A LONG TIME AGO
Meng Yao was twelve years old when his father kicked him down the steps of Jinlin Tai.
He laid in the dirt for what felt like a long time. There was blood in his eyes. Someone very far away laughed. His vision blurred in and out, the blue sky above fading to white and back again.
If it had been cold Meng Yao might have never moved again, consumed by his own despair, but the sun beat down until the blood running down his face dried and his skin started to flush and burn. He sat up, drew his knees towards his chest and rested his forehead against them, breathing through the nausea. His ears rang. When he could stand, he stood.
He walked without direction. His head didn’t hurt but it throbbed, as though his skull was contracting and expanding. The sunlight hurt his eyes and the noise of Lanling, its people and their animals, made him dizzy. More blood trickled into his eyes. He stopped wiping it away after the first few times. No one looked at him.
Meng Yao was three years old when he began to dream of coming to his father’s house. His mother filled him to the brim with stories of the vibrant markets of Lanling, the elegant banquets at Jinlin Tai. She painted silhouettes of the pagoda onto her fan and embroidered white peonies onto his handkerchief. She taught him to sing and play the suyue songs of the peasantry, so he could earn his keep playing in the brothel’s common room; later, in secret, she taught him the yayue style favoured by the gentry.
On the hard days – the days where business was slow or the madam was cruel – she whispered promises into his ear, each of them prefaced with one day, when your father…
One day, when your father comes for us, we will eat fresh meat every day.
One day, when your father takes us back to Lanling, we will drink baijiu from the finest Ru-ware cups.
One day, when your father recognises you, he will give you a golden guan, and I will wear matching buyao in my hair every day.
Not once did his mother say one day, when your father sees you at his door, he will deny you utterly. He will reject you. He will throw you from a great height and leave you bleeding on the ground.
Meng Yao was seven years old when he began to hide money; a coin here and there, earned begging, or given by his mother’s patrons, or paid to him to take over the tasks the other workers found distasteful; laundry or mending or emptying chamber pots. He never hid it from his mother – he could never hide anything from her – and in return, Meng Shi never touched it, even when they had spent themselves down to the last coin, even when they were hungry or cold or sick. Meng Yao had offered it to her many times. His mother had smiled and kissed his forehead and told him they would manage, and that one day, his father—
Meng Yao spent five years squirrelling away every ingot he could spare, hiding them in his thin straw mattress, sewing them into his sleeves, waiting for the day he might need them.
Meng Yao was eleven years old when he arrived in Lanling for the first time, far too late in the day to intrude upon the gentry. He walked the market instead.
He ignored the stalls selling food; he was too anxious to eat. Besides, he had travelling rations in his belt, enough to get him back to Yunping. He passed by the stalls selling fabric or clothing; Meng Yao’s robes were humble, but they were as clean and neat as they could be after the hard journey and the embroidery along the hems was his very finest work, the fruit of hours of labour in dark rooms.
He stopped at a stall selling hair pins carved from bone. A matched pair of fazan caught his eye; two cranes in flight, curving towards each other, with tiny chips of dark polished shell for eyes. Meng Yao asked after them and haggled ruthlessly enough that he parted with only most of his money. They were the best omen he could ask for, symbols of longevity and rising status and the filial bond between a father and son. He thought he could present them to his mother; that they could wear one each when his father brought them back to Lanling.
He visited one of the local pleasure houses and bartered an evening of pouring wine and washing cups for a place to sleep that night; an out-of-the-way corner, where the madam could be sure none of the clients would see him and his robes wouldn’t be dirtied as they would if he tried to sleep in a barn or stable. He was careful to hang his robes neatly and brush them down as best he could before he slept. It would be important to look his best, when he presented himself to his father.
It was the day before his birthday.
Meng Yao was twelve years old when he considered selling one of the crane pins to a merchant. He haggled ruthlessly to purchase them at all; he was sure he could do the same to sell them. After all, who was he to say that the eyes were shell and not jet or obsidian or perhaps even garnet? Who was this amateur to say that the craftsmanship is anything less than worthy of a prince? He could get more than half of what he paid for the pair.
He kept them, and bartered away his rations instead.
Meng Yao was twelve years old when he first learned of Yiling Laozu.
“Boy!” A woman squinted at him from a market stall, one hand shading her eyes from the sun. “What happened to your face, boy?”
Meng Yao touched his face. His fingers came away red and sticky.
He walked on.
He managed to stumble into an alley before he vomited, his body expelling the contents of his stomach with the perfunctory manner of a merchant counting coins. The streets of Lanling are broad and well-lit, but Meng Yao might as well have been wandering in the deepest night, the thickest fog. He remembered the path he took to get to Jinlin Tai with exact precision. He knew precisely how to make his way home. He could not take the knowledge from his mind and use it to direct his feet.
“Boy!” The woman has followed him. Meng Yao watched her take him in. He supposed he made an unpleasant picture: the blood on his face, still flowing; his robes, torn and dusty; the vomit by his feet and clinging to his chin. She came closer to him, heedless, and crouched in front of him. Her fingers were like cold iron against his chin when she gripped it. She turned his face from side to side.
“What happened to you?”
What had happened to him? Meng Yao wasn’t sure that question had an answer he could provide. He said nothing.
The woman’s gaze softened. She tugged his handkerchief out of his pocket, wadded it up and pressed it to the cut on his forehead. When Meng Yao only stared at her, she took him by the wrist and used his own hand to hold the cloth in place. It stung sharply enough to cut through the fog.
“Who hurt you, boy?” she asked, in a tone that almost managed to be gentle.
This, Meng Yao could answer. “My father.”
The woman’s face went hard and cold. Her grip on his wrist tightened briefly before she released him.
“Keep pressure on that,” she said.
Meng Yao felt that his bones could fall out of his body, that he could rise from his flesh like a ghost from a grave. He pressed his wrist harder against his forehead. He was only grateful that the nausea was gone, at least temporarily. His vision was still faded; he couldn’t focus enough to see the woman’s face clearly, even when she leaned in to wipe ineffectually at the blood on his face.
“As if there weren’t enough pain in the world,” she muttered. “May the Yiling Laozu take the man who did this.”
Meng Yao was acquainted with the tone of voice adopted by someone who did not want a child to understand them. Meng Yao was also acquainted with the desperation of his circumstances.
“I don’t know this Yiling Laozu,” he said. His own voice sounded far away, as though it was coming from behind him.
“Ah, he’s a story for scaring children. Nothing more,” the woman said.
Meng Yao was acquainted with liars.
“What do they say about him in the stories?” he asked.
“They say he snatches up children and devours maidens for breakfast.” The woman scoffed. “Nonsense, of course.”
“Nonsense,” Meng Yao repeated dutifully.
The woman hummed, satisfied, as she wiped at his face. “They say he rises from a pool of blood in the middle of a mass grave. If you can find him in his lair, if you can pay the price, he will bless your life or curse your enemies.”
Something at the back of Meng Yao’s mind, some raw and wounded instinct, came shivering awake.
“He must be very powerful,” he murmured.
The woman huffed. “Perhaps. Though I confess I’ve not yet met someone desperate enough to chance Luanzang Gang for such a bargain.” She sat back on her haunches and looked at him. “Do you have somewhere to go?”
Meng Yao made a choice.
Yiling was a long way from Lanling, but not far at all for a boy who had just been handed the key to his heart’s most savage desire. Meng Yao barely noticed the time passing, barely noticed his hunger and pain and exhaustion. He developed spectacular bruises, black and purple, across his face and body, and that helped; people pitied him, offered him alms or free meals or safe places to sleep. He looked like a child who had been savagely beaten by his parents, or a servant by his master; in essence, he supposed that was accurate.
If he had not been so conscious of the time, he would have stopped in Yunping, perhaps asked his mother to go with him, but she was so ill. Meng Yao had so little left to give to her. Just this one thing, perhaps. Then she could rest. Then, perhaps, they both could.
He travelled with merchant caravans and river boats when he could, walked alone when he couldn’t. If he slept, it was in the back of someone’s cart, atop a heap of radishes or sacks of rice. If he ate, it was by the charity of those with whom he shared the road. That only came rarely. If he was hungry, he didn’t notice.
The village of Yiling did not seem like the kind of place afflicted by anything like a demon. Meng Yao knew his cultivation was not strong, that the manuals his mother purchased for him were not producing the results she hoped for, but he had learned enough to sense malevolent or resentful presences. There was nothing here. There were none of the other signs of a dark influence, either – the market was bustling. People looked healthy. The children grew tall and strong. There were a handful of street cats, but not a single stray dog to be seen.
Meng Yao was not sure where to find Yiling Laozu, but he did not have to look; he only had to listen. It was only an hour or so of wandering the market before he heard the right conversation. Two women, huddled together behind a stall selling silk tassels, whispering.
“When will you go?” the older woman said.
“Right now,” said the younger. “I only stopped to let you know, in case the offering isn’t – isn’t enough.”
“Here,” the older woman said. She pressed a money pouch into the younger woman’s hand. “Go and buy some potatoes from Lao Wang, and maybe something from the butcher. Just in case. I’ll see you back here tomorrow, do you hear me?”
The younger woman looked like she might cry. “Yes – yes, thank you—”
“Don’t thank me, hurry and go! The older woman nudged the younger’s shoulder. “You don’t want to be anywhere near Luanzang Gang when it gets dark.”
Meng Yao followed the younger woman at a distance as she went to Lao Wang’s stall for potatoes. He followed her to the butchers, where she haggled for a whole fat duck. He had learned the tricks of being invisible in a crowd, but his work became harder when the woman squared her shoulders and marched out of Yiling, towards the dreary hills behind it, a place hemmed in by grey mist and heavy clouds, with trees that looked, if not dead, then profoundly unwell. Only the woman’s single-minded focus on her goal kept her from seeing Meng Yao.
He could certainly feel resentment now, as they left the shelter of the village behind, but it was neither so much nor so aggressive as he had expected. It felt almost restrained, in a way, as though there was something holding it back. Meng Yao had heard of Luanzang Gang, of the battles fought here; perhaps cultivators had, at one time or another, placed wards around the village to keep it safe from undue influence.
The woman came to a crude shrine which had been erected on the road, little more than a few slabs of wood leaning against each other, with Yiling Laozu hastily carved into a tablet with a knife that had not been quite enough for the job. Meng Yao crouched behind a dense, thorny patch of scrub, and waited.
The woman knelt down before the shrine and set out her offerings – the potatoes, the duck, a small sack, a jade pendant. She bowed, pressing her forehead to the earth.
“You don’t need to be so formal,” said a voice.
Meng Yao was not sure what he had expected Yiling Laozu to sound like – perhaps a menacing growl, or a malevolent whisper – but what he heard was quite like the voice of a child, no older than Meng Yao himself.
The woman sat up and wiped at her face. Meng Yao realised she had been weeping; he could hear it in her voice.
“Yiling Laozu,” she said, clear, for all that she was shaking. “I come to you with a request for aid.”
The mist around the shrine swirled thicker for a moment, and then all at once there was a boy standing there. He looked to be no older than six or seven, although he was terribly thin – Meng Yao supposed that the boy, like himself, might have been undersized from lack of food, rather than simple youth. The boy came and sat down in front of the offerings, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them.
“Didi?” the woman whispered.
“No,” the boy said. “But he says hello. He says he misses you. It wasn’t your fault, what happened. It was just an accident.”
The woman said nothing, but she covered her face with her hands.
“What did you want?” the boy asked. He nudged her offerings with his toe, brightening a little when he touched the sack. “Are those chilli seeds?”
“Yes,” the woman said, hoarse. “Chen-furen said you – you liked them, when she brought some to you.”
“Oh, Chen-furen! How thoughtful of her to remember,” the boy said. “You should tell me what you want, though, so I know how much of this I should keep. You must be asking for a very big favour.”
The woman leaned forward. She spoke in a very low, urgent voice that Meng Yao could not hear. The boy looked as though he was listening intently. When the woman finished and sat back on her heels, he nodded.
“I can do that.” He looked down at the woman’s offerings, hummed thoughtfully, and nudged the jade pendant with his toes. “You should keep this. It has too much history to be given away to the likes of me.”
The boy sounded wistful, though. Meng Yao felt a jolt of hope somewhere in the depths of his ribcage – hope that his twinned crane fuzan might be enough of an offering, that his gift would be found worthy for the enormity of the favour he had to ask. If Yiling Laozu liked pretty things…
“Thank you,” the woman said. She snatched up her pendant and scrambled to her feet, bowing and walking backwards. “Thank you, thank you – I will wait—”
“No need to wait,” the boy said. “Go home and make sure to lock your doors. It will happen tonight.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, and turned and fled.
Meng Yao waited, but the boy did not leave. He simply leaned forward to gather up his offerings, shoving them into an ancient and battered qiankun pouch.
“You can come out now,” he said, pitching his voice a little louder. “She’s gone.”
Meng Yao felt something cold and slick, like a finger of ice, side up the back of his neck – he scrambled forward onto the road, looking behind him, but saw nothing. When he looked forward again, the boy had finished putting the potatoes away. He was looking at Meng Yao.
The boy didn’t look like a demon. He looked like an ordinary human child – underfed, perhaps, but the same could be said of Meng Yao. His hair was a terrible tangle. His robes were threadbare and too small, but that made him no different from the other orphan children Meng Yao saw anywhere and everywhere.
Meng Yao brushed off his robes, walked forward, and knelt down in front of the boy.
“Are you Yiling Laozu?” he asked.
“That’s just what they call me,” the boy said dismissively. “I tried to tell them my name, but they started calling me the Foundling Ghost, and then the Graveyard Demon, and, well, Yiling Laozu is better than those, I think. At least they don’t treat me like a baby.” He looked at Meng Yao and smiled. It was a sweet, sunny smile, the kind Meng Yao usually only saw on babies and drunks. “But you look like you need help.”
“I do,” Meng Yao said. His heart was hammering in his throat. Very carefully, he took the box holding the fuzan out of his robes and opened it. “I have nothing to give you but these.”
He set the open box in front of him and then bowed low, the way the woman had, pressing his forehead into the dirt.
“These are meant for someone you love,” the boy said. He sounded strange – nostalgic, perhaps even envious. “I can feel it in them. You worked hard for them. Now you’re giving them up to me. You must want something very badly.”
Cool dry fingers brushed the back of Meng Yao’s hand.
Meng Yao looked up, startled by the touch, only to see Yiling Laozu slightly out of arm's reach, holding the box. He could not have touched Meng Yao’s hand.
He must have imagined it. Nothing more.
Yiling Laozu smiled down at Meng Yao and closed the box, cradling it to his chest. “Will you tell me what you want?”
Meng Yao told him.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Wangji is not prepared for the reality of Luanzang Gang.
It looms above the town of Yiling. Though Wangji knows the rolling slopes are only hills, they seem mountains by their presence, like hulking bodyguards around some important personage. Though many of the hills are covered in trees, the forest does not feel alive; Wangji hears no bird song, not even the buzzing of an insect, as he follows a well-worn path through the foothills. Many of the trees have leaves, but they have some strange quality Wangji cannot quite define, a sense of stillness, as though they have been caught in an invisible frost.
The people of Yiling had not seemed at all concerned; when Wangji had attempted to enquire about Luanzang Gang, they were almost enthused.
“They’ve brought nothing but good fortune ever since Yiling Laozu arrived,” said the man who owned the inn, a tiny elder with skin like dried-out apple peel. “In my youth, there were all kinds of problems – curses, fierce corpses, gui and whatnot – and none of the other sects would even venture here, for fear of what they might find! But now there is a sect there. Not even in the town, but right in the heart of Luanzang Gang itself! And all has been well. They even bring money into town, selling their fancy talismans and such.”
The same narrative, in varying forms, came to Wangji wherever he looked; the Yiling Wei sect had brought prosperity to a town that had, in truth, been dying. Luanzang Gang, once a place of terror and misfortune, is now a source of not merely income but pride to the locals. After the other cultivation sects had failed them – and Wangji had to admit that the sects had failed Yiling for a very long time – the Wei sect had swooped in, like benevolent spirits from a folktale, bringing with them a myriad of blessings.
It is utterly unlike the stories told of Yiling Wei elsewhere. Wangji isn’t sure how to reconcile them. It should be impossible that Yiling Wei might have a shining reputation in their homeland and be cast as demons elsewhere… except, of course, that Qinghe Nie’s reputation varies in just such a manner, if not on so great a scale. Other sects whisper behind their hands about how even the strongest cultivators of the Nie bloodlines died shockingly young, always with the insinuation that there must be some disgraceful secret behind their misfortune. Even in the face of opposing evidence – even after almost every sect had benefited from the Nie sect’s actions in the Sunshot Campaign – such rumours persist.
But the rumours about Qinghe Nie are almost ordinary by comparison to what is said of Yiling Laozu.
As he draws further away from the town, Wangji begins to understand the source of some of the discord. Though Yiling is prosperous, bathing in the summer sun, the sky above Luanzang Gang sinks down, heavy and grey. Perhaps it is something the townsfolk are used to; Wangji, himself a child of the mountains, is not overly perturbed, but naturally it might be unsettling to an outsider. There are clouds in the sky, but they do not move as clouds ought, hovering instead of shifting with the breeze. There is, in fact, no breeze; the air is strangely still. As Wangji approaches it grows close and cold.
He had very nearly fought with Xichen for the right to come alone to Luanzang Gang. Xichen would have sent him with a dozen cultivators serving as retinue and guards, would have sent servants and aides and all the usual accoutrements of a member of the gentry attending for a long diplomatic stay. Wangji, though, had known even then that this is not a diplomatic visit. He is walking willingly into the jaws of an unknown monster, hoping that he is enough to keep them from biting down on the next victim. Coming with an entourage, he would have been a threat; alone, he is a hostage. It would be dishonest to present himself otherwise.
He knows which will appeal more to Yiling Wei.
The entrance to Luanzang Gang proper was marked with a shrine to a local folkloric figure, well-loved but a little ramshackle, clearly erected informally by the people of Yiling and not by a craftsman or a priest dedicated to the task. There were fresh offerings, though. A single candle burns bright, sheltered from the cold air. Wangji did not inspect it closely, instead finding the path behind it that snaked around the base of the hill.
There was a dense mist, thick and grey and coiling black, smelling faintly of decaying leaves and damp earth. It reminded Wangji of the haze that had seemed to follow the Yiling Wei sect to Qinghe as they arrived; it reminded him of the swirling fog they had vanished into as they had left, appearing almost suddenly and then burning away in the sunlight when they had gone. It was almost reassuring, to know he was in the right place after all. He straightened his shoulders and walked forwards, into the bank of fog.
It was cold and wet and lingering, heavy, weighing down his clothes almost at once. Wangji could not see the path beneath his feet or the hill ahead of him; he could only follow the path as best he could, remembering what he had seen. He was almost afraid to turn, fearing that if he stopped moving in a straight line he would become hopelessly turned around, but the path had moved around the hill, so he had no real choice; he followed it. He crouched for a moment, trying to find the gentle upwards slope of the hill with his hand, but no matter how far he reached all he found was more empty fog.
There was nothing to be done but to trust his instincts and keep walking.
As he walked, the nature of the fog changed. As with everything else about Luanzang Gang, it had felt heavy and oppressive, but now there were the beginnings of movement; a darker shade of grey, almost black, coiling like thin streams of smoke, undulating in the very corners of his vision. Wangji was sure that if he looked too closely at the way it curled and uncurled, he would be drawn away from his path, so he allowed it to continue in his periphery and focused instead on his own measured steps. They never seemed to draw closer, or to cross in front of him, or to touch him. They only wished, it seemed, to distract him. To make themselves known.
Wangji swallowed. His mouth was very dry. The temperature continued to decline as he walked. The light was dimming too. He was not sure what he would do if he did not find the Yiling Wei sect soon; he was not sure he would be able to find his way out.
His hand went to one of the yaopei hanging from his belt. He could not even see it when he looked down, the mist swirling between his eyes and his hand, but he followed the slender chain of cool stones down to the pendant at the end; a white jade rabbit, set in a little disk of metal hammered to resemble the moon. He closed his hand around it and drew it up to hold against his chest. Despite the cold of the air, the cool stone was soothing against his fingers – smooth and hard, something real to hold onto, when everything else was as insubstantial as the fog around him.
Something brushed against his wrist. A moment later, a human hand wrapped around Wangji’s forearm in a hard grip. Wangji found himself being towed forward. He was too surprised to resist, and too grateful; even if he was about to be menaced or killed, at least whoever was guiding him knew the way through the fog.
They must have been closer than he had feared; it was barely more than a dozen paces before he was pulled free of the fog bank and emerged, blinking, into the settlement at the heart of Luanzang Gang. He could not even truly absorb what he was seeing, too busy looking at the person who had pulled him from the mist.
Long dark hair bound up with no ornament except for a ribbon; dark eyes gleaming out from behind a metal mask, the one he wore most often with no embellishment except for a curling knot beside each eye. A mouth, at first stern, softening into the more familiar grin.
“Hanguang-jun,” says Yiling Laozu. “Welcome to my humble home. What are you doing here?”
Art by Lilijien.
QINGHE, DURING SUNSHOT
Gusu Lan survives the opening strike of the Sunshot Campaign only because there are an unusual number of magpies nesting in the mountain forests that year. The birds had been startled by the Wen sect’s passage and taken to diving at them, over and over, shrieking. The disciples on guard duty had investigated the disturbance, seen the approaching Wen, and warned the sect in time for them to evacuate. The Wen sect, enraged to find Yunshen Buzhichu silent and empty, had burned it to the ground, but the heart of the sect – the people, from the most venerated elder to the newborn daughter of the scullery maid, and the books that contained the spiritual wisdom of hundreds of generations of scholars and philosophers and cultivators – are alive.
Wangji, as the strongest among them, had flown to Qinghe at a speed he had never achieved before and thought he might never again. He had maintained his composure for precisely long enough to explain the situation to Nie Mingjue, then promptly collapsed in the Blade Hall, physically and spiritually exhausted. He had woken to Nie Huaisang sitting at a table by his bedside, using a very fine brush to paint a white silk fan.
“Nie-gongzi,” Wangji had said, sitting up. Huaisang, without looking up from his work, had reached out and shoved Wangji’s shoulder; though the movement had no force behind it, Wangji crumpled, too weak to resist even the gentlest pressure.
“Lan-xiong. Dage just sent word,” Huaisang had said, eyes still fixed on the fan. “He found Zewu-jun and the rest of your people. They’re being escorted to Qinghe. You’re all staying here for some time. After that – well, it’s going to be war, so you might as well rest while you can.”
He lifted his brush away from the fan and tilted his head to look at it. Apparently satisfied, he lifted the fan carefully in both hands and showed it to Wangji. The fan displayed a magpie perched on a pine branch, beak open, wings spread, as if preparing to take flight.
“I thought I might commemorate the occasion.” Huaisang set the fan down again, almost reverently. He clapped his hands together. “Tea?”
By the time Wangji was recovered, Xichen and the rest of his family had arrived, safe and whole.
The first day Wangji is permitted to resume his usual duties, Xichen asks him to attend their first war council. It is not an impressive gathering yet; Nie Mingjue, his second, and a handful of leaders from the smaller sects who owe their allegiance to Qinghe Nie do not even take up a quarter of the space. Xichen and Wangji, representing Gusu Lan and, in theory, their own allied sects, are a single dot of white in a sea of grey and brown and green and black.
“I’ve sent messengers to find Jiang Fengmian: one to Lianhua Wu and one to Meishan,” Nie Mingjue says. Gossip is forbidden in Yunshen Buzhichu, but Wangji has been advised even by his own brother that Nie Mingjue’s temper can be ferocious, particularly when the Qishan Wen sect is involved. He sees no sign of it now; Nie Mingjue is perfectly calm, very nearly polite. “If the Wen have tried Qinghe and Gusu, Yunmeng is likely next on the list.”
“Not Lanling?” Xichen asks.
Nie Mingjue shakes his head. “Of the great sects, Jin and Wen have always been closest. The silk trade alone would stay Wen Ruohan’s hand, to say nothing of the food, the gold, the labour – no. He’ll leave Lanling be, at least for now.”
“Some of the minor sects might want to change their banners,” says a man Wangji does not know. “The Wen will come for Laoling, no matter how friendly Qin-zongzhu and Jin-zongzhu are.”
Nie Mingjue grunts. “Whatever they choose, it’s not our affair.” He looks around the room, gaze sweeping over the gathered leaders. His eyes meet Wangji’s for a moment, pass him by, and catch on Xichen. “We should reach out to Yiling Wei.”
The room explodes into chaos.
Wangji flexes his hand around Bichen and determinedly does not move or draw. Xichen, equally still at his side, anchors him. Nie Mingjue folds his arms across his chest and runs his tongue across his teeth, looking at Xichen and ignoring the furore he has ignited among his own allies – the sect leaders shouting, gesticulating, some of the making as though to storm out. It is a noisy affair. Wangji draws into himself, focuses on his core, its steady spin within him.
Nie Mingjue allows perhaps a third of an incense stick to burn down before he says, barely raising his voice, “Enough.”
The room stills, though not immediately. The quiet has a sullen quality to it that Wangji finds… uncomfortable. Nie Mingjue does not look to his allies; he looks to Xichen and Xichen alone.
“Yiling Wei,” Xichen says slowly, “has an unsavoury reputation.”
“And how much of that reputation is fact?” Nie Mingjue lifts one hand to silence the man beside him who would speak. “I’m sure you’ve heard what they say of Qinghe Nie. Our reputation is almost as bad as that of Yiling Wei, though Wen Ruohan has not sunk so low as to accuse us of necromancy yet.”
“You think Qishan Wen is the source of those distasteful rumours?” Xichen asks. Wangji frowns and resists the urge to look at his brother. He can feel something changing in the room, the quality of the quiet shifting, but he cannot see how or where or why.
“I do,” Nie Mingjue says. “The border between Yiling and Qishan is drawn in blood. Yiling Laozu did what Wen Ruohan could not when he tamed Luanzang Gang. Wen Ruohan has always resented that. If we have not heard of an incursion into Yiling, that is only because Wen incursions into Wei territory are common enough to be routine.”
From the corner of his eye, Wangji can see Xichen incline his head.
“You speak sense, Chifeng-zun,” Xichen says. “The Wei sect must be impressive to stand alone against the greed of Wen Ruohan. Even if they cannot spare cultivators from their own struggle, they will be familiar with his tactics.”
A low thrum of agreement runs through the room. It is not as though Xichen has lied, precisely, but Wangji finds his jaw tightening just the same.
He does look at his brother then, a question in his eyes. Xichen inclines his head.
“If the rumours of Yiling Wei are based in truth,” Wangji says – slow, deliberate, controlled – “how does Chifeng-zun intend to manage them?”
Nie Mingjue says, like a man laying the final stone in a weiqi pattern, “Now that the venerable Gusu Lan have joined our alliance, I am sure we can trust in your expertise to identify any objectionable practices among Yiling Wei and address those practices appropriately.”
Wangji bristles and says nothing. Xichen, beside him, is smiling very slightly; it is only a hair removed from his usual diplomatic mask, but Wangji can recognise a smug older brother when he sees one.
Nie Mingjue asks if his allies object. None of them do.
A messenger is sent to Luanzang Gang.
The Yiling Wei sect arrives in Bujing Shi four days later.
Wangji is returning from a patrol when he first sees the delegation. The line of elegant black-clad cultivators moves through the morning mist on silent feet, as if they themselves are no more than drifts of resentful energy. Wangji, travelling alone, overtakes them easily, but one of them spots him – the leader of the group, so far as he can see. Their face is hidden by the hood of their travelling cloak, but their head snaps up at his passing.
When Wangji arrives at the front gate, Xichen is already there, accompanying Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang. Wangji stands by his brother’s side and waits. He can sense a prickle of Xichen’s spiritual energy, fading rapidly, behind him; Xichen has placed a ward across the gate, of the same kind used at Yunshen Buzhichu, an additional layer of safety for Bujing Shi. The four of them stand side-by-side as Yiling Wei approach.
Gossip is forbidden and Wangji does not indulge in it, but the common folk in Gusu do not abide by such strictures. They speak openly of the rumours that surround Yiling Laozu. They say he was thrown into Luanzang Gang by the man who killed his parents; they say that he is an immortal cultivator who had been in a deep trance until the Wen sect disturbed his rest and incurred his wrath; they say that he is the fierce corpse of a cultivator who had somehow regained his mind and his spiritual powers.
When Lan Wangji sees him for the first time, he understands why people talk.
Yiling Laozu carries a dizi as if it were a sword. Resentful energy clings to him, stirring his clothes and hair. He wears a hammered iron mask over the top half of his face, shaped to emphasise his high, sharp cheekbones; resentful energy drifts from his eyes. He is ethereal and horrifying and beautiful all at once, and he wields a smile the way a swordsman wields a blade.
Yiling Wei draws to a halt, the disciples falling out and sweeping into elegant, synchronised bows – their form is, perhaps, a little stiff, a little unpractised, but Wangji was trained to the highest standard in the jianghu. He is not sure if it would be noticeable to anyone else. Yiling Laozu stands in front of them, and he, too, bows.
“Welcome to Bujing Shi,” Nie Mingjue says, and bows in return.
The Wei sect cultivators do not configure themselves in the traditional clean lines of disciples travelling from one sect to another. Instead, they are arrayed as if for war in a loose cluster that might look random to the untrained eye. Wangji picks out two distinct ranks. The first rank is formed of those of the Wei who use swords, held forward and wary, though not yet drawn. The second rank, arranged behind them, has a clear line of sight between the shoulders of their compatriots at the front; none of these cultivators are holding their swords. Instead, they have drawn spiritual tools that can be used at range. They are not uniform, the way the pristine instruments of Gusu Lan are. Wangji is not familiar with the items in question, but he can sense their power: a steel and leather gauntlet, a long pin set with a pearl, a fazan carved from bone.
For all the rumours about his inhumanity, Yiling Laozu looks small beside Nie Mingjue. Wangji finds it strangely reassuring that even the famed Yiling Laozu is, at least, not physically exceptional. When he rises from his bow, he must look up at Nie Mingjue just as everyone else does. It does not diminish his smile in the least.
“Chifeng-zun,” he says. His voice has an odd, echoing quality, as though it carries his own echo. It does not make him hard to understand, but it is – strange. “I understand you have a war for me.”
Wangji stiffens, preparing for Nie Mingjue to take offence, but Nie Mingjue only snorts and folds his arms. “A whole war just for you? They say a great deal of things about Yiling Laozu, but no one told me he was so greedy.”
Yiling Laozu’s sharp smile breaks into a wide grin. It feels as though the sun has burned away the cloud cover, though the day remains as grey and dull as it has ever been. “Yiling Laozu is famously greedy, Chifeng-zun! You will have to take care.” He tilts his head, casting a glance over Xichen and Wangji. “And this must be the Twin Jades. Zewu-jun, Lan-gongzi.”
Yiling Laozu bows to them, so Wangji, gritting his teeth, bows in return, matching his pose to Xichen.
“We are grateful for any assistance Yiling Laozu is able to provide,” Xichen says, solemn, “even if it means there is no war left for anyone else.”
Huaisang barks a laugh and snaps his fan open to hide behind, though he’s too slow to avoid the Yiling Laozu’s eyes landing on him.
“Ah, Nie-gongzi,” Yiling Laozu says. “It’s good to finally meet you in person, but surely I’ve kept you all standing out here long enough. We don’t stand on ceremony in Yiling, least of all when Wen Ruohan might be breathing down our necks at any moment.”
“Of course,” Nie Mingjue says. He gestures to Xichen. Xichen moves to lower the wards.
There’s some quality in Yiling Laozu’s voice that awakens a childhood instinct in Wangji, the snap of a swordmaster correcting a student. Even Xichen freezes, head snapping around to look at him.
Yiling Laozu is not looking at them; rather, he is studying the stone gate of Bujing Shi, eyes gone a little unfocused, as though he could somehow see the invisible currents of spiritual energy that make up the wards. He tilts his head like a magpie examining a worm. Wangji is caught in the details of him. His fingers, flexing against the bamboo of his dizi. His hair sliding off his shoulder, like a silk veil being drawn back to expose the elegant line of his neck.
Yiling Laozu whistles a single low note, and the wards melt away.
Wangji’s mouth goes dry. He tries to swallow; his throat sticks. The arrays used to create these wards are almost as old as Yunshen Buzhichu itself. They could, in theory, be breached by brute force, but it should be impossible for anyone to see them, to unravel them. That an outsider could dismiss them—
“An elegant piece of work.” Yiling Laozu turns that sharp-edged smile on Xichen and Wangji again. “I see the reputation of Gusu Lan is well-deserved.”
Arrogance is forbidden, so Wangji swallows down his incredulous rage, the wounded pride of his entire sect. He says nothing.
“If Yiling Laozu will stop antagonising our allies,” Nie Mingjue says, “and follow me.”
The Yiling Wei disciples fall into a single line behind their sect leader. Yiling Laozu falls into step with Nie Mingjue. Xichen moves to join them. Wangji lingers, watching them as they enter Bujing Shi.
“Lan-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says, in a low serious tone entirely unlike his usual voice. He seizes Wangji’s wrist in a viciously sharp grip. “How many disciples did Yiling Laozu bring?”
Wangji opens his mouth to answer and finds he cannot. He remembers the Yiling Wei disciples standing arrayed before him, but were there twenty cultivators in the front rank, or two? Even now, watching the line of Wei cultivators walk away, he cannot be sure.
“I cannot say,” he eventually says, around the dread rising in his chest.
“Me neither,” Nie Huaisang says. Wangji looks at him, expecting to see the same dread rising in his own chest, but Nie Huaisang does not look afraid. He tosses his fan into the end; it falls, end over end, and lands in his palm. His brows knit together, mouth in a tight line, faintly upturned at the corners; his eyes blaze with triumph. “Isn’t that interesting?”
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Yiling Wei is often spoken of as a poor sect, limited by a lack of funds and resources. Wangji had wondered at this, seeing the number and complexity of spiritual weapons their disciples favoured. Now, though, looking at what they have built as he follows Meng Yao through Luanzang Gang, he understands. Yiling is prosperous, but it seems that little of that good fortune has been paid back to the sect that makes it possible.
Most of the buildings have clear signs of inexperience on the part of the builders; they lean, the foundations inadequate to compensate for the slope of the ground beneath them. There are a handful of animals – chickens, goats, a single cow – but they wander freely, penned in by nothing more than the fog that is the only barrier between Luanzang Gang and the outside world. The animals don’t roam far, at least. They are not appeased by the meagre grasses in their fields, such as they are, and loiter instead the ramshackle village. As Wangji passes, a pair of villagers unload vegetable scraps and armfuls of hay from a hand cart, much to the delight of the waiting livestock. It is strange, that the grazing should be so sparse in summer; purchasing scraps from nearby villages and townships was normally the last resort of harsh winters.
The residents themselves are, Wangji discovers, what remains of the Dafan Wen. He is pleased to see so many survivors. None of the other sects had a complete version of events, but Wangji had pieced together a little from his brother’s correspondence and Wei Ying’s gleeful whispers. Wen Ruohan had threatened Dafan in an attempt to secure Wen Qing’s compliance; when no compliance had been forthcoming, he had descended on it in a rage, intending to kill or capture, only to find the village empty but for a fading mist. The first time he had heard the story, Wangji had dismissed the mist as a fanciful embellishment; now, he suspects it is the result of the transportation arrays Yiling Wei must have developed. There is no other satisfactory explanation for how often they appear in places they could not possibly have reached in time.
He would have liked to enquire, but a question or even a lingering stare would no doubt be viewed as an interloper attempting to steal their secrets. Wangji would not even be able to say they were wrong.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Meng Yao is precisely as Wangji recalls him from the early days of the Sunshot Campaign; soft-spoken, smiling, and scrupulous. Yiling Laozu had released Wangji into his care and vanished back into the fog without so much as a word on what Meng Yao ought to do with him. Meng Yao simply bows, greets Wangji with meticulous manners, and leads him towards the heart of Luanzang Gang.
The central structure of Luanzang Gang – Wangji would not call it a building when it was so clearly a cave – was where Wangji would be accommodated, for now. Meng Yao refers to the structure as Fumodong in slightly sardonic tones. Wangji cannot see or sense any demons, nor any sign of anything being slaughtered or subdued nearby. Perhaps it references a work of poetry or philosophy with which Wangji is unfamiliar.
“It can be challenging to navigate, Hanguang-jun,” Meng Yao says as they reach the entrance, one of the few points on Fumodong that has been shaped by human hands. The columns and architrave are not beautiful, but they are clearly hewn from the stone, not mere outcroppings. “Newcomers often find themselves in strange places. Walking meditation is quite helpful; it is your eyes that will lead you astray.”
Wangji understands the difficulty as soon as they step inside. Fumodong is not a cave, but rather many, linked in a sprawling network of underground passages. Here and there, Wangji can see the marks of masonry where someone has widened a passage or smoothed a section of floor, but for the most part the natural caverns have been left as they are. Meng Yao looks untroubled as they walk, but if Wangji were asked to navigate back to the entrance, he is not sure he could; the passages all blur together, and every attempt to count turn-offs is thwarted by some fissure or crack that might or might not be a passage in itself.
“Fumodong serves many functions,” Meng Yao says, leading Wangji deeper into the maze. There are talismans carved into the walls which provide a gentle glow of light, faintly greenish in colour. “It houses the quarters for Wei-zongzhu and the senior disciples, the dormitory for the juniors, the library, several workshops, the kitchens, the mess hall, a great deal of storage…”
“Mn,” Wangji says. He can sense something in the cave, just at the edges of his awareness. It is not faint, not exactly, but it is subtle – so subtle Wangji could have dismissed it as part of the natural flow of energy if he had not felt it before.
Meng Yao directs him to a set of quarters. As with every other room in Fumodong, it is a natural cavern, worn away by water and the movement of the earth. Meng Yao shows him how to increase and decrease the level of light using talismans – “No braziers down here, I’m afraid; we aren’t quite brave enough to start drilling chimneys…” – and with the light, Wangji can see that the room has been decorated to a degree, with a woven mat on the floor and paper hangings decorated with passable calligraphy on one of the walls. There is a bed, a low table, some cushions, and not much else in the way of furniture.
Wangji turns to face Meng Yao, one arm folded behind his back. Meng Yao, lingering in the doorway, clasps his hands before him.
“Hanguang-jun,” he says, “I must ask why you are here.” He places a delicate emphasis on the word you, where Wangji thinks most people would place it on here. Meng Yao knows why a cultivator would come to Yiling Wei.
“Meng-gongzi,” Wangji replies, “it is better if I speak with Yiling Laozu himself.”
Meng Yao’s smile tightens for a moment, but he bows easily enough. “I shall endeavour to arrange it. Good evening, Hanguang-jun.”
He sweeps out of the room before Wangji can say anything else. Wangji considers the room and sits down on the bed. Tomorrow, he will find Yiling Laozu, and if he cannot get the answers he seeks, at least Yiling Laozu may tell him where Wei Ying is.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji does not sleep that first night. In Fumodong there is no natural light; Wangji’s body insists that the sun has not yet risen, that it is too early for him to rise, but his lifetime of following the Lan sect’s strictures informs him in no uncertain terms that it is time to rise. He performs his morning ablutions and attempts to meditate, with little success. The pulsing qi signature at the edge of his senses strikes steady as the blow of a blacksmith’s hammer, throbbing in his skull.
Not long after he has given up on the attempt, someone taps at his door, and when Wangji opens it, he is met by Mo Lihua and her son.
“Good morning!” Mo Lihua beams up at him. Her son waves shyly up at Wangji from behind her leg. He has grown since the last time Wangji saw him, though not by as much as he ought to, if Wangji is any judge. Then again, Mo Lihua herself is small and slight, so perhaps he merely takes after her. “Will you join us for breakfast?”
“Yes. Thank you, Mo-guniang.” Wangji hesitates for a moment, then collects Bichen. He wonders if Mo Lihua will ask him to leave it behind, but if she notices, she gives no sign. She is carrying her own sword, and wearing her spiritual weapon in her hair. The thin gold fachai is set with a large white pearl, and while it is subtle as ornamentation – Wangji’s own guan is far more ornate – its power is clear to his senses.
“It’s a quiet house today,” Mo Lihua says, leading him through the maze of stone corridors with a confidence Wangji envies. “Wei-zongzhu is busy setting up for some experiment he and Wen-zongzhu want to run, and Yao-ge is out checking on the wards, and Liu-ge is looking after Luobo Zhongzi – poor little thing was up and down half the night with colic – and, well, no one else will be awake yet, so it’s just you and me.”
Wangji assumes Luobo Zhongzi is another small child with an unfortunate nickname, and that this Liu-gege person is not caring for colicky radish seeds, but does not question further. He simply follows Mo Lihua as she guides him to the mess hall.
Mo Lihua shows him first where to find a bowl and chopsticks, and then where he can serve himself. A woman who introduces herself as Nainai is just setting down a large pot of congee, made with mushrooms, scallions, and shallots; she joins them when they sit to eat, folding herself onto a cushion on Mo Lihua’s other side.
Disciples and villagers alike come and go as they please, serving themselves from the communal pot, talking quietly to each other. It is not chaotic – people form orderly lines to collect their bowls and their congee, and no one is argumentative or distressed – but it is a far cry from the silent meals Wangji is used to. On another day it would be interesting to observe, but today he has slept badly, and his head hurts, and all he wants is quiet.
He focuses on his meal, eating slowly. It strikes him as odd that there is no meat or seafood or egg, when such things are served with every meal in many places outside Yunshen Buzhichu. He thought perhaps it had been cooked with lemongrass, but otherwise there was almost no seasoning. Perhaps it was some attempt to be considerate of Wangji’s needs. Did they think Lan sect cuisine was as bland in truth as it was in reputation? If this strange attempt at courtesy continued, Wangji resolved to write to his brother and ask for some of the better recipes, to gift to the Wei sect’s kitchen staff.
He resolves to commence his search as soon as he finishes his meal. Mo Lihua is shockingly casual, for someone who is doubtless intended to be guarding him, but even she might baulk at allowing Wangji free reign of Luanzang Gang. Wangji might not be familiar with the finer points of spy craft, but he is quite sure asking her directly is out of the question. He would begin, perhaps, by asking her to show him more of Fumodong and the settlement at large. If he could better understand the lay of the land – if he could understand what they would allow him to see – he would be better able to determine where the Wei sect kept the things they wished to hide.
He might have better luck with Wei Ying, if only he could be found.
YUNMENG, BEFORE SUNSHOT
Jiang Fengmian receives a large packet of letters delivered by a messenger dressed all in black, wearing a sect symbol Jiang Cheng doesn’t quite recognise. It’s hard to tell when it’s picked out in grey thread on black fabric, but he thinks it’s some kind of bird, maybe a magpie or crow. There are letters addressed to everyone – to Jiang Fengmian, to Yu Ziyuan, to Jiang Yanli, and even to Jiang Cheng – but Jiang Fengmian doesn’t pass them around. He dismisses the messenger and returns to the breakfast table, reading first his letter and then the others with a deepening frown.
“What do you make of this?” he asks, and passes the letters to his wife. Yu Ziyuan skims the topmost letter and snorts.
“A minor sect trying to sound more important than they are,” she says, but she only gives one of the letters back to Jiang Fengmian. The others she keeps, reading them as she sips her tea. Like Jiang Fengmian, her frown deepens as she reads.
“Nonsense,” she declares eventually. “Trying to curry favour.”
“I suppose it can’t hurt to have a better relationship with them,” Jiang Fengmian says, mild as the congee he is spooning into his bowl. “They stand between Yunmeng and Qishan.”
“If Qishan desires to come here, they can simply go around, the way everyone has done for centuries,” Yu Ziyuan says. “Or fly over, for that matter. If you wish to spend your time on this, I cannot stop you.” She finishes her tea and leaves the table, Jinzhu and Yinzhu falling into step behind her. She only takes one of the letters with her. From his mother, Jiang Cheng thinks it might be close to approval.
Jiang Fengmian shrugs and passes a letter to each of his children. “You might as well tell me your thoughts.”
Jiang Cheng unrolls his letter and reads it. It’s not very long; it opens with To Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng Jiang and ends with From Mo Lihua of Yiling Wei. The contents are straightforward, much like letters Jiang Cheng has received from the children of half a dozen minor sects – both cultivators of the same generation, blah blah, further the bonds between our sects, blah blah blah – but there’s something off about it. The language is oddly informal, and Mo Lihua has skipped all the usual niceties that would tell him anything at all about what life in Yiling is like.
He looks at his father in dawning horror. “She’s not trying to court me, is she?”
Jiang Fengmian, halfway through sipping his tea, chokes. Jiang Cheng waits impatiently for him to finish swallowing.
“No, A Cheng,” he says eventually. “I think it’s unlikely. Yiling Wei has no history of making alliances through marriages.”
“Hmm,” Jiang Cheng says dubiously, and looks at Yanli. “What did they say to you, ajie?”
“I got a lovely letter from someone called Xue Yang,” Yanli says. “He says he has heard of my soup even as far away as Luanzang Gang. A Cheng, have you been telling people about me?”
“I told everyone when we went to the lectures, jiejie. You know that. Everyone should know you’re the best cook in the world.” Jiang Cheng frowns. “But no one from Yiling Wei was there, were they?”
Yanli hums and rolls her letter back up. “I believe Nie Huaisang corresponds with someone from Yiling. I’ll have to write to him and ask.”
They all know the Wen sect is going to attack them, but they’re not allowed to talk about it, which Jiang Cheng thinks is bullshit. His mother agrees, judging by the number of her drill lessons that start taking place on the boardwalks, on the piers, in the hallways. Jiang Cheng is even permitted to practice with Zidian, which is not something he expected to be allowed to do until Yu Ziyuan had died, and maybe not even then. He scorches a lot of walls, but Yu Ziyuan is satisfied with his efforts.
“Chaos can be as good as a unified defence,” she tells the disciples as they remove the hangings and furniture from the great hall, in preparation for another training session. “If you cannot stand against an invader, you make them pay for every inch. Break the bridges. Flood the corridors. Burn the halls to the ground, if you must. No one will take Lianhua Wu from Yunmeng Jiang.”
She is very careful never to explicitly say who might want to take Lianhua Wu, but one day Jiang Cheng takes the juniors out to practice archery and discovers that suns have been painted onto all the stationary targets. His mother is not attempting subtlety.
So they train. They train a lot.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t write specifically about this to Mo Lihua, but she talks quite candidly about the Wen sect attempting to invade Luanzang Gang and, apparently, being stymied at every turn by Yiling Laozu’s tricks and traps, as well as the geography of Luanzang Gang itself. She writes about other things, too – learning to forge their spiritual weapons, greeting a new disciple who had travelled all the way from Kuizhou to see Yiling Laozu, sneaking away from a lecture on history to train with the sword. Her teacher sounds awful; whoever he is, his techniques, so far as Jiang Cheng can tell, haven’t been updated in a few hundred years. With his father’s permission, he includes one of the most basic Jiang sect sword manuals in his next letter, and tries not to imply her current teacher is worthless when he explains why he’s sending it.
For as long as Jiang Cheng can remember, people have whispered about Yiling Wei and Luanzang Gang. He has a picture in his head of mountains of corpses, pits of flame, chains everywhere, a place where the sun never shines and nothing can thrive. Mo Lihua, though, writes about a place where the ground is too dry and too hard for farming, where she’s drafted into the work of breaking it up and mixing in better soil before they can start planting, where the hills and forests form natural mazes that the younger disciples learn to navigate by playing chasing games, where a young cultivation sect is carving out a home. It reminds him a little of how the Jiang sect had come to be, or at least, the version of the story told as folklore.
Mo Lihua keeps writing, too, even when Jiang Cheng feels like his replies have said nothing much at all. After she receives the sword manual, she sends back a letter full of effusive thanks and a whole packet of talismans, designed by Yiling Laozu himself and sent with his permission. Jiang Cheng shows them to his parents, who inspect them thoroughly and then set every single disciple to making copies of them. The packet includes talismans for setting alarms, for warding against fire, for sensing hostile intent from a guest, for misdirection. None of them will be useful in a battle, but they will all be useful against ambushes or sieges, and the outer walls of Lianhua Wu are plastered with them by the end of the day.
YUNMENG, DURING SUNSHOT
After all their preparations and all his mother’s hints, Jiang Cheng isn’t exactly surprised when the Wen sect comes calling, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment.
Jiang Cheng has finished his drills for the day and is setting himself to the portion of the paperwork his father finally agreed to delegate to him; his mother is training the senior disciples in the main courtyard, running them through one of the more advanced drills. His father has gone to Lanling with Yanli, after receiving messages from Chifeng-zun and Zewu-jun that imply the Wen sect are planning something nefarious. Jiang Cheng isn’t entirely sure what Jiang Fengmian expects to get from Lanling – everyone knows Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan are practically sworn brothers – but Yanli will get to see her obnoxious former betrothed and remember that he’s not worth her tears after all, so he doesn’t complain.
The boom of someone slamming their fist repeatedly into the front gates comes just as Jiang Cheng has decided he’s really, truly, completely done with paperwork, which is convenient. Less convenient is the crackle of half-a-dozen warning talismans informing the residents of Lianhua Wu that the person at the gate has bad intentions. Jiang Cheng rushes out to the courtyard and finds his mother glaring at the gate, Zidian crackling over her hand. The disciples have abandoned their drills and stand ready for her order.
“These guests are not welcome,” she says, icy. “Make ready.”
The disciples bow and hurry away. Jiang Cheng watches them go, frowning. He knows Yu Ziyuan has been giving various disciples jobs to do in case of a Wen incursion, but he hadn’t realised that she’d given jobs to all the disciples.
“Mother,” he says, tentative, “should I—”
“You stay with me,” Yu Ziyuan says, mouth set in a hard line. “No matter what happens, unless I order you away, you stay by my side, Wanyin. Jinzhu, Yinzhu, you know what to do.”
Jinzhu and Yinzhu salute and fall into identical positions of easy alertness at Yu Ziyuan’s shoulders. Jiang Cheng swallows hard. At his mother’s nod, he opens the gates.
He knows Wen Chao by sight, having seen him from a distance at half a dozen tedious discussion conferences, and he can infer that the man standing behind him is one of the Wen sect’s high-level cultivators, probably Wen Chao’s personal retainer. Jiang Cheng bows, and says, “Wen-er-gongzi. We were not expecting you.”
Wen Chao does not return the bow. “Well? Are you going to leave us standing at your gate like petitioning peasants? Invite us in, boy.”
Jiang Cheng can feel his face curling into a sneer, and turns away hastily, bowing and gesturing for Wen Chao and his retainer to enter. The retainer nods at him as he passes; if Jiang Cheng didn’t suspect they were about to fight each other, he might be grudgingly grateful for the courtesy.
“Zhao Zhuliu,” his mother says. “I can’t say I expected to see you here.”
“His name is Wen Zhuliu now,” Wen Chao says. He sounds bored.
Jiang Cheng can feel his eyes going wide, darting from Wen Zhuliu to his mother and back again. He might not always be up to date on the latest gossip in the cultivation world, but the reputation of Huadan Shou is a lot more than gossip.
“Close the gate, Jiang Wanyin,” Yu Ziyuan says. “There’s something foul on the breeze.”
Jiang Cheng obeys, pushing the gate slowly shut, trying not to take his eyes away from Wen Zhuliu. Wen Chao doesn’t look concerned, but Wen Zhuliu watches Jiang Cheng right back, face blank. Jiang Cheng tries to make his own face blank in return, but he doesn’t think it’s working. He feels clumsy and obvious as he returns to his mother’s side.
“So, this is Lianhua Wu,” Wen Chao says, casting a sceptical glance around the courtyard. He folds his arms and glares at Yu Ziyuan, apparently entirely unaware that Yu Ziyuan had invented the stare-down and was not about to be intimidated by an amateur.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes keep straying to Wen Zhuliu, who still looks entirely blank. Most of the Wen sect cultivators wear red, but Wen Zhuliu wears all black, like a common foot soldier. The only spots of colour are the sunburst on his shoulder and the phoenix on his chest. There’s some silvery grey embroidery on his collar, presumably intended to be subtle and tasteful, but that just means no one who isn’t within arm’s reach could make out the pattern.
Jiang Cheng really doesn’t want to be within arm’s reach of Huadan Shou.
“Is this truly the stronghold of the Jiang Sect?” Wen Chao asks.
“It is,” Yu Ziyuan says, in a spectacularly icy tone. Jiang Cheng is amazed Wen Chao doesn’t freeze on the spot, if only to defend himself from whatever she might say next.
“So drab,” Wen Chao whines. “When we make this into a supervisory office, we’ll have to do something about that.”
Jiang Cheng’s spine stiffens, and beside him Yu Ziyuan somehow contrives to make herself even taller and more imperious.
“A supervisory office,” Yu Ziyuan says. It’s not a question.
“That’s right!” Wen Chao says, apparently ignorant of the danger he’s in. “My honoured father, Wen-xiandu, has generously determined that the Wen sect should have an office in every province. Lianhua Wu is the natural location for such a service at Yunmeng.”
“This,” Jiang Cheng snarls, “is my sect. What supervisory office—”
His mother raises her hand, but before she can speak, Wen Chao laughs.
“Jiang-gongzi, so full of fire!” He smiles in a way that makes Jiang Cheng’s skin crawl. “Perhaps if you had been given a proper education, something could have been made of you. Sadly, you were raised here, and not in a proper sect.”
“I am curious,” Yu Ziyuan says, “how you plan to enforce this order. It appears that you are outnumbered, Wen Chao.”
“Don’t you think that having Huadan Shou here solves that matter?” Wen Chao gestures at Wen Zhuliu, still smiling. “Besides, it’s not all bad news. You’ll be able to stay on – under the supervision of someone from the Wen sect, of course – and I’ve decided that I’ll take your daughter as a concubine as well. It’s a great honour, Yu-furen.”
Jiang Cheng feels the blood rush from his face. He is filled with a dozen conflicting desires – to slap Wen Chao, to punch him, to stab him, to kick him, to carry him to the nearest lake and throw him in – and it’s so overwhelming he can’t carry any of them out.
“You were an honourable man once, Zhao Zhuliu,” Yu Ziyuan says. Her fingers tighten, and Jiang Cheng smells ozone as Zidian wakes. “Will you truly stand here and watch Qishan Wen make tyrants of themselves?”
“No,” says Wen Zhuliu.
“Wait, what?” says Jiang Cheng.
Wen Chao turns to look at his retainer, and has just enough time to say, “Wen Zhuliu—”
Wen Zhuliu’s hand slams into Wen Chao’s abdomen.
Jiang Cheng has never seen someone’s core melted before, and he hopes he never sees it again. There’s something awful about the way Wen Zhuliu’s hand twists, not entering Wen Chao’s belly but applying precise pressure with fingers unrelenting as stone, in the way the veins in his arms pulse with golden light before he withdraws and Wen Chao collapses to the ground. Wen Chao does not scream, but from the look on his face, Jiang Cheng thinks that’s only because he might not be breathing any more. When it’s over he looks like a pile of rags more than a person, deflated on the ground.
“Hm,” Wen Zhuliu says, and flexes his fingers. “You should take his head, Zi Zhizhu.”
“Why bother?” Yu Ziyuan says stiffly. “Roll him into the lake and let him feed the lotuses. We’ll send his sword back to his father, if we feel generous.”
“As you prefer.” Wen Zhuliu tilts his head towards the gate. “He brought a small army with him. They have orders to attack if they do not hear from him in half a shi.”
“We are prepared for them,” Jiang Cheng says stiffly. “But thank you for your assistance.”
“You’re welcome, Jiang-gongzi. My apologies for the inconvenience.” Wen Zhuliu salutes Yu Ziyuan, salutes Jiang Cheng, and mounts his sword. As he rises into the air, he adds, “Yiling Laozu sends his regards.”
Yu Ziyuan watches him go, white with fury, and turns to Jiang Cheng. “Take the disciples. Go and kill these Wen-dogs.”
After that, it’s just clean-up.
Content warning: this chapter includes implied/offscreen non-con. Nothing occurs on screen and it is not graphic, but some people may find the content distressing. Proceed according to your comfort level.
A LONG TIME AGO
Fu Xiang was nineteen years old when her father told her she would be married in the spring. It was an arranged match, as she had always known it would be. Her parents were not themselves cultivators and could claim only a faint link to the inner family of Hualong Fu, but they were ambitious, leveraging that thin connection into a lucrative trade deal with another cultivation sect, one with a particular need for Hualong leather. Fu Xiang’s marriage would be the final seal on the contract.
Her father was very proud of his cleverness, but Fu Xiang’s mother rolled her eyes extravagantly. “You don’t have nearly enough blood to go around claiming she’ll throw colts with golden cores,” she said. “You’ve only set her up for a bad marriage, if she disappoints.”
Fu Xiang said nothing, except to bow her head in acknowledgement of the declaration, but she listened closely as her parents argued back and forth.
“It doesn’t matter,” her father said finally, exasperated and sharp with it. “Look at Lanling Jin; half their disciples are the bastard get of one princeling or another, and none of their mothers any better than they ought to be!”
Her mother opened her mouth to say something, looked at Fu Xiang, and closed it again. “Well, the bargain is struck,” she said finally. “Tell me you at least thought to get the boy’s bazi. We’ll need to settle this quickly, before he has a chance to meet some sect leader’s pretty daughter and try to marry up.”
Her father had brought her betrothed’s bazi. When they sat down with the matchmaker to look for an auspicious wedding date, Fu Xiang realised she would marry a man nearly twenty years her senior.
Fu Xiang was twenty-one years old when her husband brought her to a discussion conference at Jinlin Tai.
Fu Xiang was twenty years old when she was married. Only just twenty, by a matter of days; her father had taken her mother’s words about finding the first available date to heart. The ceremony was humble, by the standards of cultivation sects, even though Lanling Jin was in attendance. They had only sent one disciple, some nephew of their sect leader, accompanied by a handful of servants. The other sects in attendance were minor sects, reliant on the support of their larger neighbours; it would be gauche to host an extravagant wedding, when so few of them could afford a gift that would properly reflect the occasion.
It was a complicated day, for many reasons. Hualong was not very close to Fu Xiang’s new home, so when her husband had come to collect her, there had been a carefully negotiated series of rides in a closed carriage, so that Fu Xiang’s delicate layers of silk might be protected and her husband would not have a chance to see her at all. It was late enough in the season for the air to warm as the sun climbed, and by midday Fu Xiang found herself sweating profusely under her veil. She did not dare to open the sides of the carriage, or even look at them. She had realised, looking over the contracts her father had brought home, that not only her own future but that of her natal family would turn on the success of this match. She was determined not to be the reason the match failed.
Fu Xiang was twenty-one years old when she first heard of Yiling Laozu.
She was hiding in the gardens. Two maids were speaking candidly, unaware of her presence.
“Xiao Hua went to him to ask for an end to her pregnancy. She said he appeared in the form of her dead uncle and gave her a potion in exchange for a bushel of apples.”
“Did it work?”
“It did! He told her she would bleed for two days and two nights, but she said it was more like two days and a night of bleeding, and then a night of spotting at the end. And he told her to be careful to stay clean and dry until the bleeding stopped, or she might get sick, and he doesn’t have spells for that.”
“Aiya, he sounds very chatty for a ghost,” the other maid said. “And how would he know anything about women’s business if he’s a man? Are you sure she really spoke to him? Aren’t there doctors who could do just the same?”
“Maybe. I’ll bet they charge a lot more than a bushel of apples for this kind of thing, though…”
Fu Xiang pressed both her hands to her belly and closed her eyes, listening to the gravel path crunch as the maids walked back to the kitchens, their voices fading as they went. Hot tears formed and slipped down her cheeks, one by one.
She kept her ears open after that.
A woman spoke quietly of Yiling Laozu arranging for her husband, a drunkard and a brute, to vanish one night; a man wept as he told of Yiling Laozu saving his daughter from a terrible illness that settled into her lungs. A cultivator from one of the sects beholden to Lanling Jin whispered to his compatriot of the Yiling Laozu placing a curse on his chief rival at the last night hunting contest, which saw him removed from competition and allowed this cultivator to place well.
A picture began to form in Fu Xiang’s mind of what kind of man this Yiling Laozu might be – a rogue cultivator, perhaps, or a particularly unscrupulous and talented herbalist, but the mysticism around him seemed to come from the reverence of those he had aided, not from the man himself.
It was not difficult to arrange to be away from Jinlin Tai. Her absence would barely be noticed; Jin Guangshan, having taken what he desired, paid her no more mind than he paid a bird in the rafters. Her husband was a simple matter; she told him she was going to visit a doctor recommended by her mother, to seek a remedy to aid with conception. He smiled at her and kissed her forehead and wished her a safe journey. The lie sat poorly, but the truth would sit worse, and so Fu Xiang left Jinlin Tai on the back of a borrowed horse and rode for Yiling. She took no one with her and dressed in the shabbiest clothes she could beg from the head laundress. Her offering sat in her saddlebag, pressed to her leg.
There were so many things that could go wrong. She could be attacked on the road; she could fall from her horse and die of a cracked skull. Yiling Laozu might be a charlatan, or worse, a blackmailer. But these consequences felt insignificant compared to her fear, her panic, her desperate choking rage.
Fu Xiang arrived in Yiling and made her way to Luanzang Gang.
She found a shrine there – a small shrine, but sturdy, the posts hammered deep into the earth and a simple wooden roof above. There was no figure, no inscription. Fu Xiang looked around and, seeing nothing, knelt to wait. Her horse grazed desultory on the thin, dry grass nearby.
One moment, no one was there; the next moment, there was a boy, no older than twelve or thirteen.
“I had heard you were older,” Fu Xiang blurted, and then, appalled, folded herself into a kowtow. “Forgive this unworthy one, Yiling Laozu.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” the boy said. “I do look older, some of the time. Please, there’s no need to bow; why don’t we just talk for a moment? Would you care for some tea?”
Fu Xiang straightened from her bow. “I – tea, Yiling Laozu?”
“Yes. I’m your host, and that means I should offer you tea. I’ve been told the tea isn’t very good, though, so perhaps you’re better off saying no.” Yiling Laozu smiled at her. He looked small – underfed, maybe – but his eyes were bright, and when he smiled he had dimples that made his thin face softer.
“On the advice of the venerable Yiling Laozu,” Fu Xiang said, “I will decline the tea. Thank you.” She pushed her saddle bags towards him. “I hope I have brought a sufficient offering.”
Yiling Laozu didn’t even look at the bags; his eyes never moved from her face. “It depends on what you might want,” he said. “So perhaps you should tell me what brought you here, first.”
Fu Xiang swallowed and closed her eyes. She had rehearsed what she was going to say, half a dozen ways to sidestep the truth of the matter, to preserve her reputation – but she was in Luanzang Gang, with a boy who could apparently change his age on a whim, and so what fell out of her mouth when she spoke was, “Jin Guangshan raped me. I am pregnant.”
When Fu Xiang opened her eyes, Yiling Laozu’s face was full of terrible compassion. It was more painful than any dismissal could have been; she hadn’t braced against it.
“I am sorry,” Yiling Laozu offered in his little-boy voice. “He has committed a terrible crime against you.”
“I want it not to have happened,” Fu Xiang said. “To have not happened.” Her voice cracked on the last word and she had to stop, to put her face in her hands, to wait for her breath to stop coming quite so fast, to wait until the tears were no longer threatening to spill. “Forgive me—”
“You have done nothing wrong,” Yiling Laozu said. “But changing the past is impossible, even for gods and immortals. I can do a number of things for you, jiejie, but making it not have happened is out of my reach.”
“Then—” Fu Xiang hesitated, running her tongue over her teeth. “What is within your reach?”
“I can give you something so you won’t be pregnant anymore,” Yiling Laozu said. “I might be able to kill Jin Guangshan – his cultivation is very high and he is a long way away, so it would be difficult. I could arrange for him to be disgraced and his crimes to be known, but that would be even more difficult, and it would take a very long time.”
Fu Xiang exhaled. She patted at the skin beneath her eyes with her fingertips, clearing away any sign of tears. “You say you cannot change the past. Does that imply you can change the future, or at least know it? Can you know what will happen?”
“The answer to that,” Yiling Laozu said, “is very complicated. For your purposes, though, I cannot.”
“Then what can you do?” Fu Xiang snapped, and hid her face again, afraid of her own anger.
“I can help you disappear from the cultivation world,” Yiling Laozu said, his voice of that same unbearable compassion. “I can make you forget. I can ensure that no one will ever know the true father of the child. I can take the child once it’s born. I can let you go. I can help you take vengeance.”
“I don’t want vengeance,” Fu Xiang said, raising her head. “I want justice. Can you give me that?”
“I think so.” The Yiling Laozu smiled at her, almost playful. “The price is very high, though. Are you willing to pay it?”
“Name the price,” Fu Xiang said. He did, and Fu Xiang laughed. “Is that all? If you can truly give me justice, Yiling Laozu, I will give you all you ask, and more besides.”
“Then, Fu Xiang,” Yiling Laozu said, even though she had not told him her name, “we have a bargain.”
Content warning: Brief explicit description of surgery in this chapter.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Mo Lihua does her best to show him how to navigate Luanzang Gang and Fumodong, but Wangji finds it almost impossible. Sects traditionally choose their domains based on the confluence of qi, settling in locations naturally suited to their cultivation styles. The mountain on which Yunshen Buzhichu is built is said in the writings of Lan An to be like a deep pool of water, dark and silent and yet filled with life; centuries of the Lan sect cultivating there has only deepened and enriched that likeness. Luanzang Gang, though, feels… empty. Unable to rely on either his eyes or his spiritual senses, Wangji is forced to rely on Mo Lihua.
On the second day, she arrives without her son when it is time to escort him to breakfast.
“Now they’re both colicky,” she says, harried, as she leads him to the mess hall. “And Liu-gege is on ward duty today, and who else can really be trusted with two small children? I’m certainly not giving them to Xue Yang.”
She sounds so disgruntled by the possibility that Wangji very nearly smiles. “I am sure I can manage without you,” he says, intending understated sarcasm – she is, after all, his guard – but Mo Lihua stops in her tracks and looks up at him.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Wangji straightens his spine and folds one of his hands behind his back. “If you will permit it.”
“Do what you want, I’m not your shizun,” Mo Lihua says, almost absently. She chews her lip and nods once, decisive. “All right. You’re going to get lost.”
Wangji is a little taken aback by the statement; it must show on his face, because Mo Lihua snorts in unladylike fashion and covers her mouth with her sleeve until she’s recovered. “No, just – getting around can be a nightmare. I had an awful time when I was learning. Just make your peace with it now, and don’t be afraid to ask whoever you come across for directions, all right? We were all new once.”
Wangji can feel his eyebrows rising without his conscious input. She is speaking as if he will be left to his own devices, as if Wangji is an ordinary guest who might choose where he wanders.
Perhaps Mo Lihua can read some of this from his face; she frowns at him for a moment, then adds, “Luanzang Gang will stop you from going anywhere you ought not go,” as if that is a statement that makes sense. Wangji’s eyebrows rise further as she continues. “Although sometimes it has an odd idea of what that means. When we first arrived, it refused to let anyone who was holding the baby go anywhere near the workshops, even if no one was working there at the time. Wei-zongzhu said it hadn’t seen a real live baby in such a long time, it got worried.”
Wangji is quite sure that his scepticism is showing on his face for anyone to see, although he has been wrong about such things before. Perhaps Mo Lihua is better at reading him than most; she is used to Meng Yao and Xue Yang, who have chosen a smile and a snarl where Wangji has chosen neutrality.
“Do I sound ridiculous?” Mo Lihua grins at him, wry and pleased all at once. “Don’t worry. You’ll see soon enough.”
When they arrive at the mess hall, Mo Lihua eats hastily and takes her leave with half a dozen apologies and one more admonishment to ask for directions if he needs them. Wangji considers his priorities as he eats congee – still bland and vegetarian – and decides that he will not get very far without access to a reliable ally. He needs someone who knows the Wei sect, who knows Luanzang Gang, and who already trusts Wangji. Therefore, he must seek out Wei Ying.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji finds that Meng Yao was right; walking meditation is indeed helpful when it comes to navigating Fumodong. He focuses on his quarters, allows instinct to guide his feet, and finds himself there in what feels like no time at all. Something about the emptiness of the place must make the qi signatures of people and objects more potent, or easier to track; he had only needed to follow his own trail. Satisfied with this outcome, he decides on a more ambitious attempt.
He wraps his fingers around the jade rabbit hanging from his yaopei and reaches for his memories of Wei Ying. The smile comes to him first, bright as the moon, and the light of it fills in the rest of his features: his dancing eyes, his clever fingers, his bubbling laughter.
It is not precisely easy to enter a meditative state of mind when he thinks of Wei Ying, but Wangji closes his eyes and resolves himself to try.
The first thing that catches his attention is that rhythmic, throbbing qi signature, the one that has been disrupting his rest since he arrived. He tries to ignore it, to allow his awareness of it to slip away, but it scratches at his attention; he tries focusing on it instead, and realises it is stronger in one direction, somewhere to Wangji’s left.
It is disappointing that he cannot use this method to locate Wei Ying, but determining the cause of the irritating throb will be a success in itself. He follows it.
There are only a handful of rooms with doors in Fumodong, and all of them look like sleeping quarters; the others simply stand open, though occasionally the interiors will be obscured with a curtain or privacy screen. Wangji, therefore, does not knock or announce his presence as he follows the pulse of energy down halls and through rooms, eyes almost closed to better focus on the path. It is only when the pulse increases to a thrum that he opens his eyes and realises what he was following.
It takes him a moment to recognise Wen Qing. She is not wearing her red Wen sect robes, nor her flame guan, nor any other mark of her rank, instead garbed in a faded grey outer robe of strangely stiff, heavy fabric that Wangji does not recognise. Wen Qionglin, in similar clothing, stands behind her, watching over her shoulder. A third person stands with their back to Wangji, so thickly wreathed in resentful energy it makes them seem more like a twisting tree or column of smoke than a human. The three of them are arrayed around a strange high table, and on that table is a person.
It is a woman, covered with so many talismans she appears little more than a pile of paper and ink, except for her face – serene, as though she is sleeping – and her torso, where the talismans have been moved aside so that her chest can be cut open. There are shining silver needles rising from several of the woman’s organs, stilling them; her heart does not beat, though Wangji can tell she is not dead either, kept instead in some unnatural state of stagnation. Fine threads of resentful energy flows from the third person, around and into the needles within the woman’s flesh. Even as Wangji watches, Wen Qionglin hands his sister a slender knife, and Wen Qing lowers the blade towards the woman’s lung.
Wangji must make a sound, or perhaps move. It feels impossible that he does, frozen in shock as he is, but Wen Qing’s head snaps up, and the third person turns towards him. Wangji cannot see their face behind the veil of resentful energy that swirls around them, but admittedly, he is not looking closely. His eyes are fixed on the centre of the gruesome tableau, the living woman sliced open like a carcass being butchered. The third person’s hands, beneath the twisting mass of resentful energy, are red and slick, wet to the wrist with the woman’s blood.
The third person says, “Lan—”
“No!” Wen Qing snaps. “If we stop now, this was all for nothing. A Ning, get him out of here.”
Wen Qionglin looks at Wangji with huge wounded eyes. How hypocritical of him, when the victim on the table has suffered far worse than being caught in the commission of a crime.
Bichen is unsheathed and in Wangji’s hand. He is not quite sure when that happened.
Will the woman die if he kills Wen Qing where she stands? Will he be able to stabilise her with spiritual energy until help comes? Will help come at all, or is this woman some kind of prisoner, here for Yiling Laozu’s pleasure? Is her torment the thing she offered up for her bargain, yet another example of the terrible price the Yiling Laozu demands?
“Lan-gongzi,” Wen Qionglin says. He is almost apologetic, perhaps a little nervous, as if he is asking Wangji to leave a banquet instead of asking him to turn his back on open torture. “Please don’t make a fuss. I don’t want any trouble with you.” He comes around the table and approaches, slowly, hands out to his sides, as though Wangji is a dog that needs to be pacified.
“Lan – Lan-gongzi,” says the third person. Their voice is hollow, echoing, and Wangji realies abruptly this is Yiling Laozu, unmasked, though Wangji still cannot make out his face behind the resentful veil. It is difficult to look at him, and not only because of his gory hands. Something about the seething black energy stings Wangji’s eyes, as though smoke is blowing into them. “It’s not what you think. I can—”
“Lan-gongzi,” says a calm, flat voice behind him.
Wangji does not lower Bichen, does not take his eyes from Wen Qionglin – unarmed, not a true threat, not unless Wangji is caught by surprise – but tilts his chin slightly to let Wen Zhuliu know Wangji has heard him.
“On behalf of Wei-zongzhu, I apologise,” Wen Zhuliu says. “This must come as a shock to you.”
“I had hoped to find the rumours of such conduct unsubstantiated,” Wangji says. He does not so much as blink; Wen Qionglin is still coming towards him, inch by inch, casting nervous glances back at his sister.
“And you do,” Wen Zhuliu says, smooth and cold as glass. “I understand it is alarming to witness, but it is a medical procedure.”
“It is torture,” Wangji says. “It is butchery.”
“It is surgery,” Wen Qing says, sharp as the knife still inside the woman’s lung, “no different from an amputation, and significantly more survivable so long as we are not interrupted. Wen-gongzi, he needs to go, now.”
Wangji sets his jaw. “I will not.”
“I’m afraid I must insist,” Wen Zhuliu says, and then—
QINGHE, DURING SUNSHOT
Word comes from Yunmeng that Nie Mingjue was correct; the Wen sect attacked while Jiang Fengmian was in Lanling, apparently seeking aid from Jin Guangshan. When Nie Mingjue is told this, he snorts and says, “Jiang Fengmian might as well try to get milk from a bull.”
As idioms go, Wangji finds it distasteful, but not inaccurate.
How Yunmeng Jiang survived the attack is unclear until they arrive in Qinghe to join the forces there. Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang, Xichen, and Wangji form a line at the gates, just as they had to receive the Wei sect. They are joined, to Wangji’s perturbation and Nie Mingjue’s forbearance, by Yiling Laozu, with one of his hooded disciples at his shoulder.
Yu Ziyuan marches at the head of the Yunmeng Jiang forces, Zidian sparking on her fingers. Jiang Fengmian walks beside her, flanked by his children. When the bows have been exchanged, Yu Ziyuan looks at Yiling Laozu with an expression that speaks of a much larger conversation not yet had, and says, “I understand we met a friend of yours.”
“Ah, yes,” Yiling Laozu says. “He mentioned. I had no idea you two knew each other, or I would have arranged an earlier visit.”
Yu Ziyuan’s face tightens, and Wangji is, for a moment, sure she will say something regrettable and put paid to their alliance before it has begun. Jiang Yanli cuts her off, sinking into another bow.
“Forgive this one’s weakness, Chifeng-zun,” she says, sweet and clear, “but it has been a long journey.”
“Oh, forgive this poor host! We’ve kept you standing in the sun for so long!” Nie Huaisang chimes in, and then there’s a flurry of activity as the Jiang are admitted to Bujing Shi. Wangji notices that Yanli and the Wei disciple each interpose themselves between Yiling Laozu and Yu Ziyuan, neatly keeping Yu Ziyuan from raising the point again. Wangji only feels he can relax once the Jiang are seen to their quarters and the Wei return to theirs.
The disciples from Yiling unsettle Wangji.
He is never sure how many there were, though he thought he had narrowed it down; no less than five, but no more than ten. One of them has brought a child along, which Wangji finds baffling. They almost never take their hoods down. Wangji rarely sees more than a brief glimpse of their faces if he sees them at all.
Through careful observation, he manages to identify at least a handful of the group. There is Meng Yao, a slender young man who wears a hair pin in the shape of a crane as his only concession to colour and is always exactingly correct in his manners, his posture, his words. He had become immediately close with Nie Huaisang, and though the two of them would often talk quietly behind their hands in meetings, it was apparent that Meng Yao had a dramatically improving influence on Nie Huaisang’s work ethic. Their seniors tacitly allowed them to continue their idle chatting, so long as it did not become a disruption.
Wangji suspects it is at Meng Yao’s prompting that Nie Huaisang takes on many of the logistical matters of the sect; to the surprise of everyone except Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang proves an adept administrator. Meng Yao often joins him at his work, making suggestions in a low, measured tone. At first, Wangji sits by them, listening with no small amount of suspicion, but Meng Yao’s advice is consistently sound, if perhaps a little more underhanded than Lan sect strictures call for.
He eventually learns to recognise Mo Lihua on sight, because she almost always has a child with her. The Wei disciples refer to him exclusively as Xiaodou Yeye, which cannot possibly be his name; he is certainly not old enough to be anyone’s grandfather, and bears only a passing resemblance to a red bean. The child is too young to be even a junior disciple – Wangji is sure he can be no older than six and is more likely five or even four years old – but he has been brought regardless, so he must be important. It is possible that the child might be Mo Lihua’s son, but Mo Lihua is Wangji’s age at most, and likely younger. She would have been barely more than a child when she fell pregnant, for Xiaodou to be hers. Yiling Laozu does not, so far as Wangji is aware, have a wife or concubine or mistress, but it is not impossible that the child is his, or perhaps a favoured niece or nephew. It is Nie Huaisang who discovers that the child’s name is really Mo Xuanyu.
It is clear to Wangji that, despite the Wei sect’s emphasis on their spiritual tools, Mo Lihua’s true passion is the sword path. She watches the Nie and Lan cultivators training, fascinated, and attempts to mimic them later when training alone. Once the Jiang sect arrives, she begins to train regularly with Jiang Wanyin. Su Minshan, a Lan disciple Wangji is only distantly aware of, attaches himself to the pair, and after that the three of them are together every time Wangji finds them, one watching Xiaodou while the other two spar.
Occasionally, they are joined by Xue Yang. Of all the disciples Wangji has met, Xue Yang reminds him most like Yiling Laozu – he has the same irritating smile Wangji recalls from their first meeting – but Xichen takes the unusual step of praising Xue Yang’s research and innovative talismans to Nie Mingjue a few weeks after the Wei sect had arrived. When Wangji sees the work himself, he notes that the calligraphy is abysmal, but the ideas are… arguably insightful, though perhaps poorly expressed.
Meng Yao and Mo Lihua both address Xue Yang as shidi, so he must be younger than the others, but he does not typically tag along with his martial siblings the way Wangji might expect. Instead, it appears that he and Jiang Yanli have bonded over having a far greater interest in the academic realm than the rest of their cohort. If Wangji is ever sent to fetch them, they are reliably found in the library, occasionally babysitting Xiaodou as they work.
On the whole, the Wei disciples remind Wangji of the stray cats he sees from time to time in Caiyi Town; bold enough to wind their way around the legs of any person who paid them attention, but just as likely to hiss or claw or bite.
The Wen sect makes a series of minor incursions against Qinghe; each is easily repelled individually, but there are so many of them it feels impossible to keep up. Wangji is removed from his routine patrols and set to waiting in Bujing Shi, meditating, ready to fly at a moment’s notice to wherever the fighting is and render aid. After the third time he descends from the sky into the thick of battle, the Wen learn to flee as he approaches, regrouping and returning to make another strike later.
It does not escape Wangji’s notice that, as soon as the real fighting begins, the Wei sect makes itself scarce.
After ten days of this, Wangji is summoned to one of the war councils. When he arrives with Xichen, only Nie Mingjue and Yiling Laozu are in attendance. Yiling Laozu is different somehow, although Wangji can’t be sure how; all the details of Yiling Laozu slip away as soon as Wangji blinks. If asked his height, his eye colour, even what he is wearing, Wangji cannot recall. The only part that sticks in Wangji’s mind is the presence of the mask.
Today’s mask is different from the one Wangji met him in, with sharp points that frame his mouth in the manner of fangs and square markings around the eyes. When he sees Wangji, he all but barks, “You. Here,” and thrusts a handful of talismans towards him. “Activate one before you go flying into battle.”
“Yiling Laozu,” Xichen says, “perhaps a little more explanation would assist.”
Yiling Laozu looks at Xichen, then at Wangji. “Well? Are you taking them or not? My whole sect has been awake for days on end making these for you.” His strange, echoing voice has a hint of a growl to it that Wangji hasn’t heard before. His eyes narrow behind the mask. “If you don’t want them—”
Wangji bows and hastily takes the talismans from Yiling Laozu’s hand. “This one thanks you, Yiling Laozu.”
“Damn right you do,” mutters Yiling Laozu. “They’ll solve your little problem. Now, it may shock you to know this, but I’m very busy, and I don’t have time to be couriering talismans around, not even to the famous light-bearer. Good night.”
Yiling Laozu doesn’t even bow before he stalks out of the room. Nie Mingjue hums, contemplative; Xichen looks a little taken aback. Wangji rifles through the talismans. They are unfamiliar to him, but the placement of the lines and the characters used suggest to him that they must relate to stealth; he thinks they will conceal his presence from the Wen skirmishers until he lands and enters the fray.
“Please be careful with those, Wangji,” Xichen says. “Yiling Laozu didn’t say if they’d had a chance to test them.”
“I’m sure they have,” Nie Mingjue says, “or if they haven’t, it’s because they know their work. They gave Zonghui a stack of something similar – wayfinding talismans, repurposed for hunting down the Wen-dogs when they try to flee.” He tilts his head to one side until the bones of his neck pop, and adds, “Did you Lan do something to offend Yiling Wei?”
Wangji looks at Xichen, who shakes his head. “Not that I am aware of. But – Mingjue, didn’t that seem strange to you?”
“What part of it?” Nie Mingjue shrugs his massive shoulders. “He’s not lying. His whole sect’s been working around the clock to make talismans for the rest of us since the attacks started, and any time I go looking for them, day or night, Wei-zongzhu is working alongside them. He can’t have slept at all. I don’t care how strong your core is, a week is a long time to be awake. Give him a chance to have a nap and I’m sure he’ll be friendlier.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, more to himself than anyone else, and tucks the talismans into a qiankun pouch. He isn’t sure that Nie Mingjue’s answer accounts for the strangeness of the encounter, but it is as good an explanation as any. He resolves to put it out of his mind for now, and to pay more attention to Yiling Laozu in future. If there is something to be learned, Wangji will find it.
Perhaps it should not surprise Wangji that sleep eludes him. He follows his usual rituals to the best of his ability; he is in bed at hai shi, as the rules of his sect dictate. His bed, for the moment, is one of many sleeping palettes stretched out in one of the training halls, set aside for the use of the Lan, who are too numerous to be accommodated in guest quarters. Xichen had arranged for the eldest and youngest among the sect to take rooms of their own, since they were more likely to suffer without a proper bed, but the rest of them, Twin Jades included, were sleeping on the floor.
Still, as Wangji lies awake for the third night in a row, he cannot help but wish that his brother had exercised his privileges as sect leader, just this once. Just long enough to get himself and Wangji real beds to sleep on.
It is an ungenerous thought, and Wangji puts it aside firmly. He closes his eyes and counts backwards from ten thousand. Then he stares at the ceiling and counts forwards to ten thousand. He is still firmly awake at the end of the count.
Wangji sits up on his palette, moving carefully so as not to disturb the cultivators sleeping fitfully to his left and right. He eases into lotus pose and attempts to meditate. His mind refuses to allow it, clinging desperately to each thought that enters. After the third time he finds himself becoming angry, Wangji stops, puts on his outer robe, and goes outside.
There are plenty of cultivators from the Nie and Lan and Jiang sects patrolling Bujing Shi, many of them within Wangji’s sight. He has no doubt that there are more, Nie Mingjue’s hand-picked sentinels, hidden carefully from any intrusive eyes. None of the patrols contain members of the Yiling Wei sect, which Wangji believes to be reasonable; the Yiling Wei sect has sent only a handful of disciples along with their master, and furthermore have not yet earned Nie Mingjue’s trust, nor anyone else’s.
The sound of a flute interrupts his thoughts. For an absurd moment, Wangji thinks it is Liebing, but then he realises the flute is not a xiao, and the melody itself, though sweet, is not imbued with spiritual energy. Even if it had been, Wangji is not sure the sequence of notes in use would achieve anything. One or two of the patrolling cultivators look up towards the roof of the hall housing the Wei disciples, but none of them appear at all alarmed. Wangji frowns and walks out into the moonlight.
Yiling Wei was given the hall furthest away from the heart of Bujing Shi, by their own request. As he approaches, Wangji realises that this was perhaps an act of consideration for their neighbours; whatever is occurring within generates a qi signature that overwhelms the natural flow of the earth and air and other cultivators, pulsing like a heartbeat, pervasive and faintly menacing. Wangji wonders if it is Yiling Laozu’s personal qi signature, or some artefact of the Wei sect cultivation path; he cannot imagine anyone being able to sleep in its presence, although long exposure might render it unintrusive to the Wei disciples.
The song is coming from the roof of the building, and so Wangji leaps, landing as lightly as he may a few roofs over. Yiling Wei’s robes are not truly black, he realises, but rather deep grey; it allows the boy sitting on the roof to fade into the darkness, instead of being a silhouette, darker than the night sky. He cannot be older than Wangji, and may even be younger – terribly young, to be brought to a war zone with the hand-picked elite of his sect, as are all the Yiling Wei disciples. Perhaps they have achieved some impressive feat of cultivation to be permitted to come.
The boy, and the dizi he plays, is the source of the music. The dizi is carved from strange black bamboo, with sigils all along its length – familiar sigils that Wangji saw just the other day, hanging from Yiling Laozu’s belt. Wangji tenses a little, realising the flute must be a spiritual weapon, but there is still no sense of qi being channelled into the music. He leaps again, this time landing on the other end of the building from where the boy sits.
The boy looks up when Wangji lands, eyes glittering a little in the dim light, but he does not stop playing until he reaches the end of his song. It’s a sweet little tune almost like a lullaby, landing gently on each note like a butterfly landing on flowers.
When the song is finished, the boy takes the dizi away from his lips and says, “Couldn’t sleep, gongzi?”
“Mn,” Wangji says. He hesitates.
The boy smiles at him and shuffles sideways, patting the tiles beside him. “Come and sit a while, then. I don’t bite, I promise.”
The distance is short, so Wangji walks towards him and stops just out of the boy’s reach. The boy doesn’t notice his looming, absorbed in polishing his dizi with a corner of his robe. He is dressed for sleep, Wangji realises, not even wearing an outer robe. The thought makes his ears burn. He casts for something to say – discards you are breaking curfew, since they are not in Yunshen Buzhichu, discards you should be asleep, since Wangji should also be asleep, and finally settles on, “I did not recognise the song.”
“It’s a folksong from Yiling,” the boy says. “I’m not surprised you didn’t know it; we’re a long way from Gusu, after all. No doubt you have your own folk music there!”
He keeps his voice low, and yet Wangji can hear him quite clearly, the night air carrying the sound to him as clearly as it had carried the music. It is likely that some passing patrol might overhear anything they wish to discuss, and if Wangji wishes to use this opportunity wisely – to gain further information about Yiling Wei, its methods, its teachings, its disciples – then he will need to be cautious.
Wangji steps forward, cautiously, climbing the shallow slope of the roof, and sits next to the boy.
“We do,” Wangji says, since the boy had commented on Gusu folk music. “The Lan sect also practices musical cultivation.”
“I don’t know that you can call what I do musical cultivation, exactly,” the boy says, and chuckles. “Or, at least, my shidis love to tell me how terrible it sounds. Oh, where are my manners? I’m Wei Ying.” He salutes Wangji, his form more or less correct, although perhaps sitting on the roof is throwing him off; he’s a little jerky.
Wangji returns the salute with a little more grace. “Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, as though enjoying the taste of the name in his mouth. “Lan-er-gege. What do you think of this war?”
Wangji blinks, taken aback. Of all the questions he had expected, this was not one of them. It is, however, a thoughtful question, and deserves a thoughtful answer, so he considers it. Wei Ying, to his credit, does not rush him, or speak over him while he does so.
“I suspect I am not the person you should ask,” Wangji says at last. “I am not currently capable of objectivity.”
“Ah,” Wei Ying says, knowing. “Too personal?”
“Mn.” Wangji thinks, but does not say, I have not slept since it happened, and I may be going mad.
“I was sorry to hear of what the Wen sect did at Yunshen Buzhichu. It feels silly to say things like that, doesn’t it?” Wei Ying leans back, looking up at the sky. “The only reason the Wen sect never burned down Luanzang Gang is because – well, you’ll see, if you ever visit. Not a place that’s easy to invade, much less set on fire. But not for lack of trying! And they did other things, when they realised they couldn’t burn us out, or smoke us out, or drown us in our warrens like rats, or poison us…”
“Mn,” Wangji says. He is not tired. He may be fatigued, perhaps, but he has no desire nor drive for sleep. He wants to listen to Wei Ying.
“Aiya, here I am rambling about all these terrible things!” Wei Ying laughs a little. “I suppose it’s rare that I meet anyone who would understand it, outside of Luanzang Gang. Here, let me give you something for protection.”
His hand darts out and tucks something into Wangji’s palm, so quickly Wangji can barely follow the movement. Wei Ying’s fingers are cool and rough, thick with calluses that don’t feel like the kind that come from wielding a sword. They scrape across Wangji’s knuckles, folding his fingers around something cool and hard and sending shivers racing across Wangji’s skin. Wei Ying leans back against the roof – pleased with himself, judging by the smile – and tosses his dizi into the air, catching it as it falls.
Wangji opens his hand and looks down at what was inside it.
It’s an ornament, a yaopei, meant to be worn on a belt. Wangji has two already; the strictures state clearly that one should wear no more than three. This yaopei is fashioned from beads of dark stone that looked black in the moonlight, and at the end is a white jade rabbit, gleaming bright, set into a disc of silver hammered to resemble the moon, with a tiny silver pestle worked into the metal by her paws.
Wangji looks at the ornament for a long moment, drinking in the details. Then he remembers that Wei Ying is watching him and hides the ornament in his sleeve.
“Ah, you must be so tired.” Wei Ying looks at Wangji for a long moment, his eyes catching the glitter of the stars. “How about this? Since Lan-gongzi is so pretty in the starlight, I’ll play a lullaby to help him get to sleep. What do you think?”
“Mn,” Wangji says, and must swallow painfully around the lump in his throat. “If you feel it would be appropriate.”
“Appropriate? Not even a little,” Wei Ying says cheerfully, and spins his dizi over his fingers. He must be Yiling Laozu’s son, or perhaps a younger brother; the flute looks as much like Yiling Laozu’s as Wangji’s qin looks like his father’s. “But it might help, and that will make it worthwhile, don’t you think?”
He doesn’t give Wangji a chance to answer before he sets the dizi to his lips. The melody he plays this time is slow and sombre, almost funereal, and yet it is not melancholy – rather, it seems dreamy, mysterious, floating around Wangji and settling along his shoulders like a robe of the finest silk, cool and sheer. Wangji does not wish to take his eyes from Wei Ying’s face; his eyes closed in concentration, mouth formed into a soft pout, long, strong fingers wandering across the length of the dizi. Soon, though, he finds himself closing his eyes, the better to absorb the music. It drifts, like a gentle river, carrying Wangji with it.
When he opens his eyes, it is morning, and he is on his pallet on the floor of the training hall, looking at the ceiling. He sits up slowly. He is late to wake, but no one has disturbed him; somehow every other sect member in the hall managed to leave without rousing him. The boy on the roof, the moonlight, the music, all feel very far away – he’s sure he must have dreamed them.
Wangji squeezes his eyes closed and lifts a hand to rub at his face, only to find something hard and cool tangled around his fingers. When he opens his eyes and looks, he finds the ornament Wei Ying gave him. In the morning sunlight, the black beads flash with colour, flecks of red and yellow and green swimming in rich, deep blue. The little rabbit at the end is smooth and cool and pristine white, a comforting presence when he holds it in his hand.
For protection, Wei Ying had said.
Wangji rises from his bed and dresses for the day. He hangs the rabbit yaopei from his belt.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
When Wangji’s vision clears, he finds himself standing, Bichen still unsheathed in his hand, somewhere in the corridors of Fumodong. The pain in his head is worse than before and there is no longer a sense of direction to it; there is only a constant throb in his temples.
“Lan-gongzi,” Yiling Laozu says.
Wangji whirls to find Yiling Laozu standing in the mouth of a passage he does not recognise, although he supposes he could equally say he does not recognise any of the passages; there are no markings or ornaments to distinguish them from each other.
Yiling Laozu’s hands are clean, and he is wearing the robes of the Wei sect, not the heavy cloth he had worn to commit acts of torture. He is wearing the mask with delicate impressions of flowers along the edges; his only other ornament is a carved bone fuzan in his hair, the kind traditionally worn by women. He does not look ashamed of his conduct.
Whether he is considered a guest or a hostage or a prisoner, Wangji is entirely within Yiling Laozu’s power, here in the heart of his domain. What will he do once he strikes Yiling Laozu down? Will he be able to bring himself to fight through Mo Lihua, through Meng Yao, through even Wei Ying himself? It is a secondary concern; Wangji will abide by the principles of his sect and act decisively. If it costs him his life, that is unimportant; he knew, when he first volunteered to come, that there was little chance of ever returning safely to Yunshen Buzhichu.
But the principles of his sect also tell him that he ought not act with haste or speak without understanding. When Yiling Laozu turns to walk away, Wangji sheathes Bichen and follows him.
Yiling Laozu leads Wangji to a small study with a low table. There is already a pot of tea gently steaming, and two cups set there. Perhaps he had been preparing to receive Wangji before the incident.
“Many speak of Hanguang-jun’s solemnity and silence,” Yiling Laozu begins, kneeling at the table. “I am told it is entirely futile waiting for you to ask what you wish to know.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, and kneels, and does not ask who might have told Yiling Laozu such a thing. It is not futile, precisely, but he is certainly disinclined to request anything from Yiling Laozu; requesting an explanation implies that choosing not to give an explanation is acceptable. He is aware that he cannot actually force Yiling Laozu to speak at all, much less provide a full and honest accounting, and surely Yiling Laozu is aware too. Even if he could, Wangji does not yet know which questions to ask. Better to see what Yiling Laozu determines to be important; that in itself may give him information Yiling Laozu did not intend to provide.
Yiling Laozu pours the tea. Wangji does not touch his cup, and neither does Yiling Laozu. Instead, Yiling Laozu sighs deeply and folds his hands together so that his sleeves conceal them almost entirely. He looks smaller than he did in his torture chamber, with his hands inside a woman’s chest. His shoulders are a little slumped, as if with fatigue, and the mask he wears is shaped to give the impression of hollows under his eyes.
“Wen Qing’s patient is the mother of one of Yiling Wei’s senior disciples,” Yiling Laozu says at last. Even his voice is diminished, somehow, as if it were hollow even before the mask hollowed it further. “The disciple in question originally came to Luanzang Gang, willing to trade anything, anything at all, if only his wish could be granted. The Yiling Laozu – well, I was not Yiling Laozu then.” He chuckles and shakes his sleeves back, lifting his tea to his mouth.
Wangji says nothing in response.
Yiling Laozu sets down his cup and looks at Wangji. This mask makes his eyes look huge and dark, liquid, more like the eyes of some forest creature than a mortal man.
“The bargain struck that day was one between disciple and sect leader, and as such you are not privy to it. I am sure you are aware Yiling Wei is not a traditional sect in many ways. Disciples who come from the outside world are not encouraged to break with their families unless they wish to; we even aid the families to move to Yiling, if they can. Our cultivation path has unique challenges. Maintaining a connection to loved ones is important for balance.”
He looks at Wangji expectantly. When Wangji realises that Yiling Laozu will not continue without a response, he grits his teeth and recites, “Be a filial child.”
“Just so,” Yiling Laozu says. “And so, we come to the patient in question. She is the parent of a disciple, and so we are bound to help her if we can. Without the assistance of the Yiling Wei sect, she would have been dead years ago; even with our help, all we could do was stabilise her until a cultivator with greater expertise in the healing arts could be found. How fortunate that we were drawn into your Sunshot Campaign and were able to secure assistance from the Wen sect.” Yiling Laozu must think this constitutes a sufficient answer; he lifts his teacup again, and looks pointedly at Wangji’s cup, which is still full. Wangji drinks – a qingzhuan cha, dark and bitter on the first sip but blooming into sweetness after he swallows, the only kind of tea he has found in Luanzang Gang – and sets his cup down.
“If we are successful in our work, the patient will survive and recover and live a long and ordinary life,” Yiling Laozu says. “If we are not successful, then—”
He stops. Wangji thinks he sees Yiling Laozu’s throat bob as he swallows, thinks the sliver of jaw revealed by the mask might tighten, but he cannot be sure.
“Then the patient was as good as dead already,” Wangji says flatly. “Is that how you will justify it, if you kill her?”
Yiling Laozu pauses for a moment, not quite looking at Wangji – looking past him, or through him, perhaps. “It is,” he says finally, and drinks the rest of his tea. “I will not hold you here against your will, Lan-gongzi, but nor will I allow you to interfere. Should you try to return to the patient, you will find the way closed to you. I regret placing such a limit on your freedom—”
Wangji is quite sure Yiling Laozu has no such regrets, and from the tone of his voice, Yiling Laozu is not trying terribly hard to convince him otherwise.
“—but the procedure is delicate, and the odds of success greatly increase if the good doctor is not interrupted.”
“If she dies,” Wangji says, coldly as he can, “I will hold you responsible for her murder.”
“If she dies,” Yiling Laozu says, “so will I.”
Wangji does not wait to be dismissed; he stalks out of the room before Yiling Laozu can try to pour any more poison into his ears.
QINGHE, DURING SUNSHOT
It’s not that Huaisang is underestimated, exactly. He is correctly estimated by the people who matter – and often overestimated by the person who matters the most. But there is a certain power in being found frivolous or forgettable, and Huaisang exerts it shamelessly.
It doesn’t work terribly well in Qinghe, although that’s useful in its own way. Just because Qinghe values martial pursuits over the artistic or scholarly doesn’t mean they don’t value them at all, thank you very much, but Mingjue, and by extension his disciples, treat Huaisang with a kind of playful coddling that can easily be read as real contempt by an outsider. The other sects like to look at him as an object of pity – an artist, unappreciated in a court full of brutish soldiers, doomed to wither away without ever realising his true talents! How unfortunate! – and, because they pity him, promptly forget that he had to demonstrate real skill to earn that reputation in the first place. They just assume he must be every bit as useless as they think Mingjue thinks he is.
So Huaisang can go among the smaller sects quite easily, and as long as he flutters his fan and visibly loses interest whenever the topic moves towards something serious, they will continue to assume that Huaisang is, in fact, not listening to them.
(This promptly falls apart whenever Lan Xichen is in the room, unfortunately. The Lan genuinely appreciate Huaisang’s art, for one; Lan Qiren even went so far as to invite Huaisang back for a second and third year of study at Yunshen Buzhichu so he could study and hone his skills further under Lan tutelage, an honour which Huaisang had only managed to defuse by putting about that he’d failed all his classes and Mingjue was making him retake them. What’s worse, despite all Huaisang’s efforts to find nothing in Yunshen Buzhichu interesting at all, a few little things might have caught his attention, and as a result Lan Xichen might have seen what Huaisang can do when he’s genuinely invested in something. Truly, Huaisang’s life is very hard. He has tried telling Lan Xichen not to take him so seriously in public, but whenever he brings it up Lan Xichen only frowns and tells Huaisang he shouldn’t let the opinions of other sects affect him. Huaisang had seriously considered bringing Lan Xichen into the ruse, but Lan Xichen has no talent at all for dishonesty, so for now Huaisang merely whines and complains about Lan-xiong expecting far too much of him, really!
Anyway, Lan Xichen isn’t here just now.)
Huaisang chats about a new type of yellow silk coming out of Lanling with one of the cultivators from Laoling Qin while listening to the head disciple of Tingshan He complain bitterly about the temerity of Yiling Wei to someone Huaisang doesn’t know but suspects to be one of the seniors from Yueyang Chang.
“They’re little better than farmers themselves, and now they act as if they’re among the Great Sects!”
“No better than they ought to be,” the maybe-Chang disciple says with a sniff.
“Did you hear,” Huaisang says to his new friend from the Qin sect, “that the Lans were breeding silkworms to try and get one that only ever gives white silk? It would certainly save them some work, if they could!”
The disciple from Laoling Qin launches into a discussion of how his sect is trying to breed silkworms that give pink silk, after they had found some living wild on mulberry trees that span cocoons of an almost salmon colour, and Huaisang makes impressed noises and nods along as he listens.
“Does Yiling Laozu even have a courtesy name?” someone says. It’s not the He sect head disciple or the maybe-Chang person – it’s another voice Huaisang doesn’t recognise, and he can’t look right now or his Qin friend will notice. “Or any name at all, for that matter? I’ve only ever heard him referred to by his title.”
“He does,” maybe-Chang says. “Chifeng-zun is the only person who knows it. I heard he and Yiling Laozu were intimate in their youth – maybe Yiling Laozu was even a Nie disciple before he ran off to live in his little cave.”
Huaisang tunes them out again – he already has a handle of all the incorrect rumours running around – and says to his companion, “No one ever believes me when I say this, but I swear I once saw a silkworm with a green cocoon! What do you make of that?”
While his companion starts to expound on how this could be possible, but that he also doesn’t believe Huaisang – at least, Huaisang assumes that’s the gist of it – Huaisang tunes into a conversation a little ways away, between one of the Anping Rong seniors and a junior from Pingyang Yao.
“Do you think there’s a betrothal in the offering, then?”
“After the disaster of the first one? No, not yet,” the Yao disciple says. “Although if someone were to approach Jiang-zongzhu I’m sure he’d consider it.”
“So as long as Jiang-zongzhu doesn’t have to get his own hands dirty, is that it? Ha,” says the Rong disciple. Huaisang thinks her name might be Rong Yan, but without looking at her to check, he doesn’t want to commit to it. “As always. How he ever got himself a wife like Zi Zhizhu, I’ll never know.”
“Imagine if the Nie sect asked for a match, though?” says the Yao cultivator. “Or – what if that’s the real reason Yiling Laozu was so eager to be here? Perhaps he’s sniffing around all the sect leaders’ children, looking for the most advantageous match.”
“Really? He didn’t strike me as the type,” says possibly-Rong-Yan. “Anyway, isn’t he quite elderly under that mask? It’s hard to tell for sure, but they call him Yiling Laozu, after all, not Yiling-zun or anything else – surely if he intended to be married he’d already have children and grandchildren and so on.”
“He has one or two, at least,” the Yao cultivator says, “although it’s hard to be sure when they always have those hoods up. I’m sure there’s at least one of them named Wei.”
“Better hope it’s a daughter – as if we need yet another young master to marry off…”
Huaisang realises he’s been silent for a beat too long and beams at his companion. “I just remembered, dage needs me to take care of a few things – will you excuse me, Qin-gongzi? Thank you so much!” He hurries away, out of the hall.
It’s not useful information, not yet, but it’s enough enough to lead him down some interesting paths.
As he has every night since the Sunshot Campaign commenced, Nie Huaisang reports to his brother’s quarters to share a meal and report everything he has learned that day. It has taken them some practice to find the happy medium between Huaisang saying everything he’d learned and boring them both and Huaisang skipping over things that Mingjue has sufficient context to find important where Huaisang had dismissed them, but now that they know what they’re about, they usually finish everything off nicely before their second bowls.
Huaisang skips over his ongoing consultations with the Wei sect. He doesn’t think that would be useful for Mingjue to hear just yet.
Mingjue doesn’t say much while they eat, except to ask Huaisang for more detail on this or that. Huaisang’s memory is not outstanding – he has already made extensive notes for the sect records, so they won’t be left in the unenviable position of needing Huaisang to remember something at a crucial moment – but he can summarise, at least.
“So, dage,” Huaisang says, once he’s gotten to the end of his recitation. “Now that we’ve all met in person, what do you think of Yiling Wei?”
Mingjue shrugs. He looks tired; he always looks tired lately, at least to Huaisang’s eyes, not that any of the myriad man-shaped parasites sucking his brother’s blood have noticed a problem.
“They’ve been constant, which is more than we’ve gotten from most of our own allied sects.” Mingjue snorts. “Here’s a question for you, didi – what are we going to do about Lanling Jin?”
Huaisang snorts. All the treaties and trade pacts in the world amount to so much fancy kindling where Jin Guangshan is concerned. His staggering lack of constancy has been noted and logged. “I think,” Huaisang says, “the best we can hope for is that they stay out of things. The worst-case scenario is that they decide Wen Ruohan is a better friend to have.”
“Worst case? I would’ve thought that was your preferred outcome.” Mingjue adds another piece of beef to Huaisang’s bowl.
“True,” Huaisang says. “If their sect leader is an accurate reflection of the sect, they might win the war for us through sheer cowardice.”
“If only we could rely on such things,” Mingjue says. He sighs, rubbing his hand over his chin. “Still. This kind of malicious inaction can’t be allowed to go without consequences.”
“One fight at a time, dage,” Huaisang drawls. “Aren’t we all moving out soon anyway?”
“Not all of us.” Mingjue doesn’t look at Huaisang. “You’re staying here.”
Huaisang opens his mouth to protest, and then closes it immediately when he sees his brother’s face. Mingjue’s gaze is fixed on the far wall, his mouth an unhappy slash across his face. His lips are pressed together with so much force they pale at the edges.
Instead, Huaisang says, “All right, dage. If that’s what’s best.”
“It is.” Mingjue rolls his neck, wincing as the vertebrae pop and crunch. “I want you to take up the management of the hospital.”
“Dage!” Huaisang whines. “What if people see that? I rely on everyone thinking I’m useless!”
“Then be discreet about it,” Mingjue says, and rolls his eyes. “Pick some competent underling and talk loudly about how they’re the one really doing it all. Hire some ornamental courtesans and pretend you’re throwing orgies all day. Whatever you like. Just don’t bother me with it.”
“Interesting,” Huaisang says. “Anything else you want me to not bother you with?”
“Take your pick.” Mingjue tilts his head towards his desk, which is piled precariously high with correspondence. “If you’ve got time to sort the wheat from the chaff, anyway.”
“You know I have nothing but time for you,” Huaisang says, and puts another slice of beef in Mingjue’s bowl. “Eat up, dage. You’re far too skinny! What will the aunties say?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mingjue grumbles, but he smiles down at his bowl, and smiles wider when Huaisang adds several more pieces of meat in rapid succession.
Huaisang is left with a dilemma. The hospital is necessary. Someone needs to run it. Huaisang needs to have his name attached to it, lest dage be unhappy, but his role needs to look like the kind of useless make-work given to flighty useless second sons who don’t want to inherit, lest Huaisang be unhappy.
It also requires Huaisang to stay in Bujing Shi, which isn’t really in line with his preferences, but that can’t be helped. He supposes he could wait until the war is over and take care of things then, but who knows when that might be? Ah, well. Huaisang has never been much of a planner. He’s better when he can think on his feet.
Huaisang says all of this, carefully couched to sound as pouty and petulant as possible, to Jiang Cheng. This has the dual benefits of helping Huaisang to think things through and distracting Jiang Cheng from his own complaints about – well, it’s hard to say. Jiang Cheng has so many complaints, justified and otherwise. It’s a miracle he gets anything done.
“And now dage says I have to stay here,” Huaisang whines. He sprawls dramatically across Jiang Cheng’s cot, leaning his full bodyweight onto the robes Jiang Cheng is trying to pack away. “I know I’m not very good with a sabre, but surely they need other things at the front.”
“Nie Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng growls, “if you don’t get off my robes, I’ll take you to the front and use you for target practice.”
“Rude!” Huaisang says, but he rolls off the robes. “What do you think I should do, Jiang-xiong?”
“How should I know?” Jiang Cheng demands. “Go and bother ajie if you’re going to bother anyone. She’s staying here too.”
“Oh? How interesting!” Huaisang bounds to his feet. “Thanks, Jiang-xiong!”
“Wait, what?” Jiang Cheng’s face takes on an alarmed cast, as if he’s only just realised that a young master might have reasons to be interested in a maiden who will be residing in his home. “Nie Huaisang don’t you dare—”
Huaisang is down the hall and round the corner before Jiang Cheng can finish his sentence and knocking on Jiang Yanli’s door before Jiang Cheng can even think to chase him. Jiang Yanli opens it almost at once. She looks tired too, but in a different way from Mingjue; if it weren’t for everything else that’s been happening, Huaisang would think she’d been unwell, but who doesn’t look a little bit sick when there’s a war on?
“Jiang-guniang!” Huaisang says brightly. “Your brother tells me you’re staying in Bujing Shi with me while all our families go marching off to Qishan. Does that mean you’ll have time to keep me company?”
“Of course, Nie-xiong,” Jiang Yanli says, and smiles. “I’ll need another little brother, since mine will be away; will you indulge me?”
“Oh, anything for you, Yanli-jie,” Huaisang says. He’s pushing his luck with it, playing up a wide-eyed pout, but Yanli laughs, so he thinks he’s safe. “Even if you want to spoil me rotten, I’ll put up with it to comfort you!”
“I am a very lucky jiejie, with Sang-di here to look after me,” Yanli says, and though she’s clearly teasing him she also seems sincere. That puts paid to Huaisang’s vague ideas of sneaking away at the first chance; he can hardly leave poor Jiang Yanli alone. She hesitates for a moment, biting her lip, then says, “I heard your brother had ordered the creation of a hospital here; do you suppose I might be of any use? I have no training in medical cultivation, but I can stitch and bandage well enough. Even if all they need is someone to fetch and carry, I would be happy to help.”
“Yanli-jie,” Huaisang says, preening on the outside even as he’s kicking himself on the inside, “you happen to be looking at the very person dage has put in charge of that exact project. I would be honoured to have your help!” He tosses his closed fan into the air, letting it spin, and—
“NIE HUAISANG,” Jiang Cheng bellows from down the hall.
Huaisang nearly fumbles the catch as his fan comes down. He has a split second to wonder which would be funnier: letting Jiang Cheng chase him or hiding behind Yanli as Jiang Cheng tries to hit him. It’s not much of a question (letting Jiang Cheng chase him will be much funnier) and he’s fleeing down the hall before he even knows he’s made the decision, singing out, “Bye, jiejie!” as he goes.
The next morning, Huaisang shows Jiang Yanli the best place on the battlements to watch the armies leave. It is not the kind of offer that traditionally makes a young lady look favourably on Huaisang, but Jiang Yanli thanks him as sweetly as if he’d gifted her some fine jewellery. They have a handful of Nie cultivators with them – Huaisang refers to them as chaperones when Jiang Cheng is within earshot, even though the Nie sect doesn’t really go in for that sort of thing, in the interests of keeping his legs unbroken – and representatives from a handful of other sects, assigned to support the hospital or who were wounded in the skirmishes and need more time to recover before they go to the front.
Huaisang leans out over the rail and waves shamelessly to his brother, to his friends, even to people he doesn’t like very much at all, and tries not to think too hard about how, statistically speaking, almost all of them are marching directly to their deaths. Instead he tries to spot the Yiling Wei sect among the departing columns. He’d checked their quarters earlier, and they haven’t left behind so much as a stray eyelash, so he assumes they’re somewhere out there. It’s interesting that he can’t see them, but perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised; according to dage, their best spy in Qishan is from Yiling Wei.
Once the armies are hidden by the dust of their own passing and all the other spectators have been safely seen down from the wall, Huaisang has nothing left to do but work, especially when Zonghui arrives to bully him into actually sitting down and looking at it. Huaisang has already made a substantial dent in the pile by fishing out the most important tasks and then whining piteously at useful people until the tasks had been achieved, but there’s plenty more to do, and it’s not so bad as long as he has company to keep him focused.
In fact, why not hit two birds with one arrow?
“Gege,” Huaisang says, trying not to slip into his usual whine. Zonghui took a blow to the head in a recent skirmish, which is why he’s on Huaisang-sitting duty, and apparently high pitched sounds are still unpleasant for him. “Will you invite Jiang Yanli to come and sit with me?”
“I don’t know,” Zonghui says, because he’s a bit of a shit sometimes. “Will I?”
“You will,” Huaisang declares. “Her family probably shuffled all their paperwork onto her – she must be bored out of her mind! Who doesn’t work better in company?”
Zonghui sighs, but he dispatches a messenger, and sure enough Jiang Yanli arrives with a stack of paperwork and a grateful smile for them both. It’s a surprisingly productive afternoon, and even manages to be pleasant as well, companionable silence occasionally interrupted by questions or wry comments or particularly funny pieces of gossip.
The first messengers arrive in Bujing Shi as the sun begins to set, just as Huaisang is thinking about asking Jiang Yanli to take dinner with him and Zonghui. The news is unpleasant, if not unexpected. The Sunshot Campaign is already being harried by Wen raiding parties; there are a handful of wounded on their way back to Bujing Shi. Nie Mingjue has taken the time to enclose a short personal note, gently encouraging Huaisang to make haste with the arrangements for the hospital, so it’s lucky that Huaisang is on top of things. He’ll have to pretend Zonghui did it all.
“I see,” Yanli says, when he relays all this to her. “We really are at war, then.”
“I suppose we are,” Huaisang says. He looks at Yanli, her solemn face, the skin drawn tight across her skull – or perhaps that’s merely the way the candlelight is catching on her cheekbones. Huaisang touches her hand hesitantly, not entirely sure how much comfort she will welcome. “Don’t fret, Yanli-jie. We’ll take good care of them, won’t we?”
“We will,” Yanli says firmly, and squeezes Huaisang’s hand.
Oh. Oh dear.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
“Lan-gongzi,” Mo Lihua says over breakfast, “I have to deal with this. Can you watch Xiaodou for a little while?”
“Mn,” Wangji replies. He has no idea what Mo Lihua is referring to when she says this; he has been too lost in his own thoughts, thinking of Yiling Laozu and the very real blood on his hands, thinking of the woman on the table. Mo Lihua is talking to a man with a gentle face, dressed in white robes, not dissimilar to those of the Lan sect. Wangji is sure she had mentioned the man’s name, and perhaps some relationship between the man and the Wei sect, but Wangji had not been paying attention, and now it has cost him.
It’s natural that Xiaodou should need watching while his mother is occupied, but Nainai is quite close, and so are a dozen others Mo Lihua knows better and is surely more able to trust with the safety of her child. Wangji opens his mouth to say as much, but it is too late. Mo Lihua is already nudging Xiaodou towards him. “All right, Xiaodou. Lan-gongzi is our guest, do you understand? You must keep a close eye on him until I come back!”
“Yes, mama,” Xiaodou says dutifully. His voice is high and piping, and Wangji is entirely unclear on how such a small person could hope to supervise him. “Can I take him to see the pond?”
“After you’ve both finished your breakfast,” Mo Lihua says. “Your mama will be back as quickly as she can, all right?” She presses a kiss to Xiaodou’s head and stands up, brushing imaginary dust from her robes. “All right, lead the way.”
Wangji watches Mo Lihua and the white-robed cultivator go, and looks at Xiaodou with an increasing sense of dread.
“Would Lan-gongzi like more breakfast?” Xiaodou asks, polite for all his words slur together over the title.
“Lan-gongzi has sufficient,” Wangji replies. He chances a glance at Nainai, who beams at him. Slightly encouraged, he asks, with only a little hesitation, “Would Xiaodou like more breakfast?”
“Yes please,” Xiaodou says firmly, and offers his bowl. Wangji serves a generous portion of his own breakfast to the child, since it is unclear whether serving him from the communal pot would be encouraged; he has not seen anyone take a second portion.
Xiaodou falls to eating without complaint, and Wangji picks at his own serving, slow and methodical. The mess hall ebbs and flows around them, people coming and going as they attend to the various tasks associated with the maintenance of a sect. Wangji only catches fragments of conversation here and there – a poor harvest, the price of silk, moving a large quantity of cow manure – but it is enough to see that everyone in Luanzang Gang eats together, from the scullery maids to the inner disciples. If Wangji had enough time to listen to every conversation happening here, he suspects he would learn more about the practicalities of running a sect than he had in his life to date.
“I’m finished,” Xiaodou announces. Wangji glances at the child’s bowl to confirm it is empty, and quickly finishes his own portion.
“Xiaodou must show me where these go,” he says, gesturing to his bowl and chopsticks.
Xiaodou nods seriously and stands up, gathering his bowl. “This way!”
They walk together to a small table near the rear of the hall where empty bowls were stacked, a mirror image to the clean bowls near the entrance. When Xiaodou is satisfied that Wangji has set his bowl on the stack correctly, he takes Wangji by the hand and leads him towards the entrance. Wangji has little choice but to follow in the face of such determination.
There is a sudden gasp, and the clatter of something hitting the ground. Wangji turns, looking for the source of the disturbance, and finds Nie Huaisang himself standing there, clutching a bowl to his chest. Nie Huaisang has apparently dropped his chopsticks in shock.
“Wangji-xiong!” Nie Huaisang says.
“Nie-gongzi,” Wangji says stiffly. His attempt at subterfuge feels clumsy and futile, but he does not wish to indicate familiarity with Nie Huaisang, not when they are surrounded by strangers who could be hostile. “Are you well?”
“Of course I’m well,” Huaisang says, still staring at him with wide eyes. “Why wouldn’t I be? Actually, no, I have a much more pressing question – what possessed you to come here?”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
There is a good deal of confusion. The residents of Luanzang Gang want to know what has shocked Nie Huaisang so badly, and why he and Wangji have stopped the flow of movement in and out of the hall over it. Wangji, meanwhile, cannot quite fathom what he is seeing.
Nie Huaisang has changed since Wangji saw him last. His cheekbones are sharper, his jaw more defined, and his robes are in a state of disrepair that Nie Mingjue would never allow to continue if they were in Bujing Shi, but his colour is good and he shows no marks which might indicate ill-treatment. It isn’t a state that is entirely incompatible with being held hostage – Wangji knows better than most that a prisoner who is fed and clothed and kept in comfort is no more free than one kept in a cell – but that he has been wandering freely in Luanzang Gang even after Wangji arrived indicates that the Wei sect do not consider him one. If they wish to maintain Nie Huaisang as a bargaining chip, surely they would take steps to prevent Wangji from finding him at all.
Nie Huaisang, for his part, had been informed that another cultivator was visiting Luanzang Gang to learn from Yiling Laozu. This, he explains as he hastily returns his bowl to the stack, is a common occurrence.
“But it’s usually rogue cultivators, or daozhangs from one of the little temples,” he says, shoving his dropped chopsticks into his sleeves. “I had no idea they meant Hanguang-jun. I would have told them to send you back!”
Wangji gives Nie Huaisang a flat look, and Nie Huaisang rolls his eyes.
“You know what I mean – wait, no, we shouldn’t be talking so seriously in the mess hall. Come with me, Wangji-xiong! We have so much catching up to do!” He looks down at Xiaodou, who is still holding Wangji’s hand; Xiaodou looks up at Huaisang with enormously wide eyes. “Ah, I see you’re under close supervision. Perhaps Xiaodou Yeye will do me an enormous favour and come with us, so he can keep an eye on you?”
Xiaodou nods and shoves his hand into his mouth. Nie Huaisang snaps his fan open to hide his snicker and seizes Wangji by the elbow, steering him out of the hall.
“Anyway, they shouldn’t have let you in,” he says cheerfully, setting a brisk pace through the settlement. “You’re obviously here because they thought Wei-xiong is doing something nefarious. Don’t even try to deny it.”
“Lying is forbidden,” Wangji says.
Nie Huaisang guffaws and covers his mouth with his fan again. “I don’t know how I always forget you’re a sarcastic monster at heart. Come on, this way.”
Wangji does not enquire as to where Nie Huaisang is taking him; it is evident that they need to speak privately, away from prying ears. Whether that is possible in a location as strangely attuned to its ruler as Luanzang Gang remains to be seen, but Nie Huaisang has been in residence for at least three months now, by Wangji’s count; if anyone would know, it would be him.
Huaisang leads them to a shallow, muddy pond, overgrown thickly with green algae. A handful of water weeds are valiantly attempting to sprout from the muck. The waters have an unwholesome smell, and it is clear to Wangji that they are in no danger of being disturbed here; the Wei sect gives the area a wide berth.
“Well!” Huaisang says, dropping Wangji’s elbow. “You’d best explain yourself, Wangji-xiong, and quickly, too. I’m very busy and important and I have no patience at all for whatever silly game the sects might wish to play.”
Although he speaks with all his usual airy flippancy, the words themselves are so unlike Nie Huaisang that Wangji is taken back. He studies Nie Huaisang’s face closely, trying to see past his deliberately vacant gaze, his put-upon pout. There is, if he takes the time to find it, something hard and flat about Nie Huaisang’s eyes, and a grimness in the set of his jaw that Wangji has never before detected. They remind Wangji of someone he can’t quite place – Nie Mingjue, perhaps, or the former Nie-zongzhu, whose face is a foggy memory at best – but are entirely out of place on Nie Huaisang.
“It is known that not all those who join the Wei sect do so willingly,” Wangji says, measuring his words with caution. “When you disappeared, your brother looked for you, and when he received a report that you had been sighted in Yiling, he feared the worst. He was afraid for your safety.” He pauses; Nie Huaisang’s pout is slowly changing into something closer to a scowl. Wangji considers the hypothetical time constraints upon them, and adds, “The other sects may have their own concerns; I am not here to address them.”
“Hmm,” is all Nie Huaisang says to that, though the gentle wafting of his fan is slowly turning into a faintly erratic flapping. “What’s that nonsense about it is known – who, precisely, knows that? Su Minshan is here; you can speak to him yourself. He’s quite pleased with his circumstances.”
Wangji does not offer a reply to this; it does not appear that Nie Huaisang requires one, not with the way he begins to pace back and forth, snapping his fan shut and using it to gesticulate as he speaks.
“You would think that we had all learned by now that not every rumour is true. You would think we would have learned not to take everything Wen Ruohan ever said as though it was written in the Analects. And yet here we are again! Don’t you think it’s convenient that Wen Ruohan didn’t announce his niece and nephew had been kidnapped until Qing-jie allied with Wei-xiong? Don’t you think it’s convenient that those rumours about necromancy started flying just exactly at the time he was ready to expand southwards? Doesn’t anybody ever think about these things?!” Nie Huaisang tips his head back and makes a sound somewhere between a screech and a groan at the sky. “This is exhausting! I am exhausted! I have too much to do to be bothered with this!”
“Nie-gongzi,” Xiaodou says politely, “do you need a nap?”
“Yes!” Nie Huaisang wails.
Wangji has been practicing self-restraint for many years; this is all that saves him from laughing at Nie Huaisang’s plight. Although he is sure his face does not so much as twitch, Nie Huaisang rounds on him, jabbing his closed fan towards Wangji’s chest.
“And you! You’ve given them the excuse to ruin everything!”
“I beg your pardon,” Wangji says stiffly. Xiaodou withdraws a little, hiding behind Wangji’s leg.
“Don’t look so betrayed,” Huaisang snaps. “I didn’t say you did it on purpose. You know, Lan-gongzi, naming you the second young master of our generation might be the worst thing anyone ever did to you. Perhaps if you had a worse ranking, you might have learned something about dealing with real people! You’d be a great deal more use!”
Nie Huaisang’s voice is nearly a snarl by the end of it, and his eyes have taken on a faintly reddish cast that Wangji recognises with alarm. It is an exact match to how Nie Mingjue looked during the campaign, whenever he returned from a battlefield.
“Nie-gongzi,” Wangji says, putting all the calm he can manage into his voice, “restrain yourself.”
He takes Nie Huaisang’s wrist, intending to check his meridians, but Nie Huaisang wrenches his arm out of Wangji’s grasp and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. He takes a single deep breath and holds it for so long Wangji is almost certain he will swoon; then he lets it out explosively and drops his hands again, blinking rapidly as if to clear something from his eyes. The reddish tinge, at least, is gone.
“I do beg your pardon, Wangji-xiong,” he says breezily. “I’ve been doing some research, you see. It has had some… unfortunate side effects, but the applications will be worth it in the end.”
“I must insist you see a healer,” Wangji says flatly. He rests a hand on Xiaodou’s head. “You have frightened the child.”
“Oh, no,” Huaisang says, and for a moment his mask falls; he appears genuinely distressed. He goes to his knees, right there in the mud, and bows to Xiaodou. “Mo-gongzi, this unworthy one most humbly apologises for such an unseemly display! Can you ever forgive this foolish young master for his mistakes?”
“I’m not a gongzi,” Xiaodou says, giggling. “I’m a grandpa!”
“Aiya, you see? This useless fool must apologise again!” Nie Huaisang bows on his knees a second time. There is mud on his sleeves, on his knees – his robes are certainly ruined – but he does not notice at all. “How can this mannerless simpleton make it up to you?”
Xiaodou makes an exaggerated humming noise that he must have learned somewhere, and says, “I want to go see Meng-jie!”
“Of course! Anything yeye desires! But perhaps yeye will be so gracious as to allow this humble young master to clean his robes first?” Nie Huaisang gestures at the mud on his sleeves.
“I will allow it,” Xiaodou says, carefully enunciating each word.
“Thank you for your generosity, Xiaodou Yeye! This unworthy one will always remember your kindness.” Nie Huaisang sighs heavily and looks at Wangji, voice dropping into an unpleasantly flat tone. “We need to talk, and don’t you dare try to avoid it.”
Nie Huaisang struggles to his feet and stalks away. Wangji watches him go, brow furrowed. The exchange had not been enlightening; he feels as if he knows less now than he did upon arriving.
Xiaodou tugs at his hand. “We have to go see the pond. Mama said.”
The pond they are standing at, according to Xiaodou, is emphatically not the pond. The pond, Wangji discovers, is larger and deeper with nearly clear water, and nothing growing in it at all. That is a theme of much of Luanzang Gang, from what Wangji can see as Xiaodou leads him on a meandering path. All of the trees have the growth of decades, if not centuries; there is almost no grass, and the crops he sees are those which thrive in the worst soil, and even so, they are small and lifeless for the season. Even as he watches, the Wei sect diligently tend rows of radishes with buckets full of manure and other substances intended to enrich the soil. Though the day is cloudy, it surely cannot be so dark every day. By rights, everything they grow should be thriving, despite the poor start, and yet much of it is withering in the ground.
It is another mystery of the place Wangji does not have time to investigate. If he ever finds Wei Ying, perhaps he can enquire.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Mo Lihua finds them at the pond as promised. She immediately puts Xiaodou onto her hip, heedless of the way his muddy shoes immediately leave marks on her robes. That is, Wangji supposes, the advantage of a sect dressing all in black; the inevitable stains of night hunting must be far more manageable. The laundry in the Yunshen Buzhichu requires several specialised charms to maintain the whiteness of the cloth, even with the repelling talismans sewn into the fabric.
“Well,” Mo Lihua says, having satisfied herself that Xiaodou still has all his fingers and both eyes, “I have good news and bad news for you, Wangji. The good news is that someone would like to see you, and the bad news is you will have to find him yourself, because this one needs a wash.” She bounces Xiaodou. “Every time you go outside! Really, Xiaodou, this is a bit much.”
“We saw the pond!” Xiaodou says. “There weren’t any fish, though.”
Mo Lihua rolls her eyes at Wangji. “I don’t know where he got the idea that ponds have fish in them. He’s lived here nearly his whole life, and we’ve never once had so much as as a minnow.”
“Mn,” Wangji says. It is hardly a comment that requires a lengthier response. “Who wishes to see me?”
Mo Lihua gives him an odd look. “Wei Ying, of course. Who else would it be?”
YINGCHUAN, DURING SUNSHOT
War is not even a little bit like how Jiang Cheng thought it would be.
There are plenty of texts in the Jiang sect’s library about war, of course, dating all the way back to Jiang Chi. Some of them talk about war as a thrilling adventure – Jiang Cheng’s mother turns up her nose at those ones, so Jiang Cheng is pretty sure they’re mostly written by people who’d never been to war – while others talk about what an atrocity war is, the degradation of both soldiers and the natural world that arises from it. Those texts talk about long stretches of boredom punctuated by horrific violence, and how those on the front lines were scarred in mind even if they weren’t scarred in body. Many of them contain warnings about the ease with which soldiers at war slip away from everyday morality and into the darkest parts of human instinct.
So far, though, war has felt more like night hunting, or fighting bandits.
“That’s because it has been, so far,” Nie Mingjue says, when Jiang Cheng voices this thought in his hearing. “We won’t see proper war until we get to Qishan.”
The march is grinding drudgery. They go on foot to keep from getting too far ahead from the foot soldiers and the supply lines, which are vulnerable to mundane attacks, and to conserve their spiritual energy for skirmishes with Wen cultivators, which are frequent and unpredictable but never terribly challenging.
At least there’s entertainment; Jiang Cheng, as a sect heir and thus unavoidably pulled into most of the big important discussions, gets a front row seat to watching Lan Wangji discover human feelings for the first time. It’s like watching a baby bird realise that it could fly, but it needs to jump out of the nest first. It’s so awkward, in fact, that it takes Jiang Cheng a solid ten days before he realises that Lan Wangji doesn’t want to murder the loud-mouthed Wei disciple he’s always circling, which might be less time than it takes Lan Wangji. Or maybe his face is just… like that.
Jiang Cheng leverages his sort-of friendship with Mo Lihua to get into the Wei disciple’s good books. Wei Ying immediately declares Jiang Cheng to be his honorary shidi, and furthermore pronounces that it is Wei Ying’s solemn duty to bully Jiang Cheng, since Jiang Cheng doesn’t have any other geges around to do it for him. It would be fine if he wasn’t doing it as Nie Mingjue walked past.
“What am I, chopped liver?” Nie Mingjue asks, and Jiang Cheng wants to sink into the ground and die.
“It’s not the same, Chifeng-zun!” Wei Ying chirps. “You’re his general. You have to be serious. I, on the other hand, have to be as ridiculous as possible at all times. Meng-shidi insists on it! He says it makes him look more dignified by comparison.”
“I didn’t think Meng-gongzi needed any help with that,” Nie Mingjue says archly, with a tilt of his head that makes Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen. He looks away in a hurry. Is this what war is? Everyone just running around being attracted to each other? Awful.
“You should go and tell him that,” Wei Ying says. Jiang Cheng can practically hear the sly grin curling around his mouth even without looking at his face. “He’s in his tent, all by himself.”
“Don’t you start,” Nie Mingjue grumbles, but he walks away, which is a mercy. Now Jiang Cheng can just pretend that the whole conversation never happened.
“Hey, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Ying says, in a voice that sounds like it’s supposed to be a whisper, except that Wei Ying has forgotten to actually lower his volume. “Do you think Chifeng-zun has a crush on Meng-shidi?”
“I don’t want to know!” Jiang Cheng yelps, and does his best to get Wei Ying into a headlock.
Jiang Cheng realises what Nie Mingjue was talking about the day they reach Yingchuan proper. The Wang sect had only come into being a year or two ago, and Jiang Cheng knows next to nothing about them. Nie Huaisang, chatty little bird that he is, had told Jiang Cheng that one of the Wang daughters had been taken as a mistress by a member of the main Wen family, and they’d been granted Yingchuan and the right to create their own sect as compensation. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure how reliable that particular piece of information is, but it makes about as much sense as anything else.
He might feel bad for the Wang daughter if she hadn’t taken up with the Wens. Surely no amount of favour in the world could be worth letting anyone in that nest of snakes near her.
They’re braced for a fight as they approach, but Yingchuan looks empty. Nie Mingjue calls a halt and quietly orders a handful of his men to fan out and scout the edges of the town, looking for any sign of what might have happened here. Jiang Cheng touches Sandu’s hilt and rocks onto the balls of his feet. There’s something tense, almost electric in the air.
A Wei disciple strolls up beside him, and Jiang Cheng turns his head to greet Wei Ying before he realises it’s actually Xue Yang. The hoods make it confusing, but where Wei Ying ignores his sword in favour of his spiritual dizi, Xue Yang’s sword is always in his hand, and his other hand has a gauntlet imbued with so much energy it probably counts as a spiritual weapon in its own right.
“This is going to be fucked up,” Xue Yang says, almost gleeful. “You ready?”
“Of course I’m ready,” Jiang Cheng mutters.
“No, you’re not,” Xue Yang says, and jabs his elbow into Jiang Cheng’s ribs. “Don’t worry. It’s easy. Just fuck up every asshole wearing the wrong colours.”
“… thanks,” Jiang Cheng says, only a bit grudgingly, and then everything goes to shit.
There are people everywhere, it feels like – everyone behind Jiang Cheng charging forward to engage the people who have suddenly come lurching out of the buildings in Yingchuan. Jiang Cheng is carried forward like a leaf on a river, swept along until he fetches up against the enemy, and then Sandu is in his hand and then Sandu is sweeping through first strike, sixth block, third strike, muscle memory honed by years of drills, except that instead of passing through air Sandu is carving up muscle and bone, with no more resistance than slicing through water.
Someone crashes into Jiang Cheng’s left, and he can’t breathe, too closely crushed against allies and enemies alike, so he swings Sandu in a broad arc and leaps up, forward – another cultivator comes rushing up to meet him in blazing red Wen robes, and Jiang Cheng raises Sandu to meet him, and then they’re fighting almost in mid-air, leaping from buildings and trees and the backs of the struggling mass below. The man isn’t bad, but he’s no Yu Ziyuan, and that’s the standard Jiang Cheng trained against; they exchange flurries of blows, once, twice, and on the third exchange the man’s parry is a fraction too far to the left, so Jiang Cheng angles Sandu to slide straight past the man’s sword and plunge through his neck.
And then it’s over, and Jiang Cheng is sweating, bleeding from a shallow cut on his bicep he doesn’t remember getting, with a blooming black eye he also doesn’t remember getting, breathing hard as his feet remember solid ground. The mundane people are surrendering en masse, now that the cultivators who had pushed them into the fight are dead. Nie Mingjue’s voice booms out over the confusion, ordering that the people be detained until the rear guard can get here to sort them out, ordering the wounded to be seen to, ordering the dead to be pulled away.
“Hey,” Xue Yang says casually. Jiang Cheng starts; he hadn’t realised Xue Yang was so close to him. The gauntlet on his left hand looks as though it’s smoking, and it takes Jiang Cheng’s tired brain a moment of concern about burns before he realises the smoke is just resentful energy, lazily drifting from the spiky fingertips. “Yueyang’s on our way, right? Reckon we can pop in and have another one of these little tussles?”
“Yueyang Chang are our allies,” Jiang Cheng points out, as though that’s the only absurdity in what Xue Yang’s just said.
“Yeah, so? The Jin sect are our allies too.” Xue Yang inspects his gauntlet and flicks his hand; blood flies from the metal joints and spatters across the ground. “They still deserve to get their house burned down.”
A LONG TIME AGO
Xue Yang was seven years old when Chang Ci’an drove an oxcart over his hand.
His hand wasn’t even the thing that hurt the worst, although looking at the way his fingers dangled left him queasy. The beating he got in payment for Chang Ci’an’s letter made something in the side of his chest pop; every time he breathed too deep, pain flowed out from that point like water from a cracked jug, quenching all his fire, except for the blistering core of rage that lit up in the pit of his stomach when he realised what was in the letter. He wanted to scream, to howl, to chase the cart down and tear Chang Ci’an’s throat out with his teeth, except that every time he thought that too hard his chest hurt more and worse and he had to lean against the nearest building and whimper for a while.
Xue Yang staggered from one building to another, and then another after that, mangled hand clutched to his chest, his other hand braced against every wall he could reach. He was sure he’d fall if he didn’t have the walls to brace against, but he was also sure he’d fall if he stopped moving.
Things got confusing. The drifting grey haze of pain floated over his eyes as his body found more and more things to complain about – his shoulders and arms where Chang Ci’an hit him with the whip, his nose and jaw and cheek where the other man slapped him, his knee where he’d fallen badly one of the times he’d fallen and twisted it, his head from where it bounced hard off the ground and then off the wheel of the cart. Even his hair hurt, or maybe that was just the feeling of blood drying on his scalp. It was hard to know. Xue Yang reached up with his left hand, forgetting that it, too, was hurting, and had to bite down on his good hand to stifle the scream that wanted to come when his pinkie finger brushed against his forehead. He was sweating, even though it wasn’t a warm day. He couldn’t tell where the blood on his hands had come from. He vomited.
Hands touched him. He fought them, but he was so weak, like one of the newborn kittens he sometimes found in the springtime, too wobbly to put his teeth and claws to use, and his claws were broken anyway. He couldn’t see, vision swimming and going grey-black-grey-white whenever he breathed. It was good, maybe, better not to know what was being done to him. Someone forced water down his throat, or something thicker than water, and he vomited again but after that at least the pain wasn’t so bad, and then there was a long time where he wasn’t sure of anything except that it should be hurt but wasn’t, or that he just didn’t care that it did.
Xue Yang was two years old when his father died, according to his mother, and he thought he might have been four when she died in her turn. He was old enough to walk and speak and sit and beg, young enough that people looked at him with more pity than disdain, and the perfect height to act as a distraction while older street kids went around cutting purses.
He thought, for a while, that the older kids were his friends. He learned that this wasn’t true the first time the local magistrate and a handful of guards came down to chase them away from the building they’d been sheltering in. It was chaos, kids from ages five to fifteen running in every direction, and Xue Yang never saw who it was, but someone took him by the shoulders and threw him at the magistrate as they fled. Someone used him as a distraction so they could grab an extra handful of stolen baubles or three-day-old dumplings or some scrap useless to anyone but them. Xue Yang probably wouldn’t have begrudged them, if they’d just used a different child. But Xue Yang was the youngest and smallest, and so he was the one who was sacrificed.
The distraction worked; the magistrate thought Xue Yang was trying to steal one of the fancy jade tokens dangling from his belt, and had the guards beat him until he wailed and wept and curled up in a ball, and then they threw him out into the street. All the other kids were long gone, and none of them came back to see what had become of the one they left behind.
Xue Yang was seven years old when he blinked, and between closing his eyes and opening them the whole world was different. It took him a while to understand where his limbs were. He was flat on his back, looking up at the badly patched ceiling of the village doctor. Xue Yang had been here only once before, trying to sell the useless old quack a handful of weeds he’d ripped up from the gutter. He’d thought they were healing herbs, or at least, that they’d pass for healing herbs if no one looked very closely.
His clothes were all rumpled and damp, and he had poultices strapped to him almost everywhere he looked. His left hand was so thickly wrapped in bandages it looked more like a strange white turnip than a hand, but he thought from the sudden dip at the edge of the lump that his finger might be gone.
“You’re awake, are you?” The doctor, an old man with a beard that would be magnificent if it weren’t so thin, came shuffling over. He knelt down next to Xue Yang with a grunt of effort and a crunch of protesting knee joints. “Don’t suppose you’ve got some stash of silver around, do you?”
Xue Yang stared at him and kept his mouth shut. He knew better than to say a damn thing to anyone who wanted something from him – or, at least, he knew then.
The doctor grunted and pulled the poultices away from Xue Yang’s battered body. “Well, get out, then,” he said, and pointed at the door with his chin. “I’ve got to make room for paying customers, don’t I?”
“What paying customers?” Xue Yang asked.
All he meant was that the shop was empty – surely, Xue Yang had enough time to put his shoes on – but the man’s face darkened and he raised a hand as if he wanted to slap Xue Yang.
“Ungrateful little rat! I save your life and you insult me? Get out!”
Xue Yang looked at the man’s hand, shrugged, and ducked under his arm. His legs didn’t want to bear his weight; he alternated between stumbling along on two feet and a limping four-limbed lope, trying not to bear weight on his bandaged hand. His shoes were by the door and he snagged them as he passed, shoving them up under his armpit. The old man hadn’t even managed to get back on his feet yet, muttering and groaning as he levered himself up. Xue Yang had time to sit down and stuff his feet into his shoes, such as they were – stolen from one of the market stalls, worn until they were falling apart and then clumsily stitched back together half a dozen times – before the old man came chasing after him.
“What do you want?” Xue Yang asked. “I’m out, aren’t I?”
“Insolent snake!” The old man tried to kick at him, but he moved so slow.
Xue Yang sighed and stood up. He went to sidestep, but his head spun uncomfortably, and he stumbled instead. “Is this far enough?”
The old man huffed and shut the door.
Xue Yang was ten years old when he realised he didn’t know what it was like to be afraid anymore.
Xue Yang was six years old when he heard the story for the first time. He was just listening, the way he often did. He’d clustered around a fire burning in a broken brazier with a dozen other street kids, trying to find a place close enough to stay warm, but far enough to avoid being grabbed or slapped unexpectedly.
The kids traded stories back and forth whenever there was more than one of them in a place, an easy way to keep the peace. The story of the butterfly lovers was popular, with each child taking turns to make up a more gruesome ending for the couple. Here in Kuizhou, a place that thrived on the lotus trade out of Yunmeng, the story of the magic lotus lantern was told at least once a night. But this time there was a new story, one Xue Yang had never heard before.
“He’s a demon who found a door to our world,” one of the children said, a boy a few years older than Xue Yang, to general nods and agreement from the others. “You’ll know if you see him. He wears all black, and his clothes are always blowing around, even when there’s no wind.”
“You have to trick him into telling you his true name,” a second boy said, “and then he has to grant you a wish. Anything you want. But he always takes something in return.”
Xue Yang didn’t scoff, too timid to risk it when the kid talking was easily twice his size, but one of the older girls did. “You don’t need his name,” she said, throwing her hair back over her shoulder. “You just need something to give him. He’s chained up by a spell, see. Some rich cultivators summoned him as a servant, but they found out he was too strong, and they made a big chain out of shadows and tied him up in Luanzang Gang. He can only curses if you give him something first, or otherwise he can’t get out of the chains.”
“He’s not in Luanzang Gang,” protested the first boy. “He’s in Yiling!”
“Yiling is just the town next to Luanzang Gang, stupid,” said the second boy, and a brief scuffle ensued.
Xue Yang inched a little closer to the fire.
“They call him the demon of Yiling though,” the girl graciously acknowledged, once the boys had settled.
“If you see him walking free,” another kid said, somewhere over the fire where Xue Yang couldn’t see them, “he’s marked you for death. Doesn’t matter what you do. Guards or cultivators or feral dogs or bad food, something’s gonna get you.”
“He’s mad because he got tricked,” the first boy said, determined to take the story back. “He was called up by the cultivators and they thought he was one of them for a while, even though he was all covered in smoke—”
“Why, though?” someone asked. “He looks weird, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, but cultivators are stupid,” said the second boy, which brought on another round of nodding and a couple of giggles. Xue Yang nodded too. Cultivators were stupid. They thought what they did was difficult, for a start, so it made sense they wouldn’t be smart enough to spot a demon walking around.
“But then,” the first boy said, “he did – he did—”
“He killed a sect leader,” said the girl. “The servants went in one morning and found him all covered in blood and guts and stuff.”
“But even then, they didn’t believe it, until they put him in jail and he turned into smoke and went out through the bars,” the first boy finished triumphantly, as if this was his plan all along.
There was a little more chatter, something about how Yiling Laozu cried tears of blood, and how maybe he was a raven who cultivated to immortality before he was a demon, but then someone started telling the story of Madam White Snake, and Xue Yang stopped listening. That one, he already knew.
Xue Yang was eight years old when it occurred to him that he could find out if there really was a demon called Yiling Laozu chained up in Luanzang Gang.
The stories about Yiling Laozu were traded like pretty rocks among the street kids of Kuizhou, passed from hand to hand until they’d been worn smooth and shiny. They weren’t reliable, but there were enough points that repeated over and over, like the pattern of woven cloth, that Xue Yang was confident he could figure the rest out.
And if there was no demon in Yiling, shackled to Luanzang Gang, then at least Xue Yang would have gotten out of Kuizhou. He didn’t feel any real urgency about it, but his delinquency was drawing a little more attention than it used to – from the other street kids, from merchants, from the guards of the wealthy. It was harder and harder to find something unattended to wander away with, harder and harder to feed himself without having to run from an armed man at least once or twice. And there was nothing keeping him there. Nothing except the vague idea that Chang Ci’an might come back, some day, and be so surprised to see Xue Yang coming that he didn’t defend himself before Xue Yang slit him open like a rabbit, spilling his offal out into the street so everyone could see what he was like on the inside.
Xue Yang knew where Chang Ci’an lived. Yueyang was not far away, although it was further from Kuizhou than Yiling. But Xue Yang was also pretty sure that getting close enough to Chang Ci’an to gut him would be harder when all his guards and servants and disciples were gathered around him. So, Yiling.
He wasn’t clear on the directions, but it wasn’t hard to steal a clean robe from someone’s laundry, or to scrape his hair up into a braid that almost resembled a respectable topknot at a glance. The recent cold snap had killed off most of the lice and fleas in the area, so Xue Yang had that going for him. There were a lot of merchants going to Yiling around that time, and it was the easiest thing in the world to find one of them that was new to Kuizhou and didn’t know Xue Yang’s reputation. Xue Yang put on a sad face and told them all about how Xue Yang’s mother had just died, and he had an uncle in Yiling who might take him in, and could he ride on the wagon? Look, he could pay.
He could pay, too. He planned to steal the money back from the merchant before they parted ways, but the merchant didn’t have to know that.
It took a few tries before he found someone who was willing, but eventually he hit on the right combination of big eyes and trembling lip and brave determination, and then he had half a dozen sacks of rice right there for him to sprawl out on, napping like a cat in the sun as the wagon trundled out of Kuizhou. It was funny, watching the merchant’s glances change as time went on; pitying, at first, and then confused, and then increasingly unsettled as he saw how much time Xue Yang spent smiling.
Xue Yang was often told he smiled a lot, and that it made people uncomfortable. Usually, it came from the other kids, who wanted to say something cruel but didn’t know him well enough for subtler strikes to land; often it came from the regulars at the market, who’d seen him grow up from plaintive orphan to snarling vandal. He thought it must have started after he’d lost his finger. He didn’t remember it happening before.
The merchant got more and more tense over the next several days. Xue Yang made a point to smile extra wide.
He didn’t get a chance to steal the money back, in the end, because the merchant turned the cart and made a beeline for a pair of cultivators walking along the road into Yiling right before they arrived. That was trouble Xue Yang had no interest in. He hopped down from the back of the cart and made a break for it, darting away into the low-lying scrub that surrounded Yiling. Xue Yang was tall for his age, but every bit as skinny as every other gutter rat in Kuizhou, and probably every other gutter rat everywhere else, too. He squeezed through a thicket and lay flat under some thorny bush, waiting until the merchant stopped looking around and calling the name Xue Yang had given him – Hao Xuan, a name so patently fake he couldn’t believe he got away with it – and shrugged and went into the town, leading his cart beside the cultivators.
Xue Yang crawled out, brushed himself off, and went looking for the local street kids.
He didn’t find any.
He wandered through the market for a while, ignoring the rice merchant’s startled double-take, looking for signs – markings scratched into walls, chalk symbols on the ground, mysterious wisps of smoke where there ought not be a fire – that would tell him where the children had gone. There weren’t any, at least, not that he could see. It didn’t unsettle him – he was hard to unsettle – but it wasn’t right. After a while, he decided it made sense. If the demon of Yiling really did make trades, any street kid could just go to him and swap any old thing for a place to live, or a new family, or one of the other impossible things street kids said they’d wish for when the story of Yiling Laozu was told around the fire in the evening.
Xue Yang crouched down to scratch the ears of a cat; a huge orange beast that must eat twice as much as Xue Yang did to be so sleek. “Do you know where this demon guy is?” he asked. The cat only purred and butted it’s head against Xue Yang’s hand, using the stump of his pinkie to rub its cheek. Xue Yang huffed and yanked his hand away.
Yiling wasn’t a large town. It might have been smaller than Kuizhou, which was a surprise when its market was so much cleaner, with more variety in the goods on sale and merchants dressed in fancier clothes. Xue Yang walked all the way to the other end of the town in what felt like no time at all, following the main road.
That was where he found the other road, winding away from the town. There was a big sign post that Xue Yang couldn’t read, leading towards lumpy grey hills. There was also an adult man, old to Xue Yang’s eyes, hurrying down the road with a basket full of vegetables. Xue Yang snorted and followed him, keeping a careful distance.
The wind picked up as they left the town behind, turning cold and sharp. Xue Yang hid his hands inside his sleeves. The man paused at a little structure by the side of the road that looked sort of like a temple in miniature. Someone had left plates of fruit and flowers and burning incense in front of it. Xue Yang couldn’t quite see what the man did at the shrine, but he assumed he left something behind or picked something up; either way, he was only there for a moment before he kept walking forward. He disappeared around a bend in the road, vanishing behind the side of a hill. Xue Yang jogged forward and leaned around the bend to look for him, but the man was already gone, and the mist was starting to get thicker.
“Huh,” Xue Yang said. Then he found a spot a little way from the shrine, behind a thicket of brambles where he couldn’t be seen from the road and sat down to wait.
An hour later, the same man came back, except it wasn’t the same man. Xue Yang knew it was the same man – his robes were the same, his gait was the same, the shape of his jaw was the same – but he’d shrunk, at some point between walking into the mist and coming back out of it. He was still older than Xue Yang, but now he was an older kid, not an adult man.
“What’s the trick?” Xue Yang asked.
The man-boy looked up at him and smiled. “You’re earlier than we expected this time.”
“If you answer all your questions with bullshit, I’m going to stab you,” Xue Yang said. He knew threatening people was often touted as a good way to get them to answer questions, but he wasn’t quite clear on the finer points of what made a good threat. So far, he’d mostly just made people laugh at him or cry and run away.
“You’ve tried that already,” the boy-man said. “It didn’t go very well for either of us.”
Xue Yang crawled out from his hiding place – not that it hid him very well once he’d spoken to the man-boy – and came down to the little miniature temple. He didn’t recognise the boy-man. He was sure he would recognise someone he’d stabbed. Maybe whatever made the man-boy go from man to boy was also making him lose it.
The boy-man picked something up from one of the plates and offered it to him. Xue Yang plucked it from his fingers before he even really registered what it was, and then realised he was holding a piece of candy, wrapped in rough brown paper.
“Oh,” Xue Yang said, and unwrapped the candy and shoved it in his mouth. It was like honey made into a gemstone, sweet and slowly melting on his tongue. “Yeah. All right.”
He felt like that covered things.
“Is making a formal bargain very important to you?” the man-boy asked. “I assume there will be some sort of proper oath-taking eventually, but if you need the full Yiling Laozu experience, we can arrange that now.”
“Yiling Laozu is supposed to be a demon,” Xue Yang pointed out. The boy-man was weird, and apparently capable of aging backwards by several years in the space of an hour, but Xue Yang had seen a fierce corpse once, and something he thought might be a demon another time, on the outskirts of Kuizhou. He thought he knew what they would be like, anyway. The man-boy just looked like an ordinary person.
“That is a common mistake,” the boy-man said. “Yiling Laozu is not a demon. He’s just very annoying. Why don’t you come along with me, and you can meet him yourself?”
Xue Yang looked at the candy in his hand. He looked at the man-boy, taking in the face – the big eyes, the dimpled smile, the slight tension around the jaw that marked someone who knew there was no way to know where the next blow would come from – and shrugged. “Sure. Why not? I came all this way, after all.”
“After you,” the boy-man said, and gestured at the mist.
Xue Yang walked forward. He kept walking even when the mist that swathed the hills came rolling down and swallowed him up.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
The wind in Luanzang Gang is gentle but very cold, stirring the hair on the back of Wangji’s neck. He is not sure how he has come to be outside of Fumodong; he had been walking the halls, trying to find Wei Ying, or Nie Huaisang, or anyone he recognised. Perhaps he had taken a wrong turn. From here, he can see the main entrance to Fumodong with its imposing architrave, just down the hill; he can see the neat rows of freshly planted soya, the more established radishes, the pond Xiaodou took him to see, the little village where the Dafan Wen dwell.
He remembers looking up this hill. There had been no second entrance to Fumodong that he could see.
When he turns and looks behind him, there is nothing but the side of the hill behind him, solid dirt and rock.
Wangji remembers Meng Yao telling Nie Mingjue that Wen Ruohan would find it almost impossible to launch a true invasion. He remembers Wei Ying on that rooftop, saying The only reason the Wen sect never burned down Luanzang Gang is because – well, you’ll see. Wangji had assumed Wei Ying referred to the unusual geography, or the powerful defences created by Yiling Laozu, but he is more and more certain that Wei Ying had meant something else.
Wei Ying had been right; even with their entire fighting force deployed to the Sunshot Campaign, the Wen sect had never been able to do more than raid Luanzang Gang’s borders, occasionally managing to steal examples talismans or wards but never penetrating into the heart of Luanzang Gang.
Wangji considers how much resentment is required before a human death will result in a ghost or fierce corpse.
How much resentment would it take for a place to rise in such a way?
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
The sun is still up, although veiled behind grey clouds, when Wangji’s body informs him it is almost hai shi and he ought to be in bed. It is still the height of summer, for all that Luanzang Gang is strangely cool; it is not uncommon for the sun to stay in the sky until after Wangji is asleep, and rise again just as he wakes. Wangji’s room in Fumodong does not allow the sunlight in; it is always dark and cool, and he always falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, despite his anxieties. It is just so tonight, except that Wangji does not sleep until his body informs him it is mao shi. Instead, he is woken in the night by the sound of a child crying.
It is unusual for Wangji to hear anything from within his room. The walls are thick, and the Wei sect are content to give him a wide berth. For him to hear the child, they must be very close, or very loud. Wangji assumes the child’s parents will attend to them shortly, and the matter will be resolved, but the child continues to cry with great force and volume.
Wangji sighs and gets out of bed.
He leaves his hair unbound except for his forehead ribbon, and only puts on his outermost robe, tying it tightly to disguise his sleepwear beneath. The child is still crying. Unlike his other attempts to navigate Fumodong, it is a simple thing to follow his ears; it’s only a few corridors before he finds the room.
The child is perhaps three or four, a little smaller than Xiaodou, and as soon as he sees Wangji he reaches both arms up towards him, his wailing reducing to little sniffles and hiccups. Wangji approaches cautiously, looking around. He does not see any sign of the child’s parents, but he also does not see any sign of neglect; by the sturdy construction of the crib and little box of toys and the neat stack of folded robes, the child has all his needs met. He is simply alone.
“Who takes care of you?” Wangji asks, but the child only thrusts his arms towards Wangji more forcefully. It is fortunate that Wangji has dealt with children before; he lifts the child out of his crib and sets him on his hip, using the very edge of his sleeve to pat tears away from the child’s cheeks. “What is your name?”
“I’m not supposed to say,” the child says, and yawns enormously. “Gege, take me for a walk?”
“No,” Wangji says, settling the child more securely on his hip. “We must wait for your caregivers to come back.” It occurs to him that the child may be an orphan, another of the Wei sect’s foundlings; perhaps that is why no one has come to soothe him? But then there is the question of where he came from, and why this is the first night Wangji has heard him crying.
“Baba said I had to sleep now,” the child says, looking up at Wangji with enormous eyes, as if to indicate that this is a truly tragic state of affairs. “But gege, I don’t want to sleep.”
“Then we will wait,” Wangji says, “until your father comes back.”
The child yawns again and snuggles closer into Wangji’s side. “I’m not sleepy,” he mumbles.
“I can see that,” Wangji says.
Within five minutes, the child is asleep, his head resting against Wangji’s shoulder. Wangji tries to lower the child back into his crib, but at the first hint of separation between them the child starts to whine and wiggle his way towards wakefulness, so Wangji continues to hold him. There are a handful of cushions in the room, presumably used by the child’s parents or carers when they are in attendance. Wangji sits on one, adopting lotus pose and settling the child in his lap, and enters a light meditation. It is not difficult to find the correct state of mind, but it is somewhat more challenging to keep from drifting into sleep entirely.
He is drawn out of his meditation by the sound of footsteps at the door.
“Did you give up?” a voice whispers, and then, “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry—”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, “come in. He is asleep.”
“Oh dear,” Wei Ying says softly, and creeps into the room. He smells very strongly of soap and charcoal, and he is only one layer of robes. Wangji can see a neat slice of his collarbone and chest, gleaming in the dark, and has to look away. Wei Ying kneels down beside them and presses a hand to his mouth, stifling a grin. “Ah, look at him. That little con artist.”
“He was crying,” Wangji says stiffly.
“Did he wake you?” Wei Ying grins. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. We didn’t know he’d be quite as upset as all that. A Yuan’s usually pretty good at sleeping. He must get it from me.”
Wangji tilts his head very, very slowly to look at Wei Ying, arching one eyebrows.
“He gets it from you.”
“Yes! Can’t you see the family resemblance, Lan-er-gege?” Wei Ying gestures at his face. “I gave birth to him!”
Wangji gives Wei Ying a single slow blink and Wei Ying falls into giggles, pressing both hands over his mouth.
“All right, all right, I didn’t,” Wei Ying says. “Luanzang Gang is a strange place, but even it hasn’t made me a parent. But I practically raised this little guy. Luobo Zhongzi, we call him, because he loves to sit with whoever’s at the radish patch and help them dig in the dirt. One time I buried him and told him he would grow some little radish siblings that way.”
“I have concerns,” Wangji says dryly, “about your understanding of both reproduction and childrearing.”
Wei Ying grins. “A lot of people share those concerns.”
He nudges a cushion over towards Wangji, then sits on it. He arranges another cushion between them and makes grabbing gestures; Wangji eases A Yuan’s sleeping weight into Wei Ying’s hands, and Wei Ying settles him carefully, curled up between them. Satisfied with A Yuan’s placement, Wei Ying tips sideways, resting on Wangji’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about – well.”
Wangji’s spine freezes into ice. “What are you sorry for?” He works to keep his voice cool, detached, calm. He does not wish to be angry at Wei Ying; he also does not wish to wake the child sleeping against his side. It is unpleasant to realise he is afraid of what Wei Ying might say.
“You know, I’m not sure.” Wei Ying snorts. “Aiya, what am I saying? We have a lot of secrets here in Luanzang Gang. More than we should, I think. If we’d told you what we were doing…” Wei Ying sighs. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s done now.”
It takes Wangji a moment to put what Wei Ying is saying into context. Yiling Laozu or one of the Wens must have told Wei Ying that Wangji had seen the so-called surgery.
“Was the… procedure… successful?” Wangji asks delicately.
Wei Ying shrugs without raising his head. “I think so, but Wen Qing says we won’t know for sure until she wakes up. She needs lots of sleep to recover from the procedure, and then… well, we’ll see. I don’t want to promise anything. But the chances were very low for her to even live as long as she already has, so we know she’s a strong woman!” He sighs heavily, breath hot against Wangji’s shoulder even through his robes. “She just needs to be strong for a little bit longer.”
“Mn,” is all Wangji can summon in response to that. This close to Wei Ying, Wangji can smell a trace of something like soil after rain rising from his skin, beneath the smell of soap. It is hard to remember anything that has troubled him when Wei Ying is so close, so warm and alive.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. He sounds wrung out. “I want to tell you everything. I do. But—”
“It is not your place,” Wangji says. Gentleness does not come naturally to him, but he strives for it now. “All sects have secrets. It is natural to defend them.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying says. “But I would tell you if I could. You know that, don’t you, Lan Zhan? I want you to – to know – aiya, why are words so hard?” He laughs softly, knocking his skull against the outcrop of Wangji’s shoulder blade. “I’m more tired than I thought, I guess. Thank the heavens I have so many helpers running around. It’s good to have a sect.”
“Mn.” Wangji chances a glance at the child, who remains sleeping comfortably at his side. “You should rest. I will take care of this one.”
“No,” says a voice from the door.
Wangji is on his feet in an instant, putting himself between Wei Ying and the intruder. The man at the door doesn’t glare at him; he has a calm expressionlessness to rival Wangji’s own. It takes him a moment to recognise Wen Zhuliu, a moment longer to remember that Wen Zhuliu is of the Wei sect now.
“Put him in the crib,” Wen Zhuliu says. He sounds almost as tired as Wei Ying.
“See? I told you, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying yawns and stands up, hooking his chin over Wangji’s shoulder. “He knows better than to leap into the arms of the first gege to come along, but he does it anyway.”
“He follows your example,” Wen Zhuliu says to Wei Ying, and cuts his eyes at Wangji. It’s such a brief glance Wangji would have missed it, were he not so intently watching for hostility.
“Wen-gege!” Wei Ying squawks, jolting upright. “That’s rude! I don’t go around leaping into anybody’s arms!”
“Only for lack of opportunity,” Wen Zhuliu says. “Get out. A Yuan should be learning to sleep in his own bed, not watching… whatever this is.”
Wangji glances at Wei Ying, uncertain. A Yuan is still soundly asleep on his cushion, head resting against Wei Ying’s thigh.
“Go on, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Ying says. “Put him back. He won’t bite you, but his father might!” He sticks his tongue out at Wen Zhuliu, who looks entirely unfazed.
Wangji lifts A Yuan and sets him back in his crib, as instructed. A Yuan immediately starts to fuss, and Wangji would pick him back up again if it wasn’t for Wen Zhuliu watching him like a particularly inscrutable vulture. Much to Wangji’s surprise, A Yuan settles, whimpering restlessly but curling onto his side and dozing off again.
“Monstrous little radish,” Wei Ying says fondly, and grabs Wangji’s hand. “Come on, let’s get out of here, before Wen-gege gets too grumpy—”
Wen Zhuliu sighs heavily and steps aside as Wei Yin scurries past, towing Wangji in his wake.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wei Ying leads him outside. Though it cannot be mao shi yet – Wangji’s internal clock suggests it is chou shi at the latest – the sun is up, its exact position is impossible to determine, with the light of it diffused through a low, heavy cloud bank. Wangji blinks at the sky, baffled, but Wei Ying is tugging at his hand again, giving Wangji such a brilliant smile it very nearly takes him out at the knees.
“Come on, this way!”
He leads Wangji away from the village settlement, up into a strand of trees. Like the rest of Luanzang Gang, the trees are faintly unsettling. They don’t look dead, exactly, but they feel unnaturally still; there is none of the usual sense of living, breathing qi that would surround a true forest. There are no sounds of insects, no birds singing to greet the dawn, no animals moving in the underbrush, no fungus undertaking the work of decay.
Wangji cannot bring himself to care when Wei Ying’s hand is wrapped around his, hot as fire and gripping him so tight he might never let go.
“So,” Wei Ying says brightly, “Now that I’ve finally got you to myself, Lan-er-gege—”
Wangji shoves Wei Ying up against a tree and kisses him.
It is, he suspects, not a very good kiss. He is over-hasty; Wei Ying is winded as he hits the trunk and can only gasp against Wangji’s mouth, trying to get his breath back, and Wangji’s own eagerness means teeth have been introduced perhaps sooner than would be wise. But then Wei Ying melts against him, arms coming up to wrap around Wangji’s back, his mouth going soft and yielding under Wangji’s. Wangji presses closer, his hands finding Wei Ying’s hips and lifting until Wei Ying’s feet are off the ground. Wei Ying laughs, delighted, into Wangji’s mouth, and Wangji drinks the sound down as Wei Ying wraps his legs around Wangji’s waist.
Wangji feels dizzy, light-headed, as though he has been flying too high. He breaks the kiss, breathing hard, staring into Wei Ying’s eyes.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says breathlessly. His fingers capture a loose section of Wangji’s hair, twining it through his fingers. “My Lan Zhan.”
“Forgive me,” Wangji says hoarsely, although he does not feel terribly sorry. “I should have – asked.”
“Maybe,” Wei Ying says, “but I like the idea that I can make the Second Jade of Lan lose all his perfect manners. Tell me, did I annoy you into shutting me up with your mouth, or is this because you didn’t get your sect mandated beauty sleep?”
Both options are patently ridiculous, and Wangji elects not to indulge them. “I have wanted to kiss you since the night you played to me,” he says. “On the roof, in Qinghe.”
“What?” Wei Ying grabs Wangji’s face in both hands and stares at him, aghast. “But that was – that must be – that was the first time you saw my face! Ever!”
“Yes,” Wangji agrees.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying wails, and presses his forehead into Wangji’s. “You can’t say romantic things like that! I can’t take it! Don’t you know the Wei sect cultivation style makes us very vulnerable to romantic gestures—”
Wangji decides to resolve the matter by kissing Wei Ying again. This one is better; Wei Ying makes a little laughing noise and tangles his fingers in Wangji’s hair, drawing him in. His legs squeeze around Wangji’s waist and hold him tight. Wangji leans his weight into Wei Ying until they are pressed flush together from sternum to stomach. Wei Ying mewls pleasingly when Wangji nips at his lower lip; his fingers flex, nails drawing tingling lines across Wangji’s scalp.
Eventually, Wangji has to break the kiss and rest his forehead against Wei Ying’s temple, breathing in the scent of his hair and trying to remember anything he’s ever learned about self-control.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs, and presses a kiss to Wangji’s throat. It does not assist with the search for self-restraint. “I really do need to tell you – all kinds of things. You might not want to, to, um, pursue this, when you know.”
“I will always want Wei Ying,” Wangji says. He is fairly confident in this assessment. Wei Ying could announce he was secretly Wen Ruohan’s heir, and all that might change in Wangji’s view is which of them should marry into the other’s sect.
“Don’t say that,” Wei Ying says. “Not yet. I couldn’t bear it if you changed your mind.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, as close to acceding as he can bring himself to coming, and kisses Wei Ying’s temple. “I will say it later, then.”
Wei Ying makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. He wraps both arms around Wangji’s torso and hugs him hard, all his limbs squeezing so tightly that Wangji hears something in his back pop under the pressure.
“I’m holding you to that,” he mumbles, voice stifled against Wangji’s neck. “Don’t forget.”
QISHAN, DURING SUNSHOT
Wangji has come to realise that what he feels for Wei Ying is, perhaps, somewhat outside the bounds of the simple admiration one accomplished cultivator might feel for another. Xichen, too, has come to this realisation, which is irritating; his elder brother appears to have made it his mission to make Wangji look ridiculous in front of his Wei Ying. Whenever a Wei disciple is near, Xichen will call out a greeting, invite them to come over, ask them to share a meal, in the hopes that whoever is under the hood will be Wei Ying. It’s only good fortune and Wei Ying’s never-ending duties that have kept him from accepting an invitation. If he ever does accept and join them, Wangji is quite sure from the look on Xichen’s face that he will die of pure mortification within minutes.
Despite this, Wangji never feels that he is far from Wei Ying. Every night, as he struggles to find rest on an uncomfortable bedroll in a tent sewn with shorter men in mind, he hears the faint sound of Wei Ying’s flute, carried on the night breeze; it never fails to soothe him to his rest. He often wakes with his jade rabbit clutched in his hand, even if he has carefully taken it off and put it with his forehead ribbon the previous night.
This proves useful when a Wen patrol attempts to attack by night and kill him in his sleep; as the blow comes down, Wangji throws up a hand instinctively, and the rabbit’s chain tangles around his attacker’s sword, fouling the blade. When Wangji yanks his hand down and to the side, the sword stabs harmlessly through his blanket and into the dirt, and a moment later Wangji is on his feet, slamming an open-handed blow into his assailant’s chest and sending him flying backwards out of his tent. Outside, people are already calling the alarm. Wangji calls Bichen to his hand, but before he can even leave the tent himself a piece of the night descends on the man, who screams for a moment and then stills.
“Hey,” snaps the piece of night, and turns to look up at Wangji. In the dark, with his hood up and only the stars and a faint crescent of moon to illuminate his face, it takes Wangji a while to place him as Xue Yang. “Take better care of yourself! Wei Ying would never forgive you if you died.”
It is only years of practiced restraint that keeps Wangji’s jaw from dropping open, and Xue Yang is moving away again before he can even really react, his dark cloak melting into the shadows around him.
Wangji steps out of the tent and surveys the damage. He is not the only one who was attacked. Xichen is fighting two, and a third is already dead at his feet; even as Wangji starts towards him, Xichen kills the second, and Xue Yang looms out of the darkness to stab the third through the back. Xichen jerks a half-bow of gratitude and lunges for the next incoming scout.
Wangji whirls in time to block a blade coming for his back, and then he is fighting. He thought he had seen battle in Qishan, but that had been hit-and-run attacks in the forests, and the Wen had often fled when he arrived; this is a real fight, in the dark, without his robes or his shoes, nothing but Bichen and his own skill to keep him alive. He is strong, though, stronger than most, and the Wen scouts did not expect resistance; with the help of the other woken cultivators, Wangji dispatches first his opponent and finds another, and another, and then more. His clothes are soaked in blood by the time he’s through.
When he can find no more enemies to kill, Wangji turns to look for any sign of the other Wei cultivators, or any clue as to how the Wen scouts had made it so far past their sentries, and finds both his answers in one; Mo Lihua and Xue Yang are examining a talisman plucked from one of the bodies.
“This is one of ours,” Mo Lihua says, outraged. “They’re copying us!”
“Oh please,” Xue Yang says. “It’s a shitty copy, look. They’ve made a mess of the top.”
“We already knew they were incompetent,” Mo Lihua snaps, “but we didn’t know they’d made it into Luanzang—”
“They didn’t!” Xue Yang snatches the talisman from Mo Lihua’s hand and makes a futile attempt to hold it up to the light. “This is from the northern border – they didn’t even make it past the fog—”
“And lucky, too, or we’d have a lot more dead allies on our hands!” Mo Lihua snatches the talisman back.
Wangji clears his throat.
Xue Yang and Mo Lihua snap to attention, looking at him guiltily. Wangji supposes he must look frightful, with his bloodied clothes and Bichen still in hand. His hair is going to be a nightmare to comb, he can tell.
“Perhaps this is a matter best handed to Yiling Laozu,” he suggests.
“He’s occupied,” Mo Lihua says immediately, with a nervous glance at Xue Yang. “And we shouldn’t speak of it here, anyway. No need to alarm anyone.”
“Mn,” Wangji says.
“Perhaps you could describe the nature of the talisman,” Xichen suggests, approaching them slowly. Shuoyue is sheathed, but Wangji can tell from a glance that Xichen hastily wiped her blade over his sleeve, a bad habit from their training days.
“It’s adorable,” Xue Yang says flatly. “It’s something shixiong came up with when he was six. Can’t believe we even had examples around for them to steal.”
“This is what happens when we leave Luanzang Gang,” Mo Lihua says, exasperated. “The Wen start trying to break through—”
“I think that might be a private sect matter!” comes Wei Ying’s voice. Wangji feels the tension leave his shoulders. He turns, wishing ardently that he was dressed and ornamented. At least he still has the jade rabbit, wrapped firmly around his fist. Wei Ying spares Wangji a smile, wide and sweet, before he looks back at his sect siblings and says pointedly, “Don’t you have posts to be at?”
Xue Yang rolls his eyes and turns away, melting into the darkness. Mo Lihua mumbles something that sounds a little like yes, shixiong, and walks away. Wangji looks at Wei Ying and Wei Ying looks back, eyes lingering on the rabbit dangling from Wangji’s hand.
“I told you,” Wei Ying says, teasing, smug. “Protection.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, to save himself from doing something ill-advised.
“I see,” Xichen says, and Wangji seriously considers the merits of fratricide. There’s a war on, after all; who would even notice?
There is another night ambush as they push further into Qishan. This time, Wangji is not yet asleep, waiting for his brother to return from one of many, many war councils; he still does not see the Wen coming until the talismans the Wei sect had distributed to the sentries flares to life, and all at once he realises they are nearly upon the camp. The Wei disciple on duty, Meng Yao, is already slipping up behind them; Wangji draws his sword and descends, keeping the Wen soldiers’ eyes on him.
This fight, at least, is over quickly.
“What a mess,” Nie Mingjue says when he arrives to find Wangji overseeing the disposal of corpses. “I leave you alone for a couple of lousy hours, and the first thing I see when I get back is corpses left out in the paths, where anyone could trip over them. Do none of you know how to keep house?”
“Mingjue,” Xichen says, gently chiding as he approaches. “Wangji, are you all right?”
“Mn.” Wangji inclines his head. “It was not taxing.”
“Chifeng-zun,” Meng Yao says, and bows deeply. “This unworthy one begs your forgiveness. I am—”
“None of that,” Nie Mingjue says, lifting out of his bow. “Not until we’re sure there are no more coming. Have you dispatched a patrol?”
“Yes, Chifeng-zun,” Meng Yao says. “My shimei has gone to see it done.”
“Good. Now – stop trying to bow at me—” Mingjue takes Meng Yao’s wrist in his hand as Meng Yao attempts to salute him. “You’ve just been attacked, you’re all but standing on a corpse, and you think an apology is what I need right now? Give me a status report and save the rest for when the clean-up is done.”
Meng Yao looks up at Mingjue with very wide eyes, then shoots a pleading glance at Wangji. Wangji blinks at him, and considers that Wei Ying is fond of Meng Yao, and would look kindly on it if Wangji intervened on his behalf.
“We have one dead from the Lan sect,” Wangji says. “Two were wounded; they are already receiving treatment and are expected to recover well. In addition, there was some minor damage to property of the Lan and Wei sects, which will require further assessment after sunrise.”
“It may need to be delayed,” Xichen says distantly. He is not looking at Wangji; his eyes are on the sky. Wangji follows his gaze, and sees a signal flare, the purple lotus of Yunmeng, glittering; two more signal flares light up, one from the Lan sect, one from the Jin.
“Please excuse me, Chifeng-zun, Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun.” Meng Yao bows again, neatly sidestepping Nie Mingjue’s attempt to stop him. “I must report to Wei-zongzhu.”
“I think you’d better,” Nie Mingjue growls, and draws Baxia.
“Wangji,” Xichen says softly, “send word to have our sect prepare for battle at once.”
Wangji bows to his brother and leaps away; behind him, he hears Nie Mingjue roar, “Form up!”
The Wen armies had hoped to approach under cover of night, and be on them before the Sunshot Campaign even knew they were there; thanks to Yiling Wei’s talismans, they have abandoned this plan. Now, they lurk just out of sight.
“I imagine it won’t be long,” Xichen says when Wangji returns to his side. “None of the Wen generals like to back down once they are committed. They will attack before dawn.” Xichen writes a short note on a piece of paper, flips it over, and draws a neat talisman on the back. When he feeds it a filament of qi, it bursts into a tiny silver-blue bird and flies away, almost invisible once it leaves Xichen’s side.
“I did not know we had come so far in messenger talismans,” Wangji says.
“Mn,” Xichen says. When Wangji only continues to stare at him, he says, “Xue Yang of the Wei sect has been attempting to reconstruct the Jin sect’s golden butterfly talisman. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be in favour of attempting to uncover the proprietary cultivation secrets of another sect; with matters as they are, though, I am thankful for his work. These require a paper message to carry, and cannot be used with voice alone, but they serve perfectly well for our purposes.”
Wangji hums. “Xiongzhang seems very fond of Xue-gongzi.”
“Just as Wangji seems very fond of Wei-gongzi,” Xichen says tartly. “Shall we perhaps discuss the provenance of your new ornament?”
Wangji can feel his ears turning red. He looks away from his brother, closing his fingers around the jade rabbit to shield it from view. “No.”
Xichen is too well-bred to do anything so gauche as laugh at his brother, but Wangji can feel the laughter that would be there if he were not.
“Forgive your brother, Wangji,” Xichen says. “Making friends has never been easy for you. Even if matters with Wei-gongzi never… progress, he makes you happy, and that is all I want for my little brother.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, and walks swiftly away. All that time spent with the Jiang and Nie sects has clearly been bad for Xichen; he never had so many feelings before the Sunshot Campaign started.
One of the Nie sect arranges a rotating roster by which all soldiers can take two hours of rest at a time, to ensure those who were on night duty have a chance to refresh themselves before battle commences. Wangji takes his with some gratitude, is instructed to rest for two hours; it allows him to rise at mao shi, as he ordinarily would.
It is Xichen’s turn to rest, then, and Jiang Fengmian is the sect leader waiting for word instead. Wangji salutes him and stands nearby, trying not to hover.
“I have received word from Mingjue,” Jiang Fengmian says, very quietly. “The Yiling Wei sect intends to strike first, if they can. Wei-zongzhu is making his preparations now.”
“The Yiling Wei sect has insufficient numbers to make any substantial impact,” Wangji says flatly. It is not a truth he is pleased by, but it is true.
“Then I suppose we will see if there is any truth to Yiling Wei’s reputation,” Jiang Fengmian says.
There is more waiting. The sun begins to rise behind the Sunshot Campaign, and Wangji wonders if that is what has prompted Wei-zongzhu to action. There will be a short time where their forces will be obscured in the rays of the sun, leaving the Wen sect unable to clearly see what they are doing, but it will be a short time only. Wangji is not clear on what the Wei sect could achieve in such a short window, when their enemy is still some distance away.
Then he hears a flute begin to play.
It sounds like Wei Ying, at first, and his heart soars, but then he looks to the source and is frozen. It is not Wei Ying; it is Yiling Laozu.
He does not carry a sword. He does not require one; resentful energy, thick as storm clouds, wreathes itself around his limbs, holding him in the air. His robes and hair whip wildly around him, and his eyes gleam redly behind his mask. The black dizi gleams too, the sigils carved along its length shimmering red-black-red. Yiling Laozu does not look at Wangji, nor at anyone else. He hovers for a long moment, playing a series of high, lilting notes.
Wangji swallows and tightens his grip on Bichen.
Yiling Laozu drifts forward, carried by the resentful energy he has summoned. He continues to play. It is musical cultivation, of that there is no doubt; Wangji can sense it as clearly as he can sense his brother’s use of Liebing. It is wrong, though, somehow corrupted, a low buzz at the edge of Wangji’s perceptions that set his teeth on edge. It is slightly more tolerable as Yiling Laozu floats away from the camp.
When he is halfway between the Sunshot Campaign and the Wen sect army, the dead begin to rise.
Wangji has liberated, suppressed, and eliminated fierce corpses of every variety. It is appalling to watch someone create them so carelessly. The ground of Qishan is hard and stony, and the dead must force their way free, often breaking or tearing their own limbs in the process, though it does not slow them. It does not make them less of a danger. It does not stop them from rushing towards their target.
The timing, Wangji realises, is very nearly perfect; the sun is lancing into the Wen sect’s eyes just as Yiling Laozu’s obscene army crashes into their frontline.
There is a substantial distance between Wangji’s position and the Wen sect; a small mercy. He can look away. He can close his ears to the screams. He does not have to know what Yiling Laozu does to his enemies.
He looks, regardless. He cannot help but feel he owes it to someone – to the dead who are saving all their lives, if not to the Wen soldiers who never expected to face such a horror. Wangji tries to imagine how it would feel, what he would do, if Jiang Fengmian were, in this instant, cut down by an enemy, only to rise up and join the enemy’s ranks. He cannot imagine it, and yet it is happening, within sight of where he stands.
It takes a long time. The Wen break, of course, and run; Yiling Laozu follows, inexorable as the tide, playing. The sun is high in the sky by the time he is satisfied, and returns to them. His sect rushes to meet him as he descends; he is assisted from the field by Meng Yao and Xue Yang, surrounded by half a dozen others. Not only the Wei sect, Wangji realises; many of the minor sects are attempting to ingratiate themselves, asking questions, offering congratulations.
Now, and only now, does Wangji turn away.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Wangji is not sure how long he has been in Luanzang Gang when Nie Mingjue arrives.
The noise catches his attention first, shouting and crashing metal somewhere in the mist. Wangji, on his knees in the dirt helping A Yuan plant flowers, does not immediately register it as a problem; there are often strange noises from outside Luanzang Gang, echoing through the hills until they are warped beyond recognition. Then Meng Yao strides past, neat as a pin in his sect robes, and plunges into the depths of the fog.
The crashing quiets, but the shouting does not. The words are muffled at first, blurred and blunted. Wangji wraps an arm around A Yuan’s waist to keep him close. A Yuan is blithely unconcerned, too focused on patting down the dirt atop his newly planted seed.
There is a feeling of the air stretching, as though Luanzang Gang is thinking it over, and then the words are not blunted any more—
“—where my brother is!”
Meng Yao escorts Nie Mingjue into Luanzang Gang. Nie Mingjue’s rage eases as he leaves the fog behind, although Wangji is not assured he will remain calm for long. Meng Yao is holding Nie Mingjue’s arm with a faintly apologetic air, the bone of his hair pin gleaming pale in the watery light. Nie Mingjue doesn’t belong here, not next to Meng Yao’s gossamer frailty. He is too warm, too vital; the dry earth and the frozen trees and the sinking clouds all conspire to steal the life from the air around him.
“A Yang,” Meng Yao says, “fetch Nie-gongzi, please. And inform Wei-zongzhu that we have a guest.”
Wangji isn’t even aware of Xue Yang until he detaches himself from a lingering patch of shadow, sword in one hand, spiritual gauntlet gleaming on the other. He nods to Meng Yao and backs away, stepping into one of the gaping mouths that riddle Fumodong.
“Lan Wangji,” Nie Mingjue booms, and Wangji almost jumps. “Are you well?”
“Quite well, Chifeng-zun,” Wangji says – a deliberate step up in formality, to remind Nie Mingjue that he should not be too easy, not here. He rises slowly to his feet to make his bow, though it pains him to release A Yuan. “Wen Yuan, will you greet Chifeng-zun?”
A Yuan looks at Wangji, then at Nie Mingjue, and wobbles into a passable bow. “Hello, Chifeng-zun,” he says, in his high piping voice. “Welcome to Luanzang Gang.”
Nie Mingjue’s entire face softens, and he bows to A Yuan in return. “Hello, Wen Yuan. Do you—”
“Dage!” Nie Huaisang calls brightly, emerging from Fumodong and strolling towards them. He has his fan in his hand, and Su Minshan hovers behind him, looking almost protective. Wangji frowns. He hasn’t seen Su Minshan since he arrived at Luanzang Gong; he suspects Su Minshan has been avoiding him. “All this fuss! You didn’t need to come all this way.”
“Apparently I did,” Nie Mingjue says, some of the thunder coming back into his voice, “since for all I knew you’d been kidnapped—”
“As if I would ever let anyone kidnap me—”
“—not so much as a letter—”
“—if you’d just trust me to know what I’m doing instead of—”
“—acting like I took away your toys—"
“Gentlemen!” Meng Yao says sharply. “Wei-zongzhu is waiting. Perhaps we should join him?”
The Nie brothers fall silent and give Meng Yao identical looks of affront. Meng Yao ignores this entirely and strides past with such an air of strident confidence that they both fall in behind him, and the three of them – Nie Huaisang, Nie Mingjue, and Meng Yao in the lead – troop into Fumodong. Su Minshan lingers, staring at Wangji for a moment, before he follows them. Wangji remains where he is, heart in his throat, until A Yuan tugs at his sleeve and draws his attention back to the garden.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Mo Lihua appears for precisely long enough to leave Xiaodou with Wangji and requests that he keep the children busy before she rushes away again. Wangji takes A Yuan and Xiaodou to examine the half-grown soya plants for signs of insect bites. He knows they will not find any – insects do not thrive in Luanzang Gang – but it keeps the children from wandering into Fumodong and witnessing what Wangji suspects may inevitably become bloodshed. He cannot imagine a world in which Nie Mingjue sacrifices his principles enough to work with a torturer and necromancer such as Yiling Laozu. He can only hope that Wei Ying and the other disciples are not caught up in the conflict.
When the next commotion comes, Wangji is so sure it is that conflict beginning that he does not even bother to disturb the children. He is sure the fighting will be contained to Fumodong. It’s only when he hears a woman’s voice that it even occurs to him that there might be more than one difficulty in Luanzang Gang this evening.
That is when he senses a fierce corpse approaching.
Wangji is on his feet in an instant. If Yiling Laozu has summoned a fierce corpse, his talks with Nie Mingjue have gone worse than even Wangji feared – but there is no screaming, no panic, none of Baxia’s resentful thrumming energy. Wangji draws Bichen nonetheless, and sets himself in front of the children.
A woman stumbles out of Fumodong, panting harshly. One of her hands is pressed hard against her chest – the other braces against her knee as she bends forward, gasping and coughing.
“Slowly!” another woman scolds – Wen Qing, Wangji realises, accompanied by her brother. The pair of them take the woman by the arms and help her to stand up as she works to get her breath under control. “A Ning, go and get Meng Yao.”
Wen Ning makes sure the woman is standing on her own before he releases her and hurries away; he is replaced a moment later by Wen Zhuliu, who bows to the woman before offering her arm. She leans on him, her face pale almost to the point of being grey, and Wangji realises she is the fierce corpse he can sense – though the initial swell of resentful energy is fading, and she shows no sign of being truly dead. Her hair has been neatly brushed and pinned up, although her coughing has dislodged a few strands; her face would be lovely if she did not look so ill, sharp and vulpine and somehow familiar.
The last time Wangji saw her, she was on a strange table, covered in talismans, with her chest torn open. How can she be alive now?
Meng Yao arrives in a rush, falling to his knees in front of the woman in a clumsy kowtow. Wangji slowly sheaths his sword, frowning, as the woman leans down and tugs fruitlessly at Meng Yao’s robes.
“Wait here,” he tells the children, and walks forward.
He realises Meng Yao is weeping; tears slip silently down his face, turning the dusty ground into mud. The woman, with Wen Zhuliu’s help, succeeds in lifting him from his kowtow. She clutches one of his hands, smiling down at him, though she is on the verge of tears too. Now that he is closer, can see a fazan in her dark hair, white bone carved into the shape of a crane in flight, the twin to the one Meng Yao is wearing.
“Muqin,” Meng Yao is saying, over and over. “Muqin, muqin—”
“A Yao,” the woman says. Her voice is faded to a whisper, perhaps from the illness that makes her so pale, but the sound of it still makes Meng Yao shudder and press his forehead against their joined hands.
Wangji is aware this ought to be a private moment, but some hungry thing inside his chest wants to drink this in, to look until he is forced to stop. He wants to reach out and touch them, to find some way to draw the essential nature of this moment into himself.
He tears his gaze away.
His eyes fall on a dozen or more people emerging from Fumodong – Wei Ying in the lead, with Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang following close behind, and then Wen Ning, Mo Lihua, Nainai, Sishu, others Wangji does not know. Wei Ying’s eyes flicker to Wangji and his jaw clenches, but he does not stop; he walks straight past Wangji to the woman.
“Wait, don’t,” Wen Qing says, when the woman attempts to lift Meng Yao to his feet. “Your stitches—”
Meng Yao rises on his own, blotting at his face with his sleeve. He turns to Wei Ying and for a moment it looks like he will sink into another kowtow, but Wei Ying catches him by the wrists and shakes him briskly.
“Aiya, none of that! Aren’t you my shidi?” Wei Ying asks. “That makes her my – hmm. My… shigu? Is that right?”
“Not remotely,” Meng Yao says, and laughs, wiping at his face with his hands. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Introduce me, obviously!” Wei Ying smiles wide. “We’ve never met, remember?”
“Of course.” Meng Yao turns to his mother. “Muqin, may I present Wei Ying, courtesy Wuxian, styled Yiling Laozu, sect leader of Yiling Wei. Wei-zongzhu, this is my honoured mother, Meng Shi.”
Wangji’s throat turns to ice.
Wei Ying swallows hard and his eyes dart towards Wangji, but then he looks back to Meng Shi and bows deeply to her.
“Meng-furen,” he says, grinning up at her, “this humble servant is honoured to meet you at last.”
Wangji turns and walks away. He cannot stay, cannot look back, cannot rid himself of the image of Wei Ying standing over Meng Shi’s body with bloody hands.
“A Yao,” he hears Meng Shi say as he reaches the entrance to Fumodong, “I believe I may have missed a few things.”
DAFAN, BEFORE SUNSHOT
“Didi,” Nie Mingjue said, “this doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d normally go shopping.”
Mingjue had known this was one of Huaisang’s little games well before they’d arrived – Huaisang never claimed they were going anywhere other than Dafan, after all, and Dafan is not a place that has much to interest either of them – but part of the game is pretending Huaisang is getting away with it. Huaisang, for his part, looks up at Mingjue with wide eyes and a pout.
“Maybe I wanted to come and buy something for you, dage,” he says. “Can’t I just do something nice for you? Can’t I take an interest in my dage’s hobbies?”
“Sure you can,” Mingjue says. “I’ll see you on the practice fields bright and early when we get back, shall I?”
Huaisang says “Urgh,” and then stops with a considering look on his face. Mingjue knows in his heart that look can only mean trouble.
“If I come to sabre practice tomorrow,” Huaisang says, eyes narrowing, “will dage let me give him a surprise?”
There it is: trouble. “What kind of surprise?” Mingjue asks, folded his arms across his chest. With Huaisang it really could be anything, from a favourite meal to a stack of spring books. At least he’s mostly grown out of trying to find Mingjue pets. One well-intentioned but extremely unwelcome bird in Mingjue’s bedroom was more than enough.
Huaisang hums, hiding behind his fan and looking up at Mingjue from under his lashes. “How about… a useful one.”
Useful surprises are about the best Mingjue can hope for, with Huaisang. “All right, didi,” he says, with a heavy sigh that’s at least half play-acting. “You can surprise me.”
“I’m glad you say so,” Huaisang says. “I would have done it anyway, but it’s better if you agree. Oh, look at that leatherwork—” and then he’s off, dragging Mingjue by the wrist, to look at some finely tooled leather belts and bracers.
Mingjue allows himself to be led from stall to stall. He has to credit Huaisang; his brother knows what Mingjue likes, and he has an eye for quality that Mingjue envies. Huaisang can always tell what something’s worth, whether it’s dye from Yunmeng or paper from Gusu or a warhorse from Hualong. It’s too bad Huaisang has decided they need to shop in Dafan, though. Mingjue would enjoy it more if he wasn’t hyperaware of every single glance at either of them, if he wasn’t constantly scanning for the blazing sun or the double phoenix.
Huaisang leads Mingjue in a meandering pattern that eventually takes them towards a small house set away from the rest of the village. Mingjue doesn’t have Huaisang’s eye for the fine details of architecture, but he can tell the place is well built and well maintained, and the flourishes on the corners of the roof speak of money. It’s the kind of place a wealthy merchant family might keep as a winter residence, somewhere to stay when the trading season is over and they need shelter; only barely large enough for a three generation family, but that hardly matters if they only stay for a quarter of the year. From the outside it looks empty, and the gate is chained shut, but Huaisang produces a talisman from his sleeve and slaps it onto the lock. For a moment nothing happens – Mingjue readies himself for a tantrum – but then the talisman crumbles into black dust and the lock clicks open.
“Right this way,” Huaisang chirps, and pushes the gate open.
It’s autumn, so if Mingjue’s theory is correct, the place should be at its worst – dusty, cobwebbed, dank and musty from being shut up all year – but instead the house is clean and tidy when Huaisang opens the door. Mingjue frowns, and Baxia tenses against his back, ready to leap from her sheath.
“Don’t be like that, dage,” Huaisang says, and pouts at him. “I told you, it’s a useful surprise! You won’t need your sabre.”
“You can be somewhat hit and miss with your surprises, didi,” Mingjue says, and sets a hand on Huaisang’s shoulder, tugging him close to Mingjue’s side. “I’ll keep an eye out, just in case it’s another guai.”
“That was one time,” Huaisang says, aggrieved, and cracks Mingjue’s knuckles with a closed fan. “And you said you’d stop bringing it up!”
“No,” Mingjue says, “you said I’d stop bringing it up, and I asked if you thought that sounded likely.”
Huaisang puts his nose in the air and walks away, darting ahead of Mingjue and into the house.
There are already two people inside, sitting at a low table. Huaisang calls, “Wei-xiong!” and that’s all that saves them both from Baxia. Like her master, she isn’t fond of surprises; Mingjue catches her hilt as she tries to fly free and resettles her against his back.
“Introduce me to your friends, Huaisang,” he says, trying not to grit his teeth too much.
Both the men at the table stand and bow to him; Mingjue bows in return, though most of his attention is on keeping Baxia calm.
“So formal!” Huaisang chides. He flips his fan into the air and catches it, snapping it open when it lands in his hand. “Please, we’re all friends here, aren’t we? Dage, this is Wei-zongzhu – you may have heard him called Yiling Laozu – and this is his first disciple, Meng Yao.”
Wei-zongzhu wears a gleaming metal mask with small curling patterns around the side, almost shaped like the ornamental knots the taiga clans tie into their ropes. Meng Yao, when he pushes the hood of his cloak back from his face, is painfully young to be anyone’s first disciple – not that Mingjue can talk – and looks somewhat terrified to be in a room with not one but two members of the Nie clan.
“Chifeng-zun,” Yiling Laozu says.
His voice echoes like pebbles bouncing down a canyon. It might be intimidating on a battlefield, but in a comfortable little house it only sounds ridiculous. And there’s something else, something nagging at Mingjue’s attention, that he can’t quite place. He doesn’t probe it too closely, cautious of losing it entirely; if it’s important, it’ll come to him.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Mingjue says, “since my didi tells me we’re friends. Take off the mask.”
Yiling Laozu freezes and glances at Meng Yao. Meng Yao smiles. Mingjue can’t help but notice his dimples.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Meng Yao says, “the mask is—”
“It’s not a spiritual weapon,” Mingjue says. “It’s not doing anything to your cultivation at all. It hides your face and disguises your voice, which makes it hard to trust you, even though we’re friends. And,” he says, as his mind fits the last few pieces together, “the last time I saw a mask like that, someone else was underneath it.”
“Ah,” Yiling Laozu says. “Um.”
“I told you he’d figure it out,” Huaisang says, fanning himself. He looks like a cat with canary feathers on its chops, smugly satisfied. “Pay up, Wei-xiong.”
“Really? In front of your dage?” Yiling Laozu tilts his head slightly. Mingjue can’t see his face, but he gets the distinct impression of a raised eyebrow.
“Ah, perhaps not.” Huaisang hides behind his fan and glides over to the table. “Come and sit down, dage. Look, there’s tea.”
Mingjue kneels beside his didi and pauses, taking in the number of cups on the table. “Who else are we waiting on?”
“You’ll see,” Huaisang trills. “Wei-xiong, are you really going to keep the mask on?”
“Fine,” Yiling Laozu sighs, and removes the mask.
Underneath, he’s as young as Meng Yao, as young as Huaisang, hints of baby fat softening the curves of his face. Not as young as Mingjue was when he came to lead a sect, but young all the same, though considering how long rumours of Yiling Laozu have been drifting around in the world… Mingjue lets the thought float away and dips his head in acknowledgement. “I think you introduced yourself as Wei Ying, last time.”
There’s a soft clatter as the door opens again. Mingjue gets back to his feet, ready to greet whoever might be coming, and has just enough time to register Huaisang putting himself firmly between Mingjue and the people walking through the door before Baxia is in his hand, her battlesong roaring to life in his veins. All three of them are dressed in red Wen sect robes. Mingjue brings Baxia into guard, waiting to see which way they’ll break—
“Dage,” Huaisang says, soothing. “They’re – they’re not from Qishan. It’s all right.”
“Move, didi,” Mingjue growls.
Huaisang ignores him and pushes up onto his toes, arms spread wide, trying to fill Mingjue’s vision. “Dage, I promise, it’s all going to be fine. I did tell you it would be useful, remember? Don’t you trust your didi?”
Baxia falters – not by much, not for long, but enough that Mingjue can ease his grip on her hilt, lower her to his side. He sets the tip of her blade into a gap in the floorboards and leans his weight onto her, holding her down.
“All right,” he says, and nods at the leader of the Wens.
There’s no sign of the sunburst on her clothes, but there’s no doubt she’s a Wen, sharp-faced and sharp-eyed, imperious as she sweeps her gaze across the room. Her red robes are a few shades too dark to be bridal, and her golden guan curves in the shape of a stylised flame. The man at her left hand, the one in red, must be a sibling or close cousin; he has the same cheekbones, the same high forehead. The woman at her right has the kind of face Mingjue distantly recognises as classically pretty, her robes embellished with black embroidery that looks almost like the scales of a snake.
“Nie-zongzhu,” the leader says. “Wei-zongzhu.” She bows. It doesn’t seem to bother her that Nie Mingjue doesn’t move to return it. “My name is Wen Qing, courtesy Guijiao. By blood and honour, I am the rightful sect leader of Qishan Wen.”
Mingjue breathes in through his nose. He turns his head, careful to keep the Wens in view, and stares pointedly at Huaisang.
Huaisang blinks. “What? I said it was useful, not that you’d like it.”
When Baxia has been coaxed back into her sheath and Mingjue has been convinced to sit down again, Meng Yao pours them all tea. His eyes keep lingering on Mingjue, as though he’s waiting for Baxia to come out again. It’s fair enough, Mingjue thinks, although not exactly flattering.
“Wen… zongzhu,” Mingjue says, once they’ve all sipped enough to be polite, “I was under the impression your uncle was alive and in good health, and had at least two heirs running around on top of that.”
“Your impression is incorrect,” Wen Qing says. She speaks pointedly, although her face is carefully passive in a way Mingjue recognises from seeing Lan Xichen pull the same trick. “My uncle is not in good health. I must ask for your assistance, Chifeng-zun. I understand you also know the pain of losing a family member to qi deviation.”
Huaisang’s inhale sounds like a hiss.
The room is very still around them. Mingjue works his jaw soundlessly for a moment, considering. He could cut her insolent head off – no, that’s Baxia’s thought, not his. No one’s head needs to be cut off today.
“A qi deviation Wen Ruohan caused, yes,” he says. “If he is suffering from the same, that is only just.”
“Perhaps it is what he deserves,” Wen Qing says, “but is it what every living soul in Qishan deserves? Wen Ruohan will die by inches, and given the chance he will take the whole city with him, down to the newborn children. The people of Qishan are more than just Wen Ruohan and his sons, more than just the cultivators who fight under his banner. They are farmers, merchants, weavers, healers – ordinary people who only want to live, undisturbed by the foibles of the gentry. They do not deserve to be destroyed.”
She swallows with an audible click, fists clenched into fists at her side. It could be fear at facing Mingjue down, or it could be anger at the thought of what Wen Ruohan could do, left unchecked. Mingjue knows what it would be, if it was him.
Huaisang lifts his fan to cover his mouth, eyes darting from Wen Qing to Mingjue to zongzhu. Mingjue looks at Wen Qing’s companions. They both have the same kind of expression, combinations of tired and traumatised and numb.
“I’m sure Wen-zongzhu speaks truly,” Mingjue says eventually. “Just as there are innocents in Yiling and Qinghe who have already suffered at the hands of Wen raiding parties.”
“Yes,” Wen Qing says. “Those innocents are why I am here. Nie-zongzhu, Wen-zongzhu.” She straightens her back, just a little. When she looks at them, her gaze is cold and steady as a glacier. “Will you help me save them?”
QISHAN, DURING SUNSHOT
Buyetian Cheng is burning long before they arrive, though whether it’s overzealous archers of the Sunshot Campaign or fleeing citizens leaving their cooking fires unattended or a deliberate strategy by the Wen to deny them a favourable battleground, Lan Xichen cannot be sure. Mingjue would know, perhaps, but Mingjue is with his captains, speaking to them urgently even as they march towards the smoke and ash of their final battleground. The Jiang sect have split themselves among the forces – archers among the archers, melee fighters among the rank and file, with only the inner family remaining with the other commanders. Xichen suspects they would not even have that much, except that Yu Ziyuan’s spiritual weapon will not spare her allies if they are too nearby when she wields it, and so she could not join the soldiers. The Jin sect have, at the very last moment, sent a show of support: a single battalion, headed by Jin Zixuan, who is doing a poor job of hiding his terror.
The minor sects are ready, even eager. The only sect Xichen has not managed to spend time with is Yiling Wei; they, like the Jiang, have distributed themselves among the other sects.
After seeing what Yiling Laozu can do, newly roused from sleep with nothing but a flute in his hand, Xichen suspects they are already thinking of what will happen after the battle. Any sect who is saved by a Wei disciple acting alone will be grateful, and in awe of their power; any sect who witnesses the destruction the Wei disciples can wreak in unison will be terrified, and ready to cast them down in an instant.
Perhaps they should be ready to cast them down anyway – or, if not the Wei, then whoever becomes the next eminent sect. They have come so far, and it will all be for nothing if someone uses the opportunity to become another Wen Ruohan.
“Wangji,” Xichen says. His brother looks up at him immediately, though he does not speak. His brother has always been taciturn, but ever since their flight from Yunshen Buzhichu, he has been almost silent. Xichen clasps Wangji’s shoulder, squeezing hard. He has so many things he could say – things he wants to ask, requests he wants to make, things he could say. None of them will come to his mouth, so he settles for, “Don’t stray too far.” This is something he can ask as Wangji’s commander, as well as his brother; that is all he can allow himself for now.
“Yes, xiongzhang,” Wangji says. He turns his attention back to the road ahead of them.
“So formal!” One of the Wei disciples comes swaggering up out of nowhere, as if he’d appeared from the shadows. “You’re not even going to call him gege? We could all be dead in an hour, you know.”
It is probably not visible to the Wei disciple, but Xichen can see the flicker of absolute disgust across Wangji’s face. He allows himself to smile, just a little, as he intervenes.
“It will be more than an hour before we reach Buyetian Cheng, young master.”
“Doesn’t mean we won’t die within the hour,” the disciple points out.
Xichen begins to respond and hesitates, trying to pick out the face beneath the heavy hood. Too tall to be Meng-gongzi, and the voice had been too deep for Mo-guniang—
“Oh, right.” The disciple shoves the hood back and bares his teeth in a grin. “You can’t tell me apart from the others yet? I think I’m insulted.”
“I don’t believe I’ve met all of your sect siblings, Xue-gongzi,” Xichen says. He may be walking a fine line with regards to honesty; he is almost certain that the Wei sect only sent four disciples, but Wei-zongzhu’s attempts to obscure this have been so determined that Xichen cannot confirm it. Whether Wei-zongzhu is disguising the low number of trained cultivators in his sect or simply taking precautions against spies makes little difference. He is not hiding a much larger and more dangerous force, so Xichen will allow them their secrets. Because he is magnanimous, he will also allow Wei-gongzi to continue the flirtation he has engaged in with Wangji.
“Probably not,” Xue Yang says cheerfully, and falls into step beside Xichen. “Hey, Zewu-jun, how good are you with that sword? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you draw it, except for that one night ambush. You and Wei-zongzhu both go for the flute first.”
“I use the weapon appropriate to the battle at hand,” Xichen says. He has drawn Shuoyue far more often than he would have preferred in this campaign, fending off ambushes and night attacks where he had no time to gain the distance necessary to effectively wield Liebing.
“Xiongzhang is one of the greatest swordsmen of his generation,” Wangji says, in a misplaced but adorable show of loyalty. “He is the first-ranked young master of our generation.”
“Funny how no one from our sect made that ranking,” Xue Yang says, grinning wide. “Don’t you think your boy should’ve made the list, Hanguang-jun? Aren’t you offended on his behalf? Don’t you think he’s a fine young man?”
Wangji huffs and stalks away, although, Xichen notes, not so far that Xichen couldn’t call him back with a gesture. Xichen hides his laugh behind his sleeve for a moment. When he lowers his hand Xue Yang is directly in front of him, walking backwards as he stares at Xichen’s face.
“I want to fight you,” he says, low and intent. It’s a tone Xichen typically associates with an attempted seduction, not an invitation to spar. What he’s seen of Xue Yang tells him that perhaps the two aren’t quite distinct concepts for him. “The way you move, Zewu-jun. It’s a fucking crime you don’t have a sword in your hand and an enemy coming for you every hour of the day.”
The staggering disrespect with which Xue Yang treats Xichen alone out of the commanders might rankle from someone else. Xichen can’t quite keep himself from assuming it’s because Xue Yang likes him and has somehow selected him as worthy of Xue Yang’s informality, alone of all the Sunshot Campaign.
“I think that would leave me with very little time for conversation,” Xichen says.
Xue Yang barks out a laugh, practically skipping backwards to add a little distance between them before he allows Xichen to draw closer again. “You think I follow you around because of your conversation?”
“As you say,” Xichen says, aiming for wry modesty, “you’ve never seen me use my sword.”
“Zewu-jun,” Xue Yang says, delighted, “was that a joke? Was that a dirty joke? Was that a joke about your dick?”
“No one will ever believe you,” Xichen says, channelling all his inner serenity as Xue Yang cackles, practically doubling with mirth.
“I like you, Zewu-jun,” Xue Yang declares, and stops walking. Xichen does not pause; he’s about to walk past Xue Yang when Xue Yang leans up into his ear and hisses, “I’m going to take you apart, later.”
“You are welcome to try,” Xichen says, and keeps walking. He has not tied his sleeves back in anticipation of imminent battle, not yet; he is sure Xue Yang cannot see the way he flexes his fingers, as if even the brush of Xue Yang’s breath his jaw was enough to burn him.
The plan of attack against Buyetian Cheng has always been fluid, shifting as this spy or that delivered reports and information. Yiling Laozu had at least two informants who had actually been inside the Palace of Sun and Flames, one of whom remained in Wen Ruohan’s court, sending back invaluable information about troop movements and defences. No one else has managed to get a spy so close to Wen Ruohan himself.
“And how did you manage to get a spy so close?” Jin Zixuan asks. He looks sceptical, which Xichen can’t even really blame him for; it’s not the boy’s fault he’s been thrown here by his father, and not his fault that they’ve already had this question answered half a dozen times. It’s also not his fault that it’s too hot to be standing so close together, crowded around maps in a tent that does not allow so much as the faintest breeze in.
“I have an unfair advantage,” Yiling Laozu says in his echoing voice. His mask today has long lines drawing down from the eyes that almost give the impression of stylised tears. “You’ve been at war with Qishan for, what, six months? A year? Yiling Wei has been fending them off since the day the sect formed. Our spy entered the palace a very, very long time ago, and worked their way into the inner family’s confidence over time. They are above suspicion in a way anyone who arrived after the Sunshot Campaign formed cannot be.”
“We hope they will be rewarded for their dutiful service,” Xichen says, gentle but firm, to move the discussion along before Jin Zixuan can ask any more awkward questions. “Now, we should review the primary approach…”
The rest of the meeting doesn’t take long, but Xue Yang pops up just as Xichen is about to leave the other commanders behind and wraps a hand around his elbow. Xichen turns into it, using his body to shield them both from the eyes of the other sect leaders, and Xue Yang says, “Wei-zongzhu needs to talk to you and Nie Mingjue. Privately.” He bounces away again, grinning widely. “I still want that fight, Zewu-jun!”
“Save it for the Wen sect,” Mingjue says. “You can fight Zewu-jun later.”
“Chifeng-zun! You never struck me as the eat your vegetables before you can have dessert type,” Xue Yang says. “Are you feeling left out? Don’t you worry, zongzhu, I’ll fight you too, once I’m done—”
“Xue Yang,” Yiling Laozu says. He doesn’t snap or shout, but Xue Yang bows immediately and darts away again.
Xichen lingers as the other sect leaders trickle away, helping Mingjue gather up their maps and reports and put them back into order. Yiling Laozu departs briefly and returns with Wei Ying at his side. Xichen frowns. He had assumed Wei Ying would be the person under the mask at these kinds of meetings.
“Who’s under the mask today?” Mingjue asks, folding his arms.
Yiling Laozu removes the mask to reveal Mo Lihua, strands of her hair sticking to her sweaty forehead. She shoves the mask into her qiankun pouch and uses her sleeves to blot her face. “It’s so hot under there! I don’t know how anyone does it.”
“Practice,” Wei Ying says, and smirks at her, but his smile falls away quick enough. “We have a problem. Well, we have lots of problems, but this is a new and exciting problem.”
“Spit it out,” Mingjue grunts.
“Well,” Wei Ying says, “a friend in Lanling just sent word that Jin Zixuan’s sad little squad are not the only Jin sect soldiers on their way. There are several more Jin sect soldiers coming, under the command of – I don’t know, one of the obnoxious cousins—”
“Jin Zixun,” Mo Lihua says.
“Right, whoever that is, and then Jin Guangshan will be along after them if we win to swoop in and take the credit. And probably the obnoxious cousin will get us all killed by ruining the plans.”
“How interesting,” Xichen says. “I suppose this friend has also been your spy for some years?”
Wei Ying – Wei-zongzhu – shrugs. “I did them a favour. Now they’re paying me back in kind.”
Xichen looks at Mingjue, then back at Wei-zongzhu. “I suppose this changes things?”
“Not as much as you’d think,” Mingjue says, rubbing a hand over his chin. “Best not say too much, though. We’re hardly secure here—”
“Excuse me, Chifeng-zun – oh.” Jin Zixuan pauses halfway into the tent. “Wei-gongzi. Zewu-jun. And…”
“Jin-gongzi! Don’t let us interrupt,” Wei Ying says. “Mo-guniang and I were just leaving.” He bows and nudges Mo-guniang’s ribs until she does the same, although she rolls her eyes at him. “Thank you for your wisdom, Chifeng-zun, Zewu-jun.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Jin-gongzi,” Mo-guniang says. There’s something odd in her expression, something Xichen can’t quite decipher – envy, perhaps, or longing. Either might be caused by Jin-gongzi’s display of wealth and power, but it doesn’t feel right for any of the Wei disciples to be so drawn to those things, except perhaps for Meng-gongzi.
The Wei disciples leave. Xichen excuses himself and goes to tell his brother what he has learned.
Their plan changes twice more before they get to Buyetian Cheng proper, the advantage of avoiding Wen Ruohan’s best defences outweighing the risks of confusion among their own ranks.
In the end it’s Meng Yao, not Xue Yang, who comes with them on their mission of infiltration. Xue Yang looks disappointed when he tells Xichen this.
“I guess it’s only fair,” he mutters, flexing the hand with the heavy metal gauntlet. “Meng Yao is very sneaky. And I am very distracting.”
It takes Xichen more time than he cares to admit to realise that Xue Yang is speaking of their battle plans, in which he will aid in a large and noisy diversionary attack on the main gates, and not – anything else. Xue Yang, thankfully, doesn’t notice.
“He learned all this hit-and-run shit from us,” he grumbles instead, glaring down at the map Xichen has left for his commanders to view. “Now he’s using it against you. What, we’re not special anymore?” He looks in the direction of Buyetian Cheng, at the twelve-ridged roof of the tallest palace, and hollers, “I THOUGHT WE HAD SOMETHING, HANHAN!”
Xichen finds himself laughing behind his sleeve again, helpless to resist. Where the war has given Mingjue a taste for blood and Wangji impenetrable stoicism, all it has done to Xichen is ruin his restraint; he is quicker to laugh, quicker to weep, more likely to smile or joke or snap at someone than he was before death dogged all their footsteps. Xue Yang looks at him with something Xichen likes to imagine might be fondness and leans in close.
“I’ll see you again soon, Zewu-jun,” he says, barely an inch from Xichen’s face, and then he’s gone.
It takes Xichen a moment to regain his equilibrium.
A moment is all he has; he and Mingjue and Meng Yao slip away together in the chaos as their army begins to move. It feels almost dreamlike. Despite this being the culmination of almost a full year of blood and sweat and pain, it cannot possibly be happening.
“Zewu-jun,” Meng Yao says softly. “I have heard of the famous stoicism of the Lan, but if I may reassure you in any way…”
“My apologies, Meng-gongzi,” Xichen says. Mingjue looks slightly concerned; Xichen smiles at him. “My thoughts were elsewhere, and it has been sometime since I was in such illustrious company.”
“Is it Chifeng-zun or this humble disciple who has you so cautious?” Meng Yao asks.
“Both, of course,” Xichen replies, laughing; he is gratified when Meng Yao and Mingjue laugh with him.
“I am flattered,” Meng Yao says demurely, when they have recovered a little, “to be considered as fearsome as Chifeng-zun.”
The fearsome Chifeng-zun snorts. “Save the formality for after we’ve won this, would you?”
They fall silent after that, creeping closer to the tallest of palaces, winding through abandoned streets. Xichen hopes that is due to Mingjue’s much-vaunted backup plan, and not due to the slaughter of civilians. It is almost reassuring when the first patrol crosses their path.
He wields Shuoyue here by necessity; the streets are narrow, and Liebing would draw more attention down on them. Their goal is silence and stealth, and so none of these men can be permitted to live. Xichen can barely keep track of Mingjue and Meng Yao, their green and grey robes fading into the shadows as they move, though he can sense Baxia’s rising wrath – then another Wen soldier comes for him and he is fighting once more.
They dispatch that patrol, and almost immediately run into another, this time in a town square. Baxia cleaves through a statue and sends it crashing onto a trio of Wen soldiers too slow to get out of the way, and then Mingjue strides up to stand with Xichen, guarding his back. Meng Yao is nowhere to be seen until he is, his soft sword wrapping around a Wen neck and slicing so deeply the man is almost incapacitated in an instant. It’s gruesome, but effective; Xichen wonders if this is the way Xue Yang will fight when he is fully trained, the combination of subtle tricks and frank viciousness. Xichen kills another soldier and kicks the corpse away to engage the next, considering. They need to clear this square quickly, or the noise will draw more soldiers, and their attackers are too widely spread—
Mingjue takes the head off Xichen’s opponent as easily as most men swat flies, and then Meng Yao slips in like a vicious ghost and takes another soldier across the thigh to make him fall so the soldier behind him is revealed to Xichen, who stabs this new foe through the throat. There’s no time to think, no time to react, and react, and react, the three of them bloodied and sweating and gloriously alive in the middle of Buyetian Cheng, and then Mingjue roars behind him and only familiarity lets Xichen understand the command.
Xichen hits the ground gracelessly. Half a heartbeat later, Meng Yao does the same. Xichen braces himself on his fingertips, ready to spring back up, but there’s no need. Baxia flies from Mingjue’s hand, bisecting the two Wen soldiers Meng Yao had engaged before she curves away. Xichen cannot track her path from the ground, but the man he was fighting has fallen dead, a terrible gash opening him from thigh to armpit, and there is the sound of shouting, of tearing meat, and then of stillness as Baxia’s hilt slaps against Mingjue’s palm.
Meng Yao looks faintly shocked, although he smooths it back into a polite mask easily enough. Xichen is sure he looks no better as he rises to his feet.
Mingjue is panting, harsh gasps almost like growls, and his eyes are red. His spine is hunched forward, like a tiger hunched over a corpse. Xichen steps out of Baxia’s immediate range and reaches for Liebing, but Meng Yao strolls up to Mingjue, bold as a cat.
“Nie-zongzhu,” he says, “shall I tell you what Huaisang wrote about in his last letter to me?”
“What?” Mingjue barks, but his posture straightens a little, and the red recedes from his eyes. “What’s he trying to talk you into? I’ve told him—”
“Nothing like that, Nie-zongzhu,” Meng Yao says. He wipes a cloth along the blade of his soft sword, cleaning the blood away; the movement looks almost suggestive, although Xichen suspects he is reading too much into it. “He was telling me all about how ferocious his dage can be. I’m pleased to see it confirmed.”
Ah. So Xichen wasn’t reading too much into it after all. “Are either of you injured?” he asks instead, to avoid having to engage with… whatever that is.
“I’m fine,” Mingjue says. “Meng Yao?”
“I’m quite well,” Meng Yao says serenely, and sheaths his sword. “Shall we continue?”
QISHAN, DURING SUNSHOT
Mingjue would be more concerned about being captured if it hadn’t been firmly part of the plan from the beginning. They needed at least one cultivator in the palace, preferably two, and several weeks of nightly shouting matches had confirmed there wasn’t any other workable option. Buyetian Cheng is too well-defended for a straightforward assault, too well-supplied for a siege, and too heavily populated with civilians for many of the other options to be ethically viable.
So: they are captured.
It isn’t in Mingjue’s nature to sit idly by and let someone capture him, though, and Baxia doesn’t truly understand the nature of stealth or deception. She’s made to cleave through problems, not slip around them. Between the two of them, it’s possible they get a little carried away. By the time he’s forced to his knees in front of Wen Ruohan, he’s covered in blood – almost none of it his – and breathing hard, the red haze slowly receding from his vision. Some of it doesn’t recede right away, but when he shakes his head it turns out it was just blood trickling into his eyes, so that’s all right.
Lan Xichen is serene and graceful to his left; Meng Yao, to his right, is doing an excellent impression of someone who’s been cowed by a beating. Mingjue hopes it’s an impression, at least.
Wen Ruohan is standing on a dramatic set of stairs, one of his aides hovering by his side; a torturer, judging by the vicious dagger. The architecture is striking, Mingjue supposes – Huaisang would be better able to appraise it – but it looks impractical. If anyone wanted to start a fight on those stairs, every combatant would end up losing their footing and sliding down to the main floor on their backsides. What’s the point?
Wen Ruohan is looking at him expectantly. Mingjue works up a mouthful of blood and saliva and spits at him. “Wen dog,” he says. There might be blood in his ears; he is not catching much of what Wen Ruohan is saying. He rolls his head to one side, then the other, keeping his eyes on Wen Ruohan.
He must have knocked something loose because Wen Ruohan’s voice is suddenly making a lot more sense. “—what we do with traitors.”
That must be the torturer’s cue to come swishing down the stairs. Mingjue squints at them as two guards bring over a long, heavy box. Baxia is in the box, almost vibrating with rage. Mingjue doesn’t bother to quiet her, not that he gets a chance; the torturer sets a delicate hand on Baxia’s blade and crouches down in front of him, smiling sweetly.
She looks like an ordinary young woman, the kind Mingjue would see in any gentry family. Her garb is surprisingly plain for someone so clearly favoured by Wen Ruohan, although perhaps that’s just practicality. No sense in getting blood on your finery, after all.
“Are you injured, Nie-zongzhu?” she asks, very politely.
“Why should it matter, Wen-dog?” he growls in return.
Even on his knees, he looms over her. She doesn’t look worried; in fact, she leans in close to him, until her mouth is barely an inch from his ear.
“Because,” she says, so softly Mingjue isn’t sure he’s hearing her right, “I only have one chance to get one of you close enough to kill Wen Ruohan, and if you’re injured it’ll have to be one of the others. So: are you injured?”
Mingjue freezes. She draws away from his ear, and he tries to school his face into some sort of shock or horror or something, and then into a deeper frown when he realises he’s not doing a good job of that. The torturer smiles at him and giggles. “Doesn’t that sound fun?” she asks, in a much higher pitched voice than she’d used to speak into his ear. “Ah, Nie-zongzhu, we’re going to be intimate companions before you know it!”
Mingjue bares his teeth at her. “No, witch.” Hopefully, that answers her question. For good measure, he adds, “Whatever you do, you’ll never break the pride of Qinghe.”
He thinks Meng Yao might say something like, “Please stop trying to improvise,” but what does Meng Yao know? Mingjue is managing just fine.
“We’ll see,” the torturer purrs. To the soldiers, she says, “Get him on his feet.”
Mingjue is hauled up, and the torturer circles him, running her tiny hand across his chest, over his shoulders. She pauses behind his back, leaning around him to look up at Wen Ruohan.
“Wen-xiandu is so generous,” she purrs. There’s a sharp tug at Mingjue’s wrists and then a rush of pins and needles as his bindings loosen. The torturer is talking the whole time. “I will enjoy playing with this one. Will Wen-xiandu come and inspect my new toy?”
Wen Ruohan descends the stairs slowly, but it’s a dramatic kind of slowness, not the slowness of a man who thinks he might be walking into a trap – or, at least, Mingjue hopes it is. Now that he’s standing under his own power, he’s realising that perhaps he should have told the torturer he was injured. He must have taken a blow to the head somewhere in there because the hall is sort of spinning around him and he can’t quite keep track of what he’s supposed to do.
His hands are free, though, and Baxia is very close, and in a moment Wen Ruohan will be close enough to kill; that might be all he needs. Even Baxia might be optional. He could kill Wen Ruohan with his bare hands. Although she’d never forgive him for that—
The torturer slips out from behind him and circles Wen Ruohan instead, standing behind him, waiting. Wen Ruohan looks up at Mingjue’s face, smirking, and reaches a hand out—
Baxia’s hilt meets Mingjue’s palm and he brings her down in a hard one-handed chop – no room for anything else – but Wen Ruohan is fast, the fucker, and has his own blade between them in an instant, and then he’s trying to duel. Mingjue definitely has a head injury and he definitely can’t keep up with the lightning-fast exchange of blows – maybe not even at his best. Baxia covers him, guiding his arm, but he can already tell this is not a fight he can win. If Xichen was free, or Meng Yao with that sneaky soft sword of his, then maybe – and then Wen Ruohan breaks through Mingjue’s guard and a sword is coming for his chest. He accepts his death and brings Baxia down in a suicidal overhead strike, hoping to at least kill Wen Ruohan on his way out.
Wen Ruohan freezes halfway through his lunge. Baxia slices harmlessly into the floor beside him. Mingjue, panting, looks up.
The tip of a dagger is protruding through the front of Wen Ruohan’s throat. His eyes are wide, almost comically surprised. He makes a series of breathy choking noises – punctured trachea, Mingjue notes clinically, and from the way his limbs have all gone weak, the blade cut the spine as well – and then the blade withdraws back into his neck. He falls, and the torturer looks down at him with the kind of dispassion that really comes from shock.
“Huh,” Meng Yao says. “I thought that would go differently.”
“Finish him,” Mingjue manages to get out between wheezing breaths.
“Right,” the torturer says blankly. “Yes. Of course.” She crouches down and stabs Wen Ruohan in the throat a few more times. It’s a mess, but Wen Ruohan is dead at the end of it, and Mingjue can sink to his knees.
There’s a lot of shouting. Some of the soldiers come rushing over to attack them, only to find that the rest of the soldiers have formed a protective ring around them, and then all at once there’s a flurry of fighting. The torturer frees Meng Yao and Lan Xichen, and then Nie Mingjue might pass out for a while. He wakes up with his head in someone’s lap, cool fingers stroking his hair back from his brow.
“We get it done?” he asks, blinking up at the ceiling. Meng Yao’s face swims into view, followed by Lan Xichen’s, then the torturer’s.
“Yes, Nie-zongzhu,” Meng Yao says. “Wen Ruohan is dead. I must introduce you to my shimei, Wang Lingjiao; she has been an invaluable source of intelligence to our campaign and struck the killing blow.”
“Good job, meimei,” Mingjue says. Wang Lingjiao flushes and vanishes from his view. Meng Yao and Lan Xichen appear to be laughing at him, but Mingjue’s head really isn’t up to sorting that out. “I think I cracked my skull. Let me know when the new boss gets here.”
“She’s already on her way,” Lan Xichen says. He’s gripping Mingjue’s hand, which at least eliminates one of the possibilities for who is petting his hair, and feeding spiritual energy into Mingjue’s veins. Baxia’s hilt is in his other hand, purring happily; even without getting to taste Wen Ruohan’s blood, she could appreciate that revenge had been taken. The angry grumbling would come later, when Mingjue’s concussion wasn’t blunting her perceptions.
“Oh, good. I’m going to pass out again,” Mingjue says.
Meng Yao starts to say something, but Mingjue is unconscious too quickly to catch it.
YILING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Luanzang Gang takes Wangji to a room he has never been in before. He is not sure why it took so long for him to admit that Luanzang Gang was, in fact, directing him. It was clearly changing its shape, opening and closing doors as it pleased, herding him along in accordance with its own whims. Now, it takes him to an office.
It looks much like the offices of many of the Lan sect elders, except that there are three desks instead of one, and the filing system leaves much to be desired. A row of masks hangs along the back wall. Wangji recognises them. There is one with square markings and pointed edges that imitate a snarling mouth, which must belong to Xue Yang. There is one with delicate floral designs, which is clearly to Meng Yao’s tastes. There is one with long lines drawing down from the eyes, which by process of elimination must belong to Mo Lihua. Wei Ying’s mask, the one with curlicues around the eyes, is conspicuous in its absence; the empty hook in the middle of the row seems to glare at Wangji, as though accusing him of something. There are other masks, too, but these are unfamiliar. Wangji turns away from them and examines the rest of the room.
“What do you wish me to see?” he asks aloud. It is ridiculous to be speaking to an empty room, but the air shivers in response, and the low constant thud of qi in the back of Wangji’s mind intensifies for a breath, guiding him forward.
He looks down at the desk. It is covered in haphazard piles of correspondence. They relate to ordinary things; the cost of various vegetables, advice on irrigation, a recipe for soup. There is a half-drafted missive in a rushed hand, apparently in reply to the recipe. Wangji tilts his head to the side, reading.
… you are far too kind! I don’t know when we’ll next get our hands on pork or lotus roots to be honest, but when we do I will demand we use this recipe at once. The soil here is awful and the only things that grow reliably well are radishes and turnips. What I wouldn’t give for a single potato! We’ve had a little luck recently with soya but I don’t fancy eating like a Lan til the end of my days.
I know we had discussed a visit but I don’t think it’s wise just now. I’m used to having the entire cultivation world irritated with me, but our special guest has put it about that he’s been kidnapped, and now we’ve had Hanguang-jun turn up looking for him – I know the face you must be making, and you can just stop it – which I suspect means the jig will shortly be very much up. You know how these things can spiral! (Our guest has declared his intention to write you every single day to prove his devotion, by the by – let me know if that’s not your preference and I’ll bully him for you.) Anyway the point is I’m spending a lot of time getting ready to finally help poor Meng-furen and checking and re-checking our wards and avoiding the Second Jade, so let’s postpone until spring? Things will be easier by then, one way or another. In the meantime, I can send Wen-gege…
A foot scuffs against the floor, and Wangji raises his head. He knows it’s Wei Ying, even before he turns to look. Wei Ying has the mask in his hand. He looks tired. He should be tired – he has apparently committed an act of the most heinous blasphemy in the name of helping Meng-furen, to say nothing of the many deceptions he has committed.
“How long have I been here?” Wangji asks, in lieu of any of the other questions clamouring to be given voice.
Wei Ying shrugs, as though he is helpless. “Time doesn’t mean the same thing here. In theory, you could go back into the world not even an hour after you left it.”
“I could leave before Mingjue arrives, then,” Wangji says. “Surely that would cause complications.”
“That’s why I said in theory.” Wei Ying turns the mask over in his hands, looking down at it. “I started wearing this because of those complications, you know. There wasn’t exactly a good way to explain – well, the point is that by the time I didn’t need it anymore, the mask was part of the story, and…” He sighs, looking at Wangji, rueful. “I liked being able to take it off.”
“You liked being able to fool people,” Wangji says. “You liked being able to deceive them, to spy on them—”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, how can you say that?” Wei Ying has the temerity to look wounded, as though Wangji has wronged him by calling him a liar. “I always meant to tell you, but – I liked how you looked at me when you thought I was just another disciple. No one looks at me the same way when they realise they’re looking at Yiling Laozu.”
Wangji wants to speak. He wants to ask how many Yiling Laozus he has spoken to, why Wei Ying began to allow his disciples to wear the mask, whether Wangji has ever seen even a fraction of the real person beneath it – but he is afraid that if he is not careful, Wei Ying will offer up some explanation which will sound reasonable enough that Wangji will forgive him.
He cannot allow himself to forgive Wei Ying. He has been unpardonably foolish already. He cannot afford any leniency now.
Wei Ying shifts restlessly, gives up on waiting for Wangji to speak, and admits, “I don’t know what to say. I – surely you have questions?”
“I would have you explain first,” Wangji says, flat and cold as he can make himself. It is not an easy thing to be, not with Wei Ying, who has somehow wormed his way into Wangji’s heart for all that Wangji barely knows him at all. Is that, too, some artefact of the Wei sect’s powers? Is that some demonic curse which Wangji must purge from himself?
“Right,” Wei Ying says, and laughs. Not humour; nervous energy, vibrating through him, showing in the way his hands tremble faintly. He clutches the mask. “There’s… there’s a lot, and we – well, I mean, we have time for it all, but you probably have priorities—”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says – do not interrupt, whisper half-a-dozen elders in the back of his mind, but if he does not make an exception Wangji may never learn what he wishes to know – “who is Yiling Laozu?”
“That depends,” Wei Ying says. “If you mean the figure of folklore who snatches children from their beds and makes bargains that always turn out badly for the asker, nobody. If you mean who’s been running around wearing a mask at all the war councils lately, well, that’s been – most of us. Me, Meng Yao, Xue Yang, and Mo Lihua, mostly, but there are others – I don’t think you’ve met them. If you’re asking who founded the Yiling Wei sect, then… that would be me. More or less.”
Wangji wants to repeat more or less back to Wei Ying, if only to let Wei Ying hear how empty it sounds. “You are Wei-zongzhu.”
Wei Ying winces. “I… yes. If we are being very literal, then yes, I am.”
There are so many questions simmering in Wangi’s chest, ready to boil over if only Wei Ying gives them an excuse. Why the deception? Did it amuse you, to make a fool of me? Do you know what I would have given up for you? Wangji swallows through the burn and waits.
“The thing you have to understand,” Wei Ying says, slow and careful, “is that Luanzang Gang are – they’re not – they’re – I can’t say they’re alive, not exactly, but the resentment – they’re almost like a fierce corpse, in some ways. They can act, or react, maybe… I’m not explaining this at all well. I mean, I suppose it doesn’t matter, except that when I was younger I hadn’t learned the trick of it. Every time I left Luanzang Gang to find food, or even just to get away from all this, I would look…” Wei Ying waves a hand vaguely at his face. “Different. And people, well, when you’re emerging from the fog around a place they know is haunted by restless spirits, they see what they want to see, and Meng Yao says that’s probably how the rumour that I took the form of people’s dead loved ones started?”
You don’t sound sure, Wangji does not say. Wei Ying sounds like a student in a class too advanced for him, fumbling for answers. It is… disconcerting, perhaps, to know that the master of Luanzang Gang is as blind to their nature as any outsider.
“And so, I started wearing the mask, just so people who saw me leaving wouldn’t think I was their dead loved ones, but then it only took two or three trips for people to start saying Yiling Laozu always wears a mask, and then one time I was sick and Meng Yao had to go out for us, and he wore the mask, and people treated him like he was me, and we realised…” Wei Ying sighs. “We didn’t do it very much until Wen Ruohan started trying to kill me. That was when it was really useful, to be in several places at once. To make sure no one really knew who Yiling Laozu was underneath the mask.”
Wei Ying steps forward and Wangji jerks back, out of his reach. His fingers flex around Bichen, but Wei Ying doesn’t come any closer. He just stands there, arms held out by his sides, mask dangling from his fingers.
“It’s just me, Lan Zhan,” he says. “It’s – except for when it’s Meng Yao or whoever, I mean. I can’t – I don’t – I’ve never said anything to you I didn’t mean,” Wei Ying finishes in a desperate rush, the words falling over each other as he hurries through them. “I told you, in the forest, that I wanted you to know, to understand, before—”
Wangji turns away, unwilling to let Wei Ying see him flinch. He closes his eyes against the tidal surge of tenderness that threatens to overcome him, against the pain that thought brings. Wei Ying had tried to warn him, after a fashion. It does not make this betrayal hurt any less. Perhaps, in time, Wangji will be able to appreciate the consideration. It does not feel likely at this moment.
“Please, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. Wangji cannot look at him, but he does not need to; he can imagine Wei Ying’s face, eyes wide, mouth parted, cheeks faintly flushed with the intensity of his feelings unless they have gone pale with anxiety. “I wanted to tell you, but your own sect forbids you from lying, and this is – it’s not an easy secret to keep. I didn’t want to put you in that position—”
“No,” Wangji says. It’s all he can manage. Perhaps Wei Ying thinks what he is saying is true, but Wangji knows better. Those are Meng Yao’s careful words, coming from Wei Ying’s mouth.
“Well—” Wei Ying cuts himself off, makes a noise of frustration. “Is it such a bad thing that I liked how you looked at me when you didn’t know? Is it such a bad thing that I wanted to know you as an equal, to be two young masters together, comrades in arms? That I didn’t want to ruin it all by telling you where I was, all those times you couldn’t find me? I’m selfish, Lan Zhan, I’m selfish and spiteful and greedy and – and if I weren’t I would never have survived here. I’m too selfish to ever give you up if I knew I could have you.”
Wangji swallows hard around the knot in his throat. He can only be still. He can only be calm. If he is anything else, he cannot be sure what he will do.
The silence stretches between them, thick as tar.
“Fine,” Wei Ying says, weary. “Fine. Be that way. Do whatever you like.”
“Am I no longer a prisoner?” Wangji asks tightly, shoulders hunching despite his best efforts.
“You have never been a prisoner.” Wei Ying might want to fight with him, but his voice doesn’t show it. He just sounds… tired. “You have always been able to come and go as you please. You only need someone to guide you through the fog. Anyone will take you if you ask them. If you decide to go.”
There’s a clatter and the rustle of fabric. Wangji doesn’t dare to look back, but he does not need to; he already knows Wei Ying has left, even before his spine thaws enough for him to look at Yiling Laozu’s mask, abandoned on the desk.
QISHAN, AFTER SUNSHOT
When Wangji enters the banquet hall, walking at his brother's right hand, Jin Guangshan and Nie Mingjue are facing each other down over the throne that had once belonged to Wen Ruohan. The pair of them look like a metaphor, gold and dark grey, one sleek and shining, the other still showing signs of recent hard fighting.
Wen Ruohan had died at the foot of the stairs they stand on, according to Xichen, finished by Nie Mingjue in concert with one of the Yiling Wei disciples. By the time the fighting stopped and the corpse had been taken away, Wen Ruohan’s blood had spread in a wide pool, so thick in places it resembled a silk bridal veil. The servants have done their best, but Wangji can still see brown smears on the stone where the stains have set in.
Whatever standoff Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangshan are having resolves; neither of them sit in the throne. Instead, each returns to their sects, Jin Guangshan disgruntled, Nie Mingjue implacable. Wangji casts an eye over the other attendees; Yiling Wei, Yunmeng Jiang, Baling Ouyang, Yueyang Chang, Laoling Qin, and a dozen other sects he has fought alongside are all seated in neat rows down the hall, but there is still a block of empty tables near the front of the hall, beside the Nie delegation.
The banquet itself is of a kind Wangji was not required to endure during the long months of the Sunshot Campaign, and did not miss during that time. He knows how it will go. The Jin sect, who suffered almost no losses and won no victories at all, will congratulate themselves loudly and at length, raising cup after cup of wine, becoming more and more raucous with each toast. The other major sects will make the effort to make toasts to each other, and to the minor sects under their banners, but trying to stem the tide of exaggerations and outright lies from the Jin is like trying to catch a koi fish bare-handed; possible, but unpleasant, and likely to end with someone in the mud.
Wangji has resigned himself to the night following this path, but before the food is brought out, the Jin sect falls silent, and Jin Guangshan stands.
"We have important matters to discuss," he said. "First—”
“Thank you, Jin-zongzhu,” Nie Mingjue says, in his battlefield voice, the one that fills any space and yet somehow does not sound like a shout. “We should make the announcement." He turns and gestures to the doors to the hall, which are opened by two Nie disciples.
A new delegation enters.
They are led by a woman in vivid red robes, wearing a golden guan in the shape of a flame. Wangji recognises her, and one of the men with her; Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who had attended the last lecture series at Yunshen Buzhichu before war broke out.
“Have you met Wen-zongzhu,” Nie Mingjue rumbles. It is not phrased as a question.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Wen Qing says, and bows, first to Nie Mingjue, then to the sects. Her entourage bows with her, and the seated sects ripple like a breeze through long grass as they hurry to return it.
“Join us,” Nie Mingjue says, and Wen Qing sweeps to the front of the hall. Her entourage take up the empty tables beside Nie Mingjue. Wen Qing herself does not take up Wen Ruohan’s throne; instead, a servant hurriedly sets down tables at the foot of the stair, and Wen Qing and Wen Ning sit there instead. Wangji is not well-versed in decoding these gestures, but this one is obvious. Wen Qing has taken her place at the head of the hall, as the acknowledged ruler of Buyetian Cheng and the Qishan Wen sect, but has shunned the throne from which Wen Ruohan attempted to rule the world.
Of course, Nie Mingjue is the only one who has acknowledged her as Wen-zongzhu. Whether other sects follow suit is still a matter of concern.
“Wen-zongzhu,” Xichen says, “I am glad to see you well.”
“Yes, Wen-zongzhu,” Yu Ziyuan says loudly from the head of the Jiang delegation. “My daughter tells me your assistance with the hospital was a gift beyond price.”
“Yiling Wei owes you a debt of gratitude, Wen-zongzhu,” Yiling Laozu says in his ethereal voice.
That is apparently the tipping point; the minor sects swiftly begin to call out their greetings, their gratitude, speaking over each other with all etiquette forgotten. Even Pingyang Yao, whom Wangji recalls as calling for the heads of every Wen civilian not two weeks ago, is clamouring their support. The noise does not recede until Wen Qing – Wen-zongzhu – raises her hand.
“In turn,” she says, sharp and clear as cut glass, “I must thank you all for the aid you have rendered to Qishan Wen, in removing a despot and allowing the restoration of the Wen bloodline. In particular, I must thank Yiling Wei, who sheltered my family when Wen Ruohan would have destroyed them, and Qinghe Nie, for their leadership of the campaign. Now, it has been a long day, and I don’t wish to keep you from the feast.”
She drops her hand, and a number of servants sufficient to conquer a small village descend on the tables. There is very little conversation over the clatter of jugs and platters, so Wangji is free to turn and stare hard at his brother. Xichen looks back at him placidly, except for the twitch at the corner of his mouth.
“Wen-zongzhu is very impressive,” Xichen says blandly. “We have been corresponding since her attendance at the summer lectures.”
“I see,” Wangji says. He glances at Wen-zongzhu, who is leaning towards the woman at her right hand, whispering into her ear. “I was not aware she was in the line of succession.”
“She was not considered to be until Wen Chao, Wen Xu, Wen Liang, Wen Budun, Wen Rou, Wen Nuan, Wen Hepai, Wen Shu, Wen Gehua, Wen Cun, Wen Huo, Wen Chadian, and Wen Hexing had died,” Xichen says. Wangji knows his brother well enough to hear that he has been practicing the recitation of names. “Wen-zongzhu’s grandmother was next in line at that point, and I understand that Wen-zumu is quite elderly, and currently caring for the Dafan Wen refugees; she did not wish to accept her inheritance. Is it not fortunate that Wen-zongzhu was willing?”
“Mn,” Wangji says. He is saved from further conversation by Jiang Fengmian offering a toast to Wen-zongzhu.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Every room in Buyetian Cheng is vast. Every single sound echoes. No footstep, no whisper, not so much as a rustle of fabric can occur without being audible to everyone in the room, and yet the Yiling Wei sect, when they leave, leave in silence.
Wangji watches them go. The Sunshot Campaign could have been a bloodbath, a scar on the face of Wangji’s generation, crippling those sects which were not wiped out altogether. Instead, thanks in no small part to Yiling Wei, they had survived it largely intact. Their combination of spy craft and heretical magic had saved thousands of lives. No one had been without losses, but there was no question that it could have been much worse.
As a pair of Jin cultivators open the doors for Yiling Wei, a blanket of thick fog rolls into the hall from the outside. The Wei disciples, walking in a single neat line, vanish into the mist one after another. It is still impossible for Wangji to say how many there are. Yiling Laozu, instead of leading them, follows behind. He pauses at the doors and sweeps a final gaze over the hall; Wangji is sure Yiling Laozu’s eyes linger on him for a moment, though there is no way to be sure, not with his face hidden behind his mask. Yiling Laozu tosses his dizi into the air so it spins, end over end, before it lands silently in his palm, and vanishes into the fog after his disciples.
Wangji is about to turn away when a voice comes from the fog.
Wei Ying all but flies towards him, ignoring the shouts of the cultivators trying to close the door, and nearly crashes into Wangji’s chest before he manages to steady himself. He beams up at Wangji, and Wangji smiles down at him, caught helpless in Wei Ying’s gaze.
“I just – I wanted to say—” Wei Ying takes a deep breath and holds it, eyes closing, as if he needs to centre himself before he can speak. When his eyes open again, he grips both of Wangji’s hands in his, and speaks in a tumbling rush. “I really want to see you again, and I know people are going to say terrible things about my sect, and I know Luanzang Gang isn’t anyone’s idea of a vacation, but…”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, when it appears Wei Ying has run out of breath. “If I can visit you, I will.”
“Good! Good.” Wei Ying sways forward, and for a moment Wangji wonders if Wei Ying might – but then he just grabs the jade rabbit hanging from Wangji’s belt and presses it into Wangji’s palm, wrapping both their hands firmly around it. “Don’t forget me, Lan Zhan.”
“I could never,” Wangji says.
“Lying is forbidden.” Wei Ying grins at him. “So my Lan-er-gege must be telling the truth! I’m a lucky man.”
Wangji swallows down the things he wishes he was brave enough to say, and squeezes Wei Ying’s hands hard. “You will remember me as well,” he says, and hopes that saying it will make it true.
“How could I ever forget?” Wei Ying leans forward and presses his forehead to Wangji’s sternum for the briefest moment before he springs backwards. “I’m sorry, they’re leaving, I have to go—”
“Go,” Wangji says. “I will see you soon.”
“You will!” Wei Ying waves at him, jogging backwards until he nearly trips over his own robes and has to scramble to catch himself. After that, he turns and vanishes into the mist, flitting away like a bird.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Hours later, Nie Mingjue wakes all of Buyetian Cheng with his howl of rage.
“Where is Huaisang? Where is my brother?”
Content warning: This chapter features heavily implied grooming and references to an offscreen sexual relationship between an adult and a thirteen year old (thus the "Jin Guangshan is his own content warning" tag). There's nothing explicit or graphic, but reader discretion is advised.
A LONG TIME AGO
Mo Yu was thirteen years old when she met Jin Guangshan for the third time.
Mo Yu was seven years old when she met Jin Guangshan for the first time. She didn’t remember it well.
She had been playing in the garden, and then she was handed over to the maids, who had scrubbed her and dried and wrapped her up in a fine pink silk gown that had belonged to Mo Lang first, too large for Mo Yu by far. There was a lot of clever rolling and pinning of sleeves and hems that meant Mo Yu would have to stand very, very still, or else she would prick herself on the pins. Then there was a lot of very painful hair combing and styling, which Mo Yu was determined not to cry through, even though it really hurt.
Then she and Mo Lang were ushered into the main hall, where a lot of grown-ups were meeting, and one of those grown-ups was Jin Guangshan.
She knew Jin Guangshan was the leader of his sect because her father had said so, but she thought she would have known anyway. He was wearing golden silk and so much jewellery it made Mo Yu wonder how he walked without tripping over it or sounding like a hundred bells chiming. His eyes passed over her as though she wasn’t even there, and lingered instead on Mo Lang, which Mo Yu didn’t find strange. Her sister was fifteen, nearly ready for a marriage, and a lot of men looked at her.
“Mo-guniang,” Jin Guangshan said. He glanced at Mo Yu again. “Mo-er-guniang. A pleasure to meet you.”
Mo Yu bowed as she’d been told. Some of the other grown-ups said hello to them, but mostly they talked to each other, and then a servant led Mo Lang and Mo Yu back to their own room.
Mo Yu was fifteen years old when she understood that her sister hated her.
Mo Yu was nine years old when her sister was betrothed. She was told that this was a wonderful thing; since their father had no sons, Mo Lang’s fiancé would marry in, and Mo Yu would have an older brother. That was a distant implausibility to Mo Yu. She only understood the things she could see. Her father’s face, gone cold and hard. Her mother, feverish, arguing passionately for Mo Yu, demanding a better future. Her father’s wife, lashing out at Mo Yu’s mother, at the servants, even at Mo Lang.
Mo Yu was fourteen years old when she gave birth to her son.
One day – as soon as A Shan put his shrew of a wife in her place – her son would be Jin Ziyu, the second young master of Lanling Jin, dressed in fine silks and given the finest education anyone could wish for. For now, she called him Mo Xing, with a character her jiejie told her meant intelligence, wishing for him to inherit his father’s mind; it was already clear he would inherit Mo Yu’s looks. For the sake of propriety, she smiled and agreed when her father proposed Xuanyu as his future courtesy name, but nobody called him that – not A Xing, not Xingxing, not Xuanyu, and certainly not Ziyu. He had been flushed dark red when he was born, curled up tight like a seed, and so wrinkled the midwife had proclaimed him a grandfather before his time, and so everybody called him Xiaodou Yeye. It was a fitting nickname; her father doted on his first grandchild with all the reverence due to the most venerable of elders, and her mother was no less smitten. Her father’s wife disapproved, but what could she do? Even Mo Lang grudgingly conceded he looked well enough, for a baby, though she refused to hold him.
Privately, Mo Yu thought her jiejie was jealous that Mo Yu had been the first to bear a son, and the son of the finest man in the world, no less, even if Mo Yu wasn’t technically his concubine yet. But that was all right. Mo Lang would understand when she was a mother herself.
A Shan had not been able to be there for his son’s hundred-day ceremony. He had been so busy ever since she fell pregnant, rushing from Qishan to Qinghe for sect business, and she missed him, despite the letters they exchanged. She tried not to speak too much of her own life when she wrote back to him. She was the daughter of her father’s concubine; she had no real education, no particular talents in any of the artistic pursuits, no knowledge of cultivation or politics or any of the things that concerned A Shan. She could only tell him how much she missed him, how proud she was to be his, how fervently she longed for him to return.
She had not realised how small her existence was until A Shan had shown her, and it shamed her now in a way it never had before.
Mo Yu was ten years old when she met Jin Guangshan for the second time.
She could hear servants running and shouting dimly over the storm that raged outside. Despite the awful weather, Mo Yu was receiving instruction in etiquette and proper deportment from her older sister; this was usually conducted in one of the pavilions, but with the weather so bad, they could not leave the main hall. It would only ruin their clothes.
Normally, any visitor was announced by the creaking of the heavy manor gate, but the thunder and wind must have drowned it out; the first they knew of their guests was someone pounding at the door to the hall.
“How lucky,” Mo Lang said, dry and sharp in the way she had been ever since she turned seventeen and decided that being dry and sharp was what grown-ups did. Mo Yu always had to try not to roll her eyes when her jiejie spoke that way. “A chance to practice. Go and answer the door, A Yu.”
Mo Yu stood up, made sure all her robes were in order, and hurried to the hall door. It was huge and heavy, and two servants had to come and help her open it; she bowed immediately, stepping aside so the cultivators could come in, and looked up at the most splendid man she’d ever seen.
Jin Guangshan was dressed in gold, as he always was, but instead of the sweeping robes of a sect leader attending a formal affair, these were cut close to his body, strapped tightly at wrists and waists with bands of worked leather; functional gear, for all it was soaked through, the kind cultivators wore to night hunt. He robes clung to his body, and his long dark hair, which had been loosely braided back, was escaping in little curling tendrils that clung to the sides of his neck. He smiled down at her, rich brown eyes filled with warmth.
“Mo-er-guniang! You’ve grown since I last saw you.”
“Ah,” Mo Yu said, and then hastily bowed again. “Th-this humble servant is honoured to, to be, um, remembered by Jin-zongzhu—”
“No need for that, little one,” Jin Guangshan said, and lifted her out of her bow. He crouched down in front of her, his hands still wrapped loosely around her wrists, studying her face. “You must be, what, twelve? Thirteen? Nearly a woman.”
“This one is ten, zongzhu,” Mo Yu said. She felt unaccountably shy; her cheeks burned, and she wanted to look away, but at the same time she never wanted Jin Guangshan to stop looking at her.
“Only ten? And such a beauty already.” Jin Guangshan smiled and brushed a thumb over her cheekbone. “Your future husband will be a lucky man, Mo-er-guniang. If you’re so pretty now, imagine what you’ll look like in a year or two?”
“This one is – is very—” Mo Yu was flustered, more than anything else, but there was a word she wanted, the appropriate thing to say here, and something she could not recall. “Um, grateful to Jin-zongzhu for the compliment. Please, come in.”
Jin Guangshan stands and takes her hand, leading her into the hall at the head of a procession of Jin cultivators, all in practical versions of their usual gleaming finery. Mo Lang folded her arms and gave Mo Yu a hard stare, and Mo Yu realised she’d skipped several steps in the courtesies and greetings.
“Um, ah, what brings Jin-zongzhu to our humble home?” she tried. Mo Lang’s glare did not diminish, but it did not intensify either, so Mo Yu would take it.
“We were returning from a hunt and a storm rolled in,” Jin Guangshan said, smiling down at her. “Then that storm blew up out of nowhere, and we had to land. Mo Village was conveniently nearby, and I remembered the excellent hospitality of your household. I am pleased to see I was right to come here.”
He looked up at Mo Lang and smiled at her. Mo Yu couldn’t see much of his face, only the underside of his jaw and the curve of his cheek, but she thought he looked at Mo Lang with less warmth than he looked at Mo Yu, and that made something mean and ungenerous in her belly purr in satisfaction.
One of the servants had sensibly gone to fetch her father and his wife, and a series of hasty arrangements was made to accommodate the Jin sect. Mo Yu was instructed to stay out of the way and did so with poorly disguised bad grace. She thought she saw Jin Guangshan laughing as she left, and lingered in the hallways behind the great hall, hoping to hear him speak of her.
“Your second daughter,” Jin Guangshan said casually to her father. “Have you found a betrothal yet?”
“Ah, not yet. She’s too young to know how her temperament will be.” Her father laughed. “If we had an offer, of course, we would consider it, but…”
“She looks mature for ten,” Jin Guangshan said. Mo Yu bit her lip and flushed, even though he hadn’t said it to her; she was mature for ten, far wiser than even some of the older girls who served in the manor, and it frustrated her that no one ever saw it. Jin Guangshan had seen it.
“She’s had her first blood,” her father said, which made Mo Yu flush for an entirely different reason, mortified. “But my mother always said it wasn’t good to judge by these things. A child can be mature in body and not in mind. Look at Nie-zongzhu’s eldest; tall as a tree, but the tantrums he throws!”
Jin Guangshan laughed, and after that the pair of them turned to gossiping about the children of all the cultivation sect leaders. Mo Yu went back to her room. She felt like she was floating, like she’d won something without even knowing what it was. Not even the discovery that Mo Lang had poured glue over her bed and ruined all of her linens could sour her mood.
Mo Lihua was fourteen when she heard a new story of the Yiling Laozu.
She’d grown up on the same story everyone heard, the one of a wicked creature in Luanzang Gang who cultivated the path of be careful what you wish for and preyed on children and widows, told right alongside the tale of the cowherd and the weaver and the story of Lady Meng Jiang. At thirteen, she’d thought herself too old and too wise to listen to stories any longer, but she was a mother now, and she ought to remember them for the sake of her future child.
One of the many minor sects Mo Village traded with was visiting, and Mo Lang had given Mo Yu firm instructions to make herself and her scandalous belly scarce, so Mo Yu sat under a tree and fanned herself. Ever since she had reached the fourth month of her pregnancy, her whole body felt too warm and sweaty, and then there were the various aches and discomforts on top of that. She had hoped to rest in the shade, and perhaps find some relief from a cool breeze, but the air was unrelentingly still. Instead, she found unexpected company; one of the finely dressed women from the sect delegation almost literally stumbled across her.
“I beg your pardon, Mo-guniang,” the woman said, and bowed. “Please, don’t get up on this one’s account.”
Mo Yu, who had been about to start struggling to her feet, relaxed back against the tree trunk with a grunt. “Are you a mother yourself, furen?”
“Yes, Mo-guniang, to a daughter.”
Mo Yu patted the ground beside her. “Then we are about to be sisters, or so the midwife keeps telling me. You should call me Mo Yu, anyway.” It had been nearly a year since Mo Lang’s wedding made her Mo-er-furen, and Mo Yu in turn became Mo-guniang, no longer second to anyone; it was still strange to hear. Better to offer her name.
The woman sat down beside her, a great deal more gracefully than Mo Yu could manage in her current condition. “Then, since we are to be sisters, you must call me Fu Xiang, or Xiang-jiejie, if you prefer.”
For the first little while, Fu Xiang doesn’t mention pregnancy or motherhood at all. Mo Yu allows her new jiejie to guide the conversation, through art and poetry and sect news. The Mo family were merchants, not cultivators, and Mo Yu knows they won’t ever be made a sect, but cultivators were the keystone of all Mo Village’s trade and knowing enough of the latest gossip to flatter a sect leader or offer aid to a young master in a delicate situation could be the difference between a favourable contract and a contract not worth the bamboo it was inscribed on.
It wasn’t until they’d exhausted the topic of the many daughters of Ouyang-zongzhu that Fu Xiang said, very gently, “My apologies, Yu-meimei, but for my own peace of mind, I must ask. Your child…”
Mo Yu ran her hand over the swell of her belly. “Yes. Quite the scandal, I’m afraid! My poor—” She stopped, and blushed. She had been about to name A Shan, and she knew she ought not. Bad enough that she had gotten pregnant while they were still waiting for the right time for A Shan to make an offer for her. If she had somehow been able to keep this from happening until she was a formal concubine… but A Shan loved her, and she loved him, and she couldn’t regret sharing that with him. She could only mitigate the damage and guard his reputation until the formal contract could be completed.
“Were you willing?” Fu Xiang asked, still in that gentle voice.
Mo Yu looked at her, frowning slightly. She wasn’t sure she understood the question. “I… yes. I wish I had known more or been patient! But – yes, I was willing.”
Fu Xiang frowned too, studying Mo Yu’s face. “All right. And the – the gentleman in question. Will he take responsibility?”
“Oh, yes,” Mo Yu said. She fished in her sleeve and produced the pearl A Shan had given her, a gleaming white ocean pearl, far more precious than anything fished up from a river. “He gave me this as a token. He was called away on – on business, but as soon as he can come back, and as soon as the time is right, he will take me as a concubine.”
“I see,” Fu Xiang said. Her eyes were fixed on the pearl Mo Yu held. “Yu-meimei, I think I had better tell you a story. I hope you will not need it.”
Mo Yu was fifteen when she arrived in Luanzang Gang. The man who guided her in took off his mask and looked at her with eyes that Mo Yu knew in her soul, rich brown.
“You,” she said, aghast. “You’re – a Jin?”
“My name is Meng Yao,” he said, “but Jin Guangshan is my father, yes.”
Mo Yu held Xiaodou closer to her chest, trembling. “Have you brought me here to harm my son?”
“No! No, I told you the truth.” Meng Yao gestured at the silent forest, the still, deserted landscape. “It’s a strange place, but it is safe. For both of you.”
Mo Yu swallowed hard. “So – so Yiling Laozu – all this time—”
“Oh, he’s not usually Yiling Laozu,” said a cheerful voice. Mo Yu whirled to see a boy, perhaps a few years older than her, with a wide smile and hands covered in ink. “I was just in the middle of something, and you were upset. We didn’t want to keep you waiting!”
“So… you are Yiling Laozu,” Mo Yu said, frowning.
“I am, but you can call me Wei Ying.” He waved at her. “And who are you?”
“I… my name is…” Mo Yu’s jaw worked as she tried to stifle the faint nausea that came with it. “Mo Yu.”
“Hmm,” Wei Ying said, and frowned at her. “You know, with you and Xue Yang, we have enough people to be a cultivation sect now.”
“We really don’t,” Meng Yao murmured.
“And that means,” Wei Ying said, genially ignoring Meng Yao, “we all get courtesy names! My parents already told me mine would be Wuxian, but if you don’t have one, I can give you one right now. Both of you – actually, all three of you—” He raised his voice and called, “Yang’er! Get over here!”
“I believe what Wei Ying means to say,” Meng Yao said, “is that if you prefer to be addressed by another name—”
“Nope, too late, that’s in the past,” Wei Ying said, as another boy, younger than Mo Yu, came scrambling out of the cave. “We’re forming a sect now. You’re the eldest, Meng Yao, you can have yours first.”
“I would rather not,” Meng Yao said.
“Now, your mother’s name is Shi, like the Shijing, and she’s obviously responsible for all your best attributes,” Wei Ying said, “so I want to honour her in your name, but we can’t go around naming you after her, that’s bad luck, so obviously we have to use the Jing from Shijing, and when you first came here – oh, wait, no, you know, technically – hmm.” He folded his hands behind his back and began to pace, the way the monks who occasionally came to the manor to lecture the Mo daughters would. Mo Yu cradled her son’s head with one hand and watched, baffled. “All right, so, Meng Shi’s courtesy name will be Meng Jingqiu, and your courtesy name will be Meng Fuqiu, so you two can match! And then…” He spun on his heel and pointed at Mo Yu. “Your courtesy name will be Mo Lihua, like the song!”
“I think it’s a different character,” Mo Yu said weakly.
“We’ve only barely taught him to read. I’m afraid homophones are a weak point,” Meng Yao said. “Just wait him out. He’ll forget. Although Lihua – hmm. It’s pretty.”
“And you, Xue Yang!” Wei Ying turned on Xue Yang. “Your name will be – hmm.”
“What about Chengmei?” Meng Yao offered. “It will give him something to strive towards. The ugly little monster needs it.”
“Hey!” snapped the ugly little monster, but he looked pleased with the idea. “I don’t need any help with anything. But it’s a nice name.”
“Which, knowing you, no one will ever hear,” Meng Yao said.
“See?” Wei Ying spread his hands wide. “Problem solved. Everyone, this is Mo Lihua, our new shimei. Be nice to her. Come on, Lihua, let me show you around.”
Mo Yu – Mo Lihua now, she supposed – followed him. What else could she do?
Mo Lihua was sixteen when she became the Wei sect spymaster. It was an accident. It was her turn to be Yiling Laozu that day, and she had just finished making her own copy of the mask. Hers was nearly as plain as Wei Ying’s, with only long lines dripping down from the eye holes and subtly scalloped edges that sat low over her cheeks, giving the impression of a longer face, a square jaw.
The woman who came for help was within a year or two of Mo Lihua’s age, at a guess, and dressed in the simple clothes of a servant, with the sunburst badge that meant she was employed by the Wen sect. Mo Lihua didn’t know the variations of the sun well enough to guess which, but the woman had offered up what looked like nearly a complete set of wedding jewellery, most of it shaped like phoenixes and dragons; she must have stolen it from the inner family, even if she was not working for them.
“What is it that you want, child?” Mo Lihua asked and tried not to giggle at the way her voice echoed and hissed.
“Yiling Laozu,” the woman said, and pressed her forehead against the ground. “My family is in poverty. Many times, Wen Ruohan has sworn to allow them to form an independent sect, and many times he has found reasons to deny or delay it, and now – it was a bad harvest, and the tax Wen Ruohan levies would see our storehouses empty. I tend the braziers and empty the chamber pots in the inner palace. This is the wedding jewellery worn by his first and second wives, offered in trade. If you can feed my family – I understand this is but a humble offering, but even for a season – if you can help them—”
“Shh,” Mo Lihua said, and knelt down in front of her. “This offering is more than worthy.” Meng Yao was very good at pretending to know what he was doing, and Xue Yang covered for his uncertainties by being unsettling, but Mo Lihua wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. She decided to start at the beginning. “There are ways I can help you, but first I need to know more – about you, about your family, about the work you do for the Wen sect. Tell me, child, what is your name?”
There were moments when the seething collection of ghosts that made up the soul of Luanzang Gang offered some strange insight, when they gave the living inhabitants a glimpse at what is and what was and what could be. Time, Mo Lihua had come to learn, meant almost nothing to the resentful dead, who were perpetually trapped in what might have been, unable to move forward without a cultivator’s intervention. Wei Ying had begun to teach them how to hear what the spirits said at will, but Mo Lihua was not yet strong enough to manage it. She had to wait for something, some moment, some piece of information, to catch the listening whisperers’ attention.
Then the woman said, “This humble one is called Wang Lingjiao,” and they had it.
GUSU, AFTER SUNSHOT
Luanzang Gang has left its mark on Wangji. A few days after his return to Yunshen Buzhichu, as he meditates in the jingshi, he begins to remember things that never happened.
One night, the year Yiling Wei did not attend the summer lectures, Wangji sits on the roof of the cangshige, with Wei Ying beside him.
“I do not think this happened,” he tells the Wei Ying of his memory, if that is what this is.
“I think,” Wei Ying says, “Luanzang Gang is a very strange place, and being there can do strange things to you. It’s a phenomenon the cultivation world doesn't even have a word for. Pity this humble Yiling Laozu, who had to make it up as he went along!”
“Mn.” Wangji looks at the sky, the moon and stars above, since the only alternative is looking at Wei Ying. It alarms him, how willing he is to throw all logic and reason aside, how much he wants to abandon all propriety and pledge himself to this man.
Wei Ying chuckles, but it's not his usual sparkling windchime laugh; lower, somehow, perhaps a little bitter.
“Even the time,” he says, which feels like a non-sequitur until he adds, “Did you notice that the sun doesn’t move?”
“Mn,” Wangji admits. It had taken him a long time to realise that was the case. It is impossible for the sun to be still, and so it had not occurred to him that it is still in Luanzang Gang, even when Wei Ying had taken him outside in what should have been the middle of the night.
“Sometimes I would leave Luanzang Gang and find that eons had passed, that whole empires had risen and fallen and risen again. Sometimes, when I returned, I would arrive before I’d left. Until I learned to control the mists, I had no way to know if it would be three minutes or three hours or three hundred years since the last time I stepped outside… and even then, unless I had a water clock right there with me, I couldn’t tell that time was passing on the inside.”
“It was disorienting,” Wangji says. “I felt… unmoored.”
“That’s a good word for it.” Wei Ying sighs and pulls his knees up to his chest, wrapping one of his arms around them. He looks like a child trying to comfort himself in the absence of a caregiver.
If Wangji were braver, perhaps, he might perform some gesture of comfort. He might reach out and touch Wei Ying’s hand where it sits between them, precisely placed to be touched. He is not brave. He does not touch Wei Ying’s hand. From the look Wei Ying gives him, sweet and soft and fond, he thinks he may be forgiven this.
DAFAN, AFTER SUNSHOT
Packing up a village of people and getting them halfway across the continent isn’t a small task, exactly, but compared to spying on Wen Ruohan it’s practically a relaxing vacation. Wang Lingjiao hauls sacks and stacks crates and leads horses hither and yon and sweats through every single layer she’s wearing, and by the time they arrive at Dafan Shan she’s pretty sure her feet are about to fall clean off her legs, but it’s worth it to see the way everyone’s faces light up on returning to Dafan. They only have the people they really, really need to get the village back up and running – farmers, mostly, with a carpenter and a smith and a bookkeeper and a handful of others thrown in for good measure – but it’s impossible not to imagine how it will be when Nainai and all the aunties and uncles get to finally come home, and find everything fixed up and waiting for them.
Wen Qing is busily pretending to be serious and leaderly, inspecting the damage Wen Ruohan’s hirelings had done to the village, but Wang Lingjiao had to get very good at reading gentry very quickly when she arrived in Buyetian Cheng. She’s not fooled by the poorly-faked indifference. Wen Qing is fucking overjoyed to have her family back in their ancestral home.
Wang Lingjiao finds a shady spot and sprawls across a pile of empty sacks, feet propped up on a crate, waiting for her body to stop feeling quite so much like it’s actually dying.
“Hey, Wen-zongzhu,” she calls the next time Wen Qing walks past. Wen Qing looks at her with more pretend passivity, but Lingjiao can sense the judgment radiating from her. “Planning to move the capital here?”
“There’s no palace,” Wen Qing says.
“So build one,” Lingjiao says. She flexes her feet, wincing at the stretch in her sore calves. “Didn’t this village have a different name?”
“Fujiao,” Wen Qing says. “Dafan Shan is technically the name of the mountain, but someone called the village Dafan on a map by mistake and it stuck.”
“Oh, ew. Nevermind. You can’t have a palace named after Buddha’s feet.” Lingjiao squints up at the mountain looming over the village. “Your creepy uncle was obsessed with some cave on this mountain – Tiannu Ci? That’s a better name, at least. Do it like Yiling Laozu and scrape your stronghold out of the mountain.”
“I believe it’s already occupied.” Wen Qing approaches Lingjiao cautiously. A lot of people have been cautious around Lingjiao in the past few years, and with damn good reason, but Wen Qing doesn’t look like she thinks Lingjiao is about to torture her, so Lingjiao isn’t sure what that’s all about, until Wen Qing speaks again. “Are you really so averse to returning to Qishan?”
“What? No.” Lingjiao looks away. “I just – never mind. It’s stupid.” She hauls herself up to something approaching a proper sitting position and puts her feel back on the ground. They immediately throb at her, but she’s dealt with worse.
“If you’d rather stay here,” Wen Qing says, “or if you’d rather return to Luanzang Gang—”
“Are you crazy? No way am I going back there.” Lingjiao snorts and pushes herself up to stand, despite the way her legs complain. “No, you’re stuck with me, zongzhu. Don’t suppose you need a torturer? Or a mistress? I’d rather not go back to being a maid, but I’ll take it over some of the alternatives.”
“A mistress,” Wen Qing says flatly.
“Lu Kutao used to give me jewellery to fuck Wen Chao so she wouldn’t have to,” Lingjiao says. “You don’t have that problem yet, but it’s never too early to plan for it.” And I fucked Lu Kutao for free, she could add, but doesn’t. Wen Qing is a rational woman, but even the most rational people can get weird about sex and marriage and jealousy. Just ask literally any concubine.
To her credit, Wen Qing offers neither pity nor contempt. She looks almost like she’s giving serious consideration to the suggestion. Lingjiao folds her arms and tries shifting her weight onto one foot to see if it will help anything. It doesn’t.
“I think,” Wen Qing says eventually, “the thing I could use the most is a seneschal. Someone who knows Buyetian Cheng, who knows how the household runs, who can just pick all that up so I don’t have to deal with it on top of everything else.”
“Are you sure?” Lingjiao asks. She pouts and flounces a little closer to Wen Qing, curling a lock of hair around her fingers. She pitches her voice high and adds, “You haven’t even seen my sajiao yet, jiejie…”
“Augh.” Wen Qing scrunches up her face and leans back. “No. I hate it. Stop.”
The thrill from disrupting Wen Qing’s perfect impression of a sect leader is so great that Lingjiao can’t help but cackle. “Ah, fine.” She tosses her head. Her hair is mostly pinned back and also extremely sweaty, so it doesn’t have much of an effect, but it’s about the attitude. “I guess I can come and be your seneschal, since you asked so nicely. What’s the pay like?”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wei Wuxian turns up a few days after that, as he was inevitably going to; he’s not a man who was ever capable of leaving things alone. He arrives just as Lingjiao is getting ready to pack up and head back to Buyetian Cheng with Wen Qing in tow. Or possibly just as Wen Qing is ready to pack up and head back to Buyetian Cheng with Lingjiao in tow. It might be mutual towing.
Lingjiao remembers feeling betrayed when she found out the otherworldly Yiling Laozu of legend was just a pack of half-starved homeless teenagers, teaching themselves to cultivate from the memories left behind by long-dead ghosts and trading favours and folk remedies for food. They hadn’t even gotten as far as thinking they should keep the jewellery people sometimes offered so they could sell it or trade it. It had only taken her… well, there was no way to tell how much time it had actually been, but a week sounded good, so Lingjiao decided it had taken her a week to forgive him enough to start teaching him how to run a sect. The servants provided to Qishan by the Wang family had been running Buyetian Cheng for several decades, after all, since Wen Ruohan couldn’t be bothered to do it himself.
A week also felt like the right amount of time spent around Wei Wuxian for his wild, bubbling energy to stop being irritating and start being almost charming.
Enough for her to start calling him Wei-zongzhu with sincerity instead of sarcasm, anyway.
When he descends on them like a bat out of the blue sky with his robes flapping around him, Wen Qing stiffens. Lingjiao elbows her.
“It’s just Wei-zongzhu.”
“I know,” Wen Qing says stiffly. “It’s whatever he wants to tell us that I’m worried about.”
Lingjiao rolls her eyes. “He’s probably just lonely. Didn’t you see how he was pining after the smaller Lan boy? I know he only stayed in Buyetian Cheng for five minutes after the banquet, but it was fairly obvious, even with the spooky mask.”
“I thought Xue Yang was under the mask that time,” Wen Qing says.
“Oh, was he? Well, Xue Yang was pining after the larger Lan boy, so I stand by it.” Wei Wuxian is landing by then, so Lingjiao decides to address it to him directly. “Are you here because telling Lan Wangji about your body doubles didn’t go well, or because it went very well and you’re inviting us to the wedding?”
It’s clearly been too long since Lingjiao spent time with her sect leader. He never used to flinch when she clawed him. “Funny, Jiaojiao!” he says, as lively as he ever is. “Neither of those, though. Actually, I wanted to ask if you would consider staying in Dafan for a while.”
Lingjiao freezes. She tilts her head to one side, studying Wei Ying’s face. His smile isn’t quite right, and there’s tension around his eyes that she only distantly remembers.
“Why?” she demands. “What’s here that’s so important? And why does it have to be me?”
“Not just you,” Wei Wuxian says. “I was hoping Wen-zongzhu would stay as well.” He bows to Wen Qing.
Wen Qing stares at him like he’s grown a second head. “I believe that still leaves Wang-gunaing’s questions unanswered,” she says. “What exactly should keep me away from my own palace, Wei Wuxian?”
“It’s really more of a who.” Wei Wuxian ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, looking so much like a kid anticipating a scolding that Lingjiao almost wants to smack him. “We might possibly need to move up our schedule a little bit? And I was also hoping you might be willing to hang onto the rest of the sect for me?”
“Hang onto—” Lingjiao is aware she is gaping, but she doesn’t bother to even try controlling her face. She shouldn’t have to now. Wasn’t that the whole point of everything she did over the years? “What exactly are you planning?”
“Who says I’m planning anything?”
Lingjiao makes to slap him, and Wei Wuxian skitters away from her, laughing. “Come on, Jiaojiao, don’t be like that! I promise, it’s not my fault!”
“Who’s fault is it, then?” Wen Qing asks sharply. “What is happening, Wei Wuxian?”
“It’s… all right, look.” Wei Wuxian yanks nervously at his ponytail. “I got a letter from – from our friend in Lanling.”
Wen Qing glances at Lingjiao, then back to Wei Wuxian. “Who exactly is your friend?” she asks.
Lingjiao would like to say something, but she can’t quite think of what. She knows who Wei Wuxian means when he speaks of their friend in Lanling. For their friend to even be in Lanling at all, there must be an awful lot of trouble coming.
“It’s not important,” Wei Wuxian says. “The important thing is that you should stay here, and I should arrange for your brother to come up with the rest of the Dafan Wen, and maybe the rest of the sect can help out on the journey. And stay. For, ah, perhaps a few weeks.”
“So it’s the Jin sect after all,” Lingjiao says, and looks at Wen Qing. “You’re the boss, Wen-zongzhu.”
Wen Qing grits her teeth. “If the venerable Yiling Laozu insists,” she says, “I can hardly gainsay him.”
“Oh, please,” Wei Wuxian says airily. “You can and do gainsay me whenever you like. But I’m glad to hear it.” He gives Wen Qing a sharp-edged smile. “And when this is all over, you and Yiling Laozu can discuss the issue of bride price!”
Lingjiao chokes. Wen Qing has a better reaction, arching her eyebrows and drawling, “Bride price?” as if Wei Wuxian has said something bizarre.
“You think I can’t tell when one of my very own disciples is being taken advantage of?” Wei Wuxian wags a finger at Wen Qing, then swivels and points at Lingjiao. “Or maybe I should be scolding you. I turn my back for a couple of lousy days, and already you’ve fallen into bed with Qing-zongzhu! You couldn’t wait until marriage? Children these days; no respect for their elders!”
“I know time is hard for you,” Lingjiao says, slightly hoarse from the choking, “but I am actually older than you. And how the hell did you know, anyway?”
Wei Wuxian taps his neck, radiating self-congratulatory glee. Lingjiao’s hand, when she presses against the same place, finds a pretty spectacular hickey Wen Qing left on her just last night. Her cultivation isn’t high enough to heal things like that, but she hadn’t realised it was going to be so extremely visible with her robes on, or she might have tried harder.
“I’m only discussing bride price with Wei Ying, courtesy Wuxian,” Wen Qing says, “so he had better come back alive from whatever foolish caper he’s planning.”
Wei Wuxian’s glee softens into something fond and forlorn. He tries another grin, but it looks forced, or at least it does to Lingjiao.
“Well, Wen Qing, courtesy Guijiao,” Wei Wuxian says, “at worst, my ghost will haunt you until you make an honest woman out of Lingjiao-jie. Does that seem fair?”
LANLING, AFTER SUNSHOT
Wangji is not a prisoner in Jinlin Tai, which does not feel like it can be true. Looking back, it is strange to recall that he did not quite believe in his own freedom when he first arrived in Luanzang Gang; it does not feel strange that he does not believe in it now.
He arrives with Xichen at Jin-zongzhu’s request, without the usual retinue of Lan disciples that would act as an escort. The rest of the sect is far too busy with the rebuilding. Wangji is thankful that their sect was not decimated, the way Wen Ruohan had so clearly hoped they would be. They do not have to hire labour, and have craftsmen of sufficient expertise among their ranks for the majority of the work. They are only required to contract with Lanling Jin for certain amenities that would normally be provided by local small sects, who are too busy attending to their own recoveries to engage in normal trade. It is in the name of yet another of these contracts – raw silk, this time – that Jin-zongzhu has summoned them.
These visits are familiar to Wangji by now. He is only permitted to be alone in his rooms; even when he visits his brother, there will be at least one hovering servant. The words Jin-zongzhu had used were to ensure their comfort, which are not the words Wangji would choose to describe the constant company. Whenever Wangji walks the hall, he will find a servant or a guard or a Jin sect cultivator who happens to be proceeding in the same direction and who insists they accompany him to his destination. The dishonesty rankles more than the imprisonment itself.
On the third day of this visit, he attempts to communicate all of this to Xichen with a look. Xichen sighs and touches the back of his hand. “I know that you are a man of action, Wangji. This idleness does not suit you. Can you bear it a little longer?”
“Mn.” Wangji inclines his head faintly. He is not sure if Xichen has understood him, and is speaking in coded terms because of their listener – a young girl currently sweeping invisible dust from the shelves in Xichen’s room – or if Xichen has failed to understand and is simply attempting to soothe his little brother’s temper. He casts about for something he could say, some activity he could propose, which might give them the space and privacy to discuss it further.
“It has been some time since I was able to night hunt,” is what he settles on. Even as he says it, it feels flimsy, but Xichen brightens immediately.
“The Laoling Qin sect are planning a hunt for their junior disciples.” Xichen gives Wangji a close-mouthed smile that does not reach his eyes. Wangji’s interest is caught at once; he straightens slightly.
“I had not heard,” he replies.
Xichen does not glance at the maid, or change his expression. “It will be a small event, but Jin-zongzhu and Qin-zongzhu are such close friends that Jin-zongzhu offered the use of some of the hunting grounds on Phoenix Mountain. Perhaps we might inquire about joining them?” At last, Xichen smiles in truth, eyes curving. “I confess, I could use the exercise!”
Wangji feels he can exhale again. “Mn,” he says, around the relief clotting in his throat, and then, “Xiongzhang is very wise. Shall I speak to Qin-zongzhu?”
“I believe he will be sequestered away in trade talks today, along with Jin-zongzhu and I.” Xichen hums, tapping his fingertips against the table. “Qin-furen and Qin-guniang should have no such demands on their time, though.” He turns to the servant listening to them. She has progressed to kneeling by the censer as though to tend it, though the room is perfectly comfortable and there is clearly no need. “Excuse me, A Min. Could you arrange a message to Qin-furen, and inquire if she is free? Lan-gongzi would like to speak with her about the night hunt.”
“Of course, Lan-zongzhu,” the servant says, and bows, lower than she ought to. All the servants in Jinlin Tai bow excessively low to cultivators, and even lower to Jin-zongzhu. It always leaves Wangji unsettled, though he cannot quite say why. She crosses to the door, kneels there, slides it open, and exchanges quiet words with someone outside. Wangji listens, trying to detect any coded phrase, but she simply asks for a message to be sent to Qin-furen. When her request is acknowledged, she slides the door closed again and returns to the censer, taking hold of a pair of tongs as though she means to add or remove coals. She falls still as soon as she believes Wangji is no longer paying attention to her.
“Xiongzhang is thoughtful,” Wangji says, instead of any of the other things he could say. He wants to ask so many questions – have you heard from Nie-zongzhu, what are the Jin sect planning, why am I being followed everywhere, what are the Jiang sect doing, how can you sit there and smile when you don’t have the answers to any of these questions – but he resigns himself to taking another sip of his tea. The Jin sect always have fresh tea, never more than a few weeks old – longjing in the summer, tieguanyin in the spring and autumn, gaoshan in the winter. Wangji suspects there must be a handful of cultivators whose only purpose is travelling to and from the tea fields since it would take the merchant caravan weeks or months to reach Lanling. It must be an enormous expense to the sect, to always have tea this fresh. Perhaps it is uncharitable of Wangji to view them poorly because of it – after all, it is an enormous expense to the Lan sect to use so much pure white silk in the robes and armour of their cultivators – but he is not feeling terribly charitable towards the Jin just now.
He manages to get through a handful of stilted exchanges about carefully neutral topics before he takes his leave, since if he does not do that much the servant – now pretending at some business with the kettle, despite neither Wangji nor Xichen expressing a desire for more tea – realise that Wangji’s desire to night hunt is anything more than tiring of his confinement. Wangji hopes that a desire to roam freely should seem quite natural coming from any young man, even one so famed for stoicism as Hanguang-jun. If the Jin sect has developed a better understanding of his character, all this subterfuge might be for nothing.
When he steps outside of Xichen’s quarters, another servant is waiting for him, bowing low as soon as Wangji appears. “Lan-gongzi, Qin-furen is free to meet with you now,” he says, without rising. “This servant will escort you to her.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, and allows himself to be led away.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Qin-furen and Qin-guniang have been practicing their calligraphy, and not alone, judging by the brushes and ink being cleared away by yet another servant when Wangji arrives. Wangji gives his formal greeting and bows to them. They bow in return. The three of them step away from where their work is drying and kneel instead at the small table where a tea set has already been neatly laid out, waiting for them.
“We will be drinking something from Mother’s personal tea collection, I’m afraid,” Qin-guniang says, light and teasing.
“I have no taste for the Lanling varieties,” Qin-furen says, almost but not quite apologetic. “Hanguang-jun may recall that my natal sec is from the southwest corner of Henan, with no tea fields of their own. I am the mistress of Laoling Qin, I shamelessly abuse my position to have my favourites brought to me. I must warn you, as I was warned before I tried this tea for the first time, that many will say it is not very good.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, uncomfortably aware that this is precisely the sort of excessive display of wealth he finds abhorrent in Lanling Jin. He does not wish to disapprove of Qin-furen’s choices; he has never met her before, and she may be the only person who can arrange for him to leave Jinlin Tai without suspicion.
“Leave us,” Qin-furen says. Wangji is almost shocked when the servant who accompanied him and the servant who is clearing away the ink and brushes bow out of the room without comment or question. He does not allow it to show on his face.
Qin-guniang pours the tea, a rich black qingzhuan, like the ones favoured in Luanzang Gang. The steam carries the scent to Wangji, along with a memory he is not sure belongs to him. Wei Ying had once said they drank it in Luanzang Gang because it couldn’t be spoiled by the ever-present damp, since the leaves were steamed and pressed before they came. When Wangji drinks, in unison with his hosts, he finds the taste milder than the tea in Luanzang Gang had been, almost mellow, but the sweet aftertaste is the same.
They exchange pleasantries, as they must, for some time. Wangji stifles the desire to plaster the walls with silencing talismans, to confront whoever is listening at the door. He has no particular intention of discussing his concerns with Qin-furen. Even if she has no love for Jin-zongzhu, her husband is a loyal friend of the Jin sect, and it would put her in an impossible position. And there is no way for Wangji to know that she does dislike Jin-zongzhu.
“Qin Su,” Qin-furen says eventually, when they have discussed the weather and the anticipated entertainment for the next banquet as much as they may, “will you go to my rooms and fetch the poetry scroll your father bought for me? It’s in the red case. I believe Hanguang-jun might appreciate the work.”
Qin-guniang looks at her mother sceptically, but rises to her feet without question, bowing politely before she leaves. Wangji watches her go, checking for any flash of gold silk or movement outside the door, but the only person he sees is Qin-guniang herself. She nods at them once, almost cheeky, as she slides the door case.
“There,” Qin-furen says. “Now we can speak freely.” Wangji looks at her doubtfully, but Qin-furen only pours more tea for him. “Qin Su is a good girl; she’ll give us some time, and make sure to interrupt us should we be at risk of being overheard.”
“Mn,” Wangji says. “I have been advised by Zewu-jun that you are planning a night hunt.”
“If you wish to use it as an excuse to slip away from Jinlin Tai and return to Luanzang Gang, I’m afraid I must ask you to refrain,” Qin-furen says, setting the teapot down with a firm click. “The situation is very delicate, Hanguang-jun.”
Wangji feels as though he’s been slapped. He inhales, slow, and then takes a measured sip of tea. When he puts his cup down, he says, “It is strange that Qin-furen presumes I would return to the place I was held hostage.”
“I presume no such things,” Qin-furen says archly. “I only presume that young men are hot-headed, even the ones with reputations as unimpeachable as yours.”
It’s possible that she’s telling the truth. Wangji has never been good at identifying a lie in the moment, not unless he has firm proof to rely on. He has, however, learned over and over again that Jinlin Tai is full of liars and schemers, and that only liars and schemers can thrive here. Perhaps he should assume the worst.
“Very well,” Wangji says. “May I participate in the hunt regardless, Qin-furen? I would welcome the opportunity to leave Jinlin Tai, even if… temporarily.”
“Of course, Hanguang-jun. I will make arrangements as soon as my husband returns. We would be honoured to have you.” Qin-furen smiles at him over the rim of her teacup. “I am sure our juniors will learn a great deal from your conduct.” She sips.
Wangji casts around for something he can ask that might elicit more information without giving away all that he knows now and finds very little. Eventually he latches onto what she had said. “Has the situation increased in delicacy since my return?”
“Of course it has,” Qin-furen says, with a note of something not quite like pity in her voice. “There was a moment where two of the four great sects had their heirs kidnapped by Yiling Laozu. You have returned, to what you have said very publicly was your own will, and now Nie-gongzi has also returned, of what Nie-zongzhu has also said is of his own free will. At a stroke, you have stolen away all the justification for Lanling Jin’s armament.”
Wangji blinks once, slowly. “I had not heard that Nie-gongzi had returned.”
“I believe there has been some attempt to keep word from spreading excessively,” Qin-furen says. “Not from the Nie sect, mind you.”
“Mn,” Wangji says. He cannot read anything from Qin-furen’s face. He plunges ahead regardless, reckless. “I have heard it said that conflict between Yiling Wei and Lanling Jin is… inevitable. Despite any excuse given or not given.”
“The person you heard that from is quite correct.” Qin-furen sets her cup down and looks at Wangji, meeting his eyes directly. Her stare is uncomfortably piercing, like the stare of a hawk. “Yiling Wei and Yunmeng Jiang’s lands march together; they can only be expected to form an alliance, unless one intends to annex the other. When Jiang-guniang was expected to marry Jin-gongzi, it was considered… acceptable. Since that particular course has been averted, it consolidates power in the south in a way Jin-zongzhu will not abide.”
“Mn.” Wangji’s heart is racing. Strange; he hasn’t engaged in any physical exertion. “It may be years before he is offered an excuse.”
“There is an argument to be made that letting it drag on will do more harm than good,” Madam Qin says carefully. “Perhaps it will not be seen by the great sects, but smaller sects live and die by these kinds of disputes. If Jin-zongzhu decides, for example, that any sect allied to Lanling Jin must not allow their goods to be traded outside of Shandong…”
Wangji begins to say that taking such a stance would be ludicrous, then recalls who they are speaking of, and stops himself. It would be ludicrous if any other sect made such a decision, but Lanling Jin stands alone as having the wealth to weather the resulting storm. And since they barely entered the Sunshot Campaign, they retain the numbers to enforce such a directive.
Qin-furen inclines her head to him, just once. “So, you see,” she says, almost gently, “we must think carefully on anything we decide to do.”
It is, of all people, Nie Huaisang who comes to Wangji’s mind then. Wangji had come across him during their time in Luanzang Gang, in a library in Fumodong that Wangji had never been able to find on purpose. Wangji had asked Huaisang to return to Qinghe, to reassure his brother. He had asked Huaisang if he knew that Lanling Jin would use this as a pretext for war.
“Poor Lanling Jin,” Huaisang had said, waving Wangji away as if he was of no more interest than an irritating fly. “Relying so much on other sects for their murderous impulses, when if only Jin Guangshan would acknowledge some of his bastards he’d have all the reason in the world to come storming into Yiling.”
“I had heard,” Wangji says, heart hammering in his chest, “that there might be – another cause. For Jin-zongzhu’s displeasure.”
Qin-furen pauses with her hand resting on the teapot. “Oh? What might that be?”
“Two of the Yiling Wei disciples are his children,” Wangji says. Internally, he winces a little. Meng Yao, he knows, is particularly unfavourable towards reminders of his parentage. “He has never acknowledged them, but if he became aware that they lived…”
“Ah, Hanguang-jun,” Qin-furen says, and sighs. “Not everyone is so virtuous as you, I’m afraid. No amount of benefit will cause Jin Guangshan to recognise any of his other children. He may not even remember fathering them.” Her jaw clenches, very slightly, and Wangji realises that he has been unfair to Qin-furen. Far more than disliking him, Qin-furen hates Jin Guangshan, so much that she can barely keep it from showing on her face.
“Mn,” he says, acknowledging, and then turns to the door as Qin-guniang returns, carrying a red case.
“My goodness, the servants are certainly over-attentive!” she says. “I’ll be glad when we get home and I’m allowed to open my own doors again.”
Wangji assumes this statement indicates that they can no longer speak freely, an impression which seems confirmed when Qin-furen requests Wangji’s opinions on the poetry Qin-guniang has brought to them. Wangji is not particularly taken with the verses of Su Weidao, but he makes comments on its technical mastery of the form which could be taken as flattering if a listener so chose. He manages another incense stick’s worth of conversation before he leaves, unsettled and aimless.
What would Wei Ying say, if he was here?
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji dreams of an impossible thing: Wei Ying, smiling at him as they walk in Gusu under a summer sky. The sun is so bright it turns everything pale around them.
“Why do you stay in Luanzang Gang?” Wangji asks.
Wei Ying’s smile falters for a heartbeat, then blooms into its fullest form. “It’s home. I wouldn’t leave now, even if I could.”
Something about the phrasing makes Wangji frown. “You are not permitted to leave?”
“Well, for little things like this, sure.” Wei Ying gestures at the sky, as if to take in the noise of Gusu, the tranquility of Yunshen Buzhichu, the full span of the lectures with a single sweep of his hand. As if all the time he must have spent here for Wangji to remember it has been a little thing. Wangji swallows, and does not interrupt Wei Ying as he goes on. “But I made a promise when I arrived in Luanzang Gang. I made a lot of promises, actually, but there’s one in particular that – well, it doesn’t matter. I have to keep my word, that’s all. Isn’t there a rule about that on your wall of discipline?”
“Do not tell lies,” Wangji confirms. “Do not use frivolous words. Do not take your own words lightly. Earn trust. Be trustworthy and others will believe you. Be ethical. Be loyal.” There is not a particular rule that encapsulates keep your promises, but the principle is enshrined in several others. Lan clan scholars have historically argued that a Lan disciple might, through trickery or coercion, swear a vow that would require them to act in a dishonourable fashion; therefore, no principle specifically requiring the keeping of such promises should be made.
“I stand corrected!” Wei Ying laughs, tilting his face towards the sun, eyes closing as the light bathes him. “The Wall of Discipline has several rules about that. Although doesn’t it seem like those are all saying the same thing?”
“Mn,” Wangji says. This is a common misconception, frequently held by younger disciples or members marrying into the sect. “Rules may overlap, but each is distinct.”
Wei Ying hums. “Tell me, Lan-er-gege. Are there any rules about what to do when the rules are wrong?”
“Several,” Wangji says, very dry. “And a number of supplementary texts containing extended annotations from past Lan scholars, a number of case studies, several scrolls of precedents. If you demonstrate satisfactory knowledge to Lan-laoshi, perhaps you will be permitted to study them.”
“Lan-er-gege!” Wei Ying opens his eyes only so that he can pout at Wangji, eyes wide and fluttering. “You know Lan-laoshi will never like me. I was late once and am forever ruined in his eyes.”
“Do not disrespect your elders,” Wangji recites. “Do not make assumptions about others.” He hesitates for a moment. Then, because he thinks Wei Ying will be amused, he adds, “Do not fear the strong.”
Wei Ying looks at him, wide-eyed, then throws his head back and laughs – his real laugh, full and bright and far too noisy, like birdsong in sprint. He rocks a little, curling forward and then throwing himself back as he giggles. Wangji watches him and keeps his face very still.
“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says with a sigh, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I needed that. Do not fear the strong. Are you saying I should stand up to those who would oppress me?”
Wangji, who has not yet managed to move on from the glory of Wei Ying’s laughter, can only say, “Mn.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything,” Wei Ying complains, but with good humour. He sighs and knocks his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s. “So cruel to me, Lan-er-gege. I’ll miss you when I’m gone.”
Wangji’s ears burn and he looks straight ahead, sure that if he so much as catches a glimpse of Wei Ying he will burst into flames and burn to ash. It takes several attempts before he can open his mouth and say, “Then do not go.”
Wei Ying doesn’t speak. He leans into Wangji’s side. A moment later, Wangji feels Wei Ying’s hand rest lightly on the back of his. Wangji turns his hand over, pressing his palm to Wei Ying’s – callused and dirty and the finest thing he has ever felt – and Wei Ying tangles their fingers together.
They stay like that for some time, walking slowly. Wangji cannot bear to break contact. It feels as though Wei Ying taking his hand has allowed him to step into a different place, perhaps one where time moves as strangely as it does in Luanzang Gang, and as soon as they part the spell will be broken.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “I am sorry.”
“Me too,” Wei Ying says, and sighs. “Goodbye, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji turns his head to look at him, but the world is already dissolving. He wakes in his room at Lanling, the jade rabbit pendant clutched in his hand.
YUNMENG, AFTER SUNSHOT
Yanli is resting. She is always resting, these days. It’s strange to remember her time in Bujing Shi – was it a year ago? Surely not, surely no more than six months at most – and how much she could accomplish there on any given day. Even when she was too exhausted to hold herself upright, Nie Huaisang would arrange firm cushions for her to lean against. He would send for scribes or accountants or whoever else she might require, and stay with her as she directed them to their shares of the work. A Cheng does his best, but the tasks Yanli has in Lianhua Wu are tasks she must complete herself. She cannot, and so she rests.
That Yanli is a weak cultivator is not a secret. To some men it is even considered a virtue, though Yanli and her mother have assiduously avoided any proposals which come from such men. That Yanli’s golden core is itself flawed – that it takes more energy to sustain than Yanli can draw from it – is a secret. Lately, though, Yanli has cause to wonder if the secret has been kept.
She was surprised when Nie Huaisang had deduced the cause of her frequent bouts of dizziness and fatigue, but that had not lasted long. Nie Huaisang was very clever, after all. She was even less surprised once he swore her to secrecy and explained that Nie-zongzhu himself had an affliction of the golden core which, although very different from Yanli’s difficulties, often presented him with similar difficulties. She was not surprised at all when Wei Ying, in his regular correspondence with A Cheng and only slightly less frequent letters to her, hinted that Yiling Laozu was aware of her difficulty. It is not a subtle condition to someone who knows the signs, and the Yiling Wei sect includes Huadan Shou, who was known as the foremost expert on the study and treatment of golden cores before he became known as the foremost expert in their destruction.
And now Nie Huaisang writes to her, telling her that he has found a way to treat Nie-zongzhu’s affliction. He promises that he will send the experts he has engaged to her as soon as his dage’s wellbeing is assured, although he will not be able to come himself. He anticipates that his dage will be unable to safely cultivate for some days after the procedure, while his body turns all its reserves towards completing the work of healing. After that, though, he hints that he and his dage would very much like to come to Lianhua Wu. He anticipates events that will be personally relevant to her and hopes that she will find them to her satisfaction.
Yanli reads and re-reads the letter as she is resting, even when keeping her eyes open feels like a monumental task, even when her hands tremble so badly she has to drop the paper for fear of shredding it. She folds it carefully and keeps it close to her. She takes advantage of her current weakness to raise the subject with her mother over breakfast, who is always a little more inclined to listen to Yanli when she is so visibly unwell. A few delicate inquiries and a gentle suggestion are all it takes for Yu Ziyuan to adopt the idea wholeheartedly. When she leaves to take the matter to Yanli’s father, she is speaking as though it is already settled but for the formalities. Yanli does not hear the argument she is sure must result from her sickbed, but A Cheng comes by at lunchtime to give her a bowl of sweet ginger douhua and tell her all about it, complete with dramatic re-enactments of the key moments.
Yanli sinks back into sleep as soon as she has finished the douhua, only vaguely aware of A Cheng collecting the bowl and slipping away as her eyes fall closed despite her best efforts. When she next wakes, it is to the sound of someone tapping at her door. She struggles into a sitting position and checks that her hair and robes are more or less presentable. The sunlight coming through her window is noonday bright; she has either slept very little or far too much. She is still exhausted, but that doesn’t tell her anything about the length or quality of her sleep; the exhaustion is a constant.
“Yes?” she calls. The person tapping at the door must take this as permission to enter. The door slides open and doesn’t quite slide all the way closed again. It takes Yanli a moment to see her guest, because he is so very small. He cannot possibly be more than five, and if he is five he is small for his age. “Hello there, xiao-gongzi. Can I help you with something?”
“Hello, jiejie,” the small boy says, and clambers up onto Yanli’s bed, bold as brass. “Purple-gege says you’re nice!”
“Well, that’s very kind of purple-gege,” Yanli says. She can’t think who purple-gege might be, or why they might speak of her to a strange child but trying to think at all is like trying to walk through a neck-deep pool of molasses. She leans back against her pillows, wincing as a headache begins to form behind her eyes. “What should I call you, xiao-gongzi?”
“A Yuan,” the child says decisively, and then curls up with his head on Yanli’s knee and sticks his thumb in his mouth, eyes drifting closed. He falls asleep in the way only small children can, all at once, without a hint of discomfort even though Yanli’s knee is quite bony, and he is dangerously close to the edge of the bed. Yanli tries to keep an eye on him, but at some point she drifts away, and when she next wakes she can hear voices just outside her door.
“—out of your mind if you think I will permit you to so much as look at my daughter,” Yu Ziyuan hisses.
“How fortunate,” says a voice Yanli doesn’t know, a man who is as flat and expressionless as the Second Jade of Lan. “I was not instructed to seek your permission.”
A Yuan lap stirs, pulling his thumb out of his mouth and yawning wide. “Jiejie, they’re loud,” he whines, pouting at her. He does not lift his head from her knee. Yanli does not laugh at him, but it is a close thing.
“I’m sorry, xiao-gongzi.” Yanli leans forward so she can smooth a hand over the child’s hair. “I’m sure they’ll be done soon.”
She is not sure of any such thing, particularly not when the air has taken on the smell of an oncoming storm, the sharp potential for a lightning strike blossoming around them.
“Aniang,” Yanli calls, doing her best to sound half-asleep, and not at all concerned about the possibility of Yu Ziyuan unleashing the wrath of Zidian indoors. “Who is it?”
“It’s baba,” A Yuan says decisively.
“What – is that a child?” Yu Ziyuan demands, and stalks into Yanli’s room.
“Lightning-jiejie!” A Yuan says, bright and happy. He wriggles out from Yanli’s hair and hops down from her bed, tottering over towards Yu Ziyuan. Yanli revises her estimate of his age downwards; he must be closer to three than five, by the way he walks. “Baba found you!”
Yu Ziyuan almost deflates, all her ire suddenly lost in the face of a small child approaching her without a trace of fear. “What—”
“Thank you for the introduction, Zi Zhizhu,” the man says. He lifts A Yuan from the floor and places him in Yu Ziyuan’s arms without a trace of fear. “Please mind Wen Yuan while I speak to Jiang-guniang. Thank you.”
Yanli isn’t quite sure what happens next, except that A Yuan is laughing delightedly and her mother is still protesting as the door closes behind her. The man who has entered her rooms maintains precisely correct posture, but Yanli thinks he might allow his shoulders to slump if she were not there.
“That was neatly done,” she says, because it was, and because her mind is still so slow she cannot quite manage to think of anything else to say. “I am afraid you have the advantage of me, gongzi.”
“Nie Huaisang sent me,” the man says, and comes to kneel at Yanli’s bedside. “My name is Wen Zhuliu.”
“Ah,” Yanli says. She makes a real effort to sit straight, but it is not particularly fruitful. Wen Zhuliu sets a hand on back, supporting her as she straightens. “Huadan Shou, forgive me. I’m afraid I am in no state to receive such a venerable guest.”
“I am here in my capacity as a healer, not a venerable guest,” Wen Zhuliu says. His voice doesn’t change at all, but Yanli sees something almost like humour in his eyes. “I understand you have experienced some difficulty.”
“Yes, and worse over time.”
“Hm. Inhale for me.”
Wen Zhuliu’s hand seems to grow warm against Yanli’s back as she inhales. She tries not to think of the horror stories she has heard of Huadan Shou. It is not an easy thing to keep from her mind, not when Huadan Shou himself has his famous hand on her back, only a few inches too high to melt her core and leave her for dead. She is not helpless, but neither will she prevail if it comes to a fight.
“You are nervous,” Wen Zhuliu says. “There is no need. Even if I was not your ally, Nie-gongzi was very thorough in detailing the consequences should any harm come to you.”
Yanli covers her mouth with her fingertips, holding back her laughter. “That doesn’t seem in character for Nie-gongzi.”
“Does it not?”
“He is usually so careful not to be seen as thorough.”
“Then Jiang-guniang must be of particular interest to him.” Wen Zhuliu moves his hand lower on her back. “Inhale again.”
Yanli inhales. When she exhales, she asks, “Is my situation truly so similar to Nie-zongzhu’s?”
“Not remotely,” Wen Zhuliu says. He lifts his hand away from her back. “You may lie down, if you wish.”
Yanli does wish, but she stays upright, frowning at him. “Then may I ask why Nie-gongzi sent you here?”
Wen Zhuliu looks at her, impassive. “What is a golden core, Jiang-guniang?”
Yanli blinks at him. “It – it is a condensation of qi, formed through internal alchemy in which the lower dantian is used as a crucible—”
“You are overthinking it,” Wen Zhuliu says. Yanli thinks she can hear an edge of dry humour in his voice, although perhaps that is her own wishful thinking. “I asked what it is, not how it is formed.”
“Then – qi, I suppose,” Yanli says. “Spiritual energy.”
“Yes.” Wen Zhuliu gestures to his own belly. If Yanli concentrates, she can feel his core, spinning almost lazily within his dantian, but the effort makes her headache spike; she abandons the attempt, and focuses on his words instead.
“The Zhao clan knew, before they were destroyed, that spiritual energy simply exists. It is drawn to certain places and repelled from others. You will often hear cultivators speak of their mastery over spiritual energy, but they can only ever direct its movements. They cannot create it, nor destroy it.”
He pauses, and though his face doesn’t change even an iota, Yanli senses he is waiting for her response.
“So the process of forming a golden core is – well, if you don’t mind an oversimplification, it amounts to directing spiritual energy to gather in one place?”
“And using the body to anchor it there. Just so.” Wen Zhuliu flexes his right hand – the hand that gave him his name, if the rumours are correct. “Destroying a golden core is a simple matter. All I do is disrupt that anchor and allow the spiritual energy to flow at its own whims instead of the cultivator’s.”
“That seems very straightforward,” Yanli says delicately. “I was under the impression it was more…”
“Fatal?” Wen Zhuliu offers.
Yanli winces and leans back against her pillows, her endurance spent. “Yes. Among other things.”
“Not universally.” Wen Zhuliu flexes his hand again. “It is not healthy for anyone to have a condensed, controlled quantity of spiritual energy suddenly become unrestrained. It damages the meridians, the body…”
Yanli taps her fingers against her sternum. “And you believe that uncontrolled energy is the cause of my difficulties?”
“That is the fundamental cause of almost all maladies of the core.”
Yanli nods once, to show her understanding, and tilts her head back to gaze at the ceiling. It is safer than looking anywhere else. “Do you propose a course of treatment?”
“And I suppose,” Yanli says, shaping each word with care, “you will tell me that if I submit to the treatment, I will be well.”
The single word, delivered in Wen Zhuliu’s bland, toneless voice, catches something in Yanli’s ribcage and pulls. “No?” she asks, her eyes still fixed on the ceiling.
“You may never be well,” Wen Zhuliu says. “You may always tire easily, or suffer periods of blood vacuity. If your body has been damaged, it will heal or not in its own time. I will correct what can be corrected, but the goal is to prevent future damage.”
Is it absurd that this reassures her? Yanli swallows around the lump forming in her throat and looks at Wen Zhuliu. “Then I am grateful for your assistance. Although I imagine you will have a difficult time contending with Yu-furen.”
“Wei-zongzhu enlisted Jiang-gongzi in keeping her occupied, with the aid of my son,” Wen Zhuliu says, and rises to his feet. “Treatment will take some time, however, and—”
As he speaks, the door opens and A Cheng ducks inside, holding A Yuan cradled against his chest. “I hope you’ve talked enough, because aniang is going to be shouting at you for a while. Are you doing it?”
“Yes,” Yanli says. “Welcome to Lianhua Wu, Huadan Shou. I hope we can make you comfortable during your stay.”
LANLING, AFTER SUNSHOT
If Xichen can spare the time, Wangji makes a point to take the air with him in one of Jinlin Tai’s many peony gardens. The ever-present watchers retreat to a respectful distance, though they maintain a clear line of sight at all times. It is the closest to being alone either of them can arrange.
That is where they are when the message arrives.
Wangji does not think anything of it, at first. Xichen receives messages constantly in his capacity as the Lan representative. Even Wangji, despite carefully cultivating a reputation as an appallingly dull guest in Lanling, occasionally receives invites to various social functions. It isn’t until he sees Xichen’s face, forced into strict composure without even a hint of a smile, that he is concerned.
“A message from Yunshen Buzhichu,” Xichen says tightly. “Our uncle has taken ill.”
Wangji’s heart squeezes itself closed in his chest. He inhales sharply, eyes darting to the message bearer – still lingering within earshot – and back to Xichen. “Is it serious?”
“Judging by the message…” Xichen presses his lips together and tilts his head delicately towards one of the decorative pavilions.
They walk together, perfectly in step, Wangji lingering half a step behind at his brother’s elbow. When they arrive at the pavilion, Xichen uses Wangji’s body as a shield from their observers. He pricks his finger to etch out a talisman and a simple message. The paper forms the same tiny silvery bird and vanishes away.
“I hope this is simple overcaution,” Xichen says, pitching his voice to be heard by the nearest servant, “but until we know—”
“Of course,” Wangji says.
“I will go.” Xichen looks out at the horizon, frowning slightly. “The skies are clear enough. I can be in Gusu before the curfew if I leave immediately.”
Wangji nods. “I will—”
“No, Wangji.” Xichen grips Wangji’s shoulder, bruising tight. “Stay here. I have heard Jin Guangshan has plans for an announcement this evening…” His eyes flicker around the garden. “We cannot be discourteous. But as soon as you discharge your duties, return home.”
“Mn.” Wangji grips his brother’s arm in return and inclines his head. “Be safe.”
“I will send a message as soon as I can.” Xichen looks as if he wishes to say more, but in the end he only squeezes Wangji’s shoulder once more. He leaves Wangji in the garden, gliding away in a drift of sky-coloured robes.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji is the only representative of any outsider at the banquet that evening; every other attendee is from a minor sect allied to Lanling Jin. Of the Jin sect themselves, only the inner family sit at the front of the hall, but those three and their retainers are enough to form a shining wall of gold. Wangji finds Qin-furen and Qin-guniang, seated behind Qin-zongzhu; their gentle pink robes are a welcome relief from the garishness elsewhere in the hall. Qin-guniang lifts a hand in a tiny, subtle wave.
Before the meal, Jin Guangshan stands. The hall falls silent, every head turning towards the head of the room. It is uncomfortably familiar to Buyetian Cheng, when Jin Guangshan had attempted to gain control of the Sunshot Campaign.
“My friends,” Jin Guangshan says. His eyes skip around the hall. Wangji is not sure Jin Guangshan even realises he is still here; he is a single figure in an ocean of others, and he is hardly the only person in white. Not all of the Jin sect’s allies had shirked their duties in the war.
“I will not keep you for too long,” Jin Guangshan says, with an attitude Wangji supposes might be intended as magnanimity. “You must all be impatient for the feast! But we have an important matter to raise with you all.”
Jin Zixuan’s eyes close as though he is in pain. His retainer – Luo Qingyang, Wangji recalls, who had attended the lectures the summer before the Sunshot Campaign commenced – leans forward and says something to him, too quiet for anyone to catch. Jin-furen appears calm to Wangji’s eyes.
“Yiling Wei,” Jin Guangshan says, smooth as oil, “has been far too bold in their dealings with the other sects. Thankfully, I recognised Yiling Laozu’s manipulations for what they are, and did not commit all my forces to their attack on Buyetian Cheng.”
This should surely be a misstep, when so many in the hall did throw their full force behind the Sunshot Campaign, recognising that the alternative was to allow themselves to be annexed. When Wangji glances around the hall, though, he does not see any visible outrage. A handful of frowns, a few whispers behind hands, but no one stands or speaks out.
Perhaps spending so much time in Nie Mingjue’s presence has distorted Wangji’s expectations. Nie Mingjue never hesitated to shout down any foolish thing Jin Guangshan might say; it seems that this is an exceptional case.
“My own son witnessed the atrocities Yiling Laozu and his inner disciples committed on the battlefield,” Jin Guangshan continues. “Heresy. Necromancy. The most depraved crimes against the natural order imaginable.”
This sends heads nodding around the hall. Wangji attempts to resist the urge to glower them all into submission. All their lives were saved by Yiling Laozu’s heresies – by Wei Ying’s heresies. Many of them had gone so far as to ingratiate themselves with Yiling Wei. It would be one thing if they had condemned him from the moment he first set his flute to his lips and summoned the dead, but they had not. Instead, they had celebrated, only to condemn him when their liege lord demanded it, while Wei Ying is not even present to witness or defend himself.
Jin Guangshan smiles wide. “I have therefore, this very evening, sent the forces of the Jin sect to Yiling to end the Wei threat once and for all.”
Some gasps. A few cheers. Wangji cannot move.
Jin Guangshan says more than this. It is not useful information – braggadocio, primarily – and Wangji does not hear it. He looks around the hall, trying to find any sign of an ally. Luo Qingyang makes eye contact when he glances at the head of the hall. She cannot speak to him, not with every eye in the room on the dais where she sits, but she slowly shakes her head, staring at him the whole time. Wangji cannot tell what she means; that he should not stay here? That he should not fly to Yiling at once? That he should not leave the hall? That he should not believe Jin Guangshan’s words? He cannot move. He cannot move. His head swims, and somehow he manages to take a breath, and then another when the first is inadequate, and perhaps too many – but then food is being served, and his stomach revolts at the smell. He does not even manage to excuse himself, does not even bow to the head of the hall.
There is a confusing time where he cannot recall his way to his rooms, or even that he wishes to return to them. He stalks Jinlin Tai’s labyrinthine halls. He must linger too long – the banquet has progressed, and he hears snatches of conversation from people in the halls or on the balconies, taking the air and discussing the announcement.
“We will hunt them down,” Yao-zongzhu proclaims as Wangji passes.
“What of the innocent among them?” Ouyang-zongzhu returns. “Their women and children?”
“Innocent!” Yao-zongzhu barks a sound that only passes for a laugh because they had been so long at war. “There is not a single one who can be said to be innocent. Even those who did nothing themselves failed to object to the crimes of Yiling Laozu. He even saw to the restoration of the Wen, so long as the new Wen-zongzhu swore herself to him! He is Wen Ruohan come again—”
Pingyang Yao, Wangji knows, suffered terribly in the Sunshot Campaign. Though they were not strategically important to the war, Wen Ruohan had launched an attack against them out of pure spite, because some of their merchants sold children’s toys in Yunmeng. That is all that keeps him from diverting his course and demanding Yao-zongzhu recant, that he begs Wei Ying’s forgiveness. It will not be productive, and Wangji has wasted enough time.
A LONG TIME AGO
Wei Ying was six years old when he walked into Luanzang Gang.
LANLING, BEFORE THE SIEGE
Wangji finds his way back to his rooms, and discovers that Qin-furen is waiting for him.
The servants are gone, for once.
“Lan-gongzi,” she says, “I am sure you have thoughts on the matters Jin Guangshan raised this evening.”
“Mn,” Wangji says. “Please excuse me.” He walks past her and gathers his belongings.
“I cannot, until you give your opinion.” Qin-furen does not move to block him as he packs his possessions into his qiankun pouch. “Your opinion is a matter of some importance for a mutual acquaintance of ours, you see.”
Wangji freezes. For a long moment it is as if he cannot move again, that moment of sudden lost function that caught him in the great hall returning. “A mutual acquaintance?”
“Yes.” Qin-furen does not elaborate; she casts a speaking glance at the door, where anyone might come along and press their ear against the crack at any time. “So, I must ask: what are your thoughts?”
Wangji swallows. He is not sure how he can explain himself in a way that will not be immediately understood by anyone else listening in. He cannot be sure that Qin-furen is not an agent of the Jin sect in some way. He cannot be sure of anything, except that the idea of Wei Ying and the little family he has made out of outcasts and refugees being attacked by the full might of the Jin is unbearable to him.
He recalls the first time he saw Wei Ying, on a roof in Qinghe. It feels like a lifetime ago. Is this one of his own memories, or one of his strange recurring daydreams?
The only reason the Wen sect never burned down Luanzang Gang is because – well, you’ll see, if you ever visit. Not a place that’s easy to invade, much less set on fire. But not for lack of trying! And they did other things, when they realised they couldn’t burn us out, or smoke us out, or drown us in our warrens like rats, or poison us…
“If Wei Ying is a criminal, then he should be arrested and brought to trial, as anyone else would be,” Wangji says at last. “If he is a tyrant, there should be a unified response, as there was in the case of the Sunshot Campaign. And if he is neither a criminal nor a tyrant, there can be no justification for a secret, unprovoked assault against a civilian village.”
“I agree,” Qin-furen says. “What do you intend to do next?”
Wangji looks down at his hands. His qiankun pouch is secured; Wangji is on his back, and Bichen, sheathed, is in his left hand. His right hand clutches his jade rabbit yaopei.
“I will warn him,” he says at last. “He – it is true that he has done terrible things. It may even be true that he deserves death for some of his actions. But I believe he is – he does not – I cannot—”
“Lan-gongzi,” Qin-furen says, and there is steel in her voice. “If you think Yiling Laozu does not know Jin Guangshan intends to attack him, you are underestimating his reach.”
Wangji lifts his gaze. Qin-furen is standing straight-backed and proud, but it is not the cool, poised pride of a gentry woman. He recalls that she is not a cultivator herself, but she stands like one, and one ready for war, at that.
“Do you think he has been idle?” Qin-furen asks. “Do you think, in all the long years of his power, he never once made a bargain with someone who had been wronged by Jin Guangshan?” She nearly spits the name. “I was not the first to ask that Jin Guangshan be punished, only the first to ask for justice. As you say, Lan-gongzi, a criminal should be arrested and brought to trial. Jin Guangshan admitted to yet another crime in front of a hall of cultivators just this evening. Why is your instinct to run to Yiling, instead of removing the threat that is here?”
A LONG TIME AGO
Wei Ying was eight years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was ten years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was eighty-nine years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was three years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was forty years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was twenty-three years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was sixteen years old when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying was—
LANLING, BEFORE THE SIEGE
“Take a deep breath,” Mianmian advises, and Jin Zixuan does his best to do as he’s told.
He is starting to regret the amount of time he spends doing as he’s told.
“All right,” Mianmian says, which probably means he at least looks less like he’s panicking, even if he’s very much still panicking on the inside. “Can we call on any of the great sects? Most of them like Yiling Wei, don’t they?”
Zixuan opens his mouth to speak, and instead takes another deep breath before Mianmian can prompt him into it.
“Good,” Mianmian says. “Start with Qinghe Nie. Surely—”
Zixuan shakes his head. “Qinghe Nie won’t say why, but they’ve made it clear for weeks now that they’re not going to be leaving Bujing Shi this whole month.” Rumours say that Nie Mingjue got his core melted, or Nie Huaisang did, or one or both of them is pushing for immortality, or that one of them is having a secret wedding, or that they’re secretly marrying each other. It’s been very confusing.
“Right. Scratch them off.” Mianmian leans back a little, rolls her neck out. “Gusu Lan?”
“Gusu Lan is completely committed to the rebuild, so if they want to come, they might not be able to,” Zixuan says. “I was talking to Zewu-jun earlier and he said there’s some kind of huge ongoing fight because all the elders think they remember the architecture perfectly but they all have slightly different details. He only came here at all because he wanted to get away – not that Zewu-jun said that, that’s just what I think – anyway—”
“I understand,” Mianmian says. Zixuan sighs, relieved, which lasts exactly until Mianmian adds, “What about Yunmeng Jiang?”
“Jiang Yanli is sick, and the Jiang family won’t leave her alone or travel with her until in Lianhua Wu until she’s well again.” Or maybe they can’t leave her, depending how sick she is this time. Zixuan remembers days in their childhood where Yanli wouldn’t even be able to walk very far, encouraging him to sit with her in pavilions instead of exploring Lianhua Wu. At the time he had found it boring, yet another sign that they were a poor match, but now he thinks she had the right idea. He’s so tired all the time. It’s not Yanli’s fault she got tired younger than the rest of them. “If she’s convalescing, they might, but there’s no guarantee that she is, so...”
“We can send a message and ask, at least,” Mianmian says, and that – that’s good. That’s something Zixuan can actually do. And he can do it now, so he does, fishing in his sleeve for a messenger talisman and telling it what he wants it to relay. It flutters away, and he slumps a little, overwhelmed by how much easier things feel once he’s done a simple thing.
“Good job,” Mianmian says, and pats the back of Zixuan’s hand briskly. “Now, next up, Yiling Wei doesn’t really have any forces—”
“They don’t need much,” Zixuan says, and shudders. He has vivid memories of seeing what a single Yiling Wei disciple could do with resentful energy, the way it changed the shape of the battlefield, the way it broke enemy morale, the way it turned hopeless fights into even matches or, better yet, all-out routs. It had been horrifying and awful and amazing. He’d checked to see which soldiers his father had sent after the banquet, since he hadn’t realised the plan until about five minutes before his father just stood up and told it to everyone – not a great way to maintain secrecy, which even Zixuan knows, but he supposes it’s the trade-off for keeping the vassal sects in terrified awe – and none of the Sunshot Veterans had been chosen. Almost all the Sunshot veterans, he had discovered in mounting fury as he examined the records, had been reassigned to scutwork, or dismissed, or otherwise shuffled out of the usual rotation and denied any chance to prove themselves or seek promotion or see combat.
Zixuan personally would love to never see combat again for the rest of his life, except perhaps in the form of a conference tournament, but some people feel differently – and anyway, the real scandal is the shabby treatment across the board, considering that all of those soldiers had served Zixuan faithfully and deserved to be rewarded. He thinks his father was trying to break some imagined powerbase Zixuan was assembling, but Zixuan is entirely without the gifts of charisma and confidence that make his father so successful at that kind of manoeuvring.
It also means that the soldiers going to Yiling have never seen what the Wei sect can do before, so they’re not going to be ready, and they’re probably going to be slaughtered. Zixuan feels bad for them, but there’s some tiny mean-spirited hateful part of him that’s grateful, too. This fight is already wildly unfair, and he wants to keep every single advantage he can hand to Yiling Wei.
“Who does he have left?” Mianmian asks. “I mean, it’s a pretty big assumption that he’s even in Luanzang Gang right now. If all that was keeping them there was Wen Ruohan attacking them whenever they left, I don’t see why they’d stay now.”
“That’s not the reason,” Zixuan says, but he can’t hide his doubt. “I mean... there are better places to hide, surely. Places that don’t feature, uh, mass graves and unprecedented quantities of resentful energy.”
Mianmian shrugs. “Who would be there, in theory?”
“Meng Yao,” Zixuan says, and tries not to wince. No one had come right out and said that Meng Yao was Zixuan’s half-brother, but they hadn’t really needed to. They had the same high foreheads, the same jaw, the same dimples. And then, “Mo Lihua,” he says, “and her son, though he’s – very small.” And another half-brother, maybe, if Mo Lihua is the Mo Yu who ran away from Mo Village a few years ago. She’s using a new character in her surname now, but who could blame her?
“Well, no,” Mianmian says, “because Meng Yao is in Qinghe negotiating... some kind of formal agreement between the sects, since the Nie sect won’t leave Bujing Shi, and last I heard Mo Lihua was visiting Yunmeng, along with Wen Zhuliu.”
Wen Zhuliu had been the next person Zixuan intended to name, as the only member of Yiling Wei who’d earned a title aside from Yiling Laozu – did Yiling Laozu even count? Yiling was just the village they were technically part of, wasn’t it? Zixuan rubs his jaw and says, “Then what about that Xue Yang? Or... hold on, I know there was another one. I can’t remember the name, but there was definitely another one.”
“Xue Yang is in Gusu, helping with the reconstruction,” Mianmian says. “That makes four disciples that we know the names of and one that you’ve forgotten—”
“Hey,” Zixuan says defensively. “I met the full sect once, and there wasn’t exactly a lot of time to stand around exchanging names. Mostly we just stood well back while they did their thing and then went in to finish things off.” They’d barely even had to kill anyone; after a few months of being attacked by the corpses of their own fallen comrades, most of the Wen had started surrendering on the spot as soon as they saw the Sunshot banners. The logistics had been much harder than any of the fighting, in the end, though to be fair the logistics didn’t give Zixuan screaming nightmares of blood and death and fierce corpses and endlessly circling magpies.
“So we can assume that if you actually did get their names, they were the heavy hitters of Yiling,” Mianmian says, which seems sensible to Zixuan. “And right now, none of those heavy hitters are actually in Yiling, as far as we know.”
Zixuan stops rubbing his chin and bends forward to rest his forehead on his knees instead. “Fuqin must have known this.”
“He definitely did,” Mianmian said. “I know all that just from talking to the other sect retainers at breakfast. It’s not a secret. He deliberately chose now, today, because he thought Yiling Wei would be as close to undefended as it’s ever going to get. They’re going to besiege Luanzang Gang, and I don’t want to worry you—” Zixuan manages a weak laugh at that, and Mianmian pats the back of his head in acknowledgement, “—but he’s very likely to succeed. There’s a reason Yiling Wei allied with the Sunshot Campaign. All your father needs is one soldier to get one lucky shot and it’s all over, and if there’s one thing he has a lot of, it’s soldiers.”
“Wait,” Zixuan says, sitting up so abruptly he almost smacks his head on Mianmian’s hand. “Sorry. Wait. He doesn’t have all his soldiers. He tried to get rid of the battalion I took on campaign.” He feels faintly ridiculous saying it – on campaign, like he’s Nie Mingjue or something – but none of the accurate things he could say are flattering.
“That’s not exactly a numerical advantage,” Mianmian says doubtfully.
“No, but it’s better than nothing,” Zixuan says. “And you said it yourself – they’re going to besiege Luanzang Gang.”
He can tell from her face that Mianmian has already connected the dots and knows what he’s going to say, but she says, “Go on,” anyway. He loves her for that. If they actually survive this farce he’s going to finally follow through on making her swear sisterhood with him. If he can get her the respect she deserves, his useless pedigree and undeserved status will finally have been good for something.
“That’s the good thing about breaking a siege, isn’t it?” he says, instead of any of that. “You don’t need to win. You just need to not lose for long enough. Do you think we can manage it?”
“If anyone could, it would be me,” Mianmian says.
It’s possible Zixuan’s laughter is lightly edged with hysteria. Mianmian is kind enough not to comment on it.
A LONG TIME AGO
Wei Ying did not know how old he was when he first discovered that Luanzang Gang was awake.
At first, he had called it alive, but he had been raised by a cultivator and a cultivator’s factotum, and he knew better. Luanzang Gang was dead. Everything inside it was dead. That was its nature.
Despite being dead, Luanzang Gang breathed, in the form of heavy fog and mist that periodically rose from the ground. It thought, and felt, and expressed itself by whatever means were available. It moved. That, too, was its nature.
Wei Ying developed an idea. He would have called it a hypothesis if he had known the word at the time, but he did not learn it until before or after or during the development of the idea. So it wasn’t a hypothesis. Names were important in Luanzang Gang. Dead things did not have names, but Luanzang Gang did. So did Wei Ying, who was not dead, or who was dead, or who was fated to die, or who was fated to be a dead thing with a name.
The important thing was that Wei Ying developed an idea.
Wei Changze had always carried a dizi. He used it to play love songs to his wife and lullabies to his son, and if he was holding his son while his wife fought, he used specific notes to signal her: go left, it’s coming back, duck, new enemy.
Wei Ying did not know where Wei Changze’s dizi was, but there was black bamboo that did not grow in Luanzang Gang, frozen in the act of reaching towards the sun. He knew a dizi was made of bamboo, and that it had holes in it, and that it worked by passing breath through the length of the flute. He cut down some bamboo with a knife he found in the dirt – he was probably not six anymore, but he had not grown since he came to Luanang Gang, so it took some hard work – and then he whittled flutes, over and over.
None of them worked, not really. Some made sounds, but they were strange whistling screeches, not the musical notes Wei Changze had created. Wei Ying tossed the worst failures into a muddy pond and poked at one of the screechers to see how it might change if he widened some of the holes he’d poked in it.
Lift your chin, said a voice.
Wei Ying was used to hearing voices by then – he was hearing several as he carved – which mostly they said things like despair or blood for blood or do you want revenge? This voice sounded the same, but what it said was… different.
“What do you mean?” he asked out loud, because there was no one else in Luanzang Gang, and if he did not talk to himself he might forget to talk at all.
Lit your chin when you play. Blow air across the mouthpiece, not down into it.
Wei Ying examined his work, and decided it was worth trying; what would he lose if the voice was wrong? It could hardly trick him into anything nefarious by helping him make a dizi.
The sound that came out when he blew across the mouthpiece instead of into it still didn’t sound much like Wei Changze’s lullabies, but it wasn’t a screech, and besides, Wei Ying barely remembered Wei Changze anymore. Only that he had existed, once, and that he was important somehow.
We remember him, Luanzang Gang said. He died fearing for the safety of his son.
Wei Ying picked up a new piece of bamboo and started whittling another dizi. He changed a few things this time, taking into account the advice of the voice. The knife slipped as he carved the mouth piece and bit into the meat of his palm.
Ah, said Luanzang Gang.
Wei Ying went to shove the cut into his mouth, but something took a delicate hold of his wrist. The blood welling up from his palm vanished bit by bit, as though an invisible mouth was lapping it up, and then a cloth wound around the wound.
We remember, Luanzang Gang said. They are among us. Let us show you.
LANLING, BEFORE THE SIEGE
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Mianmian has been waiting for this for years.
Not hoping for it, of course, or anticipating it, but predicting it. Looking for it. Expecting it.
She’d never been so optimistic as to think she wouldn’t be the only one, but it turns out pragmatism only gets you so far. Qin-furen finds her just as Mianmian is starting to think of who she could maybe potentially consider sending a message and takes her to a room where half a dozen other women have gathered – women of all classes, from the lowest scullery maid to the noble Qin-furen herself. Women of all ages, some of them old enough to be Mianmian’s mother, some of them barely out of childhood. Mianmian recognises a few of them: a blacksmith, an outer disciple, a seamstress, a merchant, a widow, a sect heir.
Mianmian realises what they must all have in common when she sees the sect heir. She’d always wondered why the Ouyang daughters had so adamantly avoided conferences for the past decade or so. Now that she sees Ouyang-da-guniang here, it seems fairly clear that it was to disguise their eldest sister’s hatred of Lanling.
Mianmian has been expecting this day. Qin-furen, it turns out, has been preparing.
“We’re going to give Jin-zongzhu the worst day of his life,” Ouyang-da-guniang says cheerfully, and Mianmian grins.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
The logistics are tricky. Jin Zixuan needs to move fast if he wants to get away from Lanling while everyone is still reeling. He doesn’t need Mianmian to be with him when he gets to Yiling, but it’d be a lot easier for all of them if she were there. Zixuan is a lot less likely to go to pieces in the face of a minor obstacle if she’s around to keep him grounded, for a start.
So Mianmian slips away and strikes a bargain with her oldest friend. Zixuan will go, with as much of his battalion of veterans as he can scrape together in an hour, and Mianmian will help cover his movements by helping Qin-furen and her vengeful flock to throw all of Lanling into disarray. If they can arrest Jin-zongzhu, so much the better. Zixuan immediately becomes acting sect leader. If Zixuan becomes acting sect leader, Mianmian doesn’t even need to sneak away; she can volunteer to fly with all haste directly to his side with his father’s seal. Ending the attack before it really gets started by legally revoking Jin Guangshan’s orders would be a lot easier than any of the other options.
But she’s getting ahead of herself, and she can see on Zixuan’s face that he is still too caught up in the grim reality that he’s going to war again.
It feels like he only just got back. Mianmian isn’t planning to lose him again.
But for now, Zixuan goes. Mianmian stays.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Mianmian has two long-held suspicions confirmed in rapid succession.
First, Jin Guangshan is a monster. That’s not surprising. On her very first day in Jinlin Tai, before Mianmian was even told where she could leave her belongings, she was told not to let Jin Guangshan catch her alone. She’d been a child then, but she’s not a child now, and it’s always been easy to put the pieces together. It’s just that now, with a dozen of his victims marching together towards the inner palace, she can very literally see it.
Second, Jin Guangshan is slippery as a damn eel.
It’s all going so well. Qin-furen apparently got Hanguang-jun in on the plan because he’s waiting for them with his qin on his back and his sword in his hand when they arrive in the hallway leading towards Jin Guangshan’s private officers. He inclines his head towards Qin-furen and falls into step beside her, on the other side from Mianmian, like an honour guard. It’s good that he’s there, Mianmian thinks, a little dizzy. He’s maybe the only person in the world who could arrest Jin Guangshan without anyone suspecting him of some ulterior motive.
They burst into Jin Guangshan’s office without being announced. He’s there, of course – they’d made sure he would be, when they decided where it would be best to corner him – but not alone, which wasn’t in the plan. It’s not anyone Mianmian knows very well, one of the many clerks Jin Guangshan sends scurrying around on his errands.
Jin Guangshan is already in high dudgeon, which is also unexpected. He’s so busy berating the clerk he barely seems to notice their entrance.
“How can he be missing? Surely you have some concept of where he’s gone!”
“Th-this humble servant can only speculate, Jin-zongzhu,” the clerk says, cringing away. Mianmian feels a stab of sympathy.
“Then speculate!” Jin Guangshan snaps. It’s strange to see him without his mask. He’s so genial in public. It’s easy to forget that he could be different elsewhere.
“He – er, I believe – the evidence suggests – perhaps the young master is travelling to Yiling?” the clerk says, and flinches in anticipation of a blow. A good instinct, because Jin Guangshan raises his arm to backhand the man, but he turns to put the full force of his body behind the blow and catches a glimpse of his audience from the corner of his eye.
All at once, the rage is gone, as if it were never there. Jin Guangshan smiles at them, wide and inviting. Mianmian shudders. It’s not even that he’s smiling suggestively, or that he’s indicating any particular sign of sexual interest. It’s just that she knows. The handsome man with the fine robes and the gracious manners and the convivial smile is a sadist, a rapist, and almost certainly a murderer.
Mianmian prefers night hunting. That prey, at least, looks like what it is.
“Fu Xiang!” Jin Guangshan says amiably, as though he wasn’t about to hit his clerk half a second ago. It takes Mianmian a moment to realise he’s addressing Qin-furen; she’s not actually sure she’s ever heard Qin-furen addressed by her personal name before. “This humble one must apologise. I’m afraid there’s been some – developments. I cannot spare...” He pauses, eyes sweeping over the women behind them, lingering for a moment on Hanguang-jun. “Did we have plans this evening? Forgive me, it must have slipped my mind.”
“Don’t fret, Guangshan,” Qin-furen says icily. “We didn’t make an appointment. You’ve always been a coward; I didn’t want to give you a chance to run when you saw us coming.”
Jin Guangshan laughs, as though Qin-furen is making a comradely joke and not about to lay an accusation at his feet. It’s fascinating to watch. If Mianmian was an outsider happening on the scene, she’d think he was genuine.
“You know I always want to make time for you, A Xiang,” he says. Mianmian is close enough to Qin-furen to see the minute flinch she gives at the endearment. “But I’ve received some tragic news – you,” he says, without looking at the clerk. “Go and get the other sect leaders.”
“Yes, why don’t you do that,” Qin-furen says. “The more witnesses the better, don’t you think?”
“I think you and I both know some things are better conducted in private, A Xiang,” Jin Guangshan says as his clerk all but sprints out the door. Mianmian feels her face twist in revulsion. That is suggestive, and knowing what she knows now, it makes her want to vomit.
“What’s all this, then?” Yao-zongzhu is already striding through the door, shoving through the little crowd of women as though they aren’t even there. “Jin-zongzhu, you sly dog – oh, I do beg your pardon, Qin-furen.”
“You do not have it,” Qin-furen says, but it’s obvious Yao-zongzhu isn’t listening. He barely pauses for long enough to be embarrassed by what he was implying before he’s trotting over to Jin Guangshan’s side like an obedient dog.
“That clerk of yours practically crashed into me,” he says. “What’s going on?”
“A moment, Yao-zongzhu,” Jin Guangshan says. “I only want to say this once.”
Mianmian sees the danger they’re in at once. Jin Guangshan’s amiable mask is being reassembled into something else, something that looks – sort of sad, but in a distant way. Like he’s devastated but trying to hide it, and bravely carrying on regardless, or something.
“Hanguang-jun,” she says, low and urgent. “Arrest him now.”
“What are you talking about, girl?” a sect leader says, strolling in behind her. “Speak clearly! Aren’t you a cultivator? Have some pride.”
“Aiya, don’t listen to Chang-zongzhu too closely,” says another sect leader. “Women are prettier when they’re quiet.”
“Qin-furen,” Hanguang-jun says, but another sect leader is arriving – one Mianmian recognises, finally, Ouyang-zongzhu. He actually asks the women to let him through, but when they step aside he finds himself nose to nose with his eldest daughter.
“Chunyi?” He looks around, then back at his daughter. “What are you doing here? Has something happened?”
“Adie,” Ouyang-da-guniang says, and stops. She bites her lip. Mianmian thinks she might be tearing up.
“Yi’er,” Ouyang-zongzhu says.
Mianmian wrenches her eyes away and closes her ears to whatever they say to each other. She tries to catch Hanguang-jun’s eye.
She’s too late. Jin Guangshan starts to speak.
“My friends,” he says, and Mianmian knows even with just those two words that they’ve missed their moment. “I have awful news. Yiling Laozu has kidnapped my only son and heir and is holding him hostage to prevent our just and righteous crusade. I must go to Luanzang Gang immediately to rescue him. Will you stand with me?”
A LONG TIME AGO
Wei Ying is dead. Wei Ying is not dead.
It took a long time for Wei Ying to understand that most people thought of Luanzang Gang as a place. A terrible place – profane, desolate, poisoned – but a place all the same. It had land and water. It had hills and valleys. It had the sky above and the earth below. It even had borders, nebulous though they were.
Wei Ying thought he might have had that state of blissful ignorance in some other life. Some life where he turned east and walked back through Yiling, instead of turning west and walking straight into the fog. Some life where he didn’t try to fight the dogs that came to steal his scraps and ran instead, losing the meal but keeping his skin intact. Some life where his parents lived, or some life where they didn’t. Some life where Wei Ying’s hand closed around the handle of a black, smoking sword, lodged in the belly of a beast.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and took his vengeance upon Qishan Wen.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and presented himself to Jiang Fengmian as Wei Changze’s long-lost son.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and collapsed into Lan Zhan’s arms at the gates of Yunshen Buzhichu.
Each time, he found himself in Luanzang Gang again.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and went to the Yunshen Buzhichu for the summer lectures.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and went to Bujing Shi to join the Sunshot Campaign.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and went to Buyetian Cheng to offer his services interrogating the Lan prisoners.
Wei Ying walked out of Luanzang Gang and found a cultivator all in white, night hunting on a mountain.
It was not possible for all these things to be true. Unless Wei Ying was careful, unless he made sure to only leave Luanzang Gang after he arrived, he collapsed the possibilities down to one. But he remembered them as if they were. They blurred in the details, the way memories of childhood did, and sometimes they faded so much he thought he must have dreamed them.
No matter what, he remembered Lan Zhan’s face. Lan Zhan’s voice. Lan Zhan’s hand in his.
YILING, DURING THE SIEGE
Wen Ning was very grateful to Wei Wuxian for everything he had done during the war, not only for Wen Ning personally but for his entire family and sect. Without him – or possibly without Mo Lihua, who had apparently also been Yiling Laozu on and off in the early part of their acquaintance – it was probable that his jiejie would never have managed to break away from Wen Ruohan’s control. Even if she had, without Yiling Wei providing a place to hide, the Dafan Wen would have been massacred, and even if they had survived, the Sunshot Campaign would probably have ended up losing to Qishan Wen, and then what would the point have been?
So he’s grateful. He does his best to make himself useful, to be unobtrusive and obedient. The Wei disciples aren’t the type to let anyone fade into the background, which is a mixed blessing, but does mean that Wen Ning has friends he isn’t related to for the first time in his life.
And now all those friends are leaving. There have been a lot of emotional goodbyes, as if none of them think they’ll be coming back. Wen Ning keeps his thoughts to himself, watching as the residents of Luanzang Gang trickle away, one by one, and when Wei Wuxian asks Wen Ning to escort Nainai and the other elderly Dafan Wen back home, Wen Ning agrees, and doesn’t comment if Wei Wuxian’s eyes are a little wet.
But, as Wen Ruohan used to remind him, Wen Ning is not a very pious man. He keeps the spirit of the bargain; he escorts the Dafan Wen as far as Nanyang, where Wang Lingjiao and a group of jiejie’s soldiers are waiting to take them the rest of the way. Then he turns around and goes back to Luanzang Gang.
It takes Wen Ning days to get to Nanyang, and only a little less time to go back, moving a little faster on his own. The whole way, he worries – that he’s too slow, that Wei Wuxian is too impulsive, that things will escalate faster than he anticipates – and when he does get back to Yiling, he discovers he was right on all counts.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wen Ning is not as clever as his jiejie, or as clever as Wei Wuxian, but he’s not helpless either. He strips off his outermost robe, the one sewn with jiejie’s symbols, and shoves it in his qiankun pouch. Then he investigates.
There are a lot of soldiers in Yiling, most of them looking sort of shaky and terrified. None of them are really able to say anything when Wen Ning gently accosts them, so he leaves them behind and goes to the edge of town, where there are more soldiers. One of their commanders is ordering them to form a ring around the entire Luanzang Gang, which makes Wen Ning roll his eyes. Luanzang Gang is a big place. They’ll have a hard time encircling it even before they consider the way the borders move and shift over time.
Wen Ning suspects that Wei Wuxian has some kind of larger plan afoot, and he’s willing to wait and see how that plays out, but in the meantime, is there any harm in levelling the playing field a little?
He goes back into Yiling and coaxes some of the terrified merchants into giving him the things he needs.
Jiejie will be disappointed in him if she finds out, but that’s all right. Jiejie is the kind of doctor who will only ever help people, who finds doing harm to be abhorrent. Wen Ning takes a slightly different view. After all, most of the medicines jiejie uses to treat people would be poisonous if she gave too much, or the wrong things, or the wrong combination. Anything in the world can be a poison if the dose is high enough.
The Dafan Wen walk a different path, but they’re still Wen. And there are a lot of ways to help people.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
“Young master,” Wen Ning says to the man who clearly thinks he’s in charge of the operation, “this humble servant has been sent by the villagers of Yiling with a gift of wine, to thank you for dealing with the Wei sect.”
Jin Zixun sneers at him, but he accepts the wagonload of wine, and orders some of his men to start distributing it to his troops.
“Perhaps some liquid courage will remind them of their pride!” he says. Laughter from his commanders.
Wen Ning makes sure to be well away from the camp by the time the Jin sect soldiers start to realise they’ve been poisoned.
A LONG TIME AGO
Wei Ying knew he was alive because he starved, that first stretch of time between arriving and leaving. It was not usual for a living thing to enter Luanzang Gang and leave again. None of them knew what to expect. Luanzang Gang seemed apologetic, in its own arcane ways, and Wei Ying in turn resolved to go and barter for food in Yiling, so they would have no more near misses.
Luanzang Gang – possessive, paranoid, protective – went with him. The first woman he approached, the voices whispered, had a cousin who had been cruel to her. Did she want revenge? What would she promise in return?
Wei Ying, who had made many promises to Luanzang Gang in return for many things, offered the woman revenge.
Had he already known the path it would lead down, or had that come later? He supposed it didn’t matter; if it did, he might remember.
Wei Ying was six years old when he walked into Luanzang Gang.
He understood that his parents were dead. Understanding was not the issue. He had not seen them fall, or found their bodies, but they had told him that they would find him in Yiling before sunrise, and they had not. That meant they were dead.
They had practiced for what Wei Ying would do in this situation. First, Wei Ying would make sure he had a safe place to sleep. Then, Wei Ying would find food. Then, Wei Ying would wait until one of his parents’ friends came and found him.
Except that there was a dog already sleeping in the place that was supposed to be safe, and it lunged for Wei Ying when he came too close. He fled the dog and found himself lost, standing on a long, straight road with bite marks bleeding sluggishly along his arms.
He turned west.
Do you want revenge?
The voices asked Wei Ying this question every day. At first he had said, “No.” Then he said, “No, thank you,” in case it was his bad manners that made them ask again. Later, he had answered their questions with questions – “Revenge on who? What kind of revenge? How would you even do it?”
Do you want revenge?
If he’d been a little older, he might have regretted the questions; Luanzang Gang always answered them. But he was young enough that very soon it felt like Luanzang Gang was all he’d ever known.
Do you want revenge?
He began to tell it other things he wanted instead of revenge: feasts and castles and a magic lamp, things half-remembered from stories. Perhaps Luanzang Gang could tell they were not what he wanted.
Do you want revenge?
Wei Ying became a scholar of resentment without knowing it. He understood it before he even truly understood ordinary cultivation. Resentment, he determined, was a trap. The sense that there was some wrong unrighted, some task undone – it consumed, like a fever, like a fire. That was why Luanzang Gang asked for his revenge. It could not conceive that he might want a future, or even a present. It could only understand the past, and the anger he carried towards it. It had no other impetus. There was nothing that could coax it forward. Unless Luanzang Gang clung to its past – to its many thousands of pasts, to the pasts of all the dead who lay there – it had nothing, and so it would not let go.
Wei Ying watched the unmoving sky and wondered.
Do you want revenge?
YILING, DURING THE SIEGE
Jin Zixuan is the only one of his ragged troop of veterans wearing Jin sect robes. His troop doesn’t really look like soldiers at all, anymore. They all look like peasants. Well, maybe they look like wealthy peasants. Is there such a thing? Zixuan turns to ask Mianmian, but she’s not there – she’s still back at Jinlin Tai, dealing with all the other crimes Jin Guangshan has committed lately.
He puts it out of his mind as best he can.
When they get to Yiling, things are looking... odd. There are a lot more soldiers in the village than there ought to be, considering the real target is Luanzang Gang. Zixuan lands in the tiny patch of dirt that seems to serve as a sort of market square and looks around. From the deeply unpleasant sounds of retching and... other things, it’s fairly clear that there’s been some kind of outbreak among Jin Zixun’s forces, but what can it be? Most of the summer fevers take more than a day to get this bad, and tainted water would affect the villagers too. In fact, the villagers of Yiling seem not only well, but slightly smug, as if – ah. Poison, then.
Zixuan has spent a lot of time wanting to poison Jin Zixun. He sympathises.
“Excuse me, young master,” he says to the nearest person, a nervous-looking gentleman who startles so badly he nearly trips over his own feet when Zixuan talks to him. “I’m a – a friend, I suppose, of Yiling Laozu. I don’t suppose you know...”
“Oh, Jin-gongzi,” says the young man. He has a shy, sweet smile, and huge wide eyes, and Jin Zixuan briefly feels like he’s been smacked on the head with something heavy. “My apologies, I didn’t recognise you.”
“Nor I you,” Zixuan says, fumbling for a name. His memory of those eyes is from the banquet at Buyetian Cheng, the celebration of the Sunshot Campaign’s victory, and he met so many people there. “I – forgive me, gongzi, but – is there a way you would prefer I address you? I know the circumstances are, uh, very difficult—”
“This one is happy to be addressed as Wen Ning,” says Wen Ning.
Zixuan’s memory finally slots several things into place.
Zixuan can feel his cheeks heating, but he swallows hard and attempts to keep his composure. “Thank you, Wen Ning. I, um, I would be pleased if – ah. Hmm.” He looks around. “Perhaps – do you know what’s happening here?”
“Well,” Wen Ning says, “your awful cousin – er, Jin Zixun, I mean. I beg your pardon, Jin-gongzi—”
“Jin Zixuan,” Zixuan blurts. “Is. Fine. As a way to address me, I mean.”
Now Wen Ning is blushing. Oh, heavens. Zixuan’s awkwardness is becoming contagious. Mianmian is going to laugh herself sick.
“Well, Jin Zixuan, your cousin was attempting to have his forces ring Luanzang Gang.”
“He doesn’t have enough men for that,” Zixuan says. “I don’t think anyone has enough men for that. Luanzang Gang is huge.”
“I had thought so too,” Wen Ning says, “but he seemed determined to attempt it. But since he was still near the main entrance organising things, I arranged for the villagers of Yiling to offer him a gift – barrels of wine, enough for most of his soldiers to get at least a cup – and then...” He gestures at the nearby street, where a particularly unfortunate Jin sect soldier is hanging desperately onto the side of a house as he hunches over, looking grey and pale and very much like he might prefer death at this moment.
“That’s not drunkenness,” Zixuan says doubtfully. He has seen a lot of drunkenness, and while it sometimes involves an unpleasant amount of nausea and vomiting, it doesn’t usually involve... that.
“No, it’s not,” Wen Ning says. For a moment he looks sort of abashed. “It’s, um, more like what you might see if… perhaps, in theory, if the wine was spiked with fuzi and dahuang?”
Fuzi is a plant with which Zixuan, along with most of the Jin family, is very familiar. It has a beautiful blue flower, and every single part of the plant is toxic. It can be used to improve cultivation in sickly children, but only when carefully prepared by a doctor to neutralise the poison, and even then it should be taken in very, very small doses. Zixuan has privately always thought that this use was actually a way of getting rid of rival heirs, or perhaps of trying to give your heir immunity to the most common weapon of an assassin before he’s old enough to be missed very much if it goes wrong.
“That’s – very impressive,” is what he says, instead of rambling on about any of that. If all he has to do is keep his mouth completely shut, he does all right, but if he has to say things, it’s so much harder to keep himself from saying too much. “Wen-gongzi is a truly cunning tactician. In theory.”
Wen Ning smiles and looks down at his feet, blushing furiously.
One of Zixuan’s soldiers clears her throat pointedly. Zixuan jumps, and only barely manages to keep from falling over.
“Ah! Wen Ning, would you – do you know a way into Luanzang Gang? I had wanted to ensure Wei-zongzhu was adequately supported...”
“Oh, yes,” Wen Ning says. “It’s a little tricky if you’re not used to it, but there is a way. Follow me.”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
There wasn’t enough wine to sate the thirst of every one of Jin Zixun’s soldiers, but a good portion of them were out of commission, and the remainder were confused or panicking or both. Zixuan made a note to see if Wen Ning could be convinced to stick around and help out, and also to never, ever annoy him. They get a chance to take a good look at the mess left behind while they slip through the craggy rocks and twisted shrubs towards Luanzang Gang. There’s something oddly satisfying about Jin Zixun desperately trying to regain control over his fragmented forces. Zixuan tries not to be too gleeful. They haven’t won anything yet.
The fog that surrounds Luanzang Gang had been written about in poems and songs and the occasional report on their defences and was often described as a wall. Zixuan hadn’t realised how literally that was meant. From a distance it seems to swirl and move like an ordinary fogbank, but up close the core of it is solid and grey and thick. Only the way Wen Ning walks directly into it assures Zixuan that it’s not solid.
“Excuse me,” Wen Ning says. Zixuan startles before he realises Wen Ning isn’t speaking to him. “We would like to see Wei Wuxian, please. Is he in?”
The fog whirls and parts.
“...what,” Zixuan says.
“I don’t know,” Wen Ning says. “I noticed, when jiejie and I were visiting, that all the disciples were very careful in how they talked about Luanzang Gang. I thought it was a bit like they were afraid of hurting its feelings.”
“I – right.” Zixuan puts Luanzang Gang has feelings? into the back of his mind, along with I’m the son of a serial rapist and Mianmian is still in Jinlin Tai, without me. “Makes... sense? Yes. Let’s go.”
When he thinks about what Luanzang Gang might be like – which, admittedly, he does not do very often – Zixuan pictures something like the inner palace at Buyetian Cheng, with lots of black stone and red light. Instead, he gets a truly abysmal piece of farmland, with a lot of abandoned crops wilting in their plots. There’s a fairly pitiful little village, which looks empty, and a cave with a carved entrance that approximates a palace gate, and that’s it. It’s not remotely what anyone has said.
Zixuan suspects a lot of people who talk about Luanzang Gang have never been there.
“Wei-zongzhu?” Wen Ning calls. “Are you here?”
Zixuan tilts his head, listening. “Is that – is someone playing..?”
He puts a hand on his sword, and so do all his veterans. If there’s one thing every single person involved in the Sunshot Campaign remembers, it’s that a member of the Wei sect starting up a musical performance is very bad news.
“Oh, no,” Wen Ning says softly. “We might be too late.”
A LONG TIME AGO
After something in Luanzang Gang had drunk the blood from Wei Ying’s wounded palm, they had been family. It was the kind of straightforward logic of a folk story or a child. They had shared blood and now they were kin.
Luanzang Gang began to care for Wei Ying. It chose carefully from among its gathered dead. It found the parents who only wanted to see their children one last time, who had been torn away from their families by the whims of some gentry they had never even seen, who refused to believe they would die so far from home. It found cultivators who were determined to see their students’ training through to the end, who wanted to return home and destroy the lie that war was glorious, who had children of their own that might someday follow in their footsteps, if only their parents did not die here. It found swordmasters who had planned mighty duels, who had a new sword waiting at the blacksmith, who were utterly wasted in the infantry.
That was how Wei Ying was raised; communally, by the unquiet dead.
He thought that, once, Luanzang Gang had even found his own parents, but they had seen Wei Ying – twenty or twenty-five that day, tall and strong and blazing with power – and, satisfied that he had lived, that he had grown, that he was well—
When resentment was gone, nothing remained.
At least a wound leaves scar tissue, one of Wei Ying’s tutors said. We linger because we have nothing else.
“But what if lingering is worse?” Wei Ying asked.
He received no answer.
Wei Ying was never sure if Luanzang Gang brought him the people he needed deliberately, or if it was fate, or even something simpler. Like called to like, after all.
Meng Yao, begging for his mother’s life. Fu Xiang, demanding justice for the women wronged by Jin Guangshan. Mo Lihua, asking for a future for her son – and later, Wen Zhuliu, asking for the same. Wang Lingjiao, pleading for her family to be safe.
Even Xue Yang, who came to satisfy his curiosity, had come on behalf of the children of Kuizhou, who told stories of Yiling Laozu to each other as they tried not to freeze. If Wei Ying told him that what he had really asked was for Yiling Laozu to give those same children something to believe in, some kernel of spite or hope to carry them through the winter nights, Xue Yang would throw a mighty tantrum, which was how Wei Ying knew he was right.
Even Wen Qing and Wen Ning, coming on behalf of the Dafan Wen, and Nie Huaisang, coming on behalf of his brother. Even Su She, who refused to admit he had come for anyone but himself, harboured ambitions of building a sect of the lowborn, the forgotten, and raising them up to be the equal or the better of the highborn gentry who had overlooked their entire existence. There were no secrets in Luanzang Gang, not from its master, but Su She was fragile then and so Wei Ying had left it alone.
He should have pushed a little harder. If he had helped Su She voice what he really wanted, Wei Ying could have given him anything at all to accomplish it. Instead, he had left it alone, thinking foolishly that because time did not move in Luanzang Gang, he would always have enough of it.
In the end, Wei Ying was not so different from the ghosts of Luanzang Gang. As the end approached, he was consumed with if only, if only.
Once – only once – Wei Ying was ninety when he walked out of Luanzang Gang.
He went straight to Yunshen Buzhichu and bowed stiffly at the gate, joints crackling audibly as he straightened. One of the young disciples on duty hastily took him by the elbow and guided him into one of the buildings close to the gate. Wei Ying explained, in a voice that quavered with age, that he had heard there was a remarkable sage at Yunshen Buzhichu; Hanguang-jun, the Lightbringer, who could grant clarity to his supplicants.
“Ah,” the disciple said, and stammered her way through an explanation that Hanguang-jun was a cultivator, not a sage, and what’s more he had many matters that occupied his time, and would Wei Ying like a cup of tea before he left?
“No, Lan-guniang,” Wei Ying said patiently. “I would like to see Hanguang-jun before I leave. I have come a very long way to see him, you know!”
“Wei-shushu,” the disciple said, flustered. “Hanguang-jun is really too busy—”
“Mn,” said Hanguang-jun from the doorway, where he had been standing for almost a full minute. “I will see him.”
There was a confusion of bowing and honorifics – Wei Ying was really too old to keep track of all the fluttering robes – and then the disciple was gone and it was only Wei Ying and Hanguang-jun, sitting across from each other. Hanguang-jun poured the tea.
It was appalling how much this version of Hanguang-jun looked like the young man Wei Ying had fought in the moonlight half a hundred times. His youth, his power, his surety – it had all calcified into an ageless immortal. He truly did look to be carved from jade, or from bone. Wei Ying had half a mind to toss him down the stairs and see if he’d shatter.
“Hanguang-jun,” Wei Ying creaked. “This humble one comes seeking your wisdom. Although I had thought you would be an old man, like me!”
“Mn,” Hanguang-jun said. He set the teapot down and they drank. Then they sat in silence for some time.
Wei Ying had planned what he would say but confronted with a version of Lan Zhan who was unscarred and unchallenged – trapped for eternity in the height of his arrogance – his memory failed him again.
“Forgive me,” he said, in a low croaking voice. “My mind isn’t what it once was.”
“Mn,” Hanguang-jun said, which was rude. He did not tell Wei Ying to take his time or offer to discuss other matters in the hope of jogging his memory.
Lan Zhan would never, Wei Ying thought.
He hummed thoughtfully. “Well! I’m afraid I’ve wasted your time, young master. I can’t recall what brought me here.” He struggled up to his feet. “Good day.”
Wei Ying, ninety years old, walked all the way down the mountain, and used a talisman to return to Yiling. Hanguang-jun did not assist him; nor did he stop him.
There had been a time when Wei Ying had thought the best thing he could do for Lan Zhan was to stay away from him. He had needed to see for himself. What would Lan Zhan be like if Wei Ying never entered his life?
He had only been given a glimpse of an answer, and he did not like it. He did not think Lan Zhan would like it either.
Wei Ying arrived at Luanzang Gang before he left, and that possibility crumbled into dust. The next time he saw Lan Zhan was on one of the roofs of Bujing Shi, bathed in the moonlight. Wei Ying gave him a pendant and played him a lullaby and made sure that, no matter what, Lan Zhan would have this memory: kindness from a stranger, from a heretic, from someone the other sects would see dead.
He did not know if it made a difference. He was sure he would never know. But he had to try.
THE SIEGE OF LUANZANG GANG
Wangji is willing to arrest Jin Guangshan regardless, if only to keep him from causing more trouble, but Qin-furen tells him that they have been outplayed, at least for now.
“We will have our chance,” she says, cold as glass. “But it will not be now. Luo-guniang, with me. Lan-gongzi, you must go to Yiling and warn Jin Zixuan of what his father intends.”
“I should go to Yiling,” Luo-guniang protests, but Qin-furen shakes her head.
“You will travel to Yiling with Jin Guangshan’s forces. Learn what you can of their plans and strategies, then slip away and pass the information forward.” Qin-furen glances at the cluster of women – witnesses prepared to give testimony, but only a fraction of the women harmed by Jin Guangshan – and then looks to Wangji again. “Go now, before they realise you are here and try to stop you.”
Wangji needs no further encouragement. He flies from the nearest window.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
From the air, Yiling is in chaos.
Jin Zixun’s forces are in disarray. Many of them seem to be in significant discomfort. Jin Zixun is rallying those who can still walk, forming them up on the narrow path that winds past the little shrine and into Luanzang Gang. The shrine has been smashed and burned; Wangji is not sure why that is the thing that tugs at his heart.
He sees no sign of Jin Zixuan, but under the circumstances, a stealthy approach seems wise; perhaps he is already in the cover of the fog, or even approaching from the far side of Luanzang Gang.
Wangji cannot recall how Wei Ying had led him through the fog, the first time he had come to Luanzang Gang; he only recalls that he was lost, and then there was a hand on his arm, guiding his path. Now, though, he has the time spent dwelling in Luanzang Gang itself to draw on, and he thinks he knows the trick of it. He flies forward, steady, eyes closed as the fog swirls around him and draws him in and thinks. I want to see Wei Ying. Take me to him.
It is disorienting. Wind catches at him and threatens to blow him off course, and the fog itself is thick enough to choke. Wangji closes his mind to it and wraps his fingers around the jade rabbit yaopei. He does not need to know where he is or where he is going; Wangji will always find Wei Ying.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Inside, Luanzang Gang is empty. Not in the way it always is, still and hollow; truly empty, absent any sign of life. Even the carefully tended gardens are falling to ruin.
Wangji had not realised how much the people made the place until they were gone.
He does not hesitate; he lands at the mouth of Fumodong and enters, Bichen drawn and in his hand. He can hear a jumble of voices, and the faint sounds of Wei Ying’s dizi. He closes his eyes and follows the sound, trusting in Fumodong to take him where he needs to be—
“No, no, no,” Wei Ying chants, and Wangji opens his eyes. “No! You can’t be here!”
Wei Ying isn’t addressing him; he is addressing Jin Zixuan and, improbably, Wen Qionglin. Wangji walks forward slowly, staying out of Wei Ying’s line of sight; if he is distressed, perhaps it is better if he does not see Wangji yet.
After their last conversation, such as it was, Wangji cannot imagine he is welcome.
“Wei-zongzhu,” Wen Qionglin says, gentle, “it’s all right. We’re not here to hurt you.” Jin Zixuan nods in emphatic agreement.
“No,” Wei Ying says, almost a moan of pain. “No one can be here! You have to go! Run!”
“It’s not safe for you here!” Jin Zixuan blurts out. “Even if my – if Jin-zongzhu isn’t coming himself, my cousin’s here, and he has – well, fewer men than he had before, but if they put you under siege—”
Wei Ying growls, stalking forwards. “I told you, I have a plan! It’s going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. But please, please, you have to go.”
He is begging. Given another moment, Wangji is sure he will go to his knees.
Wangji cannot bear it. “Wei Ying.”
“What?!” Wei Ying snarls, whirling on Wangji with the ferocity of a startled animal, only to blink at him. “Lan Zhan?”
“Yes.” Lan Zhan takes a step towards him, then another, and then Wei Ying is somehow in his arms, pressed up against his chest.
“No,” Wei Ying whispers. “No. I can’t – this isn’t fair. Lan Zhan, no.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan dares to set his hand against the back of Wei Ying’s head, cradling him close. “I am here to help you.”
“You can’t help me,” Wei Ying says, muffled where his mouth is pressed against Wangji’s shoulder. “It’s not safe, Lan Zhan. I went to so much effort to send everyone away – I just wanted – please go. Please, if you – if you ever thought well of me, if you still have even a little bit of affection for me – just go. Get away from here. Forget it ever existed.”
“Wei-zongzhu,” Wen Qionglin says gently, “perhaps it would be easier for us to understand if you told us what you were planning.”
Wei Ying pulls free of Wangji’s arms and turns to face Jin Zixuan and Wen Qionglin. Wangji abruptly recalls the reason he was sent ahead.
“Jin Guangshan is on his way,” he tells Wei Ying, with a single glance at Jin Guangshan for the news. “He brings a substantial force of cultivators from minor sects.”
Jin Zixuan puts a hand on his forehead. Whatever he says is very quiet.
“You are outnumbered and surrounded.” Wangji swallows, eyes fixed on Wei Ying. “It is not too late. Let us help you.
Wei Ying’s voice is hard and cold and clear. There is something unnatural about it, some hollow echo.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “It’s too late.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, reaching for him.
“Wei-zongzhu,” Wen Qionglin says, urgent, “please don’t—”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji returns to himself with a tiny, silvery bird formed of Xichen’s spiritual energy throwing itself into his hand. He catches it and reads the note that unfolds.
Message forged. Uncle is well. I am coming.
Wangji folds the note and slides it into his sleeve. He looks up.
He was standing atop a hill, with Wen Qionglin and Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixuan’s collection of soldiers. Before them, under a dome of mist so thick it seemed they could have walked across it, was Luanzang Gang. Wangji could not see it, but he could feel it, the space it left, the throbbing of its resentful heart.
And he could feel Wei Ying.
Jin Zixuan swore in a manner the gentry did not traditionally teach their sons. “What was that?!”
“He moved us,” Wen Qionglin said quietly. “Far enough that we wouldn’t – oh.”
Jin Zixun’s forces have been joined by more cultivators, in the time Wei Ying has moved them through. Wangji recognises the robes of Pingyang Yao and Yueyang Chang, among others; he recognises, too, Jin Guangshan at the head of their forces, shouting orders. Cultivators are throwing their power at the mist as though it will do them any good at all, where the might of the Wen sect had failed—
There is a sound like a mighty beast exhaling, with force enough to shake the ground.
The wall of mist collapses.
“Wait,” Jin Zixuan says. “How did we get here?”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
“No,” Wei Ying says.
His voice is hard and cold and clear. There is something unnatural about it, some hollow echo.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “It’s too late.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, and draws him into an embrace. “It’s not too late. Let me help you.”
“I can’t,” Wei Ying says. His voice breaks, a sound like the breaking of ice. “I can’t.”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji returns to himself standing atop a hill overlooking the entrance to Luanzang Gang, Xichen’s message winging its way to his hand. He watches the mist collapse. Jin Guangshan all but laughs in triumph. Jin Zixuan looks as though he will be sick.
They are not close enough to hear the command clearly, but Wangji is a veteran; he does not need to hear the command. The odd assortment of sects is ordered to advance into Luanzang Gang. Buoyed by the collapse of the mist, they go.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “It’s too late.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, and kisses him.
He is glad this is not the first time he has kissed Wei Ying. It is not a good kiss; they crash together like falling stones, Wangji’s teeth digging into Wei Ying’s lips, Wei Ying’s forehead almost breaking Wangji’s nose. Wangji bites down on Wei Ying’s mouth, swallowing his gasp. When Wangji tries to draw back, to speak, Wei Ying hauls him closer, clawing at his back so hard Wangji feels his skin tear beneath his robes.
Just as suddenly, he shoves Wangji away.
“Don’t make this any harder,” he begs. “I can’t bear it – please, Lan Zhan, don’t fight me—”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
The hill. The message from Xichen. The mist, collapsing.
Twin cries: horror from Jin Zixuan and triumph from Jin Guangshan.
A roar as the Jin force rushes forwards.
“This isn’t right,” Wen Qionglin says, his gentle voice slipping into a growl.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
“I’m sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says. “It’s too late.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, and draws his sword. It hurts him, though less than it might. Of the many impulses racing through his brain, this is only the second worst. “I will protect you. Even from yourself.”
Wei Ying’s mouth curves into something with too many teeth to be a smile, lip curling back. “You can try, Lan-er-gege, but you’ll regret it. We’re out of time, and I have a promise to keep.”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji watches the Jin-led forces rush into Luanzang Gang.
“He intends to sacrifice himself.” The words come without his will behind them, as if he is in a trance. Bichen is still drawn in his hand; he sheathes it and instead takes up his qin, restlessly running his fingers over the strings without letting them ring. “We must intervene.”
“How?” Jin Zixuan asks. He is pacing, back and forth, back and forth. “You’ve seen what he can do. I’m pretty sure he can handle this. If anything, it’ll probably go better if we’re not getting in his way!”
Before them – beneath them – Luanzang Gang groans.
The front ranks of the Jin force slow, then halt, confused and wary but not yet afraid. Those behind them grumble and complain as they run into the backs of their comrades. They bunch up, milling a little in confusion, looking for an enemy they do not yet know they see.
Wangji inhales. Holds.
The air explodes with the sound of a thousand shrieking magpies.
For a moment, Wangji is flung back in time to the day the Wen sect invaded Yunshen Buzhichu. There had been so many magpies in the forest – far more than there ought to have been, when the winter had been so harsh – and the scouts who had been in the forest said that every single bird took flight the moment the first Wen soldier set foot on the mountain. Their incessant screeching and diving were all the warning the Lan sect had; just enough time to gather their treasures and flee. Just enough time for Xichen to send Wangji on ahead, flying to Bujing Shi to report to Nie Mingjue. Just enough time to avert some fraction of the disaster.
Then he is back on a hill above Luanzang Gang. Wei Ying’s magpies wheel over Luanzang Gang, newly revealed. For a moment they are pure sound, beating wings and singing beaks, and then the flock turns as one and plunges towards the invading force.
They seem, unerringly, to aim for the eyes.
The effect on the Jin force is instantaneous. In mere seconds, they descend into pandemonium. All semblance of discipline vanishes as they dive for cover. They each attempt to shield their own eyes, staggering blindly into their own allies, slashing wildly at the air and at each other.
Jin Guangshan is not cowed. Wangji will grudgingly credit him this far, and no further; he stands tall among the chaos and bellows at his troops, attempting to get them back into order. When the magpies dive at him, he slaps them aside with a bare hand; he has not even bothered to draw his sword. It is a simple inference that he intends to leave the dirty work to his men. How long that option will be available to him, when his force was first poisoned and is now being torn apart by little woodland birds, remains to be seen.
His shouting has some effect. The stronger cultivators manage to kill a handful of the birds, begin to drag their subordinates to their feet and send them stumbling forwards. One by one, the soldiers latch onto the only features of Luanzang Gang’s landscape that offer shelter; the abandoned village, and the entrance to Fumodong. They break into a run, rabbits bolting for cover, ducking and dodging as the magpies harry them.
That is when the plants begin to move.
This startles Wangji, in a way the birds did not. Perhaps it is only that it seemed impossible for any plant to thrive in Luanzang Gang, except for the frozen trees and the black bamboo, caught between growth and decay. The roots and vines that burst from the ground certainly seem alive as they tangle around feet and ankles. They are not terribly strong – several soldiers simply continue to run, snapping the tendrils that attempt to ensnare them – but many of the invaders are still shielding their eyes, or cannot see for the damage done by cruel claws and clever beaks. They trip. They fall. They are taken by the vines.
Jin Guangshan kicks his way free of a thicket of thorns and leaps towards the stone of Fumodong. Some of his forces mimic him, finding places to land that do not touch bare soil. Some are too slow and find themselves caught up in a seething mess of green and brown. The vines, Wangji observes, do not seem inclined to kill their victims outright; instead, having constricted their movement, the vines submerge their captives in the dry, crumbling soil, leaving only their faces free.
“Jin-gongzi,” Wen Qionglin is saying in low, urgent tones, “if your father comes across you here, he may kill you.”
“What?” Jin Zixuan asks.
Wangji leaves the pair of them behind. He strides forward instead, eyes fixed on Fumodong. It seems as though it has changed even in the little time since Wangji found Wei Ying there. Just past the threshold, barely visible from the outside, a fresh wall of stone has sprung up, closing the way forward. For a moment, the low urgent fear in his chest eases. If Wei Ying has sealed himself inside, then perhaps Wei Ying intends to live after all.
Then the roar of water reaches his ears.
He does not want to look. He thinks he will know what he will see. He looks anyway, because he must, and discovers he was right. The water from the lotus pond, from the stinking algae-riddled puddles, from the desultory creeks higher in the hills – all has drained away and now forms a seething mass, like a snake, or a marching column, striding towards Fumodong – towards Jin Guangshan, who stands at its entrance.
Jin Guangshan, who finally draws his sword and shatters the stone wall with a single blow.
Behind him, he thinks Wen Qionglin gasps. Wangji pays him no mind. Instead, he leaps forward. Wangji warms under his hands as he channels his qi into her, as he aims himself like an arrow at Jin Guangshan’s retreating back.
He is only a little too slow. Jin Guangshan enters Fumodong; Wangji follows after; the water, following after, sweeps them both away.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
For a while, all Wangji knows is that he is moving extremely fast, and that if he inhales he will drown.
The water finally dumps him, gasping, in one of Fumodong’s many empty caverns. It could be a familiar place, or it could be somewhere he has never been before; it is impossible to know, when they are all alike, and when his head is spinning from lack of air and the tumultuous journey. His qin is still with him, the talismans etched into its belly saving it from water damage; Bichen is still by his side. Even his forehead ribbon remains in place, although it is as soaking wet as the rest of him.
Somewhere, a dizi is playing.
Wangji struggles to his feet. His robes are already wicking the water away as fast as they can, but there is so much of it. It feels as though he is wearing sacks of sand, like he did in his classes as a junior, when he and his cohort were all trying to build muscle on bodies that were consumed by hunger, regaining their balance only to lose it again with the next growth spurt. The ache in all his muscles reminds him of his youth, too, although he does not remember ever being so tired before.
“Wei Ying,” he calls. His voice is a rasp, barely more than the expulsion of air, but it echoes in the cavern. “Wei Ying.”
The dizi continues to play, slow, eerie. Wangji sets his hands on his qin and, since he could not be sure which direction the dizi was coming from, chose a passage to walk down at random.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji recalls that walking meditation is the best way to navigate Fumodong, but his thoughts are unsettled. The birds, the plants, the rushing water that had driven Jin Guangshan inwards; how could these things be explained? Not even resentful energy could bring the natural world to heel in quite such a way. Wangji reached out a hand and brushed his fingertips over the wall
Luanzang Gang was named for its status; it was a mass grave, and so it was called a mass grave. Perhaps the characters had been in wider use once, before the great battles that had left a wound carved into the land by Yiling. Perhaps it had seemed impossible to use them for anything else afterwards, as if those mass graves paled in comparison to the mass grave. It was rare for such a site to be found in Lan sect territory these days, but when one was uncovered, it was called a congzhong, or a jitifenmu, or even wanrenkeng if it was a large or dramatic discovery. Luanzang Gang, once a common phrase, was now reserved for this place.
Once, Wangji had wondered how much resentment it would take for a location to rise in the manner of a fierce corpse. He had not considered what it would take for a location to be killed, at the time, but he considered it now. Was the memory of battle enough? Did resentment soak into the soil along with blood? Did it matter what the people who lived in such a place thought of it?
He does not have answers. Perhaps they do not matter.
The dizi grows louder.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
He cannot find Wei Ying.
Wangji has been wandering for an eternity. His body cries out for rest, for recovery; even his thoughts are slow and sluggish and almost painful, as though they too have been battered by the flood. He cannot stop, though, not while Wei Ying is still alive, and so he walks.
Occasionally he perceives whispers at the edges of his hearing. This is not unusual. Many ghosts will whisper; it is usually an attempt at some mischief. Spirits who wish to speak can only be reached through Inquiry or similar means.
Wangji hesitates for a moment. He considers that, should he sit, he may be unable to stand again. He considers that if he is successful, he may yet save Wei Ying from his own plans.
He sinks to his knees and lays his qin across his lap.
The opening chords of Inquiry are familiar in the way Rest is familiar, in the way his brother’s voice is familiar, in the way Yunshen Buzhichu was familiar before it burned. In the way Wei Ying’s smile is familiar, engraved into his heart. It does not matter that he is utterly spent. His fingers lift themselves without needing his input and float across Wangji’s strings, plucking out the melody.
There are prescribed sequences of questions, one for every sanctioned purpose, that Wangji is accustomed to using with Inquiry. Now, though, tired, sick with poorly suppressed fear, he simply asks: What are you?
The answer comes in the manner of a handful of pebbles skittering down a slope, followed by another handful, and then by larger rocks, and then by the vast uncaring weight of the avalanche, snow and stone together sweeping aside all in their path. It is cacophonous. Wangji slaps his hands down on the strings and waits for his ears to cease ringing.
It is easy to decipher, at least. The same answers, repeating and increasing until he cut them off: We are Luanzang Gang. We are here.
Wangji has been asking the wrong question.
He had wondered: how does a single location rise? Instead, he should have asked: how does resentment magnify when the same wrong is committed against thousands upon thousands of people, all in the same place, all at the same time?
Judging by the way the strings still vibrate under his palms, the answer is exponentially.
Tell me what Wei Ying plans, he asks, cautious.
He promised, the answer comes at once. Not the avalanche now, but snowflakes falling, single strings plucked with gentle care. We offered him revenge, and he did not wish it. He only wished for things we cannot give. He has received them, and now he must make us a thing that could give them.
Ours, is the only answer. Ours, ours, ours.
Wangji leans forward until he is bowed over the qin. It is not a good position to play in, but he cannot keep his head upright. The weight of Luanzang Gang’s attention is – substantial. What will he do?
Be with us, says Luanzang Gang. Love us. Never leave us. Restore us. Heal us. Release us.
Why won’t you take me to him?
You will take him away. A ringing cord, mournful yet full and powerful. He will leave us behind.
You love him, Wangji plays, even as he realises it. You care for him. You worry what will become of him if he leaves.
The answer that comes is jumbled, confusing, but undeniably affirmative.
If he dies to restore you, Wangji plays, he will not be safe.
But he will be here, Luanzang Gang whispers – almost shamefaced, as though it knows what it wants is not righteous. He will be with us. He will be part of us forever.
Wangji closes his eyes. It seems impossible to proceed. He has too many questions, but Jin Guangshan is still somewhere in Fumodong, and he has no time, unless he has all the time in the world.
He is so tired.
There is still one thing he can try. He sets his fingers to the strings and plays, I will make you a bargain.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
When Wangji finds Wei Ying, he thinks of the first time he saw Yiling Laozu drifting above a battlefield, carried by the force of his own heretical cultivation, coaxing the dead from the earth. The mask is gone, and Wei Ying plays a different song, but the oily smoke of resentment that coils around him and lifts him from the ground is the same, as is the oppressive power that radiates from his presence.
Wangji is not sure how he got to his feet. He is not sure how he walked to this cavern. Perhaps Fumodong reshaped itself around him, or perhaps the ghosts of Luanzang Gang had carried him. He is not sure how he avoids collapsing now.
“Wei Ying,” he says, barely loud enough to be heard. “Will you listen to me?”
Wei Ying’s eyes open. They are animal eyes, gleaming reddish in the unnatural light. He does not stop playing, but he does not close his eyes or turn away either, and that is enough.
“You gave me this,” Wangji rasps. His hand shakes when he lifts the jade rabbit from his belt. “For protection. So I wouldn’t forget you. Do you remember?” Is it his imagination, or does Wei Ying drift a little closer? Wangji swallows painfully and goes on. “I wish to make a bargain with Yiling Laozu.”
Wei Ying stumbles over a note. The curls of resentment that hold him vanish and he crashes to the ground, barely catching himself as he lands. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” he says. He doesn’t sound angry; he just sounds tired. As tired as Wangji is, perhaps. “You don’t know – I can’t leave Luanzang Gang. Not like this.”
“I know,” Wangji says. “It told me. You made a promise.” And if that promise is broken, then Wei Ying’s life – arriving in Luanzang Gang, building the Yiling Wei sect, joining the Sunshot Campaign – will never happen. It is not something Wangji wishes to contemplate. “I will help you fulfill it.”
“You can’t,” Wei Ying says. It is almost a whisper. He steps towards Wangji, slowly, almost side-on, like a shy cat not yet sure if it can expect friendship. “I can’t ask you to – I can’t let you do that, Lan Zhan.”
“You cannot prevent me,” Wangji says. He would like to sound kind, but he cannot sound anything but what he is: scraped out, bare to his core. “I have already made an agreement with Luanzang Gang.”
Wei Ying closes his eyes. It is, Wangji thinks, an expression of profound grief. Witnessing it is painful and satisfying all at once, a deep stretch in his chest. He does not wish for Wei Ying’s pain, but he had not thought he had the power to cause it.
“And what will Lan-gongzi get in return?” Wei Ying asks, eyes still closed.
“Wei Ying will live,” Wangji says. “That is enough.”
“You don’t know it would have killed me,” Wei Ying protests, but it is weak and they both know it. “Plenty of people live without golden cores—”
“You planned to sacrifice your golden core?” Wangji would not ordinarily allow himself to sound so openly incredulous, but he is very tired. “Wei Ying, I love you, but that is a terrible, unsupportable plan.”
“It was the only way to get enough energy,” Wei Ying says wearily. “I ran the calculations over and over again – I went to every sect leader I could find willing to listen – nothing else would Lan Wangji did you just say you loved me?”
“Yes,” Wangji says. “Surely this does not surprise you.”
Wei Ying gapes at him.
Wangji would like to dwell on this topic further, but that is when Jin Guangshan smashes through one of the cavern walls, and the situation rapidly deteriorates.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
As far as Wangji can tell, the collective forces of Luanzang Gang do not know pity. They do not know mercy. They do not know restraint.
They do know spite, and spite is what Wei Ying plays as a whirlwind of resentful energy lifts him and carries him away from the downstroke of Jin Guangshan’s sword.
Wangji sets his qin aside and draws Bichen. “Jin-zongzhu,” he says politely. “I must request you withdraw.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Lan-gongzi,” Jin Guangshan says. “I’ve made certain public commitments, you see. It would be embarrassing to leave them unfulfilled.”
He meets politeness with politeness, but he also circles to the left, attempting to force Wangji into a worse position to maintain distance. Wangji declines to allow it; he remains where he is, lifting Bichen into a high guard. “You would survive embarrassment. You may not survive me.”
“We’ll see,” Jin Guangshan says, and lashes out – not with his sword hand, as Wangji had expected, but with the other hand, tossing a fine glittering powder into the air. It coats Wangji’s face, burning inside his nose, his eyes. Wangji retreats, attempting to wipe his face with his sleeve, and a wall of darkness rushes across his vision. For a panicked moment, he thinks he is blind; then he realises it is Wei Ying, playing a high frantic tune, marshalling his forces to defend him.
If Wei Ying attempts to engage in actual combat here, he will bring Fumodong down on all their heads. That would, perhaps, be survivable – Luanzang Gang has a vested interest in their wellbeing – but it would not be an experience Wangji would find enjoyable.
A quick win, then.
He leaps, clears the barrier Wei Ying has made for him, and strikes downwards at Jin Guangshan. Jin Guangshan launches himself backwards, graceful and cowardly together, not even attempting to block or avert Wangji’s blow. Wangji touches down, and in the half of a heartbeat he requires to shift his stance and attack again, Jin Guangshan slides forward and stabs at Wangji’s shoulder. Wangji rolls his shoulder back and the blade flickers sideways, nearly taking him in the throat before he manages to get Bichen up.
Their blades scrape against each other – the barest touch, a redirection rather than a true parry – but even that is enough to send shattering pain through Wangji’s arms. He bites down on a gasp and follows through, striking a series of blows at Jin Guangshan. His enemy dodges them desultorily; the last blow, he slaps aside with the flat of his blade, and once again Wangji’s arms scream in pain.
Wangji recalls the glittering powder. He must have inhaled it; he has been poisoned. All the more reason to finish this quickly. He cannot even attempt to purge it from his system until Wei Ying is out of danger.
By reputation, Jin Guangshan’s cultivation is moderately powerful – a drop in the ocean compared to titans like Wen Ruohan, but the kind of strength expected in the leader of a great sect – but he barely seems to reach for it. Wangji is familiar with the Jin style, which focuses on grace and agility over power or speed, but he has never faced it in a true fight before. It is, distressingly, almost perfectly suited to countering the Lan style. Where Wangji would ordinarily continue to press his attack until he had found a weakness in his opponent’s defences and then used it, Jin Guangshan simply disengages. He flows away like water, like wisps of cloud, forcing Wangji to chase him down and begin the exchange again. And every time Wangji has to chase him, the poison moves further through his body. The muscles in his arms feel impossibly weak; losing his grip on Bichen becomes an inevitability.
Wei Ying’s dizi shrieks, an awful noise, and a rush of darkness carries Wangji away as Jin Guangshan goes on the offensive, slipping past Wangji’s failing guard. A lunge that would have caught Wangji snags his robes as Wei Ying moves him, leaving a long tear in his sleeve, but no other harm. Wei Ying wrenches the dizi away from his mouth and says in a single breath, “Lan Zhan, get ready to run,” before he begins to play again.
“No,” Wangji says, and attacks Jin Guangshan again.
It does not go any better this time. Lan Wangji is slowing with every breath he takes, his limbs trembling like a newborn deer, or a frightened rabbit. Jin Guangshan has the smile of a fox, eyes glittering with vicious hunger as he circles and slices Wangji’s wrist.
Wangji is not yet so far gone he cannot avoid the worst of the blow, but the point of Jin Guangshan’s sword skims over his wrist, scoring a shallow line that burns like fire. His fingers are abruptly numb, and Bichen falls from his hand. More poison on the blade, perhaps, for it to work so quickly. Jin Guangshan kicks Bichen aside as though it is so much refuse and levels his sword at Wangji’s throat, though he stays out of Wangji’s reach, not close enough to be truly threatening. Perhaps Wangji would be flattered by the caution if he were not so close to collapsing.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” Jin Guangshan asks.
Wei Ying has stopped playing. Wangji cannot turn his head to see what he is doing; he hopes Wei Ying is not allowing Wangji to be used as a hostage.
“Not that this hasn’t been fun,” Wei Ying says cheerfully, “but you forgot something, Jin-zongzhu. Well, a few things, but the main one is—”
A white blur crosses the room in front of Wangji, carrying Jin Guangshan away with it. Wangji’s eyes swim with the effort of attempting to focus on what is happening. It is all moving so fast. His head spins.
It is only when Wei Ying wraps an arm around him, holding him up, that he can focus well enough to see. Xichen stands over Jin Guangshan, his face a mask of cold fury. Jin Guangshan’s sword is broken, and Xichen has the tip of Shuoyue pressed into the skin of Jin Guangshan’s neck. A bright red bead of blood wells up and slowly trickles down, blooming into a red flower in Jin Guangshan’s wet golden robes.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Zhan says. Is it a word or a sob? He is not quite sure.
“Wangji,” Xichen replies. “I have grounds to kill him here, if you prefer.”
“Ah, best not to, Lan-zongzhu,” Wei Ying says. “He’s scheduled to have something much worse happen to him. If you wouldn’t mind arresting him, though, I think Lan Zhan and I are both about to pass out.”
That certainly sounds like permission to Wangji; he leans his head against Wei Ying’s shoulder and closes his eyes.
“I hope this means we have succeeded,” he mutters.
Wei Ying laughs, disbelieving, relieved, wild. “You know, Lan Zhan, so do I.”
holy heck we made it
let's all pretend this went up on time because i for one would like the couple days to be stricken from the record <3 thanks for sticking with me folks
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
LANLING, AFTER THE SIEGE
After the first year of her marriage to Jin Guangshan, Luo Xin took steps to ensure she would never be surprised. It takes a great deal of trouble and expense, but for the most part she has managed it. There are only a handful of occasions, through the long years of their marriage, that Luo Xin can say she truly did not see coming.
She is not surprised when Jin Guangshan announced the attack on Luanzang Gang because one of her maids had scurried into her chambers and said, “Jin-furen, Jin-zongzhu is preparing to attack Yiling Laozu,” only hours before.
She is not surprised when a handful of Jin Guangshan’s dalliances come forward to make claims against him, because it had to happen eventually; Jin Guangshan seems completely averse to the concept of discretion when it comes to these affairs.
She is not surprised when Jin Guangshan spins some tale of peril that requires his immediate attention and flees rather than face his accusers – though Luo Xin is still unclear whether he had understood why he was being accosted – because she has been married to him for the better part of three decades. She knows the man. She knows what he is capable of, and while he doesn’t think he would kill their son to salvage his pride, she also thinks he loses all his cunning when his blood is up. Thus, the dalliances. Thus, fleeing Jinlin Tai.
He is gone, though, and his alleged victims are still here.
They are led by Fu Xiang, grim-faced and cold. That is a surprise. Luo Xin would not go so far as to call Fu Xiang a friend, perhaps, but as Jin-furen and Qin-furen they are natural allies. Although, as the wife of a sect leader, Fu Xiang would feel more entitled to some form of compensation, if Jin Guangshan had done something distasteful. She would also see the wisdom in gathering complaints from other women, to protect her own reputation.
Luo Xin makes a point to greet them in her robes and guan, as Jin-furen, not as their peer. They are not her peers.
Some of the women are very young.
One of them is – one of her cousins, or perhaps a niece? There are a handful of Luo girls running around Jinlin Tai. Luo Xin had made it extravagantly clear to Jin Guangshan that they were not to be touched. Anger flashes in her belly, like oil hitting a pan, but she swallows it down. She makes herself be calm, still as an empty koi pond.
“Qin-furen,” she says, when they have arrayed themselves in her parlour. “I understand you have some matters to discuss with me.”
Fu Xiang spares the more intimate details, but that is her only mercy. She lays out times, places, names, with the precision of a weiqi player setting down stones. Luo Xin wishes she were not so credible, but every time a date is mentioned it slots neatly into her own mental timeline. Yes, Jin Guangshan was in Langya that day. Yes, he had brought a girl to his rooms that night; Luo Xin had hurled a vase at his head over it.
She knows this cannot possibly be every girl Jin Guangshan has ever had. That would be an impossible number. These are only the ones with airtight stories, with witnesses, with stories that involve force or coercion. Luo Xin could certainly put an end to it if there were a need. She could meticulously destroy their credibility, one woman at a time, and leave them disgraced. It would take time, though, and when Jin Guangshan has been so thoroughly indiscrete already, who knows what else might come out of the woodwork in the interim? She would be fighting alone, of course – Jin Guangshan would never lower himself to aid her in correcting his own mistakes – and even one misstep could see the entire Jin sect disgraced along with its master.
That is not something Luo Xin intends to allow.
She inclines her head to Fu Xiang and thanks her for her report. She gives some pretty words about the importance of truth and justice for all, even when the accused is the lord of a great sect. She excuses herself and gives quiet orders to a few servants. She sends a spiritual butterfly to Zixuan with clear, specific instructions, and waits with her heart in her mouth for him to reply, to obey or defy her – or to obey his father, which will be the same as defying her, in this case.
It has been a night and almost a full day since her son and then her husband departed Jinlin Tai when Zixuan’s message comes back, advising her that Jin Guangshan had been arrested by Lan Xichen, and that Yiling Laozu was calling for him to be put on trial in Yiling.
It’s almost exactly what she wants. She’s thrilled until she explains the situation to Fu Xiang and her coterie.
“And who will preside over the trial, Jin-furen?” one of the women – the one who’s probably a Luo – asks, quite innocently.
Luo Xin fixes her Jin-furen smile to her face and doesn’t even twitch an eyelash. Her mind, though, races. Obviously, the Jin sect cannot offer a judge, nor any of their allied sects – and some of their allied sects are among those who claim to have been wronged. The Qin sect, obviously, is out. So is Ouyang. The Yao sect would do, but none of the other sects would accept them as a neutral party. The Jin sect has bad blood with the Nie sect from Sunshot, and since Lan Xichen was apparently present to arrest Jin Guangshan at Luanzang Gang, there must be some other feud brewing with Gusu as well. The Jiang sect will stand with the Nie, given where their daughter seems to have shifted her affections. The Wei sect obviously cannot do it, and the Wen sect are equally laughable. When she strips the sects devastated by Sunshot from her mind, who is even left?
“I have already dispatched messengers to find an appropriate person,” she says, even as she leaves through the pages of her mental books. “A rogue cultivator of suitable notability, or someone from one of the temples, don’t you think? Someone with no stake in the games our husbands play.”
“If you can find such a person so quickly,” Fu Xiang says coolly, “I will be amazed.”
Luo Xin does not reply to that, except to smile. She dismisses them, and then snarls at her servants until messengers have actually been dispatched to every Daoist temple and wandering rogue they can think of, quickly enough that, she hopes, no one will notice the discrepancy.
If Luo Xin has to snatch some hermit out of the woods herself, she will.
YILING, AFTER THE SIEGE
Su She is pretty sure someone literally pulled the judges of this particular trial out of the woods. For all their fancy titles, one of them still has grass stains on the hem of his robes.
“Xiao Xingchen, called Mingyue Qingfeng, disciple of the Immortal Baoshan Sanren, and his companion, Song Zichen, called Aoxue Lingshuang, of Baixue Temple,” was how Qin-furen had introduced them before they all settled in to hear hour after hour of stories that would probably give Su She nightmares if he didn’t already dream about war every night.
It’s easier to focus on anything else. Like the judges, who are apparently completely immune to any and all social graces. Like Lan Wangji, caught under a veil of Wei Wuxian’s spiritual energy, like he’s fallen asleep in a winter river under a layer of clear ice.
Luanzang Gang is different from the last time Su She was here, which is… unsettling. Luanzang Gang isn’t supposed to change. That’s what made it safe to live in, despite all the resentment. It was stable, or at least, it was according to Wei Wuxian. Now, though – Su She had only come back because Wen Ning was already on his way, and if he’d known what it would be like, he might’ve stayed put.
Whatever Wei Wuxian had done to repel the Jin forces long enough for the Twin Jades to pull off their dramatic nonsense had clearly… done something. There are birds everywhere, for one, and not a single one of them acts like a normal bird. They all swivel their heads as people walk past, zeroing in on some individual cultivator, then switching to someone new, apparently at random. It’s disturbing. The earth, which used to be subtle about the way it moved to open or close pathways, has been seen rippling and shifting right in front of people. Wei Wuxian is holding the place in check by some astronomical force of will and through a series of increasingly complex arrays that Su She has spent a lot of time helping to draw and redraw and redraw, but it’s not really sustainable. Even the black bamboo has moved; groves which had been self-contained now burst their boundaries now and then. When Su She goes out in the morning, he marks places where he thinks new clusters might sprout. Sure enough, the new growth is almost up to his shins when he returns at the end of the day.
That’s another fun new thing – Luanzang Gang has days now. The sun rises, the sun sets, time keeps moving. Not consistently, of course, because that would be too easy, but it does move. It seems almost jagged. Sometimes an hour will drag on and on and on, and sometimes everything will leap forwards and Su She will step outside and realise the night has passed and dawn is here.
It’s in one of the dragging times that Wei Wuxian comes to find him.
Su She is still running on a Lan sleep schedule, more’s the pity, so he’s awake before the sun is. There’s the barest flush of pink on the eastern horizon, like the day was thinking about getting started but then gave up and rolled back into bed. Su She is perked on top of one of Fumodong’s doorways, on a stone crossbar carved with jasmine flowers, leaning back on his hands and glowering at the sunrise.
“Don’t make that face,” Wei Wuxian says, and slumps down next to him. “You’ll give yourself wrinkles! You’re a young man, Su-shidi, don’t waste that.”
“Who are you calling shidi?” Su She snaps, but he shuffles sideways so Wei Wuxian can sit properly.
“Won’t you just accept my love as your shizun?” Wei Wuxian asks.
Su She wants to ask if he’s drunk, but he knows the answer. Wei Wuxian can’t sleep until they’ve figured out what to do about Luanzang Gang, so Wei Wuxian won’t drink wine, either. “No,” he says instead. “What do you want?”
“Just to see the sun rise. Although it’s taking it’s time.” Wei Wuxian sighs heavily and leans back on his elbows. “Hey, Su She. You never asked me for anything. Why is that?”
There’s not a good way to answer that. Su She knows now that Wei Wuxian, unique among sect leaders, probably wouldn’t use a request as a reason to pull the rug out from under him. He can’t tell Wei Wuxian he assumed that at the time, though, or Wei Wuxian will be sad, and then he might be too distracted to keep Luanzang Gang held together.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted then,” he says instead, which isn’t true – he’s known what he would ask Yiling Laozu for ever since he first heard the folk tale, as a child sleeping in the servant’s quarters in Yunshen Buzhichu – but is probably as close as he’s going to get. “I was still stuck on that being a real thing you really did instead of a silly rumour.”
“That does get a lot of people stuck,” Wei Wuxian says lightly. He knocks his knee against Su She’s, then rolls onto his side and props his chin up on his hand, squinting at Su She as if he’s some kind of puzzle to be solved. “Do you know now ?”
“Maybe,” Su She says. He resists the urge to fold his arms and turn away. Something about Wei Wuxian forcibly drags Su She back to his teenaged self, bad-tempered and sulking and furious at the injustice of the world. It’s hard to remember that he’s a grown adult and a powerful cultivator in his own right. “Is this you asking me to ask you?”
“Sure is!” Wei Wuxian chirps. He knocks Su She with his knee again. “And, you know, no rush, but I do anticipate retiring fairly soon, so.”
“You were about to retire via dying,” Su She points out. “I didn’t think it mattered that much to you.”
“You helped me when it counted, Su-shidi,” Wei Wuxian says, sounding so earnest Su She can’t even pick at being called shidi again. “If I’d known the schedule had gotten moved up so much, I would’ve done it earlier. But it all worked out in the end! This is better, actually. So, go ahead and ask.”
Su She chews his lip, thinking it over. He used to think he would have to be careful and precise in his wording when dealing with Yiling Laozu; he used to have a perfectly precise series of wishes, carefully weighed up and analysed in his head. He’s forgotten most of them in the intervening – years? It can’t have been years. It must only have been a few months since he met Wei Wuxian, and he hadn’t even spent that much time in Luanzang Gang. Not enough time for his own sect to notice he was missing, certainly – and there’s that teenage bitterness again. He swallows it back.
“I want a sect where it doesn’t matter who your parents are,” he says eventually. “I want a sect where anyone willing to put in the work can come and train. Where people don’t get shunned or thrown out because they want to try something new, or overlooked because their parents weren’t married to each other, or because their family don’t have enough money to bribe their way to a good reputation.” He closes his mouth on the flood of other words that could easily come out, jaw working. Adds, “And not having to starve while I build it would be nice, too.”
“Tada!” Wei Wuxian says, spreading his hands wide and waggling his fingers. He forgets that one of his elbows is taking his weight and slips, almost clonking his head against the stone before he catches himself, laughing. “All right, Su-shidi! You want it, you got it. In exchange for your… however-long-it-was of service, and one other thing.”
“What’s the other thing?” Su She asks, immediately suspicious.
Wei Wuxian’s grin has a little edge of malice, this time. “Jin Guangshan will be sentenced tomorrow, and when he is, I need you to play some music for me.”
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Su She came up with the song – it still didn’t have a name – after he’d overheard Wen Zhuliu talking about how his core-melting hand actually worked. It was so simple he couldn’t believe it wasn’t common knowledge. And while he wasn’t interested in melting cores, there was no harm in messing around on his qin for what might have been weeks, picking out melodies that would never make it into any Gusu Lan text until he stumbled over the ones that were effective.
He only lingers by the trial long enough to hear Jin Guangshan, offered a chance to speak in his own defence, decline it.
“Who are you to make such demands of me?” Jin Guangshan smiles at Xiao Xingchen. He’s on his knees in one of Wei Wuxian’s arrays, still in the bloodstained golden robe he was arrested in. His lips pull back even further, until the smile edges onto a snarl. “You know nothing except that sheep will bleat. I will not dignify this farce by joining them.”
Su She leaves at that point. He knows that isn’t what Mo Lihua was hoping for, but it’s almost exactly what she predicted, when she’d asked him about Jin Guangshan ever getting held to account.
He retreats further into Fumodong and practices his song again and again, testing, refining. It’s not something anyone is ever going to play for fun, but even without putting his spiritual energy into it, he can
He doesn’t know what, exactly, the sentence is, but he hears a lot of people gasping and a lot of people shouting, so he assumes it’s been pronounced and that it’s controversial. Of course, the idea of punishing a sect leader at all is pretty controversial, so it might not matter what they actually give him.
Either way, it’s probably Su She’s cue. He picks up his qin and goes.
Wei Wuxian is waiting for him. So, to Su She’s surprise, is Meng Yao, along with Nie Mingjue. Xue Yang is attempting to drape himself on Meng Yao’s shoulder, but that’s not a surprise. Xue Yang always has a habit of popping up where he’s least useful.
“Su Minshan,” Meng Yao says, and bows – the polite bow of a sect senior to his junior, which is also just enough of a bow to send Xue Yang sliding off his shoulder. Su She mumbles his way through greeting Meng Yao, and then Nie-zongzhu as well, and doesn’t really have time to process anything else because Wei Wuxian nudges him to kneel at the outer edge of the array around Jin Guangshan.
“Just like we talked about, shidi,” he says cheerfully, and kneels beside him, flourishing his dizi. “Get the energy into the array and it’ll do the rest.”
“I want you to know I hate this,” Su She says – quietly, so no one else will overhear – “but it’s still better than your first plan.”
There aren’t so many witnesses as he’d feared there might be. Qin-zongzhu and his wife and daughter, standing together at the head of a small group of women; Jin-furen with Jin-gongzi at her right hand and Luo Qingyang at her left; Wen-gongzi, awkwardly hovering between a little cluster from Baling Ouyang and a few Nie disciples who must have come with Nie Mingjue, looking like a mouse in a room full of cats. Lan Xichen and his sleeping brother.
Jin Guangshan is kneeling in the centre of the array. He is calm, stoic, looking like a temple carving in his gold robes. Su She doesn’t like that this will be the last image the cultivation world has of him, still and serene – but, of course, it won’t be, because Wei Wuxian lifts his dizi to his lips, and Su She begins to pluck out a melody.
It doesn’t really hurt. Su She had talked extensively with Wen Zhuliu, when he had the opportunity, and he and Xue Yang had messed around with half a dozen variants of the song, taking turns stealing spiritual energy away from each other and then putting it back. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s not really painful. The only reason Jin Guangshan should howl like that is because no one’s told him what they planned to do with him.
Jin Guangshan tries to stand, but Luanzang Gang turns soft and yielding and then hard again and wraps his legs in stone from foot to knee. All he can do is shout at them, face twisting into rage as delicate whorls of golden light drift from his skin and sink down into the lines of the array, carried off to wherever Wei Wuxian sent them.
Su She can’t hear him, too busy keeping his attention on Wei Wuxian’s dizi, on his own qin, but he can sense Meng Yao’s weight shift uncomfortably behind him, so he assumes one of the things Jin Guangshan is shouting is son of a whore.
They don’t even kill him, the big baby, but eventually he’s reduced to weeping anyway, bent forward in a parody of obeisance, trapped on his knees by the earth of the land he tried to invade. Su She considers it, for a moment. It’s very easy to kill someone when you’re already messing around with their spiritual energy. But then Wei Wuxian’s haunting dizi melody turns into something gentler, modulating the final flow of energy down into the array, and so Su She goes with him, guiding the sharp-edged notes into something softer, a modified version of Rest that promotes focus and direction instead of simple pacification.
Jin Guangshan is still having his tantrum when the music ends. It’s awkward. Su She stands up and slips his qin into a qiankun pouch, intending to hide out until someone else has dealt with the problem, but Wei Wuxian is already up and striding towards the audience in the attitude of Yiling Laozu, even though he doesn’t have the mask.
“Since you are already gathered here, honoured sect leaders, I have some news to impart.” Wei Wuxian turns and sweeps an arm towards Meng Yao, who is still standing with Nie Mingjue. “I will be stepping down as the leader of Yiling Wei. My senior disciple and heir, Meng-zongzhu, will be taking my place.”
Su She feels his eyes widen, but Meng Yao looks completely unsurprised. Nie Mingjue also doesn’t look terribly surprised, even though there’s a ripple of shock going through the gathered sect leaders. How long has this been in the works?
“Since we’re making announcements,” Nie Mingjue says, “I will also be leaving the care of my Nie sect in the hands of my younger brother and heir.”
That does make Meng Yao flinch. Su She is close enough to hear it when he hisses, “Have you told Huaisang yet?”
“No,” Mingjue says, “but he can hardly be surprised. Anyway, he owes me for going through all the nonsense with his betrothal.”
“And why will you be doing that, Nie-zongzhu?” Baling-zongzhu asks. He doesn’t sound curious so much as exhausted.
“I’m hoping to marry into the Yiling Wei sect,” Nie Mingjue says, as if that isn’t completely baffling. “Or will it be the Yiling Meng sect, now? That could be confusing.”
“Hold on, hold on,” Wei Wuxian says, hurrying over. “I may not be their sect leader anymore, but those are still all my shidis and shimeis you’re talking about! Who exactly are you hoping to marry?”
“Meng Yao, courtesy Meng Fuqiu,” Nie Mingjue says easily, apparently entirely immune to the way Meng Yao blushes vibrantly and hides his face in his hands. “I’ve been courting him since you brought him to Bujing Shi, Yiling Laozu. I’m not sure how you missed that.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I was slightly busy winning the war for you!” Wei Wuxian is grinning, though, a laugh bubbling under his voice. “Come on, let’s get all this cleared up—” he gestures at Jin Guangshan, huddled in the array, with all the care he’d give to a pile of firewood “—and we can celebrate your engagement properly!”
That’s when it all descends into chaos, of course, so Su She escapes back into Fumodong before anyone can ask his opinions about it.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
He comes back when Meng Shi, Meng Yao, and Nie Mingjue come in. Meng Yao is still blushing and, from the look of things, hiding behind his mother, who has taken to interrogating Nie Mingjue very intently about his intentions for her son. Nie Mingjue doesn’t seem phased by this, but Su She has no desire to see it.
When he steps outside, he finds Wei Wuxian, Xiao Xingchen, Song Lan, and Lan Xichen all standing together over Lan Wangji’s napping bed. Lan Wangji almost looks like he’s been laid out for a funeral in his whites, the occasional shimmer of spiritual energy sparkling over him like sun on glass. He’s barely even breathing. He could be dead if Su She didn’t know better.
“I thought he’d have woken up by now,” Su She says, strolling up to Wei Wuxian’s side like he belongs there and interrupting whatever urgent low-voiced conversation they’re all having.
“I thought so too,” Wei Wuxian admits. He brushes a hand over Lan Wangji’s frozen face. “We managed to counteract the poisons, so unless there’s something left in his system…”
“I thought Luanzang Gang would be fixed by now too, actually,” Su She says, because he’s not all that interested in Lan Wangji. “Not enough core juice?”
“Please don’t call it that,” Wei Wuxian says, grimacing. “And… no. Although. Hmm.”
“Have we been introduced?” Xiao Xingchen asks. “I’m Xiao Xingchen, and this is my friend, Song Lan.”
Su She bows to them. “Su She, courtesy Minshan. I was very impressed with your ability to be impartial, despite the…” He looks pointedly at the array, where Jin Guangshan had sat in robes that cost enough to feed an entire province for a season. “External pressures.”
“It has always been a dream of mine to found a sect where shared values and friendship count for more than bloodlines,” Song Lan says. He follows Su She’s gaze to the array and scowls. “And for more than wealth, too.”
“Oh! That reminds me,” Wei Wuxian says. “Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen, this is Su Minshan. He wants to build a sect where anyone can come and train as long as they’re willing to put in the work and won’t be cast out because they don’t have the right bloodline, or the right amount of money, or the right orthodoxy.” He pats Su She’s shoulder. “I surrender him to your care. Maybe talk to Meng-zongzhu about giving you a chunk of territory; Luanzang Gang is really far too large for one sect to manage alone. Ask me how I know!”
“Wait, what,” Su She says, but Wei Wuxian is turning away, stepping closer to Lan Xichen, and there is nothing that could motivate Su She to butt into that conversation. He turns to Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan instead, spreading his hands helplessly. “I’m sorry. He just… he does things like this. You don’t need to take him too seriously—”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Xiao Xingchen asks. His face is sharp, almost catlike, but his smile is gentle. “Wei Wuxian has told us a great deal of your accomplishments. And you have something we lack.” When Su She stares at him, uncomprehending, Xiao Xingchen laughs. “Knowledge of the sects, and their relationships.”
“People skills,” Song Lan says dryly. “Xingchen doesn’t know who gets which courtesy, and I don’t care. It seems that’s not the best starting point for founding a sect.”
“I,” Su She says, and blinks a few times. “I don’t know what to say?”
“Take your time,” Xiao Xingchen says. “Perhaps we can meet tomorrow, and discuss further? That should give Meng Yao some time to resolve his own matters, as well.”
Su She looks back over his shoulder at the entrance to Fumodong and shudders. “Yes. That sounds wise.”
Wei Ying waits until even Lan Xichen has given up and gone away. Everyone is either gone or safely inside Fumodong. Fumodong itself, he hopes, will only change the parts of itself no one else can see.
He takes Lan Zhan with him, away from the parts of Luanzang Gang most changed by human activity, into the forest they almost never touched. The birds watch them as they go, tilting their heads in unison.
“I know you don’t like him,” he tells Lan Zhan as he walks, “but Su She was right, actually! You should be up and about, and so should Luanzang Gang, and the fact that neither of you is means I missed something.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t answer, of course, but Wei Ying wasn’t expecting him to.
They arrive somewhere Wei Ying has revisited many, many times, at least in his memory. There’s still a scrap of dark grey cloth clinging to the tree Lan Zhan had shoved him against. Wei Ying sits down by its roots and settles Lan Zhan in front of him.
“I’ve never done this before,” he confides. “I mean, I put Meng Shi to sleep, of course, but she had a physical sickness, and those poisons were attacking your meridians. In theory, once I wake you up, you’ll be fine.” As long as Wei Ying is correct. As long as Wei Ying got everything exactly right when, in the dark of Fumodong, still reeling from the dizzying rush of channelling Luanzang Gang and from Jin Guangshan’s attack, he had put Lan Zhan to sleep. He swallows hard.
“But I can’t wake you until I fulfil my promise to Luanzang Gang,” he tells Lan Zhan. “And I can’t give Luanzang Gang what it asked for without… letting go of it. So here we are. Letting go of it.” Saying the words out loud does nothing. Wei Ying sighs. “Fine, fine. I can do this, you know!”
Neither Luanzang Gang nor Lan Zhan reply. Wei Ying pulls out Chenqing and rubs it on his sleeve.
Chenqing used to have a charm, a pendant Wei Ying had found in the depths of Fumodong: a white jade rabbit, pale as milk, set into a silver moon with a pestle by her feet. Now that charm hangs from a string of shiny beads that change colour when the light catches them, themselves a gift from a petitioner, and those beads hang from Lan Zhan’s belt, gleaming black and blue in the dappled sunlight.
“Well,” Wei Ying says. He rests a hand on Lan Zhan, kept from touching him by the veil of spiritual energy Wei Ying himself laid there. “No one ever wore jade that hadn’t been carved, did they?”
He lifted Chenqing to his lips and began to play.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
The earth felt it first. In the driest places, the worst hurt, it shivered like a horse shaking off a fly. Dust rose and jumped as, far below, long-buried rock began to move. Ancient bones rose up and were carried away, drifting on a gentle breeze.
A million tiny creatures, long dormant, stirred to life as the earth moved around them; they found the roots of torn-up plants, fragments of desiccated flesh, and consumed them. Others of their kind drew air down into the earth, breathing life into the soil. Their work disturbed larger creatures – things that squirmed and crawled and scuttled, things that burrowed, things that slithered – and these creatures in their turn woke the plants that yet remained, coaxing them to life.
Trees which had slept for an eon stirred as worms and beetles moved through their roots. Bamboo, which was tenacious, seizes the chance to sprout wildly, far beyond what anything else might dream, and its vigour disturbs the smaller plants which are forced to push through in the spaces it leaves behind.
The array in which a man had been sentenced for his crimes pulsed, sending shivers through stone.
The bones of the ancient dead gathered in the open air and laid themselves out in rows, as complete as they could be after so long ground into the dirt. One by one, the willing souls drew close to what remained of their bodies; one by one, Luanzang Gang closed the earth over their bones, drawing them down to rest in safety; one by one, the resentful dead released their grip. Justice had been done, even if it had not been done for them. For many, that was enough.
Plants raced over the soil that covered them – grasses, flowers – and in that grass, bees and moths and butterflies set quietly to their work. Among the trees, the birds that perched in silence began to stretch and sing. Many took flight, chasing after the insects below; others sought out places to nest in trees which were no longer frozen.
Finally, the song reached the sky. The clouds thickened, turned darker; lightning cracked the open and let the clouds burst. A downpour pounded the earth until it accepted the rain and turned from dust to mud. In the old, stagnant ponds, water seeped into the earth, drawn away by thirsty roots; rainfall refilled them, the force of the deluge breaking open long-forgotten nests and carrying new life. When the ponds were full, algae and pond weeds gave shelter to hundreds of young carp, crayfish, crabs; frogs sang from among the sprouting reeds at the water’s edge. A family of water voles emerged from their burrow and plunged into the water.
The rain eased, slowing, fading to nothing as the sun set.
The moon rose, white as jade.
Luanzang Gang waited.
.⋅ ♫ ⋅.
Wangji wakes in a place he does not recognise.
He sits up gingerly. His last memories are inside Fumodong – Jin Guangshan, poison, a blade slicing through his wrist – but the threat is surely past, or he would still be there. Now he is in a forest, flushed green with recent rain. Night birds call to each other.
Did his brother take him back to Yunshen Buzhichu? He does not recall anywhere in the back hills having so many cypresses or so few fir trees, so it seems unlikely. This is not the kind of forest he would see in Qinghe, or Lanling, or even Qishan, and the forests in Luanzang Gang are not alive—
Plenty of people live without golden cores—
Wangji lurches to his feet, whirling. “Wei Ying?!”
“I’m here!” And he is – Wei Ying is there, in front of him, hands gripping Wangji’s biceps, steadying him as he turns. “Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan, I’m all right, I promise—”
Wangji shakes Wei Ying’s hands off and takes a firm hold of his shoulders, nudging him backwards until Wangji can inspect his torso. He runs his hands down Wei Ying’s arms, down his ribs, down the outsides of his thighs, turns him around and maps the expanse of his back with his palms.
“See? I’m fine, I told you—”
Only when Wangji is satisfied Wei Ying is not hiding an injury does he spin Wei Ying around again and kiss him. It is a good kiss. Wei Ying melts under him immediately, throwing his arms around Wangji’s neck. Wangji almost lifts Wei Ying off his feet in an attempt to hold him closer, which only makes Wei Ying laugh against Wangji’s mouth. And, best of all, when Wangji reaches out, when he allows the slightest trickle of his spiritual energy to pass from his mouth to Wei Ying’s, Wei Ying reaches back with his own.
They break the kiss and stand for a moment, foreheads pressed together, sharing breath.
“Xiongzhang?” Wangji asks. His voice is a little hoarse.
“Safe and well and sleeping in Fumodong,” Wei Ying says. “Worried about you. He’ll be happy to see you awake.”
That gives Wangji a flicker of guilt, but he presses on. “Jin Guangshan?”
“Prosecuted for his crimes – some of them, anyway.” Wei Ying gestures at the forest around them. “He was sentenced to live without a core, so I didn’t have to use mine. You should thank him for all this!”
“No,” Wangji says. “Wei Ying—”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, and bites Wangji’s lower lip, a gentle scrape of teeth that sends thrills through Wangji’s blood. “Your brother said if I could save your life, he would grant me a boon.”
Wangji swallows, transfixed by Wei Ying’s eyes. “What will you ask for?”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Wei Ying says, “but I thought perhaps the Second Jade of Lan’s hand in marriage might be on the table? If I haven’t ruined everything—”
Wangji does not shove Wei Ying against a tree this time; instead, he kisses him first and then walks him backwards, until there is conveniently a tree for Wangji to lean him against. It is a simple thing to pin him there, caught between unyielding wood and Wangji’s own body.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, “come back to Gusu with me.”
“Are you sure?” Wei Ying asks. He is pleasingly breathless. “I thought – you might still have a bargain to fulfill—”
“My bargain was to keep Wei Ying safe, if Luanzang Gang could not,” Wangji says. “It will be much easier to fulfill it once we are married.”
In the east, the sun is rising. Magpies begin to sing the dawn chorus. Wei Ying laughs and kisses him again, hands winding into Wangji’s hair.
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