This fic was (naturally) inspired by all your life you'll dream of this by attila. I cannot possibly hope to equal the beauty of that story, but I couldn't resist the temptation to do a Cinderella AU of my own!
Note that this this story takes place in a slightly different setting. It's still Ancient Fantasy China, but not quite wuxia/xianxia. There is no cultivation, and no flying of the sword. Instead, the characters practice sorcery using spells and talismans. There are some RP/D&D style elements, particularly with the spell-work.
If anything doesn't seem to make sense, I beg you to suspend your disbelief. Do not overthink it. We're just here to watch these two dummies fall in love.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
I'm aiming for daily updates. Stay tuned for more!
Wei Ying quickly discovers that capital is loud and chaotic. The sheer volume of foot traffic almost terrifying.
He's no stranger to bustling cities. Lotus Pier was always busy, especially during the harvest. But the capital puts Lotus Pier to shame. Wei Ying isn't sure if these crowds are normal, or if they're the result of the imperial ball. Either way, he's never seen crowds this enormous.
After a year of living in a backwater village, the sudden crush of people is disorienting. Wei Ying darts into an alleyway for a few minutes to catch his breath. The swarm of people offers one advantage: nobody even glances his way.
There are gentry everywhere, though. No matter where Wei Ying turns, he sees covered carriages, finely dressed men and women on horseback, fluttering silk banners.
Wei Ying is still dressed in rags, and no one gives him a second look. So he wanders around for a while, trying to seem casual and self-assured. There's no sign of Wei Ying's brother or sister, or any of his old friends. He cranes his neck this way and that, but he can't spot anyone he knows.
Still, he overhears snatches of conversation. His ears perk up every time someone mentions the names of people he used to know. The locals gossip about marriages, babies, promotions. Wei Ying has been out of the loop for months, so he eavesdrops shamelessly.
No one seems to mind. A few people catch him listening in, but he gives them a gormless smile and they ignore him.
The merchants are certainly putting their best foot forward. The streets of the capital are broad, wide enough for three wagons to pass at the same time. But the roads are narrow today, crowded with stalls and temporary stands. Hawkers shout their wares: Fresh lotus roots! Fine silver hairpins! Good-luck charms and amulets for success!
Everybody's talking about Second Prince. Wei Ying overhears a thousand snatches of conversation:
Oh, look, there's Young Master Liu! He grew up to be a handsome young man, didn't he? Of course, he's nothing compared to Second Prince!
Did you hear? Master Huang has married his youngest daughter into a cadet branch of the Lan family! She's very fortunate, but it's a pity she won't have a chance to compete for Second Prince's hand!
That Madam Wang, she's a skilled sorcerer! Her people are lucky to have her. I hear she's almost as gifted as Second Prince!
Wei Ying rolls his eyes as he ambles along.
Along the eastern edge of the city, a pompous official hollers at a weary-looking servant girl for treading on his robes. So Wei Ying lifts his purse, to teach him a lesson. With a nice handful of coins jingling in his pocket, he decides to treat himself to a bottle of wine. He makes a game of drinking it.
One sip every time someone loudly praises Second Prince. Two sips when someone speculates on Second Prince's marriage. Three sips when someone mentions the extravagant measures the gentry have taken to ensure that Second Prince notices their son or daughter.
In a quarter of an hour, the wine is gone.
Wei Ying buys some dumplings to soak up the alcohol. The old woman serving his food proves garrulous, so he asks where the guests bought their clothes for the masquerade. She points him to a shop on the north side of the capital, near the entrance to the Cloud Recesses.
"It's only for the richest gentry", she says, nodding importantly.
Wei Ying circles the sprawling town slowly, sketching a mental map. There's no hurry, after all. The ball won't start for hours yet. There's plenty of time to stop into a sweetshop and buys candy for A-Yuan.
The man at the sweetshop is busy, and not inclined to chat. But a woman selling trinkets helps Wei Ying choose ribbons 'for his little sister'. In return for his purchase, she's quite happy to discuss the guest list in exhaustive detail.
"What about…oh, what's his name?" Wei Ying scratches his chin deliberately. "That son of Jin Guangshan's, the one who lives around here. I've heard all sorts of things about him! Is he expected to be at the ball?"
The woman titters and waves a fan in front of her face. She reminds Wei Ying—sharply, painfully—of Nie Huaisang. His chest aches and he almost misses what the woman says next.
"That one? How could such a man hope to win Second Prince! I hear he was invited…just for politeness' sake, you know! Out of respect for his father. But his family won't let him go. He'd only embarrass them in front of the princes!"
She tells Wei Ying all he could wish to know about Mo Xuanyu, including the location of the Mo compound. Wei Ying buys a string of cheap beads as repayment for this valuable information. Then he hurries off.
It doesn't take long to find himself on the north side of the capital. This seems to be the district where the gentry live and shop. It's the sort of place where raggedy peasants are chased off with a broom. Wei Ying casts a small disillusionment charm to make sure nobody notices at his worn clothing.
The sun dips low in the sky. People begin to hurry home, to dress and prepare for the ball. Before long, the streets grow quiet. But Wei Ying knows it won't last.
Once the ball starts, the gentry will pour toward the tall white gates of Cloud Recesses. Townspeople will rush out of their homes to watch the procession. If he wants to finish his work in time, Wei Ying has to hurry.
He navigates toward the clothing shop first. It's surprisingly empty. Most of the guests have probably picked up their outfits already. Wei Ying might be too late, for what he has in mind.
He casts Cloak of Darkness anyway. The spell ensures that the shopkeepers stare blankly in his direction as he slips into the back room.
The storeroom is stacked with boxes. Wei Ying seizes a pile and digs through until he finds something that looks promising. He unfolds the fabric and holds it up to the light: a set of fine black robes with a bit of silver embroidery on the sleeves.
A little understated for an event like this, maybe. But Wei Ying decides that's for the best. He doesn't want to look too impressive, after all. He can't afford to draw much attention.
The robes fit, more or less. Wei Ying wriggles into them and measures out the sleeves and belt. They're a little long, but he knows a few shrinking charms to take up the excess length.
His charms won't last forever, though. Wei Ying doesn't know how to do clothing charms that stick. The shopkeeper probably employs a sorcerer who specializes in those. Wei Ying's old robes—the ones he used to wear at Lotus Pier—always had charmwork woven in. Such clothing is popular among the gentry, and a status symbol.
Wei Ying never bothered to learn the spells himself. He never needed to.
He frowns, tightening the belt around his narrow waist. His charms will last for a couple hours, and that's all the time he really needs. So he stuffs his old clothes into one of the empty boxes. Then he strides onto the street in his new robes, letting Cloak of Darkness fade away.
It might be safer to keep the spell up. But Wei Ying decides to conserve his magic for whatever comes next. Nobody pays attention to him, anyway. In his fine robes, he looks like an ordinary son of the gentry, out for an evening stroll. Wei Ying knows how to walk like a young lord, too. He lets himself slip into a casual strut.
But his steps slow once he reaches the Mo compound. This, he knows, is the tricky bit.
He needs to find the jade token. If Mo Xuanyu received an invitation, his family must have kept the token. They would've saved it, even if they didn't plan for their nephew to attend the ball. That token is a status symbol, a sign that their family qualifies as high-ranking gentry. So it must be somewhere inside.
Wei Ying can't wander the halls and rummage through every room. Cloak of Darkness might help, but it's too risky to use that kind of spell in the middle of the Mo compound. After all, most children of the gentry train in sorcery. And if no one in the family shows much promise as a sorcerer, the family simply hires one. Someone in the Mo compound undoubtedly knows how to practice magic.
Wei Ying never heard that the family boasts any great sorcerers. It's possible nobody within would recognize high-level spellwork like Cloak of Darkness. But all spellwork carries a signal, a subtle pulse of magic. If Wei Ying is unlucky, someone inside might recognize this spell. He might get caught before he even sets foot in Cloud Recesses, and then Wen Qing would never stop cursing his name.
Spellwork carries a signal, Wei Ying thinks. He scratches his chin. There's an idea.
Eavesdropping in the marketplace won Wei Ying some valuable information: the jade tokens are charmed. They carry a special signature that allows their bearers into Cloud Recesses. The palace wards are legendary, so the tokens must be powerful too.
Wei Ying fiddles with a coin in his pocket. Then he crouches and uses the coin to draw a sigil in the dirt. He sketches the symbol for tracking and the one for magic. Then he loops them together and thinks, Show me the object here that contains the most magic.
A glowing orb lifts from the ground, pulling away from the sigil like a bubble. It hovers in place before darting off to the southern wall of the compound.
Wei Ying grins and follows it.
The orb zips along, just high enough that passing servants won't notice it. Wei Ying shuffles along in the shadows until the orb halts at a closed door.
He presses his ear against the door, but there's nothing. No voices, no sound of movement. There's a lot of noise in the courtyard behind him, but Wei Ying recognizes that noise. The lady of the manor is chewing out her husband, her servants, and anyone else who strays within her line of sight. Wei Ying is intimately familiar with that sort of yelling.
He swallows down the memories it evokes.
A twist of his hand is enough to shatter the weak wards on the door. The room—Master Mo's study, it seems—lies dark and empty.
The orb zooms overhead, arcing down to hover before a bureau drawer with a simple lock. Wei Ying uses a little magic to coax it open. Once inside, he shoves aside lacquered boxes until he finds something that feels right. A white silk pouch settles comfortably into his palm.
When Wei Ying reaches out with his magic, he discovers that the pouch is positively humming. He slides a hand inside and draws out a smooth piece of jade the size of a large bronze coin. Delicate cloud patterns are carved into the sides.
Wei Ying smiles.
Jackpot, he thinks.
He drops the token into his pocket. But then he replaces the pouch, locks the drawer, and resets the wards. If he's lucky, nobody will notice the missing token for hours, maybe even days.
His mission complete, Wei Ying intends to head back onto the streets. But he can't help it: his feet drift toward the sounds of shouting. There's something about the woman's voice Wei Ying doesn't like. It's not just her tone, but her words. Those are clearer with every step he takes.
"We should let you go? You? You're a shame on this household! Do you think we want you to embarrass us in front of the imperial family?"
The woman's voice rises, her anger growing hotter. Somebody says something in reply.
Wei Ying winces. It's better not to answer back when the lady of the house is shouting. He learned that as a young child. No good ever came of arguing.
Sure enough, the woman's voice turns furious.
"How dare you! You dare to tell me what is best for this family? You're lucky we haven't thrown you into the streets! We may yet, if you tempt us!"
Wei Ying peeps around the corner to take a look. The lady of the house—it must be Madam Mo, with those robes and hairpins—shrieks at some luckless young man. He argues back timidly, but Madam Mo tramples over every objection with a new set of insults.
After a moment, Wei Ying realizes this must be Mo Xuanyu. The illegitimate son, the disgraced nephew.
He purses his lips and fishes in his sleeve. There are plenty of talismans ready for true emergencies, but those wouldn't be suitable here. Fortunately, Wei Ying believes in being prepared for minor inconveniences.
He licks a finger and changes a few lines in the talisman. Then he sends it discreetly on its way.
Within moments, Madam Mo stops yelling. She twitches and scratches at her arm. Then her face screws up into a truly hilarious expression. She looks as though a thousand ants have just crawled inside her robes.
Of course, that must be how she feels. Wei Ying tested the itching talisman on himself once, for the sake of scientific research. It was a miserable afternoon.
Madam Mo swats at her clothing, trying to banish the insects. But it's no use. The effects of the talisman will last for an hour, no matter how many baths she takes.
Wei Ying grins as she rushes off, her maids in tow, calling for hot water and fresh robes. He sneaks a bit closer to watch her frantic retreat.
The movement catches Mo Xuanyu's eye. He turns, staring directly into Wei Ying's eyes. Mo Xuanyu's lips part.
Wei Ying thrusts a hand inside his robes, coming up with a pinch of gray powder. He flings it into Mo Xuanyu's face, and the poor man drops like a rock. Wei Ying barely catches him before he strikes his head on the flagstones of the courtyard.
"Sorry, sorry!" he groans.
Wei Ying heft the man's arm over his shoulder. The door behind them is open, revealing a bedroom. Wei Ying hopes its Mo Xuanyu's. But even if it isn't, he can't stand out in the courtyard clutching an unconscious man. So he drags Mo Xuanyu along, hurrying out of sight.
"I stole your token and knocked you out. And I may be impersonating you during the ball, too! I've done you an injustice, haven't I, young master?"
Mo Xuanyu's silence expresses a hearty agreement.
Wei Ying slides the door shut with his foot and drops Mo Xuanyu onto his bed with a sigh. The man doesn't stir, so Wei Ying takes a good look around the bedroom.
There's not much to look at. The room is bare, the visible possessions cheaply made and battered. If the dust is any indication, the servants clearly haven't been giving this room the benefit of their attention. Wei Ying winces at the filthy floors, the cold hearth.
"Ah. I'm such a soft touch," he grumbles. "Now you've got me feeling sorry for you."
Mo Xuanyu slumbers on. Wen Qing's powder will keep him asleep till morning, and there's nothing Wei Ying can for do him now. He pokes around the room anyway.
"I'll tell you what, young master! I'll do something nice for you, to repay you for all this!"
Wei Ying plucks up a comb and finds a mirror. This seems a good opportunity to tidy himself up. He needs to look more like a young master and less like a man who's been sleeping in the dirt for months.
"How about a new comb?" Wei Ying inspects the one in his hand. "I can definitely get you a nice one!"
Mo Xuanyu gives faint snore.
"Or maybe you'd like something else? I guess you can have these robes when I'm done with them." Wei Ying inspects the well-made robes closely. "Though, you might have a problem if someone notices they're stolen."
He fastens his hair up in a half-knot and ties it with one of the ribbons he bought for A-Jing. She won't mind if he borrows it, he decides. Mo Xuanyu might resent the way Wei Ying is making free with his possessions. But Wei Ying sets that concern aside and fishes through a nearby chest
Inside the top drawer, he finds a silver mask. It's expertly crafted, and clearly new. Mo Xuanyu chose it for the masquerade, then.
Wei Ying heaves another sigh and reaches out to pat Mo Xuanyu's foot.
"You really wanted to go, huh? I'm sorry!" He sketches a quick bow. "But if I'm going to borrow your name, I promise to behave very nicely. Everybody will say, 'Goodness, that Mo Xuanyu grew up to be so handsome and charming!' I won't embarrass you, on my honor!"
He holds up three fingers in salute, then ties on the mask.
"And I'll bring you a present to repay you for your trouble. What would you like?"
Mo Xuanyu lets out another small snore. Wei Ying chuckles.
"Never mind, I'll think of something. Sweet dreams!"
He creeps out of the bedroom and circles back through the courtyard. The stables ought to be somewhere ahead, near the compound gates. If Wei Ying is going to make it to Cloud Recesses, he'll need transportation.
A horse would be nice—probably most of the gentry will be showing up on their finest steeds—but Wei Ying is leery of drawing too much notice. If he's playing the part of an unfavored son, it's best not to raise any eyebrows.
Wei Ying ducks into the shadows when he spots a few passing stable-boys. But one mentions something to his fellows about 'Madam's donkey', and Wei Ying brightens. A donkey would be just the thing.
The wards on the paddock prove to be as feeble as those in the study. Wei Ying breaks them easily and slides inside.
There are a couple fine-looking horses drowsing in their stalls. Wei Ying skips over them. A well-groomed donkey sends the right message: I'm wealthy and important enough to be here, but just barely. I'm nobody's competition.
No one will look twice at a young master who shows up on a humble donkey. That will make it easier for Wei Ying to scout around and pocket what he needs. So Wei Ying trots along until he finds a cross-looking donkey chewing balefully of a mouthful of hay.
"Don't you look bored!" Wei Ying whispers, peering over the stall. "Master Donkey, how'd you like to go on an adventure with me?"
The donkey swallows his hay, then takes another mouthful.
"Now, now!" Wei Ying frowns at his lack of enthusiasm. "To see the glories of the palace is more than an ordinary donkey like you could ever hope for! I am offering you the chance of a lifetime, so please cooperate."
But when he tries to untie the donkey from its post, it snaps at his hand. Wei Ying suddenly recalls why he never liked animals.
Coaxing doesn't work. Pleading doesn't work. Expounding upon the beauties of Cloud Recesses—and the famous princes—only makes the donkey toss its head. But Wei Ying finds a barrel of apples in a nearby shed, and that gets the donkey's attention.
Through judicious bribery, Wei Ying sneaks the donkey out of its paddock and back onto the street. The donkey, busy gobbling apples, doesn't make a single sound of protest.
Once they're trotting along towards Cloud Recesses, Wei Ying allows himself the luxury of a deep breath. He hadn't dared to hope for such a smooth beginning.
Experience has made him wary of too much good luck. He remembers Wen Qing's warning not to overreach himself, to use the first night for scouting around. But Wei Ying is keenly aware that each passing second makes the prospect of discovery more likely.
If someone asks who he is, he must give Mo Xuanyu's name. He has no other to give, and making a name up is too risky. The guest list is fairly short, after all. Wei Ying is sure that only thirty or forty gentry families made the cut. He can easily give a false name in the backwater village near the Wen camp. But here, a false identity won't last more than five minutes.
Wei Ying smooths a self-conscious hand down the front of his robes. Now that he's seen Mo Xuanyu in person, the pretense seems like it might work. He and Mo Xuanyu have roughly the same build. Wei Ying is a few cun taller, but it's not a drastic difference. They have similar coloring, too, and the mask will conceal Wei Ying's face.
The voice-altering talisman offers added protection. Wei Ying already tested it out, and he activates it now. It pushes his voice up an octave, making him sound a few years younger.
"What do you think?" he asks the donkey. "Do I sound like Mo Xuanyu?"
The donkey ignores him.
Wei Ying sighs. He'll have to hope for the best.
He won't mingle any more than he has to. Instead, he plans to target guests who seem able to spare a few gold coins. It might be possible to walk away with something from the palace, too. There will probably be gold plates, carved chopsticks, silk curtains. Anything along those lines would fetch a good price, provided he sold it well away from the capital. Wei Ying decides to keep his eyes open.
Near the gates of Cloud Recesses, the city is humming. Just as Wei Ying predicted, throngs of people have lined up to watch gentry pursue the chance to marry Second Prince. Amidst the gleaming carriages and trim horses, nobody takes much notice of Wei Ying and his donkey.
Lil Apple—as Wei Ying dubbed his noble steed—plainly dislikes the crowds. Wei Ying chivies him along and takes his place in line at the palace gates.
Just as the moon crests over the palace walls, the gates swing open. The hum of the crowd reaches a fever pitch. Wei Ying fiddles with his token in his pocket. Then he fiddles with everything else: Wen Qing's powders, the talismans.
If something goes wrong, it won't be easy to make a getaway in this crowd. The blinding powder would be his best chance. The crowd may work in his favor, there. If the guards can't see properly, it will be harder for them to navigate through throngs of innocent civilians.
Once Wei Ying is out of range, he can cast Cloak of Darkness again. He hopes that Wen Qing was wrong about the guards' skills and expertise. Some of them, at least, might be green. They might not know how to counter this spell right away.
The line of gentry moves steadily as guards check tokens and names. A man ahead of Wei Ying takes pains to ensure that everyone nearby hears his name. He nearly shouts the name of the son and daughter who have accompanied him. Then he presents his token with an elaborate flourish.
The mask hides Wei Ying's eye-roll. But then, all at once, it's his turn.
Wei Ying hands over his token with a smile. A guard inspects it, soft light enveloping his hands as he probes the token's magic signature.
"I am Mo Xuanyu," Wei Ying says. Another guard consults a scroll which evidently contains the guest list.
Wei Ying swallows down his nerves. He resists the temptation to toy with the talismans in his sleeves. The scheme may fall apart right here.
But the guard holding the scroll nods and marks off Wei Ying's assumed name. The other hands back the token. Wei Ying is sent through the gates so the next person in line can take his place.
Lil Apple is in no hurry to move. The donkey ambles along, giving Wei Ying plenty of time to examine his surroundings. The high white walls of Cloud Recesses loom overhead. Beyond lie dozens of buildings, great and small.
Wei Ying has heard about Cloud Recesses, of course. As the emperor's residence, it's naturally a source of curiosity to gentry and commoners alike. The fact that the emperor's family is so reclusive—few are ever permitted to enter the palace—only sharpens their curiosity.
Uncle visited the palace several times.
Wei Ying swallows again, forcing down the emotions that rise with that thought. But it doesn't work: Wei Ying is instantly swept up in a current of memory.
Whenever Uncle returned from visiting the palace, Wei Ying and his siblings would crowd around. They clamored to hear about everything he'd seen and done. Wei Ying still remembers every story Uncle shared, the smile on his face, the way Jiejie and Jiang Cheng listened raptly.
Wei Ying fights his way free of his memories. He must focus on the here and now. There will be time for memories later, but not now.
Lil Apple trots along the winding path leading to the heart of the palace. Delicate paper lanterns line the way. Perhaps it's just the moonlight, but everything in the Cloud Recesses seems to be white and shining.
Wei Ying tries to sneak subtle glances out of the corner of his eye. But he realizes quickly that everyone else—the guests before and behind him—are openly gawking. So he lets himself stare.
The palace is nothing like Lotus Pier. Lotus Pier was beautiful, all deep blues and purples and dark woods. There was something weighty about Lotus Pier, something that felt like home.
In contrast, the palace is light and airy. There are trees everywhere, flowering shrubs, little streams trickling over white stones and soft moss. Thin, gauzy curtains waft in the breeze. Wei Ying can hear a delicate strain of music spilling out from one of the buildings.
The path leads up to another gate, concealing a vast hall. Guests emerge from their carriages, swing down from their horses. They disappear behind the white curtains shrouding the hall from view.
Wei Ying nudges Lil Apple along. They're nearly there, and Wei Ying realizes he'll soon be in the presence of the imperial family. He scrounges desperately for every scrap for information he has concerning the emperor and his sons.
Uncle never met the emperor. But then, almost no one has. He'd been in seclusion for many years. They say he doesn't even communicate directly with his ministers.
Rumor has it his health is poor, and he never recovered from his wife's death a decade ago. It's an open secret that the emperor's brother—the Lord Regent—has managed his political matters for years. Now the First Prince is of age, and it's expected that he'll succeed his father very soon.
Wei Ying knows that's the reason for this whole charade. Everyone is in a desperate hurry to get both princes married off. Wei Ying heard plenty about that as he wandered around the capital.
They say His Majesty is dying, a merchant whispered. He's not expected to last much longer. They say he wants to see both of his sons married before he goes.
The emperor is not expected at the ball. But First Prince will be there with his betrothed.
Wei Ying fiddles with the reins as he draws closer to the hall. He'll have to be cautious here. He can't afford an 'introduction' to General Nie. There's too great a risk that he'll recognize Wei Ying.
The hall looms closer. A servant clad in white steps forward to take charge of the donkey.
"Be careful!" Wei Ying warns. "He's very temperamental."
Lil Apple huffs, as if in agreement. But the servant doesn't crack a smile. She doesn't even lift her eyes. Instead, she keep her gaze modestly trained on the ground. Wei Ying suppresses a sigh.
As he climbs the marble steps, he realizes he's forgotten how to do this. He can hardly remember how to play the young lordling. Sleeping in a cave and scavenging for shriveled turnips in the dirt has been a humbling experience. Even pretending to be gentry is difficult, and it's impossible to condescend to servants when he hasn't had a hot bath in months.
But Wei Ying remembers the rules now. Another servant draws back the curtain so he can enter the hall. This time, Wei Ying refrains from giving the servant a friendly smile as he steps through the doorway.
The hall is brightly lit. Wei Ying blinks behind his mask as his eyes adjust to the light. Inside, guests mingle. They whisper and trade soft jokes.
The polished wood floors gleam, and Wei Ying admires the pale painted screens and elaborate candelabras. The room is vast, he notes. It's at least four times larger than Lotus Pier's main hall. But the room seems bare when measured against the light and color of Lotus Pier.
There's no mistaking the hall's grandeur. The guests seem conscious of this fact—we are in the palace!—and conversation is excited yet hushed. Still, Wei Ying finds himself strangely disappointed.
He wanders, keeping a careful eye on his fellow guests. He's certainly dressed a great deal more plainly than the others. Most are wearing their brightest colors, their most elaborate jewels. Wei Ying pays careful attention to the ones who seem negligent about their property. Once the wine starts flowing, they might not notice if their bracelet or hairpin goes missing.
Servants drift through the crowds, bringing bowls of perfumed water so guests might wash their hands. Others circulate with platters of light cakes and sweets.
Wei Ying pops a couple into his mouth. Then he loops around the hall as the room fills up.
There are, perhaps, some two hundred guests. Few are actually eligible to marry Second Prince. But every candidate is accompanied by mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, married cousins and siblings.
Servants thread their way through the room, slow and sedate. But the guests are worked to a fever pitch. Before long, the hall is thronged with excited men and women.
Wei Ying spots a few people he knew, from his life before. Some of Uncle's oldest friends are there with their sons and daughters. Wei Ying keeps a sharp eye out for Jiejie, but she's nowhere to be found.
It makes sense, of course. She's already betrothed. She couldn't compete for Second Prince's hand, even if she wanted to.
Jiang Cheng is there in her stead. Wei Ying catches a glimpse of purple robes and his breath sticks in his throat.
He turns hastily and pretends to stare out a window. Jiang Cheng doesn't seem to recognize him. Instead, he passes by without a word. Wei Ying sneaks a glance once he's sure he's safe.
Once the momentary panic subsides, he has to muffle a laugh. Jiang Cheng—Sect Leader Jiang, now—has turned up after all. And he's wearing his very best robes!
He could hardly do otherwise. Wei Ying understands his brother's position: if Sect Leader Jiang is summoned to the palace, he can't refuse. But does he really intend to vie for the honor of marrying Second Prince?
Wei Ying remembers his brother's list of marriage requirements and smothers another laugh. Jiang Cheng was always so picky! But maybe that's why he's here. Maybe no one but a prince could possibly meet his standards.
Wei Ying shoves another handful of sweets into his mouth to keep from laughing aloud. He still attracts a few stares. But that doesn't matter. He's supposed to be playing Mo Xuanyu, after all. Rumors has it that Jin Guangshan's illegitimate son is half-mad. So it's fine if Wei Ying spend the evening snickering to himself. His behavior is entirely in-character.
That's lucky, because Wei Ying isn't sure he could stop laughing if he tried. The idea of Jiang Cheng marrying a prince is just too funny!
He circles the room until the reaches the front of the hall. That's where the princes will stand when they arrive. A dais has been raised and a team of musicians have arranged themselves nearby. They play a complex piece of music, slow and sweet.
Wei Ying sways to the melody, thinking about his brother's infamous list.
Second Prince doesn't seem like a good match, from that perspective. Of course, everybody says he's 'naturally beautiful'. But the son of the emperor can't possibly be 'obedient'. It seems equally unlikely that a member of the imperial family would be 'thrifty'. Second Prince is known for his exceptional skill, too, in both swordplay and sorcery. That's another strike off Jiang Cheng's list: 'magical abilities not too high'.
Maybe Jiang Cheng would be willing to compromise, though. Wei Ying eyes the other guests in the room, and wonders if they have their own list of marriage requirements. It hardly seems to matter. If a prince offer his hand, most would probably hurl their list straight out the window.
He gulps the last of his sweets as the music rises. The flutes deepen, then fade away. The clamor in the hall grows louder, servants drawing back and fading into the shadows.
A man in deep blue robes—practically brimming with self-importance—steps up to the dais. At last, the music halts.
"His Highness, the First Prince!" he cries, and everyone bows.
Wei Ying does too, of course. But it's hard to take a good look at somebody when you're bowing. He has to wait for First Prince to tell his guests to rise. Then Wei Ying finally gets a proper look at the famous heir to the throne.
First Prince is incredibly handsome, Wei Ying can see that right away. Like the guests, half his face is hidden by a mask. But he has a fine mouth and sculpted jaw. His mouth softens as he smiles warmly at the crowd.
"His Highness, the Second Prince!"
Wei Ying, along with the crowd, bows again.
This time, the room fills with excited whispers. It's no wonder: here is the man everyone has been hoping to marry. Second Prince is reclusive, they say. This will be the first time some of the guests lay eyes on him.
Wei Ying stays in his bow until First Prince tells them to rise. Then he joins the others in studying the princes.
First Prince stands in the middle of the dais, and he draws Wei Ying's eye first. He's tall and well-built, with a ready smile.
Second Prince stands at his brother's left. He's not quite as tall First Prince, and his shoulders are slightly narrower. But Wei Ying grudgingly decides that, yes: Second Prince deserves his extravagant praise.
In matters of appearance, anyway. His figure may not be as imposing as his brother', but he's well-built. He has a trim waist and long limbs. While his brother is dressed in deep blue—the exact shade of lotus lakes at twilight—Second Prince wears white. His robes have a delicate overlay of lace, with pale blue embroidery along the edges.
He has a lovely full mouth, too. But he's not smiling. Unlike First Prince, his expression is cold and remote. He looks just as people always claimed: as beautiful and immobile as a jade carving.
He'd look even nicer with a smile, Wei Ying thinks. He resists the temptation to roll his eyes. Everyone's making such a fuss over Second Prince, and he can't even give his guests a simple smile?
But maybe he doesn't want to marry. Or maybe he doesn't want to choose a spouse like this: paraded before a line of suitors.
Wei Ying sighs and adjusts his sleeves.
It must be strange, he decides. They've trotted the poor man in front of a crowd like he's a steer at auction. The crowd pushes forward as if they're eager to start the bidding.
The Second Prince surveys the pushing throng. He looks miserable, and Wei Ying can hardly blame him.
Not for the first time, Wei Ying wonders just how much the imperial family actually knows. The Wens' execution order had the imperial seal. But Wei Ying knows better than to assume that the emperor personally drafted every edict that carries his name.
The emperor himself hasn't been seen in over a decade. The princes, tasked with ruling in their father's place, seldom leave the palace. None of the imperial family was anywhere near the Sunshot Campaign. General Nie managed the war in their stead.
Wei Ying would like to believe that the emperor and his son weren't involved in the decision to execute the Wens. He'd like to think the edict stemmed from bloodthirsty soldiers, false intelligence, and baseless rumors. There have been plenty of those flying around. Even in the backwater village near their camp, there have been whispers: about the perfidious Wens who disappeared, the dark magic they practice, the heinous crimes they committed on Wen Ruohan's behalf.
Once, Wei Ying believed that everything could be cleared up if everyone simply knew the truth. But then the execution order came, and Wei Ying realized that no one would be allowed to prove anything. The truth didn't seem to matter to those in power.
He wonders now if the princes ever think about the Wens. Are they still sending out search patrols, hunting for leads? Jiejie said they were, for a while. But it's been a long time since Jiejie's last letter. The imperial family clearly has other matters to think of. The Wens may have been...if not forgiven, then forgotten.
If they imperial family has lost interest in rounding up the Wens, then Wei Ying's presence is a hazard. If he's caught, the matter will be reopened. Wei Ying could beg His Majesty to reconsider the case and pardon the Wens. But he has a feeling that the emperor would rather quietly dispose of his enemies than publicly admit his mistakes.
The attendant announces the Lord Regent, the emperor's brother. He announces General Nie. Duke Nie, now. Somebody elevated his ranking when Wei Ying's back was turned.
As soon as he enters, Wei Ying sinks back into the crowd and lets it swallow him up. But Nie Mingjue doesn't even glance his way. He's too busy paying attention to his betrothed.
First Prince welcomes the guests with a brief speech. He urges the guests to enjoy themselves. There will be entertainments, he says, on each night of the ball. Tonight, music and dancing. Tomorrow, games and sports. The third and final night, there will be a series of performances, including acrobats and fire-dancers.
Wei Ying can't help but notice the Lord Regent give a disapproving shake of his head as his nephew lays out the program. But he—and Second Prince—are alone in their displeasure. The crowd murmurs and their interest rises as servants carry out the refreshments.
Pyramids of fruit are placed upon the tables. Plates piles with dates and nuts are laid alongside platters of sweets. Jugs of wine make an appearance too.
Wei Ying shuffles along the back of the hall as the wine is poured. Everyone must drink in the princes' honor, it seems. That's no hardship, and Wei Ying diligently gulps down two cups.
"One for each of the princes," he explains to the servant, as she pours his second cup. "It's a sign of respect!"
He gives her his best smile. But once again, he gets nothing in return. She only gives him a blank stare before turning away.
"Heavens," Wei Ying murmurs. "What are they feeding the servants here? Sour plums?"
Second Prince looks like he's been eating something sour, too. He doesn't touch the wine, which is a great pity. It's the best Wei Ying has ever tasted. He wonders if he can steal a jug to take home.
The music starts up again, a bright and merry song that echoes pleasantly throughout the hall. With that, the ball is officially open.
But no one is dancing, and few people move toward the refreshments. Instead, everyone scrambles for an excuse to speak to Second Prince.
Wei Ying helps himself to the food. He gobbles down three pieces of fruit, then pauses for breath. When no one is looking, he slides a qiankun bag out of his sleeve and fills it. He'll have something to bring home tonight, anyway: some food and the coins stolen from the horrible man in the marketplace.
But Wei Ying refuses to settle for a consolation prize. Once he's demolished the refreshments and helped himself to another cup of wine, he wanders out onto the terrace.
The night is warm and balmy. It's nearly autumn, and the weather has been slightly nippy in the Wen camp. But even nature itself seems determined to make Second Prince's party a success. There's no chill in the air tonight, and the skies are clear. A harvest moon hangs in the sky, fat and heavy.
Wei Ying lounges in the shadows, watching the guests come and go. He's sure he could recognize the faces of some, if only they weren't wearing a mask. But the masks don't conceal anyone's identity: none of the guests are shy about using their names and titles.
Wei Ying listens to the snatches of conversation as the guests chatter. Within an hour, he's caught up on all the gossip he's been missing. Wei Ying discovers who's married their daughter to a wealthy merchant and whose son has run away with a tailor. He finds out who's taken a new concubine and who's living apart from their husband.
The music changes: first guqins, then flutes. A duet. A female singer who is much admired by the guests. Two male singers, who perform a ballad.
Nobody tries to talk to Wei Ying. But he overhears a few whispers.
"Who is that, in the black?"
"Young Mo Xuanyu. You know, Jin Guangshan's bastard."
Some of the guests wrinkle their noses when they hear this.
One mutters, "I suppose they only invited him out of politeness. A show of respect for his late father. But I wonder that he dares show his face at such an event!"
Wei Ying doesn't bother to suppress his smile.
Ah, but madam, I am not showing my face! Don't you see the mask?
It's clear that Mo Xuanyu is nobody's favorite young master. Wei Ying takes careful note of which guests seem to dislike him most. He's tempted to sidle up and pester them a bit.
But he remembers his mission and keeps his feet firmly in place. Stirring up conflict with people who may actually know Mo Xuanyu doesn't seem like a clever move.
Even so, he lifts a silver chain off the man who sneered as he called Mo Xuanyu a bastard. The woman who marveled at his insolence in coming to the ball loses a hairpin studded with pearls. Wei Ying slips these items into his bag and hides the bag in his sleeve.
Both guests have an overabundance of jewelry. They probably won't notice that anything's missing until the night is over. But Wei Ying decides to make himself scarce for a while, just in case.
As he slips out of the hall, he takes the precaution of claiming a jar of wine. If the guards try to question him, he can always pretend to be hopelessly drunk. It's a ruse he's relied on before, and it never fails.
Wei Ying lets his feet take him where they will, threading down a narrow stone path outside. The gardens are beautiful. But nobody is enjoying them. The other guests seem to prefer the crowded hall, where they can spend the evening vying for imperial attention.
All the better, Wei Ying decides. He nibbles a handful of peanuts as he walks, savoring the stillness of the night. Soon, the noise of the hall fades away. It's replaced by the gentle croaking of frogs, the soft susurrus of the wind. The pure white moon floats overhead.
As he winds his way deeper into the garden, Wei Ying debates the merits of snooping around. The guards are probably on high alert because of the party. But who knows when Wei Ying will have another chance to try his luck? He peers at the darkened buildings that ring the garden. Any of them could be full to the brim with treasures. Wei Ying spends a few moments dreaming of silver letter-openers and gold medallions.
He's so occupied with his fantasy, he fails to notice that another guest has come out to admire the moon. Wei Ying nearly walks right into them. Windmilling his arms, Wei Ying struggles to regain his balance.
He straightens just in time to realize that he hasn't tripped over a guest. He has tripped over Second Prince.
Wei Ying tries very hard not to choke on his own saliva.
"Haha! Excuse me, Your Highness! Please pardon this clumsy man."
He sketches a quick bow. But Second Prince hardly gives him a glance. His eyes cut briefly toward Wei Ying. Then he turns away.
Wei Ying's eyebrows lift. He smiles in spite of himself. Such ill-bred behavior from a prince! He thought Second Prince was like a piece of fine jade. Now Wei Ying wonders if he isn't more like rough ice.
But if Second Prince isn't willing to help with the pleasantries, Wei Ying hardly knows what to say.
"Hm." Wei Ying tips his wine jug experimentally. "I'm afraid I can't offer you a drink, Your Highness. I seem to have disposed of all the wine. My apologies!"
Second Prince stares grimly up at the moon.
Wei Ying blinks, and wonders if this is his cue to leave. If the prince won't utter a single word, Wei Ying is probably meant to bow and scurry off. That must be the proper protocol: if Second Prince does not grace you with the honor of his attention, you must leave him to his solitude.
Wei Ying doesn't feel like returning to the hall, though. The garden is large, surely big enough for two. So he lingers.
After a few moments, Wei Ying's patience is rewarded.
"Drinking is forbidden."
Second Prince's voice is truly beautiful. It's smooth and crisp as the wine itself. Wei Ying blinks, letting the three simple words echo in his head.
Then the words sink in.
"What!" he squawks. "Since when?"
Surely he can't have missed something so important. If alcohol was banned across the land, the uproar would've carried even to the Wen camp. They would have heard about an imperial edict like that!
Second Prince turns to face Wei Ying. His mask is very pretty, fine white brocade with cloud embroidery along the sides. But even behind the mask, Wei Ying can tell he's frowning.
"For nearly three hundred years," he says. His voice is quietly reproachful.
Wei Ying blinks some more. Once he understands, he bursts out laughing.
"You mean it's forbidden in Cloud Recesses!" He swallows the last mouthful of wine from the jar. Then he sets it down onto the path so he can shake his finger at Second Prince. "You scared me! I thought I'd been breaking the law for years without knowing it!"
Second Prince frowns again and says nothing.
That won't do, Wei Ying decides. Such a pleasant voice should be used freely. Wei Ying certainly intends to hear his voice at least once more.
"If it's forbidden here, what's with all the wine?" Wei Ying waves a hand toward the hall.
The clamor of voices has risen, and can be heard even across the garden. The wine seems to be flowing very freely.
"Not that I'm complaining!" Wei Ying hastens to add. "It's very good wine. But aren't we breaking the law as we speak?"
"Exceptions are made for important events." Second Prince's mouth twists, like he doesn't approve of exceptions to the rules.
Wei Ying doesn't bother to hide his laughter at that.
"I see, I see!" He nods somberly. "So, in the name of hospitality, your guests are free to do whatever they please? All rules are cast aside? Thank you for letting me know!"
He's teasing, of course. But miraculously, Second Prince takes the bait, and he frowns harder than ever.
"Not all rules are suspended," he says sternly.
Wei Ying's mouth twitches.
"Oh dear!" He scratches his nose. "Then I'm sure to get into trouble. You see, I've never had the benefit of instruction at the palace, so I don't know the rules."
As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he panics.
Did Mo Xuanyu attend lectures at Cloud Recesses? It's a privilege offered to most sons and daughters of sect leaders, even the illegitimate ones. Did Mo Xuanyu take advantage of this privilege? Or did his family keep him at home, the same way they kept him from the ball?
Wei Ying fears that Second Prince will arch an eyebrow and say, What do you mean? You studied here only last year!
Instead, he huffs and turns away.
"The rules are inscribed upon the wall," he says. "You may go and review them."
Wei Ying gets the impression that 'you may' means 'you had better'. He beams, dropping into a low bow.
"Then please direct me to this wonderful wall! I will review the rules right away!"
When the Second Prince doesn't budge, Wei Ying pouts.
"Ah, so unkind! Here I am trying to educate myself, and Second Prince won't even help a poor benighted soul!" Wei Ying lets out a long, theatrical sigh. "Isn't there something in the rules about that? I am sure there must be!"
For a moment, Second Prince doesn't speak. Then, very begrudgingly:
"'Help the underprivileged'."
It's clearly a quote. Wei Ying can't contain his amusement. Still, he raises his voice in a pitiful whine.
"Your Highness! I am extremely underprivileged." He thrusts out his lower lip, the way A-Yuan does when he wants something. "It is your solemn duty to guide me to this wall, so I can have the privilege of reading the rules."
He wonders if the Second Prince will throw something at him. Perhaps he'll summon the guards and have Wei Ying hurled into the streets.
Wei Ying could hardly blame him. He's being very obnoxious, and he knows it. This is not what Wen Qing had in mind when she urged him to keep a low profile.
But Second Prince only sweeps away, with a firm deliberate tread. His gait suggests that he isn't trying to escape the conversation. He is heading somewhere in particular. Wei Ying skips off beside him.
"Just how many of these rules are there? Shall I bring a brush and paper to copy them?"
Second Prince ignores him.
"I asked a very simple question," Wei Ying mutters, his tone injured. "You are not helping the underprivileged if you refuse to answer my questions!"
Second Prince comes to a dead stop, and Wei Ying nearly crashes into his back. He takes a few judicious steps to the right when he sees a muscle move in Second Prince's jaw. Jiang Cheng's jaw used to do that, right before he took a swing at Wei Ying. So Wei Ying scoots out of punching distance.
"Three thousand," Second Prince grits out.
Wei Ying's mouth drops open.
"Three thousand! There are not. No one can think up three thousand rules! Your Highness! It's not kind to lie to poor ignorant strangers."
"You may count them yourself," Second Prince says. Then he stomps off.
Wei Ying hurries to keep pace with him. He realizes he's grinning, but he can't help it.
When he entered the hall, Second Prince moved with a smooth, graceful tread. His movements were almost poetic: a bird in flight or some such metaphor. Wei Ying could see why he had a reputation for inhuman grace.
But now, there's no doubt about it: Second Prince is stomping. It's not graceful, but somehow it fails to dampen his overall majesty.
Wei Ying scampers along, pestering Second Prince with questions: Who came up with the rules? Why so many? Does everybody have to follow the rules? Even servants? Even guests?
Second Prince, it seems, has gone conveniently deaf. But soon they reach a wide expanse of pure white marble, and he points toward it.
"There," he says. "Read them."
Wei Ying's jaw drops again.
There are three thousand rules carved into the tablet. At least three thousand. The tablet is large enough to span the entire banquet hall, and each character is very small.
"Read them all! Your Highness, please have mercy!" Wei Ying clutches at Second Prince's robes before he can think better of it. "I'd be here for days! Weeks, even! I wouldn't get to enjoy the party at all! It's too cruel!"
Second Prince yanks his robes away, as if he's extremely affronted.
Wei Ying remembers belatedly that—aside from a few trusted servants— nobody is actually supposed to touch the imperial family. It's a rather serious offense, in fact. Wei Ying could probably be flogged for this. He takes a sheepish step backward.
"You asked to see them," Second Prince says stiffly.
But he doesn't scream for the guards. He doesn't order Wei Ying to commit suicide on the spot, as punishment for defiling his imperial person. So Wei Ying decides to press his luck.
"I did! I am deeply indebted to the honorable Second Prince for showing me the rules. But," he scratches his chin, "I didn't realize what I was getting myself into! So many rules! How do you even remember them all?"
"Practice." Second Prince points to one segment of the wall. "' Diligence is the root.'"
"So it is!" Wei Ying murmurs.
He squints at the wall. The moonlight is bright, but it's not enough to make out the tiny characters. Second Prince must have memorized the location of each rule.
"Well!" Wei Ying takes a deep breath and claps his hands. "I am very impressed! Truly, Second Prince's virtue is unparalleled. This humble person is not worthy!"
He gives another bow, and amuses himself by making it exceptionally deep.
"If only I could stay here longer, to have the opportunity to read all the rules!" Wei Ying adds, letting out a theatrical sigh.
Too late, he realizes that this sounds flirtatious. Second Prince probably thinks he's making a heavy-handed hint: If only I could marry you and come to live here!
Wei Ying expects Second Prince to sneer in disgust and storm off. It's painfully clear that this ball was not his idea. He stared blankly at the guests for a quarter of an hour, then fled to the gardens. That's hardly the behavior of a man who's eager to find a spouse.
If he were inclined to flirt with his guests…well, he wouldn't pick Wei Ying as his flirting partner.
Or Mo Xuanyu, as the case may be.
But Second Prince only frowns again.
"Wait here," he says. Then he disappears into the large building beside the wall.
It's too dark for Wei Ying to read its name. Nobody has bothered to put any lanterns along this path. Guests, it seems, were not expected to wander into this area.
And no wonder, Wei Ying thinks. The massive slab of rules bears down on him with an oppressive weight. It's enough to make him feel distressingly sober.
He wonders if he should escape while he has the chance. Second Prince will think he's unbearably rude, of course. But he has no business judging others for their poor manners. Not after all his frowning and lecturing!
But it's too late. Before Wei Ying can angle himself toward the gates, Second Prince returns. He carries an appallingly thick volume in his hands, and thrusts toward Wei Ying.
Wei Ying squints down at the title.
It's the three thousand disciplines of Cloud Recesses, recorded on parchment. He chokes.
"Thank you?" Wei Ying says meekly.
He is probably meant to kowtow and thank Second Prince for this astonishing boon. A copy of the rules, for his very own! Truly, Second Prince is too generous.
"You may keep it," Second Prince says gravely.
But there's a hint of something else in his voice. Wei Ying might—he is tempted to—call it smugness.
"Now you will have no excuse not to review each of the disciplines."
Wei Ying heaves a sigh.
"You say that as if you think I am the sort of person who makes excuses!" He tries to tuck the volume into his sleeve. It doesn't quite fit. "I am very offended! Second Prince is so uncharitable with his words."
He pouts some more.
Once again, he expects the man to stomp off. But Second Prince doesn't budge.
"I do not know what sort of person you are."
Second Prince's voice is perfectly even, but there's a slight lilt at the end. The implication is clear: This is the part where you are meant to introduce yourself.
Wei Ying readdresses himself to the task of trying to find a place for his new volume. It doesn't fit inside his robes at all.
"Well, that's probably for the best! I'm a very boring person, you know. Not at all memorable or interesting! In fact, I'm so dull that I'll probably be leaving early. Ah!"
Wei Ying thrusts a finger at one of the rules, illuminated by a patch of moonlight.
"You see! It's forbidden to be out after hai shi! Why, I think it must be well past that, so I'd better leave right away."
"That rule is also suspended for the evening." Second Prince sounds faintly puzzled, and with good reason.
It occurs to Wei Ying that he's had Second Prince's undivided attention for a quarter of an hour. Other guests, granted the same boom, would fall all over themselves to prolong their conversation.
But Wei Ying's face isn't quite thick enough to brazen through any more conversation. Not when he's a fugitive from justice. Not when he's here, in the capital, actively committing crimes under Second Prince's nose.
Not when Second Prince happens to have a lovely voice, a lovely frame, and probably a very lovely face. Wei Ying has always been weak for pretty people. Letting the famously beautiful Second Prince lull him into complacency would be dangerous.
"Well!" Wei Ying claps his hands. "Even so! I'm supposed to be learning the rules, aren't I? No time like the present to start!"
He edges away.
Horrifyingly, Second Prince follows him. He seems perplexed, rather than angry. But confusion can easily turn into suspicion.
Wei Ying fumbles for an explanation.
"I mean…I don't really think anyone in there wants to talk to me." He gestures at the hall. "So I might as well be on my way!"
Second Prince falters, his steps slowing.
"I see. Was someone…discourteous?" His voice darkens with displeasure.
Wei Ying is halfway down the path, far enough that he could make a run for it if need be. But something about that voice makes his steps slow. He waves his hands quickly, as if to fan the words away into the night sky.
"Oh, no! No more so than usual! You understand."
It's difficult to read Second Prince's expression with the mask. But the parts of his face Wei Ying can see are blank with bewilderment.
Wei Ying's mouth quirks.
"Hm. Maybe you don't understand. I'm sure everyone is on their very best behavior when they're speaking to you!"
Who would dare to indulge in petty gossip in front of the imperial family, after all? Wei Ying thinks it over, then shrugs.
"You can take it from me, Your Highness! People like to gossip behind other's backs when illustrious princes aren't watching."
Second Prince's mouth draws into a frown. Somehow, it does nothing to mar the beauty of that mouth. Wei Ying thinks that's grossly unfair.
"'Gossip is forbidden'," Second Prince intones.
It's clearly yet another of the disciplines, and Wei Ying heaves a sigh.
"Ah! You see! These rules are important, then!" He hefts the thick book. "You don't happen to have a few dozen more copies of these? You could give them out as party favors!"
Something almost like a smile passes over Second Prince's mouth. But it's gone so quickly that Wei Ying decides he must have been mistaken. Probably it was no more than a flicker of light, a cloud passing over the moon.
"I will consider it," he says.
Wei Ying bows properly, the way he should've done when he first collided with Second Prince.
"Please do! This humble servant is honored to have his ideas considered." He edges further down the path again. "Now, if Your Highness will pardon me, I'll take my leave."
Second Prince doesn't follow this time. But he does speak, and his voice is smooth and clear as the night sky.
"Will you return tomorrow?"
Beneath his mask, Wei Ying blinks.
"Ah. Yes?" he ventures. He clears his throat and pats the book again. "Of course! I bet I can memorize at least a hundred of these disciplines by tomorrow! Maybe two hundred!"
"I will review your progress," Second Prince says solemnly.
But there's a hint of something almost like humor in his voice. Wei Ying doesn't think he's imagining it this time.
"I won't dare to disappoint, then! So long!"
It isn't a proper farewell at all. Second Prince would be within his rights to have Wei Ying whipped for this, for speaking so insolently to a member of the imperial family. For turning his back on the prince without a formal dismissal.
But he doesn't, and Wei Ying doesn't dare to look back.
His boots slap against the stone pathway as he jogs away. He hardly remembers to collect Lil Apple at the gates. He hardly notices the way the servants stare, baffled to see a guest leaving so early. He hardly even notices the shimmer of the portal as he steps through it, tumbling his way back to the Wen camp.
Wei Ying: Okay. Very dangerous mission. I should try to keep a low profile and not draw attention to myself!
Wei Ying: [sees an opportunity to annoy Lan Zhan]
Wei Ying: ...Excuse me, I have to take this.
Wei Ying intend to leave secrecy behind after he sheds his mask and darts through the portal. But as soon as he returns to the camp, Wen Qing sits him down for an interrogation.
He quickly realizes that he needs to keep a few more secrets. Wen Qing won't be pleased if she discovers that he spent the evening pestering Second Prince himself.
"It went fine, fine!" he insists.
Wen Qing manhandles him, looking for injuries. Wei Ying struggles to escape her grip, but she only drags him back in.
"Didn't I say everything would be fine?" he whines. "It all went off without a hitch!"
Wen Qing ignores him in favor of conducting a full examination. But she can't find anything to disprove his statement: he's whole and healthy.
After she's scoured him from head to toe—searching for hidden stab wounds, it seems—Wei Ying is freed. He promptly empties his pockets and spreads his bounty on the floor of the cave.
"Steal a couple pieces for yourself," he says, plunking the candy into her hands. "Then give the rest to A-Yuan and A-Jing tomorrow. Okay?"
"Not tomorrow." Wen Qing rolls a piece of candy between her fingers. She sets it aside with a sigh. "No one expects you to return for another two days. How would I explain the candy?"
Wei Ying hadn't thought of that.
A-Yuan is still very small. He'd accept any explanation, including the existence of benevolent spirits who bring candy to little boys. But A-Jing is too old for that sort of thing. The rest of the Wens wouldn't buy that explanation either.
Wei Ying decides to ignore Wen Qing's question. He helps her sort the bag's contents.
His haul seems disappointingly meager in the chilly dampness of the cave. But Wen Qing offers no complaints. She counts out each of the coins before tucking them into the money pouch. Then she spends a full five minutes examining the silver chain and the hairpin.
"That's not enough to see us through the winter," Wei Ying reminds her gently.
She sighs again.
"It might be."
It isn't, and they both know it. The coins would feed them for a month, at best. The jewelry is worth more. It might pay for a winter's worth of rice. But there would be nothing left once their food was purchased.
They need so much more than food. The Wens needs clothing and blankets, wood and nails. Wen Ning needs medicine. A small bag of coins and a bit of jewelry isn't enough. So Wei Ying must return to the ball the following night to steal something more.
"Did you see anybody?" Wen Qing slides the jewelry into the money pouch and sets it aside.
Wei Ying leans back on his hands and shrugs.
"Lots of people. It's a pretty big event, you know?"
He keeps his voice nonchalant. But Wen Qing isn't fooled. She narrows her eyes, and Wei Ying gives up.
"I saw Nie Mingjue and Jiang Cheng. They didn't see me."
Every muscle in Wen Qing's body tenses. She grips the money pouch tight in her fist. For a moment, she looks as if she wants to hurl it at Wei Ying's face.
"This is such a stupid idea," she hisses.
They've had this argument before, at least half a dozen times. Wei Ying is sick of it, especially now that the deed is done. But he keeps his voice calm as he spreads his hands.
"Come on!" he says soothingly. "They're not going to look twice at someone like me. General Nie wasn't paying attention to anybody except First Prince. Jiang Cheng looked like he didn't want to be there at all."
Wei Ying kept a safe distance from his brother. Still, he couldn't help but notice the way Jiang Cheng glowered at everybody. He didn't seem inclined to talk to anyone, especially not disgraced young masters.
"Nobody tried to mingle with me," he adds.
Wen Qing's eye twitches ominously.
"I get the impression Mo Xuanyu doesn't have the best reputation," Wei Ying presses. "So everybody just pretended I wasn't there."
"And what will happen when they notice their jewelry is missing?" Wen Qing empties the qiankun bag and sorts the fruit angrily. "What will happen when the Mo family hears their nephew was at the party when they know he was locked in his bedroom?"
Wei Ying doesn't have an answer for that.
He hopes nobody will report to the Mos, at least not until the ball is complete. But his stomach still writhes with guilt. If the Mos hear about his presence at the ball, Mo Xuanyu will probably be punished. His family will think he sneaked out.
It's the obvious explanation, of course. Nobody will believe that a fugitive sorcerer stole his identity.
He has to find a way to make it up to Mo Xuanyu. Wei Ying is sure he can manage it, and he toys with a few ideas. But his musings are cut short when Wen Qing hurls a date at his head.
Wei Ying blinks at her, indignant.
"You stole a donkey!" she cries.
Wei Ying winces.
In retrospect, it would've been smarter to take Lil Apple back to the Mo Compound. But Wei Ying was flustered by his conversation with Second Prince. He dragged the donkey through the portal before he realized what he was doing.
He's not sure a donkey has ever used Traveler's Boon before. Lil Apple might be a true pioneer. But he seems none the worse for the journey. As soon as they were back on solid ground, he bit Wei Ying's finger. Then he danced around out of reach for a while. Wei Ying wasted twenty minutes chasing the donkey before he managed to corral him and take him back to camp.
He turned Lil Apple over to Wen Qing, and she tied him up outside. He's resting now, and Wei Ying is sure he's given the poor beast the gift of freedom. He tells Wen Qing so.
"He looked very depressed," he insists.
Wen Qing bounces a loquat off his forehead.
"I don't think he liked living in the capital. The city is so cramped, you know. I bet he wants to stay here, in the fresh air."
"I don't care what the donkey wants, you idiot!" Wen Qing snaps.
She rolls another date in her hands. Then she seems to recall that they can't afford to waste food. Wei Ying is spared a further assault as she jams the food back in the qiankun bag.
"I don't care about the donkey," she growls. "I care about you being flayed alive once they catch you."
Wei Ying cares about that too. He really does. But the threat seems less pressing now. Nobody took any notice of him during the ball. No one even spoke to him.
...Aside from Second Prince, of course. Wei Ying decides not to mention that interlude to Wen Qing. If she discovers that he's been annoying one of the princes, she'll tie him up in the cave until the ball is over.
"Nobody is going to catch me," he promises. "But I'm going back tomorrow. I'll be careful, I promise!"
Wen Qing doesn't answer. In fact, she doesn't say anything for a long time. She leaves the cave to check on the donkey. Then she brings Wei Ying a bowl of stew, saved from their dinner. She won't listen when he claims he's full, he ate at the party, he really doesn't need any more food.
Wei Ying empties the bowl under her watchful eye. When he hands it back, she looks him up and down. Then she snorts.
Wei Ying preens.
"Don't I look very dashing? Almost too good for farming, isn't it?" He gives the cloak a dramatic flip and whacks her in the face with his flowing sleeves.
It's an accident, truly. But Wen Qing makes a very funny face, so Wei Ying whacks her again.
"Wen Qing," he sighs. "I know I look terribly handsome. Will you be very disappointed when my beauty seduces Second Prince? When he insists on marrying me so I can live in the lap of luxury?"
He gives her another whack. But she cuffs him around the ears, hard enough to settle the matter.
"I don't care much for the imperial family." She scoops up the empty bowl and the money pouch. "But even I wouldn't wish that for them."
Wei Ying sighs.
"Hurtful," he murmurs. "Your words are so hurtful."
Wen Qing leaves him after that. Wei Ying stretches out on his back and stares at the ceiling of the cave. He's not a bit tired.
He should sleep, he knows that. Tomorrow, he should stay at the ball as late as possible. Once the liquor starts flowing, the guests won't pay much attention to their valuables. If Wei Ying hangs around the main hall, he ought to have plenty of opportunities to pick someone's pocket.
He'll have to avoid Second Prince this time. But that shouldn't be too hard. Wei Ying will just have to be modest. Circumspect.
He can almost hear Wen Qing laughing at the very idea.
Wei Ying huffs, rolling onto his side. He can be demure, respectful, forbearing. He can manage it for an evening, anyway. He just needs to stay out of Second Prince's way, and not draw attention to himself. Surely Wei Ying can manage that for a few hours.
But as he rolls over, his hip jams against the book tucked in his robes. Wei Ying tugs it free and examines the cover. The cave is dim and full of shadows—Wei Ying used a lighting talisman to avoid dipping into their precious stock of candles—but he can read the text clearly enough.
He heaves a sigh and cracks the book open. After all, he promised Second Prince he'd memorize some of the imperial disciplines.
Of course, Wei Ying plans to avoid Second Prince during the following evening. But if they happen to cross paths again, Wei Ying doesn't want to be branded as a liar as well as a traitor. He promised to memorize more rules, so he must uphold his word.
He settles deeper into the blanket, ignoring the rock digging into his back. Then Wei Ying opens the book, and he reads.
The disciplines of Cloud Recesses prove incredibly dull. In fact, they're the dullest things Wei Ying has ever laid eyes on. But some strange force keeps him reading long into the night. His eyes burn with fatigue, but Wei Ying keeps turning the pages. After a few hours, he can't hold up his head any longer. He drifts into an uneasy slumber.
Wen Qing shakes him awake around noon.
As he rubs the grit out of his eyes, Wei Ying discovers that he drooled on page 31. The pool of saliva blots out half of Discipline 114: Perform acts of chivalry. He mops at the page, but only smudges the ink further.
Wen Qing looks at the book askance, and Wei Ying decides not to explain. Instead, he tells her he's studying up on the rules of the palace.
"So I can blend in," he explains brightly.
Wen Qing seems almost impressed. So Wei Ying stuffs the book under his blanket, feeling tolerably sure that he's memorized at least two dozen of the rules. That will have to do for now.
He can't go out and mingle with the others. They'd only ask what he was doing back so early. Wei Ying stays trapped inside the cave until the sun sets. He spends the time fiddling with his talismans and making half-hearted plans for the evening.
Once it's dark, Wen Qing smuggles him out. They walk together to the edge of the camp, where the barren fields meet the dirt road. She's fed and brushed Lil Apple, and plainly won his affections. He struggles against the reins as Wei Ying leads him down the well-worn path away from the camp.
After a while, the donkey accepts his fate. But he casts sad, lovelorn eyes in Wen Qing's direction. He gazes mournfully toward the camp, even after they turn a bend and Wen Qing disappears from sight.
"Aiyah." Wei Ying sighs. "A ladies' man, I see! No time for handsome gentlemen! You only want to be around pretty girls, isn't that right?"
He pats the donkey's nose. Lil Apple bites him again and sulks all the way back to the capital.
Wei Ying thought that the excitement of the first evening might have faded a bit. But the streets of the capital have only grown more crowded. Everyone is talking about the ball: the games planned for the evening, and who is expected to win each one.
He elbows his way through the crowds, mask tucked away inside his cloak. For now, he's just another face in the crowd. The townspeople take it for granted that the gentry are already rushing toward Cloud Recesses, not dawdling around the market listening to gossip. But Wei Ying takes the time to snoop around.
As expected, lots of self-important people are strutting around the capital. They're not gentry, though, not kind that would receive an invitation to an imperial event. They're hangers-on: the upper servants of sect leaders, secretaries, stewards.
They take care to mention the name of their sect, as they gossip with the townspeople. They flourish their scarves and sashes so everyone can see the crests embroidered upon them.
Wei Ying buys some meat buns and eats slowly as he listens.
Bare blades are not allowed within Cloud Recesses, according to gossip. But tonight, guests will be invited to duel with bamboo swords. There will be an archery competition and chuiwan.
Now Wei Ying understands the seething excitement. Last night was merely the opening celebration. This is the main event, a prime opportunity for various guests to impress the imperial family.
Already the betting outside the palace is hot and heavy. Jiang Cheng is favored to win the archery competition. Wei Ying greets that news with a smile, and politely declines a merchant's offer to place a competing bet. He does help himself to a few more purses in the marketplace. The obnoxious sycophants, bragging about their sect's connections, can afford to spare a few coins.
Everyone has dressed lavishly for the evening. As he makes his way through the palace gates, Wei Ying discovers that he's among very few guests wearing last night's robes. Most have opted for shorter robes and looser cuts, clothing that will allow for easy movement during the competitions.
The guests are still wearing their masks, of course. They won't be allowed to remove those until tomorrow evening. But the elaborate masks of last night are gone. Tonight, they've been replaced by simple designs that won't block the wearer's vision as they aim their bow.
There's still plenty of jewelry on display, and many fine hairpieces. Wei Ying makes a mental note of these as he ambles into the main hall.
A musician plays a simple piece on the guqin, soft and mellow. But nobody pays him any attention. Last night, guests had an opportunity to impress Second Prince with their ear for music. Tonight, guests are striving to impress him with their athletic skill.
Wei Ying smiles as he helps himself to the snacks laid out on the banquet table. He snags another jug of wine, too. Most guests ignore the refreshments, probably afraid that too much food or wine will impair their performance. Wei Ying has the table to himself, and he fills his bag quickly.
The parents in the crowd—along with the aunts and uncles and cousins—watch raptly for Second Prince. Every so often, they poke their unlucky offspring.
Straighten your spine, mothers hiss.
Stop fidgeting, fathers mutter.
Wei Ying ignores the older generation in favor of studying the youngsters. Some are familiar faces, people he saw or met during the Sunshot Campaign. A few seem to be taking their candidacy seriously. They strain at the bit like nervous racehorses, twitching every time someone new walks into the hall. The others are treating the ball as an excuse for a party. They don't seem to expect any attention from Second Prince. Instead, they joke with their friends and place their own bets on the upcoming competition.
After a while, Jiang Cheng appears in violet riding clothes. Wei Ying watches his brother from the corner of his eye. They've been apart so long, Jiang Cheng's presence is almost shocking. Wei Ying can't help but stare.
Jiang Cheng seems different, somehow. Wei Ying realizes that his brother has grown-up in the time they've spent apart. He looks like what he is: a man who shouldered the duties of a sect leader before he turned twenty. He walks across the hall with a grim confidence, one of the few candidates unaccompanied by a parent or elder.
Wei Ying's stomach ties itself into knots. In another life, he'd be there with Jiang Cheng, standing at his side.
You can't go alone, Wei Ying would say. How can you court someone without your family at your side? It would be too disrespectful! Too unfilial! You need your elder brother to help you find a spouse!
Jiang Cheng would protest. He'd claim that Wei Ying was his elder by only six days, and that didn't count.
Wei Ying would insist that even an hour's difference was enough: he would always hold the position of the elder brother!
You're stuck with me for life, he told Jiang Cheng once. Even when I'm dead, you'll have to honor me as an elder brother. Accept it!
He demanded to know just what sort of offerings Jiang Cheng planned to burn for his beloved brother. Jiang Cheng, he cried. You better give me something good! Don't think you can get away with halfhearted offerings! I'll come back and haunt you!
Jiang Cheng ended the argument by shoving him into the lake.
The memory is painful, a bitter ache that sears through his chest. Wei Ying rubs at his breastbone. It's like a knife between the ribs.
They've been separated for more than half a year. The wound should have healed and scarred over by now. But it hasn't, and Wei Ying's appetite vanishes. He can barely swallow the rest of his wine.
He manages it in the end. The wine is remarkably smooth. It doesn't burn on the way down the way the cheap stuff does. Wei Ying drinks two more cupfuls but stops before he can get tipsy.
Jiang Cheng never looks his way.
Wei Ying tears his eyes away from his brother when the now-familiar cry comes: His Highness, the First Prince!
He bows along with the crowd, tucking the pouch of food securely into his robes. Then he steps away from the table so he can hide in the crowds. He expects his disappearing act to work flawlessly. But when Second Prince enters, his gaze falls on Wei Ying almost at once.
Wei Ying tries to turn away. It's terribly rude to stare at a member of the royal family, especially when he's meant to be bowing. But somehow, Wei Ying can only manage a shallow bow before he lifts his eyes again.
For an instant, he's gripped with the suicidal impulse to lunge across the room and rip off Second Prince's mask.
Wei Ying can see the man's eyes from behind the mask. They're dark and clear, the eyes of a scholar and swordsman. The bottom of Second Prince's face is visible: the smooth jawline and lush mouth. But half his face is still hidden, and it doesn't seem fair. Several of the guests have already seen Second Prince's face. Wei Ying hasn't, and he probably never will.
Wen Qing will surely forbid him from returning for the final night of the ball. She'll pin him down, tie him up in the cave. Even Wei Ying escapes and finds his way back to the capital, he'll have to sneak out before the masks are removed. He'll never see Second Prince's face. Suddenly, that seems a tragic loss.
Wei Ying spends so long mourning this—staring at Second Prince from the corner of his eye and wondering what he really looks like—that he misses most of First Prince's speech.
When everyone rises and files out of the hall, he panics. But then he realizes that the games have begun, and everyone is merely eager to show off their skill.
The princes won't compete, though. It's a pity, Wei Ying thinks, watching the first of the sword duels. Everybody says that Second Prince is an accomplished swordsman. If Wei Ying were the one getting married, he'd want to duel his future spouse himself.
But Second Prince is not permitted to reach for a sword. He stands beside his brother, grave and unsmiling.
Luo Qingyang wins the dueling competition. Jiang Cheng wins at archery. Wei Ying watches, and his fingers itch for a sword or a bow.
Of course, he can't compete. The risk of recognition is too great. All eyes would be on him during a duel, including Jiang Cheng's. He dueled with Wei Ying almost every day for ten years. He'd recognize Wei Ying's style in a heartbeat.
But as he lurks on the sidelines, Wei Ying can't help but pout. He secretly believes he could win both the duel and the archery competition. He always bested his brother in kite-shooting! Nearly always, anyway.
Luo Qingyang may be adept with a sword, but no one at Lotus Pier could ever win a duel against Wei Ying. He's sorely tempted to prove it. Wen Qing would murder him, though. So when other guests invite 'Young Master Mo' to join with mocking smiles, Wei Ying waves a hand.
"How could someone like me hope to compete!" he cries pitifully. "No, no. Please don't make me embarrass myself in front of the imperial family."
The guests grin knowingly and turn away.
Wei Ying is left to watch the next competition—tossing arrows into narrow vases—by himself. He sips his wine and mentally records the guests who gave him the nastiest smirks. There are quite a few of them, awful people glittering with jewels. Wei Ying decides he might as well relieve them of their treasures before the night is done.
But before he can sidle along—perhaps pocketing a brooch or necklace on his way—someone brushes against his shoulder.
"Ah, you and I are so unlucky!"
A horribly familiar voice appears at Wei Ying's elbow, and chills run down his spine.
"This sort of competition really isn't fair! They should have a calligraphy competition, or maybe poetry recital. Don't you think so?"
Wei Ying doesn't need to turn to catch a glimpse of a fluttering fan. Ice spreads throughout his veins. He's standing next to someone uniquely well-equipped to identify him.
It's been years since Wei Ying spent much time in Nie Huaisang's company. But they were close as children. The Unclean Realm was like a second home for Wei Ying and his brother.
At once, his clumsy mask and voice-distorting talisman seem like a poor disguise. The lower half of Wei Ying's face is bare, and that may be enough to catch Nie Huaisang's attention. But it's too late to cast a glamour charm. Nie Huaisang has already turned, gazing expectantly at Wei Ying as he waits for a response.
"Oh, I don't know," Wei Ying stammers. He laughs, a bit manically. "I'm terrible at those things too. Very useless! I can't compete with the Second Young Master!"
"Young Master Mo is too kind." Nie Huaisang flutters his fan as he offers a modest smile. "But I'm sure there's something you're good at!"
Wei Ying waves a hand frantically, keeping his face turned away.
"No, no, I'm afraid not! I was never much good at anything, you know!"
Nie Huaisang gives a sympathetic hum.
"What a pity we've never met before!" he sighs. "I could use more friends like that."
Wei Ying turns to blink at him. He should scurry away, escape before Nie Huaisang has a chance to take a good look at his face. But who says something like, I could use more useless friends?
Nie Huaisang taps his fan against his cheek and shakes his head.
"It's very discouraging," he explains. "Everybody I know is so good at riding, and sword-fighting, and all of that! It makes me feel so bad about myself."
Wei Ying resists the urge to gawk.
Nie Huaisang often talked himself down. Wei Ying remembers that well enough. But he always had the impression it was mostly a joke. Nie Huaisang couldn't keep up with Wei Ying or Jiang Cheng when it came to sword-fighting, archery, or horseback riding. He didn't seem troubled by his failures, though. He'd just wail about how hopeless he was whenever his brother tried to bully him into practicing his sword forms.
Wei Ying thought it was only an excuse, a way for his friend to avoid studying the things he didn't like.
"I really don't know why they've invited me here," Nie Huaisang continues sadly. "Of course, Second Prince will never look my way."
Wei Ying blinks some more. He shifts his weight, caught off guard.
Nie Huaisang is probably being self-effacing. Wei Ying is meant to say something polite. He should offer the sort of pleasantries expected at a party like this one. But Wei Ying was never much good at sycophantic flattery. After spending months scratching out a living in a remote village, his social skills have grown rustier than ever.
He clears his throat and tries to come up with something.
"Second Young Master is so modest!" Wei Ying ventures. "Ah, but isn't your brother marrying into the imperial family? You never know! Maybe they'll decide they want a set of Nie brothers!"
Nie Huaisang laughs, covering his mouth demurely with his fan.
"Young Master Mo is so funny! How sad we've never met before!"
There's a gleam in his eye—visible even behind his embroidered mask—that Wei Ying doesn't like. It's not quite the gleam of discovery, not yet. But there's something knowing in his expression.
Wei Ying is desperately aware that he knows almost nothing of Mo Xuanyu. Has he met Nie Huaisang before? Is this a trap?
"Haven't we? Haha, I suppose not." Wei Ying gives a feeble laugh. "Well, I don't get out much. But yes, it's such a pity!"
Nie Huaisang opens his mouth, evidently planning to say something else. But Wei Ying doesn't give him the opportunity. He needs to escape this conversation as quickly as possible.
"Excuse me," he blurts out, darting away before Nie Huaisang can speak.
Guests are milling around the courtyard. The next game has started, and contestants are tossing weighted balls into pots. Wei Ying weaves his way through the crowd, recklessly pick-pocketing as he goes.
It's a good time to steal something. Most of the guests—even the servants—are busy watching as the contestants toss their balls. After each contestant takes their turn, everyone looks to the princes to gauge their reaction.
First Prince smiles and applauds politely. But Second Prince hardly watches the games. His eyes are pointed in the right direction, but Wei Ying can tell when someone isn't really paying attention.
His presence is distracting. Wei Ying's body keeps turning in Second Prince's direction. But he addresses himself to the task at hand.
Madam Yang loses her gold hairpin. Young Master Zhou is deprived of a jade bracelet, carelessly set aside before he takes his turn at the tossing game. Sect Leader Yao, never one for modesty, is wearing a string of pearls and carnelians around his sash. Wei Ying helps himself to that, too.
He pockets some of the silver set aside for winners of the games. First Prince is presenting a pouch of coins to each victor, and a couple pouches have been left unattended. Wei Ying takes a few pieces from each one before fading into the crowd. Then he winds his way into the gardens, counting out his hoard. He's managed to gather quite a bit, and Wen Qing will be pleased. But Wei Ying knows she'd be more pleased if he escaped while he had the chance.
There's nothing preventing Wei Ying from walking through the gates right now. People may wonder why Mo Xuanyu is leaving so early, but the servants won't dare to stop him.
Yet something keeps his feet right where they are. Wei Ying wanders through the looping paths of the garden, pacing back and forth aimlessly.
Back at the pavilion, music starts up. Someone is playing a dizi. Wei Ying listens, tapping his feet. The melody of voices rises. The games must be over. It's time for mingling and drinking.
Wei Ying itches to return to the hall. The servants will probably bring in more food, and the prospect is tempting. But before he can make his decision—gorge himself on free food, or escape while he can?—a figure in white appears at the edge of the path.
"Your Highness!" Wei Ying stuffs his stolen bounty discreetly into his left sleeve. "We meet again."
He almost says something more—what an unexpected honor!—but Second Prince doesn't look like he finds the meeting unexpected. In fact, his face—the part Wei Ying can see, anyway—is politely expectant.
He draws to a stop only an arm's length away. Wei Ying is treated to a proper look at Second Prince.
His robes have more blue in them tonight. The outer robe is while, but cloud motifs have been sewn in periwinkle thread along the sleeves and hem. He's wearing a pale blue sash, with a matching inner robe. His elaborate silver headpiece gleams in the moonlight.
Something about his appearance seems almost supernatural. Wei Ying is no credulous peasant, convinced that the imperial family is truly descended from the gods. But Second Prince is no ordinary mortal. Even Wei Ying's skeptical soul can't deny that.
"You did not compete in the games," Second Prince says. His hands, often neatly folded at his waist or behind his back, are loose at his sides, his long fingers skimming the edge of sleeves.
Wei Ying gets distracted for a moment, watching those fingers.
He wonders what Second Prince's hands feel like. Princes are pampered, so he might have soft hands. They're probably massaged and oiled by servants three times a day! But everybody says he's a skilled swordsman, an extraordinary guqin player. You can't do those things without developing some rough spots.
Wei Ying wonders if he has calluses, if his hands are as strong and capable as they look. Then he realizes that Second Prince has asked him a question—a statement disguised as a question, anyway—and he's waiting for Wei Ying's response.
"Oh! Me? I'm hopeless at that sort of thing!" He brushes off his robes and drops into a belated bow.
Second Prince's brows twitch, drawing into a mild frown.
"Hm," he says.
"Hm?" Wei Ying can't repress the grin that creeps across his face. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Second Prince merely shakes his head, his eyes flickering toward the music drifting through the trees.
"The purpose of the games…" Second Prince begins. Then he pauses, his beautiful mouth turning into a frown.
It's a pity. Second Prince has such a nice mouth, such an elegant figure, such a perfect face. It's really too bad he always looks as if he's on his way to a funeral!
"Oh, I know!" Wei Ying straightens up. He smiles broadly. "The purpose of the games is to impress you, right? But I'm no good at games, so it can't be helped."
Second Prince doesn't seem to know how to respond to that, and Wei Ying can hardly blame him.
It's absurd, truly. All the wealthiest and most influential people have gathered here for the sole purpose of impressing Second Prince. All the young masters and mistresses are making their best effort. And here is Mo Xuanyu, skulking in the gardens, openly declaring his lack of skill.
This would be the perfect moment for Wei Ying to excuse himself and flee: Your Highness, please don't waste your time with such an untalented man as myself!
But Wei Ying's mouth opens without his permission.
"Ah! I bet I know another way to impress you, though!" he says, before he can think better of it.
Second Prince draws himself up, tucking his hands formally behind his back.
"Please proceed," he says.
You won't impress someone such as myself, his tone says. But you may attempt it.
Wei Ying taps his chin, pacing around the garden.
"'Do not kill within Cloud Recesses'," he quotes. "'Do not fight without permission. Do not commit acts of promiscuity.'"
He circles Second Prince, reciting as many of the rules as he can remember. He fell asleep only a few pages into the book, so he can't recall as many as he'd like. But once he's finished, he draws to a stop in front of Second Prince.
"That's all I can remember for now," he admits. "But I remembered at least two dozen! That's pretty impressive, right?"
"I had all three thousand rules memorized by the time I was ten," Second Prince says.
Something about his tone—the casual boasting! the shameless pride!—almost makes Wei Ying laugh. He groans instead.
"That's not fair!" He shakes a finger under Second Prince's nose. "You grew up with those rules! Remember, I'm a stranger here, and I had only one night to study."
Second Prince gives another hm. His tone suggests that Wei Ying has disappointed his ancestors by failing to memorize all three thousand rules overnight. It suggests that, were their positions reversed, Second Prince would've gone without sleep so he could memorize at least a thousand rules.
Wei Ying can't bite back the smile that emerges then. But he pouts, too, slouching toward Second Prince.
"Your Highness, please be reasonable. If you're holding out for your true equal, I am afraid your family will never manage to marry you off."
"That is not an option," Second Prince says.
There's no trace of humor in his tone this time. Wei Ying hadn't realized it was there before. But now that it's gone, he can hear its absence. Second Prince was humoring him. He let Wei Ying tease him by spouting nonsense.
Now his voice has gone frosty and remote. There's no bite to it, and he doesn't seem angry with Wei Ying for raising the topic of marriage. Still, Wei Ying realizes that he's stepped into a snake-pit. He backtracks hastily.
"Of course not. Princes have to get married!" He keeps his tone light and somehow manages not to wince as he says it.
It's painfully obvious that none of this was Second Prince's idea. If he were inclined to marry, he probably would've chosen a spouse already. His family wouldn't have contrived a series of parties to force him to pick out a husband or wife.
If he wanted to marry, he certainly wouldn't be lurking in the gardens, bantering with Jin Guangshan's disgraced son.
The absurdity of the situation dawns on Wei Ying. The poor man is so desperate to escape the party—and his crowd of suitors—that he's here, talking to Wei Ying! It's truly pitiful, but Wei Ying doesn't see any alternative. Princes do, indeed, have to marry somebody. Even if they plainly don't want to marry at all.
"Please try to lower your standards a little," he suggests kindly. "After all, you have so many fine candidates! Luo Qingyang was very impressive, wasn't she?"
"She fought well," Second Prince admits, a trifle grudgingly.
Wei Ying heaves a sigh.
If Second Prince can't even admire the pretty and spirited Luo Qingyang, this party is not likely to be a success. But even if Second Prince doesn't fall desperately in love with a guest, there must be somebody here that he wouldn't mind marrying. So Wei Ying works his way down the guest list, naming the winners of the various competitions.
Second Young Master Yu, who won the ball game?
Second Prince's expression doesn't even twitch.
Young Mistress Chen, who won the arrow-throwing game?
Second Prince makes a tiny motion that might be a shrug.
"Sect Leader Jiang…" Wei Ying begins, then stops.
He intends to say, Sect Leader Jiang is a fine archer, is he not? But it's hopeless. Wei Ying can't keep a straight face. He dissolves into laughter, which leaves Second Prince blinking in bewilderment.
"I'm sorry!" Wei Ying chokes out once he catches his breath. "Somehow, I can't see you marrying someone like him."
Second Prince blinks some more.
Wei Ying imagines the two of them sharing the connubial bed. Jiang Cheng would be flustered, glowering, terribly nervous and trying to conceal it with bluster. Second Prince would be haughty and solemn, reciting the three thousand disciplines silently to himself during the consummation.
The mental picture deals a devastating blow to Wei Ying's composure. He nearly crumples straight to the ground with the force of his laughter.
Meanwhile, Second Prince stares blankly. If Mo Xuanyu is supposed to be some kind of lunatic, Wei Ying's actions are perfectly in character. Still, he tries to bring himself under control.
"Young Mistress Luo would make anybody a fine wife, I'm sure." He wipes tears of laughter from his eyes. "But Sect Leader Jiang…"
"You think him unfit as a husband?" Second Prince asks, perplexed.
Wei Ying chokes down another fit of laughter.
"Heavens! I'm sure I don't know anything about that."
He really doesn't. Wei Ying knows nothing about what makes someone a good husband. He knows even less about his brother now.
Once, he might have said Jiang Cheng would make a good husband. Provided, of course, that he chose someone who could help him unwind a little. But these days, his brother is a stranger. Who can say what kind of husband he'd make?
This realization is wipes all the laughter from Wei Ying's lips. He clears his throat and straightens, aware that Second Prince is baffled by his sudden shift in mood.
"I'm just saying you don't seem like a good match, that's all." Wei Ying waves a hand. "But then, what do I know? I've never even spoken to the man!"
Second Prince gives that some consideration.
"'Do not make assumptions about others,'" he advises.
It's a quote—another of the disciplines!—and Wei Ying sighs.
"I didn't get that far!" he protests. "I only made it to page thirty, and then I fell asleep. Give me another chance. I will try again tomorrow, I promise."
Second Prince thinks about that too, and then nods. Belatedly, Wei Ying realizes that he has promised to return for the final night of the ball.
It's not really a promise, of course. Second Prince has better things to do than sit around and listen to guests recite the disciplines of Cloud Recesses. If Wei Ying doesn't show up, Second Prince will find another way to pass the evening. He'd probably never even notice that Wei Ying was missing.
Somehow, that thought makes his chest ache. Wei Ying finds himself reaching into his sleeve, seeking a way to hold Second Prince's attention a little longer.
"Ah! Your Highness, what I said wasn't true!"
Second Prince tilts his head inquiringly.
"I'm very good at one game! Do you want to see?"
Before Second Prince can reply, Wei Ying whips out the game he bought in the marketplace.
He spotted it on the way to the palace and bought it at once. It's a shallow cup made of polished shell, accompanied by a dozen small flat rocks. Wei Ying used to play this game as a child, flipping the rocks into the shell. He thought A-Yuan might like it. He holds it out now for Second Prince's inspection.
Second Prince doesn't seem to know how the game is played, though he examines the shell cup dutifully.
"We can do it here," Wei Ying suggests. "Come on, come on."
He ushers Second Prince over to a nearby bench and places the cup between them.
"Do you want to try?" He divides the stones between them. "Let's compete! If I score more points than you, then I win. Okay?"
"What are we competing for?" Second Prince asks, gathering up his portion of stones.
Wei Ying hadn't thought of that. He scratches his jaw.
"Hm. I don't think your brother has allotted any silver for this. Well, that's fine. If I win, you have to acknowledge that I'm the best at this game."
Second Prince lifts a brow. It's just a minuscule movement, but Wei Ying sees it and grins.
"If anyone asks, you must say I'm the champion." He lowers his voice, mimicking Second Prince's solemn tone. "'Who is the most adept at this game? Why, it's Young Master Mo! Without question! His talent is unparalleled!'"
Second Prince's brows lower this time, in a tiny moue of displeasure. Wei Ying leans back, sweeping a hand toward to shell cup.
"Do you agree?" he asks.
After a moment, Second Prince gives a cautious nod.
"Mm. And if I win?"
"You won't." Wei Ying smiles wide enough to show his teeth. "I am sure of it. But if you win, I'll do a forfeit. Your choice."
He's hoping Second Prince might ask him to take a penalty glass of wine. That would be no trouble at all. Wei Ying's wine jar is disappointingly empty at the moment.
"You are confident in your abilities." Second Prince's voice is arch, perhaps because Wei Ying just recited three different rules forbidding excess pride.
But Wei Ying shrugs that off.
"In this? Absolutely. Now, let's play!"
He goes first, to show Second Prince how it's done. Naturally, he makes the shot, his stone landing neatly in the cup.
Second Prince misses his shot. Consternation passes over his face, and Wei Ying laughs aloud.
"'Do not laugh for no reason.'" Second Prince mutters.
Wei Ying tries valiantly to muffle his laughter, and makes his next shot.
Second Prince's stone lands in the cup on the second try. But he misses the third and Wei Ying snickers again.
"'Do not be haughty and complacent.'" Second Prince says meaningfully.
Wei Ying makes his fourth, fifth, and sixth shots. So does Second Prince. But Wei Ying still wins the game.
"Your Highness!" Wei Ying cries, in the affected manner of a courtier. "This game, flipping stones into a cup, I've just learned of it! Do you know anyone who excels at this game?"
"I do," Second Prince says, in his grave fashion.
Wei Ying strives, unsuccessfully, to conceal his smile.
"Oh? Indeed?" He folds his arms and tries to look like someone who has just heard astonishing news. "And who is the paragon of dexterity and skill?"
"Young Master's Mo's ability is unequaled," Second Prince says. There isn't a trace of irony in his voice.
Wei Ying's composure shatters. He falls to giggling again.
"You say that with such a straight face!" he cries.
Second Prince only sighs.
"'If others lose to you, do not look down on them,'" he says.
But that's enough to send Wei Ying into another fit of laughter. Soon he's wiping tears from beneath his mask.
"Ah, Your Highness." He settles his mask back into place, careful not to let it slip. "You're really very funny. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"They have not." Second Prince seems rather baffled by the notion. He blinks a few times before returning his attention to the shell cup. "Do you always carry this game with you?"
Wei Ying snorts.
"No, no. I just bought it this evening, on the way here."
Second Prince lifts the cup in his hands to examine it, but Wei Ying snatches it away.
"Don't go thinking it's a gift for you! It's for a little boy I know." He tucks it back into his sleeve, along with the stones. "He'll be heartbroken if I don't bring him the present I promised."
"I see. Your…nephew?" Second Prince hesitates over the word. He's clearly trying to dredge up some memory of the Mo family tree.
"No, no, nothing like that." Wei Ying waves the question off, but Second Prince looks curious. Or suspicious, maybe.
Wei Ying shifts awkwardly on the bench. I
t doesn't seem like a good idea to tell stories about his—allegedly Mo Xuanyu's—circumstances. But Second Prince arches a disapproving brow, as if he suspects Wei Ying is trying to conceal the existence of an illegitimate child. There's only so much damage Wei Ying is willing to do to poor Mo Xuanyu's battered reputation.
"It's not a very interesting story," he explains quickly. "It's just that his parents died, so I'm helping to look after him. See? I bought him candy, too."
He pulls the bag of boiled sweets out of his sleeve. Wen Qing will scold him when she sees it. He already brought back one bag of candy. She'll say that no child needs two bags of candy, and Wei Ying will rot the boy's teeth.
Wei Ying half-expects Second Prince to make a similar objection. He seems like the sort of person who might be morally opposed to candy. Candy is probably forbidden by disciplines of Cloud Recesses, after all! But Second Prince only nods.
"How old is he?" he asks.
"Almost four." Wei Ying puts the candy away and laughs. "He's funny. So credulous, you know? They'll believe anything at that age, I guess!"
For a moment, he bites his lip. He shouldn't tell Second Prince stories about the Wens. Wei Ying knows that.
By now, he feels sure that Second Prince couldn't possibly know the truth about the execution order. It's a hasty judgment, made after speaking to the man for a mere half-hour. But everything about Second Prince—his manner, his bearing, the way he takes each small rule so seriously—speaks of a man who's honorable to the core. He can't be the sort of person who'd condone killing civilians.
The thought brings Wei Ying little comfort. If Second Prince doesn't know the truth about the Wens, then the whole imperial family might be deceived. If that's the case, their odds of receiving a pardon aren't good.
There's another possibility, of course. Second Prince might be ignorant of the implications of his father's edict. But perhaps the emperor himself knows the truth, and simply doesn't care. Perhaps even First Prince knows the full story. Perhaps he's the sort of man who can smile graciously at his high-born guests, then sign execution orders without flinching. Wei Ying can't be sure. So he should steer away from this topic and say nothing about A-Yuan.
But if he doesn't name any names, surely it can't do much harm? And A-Yuan is so funny! Wei Ying has been compiling stories about him for months. He's just had no one to share them with.
So he tells Second Prince about the time he fed A-Yuan a hot pepper, and A-Yuan's whole face turned red. He tells how he told A-Yuan about the Moon Goddess and her sacred rabbits who make medicine. A-Yuan begged his auntie to teach him to make medicine too, so he could fly up to the moon and join them. He even tells Second Prince about the day he buried A-Yuan in a radish patch, so he could sprout some brothers and sisters.
"That is not the way to provide him with siblings," Second Prince tells him. His voice is stern, but there's something like a smile playing around the edge of his lips. "It was unkind to raise his hopes."
"He'll get over it. Look, I'm even bringing him presents!" Wei Ying flourishes a hand at his sleeve, the one hiding the candy and the shell game. "He'll forget all about getting planted once I give him these."
"Hm." Second Prince lifts his face, the moonlight glinting along the silver embroidery on his mask. "It is his birthday soon?"
"Yep. Next month."
There's not much they can do for him, out there in the run-down camp. But Wei Ying is determined to give A-Yuan a few presents. Sweet rice cakes and noodles too. There's enough money for that now, he thinks. He resists the urge to pat the stolen jewelry hiding in his right sleeve.
Second Prince nods and rises from the bench.
"I will give him something also," he says.
"Ah? That's not necessary!" Wei Ying leans forward, flustered.
"Please wait here," Second Prince says, over his shoulder.
"Your Highness!" Wei Ying cries.
It's too late: he's already sweeping away. Wei Ying is left alone in the garden, which suddenly seems very cold and dark indeed. Even the moonlight is dim and faded, without Second Prince and his white robes.
Wei Ying scratches his knees uneasily and thinks about scurrying away. Nobody's watching him. It would be better to disappear before the guests notice that some of their jewelry is missing.
But Wei Ying thinks of how disappointed Second Prince would be if he returned and Wei Ying was gone. The thought is unbearable, and it's enough to keep Wei Ying rooted on the bench.
The minutes tick by, and Wei Ying frowns up at the moon. Probably somebody else has run into Second Prince and dragged him back to the party. And why not? The whole party is for him, to find him a husband or wife.
Wei Ying realizes now that it will prove a difficult task. It's not just that Second Prince seems uninterested in his guests. Second Prince is just…
Wei Ying chews his lip, but he can't really think of any words to describe the man. He's not at all what Wei Ying expected. He thought the prince would be stuffy, serious, brimming with self-importance. He is all of those things, sort of.
But he gave Wei Ying the book of rules, and looked smug because he knew Wei Ying had to pretend to be grateful. He played the stupid shell game with Wei Ying, and pouted when he lost. He listened attentively to stories about A-Yuan and offered to give him a birthday gift.
He's really…not what Wei Ying was expecting at all.
Just as Wei Ying begins to think that he's truly been forgotten, he hears Second Prince coming up the pathway. Wei Ying has a split-second to wonder what it means that he already recognizes Second Prince's footsteps. But then Second Prince is there, dropping onto the bench, a wooden box in his hands. He passes it to Wei Ying, who takes it gingerly.
It's a very nice box, carved and lacquered. It's far too nice to take back to their ragged camp.
Second Prince doesn't know that, of course. He thinks Wei Ying lives with Sect Leader Mo, in all the splendor befitting a son of the gentry class.
"As it happens," Second Prince says slowly, "I received this for my fourth birthday. I would like..."
"A-Yuan," Wei Ying stammers, once he realizes what Second Prince is waiting for.
"I would like A-Yuan to have it," Second Prince finishes.
Wei Ying fiddles with the clasp of the box, a strange sinking sensation in his stomach. It's funny. He didn't mind robbing the guests blind or stealing from the awful people in the marketplace. But accepting this—a gift freely offered—makes Wei Ying nearly crumble with shame.
He doesn't want to see what's in the box. But Second Prince reaches out, opens the clasp, and lifts the lid.
Instead, Wei Ying finds a beautiful silk kite in the shape of a dragon. It's just the sort of thing he used to play with as a boy. Uncle gave him a dragon kite of his own when he was about seven. Wei Ying's kite was red and gold.
This one is white and blue, the imperial colors. But it's the same size, the same shape. The dragon has a long tail to catch the wind just right. Wei Ying can imagine A-Yuan's small hands, tugging at the string as it rises in the air. But then he shuts the box and pushes it back into Second Prince's hands.
"I can't take something like this," he whispers. "Really, I can't. It's too valuable. A-Yuan is a good boy, but he wouldn't…"
Second Prince doesn't take the box. Wei Ying gropes for an explanation.
"He's only little, you know. He won't understand how valuable it is. He'll probably tear it to pieces."
A gift like this—a keepsake of the imperial family—should be cherished. It should be kept somewhere safe, out of reach of small children. A-Yuan is so bright, funny, and energetic. He'd play with the kite vigorously, dragging it in the dirt and letting the wind tear at its edges.
But Second Prince only gives a whisper of a shrug and nudges the box back into Wei Ying's hands.
"Toys are meant to be played with," he says.
Wei Ying can't make his hand close around the box.
He should do that, he realizes. He should rise and bow, thank Second Prince formally. At the very least, he should keep his hands busy. The impulse to rip off Second Prince's mask is back, stronger than ever.
Just what do you look like under there? Wei Ying's mind screams. Do you mean to tell me that you really have heavenly virtue combined with heavenly beauty, just like everyone says? That would be very unfair, you know!
"Young Master Mo," Second Prince says sternly. Wei Ying startles to attention. "I am giving it to A-Yuan, not to you. It is not your place to refuse the gift."
And really, there's nothing Wei Ying can say to that. So he pulls the box onto his lap and blinks down at the Lan crest carved into the top.
"Then," he says slowly, I'll make sure to deliver it safely."
Second Prince nods, evidently satisfied.
They sit in silence for what feels like a terribly long time. Wei Ying occupies himself with staring at the box, the stone pathway, the rustling trees. But his eyes are pulled back to Second Prince, again and again.
He's watching Wei Ying. His gaze is calm, steady, patient. Wei Ying feels as though he's being flayed apart, as if every crime he ever committed is laid bare. But Second Prince doesn't shout for the guards, so Wei Ying's guilt can't be written across his face.
Still, Wei Ying feels as though he's lying on top of an anthill. His skin itches.
"Aren't you supposed to be getting back?" he blurts out, once it becomes apparent that Second Prince is perfectly willing to sit in absolute silence.
Second Prince frowns a little as he glances toward the pavilion.
"I remained for two hours," he says. "As promised."
Something about that phrase strikes Wei Ying as unutterably funny. As promised. Someone had to extract a promise from the prince that he'd remain at his own party for at least two hours. That's how much the poor man doesn't want to be here!
"Oh?" Wei Ying lifts his eyebrows. He nods thoughtfully. "As promised? Well, it is good to know that our beloved Second Prince is a man of his word!"
Second Prince's mouth quirks again, in that charming almost-smile. It does something to Wei Ying's heart, and he jumps to his feet.
"Ah, but I should really return to the party myself. I skipped all the games, you know! Except for my one victory." He jiggles the shell cup in his sleeve. "I have to…socialize. For a while."
Second Prince tilts his head. He doesn't budge from the stone bench. Wei Ying has the absurd thought that the man seems almost disappointed.
"I see." Second Prince lowers his eyes briefly. "You will return tomorrow?"
Wei Ying edges toward the path. But Second Prince's words make him stumble.
"Yes?" He falters. Suddenly, he feels adrift at sea.
Second Prince lifts his gaze to study Wei Ying, which does not help anything. His eyes are extraordinary, as clear and bright as obsidian.
"I mean, of course!" Wei Ying's mouth opens and closes. "The final night is very important! After all, there will be…"
They told the guests this already, Wei Ying is sure of it. But he can't remember a word of First Prince's opening speech.
The pristine white of Second Prince's robes glows under the moonlight. His hair drapes over his shoulders in an inky spill. His gaze is heavy, pinning Wei Ying like a butterfly against a corkboard.
At the moment, Wei Ying is not certain he remembers his own name.
"Acrobatic performances," Second Prince says helpfully.
It takes far too long for Wei Ying to make sense of that statement.
"Yes!" he says desperately, once he catches the thread of the conversation. "That. I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Second Prince nods.
This time, he makes no attempt to stop Wei Ying as he scoots toward the path. But once Wei Ying's feet find the smooth stone, he can't help but turn. Turn back to Second Prince, sitting on the bench in perfect stillness.
"Out of curiosity, Your Highness!" he calls. "If you'd won the forfeit, what would you have asked for?"
Second Prince studies him.
"For you to memorize the remaining rules," he says.
Wei Ying's laughter is too loud for the precious stillness of the night.
"Truly unbelievable. What a waste of a forfeit!" He sighs heavily. But he's smiling, he can feel it.
He thinks about it. Then he sweeps a proper bow, even with the box weighing him down.
"Because I'm a kindhearted and upstanding gentleman," he says, "I will memorize another twenty-five rules. No, fifty! Purely out of magnanimity, you understand?"
Second Prince smiles. It's a proper smile this time, not a teasing whisper that could be brushed off as a trick of the moonlight.
It's not a broad smile, perhaps. Not Wei Ying's wide grin, nor the warm curve of First Prince's mouth. But as far as smiles go, it might be the nicest one Wei Ying's ever seen.
"I will have them memorized by tomorrow!" he declares, forcing his feet further down the pathway. "You'll see! Don't look so skeptical. It's very offensive."
He turns then, because he has to. He has to leave, to escape before anyone comes looking for him. Wei Ying can't seem to put his thoughts in their proper order. But he knows—he feels it in his bones—that he must leave, now.
He still turns around once he reaches the bend in the pathway. Before he's cut off from Second Prince's line of sight, he turns and he salutes.
"So long!" he calls out.
Second Prince inclines his head. Wei Ying forces himself to turn one last time, and keeps his feet moving on the pathway. Then he's rounding the bend, and Second Prince is out of sight. Wei Ying is alone in the quiet autumn evening, with strains of music still carried on the wind.
Lil Apple didn't seem happy to leave the Wen camp that afternoon. But he's not thrilled about returning, either. In the end, Wei Ying has to shove the donkey through the portal. He's nearly kicked in the head for his trouble.
"You see, this is your problem!" he tells Lil Apple, as he drags the donkey from the clearing. "This is why nobody noticed when I stole you! You have a bad temperament! Probably the Mos were glad you disappeared."
Lil Apple glares as fiercely as a donkey can glare. He halts on the dirt path leading to the camp and refuses to budge. Wei Ying is forced to dig into his bag and ply Lil Apple with stolen fruit. After enjoying his ill-gotten gains, Lil Apple grudgingly agrees to make the rest of the journey.
Wen Qing is waiting just outside the camp. Her face relaxes when she sees Wei Ying.
"Very bad-tempered," Wei Ying tells her. He drops the reins into her hands. "I've changed my mind. This is a terrible donkey. I want my money back."
"You stole him," Wen Qing responds tartly, "so I don't think that will be possible."
She leaves Wei Ying alone in the cave so she can brush Lil Apple down and give him water. Wei Ying gulps down the bowl of congee she left next to his bed. Then he amuses himself by arranging his stolen bounty on the ragged blanket. He sets the kite on the bed too, and hides the box behind a pile of stones in the corner. He doesn't want to explain how he acquired a box emblazoned with the imperial crest.
When Wen Qing finishes tending the world's most uncooperative donkey, she returns to the cave. Wei Ying has the pleasure of seeing her eyebrows shoot up as she gets a good look at the night's haul.
She takes her time combing through the jewelry, counting out the silver coins, and piling the food to one side. Wei Ying shows her the shell cup game he bought for A-Yuan, and that wins a rare smile. But her brows draw together when she sees the kite.
"Did you steal this?" she asks, fingering the trailing silk ribbons.
"I did not. I acquired the kite in a perfectly lawful fashion." Wei Ying makes the strategic decision to end his explanation there. No sense getting Wen Qing aggravated by admitting it's a gift from Second Prince. "Give it to A-Yuan tomorrow, okay?"
Wen Qing flashes him an incredulous look. She shakes her head.
Wei Ying knows what she's about to say: Of course, I can't do that. He thinks you're traveling and won't be back until the day after tomorrow!
"You have to!" Wei Ying insists. He pushes the kite into her hands when she tries to set it aside. "Tell him I sent it ahead, and find out what he thinks of it. Then tell me how he likes it."
Wen Qing forehead creases.
"Why?" she asks. "Can't it wait?"
"It can't," Wei Ying says.
He wants to tell Second Prince about A-Yuan's reaction. A-Yuan will love the kite. But Wei Ying needs to provide specifics: He played with the kite all day! He said blue and white are his favorite colors! He asked if he can learn to become a dragon, so he can fly too!
Second Prince's quiet, gentle smile was intoxicating. Wei Ying isn't sure whether he can win another smile tomorrow night, but he intends to try. Cute stories about A-Yuan will make an excellent weapon.
Wen Qing casts a suspicious glance in his direction as she tucks the kite into her bag.
"Nothing happened?" she asks.
"Nothing whatsoever." Wei Ying gives a blithe shrug.
She doesn't believe him, that's clear enough. But she doesn't question him further. She frowns at the pile of stolen jewelry as she slides each item into her battered money pouch.
"This is plenty," she decides. "You're not going back tomorrow."
Wei Ying, seated on the cave floor, sways forward.
"I am definitely going back," he says.
Wen Qing's fingers curl around the hairpin, like she's thinking of weaponizing it. It's a rather intimidating gesture, but Wei Ying refuses to be deterred.
"Wen Qing!" He dodges when she takes a swipe at him. "Why stop now, when things are going so well?"
"It's because things are going well that you should stop!" She jams the rest of the jewelry into the pouch and glares. "You managed to walk into the palace twice, and escaped without anyone noticing you. It would be idiotic to roll the dice a third time."
"You were never much of a gambler," he says, with a fond sigh.
Without the resources for proper farming and building, there's little to do in the Wen camp. Fortunately, Wei Ying knows lots of ways to pass the time. He taught the Wens plenty of games, and they gamble for sticks and pebbles. Wen Qing is terrible at making wagers, even for worthless stakes.
But if she isn't good at gambling with pebbles, she's great at throwing them. She demonstrates her skill now, and Wei Ying is forced to dodge again.
"I'm good with games of chance," he insists. "I promise."
She bounces two more pebbles off his forehead. Wei Ying half-expects her to lunge for a large rock, and aim it straight at his nose. But then the fight goes out of her. Her shoulders slump. She sits back on her heels, kneeling on the damp stone floor.
"Wei Wuxian," she says, after a long pause. "This is enough. We can manage with this."
She gestures at the stuffed money pouch.
"It can buy food, blankets, medicine. This alone," she digs out the hairpin, "would pay for the building supplies we need."
She puts the hairpin back, and brandishes the pearl string.
"This would pay for farming equipment for three years."
"I'm glad to hear it," Wei Ying says easily. "I'm still going back."
Wen Qing makes a desperate, frustrated sound. Wei Ying doesn't like the look on her face—confused, rather than angry—so he turns away. He stares at the water-stained walls of the cave.
"Why?" Wen Qing asks. There's an unpleasant note of pleading in her voice. "You don't need to do this."
"I know." Wei Ying scoots around on the blanket, making himself more comfortable. "I want to, that's all."
The Lan rulebook digs into his spine, so he retrieves it and spreads it open on his lap. He promised to memorize at least fifty rules by tomorrow, and he's determined to keep his word.
Wen Qing's eyes dart between him and the book. She glances toward the kite. Then she stares at the money pouch in her chapped, weather-beaten hands.
When she speaks, her voice is very even.
"You don't have to come back," she says.
Wei Ying's mouth drops open, but Wen Qing doesn't give him a chance to speak.
"Wei Wuxian," she says sternly. "Listen to me. This is enough."
She shakes the money pouch.
"We can manage with this. If you want to return to the capital, you don't have to come back."
The book slips from his hands, thumping against the cave floor. But Wei Ying doesn't bother to retrieve it. Instead, he reaches out to grasp Wen Qing's wrist.
They don't usually do this. Wen Qing doesn't like touching anybody except her brother and A-Yuan. But Wei Ying squeezes her wrist and she doesn't pull away.
"That's not what this is," he gasps. "I'm not trying to bail on you guys, I just want…"
But he doesn't know how to finish that sentence. He doesn't even know why he wants to return to the palace so badly. Wen Qing is right: they can make do with what he's already stolen. It's enough for now. They can buy food and building supplies. They can make it through the winter and start planting in the spring. They can manage.
It's just that...
Wei Ying promised Second Prince he'd come back. Even if he hadn't promised, Wei Ying doesn't think he can give this up: the chance to see Second Prince one last time. He refuses to think about what that means. He can't explain any of it to Wen Qing anyway.
She nods, a little absently.
"You want to return to your old life," she says, fingering the edge of the pouch. "If only for a little while. I understand."
But she doesn't understand, not at all.
Wei Ying misses his old life sometimes. Every time he thinks of Jiejie and Jiang Cheng, his chest burns. He'd sell his soul to see them again. But giving up this sort of thing—stupid parties, rubbing elbows with obnoxious rich folk—was never a hardship.
Wei Ying gropes for an explanation. Wen Qing waits patiently for a few seconds. When he doesn't speak, she nods as if she's settled something in her own mind.
"You should speak with your brother." She puts the pouch away and clears Wei Ying's empty bowl.
Wei Ying chokes.
"Ah? Wasn't the whole idea to avoid him? To get through the party without letting him see me?"
They talked about Jiang Cheng often as they planned their scheme. Wen Qing helped Wei Ying refine the voice-altering talisman, and she drilled him over and over: If you see your family, try to avoid them. They know your mannerisms, your speech patterns. Even a mask and a talisman might not fool them.
"That was the idea." Wen Qing scoops up the kite, balancing it beneath the bowl. "But you should speak with him anyway. Ask if he'd welcome you home."
The ground seems to tilt beneath his feet.
"He wouldn't," Wei Ying says numbly.
It's irrelevant, really. Wei Ying would never ask such a thing. He won't turn his back on the Wens, and he wouldn't be shameless enough to beg his family to take him back. Not after he publicly abandoned them.
But even if he cast aside his pride and begged, it wouldn't matter. Jiang Cheng would never throw open the doors to Lotus Pier and welcome Wei Ying back inside. Those doors are closed for good.
Wen Qing pauses at the door to the cave, and gives him an unreadable look.
"You don't know that," she says. "I have a brother. I would always welcome him home."
It isn't a fair comparison at all. What has Wen Ning ever done wrong, anyway? Why shouldn't his sister greet him with open arms? Their situations can't be compared.
Wei Ying opens his mouth to say so, but Wen Qing cuts him off again.
"What would you do," she asks, "if your position and Sect Leader Jiang's were reversed?"
Wei Ying finds he has no answer for that, none at all.
"Think on it," she says, and leaves him alone in the damp stuffy cave.
The next day, Wei Ying can't manage to sit still. He promises Wen Qing that he'll stay hidden in the cave where the rest of the Wens won't see him. But Wei Ying winds up pacing the cave's mouth, over and over again. When he's got something on his mind, pacing usually helps. If he's having trouble with a spell or struggling with a talisman, it helps to take a few laps around the room.
But today, his mind is churning. Pacing doesn't do much good. He circles the cave a hundred times, but he can't put his thoughts in order.
He thinks about Wen Qing. Then he stops to check the talismans and spell powders in his sleeve. He thinks about Jiang Cheng. Then he sits down to memorize twenty new disciplines from the rulebook. He thinks about Jiejie. Then he spends some time angrily hurling pebbles at the wall.
Wei Ying tries to keep his thoughts in order. But then he starts thinking about Second Prince. After that, Wei Ying breaks his oath altogether. He shimmies out of the cave and sits in the sun next to Lil Apple.
He can't get Wen Qing's words out of his head.
Ask him if he'd welcome you home, she said.
He wouldn't, Wei Ying replied.
But Wei Ying isn't sure that's true.
After thinking for a while, he decides it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether Jiang Cheng would forgive him. By absconding with the Wens, Wei Ying disobeyed an imperial edict. Even if Jiang Cheng wanted Wei Ying to return, Wei Ying can't. He can never go home to Lotus Pier, or join Jiejie in Koi Tower.
Even if his family asked him to come home, Wei Ying can't do it. Not without bringing trouble and punishment down on their heads.
Wei Ying could leave the Wens. He could walk away from the camp tomorrow, and never return. But where would he go? He can't return to his family or his old friends. Unless he wants to be executed, he can't turn himself in.
He could become a rogue sorcerer, wandering the wilds and helping the poor. He dreamed of doing that, once. But what's the point? Why should he wander the world, when the poor are right here? Why should he go looking for someone else to help, when the Wens need him so badly?
Lil Apple falls asleep in the late afternoon sun. Wei Ying pats the donkey's back as he squints up at the sky. Daylight is fading, the sun slanting toward the horizon.
Soon, it will be time for Wei Ying to don his mask and stolen clothing. He'll chivy his donkey back up the path, and step through the portal one last time.
It will all be over in a matter of hours. By dawn, Wei Ying will be back at the Wen camp for good. He may never see his brother after tonight. Or Nie Huaisang. He certainly won't see Second Prince, whose betrothal will be announced within days.
Second Prince has to choose someone, after all. He'll probably settle for Luo Qingyang. Why shouldn't he? Wei Ying met her once, years ago. She was—she clearly still is—pretty and strong. She's smart, too. Intelligent and forthright. She's exactly what a princess ought to be.
But for some reason, the thought of their marriage makes Wei Ying feel sick.
He schools his expression before Wen Qing can return. He wants one last glimpse at the life he's leaving behind, that's all. Then he can shut the door, turn away, and make a new life with the Wens.
Wen Qing still gives him a sharp-eyed look as he sets off.
"Be careful," she says.
It's something she hasn't told him since the first night.
"Yes, yes." Wei Ying sighs. "I'll be back before you know it!"
She doesn't reply.
Wei Ying feels her eyes on his back as he drags Lil Apple down the path. For a moment—just a moment—Wei Ying tortures himself by imagining what it would be like if things were different. If he never met or heard of the Wens. If Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng were heading off to the ball together. If Wei Ying was invited to the ball as an honored guest.
Wei Ying can picture it so clearly. He'd tease his brother the whole journey to the capital.
I bet I can get Second Prince to notice me! Hey, Jiang Cheng! Do you want to make a wager? I can definitely get him to have a whole conversation with me! How much do you want to bet?
Jiang Cheng would mutter and grumble, but he'd take the bet eventually.
By now, the final night of the ball, Wei Ying would have stepped up his teasing.
Hey, Jiang Cheng! I won the bet, didn't I? I had two whole conversations with Second Prince, alone in the gardens! He even ignored his guests just to chat with me! What do you think about that?
Wei Ying lets his feet drag along the path. He ignores the way he kicks up clouds of dust that sticks to his robes. His appearance doesn't matter, after all. Not now, not when he's attending the ball like this.
If he were truly invited to the ball—with his brother at his side—things would be very different. By now, Wei Ying might be nurturing some private hopes: Maybe he'll pick me. Second Prince has to marry somebody, after all. He doesn't seem to mind talking to me, not even when I pester him and tease him. Maybe he'll choose me.
Wei Ying crushes that thought underfoot as he nudges Lil Apple into the clearing. There's no point thinking such foolish things. There's no point thinking about anything, really. He'll go the ball, one last time. He'll pocket some jewelry, eat some free food, and leave long before the masks are removed. He'll see Second Prince, just long enough to tell him how much A-Yuan liked the kite.
Wen Qing said he did. She complained that A-Yuan refused to let go of the kite, even during mealtimes. She said he spent the whole day trying to make it fly, though there wasn't much wind and he could barely get it three handspans off the ground.
Wei Ying tucks that story away for later. Then he shoves Lil Apple through the portal.
If Wei Ying thought the capital was in a frenzy during the first two nights of the ball, it's nothing compared to the final night. The streets are crowded with curious onlookers as gossip flies from one mouth to another.
Wei Ying resorts to elbowing his way through the crowds. He tries not to listen to the chatter, but he can't help it. The past two nights picked to pieces, and copper coins trade hands as people lay bets about who the prince will choose.
Underneath the gossip about Second Prince's marriage, there's a current of anxiety.
The emperor's health is failing, the crowd whispers. He's determined to see his sons married before he dies.
First Prince's wedding has been moved up, and it will take place in less than a month. There's some talk that Second Prince's wedding will happen shortly afterward. Whoever Second Prince chooses must expect a hasty wedding. The emperor isn't expected to survive the winter.
Wei Ying planned to snatch a few more purses during his ride through the capital. But he's so distracted by the gossip, he arrives at the palace gates empty-handed. As he waits in line—jade token in hand—he stares up at the white walls surrounding the palace.
An emperor's death is always an epochal event. It affects everything from military movements to the price of rice. Even the humblest peasant will feel the fallout once the emperor dies.
But he's been in seclusion for so many years now. His sons and brother have overseen everything. Wei Ying suspects that when First Prince takes the throne, it will be a smooth transition. Market prices won't fluctuate much. Wen Qing won't have to worry about how far their money will stretch, if panicked sellers start increasing their prices.
As for military action, the ongoing hunt for the Wens….
Wei Ying hands over his token for inspection and directs Lil Apple grimly down the path.
It's unlikely that anyone will waste time looking for the Wens during the winter. The coronation—the start of First Prince's reign—will be the focus of everyone's attention. The princes will have so many important matters to attend to. No one will waste time worrying about the Wens, who vanished months ago.
If the princes plan to marry within three months, that's good news. With so many eyes on the royal weddings, the Wens will be largely forgotten.
But as Wei Ying hands Li'l Apple over to a servant, he feels like he's swallowed a stone.
Last night, guests has the opportunity to show off their skills for the prince. But tonight—the final night—guests will enjoy a leisurely program. There's no need for athletics. As Wei Ying enters the hall, he discovers that the guests have taken advantage of this: everyone is wearing their finest silks, their best jewels.
Wei Ying catches a glimpse of his brother, in elaborate purple robes and a tall hairpiece. He tries to chuckle over it—his brother has turned into a peacock too!—but he can't seem to force a smile.
Wei Ying has nothing to wear but his plain black robes. That's fine, though. It's for the best. He fades into the background, invisible against the rainbow of pale greens and bright golds. As his picks at his plain robes, Wei Ying listens to the hum of excitement as the princes make their entrance.
First Prince is dressed lavishly, as befits the man who will probably take the throne within weeks. But Wei Ying's eyes merely skim over his intricate robes. He turns quickly to Second Prince.
His robes are a pale blue tonight, not a trace of white to be seen. They're surprisingly plain, without the heavy ornamentation of his guests. But Second Prince needs no ornamentation. Wei Ying thinks he could recognize the man anywhere, even with the mask. Even disguised as a peasant, even in the coarsest robes.
There's no mistaking Second Prince's immaculate posture or the smooth curve of his jaw. No mistaking his lush mouth, the glossy curtain of his hair.
Wei Ying stares for so long that he draws Second Prince's attention. At once, Wei Ying whips around. He studies the lines of the ceiling, the scrolls on the wall. Anything to keep from staring at Second Prince.
But Second Prince is staring at him now. Wei Ying can feel the weight of his gaze, even as he keeps his own eyes averted.
He doesn't hear a word of First Prince's speech. Wei Ying is dimly aware that a gong will be struck at zi-shi: the signal that it's time for everyone to remove their masks.
Wei Ying touches his own mask self-consciously.
He's almost forgotten about the masks. They seem foolish now, redundant. Everybody at the ball knows who everybody else is. The masks were only ever intended as a novelty, not a way to obscure anyone's identity.
As he studies the guests, Wei Ying can see that most are using their masks to signal their sect alliance. On this, the final night of the ball, guests are wearing masks embroidered with their sect crests or set with jewels in their sect color. They greet each other by name, compliment one another's finery.
There are no secrets here. Anonymity is only a pretense.
Wei Ying feels a surge of desperate anxiety. He's standing in the heart of the palace, in what amounts to a paper-thin disguise.
But maybe it's not such a bad disguise after all. His robes are plain, his mask chintzy. He has no jewelry, no elaborate headpiece. He's armored, too, in Mo Xuanyu's poor reputation. The other guests glance at him. Then they turn away, as if he's no better than a servant.
It should be a comfort, but it isn't.
Wei Ying picks listlessly at the food. He has no appetite. Still, he fills his bag for the rest of the Wens. Then he lurks gloomily by the refreshments, no longer in the mood for wine.
The acrobats and fire-dancers file through the hall to begin their performance. Second Prince remains at the front, seated beside his brother on the raised dais.
Wei Ying risks a glance in his direction, and finds Second Prince's dark eyes watching him. He turns away hastily, retreating further into the crowd. Then his elbow bumps against someone else's.
Wei Ying expects the other person to pull away. But smooth fingers curl around his arm.
"Young Master Mo! We meet again."
"So we do!" Wei Ying forces a smile as he turns to Nie Huaisang.
Suddenly, this seems like an idiotic idea. Why did he return to the ball for the final night? Wen Qing was right: stealing a few more purses isn't worth the trouble. Not if Wei Ying has to speak with Nie Huaisang again, carrying on the pretense of being Mo Xuanyu. Wei Ying isn't sure anything is worth this risk, not even the chance to see Second Prince again.
It's tempting, though, to turn his eyes back to the front of the hall. To try and catch Second Prince's gaze again. But Wei Ying stops himself in time. He keeps his face turned in Nie Huaisang's direction.
Nie Huaisang doesn't look his way. Instead, he studies the contortionists as they work their bodies into strange positions and climb atop one another.
"Ah," Nie Huaisang sighs. "My back aches just looking at them!"
"Mine too," Wei Ying says mechanically.
In truth, he hardly glances at the performers. With Nie Huaisang nearby, it takes all Wei Ying's energy—all his focus—to decide what to do with his hands. He settles for keeping them folded casually across his chest.
Wei Ying absently takes in Nie Huaisang's ensemble. He's wearing his family's colors tonight, soft greys and deep greens. His mask is adorned with feathers and pearls, his hair done up in elaborate braids.
Wei Ying wonders if he's meant to compliment Nie Huaisang on his appearance. Would that be out of character for Mo Xuanyu?
Before he can make up his mind, Nie Huaisang hums softly.
"The Lord Regent doesn't look very happy, does he?" he asks. His voice is amused.
Wei Ying doesn't want to turn back to the dais. But he does, just long enough to see the Lord Regent staring at the half-naked acrobats with an expression of pure outrage. Wei Ying snorts.
"He always looks like he's been eating sour plums," he mutters.
Wei Ying hasn't spoken to the Lord Regent. No matter what Wen Qing might say, he's not that stupid. But he kept a weather eye out during the last two nights.
The Lord Regent is said to be a stern, strict man. Rumor has it he's fond of whipping unruly disciples and palace rule-breakers. Wei Ying doesn't like to think what a man like that would do to a thief. If the man can't even plaster on a smile when he's trying to find his nephew a spouse, he probably wouldn't show mercy to someone like Wei Ying.
Nie Huaisang laughs.
"Second Prince is the same!" He shakes his head when Wei Ying stares. "Maybe you can't tell, because of the mask. But I've spoken to Second Prince many times. He always looks so serious! No one has ever seen him smile."
"Is that so," Wei Ying says blankly.
Last night seems very far away. The time they spent in the garden is hazy and distant as a dream. But Second Prince had smiled then, hadn't he? Wei Ying thought he glimpsed a smile, right after he promised to memorize more of the rules.
Maybe he only imagined it.
Yes, Wei Ying decides. He turns back to the acrobats. Certainly, it was all in his head. Why should Second Prince smile at a foolish man in plain robes making a lot of outrageous remarks?
Second Prince spent a fair portion of last night with Wei Ying. The night before that, too. But he was probably bored with his self-aggrandizing guests, every one of them desperately trying to curry favor. An insolent man who scolded and teased the prince must have been a novelty.
It doesn't matter whether he smiled, listened to Wei Ying's chatter, or walked away in disgust. Within weeks, he'll be married to one of the worthy young men or women in the room.
Wei Ying finds himself studying each of the guests in turn, wondering which it will be.
"It's a pity he always has such a stern expression." Nie Huaisang flutters his fan thoughtfully. "He's really very beautiful."
Wei Ying laughs, too loudly.
"Has Second Young Master Nie lost his heart?" He snatches a full bottle of wine from a nearby table. Ignoring the cups, he takes a hasty swig from the bottle.
One of the guests—somebody's father or uncle—looks at Wei Ying in disgust. But Nie Huaisang only seems amused.
"Not to Second Prince," he sighs. "He's not my type."
"Oh? But you make it sound as if you have someone else in mind!" Wei Ying gestures as though desperate to hear more. "Please elaborate. I hardly ever hear any gossip."
He doesn't, not out in the backwater villages. If Nie Huaisang—one if his oldest, dearest friends—is arranging a marriage, Wei Ying would like to find out from the man himself. Not through fourth-hand gossip that won't reach their village until the wedding is already old news.
But Nie Huaisang only lowers his eyes demurely. His fan works faster.
"No, I can't tell you!" His tone is full of agonized modesty. "But I'm sure this person would never look twice at me! Not in that way."
For a brief, panicky moment, Wei Ying thinks that Nie Huaisang might be referring to him. Or Mo Xuanyu, as the case may be.
But, no, that's an absurd thought. It's someone else, then. Someone of high rank, someone prestigious enough that even Nie Huaisang—soon to be the emperor's brother-in-law!—thinks he has no chance.
"My sympathies!" Wei Ying scratches his head. "But probably you are mistaken about their feelings. They're sure to notice you eventually. You should do something to get their attention, like write a poem."
"Ah, that would be so forward!" Nie Huaisang covers his face with his fan. He sounds as if he can't bear the idea of approaching the object of his affection.
But Wei Ying knows his friend, and he knows that tone. That's the voice Huaisang uses when he wants to do something he knows he shouldn't. He's hoping someone will provide encouragement.
Wei Ying can't help but grin. He leans in.
"Tell me this, are they here tonight?" He waves his wine jug at the assembled guests.
Nie Huaisang peeks over the top of his fan.
"They are indeed."
"Do you think Second Prince is likely to choose them?" Wei Ying asks. He ignores the way his throat feels full of gravel.
He doesn't like to think about that: Second Prince choosing somebody. But he refuses to let himself dwell on the matter. It's nothing to him. Why should it matter to Wei Ying? The marriage of princes is nothing to him.
"No, I don't think so." Nie Huaisang's smile deepens as he shakes his head. "They don't seem compatible."
"Then!" Wei Ying brandishes a finger. "Probably they'll be very disappointed. You can use that to your advantage."
He leans in, lowering his voice conspiratorially.
"Tell them that you've discovered they have a secret admirer, but you refuse to say who it is. Keep them guessing!"
"There's an idea." Nie Huaisang nods slowly. He snaps his fan shut so he can tap it against his palm. "Young Master Mo is very clever! I must assume that you're quite the heart-breaker."
Wei Ying gives another rough, humorless laugh.
"Not at all, not at all!" He sighs theatrically. "Just this morning, a charming young woman threw rocks at my head."
Wen Qing hadn't been happy to discover that he sneaked out of the cave to sulk beside Lil Apple in the afternoon sun. Wei Ying still has a lump where she clipped him behind the ear with a sharp rock.
"How cruel!" Nie Huaisang makes a pained, sympathetic sound. "Does that mean there's no one in your heart?"
Wei Ying opens his mouth. He intends to say what he's always said to the Wens, when they questioned him on the topic of marriage: I'm too young to settle down! Anyway, I've never met anyone I liked enough to marry!
But the words stick in his throat, and he can't get them out.
Behind his mask, Nie Huaisang's eyes sharpen.
"I see!" he sings out.
Wei Ying almost says something incredibly stupid: No, you don't. You didn't see anything. You saw nothing.
But his throat still isn't working, and that's probably for the best. Nie Huaisang nods to himself and taps his fan briskly against his palm.
"In that case," he decides, "you should take your own advice. Go to this person, and tell them they have a secret admirer!"
"Oh, I'm sure they already know that," Wei Ying says feebly.
His chest is heavy.
He's been trying so hard not to think of this. He's here to steal a few more pieces of jewelry before disappearing into the night. If he happens to get one last glimpse of Second Prince—if he gets one last conversation—then that's all right. But Wei Ying certainly has no business planning, or even desiring, anything else. He has no business being an admirer of anybody. Especially not Second Prince.
Because of course Second Prince knows about all his admirers. He probably has thousands of them, scattered throughout the land. He must have admirers in every town, every village, and certainly here in the capital.
Every last one of his admirers would make a more suitable spouse than Wei Ying. Even the poorest, humblest farmer would make a better husband! At least humble farmers probably aren't branded traitors who have slipped into the palace to rob its guests.
Wei Ying hasn't allowed himself to think about this, how much he likes Second Prince. He hasn't allowed himself to think what he might have said or done, if things were different. They aren't different, after all. Second Prince is the current emperor's son, the future emperor's brother. Wei Ying is the man who defied an imperial edict, a seasoned thief. It's useless to think about any of this.
But Nie Huaisang only hums and shakes his head.
"Even so." He touches his fan to his chin. "Young Master Mo, I'll make you a bargain! If you approach the person you like tonight, I'll do the same. We can give each other courage!"
Wei Ying blinks. But Nie Huaisang only tilts his head. His face is thoughtful even beneath the mask. In the end, Wei Ying forces a laugh.
"All right," he says numbly. "All right! It's a bargain."
Why not? He already promised to speak to Second Prince one last time. Wei Ying will prove that he memorized the rules, just like he vowed. Then he'll turn around and walk away.
It won't make any difference for Wei Ying, but it may help inspire Nie Huaisang to approach the person he likes. It's a harmless bet, maybe the last favor Wei Ying can do for an old friend.
Nie Huaisang clasps his hands solemnly.
"Come and find me later on," he says. "If we had good fortune, we can congratulate each other. If not, we can drown our sorrows together."
Wei Ying shrugs.
"I never say no to a drink."
Nie Huaisang laughs.
"I didn't think so. You don't seem the type." His eyes rest on the half-empty jar in Wei Ying's hand.
But then his face turns anxious. He clutches at Wei Ying's sleeve.
"Ah, but be careful tonight! I've heard that several guests have been robbed. There seems to be a thief in our midst!"
Wei Ying laughs again, this time with greater humor.
"Is that so? Sadly, I am too poor to be anybody's prey!" He gestures to his plain, unadorned robes.
He is, indeed, too poor to be a thief's target. He is poor enough to be a thief himself. But this possibility doesn't seem to occur to Nie Huaisang.
"Keep a sharp eye out, anyway!" he urges. "The guards are watching closely, but it never hurts to be vigilant."
Wei Ying sweeps a grateful bow.
"I won't forget Second Young Master's kind advice."
Wei Ying won't forget it. In fact, he thinks the matter over quite carefully once he parts from Nie Huaisang. He mills around the hall, eating roasted nuts as he considers the state of things.
If the guards are looking for a thief, Wei Ying should leave quickly. He can't risk robbing anyone else, not if the guests are all on alert. He might as well finish his time here and vanish into the capital.
The crowds outside will linger, waiting to hear what happened on the final night of the ball. Wei Ying could pick a few more pockets there. But somehow, the idea leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
Wei Ying doesn't mind robbing the gentry. He's intimately aware of how much money they have, and how little they need their pretty jewelry.
But if he robs strangers—ordinary civilians—there's always the risk of taking money from someone who truly needs it. Wei Ying has no qualms about stealing from pompous brats who strut around the capital, tormenting servants. But the thought of stealing from a struggling merchant makes him feel ill.
In the end, Wei Ying settles for wandering around the pavilion. Passively, he notes the flashiest jewels. But he makes no attempts to snatch any of them.
Later, maybe. If the opportunity presents itself. For now, Wei Ying fills his stomach at the palace's expense. That seems like a harmless activity, and it lets him keep an eye on his brother.
Jiang Cheng hasn't even glanced his way throughout the evening. It's for the best. But Wei Ying wants to throw his head back and scream. Jiang Cheng would turn to look. Wei Ying could see his brother glance in his direction, if only for a moment.
He stays silent, though.
Jiang Cheng doesn't look his way. Nie Huaisang lingers at his side, pestering him about something. Jiang Cheng huffs and puffs and frown. It's clear he's trying hard to play the part of the serious, respectable sect leader.
To Wei Ying's delight, Nie Huaisang doesn't seem to be having any of it. He teases Jiang Cheng about something, and Jiang Cheng's face turns a vivid red. Wei Ying turns back to the food with a smile. It's good to see that his brother still has friends who won't allow him to take himself too seriously.
Wei Ying doesn't intend to sneak a glimpse at Second Prince. He reminds himself that he shouldn't even try.
Now, don't bother looking his way. Just turn around, nice and slow, and go get yourself another cup of wine.
But he looks anyway. His body turns without his permission and his eyes dart toward the raised dais. There's First Prince, speaking quietly to his betrothed. There's the Lord Regent, frowning at everybody. But Second Prince's chair is empty.
Wei Ying risks another glance around the room. It's the final night of the ball, after all. Second Prince might have stooped to socializing with his guests. But he's nowhere to be seen, and Wei Ying's body moves on instinct. His feet carry him out of the hall, through the pavilion, and into the gardens.
There's no reason to suppose that Second Prince might be there. But Wei Ying found him in the gardens last night. The night before, too. So he drifts down the winding path.
The wind rustles his cloak and the long trailing sleeves. The moon hangs heavy overhead. But it's starting to wane, and there's a nip in the air. Autumn is here, winter snapping at its heels.
Wei Ying doesn't let himself think about what winter means for him, and for the rest of the Wens. But he's prepared to admit that Wen Qing might be right: he wanted one last look at this life. A life that can't be his.
You can have a few more minutes, he tells himself. One more incense stick of time.
The path will take him through the gardens, past the terrible wall of rules, past the armory. If Wei Ying stays on the path long enough, he'll reach the palace gates.
Wei Ying makes an agreement with himself: if he finishes walking the path and he doesn't see Second Prince, he'll keep going. He'll head straight to the gates, collect Lil Apple, and ride away.
If he finds Second Prince...
Well, he'll indulge in a few moments of polite conversation. Just a few minutes, that's all. Then he'll walk away.
Wei Ying coaches himself at each step, each winding turn.
You won't see him. You'll walk the path to the end, and he won't be there. That's fine, of course. That's for the best. You'll ride away and return to the Wens. Next spring, you'll hear that he's married to some fine, respectable person. Hearing that news won't bother you a bit. Things will be exactly as they should be.
But when Wei Ying reaches the edge of the garden—where the flowers and greenery give way to the stone courtyard of the armory—there is he. Second Prince stands in front of the wall of rules, gazing upon them contemplatively.
Wei Ying almost laughs.
It's really too funny. Here is a man who refuses to drink wine, even at a celebration in his honor. Here is a man whose family must order him to remain present at his own party. Here is a man who could watch acrobats and dancers, but who prefers to review the rules he's known since childhood.
If someone described such a person to Wei Ying a fortnight ago, he would have made a face. Wei Ying would have declared that such a person must be terribly boring, no fun at all! He would have insisted that spending time in their presence must be a terrible trial, a burden, a misery.
But when Wei Ying sees Second Prince, he smiles. The smile comes without conscious thought, before Second Prince turns his way. Wei Ying feels his eyes crinkling. The smile only deepens when Second Prince spots Wei Ying.
His lips part slightly, as if he's surprised. Wei Ying jogs over to meet him.
"I was looking for you in the garden," he blurts out.
Second Prince blinks, and his lips part further. He certainly seems surprised by that. Wei Ying can't tell if it's a pleasant surprise or not. But it's too late to call the words back, so he soldiers on.
"Why are you hiding back here? Did you think I forgot my promise?"
Wei Ying thumps his own chest indignantly, ignoring the way Second Prince shakes his head in polite demurral.
"What sort of disreputable man do you think I am!" he cries. "Just wait and see. You'll soon lose that haughty expression."
Second Prince's expression isn't haughty at all, though. Wei Ying can only see half the man's face, but that's enough. His eyes alone would be enough. The blue silk mask does nothing to hide them. The moon is bright and shining, and Second Prince's eyes fairly glow beneath it.
Such eyes are very unfair. They're almost enough to make Wei Ying forget everything, including what he planned to say next. But he remembers his purpose and draws himself up. He clears his throat pointedly.
"'Do not be wasteful'," he recites. "'Do not create damages'. 'Respect the filial.'"
His thoughts might have been scattered this afternoon, but he still put his time to good use. Wei Ying memorized dozens of rules. But after reciting about eighty, they start to blur together.
Wei Ying finishes with, "'Do not argue with your family, for it doesn't matter who wins.'"
Then he sweeps a grand bow. Second Prince nods gravely.
"Impressive," he says. There's a subtle trace of humor beneath his voice. But it vanishes quickly as he adds, "You are capable of learning. Why is it you failed to attend lectures at Cloud Recesses?"
"Was I invited?" Wei Ying temporizes.
He wasn't. Mo Xuanyu might've been. Wei Ying can't be sure of that, though.
"I believe so." Second Prince's brow creases, as if he isn't sure either.
Wei Ying shrugs.
"Ah. Well, I was led to believe I would not be welcome."
It's almost the truth. Wei Ying certainly wouldn't have been welcome in the palace, not after disobeying an imperial edict. After the events of the past few nights—the way the guests sneered at Mo Xuanyu—Wei Ying feels sure that nobody would have welcomed him either.
But it's the wrong thing to say. Second Prince's brow furrows deeply. He seems upset, and Wei Ying tries to wave off his concern.
"It's fine, don't worry about that!"
"All children of the gentry are welcome to attend the lectures," Second Prince says. His voice is stern, implacable. "It is a tradition of many years."
"Even the illegitimate ones?" Wei Ying asks.
His mouth quirks. He knows the answer to that, really. Illegitimate sons and daughters occupy an awkward middle ground. If their parents are suitably important, they're welcome in most circles. Such children might be invited to the palace. A lucky few may even marry into the imperial family.
But their welcome is always conditional. If they prove charming, talented, useful, then they receive invitations. If their presence becomes a burden, they're pushed aside and forgotten.
"Yes." Second Prince nods decisively. Then he hesitates. "My…condolences on your father's death."
Wei Ying blinks. For a moment, he's bewildered. Then Second Prince's meaning becomes clear.
He forgot about Jin Guangshan's recent death. It caused something of a stir at the time: a wealthy and powerful sect leader, found dead in a whorehouse. The circumstances of his death probably hastened Jiejie's wedding, too. Such a scandalous death was a terrible embarrassment for the Jin sect. Jin Zixuan must be anxious to establish himself as a respectable married man, no successor to his father's debaucheries.
Wei Ying has spent some time thinking about this: what Jin Guangshan's death means for his people, and for Jiejie. But he forgot to consider his own cover story. Wei Ying forgot that Mo Xuanyu—Jin Guangshan's illegitimate son—is technically supposed to be in mourning.
He scratches his nose to buy himself some time to think. Then he shrugs.
"I should say something very proper and filial about that," he allows. "But the truth is, I barely knew him."
It's not technically a lie: Wei Ying hardly knew Jin Guangshan. It's the truth for Mo Xuanyu, too. Everyone has heard how his father treated him. He acknowledged the boy, yes. He paid for his maintenance. But he barely visited Mo Xuanyu as a child.
Mo Xuanyu was invited to Koi Tower two years ago, ostensibly to assume a place in his father's sect. Then Mo Xuanyu was unceremoniously kicked out a fortnight later. Wei Ying has heard the charges: debauchery, dishonesty, unfilial behavior. Nothing was ever proved, though. As far as Wei Ying can tell, no proof was ever offered to support the various accusations.
It's impossible to say what really happened. But Wei Ying suspects that Mo Xuanyu's presence was a political inconvenience, and his father ruthlessly discarded him. Mo Xuanyu has lived in the Mo compound ever since, largely ignored by his father's family. They say he's grown eccentric since leaving Koi Tower. Wei Ying can only take that with a grain of salt.
"Jin Guangshan's abilities were widely respected." Second Prince murmurs. He frowns. "His treatment of his children, less so."
Wei Ying forces a laugh.
"It's very disturbing, you know!" He shakes his head. "All these half-brother and half-sisters I've never met! I'm not even sure how many there are."
Truly, he isn't. They say Jin Guangshan fathered at least a dozen bastards upon various courtesans and prostitutes. But no one can say how many women he lay with. Even his friends' daughters and nieces were not spared.
There was a minor scandal, toward the end of the Sunshot Campaign. One of Jin Guangshan's bastards—a prostitute's son—was set to marry a lady of the gentry. But it was revealed the lady herself was one of Jin Guangshan's children, and the betrothal was hastily called off.
It was very embarrassing for everyone involved. It certainly didn't do much to raise Wei Ying's low opinion of Jin Guangshan.
"Brother is well-acquainted with Jin Guangyao," Second Prince adds.
Wei Ying winces. That was the one, the man who nearly married his sister: Jin Guangyao. Wei Ying can't remember the unlucky bride's name. But he remembers Jin Guangyao well enough. He seemed very eager to carry out the imperial edict that doomed the Wens to an early death.
"I have met him several times," Second Prince continues. He pauses, then adds, "Jin Zixuan also attended last year's lectures."
Wei Ying snorts, and Second Prince looks at him askance.
"Pardon me," he mutters. "I don't have a high opinion of him."
He may be Sect Leader Jin now. He may have close ties to the imperial family. His family may be wealthy beyond reason. But he still isn't good enough to wipe the mud from Jiejie's shoes.
Wei Ying almost says so. He wants to make sure Second Prince knows just how unworthy the man is of his future wife! But Second Prince interrupts.
"The lectures will be held again in the spring," he says. Then he gazes at Wei Ying expectantly.
Wei Ying isn't sure what he's meant to say. He supposes the lectures will be held again next year. They're held every year, after all. Except for the year before last: the year of the war.
It suddenly dawns on Wei Ying, what Second Prince is trying to say. His chest aches.
"I don't think that would be a very good idea," Wei Ying whispers.
He wants to make a joke out of it, but he can't. If things were different, nothing could stop him from returning to the palace. Nothing could keep him from attending the lectures. Everyone says the disciples are made to live like monks. They're deprived of alcohol and forced to subsist on bland food. It wouldn't matter: Wei Ying would still come back if he could.
But that's beyond hoping for. So he only shakes his head.
"Thank you, though. I am much obliged to Second Prince for his consideration." He sketches a quick bow, then steps closer. "A-Yuan is also much obliged! He refused to let the kite out of his hand all day long! He even kept it on his lap during meals. He liked it that much."
Another smile—an almost-smile, anyway—flickers across Second Prince's mouth. There have been so many almost-smiles over the past few evenings. Wei Ying is sure he glimpsed a real smile last night.
Nie Huaisang must be mistaken. Second Prince can't be notoriously stingy with his smiles. Not when Wei Ying has seen half a dozen over the course of three nights.
"I am glad," Second Prince bows his head slightly. "But if his elders instruct him to put his toys aside for meals, he must listen."
Wei Ying laughs.
"I'll make sure to tell him that. He won't dare to disobey Second Prince!"
Wei Ying's lips part. He almost says, What's your name, by the way? I must have heard it once, but I don't remember it. And we've met so many times! I can't keep calling you Second Prince!
But he has no right to ask.
In another life, it might be different. If he were here for the lectures—Jiang Cheng and Jiejie in tow—then Wei Ying might have asked. Asking would be impudent and presumptuous. Jiang Cheng would turn purple with rage. He'd be mortified to hear his brother demand the right to address Second Prince in a familiar way.
But Wei Ying can't ask now. So he bites back the question and tries another.
"You didn't stay with your guests for two whole hours tonight!" He sways in, gratified when Second Prince doesn't jerk away. "Has Second Prince become disobedient?"
"I made no such promise tonight." Second Prince's voice is impassive.
Wei Ying can't think of anything to say in response.
"I see." He falters. "I'm afraid I don't have any games with me tonight! And I've already recited all the rules I managed to memorize. I don't think I have anything to amuse Second Prince."
This is the moment when he should turn and walk away. Wei Ying knows that.
He followed through on his promise. He said he would return to the ball for the third night, and he did. He said he'd memorize more of the rules, and he did that too. Now he should bow to Second Prince and leave him in peace.
But he doesn't. Wei Ying can't make his body form a bow. He can't persuade his mouth to shape the words, Well, it's been a pleasure, Your Highness. But I should really be on my way…
Second Prince tilts his head.
"Tell me a story," he suggests.
Wei Ying blinks.
"Oh? What kind?" He laughs, even before Second Prince has a chance to answer.
Second Prince is asking for a story, the way A-Yuan does when he's trying to delay his bedtime!
Wei Ying knows lots of stories. If Second Prince wants to hear one, Wei Ying can think of plenty. He pushes aside rational thought—you should really leave now, you know!—and searches for a story that Second Prince might enjoy.
"About yourself," Second Prince requests.
Wei Ying flinches. He can't help it. He tries to hide the motion by brushing off his robes, pretending that an insect just landed on him. But his throat closes up, and it's hard to reply.
"I'm not a very interesting person, Your Highness," he manages.
"I disagree." Second Prince says.
They're too close. Too close for propriety, anyway. Wei Ying can see every thread in Second Prince's clothing, every strand of hair. It's tempting to reach out and touch—to see if his hair is as soft and sleek as it looks—but Wei Ying restrains himself. He clears his throat.
"How about a trade?" he offers. "I'll tell you a story if you'll tell me one in return."
Wei Ying isn't sure he can think up stories that would work for Mo Xuanyu's identity. But he's hungry for stories about Second Prince.
Second Prince nods his agreement. Then he leads Wei Ying to a bench outside the armory. They sit, and trade stories.
Wei Ying talks about the Wens. He doesn't name any names. He pretends they're distant relatives, servants, people who live within the Mo compound. He shares stories about Fourth Uncles home-brewed liquor, how A-Jing taught Wei Ying to braid hair. He talks about the time he tried to make dumplings and set the pot on fire, how Granny smacked his hands with a spoon afterward.
Second Prince responds with stories about his brother, his uncle, even his parents. He skims lightly over the parts that concern his mother and father. Wei Ying knows better than to ask questions. He can see the sadness in Second Prince's eyes when he talks about his mother, dead for so many years. His father, who shut himself away from the world.
Wei Ying wants to turn the conversation in a happier direction and banish that awful look from Second Prince's eyes. So he tries telling Second Prince about his childhood, about growing up with Jiang Cheng and Jiejie. There was the time they ate so many melons they were sick for the whole night. The time he and Jiang Cheng got lost at night, until Jiejie found them.
Second Prince doesn't have too many funny stories about his own childhood. But Wei Ying hears about the time Second Prince smuggled wild rabbits into the palace because he wanted to tame them as pets. They escaped and started breeding in dark corners. Some of their descendants, Second Prince says, can still be found in the garden.
Wei Ying hears about the time First Prince invited Nie Mingjue to visit. They were very young, Second Prince barely more than a toddler at the time. He shoved Nie Mingjue into a pond, jealous that someone else was monopolizing his brother's attention.
Wei Ying nearly laughs himself sick over that story. He intends to use this information to tease Second Prince: Your Highness, I hope you're reconciled to the match now! Or are you planning to shove your brother-in-law into a pond during the wedding?
But before he can speak, Nie Huaisang blunders around the corner. He has the nerve to look surprised when he sees them.
"Please excuse the interruption!" he cries, dropping a low bow. When he straightens, his eyes are mischievous behind his mask. "Your Highness, your brother is looking for you."
Second Prince frowns.
For a moment, Wei Ying thinks he's going to scold Nie Huaisang for bothering them. That would be foolish, of course. It's not as if Nie Huaisang has interrupted anything.
Wei Ying chooses to ignore the smug look on Nie Huaisang's face, which seems to suggest otherwise.
"Such formalities are not necessary," Second Prince scolds.
Nie Huaisang instantly drops out of his bow. His mouth turns into a pout.
"Have mercy," he pleads. "I can't call you' brother' in front of the guests. Especially not before the wedding!"
Second Prince sighs. It's just a tiny little exhalation, but it's definitely a sigh. Wei Ying bites back a smile and tenses when Second Prince turns to him.
"I will return." Second Prince's voice is low, meant for Wei Ying's ears only.
Wei Ying's stomach performs a violent backflip.
Oh, no, he wants to say. You'd better not. Really, you should stay at the party. Isn't it almost over? I should be leaving, anyway!
But his heart whispers something quite different: Please return, please. Come back and talk to me some more. Talk to me every day. Let me tell you my silly stories, while you watch my face and listen patiently. I like that so much.
He swallows hard as he watches Second Prince sweep away, a shining streak of blue in the moonlight. But then Nie Huaisang drops onto the bench beside Wei Ying and cuts off his view.
"Young Master Mo, I fulfilled my part of the bargain." Nie Huaisang nods importantly, as if to emphasize this statement.
It takes Wei Ying far too long to understand what he's talking about.
"Is that right," he says dully.
Ah. Their bargain. Nie Huaisang promised to approach the object of his affection before the ball ended. Wei Ying remembers now.
He's tempted to look away. He'd like to catch another glimpse of Second Prince as he disappears into the garden. But he keeps his eyes firmly trained on Nie Huaisang.
"Did you meet with a favorable response?" he asks.
Nie Huaisang lets out a long, satisfied sigh.
"I believe so," he says. "Of course, it's too early to be sure. But I'm optimistic. I got him to admit that he doesn't really want to marry Second Prince, so that's something."
Nie Huaisang leans in.
"He even admitted that there's nobody else courting him, so it seems I have no competition!"
Wei Ying can't think of anything to say to that. Second Prince has crowded all other thoughts out of his head. Wei Ying can't remember why he thought Nie Huaisang's love affair mattered in the slightest.
Nie Huaisang dips a playful bow,. Then he lays a hand on Wei Ying's arm.
"I congratulate Young Master Mo, as well." He lowers his voice. "You'll let me address you informally in the future, won't you? Even once you have a title?"
Wei Ying can't make sense of that statement.
When he has a title? Mo Xuanyu is not likely to ever win acclaim or an elevated rank. Wei Ying—a branded traitor—is even less likely to receive either. Why on earth does Nie Huaisang believe he'll have a title someday?
Then, all at once, Wei Ying understands. A hot tide of embarrassment sweeps over his body, followed by sickening humiliation.
He forgot what this must look like to outsiders.
Second Prince is sitting with him. The two of them are alone together. They're lingering in a dark corner, beneath a full moon. And the whole purpose of the evening is to find Second Prince a spouse.
Wei Ying has worked so hard to shut that out of his mind. He's forgotten what others might assume, seeing the two of them together: Second Prince is sneaking off to meet with one of his guests in the garden? He must have chosen them as his future spouse!
Wei Ying can't possibly explain any of this to Nie Huaisang. He can't open his mouth and say, No, I'll never have a title. He hasn't picked me. We're not going to marry. I have to leave soon, to return to my life as a fugitive from justice.
He's trapped, caught out.
Nie Huaisang laughs, evidently amused by Wei Ying's pained silence.
"Never mind!" He pats Wei Ying's arm. "You don't have to answer now. But I have your support, don't I?"
Wei Ying stares. Behind his mask, Nie Huaisang gives a tiny eye-roll.
"For the person I'm courting!" Nie Huaisang tugs insistently on his sleeve. "I have your consent and approval?"
Wei Ying can't make sense of that either.
"Do you need it?" he asks.
"I'd like to have it," Nie Huaisang says. He lowers his eyes modestly.
Wei Ying's mouth opens. He closes it, then opens it again.
"Yes?" he chokes out. "Certainly you have my consent!"
Mo Xuanyu is almost a stranger to Nie Huaisang. Why would he need a stranger's consent before he begins a formal courtship?
"I should paint him a fan," Nie Huaisang muses. "I painted one for him before, a long time ago. Sadly, it fell into a lake. But I'm sure it will work out better this time!"
Wei Ying's breath catches in his throat.
Another time, the words might have gone unnoticed. But Wei Ying just finished trading stories with Second Prince. Second Prince told the story of how he shoved Nie Mingjue into the pond. Wei Ying laughed and replied with a story of his own.
On Jiang Cheng's eleventh birthday, the celebration was supposed to be quite formal. But it quickly turned into a free-for-all. Jiang Cheng wound up chasing Wei Ying around the lake for some imagined offense. Wei Ying slipped on the banks and grabbed his brother. Both of them fell into the water. Nie Huaisang, standing nearby, was dragged into the lake too.
Nie Huaisang, who had been holding his gift for Jiang Cheng: a painted fan.
Wei Ying's mouth drops. Suddenly, a lot of things make a great deal of sense. But before he can put his thoughts in order, Second Prince reappears, striding up the path.
Nie Huaisang winks at Wei Ying as he jumps up from the bench. Then he disappears before Wei Ying can utter a single word. Wei Ying is left to stare at the empty spot where his old friend once sat. He tries pick his jaw up off the ground.
"Your future brother-in-law is a very strange person," Wei Ying says weakly. But he receives no reply.
Second Prince doesn't reclaim his place on the bench. Instead, he stands several feet away. His face is blank.
"Your Highness?" Wei Ying ventures. He rises from the bench, without conscious thought. "Is something the matter? Your father…?"
Gods, wouldn't that be the worst possible ending for the emperor. Dying now, on the final night of his son's ball.
Second Prince gives a short, sharp shake of his head.
"My brother…" He pauses. His tongue darts out, moistening his lips. "He has made inquiries."
Because Wei Ying is an idiot, he's momentarily distracted by the sight of Second Prince's tongue. But he forces himself to pay attention. There's something about Second Prince's voice he doesn't like, not one bit.
"About…?" Wei Ying trails off.
Second Prince remains silent for a long, horrible moment.
"Last night," he says, "I told my brother that I've been speaking to Young Master Mo, son of Jin Guangshan."
Wei Ying's insides turn to ice.
"Young Master Mo has been locked inside his home for days." Second Prince's tone is clipped, carefully even. "He has not attended a single party."
Wei Ying laughs. There's no humor behind it.
"I came here without permission," he says. "Don't tell on me, Your Highness!"
For a split second, he wonders if he might be able to pull this off. Maybe Second Prince will believe that he's sneaked off to the ball against his family's wishes. Maybe Second Prince frown and murmur that such behavior violates at least three of the Lan disciplines. Maybe he'll leave it at that.
But Second Prince only stares at Wei Ying, his eyes burning.
"Inquiries were made," he repeats tonelessly. "Young Master Mo is shorter than myself. Hair not below the shoulders."
Wei Ying is viscerally aware of his own hair, drawn up and swinging against his back. He's aware of how he stands slightly taller than Second Prince, his shoulders broader than Mo Xuanyu, his complexion darker.
He stares at Second Prince. Second Prince stares back. Then, he draws his sword.
Wei Ying fights the urge to take a step back. He hadn't even noticed the sword in Second Prince's hands. Blades are forbidden in Cloud Recesses. But exceptions must be made when a marked traitor is discovered within the palace.
"Remove your mask," Second Prince says.
There's a faint tremor in his voice, but none in his hands. The sharp blade—barely a hands-breadth from Wei Ying's face—doesn't even quiver.
Wei Ying thinks about brazening it out. He could claim that there's some misunderstanding. That First Prince received false intelligence. But he's exhausted, sick to death of lies and charades.
When he smiles at Second Princes, it's a flat empty smile.
"But Your Highness hasn't seen Young Master Mo's face before," he says, gently. "What will this prove?"
Second Prince doesn't respond. His blade doesn't budge.
So Wei Ying reaches up and unties the ribbons. He lets the mask clatter to his feet. It's strange how naked he feels without it.
Second Prince's eyes search his face. He seems to be looking for something. Wei Ying doesn't know what he's seeking. But whatever it is, he doesn't find it. He makes a sharp motion with his sword.
"Empty your pockets."
Wei Ying laughs then. If Second Prince issued this command last night, he'd be caught red-handed. But tonight, all Wei Ying has is a qiankun bag full of food from the banquet hall.
Second Prince's mouth tightens. Whatever he was expecting to see, it wasn't that.
"Sleeves," he says tensely.
Wei Ying heaves a sigh.
"Heavens. Shall I strip down right in front of you? Your Highness, please spare my virtue!"
He can't afford to empty his sleeves. The talismans are there, along with the powders. His sleeves are full of evidence that Wei Ying is no innocent guest, here to enjoy the celebration.
Wei Ying wonders if he can reach the blinding powder before Second Prince has a chance to stop him. But the blade is close, and Second Prince has the stance of an experienced swordsman. Wei Ying doesn't like his chances.
Before he can cobble together a strategy—some way to avoid dying here, in the palace courtyard—they're interrupted by a gong. It echoes across the gardens, across the courtyard: three sonorous booms. It's followed by a welcoming cry from the guests.
Wei Ying realizes it must be zi-shi. The hour of the unmasking has come.
It's bitterly ironic. Wei Ying fights down a laugh.
"I was a little hasty, I see!" He nudges his fallen mask with his foot. "But Your Highness, it's time to remove your mask too."
If he's going to die here, Wei Ying wants to see the man's face. Just once. Even a brief glimpse would be all right. Dying without that privilege seems outrageous.
Wei Ying is nearly ready to beg. But he doesn't have to. Second Prince reaches up and unwinds the ribbons securing his mask.
He lets the mask fall away. It joins Wei Ying's on the ground, the beautiful silk rapidly picking up dust. But Wei Ying hardly notices that. He's too busy staring at Second Prince's face.
He heard that Second Prince was beautiful. Everyone always said so. But Wei Ying assumed that most of the praise was from bootlickers and sycophants. People eager to praise the royal family.
But all the breathless praise somehow failed to prepare Wei Ying for this moment. Second Prince's face is perfect. He's impossibly lovely, undoubtedly the most beautiful person Wei Ying has ever seen.
He's so beautiful that—for just a few seconds—Wei Ying entirely forgets what's happening. Then a cloud passes overhead, and moonlight flickers on Second Prince's sword.
Wei Ying tears his eyes away from Second Prince's face. He stares at the bare blade.
"Well." He shifts his weight. "What now?"
"Now," Second Prince echoes. He draws breath to say something more. But then he stops.
When Wei Ying looks up, there's tension in that beautiful face. There are furrows on his brow, unhappy lines around his mouth. Second Prince exhales, his lips parting. Then he takes another deep breath.
"Now I take you to my brother," he finishes, "so that you may be interrogated."
Wei Ying hums, swinging his hands at his sides.
"That doesn't sound like much fun."
It really doesn't. Wei Ying doesn't know what sort of interrogation methods they use at the palace, but he'd prefer not to find out. They're probably the kind that involve removing limbs, one at a time.
Wei Ying controls his breathing and tries to slow his racing heart.
Second Prince's gaze didn't waver when he heard the gong. His sword didn't dip, his grip didn't slacken. Wei Ying doesn't think he'll fall for the old trick of, My goodness, what's that behind you?
But if Wei Ying can just get to the powder in his sleeve…
His fingers twitch. They freeze when Second Prince speaks again.
"Was this," he says.
His voice is utterly flat, vacant in a way that chills Wei Ying's bones.
"Was this fun?" Second Prince shifts his footing as if he wants to step closer and press the tip of the sword against Wei Ying's throat.
Wei Ying's stomach sinks. It's not just the polished steel in his face that floods his body with dismay. It's the words themselves.
Was this fun, Second Prince asked.
The last few nights have been some of the best in Wei Ying's life. But saying so seems unwise. Who would believe him anyway? Certainly not the beautiful and righteous Second Prince. Not when he's staring down a man who has deceived him and robbed his guests.
It takes several moments before Wei Ying manages to speak.
"Spending time with Your Highness was truly a pleasure. I'm very sorry…"
But he can't finish that thought. He doesn't even know what's he sorry for, aside from the fact that it all ended like this.
"I'm very sorry," he says helplessly.
The silence that follows those words is deafening. Wei Ying aches to see Second Prince's face one last time. But he doesn't dare lift his eyes from the gleaming blade.
It looks well-cared-for. As expected from Second Prince! The blade has been polished and honed to razor sharpness.
Wei Ying can almost picture it: the blade sinking into his flesh, drawing blood. His body, bleeding out in the stone courtyard.
"You have a sword and I don't!" he says slowly. "That hardly seems fair."
Second Prince doesn't answer. But Wei Ying has spent three evenings with the man. He thinks he has a good measure of Second Prince's character. He hates to exploit that knowledge, but there's no alternative. He must risk everything on one last gamble.
"Why don't you give me a sword and we'll duel?" Wei Ying offers Second Prince a polished, empty smile. "I promise not to injure Your Highness. I'll spare your life when I win!"
"You are confident in your abilities," Second Prince says.
It's an unwitting repetition of their conversation last night: the shell cup game, Wei Ying's cheerful boast.
Wei Ying nods.
"In this? Yes."
He's a good swordsman, and he knows it. He might not be as good as Second Prince. Then again, he might be better. There's only one way to know for sure.
Second Prince remains silent.
"Aren't you curious?" Wei Ying murmurs.
He leans forward so the tip of Second Prince's sword rests at the hollow of his throat.
"I didn't participate in the sword-fighting tournament. Of course, Mo Xuanyu is hopeless with a blade. But aren't you curious to know what I can do?"
Perhaps Second Prince is curious. Perhaps he's too honorable to refuse. Perhaps the idea of taking an unarmed man into custody troubles his conscience. Whatever the reason, Second Prince inclines his head.
He steps around Wei Ying and reaches out a hand, glowing blue with magic. Then he works a seal, unlocking the armory doors. He throws the unlocked doors open. His eyes never leave Wei Ying's face.
"Choose," he says.
Wei Ying steps cautiously through the doors. He half-expects Second Prince to slam them shut and trap Wei Ying inside. But he doesn't. He merely stands there, his sword raised.
Wei Ying scans the racks. Any number of weapons are available. But he settles on a slim blade, not unlike Suiban. He hefts the sword, gauging its weight and balance.
He hasn't spent much time practicing with Suiban over the last few months. There's no one to spar with, no enemies to conquer. Wei Ying puts himself through a series of blade exercises every now and then. But not often. When food is scarce, it's foolish to waste energy on swordplay.
His hands close around the hilt. The sword feels strange. Swordplay doesn't seem to belong to Wei Ying anymore. It's only an echo from another lifetime.
Wei Ying unsheathes the blade and rejoins Second Prince in the courtyard. Second Prince stands beneath the moonlight, an ethereal figure in perfect stillness.
A thousand words crowd up on Wei Ying's tongue. He wants so badly to say something. It's a habit, maybe. He always teases his opponents during sparring matches.
Don't cry when I beat you, he used to tell the Jiang disciples.
Or, If you win, drinks are on you!
If he and Jiang Cheng sparred after a short hiatus, he'd ask, Have you learned some new tricks this time? I hope so! I beat you too easily last time!
But there's nothing here worth joking about. Second Prince is a renowned swordsman, one of the best in the land. Wei Ying is a traitor and an exile. This is no lighthearted sparring match between equals, no matter how much Wei Ying wishes it were.
He swallows down everything he wants to say—every joke, every flirtatious remark—and lifts his sword.
Second Prince lets him take the first strike
That seems entirely too generous. Wei Ying tries to make the most of it, delivering a sharp thrust. But Second Prince blocks the blow. He returns it, and Wei Ying dodges by a hair.
Music drifts out from the main pavilion, along with a cheerful clamor of voices.
Nobody seems to have realized that anything is amiss. But someone will take notice of the fight soon enough. Their blades clash again and again. The noise is sure to draw attention.
Wei Ying must find a way to finish this quickly. He needs a chance to reach for the powders in his sleeve. Yet he finds himself drawing the fight out, savoring it.
Second Prince's reputation wasn't exaggerated. Wei Ying can see that right away. His movements are smooth, clean, balanced. His stance is textbook perfect, his handling of the blade unparalleled. But he's not giving the fight everything he has. Wei Ying can see that too.
He's pulling his strikes as if this is only an exhibition match. As if he doesn't really intend to kill Wei Ying.
Worse, Wei Ying is doing the same.
He can't help it. It's not just the fear of the torture he'd suffer if he killed a member of the imperial family. It's not fear for the Wens either, though they'd face terrible retaliation for such a crime. He's pulling his blows, but it has nothing to do with fear for himself.
Wei Ying doesn't want to shed one drop of Second Prince's blood. He doesn't want to put even a tiny scratch on that beautiful, unblemished skin. He certainly doesn't want to see Second Prince's face twist with pain if a blow lands.
Someone like Second Prince should never suffer the slightest injury, the mildest discomfort. If it were up to Wei Ying, Second Prince would never receive so much as a paper-cut.
But it isn't up to him.
Second Prince's face is tense and strained anyway, perhaps because his blows aren't connecting.
Wei Ying leaps onto the sloped roof to buy himself some time. He earns a few seconds, just long enough to palm the bag of powder and hide it in his left hand. But Second Prince follows, and Wei Ying must block another series of strikes.
The view of the palace is beautiful from the roof. Wei Ying has no time to admire it, though. There's a clamor of voices in the distance.
Wei Ying can't turn to look, not with Second Prince's sword before him. But the guards must have spotted them. They'll descend within minutes. Unlike Second Prince, they won't trouble themselves to pull their blows.
He draws back, catching his breath. Second Prince doesn't press his advantage, and that hurts. It would be so much easier to endure what comes next if Second Prince were cruel, ruthless, and indifferent.
"You are a very fine opponent," Wei Ying says.
I wish we had more time, he thinks. I wish we had months, years. Centuries even. I wish we could use our sorcery to achieve immortality, the way the ancients were said to do. I wish we could have a dozen lifetimes together.
Second Prince doesn't reply.
There's a terrible look on his face. Wei Ying never wants to see that look on anyone's face, much less someone as wonderful as Second Prince. He doesn't even know the words to describe that expression. Hurt? Confusion? Betrayal?
Wei Ying can't bear to look at him any longer. He lowers his sword just long enough to sweep a bow.
"I apologized, didn't I? Please let me do it again. I am very, very sorry."
A shout comes from the courtyard below.
Wei Ying turns, just long enough to glimpse the uniformed guards reaching for their swords and digging into their pockets for talismans. Some of the guests are among them. Wei Ying catches a familiar flash of purple. He wonders if Jiang Cheng can recognize him from this distance, and hopes that he can't.
He has so many hopes, and nowhere to put them.
Second Prince's eyes flicker toward the approaching guards. It's just a tiny movement, but it's enough.
Wei Ying thinks one last time, I'm very, very sorry.
Then he hurls the blinding powders into Second Prince's face.
Wei Ying plunges a hand into his sleeve for a talisman and hurls it into the air. He shuts his eyes, rolls off the roof, and lets gravity carry him over the tall white walls of the palace.
There's an explosion of fireworks, and he knows the talisman has taken effect. A bright white glow still lingers over his head when he opens his eyes.
Anyone behind the walls will be temporarily blinded by the light, just like Second Prince. But Wei Ying takes out out another talisman as soon as his feet hit solid ground. He can already hear footsteps rushing towards him. He hides his own eyes in his sleeve and thrusts the talisman above his head.
Someone screams, and there's another flash of light. Wei Ying doesn't wait to see the result. Instead, he casts Cloak of Darkness, trusting the spell to do whatever the talisman couldn't. Then he runs, and runs, and runs.
me, writing self-indulgent wangxian fic: i can have a little sangcheng too. as a treat!
okay, the final part may take a couple more days. sorry to leave you hanging, and after a cliffhanger ending too!! but real life interfered. (for some absurd reason, my family/clients do not accept 'but i have a wip i need to finish!' as a valid excuse for abdicating my responsibilities. wack.)
gonna try super hard to get it up by monday!
I intended for chapter five to be the final chapter of this story. But there were just too many plot threads to tie up, and the chapter got a bit unwieldy.
So I'm splitting it into two parts. The final chapter (the real finale, this time!) should be up by Thursday at the latest. Sorry for the confusion, and for the delay!
As soon as he steps through the portal, Wei Ying snatches the talismans off the tree and tears them to bits. Then he lets his magic seep out, ripping apart the feedback loop. Once that's done, he takes his borrowed sword to the tree itself. He hacks at the carved runes, obliterating them.
It's over within minutes. The gate is gone, sealed forever.
Wei Ying stands helplessly in the small grove, his chest heaving. He's shaking all over like a racehorse fresh from battle. The sword is still in his hands, but he can barely keep hold of it. His are palms slick with sweat.
No one will be able to find him. Wei Ying knows that. Even if the imperial troops find the other half of the gate, it will be useless: a dangling piece of thread with a sawed-off end. They won't know where Wei Ying has gone, or how to begin searching for him.
They can put a bounty on his head, perhaps. If one already exists, the imperial family can raise the price. They can also send a fresh batch of scouts to look for the Wens.
But it will take weeks for a palace rider to reach the nearest village. Even messenger birds take a few days. Word may reach the village eventually, but they—Wei Ying, the Wens—still have time to prepare.
Wei Ying doesn't want to return to the Wen camp. He feels raw, like someone has scraped an iron file over his body. He can't bear to face the Wens. Wen Qing will stare at him when he returns. She'll whisper the words Wei Ying doesn't want to hear—I told you so—and it will hurt.
But he can't waste time sulking in the grove. If he stalls too long, Wen Qing will worry that Wei Ying has been caught, executed, thrown in prison.
So Wei Ying shuffles along down the dirt road. The trip to the camp passes too quickly, and he's back in their settlement before he knows it.
Wen Qing is waiting. Her face softens with relief when she sees Wei Ying.
That's the final gut-punch of the evening, and tears sting Wei Ying's eyes. He knows he doesn't deserve this. Wei Ying doesn't deserve to have anybody happy to see him.
As he swallows down tears, he's conscious of a strange absence at his side.
"I forgot the donkey," Wei Ying blurts out. He whips around and gazes at the spot where Lil Apple should be. But it's empty, and Wei Ying feels strangely bereft.
"I'm sorry." He heaves a sighs. "He'll be okay, I guess. They'll look after him in the palace."
A donkey certainly won't make up for his crimes, bur it's some form of restitution. Wei Ying hopes the stable workers will treat Lil Apple well. He hopes they won't blame Lil Apple for his master's offenses.
Wen Qing's brow furrows.
"The donkey isn't important," she murmurs, as she studies him up and down.
"Ah, how can you say that!" Wei Ying pushes past her and climbs into the cave. "That's how you return his devotion? Qing-jie is really too cruel to her admirers."
But his voice has the hollow ring of exhaustion, and Wei Ying knows it. He's not giving his words the right punch, and Wen Qing's frown deepens.
He shoves the qiankun bag into her hands as a distraction. There's not much in there. Wei Ying takes a moment to regret that particular failure. After all, he risked his life tonight. He should have more to show for it than a few snacks.
A few snacks, and the sinking realization that he's made an absolute fool out of himself.
Wen Qing can see something is wrong. She looks at him askance.
"Don't ask," Wei Ying begs. His voice almost cracks. "If you ever liked me, even a little bit, please don't ask any questions. Don't say I told you so either."
Mercifully, Wen Qing doesn't. She peers into the bag and counts out the food. Then she nods, like the evening turned out exactly as she expected. Somehow, that nod hurts as much as, I told you so would.
"Eat," she says, pocketing the bag. "I saved you some food."
Wei Ying has never had less of an appetite in his life. But Wen Qing is using her physician's voice. That means there's no use disobeying her. Not unless Wei Ying wants an acupuncture needle to the neck, and to be fed by force. So he grimly chokes down the food she's left.
"We're going to have to leave," he says, once he's scraped the bowl clean.
He'd like to save this conversation for tomorrow. Right now, Wei Ying wants to lie down and pull the covers over his head. He wants to sleep for hours, days, weeks.
But waiting to deliver this news seems cruel. Sooner or later, Wen Qing will discover that the evening was an unqualified disaster. Wei Ying might as well admit the worst now, and be done with it.
"We can't stay here." He shoves the bowl off to the side. "We don't have to leave tomorrow, or even the next day. But we need to leave soon. We should get as far away from here as we can."
They've been living at the camp for too long as it is. If someone starts asking about the Wens, the people in the village may remember the ragged bunch of peasants who have lived on the outskirts of their village for months. If someone comes out to the camp for a closer look, the Wens will be sitting ducks.
It's better if they keep moving for a while. But they might need to split up into two or three groups, so they can pass unnoticed. Wei Ying hates the idea of separating, but a large group of traveling peasants always attracts questions.
Maybe Wei Ying can hide them somewhere while he scouts around, looking for a new spot for their settlement. Winter is approaching, though. There won't be many safe places to hide, not with the first snows due within a month or two.
Astonishingly, Wen Qing doesn't protest.
"We'll sell the jewelry on the way," she says briskly. "We can buy a few donkeys, so Granny and A-Yuan don't have to walk."
She gathers up Wei Ying's empty bowl and pauses at the cave's entrance.
"It's just as well," she adds. "This soil is too poor for farming, anyway."
Wei Ying waits until she's gone. Then he lets himself cry, and the tears come hot and fast. His throat chokes with humiliation.
He doesn't deserve any of this. Not Wen Qing's patience and understanding. Not the affection of her family. He certainly doesn't deserve his family, not after he turned his back on them.
Wei Ying can't see any other path, even now. He doesn't know what else he could've done, with so many lives at stake. But it doesn't matter how noble his intentions were. He still abandoned his siblings, left them behind. He still chose the Wens, and Jiejie and Jiang Cheng deserved better than that. They deserved a brother who was truly devoted.
Wei Ying scrubs his sleeve over his eyes, but it doesn't help. He feels cracked open, as if something inside his chest has split like a melon.
He doesn't deserve Wen Qing, Wen Ning, A-Yuan. He doesn't deserve Jiejie or Jiang Cheng. And he certainly doesn't deserve Second Prince, who treated him with kindness and was repaid with betrayal.
There's nothing left to hide behind, so Wei Ying admits it to himself: he likes Second Prince, a lot. Maybe it's more than just 'liking', too. Maybe it's love.
Wei Ying doesn't have any experience with love, or anything to compare it to. But as he cradles the raw, tender feeling in his chest, he thinks it feels something like love.
If he could've gone to the ball as a proper suitor, he would've been so happy. He'd have been thrilled if Second Prince looked at him, talked to him. It would have been wonderful if Second Prince liked him, liked Wei Ying.
Wei Ying would've tried his best to make Second Prince pick him, even if it meant spending the rest of his life in a stuffy palace. Wei Ying wouldn't mind that, really. He'd like it anywhere, as long as Second Prince was with him.
But it's useless to think about this now.
Maybe he could've found a way to become worthy of Second Prince, in the time before. But Wei Ying can't do it now. He's lost too many things, and he'll never get them back. So he'll have to live with this: the memory of how Second Prince looked, right before Wei Ying threw the powder in his eyes. Wei Ying will have to wake up each day, knowing that Second Prince hates him and curses his name.
Wei Ying scrubs his face harder and stretches out on the blanket. The Lan rule-book pokes into his spine, and he shoves it away blindly. He can't bear to look at it now, or ever again. But he doesn't think he can burn it or throw it out, either. It's the only memento he has.
The box Second Prince gave him—the one that held the kite—is still hiding in the corner. Wei Ying retrieves it and tucks the rule-book carefully inside. He smooths a hand over the Lan crest carved on top. Then he hides the box beneath the blanket, extinguishes the light talisman, and shuts his eyes.
He doesn't sleep a wink. That means he has to suffer through the next day in a state of exhaustion, and his fatigue makes everything worse. Wen Qing insists on playing out the drama to the end. So Wei Ying backtracks along the dirt road and pretends to return from his travels, in full view of the Wens.
The Wens are delighted to see him, and they swarm him eagerly. Wei Ying tries to plaster on a smile as they pat his shoulder and ask about his trip, but he knows he's not fooling anyone. Before long, their joy fades and they start to look worried.
Wen Qing corrals the adults off to the side, while A-Jing babysits A-Yuan. Once everyone is assembled, Wei Ying has to do the explaining.
He tells them that his trip was a success, and he made a lot of money. Their faces brighten. His heart sinks, knowing he's about to dash their hopes. Then he screws up his courage and explains that they need to leave the camp.
Wen Qing came up with the cover story: Tell them you heard rumors during your travels that imperial soldiers are searching in this area. Tell them we need to move quickly, and get away from the nearest outpost.
Wei Ying hates to blame this mess on anyone but himself. But he sticks to the story Wen Qing prepared, and their faces fall. They're quick to agree when Wei Ying suggests leaving.
Wen Qing takes the money pouch into the village that very afternoon and purchases the food they'll need for the trip. Once she returns, she pulls Wei Ying aside to help pack up the supplies.
"I found someone looking to sell their donkeys," she whispers. "The price he wants is absurd, but I think we'd better pay it. Granny can ride one, and A-Jing and A-Yuan can share the other."
Wei Ying nods numbly. He doesn't feel qualified to make any decisions about their travels, not after he's messed everything up so badly. He leaves the matter in Wen Qing's hands, and agrees to pay whatever price she thinks is fair.
She frowns at him, but there's no time to argue. Though the camp is small and their possessions few, it takes three days to finish packing. There are a few crops left to bring in, too. After all the trouble they had with the planting, nobody wants to leave those behind.
It's fine, Wei Ying tells himself. It takes ten days for a rider to travel from the capital to the nearest village. Ten days, traveling without rest, changing horses at every outpost. Longer, if the traveler takes a lighter pace.
No one will be looking for the Wens yet. Not here, anyway. They have time.
By the morning of the fourth day, they're ready to depart. Wen Qing makes the trip to the village, and she returns with the promised donkeys and a small cart. They're loading their supplies when Second Uncle approaches with a white face. He draws Wei Ying and Wen Qing away from the others.
"Someone is coming down the main road," his whispers.
Wei Ying's stomach turns over.
"Someone?" Wen Qing hisses.
"Soldiers," he says. "Twelve of them, on horseback."
Wen Qing starts forward, but Wei Ying catches her arm. He grips it hard enough to bruise.
"Stay here," he says. He's careful to keep his face blank, his voice low. "I'll go."
He makes eye contact with her, just long enough to say what needs to be said: If you hear sounds of fighting, run. Run and don't look back.
Then Wei Ying turns and walks from the camp at a measured pace.
If Second Uncle hasn't miscounted—if there really are a dozen soldiers—Wei Ying doesn't like his chances. But he can probably manage somehow.
Wei Ying knows plenty of tricks, even the sort that respectable sorcerers aren't supposed to know. Tricks no man of honor would ever use against imperial troops. Wen Qing always tells him to never use them, since they risk harm to Wei Ying himself.
But this is Wei Ying's mess, and he'll clean it up. The cost doesn't matter. All he needs to do is buy enough time for the others to flee. Wen Qing has the supplies, the donkeys, the money. She has her considerable skill as a physician, and her own quiet ruthlessness. If Wei Ying goes to parlay with the scouts and doesn't come back, she can take it from here.
The soldiers stationed at outposts usually aren't the best and brightest anyway. If they're just following up on some third-hand rumors, Wei Ying might be able to charm them into leaving: Why, no! There are no Wen refugees here, sir! Just a few humble radish farmers, trying to make an honest living. I don't suppose you'd be interested in purchasing some yourselves? They're awfully nutritious!
But when Wei Ying reaches the crest of the hill, the blood drains out of his face. These aren't random scouts or even imperial troops. It's his brother, glaring fiercely at his surroundings, flanked by Jiang soldiers.
One has the temerity to wave at Wei Ying, as though he's pleased to see him after his long absence from Lotus Pier. Wei Ying doesn't wave back, and he prays that his brother didn't see anything.
Jiang Cheng swings himself out of the saddle and marches up to meet Wei Ying.
Wei Ying keeps very still, and tries not to make any sudden movements.
He's got Suiban and a sleeveful of talismans, but they won't do much good. He knows these Jiang soldiers. He helped train some of them. They're not fools, and they won't be easy to defeat.
Wei Ying feels sick at the thought of drawing his sword against any of them, but what can he do? If he has to choose between the Wens and his brother, what is he supposed to do?
Jiang Cheng reaches the crest of the hill, and stops a short distance from Wei Ying. The soldiers watch attentively, but none of them draw their swords or rush to help their sect leader. Wei Ying doesn't know what to make of that.
"You," Jiang Cheng tells him, "are the stupidest person I've ever heard of."
Wei Ying stares. His brother's face screws up with anger.
"What the fuck was that supposed to be?" he demands. "It was stupid, even for you. And that's saying something. And you! Wen Qing!"
Wei Ying turns, horrified, to see Wen Qing jogging up the hill behind him. She doesn't seem surprised to see Jiang Cheng. Perhaps Second Uncle described the soldiers' clothing and crests, and she did the math.
Jiang Cheng glares at her. But he doesn't draw his sword on her either.
"You just let him go off and do something like that?" he hisses. "I thought you had more sense!"
"Sect Leader Jiang." Wen Qing bows formally. Her voice is perfectly even. "You may have noticed that it's impossible to change your brother's mind when he's set on doing something."
Wei Ying gives her a furious, impotent glare: I thought we had an understanding, I thought you were going to run while I held them off.
But she only stares back, impassive. Jiang Cheng watches their nonverbal conversation with an annoyed expression.
"Well." He folds his arms. "What now? What was your brilliant plan for what happens next?"
It's the same tone he always uses when Wei Ying has gotten himself into trouble. But it seems wildly out of place here.
Wei Ying isn't in trouble for playing a prank on their instructor. He hasn't spoiled the washing and turned everyone's under-robes pink. Wei Ying has committed an offense against the emperor himself. Wei Ying is probably going to be hanged. His brother shouldn't sound exasperated, as if this is merely an embarrassing and inconvenient social blunder.
"We're leaving," Wei Ying says dully.
"You're leaving. Going where?"
Wei Ying doesn't know how to answer that question. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.
"What, you don't want to tell me? It's a secret?"
"It might be best if you don't know," Wei Ying says, with some effort.
How did you even know where we were? his mind screams. How could you possibly get here this quickly?
Jiejie, he realizes. His heart sinks.
Of course, Jiejie must have told Jiang Cheng where she sent the money. Maybe she told him months ago, but Jiang Cheng never did anything with that knowledge. Maybe Jiang Cheng thought he could overlook his brother's offenses, until Wei Ying waltzed into the palace and assaulted the prince.
"The first snows are in less than two months." Jiang Cheng's jaw tightens. "You're just planning to wander the countryside in the middle of winter?"
Wei Ying doesn't have anything to say to that, either. It's not a good plan, and he knows it. But he doesn't understand why they're talking about this. Why is Jiang Cheng even asking about their plans? Why hasn't he drawn his sword and summoned his soldiers? Why hasn't he ordered Wei Ying to surrender and return to the capital to face justice?
The silence lengthens. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes.
"You know that Second Prince is looking for you, right?" he asks.
Wei Ying's throat tightens.
Is he okay? Wei Ying wants to ask. I didn't hurt him, right? Wen Qing swore the blinding powders would wear off after a while. He got his eyesight back, didn't he? He didn't fall off the roof after I left?
Wei Ying swallows hard. He doesn't think Jiang Cheng would be willing to answer those questions. Any show of concern from Wei Ying must seem outrageous.
"That's why we need to leave." Wei Ying tries to keep his voice calm. "It's why you shouldn't know anything about this. You should…head home. Back to Lotus Pier."
It's a thin hope, and probably a vain one: Maybe Jiang Cheng will leave us alone. Maybe he won't kill me or take me into custody. Maybe he still cares enough about me that he'll let me go.
"No." Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "I don't think so."
Wei Ying's stomach drops, but he's not surprised. He waits for Jiang Cheng to reach for his weapon.
"I want to hear the rest of this," Jiang Cheng says, his voice growing hot. "You ran off with the Wens, abandoned your sect. Turned your back on your family. For what?"
Wei Ying's mouth drops open.
He told Jiejie already, of course. He wrote her a letter after everything happened. After the Wens settled their camp, he told her where he was and why he'd done it.
It didn't make any difference. Jiejie might be the sister of Sect Leader Jiang, the future wife of Sect Leader Jin. But she couldn't do anything about the injustice done to the Wens. Wei Ying knew that. The letter couldn't change anything.
But Wei Ying thought it might help explain his own actions. He didn't want Jiejie to feel abandoned. He hoped, too, that she'd tell Jiang Cheng why he did it. That she'd help Jiang Cheng understand.
"They're not…" Wei Ying's mouth works helplessly.
Jiang Cheng just stares, angry and expectant.
"They're not traitors." Wei Ying's breath hitches. "These people. Do you understand that?"
The words spill out, everything he's been keeping inside for months. He's so angry about it, every day. But he tries not to be, because what good will anger do? Anger won't put food on the table or help the crops grow. Anger won't make the emperor change his mind or rescind the execution order.
He's tried not to be angry. But with Jiang Cheng standing there, looking resentful, Wei Ying can't help but feel a sudden surge of fury. He gestures to the camp behind him.
"They're old, or they're little kids. None of them except Wen Qing and Wen Ning have ever held a sword, or used magic. And Wen Qing and her brother aren't any good with swords or magic anyway!"
It's probably not the most tactful phrasing. But Wen Qing doesn't object. She's always the first to say that she's a healer, not a soldier. Wen Ning is good with a bow but hopeless with a sword, and his magic isn't very strong either.
No matter what the rumors say, neither of them could take on a team of imperial soldiers. The rest of the Wens, even less so.
"They're not to blame for what Wen Ruohan did," Wei Ying finishes. "They didn't fight in his armies, and they didn't have the power to oppose him."
Wen Qing still blames herself, which makes Wei Ying furious. She says she should've done more to stop him, or at least gotten her family to safety somehow. But what could she do? Wen Ruohan was her uncle, and he raised her. She felt like she had to be loyal to him, and he used threats against Wen Ning to keep her in line.
Wei Ying is in no position to judge her for that.
If Uncle Jiang had ordered him to commit atrocities, threatened to hurt Jiejie or Jiang Cheng if he didn't...
Wei Ying knows in his heart that he would've done some things he wasn't proud of. He has no right to judge Wen Qing.
"Fine!" Jiang Cheng explodes. "If that's true, then fine. But this was your solution? Leaving everything, to live here?"
Wei Ying stares at his brother.
"We're not exactly rich with options," he whispers.
"Richer than you think!"
Jiang Cheng looks like he wants to punch Wei Ying. But he doesn't. Instead, he paces furiously around the clearing.
"Do you even know what Jiejie has been doing?" He demands, after a few moments of angry stomping. "Do you know how hard she's been working , trying to draw up a petition to have you pardoned? To have all these people pardoned?"
Jiang Cheng shakes his head.
"She should be planning her wedding, but every time I visit her, that's all she wants to work on!"
Wei Ying's heart surges up in his chest.
"She doesn't need to do that," he gasps. "She should just…live happily in Koi Tower."
It's all he wanted for her. He hoped she wasn't doing anything stupid, like trying to intercede on his behalf. He trusted that she was too sensible for that, too smart to risk her reputation and her safety by interceding on his behalf. He's sick to think that he was wrong, and now Jiejie has been dragged into this mess.
"You think she wants her brother hunted down like an animal, hanged as a traitor?" Jiang Cheng demands, his voice low. "You think she'll be happy then?
Wei Ying is silent.
He doesn't think she'd be happy, exactly. But he hoped she could forget, once she's married. Once she has a husband, the babies she always wanted. He hoped she'd only grieve for a little while when she heard of Wei Ying's death.
"Do you understand that Second Prince is looking for you?" Jiang Cheng enunciates every word, like he's talking to a particularly stupid child.
"Yes." Wei Ying struggles for breath. "You said that. Did you…"
He doesn't know how to finish that question.
Did you speak to him? Does he hate me? Of course, he does. But how much? Does he understand that I wasn't actually trying to humiliate him or hurt him? Does he realize this mess has nothing to do with him? Do you think knowing that would make a difference?
"Sect Leader Jiang." Wen Qing's curt voice makes Wei Ying startle. "Am I to understand that this idiot has personally offended a member of the imperial family?"
Jiang Cheng stares incredulously, like he's shocked she doesn't know. Wei Ying feels himself flush. He was hoping Wen Qing would never know about this, how stupid Wei Ying has been over Second Prince.
After a moment, Jiang Cheng turns back to Wei Ying.
"He wants to marry you," he says.
Wei Ying draws in a breath so sharp that he chokes on it.
"What." Wen Qing's voice is very flat.
Jiang Cheng nods grimly, and resumes pacing.
"Yes. That's what he said. I have it on very good authority." He halts in front of Wei Ying, and gives him another glare. "He was going to ask you to marry him the last night of the ball."
Wei Ying can't seem to breathe, and he's grateful when Wen Qing steps in.
"He was going to ask Mo Xuanyu, you mean." She speaks slowly, as if she's putting the pieces together.
"I guess you could put it that way." Jiang Cheng pauses and adjusts his cloak. "That was a shitty thing to do, by the way. What, you thought he'd never figure out the truth?"
Jiang Cheng doesn't seem to want to look at Wei Ying for this conversation, which is entirely fair. Wei Ying doesn't want to look at himself either. He wants the earth to open up and swallow him.
He didn't think Second Prince would ever know the truth. But it didn't seem to matter. Second Prince was supposed to ignore Wei Ying, and forget him as soon as the ball was over. He wasn't supposed to like Wei Ying. He was not supposed to pick Wei Ying.
"Or, what? You just didn't care what would happen after you…" Jiang Cheng screws up his face like he's eating something distasteful. "Seduced him?"
Wei Ying chokes again, this time on empty air.
"Jiang Cheng! I didn't…"
He most certainly did not seduce anybody. But Wen Qing stares like she thinks something terribly untoward happened during the ball. Wei Ying nearly trips over himself in the rush to explain.
"I didn't seduce anybody! We talked, that's all."
Wen Qing lifts an eyebrow. Jiang Cheng snorts.
"Well," he says. "You must be one hell of a conversationalist, then."
Wei Ying presses his hands to his face.
He's always been good at talking his way into—then back out of—trouble. Jiejie says he's charming, and Jiang Cheng says he doesn't know how anyone can spout as much bullshit as Wei Ying.
But Wei Ying isn't that good at conversation. He isn't good enough to persuade a prince to marry him! Not unless the rest of Second Prince's suitors were a lot more awful than Wei Ying realized.
What's wrong with Luo Qingyang? he wonders miserably. She's pretty and strong! Why couldn't Second Prince have picked her, and saved himself a lot of embarrassment?
"He wants to marry you," JIang Cheng says again.
Wei Ying give a grim nod. Because yes, he understands: Second Prince was planning to pick him.
But Jiang Cheng glares like Wei Ying doesn't understand at all. He lunges forward shakes the front of Wei Ying's robes.
"He wants to marry you," Jiang Cheng says emphatically. "Even now!"
Wei Ying can't muster up the strength to pull himself from Jiang Cheng's grasp, so he settles for blinking. Wen Qing makes a sound of astonishment, or maybe confusion.
"He told his family so." Jiang Cheng lets go of Wei Ying's robes. Then he frowns and straightens them out.
"Wei Wuxian is not eligible for the selection," Wen Qing protests.
Jiang Cheng sighs.
"Second Prince said they promised he could pick his own spouse, as long as he chose one of the sons or daughters of the gentry. Someone who was invited to the ball."
"I wasn't invited," Wei Ying says feebly.
It's all he can think to say. His brain feels like it's leaking out of his ears. Jiang Cheng scowls at him.
"He said that you should've been. Because you're the son of Cangse Sanren, the ward of Jiang Fengmian, the First Disciple of Lotus Pier."
Wei Ying gapes.
"He said you count," Jiang Cheng insists, "and he said you should've been on the guest-list anyway. So he's made up his mind. He won't marry anybody else."
"Sect Leader," Wen Qing ventures.
"Stop calling me that." Jiang Cheng frowns at her, and she sighs.
"Jiang Wanyin." She pauses. "This seems…very implausible. Did you hear the prince say this yourself?"
He rolls his eyes.
"Of course not. But we know someone in the palace. Someone trustworthy, someone close to the imperial family. Their account is truthful."
Wen Qing digests this for a moment. Then she turns to Wei Ying. Her face is stunned.
"What in the world did you talk about?" she demands.
Jiang Cheng looks as though he'd like to know the answer as well. But Wei Ying has no answers to give them. He scrubs his hands over his face again.
"We played the shell cup game," he says feebly. "He gave me the rule-book and bullied me into memorizing some of them. He gave A-Yuan the kite after I told him it was A-Yuan's birthday soon."
Laid out like that, it sounds extremely pathetic. It's not grounds for a proposal, that's for sure. There must be a mistake somewhere. Jiang Cheng must have misunderstood something.
"All while you were robbing his guests blind," Jiang Cheng mutters.
Wei Ying can't help but bristle at that.
"They can afford to spare a couple hairpins," he points out.
Jiang Cheng merely rolls his eyes again.
Wei Ying wants to tease him, prod him, debate the issue. They've been brothers for almost fifteen years, and old habits die hard. He's used to pestering Jiang Cheng whenever they disagree about something. The palace guests can afford to spare some money for struggling peasants, and Jiang Cheng knows it.
But they can't waste time bantering about this. Wei Ying takes a deep breath instead.
"Jiang Cheng," he says. "We really need to leave."
They do, they really do. But Jiang Cheng only shakes his head.
"No?" Wei Ying falters.
"No. I'm dragging you back to the palace myself, if I have to."
Wei Ying isn't surprised, exactly. But he hopes Jiang Cheng will let the Wens go. Even if he insists on carting Wei Ying off to face a sham of a trial and a swift execution, maybe he'll agree to spare the Wens?
Wen Qing tries to object. She grips Wei Ying's arm like she wants to shove him behind her. Like she wants to step between Wei Ying and his brother. But Jiang Cheng talks over her protests.
"Jiejie says she's fixed it up." He folds his arms. "So you'll get a fair hearing. We know somebody who knows the emperor. He just wants his younger brother happy, that's what they say."
The word don't sink in for Wei Ying. He's too busy imagining the gruesome death that awaits after his "fair hearing". But Wen Qing catches on.
"His brother?" she echoes.
Jiang Cheng pauses.
"You probably didn't hear about that yet." He sounds almost sheepish. Jiang Cheng clears his throat and stares into the distance. "The old emperor is dead. First Prince took the throne two days ago."
Wei Ying sucks in a deep breath.
It's not like the news is unexpected. The gossip he overheard in the capital made it clear the emperor has been ailing for a while. But everybody said he was hanging on, waiting for his sons to marry. Wei Ying feels sick.
Second Prince went through this mess—the mess Wei Ying dragged onto his doorstep—and then his father died. The day after the ball, even. Second Prince had to deal with a public scandal and his father's death, all in the same week.
Wei Ying knows what it's like to lose a parent. He's suffered that loss twice now. First as a child, when his mother and father died. Then again during the war, when Uncle and Madam Yu were killed. It seems profoundly, unfathomably unfair that Second Prince has lost his own father now.
"How am I supposed to make him happy?" Wei Ying asks, once Jiang Cheng's words sink in.
First Prince—the emperor now—wants his brother happy. Of course he does. But what on earth is Wei Ying meant to do about that? Wei Ying can't even make his own brother happy, much less the emperor's!
"That's not my problem," Jiang Cheng says briskly.
"Excuse me for pointing this out," Wen Qing breaks in. Her voice is crisp. "But the emperor's future husband attempted to execute everyone in my family."
"I told you, Jiejie's been working on that!" Jiang Cheng steps back and surveys both of them with annoyance. Like they're being difficult on purpose. "The peacock has been working on that. I understand that the emperor himself has been working on that! They want to know the full story, that's all."
He pauses and glances toward the camp.
"If it's true, if nobody in there has any combat training. If none of them were involved in Wen Ruohan's crimes..."
Jiang Cheng falls silent.
"I'm not just asking you to gamble with your lives," he continues quietly. "I trust my sister. She says it's safe for you to come back and tell your story in person."
Wei Ying shuts his eyes. He's prepared to trust Jiejie with everything, including his life. It's just hard to think of the Wens in danger, at risk of dying if this all goes terrible wrong.
Jiang Cheng's eyebrows draw together.
"Don't think my sister and I would just stand there quietly while this idiot is executed."
This seems to be directed toward Wen Qing. But he looks to Wei Ying as he said it, and Wei Ying's eyes threaten to fill with tears.
Wen Qing thinks for a moment.
"Wei Wuxian and I will return to the capital," she decides. "The others will remain here, under the guard of your men."
She inclines her head in the direction of the Jiang soldiers, and Jiang Cheng nods.
"No," Wei Ying chokes out.
It's fine if the others stay here. Wei Ying can see which men Jiang Cheng brought with him. He knows those soldiers, and they would never harm someone like A-Yuan or Granny. The Wens will be safe with them.
But Wen Qing wants to come with him, and she is Wen Ruohan's niece.
Wei Ying has—impossible as it seems—a brother and sister still willing to speak in his defense. Jiang Cheng is the leader of one of the main sects; Jiejie will soon be married to the leader of another. Their words carry weight. At the very least, the emperor will have to make a pretense of listening to them.
But there's nobody to speak in Wen Qing's defense. The emperor certainly doesn't have to listen to her petition. He could have her beheaded on the spot, and nobody would dare utter a word in protest.
"I represent my family," Wen Qing says. She doesn't look in his direction, no matter how hard Wei Ying tries to catch her eye. "I will speak on their behalf."
She draws her hand away from his grasp.
"You evidently have plenty of explaining to do on your own behalf. I'm not going to burden you with our problems any longer."
Wei Ying opens his mouth, but Jiang Cheng butts in.
"He does have a lot of explaining to do." Jiang Cheng scoffs. "He has to look Second Prince in the eye, and tell him…"
"Fuck," Jiang Cheng mutters. "I don't even know what you're going to tell him. Did you just think it was funny to make him fall in love with you? To make a fool out of him, then run away?"
"No!" The word explodes from Wei Ying's mouth without conscious thought. "Jiang Cheng! Do you think I would do something like that?"
Jiang Cheng's words ricochet around his brain: Did you think it was funny to make him fall in love with you?
Wei Ying hasn't done that. It's absolutely impossible. Somebody has definitely given Jiang Cheng false information. There has been a grave misunderstanding somewhere. But it hurts that Jiang Cheng believes Wei Ying would toy with somebody like that. That he'd deliberately manipulate someone, humiliate them, break their heart.
He stares his brother down, and Jiang Cheng begins to look uncomfortable.
"You were always flirting with girls in the marketplace," he mumbles.
"Girls in the marketplace!" Wei Ying shrieks, nonsensically. "Not princes!"
He flirted with people living near Lotus Pier, yes. It was fun, and nobody ever took him seriously. The girls would flirt to persuade him to buy something from their stalls. Wei Ying would tease them back and spend a few coins, and then they'd turn their attention to the next customer.
Wei Ying certainly never won their undying devotion. He never fielded any marriage proposals. He never even earned a kiss from a merchant's son or daughter!
"Enough!" Jiang Cheng waves a hand. "Go look him in the eye, and tell him what you thought you were doing. Beg his forgiveness."
"Make him agree to marry somebody else," Jiang Cheng adds. "His Majesty would probably agree to waive all the other charges, just for that. Second Prince said he won't marry anyone but you, and our contact in the palace says his family is worried he means it."
"Sect Leader. Jiang Wanyin." Wen Qing amends, when he gives her a reproving look. "Please come with us while we finish packing. You can meet the others, and then we'll leave for the capital."
Wei Ying is dragged back to camp, gasping for breath and trying to make sense of what has just happened.
The next hour is awful. The Wens go pale once they understand who has just arrived at their camp. Granny's face is blank and rigid, and she shields A-Jing with her own body once she sees the soldiers.
Wei Ying tries to explain that it's not like that. He knows these soldiers, and they would never touch a twelve-year-old girl. Jiang Cheng would kill his men on the spot if they even considered it. But it's plain that the Wens are expecting the worst.
Wen Ning is distraught once he realizes that his sister and Wei Ying are leaving. In the end, Wen Qing takes him aside for a quite whisper-argument.
A-Yuan alone is unbothered by the situation. He attaches himself to Jiang Cheng's leg and smiles broadly up at their visitor. Jiang Cheng is plainly horrified by his new barnacle, and Wei Ying almost laughs.
It's clear that recent events have made A-Yuan quite the spoiled young master. After receiving candy and toys from the capital, he takes it for granted that the appearance of 'Xian-gege's brother' is merely another surprise, arranged solely for A-Yuan's benefit.
He's crushed when he understands that Wei Ying will be leaving again. But Wei Ying summons Li Jun from among the Jiang soldiers. He knows Li Jun well. They trained together every day for almost ten years, and Li Jun has seven younger siblings of his own. He always looked after the new disciples when they were scared or homesick.
Li Jun, Wei Ying tells A-Yuan seriously, is very good at flying kites. He can help A-Yuan practice while Wei Ying is away. Li Jun is quick to nod along, as Wei Ying puts A-Yuan's small hand into his.
"I'll teach you everything I know," he vows, pumping A-Yuan's hand. "You'll learn quickly! We'll impress Master Wei when we see him next!"
Wei Ying tries to smile as they say their hasty farewells. He knows he's not fooling anyone but A-Yuan, but is salves his pride.
Two of the soldiers' horses are turned over to Wei Ying and Wen Qing. But they won't need to ride far. There's a portal a day's ride from their camp, Jiang Cheng explains. Some sorcerer, generations ago, used Traveler's Boon to set up a network of portals throughout the kingdom. Each one leads back to the capital.
It's supposed to be a state secret, Jiang Cheng says. The portals are only used by trusted operatives, during times of great crisis.
Wei Ying supposes he should feel honored. He is no ordinary thief, it seems! He has caused a great crisis, one worthy of using the portals!
"You knew about them, right?" Jiang Cheng gives Wei Ying a shrewd glance as they lead their horses out of camp. "You found a way to use them somehow. You must have done. How else could you have gotten this far away from the capital in three days?"
"Nope." Wei Ying shrugs. "This is news to me."
He tries to leave it there. But Jiang Cheng directs his horse alongside Wei Ying's, so he can punch Wei Ying in the arm. He punches hard, and Wei Ying yelps.
"He used Traveler's Boon," Wen Qing confirms.
Wei Ying swings around to glare at her and she gazes back tranquilly.
"He didn't use the imperial portals, though. He created a new one that led between our camp and the capital."
Jiang Cheng makes a shocked, disbelieving sound.
"No, you didn't!" he says.
Wei Ying knows he shouldn't bother to argue the point. But his pride aches at the thought of his accomplishment being overlooked.
"Did too," he mutters.
Wen Qing helpfully tells his brother how he created the portal and then collapsed for two days. She adds some embarrassing details about Wei Ying tripping over his own feet and drooling on the ground, which don't seem necessary to the narrative. But the details serve their purpose: Jiang Cheng is convinced that Wei Ying managed to pull of Traveler's Boon. He spends the next three hours in a state of shock.
As a result, they don't talk much. They ride for a while. They stop to drink water and let the horses rest. Then they ride some more, until they find a good place to make camp.
The campsite is crude, but Wei Ying has gotten used to sleeping in the dirt. Anyway, the saddlebags are packed with food. By the time he spreads out his blanket by the fire, his belly is full.
If this is his last night alive, things could be worse. He's eaten, anyway. He got to say goodbye to the Wens. Jiang Cheng is at his side. He keeps glaring at Wei Ying, but Wei Ying is used to that. Having his brother nearby is an unasked-for blessing, and Wei Ying refuses to complain. But he still has questions.
"How'd you know where to find us?" he whispers.
Wen Qing spread her own blanket on the other side of the fire. She's lying with her back to them, and Wei Ying is fairly sure she's still awake. But if she wants to pretend she's not listening in, he'll play along.
"How do you think?" Jiang Cheng stretches out on his back, staring up at the night sky. "Jiejie told me. Dumbass."
"I thought..." Wei Ying trails off and chews on his lip.
He senses Jiang Cheng looking his way, and takes a deep breath.
"She hasn't sent any money in a while. I thought she gave up on me."
Jiang Cheng punches him in the arm, harder than ever.
"Ow!" Wei Ying gasps, "Jiang Cheng!"
"Shut up!" Jiang Cheng hisses. He aims a vicious kick at Wei Ying's ankle. "You have no idea how much trouble she's put herself through, trying to straighten this mess out for you."
Wei Ying stays quiet. After a moment, his brother heaves a sigh.
"'Gave up on you', my ass," he mutters.
Wei Ying throat closes up with emotion, but he manages a whisper.
"She's okay, right?"
Jiejie must be fine. If she was in danger, Jiang Cheng wouldn't be here. He wouldn't have come looking for Wei Ying, not when this mess is Wei Ying's fault. He'd protect Jiejie first. Wouldn't he?
Jiang Cheng sighs.
"She's okay. The wedding's next month."
Wei Ying makes a face. He can't help it. But it's okay, because Jiang Cheng makes one too.
"The peacock's treating her right," he says grudgingly. "And his mom always liked Jiejie. They're taking care of her."
It's one less thing for Wei Ying to worry about, and he tries to draw comfort from it. If Jiejie and Jiang Cheng are okay—if he can somehow make it so the Wens are safe too—then he'll have nothing else to wish for.
"How'd you even know it was me?" he asks.
He knows how Jiang Cheng found him. He knows how Jiang Cheng made the trip so quickly. But he's not sure how Jiang Cheng knew to go searching for Wei Ying in the first place.
Jiang Cheng make a contemptuous noise.
"No one else in the whole kingdom is that stupid," he declares. "Of course it was you."
Wei Ying pouts at him, and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes.
"I saw you fighting," he admits, after a pause. "On the roof. I knew it was you right away."
It's Wei Ying's turn to sigh.
"I was afraid of that. That's why I tried to stay out of your way at the ball."
He fiddles with the worn edge of the blanket, and hopes Jiang Cheng can hear what he isn't saying: I didn't avoid you because I didn't want to see you. I wanted to talk to you so much, you have no idea. But I didn't want to put you in a difficult position.
Jiang Cheng gets a funny look on his face, though. It's the expression he wears when he thinks he's being shoved aside, overlooked. Wei Ying feels a sharp spike of panic.
"I was really trying not to cause trouble!" he whispers furiously. "Trouble for you. I didn't really mind causing trouble for the imperial family, but I wasn't trying to cause this much trouble!"
Jiang Cheng eyes him beadily. But his shoulders relax.
"Well, you caused trouble," he says. "As usual. You better fix it."
Wei Ying can't talk about that. He doesn't know how to begin fixing this. He's just holding out hope that he can somehow get the Wens out of danger. If he can manage that, then the emperor can do what he likes with Wei Ying.
But Wei Ying doesn't enjoy thinking about that: what the emperor will do to him. He decides to change the subject.
"Did you have a nice time at the ball?" he sing-songs.
Jiang Cheng slants a suspicious look in his direction.
"Bunch of pretentious assholes standing around, talking about how great they are." He shifts, settling deeper onto his blanket. "Of course I didn't have a nice time."
"Oh? That's disappointing."
Wei Ying gazes innocently up at the starry sky. He counts off the seconds in his mind—one, two, three—to give Jiang Cheng some time to stew on that.
"Hey, you aren't betrothed to anybody yet, right?" he asks. "You'd tell me if you were, wouldn't you?"
Jiang Cheng gives a small squawk. Then he glances toward Wen Qing to make sure she hasn't turned around.
"I'm not betrothed," he hisses, crowding closer to Wei Ying. "What the fuck."
"It's just..." Wei Ying lets out a long sigh, glancing at his brother from the corner of his eyes. "I heard that maybe you have an admirer."
Jiang Cheng's whole body tenses up.
"Did you put Huaisang up to that?" he asks. His voice is low and controlled.
"I didn't!" Wei Ying cries. He rolls over on his side and tugs on Jiang Cheng's sleeve. "He told me..."
He told Wei Ying a lot of things, actually. Wei Ying feels dizzy and stupid whenever he thinks of them. Apparently, Nie Huaisang knew who he was the whole time. Wei Ying doesn't want to dwell on that, though. Nor does he want to spoil the surprise, if Nie Huaisang has yet to begin his courtship.
"Well, he told me something that made me think somebody was courting you." He tugs his brother's sleeve some more. "So I wanted to find out all the details!"
"Nobody's courting me," Jiang Cheng says.
He sounds almost sulky about that fact. Wei Ying grins.
"Somebody's going to be," he whispers slyly. "I know that for a fact."
Jiang Cheng makes the face he always makes when he's interested in what Wei Ying is saying, but wants to pretend he doesn't care. Wei Ying watches as he wrestles with his pride for a few seconds before he gives in.
"Jiang Cheng! I'm not going to tell you!" He pokes his brother's shoulder. "They have a whole plan ready. They picked out their first courting gift and everything. It's something handmade."
Jiang Cheng goes red at that. Wei Ying can see it, even in the dark. He rolls onto his back with a grin.
"Do you think I'm going to spoil their efforts? You'll just have to wait and see!"
"Is it someone awful?" Jiang Cheng whispers, after a tense pause. "If it's someone awful, you have to tell me. Give me fair warning."
"It's not someone awful," he promises. "You like them already."
"I do not!" Jiang Cheng sounds almost affronted.
Wei Ying groans aloud. If Jiang Cheng is going to be like this—fussing over the slightest hint that he could possibly like somebody—Wei Ying suspects that the courtship will be an uphill battle. He hopes Nie Huaisang has the stomach for it.
But Nie Huaisang has known Jiang Cheng for years. He must know what he's getting himself into.
"You don't hate them, anyway," Wei Ying says. "I gave them my blessing. I won't take it back, either!"
He rolls over and lets Jiang Cheng think on that. He's not sure whether Jiang Cheng will put the pieces together. After all, who could Wei Ying have possibly spoken to recently, to give his blessing?
But after a moment, Jiang Cheng figures it out. He makes a loud choking sound, and Wei Ying has to muffle his laughter in the blankets.
Jiang Cheng pokes his back furiously, evidently trying to persuade him to turn around so they can discuss this further. But Wei Ying only gives a loud theatrical snore.
"I know you're not asleep, you asshole!" Jiang Cheng hisses.
Wei Ying almost ruins his snore with a laugh. He manages to keep it together, and keeps snoring until Jiang Cheng settles down and they both fall asleep.
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."
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."
"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."
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 I...talk 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.
Wei Ying doesn't know how to finish that thought. Then what?
He apologizes. He explains. Second Prince glowers and fumes.
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.
AND THEN THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER, GOSH DARN IT.
As soon as the mourning period for the late emperor was over, Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue married. Shortly thereafter, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji married, too. They adopted A-Yuan, along with several other children.
The Wens flourished in the capital, and Wen Qing became the most respected physician in the kingdom. With the help of the imperial library, she found a cure for Wen Ning's illness and he was restored to health. They lived together with their family, and were never separated.
Wei Ying didn't forget about the role Mo Xuanyu inadvertently played in securing his happy ending. He rescued Mo Xuanyu from his terrible relatives, and brought him to live with the Wens. Wen Qing took him on as her apprentice, and Wei Ying played fairy godmother so Mo Xuanyu could find his own soulmate.
As for Jin Guangyao, well. He can be a bit of a divisive character. So his fate is open-ended.
Maybe he reformed, repented, and enjoyed a happily-ever-after. Maybe Nie Mingjue chased after him and booted him right off a cliff. Maybe he absconded from the kingdom and lived out the remainder of his days as a humble yak-herder. Who can say?
No matter what became of him, Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue enjoyed a happy marriage. Nie Huaisang and Jiang Cheng did too, though it took a very long time for Jiang Cheng to drop the tsuntsun act and participate in a proper courtship!
Lil Apple remained in the palace stables for the rest of his days. His temperament did not improve. But he enjoyed the best food, grew fat, and lived as happily as a donkey can.