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picking up the pieces

Chapter Text

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 - 

Finally, stillness.

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?”

“Of course.” 

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 - ”

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.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen took a deep breath as he headed back towards the cabin. He was honestly unsure what he would find there. All he knew was that what was happening now was unsustainable. He had taken care of Wen Yuan for the first month after Lan Wangji’s punishment, but then Lan Wangji had insisted the child be returned to him. Lan Xichen had been trying to persuade him to let the child live at the pavilion with the other adults, because he could not stand to watch Lan Wangji hurt himself. But he worried, they both worried, about how the other adults would treat him. Many of them had not wanted to take him in at all. People had murmured about the blood of the Wen clan and what the child might become. Although Lan Xichen had not allowed the rumors to deter him, he could not say for sure what would happen if the child lived with those adults full time.

Jiang Yanli’s entrance had seemed the perfect solution. The child would be well-cared for by someone who had loved Wei Wuxian. Jiang Yanli could keep him safe and keep his origins secret. But Lan Xichen had underestimated how much his brother needed Wen Yuan in his life, to have something to focus on, to have something left of the man he had loved.

So he knocked on the door of the cabin with trepidation, but Lan Wangji opened it mere moments later. His appearance surprised Lan Xichen. He was fully dressed in his usual robes, which he had not worn since his punishment, and his hair was done as well. Jiang Yanli must have done that for him, since Lan Wangji still could not lift his arms above his head. And the cabin smelled wonderful - she had somehow taken the meager supplies Lan Wangji had in seclusion and turned it into a wonderful meal.

“Ah, Zewu-Jun, the food is almost ready,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. “Please, come in. Would you like some tea?”

Lan Xichen had no idea what was happening, since it looked like Jiang Yanli had worked a small miracle or two during his absence. Wen Yuan was sitting in the corner with Jin Ling in his lap, giggling as he made faces at him. There were three rabbits as well, hopping around the interior of the cabin. Since when did Lan Wangji allow the rabbits inside?

“How are you feeling?” Lan Xichen asked his brother, trying not to sound as cautious as he felt.

“I am well,” Lan Wangji said. “Zhangjie treated my injuries.”

The title of address made Lan Xichen’s breath catch in his throat, but then again, why shouldn’t Lan Wangji use it? Even if he and Wei Wuxian had never formally married, it was clear now how Lan Wangji had felt about him. 

“Let us leave the serious topics for after dinner,” Jiang Yanli said, putting a dish on the table.

Lan Wangji nodded. “We do not speak during meal times.”

“Ah, yes,” Jiang Yanli said, a faint smile touching her face. “How could I forget?”

They ate in silence, except for some noises from Jin Ling, and a little chatter from Wen Yuan, who had to be reminded twice not to speak.

Once the meal was finished, Lan Wangji rose to start clearing the dishes. Lan Xichen was half-ready to leap to his feet and remind him that he shouldn’t overexert himself, but Jiang Yanli just reached out and laid a hand on his wrist, then said, “Zewu-Jun, will you help me clear?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, frankly surprised that Lan Wangji sank back into his seat without protest.

A few minutes later, they were sitting down with tea. Lan Wangji said, “Zhangjie and I have discussed A-Yuan’s welfare, and we agree that it is best if he goes to Lotus Pier.”

Lan Xichen felt an entire mountain clear off his chest. He would have to find something very nice for Jiang Yanli to thank her for this. She was a miracle worker.

“And,” Lan Wangji continued, “I am going with her.”

Lan Xichen blinked. “Wangji, you can’t. Your sentence - ”

“I have considered,” Lan Wangji replied, “and have decided not to serve it.”

There was a long moment of silence while Lan Xichen simply stared at his younger brother. “You can’t simply decide not to serve your sentence. That’s not - it doesn’t work like that, Wangji. The elders - ”

Lan Wangji interrupted him again. “My chief concern is what is best for A-Yuan. Although Lotus Pier will doubtlessly be a better place for him in the long-term, I do not wish to send him away to strangers. He knows me and is comfortable with me. I will raise him as Wei Ying would have raised him. This is incompatible with my sentence of three years in seclusion, so yes, I have decided this.”

“But Wangji,” Lan Xichen felt at a loss. He felt like the man sitting in front of him wasn’t his brother at all, but a stranger to him. “Leave - leave Cloud Recesses? Defy the elders? How will they react to that?”

“I don’t know,” Lan Wangji said, “and I don’t care.”

Lan Xichen’s mouth worked soundlessly.

After a long moment, Lan Wangji said, quietly, “What else can they do to me, xiongzhang? Banish me? Renounce me? They may do so if they wish. There is nothing they can do that would hurt me more than taking A-Yuan from me, and that is what this sentence was. They knew that being raised in seclusion would not be good for him, that I would not be able to care for him after my punishment, that I would inevitably be forced to give him up. They did not want me raising the son of Wei Ying because of how they felt about Wei Ying, and how they felt about my feelings for Wei Ying.” He lifted his gaze to Lan Xichen’s, and he didn’t look angry, just sad. “It doesn’t matter anymore, xiongzhang. There is no place for me here.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said again, but his throat closed over the words, because there was nothing he could say beyond begging his brother not to leave him. He did not know why the idea frightened him so. He and Lan Wangji had always been close, but he had always thought of their relationship as him supporting his brother - never the other way around. Now he was realizing that this was not entirely true.

Jiang Yanli intervened with a gentle, “You are welcome in Lotus Pier whenever you wish, Zewu-Jun, to visit your brother and your nephew.”

Lan Xichen managed a nod, then said, “They will not renounce you. I will not allow it. I will - ” He saw the look on Lan Wangji’s face and hated it, because it wasn’t anger or resentment or blame. Lan Wangji was not wondering how he could rely on Lan Xichen, after Lan Xichen had allowed the previous punishments. Lan Wangji was not blaming Lan Xichen, for not standing up for him when it mattered. He knew that Lan Xichen had been taught to avoid confrontation, that the idea of going against his elders, his uncle, was as impossible to him as breathing underwater. Lan Xichen took that expression in and looked away. “I am sorry, Wangji. I am so sorry. There are so many times that I should have spoken up and I didn’t. I can never make that right with you.”

“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said quietly, “you are not the only one who did not speak up when you should have. As you bear your regrets, remember that I, too, am bearing mine.”

Lan Xichen said nothing.

“We are going now,” Lan Wangji said. “I do not wish to give the elders time to question zhangjie’s presence here. I have packed all of A-Yuan’s things. Please look after the rabbits for me.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said. He felt numb. This had been a way to fix things. How had it gone so terribly wrong?

“Zewu-Jun,” Jiang Yanli said, her tone still gentle, “I will take good care of him. Of both of them. I promise you, this is the right decision to make.”

Lan Xichen nodded, because she was correct and he knew it. They would all undoubtedly be happier at Lotus Pier. It was he who was going to suffer for this. But perhaps it was what he deserved, for standing by when his brother had been given that horrible punishment. “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.”

He could not even embrace his brother, because of his terrible injuries. All he could do was stand in silence while they walked away. He waited until they were out of sight before he let his tears fall.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli had taken a boat for most of the way from Yunmeng to Gusu, mainly for expediency’s sake. She was glad of it now, because Lan Wangji was certainly in no condition to make the journey on his feet. She was less glad of it a few hours later, when it became clear that Wen Yuan had never been on a boat in his life, and was vomiting over the side.

It wasn’t funny, but at the same time it was a little, because he was so clearly a Wen, raised in the rocky, inland provinces without any major rivers. He had probably never been on the water before in his life. Passing him off as one of the Lan or Jiang clan members would take a little bit of work. 

“Poor baby,” she said, fishing in her things. She gave him a ginger candy to suck on. “Here, this will help you feel better.”

Wen Yuan nodded tearfully and curled up on the floor of the boat.

Due to both Wen Yuan’s seasickness and Lan Wangji’s weakness, Jiang Yanli elected to make the journey back in four days rather than the usual three. She half-expected Lan Wangji to complain about this, but he did not, though it was probably for Wen Yuan’s sake, not his own. They stopped at an inn and got two rooms. 

After dinner, Jiang Yanli said, “May I ask a question and beg your honesty?” and Lan Wangji nodded. “What care do your wounds need? It seems that they should be cleaned and have the bandages re-applied daily, and I doubt you can do that yourself. I would not want you to neglect any care you should be receiving.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “I would appreciate your assistance very much.”

They quickly fell into a routine that was melancholy but not awful. Each morning, they bathed and took care of their children in their own rooms before Jiang Yanli knocked on Lan Wangji’s door. She carefully cleaned his wounds and reapplied his bandages, then helped him dress and did his hair for him. He did not like to go out without it done, he said the first morning. He thought perhaps it was silly, but he felt underdressed. Jiang Yanli understood. It was about presenting a face to the outside world, about looking like he was untouchable no matter what happened. She was happy to help.

Then they would have breakfast and buy some food to bring with them for lunch and get on the boat. She found herself strangely comfortable in Lan Wangji’s presence. She had always thought of him as so cold and severe, but either he had mellowed somewhat with time or she had simply grown used to him. The grief they shared made the atmosphere heavy, but the love they shared, for Wei Wuxian, was what she found they both really needed to express.

“Tell me about the day you went to the Burial Mounds,” she said, as she rocked Jin Ling back and forth, as Wen Yuan slept under one of the benches for his afternoon nap.

The faintest of smiles touched Lan Wangji’s face, and he nodded. “I went to Yiling to tell him of your wedding. I did not know if anyone else would.”

Jiang Yanli sighed, but she found that she was smiling, too, as painful as the memories were. “A-Cheng insisted we not go to see him until my wedding dress was completed, so he could see me in it . . . perhaps we should have at least sent a message, so he heard about it from us.”

“Mn. I would have gone anyway.” Lan Wangji told the story of meeting Wen Yuan in the marketplace, at his discomfiture at having this child suddenly cling to him, of Wei Wuxian’s teasing that had almost, almost made things seem like the old days again. He talked of their meal together and beautiful, oblivious Wei Wuxian not noticing all the spicy food that Lan Wangji ordered for him but couldn’t eat, and the way he had run out without paying when Wen Ning was in trouble, and how they had subdued him together and Wei Wuxian had finally been successful in restoring his consciousness.

“I wanted so badly to stay,” Lan Wangji finally said, and added quietly, “How I wish now that I had.”

“I wish I had gone to see him there,” Jiang Yanli said. “A-Cheng, he really thought, once A-Xian saw me in my wedding clothes, that he would agree to come home with us. That he wouldn’t be able to walk away. But he did. A-Cheng was so angry afterwards . . . he was so angry that whole time, because he didn’t understand why A-Xian would leave us like that.”

“Jiang Wanyin always took everything so personally,” Lan Wangji said. “It was not about you versus them. It was about right versus wrong. About doing the morally correct thing, protecting innocent people from persecution.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said quietly. “I wish I had spoken up for him, or gone to see him, or . . . or done anything other than sit meekly by while all of this was happening.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed. “I am sure we both have regrets. But they cannot be answered now. All we can do now is move forward as Wei Ying would have wanted us to. Protect A-Yuan, pursue justice, eradicate evil. So I will heal, and once I have healed, I will resume night hunting, and speak out against injustice whenever I see it.”

Jiang Yanli wiped her eyes and nodded.

The next day, after they had eaten their lunch and the boat was lazily traveling down the river, she said, “I still cannot understand what happened at Qiongqi Way.”

Lan Wangji opened his eyes from where he had been sitting in silence, but said nothing.

“The way it was described to me,” Jiang Yanli said, trying not to think back to that terrible day, “is that A-Xian lost control of the dark magic he used to control Wen Ning, and Wen Ning acted on A-Xian’s subconscious hatred of Zixuan, his desire to do violence to him.”

“That is how it was explained to me as well,” Lan Wangji said.

“But A-Xian didn’t hate Zixuan,” Jiang Yanli said. “Not really, not by then. He didn’t like him, I’m sure, but he didn’t hate him. And he never, ever would have wanted A-Ling to grow up without a father. I know A-Xian was capable of some terrible things, but . . . I still can’t fathom that.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji was quiet for a long minute. “The wicked energy he was using can corrupt the mind, the temperament. It is possible that over time, little resentments could grow into that sort of violent hatred. I did not see any sign of such corruption when I went to visit him, nor did I see evidence he was using that magic regularly . . . but it is still possible.” He stared out over the river. “I do not know, zhangjie. I just . . . do not know.”

They continued down the river in silence.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Xichen listened to the swirl of talk around him as the elders griped about Lan Wangji and blamed each other and in general made the atmosphere very uncomfortable. After some thought, once his brain had been capable of thought again, he had decided he should report his brother’s absence the next day, as if he was just now finding out about it, and say that Lan Wangji had left him a letter. He knew that if the elders found out he had spoken to Lan Wangji about his decision face-to-face, they would want to know why he hadn’t stopped him, subdued him. It would have been easy. Jiang Yanli, despite being a sect leader, had relatively low cultivation, and Lan Wangji was exhausted by his punishment. He could have stopped him from leaving and brought him before the elders. The idea did not occur to him until long after Lan Wangji had left, and he did not want a lecture about it now.

Finally, after altogether too long, the elders were all in agreement that the situation was absolutely unacceptable. Lan Wangji could not simply decide not to serve the sentence he had been given. Lan Xichen braced himself for them saying he was now banished, that he was no longer a member of the Gusu Lan.

Instead, what Lan Qiren said was, “Xichen - go to Lotus Pier and bring him back. With or without the child - preferably without.”

“Ah - ” Lan Xichen wondered why the idea that they would send him to fetch his brother had not occurred to him. “Bring him back?”

Irritably, Lan Qiren said, “We did not give him leave to go.”

Lan Xichen had spent the entire night pacing his rooms and mentally preparing himself for the argument over whether or not Lan Wangji would be banished. He was in no way prepared for this argument instead, and blurted out, “So you think we should imprison him?”

Lan Qiren’s face soured, and the elders murmured disapprovingly. One of them said, “Lan Wangji broke the disciplines and then defied our sentencing. Three years of seclusion and repentance was not a suggestion.”

“But has he not been punished enough?” Lan Xichen looked around the room, disbelieving, unable to hold the words back even though he dreaded their reaction. “Thirty-three lashes for thirty-three injured cultivators. What were the three years for? He needs them to recover, to rest - he can do that in Lotus Pier. Three years of seclusion, of repentance, yes, I agreed to. I did not agree to three years of imprisonment!”

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren said, and his expression was still tight and angry. “You know what the three years were for. Even during the punishment, Wangji was defiant.”

I dare ask you, uncle, what is good and what is evil? What is black and what is white?

“He was clearly unrepentant,” one of the other elders agreed. “Such defiance cannot stand. He broke the very soul of the disciplines - do not associate with evil. Do not fall to evil. Walk a righteous path.”

“So you would break his soul in return?” Lan Xichen replied. “Because make no mistake, respected elders, that is clearly what this punishment intends to do.” He took a deep breath and held back tears, watched as they stared at him in appalled judgment. “I will not be a part of this. He is my brother.”

“If we do not guide him back to the righteous path now, he will be lost to us forever,” Lan Qiren said, his tone slightly more gentle. “Xichen - ”

“No!” Lan Xichen found courage in remembering his brother’s face, the grief in it as he spoke of his own regrets. “This has gone far enough. I trust my brother to walk a righteous path on his own. He does not need to be imprisoned for three years to find his way back to us. He will do that on his own - or he will not. Either way, I will not see him imprisoned.” He stood, readying to flee the room before they could reprimand him and make his resolve crumble. “I am the head of the Gusu Lan. I appreciate your guidance, but the decision is mine and I have made it. Wangji will remain in Yunmeng until he is ready to come home, and that is final.”

He left the elders behind and went to the hanshi, hiding inside before anyone could see him shaking.

Lan Qiren found him there, of course, about half an hour later. “Xichen, what are you doing?”

“I am doing what I should have done over a year ago,” Lan Xichen said. “I am taking control of my sect. I never should have allowed Wangji to be punished as severely as he was. I never should have tried to convince him to let others raise Wen Yuan. Now, as you said, he is lost to us.”

“He does not have to be! We can - ”

“We can what, uncle? Drag him back here without the child who is his only reason for drawing breath and throw him in a cell? What do you think that will accomplish? Do you think if he spends three years meditating on his transgressions, he will become meek and compliant? This is Wangji! You know how stubborn he is. The only thing imprisoning him will accomplish is making him even more defiant, driving an even larger wedge between him and the Gusu Lan. I will not allow you to try to break his spirit just so you and the elders can feel better about all the ways we failed him.” He took a deep breath and concluded, “I have to live with my regrets, uncle. I do not have to continue creating new ones. My answer is final and I do not wish to hear anything further about it.”

Lan Qiren’s jaw was tight and angry, and Lan Xichen suspected the only reason his uncle did not further push the issue was because he thought Lan Xichen was right about Lan Wangji’s likely reaction to being brought back to Cloud Recesses. After a long moment, he turned and left without another word.

Lan Xichen took a few long moments just to breathe. 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji had never been to Lotus Pier before. Although he had thought sometimes about going, he had never been invited, and never wanted to go to Wei Wuxian’s home without his permission. Now he wished he had, one of the many wishes he held in his chest.

Wen Yuan, meanwhile, was wide-eyed and staring at the lotus ponds as they came inside. “It’s so pretty,” he marveled.

“It is,” Lan Wangji agreed, holding his hand as they went up the docks to the gate. Jiang Yanli was being greeted by many people, and it reassured him to see that she had been missed during her absence, and that they were glad to see her return.

“Ah, Hanguang-Jun,” she said, “I would like to introduce you to Jiang Ming, courtesy Shulian. He is my first disciple.”

Lan Wangji bowed and said, “It is a privilege.”

“Hanguang-Jun is going to be staying with us for the time being,” Jiang Yanli continued, “as is his adopted son, Lan Yuan. He is healing from injuries taken at Nightless City and will stay here while he recuperates.”

Jiang Shulian returned the bow and said, “The privilege is ours, Hanguang-Jun.”

They spoke briefly about what had occurred during her absence, of which there was nothing particularly noteworthy. A little while later, she showed him into a private pavilion. It was such a different place from Cloud Recesses, he thought. Everything was so open and airy, made of beautiful, warm wood.

“These were his rooms . . . A-Xian’s,” Jiang Yanli said softly. “If you do not want to stay in them, I will find somewhere else for you. But I thought . . .”

Lan Wangji looked at the little figures carved into the headboard of the bed, and his heart ached. Wei Wuxian’s rooms, his home, the place where he had grown up. “I will stay here.”

Relieved, Jiang Yanli smiled. “We will have to move in some furniture for A-Yuan, of course. I will see to it right away.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Thank you.”

“Please wait here,” Jiang Yanli said. “That is, you can explore if you like, but – I was thinking you would probably want to rest – ”

He gave another nod, because to be honest, even the brief walk from the docks to the room had exhausted him. “A-Yuan, come sit with me, we will practice your numbers,” he said, and Wen Yuan toddled over and hopped up onto the bed with him. Jiang Yanli smiled and headed out.

She returned about an hour later, with some men who were carrying another small bed and a bureau for some of Wen Yuan’s things, as well as a toy chest. There was also a woman with her, who she introduced as Madam Nuan. “She is the best healer at Lotus Pier,” Jiang Yanli said. “She will see to the care of your wounds. She makes a wonderful tea that will help encourage your spiritual power to strengthen.”

Lan Wangji bowed to the doctor, then said, “Please do not take this as disrespect, zhangjie, but the wounds should not receive any special care. Nor do I desire any assistance recovering my spiritual power. Part of the punishment is that the wounds can only heal naturally.”

“I understand that,” Jiang Yanli said, “and if it were not for A-Yuan, I would say it is your decision to make. However, he is too young to understand why playing with him hurts you as it does. It is important for his sake that you recover as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

Lan Wangji wanted to continue arguing, but decided he didn’t have the energy. What did it really matter? He had already defied the elders’ punishment by leaving Cloud Recesses. If it would make Jiang Yanli feel better to give him some medicine, he supposed it would be rude not to accept. So he merely bowed again and said, “As you wish.”

Ten minutes later, Jiang Yanli had taken Wen Yuan with her to show him around Lotus Pier, and he was sitting in silence while Madam Nuan rubbed some ointment onto his back that she said would promote healing. It tingled slightly, and then the wounds went numb. She did this while he sipped the painkilling tea she made, and by the end, he was starting to feel a little woozy. It wasn’t as if he had been unaware of how much pain he had been in, but it had been so long since he hadn’t been in pain that he had forgotten what it was like.

He woke to the gentle noise of rain with no idea of when he had fallen asleep. He was lying facedown on the bed with his hair carefully drawn to the side in an altogether un-Lan-like manner. It took him a few moments to regain his bearings. Had he just slept? In the middle of the day?

“A-die’s awake, a-die’s awake!” Wen Yuan reported eagerly, and Lan Wangji managed to look up to see Jiang Yanli sitting by his bed, working on some embroidery.

“How are you feeling?” she asked him.

Lan Wangji wasn’t sure. How was he feeling? He took careful stock. Weak but not as weak, tired but not as tired, sore but not as sore. “Better,” he finally said. “I apologize. I did not mean to fall asleep.”

“It’s fine. You need to take care of yourself, and you had been in pain for a long time. Are you hungry?”

He realized that he was, and nodded. Somehow it did not surprise him that she immediately produced a pot of soup and several bowls. He wondered how he had heard Wei Wuxian talk about her soup so much but never had any. It was just as delicious as he had always said it was. Wen Yuan liked it too, smacking his lips and saying, “It’s just like before!”

Both Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji looked at him in surprise. “Before?” Lan Wangji asked carefully, so taken aback that he forgot to admonish him not to speak during meals. He knew that Wen Yuan hadn’t remembered anything from the Burial Mounds, but it was always possible that something familiar might trigger a memory. But how could Jiang Yanli’s soup be familiar to him?

“Uh huh,” Wen Yuan said, eating another spoonful.

“When did you have this before?” Jiang Yanli asked, looking as confused as Lan Wangji felt.

Wen Yuan shrugged. “I dunno. Someone brought me some, I guess? Back . . . before. In the before that I can’t remember.” He looked anxious suddenly and said, “A-die, you said it’s okay that I can’t remember.”

“It’s fine, A-Yuan.” Lan Wangji reached out and stroked his hair. “Don’t worry about it.”

Wen Yuan devoted himself back to the bowl of soup. Jiang Yanli smiled when he finished and reached out to wipe his mouth, and he gave her his usual beautiful smile.

Lan Wangji wasn’t sure why, but her hand suddenly tightened on the cloth she had been cleaning his face with. Her face became pinched, as if she were trying not to burst into tears. “Zhangjie?” he asked, unsure if questions would be welcome. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I – ” Jiang Yanli’s caught in her throat, but she remained in control. “A-Yuan, we’ll clear up. Why don’t you go see what’s in that toy chest that we brought in earlier?”

“Can I?” he asked, excited, and immediately trotted over to it. He withdrew a small wooden bird and was immersed in playing with it immediately. Jin Ling cooed happily in his bassinet.

Jiang Yanli sat with her eyes closed for several long moments. “I’m sorry. He just – the memories of A-Cheng, of A-Xian, were so strong in that moment. He is so like A-Xian, and I used to – care for them in exactly the same way. A-Xian even joked about it once he was older. He would still make me wipe his mouth for him after eating my soup.”

“You do not need to apologize,” Lan Wangji said.

“I miss them so much,” Jiang Yanli said. “Every day. Not an hour goes by where I don’t think of them. It’s so hard to believe that I’ll never see them again.” She bit back a sob. “It is so unfair.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, then added, “I know.”

She wiped her eyes and said, “When we met A-Xian in Yiling, I brought some of the soup. He ate his bowl, but Wen Ning . . . I dished a bowl for him, but he could not eat.”

“I’m sure he appreciated it nonetheless,” Lan Wangji said.

“He must have . . . he carried it all the way back to the Burial Mounds so he could give it to A-Yuan.” Jiang Yanli wiped her eyes again. “He was such a kind soul. I remember after my parents were killed, how he helped his sister care for us. What happened to him was so awful. I think of everything he went through and I . . .” Her voice trailed away into helpless tears. “I remember how much his sister loved him, how much she wanted to protect him, just as I wanted to protect A-Xian and A-Cheng. And we failed. We both failed.”

Lan Wangji felt somewhat at a loss. There was nothing he could say or do that would help. No way he could ease her pain. After a few moments, he reached out and took her hands into his, gripping them tightly. She curled over them, sobbing quietly.

Finally, the worst of it passed. She wiped her eyes again, and Lan Wangji held a cup of water out to her which she carefully sipped. “Thank you,” she said. “I haven’t really been able to . . .”

“I know,” he said. “I haven’t either.”

She squeezed his hand again. “I’m very glad you came back here with me, A-Zhan.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “I’m glad, too.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jiang Yanli found quickly that bringing Lan Wangji back to Lotus Pier was one of the best decisions she had made in her life (which, admittedly, was a fairly low bar). For the first time since her husband had died, she had someone she trusted to watch Jin Ling for a few hours if she desperately needed to sleep. She, in turn, watched Wen Yuan while Lan Wangji was having his wounds treated, and he almost always slept for an hour or so afterwards.

Although Lan Wangji was still quite weak, he insisted on contributing to the household. He helped her with the daily routine as much as possible. Although the disciples all knew he was recovering from injuries, they could not help but ask him for advice or guidance. He knew more about night-hunting than most of them had ever learned, and although he was not exactly friendly or approachable, he would always answer their questions. He helped her keep Lotus Pier organized, having watched his brother learn to be sect leader from their uncle and father.

He wrote Lan Xichen once a week, and Lan Xichen wrote back, and their letters went back and forth like clockwork. Lan Wangji always wrote of how Wen Yuan was doing, and often about what he was doing at Lotus Pier. He never wrote of his injuries or his recovery. Lan Xichen wrote about what night hunts and lessons the juniors were doing at Cloud Recesses.

She knew that Lan Wangji dearly missed his brother, and of course could not blame him for that. She knew that Lan Wangji did not blame Lan Xichen for anything that had happened, so she tried not to hold him responsible, either. They all had their regrets. The only thing that she could not quite forgive was that Lan Xichen had tried to use her to take Wen Yuan away from Lan Wangji. She understood that he had been trying to help, but hated the fact that he hadn’t at least warned her before bringing her to Lan Wangji’s cabin, probably knowing that once she saw the boy she would insist on bringing him to Yunmeng.

So although Lan Wangji clearly wished that Lan Xichen would come visit, Jiang Yanli held her tongue on the issue. They were all trying not to push each other too hard as they got used to the new reality they were living in.

The disciples seemed a little puzzled as to why Lan Wangji was there, although fortunately none questioned the fact that he had adopted an orphan. Jiang Yanli made sure to mention where a few people could hear that ‘Lan Yuan’ had been orphaned during the Sunshot Campaign, because she did not want people blaming Wei Wuxian for the death of his parents. Most people did not seem to have any idea that Lan Wangji had been desperately in love with her brother, which did not particularly surprise her. He was so guarded with his emotions, and although it was quite possible to learn to read him, she doubted any of them had known him long enough to do so. She was fairly sure that even Wei Wuxian himself had never had any idea.

She did not bother to explain Lan Wangji’s presence, and in the absence of that, the disciples came to their own conclusions. They were not ones she had expected, but found that she did not entirely disagree with them.

“Listen, you’ve gotta stop talking about it,” Jiang Shulian said to one of the groups of lower disciples, who had been asking him about Lan Wangji’s presence. “And definitely don’t pester Jiang-zongzhu about it because if she hasn’t said anything yet, it’s because she wants to keep her cards close, okay? But Jin-zongzhu isn’t going to let it slide forever that she’s keeping A-Ling here. He wants that boy back at Koi Tower. You think he’s going to let the son he had with a whore inherit? Not on your life. A-Ling’s still a baby so he’ll let it go for now, but the day’s going to come when he’s going to insist on taking him, whether Jiang-zongzhu wants him to or not. And when that day comes, we’re all going to be damned glad that Hanguang-Jun is between us and him. So stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Jiang Yanli hadn’t thought about that, because she knew damn well that Lan Wangji wasn’t going to be up to fighting anyone, let alone an entire army of Jin cultivators. But the upside was, hardly anybody knew that. His presence alone would be a powerful deterrent to anyone who thought that Yunmeng Jiang might be weak after the transition to her leadership.

Every day when she woke and dressed and prostrated herself in the shrine, she reminded herself that it was one day at a time. 

Her grief escaped more often now, but she did not mind, because Lan Wangji was there. She did not have to be alone while she cried, even if all he ever did was hold her hand in silence. And she was able to talk about the good times with him, when they had been young and happy, or at least mostly happy. Her mother had always made their lives difficult, but for the most part, things had been good. 

Lan Wangji, for his part, continued to grieve in silence. She never saw him shed a tear, and although he would occasionally mention things Wei Wuxian had said or done, it was never cathartic for him, as it was for her.

One day, she was sure, that dam would burst. But she would not force him.

Jin Ling was rolling over now, and trying to pull himself along with his arms although he never quite managed it. He could sit up on his own and reach for things, grabbing at them with his chubby little hands. He was growing tufts of fine black hair. He was almost sleeping through the night, although she frequently still woke to check on him.

Wen Yuan was learning to read, and he loved to take part in the sword exercises even though he was far too young, mimicking the movements of the juniors. All the disciples loved him, frequently stopping to pat him on the head or pinch his cheeks. He could count to ten, knew all his shapes and colors, and loved to eat lotus seeds as fast as she could peel them. She began teaching him how to swim, hoping that he would grow used to the water. Lan Wangji could not go in yet, because of his injuries, so he would sit on the docks with his feet in the water, holding Jin Ling and watching them.

Their brief idyll was broken by another visit from the Jin family. Jin Ling was turning six months old, and they wanted to celebrate.

“And how is my grandson?” Jin Guangshan greeted them, which got underneath Jiang Yanli’s skin immediately, that he would refer to him in the possessive manner.

She didn’t let it show, however, telling them all the same things she put in her weekly letters, about how he was doing. Yu Zixia held Jin Ling while she spoke, then let Jin Guangshan hold him for a while. Jiang Yanli could practically see Jin Guangyao’s hands twitching, because it had been clear to her from the beginning that he loved babies. He had always desperately, obviously wanted to be able to hold Jin Ling, and Jin Guangshan had never allowed it.

Along with the three of them, there was a young woman named Qin Su, the daughter of a friend of Jin Guangshan’s, who Jin Guangyao was clearly courting. She seemed sweet and mild-tempered, and was quite beautiful. Jiang Yanli mentally wished her the best of luck in the family. But she could not help but think back to what Jiang Shulian had said, and agreed with it. Whether Jin Guangyao married well, whether he had children, none of that would matter to Jin Guangshan. From the beginning, he had never allowed Jin Guangyao to forget what he was, had never let him think for a moment that being legitimized meant more than that Jin Guangshan found him a useful tool.

“And what brings you to Lotus Pier, Hanguang-Jun?” Yu Zixia asked, smiling at him.

“I live here now,” Lan Wangji said, in a complete deadpan that explained nothing.

Jin Guangshan was frowning. “A-Li, I told you, if you needed assistance running the sect, you could come to us any time!”

Jiang Yanli smiled gently. “I did not require assistance, Jin-zongzhu. All is quite well with the Jiang. Hanguang-Jun has his own reasons for staying here.”

When it looked like Jin Guangshan was going to continue to push the issue, Jin Guangyao smoothly intervened. “Er-ge misses you terribly, Hanguang-Jun. He mentions it frequently in his letters to me.”

“He is welcome to visit any time,” Lan Wangji said, then added more quietly, “I would like it very much if he would.”

To Jin Guangyao, Jiang Yanli said, “Do you know if he is going to be attending the cultivation conference in Qinghe next month? If so, I am sure we will see him there.”

Jin Guangyao nodded, but before he could speak, Jin Guangshan said, “Oh, are you going? I wouldn’t think you’d be needed. It would be terribly boring for you, I’m sure.”

By some miracle, Jiang Yanli managed to keep her pleasantly neutral expression. “As the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang, my presence would be appropriate, so yes, of course I planned to attend.”

Jin Guangyao quickly changed the subject.

Finally, the visit was over and the Jins departed. Lan Wangji stared after their boat and said, “They are horrible people.”

Jiang Yanli laughed despite herself. “Yes, they very much are,” she said. They stood in silence for a long moment, before she saw the faintest smile on Lan Wangji’s face, barely the upturn of one corner of his mouth. “What are you smiling about?”

“I was just thinking back to the crowd hunt,” he said. “To that awful Jin Zixun pressuring me to drink alcohol in front of everyone. And Wei Ying coming in . . . snatching that drink from his hand and looking him dead in the eye while he drank it.” The smile faded, and he continued quietly, “I know that everything after that went terribly wrong. That was a day of tragedy. But I will always remember how I felt in that moment. How I wanted to grab him and kiss him in front of everyone, not caring who saw - no, wanting people to see.”

“Why didn’t you?” she asked softly. “If you wanted to so badly?”

He said nothing for several seconds. Then, simply, “I wasn’t ready.”

Jiang Yanli nodded.

“I wasn’t ready . . . until it was too late.” Lan Wangji shook his head, and a few tears finally escaped, trickling down his cheeks. “How does one move forward, from that sort of regret?”

Jiang Yanli thought about that quite seriously for a few long moments. “I think . . . by understanding the reasons behind it, and making sure it will not happen again. We were both brought up to be quiet, if for very different reasons. We must confront that, that urge to stay silent, and make sure we do not fall into the same patterns. I must become more confident, and not allow others to silence me by telling me that my opinions are without merit. And you must become more expressive, allowing people to see how you feel, understanding that your emotions are valid, and that you are permitted to have them.”

Lan Wangji stood and reflected on this for several minutes. Then he nodded. “Zhangjie,” he said, shedding a few more tears. “I miss him.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said. “I miss him too. Every day.”

Lan Wangji turned to her, and she opened her arms to him. Although she could not hold him, not wanting to risk pressure on his injuries, she stood still as he leaned into her shoulder, and wept until his tears had run dry.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Xichen found himself quite glad of a legitimate excuse to get out of Cloud Recesses for a little while. The atmosphere there had been tense lately. He had heard the disciples whispering when he walked by. He wasn’t sure if the rumors were good or bad, if they were impressed with him for standing up for his brother or disgusted that he would contradict the elders. He found he did not want to know. Regardless of what the others thought, he would continue to do what he felt was best. It was all he could do.

Even so, departing for Lanling for Jin Guangyao’s twice monthly guqin lesson was a relief. It had been about a year since Lan Xichen had talked Nie Mingjue into letting Lan Xichen play for him in an attempt to calm his spirit and prevent qi deviation. They took turns between Nie Mingjue traveling to Gusu, and Lan Xichen traveling to Qinghe for a while, and then Jin Guangyao had asked if they might not rather meet in Lanling, as it was about halfway between the two provinces.

Lan Xichen had been teaching Jin Guangyao the guqin anyway, so this worked out well for him. He studied on his own, and with a local tutor who was definitely skilled, even if she was no Lan Xichen. Then twice a month, the three of them sat down together. Lan Xichen would play the calming music for Nie Mingjue, and then have his lesson with Jin Guangyao.

A few months before the events of Nightless City, Jin Guangyao had asked if, since Lan Xichen had been instructing him, he might not be able to take up the practice of playing for Nie Mingjue. After all, he said, there was no reason for Lan Xichen to come from Gusu when Jin Guangyao could learn to do it himself. Lan Xichen had agreed, but Jin Guangyao was still learning, and he estimated it would be at least another six months before he was proficient enough to take over. Now he was thinking that perhaps he would offer to continue playing for Nie Mingjue anyway, since it gave him an excuse to leave Gusu.

He arrived before Nie Mingjue, who did not particularly enjoy the sessions and would generally put off leaving until he absolutely had to. Lan Xichen knew that Nie Mingjue hated everything about this endeavor. No, he thought, Nie Mingjue hated that it was necessary, that he could not handle this on his own. No matter how many times Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao reassured him that they were glad to help, he would never be happy about it.

“Er-ge!” Jin Guangyao greeted him with a wide smile and a bow as always, and as always, Lan Xichen caught his elbows to keep him from bowing too low. “I hope you are well.”

“It has been a difficult time,” Lan Xichen admitted, since Jin Guangyao knew that anyway. They wrote to each other frequently, at least once a week.

Jin Guangyao’s face softened. “Would you like to have some tea, while we wait for da-ge?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, and they sat down in one of the gardens.

“As it happens, I just got back from Yunmeng,” Jin Guangyao said, and Lan Xichen couldn’t help but look surprised. “My father and Jin-furen of course like to visit A-Ling as often as possible, and I went with them.”

“Did you see Wangji?” Lan Xichen asked, unable to help it.

Jin Guangyao nodded, pouring the tea. “He seemed well,” he said. “I mentioned how worried for him you were, and he said you were welcome to visit him any time.”

“Yes, he’s said that in his letters, but . . .” Lan Xichen looked away. “I don’t know that I can.”

Gently, Jin Guangyao said, “Why are you so hard on yourself, er-ge? If he is not angry with you, why are you angry at yourself?”

“Whether or not he’s angry at me is irrelevant,” Lan Xichen said. “He should be angry at me. I stood by while they gave him that punishment and did nothing. I should have said something . . . should have prevented it somehow . . .”

Jin Guangyao was silent for a moment. “I understand that punishment was severe, er-ge, but was it really so disproportionate? When you first mentioned it to me, it seemed to be reasonable. I respect your brother greatly, but he did injure many people, and for what? To protect the belongings of a dead man . . . one who had murdered countless people. Was the punishment that inappropriate?”

Lan Xichen studied his cup of tea. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “But to see him in such pain . . .”

“Of course that would be difficult for you,” Jin Guangyao said. “You are such a kind person, and I know how deeply you care for your brother. And I’m sure that he was only doing what he thought was right. He would never do anything else. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind after what Wei-gongzi did at Nightless City. It must have been horrible for him, to see the man he loved committing such terrible crimes.”

“Mm,” Lan Xichen agreed, because that much, at least, Jin Guangyao was absolutely correct about. He too could not fathom what Lan Wangji had been thinking after Wei Wuxian’s death. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. What had driven him to go to the Burial Mounds to try to salvage Wei Wuxian’s things? Why had he thought it would matter? Had he realized Wen Yuan would be there? Or had it just been mindless grief and pain? He could understand if it had been. “But if Wangji was only acting out of grief when he fought those other cultivators, that makes the punishment seem even worse to me. Can we really hold him responsible for what he did?”

“Grief is terrible, er-ge,” Jin Guangyao said, “but we cannot use it to excuse our actions. I’m sure Wei-gongzi would have also said he was acting out of grief at Nightless City, but that does not make the people he killed there any less dead.” He added, “I’m sorry if this seems harsh to you. I understand that the Lan sect lost people at Nightless City as well. But whenever I think back to those terrible events, I always think of my brother, who was so kind to me after I came to Koi Tower . . . to my nephew, who will never know his father.”

Feeling wretched, Lan Xichen said, “Ah, I’m sorry, A-Yao. I know the Lanling Jin suffered much at Wei-gongzi’s hands. I should not excuse Wangji’s actions to you. I just miss him, that’s all.”

“I understand,” Jin Guangyao said. “But if you can accept that perhaps his punishment was not as far out of line as you thought, then maybe you can forgive yourself for not stopping it. And since he is not angry with you, either, then you should go visit him.”

“I don’t know what to say to him,” Lan Xichen admitted.

“You don’t need to speak of the past, er-ge. We’re all trying to move forward from those awful events. Just go to see him. He seems to be doing well at Lotus Pier and I am sure he would like to see you. Maybe bring him some things from home that he’s been missing. Or – ” Jin Guangyao brightened suddenly. “I have something you could give him which might improve his mood. Will you come with me, er-ge?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, curious. He followed Jin Guangyao to the elegance room, which he had never been in before.

“Wait here, if you would,” Jin Guangyao said. “It is in a treasure room, and I’m afraid my father would be angry if I showed you the way.”

Lan Xichen nodded and politely turned away.

A few moments later, Jin Guangyao said, “All right, here it is,” and Lan Xichen turned around to see that he was holding Wei Wuxian’s flute.

“How did you get that?” Lan Xichen asked, his eyes wide.

“Ah, well, it was sent here by your uncle,” Jin Guangyao said, looking a little guilty. “I presume Hanguang-Jun picked it up after Wei-gongzi’s death, which would not surprise me, and equally I presume that your elders took it from him when he was sent into seclusion. But they did not want it in Cloud Recesses, and they knew that the Lanling Jin had taken many items from the Burial Mounds to be suppressed and stored, so they sent it here.”

“I . . . I see,” Lan Xichen said, his throat aching. He had known that the elders had seized Chenqing from Lan Wangji, and had assumed that they had sealed it away themselves. He had thought that someday Lan Wangji might want it, but hadn’t wanted to challenge them on the issue, especially after his punishment had been decided.

“Perhaps giving your brother something to remember Wei-gongzi by will help him move on,” Jin Guangyao said.

Lan Xichen smiled sadly. He knew that Jin Guangyao meant well, and didn’t want to get into a long discussion of how he did not anticipate his brother ever ‘moving on’. He wasn’t sure his brother was even capable of that.

Jin Guangyao seemed to know what he was thinking, though, because he said gently, “Time heals many wounds, er-ge. Even those that the bearer never wanted healed.”

“You might be right,” Lan Xichen said. “Either way, I am quite grateful for the gift, A-Yao. But will you not get in trouble with your father?”

“Because it arrived separately from the things that our disciples brought back, it was not catalogued with them,” Jin Guangyao said. “I doubt he will notice that it’s gone. And if he does, I will merely tell him that you asked for it back, and since it was sent here by the Gusu Lan, he could hardly argue with me giving it to you. Even if he does get upset, it is worth it to me, to see you mend things with your brother. I hope it helps.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Thank you, A-Yao.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

About a week after the Jins’ visit, Lan Wangji received a letter from his brother, saying he was going to come for a visit. The formality of it amused Jiang Yanli, since she knew that Lan Wangji had frequently written that he could come to Lotus Pier any time. Lan Xichen was much too polite to just show up on the doorstep without advance notice.

It was a good time for him to visit, she thought. It would give her a chance to talk to him about the upcoming cultivation conference. She was more anxious about it than she wanted to admit, knowing that many of the prejudiced male sect leaders would think she had no place there. She wanted to be sure she could count on Lan Xichen to back her up. The Gusu Lan was the only major sect besides the Jiang who had ever had a female Clan Leader, the great Lan Yi. But she knew from Lan Wangji that his brother abhorred confrontation, so she figured it might be a good idea to let him know that she might need his support.

Lan Wangji was definitely looking forward to his visit, and seemed relieved when Lan Xichen arrived, wearing his usual gentle smile. She noticed they did not embrace, and wondered if that was because the Lan sect simply didn’t touch each other, or if Lan Xichen was still worried about his wounds. Hoping it was the latter (since Lan Wangji definitely needed a hug from his brother), she said, “He is healing well, Zewu-Jun, so you will not harm him if you touch him.”

“Are you sure?” Lan Xichen asked, somewhat anxiously. “It has only been three months since you left . . .”

Lan Wangji nodded. “The healers at Lotus Pier are very good, and I am recovering ahead of schedule.”

“Ah, are you?” Lan Xichen seemed surprised. “They’ve been treating your wounds?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.

For a moment, Jiang Yanli was afraid that Lan Xichen was going to remind Lan Wangji that the wounds had been part of discipline, and he was not supposed to let anyone give them any special care. She was even more afraid that Lan Wangji would take that to heart and begin refusing treatment. But after a brief moment, Lan Xichen merely smiled and said, “I’m glad you are feeling well. How is A-Yuan?” he added, seeing Wen Yuan trotting around the courtyard.

“He is well. A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji called out, and beckoned him over.

“Lan-bobo!” Wen Yuan cheered, latching onto Lan Xichen’s leg.

Lan Xichen’s smile grew wider. “It is good to see you, too, A-Yuan. And Jiang-zongzhu, I heard from A-Yao that A-Ling will be crawling soon. He has grown so much since the last time I saw him.”

Jiang Yanli smiled and nodded. “He is in good health, and gets bigger every day.”

As Lan Xichen had not been to Lotus Pier except once when he was younger, for a cultivation conference while his father had still been sect leader, Jiang Yanli showed him around. He was polite and courteous and said all the right things about how happy he was to see the Yunmeng Jiang thriving under her leadership.

Over tea, after the children were in bed, Jiang Yanli said, “May I ask you a question that might not be entirely appropriate?”

Lan Xichen smiled and said, “Of course. We are friends, are we not?”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “I know that you are such good friends with Jin-gongzi, and that you two see each other frequently. Although I doubt he has addressed it with you, being so proper himself, I know that he has told Jin-zongzhu that they should not push me to come back to Koi Tower. He and I have discussed it, if only briefly, and agreed that Jin Ling should be the heir to the Yunmeng Jiang. After all, Jin-zongzhu can have other grandchildren, through Jin-gongzi, whereas my father cannot, and A-Ling can only be heir to one sect.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said. “That seems to be the best solution for everyone.”

“I agree, but I am afraid that Jin-zongzhu will not.” Jiang Yanli sighed. “Jin-gongzi does not speak of it with me, but his father still treats him . . . he does not treat him like a rightful heir, even though he legitimized him. I am sure you have seen the same.”

Lan Xichen grimaced slightly, but nodded. “Yes, that is true. I am sure it bothers A-Yao but he never speaks of it with me, either.”

“My concern is that Jin-zongzhu will, at some point, officially declare that he will not consider Jin-gongzi able to inherit his position, and that he will attempt to convince or even force me to let him take A-Ling back to Koi Tower . . . something that, of course, I do not want, and I’m sure Jin-gongzi does not want either. If such a thing were to occur, would I be able to rely on you to back me, and agree that A-Ling should be considered the heir to Yunmeng Jiang?”

Shifting uncomfortably, Lan Xichen said, “I will absolutely, but I fear that doing so will only anger Jin-zongzhu further. And it is not entirely true that A-Ling can only be the heir to one sect. He could be heir to both, if the two were to merge, and I fear that Jin-zongzhu may push for such a thing.”

“We will not allow it,” Lan Wangji said, speaking for the first time.

Lan Xichen sighed quietly, and Jiang Yanli had to agree. “He won’t come with an army, Wangji. That’s not how Jin-zongzhu does things. He fights politically, and frankly, he fights dirty. He’ll try to find ways to discredit Jiang-zongzhu, to make it appear she should not be allowed to lead the Jiang or make these decisions. That being said,” he added, “I think you will find A-Yao an excellent ally if Jin-zongzhu decides to take steps. He is quite clever and very familiar with his father’s way of doing things.”

Under normal circumstances, Jiang Yanli absolutely would not have trusted Jin Guangyao to help anyone thwart his father’s plans. But if thwarting his father’s plans meant he got to be the sect leader of the Lanling Jin, she felt he probably could be. She nodded and said, “Thank you for your counsel, Zewu-Jun.”

“I have something for you,” Lan Xichen added. “For both of you, really, although it is Wangji to whom I am returning it.” He took out a spirit pouch and took something out of it, then turned back to the table and held out Chenqing to the both of them.

Jiang Yanli felt tears immediately sting at her eyes. She remembered first seeing Wei Wuxian wielding the flute, telling her its name. She remembered saying it was his first class spiritual tool, just like Zidian had been their mother’s. She had never understood why he gave up his sword in favor of the flute, but he had favored it, and she was glad beyond words to see it was intact.

Lan Wangji seemed similarly taking aback. She heard his breath catch in his throat as he reached out and took it from Lan Xichen’s hands. “They took it from me,” he said, his fingers delicately tracing over the carvings. “I hope you did not defy them to take it back.”

“No,” Lan Xichen said. “As a matter of fact, I did not. They did not wish to keep it in Cloud Recesses, so they sent it to Koi Tower to be suppressed along with the other items that were taken from the Burial Mounds. A-Yao thought you might like to have it.”

After a moment, Lan Wangji nodded. “Please thank him for me, the next time you see him.”

“For us,” Jiang Yanli said. “I am very glad that it has come back to A-Zhan’s hands.”

“I will,” Lan Xichen said.

They sat in silence for several long seconds.

Jiang Yanli finally broke it, changing the subject. There was really nothing further that could be said about the flute, about the grief and the pain and the strange gratitude that came with it. “Will you be at the cultivation conference next month, Zewu-Jun?” she asked, and he nodded. “Jin-zongzhu seemed to think I should stay home with the children.”

Lan Xichen shook his head with his usual soft smile. “Jin-zongzhu is incorrect. Of course you should be there.”

“Do you know if the other sect leaders will agree?” Jiang Yanli asked. “The ones from this region should be fine with it – they knew my mother, so they would never dream to tell a woman that her place is in the kitchen. But I am unsure about the others.”

“Well, Mingjue-xiong certainly would never dream to tell a woman she should not be a cultivator. His mother was quite skilled, you know. Some of the smaller sect leaders might grumble a little, but I typically find their grumbling easy to ignore.”

“I find it difficult to strike the right tone with Jin-zongzhu,” Jiang Yanli admitted. “I never want to push back too hard, for fear of being impolite. I still think of him more as my husband’s father, than as another sect leader who is technically my equal, if still my senior. But he can be quite inappropriate.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “I am very familiar with your problems,” he said. “I’m sure Wangji has told you about how I dislike confrontation. I find what is best with sect leaders like Jin-zongzhu is treating them like a small child.”

Jiang Yanli laughed despite herself. “How so?”

“When a child says something inappropriate, you want to admonish them so they know it is not acceptable, but not necessarily punish them, as they might not have understood why it was wrong. So your response is firm, but not harsh. The same for sect leaders, even if for very different reasons. Jin-zongzhu certainly knows that you do not appreciate his remarks, but he feels that he can say them regardless. So be polite, but firm, and simply tell him that you do not agree.”

“I will endeavor to remember that,” Jiang Yanli said, still amused.

Lan Wangji stirred again. “Xiongzhang,” he said, “I would like to accompany zhangjie, but if our uncle is there, I think he could react poorly.”

Lan Xichen grimaced slightly. “I hate to agree, but . . .”

“Don’t worry about it, A-Zhan,” Jiang Yanli said, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “You should stay here, where you can continue to receive treatment for your injuries. And I can leave Jin Ling here with you, which will make the travel much easier.”

Looking relieved, Lan Wangji said, “You are sure?”

“I am,” Jiang Yanli said. “I can take care of myself.”

“Very well, then,” Lan Wangji said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji had to take several deep breaths as he waved to the departing boat that would take Jiang Yanli and her delegation to Qinghe for the conference. The river would take them about halfway before it turned, and they would travel the rest of the way by carriage. It was a routine trip that she said her father had made dozens of times.

He had not expected to get emotional about it. He had grown close to Jiang Yanli over the past few months, but it was a brief trip and there was no real risk in it. But he found his hands trembling as he watched the boat leave, his throat aching with fear, not just for her safety, but his own success in watching her child while she was gone. He was still surprised that she had been willing to leave him with her. There were two wet nurses who would help with the feedings, she said, and she trusted him for the rest of his care. Of course, he had been helping her with him since he had arrived at Lotus Pier. But it was still shocking to him. He could barely stand to let Wen Yuan out of his sight for an hour or two each day. He wondered which one of them was the strange one.

Regardless, it didn’t matter. He carried Jin Ling inside while Wen Yuan trotted along beside him. “Shall we read together, A-Yuan?” he asked, laying Jin Ling down in his playpen.

“Uh huh,” Wen Yuan said, crawling up onto the bed.

As always, Lan Wangji’s gaze caught on those little figures carved into the headboard of the bed, and he felt the typical stab of grief in his gut. He ignored it with the ease of practice and picked up a story for Wen Yuan.

About an hour later, Madam Nuan came in for his usual treatment. He only saw her twice a week now, as the wounds were improving, and typically no longer slept afterwards. This was good, since he would have to continue to watch the children during his treatment. The wounds were closed, and no longer bled or re-opened so easily, although they were still quite tender. He estimated he had recovered about a quarter of the spiritual power he had lost. It was a slow process, but it was working.

“A-die, what’s this?” Wen Yuan suddenly asked, and Lan Wangji’s breath caught in his throat. Wen Yuan was holding Chenqing. He had placed it on a high shelf, but Wen Yuan was growing more limber and adventurous every day, and he had been distracted with bidding farewell to Madam Nuan.

“You should not take things off shelves you cannot reach without climbing,” he said, although he doubted this would sink in. Wen Yuan was inquisitive and brave, two qualities that Lan Wangji normally favored, when they weren’t prying into his personal belongings. He took the flute from Wen Yuan’s hands. “This is a flute. It is used to make music, like my guqin.”

“Can you play it?” Wen Yuan asked.

Lan Wangji shook his head. “It is not an instrument I have learned.”

“Then why do you have it?”

“It belonged to somebody I once knew.”

Wen Yuan reached out and ran his fingers through the tassel, and he suddenly tugged on it. Lan Wangji was about to reprimand him, tell him that it was not a toy, when he said, softly, “Xian-gege . . .”

Lan Wangji’s breath caught in his throat. Since getting to Lotus Pier, he had heard Wen Yuan say a few things indicating he might be remembering some things from the Burial Mounds. First he had remembered Jiang Yanli’s soup, even though he didn’t remember where he had had it. Then he had found a toy in the toybox similar to one Wei Wuxian had bought for him and said it looked familiar, and had hummed along on a lonely night while Lan Wangji was playing Wangxian on his guqin. This, however, was the most obvious memory Lan Wangji had seen. He managed to keep his voice even, and said, “Yes, it was Xian-gege’s. Do you remember your Xian-gege?”

“A little,” Wen Yuan said. “He planted me in the dirt. Like a radish.”

Lan Wangji almost smiled. “That sounds very much like a thing he would do.”

Wen Yuan’s little hands pulled at the tassel. “Where did Xian-gege go?”

“He went – ” Lan Wangji’s voice broke. He reminded himself that Wen Yuan was an orphan, had been an orphan even before the Burial Mounds. He knew what death was, even if he was too young to fully comprehend it. “He died, A-Yuan.”

Wen Yuan looked up at Lan Wangji solemnly. “Why?”

What kind of question was that, Lan Wangji wondered. What possible answer could he give? Why? Why had Wei Wuxian died? He didn’t know. He wasn’t sure he would ever know. There was so much about what had happened in those few days that he felt he would never understand. But was that really what Wen Yuan was asking? He was a child. Why did anyone die? Why did people have to die?

Finally, Lan Wangji said, “You have heard zhangjie and I speak of cultivation, yes? Of channeling our spiritual power and using it to fight evil?”

Wen Yuan nodded.

“Wei Ying – your Xian-gege – he did the same. But he tried to use too much magic and it backfired on him. The kind of magic we use can be dangerous, and his body could not handle the stress that the backlash put on it.”

“Okay.” Wen Yuan tugged at the tassel one last time and then let go. “He was funny. I miss him.”

“I miss him too, A-Yuan. But he would want us to take care of ourselves, to be healthy and keep moving forward.”

“What about the others?” Wen Yuan asked. “Popo? Uncle four?”

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. “They died as well,” he said, and hoped that Wen Yuan didn’t ask how or why because he absolutely could not explain to the child that the Jin sect had executed them just for being Wens. But that made him realize something. “A-Yuan, how long have you remembered these things?”

“I only remembered Xian-gege when I saw the flute.” Wen Yuan shrugged. “I guess I sort of remembered that other people took care of me before you did.”

“You mustn’t mention that, A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said, and Wen Yuan blinked at him. Trying to stay as calm as possible, Lan Wangji continued, “The people who took care of you before me were good people. But not everybody thought so. There were some people who thought, because of who they were related to, that they were bad people. Do you understand?”

“Nuh uh,” Wen Yuan said.

That was fair. Lan Wangji tried again. “You know how zhangjie is in charge of all the people here? How she is the sect leader?” he asked, and Wen Yuan nodded. “Well, pretend for a moment that zhangjie did something very bad.”

Wen Yuan’s eyes narrowed. “Jiang-gugu would never,” he declared passionately.

Lan Wangji smiled despite himself. “It’s just make believe, A-Yuan. Just pretend.”

“Okay . . .” Wen Yuan clearly disliked this train of thought intensely.

“Well, if zhangjie did something bad, would it be the fault of the people who lived here? Who she was in charge of?”

“No,” Wen Yuan said.

“That is correct,” Lan Wangji said, “but some people would think it was. Do you understand?”

Wen Yuan blinked. “Nuh uh,” he said again.

Lan Wangji sighed. “I suppose you don’t have to. But, the people who took care of you were once under the charge of a man named Wen Ruohan, and he did very bad things. After he was dead, many people blamed everyone who had been in his sect, even if they had nothing to do with the things he had done. That is why your people were hiding, and why Wei Ying was taking care of them and protecting them. The reason I am telling you this,” he said, continuing on because it looked like Wen Yuan was about to ask him a hundred more questions about what he had just said, “is because you must never speak of your Xian-gege to anyone except me and zhangjie. Nobody here knows you ever lived at the Burial Mounds, and they must never know. Do you understand?”

Wen Yuan nodded, and he looked sad, which made Lan Wangji want to take out Bichen, ride to Koi Tower, and burn it to the ground. “Okay, a-die.”

Lan Wangji let out a slow breath and pulled Wen Yuan into an embrace. “Understand this, A-Yuan,” he said. “There is nothing you need to be afraid of. I will protect you, no matter what.”

“Okay, a-die,” Wen Yuan said again, and leaned his cheek against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji pressed a kiss into the crowd of his head, and held him for a long time.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli was not particularly surprised to find that people were surprised to see her in Qinghe. At least Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything, bowing and welcoming her back to The Unclean Realm with just as much respect as he showed any other sect leader. Nie Huaisang was behind him, waving his fan and looking just as Jiang Yanli remembered him. She had to admit to a brief moment of envy. Out of all the sects, it seemed the Qinghe Nie had fared the best the last few years, avoiding much of the conflict. Of course they had lost people at Nightless City, but it hadn’t been personal for them, the way it had been for the others.

Then the Lan sect arrived, and although they were courteous to her, she could see the way the older members of the delegation looked at her with narrowed eyes. She supposed they couldn’t be happy about the fact that she had stolen Lan Wangji from them, given him a safe haven at Lotus Pier. But at least they didn’t say anything about it to her. Maybe that was because Lan Xichen was there, smiling at her. Or maybe they just didn’t think she was worth it.

Jin Guangshan, unsurprisingly, greeted her with, “Where is A-Ling?”

“He is at Lotus Pier, of course,” Jiang Yanli said, having fully expected this. “There are people there who can care for him, and Hanguang-Jun is there to keep him safe.”

“You left him behind?” Jin Guangshan sounded appalled. “You are his mother!”

Jiang Yanli gave him a thin smile. “As I said, he will be well cared for in my absence. He is eight months old now, and he can handle a few days away from his mother.”

“But the fact that you would even consider – surely no mother would wish to be away from their child, even for a moment!”

Carefully keeping the smile on her face, Jiang Yanli said, “I can see why you would think that, but of course you are not a mother, now are you, Jin-zongzhu? So you really have no way of knowing what a mother would wish for. I am happy that A-Ling is now old enough that I can depend on others to watch him while I handle the important matters as sect leader.”

Jin Guangshan obviously had no idea how to respond to that, and Jiang Yanli saw Jin Guangyao hide a smile behind his sleeve.

Cultivation conferences were, honestly, somewhat boring. It was a lot of politicking, a lot of old squabbles and minor grievances. There was some discussion of actual cultivation, but only in terms of sharing resources and delegating responsibilities.

Although Jiang Yanli offered her opinion a few times, nobody technically requested it. Still, when she was confident, she found herself able to speak up, particularly if it regarded things close to Yunmeng. She found that it was actually easier because she was a woman. Although the minor sect leaders were content to fight with each other, interrupting and talking over each other, they seemed reluctant to do that to her. Nobody wanted to be too aggressive with her, even when they disagreed.

Meanwhile, although Nie Mingjue was the host, it was Jin Guangyao who spoke the most. Jiang Yanli watched in interest as he mediated disputes, cajoling and coaxing people around to his way of thinking. Even his father didn’t try to curb him much, letting him control the narrative. Of course he would, Jiang Yanli thought. The outcomes always favored Jin Guangshan. And she noticed some evidence of what Lan Xichen had said about them. Sometimes she didn’t quite get what Jin Guangyao said. He would say things like, “I understand you have a close relationship with Feng Yu,” or “It’s similar to the time in Tanzhou, isn’t it, Bai-zongzhu?” and suddenly whoever he was speaking to would mysteriously agree with him.

Jin Guangshan was a politician, and he played dirty. Jiang Yanli resolved that she would never give him an opening.

Once the conference was over, Nie Mingjue asked her if she would like to join him for a cup of tea, along with his brother, which she accepted. “So how did you like your first cultivation conference?” he asked, once they were sitting down.

“It was exhausting, honestly,” Jiang Yanli said. “So much talking for so little results.”

Nie Mingjue snorted. “Yeah, I hate them too.”

“I’m sure they must be particularly trying for you,” Jiang Yanli said. “This sort of politics isn’t really . . . something I envision you enjoying.”

“That’s true.” Nie Mingjue sighed. “One of the reasons I miss having Me – ah, Jin Guangyao, as my assistant. He’s so much better at that sort of thing than I am. Even when he was younger, he still had that knack for it.”

“He seems quite talented,” Jiang Yanli agreed.

“He takes after his father,” Nie Mingjue said, in a way that Jiang Yanli did not at all think was a compliment.

“How do you deal with it?” Jiang Yanli asked. “Not just the cultivation conferences, but just in general. All this intrigue and politics . . .”

“You get used to it,” Nie Mingjue said. “Avoid it as much as you can. Deal with problems by yourself when at all possible. Try to stay out of debt to other sects. Cultivate a few close friendships with people you can speak plainly with – like I do with Xichen, and I’m betting you do with Wangji.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “May I speak plainly with you, Nie-zongzhu?”

“I prefer it at all times,” Nie Mingjue said, and Nie Huaisang laughed.

Jiang Yanli thanked him. She did not like Nie Mingjue particularly – she could not help but think back to how harsh he had been with the Wen remnants. In some small ways, he had contributed to Wei Wuxian’s descent into madness and eventual death. But unlike Jin Guangshan, she felt that he had only been trying to do the right thing. They did not agree on what those things were, but that was not entirely his fault. So she did not like him, but she did not need to like him. She could still respect him, predict him, and trust him.

“This is why I’m glad to be the second son,” Nie Huaisang said, still laughing. “I would never want to be a sect leader. The sheer amount of nonsense you have to put up with . . .”

“Thanks for reminding me,” Nie Mingjue said, scowling at him. “Don’t brag about how useless you are, Huaisang.”

“But I’m proud of it!” Nie Huaisang said, and Nie Mingjue groaned.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly, sipping her tea. It was nice to see that some things never changed. As much as she somewhat resented the Qinghe Nie for coming through the events of the past year unscathed, she was glad to see that Nie Huaisang had retained his innocence. “Thank you for all your counsel, Nie-zongzhu. I’m grateful that I can rely on you, and that the Nie and Jiang sects can still be allies.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. “I’m glad that your sect is in such good hands, Jiang-zongzhu. I’m sure both your parents would be proud.”

Feeling her eyes sting with tears, Jiang Yanli returned the nod. “Thank you, Nie-zongzhu.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Weeks slid by and became months. Jin Ling began to crawl, and then pull himself into a standing position. He could wave and clap and eat small pieces of solid food. Wen Yuan learned simple arithmetic and began calligraphy lessons. He wanted to learn to play the flute (“like Xian-gege” he said when nobody except Lan Wangji could hear) and Lan Wangji told him he could when he was a little older.

When Lan Wangji began giving him the simplest exercises to build his golden core, he saw Jiang Yanli watching them with a wistful expression. She did this frequently, and he knew why. Wen Yuan reminded her so much of her younger brothers, especially Wei Wuxian. How could he not?

The pain never went away. They both woke with it every day. Jiang Yanli still visited the ancestral shrine every morning, and Lan Wangji still played inquiry every night. There was not an hour that went by that they did not think of it. But they learned to live with it, and help each other carry it.

Lan Wangji rested and recovered and taught Wen Yuan, and Jiang Yanli delegated duties and rewarded good work and made soup. Neither of them could night hunt, but the disciples of the Yunmeng Jiang were excellent, and none of them said anything about it to the two of them.

One day, while Lan Wangji was working with Wen Yuan on his golden core exercises, Jiang Yanli laughed and said, “He’s already so far past where I was at his age. Although I suppose that’s not saying much.”

“He is somewhat advanced,” Lan Wangji agreed. Wen Yuan would be a good cultivator, he thought. He was perhaps not quite on the level that Lan Wangji himself was at, but he was close. He glanced over at Jiang Yanli and saw the shadow on her face. “Do you no longer work on your golden core?”

“Ah . . .” Jiang Yanli looked away, her gaze lowering to study the floor. “I haven’t in years, no. There wasn’t much point in it.”

Lan Wangji frowned. “Although it is true that it is easiest to grow the golden core as a child, it is still possible as an adult.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said, “but it was never going to be anywhere near the level that my parents wished it could be. They told me not to worry about it any longer. A-Cheng was going to be the next sect leader anyway, and I was going to marry, so . . .”

“But now you are sect leader,” Lan Wangji pointed out. “Although I suppose it is not totally necessary, would it not be a worthy pursuit?”

“Perhaps,” Jiang Yanli said softly.

Lan Wangji struggled to find the right words to show that he knew how complex her emotions must be on the subject. “I understand it is difficult to pursue a goal after being told you would never reach it. But I think your parents were incorrect. Your body is not suited for the fighting style of the Yunmeng Jiang, so they did not feel you could cultivate adequately. But there are other styles. Perhaps I could teach you the guqin. I think it might work better for you than the sword.”

That made Jiang Yanli smile. “You are so generous, A-Zhan . . . even if it did not help me build my core, I think I would enjoy learning the guqin.”

So they began music lessons, and Wen Yuan loved to sit in on them, and he began insisting that he too wanted to learn the guqin. His uncle played both the guqin and the xiao, he said, so why should he not play both the guqin and the dizi? “When you’re older,” Lan Wangji said, but pint-sized Wen Yuan sitting at the guqin far too large for him immediately won him over, and he began learning as well.

Lan Xichen came to visit once a month, and always seemed glad to see his brother, as Lan Wangji was always glad to see him. They never spoke of Cloud Recesses, and Lan Wangji knew that the elders were still furious with him. He was surprised he had not been banished or renounced, and had inquired about it on Lan Xichen’s first trip, but Lan Xichen had not wanted to speak of it. Lan Wangji hoped his brother hadn’t gotten into too much trouble, defending him.

About a month shy of his first birthday, Jin Ling spoke his first words, waving at Jiang Yanli and saying, “Mama,” which caused her to nearly burst into tears. He called Lan Wangji ‘jiujiu’ not long after that, which caused him to actually shed a few tears, and when he called Wen Yuan ‘gege’ they both needed an hour to recover.

Jin Ling’s grandparents, of course, wanted to see him for his birthday, and even wanted to throw a big party for it. After some thought, Jiang Yanli decided that she would not be able to talk them out of this without it turning into an argument. She still did not want to bring Jin Ling to Koi Tower, but she could not avoid it forever. She did not think Jin Guangshan would actually try to kidnap Jin Ling while they were there, particularly not if Lan Wangji came with her.

Of course, Lan Wangji coming with her meant Wen Yuan would come with them. Even though nobody else outside a few members of the Lan sect knew his parentage, the idea still made Lan Wangji profoundly nervous. Given what the Jin sect had done to the Wen remnants, she could not blame him. It seemed highly unlikely that Jin Guangshan would try to execute a child for being born to the Wens, but not entirely impossible.

“Why can we not just leave him here?” Jiang Yanli asked, as they were making the arrangements for their trip. “My parents would go on trips and leave the three of us here at Lotus Pier. There are plenty of people who can look after him. Jiang Shulian loves A-Yuan; he would be happy to watch him.”

“I can’t, zhangjie,” Lan Wangji said, his fists trembling. “I just can’t.”

Jiang Yanli sighed because she understood, she really did. Wen Yuan was all Lan Wangji had left of Wei Wuxian, and he could not bear the idea that something might happen to him while he was not there. It was not a healthy attitude, certainly. She’d had to force herself not to be the same way with Jin Ling. But it hadn’t even been a year since Wei Wuxian’s death. Surely it would get better over time.

“Then perhaps I will go by myself,” she finally said. “I went to the cultivation conference and was fine.”

“You will not go to Koi Tower without me,” Lan Wangji said.

So they sat down with Wen Yuan and took a few days to talk to him about proper etiquette while at the home of another great sect. He seemed to think a lot of it was very silly, but he was bright and charming and Jiang Yanli was not particularly worried that he would offend anyone.

“Remember,” Lan Wangji said, very seriously, “that you have always been in the care of the Lan sect. Your parents were members of the Lan sect, and I have raised you since they died. Nobody must ever know anything different. Do you understand?”

“I understand, a-die,” Wen Yuan said.

They got him his first set of formal robes in Lan blue and white, and headed for Koi Tower. He had been on the water enough since their trip from Gusu that he no longer got seasick. The trip took three days in each direction.

At Koi Tower, they were greeted with much fanfare. Even though Jiang Yanli had been clear in her letter that Lan Wangji and his son would be accompanying her, they still seemed somewhat surprised to see him. Even so, Jin Guangshan was all gregarious smiles and said, “Hanguang-Jun, what an honor.”

Lan Wangji bowed and said, “Mn,” which Jin Guangshan probably interpreted as being reciprocal while Jiang Yanli knew it was Lan Wangji’s indication that he was considering beating the man in front of him to death.

“And how is my grandson?” Jin Guangshan asked, scooping up Jin Ling and tickling him under the chin, making him giggle.

“He is very well,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. “He is so close to taking his first steps, Jin-zongzhu. Perhaps he will do that while we are here.”

“That would be so lovely!” Yu Zixia said, taking Jin Ling from Jin Guangshan’s arms. He smiled while she kissed him on the cheek and the forehead, then reached out with little grasping arms to Jin Guangyao.

Jin Guangyao’s face lit up, and he reached out to the child, only to have his hand slapped down by Yu Zixia’s fan. His expression immediately crumbled and he turned away. Seeing this, Jiang Yanli said, “Ah, A-Ling, you remember your Jin-shushu? He gave you that rattle that you like so much.”

“Shushu, shushu,” Jin Ling said, waving and grasping.

Ignoring the look on Yu Zixia’s face, the tight disapproval there, Jiang Yanli continued to smile and said, “Would you like to hold him, Jin-gongzi?”

“May I?” Jin Guangyao asked, his voice a little uncertain.

“Of course!” Jiang Yanli took Jin Ling from Yu Zixia’s arms and deposited him in Jin Guangyao’s. Jin Guangshan rolled his eyes while Yu Zixia tightened her lips, but neither of them could figure out how to tell Jiang Yanli that she couldn’t decide who could or could not hold her own son. Jin Guangyao, for his part, melted instantly and began to laugh as Jin Ling pulled on the strings that tied his hat underneath his chin.

“And who is this?” Yu Zixia asked, apparently wanting to forget that her husband’s illegitimate son was holding her grandson.

Lan Wangji rested both his hands on Wen Yuan’s shoulders. “This is my son, Lan Yuan. A-Yuan, this is Jin-zongzhu and Jin-furen, and Jin-gongzi.”

“How strange that we’ve been to Lotus Pier so many times and never met him,” Yu Zixia said, as Wen Yuan greeted them with a perfect little bow.

Lan Wangji’s facial expression didn’t change. “He has many lessons.”

“Bringing him up like a Lan, I’ll bet,” Jin Guangshan said, with the tone of someone who thought the Lan sect had far too many rules. “Whose child is he again?”

“He was born to my sect brother and sister who died in the Sunshot Campaign,” Lan Wangji said.

“Well, welcome to Koi Tower, A-Yuan,” Yu Zixia said, with a smile, and they headed inside.

It was a little silly, Jiang Yanli thought, throwing such a grand party for a child so young he wouldn’t even remember it later. It was clearly just an opportunity for the Jin clan to show off. But she would let them, because she certainly couldn’t stop them. She smiled and bowed over and over again as people came by with well-wishes and gifts. Lan Wangji sat next to her in complete silence. Wen Yuan was well-behaved for the first hour, and even the second hour, but after that he began to get a little twitchy.

“I am going to walk him around the gardens,” Lan Wangji said to Jiang Yanli. “You’ll be all right here?”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

After an interminable length of time, the banquet was finally over. Lan Wangji joined them and they headed for the guest house she had been given. He had one of his own, of course, but had said he would stay with her, just in case Jin Guangshan tried to do something untoward while she slept. Any cultivator could go a night or two without sleep, although she disliked asking him to do it while his spiritual power was still recovering. They were staying three days, however, so he would have to sleep at some point. Perhaps, she thought, she could stay up on the second night while he slept.

It turned out to be unnecessary. After breakfast the next morning, Jin Guangshan said, “So, A-Li, while you are here, let us discuss A-Ling’s future.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “Of course, Jin-zongzhu.”

“I understand that Zixuan’s death was very hard on you,” Jin Guangshan said. “I have let you grieve in your own way. I feel I have been very generous with the leeway I have given you. It has been over a year since his death, and it is time for his son to come live at Koi Tower, where he belongs.”

Jiang Yanli was a little surprised that he was stating it so plainly, but not entirely shocked. Jin Guangshan could be subtle and underhanded when he needed to be, but he probably felt it wasn’t necessary here. After all, she was just a woman. How much could she really protest?

She took a deep breath and said, “Jin-zongzhu, I understand your position. However, I would like A-Ling to stay with me, as heir to the Yunmeng Jiang.”

“Ridiculous,” Jin Guangshan scoffed immediately. “There must be a dozen disciples who you could declare your heir. Any of the highest ranked cultivators are certainly more powerful than you are.”

Jiang Yanli stiffened. Lan Wangji scowled, but saw her shake her head, and stayed silent.

“If you want to stay at Lotus Pier and run your little sect, feel free,” Jin Guangshan said. “It doesn’t matter to me. A-Ling, however, belongs here. You can come with him or not. He is my son’s only son, and he will be heir to the Lanling Jin.”

“With all due respect,” Jiang Yanli said, “my brother is dead. There can be no more children of my father’s line. You, however, still have a son, through whom your line can continue.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Jin Guangshan said. “A man with his unseemly background can never be a sect leader. The same indecent blood will run in the veins of any children he has. How could you possibly think I would let them inherit?”

“Jin-zongzhu – ”

“This is all I will say on the matter,” Jin Guangshan interrupted. “Keep him with you for now. I understand that at his age, he still needs his mother. I will give you one more year with him. Then he is coming here, with or without you.” He stood and swept out of the room. Yu Zixia stood and gave Jiang Yanli a somewhat apologetic smile, but did not gainsay him, following him away.

Jiang Yanli saw Jin Guangyao, who had not joined them for the meal, standing in the opposite doorway. “Ah . . . Jin-gongzi . . .”

Jin Guangyao smiled. “Please don’t trouble yourself on my account, Jiang-zongzhu. To hear such things from my father does not surprise me. It was never really . . .” He looked away and did not finish his sentence, instead bowing and saying, “Please excuse me,” before he hurried away.

They sat in silence for a long moment before Lan Wangji reached out and gripped her wrist. “I will not let him take your son.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said, but the truth was, she didn’t know how they could stop him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji would have been happy never to set foot in Koi Tower again after Jin Ling’s first birthday party, but a month later they got an invitation to Jin Guangyao’s wedding to Qin Su. He was a little surprised that Jin Guangyao had decided to go through with it, after Jin Guangshan had made it clear that he was never going to inherit. He supposed that maybe Jin Guangyao actually loved her. Stranger things had happened.

The wedding was a big event, although not as big as Jin Zixuan’s had been. Jin Guangyao was a lesser son, obviously, but he was still one of the venerated triad. He obviously intended to invite Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, and with the other great sect leaders coming, Jin Guangshan took the opportunity to show off.

“I hate this place,” Jiang Yanli said tonelessly, as they reached the edge of the city.

“I know,” Lan Wangji said. They had not quite dared leave Jin Ling behind at Lotus Pier, knowing it would be taken as a challenge, so he and Wen Yuan were there as well. “At least it’s only one night this time.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. Six days on the road for one day and night at Koi Tower seemed ridiculous to Lan Wangji, but it could not be helped. And Jin Guangyao’s wedding was an event he did not mind attending. He did not particularly like him, but then he did not particularly like most people, and he knew that his brother cared quite deeply for Jin Guangyao. He might as well give him his best wishes.

The wedding was beautiful, and it was nice to see his brother, but parts of the banquet afterwards were quite uncomfortable. Jin Guangshan was making it very clear that his son’s marriage meant nothing to his place in the hierarchy, and that his children wouldn’t be considered inheritors. Jin Guangyao seemed to be doing his best to ignore him and be solicitous and welcoming to the visitors, but it was obviously weighing on him.

The trip back to Lotus Pier seemed to take a long time. Lan Wangji spent most of it deep in thought about the current dilemma. But he could not find a solution. What would Jin Guangshan do if Jiang Yanli simply refused to send Jin Ling to Koi Tower? He would not come in force. He would spread rumors as to her fitness to be clan leader. He would turn the other sect leaders against her. How could he protect her from that?

They had a year to figure it out. A year to prepare. But he did not feel like it was going to be anywhere near enough. This was not something he was good at. Quite the opposite; he had actively avoided politics as much as he could for his entire life. That was part of the reason he hadn’t been able to help Wei Wuxian anywhere near as much as he wished he had.

He would have to learn. As Jiang Yanli had said, the only way to move on from that sort of regret would be to do better. To make sure it did not happen again. But how could he learn? He could barely interact with people. He loathed interacting with most people. He could not simply alter his entire personality – not to mention how strange people would think it was if he did.

Two months after Jin Guangyao’s wedding, they received a letter from him. Jiang Yanli read it and her eyes went wide. “Jin-zongzhu . . . Jin-zongzhu has passed away.”

“He’s what?” Lan Wangji asked, stunned.

“The letter is from Jin-gongzi . . . his father has died, seemingly of natural causes. We are welcome to attend the funeral next week and he hopes that we will allow him to rule in A-Ling’s stead . . . given his age . . .”

They stood in silence for a long moment.

“Do you think he killed his father?” Lan Wangji finally asked.

“I think I wouldn’t blame him if he had,” Jiang Yanli replied.

Lan Wangji did not wholly agree, because he could not in good conscience condone murder, but found he did not wholly disagree either. “Mn. At least we no longer have to worry about Jin-zongzhu insisting he take A-Ling back to Koi Tower.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “Jin Guangyao can have it.”

They sent back a letter stating they would be there for the funeral, packed some things, and headed up the river.

The gossip they almost immediately picked up before even seeing any of the members of Jin Guangshan’s family was that he had died ‘in bed’. Many of the courtiers were whispering and giggling about it. How much exertion must have been involved? How many women? What kind of condition must he have been in to die in that manner?

Lan Wangji wasn’t certain if this had actually happened or if it was just another one of Jin Guangyao’s smear campaigns. He didn’t care.

“My condolences for your loss,” he said to Jin Guangyao.

“Thank you, Hanguang-Jun,” Jin Guangyao said, bowing.

After the funeral was concluded, Lan Wangji saw his brother and walked over to greet him. They exchanged greetings and chatted about Wen Yuan for a few moments. Then Lan Xichen glanced up as Jin Guangyao walked by. “How horrible this must be for him,” Lan Xichen said. “I know he and his father didn’t get along, but . . .”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, realizing in that moment that Lan Xichen had absolutely no idea there was at least a ninety percent chance that Jin Guangyao had murdered his father. Should he say something? Probably not, he supposed. Lan Xichen would undoubtedly just argue and say that Jin Guangyao wasn’t capable of such a thing. Lan Wangji loved his brother, but he could be so naïve about some things. “I am sure, with you and Nie-zongzhu to support him, he will be an excellent sect leader.”

Lan Xichen smiled and nodded. “I am sure you are right, Wangji.”

A few hours later, they were on a boat heading back to Yunmeng. Lan Wangji hoped he never saw Koi Tower again.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next letter they received from Lan Xichen stated that, presuming it was all right with them, he was going to bring one of the juniors with him on his next trip. Both Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli were a little puzzled by this, but certainly had no objection. Lan Xichen arrived a week later with a boy of about Wen Yuan’s age with him and introduced him as Lan Yong. “His mother died in childbirth,” he explained, “and his father was killed on a night hunt about six months ago. He is a very bright and clever child.”

He was a very chatty child, Jiang Yanli noticed immediately, trying not to smile. He had opinions on everything. Wen Yuan seemed to like him, though, and they immediately began running around Lotus Pier. “Be careful!” she called out after them, not particularly worried. Wen Yuan knew Lotus Pier like the back of his hand, and everyone looked out for him.

Once the children were gone, Lan Xichen said, “I have to admit, I have a bit of an ulterior motive for bringing him here. His father’s death was . . . unfortunate. I do not wish to go into detail, but he broke several disciplines and has been stricken from the Lan sect’s records. Although A-Yong knows nothing of this, the elders . . . they are very strict with him.”

“Naturally,” Lan Wangji murmured, in a tone that Jiang Yanli interpreted to be sarcastic.

“Some children, I believe it would not matter so much. But A-Yong is . . . not particularly good at following the rules. Of course, he is a child. They are minor infractions. He speaks with his mouth full, or he runs from one building to another, or he catches a frog and tries to keep it in his room. But because of what happened with his father, he is punished much more harshly than any other junior would be . . .”

“Then he will stay here with us,” Jiang Yanli said, immediately seeing why Lan Xichen had brought the boy to Lotus Pier. “I am sure he will do very well here, and it will be nice for A-Yuan to have a friend of about the same age.”

Lan Xichen bowed to her and said, “Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu. It will greatly ease my mind. His father chose a courtesy name for him before he died, Jingyi. Would you please use that, when he is of the right age?”

“Of course,” Jiang Yanli said.

Lan Wangji stirred. “Xiongzhang. Will you not get in trouble for this?”

Lan Xichen shook his head. “Do not worry, Wangji. Frankly, the elders are happy to see him go. I made it seem as if I was removing him, pending your agreement, so he could not later damage the reputation of the sect . . . I did not say anything to them about my concerns for his health.”

“Very clever,” Jiang Yanli said.

“A-Yao’s advice,” Lan Xichen said, surprising neither of them.

“You lied to the elders?” Lan Wangji asked.

Lan Xichen rubbed the back of his neck. “I did not lie. I merely led them to believe something slightly different from the truth.”

Lan Wangji frowned. “I do not approve of this, xiongzhang. Not only your lie, but the justification you are telling yourself, that your lie was not actually a lie. I do not like Jin Guangyao encouraging such behavior.”

“It isn’t as if I would do it if it were not necessary,” Lan Xichen said with a sigh. “But I needed to get A-Yong to a safe place.”

“Then do so,” Lan Wangji said. “You are the head of the Gusu Lan. If you thought Lan Yong was being punished too frequently or too severely, then you should have said this. Instead you have snuck him away and lied about your intentions to the elders.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, “it isn’t that easy.”

“I know that,” Lan Wangji said. “I am aware that you have difficulty with confrontation. But this – this is not the way to battle that difficulty, xiongzhang. You should not resort to underhanded tricks and dishonest behavior, in order to avoid conflict. What happens when the next Lan Yong comes along? When the next child is punished more harshly than you approve of? Will you bring that one here, too? Will you continue to hide your behavior?”

“Ah – ” Lan Xichen clearly had not thought of this, and he looked away.

“You have stood up to them before, have you not?” Lan Wangji said. “After I left. They must have wanted to banish me, but you convinced them not to.”

Lan Xichen shook his head. “That is not what happened.”

“Then what did happen?”

“I do not wish to speak of it.”

Looking frustrated, Lan Wangji said, “If they did not wish to banish me, then – ”

“They wanted to imprison you,” Lan Xichen said, and Jiang Yanli flinched at the look on both their faces. “They ordered me to come to Lotus Pier and bring you back against your will.”

After a long moment, Lan Wangji said, quietly, “I see.”

“Because they wanted something so horrible, I was able to tell them I would not allow it. The idea of you being banished never even came up. But since then, they – ” Lan Xichen would not look at his brother. “They look at me differently. They do not like what I did. I cannot say for sure that they are not speaking of replacing me with somebody else, when I cannot hear. Our father was a great man, and I am by far the strongest ranking cultivator, especially without you there. But the elders – there is only so much they will tolerate, even from me.”

Even more quietly, Lan Wangji repeated, “I see.”

“Of course I do not like deceiving them. I understand why you would not like it either, but I felt it was the best option.”

When Lan Wangji did not reply, Jiang Yanli broke in gently. “We are happy to take A-Yong and keep him safe, Zewu-Jun.”

“I will go and check on them,” Lan Wangji said, and abruptly stood and walked away.

Lan Xichen started to rise to go after him, but Jiang Yanli caught his sleeve and said, “Please give him a few minutes to collect himself. It cannot be easy for him to hear what your sect’s elders wanted to do.” She sighed as Lan Xichen settled back into his seat, looking wretched. “A-Zhan is just worried for you, Zewu-Jun. Personally, I think what you did is fine. But A-Zhan detests politics, and more than that, lately he has been keenly aware of the fact that he is not very good at them. He feels that if he had been better at them, perhaps he could have prevented what happened to A-Xian.”

“I’m not sure anyone could have prevented that,” Lan Xichen said.

“Nor am I. There are still things we don’t understand, and perhaps some things truly could not be helped. But when Jin Guangshan was threatening to take A-Ling from me, A-Zhan did not know how to help. It frustrated him.”

Lan Xichen sighed and nodded. “He has never been good at any of that sort of thing. Everything was so black and white to him before Wei-gongzi came along. But the older I get, the more everything is just . . . gray.”

“I know. It’s the same for A-Zhan, and the transition has not been easy for him. And I think it upsets him that when it came to A-Ling’s safety here, it was Jin Guangyao who assured it, not him, and in such an underhanded manner.”

Lan Xichen blinked. “How do you mean?”

“Ah – ” Jiang Yanli stared at him. Did he not know? How could he not know? She proceeded carefully. “At A-Ling’s first birthday, we went to Koi Tower. Jin Guangshan was at that point very firm with us that after one more year, he would be bringing A-Ling to Koi Tower, regardless of my feelings on the matter. He was equally firm – and quite harsh – about the fact that Jin Guangyao would never be allowed to inherit the position of sect leader from him, due to his background.”

“All right,” Lan Xichen said, nodding to show that none of this surprised him.

“And then, only a few months later . . . Jin Guangshan died.”

“Mm hm,” Lan Xichen said.

Jiang Yanli waited, and when Lan Xichen said nothing else, she said, “That seems to be . . . a rather big coincidence, does it not? Especially given that Jin Guangshan was not particularly old, and seemed to be in good health.”

“I – ” Lan Xichen stared at her. “Are you implying that A-Yao arranged his father’s death?”

“I think it is certainly possible,” Jiang Yanli said, not wanting to commit to it with Lan Xichen looking so horrified.

Lan Xichen shook his head. “Certainly A-Yao did not get along with his father, but he would never do such a thing.”

“I am not saying that I think it was not justified,” Jiang Yanli said. “If he did do it, I would understand. His father was terribly abusive to him, and I am sure Jin Guangyao felt he was protecting A-Ling’s future as well as his own. Certainly I do not have any proof that he did anything,” she added, seeing Lan Xichen’s next question coming. “But the timing seems so suspicious, particularly in combination with a healthy man’s sudden death for no apparent, explicit cause.”

“I still cannot believe it,” Lan Xichen said. “Not his own father. All he wanted was Jin Guangshan’s approval. He never would have harmed him.”

Seeing that she would not sway him, Jiang Yanli gave up. She could point out that nobody could keep struggling for the approval of an uncaring father forever, or that they all knew Jin Guangyao was quite capable of murder, since he had stabbed Wen Ruohan in the back. It was clear she would not convince Lan Xichen, and truthfully, she did not feel it mattered. “You know him better than I do, so I am sure you are correct. That being said, A-Zhan was frustrated by his inability to protect me and A-Ling. I think he worries, as well, about protecting you. He does not like being apart from you. He probably feels he would have advised you differently on the matter of A-Yong, and is perhaps a little bit hurt that you went to Jin-zongzhu instead of him.”

“Ah . . .” Redirected from her accusations, Lan Xichen looked guilty. “That is fair. I will speak to him about it. Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu, for taking such good care of my brother. He may worry about me, but I have not had to worry about him, because I know he is safe and well, thanks to you.”

Jiang Yanli smiled sadly. “He has helped me a great deal as well. I am so glad he came here.”

“So am I,” Lan Xichen said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji was sitting by one of the lotus pools when Lan Xichen found him, watching Wen Yuan and Lan Yong, who had taken to each other like ducks to water, splashing around. Lan Xichen sat down next to him and they both said nothing for a very long minute. Finally, Lan Xichen said, “I’m sorry, Wangji. If my going to A-Yao for advice rather than discussing it with you troubles you. I didn’t mean it that way. It just seemed the sort of situation he would know how to deal with, and I didn’t want to remind you of how harsh the elders could be.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Mn,” he said, and then, “It is not that. I am glad you have someone you can rely on for such things. I am not good at them. That is what troubles me.”

“Neither of us were raised to be good at them, Wangji. Neither of us were ever taught how to deal with disagreements or arguments. We were always taught that there was only one correct answer to any situation, so why would arguments ever be necessary? Now . . .” Lan Xichen’s voice trailed off. “I’m beginning to think that sometimes there are no correct answers. Only answers that are less wrong than others.”

“I hate this,” Lan Wangji said, suddenly, bitterly. He did not even mean to say it, but it slipped out. “Things were so simple when I was young. There was right and there was wrong. I never needed to question anything. But Wei Ying . . .”

They sat in silence for a long time.

“He was a good person, xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji finally said. “I understand he did terrible things, especially at the end. But I don’t understand why so many people look at him and only see those terrible things. They do not see the people he protected, or the lives he saved, or the love he gave. They don’t see him. How can they not understand that after so much loss, so much pain, he simply wasn’t sane? How can they not see that they themselves are the ones who drove him to that madness with their injustice and their cruelty? How can they - ” His voice broke off abruptly.

Lan Xichen gently squeezed his shoulder. “I don’t know.”

Lan Wangji said nothing, struggling with the weight of his grief. It never entirely went away. There were good days now, days where he woke and was able to get out of bed and dress without having to stop and just breathe through the pain both physical and emotional. Days where he could sit and teach Wen Yuan the basics of the flute without wanting to cry, where he could help Jiang Yanli make meals without thinking of Wei Wuxian’s smile every minute, where he could sit and meditate on recovering his spiritual power without breaking down.

But there were still bad days, too, many of them. Days where every tiny thing only reminded him of his losses, where just the wrong word had him leaving a room before anyone could see the look on his face, where the pain was so raw that he could not focus on his lessons with Wen Yuan.

And then there were the worst days, the ones that started as good but then there would be something, anything as small as Wen Yuan’s smile to hearing Wei Wuxian’s name spoken by one of the disciples, that would remind him. That would rip the bandages off the internal wounds and leave him broken and bleeding for hours.

“Do not associate with evil,” he murmured. “But what is right and what is wrong? What is black and what is white?”

Lan Xichen shook his head. “I’m sorry, Wangji, for what the elders did, what they wanted to do.”

“The punishment does not matter to me. Their opinion of me does not matter to me. But they wanted to put me in a cage for three years because they thought Wei Ying was evil. They would not or could not see the reasons he was not.” Lan Wangji shook his head. “I will never forgive them for that, xiongzhang.”

“I will not ask you to,” Lan Xichen said.

“And we are happy to take in Lan Yong, but my concerns about the greater issue will not go away. The elders will continue to give severe punishments. The longer I am at Lotus Pier, watching the sort of discipline they use, the more I believe our sect has been incorrect about some very fundamental things. Not the disciplines themselves - I still believe those wholeheartedly - but the way of enforcing them. Misbehavior here - it is not punished the same way, but the results are better. People are not afraid to offer their opinions, or be incorrect. Good behavior is rewarded, and the younger disciples attempt to emulate their betters because of admiration and respect, not because of fear.”

“Jiang-zongzhu is an excellent leader,” Lan Xichen agreed.

“I worry about the juniors, xiongzhang. When zhangjie came to Cloud Recesses and convinced me to leave with A-Yuan, she asked me - did I want him raised as I had been? And the thought of it horrified me. The idea that they would take such an innocent, happy child and, and squeeze all the joy out of him, repress him to the point where . . . where when it was me, I could not admit the deep and abiding love I had for another person, because I feared their disapproval. What would have changed if I had been able to do that? If I had ever told Wei Ying of my feelings for him?”

“I don’t know,” Lan Xichen said quietly.

“Nor do I. I will never know. But I did not want A-Yuan raised in the same way. I don’t want any of the juniors raised in the same way. There is nothing I can do to stop that. But you - you can, xiongzhang. You can step in, not just for Lan Yong, but for all of them.”

Lan Xichen said nothing.

“Do you really think they would remove you as sect leader?” Lan Wangji asked. “Surely they know that your two sworn brothers would object most strenuously. As would zhangjie, although I suppose her opinion does not matter to them.”

“Neither does that of my two sworn brothers,” Lan Xichen said. “It would be an internal matter. Technically speaking, neither Mingjue-xiong nor A-Yao would have any right to object.”

“Even so. It would damage the relationships between the sects.”

That made Lan Xichen smile. “You are learning to think like a politician, at least a little bit. Because surely that would matter to most sect leaders.” The smile faded. “But it would not matter to the elders. They would do what they felt was right and damn the consequences.”

Lan Wangji sighed. His brother was correct and he knew it, but he didn’t know what to do about it. He wondered what Wei Wuxian would do. He was the same, Lan Wangji realized, with a slight smile. Do what was right and damn the consequences. “When did everything get so complicated, xiongzhang?”

“We grew up,” Lan Xichen said simply.

“A terrible idea,” Lan Wangji said, and that made Lan Xichen laugh quietly. “Will you try to look after the juniors? As much as you can?”

Lan Xichen nodded. “I will.”

“Perhaps Jin-zongzhu can continue to help you find ways around them.”

Lan Xichen glanced at him, a little surprised at this tacit approval of those tactics. But he nodded. “A-Yao is very clever. I am lucky to be able to rely on him. Ah, did you know,” he added with a sudden smile, “Jin-xiao-furen is pregnant.”

“Already?” Lan Wangji was a bit surprised, but not much. Jin Guangyao would have wanted to have children as soon as possible. “Please convey my congratulations and best wishes.”

“I will.”

Lan Wangji stood. “Shall we go find zhangjie? She is probably getting dinner started,” he said, and Lan Xichen nodded. “A-Yuan, A-Yong, it is time to help prepare the food. Come and wash up.”

“Okay, a-die,” Wen Yuan said, obediently leaving the lotus pool. Lan Yong followed him, and Lan Wangji noted with amusement that they were both soaked.

His amusement vanished a moment later when Lan Yong hung his head and said, “I’m sorry we got all wet . . . please don’t be mad!”

“You were playing in a pool. Of course you are wet,” Lan Wangji said, and turned to his brother. “I assume you brought his things?” he asked, and Lan Xichen nodded. “Let us get him unpacked, then, so he can dry off and get dressed.”

“I’m not in trouble?” Lan Yong perked up.

Lan Wangji knelt in front of him. “If I tell you not to play in a pool, or get your clothes wet, then you must obey,” he said. “But I did not tell you those things, did I? So it is fine. Are you hungry?”

“Yeah!” Lan Yong said.

“Then let us go get you cleaned up and then we will make some dinner.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Yong fit in perfectly at Lotus Pier. Whereas Wen Yuan was adorable and studious, Lan Yong was brash and outgoing. Before long, he was getting both of them into all sorts of trouble, and Lan Wangji could not help but enjoy it. It also frequently drove Jiang Yanli to tears, because seeing them together reminded her so much of her two brothers. But she dried her tears and moved on, whenever they fell.

Up until Lan Yong’s arrival, Wen Yuan had still been staying in Lan Wangji’s room. He had been thinking for a little while that he was old enough to have his own, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to suggest it. A week after Lan Yong’s arrival, Jiang Yanli did, somewhat gently. Lan Wangji agreed, so they moved both boys’ things into the room Jiang Cheng had lived in, which had up until now been empty.

Neither boy had ever had their own room before, and Lan Wangji made a mental note that they might want to post a guard on the door for the first few nights, because they were certain to get into all sorts of trouble. 

Only a few days later, when Jiang Yanli was making them breakfast, Lan Yong asked, “Lan-shushu, why don’t you and Jiang-gugu share a room? Aren’t you married?”

“Ah - ” Lan Wangji blinked at him, but realized it was a fairly reasonable conclusion to come to. “No.”

Seeing that further explanation was necessary, but that Lan Wangji was not about to provide it, Jiang Yanli stepped in with a smile. “No, A-Yong, A-Zhan and I are not married. A-Ling is the child of my husband who died not long after he was born. Since A-Zhan was raising A-Yuan, whose parents died in a war, he moved here so we could help each other with the children.”

“Shouldn’t you get married, then?” Lan Yong asked. “If you’re raising children together?”

“That is not why people get married, A-Yong,” Jiang Yanli said patiently. “A-Zhan and I are more like brother and sister than husband and wife. We work well together and care for each other deeply, but we would not want to get married.”

Wen Yuan elbowed him and said, “You can’t just get married again because your husband dies. It doesn’t work that way.”

“I guess not,” Lan Yong said. “My father didn’t get married again even though my mother died. What about you, Lan-shushu? Did your wife die?”

“No,” Lan Wangji said.

Wen Yuan frowned. “But a-die, weren’t you and - ”

Lan Wangji interrupted. “A-Yuan, there are things we do not speak of in front of others. Do not forget that just because you have a new friend.”

Looking chastened, Wen Yuan said, “I’m sorry, a-die.”

“Your apology is accepted. Now eat your breakfast.”

Lan Yong looked like he had a hundred questions but knew better than to ask them. Lan Wangji suspected that he would grill Wen Yuan later, but he knew Wen Yuan could hold up if he did.

It wasn’t until that night that it came up again. Wen Yuan was being very clingy during dinner and through their evening playtime, until Lan Wangji asked if he wanted to hear a story in his room before he went to bed. Lan Yong naturally also wanted a story but Jiang Yanli was able to divert him by saying she would read one to him and Jin Ling.

Wen Yuan climbed up onto Lan Wangji’s bed and listened to the short story he read without taking in a single word of it. As soon as he had reached the last word, Wen Yuan asked, “A-die, did you love Xian-gege?”

It did not surprise Lan Wangji that he would ask. He was a perceptive child, and even though he had rarely seen them together, he had seen the grief that Wei Wuxian’s death had left behind. “Yes, I did. Very much.”

“Did he love you?”

Lan Wangji did his best to keep his voice even. “I don’t know.”

Wen Yuan thought about that for a long moment. “Did you ever tell him?”

“No,” Lan Wangji admitted.

“Why not?”

“I was afraid.”

Wen Yuan frowned. “Of what?”

Of what, indeed, Lan Wangji thought. All the fears that had seemed so enormous and daunting at the time were so petty and meaningless now. “That he would not return my feelings. That my elders would not approve. That . . . I was somehow wrong, in loving him, that it would lead to disaster if we were to be together.”

Wen Yuan listened to this solemnly, not objecting or calling Lan Wangji’s fears silly. “Do you wish you had told him?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “Every day. Take note of that lesson, A-Yuan. When you love someone, you should always tell them.”

“Okay,” Wen Yuan said, then added with a soft smile, “I love you, a-die.”

That made Lan Wangji smile in return. “I love you too, A-Yuan.”

“And I love Xian-gege.” Wen Yuan thought about this. “But people can’t know we loved him, because they thought he was bad?”

Lan Wangji nodded.

Wen Yuan was quiet for a long minute. “Was he bad, a-die?”

“No,” Lan Wangji said. “He did some bad things, especially after the rest of your family was killed. He loved very fiercely, very intensely, so his grief was overwhelming. He sought revenge on the people responsible, and he took many lives. That was not the right thing to do, especially not in the way that he did it. But it does not mean he was a bad person. He had so much love in his heart, your Xian-gege, my Wei Ying, and he suffered so much because of that. It was finally too heavy for him to carry.”

Wen Yuan nodded again, and Lan Wangji wondered how much he really understood. He was still so young, but he, too, had suffered more than his fair share even in the short years he had been alive. “You have a lot of love, too, don’t you, a-die?” he asked, and Lan Wangji nodded. “If it gets too heavy, will you let me help you carry it? So you don’t die, too?”

Lan Wangji choked back tears. “Yes, A-Yuan, I will let you help me carry it. You already do, every day. And I will always help you carry yours.”

Wen Yuan smiled. “Will we ever see Xian-gege again, a-die?”

“Not in this lifetime,” Lan Wangji said. “But perhaps someday, in another.”

“That would be nice.” Wen Yuan yawned. “Can I sleep in here with you tonight?”

“Of course,” Lan Wangji said, and lay down with Wen Yuan still in his arms.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

By the time Jin Song was born, everything at Lotus Pier was as normal as Jiang Yanli suspected it would get for a little while. Jin Ling was walking and running and climbing, and he knew so many words now, and imitated new ones whenever he heard them. Wen Yuan and Lan Yong were learning archery and fishing, along with their academic studies. They worked on growing their golden cores together. Jiang Yanli was surprised to find that her own golden core had grown, if only a little, after her diligent practice of the guqin. Lan Wangji estimated he had about two thirds of his own spiritual power back, and physically, he was fully healed. He no longer needed visits from Madam Nuan.

“I don’t understand this custom of visiting people once they’ve had a child,” Jiang Yanli said, as they boarded the boat to head to Koi Tower. With Jin Guangshan dead, Lan Wangji had finally relaxed enough to allow Wen Yuan to stay behind under the care of the Jiang disciples. They did bring Jin Ling, because she knew that Jin Guangyao truly adored his little nephew.

“How so?” Lan Wangji asked, giving one last wave to Wen Yuan as the boat pulled away.

“Giving birth is exhausting. I remember it quite well. All I wanted to do was sleep for two days. Yet instead I had to entertain visitors.”

“Should we not go?” Lan Wangji asked, looking absolutely ready to turn the boat around and go back to his son.

“It’s expected that we go,” Jiang Yanli said. “And at least I can help take care of the baby. I just think, as a social custom, it’s one that was definitely put in place by men who should have listened to the women in their lives.”

Lan Wangji gave a snort. “How much better a place would the world be,” he murmured.

“I agree,” Jiang Yanli said, amused.

The journey passed without incident, and they met up with Lan Xichen at the outskirts of Lanling so they could arrive at Koi Tower together. Nie Mingjue was going to be there as well, but since he was coming from Qinghe, he didn’t meet them on the road.

It was really somewhat adorable, Jiang Yanli thought, that Lan Xichen was absolutely out of his mind with excitement to meet his sworn brother’s child. He had spent weeks, he told them, crafting a gift for the baby, a protection talisman that he could wear. Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji had brought gifts as well, of course, but nothing of the same caliber. Jiang Yanli figured that was all right, since they weren’t his sworn brother.

Jin Guangyao looked a little different from how she remembered. It was hard to put her finger on it exactly. But she figured a lot had been happening lately. Jin Guangyao had taken control of the Jin sect, and that had to be a lot of work. They were three times the size of the Yunmeng Jiang, and Heaven knew that her own schedule was packed full. Plus, he had a week-old infant. Although some men did not participate much in the day-to-day of child rearing, she was betting that Jin Guangyao would. He had the sort of micromanaging personality which wouldn’t be able to bear a hands-off approach.

So he was clearly tired, but he still greeted them with his usual charming smile, thanked them for coming, and showed them in to see Qin Su and meet the baby. Jiang Yanli could not help but immediately melt, cooing over the baby. Qin Su had the healthy glow of a new mother and did not seem to mind at all that people she barely knew were in her room.

“Baby, baby!” Jin Ling cheered, elbowing Lan Wangji aside so he could take a look. “Mama, baby?”

Jiang Yanli laughed gently. “Yes, A-Ling, this is your cousin, Jin Song. Say ‘it’s nice to meet you, A-Song’.”

“Nice to meet you, A-Song,” Jin Ling echoed. “I hold?”

Jiang Yanli glanced at Qin Su, who smiled and nodded. “Okay, but let’s be careful. Here, sit in my lap,” she said, pulling Jin Ling onto her lap so she could brace him as Qin Su placed Jin Song into his arms. “He’s so beautiful, A-Su.”

Qin Su’s smile widened. “Thank you, Yanli-jie.”

They continued to fuss over the baby – Lan Xichen looked like he was approaching rapture, and Jin Guangyao constantly trying to mask a yawn – until about an hour had gone by. Then Jiang Yanli said they would go so Qin Su and the baby could get some rest. They could come back and visit the next day, and did not want to tire her out.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Jin Guangyao said, swallowing another yawn. “Ah, there are guesthouses prepared for you.” In an altogether un-Jin-Guangyao-like way, he waved vaguely at one of the disciples and said, “Take care of that, please . . .”

“Go get some rest, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, smiling widely.

They had dinner together, and it was one of the most light-hearted meals they had had in a long time. The uneventful birth of a healthy baby had them all in good spirits. Even Lan Wangji smiled in his own way, that slight turn at the corner of his mouth.

“Can I ask you something about your brother?” she said that night, after they were back in their guest house, and Jin Ling was sleeping, leaving just the two of them. Lan Wangji gave her a questioning glance. “He was so absolutely thrilled to meet A-Song. And he obviously adores A-Yuan and cares deeply about the other children the Lan sect has in their care. I am a little surprised he does not have his own children by now.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, and shook his head. “My brother does love children, but in order to have them, he would need a wife, and he has no desire for one of those.”

“Like you don’t?” Jiang Yanli asked curiously.

“No. I am attracted to men, and men only – something that took me quite a long time to come to terms with. Xiongzhang is not attracted to anyone.” Lan Wangji saw her concerned look. “It is not that there is something wrong with him. It is just the way he is.”

“Well, that must have made his life easy, given the strictness of the disciplines,” Jiang Yanli said.

“In some ways. For any other Lan disciple, it probably would have been considered a blessing. But for xiongzhang, as the heir to the sect leader, not as much so. Unlike every other member of the sect, he must marry and have children. So his lack of interest has been a problem – particularly in that it has caused him conflict with the elders, of which he already has quite enough.”

Jiang Yanli sighed quietly. “Let me guess – they have been suggesting women as options and pressuring him to choose one, and not even understanding why he is reluctant to do so.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “At first, he hoped that I would marry and have children, so he would not have to, but after I met Wei Ying . . . I made it clear to him that I would not do so. He told me to follow my heart.”

“Of course he did,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling softly.

“But it did not make his life easy,” Lan Wangji continued. “He still very much does not wish to marry, but the elders will give him no choice eventually.”

Jiang Yanli gave another sigh. “They do like to make his life difficult. But I suppose on this subject, it must be hard for him to argue. It is important to carry on the line of succession. I’m so grateful that Zixuan and I were able to have at least one child before he died . . . so that he may live on, through A-Ling. Perhaps if we can find the right lady for your brother, even if it is not something he wants, he might at least find it tolerable.”

“Finding a tolerable lady in the gentry,” Lan Wangji said with a snort.

“Don’t be that way!” Jiang Yanli laughed. “I think you find me tolerable, don’t you? And A-Su is quite lovely. Where there are two, there are more. We can find one for him.”

Lan Wangji seemed to think about that for a few moments, then nodded. “That might make things easier on him with the elders, too. Although we should probably discuss it with him before we do anything that cannot be undone.”

“I’m not going to propose on his behalf, A-Zhan,” Jiang Yanli said, amused. “Perhaps just find some options for him.”

Lan Wangji nodded again. “Very well.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli spent a great deal of time over the next few months thinking about what kind of lady might be best suited to be Lan Xichen’s wife. The immediate impulse was to find somebody as kind and gentle as he was, but then she thought of her own interactions with Lan Xichen. Two people that kind and gentle would never be able to speak with each other honestly, would always be too afraid of stepping on each other’s feelings, would only end up with too much pent-up emotion. No, Lan Xichen needed someone who was kind, but able to be outspoken and firm.

The ideal solution, she thought, was to find someone else who was similarly uninterested in a man’s body, who would not pressure him for anything he felt uncomfortable giving. Jiang Yanli had never before met anyone who was interested in nobody, but she’d known people who were attracted to both genders, so she supposed it was not so odd. Wei Wuxian would flirt with anyone he found attractive, no matter what gender they were. So, Jiang Yanli thought, if there were people like Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen in the world, there must be more.

She wanted to be subtle, and not draw too much attention, so it would be best if they could meet in a natural setting, not explicitly for the purposes of courtship. A cultivation conference would be an ideal place. Lotus Pier had not hosted one since Jiang Cheng’s death, so she offered to host the next, in two months’ time, and went to work.

There was one place, close by, where all sorts of ladies learned cultivation without having to deal with the sort of nonsense male leadership encouraged. She packed up a few things and left Lan Wangji with the children.

Yu Guoduan was a formidable woman, now well into her sixties but looking no older than Yu Ziyuan had at the time of her death. Jiang Yanli had seen her frequently as a child, as her mother would bring her to Meishan for visits and lessons. But as she had gotten older, the visits had become less frequent. Yu Ziyuan made no attempt to hide the fact that she was disappointed in Jiang Yanli’s development as a cultivator, and did not feel further lessons were necessary. 

Jiang Yanli had seen her a few times since she had become sect leader. The Meishan Yu were still closely tied to the Yunmeng Jiang, and at least Yu Guoduan had not expressed surprise or skepticism at Jiang Yanli becoming the sect leader. Although they were not related by blood, she had loved Yu Ziyuan like a younger sister, and she enjoyed taking on a grandmotherly role where Jin Ling was concerned.

“So what brings you here, A-Li?” Yu Guoduan asked, after they had exchanged pleasantries and sat down with tea.

“I have a friend who is looking for a wife,” Jiang Yanli said, “and I thought you might perhaps be able to help.”

Looking proud of herself, Yu Guoduan said, “The ladies of the Yu sect will not be wives to just anybody.”

“Oh, I know,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling slightly. “There are circumstances . . . I would rather not say who it is just at this moment. Only that to the best of my judgment, he is completely deserving of a wife from the Meishan Yu. Far more deserving than . . . certain men.”

They both took a moment to reflect on what an utterly vile person Jin Guangshan had been, before Yu Guoduan said, “I trust your judgment, A-Li. What type of man is he?”

“He is intelligent and strong, as well as being kind and generous,” Jiang Yanli said. “However, and this is why I do not wish to identify him at this point, he is not interested in a woman’s body. He would like children very much, but would only be inclined to the minimum necessary to produce them. I thought, given how there are many women here, perhaps there are some who would not mind such a quality in a man.”

Yu Guoduan’s eyes narrowed. “I have no issue with that quality. A man is free to seek whatever bed partners he chooses. However, we learned a valuable lesson with Jin Guangshan, and ladies of the Meishan Yu are not to be made fools of.”

“I understand,” Jiang Yanli said. “This gentleman is not interested in men, either. He would be faithful to his wife.”

Looking a little surprised, Yu Guoduan said, “A rare gentleman.”

“He is rare indeed,” Jiang Yanli said. “I’m sure you can see why this has made finding a wife a challenge for him. But he is a good man, Yu-zongzhu, and I would dearly like to see him find happiness.”

Yu Guoduan sipped her tea for a few moments. “I can think of one lady here who might be interested. She never seeks the company of either man or woman. I do not know if she desires children, but she is good with them, and seems to enjoy them. Let me find her, and you can discuss things further with her.”

Jiang Yanli thanked her and waited for a few minutes until she returned with a woman who was probably a year or two older than Jiang Yanli. She knew that most women were married by her age, which lent credence to the idea that she was not interested in men. Yu Guoduan introduced her as Yu Zhiyi.

“Yu-zongzhu told me that you are looking for a wife for a friend,” Yu Zhiyi said, with a neutral expression.

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said. “The circumstances are somewhat unusual, so first I will ask you this – are you interested in marrying at all? I would not wish you to, if you were not.”

“I am not intrinsically opposed to the idea,” Yu Zhiyi said, “but I imagine most men would be intrinsically opposed to me.”

That made Jiang Yanli smile. “Well, let me tell you a little bit about this man that I am in search of a wife for. He is intelligent and perceptive, charming and kind. He is in a position of power in his sect. He absolutely adores children and is quite good with them, but he is not attracted to women in the way that normally results in them, or attracted to anyone for that matter.”

Yu Zhiyi was frowning. “Such a man sounds too good to be true. What are his flaws?”

“For all his power, he is on the passive side and has difficulty with confrontation,” Jiang Yanli said. “Although he can act decisively when the path forward is clear, he can have trouble making the difficult choices. He would need a woman who would whole-heartedly support him in public, not be afraid to be honest with him in private, and above all else, not allow him to back down about something he felt strongly about because others were showing disapproval.”

“Mm. There are worse flaws.”

Jiang Yanli laughed. “Believe me, I would not be here if I did not think he was a worthy gentleman. I would like to introduce you, perhaps at the cultivation conference coming up?”

“I’m willing,” Yu Zhiyi said, “but I would like to know who it is before I agree.”

“Of course, but I must ask you to keep it in confidence. Frankly, if people find out he’s actively seeking a wife, he might end up buried in offers,” Jiang Yanli said. Both women nodded and agreed, so she continued, “It is Zewu-Jun.”

Yu Zhiyi’s jaw sagged in a fairly comical manner. “I’m amazed he hasn’t already been buried in offers!”

“Oh, he has,” Jiang Yanli said. “But because of his lack of interest in women, he has been reluctant to accept any of them. He does not want to marry a woman who will want things he cannot offer.”

“Well, that won’t be a problem,” Yu Zhiyi said. “I do enjoy children, and would certainly like to have some. But other than that . . .”

“No thank you?” Jiang Yanli offered.

Yu Zhiyi laughed. “No thank you. But it does speak well of him. Honestly, most men would simply marry whoever they liked, and if the woman didn’t like what he was or wasn’t willing to offer, that would be her problem. It is good that he even considered how she would feel about his lack of attraction to her.”

“He is a wonderful person, I truly mean that. I want to see him happy very much, and it seems that lately, the elders of his sect have been putting more pressure on him.”

“I imagine they must be,” Yu Guoduan said, “given that his younger brother has all but seceded from the sect.”

The words hurt a little, but Jiang Yanli didn’t bother to argue. From an outsider’s perspective, that was exactly what it looked like. To be fair, she wasn’t even sure it wasn’t true. She couldn’t imagine Lan Wangji ever going back, at least not until all the elders had passed into the next life. “I would prefer to introduce you to him without mentioning the possibility of marriage,” she said. “He is somewhat sensitive about the issue. If the two of you seem to get along, I will bring it up then.”

“All right,” Yu Zhiyi said. “Then I will see you there.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji was the opposite of thrilled when he heard of Jiang Yanli’s plan to host the next cultivation conference. Although he approved of her mission to find Lan Xichen a wife - he thought Lan Xichen dwelled far too much on the physical aspect and ignored the idea of finding an emotionally supportive partner - he hated the idea of having so many people at Lotus Pier. He disliked people in general and crowds specifically, and many of the closest sect leaders, like Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu, were frankly intolerable people.

But Jiang Yanli had decided, so he supported her. There was a lot to be done in preparation for a cultivation conference. Lotus Pier, like Cloud Recesses, was not located directly inside a city. Although they had guest houses available, much had to be ordered and brought in, particularly food and wine. Those guest houses also had to be cleaned and aired out, as they were not frequently used. There was a lot of correspondence to go through as the various sect leaders reported to confirm their attendance and state how many cultivators would attend. 

He helped with all these things, although in some cases it was not necessary. Lotus Pier had some staff, unlike Cloud Recesses, who delegated every chore to the disciples. But the staff was minimal compared to a place like Koi Tower, and Jiang Yanli handled many things herself.

Jiang Yanli had said she thought it would be best if she introduced Lan Xichen to his potential bride just as any other cultivator attending the conference, and Lan Wangji agreed. Lan Xichen was almost certain to get embarrassed if he knew what they were planning, and it might make things awkward. Of course, there was no guarantee that he would not figure out what they were up to, so Lan Wangji wanted to be on standby in case things went wrong.

Which was a terrible idea, he realized, as soon as his brother arrived, along with several other disciples and, of course, their uncle. Lan Qiren’s gaze snapped to Lan Wangji as soon as he realized he was in the welcoming party, and Lan Wangji met it evenly, giving no sign of the fact that he was wishing he was on the other side of the world.

Lan Qiren was much too proper to say anything during the actual exchange of greetings. It was not until after everyone had arrived and were getting ready for the banquet that he walked over to Lan Wangji and said, “Wangji. May we speak privately?”

Lan Wangji wondered what he would do if he said no. He had no desire to speak to his uncle, privately or otherwise. But the most likely outcome was that, if he said no, Lan Qiren would simply speak his piece here. That was definitely less desirable, so Lan Wangji nodded and headed out of the banquet hall, onto one of the platforms by the lotus pools.

Looking stern but just a bit uncomfortable, Lan Qiren opened with, “How is Lan Yuan?”

“He is doing very well, shufu.”

“And your own recovery?”

“I am recovering without concerns,” Lan Wangji said, because he was not going to tell his uncle that his physical recovery had completed months ahead of schedule.

That did not stop Lan Qiren from taking his wrist and probing gently at his golden core. “I would estimate you have regained approximately three quarters of your spiritual power.”

“That seems accurate, shufu.”

Lan Qiren eyed him for a moment. It had been two years, out of the three that they had predicted he would need for recovery, so this, too, was ahead of schedule. Finally, he stopped beating around the bush and said, “Has your meditation and reflection brought you to any conclusions about the events that occurred to result in your punishment?”

A lot of them, Lan Wangji thought, and none his uncle was interested in hearing. “My actions at the Burial Mounds were inappropriate,” he said. “Wei Ying was already gone from this world, and I should have not gone so far to protect his belongings. Although I still believe that the other cultivators were being improper in their destruction of his home, it was unnecessary to go that far against them.”

There was relief in Lan Qiren’s eyes. “I’m glad you have seen this.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “There was no purpose in defending a dead man. Rather, I should have made more efforts to reach out to and support Wei Ying while he was still living.”

Lan Qiren’s brow furrowed. “Wangji. That is not the lesson.”

Lan Wangji stared over his uncle’s shoulder, his gaze fixed on a point in the distance, and continued as if Lan Qiren had not spoken. “Wei Ying was a good person, but his soul was tainted by the resentful energy that infiltrated him after he was cast into the Burial Mounds by Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. I attempted to help cleanse him of that dark energy, but he resisted, and I allowed him to push me away. I should not have done so, and because of that, Wei Ying continued to be more and more corrupted by those forces. Much could have been prevented if I had insisted on helping him.”

“Wangji . . .” Lan Qiren pinched the bridge of his nose.

Unflinching, Lan Wangji said, “Do you remember the day I asked you for permission to research in the forbidden section of the library?”

“Of course,” Lan Qiren said, looking suspicious.

“I was looking for a musical score that might amplify my efforts to cleanse Wei Ying. But you would not allow me to. I have been wanting for some time to ask you why not.”

“You should not have been associating with him at all,” Lan Qiren snapped, beginning to lose his patience. “Do not associate with evil!”

“Wei Ying was not evil, shufu,” Lan Wangji said, his gaze still fixed on that point in the distance. “He was sick, and he was in pain. But he was not evil.”

Jaw tightening, Lan Qiren replied, “He was already being consumed by resentful energy.”

“That is true,” Lan Wangji said. “Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu cast him into the Burial Mounds, and he was deeply infiltrated at that time. How was he to avoid this, shufu? He was protecting his family, but they captured him and sentenced him to a fate worse than death. He should have been helped afterwards, but you wanted me to turn my back on him.”

“You already said he had refused your help.”

“That is also true.” Lan Wangji kept his voice steady. “I may never understand why. Pride, perhaps, or fear that he might contaminate me, or perhaps even fear that my sect would disapprove - a fear that was well-founded. But his refusal is irrelevant. I should have helped him, and stood by him, and I did not. This is and will always be my greatest regret.” He finally shifted his gaze to look Lan Qiren in the eyes. “This is what I have concluded during my period of meditation and reflection, shufu.”

He expected Lan Qiren to shout, or perhaps huff off angrily, but after a few seconds to wrestle with his words, Lan Qiren just looked tired, and perhaps a little sad. “Are you really that lost to us, Wangji?”

“With all due respect, shufu, I do not believe I am the one who is lost.”

“The truly lost never do,” Lan Qiren replied.

The silence sat between them for a long moment.

Lan Wangji broke it. “Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?”

“No.” Lan Qiren shook his head. “You may go.”

Lan Wangji turned immediately and headed back out to the banquet. He saw Jiang Yanli catch his eye and give him a questioning look, obviously wanting to know if he was all right. He gave her a slight nod, and the set of her shoulders relaxed.

It felt strange to sit apart from the delegation of Lan disciples. Every time their white robes caught his eye, he did the slightest of double takes. He was used to being surrounded by them, not across the room from them. But there was nothing to be done for it. He wondered if they would banish him after this, given what he had said. He felt that he should care, but didn’t, not really. The grief felt strangely distant, like it had already passed while he wasn’t paying attention. He wondered if he would look good in purple.

Lan Xichen had greeted him initially, and now was caught up in conversing with Jin Guangyao. Lan Wangji eyed them from across the room. He still disliked how much his brother relied on Jin Guangyao, and how naïve he seemed about Jin Guangyao’s tactics. But at the same time, he couldn’t blame Lan Xichen. Jin Guangyao was good at what he did. So Lan Wangji wanted to be glad that someone was helping his brother, and ended up constantly torn on the issue of their friendship. He hoped that this woman Jiang Yanli had in mind would help Lan Xichen’s relationship with the elders enough that such help from Jin Guangyao would no longer be necessary.

Nie Mingjue was there as well, and Lan Wangji noted he did not look very well. He appeared to have lost some weight, and his breathing seemed labored at times. Lan Wangji frowned and made a mental note to ask Lan Xichen about it later, since approaching Nie Mingjue about it would be rude.

After the meal was over and people were socializing, Jiang Yanli began speaking with Yu Guoduan and Yu Zhiyi, as planned, so Lan Wangji went over to check in with his brother, also as planned. Jiang Yanli didn’t want other people vying for Lan Xichen’s time while she introduced his potential wife, and they doubted anyone else would approach if Lan Xichen was talking to his brother.

“Ah, Zewu-Jun, you’ve met Yu-zongzhu before, I believe?” Jiang Yanli asked, with a polite smile, and Lan Xichen nodded and smiled and bowed. “And this is the fourth disciple of the Meishan Yu, Yu Zhiyi.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Lan Xichen said, with another bow.

“The pleasure is all mine, Zewu-Jun,” Yu Zhiyi said.

“Is this your first cultivation conference?” Lan Xichen asked, still smiling.

Yu Zhiyi nodded. “The Meishan Yu is not always invited, depending on who is hosting. I think some men find us intimidating.”

Lan Xichen laughed quietly behind his sleeve. “There are some small-minded men in the world who are indeed quite intimidated by women who are not afraid to speak their minds. I’m sure Jiang-zongzhu can attest.”

“I can indeed,” Jiang Yanli said. “The number of male sect leaders who had difficulty accepting my new position was really quite appalling. Although many were also quite supportive, such as Chifeng-Zun and of course Zewu-Jun.”

“We would never dare to say a woman was not fit to lead,” Lan Xichen said.

“You were one of the few sects to have had a female leader in the past, weren’t you?” Yu Zhiyi said. “The great Lan Yi.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “And she was one of the most powerful sect leaders the Gusu Lan ever had. I think the world would be a better place if there were more women in positions of power, actually.”

“Do you?” Yu Zhiyi sounded surprised. “I can’t imagine many men hold that opinion.”

“It’s a matter of balance,” Lan Xichen said. “Like all things in the world. Yin and yang. In an ideal world, men and women would hold equal power.” His smile faded. “Of course, this is not an ideal world. Even so, I was happy to support Jiang-zongzhu when others tried to say she would not be fit to lead, and I feel she has done a wonderful job. And of course the Meishan Yu has always had a woman as the leader of the sect, haven’t they? Yet your sect has always prospered.”

“Indeed we have!” Yu Zhiyi was smiling broadly. “Tell me, Zewu-Jun, would you like to sit down with a cup of tea while we discuss this vision of the future you have where women are treated as equals?”

“I would be delighted,” Lan Xichen said.

Lan Wangji watched his brother as he headed away, and watched Jiang Yanli and Yu Guoduan watch him as well. “That went well,” Jiang Yanli said, with obvious relief in her voice.

“How is he not already married,” Yu Guoduan asked in a tone of wonder. “I would marry him myself if I were twenty years younger, and I have never wanted to marry anyone in the world before this very moment.”

“It is a mystery,” Jiang Yanli said, laughing quietly, and Lan Wangji agreed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Xichen was not in the best of moods as he approached the steps of Koi Tower. It had been a month since the cultivation conference, and the elders had not stopped their harsh commentary on Lan Wangji ever since. Lan Xichen could tell that the only reason they had not suggested outright banishing him was because they thought he might say no, so it seemed they were going to continuously complain about him until Lan Xichen did it himself.

Then there had been frequent arguments over Yu Zhiyi, because he had made the mistake of mentioning that he had met her and she seemed like a pleasant young lady. He was not oblivious to the reasons why Jiang Yanli had probably introduced them, although he was unsure if Lan Wangji had mentioned his problems with finding a wife or if she had just decided to intervene on her own. And he did like Yu Zhiyi. They had spent several hours together and he found her intelligent and talented, and if her demeanor was a little more brisk than most men would appreciate, it did not bother him. He had grown up with Lan Wangji.

But as soon as he had mentioned her, the elders had immediately all begun to argue over whether or not she would be a suitable partner for him. Some of them felt a fourth disciple was ranked too low to be considered, and others pointed out that if Yu Zhiyi was not already married at her age, there must be something wrong with her. Others, however, were all but inking the invitations to the wedding, desperate to get Lan Xichen to propose before he found some reason he would or could not marry her, as he always did when potential partners presented themselves.

The two things put together had been driving him around the bend for the past month, to the point where he had left for his visit to Koi Tower three hours earlier than normal because he saw one of the elders approach him and could not bear the idea of having to stomach one more second of it. He wondered if Jin Guangyao might let him stay a few days longer than usual. Or perhaps he could just go hide at Lotus Pier with his brother.

Despite his sour mood, he smiled slightly as he headed into the chambers that Jin Guangyao was in, hearing the music of the guqin, the Song of Clarity. It was rare that his visits coincided with Nie Mingjue’s, and he was looking forward to seeing him. He hadn’t been looking well recently, to the point that even Lan Wangji had voiced concern, although Nie Mingjue denied that anything was wrong.

His smile faded a few moments later.

He waited outside until the music was over, then stepped into the chamber. Jin Guangyao looked up, and his face lit up when he saw Lan Xichen there. “Ah, you’re early!” he said.

“I beg your pardon, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “My schedule had an unforeseen change.” He caught Jin Guangyao’s arms to prevent him from bowing too low, as always, and then greeted Nie Mingjue as well. His forehead was heavily wrinkled and he looked exhausted. “Ah, but . . . I am so sorry, A-Yao, but you made a mistake in one of the passages.”

Jin Guangyao looked blank. “Did I? I would ask if you’re sure, but of course you would be . . .”

Lan Xichen stepped over to Jin Guangyao’s guqin. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” Jin Guangyao said.

Lan Xichen began to play. After a few measures, he said, “The next part is supposed to go as such,” and played several bars of music. “But instead you played something more like this,” he added, plucking out the different melody to the best of his recollection.

Jin Guangyao’s eyes went wide. “Ah, I’m so sorry! Oh, I must have been playing it wrong for months, I had no idea . . . da-ge, I’m so sorry, how can you ever forgive me?”

Seeing Nie Mingjue giving him a scowl, Lan Xichen hurriedly stepped in. “It’s a small error, A-Yao, please don’t worry so much. I doubt very much it would have had any effect on Mingjue-xiong’s treatments. That being said, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but it’s quite unlike you to make such a mistake. Is everything all right?”

Jin Guangyao’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Truthfully, I have been exhausted lately,” he admitted. “I had not realized having a baby would be so much work! A-Su and the handmaidens are always telling me not to worry about it, that they can handle everything, but I love him so dearly, how can I not get up when he’s crying? That plus the work of being sect leader, this watchtower project my father started before he died, his legacy that I am trying to build on his behalf, but so many of the gentry are resistant to . . . I hate having to admit it, but it feels like I’m swimming against a strong current much of the time.”

“I wish you had told us!” Lan Xichen said, feeling awful. “Neither of us have children, I really don’t have any idea how much work they are. I should have checked in with you more often. I’m happy to take over playing for Mingjue-xiong for now, while you get things sorted out.”

“I would greatly appreciate it,” Jin Guangyao said, with profound relief in his voice. He sank into a chair. “I didn’t want to have to ask you.”

“You worry too much about proving yourself to us, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said gently. “We are here to help each other. It was unfair to put such a burden on you. Mingjue-xiong and I can keep meeting here, or perhaps in a different halfway point, or take turns going back and forth again. It’s not a problem.”

“You really think it didn’t affect you poorly?” Jin Guangyao turned an anxious look on Nie Mingjue. “You said your temper had been bad recently . . .”

Nie Mingjue waved this off. “My temper’s always bad. I don’t see how a few measures of wrong notes would make that happen.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Unless the music had been specifically written to cause such negative effects, and even then, you would have to play it with malicious spiritual power, so it’s fine, A-Yao. At most, it merely means the treatments weren’t quite as effective as we would have liked them to be. Perhaps I’ll stay a week, if that’s all right, and I can play more frequently for Mingjue-xiong to make up for any lost treatment.”

“Of course that’s all right,” Jin Guangyao said. “I’m deeply grateful. And again, very sorry. I must have mixed it up with some other song a while ago without even noticing. How lucky we were that you came early today!”

Lan Xichen smiled. “It was indeed quite fortunate.”

“Was something going on at Cloud Recesses?” Jin Guangyao asked. “It’s unlike you to change your schedule on short notice.”

“Just more of the same,” Lan Xichen said. “Apparently Wangji said some things to our uncle at the cultivation conference that he very much did not like hearing, so they’re upset about that.”

“I know how much you dislike hearing them speak ill of him,” Jin Guangyao said. “Ah, but you’re here now, let’s not waste time discussing it. Shall we get some tea? Or why don’t I go prepare some things and you can play for da-ge while I’m doing that, to make up for any lost time.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “I’d be happy to.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jiang Yanli was not particularly surprised when Lan Xichen asked her how well she knew Yu Zhiyi and if the two had been acquainted long. She admitted that they had only met recently, although of course she was quite familiar with the Yu sect through her mother. Lan Xichen dithered for a few more minutes over his tea before he asked, “Wangji, did you tell Jiang-zongzhu to find me a wife?”

“Not in so many words,” Lan Wangji said. “She asked why you were unmarried and I explained your difficult circumstances to her.”

Lan Xichen looked somewhat less than thrilled with that, and to be fair, Jiang Yanli could not wholly blame him. “It was not really my business, I know,” she said, “but I think Yu Zhiyi would be an excellent match for you. She feels the same way, in that she has never desired companionship of that kind.”

That clearly took Lan Xichen aback. “How . . . do you know that?”

“Well, I asked, of course,” Jiang Yanli said. “I thought perhaps Yu-zongzhu might know a lady or two who felt similarly to you, and she introduced us.”

“You just . . . asked.” Lan Xichen gave a rueful laugh. “I’ve struggled with this for over ten years and you just asked a sect leader to introduce you to some ladies who felt the same way.”

“Well, why shouldn’t I?” Jiang Yanli asked. “It’s a little out of the ordinary, to be sure, but is it really that much more strange than A-Zhan only desiring the company of men, or A-Xian, who would seek the company of either men or women?”

“Most of the elders seem to think it is,” Lan Xichen said dryly.

“Ah, but now you have met Yu Zhiyi, who feels the same way,” Jiang Yanli said with a smile, “so you know it is not.”

Lan Xichen laughed again. “You are really quite amazing, Jiang-zongzhu. I’m deeply grateful for your assistance. Perhaps I will visit Meishan after I leave Lotus Pier.”

“I’m sure she would be delighted to see you,” Jiang Yanli said.

“I’m going to be traveling a lot for a while,” Lan Xichen said thoughtfully. “Trips here and to Meishan, and Koi Tower as always, and possibly to Qinghe on occasion. Ah,” he added, seeing their politely blank expressions, “I’m going to be taking over for A-Yao, playing the guqin for Mingjue-xiong. Poor A-Yao had mixed up a passage of it with another song and has been playing it incorrectly. I’m worried about him . . . it’s quite unlike him to make such an error.”

Jiang Yanli’s eyebrows had indeed gone up, and she exchanged a sideways glance with Lan Wangji. “Is he not well?” she asked cautiously.

“He’s just exhausted,” Lan Xichen said. “The stress of having a new baby, plus ruling the Lanling Jin . . . he probably wouldn’t want me to say this, but it’s much more difficult for him than it should be. He still has to fight for every ounce of respect and obedience that he gets, and there are always people whispering about how he isn’t fit to lead because of his background. He compared it to swimming upstream, and having seen how much of the gentry still treats him, I can definitely agree.”

Lan Wangji’s gaze did not waver, and he merely said, “Then it is good that you are taking over his duty of playing for Nie-zongzhu.”

Jiang Yanli gave him another glance and decided that Lan Wangji was right; there was no point in trying to convince Lan Xichen that this might have been anything other than a simple mistake brought on by stress and exhaustion. “I hope there are no lasting ill effects from the problem.”

“Oh, I doubt it very much,” Lan Xichen said. “Certainly the treatments were not as effective as they should have been, but it would only have been by a small percentage. Although it’s difficult to know exactly how long he’s been playing the incorrect version, as he didn’t even realize he was doing it. But I played many times over the past few weeks for Mingjue-xiong and he seems to be doing well at this point.”

“Then all is well,” Jiang Yanli said, with a smile, and she changed the subject, asking after Jin Song.

Later that night, after Lan Xichen had retired to the guest room and the children were in bed, Jiang Yanli went to Wei Wuxian’s old room. Lan Wangji was sitting on the floor with his legs folded underneath himself, meditating, but he didn’t look surprised to see her. She sat down across from him and said, “What do you think?”

“I think . . .” Lan Wangji looked away. “I am not sure I should answer that question.”

Jiang Yanli sighed. “Not answering it just tells me what you think,” she pointed out, and Lan Wangji responded with his customary ‘mn’. “If it were anyone other than Jin Guangyao, I would say ‘mistakes happen’. I would say he was tired and stressed and mixed up two songs. But it’s so difficult to believe of him even in those conditions. He must have been stressed and tired during the Sunshot Campaign but that didn’t stop him from memorizing Wen Ruohan’s orders verbatim and sending Zewu-Jun entire tactical maps filled with the movements of dozens of cultivators.”

Lan Wangji nodded and said nothing.

“But on the other hand,” Jiang Yanli said, “I can’t imagine why he would target Nie-zongzhu . . . didn’t he serve him at The Unclean Realm for many years?”

“He did,” Lan Wangji said. “Until he killed a man who treated him badly because of his background, and Nie-zongzhu banished him.”

“Oh.” Jiang Yanli winced. “I see.”

Lan Wangji folded his hands in front of himself. “It would be almost impossible to prove ill intent on Jin Guangyao’s part. Although he and Nie-zongzhu have had their differences in the past, they are sworn brothers and have been for many years now. We do not know what music Jin Guangyao was playing. Nie-zongzhu would not be able to replicate it for us, and although my brother would, we would have to explain to him why we were asking.”

“And since we can’t even get him to believe Jin Guangyao killed his abusive father, what are the odds he would be willing to believe there was even the slightest possibility that Jin Guangyao might have meant Nie-zongzhu harm,” Jiang Yanli said.

Lan Wangji nodded. “Even if we could find out what exactly was played, it would probably make no difference. If the score was harmful, the only place Jin Guangyao could have gotten such a thing would have been in the forbidden section of the library at Cloud Recesses.”

Jiang Yanli frowned. “Do you think he could have gained access?”

“Yes. He visits my brother there frequently. If he could gain access to Wen Ruohan’s battle plans, he could gain access to the forbidden sections of Cloud Recesses. However, this is something we cannot do. So we could not search for what score he played.”

“Hm . . .” Jiang Yanli thought about this for a long minute, then sighed. “Maybe we’re overreacting. It’s hard to believe that Jin Guangyao would do such a thing, years after the initial disagreement. Maybe he did just make a mistake. He’s not superhuman.”

Lan Wangji said nothing.

“This is why I asked what you think,” Jiang Yanli said. “Truly, I’m not sure myself.”

“I think,” Lan Wangji said carefully, “that people in Jin Guangyao’s way have an alarming tendency to die.”

“This is so different from what happened to his father, though,” Jiang Yanli said. “Even if I can’t condone such a thing, I can understand it. The year I lived at Koi Tower, watching the way his father treated him, it was honestly horrific.”

“I’m not just talking about Jin Guangshan,” Lan Wangji said. “I am talking about Jin Zixuan.”

Jiang Yanli’s breath caught in her throat. “You . . . you think . . .”

Lan Wangji still spoke carefully and deliberately. “I have been thinking of this since his father died and he took the position of Sect Leader. Of course, there is no way he could have done so if Jin Zixuan still lived. I have always remembered your words about Wei Ying – about how he would never have wished for A-Ling’s father to die. I have not spoken of it until now because I had no real proof that Jin Guangyao would be capable of such a thing. This pattern, though . . . the people who stand in Jin Guangyao’s way die. Not just in the Jin sect, but even Wen Ruohan, that man in the Nie sect . . . Jin Guangyao has proven time and time again that he is ruthless, but somehow an hour later everyone has forgotten because of how eloquent and solicitous and deferential he is. What do I think? I think Jin Guangyao killed your husband, used Wei Ying as a convenient scapegoat and encouraged if not actively arranged his death . . . and I think we have absolutely no way of proving any of that.”

It took Jiang Yanli a few moments of breathing before she could speak again. “Then what can we prove? Surely there must be something we can prove.”

“Must there? We don’t even know what he might have done in the case of Jin Zixuan, let alone have any idea how to prove it.”

“What about his father, though? That’s the most – ” Jiang Yanli searched for the right word. “Most direct crime he’s committed. If he used A-Xian and Wen Ning to kill Zixuan, you’re right, we may never prove it. His tactic with Nie-zongzhu seems to have been to pretend to help him while subtly achieving the opposite effect, but if his plans had come to fruition, he would not have had to do anything more than playing some music. But his father – he must have done something. Jin Guangshan died in bed, everyone says – in bed with who? Who were the women, and what happened to them afterwards?”

Lan Wangji considered this for a long moment. “If we do this,” he finally said, “we must be very, very careful. Jin Guangyao has committed fratricide and patricide – he would not blink at the idea of killing either of us. We must be patient and deliberate, and give no sign to him that we suspect anything.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “The first thing we need to do, I think, is talk to Jin-furen. I’m sure she knows more details about her husband’s death, and I don’t think it would look strange to Jin Guangyao if I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. Once we know more, we can plan our next step.”

“Very well. In the meantime . . .” Lan Wangji’s jaw tightened. “I wish we could say something to Nie-zongzhu, but I don’t think we dare.”

“No, absolutely not,” Jiang Yanli agreed. “He is not subtle in the slightest. If he had even an inkling of this, he would immediately demand answers. We would never get any sort of proof, Jin Guangyao would talk his way out of it . . . to say nothing of what it would do to your brother and Nie-zongzhu’s friendship.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji closed his eyes, looking tired. “And my brother will need that friendship, when this is all said and done.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. She hated the idea of hurting Lan Xichen so much. He was going to be absolutely devastated by this. But she didn’t see any way to avoid it. “Fortunately, after such a close call, it seems unlikely that Jin Guangyao will try anything untoward concerning Nie-zongzhu for some time. He knows your brother doesn’t suspect that this was anything other than an honest mistake, but he must be worried that Nie-zongzhu will, or that either of them will mention it to other people, as Zewu-Jun did.”

“Then we say nothing to Nie-zongzhu.”

“Agreed,” Jiang Yanli said, then softly, “Thank you, A-Zhan, for telling me what you think. I know it must not have been easy for you.”

“I thought – ” Lan Wangji looked away. “Truly, I told myself it did not matter. Jin Guangyao had killed who he killed because they stood between him and the position of sect leader. Wei Ying is dead. Nothing can change that now. If I’d had proof, or if I had not been so afraid of upsetting xiongzhang . . . I would have said something. But if Jin Guangyao is going to continue to hurt people, then he must be stopped.”

Jiang Yanli took Lan Wangji’s hands in hers and gave them a firm squeeze. “We’ll stop him, A-Zhan. We will find a way.”

Lan Wangji nodded again, and said nothing, but after a long moment, he leaned his head against her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him, and held him for a long time.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It was funny, Lan Wangji thought, how much could change in a few short years.

When he had been younger, he had always looked up to Nie Mingjue as a just, righteous man. Lan Xichen had admired him very much for these qualities, and he had passed that admiration on to Lan Wangji. When Lan Wangji had heard about Meng Yao’s banishment shortly after it had happened, he had considered it appropriate. Regardless of how cruel someone was about his background, it didn’t justify murder. 

But as the years had gone by and all the stark black and white had faded into so many shades of gray, it didn’t seem as clear cut.

Nie Mingjue was just and righteous, but he was also merciless and unyielding. His advocacy of the harsh treatment of the remaining Wen had made Lan Wangji uncomfortable, particularly as Wei Wuxian became more and more opposed to it. What was now, in retrospect, clearly a case of systemic injustice was something that Nie Mingjue had not only wholly supported, but had also persuaded Lan Xichen to support. Or at the very least, he had convinced Lan Xichen that he was being soft and naive to oppose it, had convinced him that even if he didn’t support it, he should stay quiet about it.

Looking at Nie Mingjue in that frame had recontextualized many things about him, including his treatment of Meng Yao. Particularly given Lan Xichen’s close friendship with him, Lan Wangji had begun to wonder if exile had been appropriate. Certainly after watching the way people treated Meng Yao, even once he was Jin Guangyao, made him feel like he could understand why he might have snapped and killed somebody over it. 

And now that, too, was reframing and recontextualizing, in the lens of Jin Guangyao’s other actions.

What is black and what is white? Lan Wangji had asked, but everything was just gray, gray, gray.

Every day when he woke and looked around the rooms Wei Wuxian had lived in during happier times, it hurt. But the day after his conversation with Jiang Yanli was perhaps the most he wished he could see Wei Wuxian again in a long time. He ached to talk to him about how much things had changed, how the things he always thought were written in stone, sometimes literally, were not as clear anymore. How the ground often seemed to be shifting sand underneath his feet instead of firm earth. He wondered what Wei Wuxian would say about how much he had changed.

“A-die, you seem sad today,” Wen Yuan said, while Lan Wangji was making his breakfast.

Lan Wangji nodded. “I miss your Xian-gege very much today.”

Wen Yuan hugged his leg, and Lan Wangji smoothed down his hair, and it did not cure his sadness, but it helped.

After their lessons were concluded for the morning, and he had released Wen Yuan and Lan Yong to terrorize Lotus Pier for a while with their antics, he found Jiang Yanli tending to some chores. Jin Ling was ‘helping’, mainly by chewing on his rattle. “I have been thinking,” Lan Wangji said, “that perhaps there is one more person we could trust to help us investigate, who might be more aware of the Jin’s internal politics than we are.”

Lan Wangji had never been entirely sure what to make of Nie Huaisang. On the surface, he was the sort of person that Lan Wangji had no time for. He was flighty and feckless and didn’t take anything seriously. But that, too, had faded into shades of gray. Nie Huaisang did take things seriously, but only if they were important to him. His cultivation level wasn’t very high and his sword skills were terrible, but he was an excellent artist and quite good at Daoist magic. He was much more intelligent than most people realized. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure how much of it was a front brought on by the sincere desire not to be dragged into things he found tiresome, and how much of it was genuine. 

But one thing he was sure about Nie Huaisang was that he loved his older brother, and that although he might seem feckless, he was actually patient and clever. One only needed to look at his bird collection to learn that. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure how long it would take to stalk and catch birds in the wild, but it couldn’t be easy.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to tell Nie Huaisang everything he and Jiang Yanli had discussed, but he thought it was probably worth at least a few questions that he might be able to sneak by under Nie Huaisang’s radar. With that in mind, he headed for Qinghe.

It had been quite some time since he had been there. He had visited once or twice with his brother after the Sunshot Campaign, but never after Wei Wuxian’s death. Wei Wuxian had always liked Nie Huaisang, he remembered, and vice versa. He wondered how Nie Huaisang felt about what had happened to him, and how his brother had dealt with the issue.

He had carefully timed his trip so Nie Mingjue himself wouldn’t be there, but would be at Cloud Recesses. Nie Huaisang greeted him with a cheerful air of curiosity. “What brings you to The Unclean Realm, Hanguang-Jun?”

“Is there a place we can speak privately?” Lan Wangji replied.

Nie Huaisang looked somewhat taken aback by this, waving his fan back and forth, and there was a gleam of calculation behind the curiosity that Lan Wangji had never seen there before. He wasn’t the only one who had changed, he thought. Even Nie Huaisang had been forced to grow up.

They went back to Nie Huaisang’s rooms, and he made tea. Lan Wangji shielded the room so nobody would be able to overhear. It was giving a bit of the game away, he supposed, but better to risk Nie Huaisang being a little suspicious than to risk rumors spreading. “How is your brother?” he asked. “I heard from xiongzhang that there had been a problem with his treatments.”

“Oh, that,” Nie Huaisang said. “Yes, he mentioned to me that he was going to start getting them from Xichen-ge instead of san-ge, because san-ge was getting run roughshod by the Lanling Jin.”

Lan Wangji noted with interest that either Nie Mingjue had not told Nie Huaisang of Jin Guangyao’s ‘error’, or Nie Huaisang was not mentioning it to him. “That is partly what I wanted to discuss. Jiang-zongzhu has been concerned about him.” He comforted himself with the fact that this was not exactly a lie. Jiang Yanli was, in fact, quite concerned about Jin Guangyao. “What exactly is the problem?”

“Ah, well,” Nie Huaisang said, pouring the tea, “how much do you know about this watchtower project of his?”

“Nothing,” Lan Wangji said. He recalled his brother having mentioned it a couple times, but had never probed for details.

“You’re lucky,” Nie Huaisang said. “It’s this thing his father came up with not long before he died. About establishing these towers throughout all the provinces to coordinate between the different sects and make night hunting more efficient. But a lot of the sect leaders don’t really like the idea because they think it’s basically just an excuse for the larger sects to bully into their territory and tell them what to do.”

“A valid concern,” Lan Wangji said. He wondered if the idea had really been Jin Guangshan’s. Although it was like him to bully and try to control things that weren’t his business, this seemed like overreach even for him.

“Yeah, I guess so. But san-ge really wants to do it. Honoring his father’s legacy and all that.” Nie Huaisang lazily waved his fan. “So he’s getting a lot of pushback, and frankly a lot of it is because of his background. I mean, I’ve visited him at Koi Tower plenty of times, and even now that he’s in charge, people still treat him terribly. They whisper behind his back and argue with everything he says. People keep saying they don’t have to obey his orders because he’s only ruling in Jin Rulan’s stead. Which, I don’t know if they’ve had their heads in the sand or what because it is very obvious that Jiang-zongzhu is never sending her son back to Koi Tower.” Nie Huaisang shrugged. “But to be honest, even if they knew that, they’d still be saying the same thing. A lot of the gentry in Lanling know that Jin Guangshan had absolutely no intention of letting san-ge take over the sect. I mean, he made it abundantly clear. So they say, why should they follow san-ge?”

Lan Wangji sighed. “I hate politics,” he murmured, mostly to himself.

“It’s awful,” Nie Huaisang agreed. “I stay away from it as much as possible. And the Lanling Jin are the worst when it comes to that sort of thing. Partly, I think, just because they’re so large. There’s so many people, and it makes more room for currying favor and forming factions. But partly because Jin Guangshan encouraged those things, and attracted the sort of people who also encouraged them.”

Lan Wangji nodded, thinking this over. He wished that he could let the whole thing go. Let Jin Guangyao have the whole terrible lot of them, fight and backstab and do whatever he wanted. But he couldn’t, for so many reasons. “What’s your brother’s opinion of this watchtower project?”

Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes. “He thinks it’s stupid. I mean, he doesn’t actively oppose it because san-ge is all about building his father’s legacy and it would be a little rude to say no to that, and he says if the Lanling Jin want to waste their time and money building a bunch of pointless towers that’s their business, as long as they don’t try to tell him what to do in Qinghe.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji thought this over. He could see why Jin Guangyao might be annoyed if Nie Mingjue was opposing him, but that was as much support as he would probably expect. 

“And the whole thing is just made more complicated by the fact that there’s no Chief Cultivator,” Nie Huaisang added.

Lan Wangji blinked. “There isn’t?”

Nie Huaisang laughed. “Geez, Lan-xiong, have you been living at the bottom of a lotus pond? Who did you think it was?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Lan Wangji admitted. “Jin Guangshan was Chief Cultivator, so I suppose when he died . . .”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “Typically, since the Lanling Jin are the largest, most powerful sect, the position would go to whoever took the sect over after his death. But there are a lot of people who really don’t want san-ge to be chief cultivator, and they’re able to argue without bringing his background into it by talking about how young and inexperienced he is. Da-ge was asked but he said no because he hates politics, and I think your brother was asked, too, and he also said no. Maybe also because he hates politics, or maybe because he didn’t want to take the position from san-ge. And he whole-heartedly supports san-ge having it. Da-ge’s a little more wary of it, because san-ge is young and inexperienced, but then again he hates everyone else vying for the position so he’s basically refused to have an opinion about it at all.”

“I can’t imagine Jin Guangyao appreciating that,” Lan Wangji said.

“Oh, well, probably not, but I think he gets it,” Nie Huaisang said. “Da-ge just doesn’t want to have anything to do with any of this, and as soon as he has an opinion, everyone’s down his throat about it.”

Lan Wangji nodded. It seemed reasonable to him, although he would not agree that it would sound reasonable to Jin Guangyao. He took a moment to think all of this over. Jin Guangyao certainly was under a lot of stress, but none of this seemed relevant to his current problem. Still, it brought up a question. People in Jin Guangyao’s way had a tendency to die. And right now, there were a lot of people in Jin Guangyao’s way. Would there be more victims? Had there already been more victims?

Was there anything, anything at all, that he could prove?

Carefully, he asked, “Did you ever listen to Jin Guangyao play the Song of Clarity for your brother?”

Nie Huaisang looked a little surprised at the question, which Lan Wangji had to admit was an abrupt change of subject. “No, they always wanted privacy, and it would have been boring anyway. Why do you ask?”

“Apparently, there was a section of it that Jin Guangyao had gotten mixed up with a different song,” Lan Wangji said, and Nie Huaisang blinked at him. “I was hoping I could hear what he had played, just so I could research it and make sure there would be no ill effects.”

“If you haven’t heard it, how do you even know that?” Nie Huaisang said.

“My brother told me.”

Nie Huaisang frowned. “Well, can’t he research it, then? Or at least play it back for you? I know how you Lan are about music.”

“I would prefer not to ask him. He is quite worried about Jin Guangyao. Although I suppose I will have to, if you never heard it.”

“Ah, even if I had heard it, I couldn’t replicate it, but I can still help!” Nie Huaisang stood and began rummaging in a drawer. “When we were going to the Blade Hall, san-ge gave me a whistle that could reproduce the song for him. All I had to do was blow into it. It didn’t seem to work, which maybe could be if the tune was wrong . . . ah, here it is. See?” Nie Huaisang lifted it to his mouth and blew, and the whistle began to play a specific tune even though Nie Huaisang’s fingers weren’t moving on it. “You can have it if you’d like. I guess it’s not good for much now.”

“Thank you, Nie-gongzi.” Lan Wangji accepted it and tucked it away in a spirit pouch.

“Poor san-ge,” Nie Huaisang added. “He must be terribly out of sorts if he’s making mistakes like that.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “As I said, my brother has been worried about him.”

“Your poor brother worries so much,” Nie Huaisang said, laughing. “After you went to live at Lotus Pier, it was all he could talk about for a while. How worried he was for you. I’m glad to see you’re doing well, Lan-xiong,” he added. “You should come visit me more often.” His expression became a little sad and distant. “I really don’t have any friends left from the old days . . . Wei-xiong and Jiang-xiong are both gone now . . . I really miss them both.”

“I miss them too,” Lan Wangji said. “You should visit as well. You’d be welcome at Lotus Pier.”

“Maybe I will, then,” Nie Huaisang said, regaining his smile. “Thank you, Lan-xiong.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli did not bother with pretense for going to Koi Tower beyond writing Jin Guangyao and asking if she could come for a visit. Jin Ling and Jin Song were cousins, of course. Qin Su was a new mother and Jiang Yanli was a more experienced one who was happy to help. Their sects were on good terms and they were basically as close as family.

Indeed, Jin Guangyao seemed quite happy to see her. She was mildly surprised to find that he was quite a fretful father. Jin Song was six months old now. Should he be crawling yet? He was a terrible sleeper and still woke them several times a night. Was that normal? When would his teeth come in? Was it strange that he took any new object they gave him and immediately stuck it in his mouth? By the time she had been there an hour, she had answered dozens of questions. She had a feeling that Jin Guangyao had been holding them back, not wanting others to realize how anxious he was or how little he knew. It was strangely flattering that he was willing to let his guard down around her and let his questions spill out.

Jin Song was fine, she assured him. No, it was not strange that he wasn’t sleeping through the night or crawling. He could sit up on his own and roll over, he responded to their voices with a smile, he could reach and grab things, he had a healthy amount of weight on him. His teeth would probably start coming in soon.

She was so distracted by his barrage of questions that she nearly forgot why she was there. A suspicious part of her wondered if that was the point, but she doubted it. She could not see any way that Jin Guangyao might suspect why they were there. And despite the fact that he was ruthlessly willing to kill to get what he wanted, this was his son, his own child. Obviously he would love Jin Song and worry over him.

Because of that, she spent the entire first afternoon and evening with Jin Guangyao and Qin Su, talking not just about Jin Song but about how Jin Ling was doing. She asked a few polite questions about how things were with the Lanling Jin. Lan Wangji had come home from his trip to Qinghe and told her about the watchtower project and the problems it was causing. She had known more about it than he had, and her own reaction to it politically had been similar to Nie Mingjue’s. She did not precisely support it, because it did seem to be overreach on the Lanling Jin’s part even though Jin Guangyao gave constant reassurances that the management of the towers would be shared. But she didn’t oppose it, because it was their time and money to spend.

She hadn’t known how many people, especially those in the Lanling Jin itself, still gave Jin Guangyao difficulty over his background. She had assumed that when he had taken over, even on behalf of Jin Ling with her blessing, that he would be treated as a proper sect leader. Somehow she wasn’t surprised to find it hadn’t been as easy as that.

Jin Guangyao reassured her that everything with the project was fine. Yes, some of the sect leaders were opposed. He was working with them to assuage their concerns. They would probably need to set down some written agreements about who would manage which towers and under what circumstances night hunting could be done without the residing sect’s permission. It was the kind of bargaining and finagling that he was good at, and seemed to enjoy.

“I thought we would spend tomorrow with Jin-furen,” she said, as they were finishing their dinner. “She misses A-Ling terribly, I know.”

“Of course,” Jin Guangyao said. “She has not seemed particularly well since Father’s death, unfortunately . . . I think the circumstances made it quite difficult for her. I hope you will be able to put her in better spirits.”

“I will do my best,” Jiang Yanli said, thinking about how asking a bunch of questions about it was almost certain to do the exact opposite.

The next morning, she was shocked by how terrible Yu Zixia looked. She had always had mixed feelings about her – she could be so sweet and supportive when the mood struck her, but at other times just as cruel as Yu Ziyuan – but couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She had clearly lost a lot of weight, and her skin was somewhat sallow. She greeted Jiang Yanli and Jin Ling with her usual affection, but without the typical enthusiasm.

“You’re getting so big, A-Ling,” she said, pulling him into her lap and pinching his cheeks. He laughed but then squirmed to get free.

“He always wants to be running around these days,” Jiang Yanli said fondly. “He’s getting into everything. I can barely keep up with him.”

Yu Zixia wiped her eyes. “I miss the two of you so much, A-Li,” she said. “Can you not come back to Koi Tower now?”

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “Jin-furen, I am sorry, but things can never go back to the way we all thought they were going to be. When Zixuan died . . . nothing could ever be the same after that. I have to stay at Lotus Pier, and A-Ling will be the sect leader of the Yunmeng Jiang after me. But,” she added, “if you’d like to come to Lotus Pier, you’d be welcome to. It looks like it might be a good idea, for you to get away from Koi Tower for a while. Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t look well.”

Yu Zixia sighed and nodded. “My handmaidens fuss over me frequently. Truthfully, I have not felt well since Guangshan died. I would not have thought it would affect me so poorly. It is not as if we had been close.”

“You don’t have to hold back your words,” Jiang Yanli said, keeping her voice gentle. “You can trust me, Jin-furen.”

“He was an awful man,” Yu Zixia said with another nod. “I hated him long before he died, even before you married A-Xuan. And then for him to die like that, in bed with other women, was just like rubbing salt into the wound. I don’t know why it’s made me feel so awful.”

“It must be hard to listen to what other people are saying,” Jiang Yanli said.

“Oh, certainly, but . . .” Yu Zixia shook her head. “It’s not as if I wasn’t used to the gossip.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Jiang Yanli said. “I’m still not even sure what happened. Jin-zongzhu seemed so healthy . . .”

Yu Zixia scoffed. “Any man’s heart would give out after that many women.”

“It must have been so traumatic for them as well,” Jiang Yanli said.

“Whores,” Yu Zixia said with a shrug.

Jiang Yanli winced a little. “You must have been so angry at them.”

“I was, but it’s not like I saw them. I’m sure they all fled when they realized he had died. And it didn’t happen here at Koi Tower; I don’t know if anyone ever mentioned that to you. I never allowed him to do such things here, and he would go out to his guest house where he could indulge himself.” She took a deep breath and shook her head. “I beg your pardon, A-Li, but I really do not wish to speak of it. And I feel quite awful as well. My head has been pounding ever since breakfast.”

“Of course. I’m so sorry to have brought up such an awful subject. Shall we go out and get some fresh air?”

“I’d rather just rest. I feel so weak, A-Li . . . is this what happens to a woman, after her husband dies?”

It wasn’t, Jiang Yanli thought. Surely, the days after Jin Zixuan’s death had been horrible. There had been weeks and weeks of nausea and headaches and exhaustion. But Jin Guangshan had been dead for over six months, and Yu Zixia had not loved him. This sort of response was entirely disproportionate. And she had a sinking feeling that she might know what was causing it.

Certainly, Yu Zixia had always treated Jin Guangyao harshly. Her words had at times been viciously cruel. Even by the time Jiang Yanli had married Jin Zixuan, Yu Zixia was still calling Jin Guangyao ‘the bastard’ or ‘the son of a whore’ in most conversations, rather than using his name. Jiang Yanli had seen her hit him plenty of times, usually for offenses that were not at all his fault or even bordered on imaginary. Just as she could not blame Jin Guangyao for killing his father, she could not entirely blame him if he killed Yu Zixia, either.

But she could not watch it happen. “You need rest, Jin-furen. Please, come back to Lotus Pier with me. This place only reminds you of your husband. It will be good to get away from it for a while.”

Yu Zixia sighed again. “You might be right, A-Li. And it will be nice to have some time to spend with A-Ling. Surely that will brighten my spirits.”

“Absolutely,” Jiang Yanli agreed. “I will talk to Jin-zongzhu about it. You need not worry. Let me take care of everything.”

“Thank you, A-Li.”

Yu Zixia went to lie down, and Jiang Yanli scooped up Jin Ling and went to find Jin Guangyao. He was in the middle of three things at once and responded to her statement that she was going to take Yu Zixia back to Lotus Pier without much attention. “I’m sure it will be good for her,” he said, already distracted by something one of his cultivators was saying. So if he was poisoning her, he wasn’t concerned about not being able to finish the job, or about her recovering.

But the trip had been worth it, no matter what happened with Yu Zixia. Jiang Yanli now knew that the women who had been with Jin Guangshan at the time of his death were prostitutes, and that the death had occurred at his house in the country. A few discreet inquiries, she thought, and she might be able to find them.

She would have to be careful. To time it while Jin Guangyao was distracted by something big, so he would not notice her poking her nose into things. Once she got back to Lotus Pier, she would discuss that with Lan Wangji.

They would be patient. They would be slow and deliberate, like Jin Guangyao was himself. They would find their proof, and she would get justice for her husband, for her brothers.

One step at a time, she told herself, and went to pack her things.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji listened to Jiang Yanli’s description of her time at Koi Tower in silence. He agreed that she had made good progress. They could ask around about prostitutes in the area around Jin Guangshan’s guest house, although they would have to be careful not to draw too much attention. That might be difficult, as he was quite recognizable, and a woman inquiring into such things would be found strange. He wondered if he might be able to disguise himself somehow, but that, too, would be thought strange. He wished again that there were other people they could trust to help.

More interesting, he thought, was what had been happening to Yu Zixia. When she was clearly feeling better after a few days, he brought this up to Jiang Yanli. “Does she suspect?”

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “No, she seems to think that merely getting away from Koi Tower was the solution.”

While Lan Wangji certainly agreed that getting away from Koi Tower was likely to improve anyone’s mood, this frustrated him. He still could not believe that it was only himself, and now Jiang Yanli, who seemed able to see through Jin Guangyao’s act. He forgave his brother – Lan Xichen was always one to see the best in people – but could not understand why everyone else was so blind. “Does she not know how he feels about her?”

“Of course she doesn’t,” Jiang Yanli said, and saw the frustration on Lan Wangji’s face. “You have to understand – both she and her husband and even Zixuan to a certain point – they don’t feel Jin Guangyao should or would hate them for their behavior because they whole-heartedly believe he deserves it, and moreover, that he understands that he deserves it. They feel that they were so generous in legitimizing him and giving him a place in the sect, that he would forgive them for absolutely anything else, no matter how horrible.”

Lan Wangji wondered whether or not Jiang Yanli should have just left Yu Zixia at Koi Tower to be murdered. “I see.”

“She is recovering, though . . . is this something we can use?” Jiang Yanli asked hopefully.

“I doubt it,” Lan Wangji said. “It’s similar to what we have on the death of his father – the timing is suspicious but we have no proof. Even she is just saying that she’s better because of her change in circumstances. There’s no hard evidence that he was poisoning her, or doing anything at all.”

Jiang Yanli sighed. “And if she goes back to Koi Tower in a month or so, I’m sure he’ll be intelligent enough not to immediately start poisoning her again.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed. “I have been thinking about the music.”

“What about it, specifically?” Jiang Yanli asked.

“We have the tune, now. If Jin Guangyao got it from the library at Cloud Recesses, we might be able to find it and identify it. Perhaps . . .” Lan Wangji hesitated, then continued, “As of right now, I am not allowed in Cloud Recesses, but perhaps I could make amends with the elders. Tell them I have seen the errors of my ways and ask to come home.”

Jiang Yanli was surprised at first, but her surprise quickly melted into concern. “I would not ask you to do that, A-Zhan. To say you were wrong about your feelings for A-Xian . . . even in an attempt to deceive them, I know that it would hurt you.” She reached out and squeezed his hands. “There will be better ways. Remember, we must be patient. We will find more evidence that Jin Guangyao murdered his father. We can take that to your brother and then he will allow us into the library.”

Despite the fact that he had offered, Lan Wangji was relieved that she had vetoed the idea. He nodded. “Thank you, zhangjie.”

“We will need to wait until there is something big going on that Jin Guangyao will be focused on,” Jiang Yanli said. “The next cultivation conference is in three months, but it is being held at Cloud Recesses. Although I’m sure he will attend, I don’t know that it would take up enough of his attention.”

“Agreed. We might have to wait and seize an opportunity as it comes up. A lot might happen. If he can get the other sects to agree on this project of his, putting it into motion would take up a lot of his time. His wife might become pregnant again. If xiongzhang does choose to marry Yu Zhiyi, he might ask Jin Guangyao to help plan the wedding. He is quite skilled at such things, according to my brother.”

Jiang Yanli nodded and said, “He planned mine, as it happens, and everything was perfect.”

“So we will wait for now,” Lan Wangji said.

“We will wait,” Jiang Yanli agreed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Waiting was frustrating in some ways, but in others it brought moments of peace. The children always needed care and attention, and both Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli took comfort in providing whatever they needed. It helped them remember what was important. Exposing Jin Guangyao, yes, clearing Wei Wuxian’s name, yes, justice for the people who had been killed, yes. But at the end of the day, their family needed to be kept safe.

Lan Wangji had recovered about ninety percent of his spiritual power, and although it wasn’t quite everything, it was certainly enough to go night hunting. He couldn’t or wouldn’t teach proprietary techniques to the Jiang disciples, but he lectured the juniors on more general things, and accompanied them out sometimes.

Yu Zixia stayed with them for three weeks before absolutely everybody agreed she had to go. She was condescending and snobby, and although she doted on Jin Ling, she did not particularly enjoy children in general. Lotus Pier was loud and lively and always full of them. Sometimes, in fact, Jiang Yanli was not entirely sure where all these children had come from. There were always the juniors, but sometimes other children showed up to play with them, and it seemed like twice a week other sect leaders were just dropping their children off to get them out of the way for the day. She supposed it was because she was a woman; they figured she would be more interested in watching children than in leading her sect. But she didn’t mind, because it was Lan Wangji who did most of that work. Children followed him around like ducklings. The older sect members thought it was hilarious. Lan Wangji was still stern and silent much of the time, and off-putting to many other adults, but children seemed to adore him for no real reason. And no matter how much he glowered at other adults and gave them the silent treatment, around children he was always warm and welcoming.

Yu Zixia lasted two weeks before she began trying to boss around the children, and when they seemed immune to her glares and her scolding, began to complain about it to anyone who would listen. After she shouted at two of the children who came to Lan Wangji to cry afterwards, Lan Wangji told Jiang Yanli, “Either she leaves for Koi Tower tomorrow or Jin Guangyao won’t need to poison her.”

Jiang Yanli, who had been watching the problem with growing dismay, could not help but agree. She gently ‘suggested’ that perhaps Yu Zixia was missing home, and she huffed but departed the next day.

Once she was gone, Lan Wangji went back to leading the children around with impunity and teaching them the basics of cultivation. It was a little early for Wen Yuan and Lan Yong to be started on such things, but that didn’t seem to bother Lan Wangji. The earlier one started building their golden core, he said, the better. Wen Yuan was learning both the dizi and the guqin. Lan Yong had no real interest in music, which amused Jiang Yanli, but Lan Wangji made him begin learning the guqin anyway.

The days flowed from one into the next in a manner that was not entirely unpleasant. Jin Ling celebrated his second birthday. They threw one party at Lotus Pier and then (somewhat reluctantly) traveled to Koi Tower so Jin Guangyao could throw him one as well. Lan Yong teased Wen Yuan about not having a courtesy name so Lan Wangji gave him one, and Jiang Yanli had to hold back an exasperated really? at the concept of naming the poor child ‘to recollect and long for’. But Wen Yuan seemed to like it, so she kept her peace.

Lan Xichen visited them often, and twice he brought Yu Zhiyi with him. They were getting along very well, and Jiang Yanli was happy to see it. Frankly, even if it didn’t end in a marriage, it was good that Lan Xichen had friends who would support him. Nie Huaisang visited once as well, and assured them that his brother was doing well. There had clearly been no aftereffects of Jin Guangyao’s ‘mistake’. He asked if Lan Wangji had been able to figure out what other song he had accidentally mixed it up with, and Lan Wangji said no, but if Nie Mingjue was well, then he wouldn’t worry about it.

Since the next cultivation conference was at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji obviously could not accompany her. Jiang Yanli reassured him that she would be fine; he could stay at Lotus Pier and handle the children. By now, nobody questioned his presence there anymore. Lan Wangji at Lotus Pier was just a fact of life that everybody accepted. And truthfully, although Jiang Yanli loved Jin Ling more than life itself, it was never terrible to get a break from motherhood for a few days.

Of course, the Lan sect was not her biggest fan. Although she was still close with Lan Xichen, the elders had never entirely forgiven her for encouraging Lan Wangji to leave with her. They usually didn’t bother to come to cultivation conferences, with the exception of Lan Qiren, so this was her first time seeing them. She noted that they all looked at her very sourly, but resolved not to let it bother her.

That was what she was thinking, but almost immediately after dinner was concluded, Lan Qiren walked over to her and asked if she would join him for a cup of tea. Jiang Yanli was frankly a little suspicious, as she could not see why he would want to speak to her, but agreed and accompanied him to a quiet courtyard. It was cool out, but not too cold to be outside, although she appreciated the cup of tea he poured her.

“How is Wangji?” Lan Qiren finally asked.

Jiang Yanli wondered what sort of answer he was after. “He is well,” she said. “He has almost completely recovered and has resumed night hunting again. He spends most of his time with the juniors. I am so glad I have him to rely on.”

“Mm hm.” Lan Qiren stared hard at her for a minute, then gave a heavy sigh. “Jiang-zongzhu, I would like my nephew to come home. At this point, I feel you know him better than I do, so please, what advice can you give me?”

Taken aback, Jiang Yanli was more honest than she probably should have been. “Certainly none that you are going to want to hear.”

Lan Qiren’s mouth tightened, but he did not argue. “I may not agree, and I may not follow your advice, but I will at least listen.”

Jiang Yanli thought about that for a long minute. She didn’t doubt that Lan Qiren loved his nephew, even if his way of showing it was frankly terrible. “He loved A-Xian. Do you understand that?”

Jaw still tight, Lan Qiren said, “I understand, believe me.”

“I know you think my brother was evil,” Jiang Yanli said, keeping her voice even. “You think he was a monster. And I will not deny that he did terrible things. I will not get into a prolonged discussion with you or with anyone else, frankly, on whether or not what he did was justified or forgivable. A-Zhan wishes desperately that he could have saved A-Xian, but you will not acknowledge that he could have or should have been saved. This is hard for A-Zhan. He is unable to grieve, unable to mourn, while you and all the other elders are telling him that the world is better off without A-Xian.”

Lan Qiren said nothing.

“So this leads me to a question, Lan-xiansheng. Who do you want to come home? Your nephew as he is? Or your nephew as you wish him to be?”

“What sort of question is that?” Lan Qiren asked, with the scowl of a man who knew quite well what she meant.

“When A-Zhan was defiant during his punishment, you sentenced him to still more punishment. You still sought to convince him that he was incorrect. I understand you worry for him, Lan-xiansheng. He is your nephew and you care for him. But if your intent on having him come home is so you can get back to work convincing him that he was wrong to love A-Xian, that morality is black and white and all the rules are set in stone, then it will never happen. If you want him to come home as he is, and accept that he made the choices he did because he loved my brother and he will never agree that his love was wrong, then you may have a chance if you apologize to him.”

“Apologize!” Lan Qiren bit the word out, then looked away. “His punishment was just. We were trying to guide him back to the righteous path. He still cannot see that. We were not trying to hurt him. We were trying to save him!”

Jiang Yanli was quiet for a long moment. Finally, she said softly, “Then I do not believe A-Zhan can ever come home, Lan-xiansheng. He will never see the world in black and white again. He will never believe that abandoning A-Xian would have been the righteous path.”

“We will renounce him,” Lan Qiren said, looking tired. “Does he realize that? I understand Xichen has found a probable bride. As soon as their child is born, as soon as there is another heir – we will have no choice but to declare he is no longer part of the sect.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said. “He knows as well. It does not bother him, not anymore. Why does it bother you?”

After a long moment, Lan Qiren said, “I’ve failed him. I do not know how to bring him back into the fold. How to put him back on the path he was meant to walk.”

“You cannot choose his path for him, Lan-xiansheng. He is on the one he believes to be correct.” Jiang Yanli shook her head. “A-Xian is dead. What does it matter now? Can you not simply forgive any sins you feel A-Zhan has committed? Let him go back to night hunting and fighting for justice, without forcing him to agree he was wrong?”

“And risk it happening again?” Lan Qiren’s scowl deepened. “The next time there is some dark soul that Wangji feels he should ‘save’?”

Jiang Yanli studied him for a moment. “It must be terrible, living as you do. Believing that one mistake means there can be no redemption, no forgiveness. Believing that someone struggling with anger and pain should be killed rather than helped.”

“To protect others,” Lan Qiren retorted. “How many people would be alive today, if Wangji had taken action against Wei Wuxian after he turned Wen Ning into a fierce corpse? He was there. He could have ended it. But he stood aside. And because of that, thousands of people died at Nightless City.”

“Standing aside was not the right thing to do,” Jiang Yanli said. “Even A-Zhan would agree with you on that. He could have ended it. But he also could have helped him. Could have walked with him, kept him from descending into that darkness. Would that have been the wrong choice?”

“It was too late.”

“It is never too late to help somebody who is suffering,” Jiang Yanli told him. She shook her head. “A-Zhan will not come back to you, Lan-xiansheng, and truthfully, I would not want him to. This rigid thinking you have, this black and white morality where sins are never forgiven, this idea that you can force someone onto the ‘righteous’ path by breaking their spirit . . . I always thought the Lan sect was so good, so pure. But it’s all just a façade of virtue draped over unspeakable cruelty.” She stood up and bowed. “The Gusu Lan do not deserve Lan Wangji, Lan-xiansheng. Although I will not make his choices for him, I will allow him to stay at Lotus Pier for as long as he likes, and I will protect him from you as long as I draw breath.”

Lan Qiren was staring at her, too stunned to speak.

“Please excuse me,” Jiang Yanli said, and left the courtyard.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Xichen didn’t even want to know what his uncle was scowling about as he came back into the hanshi, and he was immediately and profoundly grateful that he had invited Yu Zhiyi in for a cup of tea. Lan Qiren wouldn’t air his grievances in front of her. Still, his glowering made the atmosphere quite uncomfortable, so Lan Xichen said, “Yu-guniang, would you care to go for a walk?”

“Certainly,” Yu Zhiyi said, and then two of them headed outside. They walked in silence for a few minutes as they left the pavilion and headed up into the back hills. Finally, she asked, “Is everything all right?”

Truthfully, Lan Xichen wasn’t sure everything had ever been all right. There was a part of him that wished he had never met Yu Zhiyi, never dragged her into this mess, and a part of him that was desperately grateful for her presence. “May I speak honestly with you, Yu-guniang?”

Yu Zhiyi laughed. “You know I prefer it at all times.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Sometimes,” he said, “I am glad for the way I am. Love, the sort of all-encompassing, passionate romance that the poets speak of, is such a foreign concept to me. I watched it destroy my father and my brother, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I think this is part of what frustrates my uncle so. He does not understand why my father, why Wangji, could not just . . . stop. Because he has never felt anything like that either.”

Yu Zhiyi walked beside him in silence, letting him come to the point in his own way.

“It’s not that I don’t love,” Lan Xichen said. “Of course I love my brother dearly, and I love my uncle, and my sworn brothers, and many other people. But to be ‘in love’ . . . honestly, I don’t really know what that means. What the difference is. I feel it goes beyond the desire for someone’s body, which I also do not feel, and into some nebulous emotion that I can’t define. Like people who are colorblind cannot understand the concept of color.” He sighed and said, “I’m wandering. My point is that, although I am sometimes glad for the way I am, it also makes other things difficult. I need a wife. I want children. But to ask someone to marry me when I am aware that I will never love them in that manner seems disingenuous to me. Like I am offering something I cannot give.”

“I understand,” Yu Zhiyi said, “but as long as you are honest, I do not think you have anything to feel bad about. And here you are, being honest with me. Possibly also proposing to me, but I’m not sure.”

Lan Xichen laughed. “I do enjoy how bold you are, Yu-guniang. I have grown very fond of you as a friend.”

“I am fond of you as well,” Yu Zhiyi said. “I think that’s enough. If I were the sort of person who desired that poetic romance, it wouldn’t be. But I don’t need it. I think I’m a little different from you. It’s not a foreign concept to me. I understand it. I just don’t want it. I’m perfectly happy with some friends, with family. I know that as a sect leader, marriage is very political for you. You need a partner, somebody you can trust. And you need a woman who can bear your children. I would be happy to provide both those things for you.” A little more gently, she said, “It would make things easier for you if you stopped telling yourself you didn’t deserve that.”

Lan Xichen gave her a sudden, startled look, and then looked away.

“Just because you don’t love in the traditional sense doesn’t mean you don’t deserve happiness,” Yu Zhiyi said. “You are an incredible person. And it’s comforting to me, as well, that I know you will never ask me for more than I can give. I would be honored to be your wife.”

After a long moment, Lan Xichen nodded. “Thank you, Yu-guniang. I am so very glad to have met you.”

Yu Zhiyi smiled. “You should ask me to marry you now.”

That made Lan Xichen laugh. “Yes, I suppose I haven’t yet. Yu Zhiyi, will you be my wife?”

“Yes, Lan Xichen.”

They talked about it a little more, and Lan Xichen ended the evening feeling more relaxed than he had in months. The cultivation conference was the usual combination of boring politics and interesting night-hunting discussions, and once it was over, he presented himself to the elders and told them that Yu Zhiyi had accepted his proposal.

Even those who had been unsure that she was good enough for him were happy to hear the news. It was one less thing to worry about, and they had certainly had enough to worry about lately. They briefly discussed the timing and the setting of the wedding, and everyone was in good spirits until one of the elders said, “Once you have an heir, we finally won’t have to worry about Wangji anymore!”

Lan Xichen’s back stiffened. “What exactly does that mean, respected elder?”

The elder was undaunted by his clear displeasure. “Well, as long as you were childless, Lan Wangji was still technically the heir. That was quite uncomfortable, given his behavior. He has all but seceded from the sect, and you will not allow us to banish him, so you must see how it is a relief for all of us that he will not be your heir much longer.”

“I see,” Lan Xichen said. “Yes, of course, my children will be my heirs. That being said, Wangji will still be in the line of succession, until such time as he formally secedes.”

“Perhaps you could encourage him to do so,” one of the others said. “He has made it quite clear that he does not intend to come back.”

Lan Xichen wanted to argue, but what did it matter? They were never going to change. They were never going to listen. He just didn’t have it in him. All he said was, “Perhaps,” before he stood and left the room.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

As Jiang Yanli had expected, Jin Guangyao was absolutely thrilled to hear about Lan Xichen’s engagement, and immediately took a trip to Cloud Recesses to congratulate him. She suspected he would cajole Lan Xichen into letting him plan much of the wedding, since Lan weddings were, according to Lan Wangji, ‘not much of an affair’.

“Nothing but the best for er-ge!” Jiang Yanli chirped in a fairly good approximation of Jin Guangyao’s voice, and Lan Wangji gave a snort.

With him preoccupied, Jiang Yanli headed for Lanling. She did not go to Koi Tower, but instead headed for the outer region of the province, where Jin Guangshan’s guest house was. It was clean and unused; sections of it had become dusty. There was certainly no evidence that a murder had taken place there.

She and Lan Wangji had argued about this vociferously for over an hour. He hadn’t liked the idea that she would go to Lanling without him, but she didn’t want to leave the children without either of them at Lotus Pier, and they certainly could not bring them. In that case, he said, he should be the one to go. He was more able to take care of himself in case of trouble.

This was absolutely true, but Jiang Yanli could not and would not believe he would be able to go to a brothel and ask some questions without drawing too much attention. Even if they didn’t recognize him as the great Hanguang-Jun, the fact that he was a Lan was unmistakable.

“I could take my ribbon off,” Lan Wangji had said.

“A-Zhan, I’m not going to ask you to do that,” Jiang Yanli had said.

Rather than pursuing that argument, Lan Wangji had pointed out that she would draw just as much attention. People might recognize her as well. She had been Jin-xiao-furen, if only for a year, and she was the head of the Yunmeng Jiang. Besides, wouldn’t they think it odd if a woman was making such inquiries?

Jiang Yanli didn’t think that they would. Women were more likely to be discreet about such matters, she said. It was not unheard of that they might look into such things. She had a cover story prepared and she could veil her face. Yes, it might look odd, and yes, the story might eventually get back to Jin Guangyao, but he would have no way of knowing it had been her.

Finally, reluctantly, Lan Wangji had given in. Jiang Yanli’s golden core had been steadily growing since he had begun teaching her the guqin. She could wield Zidian now, although doing it exhausted her. She would be able to take care of herself.

Since there was nothing of interest at the guest house, she made her way to the brothel that was closest. This far out into the countryside, there was really only one that would be called upon to serve, and she was willing to bet that the gentry houses that dotted the landscape made up most of their business.

She asked to speak to the madam and did not introduce herself, but said she was there on behalf of the Jin sect and had a matter of some discretion to discuss. “The night that Jin Guangshan passed away, there were some small trinkets that went missing from the house,” Jiang Yanli said to the madam. “In all the fuss, it was not noticed until now, when we realized where and when they had vanished. One of these objects had great sentimental value to Jin-furen, and I am trying to locate it. I was wondering if I could speak to the ladies who were there that night – confidentially, of course. Jin-furen is eager to see it returned and promised no consequences for any of your ladies as long as it could be located.”

“Ah, I am sorry to disappoint you,” the madam said, “but my girls did not serve Jin-zongzhu that night.”

Jiang Yanli was surprised. “None of them?”

“No, we were not called upon.” The madam, sensing the underlying question, continued, “It was quite odd, to be honest. We always served Jin-zongzhu when he was visiting the area. When I heard about what happened, I checked with all my girls and none of them had been here. He must have brought the ladies with him.”

“I see,” Jiang Yanli said. “Thank you for your time, then.”

She mulled over this as she headed back to Yunmeng. It seemed obvious that Jin Guangyao had arranged the entire thing. In all likelihood, he had given his father some sort of poison which would cause his heart to give out with exertion, then planned the trip and supplied the women. How could she find them now?

He had been so careful, so very careful. Was there really nothing they could prove?

Suffice to say, she was not in a very good temper when she got back to Lotus Pier. But her bad mood instantly evaporated when she saw the crowd of children around Lan Wangji. Two of them were standing on either side of Jin Ling, holding his hands so he couldn’t wander off. But the attention was on Wen Yuan, who was precariously balanced on Bichen, which Lan Wangji had suspended at about waist height. He was holding Wen Yuan by the shoulders to keep him steady. As Jiang Yanli approached, he said, “I am going to let go now, A-Yuan. Do not be afraid; Bichen will not move. Just hold still.”

“Okay,” Wen Yuan said, although he sounded very uncertain. “But you’ll catch me if I fall?”

“I will catch you,” Lan Wangji reassured him, and released him. Wen Yuan stood very still, and when the sword didn’t immediately buck him off like a horse, he gave an excited cheer.

“I wanna try, I wanna try!” Lan Yong shouted, and several of the other juniors echoed him.

“Everyone will have a turn,” Lan Wangji promised. “A-Yuan, hold still. I am going to move Bichen so you can feel what it is like.” He put his hand on Bichen’s hilt and propelled it forward several feet. Wen Yuan gave a sharp gasp, but managed to stay steady. “You see, it is not so scary.”

“Uh huh!” Wen Yuan threw his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck. “Thank you, a-die! The others can have a turn now.”

“Very well.” Lan Wangji lifted Wen Yuan off Bichen and put him down on the ground. He was helping Lan Yong up when he glanced to the side and saw Jiang Yanli. “Ah, this will have to wait a few minutes. Your sect leader is back; greet her properly.”

The children immediately rushed over to her. Wen Yuan glommed onto her leg, and she scooped Jin Ling up into a hug while the others greeted her with more sedate bows and a chorus of, “Welcome home, Jiang-zongzhu!”

“Thank you, darlings,” Jiang Yanli said, patting Wen Yuan on the head. “Have you been good for Hanguang-Jun?”

“Uh huh,” they chorused.

“I will let you get back to your lesson while I speak with Jiang Shulian,” she said, and glanced at Lan Wangji, who nodded. She carried Jin Ling with her, but left the others with him.

About half an hour later, he found her in her chambers. Jin Ling was down for his afternoon nap. “Did you find anything?”

“No. The local brothel did not supply the prostitutes; Jin Guangyao must have hired them from somewhere else and brought them with him. I don’t see how we could possibly find them now. The guest house has been thoroughly cleaned.”

Lan Wangji’s jaw set. “Then what now?” he asked.

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “I don’t know.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen was still terrible at arguing, and he imagined he would always be terrible at arguing, and lately his method of arguing was to state his opinion and flee the scene before anyone could tell him he was wrong. Apparently he could get away with that when it came to wedding planning, if not in sect leading. Or at least, he could get away with it in some things. In others, he told Jin Guangyao what he wanted and then let Jin Guangyao coax the elders into allowing it. This was probably cowardly, or so he assumed, but Jin Guangyao was just so good at it. Wouldn’t it be a shame to waste his natural talent for making people see his point of view?

One dispute was solved, and then another, and then a third. And then one arose that Lan Xichen simply did not see how he could he resolve.

“What’s troubling you, er-ge?” Jin Guangyao asked, as he poured the tea. He had been back and forth to Cloud Recesses three times in the past month, and Lan Xichen made a mental note that he was going to have to do something very nice for his sworn brother, to thank him for all his efforts.

This, however, he didn’t see how even Jin Guangyao could fix. “The elders do not want to allow Wangji at the wedding.”

Jin Guangyao winced. “I see. I assume they do not want to allow him inside Cloud Recesses at all.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “They said that unless he is back to serve his punishment – the full three years even though so much time has gone by – he will not be allowed in.”

“Hm.” Jin Guangyao tapped his fingers against the table. “Obviously I can see why this troubles you. I imagine you very much would like him to be there.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, his heart aching. How could he get married without his brother there? He had never even thought of such a thing.

“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao said gently, “may I ask you a question that might upset you?”

Lan Xichen sighed. “Go ahead.”

“What do you imagine is going to happen with your brother in the long-term? He has proven that he is very stubborn. Frankly, I do not see him ever admitting any fault, or agreeing to serve the punishment the elders gave him. Nor do I see the elders ever backing down on insisting he do so. I know you have not wanted to banish him, and of course I understand. But if he was no longer part of the Lan sect, your elders would have no power over him. They would have to treat him with respect as a high-ranking member of the Yunmeng Jiang, a sect with which you are allied. Would that not make things easier for everybody?”

Lan Xichen felt tears sting at his eyes. “Of course it would, but it’s just – so final. Once he is no longer part of the Gusu Lan, he can never – he can never come home. I can’t, A-Yao. I can’t be the one to tell him he can’t come home.”

Quietly, Jin Guangyao said, “Have you spoken to him about it?”

“No. How could I? How could I even suggest – ” Lan Xichen broke the words off and looked away.

Jin Guangyao sat in silence for a few moments. “All right, er-ge. Then we will find a way for the elders to allow him at the wedding.”

Lan Xichen let out a breath. “Thank you, A-Yao.”

Sipping his tea, Jin Guangyao said, “I assume you already offered the concession that he would only be present for the wedding itself and would depart the same day, so he would not be in Cloud Recesses for any longer than necessary?”

“Yes, of course,” Lan Xichen said. “They were unwilling to entertain the idea.”

“Perhaps the wedding should be elsewhere, then,” Jin Guangyao suggested. “I know we have already done a lot of preparation, but it could be moved. You could speak with Yu-zongzhu and see if they would host.”

“I don’t imagine the elders would agree to that either,” Lan Xichen said. “The sect leader of the Gusu Lan has always married here in Cloud Recesses.”

“Hm.” Jin Guangyao poured them both another cup of tea. “Then may I ask another question which I’ve long wondered about, but have hesitated to ask since it is truly none of my business?”

Lan Xichen laughed at that. “Of course.”

“Hanguang-Jun’s son, A-Yuan . . . I know he adopted him not long after Wei Wuxian’s death, and I know he was very set on raising him, even though the elders disapproved . . . I remember you spoke often about how worried you were for him, and how devoted he was to the child.” Jin Guangyao set down the teapot. “Whose child is he, er-ge? Is he Wei Wuxian’s?”

Lan Xichen sighed. He had always known there was a chance that other people, particularly Jin Guangyao, who was so close to him and so perceptive, might figure out that there was more to Wen Yuan than there seemed. “Technically, no.”

“But he is one of the Wen remnants,” Jin Guangyao said.

“Yes. The only one left.”

Jin Guangyao nodded. “Of course, I see why Hanguang-Jun would be so determined to protect him. I am honestly a little surprised that the elders allowed him to stay here at all.”

“He was only a child. The disciplines are very clear that innocent children are to be protected. Some of them didn’t like it, but enough of them supported me that I was able to convince them it should be allowed.”

“I see.” Jin Guangyao thought this over for a few moments. “Obviously Hanguang-Jun is raising him to be a cultivator and teaching him how to grow his golden core. I assume he is going to be a disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang.”

“Ah – ” Lan Xichen looked away again. “Is it silly that I was thinking of him as one of the Gusu Lan?”

“No. Of course not. He is your brother’s son. But I doubt very much that your elders would allow it,” Jin Guangyao added, and Lan Xichen nodded wearily. “Which makes me even more certain that Hanguang-Jun does not intend to return to the Lan Sect. Er-ge,” he continued, his voice gentle again, “if it’s going to happen anyway, let it happen on his terms – on the terms the two of you decide together. Tell the elders if they allow him at the wedding, you will speak to him about resigning his place in the sect. Don’t promise that he’ll leave,” he added, seeing Lan Xichen open his mouth to protest. “Just promise to speak to him about it. I think perhaps what your brother needs is closure. He needs to come back here one more time and truly bid everything farewell, and let go.”

“You might be right,” Lan Xichen said, even as he felt the words weigh on him heavily.

“I speak from experience,” Jin Guangyao said. “I didn’t choose to leave the Qinghe Nie, you know. The first time I went back there, after the Sunshot Campaign – it was difficult for me. But it was also . . . it brought me some peace. I was able to make my farewells in a way that I hadn’t before, and accept that it was something I would never be a part of again. I think it would help Hanguang-Jun to do the same.”

Lan Xichen nodded and said nothing.

“It is not the end of everything, you know,” Jin Guangyao said. “He will always be your brother. I know change can be frightening. But it can also be freeing. Once you have an heir, and you no longer have to fight the elders every day about your brother, you can focus on making this sect one that Hanguang-Jun might want to be a part of again someday.”

The words eased Lan Xichen’s mind, and he was able to breathe again. “Thank you, A-Yao . . . you are right, of course. Perhaps this is what both Wangji and I need, in order to be able to move forward.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Jin Guangyao said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It had been six months since Lan Xichen had told them of Jin Guangyao incorrectly playing the Song of Clarity for Nie Mingjue, and Lan Wangji felt like they had been treading water ever since. No matter how much they thought about it, they could not find any evidence of Jin Guangyao’s wrongdoing. The less they found, the more Lan Wangji started to wonder if his conclusions had all been some sort of fever dream. Maybe he had just desperately wanted to believe in Wei Wuxian’s innocence, so much so that he had started seeing shadows where there were none.

Maybe so, he thought. Maybe Jin Guangyao had had nothing to do with Wei Wuxian’s death, or even Jin Zixuan’s. But he had killed his father. Lan Wangji was certain of at least that much.

But did that matter? Jin Guangshan had been a terrible person. The Jin sect was thriving without him. Jin Ling was safer now that he was dead. If that was all that Jin Guangyao had been responsible for, maybe they should just let it go. He was a good friend to Lan Xichen. Exposing Jin Guangyao’s crimes would only upset Lan Xichen, and Lan Wangji did not want his brother upset.

“Are you missing Xian-gege today, a-die?” Wen Yuan asked, and Lan Wangji nodded. “Come see me if you need a hug, okay?” Wen Yuan then said, his expression solemn. “Even if it’s late at night.”

Lan Wangji managed a smile. “I will. Thank you, A-Yuan.”

How long had it been since he had left Cloud Recesses? The days had blended together. Would his punishment be over yet? No, it couldn’t be. His punishment would be over about a month after Jin Ling’s third birthday, and that was still some time off.

Not that it mattered, he supposed. The elders would surely insist he start from day zero if he was forced to serve it. He was a little surprised that this had not come up during the months that the wedding was being planned. He supposed that maybe it had, and Lan Xichen simply had not mentioned it to him.

Walking up the path to Cloud Recesses was harder than it should have been. Harder than he had imagined it would be. For all his casual thoughts over the past year of how the Lan sect would never allow him to return, this was what made it feel final. What made it feel real. This had been his home for almost all of his life. Now it was just another place, and moreover, one populated by people who for the most part did not want him there.

“Are you all right, A-Zhan?” Jiang Yanli asked quietly.

“It’s – ” Lan Wangji’s eyes fell shut and he admitted, “It’s painful to return.”

“I know. Going back to Lotus Pier after the Wens killed my parents, going back again after A-Cheng and A-Xian died – that was painful, too. I’m here for whatever you need, A-Zhan.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Thank you, zhangjie.”

At least things were so busy at Cloud Recesses that nobody really had time to make a big deal out of him being there. The elders and the cultivators were all doing a dozen things at once. Representatives from almost every sect were there. They went over to say hello to Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, and then saw Jin Guangyao with Qin Su, who was carrying Jin Song. Lan Wangji’s mind eased slightly.

Lan Xichen was, naturally, quite busy and somewhat anxious, so Lan Wangji only had a few minutes to greet him and convey his congratulations. The wedding ceremony was beautiful, and Lan Wangji was glad to see that his brother looked genuinely happy about things. He silently wished him the best.

Nearly an hour after the ceremony was concluded, as Lan Wangji was sitting with Jiang Yanli and Nie Huaisang, Jin Guangyao came over and quietly tapped him on the shoulder. “Your brother would like a few minutes with you.”

Lan Wangji was a little surprised at this, but got up and followed Jin Guangyao to where Lan Xichen was waiting at the head of one of the trails that would go up into the back hills. “Should you not be with your bride?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” Lan Xichen said. “After all, I will see her every day from now on. You, I see far less frequently. Will you walk with me?”

“Of course.” Lan Wangji fell into step beside his brother. They took the trail away from the pavilion, and the noise and the lights faded behind them. Lan Xichen stopped in the clearing by the rabbits, and Lan Wangji smiled despite himself, walking over and picking one up, smoothing back its ears.

“How is A-Yuan?” Lan Xichen asked.

“He is very well.”

“He is old enough now to begin some training, is he not?” Lan Xichen let out a breath. “Will he be joining the juniors at Lotus Pier?”

Seeing why Lan Xichen was asking, Lan Wangji nodded. “He will be accepted into the Yunmeng Jiang. As will Lan Yong, unless you have an objection.”

“No. That’s fine. That’s good, really.” Lan Xichen was quiet for a long minute.

Lan Wangji let him have the quiet, feeling a soft melancholy settle into his heart. He was suddenly, keenly aware that he would never be back here. Never walk these paths again. When he had left the first time, he had only been thinking about what was best for Wen Yuan. He hadn’t been thinking of himself, of leaving his home, temporarily or permanently. He hadn’t been thinking about the fact that his sect would never welcome him back, or whether or not he would even want them to.

He had missed Cloud Recesses. Of course he had. It had been his home for his entire life. But what had he missed? It was only a place. A beautiful place, but still, only a place. One that, in retrospect, he didn’t have many fond memories of. His childhood had not been happy. He had loved his mother and his older brother, but his strict upbringing had all but outlawed fun or joy. Watching the children in Lotus Pier, he hoped he was creating happy memories for them.

“I miss the conviction of this place,” Lan Wangji finally said. “Of feeling that I knew, with rock solid certainty, what the right thing to do was. In any situation, on any path. All I had to do was follow the disciplines, and it would lead to the eradication of evil. I miss when things were black and white. I would not want to return to it, but even so.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “I miss it sometimes, too.”

“It’s ridiculous to miss it,” Lan Wangji said. “Being convinced of such things is why I did not stand by Wei Ying. It might have contributed to his death. All that conviction led me to was grief and regrets. The world is such a complicated place, xiongzhang . . . but I know who I am in it now. I know what path I am meant to walk, and I will walk it without looking back. To help the suffering, to protect the innocent, to prevent injustice. And I cannot do that as a member of the Gusu Lan.”

Lan Xichen’s voice was tight as he whispered, “I’m so sorry, Wangji.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, xiongzhang.” Lan Wangji set down the rabbit he had been stroking. “It’s something I’ve known for some time now, but had not had the courage to take that final step. Thank you, for allowing me to come here one last time.”

“We will always be brothers,” Lan Xichen told him. “Always.”

“I know.” Lan Wangji reached up behind his head and unfastened the ribbon. It slid off his forehead and into his hand. He held it out to his brother.

Lan Xichen folded Lan Wangji’s fingers over it. “Keep it,” he said. “I know that you allowed Wei-gongzi to touch it and I know what that meant to you. Even if you no longer wear it, I would still like you to have it.”

Lan Wangji nodded, feeling a bit of relief creep in. He put the ribbon in one of his spirit pouches. “Thank you, xiongzhang.”

“I will work hard as the sect leader of the Gusu Lan,” Lan Xichen said. “I want to turn it into what it is meant to be – a sect that cherishes purity and duty without being harsh and unyielding. It may take me decades, but someday . . . I will make this into a sect you would be proud to be a member of.”

“I know you will,” Lan Wangji said. “Please tell zhangjie I will wait on the path outside for her. I know I am not allowed to stay now that the wedding is over. And I am very happy for you, xiongzhang, that you have finally found a partner in this life.”

“Thank you,” Lan Xichen said. “I will tell Jiang-zongzhu where to find you.”

Lan Wangji nodded and bowed to his brother. “Thank you for all your guidance, xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen returned the bow. “Until we see each other again, be well.”

As Lan Wangji turned to walk away, Lan Xichen caught him by the wrist and pulled him into an embrace. Lan Wangji pressed his face into his brother’s shoulder and hugged him as hard as he could.

Several long moments later, he finally managed to pull away, and head down the path. Lan Xichen let him have plenty of room, not attempting to follow until there was space between them. Lan Wangji avoided the party, because he did not want to know what anyone would think of him not wearing his ribbon, and went out the front gate, where he waited.

About twenty minutes later, Jiang Yanli found him there. She was walking with Jin Ling, holding his hand, and Wen Yuan was trotting behind her. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Lan Wangji nodded and said, “Let’s go home.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Once back at Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji insisted on being made the second disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang instead of the first. Jiang Shulian had worked hard for that position, he said, and had been one of Jiang Cheng’s most trusted men. Even though Lan Wangji was stronger, he did not want to take that away from him.

He still wore white much of the time, but occasionally wore purple accents, and of course no longer wore his head ribbon. Wen Yuan and Lan Yong were both formally accepted as disciples, and continued to work hard on learning cultivation and growing their golden cores. Jiang Yanli worked on this as well, practicing with Zidian whenever she had the chance, determined to become a disciple more powerful than her mother had ever dreamed she could be.

They focused on these things, because they were both tired of focusing on Jin Guangyao. Jiang Yanli suggested they take a break from investigating him, both to give him some room in case he suspected something was wrong, and because they needed the mental space. Lan Wangji agreed, although he said he would change his mind if there were new victims.

But there weren’t. Jin Guangyao continued to coax the sect leaders to support his watchtower project, cajole them into agreeing he should be chief cultivator. They left him and his ambitions alone.

Three months after the wedding, they received a visit from Lan Xichen, who still came to see his brother every month, this time accompanied by Yu Zhiyi. She was pregnant, he said, and Lan Xichen was smiling more brightly than the sun. Lan Wangji was, of course, excited about the idea of having a niece or nephew. But he was also a little sad, because he knew that Lan Xichen would be quite busy with a newborn, and probably unable to visit as often.

A few weeks after that was Jin Song’s first birthday party, and they traveled to Koi Tower. Jin Guangyao welcomed them with his usual hospitality. Jiang Yanli had to give him this much – he could really put a party together. And he certainly never tried to force Lan sect members to try alcohol.

(A month after Lan Xichen’s wedding, Lan Wangji had stated that, since he was no longer a member of the Gusu Lan, he could now drink alcohol. He’d had one mouthful of Lotus Pier’s best liquor and wandered drunkenly for the next six hours, and remembered none of it the next day. Jiang Yanli had politely asked him to, perhaps, not overextend himself again.)

“How is my little nephew?” Jiang Yanli asked, delighted to see Jin Song as always. “Ah, I feel like it’s been so long since I last saw you. What was his first word, was it mama or baba?”

“Ah, he isn’t much of a talker,” Qin Su said, with her usual neutral smile. “Very quiet, this one. Such a blessing.”

“Is it?” Jiang Yanli felt a stir of unease. She couldn’t imagine a world where Jin Ling hadn’t constantly babbled as a baby. “Has he not said any words at all yet?”

“Nothing that I could really decipher,” Qin Su said, then added somewhat anxiously, “Is that bad?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s just a late bloomer,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. But she listened carefully to Jin Song over the course of the next few hours. Jin Ling had known a handful of words by his first birthday – primarily ‘no’, which he had used often, but of course he had known Mama for her and jiujiu for Lan Wangji, and he’d known Wen Yuan’s name although he had trouble saying it. He hadn’t talked in full sentences, but his speech had the cadence and the rhythm of conversation.

Jin Song had none of that. He made sounds, but his babbling still sounded more like a six month old than a baby who had just had his first birthday.

Jiang Yanli felt a little uneasy about it, but figured there was really nothing she could do. But she decided to make a trip back in a month, just to check up on him. She went back to Lotus Pier, worked on her guqin, taught Wen Yuan how to peel lotus seeds, knelt every morning in the ancestral shrine.

The next month, Jin Song still hadn’t said his first word, and the month after that was no different, and at that point Jiang Yanli was concerned enough to gently mention it to Qin Su. Perhaps, she said, she should ask her mother when she first spoke – maybe it simply ran in the family.

She wasn’t sure exactly what she was expecting, but that evening, Qin Su knocked on the door of her guest house and all but collapsed onto her floor. At first, Jiang Yanli feared the worst, asking if Jin Song was all right. Qin Su said he was, but then began to sob. It took over an hour for Jiang Yanli to calm her down well enough for her to get the story out. As suggested, she had gone to see her mother. She had asked her mother when she had first spoken, and upon receiving the answer – eight months – had admitted she was worried about Jin Song’s delays.

“And then she said – she said – ” Qin Su managed between sobs, “that she was – afraid this might – happen – ”

Jiang Yanli gently rubbed Qin Su’s back and wiped her eyes. “Why?”

Qin Su cried harder as she revealed what her mother had told her. That the man who had raised her was not her father. That she had been conceived during a violent attack. That the man who sired her was none other than Jin Guangshan. She had, completely unknowingly, married her half-brother.

Jiang Yanli felt sick. She could not even imagine how Qin Su felt. She comforted her as best she could until the worst of it was finally past. “What – what should I do, Yanli-jie?”

Squeezing her hands, Jiang Yanli said, “You must tell your husband, A-Su.”

“But he already knows!” Qin Su wailed.

“What?” Jiang Yanli asked, shocked.

“M-Mother said she approached him the day before the wedding – told him – and begged him not to marry me. But he said he must – he had to – because I was already carrying his child – ”

Qin Su dissolved into more sobs. Jiang Yanli held her and, despite all her suspicions about what Jin Guangyao had done, felt terrible for him. What a position for him to have been placed in! She knew that the marriage had been political, although he did seem to have affection for her. To back out of it would have been a disaster, would have led to enormous amounts of hurt feelings and gossip. What’s more, if Qin Su had already been pregnant, and if it had been too late to safely terminate that pregnancy, then he would have ruined her by not marrying her.

He had taken a chance and rolled the dice.

All his questions about Jin Song, she realized. On his development, on his progress, on his growth – he hadn’t been a fretful father. He had been a father terrified every day that something was going to be wrong with his child.

“Then we will speak to him about what to do now,” Jiang Yanli said quietly.

Why hadn’t he ever told Qin Su? Presumably he hadn’t risked a second pregnancy with her – Jiang Yanli didn’t have to even ask to know that Jin Guangyao probably hadn’t touched her since Jin Song had been born. He had probably chalked it up to stress and exhaustion, and until now, Qin Su would have accepted that. Maybe, Jiang Yanli thought, he just hadn’t wanted to hurt her. The news was clearly devastating. She hadn’t needed to know. In a way, it had been a kindness to keep it a secret.

They found Jin Guangyao in the elegance room, and he looked quite alarmed to see his wife, her eyes red and swollen from all the tears she had shed, her hair in disarray. “What is it?”

“I w-went to see my m-mother today,” Qin Su managed. “I was worried about A-Song – he still is not speaking, and I thought – perhaps – something might be wrong. And she told me – she told me – ”

Qin Su didn’t need to keep speaking. Jin Guangyao could clearly read the truth in her face, and he turned away, one hand pressing over his mouth. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t tell you, A-Su. I couldn’t. You were already – there was nothing we could – I had to – ”

His normal eloquence had completely deserted him. Qin Su sank into a chair and wept.

Jiang Yanli wanted to give them some privacy, but she was too worried about how they were reacting to do so. Quietly, she said, “A-Yao – there is no chance of a second pregnancy, I’m sure?” She rarely called him by the affectionate diminutive, even though she had married his older brother. She thought it might help now – would show him that she was involved as his sister, not as another sect leader.

Jin Guangyao swallowed hard. “No. We have not – since I found out – Yanli-jie, is he really delayed? I know so little about children. I had not noticed anything was wrong.”

“He is somewhat behind,” Jiang Yanli said, and saw his fists clench at his sides. “It may not mean anything. He may catch up. Every child is different. But it was worrisome enough to me that I mentioned it to A-Su . . .”

“You have not – told anyone else?” Jin Guangyao managed.

“Of course not,” she soothed him. “I would never, A-Yao. We will figure out what to do together. I understand how much discretion is needed.”

After a moment, Jin Guangyao took a seat himself, sweeping off his hat and then rubbing both hands over his face. “But what can we do?” he said. “Once people start to notice that A-Song is behind – they will start to ask questions – even if they don’t know the truth, they’ll say it’s because of me. Because I’m the son of a whore. I was never fit to be sect leader. They’ll say – ” He choked back a few words and had to stop and steady his voice. “They say the most vile things, Yanli-jie.”

“I know,” she said gently. She had been thinking about it on the walk over. “Why don’t you send him to Lotus Pier for a little while? A-Su as well. I know you’ve been having a lot of political dissension right now – the watchtower project, the chief cultivator decision – just say they needed to get away from it for a little while.”

“But what will that accomplish?” Jin Guangyao said.

“In the long term, perhaps nothing,” Jiang Yanli said. “But it buys us time. I can work with A-Song. Perhaps being around someone his own age more often will help. We can evaluate whether or not there’s actually a problem or whether he’s just a late bloomer.”

“Perhaps we could – exchange him?” Jin Guangyao asked. “Find a child who looks like him – ”

“No!” Qin Su protested. “How could you even say such a thing? He is our son!”

Jin Guangyao was regaining some control, and his voice was steady as he said, “I know that, A-Su, but we need to think about what’s best for him. Do you think growing up at Koi Tower, being mocked and harassed, would be an enjoyable life? We don’t know – don’t know what sort of disabilities he might have, what sort of care he might need – ” He had to stop and steady himself again, but continued, “A quiet life in the country might suit him better.”

“Let’s not make any decisions right now,” Jiang Yanli said. “You’ve both been through a terrible shock. And there is still much we do not know. Exchanging him is a possibility, but I worry that it would be noticed – that the truth would eventually come out. Let me take care of him for a little while, A-Yao. I promise I will do everything I can for him. And I – ” She thought about it for a few moments. “I will give you my full support as chief cultivator. Let us solidify your political position. That way, we may be able to minimize the fallout.”

“I – very well.” Jin Guangyao swallowed hard again, but nodded. “Thank you. I am in your debt.”

She wondered again if he had murdered her husband, had caused the death of her brothers. But that didn’t matter now. There was an innocent child involved, and she had to make decisions based on what would be best for A-Song. “Please do not worry, A-Yao. We are family.”

He took a deep breath and nodded. “A-Su – pack some things. The three of you can leave in the morning.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji was more than a little surprised to find Jiang Yanli returning to Lotus Pier with Qin Su and Jin Song, but accepted her explanation that they needed a little time away from Koi Tower. He suspected that there was something else going on, but also figured that absolutely anybody might want to get away from Koi Tower, so did not argue. Qin Su seemed absolutely exhausted, and Jiang Yanli said gently, “Let us take care of A-Song for a while, so you can get some rest.”

Qin Su agreed, so Lan Wangji scooped Jin Song up and began to carry him around while he did his chores, as he had done with Jin Ling at times. All the juniors wanted to meet the heir to the great Jin sect, and Lan Wangji let them all introduce themselves and fuss over him. He seemed a cheerful baby, if a little quieter than Lan Wangji would have expected.

After dinner that evening, while Wen Yuan and Lan Yong were doing their nightly chores, Lan Wangji approached Jiang Yanli and asked if there was anything he should know.

“They are a little concerned about his development,” Jiang Yanli said. “He still has not begun to speak. Jin-zongzhu is worried about the rumors people will spread if they notice - that they will blame it on his heritage. I told him to let us take care of him for a little while and see if we can work any improvement.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said with a nod. “Very well.”

So for the next week, he carried Jin Song with him during all the lessons. Qin Su, who was not much of a cultivator, seemed somewhat confused at this. “He’s so young, surely he can’t gain anything by attending . . .”

“Children need to be around other children,” Lan Wangji stated.

When Qin Su looked a little nonplussed, Jiang Yanli said gently, “He is right, A-Su. Children, even babies, need to be social, need to have interactions with people beyond just their parents. It helps their minds develop. Was A-Song really so isolated?”

“Guangyao was always so very protective of him,” Qin Su admitted. “There were two nurses who were screened very carefully, but other than them, he never really saw anyone other than when family visited. So much of the gentry in Lanling can be . . . problematic . . . Guangyao really did not want A-Song exposed to them.”

“Well, that is certainly reasonable,” Jiang Yanli said, “but it could also account for some of his delay.” She saw Qin Su’s crestfallen look and said, “Do not be so hard on yourself, A-Su! You are a new mother. Of course there are things you do not know. I’m sure both you and A-Yao always did what you thought was best for him. And if the problem is something so simple, then he will surely catch up quickly.”

Qin Su looked dubious, but Jin Song actually did start to show improvement within the next week. Although he still was not making words, the cadence of his speech changed, mimicking the children around him. Lan Wangji wondered if Qin Su and Jin Guangyao had ever spoken much to their child. He knew that this, too, was a common mistake - parents assuming that because their child did not understand them, they did not need to be spoken to. He himself was not good at this, although fortunately Wen Yuan had been past the point of needing it by the time he had come into Lan Wangji’s care.

So during the day, he carried Jin Song with him during the lessons, and in the evening they let him play with Jin Ling, Wen Yuan, and Lan Yong. Physically, he was no different from any other one-year-old that Lan Wangji had met. He could crawl quite quickly, pull himself into a standing position and use furniture to support himself in order to walk around. He had already taken his first steps, although he was shaky on his feet without support. Naturally, he was not interested in the same sort of play as the older children, but they were very good with him. Wen Yuan in particular was always gentle and kind to him, helping him play with his toys and making sure he didn’t get into any trouble.

About two weeks after his arrival, Lan Wangji woke in the middle of the night with the feeling that things were not quite right.

He could not say what had woken him. A slight noise, a sense of spiritual power that didn’t belong, a shadow passing by his room. He got out of bed and picked up Bichen before edging the flap of canvas aside. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but the feeling of something being wrong did not go away. He left his room and climbed up onto the roof so he could get a better look at all of Lotus Pier.

At first, he did not see anything of concern. There was no movement. He could see the men at the gates, keeping watch. He glanced out at the docks and frowned. Something was amiss, but it took him a moment to place it. There were eight boats docked there, and when he had been out earlier in the day, there had only been seven.

He turned back to the interior of Lotus Pier, and then, he saw it - just a tiny glimpse of movement, someone clad all in dark blue or gray to blend in with the shifting shadows. He jumped down from the roof and followed, staying silent. Whoever it was, they were very good. The question was, who were they here for?

Somehow, he was not surprised to see them heading for the guest house where Qin Su and Jin Song were staying. He ducked around behind them and quietly eased aside one of the canvas flaps so he could enter the room. Both Qin Su and Jin Song were sound asleep and unharmed.

He burst out the guest house door and flung three men back with a wave of spiritual power from Bichen. They hit assorted buildings with thuds and crashes, and that woke up the rest of Lotus Pier.

There were many attackers, perhaps over a dozen. Lan Wangji beat them back more than once while waiting for reinforcements. From inside the guest house, he heard Jin Song crying. He glanced behind himself more than once to make sure that they were still safe, that nobody was trying to get to them from the back. Qin Su had grabbed Jin Song from his cradle and was huddled in the center of the room with him in her arms.

It was difficult to keep an eye on them behind him and fight the men in front of him at the same time. He took two small wounds, and then there was a blinding flash of purple lightning, and one of the attackers was dragged backwards by Zidian. Jiang Shulian and several of the other high-ranking disciples charged onto the field, and within moments, it was over.

“You have him?” Lan Wangji asked Jiang Yanli.

She nodded, and Zidian tightened further around the man, drawing a groan. She turned to the guest house and called out, “A-Su, are you all right?”

“I’m f-fine,” Qin Su managed. “A-Song - A-Song is fine, we were just - ”

“Mama,” Jin Song wailed, and Qin Su burst into tears.

Several of the women went in to comfort her and the baby. Lan Wangji turned back to the man that Jiang Yanli had wrapped in Zidian. “Who sent you?”

The man shook his head.

Jiang Yanli twisted her wrist. Zidian tightened even more, and he gave a gasping wheeze of pain.

“Who sent you?” Lan Wangji asked again.

“B-Bai - Bai Feng - ”

The name meant nothing to Lan Wangji. He gave Jiang Yanli a questioning look, and she said, “One of the sect leaders who has been quite adamant about Jin-zongzhu not deserving the position of chief cultivator.” She gave her wrist another snap, and Zidian coiled back around her wrist. “Jiang Shulian, please take this man into custody and delegate men to take care of the bodies. I must immediately alert Jin-zongzhu to what has occurred. A-Zhan - ”

Lan Wangji nodded. “I will stay with her and the child.”

Jiang Yanli took a moment to give Qin Su a comforting embrace before heading back to her own rooms. Lan Wangji watched her go and felt proud of her. Her golden core had truly grown remarkably, and she had wielded Zidian with such precision. He settled down in Qin Su’s room and made some tea to calm her down. Before long, she and the baby were both asleep again.

When morning came, Lan Wangji left her in the care of some of the Jiang disciples and went to wake Wen Yuan and Lan Yong for the day. They set about their chores, and he went to check in with Jiang Yanli. He suspected, yet again, that there might be more to this than she had told him, but he didn’t press her on the issue. She would tell him when the time was right.

Jin Guangyao arrived the next morning, and he had clearly pushed quite hard to do so, as he nearly collapsed with exhaustion as soon as he got there. Jiang Yanli gently scolded him for riding the sword so hard, and made him lie down with his wife and child to rest. Several hours later, he got back up, and found Lan Wangji at the lessons.

“A-Su has given me the account of things,” he said, and swept his arms around in a low bow. “I am forever in your debt, Hanguang-Jun. You saved the life of my wife and son.”

Lan Wangji returned the bow. “There is no need for such thanks. All the residents of Lotus Pier are under my protection.”

“I’ve spoken to Jiang-zongzhu,” Jin Guangyao said. “She said they may stay for now, while I am taking care of things.”

Lan Wangji didn’t ask for details. He knew how ruthless Jin Guangyao could be even when it wasn’t deserved; he did not need or want details on what he would do to the people who had attempted to murder his son. So he merely nodded in response. 

Jin Guangyao stayed for two days, and seemed delighted at how much Jin Song had already improved. He looked like he was going to cry when Jin Song called him baba for the first time. Reluctantly, he tore himself away to return to Koi Tower with the surviving assassin in tow, promising that he would be back for a visit soon.

Over the next few weeks, they heard in bits and pieces about what happened next, about how Jin Guangyao, with the full support of both of his sworn brothers, razed the Bai sect to the ground. It turned out, Lan Wangji learned, that they had been one of the main remaining opponents to both the watchtower project and Jin Guangyao’s ascension to Chief Cultivator. Both of those things were approved within the next week.

Lan Wangji found Jiang Yanli in the ancestral shrine late at night, staring up at the plaques with her brother’s names. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“As all right as I ever am,” she said, and he nodded. “I was just thinking about what you said back then. People in Jin Guangyao’s way have a tendency to die.”

Lan Wangji nodded again, then gave a slight shrug. “This one I do not feel sorry for. To try to assassinate a man’s wife and child - what else could they expect?”

Jiang Yanli stood and said, abruptly, “Walk with me.”

“Very well.” Lan Wangji fell into step beside her. They went through Lotus Pier and into the kitchen, where she began to make them tea. He watched her, frowning, as she did so, seeming agitated. “Would you like me to shield the room?”

“Yes, please,” she said, so he did so. “I do not think Bai-zongzhu hired the assassins. I think Jin-zongzhu did.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes widened. “You think he would risk his own wife and child?”

“I do. In fact, I think it would have been advantageous to him if they had succeeded. A-Song’s delays - he is more concerned about them than I told you. I did promise him I would keep this in confidence, but I think it’s important that you know, given what happened. Qin Changse is not Qin Su’s father, as she always thought. She was conceived in an act of rape - by Jin Guangshan.”

The words took Lan Wangji’s breath away. He was so shocked that he could not think of how to reply.

“Just before the wedding, Qin Su’s mother went to Jin Guangyao and told him the truth, begged him not to go through with it. But to back out would have been politically disastrous for him, and Qin Su was already carrying his child. So he married her and said nothing. But as soon as A-Song started showing delays . . .”

“But to kill him,” Lan Wangji said. “To kill his own child. Surely even he could never do such a thing.”

Jiang Yanli looked away. “I don’t know, A-Zhan . . . I just don’t know. Maybe he knew you would save them. I just can’t stop thinking about the pattern. That Bai-zongzhu was just one more obstacle that has been removed from Jin Guangyao’s path.”

Lan Wangji let out a breath. “I will write to my brother,” he said, “and ask him for the details of what happened with the Bai sect. I can make it seem as if I want to make sure all important players were found, and that Jin-xiao-furen and A-Song are now safe. But it will give us more information on what proof Jin Guangyao had when he pursued them - if the word of the surviving assassin was not enough, which I imagine it might not have been, for many of the gentry. Obviously Bai-zongzhu would have said he was lying.”

“All right. At least that will give us a place to start.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next few weeks were quiet. Lan Wangji continued to carry Jin Song with him to the lessons, and the children continued to play with him. His speech improvement was not a miracle; it happened slowly, in fits and starts. But it did happen. By the time he had been there another month, he had learned a handful of words, his favorite of which was ‘up’, which he would say while tugging at any nearby robe hem.

The response from Lan Xichen was not particularly illuminating. Bai Feng had of course denied everything he had been accused of, but a search of his house had found an incriminating letter he had written. Apparently the purpose had not been to assassinate Jin Song and Qin Su, but to abduct them, so they could be used as leverage to force Jin Guangyao to give up his efforts to become Chief Cultivator.

That made more sense to Lan Wangji, who had been wondering what the ultimate goal of an assassination would be. But it also left a poor taste in his mouth. Who would keep an incriminating letter like that? Why would they have waited until the child was at Lotus Pier to strike? Could it really have been considered a better opportunity? He didn’t want to be egotistical, but he knew his reputation.

One by one, the obstacles in Jin Guangyao’s path were removed. And Lan Wangji, who had spent six weeks with Jin Song and loved him just as much as he loved the other children, was horrified by the thought that Jin Song could have been considered an obstacle. Even if he was delayed, even if his disabilities were permanent and obvious, he was a child. He should be protected above all else.

But as usual, Jin Guangyao had left no openings, no evidence.

Lan Wangji was still thinking about that when Nie Huaisang arrived for a visit.

It was just a social call, he said cheerfully. Nie Mingjue was in a bad mood about the whole ‘someone tried to kill the son of his sworn brother’ thing and Nie Huaisang wanted to get out of Qinghe for a little while. Where could he find the best alcohol?

Lan Wangji begrudgingly put up with his antics on the first day, and on the second, was surprised to see Nie Huaisang roll out of bed before noon. “It’s a beautiful day!” Nie Huaisang said, laughing, when Lan Wangji questioned that. “Let’s take a boat out onto the lake.”

“I have lessons with the children,” Lan Wangji said.

“Come on, you have lessons every day, but I don’t visit every day. Let’s go pick some lotus seeds.”

Lan Wangji carefully weighed the pros and cons of putting up with Nie Huaisang’s whining all day before he sighed and said, “Very well. I’ll go get A-Yuan - ”

“Ah, no,” Nie Huaisang said. “Let’s not bring the children. Just the two of us, like the old days!”

That made Lan Wangji frown. He studied Nie Huaisang’s guileless, smiling expression, before he nodded and said, “Mn.”

He took a few minutes to explain where he was going to Jiang Yanli, who said she would watch the children, and then headed to the docks. Before long they were out in the center of the lake, with nobody within five hundred yards of them. 

Nie Huaisang had grabbed a dozen lotus seed pods on their way past them as Lan Wangji controlled the boat, and studiously began to remove and shell the seeds. “And that,” he said, “is how to have a private conversation without drawing the attention of absolutely everybody. Honestly, Lan-xiong, do you have any idea how subtle you aren’t? Just showing up at The Unclean Realm for the first time in two years, immediately stating we needed to talk privately, and then shielding the room?” He shook his head. “Honestly.”

Lan Wangji felt his cheeks flush pink. “I was not trying to be subtle.”

“Yes, you were. That’s the appalling part.” Nie Huaisang popped a lotus seed in his mouth. “Because if you hadn’t been, you would have just told me everything that was going on. You didn’t want me to realize there was more to what you were saying than what you said, but you might as well have shouted it from the rooftops.”

With a sigh, Lan Wangji said, “Is there a point to this?”

“You know,” Nie Huaisang said, busily chewing, “I thought you were probably on Jin Guangyao’s side. Not one of his minions - you would never stoop so low - but your brother adores him, and I figured Jiang-zongzhu couldn’t help but like him since he was her only ally in keeping A-Ling at Lotus Pier. So when you showed up asking questions about the people who were giving him trouble, I thought, here’s Hanguang-Jun, sweeping in with righteous fury to beat up the people giving san-ge a hard time. But then. Then you asked about the Song of Clarity.”

Lan Wangji, feeling suspicious, said nothing.

“A lot of people seem to forget that I know san-ge better than most. He lived with us for four years at The Unclean Realm. He was like a brother to me. His memory is truly astonishing. I’ve seen him read a piece of paper once and then be able to recite it word for word a month later. When he was spying on Wen Ruohan? He didn’t need to take notes. He could reproduce entire conversations that he’d had with him. There is absolutely no way on this or any other earth he just ‘mixed up’ which song was going to keep my brother from having qi deviation and dropping dead.”

“You’re very casual about this,” Lan Wangji said.

“It’s that or frothing rage,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “I’m trying to keep a level head. It’s not like I didn’t know san-ge held a grudge against da-ge for what happened when he killed Nie Fang. But I don’t think that’s entirely why he did it. I think it was mostly political - he was mad that da-ge wouldn’t support him in his every move, like a good sworn brother should. And I don’t know how much you know about the whole thing with Xue Yang.”

Lan Wangji blinked. “I didn’t even know there was a thing with Xue Yang.”

“Of course you don’t.” Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes. “Although, in your defense, it didn’t affect the Jiang or the Lan so I can see why nobody would have mentioned it to you. Xue Yang showed up at Koi Tower one day and Jin Guangshan made him a disciple. Da-ge was pissed, obviously, because Xue Yang is a homicidal maniac. He demanded Xue Yang be executed for what he did to the Yueyang Chang clan. Jin Guangshan agreed but then changed his mind as soon as da-ge wasn’t looking.  After Jin Guangshan died, da-ge kept giving san-ge a hard time about it. San-ge said that Xue Yang had fucked off and he couldn’t do anything about it, but da-ge didn’t believe him. He thought that san-ge wanted to keep Xue Yang on tap in case he needed any, you know, murdering done.”

“What do you think?” Lan Wangji asked.

“I think san-ge is smart enough not to piss off someone as unstable as Xue Yang,” Nie Huaisang said, “but I also think he wouldn’t want him hanging around all the time, either, so I believe him when he said he left. Anyway, san-ge was pretty pissed about da-ge giving him trouble over it. On its own, it might not have mattered, but . . .”

He fell silent, then popped three more lotus seeds into his mouth.

“But then I thought, why would Lan-xiong care about any of this? He doesn’t stick his nose into other people’s business. There’s one thing and one thing only that Lan-xiong has ever cared about that didn’t wear a blue ribbon, and that’s Wei-xiong. And then I saw the pattern.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. He had known Nie Huaisang wasn’t stupid, but this was more than he would have expected from him.

“And I thought, if Lan-xiong thinks san-ge killed Jin Zixuan, and framed Wei-xiong for it, that would get him involved. But I don’t know why you would think that. Wei-xiong never tried to claim innocence. The Wen remnants willingly turned themselves in and Wen Ning admitted to the crime. This is one of the pieces I’m missing.”

“I can’t fill it in for you,” Lan Wangji admitted. “It’s just a feeling. Zhangjie has it too. The feeling that Wei Ying did not hate Jin Zixuan, that even if he did lose control of Wen Ning, that Jin Zixuan would not have been his target. I can’t explain what Jin Guangyao might have done or how he might have done it. It’s just. As you said. The pattern.”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “I guess you would have said or done something by now if you’d been able to prove the music he was playing for da-ge was harmful.”

“I cannot,” Lan Wangji agreed. “He only could have gotten it from the forbidden section of the library at Cloud Recesses, a place I am not able to go. I thought, if we could find proof of other things he had done, I could take it to xiongzhang. But no matter what we do, we cannot find that proof.”

“Oh, can’t you?” Nie Huaisang smirked. “I guess that’s why you need me.”

Lan Wangji gave him a suspicious look. “Nie-xiong,” he said, “what have you done?”

Nie Huaisang put down the lotus seed pod and took out his fan, flipping it open and waving it lazily. “One of the advantages of being thought soft and unintelligent is that I can do pretty much anything I want. Wander around Koi Tower and poke my nose everywhere. If people catch me, I just say that I’m lost, or pretend I’m drunk, and they roll their eyes and think nothing more of it. Even san-ge doesn’t suspect I’m up to anything, and he caught me once, you know, where I shouldn’t have been. I just told him I was hiding from da-ge, who was mad because I’d been shirking practice, and he laughed it off.”

“What did you find at Koi Tower?” Lan Wangji asked.

“It’s not what I found that’s important. It’s who I found. There’s a locked room that a woman lives in. A prostitute named Sisi.”

Lan Wangji frowned. “She is a prisoner?”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “She was there the night Jin Guangshan was killed.”

Lan Wangji’s breath caught in his throat. “Tell me.”

“She has scars on her face from the time some mistress went after her. It makes her less desirable. She said all the prostitutes that night were like that - older, disfigured, et cetera. They hardly ever got well-paying jobs, but for this one, they were paid generously. They were recruited from all over Lanling and brought out to the country house. The old man was tied to the bed and they were told to service him until he was dead, or else.”

Lan Wangji could not hold back a shudder. “By Jin Guangyao?”

“They never saw him. He was behind a curtain. But yes, fair to say.”

“Why is she imprisoned, though? So she can’t talk?”

Nie Huaisang waved his fan. “She said after the deed was done, they were all getting dressed and leaving the room in ones and twos. She was one of the last to go. When she got out to the hallway, she saw it was covered in blood. The women were being killed as they left. She said there was a man there with a sword, and he lifted it, but then the man behind the curtain said, ‘not her’. And then someone hit her from behind. She woke up in a carriage and she was brought to Koi Tower. She has absolutely no idea why she wasn’t killed. But I do.”

Lan Wangji sighed at Nie Huaisang’s flair for drama, and waited for him to continue.

“See, she doesn’t even know where she is, or who died that night, and she certainly doesn’t know that Jin Guangyao was involved and it might not matter if she did. But I asked her, did she ever know a boy named Meng Yao, and she said she did. His mother, Meng Shi, worked at the same brothel as she did when she was younger. She said she always felt bad for Meng Yao, who was viciously bullied by the other ladies, and tried to look out for him. He must have recognized her that night, and didn’t want to kill her after the kindness she had showed him, during a time when so few other people did.”

“So he imprisoned her instead.”

“Yes. But honestly, she doesn’t seem to mind that much. All her meals are provided. The room is comfortable. She’s allowed to request things like painting and sewing supplies. Compared to life as a disfigured prostitute, she’s probably grateful for the change.”

“Fair enough.” Lan Wangji shook his head and murmured, “How ironic.”

“What is?”

“Jin Guangyao has done horrible things. At the very least, he murdered his father, and in such a disgusting manner. Yet the thing that has tripped him up, the thing that has allowed us to find evidence of what he’s done, was that he showed mercy to a woman who was kind to him. It’s just . . .”

Nie Huaisang shrugged. “Pardon me if I don’t feel sorry for san-ge. He tried to kill my brother.”

“No, I know that. I’m not asking you to. I’m just saying that nothing is ever black and white anymore, and that it seems a cruel irony that Jin Guangyao is going to be brought down by such a thing.”

“Well, that’s if it’s enough to bring him down, because it won’t be,” Nie Huaisang said. “Mercy or no mercy, he’ll kill her if he thinks she’s going to speak up. That’s not even going into whether or not the gentry would believe her. And even if they do, she never actually saw Jin Guangyao and I’m sure he would just claim that he was a hundred miles away when it happened.”

Lan Wangji sighed. “This is true. I’m not even sure it’s enough to bring it to my brother. He has been adamant that Jin Guangyao could not have been involved in his father’s death.”

Nie Huaisang gave a grimace and flipped his fan shut. “Poor Xichen-ge. This is going to be very hard for him no matter how it plays out.”

“I know,” Lan Wangji said.

“Don’t give up, though. I’ll keep digging.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Zhangjie is aware of everything and has supported me. She thinks that perhaps Jin Guangyao hired the men who came here, so he could have an excuse to remove Bai-zongzhu from his opposing position.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyebrows went up. “And risk his own child like that?”

Lan Wangji was not about to tell Nie Huaisang about Qin Su’s parentage. That would damage her reputation and have a world of consequences for Jin Song. For now, he would keep that to himself. “I was here.”

That made Nie Huaisang laugh. “I suppose that’s true. Not much of a risk with the great Hanguang-Jun protecting them. All right. I’ll look into that as well.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji told Jiang Yanli everything that Nie Huaisang had said, although he didn’t mention Nie Huaisang roasting him for being terrible at subtlety. “He’s going to make some inquiries into what happened to Bai-zongzhu,” he said, “as well as the attempting poisoning of Yu Zixia.”

“I wish I believed that Sisi’s word would be enough,” Jiang Yanli said with a sigh, “but I know he’s right and that it won’t be.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed. “Did you know about this issue with Xue Yang?”

“I heard about it, back when Jin Guangshan was still alive,” Jiang Yanli said. “It was discussed at a cultivation conference. Nie-zongzhu was furious over the whole thing, especially after Jin Guangshan went back on his word to have Xue Yang executed. I didn’t hear anything more about it afterwards – I guess I figured that Jin Guangyao would have gone ahead and executed him, since Nie-zongzhu was so adamant about it.”

“I wonder where he is now,” Lan Wangji said. “But I suppose that is a small matter.”

“Is it, though?” Jiang Yanli tapped her finger against her mouth. “I’m thinking about what you said Nie-gongzi said about him . . . that Jin Guangyao might keep him around in case he needed dirty work done. The story Sisi told . . . there was another man in it. Jin Guangyao didn’t kill the prostitutes himself; somebody else did. That seems like it might have been right up Xue Yang’s alley.”

“A good point,” Lan Wangji said. “He would not have trusted that to just anybody.”

Jiang Yanli nodded and went back to chopping vegetables. “Did Nie-gongzi have any ideas about what . . .” Her voice trembled slightly, but then steadied. “What might have happened with A-Xian and Zixuan?”

“No. Not exactly. But he wanted me to ask you – there were details of the situation he did not know. And I realized I did not know them, either. Why did Jin Zixun arrange such an ambush? And why was Jin Zixuan there? I cannot imagine he would have approved.”

Feeling tears sting at her eyes, Jiang Yanli said, “No, he would not have. He had promised me A-Xian would be safe, that he would be able to meet A-Ling, at least once. He had no idea what Jin Zixun was planning. I can only imagine he must have found out and tried to intervene.”

“Then how did he find out,” Lan Wangji murmured. It was clearly not a question he expected Jiang Yanli to have an answer to. “And Jin Zixun?”

“He was convinced A-Xian had cursed him,” Jiang Yanli said. “Some curse called hundred holes. I found out from Jin-furen later. Jin Guangshan had tried everything he could to cure it, but they couldn’t. Jin Zixun thought he could force A-Xian to remove it, or perhaps that killing him would – what?”

“I wish I had known this earlier,” Lan Wangji said. “Nobody mentioned it at the time – I suppose nobody outside the Jin sect knew. But hundred holes – there are very specific ways to remove it. And one of the primary methods is to attempt to reflect it back upon the caster. They would have tried that, probably more than once, and although they clearly were not successful, even a failed attempt will still show physical evidence – a reflection of the curse upon the caster.”

“You mean whoever cursed him would bear the marks of the curse?” Jiang Yanli asked, and he nodded. She bit her lip and said, “Then we know it was not Jin Guangyao. He would never have taken such a risk, and I’m sure he would have thoroughly researched it beforehand.”

“I agree,” Lan Wangji said. “He is not known for doing his own dirty work, in any case. And I doubt it was Xue Yang, either – he was not with the Jin sect at the time that this occurred. Which means he might have a second accomplice.”

“Or,” Jiang Yanli said, “somebody cursed Jin Zixun for unrelated reasons, such as the fact that he was an absolutely wretched human being, and Jin Guangyao took advantage of that.”

“A fair possibility,” Lan Wangji said, “but it’s still an avenue of inquiry. I will let Nie-xiong know.” He saw a slight smile on Jiang Yanli’s face. “What?”

“I’ve just never heard you call him that before,” Jiang Yanli said. “Never heard you use that term of address with anyone, actually.”

“He calls me Lan-xiong, so it is polite to be reciprocal,” Lan Wangji said, and Jiang Yanli gave him an amused look. More quietly, Lan Wangji said, “When he realized Jin Guangyao was a villain, he thought right away that perhaps Wei Ying might have been innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. He is the only person besides the two of us who has ever thought that before. I’m . . . grateful to him for that. Is that odd?”

“No.” Jiang Yanli reached out and caressed his cheek. “No, A-Zhan, that is not odd at all. I’m grateful to him, too.”

They stood in comfortable silence for a few moments.

Finally, Jiang Yanli said, “Let him know about the curse, and then we will wait and see what he finds.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Mn.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nie Huaisang stayed several more days, to further lend credence to the appearance that it was a social visit. He promised to be in touch frequently. He had birds he could trust to carry messages for him (“Of course you do,” Lan Wangji said) so they might not see him for a while but they would know what he was doing. They should destroy the messages after they received them. (“I know that,” Lan Wangji said, annoyed that Nie Huaisang was explaining espionage to him like he was a child.)

They didn’t get much news for the first month. Nie Huaisang wrote once to say that there was absolutely nothing he could find on Bai-zongzhu that might indicate he had not, in fact, ordered the kidnapping of Jin Song. This didn’t particularly surprise Lan Wangji. That was one of the most heinous, if not the most heinous, of Jin Guangyao’s crimes. He would have been especially careful. Another letter came a few weeks later saying that the theoretical poisoning of Yu Zixia was another dead end. He suspected that a particular maid had been involved. Yu Zixia had been viciously abusive to her, so she would have had reason to help, and she had ‘left her position’ the day after Yu Zixia had left for Lotus Pier. Whether Jin Guangyao had killed her, or whether he had paid her generously to go live in the country and not answer any questions, Nie Huaisang couldn’t tell. Either way, there was no sign of her now.

Only a week later, Nie Huaisang sent another letter. This one was brief. ‘Jin Guangyao knows somebody inquired at the brothel - the madam reported it back to him. He doesn’t know who it was - in fact, you’re not the only ones to do so, as more than one of his enemies would have loved to prove him complicit in his father’s death. Still, be extra careful.’

“At least he doesn’t know it was me,” Jiang Yanli said, when Lan Wangji told her this. Even so, he couldn’t sleep for three days out of worry.

Three months after his first visit, Nie Huaisang arrived again, this time with someone Lan Wangji had never met before, wearing a metal mask over his face. He looked to be in his early teens, although from his bony limbs, it was clear that he was malnourished. Between that and the mask, it was difficult to judge his age. He had his arms folded over his stomach and wouldn’t look directly at either Jiang Yanli or Lan Wangji, only bowing and then staring at the floor.

“This is Mo Hao, courtesy Xuanyu,” Nie Huaisang said. “He’s the son of Jin Guangshan and Mo Ya, a lady from the gentry he favored for a time.”

Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli exchanged a glance, and then Jiang Yanli smiled warmly and said, “It’s nice to meet you. May I call you A-Yu?”

“If you want,” Mo Xuanyu said, staring at the floor.

“Perhaps you could have someone show him around?” Nie Huaisang said. “Lotus Pier is so beautiful, I’m sure he would enjoy a tour.”

Seeing that Nie Huaisang obviously wanted a chance to discuss Mo Xuanyu without him hearing what was said, Jiang Yanli summoned two of the juniors and asked them to show the guest around. Once he was gone, she said, “He looks somewhat frail.”

“He is. His mother died several years ago and he’s been living with her family, and they view him as a burden and are overall quite unkind to him. He definitely has the ability to be a cultivator. Apparently – this is how I found out about it, actually – just before he died, Jin Guangshan was talking about bringing him to Koi Tower and legitimizing him.”

Jiang Yanli grimaced. “No wonder Jin Guangyao killed him,” she murmured. “He obviously meant to declare Mo Xuanyu his heir if he could not bring A-Ling back, since his mother was at least from the gentry, even if he was still a bastard.”

With a nod, Nie Huaisang said, “I went to check on him to see if there had been any contact, you know, see if Jin Guangyao had murdered him in his sleep or anything.”

“Clearly, he has not,” Lan Wangji said.

“Yeah. And I would have left him there? But he really should be trained, and his mother’s family was very cruel to him. He’s already picked up a number of neuroses, like that mask he wears to keep people from seeing his face. He either can’t or won’t explain to me why he wears it. Anyway, I figured, you two seemed to basically be running an orphanage – ”

“That is not how I would describe it,” Lan Wangji said.

“ – maybe you two could take care of him and see to his training.”

Jiang Yanli was smiling, clearly amused. “And what did his mother’s family say about that?”

“Nothing. I didn’t tell them I was taking him, I just did.” Nie Huaisang waved his fan. “Why waste breath arguing with them? They didn’t want him or deserve him.”

“Fair enough,” Jiang Yanli said. “Any progress in the other matters?”

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “Not yet.”

Mo Xuanyu was an interesting addition to Lotus Pier. He was, as Nie Huaisang had warned them, an odd child. He did not speak much and refused to let anyone see his face. But he was bright and clever, soaking up cultivation like a sponge. If it bothered him to be in lessons full of younger children, it didn’t show. Most of the concerns Lan Wangji had about him was because he was extremely anxious, shying away when people touched or even came too close to him, chewing his fingernails ragged and apologizing profusely in class if he could not immediately master an exercise.

But they gave him space, trying not to push him to be comfortable relaxing around them, only showing him that they would always treat him with respect and kindness. It helped little by little. He watched as they split chores amongst everyone evenly, with the high-ranking disciples and even Jiang Yanli herself doing her fair share. He stopped flinching as he learned the touches would be gentle. He studied them as they chided Lan Yong for drawing a rude picture of Sect Leader Ouyang but his only punishment was sweeping all the floors of the walkways.

It would take time, Lan Wangji thought. Just as he himself had needed time to adjust to the Yunmeng Jiang, to learning that discipline was not always harsh, so would Mo Xuanyu. He would learn.

The next time Nie Huaisang arrived, he fooled around for the first day and indulged himself on good liquor and lotus seeds. Then again on the second day, they took the boat out onto the lake.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji scowled. “Deliver the news in whichsoever manner will make more sense.”

Amused, Nie Huaisang said, “None of it’s really good news anyway. I talked with a bunch of people who had known Jin Zixun back then. Pretended to forget who he was so they had to ‘remind me’ by telling me all about what had happened to him. The first thing I found out was that he was cursed about eight months before he died. So I think we can safely conclude that Wei-xiong’s not the one who cursed him. He probably forgot Jin Zixun even existed a week after he left Lanling for the last time.”

Lan Wangji could not help but give a snort. “Most likely, yes. He certainly would not have cared to curse him months later.”

“Unsurprisingly, the suspect pool is pretty large because pretty much everyone who ever met Jin Zixun hated his guts.” Nie Huaisang waved his fan lazily. “Even the people who hung out with him didn’t really think Wei-xiong had done it, but he was fixated on it since Wei-xiong made such a fool of him after the crowd hunt. But we know it wasn’t anybody in the Jin sect. After the first few attempts to reflect the spell back failed, Jin Guangshan made every member of the sect prove that they didn’t have curse marks.”

“Even Jin Guangyao?”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “Even Jin Guangyao. The only exception, in fact, was Jin Zixuan. Which probably pissed san-ge off, that he had to strip and prove himself and Jin Zixuan didn’t. But that’s really neither here nor there. Just one more thing on a list of offenses committed by Jin Guangshan that would be longer than my leg.”

“So if it wasn’t Wei Ying, and it wasn’t anybody in the Jin sect . . .”

“Who knows? The possibilities are endless. Jin Zixun pissed people off just by breathing. And whoever did it sure as hell isn’t going to admit it now. We can’t strip everyone he ever met. The whole thing was just an excuse for Jin Guangshan anyway. He didn’t care that Jin Zixun was cursed; he just wanted the Stygian Tiger Amulet.”

Lan Wangji sighed. “Then another dead end.”

“Yeah.” Nie Huaisang waved his fan in silence for a few moments. “We have two pieces of evidence. Sisi, whose word won’t be believed, and the whistle san-ge gave me that plays the incorrect Song of Clarity, which we can’t prove was intentional. I was thinking about this most of yesterday, and I thought - we can’t prove it was intentional, but can we prove that it was harmful?”

“What do you mean?” Lan Wangji asked, frowning.

“If you played that version, the one Jin Guangyao was playing, with malicious spiritual energy, and it caused harm - could we bring that to your brother? Would that be enough?”

Lan Wangji thought about it for a minute. Even played with malicious spiritual energy, the song would have to be specifically designed to do harm in order for anything to happen. So if they could prove that it did, then it had to have come from somewhere. He nodded. “Yes. I believe so. But how would we prove such a thing?”

Nie Huaisang shrugged. “Test it.”

“On who?”

“You’d have to test it on me, I guess,” Nie Huaisang said. “I mean, if san-ge was playing it for da-ge for months and he didn’t die, you could play it for me for a few times and see what happens.”

Lan Wangji’s frown deepened. “I do not wish to harm you.”

“Well, thank you,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “I don’t really wish to be harmed. But we’re kind of at a dead end. We need to get into the library at Cloud Recesses and this is the only way I’ve come up with to do it.”

They sat in silence for several long minutes. Nie Huaisang peeled lotus seeds and ate them while Lan Wangji stared out over the water. In the months - well over a year now - that had passed since he had first heard of Jin Guangyao playing the warped version of the Song of Clarity, he and Jiang Yanli had come no closer to finding any evidence of all the people he had harmed. Nie Huaisang had found things that were circumstantial but nothing concrete. But the idea of using his guqin to purposefully harm a friend - he recoiled from the very thought.

“Listen,” Nie Huaisang finally said, “san-ge isn’t going to stop. He’s been smart enough not to go after my brother again right away after he got caught red-handed, but there’s no guarantee he won’t eventually. And that’s to say nothing of what he would do to us if he found out we suspected these things.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji dipped his head. “Very well. But we cannot do this here. There’s too much risk of someone overhearing. We can’t go out on the lake frequently enough to test the spell without drawing attention.”

“Yeah.” Nie Huaisang flipped his fan shut, then open again. “I’ll go home in a few days. Then in two weeks, I’ll meet you in Yiling.”

“You want to go to the Burial Mounds?” Lan Wangji presumed.

“Can you think of a better place? It’s isolated. Nobody ever goes there, so there’s no risk of anyone seeing us together or overhearing.”

“It feels . . . blasphemous, somehow,” Lan Wangji said.

“I don’t think Wei-xiong would mind,” Nie Huaisang said. “If we’re right, and san-ge had something to do with his death, or the death of the Wen remnants . . . I imagine he’d be happy to let us use his place to figure out if we could prove it.”

Lan Wangji had to agree, so he nodded again. “All right.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Not surprisingly, Jiang Yanli was not an enormous fan of the idea of Lan Wangji testing the twisted Song of Clarity on Nie Huaisang. He reassured her that what Jin Guangyao had been doing was designed to cause slow, small amounts of damage, and that it would be nothing that Nie Huaisang would not recover from in a few days. She still didn’t like it, but she accepted it, and told him to be careful.

Similarly, he didn’t like leaving Lotus Pier unguarded, particularly not while Jin Song and Qin Su were still there. Fortunately for his peace of mind, a few days after Nie Huaisang left, Qin Su declared she was going back to Koi Tower. Her son’s speech had much improved. She knew now that he needed socialization among other children, so there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t continue to improve. So much time away from her husband would draw questions and gossip. It was time for them to go home.

Lan Wangji wasn’t in love with that idea, either, but there wasn’t much he could do to gainsay it. Surely Jin Guangyao would not make another attempt to hurt them so soon after the first - and that was assuming that he had, which Lan Wangji still felt uncertain about. Jiang Yanli said she would check in on them frequently, and made Qin Su promise to tell her if she had any worries or concerns about Jin Song’s development - before she told her husband. Qin Su seemed to think Jiang Yanli asked for this so they could prevent Jin Guangyao from being upset if possible, and Jiang Yanli let her believe it.

So with them gone, and the extremely competent disciples of Yunmeng Jiang on high alert even if they weren’t entirely sure of why, Lan Wangji told all the children to behave while he was gone and left for Yiling.

Nie Huaisang was, apparently, a man of many talents, but cultivation still wasn’t one of them. They agreed to meet at an inn so he would not have to go into the Burial Mounds alone. Even though Wei Wuxian had now been gone for years, there were still pockets of resentful energy and fierce corpses roaming the area. Lan Wangji did not blame him for feeling uneasy about going by himself. So they met up and headed in together.

Once they were on the road, and safely far away from any prying ears, Lan Wangji said, “I will play the spell for you once a day for three days. Nie-zongzhu was only hearing it once every two weeks, so that should be more than sufficient.”

“Seems reasonable,” Nie Huaisang agreed.

He seemed a little surprised when they got to the remains of the village that Wei Wuxian and the Wen remnants had been living in. “I knew the other disciples had come and wrecked the place,” he said, “but I hadn’t realized how much there was to wreck.” He gently touched the burned out rubble of what had once been a home and said, “Wei-xiong really built a life here, didn’t he.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, his throat aching. It was harder than he had anticipated, coming back to this place. In his mind’s eye, he could see the villagers walking around, see Wei Wuxian tending to the crops and joking around with Wen Qing, hear Wen Yuan’s sweet laughter as he hugged Wei Wuxian’s leg. 

He pushed the emotions away, and they went into the cave. Nie Huaisang sat on the ground and said, “All right, let’s get this over with.”

“You probably won’t feel any different today.” Lan Wangji sat down across from him and took out his guqin. His hands hovered over it for a long moment as he tried to will himself to play, tried to picture the malicious energy he needed to summon and force into the body of his friend.

Nie Huaisang looked at him in sympathy. “Don’t think of it as malicious,” he said. “Think of it as, as destructive. The kind of force you wield when you’re in battle. You’ve used your guqin in battle loads of times.”

“Never to fight a friend,” Lan Wangji said.

“I know. But I’ll be okay. And it has to be done.”

Lan Wangji sighed but nodded, and began to play. The entire piece from start to finish was about fifteen minutes - and the section that mattered only about thirty seconds. Such an insidious, devious way of causing someone harm. He could hardly even fathom how someone could come up with such an idea to begin with, let alone commit the crime.

“How do you feel?” he asked, when he was done.

Nie Huaisang shrugged. “Fine. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. You’re sure you can only play it once a day?”

Lan Wangji nodded. “I do not want to risk doing too much harm, too quickly.” He realized this was perhaps a mistake. Now he had to spend three days in the Burial Mounds with Nie Huaisang for company.

Nie Huaisang saw the look on his face and laughed. “I’ll leave you alone. I brought some things to do. You can meditate in your corner and I won’t bother you.”

Feeling inexplicably touched that Nie Huaisang was not taking offense at this, Lan Wangji nodded. “Mn.”

They moved outside, since the cave was dark and depressing. Nie Huaisang began to paint the landscape, as bleak as it was, and Lan Wangji meditated. He found the companionship surprisingly pleasant, as it often was with Jiang Yanli - the two of them sitting together but not needing to fill the space between them with useless noise and words.

As dark fell, Lan Wangji gathered firewood, and Nie Huaisang took out some supplies and produced a surprisingly passable meal. He laughed when he saw Lan Wangji’s face. “You didn’t think da-ge did any cooking, did you?”

“That doesn’t mean you do,” Lan Wangji pointed out.

“No. I learned from san-ge, actually.” Nie Huaisang looked away, stirring his soup. “He knew a lot of what you might call hearth skills, when he came to the Unclean Realm, that he had learned at the brothel. He’s an excellent cook, and he taught me, because he hoped I might do more than complain about it when I was hungry.”

Lan Wangji said nothing.

After a long silence, Nie Huaisang said. “He was always like a brother to me. It makes his betrayal so hard to accept. If I had loved him less, maybe I would be able to hate him less, too.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Nie-xiong . . . may I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Nie Huaisang said.

“The idea that Wei Ying might have been innocent . . . that Jin Guangyao might have been involved in Jin Zixuan’s death . . . it seems like a leap of logic, but one you made easily.”

“That’s more of a statement than a question,” Nie Huaisang pointed out.

“How did you arrive at the conclusion?”

Nie Huaisang shrugged. “I mean, first, like I said, I was looking for a reason that you might have gotten involved. Which meant there was a possibility that it had something to do with Wei-xiong. But after that, it was just . . . just Wei-xiong. The type of person he was.”

“Most people never seemed to see that person.”

“That’s true.” Nie Huaisang took a drink of his tea. “Wei-xiong and I were friends. But after what happened at Lotus Pier, after what Wen Chao did to him, he was different. You knew that, everyone knew that. He walked around like he was bleeding to death from a wound that nobody could see or touch. Even after the Sunshot Campaign, that didn’t change. I went to see him once, you know,” he added, and Lan Wangji shook his head. “A couple months after the last battle. He was drunk the whole time. He flinched when I got too close to him. His laugh was fake and we couldn’t talk about any of the useless, silly things that we had wasted our lives on before the war. Just being around him was so uncomfortable, so I left. I walked away. I didn’t know how to deal with him so I just . . . didn’t. I feel awful about that now.”

Lan Wangji said nothing. He was surprised to hear that Nie Huaisang harbored such regret, so similar to his own, over the way Wei Wuxian had been set apart from them.

“Everything was different after the war,” Nie Huaisang continued, “except that it wasn’t. Not for me. You had to fight on the front lines and take back Cloud Recesses while worrying about your brother and your uncle. Wei-xiong, Jiang-xiong, they both lost so much. It was like everyone I had known when I was young had grown up overnight and left me behind. I felt so silly and useless. But I told myself that it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my problem. I still had friends in the Nie sect. It wasn’t a big deal.

“But then what you told me . . . it made me realize that Jin Guangyao nearly killed my brother and I had no idea. I always thought of myself as clever, you know, and it was a bit of a game to me - making people think I was useless so they would leave me alone and not drag me into things I had no interest in. But I realized how naive and sheltered I had let myself become. Da-ge nearly died . . . was nearly murdered right underneath my nose.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Nie Huaisang shook his head. “I’m sorry, I wandered a bit, didn’t I? I guess my point is, even back then, the things they accused Wei-xiong of surprised me. Even after watching what he said to Jin Zixun at the Floral Banquet, the way he threatened him in front of everyone - I sort of figured Jin Zixun deserved it. But then everything went even more wrong, and I stuck my head in the sand and let other people deal with it. Now Wei-xiong is dead . . . and I feel like I should at least give him the courtesy of thinking of him as the friend I knew, not the monster everyone talks about.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, feeling tears sting at his eyes. “Thank you.”

Nie Huaisang poked at the fire and gave a rueful laugh. “Who would believe what would become of all of us? Thinking back to that first day at Cloud Recesses, all of us listening to your uncle recite those boring principles . . . Wei-xiong, Jiang-xiong, even Jin Zixuan are all dead. Meng Yao murdered his way to the position of Chief Cultivator. You . . . not even part of the Gusu Lan anymore. Somehow that’s the biggest shock. And me. Still in the same place that I was.”

“You are not,” Lan Wangji said. “You are here with me.”

Nie Huaisang glanced up and smiled. “Yeah, I guess that’s true, isn’t it? If I’d told myself in five years I’d be camping out in the Burial Mounds of Yiling with the great Lan-er-gongzi, testing evil magic on myself, I’d have laughed myself sick. What a world we live in now.”

Lan Wangji nodded. For the first time in months, maybe over a year, his hands plucked out Inquiry. But as always, nobody answered.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“How do you feel?” Lan Wangji asked, when he finished playing the incorrect version of the Song of Clarity for Nie Huaisang on the second day.

“No different, really,” Nie Huaisang said, and shrugged. “What if I still don’t show any effects tomorrow? Shouldn’t you keep playing it until I do?”

“We can’t stay here forever,” Lan Wangji said. “Our absences will be noted if they go on too long. The effect is cumulative. Three times should be enough. If it isn’t, maybe we have to accept that we were wrong in our assumptions.”

“We weren’t wrong,” Nie Huaisang said. “I maintain that there’s absolutely no way san-ge could’ve made a mistake like that.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, because he didn’t know what else to say. Nie Huaisang did seem fine that night, although perhaps a bit less talkative than usual, poking at the fire in glum silence. But that might or might not have anything to do with malicious spiritual energy.

The next day, it rained, a hard, cold rain. The damp even permeated the cave, and it took effort to stay warm even near the fire. Lan Wangji played for the third time, focusing on his spiritual power, afraid of using too much, but also afraid of using too little. It was hard to gauge how much Jin Guangyao could have been using. His golden core had never been particularly well developed due to his childhood and he was not a powerful cultivator. It had taken months of playing for it to show effects. But Nie Mingjue was much stronger than Nie Huaisang. Lan Wangji didn’t want to overdo it and cause too much damage. But he also had no idea what they would do if Nie Huaisang still showed no effect.

When he finished playing, he let the last note linger in the air for a few moments. “How - ”

“I’m fine,” Nie Huaisang snapped.

Lan Wangji felt his breath catch in his throat. “You’re bleeding.”

Nie Huaisang slowly lifted a hand to his face, where blood had begun to trickle from his nose.

“Here, let me - ” Lan Wangji began, taking out a clean cloth.

“Don’t touch me!” Nie Huaisang suddenly yelled, slapping Lan Wangji’s hand away with his fan. Then he stopped, looking completely shocked by himself. “Ah - I’m sorry, I didn’t - oh, I feel awfully dizzy all of a sudden - ”

“Put your head down.” Lan Wangji approached again, more cautiously. This time Nie Huaisang let him. He eased Nie Huaisang’s head into a lowered position, pinching his nose shut with the cloth. While Nie Huaisang held it, Lan Wangji took his wrist and measured his pulse. It was a little fast, but not too concerning. His spiritual power was fluctuating wildly, in a way that Lan Wangji had never felt from anybody before.

They sat there for over ten minutes before Nie Huaisang was able to lift his head without almost passing out. “Well, that was entirely unpleasant,” he said, “and I still feel a little shaky. I think I’d like to lie down for a bit.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji helped him lie down and tucked a pillow underneath his head. “I think we have our answer.”

“Yeah. Then let’s go to your brother next. Better to give it a few weeks, though. We don’t want san-ge catching on to how much we’ve been traveling.”

“Can we - ” Lan Wangji looked away. “I know we don’t want to risk Jin Guangyao hurting anybody else. But the timing is poor. Lan-furen . . .”

“Ah, that’s right!” Nie Huaisang said. “She’s due in a few weeks, isn’t she? We don’t want to bother Xichen-ge right now. Anything that stresses him out will stress her out, and we wouldn’t want that to happen. We can wait a few months. I really don’t think san-ge will make another move on da-ge, at least not any time soon. Plus, now that he’s Chief Cultivator, he might not even care about all those old squabbles. Who knows how he thinks? Certainly not me.”

“Nor me,” Lan Wangji said. “But can you keep an eye on the politics? Let me know if people are giving him trouble, so perhaps we can intervene in a situation before he does anything drastic?”

“Sure. That’s not too hard. He’ll probably be all gaga over Xichen-ge’s baby anyway; that’ll keep him distracted. You want to say three months from now? Unless there’s complications, Heavens forbid.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “That sounds good. Thank you.”

“I know how much your brother means to you, Lan-xiong. And I care about him too. This is going to be hard enough for him - let’s not make it any worse than it has to be.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Two weeks later, Lan Wangji received a letter from his brother which had obviously been written in some haste, stating that Yu Zhiyi had given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. They had named her Lan Xing, and he would be happy if Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli came to visit at their soonest opportunity.

One of the good things about no longer being a member of the Lan sect was that the elders could no longer say he wasn’t allowed in Cloud Recesses. He was the second disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang, a clan with whom they were allies. Lan Wangji was still a little reluctant to go, to be honest, but his desire to meet his niece without making his brother travel with a newborn won out.

Lan Xing was absolutely as perfect and adorable as Lan Xichen’s letter had made her sound. Lan Wangji spent hours sitting with them, just staring at her. Lan Xichen was clearly just as enraptured, smiling more brightly than the sun and looking utterly besotted. Lan Wangji was so happy for his brother that it hurt a little. Even Lan Qiren pulling him aside and stiffly informing him that the Lan elders would prefer if he stay inside his guest house and not wander the grounds couldn’t entirely dampen the joy at meeting his brother’s child.

They planned to stay three days, and on the third day, Jin Guangyao arrived with Qin Su and Jin Song. He, too, seemed completely enchanted by the little girl. Lan Wangji watched him play with the baby and remembered how much he had always adored Jin Ling, how much he had loved Jin Song as a baby. How could he believe such a man would order that same son assassinated? He still couldn’t. Jin Guangyao must have simply been putting his faith in the fact that Lan Wangji would protect them.

“I’m glad you’re still here,” Jin Guangyao said, after Yu Zhiyi had left with the baby, who needed a nap. “I have some business to discuss with you, if that’s all right?”

“With me?” Jiang Yanli asked.

“With both of you. Er-ge, you should probably stay as well.” Jin Guangyao looked somber. “There was an incident in Yiling I think you should be aware of.”

“An incident?” Jiang Yanli’s back stiffened.

Jin Guangyao nodded. “For the past two weeks, or thereabouts, there’s been an increase in attacks from fierce corpses. Some local cultivators banded together and tried to get into the Burial Mounds to see if something had happened there. They were attacked by a horde, and only one survived.”

“That’s terrible, A-Yao!” Lan Xichen said, his eyes wide. 

Lan Wangji had to fight not to exchange a glance with Jiang Yanli. Two weeks prior was approximately the point in time when he had been at the Burial Mounds with Nie Huaisang. There had been no fierce corpses then. Had something changed? If so, why? Was Jin Guangyao making this entire story up out of whole cloth? But then, why would he do that?

Jin Guangyao took a deep breath and said, “Rumors are starting to spread that the Yiling Patriarch has returned.”

“He has not,” Lan Wangji said, immediately and automatically.

“I don’t see how you could know that for sure,” Jin Guangyao said, although his voice was polite.

Lan Wangji fought frustration, because Jin Guangyao was right. He wanted to say that he would know if such a thing happened, but how would he? There was no guarantee that Wei Wuxian would seek him out.

Just as politely, Jiang Yanli said, “Xiandu, if my brother had returned, I am certain he would have come back to Lotus Pier right away. He knows that I loved him until the end. If he did return to life, he would be confused, disoriented. He would seek shelter in the familiar.”

“That may be,” Jin Guangyao said, “but the Burial Mounds would also be familiar to him. He would have equal reason to hide there, where he knows he can protect himself. And you are assuming he returned with all his faculties intact, but we could not guarantee that is the case. His time in the afterlife would have changed him. It is impossible to say in what way.”

Lan Wangji stood. “Then I will go to the Burial Mounds myself.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, clearly gearing up to protest.

“If Wei Ying has returned, I will find him,” Lan Wangji said. 

“Hanguang-Jun, I know you cared deeply for Wei-gongzi,” Jin Guangyao said, his voice still so diplomatic that Lan Wangji wanted to shove a teacup up his nose, “but please keep in mind that what you find there might not be the Wei-gongzi you remember. Are you prepared to do whatever you must, if you find a ghost or a - ”

“I do not need you to tell me that,” Lan Wangji said, struggling to stay polite. “My education in such matters was quite thorough.”

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen said again, this time in a more reproving tone. 

Jin Guangyao’s jaw had set in a firm line, and Lan Wangji realized a beat too late that his comment could easily be read as a slight against Jin Guangyao’s background, his lack of education, which Lan Wangji knew was no fault of his own. He forced himself to stop and take a deep breath, to mind his words more carefully. “I apologize, Xiandu. That was not meant as a slight against you. Only a defense of myself. I am prepared to do what must be done, no matter what it is.”

“Please don’t think on it any further,” Jin Guangyao said, with a smile that made Lan Wangji wonder if he had just moved up a few spaces on Jin Guangyao’s hit list. “I understand this news is very upsetting for you.”

Lan Wangji merely nodded. “Zhangjie, we should depart as soon as possible. I will accompany you back to Lotus Pier and then head to Yiling from there.”

“Of course,” Jiang Yanli said.

Jin Guangyao said, “I’m sorry to have ruined such a joyous occasion with this news. It merely seemed to me that it should be dealt with as soon as possible.”

“It’s fine,” Lan Wangji said. “We would have wished to know as soon as possible. Xiongzhang, please apologize to Lan-furen for our abrupt departure. We will be in touch.”

They said their goodbyes and went to get their things and their children. They did not speak about the issue again until they were nearly an hour from Cloud Recesses, at which point Jiang Yanli said, “I’m sure you would have mentioned it to me if there had been fierce corpses everywhere when you went to the Burial Mounds. What you and Nie-gongzi did there - could it have caused the problems that Jin Guangyao is describing?”

“No,” Lan Wangji said. “Nothing in that song should have caused the dead to respond. It would only have had an effect on the living.”

“Then something else is happening,” Jiang Yanli said.

“Mn.”

They walked in silence for a few moments.

“Do you - really think it’s him?” Jiang Yanli asked, her voice trembling slightly.

Lan Wangji took a moment before replying, trying to put the right words in order. “No,” he finally said, and her shoulders slumped. “If it were possible that Wei Ying had survived, or if there was any way for him to have come back, it would not have taken three years for this to happen. Someone is doing something, or Jin Guangyao is lying, or both.”

After a moment, Jiang Yanli nodded. “Then we will find out. I will write to Nie-gongzi to let him know what is happening. Perhaps he will have some ideas.”

Lan Wangji nodded. They walked for a little while longer, and then Wen Yuan asked a question about Lan Xing, and they talked of more pleasant things during the trip to Caiyi Town, where they got on the boat back to Yunmeng.

He was more than a little apprehensive about the trip, still feeling like this might somehow be a trick to get him out of Lotus Pier so something terrible could happen there. Surely Jin Guangyao couldn’t intend anything too nefarious, or he would not have made the matter known to Lan Xichen. Still, he spoke with Jiang Shulian and the other disciples about being on alert while he was gone.

Jin Guangyao had not been lying.

Even several miles out from the burial mounds, Lan Wangji began to encounter the fierce corpses. He dispatched them without a problem, and rode the sword the rest of the way. When he touched down in the center of the Burial Mounds, by the cave, everything was quiet. He could hear stirrings in the forest, and had no doubt that there were fierce corpses nearby. But he saw no sign of Wei Wuxian, either current or in the recent past.

He took out his guqin and played Inquiry, but the clamor he received in response was too much to interpret even for him. Someone had stirred up all the spirits, all the resentful energy, and let it run wild. But who? And why?

Frustrated, he headed back to Lotus Pier, wondering what was going on.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli listened to Lan Wangji’s description of his trip to Yiling while she made tea, frowning to herself. She could believe that if Wei Wuxian had actually come back, he might have retreated to the Burial Mounds, might have been frightened and confused enough to bring back his wall of fierce corpses as a defense. But if that was what had happened, he would have been in his cave, and Lan Wangji said he was not. What, then, could be happening?

“I still don’t know much about cultivating with resentful energy,” she said. “Could anyone have done this, as long as they were somewhat versed in it? Or is this something only A-Xian could have done?”

“I think only a handful of people could do it, Wei Ying having been one,” Lan Wangji said. “To stir up that much resentful energy would have taken a lot of power. But he is not the only one, particularly if whoever was doing it had some of the fragments of the amulet. I assume that the Jin sect had at least some, although it’s difficult to say how much.”

“Mm hm.” Jiang Yanli poured the tea, deep in thought. “But again, it’s something Jin Guangyao would not, probably could not, do himself. Xue Yang?”

“It seems likely,” Lan Wangji said with a nod. “He has used yin iron before, for what he did to the Yueyang Chang. It’s probable that this is why Jin Guangshan was interested in him. Resentful energy is poisonous to the spirit. He would have been hesitant to use too much of it himself. To have a disciple who could manipulate it and withstand its effects would be quite useful. I fear that . . .”

His voice trailed off. Jiang Yanli reached across the table and gripped his hand. “Tell me.”

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. “I fear that Jin Guangyao might know we suspect him. If the trip I took to Yiling with Nie Huaisang was noticed. He might have been monitoring the Burial Mounds, or Xue Yang might have been. It was a mistake.”

“It was not a mistake,” Jiang Yanli said firmly. “It was a risk. We knew that at the time, and it garnered extremely valuable information for us. But why would this be Jin Guangyao’s response? Did he think you might be hurt when you went to investigate?”

“I doubt it. He is seeking to discredit us, not harm us directly. He probably has been thinking about how he might be able to do so ever since you found out about Jin-xiao-furen’s true parentage. Even though you went to him in good faith, and your purpose was to help A-Song, at that point you became a potential obstacle to his path, simply by knowing the truth.”

Jiang Yanli grimaced and looked away. She knew that Lan Wangji was correct, and had been trying not to think about that too much. “He knows that removing me would draw suspicion, even if he does it carefully. But my influence with the other sect leaders has always been tenuous because of my gender. Now he invokes my love for A-Xian, which others certainly do not share, as another way to make me look like I am not fit to rule.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “And in time, he would expose me as well. Few people know about my feelings for Wei Ying, but he is certainly one of them. He is one of my brother’s closest confidantes and I know my brother spoke with him at great length about my punishment and the reasons for it. And then there is A-Yuan.”

“Oh, no,” Jiang Yanli said. “Do you think he knows?”

“I’m not sure. But he’s smart enough to have made the deduction that my adopting a child right after the events at Nightless City, being attached enough to that child to leave Cloud Recesses in spite of the sentence the elders had given me, cannot have been a coincidence. And if he asked xiongzhang about it, xiongzhang would probably tell him the truth.”

“He’s never said anything,” Jiang Yanli said, then shook her head. “But of course, he wouldn’t. He would stay silent about it until he felt it could benefit him, and now might be that time.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “The question is whether or not it matters. Wei Ying is not actually back. We cannot be accused of sheltering him - or at least, since we are not sheltering him, it cannot be proven that we are. Jin Guangyao can make insinuations all he likes, but we are not doing anything wrong.”

“That won’t matter to the small-minded gentry,” Jiang Yanli said.

“This is true. But it will matter to my brother, and it is his approval and assistance we now need. I dislike disturbing him when he has a newborn, but it may become necessary. I think I will write to Nie-xiong and see what he thinks. Perhaps he can give us a better idea of how the gentry as a whole is responding to these incidents.”

“All right. And I will write to Jin Guangyao to let him know that you went to the Burial Mounds and found no sign of A-Xian.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nie Huaisang wrote back a week later, and he seemed more blase about the situation than Lan Wangji really liked. “He’s just trying to get everyone all wound up,” he said. “Nobody really believes that Wei-xiong is back. But just by being reminded of his existence and how much trouble he caused, they’ll be ready to do something drastic if they think Jiang-zongzhu would support him. She can’t, because he’s dead. At least it’ll keep san-ge occupied.”

Of course, Nie Huaisang didn’t know whose child Wen Yuan was, although he probably had his suspicions. Lan Wangji slept poorly and scolded one of the juniors who neglected his chores, leading to a wobbly lip, teary eyes, and Lan Wangji feeling absolutely terrible afterwards. He should not be trusted with children, he thought, if he could not contain his feelings around them.

He wrote back to Nie Huaisang asking if he thought they should go to Lan Xichen with their evidence now, and Nie Huaisang immediately rejected the idea. “Going back to Cloud Recesses so quickly will only prove to san-ge that we’re up to something. Besides, if we let him stew in it for a while, he might make mistakes.”

Lan Wangji chafed at the inactivity, but after the first week, there wasn’t much of that. The fierce corpses were spreading further from Yiling, and he found himself doing more night-hunting than usual. The smaller sects were starting to get worried, so he helped them whenever he could. People kept asking him what was causing it, and he answered honestly - someone was purposefully stirring up the resentful energy.

“But who?” they would ask, and he wouldn’t answer.

Three weeks had passed after his trip to Yiling when half a dozen of the surrounding Sect Leaders came to Lotus Pier. “We need to know what’s going on!” Sect Leader Yao, who could always be counted on to a) not know what was going on, and b) have an opinion about it regardless, shouted.

“I promise you, as soon as we have gotten to the bottom of what’s happening, I will let everyone know,” Jiang Yanli said, keeping her voice calm and steady.

“But how can you still not know?” Sect Leader Ouyang, an equally odious specimen in Lan Wangji’s opinion, spoke up. “You are the leader of the great Yunmeng Jiang! You must have an idea!”

“We have been working hard to track down the source of the resentful energy,” Jiang Yanli said.

Watching them rail and protest, Lan Wangji realized Jin Guangyao’s ploy had a dual purpose. Not just to remind everyone that Jiang Yanli had a connection with Wei Wuxian, but to make her look incompetent in general for not being able to immediately fix such a large problem. He had to resist the urge to ride his sword to Koi Tower and start setting things on fire.

After several more minutes of yelling from the men, Yu Guoduan intervened. “What these cowards don’t want to tell you,” she said with narrowed eyes, “is that they suspect that not only is the Yiling Patriarch back, but that he is here in Lotus Pier, and you are protecting him.”

Sect Leader Yao protested. Sect Leader Ouyang acted offended.

Jiang Yanli said nothing.

“Well, are you?” Sect Leader Yao asked. Lan Wangji thought about setting him on fire.

“Sect leaders, my brother is dead,” Jiang Yanli said quietly. “I have seen no evidence that he has returned. Hanguang-Jun went to the Burial Mounds and did not find any evidence there, either. Anyone with a talent for cultivating with resentful energy would be able to cause what we have seen in recent weeks. There is no reason to suspect Wei Wuxian is involved.”

“But what if he did come back?” Sect Leader Ouyang asked. “What then?”

Jiang Yanli had clearly expected this question, because she answered it smoothly, without hesitation. “I loved my brother, but justice must be served, and I would ensure that it would be.”

Lan Wangji took a moment to admire that complete non-answer. Jiang Yanli was not promising to turn Wei Wuxian in, or have him executed, or even admitting to the fact that he had been in the wrong. Justice could cut both ways. But the other sect leaders found the answer satisfying, and mumbled amongst themselves about what an upright, moral person she was.

After they had finally left, Yu Guoduan stayed behind. “I didn’t want to say this because the others would certainly overreact to it,” she said, “but there are rumors that the Ghost General has been seen in Yiling.”

Lan Wangji’s back stiffened. “That isn’t possible.”

“As of now, they are merely rumors,” Yu Guoduan said. “I haven’t found any of them particularly credible. But most people agree that if the sightings are genuine, it could only be happening if the Yiling Patriarch really has returned. So either he has . . . or someone is trying to make it look very much like he has.”

Jiang Yanli glanced at Lan Wangji, then said, “Thank you, Yu-zongzhu, for bringing this to me directly. Hanguang-Jun and I will investigate and see what we can find.”

Yu Guoduan gave them some additional information on the supposed sightings before she bowed and excused herself. 

Jiang Yanli waited until the two of them were alone and said, “Bringing back the Ghost General . . . is that something A-Xian could do, if he had come back? Even though he was cremated and the bones crushed?”

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. “The important thing to realize is that we really have no way of knowing what Wei Ying could or couldn’t do if he came back, because we don’t know . . . came back as what? A living human? A ferocious ghost? A demon of some sorts? That would impact the answer considerably. I doubt it could be done, but Wei Ying was always doing things I wouldn’t have said could be done.”

“Attempting the impossible,” Jiang Yanli said, with a sad little smile.

“More likely it is just Jin Guangyao spreading rumors,” Lan Wangji said. “Or Xue Yang has made up a fierce corpse to look like him and let it run wild. I will see what I can find, but I do not want to leave you for too long with the other sect leaders so on edge.”

“I’ll be fine, A-Zhan, and we need to look like we are making every effort to stop whatever is happening.”

After a moment, Lan Wangji nodded. “Very well.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian was confused.

Given the last thing he remembered, he hadn’t expected to wake up at all, let alone wake up on cold, rocky ground, naked as the day he was born, in the middle of the night.

Surrounded by corpses, well, that was less of a surprise.

“Huh,” a voice said. “Well that’s not what I thought was going to happen.”

Wei Wuxian sat up. He half-expected his head to immediately start screaming in pain, as it often did, but he felt all right. He didn’t feel good, but then again he never felt good. There was an ache in his stomach and a yawning chasm in his chest, but that was normal for him.

“Hey, you awake?” the voice said, and Wei Wuxian looked over to see a young man who was barely more than a boy, who looked strangely familiar. Wei Wuxian couldn’t quite place him, but he was well aware of how bad his memory was, and tended to assume he had met people if they looked even vaguely familiar. “So you are. Wild! You still resonated with this thing even in the afterlife. I guess that’s what I get for just trying to call up random monsters without being specific. Ugh, what a mess. He’s not going to be pleased about this at all. I guess I’d better kill you again.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian finally managed to say, as the young man started forward, drawing his sword. “Who are you?”

“You don’t remember me? Of course you don’t, or why else ask?” He laughed and gave a mocking bow. “Xue Yang, at your service, only not at your service. And I have a courtesy name now, Chengmei, if that matters to you. But you don’t need to remember it. See above, I’m going to kill you again.”

Wei Wuxian managed to spring to his feet and drew a quick talisman on instinct. The corpses around him reared into life.

“Ugh, come on,” Xue Yang groaned. “I just pulled all the yin energy out of them to try to summon up a demon. Give me a break here.” He swung his sword left and right, plowing through the fierce corpses as Wei Wuxian turned and ran. As soon as he got into the light, he recognized his surroundings. He was at the Burial Mounds. Even with all the crops and homes destroyed, he recognized it.

What the hell was he doing there? What the hell was he doing anywhere? He had no real memory of anything after he had died, and no idea how long it might have been. For Xue Yang to still be alive, and looking relatively the same, it couldn’t have been too long. Xue Yang was a strong enough cultivator for his aging to be slow, but not to achieve immortality. It had been twenty years at most.

“Get back here, you undead prick!” Xue Yang shouted after him.

“I’m not undead, I’m re-alive!” Wei Wuxian shouted back. “Learn the difference!”

“You’re just making shit up!” Xue Yang flung forward a wave of spiritual energy with his sword. Wei Wuxian ducked and rolled underneath it. All around him, the fierce corpses were responding to him. An entire horde of them were now charging at Xue Yang. He had to admit, if someone was going to try to kill him, this was the best place for them to do it. Xue Yang seemed to be realizing that, and he let out a string of swears and then gave up on his pursuit. “Whatever, you’re not my problem!”

Wei Wuxian wondered whose problem he was. He continued to make his way down the hill, and the fierce corpses quieted around him. Before long, the mountain was silent and still.

Now what?

He checked himself over. He seemed healthy. He felt approximately the same as he had before he had died, or maybe about a week beforehand, before that last, disastrous chain of events had been set into motion. But even thinking about that chain of events made him want to curl up into a ball and cry, so he hastily shoved those thoughts away.

Whatever Xue Yang had been doing, he had probably been using the Stygian Tiger amulet, or at least a piece of it. It didn’t surprise Wei Wuxian that the other sects might have collected the pieces or even partially rebuilt it. If he reached into the spiritual realm with that, Wei Wuxian could see how it much have ended up with him coming back to life. He supposed he should be grateful that he had been pulled all the way back, with a body and everything, instead of just as a ghost. That probably had something to do with all the other corpses that had been lying around. The residual yang energy in them might have been enough to rebuild a body wholesale.

Did any of it even matter? Xue Yang could do what he wanted with the yin iron, as long as he didn’t care about Wei Wuxian getting away. But where did he go now?

There was a part of himself that thought back to Jiang Cheng, to the Wen remnants, to everything that had happened, and wanted to throw himself off a cliff again. But the grief was blunted somehow, a muted sorrow rather than agonizing grief. Something about death, he thought, brought a kind of acceptance. When he had realized he was going to die, he had only felt relief, that it would finally be over. Now it wasn’t, but somehow the feeling of acceptance lingered.

He thought, for a brief moment, about going home. Back to Lotus Pier. He hadn’t been able to go back while the Wen remnants had needed him. He had failed in his duty to keep them safe. There was nothing he could do about that now. So should he go home? Could he go home? He instinctively shied away from the idea, even now. He had walked down roads that nobody should have walked, had given himself to dark forces, had killed innocent people. Whoever was in charge of Lotus Pier now would not welcome him.

He wondered where Jiang Yanli was. Probably at Koi Tower, raising her son, the nephew Wei Wuxian had never met. He’d never had a chance to give him the talisman he had so painstakingly crafted for him, and didn’t even know what had happened to it. How old would he be now? How much time had gone by?

Jiang Yanli, he thought, would probably forgive him for anything and everything, even for getting Jiang Cheng killed. And there was a very strong desire to find her, throw himself down at her feet, and beg for her forgiveness. But there was no way he could do that; no way that he deserved that.

He should just walk away from it all, he decided. What was there left here for him? He wanted no part of whatever Xue Yang was up to, no part of being someone else’s problem. Even if there was anyone left in the world who still cared for him – a very dubious proposition – they would be better off without him in their lives.

That decided, he needed clothes, and maybe some money. Why not add petty theft to his list of crimes? It wasn’t as if it was going to get any shorter. Once he was out of the Burial Mounds, he headed towards one of the nearby farming villages. It was late enough at night that he was able to sneak in and liberate a set of robes, a few bags of food, and a donkey. From here, he could head west. He had never been any further west than Qishan. Who knew what was out there? A whole world, he hoped. One big enough that he could get lost in, for however long it took the world to forget about him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji had been in Yiling for two days before he decided that the rumors about ‘the ghost general’, a name he was absolutely sure Wen Ning would have hated, were utter bullshit. Nobody he could find had actually seen him, or had even spoken to anyone who had seen him. It was always ‘a friend of a friend’ or ‘my cousin’s son’s neighbor’ or even more separation than that. The nebulous, ‘it’s just a thing people are saying’ came up more than once.

Frustrated, he thought about returning to Lotus Pier. But something was going on, regardless of Wei Wuxian’s non-involvement, and Yiling was the epicenter of it. He decided to stay a little longer and see if he could track down the source of the resentful energy.

He was surprised at how homesick he was. He had never missed Cloud Recesses the way he now missed Lotus Pier. Not just the children, who he missed dearly and worried about every hour, but the atmosphere. The liveliness, which he would have thought he would hate, and the way people treated him with respect but also open affection. The taste of Jiang Yanli’s cooking (who knew that something could have so much flavor?) and the smell of the lotus flowers. The way the water glistened on the lake and the gentle sway of the boats. 

He was grateful, so grateful, to Jiang Yanli for bringing him there. He would not allow anyone to hurt her.

Perhaps, he thought, he was overthinking all of this. He knew what Jin Guangyao had done. He had solid evidence that Jin Guangyao had murdered his father and had attempted to murder Nie Mingjue. Whether he had been involved in his brother’s death was not entirely relevant. 

The fact that he could not prove it did not mean he could not act. It merely meant there would be consequences to his actions. He could go to Koi Tower and kill Jin Guangyao. He had a feeling that Jin Guangyao would not see such a rash, desperate act coming, and he was sure that he could fight through whatever defenses Jin Guangyao had.

The only thing holding him back was that he would probably be executed in response, and although he was willing to pay that price, he did not want Wen Yuan to lose another father.

But it was still an option, and something to keep in mind if Jin Guangyao continued to cause trouble. He would gladly die if doing so would protect Jiang Yanli. He would not allow Jin Guangyao to hurt her, or to remove her from her position as the head of the Yunmeng Jiang. He could only hope that if he had to do something so drastic, he would be able to make his brother understand.

“There was another attack last night!” someone said in hushed tones at the table next to him at the inn. “Almost a dozen fierce corpses attacked a small farming village!”

“That’s awful!” their companion said. “How many people were killed?”

“None, actually! Something so strange happened! The villagers were all running and being pursued, but then the fierce corpses just . . . stopped. Turned around and wandered away. Nobody knows what might have happened.”

“Where?” Lan Wangji interrupted.

Both of the men blinked at him, but saw that he was clearly a cultivator even though they might not have recognized him. One of them gave him directions, and he left the inn. 

Wei Wuxian, he thought, would not have attacked people with fierce corpses. But he might stop an attack in progress, if he stumbled onto one.

“Wei Ying,” he murmured. “Is it really you?”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The donkey was a problem.

Wei Wuxian honestly thought he might make better time without it. It was nice to have somebody to carry the supplies he had gathered, because he had never really regained all of his strength after his three months in the Burial Mounds. But he paid for that with the fact that the donkey would really much rather stop and eat grass every two minutes than continue on their trip.

At first he hadn’t worried because it wasn’t like he was in a hurry. He had nowhere in particular to go. If Xue Yang or something else showed up looking for him, he would ditch the donkey and run. But it had been three days, he was still barely half a day from where he had started, and he was getting frustrated.

After stumbling onto a village being attacked by fierce corpses the previous night, and quickly acting to save the civilians, he gave the donkey a suspicious look. “Do you know something I don’t?”

It bit him.

“Fucking piece of - you can’t be hungry! Don’t be an asshole.”

An hour later, the donkey had wandered off again, and was contently munching the thick grass that had grown in a small graveyard. Spirit grass, Wei Wuxian thought. Growing on the graves of cultivators.

Why did this place seem oddly familiar to him? He must have been here before. “In my last life, literally,” he said, with a snort. There was a village nearby, but it was nothing but ruins now. That hadn’t stopped a group of cultivators from gathering there, settled around a campfire, and he quickly ducked around a building before they could see him.

He had no idea whether or not he would be recognized. He still didn’t even know how much time had passed. Until he at least got out of Yiling, he didn’t dare stop anywhere populated to ask. If he was going to be recognized, Yiling was especially dangerous for him. He had regularly gone down to the city to sell their vegetables, and although people hadn’t known he was the Yiling Patriarch, he didn’t know what they had or hadn’t figured out.

“ - that’s what the compass of evil said, anyway!” one of the cultivators was saying.

Wei Wuxian perked up. They still used his compass of evil? Then he realized how ironic it was, and rolled his eyes. Of course they did. They could declare him evil, kill the people under his protection, and disdain him completely, but they would still take advantage of his inventions. Why was he even surprised?

He stayed and eavesdropped for a few minutes. The cultivators had gathered from several small sects because there were reports of fierce corpses and spirit snatching in the area. Of course there was, Wei Wuxian thought. Xue Yang was messing around with the remnants of the amulet. It was probably causing all sorts of problems.

None of them were his problems, of course. Or at least that was what he was thinking before a horde of fierce corpses charged down the mountain and attacked.

This was what he got for letting a donkey pick the route.

When it looked like the cultivators were about to get obliterated, he was yet again forced into action. His life would be much easier, he thought, if he was ever just able to walk away. Wasn’t that what Jiang Cheng had said? He always had to play the hero. It never worked out for him but it was like a compulsion nonetheless.

He quickly chopped off a piece of bamboo and poked some holes into it and began to play. The tuning was off and he winced, but it would do. He wouldn’t be able to control the fierce corpses if Xue Yang was using the yin iron, but he doubted Xue Yang was actually doing much beyond filling them up with resentful energy and then letting them go. He’d made too many to have much in the way of fine control.

Several of the cultivators turned to look at him, and a few had their mouths agape, and he winced. Apparently enough time had not gone by for the Yiling Patriarch to have been forgotten, because they looked like they had seen - well, like they had seen a dead man. He laughed into his flute. Everything was just so ridiculous.

A fierce corpse sailed up over the mountain and landed in the center of the fray with so much force that he left a dent in the ground.

The flute nearly slid from Wei Wuxian’s suddenly numb fingers.

He would know Wen Ning anywhere, even looking like he was now, with his eyes all black and his face blank of expression. He looked like he had the day Wei Wuxian had brought him back for the first time, and it was like being stabbed in the gut. 

After the moment of shock, he managed to keep playing. Wen Ning began to fight the horde.

“That’s the Ghost General!” somebody screamed.

Yeah, and he’s saving your ass, Wei Wuxian thought. But of course, of course they wouldn’t notice that. Of course they would assume he was only there to hurt them.

A wave of spiritual force came over the treetops and slammed into the horde. Fierce corpses went flying everywhere. 

Wei Wuxian knew that sound, and he wondered why his luck had to be so bad. He changed his tune immediately, wanting to calm Wen Ning’s rage and get him out of the line of fire. Wen Ning’s movements slowed, and then he leapt away, just as abruptly as he had come. Wei Wuxian began to lower the flute, and somebody grabbed his wrist.

He turned reluctantly, knowing who it was before he saw him, but ending up shocked nonetheless. Lan Wangji hadn’t changed, but he had changed; his face was still the same beautiful visage carved from jade, but there was a softness around the corners of his eyes that had not been there before. He was dressed all in white except for his belt, which was a pale purple, and most shockingly of all, his forehead was bare of the traditional Gusu Lan ribbon.

They stared at each other for altogether too long.

Lan Wangji’s grip loosened. 

Wei Wuxian grabbed his wrist before he could let go. He couldn’t help it. He had no idea what was going on, no clue of how long it had been, or why Lan Wangji was there or how he might feel, or anything. But he was just suddenly terrified to be let go.

“That - that’s the Yiling Patriarch!” one of the cultivators shouted.

Wei Wuxian winced slightly and prepared for the argument and the pain that was sure to follow. But Lan Wangji merely turned to the group of cultivators and said, “How can you be certain?”

“He - he was controlling the ghost general!”

“Is that so?” Lan Wangji’s voice was still completely calm and even. “Did it attack you?”

“Well . . . no . . .”

“No,” Lan Wangji agreed. “In fact, it appeared to me as if it was simply fighting the horde. How can you be sure it was the ghost general and not just another fierce corpse drawn to the area by your yang energy?”

“We - we’ve all heard the rumors!”

“I see. So you are believing rumors over what happened in front of your very eyes?”

The group of cultivators shuffled uncomfortably. One of them scraped up some bravery and said, “Surely, Hanguang-Jun, you know if this is the Yiling Patriarch . . . you fought him many times, after all.”

Lan Wangji turned back to Wei Wuxian and stared hard at him. Wei Wuxian felt a flutter in his stomach that was not wholly unpleasant. “It has been many years,” he finally said, “and I have not given much credence to the rumors of his return. However, this matter does need to be thoroughly investigated, so I will take him back to be questioned and examined.”

That did not exactly sound like a cup of tea to Wei Wuxian, and he finally let go of Lan Wangji’s wrist. The amount of energy he had expended, channeling it into the flute, finally caught up with him. He felt exhausted all of a sudden, and the world was growing dim. How he hated this, the frailty that came from using the resentful energy without a golden core to balance it.

Well, whatever, he thought. Whatever happened now would happen regardless of whether or not he wanted it to. He closed his eyes and let the world fade away, only barely aware of arms catching him as he fell.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji’s heart was pounding so hard in his chest that it amazed him the other cultivators couldn’t hear it.

He had no idea how he stayed calm enough to answer the others’ questions in that dry, even tone, as if he were discussing the weather. Apparently all that meditation and temperance actually was good for something. But now the other cultivators were leaving, and he was left with Wei Wuxian in his arms. The weight of him, the solidity, the realness, was making goosebumps spring up on Lan Wangji’s arms.

He forced himself to shove the emotional reaction back and assess. Wei Wuxian looked the same. He would recognize him anywhere, despite what he had said. And the song - the song he had played ruled it out beyond all doubt. Even if he had looked entirely different, Lan Wangji still would have known him as Wei Wuxian. He had never played that song for anybody else, except Wen Yuan.

But he was frail in a way that Lan Wangji hadn’t expected. It wasn’t as if he’d really had time to make a thorough assessment of him at Nightless City. He did remember seeing the Wen remnants, seeing how ragged and thin some of them were. It did not particularly surprise him that Wei Wuxian would be too thin, especially since he doubtlessly would have gone hungry in order to see the others fed.

And his spiritual power - it had to be low, since he had just passed out. Who knew what sort of shape he would be in after coming back from the dead? Lan Wangji pressed his fingers against Wei Wuxian’s wrist in an attempt to get a feel for it, but there was nothing there. He frowned. Could his golden core have burned up in his attempt to prevent the backlash from killing him? Had he simply come back to life without it?

It didn’t matter. He was alive. It was more than Lan Wangji had ever hoped for. He didn’t know how it had happened, and at the moment, he didn’t care. He had to get Wei Wuxian back to Lotus Pier so he and Jiang Yanli could decide what to do next.

A slight smile touched his mouth as he realized he was about to do exactly what the other sect leaders had accused him of doing. Bring the Yiling Patriarch back to Lotus Pier and protect him. It was quite probable that he was walking right into the trap Jin Guangyao had set for them. But he didn’t care. Wei Wuxian was alive, and Lan Wangji would protect him. Jin Guangyao might as well have been on a different continent for all his opinion of this mattered.

He held Wei Wuxian in his arms while Bichen took him aloft. It still felt odd. He had grown more used to being touched since moving to Lotus Pier, especially because of the children. But he had never held somebody like this before. He tried to put it out of his mind as much as possible. The trip to Yunmeng would only take a few hours on his sword - he needed to think about what he would do once he got there.

He brought the two of them down about ten minutes from Lotus Pier and began to go through his things. He found some wood in the forest and tied it to Wei Wuxian’s body, causing it to appear more stiff than it really was. Then he took out some of his robes and carefully wrapped them around Wei Wuxian’s body, draping the cloth over him like a shroud. He constructed a litter that would easily slide over the forest ground and began to pull it along.

Still a few minutes away, one of the guard patrols spotted him, and he was glad to see they were alert as they should be. Jiang Shulian jogged up a few moments later and they both bowed in greeting. “I’ve subdued one of the fierce corpses and brought it back here for examination,” Lan Wangji said, “so that we might determine the source of the resentful energy. Will you please let Jiang-zongzhu know, and ask her to meet me in the workshop?”

“Of course,” Jiang Shulian said. He gestured for a few of the others to pick up the litter so Lan Wangji didn’t have to drag it anymore. Just to be on the safe side, Lan Wangji slapped the silencing spell on Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body. But the jostling didn’t wake him; he seemed to be exhausted.

Lan Wangji didn’t spend a lot of time in the workshop, because it was mainly for weapons repair or development of spiritual tools. But it seemed to be the sort of place one might take a fierce corpse. Once everyone was distracted, he would get Wei Wuxian to a better place, but to explain things to Jiang Yanli, it would do. He found his breath was coming too fast as the disciples lay Wei Wuxian down on the table. One of them reached for the shroud, and Lan Wangji lay his hand on it. “It is not the sort of thing you want to see,” he said, and the disciple nodded and withdrew his hand.

Jiang Yanli came in, giving him and the ‘corpse’ a questioning look. She saw the look on his face and clearly read something there that the others didn’t. “Please leave us so that we can discuss what occurred,” she said, and the disciples obeyed.

After she closed the door, Lan Wangji shielded the room. He did not bother with words. There was really no way to lessen the shock. He merely swept aside the shroud to reveal Wei Wuxian’s face.

Jiang Yanli gave a gasp and went to her knees at the table. “A-Xian,” she said, choking the word out. “Oh, A-Xian. Are you - can he - ”

“He is unconscious,” Lan Wangji said. “He has been for several hours now. But he is alive, fully alive, to the best of my ability to ascertain. I don’t know how it could have happened. Hopefully he will have some answers for us when he wakes.”

Jiang Yanli managed a nod, and then a sob escaped her. Lan Wangji sank down beside her and drew her into an embrace, and they clung to each other, not speaking.

After a few moments, she managed to collect herself. “He will be all right,” she said. “We will make sure of it. Nobody will ever be able to hurt him as long as the two of us are here.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “I would like to take him to his rooms.”

“I will call the disciples into the courtyard to discuss the current situation,” Jiang Yanli said. “It should give you a few minutes to get him there without anyone seeing. Give me about ten minutes.”

“Very well.” He squeezed her hand and then helped her up. 

“He will be all right,” Jiang Yanli repeated softly, and Lan Wangji could only manage another nod.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian woke slowly, and just as confused as he had been the last few times. Perhaps more confused, because this time he was warm and comfortable, lying on something soft instead of on the cold hard ground. And there was music, the soft sound of the guqin that he would know anywhere. He gave himself a minute, not pushing himself to wake too fast, before he opened his eyes. His gaze immediately landed on the figures carved into the headboard of the bed, and a slight smile touched his face. It was just like he had left it. Finally, he was home.

He was home?!

He sat up abruptly, his breath catching in his throat, and a soft voice said, “Ah, Xianxian, be easy!”

His gaze jerked to the side, and there was his sister, looking exactly as he remembered her, dressed in the same pale lavender, smelling of the same lotus flower perfume. She reached out and dabbed his forehead with a cloth.

“Shijie,” he whispered, and she nodded. She was smiling even though there were tears in her eyes, and it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He could barely choke out the next few words. “Shijie, I’m sorry. I – Jiang Cheng – I couldn’t – ”

She reached out and pulled him into an embrace, and he folded into it like a ragdoll. One sob tore through him, then another. She held him firmly, but not too tightly, and he could hear that she was crying too. Her hands gripped down in the back of his stolen clothing, and he cried harder. He was home. He was home. It wouldn’t be the same, would never be the same without Jiang Cheng, but he was finally home.

“It’s all right,” Jiang Yanli said softly. “It’s all right, A-Xian. You’re safe now. We will never be separated again.”

He clutched at her for several long minutes before he finally managed to get back in control of himself and pull away. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and she reached up to do a better job of it with the cloth. “How . . . how long has it been? Shouldn’t you be at Koi Tower? Who’s the sect leader now? I’m so, so confused – ”

“It has been three years,” Jiang Yanli said, which wasn’t as long as Wei Wuxian would have guessed, and made him think that the cultivators definitely had recognized him. “I’m here because I am the sect leader.”

That just made Wei Wuxian’s brain short out again. He was going to say something when instead his stomach let out a growl, and he flushed pink.

Jiang Yanli just smiled. “You must be hungry. I will get you something to eat. Don’t go anywhere,” she added, squeezing his hand, and he nodded. He could barely take his eyes off of her as she rose and left his room.

Once she was gone, his gaze strayed to Lan Wangji, who was sitting with his guqin, although he was no longer playing it. His confusion must have showed on his face, because Lan Wangji rose and moved over to the chair that Jiang Yanli had just vacated. “I have been staying here for several years, partly to support your sister as the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang, a position not everyone felt she was qualified to hold. A lot has happened in a brief period of time.”

“Tell me,” Wei Wuxian said, partly because he was curious, but also just because he had forgotten how wonderful the sound of Lan Wangji’s voice was.

“Jin Guangshan is dead,” Lan Wangji said. “Jin Guangyao is now Chief Cultivator. He and your sister became close for a time, as he supported her bringing A-Ling up here to become the next sect leader of the Jiang. There is more with him but I will leave it for later. My brother is married now, and just had a baby girl. I left the Gusu Lan because the elders sentenced me to three years of imprisonment unless I was willing to condemn you after your death.”

He recited all this in a somewhat dry tone for such emotional topics, and Wei Wuxian wasn’t even sure where to begin. “You . . . left the Gusu Lan . . . because of me?”

“No,” Lan Wangji said. “I left because of the elders. Because they were unwilling to acknowledge that there had still been good in you.”

Wei Wuxian had to swallow hard before he could speak. “I never would have wanted to, to force you to choose between me and your sect.”

“I know that,” Lan Wangji said. “You did not. The elders forced me. How could you have forced me to do anything? You were dead.”

“That’s true, I guess.” Wei Wuxian laughed softly. There was a lot about that day he didn’t remember. It seemed like a feverish nightmare. But when he thought back, he remembered Lan Wangji reaching for him. Remembered Lan Wangji’s fingers just barely touching his, for the briefest of moments. Unsure of what to say, he said, “You look good in purple. Of course, you’d look good in anything,” he added, and then caught a glimpse of the expression on Lan Wangji’s face, the intensity, the focus there. On him. He felt his cheeks flush pink and he babbled, “I mean, you could wear a potato sack and you’d still look good. I think it’s your shoulders. Or maybe your cheekbones. Anyway, what I mean is, thanks. For, for helping shijie after I was gone. And for standing up for me.”

“Too little, too late,” Lan Wangji murmured, and his gaze dropped to his lap. But then he looked back up. “Do you know why you are back?”

“Bits and pieces,” Wei Wuxian said. “I came to in the cavern at the Burial Mounds, three days ago now. Xue Yang has some of the pieces of my amulet. I don’t think he was trying to bring me back, he said he was trying to summon a demon and he must not have been specific enough. But I guess because he was using the amulet, I’m what he got. It might have something to do with how I died – all that resentful energy backlashing onto me.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, and how was it possible that Wei Wuxian had missed that single syllable so much? “And Wen Ning?”

“No idea,” Wei Wuxian said. “Dafan Mountain was the first time I saw him. He shouldn’t even be – ” His voice choked and he had to hold back sudden tears. “I don’t think anyone but me could have brought him back, which means he wasn’t executed in the first place.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “That makes more sense than you might believe. Jin Guangshan brought Xue Yang into the Jin sect because he could use resentful energy. He was clearly looking into how it could be controlled and used against his enemies. They probably imprisoned Wen Ning and told everyone he was dead until they could figure out how to control him.”

“I have to go get him,” Wei Wuxian said, feeling anxiety twist his stomach. “His consciousness has been suppressed somehow. He doesn’t know who he is right now.”

He expected Lan Wangji to argue, but instead he nodded and said, “Tomorrow, when you are stronger. You need to rest right now. Wei Ying – ” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I checked on you after you passed out. Your spiritual energy levels.”

Wei Wuxian froze. Of course he had. Why wouldn’t he have? The secret he had so carefully guarded was out. Although, a part of him thought bitterly, what did it matter now? Jiang Cheng was dead. With him, Wei Wuxian’s golden core. It didn’t matter now, who found out what he had done.

Carefully, Lan Wangji continued, “Coming back over the barrier . . . might have been the cause.”

“Ah . . .” Wei Wuxian looked away. It was a logical enough conclusion to come to. That someone who had been brought back to life wouldn’t have a golden core, or that the very act of being resurrected might burn it out somehow. His hand pressed against his chest for a few moments. Then he forced a bright smile. “I guess I’ll have to get used to it.”

Lan Wangji studied him in unnerving silence for a very long moment, and Wei Wuxian felt sweat prickle on his forehead. But what Lan Wangji said took him entirely off guard, a simple, soft, “I have missed your smile.”

A few seconds went by. Wei Wuxian realized he was sitting there with his mouth open.

Then they heard voices from outside. Young voices. One said, “Stop, you’re gonna get in trouble!”

“I just wanna see it!” another voice said. “Lan-shushu said there was a fierce corpse! I wanna see the fierce corpse!”

“Quit it, Lan Yong, you – ”

Lan Wangji smoothly rose to his feet and drew back one of the canvas flaps, staying between the children and Wei Wuxian, so they would not be able to see him. “Fierce corpses are not something that should be seen by children,” he said. “A-Yong, go to your room. A-Zhen, it is late; you should have left for home by now. Tomorrow you will both copy the Jiang family motto twenty times and present it to me before lessons.”

Wei Wuxian realized he was smiling a real smile now, listening to Lan Wangji chide the children. It was strict, yet somehow so gentle. Then Lan Wangji finished with, “A-Yuan, you may come in,” and Wei Wuxian’s breath caught in his throat. Not – not his A-Yuan? It was a common enough name, perhaps it was just a Jiang disciple – A-Yuan was dead, after all, had died along with the rest of the Wen remnants –

Lan Wangji stepped aside and tied the flap closed after the boy came in, and he was –

He was beautiful, and perfect, taller than Wei Wuxian remembered, and his cheeks were a little less chubby, and he was wearing the maroon uniform of the juniors of the Yunmeng Jiang, and his hair was neater, and he was undoubtedly, unmistakably, his A-Yuan.

Wen Yuan’s eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open and he shrieked, “Xia – ”

Lan Wangji grabbed him and clapped a hand over his mouth before he could finish the name. “No one must know,” he said in a low voice.

Wen Yuan nodded, and Lan Wangji released him, and the next thing Wei Wuxian knew he had two armfuls of squirming, clutching child. He wrapped both arms around Wen Yuan and squeezed him as hard as he could, clinging as desperately as a drowning man. “A-Yuan, A-Yuan,” he whispered, trying not to start crying again. “You’re alive. How – how are you – ” He looked up, realizing. “Lan Zhan – was it you?”

Sitting back down in the chair, Lan Wangji nodded. “Mn.”

There was probably an elegant, measured response to that, Wei Wuxian thought. ‘Thank you’ would be a good start. ‘How?’ might be a good question. But somehow none of that came anywhere near the forefront of his brain because it was stuck on that soft smile on Lan Wangji’s face, and the intensity in his gaze, and what Wei Wuxian wound up doing was grabbing him by the front of his robes and yanking him in for a kiss.

This was somewhat awkward with Wen Yuan still in his arms and not about to let go anytime soon, but Wen Yuan was cradled against his shoulder so he had a little room. And it was a good thing, too, because after half a second of shock, Lan Wangji had both his hands on the sides of Wei Wuxian’s face and was kissing him like the sky was crashing down on them.

“Xian-gege, you’re squeezing me,” Wen Yuan whispered, and Wei Wuxian pulled away from Lan Wangji, panting for breath. His lips felt warm and tingly, and he couldn’t help but stare at the faint flush on Lan Wangji’s cheeks. That was a nice look on him, Wei Wuxian noted distantly, and wondered if it spread down the skin of his neck, onto his chest –

“Ah,” he recalled himself suddenly, loosening his hold on Wen Yuan. “I’m sorry, A-Yuan, I was just so happy to see you. You must be seven years old now. Have you started growing your golden core yet?” he asked, taking refuge in mundane questions while his mind floundered, trying to process what had just happened.

“Uh huh!” Wen Yuan pulled back far enough that they could see each other, although he didn’t leave Wei Wuxian’s lap. “And a-die has been teaching me the guqin and the dizi, and I know two thousand characters now! And I can fish and fly a kite and shoot arrows! There’s so much to do here, I really love it!”

Wei Wuxian choked back a few more tears, and this time he did manage the words. “Thank you, Lan Zhan,” he said. “Thank you, for, for giving him what I couldn’t.”

Lan Wangji reached out and squeezed his wrist. “He is your precious son,” he said. “I would have given him the world.”

“He’s been a very good a-die,” Wen Yuan said seriously, and Wei Wuxian managed a laugh that was half sob. “I missed you an awful lot, Xian-gege. A-die said we’d never see you again. I’ve never seen him be wrong before!”

“My mistake,” Lan Wangji murmured, that soft smile hovering around the corners of his mouth. He reached out and smoothed down Wen Yuan’s hair. But it was to Wei Wuxian he spoke, saying quietly, “There was not a day for the past three years where I did not wake up filled with regret for not standing by you when it mattered. When I could have saved you. Taking care of A-Yuan was the least I could do.”

“I knew why you couldn’t, though,” Wei Wuxian said. “I knew that you couldn’t come with me. That I was walking a crooked path . . . I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

Lan Wangji shook his head. “You were walking the single log bridge . . . and I’ve found that’s not a bad feeling at all.”

Wei Wuxian felt tears sting at his eyes again. He couldn’t even begin to think of what to say to that, the feelings of relief and longing were so strong. All he could do was nod and hold his son a little tighter.

The door opened again and Jiang Yanli came back in, carrying a basket in one hand and holding the hand of another child with the other. She set down the basket and scooped the child up, as Lan Wangji stood up to vacate the chair he had been in for her. “A-Ling, this is your da-jiujiu, Wei Wuxian.”

“Another jiujiu!” Jin Ling cheered.

Wei Wuxian could barely breathe, the tightness in his throat had gotten so bad. “Shijie,” he whispered. “I’m sorry . . . I don’t know what happened . . . I didn’t mean . . .”

“We’ll talk about all of that later,” Jiang Yanli said, her voice firm but gentle. “What’s important is that you are finally home safe, and meeting your nephew for the first time.”

He couldn’t bring himself to argue with her, so he gave a slight bow, one arm still curled around Wen Yuan, and said, “It’s very nice to meet you, A-Ling.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jin Ling said. “Do you like dogs?”

Wei Wuxian flinched. “Um. No?”

Jin Ling frowned. “Why not?”

“They’re scary,” Wei Wuxian said in a low voice, as if he were confiding a secret.

“Don’t be silly,” Jin Ling said, with all the confidence of a three year old.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly. “He’s been begging for a dog for months now. I suppose it’s a good thing I hadn’t gotten him one yet. If you know it even as an itty bitty puppy, even you can’t be afraid of it, right, Xianxian?”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Wei Wuxian said. Then he brightened. “Lan Zhan, you’ll protect me, won’t you?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed.

“I’ll protect you, too, Xian-gege,” Wen Yuan said, beaming up at Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian laughed. Then his gaze focused on Jiang Yanli, dishing up a bowl of soup. “If – if that’s lotus and rib soup – I’m going to cry.”

“What else would it be?” Jiang Yanli asked, laughing gently. “You can cry as much as you need to, A-Xian.” To Jin Ling, she added, “A-Xian has been away from home for a very long time, and he’s missed it very much.”

She handed the bowl of soup to Wei Wuxian, and he did cry, but only a little. He knew there were probably a hundred things they needed to discuss, but as long as the children were there, they couldn’t. Instead, he said, “Who were those other two little boys? Other juniors?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. “Lan Yong was brought here by my brother. The Gusu Lan were not the right sect for him, and we have been taking care of him since. The other is Ouyang-zongzhu’s son, Ouyang Zizhen. He comes here often and has to be reminded to go home.”

Wei Wuxian gave a snort. Jiang Yanli glanced up and said, “Are we providing free daycare now?”

“Would you rather he be at home with his father?” Lan Wangji asked dryly.

“Fair point,” Jiang Yanli said, amused.

Wei Wuxian laughed harder, nearly spitting out a mouthful of the precious soup. “I guess Lan Zhan is the babysitter?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, and glanced at Jiang Yanli. “Many men think that because zhangjie is here, this is an ideal place to leave their children. They do not seem to realize she is busy with her duties as sect leader and that the majority of their care is provided by me.”

There was so much to unpack in those two sentences that Wei Wuxian wasn’t even sure where to start. Finally, he said, “Zhangjie?”

“Ah – ” Lan Wangji seemed a little caught off guard, and his cheeks flushed again. “I have called her that since I came here.”

“That’s so sweet,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Lan-jiujiu is the best,” Jin Ling said. “He carries me on his shoulders and braids my hair and never, ever lets anyone tease me.”

Wei Wuxian bit back another smile. “That’s amazing, Lan Zhan. You’re amazing,” he added, and enjoyed seeing Lan Wangji’s blush darken.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly and dished bowls of soup for the children and then one for Lan Wangji as well. He accepted it with a nod and a smile, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but watch them for a moment. Watch their tenderness with each other. Although he regretted that he hadn’t been there for them, it was reassuring to see that they had found comfort with each other, that they had built what was clearly a close relationship. If Lan Wangji hadn’t been kissing him desperately a few minutes before, he would have had some suspicions about exactly how close. But he still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened there, and he wasn’t about to bring it up in front of the children.

“Can I stay in here tonight, a-die?” Wen Yuan asked.

Much to Wei Wuxian’s dismay, Lan Wangji shook his head. “Remember, A-Yuan, that we are supposedly examining a fierce corpse. Others will think it strange enough that I allowed you in to see it.”

“I won’t tell anyone!” Wen Yuan protested.

“I know. But if you do not sleep in your room tonight, A-Yong will know, and he might tell others.” Lan Wangji smoothed down his hair. “Wei Ying will not be here long, A-Yuan, at least not right now. Tomorrow we will have to leave and go find Wen Ning. Then we will have to do some work to make sure Wei Ying will be safe here. But once things are settled, we will be back, and you will see him every day.”

Wen Yuan snuffled, but agreed. Wei Wuxian was unable to resist the urge to reach out and pinch his cheek.

For the next hour, Jiang Yanli spoke of how things had been at Lotus Pier while he had been gone. She talked about her disciples, and the things the children had been learning. Lan Wangji chimed in occasionally, but mostly stayed silent. Although there was sorrow in the tale, there was joy in it, too, and Wei Wuxian was so proud of her. Jiang Cheng had worked so hard to rebuild the sect, and Jiang Yanli hadn’t let anyone take that away from her.

Finally, she stood and said, “I am going to put the children to bed. A-Zhan, you may start telling him what is happening, and I will join you shortly so we can decide what to do next.”

Lan Wangji nodded. Wen Yuan crawled into Wei Wuxian’s lap for another hug, and he squeezed him for several long seconds before letting him go. He kissed Jin Ling on the forehead and Jiang Yanli left with both of the children.

They sat in silence for a few moments before Lan Wangji got up and began to make tea. “Wei Ying. Can you tell me about the day that Jin Zixuan was killed?”

That wasn’t the last question that Wei Wuxian wanted to answer, but it certainly was close. He looked away and said, “I don’t know if you’ll believe me.”

“I’ll believe you,” Lan Wangji said, without hesitation.

Wei Wuxian wavered, but gave in. He told Lan Wangji the story with as little emotion as he could muster. “Everything happened so quickly . . . I can’t even be sure of what I did or didn’t hear. I can’t swear that someone else was playing a flute that day. Or that I heard it again at Nightless City. All I know is that I didn’t mean to hurt Jin Zixuan. He was trying to help me. To, to keep things from going too far. He had become a good husband to shijie and a good man. I don’t know what happened.”

Lan Wangji put the pot over the fire and sat down again. “Your story aligns with many other things that have happened. I believe that there was a second flute, and although I do not know who would have been playing it, the music to undermine your control probably came from the forbidden library at Cloud Recesses.”

Wei Wuxian felt like he had been stabbed in the gut. “You think . . . your sect . . .”

“No,” Lan Wangji said quickly. “Jin Guangyao.”

He shouldn’t have been relieved, and yet he was. The idea that the Lan sect might have wanted to get rid of him, so he would stop polluting the purity of the great Hanguang-Jun, had been scarily plausible. Jin Guangyao, although never his enemy, had at least not been his friend. He had felt bad for him at points, but they had never been close. He would lose nothing from this. He took a deep breath and said, “Tell me.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

 

Jiang Yanli took several deep breaths as she slid closed the door to the room Wen Yuan shared with Lan Yong. Most of the day, she had been keeping everything bottled up inside her, until Wei Wuxian had woken and she would know what sort of condition he was in. Now he had, and he was her brother, not just as he had been but still her brother. She had cried in the privacy of the kitchen, letting some of the emotions out, and now she finally felt some of the weight lift off of her. Whatever happened now, they would deal with it.

She came back into Wei Wuxian’s old rooms as Lan Wangji was saying, “ – three times over the course of three days, and it had a strong negative effect on him. We would have gone to my brother right away, but his wife was very close to giving birth, and we did not want to burden him. That was almost three months ago now. I suspect that our trip to the Burial Mounds was noticed, and that Jin Guangyao was having Xue Yang use the yin iron to make it look as if you had returned.”

“But not actually bring me back,” Wei Wuxian said, “because, you know, that would be idiotic.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. “But it also explains why Xue Yang was not particularly concerned that you escaped from him. From their perspective, you being back will only further incriminate zhangjie and I, as they know we would shelter you.”

Wei Wuxian chewed on his lower lip, and looked a little upset as Jiang Yanli sat down at the foot of the bed. “Ah, shijie . . .”

Jiang Yanli gave him an encouraging smile. “What is it, A-Xian?”

“You shouldn’t risk your position for me . . . I never wanted to bring trouble to the sect.”

“You are home now,” Jiang Yanli said firmly. “I meant what I said. We will not be separated again.”

Wei Wuxian managed a watery smile. Lan Wangji said, “Wei Ying has told me about the day your husband died. He believes somebody else was there, playing a second flute, which undermined his control of Wen Ning. He heard it again at Nightless City, which would explain why he was unable to control the fierce corpse that attacked you. Given the fact that Jin Guangyao has used music for evil purposes before, it seems likely that the warped Song of Clarity is not the only melody he stole from Cloud Recesses.”

Jiang Yanli felt like she had been punched in the gut, and she wasn’t sure why. She had suspected for some time that Jin Guangyao had murdered Jin Zixuan. It seemed in line with his other actions. She knew he had been bitterly jealous of his brother, and at times could not even blame him for it. But to finally have evidence – to have Wei Wuxian’s account of the situation, at long last – it brought tears to her eyes.

“It – it’s fine if you don’t believe me,” Wei Wuxian said, seeing her tears. “I know that – ”

“Why would I not believe you?” Jiang Yanli asked, reaching out and squeezing his hands.

Wei Wuxian looked away. “I stepped off the righteous path a long time ago. I know why people were so quick to blame me for every bad thing that happened and I can’t even blame them. Regardless of whether or not I killed Jin Zixuan, I still did terrible things.”

Jiang Yanli had to take a deep breath. “There is much we will need to process,” she said. “I understand some of what you did. Some of it is still a mystery to me. But I still love you, A-Xian, and I believe you.”

Swallowing hard, Wei Wuxian managed a nod, and then wiped some tears away. “Thank you,” he whispered.

She reached out and smoothed down his hair, tucked some of it behind his ear. Then she looked at Lan Wangji. “What now?”

“I must go see my brother,” Lan Wangji said. “I have the whistle Nie Huaisang gave me. Our account of what happened when we tested it should be proof enough for him. It will hurt him tremendously, but it needs to be done. I do not think we need to bring any of the rest of it to him yet – not until I have gone through that, and gauged his reaction.”

“We need to get Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian said anxiously, then added, “I guess I could go do that while you went to Gusu – ”

“No,” Lan Wangji said. “We will stay together. We can collect Wen Ning and then head to Cloud Recesses, although you may have to wait outside the boundaries while I speak with my brother. My reception there will likely be cold, and the elders will try to refuse me entry even without the added complication of my bringing others with me.”

Wei Wuxian grimaced a little, and Jiang Yanli could just see the objection forming, Wei Wuxian wanting to apologize for causing Lan Wangji such trouble. Gently, she said, “A-Zhan’s defection from the Gusu Lan was not of your making, A-Xian. There were many factors, particularly the fact that they did not want to let him raise A-Yuan. Do not blame yourself.”

After a moment, Wei Wuxian managed a nod, although he still looked somewhat upset.

Thinking all of this over, Jiang Yanli finally said, “There is still one thing I am confused by. Who was playing the flute that day? Certainly he would not have risked doing it himself, and as far as I know, that was before he came into contact with Xue Yang.”

“Mn. I do not know.” Lan Wangji brooded over this for a moment, then continued, “We have known he might have had a second accomplice back then – whoever cursed Jin Zixun. Whoever that was – we may never find out. Jin Guangyao might have had him killed, or paid him off to leave the country, like he did the maid who poisoned Jin-furen. Given the likely physical evidence the curse would have left, it would have been dangerous to leave him alive.”

“He must have been a powerful cultivator,” Jiang Yanli said, “to undermine A-Xian’s control.”

“Not really,” Wei Wuxian said, and she looked at him, surprised. “Certainly at Nightless City, I was being pulled in a hundred different directions, and my focus was extremely poor because of . . . my emotional distress,” he said rapidly, forcing the words out. “And at Qiongqi Way, I was not playing with any particular amount of power. I never needed to, with Wen Ning; he was always so responsive to my command. Even a cultivator of average strength could have overridden me that day, especially since I didn’t know it was coming.” He shook his head and said quietly, “Everything happened so fast, shijie.”

“I know.” Jiang Yanli realized, for the first time, how horrible it must have been for him. She had spent most of the past few years knowing he might have been innocent, but never truly thinking about it, because she didn’t know what had happened. Now, she thought of him trying to protect himself from Jin Zixun and all his lackeys, and for Wen Ning, his friend, to suddenly murder Jin Zixuan right in front of him. How confused and horrified he must have been. She reached out and smoothed back his hair again. “It must have been awful.”

A few tears escaped, and Wei Wuxian nodded. “It was.”

Lan Wangji said, “Jin Guangyao will face justice for what he has done.”

Wei Wuxian managed another weak, watery smile, and nodded.

“If you are able to find Wen Ning and restore his consciousness again, is that not proof that the Jin sect lied to everyone?” Jiang Yanli asked. “That they never executed him, as they said they did?”

At this, Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Before I was back? Sure. But not now that I’ve been brought back to life. Everyone will just say I’m the one who did it.”

“Could you even do that?” Jiang Yanli asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I tried to do lots of things that I thought wouldn’t work. Most of the time they didn’t, but sometimes they did.” Wei Wuxian sighed. “But whether or not I could do it doesn’t matter. Everyone will still say I did.”

“He’s right,” Lan Wangji said. “The Song of Clarity is our best evidence. Once I have discussed that with xiongzhang, we can also take it to Nie-zongzhu. From there, the two of them might be able to handle Jin Guangyao without us needing to be involved.”

“Even removing Jin Guangyao from power doesn’t make a difference if we can’t clear A-Xian’s name,” Jiang Yanli said. “He will never be able to live here in peace until we do.”

“If Jin Guangyao is brought to justice, that’s what matters,” Wei Wuxian said.

Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji turned identical frowns on him. Then they both tacitly agreed to ignore his ridiculous statement, and Lan Wangji said, “Once he has been exposed as the villain he is, we will be able to clear Wei Ying’s name. Be patient, zhangjie. My brother is the first person we need to convince, and will be the hardest.” He reached out and gently touched her wrist. “You should get some rest. Wei Ying and I will leave at dawn. Please take care of A-Yuan in my absence.”

She nodded and embraced him. “Take care of A-Xian.”

“I will.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian fell asleep before Lan Wangji did, still weak and exhausted from the ordeal of the past few days. Lan Wangji hadn’t pointed out that Wei Wuxian was in the bed he had used for the past three years. He doubted it had occurred to Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji had been living in these rooms. Truthfully, he was glad it hadn’t, as Wei Wuxian almost certainly would have tried to insist he get up so Lan Wangji could sleep. Instead, Lan Wangji was able to spread a blanket out on the floor and sleep there without protest.

He was up before first light, as always, and began to pack up some things. He was as quiet as possible, but a few minutes into the chore, Wei Wuxian sat up abruptly, one fist coming out in a defensive move that had no result.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said quietly. “You are safe here.”

Wei Wuxian’s gaze flicked over to him, and he nodded, although his breath was still coming rapidly and sweat had beaded on his forehead. But he didn’t say anything about it, instead diverting onto, “You still get up so early.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji tied his bag closed, then walked over to the shelf on which he kept Chenqing. It was above the line of sight from the bed, and it seemed that Wei Wuxian had not noticed it the day before. He took it down and held it out to him, and saw his eyes go slightly wide. “I do not know if you will still be able to use it, your spiritual levels being what they are. But it is yours.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, swallowed hard, and accepted it. His fingers moved over it for a few moments as if in memory before he said, “It channels resentful energy, not spiritual power, so it will work the same way.”

He sounded oddly confident, and Lan Wangji glanced over at him but wasn’t sure what to say. He changed the subject. “Your sister retrieved some of your things that she had boxed and put away. I’ve packed some up to bring with us but left one set out for you to wear.”

“All right.” Wei Wuxian climbed out of bed and picked up the bundle of fabric, hands smoothing down over it. “She kept all my things.”

“What else would she have done with them?” Lan Wangji asked, puzzled by Wei Wuxian pointing this out.

“I guess I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian admitted. “Burned them?”

He didn’t say anything else, but the underlying message was clear. Lan Wangji said, “She never blamed you for Jiang Wanyin’s death. And she never stopped loving you, even when you were gone.”

Wei Wuxian nodded and wiped his eyes. “That’s shijie.” He began to pull off the clothes he had stolen from the farmhouse. Lan Wangji felt himself turn somewhat pink and hastily looked away, waiting for the teasing to start. But Wei Wuxian seemed preoccupied by other things. “Before we leave Lotus Pier, there’s one other place I’d like to go . . . if nobody else is awake yet . . .”

A few minutes later, they eased their way into the ancestral shrine. Wei Wuxian knelt down, and Lan Wangji asked, “May I?” Wei Wuxian gave him a somewhat surprised look, but nodded, so Lan Wangji knelt beside him, and they did their three prostrations and then sat in silence for a long minute.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian finally said, tears trickling down his cheeks. “Yu-furen, Jiang-shushu. You left Jiang Cheng to me, and I failed him. I’m so sorry.”

Lan Wangji wanted to tell him that what had happened to Jiang Cheng wasn’t his fault, but he knew that now was not the time, so he stayed silent.

“And . . . thank you,” Wei Wuxian finally added. “Jiang Cheng. I know it made you so angry when I left. I know you thought I was leaving you behind, and I could never make you believe it wasn’t about that. It wasn’t that I loved the Wens more. It was just that they couldn’t have survived without me. Protecting them . . . I thought it was the right thing to do. Maybe it wasn’t. If I had just let them be killed back then, you would still be alive. If I’d known they were going to die either way . . .”

He couldn’t seem to finish the sentence. Lan Wangji understood why. Wei Wuxian could not, could never, accept that leaving the Wen remnants to the Jin sect would have been the right thing to do, even though he had failed to save them.

“But even though you were so angry with me, you still saved me that day. You still took the sword that was meant for me. So thank you, Jiang Cheng. I’ll never be able to repay you for that. I hope . . .” He let out a shuddering breath. “Remember what we said back then? Let’s be brothers in the next life, too. I hope you still want that. I know that I do. Even if I have to wait a thousand years, I hope someday we’ll be brothers again.”

After another moment, he got to his feet and said, “Come on, let’s go.”

Lan Wangji nodded and rose as well. “Do you want to say goodbye to A-Yuan?”

Unsurprisingly, Wei Wuxian shook his head. “It’s easier if I don’t.”

“For him or for you?” Lan Wangji asked.

Wei Wuxian didn’t answer.

Lan Wangji did not push him. They retrieved their things and headed for the gates. Wei Wuxian looked over his shoulder a few times, but said nothing. It was strange to walk with him in silence, in the early morning mist. Wei Wuxian had never really been much of one for silence. But he seemed lost in his own thoughts, and from the look on his face they were melancholy but not awful, so Lan Wangji let him have the quiet.

When he did speak again, it was practical, not emotional. “We don’t have to go all the way to Yiling. Now that I have Chenqing, Wen Ning should be able to hear the summons from pretty far away, and he travels a lot faster than I do. As soon as we’re far enough from Lotus Pier that it’s isolated and nobody will see us, I’ll call him.”

Lan Wangji nodded. That would get them to Cloud Recesses faster, and he was desperate to see his brother. They were traveling ahead of the news that Wei Wuxian had been seen by other cultivators, but it would spread quickly. People would be demanding answers from Jiang Yanli on what their ‘investigation’ had found, and she would not be able to give them much. Things could get ugly quickly. Even an hour might make a difference. “I could take us on Bichen.”

“If you want.” Wei Wuxian sounded strangely indifferent, given how anxious he was to get to Wen Ning.

Lan Wangji hesitated. “I apologize. I should not remind you of what you’ve lost.”

“Ah? Oh, no, it’s fine.” Wei Wuxian seemed to force a smile. “I was just wondering what had happened to Suibian, that’s all.”

“Most likely, the Jin sect has it,” Lan Wangji said. “They took many items from the Burial Mounds after your death. It is from them that I got Chenqing – or rather, Jin Guangyao gave it to xiongzhang, who gave it to me.”

That made Wei Wuxian frown. “Why would he do that? Jin Guangyao, I mean.”

“It is strange,” Lan Wangji said, “but I think he does genuinely care for my brother. Xiongzhang is one of the few people who has truly been kind to him in his life. After I went to Lotus Pier to raise A-Yuan, my brother was upset at what he felt was a growing distance between us. I think Jin Guangyao was honestly trying to help him.”

Wei Wuxian glanced over at him, and Lan Wangji felt like he was silently questioning the missing pieces in the story of his defection from the Gusu Lan. He had not mentioned his punishment, and was not going to unless it became necessary. Wei Wuxian seemed to sense that there was something he didn’t know, even if the story as he had been told made sense. But he apparently decided not to ask, probably because he didn’t want Lan Wangji asking questions about the things he himself was not saying.

Lan Wangji found himself thinking, for the hundredth time in the past twelve hours, about the fact that Wei Wuxian had kissed him. Surely, it had been an emotionally charged moment. He had just found out that Lan Wangji had saved Wen Yuan’s life. But then other people had been there and they had not discussed it. Was there something that should be discussed? Was there a good way to say ‘so, about the fact that my tongue was in your mouth yesterday, was that a fluke or could we do that again as soon as possible?’

He supposed there would be time for it later. There were urgent things to attend to now, and they could not afford to get distracted. That was likely the reason why Wei Wuxian had not brought it up either. He certainly could not have thought Lan Wangji was not interested; he had showed every ounce of enthusiasm he possessed.

“You can say it, if you want,” Wei Wuxian said, and Lan Wangji nearly tripped over his own feet. Did Wei Wuxian know he had been thinking about the kiss? Was he that transparent? But instead, when he didn’t immediately reply, Wei Wuxian continued, “You were right all along. Using crafty tricks leads to adverse consequences. No exceptions throughout history.”

Lan Wangji winced to hear his own words reflected back at him. How harsh and judgmental they now seemed, after years of living at Lotus Pier and witnessing more gentle forms of discipline. But at least, he thought, those years had taught him things. “I did not speak those words in judgment of you. Only in concern.”

That made Wei Wuxian give him a surprised look. Then he shrugged. “You were right, though.”

“I was,” Lan Wangji agreed. “And at the time, your reasons did not matter. The fact that you had been thrown into the Burial Mounds by our enemies was something I felt a strong person should have been able to overcome. So I left you to overcome it alone. You pushed me away and I let you. I have never stopped wishing that I did not.”

“I was the one pushing, though,” Wei Wuxian said. “You shouldn’t blame yourself for that.”

“I don’t. I take responsibility for my own actions. Both the ones I took and the ones I didn’t take. I should not have left you to deal with it on your own. I was frustrated because I didn’t understand why you pushed me away. But there is a lot I have learned over the past few years with your sister, with the Yunmeng Jiang. My sect was always so harsh and unyielding. Of course you would believe that I would never understand. Of course you would believe that I would prioritize their rules and opinions over your needs. And I have learned about you, too. Things you probably would not have wanted me to know, honestly, as your sister told me about the childhood you shared. About the way Yu-furen treated you, how even zhangjie herself asked you to put Jiang Wanyin’s health and happiness above your own.”

Wei Wuxian looked away. “You’re right. I’d really rather you didn’t know any of that.”

“Mn. But I do, because you were gone, and she was seeking solace with me, as I sought it with her. I cannot simply un-know these things now that you are back.”

Wei Wuxian said nothing.

“You were not wrong, by the way,” Lan Wangji said. “I didn’t tell you this at the time. Perhaps I should have. But shortly after the Sunshot Campaign ended, I went to my uncle and asked him for access to the forbidden section of the library. I wanted to look at the musical texts kept there, in hopes of finding a stronger cleansing song that I could play for you.”

“You and cleansing,” Wei Wuxian said, his mouth twitching in a slight smile. “It’s all you said to me for a while. ‘Wei Ying, let me play cleansing for you.’ ‘Wei Ying, I’ve learned a new cleansing score.’ Sorry I was such a bitch about it. I could have used a good wash to be honest.”

Lan Wangji gave a snort. “The new scores were mostly ones I had designed myself. My uncle would not allow me access to the library. In fact, I spent most of the months between the end of the Sunshot Campaign and the crowd hunt confined to Cloud Recesses.”

“What?” Wei Wuxian frowned. “Why?”

“Because I would not let go of the idea that you should be helped. That you could be brought back to the righteous path.”

Wei Wuxian looked away. “Your uncle always hated me.”

“This is true. He is a very strict man and you angered him often.” Lan Wangji was silent for a moment. “But the reason I am telling you this is because I want you to understand that you were not wrong. You were worried that my sect would punish me for associating with you. It was true. They did. It was perhaps not your only reason for pushing me away, but it was one of them, and it was a valid concern. And I think . . . I could not have left them until I lost you. Until I truly understood how much I lost because of the way they raised me.”

For a long minute, Wei Wuxian said nothing. Then he finally said, “I wish it hadn’t happened the way it did. I wouldn’t have wanted you to have to leave.”

“I know. But it is in the past. Now, we move forward.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Whatever that looks like.”

“Mn.”

They walked in silence for another half hour before Lan Wangji judged that they were far enough away from Lotus Pier to summon Wen Ning without attracting too much attention. Wei Wuxian lifted Chenqing and played for several minutes, a tune that Lan Wangji did not know, before he lowered the flute.

“How long will it take for him to get here?” Lan Wangji asked.

Wei Wuxian shrugged. “If he hasn’t moved far from where we were, maybe an hour or two.”

“Very well.” Lan Wangji sat down in the meadow.

Wei Wuxian sat down next to him. “Those cultivators yesterday recognized me, and you told them that you were bringing me back to Lotus Pier. Won’t people have questions?”

“Yes, and soon. I brought you in yesterday wrapped in a shroud and told the disciples that I had captured a fierce corpse. Word of that will spread quickly as well. People will be demanding answers before long.”

“Shijie . . .” Wei Wuxian frowned and said anxiously, “We left her to deal with it alone.”

“I know. But do not underestimate your sister, Wei Ying. She has become an excellent sect leader, and has strong alliances with many nearby sects, most notably and importantly the Meishan Yu. She will tell them that the examination of the fierce corpse led to a lead on what might be causing the problem, and that I have left to investigate it. And she will tell them that the man I captured was not the Yiling Patriarch but someone who had copied some of his techniques and was attempting to use them on the fierce corpse that attacked, which of course was not the Ghost General because the Jin sect had him executed.”

His frown deepening, Wei Wuxian said, “Did you . . . talk to her about all this?”

“No. It was not necessary. We both know what needs to be done.”

Wei Wuxian was quiet for another minute. “Seems like you know her better than I do at this point.”

“Perhaps. She has changed, as one would expect after going through so much.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, and appeared to drift back into melancholy. Lan Wangji wished he knew what to say to him, to draw him out of it. But he found that the silence, like that he shared with Jiang Yanli, was strangely comfortable. He folded his legs underneath himself and devoted himself to meditation.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian was more than a little anxious as he waited for Wen Ning. Most of his thoughts centered around their current problems. He wasn’t worried about whether or not Wen Ning would respond – he certainly would – but about what to do once he got there. He didn’t know what the Jin sect had done to him or how easily he would be able to take care of it. But he reminded himself that he knew Wen Ning, that Wen Ning was his creation in a way, and told himself that no matter what they had done to him, he would be able to undo it.

With that settled, he tried to get his mind off of it, and found his thoughts drifting to Lan Wangji. Specifically, to the kisses they had shared the night before. He still wasn’t sure what had happened. Oh, he knew what he had done – Lan Wangji was just so beautiful, and he had loved him for so long – but was still somewhat shocked at how Lan Wangji had responded to him. It had never really occurred to him that Lan Wangji might return his feelings. Why should he? He had always figured Lan Wangji thought of him as a particularly obnoxious kind of pest.

But the conversation they’d had placed some of that in a different light. Lan Wangji hadn’t been judging him, hadn’t been trying to play cleansing because he could not stand to see darkness in the world. Lan Wangji had been trying to help him, because he could not stand to see darkness consume him.

If only he’d known that then, he thought. He wondered if he would have been able to accept Lan Wangji’s help, if he’d known what was driving it. Perhaps not. He’d had good reasons, other reasons, to push him away. He had still been hiding the loss of his golden core. He had still been protecting Lan Wangji from the judgment of his own sect. Probably, he thought, he would have acted the same.

Things were so different now. He was different, and so was Lan Wangji. Maybe, he thought, he could finally let Lan Wangji help him. If nothing else, he didn’t think he had the strength to push him away any longer – nor did he think Lan Wangji would allow it, given what he had said.

A rustling in the brush was his first indication that Wen Ning was approaching. He sprang to his feet as Wen Ning entered the clearing, his steps slow and shuffling, uncertain. “Ah, Wen Ning,” he said, tears coming to his eyes. How could he ever forgive himself for this? What sort of torture had Wen Ning gone through in the last three years? He prayed that Wen Ning’s consciousness had been suppressed the entire time, that he wouldn’t remember.

Wen Ning stopped walking, and Wei Wuxian approached him carefully. “What do you think is wrong?” Lan Wangji asked.

“I’m not sure.” Wei Wuxian began to examine him carefully, and Wen Ning stood silent and docile. He checked Wen Ning’s eyes and his wrists and then reached around to the back of his head and felt a small nub of metal that was cold to the touch. “Fuck,” he said, his eyes falling shut. So much for his prayers. This was probably worse than not remembering. All Wen Ning would have known for three years was that piercing scream of the nails.

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asked.

“Skull piercing nails.” Wei Wuxian began to draw one out. Wen Ning’s body went rigid, his head tilting back to the sky, and he screamed. “Easy, easy,” Wei Wuxian said, trying to soothe him. “It’ll be over in a few seconds, Wen Ning, please . . .”

There were two nails, and he had them both out in about ten seconds, but it felt like it lasted ten years. Wen Ning staggered, and Wei Wuxian helped him sit down. His eyes flickered a few times and he blinked slowly before saying, “Wei . . . gongzi . . .”

“I’m here.” Wei Wuxian took both of Wen Ning’s hands in his and rubbed his wrists together briskly. The physical sensation helped ground Wen Ning, caused a little more clarity to seep into his gaze. “How are you feeling?”

Wen Ning was silent for several long seconds, but that didn’t surprise Wei Wuxian. His mind was still filtering through the removal of the nails, and it would take a few minutes, maybe as much as an hour, before he was completely himself again. Finally, instead of answering the question, he said, “Jie . . .”

Wei Wuxian had to swallow hard. He had wondered upon seeing Wen Ning if maybe Wen Qing had also been spared. But hearing the reasons for it, he couldn’t see any reasons why she would have been. They had wanted to use him as a weapon, and she would have been more hindrance than help. “I’m sorry, Wen Ning . . . I couldn’t get there in time.”

“You weren’t supposed to get there at all.” Wen Ning spoke slowly, but the words were clear. He frowned slightly, then asked, “What happened? It feels like it’s been a long time, but I can’t really remember . . .”

“It’s been three years,” Wei Wuxian said. “After you and the others . . . I thought all of you were dead. I attacked the gathered sects and got caught in a backlash. It wasn’t your fault. They were never going to let us live in peace.”

After a moment, Wen Ning nodded. “But you’re back.”

“Yeah. Xue Yang has part of my amulet and he was trying to summon a demon but got me instead. Isn’t that just a kick in the ass. Do you know how you got to Yiling?”

Wen Ning had to think about that for a few long minutes. “I remember it was very dark. They spent a lot of time trying to make me obey them. Finally they put the nails in my head and that’s the last thing I really remember. But I heard you.”

“Yeah, just now, I played Chenqing for you,” Wei Wuxian said. “But you must have left wherever they had you stashed days ago.”

“I just . . . heard you,” Wen Ning said.

“But how? I didn’t use any demonic cultivation, I . . . oh, shit, I did! When Xue Yang tried to kill me. You felt that? Even after so long, even so far away?” Wei Wuxian wiped his eyes. “I really don’t deserve you, Wen Ning.”

Wen Ning looked completely blank at this statement.

Lan Wangji cleared his throat. “Let us get on our way,” he said. “Wei Ying, you can explain matters to him as we go. We need to get to Gusu as soon as possible.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, because although he didn’t want to tell Wen Ning the story, that was still infinitely preferable to thinking about what had happened to the Wen remnants. Wen Ning obediently followed as they began to walk. Lan Wangji set a brisk pace, and Wei Wuxian hoped he would be able to keep up.

The manner he told the story was apparently so disjointed that Lan Wangji took over for him. He figured he couldn’t be blamed for that. He had been dead, after all. Wen Ning listened mostly in silence except for an occasional question. “Poor Jiang-guniang . . . ah, although she’s Jiang-zongzhu now. She was always so kind to me. I’m sorry she had to go through so much.”

“Mn. The three years have been very hard. But we have grown into a place where we can protect you in a way that we could not before . . . so we will.”

Wei Wuxian glanced over at Lan Wangji and couldn’t help but smile. After a moment, Lan Wangji smiled back.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen was more than a little surprised when one of his disciples knocked on the door of the hanshi and let him know that Lan Wangji was there, and he was waiting outside the Cloud Recesses gates until his entrance had been approved. Lan Xichen immediately approved it but could not help but feel anxious. Lan Wangji had only visited twice since leaving – once for his marriage and once to meet Lan Xing – and both times had been by explicit invitation. For him to show up without even a warning was a sign that something was deeply wrong.

So he was relieved to see that Lan Wangji looked well, even if Lan Xichen always did a double take to see him dressed in that pale purple, without his forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji bowed and said, “Xiongzhang, are you well? How are Lan-furen and A-Xing?”

“I am fine, and A-Xing is doing quite well, as is A-Yi. You?”

“I am here to discuss a matter of importance,” Lan Wangji said, then added, “privately. May we go to the jingshi?”

Lan Xichen was a little surprised by this request. He was sure that Lan Wangji had missed the jingshi, and wondered if he wanted to go there for reasons of nostalgia more than practicality. But he nodded, and gestured for Lan Wangji to walk with him. Once they were there, he quickly put up a shielding spell. “Wangji. What’s wrong?”

Lan Wangji took a deep breath and said, “I have been waiting to tell you this for some time, as I know it will upset you. However, recent events have led me to believe I cannot put it off any longer. It is about Jin Guangyao.”

Lan Xichen couldn’t help but frown. “What about him?”

“I know you believe that the fact that he was playing the Song of Clarity incorrectly for Nie-zongzhu was a mistake,” Lan Wangji said, and Lan Xichen felt his frown deepen. “It was not. He did it purposefully, with the intent to cause harm.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, more surprised than anything else, “why would you say such a thing?”

“Because I have tested it,” Lan Wangji said.

Lan Xichen felt his stomach drop into his shoes. “How so?” he asked carefully.

“Nie Huaisang had a whistle that Jin Guangyao had given to him, that he could take to the Blade Hall in case Nie-zongzhu suffered an episode while he was there. From this, I was able to copy the tune. I played it three days for Nie Huaisang with destructive spiritual energy, and it had detrimental effects.”

It took Lan Xichen a moment to figure out where to even begin to know what to say to that. “But – if A-Yao wasn’t playing it with destructive energy – it would have had no effect.”

“This is true. But the odds that the tune he ‘accidentally’ played was one that could cause harm, when played in that manner, are infinitesimal. Xiongzhang.” Lan Wangji’s voice was strangely gentle. “I know that he is your sworn brother and that you care for him deeply. But this was not a mistake. I tested it, myself. You said we would always be brothers. Can you not still trust me?”

Lan Xichen had to take a deep breath. “Of course I still trust you, Wangji. I just – I’m just trying to understand. Why would he do such a thing?”

“There are a number of reasons. I’ve spoken to Nie-xiong about this in great detail. Firstly, he believes Jin Guangyao still resents Nie-zongzhu for exiling him from The Unclean Realm. He clearly felt the actions he took were justified and he was punished unnecessarily. Secondly, Nie-zongzhu was standing against him, or at least not standing with him, on several key political issues. He seems to feel he was owed more loyalty from his sworn brother, and it angered him that Nie-zongzhu would not support him.”

There was merit to both of those arguments, and Lan Xichen absolutely hated it. He slumped into a chair and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said, his voice still gentle, “I need to get into the forbidden section of the library. That is doubtless where Jin Guangyao obtained the music he used.”

“What? No,” Lan Xichen said automatically. “He wasn’t allowed there.”

“Of course he wasn’t, but he visited frequently and was allowed general access to Cloud Recesses. Do not forget, xiongzhang, that Jin Guangyao was a spy in the Sunshot Campaign to extremely great effect. To get in and out of the forbidden section of the library here would have been relatively simple for him.”

That was also correct, and Lan Xichen felt his stomach give another twist. He took a deep breath and said, “Very well, Wangji. Let us go and see what we can find.”

“Thank you, xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said, and bowed. The two of them left the jingshi in silence, and walked to the library. Lan Xichen fought the turmoil of emotion while he did so, trying desperately to think of some way it might not be true. But if Lan Wangji had tested it himself, he could not think of any way it could not be. And he had to admit, had been trying not to think about ever since it had happened, that it was just so odd for Jin Guangyao to make such a mistake. His memory was impeccable; it was the only such error Lan Xichen had ever seen him make. Even stressed and exhausted, Lan Xichen could see how he might play a wrong note or two, but to swap out a few measures of music wholesale for a different song – yet to do it so seamlessly that nobody would notice except someone who already knew the song intimately well –

His mood worsened immediately upon entering the library, because it was not empty, and as soon as Lan Wangji came in behind him, Lan Qiren approached. “Xichen,” he said, his voice calm but tight, “he is not allowed here. You know this.”

“The circumstances dictated the necessity,” Lan Xichen said, because he knew trying to argue the ban wholesale would not get him anywhere. “There is something I must look up that he has details on.”

“Then he can relate the details to you, and you can look it up while he waits outside,” Lan Qiren said.

Lan Xichen had to stop and force himself to take a deep breath, to not immediately crumble. He felt so fragile, already wrestling with the implications of what Jin Guangyao had done, and he hated it. He reminded himself of what Yu Zhiyi had told him about argument. ‘First off,’ she had said, ‘remember that you are the sect leader. Then state your case plainly and briefly, and keep in mind that there is no shame in having your own opinions or feelings on a subject. Then, if they continue to argue, simply say that it is not up for discussion.’

“Shufu,” he said, after his moment to gather himself, “it is a complex matter, the details of which must remain private for now. Wangji is not only familiar with the issue, but he is also more well-versed than I am in the broader subject matter. I require his assistance, so therefore I have decided that on this particular occasion, he will be allowed inside.” He saw Lan Qiren open his mouth and forced himself, with effort, to conclude, “I’m afraid it is not up for discussion, shufu. Please excuse me.”

Lan Qiren was still standing with his jaw slightly ajar when Lan Xichen opened the door and headed down the stairs with Lan Wangji behind him. He had to stop and take a few deep breaths once he got inside.

“Lan-furen has been good for you,” Lan Wangji said, once the door was shut behind them.

That made Lan Xichen smile slightly. “Would you believe that she makes me practice arguing?”

“Absolutely. And it appears to have been successful.” Lan Wangji ruminated for a moment before he said, “I am sorry to have brought you such terrible news. Nie-xiong and I wanted to wait until A-Xing was a little older, so you might not be so busy with her.”

“It is fine, Wangji. I am glad you did not wait. Let us begin.”

It took hours. The library at Cloud Recesses was not small, and a full half of the forbidden section was music. Lan Xichen remembered the version that Jin Guangyao had played, but asked Lan Wangji to refresh his memory regardless, as it had been quite some time. They looked through book after book after book.

Finally, Lan Wangji made a slight noise, and Lan Xichen looked up, his heart suddenly pounding. “Did you find it?”

“Not precisely. But pages have been removed. The melody on this page does not match what is on the next.”

Lan Xichen looked over and agreed, and when they examined closely, saw at the binding just the faintest evidence that pages had been cut away with surgical precision. “Given A-Yao’s memory, the only reason he would have taken the pages with him would be . . .”

“To remove the evidence,” Lan Wangji said, seeing that Lan Xichen was having difficult with the conclusion. “And also,” he said, his voice suddenly cautious, “so we would not know how many songs he stole.”

Lan Xichen felt his stomach give another pronounced twist. “You believe he took more than one?”

“I do.”

“Then . . . there is more to all of this than you have told me.”

Lan Wangji closed the book, his fingers delicately tracing over the characters on the front, which labeled it ‘Turmoil’. “Xiongzhang, I knew it would be difficult for you to accept that Jin Guangyao had purposefully harmed Nie-zongzhu. I wanted to try to bring you to that acceptance before I told you the rest . . . because it is much, much worse.”

Feeling nauseous, Lan Xichen said, “Tell me.”

“You know of what is happening in Yiling. There has been an increase of fierce corpses, sightings of the Ghost General, and rumors that Wei Ying has returned. I have been investigating these rumors. I believe they are a calculated attempt on Jin Guangyao’s part to damage my credibility and that of zhangjie. Nie-xiong and I went to the Burial Mounds to conduct our test. I think Xue Yang has been staying there, and he saw us come and go and reported it back to Jin Guangyao. He knows we suspect him, so he has put measures in place to attempt to unseat zhangjie and make our assertions unbelievable.”

“But not Huaisang?” Lan Xichen couldn’t help but ask.

“Nie-xiong has already done the work there on Jin Guangyao’s part. Through his own doing, he is thought to be flighty and unreliable. Without my support, he would not be believed.”

This was most likely true, and Lan Xichen was going to ask why Nie Huaisang wouldn’t tell his brother, who would believe him, but then realized the answer was obvious. Nie Mingjue would almost certainly react to the accusations with violence, and Jin Guangyao would certainly know that and almost definitely had a plan in place in case Nie Mingjue did so. He would not have ever begun the attempt to injure Nie Mingjue without such a contingency plan.

His A-Yao was so, so clever.

Lan Xichen sat with his eyes closed for several moments before he said, “What evidence do you have?”

“Do you believe me?”

“I do,” Lan Xichen said. “But I also know you have evidence. Because this is bad, but it is not ‘much, much worse’.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “Xue Yang has one or several of the remaining pieces of the Stygian Tiger Amulet. Jin Guangyao either lied when he said he had left Koi Tower, or he had a way to get in contact with him. He is using it to control the fierce corpses. He also used it in an attempt to summon a demon he could set loose in Yiling. But the resentful energy in the amulet was still finely attuned to Wei Ying. He died being consumed by it. When Xue Yang used it for a summoning, it summoned Wei Ying.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes went wide. “Wei-gongzi? He really – he really has returned?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.

“As . . . what?” Lan Xichen asked, holding his breath.

“As himself. Wholly human, wholly alive.”

Lan Xichen let the breath out, and for the first time, smiled. “I am so happy for you, Wangji.”

“Thank you, xiongzhang.”

They stood in silence for a few moments.

“Wei Ying gave me his account of the day Wen Ning killed Jin Zixuan,” Lan Wangji finally said, and Lan Xichen frowned slightly, not seeing how this related to the subject at hand. “He says that he heard somebody else playing a second flute, and it undermined his control of Wen Ning. He heard it again at Nightless City. I believe that melody, as well, must have come from here.”

Lan Xichen didn’t know what to say. He felt hopelessly lost and adrift. It didn’t make any sense. “But . . . why?”

“Xiongzhang . . . in five years, Jin Guangyao went from being the bastard son of a whore to Chief Cultivator. That did not happen by accident. Every obstacle along his path was removed with as much precision as these pages. His brother, his father, sect leaders who opposed him. Even Nie-zongzhu . . . although he was not removed, what Jin Guangyao did led to him needing rest and convalescence, and kept him from interfering with Jin Guangyao’s plans.”

“I can’t . . . I can’t believe it,” Lan Xichen said. It was the only thing he could think of.

Lan Wangji continued, as deliberate and relentless as a tsunami. “Jin Guangyao knew that Jin Zixun had been cursed. He knew that Jin Guangshan had helped him plan an ambush. All he had to do was send his brother walking into it by ‘warning him’ of what they intended, and have somebody waiting there to undermine Wei Ying’s control. Even without knowing exactly how events would play out afterwards, he knew Wei Ying would never be believed, even if he understood what had happened. He knew the other sects would unite to wipe him out, erasing the evidence of what he had done.”

“Wangji, stop,” Lan Xichen choked out. “Stop.”

Lan Wangji fell silent, and finally said, “I am sorry, xiongzhang.”

He still couldn’t believe it. Not his A-Yao. Not the man who had saved his life, who had always been so sweet and warm. Not the man who had sworn to be his brother. Not the man he had spent the last few years defending from every vile rumor, every harsh word, because he truly believed that the things people said about him were untrue, were founded in prejudice and jealousy.

There was a tap at the door, and he glanced up as one of the cultivators came in. “You have a message,” he said, and handed Lan Xichen a tightly rolled scroll. Then he gave Lan Wangji a somewhat suspicious look before he left the room.

Lan Xichen unrolled the paper and felt his heart sink into his shoes. “It seems that the majority of the cultivators are unconvinced by Jiang-zongzhu’s explanation that Wei-gongzi is not involved in the current goings-on,” he said. “They are going to assemble a group of disciples and march on the Burial Mounds to apprehend or eliminate him.”

“This would also be Jin Guangyao’s doing, I am sure,” Lan Wangji said, and Lan Xichen hated the fact that he agreed. “Particularly if Xue Yang told him that Wei Ying is back, although I am not certain he would, as it was not what he intended and ran the risk of angering Jin Guangyao.”

“What’s the purpose of sending people to the Burial Mounds, though?” Lan Xichen asked. “Surely he does not think Wei-gongzi is simply waiting there? I would expect him to want to search Lotus Pier.”

Lan Wangji shook his head. “He knows we are too smart to let Wei Ying stay there. If he encourages people to search Lotus Pier, and then Wei Ying is not there, it gives zhangjie an air of innocence, and he does not want that. Instead, he sends them to the Burial Mounds, where Xue Yang will be waiting with his fragment of amulet. He will kill a handful of them with it, and then everyone will be all the more convinced that Wei Ying has returned, and that he is evil.”

That made sense, too, and Lan Xichen hated it even more. “Then we must prevent that from happening. Where is Wei Ying now?”

“He is waiting in Caiyi Town. Nobody seemed to recognize him there, but I knew I could not bring him there.”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Then the two of you can handle what’s going to happen in Yiling. I must go to Koi Tower.”

Lan Wangji blinked, and his mouth pursed slightly. “Why?”

“To speak with Jin Guangyao.” Lan Xichen saw the look on his brother’s face and took a deep breath. “I believe you, Wangji. Your story makes sense. But can you not understand why this is so hard for me to accept? I have to at least give him a chance to try to explain himself. And to be honest, I might be the only person who will be able to apprehend him without great risk. I don’t believe he would hurt me.”

“I don’t share your certainty,” Lan Wangji said.

“I know. But I can take care of myself, Wangji.”

“Will you, though?” Lan Wangji was giving him a hard stare. “If you must defend yourself against Jin Guangyao, will you? With all necessary force, even if it means you must kill him?”

Lan Xichen could not envision a world where such a thing would be needed. He nodded and said, “Yes.”

Lan Wangji stared at him for another minute, then nodded. “Very well. But be careful, xiongzhang. We still have very little hard evidence. Only Nie-xiong’s whistle and a book with some missing pages. He will almost certainly deny everything. May I take the book so I can keep it safe?”

“All right.” Lan Xichen handed it over. “You be careful, too.”

“I will be.”

“Let me walk you to the boundaries of Cloud Recesses – the elders will surely fuss if I don’t.” Lan Xichen went up the stairs of the library. They got some angry looks as they left, but it didn’t bother him. He barely noticed, still so caught up in everything that Lan Wangji had told him. “I will wait for you in Lanling. Come straight there after you deal with things in Yiling.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nodded. “I will. Thank you, for trusting me.”

“We are brothers,” Lan Xichen said. “That will never change.”

Lan Wangji gave another nod, and then turned and walked away.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian paced back and forth in his rooms, trying to keep calm while he waited. It had been harder than he wanted to admit to let Lan Wangji leave his sight. Lan Wangji had assured him more than once that he would be fine at Cloud Recesses, but Wei Wuxian still felt like there were parts of his secession that he didn’t fully understand. Besides that, he was just . . . anxious. Everything had gone wrong so many times that it was almost impossible not to be.

Every time he passed the window, he stared out for a few seconds, waiting to see if he would see Lan Wangji’s ridiculously upright form approaching. Lan Wangji’s perfect posture, now there was a mystery, Wei Wuxian thought.

But when Lan Wangji did arrive, Wei Wuxian missed him completely, because he was still so unused to Lan Wangji in purple. He jumped when the door slid open and Lan Wangji came in, which caused Lan Wangji to give him a questioning look. Since he absolutely didn’t want to talk about how gorgeous Lan Wangji was in purple, he quickly asked, “How did it go?”

“As well as could be expected. My brother is extremely upset, but he believed me. We could not find the song Jin Guangyao used, but we found a book of music that had had pages removed. It’s a collection of songs from Dongying, called ‘Turmoil’. This must be what he used.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Okay. So your brother’s on board. What’s next?”

“Jin Guangyao has made his next move. A number of cultivators are gathered to march on the Burial Mounds, convinced of your return.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “They won’t find me there, so who cares?”

“No. They’ll find Xue Yang, with a piece of your amulet.”

“Ah, fuck.” Wei Wuxian tapped the side of his nose. “He’ll kill a bunch of them and everyone will think it was me. Super. Guess we’d better stop that from happening.”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian thought about this for a minute. “Do you remember – did the letter say they were gathered or they were going to gather?”

Lan Wangji’s brow creased incrementally, and he said, “They were planning to assemble a group of cultivators and then head to Yiling.”

“So they haven’t actually assembled yet. Okay, good. That means we’ve got some time.” Wei Wuxian saw Lan Wangji’s frown deepen and said, “It means we can rest for tonight. You pushed hard today, to carry both Wen Ning and I on Bichen without losing too much time. You shouldn’t try to ride the sword again, let alone carry me with you, until you’ve had a chance to rest. Wen Ning can move pretty fast, and he doesn’t need to stop to sleep or eat – we can send him ahead now, so you won’t have to carry him tomorrow.”

“You wanted him with you,” Lan Wangji said.

“No,” Wei Wuxian said patiently, “I wanted to restore his consciousness so he’d be able to protect himself. You’re the one who insisted on bringing him all the way to Gusu with us, because you didn’t want to leave me by myself in Caiyi Town while you went to see your brother. And I said okay because I figured we would probably head to Lanling after this anyway. But if we’re going back to Yiling – Wen Ning?” He poked his head out the window and glanced up.

Wen Ning jumped off the roof and landed flat on his back in the courtyard. Wei Wuxian winced despite himself. Grace had never been one of Wen Ning’s primary attributes. “What is it, Wei-gongzi?”

“We’re going to have to head back to Yiling,” Wei Wuxian said. “Some cultivators are going to try to catch me, and we have to get to them before Xue Yang murders a bunch of them and Jin Guangyao frames me for it. Can you head out now, and we’ll meet up with you in Yiling?”

Wen Ning nodded. “Understood, Wei-gongzi,” he said, and bounded away.

A slight smile touched Wei Wuxian’s face, but it faded quickly. He turned around and saw Lan Wangji giving him a concerned look, and looked away. “He’s spent the last three years locked in a nightmare because people wanted to use him as a weapon. I did that. I’m the one who made him what he is.”

“Mn. But you did not do it out of ill will. That is what so many people misunderstand about you. That you were angry, and grieving, and that even so, you were still trying to help. What happened to him was not your fault.”

Wei Wuxian wished that he could agree. “I’m not sure my intentions matter as much as the result.”

“Perhaps not. Have you asked him?”

“Who, Wen Ning?” Wei Wuxian winced. “Just ask him whether or not he wishes I had let him die in that field? I don’t think I could handle it if the answer was no.”

“You could,” Lan Wangji said simply. “What you did can be undone. Wen Ning’s spirit could be freed, his body destroyed, if that was what he wished. But I don’t think he wants that, Wei Ying.”

“I hope not.” Wei Wuxian sighed and sank down into the chair. “You’re not going to argue with me about leaving for Yiling tonight?”

“No. You are correct; my spiritual energy levels are too low to ride the sword right now. We could leave on foot but it will be more time efficient to rest now and then ride the sword tomorrow. I am going to go downstairs and get us some dinner.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian frowned a little, still not used to this new Lan Wangji who was so much more settled in his skin. He waited, and about ten minutes later Lan Wangji came back to the room with a tray of food and two small jars. Despite himself, Wei Wuxian’s gaze lit up. “Is that Emperor’s Smile?”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji set the tray down.

“You are the best, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian laughed, taking one of the jars and immediately taking a swallow. “Ah, it’s still so good . . . it’s too bad you can’t have any.”

“I can,” Lan Wangji said, taking the other jar. “I am no longer a member of the Gusu Lan.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Wei Wuxian’s frown returned. Lan Wangji did not drink, but began to eat, so Wei Wuxian did as well. “Speaking of the Gusu Lan, is your brother going to come to Yiling with us?”

“No. He is going to go to Lanling to confront Jin Guangyao and apprehend him.” Lan Wangji saw the discomfited look on Wei Wuxian’s face. “I was not happy with this either, but he insisted. And he is probably right that he is in far less danger from Jin Guangyao than any of the rest of us. Despite everything that he has done, I do think Jin Guangyao genuinely cares for my brother.”

“I’m not sure Jin Guangyao is capable of caring for anybody,” Wei Wuxian said.

“I think he is . . . until they’re an obstacle,” Lan Wangji said, “but most of the people who he has killed were ones he always disliked. His brother, his father. Then there are others who were acceptable collateral damage, like you. But Jin Guangyao has never tried to hurt my brother, even after my brother literally caught him red-handed trying to kill Nie Mingjue. And even now – Jin Guangyao seeks to discredit zhangjie and I, not kill us. Part of that might be because he knows to do so would be suspicious. But I think part of the reason is because he knows how much my death would hurt my brother. He seems to want to avoid it if possible.”

“He might change his mind in a hurry if he finds out your brother knows what he’s done.”

“He might,” Lan Wangji agreed, “but my brother can protect himself.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Mn.”

They ate in silence. Lan Wangji picked up the jar of alcohol and poured himself a cup, and Wei Wuxian watched in admitted fascination as he lifted it to his mouth and drank. “How is it, Lan Zhan?”

“It is . . .” Lan Wangji’s gaze immediately went glassy, and Wei Wuxian caught him as he sagged to one side. “Warm,” Lan Wangji murmured.

Wei Wuxian laughed despite himself. “So you’re still a lightweight. Let’s get you into bed.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji nodded. “It is late. It is time to rest.”

That made Wei Wuxian laugh harder. “Some things don’t change, I guess,” he said, helping Lan Wangji over to the bed. He lay down on it, and Wei Wuxian pulled a blanket up over him and reached out to gently caress his cheek. Since Lan Wangji was dead drunk, he said, “Ah, how I missed you, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes closed. His breathing became deep and even.

“Sleep well, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, smiling softly. “I’ll keep watch tonight.”

He had only barely settled at the window with his half-empty jar when he heard stirring behind him, and he turned to see Lan Wangji getting out of bed. He laughed despite himself, remembering that long-past night in Cloud Recesses, when he’d had to continuously put Lan Wangji back to bed. Apparently, his reaction to alcohol was drunken wandering.

“Hey, it’s time to sleep, remember?” he said, getting an arm around Lan Wangji’s waist. “You just said so.”

Lan Wangji gave him a blank, glassy stare, and then reached out and put two fingers over Wei Wuxian’s mouth. Wei Wuxian blinked at him despite himself, startled as Lan Wangji then let go, moved a few steps away, and looked at him expectantly.

“Uh,” Wei Wuxian said. He took a step towards Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji took a step back. Frowning, Wei Wuxian moved towards him again. Lan Wangji retreated and moved behind the table, and at that point, Wei Wuxian realized what he was doing. Amused, he said, “Are you playing with me, Hanguang-Jun?”

“Catch me,” Lan Wangji breathed out, still glassy-eyed and staring.

Wei Wuxian was beside himself with delight. Drunk Lan Wangji was playful. He had probably played games like this with Wen Yuan as a child, and now he wanted to play them with Wei Wuxian. He took a few steps forward and darted to the side, and when Lan Wangji escaped his grasp yet again, Wei Wuxian laughed and said, “I’m gonna get you.”

“Get me,” Lan Wangji echoed.

Happy to oblige, Wei Wuxian feinted right and moved left and then gently bopped Lan Wangji on the nose before retreating. “Now get me.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji chased him around their inn room with surprising vigor and coordination for a man who was blackout drunk. It took him only twenty seconds to get Wei Wuxian by the wrist. Tugging it, he said, “Come with me.”

“Ah, where are we going?” Wei Wuxian asked, puzzled. “Shouldn’t we stay here? It’s safest in the inn . . .”

“Come with me,” Lan Wangji repeated.

“Well, all right,” Wei Wuxian said. He wasn’t especially worried. Nobody in Caiyi Town had recognized him so far and he couldn’t imagine that anyone would. It had been over five years since the last time he had been there. Besides, it was late, and the streets were empty. He could indulge Lan Wangji in this for a little while before bringing him back to the inn and trying to put him back to bed.

So he let Lan Wangji pull him out of the inn and towards the outskirts of town, still unsure of where they were going. Lan Wangji was a little unsteady on his feet, but moving as if he had a definite purpose. He stopped outside a stall, frowning, and then lifted up the gate to let himself in.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, what are you doing?” Wei Wuxian hissed, looking around.

Lan Wangji picked up an entire basket of loquats and thrust them in Wei Wuxian’s direction. “For you.”

“Um . . .” Wei Wuxian looked at the fruit. “Why are you giving me a whole basket of loquats?”

The question seemed to puzzle Lan Wangji, who held them out somehow even more forcefully and repeated, “For you.”

“Okay, thanks . . .” Wei Wuxian took one and bit into it. It was quite good, and he said, “Mmm. Mm mm.” He chewed and swallowed and then took the basket from Lan Wangji, gently setting it down. “I don’t need a whole basket though, okay? These belong to somebody else.”

“You don’t want them?” Lan Wangji asked.

“I mean . . . not really?” Wei Wuxian said, hoping that this wouldn’t upset him.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji took his wrist again and purposefully towed him away. Wei Wuxian shook his head and followed. A few minutes later, they had reached a small house with a large backyard, and Wei Wuxian was momentarily distracted by wondering how far they were from the inn and then Lan Wangji was just casually letting himself into private property again. This time, though, Wei Wuxian could easily see his purpose and found himself laughing. The yard had a large rabbit pen. Lan Wangji stepped over the fence and sat down in the midst of all the rabbits, picking one up and giving it a thorough cuddling.

“You really do like rabbits,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said again, a beautiful smile lighting up his face. He held the rabbit out to Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian accepted it, stepping over the edge of the pen and sitting down with him. “We can’t keep them,” he said. “It would be mean to take them away from their homes. They would miss their families.”

The smile slid off Lan Wangji’s face. “I know.”

Wei Wuxian studied him for a moment. “It must have been so hard for you. Leaving home. You must have missed it so much.”

“Mn. I missed my brother. I did not . . .” Lan Wangji’s face was still a little hazy, but he seemed to be regaining some coherency. “I did not realize I was never going back, when I left. That made it easier. You, though. You knew. When you took the Wen remnants to the Burial Mounds.”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian smoothed down the rabbit’s ears. “I knew.”

He thought Lan Wangji was going to say something profound in response, but instead Lan Wangji picked up another rabbit and began to solemnly sing a nursery rhyme to it. Wei Wuxian laughed so hard he nearly choked trying to remain quiet. “Come on, Lan Zhan, you need to go back to bed.”

Lan Wangji didn’t argue as Wei Wuxian took the confused rabbit from his arms and set it down among the others, then coaxed him into leaving the rabbit pen and then the yard. Wei Wuxian thought the drunken antics were probably over, until Lan Wangji suddenly decided that it was time to go for a swim, and had made it into the river up to his waist by the time Wei Wuxian managed to catch him.

Finally, after that, he managed to get Lan Wangji back to the inn. “Come on, you’re soaked, let’s get you changed,” he said, going into Lan Wangji’s things. “Or will you pass out if I try to undress you?” he added, remembering times this sort of thing had happened in the past.

The answer was a garment flung at his face. He laughed again and hung it over a chair to dry. He was still chuckling when he turned to offer Lan Wangji the dry clothing and his breath caught in his throat. Lan Wangji’s back was bared to him, and covered in scars. “Lan Zhan! What happened?”

Lan Wangji blinked at him, not seeming to comprehend the question. Wei Wuxian stepped over to him and gently ran his fingers along one of the uppermost scars. That, Lan Wangji seemed to understand, but his answer was a perplexing, “For you.”

“For me?” Wei Wuxian didn’t understand. “What does that mean?”

Lan Wangji gave him that same blank stare. “For loving you.”

Wei Wuxian felt his stomach twist. Not for him, but because of him. For loving him. Lan Wangji loved him. “They punished you.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji seemed to have gotten distracted by how close to him Wei Wuxian was. He took Wei Wuxian’s wrist and lifted it to his mouth, pressing a soft kiss into his palm. Wei Wuxian was also instantly distracted, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as Lan Wangji kissed the inside of his wrist, then continued to kiss up his arm. His skin felt suddenly too hot, every nerve in his body focused on the feeling of Lan Wangji’s lips. “Wei Ying.”

“Huh? What?” Wei Wuxian managed, flustered.

Lan Wangji kissed him on the mouth, and it was quite unlike their kisses at Lotus Pier. Those had been frantic and desperate. This one was soft, gentle, without being hesitant. It felt like a promise. “Stay,” Lan Wangji whispered against his lips, before suddenly, forcefully, pulling Wei Wuxian down onto the bed with him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian protested, but Lan Wangji was already asleep, his arms wrapped around Wei Wuxian with so much strength in them, even now, that Wei Wuxian did not see how he could escape. After a few seconds to regain his composure, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but laugh quietly and rest his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “How I missed you, Lan Zhan,” he said again, murmuring the words into Lan Wangji’s hair. He closed his eyes and slept.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Xichen had to take a deep breath as he climbed the steps to Koi Tower. He had not sent a message ahead of time, as he hadn’t wanted to give Jin Guangyao a warning that he was coming. It felt unbearably rude to have done so, but he reminded himself several times that things were not the same as they had been. Regardless of how much of Lan Wangji’s theories were true – and they all fit together so well – the fact remained that Jin Guangyao had tried to, no, had succeeded at, causing Nie Mingjue harm. He needed to answer for that.

But as soon as he entered Koi Tower, he was startled by Qin Su, who rushed up to him. “Oh – oh, thank goodness our message reached you – you’re here so soon, thank goodness – ”

“What happened?” Lan Xichen asked.

Qin Su looked startled. “You didn’t get my message?”

“No. I was already on my way here to discuss – something with A-Yao.”

Qin Su’s eyes filled with tears. “Early this morning – there was an assassination attempt. He is badly injured. I sent a message to you in the hopes that you could help him.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, too startled to argue. Could it be coincidence? Or was it somehow arranged? Was Jin Guangyao actually willing to hurt himself, risk his own life, to avoid the consequences for his schemes?

Given what the consequences were going to be, Lan Xichen thought, he very well might be. But what was the purpose of this? It would only make him easier to subdue.

“Tell me what happened,” he said, as he followed Qin Su briskly down the hall towards their private chambers.

Qin Su nodded and related the story in an anxious voice. They had been eating breakfast. Jin Song was done, and she had been cleaning his face, when there had been a knock on the door. She had gone to answer it, and it had been someone in Jin sect clothing, but nobody she recognized. He said he had a message for Xiandu, so she allowed him in. Then Jin Guangyao had suddenly pushed her aside, having seen that the man was wielding a knife. It pierced his chest on the right side, and she had screamed. The attacker dropped the weapon and fled, and he had not been identified.

“The blade carried some sort of evil energy,” Qin Su said. “He tried to use his own spiritual power on the wound but was not able to heal it. He was trying to reassure me that the injury was minor when he suddenly collapsed. That was several hours ago, and his condition has worsened since.”

Lan Xichen’s frown deepened. That sounded like something with a very high risk factor for Jin Guangyao to have used as a way to avoid consequences. He’d had no way of knowing Lan Xichen was coming –

Unless, of course, he had. Lan Xichen was not ignorant of the fact that Lan Wangji’s comings and goings from Cloud Recesses might have been noticed. There was really only one reason why he might have gone there, and Lan Xichen’s impulse to give Jin Guangyao a chance to explain himself was quite probably easy to predict.

That being considered, he still did not see the point. Jin Guangyao really was ill, he could see the instant he stepped into the room. His face was pale and beaded with sweat, and his hands were gripping at the blanket that someone had put over him. Lan Xichen felt his stomach twist with anxiety at seeing how low his spiritual power had dropped, how the resentful energy that had pierced him was infiltrating his body.

It might be a trap, but it was not a trick. Jin Guangyao would die if Lan Xichen did not take action.

“Er-ge,” he rasped, as Lan Xichen laid a hand on his chest.

“I’m here, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said gently. He let his spiritual power seep into the wound, and grimaced. “A-Yao, the resentful energy in the weapon has split into a number of threads, winding around your vital organs. I will have to remove it very slowly and carefully. Please bear with it.” He looked at Qin Su and said, “Please have someone prepare something to dull the pain and help him relax, and bring cold compresses to help keep his temperature down while I work.”

Qin Su nodded and rushed away.

“Don’t worry,” Lan Xichen said, gently smoothing back Jin Guangyao’s hair. “I’m here now. Everything is going to be all right.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji woke up with a dry mouth and a faint headache, but otherwise felt fit. Wei Wuxian was grinning at him for some reason he could not be sure of, which made him faintly uneasy, but they ate a quick breakfast before departing for Yiling. He again had to take Wei Wuxian on Bichen. His hope that perhaps the loss of his spiritual power was temporary was not proving to be true.

Wei Wuxian seemed strangely unaffected by the loss, and now that Lan Wangji had recovered some from the shock of his return, he found himself wondering about that. He had seemed so confident when he said that his ability to channel resentful energy would not be impeded.

// “Why aren’t you carrying your sword?”

“I just don’t feel like it.” //

Now that Lan Wangji was thinking about it, when was the last time he had seen Wei Wuxian use spiritual power? The last time he could think of was Xuanwu’s Cave. Could it truly have been that long ago? Immediately after that had been the attack on Lotus Pier, and Wei Wuxian’s trip to the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji had assumed, along with everybody else, that he had learned to use the resentful energy after being saturated in it there. That he had continued to use it because it was so powerful, and he had to get revenge for his family.

But had he truly never used it again after that? Not at the crowd hunt. Not at Qiongqi Way when he had rescued the Wen remnants. Not to revive Wen Ning’s consciousness.

// “Where’s your sword?”

“I forgot it.” //

In fact, Lan Wangji thought, when he had made that one trip to the Burial Mounds, Wei Wuxian had almost passed out. Lan Wangji had reached for him to pass him some spiritual energy and Wei Wuxian had flinched away like Lan Wangji had raised a fist. Then Wen Qing has hastily jumped in to intervene, threatening him with her needles, making a joke out of it.

But it didn’t make any sense. Lan Wangji could see how Wei Wuxian might have lost his golden core. They knew he had encountered Wen Zhuliu more than once. It was also possible that the Burial Mounds could have poisoned it or crushed it somehow, making it impossible for him to wield spiritual power. But if that was the case, why hide it? Why not just tell people what had happened? To lose one’s golden core was a terrible tragedy, but if lost to the enemy during battle, it would be considered as honorable as any other debilitating injury.

Lan Wangji shook his head and put the questions away for now. There were still things he had not told Wei Wuxian; he had to give Wei Wuxian the space to have his own secrets, at least for now.

They met up with Wen Ning in Yiling, about a half a mile from where the road that led to the Burial Mounds forked off. “They’ve already started up the mountain,” he said. “They got here about an hour ago. I don’t think they’ve made it very far yet. There are a lot of fierce corpses between them and the top.”

Wei Wuxian grimaced. “Okay. Lan Zhan, why don’t you use Bichen to go ahead of us and wait at the top for them? Wen Ning and I will go up alongside them and try to take care of as many of the fierce corpses as we can, to keep them safe. Maybe see if we can find where Xue Yang has hidden himself.”

Lan Wangji didn’t like the idea of separating, but he thought that whatever would happen when he confronted the others would probably go better without Wei Wuxian. “Very well,” he said, “but be careful.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, and Wen Ning bowed and said, “I’ll keep him safe, Hanguang-Jun.”

Rather than going straight to the top, Lan Wangji took himself down on the road somewhat ahead of the group of cultivators. He could clear more of a path for them. A few times he heard them coming up too close, an easy feat since somebody with them was playing the guqin and doing a terrible job of it. He winced and hoped that the standards for the Gusu Lan hadn’t gotten that low since he had left. But at least it was an easy signal. Any time he started to hear that string of sour notes, he would leap ahead.

He got to the top with enough time to make sure the clearing and the cave were empty of any fierce corpses, which they were. He saw no sign of Xue Yang, but that did not surprise him. The mountains rose around them; it would make sense for him to want an eagle’s eye view of the situation. Hopefully Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning would be able to find and subdue him.

Lan Wangji waited as the first of the cultivators charged into the clearing. He knew most of them, and saw some faces he was glad to see, like Nie Mingjue, but many he utterly loathed, the smaller sect leaders around Yunmeng, as well as Su She, who he had never forgiven, and even his own uncle. He had hoped none of the Lan disciples would be there, but there were no few.

“Wangji, what are you doing here?” Lan Qiren asked, spotting him first. He wore an intense scowl, probably at seeing Lan Wangji at all, let alone in the purple of the Yunmeng Jiang.

“Xiongzhang told me that a party was being marshaled to come here,” Lan Wangji said. “I came to assist. I believe I may have cleared out some of the path for you. The cave is empty; nobody is here.”

“And we’re supposed to take your word on that?” Su She sneered.

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” Nie Mingjue snapped, his temper flaring instantly. “Are you insinuating that he cannot be trusted?”

Su She was cowed, but Lan Qiren said, deliberately, “Search the cave,” and the Lan disciples jumped to do so. Lan Wangji stood in silence, not reacting to the insult. He could not find it within him to care about what his uncle thought.

“Lianfang-Zun is not with you?” he asked Nie Mingjue.

Nie Mingjue shook his head. “He was attacked this morning. An assassination attempt. I got a message from Koi Tower – your brother is with him now, working to heal his injuries.”

Lan Wangji disliked everything about that. Now that they had prevented this from turning into a massacre that could be blamed on Wei Wuxian, he wanted to get to Koi Tower as soon as possible. But they were so far away, and he had expended a lot of spiritual energy for now. Could he leave Wei Wuxian in Yiling with Wen Ning, and go by himself? Would he be safe?

The Lan disciples came out of the cave, and one of them said, “It’s empty,” to Lan Qiren.

Seeing that Lan Qiren was on his side, however begrudgingly, gave Su She the courage to speak up again. “Of course it is. He probably warned the Yiling Patriarch before we got here. Otherwise, why would he not have waited for us and joined the party?”

“That’s right!” Sect Leader Yao, who could always be trusted to serve as an echo chamber for the majority opinion, shouted.

“Maybe he didn’t want to be subjected to your idea of music,” one of the younger Lan disciples muttered.

Lan Wangji gave a snort despite himself. The terrible guqin music, of course it had been Su She.

But no, he realized a beat later. That actually did not make sense. Su She was obnoxious, supercilious, and cowardly. But he was not weak, and he was not unintelligent or lacking in talent. The Gusu Lan had accepted him as an outside disciple, and their standards were very high. He had been educated there, and after leaving, had been powerful enough to form his own sect. Like Jin Guangyao and the Song of Clarity, the chances that he had been playing incorrectly by accident were almost nil.

How many pages were missing from that book?

“Nie-zongzhu,” he asked quickly, taking out the whistle Nie Huaisang had given him, “do you recognize this?”

Nie Mingjue frowned. “It’s that flute that Huaisang got from Guangyao, isn’t it? To play the Song of Clarity. Did he give it to you?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “He wanted to test a theory. He found it difficult to believe Jin Guangyao could have accidentally made mistakes in the song, and wanted to see if the song had damaged you. I brought him here and we tested it, and it had detrimental effect.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Su She sneered.

Lan Wangji ignored him. Nie Mingjue’s frown had deepened, and Lan Wangji continued, “I went to xiongzhang and we looked in the library at Cloud Recesses. My uncle can confirm; he saw me there. There was a book in the forbidden section, a collection of songs called Turmoil, and several pages had been removed, so carefully that it was very difficult to spot.”

Lan Qiren tensed at this. “Turmoil?” he asked, entering the conversation despite what looked like his better judgment. “Those songs are very dangerous.”

“Yes. Nie-zongzhu – may I test a theory?” Lan Wangji asked, and Nie Mingjue nodded. “Will you swing Baxia, and emit some spiritual power?”

“What will it prove?” Nie Mingjue asked, although he grabbed Baxia by the hilt.

“I believe your ability to fight with spiritual power may have been impaired. As you made your way up the mountain, I could hear Su She playing his guqin. He was not playing the standard melodies that would normally be used to fight fierce corpses. I believe it may have been another song from Turmoil.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Su She asked, but Nie Mingjue gestured with one hand and three of his men immediately surrounded Su She and grabbed his arms.

He swung Baxia in a wide arc. A blast of spiritual power came from the blade and hit a tree, which crashed to the ground. Lan Wangji was surprised. Had he been wrong? He had felt so sure.

Then, Nie Mingjue coughed out a mouthful of blood and went to one knee. Lan Qiren hastily supported him. His gaze snapped to Lan Wangji, but Lan Wangji was no longer paying attention to him. A wave of fury had swept over him, unlike any he had ever known. “It was you,” he said to Su She. “The whole time, it was you.”

“I don’t know what – ”

Su She’s mouth snapped shut, and he struggled against the silencing spell as Lan Wangji strode forward. He grabbed the outer lapel of Su She’s hanfu and tore the fabric aside. There was a noise of surprise from many of the bystanders, and Su She seemed stunned. Out of all the things he had expected, a physical attack clearly hadn’t been one of them. He wrenched backwards, out of Lan Wangji’s grip, but it was too late. The evidence on his chest had been revealed.

“Are those curse marks?” somebody asked.

Lan Wangji nodded. “Hundred holes. He is the one who cursed Jin Zixun, which means that he is the one who killed Jin Zixuan – not Wei Ying.”

Another shocked murmur went through the assembled disciples.

Wiping blood from his mouth, Nie Mingjue said, “Wangji, how do you know this?”

“I got the account of the day from Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and simply neglected to specify when. Let them think it was during those three days between Jin Zixuan’s death and Wei Wuxian’s attack on Nightless City. They didn’t need to know Wei Wuxian was back, not yet. “He confessed that he did use Wen Ning to protect himself from the ambush. But Jin Zixuan had arrived to try to warn him, to deescalate the situation. He had no desire to do Jin Zixuan harm. Someone else was there playing a second flute, a tune he did not recognize. It was probably also from Turmoil. That person – Su She – seized control of Wen Ning and used him to kill Jin Zixuan.”

“I don’t see any reason Su She would have had to kill Jin Zixuan,” Lan Qiren said stiffly. “Nor could he possibly have had any way of accessing the forbidden section of the library.”

Su She vigorously agreed.

“Su She was working for Jin Guangyao,” Lan Wangji said.

Somebody else in the background spoke up, shouting, “How dare you say that Xiandu would do such a thing? Taking the word of the Yiling Patriarch over that of the Chief Cultivator – this is why you cannot be trusted!”

Nie Mingjue, however, had fallen silent. After a moment, he said, “You said you and Huaisang tested out the song Guangyao played for me. This is the evidence you brought to Xichen, for him to allow you into the forbidden section of the library at Cloud Recesses?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.

“And he believed you?”

“He did not like to, but by the time we reached the end, yes, he believed me. He went to Koi Tower to apprehend Jin Guangyao. I believe this ‘assassination attempt’ was some sort of ruse. We must get to Lanling as soon as possible.”

“But – ” Sect Leader Ouyang sounded perplexed. “But then who’s called back all the fierce corpses? Who’s responsible for everything that’s happened lately?”

“Funny you should ask that!” a voice called out from above them, and Wen Ning jumped down from a higher slope with a squirming, struggling Xue Yang pinned in his grip. Wei Wuxian lightly jumped down beside him. Several people screamed.

“Is that – ” Nie Mingjue began, his eyes widening slightly.

Lan Wangji had to resist the urge to say words that should not have been in his vocabulary. Of course Wei Wuxian would choose to make a grand entrance now, just as Lan Wangji had most of the people believing him and ready to do what was necessary. But he saw the somewhat apologetic look on Wei Wuxian’s face and the blood running down his chin and understood that it hadn’t been his first choice. “Are you hurt?”

“Yeah, this little fucker is brutal,” Wei Wuxian said, unperturbed by all the cultivators pointing swords at him. Wen Ning pinned Xue Yang to the ground as he continued to struggle.

“How is he here?” Lan Qiren asked between gritted teeth.

Only one possible answer could suit, and that was the truth. Lan Wangji said, “Jin Guangyao knew that I had discovered what he had done. In an effort to discredit me, he started making it look like Wei Ying had returned so he could accuse Jiang-zongzhu and I of sheltering him. However, overuse and incorrect use of the Stygian Tiger Amulet actually did bring him back.”

“And you did shelter him!” Sect Leader Yao shouted.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said, “because I understood him to be innocent of the crimes of which he was accused.”

Nie Mingjue’s jaw tightened. “Wangji, I’ll believe you about the Song of Clarity, and I’ll even believe you about Jin Zixuan. But there is no getting around what Wei Wuxian did at Nightless City. He killed hundreds of people.”

“I did,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. “Out of rage, out of grief, mostly out of madness, after the deaths of the people I had been protecting. I won’t deny it. I’ll face whatever consequences the cultivation world deems necessary after this is over. But I’m not the one responsible for what’s been happening over the past few days. That has all been Xue Yang, with the remnants of my amulet that the Jin sect kept after my death.” He lifted his hand and gave Chenqing to Lan Wangji. “I’m unarmed. I’m without spiritual power – it didn’t cross back over with me. Consider me your prisoner if you like. Whatever gets us to Lanling fastest – because I’m deeply worried that Zewu-Jun is in terrible danger.”

After a moment, Nie Mingjue nodded, but then he frowned. “If all of us have been affected by the loss of spiritual power, then only Wangji is fit to fight. How are we going to – ”

His realization came a moment too late. Su She drew his sword and slashed vigorously at the men around him, darted half a dozen feet away, and then drew a talisman that caused him to vanish in a puff of smoke. Several of the disciples, trying to catch him on instinct, ended up on their knees, coughing up blood.

Xue Yang tried to make a similar escape, but Wen Ning kept him pressed to the ground. Xue Yang swore in a variety of colorful language, and Nie Mingjue’s gaze snapped over to him. “Xue Yang. You were sentenced to execution long ago. That can be done here and now and save us all some time.”

“But he might have information,” Lan Wangji said. “He can testify as to what Jin Guangyao has done.”

Xue Yang laughed, the noise echoing through the clearing.

Wei Wuxian shook his head wearily and said, “He won’t tell us anything, and even if he did, none of the people who matter would believe him anyway. I say better to take one of Jin Guangyao’s pieces off the board.”

“Very well,” Lan Wangji said, and drew Bichen. “Do you have any last words?”

Xue Yang bared his teeth in a grin. “Don’t expect me to be gone long.”

Lan Wangji knew that this was quite possibly true. Xue Yang wasn’t a member of the gentry. He’d had no soul-soothing ceremonies performed. Given his personality, the odds that he would come back as a vengeful ghost were not small. But it was a risk worth taking. If he did, he could be suppressed and eliminated. Lan Wangji brought down the sword.

Wei Wuxian quickly searched the body and pulled out the shards of amulet. These, too, he handed to Lan Wangji. He quickly sealed them into a spirit pouch and turned to Nie Mingjue. “I cannot carry both you and Wei Ying all the way to Lanling. How long do you estimate it will take your spiritual power to return?”

Nie Mingjue gestured to one of his men, apparently a doctor, who verified there was no permanent damage and estimated it would take about four hours for his spiritual power to recover. “I’ll be of more use in Lanling than he will be,” Nie Mingjue said.

“I will not leave him behind,” Lan Wangji said.

For a long moment, Nie Mingjue frowned at him, clearly deep in thought. But then he nodded. “Get your brother to safety.”

Lan Wangji nodded and grabbed Wei Wuxian by the wrist. Wei Wuxian called out, “Wen Ning! Head back to Yunmeng. I’ll find you there.”

Several of the cultivators protested, but Wen Ning was already gone, and without spiritual power, there was nothing they could do to stop him. Moments later, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were in the air.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

After several hours, Jin Guangyao’s condition had stabilized, and Lan Xichen was exhausted. He accepted the cup of tea that Qin Su brought him, sipping it while Jin Guangyao slept peacefully. At least, he thought, Jin Guangyao would also need several hours to recover. He would be in no shape to go anywhere for a little while. Even low on spiritual power himself, it would be relatively easy for Lan Xichen to subdue him.

It was evening by the time Jin Guangyao’s eyes opened. He saw Lan Xichen sitting by his bed, and a slight smile touched his face. “Er-ge . . . thank you.”

Lan Xichen nodded. He looked over at the room’s other occupants and said, “Would you please give us some privacy?”

They agreed, and shuffled out of the room. Lan Xichen was left sitting for a few moments, trying to think of what to say. He had tried to think of what to say for most of his trip to Lanling, and never come up with anything.

Finally, he said, “A-Yao . . . why did you hurt Mingjue-xiong the way you did?”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes went slightly wide. Lan Xichen thought he probably had been expecting Lan Xichen to ask if he had done it, not why he had done it. But Lan Xichen wasn’t about to give him a chance to deny it. He knew what Jin Guangyao had done. He believed what Lan Wangji had told him about testing the songs. All the pieces came together, and he hated the picture they made but it was undeniable.

“I’m so sorry,” Jin Guangyao finally said. “I was just – I was so angry at him, er-ge. He didn’t think I deserved to be Chief Cultivator. He wouldn’t support me. When he demanded I return Xue Yang to Qinghe even though I told him Xue Yang was no longer with the Jin sect, he humiliated me in front of a dozen people.”

“He is your brother!” Lan Xichen protested, trying to keep his voice even. “You swore an oath that you would never hurt or betray him! How could you?”

Jin Guangyao looked away and whispered, “He betrayed me first.”

“He didn’t! Not supporting you in every goal is not the same as a betrayal.”

“He exiled me from Qinghe!” Jin Guangyao squeezed his eyes shut. “No. You’re right. What I did was unforgivable, and I won’t ask you to forgive me. I regretted it right away. When you caught me, it was like fate telling me that what I was doing was wrong. I never, ever tried to hurt him again after that moment. You know I didn’t. That was over a year ago now, er-ge . . . I never hurt him again.”

Lan Xichen pinched the bridge of his nose and fought tears. He knew what Jin Guangyao was doing, he could see what Jin Guangyao was doing, making himself look small and weak, presenting himself as being in pain because he knew that Lan Xichen hated to see him in pain. And if it had only been Nie Mingjue, it might have worked. But the rest of it. He had not even scraped the surface of what Jin Guangyao had done.

“What are you doing to do, er-ge?” Jin Guangyao asked quietly, tears sliding down his cheeks. “If you tell him, he’ll kill me. You know he will.”

“A-Yao . . .” Lan Xichen didn’t know what to say. How could he say that Jin Guangyao deserved execution? But how could he not?

There was a sudden bang and a puff of air and Lan Xichen blinked in sudden discomfiture as a man appeared in the room. It took him a moment to recognize him as Su She, one of his least favorite people. How had he just appeared like that? The teleportation talisman was a difficult spell; he would not have thought Su She would be capable of it –

“Minshan?” Jin Guangyao asked, clearly also surprised.

Su She, heaving for breath, only shook his head.

Jin Guangyao closed his eyes for an instant, and leaned forward, resting his head on Lan Xichen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, er-ge,” he murmured. “I’m so sorry for everything.”

“It’s all – ” Lan Xichen began automatically, and then cut himself off, because it wasn’t all right, nothing was all right and it seemed likely nothing would be all right ever again. But before he could think of what he should say, he felt Jin Guangyao give two sudden, strong taps to his chest. Instinctively, he reached inside for spiritual power and found it blocked. He stared at Jin Guangyao, this stranger who sat in the bed right next to him, and felt – afraid. It was so rare for him to feel afraid, but he did, because he did not know what could possibly happen now.

“I don’t want to hurt you, er-ge,” Jin Guangyao said softly. “I never, ever want to hurt you. Will you come with me?”

Stunned past the point of thought, Lan Xichen could only manage a nod.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

“So that went pretty well, I think,” Wei Wuxian said, after they had been in the air for a few minutes.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed.

“How much of it did you get through?”

“Only the Song of Clarity and Jin Zixuan’s death. Nie-zongzhu is intelligent enough to realize on his own that Jin Guangyao killed his father – like zhangjie and I, he might have suspected at the time but decided to let it go because of how awfully Jin Guangshan treated him.”

“That’s good enough, I guess,” Wei Wuxian said.

Lan Wangji was silent for a long minute.

“Why are you angry at me?” Wei Wuxian asked.

He half-expected Lan Wangji wouldn’t answer, but after a few moments, he bit out, “Why did you offer to face punishment? There are still people who are bitterly angry over what you did. They will advocate for your execution.”

“That’s their right,” Wei Wuxian said. “If I killed people they cared about, they have a right to demand that.”

“But what then? What happens when your sister and I defend you? Look at the position you’re putting zhangjie in. Even if xiongzhang backs her up, many sect leaders will be angry. You cannot expect her to simply abandon you again – or me, for that matter. You know this. So why would you offer such a thing?”

“Because I had to! There was no other way Nie-zongzhu or any of the others were going to let me walk away. What I did at Nightless City – there’s no getting around that, like Nie-zongzhu said. Yes, I was grieving, yes, I was in pain, and I sure as hell wasn’t in my right mind, but none of that excuses what I did.”

“You were attacked and defended yourself,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian said nothing for a long moment, before finally: “I trust you and zhangjie to make the choices you need to make.”

“Which sounds like you think we should throw you to the wolves,” Lan Wangji said, his voice still tight with anger.

Wei Wuxian sighed. “No, I don’t expect either of you to do that, even if you should. I just think that if you two are stubborn enough, and given the extenuating factors, they’ll agree that being dead for three years and losing my golden core was punishment enough.”

Lan Wangji was silent for another minute. “And if they figure out you lost your golden core years ago? What then?”

Wei Wuxian was so startled that he nearly lost his grip on Lan Wangji, which was keeping him in the air. “You – how did you – ” He gathered himself and changed his question to, “What do you mean?”

“You lost it during the Sunshot Campaign, didn’t you? In the Burial Mounds, or right beforehand. That’s why you never picked Suibian back up.” Lan Wangji was quiet for a second while Wei Wuxian fought the twisting in his guts. “I don’t know how. And I don’t understand why you didn’t just tell us. But if anyone else puts the pieces together, it could cause a problem.”

“Then let’s hope they don’t,” Wei Wuxian said, and hoped that would be enough.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji said, and fell silent.

After a long moment, Wei Wuxian rested his forehead on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, his arms hugging tighter around Lan Wangji’s waist. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said softly. “How I lost it.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Lan Wangji said. “But if you do, I will listen.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Thanks, Lan Zhan.”

They made the rest of the trip in silence. Lan Wangji was clearly preoccupied worrying about his brother, pushing as hard as he could to make the trip as fast as possible. It was still quite late when they got there, but they were barely halfway up the steps when someone came running down to meet them. It was Nie Huaisang. He did a double take when he saw Wei Wuxian and immediately launched into, “Okay, I’ve clearly missed a few things since I last talked to you. Nice to see you again, Wei-xiong. Come with me, both of you.”

“My brother – ” Lan Wangji began.

“He’s not here. Quick, before someone sees you – bringing the Yiling Patriarch here, honestly, Lan-xiong – ”

“Everyone saw me at the Burial Mounds anyway,” Wei Wuxian said, but didn’t protest as Nie Huaisang dragged them back into the city and through the backdoor of an inn, then up to a room. “What’s going on?”

“Someone attempted to assassinate Jin Guangyao this morning,” Nie Huaisang said. “Maybe it was someone he paid off to injure him, I don’t know. But the injury was serious. Xichen-ge got here late morning and spent most of the afternoon healing him. I was trying to stay nearby because I knew he had to be here to confront Jin Guangyao and I wasn’t sure what would happen when he did. But then – Qin Su went in to bring them some tea and they were both gone.”

Lan Wangji cursed softly. “But we don’t have any idea where they’ve gone?”

“I might, but I can’t be sure. So last year, a brothel in Yunmeng burned down, and I knew Jin Guangyao grew up at a brothel in Yunmeng so I asked a few questions and found out that it was the same one. Then a few months ago, I was snooping around his things and found he had bought the deed to the land.”

“You think he went there to hide out?” Wei Wuxian asked, inwardly groaning at the idea of having gone all the way to Lanling when Yunmeng was so much closer.

“Not yet. He hasn’t put anything there yet; he hasn’t had time. But I think I know why he bought it. Because he had talked about building a temple to honor his mother and moving her remains there. She died when he was twelve, you know, and he loved her so much even though he doesn’t really talk about it. She was still a prostitute when she died so she would have gotten a very unceremonious burial. I think he decided to run, and went to go get her.”

“And we have no idea where she was buried,” Wei Wuxian said.

“No, we don’t, but Sisi does – ”

“Who’s Sisi?” Wei Wuxian asked, then waved this off. “Never mind, you can explain later.”

“She told me where to go; it’s in Yunmeng.”

“Of course it is,” Wei Wuxian said. He looked anxiously at Lan Wangji and said, “You’ve already used up so much spiritual power today. We can’t possibly ride the sword.”

“They’ll be traveling in a mundane fashion themselves,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’m sure Jin Guangyao would have sealed Xichen-ge’s spiritual power, and he doesn’t have enough strength to take Xichen-ge on Hensheng with him, even if he wasn’t worried about whether or not Xichen-ge was going to be a compliant hostage.”

“So we might be able to get there in time,” Lan Wangji said. “In a place like that, the graves might not be clearly marked. It would take him time to locate his mother’s and then dig up her remains. Nie-xiong, when did they leave?”

“About two hours ago,” Nie Huaisang said.

“We can make it,” Wei Wuxian said.

Nie Huaisang nodded. “I’ve already got the boat ready. I was just waiting for you, so let’s go.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Xichen spent most of the boat ride to Yunmeng sitting in numb silence. Jin Guangyao would not look at him, although he occasionally approached to reseal Lan Xichen’s spiritual power, which Lan Xichen allowed without argument. There were another half a dozen Jin disciples on the boat, most of whom were occupied with using their cultivation to speed the boat along. Lan Xichen was grateful for that; the trip was awkward enough without it lasting the typical three days.

He slept when night fell, because he supposed he might as well and he was exhausted by the day’s labor. When the sun rose, one of the disciples brought him tea and a light breakfast, which he ate. Jin Guangyao sealed his spiritual power again, and Lan Xichen said nothing.

As the day drew on, however, he finally scraped enough composure back together to ask, “Where are we going?”

“There’s something I need to pick up,” Jin Guangyao said. “And then I’ll be on my way out of all of your hair. I won’t cause you any more trouble, er-ge. It’s abundantly clear that my tenure as Chief Cultivator is over, and the further I get away from those who will want to punish me for my crimes, the better.”

“And what do you need me for?” Lan Xichen asked. “You say you don’t wish to harm me, but isn’t that why I’m along? So you can threaten to do so, if Mingjue-xiong or Wangji catches up with you?”

Jin Guangyao managed a faint smile. “Let us hope that they don’t, and then it won’t come up.”

Lan Xichen fell silent again.

It was evening when the boat docked. Lan Xichen followed Jin Guangyao through a city he had never been to before, first through the busy port area and then to the outskirts, where there was an empty field with grave markers. Jin Guangyao paced among them for several minutes before he stopped and gently touched one, with respect, with reverence. “This one here,” he said to the disciples, and they walked over and began to dig.

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, still using the term of endearment despite himself, “what are we doing? Who is buried here?”

“My mother.” Jin Guangyao did not look at him, staring out at the graveyard. “I wasn’t able to give her a proper burial. I was still young when she died. I meant to build her a temple – had even purchased a place for it. I clearly won’t be able to do that here, but I would still like to try someday.”

Lan Xichen’s heart ached. “Where will you go?”

“I don’t know. East to Dongying, perhaps, or maybe south to one of the cities on the ocean, where I can blend in and nobody will notice me. I have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my life.”

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, searching for the right question to ask, for something that would help him understand. What came out was, “Did you kill your brother?”

Jin Guangyao glanced over at him and then looked away again. But he answered steadily. “Technically, no, but to answer the real question, did I arrange his death, yes.”

“Why?” Lan Xichen asked. “A-Yao, why? I understand why you killed your father. I can’t approve of it but I can’t blame you for it either. But Jin Zixuan – why would you have killed him? Was it really so you could be Sect Leader after your father was gone?”

“Why is that such a hard thing to grasp?” Jin Guangyao asked. “Of course it was so I could be Sect Leader.”

“But how could you? Jin Zixuan was a good man. He had just had a child!”

“The timing was unfortunate,” Jin Guangyao said, as if this was a concession. “I had to take the opportunity when it arose, which was Jin Zixun’s planned ambush. But that’s really neither here nor there. Er-ge, can’t you see? Ever since I was born, everything I could have had, everything I should have had, I was denied. I was forced to live in the gutter, to endure all manner of harsh treatment that you cannot even imagine! Meanwhile, Jin Zixuan had every luxury. Everything he wanted was handed to him on a silver platter. Why should I have not hated him?”

“To be jealous of him, I understand,” Lan Xichen said. “But to kill him? It wasn’t his fault! He couldn’t have stopped people from giving him things. He became a decent man despite how spoiled he was. He might not have been perfect, but he was not to blame for what happened to you! How can you not see that?”

Jin Guangyao said nothing for a long moment. Then he glanced up. “Ah, it’s starting to rain,” he said. “Come underneath the awning with me, er-ge. We would not want you to get soaked.”

Lan Xichen stared at him for several seconds before he moved underneath the awning. He watched the men dig in silence, unsure of what else to say, what else he could say. “Even . . . even if killing your brother could be understood, what you did to Wei Wuxian . . . framing him for that horrific crime, having all the Wen remnants executed . . . driving him to the point of madness . . . hundreds upon hundreds of cultivators died at Nightless City. Their blood is on your hands.”

“I’m sorry, er-ge. I knew he would react violently but that level of destruction . . . I didn’t want that to happen.” Jin Guangyao gave him an appealing look. “Can’t you try to understand, er-ge? Don’t you know how much I suffered?”

“Of course I do!” Lan Xichen said. “I understand that your life was difficult. That people treated you terribly. That even after you were legitimized, things only barely improved. But I will never, ever understand why you did some of the things you did. This plan you had, to hurt Mingjue-xiong, it – it was monstrous! To slowly drive him to qi deviation? Using music you stole from my sect? How did your mind even come up with such a thing? How, how twisted have you become that such a thing would even occur to you as a possibility, let alone a plan of action?”

“I’m sorry,” Jin Guangyao repeated, his eyes filling with tears. “Er-ge, I’m sorry. Joining the Jin sect – it changed me. The things my father had me do – do you even know what sort of man he really was? I spent years doing his dirty work, digging up the dirty laundry of people who opposed them, creating it when there was none. I learned bribery and extortion and blackmail on levels that I had never even dreamed existed. Maybe I am twisted, er-ge. But I never meant to hurt you. I swear, I never wanted to hurt you.”

“How can you say that?” Lan Xichen found that he was weeping as well. “After everything you’ve done, how can you possibly look me in the eye and say you never wanted to hurt me? You tried to kill one of my best friends! And what you did to Wei-gongzi – not just to kill him but to turn the whole world against him – how can you say you never meant to hurt me when you all but ripped the beating heart out of my brother’s chest? The pain he’s endured over the past few years – was that just not supposed to affect me? My brother left the Gusu Lan because of what you did! And you, all these years, you comforted me and advised me and helped me deal with the aftermath of what had happened to him, all the while knowing that you were the one responsible! How dare you tell me that you never wanted to hurt me? Do you even understand what those words mean?”

Jin Guangyao looked taken aback, his usual smile frozen on his face. After a very long moment, he said softly, “You’re upset. I understand. I will leave you alone. They should be finished soon anyway.” He glanced over his shoulder at the men digging in the rain. “No matter what happened or what will happen, no matter what you think of me . . . I will always be grateful to you for everything you’ve done for me.” He took a step back and bowed low. “Farewell, er-ge.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji spent the first part of the boat ride sleeping, to regain his spiritual power as quickly as possible. Once he did, although he didn’t have the strength to ride the sword and take Wei Wuxian with him, he pushed the boat along as quickly as possible. Nie Huaisang helped a little, although as usual, his help was limited. He asked about what had happened at the Burial Mounds and said he hoped his brother would catch up with them soon.

It was surprising – and a little heartwarming – to see Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang chatting together like no time had passed at all. Nie Huaisang was talking about his birds and his art, and Wei Wuxian told him about how they had built a home in the Burial Mounds. Nie Huaisang knew all the social gossip and told him about all the politics that had been happening while he was gone.

“Ah, this is it,” Nie Huaisang said, as they approached a set of docks. “I don’t see any other boats from the Lanling Jin, but he might not have taken one.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji had enough spiritual power that he almost couldn’t restrain himself from jumping to the docks and going on ahead. He managed to wait until they had the boat tied up to leap ahead of them. Nie Huaisang had already told him approximately where to go.

It was raining in Yunmeng: a hard, cold rain. Lan Wangji had to shield his face to keep too much of it from going directly into his eyes as he rushed through the city. He was in such haste that he almost went past the graveyard completely.

The graves were surrounded by a stone wall, and sitting on that stone wall was Lan Xichen. He was drenched and looked miserable, and lifted his gaze when Lan Wangji jogged towards him. “It’s too late,” he said quietly. “He’s gone.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but study Lan Wangji in consternation as he was hustled through the gates of Lotus Pier. He tried to protest. Shouldn’t they be stealthy about this? Wouldn’t people recognize him and be unhappy? But Lan Wangji was too preoccupied with his brother to really worry about that.

Jiang Yanli looked similarly surprised at the group of them coming in, somewhat bedraggled, but immediately said, “I’ve heard about what happened at the Burial Mounds, in great detail, from Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu. Ah, Zewu-Jun, are you all right? Let us get you into some dry clothes and I’ll make you some tea.”

She bundled the group of them into one of the rooms used for family meals in bad weather, and directed some of the staff to bring tea and dry clothes. Then she walked over and took Wei Wuxian’s hands in hers, squeezing tightly. “Welcome home, A-Xian.”

Wei Wuxian nearly choked on the, “Thank you, shijie,” but he managed to keep his voice in one octave, which was about all he could hope for.

“Where are Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu?” Nie Huaisang, apparently the only one who was up to caring about the politics of the situation, asked.

“In the sword hall, bitching and moaning about everything,” Jiang Yanli said, and Wei Wuxian let out an abrupt, delighted laugh to hear his sister say such a thing. “Where is Jin Guangyao?”

“He escaped,” Lan Wangji said, helping his brother out of his soaked outer robe. “He kept xiongzhang as his hostage, which he turned out not to need, and then left him behind.”

“He said he would head east to Dongying,” Lan Xichen murmured, “or perhaps south to one of the coastal cities.”

“I will write da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said. “He can organize some Nie disciples, and probably some Jin disciples, since he’s likely at Koi Tower by now, to search for him.”

Wei Wuxian doubted that would come to much, but Nie Mingjue was very dedicated, so he supposed it was a possibility. He thought he should probably care more about this. Jin Guangyao had done such terrible things. But he, too, had done terrible things. Some of the things Jin Guangyao had done wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for him. He wouldn’t have been able to use Wen Ning to kill Jin Zixuan if Wei Wuxian hadn’t turned Wen Ning into a weapon. The fierce corpse that had attacked Jiang Cheng at Nightless City under Su She’s direction wouldn’t have been animated at all if Wei Wuxian hadn’t showed up for a massacre.

He was too tired and conflicted to deal with any of it. Let Nie Mingjue chase Jin Guangyao all over the world if that would make him feel better.

Jiang Yanli seemed to feel the same, saying firmly, “We will deal with all of it tomorrow. It is already late, and you must have pushed hard to get here. Nie-gongzi, since you are writing to your brother, and you believe he is at Koi Tower, he can notify Jin-furen of what has occurred. I will write to Lan-furen to let her know that Zewu-Jun is here and that he is safe. Right now, everyone needs dry clothes, food, and rest.”

Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure where he was supposed to go, so he waited in the corner and drank a few cups of tea while Lan Wangji spoke quietly with his brother. Lan Xichen said he was all right, just tired and upset.

“I will stay with him, A-Zhan,” Jiang Yanli said gently. “Why don’t you take A-Xian back to your room for some rest.”

“What about the other cultivators who are demanding answers?” Lan Wangji asked.

Jiang Yanli smiled. “The other cultivators can wait.”

“I’ll go explain things to them!” Nie Huaisang volunteered. “Once I’ve been talking for five minutes they’ll all decide they don’t want to know anyway.”

Wei Wuxian gave a snort. Lan Wangji shook his head, but there was that slight upturn at one corner of his mouth. “Very well. I will go with Wei Ying and get some rest.” He gestured for Wei Wuxian to follow, which he did. He wished he could see Wen Yuan, but supposed it was past his bedtime, given how late it was. As much as Lan Wangji had loosened up, Wei Wuxian was sure that he still imposed strict bedtimes.

He was a little surprised when they got back to the room where he had lived when he was a child, then really looked around it for the first time. Saw the closet full of white and purple clothing, the books on the shelves, the art hung on the walls. “I didn’t realize when we were here a few days ago, but this . . . this is your room now, isn’t it.”

“Mn. When I came to stay here after leaving Cloud Recesses, your sister asked if I would like to stay here. I will return it to you if you wish.”

“What? No. I mean – ” Flustered, afraid he had given the completely wrong impression, Wei Wuxian spoke hastily, without thinking. “I mean, I’d like to stay in it, it’s my room, but it’s your room too now, so I guess it’s our room? If that’s all right. Which I hope it is.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji was giving that beautiful soft smile again. “You still talk too much.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said, entranced by how close Lan Wangji’s face was to his own. “I guess you’ll have to stop me somehow.”

Lan Wangji leaned in, but then stopped, and Wei Wuxian almost groaned in frustration as he didn’t get the kiss he was waiting for. But Lan Wangji was looking at him with a serious expression. “Wei Ying. What am I to you?”

Wei Wuxian could barely breathe. “What do you see me as?”

Holding his gaze steadily, Lan Wangji said, “My soulmate. Always.”

“I am,” Wei Wuxian whispered. “Lan Zhan, I am and always will be.”

Lan Wangji kissed him, and kissed him again, and again, and again.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“You must think I’m such a fool,” Lan Xichen said quietly, into the silence that had permeated the guest house that Jiang Yanli was sitting with him in.

“What? Of course not,” Jiang Yanli said, squeezing his hand. “Why would I think that?”

“You told me, years ago, that A-Yao had murdered his father. It was so obvious to everyone else. Yet even after you pointed it out to me, I didn’t believe you.”

Jiang Yanli sighed. “I do not think you’re a fool for wanting to believe the best in a man you cared for. Were you perhaps a little naïve? Yes. But Jin Guangyao was also very clever, and I’m sure he was careful never to let you see anything that might lead you to question the opinion of him that you formed when he saved your life before the Sunshot Campaign.”

After a long moment, Lan Xichen nodded. “I really didn’t know him at all, did I.”

“No,” Jiang Yanli said. “I don’t think any of us did. And if it makes you feel better at all, Zewu-Jun, even though I suspected he killed his father, it never occurred to me that he’d had anything to do with my husband’s death. A-Zhan is the one who realized that, and even now I’m not sure if that’s because he accurately assessed Jin Guangyao or because he was just so desperate to believe that A-Xian would not have done such a thing.”

Lan Xichen gave another nod, and let go of her hand so he could take a drink of his tea. “Will you tell me all of it? What you and Wangji found, and how? I think there are things he left out, not wanting to upset me.”

“Of course.” Jiang Yanli wasn’t sure if Lan Wangji would be thrilled with that, but she felt that Lan Xichen deserved to know. So she started with the arguments over Jin Ling’s future, over watching Jin Guangyao quietly burn with rage over the unfairness at the way his father treated him, ending in his death. She told Lan Xichen about how they had doubted Jin Guangyao could have made the mistakes in the Song of Clarity by accident, and how it had led them to see the pattern, the poisoning of Yu Zixia, their investigation into Jin Guangshan’s death. She told him about Nie Huaisang coming to see them, about how he had found Sisi, and she told him about the attack on Lotus Pier while Qin Su and Jin Song were staying there.

The one thing she did not tell him was about Qin Su’s parentage. That was not her secret to tell. She knew Lan Wangji had not told Nie Huaisang, either. The potential consequences for Jin Song were nightmarish. It was something that Lan Xichen simply did not need to know.

When she was finally finished, Lan Xichen shook his head and murmured, again, “I really didn’t know him at all.”

“I think some of what he told us was true,” Jiang Yanli said. “I think he was suffering, that he was filled with rage and pain that had a very real, very valid source. I think the fact that he killed his father is honestly understandable, which is why I didn’t care too much about it at the time. And I think . . . the more terrible things he did, the more he felt able to justify them. Maybe that was in part because of the things he did for his father, when he was still alive. I will never forgive him. But I don’t think we need to, Zewu-Jun.”

“I could have let him die,” Lan Xichen said. “Whether he planned that attack on himself or not, when I got to Koi Tower, he was dying. I knew then, that he had killed his father and quite probably his brother, that he had tried to kill Mingjue-xiong. All I had to do was nothing. But I couldn’t, and now he’s escaped.”

Jiang Yanli reached out and squeezed his hand again. “That’s not the sort of person you are, Zewu-Jun. Nobody would have expected you to stand by and watch him die, even knowing what he had done.”

“I wish I had,” Lan Xichen said. “I wish I was that sort of person.”

“No, you don’t,” Jiang Yanli said quietly. “You’re grieving, and you’re in pain, and I understand. But you don’t wish for that.”

Lan Xichen closed his eyes and let his head rest in his hands.

“The world needs more people like you, Zewu-Jun. People who will always choose kindness, even in terrible circumstances. It doesn’t make you weak, or foolish. To choose kindness in such a harsh world is one of the strongest things you can do. If our society was filled with men like you, instead of men like Jin Guangshan, then Jin Guangyao might have been a very different person.”

After a moment, Lan Xichen nodded and whispered, “But I still couldn’t save him.”

Jiang Yanli was quiet for a moment. “Do you remember what you told your brother? About how you wanted to build a sect that he would be proud to be a member of?”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Although it’s desperately slow going.”

“I know. And this will be slower still. But let us vow right here that we will build a world that will not create another Jin Guangyao.”

A faint smile touched Lan Xichen’s lips, although some tears spilled over as well. “Agreed,” he said.

Jiang Yanli wiped his tears away. “Get some rest, Zewu-Jun. Things will look better in the morning.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji woke at dawn, as always, but for the first time in years, did not immediately climb out of bed. He was warm and comfortable and Wei Wuxian was sprawled out on top of him, a heavy, solid reminder that he was there and he was alive. Lan Wangji idly stroked his hand up and down Wei Wuxian’s back, reveling not just in his presence but at how peaceful he seemed, how he was willing to be so vulnerable with him.

It was nearly another hour before Wei Wuxian woke up, and he did so in a truly endearing manner, with a snort and a bleary-eyed glance around before he let his head drop back onto Lan Wangji’s shoulder with a content sigh. “G’morn,” he murmured into Lan Wangji’s hair.

“Good morning,” Lan Wangji said softly.

They lay in silence for several long minutes, Wei Wuxian’s breath pressed into Lan Wangji’s neck, Lan Wangji’s fingers tangling in Wei Wuxian’s hair.

“I gave it to Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian finally said.

Lan Wangji stiffened slightly, and he realized of course, of course, it made so much sense. It was absolutely the sort of thing that Wei Wuxian would do, and to be honest it was much more plausible than finding Baoshan Sanren on a mountain. Everything that had happened afterwards suddenly looked so different. He gently stroked Wei Wuxian’s hair and asked, “Why did you keep it a secret?”

“He would have been so upset,” Wei Wuxian said. “I just didn’t want to hurt him. I wanted him to be okay. I thought we could all just . . . move on from it, somehow. But it didn’t work.”

“No,” Lan Wangji said, “but that was not your fault.”

“I guess not. I just wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t kept it a secret. If I had told him and shijie, or even if I had told you.”

“I don’t know,” Lan Wangji said. “But I understand why you didn’t. And I understand now that I didn’t understand, that I didn’t realize how much pain you were in. Perhaps that is partially my fault. I thought of your use of resentful energy as brought on by arrogance. I never realized it was out of necessity. Perhaps I should have. I knew you. I should have known better.”

“I don’t know that you did, though,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t know that anyone really knew me back then.”

“I know you now,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian managed a smile. “Yes, you do.”

Lan Wangji kissed him, and Wei Wuxian kissed him back, and they traded kisses back and forth for several moments.

When Lan Wangji pulled away, he said, “After your death, I went to the Burial Mounds. I wanted to save your things. I was . . . not entirely myself, to be honest. Your death brought me so much grief, but also so much guilt. It was as if, by saving your things, I could save you. There were many others already there – scavengers from all different sects. I grew angry and fought them. This is why I was punished – partly for injuring other cultivators, and partly for trying to defend you after your death.”

“Those scars . . .” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “The recovery must have been brutal.”

“It was. This is why I first came to live at Lotus Pier. I could not care for A-Yuan without hurting myself, but the thought of letting him go, letting the elders raise him, was agonizing to me. It was zhangjie who convinced me that I should think of what was best for him, and that was to bring him to Lotus Pier and raise him here.”

“That’s shijie for you,” Wei Wuxian said, smiling slightly.

“The elders were extremely upset. I had been sentenced to three years of seclusion and repentance. They ordered xiongzhang to come get me, and take me back to Cloud Recesses to be imprisoned, but he refused.”

“Good for him.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was very difficult for him, and they were extremely angry at him afterwards.” Lan Wangji shook his head. “But none of this was the reason I left the sect. I did that because living here taught me things. They taught me that discipline didn’t mean pain. That there was a difference between obedience built on fear and obedience built on respect. That people need to be able to express their emotions without worrying about being punished for them. I left the Gusu Lan because the Gusu Lan is wrong about so many things, and I . . . I needed to be able to breathe. Your sister finally let me breathe.”

Wei Wuxian pressed a kiss against his temple. “I’m so happy the two of you had each other all these years.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji turned and let his forehead rest against Wei Wuxian’s, reaching out with one hand to caress Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone with his thumb. “I will not say I was happy here, because without you, there was never happiness. But I was content. And I understand you so much better now. How you must have felt at the Burial Mounds. Building a new life, a new family. I’m so sorry that was taken from you.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. A few tears escaped, and Lan Wangji brushed them away. “I miss them so much.”

“I know.”

After a long silence, Wei Wuxian said, “What’s going to happen now?”

“Your sister and I will protect you. The other sect leaders will say that you should be punished for the events at Nightless City. We will say that those were orchestrated by Jin Guangyao, and that whatever punishment you deserved, you have already been punished enough. My brother will support us. Nie-zongzhu will not like it, but my brother and his brother will convince him. The Jin sect will be upset but in the wake of the revelations that their sect leader did so much evil, they will not have the standing to sway others. Nobody will want to be associated with them.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “All right. And then?”

“And then . . .” Lan Wangji kissed him lightly, gently. “You will be brought back into the Yunmeng Jiang. We will raise A-Yuan, and we will be together every day.”

Wei Wuxian relaxed against him. “I love you, Lan Zhan.”

“I love you, too.” Lan Wangji kissed him again. “Let us get up, Wei Ying. There are chores to attend to.”

That made Wei Wuxian laugh, and he let himself be pulled out of bed. They dressed in silence, and he wore his usual black but added one of the purple belts that Lan Wangji had in his wardrobe. Lan Wangji smiled slightly when he saw it.

They had barely opened the door when Wen Yuan and Lan Yong tackled them both. “A-die!” Wen Yuan shouted, although he had glommed onto Wei Wuxian’s leg. “Jiang-gugu says everyone knows what happened and I don’t have to be a secret anymore!”

“Jiang-gugu got a little ahead of herself,” Lan Wangji murmured, but he didn’t argue. They could not expect Wen Yuan to pretend he didn’t know Wei Wuxian now that he was back, so his heritage would be obvious soon enough.

Wen Yuan just beamed up at Wei Wuxian. “I know I used to call you Xian-gege, but when I woke up after my fever I didn’t know anybody and I thought a-die was my a-die so that’s what I called him, but now I know that you were my a-die too, and I can’t call you both a-die because that would be confusing so can I call you Xian-baba?”

Wei Wuxian choked on a laugh that was half tears. “Aren’t you a little old to be calling someone your baba?”

“Nooooo,” Wen Yuan said, clinging harder.

Lan Wangji knelt next to him and smoothed down his hair. “For now, it is all right. But you are getting older, A-Yuan, and we do not want you to be teased by the other juniors. I do not see anything wrong with calling us both a-die. Perhaps we could be Xian-die and Ji-die.”

Wen Yuan’s face lit up. “Okay,” he said.

“Now come along. We will get you some breakfast and then we will show Wei Ying the morning routine.”

Wen Yuan nodded, and he and Lan Yong both scampered towards the kitchens. Wei Wuxian looked after them and wiped his eyes, then said, “Is now really a time for the morning routine? I was raised here, so I know what it is for them – sweeping the paths, helping with the breakfast dishes, and then going to lessons, right? But isn’t there something else we should be doing?”

Lan Wangji stopped and took both of Wei Wuxian’s hands in his own. “Do you want to help with the search for Jin Guangyao?”

“Not . . . not really,” Wei Wuxian admitted.

“Mn. Neither do I. Nie-zongzhu can handle it adequately, I am sure, and the Jin sect will certainly want him apprehended as well. Our job now is to stay here and support your sister. People will come here to speak to her about your fate, and we will need to be here. For now, there is nothing we must do.”

“All right.” Wei Wuxian leaned against him for a few moments, and Lan Wangji held him, shielding him from the world. “That sounds good to me.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next few days were surprisingly relaxing, and Jiang Yanli enjoyed them as much as she could, because she knew the other shoe was going to drop, and soon.

Yu Zhiyi arrived from Cloud Recesses, bringing Lan Xing with her. When Lan Xichen protested that she shouldn’t have had to travel with the baby just to come get him, she gave him a stern look and said, “Lan Xichen, I am your wife. My place is by your side, especially when you are suffering, regardless of the reason why.”

Their presence greatly improved Lan Xichen’s mood. Although Jiang Yanli knew it would take him time to truly process and recover from Jin Guangyao’s terrible betrayal, he couldn’t see his baby smiling at him and not smile back.

Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, was at least somewhat back to his old self. He sat cross-legged in amongst the children while Lan Wangji taught lessons, smiling up at him with complete and total adoration. The children were fascinated by his presence, but Wen Yuan spoke of him in such glowing terms that they could not help but admire him. Mo Xuanyu actually emerged somewhat from his shell to ask Wei Wuxian some questions about one of his talismans, and the teenager seemed to take a strange liking to him. Lan Wangji found them after lessons twice, heads together as they pored over an old book.

Wei Wuxian helped Jiang Yanli with chores around Lotus Pier and spoke with the other disciples. They were wary of him, but seeing the way Lan Wangji and Jiang Yanli treated him, seeing the way he interacted with the juniors, helped them relax. Wei Wuxian was open about the fact that if Jiang Yanli accepted him back into the sect, he would be the lowest-ranked among them, since he had no spiritual power. That helped them accept him as well.

On his first day back, he summoned Wen Ning back to Lotus Pier. A lot of the disciples did not like that, and Jiang Yanli had to reassure them multiple times that it was fine. Wen Ning was a kind and trustworthy individual. Wen Yuan was thrilled to see him, and Wen Ning carried him around on his shoulders a lot, which many of the disciples thought was cute.

Jiang Yanli was not sure what would become of Wen Ning long-term. He wanted to return to the Burial Mounds at some point and build a cenotaph to his people, he said. Jiang Yanli told him that with time, the Jiang disciples would get used to him. They were all healing.

Nie Mingjue arrived on the fourth day. He had gathered disciples from far and wide, he said, and they were scouring the roads that led out of Yunmeng. One way or another, he said, they would find Jin Guangyao. Could Jiang Yanli possibly spare some of her disciples to join them?

Jiang Yanli said she could and asked for volunteers. A dozen of the cultivators agreed to go, and Nie Mingjue divided the group up, half to go south, half to go east.

“No,” Jiang Yanli said. “Divide it up into thirds. A third should go west.”

Nie Mingjue frowned. “Jin Guangyao told Xichen he would go east to Dongying or south to the coast.”

“Jin Guangyao was a liar of the first class,” Jiang Yanli said. “He could not know whether or not Lan Xichen would tell us what he said, and probably expected that he would. He knew how grievously Lan Xichen was hurt by his betrayal. He would not go north from Yunmeng because then he would have to go through Qinghe, but any other direction would be fair game. If he said south or east, mark my words, you will find him west.”

Nodding slowly, Nie Mingjue amended the orders. He sent half the men west, and divided up the remaining half between south and east. Then he sent messages to his own men who were still close to send some of them west as well.

Jiang Yanli expected Yu Zixia to arrive soon, but before she did, Qin Su arrived with Jin Song and several dozen people that Jiang Yanli didn’t know. Weeping, she told Jiang Yanli that Yu Zixia had exiled not only her and Jin Song, but the entire Qin clan.

“I didn’t know where else to go,” Qin Su sobbed.

“It’s all right, A-Su,” Jiang Yanli said gently, embracing her. “You are still family to me. Of course you are welcome in Yunmeng. I will find a place for your family. You and A-Song will stay here at Lotus Pier.”

“Thank you, Yanli-jie,” Qin Su said, hugging her tightly. “Thank you.”

The next day, Yu Zixia arrived.

Having expected her arrival, Jiang Yanli summoned all the other nearby sect leaders. Everyone who had gone to the Burial Mounds was still nearby, including Lan Qiren. Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen were still there. It was a cultivation conference of the highest importance. Jiang Yanli welcomed everybody and set out tables in the Sword Hall with tea and rice wine.

Lan Wangji always sat at her right hand during cultivation conferences, and Jiang Yanli told Wei Wuxian to sit on Lan Wangji’s other side. “Should I even be here?” Wei Wuxian asked, sounding uncertain.

“Yes, absolutely,” Jiang Yanli said, so firmly that Wei Wuxian didn’t argue further.

That didn’t stop nearly every person coming into the Sword Hall from gawking and staring, but Jiang Yanli sat serenely, not dignifying any of their looks or remarks. Yu Zixia gave Wei Wuxian a particularly hard stare, and Wei Wuxian studied his jar of alcohol with intensity. Or at least, he thought it was a jar of alcohol. It was actually a jar of water, because the last thing Jiang Yanli wanted was Wei Wuxian getting drunk at the conference.

Once everyone was there and seated, Jiang Yanli said, “Thank you all for coming. I know many of you have questions. I am going to start at the beginning and give all of you the details that Hanguang-Jun and I have put together with the help of Zewu-Jun and Nie-gongzi. I would ask you not to interrupt; I will take questions at the end.”

She had made notes. The story of Jin Guangyao was so complex and twisted; she did not want to forget anything or get anything incorrect. But she referenced them as little as possible, because she did not want to look like she was telling a story. She began, as she had with Lan Xichen, with the death of Jin Guangshan.

Many of the cultivators interrupted despite her request, but were usually quelled by a look or a word from Lan Wangji. Jiang Yanli managed to get through all the pertinent details and then opened the floor for questions. Unsurprisingly, none of them were for her. The smaller sect leaders wanted to ask Lan Xichen if the music in Turmoil could really do such a thing. They wanted to ask Nie Mingjue how he hadn’t noticed his mood being poisoned. They wanted to ask Lan Wangji why they hadn’t taken action against Jin Guangyao sooner.

Jiang Yanli let them ask all the questions of the men in the room because she simply didn’t care about redirecting them. Let them verify everything she had said and waste their time. It made no difference to her.

Finally, after a great deal of talk, all the sect leaders were in agreement that Jin Guangyao was a horrible villain and that they trusted Nie Mingjue to hunt him down and put an end to him. Lan Xichen looked saddened by this, but did not argue. Jiang Yanli felt the same. She knew that there was no other possible fate for Jin Guangyao, and that he more than deserved it after everything he had done. Her sadness was that they could not have acted sooner, could not have kept him from going down such a dark path.

The only person who put up an argument was Yu Zixia, who said, “Although I agree that Nie-zongzhu is capable of hunting down this monster, he should be brought back to Lanling for punishment. This is an internal matter.”

“What’s it matter?” Nie Mingjue asked gruffly. “Whether I chop off his head in Dongying or in Lanling, it comes to the same thing.”

Lan Xichen winced slightly, but did not speak up. Yu Zixia said, “After everything that son of a whore did, execution is too light of a punishment for him.”

“Are you suggesting that he be brought back to Lanling so you can torture him?” Even Nie Mingjue seemed a little uncomfortable with that idea.

“What is done with him is no business of anyone else,” Yu Zixia said. “As I said, this is an internal matter.”

“It is not,” Lan Wangji said bluntly. “Jin Guangyao has harmed all the great sects, especially Yunmeng Jiang. Jiang-zongzhu lost her brother and her husband. Many of the minor sects suffered as well, particularly in this most recent set of events when Jin Guangyao instructed Xue Yang to raise fierce corpses in Yiling. This is not a private matter. The conference must agree, and I do not agree. Jin Guangyao committed grievous crimes. He should be found and executed.”

“I agree,” Nie Mingjue said, and many of the other sect leaders echoed him.

Yu Zixia pursed her lips but said, “If you insist. As to the matter of the Yiling Patriarch . . . let him come forward.”

Jiang Yanli thought about protesting, but then decided against it. Wei Wuxian was already rising to his feet, and he settled down in the center of the room on his knees, resting his weight on his heels and facing her and the other great sect leaders at the head of the room. He folded his hands in front of himself and bowed.

Before he could say anything, or before Yu Zixia could begin making demands, Jiang Yanli said, “Jin-furen, you have heard and accepted the explanation of Jin Guangyao’s actions. Why are you bringing my brother forward?”

Looking somewhat affronted, Yu Zixia said, “I agree that the son of a whore was involved. However, he would not have been able to do any of what he did, had the Yiling Patriarch not made the Ghost General what he was.”

“That is true,” Jiang Yanli said quietly. “To this day, I greatly regret that I was not at the Floral Banquet. I feel I could have added some explanation at the time which might have helped. You see, Wen Ning was very dear to my family. When Lotus Pier was attacked, it was Wen Ning who helped us. He rescued A-Cheng from Wen Chao and saved his life. He and his sister Wen Qing sheltered us from their own sect while we recovered from that dreadful day. So when A-Xian heard that Wen Ning was in danger, he acted out of distress and anguish.”

“Well, that is certainly interesting,” Yu Zixia said, in the tone of a person who had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever, “but I don’t see the relevance.”

Jiang Yanli took a deep breath to control her temper. “Jin-furen, you say that Jin Guangyao would not have been able to kill Jin Zixuan if the Ghost General had never been created. But is it not also true that A-Xian would not have been able to create the Ghost General if the Jin sect had not mercilessly murdered an innocent, honorable man?”

There were quiet murmurs among the other sect leaders. Yu Zixia’s mouth tightened further. Wei Wuxian continued to sit in silence, staring at his hands.

“I’m sure that had nothing to do with you,” Jiang Yanli said. “But I would like you to recall the whole picture when you are judging my brother. He was trying to save the lives of people who had committed no crime, who had risked their lives to help us. In grief and pain after seeing what the prison guards had done to Wen Ning, he created the Ghost General. And then he . . . what? Did he march to Koi Tower and attack? Did he attempt to get revenge on the Jin sect for what they had done?

“No. He took the people he had saved and took them to a place where they could be safe, where he could protect them. They farmed crops and built houses and sold radishes. They lived in peace. They were still living in peace, not harming a single soul, when Jin Guangshan told me I could invite my brother to meet his nephew, when Jin Guangshan promised me that he would be allowed safe passage into Lanling. Then he and Jin Zixun and hundreds of men attacked my brother unprovoked and attempted to end his life, and when my brother attempted to defend himself, Jin Guangyao seized that moment to murder my husband and frame A-Xian for the crime.”

“But Nightless City!” somebody in the crowd shouted. “Look at what he did at Nightless City!”

Jiang Yanli glanced around the room and said, “And I ask you, if the people you had given up your entire life to protect had just been slaughtered for crimes that were not their fault, how would you react? Would you not be angry? To destroy the Ghost General would have been understandable, even if it still would have caused my brother immense pain. But Wen Qing? The elderly woman? The farmers? What crime had they committed? What reason was there to murder them and then display their bodies with such blatant disrespect?

“And then. And then! What did we do? After we successfully killed a few dozen radish farmers? We threw a party! We went out to Nightless City and held a banquet, scattered their bones and danced on their ashes. How would you react if someone did that to your family? You would declare war. Of course you would! So he did. Wei Wuxian declared a one-man war on the cultivation world after what we did to the Dafan Mountain Wens. He lost. He died. It’s over.”

She looked at her brother, who was trembling in the center of the room, tears running down his cheeks. She was suddenly so, so glad that he was letting her speak for him. That he was not arguing, not trying to claim he should be punished. She had little doubt he was doing it for her sake, for Lan Wangji’s, for Wen Yuan’s. But at least he was letting her do it.

“My brother will stay in Yunmeng,” she said quietly. “If it eases your minds, I will confine him to Lotus Pier. Wen Ning will stay as well. I take full responsibility. If they commit any further crimes, I will serve the punishment along with them. But if anyone here, anyone at all, touches my brother or Wen Ning before these theoretical future crimes are committed, then the Yunmeng Jiang will forever be your enemy from that day forward. Is that understood?”

For a long moment, the room was silent. Then Nie Mingjue said, “That seems like a fair agreement, Jiang-zongzhu,” and bowed. One by one, the other sect leaders bowed as well.

Only Yu Zixia did not. Jiang Yanli studied her with a blank expression before saying again, her tone still gentle, “Is that understood?”

“I will make you no promises,” Yu Zixia said, “but I understand.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “A-Xian, you may go and sit down.”

Wei Wuxian rose to his feet, still looking shaky. He bowed to her and then went and sat down, letting out a gusty breath. Lan Wangji reached out and squeezed his wrist.

“Then if everything is settled,” Jiang Yanli said, “please enjoy Lotus Pier’s hospitality tonight, and I am sure I will see you all again soon.”

“There is one more thing I would like to discuss with you, A-Li,” Yu Zixia said. “A private matter between our two sects.”

“Of course,” Jiang Yanli said, as the sect leaders began to get up and shuffle out of the room. She glanced around and decided she would be happier if a neutral party witnessed whatever was about to happen, because she suspected she knew what it was. “Nie-zongzhu, would you mind staying for a few minutes? In case a third party opinion is required.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and bowed, settling back into his seat. Yu Zixia did not look precisely thrilled, but she did not argue.

“What about me?” Wei Wuxian whispered. “She doesn’t like me. Won’t me being here just make her angry?

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said in a low voice, “but I would like A-Zhan here, and I am sure he will not let you leave without him.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. Wei Wuxian slumped back into his seat.

Once the room was emptied except for the five of them, Yu Zixia said, “A-Li, as I am sure you know, I cannot possibly consider Jin Song a legitimate heir at this point. As Jin Guangyao’s son, he has been disinherited and exiled from the Lanling Jin.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “I am aware.”

“So at this point, it seems obvious to me that it is time for A-Ling to return to Koi Tower.”

So it was exactly what Jiang Yanli had expected. She smiled pleasantly and said, “I’m sorry, Jin-furen, but as I’ve made clear on numerous occasions, A-Ling is the heir to the Yunmeng Jiang. He will stay here.”

“A-Li!” Yu Zixia’s voice was sharp. “He is my only grandson. I will have no others. That bastard murdered my son. Who will inherit if not A-Ling?”

“Jin Guangshan had more than one brother and sister, as well as many cousins,” Jiang Yanli said. “Do you know, I recall when I had this discussion with him, a few years ago. What was it he said? That there were any of a dozen disciples I could declare the sect leader of the Yunmeng Jiang? It seems to me that this would apply to the Lanling Jin as well.”

Yu Zixia was pale with rage, her fists tightly clenched. “I will not accept this answer.”

“Your acceptance, or lack thereof, is not something that matters to me,” Jiang Yanli said. “A-Ling is my son. His father is dead. The choice therefore is mine, and mine alone.”

“A-Li,” Yu Zixia said again, “I do not wish to be your enemy. I would never wish for that. You are the daughter of my dear sect sister. But I must have my grandson. He is the only person who can save the Lanling Jin. Do you not understand that? Without A-Ling, yes, there are others who could take the position of sect leader. Every single one of them will want it. There will be factions, and power plays, and – the Jin sect will splinter. There will be nothing left of us.”

“Dynasties rise and fall, Jin-furen,” Jiang Yanli said. “What Jin Guangshan made the Lanling Jin cannot be changed. Jin Guangyao might have put the final nail into the coffin with his actions, but if the Lanling Jin is truly so fragile, then they were always destined to fall.” She stood up and said, “I wish you the best of luck choosing a new heir, Jin-furen, but it will not be A-Ling.”

“We’ll come and take him!” Yu Zixia said, her voice suddenly loud and shrill. “We have three times the number of disciples as you do!”

“Jin-furen, I have the sect that my father built and my brother rebuilt,” Jiang Yanli said. “Any of the Yunmeng Jiang is worth ten of the Lanling Jin. I welcome you to try to take my son. But I would remind you that there are worse fates for the Lanling Jin than breaking into pieces. Think about what you would like to have left at the end of the day, Jin-furen, because if you try to take my son, I will leave you with nothing.” She bowed to Nie Mingjue and said, “Thank you for bearing witness to this discussion, Nie-zongzhu.”

“Thank you,” Nie Mingjue murmured, in a tone so fervent that Jiang Yanli had a feeling that he was wondering if it was inappropriate to propose to a widow.

Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian flanked her on the way out of the Sword Hall, and Wei Wuxian was the first to speak as they went into one of the courtyards, saying, “Shijie, I left for three years and you turned into a certified badass! Should I call the authorities? You just straight-up murdered her without ever saying an impolite word! I don’t think even Yu-furen could have stood up to that!”

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly. The three of them stood in the courtyard, and she reached out and squeezed his hands. “I learned how to stand up when it mattered. It is amazing how having a son taught me how to fight.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “I can understand that. And . . . thank you, for everything you said. Even though there were parts you didn’t know, you . . . you really understood.”

“I know how much you were hurting, A-Xian,” she said, and embraced him. “I just wish I had been able to help.”

“You couldn’t. Nobody could have.” Wei Wuxian glanced over at Lan Wangji, who gave him a reassuring nod. “Shijie . . . when Jiang Cheng lost his golden core, he was so . . . defeated. I couldn’t stand to see him like that. I would have done anything to help him. I couldn’t find a way to fix it, though, so I . . . I gave him mine.”

Jiang Yanli’s breath caught in her throat. “Oh,” she said, a hundred pieces falling into place. “Oh, A-Xian, my Xianxian. Of course you did.” She felt tears sting at her eyes. “I’m so sorry, A-Xian. No wonder you were in so much pain.”

“It was worth it,” he said softly. “I never regretted it. Not even now that it’s gone forever.”

“Perhaps it is not,” Lan Wangji said, and Wei Wuxian gave him a questioning glance. “Nobody has ever rebuilt a golden core. But that does not mean it cannot be done. Merely that nobody has ever succeeded. Those people who attempted were not you. Perhaps they tried for a while with no success so they gave up. Perhaps they tried dangerous things and died. It is such a rare occurrence, the loss of a golden core, that it is really not possible to say that it cannot be done.”

Wei Wuxian was blinking. “I . . . I suppose? I guess I didn’t really think about it that way. Everyone said that the way Wen Zhuliu crushed a core damaged the place that it would grow, so it couldn’t be rebuilt.”

“But that clearly was not the case,” Lan Wangji said. “If it were, then giving Jiang Wanyin your golden core would have accomplished nothing. It would not have been able to connect to the place where one sat. Besides that, Wen Zhuliu did not crush your golden core; Wen Qing removed it. There is no way to say whether or not it can be regrown unless you try. You didn’t before because you were still struggling with the resentful energy. If you do not use it, and focus instead on regular cultivation, who knows what will happen?”

Wei Wuxian still looked a little stunned, but finally, he gave a slight smile and glanced at Jiang Yanli. “Attempt the impossible, right?”

Jiang Yanli laughed, squeezing his hands. “Attempt the impossible.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Although Jiang Yanli had invited the sect leaders to enjoy Lotus Pier’s hospitality for the night, few of them felt comfortable doing it. That was just fine with Lan Wangji, who stood at the gate glowering at them in silence as they left. Wei Wuxian could not help but be extremely amused by this.

By breakfast the next morning, it was only Lan Xichen and his wife and daughter, and the Nie brothers. Qin Su was there as well, although she was now a resident of Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian was meeting her for the first time, and he thought she seemed kind, if a little sad. Jin Song, for his part, might have been the son of a murderer, but he was a very pleasant toddler.

Wei Wuxian watched in a combination of fascination, amusement, and genuine adoration as Lan Wangji got the children settled around the smaller table. He remembered that long ago day in Yiling, how he had watched Lan Wangji interact with Wen Yuan and been surprised then at how good he was with him. This was that interaction, but five times more so. Lan Yong was begging for juice instead of tea. Jin Ling kept getting out of his chair. Mo Xuanyu had had bad dreams and didn’t want to eat at all, sitting with his knees hugged to his chest. Jin Song was playing in his bowl of rice and Wen Yuan was studiously cleaning his face after each bite instead of eating his own meal. Meanwhile Lan Wangji was tending to all of this with aplomb, occasionally giving soft reprimands to chew with their mouths closed, stay in their seats, and behave themselves.

Seeing Jiang Yanli looking over at him, Wei Wuxian admitted in a low voice, “I absolutely cannot get over what a doting father he is. I’m so sad I’ve missed the last three years because they must have been amazing.”

“They were.” Jiang Yanli smiled softly. “He was so helpful with A-Ling – I don’t know that I could have done it without him.”

“I’m sure you could have,” Wei Wuxian said, “but I’m also sure he helped a lot.” He smiled and then walked over to drape himself into the seat next to Lan Wangji. “Hey, Lan Zhan, we should have a baby together,” he said, and Lan Wangji nearly choked on a mouthful of tea. Wei Wuxian just beamed and continued, “I mean, not together together, but there are orphaned babies, and I want one! Because I only got A-Yuan once he was three and only had him for about a year and a half, and then you had him after that until now, so we both missed a lot of stuff! We should get a baby together and start from scratch. Maybe two.”

Lan Wangji stared at him for a long minute with the expression of one who was trying to figure out whether or not he was joking. He evidently came to the correct conclusion, that Wei Wuxian was not, because he nodded and said, “Mn.”

“Great!” Wei Wuxian leaned in and gave him a kiss on the temple, right in front of everybody. It was amazing.

Once they had finished eating, Yu Zhiyi said, “Ah, Jiang-zongzhu, you might want to know that Yu-zongzhu and I spoke with Jin-furen last night in some detail.”

“Oh?” Jiang Yanli asked, and Wei Wuxian tensed despite himself.

Yu Zhiyi nodded. “About what is going to happen to the Lanling Jin, but more specifically what is going to happen to her. Yu-zongzhu wanted her to know she could return to the Meishan Yu, if that was her wish. She felt it might be better for her than taking part in the power struggle that is sure to follow.” Yu Zhiyi sipped her tea and added, “I know you must have mixed feelings about Jin-furen, but she was originally of our sect, and Yu-zongzhu still has affection for her. We thought this might be the best solution for all parties.”

“But she declined?” Lan Wangji assumed.

“Of course,” Yu Zhiyi said with a sigh. “Yu-zongzhu told her the door would remain open, but I don’t expect her to take it unless she’s forced out.”

“She very likely will be,” Nie Huaisang said, untroubled as usual. “The Jin sect is notoriously sexist. Jin Guangshan was fond of saying that the worst kind of woman was a literate woman, because she caused trouble.”

Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and muttered, “Of course he was.”

“If she had been born into the Jin sect,” Nie Huaisang continued, “she might be able to persuade them. But she married in, which means that any of Jin Guangshan’s cousins or nephews or what-have-you will be of higher standing than she will be. She only ever could have ruled through A-Ling.”

“Which will not be happening,” Lan Wangji stated, just in case there was any doubt.

Jiang Yanli gently squeezed his wrist. “Don’t worry, A-Zhan. I wish that Jin-furen had taken Yu-zongzhu up on her offer, for her own sake, but I am not worried that she will come here and take A-Ling.”

After a moment, Lan Wangji nodded.

“Speaking of sexism,” Lan Xichen said, “I fear I’m doomed to disappoint the elders yet again. Even though A-Xing is barely three months old, they have already been asking me about when we might have another child.”

“Well, you know, it’s not like there have ever been any successful female sect leaders in history,” Wei Wuxian said, gesturing with his tea.

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, amused. “For now, I’ve told them that A-Yi and I absolutely do desire more children, although I think I’d like to wait a little bit longer to give A-Yi more time to recover. They said that was fine, of course, because they think that what it means is that I’ve agreed that we must have a male child to be my heir. They’re going to be very upset once they realize that we honestly just want more children, and A-Xing, as my firstborn, will be my heir whether they like it or not.”

Lan Wangji felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “I wish you the blessings of many girl children and at least one boy.”

Wei Wuxian gave a snort of laughter and let his shoulder bump against Lan Wangji’s.

“Speaking of successful female leaders,” Nie Mingjue said, “we’re going to need a new Chief Cultivator.”

“So we are,” Lan Xichen said, smiling slightly. “Do you have someone in mind, Mingjue-xiong? I have a feeling I know who.”

“I do indeed,” Nie Mingjue said.

Jiang Yanli blinked. “Wait. What? Are you talking about me?”

“I was already thinking that you would be the best choice, after Wangji told me what Jin Guangyao had been doing, but yesterday proved it beyond all doubt,” Nie Mingjue said. “You’ll be far better at the job than I could ever be.”

“Or me,” Lan Xichen agreed.

Jiang Yanli still looked stunned, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grin at her. “Ah, can you imagine if Yu-furen could see you now?” he asked. “Jiang Yanli, Xiandu. I think it has a nice ring to it. Don’t you, Lan Zhan?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said with a nod. Seeing that a little more might be required, he added, “No one could be more deserving.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Jiang Yanli said. “It’s an honor even to be recommended, and I’m flattered you would think so. It’s just . . . a lot.”

“Of course,” Nie Mingjue said. “The next cultivation conference won’t be until a few months from now. And on that note, Huaisang and I should really be going. I’m going to go west to join the search for Jin Guangyao. Huaisang, I want you to go to Koi Tower and keep an eye on things there. See if you can go through Jin Guangyao’s things, find any evidence of what sort of escape route he might have planned.”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “I have to get Sisi before anyone realizes who she is, too.”

The two Nie brothers stood and bowed, and the others bowed back, and a few minutes later, they were gone. Yu Zhiyi asked Qin Su if she might not like to take Lan Xing and Jin Song for a walk along the pier, and she agreed. Lan Wangji ushered Wen Yuan, Lan Yong, and Mo Xuanyu off to their lessons, leaving only Jin Ling with the remaining adults.

“Zewu-Jun,” Wei Wuxian said cautiously, seeing that only a few people were there and thinking this might be an ideal time to ask the question he had been thinking about for the past few days, “may I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said. “And you don’t need to be so formal anymore. We are family now.”

Wei Wuxian smiled despite himself, and he nodded. “Xichen-ge . . . I won’t say that I’m entirely innocent. I know that I stepped off the righteous path and that my use of demonic cultivation was heavily frowned upon by your sect. But Lan Zhan . . . now that it’s been proven I did not kill Jin Zixuan, at least, could Lan Zhan go back without having to serve the punishment the elders gave him?”

Lan Wangji frowned at Wei Wuxian. “Wei Ying. I do not wish to go back.”

“I know, you said that, but Lan Zhan – it’s your home, your family. I can’t stand the idea that you lost it because of me.”

“But I did not.” Lan Wangji shook his head. “You keep searching for things to blame on yourself. Are you that upset that you are not being punished over what happened at Nightless City?”

Wei Wuxian wasn’t about to answer that question. “Xichen-ge, could he?”

“No,” Lan Xichen said gently, and Wei Wuxian sighed. “Wuxian, I am not saying that because I know, just as Wangji said, that he does not desire to come back. I am saying it because it’s true. For the elders, your specific acts were not the reason for the punishment. It was your overall character, and Wangji’s devotion to you despite their opinion and their repeated attempts to separate you, and his defiance even when being punished. Wangji will always be my brother, but he has no place in the Gusu Lan, now or in the foreseeable future. Perhaps someday, but I can make no guarantees.”

Wei Wuxian gave another sigh. “Thank you for your honesty.”

“Do not be upset,” Lan Wangji told him. “Lotus Pier is my home now. I have no desire to go back to Cloud Recesses.”

“All right,” Wei Wuxian said, even as he struggled to accept it.

Lan Wangji took both of his hands. “I know that for you, it feels like only a few weeks have passed since Nightless City. But you must remember that for the rest of us, it was three years. We have grown and changed in that time. There are some things you will need to get used to.”

Wei Wuxian nodded and rested his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Jiang Yanli reached out and squeezed his hands. “It must be so strange to you. All that time having passed without you.”

“It is,” Wei Wuxian said.

Jiang Yanli, in a manner that she definitely could not have done before those three years had passed, saw right to the heart of the matter. “A-Xian, I know you are still grieving. The deaths of A-Cheng, of Wen Qing and her people, are so recent for you, whereas the rest of us have had time to mourn and rebuild. But please do not blame yourself for those deaths. Do not seek punishment, especially not for A-Cheng. Losing them was punishment enough. You need to let yourself heal now.”

Wei Wuxian wiped his eyes and looked away before admitting, “I don’t know how.”

“I know. It’s hard at first. There will be days where you will think it cannot be done. But the worst of it will pass. I promise.”

There was really no way he could argue, so he just nodded. Lan Wangji stood and said, “Let us go and join the children at their lessons. Time with them is always the best medicine, and you can begin work on your golden core.”

“All right,” Wei Wuxian said, and let Lan Wangji pull him to his feet.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

A little over a week later, they received a message from Nie Mingjue saying that Jin Guangyao had been captured about a half day’s travel away from Nightless City. Su She had been with him but had been killed rather than captured. At Yu Zixia’s request, Nie Mingjue had held off on the execution until she could be present for it. She was traveling to Qishan, as Nie Mingjue felt it was too risky to try to bring Jin Guangyao back to Koi Tower. He had thought Jiang Yanli might want to be there as well. He had sent a message to Lan Xichen and expected him to come. Jin Guangyao was imprisoned at Nightless City as that had been the nearest secure location.

Nightless City, she thought. It seemed appropriate. Nightless City was where Jin Guangyao had been legitimized; it was where Wei Wuxian had died. It was where things had begun and ended; now they would end there again.

“Do you want to go?” Lan Wangji asked her, when she read the letter to him and Wei Wuxian.

Her hand curled around the piece of paper. “I think . . . yes, perhaps I would like to. It is hard for me, thinking of him still out there, possibly plotting revenge. It might help to see him meet his fate.”

“Then we will go,” Lan Wangji asked, and added, “I would like to be there for xiongzhang, in any case.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. The letter had mentioned that Nie Mingjue anticipated going back to Cloud Recesses with Lan Xichen afterwards, to stay with his sworn brother for a few days. She hoped that would help.

“I’m just surprised they caught him,” Wei Wuxian said. “He seemed to be so clever.”

“He was, but he didn’t plan for this,” Jiang Yanli said. “Leaving was clearly a last resort for him.”

Wei Wuxian frowned slightly. “You’d think an escape route would be a top priority.”

Lan Wangji shook his head. “Jin Guangyao truly believed he could manipulate his way out of anything. And all he knew was that Nie-xiong and I had realized what he did with the Song of Clarity – he had no way of knowing any of what else we had figured out. The more I think of it, the more certain I am that Xue Yang never told him that you had been resurrected – he probably found that out later, from Su She. Because if he had known that, he would have realized you could tell me about the second flute the day Jin Zixuan died. That placed him in a much more precarious position. But Xue Yang, having done it by accident and knowing he would be angry, simply didn’t inform him.”

“Yeah, but did he seriously think he could weasel his way out of the consequences for trying to kill Nie-zongzhu?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“Perhaps. My brother loved him dearly, and he knew this well. It’s possible he could have convinced xiongzhang to protect him. It’s also possible that he could have had a contingency prepared to make the Jin sect think that Nie-zongzhu was their enemy, thus legitimizing his action and making it more difficult for Nie-zongzhu to challenge him.” Lan Wangji shrugged. “There are many plans he could have made. We already knew his first reaction was to try to undermine my credibility.”

Wei Wuxian rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I guess. Convince everyone else the story wasn’t true, and then convince your brother he’d done it in a moment of anguish over Nie-zongzhu’s treatment of him . . . what about Nie-xiong though? Even if all of that worked, then Nie-xiong probably would have just murdered him in his sleep.”

“True. But he never thought Nie-xiong would be capable of such a thing. Underestimating Nie-xiong was one of his deadliest mistakes.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Jiang Yanli said gently. “What is important is that he was caught, and he will be brought to justice. Let us prepare for the trip.”

As she packed, she found she was a little nervous about leaving Jin Ling. Although she could not see how this might be some sort of ruse to draw her out of Lotus Pier, she did not like leaving him there without Lan Wangji as protection. But when she mentioned that, Wei Wuxian shrugged and said, “Wen Ning isn’t coming though, is he? I don’t see why he would. He can stay here and protect Lotus Pier. And he doesn’t need to sleep, so nothing will get past him.”

Jiang Yanli felt her shoulders and chest ease. “Oh, that’s true. Wen Ning, why don’t you stay in A-Xian and A-Zhan’s room while we are away? That way you will be here in case anything happens.”

Wen Ning, who had been staying in one of the outer guest houses because he knew how nervous he made people, asked, “Is that all right?”

“Of course it’s all right,” Jiang Yanli said. “It will make me feel much better, knowing you are here to keep an eye on the children.”

Giving the impression that he would be blushing if he still could, Wen Ning ducked his head and said, “I will keep them safe, Jiang-zongzhu, you have my word.”

That being settled, the three of them set off for Qishan. The trip was somewhat pleasant at first. It was spring, and the scenery was beautiful. But the closer they got, the more anxious Wei Wuxian became. Jiang Yanli didn’t want to mention it, but when the walls of Nightless City finally came into view, he turned away and shuddered. “A-Xian?” she prompted gently.

“I can’t, shijie,” he said, his voice cracking. “I can’t go back there.”

Jiang Yanli nodded and pressed a kiss against his forehead. “It’s fine, A-Xian,” she said. “Why don’t you go back to that little town we passed about an hour ago? A-Zhan and I will meet you back there tomorrow.”

“I’m not supposed to be out of Lotus Pier, let alone without you,” Wei Wuxian pointed out.

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t,” Jiang Yanli said, caressing his cheek.

That got a shaky laugh out of him. “All right. I’ll wait for you.” He gave each of them an embrace that he probably intended to be quick, but turned out to be somewhat lengthy, before he turned and walked away. Lan Wangji’s concerned gaze followed him for a few moments, but then he turned back to Nightless City.

When they arrived at the gates, Nie Mingjue informed them that they were the last ones there, since he had notified Yu Zixia first, and Lan Xichen had ridden the sword instead of traveling on foot. They would proceed within the hour, he said, and gestured to where she could see a block set up by the edge of the cliff. Lan Wangji excused himself to find his brother.

“May I see him?” Jiang Yanli asked. “I would like to speak to him before his execution.”

Nie Mingjue nodded and gestured for one of his disciples to come show her where to go. She followed him into what had once been the palace. Nature was starting to reclaim it, after all these years abandoned. Trees were growing up through cracks in the ground, and much of the ceiling had caved in.

But the dungeon was still underground and relatively untouched. The disciple took her to the correct hallway and then said he would wait outside for her. She approached the cell door slowly. Jin Guangyao was sitting on the floor inside with his legs folded underneath himself, dressed in a simple white robe, his hands resting on his knees. He looked up when she approached, and rose to his feet and bowed, his face blank of expression. She could not begin to guess what he was thinking. “Jiang-zongzhu.”

“Jin Guangyao,” she said softly.

“Are you here to demand explanations?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “I know why you did what you did. I know that you were full of hatred and rage and pain. I will never forgive you, but I understand. There was something I wanted to tell you.”

Face still blank, Jin Guangyao said, “And what is that?”

“Jin-furen has, as you might have expected, exiled Qin Su and A-Song from Lanling,” Jiang Yanli said, and Jin Guangyao’s jaw twitched slightly. “I have taken them in at Lotus Pier. A-Song will never be head of the Lanling Jin, but he will be safe. Both of them will be safe, and I will do everything in my power to guarantee them happy, successful lives. I honestly don’t even know if that matters to you, but I wanted you to know.”

Jin Guangyao nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

Jiang Yanli turned away, but Jin Guangyao called out after her, and she turned back.

“Is er-ge here?” he asked, and she nodded. Jin Guangyao looked away and added, “Would you please . . . make sure he isn’t there, for the end? I don’t . . . want him to see it.”

“I will tell him you would rather he go,” Jiang Yanli said. “But if he chooses to stay, that is his right. This is about what he needs. Not you. And in return, you will answer a question for me.”

“What is it?”

“Where is Suibian?”

“Ah,” Jin Guangyao said. “Of course. Suibian, along with all the other items taken from the Burial Mounds, is in the treasure room hidden behind the mirror in the fragrance hall. Simply draw this symbol,” he continued, tracing one in the air, “on the mirror and it will allow you to pass through.”

Jiang Yanli, who did not have his memory, took out a brush and a piece of paper and politely asked him to draw it a second time, and he obliged. “Thank you, Jin Guangyao.”

Jin Guangyao gave another nod. “May I ask one more thing of you? I know I have no right.”

“You may ask me for anything,” Jiang Yanli said. “I simply may choose not to grant it.”

“Will you . . .” Jin Guangyao closed his eyes, his façade of neutrality finally beginning to crumble. “Will you bury me in Yunmeng, with my mother?”

Jiang Yanli studied him for a few moments. He seemed so wretched and pitiable, and she knew he would use that to his advantage. She knew that he had made a thousand people underestimate him with that ability. But he was being executed in less than an hour, and he had nothing to bargain with, no way to pressure her, nothing except pity to use.

He had murdered her husband and caused the death of both her brothers, one of whom was never coming back.

But at the end of the day, he was still human. He was suffering and he was frightened and there was no reason not to grant his request. So she nodded and said, “Very well.”

“Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Jiang Yanli turned and walked away. She found Lan Wangji waiting for her, and he gripped one of her hands before they turned and walked out onto the cliffside. A small crowd was gathering. Jiang Yanli quietly mentioned Jin Guangyao’s first request to Lan Wangji, and he walked over to his brother. Jiang Yanli caught a bit of their conversation, with Lan Xichen saying, “. . . to be here for him until the end . . . but frankly if he does not want me here, I am happier not seeing it.”

That was a relief to Jiang Yanli, who had worried that Lan Xichen would turn away at Jin Guangyao’s request, even if he would have rather been there. Lan Wangji gave his brother a brief embrace, and Lan Xichen walked away from the gathering.

A few minutes later, the Nie disciples brought out Jin Guangyao. His hands were tied in front of him, and although he was not otherwise restrained, he made no attempt to get away. He stepped over to the block without being told, although he did not go to his knees. In fact, he looked at Nie Mingjue and said, “You should not be the executioner, Nie-zongzhu.”

“And why is that?” Nie Mingjue asked, one hand gripping Baxia’s hilt.

“Do you really want the lifeblood of someone as full of rage and resentment, someone so heartless and cruel, on Baxia? The blade is difficult enough to control. My death would only make it more hungry.”

He was absolutely correct, and it was clear that Nie Mingjue knew that and absolutely hated it. “I’ll risk it,” he said.

“As you like,” Jin Guangyao said with a slight shrug.

With a scowl, Nie Mingjue drew the blade and gestured for Jin Guangyao to go to his knees. Before he could, however, Lan Wangji stepped forward and said, “Do you have any last words?”

“I do,” Jin Guangyao said. He searched the crowd and his gaze landed on Yu Zixia. “I want you to know that I was wrong. I committed these terrible crimes in an effort to rule over the cultivation world. In every way, I was wrong.” He paused for just a beat to let that sink in before continuing, “I should have been fighting to burn it to the ground. The world will never have peace until it is all in ruins. I wish I had realized that earlier. I wish I had fought until my last breath to dismantle the gentry and everything it stands for. I hope that the Jin sect crumbles as soon as I’m gone and that it never finds glory or honor again. And I will not give any of you the satisfaction of being the one to take my life.”

He let himself fall backwards off the cliff.

Jiang Yanli let out a slight cry despite herself and darted forward. She saw him fall, saw the faintest of smiles touch his face as he plummeted downwards.

Silence reigned for a long moment.

Yu Zixia turned to Lan Wangji and demanded, “Why did you let him speak?”

Lan Wangji gave her a cold stare and said, “My decisions are not yours to question.” He half-turned and said to Jiang Yanli, “I will go recover his body.”

Jiang Yanli nodded, and Lan Wangji held Bichen aloft, using it to control his descent. To Yu Zixia and Nie Mingjue, she said, “Jin Guangyao asked me if he could be buried in Yunmeng with his mother, and I told him I would grant this request.”

“That’s preposterous,” Yu Zixia snapped. “He shall be cremated and his bones destroyed as would be proper with someone who committed such monstrous crimes!”

“I beg your pardon, Jin-furen,” Jiang Yanli said softly, “but I was not asking your permission. The Yunmeng Jiang will take responsibility for the grave and make sure appropriate protections are placed on it to ensure there is no trouble.”

Nie Mingjue intervened, saying, “Let’s make sure he’s actually dead first.”

He was. Lan Wangji gently lay his body down on the ground, and several people verified, even though it was obvious from the state it was in after falling so far. Yu Zixia drew one foot back to kick him, and Lan Wangji moved between her and Jin Guangyao’s body to prevent it.

“What is wrong with the two of you?” Yu Zixia shouted. “A-Li! He killed your husband! Your brother! Why would you grant him any favors, any at all?”

“Because you hurt him enough!” Jiang Yanli said, tears overflowing. “He was a terrible person. He committed heinous crimes. But he was still a person, and yet you never once, not once, treated him that way. If you couldn’t do it in his life, find a way to do it in his death. I will not say that Jin Guangyao would have led a happy, peaceful life if you and his father had not been so cruel to him. We will never know what that Jin Guangyao would have been like. And I am not blaming you for his crimes. The responsibility for his choices was his and his alone. We, all of us, are ultimately responsible for the choices we make. And in this awful world, full of injustice and cruelty, I will choose to be kind. I will choose to grant his last request because that is who I am. And maybe, if more people choose that path, there will be fewer men like Jin Guangyao in the world.”

There was some murmuring in the gentry, but none of them would meet her gaze. Even Yu Zixia looked down, humiliated and angry, but finding no way to argue.

“A-Zhan,” Jiang Yanli said softly, wiping her tears away. “Please place the body in the carriage and put a preservation spell on it.”

“Yes, zhangjie,” Lan Wangji murmured, and he knelt to pick up Jin Guangyao’s body. Gradually, the crowd began to disperse. Lan Wangji finished with the body and then walked over to Nie Mingjue. “Please take care of my brother for now, and tell him that I will come to see him soon.”

Nie Mingjue nodded. He looked tired. “I will.”

Lan Wangji held out a hand to Jiang Yanli and helped her onto one of the horses. Then he took the reins and began to lead the horses down the road out of Nightless City.

“Is it all right with you?” Jiang Yanli finally asked, thinking that she should have asked him first. “To grant his request?”

Lan Wangji glanced over his shoulder and only nodded.

Jiang Yanli nodded. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting the movement soothe her. Finally, it was over. She could not wait to get home.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Despite everything, Wei Wuxian could not help but smile as they came around the curve and Lotus Pier came into view. He was home. It had taken years of tragedy and death, but he was finally home. Even though he had technically come home after the Sunshot Campaign, it had never truly felt like home again, not until now.

It helped that a gaggle of children was waiting to swarm them, and Wen Yuan all but threw himself onto Wei Wuxian’s leg. He picked him up and hugged him tightly for a few moments before letting him go so he could hug Lan Wangji as well. Lan Wangji was somehow (how?!) already holding Jin Ling in his arms, but had no trouble hugging Wen Yuan and Lan Yong as well.

Wen Ning greeted them, and he was dressed in the blue and purple robes of a Yunmeng Jiang disciple, which surprised Wei Wuxian. He couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask about it, but Wen Ning saw the look on his face and tugged at the robes anxiously. “Ah, Jiang Shulian gave them to me . . . he said it would help me fit in and maybe not make the other cultivators so nervous . . . I hope that’s all right.”

Wei Wuxian had to choke back some tears and he nodded. “Of course it’s all right. You look great.” He glanced around the crowd and caught Jiang Shulian’s eye. The man was basically a stranger to him – they had met a few times in that brief span between the Sunshot Campaign and the crowd hunt, but at that point he had been just another disciple. It was only after Wei Wuxian had left and Jiang Cheng had continued to rebuild the Yunmeng Jiang without him that Jiang Shulian had begun to climb the ranks. Wei Wuxian honestly wasn’t sure what sort of person Jiang Cheng would have chosen to be his first disciple, but Jiang Yanli had kept him on and he had served her faithfully, and now this on top of it – he smiled and bowed in his direction in silent thanks, and Jiang Shulian bowed back.

“I’m glad you had such amazing people supporting you when you became sect leader,” Wei Wuxian said to Jiang Yanli.

Jiang Yanli smiled. “I was truly blessed in that way.”

They had dinner together. Qin Su was slowly recovering from the awful events of the past year, and coming out of her shell a little. She was sweet and kind, and Jin Song clearly adored his cousin and spent a lot of time following Jin Ling around. Jin Ling was now old enough to think he knew everything, and it was a constant effort to keep them out of trouble.

Nobody talked about Jin Guangyao, or about Yu Zixia, or any of the events that had taken place. They talked about the children, and the lotus harvesting, and the spring festival coming up. Wen Ning sat with them even though he couldn’t eat, and nobody made a big deal out of it. Lan Yong asked why he wasn’t eating (and called him ‘Wen-jiujiu’ which just about murdered Wei Wuxian on the spot), and Lan Wangji said, “Wen Ning is not able to eat, and it would not be polite to ask further questions,” which all the children accepted.

“You’re a jiujiu now,” Wei Wuxian teased Wen Ning. “It makes you sound very old.”

“I don’t want to sound old!” Wen Ning protested, distressed.

“A-Xian, don’t tease,” Jiang Yanli said, laughing quietly. “You’re a jiujiu now.”

Wei Wuxian blinked and remembered she was right. Flustered, he said, “Well, that would be expected of me, but Wen Ning isn’t old enough to be a jiujiu. They should call him Wen-gege instead.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, seeing Wen Ning’s confused blinking, “do not teach the children inaccurate things. Wen Ning is their jiujiu, as he is of our generation, not theirs. He is barely a year younger than you, if I recall correctly.”

“In fact, technically, I think I’m older than you now,” Wen Ning said, “since you were gone for three years and I wasn’t.”

“Well, you weren’t aging during those three years,” Wei Wuxian said, and frowned. “Wait, am I younger than Nie-xiong now? I used to be older than him! I don’t want to be younger than Nie-xiong!”

“You are,” Lan Wangji said, “and it is a silly thing to be concerned about.”

Wei Wuxian stuck his tongue out. The children giggled.

Towards the end of the meal, Jiang Yanli went into the kitchen and brought out a collection of liquor jars which she passed around. “Our very own,” she said in response to Wei Wuxian’s questioning look.

“Oh, man, I’ve missed it so much!” Wei Wuxian said, accepting a jar. He started to pass one to Lan Wangji, then said, “Oh, you can’t – wait, you can! I keep forgetting that.”

Jiang Yanli cleared her throat. “He can, but he should not,” she said. “It affects him poorly.”

“I know,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning widely. “He had a cup in Caiyi Town and proceeded to steal someone’s loquats and try to go swimming in the river.”

“I . . . do not remember doing those things,” Lan Wangji admitted in a mutter.

Trying not to laugh, Jiang Yanli said, “That’s fairly tame, actually. The one time he got drunk here, he carved both of your names into one of the support beams in the Sword Hall.”

“He did not,” Wei Wuxian said, delighted.

Lan Wangji was slowly flushing pink. “I sanded it out the next day.”

“And then,” Jiang Yanli said, “he decided to go swimming in the lake. So apparently he likes to go swimming while drunk, which is a good thing to know. Except we weren’t sure he would be able to, so we were trying to keep an eye on him. He swam circles in the lake for two hours. Nobody could keep up with him. He outswam eight Yunmeng Jiang disciples while blackout drunk.”

“There should be a medal for that,” Wei Wuxian said, laughing so hard he nearly cried.

“Zhangjie, I beg you to stop telling these stories,” Lan Wangji said. “I apologized afterwards. Please let that be enough.”

Chuckling, Jiang Yanli said, “I’m sorry to tease, A-Zhan. But please, for all our sakes, abstain.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji pushed the jar of alcohol back towards Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian made a mental note that they would have to discuss this later, because the way Lan Wangji had played tag with him while drunk was too cute to never do again. He was definitely getting him drunk at least once a year, perhaps on a special occasion. But they could talk about that when the children weren’t present.

Besides, Lan Wangji sober was also a surprising amount of fun, especially when they took their clothes off, so there was that.

The next day, they received an unexpected guest: Nie Huaisang. He was carrying a sturdy trunk with him, which Lan Wangji helped him carry into the Sword Hall. He was also accompanied by a woman that Wei Wuxian estimated was around the same age as Yu Zixia, who had multiple scars on her face.

“This must be Sisi,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling warmly at the woman. “Welcome to Lotus Pier.”

Sisi smiled and bowed, and said, “Thank you for having me.”

“I originally thought to take her back to Qinghe,” Nie Huaisang said, “but then I remembered that she’s actually originally from Yunmeng, so I asked if she’d prefer to come here instead. I didn’t figure you’d mind – you seem to enjoy taking in strays.”

Jiang Yanli laughed and said, “That is true. Of course I don’t mind. In fact, I’ve been thinking about how A-Su needs a handmaiden to help her. Sisi seems perfect for the job.”

Sisi thanked her again, and Jiang Yanli gestured for one of the disciples to take her to the rooms where Qin Su was staying. Once she was gone, Nie Huaisang opened the trunk. Wei Wuxian was vaguely curious about what might be inside it, as Jiang Yanli was thanking Nie Huaisang for saving her the trip to Lanling. So whatever it was had come from Koi Tower, but he was still somehow stunned when Nie Huaisang turned around and held Suibian out to him.

“You . . .” he said, his breath catching in his throat.

“The Jin disciples took it from the Burial Mounds,” Jiang Yanli said. “I asked Jin Guangyao where it was before his execution. I wasn’t sure if he would tell me the truth, but he did. Since Nie Huaisang was going to Lanling to get Sisi, I asked if he would fetch it for us.”

Feeling tears sting at his eyes, Wei Wuxian accepted the sword with hands that trembled. “Thank you, Nie-xiong, shijie. It’s . . . I can’t use it, but it’s . . . good to have it back.”

Lan Wangji squeezed his shoulder and said, “Someday you will be able to use it again.”

Wei Wuxian could only nod and wipe away the tears. Not wanting to dwell on the subject, he said, “That’s a big trunk for one sword, though. What else is there?”

“A handful of items that I assume were taken from the Burial Mounds,” Nie Huaisang said, removing things from the trunk. Wei Wuxian saw two of his journals, a few of his failed experiments, handfuls of talismans, even a few mundane objects that had no magical value. “But then there are these things,” Nie Huaisang continued, and drew out a knife with lotus flowers engraved on the hilt, some figurines carved from jade, and a number of other treasures.

Jiang Yanli knelt and picked up the knife. “This . . . this was Yinzhu’s, I think. Why would this have been in Lanling?”

Nie Huaisang emptied the trunk and closed it. “After Lotus Pier fell, the Wen sect removed everything of value and took it back to Nightless City with them. They did the same thing with many other sects. Later, at the end of the Sunshot Campaign, the various sects went through Nightless City and reclaimed all these things. The process was somewhat messy and disorganized. It took time to get into all the treasure chambers, and some items were hidden. I think things were still being exchanged between the sects as much as a year later. But frankly it doesn’t surprise me that the Jin sect kept some of the things that technically belonged to other sects. I found things belonging to the Gusu Lan in the treasure room as well.”

“That’s the Lanling Jin for you,” Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but say, rolling his eyes.

“Isn’t it, though?” Nie Huaisang said.

“How are things in Lanling?” Lan Wangji asked.

“Oh, horrific. There are three men all vying for the position of sect leader – I want to say two of Jin Guangshan’s cousins and a nephew but it might be the other way around. So far it’s just arguing and politics, but it’s going to end in bloodshed one way or another.”

Wei Wuxian wondered if he should feel bad about this, but given Nie Huaisang’s utterly casual tone, and the lack of concern on Lan Wangji’s face, he figured it was fine that he didn’t. Only Jiang Yanli looked somewhat downcast, and that was just in her nature.

Changing the subject, Jiang Yanli said, “I will get these things put away. Nie-gongzi, won’t you stay for dinner?”

“Of course!” Nie Huaisang said, smiling and waving his fan.

That night, Nie Huaisang shared a jar of liquor with them. Lan Wangji had one cup, played hide and seek with them for an hour (but kept coming out too early because he got lonely and/or forgot what they were doing), tried to catch a chicken with his bare hands while Nie Huaisang encouraged and instructed him, braided Wei Wuxian’s hair, and finally fell asleep in his lap.

“Best night ever,” Nie Huaisang said, and clicked his cup against Wei Wuxian’s.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

When Lan Xing turned four months old, Lan Xichen and Yu Zhiyi agreed that they would wait until she was two years old before having another child. An infant was a lot of work, and they did not really want another while Lan Xing was still so young. Most of the elders were perfectly accepting of this. Lan Xichen had plenty of time to have children. Now that Lan Wangji had officially left the Gusu Lan, they did not have to worry about him somehow ending up as sect leader. Only a few of them still nagged about it, and Yu Zhiyi could always make them be quiet by telling them facts about pregnancy and childbirth that they would rather not know.

“Your wife is terrorizing Lan Guban again,” Lan Qiren said in a sour voice, as Lan Xichen approached the hanshi.

“If Lan Guban brought up her ability to conceive again, he deserves whatever she’s saying to him,” Lan Xichen said serenely. Most of the elders had learned quickly not to antagonize Yu Zhiyi, as little as they liked coming to that conclusion. And there was only so much they could complain about his choice of brides, considering his father and his brother.

Lan Qiren sighed and muttered, “Most likely.”

Sometimes Lan Xichen felt badly for his uncle. He knew that Lan Qiren genuinely loved Lan Wangji. He knew that Lan Qiren had genuinely been trying to help him back to the correct path. If only he hadn’t been so harsh and inflexible, Lan Xichen thought he might have been able to patch the chasm between them. But he wasn’t sure it would ever be possible.

A reconciliation between Lan Wangji and the elders was more likely now than it had been. While Wei Wuxian had been dead, Lan Wangji never would have forgiven them, because he could never forgive himself, for his inaction. Now, perhaps he might someday. Wei Wuxian himself seemed to think that the elders had had every right to think he was a terrible person, although Lan Xichen did not see Lan Wangji agreeing with that assertion any time soon.

But if it ever happened, it was still a long way off, and Lan Xichen was not going to push it. Lan Wangji was happy where he was, so Lan Xichen would leave him there.

As for himself, he wasn’t as unhappy as he could have been. Jin Guangyao’s betrayal and subsequent death still hurt. He would wake up with it sometimes, an ache in his chest where his friend had been. But he had his real brother and his sworn brother, and he had his wife and his daughter. They did not make the pain go away, but they made it easier for him to bear.

He was wondering if there was something else he should say to his uncle when there was a ruckus from one of the nearby rooms where the disciples studied, and a few moments later, one of the elders dragged a boy outside by his ear, wailing apologies. Lan Xichen briskly walked over before he could toss the boy onto his ass and said, politely, “What exactly is happening here?”

“I b-broke discipline two hundred twelve,” the boy said, lower lip wobbling. Lan Xichen recognized him as one of the newest juniors, probably about ten years old, named Lan Feng. “I’m sorry.”

Discipline two hundred twelve, Lan Xichen recalled, was ‘be careful of others’ belongings’. “Did you break something, A-Feng?”

“He was trying to reach something on a shelf that was too high for him,” the elder snapped. “He fell and knocked over my inkwell, breaking it and ruining the last hours’ worth of work that I had done!”

Lan Xichen nodded. “Are you hurt, A-Feng?” he asked, and the boy shook his head miserably. “All right, that’s good. Tomorrow, you will do all of this honorable elder’s chores for him. You will sweep the paths he would sweep, wash the dishes he would wash, draw his water and bring his tea. That will free up the time he will need to redo the work that you ruined. You will still need to complete all your own chores as well. Do you understand?”

Lan Feng nodded and bowed. The elder, however, said, “The punishment for breaking someone else’s belongings is ten strikes!”

With a benign smile, Lan Xichen said, “Well, I would assume that only applies if the act had been intentional. When A-Feng broke your inkwell, it was an accident.”

“Caused by his recklessness,” the elder snapped.

“And I’m sure he’s learned to be more careful in the future,” Lan Xichen said. “I see no reason we would need to reinforce this lesson with a physical punishment.”

More than anything, the elder simply looked confused. “But it’s written . . .”

Lan Xichen never stopped smiling. “Is it not also written ‘do not judge others harshly’? Discipline seven hundred and seventy-nine. As well as ‘do not take out an ill temper on others’, ‘protect children’, and ‘do not value physical property above another’s well-being’. Nowhere in the disciplines is it written to strike a child ten times for a simple accident caused by a bit of carelessness. Now, A-Feng, I am sure you have duties to attend to, so you may go.”

Lan Feng nodded, bowed again, and walked away with perhaps a bit more haste than would be polite, but not enough to be considered running. The elder hmphed and went back into the room he had been studying in.

“Xichen,” Lan Qiren said with a sigh.

“Yes, shufu?” Lan Xichen asked.

Lan Qiren glared at him for a long minute, then shook his head and said, “Never mind.” With that, he turned and walked away.

Lan Xichen heard a quiet laugh and turned to see Yu Zhiyi, holding Lan Xing, standing in the courtyard by the hanshi. He walked over and kissed first the baby’s forehead, then his wife’s. “Eavesdropping?”

“I just like watching you work,” she said. “Making a better sect?”

“Making a better world,” he said, and smiled.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Lan Wangji’s favorite time of day was morning lessons.

It was a little silly of him, he thought, but the sight of Wei Wuxian sitting amongst the children, doing core-building exercises with them, warmed his heart in a way he had no longer thought possible. He had no idea whether or not it would be effective, whether it would take months or years or decades to see any results. Truthfully, he did not care. Wei Wuxian was back, and Wei Wuxian was his, and it was more than he had ever dared dream of.

And the children, his beloved children, were doing well. Jin Song loved to sit with the others and mimic what they were doing, scribbling with a brush or pretending to draw symbols in the air. He could walk by himself and copied Wen Yuan’s habit of clinging to the legs of people. His speech was still perhaps a bit behind, but he was catching up, and nobody made fun of him for it. Even if his delays persisted, Lan Wangji thought, he would always be treated kindly at Lotus Pier. They would shield him and protect him from anyone who dared say it was because of who his father had been.

Mo Xuanyu was excelling at all his lessons. His father might have had few positive qualities, but he had been a powerful cultivator, and he had passed that down to his sons. And Mo Xuanyu was brilliant in a way akin to Wei Wuxian – creative and flexible, able to make leaps of logic in a way others couldn’t. Wei Wuxian had taken a shine to him immediately, and they were often doing experiments together. Mo Xuanyu was still shy and anxious, but he only wore his mask in large gatherings now, never during lessons. He would be getting his sword soon, and had realized that he would actually be a formal member of the Yunmeng Jiang, that his place there was permanent. He seemed more in awe of it with each day that passed.

Jin Ling, meanwhile, was doing his best to become fiercely independent. The phrase ‘let me do it’ was spoken at minimum four times an hour. He wanted to dress himself and help with the chores and dish up his own food. He could swim very well and always wanted to go in the water if the older children were going in. He liked to paint and was learning his shapes and colors. Even when the lessons were too advanced for him, he always wanted to participate. He bossed around the children who were older than him, saying that he was going to be sect leader of the Yunmeng Jiang so they had to listen to him. All of the other children found this quite amusing. Jiang Yanli had gotten him a puppy, a foo dog from the mountains. He named her Fairy and she followed him everywhere, much to Wei Wuxian’s dismay (although even he could not truly be afraid of such a small, fluffy thing).

Lan Yong was always talking even when he shouldn’t be, telling stories or bossing other juniors around. He was the most advanced at language, and frequently bragged about how many characters he had learned and how good his calligraphy was. Of course, his calligraphy was wonderful because he was frequently made to copy lines in response to his many transgressions, but this did not seem to bother him. He was also the physically strongest, and enjoyed roughhousing with the boys who were a few years older than them. He was starting his martial arts lessons, and he took to them like a duck to water.

And then there was Wen Yuan, his beautiful, wonderful A-Yuan. Only seven years old and could already play the guqin and the dizi with moderate proficiency. Ahead of juniors who were twice his age when it came to building his golden core. Good at both mathematics and writing. Sweet and polite, always ready to help, patient with the younger children, protective of his fathers. Lan Wangji could not have been more proud.

He loved all of them, and he loved watching Wei Wuxian play with them and spend time with them, and he loved the way Wen Yuan still called Wei Wuxian ‘Xian-baba’ even though it was a little silly. He loved the joy and gratitude he saw in Wei Wuxian’s gaze every time they watched Wen Yuan together. He loved the way Jin Ling called them both ‘jiujiu’ and constantly talked about how his mother was the best mom ever. He loved his family.

“Okay, so I couldn’t find a baby to steal for us yet,” Wei Wuxian said after lessons one day, in exactly the tone Lan Wangji would have expected him to say such an outrageous thing, “so I got us something else. Or shijie did, since I’m not allowed to leave Lotus Pier, but I told her what to get so they’re from me to you. Close your eyes.”

Somewhat suspiciously, Lan Wangji obeyed, and let Wei Wuxian lead him out behind the main buildings, where there was more solid land instead of lotus pools. “Okay, you can open them now!”

Lan Wangji did so, and in front of him was an area of earth and vegetation that had been fenced off. A small wooden hutch had been built inside, and sitting on the ground by it were two rabbits, one white and one black. His eyes lit up despite himself, and he stepped over the fence and sat down with them.

“I can’t make you go back to Cloud Recesses, and I can’t make you want to go back,” Wei Wuxian said, “which is fine, if that’s what you want, even though it seems so strange to me. But the parts of it you loved, I can bring those parts to you.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji smoothed back the ears of the black rabbit, and gestured for Wei Wuxian to join him in the pen. He did, sitting down next to him, and Lan Wangji placed the white rabbit in his arms. Wei Wuxian laughed and picked it up so he could nuzzle its nose with his own. Lan Wangji watched him do this, smiled, and said, “Thank you, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian bumped their shoulders together and smiled. “You’re welcome.”

Lan Wangji leaned in and gave him a gentle kiss.

“You know, I wanted to ask you,” Wei Wuxian said, “since we did three prostrations together, are we technically married now?”

That made Lan Wangji frown. The Gusu Lan wedding ceremony was quite different, involving the tying of the ribbon, but he could see why Wei Wuxian might think so. “Do you want to be married?”

“I do,” Wei Wuxian said, and Lan Wangji’s frown faded back into his soft smile, “but I also think shijie might be annoyed if we don’t let her plan a wedding for us.”

“Well, then,” Lan Wangji said, with another kiss, “I will tell her to plan one.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli became Chief Cultivator by unanimous agreement among the sect leaders. She suspected that many of them agreed to this because, despite all evidence to the contrary, they figured she would be weak and easy to manipulate. She found herself perversely looking forward to the first time she got to completely ruin Sect Leader Yao’s day by telling him that he couldn’t have what he wanted.

She noticed that Yu Zixia was not at the cultivation conference, which was being held in Qinghe. In fact, nobody was there representing the Lanling Jin at all, for the first time in her memory.

Once they had finalized the decision of Chief Cultivator and discussed some other night hunting news, she asked if anybody knew what was going on in Lanling. Yu Guoduan stood and bowed to her, and said, “Yu Zixia has left the Lanling Jin and is now back in Meishan. As you might have anticipated, she was unwilling to give up on the idea of bringing Jin Rulan back to Koi Tower, and ordered the men who were still loyal to her to attack Lotus Pier. However, the men did not wish to challenge the Yunmeng Jiang, and in particular not Hanguang-Jun, and rebelled against her. She was removed from her position of power and has accepted my offer to rejoin the Meishan Yu.”

Jiang Yanli let out a breath and nodded. “Thank you, Yu-zongzhu. Although I do not wish to seek punishment for her, please understand that I cannot allow her back in Yunmeng, and would prefer if you could make sure she does not cause any further trouble for my sect.”

“Of course, Xiandu. I have already informed her that she must remain inside the borders of Meishan, and that the Meishan Yu consider Yunmeng Jiang important allies. Anything she does to damage that alliance will lead to her immediate expulsion from the Yu sect.”

“Thank you,” Jiang Yanli said again.

Yu Guoduan sat back down, and Nie Huaisang stood and bowed. “Unfortunately, from what I know from my people in Lanling, the Jin sect is completely collapsing. When Yu Zixia was removed, one of Jin Guangshan’s cousins seized power. There were also two nephews that had argued they were best suited to take the seat. One of them staged an uprising against the cousin and both factions lost many men. The remaining nephew is now considered sect leader but that is not expected to last long, as the two losing factions, as well as the men who were loyal to Jin-furen until the end, will not accept his claim to the position. I suspect that before the end, the Jin sect will break into three or possibly four separate sects, the largest of which will hold onto Koi Tower.”

Jiang Yanli let out a breath. She couldn’t say it was surprising. They had all known that the power vacuum left behind by Jin Guangyao would end poorly. The Jin sect was so large, and already so full of intrigue and disloyalty. It was the sect that Jin Guangshan had nurtured, and perhaps it was better that it would collapse. She vividly remembered Jin Guangyao’s final words, and wondered if this would bring his soul some comfort.

“Thank you, Nie-gongzi,” she said. “Your assistance collecting information from Lanling has been invaluable. I hope I can continue to rely on you.”

Nie Huaisang bowed again and said, “I’m honored to be of assistance, Xiandu.”

Nie Mingjue glanced at his brother and a little smile tugged at his lips, to see Nie Huaisang having found a niche for himself in the tumultuous cultivation world. Jiang Yanli could not help but smile as well.

They discussed a few more issues, but the conference overall was short. That evening, they bid goodbye to the Nie brothers and headed back to Yunmeng. She had brought about half a dozen disciples with her, including Lan Wangji, although Wei Wuxian had chosen to stay behind. He still did not much care to leave Lotus Pier, as it was where he felt safest, and where he could stay with the children.

Most of the journey was on the river, and it passed in a quiet, peaceful way. Lan Wangji had told her a few days earlier that he intended to marry Wei Wuxian – which did not surprise her in the slightest – and thought she might like to speak to Lan Xichen about planning a ceremony. Knowing how much Lan Xichen adored his younger brother and wanted to see him find happiness, she had mentioned it at the conference, and they had talked for about an hour about the finer details. Jiang Yanli relayed their plans to Lan Wangji as the boat drifted down the river. She was strong enough now that she could have ridden the sword – something that would have seemed ridiculously impossible three years previous, as ridiculous as the idea of being Chief Cultivator – but not all the disciples could. And she still loved the water, loved the feeling of the boat swaying back and forth. It reminded her of her childhood, when everything was still bright and hopeful.

When the boat came around the curve of the river and she saw the docks of Lotus Pier, she could not help but smile. Wei Wuxian was waiting for them there, with Wen Ning and Qin Su and the children. He waved vigorously as the boat came closer and helped them dock. “Welcome home, shijie, Lan Zhan,” he said, with a bow that quickly turned into an embrace. He hugged Jiang Yanli and then gave Lan Wangji a kiss before the children came over to greet them.

Jiang Yanli scooped up Jin Ling and gave him a kiss, and he laughed and protested, “It tickles, Mama.” She hugged him tighter. There were still days she missed her brother and her husband so much. Every time she saw Wen Yuan and Lan Yong playing, it reminded her of her brothers. She loved and missed the ones who were gone, but she knew they would be proud of her, and that helped ease the pain far more than she ever would have thought.

She balanced Jin Ling on her hip while she greeted the other children, then Qin Su and Wen Ning. Wen Yuan was already on Lan Wangji’s back to be carried, his arms wrapped around Lan Wangji’s neck. He could not have possibly looked happier that this was happening. She smiled at him, her dear brother-in-law who had helped her so much, and he smiled back, and they headed up the docks and into Lotus Pier together.

 

 

~fin~