been no yao in the river since before his arrival at Lotus Cove.

“Did you see the yao, Lan Wangji?” Fengmian asked.

Lan Wangji shook his head mutely. He was watching Wei Ying almost impassively, though his eyes seemed narrowed in concern.

“A-Ying, you’re confused,” Fengmian said gently, and she turned her frown to him. 

He could be confused, but disregarding his concerns would make him reluctant to come to them. 

“I’m not! I was talking to san-shixiong and I saw it! He’s going to die! It’s in the river and they’re about to go swimming and if they do it’ll kill them!”

There’s hysteria in his voice, a fear not unlike that after his dream of Luanzang Gang. Tears are running down his face, mixing with the blood still leaking from his nose. Lan Wangji is clearly supporting most of his weight, and A-Ying is perhaps only upright through sheer desperation. 

“I saw it in my head,” Wei Ying said, his voice rising in panic. “There was so much blood! Please! It’s true! Yu-furen, please believe me!”

Ziyuan went cold at the old title, one he hadn’t called her by since he woke from his coma and she decided to allow him to call her shenshen, to change their relationship. That he would call her furen now… What had he remembered, and what did it have to do with a yao in the river? After all, they still knew little about how the resentful energy still in his brain was impacting him.

If what he saw in his mind was true, the danger needed to be dealt with—both the immediate one, and the danger to Wei Ying, if this was somehow precognition, if it became known. 

And he had called for her, no one else. 

She turned to Fengmian. 

“We lose nothing in looking into what Wei Ying saw. If there is a yao, the disciples are in danger.”

Fengmian looked troubled, but Wei Ying’s knees buckled in relief, and he sobbed in relief. 

“Thank you, shenshen. Thank you.”

His voice was slurred, and he obviously needed to lie down. Ziyuan decided to take control of the situation. She ordered Lan Wangji to stay with Wei Ying in the pavilion to await their return. 

“Jinzhu, Yinzhu, flank formation. Fengmian and I will skim the water to seek it.”

If it existed. She hoped, in the end, she was simply humoring him. 

The disciples were in the shallows when they reached the river, and Madam Yu ordered them out. Since training was over for the evening and dinner would not be for an hour yet, they were clearly displeased—this time was generally theirs to do as they wished. But they obeyed regardless.

She and Fengmian flew over the middle of the river, her Pearls on either side of them, headed upstream. They made it less than half a mile before the water shadowed oddly beneath them, their only warning before a toothy head erupted.

An eel, she noted as they veered to dodge, each of them practiced in fighting. The yao had been an eel once, now bloated to massive size. That it had reached this size likely meant there were dead in its belly to also be put to rest. Had this beast reached the disciples, swimming defenseless, their swords left ashore… 

The boy had been right, and that was a whole other issue that would need to be addressed. Ziyuan put it to the back of her mind, lashing out with Zidian.

The yao let out a roar as purple lightning wrapped around it, preventing it from diving again. Fengmian immediately took the opportunity to land atop its flailing body, though he nearly slipped on its slick skin. He used his sword to strike at it before alighting again faster than it could turn on him. 

On a normal eel, even one of this unlikely size, the sword would have sliced straight through, beheading it. With the yao, the skin was toughened, almost scaled, and though his sword hacked a chunk out, it was not a killing blow.

The children would have been massacred.

It was the first time they had hunted together in years, Ziyuan realized. So long, but both of them were still in practice. She yanked the eel as it snapped at him, pulling it away. Its serpentine body flailed.

As the yao thrashed, its blood seeping into the river, Yinzhu and Jinzhu lashed at it with their spiritual whips, aiming for the slash Fengmian had left in it. Ziyuan jerked Zidian to keep control. After a few passes, it launched itself at her—the resentful energy had made it more intelligent, able to adapt to the battle.

Fortunately, a consequence of its massive size was a lack of speed, and she was able to dodge easily.

Fengmian and her Pearls adapted quickly, and each took turns at baiting and attacking—one baiting it, the other two working to at least sever its spinal cord. The creature’s writhing struggles sent blood everywhere, and they had to dodge the length of its body as it flailed.

By the time it was done, they were all wet and covered in blood, breathing heavily, and still with the body to haul out of the river. Any human remains in its gullet would need to be removed and put to rest, and the yao’s body purified and burned. 

Lan Qiren met them on the way, leading some of the older disciples. Clearly their battle had been heard, at least, but had wrapped up too quickly for backup to arrive. 

Ziyuan took pride in this, and she flashed a grin toward Fengmian, then had to look away when he returned it. He was sodden and splattered with blood, and it should not have been possible for him to be so attractive.

Lan Qiren and the disciples were able to help them with the corpse. The rest of the disciples were packed near the river when they landed, clearly waiting. 

Abruptly, Ziyuan felt exhausted, with the intensity of the situation abated, her adrenaline spent. There was blood in the water, washing downstream, but it was only the yao’s. Had she not taken Wei Ying seriously, it would have been their disciples’. He had known, had seen it in advance somehow—in enough advance to save his peers, anyway—and he would be in danger if that leaked. 

She was quietly appreciative when Lan Qiren gave her and Fengmian a critical look, clearly noting they had expended a lot of energy fighting the yao, and took over—even more so when he turned it into a lesson for the disciples, instructing them on using their blades to cut open the digestive tract to look for victims.

“Be careful not to touch your faces if you have blood on your hands,” he warned them. “Eel blood is toxic, and it can damage your eyes.”

His nod to Fengmian, as the disciples took to the grisly task, told her that he would handle putting the dead to rest and the disposal of the corpse, at least as long as it took her and Fengmian to clean up. Her skin was already prickling with irritation—and it was likely the yao’s blood was more toxic than the typical eel.

Normally she would simply jump in the river to get it off, but the river itself was still red with it. It would dilute as it washed downriver, thankfully, and cause no problems ultimately, but that didn’t help them now. The best alternative was a large pond, and the closest of those was the one over which her pavilion floated. 

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened almost comically at their bloodstained appearance. She barely spared him a glance before jumping into the lake, submerging herself entirely, and kicking out of the plume of blood she knew had washed off her skin in the water. From the disturbances in the water nearby, she knew the others had followed suit. 

They would need baths, need to scrub the remnants from their skin, but this would do for the moment.

When she climbed back on the dock, she noted that Wei Ying was still, eyes closed, stretched out on his back on the deck, his head resting on Lan Wangji’s lap.

“There was a yao?” the boy asked. “Wei Ying was right? He knew?”

It just made Ziyuan feel more exhausted. If the Lan boy knew, there was little hope of keeping it solely within the Jiang sect. Somehow, they would have to work with the Lans if Wei Ying was to be protected. If the Wen learned of this, or even the Jin, the boy would be seen as a thing to own. 

He deserved better than that. 

“Keep it quiet, Lan-er-gongzi,” she said to him softly. “His safety could depend on it.”

The boy’s jaw tightened in an almost resolute way, and he nodded sharply. She had the sense he had taken Wei Ying’s health to be a priority, and she liked that—he was a loyal friend.

Good. A-Ying would need that. 

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren kept his focus on the Jiang disciples, glad to see Xichen was among them—though he was young, this was a good learning experience for cleaning up after a night hunt. Far too many sects were negligent in that, and it caused too many problems. Fortunately, the disciples were attentive and eager to learn. Even the newest disciples, previously street children still catching up on their education, were participating and engaged.

It helped that the yao corpse was impressive, displaying the danger of night hunts in a way that fascinated the youth. They formed a sort of line, with the older disciples hacking into it, and the younger ones finding human remains to remove. Every so often, a disciple used a bucket to clear the blood from an area, inevitably leading to the discovery of more. 

He lost track of time, busy explaining how to organize the remains so the bodies could be laid to rest, helping move parts of the yao corpse to an area to be purified and burned. Nearly a dozen so far, maybe more. Some of the victims were reduced to skeletal remains, while others were far fresher. Many of them, he was sad to see, were children. 

He could only imagine, if the creature had reached Lotus Cove, how much damage could have been done. 

Madam Yu’s voice surprised him, as distracted as he was with the task. She had bathed, he noted, not without a bit of envy—but she had helped vanquish the beast, and so it was deserved. She still looked exhausted, but much less bloody than before. 

He bowed and greeted her as she surveyed the site. 

“You have things well in hand,” she said. “We appreciate the knowledge you are imparting to our disciples.”

“They are competent and eager to learn,” he replied, returning what he knew was a compliment. 

An easy silence fell between them, and the disciples continued with the task, nearly through with the search for victims. There wasn't much of the yao left to search, and then it could be prepared to be purified and burned. 

“We will purify and burn the yao overnight. When the retrieval is finished, we must speak in the healing pavilion,” Madam Yu said finally. “Feel free to clean up if needed before you come.”

Her tone betrayed anxiety, and Lan Qiren looked at her sharply. She shook her head. 

“Privately.”

He nodded, uncertain what this could mean, but certain it was serious from her demeanor. 

“How would you like the remains handled?” he asked.

It was, after all, not his sect or his land, so the decisions should not be up to him. 

Madam Yu considered this for a moment. 

“If your musicians can find out who the victims are through Inquiry, we can notify their families. We will store the remains in separate qiankun pouches until then.”

She offered him a smile that looked weary. 

“Without your presence, we would simply dig graves and burn joss. It is better this way.”

Lan Qiren agreed—it would ease the families to know what had become of their loved ones, to have remains to lay to rest and a grave to visit and care for. And it would appease the spirits of the victims to have more than a nameless grave, to be laid to rest with their ancestors. 

“I will send one of the less faint-hearted servants with the qiankun bags for the remains,” she said. “Bring your eldest nephew with you. Lan Wangji knows what we must discuss, so his brother may as well, too.”

Her tone seemed to imply that if not for Wangji’s knowledge, Lan Qiren himself may have been excluded, and if that was the case it was likely quite serious. He realized abruptly that he had not seen Wangji among the disciples handling the yao and its victims. For that matter, he had not seen Wei Wuxian, either, and he could only assume he was involved in whatever needed to be discussed.

But he knew better than to ask for more information now; likely they would put a silencing barrier up before discussing this, if it was so serious.

Instead he simply nodded in acknowledgement and returned to supervising the disciples.

Madam Yu called for her son and spoke to him briefly before leaving. The boy looked concerned, but went back to his task instead of abandoning it. 

When all the remains had been recovered and the pieces of the yao piled for purification and burning, he had the younger disciples go for wood to build a pyre, and helped the older ones sort the human remains until they had separated them by victim—or at least as close as was possible. There were assorted human bone fragments that seemed to belong nowhere, but would hopefully be identified during Inquiry.

A servant, as promised, brought qiankun bags, more than needed. He had the disciples place remains in a bag apiece, discussing the need to respect the dead, then the fragments in their own bag.

By then, the younger disciples had returned with wood and they started on the work of building a pyre. Lan Qiren gathered the qiankun bags and placed them inside another one for ease of transport and hung it from his belt, then turned his attention to helping with construction. 

When it was finished, he kept them from lighting it just yet, explaining purification would need to occur first, and then the fire would need to be monitored until the yao was consumed to ashes. He would leave that to Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Yu.

“It is likely past dinner now, and it looks like most of you should get baths before eating—no eating while covered in yao blood.”

He was surprised when the disciples laughed, then bowed to him. 

While it wasn’t a chorus, he was politely thanked for his guidance as he walked them back to Lotus Cove.

“Xichen,” he said when he spotted his nephew, whose robes were as stained with blood as the Jiang disciples’. “We will clean up, and then our presence has been requested in the infirmary.”

Two steaming hot bathtubs, affixed with heating talismans, were waiting for them in their guest quarters, and he was certain that the servants were preparing similar baths for the disciples. Lan Qiren found himself impressed by the efficiency of the Jiang sect.

By the time he and Xichen were clean and dressed in fresh robes and on their way to the infirmary, dusk was falling, evidence of how long it had taken to handle the yao—it was clear that they would be taking their evening meal late, but so would the entire sect.

Jiang Fengmian was waiting in the infirmary, and thanked him for taking over the disposal of the yao and retrieval of remains. Lan Qiren handed him the qiankun bag, and let him know the yao’s corpse was awaiting purification and burning, the pyre already built.

“The incense is being prepared,” Sect Leader Jiang told him.

Lan Qiren wondered about the preparation, what ingredients would be combined. Sandalwood, for purification and cleansing, was likely, perhaps mixed with plumeria to enhance. Rosemary, to clear negative energy, as well as cedar. Benzoin to clear negative spirits… There were many options, and though he knew what mixture the Lan sect might use, each sect had their own practices.

Ultimately, these thoughts were a distraction from the matter at hand, a nervous habit. He could ask later if he was still interested. 

Fengmian led them to the next room, where he immediately noted Wei Wuxian was still and asleep on the bed, his face pale. Wangji sat beside him, holding his hand, his expression tight with worry. Jiang Yanli was stroking his hair. Jiang Cheng, whose hair was still wet from what was likely a quick bath, watched over him like a guard. Yu Ziyuan was at the table, waiting. 

When Fengmian shut the door, he activated a silencing talisman before joining his wife. Lan Qiren took a seat as well. The children stay attentive, though gathered near Wei Wuxian, permitted in this conversation, tense with foreboding. Xichen joined them. 

“A-Ying saw the attack in his mind, he said,” Yu Ziyuan said, never one to dally. “He saw disciples die and the river run red with their blood. Fengmian and I investigated, and discovered the yao upstream.”

Lan Qiren drew a sharp breath. That explained the suddenness of the expedition. And disciples dying… Xichen had been among those planning to swim in the river. 

He tried not to think about that. 

“He fought to stay conscious long enough to tell us,” Jiang Fengmian added. “I… didn’t believe him. Ziyuan did.”

“He begged,” she said simply. “If we ignored it, he would hesitate to trust us if it happens again.”

Lan Qiren nodded. Children who felt adults would not believe them learned not to communicate their concerns. And with what had happened to Wei Wuxian, he needed to be willing to say what was wrong. 

“The resentful energy in his mind,” Lan Qiren said. “There’s no telling what influence it is having. Perhaps he sensed the yao and its desires?”

Yu Ziyuan shook her head. 

“No. He knew his san-shixiong would die. He saw it while talking to him. A premonition.”

That was a bit more specific, he had to admit. With the disaster averted, there was no way to confirm, but it seemed likely. It was possible upon waking, the boy could share more details of what he ‘saw,’ details that would confirm beyond a doubt. For now, this was speculation, but there was little known about how resentful energy could impact the mind, beyond the historical examples involving madness and death.

He hoped they could prevent that in Wei Wuxian, could keep the resentful energy from sending him down that sort of dark path. 

But he wondered if perhaps the resentful energy could have a different sort of impact on the jingluo, and with it gathered in his mind, the yingtang. With his amnesia, it made some sense; the resentful energy could be impacting his shen. That was a concern for another time, though.

“The resentful energy may have opened the third eye,” Lan Qiren mused, stroking his beard. 

A clairvoyant child would be seen as a valuable tool by some of the sects. Particularly the Wen. If this was truly the impact of the resentful energy, and the boy is having premonitions, he would be seen as a treasure to seize. 

He resisted the urge to turn and look at Wei Wuxian, as though seeing him would abate the danger. 

Some of his thought process must have shown in his expression. Yu Ziyuan nodded. 

“Then you see the issue,” she said.

“This must be kept secret,” Fengmian said. “And we must find a way to protect him.”

They mused silently on this for a while, but were interrupted by Wangji.

“Shufu, if it’s the third eye, then that nightmare he had… could that also be a premonition?”

His voice was halting, as though he hated to speak the idea aloud. 

Lan Qiren understood—the idea that Wei Wuxian had seen his future somehow, a future in which he was thrown into Luanzang Gang, was beyond horrifying. Of all ways to die, that perhaps ranked among the cruelest. That the boy could be destined to that… But just as the yao disaster had been prevented, perhaps that too could be.

Madam Yu’s jaw clenched and Zidian sparked on her hand.

“If he is seen merely as the son of a servant, he is vulnerable.”

“My lady?”

Fengmian looked at his wife with concern, questions in his eyes. He seemed at a loss for what to do in this situation, and Lan Qiren knew if his wife could offer solutions it would only strengthen their relationship. The sect leader’s mind was clouded by his anxiety over Wei Wuxian’s health and fate.

She smiled at her husband, a soft expression incongruent with what he knew of her, one that took the harsh edges from her face and transformed her. 

“He must become Jiang,” she said. “A-Lian, too. He cannot be the heir, but they must be ours.”

Sect Leader Jiang seemed struck dumb, but there was a joy in it. He looked like he felt he might be dreaming. 

“Yes, my lady. Ours.”

“Really, a-niang?” Jiang Yanli asked, her voice hopeful. “He can be our didi, really?”

“He’ll need to be,” she said. “Otherwise we can’t protect him. Servants can be taken, can be abused. Adopting him officially, giving him the Jiang name, will mean he is no longer the son of a servant.”

The Jiang children looked alarmed at the idea that Wei Wuxian could be taken. Lan Qiren hoped they didn’t realize that worse could happen, that their mother’s decision had been made based on the idea that the boy had dreamt true, that the dream was precognitive, that he could be targeted and killed in such a manner. 

“They may still see him as the mere son of a servant,” Lan Qiren warned. “But it will keep him safer.”

He prayed, for Wei Wuxian’s sake, that it would. 

“If they dare say it, they’ll feel Zidian’s wrath,” Yu Ziyuan scoffed. 

“And I’ll break their legs!” Jiang Cheng added. “No one gets to be mean to my didi.”

Fengmian smiled at his son. 

“You’re a good gege,” he told the boy, who puffed up proudly. “And A-Lian will be your meimei, too.”

Lan Qiren realized for the first time that little A-Lian wasn’t in the room, and neither were Madam Yu’s maids. The child was too young to know to keep secrets; keeping her unaware would keep her safer. 

He watched the excitement of the Jiang children over the decision. He knew he was only a part of this conversation because Wangji knew Wei Wuxian—or Jiang Wuxian, he’d have to get used to calling him—had ‘seen’ the yao. 

His nephews were silent, Wangji still holding Jiang Wuxian’s hand. They, like Lan Qiren, didn’t know what their role was here.

“I know you would have preferred no other clans knew,” he said finally. “We will of course tell no one.”

Madam Yu nodded, less acknowledgement than veiled threat, which Lan Qiren thought completely unnecessary, though he could understand where it came from. 

“More than that… If this is being caused by the resentful energy, he will need to be trained to manage it,” she said after a moment. 

She was aware of the concerns with shen, then. With how it could potentially warp his consciousness, and the need to mitigate that risk.

“Songs of cleansing would help,” Lan Qiren agreed. “They have an impact on the player as well. It would be easiest to train him in musical cultivation in the Cloud Recesses. The lack of resentful energy there would also possibly help him.”

Fengmian looked thoughtful, though hesitant, as though he was reluctant to have Jiang Wuxian so far away. Understandable, given that the boy had nearly died and was still recovering. 

“By now the news of his illness has spread, as you may have noticed in Yunping. Likely, other cultivation clans have heard by now. It would not be unusual to send such a case to you for healing, particularly as you’ve stayed so long already.”

Lan Qiren frowned. He didn’t think they could stay much longer, given that he was acting sect leader. If Jiang Wuxian needed much further treatment following this incident, it would be best for him to come to Gusu. Truly, it would be best for him to receive treatment consistently until the resentful energy was completely removed to prevent damage to his spirit.

“If he were to have need of respite from resentful energy…”

He wasn’t fully comfortable with the lie, though, and he was troubled by the way such an example might impact his nephews. Lying was forbidden, but if one lied to protect, was it immoral?

“Unless we set it up as a cultural exchange, of sorts,” Fengmian added, seeming to notice his discomfort. “But—”

“A betrothal,” Yu Ziyuan interrupted. “To strengthen ties between sects. Part of the year here, part of it there.”

Lan Qiren was completely unprepared for such a suggestion and failed to keep himself from gaping. He was slightly assuaged by the fact that Sect Leader Jiang was in a similar state.

She held up a hand, cutting off anticipated objections. 

“It could be dissolved when they’re older, of course. But what better way to explain A-Ying’s occasional presence in Cloud Recesses? The terms could include that they will reside in both places and serve both clans equally upon marriage, which would explain any need to be at Lotus Cove as well.”

“Who would he be betrothed to?” Jiang Fengmian asked, looking baffled. 

Lan Qiren could relate—it seemed cruel to bring in someone ignorant of the situation for a farce, particularly a young lady, regardless of how a betrothal would enable them to hide the truth of the matter from the other sects.

“Your younger nephew, of course,” Madam Yu said. 

She said it as though it was the most obvious conclusion in the world. 

Chapter Text

Wangji felt like he had been in a daze since Wei Ying had abruptly gotten a nosebleed and panicked when he was talking to an older Jiang disciple. When he had tried to take his friend to the healer, he insisted on being taken to Madam Yu instead. 

As improbable as it seemed, Wei Ying’s vision of a monster yao had apparently been correct, the adults had informed him when they returned. And it put him in danger.  

He was disappointed to have missed the practical lesson shufu had given on the proper disposal of yao corpses, but he would rather be at Wei Ying’s side. 

Wei Ying was still unconscious, and Wangji was aware of the conversations happening around him despite the daze, as they tried to determine how best to protect him—if he truly had precognitive visions, Madam Yu argued, he would be seen as an asset to acquire by certain other clans.

Madam Yu’s arguments regarding his protection made sense, particularly official adoption, and though shufu was balking and displeased with her second idea, it too was truly logical, could throw off any suspicion from the Sun that saw all, could protect Wei—or rather, Jiang Ying. 

And what if Wei Ying’s dream of being cast into Luanzang Gang… What if that was a premonition? The place was warded and managed by the Wen sect, after all. If they wanted him and could not have him, would that be the result? 

If he could do anything to prevent that from coming to pass, he would. 

Shufu was turning angry colors, seeming to be too overcome to speak properly, starting and stopping and sputtering when Madam Yu countered his half-formed objections, completely unruffled. 

“I agree,” he said firmly—during a pause, so as not to interrupt. 

“Wangji!”

Shufu looked outraged, and Wangji wondered if he had been expected to stay silent on the matter. Madam Yu, on the other hand, looked pleased. 

“I want to help him,” Wangji insisted. “I wish to help prevent his nightmare from coming to pass.”

He could see from the stricken look on the adults’ faces that they knew what he was referring to. Wangji was glad he didn’t have to elaborate further, and that they understood the gravity of his concern. For a moment, there was dead silence as they digested the idea, but he was also unsurprised when his uncle spoke again against the idea of betrothal. 

“You’re too young to—”

“A-Li has been betrothed since she was a toddler,” Madam Yu cut in swiftly, what little patience she had spent. “I only hope her betrothed doesn’t grow to become as egregious a pig as his father. I trust my sworn sister will do her best with him.”

Wangji couldn’t help but gape, unused to gossip in general and absolutely shocked to hear such words about a major sect leader. 

“A-Ying is kind and intelligent,” she continued, unfazed. “Don’t tell me you disapprove of him because the mother he doesn’t even remember once shaved your beard off as you slept.”

The statement seemed to hang in the air. Shufu was turning an alarming color, and Wangji couldn’t help contemplating what he would look like without his beard. 

All told, it was probably for the better that they were interrupted by Wei Ying waking, though the fact that he woke with a scream and immediately started sobbing was more than a little upsetting. It took time for the Jiangs to calm him down, for Madam Yu to assure him no one died, that he had done the right thing telling her so they could take down the yao without anyone being hurt. 

“Perhaps you should tell us what you ‘saw,’” shufu said once Wei Ying was calm. 

“It was big, and like a dragon, but not like a dragon,” Wei Ying started. “Like a snake, maybe?”

He remembered only that about the creature. His san-shixiong had grabbed him and Jiang Wanyin, propelled them to shore with a burst of spiritual energy, and had been promptly eaten by the yao.

“It bit him in half,” Wei Ying said, his voice trembling. “And then it started killing the others.”

He lapsed into silence, his jaw trembling. 

“I ordered the disciples out of the water,” Madam Yu told him. “Your shushu and I battled it with Jinzhu and Yinzhu on the river. San-shixiong is fine, as is everyone else.”

She patted him on the shoulder, clearly trying to comfort him. 

“You did the right thing, A-Ying,” she said. “You kept them safe. Now we need to keep you safe.”

Wei Ying blinked, his eyes darting as he processed that. 

“Because I saw,” he said eventually. “People will want that.”

Madam Yu nodded, looking pleased that he understood. 

“I’m sorry for bringing trouble, shenshen.”

The smile disappeared, her face tight and downcast for a moment. Wei Ying’s words hurt her, but Wangji didn’t understand how. 

“A-Ying, you can trust that your shushu and I will handle any trouble. You are not at fault.”

The boy nodded, but still looked uncertain, as though he wasn’t sure whether to believe it wasn’t his fault. 

Jiang Fengmian seemed to sense that, and patted Wei Ying’s head.

“A-Ying, we decided the best way to protect you is to officially adopt you into the Jiang clan.”

“As our son,” Madam Yu added. “And A-Lian as our daughter.”

“It won’t be unfilial?” Wei Ying asks softly after a moment. “My mama and baba… Would they be mad at me?”

The Jiangs looked startled at the question, but Wangji understood. 

Shufu almost fulfilled the role of a father for him, but his true father was still alive, though he’d never met him that he could remember. So to refer to shufu as such would be unfilial; even if his father was dead, it could be unfilial. 

“Your father,” Sect leader Jiang started hoarsely, and had to clear his throat before continuing. “Your father was my sworn brother, and I loved him as though he was my blood brother.”

“If you would be more comfortable continuing to refer to us as shenshen and shushu, rather than a-niang and a-die, you may,” Madam Yu told him. “Legally you would be our son, to protect you, but we wouldn’t be replacing your mama and baba.”

Wei Ying nodded, biting his lip. 

“It’s just… I forgot them—everything about them. I don’t want them to be hungry ghosts.”

Yu Ziyuan gathered him to her, and he let out a soft sob. 

Wangji couldn’t imagine forgetting his mother, who had been one of the brighter points of his life until her death. Wei Ying, as a homeless orphan in Yiling, had smiled so much like her. Back then, he could remember his parents. Now they were lost to the void where his memories once were. 

“You didn’t lose your memory on purpose,” Jiang Yanli offered softly. “I’m sure they wouldn’t blame you for that.”

“They will not be hungry, A-Ying,” Madam Yu murmured to him. “Their tablets are in the ancestral hall for you to leave offerings and burn joss paper whenever you wish. We are not replacing them. Fengmian and I can tell you stories of them, if you wish. And Lan Qiren was acquainted with your mother and may be willing to share stories as well.”

“The stories may help you remember,” Wangji added.

“Maybe a-die and a-niang can draw them, too,” Jiang Cheng said. “I bet that would help.”

Wei Ying sniffled and nodded, his nose running as he seemed to fight the urge to cry. Wangji pulled a cloth from his sleeve and handed it to him and received a watery smile.

That seemed to remind Yu Ziyuan of the other part of the plan. 

“It’s possible this is just the effect of the resentful energy still in your mind,” she said. “Learning the songs of the Lan and further help from them might make it fade. To avoid suspicion about why you will spend time in Gusu, you will be betrothed to Lan-er-gongzi.”

“When you are older it can be dissolved,” shufu added.

Wangji watched for Wei Ying’s reaction, feeling oddly uncertain—after all, it was an unusual arrangement, and he might not welcome it—but when Wei Ying turned to him, it seemed like his own uncertainty was reflected back. 

“I don’t want to prevent you from meeting your fated one, Lan Zhan,” he said softly. “You don’t have to if you’re uncomfortable.”

“I already agreed. Our meeting again was yuanfen, and I wish to help protect you,” he assured him. “It is no burden.”

He knew Wei Ying often saw himself as a burden, or at least referred to himself as one. He always seemed conscious of how much he was relying on others, always seemed to try to make up for it. Wangji wanted him to know he was not a burden, not trouble, not anything other than worthy of protection. 

“You’ll let me know if it is?” Wei Ying asked solemnly. “Like Lan-xiansheng said, we can dissolve it later.”

“It will not be a burden,” Wangji insisted. “But if I am wrong, I will tell you. But you also must tell me.”

Wei Ying smiled, strangely wistful. 

“Ah, Lan Zhan. You’re so good.”

“W—Jiang Ying is also good.”

It was hard not to think of him as Wei Ying, but Wangji would do his best to adjust. His friend looked startled at the name, then smiled almost bashfully. 

“You can call me A-Ying,” he said softly. “If it’s easier.”

Wangji knew friends often referred to each other, and he nodded, happy that he considered them close. 

“Then you may call me A-Zhan,” he said. 

No one aside from occasionally xiongzhang called him so informally, but he thought it would be acceptable if it was A-Ying. 

Shufu, he noticed, watched their exchange, stroking his beard thoughtfully. 

“Madam Yu’s idea is that the two of you will act as second in command to both sects, according to the betrothal contract,” Lan Qiren says. “Half of the year in Yunmeng, half in Gusu.”

“Thus you will have an excuse to receive further treatment in Gusu and to learn more musical cultivation that may help,” Madam Yu added.

Jiang Fengmian reached forward, patting A-Ying’s arm. 

“We will negotiate the terms, but only if you’re okay with it, A-Ying,” he said. “People may say rude things.”

A-Ying seemed surprised to be asked, but he nodded. 

“I know people might be weird since it’s a cutsleeve betrothal, but people find something to be weird about all the time. I’m fine with it if A-Zhan is.”

“I am,” Lan Zhan said. 

“Excellent,” Madam Yu said, looking pleased. “We will discuss this with your uncle and draw up terms. But first we will perform the adoption rites and announce you and A-Lian as Jiang.”

Wangji understood she meant letters would later be sent out to the rest of the gentry later about their betrothal. Though he preferred not to be the object of gossip, he understood the betrothal announcement would concretely ally Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang and serve as protection for A-Ying. He would manage somehow.

A soft knock on the door prevented any further conversation, and Madam Yu dispelled the silencing talisman. She opened the door to reveal a servant, and the scent of food wafted in, making his mouth water. It was long past dinner now.

The servant bowed.

“Madam Yu, the townspeople learned of the yao. Some witnessed the battle. The businesses came together and delivered food as thanks. We are serving the disciples as well.”

Several more servants entered the room, efficiently clearing the table and setting up far more communal dishes than normal. It was clear that the food was from both restaurants and the Lotus Cove kitchen, and so the array was much more varied than most meals. He did notice that there were far fewer dishes from the Jiang kitchens, and realized the yao attack had likely even interrupted dinner preparations by the servants, making the gift from the townspeople all the more apt and appreciated. 

Sect Leader Jiang murmured about reimbursing the restaurants to the ranking servant who had knocked, and the rest of the Jiangs moved to the table while he did. Wangji offered a hand to A-Ying to help him out of bed, and they went together.

Many of the dishes were heavy with spice, but Jiang Yanli was already putting together a bowl of rice and lesser-spiced dishes, which she handed to him with a smile. Xiongzhang and shufu were filling their own bowls in a similar manner, while A-Ying filled his with a base of noodles almost fiery-looking with spice and other dishes that were tinted red, orange, and yellow with spice, then settled on a cushion a little away from the table.

Aside from the sound of utensils on porcelain, the room was unusually silent, everyone focused on eating after so much energy was expended on the yao. Where normally the Jiangs chattered during supper, the meal was almost as quiet as those in Gusu. It felt odd, as Wangji had become accustomed to listening to the conversations around him, even if he didn’t participate in them.

Wangji settled beside him to eat, quietly considering what should be done to make A-Ying comfortable in his visits to Gusu, and the first thing on his list was acquiring spices and spicy condiments from the Lotus Pier market. His friend would find the fare at Cloud Recesses entirely too bland, but he wanted him to enjoy Gusu as much as he had come to enjoy Yunmeng.

Perhaps he should ask Jiang Yanli to teach him recipes, as well.

Mind set, he focused on eating, taking comfort in the warmth of his friend beside him.

Chapter Text

Yu Ziyuan had seen no reason to wait on the adoption, which could be handled as an intrasect matter with announcements to the major and minor sects to follow. As neither child would be in the line of succession despite becoming Jiangs, it was not likely to be seen as big news. The news that would have an impact would be the joint announcement: the betrothal of Jiang Wuxian to Lan Wangji. 

A-Ying insisted on seeing the yao before it was burned, and though that delayed the ceremony by a few hours, it occurred with little fanfare, and he had no episodes. 

“That’s what I saw,” he whispered to her after seeing the head.

He sounded awed and afraid, and if she hadn’t already been determined to protect him, that would have pushed her there. Instead she drew him close and let him tremble against her while the corpse was purified and set ablaze.

Despite the fact that this wasn’t a clan matter, she had Fengmian gather the Yunmeng Jiang head disciple and elders as witnesses, along with the Lan visitors, so there could be no question—the children were theirs. The elders seemed a little disgruntled, not knowing the reason for the abrupt decision to adopt the children, but since it didn’t change the line of succession they had no influence.

Adoption was not a panacea, so Yu Ziyuan could not relax completely, but would at least help keep A-Ying safe. 

The announcements were sent, and the Lans prepared to leave Lotus Cove, to A-Ying’s obvious dismay, the boys nearly inseparable in the meantime. She was somewhat surprised that A-Li also seemed upset by their planned departure, but as she reflected she realized her daughter had come to regard Lan Qiren as her teacher, and had befriended Lan Xichen as well. 

A-Ying and Lan Wangji made forays into Lotus Pier’s markets as the time came closer, and eventually the latter was forced to confess he had filled his qiankun pouch completely.

Fengmian kindly presented the boy with one embroidered with lotuses, and then laughed when he was out of earshot. 

“He made A-Cheng take him to buy A-Ying’s favorite chili sauce and spices,” he told her. “He says A-Ying will need it when he visits.”

Yu Ziyuan had studied in Gusu herself, and knew the boy was right. She often wondered how the Lans could stomach such tasteless fare. That Lan Wangji was thinking ahead for A-Ying’s comfort was a good sign, though, and she was happy her husband was encouraging it. 

She commissioned robes from a Lotus Pier seamstress for A-Lian, who was already at a healthier weight along with the other former street children, only to have A-Ying shoot up nearly a full cun in a matter of a week—something that she knew had to be painful for him, though he didn’t complain once. It was just as well; she now had an excuse to commission the boy a new wardrobe, predominantly in Jiang purples and blues, with red and black undertones to honor his parents. Darker shades suited the boy, but she ensured he had lighter tones as well for contrast. 

A-Lian had been thrilled to be able to show off new robes with her gege, and Yu Ziyuan made sure to ask for a couple matchings sets for the two, to their delight. This led A-Cheng and A-Li to ask for the same, and there were days when all four children wore matching robes. A-Ying had also taken to wearing the purple jade lotus guan she had chosen for him at the market, to her quiet delight. 

The Lan musical cultivators had successfully identified most of the victims of the yao through Inquiry, even managing to get details such as where they had lived. Missives had been sent with older Jiang disciples, and thankful villages upriver collected their dead to be laid to rest. Ultimately, the only ones remaining were those whose spirits would not answer Inquiry—which, she learned, could mean the spirit had moved on or that it was refusing to respond. 

Most of the remains were so degraded they would be virtually impossible to identify by sight, but they had visitors with missing relatives come to try all the same. On one occasion it paid off, with a desperate father able to identify his missing child’s remains through a broken bone that had healed slightly crooked. The rest would likely ultimately be buried with funeral rites and honored in the shrine Lotus Pier kept for the unknown dead, in the hopes they would not become resentful, hungry ghosts. 

Unfortunately, they also had to endure a steady stream of over-curious minor sect leaders, who had taken the adoption and betrothal announcements as an excuse to gawk and ask imperious questions. For most of them, Yu Ziyuan was able to glare at them and make Zidian spark a few times, and they scuttled away.

Sect Leader Yao, however, was either completely oblivious to her implied threat or overly confident in his cultivation, as he questioned—in front of A-Ying—whether it was appropriate for the son of a servant to be adopted by a clan leader. 

A-Ying, bless him, just blinked at the man. 

“Baba was a-die’s sworn brother and first disciple. Mama was a disciple of Baoshan Sanren. A-Niang, which one was a servant?”

It was the first time he had referred to them as a-die and a-niang, and Yu Ziyuan was almost proud that he did it in part to be a little shit.

Fengmian was too busy being emotional, so she answered for him. 

“Neither of them. Your parents were excellent cultivators who died heroes,” she told him, then turned to Sect Leader Yao and let Zidian spark again. “The decisions of this clan are not up for debate by outsiders.”

A-Li came into the hall with A-Cheng and A-Lian at that moment with a tray of refreshments, and it just so happened it was a matching-robe day, illustrating the point of A-Ying’s status perfectly. 

The blustering fool left quickly after that, and she and Fengmian took A-Ying to the ancestral hall so he could offer incense to his parents to honor the occasion. 

“Mama, baba, A-Ying hopes it’s okay to call shushu and shenshen a-die and a-niang now. You’ll always be mama and baba.”

“We will take care of your son,” Fengmian murmured when the offering had been made. “You may rest easy.”

Yu Ziyuan kept her own comments internal. 

I will protect your son. I will do better.

That evening, before supper, she rendered ink portraits of A-Ying’s parents as best she could; she had studied the six arts as any cultivator did, but she was merely proficient at this. After supper, when the ink had dried sufficiently and the plates in the hall had been cleared away, she brought out the portraits and presented them to A-Ying.

“A-Ying, I drew your parents for you,” she said, feeling oddly trepidatious as the children gathered around, including the Lan boys. 

“A good rendering, and accurate,” Lan Qiren commented from his seat.

She had drawn Cangse Sanren with the mischievous grin she had nearly always worn, and Wei Changze with the soft smile she remembered from over a decade ago at her and Fengmian’s wedding.

“Gege’s mama and baba?” A-Lian asked, peering at the pictures.

“And yours,” Fengmian told her. “A-Ying adopted you as Wei, first.”

A-Lian had started calling them a-die and a-niang right after the adoption rites had been performed. The little girl was quiet for a moment, then pointed to the pictures. 

Mama, baba,” she said, then pointed at Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian. “A-Niang, a-die.”

Yu Ziyuan smiled at the girl. 

“Exactly. Just like A-Ying.”

“Like gege!” A-Lian said happily, then held out her arms to ask to be picked up. 

She did so, settling her in her lap, then turned her attention to A-Ying. 

A-Ying was studying the portraits, his brow furrowed. She wondered if that was a sign he was trying to remember, and worried he’d get frustrated. Lan Wangji seemed to have similar concerns, watching his friend closely. 

“You look just like them, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli murmured, touching the edge of one of the portraits almost reverently. 

“Baba made mama laugh,” he said finally. “And I was on a donkey. I think we called her Little Apple?”

He blinked several times, swaying a bit.

“No,” he murmured. “That was Mo Xuanyu’s donkey.”

Without any further warning, he collapsed, saved from hitting the floor hard only by Lan Wangji’s quick reflexes. The Lan boy wasn’t strong enough to do more than ease A-Ying down, using his own body to keep him propped in a somewhat upright position so he wouldn’t hit his head. A-Cheng did his best to help, reaching him a split second after Lan Wangji, and was able to keep A-Ying’s head steady, preventing injury to his neck.

A-Lian started to cry, startled and afraid, and Yinzhu took her so Yu Ziyuan could get to A-Ying. Fengmian moved with her, then shifted the boy so he would be less of a burden on Lan Wangji. 

His eyes were open, if half-lidded, but he was clearly struggling to stay conscious. 

“I died?” he asked.

His speech was so slurred she had difficulty understanding him, but when she did, her blood ran cold. What was he seeing?

“No,” she told him, aware of their audience. “You were attacked, you were hurt, but you’re alive.”

Confusion rippled across his face and then he went slack, unconscious. 

She let Fengmian heft the boy into his arms, aware her husband needed to feel useful, and took A-Lian back from Yinzhu herself. The girl was crying for her gege, and she could only pat her back to try to comfort her. The other children were hovering. 

Lan Qiren took control of the room, sending a Lan musician ahead to alert the healers before urging Fengmian to go as well. 

“The children may come with,” Yu Ziyuan said, noticing when A-Cheng nearly started after his father. 

She could see the uncertainty in Lan Xichen, who clearly wasn’t sure whether he was still considered a child, so she took him by the arm herself as she marched after Fengmian. 

Really, the boy was younger than A-Li, and despite being sect heir and virtually an orphan, he didn’t need to grow up so quickly. 

The healers were checking A-Ying when they arrived, Healer Lan focusing on his meridians and Healer Kang assessing his physical vitals. To keep the children out of the way, she ushered them into the room A-Ying shared with Lan Wangji. 

They had considered moving him back to his own room, but the healers had wanted to be overly cautious, and it seemed their concerns were merited. 

A-Li took A-Lian, sitting near the table with her and speaking to her in soft tones. A-Cheng seemed torn on whether to attend to his meimei or to check on his didi, pacing between them and the door uncertainly. Yu Ziyuan took pity on him and guided him to sit next to his sisters. 

“The healers have him in hand, A-Cheng,” she said, hoping it would comfort him. 

Lan Qiren joined them before the healers finished their examination, presenting the ink portraits to her, carefully rolled. 

“The name he spoke, Mo Xuanyu,” he said softly. 

“I’ve never heard of such a person,” she murmured. 

“In Gusu there is a Mo village. That may be a place to start, if you wish to look.”

Yu Ziyuan sighed. She had no way of knowing who this person was, if it was someone he’d met with his parents or part of a vision. But… that A-Ying had mentioned them before believing himself dead? Yes, she would want to seek them out, and would need to discuss it with Fengmian. 

“Thank you,” she said. “Hopefully it will be as simple as Mo village.”

The healers, when they finished their examination, let them know there was no damage, that it had just been another episode like the prior ones. A-Ying woke the next morning with no memory of the name Mo Xuanyu, only the memory of the ink portraits and riding on a donkey and his parents’ laughter. 

She dared not ask him about the question he had asked that had kept her awake much of the night, unwilling to potentially frighten him, and no one else seemed keen to, either.

Fengmian set off for Mo village with several disciples and returned the next day with a slip of a girl not much older than A-Li whose face had bruises in several stages of healing, and an undernourished infant that was her son. 

To her shock, the infant, only a few months old, was Mo Xuanyu—A-Yu for now, with Xuanyu his intended courtesy name when he came of age. 

It left them with far more questions than answers, but they at least knew it was visions, not memory. 

“I couldn’t leave them,” Fengmian confessed. “They were living in a shed with a donkey. She’s not yet seventeen.”

She couldn’t fault him for his compassion, as both mother and child clearly needed help. Even having taken in the street children and the Yunping prostitutes, they had the space and resources. She had them both taken straight to Healer Kang to be assessed for health needs.

Meng Shi came to her the next day. 

“A-Yu is A-Yao’s half brother,” she confessed. “They share the same father, and he is a cultivator, one of high standing.”

Yu Ziyuan thought about A-Yao’s features and realized sickly that she knew who had sired him. 

And he had impregnated someone so young, and left her in those conditions, just as he had abandoned Meng Shi to remain in sexual slavery. There was no way he didn’t know. There was no way he didn’t know Mo Yun was so young. 

“His wife is my sworn sister,” she told Meng Shi.

She went pale and swayed as though she might fall over, and Yu Ziyuan escorted her quickly to a seat lest she fall. 

Meng Shi, she realized when the woman started sobbing, expected to be turned out at this news. Perhaps thought that the pleasant dream of freedom and self-sufficiency, of her son learning cultivation, had ended. 

“You are welcome to stay at Lotus Cove,” she said. “I will not turn you, or your son, out. Nor Lady Mo or her son.”

“I should have told you before,” Meng Shi said apologetically. 

Yu Ziyuan shook her head. 

“No. You were not required to tell me at all. You know now what he is, yes?”

She nodded, tears streaming down her face. She pulled out a small purse and extracted a pearl button.

“Lady Mo has one, as well. He told her the same things he told me, acted like it was a great token, the only one he’d given. Special.”

To a woman trapped in horrible circumstances, as Meng Shi and Mo Yun had been, it was a fantasy they would latch onto, the idea that they might be special, might be saved and taken away. How many other women had been preyed upon like that?

Yu Ziyuan felt sick. She wanted to gut Jin Guangshan and strangle him with his intestines, at minimum.

“I thought I could send A-Yao when he was older, that he could be recognized,” Meng Shi said, sobbing. 

“It wouldn’t be safe,” Yu Ziyuan told her. “That man has made Koi Tower a nest of vipers. My sworn sister has turned bitter over his infidelity and would never accept them. She would treat them as I treated A-Ying when Fengmian first brought him home.”

Telling the truth of her jealousy toward Cangse Sanren and how she had irrationally seen A-Ying as possibly proof of infidelity at first, and how she had treated him in the beginning, was difficult. But speaking with Meng Shi, she could vocalize how that had shifted. How seeing him attacked and injured had changed things, though she still didn’t understand it herself. 

“He became yours when someone tried to harm him,” Meng Shi said softly. 

“Fengmian searched for A-Ying because Wei Changze was his sworn brother, not out of interest for Cangse Sanren. That poor child was on the streets for years, and I treated him so poorly.”

Meng Shi patted her hand.

“We cannot change the past. He doesn’t remember, so you must try to forgive yourself.”

“What if he does?” she couldn’t stop herself from asking.

It was something she hadn’t vocalized, even to Fengmian in their newfound closeness, but she had come to regard the former prostitute as something of a confidant.

“Then you will address it as it comes,” Meng Shi said soothingly. “A-Ying is such a forgiving child, and he will surely forgive you, even if you cannot forgive yourself.”

Yu Ziyuan knew he would, whether she was deserving or not. She would simply need to ensure she was deserving, that she fulfilled the promise she had made to his mother’s spirit. Cangse Sanren and her husband must have had Meng Po’s soup together and departed for their next lives, as they had not come for her when she had treated their son so poorly, but she would honor the promise all the same.

Meng Shi looked harried, though she was trying to offer comfort, and Yu Ziyuan turned back to her needs.

“What worries you?”

“Regarding Lady Mo… She said he still visits her. He will learn where she is. And if he comes, he will recognize me.”

Jin Guangshan was a predator and a cretin, but he was persistent in pursuing what he wanted. Though the man clearly had little interest in his offspring, he might be possessive over the poor slip of a girl whose family had dangled her like a piece of meat in front of him and convinced her it would improve her status.

The healing bruises and the state of her son showed how little it had mattered, unless it was worse before. She guessed he hadn’t noticed or cared about the state of the infant. The poor girl was the second daughter, the result of an affair of the late Master Mo with a servant, and she was treated… much like Yu Ziyuan had previously treated A-Ying, to her shame. Perhaps even more viciously.

Ultimately, the Mos only cared about their own status, and as they were in Gusu she would leave Lan Qiren to decide how to deal with them.

“I will speak with Fengmian, but we will not let him near either of you, nor your sons. You will all be safe.”

She was able to watch later that day, with no small amount of glee, as both Meng Shi and Mo Yun crushed the pearl buttons with stones and tossed the powder into a brazier as though to cleanse the negativity. Meng Yao happily accepted A-Yu as his baby brother when told of the news, holding him as though he was a little treasure, all dimples.

Of course, her sworn sister showed up with Jin Zixuan in tow the very next day. 

Chapter Text

Yu Ziyuan refused to panic when a harried-looking disciple came to inform her of Jin-furen’s arrival. She only had to look at Yinzhu for her to understand what she wanted—Meng Shi and Mo Yun warned, her children alerted to come for tea and snacks, and Jiang Fengmian informed. Her Pearl bowed to her and walked off purposefully. 

This, she knew, would be more troublesome a visit than Yao-zongzhu, in part because she didn’t respect him in the least while Lü Hongzhen was one of her oldest friends, her sworn sister. And she had arrived with her son, A-Li’s betrothed, in tow, which seemed to send a message, unless she simply didn’t wish him to be around his father without her influence. Equally possible. 

Internally, she was kicking herself for not expecting this visit. A-Hong would be concerned with the announcement, perhaps believing Fengmian had forced the adoption upon her, and they had made a pact in their youth to do what they could to support each other. 

“Please bring her to my pavilion,” she told the disciple, who quickly bowed and scurried off to obey. 

She held her head high as she strode to her pavilion to receive her; she would treat this as a visit by a friend, not as sect business. 

A giggle and running feet from behind her gave her enough warning to turn in time to catch A-Lian as she ran at her, and she pulled the happy child onto her hip—it was a nice change, the girl having been too quiet, too fearful, when she had first arrived. She had livened to match her brother, adopted though they were. 

A-Li lagged behind, panting and smiling apologetically when she reached them. 

“Madam Jin and her son have arrived,” Yu Ziyuan told her eldest. “Yinzhu is gathering your brothers.”

A-Li blinked and frowned slightly, as though she recognized there was reason to be concerned. 

“Have Lan Xichen help you bring your practice konghou to my pavilion.”

Her daughter brightened at the idea, perhaps hoping Jin Zixuan would actually look at her this time, and Yu Ziyuan hoped so too, for her sake. She bowed excitedly and hurried off. 

She continued on the path, smiling down at A-Lian. Having the child with her was perfect, as it would be difficult for A-Hong to resist her natural adorable charm and might divert her anger and concern. 

“We have a visitor,” she told the child. “She’s my friend, and the wife of a sect leader. How should you greet her?”

A-Lian didn’t even need time to think about it. 

“Proper bow and greetings! Gege taught A-Lian.”

She called both her brothers gege, without differentiating between them, and hilariously they both jumped at her call, not even caring who she meant. It was adorable. 

“Exactly. Her name is Jin-furen. Can you say that?”

“This A-Lian greets Jin-furen,” she almost chanted. 

“Very good, baobei. You’re so smart!”

A-Lian almost glowed at the praise, her smile as wide as A-Ying’s. She was such an agreeable and delightful child. 

The pavilion was being set up with tea and cakes by one of the servants, who had made note of the visit and anticipated Yu Ziyuan’s needs. Jinzhu took her post just inside the entrance to the pavilion, as though guarding it from intruders.

“My children will be joining us, and possibly the Lan boys,” she told the servant. “Would you please bring more tea and treats?”

The young woman smiled and bowed, taking her leave to do as asked. 

Yu Ziyuan was embarrassed to realize she knew few of the servants’ names, unbecoming of the madam of a major sect. She wondered after a moment, though, if it was unbecoming. The oddity of the adoption of A-Ying, often referred to as the son of a servant when his father had risen to become the Jiang first disciple and sworn brother to the sect leader, had been commented upon by far too many idiots visiting following the announcement. 

Perhaps few sect leaders or their wives knew the names of servants, if they focused so much on Wei Changze’s circumstances of birth and not what he had risen to. 

They were all fools, forgetting Cangse Sanren was the daughter of an Immortal, making Baoshan Sanren A-Ying’s grandsire. It had been all she ever saw, not too long ago, but apparently the focus on the lower circumstances of birth said much about Jianghu, and not good. Yu Ziyuan would do well not to follow their example. 

None of the visitors had commented on A-Lian, because no one knew where she had come from. If they did, Yu Ziyuan thought she might use A-Ying’s story, that she was a gift from the lotuses. A gift from Guanyin, she might say, for the goddess of mercy was often depicted carrying a lotus bloom, and her future courtesy name of Lianxin was a nod to her origin. Some might assume it to mean more, but if they assumed she was the soul of an adherent reincarnated and given to the Jiangs to raise… Well, no one would look down on the child, as they would if they knew she was an adopted waif. 

It was a mercy she had been brought to them, that every day Yu Ziyuan was becoming a better mother, a better partner to her husband, a better person, she hoped. But she knew that had all started with A-Ying. 

She was halfway tempted to enlist someone to spread the rumor just to see the reaction. Perhaps if some fool asked, she would make the claim with a straight face. First, though, she would speak to Fengmian about it—he had always been better at knowing what such rumors might do. 

Footsteps on the wooden pathway gave her warning. She shifted A-Lian to her hip, noting the gait was not the children, instead likely A-Hong and little Zixuan. 

A-Hong looked worried, Yu Ziyuan noted immediately—it was subtle, given her need to hide most of her true emotions in the snake den that was Koi Tower, but there. She couldn’t fault her friend for her concern. 

“Ah, the new baobei?” she asked. “I didn’t know there was a sister—she’s so young.”

“Adopted,” Yu Ziyuan told her, then set A-Lian down on the ground where she immediately and adorably greeted A-Hong as she’d been coached, her red ribbons flowing in the air with her bow. 

An involuntary twitch of A-Hong’s lips told her the display had landed perfectly. Hopefully she’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the child now. 

Jin Zixuan peered at the girl curiously, and A-Lian smiled at him before she noticed the Osmanthus cakes and her fixation on food won her focus. 

She motioned for her friend to sit, wondering if she should have waited to send for the children. 

“A-Ying was attacked,” she explained once they were situated. “Right in front of me. A curse from afar or something. He was in a coma for weeks and woke without any memories.”

A-Hong went still, shocked enough that it showed plainly on her face. 

Yu Ziyuan had wondered what rumors had left Yunmeng, if anyone had paid attention to the fact that the acting head of the Lan sect and his nephews had spent nearly a season here. She had her answer. 

“I had heard there was an illness,” A-Hong finally said. “But…”

“He’s regained a few memories, but you can practically count them on your fingers,” she told her. “The adoption was my idea.”

“What of Cangse Sanren?” her friend asked softly, her voice uncertain. 

“She’s dead,” Yu Ziyuan said bluntly. “As it turns out Fengmian cared more about the death of his sworn brother. The boy never deserved my vitriol, A-Hong, even if my husband once cared for his mother.”

Lü Hongzhen looked thoughtful at that, and Yu Ziyuan hoped she’d assuaged her concerns, at least for now. And maybe given her something to think about, though she wasn’t sure she could hope for so much right away. Meng Shi and Mo Yun were innocents, victims of Jin Guangshan, just as much as their sons were.

Jin Zixuan looked bored with their conversation, his fingers fiddling with the charm on his sword, but he perked up at the sound of feet on the pier. 

A-Lian heard it, too, looking up from the Osmanthus cake she had filched from the plate.

“Gege!” she yelled, running toward the door. 

A-Cheng entered first, but the girl didn’t care. She was about to wrap him in a sticky-fingered hug when A-Ying caught her so A-Li could wipe her hands clean. It demonstrated nicely how focused on each other they had become, able to predict their meimei so well. 

“Which gege do you want?” A-Ying asked, his voice gently teasing. 

The child frowned, considering for a moment.

“Both!” she said decisively. 

The boys picked her up together and gave her a hug. 

Yu Ziyuan watched them for a moment, smiling at their affection for each other. 

“We have guests,” she said. 

A-Li broke into a smile and bowed properly.

“Jin-furen, Jin-gongzi, it’s so nice to see you again.”

A-Ying and A-Cheng managed a bow with A-Lian still clinging to them like a limpet. 

Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen entered behind them, the latter carrying A-Li’s konghou, and both bowed and greeted the Jin visitors politely.

“I didn’t realize the Lan heirs were visiting,” A-Hong said, looking surprised. 

Yu Ziyuan couldn’t blame her. Even if she had heard of the Lan presence at Lotus Cove, the boys didn’t leave the Cloud Recesses often, and a troth contract could be drawn up without them present. 

“When A-Ying was first attacked, he called for Lan Wangji. Apparently they met in Yiling when he was homeless after his parents’ deaths. And since the Lans are known for their musical techniques for dealing with resentful energy, we sent for them.”

Lan Wangji’s ears turned red at mention of him, to her great amusement, something that often happened when he was embarrassed. 

It was entirely possible he had a boyhood crush on A-Ying, which would hopefully blossom as they grew up. Although the betrothal was a ploy to protect him and could be dissolved later, she did hope he would have a happy marriage, and if it brought the kind of alliance they had negotiated, all the better. 

A-Ying, on the other hand, had a distant look on his face, one A-Cheng noticed, taking A-Lian’s weight entirely. Yu Ziyuan called him to her, and when he didn’t respond, Lan Wangji took his arm and guided him.

She pulled him to sit beside her, and after a moment he blinked up at her in confusion. 

“A-Niang?”

A-Hong inhaled sharply, having likely not expected her to allow him to call her that. 

“Did you remember something, A-Ying?” she asked gently. 

He nodded, brows furrowing. 

“Yiling. Something about potatoes. A pretty lady was saying radishes are better. I don’t like radishes.”

Ah, so just the name had sparked memory. It was an odd thing to remember, but A-Ying had likely overheard many conversations in the streets while begging and scrounging for food, the poor child. 

“Wen Qing wouldn’t let me plant them,” A-Ying said distantly.

Yu Ziyuan realized abruptly this was not a memory, but some sort of premonition. She filed the name ‘Wen Qing’ away for later—of the Wen clan, likely, but would they be an infant like little Mo Xuanyu?

“A-Niang, my head hurts,” he murmured, and a little bead of blood dripped from his nose. 

Lan Wangji made a distressed noise that nearly covered A-Hong’s gasp of horror, pulling a cloth from his sleeve and dabbing at the blood gently. When A-Ying slumped against her, Yu Ziyuan was ready, shifting him to lay on his side. His betrothed settled next to them, holding his hand, something he was wont to do during A-Ying’s episodes—something about A-Ying being afraid he would forget again, he’d said once when she’d asked. 

A-Hong, when she looked up, was staring at the boy in alarm. Jin Zixuan looked equally horrified.

“Is that an effect of the attack?” she asked weakly. 

“The healers say the curse left resentful energy in his brain,” Yu Ziyuan told her. “They believe that is what has impacted his memory.”

“Should I go for a healer?” Lan Xichen asked, hovering in the periphery with A-Li’s konghou cradled in his arms. 

A-Lian squirmed in A-Cheng’s hold as though to get down to go to her brother, but A-Li murmured something that settled her and stepped forward, checking A-Ying’s meridians carefully as she had been taught by Healer Kang. 

“A-Niang, I think it’s just another episode,” she said after a moment. “His qi isn’t disrupted.”

A-Hong gave her an appraising look. 

“Are you learning to be a healer, A-Li?”

A-Li smiled brightly, clearly eager to discuss her new passion. She rose from her crouch and moved to sit on one of the cushions near the low table, pouring tea and passing the cups as she spoke. 

“Yes, Jin-furen. When A-Xian fell ill, I wanted to help. A-Niang thought maybe I could study healing cultivation, and I’m doing my best to strengthen my golden core, as well. Lan-laoshi—ah, I mean xiansheng—is helping while he’s here, and giving me lessons on the konghou. Lan Xichen has been helping me, too.”

Yu Ziyuan would never regret her suggestion; her daughter had rarely been so verbose around Jin Zixuan, too shy to speak with him. She wished she had opened her eyes to other cultivation paths sooner instead of giving up on A-Li’s cultivation. 

For his part, Jin Zixuan was looking at her as though seeing her for the first time. A-Hong seemed to notice, looking as pleased with this development. A-Li didn’t seem to notice, instead discussing some of what she had learned about core development. 

“I have learned much from observing Jiang-guniang,” Lan Xichen said with a smile when she paused. “She has been truly dedicated to improving her cultivation, and some of shufu’s advice has been informative for me as well.”

Jin Zixuan looked, perhaps, more intrigued, but when he saw Yu Ziyuan was looking at him, he looked away, his expression sullen. 

A-Lian was finally successful in getting A-Cheng to put her down and approached A-Ying carefully, as she had been taught to be gentle with him when this happened. She sat beside Lan Wangji, who shifted to make room for her. A-Cheng took a cushion and carefully eased it under A-Ying’s head before taking a seat near A-Li. 

Lan Xichen finally moved more fully into the pavilion when the servant from before bustled in another tray of tea and cakes for the table. He carefully set the konghou down next to A-Li before taking a seat. 

Yu Ziyuan took her attention off her sworn sister for a moment to thank the servant. 

“Would you please let Fengmian know that A-Ying has had another episode?”

The young woman glanced at the sleeping boy with obvious concern as she bowed. 

“Right away, Yu-furen.”

Lan Xichen took over pouring the tea, urging A-Li to play.

“I’m sure Jiang Wuxian would be happy to wake to your music,” he said with a smile. 

A-Li blushed, flustered by the praise, but also blossoming under it. 

“I am only a beginner,” she said with a seated bow to Lü Hongzhen and Jin Zixuan. “Please be patient with me.”

“Of course, A-Li. We’re delighted to hear your progress—aren’t we, Zixuan?” A-Hong prompted.

The address startled the boy, who had been studying Lan Xichen as though sizing him up. Jin Zixuan scowled for a split second, then nodded. 

“As a-niang says,” he said in a bored tone that had A-Cheng leveling a glare at him. 

Yu Ziyuan wasn’t sure what the source of his behavior was, aside from that it centered around A-Li. She would need to watch him moving forward. 

A-Li focused on her konghou, her fingers gentle against the strings as she played a slightly clumsy version of ‘Fengyang Flower Drum’ that had improved since the last time she had heard. The tune was fairly simple and had none of the embellishments more experienced musicians tended to add, but Yu Ziyuan was pleased with her progress in such a short time. 

When she was finished, A-Hong complimented her, as did Lan Xichen. 

“You’ve made such good progress, having only played a month,” he told her.

A-Ying stirred, then, and Lan Wangji helped him sit and released his hand. A-Lian clambered into his lap to hug him. 

“Gege okay?” she asked.

He looked dazed, confused as he always did after these episodes, but nodded to his sister and hugged her back. 

“A-Xian, I’ll play again for you,” A-Li offered, and immediately started the song again. 

This time her fingers seemed more sure on the strings, and there was less hesitation between notes. Yu Ziyuan recalled that musicians often warmed up before performing, and so perhaps this second rendition was more representative of her skill. 

A-Ying praised her playing when she finished, and she flushed happily. 

“It’s just the same song she played before,” Jin Zixuan muttered petulantly.

The air in the pavilion seemed to go still for a moment, and Yu Ziyuan wondered if she’d be protecting A-Li’s betrothed from malicious drowning. A-Hong frowned at her son. Fortunately, A-Li was gracious and simply smiled. 

“Yes, it’s necessary to practice each song multiple times to learn it.”

The tension released a bit.

“You’ve already done well to memorize the music,” Lan Xichen said, smiling in a way that had a bit of an edge. “You truly have dedicated yourself, Jiang-guniang.”

If Yu Ziyuan hadn’t been looking, she might have missed the way the Lan heir glanced at Jin Zixuan and narrowed his eyes slightly as though in challenge.

She was grateful Lan Qiren wasn’t taking tea with them, because he absolutely would have seen it and discouraged it. She, on the other hand, was not opposed to looking the other way if it led to Jin Zixuan treating her daughter better under the belief he could have competition. 

Lan Xichen brought around more cups of tea, and A-Cheng distributed plates with Osmanthus cakes, rose crunchy candy, and lotus paste buns. 

A-Hong turned to A-Ying, and Yu Ziyuan took a steadying sip of tea.

“Have you been recovering well?” she asked politely. 

He offered her a sunny smile. 

“Yes, Jin-furen. Everyone has been helping me. A-Niang, a-die, jiejie, gege, and even meimei. All my martial siblings, too. And Lan-xiansheng holds lessons in the infirmary for me!”

“Do you remember me or my son from before your illness?”

A-Ying glanced at Yu Ziyuan as though to be certain he hadn’t been on poor terms with them beforehand, and she just nodded encouragingly. She had put them on poor terms with her hostility, and he had also bristled at Jin Zixuan’s treatment of A-Li.

“I’m sorry, Jin-furen. I don’t. I just remembered baba and mama a few days ago because a-niang painted them for me.”

A-Hong’s eyes widened, perhaps at the idea of him having forgotten his own parents. 

“He has not yet remembered myself or Fengmian, either,” Yu Ziyuan added. “He remembered A-Li’s lotus root and pork rib soup first, with her. And he remembers roughhousing with A-Cheng.”

“So it’s a slow process,” A-Hong murmured, looking at the boy anew. “I’m sorry to hear of your illness, Jiang Wuxian.”

Triumph surged through Yu Ziyuan, and she hid it behind another sip of tea. Her sworn sister had accepted him as Jiang.

A-Ying set his cup and plate down to bow respectfully. 

“Thank you. I might never remember everything, but my family helps me all the time.”

“The missive did not mention Jiang Wuxian’s place in the line of succession,” A-Hong noted.

The triumph died a little at that, though Yu Ziyuan recognized Lü Hongzhen was likely thinking about her own situation, the knowledge that there were perhaps bastards of Jin Guangshan’s running around who were older than her son. A-Ying beat her to replying, though.

“A-Cheng will be the best sect leader in the history of the Jiang sect!” he said proudly. “He’s the best gege, and he works super hard.”

The praise made A-Cheng sit up straighter, his chest puffed up a little at his brother’s esteem.

“Well said.”

Fengmian’s voice startled them all, and Yu Ziyuan narrowed her eyes at him, suspecting he’d used his cultivation to silence his footsteps.

“A-Cheng will be sect leader,” he continued, letting his smile dip toward mischievousness when he met her eyes. “The betrothal agreement between the Jiang and Lan sects will mean that A-Ying will reside here half the year, and he and Lan Wangji will support both sects.”

She could see that A-Hong looked taken aback by that sort of arrangement.

“A-Li, A-Ying, your spiritual instruments just arrived,” he said, gesturing behind him at two servants who were carrying them. “We’ve had quite a few visitors today.”

Though A-Li had been practicing on a shoo konghou, when they had visited the luthier she had requested a fong shou konghou despite the warning that she would have to adjust the way she played when she received it. The instrument was elegantly shaped, constructed of rosewood, kept its natural golden color. The neck had been carved to resemble an actual bird head, with inlaid iridescent nacre that shimmered pink and purple in the light to denote delicate feathers, smoothing to plain wood, a hook in the neck graceful like that of a swan. The pins had even been shaped to resemble feathers, holding the silken strings. The sound box had more inlaid nacre in the shape of lotuses—the blossoms, leaves, and even the pods spread down each side. 

She had named it Zihuang, violet phoenix, and the characters were also inlaid on the neck in nacre. A-Li had been insistent on the name, the same character from Yu Ziyuan’s name to honor her mother’s suggestion, and the phoenix for her own hopes for perseverance and prosperity, for the blessing of harmony in their family.

A-Li was gentle when she set aside her practice konghou, taking the one that was to be her spiritual instrument in her lap and testing the strings, though they were of course already tuned. 

When the second servant handed the dizi to A-Ying, his eyes were for it only, not even straying to his sister’s instrument. His fingers traced the name Chenqing and the poem that had been inscribed in gold.

“We’ll have to have a whip made for you to use as a proper weapon until you inherit Zidian,” Fengmian told A-Cheng. “Once you’ve mastered the practice, of course.”

A-Cheng looked thrilled at the prospect, and she could just see she’d spend the next several days dragging him from the library to train. 

“And, of course, A-Lian has plenty of time to decide whether she wishes to play an instrument,” Yu Ziyuan added.

“Flute!” the girl answered immediately. “Like gege!”

“Don’t you want to be like jiejie?” A-Li asked playfully. 

“Konghou!” A-Lian chirped. “Like jiejie!” 

Well, they certainly had practice instruments of both, though she might be a bit young. 

Yu Ziyuan took Fengmian’s hand when he came close to check A-Ying for signs of illness—the boy had already rebounded from his episode and was excitedly opening the small packet of membranes for the dizi, ready to apply one and make it playable, chattering to Lan Wangji about maybe learning the song A-Li had played so they could attempt a duet.

A-Hong, when she looked at her next, had a soft smile on her face, one almost wistful, and Yu Ziyuan realized she herself was smiling. It was an almost alien feeling, her lips lifting of their own accord, the joy of her children and her husband infectious.

Somehow, she had found happiness, something she had long considered out of her reach in this lifetime.

A-Li invited Jin Zixuan closer to examine her konghou and smiled when he obliged her, telling him about the choices she had made in its design and her hopes for a future wherein she could practice musical cultivation.

For once the boy seemed unselfconscious, interested in what she had to say despite the audience, and Yu Ziyuan thought perhaps there could be more blessings in the future.