The first time Wen Qing meets Wei Wuxian, she has a white sash around her waist.
She and A-Ning had been protected from most of their uncle’s scheming their whole life, had only had limited exposure to him and to their cousins on days when tradition forced their hand and they had no other choice. Their father had protected them.
But now their father is dead, their people are in peril, and Wen Qing has to keep them safe and keep A-Ning safe and not break down crying whenever the grief crushes the air from her lungs.
They’re traveling outside their territory with Wen Chao and a large congregation of people that Wen Qing has never bothered to travel with before, regardless of her rank. At this point going around with this many disciples and servants seems less a display of rank and more a display of laziness, although of course she keeps that thought to herself. In theory they’re here to investigate reports of restless ghosts on their way back home from meeting a silk trader. In practice, Wen Qing is certain that this whole trip has just been a test to see if she can be controlled.
She’s done her best to prove that with her people and her brother’s life on the line, she absolutely can be.
So when Wen Chao tells her to handle investigating the ghosts, she bites back her instinctual response and instead says, “Of course. Who would you like for me to take with me?”
“Take with you?” he repeats, raising a mocking eyebrow. “It’s just a simple haunting. You’re an accomplished cultivator from the main family. Surely you don’t need any help.”
Cold floods her veins and congeals in her stomach. “We don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with. It’s better to have backup that you don’t need than need backup that you don’t have.”
“Don’t be silly,” he scoffs. “I obviously need the disciples with me. I’m a very important person, you know, and the threat of attack is ever present. Who would think to attack you? No, it’s much safer if you handle the ghosts on your own. If you brought some of disciples with you, they’d just draw unwanted attention for no reason! Why would you put them in danger like that? You don’t want to put your clansmen in danger, do you, Wen Qing?”
Her lips are numb, but she still manages to push them into the proper shape to say, “Of course not. You’re right. I’ll handle it on my own.”
She’s so stupid.
They don’t want to control her.
They want to kill her.
She may already be the most skilled medical cultivator in their clan – she was the second most skilled, before her father died – but she’s fifteen and barely knows how to use her sword for anything besides channeling her energy for healing. A-Ning is the one who was supposed to focus on being a fighter, but that was before they knew he’d be so prone to illness, and even then he still knows more than she does. They’re sending her off to die.
Maybe it’s what she should have expected. Their people will listen to A-Ning too, and he has a softer personality. Wen Ruohan probably thinks that he’ll be easier to control. She’s too much of a liability, too skilled in the type of cultivation that he never bothered to learn to defend himself against, and he has enough spies to know that she’s the headstrong one, the stubborn one. Killing her must seem like the logical thing to do.
She grips her sword until the pattern of her sheath digs its way into her skin. Wen Qing enters the forest, carefully making her way through the paths that the locals had marked as being most dangerous, had marked as most likely to end in a broken neck or a spine fully ripped out of the victim’s back.
It’s dark and there are talismans that will provide light but her hands are shaking too much to make them even if she thought that drawing attention to herself was a good idea right now.
She’s expecting it, and still it’s a surprise when a pale specter with black eyes and nails and tongue appears in front of her, mouth open and dripping, as if she is something it’s capable of devouring. There’s a high pitched laughing that she doesn’t dare turn around to search for, but as the temperature drops further she knows that means there’s more of them.
Wen Qing knows banishment spells, she knows how to defend herself, but she’d never had to deal with anything like this before and now monsters are surrounding her on all sides and she’s alone in the dark and she’s terrified and she knows that she’s going die.
The ghost lunges for her, claws first, and she doesn’t want to die a coward but she can’t help but flinch away, not wanting to look death in face when it comes to take her.
Except it doesn’t come.
There’s a gush of wind like something moving very quickly in front of her and then an unfamiliar voice says, “You know, those work better unsheathed.”
She opens her eyes and a boy around her age – maybe a year or so younger – is standing in front of her, sword in hand. He’s wearing all black except for the purple ribbon holding his hair up in ponytail that she can barely make out in the moonlight.
He’s grinning at her, like this is the sort of situation anyone should be happy about. She croaks, “You’re insane.”
He pouts, swinging his sword sideways to slice through a ghoul that Wen Qing hadn’t even noticed moving until it was already dissipating on his blade. “That’s a weird way to say thank you.”
She scowls, her pulse starting to settle, then he’s moving too fast again, shoving her to the side and drawing a talisman that she’s never seen before in the air and taking out another two ghosts with one move. Now that she can focus, she realizes his spiritual energy radiates off him like a furnace, chasing away the cold that had chilled her skin. “Who are you?”
“Wei Wuxian,” he answers, shoving his sheath in his belt. “Come on, you shouldn’t be here. That won’t last for long. Let’s get you out of here before they come back.”
He holds his hand out to her and she stares at it, uncomprehending. He rolls his eyes then grabs her arm, dragging her back the way she came. She digs her heels into the ground, yanking her arm out of his grip. “No! I can’t!”
“Look,” he sighs, settling his free hand on his hip. “You’re not really qualified to handle this. I can tell by how you almost let yourself get murdered back there. I have to take care of this, but I can’t do that until I get you safely out of here. So let me escort you out and take care of this before anyone else gets hurt.”
It’s reasonable. Logical. It’s not like she was going to do anything in this forest but die. But for the first time since they burned her father’s body she feels tears well in her eyes. “I can’t.”
“You definitely can,” he starts, but something about her must make him hesitate. “Why can’t you leave the dangerous forest full of ghosts who will do their best to kill you?”
It’s stupid. It’s so stupid. But this strange boy has appeared out of nowhere to save her life, so she spills everything to him. She tells him about her father’s sudden death and her cousins’ actions and her uncle’s plans and about her people and her brother and how she’s the oldest and it’s her responsibility to keep them safe but she can’t –
“Breathe,” Wei Wuxian says, almost absently. “Okay, Wen Qing. I understand. But you have to know that no matter what kind of game Wen Ruohan is playing, he won’t stop. Ever. He’s never stopped before.”
“I know,” she whispers, feeling hopelessness well up inside of her. Even if Wei Wuxian helps her take care of the forest and she can walk back to Wen Chao with a success, it won’t matter. They’ll find some other way to kill her.
“Unless,” he continues, “someone makes him stop.”
She’s smart. She knows exactly what he’s saying. “I can’t,” she says. She’s thought about it. Of course she has. She might even be able to do it, if she got lucky. “But even if I did, I lose everything. I can’t kill them all and Wen Xu and Wen Chao would destroy my people and make me watch-”
“Hey, calm down,” he says, placing his hand on her shoulder, which is something she normally wouldn’t tolerate from a stranger but it doesn’t bother her when he does it. “I said someone. Not you.”
“Wen Xu may be a loyal son, but he’s power hungry too,” Wei Wuxian continues. “We can use that to our advantage. As long as we keep your hands clean and give him no reason to suspect you, he’ll be too busy using his new power and keeping an eye on his brother to worry about you. And, if the rumors are true, he’ll be a lot easier to manipulate than his father. Do you think you can smuggle me into Nightless City?”
Unease trickles down her back. “Were you following us? Is this a trick?”
He scowls. “There’s no reason to be rude. If you don’t want me kill your uncle for you, you can just say so. But I really think you should let me. For all our sake’s.”
“You are insane,” she says, something between an accusation and a statement. “This is insane. I don’t even know you.”
He doesn’t seem to find this a compelling argument, but before he can continue with his ridiculous proposal, a ghoul rematerializes and lunges for her throat.
It takes them until nearly dawn, but they find the disturbed graves and set them right and Wei Wuxian casts a cleansing talisman so powerful she feels clean in places she didn’t know she felt dirty. He’s covered in bruises and cuts and a really nasty bitemark on his shoulder.
She doesn’t have so much as a scratch.
He’d defended her or taken the blow for her when he couldn’t.
They’re exhausted and the rising sun turns them both an improbable shade of gold, gilded in the morning light after doing what she thought would be impossible.
“Why do you want to kill Wen Ruohan?” she asks.
He glances at her then shrugs. “I’m a rogue cultivator.” The lotus embroidery in his ribbon seems to suggest something different, but he is in all black and his sword is unadorned. “My job is to help those who need it and leave the world a better place than I found it. Killing Wen Ruohan does both those things.” He pauses. “Plus, I’m supposed to meet back up with my uncle and his partner to do a bunch of boring training stuff I don’t want to do, and if I sneak away to assassinate a clan leader, then I won’t have to do that.”
Wen Qing laughs even though she shouldn’t, even though there’s nothing funny about what they’re discussing. “It’s dangerous. It’s so dangerous.”
“I’ll protect you,” he says confidently, which would be easier to dismiss if he hadn’t spent the whole night doing just that.
He’s so stupid. It’s a wonder that he’s alive.
“Fine,” she agrees, “but I’ll protect you too.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, looking like he’s getting ready to argue, but she doesn’t let him. She yanks him forward using his bad shoulder, causing him to yelp in protest. He hasn’t even gotten a chance to work up a proper whine when she presses her hand to his wound, cooling healing cultivation energy flowing into him.
“Huh,” he breathes, looking down at her, “You’re pretty good at that.”
“We’ll protect each other,” she says firmly. “Okay?”
He grins, and this time she feels herself returning it with a smile of her own. “Okay.”