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the stars in the hazy heaven tremble above you

Chapter Text

Wei Ying doesn't intend to fall asleep. He doesn't even think it's possible to sleep under the circumstances. But he's barely slept since the final night of the ball, and he's worn out.

Jiang Cheng is at Wei Ying's back, right where he's always been. Something about that knowledge makes it easy to drift off.

Wei Ying wakes to birdsong, and Jiang Cheng poking him in the ribs with the tip of his boot.

"Wake up," he says.

Wei Ying groans and tries to hide under the blanket. But Jiang Cheng fetches a cup of water from a nearby stream and dumps it on Wei Ying's head. The water is icy, and Wei Ying shoots out of bed. He slouches over to the campfire and appeals to Wen Qing for sympathy. 

He receives none. Wen Qing shoves some bread and cheese into his hands, and refuses to say anything more. Her face is tense, and it's enough to destroy Wei Ying's good mood.

It's so nice, having Jiang Cheng back. Teasing him is as natural as breathing. Jiang Cheng pestering him in return, dumping water on Wei Ying's head, makes Wei Ying feel like all is right with the world. His hopes have been high since Jiang Cheng shared that Jiejie is trying to get him pardoned. Just knowing that his siblings still believe in him is intoxicating. But it would be foolish to expect too much.

They can request a trial. They can even get down on their knees and beg the emperor for a pardon. But that doesn't mean he'll give one. There's certainly no reason to believe he'll spare Wen Qing.

Wei Ying's stomach ties itself in knots. It takes a heroic effort to force down his breakfast, and he tries not to think how this might be his last meal.

Wen Qing remains quiet as they break camp and mount their horses. Jiang Cheng picks up on their somber mood. He tries to look stern and composed, as a sect leader should. But he gets jumpy as they approach the portal.

"Don't do anything stupid," he says.

This seems to be directed to Wei Ying.

"Just get down on your knees and kowtow. Don't run your mouth. In fact, don't say anything unless His Majesty gives you permission to speak."

Wei Ying nods dutifully.

"Jiejie drafted the request for the pardon and sent it to the palace. I haven't seen it, but she said it explains how the Wens weren't involved in any crimes."

Wei Ying nods some more. Wen Qing rides at his side, utterly silent.

"Our contact in the palace said the emperor will definitely read it, so you shouldn't have to explain the whole story yourself. Not the story behind that, anyway."

Jiang Cheng gives him a look, as if to say, When it comes to explaining what happened at the ball, you're on your own!

Wei Ying winces and nods.

He doesn't think he can string together a coherent explanation for what happened there. He can explain to the emperor that they needed money, and had no other way to get it. Wei Ying can say that he didn't want to steal from peasants, and thought it better to steal from the gentry. The emperor probably won't think much of that argument, but Wei Ying can make it anyway.

But Wei Ying has no idea what to say about the business with Second Prince. He lied to a member of the imperial family, drew a weapon against the emperor's brother. There's no excuse he can possibly make for that. Such actions are indefensible.

Wei Ying's meager breakfast churns in his stomach as they tether their horses and push through the underbrush. They find the portal quickly. It's built into the face of a cliff, marked with weather-beaten blue ribbons.

Jiang Cheng has a jade token in hand, and he uses it to activate Traveler's Boon. Within seconds, the familiar glowing archway appears. Before they enter, Jiang Cheng bundles both of them into long gray cloaks.

"Keep your head down," he orders. "We'll come out near the palace, and I'll take you in. But the fewer people who see you, the better."

Wei Ying is in no position to argue, and neither is Wen Qing. They don their cloaks without delay. Then they pass through the gate in a single file.

By now, Wei Ying is used to the sensation of passing through Traveler's Boon. Once he's through the portal, he finds his footing quickly. But Wen Qing sways when she comes through, and Jiang Cheng looks faintly nauseated.

"Terrible way to travel," he grumbles. He shakes off Wei Ying's steadying hand and motions for them to hurry.

Wei Ying squints at his surroundings. They're at the eastern edge of the capital, and the palace walls are within view. But the capital has changed since the final night of the ball. Shops are closed, their windows shuttered. Everywhere Wei Ying turns, people are clustered together, whispering.

White banners stream from the roofs, in honor of the late emperor. The mood of celebration—the feverish excitement of the ball—has quickly turned into mourning.

As Jiang Cheng leads their group toward the palace gates, Wei Ying keeps the hood of his cloak up and his eyes lowered. The guards recognize Sect Leader Jiang, and they don't even ask for his token as they wave him through. But Wei Ying catches a curious glance toward himself and Wen Qing. He wonders how much the guards know.

Inside the palace, they have to do a good deal of walking. Wei Ying knows the path to the banquet hall, the gardens, the armory. But they don't head in that direction today. Instead, they strike off on another path, one that leads toward the administrative complex.

A guard accompanies them, but fortunately he's too polite to ask questions. The other guards—waiting outside the emperor's hall—are equally circumspect. They cast an assessing look toward the hooded figures, then turn away.

"We're expected," Jiang Cheng tells them.

The guards nod, and open the doors to the emperor's hall.

Wei Ying has a dim impression of silk curtains and rich tapestries. But he has no time to enjoy it. The moment they're inside, Jiang Cheng drags him halfway up the room. Then he administers several hard pokes to Wei Ying's back. Wei Ying gets the hint and drops to his knees.

He's not too familiar with a full kowtow. As First Disciple of Lotus Pier, he was rarely called upon to perform one. Of course, he helped Jiang Cheng and Jiejie kowtow to their ancestors during important celebrations. But he seldom performed this obeisance before a living person.

Still. If there's ever a time to kowtow properly, it's when you're hoping the emperor won't have you beheaded. So Wei Ying touches his head to the ground, aware that Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing are doing the same.

"Rise," a voice says.

The voice is familiar by now. Wei Ying has heard that voice deliver three speeches, opening the celebrations on each night of the ball. At the time, that voice belonged to First Prince. Now it belongs to the emperor, and somehow that makes a great difference.

Wei Ying settles back into a kneeling position along with Wen Qing. Jiang Cheng rises to his feet as Wei Ying pushes his hood down. He risks a tiny glance around the room.

They're not alone, of course. The emperor needs guards, and there are four of them, dressed in pale blue and wearing the imperial crest. Two guards flank the hall on each side, and all four stare rigidly ahead. The guards give the impression that they see nothing and hear nothing, aside from that which threatens His Majesty's safety.

But they aren't the only ones here to protect the emperor. Wei Ying realizes, with a sinking sensation of horror, that Nie Mingjue is present too. He sits at the emperor's left, glaring at everybody.

He has a terrifying glare, truly. Wei Ying saw it often as a child. Nie Mingjue always glared whenever Wei Ying and his brother got into some mischief. For a moment, Wei Ying feels a hysterical urge to giggle. He's a grown man, and he's still been hauled in front of Nie Huaisang's brother to account for his behavior!

"You may stand," the emperor says.

His voice is cool and smooth, like a mountain stream.. It's a melodic voice, but there's a shard of ice underneath. Wei Ying resist the urge to shiver and rises to his feet.

For a long moment, nobody speaks. Wei Ying keeps his eyes fixed upon the hem of the emperor's exquisite robes.

"I have read Mistress Jiang's petition."

The emperor's hands are folded on his lap, and they don't even twitch as he speaks. He's almost preternaturally still. But his betrothed shifts at his side. Wei Ying gets the impression Nie Mingjue wishes he could reach for his saber.

"This petition would have me believe that there has been some misunderstanding. That the remaining Wens have been falsely accused of treachery when none occurred."

Wei Ying doesn't like the sound of those words: This petition would have me believe... He can't detect anything beneath the emperor's tranquil, even voice. It's impossible to tell whether he's truly considering the possibility that he may be misinformed.

No one replies, and the emperor sighs. When he speaks next, he sounds tired.

"Naturally," he says, "I would like to get to the truth of this matter. Mistress Wen, please give me your account."

From her place at Wei Ying's side, Wen Qing takes a deep breath.

"Wen Ruohan," she begins, in a toneless voice, "was my uncle."

Nie Mingjue twitches again, and makes an abortive motion like he wants to reach for a weapon. The emperor reaches over to lay a hand on Nie Mingjue's arm. It's an embarrassingly intimate gesture, especially during an interrogation. Wei Ying hastily averts his eyes.

In a calm monotone, Wen Qing details everything she did—and didn't do—for her uncle.

Nie Mingjue listens with a suspicious gleam in his eye. He looks as if he doesn't expect her to tell the truth. As if he thinks Wen Qing will soften her side of the story. But she doesn't. She lays out the facts unflinchingly. She describes—in excruciating detail—exactly what Wen Ruohan did, and how much she knew at the time.

She wasn't directly involved in his crimes, Wei Ying already knew that. No matter what Wen Qing thinks, there's hardly any blood on her hands. But Wen Ruohan's crimes were numerous and varied, and Wen Qing was aware of most of them. 

The emperor listens impassively. It's impossible to tell what he's thinking. Nie Mingjue's face is clouded with disgust, and Wei Ying's chest tightens. He should've known better than to think Wen Qing would argue in her own defense. She hasn't even said why she never opposed her uncle.

"He forced her," Wei Ying mutters, when Wen Qing pauses for breath.

She shoots him a glare. He ignores it and meets the emperor's eyes for the first time. Nie Mingjue makes a restive noise, but the emperor raises his hand.

"Please," he says quietly.

This, directed to his betrothed. He turns to the petitioners before him.

"Master Wei, if there is something you would like to add, then do so."

Wen Qing's eyes bore into the side of his head. Wei Ying pretends he can't see her. He knows she doesn't want pity. But he refuses to let Wen Qing throw herself on a sword by not giving the emperor the full story.

"He forced her," Wei Ying says clearly. "She has a younger brother, and he's sick. Their parents are dead. He told her he'd kill her brother if she didn't cooperate."

Jiang Cheng makes a small, distressed noise. Wei Ying resists the temptation to turn his way.

He knows how upsetting the threat is for anyone who has siblings. Wei Ying has spent the last seven months wondering what he would've done in Wen Qing's position. What would he have done, if someone put a knife to Jiejie's throat or Jiang Cheng's and told him he had to obey?

Nie Mingjue's eyes cut toward his betrothed, but the emperor's face is carefully blank.

"Is this true?" he asks. His attention is riveted on Wen Qing.

She stares back grimly. For a moment, she doesn't answer.

"Whether it is or not," she says, "my choices had consequences. For myself, and for the people around me. I always understood this."

"That is not what I asked." The emperor's voice is soft.

For the first time, Wei Ying feels a tiny spark of hope. The emperor has a younger brother of his own. From the way Second Prince spoke of him, Wei Ying is sure he's an affectionate brother. He treasures Second Prince, and would surely want to protect his younger brother. Perhaps he'll have some sympathy for Wen Qing.

It takes a long time for Wen Qing to speak.

"My uncle..." Her voice falters. "He used every weapon available to him."

Her mouth is a tight, thin line.

"Yes," she says, after a long pause. "He threatened A-Ning."

The emperor is silent. Then he inclines his head.

"I was told you are a physician," he says. "How did you use those skills for your uncle?"

Wei Ying feels sick at the implication. He's afraid Wen Qing won't try to defend herself here either. But he's wrong to worry: this is a matter of professional pride, and Wen Qing bristles at once.

"I swore oaths to never use medicine to cause harm," she says hotly. "Whatever else I may have done, I can honestly say I kept those promises."

Wei Ying is so proud of her he wants to burst. But he tries to keep his face neutral. The emperor seems to weigh her words, and he doesn't look entirely convinced.

"I understand that the remaining Wens have no combat ability," he says slowly. "That they are mostly elderly, or children."

Wen Qing gives a sharp, jerky nod.

"That is correct. Those who remain are of my clan...we are healers and farmers. Those who survived the war have never held a blade."

Wei Ying wants to speak up and give his own testimony. Jiang Cheng beats him to it.

"I have seen them with my own eyes," Jiang Cheng chips in. He's using his sect leader voice. "There are elderly women and children among them. The oldest is at least sixty. The youngest is...maybe four."

"I see."

The emperor's brows draw together. He's clearly thinking hard, and Nie Mingjue's face is similarly baffled.

For once in his life, Wei Ying doesn't dare to speak. Finally, the emperor lets out a long exhale.

"This is very strange," he says. "The information my honored father received made it clear that the remaining Wens were skilled combatants. That they had personally fought in Wen Ruohan's armies."

He pauses.

"If I am to believe your story, then..."

Wei Ying bites the inside of his cheek. If their story is true, then somebody else has lied to the imperial family. Maybe it was an innocent mistake, but Wei Ying has always suspected otherwise. Everyone had their own political agenda, after the war. The survival of the Wens was inconvenient for many people.

He's never been able to determine who first suggested that the remaining Wens be slaughtered. Wen Qing says she has her suspicions, but she can't be sure. The Wens had many enemies.

"Your Majesty," Wen Qing begins. Then she stops.

She looks around the room. For the first time, it seems to dawn on her that she's in the palace, speaking to the emperor. Her jaw tightens. Wei Ying is afraid she'll swallow down whatever she planned to say. But then she gives herself a little shake and steps forward.

"I may as well say it," she sighs. "There are those who worked with my uncle who had...connections to other sects. I don't know what happened to these people."

Her words hang in the air.

"I don't know if they were caught and tried, or if they found a way to wash the blood off their hands and return to their sects. But I wonder if maybe if the information you received is from one of these people."

Her voice is very careful, but her words are potent. Wei Ying watches as Nie Mingjue tenses. Jiang Cheng stiffens too.

Suddenly, Wei Ying feels exhausted. The war is barely over. The old emperor died days ago. It's not a good time for political unrest. But this isn't something that can be ignored. If someone has been scheming behind the emperor's back—making duplicitous reports to the imperial family—they can't pretend it isn't happening.

The emperor seems to realize the gravity of the situation.

"If you are aware of a conspiracy between Wen Ruohan and other sects," he says calmly, "please name the individuals responsible."

Wen Qing stares at the tapestry hanging behind the emperor's chair.

"There were ties between my uncle and some from the Jin sect." She lifts her chin.

The effect of her words is swift. Nie Mingjue surges forward.

"Jin Guangshan is dead," he barks.

Wen Qing nods.

"I have heard that," she says.

Wei Ying has heard it too. It's old news really. The former Sect Leader Jin died months ago. But there's an uncomfortable prickle at the back of Wei Ying's mind.

Jin Guangshan died at a whorehouse, in bed with half a dozen prostitutes. His death received little public attention, mainly because the circumstances were so scandalous. Servants tittered and peasants whispered, while the gentry maintained a dignified silence for the sake of his widow and son. There was a lot of gossip surrounding his sudden demise. But no one questioned whether his death was natural.

It might've been. Jin Guangshan was a known libertine, after all. Overindulging in physical pleasure—even to the point of death—seemed entirely in-character. But Jin Guangshan was fairly young. He was barely fifty, and Wei Ying never heard that he suffered from poor health.

He wonders now whether Jin Guangshan's death was all it seemed. The same thought seems to occur to Nie Mingjue. He and the emperor share a long look.

"I won't go so far as to say that Jin Guangshan was actively supporting my uncle," Wen Qing adds. "Not in terms of money or troops. But there were communications between the two of them. If my uncle had managed to stage the coup he was planning..."

She pauses, considering.

"Jin Guangshan wanted to make sure he was on friendly terms with whoever won this conflict," she concludes. "Let me put it that way. He was playing both sides."

Wei Ying resists the urge to snort.

The news is hardly surprising for anyone who knew Jin Guangshan. The man had no courage, no morals, no dedication to anything besides his own rank. Of course he wanted to ingratiate himself to whoever held the most power. Of course he had contingency plans in case Wen Ruohan seemed poised for victory.

"There was..." Wen Qing begins. Then she stops again. Her brow furrows.

"Jin Guangshan did not, of course, communicate with my uncle face-to-face." She shifts her weight, folding her hands in front of her waist. "He sent someone to my uncle's court to gather information and serve as needed. One of his illegitimate children."

Wei Ying turns to stare at her. This is news to him. Wen Qing seldom talks of what happened in her uncle's court, and Wei Ying never wanted to pry. But he's astonished that she never mentioned this, given that Wei Ying was undercover as another of Jin Guangshan's bastards.

"Are you aware of this person's name?" the emperor asks. His voice is deliberately even.

Wei Ying tries not to stare at the emperor's face. He gets the impression the emperor already knows what's coming.

"At the time, he was known as Meng Yao." Wen Qing hesitates. "I believe he has another name now."

Nie Mingjue jolts forward with a wordless cry. He turns to look at his betrothed, and there's an odd look on his face. Wei Ying thinks he doesn't seem surprised by this revelation.

The emperor inclines his head. Wei Ying can see a few lines of tension around his eyes.

"Jin Guangyao served as a spy during the war," the emperor acknowledges. "I am aware that he spent time in Wen Ruohan's court, and that he did what was necessary to gain your uncle's trust."

Wei Ying's heart drops. He remembers what Second Prince said during the ball: Brother is well-acquainted with Jin Guangyao.

If this man has already won the emperor's trust, then that's it. There's nothing more Wen Qing or Wei Ying can do. But Wen Qing seems unwilling to let this go without a fight.

"Forgive me," she says thinly. "I have told you what I did for my uncle. But what I did is a drop in the bucket compared to what Jin Guangyao did."

Given her recent confession, that's saying something. But the emperor's face is unreadable.

"I don't know if he acted with the late emperor's knowledge or permission," she admits. "I do know that he committed what would be considered war crimes, with his father's full knowledge."

Nie Mingjue gives the emperor another hard stare. Wei Ying can see a trace of something dark in his eyes: I told you so.

"Jin Guangyao also knew me and my brother," Wen Qing adds. "He knew what our family was. If he told you that we are dangerous combatants..."

She's quiet for several seconds. Nobody speaks.

"Then he has told Your Majesty something that isn't true," she finishes.

Nie Mingjue slaps a hand against the arm of his chair, nearly shattering it in the process.

"I told you," he snarls. "That..."

But whatever he intends to call Jin Guangyao, he doesn't want to say it in front of his betrothed. He falls silent, visibly fuming. The emperor says nothing for a long moment. Then he turns to Nie Mingjue.

"Please go and find him," he says quietly. "Bring him here to give his testimony."

They share another look, and Wei Ying can read the hidden meaning: Bring him here unharmed.

Nie Mingjue wastes no time in leaving. He blows out of the room like a typhoon, slamming the door open. The guards outside stare in shock as he strides off.

An awkward silence falls on the room. Wei Ying flexes his hands. He doesn't let himself hope for anything beyond the opportunity to draw breath for a few more minutes. But the silence is quickly interrupted as Nie Huaisang trips into the room.

Someone—a minister, by the look of him—rushes after Huaisang and tries to pull him away.

"Oh!" Nie Huaisang blinks around the assembly, as if surprised to find himself in front of the emperor. He bows hastily. "Um! Excuse me, Your Majesty. I was looking for Da-Ge."

"Please rise."

The emperor's voice is gentle. He takes a deep breath and Wei Ying can see him plaster on an artificial smile.

"Your brother has gone looking for Jin Guangyao," the emperor says. "He should be back shortly."

"Ah?" Nie Huaisang scratches his head. "I thought San-Ge was riding out on a mission. That's what he just told me."

The announcement sucks the air out of the room. The emperor's practiced smile falls away as he stares at his future brother-in-law. Nie Huaisang seems to notice this, and he gives a small whimper.

"Didn't he just ride out?" He blinks and stares in the direction of the palace gates. "I saw him leave in a big hurry only a quarter of an hour ago! He told me he had some important business, and he had to leave right away."

Wei Ying resists the temptation to clench his fists. If it's true—if Jin Guangyao has fled the palace without warning or permission—it's a sure sign of guilt. But will the emperor see it that way?

"Did I misunderstand again?" Nie Huaisang wails. "Was I supposed to give him a message?"

The emperor shakes his head, looking slightly dazed. But Nie Huaisang only wails louder.

"Da-Ge didn't tell me to give him a message before he left! I promise! Minister!"

He clutches at the arm of the luckless man beside him, who looks mortified to be drawn into this. Nie Huaisang shakes him pleadingly.

"You were with me all morning! Nobody told me I was supposed to find San-Ge before he left on his mission, did they?"

The minister bows and shakes his head. Nie Huaisang gives a cry of vindication as he turns to the emperor.

"I know I mess up a lot," he insists. "But it really wasn't my fault this time!"

He seems ready to fling himself at the emperor's feet and burst into tears. The emperor makes a hasty calming gesture.

"Indeed, it is not your fault," he says. "It seems there has been quite a misunderstanding here."

He doesn't speak for a moment.

"Perhaps there was an error on my part," he adds softly.

Wei Ying has no idea what to say to that, so it's fortunate he's not expected to speak at all. At his side, Jiang Cheng's face is rigid. Wen Qing holds herself motionless.

Nie Huaisang, satisfied that he won't be punished, calms quickly. The minister virtually drags him out of the room, and Wei Ying watches them go with a speculative glance.

Just how much does Nie Huaisang know?

He recognized Wei Ying at once. Wei Ying remembers, too, that Jiejie allegedly has a 'contact in the palace', someone close to the emperor. This person, Jiang Cheng said, has been helping her draft the petition for the Wen's pardon.

Wei Ying stares at the door long after Nie Huaisang disappears. His appearance now, at the moment when all has been revealed, seems awfully convenient. It's convenient, too, that Nie Huaisang witnessed Jin Guangyao's flight from the palace and was able to inform the emperor of his disappearance.

Wei Ying has an uncomfortable suspicion that he has grossly underestimated his oldest friend.

But there's no time to think on that now. Nie Mingjue reappears, his face like a thundercloud. He crosses the room and bends to whisper something in the emperor's ear. It's plain that he's confirming his brother's story: Jin Guangyao has disappeared from the palace, and he was not sent away on any official missions.

For a long moment, the emperor does not speak. He sits in perfect stillness, like a jade carving. Wei Ying realizes that the emperor is remarkably handsome without his mask. But Wei Ying admits to himself—privately—that the emperor does not hold a candle to his younger brother. Not in Wei Ying's eyes, anyway.

Finally, the emperor takes a deep breath.

"Mistress Wen." His eyes find Wen Qing's. "I can certainly understand your motives in complying with your uncle. I, too, have a younger brother. Nevertheless, you have committed certain offenses."

He studies his hands thoughtfully.

"In what way would you like to atone for them?" he asks.

The blood drains from Wen Qing's face, but she doesn't flinch. Wei Ying can't say the same for himself. Jiang Cheng clutches his arm. Wei Ying knows his brother will restrain him if he tries to protest. But he can't stand by while Wen Qing is put to death on trumped-up charges.

"If I may." Wen Qing raises her chin. "I would prefer to do it myself."

Wei Ying feels sick, and he's ready to scream aloud. But the emperor takes a sharp breath, and his face loses color too.

"That is not what I meant!" He seems stunned for a moment. Then he continues, his voice soft. "I certainly don't think your death would serve any purpose, or do anything wash away your transgressions. Your life, your service, might."

He gives Wen Qing a contemplative look.

"It seems to me that by working as a physician, you could atone for your offenses."

The pressure on Wei Ying's chest evaporates and he's almost dizzy with relief. Color creeps back into Wen Qing's cheeks, and Jiang Cheng loosens his grip on Wei Ying's arm.

Wei Ying wishes he wouldn't let go. He's so relieved, he's afraid he might faint. If the emperor is going to let Wen Qing live, then he'll surely show mercy to the rest of the Wens. Wen Qing was the only one who did anything that might be considered a crime. If His Majesty plans to spare her, surely he'll spare Wen Ning too. A-Yuan and A-Jing. Granny. All the aunts and uncles. Surely they can all live.

"You're offering her a chance at redemption," Nie Mingjue mutters.

There's a heavy weight in his voice. The emperor tilts his head.

"Offering someone a chance at redemption is never the wrong choice."

His voice is heavy, too, and his eyes are sad and thoughtful.

"If they misuse it?" Nie Mingjue asks.

He and the emperor share another long look. Finally, the emperor turns away. He gazes at his hands, resting quietly on his thighs.

"Then the fault lies with them alone." He sounds tired suddenly. "They are the only ones who have made a mistake, and must bear the consequences."

Wei Ying gets the impression they're not talking about the Wens anymore. But Wen Qing steps forward.

"I'm not asking anything for myself. Not even for my life to be spared. But my family...." She catches her breath and pushes on. "They are hard workers and will give honest service. If you give them a second chance, they will make no mistakes."

"Where is your family now?" The emperor's face is pensive.

"They remained at our settlement," Wen Qing says. "Guarded by Sect Leader Jiang's men."

Jiang Cheng nods in confirmation. The emperor thinks on this for a moment.

"I do not think it's wise to have them living so far away." He shakes his head. "If they relocate here to the capital, they can be kept under close observation. We can provide them honest work and supervision."

He glances at Nie Mingjue, who does not seem happy with this suggestion. But he clearly knows better than to contradict the emperor in front of petitioners.

"So long as they obey the law and fulfill their duties," the emperor continues, "I see no need to take the matter any further."

"What about Wen Qing?" Wei Ying bursts out.

Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng both give him a quelling look. He ignores them and stares hard at the emperor.

"There are never enough physicians in this world. Nor even in the capital." The emperor says ruefully. "Mistress Qing's skills will certainly prove useful."

He considers for a moment.

"I suggest she apply to the physician's bureau. I expect they will want her to take exams to prove her abilities. If she is qualified, they'll wish to hire her."

Wei Ying feels dizzier than ever, sick with relief. But Wen Qing doesn't look as pleased as he expected.

"My brother..." she falters. "He isn't well. He's not strong enough to work right now. And he can't manage without me."

The emperor's eyes soften.

"Mistress Wen. I would never expect you to let your brother starve in the streets. If you are capable of that, then I have misjudged you indeed." He nods, as if to himself. "Of course your brother will remain with you. If he or other members of your family are not well enough to work, they will not be expected to do so."

"There's a little boy, too," Wei Ying pitches in. "And A-Jing, she's twelve."

Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng give him another look. It clearly means, Shut up, you idiot. Stop drawing his attention. But Wei Ying won't shut up until he knows that all the Wens will be receive true mercy. He won't have them dragged to the capital and forced into hard labor.

"I have heard about the little boy already." The emperor raises a brow. His eyes rest heavily on Wei Ying.

Wei Ying realizes that Second Prince must have told his brother about A-Yuan. Maybe he even told his brother about the kite, the stories Wei Ying shared. Wei Ying wishes the ground would open up and swallow him.

"Naturally, the children must not work," the emperor continues mildly. "They should attend school. I am quite sure that money can be found for such endeavors."

Wen Qing bows deeply, and Wei Ying hastens to join her.

"I thank you for your mercy," she says. Her voice doesn't shake, but her hands do. Wei Ying can see it.

The emperor's face turns troubled.

"Mercy that nearly came too late," he says. "I regret..."

He's quiet for a long time.

"I would like you to know," he says softly, "that my father also had no idea your family was innocent of the charges laid against you. If he knew the truth, he would have judged differently."

Wei Ying doesn't know if that's true, but he hopes it is. For the sake of the present emperor and Second Prince. It would be awful to discover that your freshly-deceased father persecuted innocent people. Wei Ying hopes the late emperor deserves his son's words.

"I dare not contradict His Majesty," Wen Qing says demurely. She bows again. "However, I would like to ask..."

She trails off and slants a look in Wei Ying's direction. All at once, her courtly manner disappears. She heaves a tremendous sigh.

"This idiot." She points at Wei Ying. "What will become of him?"

Wei Ying resists the temptation to squawk. He has no business objecting to being called an 'idiot', and he knows it. If that's the worst fate that awaits him—being forever known as an idiot—he'll be lucky indeed.

But Wei Ying knows that's too much to hope for. Now that the Wens have been pardoned, maybe he'll be forgiven for smuggling them to freedom. Still, he committed a series of thefts against some of the most influential people in the land.

He clenches his hands into fists as the emperor studies him.

"I would ask that Master Wei make proper restitution for what he has stolen," he says.

Wen Qing nods quickly, and Wei Ying does too. Of course, they can give it all back. If the Wens have a home now—food and shelter and jobs—they don't need the money anymore.

"We still have the jewelry," Wen Qing explains. "As for the coin...some of it was already spent."

Spent on donkeys and food, which will probably be needed for the trip to the capital. Wei Ying isn't sure how he's meant to 'make restitution' for that, but he's certainly willing to try.

"I understand." The emperor nods. "But the money can be repaid by honest service."

Wei Ying blinks. The emperor's scrutiny is a weighty thing, and he twitches underneath it.

"I have been led to believe that Master Wei is a remarkably capable sorcerer," the emperor says. "I hope I have not been misled again."

Wen Qing snorts.

"He is ridiculously talented," she mutters. "I don't think he even knows how talented he is."

Wei Ying gapes at her, but she doesn't even glance his way. Jiang Cheng does, and he rolls his eyes at Wei Ying.

"Normally, sorcerers in service to the imperial court are paid a salary," the emperor says pensively. "Perhaps we might garnish Master Wei's wages for a time, until he has repaid his debt."

Wei Ying tries to pick his jaw up off the ground. Jiang Cheng has to poke him in the ribs again before he realizes he should be bowing.

"I thank His Majesty," Wei Ying chokes out, and bows very deeply indeed.

Sorcerers in service to the imperial court.

Garnished wages aside, that's no punishment. The imperial court takes only the most gifted sorcerers from prestigious clans. In many sects, only one sorcerer from each generation is chosen to serve at court. No one from Lotus Pier has been accepted in well over a decade.

Wei Ying can't take the news in. He half-expects that the rug will be pulled out from beneath him at any moment.

"As I said, I expect you to make proper restitution for what you have stolen." The emperor's smile takes on a slightly brittle edge.

Wei Ying nods hastily. It's what they agreed, after all. He'll turn over the jewelry and money in their possession. Then he'll work off the rest of the debt. It won't take long, surely. Court sorcerers are said to be very well remunerated.

"I am not only speaking of coins or jewelry," the emperor adds meaningfully.

Wei Ying blinks some more.

"Something else was stolen." The emperor's taps a finger on his knees. "Something very precious to me."

Wei Ying tightens his jaw, thinking hard. He's quite sure he didn't steal anything from the emperor himself. There was the silver he stole from the award pouches, the money intended for the winners of each competition. But surely silver isn't precious to the emperor? There must be rooms full of silver in the palace!

"I would like to know," the emperor says slowly, "what Master Wei intends to do with my brother's heart."

Jiang Cheng gives a soft groan, like he deeply regrets ever meeting Wei Ying.

Wei Ying can hardly blame him. He can feel Wen Qing glaring, too. There hasn't been time to explain the situation to her, and he knows she's gotten the wrong idea.

I don't have his heart! Wei Ying wants to scream. I'm just some dumb person who teased him a little, and taught him how to play the stone-and-cup game! There has been a very serious misunderstanding!

But Wei Ying is keenly aware that this is not the right time to contradict the emperor. He swallows.

"I'm not the person he thinks I am," he says.

"No?" the emperor asks.

He gives another thin smile.

"He thought you were Jin Guangshan's disgraced son. A man who lacked the strength to stand up for himself, or others. A man who had minimal skills with a sword, and little magical ability to speak of."

The emperor surveys Wei Ying.

"He was, evidently, mistaken about those qualities. But I don't think he'll be disappointed with this trade."

Wei Ying bites his tongue to keep from screaming undignified protests.

Mo Xuanyu didn't have much to brag about, maybe. His reputation was in tatters and people said he didn't have much talent. But his reputation wasn't as terrible as Wei Ying's, surely. Mo Xuanyu had simply transgressed against the social code. He hadn't actually committed crimes.

"Cangse Sanren's son is not to be despised," the emperor says.

Wei Ying flinches at the sound of his mother's name. He doesn't even remember her, and the world seems to have forgotten her too. But he knows she once received an offer to become a sorcerer at the imperial court. He knows, too, that she shocked the world by turning the offer down. Maybe it's no surprise that the imperial family remembers her.

"Jiang Fengmian's ward is also deserving of respect," the emperor adds.

It's Jiang Cheng's turn to flinch.

"Certainly there is nothing disappointing in a man of eighteen who has already mastered Traveler's Boon." The emperor's voice is pleasant and mild.

Wei Ying doesn't bother to ask how the emperor knew about that. He supposes it was obvious: how else could Wei Ying have traveled so far, so fast? He didn't use the secret imperial portals, and the emperor must have some way of knowing that. So it must have been Traveler's Boon.

But none of that matters. Not Wei Ying's accomplishments, or his uneven pedigree. None of that is relevant, not if they're talking about whether Wei Ying is worthy to even speak to Second Prince.

"I lied to him," he whispers.

"Yes." The emperor's smile fractures slightly. "I am not very pleased about that. But if he chooses to forgive you for it, then what can I do?"

Wei Ying can think of a number of things. The emperor can have him executed, or exiled to the borderlands. The emperor can have him whipped or flayed alive. The emperor can do anything he likes, really. And Wei Ying can hardly blame him for being angry.

If someone humiliated Jiejie or Jiang Cheng—at a party held in their honor, no less!—Wei Ying would hunt the offender to the ends of the earth. He doesn't think he could ever shrug his shoulders and say, Well, what can I do?

"I ask you again." The emperor's eyes narrow slightly. "What do you intend to do with my brother's heart?"

I don't think I have it, Wei Ying's mind hisses.

"Can to him?" he ventures.

If they talk, surely Wei Ying can sort things out. There has been a misunderstanding, that's all. Maybe Second Prince did intend to pick him, before the truth was revealed. But Wei Ying can't possibly have his heart. Maybe Second Prince just found him amusing. That would be bad enough, of course. Wei Ying still embarrassed Second Prince. He's still caused problems, and spoiled the whole ball. Wei Ying will still need to beg forgiveness on bended knees.

But then...

Wei Ying doesn't know how to finish that thought. Then what?

He apologizes. He explains. Second Prince glowers and fumes.

And then?

Then Second Prince picks somebody else, of course. Wei Ying does whatever he must to atone for his crimes. He goes wherever the imperial family sends him and fulfills his duties. The scandal is swept under the rug. Second Prince marries someone else, and never speaks to Wei Ying again.

It's the best outcome Wei Ying could hope for. It's a hundred times better than what he expected when he woke up this morning. It's a thousand times better than he deserves. He feels queasy at the very idea.

"I think that would be very wise," the emperor says, with a nod.

"I can take him there!" Nie Huaisang's head pokes out from behind the curtain shielding the rear door. "I know where Second Prince is!"

Nie Mingjue might be marrying the emperor. But at the sight of his brother, he gives up on imperial dignity. He leaps up and snatches at his brother, shaking him by the scruff.

"You-!" he chokes. "You dare to eavesdrop on this kind of meeting?"

"It was an accident!" Nie Huaisang wails. He pries free of his brother's hands and dances over to Wei Ying's side. "I wasn't trying to eavesdrop. But there was a big fuss, and now everybody's looking for San-Ge! I got worried!"

The words 'San-Ge' bring a brittle smile is back to the emperor's face. But Nie Huaisang seems blissfully oblivious to the sudden tension in the room.

"Second Prince is in the night garden," he announces brightly. "I can show Wei Wuxian the way."

The emperor also cast aside dignity just long enough to reach up and rub his temples.

"I believe he knows the way already," he says dryly.

Wei Ying does, unfortunately.

"Captain," the emperor says. A stoic-faced guard snaps to attention. "Why don't you accompany the young masters to the garden."

The guard salutes and steps over to Wei Ying's side.

"Mistress Wen and I will discuss her family's transportation and housing arrangements," the emperor adds.

With horrifying speed, Wei Ying is ushered out of the hall. Nie Huaisang tugs on his sleeve, leading him toward the gardens. The guard follows closely, giving Wei Ying a suspicious look.

Wei Ying tries desperately to catch his brother's eyes, but Jiang Cheng ignores him. Now that it's clear Wei Ying won't be imprisoned or executed, he and Wen Qing seem willing to let Wei Ying face his fate.

Wei Ying thinks he'd gladly take imprisonment over this: having to look Second Prince in the eye and explain himself. He stumbles over nothing, and Nie Huaisang slows his pace.

"Ah, Brother Wei." He pats Wei Ying's arm. "Don't look so worried! Everything's worked out for the best."

In many ways, it has. But Wei Ying can't take it all in.

"You are terrifying," he tells Nie Huaisang in an undertone. "Why did you never tell me that you're terrifying?"

Really, this seems like information that Huaisang should've shared with his oldest friend!

Nie Huaisang sighs. His steps slow even further.

"I never wanted to be," he says, almost contemplatively. "But you were gone, and your brother was in Lotus Pier. Da-Ge was always busy with His Majesty. There were so many problems, and nobody was there to help."

Wei Ying has absolutely no idea what to say to that.

"Well," he chokes out. "Thank you."

If Nie Huaisang has really played a role in all this—if he exposed a corrupt political mastermind and freed innocent people—thanks are a poor repayment. But Nie Huaisang only hums carelessly.

"No need!" He shrugs. "I was mostly helping myself, really. Not that I didn't care about you. But somebody had to do something about San-Ge, and nobody would listen to me."

Wei Ying spends some time gaping like a fish. He tries to make sense of it all: the question of who did what, who knew what, who schemed against whom. But it's too much, and he gives up in despair.

He was never any good at political maneuvering. It's just one of the many reasons Wei Ying can't marry someone of high rank. The idea of Wei Ying marrying a prince is laughable.

"Did you finish your fan?" he asks.

Nie Huaisang brightens.

"I did! Now I just have to find an opportunity to present it." He touches Wei Ying's arm. "Brother Wei, please help me think up a good plan."

When it comes to plotting, Nie Huaisang clearly doesn't need anyone's help. But Wei Ying recognizes the gesture for what it is.

We can still be friends, Nie Huaisang is saying. Can't we? Even if things are different, even if we're not carefree children anymore. We can still get along.

Wei Ying nods silently.

Things have changed, and there's no use pretending otherwise. But Nie Huaisang has quite possibly saved his life, and the lives of many people Wei Ying cares about. And if they might someday be brothers-in-law, then they have to get along.

"Ah, of course." He chuckles quietly, thinking of Jiang Cheng's face when he sees the fan. "I'll do my best to help."

He can't be sure how Jiang Cheng will respond to the courtship. But he didn't seem put off when they spoke of it last night. Perhaps Nie Huaisang would be a good choice, after all. He knows how to tease and flirt with Jiang Cheng. He can keep Wei Ying's brother from taking himself too seriously, or driving himself into an early grave. That's what Jiang Cheng has always needed most.

Besides, Nie Huaisang is plainly more than qualified to handle the political scheming that comes with marriage to a sect leader.

So Wei Ying feels cautiously optimistic. But his spirits sink as they draw nearer to the garden. It should be familiar ground, but it looks unutterably strange in the daylight.

Wei Ying thinks, Dear gods, what am I going to say to him?

Then he catches a glimpse of white, and his breath sticks in his throat. Second Prince is pacing near the bench where they played the shell cup game. All thought is instantly wiped from Wei Ying's head.

"We can wait here," Nie Huaisang volunteers, positioning himself at the edge of the garden.

The captain doesn't look too pleased with that idea. But Nie Huaisang waves off his concern.

"I'm sure it's fine! Look, we'll stand behind this hedge and watch." He points helpfully to the chosen spot. It will indeed provide a clear view of the bench. "If Wei Wuxian assaults His Highness again, we'll definitely catch him in the act!" 

Wei Ying has no intention of assaulting anybody. He doesn't have any intention of approaching Second Prince whatsoever.

In fact, he's changed his mind entirely. He doesn't want to be a court sorcerer. He wants to find Lil Apple and flee. He can spend the rest of his life wandering the borderlands in self-imposed exile. Surely that would be easier than facing Second Prince after what happened.

But Nie Huaisang gives him a firm push, and Wei Ying stumbles into the garden.

Second Prince's gaze falls upon him immediately, which seems very unfair. Then there's nothing left for Wei Ying to do but draw himself up and scuttle over to the bench.

He tries to look dignified. Some part of him is still desperate to make a good impression on Second Prince, as if that horse hasn't left the barn.

Wei Ying halts before the bench and spends some time staring at his shoes. They're battered and faded, and he suffers a sharp stab of embarrassment. He isn't even wearing the stolen robes he wore to the ball. There was no time to change, so he showed up to the palace in his own clothing. After spending seven months living off the land, his clothes are ragged and worn thin.

Second Prince's robes are immaculate, of course. Wei Ying can't summon the courage to look at the man's face, but even his plain white mourning robes are exquisite.

"You're okay, right?" he asks, in a rush. "Your eyes. I mean, Wen Qing swore the powder only lasted for fifteen minutes."

His heart stutters and he bites his lip.

"I should've told you that," he mumbles. "The powder isn't supposed to cause any permanent damage, but you probably didn't know that."

It's a horrible thought. Of course, Wei Ying knew the powder would wear off. But Second Prince had no idea. All he knew was that some criminal threw a strange powder in his eyes. Then, suddenly, he was blind.

Wei Ying clenches his fists.

The effects wouldn't have lasted long. But Second Prince probably spent a heart-stopping fifteen minutes wondering if he was permanently blind. Thinking about that makes Wei Ying want to march back to the emperor and demand the right to be executed for his crimes.

"There was no permanent damage," Second Prince says.

His voice is far softer than Wei Ying anticipated. Wei Ying's eyes dart up, hungry for another glimpse of Second Prince's face.

But that proves to be a terrible mistake. If Second Prince was beautiful in the moonlight, he's even lovelier by day. Wei Ying stares just long enough to burn an image of Second Prince's face into his brain. Just in case he never sees the man again after this awful conversation.

"Good," he says, slightly strangled. "That's good."

There's a brief, horrible silence.

"You are...also unharmed," Second Prince says.

It doesn't sound like a question. But Wei Ying nods anyway.

"Oh. Yes." He toys with the edge of his cloak. "Your brother said I won't be executed. I thought that was very nice of him."

It was extremely nice of the emperor. Unreasonably nice, really. Wei Ying can see that now.

He dared to raise his hand against Second Prince, who is beautiful and perfect and unfailingly just. Second Prince, who asked if Wei Ying was unharmed and seemed to care about the answer.

Second Prince is also unreasonably nice. Wei Ying decides that someone ought to speak to the imperial family about this: they are entirely too nice for their own good.

"He dislikes executing people." Second Prince folds his hands in front of body. His fingers twitch, ever so slightly. Like it costs him actual effort to remain still.

Wei Ying stares at those fingers, and his mouth opens without permission.

"My name is Wei Ying, by the way. Courtesy name Wei Wuxian."

"I was told," Second Prince murmurs.

Wei Ying resists the temptation to smack himself across the face. Of course Second Prince was told. The imperial family has already investigated this matter, and Jiang Cheng was sent to bring Wei Ying to the palace. Second Prince knows who he is. There's no need for Wei Ying to introduce himself.

No need, just a desperate wish to hear his given name in Second Prince's mouth.

"Why did you come?" Second Prince's voice is low, hushed.

He's not asking why Wei Ying is here today. Why he's here in the garden, making a fool of himself. He's asking, Why did you come to the ball in the first place?

Wei Ying draws in a deep breath.

"Well. You remember the Sunshot campaign?" He falters. "Well, you don't remember it, because you weren't there. I was there. I would've noticed if you were there."

Wei Ying stops and shuts his eyes. He wishes someone would put him out of his misery.

Nie Huaisang, he thinks. If you want to be my friend again, why don't you come over here and cut my throat? It would be a mercy!

He sucks in another deep breath and tries again.

"It started," Wei Ying says slowly, "when I met a woman named Wen Qing."

He's on firmer ground there.

Wei Ying tells Second Prince how he helped Wen Ning. How he befriended Wen Ning's sister. How they introduced him to their family, the part of their clan who has always been healers. Then he describes the end of the Sunshot campaign, the public outrage against the Wens.

Second Prince already knows of the imperial edict ordering their death. So Wei Ying skims lightly over that bit: how they fled from Qinghe and spent some time hiding in the wilderness. How they ran out of money and food, and couldn't get honest work. How Wei Ying came up with the ridiculous idea to sneak into the palace and steal from the richest people in the kingdom.

Then, because there's no alternative, he sketches a quick summary of what happened in the emperor's hall. Wen Qing's testimony against Jin Guangyao. How they went looking for the man, only to find that he'd disappeared. How it seems that maybe Jin Guangyao—and his late father—were behind the false intelligence that led to the execution order.

Second Prince absorbs the news in silence.

Wei Ying risks a few more glances at Second Prince's ridiculously perfect face. His brows are drawn together, and he seems troubled.

"I see." His eyes drift toward the western hall, where his brother is still speaking with Wen Qing. "Jin Guangyao has disappeared?"

"Apparently." Wei Ying shrugs and tries to sound unconcerned.

It's not his place to ask questions: What will happen to Jin Guangyao? Will they go searching for him? Will he be executed if he's found? Why did your brother trust him in the first place? Why did Nie Mingjue act like he was expecting this sort of thing?

He has no right to ask. But after a moment, Second Prince speaks anyway.

"During the war, Jin Guangyao slew one of Duke Nie's men." He frowns, lips parting with thought. "At first, he blamed the murder on one of Wen Ruohan's lackeys. Later, he admitted his own involvement. But he justified his actions by claiming that he was undercover, and the man threatened to expose him."

Wei Ying digests that. Second Prince continues to give the section of the palace currently housing his brother an anxious frown.

"Duke Nie has never trusted him since," he continues, "though he was instrumental in Wen Ruohan's defeat. He wished to have Jin Guangyao executed. But Jin Guangyao served well in other respects and helped to end the war sooner than expected."

Second Prince goes quiet.

"My brother trusted him," he finishes. His voice is almost sad.

Wei Ying shuts his eyes again.

"Well. That happens sometimes."

He's not trying to be ironic. But once the words are out of his mouth, they seem to gain a strange resonance.

Your brother trusted someone who turned out to be unworthy of his regard. You understand how that sort of thing could happen, don't you?

"Indeed." Second Prince nods.

He doesn't sound angry, just disappointed. Somehow, that's a thousand times more devastating than anger. Wei Ying wilts, and spends some more time gazing miserably at his shoes.

"When you spoke to me," Second Prince begins.

Then he stops, but those five words are enough. Wei Ying lifts his eyes and stares hard at Second Prince's face until he continues.

"The first night. Your intention was..." Second Prince hesitates. "To distract me from your crimes?"

"No!" Wei Ying cries. His shoulders slump, and he rubs a hand over his face.

This is what he's been afraid of: the possibility that Second Prince believes it was all some sort of game. That Wei Ying was using Second Prince to amuse himself, or create a diversion.

"Ah," Wei Ying sighs. "I really shouldn't have spoken to you at all. I was trying to avoid getting noticed, after all! But I ran into you by accident!"

He didn't plan on speaking to Second Prince. Not at all. A smile tugs at Wei Ying's mouth, though there's nothing funny about the situation.

"You were so serious," he mumbles. "Once I saw how uptight you were, I just wanted to tease you a little. Then..."

Wei Ying grimaces.

"I enjoyed talking to you," he admits. "Very much. I didn't think..."

He stares at his tattered boots. He might as well end his defense there: I didn't think.

Wei Ying didn't think. He didn't think about any of this. When he set out for the palace, he was solely focused on his own needs, and the needs of the Wens. Later—after he met Second Prince—Wei Ying was focused on something else entirely. He never stopped to think that he might be creating trouble for Second Prince.

"I wasn't trying to cause trouble," he says. "But I liked talking with you, so I wanted to talk to you a little bit longer. Each night, I wanted to keep talking to you. So I kept looking for you, and I kept trying to think of ways to make you stay."

The words seem to hang in the air, perhaps because Second Prince is listening so raptly. His eyes are fixed on Wei Ying's face.

But Wei Ying can't manage to maintain eye contact. His face burns.

"It wasn't very smart," he mumbles.

It wasn't. He wasn't smart. Wei Ying feels sure that—this time, anyway—he's speaking nothing but the truth.

Second Prince is silent for a moment.

"The purpose of the ball," he says, "was to arrange my marriage." 

Wei Ying's breath catches. He takes a fresh lungful of air, and ignores the way the words burn a hole straight through his chest.

"Of course!" He strives to keep his voice light. "I spoiled the party, I know. But I hope you still picked out someone good?"

He hopes—he hopes desperately—that this is the moment where Second Prince announces his choice. A proper choice.

Maybe he'll say something like, For a moment, I was planning to choose you. Wei Ying will have to laugh and pretend like his heart isn't breaking.

But then Second Prince will say, Of course, I quickly realized my mistake. I've chosen someone else, a perfectly respectable young suitor. Someone with the right connections, and an unblemished reputation. I'm sure we'll be very content together.

Wei Ying will agree, of course. He'll wish Second Prince every good fortune, every earthly happiness. What else can he do?

"I did not have the opportunity to share my choice with my father." Second Prince's face tenses. "But I told my brother the person I wished to marry."

Wei Ying's chest clenches at the look in Second Prince's eye when he speaks of his father.

If they were true friends—if Wei Ying was privileged to have Second Prince's trust—he could offer some sort of comfort now. The late emperor has hardly been dead for three days, and the wound must be raw. Wei Ying wishes desperately that he had the right to hold Second Prince, or try to console him in some other way.

But he doesn't. So he pushes those thoughts down.

"It's Young Mistress Luo, I'll bet?" His voice is a bit flat, a bit mechanical. But he can't help that. He sounds civil, and that's the best he can do.

Second Prince frowns deeply.

"I have no wish to marry her," he says, faintly reproachful.

Wei Ying's stupid, foolish heart starts to race.

"Well, you definitely can't marry my brother! I'm sorry, but Nie Huaisang is already planning a courtship!" He's talking too quickly, almost nonsensically.

Second Prince shakes his head again.

"I have no wish to marry him, either."

Every inch of Wei Ying's body burns. He wants to reach out and grab Second Prince, shake him by the shoulders.

Can it possibly be true that you picked me? Did you really tell your brother you want to marry me? Does some part of you—even a tiny part—still want to marry me?

Wei Ying thought perhaps Second Prince's other choices were so awful that Wei Ying seemed like an acceptable compromise. Or maybe Second Prince only told his family that he picked Wei Ying because he knew they'd say no. Maybe he was trying to stall his marriage as long as possible.

Wei Ying could hardly blame the man if he wanted to use this mess to his advantage. But Second Prince's voice is always so honest, his eyes always so sincere. Wei Ying doesn't think...

He doesn't think this is some sort of ploy.

"It sounds like you didn't have time to get to know any of your guests!" Wei Ying shoves his hands into the pockets of his cloak and slouches forward.

He stomps down hard on the delicate ember, flickering inside his chest. It's not like they can marry, after all, even if Second Prince has some insane idea that they should. They can never marry, and that why Wei Ying should've stayed far away from the ball.

"I shouldn't have used up so much of your time," he concludes, with a forced smile. "That was selfish. I wasn't even a candidate, after all!"

He hopes that will be enough of a reminder: I wasn't even a candidate! So hurry and pick someone suitable, okay?

But Second Prince only shakes his head. His face is impassive.

"You are Cangse Sanren's son," he says. "You were the ward of Jiang Fengmian. You are First Disciple of Lotus Pier. Your brother is Sect Leader Jiang."

When phrased that way, Wei Ying sounds like someone impressive. He almost sounds like someone who has the right to court an imperial prince.

But Wei Ying smiles—a small, pained smile—and shakes his head.

"I am also the man who defied an imperial edict," he reminds Second Prince. "I broke into the palace and robbed several illustrious guests."

"Were you not pardoned for these offenses?" Second Prince's voice is cool, assessing.

Wei Ying falters.

"I was. But that doesn't mean..."

The emperor has offered Wei Ying a chance to clean up his reputation. It's very generous, and Wei Ying intends to make the most of this opportunity. But he's not a compete fool. He knows he was offered clemency for Jiang Cheng's sake, and for Jiejie's. For Jiang Fengmian and the late emperor. He was offered a pardon so the new emperor could save face, and not deal with the shame of his father having ordered the death of the wrong person.

Even so, the gentry will never forget. They'll always remember what Wei Ying did, even if he serves honorably at court for fifty years.

"I see." Second Prince's frown deepens.

Wei Ying hates seeing that look on his face: disappointment mingled with embarrassment.

"You have risked a great deal to help Mistress Wen and her family," Second Prince says slowly. "If you wish to marry her..."

Wei Ying chokes, but he can't help it.

"Gods," he gasps. He flails his hands in protest. "No. Wen Qing is like my sister! I don't even think she likes men!"

"Oh." Some of the dismay slides off Second Prince's face.

That's very good, and Wei Ying has a fraction of a second to feel relived. But then the dark, unhappy look returns to Second Prince's eyes.

"There is someone else," he concludes.

Wei Ying's heart threatens to lurch right out of his chest.

"There is not."

He doesn't know how else to explain this. Most people would leap at the chance to marry Second Prince. Not just because he's a prince, either! Because he's lovely and kind and smart. Because he's fun to talk to. Because he's generous and good.

Wei Ying is making such a show of avoiding any hint of a proposal. Of course Second Prince thinks there must be someone else. He flounders for an explanation.

But Second Prince's eyes move past him, and he suddenly flushes.

Wei Ying turns. He finds Nie Huaisang and the guard captain watching the conversation, open-mouthed. Wei Ying gives up all attempts at diplomacy and palace decorum, and makes a rude gesture at them.

"Stop watching us," he shrieks.

"Captain." Second Prince's voice is calmer, but it carries well. "Please turn your back."

"Your Highness," the captain calls back uneasily. "I am sure His Majesty-"

"I am sure," Second Prince interrupts, "that my brother would ask you to obey my order."

The captain turns, but he doesn't look happy about it. Nie Huaisang's face is downright indignant.

"If we're going to turn around," he shouts, "then you have to talk louder. I can't hear anything! Are you engaged yet?"

Wei Ying wishes a meteor would strike him. He wishes he'd never been born. He wishes an assassin would leap from the bushes and thrust a knife into his gut. But merciful death doesn't come. So Wei Ying opens his mouth and speaks.

"I can't marry you," he says hurriedly. "It's not because there's anybody else. I can't..."

He shuts his eyes. He can't possibly look at Second Prince's face while he says this. If he does, he'll only remember how beautiful Second Prince looked each night of the ball. He'll remember how they talked, and how unexpectedly funny Second Prince was. How kind and patient he was. How he humored Wei Ying, and seemed to enjoy speaking with him.

If Wei Ying remembers that, he'll do something foolish. He can't marry Second Prince. But he can't allow Second Prince's words—there is somebody else—to pass without objection.

Wei Ying heaves a sigh and opens his eyes.

"I can't believe you think anybody would pick someone else over you!" he says, staring at the blue sky overhead. "Have you ever met yourself? Are there no mirrors in the palace? Who would marry someone else, when they could marry you?"

Wei Ying can't imagine that anyone in the world would choose someone else over Second Prince. It's impossible. Unfathomable. Quite possibly against the Lan disciplines!

"I'm obviously not good enough for you," he concludes. "I lied to you."

"What did you lie about?" Second Prince's voice is perfectly neutral.

Wei Ying does a double-take.

"Everything!" he cries.

But Second Prince only tilts his head. His expression is thoughtful.

"The stories you told me about your childhood," he says."Were those false?"

Wei Ying's stomach twists.

"No," he mumbles.

That was stupid, and he knows it. But he wanted so badly to share his own personal history with Second Prince. Making up false stories—trying to create a backstory for Mo Xuanyu—felt like a betrayal. A betrayal of himself and Second Prince.

"You spoke of people in your household." Second Prince pauses. "I realize now they were most likely the Wens. But were those stories false? Do those people not exist?"

Wei Ying gives up and buries in face in his hands.

"No," he mumbles. "That stuff was true. You're missing the point!"

Second Prince is willfully, deliberately missing the point. What's worse, he steps forward and touches Wei Ying's wrist.

Wei Ying lets his hands fall away from his face and flinches like he's been scalded.

"Aside from matters concerning your identity," Second Prince says. "Was anything else you said a lie?"

It takes Wei Ying a moment to answer. Even a brief touch—Second Prince's fingers against the back of his wrist—is enough to shatter Wei Ying's brain into fragments.

Once the words sink in, he gives them honest thought. He replays each conversation in his mind. He doesn't think he lied about anything other than his name, his background. But that's enough, surely?

"No. Your Highness." Wei Ying shakes his head in frustration. "That is not the point. Lying about your identity...that's still a big lie! A very serious lie!"

He reaches out to clasp Second Prince's wrist. He shouldn't do that, of course. He has no business doing such a thing, especially when he's trying to convince Second Prince that they can't marry.

But Second Prince's ears go red, and Wei Ying is so fascinated, he forgets that only family is meant to touch the imperial family.

"You definitely can't marry someone like that," he insists. He stares at Second Prince's mouth for a few seconds, then tears his eyes away. "People who lie about their identity are unmarriageable. Isn't that one of the rules?"

"It is not," Second Prince says, somewhat breathlessly.

Wei Ying groans. The rules have let him down!

"Well, it should be," he decides. "Hurry and get a chisel. We'll go add it to the wall right away."

He's willing to etch the characters in with his own two hands: The beautiful and illustrious Second Prince is forbidden to throw himself away on Wei Wuxian. They're probably meant to seek permission before tampering with the wall of rules. But surely Second Prince's family will make an exception in this case?

"If you have to ask about the contents," Second Prince says, "then you have not yet finished reading the rule-book."

He sounds rather more in possession of himself now, and there's something almost like humor in his voice. Wei Ying's hands tremble.

"I meant to." He digs the toe of his worn boot into the dirt. "But I got distracted. I thought I was going to be executed, and that was very stressful."

It occurs to Wei Ying that he hasn't let go of Second Prince's wrist. His wrist fits so nicely into Wei Ying's palm, like it belongs there. He can't seem to make himself let go.

"Now the book is back at our camp," Wei Ying continues, "with all my other things. But the Wens will bring it to the capital when they come."

Once he's said that, he flounders. He still can't seem to pry his hand away from Second Prince. What's worse, Second Prince's eyes are very bright as he looks at their joined hands. Wei Ying's heart threatens to beat out of his chest.

"I solemnly swear I will finish reading the rules, okay?" he adds inanely.

"Mm." Second Prince gives the statement a great deal more consideration than it deserves. Then he lifts his eyes and stares into Wei Ying's face.

"I wish to marry you," he says.

All the breath is driven out of Wei Ying's lungs.

"However, I would never compel you to accept." He lowers his head. "If I am not a person you would choose to marry, please tell me so."

Wei Ying stares at Second Prince.

He wants to laugh. He wants to cry.

If I am not a person you would choose to marry...

As if there is a person alive who wouldn't feel privileged to marry Second Prince! As if Wei Ying could turn his nose up at this man! As if he didn't risk his life—over and over—trying to scrounge another five minutes of this man's attention!

"They don't tell civilians this." He scrubs a hand over his face. "The palace has no mirrors! How very sad!"

If Second Prince thinks anybody would balk at marrying him, he has plainly never looked into a single mirror. It's quite tragic, really. Quite appalling, that nobody has explained to the prince how extraordinary he is. Some servant, somewhere, has clearly been delinquent in his duties.

Second Prince looks puzzled, as if he's not sure whether Wei Ying is making a joke.

That, Wei Ying decides, is another gross oversight on the part of the palace staff. Nobody has taught Second Prince how to tease properly! He has an instinct for it, Wei Ying can see that much. Second Prince could become very good at teasing and joking, if he only had a proper instructor.

If circumstances were different, Wei Ying might beg for the honor of tutoring Second Prince in these matters.

But he can't, and he finally lets go of Second Prince's wrist.

"Whether or not you are the person I would wish to marry," he says gently, "isn't what matters."

"It is the only thing that matters," Second Prince retorts. "To me."

Wei Ying smothers a groan.

If nobody has taught Second Prince about teasing, they've taught him other things. He certainly knows how to look beautiful and righteous and determined. Wei Ying isn't sure he's strong enough to stand against this, but he tries.

"Your Highness." His voice chokes briefly. "You're really great. I like you. I think...maybe I might be in love with you."

There's something profoundly humiliating about those words. Wei Ying always thought it wouldn't be so bad, whenever he fell in love. In his daydreams, he took it for granted that everything would be rosy. He'd confess his love, and they'd confess theirs. Then they'd elope joyfully.

He forgot to prepare for this kind of confession: I love you, but we definitely can't be together.

It's too late, anyway. Second Prince's eyes brighten, and his face is luminous. It hurts to look at him. Wei Ying screws his eyes shut.

"But! Please pay attention to this part! It's very important!" He gropes blindly for Second Prince's wrist and shakes it. "I would not make a good husband. I definitely would not make a good prince consort."

"Why not?" Second Prince asks.

He sounds so benignly curious that Wei Ying's eyes pop open.

Sure enough, Second Prince is watching with a mild expression. As though he thinks Wei Ying's argument is amusingly outlandish, rather than obvious fact.

"Hm." Wei Ying clears his throat. He tilts his head. "Did I give you the impression that I'm someone with impeccable judgment? A great deal of foresight? A gifted politician, maybe?"

He sways back on his heels.

"If so, I must be a better actor than I thought!"

If he managed to give that sort of impression, he might as well give up on sorcery. He should go on stage as a traveling performer!

"You did not," Second Prince says bluntly.

Wei Ying smothers the desire—the knee-jerk reaction—to protest. This is what he's trying to affirm, after all: he's not the sort of person who's a suitable husband for a prince.

"But that is not what makes a good husband," Second Prince continues. "Or a good consort."

Wei Ying's eyebrows lift.

"Oh? Your Highness, please advise me." He smiles, and his smile is only a bit forced this time. "What qualities are necessary? What does one have to do, to marry into the imperial family?"

It's nothing he can ever manage, surely. But he might as well know. He might as well hear just how far from the mark he is. If he understands that—how very unqualified he is to marry Second Prince, in the eyes of his family—it might be easier to walk away.

"Lan Zhan," Second Prince says. "Courtesy name Lan Wangji."

Wei Ying's heart clenches.

"Lan Zhan," he whispers before he can think better of it.

Something unfolds in Second Prince's—Lan Zhan's—eyes, like a flower opening to the sun.

Wei Ying's own eyes burn with tears.

"Uphold the value of justice," Lan Zhan says softly. "Shoulder the weight of morality."

It takes a moment for Wei Ying to understand that he's quoting more of the disciplines.

"Be just. Be generous. Be loyal."

The pulse in Lan Zhan's wrist thrums under Wei Ying's fingers.

"Be fair, and they will follow you," he chants. "Be trustworthy, and they will believe you. Be mighty, and they will die for you."

By the time he's finished, Wei Ying's throat is full of tears.

Well, he tries to say, if those are your standards, I am not surprised you are unmarried! I hope you're prepared to remain a bachelor all your days. Who could measure up to all that? Certainly not me!

But before he can speak, Lan Zhan cuts in.

"Have you not achieved these standards already, by what you did for the Wens?" he asks. His voice is kind and absolutely ruthless. "By pursuing justice and exposing corruption, even when the cost was great?"

Wei Ying doesn't want to cry. Not here, not now. But one tiny tear sneaks out, then another. He wipes them away with his sleeve and takes a few rapid, shallow breaths.

"I do not wish to marry a gifted politician," Lan Zhan continues. "I wish to marry someone I can admire and respect. Someone pleasant to talk to. Someone who will make me smile."

The sleeve isn't enough to solve the problem anymore. Lan Zhan pushes a handkerchief into his hands and Wei Ying reduces it to a sodden, snot-soaked mess.

They're going to have to add that to his reparations, he thinks hysterically. If this keeps up—if Lan Zhan intends to be nice to him, praise him—then Wei Ying is doomed. He'll ruin every handkerchief in the kingdom, and his wages will be garnished until he's eighty.

Once he's destroyed the handkerchief, Wei Ying balls it up in his right hand. His left is still busy clutching Lan Zhan's wrist.

Wei Ying can never be a gifted politician. He's not even sure he can be what Lan Zhan says he already is: just, mighty, generous. But he can be pleasant to talk to. He can make Lan Zhan smile. He can tease Lan Zhan, and teach him games, and keep him company.

He's not sure if he can be someone Lan Zhan admires or respect. But he can try, anyway. He can be loyal, too. For Lan Zhan, only Lan Zhan. He can be loyal, trustworthy, fair. He can do those things for Lan Zhan very easily.

"What sort of person would Wei Ying choose to marry?" Lan Zhan asks.

Wei Ying makes a terrible, strangled sound. It's not a bit romantic. But hearing Lan Zhan use his given name destroys his last few shreds of composure. He has to clear his throat several times before he can speak.

"Somebody I respect," he rasps. "Somebody who would let me tease them and pester them. Somebody who would debate things with me, if I read a new book and wanted to argue about it. Somebody who would let me talk out loud while I was trying to master a new talisman or spell."

A tiny part of his heart—locked away for years—suddenly cracks open. All his oldest dreams come spilling out, the things he always wanted but was too afraid to ask for.

"Somebody who would always keep me company," he murmurs, "even when I'm old and gray. Somebody who would sit beside me at the lake at Lotus Pier, and let me hold their hand. Somebody I could have a family with."

Lan Zhan shifts their hands. Suddenly, Wei Ying is no longer gripping Lan Zhan's wrist. He's squeezing Lan Zhan's hand, and it's just as wonderful as Wei Ying would have expected.

Wei Ying stares at their hands, folded together. His are chapped and slightly too-thin. Lan Zhan's are much nicer. But there are some slight calluses there, from sword practice, maybe.

"It would be very nice if they were good at swordplay, too," Wei Ying confesses. "If they were willing to spar with me every now and then. But I can't afford to be too picky."

Wei Ying has no business being picky. If the humblest farmer in the kingdom offers to marry him, he should thank them on his knees.

But he can't marry any farmers, or any of the gentry, or any of the countless other people in the kingdom. He can't marry anybody else, because he is in love with Lan Zhan.

Every half-formed romantic daydream—sparring with his future spouse, debating a new treatise, sitting by the lotus lake at twilight—now includes Lan Zhan. Wei Ying can't imagine doing these things with anyone else. He can't imagine walking away from this man, letting him marry some stranger.

Lan Zhan squeezes his hand tight. It occurs to Wei Ying—in a dizzying, baffling moment of epiphany—that maybe he won't have to.

"Your standards are not unreasonable," Lan Zhan says. He pauses. "Do I not meet them?"

Wei Ying stares for several seconds. Then he pitches the balled-up, snotty handkerchief directly at Lan Zhan chest.

"You are unreasonable!" he cries, affronted. "Asking if you meet my standards! What an unreasonable question!"

Lan Zhan's mouth twitches. The last of the tension in his face evaporates, and Wei Ying wants to cry. He wants to pounce on this absolutely ridiculous man until he realizes that there is no standard he does not meet.

"Your Highness! Lan Zhan." Wei Ying gives into temptation long enough to flick the man's forehead. "Aren't such nonsensical questions against the rules!"

"They are." Lan Zhan goes slightly cross-eyed under Wei Ying's assault. But he draws himself up solemnly and nods.

Wei Ying realizes that he's smiling, and he can't seem to stop. He wants to burst into loud, raucous laughter.

"Well!" He draws back and folds his arms. "Then you've broken the rules! You'd better not ask something so foolish again."

He sways in.

"I thought you were very sensible! But I can see I'll have to keep my eye on you."

"Good," Lan Zhan says peaceably.

There's a self-satisfied expression on his face, and Wei Ying wants to draw it. He wishes he had brushes, ink, paper, and the luxury of several hours to draw Lan Zhan.

But before he can ask—a request from a humble petitioner!—Lan Zhan reaches up and unwinds the ribbon around his forehead.

Wei Ying blinks.

He hardly noticed the ribbon the final night of the ball. Second Prince was wearing it then, of course. Wei Ying doesn't know if First Prince wears a ribbon. He wasn't wearing one in the discussion hall today, but that doesn't prove much. He's the emperor now, and perhaps emperors don't wear forehead ribbons.

They say the ribbons are very important to the Lan clan, though. Members receive their ribbon at birth, and outsiders are not permitted to touch them.

But Lan Zhan removes his ribbon and holds it out to Wei Ying. The ribbon curls neatly in his palm, and the silver cloud etching gleams in the sunlight.

Wei Ying must look very blank because Second Prince's expression softens further.

"It is customary in the imperial family," he explains, "to bestow this ribbon to the person we have chosen as our spouse."

Wei Ying laughs aloud, and it almost comes out as tears.

There's a difference, he knows, between words and deeds. Lan Zhan can say, I wish to marry you. But it's only that: a wish. This is something else. This gesture is weighted down with custom and tradition. It's not something Wei Ying can talk around or pretend to misunderstand.

And he doesn't want to misunderstand. He wants an understanding. He wants to know that Lan Zhan wants to marry this hopeless man, who bumbled into the palace and caused a scandal.

He's still not sure he has what it takes to be a good husband, especially to a prince. But if it's about justice, fairness, loyalty... He can certainly try, for Lan Zhan. He wants to try.

"What do I do with it?" Wei Ying stares helplessly at the ribbon. He starts to laugh all over again. "I'm sorry. I'm ruining the moment, but this wasn't in the rule-book."

Lan Zhan takes his wrist calmly, winding the ribbon around it. He finishes by tying the ribbon with a neat knot.

Wei Ying admires his new adornment, feeling giddy and panicked and almost frantic with joy. But he doesn't know what he's supposed to do with the ribbon now that he has it. He doesn't know if he's meant to wear it every day, or not wear it in front of certain people. He doesn't know if the ribbon stays on for the rest of his life, or only until the wedding.

He groans aloud, thinking of how much he doesn't know.

"You're going to have to instruct me on all these palace customs," he warns. "It'll be very troublesome!"

"No trouble," Lan Zhan says.

Like it's just that simple: teaching and helping Wei Ying is no trouble.

Nobody has ever said that to Wei Ying before. Not even Jiejie. Wei Ying's eyes threaten to fill with tears again.

"I don't have a ribbon to give you!" He pats down his pockets, chagrined. "Ah, I thought I did. I used to have one. It wasn't a special ribbon like yours, but..."

It wasn't a sacred clan ribbon. It was only the hair ribbon he bought in the capital, the one that was supposed to be for A-Jing. Wei Ying poached it from her, and wore it, and lost it.

But, impossibly, Lan Zhan draws the ribbon almost from thin air. Wei Ying takes it dumbly, even before Lan Zhan has offered it. It's a bright, vivid red, somewhat tattered at the edges. He gives Lan Zhan a wondering look.

"You left this behind," he explains. His ears are pink again. "The final evening."

And you kept it, Wei Ying thinks. I dropped it somewhere, and you found it. You kept it, even when you thought I was a liar and a thief. Even after I made a fool of you. You really liked me so much, you even kept my stupid ribbon.

It's humbling. He swallows hard.

"Is that so?" He sighs. "Then I already gave you my ribbon! But I better hurry and make it official."

He doesn't know if this is part of the palace custom. Wei Ying might be perverting this beautiful tradition. But Lan Zhan doesn't object when Wei Ying takes his wrist and winds the red ribbon around it.

As he ties the knot, Wei Ying hopes there might be time for something more. Ribbons are all very well, but they're not what Wei Ying wants. He's been staring at Lan Zhan's mouth for days, full of guilty curiosity. He wants to know what it's like to touch that mouth, to kiss it.

If they're betrothed now, then perhaps some kissing would be allowed?

But before he can make his attempt, Nie Huaisang pops up from behind the hedge.

"Congratulations, Your Highness!" he cheers. He waves his arms in the air. "Congratulations, Brother Wei!"

The captain's eyes are firmly averted. He looks as if he doesn't want to see what this degenerate is doing to his pristine Second Prince. But Nie Huaisang beams. He's clearly watched every moment of their little interlude.

Wei Ying lets out a very long sigh. Then he stoops and picks up a small stone. He hurls it at Nie Huaisang, who squeaks and ducks.

"Go away!" Wei Ying hollers. "You're a nuisance! Who told you to interrupt a romantic moment!"

Nie Huaisang pulls a face, but he darts off, dragging the captain along with him.

"I'll go tell His Majesty everything has been straightened out!" Nie Huaisang gives Wei Ying another excited wave from the edge of the garden. "Make sure you don't do anything too improper before the wedding!"

Wei Ying claps a hand to his face and pretends he can't hear the way the captain chokes indignantly. Nie Huaisang hustles him away, and soon they're left in blessed solitude.

Wei Ying knows he should behave in a very circumspect manner from now on. If he's engaged to a prince, he had better behave! For Lan Zhan's sake, Wei Ying needs to make a good impression on the imperial family. The rest of the court, too.

That will be an uphill battle, and Wei Ying winces as he pictures it. Certainly nobody will be very happy to hear about their engagement. Wei Ying should behave properly, to help smooth things over.

But Wei Ying was never good at propriety. If he were, none of this would have ever happened. If he were wise and circumspect, he never would have come to the ball. He never would have spoken to Lan Zhan. He wouldn't be standing here now, with Lan Zhan's special ribbon around his wrist.

So Wei Ying throws caution to the wind—at least once more—and sways closer.

"Is kissing improper?" he asks, raising an eyebrow. "I haven't finished the rule-book yet, so Second Prince must advise me. Is kissing your betrothed a heinous offense? Shall I go review the wall of rules to check?"

Lan Zhan's ears redden again. But he reaches out to take hold of Wei Ying's robes.

"Unnecessary," he says. He draws Wei Ying's closer.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying tries to throw the proper shock into his voice: Second Prince dares to kiss someone in the gardens, in broad daylight!

But their lips brush together, warm and sweet, and Wei Ying gives up. He gives up fear and self-sacrifice. He gives up the anxiety that he won't be enough, that Lan Zhan will be disappointed. He certainly gives up on propriety and palace customs.

He slides his arms around Lan Zhan's body and pulls him close. They kiss again, and again, and again, until Jiang Cheng finds them and starts yelling.