It had not stopped raining. In fact, the rain intensified, coming down with serious and specific intent. Consequently, Jingyi and Jiashao returned to the cave wet to the skin.
The group assignment was to survive and remain unharmed for two sunsets and three sunrises after being dropped off in unfamiliar wilderness with only a short knife each. Certain senior family had grumbled it was not a traditional exercise, that it was shameful to conduct it without swords, that the exercise was unworthy of cultivators, let alone Lan cultivators. Nevertheless, Zewu-Jun stood firm, and eventually, the senior family gave way.
After all, it was difficult to argue on this point -- had he not been forced to hide from the Wen in the wilderness for a period, saved from death only by the intervention of his sworn brother, Jin Guangyao? During the Sunshot Campaign, the Lans spent three years almost continuously in the field. Until they had been able to join forces with the Nie and receive the benefit of Jin supply lines, they ate grubs out of their nests, stripped bark from trees, hunted for meat with spiritual weapons in order to conduct a guerilla war upon the Wen. In the event of cultivation power being depleted or sealed, it was possible that spiritual weapons might not be available to be drawn.
Therefore, it was necessary for their children to know how to survive in the wild with minimal equipment.
To enable success at the level required of Lan, there were classroom lessons and supervised trips beforehand. In recognition of potential dangers, Sizhui carried on his back a green, self-lighting flare in a waterproof sleeve to use if anyone became seriously injured.
"We don't have anything to start a fire with," Jiashao said. In a strip torn from his robe, he held the scant handful of daylily roots and elderberries foraged in the rain. "And even if we do get a fire started, we'll never keep it going. I wish you hadn't made us go back out there. I'll never get dry and will die of lung congestion, and my father will never forgive your father, so you will have caused a family rift among brothers."
"You watch," Jingyi said, a little smug. "We'll have a fire."
Crouched by a small pile of carefully shredded leaves and twigs, retrieved from the depths of the cave and dry enough, Sizhui concentrated. He struck two rocks against each other -- Jiashao was about to comment that neither of those were flint or pyrite, but Jingyi stilled him with an elbow to the ribs. Eyes half-closed, Sizhui struck the rocks again and encouraged, from his heart meridian, sparks to manifest, to catch, to find a home.
"I've asked him to teach me," Jingyi said, "but he says he just asks the fire."
Years later, in an early spring with stars above with a small fire flickering in a patch of carefully-cleared out, stamped-down dirt, Wen-qianbei explains: the Wen have always been friends with warmth.
When it starts to rain, Wen Ning and Sizhui retreat under a bridge.
The area is generally prosperous, so the bridge is well-built and made from well-fitted, sturdy stone with crushed rock underneath rather than bare mud. It provides shelter from the late spring rain, and Sizhui settles his back against the underside of the stones, ready to wait. They had been hoping to reach the village over the ridge before mid-day, so that they might have time to speak to the residents and gain more information about the spirits that had been plaguing them from the turn of the season, so before joining Sizhui, Wen-qianbei sticks his head -- still wearing his knit grass hat -- beyond the edge of the bridge, into the rain a little. Hand on stone still warm from sun, he sings:
Birds in the sky - hey!
Rabbits in the field - ha!
Come out, bright sun,
And make the world dry - soon!
The Lan do not approve of casual music, reserving it for refined instruments, recitation of approved poetry, and serious cultivation. Further, Sizhui does not believe himself to be the finest musician even among the class of junior disciples that he left behind. Nevertheless, he is confident this is unlike anything he has ever heard before, not in the streets of Caiyi, not in the rooms of the Jinlintai or the pond-courtyards of the Jiang. It is closest to, and yet distinct from, chants of the Nie in their training yards.
Sizhui asks, and Wen Ning is slightly embarrassed to admit it is Wen song for children, learned at the knees of mothers and nursemaids, sung to encourage better weather to enable outdoor playing.
Eagerly, Sizhui asks Ning-shushu to sing the song again, if he doesn't mind. Wen Ning looks as if he might weep from joy. Once the rain clears, they finish the rest of the walk to the village, singing the first verse together again and again -- later, Wen Ning teaches Sizhui the second verse, although he asks A-Yuan to consider not singing it where others might overhear. Unlike the first, it was a traditional song used by Wen soldiers on the march.
Fish in the pond - hey!
Horses in the meadow - ha!
You came out, bright sun,
And brought to the world - Wen!
Summer sun beat upon them, and while Ning-shushu did not feel it, Sizhui did. They retire to the shade of a stand of cedrela trees until the sun should not quite so high; fussing over A-Yuan, Wen Ning insists on taking both canteens and running up a mountain to fill them with clear, cold water from a stream far-removed from the filth of the main road.
"Are you sure that you don't want any, Ning-shushu? It tastes nice, and we have so many of them. I cannot eat them all."
Sizhui holds out a triangle of sticky rice, steamed inside fragrant plant leaves. As they left the village, a group of women had pressed a string of them into Sizhui's hand, begging him to take them, so that they could honor the great cultivator who had saved their children. Sizhui had blushed with his entire body. The one in hand was filled with salted egg yolk, which A-Yuan now understood to be fine eating, feast food in a poor village like that.
With a little more coaxing, Ning-shushu takes a few bites for the sake of politeness. He does not sweat. He does not breathe hard, not even from having run up a mountain, filled two canteens, and run straight back through the underbrush. Further, he does not drink any of the water to wash the sticky rice or salted egg from his mouth, and the heat of the summer continued to hang in the air, baking the dirt road in front of them into dust. Time passes.
"Ning-shushu, when I was growing up, I was taught that the Venerated Triad convinced Jin Guangshan to spare the lives of surviving Wen who were not cultivators, as well as your life and that of Wen Qing. Is that true?"
"Yes, A-Yuan, as far as I know."
"Was I among that number? Or was I -- born later?"
"You were with us. You do not need to worry. You are a Wen."
They have both been in the world enough to know the things that a victorious army or cruel guards might do to a conquered population containing women.
After a moment, A-Yuan asks, so Ning-shushu tells him: there was a forced march from Qishan to the place selected to hold the remaining Wen. By pooling together valuables hidden away in sewn-up pockets and robe linings and mouths, through great efforts by his sister, Wen Qing, they were able to persuade the Jin guards to provide a single cart to carry the very oldest and the very sickest. Wen Yuan was older than a baby, capable of walking, but still young. So when his strength gave out, his mother carried him on her back, as Wen Yuan's father had been among those cultivators executed earlier. When her strength failed, he was passed among the arms and backs of others in turn, so that the youngest among them would not be left behind.
Then, as the march continued, there was no longer excess strength among any of them even to carry a young child, they tried to have A-Yuan put into the cart, but the guards insisted that only a certain number of persons could be carried in the cart, that if the child were to be put in the cart, small as he was, someone must go. So the eldest of the Wen came down from the wagon, head high, pushing hands away and saying that age was to be venerated, but she carried six children to term and raised four to be trained as cultivators. She walked in fire before her wedding day. What was a road like this to her? So she walked, singing at first, but eventually fell behind. Eventually, like A-Yuan's mother, she lay down in the road-dust and did not rise again. All they had been permitted was setting the body to the side of the road, so that she would not be trampled before dogs and vultures ate her.
Tears run over cheeks hot from summer, but also from shame and anger.
"Ning-shushu, do you know the name of my mother and father?"
"I do not," Ning-shushu says, his voice cracking. "I do not. I have forgotten them."
"Do you know the name of the elder who climbed down from the wagon, so that I might live?"
"I do not know that either," Ning-shushu says. "I never knew it, and I am ashamed that I did not ask when she came off the wagon to die. Back then, I was not as I am now, or I would have fought all of them. During those days, I wished so often that I had strength -- "
Wen Yuan puts his face in his hands and weeps. Wen Ning puts an arm around him. They are together by a dirt road, summer heat under a shining, merciless sky.