Your days begin before dawn and end in candlelight. A servant wakes you in the half-light to begin the day's work, holding a robe out in the winter, a light wrap in the summer that lasts eight months of the year in Yunmeng, while you slide your feet into shoes.
After dinner, you review the days' accounts while Jiang Cheng plays with the children or talks to his captains. After that, once the two of you are alone, you update medical records while Jiang Cheng sprawls around the room until you point out that he has letters to read and drafts to approve. After that, bed. All these years and three children, and the two of you still walk to bed together. You sleep in the same bed in the same room, like newlyweds. You did not move to separate quarters when pregnant; the two of you even undress each other without a servant in the room. Sometimes, he holds your hand while reading the correspondence you have selected for his attention.
For most of the servants, it has always been this way, but one night, early on, when you lay with your head on his bare chest, he explained in his difficult, tangled way that his parents lived in separate houses for the last decade of their marriage, only to -- to --
Why should your life follow any other track, Lady Wen?
Your eldest child is nine and starting to show her father's height. One afternoon, the tutor sends her to you, while you are still handling the morning business. There are accounts to settle, disputes to arbitrate, messengers from other clans to receive. In the afternoon, a half-dozen house calls are scheduled for the sick and poor of Yunmeng. There are already not enough hours in your day, and after confirming that she is not hurt or beaten by the tutor, that she has been kicked out of the classroom for punishment, you leave your daughter to stew on a bench, just like any petitioner.
You tell the steward to let her in for lunch. She comes in with her head bowed, shuffling.
Slowly, over rice with lotus seeds and fish, the story comes out. She wants to be out in the training grounds with her father. She does not like the classroom. She feels stupid, especially next to A-Ming, who is two years younger and already a better reader. Cultivation comes more easily to her. Look what she can already d --
"Do you want to lead the sect after your father?" you ask her, bluntly, chopsticks in hand.
She nods, eyes wide.
"What will happen when a letter comes from the Gusu Lan? Or when someone claims to have paid tax already, but the accounts are muddled? Or when it's time to renegotiate the trade contracts?"
"I'll ask A-Ming to figure it out for me. Like you do for Dad."
For that, you look at her, long and hard, without saying a word until she blushes with shame and looks down, cheeks as red as if you actually had slapped her across them.
For extra punishment, you tell the armsmaster to bar A-Chun from the training grounds for a week -- and you make her father to stop sneaking her out of the classroom in the afternoons for sessions that are half play, half serious. For extra, extra punishment, you keep her with you for that week, having her work the hours you do, making her fetch and carry for the clerks when you are dealing with petitioners, requiring her carry packages of food and clothing and warm bedding for when you take your rounds among the sick and ill of Yunmeng. After dinner, instead of having a hot bath, you make her sit with you going through the day's patients and matters. Has she correctly remembered who had the fever and who had the cough? For every error, you rebuke her like a clerk being trained. After all, the youngest are only a few years older than her.
Let her see the work you do.
In fact, it is almost as if you, yourself, were proud of the work that you did. For some reason, the thought troubles you. Why?
Every three months, you spend a week at Carp Tower.
Having seen it every three months of her life, A-Chun is reconciled to losing you for both the week itself and the travel time there and back. Perhaps she is looking forward to the chance to sneak more time at the training grounds, although you have talked to your husband about this. A-Ming still cries, although is grown enough to try and hide it behind a sleeve. You kiss the toddler in his nurse's arms.
Then you climb into the carriage, driven by a groom, hitched to a pair of horses. Six disciples will guard you on the way, spending the week at the Jin dormitories, dicing and drinking and enjoying all the pleasures of Lanling. Somehow, it is understood that Jiang Cheng will ride one of his black geldings next to the cart for a bit, neither of you saying anything. He is obviously worried for your safety, but he will never come with you to Carp Tower for these visits -- instead, there is a pine tree where he always calls on the procession to stop. You come to the window.
"Be safe," he says. "Come home."
The horse stamps.
You nod, then call for the driver to continue.
Once, you looked over your shoulder and saw him on the horse on the rise, watching you go. It gave you such a strange feeling. Why were you not sad? Why are you angry, only angry?
There is a recurring feeling that your life could have gone another way. That you might be dead, that you should be dead.
Do you remember why servants and ambassadors call you Lady Wen? Logically, you were born somewhere. You were raised by someone. You had a family. The Jiang are the smallest of the four great sects, but still, you would not be married to Jiang Wanyin if you came from nothing. And yet, when you try to remember, there is a hole in your mind. The edges are cold and hard and immovable.
"Lady Wen," your steward says, deeply apologetic, and touches his left temple. Reflexively, you do too, and --
You come home from Carp Tower.
To welcome you home, A-Chun and A-Ming run out into the courtyard the moment the cart pulls past the gates, asking you to arbitrate a quarrel about who should be allowed to present you with the first lotus seed cakes of the year. The toddler has been unusually fretful since you left and staggers towards you, dust-covered, with sticky hands. Jiang Cheng is outraged about some dispute involving his captains and wants to shout to you about it immediately.
Afterwards, in the bedroom with the candles out and the frogs calling to each other in the water, you turn onto your back. "Did A-Chun talk to you?" you ask.
"About what?" he says, happy and drowsy, one of his arms under you, the other on your bare stomach.
"She wants to lead the sect after you."
"Women don't lead the Jiang," he snaps, suddenly fully awake. Even in the half-light, you know that he is flushing with anger. He sits up, pulling his arms away from you. "There has never been a woman leader of our sect. Not in generations. And these days -- can you imagine a woman dealing with Nie Mingjue in one of his rages?”
And you sit up, slowly, holding the covers across your chest. When standing, you come up barely to his shoulder. Even sitting, the difference in size is notable. He is almost twice as broad across in the shoulders as you, and while both of you are naked, he wears Zidian on his hand, even in bed. And you look at him for a long time, saying nothing, just holding the covers to you. He looks at you, moving through anger, then confusion, then resentment, then back to something that, if you had to put a word to it, would be grief.
"You know what I have given up," you say, without entirely understanding why you say these words. "You know what I do."
In the moonlight, you see him flinch.
The next morning, he stops by your office after breakfast to kiss you on the cheek and mumble that he'll take A-Ming with him on the next appropriate night hunt within a day’s walk. She comes running into your office that afternoon, bursting in on a meeting with your steward, screaming with joy.
A good home. A secure place with one of the four great sects of the land. Three strong children. A handsome husband your own age, who never looks at other women, who minds what you say when it matters.
Who are the Wen?
What do you have difficulty remembering?
One night, an envoy comes late. Jiang Cheng grunts in his sleep, but the steward keeps murmuring, keeps apologizing, so you put your hand on your husband's left arm to wake him.
"It isn't me this time," you say. "There is a report from Carp Tower."
He turns over, and you see that his eyes are already open, his hand already clenched hard around Zidian. His breathing is fast.
Neither of you suggest waking the children; he rides out with the guard alone and comes back two days later, alone, dusty, hollow-eyed, shorter-tempered than usual. The servants keep away from him. Your eldest son comes to you, crying, because his father snarled at him for asking if he had brought a present back from traveling: not outrageous, because when his father goes to Cloud Recesses or Qinghe, there is usually a bag of sweets or a new toy.
Now, you check A-Ming carefully. No bruises. No broken skin. No scorch marks.
You eldest son is soft-hearted. He keeps crickets in cages and feeds them bits of rice from his dinner. He weeps when chickens are slaughtered. One year, he saved a wild bird with a broken wing that he found flopping on a walkway, nursed it back to a hopping health, then mourned for days when one of his father’s hunting dogs inevitably got it. You pretend not to see when A-Chun wades into a fight on his behalf, fists flying and using not just her size and training and age, but also the sheer fact that she likes a fight. A-Ming doesn't.
"When your father comes back from trips alone," you say. "Keep away from him."
Tearful, but obedient:
"Should I keep away from you, too, when you come back from Carp Tower?"
Jiang Cheng has never said the words to you, but you know.
Whenever the steward comes in the dark in the middle of the night for him, there are only two reasons. First, it happens when someone has been found in Jiang territory engaging in demonic cultivation. Your husband has a standing order that any credible report should be brought to him without hesitation, without delay, no matter the time of day or who he might be with. You have learned, separately, that the lash of Zidian will drive a spirit out of a body that it has possessed. There are other ways to test for possession, but Zidian is one of the quickest and surest.
Second, it happens when a messenger comes from the Jin, late at night, sometimes on a sword, sometimes using a cultivation technique involving translocation.
The result of either is the same: your husband, leaving Lotus Pier before the water-clock in the main courtyard has marked half an hour. The steward sends a servant in to light some candles, then you help him dress, the two of you working in absolute silence -- you help him into the layers of robes, each spelled for a different purpose to bring him home again, and you brush his hair out and put it up for him. Zidian is with him always; at night, Sandu is kept in a stand by the bed. Jiang Cheng is always wordless during the process: wordless, too, you think when he lights incense in the ancestral shrine and bows to his parents before leaving, even if the Jin guard stands outside, hand on sword and daring to be visibly impatient.
When your husband comes back from these short trips, he never has a prisoner. He never has a body. He never answers questions like when he comes back from a night hunt.
Instead, he is always in a foul mood, wanting to see you even less than the children: given time, he'll come back to sitting by you at night, holding your hand while he sighs through official correspondence, but you know to let him sleep in the barracks among his captains and the disciples as long as he needs. After all, his foster-brother and first disciple of his father was the Yiling Patriarch; they grew up together, sleeping in the same bedroom as children, drilling in the courtyards, fleeing from the burning of Lotus Pier together with Jiang Yanli. And yet Sandu Shengshou disowned him, then killed him in the Nightless City for being a demonic cultivator.
Now, you know: his wife is a daughter of the Wen, and he has three children from her, including his sect heir. In almost ten years, he has never taken a lover or mistress, let alone another wife.
When he comes back without a prisoner or a body, Zidian purple-eyed and lightning-tongued on his wrist for days —
Is his mood fouler when he comes back from a trip to root out demonic cultivation, or from a trip on behalf of the Jin?
There is a hole in your mind, Lady Wen. The edges are cold and hard and immovable as iron: in fact, your mind is flatly uninterested in testing the boundaries of what you know. You are not missing information about Lotus Pier; you are not lacking in knowledge that you would otherwise have about how to set a bone or relieve a fever or ease childbirth.
Seven months and two visits to Carp Tower after your husband begins to publicly refer to A-Chun as his heir, Lotus Pier hosts a cultivation conference.
For the Jiang, a full-scale conference is the work of half a year in planning and work and construction and provisioning and budgeting: perhaps the Jin can rely upon their endless treasury, and the Lan may be able to serve everyone the same exquisite plain tofu with refined plain mountain greens and perfect rice every night, but the Jiang cannot, especially when this is the first time that the full conference will be hosted by Lotus Pier in more than a decade. Food. Drink. Lighting.
“As you know, Lady Wen, my father has not been well," Jin Guangyao says. "He sends his regrets, along with profound thanks for the care that you provided when last at Carp Tower. As a token of our gratitude, I have brought a few humble tokens."
Servants in orange-gold livery bring forward a length of exquisite purple brocade for your husband and his heir. A chest of precious herbs for you. A clever mechanical carp for A-Ming, showing the skill of the artificers in Lanling. A gilded rattle for the youngest.
“My father's headaches are much improved. Ah, Jiang-gunniang, your mother is a truly gifted doctor,” he says as the tea is brought. A-Chun looks up, glowing -- even more than the prospect of cakes, she thrills with the pride of having a place at the table, at the joy being spoken to with respect, one sect heir to --
The announcement came, carried by a pair of Jin couriers on swords, escorted by six disciples.
Be it known to the corners of every land and all lying below heaven that my most beloved and worthy son, Lianfang-Zun
“Was this in the works when you left?” your husband says the next night, after the Jin couriers and disciples have left to return to Carp Tower after being feasted and toasted and sent in their way the next morning with a fulsome and appropriate letter.
In his voice, there is a tone of — anger. It's hard to call it anything but anger. His sister's son is alive, you know, living in Carp Tower with his grandparents. Jin Ling nephew by marriage and the presumed heir prior to this: his father's plaque lies in the Jin ancestral shrine, the only son born to Jin Guangshan and his wife, with Jiang Yanli’s hanging next to it. Now, your husband tosses the opened proclamation onto the table. With official marks and wax seals and precious crimson ink and golden tags, it is makes a noise like a slapped cheek.
You had been deep in the middle of reviewing accounts of food expenditures for the upcoming conference, and you look up at him. He looks back at you.
“You know my visits aren’t like that,,” you say. Your voice is quiet, steady in a way that his is not.
He sets his jaw, but turns away. You go back to the accounts.
It is three weeks to the conference, a week since your arrival home from Carp Tower.
The second night of the conference, with the moon high, you pass from your office to the family quarters and come across Jin Guangyao.
Your wrists ache. You have been up since dawn, giving orders, monitoring, checking, double-checking, soothing, arranging. Instead of turning in after the banquet, you went to compound medication for a messenger who had come murmuring that one of your cases had run out ahead of schedule — an accident of some kind. The boy’s mother had been kneeling in front of the moon gate, so you had her brought in, made comfortable, provided with a cup of calming herb decoction while you pieced together the prescription and inquired after her health, her family's health, whether anyone else was feeling symptoms, all the while mentally cursing yourself for not having had ground chai hu at hand.
Now, frogs call in the soft night. Most of Lotus Pier is asleep, including presumably your children, including almost certainly your husband.
Jin Guangyao stands in a passageway, hands tucked behind his back, looking at the moon over the small water courtyard.
You pause at the edge, half in shadow, but somehow, he knows you are there: unerringly, he turns and smiles at you, and you realize he is standing outside the building designated for Nie Mingjue and his sect’s delegation. The night is warm, so the curtains in the room next to him are drawn back. Through the lattice, bathed in golden lantern light, you realize that Zewu-Jun is playing for Chifeng-Zun on the guqin — the notes are soft, but clear, masterful, imbued with enough spiritual energy to make a shiver crawl across your shoulders.
There is enough power, in fact, to clear some of your own exhaustion. Your vision sharpens. Your mind grows less blurred. Your fingers curl.
You watch Jin Guangyao. He smiles. You stay in the half-shadows.
When the music draws to a close, there is a moment of silence, then a murmur of voices. Zewu-Jun comes out of the pavilion and into the walkway -- you can tell it is him by the height and the shoulders, the gleam of silver ornamentation on his head. He speaks a few words to Jin Guangyao, too low to hear, but you do see Jin Guangyao's face turned up to him, illuminated by lantern light from inside. Perhaps he has forgotten you. More likely, he has decided that you do not matter: in this moment, under the lantern, his face is laid open.
It is similar to his expression from giving your husband those gifts, when speaking to your child, who was delighted to be addressed with seriousness by a man as famous as Lianfang-Zun: the physical arrangement of eyes and mouth and posture is the same, but the emotion in them is utterly different. There is no hint that could be read as malice, no angle of the mouth that suggests, to a suspicious mind, anticipation of future pain on your part. Instead, he seems — happy at being able to give something precious to the man he loves.
Your mind tangles on the question of what he has given Lan Xichen. It is something to do with being free of Jin Guangshan, you sense. It is something that Jin Guangshan required of his son previously, but now does -- now -- it is almost on the tip of your tongue, but there is a hole in the middle of your head. You struggle with it. In the meantime, Zewu-Jun puts his hand on Jin Guangyao's arm. They go inside to Chifeng Zun; Jin Guangyao does not so much as glance over his shoulder at you.
Once the curtain in the room is drawn, you slide the throwing needle back into your sleeve.
You continue to bed.
You keep out of Nie Mingjue's way. The older children have been warned to stay clear. For the duration of the conference, the nurse sleeps in the room with them.
Some of the Lan remember, too -- you do not know exactly what they remember, just as you do not remember why you and the children ought to keep out of Nie Mingjue's way. In fact, it is not only that you do not know. Your mind actively turns from the question. Nevertheless, you feel it in carefully blank expressions when you cross to speak to Lan Xichen on some logistical matter.
He always receives you with his famous courtesy, even consulting you from time to time for thoughts on herbal medicine.
Once during the conference, you turn the corner and find your older son and only daughter talking to one of the Lan juniors.
Your son is excitedly asking about some type of bird that lives in Cloud Recesses: A-Ming is wild for birds, will be caught at lessons staring out the window at geese rising from the river, and the prospect of bird knowledge has given him enough courage to talk to a stranger, although he did bring an amused A-Chun for courage.
Remembering those carefully blank expressions, you pause, considering intervention, but it is only one Lan boy. Further, the Lan boy's face is kind. Courteous. Clearly a little amused to be so closely questioned by a seven year old who likely had to clutch his older sister's sleeve for courage before beginning to speak. Yes, the Lan boy says, he has seen the bird in question. No, it is not common in Cloud Recesses, but it is not rare either. In person, it is not very large, just the size of his palm. Its call is -- the Lan boy pauses, then raises both hands to his mouth, folding them in an obscure way, and makes a surprisingly liquid, surprisingly real-seeming sound that makes your son almost levitate from the ground in excitement.
In a moment, you think, smiling, A-Ming will ask to be taught how to make that noise, and Lotus Pier will know no peace for months. He steps forward, eyes rapt. He drops his sister's sleeve.
On the other hand, you think, if spiritual power is involved, perhaps your son will finally find something in cultivation worth caring about.
But Zewu-Jun rounds the corner, in conversation with an entourage of disciples. On seeing you at the other end of the courtyard, his expression is warm. On following your eyes to the Lan junior and your children -- for the barest portion of a second, before it is wiped away with diplomatic skill, you swear alarm flickers across his eyes.
"Lan Yuan," he calls. The Lan boy turns on his heel, giving your son and daughter an apologetic half-smile, before trotting to his sect leader.
Your son is audibly disappointed; having seen you across the way, your daughter rolls her eyes dramatically while she guides him away.
Lan Yuan, you say to yourself walking away, turning the name over in your mouth. Lan Yuan. A round-cheeked boy, thirteen or fourteen.
The boy's eyes had gone wide at being called Lan Yuan with a touch of command: not the way he was usually addressed by that voice. Room had immediately been made to accommodate him near Lan Xichen, rather than requiring him to find space in the back as a junior disciple: a close family connection even among the inner disciples, not a distant relation. Now that you have seen him close at hand to Lan Xichen, you remember him in attendance in the banquet hall, in the courtyards, on boating excursions. Not so close as to be in the way, but always easily at hand, exactly placed to step forward for a message, to receive an order to carry with pleasing phrasing and perfect manners.
So not only trusted, but being trained for more than cultivation and proper morals.
Was that a touch of coldness from Lan Xichen in the polite nod passing you?
When you encounter Zewu-Jun at the evening banquet, though, he has corrected himself. He is nothing but courtesy, all consideration and warmth. Hanguang-Jun's eyes rest on you, appraising.
You do not remember the Wen. Your mind does not want even to frame the question: danger lies that way. You did not imagine, you think, the expression of alarm on Lan Xichen's face. Almost fear for Lan Yuan
Without understanding why, your hand drifts to your left temple.
Nevertheless, for two weeks, you watch power wash through the corridors and walkways and courtyards of your home. There are four great sects; the leaders of two have sworn brotherhood with the man who has now publicly been named heir to the third, and now, your husband must navigate a new landscape, negotiating with lesser sects that come looking for power and influence and information about the slightly adjusted new order, while also keeping a steady footing within the currents and counter-currents of the Venerated Triad.
In political inclinations, you know, he is closer to Nie Mingjue. In practice, he does not contradict Jin Guangyao. Lotus Pier may have been rebuilt largely without Jin money, only a few short-term loans from the trade guilds of Lanling, repaid years ago with interest, but there are other -- considerations. Obligations.
From time to time, in conference with the other sect leaders, your husband's eyes touch you across the banquet hall. A-Chun at his elbow. A-Ming by yours, looking for birds in the rafters.
A grazing dispute. A trade caravan attacked in the mountains with inhuman ferocity, with every human struck down in bloody fashion and the oxen slain in their traces. Based on footprints, it appears a single, human-shaped entity did it. Should a night hunt be organized? Qinghe merchants lost both treasure and family, so Nie Mingjue argues for one. The attack occurred in unclaimed land bordering existing settlements of a sect allied to the Jin; defending their hopes of territorial expansion and advancing his own agenda, Jin Guangyao first suggests that any night hunt would be premature, then falls back to a position that any night hunt should be carried by multiple sects. He turns to your husband to support him.
Lan Xichen tries to find the middle way.
"Mother," A-Chun says to you, one rainy afternoon when she is hanging around your working room, "you're missing a needle from this set. See? There should be ten of each size, but you only have nine of Number 4."
At the second to last night of the conference, the food has been taken away, but the drinking has not yet begun. The toddler is with the nurse; A-Ming sits next to you, trying not to yawn. A-Chun sits on the other side of her father, correct and clean in her best robes, and the renowned musician brought by one of the allied sects as their gift to the conference picks up his next song, a story of an unnamed noble lord who falls in love with a beautiful, worthy woman in wartime and saves her from the sins of her family with honorable marriage.
A romantic theme.
Your husband's eyes are fixed at the back of the hall, but your daughter listens. In a few years, she will start to think of love, if she is anything like her father. In a few years, the matchmakers will come, and they will say that their goal is to obtain for your eldest, the first and only daughter, a close, happy marriage, like the one enjoyed by her honorable parents.
It is not an unhappy marriage. It is --
Three days after the end of the cultivation conference, you sit in bed, combing your hair. He lays on his side, watching.
With the index and middle fingers of his left hand, very carefully, he touches the small of your back over your sleeping robe. You look down at him -- it is primarily the side of his face, seen mostly in profile, but also a little from the front. He is angling his face to look up at you. After ten years of marriage, the angle of his jaw is familiar. You know the curve of his cheek and mouth, the bare skin at the bottom of his throat, just above where it meets the collarbones. His eyes are in half-shadow, because the candles are on the other side of the room.
After a moment, you give him the comb in your hand. Carefully, he puts it by the side of the bed at the base of the stand where he keeps Sandu.
He turns back; you look at him, and he looks at you.
He kisses you, and you put your right hand underneath his hair, over the back of his neck.
He unfastens the front of your sleeping robe, and you circle his left wrist with the fingers of your land hand. He undoes the front of your robe; you slide your right hand through his hair, not quite pulling, but also letting it catch, here and there. At the same time, you run the nails of your left hand beneath his undershirt; he takes it correctly, as a sign to remove his shirt. He undoes the front of your robe and pulls you into his lap; you let yourself be pulled. Your husband does not like being rolled onto his back -- something about being flat on his back, naked, with someone above him. The hand on your hip wears Zidian.
There is something in his memories, dark and terrible. There is something inside the left side of your --
"There is a difficult birth," you say, touching his bare arm. The cultivation conference has been over for two months. "One of the outlying houses on the road to Lanling. I must go."
He sighs, clasps your hand briefly, then goes back to sleep. It is not an unhappy marriage.
You are going to one of the outlying houses on the north-running road, but it is not a birth. A single light burns in the window of your destination, and frogs call in the darkness; you tie your horse in the back, where it cannot be seen from the road, even if someone were to pass by at this hour, with the moon a sliver above.
Inside, a single old woman by a hearth. She rises on seeing you.
"Is he ready?"
"Asleep and snoring, Lady Wen," she says. "As you directed."
"And the other?"
"Waiting close by."
You consider her. "Help me get our prisoner up on the work table, Grandmother Li. Then, you should leave and bar the door behind you. When I give the signal, go and fetch the other -- but do not let him enter until I allow him to. Repeat it back to me, please, so that I can be sure you have it right."
She does, word-perfect, but there is a hesitation. You can see it in her eyes.
"Yes, Grandmother Li?"
"I would like to be there."
You look back at her; she is about to beg, you think. You will not make her.
"The beginning. When I tell you to leave, you must leave and bar the door behind you. Is that agreed?"
Carrying your tools, rolled in a linen bundle, you pass into the room beyond. You are still missing your Number 4 needle.
Grandmother Li follows.
A good home. A secure place with one of the four great sects of the land. Three strong children. A handsome husband your own age, who never looks at other women, who minds what you say when it matters, who loves you and is gentle in bed. In all these years, he has never forced you, at least not in the usual way of things.
You touch your fingers to the left side of your head, but cannot even form the word on your tongue.
The man beneath your hands is, technically, one of your husband's. His robes will be burned; his sword has been carefully taken away and hidden.
A year before, he caught a peasant girl in the fields alone, and after that, found her easy prey to return to. Eventually, the girl became pregnant and committed suicide in shame; her grandmother came to you for justice. You could have reported it to your husband. You could have pressed him to exert the fullest limits of his authority. For the memory of his sister, for you, for his daughter, from his own innate sense of justice, he might have laid the man's back open with Zidian in the courtyard, then expelled him. You think, sometimes, about why your husband fears being on his back, naked. Perhaps he might even have killed the man.
But after the paralytic needles are in place, you wake the man with a final needle, so that his eyes and mouth are open, but he is unable to rise from the table where you have secured him, unable to do more than pant in horror.
You need him awake for the real work.
Grandmother Li leaves.
In this, you have clearly usurped your husband's authority. Discipline is intimately tied to his status as sect leader: his disciples, his law. His justice. But you continue. You press your fingers to the man’s solar plexus and begin to speak the required words. You burn a talisman written with the correct words.
The man tries to scream, but the shape of his vocal chords, the build of his tongue, has already begun to change.
As dawn slides above the horizon, you call out.
"It's done. Help me with him."
There is a rustle on the other side of the door. There are two voices, then the sound of a heavy bar being lifted.
Lan Wangji comes into the room, Bichen in his left hand. He takes a single step into the room, then stops in the middle of lifting his feet for a second. His eyes stare. He makes a noise, low in his throat, and comes close to dropping his sword. Instead, he steps forward, moving quickly.
Still, for a moment, it is a close matter. It is as if the dead have come back to life.
In fact, under your hands, heavy against your shoulder until Lan Wangji lifts him easily — Wei Wuxian has.
Historically, there has only ever been a single Sacrificial Ritual, requiring a willing person to sacrifice their own body.
But you are the greatest doctor-cultivator that any branch of the Wen ever produced, and you are under no illusions about the work that you must do for Jin Guangyao in your missing week, even if you cannot remember any of the details, even if the notes have been scrupulously omitted from your records. You have a sense of your own capacity, expanded over a decade of work. You know how much power lies in your hands, your needles, your skill. Is Jin Guangshan your work? You suspect it is, in fact, where your missing Number 4 needle has gone.
As for the -- even now, you cannot say the word in this context. Somehow, it will not form on your tongue or in your mind. You must find another way, another route.
Consequently: is the left side of your head also your own doing?
It must have been. They must have offered you something worth sacrificing yourself in this manner, to this degree.
Wiping hands on your apron, you come into the front room and find Grandma Li gone, left to return to home, but find the two of them kneeling on the floor together.
More correctly, Lan Wangji kneels on the floor. Wei Wuxian, using a body made from a man kept from your husband's justice, so that you might torture him to death for private purpose -- he sits and leans against Lan Wangji. The banked fire of the hearth is reflected in their eyes, shining in the silver of Lan Wangji's ornamentation. There is a cup of warmed rice water with herbs for Wei Wuxian to sip, because his new stomach is still delicate.
What has this been for?
Carefully, you put two fingers into your mouth and pull a tightly-rolled bit of paper from the inside of your mouth, where it has been tucked between your cheek and your gum since leaving Carp Tower. The paper is charmed to be waterproof; so is the ink. This is how you smuggled the information about the Sacrificial Ritual out of Carp Tower, but since the needles went back into your head after writing it, until you unroll the paper and read it yourself, you do not know yourself what is on there, why you have done this -- killed a disciple of the Jiang, even if he richly deserved it. Betrayed your husband. Put your children at risk of reprisal from Carp Tower.
Two short sentences:
Save my brother.
Then destroy Jin Guangyao.
You wipe it off on the front of your working apron, then hand it to them. They read it, then Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji look up at you, standing in front of the fire. You spoke to Lan Wangji at the cultivation conference: the moon reflected on rippling waters, and you offered him the possibility. Lan Yuan is not the family member that Lan Xichen should have been concerned to find you watching: now, his brother has his right arm wrapped over Wei Wuxian's shoulders.
Wei Wuxian's eyes are pools of darkness. He knows that no matter what words may be said to him about the man being deserving, he did not go willingly.
Nevertheless, he nods.
They both do. By noon, they are gone.
Your days begin before dawn. They end in candlelight.
You wait for news.