Wei Ying first hears about the ball over dinner.
"They're trying to marry off Second Prince," Fourth Uncle says, through a mouthful of stew.
It had been his turn to go into the village this afternoon. As usual, he brought back supplies and the latest news. His announcement is met with murmurs of interest.
Wei Ying listens as he chews the rough flatbread Third Aunt baked over the fire. It takes a lot of chewing.
"Doesn't his brother have to marry first?" A-Jing asks. Her eyes are bright and curious.
Wei Ying hides a scoff in his bowl of stew. He avoid Wen Qing's gaze as she glances his way.
It's funny, that's all. Everybody's always so curious about the emperor, the lord regent, the princes. Even the Wens—who have little enough reason to take an interest in the imperial family—aren't immune.
"Oh, he'll marry soon enough." Fourth Uncle nods knowingly. "His engagement to General Nie is official now."
An awkward silence falls.
Wei Ying swallows around a sudden lump in his throat. He thinks of Nie Huaisang, who used to be his friend. He thinks of Nie Mingjue, who once treated him like a younger brother.
He thinks of the banquet commemorating the end of the war: the one where Nie Mingjue announced—to uproarious applause—that the surviving members of the Wen clan would be executed for treachery.
"Who is Second Prince marrying?" Second Aunt taps a spoon against her bowl.
Wei Ying toys with his stew. His appetite is gone. But if he doesn't finish on his own, Wen Qing will pour it down his throat. Food is scarce enough, after all. The days when Wei Ying could carelessly leave his meal half-eaten are long gone.
"There is going to be," Fourth Uncle declares grandly, "a ball. For all the gentry."
A-Jing gives an excited gasp, and the rest of the Wens lean forward .
"Everybody who's rich and titled, who's got a son or daughter the right age, will be invited. Second Prince will pick someone out, and they'll announce the engagement." Fourth Uncle nods, then sits back to enjoy the effect of his announcement.
The uproar is instantaneous as two dozen voices try to have their say at once. A-Yuan, leaning sleepily against Wei Ying's side, perks up and looks around.
"What a way to choose a spouse!" Granny snorts.
Wei Ying smiles at her, and she winks in reply.
Granny enjoys talking about how her own marriage— which produced eleven healthy children, thank you very much!—had been a love-match. Wei Ying relishes these stories, but he's not so fond of her nagging.
Hurry and choose a spouse of your own, she tells him. When I was your age, I was already married with a child in my arms!
But when Granny was Wei Ying's age, she wasn't living in a refugee camp with a group of branded traitors. Those circumstances put a damper on matrimonial plans.
Of course, Wei Ying can't mention this. Granny would only feel badly. She'd blame herself—or her family—for ruining Wei Ying's prospects. Wei Ying couldn't bear that.
So when she pesters him about marriage, he must treat it as a joke: Granny, how can a handsome young man like me settle down so quickly? Naturally I want to sow my wild oats before I shackle myself to a husband or wife!
Granny always laughs and swats at him. She tells him to take care, or his 'wild oats' will have him changing dirty nappies before he knows it. Wei Ying smiles and teases her. Then he nurses his hurt feelings in private.
"At least he gets to choose for himself," Wen Qing points out. "Children of the gentry usually don't."
She looks toward Wei Ying as she says it. Wei Ying forces down the urge to squirm.
Wen Qing isn't wrong, exactly. Among the gentry, most marriages are arranged. Wei Ying knows that for a fact. For a prince to choose his own spouse is noteworthy. But Wei Ying doesn't like the reminder that he was once a 'child of the gentry.' So he waves his spoon at Wen Qing instead.
"Still, Granny is right!" he protests. "How are you supposed to pick out a husband or wife after one night?"
Fourth Uncle grins. For a moment, Wei Ying thinks he's going to make a filthy joke. But he seems to remember that A-Yuan and A-Jing are present. Maybe he catches Wen Qing's warning glare. Either way, Fourth Uncle settles back and holds up three fingers.
"Three nights. Three nights of balls. Everybody will wear masks. Second Prince will announce his choice after the final night."
Another uproar, more clamoring. A-Yuan sits upright and looks around.
"Gege." A-Yuan tugs Wei Ying's shirt. "What happened?"
"Oh, the very fancy and important Second Prince is getting married." Wei Ying pulls a face.
A-Yuan—young enough that the idea of matrimony is still repulsive—makes one in return.
"That's what everyone's saying," Fourth Uncle insists, over the din of doubtful voices. "I overheard Sect Leader Zhang's son talking about it. He got an invitation, he said. So I guess he'd know."
Everybody digests that for a moment. Then A-Jing turns, her braids bouncing.
"Master Wei, did you ever see the prince?" she asks, starry-eyed.
Wei Ying is hit by a rush of pity.
A-Jing is thirteen next month. In a better world, she'd have her own invitations to parties and banquets. She'd be dreaming of romance, of her own wedding day. Her parents would be thinking of her marriage, too. They might be calling matchmakers or sending out betrothal gifts.
Instead, her parents are dead and she's here: a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. Instead of picking out silk robes and silver hairpins, she's huddled around a fire in threadbare clothing. Instead of soft feather-beds, she's sleeping beneath crude wooden lean-tos made from scavenged boards.
Everyone at the camp faces the same hardships. But it's not so bad for the rest of the Wens. Most were fifty or sixty. They already buried spouses and children, parents and siblings. They hung on, but they didn't have much of a future left.
A-Yuan was so small, he didn't remember much from before the war. But A-Jing was old enough to remember everything. She was old enough to know what she'd lost and young enough that her whole life should be ahead of her. A-Jing was precisely the wrong age for this mess, and Wei Ying's heart aches every time he looked at her.
But when he responds, he keep his tone light and tries to make her smile.
"Sadly, no!" He shakes his head solemnly, as if with regret.
There's a little regret there, maybe. He doesn't regret his choices. He'd do it all again, even knowing the cost. He turned his back on his family, and their absence is still an open wound. Wei Ying has learned to live with that wound, ignoring how it pulses with every step he takes.
Still, Wei Ying can't help but regret losing the opportunity to attend lectures at the imperial palace. The lectures were canceled during the war, but they resumed this year. Everyone Wei Ying knew, during the time before, must have gone.
Jiang Cheng might have attended some of them. Presuming he could find the time, of course. He was Sect Leader Jiang now.
Jiejie probably attended the lectures too. She's busy preparing for her wedding, but she always wanted to visit the palace.
If things were different, Wei Ying would've attended the lectures with his brother and sister. He would've met all the other high-ranking young masters and mistresses. He would've seen the princes.
But there were no imperial invitations for traitors. No special lectures for the man who defied the emperor's orders. No warm welcome for Wei Ying, who spirited away the remaining Wens and hid them in the hills on the outskirts of the empire.
Wi Ying shoves the thought away and shrugs at A-Jing.
"Of course, everyone says Second Prince very beautiful," he admits. "But he's probably very stuffy and full of himself! I pity whoever has to marry him!"
Wei Ying nodded gravely—truly, marrying a prince must be a terrible fate!— and A-Jing laughs.
"Some stuffy young master or mistress will have that honor," Wen Qing says mildly. "Now, come and help me with the dishes. You drew the short straw this morning, so it's your turn."
Wei Ying wails out his protests, but it's no use: it is his turn. Anyway, Wen Qing has a speculative look in her eyes. That means there's something she wants to talk about, something the others shouldn't hear. So Wei Ying lets her drag him to the small stream behind their camp. Together, they fill the buckets and start scrubbing.
"Fourth Uncle checked the hiding place," she murmurs when they're halfway through the dishes. "But there was nothing."
Wei Ying tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach.
Jiejie is doing her best to help. He knows that. She smuggles him money whenever she can, and hides it in a hollow tree not far from their camp. Every time Wei Ying finds another envelope of money, his spirits lift.
Money means another weeks' worth of food. But it also means that his sister still believes in him. Even if everyone else calls him a traitor, she's kept faith.
Whenever the hiding place is empty, Wei Ying's chest grows heavy. Did she finally give up on me? Did she change her mind? Has she washed her hands of me? Does she hate me now?
But Jiejie's wedding is fast approaching, and she has other things to think of. She can't get her hand on much money, not without awkward explanations. And it must be hard to find someone trustworthy to carry the money all that way. It's not as though Jiejie can make the trip herself.
"She's doing everything she can," he says stubbornly.
He hopes it's true. But Wen Qing only sighs.
"I'm not criticizing her." She scrubs the last trace of stew from the pot. "But winter's coming. Food prices are going up. We're going to need more blankets and clothes unless we all want to freeze to death."
"Well, then." Wei Ying keeps his voice light. "You know what we have to do."
Wen Qing frown at the pot in her hands. Wei Ying busies himself with rinsing the spoons so he doesn't have to say anything else.
It's no use scowling, he wants to tell her. Do you think I like making a living as a robber? Do you think I'm any prouder of this than you are?
He used to be a valued member of a high-ranking sect. Delicious meals appeared on his table each day. Clean clothes and warm furs manifested in his private chambers. He hardly knew or cared about food prices. When he needed something—when Jiang Cheng or Jiejie needed something—they bought it. Then somebody sent a bill to Uncle, and his secretaries paid it.
What a difference a year makes, Wei Ying thinks.
It hasn't even been a full year. Seven months, that's all: one formal banquet, one dire announcement, one hurried flight from Qinghe in the dead of night. Now everything is different.
Wen Qing stares at the dishes with narrowed eyes as she rinses them with clean water.
"Who will you target?" She shakes the bowls dry. "It can't be Zhang again. One theft he can ignore. Two thefts, and he'll go looking for the perpetrator."
It'd be three, actually. Wei Ying didn't tell her about the second. He hadn't wanted her to worry.
But the first theft went so well. He slipped the guards one of Wen Qing's concoctions and waited until they passed out. Then he crept into the steward's office and helped himself to a box of coins.
He and Wen Qing agreed that he shouldn't do it again. She was right: if it was just one theft, nobody would say anything. They'd be too afraid of getting punished for their own carelessness. Wei Ying agreed that he shouldn't return to the Zhang compound.
But within a month, the stolen money was spent. Their pockets were empty again, and there was so much they needed. One night, A-Yuan cried from hunger. So Wei Ying slipped into the Zhang compound, loaded up a bag with food, and lied to Wen Qing's face about having sold some protection charms to the villagers.
He can't get away with making good on that lie. Selling charms is dicey work. Eventually, somebody will wonder why a sorcerer—even a rogue one—is hanging around a backwater village in the north. The last thing they need is for someone to start asking questions about their small camp.
Theft is the only way forward, and they both know it. It grates on Wei Ying, just like it does Wen Qing. It's a shameful way to live. But it's all they have left.
Wen Qing stacks the bowls into a tidy pile.
Wei Ying rubs his chin as if he's giving the matter a lot of thought. He doesn't need to think deeply about his answer, though. The idea has been growing in his mind ever since he heard Fourth Uncle utter the words 'masks'.
"Hmm. Well, I was thinking."
Wen Qing swings to look at him. She clearly recognizes his tone. Wei Ying winces internally, trying to keep his face bright and innocent.
"Isn't this a good time to go into the capital? These balls! Lots of gentry will be wandering around in their best silks and finest jewels." Wei Ying tilts his head. "They'll be throwing money everywhere, trying to impress Second Prince. How hard could it be to snatch a few purses? There will be so many of them!"
Wen Qing remains silent for six full seconds. It's not a good sign.
Wei Ying opens his mouth to explain his plans further. But Wen Qing grabs him by the collar and shakes him like a kitten.
"Yes," she says tersely. She gives Wei Ying another shake when he tries to speak. "There will be a lot of important, wealthy people at the capital. Many of whom would recognize you on sight. Are you actually insane?"
"Masquerade!" he chokes out, as her grip around his neck tightens. "It's a masquerade! Everybody will be wearing masks! Including me!"
"You are insane." Wen Qing's face is tense. Her hand drops away. "Too risky. Don't even think about it."
Wei Ying sighs and rubs his throat.
"If you have a better idea," he said, changing tactics. "I am willing to hear it."
Wen Qing's mouth is tight as she finishes stacking the dishes. Wei Ying helps her finish and lets the silence stretch out.
He feels faintly queasy, but they might as well face facts: they're out of ideas, and out of options. The Wens have no allies left. Wei Ying already called in all the favors he could. Jiejie can't help them anymore.
They can't find legitimate work, either. Not many people are willing to hire a rogue sorcerer. Seeking out that sort of work is as risky as venturing into the capital. Wei Ying might be recognized, arrested, imprisoned.
Stealing is better, but there aren't many people to rob in the countryside. Wei Ying can hardly rob the other peasant farmers. They're poor, too. They struggle to keep their own children fed and clothed. Wei Ying couldn't live with himself if he resorted to robbing them.
Stealing from the gentry is a much better option. But to accomplish that, he must head for more populous areas.
And if he has to venture outside the camp…well, why not go all the way? Why not go straight to the capital? That's where the riches are. The imperial family is obscenely wealthy, and their guests will be spending lavishly.
Wei Ying's chest prickles. He resists the urge to rub it. That sort of motion would only draw Wen Qing's attention, and she'd want to know what he was thinking. If he answers that question honestly—if I go to the ball, maybe I can see Jiejie and Jiang Cheng again—she'll veto the plan immediately.
He can't approach them. He knows that already. Wei Ying can't talk to his brother or sister, because it would only put them in danger. Maybe they wouldn't want to speak to him anyway.
But he could see them. Just a glimpse, that's all. Just enough to know that his brother and sister were okay.
Wen Qing arranges the clean dishes into a tidy pile. Then she draws in a deep breath.
"You aren't as stupid as you look." She levels him with a sharp look. "You know that they'll be prepared for this. An event of this caliber is always a target for thieves and pickpockets. They'll have guards. They'll be looking for people like you."
"They'll be looking," Wei Ying admits. He sketches a small bow. "But I am very sneaky! I can use talismans to disguise myself. I can create diversions. I know about parties like this, anyway. I know how to behave. I can blend in."
Wen Qing gives him an even sharper look, and Wei Ying remembers that she's seen him in action at formal banquets. He hastily amends his statement.
"I do actually know how to behave!" he insists. "I didn't behave before, but that was my choice. This time, I would choose differently!"
He gives her his most charming smile. But Wen Qing looks unimpressed.
"And you can help me out," Wei Ying adds hopefully. "You can give me more of that stuff that knocked out the Zhang guards, and the powder you used when we escaped."
That, Wei Ying decides, was Wen Qing's best invention ever. A powder, tossed into the eyes, which caused blurred vision and temporary blindness. Wen Qing swore there were no lasting effects, but it made getaways a lot easier.
"I don't have an unlimited supply of that," Wen Qing mutters. "It's supposed to be for emergencies."
Wei Ying washes the last trace of stew away from his hands.
He doesn't say that this was an emergency. He doesn't have to. Wen Qing knows the state of their food stores better than he does. She also knows what happens to people who sleep outside during the winter.
Warming talismans only go so far. Wei Ying tried to tweak some spells, to make the most of what they had. But it's a matter of resources.They don't have enough firewood, and they can't scavenge enough from this barren plain. Spellwork can do a lot, but it can't multiply trees.
Wei Ying could use his own magic to fuel the talismans for a while. But if he tried to fuel hundreds of warming talismans, he'd drain himself dry. He'd be shriveled up into a prune long before the spring thaw.
Food would only become scarcer as their meager vegetable plot stopped producing. The people in town would start looking to their own interests, hoarding supplies and raising prices. Wei Ying can't use magic to multiply food, either. It's impossible. Magic simply doesn't work that way.
This, more than any hardship they've faced, is an emergency.
Wen Qing sits back on her heels and dries her hands. She looks tired. Wei Ying hates seeing that exhaustion stamped on her face, day after day.
"The capital is weeks away," she says.
"Not a problem. I'll use Traveler's Boon." He keeps his voice neutral. As if he isn't talking about a high-level spell that takes most sorcerers decades to master.
Wen Qing swings around to stare at him. Wei Ying hides a grin.
"For that distance?" She gives him a skeptical squint.
But she doesn't say, It's impossible. You could never manage it. Someone your age couldn't master that spell.
Wei Ying's heart warms at her faith, her confidence in his abilities. But he almost wishes Wen Qing would would challenge him.
He's been working on the spell for a long time. He'd like to see the look on her face if he used it now. He could flash from his spot beside the river to the dead tree twenty feet away, all within the blink of an eye.
But Wen Qing only absorbs the idea in silence for a few seconds. Then she shakes her head.
"It's too far. Even if you mastered the spell, you'd drain all your energy using it for that distance." Her brows draw together. "You'd pass out the minute you get there."
"I won't! Look, I planned it all out." Wei Ying digs into his sleeves and retrieves his talismans. He waves them in front of her nose. "I made a new talisman to loop the flow of magic. I can set it up once, and reuse it three times. It won't take any additional energy."
He uses his finger to trace the delicate, complex lines of the talisman.
"If I set it up tomorrow, I'll be fully recovered by the first night of the ball."
Wei Ying tested it out the night he went back to the Zhang compound. Creating a link between their camp and the small village was simple. True, the distance between the camp and the capital was exponentially greater. But the theory was sound.
So he labored over the talismans, night after night. He created dozens of small loops and practiced keeping his magic steady.
It should work. There was no reason for it to fail.
Wen Qing frowns down at the talismans.
She doesn't understand talismans the way he does, of course. Wei Ying teased her about that once, and she huffed at him. Nobody understands talismans the way you do, she said, exasperated and fond.
She inspects the ink carefully, tracing the lines with her fingers. Then she lowers the talismans into her lap.
"You don't have any decent clothes," she says, and Wei Ying knows he's won.
"I'll steal some," he replies promptly. "I'll use a spell to fix them up. Nobody will give me a second glance."
He can manage that. A few small spells on his borrowed clothing. A talisman to distort his voice. A mask on his face. His own family won't even recognize him.
Wei Ying sits very straight while Wen Qing stares into the stream. She seems lost in thought.
"This is an incredibly stupid idea." Her voice is heavy and resigned.
"I'm great with those!" Wei Ying declares. "I can pull this off, I promise."
He expects her to sigh and cuff him around the head. But instead, her face clouds over.
"I can't do anything for you. If you get caught…" Her face is tight, almost pained.
Wei Ying's stomach drops. He reaches out to squeeze her shoulder.
"If I get caught, then that's my responsibility and nobody else's problem." He nudges her shoulder until she looks up. "Okay? If that happens, don't do anything dumb, please."
He pauses, and barely holds back a grimace.
"Don't let your brother do anything dumb, either," he adds. "Just tell everybody else that I got tired of the awful stew and sleeping in the dirt. Tell them I went back home."
A small spasm works at Wen Qing's mouth. Wei Ying keeps the smile on his face, but it's hard.
It won't happen, he tells himself. I won't let it happen.
He won't abandon the Wens to starve in the snow. He won't force his family to watch as he's captured, imprisoned, executed as a traitor.
But if it does happen, he needs to make sure that nobody he cares about believes—for even for a brief moment—that it was their fault. It's better if the Wen hate him, better if his family disowns him. Better if everybody turns their back and thinks, Leave him to his fate. He's not worth avenging.
Wen Qing rubs her face briskly. But when she draws back her hand, her eyes are dry.
"That's rich," she mutters. "You telling me not to do anything dumb."
"Ah, really?" Wei Ying scratches his head. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about. You're so mean to me!"
"Hurry up and get those dishes!" she snaps, scooping up an armload. "Don't just leave them to lie in the dirt!"
Wei Ying whines and moans all the way back to the camp. He tells everybody that he's been mercilessly bullied, and they all laugh at him. Afterward, A-Yuan falls asleep in his lap. Wei Ying holds him and listens as Wen Ning jokes shyly with Fourth Uncle.
He squeezes A-Yuan's tiny body against his chest, fingering the talismans in his sleeve. He has a month to perfect his plan, and that has to be enough.
Wen Qing agrees to keep the plan a secret from the others. Wei Ying worried he'd have to fight her on that. But when he broached the topic, she just shook her head
"Better if they don't know," she said.
Wei Ying nodded.
But Wen Ning can see they're keeping secrets, and he begs to know the truth. So Wei Ying sits down and lays out his plan. Wen Ning listens with round eyes.
"Wei-xiong." Wen Ning fiddles nervously with his sleeves. "Isn't that…very dangerous?"
"That's what makes it exciting!" Wei Ying says breezily. "You know me, I like a challenge!"
He slaps his knees and leans forward.
"Anyway, I need to set up the talismans for Traveler's Boon. So that means I don't have to help with laundry today, right?"
As it happens, Wei Ying is excused from all his chores for two whole days. Mostly because he's unconscious.
"Congratulations," Wen Qing says when he blinks himself awake. "You were out for two days. I hope you at least made it to the capital."
"I did." Wei Ying blinks muzzily at his surroundings.
Wen Qing dragged him into the cave, the one they use for storing supplies and Wei Ying's talisman practice. A new stalactite is forming on the ceiling, and Wei Ying stares at it. His head is pounding. But fuzzy memories surface, and he lurches upright.
"I made it all the way!" he cries.
Wen Qing shoves him back down.
She doesn't seem sufficiently excited about this, Wei Ying decides. He can't help but feel a bit sullen over that. He just managed to perform Traveler's Boon, covering more than four hundred li in a matter of minutes. Truly, it's an astounding feat. It would be a noteworthy accomplishment even for a sorcerer four times his age!
But Wen Qing offers no praise. Instead, she pours some foul-smelling tea down his throat and jams his neck full of acupuncture needles. Then she tells him not to move.
Wen Ning seems impressed, at least.
"Where will you get the other things you need?" he whispers.
Wen Qing says he can't have visitors yet, but Wen Ning creeps into the cave while her back is turned. They keep their voices low as they discuss Wei Ying's plans.
"You'll need clothes and a mask," Wen Ning muses. "Maybe an invitation too!"
"Ah, the capital has everything!" Wei Ying waves a lazy hand. "It'll be easy to steal. Borrow," he amends.
Wen Ning start to look guilty, and Wei Ying sighs. The kid is really too good.
He changes the subject, regaling Wen Ning with invented tales about the glamour of the capital. Of course, Wei Ying was only there for about three minutes before the dizziness hit. He realized he'd have to make a rapid return before he fainted. So he still doesn't know much about the capital.
But if Wen Ning can tell that Wei Ying is stretching the truth, he's kind enough not to say so. He listens happily as Wei Ying describes the silk merchant's overflowing stall and the towering stacks of golden pears at the fruitier.
"Everybody looked very ordinary today." Wei Ying admits. "But it will be different for the masquerade. Everybody will work hard to look their best for Second Prince!"
"Maybe you'll meet somebody!" Wen Ning says with a smile
Wei Ying almost laughs. But he knows his laughter would have a bitter edge, and Wen Ning doesn't deserve that.
Meet someone, he thinks. And then what? I'll bring them back here, to sleep in the dirt?
He always dreamed of marrying, having a family. But before things fell apart, there was no sense of urgency. He was young, and marriage still seemed very far away.
Jiang Cheng had to marry first, after all. Jiejie, too. Once they settled down and started their own families, then Wei Ying would be at liberty to fall in love.
But he was sure it would happen, one day. He'd see someone—a beautiful maiden or a handsome gentleman—and the world would slow to a stop. They'd elope, the way his parents had. They'd have children, too. Some of their own, maybe, or they could adopt. There was never any shortage of orphans in the world.
Those dreams are distant now, almost faded into nonexistence. Wei Ying spends his days thinking of nothing beyond keeping their small settlement alive for another week. He goes to bed worrying about how little food they have left for the coming winter.
He'll be nineteen next month.
Wei Ying turns that over in his mind. Nineteen is a good age for marriage, or so Granny keeps saying. Second Prince will be nineteen in midwinter, and the whole kingdom is coming together to marry him off. But there's nobody left to arrange a marriage for Wei Ying. He doesn't have a home to bring his spouse into, or a family name to give them. He can't provide for a husband or wife, much less a child.
Wei Ying forces a smile for Wen Ning anyway.
"Ah, maybe I will! Who knows? There will be a lot of disappointed young masters and mistresses, after all." He winks. "They'll be crushed if they don't win Second Prince's favor. Maybe I can console a few of them."
Wen Ning laughs. But then his laughter turns into a fit of coughing which summons Wen Qing from outside the cave. She bundles her brother off to someplace warmer and drier.
Wei Ying lies in the dark cave, staring up at nothing. He tries not to think of what will happen to Wen Ning if they don't get him under a proper roof in time for winter.
If the journey is a success, they'll have nothing to worry about. Wei Ying tells himself that, over and over. Everybody will be showing off in the capital: their best robes, finest jewels, and most expensive treasures. A hairpin alone would be worth two months' food.
Never mind stealing a few copper coins or cabbages in the village. If Wei Ying plays his cards right, he can make sure the Wens have plenty of food and firewood and warm cloaks. He might even purchase some building supplies.
Second and Third Uncle know about construction. They made the crude lean-tos everybody slept under. They could've done more, built something better. But there hadn't been money for lumber or nails.
Wei Ying can fix all that. If he brings back enough money this time—enough gold coins, enough jewelry—they can buy everything they needed. It isn't too late in the season. If they start building right away, they can get a couple small houses ready before the first snows fell.
If they can just make it through the winter, they can start planting once the ice thaws. Then they'll be all right. They can make a small, sufficient settlement. Wei Ying can get better at using Traveler's Boon, and send himself off to find everything else they needed. He can fish and hunt wild game, gather roots and nuts. They can manage. All they need is a bit of money to get started.
Wei Ying chants that to himself as he rolls over on his thin pallet and falls asleep.
When the big day arrives, he's ready.
As ready as he can be, anyway. He put his head together with Wen Qing, and they talked over everything they knew about the capital. Wen Ruohan and his retainers traveled there often, years ago. Wen Qing had never accompanied them, but she'd heard plenty.
The imperial palace—Cloud Recesses—lay at the very heart of the capital. According to gossip, the ball would take place inside. The gates would be opened to guests for the first time in a generation.
"Cloud Recesses is always tightly guarded," Wen Qing said. "But there's a big gate at the front, and everyone who goes in or out has to show a pass."
She frowned over that.
"I don't know how they'll manage the ball, because a lot of people will be passing through the gates. But you should expect to identify yourself."
Wei Ying snooped around the Zhang compound, gathering bits of information. The families who were invited—the ones with eligible young sons and daughters—had been given a jade token. They would present this token upon entry, as proof of their identity.
Wen Qing seemed troubled by the news, but Wei Ying wasn't worried.
"Come on," he pressed. "You know how these people are! They'll be showing off their token to everybody they meet. It'll be easy to steal one."
He slides a talisman out of his sleeve and waves it under Wen Qing's nose.
"Even if I can't grab a token, I'll just use some other trick to slip inside."
He had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Quite literally, in this case. He's laden down with talismans, spells, the blinding powder.
But Wen Qing shook her head, her mouth tight.
"These are imperial guards. They aren't fools. They'll be expecting somebody to use this event for something like an assassination." She gave Wei Ying an assessing look. "They'll be watching the crowds closely, and they won't hesitate to seal your magic if they decide you look suspicious.
Wei Ying waved her off.
"Even if they manage that, I'll still have my talismans. They'll still work, even if my magic doesn't. I'll be okay."
But without his magic, Traveler's Boon wouldn't work properly. He'd be stranded at the capital. Wei Ying decided not to mention that, and Wen Qing didn't either.
Instead, she loaded him down with potions and powders. Then she personally inspected all his talismans to make sure they were working. Wei Ying let her, knowing she needed to feel useful.
There were plenty of gentry living within the capital. As she worked, Wen Qing listed the names of everyone she could remember. Wei Ying scoured his own memory banks and they drew up a list.
They agreed that he'd try to steal clothing and tokens from someone who lived there. Robbing a newly-arrived guest—sashaying through the capital on their way to be palace—seemed perilous. Robbing a residence was surely much safer
But Wen Qing struggled to remember any gentry living near the palace who had unmarried sons or daughters.
"There is Mo Xuanyu," she said, finally. "One of Jin Guangshan's illegitimate sons. His mother is a daughter of the gentry."
She stacked the talismans and handed them back to Wei Ying.
"He's not married, I don't think. They say he's sickly and half-mad." She shrugged, as if to say that rumors were never worth much. "I don't know if he would've been invited to something like this. But you can try his residence first."
They didn't tell the others what was going on. As far as the Wens knew, Wei Ying was trying to sell some charms. But he had to put some distance between himself and their camp first. That was so nobody made a connection between a rogue sorcerer and the Wens.
Most of the adults nodded along as Wen Qing outlined their false plans. They knew that money was scarce and winter was nipping at their heels. They'd reached the point where they had to take a few risks.
But A-Yuan is too small to understand. When the time comes for Wei Ying to say his goodbyes, A-Yuan clings to his leg and cries.
"Ah, what's with all this fuss!" Wei Ying scoops him up and bounces him. "Anyone would think we'll be separated for ten years! Don't you know I'll be back in a few days?"
A-Yuan only cries and clings harder. Wei Ying swallows, ruffling the boy's hair.
"How about this?" he tries. "I'll bring you a surprise when I come back!"
A-Yuan blinks away tears.
"A surprise?" he echoes.
"A special surprise, just for A-Yuan!" Wei Ying deposits him into Granny's arms, bending down to meet A-Yuan's eyes.
"Any requests?" he asks, pinching A-Yuan's cheeks. "What do you want me to bring you?"
"A brother or sister," A-Yuan decides.
The Wens, clustered around to say their farewells, laugh uproariously. Wei Ying laughs too. He passes a rueful hand over A-Yuan's head.
"Ah. A-Yuan, I don't think I can manage that." He pulls an apologetic face. "Gege would need some help there!"
"Master Wei has to get married before he can give you any brothers or sisters," Granny says, giving him a cheeky look.
A-Yuan rubs the last of his tears away. His small face is determined.
"Then get married," he says. "And bring a brother or sister!"
Wei Ying sighs. He ignoring the second wave of laughter as he pats A-Yuan's head.
"Gege will try his best! No promises, okay?" He tugs on a lock of A-Yuan's hair. "But if I can't find anybody to marry, I'll at least find some candy!"
A-Yuan seems satisfied with that. He hugs Wei Ying again, and so does A-Jing. Wei Ying swings her off her feet and promised to bring her candy, too.
"Oh, no. What am I thinking?" He shakes his head. "A-Jing is such a big girl now, she doesn't want candy. She's too grown up for that! She wants...what, hair-ribbons?"
A-Jing laughs and struggles until he drops her back on her feet.
"Candy and hair-ribbons," she insists, turning pink.
The rest of the Wens pat his shoulders and urge him to take care of himself on his journey.
"I will, I will! Nobody get into any trouble until I get back, okay?" Wei Ying disentangles himself from the fond, affectionate hands that surround him. "You know how much I like trouble! I'll be very mad if you get into trouble and I'm not here to enjoy it!"
He waves and smiles and shouts back, responding to their parting instructions: Be careful on the road! Watch out for danger!
But once he reaches the crest of the hill, he doesn't let himself look back. He said all he needed to say to Wen Qing. She knows what to do if he doesn't come back. Wei Ying refuses to say anything more, or treat this as a final goodbye.
He'll be back, that's all. If his luck holds, he'll be back that very night.
Traveler's Boon can take him from the gates of the capital to the Wen camp in a heartbeat. He'll come back late, after the ball ends. Wen Qing will hide him away in the cave, and bring him something to eat. Then they'll decide whether he should return for the next two nights.
Don't overextend yourself tonight, Wen Qing said. Use the night for reconnaissance. If you aren't able to get into Cloud Recesses tonight, don't force it. Scout around the capital and try again tomorrow.
Wei Ying nodded along, but he was determined not to come home empty-handed. He'll bring something, even if it's only some boiled sweets for the kids.
Once he's left the camp behind, Wei Ying spends some time crunching over the dry ground. Small twigs and leaves snap under his boots. It's getting dry. They need rain, to swell the streams where they do the washing, to help bring in the last of their meager crops. But the rains haven't come. Water is just one more thing for the Wens to wish for, one more thing Wei Ying can't give.
His spirits lift when he reaches the small grove where he set up Traveler's Boon. A hollow tree far away from the narrow dirt road made the perfect hiding place. Wei Ying set up the archway there, just out of sight of the road.
Wei Ying checks the talismans one final time, making sure they're still intact. He squints up at the hazy sky. It's overcast, and that makes it hard to judge the time. But it should be just past midday. He'll have time to get settled in the capital and find some proper clothes.
Wei Ying dusts off his palms and his robes, surveying himself. He gave himself a good scrub in the stream, but his clothes are worn and tattered. He's thinner than he used to be, too.
He's not exactly a model of elegance. But that's fine to begin. He can arrive in the capital looking like a wide-eyed rube, asking awed questions about the ball. People will tell him whatever he wants to know. City dwellers always like showing off in front of country folk. Wei Ying is familiar with this game.
So he puts his shoulders back and activates the seal. He waits until a gate of blue light shimmers in front of him.
There it is: Traveler's Boon, clear and stable as if he'd been working this spell for years. Wei Ying allows himself one bright, shining moment of pride. Then he steps through the glowing archway and disappears.