The noise Wei Wuxian made when the sword sank into Jiang Cheng’s chest was unlike anything Jiang Yanli had ever heard.
And just like that, it was over. She knew it, even as she couldn’t comprehend it. Every chance they’d had of getting Wei Wuxian back was gone. He was gone, even as he still knelt there, clutching desperately at Jiang Cheng’s body. She could see the madness in his eyes even before the power exploded out of him.
It swept around them, animating all the bodies which had already fallen, although Jiang Cheng’s remained still, the pool of blood slowly gathering around them. That dark energy continued to flow from Wei Wuxian, the carnage spreading just like the blood, bringing death and more death and still more death.
“A-Xian, please stop,” Jiang Yanli cried out. “Please, you must stop this!”
“Wei Ying!” another voice shouted, a familiar voice. “Wei Ying, please!”
But Wei Wuxian was beyond hearing them. All of his anger and pain and grief could not be contained, could not be controlled. And still the power continued to burst out of him, bringing wave after wave of destruction -
Blood spilled from Wei Wuxian’s mouth, spattering on the ground in front of them, on Jiang Cheng’s body, on Jiang Yanli’s clothes.
“A-Xian!” she whispered.
The power began to flow back.
Wei Wuxian’s body twisted and spasmed as it hit the ground, and the shadows wrapped around him, crushing him, tightening, always tightening.
Jiang Yanli was vaguely aware of somebody grabbing her and throwing her to the ground, shielding her body with their own. “What’s happening?” she screamed.
“It’s a backlash!” somebody yelled, and she opened her eyes and saw gold robes, a vermilion mark. For the briefest of moments, she thought her husband had somehow come to save her, but then she realized it was not him. It was just some random, brave Jin disciple to whom she would owe her life. She didn’t even know his name.
“Wangji, no!” Lan Xichen’s voice rang out somehow over the cacophony, and Jiang Yanli looked over to see Lan Wangji struggle towards Wei Wuxian, fighting the cascades of dark energy, reaching out to him.
For the briefest of moments, the tips of Wei Wuxian’s fingers met Lan Wangji’s.
Then the storm intensified and Lan Wangji was thrown back. The dark magic continued to twist and writhe, and she caught a glimpse of Wei Wuxian’s face: an expression of utter despair followed by a quiet acceptance that was somehow the worst thing she had ever seen.
The power tore him apart.
Jiang Yanli screamed and screamed and could not stop screaming.
~ ~ ~ ~
Jiang Yanli woke in Koi Tower.
“How are you feeling?” a solicitous voice asked, the bare second her eyes opened, and she saw Yu Zixia sitting by the edge of her bed, holding Jin Ling.
“What happened?” Jiang Yanli whispered. “How did I get here?”
“After - ” Yu Zixia looked away. “How much do you remember?”
“I remember - ” Jiang Yanli’s voice broke, and she fought a wave of nausea. She remembered her brother, dying in her arms, and then her other brother, torn apart while nobody could help him. “I think I passed out. After A-Xian died. Where - where is A-Cheng’s - ” She could not bring herself to speak the word ‘body’. “How long has it been?”
“A day and a night,” Yu Zixia said. “Guangyao brought you back here on his sword, so that you could rest. A-Cheng’s body is being brought back to Lotus Pier by the surviving Yunmeng Jiang disciples.”
Jiang Yanli nodded mechanically. The Yunmeng Jiang disciples. Her people. Her father’s people, her brother’s people. The sect he had worked tirelessly to rebuild after the death of their parents. “I must go to Lotus Pier, then.”
“A-Li,” Yu Zixia said, and Jiang Yanli loved her, she did, Yu Zixia had been like a mother to her after Yu Ziyuan had died, but the tone of condescension that rarely left her voice made Jiang Yanli’s back stiffen, “surely it would be better for you to rest. There is nothing you need to do right now. Everything will be handled.”
“Yes, it will be,” Jiang Yanli said, getting out of bed. “Because I will handle it.” She saw the look on Yu Zixia’s face. “He is my brother, Jin-furen. I must go to him. I must be there when he is laid to rest. The Yunmeng Jiang sect is my responsibility now. I cannot let my grief deter me from what must be done. May I have A-Ling, please?”
“A-Li,” Yu Zixia said, although she did hand over Jin Ling, much to Jiang Yanli’s relief, “please do not push yourself so hard. Let others handle - ”
“No,” Jiang Yanli said. “I have spent far too much time letting other people handle things. Now my brothers and my husband are dead. And if I - ” Her voice broke. “If I let myself lie here now, letting people handle things, I will never get up again. I have to be stronger than that, for A-Ling’s sake if for nobody else.”
Yu Zixia’s face softened. “Very well, A-Li. I will speak to Guangyao and arrange an escort for you back to Lotus Pier.”
“Thank you, Jin-furen. May I have some privacy so that I might dress?”
Yu Zixia turned and left the room. Jiang Yanli turned to her things and carefully put all her grief away, wrapping it up until she would have time to deal with it. She dressed and did her hair and fed A-Ling before leaving her chambers. The boat was ready, Jin Guangyao told her. Half a dozen disciples had been chosen to go with her. Was there anything else he could do? Anything else she needed?
She told him no and thanked him for his efforts. Yu Zixia embraced her, and Jiang Yanli stepped onto the boat, wondering if they had any idea that she never intended to return.
~ ~ ~ ~
One day became two, became a week, became a month.
Jiang Yanli did not sleep much. Jin Ling was still so young; she was up with him often. During the day, she would occasionally take a brief nap if the circumstances allowed, but her nightmares woke her as often as her baby did.
The higher-ranking disciples had been skeptical, to put it kindly, of her statement that she would take the position as sect leader. She could hardly blame them. Her cultivation was not and had never been strong. Any of the top five disciples were more powerful. But she was the daughter of Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan, and they could not find any way to gainsay her.
If she hadn’t been adequate, she thought they might have seized power. But although her cultivation was low, she had watched her mother reign with an iron fist, and she had spent almost two years at Koi Tower, which was a political cesspool of intrigue and backstabbing. She knew what she was doing. She delegated tasks and night hunts, rewarded those who did well, oversaw the training by making sure the best teachers were in the right positions. By the time the first month was over, the disciples were calling her Jiang-zongzhu as if it were natural to them. Every time she heard it, she missed her brother so much that her heart ached and her stomach roiled, but she did not let anyone see.
The grief stayed locked in its box, where it belonged.
For the first month, she received weekly letters from Yu Zixia. How was she doing? How was Jin Ling doing? Who was she going to put in charge of the Yunmeng Jiang? When could they expect her return at Koi Tower?
She wrote back politely of her health and Jin Ling’s health and the progress she was making in learning how to lead the Yunmeng Jiang, and never addressed the last question at all.
Soon the letters were arriving twice a week, and sometimes they were from Jin Guangshan (or at least his wife had nagged him into signing one she had written). Their concerns grew more urgent. She was dearly missed. They wanted to see their grandson. Surely she did not actually intend to stay in Yunmeng. Surely she could not lead the Yunmeng Jiang by herself. They would be happy to help, the letters said. What could they do? They could send her someone to help choose who was best fit to lead. They could help with anything she needed, as long as what she needed was to put someone else in charge so she could go back to Lanling.
She kept her letters back polite and calm, reassuring them that she was doing well, that she had no need of assistance at this point, although she was deeply grateful for their offers.
The truth was, as much as she loved her son, the Yunmeng Jiang were all she had left of the family she had grown up with. Focusing on them, on the sect her father had ruled and her brother had rebuilt from ashes, kept her from being consumed by grief. She could not allow anyone else to take it from her.
After two months, she received a letter from Jin Guangyao.
‘I hope you are well,’ the letter opened, ‘and that I am not overstepping by writing to you directly, and that you will not find my words offensive in any way. I am merely concerned for your welfare and that of my parents. They are deeply worried about you and about A-Ling. Jin-furen cries nightly, thinking you will never return and she will never see her grandson again. My father worries about your ability to control a sect all on your own.’
Jiang Yanli sighed quietly, but the letter continued in a manner that she had not expected.
‘I am sure the Yunmeng Jiang could not ask for a better leader than you. I know that you having assumed control will bring comfort to the spirits of your parents and your brother, and that they would have every faith in you to hold the position. I have been speaking to my father about this in detail and reassuring him frequently that you would of course ask for our help should you need it, and therefore he need not make these constant offers to you. I am sure you know we stand behind you and will assist you in any way we can.
‘That being said, and again I must beg your forgiveness if you find this offensive, I will put to you a question which my parents cannot bring themselves to ask: what is your plan for Jin Ling’s future? As of now, he is the heir to both the Lanling Jin and the Yunmeng Jiang, but of course he cannot be both. If you intend for him to lead the Yunmeng Jiang, it brings up concerns for my own future which I would like to address as soon as possible.’
Now Jiang Yanli understood why he was writing. Of course, with Jin Zixuan dead and Jin Ling’s future as the heir to the Lanling Jin in doubt, Jin Guangyao would be the next in line. It was possible - even probable, given what she knew of his past - that Jin Guangyao was absolutely fine with Jiang Yanli and Jin Ling being gone. It gave him a clear ascendancy to the position of sect leader, which he could not have as long as Jin Ling was considered the heir. He would want to immediately find an appropriate wife and have children of his own, to further solidify that position.
She was not sure how to respond. Although she despised Jin Guangyao’s machinations, she also could not entirely blame him for them. His position had always been tenuous, based on his father’s whim, and she knew she could not imagine how terrible his life had been before his legitimization. Further than that, she would very much prefer to keep Jin Ling here with her, as the heir to the Yunmeng Jiang, and Jin Guangyao would be an ally in her struggle with Jin Ling’s grandparents over this. A valuable ally, she thought, for she had seen more than once how eloquent and persuasive Jin Guangyao could be, easily talking people around to his way of thinking despite how unlikely it seemed at the outset.
His letter ended with, ‘Again, I must apologize for my forwardness. I am merely hoping to resolve this issue quickly, so that my parents’ demands do not continue to cause you any distress. I hope you are well and that perhaps we can arrange a visit soon, as I dearly miss my little nephew. Please let me know if there is anything that I or the Lanling Jin can do for you.’
She slept on it, rocking Jin Ling back and forth, back and forth, dozing in and out for most of the night.
When she woke, she went to the ancestor’s shrine, as she did every morning, to prostrate herself three times and ask for wisdom and guidance. She touched the small plaques for Jiang Wanyin, for Wei Wuxian, and took a moment to carefully wrap and rewrap her grief, lest it escape.
There could be more children of the Lanling Jin, but never of Yunmeng Jiang. Jin Ling was the only descendant her parents would ever have. She could not allow him to go to Koi Tower. Despite her distaste for Jin Guangyao’s offer of alliance, she needed to accept it.
She sat down and wrote, ‘Thank you for your concern, Jin-gongzi. I am very well here at Lotus Pier, as is A-Ling. He misses you, too, as well as his grandparents. I hope that you, too, are well. As you asked of me, I must beg you to forgive how direct and forward you might find this letter. I think it is important we have clarity on the issues that you mentioned, during these fraught times.
As much as I dearly love Yu Zixia and would want to honor her and my late husband’s wishes, A-Ling is the only grandson that Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan will ever have. Jin Guangshan’s line can continue through you, but my parents’ line only moves through me. Therefore, I believe it would be most appropriate for A-Ling to be considered the heir to the Yunmeng Jiang at this point.
I wish you the best of luck in your future with the Lanling Jin. I am sure that you will be a capable sect leader someday, just as your brother would have been. I hope that we will remain friends, and I will assist you in any way I can as you look to your future. I am sure we can arrange a visit soon, perhaps once your parents are more accustomed to my new role here at Lotus Pier.’
She sent the letter with a courier, and went about her duties.
What Jin Guangyao said to his father, she had no idea. But the twice weekly letters stopped coming, and the weekly ones changed in tone, becoming less demanding and more supportive. She had a feeling that they were doing this as they thought it was the way to win her over, rather than because they actually meant any of what they said. But she invited them for a visit nonetheless.
They came and they cooed over Jin Ling and fussed over everything and if Jin Guangshan made altogether too many comments about how ‘remarkable’ it was that she was doing so well as sect leader, she tried to let it slide. She gathered quickly that Jin Guangyao had not said anything to his parents about Jin Ling becoming heir to the Yunmeng Jiang sect, but had instead just nudged them to be less demanding of Jiang Yanli’s presence in Lanling. He had persuaded them to ‘give her time’ to cope with what had happened, that by continuing to push her, they would only alienate her. They seemed convinced that she would at some point in the near future come back on her own, and Jiang Yanli could not help but wonder if Jin Guangyao had told them he would convince her, while secretly planning to do the exact opposite.
She didn’t care. She was so tired. The Lanling Jin could plot all they wanted, could scheme and lie and whisper. She was staying in Yunmeng, and so was her son. There was nothing that could change that. This was where she needed to be, and she wanted no part of their intrigues.
“ - so worried about Hanguang-Jun, of course,” Jin Guangyao was saying, and Jiang Yanli’s attention was drawn back from her dark thoughts. “Of course, that is like er-ge, to worry, but I hope my visit brought him some comfort. Did I mention that he has been teaching me the guqin?”
“Ah, yes, you did mention that shortly before . . .” Jiang Yanli’s voice trailed off and she changed the subject. “How is Zewu-Jun? I have not seen him in some time.”
“He is well, although as I said, he worries greatly for his brother. Hanguang-Jun suffered terribly that night, as did we all.”
“Mm,” Jiang Yanli said. “Perhaps I will go to visit him, to see how he is doing.” Although she spoke it as an off-handed comment, she realized that she would draw great comfort in Lan Wangji’s presence, even if only for a brief time.
It wasn’t as if she had been unaware of how people spoke of Wei Wuxian. Even before the events at Nightless City, she had always had to turn a deaf ear to the people who called him evil, cruel, heartless. She knew her brother in a way they did not, she told herself. Surely he had done some awful things, and perhaps she did not know the reasons for all of them, but she knew those reasons were there.
But the way people had celebrated Wei Wuxian’s death in the aftermath of Nightless City had made her sick. She couldn’t even blame them. Wei Wuxian’s actions in the last few days of his life had cost countless people their lives. She knew he had been driven to them by grief, by madness. She still could not even contemplate how he might have been responsible for her husband’s death. She felt like she had questions about the events at Qiongqi Way that would never be answered. But at the end of the day, Wei Wuxian had been her brother. She had missed him every day while he had been gone, and missed him still. There were times when she felt like he had died years ago, on the day he had been cast into the Burial Mounds, and what was left behind was someone different. But even after that, she had still seen her brother behind all his defenses and his arrogance and his coldness. Even after that, she had loved him. And to hear the way the people talked about him now was terrible.
It was one of the few rules she had had difficulty enforcing at Lotus Pier. Most of the sect members who remembered Wei Wuxian, the real Wei Wuxian, their lively, cheerful, powerful shixiong, were dead now. The newer ones did not know him the same way, and they had celebrated his death, too, and blamed him for Jiang Cheng’s. She had to sit down with many of them and say that, although she would not tell them how to feel about Wei Wuxian, she would not allow anyone to speak of him with disrespect inside Lotus Pier. This had been his home - would always be his home.
Some of them didn’t like it, and a few even left, but at the end of the day her wishes had been respected. They still celebrated the death of the Yiling Patriarch, but never where she could hear.
Lan Wangji was probably the only person in the world who would understand how she felt about this, about how difficult it was to see people celebrating the death of someone they had loved. For Lan Wangji had loved Wei Wuxian; she was absolutely sure of that much. Perhaps, she thought, they might both take comfort in seeing one another.
As a few more days went by, the idea appealed more and more to her. The Jin sect left and she went back to her duties, but every time she thought about her brothers, the grief threatened to escape. Perhaps a week away from Lotus Pier would help her contain it.
She wrote to Lan Xichen, who responded promptly that of course she was welcome to visit. She packed some things, laid out some instructions for her disciples, and departed.
Lan Xichen greeted her warmly, and fussed over Jin Ling, but there was a weariness to him that she had not seen before, not even during the Sunshot Campaign. They sat down and had tea and made polite conversation about how each of their sects were doing. The Lanling Jin had suffered the most at Nightless City, but both the Lan and the Jiang sects had lost people as well. They all needed time to rebuild, to heal.
“And of course Wangji - ” Lan Xichen began, but then stopped abruptly and looked away.
Jiang Yanli could see the grief in the way his jaw trembled, and she felt it acutely. She knew so well what it was like to fear for a little brother, to grieve because he had lost something precious, even if in Wei Wuxian’s case she had never been able to pin down what, exactly, that something was. Softly, she said, “May I see him, while I’m here? I had heard he went into seclusion, but . . . I would like it very much, if only for a brief visit.”
“Perhaps - ” Lan Xichen looked uncertain for a moment, and Jiang Yanli was not entirely certain why. Then he said, “Perhaps that would be good for him. Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu. I’m sure he would appreciate the company.”
Thinking of how outgoing Lan Wangji was not, Jiang Yanli was not sure of that. But she hoped it was true, because Lan Wangji was the one person in the world she felt she would be comfortable showing her grief to.
An hour later, Lan Xichen had packed up a few things, saying he brought supplies to Lan Wangji twice a week and there were some things he had mentioned needing. Jiang Yanli followed him on the paths of Cloud Recesses, thinking with bitter regret back to the days they had spent there, which seemed like an eon ago. She thought back to the hopeful, lively children they had been and wished she could go back and warn them. But what good would that do? How would those children have reacted if she let them know that the only thing waiting for them after Cloud Recesses was a lifetime of pain?
Lan Xichen stopped at a cabin and knocked on the door. “He is not expecting me,” he said to Jiang Yanli, “so it might be a moment.”
Jiang Yanli nodded, but seconds trailed by and grew uncomfortable, and she wondered what Lan Wangji was doing in the middle of the day that might prevent him from answering. Jin Ling began to fuss, and she soothed him. “Is he perhaps not here?”
“No, he is here,” Lan Xichen said, and he looked a little upset, so Jiang Yanli did not push the issue. Maybe Lan Wangji did not want to see his brother, and Lan Xichen did not wish to discuss it.
But the door did open, after over a full minute had passed, and there was Lan Wangji. He was wearing pristine white as usual, but only an inner robe, with no accoutrements besides his ribbon; his hair was pulled back loosely but not swept up in the usual manner. He nodded to Lan Xichen but then saw Jiang Yanli and froze, clearly embarrassed to be seen in such a casual state. “Xiongzhang. This is not appropriate.”
“Wangji, I’m sorry, but I - ”
Lan Wangji was already swinging the door shut, which stunned Jiang Yanli, as it was such an egregious breach of manners. But then, she thought, disturbing him at all in seclusion was also a breach of manners, so maybe he felt her faux pas entitled his. Then Lan Xichen shocked her further by catching the door before it could close.
“Wangji, please,” Lan Xichen said. “I know you’re upset, but I believe she can help you. A-Yuan - ”
“There is no need to discuss A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said, still trying to force the door closed, but unable to defeat Lan Xichen. Jiang Yanli had never been sure which one of them was stronger, physically, but at the moment it was clearly the older.
“Wangji, you are not up to handling the care he needs yet. I know you’re - ”
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji repeated, and his voice was exhausted, as close to pleading as Jiang Yanli had ever heard it. “Do not do this.”
“Please,” Lan Xichen said gently. “Please, Wangji, you’re hurting yourself. Don’t make me force the door open. You know I can, but - ”
Lan Wangji let go of the door so abruptly that Lan Xichen actually took a few steps forward before he caught himself. He went into the cabin and gestured for Jiang Yanli to follow, which she did, although now she felt like an intruder. It was clear that Lan Wangji did not want her there, and that Lan Xichen had some sort of motive for this that she was unclear on. She was beginning to regret having come.
“I brought you some tea,” Lan Xichen said quietly. “The jasmine you like.”
Lan Wangji said, “Please leave us.”
Lan Xichen hesitated, then said, “Very well, Wangji. Jiang-zongzhu, I will come back in a few hours to guide you back to the pavilion.”
Jiang Yanli nodded, feeling more confused than ever as Lan Xichen departed and closed the door after himself. “I am sorry to disturb you, Hanguang-Jun. I just felt - perhaps - you might like a visit. If I was wrong, I can of course go at once.”
“No.” Lan Wangji said. “I will make tea.”
They sat in silence while Lan Wangji began to make the tea, except for Jin Ling’s quiet baby noises. Jiang Yanli watched Lan Wangji and was immediately concerned at the way he moved. He was slow and stiff, obviously trying to move as little as possible, occasionally pausing for several seconds to gather himself. She understood now why it had taken him so long to answer the door, but did not understand the cause of it. The battle at Nightless City had been three months previous. Any injuries he had taken there should have long since healed. But she could not think of a way to ask without being rude, nor could she find a way to inquire about the argument Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji had had at the door.
Finally, Lan Wangji said, “You are the head of the Yunmeng Jiang now?”
“Ah - yes,” Jiang Yanli said. “After A-Cheng’s death, I began leading the sect.”
“I am sure that brings him comfort. How is Jin Ling?”
“He is very well. Thank you.”
“The Lanling Jin - ” Lan Wangji paused for several long seconds before he knelt down next to the fire to put the pot of water on it. Jiang Yanli wondered why he bothered to kneel, rather than simply bending over. “They have not given you any trouble, about keeping him with you at Lotus Pier?”
“Ah, well.” Jiang Yanli looked away. “They are not pleased by it, admittedly. I think they are still planning for my return, despite how clear I have made it to them that I do not intend to go back to Koi Tower. For now they have accepted my staying at Lotus Pier but as Jin Ling gets older . . . I must admit I have some concerns about how they will handle it.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Yanli wondered how to broach the subject she had ostensibly come here to discuss. How did one open a conversation of ‘I know you must feel as horrible as I do, so why don’t we feel horrible together for a little while’? Then Lan Wangji leaned over to pour the tea and she startled. “Ah, Hanguang-Jun - you’re bleeding!”
Red stains had soaked through the back of Lan Wangji’s white robes. He paused as he set down the tea pot and merely said, again, “Mn.”
That not being at all the response she might expect when pointing such a thing out, she ventured, “Are you injured? Can I not help you?”
“The blood frequently soaks through the bandages,” Lan Wangji said. “That is why I had to take time to dress when you arrived. Please do not concern yourself.”
“Is it because you struggled with your brother over the door?” Jiang Yanli felt rotten, and wished more than ever that she had simply left Lan Wangji alone. “I am so sorry, Hanguang-Jun. I did not know he would do that. I wish he had told me you did not want company.”
“It is not - ” Lan Wangji picked up the pot again to pour his own cup, but his arms seemed too weak, hands unable to grip. It slid from his hands and shattered on the floor, and the tea went everywhere. The loud noise woke Jin Ling, and he began to cry, and for a few moments Lan Wangji just stood there, staring at the mess, looking utterly and completely defeated.
“I’ll clean it up, please do not worry yourself - ” Jiang Yanli said, but then stopped and stared as she saw a young boy come around from behind the screen, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “Ah - ”
“A-die, I’m done napping,” the boy said, with a huge yawn. “Can I go play with the bunnies?”
Jiang Yanli watched as Lan Wangji visibly drew himself together, as she knew she herself had done for the sake of her own child, many times. “Not just yet, A-Yuan. There is someone I would like you to meet.” He gestured to the child, who toddled over. “This is the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, Jiang Yanli, and her son, Jin Ling. Jiang-zongzhu, this is - ” There was a brief moment of hesitation before he continued, “This is Lan Yuan.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Lan Yuan,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. An orphaned member of the Lan sect, presumably? Perhaps one whose parents had been killed at Nightless City. That might explain the strange way both Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji seemed to speak of him.
“Nice to meet you,” Lan Yuan said, with a sunny smile.
Lan Wangji took a deep breath and said, “Now you may go play with the bunnies. Do not go out of sight of the cabin.”
“Okay!” Lan Yuan bounced out of the cabin.
“He seems very sweet,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling.
“He is.” Lan Wangji knelt beside the remains of the tea pot and began to pick up the pieces.
“Ah, please, let me help,” Jiang Yanli said. “You’re injured.” She lay Jin Ling down on the floor, keeping half an eye on him while she helped. Lan Wangji, surprisingly, did not argue with her on this, perhaps because he knew how long it would take him to clean up the mess himself. Once they were done with that, she found another pot and the bucket of water and began to make fresh tea. Lan Wangji allowed this as well. “If you don’t mind my asking, Hanguang-Jun - how did you receive such grievous injuries here in seclusion?”
“I did not,” Lan Wangji said. “It occurred before my seclusion began.”
Jiang Yanli nearly dropped the tea herself. “But that - that was three months ago, surely they should have healed by now - ”
Lan Wangji said nothing.
“Please,” Jiang Yanli said softly, because the blood was still seeping into the robes. “Please let me see. Please let me help. I cannot stand to see you suffer like this.”
Lan Wangji’s breath caught in his throat, and she thought he was going to refuse once more, but then he carefully shrugged out of the robe he was wearing. Jiang Yanli saw the mess of bloody bandages on his back and winced, bringing over the bucket of water so she could dampen them down and begin to peel them away. She managed not to exclaim in horror at the numerous lash marks, still so raw and terrible, as if they had only been received a few days before. For the marks to be so old, he had to be reopening them every day. Now Jiang Yanli understood what Lan Xichen had said about the child. Lan Wangji was undoubtedly straining himself by caring for him, instead of healing like he should be. But even then . . .
“They are from a discipline whip,” Lan Wangji finally said, as she carefully blotted at them, answering her unspoken question. “That is why they are so slow to heal. Xiongzhang estimated the full recovery time will be three years.”
Jiang Yanli said nothing for a long moment. That explained his weakness and exhaustion, too. A discipline whip did not just make a physical mark, but a spiritual one. His spiritual powers must have been completely depleted by such a vicious punishment. He would indeed need years to heal. Finally, all she could say was, “Why?”
Lan Wangji was quiet for so long that she thought he was going to refuse to answer. Then he said, “You never went to the Burial Mounds while Wei Ying lived there, did you?”
“No,” Jiang Yanli said softly, and how she now wished she had.
“I did, once. He had built a life there. I know it sounds impossible, but he had. They were growing things. Vegetables. They had strung up decorations and made their own fruit wine. They loved each other so fiercely . . . and they loved him. They were so grateful to him, for everything he had done for them.”
Jiang Yanli wasn’t sure how this led to the wounds, but said nothing, letting him tell the story in his own way.
“I went there again, after his death. I knew it would not be long before the scavengers came. I wanted to try to save some of his things . . . his inventions, his drawings . . . his sword.”
Feeling tears sting at her eyes, Jiang Yanli began to carefully reapply the bandages. She had not even thought about what would have happened to Suibian, the sword that Wei Wuxian loved but would not wield, for reasons she never understood. He had not been carrying it with him, so it had not entered her mind.
“But I did not get there in time. Many disciples from other sects, particularly the Jin sect, were already there. They had destroyed all the things he had taken such time to build, uprooted the crops, burned the homes where the villagers had lived. I grew angry and confronted them, and when they would not back down, I fought them. I injured thirty-three disciples from various sects, including some from the Gusu Lan. As a punishment, not just for their injuries but for showing loyalty to Wei Ying even after he was consumed by dark forces, I was sentenced to thirty-three lashes with the discipline whip.”
“Thirty-three?” Jiang Yanli asked, horrified. She had seen punishment levied with a discipline whip before, but never more than a few lashes at a time. “That could have killed you!”
Lan Wangji said nothing in response to that, instead saying, “It was worth it.”
“How?” Jiang Yanli could not stop her tears. “How was it possibly worth it? Did you even manage to save any of his things?”
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “I saved A-Yuan.”
Jiang Yanli pulled in a startled breath. “He - ”
“He is Lan Yuan now,” Lan Wangji said, “for his safety. But he was born Wen Yuan. They left him behind when they went to Koi Tower to surrender. He had been there alone for several days when I got there, had hidden himself in the cave. He was sick with a high fever, and although he has recovered, he remembers nothing. But he . . .” Lan Wangji’s voice trailed off. “He loved Wei Ying very much, and Wei Ying loved him. He is an orphan. Wei Ying was taking care of him, and now I am taking care of him.” His fists clenched and he managed in a broken whisper, “Please do not take that away from me.”
Tears were streaming down Jiang Yanli’s face. Her brother, her precious sunshine-smile little brother, had had a son. And she had never even known. Of course the very thought of letting the boy go would be agony to Lan Wangji. It was all he had left of Wei Wuxian - all either of them had left.
But these wounds, these terrible, unfair wounds. She could not help but think that the punishment hadn’t been for fighting, hadn’t been for injuring others, but for loving Wei Wuxian. And as long as Lan Wangji remained here, they would continue to punish him for that. Even if it was not with physical injuries, it would be with words and looks, with distrust and scorn.
“Hanguang-Jun,” she finally said, softly. “Is your brother correct? Are you not able to care for him as you should?”
“My care is adequate,” Lan Wangji said, but admitted, “It is not A-Yuan that he worries about. It is me.”
“Because you are hurting yourself,” Jiang Yanli said, nodding. “Every time you lean over and pick him up, every time you help him bathe or tuck him into bed, every time he wants to play and you lift him into the air - you’re hurting yourself.”
Lan Wangji nodded and said nothing.
Decision made, Jiang Yanli said, “Wen Yuan is my brother’s son. He should be raised at Lotus Pier, with his cousin, in a sect that will appreciate him. I do not think A-Xian would want him raised among people who hated his father, and who punished you for loving him. That being said,” she continued, seeing the way Lan Wangji’s shoulders were tightening, “I believe you should come with me as well. That way you may continue to raise him in A-Xian’s stead, as I’m sure A-Xian would have wanted.”
Lan Wangji half-turned. “Come to Lotus Pier with you?”
“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said.
He shook his head. “I cannot. I have been sentenced to three years in seclusion and repentance in Cold Pond Cave.”
Gently, Jiang Yanli said, “I understand that, Hanguang-Jun, but think about what is best for A-Yuan. He clearly looks upon you as a father. He is accustomed to you. Would it not be traumatizing for him, to be brought to Lotus Pier without you?”
“Then leave him here with me,” Lan Wangji said.
“And what will happen to him on the days you are repenting in the cold pond, once you are well enough? Who will stay with him then? Are you sure the other disciples will treat him well?” Jiang Yanli hesitated, then took a chance. “Do you want him raised as you were? Where the mere act of expressing one’s emotions was shut down so completely that you were never able to express yours?”
“I would not allow him to be raised that way.”
“Please,” Jiang Yanli said. “Please, Hanguang-Jun, let me bring him to Lotus Pier. You know A-Xian would want him raised there, if he’d had the choice. He was so happy there, once upon a time, before the war. Can you not respect his wishes? And can you not - let me care for you, as he would wish me to? To help you in your recovery from a punishment that you know was unfair and undeserved? We are the only two people in the world who loved A-Xian until the end. Can we not agree on how to raise his son?”
Lan Wangji sat with his eyes closed for several long minutes as Jiang Yanli finished applying the clean bandages. “I thought to serve my full punishment as a way of showing the elders that it would not break me,” he finally said. “That no matter what they sentenced me to, I would not back down. I would never agree with them that Wei Ying was not worthy of what I felt for him, that I was wrong for feeling as I do. But you are right. This is about what is best for A-Yuan. And I have nothing to prove to them.”
She helped him back into his robe. “Thank you, Hanguang-Jun. Although - since we are going to be raising A-Yuan together, may I call you by your name?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “And may I call you - zhangjie?”
Jiang Yanli felt tears in her eyes at this acknowledgment of what Wei Wuxian had been to him, or at least what he would have been if everything had not gone so terribly wrong. She nodded and said, “I would like that.”
~ ~ ~ ~