and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
“I won’t do anything you do not wish me to.”
Lan Wangji did not move one way or the other after saying those words. He stared at Wei Wuxian with clear eyes and a blank, beautiful face, dressed all in the white of his clan, his long hair swaying with the night wind. The air of him alone seemed to quiet these haunted woods; the glare of his sword Bichen cleansed the last of the goddess’s dark will.
Wei Wuxian did not want to turn his back to him, even to control Wen Ning. He had learned not to let a qianyuan out of his line of sight whenever one was close. He stood in front of Lan Wangji and brought the quick-carved flute to his lips again, playing to make Wen Ning approach. His friend’s steps dragged through the leaves and low bushes until he stood within reaching distance.
Wei Wuxian did reach for him. He was unsurprised to find his skin cold and bloodless, to smell no hint of the burned scent he had once used to hide himself, or of the natural one he must have underneath it.
Loquats, Wen Qing had once said. She had held her brother’s corpse and looked at Wei Wuxian in hope and despair and told him: When he was small, he smelled of loquats.
He put his hand to the side of Wen Ning’s face. The corpse did not react in any way to his touch, nor to the fingers which Wei Wuxian ran through his dirty hair in hope of eliciting life in his eyes. They stayed empty and dark and lowered to the forest ground.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian whispered.
He hardly cared that Lan Wangji was standing a few feet away, watching.
“Wen Ning, my friend… what happened to you?”
Wen Ning did not answer. He did not move. Wei Wuxian wished the scent of sandalwood would wash away from around him, so that he could focus all of his will into looking for that loquat smell he had never gotten to know, or even that fake burned-wood which would no doubt make him think of hollowness, of shame; of another forest on another mountain, years and years ago.
But Wen Ning had not smelled of anything either after Wei Wuxian brought him back to life. In those years spent roaming the lands, he had stood by Wei Wuxian’s side, the both of them foreign to humanity in all but their own eyes.
Wei Wuxian’s hand fell to Wen Ning’s unmoving shoulder. He gripped it tightly enough to hurt.
“Jiang Wanyin will be here soon,” Lan Wangji’s soft voice cut through the silence.
Wei Wuxian breathed in shakily. He gave no acknowledgement of the warning and instead played the flute again, his fingers lingering for a second too long before leaving Wen Ning’s shoulder. He played as firmly as he could make the sound to be out of such a poor instrument. Wen Ning moved as if pulled by strings, expressionless, his dark body disappearing into the forest as far as Wei Wuxian could send him.
Stay hidden, he told him with the music. Be careful. I will call for you again soon.
Wei Wuxian lowered the flute once he was certain that Wen Ning was far enough from them. He looked sideways at Lan Wangji, who had not stopped staring at him.
“I suppose you want to capture me now,” he told him. “Forgive me if I don’t make it easy for you.”
Lan Wangji stayed silent. His eyes went to the sword still shining in his hand; he sheathed it slowly, deliberately, twisting around with the movement, showing the guqin strapped to his back and wrapped in soft, grey cloth. It almost looked as if he meant to hide the blade.
Wei Wuxian frowned. He was about to speak again when the sound of other arrivals reached him and made him look away.
Jiang Cheng jumped from Sandu’s blade before it had reached half the height of the trees, landing harshly on the soft ground without losing any balance. Behind him stood Jin Ling and the Lan kunze Wei Wuxian had met in Mo village, Lan Jingyi. He didn’t seem surprised to see Wei Wuxian standing here, which meant that Jin Ling or Jiang Cheng must have warned him in advance. Wei Wuxian, however, could not quite stop himself from staring at him again.
There was an elegance to him that all Lan children must carry in blood, though he fidgeted and spoke unlike any Lan clan cultivator Wei Wuxian had met. As before, he looked entirely unbothered to stand in the presence of so many others unhidden.
“Well?” Jiang Cheng called loudly.
Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, but a quick look in his former shidi’s direction informed him that it was not him Jiang Cheng was addressing.
From behind him, Lan Wangji replied, “That man was lying. I found no trace of the Ghost General.”
Wei Wuxian was not the only one to be surprised by those words; by Jiang Cheng’s side, Jin Ling jumped out of his skin.
“The Ghost General?” he exclaimed loudly. “When? Where?”
If mentions of the Yiling Patriarch had not brought vengefulness out of him, then Wen Ning’s title seemed to do the trick. Wei Wuxian watched Jin Ling’s young face darken with such strong resentment that his very spiritual energy looked to be leaking out of him.
“Nowhere,” Jiang Cheng replied after another long look in Lan Wangji’s direction. “As I thought. People will say anything to claim that Wei Wuxian is back from the dead. Sect leader Jin should have withdrawn that bounty years ago.”
With those words, he patted Jin Ling’s head. The boy relaxed somewhat.
“What bounty?” Lan Jingyi asked curiously, saving Wei Wuxian the trouble of doing so.
“You didn’t know?” Jin Ling replied. Though his eyes were still angry, his eagerness to answer the other boy made him look a little childish, a little arrogant. Lan Jingyi seemed used to it, judging by the huff he let out before Jin Ling was even done speaking. “Little Uncle still promises to pay whoever hands him the Yiling Patriarch handsomely.”
“I thought the Yiling Patriarch was dead. Everyone saw his corpse, didn’t they?”
“You can never know for sure, with such a demon.”
“I thought all the clans running around Yiling and telling everyone he was dead made it pretty obvious—”
“Jingyi,” Lan Wangji said.
There was no heat or anger to his voice at all, but the air seemed to turn colder and damper around them, as if swept by winter wind. Humidity and petrichor bore the weight of Lan Wangji’s disapproval.
Lan Jingyi immediately looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Hanguang-Jun,” he replied, bowing stiffly. “I will show better manners in the future.”
“Not manners,” Lan Wangji said lowly.
He did not precise what he meant by it.
Jiang Cheng seemed to have enough of discussing Wei Wuxian; which only made it all the more ironic when he turned to Wei Wuxian and said, “Mo Xuanyu. You’ll be coming with me to Yunmeng.”
I certainly won’t, Wei Wuxian wanted to say; yet at this moment, Lan Wangji was the one who took a step forward with his hand poised on Bichen’s handle.
Everyone around looked at him with wide eyes.
“What is the problem with you tonight, Lan Wangji?” Jiang Cheng asked hotly.
“What reason do you have to detain this person?” Lan Wangji retorted in as even a voice as ever.
“He’s a demonic cultivator. I told you that. He’s already more than lucky that I’m willing to let him live.”
“He is not part of your sect,” Lan Wangji said.
“Neither is he part of yours,” Jiang Cheng sneered back. “Would you rather I hand him over to Jin Guangyao? Jin Ling tells me Mo Xuanyu was already thrown out of Golden Carp Tower in the past. I doubt Lianfang-Zun will be happy to see him again.”
Whoever this Lianfang-Zun was, their name alone was enough to halt Lan Wangji somewhat.
Then— “I won’t let him be killed,” he declared, and the first inch of Bichen’s blade came out of its scabbard, shining blue in the dark.
Jiang Cheng’s face was only frozen with shock for a second. In the next he drew Sandu up, and the shadows cast by its glare only seemed to deepen the rage writ all over him. “Know your place, Hanguang-Jun,” he spat at the man in front of him. “Your title may shine to those who don’t know you, but I haven’t forgotten how far from grace you once fell.”
“Uncle,” Jin Ling said in shock.
Next to him, Lan Jingyi’s face had turned very white.
“You make a grave mistake if you still think us equals,” Jiang Cheng continued, unhindered. He swung Sandu from one side to the other, its light drawing bright lines into Wei Wuxian’s eyesight which lingered no matter where he chose to look. “It is not you I answer to, but your brother. If I want to take this kunze to Yunmeng, what right do you have to stop me? Or will you make me believe that he should be safer with you?”
Jiang Cheng’s voice bore then a grudge the likes of which Wei Wuxian had only ever heard in reference to the Wen sect.
“He will not be harmed,” Lan Wangji replied.
Any who looked upon the scene could have told how gravely he had been insulted, if only because both of his disciples seemed shell-shocked by Jiang Cheng’s words. Yet there was no fury to his manners as he drew his sword as well, no indignation or offense centered to himself. He only seemed quietly determined.
“I will not allow you to do as you please with him.”
“Shouldn’t I be the one to say this, murderer?”
Lan Wangji did not answer. He stood with Bichen in hand in one of Gusulan’s many traditional defensive stances, his posture achingly perfect despite the guqin over his back and the sealing pouches at his hips, and in front of him, Jiang Cheng took the first step.
Wei Wuxian brought the bamboo flute to his lips and breathed into it the shrillest, most uncomfortable sound he could.
Lan Jingyi and Jin Ling yelped in tandem, covering their ears and glaring at him. Jiang Cheng halted in his walk forward. Lan Wangji shuddered as if a cold breeze had just crawled in through the interstices of his clothes.
“This kunze,” Wei Wuxian said with disdain once silence had been established, “is not going anywhere with any of you. In fact, he is more than tired of all of your faces. Feel free to battle it out while he looks for somewhere warm to sleep, if you so desperately want to.”
“Mo Xuanyu,” Jin Ling exclaimed, “don’t think you can just run away.”
Wei Wuxian shrugged. He tied the flute to the rough belt he had stolen from the farmers’ house days ago and replied, “I know I can’t outrun you. But I have no intention of making it easy. Oh,” he added, “right. I almost forgot.”
With quick hands, he took the golden bow off his shoulder and threw it at its owner. Jin Ling almost dropped it in his surprise.
“Good night to all of you,” he declared, and turned away.
He heard Jiang Cheng call Mo Xuanyu’s name as he slipped in-between the trees.
From Lan Wangji, he heard nothing at all.
The inn where he had eaten and bathed during the day was crawling with cultivators. Some were the ones he had scared away with Wen Ning’s unwitting help, some were those who had fruitlessly searched for the source of the soul-stealing creature of Dafan, and who now drowned their sorrows in liquor with their swords laid upon their laps.
A bright spot of white caught Wei Wuxian’s eye. In the place where the wounded were gathered, he saw a familiar boy dressed in Lan clan garments, talking softly to the girl who had sold him the moonless tea and scent-masking paste this very afternoon. Their hands were full of clean cloth, and their sleeves stained with blood.
The girl bowed to Wei Wuxian when she caught sight of him. The Lan boy, whose name Wei Wuxian had either never caught or entirely forgotten, watched him approach with an oddly eager look on his face.
He tried to bow as well. Wei Wuxian remembered the sight of him doing so in Mo village, and it felt no better now than it had that day—he snapped at him, “Stop that,” a little more harshly than necessary.
At least the boy obeyed. He rose again with a flush upon his cheeks.
“Young master Mo,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s good to see you well. Thank you again for your help last time.”
Wei Wuxian walked past him and toward the wounded cultivators. Half of them were asleep, and the half who stayed awake had only caught glimpses of him in the dark, he knew. With the effects of scent-masking drawing away and with Mo Xuanyu’s pretty face and slim body exposed to light, not one of them recognized him. Or rather, none could imagine that he was the one to have called the Ghost General with a badly-carved flute.
Wei Wuxian snorted. He took one of the jars from the cloth tied around his waist. With his thumb, he spread more of the paste on his tongue, heedless of the Lan boy’s curious looks.
“What are you doing in Dafan?” that same boy asked once he was done.
“Running away from your sect and Yunmengjiang,” Wei Wuxian replied. “Well, right now I just want to sleep. It has been a long day.”
The Lan boy blinked in confusion.
At that moment, the front door of the inn opened, and another familiar voice cried: “Mo Xuanyu, there you are!”
The room filled with the new scents of Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi, as well as sandalwood and thick, stormy air. So Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng had put their differences aside and followed him down the mountain.
“Young lady,” Wei Wuxian called the girl. She answered him with a smile which he wished he could give back; but although he cared deeply for his kind, he had never felt at ease to show it so unabashedly. “I would like a room for the night.”
She bowed again in apology. “All of our rooms are taken, young master,” she replied.
“Then is there another inn in this village, or somewhere else I might sleep?”
“None, young master, nowhere.”
He wanted to cuss out the cultivators around him. He had been the one to get rid of the goddess in the end, and he could not sleep off the fatigue? Surely one or two could room together and make way for him.
The young woman seemed to understand his frustration. “I will ask around, young master,” she promised. “Please have a seat in the meantime.”
Wei Wuxian avoided looking in Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji’s direction as he followed her advice. Only one large table in the corner of the dining room still had room to sit, and that part of the bench was half-way occupied by a heavyset man armed to the teeth. He gave Wei Wuxian a long glare when he sat, which Wei Wuxian gave back in boredom.
He drank the broth put before him by an old woman shrouded in the scent cooked earth as he waited.
From afar, he saw the young kunze girl make her way through the guests. A surprising number of them seemed not to be bothered by her status as she spoke with them, though a few dismissed her without so much as a word. She simply bowed and went on to the next when it happened. She spoke to Lan Wangji last.
Wei Wuxian felt tired. He ate the tepid soup in front of him without much appetite. The chill of resentful energy had not stopped clinging to his skin; when he rubbed his forearms to create heat, he shivered.
He was not surprised to see the girl come back to his side a few moments later and say, “This master in white says he is willing to share with you.”
“I haven’t fallen so low as to room with strangers with no misgivings,” he replied.
She blushed furiously. “Oh, no, not like this,” she stuttered. “The places we have left have separate rooms—he said you could share one with the young kunze he travels with!”
Wei Wuxian looked away from her, meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes briefly. There was no expectation in them that he could read, only the usual impassibility which the Lan heir seemed to carry around like a badge of honor.
No, said a hint of memory in him, no, that is not quite true.
He had seen Lan Wangji wear emotion in his eyes and voice in the past. He had shared rooms with him before, though with no beds or even walls except for what natural stone had to offer, in the throes of his fever.
He had trusted Lan Wangji then. That he had no choice in the matter was of little importance; Lan Wangji had proved himself worthy of that trust, had not touched or looked at Wei Wuxian from the moment Wei Wuxian had asked him not to.
“Fine,” Wei Wuxian found himself saying. “I will take the gentleman’s offer, then.”
The girl looked relieved to hear it. She walked back to Lan Wangji with a spring in her steps, simply happy for his trust in her judgment, and Wei Wuxian could not help the twist of his lips this time. The sight of her brought the same warmth to his heart that the Lan kunze boy did.
He was silent as he walked up the stairs of the inn with Lan Jingyi by his side. The other disciple, the qianyuan one, walked ahead next to Lan Wangji, speaking in a low voice. Both youths looked tired from the day’s events. Wei Wuxian had no doubt that they would be out like candles the moment they lay down.
After all, the Lan sect was very harsh on sleeping schedules, and it was already much closer to morning than eve.
The door the waitress opened for them led to a small room with two beds. Another two doors stood at the end of it, one leading to another similar bedroom, one to an alcove where a wooden tub waited to be filled with water. Wei Wuxian ignored it as he made his way to the adjoining room and took the outer robe off of his shoulders. He untied the bag from his waist and got rid of his muddied boots and, finally, let his back rest upon something softer and warmer than the ground.
He realized as he did that it was the first time since opening his eyes to the kunze house of Mo village that he slept in an actual bed.
He said nothing as Lan Jingyi took care of his own things by the second bed. The boy seemed just as unwilling to spend time on idle talk. No noise came at all from the other room where Lan Wangji and the qianyuan boy must be undressing for the night as well.
It wasn’t long before he succumbed to sleep, and not long before he woke either.
The sky outside was still only shy of true dawn. Though it paled frostily over the horizon, with light enough for anyone to see clearly and go about their daily activities, the sun had not risen yet. Wei Wuxian had not needed much sleep during the years he spent in Yiling—another effect of losing his core, Wen Qing had liked to theorize; a perk, Wei Wuxian had answered each time. He had spent those nights poured over ink and paper, drawing talismans of his own making and researching how to best harness the only kind of spirituality now available to him. He had felt no fatigue then, though his body sometimes ached as if to remind him that he was still human. He felt fatigue now, for Mo Xuanyu had neither his training nor his tolerance for hardship, and his golden core lay warm and soft in Wei Wuxian’s chest, pulsing like a heart.
He massaged his sternum absently. The white light from outside seemed to sharpen the edges of the small room, only mellowing on Lan Jingyi’s sleeping body at the other side of it. The boy had turned his back to Wei Wuxian sometime during the past hours. If Wei Wuxian listened closely, he could hear his soft snores every few seconds. It dragged a tired smile out of him.
Now, to make his escape.
Even if Lan Wangji accepted to let him go without a word, which Wei Wuxian doubted based on their curt exchange the night before, Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling must have found room at the inn too. They must be sleeping not far, ready to jump on him the second he showed himself. Wei Wuxian’s thoughts had not changed: he had no intention of ever returning to Yunmeng.
He was silent when he slid out of the bedcovers, and silent as he put his boots back on and spread scent-masking paste on his tongue and tied his few belongings to his waist. Quietly, he creeped to the door and opened it, making sure not to let wood creak with movement or weight. In the room beyond, the air was thick with Lan Wangji’s sandalwood scent and the qianyuan boy’s own. Neither moved when the door closed and Wei Wuxian walked soundlessly across the floorboards; he huffed when he realized that they were sleeping in the exact same position, flat on their back with their hands linked atop their stomach.
He halted by the exit, looking once more in Lan Wangji’s direction.
The man had rested Bichen upright against the small cabinet that neighbored his bed. Next to it lay his neatly-folded outer robes as well as his mudstained boots. His namesake guqin was set atop a chair a couple steps away. Wei Wuxian looked for a trace of Lan Wangji’s other belongings; surely he must still be traveling with the haunted arm which they had fought a week ago, and surely he had money as well on him. The thought kept Wei Wuxian by the door for a moment.
He could use money. He did not enjoy stealing from people he had no qualms with, but in a way, he would prefer to steal out of a former comrade, someone who had fought by him and opposed him and who stood, in many ways, as an equal of sorts. Not from peasants’ empty houses, nor from that young kunze girl who had sold him tea and drugs for a much too shallow price out of the goodness of her heart.
And, well, Lan Wangji was a sect leader. The Lan sect leader. While nowhere near as wealthy as Lanlingjin, Gusulan had never been in monetary need either. Even during the war, the most they had lost was ancient halls, which they had easily rebuilt.
Yunmeng had lost so much more.
Wei Wuxian approached the bed with those thoughts in mind. He quickly and needlessly checked the clothes folded on the cabinet for Lan Wangji’s belongings—he knew the man would not have let them sit there so exposed, not when the whole inn crawled with cultivators from lesser clans who dreamed of wealth and recognition. It was only too bad for him that Wei Wuxian could not be shamed out of looking closer.
He only needed to shift the covers a bit from the man’s sleeping body. There it was, tied to his waist, a row of sealing pouches which must contain many of his journey’s catches. He ignored them in favor of the regular pouch tied next to them, shivering when his fingers brushed past fabric so soaked with resentful energy that their tips deadened upon contact.
The fierce haunted arm from Mo village, no doubt.
Wei Wuxian leaned closer above the bed. This room did not receive as much light from outside as the one where he had slept did, and it was difficult to see exactly what he was doing with the day still in pre-dawn. He deftly detached the money pouch from Lan Wangji’s waist and opened it with a clear, brief sound of metal knocking together. He picked from inside it only a handful of silver pieces, slipping his hand into the fabric at his own waist, bending down once more to reattach the pouch where it belonged one-handedly.
His eyes met Lan Wangji’s. In the darkness, they seemed even paler than usual.
“Good morning,” Wei Wuxian murmured, for he had no idea what else to say.
Lan Wangji did not answer. Wei Wuxian felt his face flush with the thought of how long, exactly, the Lan heir had watched him steal from him. He let the pouch fall onto the bed; Lan Wangji made no move to retrieve it, simply continued to stare, ever-unreadable.
“You will want to see me punished for this, I’m sure,” Wei Wuxian said in the same soft voice. It seemed that now only the sound of the qianyuan boy’s quiet breathing shook the silence, that any noise louder than this would make the fragile morning light crumble around them, pierced either by darkness or bright spring sun.
Lan Wangji’s hand brushed over the pouches attached to the belt of his inner robes. His fingers did not shiver as Wei Wuxian’s had when he touched the one where the demonic arm was kept. The whole time, he stared at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian hesitated.
“I wonder what it’ll take for you to let me go,” he said.
At last, Lan Wangji replied: “I do not intend to trap you.”
His voice was oddly rough, oddly soft at the same time. He looked beautiful like this, with morning light paling on his brow, with his black hair splayed over the white pillow. He looked made of ivory, or white jade; he looked like fine bone carved into the statue of a man, smoothed time and time again till the texture of his skin, the dip of his chin and lips, reached artistic perfection.
Wei Wuxian chuckled nervously, looking away. “It’s you or that Jiang fellow, I suppose,” he said.
“I will not let Jiang Wanyin trap you either.”
“I could convince you to let me go.”
Lan Wangji made as if to move—to sit up, perhaps, or to grab Wei Wuxian’s arm. Wei Wuxian reacted without thought. He sat down onto the bed and pinned Lan Wangji’s wrist to the sheets.
In his belly, age-old fear manifested once more, dragging up and up his throat till he all but tasted it on his tongue.
“I could convince you,” he said again, pushing past all of it.
Mo Xuanyu must truly be a beauty by all standards. Wei Wuxian had only seen his caller’s face reflected in moving water or covered in garish makeup, but his body was small and frail, his face round with deceptive youth in spite of his age. Nothing at all like the rough skin and hard muscles Wei Wuxian had once developed with training, or his height, almost comparable to that of the qianyuan under him. Even the ice-cold Lan Wangji seemed to lose some composure whilst in such close proximity, wide-eyed and quick-breathed, though Wei Wuxian reflected in panicked irony that perhaps this was simply the result of outrage, not desire.
He made his fingers lax around Lan Wangji’s bony wrist. He drew the tip of his index across the veins there, so stark and blue under his pale skin, and tried not to think of why he felt so much sicker now than when Lan Wangji had watched him rummage through his purse like a common thief.
Lan Wangji opened and closed his mouth, visibly flustered. Wei Wuxian combatted his nausea to put on a leaking smile and leaned in a little more. Every inch of distance gone between them made it harder to breathe. He eyed the small dagger peeking out of Lan Wangji’s silver belt, contemplating the speed he would need to grab it and pierce the Lan heir’s guts with it—and suddenly, brutally, a veil of white covered everything around him. Acid crawled up the back of his throat. A ghostly hand seemed to wrap around his sternum and close in a tight fist, tearing up the tissue of his lungs.
I need to get away, he thought in raw, unexplained panic.
He felt Lan Wangji’s wrist move in his grasp, though without loosening it, before he heard him speak: “Is this what you want?”
“What?” Wei Wuxian replied, dazed.
He forced himself to blink, to look: Lan Wangji was frowning now. His outrage must have dispersed and made way for simple disapproval.
“Do you want this?” the man asked again. He made no movement at all to escape the bruising grip that Wei Wuxian had on him.
“Do you?” Wei Wuxian asked back, and his mind ran around the possibility of Lan Wangji saying no, of Lan Wangji saying yes—
Neither option seemed fathomable. Neither lessened the bright, hot terror which had done away with his reason.
He was the one to pull away in the end. He let go of Lan Wangji and stepped away from the bed, turning his back to him so that he may find his bearings in peace. An odd of him wished Lan Wangji would insult him, berate him, or even retaliate; but the greater reason craved the opportunity for violence. He ached to breathe into the body of the bamboo flute and find cause to stop remembering Lan Wangji’s face bathed in the pale morning light—looking at him calmly in acceptance, as if the threat on his life was justified and welcome.
Lan Wangji called, “Wei Ying.”
It wasn’t until then that Wei Wuxian realized quite how shallowly he was breathing.
He sucked in some cold air. He forced it through his lungs and limbs, kept it in despite the wild beating of his heart. His voice was almost even when he replied, “Who?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeated, dreadfully sure of himself. “You are not trapped here.”
The silver he had stolen was skin-warm, slick from his tight hold. Wei Wuxian shifted it in his grip till one ground against another in a disagreeable sound of screeching metal.
In a way, this made everything simpler. Wei Wuxian found his heartbeat quieting; his back unknotted, his hand cooled again, away from the burning press of Lan Wangji’s skin.
“How did you know?” he asked, glancing at Lan Wangji once more.
He had sat up in the bed. His inner robes were as white as the rest of his uniform, as white as his skin, which daylight still seemed to yearn to imitate.
Wei Wuxian shuddered and looked away.
“You can go,” Lan Wangji said in lieu of an answer. “You can take this money.”
“Why did you not say anything to Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Silence. Their voices were soft still, no louder than the qianyuan boy’s sleeping breaths and occasional mumbles. He had not stirred from his position since Wei Wuxian entered the room.
“It doesn’t matter,” Wei Wuxian said at last. “I suppose I should thank you for not exposing me, then.”
“There is no need.”
Wei Wuxian chuckled. “You lied for me and sheltered me, and you would let me steal from you too,” he said. “Lan Zhan, I fear the price of such kindness.”
He had said those words before, although not to Lan Wangji.
“No price,” Lan Wangji replied. “Only—”
There it is, Wei Wuxian thought, staring through the small window, watching the horizon grow cool and bright. There it always is.
But Lan Wangji did not name a price for his compliance. He asked: “Where will you go?” with a voice softened by worry.
“Not to Gusu,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I have no wish to see your uncle or brother again.”
He had said too much.
Those memories, Wei Wuxian had kept delicately at bay since waking up in the world of the living again. They came unbridled in that sharp and silent second, making him want to claw into his own belly, to once more pluck the skin and eyes from a man’s terrified face.
No, Wei Wuxian had no wish to meet Lan Xichen. Not ever again.
“I won’t come with you to the Cloud Recesses,” he declared once he was certain that none of this rage would transpire. “Nor will I go where Jiang Cheng wants to take me.”
Lan Wangji sighed and said, “Then let me accompany you, wherever you wish to go.”
Why would Lan Wangji want to be with him, to stay with him, if he knew who the soul in Mo Xuanyu’s body belonged to?
There was something else that Lan Wangji wanted to stay. Wei Wuxian saw it in the curve of his brow, in the tense line of his shoulders. “The last time we spoke,” the man said softly. “You…”
“The last time?” Wei Wuxian asked.
It wasn’t hard to understand that he did not mean their meeting in Dafan Mountain.
It was difficult, however, to recall when exactly Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had met as Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, or where, or for what reason. Wei Wuxian could recall a handful of meetings after the Sunshot Campaign, all accidental, none longer than a few hours. He would be hard-pressed to recreate any of what they could have said then into the confines of his mind without better prompting. As far as he knew, Lan Wangji had contented himself with telling him to give up the demonic path, and then to offer him music to soothe his spirit.
“What did I do?” he asked. “When was it?”
Lan Wangji’s frown turned deeper, creasing the smooth planes of his forehead, dislodging the white ribbon there which had kept tidy through his sleep somehow.
Wei Wuxian almost jumped when the man swept away the bedcover and stood. His socked feet made no noise upon the wooden floor, and neither hand nor leg knocked into the furniture around as he dressed and strapped Bichen to his hip, Wangji the guqin hanging from his back. “Jingyi and Sizhui told me about what you did in Mo village,” he said.
“I didn’t do much,” Wei Wuxian replied, startled by the change in topic. He had never taken Lan Wangji for someone so easily distracted. “Your sect’s disciples are very talented.”
“That demonic arm is pointing in one direction. Always the same.”
So not even the sealing pouch, not even the sound of Lan Wangji’s guqin techniques, had quieted that corpse. It was quite impressive. “It’s probably looking for the rest of its body,” Wei Wuxian said. “Do you intend to collect it?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “Will you accompany me?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian stared at him, wordless.
Lan Wangji did not seem to mind. He stood, now entirely dressed, in the middle of the room, in the rising light of day. He looked too regal to be in a place such as this and to have slept on a wooden bed with only thin sheets to warm him. His ink-black hair was so long now that it reached past his waist and down his white-clad thighs, longer even than it had been when they were young, dirt and blood-smeared in the Xuanwu’s cave, betting their lives for victory and pride.
“I wish to accompany you,” Lan Wangji said.
“I don’t know where to go,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He hesitated. “Why?” he asked once more. “Why would you want to be in my company, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji touched his hand to the strap of Wangji’s cloth, which crossed diagonally over his chest. It was close to his shoulder. A little off-center, some way away from his heart.
“You will remember,” he said.
It was impossible to tell if his voice sounded resigned, or determined, or scared.
They left the inn as the sun rose without waking either of the Lan youngsters. Lan Wangji indicated in a few succinct words that Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui—as the qianyuan boy was apparently called—had no need of him to travel, and knew to return to Gusu as soon as the night-hunt in Dafan came to an end.
Lan Wangji did not speak outside of this. He said nothing at all when Wei Wuxian lingered in the dining room downstairs, asking for hot water to seep the moonless tea in and drinking it leisurely. There were still some wounded people from the night before laid atop the benches and tables, and some who slept on the ground itself for lack of rooms to use. The young kunze waitress was nowhere to be seen.
Many surprises came to him that day. The first was the sight of the donkey he had all but abandoned to its fate the night previous, calmly grazing the grass at the end of the village, looking at them approach with clever eyes. Wei Wuxian could not help but chuckle as he sauntered toward it and then mounted its back, affectionately patting its side.
Another surprise was the lack of pursuit sent their way. As the hours crawled by and they ventured out of forest paths and into broader, flatter roads, Wei Wuxian wondered that he could not see Sandu’s glare hovering over them or hear Jiang Cheng’s angry voice calling Mo Xuanyu’s name.
“Perhaps a lone demonic cultivator rejected from Lanlingjin is not worth it,” he said out loud. “Jiang Cheng must have bigger fish to catch.”
Lan Wangji replied, “Perhaps.”
Sandalwood wafted through the warm springly air, drowning even the scent of grass and flowers.
Jin Ling was never very discreet about his emotions, Lan Sizhui reflected, sitting at one table and waiting for his broth to cool.
“What do you mean he’s gone?” the Jin sect heir was all but howling at Lan Jingyi, who looked tired enough for two.
“I mean he is gone, Jin Ling. He must have left with Hanguang-Jun.”
“Isn’t Lan Wangji your superior? Why is he leaving you two alone?”
“Because unlike you,” Lan Jingyi boasted, “we do not need supervision for every little night-hunt.”
Lan Sizhui faintly thought of reprimanding Jingyi for arrogance. No doubt Lan Qiren would be scandalized if he could see them now, after the trust he had put in Sizhui by allowing Jingyi to accompany him out of Gusu. But Sizhui, although rested from the night’s running around and with warm soup in front of him, felt too weary to try.
“Hanguang-Jun definitely took young master Mo with him,” he told Jiang Wanyin, who had sat opposite him for some reason and was nursing his own soup bowl. “You can rest assured that he won’t allow any demonic cultivation to happen, sect leader Jiang.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Jiang Wanyin replied.
Sizhui wanted to ask what he meant; but Jiang Wanyin deliberately took his bowl to his mouth to avoid answering, and so the question died on his tongue.
Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi were still having a spat only a table away. Most of the room’s other occupants were looking their way, though Sizhui expected, with a shudder, that it had less to do with the noise than with Lan Jingyi himself. Already he could see eyes linger where they should not, hear breaths be taken too loudly as if to scent out the source of sweetness in the room. He made sure to calmly glare at any stranger he found too attentive.
It was one thing for Jin Ling, who was only a year younger than Jingyi and had known him for a decade, to become flustered in his presence, and another for qianyuan and zhongyong adults twice Jingyi’s age to be prowling about with so little dignity.
“You’re very protective.”
Lan Sizhui looked back at the man sitting in front of him.
Jiang Wanyin had put down his bowl. He rubbed the rim of it now with his thumb, pensive. “Lan Sizhui,” he said. “That is your name, right?”
“It is my courtesy name, yes,” Sizhui replied with some surprise.
Jiang Wanyin frowned at him, looking over his face slowly, intently, as if searching for something. Whether he found it or not, he turned the head aside again, sighing. “You can’t protect him forever,” he said. “That kunze boy of yours.”
“He’s not mine,” Sizhui retorted.
There was a silence. “Yes,” Jiang Wanyin said. “You’re right, he is not. I’m sure you’ll tell me that he belongs to himself, or something of the kind.”
He looked sadder as the words left him.
“Things are different now than when I was your age,” he went on. “Even so, I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing.”
Sizhui tensed. “You speak of kunze houses.”
His lips thinned. He remembered with such clarity the first time he had been explained those things, the outrage in his belly that had reduced him to tears, then but a child of seven or eight. To this day he could never explain why the topic brought such rage out of him—only that it did.
He thought, once again, of Mo Xuanyu’s bruised and cut-up body, of his hateful family, of the way Jin Ling had spoken of him that very morning, crudely dismissive.
“You look at me with such anger,” Jiang Wanyin said. Lan Sizhui startled, opening his mouth to deny it, but the Jiang sect leader raised a hand to interrupt him. “You must think I am one of those people who resent those changes.” He chuckled darkly. “Well, it doesn’t matter if I am. But you should know—you can’t protect that boy. Not forever. In fact, I doubt you were able to protect him from as much as you think you did.”
“I can try,” Lan Sizhui replied hotly.
Part of him wanted to cower and ask for forgiveness, after showing such cheek to a sect leader when he was not even a full-fledged cultivator yet; but a greater and louder part of him wanted Jiang Wanyin to elaborate and tell him in which ways he had failed Lan Jingyi.
“There is no failsafe way of protecting someone from all the evils of the world,” Jiang Wanyin said. “And one shouldn’t rely on another for protection like this, either.”
“Jingyi is like a brother to me,” Sizhui said between his teeth.
Jiang Wanyin sighed again loudly. “Of course he is,” he muttered. “But he is a cultivator, isn’t he?”
He was watching Jingyi too now, off at the neighboring table and still talking loudly with Jin Ling, but his eyes were not the same as those men and women around.
“We don’t see many of them,” Jiang Wanyin said. “Kunze cultivators. There are none in my sect, and none in the Jin sect either.”
“It was Jingyi’s wish,” Sizhui explained.
“How oddly things turned out. Twenty years ago, if I had to bet on which clan would faster accept a kunze cultivator in their midst, I would not have picked Gusulan.”
Outrage made Sizhui snap, “The Cloud Recesses do not have a kunze house.”
“Not anymore,” Jiang Wanyin retorted evenly. “When I was your age and I came to Gusu to learn under Lan Qiren, there was a kunze house there. Right at the top of the mountain.”
Shock kept Sizhui silent. All of a sudden he felt his ears to be stuffed with silk or cotton, his mouth to have dried out.
“You don’t believe me,” Jiang Wanyin laughed. The sound of his voice came to Lan Sizhui muffled. “Well, no matter. You can ask Lan Wangji or your sect leader the next time you see them—in fact, you should ask Lan Wangji.” His smile turned dark and resentful. “Ask your Hanguang-jun what he once thought of kunze cultivators,” he said. “See what he has to say for himself.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Lan Sizhui asked in confusion.
Jiang Wanyin opened his mouth with that same sick, satisfied anger on his face; before he spoke, however, he met eyes with Lan Sizhui. Whatever he saw there made the satisfaction vanish and be replaced with—pity, Sizhui thought. Or perhaps sympathy.
At that moment, one or the other were all the same.
“You should know,” the man said. “If you’re serious about protecting that boy, you need to know the sorts of things that those around you are capable of. Things are different now, but not so much. Not really.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t either. Not at your age.”
Jiang Wanyin pushed his empty bowl away from himself. With his thumb and index, he patted the rim of the small cup of tea which a waiter had poured for him.
“How do you differentiate affection and duty,” he said. “How do you break apart jealousy, hatred, and brotherhood, and take a step to understand things beyond your reach? At the time I never did—I never even tried to. And I don’t know if it would have changed anything, in the end, but I will spend the rest of my days wondering if perhaps, it could have. If only I reached out a little earlier.”
“Are you talking about—”
Sizhui stopped himself before he could finish.
It was not common knowledge, not among his peers; but Sizhui remembered, suddenly, sitting in one of master Qiren’s classes; he remembered when the topic of the Yiling Patriarch Wei Ying came up, when Lan Qiren paused in the midst of his lecture to frighten them with tales of Wei Ying sitting in that same classroom and defying him with his dark, terrible ideas.
“None of us knew then of the terrible things he would do,” Lan Qiren had said in the silence, looking at each of them in turn. “Not I teaching him, nor Hanguang-Jun, nor Jiang Cheng of Yunmeng sitting right beside him.”
Sizhui swallowed. “Master Qiren told us that you knew him,” he said. “The Yiling Patriarch.”
Belatedly, he realized that the sound of Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s arguing had dimmed. Though neither boy seemed to be paying them any mind, too busy glowering at each other as they ate their breakfast, Lan Sizhui felt some guilt, as if he were speaking behind their backs.
Perhaps he was, he thought, looking at Jin Ling. After all, the Yiling Patriarch Wei Ying was rumored to have killed Jin Ling’s father.
“I don’t know if anyone truly knew Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Wanyin said. “Before or after he chose to become what he did.”
It was the last he said on the topic.
Minutes later his voice came again, calling, “Lan Yuan.”
Sizhui was not used to his birth name being used by someone who was not Hanguang-Jun. And it was not A-Yuan, this childhood nickname tinted with affection and longing, as Sizhui sat in the lap of the man, in the most secluded pavilion of the Recesses, learning to pluck guqin strings one by one and then all together.
Though Jiang Wanyin’s voice seemed to bear a different sort of longing as he said it: Lan Yuan.
As if he expected someone other than Sizhui to answer; as if he were testing it out, waiting for a mirage to fall, a ruse to be revealed. None of it happened, however, and Sizhui turned around to face him and answer: “Yes?”
Jin Ling was speaking with Lan Jingyi again a few steps ahead of them. Jiang Wanyin stared at Lan Sizhui oddly, as if the sips of tea earlier had been enough to cloud his judgment. “Be careful,” he said.
Lan Sizhui nodded, confused.
He tried to smile. Jiang Wanyin’s face seemed to break apart on sorrow at the mere sight of it.
He was still thinking of it hours later as he and Lan Jingyi flew back to Gusu. They were too far now to achieve the trip home in one go, he knew; and so he kept his eyes fixed to the ground far down in search of a village to stay the night, a house somewhere in the fields and forests, a cabin at the foot of a tall mountain. The cool wind slapped at every inch of his exposed skin. Lan Jingyi’s sweet scent caught onto it and vanished just as quickly, born away in the breeze. Lan Sizhui breathed it in and thought of the words Jiang Wanyin had said to him.
“If only I reached out a little earlier.”
“Jingyi,” he called.
For a second he thought perhaps the other boy would not hear him against the backdrop of wind; but a moment later the answer came, friendly and kind—”What is it?”
“Are you afraid of anything?”
It was perhaps not the best way of asking it, but it was the only way Lan Sizhui could think of.
Lan Jingyi didn’t think too long on his answer. He leveled his slim sword next to Lan Sizhui’s, humming in thought for only a brief moment. “I’ll tell you because it’s you, Sizhui,” he said. “I’m afraid of many things.”
“Too many to count. Bats, spiders, master Qiren’s wooden rulers. The Yiling Patriarch kidnapping me,” he teased.
Lan Sizhui could only give back a half-hearted smile.
“There are other things too,” Jingyi said. “But I don’t know if I want to admit them to anyone.”
He said it with a flushed face, high up in the sky where no one could reach him, and Lan Sizhui tried not to feel bereft. He tried not to be scared of those secrets which Jingyi held hidden from him.
He tried not to imagine himself in twenty or thirty years, drinking wine in a shabby little inn, full of remorse for things he never dared to do or say.
“If one day you want to tell someone,” Sizhui said, “then I’ll listen to you.”
He put a hand over his heart as he said it, though the gesture felt hollow.
Jingyi laughed brightly. “I know you will,” he said. “You’re such a worrywart, Sizhui. I bet your parents were very kind people too.”
It wasn’t the first time he said it, and like every time before, Sizhui let warmth unfurl in his chest. He thought of wide hands guiding his small fingers to the strings of a too-big instrument, of sandalwood in the tepid summer air, of that lonely little pavilion high up on the mountain where for years Lan Wangji had lived alone.
Yes, he thought. They were.