It was not turning out to be one of Ran Sui’s better days.
Initially, Ran Sui had been quite relieved to be assigned to guard the newly-christened Wen indoctrination centre. It was far from the active theatres of combat. If the work was nigh-meaningless, ‘dull’ was at least preferable to ‘dangerous’. Wen Chao had not been an exacting master, but his laxity regarding structure and discipline came at a cost. His temper was as unregulated as his men, and the young master was prone to blaming every crisis that arose from his personal disorganisation on anyone near at hand. Despite the success of the Yunmeng operation, Wen Chao’s always-erratic conduct had only grown worse after he’d established the Supervisory Office. Though Wen Chao had played but a minor role in both the combat and the planning involved, the glory of ousting one of the major sects had fallen at his feet and gone directly to his head. Ran Sui thought himself well out of it.
Today’s vigil had devolved into a session of harmless drunken crowing about the Yunmeng campaign. What was there to do in this almost-empty prison camp in waiting but drink and talk up one’s achievements?
Then a pack of comically unexpected white-robed Lans had unceremoniously interrupted, and made short work of Ran Sui’s inebriated guard party. (Ran Sui supposed Lans must have little sympathy for drunkards even when they weren’t affiliated with forces that had recently invaded and pillaged their Sect’s half-sacred grounds.)
The young man at the head of the attackers was none other than the famed Hanguang-Jun—Ran Sui belatedly recognized him by his freshly-retrieved sword. The young master was asking about the uppity Jiang disciple Wen Chao had hurled into the Burial Mounds. Ran Sui wished only that he had better information to bargain with—a hostage would have been more useful to him than a corpse, and the corpse in question could not possibly have died in a decent manner that might comfort his friends.
Knowing a little of Hanguang-Jun’s reputation, Ran Sui threw himself on the ground before the man and bowed right to the earth.
“Even I have heard of your great righteousness,” Ran Sui said. “I was not at Cloud Recesses when it fell. I have done you no harm, sir! Please, Hanguang-Jun, let me live. Show me mercy, young master!”
He made to grab the winter-white hem of the man’s robes to kiss it. The great sword Bichen slammed down, its point ringing against the granite dias; Ran Sui nearly lost fingertips in the attempt.
The man above him was silent for a long moment. Then – “No harm,” he repeated.
On the ground Ran Sui shook, his elbows knocking against the stone. He looked up at his captor, seeing in those repeated words some cause for hope.
“Because of my great respect for mercy,” Hanguang-Jun said, “I will be even more merciful to you than you were to my own betrothed.”
With a sick, sinking feeling, Ran Sui looked up and up, at last meeting the coldest, blackest eyes he’d ever seen.
“Is that not generous?” Hanguang-Jun asked, his voice soft, still and terrible.
In an instant Bichen rose before Ran Sui, blinding him with its refracted sunlight. It swung through the air and plunged through Ran Sui’s stomach. Hanguang-Jun made a precise twist with his wrist that had Ran Sui silently screaming, then pulled Bichen out again, as easily as a man might slide a spoon out of thick congee.
The gut wound was undoubtedly lethal, but it would take hours to fully become so. Ran Sui now knew better than to ask to at least be finished off cleanly. If he said another word, Hanguang-Jun might very well decide that he too should meet his end in the Burial Mounds, to give his betrothed’s ghost some company.
Hanguang-Jun turned to the man who’d just arrived beside him. Laying his head on the cool rock, Ran Sui watched their dark purple and white silk robes recede.
Though he supposed this was often, by nature, the way these things went, Ran Sui might have wished for his last day alive to have been a better one.
Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji exchanged terse assessments of the rumours they’d just heard from Wen soldiers.
Then, because he couldn’t quite keep it in, Jiang Wanyin repeated, “Betrothed?”
Lan Wangji’s expression didn’t shift, but Jiang Wanyin saw his hand tighten on Bichen’s comforting, familiar hilt. The slight inclination of his head was, for Lan Wangji, an emphatic confirmation.
“He didn’t even say anything to me,” Jiang Wanyin groused.
Why hadn’t he? When did Wei Wuxian ever shut up? Weren’t they brothers? Hadn’t they shared a thousand words at the expense of Yanli’s prospective husband? Hadn’t they mocked cold, rigid Lan Wangji himself in the same breath?
“We did not—formalise the matter,” Lan Wangji said, not looking at Jiang Wanyin. “It would have been inappropriate to begin wedding negotiations in a time of war and mourning. When so much is uncertain.”
He paused for a moment, as if to give their still-fresh grief its due.
Jiang Wanyin winced at the world’s most delicate reference to the half-burnt Cloud Recesses and his own blood-soaked home, Yunmeng Jiang’s ransacked treasuries. Every formal, necessary thing associated with an engagement seemed so ridiculously impossible in these conditions. Wei Wuxian was his brother, and deserved a proper announcement, a true wedding, a costly celebration that reflected his value: all the components of a real, full life. At present, in the face of this signal ceremony, Wanyin could have provided his brother only with bare acknowledgement.
Lan Wangji cast a glance at Jiang Wanyin, and the expression started Wanyin—it was a shade uncertain. It made immaculate Lan Wangji look more human than Jiang Wanyin usually saw him as.
“I have not yet been able to speak with Xichen, either.”
Lan Wangji evidently didn’t want to offend his betrothed’s family before his engagement could even properly begin. And Jiang Wanyin supposed that, as close as the two jades were, Lan Wangji must feel some guilt at not having found a good opportunity to explain the situation to his miraculously safe and recovered, yet still far-away and preoccupied brother.
“But there is an agreement?” Jiang Wanyin stressed.
If there was, then that was the matter settled. Even as devastated as the Jiang Sect was, Jiang Wanyin wasn’t going to tell his own brother that he couldn’t marry. Jiang Wanyin suspected that if Wei Wuxian were pressed Yunmeng Jiang would win out, even if that were at a horrible cost. But he wasn’t going to force Wei Wuxian to choose him, wasn’t prepared to gloat over his brother’s miserable, half-hearted loyalty. All he’d ask was a delay: a long engagement, that Jiang might keep its Chief Disciple (when they finally found the little bastard and put an end to this conflict) while they re-established themselves—perhaps a mutual aid agreement with the Gusu Lan, that the two great clans most damaged by the war might use their varied resources to concertedly help one another rebuild. That was probably a good notion regardless.
It certainly put their mutual quest to find Jiang Wanyin’s brother in a clearer light. Not to mention Wei Wuxian’s months of obsessional pestering. The whole thing was shocking, yet somehow simultaneously unsurprising.
Jiang Wanyin and his siblings had starkly matured after the fall of Lotus Pier; they’d finished all their growing up in a single night in the forest, wet with pounding rain and copious bitter tears. Thus Jiang Wanyin reflected rather matter-of-factly that Wei Wuxian would, like most people, probably one day marry. He’d somehow expected Wei Wuxian to stay his second forever, but even Chief Disciple Wei Changze before him had parted from Jiang Fengmian. If his own father had let Changze go with abiding affection and good grace, didn’t he owe Wei Wuxian that? He was old enough to marry, now—and who in their whole lives had his brother shown a serious, lasting interest in, other than his precious ‘Lan Zhan’? Wei Wuxian seemed at times to reflect the dour young man’s gravity back at him; Lan Wangji could call a startling earnestness out of his brother—just as if it had always been there, waiting to be drawn, like water pulled up from a well.
“While we awaited your rescue in the cavern of the Xuanwu, we acknowledged one another as soulmates.” Lan Wangji’s always-soft voice, with that Gusu-sugar accent Wei Wuxian cooed over and Jiang Wanyin had always found mildly irritating, became softer still. “We joined minds, to defeat it.”
Lan Wangji’s tone implied that the perilous intimacy of this connection—of two-way Empathy, performed on the living—was exclusively the province of cultivation partners. It was one of the Lan Sect spells they didn’t teach outsiders—Jiang Wanyin knew those were serious affairs, either dangerously powerful if misused or closely connected with the private and domestic affairs of the Clan.
When Jiang Fengmian had asked his heir to recall their moral duty to aid those who needed it, even when doing the right thing seemed impossible, Jiang Wanyin had felt somewhat ashamed of having criticised Wei Wuxian for making himself conspicuous before the Wen by helping Lan Wangji. He felt that shame again, now. If such a serious discussion had happened in the cave, then it could only have been some time coming. Both Wei Wuxian’s morality and his filial piety had thus been tested, because he owed his deep loyalty and service to both his home sect and family and to the sect and family he would soon marry into. Asking him to choose to support one of them, at the expense of the other, had been more unfair than Jiang Wanyin had realised at the time, and more unfair than Wei Wuxian had been able to rightly tell him.
Jiang Wanyin huffed out a breath, flexing Zidian on his hand. “All right. I won’t make things difficult when we find him.”
Wei Wuxian could have done a good deal worse. An alliance with the second young master of Lan was an outright asset, especially coming at a time when Jiang needed all the sure friends it could get.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said, with evident sincerity and an irritatingly graceful bow. (Trust him to make a battlefield look like a deportment class.)
Jiang Wanyin knew that as much as anything, Lan Wangji was thanking him for his stubborn belief that his brother was still alive. Jiang Wanyin snorted.
“You think these assholes could kill Wei Wuxian, human cockroach? Please. Not even my mother could take him out, and not for lack of trying. He’s probably in hiding in plain sight as the star attraction in a storyteller’s parlour somewhere, wearing a fake beard and making up outrageous tales of Wen Ruohan’s sexual prowess while he collects information on troop movements.”
Lan Wangji gave him a startled look. “Should we check?”
Jiang Wanyin snorted. “Nie Huaisang would find out accidentally while shirking work and come and tell us the prime gossip.” He exhaled, shaking his head, and treated the matter more seriously. “If Wei Wuxian died, I swear I’d know. Shijie would know.” He cast his brother’s apparent ‘soulmate’ a grudging look. “Maybe you’d know, too.”
Lan Wangji stared out over the bleak prospect of Qishan below them, his hands clasped behind his back. He accepted the offered comfort. “I truly believe I would.”
“Right. So there we are.”
“I must apologize for usurping Wei Ying’s right to tell you this himself,” Lan Wangji said. “You should not have learned of it as you did.”
Jiang Wanyin reflected on having learned that his brother was going to marry via Wei Wuxian’s fiancé bitchily insulting a man he was stabbing to death because that man claimed to have thrown Wei Wuxian into a trench of demons. Would Jin Zixuan have done that for Jiang Yanli? He thought not! He clapped his brother-in-law-apparent on the shoulder.
“Honestly Lan Wangji, I wouldn’t have wanted to find out you two were becoming cultivation partners any other way.”
Lan Wangji looked at the arm on his shoulder and bit his lip rather than tell his would-be-xiaoshuzi to remove the offending object. Jiang Wanyin snorted with laughter, shaking his head.
“I’ve never liked you better. Top tier ‘welcome to the family’ stuff. Makes Jin Zixuan look all the more inadequate.”
The Lan-Jiang contingent made its way back to the Unclean Realm bearing the scant glory of an easy victory, the priceless spiritual weapons of the principal cultivators of the rising generation, and still more precious collected whispers.
Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian had spent hours of their young lives discussing what sort of wedding they’d give their well-loved sister. Both had been aware that no ceremony (no matter how outlandish their ideas for it were) could adequately reflect how important she was to them—what a blessing Jiang Yanli was in the world. Their plans ranged from ridiculous (celebrating the feast on a tied-together flotilla of boats at the height of the lotus bloom) to highly practical (at least not held at gaudy Koi Tower, if they could possibly prevent it—Madam Yu could have managed that, if she’d lived to see the day). But the brothers had never talked about one another's futures in that way. Yanli had always been at once beloved in her own right and the conduit through which they could express affection for one another. It was easier for Jiang Wanyin to see and admit that, now that his brother might well be dead.
Don’t, Jiang Wanyin told himself for the thousandth time. Don’t even let yourself imagine that. It isn’t true—and if it is, if you’ve lost him too, you can only deal with that when you know for certain. But that doesn’t matter. Because it isn’t true.
Even before the death of his parents, the most important people in Jiang Wanyin’s life had always been his siblings. Wei Wuxian choosing to give someone else equal or even greater priority struck Jiang Wanyin as unfair to the point of cruelty. But it was far easier to stomach the prospect of giving Wei Wuxian away to Lan Wangji than to countenance giving him up to this war. Jiang Wanyin found himself almost bargaining with the world for that future. Let it be Lan Wangji, who was certain and steady, who would provide a home for Wei Wuxian equal to Jiang and keep him there, where one could always call and find him. Better safe in Gusu than missing, nowhere; better far away than gone.
Across the banked fire, in a darkness only illuminated by moonlight and the cross-hatched, split-magma glow of flames dying under their own ashes, Jiang Wanyin could see that Lan Wangji was still awake. His weirdly perfect face was fixedly neutral, but his eyes were narrowly open. This must be what ‘worry’ looked like if you’d never bothered to learn expressions.
“When Cloud Recesses can spare you, would you agree to spend a few of the early seasons of your marriage at Lotus Pier?” Jiang Wanyin asked, keeping his voice low. He didn’t want to wake the whole host. “I need Wei Wuxian to train the disciples we’ve had to bring in from client sects up to our standards. He knows Jiang sword forms no one still with us does. No one’s the archer he is. It could take a year. The other options are to delay the marriage, or to ask you two to live apart while still newlyweds.”
Jiang Wanyin refused to preface any of this with ‘if my brother is alive’.
“I,” Lan Wanji said, then swallowed, then continued, “would prefer the first option. If Wei Ying is amenable, then I am.”
“Our Sect library wasn’t devastated, but without living memory to rely on we’ll need to consult it more than we ever have before,” Jiang Wanyin observed. “It’s not set up for that.”
“I could spend my time in Yunmeng overseeing its reorganisation,” Lan Wangji almost whispered. “And helping Wei Ying. I am proficient in those arts.”
Jiang Wanyin snorted at one of the best cultivators living trying to casually sell himself as a remedial teaching assistant for Wanyin’s idiot brother (who was probably also one of the best cultivators living, but Jiang Wanyin sometimes found that hard to remember given that he could also recall Wei Wuxian’s abiding passion for awful puns). Lan Wangji politely ignored the uncouth noise.
A small fantasy of a good life after the war stretched tentatively between the young men. There would be a choice of homes and places of safety—a feast to follow famine. There would be honorable, bloodless work to do. Opportunities to mend instead of destroy. Wei Ying would be there, capable and bright. Jiang Wanyin needed to voice these plans as though they were quite possible and indeed settled. He was deeply uncomfortable with needing Lan Wangji of all people to help him sustain a conceit so vulnerable and so close to him, and yet it felt natural to offer his brother’s intended the kind of rough, practical consolation Wei Wuxian had so often drawn Jiang Wanyin into. After bruising fights with Jiang Wanyin’s mother, Wei Wuxian would begin with ‘one day you’ll be sect leader, and then we’ll handle things as we like.’ In the Wen Indoctrination Camp, it had been ‘after this, when we go home—’. Even when Jiang Wanyin had lost that home, his parents and then his golden core, one after another, Wei Wuxian had offered up plans to restore Jiang Wanyin’s cultivation, to get Yanli to safety, to find some future for them beyond the awful present.
“It has to be him, because he’s good with kids,” Jiang Wanyin offered. “They fucking love him, obviously, because he basically is one, and he eats that up, as you’d expect. But he’s really, really good at teaching them, too.” There hadn’t been a little shidi in Lotus Pier who hadn’t adored the senior disciple—all of them gone, now.
Lan Wangji made a small noise of acknowledgement. Jiang Wanyin couldn’t hear pleasure in it, couldn’t see interest in that reserved face, but he had a strong suspicion Wei Wuxian would have been able to find both. This was all true, but it was also just the sort of shit someone dumb enough to fall for Wei Wuxian would find charming.
“We’ll ask him what he wants, but I think his parents married out of the Pier, in the family style. People from town were there, they’ll remember how it was done. Some of that should come into it.” Jiang Wanyin exhaled, just thinking aloud now. “Their wedding robes are in a trunk under his bed—the Wen won’t have taken them, they’re buried under sketches. He doesn’t have much else of theirs—his bow’s one of his father’s, but that’s about it.”
Jiang Wanyin looked up at the stars, thinking for a moment of the fortunetellers who would pull auspicious dates down from them.
“What does Lan do for weddings, anyway?”
Lan Wangji was, for Lan Wangji, positively overflowing with information on this subject. Jiang Wanyin didn’t catch him shoehorning in even one chengyu (because Lan Wangji was, in his well-bred way, as annoyingly committed to wordplay as Wei Wuxian)—in fact he neglected to use elegant four-character sentences altogether. This was a man who’d clearly given serious thought to marrying Jiang Wanyin’s brother, and had decided opinions on the subject. Jiang Wanyin could respect that.
Jiang Wanyin knew Lan Wangji just well enough now to bark “What?” when it looked like there was something the other man wasn’t telling him.
They stood in the upper hall of a decimated supervisory office—one of the few spaces clear of corpses in the whole complex. Lan Wangji cradled one of the bizarre reversed talismans, scrawled in blood as well as cinnabar, with strange delicacy.
“This is more than unusual,” Lan Wangji said, rubbing a thumb over the perverted sigils. “It will change cultivation, forever.”
Jiang Wanyin sneered.
“How can you talk like you’re at a cultivation conference at a time like this?” he snapped, irritated that Lan Wangji was more concerned with scholarship than the still-unresolved fate of his own fucking betrothed.
Although, now that Lan Wangji had pushed Jiang Wanyin to shove his pressing concerns aside to think about it—had asked him to still the loud, constant shriek of his worry, for a moment—Jiang Wanyin supposed he was right.
If an able cultivator could flip existing sigils on their backs with a drop of blood and an ill wish, then people’s houses weren’t safe. Gods, they might have to redo every vulnerable carved, drawn, and sewn sigil in the world to guard against this. How difficult was this reversal to execute? How much stronger than the installing cultivator did you have to be, to make this work? How quickly did you have to get out of the way of what you’d called? Questions spread like ripples in water. Curse-casting had just—shifted. Like that. The whole field.
Lan Wangji watched him get it, and Jiang Wanyin flushed with embarrassed annoyance. All right, so he hadn’t seen what was being held in front of his face the way Lan-fucking-Wangji had in a moment. Well, he was here now.
“What’s your point?” he snapped.
Lan Wangji’s eyes flashed with irritation. Jiang Wanyin fumed. What else wasn’t he seeing?
“Who is so brilliant, and has such cause for rage?” Lan Wangji clenched the talisman in his right hand. It was a small gesture, but for stoic Lan Wangji, the effect was almost frantic. “Jiang Wanyin. You and I know this blood.”
Jiang Wanyin blinked his eyes wide. His mouth parted, and hope fluttered in his chest. “You can’t be sure,” he said, automatically.
“No,” Lan Wangji admitted. “But who else?”
Some stranger. Some entirely unknown cultivator, wronged by the Wen and out for vengeance. Because surely whatever trouble Wei Wuxian had gotten himself into, he would have sought them out as soon as he was able? Unless something was very wrong, and he couldn’t.
“That means he’s alive,” Jiang Wanyin said, huffing out a breath. “We can’t be certain, but we should be celebrating. It’s the best news we’ve had in months. This,” he flicked a hand out towards the carnage in the yard (and thought for a brief, horrible instant that the gesture had been his mother’s, and lived now only in him), “is the best lead we’ve had in months. So why,” he said, accusingly, “aren’t you happier about it?”
Lan Wangji’s jaw set, and he drew the hand holding the bloody talisman behind his back, as though he were hiding it from the world. Protecting it even from Jiang Wanyin—keeping it from being seen, in its degraded condition.
“The evident use of resentful energy and the viciousness alike disturb me.”
Gob-smacked, Jiang Wanyin looked at him, his hand drifting to Zidian without his full awareness of the fact.
“So because my brother is desperate, you’re disgusted?” he challenged. “This wasn’t done prettily enough for you? Not chivalrous enough for young Master Lan?”
Jiang Wanyin could tell by the very slight tilt of Lan Wangji’s eyebrows that he wasn’t taking chastisement well, but Wanyin was too worked up with anxiety and anger to stop and hear him out. Baoshan Sanren’s restoration of his core seemed to have unlocked blocked paths within it—qi flooded through Jiang Wanyin now in time with his emotions, at a volume that was difficult to control. Zidian crackled in response to his anger, without Jiang Wanyin even having bidden it to stir.
“You gutted a man a week ago for his sake, but when Wei Wuxian’s ‘evidently’ backed into a corner, you discover you wanted a sweet little bride after all, and he’s gotten too grizzled for the part. If you won’t stand with him when he’s wretched, what use is Lan to Jiang? Get out of my sight. Hell, head back to the Unclean Realm. You don’t deserve him.”
Lan Wangji took a step towards an unbudging Jiang Wanyin, violence in his eyes.
“Don’t dare presume I would ever abandon Wei Ying. He is harnessing forces no mortal can control. I am bewildered, and I am terrified for him. As you should be.”
Jiang Wanyin took a step back, and a deep breath. “Whatever’s gone wrong, he needs us. The mission’s still the same.”
Lan Wangji slowly nodded, some degree of tension leaving his body.
“It’s my job to tell you to fuck off, if you’re not serious about him and can’t handle him. If you can’t cope with things getting hard,” Jiang Wanyin said, a little sour in his defensiveness. “Yanli can’t do that. He doesn’t have anyone else left.”
“Incorrect,” Lan Wangji snapped. “He has me.”
Jiang Wanyin surprised himself with an abrupt laugh. “All right, I get it, no need to piss on his leg.”
“Whatever it takes,” Lan Wangji said, so smoothly and snottily that Jiang Wanyin thought he suddenly understood how the cold, ideal gentleman before him and his brother actually worked—the exchange of rapid thought, the traded vulnerability. Solid structure and fluid chaos and deep investment, bleeding across the barriers between two people, so that each was more a gradient in a whole than something distinct and sharply defined. Like how water met earth in a delta, stretching fingers of land crumbling, giving, sliding into a lake bed, and thence to water. Jiang Wanyin had been thinking of this union as somehow something less than Yanli’s proposed marriage to Jin Zixuan—as a friendship or martial brotherhood, formalised. He wondered whether he’d had that the wrong way around.
One of the still-unfamiliar new Jiang disciples, promoted up from a regional cadet sect after the decimation of Jiang proper, came to tell his sect leader they’d found a prisoner in the dungeon, miraculously unharmed.
Lan Wangji pushed forward, making for the steps before even Jiang Wanyin.
“They may have information.”
It was a good point, but it fled Jiang Wanyin’s mind when he found himself facing, of all people, Wen Qing.
He immediately instructed his men to let go of her—the doctor looked the worse for wear, and far thinner than she’d been when he’d last seen her. Still proud in her beauty, but heartbreakingly worn. Jiang Wanyin thought fleetingly of his own sister and how desperately strong she was trying to be now, despite looking as thin and washed out as one of their missing brother’s paper men. Jiang Wanyin hardly knew what to say to Wen Qing now, and was as relieved as he was surprised when Lan Wangji spoke first.
“How did you come to be imprisoned here, and to escape the slaughter above unharmed?” Lan Wangji asked, his tone flat.
“I sheltered Wen Chao’s enemies, and a servant told him as much. You can see how well he took it,” Wen Qing said dully.
“His enemies?” Lan Wangji asked.
Wen Qing gave Jiang Wanyin a pointed look.
“Lady Wen and her brother harboured us,” Jiang Wanyin admitted. Oppressed with grief and anger as he’d been, he’d never offered her a word of thanks for that. And she’d evidently been jailed for aiding them—for just the sort of stupid, reckless nonsense Wei Wuxian would have pulled in her position. Had pulled, for Lan Wangji, when he’d been vulnerable.
Jiang Wanyin tried to swallow his lingering fury, but it was still too vast in him to speak around. He knew, absolutely, that Wen Qing had not been the one to destroy his home. But every time he opened his mouth to so much as admit that obvious truth, he saw his mother’s slack face pressed against the floor, with her sharp tongue lolling in a still mouth, and the leaden words choked him.
“Was Wei Wuxian held captive here as well?” Lan Wangji asked. Jiang Wanyin hadn’t thought of that, but if Wen Chao had captured them both then it was likely, wasn’t it?
“What? No. He isn’t with you?” Wen Qing asked Jiang Wanyin, her voice sharp. Jiang Wanyin felt as though her tone implied he’d let this happen to his brother. Shame heated his face.
“My betrothed did not meet Jiang Wanyin at the appointed place, and has not been seen for three months.” Lan Wangji confirmed, because Jiang Wanyin apparently had nothing to say for himself.
Jiang Wanyin wanted to roll his eyes at that heavy-handed clarification. Having made the affair public knowledge at all, Lan Wangji seemed determined that the entire cultivation world should know Wei Wuxian was spoken for.
“Have you heard anything?” Wen Qing asked, looking directly at Jiang Wanyin, who struggled to meet her eyes.
“They say he was thrown into the Burial Mounds,” Jiang Wanyin muttered. Despite today’s lead, the place was a death sentence. If it was true—if Wei Wuxian had survived that—how the hell had he done it?
Wen Qing looked severely disturbed by Wei Wuxian’s disappearance, blanching hard at the mention of the Mounds, but shook her head.
“My own brother was transferred away weeks ago. I don’t know where to. I’m sorry for your troubles, but I must find him.” Her voice was somewhat fragile.
“Then track Wen Chao with us and ask him yourself,” Lan Wangji proposed. “Afterwards, we can offer you aid and protection in exchange for your services as a healer. We are,” and he swallowed (and Jiang Wanyin recalled that Lan had more of a healing tradition than any other clan, and that they’d lost hundreds of disciples when driven from their home) “short-handed, at present.”
Wen Qing bowed to him. “I am truly sorry for it.”
He nodded an acknowledgement.
“You both saw for yourselves what the Qishan Wen have done to my village. My people hurt no one. After we hunt Wen Chao, my brother and I must return home, to stand with them in case their clan name is more important to your alliance than their innocence.”
Lan Wangji frowned minutely at her. “Apply your efforts more directly, Lady Wen. We must petition my brother and the Red-Blade Master on behalf of the Dafan Wen.”
Jiang Wanyin wondered whether he believed that either sect leader would help or whether he simply wanted to question Wen Qing further about an attack that might very well have been Wei Wuxian’s, which had left her alone alive. If she thought Lan might help her people, she might prove more communicative. Jiang Wanyin wasn’t sure the Jin representatives inclined to mercy as strongly as the famously benign Lan Xichen. But Lan Wangji wore an expression of conviction—as if Lan Wangji truly expected the alliance to allow the least willingly involved branch of the Wen to go free, simply because he thought it right. Perhaps now, when the fog of war rendered everything about them shifting and malleable, Lan Wangji hoped to use Wen Qing’s demonstrated support for the Jiangs and her medical aid to the subsequent alliance to make it true. Perhaps Lan Wangji simply trusted Lan Xichen this implicitly.
“You think Nie Mingjue will listen?” Jiang Wanyin found himself saying in a caustic tone. He wanted to offer Wen Qing personal protection, but he slammed up against a near certainty that, understandable as her request was, as a new and floundering sect leader he could not protect Jiang and the Dafan Wen.
“If the senior voices of our councils are not honourable, why bother opposing Wen Ruohan at all?” Lan Wangji asked him. “I will speak, and they will hear me.”
“Can you do this?” Jiang Wanyin asked him. “With Lan in the state it is now, at Wen hands—can you oppose such a strong tide of opinion?”
“Wei Ying and I promised one another to defend the weak, oppose cruelty and live without regret. If he is gone, that vow is all I am left with. I will not fail him.” The hard look he turned on Jiang Wanyin challenged him to live up to the strictures of an oath he’d never taken. But then Jiang Wanyin supposed one shouldn’t have to promise decency. His father had tried to tell him that.
Jiang Wanyin huffed and looked away, but gave a short nod. If he had Lan Wangji’s support, then it became possible to help someone he’d wanted to help from the start.
Lan Wangji turned to Wen Qing. “You preserved the life of my intended and his family. I owe you a great debt, which I ask you to allow me to repay.”
Jiang Wanyin still couldn’t find the words to give the thanks buried in him beneath his anger, but he bowed to the young woman he’d admired for more than a year now, and inched closer to the place where he could speak them.
“We’ll try and find Wen Qionglin,” he said—attempting, like Lan Wangji, to will better things into being by the sheer force of his righteous certainty. It felt the same as when Lan Wangji had insisted he think about what the altered talismans meant, overriding his screaming paranoia about Jiang, that ponderous legacy he was suddenly the chief custodian of, and worry about his brother. He could look more than a moment ahead of him. He could protect Jiang and his family, and yet be decent and of use to Wen Qing, who he respected and owed much to, in her worst hour. And if he could do it, then he must.
Wen Qing didn’t thank him either, but she nodded. She accepted food and water, and then her own sword, and that of her brother—both had apparently been forgotten in Wen Chao’s retreat from the massacre. Wen Qing was too weak at present to fly on her own, and so with a doctor’s professional unconcern for touch she leaned against Jiang Wanyin, letting him wrap a steadying arm around her waist as his sword rose into the cool night air.
Holding someone was itself reassuring. Human touch just—felt good. It surprised Jiang Wanyin, after bleak months of harried running from disaster, that anything could feel so simply comforting and good again. If he cherished the first time he held Wen Qing for more personal reasons, then that was his own business.
For very little money, villagers were wonderfully willing to tell the cultivators all they knew about Wen Chao’s movements. As their small host crossed the border into Yunmeng and people began to recognise the much-wronged young master of Jiang, they became positively eager to help.
“We should catch up to them inside a day,” Jiang Wanyin told Lan Wangji. “Two, at the outside, if they’re running hard.”
He’d just come from promising an informant to remember the aid this village had given Jiang, and to compensate them for it appropriately in better times. Jiang Wanyin could only carry so much Nie gold, and his own treasury was currently inaccessible. He was grateful for the trust Yunmeng showed in its cultivators, even when Jiang was at its weakest—if annoyed at having to trade on it.
Lan Wangji nodded, and strode away from the door of the inn they’d been given complimentary lodging in.
“Where are you off to?” Jiang Wanyin called after him.
Lan Wangji hesitated, tilting his head back over his shoulder towards Jiang Wanyin.
“If Wei Ying is also hunting Wen Chao, then he too is close. There is a song only he and I know. If I play it somewhere the sound will carry, he may hear it.”
With a nod, Jiang Wanyin let him go. It seemed unlikely to work, but Lan Wangji clearly preferred to have something to do, even when the party finally took long-delayed, much-needed rest. It then occurred to Jiang Wanyin that a song only the two of them had ever heard could only exist if one of them had composed it for the other. Lan Wangji had not sounded at all unsure of playing it correctly. Jiang Wanyin’s entire face scrunched up in second-hand embarrassment. He had not wanted to know humiliating courtship gossip about Lan Wangji.
In the inn, he found a freshly washed Wen Qing sitting before the hearth brazier, finger-combing her hair. With embarrassed gallantry, he took the lady’s comb he’d carried for her for months from his robes and awkwardly laid it on the table next to her. She looked at it, and then up at him.
“You can just keep that,” he said, making for the stairs (already wincing at his bungled delivery).
“Thank you,” she told his back. Jiang Wanyin paused on the stairs and nodded. It wasn’t the thanks they actually ought to have exchanged with one another, but it would serve for the moment.
The next day, seeming unembarrassed, Wen Qing wore the comb in her hair and spoke to him as easily as if they were still at school together. Jiang Wanyin knew that harder reckonings had been deferred rather than circumnavigated. One day, Wen Qing would be justified in asking him to prove his worth to her as a friend and comrade. But for now, with both their brothers to look for, they could help one another and keep company. It would do.
It seemed Wen Chao was running hard—for his fucking life, judging by the pace he was setting.
The following night they had to do without beds and camp in the woods. Lan Wangji had argued for continuing on without sleep as they were so close, but then he’d also pressed the company to make an exhaustingly long march during the day. The disciples needed at least some hours of rest. Just because Lan Wangji was still on his feet didn’t mean anyone normal was.
Besides, Wen Chao might well have met up with Wen troops at any time since he’d last been spotted alone with Wen Zhuliu. It would have been deeply irresponsible of Lan Wangji to rush forward alone, knowing that he might walk straight into an enemy battalion. He was well aware of the fact, and was thus sulking at the fireside. Frustrated, anxious energy seemed to invisibly roil off of him. At least Jiang Wanyin thought he was frowning a little, which probably translated to ‘impotent rage’ in a Normal Person.
Wen Qing had described the attack on the supervisory office where they’d found her in detail. She’d heard the screams from upstairs, and a black tendril of magic had swept through the basement. It had licked at the bars of her cage and drifted off immediately, leaving her unscathed. It had taken her guards, but not her. It hadn’t killed those guards directly, either—it had seemed to invade their minds and forced them to end their own lives. That tallied with what Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji had seen throughout the rest of the compound. Wen Qing believed that either the energy was under the precise, directed control of the summoner or that the force sought out and worked with guilt, and had left her alone because of her lack of involvement in the war’s atrocities. Jiang Wanyin was prepared to be highly reassured by this account, but Lan Wangji had seemed only slightly mollified.
Now Wen Qing was stabbing the fire as strategically and viciously as if it were Wen Chao. The disciples, less powerful cultivators than the three of them, had passed out en masse, save for those who held watch shifts at the edge of the clearing.
“If Wen Chao has ghost soldiers with him now, could you hold them back them with your pipe the way you did the possessed puppets at Dafan?” Jiang Wanyin asked her.
She shook her head. “That’s a derivation of medical qi control, not manipulating resentful energy at all. I can’t hold back ghosts, let alone control them. I can only appeal to the living people inside puppets, and it helped that the people from my village didn’t want to be controlled or hurt anyone.”
Lan Wangji had already made terse interjections in the conversation about the binding charm his betrothed, Wei Ying, had made en route to Dafan, which had involved a proximity-detection system that they might have been able to use to track him now, if he’d only had a copy on him (Lan Wangji had tried this; evidently Wei Ying did not); Wei Ying’s resentful energy theory; and some cursed blade Wei Ying had found when they’d defeated the Xuanwu of Slaughter. Now he once again opened his mouth.
“Oh, are you engaged?” Wen Qing asked, innocent. “I had no idea!”
Lan Wangji blinked at her, confused.
“Is he?” Jiang Wanyin asked her, mock-stunned. “But who to?”
Lan Wangji shut his mouth tightly and glared at the both of them.
“It’s been like this all year,” Jiang Wanyin confided to Wen Qing. “Only the other way around, so a lot louder. ”
Wen Qing made a commiserating sound. (Lan Wangji fumed in silence.)
“No, Wen Qing, you have no idea how bad it was,” Jiang Wanyin stressed. He tilted his head towards Lan Wangji. “Have you every heard about his Gusu accent? His ears? His fucking penmanship? Because I have. On multiple occasions.”
“Without that binding talisman, I do have an idea as to how we can trace Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said, sounding grave.
Lan Wangji suddenly looked invested in the conversation again.
“All we have to do is listen very carefully, and keep ourselves absolutely still. Then, we should be able to follow his distinctive mating call. ‘Lan Zhaaaaaaaan’—”
“This situation is too serious for your childish jokes!” Lan Wangji hissed as he rose to his feet, sweeping away from them and off towards the trees.
When he was out of hearing range, Jiang Wanyin exhaled.
“Overall, he’s holding out all right.”
Wen Qing, illuminated by the firelight and looking especially beautiful, despite being so thin now that Jiang Wanyin gave her some of his rations on instinct, leveled a dubious look at Jiang Wanyin. “Is he? I didn’t know he had it in him to get this on-edge. He was shaking with fatigue before we made camp, and still arguing we should press on.”
Jiang Wanyin winced. “I didn’t catch that.” Wen Qing was always observant, in a way that made Jiang Wanyin a little nervous for himself.
Wen Qing shrugged. “You’re not a doctor.”
“I’ve been walking as much as he has,” Jiang Wanyin thought about it, “but he’s been pulling more guard shifts at night.”
“He’s managing,” Wen Qing agreed, with some hesitation, “but he can’t go on like this. The stress has him ready to drop.”
“It’s not like I can try to find my brother any faster,” Jiang Wanyin snapped.
Wen Qing gave him a look that reminded Jiang Wanyin of her objective here. “Believe me, I know.”
Jiang Wanyin winced, having momentarily forgotten that.
Lan Wangji glided back to them, white, elegant and brisk as an irate swan.
“I’ve realised that your remarks are not intended as mockery,” he announced, somewhat grandly.
“Gosh,” said Wen Qing. “Have you?” (Her tone was so pitch-perfect, Jiang Cheng choked into his water flask.)
Lan Wangji seemed to bite the inside of his cheek. “In a misplaced gesture of kindness, you are attempting to ‘raise my spirits’, but—”
Jiang Wanyin swallowed his water and held up his hand, “Hanguang-Jun, please, don’t slander us like that.”
“Consider our reputations, Lan-er-gongzi,” Wen Qing said. “If anyone were to hear your wild talk and believe that Jiang Wanyin and I were going soft—Oh, where are you going, Hanguang-Jun?”
Jiang Cheng nobly came to her aid. “I think he responds better to Lan Zhaaaaaaaan—”
“Good night,” the light-dousing lord said very insincerely, banking the fire behind him with a wave of his hand and positively stomping off towards his bedroll, which he pointedly dragged to the Lan-disciple end of the camp.
As they stumbled around trying to set their bed rolls out in the darkness, Jiang Wanyin whispered, “You know he wrote my brother a song?”
“No!” Wen Qing hissed back, delightfully appalled, with almost Nie Huaisang levels of relish.
“I prefer Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian said in the blood-splattered courier station with a particularly nasty smile, which was almost a joke at the expense of his customary grin. He slipped around Lan Wangji’s insistent request that the two of them return to Gusu as though the proposition were wholly unlooked-for and ridiculous.
Lan Wangji stepped towards Wei Wuxian, his whole body straining towards him, as though he wanted to shake Wei Wuxian until that expression of fixed, vicious sweetness slid off his face.
Jiang Wanyin pressed Sandu’s pommel into Lan Wangji’s chest to hold the advancing cultivator at bay. Wen Qing clutched Wei Wuxian, not letting go when he instinctively flinched away from her touch.
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said with absolute firmness, digging her fingers into his forearm to ground him, “calm down.
“And stop taunting your zhiji,” Jiang Wanyin snapped, “Wen Qing says he’s on his last fucking nerve as it is.”
A tense moment passed, in which all four of them took a moment to breathe.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin said, “we can discuss his methods later, can we not?”
“Whenever you like,” Wei Wuxian said with that same deliberately off-putting politeness, tilting his body towards his brother—playing Jiang Wanyin off against Lan Wangji to shut Lan Wangji out of the conversation. “Though my methods are the concern of the Jiang sect alone.”
“You think Wen Chao only hurt your family?” Wen Qing asked, raising an eyebrow.
Wei Wuxian’s harried expression stilled for a moment, and something like guilt flitted across it.
“Where’s Wen Ning?”
“That’s what I’m going to ask my cousin before he dies,” Wen Qing said, crossing the room. Her needles glinted between her fingers.
Jiang Wanyin assumed Wei Wuxian was over-correcting to show his loyalty; to assure his brother they were still on the same side. As abrasively irritating as he could (and did) make himself, Wei Wuxian was always pulling shit like that—trying to soothe bruised feelings and keep everyone happy, at all costs.
“You don’t need to protect Jiang’s prerogatives from your own fiancé,” Jiang Wanyin said, trying to help his brother out.
Wei Wuxian froze entirely. The resentful energy humming around him dropped down to a quieter pitch, like music suddenly shifting to a lower key.
“It’s fine. Lan Wangji told me everything. Well, I found out while he was stabbing a guard who claimed he’d thrown you into the fucking Burial Mounds.” Jiang Wanyin paused for a moment to consider this. “That was particularly impressive. Good choice.” He clapped his brother on the shoulder.
“...right,” Wei Wuxian said, looking at tight-lipped, glowering Lan Wangji as though the wind had unexpectedly been knocked out of him. “My—betrothed? Right. Of course.”
The dark, dramatic aura around Wei Wuxian petered off entirely, like a symphony subsiding abruptly into the shrill dying note of a penny-whistle. Wei Wuxian held his weird new flute in front of him like he was trying to use it to delimit his personal space. Without that haze of power and anger rolling off him, it was easier for Jiang Wanyin to see that he looked like complete shit, actually. He was rail thin and jittery, with dark circles that made him resemble a tanuki. Probably only besotted Lan Wangji could manage to find him attractive right now.
“The point is, you two have the rest of your lives to fight about cultivation methods,” Jiang Wanyin said. And now that he had done, Jiang Wanyin found it pretty difficult to imagine a Wei Wuxian-Lan Wangji union that didn’t feature that as a principal element.
“You can start after we’ve all slept,” Wen Qing said, rising from the juddering, foetal-curled Wen Chao. “He says my brother’s in a supervisory office in outer Lanling Jin territory.”
“An office in Lanling? That’s got to be a Jin cadet sect. They routed a client sect and Jin Guangshan hasn’t dealt with it?”
“Is it surprising?” Lan Wangji asked, still staring fixedly at Wei Wuxian, venomously accurate only in passing. “Jin’s contribution to the war effort largely consists of Zixuan and good wishes.”
Wen Qing snorted.
“Wei Wuxian and I will hit Lotus Pier next with the Jiang disciples. It’s close, the Wen have over-extended their forces and we need the supplies. Wen Qing and the Lan contingent can handle Lanling. We’ll butterfly-message before going in if either looks too reinforced. If all goes well we’ll meet in Qinghe with the others.” Jiang Wanyin looked around him, getting stiff nods of acceptance from his companions.
“Wei Wuxian did what he had to. Even he couldn’t take out a whole supervisory office on his own with conventional methods,” Jiang Wanyin told a bristling Lan Wangji before turning to his brother. “And I’m sure you had good reasons for doing it on your own—for not finding us as soon as you got out of wherever the fuck they were holding you. Actually, I’m sure they were all dumbass Wei Wuxian reasons. But I’m fully prepared to punch you until you tell me what they were.”
“I missed you too,” Wei Wuxian said faintly.
“Are we ready?” Wen Qing asked. She looked to Wei Wuxian, who nodded.
She rounded on her cousin, who was still cowering on the rushes.
“Wen Chao,” Wen Qing said sharply. “You have oppressed others, and you have done evil, and you have relied on the power of your clan to do so with impunity. You were born with every advantage. You have wasted them all, using them only to hurt those less fortunate than yourself. The venerated Wen Mao set forth the punishment for this. Do you know it?”
“I—” Wen Chao stuttered, “I—”
“I, I. You have already thought too much of yourself,” Wen Qing said severely. “Since you have forgotten our Quintessence, perhaps one of your students can remind you?”
“I believe it was beheading,” Wei Wuxian observed, sucking in one of his cheeks and, tapping the side of his nose as if in thought.
“It was,” Wen Qing agreed. “And to be struck from the familial roll—cast out from the clan.”
Some old arrogance, not quite burnt off by pain, glinted in Wen Chao’s roving, hateful eye when he raised it to Wen Qing. Another woman would have stepped back before that look of malice, but Wen Qing was a doctor. She had seen the ravages of madness and death. She knew what a little man Wen Chao was, both powerful and powerless, and she could never be truly afraid of him.
“By what authority?” Wen Chao sneered. “I’m father’s heir now. He’ll find out what you did, he always knows. You’ll see, a-Qing. You’ll see what he does to you.” The familiar name wasn’t said as though they were siblings, but as though she was an ill-treated servant in his house. She had been, for too long now.
“I have already seen what your father does,” Wen Qing said. “My father—his own brother—saw it very clearly. Like you, Uncle has made his own fate. Lan Wangji, please lend me one of your spare guqin strings.”
After a moment’s hesitation, not knowing her purpose, he gave her one. Wen Qing heated it white with her spiritual energy, save for the tips where her hands grasped the thread.
“Hold him,” she said, and Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian did so.
“I am a blood heir of Wen Mao,” she told Wen Chao. “I am the senior disciple of the Dafan Wen. The sentence I pass on you with that authority, which I call on these men, who you have wronged, to witness, is legitimate and binding. Your spirit will not rest with our ancestors. No tablet in our memorials will bear your name, and it will be forgotten. When you are next incarnated, earn a better fate.”
At first Wen Chao sputtered as his cousin garrotted him. By the time she got to the spinal chord, he was only jerking silently. His head, when it rolled off, blinked twice before stilling.
“Don’t mind that,” she said. “It happens.”
Jiang Wanyin fought down the rising gorge in his stomach, but looked on Wen Qing’s skill and righteous conviction with admiration. There was no merit in shying away from the unpleasantness of things that had to be done; in keeping yourself clean and safe from the commission of acts you thought needful and just. Wen Qing made her choices, and she faced each with deliberation and strength.
“You want to apologize to him, don’t you?” Jiang Wanyin asked his brother, tilting his chin towards Lan Wangji’s back as he said it. Lan Wangji was speaking with the Lan disciples about the proposed raid on the Wen’s regional Lanling outpost.
They had little privacy here, and less time. The Wen would soon realise that messages weren’t coming through the courier station and that two Supervisory Offices had gone silent. The faster the alliance could strike, the less warning the primary Yunmeng and Lanling outposts would have to shore up their defences.
“What for?” Wei Wuxian asked, polite and cold. “Have I done anything improper, zongzhu?”
Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. ‘Zongzhu’ in-fucking-deed.
“Just do it, asshole. You haven’t seen your intended in months. We thought you might be dead,” Jiang Wanyin exhaled, feeling suddenly tired enough to collapse now that they’d finally found Wei Wuxian and the adrenaline had drained out of him. “He’s run himself ragged trying to find you. At least don’t part on bad terms. In times like these, we can’t be sure we’ll get the opportunity to patch up misunderstandings.” After all, Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan hadn’t been granted it.
Wei Wuxian gave a strange, ironic laugh at that.
“What?” Jiang Wanyin growled.
Wei Wuxian huffed out a deep breath. “I really, really need to talk to you alone later.”
“Lan Zhan, may I speak to you for a moment?” Wei Wuxian asked. He held Chenqing behind his back rather than brandishing it defensively. His choice of address—more familiar than what he’d used inside the courier station (in fact the only form of Lan Wangji’s name Wei Wuxian actually thought of as ‘correct’, between them)—was a peace offering.
Lan Wangji nodded. He excused himself to his fellows and followed Wei Wuxian to a spot beneath the boughs of a tree, some yards away from the company. It would have been foolish to wander further, in territory that had very recently been held by enemies. Nothing could interrupt an absorbing conversation more definitively than an arrow from an opportunistic straggling sniper.
“Jiang Cheng says I worried you,” Wei Wuxian said after a strange, uncharacteristic silence. “I didn’t exactly choose to, but I’m sorry all the same.”
“I was more worried than I have ever been,” Lan Wangji admitted, as though this was obvious and easy to disclose.
Wei Wuxian’s words caught in his throat, and his eyes widened. He realised he’d made some abortive gesture forward, into the space between them, when Lan Wangji met his hand with his own. He curled his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s, pressing their palms together. Wei Wuxian felt annoyed, amused and oddly heated by how huge Lan Wangji’s hands were, compared to his own. He’d not felt these fine gradients of emotion for months—just raw grief, desperation and rage.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji’s own expression had softened, just from looking at him. “How could it be otherwise?”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, feeling a little light-headed at that (because why should he have expected anything of the kind?), “as you see, I survived.”
“Mm. I am as glad of that as I was terrified.”
The weight of Lan Wangji’s gaze on him was palpable. It forced Wei Wuxian’s head up so that their eyes met, just as surely as fingers under his chin could have done.
“I am worried now, both by what befell you and by what you have done,” Lan Wangji said, his voice soft.
Defensive rage welled in Wei Wuxian—how dare Lan Wangji judge him, when he knew nothing of Wei Wuxian’s situation? But then hadn’t Wei Wuxian gone to a great deal of trouble to prevent his knowing? He’d deliberately pushed away Lan Wangji, the person most likely to assemble a whole and awful truth from slight and subtle clues; the one who knew him, for better and for worse.
“But Lady Wen is correct,” Lan Wangji admitted. “We can speak of that after we have rested.”
His hand squeezed tighter around Wei Wuxian’s. It was both a promise of a conversation to come and an act of affection. What was going on? When had Lan Wangji ever willingly touched him before? Well, unless they were bleeding out in a cave with a truly rank-smelling dead mythical creature.
“About this betrothal—” Wei Wuxian asked, confused and wanting to clear up the colossal misunderstanding with the other party concerned before he said anything to anyone else.
Lan Wangji winced minutely. “I deeply regret that I took your chance to inform your family as you saw fit, when we ourselves had hardly had opportunity to speak of it. I can only assure you that it was an accident.”
Bewildered, wondering how much damage control was necessary here, Wei Wuxian wet his lips. He was taken aback by how intently Lan Wangji watched him do it. Lan Wangji’s own lips parted involuntarily as he looked at him, and Wei Wuxian felt himself grow flustered in turn. Imagine gaining Lan Wangji’s attention so easily, after all his monumental efforts to secure it (a lifetime ago, it felt like, rather than mere months)! It seemed Wei Wuxian’s absence had left Lan Wangji’s opinions and aims sharp and defined. But somehow, even before that, Lan Wangji had managed to conclude that they were engaged.
“Is it just Jiang Cheng who knows?” Wei Wuxian managed to ask.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “I fear he’s told your sister as well. Since matters had advanced so far as that, I thought it right to inform my brother.”
“Yanli and Zewu-jun. Of course,” Wei Wuxian said, feeling almost hysterical.
If Jiang Yanli and Lan Xichen—two of the most social people in the cultivation world—knew, then everyone did. Lan Wangji might as well have sent a special announcement direct to Nie Huaisang, gossip king. Given that they were all apparently living out of the Unclean Realm these days, he essentially had.
He couldn’t do this to Lan Wangji. Not now, not in front of onlookers, not with minutes to spare. It couldn’t keep, but it would have to.
“They had to know eventually,” Lan Wangji said, as if reminding him. And was that really Wei Wuxian’s forgiveness his fractionally downturned lip was asking for? Really?
“And I couldn’t think clearly with you gone,” Lan Wangji admitted.
Wei Wuxian involuntarily sucked in his breath at that. Receiving the full impact of Lan Wangji’s earnest focus was like nothing else. Wei Wuxian sought it like a drug, and when he got it he hardly knew what to do with it, the feeling was so profound and overwhelming. To be that important to Lan Wangji—to be looked for, as he evidently had been, to be missed to distraction—
It had been a long, hard summer, alone in the Burial Mounds. Wei Wuxian had scarcely spoken to anyone in months but himself (half-mad), ghosts (the other kind of mad), and his Wen victims (both kinds, by the time he was done with them). He was aware that none of that quite counted as conversation. Wei Wuxian hardly knew what to do with himself at the moment. He felt hot, heavy tears welling up in his eyes. Because there had been a time, not long ago at all, when he’d been almost certain he’d never see Lan Wangji again.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmured, helpless, aware that he must look and sound a wreck.
Lan Wangji dipped his head towards him, and Wei Wuxian froze as he realised that in another moment, this would be a kiss. All the horrific shit life had thrown at him of late, and this would be—god, he felt like such an infant—his first kiss.
But Lan Wangji seemed to recall that they were still in view of the Lan disciples, and pulled back. He drew his hand away and gave Wei Wuxian a very respectful bow—which Wei Wuxian supposed was probably the protocol for public greetings between Lan sect heirs and and their intendeds.
“Keep safe, Wei Ying.”
“And you, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, meaning it fully.
Lovely, perfect Lan Zhan, who had looked so out of place in the courier station Wei Wuxian had made a killing ground. Who wielded a sword with peerless skill, but had looked so deeply grieved to witness the execution of a man who'd truly deserved it, if anyone in the world ever had.
“Don’t give another drop of your blood or grain of your calm to this stupid war,” Wei Wuxian said fiercely, “because it doesn’t deserve you. You’re too good for it by far. You ought to spend your days in song. That’s what you deserve.”
Lan Wangji gave him an undeniably fond look.
“Then guard my life well, that I might.”
He gave Wei Wuxian’s forehead a brief, chaste kiss—that too was probably the sort of thing Lans were allowed, once engaged. It left little doubt as to who he referred to as ‘his life’.
Fuck, Wei Wuxian thought. Fuck! What the fuck am I going to say in Qinghe, when I have to tell him this has all been a colossal mistake?
Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian made once more for Lotus Pier with a new cohort of Jiang cultivators attending them. It included some survivors who’d been travelling on sect business during the devastating raid, who had greeted Wei Wuxian with special fervor. The journey was slow—riding swords was out of the question. It would give away their position, make them vulnerable to attack by arrows, and it wasn’t sustainable for mixed-ability groups undertaking long journeys over several days. Wei Wuxian was also no longer able to do so under his own power, but as luck would have it, no one needed to know that yet.
Walking, unfortunately, gave Wei Wuxian plenty of time to think. Half a year ago, he could have married Lan Wangji. He would have been shocked to find himself in a position to do so—but more than that, he would have been ecstatic. It wasn’t simply that Lan Wangji—in his person and position—was highly marriageable. Wei Wuxian truly wouldn’t have cared if Lan Wangji were plain and penniless, so long as he was himself: upright and quietly hilarious, sharp and meltingly soft, clever and deeply kind. Reserved, yet forthright. Talented and assured, but sometimes endearingly at a loss. Wei Wuxian could expound on Lan Wangji’s personal virtues for days, and if he were ever to marry anyone, it could only be him. It would have to be him.
But Lan Wangji was perhaps the foremost cultivator of their generation, and Wei Wuxian had known and accepted, in giving up his golden core, that he was also giving up his claim on a place in the same category. It had been all the more bearable and necessary to surrender that place because he’d never truly imagined it possible that Lan Wangji would stoop to him in such a way. Wei Wuxian had known his own feelings in a more distant sense. He’d never even thought, truly, to be sad or angry that he no longer had even a theoretical chance of being with the person he loved—he’d always been too caught up in the wonder of that love, of such a thing as Lan Zhan existing in the world, to be bitter about not being enough to win him.
Wei Wuxian hadn’t chosen the heretical path: it had been an act of survival. It was one now. He knew he would be a liability and a shame, now, to Lan Wangji. He saw clearly that what he had done, and what he would eminently have to do, would blacken that beloved name. He was steeped in energies which Lan Wangji, in his purity, could have no contact with. Wei Wuxian owed it to him to clear up this mistake, as cleanly as possible, to release Lan Wangji from any obligation he might feel, and to—well.
He didn’t really expect to survive this. It was a miracle he’d gotten this far. He was going against cultivators of significant ability without the bulk of his own. He was forcing his battered body to channel a hostile energy that had never been used without severe damage to the cultivator, in ways that had never been tested, with the focal point of an amulet of immense power. If he let himself think about it at all, Wei Wuxian hoped to die well. He hoped that even dead, no one discovered what he’d done to keep his family safe.
There was no one for Lan Wangji to marry, here. Even if he did live, Lan Wangji ought to wed a cultivator equal to himself. Wei Wuxian didn’t even know whether there was a place left for him in the cultivation world any longer, in even a minor capacity.
“So you’ve been travelling with Lan Wangji?” he asked Jiang Wanyin. Now that they were alone, he had to explain the situation. He was hiding so much as it was; this at least he could put right. But it was difficult to feel his way in. Wei Wuxian wanted very much not to embarrass Lan Wangji—however he’d come to his conclusion, Wei Wuxian was sure he’d been measured and reasonable in it. He always was.
“As travelling companions go, he’s not much of a conversationalist,” Jiang Wanyin said, making his brother snort. “I mean, he wasn’t dead silent—he’d talk to me about military plans, and your whole,” Jiang Wanyin made a hand gesture, “thing, of course.”
Wei Wuxian hit his lip. Released it. He could only plunge in. “Jiang Cheng, I’m not sure how this all got started, but I never said I would marry him.”
Jiang Wanyin stopped walking, right in the road. “What the hell, Wei Wuxian?”
“I don’t know what—”
“Of course you did!” Jiang Wanyin raised his voice. Disciples turned their heads—he glared at them until they looked away again. “You keep telling him you’re soulmates! I saw you do it again, not an hour ago!”
“You know, he’s my zhiji—we’re ‘lifelong companions’, but we’re not—”
“How the fuck is that different from marriage?” Jiang Wanyin demanded. “You can’t tell me you only like girls, not after all the shit I had to hear about his stupid ‘pretty ears’. That’s not even a thing, Wei Wuxian. They’re just ears.”
Wei Wuxian winced. He actually wasn’t sure he’d ever appreciated a girl the way he highly esteemed Lan Wangji. And Lan Wangji did so have specially beautiful ears. But this was beside the point.
“We’re falling behind the disciples,” Wei Wuxian reminded him.
Jiang Wanyin totally ignored him. “You shared minds or whatever when you fought the Xuanwu. Lans don’t run around doing that with classmates, it’s way too private. And there was that hand-fasting shit I saw when you two popped out of that cave, even before that! With his fucking ribbon! You never told us what that was about!”
“That was just a misunderstanding!” Wei Wuxian said. “I can explain—wait, how did you know the ribbon’s sacred? Did he tell you too?”
“No,” Jiang Wanyin sneered, “Lan Wangji never drew me aside to personally explain the meaning of his special spousal ribbon to me. Because I’m not you. Lan Qiren told everyone in class not to touch them under any circumstances while you were too busy making eyes at his nephew to pay attention. But if you’re in an explanatory mood, the other day I realised Lan Wangji had composed some fucking song for you. He was playing it in the forest when we were all tracking Wen Chao, in case you heard—he said only you two knew it. Care to explain away that one? It’s painfully embarrassing, but shijie would like, cry over that shit. So how the fuck are you telling me you’re not engaged?”
Wei Wuxian, eyes wide, swallowed around the lump in his throat.
“We never spoke about marriage. About anything like it.”
“Are you really throwing a fit because he didn’t have time to, what, present you with a courting gift?” Jiang Wanyin snapped. “Don’t you dare make me feel sorry for Lan Wangji. It sounds like he did everything but.”
Jiang Wanyin exhaled, glaring at his brother. “Do you know how hard he looked for you? He made me look calm. Do you know what this will do to our alliance with Lan right now? We have told people about this! Everyone believes you two are betrothed! Fucking hell Wei Wuxian, do you not want to marry him?”
Jiang Wanyin’s eyes were more concerned than his tone. Wei Wuxian could tell, somewhat to his own grateful surprise, that for all Jiang Wanyin grousing, if Wei Wuxian said ‘no’, that was that. They’d figure it out together. But Jiang Wanyin did have a right to be confused and annoyed, especially as Wei Wuxian couldn’t properly answer the essential question he’d just asked.
Wei Wuxian looked away, gripping Chenqing hard and keeping his voice very even. “It’s more complicated than that.”
Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. “Of course. It always is with you.”
“Lan Wangji is extremely reasonable,” Wei Wuxian said, twirling his dizi between his fingers and forcing Jiang Wanyin to walk briskly after him, as they caught up with the Jiang disciples. “There won’t be political repercussions for Jiang. I’ll just have a private conversation with him, and everything—” Wei Wuxian huffed out a breath. “I can’t say ‘one day we’ll laugh about this’, because one of us is Lan Zhan, but you know. Essentially.”
Jiang Wanyin shot him a look. “You think Lan Wangji is ‘extremely reasonable’ when it comes to you?” He shook his head. “You know what? Good luck.”
It was just Wei Wuxian’s luck that Wen Qing found him in town outside the Unclean Realm, trailing behind the Jiang contingent as they returned from liberating Yunmeng. She was with Nie and Lan disciples, escorting some people from her home village. The lot of them were, according to Wen Qing, happy to offer their medical expertise and labour in exchange for regular food and safe, comfortable lodging they could leave if they wished to. Dafan had been routed by the Qishan Wen, who’d wanted conscripts and forced labour, and then her refugees had been harassed by the Jin. Lan Wangji had dispatched an urgent message to his brother, who, as he’d expected, had shared its contents with Nie Mingjue. It contained an account of the execution he’d born witness to. Wen Chao’s death had of course been grotesque, as these things inevitably were, but as rightly-done as such a thing could be. It was hard to fault Wen Qing’s expressed reasons, or her rights as a daughter of the family Wen Chao had shamed and disgraced. His account of Wen Qing’s severe, honorable dispatch of her cousin, of her murdered father and wronged brother, had apparently turned Nie Mingjue in her favour. Lan Wangji had intended it to.
Jiang Wanyin had written to Jiang Yanli about Wen Qing’s offer of medical assistance, and Jiang Yanli had gone before the assembled Lords to praise Wen Qing’s aid to them after the fall of Lotus Pier, and to Jiang Yanli while they studied at Cloud Recesses. She trusted Wen Qing with her life. Jiang Yanli had maintained, in the face of some supercilious derision from the likes of Jin Zixun, that she and the Nie doctors were struggling to keep up with the demands of the war, and needed help from any source. She had been polite and practical and insistent, and had won out.
All this was well and good, but it didn’t mean Wei Wuxian was any happier to see Wen Qing now. One never just exchanged pleasantries with that woman. Usually, she stabbed at the heart of matters as though her words were acupuncture needles. Wei Wuxian’s effort to slink past unobtrusively was met with a delicate, deceptively strong hand painfully grabbing his ponytail, which she used to drag him away from the group, that they might have a little privacy for the tongue-lashing she was evidently set on giving him.
“Ow ow ow ow, Lady Wen, please, I have a tender scalp—”
She rolled her eyes at Wei Wuxian, and opened her mouth to start in on him.
“Did you find Wen Qionglin?” he asked with genuine concern, cutting her off preemptively even as he squirmed out of her hold and straightened up.
“Yes, with these others. He’s around here somewhere.” Her eyes, which had softened, hardened right back up again. “Don’t change the subject. Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were engaged when you asked me to operate?”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything.”
“Wouldn’t it? I might have killed you, and ruined more than your future in doing it.”
Wei Wuxian gave her a wry look. “It’s still my future to ruin. And people get remarried every day. He wouldn’t even have been a widower, yet.”
Wen Qing looked sorely tempted to stab him somewhere painful. “How can you be so cavalier about your own life?”
“Practice.” He gave her his cheesy, fake smile, and Wen Qing glared at him until it dropped. Wei Wuxian tucked his hands behind his back. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll explain as much as I have to, to get him to drop this. He’ll see it’s no longer possible, and everything will be settled.”
Wen Qing gave him a skeptical look. “You’re going to try and break off your engagement?”
“In—a matter of speaking.” He didn’t like spreading the truth about Lan Wangji’s misapprehension any further than it had already gone.
“And you think that’s going to work out for you, do you?”
Wei Wuxian frowned at her. “I—”
“Wei-gongzi!” Wen Qionglin jogged up to them, delighted to see Wei Wuxian, who offered him a tight smile (he found it difficult, at present, to summon up his normal easy grin).
“You should congratulate him,” Wen Qing said dryly. “For the moment, he’s engaged.”
“Oh!” Wen Qionglin blinked, smiling shyly. “That’s wonderful!” He gave a brief, formal bow—always sweetly polite. “This one congratulates you and Lan Wangji!”
“Why would you think it’s Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked accusingly. “Wen Qing, you told him too?”
“Nope,” she said.
“I—I went to school with you both for an entire year?” Wen Qionglin stuttered, as though this information, which Wei Wuxian knew perfectly well, constituted an obvious answer. He looked ahead of them at the looming bulk of the Unclean Realm, seeming a little nervous. “If it’s not Lan Wangji, I really don’t want to be there when he finds out.”
While Wei Wuxian was distracted, Wen Qing grabbed his wrist. Surprised, and worried the resentful energy seething beneath his skin would lash out at her, Wei Wuxian tried to jerk back. Wen Qing was well-prepared for a flailing patient, however, and dug her thumb harder into his meridian in a manner both punishing and diagnostic.
“You’re far too thin, and your heretical cultivation isn’t helping you recover strength.”
Now that Wen Qing had the information she wanted, he succeeded in wresting his arm back. “You know exactly why I can’t just stop. Not right now.”
“I’m not asking you to,” she agreed, leveling him with a severe gaze. “I’m telling you to come to me for treatment.”
“Don’t the wounded need you?” Wei Wuxian asked with a trace of nasty sarcasm.
“You are severely wounded,” Wen Qing said, frank and awful. “You’re in terrible shape, and anyone with training can see you’ve starved, cracked and healed bones and sustained yourself with resentful energy for these past months. If you want to be of any use to this campaign you need to watch it. I’ll examine you properly tomorrow.”
“I might be busy,” Wei Wuxian said somewhat petulantly, but Wen Qing was already walking away.
“You don’t want me to come and get you,” she said, not bothering to look back at him. “I’ll tell your fiancé you’re not looking after yourself.”
“I told you I’m breaking it off!” Wei Wuxian called after her.
“Why does everyone keep saying that?”
Wen Qionglin trailed after her with a parting “invite us to the wedding!” Apparently he got a lot braver and mouthier when he was backing up Wen Qing. (Given how intimidating all five foot nothing of Wen Qing was, Wei Wuxian could understand that.)
Wei Wuxian buried his face in his hands and groaned elaborately into them. Aiyah, what a mess.
As soon as he entered the Unclean Realm, Wei Wuxian collapsed into Jiang Yanli’s arms and cried unashamedly into her hair (even as her own tears wet his cheeks). In so doing, he felt more like himself than he had in recent memory. It was a blessed relief not to think of anything but her and this moment.
It couldn’t last, of course. Nie Huaisang arrived, and hadn’t spoken to him for ten minutes before he announced that Lan Wangji was expected back the next day. He and Zewu-jun were settling some business related to the Dafan Wen refugees. Nie Huaisang said this as if Wei Wuxian would naturally be interested in the information. And he was—he had been interested in where Lan Zhan was and what he was doing at every moment since they’d met. Nothing new there. But the way shijie gently smiled at him during the exchange made Wei Wuxian’s throat close up.
“You’ll have to tell me all about that,” she said, and the gentleness of her voice, the happiness for him (hope—in the midst of all this), made Wei Wuxian feel like the worst fraud ever to have lived. “I haven’t heard it from you, a-Xian.”
“Later, later,” he waved her off with half a laugh. “Today I am just your baby brother, far too young to marry!” Even the word came out strange.
Wei Wuxian made his most genuine effort to smile for her, tugging his weak, coreless, battered body into old shapes, now rendered unfamiliar. He needled his siblings and his dear friend as best he could, hoping that they didn’t sense any flaw in his performance beyond what the generous natures of the people who loved him would attribute to fatigue and care.
Of course it was Huaisang (always in the pitch of any social situation, so long as it was trivial) who cornered Wei Wuxian the next day and told him Lan Wangji was looking for him. Steeling himself, Wei Wuxian made his way to where Huaisang said he’d put the Lans. Huaisang was, Wei Wuxian could tell, doing rather well at handling the sudden descent of half the cultivation world on the Unclean Realm. (After Meng Yao’s abrupt dismissal, it certainly wasn’t gruff Nie Mingjue who’d managed the domestic affairs of the clan.) Wei Wuxian felt like his friend’s guest rather than a soldier in a camp.
Wei Wuxian wanted little more than to avoid the awful conversation he was about to force. But since he couldn’t do that to Lan Wangji—couldn’t let this farce continue longer than it had already done, in case his doing so ended up hurting his zhiji further—he knocked on the door.
It was Lan Xichen who bade him come, and who rose, with Lan Wangji, to answer Wei Wuxian’s very formal bow. Lan Xichen smiled at him as brightly as his shijie had. Wei Wuxian hadn’t quite expected that—one more person to disappoint, he supposed. Surely Zewu-jun wouldn’t have approved of this in even the best circumstances? He was putting a very brave face on it, though.
“Please forgive the intrusion, Zewu-jun. May I speak with your brother?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Of course,” Zewu-jun said, with a smile that was almost conspiratorial. “Though there’s really no need to be so formal. It isn’t like you, difu. ‘Xichen’, I think?”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth parted slightly in surprise, and Zewu-jun laughed at him, just a little.
“Let me offer you my congratulations. It’s hardly unexpected, but still very welcome—especially in days like these. Sect Leader Jiang and I have discussed arrangements—”
“Brother,” Lan Wangji said, and Zewu-jun turned a softer smile on him.
“Such impatience! What would Uncle say?”
Lan Wangji positively glowered at him. Lan Xichen gave an amused huff.
“We’re all very glad you’ve returned safely, Wei Wuxian.”
“Likewise,” Wei Wuxian said, meaning it. Zewu-jun had always been kind to him, to everyone, and he was so deeply important to Lan Wangji. It was going to be distinctly uncomfortable when, in an hour or so, Lan Xichen intensely disliked him for embarrassing Lan and Wangji specifically.
Lan Xichen slipped out the door, leaving Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to stare at one another.
“Before anything else is said,” Lan Wangji began, “we must discuss your heretical cultivation, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian fought down an urge to bristle. This wasn’t actually what he’d come here for, and he couldn’t afford distraction.
“Wen Qing has already demanded to see me today,” Wei Wuxian said, trying to fob him off. “She wants to assess my condition in-depth.”
He couldn’t miss the sharp, surprised relief that widened Lan Wangji’s eyes.
“Could I be there?” Lan Wangji asked, quietly.
Even as Wei Wuxian curled around his secrets and his pain like a wounded animal, riled by the resentment coursing through him, his jaw tense with a vicious urge to snap in his own protection, he knew he didn’t deserve that audible care. That in a moment, Lan Wangji would regret having been so free with it.
“I’m afraid we need to have a more serious conversation even than that. Or at least a more—immediately pertinent one.”
Lan Wangji blinked guileless gold eyes at him. A small frown of concern creased his brow. Wei Wuxian took a shaky breath and twisted Chenqing in his hands.
“Thinking back on what was done and said, I can see how you might have reached the conclusion you did. Lan Zhan, I never meant to hurt you. It’s the last thing in this world I’d want to do. But I didn’t realise, at all, that you thought of us as engaged?”
Lan Wangji frowned at him. “Intended rather than formally betrothed, naturally. I realise we had no opportunity to set terms.”
Wei Wuxian’s stricken expression said better than words could that this distinction was not what he’d meant.
Once, Wei Wuxian would have given anything to have gotten a reaction out of Lan Wangji—for an opportunity to crack his flawless facade and see him. The bigger the splash, the better. Now that he had his prize (and at his own hands, too), Wei Wuxian found the way Lan Wangji’s mouth dropped open, the way he looked suddenly diminished, and so unsteady it seemed as though he might drop to the floor, horrible.
“I—” Lan Wangji couldn’t look at him, “fully believed we were.” A note of panic, almost like anger, entered his voice, and then he did whip his head to face Wei Wuxian’s caught, wide-eyed stare. “Then what did you mean?”
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to say that he had meant all he’d ever said, all he’d ever done. He cared very deeply for Lan Wangji. None of his brusque jokes had been at Lan Wangji’s expense—not in this awful, intimate way.
Lan Wangji’s face was so speaking now that Wei Wuxian couldn’t believe he’d ever found him difficult to understand. Mortification, misery and hurt—his hand was actually shaking. Lan Wangji brought it to grip the arras he stood next to, very tightly. Given the strength of his arms, Wei Wuxian was dully surprised it didn’t rip straight down.
“If it has come as a surprise, then—” Lan Wangji exhaled and began again. “But do you not—still wish to?”
Here Wei Wuxian felt on slightly firmer ground. He kept his tone reasonable and gentle. “How can it be appropriate at this time? You see that, I’m sure. There are much bigger things than you and I to worry about. We can’t presume to speak of ‘later’, when so much is yet to be decided.”
“No,” Lan Wangji said, his voice harsh. “This isn’t Lan and Jiang marrying, it is you and I. Speak to me, Wei Ying.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said, forcing his face to assume a neutral expression. “I cannot marry you.”
“Why?” Lan Wangji hissed, and Wei Wuxian saw one of the curtain rings actually give, with a quiet ‘twang’. Lan Wangji paid it no attention whatever, but he did look up at Wei Wuxian when the other man didn’t answer him.
“I’m sorry I misunderstood, if I did,” he said. “But you are breaking our engagement, Wei Ying. What shall I tell our families? No,” he shook his head, “what can I tell myself?”
Not for the first time, Wei Wuxian realised that Lan Wangji’s restraint was remarkable and admirable not because it came easily to him, but because he felt so deeply. His self-command, as powerful as his cultivation, had to surge forward at every turn to keep pace with the rush of his feelings.
Uncomfortable, Wei Wuxian prevaricated. “I’ll tell them. My sister, and Zewu-jun. I’ll handle everything, I’ll let them know this was all my fault. Don’t worry about it, Lan Zhan.”
Wei Wuxian flinched when Lan Wangji flinched at the sound of his personal name in Wei Wuxian’s mouth.
“No one will blame you or talk of this, I’ll ask Huaisang to shut down any mention of it.”
“That is how, not why,” Lan Wangji spat at him. “And none of it addresses my concerns at all.”
Wei Wuxian tried to duck his head away from the force of that eye contact, but Lan Wangji strode around the table, the robe-hems Wei Wuxian was staring down at swirling, and forced Wei Wuxian to meet his gaze through sheer proximity. He stood only a foot away from Wei Wuxian, now.
“The reason to break our engagement would be if you do not, and could not, love me. Is that the case, Wei Ying?”
Wei Wuxian, his hands clenched tight behind his back, took a cautious step backwards. “Yes,” he murmured.
Lan Wangji narrowed his eyes, reading Wei Wuxian very intently. “You are lying. To me.”
Wei Wuxian’s temper—always on a knife edge of grief and slick, whelming black magic now—finally leapt over the high but besieged wall of his attempts to be reasonable and kind.
“Of course I’m lying,” Wei Wuxian said with a laugh that sounded harsh even to him. “Who wouldn’t love you? Perfect Lan er-gege, Second Jade.” He pronounced the titles like insults. “But it isn’t possible, and that is all there is to say.”
“What happened to ‘attempt the impossible’?” Lan Wangji snapped.
“It burnt with Jiang,” Wei Wuxian said, with frost-bitten matter-of-factness. The way Lan Wangji blanched made Wei Wuxian pull up short.
“I can’t say more than that,” Wei Wuxian finished, trying to make the thing sound as soft and final as dying in one’s sleep.
“You call yourself my soulmate,” Lan Wangji said. “So trust me. Tell me honestly why you’ve chosen to humiliate me, and what is worse, to break my heart.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathed, feeling desperate. Against the ache in his own stomach, sitting where his core once had, Wei Wuxian wanted to assure Lan Wangji that this would pass, and swiftly—that Lan Wangji had been confused to think this an equal bargain in the first place, and would recover quickly in consequence, as soon as he realised the sheer ridiculousness of the whole idea. Or, if his loyal heart was slower to mend, that it would eventually be better, nonetheless, for not having him in it as any more than a friend.
“I am owed that,” Lan Wangji said with severe certainty. “You attempted to tell me you did not love me.” He shut his eyes, and breathed out. “Wei Ying, you owe me for that.”
The fact of the matter was, with Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin here, the secret was already shared. They would keep it, Wei Wuxian believed that of them. But he was forced to ask himself whether he trusted Lan Wangji less. Even if Lan Wangji figured out the whole truth—and no one was more likely to—did he really believe Lan Wangji would deliberately expose him to his family, causing his brother and sister pain, or to their shared enemies? Lan Wangji might try to curtail his necessary efforts, but then—he was already trying to do that. The truth might hurt Lan Wangji, but Wei Wuxian’s evasions were clearly also hurting him.
“It won’t change anything,” Wei Wuxian warned him, but Lan Wangji continued to look at him, flinty and unmoved.
“You can’t speak of this to anyone,” Wei Wuxian stressed. “Not your brother, not your uncle—absolutely not my family. Wen Qing only knows because I’m in her care. Do you understand? This is between us.”
Lan Wangji nodded once.
“I failed to hold my own against Wen Chao’s men. Among them was Wen Zhuliu. My golden core is gone. Lan Zhan, the rumors were true. They threw me into the Burial Mounds, and I survived as best I could. There is no path left to me but the heretical one, and as such I must resign all intimate claims on Lan-er-gongzi’s attention.”
Lan Wangji was always earnest, but Wei Wuxian had never seen him level such a look of serious regard on anyone, for anything, as he gave him now.
“Wei Ying,” he said after an extended, deliberate pause, “you are lying to me again.”
“No.” Wei Wuxian gave him a foul, too-sweet smile. “I wish I were, Lan Zhan! This is all true!” He gestured with Chenqing, giving a sweeping survey of Wei Wuxian in his current state—a showman’s flourish over the wreck of himself. “If I have not said everything, told you every particular of my degradation, the point remains the same. I will never be able to be your cultivation partner now. I cannot do it.”
It seemed to all hit Lan Wangji at once—the enormity of what had happened to Wei Wuxian. How diminished he was—and yet elaborated into new, grotesque shapes. Wei Wuxian closed his eyes against the pity on his face, against that shaky ‘Wei Ying’.
“Tomorrow,” Wei Wuxian said to the darkness, “we’ll discuss how to speak to everyone about this. We’ll agree on a plan, and extricate you without damaging your reputation. Take a day to consider how you’d like to do it.”
“I do not need a day,” Lan Wangi said, and Wei Wuxian could hear actual tears in his voice. Great. He’d made Lan Zhan cry, and in doing so lost even the right to console him. Fucking fabulous.
“Well, I certainly do,” Wei Wuxian muttered. He opened his eyes, staggering out of the room and back to his own.
He meditated, pulling the resentful energy quivering around him back under his skin until he felt saner. He ate. He pretended to his shijie that nothing was wrong. She asked how Lan Wangji was faring, and rather than lie to her Wei Wuxian excused himself to meet with Wen Qing.
Wen Qing examined him thoroughly, rearranged his qi with a vengeance, stuffed him full of medicinal herbs and told him she’d conduct another such examination in a few days’ time. No one had ever been through most of what had happened to him in the past months. She needed additional data before she started to make assessments of what he’d need to enable him to survive and keep cultivating.
She gave him something for the nightmares that racked his sleep these days without his even having to tell her he’d been having them. The medicine in the incense swept Wei Wuxian under like a riptide. He lit the burner at a positively Lanish hour, and he went under so thoroughly that he didn’t push his door open until ten the next morning. Apparently he’d really, deeply, needed that.
Directly opposite that door, standing stiffly with an arm behind his back, was Lan Wangji. He seemed to take the door’s opening as an invitation, because he swept right in. Wei Wuxian had half a mind to just—leave him there and head out. But that would have been petty, even for him.
“How long have you been standing there?” Wei Wuxian asked, letting the door swing shut behind them.
“You know when I wake up,” Lan Wangji answered. So that was – the best part of five hours? Lan Wangji had evidently interpreted Wei Wuxian saying he needed a day as ‘leave me alone until precisely the crack of dawn tomorrow.’
“You didn’t have to,” Wei Wuxian began weakly.
“Are you attempting to dismiss me as your zhiji as well?” Lan Wangji asked with unprecedented tartness. “Have you anything else hurtful to say?”
“No, Lan Zhan, I—”
“Your proposition, yesterday. I refuse,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian stared at him as what Lan Wangji was refusing trickled through his brain. He refused to break the betrothal. Lan Wangji said this as though the sentence was the natural next line in an ongoing conversation. As though he’d thought of nothing but saying it since Wei Wuxian had told him the day before to grant him time.
“Don’t make me do this,” Wei Wuxian said, sitting back down on the bed he’d risen from only a quarter of an hour ago. “Please, Lan Zhan. I don’t want to fight with you about things I feel wretched and ashamed about. I don’t want to fight you to refuse something I want.”
Lan Wangji walked over to the bed, standing before him. “Then do not. I can be patient, Wei Ying. We need not marry today, or this year, or even for the next decade. If it will help you, take all the time you require to feel wretched alone. But I do not believe it will. And I want, above all else, to help you.”
Wei Wuxian scrunched in on himself. “Lan Zhan, you are so good. You are too good. But there’s truly nothing you can do.”
“Can I not help you to live through this war without a core?” Lan Zhan asked. “Are you certain that I cannot help you manage resentful energy more safely?”
“And what will you get for all that trouble?” Wei Wuxian said with a hysterical, choked laugh. “What can I give you?”
“Yourself,” Lan Wangji said, kneeling before Wei Wuxian and catching his hand. “My soul’s mate. You will give me,” he raised a hand to Wei Wuxian’s face and ran the pad of his thumb along Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone, “the only thing that I have truly wanted for my own.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said feebly as tears gathered in his eyes, unable to stop looking at Lan Wangji’s patient, upturned face, “that’s—the person I was, or who you thought I was, and he’s gone now anyway, so—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said with heartbreaking fondness, even as he very rudely cast the Lan silence spell on his betrothed, “shut up.”
Lan Wangji leaned forward and kissed Wei Wuxian’s closed mouth—the promised, deferred kiss from the courier station. Suddenly Wei Wuxian felt the spell release. He took a great, gasping breath. Even as he’d slipped in through the open door, Lan Wangji now pressed forward, making the kiss deep and genuine, his tongue in Wei Wuxian’s mouth and his hands on his face, in his hair.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian gasped when Lan Wangji let go of his mouth to tilt their foreheads together. The metal cloud diadem of his ribbon pressed cold and firm against Wei Wuxian’s skin.
“This time I shall correct my oversight and ask properly. Do me the honour of being my husband and cultivation partner. There will never be anyone else for me, Wei Ying. It is this marriage, or it is none. It is a life with you, or it is none at all.”
“Lan Zhan, that’s too much. How can I have you?” Wei Wuxian asked, bewildered and shaking with emotion he’d thought wrenched out of him by his fall into a kingdom of bones. “How can I have you?”
“Easily,” Lan Zhan said with a trace of a smile. “From the very beginning. Simply by being Wei Ying.”
“Am I still that, to you? I hardly feel like it.”
Lan Wangji shook his head. “You are always yourself, my love. You don’t know how to be anything less. If you should falter or forget, let me stand by your side to remind you.”
Wei Wuxian began to sob outright, which he had hardly allowed himself to do when Lotus Pier burned. During the core extraction he’d cried, he knew he had, but it had been with blinding pain and had brought him no deeper relief than pure physical release. In the Burial Mounds he’d been so desperately dehydrated for so long and so numb with pain and horror that he’d felt little need to. But now Lan Wangji swiftly, gracefully swung up onto the bed and curled the shaking Wei Wuxian into his arms.
“Let me,” he murmured into Wei Wuxian’s hair, stroking his back as Wei Wuxian clung to him. “Wei Ying, let me. Trust me this far. Give me this.”
“I love you,” Wei Wuxian said, the declaration rather spoilt by the feverish, fluctuating timbre of his voice and the mess he was making of Lan Wangji’s immaculate robes.
“I know,” Lan Wangji said, his own voice thick. “You could not even say you didn’t love me without showing me you did.”
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian said, clenching his fists in Lan Wangji’s robes. “Oh Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry.”
“We are beyond that now,” Lan Wangji said. “But I thank you, all the same.”
When Wei Wuxian subsided somewhat, he spoke again.
“Wen Qing apprised me of your condition while you slept. I may have implied I knew more about the loss of your core than you had explicitly said. She may, in return, have revealed more to me than you would have wished. Wei Ying, will you tell me everything you endured?”
“Later,” Wei Wuxian said, straightening up and making an effort at drying his eyes. “Yes, but—later. It’s still difficult.”
Lan Wangji seemed to accept this. “No one has ever cultivated in quite this manner before, harnessing resentful energy itself without relying on the yin iron as a sole power source. We will find a way to do so safely, or another path if none exists.”
Wei Wuxian nodded at him, still trying to compose himself and to adjust to the enormity of not being alone in this. Since the Burial Mounds, only the black energies driving Wei Wuxian had known him fully. They offered power, but could never offer what Lan Wangji did, simply by being himself—a moral counterweight, restraint and support.
“Your meridians themselves are whole. Extraction is not a process like melting, which sears them. I am not fully convinced you could never form a core again, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I’m not prepared to start hoping, and I’m resigned to working around it forever. I expected to. But all right, Lan Zhan. Anything, so long as it’s with you.” An impish smile he’d not realised he still had in him came to his face easily, like an old friend popping back into his life, unexpected and welcome.
“And once we’re married, there’s always dual cultivation—”
How things changed! Not long ago that would have earned him a ‘shameless’, rather than Lan Wangji blatantly looking him over, casually saying he preferred short engagements, and then beginning to discuss dual cultivation as an actual possible lead.
Wei Wuxian was deeply interested in the theory under discussion, but slightly disappointed Lan Wangji’s newfound demonstrative forwardness apparently did not quite extend to jumping straight to premarital praxis. He was abruptly relieved they were only talking on the bed and holding hands when Jiang Wanyin barged in without so much as a warning knock.
“Wei Wuxi—oh,” he pulled up short, looking at the tableaux. Sibling. Fiancé (?). Bed (!). Evidence of copious weeping. Jiang Wanyin leveled a ‘do I need to kill you?’ sort of look at Lan Wangji.
“Jiang Cheng, is that any way to greet your soon to be sao zi?” Wei Wuxian scolded.
Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes, letting his body go lax and his Zidian-hand drop. “So that’s all worked out, is it? What a lot of drama over whether you were officially engaged, fuck’s sake. Typical.”
Lan Baochai accepted the cushion her cousin Lan Wangji passed her with a grateful look and shoved it under the base of her spine. He’d evidently decided she needed it more than he did. Whoever had arranged the seating for this victory banquet had not accounted for the fact that Lan Baochai, a very able swordswoman, had been pressed onto the battlefield heavily pregnant. She was uncomfortable, she was hot, she was far from home and her wife, and even on a good day she wouldn’t want to be here carefully Not Insulting Allies if she could be anywhere else.
“Are you due soon?” asked her cousin’s fiancé, with more real interest than politeness. He was seated on the other side of the couple’s shared low black table, symbolically wedged between his home clan of Jiang and Lan.
Lan Baochai, who had never been the model Lan her cousin was, rolled her eyes. “Yes, and I wish he would come tonight.” No one had even been served food yet. On the one hand, they could still talk without Lan Xichen politely frowning at them. On the other, Lan Baochai was starving. She felt very prepared to roast and eat Jin Guangshan’s 'newly discovered' son, who seemed to have organised this banquet and moved courses back to allow more time for ceremonials. Would anyone miss him?
“That would be a good excuse,” Lan Wangji said, his proper tone inflected with a wicked edge of wistfulness.
“Wen Qing could probably subtly induce you,” Wei Wuxian suggested, tapping the side of his nose in thought. The Dafan Wen—Wen Qing, her brother Wen Qionglin and a few other chosen representatives from Qishan’s non-combatants, since sworn to the siblings—sat behind the Jiang and the Lan with the ceremonial courtesy afforded a smaller sect like the Yao. Lan Baochai didn’t know the other woman well, having only met her once while delivering a message to Nie Mingjue (the doctor had been demonstrating techniques for releasing accrued resentful energy on a volunteer Nie cultivator). But judging by the carefully concealed boredom on Wen Qing’s face, which morphed into an eye roll when Wei Wuxian gave her a small wave, she too would welcome the distraction.
Lan Baochai supposed this throne room could hold few good memories for a woman who’d been forced to bow to a tyrant in it for the better part of her young life.
“That’s a bit far. Though I could go into false labour?” Lan Baochai really considered it.
“How do you fake that, then?” Wei Wuxian asked, very interested, as though he anticipated many occasions arising in which he’d need to organise such a display.
“Well—” she began.
But Jin Guangshan then took it upon himself to toast the assembly, and to simultaneously solicit Jiang Yanli for his son.
Wei Wuxian pushed himself up as though he’d rise, but Lan Wangji gripped his intended’s hand and kept him down.
“Jiang Yanli is eloquent and polite. Let her speak, then second her,” Lan Wangji suggested.
Wei Wuxian threw a concerned, supportive glance at his sister, who nodded in recognition. Jiang Wanyin looked at Wei Wuxian, then at Jiang Yanli, and nodded too.
Jiang Yanli claimed her duty to Jiang prevented her from considering the offer at present with admirable grace, and Wei Wuxian rose to praise her thoughtful service. Jiang Wanyin toasted to the statement, and hostilities rolled back under the smothering blanket of civility.
“Are you all right, my love?” Lan Wangji asked his betrothed, whose expression, now that it was no longer on public display, was glowering.
“Aiyah, you know I’ve never liked these things,” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Play me Cleansing again tonight?”
Wei Wuxian clenched his intended’s hand in his own and gave a long exhale.
“Political motives aside, it is so inappropriate of him to put your sister on the spot like that!” Lan Baochai felt confident enough to huff to Wei Wuxian after general conversation had risen once more. “He just turns up at the end of the campaign, like he did anything!”
Wei Wuxian squinted at Lan Wangji. “Is this your favourite cousin? I know you have scores of them.”
Lan Wangji looked slightly embarrassed, but muttered “Sixty-eight of varying degrees on my father’s side, by Spring” and “I suppose” (which was rather flattering, as Lan Baochai hadn’t known that herself—she grinned at having beaten out all her stuffier relations, including her talented but insufferable brothers).
“I thought so,” Wei Wuxian said smugly before turning his full attention on Lan Baochai, leaning dramatically over Lan Wangji (while still holding his hand) to address her. “Cousin, he is the worst, you couldn’t be more right. But never mind him, having to look at him all night is bad enough. What are you thinking of naming the baby?”
“Nothing to do with the campaign, though that sort of naming for occasions is so fashionable,” she said, and Wei Wuxian nodded enthusiastically. “The birth name is down to a few choices, but I want the courtesy name to have a ‘yi’ in it, for Lan Yi, because she was—”
“The best Lan sect leader,” Wei Wuxian said enthusiastically, “absolutely.”
“The best,” Lan Baochai agreed. “Listen. Wei Wuxian. Do you have any food on you?”
Lan Wangji reached into his qiankun pouch, withdrew a bag of nuts, and offered some to his cousin and betrothed.
“Wei Ying often forgets to eat,” he said by way of explanation.
“You’re now officially my favourite cousin as well,” Lan Baochai said seriously.
“Lan Wangji,” Lan Xichen hissed from ahead of them, not turning around, “are you sharing out nuts at a formal banquet?”
“Why,” Wei Wuxian asked, cutting in before Wangji was forced to defend himself, “do you want some, dà bǎi zi?”
Lan Baochai snorted into her sleeve.
Xichen turned his head to glare at them. Wei Wuxian threw a nut at his face, which he caught with his hand, looked at for a moment with resignation, then ate. He then seemed to be trying to signal to Jin Guangyao, entirely with meaningful glances, that they were quite ready to cut this part of the evening short. Further down the platform Jiang Wanyin, Wen Qionglin and Nie Huaisang all gave the snacking party envious looks, but they were too far to throw anything to.
With a pitying shrug for their suffering, Lan Baochai popped another nut in her mouth.