The slant of morning sunlight tells him that, down in the walled gardens Chengling rebuilt, peach trees will soon blossom pink and white. Another year, another winter ending, and once more time to plant things meant to grow.
Their mountain is covered in snow, but Zhou Zishu still feels the rhythm of the seasons in his bones.
In a few days, for the Qingming Festival, Chengling will make the trek up to the summit with a handful of disciples. They'll come bringing willow branches from the manor's trees, and Wen Kexing will give the children kites that he painted in anticipation of spring. He'll stage-whisper that they mustn't let their shifu work them too hard. That children must play while they are still children.
Zhou Zishu will watch Chengling hide a smile, and neither of them will contradict Wen Kexing.
The young disciples of yesteryear have all grown up, leaving the next generation to take their place. And Chengling, too—from a lost little boy he's become a hero in his own right, the venerated master of Siji Manor, living proof of Longyuan Hall and Jinghu Sword Sect's history.
Life continues; the world changes but nothing is ever truly lost. The fact of it soaks through Zhou Zishu as he meditates in the sun and the snow, contentment warming him better than any fire or wine.
A crunch of footsteps breaks through his focus.
"A-Xu." Wen Kexing is standing far too close, practically hovering. His shadow falls over Zhou Zishu, a faint scent of wildflowers on his trailing sleeves.
"You're blocking my sun," Zhou Zishu informs him without opening his eyes.
"A-Xu," Wen Kexing says again, and there's a strange quality in his voice. Zhou Zishu opens his eyes. In one hand Wen Kexing grips his fan, which he only takes now when he goes down the mountain to see Chengling and the children. His other hand twists in his robes.
Wordlessly Zhou Zishu gets up and pulls him close. The wind has blown his white hair into wisps like so many streaks of cloud. Zishu brushes loose tresses away from his face.
"Breathe, Lao-Wen. Tell me what you need."
Wen Kexing closes his eyes for a moment. Zhou Zishu rubs soothing circles across his back until unsteady breaths slow to their normal rhythm. Finally, Wen Kexing says,
"I found a little girl at the foot of the mountain. She's alone, except for a boy the same age, and they— Don't ask me how I know, but I just do. A-Xu, I think it's her."
Zhou Zishu learned long ago that grief is a private thing.
When Qin Huaizhang died, he'd swallowed the terror eating him alive, wrapped Jiuxiao in his arms, and sternly told the child not to weep, that it was unworthy of the man and the hero he would become. Yes, they must grieve—but only like this: Zishu taking up his shifu's mantle, years before he was ready, and Jiuxiao sobbing like a wounded bird in the dead of night when he thought shixiong couldn't hear. Jiuxiao never knew, and Zishu never told him.
He's worn countless masks since then. This much has never changed. Grief, a terrible and lonely thing, must be hidden. Mourning is rite and ritual, mechanical like the steady drip of a water clock marking the passage of life. But grief was something that nested within him, hooked claws into his flesh, shook him in its jaws like some feral-eyed cat snapping a soft creature's spine.
Grief was watching his brothers fall by sword and sickness and despair, until their blood flowed a red-blossom river and he drowned, choking on the stench of pollen. Grief drove him to flee with what remained of Qin Huaizhang's legacy, running foolishly along an airy staircase built of Prince Jin's grand words and grander ideals, and finding too late that every step of the ladder he'd ascended was made of only clouds.
Grief was falling, failing, blood running from both his hands. Grief was seeing Jiuxiao set his jaw over and over again, because Zishu—all of ten years old himself—once told him that big boys mustn't cry. And grief was the way that trust finally turned to betrayal in Jiuxiao's eyes, the last time Zishu ever saw them open again.
After that, he stopped fighting. Grief had always been a thing made out of solitude. Now there was no one left to hide it from.
Wen Kexing is like he was back then, Zhou Zishu thinks.
The day that Gu Xiang should have been wed, Wen Kexing had gone after Mo Huaiyang alone, wreathed in rage and grief. And he'd been alone again when—months after Zhou Zishu stole him back from the brink of death, a deep freeze turning the whole landscape bitter white—Wen Kexing descended the mountain to carve two epitaphs.
Each year when Qingming arrives, Wen Kexing goes in the cold of early morning to sweep their graves. Each year Zhou Zishu hangs willow branches over their door and thinks of Jiuxiao and Qin Huaizhang's resting place, half a world away in Kunzhou's springtime embrace.
To this day Wen Kexing hasn't told him what he wrote for Gu Xiang's epitaph, and Zhou Zishu doesn't ask.
The little girl stares suspiciously at Wen Kexing. Her arms tighten around the boy cradled in her lap. He's asleep or unconscious, murmuring unintelligible words through fever-dry lips. They can't be older than six or seven.
"Why'd you come back, old man?" The girl puffs herself up like a tiny mother hen. "I told you we don't have any money. If you try to hurt him, I'll bite your fingers off!"
"We're not going to hurt you," Zhou Zishu says, after Wen Kexing makes a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh and then can't seem to find the words at all.
Zishu crouches down until he's at the child's eye level. He thinks of Chengling, thirteen and gangly and full of childish trust. The little girl glares at him with open hostility. Her clothes are sturdy but old, hair matted where it's escaped a clumsily tied braid, and smudged with the dirt on her face is the clear evidence of tears.
She's scared, anyone can see that. Zhou Zishu thinks of the earth-shattering things Gu Xiang was capable of when she thought Wen Kexing in danger, or when anyone threatened her Cao-dage. He wonders how many knew that the wretched ghost they'd called heartless had more love in her than one small frame should have been able to hold.
"You must be cold and hungry," Zishu tries in the gentlest tone he can manage. "And your friend—is he your friend? Your brother?"
"None of your business!" The girl hugs her companion even closer. "We take care of each other. We don't need you."
"I'm sure you don't." And truly, the fearsome look in her eye said she wouldn't blink before skinning a mountain lion with her own hands and teeth. "But he's sick, child. It will rain again tonight. We can give you food and medicine and shelter, all the things he needs to get better. Won't you let us help?"
What if I get tired of Cao Weining and decide I want to trade him in for someone else? Gu Xiang had asked on her wedding day, her eyes sparkling with laughter.
Nevertheless, she'd offered her wrist and willingly asked to be bound to her intended, for this life and every life that they might have after, always.
(Zhou Zishu knows this because Wen Kexing tells him later that night, after the children are settled, after the sun has set and they retire to bed and Wen Kexing wraps himself around Zhou Zishu like a dragon hoarding a precious pearl.
"It must have worked," Wen Kexing will say desperately, a statement in word but a question lingering in the way his hands still tremble. "The shaman's blessing worked. She found him. They found each other."
And Zhou Zishu, twining their fingers together, will hold him steady.
"Do you know," Wen Kexing will whisper in the dark, his breathing slowly losing that panicked edge. "A-Xu, do you know what she told me, what that idiot boy promised her? When they were on Qingfeng Mountain. He thought it was his duty, as a righteous man, to execute the Ghost Valley Master's servant. And then he said—ha, I remember she looked ready to cry telling me this—because Cao Weining said he'd take his own life and follow right after. He promised to grow up with her, protect her, and that things would be different, this time."
By the time his voice trails off, the shoulder of Zhou Zishu's robe will be damp with tears. Neither of them will acknowledge it, their hands still holding fast as Wen Kexing buries his face in Zhou Zishu's hair, breathes in like a man surfacing from deep water.)
On Gu Xiang's wedding day Zhou Zishu had been the one who fastened the red string around Cao Weining's wrist.
Wen Kexing was there when Zhou Zishu explained the meaning of Wu Xi's gift. Cao Weining listened intently. Then, before Zhou Zishu even asked if he was willing—before Wen Kexing could threaten him with horrible, painful retribution should he refuse to look after A-Xiang for however many lives might come—Cao Weining held out his hand and said,
"Thank you, Zhou-xiong. And please thank the Great Shaman for me. This is a priceless gift."
Eventually, they coax the girl into letting go of the boy so that Wen Kexing can check his pulse.
"He's going to be all right," Wen Kexing tells her. "But you have to let us help you. I promise you, little one, I won't let any harm come to you or him."
Eventually, she allows Wen Kexing to pick up the unconscious boy and carry him out of the shallow gully they'd sheltered in. Zhou Zishu offers a hand to the girl. She bats it away.
"I can walk on my own."
She follows them up the mountain, never once complaining, not even when the trail grows rocky and laden with ice and then disappears altogether. She falls and gets up silently, glaring at Zhou Zishu as if daring him to help her out of pity.
Zhou Zishu folds his hands in his sleeves. He shortens his stride to match hers, and slowly they climb the mountain path together.
They reach the summit as the sun is beginning to set. The girl looks at the cave suspiciously.
"This is where you live? You're not demons, are you?"
Zhou Zishu hides a smile. "Our home is built inside the cave, which gives us shelter from the wind and the snow. Come. I'll show you."
The dark cave leads into a sloping tunnel that turns sharply into the mountain, cutting off the daylight behind them. But light comes from ahead, and the little girl blinks as they step into a vast cavern that encompasses a mirror-like pool. Its surface reflects intricate rock formations above and below. Far away there is distant sunlight, filtering down from unseen gaps in the mountain's bones. A gracefully pillared house sits beside the water, rich in open rooms and courtyards of stone.
Wen Kexing disappears into one courtyard with the boy as they watch.
"You must be hungry," Zhou Zishu says as the girl continues to look in silence. "Let's get you something to eat."
She nods, wide eyes still taking in the immensity of the space around them, and follows him to the kitchen.
They pass cleverly-screened windows that let in the light but not the wind. They pass sturdily-built gateways and arches of stone and bamboo. The house nestles neatly into the shape of natural rock, like water filling a vase or a cat settling into a nook for a nap.
Pride is only part of what Zhou Zishu feels when he looks at his home. All this had been built by Chengling, twenty-odd years ago, after he mastered the teachings of Longyuan Hall. With it he'd built a house for his shifu and shishu. High on the snowy mountain where they kept each other alive, Chengling had given them a home where they could also spend their days in peace.
Before, Wen Kexing would regularly throw up his hands at Zhou Zishu's inability to cook. Not even a bowl of noodles, not even a pot of congee.
What will you do if one day I'm gone, A-Xu? Wen Kexing would ask in exasperation. And every time Zhou Zishu would smile, crack a joke and change the subject. He could never bring himself to say, If you're gone, starvation will not be how I go down to meet you at Naihe Bridge.
There was no point talking about inescapable facts. Besides, Wen Kexing was here. He was good at cooking, and he liked cooking for Zhou Zishu.
It was funny when, once, on the road to Siji Manor, Zhou Zishu witnessed Gu Xiang throwing up her hands at Wen Kexing's culinary failings.
"I am begging you, my good pampered princeling of a master," she cried, flapping her hands at the nuisance in her kitchen. "If you're going to be so distracted mooning over your Zhou Xu that you can't even chop an onion properly, then just go and put your dainty feet up and wait for me to get dinner ready for the both of you!"
"You outrageous brat." Wen Kexing's stern, scolding voice was very much ruined by the visual of him being unceremoniously shooed out into the courtyard. "Who was it that taught you to cook in the first place, huh?"
"It was Luo-yi! And then I taught you."
"After you nearly poisoned me."
"That was just once! I was seven!"
"Yes, and for some reason you thought meat should still be bloody when it came out of the pot—"
"You're the one who told me you wanted to eat something red! Anyway, who was it that made you murder soup every time you killed one of the Ten Devils, huh? Murder soup doesn't cook itself, you know!"
Wen Kexing opened his mouth to retort—and saw Zhou Zishu watching their bickering with unabashed curiosity. The faintly petulant expression on Wen Kexing's face disappeared in a flash, replaced by a look of casual seduction as he swept his sleeves back. Wen Kexing strolled across the courtyard toward him.
"Why, A-Xu. Could it be that you're eavesdropping on me?"
"There's no need. Anybody standing around in the forest could have heard your whole conversation for free."
"Well, that's only natural. After all, everything I have already belongs to my A-Xu. My conversations and my heart and my life—"
"Spare me," Zhou Zishu cut him off.
Not because he didn't believe Wen Kexing. Maybe because he believed it a little too much. Zhou Zishu had watched men die for him and for Prince Jin. He knew what utter devotion looked like. The light in Wen Kexing's eyes was somehow worse than even that.
"What's Gu Xiang talking about?" Zhou Zishu asked instead. "What's murder soup?"
Human food hasn't passed their lips in thirty years. However, they still keep a small store of grain and preserves, along with medicinal herbs, bandages, things to hold life within fragile bodies. Ordinary folk come to Chengling at Siji Manor for protection and for healing. The ones that Chengling and Gao Xiaolian cannot help, they send up the mountain to seek the immortals who dwell at its peak.
A little something to balance the books, Wen Kexing says sometimes in a tone that isn't quite joking. He was born to physicians, after all. Perhaps it would bring Wen Ruyu a measure of peace in the afterlife, to know that his son could heal as well as kill.
While Wen Kexing tends to the sick boy, Zhou Zishu puts a pot of water to boil in their disused kitchen. He pours rice into a bowl. He adds water to the rice. The girl sits in the doorway and watches him.
"You've never even been in the kitchen before, have you, old man?"
Zhou Zishu nearly drops the rice. "Why do you think that—"
"Give it here," she says.
The next thing he knows, tiny hands are taking the bowl from him. The girl goes to the stove and checks how much water is in the pot. She adds more rice to the bowl. She rinses it, swishing the water around and pouring it out, adding more water, until it runs milky clear. She checks the fire, adds more wood and fans it to get it properly going.
Zhou Zishu hovers at first, worried that she'll burn herself. She's barely tall enough to reach the pot. But it's obvious soon enough that she knows exactly what she's doing. This is something she's done many, many times.
"Do you always cook?" Zhou Zishu asks her.
She shrugs. "Not always." She pours the washed rice into the pot, along with a handful of herbs and salt. "I take care of Caihan-gege. I cook when he's too tired or sick."
Caihan? "Is that his name? Your friend. The boy."
The girl goes silent. She puts the lid back on the pot. She looks around the kitchen, then starts poking through the bundles of dried herbs and the pots of preserve.
"Do you have anything for soup?" she asks.
"You never did tell me." In the still, early hours as they're getting dressed, Zhou Zishu asks, "What exactly is murder soup?"
Behind him Wen Kexing laughs quietly. A rustle of fabric. A gentle hand urging him to lift his arms. Wen Kexing carefully arranges the robes over his shoulders, tugging at the sleeves to hang neatly from his wrists.
"She came up with the name," Wen Kexing says. "It was one of the first things she ever learned to cook. Onions, pork ribs, radish, soy sauce—that's the way Luo-yi taught her, at any rate. Then A-Xiang went and added wolfberries, along with hot red peppers and hibiscus stolen from Qianqiao's dressing table. They turned the broth deep red."
Wen Kexing's hands smooth down Zhou Zishu's arms, skimming over his side to rest at his waist. Zhou Zishu holds himself still as Wen Kexing rests his chin on his shoulder.
"Every time I came home with blood on my hands," Wen Kexing says slowly. "Every time I told her, there was now one less demon in the world. She'd always make a pot of that soup. She'd smile at me while I ate, and say—Isn't it just what revenge tastes like? Doesn't it taste good?"
"Like swallowing rancid fruit. The one thing Luo-yi couldn't teach A-Xiang was how to try her own cooking before serving it up to other people."
Zhou Zishu leans into the warm, solid presence at his back. "But you still ate it."
"Every last drop." Wen Kexing presses a kiss against his hair. "Every time."
Zhou Zishu sends an urgent message for Chengling to come see him.
When Chengling arrives—practically tripping over his own feet in his haste, because thirty years have not changed his disciple's temperament even one bit—Zhou Zishu sends him right back down the mountain again with a letter to bring to Ping'an, to send immediately to Nanjiang.
("Is everything all right?" Chengling asks in confusion as he's ushered back out into the sun and snow. "Shifu, what—are you well? Are you writing to them for help? For healing? I think I deserve to know what's going on, after all the times you and shishu lied to me as a child."
"Don't talk back to your elders," Zhou Zishu tells him first, followed by, "Everything's fine, Chengling. It's not for us. But it is important, so trust me. Now shoo."
And because Chengling truly has not changed one bit, his heart still as full of love as the day they met by a sunny bridge and the child extended friendship, help, shelter to a raggedy beggar simply because that was the right thing to do—Chengling takes Zhou Zishu at his word, and goes.)
It's boorish of Zhou Zishu, perhaps, to ask an old man to trek all this way for a wild hunch and a wilder, buried grief. But he has done far worse for Wen Kexing.
Come quickly, Wu Xi, he writes. Please.
The little girl doesn't leave the boy's side, even though Wen Kexing assures her there's no danger to him, that they are safe here. She glares at him, and—her murderous eyes not once leaving Wen Kexing's face, as if daring him to try and stop her—she climbs onto the bed to curl up protectively at the little boy's side.
There she stays for the next two days: asleep, awake, hovering and nodding off and jumping to attention again when Zhou Zishu or Wen Kexing comes by with food or medicine. A watchful little sentinel. And if her eyes are often red, her nose and cheeks puffy with the evidence of tears—none of them mention it.
They don't learn the children's names until the boy wakes up from his fever two days later.
He looks the same age as the little girl; they're both dressed in rags, both alone and scared and so young and lost. Nevertheless, he speaks with the air of a scholar's son, raised with status and learning.
While the girl runs to the kitchen to fetch him food and water, the boy solemnly thanks Wen Kexing and Zhou Zishu for saving them, for giving them shelter and medicine, and for putting up with Xiao-Yue's temper.
"Is that her name?" Wen Kexing asks.
The boy pauses for a moment. "I don't know what her family name is," he admits. "She was abandoned on our doorstep when she was a baby, and my grandfather took her in. He said the moon shone especially bright that night when he heard a child wailing. So we've always called her Mingyue."
"And you, child?" Zhou Zishu asks. "What is your name? Where is your grandfather, and your family?"
"My family name is Lin. My name is Caihan. A year ago, a group of wicked people attacked our home. I don't know who they were. I know grandfather used to live in the capital, working for a prince, but— He was only a tutor. I don't know why anyone would—"
The boy coughs. Wen Kexing quickly helps him sit up, gently patting his back until the fit passes.
"They killed my grandfather and burned down our home," Caihan says when he's caught his breath. "I've always been sick and bedridden. I would have died. I should have died, but—Xiao-Yue got me out. She pulled me from the fire. We've been running and taking care of each other since."
Caihan struggles to sit up properly on his own, waving Wen Kexing aside when he tries to help. Slowly, formally, the boy lifts his arms and bows to both of them.
"Thank you for finding and sheltering us," Caihan says. "Thank you for taking care of Xiao-Yue. Truly, we have only each other left. I don't know what I would do without her."
(All this happens several hours after Caihan first wakes. The moment he actually stirs, Xiao-Yue is there—never having left his side—and when his eyes open, when his mouth moves and his parched tongue forms a soundless word that might have been her name—she flings herself into his arms and begins to cry, loud heaving sobs that rattle her whole body. And though he's weak from fever and still shivering—though the tight grip of her hands must be causing him pain—Caihan wraps his little arms around her thin shoulders, and they cling to one another.
He whispers, Xiao-Yue, it's all right, don't cry, and Xiao-Yue sobs and sobs and sobs, I thought you were leaving me again, gege, I was so scared. I was so scared.)
Qingming this year is unseasonably warm. When Wen Kexing returns from his yearly trip down the mountain, he makes it two steps into the house before collapsing into Zhou Zishu's arms. His whole body is burning up, qi circulating wildly from prolonged exposure to heat.
Xiao-Yue peers around a doorway at them when Zhou Zishu carries him inside.
"What's wrong with the old man? Is he hurt?"
"Nothing to worry about," Zhou Zishu tells her. "Actually, why don't you go make some food? I'm sure Caihan will want lunch soon."
She narrows her eyes at him. Zhou Zishu stares calmly back. Finally, Xiao-Yue harrumphs at the obvious dismissal—"Fine, be like that then,"—and flounces off to the kitchen.
Zhou Zishu settles Wen Kexing on the low couch, propping him up into a sitting position. Wen Kexing makes a muffled noise when Zhou Zishu takes both his hands and draws the rampant qi into his own body, calming the flow before channeling it back.
Gradually, Wen Kexing's rabbiting pulse slows to its normal rhythm. His eyes flutter open.
"A-Xu..." He breathes out. "Thank you."
Zhou Zishu squeezes his hands in reply, and continues.
(He's never told Wen Kexing, but twice now Zhou Zishu has come closer to taking his own life than the Seven Nails of Torment ever came to killing him.
The first was when he watched Wen Kexing fall from Bailu Cliff.
The second was when he opened his eyes in the Armory and found Wen Kexing's hands slack and lifeless in his.
The way Zishu's whole body went cold at the sight was surely his soul trying to chase Wen Kexing down to the netherworld, where he'd selfishly gone ahead.
And that was the promise he'd never said aloud but always meant. Like a pair of wild swans in flight or wolves in the hunt, he would follow where Wen Kexing went, because he knew Wen Kexing would also never be more than a step behind, were Zhou Zishu the one in the lead.)
Wen Kexing has recovered enough by the time Chengling arrives to sit in the snow amidst the gaggle of baby disciples, handing out kites and listening to their stories of life within Siji Manor's ever-blooming walls.
"It's done, shifu," Chengling says as they watch the children tug Wen Kexing this way and that. "Ping'an-ge sent the letter with all speed. You should have a reply within the week."
Zhou Zishu breathes out. "Good. Well done."
"Of course." Chengling glances at him. "I won't pry if you don't wish to tell me what the letter said, shifu. But if there were something truly wrong, you would tell me, right?"
The children are trying to teach Wen Kexing a new game that they learned from da-shijie. Zhang Nianxiang is eighteen this year, Zhou Zishu realizes with a start. Chengling's daughter is old enough to have a family of her own. His disciple has grown up.
Instead of answering the question, Zhou Zishu says, "There's someone you should meet," and gestures for Chengling to follow him into the house.
In the kitchen, Xiao-Yue is standing on tiptoe as she stirs something on the stove. She looks up when the door opens. In the smokey light, her face looks as familiar as something out of an old dream. Chengling stops dead in his tracks.
"Xiao-Yue," Zhou Zishu says, "I'd like you to meet my disciple, Zhang Chengling. He's the master of Siji Manor, and a big-shot hero of the jianghu. But you can call him shushu."
Chengling arranges for the older disciples to come up the mountain more frequently, to bring food and other things that small children need.
Gao Xiaolian hand sews a set of colorful balls for Xiao-Yue to play with. Deng Kuan is the one who thinks of sending up a set of child-sized furniture, chairs and little stools for growing bodies to reach otherwise inaccessible tables and shelves. Wen Kexing orders new clothes for Xiao-Yue and Caihan. Zhou Zishu sends for more books, ones suitable for children, along with ink and paper for writing, studying. Chengling sends everything they asked for, and more.
A week later the letter arrives bearing Beiyuan's seal and Wu Xi's handwriting. We're on our way, is all it says. It's enough.
"Why do you even live up here, you weird old man?" Xiao-Yue asks Wen Kexing while he tries to coax her into eating some vegetables one day. "It's cold and uncomfortable and horrible. Why did you decide to build a house here?"
Because he gave up everything for me, Zhou Zishu thinks.
Wen Kexing smiles at the child and tells her, "Because this is where my most important, beloved person in the whole world lives. So where else could I possibly go?"
Zhou Zishu expects the child to scoff or make another rude comment as she often does. But Xiao-Yue just looks at him, looks back at Wen Kexing. Her cheeks puff out a bit as she thinks.
Finally she nods as if to say, That makes sense, and resumes eating her lunch.
One winter, twenty-some years ago, they went to find the little house where Wen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao died.
He'd promised Wen Kexing that they would go. He'd lied at the time, of course. At the time, Zhou Zishu thought he would be dead before the month was out. Nevertheless, he'd promised. He didn't like lying to Wen Kexing. But some part of him liked the idea of keeping his promise even as a ghost, lingering at Wen Kexing's side to see him make the pilgrimage that he needed to make. To see him live on as he deserved to do.
In the end he accompanied Wen Kexing to that little house not as a ghost but as an immortal. The pair of them, frozen in time, traveling by night under cover of a harsh winter that turned even temperate valleys as cold as their mountain peak.
They made good time on their trip. But all the haste in the world now couldn't take back the years that had already passed. The house was still standing when they arrived. Much of the roof had caved in. The walls were crumbling, uprooted by vines and other growing things. The gate hung loose from hinges that creaked when Wen Kexing pushed open the doors. He stepped into the frost-covered courtyard; Zhou Zishu followed.
With its tattered windows the house looked like an eyeless skull. It stared while Wen Kexing knelt in the snow. Ice cracked and bloomed, spider-veined under his hands and knees. He touched his forehead to the frozen ground.
It was far too late to find Wen Ruyu and Gu Miaomiao's bodies. Far too late for anything but this: Wen Kexing prostrated in the snow, white hair covering his face like a veil as his shoulders shook with a grief he'd carried far too long.
Zhou Zishu stood and waited and bore witness.
Eventually—when he'd exhausted his tears, when he'd finished saying in his heart what he needed to say to his parents' ghosts—Wen Kexing straightened up and said,
Zhou Zishu went. Wen Kexing reached up blindly to grasp his sleeve. Zhou Zishu knelt beside him. He heard Wen Kexing take a deep breath.
"Father. Mother. I want you to know that you don't have to worry anymore." Wen Kexing lifted his eyes beyond the hollow house. Beyond the walls, above the crumbling rooftop was a clear, cold sky. "I found shixiong. I've been to see shifu. A-Xu even has a gaggle of disciples at home, and Siji Manor is being rebuilt."
A faint smile on his lips. Wen Kexing's hand folded around his; Zhou Zishu gripped his cold fingers.
"Everything's going to be all right now," Wen Kexing said. "You don't have to wait for me on the netherworld road anymore. It's not that I don't want to see you again. But there are some things I still have to live for first. I think you'd understand that. That's what you wanted for me, right?"
A whispering wind curled through the courtyard, rustling snow and dead leaves in its wake. Wen Kexing closed his eyes, head tipped back to the sun. Zhou Zishu held his hand and felt his own heart beat in his chest, the prize that Wen Kexing had won with pure faith, determination.
"Rest easy, Wen-daxia, Wen-furen," Zhou Zishu said out loud to that clear winter day. "I promised you and shifu once that I would look after him. And I will. Always."
Any ghost that cared enough to linger would want to see their loved ones live on in peace and joy, he thought. Mourning was not burying yourself with those who were gone. Mourning was a kind of forgiveness, the antidote to grief.
Two and a half weeks later, their guests arrive.
Wu Xi's hair is streaked through with grey, almost enough to rival Wen Kexing. Jing Beiyuan on the other hand has somehow managed to retain a full head of dark hair even in his old age. When Zishu asks him what black magic he traded his soul for, Beiyuan just laughs. The way Wu Xi looks at Beiyuan hasn't changed in nearly forty years.
A lifetime, Zhou Zishu thinks, is a funny way to measure time.
Xiao-Yue regards Wu Xi with suspicion, and all but bares her teeth at Beiyuan. Zishu nearly laughs out loud at the affronted look on Beiyuan's face; it's obvious that he's never met anyone as immune to his charms as Xiao-Yue.
"We're here to help you," Wu Xi says kindly. Slowly, joints creaking, he kneels down beside Caihan's bed until he's eye level with both children. "I'm a shaman. We're friends of your friends."
"The old man's not my friend," Xiao-Yue mutters from where she's currently hiding behind Wen Kexing's sleeve. Her little fists clutch the fabric convulsively, before slowly loosening. Wen Kexing puts an arm around her shoulders as she shuffles forward. She lifts her chin at Wu Xi. "What do you want, you old magic man? Are you here to buy us? I'm warning you, I bite people. You don't want a servant like me."
Zishu and Beiyuan cough simultaneously to hide their laughter.
"Xiao-Yue," Caihan admonishes. "Don't be rude to an honored guest."
She scowls and clutches at Wen Kexing's robes again. Wen Kexing puts a soothing hand on her head. "No one's taking you away," he promises. "The Great Shaman is just going to check if there are any bad things following you from your past lives that we need to get rid of, so you can both grow up healthy and happy. Isn't that right?"
"That's right," Wu Xi agrees. He holds out his hand to Xiao-Yue. "May I see your wrist, little miss?"
"Show him," Caihan urges her. "It's all right."
Reluctantly, still not letting go of Wen Kexing, Xiao-Yue lifts her right arm. Wu Xi gently turns her hand palm up. On the inside of her wrist is a dark line, a scar or birthmark, running straight across like the shadow of half a bracelet.
"And you, young master Lin," Wu Xi says quietly.
Caihan carefully lifts his sleeve and offers his left arm. The steady lamplight reveals a matching mark on the back of his wrist, the mirrored twin of Xiao-Yue's.
"I can't give her back her memories." There is sympathy in Wu Xi's eyes. "You understand that, don't you, Wen-gongzi? Her spirit has returned to this world, but her memories—her life with you—that's gone forever. There is no power on earth that can restore what Lady Meng took."
"I know." Wen Kexing grips his fan so hard the silk creaks. "I know she's gone." His fingers twist in the tassel hanging from the fan. He stares down at his own hands, unseeing.
Zhou Zishu curls his fingers around Wen Kexing's wrist and tugs. Wen Kexing starts, startled from whatever vortex his thoughts had drawn him down. His eyes meet Zhou Zishu's, then he blinks—looks up at Wu Xi, at Jing Beiyuan. There is tea on the table for their guests. Smoke curls sweetly from a small incense burner.
"I understand," Wen Kexing says. He breathes out. "Thank you, Wu Xi. I understand. I just needed to know for sure." His hand finds Zhou Zishu's under the table, their fingers interlocking. "Now I know. Now I can take care of her, properly, this time."
Lin Caihan is well learned, as expected of a scholar's son. Xiao-Yue, on the other hand, can't sit still long enough for Zhou Zishu to even begin to teach her the basics of reading and writing. Caihan confirms that his grandfather had tried, patiently, for years.
I'll teach her, Wen Kexing decides one day. He smiles and shakes his head when Zhou Zishu asks him how exactly he plans to do that. All Wen Kexing says is, I failed her once. It's on me to make it up to her.
Wen Kexing plays games with Xiao-Yue every day. They fly kites, play catch, hide and chase one another through cavernous courtyards and no longer silent rooms. When Zhou Zishu throws them both out for raising a ruckus and disturbing Caihan's rest, Wen Kexing takes Xiao-Yue hunting. He shows her how to track and hide, how to take and spare life on the harsh mountain that is their home.
Wen Kexing instructs her in Shijing as mantras for the long waits of the hunt. He teaches her history in allegories of mountain hares and wolves. He gives her strategy in riddles and rhymes, music in songs that he writes for her, plays and sings to her when she demands lullabies on wild, stormy nights.
Xiao-Yue runs to Caihan with every new thing that she learns, and Caihan holds her hands and exclaims over the stories that she tells him, the poems and histories that he must have already learned long ago from his own tutors. But from her lips, he listens to each tale as if it were new. With her beside him, her laughter all around him, Caihan smiles as if he would be content to listen forever.
Zhou Zishu thinks he just might—for however many eternities there are to come.
"Grandfather always told me to take care of her," Caihan says one day when Zhou Zishu brings him his medicine.
Together they look out the window at the rocky garden, where Xiao-Yue is hollering at Wen Kexing for cheating at ball games. She demands a rematch while Wen Kexing laughs, then chases him round and round the garden until he fondly agrees to play again, as many times as she'd like.
"I'm supposed to look out for her," Caihan says quietly. "But I've always been sick and useless. So actually, she's always been the one who had to take care of me."
"Without you, she would be left to grow up alone." Zishu props another pillow behind Caihan so he can sit comfortably and drink his medicine. "There's more than one way to care for another person. Xiao-Yue pulled you from a fire. You shield her from the wind and rain."
Caihan gives him a questioning look. "It's you who are giving us shelter, Zhou-xiansheng. If anything—"
"Wind and rain do not exist only in the physical realm." Zishu takes the empty bowl from Caihan's hands. He smiles at the boy. "You'll understand if you think about it."
Zhou Zishu learned long ago how grief severs you from humanity.
Because how can you still be human when this monstrous thing now lives inside you. When day by day you lose a piece more of yourself to that screaming maelstrom of helpless anger and hurt, hurt and regret and still more, always more regret.
Grief is a thing that will scrape at your human skin until you're bloody, grotesque, then leave you to sit in the nightmare until, bit by bit, you begin to believe it, until what looks back at you from the mirror is no longer a man but this inhuman thing.
Monsters belong in deep, dark pits where they cannot stain the light of day. So there you stay until there you are found, the day a traveller stops and sees you on the side of the road, in this pit you dug for yourself while monstrous and bleeding. And instead of turning away in disgust, this stranger—same-souled, smiling—will peel back his human mask to show you his own bloody maw.
Spring turns to summer. Xiao-Yue helps Wen Kexing make zongzi, and Chengling brings the disciples up the mountain to greet tai-shifu and tai-shishu for Duanwu. The days lengthen further. Snow melts and runs into streams into rivers.
One day, Wen Kexing says to Caihan, "My family were healers, skilled students of a great master. They're all gone now. I have no children to pass my knowledge on to. I would teach you, Lin Caihan, if you are willing."
Caihan looks at Xiao-Yue, who looks at Wen Kexing. She looks back at Caihan and nods firmly, once. Caihan squeezes her hand back. She helps him stand up. With her steadying him, never leaving his side, Caihan lifts his arms and carefully lowers himself in a formal bow.
"We are both forever in your debt, Master Wen. I would be honored to remain here as your disciple."
A week after Wen Kexing takes over Caihan's lessons, Xiao-Yue marches up to Zhou Zishu as he's meditating and declares,
"I want you to accept me as your disciple and teach me how to fight."
It's nothing like Chengling asking, thirty years ago, Shifu, please accept me as your disciple. I've long since decided in my heart that you are my shifu, whether you acknowledge me or not.
Zhou Zishu studies the little girl standing before him with her hands planted on her hips. "Why don't you ask your Wen-shu to teach you?"
"I asked him," Xiao-Yue scowls. "He says he's too busy. And he says you're stronger than him anyway. I want to learn from the strongest so I can be the strongest and protect Caihan-gege. So I'm asking you. Will you accept me as your disciple or not?"
It was something Wen Kexing once told Gu Xiang: that to care for someone was to make a lifetime's commitment. Otherwise, it was nothing but cruelty—to give another creature the illusion of safety, the knowledge of joy, only to cast them out into the hellish world again.
If you cannot take care of someone their whole life, then you might as well give them a merciful end before the world turns merciless, as it always does.
Wen Kexing laughs bitterly one night as he lies awake, remembering. "In the end I couldn't even keep my word to her. How many times must she have called me a hypocrite, as she walked that netherworld road with Cao Weining."
"You can't promise someone forever," Zhou Zishu says against his shoulder. His arm slotted around Wen Kexing's waist, natural as breathing. The rise and fall of Wen Kexing's chest under his hand, steady as the earth itself. "Wasn't it you who told Chengling there's no surety, no forever free of suffering? Only the fleeting taste of honey while we live."
"Maybe," Wen Kexing whispers back. "But I'm sure as hell staying with you forever. In this life or the next, or in the eternal suffering that awaits us. No matter what, A-Xu. I've already decided that."
And grief is a private thing, but maybe—
The Mid-Autumn Festival arrives. Wen Kexing and Xiao-Yue decide to string lanterns all over the house and throughout the cavern. If Chengling were to look up at the mountain tonight, Zhou Zishu wonders if he would see the snowy peak aflame with light.
Wen Kexing calls out directions for where each lantern should go, and Xiao-Yue leaps lightly from rock to rock, hanging them up. Her qinggong will soon outstrip that of most children her age. Chengling hadn't reached this level until well into his twenties—and then only because of a do-or-die moment while running away from a very large, very angry pheasant.
Zhou Zishu makes a note to tell that story loudly and at length the next time his disciple comes to visit with the children. It's a good thing for Chengling to be periodically reminded of his own shortcomings.
Not that his virtues don't more than make up for them. Maybe he's never said it in so many words, but Zhou Zishu is proud of how far his disciple has come.
The new winter clothes that Chengling sent up for Xiao-Yue and Caihan are warm enough for all four of them to go sit outside in the evening, despite the threat of snow in the air, and enjoy a bright full moon. Zhou Zishu brings a little brazier to keep the children warm. Wen Kexing and Caihan pass the time trading poem after poem on moonlight and togetherness.
Xiao-Yue puts her head on Caihan's shoulder and falls asleep curled against him. Caihan instinctively wraps an arm around her, holding her close. What do people need of poems, Zhou Zishu wonders, when there is already this.
Winter arrives with a week of storms that keep them locked inside. Caihan passes the time reading, writing, learning medicine from the books and scrolls that Wen Kexing gives him.
Xiao-Yue runs around the house, now making food, now straightening the rooms, now nagging Zhou Zishu for more martial arts lessons, now badgering Wen Kexing to play hide and seek.
When she's finally exhausted herself, she climbs into Wen Kexing's lap—heedless of the fact that he was in the middle of writing a letter—and demands to be entertained with wild, fantastical stories. She settles against him in a listening posture, then nods off while Wen Kexing tells her blood-curdling tales of monsters, of ghosts with human faces and hearts. Immune to the horror, Xiao-Yue sleeps peacefully, curled in the crook of his arm like a small sack of precious grain.
The howling of the storm outside seems to fall silent, under the sound of her even breathing.
He presses a kiss to the top of her little head, and she snuggles closer against him.
The candles have burned low by the time Zhou Zishu opens the door and finds them thus. Wen Kexing at the table—the letter he'd been writing, abandoned; the ink in the well long dried. His arms around the sleeping child. Xiao-Yue's fist curled loosely in his robes.
When Zhou Zishu goes to cover them both with a blanket, he finds a trace of tears on Wen Kexing's face.
Wen Kexing doesn't open his eyes. "It's all right," he replies, voice barely audible. "Let her sleep."
After the storm passes, Xiao-Yue pulls Wen Kexing outside and demands that he help her carry snow into the cave so she can build a snowman in the courtyard, right by the window where her Caihan-gege can see it.
Later, Wen Kexing will tell Zhou Zishu about the first snowman he ever built for Gu Xiang back when she'd been younger than Xiao-Yue is now. The snow falling on Ghost Valley made even the monstrous place seem pure. Fresh snow always erased the smell of blood and rot, leaving the morning crisp and cold.
Gu Xiang's eyes were wide with childish delight, and Wen Kexing—still weak from drinking the water of oblivion, but strong enough now to go out on his own without Luo-yi watching over him—Wen Kexing felt himself smiling for the first time in what felt like years.
Do you know what a snowman is? he asked Gu Xiang, who shook her head but looked at him with faith that he held the answer. So Wen Kexing showed her.
When that snowman melted, she cried.
It will snow again, A-Xiang, he promised her. Soothingly, at first. Then with irritation when she continued to sob over the muddy puddle where her snowman had disappeared with the arrival of sunlight.
Stop crying, he remembers shouting at her. What did crying ever accomplish? Just look at you, falling apart at the smallest thing gone wrong. Do you think crying will move the heavens to change reality, turn back time, chase away the sun? If you want another snowman, build it yourself! Nobody's coming to help you.
Years later, Gu Xiang would tell Zhang Chengling across a dinner table in Jiangnan, I really can't stand spoiled brats like you who've never suffered even a bit of hardship. Look at you, as soon as one thing goes wrong your whole world falls apart. Crying won't move anyone to help you!
"What a bunch of lies," Wen Kexing will laugh, remembering as Zhou Zishu brushes his hair. "I built her so many snowmen that winter. And every winter after that. Until one day, she declared she was too old for childish things. She'd just killed a ghost who'd once stolen from me." A soft exhale. "She was nine."
Grief is a private thing, and grief is a thing that claws and clings. Zhou Zishu knows.
It wasn't until he'd left Jinzhou and returned to Siji Manor with Wen Kexing, with Zhang Chengling—with his disciple and his shidi; with some right now, perhaps, to kneel at his shifu's grave—it wasn't until he pushed open that beloved gate again, that Zhou Zishu finally put down the grief he'd carried out of this place like an anchor on his soul.
And it wasn't until a sleepless night, wreathed in sweet smoke from the incense burner, Wen Kexing's dark eyes watching him so patiently, that Zishu spoke his grief into words and finally—finally—began to mourn.
And it would be many more nights, many more stories, more patience and love than could be counted, before the feral grief went tame and slunk away as quietly as it first came.
"I've forgotten what Jiuxiao looks like," Zhou Zishu admits one morning when Wen Kexing kisses him from sleep into awareness of the cold and the dawn. "I've forgotten what he looked like, the last time I saw him, before I buried him."
"I've forgotten what they all looked like," Zhou Zishu says. "I saw their faces so clearly, for so long. All of them. Every single person who died because of me." He breathes out, and feels Wen Kexing's arms around him tighten. "Now I only remember the sound of Jiuxiao's laugh, from a lifetime ago. Now I only remember their happiness."
Wen Kexing doesn't say, That's not selfish, or, That's the way it should be. Instead he kisses Zhou Zishu again—harder this time, with teeth—until he knows nothing but the copper taste of living on his tongue.
This year Wen Kexing says, "I'd like it if you came down the mountain with me for Qingming." His hands are full of willow branches twisted into wreaths. "I think—I think I've been selfish, keeping A-Xiang and Xiao-Cao to myself. They both always loved you as well. You were as much her family as I was."
In the early morning, before daylight warms the earth, Chengling meets them at Gu Xiang and Cao Weining's graves. Chengling doesn't bring any disciples. He brings fruit and wine and plates of cold sweets made by Gao Xiaolian. Together, they sweep the tombstones clean. Wen Kexing brushes dirt away from the inscribed words: Beloved Madam Cao, Gu Xiang, loyal and courageous.
On Cao Weining's tombstone are written the matching words: steadfast and true.
Chengling's hair is slowly but steadily turning grey. Zhou Zishu informs his disciple that it finally gives him the air of authority that he's so sorely lacked all these years. Chengling just laughs.
"Please don't mock my aging appearance, shifu. Not when you don't look a day over thirty."
Sometimes, idly, Zhou Zishu wonders what he will do when he loses what remains of the human ties that still bind him to this world. He wonders if Chengling would still acknowledge a shifu like him, if Chengling were reborn into this world. He wonders if he can stand to outlive his own disciple.
Wen Kexing has lost Gu Xiang once. Zhou Zishu wonders if Wen Kexing can bear to live, to stay with him for so long as to watch the same piece of his heart die again.
He wonders, but there is still time. For now there is sun and snow, home and children's voices and flowers endlessly blooming in Siji Manor. There is Xiao-Yue chasing Wen Kexing through the gardens, demanding attention, while Lin Caihan watches fondly from his seat by the window.
(A year not too far in the future, a letter will arrive from Nanjiang with the news. It will not come as a shock. Beiyuan will have written frequently, his tone always fond.
Not long after that, Wu Xi will come see them one last time. By then Wu Xi's hair will be as white as Wen Kexing's. It will be as if he has aged decades, lifetimes, in the months since Beiyuan passed.
"And what will you do, Zishu?" Wu Xi will ask. "When the time comes. Have you two discussed it?"
"Not yet," Zishu will admit, and wonder if Wu Xi is disappointed in him. He'll be surprised when Wu Xi only nods.
"If you need anything from me," Wu Xi will say next. "I'm not as strong as I used to be. But I can still bless a fated tie, if that's what you and Wen-gongzi desire."
And Zishu will thank him, but he won't say yes. Nor will he ask if Wu Xi bound Beiyuan to himself. He won't ask if Beiyuan wanted to be unbound, so that in his next life he might have the freedom to choose again.)
Together, they watch the New Year's fireworks that Chengling sent for the children to enjoy.
When Caihan and Xiao-Yue are ready to go out into the world on their own, they agree under the canopied bursts of color and light. Keeping Caihan and Xiao-Yue on this desolate mountain forever would be cruel. Children must find their own way, build their own home, make their own mistakes.
When this winter passes, they will send the children to Siji Manor. When Wen Kexing has passed his parents' legacy on to Caihan. When Zhou Zishu has trained Xiao-Yue into a fighter that even the greatest jianghu sects would do well to respect. And when they are ready, all of them—they will send the children on their way.
They won't be children by then. They'll be the same age as Zhang Chengling was when he was cast out into an unforgiving world. And just like Chengling, they will not be alone.
They will not be rootless, so long as Siji Manor stands. So long as the mountain and they both survive. Wen Kexing cannot keep Xiao-Yue under his wing her whole life, just as he could not protect A-Xiang forever. But he will be here.
Not forever, but for as long as she needs a place to fly home to. That much, he can promise her.
"You'd find me again, right?" Wen Kexing whispers to him in the dead of night. "After this life. If, after however long in hell we've earned between us—if we're reborn again into this world—you'll still come find me, won't you, A-Xu?"
Whether as man or beast or insentient river rock, Zhou Zishu wants to tell him. If you're reborn as scorching sand I'll chase you as the desert wind. If you're reborn as a wolf I will gladly be the deer in the hunt. I don't need Wu Xi's blessing or red-dyed string to keep you wound tight around my heart.
"Shut up and go to sleep," is what he says out loud. Zhou Zishu kisses the soft skin beneath Wen Kexing's ear, pulls him closer until they can feel each other's every breath. "I've already found you, twice. I'm not planning on losing you ever again."