Warnings: mild gore/horror.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Jiang Yanli had tears running down her face when Wei Wuxian broke out of her embrace. Her hands lingered for a second longer around his neck and shoulders, not shaking anymore but gripping tight and fearful. He had to grab her wrists and pull them away himself, and then again she resisted, her anger visible in the tense line of her mouth.
“A-Xian,” she said again.
It was as if his name was the only word she knew how to say anymore.
Wei Wuxian bowed his head. He dragged his legs away from hers and pushed himself to his feet in silence, dusting his black robes, looking vaguely at Little Apple on the side who hadn’t made a sound since the dog had been thrown out.
Jiang Yanli rose slowly. She didn’t pretend to fix her appearance. “A-Xian,” she said again.
“Did you tell Jiang Cheng?” he asked.
“No.” He heard her shake her head; felt her put a hand over his elbow, had to resist shaking her off out of habit. This was Jiang Yanli, not someone to protect himself from. If she did try to hurt him, he would just have to allow her. “I wanted to be sure,” she said. “Otherwise he would have come running.”
“Don’t tell him,” Wei Wuxian said.
Her silence was worth a thousand words.
“He doesn’t need to know. I know I have no right to ask you anything, but please, don’t tell anyone.”
“You’re right,” she replied curtly. “You have no right to ask me anything.”
Wei Wuxian exhaled shakily. His skin seemed to sting at the touch of air alone; where Jiang Yanli’s hand was holding him, it burned.
“A-Cheng will have to know eventually,” she murmured.
“Why?” Wei Wuxian asked.
He turned around to face her. Her hand slid from his arm at last, and he was once more shaken by how close in height they were now. He had grown used to looking at her from above, even on that day in the Nightless City, when she had been injured and lay on the blood-soaked earth like one more corpse on the battlefield. Now their eyes were almost level.
Staring at her was as hard now as it had been then.
“If Lan Wangji and I recognized you, A-Cheng will too,” Jiang Yanli said urgently. “You can’t escape him forever.”
“I don’t see any reason why. He had no clue who I was when we met in Dafan, and I can avoid him. If you don’t say anything, he will never know.”
“You’re so stubborn!” she cried out at him. Her face looked fraught in the darkness, and Wei Wuxian had never more wished that he could not see. “Why do you always—”
Her words were interrupted by loud, distressed barking.
Wei Wuxian had all but forgotten about the dog. It seemed to have fallen silent while they were embracing, as if it and the rest of the world meant to pay respect to their reunion, but now its yapping came more loudly than ever. Even with the solid wall of the shed separating them from it, Wei Wuxian shuddered.
“Fairy,” Jiang Yanli murmured. “Oh, something must have happened to Ling’er.”
This caught his attention. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“He was gone from the room when I woke up earlier. I was going outside to look for him.” She sighed a little fondly and added, “I think he did not take too well to me telling him to let you and Hanguang-Jun handle this night-hunt. He may be trying to steal the glory from you.”
She looked loving and worried at once. Parenthood suited Jiang Yanli as it did few other cultivators; Wei Wuxian remembered her on the seventh day after Jin Ling’s birth, laid out in embroidered sheets and holding the babe in her arms with such a glow to her young face that the rest of the room seemed to lighten with it. Jin Zixuan had not taken his eyes off of her even once while they stood together in the room.
She didn’t know what Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji did about the burial grounds hidden in the forest.
“I’ll look for him,” he said lightly.
“I’ll come with you.”
“I’ll come with you,” she repeated. Her eyes were as impenetrable as steel. “He is my son.”
The one and only thing Wei Wuxian had not stolen from her.
She soothed the dog outside after they opened the door. The beast’s panic was more obvious now than when it had smothered Wei Wuxian under its weight, and Wei Wuxian kept as far away from it as he could while still within reaching distance of Jiang Yanli. Fairy, for that was the dog’s name—no doubt another fancy of Jiang Cheng—tugged and yelped at Jiang Yanli in fury, foaming at the mouth, almost crazed with worry for its master. Jiang Yanli looked more troubled as time went by and they ventured closer to the forest. Wei Wuxian wisely kept what he knew of Qinghenie’s buried sabers to himself.
He was anxious too. A knot of apprehension seemed to grip him by the throat at the proximity of her, at the knowledge that she had recognized him so easily, and everything left unsaid still that he knew she would not let slide away. That he owed it to her did nothing to make the prospect easier to bear.
They crossed through the darkened woods with only the glare of Yanli’s sword to guide their feet. Wei Wuxian saw the turtle-shaped root which he and Lan Wangji had run into during the day. With shadows shifting over the dome of its shell, it looked ready to spring alive any second and walk away slowly, the tree above it gliding along through the woods.
For a second, he was back in Qishan in the cave of the tortoise. Rot in his nostrils and heat crawling upon his back and Lan Wangji kneeling face to a wall, playing music on bowstrings with his fingers bleeding open.
I never thanked him, he thought.
The barrier laid around the burial grounds did not work on animals. Though he and Jiang Yanli could see nothing in the direction Fairy pulled them, the dog was insistent, louder and louder as they approached the place where he must have lost his master. Wei Wuxian stepped over a thick, raised root; he bowed to avoid the lower branches of an oak so tall it seemed to reach the sky.
A shiver of dark, crawling energy swept over his skin. When he opened his eyes, they were standing before a black-stoned burial home. Jiang Yanli took a step backwards in surprise, and her boot dug into the fine bones of a dead bird, cracking loudly in the silence.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Let’s just find Jin Ling, quickly,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He knew not if he managed to hide his fear from her. Either way, Jiang Yanli looked at him for a long second before acquiescing.
She had always been like this, Wei Wuxian reflected as they approached the edifice. Fairy’s barks turned to pained and terrified whines. He refused to enter with them, sticking close to the front steps without putting so much as a paw on it, and Jiang Yanli scratched the top of his head with a hand before going inside, her head held high. She had always remained so dignified in her fear and loss; be it half-starved and broken-boned in that cave in Qishan or fleeing all the way to Lanling on her own, after separating him and Jiang Cheng from what could have been a bloody fight.
Now, with her son missing and the unmistakable trace of death and curses on the night air, she stood as strong as a tree herself.
Wei Wuxian bowed his head and followed her inside. The dog whined but made no move to enter.
Whatever Nie Huaisang had said about those burial grounds, the mounds of which rounded under the trees behind the funeral home, people from his sect obviously came often. A layer of dust had gathered, no older than a few weeks. Torches rested upon the door frame, ready to be carried around.
Jiang Yanli lit one with a talisman. She made as if to offer one to Wei Wuxian too, but he shook his head. He feared what contact with fire could bring out of him when energy thickened the air so, almost begging to be used.
The hallway at the end of the empty house forked three different ways. “Which way did he go?” Jiang Yanli asked no one. She shone light upon each of the three dark corridors, hoping perhaps to find footsteps or torn clothing. “A-Xian, can you feel anything?”
Wei Wuxian had no wish to share what he was feeling. “Jin Ling is a straightforward boy,” he declared, stepping into the middle road.
Her answering smile was brittle.
They arrived, as expected, into one of the dirt domes they had glimpsed from outside. Several small coffins lay in rows at the center of it, shivering in the flame light. They looked like children’s tombs.
He felt Jiang Yanli shiver. Wei Wuxian approached the closest of them and lifted the lid of it with a creak of rotted wood. A rusted saber came to light, weakly calling to him. The satin cushion it was laid on had darkened with the years.
He closed the lid again. “It’s only weapons,” he told Jiang Yanli, who stood where he had left her as if frozen to the bone. “Shijie, I don’t think any of these holds a corpse.”
“Are you sure?” The torch in her hand shook. “It looks like…”
“You can check yourself if you want. I promise you won’t find your son in any of them.”
She looked at him for a long time. Finally, her trembling jaw settled, and she nodded curtly. “Where is he, then?”
Wei Wuxian had an idea about that, but he was certain that she would not like it.
The walls here were not made of stone at all. Though the funeral home that made the entrance of the place was familiar enough to look unobtrusive, the inside of the mounds were made of dirt as well as their outside. It was with Nie Huaisang’s words in mind that Wei Wuxian took the bamboo flute from his hip and put it under his mouth.
Before the first note could even leave him, answers came from all around him. He lowered it again. “I think Jin Ling is inside those walls,” he said.
Jiang Yanli dropped the torch. It rolled upon the ground till it hit one of the small coffins, its light flickering wildly over her ashen face. “The walls,” she repeated.
He thought for a second that this would finally be too much for her to handle. She once again surprised him by taking her sword in hand and immediately digging at the dirt around them.
“Shijie!” he yelled.
“He can’t breathe in there,” she said.
She sounded winded. Though her grip around the sword was sure and her face set and determined, Wei Wuxian could see just how panicked she was, just how scared she must be of losing her most precious person again.
“Shijie, there’s no need,” he said, crossing the distance between them in a step and grabbing her wrist firmly. Shock made her halt for a second—Wei Wuxian had not touched her like this since before Yunmeng had burned. “I have a much quicker way of doing this.”
He braced himself for a second before bringing the flute to his lips again.
The corpses which had earlier answered him so readily did so again. This time, Wei Wuxian called for them to free themselves.
Dirt started crumbling from the walls. Their surface shook as dead bodies in various states of decay emerged, some merely bone, some draped in strands of rotted flesh and muscle. All squirmed their way out of decades and centuries of dry and then wet earth, snapping their empty, dislocated jaws, breaking in their attempts to flee. One woman dug her way up the ground between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli and looked at them with empty eye sockets.
Jiang Yanli had seen Wei Wuxian control corpses several times, during the Sunshot Campaign and during the hunt on Phoenix Mountain and then at the Nightless City. She was not squeamish by any means, having worked a lot at healing the wounded during the war and having gone through very harsh childbirth herself, but she gasped. She put her free hand over her mouth to fend off the terrible smell suddenly filling the cave, and she swayed on her own feet.
Corpses emerging from the walls was not all that Wei Wuxian aimed for. Those who were caught on the outside of the mounds, he could feel struggling, fossilized in place and breaking themselves apart trying to answer his call, but he doubted that Jin Ling had been buried so far in. A pan of wall shattered before them, freeing three mostly-intact men with rope burns around their blue necks, and behind them a silhouette fell that was not controlled by him at all.
Wei Wuxian shifted his orders and his music; the corpses crawled back into the ground and walls.
“Ling’er!” Jiang Yanli cried out.
She rushed to her fallen son’s side, heedless of what she stepped into, and pulled the boy into her lap so she could check on his breathing and health. Wei Wuxian was not worried; if Jin Ling had not obeyed the music, then he was still alive. A few seconds later, a sob of relief echoed through the destroyed hall.
“He’s alive,” Jiang Yanli said haltingly, “but I can’t wake him up.”
Wei Wuxian finally turned toward them.
Jin Ling was very pale. The dirt smeared over his face made his skin appear white in contrast, almost as much as the corpses now fusing again with the mud walls around them. So much resentful energy wafted through the air that Wei Wuxian felt he could choke on it as he approached them and crouched by his nephew’s other side, but he shook it off, putting a hand against the boy’s forehead and feeling for a trace of life.
Jin Ling’s breaths were slow and shallow. They didn’t rise in his chest at all or make his thin throat shiver. Wei Wuxian’s hand flew over the length of his body without quite touching him. He frowned, halting his movement, when he reached the boy’s right leg.
“Is he okay?” Jiang Yanli asked.
Her voice was very soft. Wei Wuxian met her eyes for a second and replied, “Yes. He’ll wake up in a while, I believe.”
It wasn’t a lie.
Jiang Yanli did not ask him to carry her son for her. Though Mo Xuanyu was much shorter and thinner than Wei Wuxian had been, his physical strength still surpassed hers, yet she was the one who rose up with her son in her arms and hoisted him up on her back.
They hurried out of the burial site. Ghostly hands seemed to touch every inch of Wei Wuxian’s skin, pulling backwards, whispering that he should stay. As if he were already part of the décor here, as much as he had been part of Yiling’s Burial Mounds. Jiang Yanli did not seem to notice just how slow and heavy his steps were behind hers, so hasty was she to return somewhere safe. They found Fairy waiting where they had left him, and not even the dog’s loud barking managed to shake Wei Wuxian out of the stupor that this place had put him in.
The forest had not seemed so thick and maze-like in daylight. Wei Wuxian started breathing more easily only when they reached the edges of it, where the trees were fewer and farther-between. They made their way toward the village with quicker steps than they had come, Jiang Yanli not once complaining about her son’s heavy weight.
Though dawn would soon be upon them, they saw no one as they crossed the wide central street. The sky had turned grey over their heads when they reached the front steps of the inn, but the dining room beyond the door was empty, and no sound came from the creaking floor above.
Wei Wuxian wanted nothing more than to go back to his own room and sleep, but he could not. Not yet. He accompanied his shijie to the room she had bought for the night and watched her lay her son down over one of the two beds there. She lit a candle on the cabinet between them; the gold leaf plating of Suihua’s handle gleamed, attached to Jin Ling’s waist.
It was a good thing he had not lost it when the graveyard trapped him. Wei Wuxian did not wish to bear witness to this boy losing more of his father’s memorabilia.
Jiang Yanli sat on the mattress. She put a hand on Jin Ling’s knee and watched him in silence for a long moment. Wei Wuxian shifted on his own feet by the door, unwilling to go but unwilling to explain why, and wondered how to get her to leave the room. He only needed a minute.
“A-Xian,” she said.
He felt as though the name ought to echo around them, as though the silence was too thick to allow it. He looked away from her.
She repeated it in the same way she did when he was small and unruly, when Yu Ziyuan was gone after spearing him with her words and Jiang Yanli had to come and soothe him. “A-Xian,” she said, “I can’t forgive you if you won’t tell me why you did it.”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Jiang Yanli’s hand left Jin Ling’s leg. She rested it atop the sheets instead, digging her nails into it almost to the point of tearing. “Tell me why you killed him,” she ordered, yet her voice was not assured.
Please, the memory of Jin Zixuan’s voice whispered in his ear.
Wei Wuxian looked at the burning candle until he knew his sight would carry a grey spot in the shape of it. He touched with his fingers the rough length of the bamboo flute and imagined—remembered—Chenqing’s smooth and cold side; the feel of it in his hand as Wen Ning brought destruction to the men and women around him, as he faced Jin Zixuan with hatred and was met instead with love.
“I can’t,” he replied.
He could give her no answer that would satisfy her.
“A-Xian,” she breathed.
“I can’t,” he cut her off harshly. “Shijie, it wouldn’t matter even if I told you.”
“What is it you want to hear?”
Her shock was understandable, in a distant way; he had never yelled at her before. The shame of doing so now when she should be the one screaming made him lower his voice, made him swallow down the knot of anger, of guilt, that those memories would always bring out of him.
“Shijie,” he murmured. “If I told you I murdered him in cold blood, you would not find peace. If I said I was defending myself, you would hurt. If I told you it was an accident, you would try to forgive me and live forever in sorrow. I don’t—” he clenched his teeth. Released them slowly. “I don’t want that for you,” he went on. “You can hurt me if you want. You can kill me. But I won’t answer you.”
He would not add to her grief any more.
Jiang Yanli’s eyes shone. The brightening sky outside and the candlelight beside her glimmered within them and rolled down the swell of her cheek alongside the first tear. “When did you become like this, I wonder?” she asked in such a thin voice that it was barely more than a whisper. “When did you decide that you could not trust me?”
He didn’t answer her.
“You used to talk to me,” she said.
Wei Wuxian saw the shape of her rise from the bed and approach him with slow steps. He wanted nothing more than to leave now, to shut the door in her face and lock himself in his own room. He wished to drink the bitter moonless tea and find comfort in the safety it brought him, even so late after he truly needed it.
Years too late, eons too late.
She took his hand in hers. “I never believed that you told me everything in your heart,” she said, “but you could talk to me, once. You could tell me things you could not tell anyone else.”
He had once sat with her at the Pier, with their feet in the water, and spoken of forlorn dreams.
“What happened to you?” Her fingers were cold upon his cheek, soft but unstoppable. She turned his head sideways until their eyes met. “What did we do that drove you away from us like this?”
He almost wanted to laugh. “You didn’t do anything,” he replied.
“I don’t believe you.”
He could feel her searching his eyes for deceit. Her own widened with disbelief when she found none, as he had known they would. Wei Wuxian pushed her hand off of his face and repeated, “You have nothing to blame yourself for. You and Jiang Cheng both.”
“All those years I thought…”
She struggled with her words. Wei Wuxian let go of her wrist and took his own hands back, stepping away so that a more appropriate distance stood between them. On the small bed in the corner, Jin Ling stayed as still as the dead.
He didn’t have much time.
“I remember the awful things that A-Cheng said to you when our parents died,” Jiang Yanli said shakily. “All this time, I thought this was the reason you distanced yourself from him.”
“I don’t remember him saying anything,” Wei Wuxian lied.
“Then what happened, A-Xian? Why won’t you tell me what happened to you, if you won’t tell me what happened to Zixuan?”
Because he could never let them know the truth. Wei Wuxian would rather die a second time being thought of as nothing more than a murderer.
There was too little time for such thoughts now. Jin Ling’s skin had not grown any warmer in the minutes they had wasted talking, the cold energy seeping under the skin of his leg now spreading faster and faster. If Wei Wuxian did not act soon, the boy would surely become one more of the Nie burial site’s meals.
He stepped toward the bed briskly. “Shijie, I will need Lan Wangji to wake Jin Ling up,” he declared.
“He will wake up, but it should be easier with Lan Zhan’s help. Please, can you fetch him for me?”
Jiang Yanli would never put anything above her son’s safety. Wei Wuxian needed not stare at her to picture how she looked as she made her decision, and her words of assent were lost to him. The door opened and closed at his back with the same harsh sound of old wood that any movement of the inn brought.
He bent over the bed and quickly took off Jin Ling’s muddied boot. His ankle already bore the black mark of the curse Wei Wuxian had felt inside the mound earlier; it crawled up the length of his calf and knee, stopping short of his thigh, but Wei Wuxian could almost see it squirm and spread under his very eyes.
Sitting down would be easier for the transfer. Wei Wuxian did so without grace, preferring the chair to the bed itself as he worked the dark energy from Jin Ling’s leg to his own. The feeling would no doubt wake the boy up, and he only had a moment before Jiang Yanli returned in Lan Wangji’s company.
There was no pain when the mark grew on his skin, but pain would have been preferrable, he thought with a wince. It was as though ice was pressing in from under his skin and numbing his whole leg down. Soon enough, all movement from his knee was restrained, the way that the phantom touch of the sabers’ will had tried to pull him back earlier. The curse looked even blacker on Mo Xuanyu’s pale skin; it did not stop at his knee but rose instead higher, fueled by the power used for transfer and the ever-present shadow of demonic cultivation within him, crawling around Wei Wuxian’s thigh.
Jin Ling stirred with a groan. Wei Wuxian shoved the boy’s clothes down over his leg again and, as he watched him open his eyes, tried to look as inconspicuous as possible.
“Mo Xuanyu?” Jin Ling said raspily.
His weary face immediately twisted into suspicion, but it probably had more to do with the boy’s usual animosity against his would-be uncle than anything Wei Wuxian had done.
“Welcome back to the living,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Where am I…”
The door opened again before he could finish speaking. Jiang Yanli came in, followed by the ever-proper Lan Wangji, almost fully dressed and with not a hair out of place. His eyes found Wei Wuxian’s immediately. The line of his brow eased.
Wei Wuxian pushed himself off of the chair as Jiang Yanli rushed to her son again. His first step on the cursed leg was faltering, but the limb managed to hold his weight with nothing more than a slight limp.
“What happened?” Lan Wangji asked softly once they were side by side.
“I’ll tell you while we eat, Lan Zhan. I’m famished.”
He threw one last look behind his shoulder.
Jin Ling had sat up on the bed and looked more confused than ever in his mother’s embrace. Jiang Yanli was not crying now, and she spoke fastly of his recklessness and promised many more punishments when they were home than Wei Wuxian cared to listen to. He saw her hand splay in the boy’s dirty hair shakily. He watched her hold him close in such obvious relief that it lightened his heart empathetically.
“Come on, Lan Zhan,” he said. Tearing his eyes away from the both of them ached more than it ought to.
Lan Wangji followed in his steps without a word. His presence felt a little like comfort.
The room downstairs had started filling up since they came back to the inn. Early risers, most of them peasants, were eating and drinking and conversing in low voices on the benches near the door. The innkeeper’s wife was busy serving them and exchanging local news, her sharp and snowy scent tickling Wei Wuxian’s nose. He sat with Lan Wangji at the other side of the room and allowed the other man to order for them both.
He filled him in about the barrier and the funeral home as they waited and ate, and then about Jin Ling’s escapade and his own attempt at a nightly walk. He did not talk of the curse on his leg or his and Jiang Yanli’s earlier conversation. He said nothing of his own intent to summon Wen Ning in the donkey’s shed.
If Lan Wangji noticed the omitted parts of his story, he said nothing of it. He ate and drank in silence, apparently content to listen to the sound of Wei Wuxian’s voice. He frowned when Wei Wuxian smiled and sighed when the flow of his words ran out, his long and white fingers cradled around a cup of tea, rubbing its rim again and again.
With midday high over them all, there was nothing to hide the red around Jiang Yanli’s eyes. She had washed herself of the fatigue and grime of their late night excursion, but Wei Wuxian knew as well as her that some things simply did not come off the skin.
It was with those red eyes that she looked at him now in front of the inn, one hand over her sword and the other on her son’s shoulder. Zidian caught to sunlight every way she moved, sending blinding spots of white in Wei Wuxian’s way that he had to blink at.
“Thank you for helping my son,” she said very properly, bowing at the shoulders.
The odd part was just how stiff Lan Wangji was in nodding back to her. Though his face was as impassible as ever, Wei Wuxian thought he could read tension on him.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Yanli said suddenly. She had not risen out of her bow yet. “The next time we meet, I would like to speak with you. My brother as well.”
Lan Wangji glanced briefly at Wei Wuxian. “No need,” he replied.
“On the contrary. I think it is very much needed.”
Jin Ling had long stopped bowing himself. He was staring at his mother and Lan Wangji in suspicion, his young face scrunched as if looking hard enough would reveal to him what they were alluding to.
“You’ll become all wrinkled if you keep doing that,” Wei Wuxian commented.
“I will not,” Jin Ling replied angrily, but his face did smooth over.
Wei Wuxian had hoped to distract them from the solemn atmosphere. But although Jiang Yanli’s mouth thinned into a smile, her eyes were full of sorrow. They came to rest on Wei Wuxian wearing the same longing that he felt deep within his heart.
“Mo Xuanyu,” she said. He saw her hesitate over the name and wet her lips quickly. “Be well,” she added with too much emotion. “Take… take care of yourself.”
He knew not if voicing an answer would be possible. Instead, he bowed.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said as soon as the glare of their swords was too far to be seen with the naked eye. “Let’s investigate the barrier again now and make sure it is fixed.”
Lan Wangji looked at him and replied, “No.”
“No? Why not?”
Wei Wuxian had a reply ready for this. He hadn’t thought he could fool Lan Wangji’s piercing eyes, but this job took precedence over the curse mark roped around his leg. His protest died when Lan Wangji met his gaze evenly.
He sighed. “All right, then.”
Lan Wangji stepped beside him again as they walked up to their rooms. He did not hesitate to enter Wei Wuxian’s despite what propriety would dictate out of him, and Wei Wuxian hid a smile at that. He too wondered what had happened to Lan Wangji, to make him so bold now.
“It’s only a curse,” he told the man as he sat upon his bed and tugged off his boot. “A small one. Jin Ling did not stay trapped long enough to be truly endangered, it should go away on its own once we leave this place.”
“It will get worse if we go back now,” Lan Wangji replied.
Wei Wuxian could not deny this.
The cold was still as bright under his skin as ever. It was odd to tug back the leg of his clothing and touch his own blackened skin; his fingers met with human warmth where his limb felt like a block of ice. He knocked against it with his knuckles, expecting it to sound like wood or rock.
“Lan Zhan,” he asked without thinking, “does my leg feel weird to you?”
He realized what he had said in the next second.
Lan Wangji had been in the middle of setting his sword and guqin down against the bedside cabinet. He paused in his movement as if touched by a curse of his own.
This would be the moment for shame, for panic. And panic there was underneath Wei Wuxian’s bravado, even as he met Lan Wangji’s eyes and did not go back on his words, even as he searched for a reason why he would say such a thing, why he would make such an offer. He remembered cloudily what he had thought eons ago as he visited Qishanwen and called on Lan Wangji for a comment on another: He is too proper not to rile up once in a while.
Lan Wangji was still as proper now as he had been when they were teenagers. His body leaned and honed from training, his mind sharpened by meditation. The years had been nothing but kind to the lines of his face and hands, turning beauty to artistry, making him look at all times like a stone statue of a man. He stood now in the dusty light of the room with his eyes fixed on Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian realized that while he had once wanted to rile him up, now he felt nothing of the kind.
Now he felt nothing at all that he could recognize.
Lan Wangji approached the bed slowly. He kneeled beside it in one graceful motion, right beside where Wei Wuxian’s bare foot knocked against the floor. He put his hand against the roof of Wei Wuxian’s foot, and Wei Wuxian felt his fear distill into something much, much different.
The touch of him went unfelt on the patches of skin covered in the curse marks. Lan Wangji’s fingers traced up his ankle and leg slowly, at times entirely unknown and at other unbearably present. Numbness vanished out of Wei Wuxian’s conscious as he suddenly felt his whole sense of touch narrow to the contact of Lan Wangji’s fingertips, as goosebumps erupted on his skin and almost made him want to hurl. It felt good and terrifying at once, this touch, this press of fingers to skin that was nothing like Jiang Yanli’s embrace or Jiang Cheng’s hand on his shoulder. Nothing like grass and dirt into his mouth on a mountain in Yiling.
Lan Wangji’s hand stopped just below his knee. He slid it under Wei Wuxian’s leg and lifted it with his palm there, his index caught into the crease and his thumb splayed against the outside of his thigh.
“Not weird,” he said simply.
Wei Wuxian breathed in and met his eyes again.
He had once been the one to touch Lan Wangji’s leg like this. He had healed him to the best of his abilities while they were trapped in that cave, using herbs to clean his wounds and praying to escape in time to avoid death or infection. Lan Wangji had protested then, offended to share so much as a touch with him. He had turned his back and obeyed Wei Wuxian’s wishes when his fever struck him, refusing so much as a glance without thought for his own comfort. Wei Wuxian had only cared for his own dignity then. Now, suddenly, gratitude swelled within his chest that he knew not how to repay.
And yet something else tugged at his memories. The sight of Lan Wangji on his knees before him and in much dimmer light; hollowness through his heart and belly and lungs, anger and sorrow on his tongue like so many knives; fear like a sword through the belly as he shouted things out with as much cruelty as he could muster. They swarmed and floated like smoke slipping through his fingers, just out of reach of his knowledge, erased by the timelessness of death.
Wei Wuxian tugged his cursed leg out of Lan Wangji’s hold. The man’s hand fell away at once, resting gently over his own lap. He did not look away.
“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said.
He meant it from the bottom of his heart: Thank you for not looking at me back then. Thank you for being here today.
And though he could not remember why, though he could not bring himself to say it: I’m sorry.
The curse vanished with the sound of Lan Wangji’s guqin.
They walked into the forest that afternoon with lighter steps than the day before, greeting the turtle-like root as an old friend, traversing the barrier easily. The odd events that followed—a man with a visage like smoke, a corpse with stitched-up limbs—happened to Wei Wuxian as if through a haze, as if he were an outsider looking in. He still felt upon his skin the touch of Lan Wangji’s calloused fingers, there-and-not-there between patches of blackened skin.
They left behind the village and its hostile inhabitants, traveling south where all four limbs of their dear friend’s corpse pointed. Wei Wuxian returned to the familiar quiet of nights spent out in the warming weather, lying prone on the soft grass and watching starlight prick the sky, Lan Wangji’s sandalwoodscent never too far from him. He found as the days went by that he did not mind it; that on the rare occasion they ventured far from each other, he would even miss it.
The farther south they went, the more villages they saw. Yueyang was less averse to them than Qinghe’s border had been, and they could sleep there in inns that looked like the one in Dafan, with separate rooms and spaces for people of all statuses. Lan Wangji still drew looks wherever he went with his pristine white robes, and Wei Wuxian did for Mo Xuanyu’s stature and face, but few people bothered to do more than stare and then go on their way.
They stopped in such a village five days after leaving Qinghe. Before that, their steps took them across the entrance of what looked to be a wide and abandoned mansion, the soil of which was stained with old blood.
Wei Wuxian halted before it. Cold slithered up his wide sleeves as the resentful energy there felt the presence of something akin to it; he shivered.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji called.
“Something bad happened here, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian replied. He stepped across the threshold of the derelict house, little as he wished to. “Can’t you feel it?”
Lan Wangji closed his eyes for a second before nodding. Like Wei Wuxian, he entered the wide hall. There were still cabinets and vases around, as if its inhabitants had not had time to pack any before tragedy struck them.
“Really bad,” Wei Wuxian murmured. “We should see what our dear friend has to say.”
The haunted left arm of the corpse was not pointing anywhere anymore. It struggled inside Lan Wangji’s hold as it had when they approached the Nie sabers’ burial grounds. Another piece of the puzzle was close to where they stood.
They left for the village soon after. Wei Wuxian felt a weight at his nape the entire time they walked, but stare as he might through the trees around them, he could see no human or ghost following in their steps.
“I will investigate,” Lan Wangji declared after paying for their stay at the biggest inn around. As Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to protest, he cut in: “You are tired.”
Wei Wuxian smiled helplessly. “Nothing gets past you, Lan Zhan.”
“The house earlier…”
“Yes, yes. It sapped my energy. Truly, I want nothing more than to eat and sleep.”
Lan Wangji nodded as if to say, Then do. Wei Wuxian walked past him and to the farthest free table he could find, brushing their elbows together on the way.
He was served quickly enough considering the attention he usually gathered. The zhongyong boy who took care of the various guests’ orders looked as tired as Wei Wuxian felt, which could explain why he did not want to waste time on berating him for walking unchaperoned.
Unfortunately, the guests themselves felt no such reserve.
“Are you alone?” asked an old woman sitting at the table behind his, disapproval evident in her thin voice.
She did not greet him or offer her name when Wei Wuxian looked at her. Her hair was striped with white and grey, and her face cracked open with wrinkles so deep that they casted shadows onto her eyes and lips. She looked at Wei Wuxian in distaste, sniffing loudly for a trace of his scent. She must have caught it, for Wei Wuxian had not used the paste since morning; her anger turned even more palpable.
“I asked you if you are alone,” she repeated harshly at his lack of answer.
“I am,” Wei Wuxian lied.
He was struck with the crystal-clear memory of Lan Qiren looking at him in distaste from the high dais of his classroom.
“Aren’t you alone too?” he asked, toying with his untouched cup of wine. He had to twist around on his bench to face her.
“Who raised you to be so inquisitive, kunze?” the old woman replied loudly. The noise of the room around covered her words but to the closest of guests, who glanced their way and shook their heads.
Wei Wuxian wondered what she would say if he replied with Jiang Fengmian’s name. He wondered if she would even know it.
“These things would have never been allowed in my time,” the woman complained, loud again. “The Chang clan would have your fingers for this if Chang Cian was still alive.”
“The Chang clan?”
There was a cane next to her, leaning against the side of the table. She grabbed it with both hands and tapped its end against the wooden floor. “A great cultivation clan used to live here, boy,” she rasped. “You travelers think us a haunted town, but if you had come here a few years ago, you would speak differently.”
That was interesting. “A haunted town,” Wei Wuxian replied. “So there is something haunting you.”
“Of course there is, with the way Yueyangchang was massacred. Foolish boy.”
“I am not from around here.”
She kicked his leg with the cane. “I could tell,” she said. “None of you lot would come if you knew about those terrible corpses in Yi City.” She leaned in closer to him despite her earlier disgust, fake-whispering almost loudly enough to be heard over the room’s chatter. “Three boys came yesterday to hunt for those spirits, and I told them, they’re all in Yi City. All the spirits of the Chang clan, hungry for revenge.”
“What happened to the Chang clan?” Wei Wuxian asked in the same tone as her.
She put a wrinkled hand over her heart quickly. “All killed, they were,” she answered. “Chang Cian all those years ago with his qianyuan brothers and sisters, and his son Chang Ping later by lingchi alongside the rest of the clan. Now we are haunted, brought a little more to ruin year after year.”
Lingchi was terrible enough torture to make even Wei Wuxian wince. “Someone must have hated them very, very much,” he told the old lady.
She leaned even closer. “It was that Xiao Xingchen,” she whispered. “It was that damned monk from the mountain, coming in and pretending to be a sage—”
Her cane flew out of her grip and clattered on the floor the next table over. The woman gasped in surprise and fear, holding her hand close to her belly; the metal pommel of the cane had cut the inside of her thumb and made her bleed.
Wei Wuxian looked up.
The man who had kicked the cane away lowered his foot slowly, deliberately. He must not be much taller than Mo Xuanyu and not much older either, and he held in one hand a jar of clear wine and in the other two clay bowls. He dropped them onto the woman’s table and ordered, “Move.”
The old lady shriveled in on herself, still holding her bleeding hand. “Kunze scum,” she grumbled plaintively. “All of you ought to be locked up—”
She cried out when the young man put a foot atop her fragile knee. “I said move, qianyuan,” he repeated. He bent down, putting more of his weight onto her and making her sob out with pain. “Move before I make you move.”
Stubborn and qianyuan she may be, but the man attacking her was stronger in every way. Wei Wuxian suffered her accusatory looks in silence—he had no wish to help any qianyuan on a good day, let alone one who had insulted him out of nowhere—until at last she began to move away. She squirmed out from under the man’s foot, bending low to get her cane from the floor. The man sat where she had sat, watching her limp away with an empty smile.
His hair was in disarray, his clothes holed and stitched up too many times to count. Black bruises darkened the skin under his eyes, as if he had not slept in days. The scent coming off of him was almost peach-like; Wei Wuxian recognized it as the fragrance of guihua flowers.
“She’s still as annoying as when I was a kid,” the man said to Wei Wuxian, pouring liquor into both of the bowls. “Never managed to shut her mouth for a second and never will.”
“I take it you are from around here,” Wei Wuxian replied, accepting the bowl that the stranger gave him.
He waited until the other had taken a sip before risking one of his own. The wine in it was surprisingly sweet.
He put the bowl down once he was done. The other man had not once stopped looking at him. He smiled then, exposing sharp teeth to the light of day, and said: “You are a cultivator.”
“What makes you say that?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Your conversation earlier for one. But I also saw you enter the village with that qianyuan in white.” His nose twitched childishly at mentioning Lan Wangji. “A couple of those white-clad cultivators came around here yesterday, it made quite the ruckus.”
“And you were not interested in talking to those cultivators.”
The man grinned and replied, “No. But I am interested in you, kunze cultivator.”
He had barely touched his own wine, but he bent over the space between their respective benches to pour more for Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian was quite confident in his tolerance for liquor, but he would rather not risk inebriation here.
Still, he took the offered drink with a nod of thanks. “You interrupted quite the story there,” he said. “The lady was telling me all about the one who massacred the local cultivation clan.”
The man humphed. “You could get that story out of anyone here. No need to listen to her kind.”
“Then could I get it from you?”
His only answer was silence.
Wei Wuxian leaned back against the table, crossing one leg atop the other, and asked: “Will you tell me about this Xiao Xingchen?”
“Don’t you want to know about the ghosts in Yi City? Aren’t you here to banish them?”
“I’ve seen enough ghosts and corpses to last me several lifetimes.” Wei Wuxian almost laughed at his own words, so true were they; what surprised him was the quick, avid smile that the boyish man in front of him gave upon hearing them. Frowning, he went on: “That woman said he was a monk. That he came from the mountain. What mountain was that?”
The man said, “The one where the immortal Baoshan Sanren lives.”
Noise fluttered out of Wei Wuxian’s hearing. The voices of the men and women around dimmed until they were whispers, until all he heard and saw was the kunze man in front of him, his sugary scent and mean-spirited smiles—until all he tasted on his tongue was the tang of that oversweet wine.
“Does that interest you?” the man murmured silkily.
“It does,” Wei Wuxian answered.
Here and now, he had no room for anything but honesty.
The man laughed. He bent backwards over his table until he all but lay on it, one hand around his wine and the other, gloved in black, squeezing the side of his bench. He raised it as he straightened up, putting his elbow on his knee and his chin over the bend of his wrist.
His pinky was cut short at the second knuckle.
“Fine then, cultivator,” he said.
Something like glee, like bloodlust, was etched into his face as deeply as the bruise-like circles. Wei Wuxian felt for a second that this person before him was a thread away from breaking apart on his own cutting edges.
“Let me tell you about Xiao Xingchen.”