Cultivator daemons always settle as birds.
At least, they’re supposed to. To not have a daemon that can fly restricts a cultivator to the ground, unable to maneuver the sword without leaving their daemon behind. If the daemon is small enough, they can be carried– but they would not be able to participate in aerial combat. And if they were to fall…
But such occurrences are rare. Nearly without exception, cultivator daemons always settle in bird forms.
Unsettled, Wei Xinying has a preference for large cat forms. This has been true for as long as Wei Ying remembers. Thick fur and big claws, a body that could wrap around him at night, keep him warm. Teeth to snarl at any dogs that strayed too close. She couldn’t fight off the packs that would try and steal their food, but she could scare away any dogs that might sniff at them during the night.
In Lotus Pier, Xinying doesn’t need to protect Wei Ying or keep him warm. But she shifts into wild cats to fight with Jiang Yulian, Jiang Cheng’s daemon who likes to shift into dogs. And she shifts into a tiger while Wei Ying learns to swim, a shape for him to hold onto while he kicks his feet and tries to float. When he goes out climbing trees, she shifts into smaller, agile cats, jumping from branch to branch, hiding with him in the thick of leaves and giggling as they hear Shijie and Jiayuan call out for them below.
Wei Xinying likes to be cat-shaped.
So everyone notices when she starts shifting into birds.
Magpies and crows, mostly. Sometimes a treepie, like Cangse Sanren’s daemon had been. She still shifts into wild cats at night, and into tigers when Wei Ying’s on the lakes, but otherwise, Xinying is almost always a bird.
Which terrifies Wei Ying.
He’s been at Lotus Pier for less than three years, but his cultivation is already on par with Jiang Cheng’s. They’re both sure to have their golden cores formed by the end of the year. It’s– It’s not good because Wei Ying started late, so he shouldn’t have caught up already. He’s heard the elder disciples whisper about that, he knows Jiang Cheng is upset about that, Xinying and Yulian have fought about that–
It would make everything so much worse if Xinying settles before Yulian.
In cultivation clans, when a daemon starts showing a preference for bird forms, it’s usually seen as the countdown to settling. Wei Xinying trades panthers and tigers for crows and magpies and everyone starts watching her, expectant.
Jiang Cheng and Yulian stare at Wei Ying and his daemon with dread and betrayal in their eyes.
“A-Ying, you can change for a little longer, can’t you?” Wei Ying asks her one night, both of them restless and awake, sitting on the steps outside of the room they share with Jiang Cheng. “You don’t need to pick a shape yet.”
“I won’t!” Xinying declares loudly. And then quieter, a tiny wren on his shoulder she whispers, “I won’t settle before Yulian. I promise.”
She shifts into a cat then, and curls in his arms. Wei Ying hugs her to his chest, and believes her, because he has to believe his daemon. He has to believe she wouldn’t do that to them, do that to Jiang Cheng and Yulian.
“No one would be happy, if I settled first,” Xinying mutters. “So I won’t do it.”
Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng form their cores shortly after they turn twelve. It’s early, for core formation, but people still start watching their daemons more closely, expectant. Most daemons don’t settle until thirteen, fourteen, but for cultivators, settling and forming golden cores go hand in hand.
When Suibian is formed, Xinying sits on the the blade as Wei Ying tests its weight. Her form grows large, feathers turning a black that’s almost blue, and Wei Ying feels a sensation of rightness that is smothered underneath a sudden surge of fear.
Immediately, Xinying shifts into a wren, fluttering to Wei Ying’s shoulder and tucking herself beneath his robes, hiding from Yulian and Uncle Jiang’s bittern.
“I promised, A-Ying,” she whispers. “I won’t settle first, don’t worry.”
But after their swords are forged, Xinying no longer shifts into anything but birds. She changes colours and shapes whenever Madam Yu and her fierce kite glare at her, or whenever Uncle Jiang and his quiet bittern watch her with warm expectation. She shifts into ducks and doves and herons, never letting herself sit for too long in feathers that are black. No more magpies, no more crows.
It’s a huge relief when Jiang Yulian settles, a few months before the boys’ thirteenth birthdays. She shifts in a sturdy, ruddy shelduck during a meditation session and loudly declares to the room at large that she won’t be shifting again.
Jiang Cheng flushes scarlet, and Uncle Jiang smiles wide. Wei Ying can’t stop grinning, as everyone clusters around his shidi. In the back of his mind, he worries that when Madam Yu hears she’ll be displeased by the form– no fierce hunter like her own daemon. But Uncle Jiang is pleased, visibly so, heaping warm praises on his son. Jiang daemons always settle as water birds, and his own bittern is not a fierce bird of prey. Uncle Jiang is happy, and Jiang Cheng and Yulian are beaming. Even Madam Yu couldn’t make this something to be shamed about. After all, Jiang Cheng has his father’s notice at last.
Wei Ying understands then, when Xinying continues to stick to bird forms she doesn’t like. Owls and wrens and pigeons, with bright feathers.
“I can’t settle too close to Yulian,” she confesses to Wei Ying. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
Wei Ying agrees with her wholeheartedly. There’s a feast planned for Jiang Yulian’s settling, an expectation of congratulatory gifts arriving from other sect leaders. They’ll wait until all of that’s done, first. They’ll let Jiang Cheng and Yulian shine out, unshadowed.
It’s two months later, a month to the day away from Wei Ying’s thirteenth birthday when Wei Xinying settles. They are kneeling in the ancestral hall, being punished for running on the docks and careening into disciples fishing there, sending them flying into the water. No one was hurt, in fact, everyone was laughing, but Madam Yu has insisted they be punished anyways. Wei Ying is half-asleep, dozing on his knees, and Xinying is shaped as a collared owlet, on the floor beside him, when Shijie and Jiayuan arrive to fetch them. Shijie helps Wei Ying up off his knees, and her sweet merganser daemon runs her beak through Xinying’s feathers.
When Wei Ying stands, Xinying flaps her wings to rise up from the floor. She shifts, changing out of an owl, her feathers darkening to a black that’s almost blue. Her wings lengthen and spread, her beak grows thick and long, and her eyes become dark and clever. She lands on Wei Ying’s shoulder, the weight unbalancing him for a moment, before he brings a hand up to run his fingers over her head.
“I’ve not seen you shift a common raven in quite some time,” Jiayuan says, a shrewd look in her eyes.
“Well, I wanted to be sure,” Xinying says, her feathers fluffed, proud. “Now I am. I won’t change again.”
Wei Ying turns his head and gapes at her. Shijie gasps, her hand against her mouth, and then smiles wide with sheer delight.
“I got to watch you settle?” Her eyes are teary. “A-Xian…”
Wei Ying can’t tear his eyes away from Xinying, who ducks her own head and butts it against his cheek. It’s hard to wrap his head around the idea of Xinying never changing again, never again being a tiger or a wren, but he…he also feels right and settled and like they are properly themselves, at last.
Xinying can outmaneuver Yulian in the air, but Yulian can stay in the air for longer without getting tired. Xinying can fly faster, but Yulian further. Xinying is made for speed and spectacle, and Yulian for endurance.
But when it comes to sparring and scrapping, Xinying is much bigger and can sit on Yulian, winning all their fights without much effort, which means her settled form becomes a sore spot between Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng. A new point of insecurity, of accidental outshining that makes Wei Ying want to hold a blanket over his head and scream because he didn’t mean to!
Still, the sore spot is soothed by the fact that Xinying is not a water bird. Uncle Jiang is disappointed, Wei Ying can tell, and so Jiang Cheng can’t help but look a little pleased whenever they go out on the lakes and Xinying is the only settled daemon not swimming. This is one area in which Wei Ying will never outshine him, in his father’s eyes. A corvid like his sect-less mother, a scavenger unsuited for placid lakes and quiet ponds.
“I can learn to swim!” Xinying flaps her wings resolutely, as she and Wei Ying sit on the docks. “Who says ravens can’t swim? I can swim, just watch me!”
She can’t. She flounders in the water, her feathers growing sodden and pulling her down. She sinks every time, until Wei Ying scoops her out and places her in his lap or on the dock.
It hurts. It’s not her fault, and Wei Ying loves Xinying’s shape, but even the disciples not related to the Jiangs by blood settle as water birds. Any disciple who forms their core at Lotus Pier will have a daemon with feathers that don’t soak up water and feet made for paddling or wading. They all do so much swimming here, so many of their night hunts deal with water-based demons, having a daemon that can’t swim is almost as bad as having a daemon that can’t fly.
But Xinying feels worse than Wei Ying does, he can tell. And he doesn’t want that. He loves her, and even if it’s going to make things harder, even if Uncle Jiang is disappointed, he can’t hate the form she chose.
“A-Ying, you’re perfect,” Wei Ying says, hugging her close and whispering into sodden her feathers. “Tell you what, I’ll start working on something. I’ll make a talisman! I, I haven’t made one successfully yet, but the first one I make will be for you!”
“What kind of talisman, A-Ying?” she asks, blinking up at him. “One to give me duck feathers?”
“Maybe,” he says, “I haven’t come up with it yet. But I will! I’ll figure it out. You’ll be the first raven to swim, I promise.”
Xinying tilts her head, weighing his words, before deciding to believe them and puffing her feathers. “Okay! I’ll keep practicing until then. We’ll figure it out, between the two of us. Do the impossible, right A-Ying?”
We’re still part of the Jiang clan, no matter what. Wei Ying nods, grinning. “That’s right, A-Ying.”
Wei Wuxian’s daemon is ridiculous.
Luxin huffs out that condemnation, her feathers fluffed from neck to tail. Her agitation has not faded at all in the time since their fight with Wei Wuxian and his raven. Now, she paces back and forth along the floor of their rooms, as furious and ruffled as Wangji himself is.
“That raven didn’t engage with me at all,” Luxin hisses. “Did not even attempt to fight properly. Just rolled and dived and twisted through the air– her master, at least, crossed blades with you. She just– just laughed and did twirls!”
Wangji can understand her frustration. Laughter and twirls felt a lot like what Wei Wuxian had done, as well. Treated the fight like a game, like a dance. Their rules, not taken seriously. Their curfew, not taken seriously. Them, not taken seriously, by that terrible young man and his equally terrible raven.
Wangji understands Luxin’s indignant fury, because he feels it acutely himself. Not only had Wei Wuxian not fought properly, he’d…he’d matched them. While…playing around. It’s infuriating, and makes him want to reach for Bichen again and hunt the guest disciple down, demand a rematch, a proper match. And Wangji sees the same frustration reflected in his pacing daemon.
Luxin is a swan, and a large one. She outweighs most daemons she encounters, at least among the birds of cultivators. Like Wangji, she does not lose fights. Like Wangji, she is peerless, unmatched. To be unable to catch the raven, to force her to the ground, to stall her movements in any way, is startling. Unsettling.
“She was so fast,” Luxin continues sourly. “And clever. With such fine control over her movements. She evaded me consistently.”
There…is that a note of…begrudging admiration in her tone? Wangji narrows his eyes at his daemon, who has stopped pacing to look towards the door.
“There was an elegance,” Luxin murmurs, “to her wild rolling.”
Wangji stares. The tips of his ears are burning. He needs to, to admonish Luxin for breaking the rule of, of excessive praise, perhaps excessive emotion, maybe the rule about lies, whatever rule. Because that comment had to have broken their discipline somehow.
He doesn’t get a chance to reprimand her, because Luxin buries her head below her wing, clearly embarrassed. The conversation about Wei Wuxian and his terrible raven ends with an awkward, furious silence.
Unfortunately, daylight and the presence of others does not temper Wei Wuxian and his raven’s shameless behaviour. They attend the lectures with the rest of the disciples, and continue to be an absolute, utter, nuisance.
Wei Wuxian and his slouching and his flying notes and his talismans would be bad enough on their own, but that raven. She doesn’t sit still like the daemons of the other pupils. She hops around Wei Wuxian’s desk, dipping her talons into the inkwell to scratch rough notes beside his own. Whenever Uncle and his heron’s backs are turned, she flies over to Jiang Wanyin’s desk to pull the feathers of his shelduck, or over to Nie Huaisang’s hawk-cuckoo to do the same. And of course, of course, she tries to yank Luxin’s feathers too.
Wangji does not want to cause a disturbance, but Luxin is quivering with rage where she’s sat beside Wangji. And oh, Wangji wants so badly for his daemon to turn her long neck and give that raven a fierce bite. But there is no fighting allowed, and for Luxin to lose her temper during this lesson would bring shame upon their clan, would not be exercising restraint.
But as the lecture goes on, the raven’s behaviour only worsens– or rather, focuses. She leaves the shelduck and hawk-cuckoo alone, and focuses entirely on harassing Luxin. Uncle’s back is turned, and the raven is yanking insistently at Luxin’s tail feathers. Wangji is just about to stomach interrupting the lesson to inform Uncle of what’s happening, when Luxin, in one swift movement, stands up, hops backward, and sits down.
The raven’s squawk is muffled by Luxin’s feathers. She is pinned completely, having been sat on. Luxin settles on top of her, head held high, looking smug.
Wangji is…mortified. What will Uncle say, when he turns and sees Wei Wuxian’s daemon beneath Wangji’s? And oh, oh no, Wei Wuxian is sitting many seats away, which means his daemon is closer to Wangji than to himself. And that is verging on improper.
Some of Wangji’s unease, or rather, horror, must bleed through to Luxin, because her smugness fades she lowers her head and rises, allowing the raven to escape. The wretched little troublemaker shuffles back to Wei Wuxian’s side, looking dazed. But Wei Wuxian has his whole head turned towards Wangji and Luxin. His face going from shock to wide-eyed delight.
And that’s just– what is wrong with them? Who looks so happy to have their daemon sat on?
Wangji huffs, returning his gaze to the front of the class.
Disruptions and distractions are not permitted. The best way to deal with Wei Wuxian and his raven is to not deal with them at all. Wangji will ignore them, and instruct Luxin to do the same. For as long as they’re here.
Xinying is so, so bored!
Wei Ying, at least, has all those terrible rules to copy to keep him busy. Xinying just has to sit here, in this stuffy library with nothing to do. That swan, that annoying swan, has an eye fixed on her at all times. Xinying can’t get close enough to so much as tweak a feather! Why does the Second Young Master Lan have a daemon with such an infuriatingly long neck? It’s no fair.
Finally, Xinying can’t take it anymore. She hops in front of Wei Ying, moans pitifully, and collapses in a heap on the desk. “A-Ying, A-Ying can’t take this anymore. I’m so bored! I have to get out of this library before I lose my mind.”
Wei Ying blinks, and then throws a hand across his brow with a wretched cry. “What! A-Ying is abandoning A-Ying to the stuffy Second Young Master Lan and this dusty library?”
“A-Ying is so sorry A-Ying! But A-Ying understands that A-Ying needs to stretch her wings or she will literally die of boredom, right?”
“A-Ying understands, but will miss A-Ying terrible while she is gone!”
They wail at each other some more. It’s the kind of performance that always makes others uncomfortable. People don’t usually talk to their daemons around those that aren’t family, at least not above a whisper. Xinying sneaks a peek across the room and– yes, Lan Wangji look properly scandalized. Ha! It’s probably even worse because, well, Xinying announced part of her name just now, didn’t she? And that’s a big no-no, sharing a daemon’s name with someone who isn’t family or very, very close.
Well, Xinying doesn’t think it should be such a big deal, anyways. Why are daemons supposed to keep their names for only the people closest to their humans? Xinying likes her name. She likes to say it, she likes to hear it. She wouldn’t mind if that swan…
Xinying feels flushed beneath her feathers, embarrassed despite herself, and once she and Wei Ying are finished wailing at each other, she launches herself into the air and out of the library.
Once she’s in the air, the beautiful, unstuffy air, Xinying considers that this, her leaving, is probably close to, hm, showing off. Cultivators can go a long distance from their daemons. In fact, having a daemon that can leave you completely and go anywhere is considered one of the last steps before immortality. Most adult cultivators can comfortably have their daemons a quarter of a li away.
At fifteen, Wei Ying and Xinying can almost reach that, though not quite. Still, their tether is more than long enough for Xinying to fly up to the library roof. She does some circles, some rolls, stretching her wings after spending so much time sitting still. Then she perches down and lets the sun soak into her feathers while she looks around for something to distract her.
The sound of powerful wings beating through the air makes her turn, and oh, it’s the swan. Lan Wangji’s daemon. She rises above the roof, the wind from her flapping ruffling Xinying’s feathers.
“Ah?” Xinying blinks. “Ah! Oh, I see! You thought I was showing off, with how far I could go from Wei Ying, and wanted to show me you could go that far too. I see, I see, the Second Mistress Daemon of the Lan clan is truly something else, I should have known–,”
“Not showing off,” the swan says shortly. “You are also being punished. Return to the library.”
“What? I didn’t say anything to Master Lan!”
“Daemons are to take punishment along with their masters. No exceptions.”
“You didn’t say so in the library!”
The swan shifts uncomfortably. Xinying huffs, and it takes a few seconds for her to think past her annoyance and realize, no, Lan Wangji couldn’t have said so, because it would have seemed like he was talking to Xinying, and that would have been improper. And the swan couldn’t have said so, because then she would have had to speak loud enough for Wei Ying to hear, and that would have been improper too.
It is baffling to Xinying that more daemons aren’t like her, willing to talk as loud as they want, to whoever. Working around all these rules seems exhausting.
“Return to the library,” the swan repeats. “You will sit and respect the proper conduct of gentry daemons.”
Xinying hops backwards, away from the swan, laughing. “The proper conduct of gentry daemons? Are you so upset that I spoke so loud? Or is it that I said part of my name? Second Mistress Daemon, don’t worry! You only know the second half, and you don’t even know the character for it! Aren’t your feathers a little too ruffled?”
The swan huffs. “That is…I don’t care. Return to the library.”
“It’s not the ‘Ying’ for child, you know,” Xinying continues. “Wei Ying uses the ‘Ying’ for child. My name doesn’t.”
“Irrelevant. Do not stall. Return–,”
“It’s the ‘Ying’ for sound,” Xinying keeps going, unable to stop the words tumbling from her beaks. “That’s the character. Sound. Heart sound. Xinying.”
The swan’s beak snaps shut.
Xinying’s own heart is suddenly racing. Oh, well, oh. Why, exactly, did she do that? It’s not, it’s not a big deal, she refuses to let it be a big deal, but–
“Ah, aha! Keeping names secret is stupid anyways, they’re just names!” Xinying says, her voice a pitch too high. “It’s fine! It’s fine if you know my name. It’s fine. It’s really fine.”
And then, because she’s so embarrassed she thinks she might die, Xinying takes to the air.
She can’t go too far up, with Wei Ying down below in the library, but she flies a little higher, and then even higher, until she feels tension in the tether. Until she knows that she’s making Wei Ying wince, down below.
Then she lets herself fall, falling until she almost hits the roof, before rolling in the air and swooping back upwards.
She almost crashes into the swan, who is suddenly right there, right in Xinying’s space, making her squawk and wheel away.
“You– did you strain yourself?” the swan asks. “Why did you fall?”
“Fall?” Xinying laughs. She flies upwards, and then drops again, spinning. “I’m not falling, I’m dancing!”
She flies back and forth beneath the swan, who hovers in the air, head moving side to side as she tracks Xinying’s movements. “Birds do not dance.”
“Ravens do!” Xinying continues her diving and rolling, then traces loops through the air. She circles the swan, up and around, as if she was drawing a rope around her, over and under and over again. The swan tries to follow her motions, eyes fixed on Xinying like she can’t look away.
“Ravens dance,” Xinying says again. “But real ravens– you should see them! They do it together, they don’t dance alone. They fall together, fly together, it’s beautiful to watch. Ah, but it’s fun on my own too! I’m really glad to be a raven. I love to dance.”
The swan says nothing. She doesn’t huff, or scoff, or tell Xinying she needs to be punished. She watches. And keeps watching, as Xinying keeps dancing.
Eventually, Xinying hears Wei Ying call her, and she dives down to him as he exits the library, landing on his shoulder. As always, an unnamed unease dissipates once they’re together again. When they’re stretching their tether, it’s– it’s fine. Xinying’s strong, so she can deal with it. But it’s always better to be like this, touching.
The swan flies down as well. She rejoins her Lan Wangji, standing at his side with her head ducked, almost sheepish.
“A-Ying, did you spend all that time running from the Second Mistress Daemon?” Wei Ying whispers to Xinying. “Lan Zhan said she was bringing you back for punishment.”
“I think I made her dizzy, flying loops all around,” Xinying whispers back. “She just kept staring.”
“Punishment incomplete, as your daemon wasn’t present,” Lan Wangji intones, eyes flicking momentarily towards his sheepish swan. “Return tomorrow.”
Wei Ying wails. Xinying wails with him, but her eyes stay on the swan, and excitement overwhelms her dread.
Luxin has never kept secrets from Wangji before.
Stretching a tether between daemon and cultivator runs many risks, dangers involved with having yourself split and far apart. But no one warned Wangji and Luxin that as they began to stretch themselves, grow their distance, they would begin to experience things alone. It has never before occurred to Wangji that Luxin might see things and then choose not to tell him about it.
But he knows, with unfailing certainty, that Luxin is keeping a secret from him.
It is, as all things seem to be, the fault of Wei Wuxian and his daemon. Luxin has been frazzled and reticent since chasing the raven to the library roof. Guarded and sheepish, her head tucked under her wing during the night. She is not meeting Wangji’s eyes.
Wangji has no idea how to broach the subject. Luxin is his daemon. He shouldn’t…he shouldn’t have to ask her what she’s hiding. She shouldn’t be hiding anything at all.
He doesn’t say anything. He stews in a baffled silence while Luxin keeps her head tucked under her wing. They ignore each other, in mutual misery.
Wangji is in an awful mood when he heads to the library the following day. He is tense and furious and sulking over his silent fight with his daemon when Wei Wuxian and his raven slink into the library. Wangji swallows down the flush of anger at the sight of them, and braces himself for a flood of nonsense and a liberal use of his birth name.
But Wei Wuxian looks strangely sheepish. He rubs his finger along the side of his nose, looking at Wangji, then at Luxin, then looking away. His raven is acting similarly, perched on his shoulder with her feathers ruffled, looking at Luxin, then at Wangji, then looking away.
…Do they know? Are they in on whatever secret Luxin’s keeping? Oh, now Wangji is even angrier. So the raven told Wei Wuxian what happened on the roof, but Luxin won’t tell Wangji? Wangji resists the urge to turn and glare at his daemon. Not that he thinks she’d see it. She’s turned herself around so she’s facing the opposite way, studiously staring at a wall.
The atmosphere is heavy, the silence of the library almost oppressive. Wei Wuxian keeps looking, then looking away. Has pulled out parchments, as well as the scroll of the rules, and looks poised to start copying without so much of a word of complaint, without Wangji ordering him to do so. His raven isn’t loudly and improperly protesting either. Nor has she tried to escape. Her feathers are still fluffed, and she’s shifting on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, staring at Luxin and–
“I can’t take it anymore!” the raven explodes. “Why are you making it so weird? It doesn’t have to be this weird!”
Wangji turns his head to the side, resisting the urge to cover his burning ears. What proper daemon would speak so loudly?
“Ah, Lan Wangji, Second Master Lan,” Wei Wuxian begins, prompting Wangji to flick his eyes up towards him. “Listen, I really don’t care that Xinying shared her name with you guys. It’s not that big a deal, you know? Um, you’re being really weird about it. But can’t you just forget it and move on? We really don’t care, do we A-Ying?”
“I wanted to tell you!” the raven - Xinying?? says, still staring at Luxin, who has gone stiff as board. “It’s not a big deal! I can tell who I want! You don’t have to be weird about it!”
Wangji is…sweating. Xinying. He wants to have misheard, but no. That is, certainly the name of Wei Wuxian’s daemon. A name she had apparently shared with Luxin.
Oh. That would by why. Luxin would have known it to be improper, to share another daemon’s name. But couldn’t she have just told Wangji that? Why…
Did Luxin…did Luxin share her name? Did Wei Wuxian know Wangji’s daemon’s name? Is Wei Wuxian the first person who is not Uncle or Lan Xichen or Wangji’s parents to know Luxin’s name?
That…that could cause a scandal. Wangji wants to snap his brush in half. He wants to pull out Bichen and demand a duel to salvage his tattered honour. He wants to grab Wei Wuxian by his collar and–
“Second Master Lan, don’t worry, we won’t ask your daemon’s name,” Wei Wuxian says earnestly, anxiously. “So can you like…stop being so weird? Just go back to being regular mean and grumpy, instead of all ruffled and mean, like a wet cat.”
Not a wet cat. Wangji exhales hard through his nose, feeling very much like he’s bristling from head to toe. With a quick shift of his eyes, he hazards a glance towards his silent daemon.
Luxin, her secret exposed, has slowly turned her long neck to look back at Wangji. Her head is still lowered slightly, still guilty, but Wangji is able to scrub the frustration and hurt from his expression, looking at her with more reassurance now that he understands her actions. Wei Wuxian’s terrible raven really had put Luxin in a terrible situation.
Wei Xinying. The raven’s name. The name that Wangji now knows.
Despite himself, a part of him wants to ask– which xin? It, Luxin’s name is so unusual, it wouldn’t be the same xin for heart, would it? Daemon names, among the gentry, always use a character that contents the heart radical. But the actual character for heart is not used.
Luxin’s name uses the ‘xin’ character for ‘heart’. Does Wei Xinying’s?
Wangji wonders, and wants to ask, and hates himself for it.
“Enough,” is what he says. “Start copying.”
Wei Wuxian pouts, but seems to relax. He dips his brush in ink and begins copying with a heavy sigh. His raven goes from his shoulder, to the desk, to the floor, hopping about with ceaseless nervous motion, and continually turning her head to stare at Luxin.
Wangji, trying to concentrate on his reading, cannot help but notice that Luxin keeps lifting her head to stare back.
There is– Wangji struggles, staring at the pages. Daemon names are not to be shared with anyone but family, close family. People in sworn brotherhoods may share their daemon names, but it is not an expectation. The only people not blood related who share daemon names are spouses. There are some stories about close friends, traveling partners who share daemon names, but they always had an air of a toeing the line of impropriety.
Which is to say, it is somewhere between baffling and horrifying that Wei Wuxian’s daemon told Luxin her name.
Wangji is, he doesn’t know what to make of it. Is this just something she does? How many people know her name? That, that shameless raven. She probably told Nie Huaisang’s hawk-cuckoo her name the moment they met, she’s probably told every daemon in Yunmeng her name.
There is absolutely no reason for Luxin to say her name back. Even though the inherent imbalance of it makes Wangji feel awkward. Makes him wonder if maybe, he should consider…
And then Wei Wuxian slips an inappropriate book into Wangji’s lap, proving that he has no sense of propriety, no decorum, and no respect for Wangji and Luxin.
Let Wei Wuxian’s shameless raven shout her name to the world. Wangji resolves to forget he ever learned it.
Wangji didn’t want Luxin to share her name.
Luxin understands, and knows that he is correct. It would be the height of impropriety, for someone outside of their clan to learn the name of Second Young Master Lan’s daemon. And Wei Wuxian and, and his raven have such loud mouths. There would be no way it would stay secret. Everyone would know, and Luxin and Wangji would be dishonoured.
Wangji is right. Luxin should not share it.
Xinying. The raven’s name plays over and over in Luxin’s head. Xinying, heart-sound. The memory of a blur of black tumbling and laughing through the air is constantly on Luxin’s mind. Xinying, did you know my name also has…
Luxin ignores the raven’s every attempt to get her attention, in the next few days. She keeps her head turned away, and her beak shut in silence.
Ignore her, Wangji says. And Luxin, of course, will obey.
Ignore her, Luxin doesn’t look at the raven, even when her closed eyes are full of images of her dancing.
Ignore her, Luxin can do it. Luxin will do it. Until the classes end. Until Luxin never, ever has to see her again–
Unfortunately, Luxin’s plans are derailed when the Cold Springs swallow them all whole.
Wangji’s own policy of ignore is ruined as well, his face resigned as he ties his ribbon around Wei Wuxian’s wrist. Xinying is sodden and shivering, sitting on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and shaking out her feathers every few seconds. Luxin floats across the water, fighting the bizarre urge to let the raven know that swans are very strong, and can carry considerable weight on their backs…
But foolish thoughts are banished by the appearance of Lan Yi. Luxin tries to collect herself, to straighten her feathers and present herself with the decorum of a Lan daemon. To not let Wei Xinying lead her astray.
Unfortunately, hopes of maintaining careful distance are shredded when Lan Yi introduces herself, and her daemon than introduces himself as Lan Mingsong.
This– oh, this is– Lan Yi is considered dead, so her daemon’s name is written in the clan histories, so Luxin and Wangji already knew it, but Wei Wuxian wouldn’t know, but Wangji has tied his wrist with Wuxian’s essentially claiming him as a family, which means–
Wangji introduces himself, bowing low. And then, in the slight pause that follows, Luxin dips her own head. “And this daemon is Lan Luxin.”
Wangji stiffens. Luxin fights the urge to hide her head under her wing. It’s– what was she supposed to do? Not introduce herself to their clan elder? Act like she couldn’t speak her name when Wangji just betrothed himself to Wei Wuxian? Who, between Luxin and her master, has acted more shamelessly?
“This– this one is Wei Wuxian.” He introduces himself with a low bow as well, his wide eyes flicking towards Luxin for a moment.
“And Wei Xinying!” his raven adds, completely failing not to stare at Luxin.
Luxin keeps her head high. She listens to Lan Yi speak. She watches Lan Mingsong watch her back, a curious, almost amused tilt to his head. She doesn’t let herself fret, or agonize over potential impropriety.
Because deep, deep down, Lan Luxin is thrilled that Wei Xinying now knows her name.
Lan Luxin. Luxin.
Xinying had barely been able to wait until she and Wei Ying were alone before she bubbled over with excitement. She knew the swan’s name. They both knew each other’s names! And Lan Luxin had just come out and said it!
Wei Ying suspects it has something to do with Lan Yi’s daemon introducing himself. Yeah, that had been kind of weird and uncomfortable? Technically, it wasn’t improper because Lan Yi was considered dead, and maybe the ribbon had something to do with it too, but still, it felt kind of odd to know of the name of an elder’s daemon.
Whatever, Wei Ying cares more about Lan Luxin’s name anyways. She really just said it! Wei Ying wonders if Lan Zhan and Lan Luxin are like, really upset about it. But if it bothered them so much, than Lan Luxin wouldn’t have said her name, right?
Maddeningly, Wei Ying gets no time alone with Lan Zhan to ask him about the Yin Iron, or about Lan Luxin. They’re just bustled along in opposite directions, Lan Zhan to keep secretly conferring with his brother and Uncle and Wei Ying to be fussed over by Shijie and Jiang Cheng.
Wei Ying does his best not-run-but-basically-running dash to Lan Zhan when he sees him alone at the lantern ceremony. No one has snagged him as a partner, so Xinying flies ahead and claims the spot beside Lan Luxin while Wei Ying follows close behind. Both Lans look up, inscrutable.
Wei Ying is buzzing. He wants so bad to ask Lan Luxin about her name, about the xin, about why she said it. But there’s so many people around, any conversations would be overheard. And yeah, he might not be like, super tactful, but Wei Ying knows that Lan Zhan isn’t going to want other people to know that he and Wei Wuxian know the names of each other’s daemons.
So he tries to talk about a slightly less dangerous topic! The Yin Iron. Unfortunately, Lan Zhan is having none of it. He gives Wei Ying several scathing glares, until Wei Ying can only giggle sheepishly and change the subject.
He peeks over at Xinying to see how she’s faring. And oh! She’s chattering intently about everything but the Yin Iron, about Yunmneg mostly, and Lan Luxin’s long elegant neck is bent, her head hovering just above Xinying’s. She’s listening intently. Visibly.
Wei Ying feels…weird. His stomach does a swoopy thing, and he’s not sure if he’s pleased or feeling ill. It’s just, wow. They’re daemons are sitting really close, and they’re not fighting! That’s…that’s different. The only daemons who get that close to Xinying are Yulian and Jiayuan, family. Even good friends don’t always have their daemons get along like this. At least, not when one of the friends is still kind of ignoring the other.
It occurs to Wei Ying that the kind of stories where daemons become close friends while their masters are still at odds are…romances.
Ha! But this is completely different. Knowing each other’s name was bound to be like, a bonding experience. For daemons, the sharing of their names was very personal. Xinying had said it hadn’t bothered her, but she’d kept Wei Ying up all night fretting after she’d told Wangji’s swan her name. She was very obviously very relieved to know Lan Luxin’s name. To be on equal footing with her. Xinying likes to be equals with Lan Luxin. The same way Wei Ying likes to be equal with Lan Zhan.
We have to go with him to find the Yin Iron. Wei Ying is firm about that. He’s not going to let Lan Zhan and Lan Luxin sneak away.
He draws a rabbit on the lantern, playing with a long-necked swan. Lan Zhan’s mouth quirks into a smile and Lan Luxin makes what sounds like a low hum of approval.
But then Xinying shrieks in delight and Wei Ying echoes her with his finger pointing at Lan Zhan’s face and the moment, literally, goes up in flames.
Still, everyone gets a lantern finished and ready eventually. Wei Ying holds his, and Xinying sits on his shoulder, peering at it intently.
“Well? What should we wish for A-Ying?” she asks. “What do we want more than anything?”
“Well A-Ying, we shouldn’t be shortsighted. It shouldn’t be a wish for the moment, but a wish for our lives.”
“So no wishes for alcohol, good food, or good company?”
Wei Ying laughs. He and Xinying aren’t whispering, and he’s aware of Lan Zhan and Lan Luxin practically at their shoulder, definitely able to overhear.
Still, he knows what he’s going to wish for. He would wish for it even if Lan Zhan and Lan Luxin weren’t here, listening.
“I, Wei Wuxian, wish to always stand with justice, protect the weak, and live with no regrets,” he says fervently, Xinying echoing his words. Wei Ying thinks he hears Lan Luxin make a hum of approval…but it could have been the wind.
He doesn’t mishear when Jin Zixuan starts being an ass.
“Just where are you going? Are you unsatisfied with my Shijie?” Wei Ying demands furiously. Jin Zixuan, the bratty, awful bastard whirls around and snaps, “Just who would be unsatisfied with an unbalanced woman like her?”
There’s a moment of hushed quiet from the previously gossiping Jin retinue. Wei Ying hears a quick, pained breath from his Shijie behind him.
And then all he can hear is the roaring in his ears and Xinying’s furious shrieking as she crashes into Jin Zixan’s osprey and tries to tear her eyes out. Wei Ying feels the pain of their fight, but studiously ignores is as he tries to beat the smug superiority right out of Jin Zixuan’s face.
He doesn’t get far into it before Lan Zhan is pulling him back, Lan Luxin buffeting Xinying away from the osprey with her large wings. The entourage of Jin disciples and their daemons fill the space between Wei Ying and their young master, helping him to his feet.
“Take it back!” Wei Ying snarls. “How dare you! Take it back!”
“My mother arranged this engagement! Who says I have to want it!” Jin Zixuan snaps. He might be about to say something else, but then Lan Zhan turns his head, expression almost thunderous.
“Jin Zixuan,” Lan Zhan says quiet, but viciously. “You are a guest disciple of GusuLan. The words you spoke tonight were unbecoming of those we allow to study here. It would be in your best interest to take the time to reflect on your actions, elsewhere.”
Get out of my sight. Lan Luxin hisses and flares her wings. It is a stunning lack of composure from a Lan daemon, and Jin Zixuan’s osprey looks flustered, while angry pink splotches appear on Jin Zixuan’s cheeks.
But he leaves. Wei Ying strains against Lan Zhan’s arms, wanting to go after him– but he can’t use his full strength to get away without dislodging Shijie, who is on his other side.
“A-Xian,” she whispers. “A-Xian, it’s alright. There’s no need. Let Young Master Jin be.”
“Shijie,” Wei Ying turns to her, eyes filled with furious tears. “Shijie, what he said–,”
“It is alright,” she whispers, wiping his eyes even as her own begin to fill. “A-Xian, it is alright.”
At her feet, Jiayuan, a beautiful, perfect, female merganser, begins to run her beak through Xinying’s feathers. She says nothing. Outside of Lotus Pier, outside of the inner rooms of the Jiang estate, Jiang Jiayuan rarely speaks. It is easier to hide the fact that she is female like her mistress, if she doesn’t speak.
But of course Jin Zixuan already knew.
Unbalanced. Wei Ying can’t stop shaking with rage.
Lan Zhan stays at Wei Ying’s side, even though he stops grabbing him. He’s the head of discipline once again, marching Wei Ying to his Uncle with a tight expression and no leeway, no capitulation to Wei Ying’s desire to turn back, find Jin Zixuan, and rip his face off. Lan Luxin flies above Xinying. If Xinying really wanted to get away, she could, but she, like Wei Ying, is aware that they’re not going to get away with this, fighting the young master of another sect in front of so may people. They, after all, are not quite gentry themselves. Wei Ying is not formally adopted so, so…
He’s crossed some lines today. Unforgivable ones, probably.
Master Lan is stony-faced. Wei Ying swallows, and then sullenly makes his apologies for fighting, while also asserting that Jin Zixuan deserved it.
“Disagreements should never devolve to brawling,” Master Lan says, disgusted. “Fighting with the young master of the Jin sect, of all people! You truly are an unruly–,”
“Uncle,” Lan Zhan interrupts, and then, bows. “Wangji apologizes for the interruption. But the comments Jin Zixuan made were…unacceptable. Such language is not permitted within our walls. Fighting…is not the answer, but this disciple believes Jin Zixuan owes Young Mistress Jiang a formal, written apology for his comments.”
Master Lan pauses. Frowns. “What was the remark made?”
Wei Ying swallows. Is about to bite his tongue and repeat it, when there’s a hesitant cough from the door.
They all turn in time to see a sheepish looking Nie Huaisang and his even more sheepish-looking hawk-cuckoo standing nervously in the doorway.
“Ah…don’t mind me…i don’t want to um…interrupt…” Nie Huaisang says nervously. “Well…okay….maybe that’s not true. Um, I overheard the fight, and I just wanted to say, that um, I can’t speak on behalf of the Nie clan, but personally, I also took offence to Jin Zixuan’s comments. And um, I offer my thanks to Wei Wuxian for not letting the comment against Jiang Yanli stand. Um…again, I’m not speaking on behalf of the Nie clan or anything, but Da-ge does not stand for such speech, and if Jin Zixuan’s statement had been made in Qinghe he wouldn’t have gotten away with only a bruised eye and some missing hair.” The stuttering, the uncertainty, utterly leave Nie Huaisang in his last statement, his voice flat. The eyes of daemon, usually wide and guileless, look unexpectedly sharp. The hawk-cuckoo has never hidden the fact that he’s male like his master. And no one has been crass enough to make a remark about it.
But the Jin clan really are just…the worst.
Master Lan seems to read between the lines and put everything together. His scowl cedes to a pinched, uncomfortable expression. “Young Master Jin referred to Young Mistress Jiang as…unbalanced?”
“Yes,” Wei Ying hisses, while Lan Zhan just gives a solemn nod.
Master Lan sighs heavily. “That is…there may be different standard in Lanling, but Wangji is right, such language is…unbecoming of a guest of Cloud Recesses. I will send for Jin Zixuan. He will be punished, though an official letter of apology will have to go through his father. However…I will likely send for Sect Leader Jin and Sect Leader Jiang as well. It appears…this engagement may need to be discussed.”
Then Master Lan turns a sharp, disapproving eye to Wei Ying. “However, fighting is still not allowed. You will kneel on the stones for the length of two incense sticks, and meditate on proper ways of conflict resolution.”
Xinying moans in protest, but Wei Ying, still humming with anger, still barely able to resist the urge to turn on his heel and find Jin Zixuan and strangle him, bows low. “Yes, Master Lan.”
It’s while kneeling, while ‘reflecting’ that Wei Ying’s anger cools enough that he can think about the Lan’s reaction. It’s…a surprising one. Even in Yunmeng, people look oddly at those with daemons of the same gender. Unbalanced, is the word. An inherent wrongness. Bastards and the unbalanced are always the villains in fairytales and folklore. And if they’re not the villains, if the word unbalanced is traded for Yin-heavy for women and Yang-heavy for men, the characters are still contemptible; the village fool, the half-crazed old woman, the sickly maiden.
Even in Yunmeng, where the gossip is pitying rather than hateful, the words are the same. “Can you imagine…having your firstborn child be unbalanced?”
Wei Ying had been furious with Jin Zixuan because he was engaged to Shiji and should be punching people who hurt her, not hurting her himself. But he hadn’t expected anyone to back him up. He hadn’t expected Lan Zhan to be so furious as well. Nie Huaisang he understands, it’s personal, but Lan Zhan and his Uncle? Neither they nor Lan Xichen were Yang-heavy. Was their father? Was their mother Yin-heavy?
Wei Ying wonders.
“It was nice of Lan Luxin and Lan Zhan to defend us,” Xinying comments. “I thought they were just going to scold us some more.”
“Lan Zhan believes in justice too, that’s probably why,” Wei Ying says, though his voice is a little uncertain. “He’s just so stuffy, you’d never know!”
“Lan Luxin isn’t so stuffy,” Xinying says. “She laughs a lot, quietly. Little huffs. I hear her do it when I sit close. It’s nice. I never knew she laughed so much.”
There’s something in Xinying’s voice that makes Wei Ying turn towards her, eyebrow raised. But his daemon turns away from him, suddenly, pointedly distracted by some ants running over the stones.
“Lu, meaning ‘to consider’,” Lan Luxin says, “and xin for heart.”
“Consider the heart?” Lan Luxin nods and if Xinying could smile, she’d be grinning. “That’s so pretty, that’s so nice, that’s so poetic! Ah, my name is boring, compared to yours. Consider the heart! Ah, is that an ironic name, for a Lan daemon. Don’t you all pretend not to have hearts?”
Lan Luxin huffs, and Xinying feels a little bad for teasing. They’re travelling together, them and Wei Ying and Lan Wangji, off to search for the pieces of the Yin Iron. She and Lan Luxin are flying high up above their masters, and it’s strange, having conversations so far away from Wei Ying. But Xinying loves getting to speak like this, to say each other’s names, to fly close together. And she likes…likes Lan Luxin a lot. A lot.
“I don’t mean to tease,” Xinying says, as close to an apology as she’ll get. “I mean– I meant to tease a little. But not to make you feel bad! I like your name a lot. It’s really cool. Heart sound is boring in comparison! I mean, it’s not like, a message the way your name is.”
Lan Luxin makes the humming sound she makes when she’s heard something that’s pleased her but she doesn’t want to directly acknowledge it. It’s like the slight softening around the corners of Lan Zhan’s mouth that Wei Ying’s begun to notice.
Xinying feels a surge of discomfort, unease. Suddenly, she wants to be down with Wei Ying. She feels weird, wondering what conversation he’s having with Lan Zhan, and not being there to hear them.
But, she doesn’t want to be a, a baby, running back to her person. Cultivator daemons roam far. Powerful ones at least. And Xinying is going to be powerful. She has to get used to being apart from Wei Ying. And Lan Luxin doesn’t look like she’s missing her person. Peerless indeed! Maybe their tether is longer than they let on. Maybe Xinying has some catching up to do.
The thought isn’t sobering at all– it thrills her.
“Lan Luxin.” The swan turns her head. Xinying flies in a circle around her. “Lan Luxin!”
“Yes?” Lan Luxin says, patiently.
“Nothing!” Xinying laughs. “I just like saying your name. I like knowing your name. I like knowing your name and saying it.”
“Hmph. Ridiculous.” But Lan Luxin banks to the side and then flaps her wings in such a way that a rush of wind buffets Xinying to the side. And as Xinying goes spinning with an indignant squawk she hears the quiet huff of Lan Luxin’s laughter.
Let’s do this forever, Xinying thinks fervently. Let’s travel, us and Wei Ying and Lan Zhan, together forever. We can say our names as loud as we want. You can laugh a little louder, since no one but us will hear it. Lan Luxin, I’ll teach you how to dance on your wings.