She steadied her body, breathing deeply as she did the headstand, trying to calm the wind whirl of thoughts that plagued her mind since coming to the Conference in Jinlintai more than ten moons ago.
It was unbecoming of a woman to do something like this, as many men had tried and failed, to admonish her before upon finding her in that position. But ever since her youth she had seen her brother and other Lan disciples do so to focus on a task and train their body, so she tried to do it too. And succeeded, as it happened with most of the things she put her head to. Contrary to what others thought, her Uncle and Brother actually encouraged her, helping her when she couldn't balance the weight of her body until her pose became flawless over the years. They believed it was good for her health and found nothing wrong about it, even if her arms were stronger and more muscled now than most women. It made her proud.
She was strong enough to defend herself, to attack, to...maybe carry that beautiful courtesan in her arms and steal her away from Lanling as she'd been dreaming since laying her eyes on her.
She admonished herself. The sole purpose of the headstand was to clear her mind, to find peace within her heart. To take the teasing courtesan away from her thoughts. Not...to imagine a life with her, to imagine how soft her skin was, the lingering scent in her body, the terseness of her lips…
With a sigh, she repositioned herself, her legs moving a little, arms tensing under her weight.
"Oh my, how strong…", she heard the laughter from the woman plaguing her thoughts. Lan Zhan almost fell, stumbling after hearing her so close. She lowered her body until she was sitting again. Her head felt hazy, having nothing to do with her exercise and more with the beauty in front of her.
Wei Ying was dressed in fine clothing most of the time, so it wasn't a surprise to find silks hugging her body. But they were reds and blacks, with intricate gold brocade in the form of flowers. Her head was adorned with rubies and gold. It made her glow beautifully, looking more like a goddess than a courtesan. She looked stunning with every delicate ornament, every embroidered robe over her skin, flowing around her like flower petals. Her breath caught in her throat upon seeing her at the entrance of her private rooms, her eyes following her neck, going down over her arms, a pale wrist bared for her to see, to want. Wei Ying's body was kept under wraps, like a gift, always tantalizing, inviting one to imagine what laid underneath, only the sliver of skin she showed was enough to spark everyone's dreams. Wei Ying was a temptress, that's for sure. It was basically her job to be so coquettish.
For people like her Brother and every other cultivator attending the conference. Not for her. Not for a woman. Wei Ying had to entertain the male public, her body bending in seductive ways, her eyes supposed to be only for the male gaze. Not for her.
Wei Ying served her brother and Uncle each night, politely, but batting her pretty eyelashes only at her...it had to be a game of hers, for sure.
Everyone knew how righteous the Lan were, how they wouldn't take courtesans or even concubines like some other sect leaders. But if her own Brother was already a challenge for an overly smart and bored woman like Wei Ying, Lan Zhan herself must have been even more tempting. A Lan woman falling for a courtesan. Seducing her must be way more thrilling than trying that with her Brother.
The worst part was that Wei Ying hadn't even tried yet. Only a few conversations in her ear during the conference, asking about cultivation; only her eyes always looking at her with intent and warmth; only her soft touches full of excuses about her hair being out of place or trying to get her to sit in another table, or trying to readjust her ribbon without permission. Rather innocent things, but considering how Wei Ying never touched her Brother, or any other sect leader or disciple, like that during the numerous banquets, spoke volumes of her intentions.
Wei Ying, the most beautiful courtesan in Jinlintai, was teasing her, threading a web around her, trapping her into her desires, tempting the righteous Lan Zhan, sister of a Sect Leader, a cultivator in her own right. The one who's been proving herself since infancy to be more than just capable. The one who excelled in everything she did.
This wasn't gonna be any different.
She composed herself, sitting properly and unruffling her robes, looking more composed than she actually felt.
"Ah, so proper, Lan guniang", she smiled sweetly. "I was hoping to share a cup of tea with you, if you won't mind", she said, eyes shining like silver, like the moon itself. Behind her, a couple of servants entered her rooms, with trays of sweets and hot tea ready to be served.
Wei Ying sat in front of her, across the wood table, with more ease than grace. She usually moved like a breeze, gentle and calm, barely corporeal between the people she was entertaining with dances, conversation or the music coming from her dizi. Now...she was like a wave, ready to take everything in her path, suddenly letting her body flop unceremoniously into a cushion, robes falling without much care around her. So different from her usual self. So more...tangible, real, and just as endearing as always. She felt her heart beating faster in her chest.
"I'm still amazed by what you were doing! Lan guniang is so strong! I've never seen a woman do a headstand and so beautifully, would you teach me?", she asked, her voice going way faster than the usual whispers in her ear or the conversations she liked to hold with her Brother, less controlled, far more enthusiastic and showing an energy befitting of her. So this was the real Wei Ying?
The beautiful and refined temptress that had more than half the cultivators in attendance watching with awe at her every move, devouring her every word. They envied the Lans since Jin Guangshan tasked her to stay by their side for the entirety of their stay at the Conference. Lan Zhan was thankful for that privilege. Even if, apparently, was all a farce.
She didn't know why, but it only made her heart race even more at the thought of being the only one, aside from probably the other courtesans and some servants, to know this side of Wei Ying. A not so perfect version of herself, the one uncovering her arms as to not soak her sleeves while serving the tea, showing entire inches of soft skin, unmarred. Except for what looked like an old scar, fainting and barely glistening against the candlelight, nearing her elbow.
"What is that?", she asked softly, taking her arm with steady hands. Steadier than her heart at least, surprising Wei Ying and forcing her to put down the tea pot.
"What is what?", she asked, clearly not expecting her to change the subject so abruptly or touch her without reservations.
"The scar", her finger traced it carefully, marvelled at the feeling of her skin. It wasn't that big, the scar, but it suggested a painful memory. Was she being mistreated in Jinlintai? She didn't know enough about the life of courtesans, but she could only imagine it wasn't as nice as Wei Ying had been portraying it. It could also be part of the façade.
"Ah, that's an old scar, from when I was a kid", she said, shuddering against Lan Zhan's touch, trembling slightly with the way that digit caressed the paler scar, barely there but still noticeable under the light. "I...lived on the streets for a few years, you know? After my parents passed away. There's never enough food for kids like that. I had to look for it when vendors threw what little they had left. But every so often I had to fight for it with dogs… I…I got bitten a lot during those months, until I was taken in here", she explained, frowning at those memories. She could have lied, like she often seemed to do to make her stories more entertaining, more seductive to the men listening. But she didn't this time. Lan Zhan could tell how true her words were. How much she got hurt during those years alone in the streets beyond the malnourishing and physical mistreatment. She could only imagine where and how many other scars she had. How many no one noticed, because Wei Ying's beauty was so mesmerizing that no one could tear their eyes away from her whole being, all her 'imperfections' disappearing in their eyes, her smirk and pretty eyes masking the hurt and fear she could still feel deep down.
Here, alone under the candlelight with no other sound than their voices and breaths, Wei Ying wasn't perfect. Not the Goddess she had thought, but human, painfully human.
"Why did you live in the streets?", she asked, her hands still caressing Wei Ying's arm, not only her scar now, but every bit of skin she could touch, soothing her with slow massages, their distance long forgotten.
"My parents passed away in a night hunt. I… I didn't know that until some time later. I was still waiting for them to come back...I kept waiting for them even after I got the news", she smiled, shaking her head, probably thinking back to that little child, hungry and lonely, waiting for parents that could never come back, having no one but herself to rely on, to survive.
From a night hunt.
"They were...cultivators?", she asked. The words from her Uncle finally made some sense. 'She's identical to her mother', he had muttered under his breath the first night Wei Ying approached them with a smile in red tinted lips and honey dripping from her words. It struck her as odd that her Uncle had known a courtesan's mother, but being cultivators allowed to meet all sorts of people in their hunts. Now it made so much sense. That and Wei Ying being overly curious about cultivation and the details of their night hunts, of the difference between the sects' teachings and fighting styles, how the Clan Lan used music as their weapon and means of defense, more enthusiastic when talking about that world than the dull conversations every other cultivator tried to hold with her about silks and flowers, like her mind didn't crave to learn something more. Lan Zhan's fingers pressed slightly over her skin, nearing her wrist, rejoicing in the way she shivered under the callous pads of her fingers.
"They were. Rogue cultivators, apparently. I...don't know much about them. No one at the Jin sect knew of them. But Sect Leader Jiang and your Uncle seem to recognize my features, so I think they might have known my parents. I'd like to ask them later about it if I can", she smiled, already forming a plan inside her brilliant mind. For all she had to sit and talk about meaningless things with men who clearly weren't interested in her words, Wei Ying was always thinking about something else, something that truly caught her attention, coming to her to comment or ask as soon as the banquets started and she could lean beside Lan Zhan to serve her tea and finally say what she truly wanted most times barely a breath away from her blushing ear.
"Mn", she nodded, fingers pressing into Wei Ying's wrist, looking for traces of cultivation. There it was. She half expected it to be there, barely existing. But no. There was a golden core, half formed, but strong and steady. Not as tiny as she thought it would be, considering Wei Ying hadn't had any training since her infancy. "Are you...trying to develop a core?", she asked, stunned by the realization.
Wei Ying's cheeks flushed, her gaze lowering in shame, eyelashes hiding her silvery eyes from her.
"I… I've seen many cultivators come and go since I was brought into Jinlintai. I…was curious."
"Lie. Curiosity doesn't lead to a half formed core. You...you've been training", she said. She wasn't accusing her, though she nearly flinched at her tone. In truth, she found it amazing. How a young woman, already years after the prime moment of her life where it was easier to form a golden core, was training on her side. And succeeding by the feel of it.
"I...am sorry, Lan guniang. I want...I always…", she shook her head, breathing deeply, before her strong resolute eyes glanced back at her. "I'm not intending to say I want to be a cultivator. But this...doing this, having this for me and my own efforts, not for my beauty or the lies I tell to keep them entertained and focused and wanting me… it's something that makes me happy. Happier. I'm not afraid or hate my life. I've survived with my wits, learning everything I can to have a brighter future so I won't end back on the streets. This is just something I've always wanted to learn. Something I'm able to practice in the privacy of my rooms, away from everyone. Just because I want it. Not because it will entertain someone or make people like me more", she explained, sure of herself, almost out of breath, face flushed. "I don't intend to offend you by doing this. I know how hard it is for women already in the cultivation world. How you are left on the sidelines and how much they think they're better just because they're men. I know you may be offended by a mere courtesan 'playing' with this, but I'm not. I know I won't be able to join a sect, especially n-"
"Why?" She's never interrupted anyone in her life and it grieved her to do so when Wei Ying was talking her heart out. But she couldn't stop thinking about it. Her fingers pressed slightly harder into her skin. "Why...can't you join a sect? I'm sure the Jin Sect…"
"No. They'll laugh at me. Point at my back everytime… even try to get something else from me. Most are entitled men, thinking themselves already so much better.." she scoffed, shaking her head in a determined manner.
"Who teaches you then?"
Wei Ying looked at her, her resolution deflating, unsure if she could trust her enough with her secret.
"...if I told Lan guniang that I found a book somewhere within Jinlintai, would she believe me?", she asked, a tiny smile on her face, casting her eyes downward to where their skins met.
"I knew it. I just had to try it", she sighed, hunching over, her pristine robes falling further against the low table. "It's...a secret, okay? I still have no idea how it happened, thought… No, I know how", she shook her head. "Lan gu...Lan Zhan...promise to tell no one about this?", she asked, licking her lips, entracing her with that single movement, with the way her pink tongue poked out of her mouth, leaving a trail of saliva over her lips.
"Mn". The way Wei Ying said her name…sounded right, good, almost making her forget what she had just asked. Even without wanting to, Wei Ying was tempting, holding her heart and desire between her hands. Suddenly she truly wanted to steal her away, bring her back to Gusu and help her join her Sect. In any way possible. She'd be happy if she could keep her by her side, like this. Or closer. So much closer. Impossibly closer until she couldn't know where one ended and the other began.
"Jin gongzi", she said, grumbling, cutting her thoughts. She frowned. Jin gongzi? Did she mean...Jin Zixuan? "I know, I know, he doesn't seem like the kind to do so, right?", she smiled, rather fondly. "We didn't like each other before. He would sneer at me most of the time, even since we were kids. And I'd prank him too. But he found me trying something I saw a few years back in another conference. I even bought a cultivation manual, you know? They don't let outsiders attend the sect's classes and practices, so I thought it was enough for me to learn the basics. I wasn't exactly a courtesan yet, so I could only see from afar what the cultivators did to compare with the manual. It was wrong. Had I kept doing it that way...I might have died by now. My cultivation clogged my meridians, made me sick because it wasn't right and I didn't know." She sighed. "He helped me then, on his own way. I was heavily scolded but he never said anything to another soul and cared enough to check on my meridians every so often. So I asked for him to teach me. He didn't want to, of course. He's the Sect Leader's son, one of the top cultivators from his generation, or that's what he says. But after a while, he came back to me and offered me a deal.`` She smiled, looking at their hands, at the way Lan Zhan's had taken hold of hers without any of them noticing, rubbing circles over her skin, fingers never leaving her skin. It relaxed her. "He's engaged to Jiang guniang. I've seen her a couple of times. She's truly more than he deserves and he's awful at expressing himself, he always comes off as arrogant and rude", her laugh was like bells in the wind, more strident than her usual soft sounds, more endearing. "I'm helping him gain her heart, and he helps me develop a core. So we both win." She smiled, looking at her with clear joy.
"Mn." It was relieving to know she was learning from someone who had studied and actually cared for her wellbeing enough. "But you could join his Sect", she insisted, despite wanting to see her in blues and whites, not golden. Wei Ying would look beautiful in any color, but something about her wearing the Lan robes made her skin grow hot, something fierce growing in the pit of her stomach.
"He isn't a Sect Leader yet. And who'd take me seriously here? I'm nothing but a courtesan."
"I'd do. I do already", she said, moving impossibly closer to her, the scent of peonies coming from Wei Ying's fragrance, intoxicating. " Wei Ying...if you want to be a cultivator...I'll help you. I'll get you into my Sect, nobody will judge you, and you'll learn our music techniques, the ones you're curious about. Come with me.`` Her heart was stammering against her ribcage, her eyes shining with promise. She wanted Wei Ying, she wanted to give her the world if she could.
Wei Ying looked at her, bewildered, her cheeks flaming, chest puffing with every breath she took, shocked by her words.
"Lan Zhan." She said, kissing her palm, feeling the shiver running through Wei Ying. "Call me Lan Zhan again, always'', she whispered, looking into her eyes with warmth and want. She was bearing more of herself in those lines than the music she composed.
If Wei Ying came along with her… if maybe...they grew closer… if maybe she wanted Lan Zhan as much as she already did Wei Ying…
"Lan Zhan", she mumbled against her lips. Who started the kiss will always be a mystery, who leaned closer, or if the both did so, meeting in the middle. All Lan Zhan knew was the taste of Wei Ying against her lips, the warmth of her body pressing against hers. The way she hooked her arms around her neck, leaning back, taking Lan Zhan down with her, on top of her. Lan Zhan's arms, stronger than anyone could think they were under her robes, only took Wei Ying more delicately, pressing her closer to her body, like she wanted to melt with Wei Ying, to immerse herself into her, to envelop her body in her fragrance.
"Lan Zhan…", she breathed, looking at her from under her eyelashes. "I will".
That promise, the certainty of her words melted any doubt Lan Zhan still had. She'd talk to her Brother and Uncle later, in the morning even, once she wasn't occupied with the beauty under her, once she could stop kissing her over and over, her hands looking for her sash, untying every layer of the beautiful hanfu she wore to reveal the body she's been wanting to taste since Wei Ying entered her life in a flurry of reds and music.
"Wei Ying", she whispered, reverently, looking at her, all of her. Wei Ying looked beautiful with her robes pooling around her naked body, hair slightly disheveled, highly adorned with gold and beautiful ornaments. It made her nudeness more tantalizing. "Wei Ying…", she breathed, cupping her face. "Be mine. Come with me...and be mine. Only mine", she asked, feeling her restraint thinning. She'd never wanted something so hard in her life with every fiber of her being. Not even being a high cultivator, always fighting against the odds and the mentality of the elders and her peers to carve her path. Wei Ying, she wanted her more than anything. She felt like she was meant to be by her side since the very beginning.
Wei Ying leaned into her touch, closing her eyes only for a moment, before nodding.
"I will. Only Lan Zhan's, right?", she looked up at her, a smile more genuine than any other, before leaning up, finding her lips, changing their positions, forcing Lan Zhan to sit on a cushion, straddling her with bare legs. Her naked body pressed against her clothes, her silken robes covering only her back. This was a sight meant only for Lan Zhan, the way her breasts quivered with every breath she took, the expanse of her torso, her navel and the suggestion of a trail of black hair leading to her most private parts.
"Mn… only mine", she whispered, gripping at her waist, marvelled at Wei Ying's caresses under her robes, at how expertly her tongue invaded her mouth, tasting Lan Zhan, making her skin grow hot, provoking a wetness between her legs. Wei Ying was igniting the fire and her need to consume her until she had claimed her as hers.
"A-Zhan?", the voice of her Brother behind the doors put a stop to everything but their heavy breathing. "Are you feeling well? It's almost dinner time, the banquet will begin soon."
Wei Ying giggled in her arms, doing nothing about her disheveled appearance, content in staying comfortably sitting on Lan Zhan's lap.
"We'll have to postpone this, Lan Zhan. Why don't we go and have some dinner? I can always escape my quarters and come here to serve you", the glint in Wei Ying's eyes promised mischief, a long sleepless night. Her words were as sweet as they'd always been, and Lan Zhan couldn't stop thinking if she had fallen in love along with her, almost from the very beginning.
"I'll be there soon", she called her Brother, watching his shadow retreat from her rooms, feeling Wei Ying's kiss on her cheek.
When they got into the banquet hall, Wei Ying's appearance was as beautiful and goddess-like as ever, only a few seemed to notice the sky blue ribbon tied around Wei Ying's wrist, with a pattern of white clouds adorning it.
Lan Qiren seemed to be more shocked than escandalized, already a good sign, while Lan Xichen gazed at them with little to no surprise, only nodding and hiding a laugh, declaring his approval.
"I see. Seems like I'll have a new sister soon".
If Jin Zixuan's eyebrows shot as far as the roots of his hair, only Wei Ying seemed to notice, deliberately ignoring his every attempt to gain her attention during the banquet, already knowing the nagging and questions she'll find. She could deal with them later.
Her eyes were occupied already, only on Lan Zhan or the beautiful ribbon marking the start of a new future.