Nearly a year ago, now, Wei Gongzi had handed him a carved wooden… animal of some sort, possibly it was meant to be a donkey, a little bigger than a loquat. “There,” he had said, “Now you can enter Cloud Recesses whenever you want.”
Wen Ning had looked at the piece of wood. It had four legs, and two ears, but none of them were the same length as any of the others. He hadn’t asked, did you make this? because it had seemed too obvious.
“Ah… thank you?” he had said, instead. “Do the Lan… know?”
“It will be fine!” Wei Wuxian had said, evasively, “You worry too much!”
And it had been, actually. If he entered by the main gates, the Lan sentries would nod at him, sometimes, even the ones who had scowled at him at first. Some of them wouldn’t meet his eyes, but they’d still nod at him, politely, like Lans did.
So as to avoid awkwardness, if he spots the guards before they see him, and he recognizes them as one of the stiffer ones, Wen Ning will go around, instead. So long as he has the token Wei Wuxian gave him, no one is alerted to the Ghost General on the premises except those he makes aware, and really, he suspects everyone is happier this way.
Wen Ning carries the token around even when he doesn’t need it, sometimes. He think of it as Littler Apple, or just Apple, imagining that Wei Gongzi had been trying to capture his cantankerous donkey’s likeness. He has tried to explain to Wei Gongzi that you can capture her affection, you just need patience, and a bit of bribery, and she will, eventually, come to brighten up when she sees even such an unnatural creature as the Ghost General coming. “Is that why she makes that demon noise when she sees you?” Wei Wuxian had asked. “I thought that was her battle cry.” Wen Ning had realized he was not going to be able to explain donkeys to Wei Wuxian, but he still encouraged him to feed her apples, since it couldn’t hurt.
Anyway, he doesn’t need to have the token out when he scales the walls of Cloud Recesses, but he takes out Littler Apple, his apple, again, and looks at it, perched on top of the wall. Perhaps there is something of a frustrated donkey in what he assumes are its ears? He wonders where Wei Wuxian got the wood to carve the lopsided creature.
He’s not in a hurry, so he sits on the wall and observes Cloud Recesses. A-Yuan will need to finish leading the class of juniors in their sword work before he is free to meet him, it’s only that Wen Ning likes to arrive early rather than late. Cloud Recesses is, of course, beautiful, completely unlike Qishan, even in these un-cultivated parts. Wen Ning entertains himself for a little while spotting trees he recognizes. It’s just past the really wet part of spring, and few of the trees are flowering, which helps him make identifications, since he’s not really educated about trees, unlike Second Uncle. He thinks he spots a few willows, further down where he knows the stream is, and a tree he suspects of being plum, although of course it’s not in flower.
Second Uncle had been a wood-worker. He had had to turn to it late in life, when his flesh could no longer bear the lacquer that he had built his career on, and so he had turned his hand to carving. He had known the name of every tree Wen Ning asked him about. It wasn’t that Wen Ning had wanted to know the names of the trees, it was that there was something about the way he could summon up a name for every tree, like he knew them all, that young Wen Ning had found magical, and he had wanted him to perform that magic trick every time he saw him. Second Uncle had not survived the Sunshot Campaign. Wen Ning doesn’t know when he died, but he hopes it was early on.
Wen Ning’s knowledge of trees is limited to the medicinal ones. He can recognize the mulberry tree, in summer and winter, he can spot eucommia and the scholar tree, but if he doesn’t know a medicinal use, to him it’s just greenery. Wen Qing hadn’t made Wen Ning learn his herbs, it had just seemed like a useful thing he could do, when there were so many things he wasn’t capable of. And it had been useful to him in this second life, hadn’t it?
The sun has moved a few degrees, so he hops off the wall and begins making his way toward the rear of the training pavilion. He’s making his way along a stream to a place where some rocks have been placed to allow a dry crossing. The placement is artfully irregular, but the rocks themselves are suspiciously un-smooth, to allow the grip of feet on wet stone, and he allows himself to be amused by the Lan artistic sensibilities.
When they had left Qishan, A-Yuan had wanted to cut a willow branch to plant in Gusu as a reminder of their once-home. Wen Ning had liked the idea very much, the idea of something from Qinghe that was healing, although he didn’t think it had that meaning to A-Yuan. He had asked A-Yuan, “Can we use this one? It was Wen Qing’s favourite.” Favourite wasn’t quite right, since he didn’t think she had an emotional attachment to white willow, but she always kept the bark on hand for medicinal usage.
A-Yuan had shrugged. “They all look the same to me. Ning Shushu, can I plant it at your house?”
Wen Ning had looked at him, and the obvious question, “not in Cloud Recesses?” had died on his lips. A-Yuan had looked… a little uncertain, but also a little ashamed to be asking. “Of course, A-Yuan. I would like that.”
But he had imagined just jamming the willow branch in a patch of dirt by his door. Instead, A-Yuan had circled his entire house, then circled it again with the willow branch in his hands, sometimes raising it up to his eye-line. Wen Ning had watched bemused.
Then A-Yuan had given him the branch to hold, and left, returning some time later with a very large rock. “I could have carried that,” Wen Ning had been unable to prevent himself from saying, although it was obviously too late.
“It’s good training,” A-Yuan had huffed, and set the rock down, a little way from Wen Ning’s front door. Then he had had backed up, squinted at it, and came back and rotated it a quarter turn. Wen Ning had come forward with the willow branch when A-Yuan had gestured at him, a little imperiously, and then apologized. “I mean, Sorry, Ning Shushu, if you can hand me the willow? I think if we put it here, it will look very natural.”
“Yes,” Wen Ning had said, unable to help himself. “Extremely natural.”
But the willow branch seemed to have rooted itself, and was putting forth green leaves, and he admitted it looked nice enough. Wen Ning wasn’t sure what the rock contributed, but it wasn’t any more in the way than the willow tree would be as it grew, and no doubt if he had more artistic sensibilities he would understand.
Wen Ning has passed through the outskirts of Cloud Recesses enough times that he’s already charted himself something of a path. He can’t take a straight line without coming too near other, better travelled paths, but he doesn’t have to swing too wide. Therefore, he’s not really very far from bits of Cloud Recesses that are, if not cleared of forest, at least well tended, when he spots Zewu-jun.
Wen Ning freezes without thinking. Stillness doesn’t require effort from him, the way it had before; he can hold a bow drawn indefinitely, although there are no longer any bows that can withstand his draw. It’s not really freezing, as such, not the way animals freeze when startled, it’s simply… waiting. He stops animating his body, and it waits. While it waits, he considers; he has permission to be here, he’s not breaking a rule, the only question is whether or not he wants to make Zewu-jun aware of him.
Wen Ning has no particular feelings about Zewu-jun, except insofar as men of natural authority have always made him a little uneasy. Well, that’s not entirely true; once, men of authority terrified him, but they still make him feel a little uneasy. He hangs back a moment.
Zewu-Jun does not seem to have seen him. He is looking, contemplatively, at the roots of a tree that he is nearly concealed beneath. The tree is in full bloom, covered in pale violet flowers, and Zewu-jun, in the Lan colours, is almost hidden, except that the blooms of the tree are moving in intermittent gusts of wind, and he is not.
Wen Ning decides that it will be less awkward to make Zewu-jun aware of him than to risk discovery, so he moves his body, scuffing at the ground. This is somewhat less effective than it might be in another season, with the ground so damp, so he is forced to use a trick he has learned with A-Yuan’s coaching, a coughing sound. He cannot, according to A-Yuan, make a natural sounding sneeze, but his coughs sound quite lifelike, he’s told.
Zewu-jun startles and then suppresses it, both actions almost violent in their strength, and Wen Ning freezes again. He feels a sudden burst of guilt, as if he was caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, even though he knows that’s not the case. Zewu-jun seems… Wen Ning isn’t sure. He feels strongly that he was not supposed to be here, but he watches Zewu-jun put himself back together, relax his shoulders, put on a placid expression, and then, as he recognizes Wen Ning, a friendly smile.
“Ah, Wen Gongzi,” says Zewu-jun, in a fairly good imitation of his usual warmth. A-Yuan has not precisely spoken of his worries about Zewu-jun, but Wen Ning has gathered, from his careful oblique references, that A-Yuan is worried that Zewu-jun has left seclusion too soon, or perhaps, too late. In any case, A-Yuan has been worried, and Wen Ning thinks he can see why. Zewu-jun looks hollow, both underfed, and emptied out of something within him that Wen Ning cannot name.
“Zewu-jun,” says Wen Ning, and offers him a shallow enough bow that Zewu-jun will not have time to protest his courtesy.
Zewu-jun looks at him. Wen Ning thinks Zewu-jun is struggling to come up with something to say. He is accustomed to being the originator of awkward silences, not the recipient of them, but he feels a sympathy for Zewu-jun. “Cloud Recesses’ trees are very beautiful at this time, aren’t they?” he sallies, a neutral observance that offers Zewu-jun an excuse for his presence.
Zewu-jun gives a rather pained smile. “Ah,” he says as if he is about to follow that with some observance, but instead looks away from Wen Ning and looks back at the tree he had been contemplating.
Wen Ning looks at the tree. He has the vague feeling he ought to recognizes it as a tree used in carpentry, but he cannot recall its name, or anything about it. Its flowers are very pretty. It doesn’t look otherwise interesting.
“I planted this tree, did you know? Not ten years ago,” says Zewu-jun, finally, after a long moment of them both looking at the tree, just as Wen Ning is starting to think he ought to say something about meeting Sizhui and excuse himself.
Wen Ning looks at the tree. It looks like a mature tree, to him. “It… looks very sturdy,” he says.
“Yes,” says Zewu-jun. “I didn’t plan that part, it was simply luck. I stole it from the nursery we use to manage our forestry, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Wen Ning recognizes what is happening. He is being confessed to. This happens to him, sometimes. There is something about him that makes people tell him secrets, although he doesn’t think he does anything to encourage this. His sister used to say he had trust-worthy proportions, which people could naturally see. Since she had never read his fate in his face, this doesn’t seem too reliable.
He is, he thinks, actually quite bad at keeping secrets; he doesn’t always recognize when he’s being told a secret, and furthermore, he doesn’t have a lot of patience for people making themselves miserable, and sometimes tells people what they need to know. However, even Hanguang-jun, who was there when he betrayed Wei Gongzi’s most closely held secrets, sometimes confides in him, simple things like “Wei Ying thinks I enjoy persimmons, but I do not.”
Wen Ning gives Zewu-jun his most guileless smile, since this is happening. Unlicensed tree-planting seems like a strange thing both to do, and to confess, but peoples’ secrets sometimes hold weight for them that they don’t for others.
“Were you acquainted with Zhang Madian?” asks Zewu-jun.
Wen Ning shakes his head.
“He was the chief disciple of the Jin, for a while.” That makes sense. Wen Ning had never been well acquainted with the Jin, and during the period when they were held captive, the Jin in charge hadn’t introduced themselves. He’s not sure of the name of the Jin responsible for his death. It doesn’t bother him. “He came to visit the Cloud Recesses library, at the end of Ghost Month, nine years ago. He intended to do it quietly. Since our clans were on good terms he had permission to visit the library without any special procedures.”
Zewu-jun’s hands are clasped behind his back, in a way that should look relaxed, but doesn’t. “Due to certain things Jin Guangyao had said to me, I had some suspicions of his character. Jin Guangyao had mentioned him as one of several possible persons who might have arranged his brother’s presence at Qiongqi Path.”
Wen Ning thinks his face doesn’t show anything, but apparently Zewu-jun is not so lost in recollection that he misses Wen Ning’s reaction.
“Ah,” says Zewu-jun. “You were there also, weren’t you.”
Wen Ning consciously wills himself not to show his astonishment that Zewu-jun could even momentarily forget this. It had been one of several turning points in his life, but even to people who never met him, he knows it is part of the legend that had grown up around him.
Zewu-jun shakes his head. “In any case, perhaps that was another of Jin Guangyao’s lies. I also found Zhang Madian personally… irksome. He had a way of performing the courtesies that always seemed artificial.”
Wen Ning had only known Jin Guangyao superficially, but this had been precisely his impression of him in his youth. Lan Xichen had not seemed to find it irksome from Meng Yao. He doesn’t say this.
“By asking the librarians, I learned he was looking at herbal knowledge in our library. This seemed odd, since the Jin library certainly contains the classic. I intruded on him with hospitality, even though it was apparent he wished to be alone, and pressed him for his reasons.”
The Lan library probably did not contain what Jie would have considered real herbal knowledge, but presumably they had the same several texts that Wen Ning had first trained on. Wen Ning could see why Zewu-jun would consider it to be a little suspicious to have come all the way to Gusu to look them up.
“He eventually admitted that he had discovered that Jin Guangyao had, for six months prior to Jin Guangshan’s death, made a change to their procurement of ginger; he had arranged to be supplied with ginger from the borders of Meishan.”
Wen Ning blinks. Wen Qing always said the only ginger worth using came from the east, and although he knows other people were less picky about their herbs than Jie, nothing about Meishan’s climate seems likely to cultivate ginger of any potency.
“I knew, you see, although Zhang Madian didn’t, that Jin Guangshan had been receiving treatment for a wound he had received while night hunting. The resentful energy was causing it to putrefy, although his physician was confident it would respond to treatment.”
Wen Ning thought about the treatment he would expect to be applied to such a wound. But really, without potent ginger to counteract—
“But if the physician was using weaker ginger, his kidney yin might become weakened by the medicine,” Wen Ning blurts out.
Zewu-jun looks at him, startled, for the first time seeming as if he is really seeing him. Slowly, his shock turns into a smile; a strange one that, oddly, makes him look like his brother in a different way than usual.
“Wen Gongzi’s knowledge is as one would expect from the learned doctors of Dafan,” he says, and bows.
“No, no!” Wen Ning demurs, “It’s only some things I learned to help Da-jie.”
“Of course,” says Zewu-jun, “The famed doctor Wen. Well.” His smile twists, and there is no longer any resemblance to Hanguang-jun. “I told him that potent ginger could interfere with conception, and that perhaps he was gaining an insight into Lianfang-zun’s marital state.”
Wen Ning frowns. Zewu-jun’s smile tips back over to something less bitter. “Yes,” he said, and Wen Ning thinks he is acknowledging Wen Ning’s doubt at this claim. “I told him I could show him the text where Lianfang-zun had doubtless learned of this effect. Then I brought him here and killed him.”
Wen Ning doesn’t feel the shock he thinks he should be feeling. Somehow, he had known this story was not going to be, precisely, about a stolen tree, for a while.
“Since our forester was planting trees, I stole one of the saplings and used it to cover the disturbed earth where I buried him. I was a little worried the tree might die due to my lack of skill, and his body might be discovered, so I tried to pass it my spiritual energy to strengthen it, but perhaps I gave it too much.”
Wen Ning looks at the tree. “It’s a very good looking tree,” he says. It occurs to him that it’s a little funny, so he bows and says, “Truly you are Zewu-jun.”
Zewu-jun doesn’t laugh. He’s looking at the tree. “I killed more than one man to protect him,” he says, “but this one…”
Wen Ning wonders about the other men. Perhaps Zewu-jun means during the war. “Jin Zongzhu, that is, Jin Guangshan—” Wen Ning never really met him, only saw him from a distance, but he knows, a little, how he shaped Mo Xuanyu’s life. “Jin Guangshan was not. A good man,” he says, finally.
“Well,” says Zewu-jun, “I didn’t know, then, the full extent of his orchestration, but I knew enough. I knew he meant it to happen. I thought it… I didn’t like it, but I thought…”
They both look at the tree.
Eventually, Zewu-jun says, “Did you know this wood is used to make practice instruments for the children to learn on? It might someday be a qin.”
Wen Ning feels vindicated in his vague conviction that this tree has a use in carpentry. “Hmm. A good use,” he says. He waits a little longer, in case Zewu-jun has something else to confide, but it seems he is done. “It’s good to see you, Zewu-jun,” he says. “I am meeting Lan Sizhui, and he will be pleased when I tell him we spoke.”
“Will he?” asks Zewu-jun. “Well. Then I’m glad. Please don’t allow me to detain you.” He doesn’t look at Wen Ning.
Wen Ning takes his leave. He finds his hand has sought out the shape of Littler Apple for… comfort, he thinks, or maybe just familiarity.
Wen Ning still carries one secret. Well, he supposes he carries plenty of them; he’s the only person left who remembers so many things, but there’s one secret he was given that he still carries. Wen Qing had been afraid of heights. For a while, her cultivation had stalled because she had not wanted to learn the next step in sword cultivation, and had not wanted to admit why.
She had told Wen Ning. “It’s stupid. I know it’s stupid. I have to be a cultivator, it’s just that— You can’t tell anyone.”
He never had. Wen Qing had forced herself to tolerate heights by climbing trees, and hills, and roofs, and finally managed to learn to fly on her sword.
There’s no reason to keep the secret, now. Anyone he could tell who remembers her loved her, and they would receive that knowledge about her gratefully. But still, it’s a secret his sister gave him, and he’s selfish. He’s going to keep it.
In comparison, Zewu-jun’s secret is nothing, to him. What’s a dead Jin, to him? He has weightier things; a wooden donkey, a willow, a secret he won’t betray.