Warnings: murder, gore, off-screen rape.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
His first tangible memory of life was of an ever-closed door. A strong, oakwood door, several inches thick, polished till the red color of it shone under the glare of every candle. He would never forget its odor for as long as he lived; in that confined little house where all sound and light was muffled, that door was the only thing that did not smell of sweetness.
As the years went by, the bright polish on it blackened with soot. The windows were sealed, trapped shut and dark; candlesmoke had nowhere to go but a small interstice above them wherein air filtered, and that expense of red and polished wood which slowly darkened with it. They took turns cleaning, all three of them, till the oldest of them went away and it was just the two—him and Bo Chengyue—but they never managed to wash out all of it. A few days before his would-be seventeen birthday, he learned that the door had been installed a mere week before he arrived at the house. That was why he remembered it so red and so shiny.
Of his life in the kunze house, he kept the memory of hours of idleness, of a boredom so deep and soul-consuming that he often thought he would go mad with it. He recalled the few hours he spent every week in the company of an old man whose airy scent felt so cleansing after so much stifling sweetness. He came by to teach them about life and responsibility. He spoke mostly to him, for Bo Chengyue who sat stiff and silent beside him was too tall and too ugly.
He looked at her sometimes when the light-scented man had gone away with his silent escort. He studied her sharp and somber profile in the muted light. He found an empty sort of vanity in comparing himself to her for the better.
He wondered how she would fare once his turn came to be married and she would be alone in the silence and in the dark. If she would miss his words, few as they were, or the sight of him sharing dinner with her.
“Finish it, Xue Chengmei,” she would sometimes order him when he pushed his food around aimlessly. “You are thin enough.”
She was older than him, and she had taken care of him since he was an infant, so he did not dare oppose her.
The abolition of kunze houses came in the springtime of his nineteenth year.
Just as he would never forget the heavy warmth of that silk-draped and low-lit cage, so would the memory of leaving it be forever imbued in him. It was the early hours of morning, when the sun was still low enough over the horizon that its light pierced through cracks of the ceiling in criss-crossing golden rays. The birdnest in the encoche at the high of the roof was alive with movement and noise.
The heavy oakwood door creaked and trembled and slowly opened inward. He and Bo Chengyue looked at each other in surprise, for today was not a day their old zhongyong teacher was supposed to come, and it was far still from the time that their meal should be brought.
But the one who stepped into the room with sunlight framing him was neither their teacher nor any servant they knew; it was Chang Cian, tall and heavy-smelling, his beady eyes moving between the both of them quickly.
He and Bo Chengyue fell into a bow at once. He had only met Chang Cian once, though he knew all about him, the day after his first fever ended.
“Rise,” the Chang sect leader ordered curtly.
He sounded angry.
The muddy scent of him was so unfamiliar here, so odd among Bo Chengyue’s own and the added smell of the candles and wood, that Xue Chengmei’s nose tickled. He almost sneezed.
“A decree has come,” Chang Cian told them in distaste, not looking at them but rather at the room around, “from Lanling. Lianfang-Zun has ordered all kunze houses to be opened.”
Of course, Xue Chengmei knew who Lianfang-Zun was. Their old teacher had told them all the news of the war as it unfolded until the day Qishanwen fell; they knew that Jin Guangyao, Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate son, had been the one to cut Wen Ruohan’s head.
They knew that when the kunze thief, the Yiling Patriarch, had been killed by Lan Wangji, Jin Guangyao was the first to claim the spoils.
“Jin Guangshan died a few months ago,” Chang Cian said without looking at them, “and the new sect leader of Lanlingjin wants us all to free the kunze.”
At the time he heard those words, Xue Chengmei did not fully grasp their meaning. He thought of being allowed to walk outside in that sunlight he so craved and gave almost a smile; he saw Bo Chengyue’s face pale and then pinken with hope, and he did not understand.
He still did not understand when he took his first steps out of the house.
He took in the planes and greenery around, the distant houses of a village he had only ever heard of and knew he belonged to. He felt wind upon his face. He shivered under his silken clothes, and oh, what a pleasant shiver it was. How odd and almost frightening to stand now in the middle of so much space, when any time he moved before, ten steps were enough for a wall to stand in his way.
Chang Cian’s anger had not vanished after his speech. He had left with as little fanfare as he had come, followed close by a zhongyong servant whose unwelcome role of chaperone would no doubt cost her dearly.
Xue Chengmei understood only when Bo Chengyue, whose graceless face seldom expressed something other than resignation, fell to her knees and wept.
He did not weep. Perhaps if he had spent as long as she had inside that smothering little home, he would have; but instead he felt embarrassed to see her so uncomposed, and he left her to her tears and walked around the yellow fields. He walked till his untrained legs tired at the edges of a wood. He touched the bark of every tree, stung his fingers on every plant, every wandering bee. His skin prickled with the feeling of open air; his eyes wetted and winked under the harsh glow of the sun.
It was night when he came back to the house. Xue Chengmei discovered the difference between watching moonlight stripe the wooden ceiling of the house and feeling it on his sunburned face and hands. He did not mind the pain and discomfort at all.
Bo Chengyue was waiting inside, and the heavy oakwood door was still as wide open as it had been when Chang Cian had left. Xue Chengmei stopped by it for a long time before entering, stroking his hand down the other side of the panel, feeling under his fingertips the ways in which time had worn it.
“I am leaving,” Bo Chengyue told him that night.
No one had brought them food. Xue Chengmei gnawed on a leftover apple from the previous night’s dinner, drowsy with exhaustion.
“I am leaving. I am never coming back here.”
“Where will you go?” he asked her.
Bo Chengyue remained silent for a long time. Then, she said: “To that village in Yiling.”
He could not help but stare at her in disbelief. “Pariahs,” he told her. “You’re mad.”
“Xue Chengmei,” she sighed, and he spied for the first time the stretch of a smile on her wide lips. “You should come with me. You do not know what you speak of.”
“I don’t want to live with traitors,” he spat at her.
Were it not for the events that would unfold years later—were it not for Xiao Xingchen smiling at him with blood on his lips, touching the side of his face with cold fingers—this would have remained his bitterest memory. Bo Chengyue and him in the penumbra of Yueyang’s kunze house for the last time; she offering to help him, he calling her a traitor.
He knew not, then, when he spoke of. To him that village in Yiling was the fabric of myths: a story the likes of which existed about everything the Yiling Patriarch Wei Ying had done during his evil life. A children’s story. A cautionary tale. The traitor kunze of Yiling, gathered together in a village of their own! It was enough to give anyone shivers.
Bo Chengyue slept until morning rose bright and cool over the open house; then she left with all of her meagre belongings. Her quiet movements were enough to wake him, but he stayed within the warm bed in the only other room of the house, watching between half-open eyes as she dressed. She paused by the door and whispered her goodbyes so as not to disturb his sleep.
Then she left. Years of company vanishing in her trail, as if Xue Chengmei had never shared her life.
On this day, his life changed in many ways. There were only fruits left of food for him on the dining table, for servants had not come to bring him anything new. His body ached and blistered from his long walk the previous day. He put on shoes all the same and went again, farther and longer than he had gone before, tasting fatigue and hunger long before coming back.
He found Chang Cian waiting within the house, alone, touching drapes and forlorn clothes with his very thin fingers.
“Alone now, are you?” he asked Xue Chengmei.
Xue Chengmei felt for the first time the absence of Bo Chengyue. She would be bowing by his side, stiff and awkward in her knowledge that she would never be of worth to their sect leader.
“Where will you go?” Chang Cian asked.
He rose from the chair he had taken and which she had been sitting in the night before. He advanced toward Chengmei, who kept his stance despite the aches of his walk. Who blinked at the dusty floorboard with every oncoming step.
He felt hands pull his shoulders up until he stood in front of the qianyuan leader.
“People saw you wandering around,” Chang Cian said, his fingers digging painfully into the line of Xue Chengmei’s shoulders. “People have been talking, Xue Yang.”
“I was only walking.”
“Do you think it matters? We open a door for you, and you all flee and debase yourselves. Already tales from all over are coming of kunze disgracing themselves in public. This is why you are locked,” he said, bending down, his white teeth clenched tightly. He shook Xue Chengmei and spat, “This is why those houses were built in the first place. To protect you from your own nature.”
He meant: to possess you, to keep you so tightly wrapped that many of you take yourselves to death.
Xue Chengmei took it to mean: because we are scared of you.
“If you wish to remain here,” Chang Cian whispered in a slick, inviting tone, “I can only think of one use for you.”
Xue Chengmei—Xue Yang—lost two things that night.
The first was a finger, taken as he failed to comply, as he tried to struggle out of the man’s hold. The pain of the cut numbed him to the rest; he watched his bleeding stump and lost himself to the rhythm of blood pumping through his veins, leaking out of the wound. He left red-and-then-brown trails over the heavy door he had so often stared at.
The second was not anything he could name or understand, yet it hurt more, somehow, than that bleeding piece of flesh. It gaped within his guts.
So was it that he left the house he had spent his life in: bleeding and hungry, limping away in a daze of anger. Or was it anger? he wondered. It seemed to him that this feeling was shallower, mist-like. A taste over his tongue he could give no name to; a soreness in the limbs which felt detached from his skin.
He walked into the night after Chang Cian had gone, his hand wrapped in a silk scarf, his heart beating slowly. He crawled all the way to the woods he had visited for two days. He smelled all around him the scent of varnished oak.
He set fire to the yellow fields. He watched them burn from the cover of the woods, standing upwind so as not to choke on the smoke. Men and women screamed and hurried from within their cool houses to try and stifle the flames. They did not manage to until the morning sky goldened.
A few days later, Xue Yang tied a rope around Chang Cian’s neck.
As history would relate, Chang Cian’s murder was only the first of many. Xue Yang killed the man’s qianyuan brothers and sisters in the nights that followed; he killed many more, and for many reasons, for several more years.
What history could not relate was this: the struggles of those first months out of captivity, the immensity of the world and its people, the many ways in which Xue Yang was ignorant or naïve. Chang Cian was not the last to try and take from Xue Yang what he did not wish to give, though he was the only one to succeed. Those affairs, he learned, were not rare; and it took several weeks for more decrees to come from Lanlingjin or other renowned sects—forbidding and punishing, frightening enough for most to recoil and bend the neck. For qianyuan and zhongyong alike to watch Xue Yang walk around with resentful eyes but nothing more.
Xue Yang learned very quickly to relish in cruelty. At first he stayed in Yueyang, happy enough to lord his new freedom over its inhabitants, to sabotage and steal from the Chang clan’s house. It was thus that he learned cultivation: bent over old books in the fading light of a candle, for months and months after the kunze house had opened and his indulgent heart had closed.
Then he traveled.
He learned that he was more powerful than most educated cultivators he met. He learned to recognize the cold breeze of resentful energy on his skin, to grasp it with his hands and mind till corpses rose to his call. He learned with the avidity of empty-hearted folk, sucking in knowledge like dry earth soaked in rain, moved forth by a thirst he knew he could not quench.
On a bright day, not unlike the one during which he had exited the home of his childhood, his feet took him to Lanling. After a series of events—unfortunate for some; fortunate, he thought, for himself—he met Jin Guangyao.
Jin Guangyao: a peaceful, saddened young face; a quiet voice over running water; the homely scent of weathered wood.
A man who took one look at Xue Yang and offered him the world.
In the cave under the farthest and oldest building of the Tower, there lay a room full of dusty volumes. Xue Yang walked slowly through its alleys and shelves until he reached what Jin Guangyao wanted him to look at; and there his fingers shook before readying themselves to touch.
“This was recovered in the cave where Wei Wuxian died,” Jin Guangyao said softly.
Xue Yang needed not ask what it was. A thin opening through the brick wall let in some measure of sunlight; he lifted the broken Stygian Tiger Seal until it shone, until the specks of dust around vanished under its glow.
“I heard that it was destroyed by Lan Wangji,” he replied when he found his voice again.
Jin Guangyao chuckled in that sorrowful way of his. “Many rumors were birthed that day.”
“Were you there?” Xue Yang asked.
He lowered his hand, clenching the Seal in his grip till he felt its broken edges cut into his palm. The ache only served to make his heart beat faster. He looked at Jin Guangyao who stood in the darkness, shivers running over his skin, saliva flooding his dry mouth.
“Were you there when the Yiling Patriarch was murdered, Jin Guangyao?”
“What would you like to hear?” Jin Guangyao replied. “That I participated in killing him? What would you do, then?”
Xue Yang smiled. “I would have to kill you,” he replied.
As he made that promise, he was thinking of Bo Chengyue leaving with a bag over her broad shoulders, blind with the hope of a different life. He thought of Wei Wuxian walking these very halls with his head held high, years ago, as the entire cultivation world shunned and despised him.
But Jin Guangyao said, “I only met Wei Wuxian a few times during his life. When I arrived at the Burial Mounds after the massacre in Qishan, Lan Wangji’s work was long finished.”
“Then I suppose I shall have to murder him and not you.”
“I would prefer if you did not,” Jin Guangyao retorted, “as I am a sworn brother of Lan Xichen’s.”
For the first time, his voice was not empty of threat.
Xue Yang looked again at the half-seal. He weighed it with his palm, thumbed the ragged edge where it had broken off. “What do you want me to do with this?” he asked.
The answer was very simple.
As the Jin clan was often at war with smaller sects, it was not hard for Jin Guangyao to find corpses for Xue Yang to experiment on. Nor was it any trouble to find living humans to serve the same purpose, though there came a condition.
“Qianyuan,” Xue Yang said, pouring over Wei Wuxian’s calligraphy and stroking the half-seal with one loving finger. “If you bring them to me alive, they must be qianyuan.”
He expected the qianyuan Jin Guangyao to balk at this order, to try and threaten him perhaps; but the Jin sect leader never said a word of dissent to him and never shied from his ruthless demands. He provided him with qianyuan men and women, live and screaming, their eyes full of hatred.
Most insulted him. Some tried to threaten or compel him into obedience. A few, sometimes, looked at him with the same eyes as Chang Cian. Xue Yang always gave those the most gruesome fate.
Though none at Lanling knew what his work was about, they came to fear him. They knew his position to be above theirs despite his outsider status, and they avoided him. Xue Yang sometimes heard whispers of his name and status on the wind. Even the one other kunze cultivator of Lanling, the cowardly Mo Xuanyu who was Jin Guangyao’s brother, fled in his presence.
When Mo Xuanyu was accused of licentiousness and thrown out of the Tower, Xue Yang laughed. This, he thought, was a kunze who was not worthy of the Yiling Patriarch’s accomplishments; this was one who should have stayed locked and smothered until the day he died.
So the months and years went as he lived in Lanling, studying the writings left behind by Wei Wuxian, rebuilding the Stygian Tiger Seal out of its broken half. Feeding himself on cruelty and the idea that he alone should succeed where Wei Wuxian had been thwarted.
Two visitors came one day as he lazed into sunlight, his fingers stained with ink, a piece of hard candy slowly melting in his mouth.
Xue Yang watched them from a high balcony. A tall man dressed in black with all the bearings of qianyuan-kind, whose spice-like scent made Xue Yang’s nose twitch and his stomach curl with disgust. A shorter man dressed in white, bowing to Jin Guangyao, who bowed in return.
Xue Yang climbed down the stairs leading to the garden. He walked until he stood by Jin Guangyao’s side, eyeing the two strangers, sucking on the candy in a loud and rude manner.
Jin Guangyao gave him a sideways glance that was as exasperated as it was meaningless. “And this is one of our guest cultivators,” he said, “Xue Yang of Kuizhou.”
“Pleasure,” Xue Yang said. He didn’t bow. “Who are you?”
“These are Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. They will be our guests for the next few days.”
The qianyuan Song Lan watched Xue Yang with his brow creased and unfriendly, but the monk Xiao Xingchen, whose name Xue Yang knew, bowed and smiled. He was taller than Jin Guangyao, though not by much. His hands were wide and thin, his eyes as clear as gleaming lakes.
He smelled of snow.
“Xiao Xingchen Daozhang,” Xue Yang said.
The candy broke under his teeth into sharp little pieces, sweet and tanguy on his tongue. Xiao Xingchen met his eyes evenly under the bright sunlight.
“I’ve heard so much about you.”
In all his mortal life, Xue Yang never made such bitter enemies as Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen.
Their first meeting in Lanling ended in hatred, in promises of revenge. Song Lan’s distaste was expected and well-met, but it was Xiao Xingchen whose disapproval Xue Yang fed himself on and encouraged; the monk from the mountain, Baoshan Sanren’s apprentice who had fled her teachings to rejoin the mortal realm and fashion himself a savior, a man of charity. Xue Yang watched him try to remain composed and fail. He encouraged each downturn of his lips, each of his harsher words.
This mutual hatred lasted a long year. The two men traveled through the region in that time, showing themselves as helpers of the poor and downtrodden, and Xue Yang made it his goal to hinder them every way he could. He murdered and stole in their wake; he left messages written in blood and ill will, making it so they would know him but not have the proof to convict him.
He took very few precautions to keep Jin Guangyao in the dark about his secondary activities. The Jin sect leader spent less time with him, watching him from afar with thin lips but not doing anything to stop him. It excited Xue Yang to know that they shared this secret. It riled him to make fear bloom into the hearts of the Jin cultivators, to have Madam Jin look at him so ruefully, she who had prized the presence of sweet Mo Xuanyu. To have Jiang Yanli hold her son’s hand tightly whenever she saw him.
Those seasons passed in bloodshed, and Xue Yang had never felt as alive as he did then, smiling from afar at Xiao Xingchen and knowing the holy man unable to stop him.
On the day he finished building a second half to the Stygian Tiger Seal, Xue Yang traveled to Kuizhou. He flew to the village where he was born, to the rebuilt mansion where Chang Cian’s son, Chang Ping, lived.
He dressed himself all in white. He spread bitter scent-masking paste over his tongue. He destroyed all of the mansion’s protective arrays and let loose an army of corpses. He sat on the roof of the derelict kunze house and listened to the screams of cultivators being torn limb from limb. When silence fell over the frightened manor, when the village a mile away learned of what had transpired, he told all those who would listen: I am the monk Xiao Xingchen.
Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen caught him on his way back to Lanling. Their battle was fierce and more hateful than ever before, and Xue Yang escaped with his life only because he managed to blind Song Lan with the sharper edge of his sword. He was laughing as the qianyuan man fell with both hands over his bleeding face, laughing as Xiao Xingchen speared him on his white sword and then ran to his friend’s fallen form. He was laughing still when he was brought back to Golden Carp Tower with his hands and feet chained.
He wanted to ask them, What do you think Jin Guangyao will do? Do you think he will renounce my power for the sake of justice?
He was only partly right, for indeed Jin Guangyao did not execute him; but he was thrown into jail and fed only plain rice and water even when heat struck him blind with sickness.
Xue Yang discovered, in that time, just how unbearable prison was after one had tasted freedom.
He did not believe in miracles, or at least, he did not think he would ever be graced with any. But on the day Jin Guangyao visited his cell with the repaired Seal in one hand and his golden sword in the other, Xue Yang did not die.
“You will teach me how to use it,” Jin Guangyao ordered, colder and paler-faced than Xue Yang had ever seen him.
Xue Yang chuckled. “Did you come to kill me like you killed Wei Wuxian?”
“I did not kill Wei Wuxian.”
His voice was oddly mournful.
“Do you think he would have approved of you, Xue Chengmei?” Jin Guangyao asked. He raised his sword till its edge rested on Xue Yang’s throat. “Wei Wuxian spent all of the Sunshot Campaign opening kunze houses, freeing your kind, protecting them. He spat in Jin Guangshan’s face and dueled his own clan brother in order to keep his kind free. Do you think he would approve of your deeds?”
“You don’t know him like I do,” Xue Yang said.
All of the people whispering absurd tales of Wei Wuxian, of his accomplishments, painting him in the colors of a bloodthirsty maniac; none of them had spent as long as Xue Yang had poured over his writings and studying his moods. None had seen the drawings in the margins of his works. None had seen the places where madness had made the great man’s hand tremble and forget his own words.
This version of Wei Wuxian, this selfless martyr that Jin Guangyao spoke of, was not the truth either.
“I always thought you opened the kunze houses out of guilt for killing him,” Xue Yang said. “But if he truly was murdered by Lan Wangji, then why did you do it?”
Jin Guangyao’s face remained as sorrowful as ever, as if he were carrying a burden too great for words. “Wei Wuxian was a victim of his time,” he replied, “and nothing more. If you will not teach me how to use the Seal, then I have no more use for you.”
But Xue Yang did not die.
He fled from Lanling with a deep cut into his side, feeling very much like that time in Yueyang, though Jin Guangyao was only ever after his life. The Stygian Tiger Seal had never seemed so heavy in his hands; the anger in his heart had never felt so cold.
Betrayal, he realized. How odd for him of all people to experience such a thing.
He went to the only place he had ever called home. He flew and walked through Kuizhou, trying his best to keep his wound from killing him, until he stopped by the edges of Yi City, exhausted and frightened, his legs ensnowed to the calves. They could bear his weight no longer.
He knew not how long he stayed lying by the side of the road. The cold numbed him and made his sight hazy. He thought he felt something move after hours, a voice through his head and shoulders. A hand around his wrist.
He could only smell the snow.
Xue Yang woke up inside a coffin.
For a moment his mind ran wild, picturing Jin Guangyao’s hands closing a lid above his head, burying him alive. He thought he would die starved and alone several feet underground and only remember those sorrowful eyes. But his breathing quieted after a while longer, and he was able to grasp the rim of the wooden box with both hands and pull himself upright.
He was in a funeral home. The wide room around him housed several more coffins, all open and empty. A hearth as wide as he was tall was built into the far-off wall, blazing bright with fire. Xue Yang could feel its warmth from his side of the room, and it was very welcome.
There was someone there. The small silhouette of a child bent over pieces of wood, her hair in disarray and her clothing stitched-up too many times to count. She whipped her head toward him when he climbed out of the coffin; he was surprised to find her eyes milk-white and unseeing.
“He’s awake!” she cried before he could say anything.
Her blindness did not seem to hinder her at all. As she ran in front of him, calling again and again for the person who must have brought him here, he smelled on her the immature scent of charred wood, almost indistinguishable from the fire. She was qianyuan.
She was qianyuan, loud and unkempt, and she brought back with her the one person he never wished to see again.
“How do you feel?” said the monk Xiao Xingchen with a smile that Xue Yang had never seen directed at himself.
He could not answer. He stood frozen in the hall, naked but for undergarments and the clean cloth wound around his chest to stopper his bleeding, and Xiao Xingchen—it was him, it was Xiao Xingchen, Xue Yang would recognize that voice anywhere—stood just the same, greeting him as a friend.
If Xue Yang had a weapon on him then, he would have driven it into the man’s heart.
Xiao Xingchen took another step forward. His face came into the light of the fire, and Xue Yang saw that his once-bright eyes were covered in cloth.
He was blind too.
“Are you mute?” Xiao Xingchen asked; the girl led him by the hand toward where she had played earlier, insisting that he sit on the wooden bench, which he did in good grace. “If so, you are welcome to stay with us. I believe the locals think I like to collect broken things.”
“I,” Xue Yang said, “am not broken.”
Xiao Xingchen let silence unfold over the crackling fire. “I see that you are not,” he replied a while later. “You are welcome to stay either way. I took the liberty of looking at your wound,” he smiled ruefully, as if laughing at his own joke, “and I dare say you should not be moving around too much. That is quite the cut.”
Xue Yang could hardly care that this man had undressed and touched him. Were it under any other circumstance, he would not have stood there silently, but he was too busy feeling relieved that his voice had not been recognized.
Relieved and offended.
“And who are you?” he asked with as little ceremony as he could. This was his enemy, after all; the man he had so enjoyed tormenting, the one person he believed would recognize him under any disguise. “A beggar? A mortician?”
“I suppose you could call me a beggar, though I prefer to work than beg.”
“A beggar dressed like a monk?”
Another smile stretched Xiao Xingchen’s lips. Xue Yang’s fingernails dug into his palms until they slickened with blood.
He wanted to scream his own name to this man. He wanted to make that smile disappear.
“A monk,” Xiao Xingchen said. “Yes. I used to be a monk.”
He moved atop his seat, which hardly had enough room for three to fit comfortably. The blind girl was on the floor in front of him, playing with little animals carved out of wood as well. Xiao Xingchen patted the spot he had freed next to him.
“Come sit,” he invited, the picture of friendliness. “There is soup over the fire, and you must be starving.”
I starve, Xue Yang thought, for the sight of your body bleeding out in the snow.
But his stomach ached with hunger, and his wound ached with it. He crossed the hall in slow steps, unsure yet of whether or not Xiao Xingchen was deceiving him; of whether or not what awaited him by the fire was a warm meal or the cold blade of a sword.
The little girl moved her legs silently when he reached her. He bent down and put a hand over the bench to support his own weight, grunting when the cut in his side gave a jolt of awful pain.
Xiao Xingchen’s hands were on his arm immediately.
He must have realized how improper he was being, for he took them back quickly; or perhaps he felt the way that Xue Yang tensed through his entire body, his pain replaced with shaking outrage.
“My apologies,” he said once Xue Yang had managed to sit next to him.
These words, more than any previous, made Xue Yang want to slit his throat from ear to ear.
“You said there was soup,” Xue Yang replied coldly.
“Ah, of course. A-Qing?”
The girl jumped to her feet. She moved to the wide pot above the fire as if she could truly see, filling three old bowls quickly and silently. She gave one to Xue Yang in so brisk a movement that some soup spilled over his dirty pants. He bit his lips to prevent himself from slapping her face.
“Will you tell me how you came to be in such a state?” Xiao Xingchen asked as he took his own bowl.
“Maybe,” Xue Yang lied.
“Eat first, of course. You must regain your strength.”
The soup was scalding and tasteless. Xue Yang drank it in under a minute.
The whole time he spied Xiao Xingchen from the corner of his eyes, and he thought, I will kill you.
I will regain my strength; and then I will kill you.
Xiao Xingchen worked odd jobs for the people of Yi City during the day. At night, he slept in one of the coffins of the funeral home. The villagers either did not mind or were too scared to say anything; after all, what sort of a man dressed like a monk and lived in haunted homes, accompanied by a blind girl and a man with the eyes of a killer?
Xue Yang recovered through the winter of that year in the silent company of A-Qing, whom he soon learned had no love or trust for him. He sometimes wished that she could see out of those white eyes of hers; that she could watch him look at her and cower before him, so that he could feel some satisfaction again.
Long gone was the time he could kill qianyuan men and women whenever he wanted.
Xiao Xingchen left in the morning and came back at night dirty and exhausted. He sometimes told them tales of what he had done that day—fed a stray dog, cured a sick child, warded a home against spiritual invasion. He sometimes sat in silence. His lips always bore that same smile Xue Yang had never seen before, as if to tell the world, Everything is alright.
Xue Yang wondered with pleasure and irritation if this was the smile that had made Song Lan so smitten with him, once upon a time. If Song Lan, wherever he was now, longed to see it again, not knowing that his enemy sat in its glow.
He pushed and pushed away the day he should kill Xiao Xingchen and leave. How amusing it was to live like this under the nose of his foe! He took to accompanying the man on his daily patrols once the pain in his side became bearable, deceiving the former monk in ways big and small, watching him taint his hands with theft or impropriety.
“Forgive my bluntness,” Xiao Xingchen said one night as they sat by a campfire.
Spring had lengthened and warmed the days, allowing them to breathe in the cool air without freezing to death. A-Qing was asleep on the soft ground, her head in Xiao Xingchen’s lap. Flowers budded out of trees everywhere Xue Yang looked.
“Ask away, Daozhang,” Xue Yang offered.
“Are you a runaway kunze?”
As his question was met with silence, Xiao Xingchen gave an apologetic smile.
“Please do not believe that I am a traditional sort of person,” he said. “I was raised in such an odd way that when I first entered the world, I had no thought that things such as kunze houses once existed.”
“How is that possible?”
“My master once had a disciple, you see. A kunze woman. I never met her, but my shidi and I grew under the praise that our master gave to her memory.”
Xue Yang poked the ailing fire with the sharp end of a stick. It grew hot between his fingers; his eyelids blinked away the stinging smoke. “The only kunze cultivator I know of who escaped being locked up,” he said, “was the Yiling Patriarch.”
“That woman was Wei Wuxian’s mother.”
Xue Yang said nothing. He knew, of course, about Cangse Sanren’s fate.
“I suppose you must have been a man already when the houses were opened,” Xiao Xingchen went on. “Believe me, I am only asking to know if I shall one day have to help you fend off a scorned spouse. If you are a runaway, you have nothing to fear from me.”
It made Xue Yang laugh in a colder way than he should; but Xiao Xingchen smiled at the sound of it as if it were a gift.
“I am kunze, and I am a runaway,” Xue Yang said, “but I was never married, and I never will be.”
“Not interested in settling down?”
Xue Yang thought of his bleeding hand against a heavy oakwood door. “No,” he replied.
He said no other word for the rest of the evening.
The following day, he stepped behind Xiao Xingchen on his daily trek toward the village. He walked by his side onto the muddy ground, crushing flowers beneath his feet, kicking little stones away. Far off in front of them on the narrow dirt path, two silhouettes emerged: a burly man and his son with heavy axes in their hands, heading for their own day of work.
Xue Yang walked ahead of Xiao Xingchen. He greeted the two men. He cut off their tongues and choked out their screams.
“What is it?” Xiao Xingchen asked as he came back to his side.
“Fierce corpses,” he replied, hoping that his voice conveyed enough worry.
He watched avidly as Xiao Xingchen hesitated. He felt suddenly like a man walking a tightrope, edging a precipice; but trust colored the skin of Xiao Xingchen’s face as he asked, “Where?” and Xue Yang tasted a victory so sweet that he felt himself grow drunk with it.
“Right ahead,” he breathed. “They’re slow.”
Sweetness, candy-like sweetness on his tongue, as he spied the righteous monk Xiao Xingchen cut off the heads of two innocent men on that small countryside path. Shivers over his skin as he saw the villagers that day steer clear of their path, their ashen faces staring at the blood marring Xiao Xingchen’s white clothes.
That night, he touched Xiao Xingchen’s elbow as they ate. He sat pressed close to the man till all he smelled was frost, till even A-Qing’s charred scent was gone, cleaned out by the cold air.
Xue Yang’s second winter in Yi City was spent wrapped in thick clothes and thicker covers, scribbling cultivation formulæ onto old scrolls he found within the funeral home. He wrote over the names of the deceased listed there and tried to recreate the spells and techniques that Wei Wuxian had come up with in his deadened land in Yiling. He sometimes felt the weight of A-Qing’s eyes at his nape, though he knew she could not see; he rubbed with his fingers the uneven edges of the Stygian Tiger Seal always hidden in his pocket, and thought of waking up a real corpse to finally be rid of her.
The longer he spent in her and Xiao Xingchen’s company, the less she could stand him. On the days her master was gone, she sat still and sullen, spitting murmured words his way that she must think he could not hear. When Xiao Xingchen was with them, she nestled close to him and refused to allow Xue Yang close.
Xiao Xingchen had no clue that this was happening, of course. He left in the morning a sweet piece of candy in each of their beddings and came back at night with an exhausted smile.
Xue Yang could not tell anymore what he felt about it. The candy or the smile.
The people of Yi City grew warier of them. They found the corpses of their kin on the roads round the funeral home and spoke of ghosts, of vengeful monsters. When Xue Yang ventured outside on his own to spy on them, he heard them mutter of revenge. When some fools dared to try and attack them, he did what he had done to that qianyuan man and his son: he cut off their tongues to prevent their screaming, and allowed Xiao Xingchen to deal the killing blow.
In Xiao Xingchen, he discovered something he never thought he would find. Something dangerously far from enmity; something dangerously close to friendship.
He did not jump anymore when the man touched him. And Xiao Xingchen was fond of touch, he found, likely to leave a hand over Xue Yang’s arm as they ate together or clasp his shoulder when he laughed, soft and warm.
Xue Yang had never known anyone who would touch him like this. Bo Chengyue had never done more than squeeze close to him in bed during the colder nights of the kunze house. Jin Guangyao, tied by propriety, had not so much as brushed him with a finger either. It would have been scandalous for him to touch a kunze not his, and anyway the man had never shown any desire to do so.
But there was no ownership in Xiao Xingchen’s touch, no underlying want, nothing. Only a touch.
“Daozhang,” Xue Yang said one day after seeing Xiao Xingchen kill an old woman who had tried grabbing at his robes for pity.
He was warm with the sight of it still: all that gore over Xiao Xingchen’s white sword. All those blood-drowned whimpers out of the old woman’s throat.
“What happened to your eyes?”
It was another tepid spring night that they both spent outside. A-Qing had long lost the fight for wakefulness, and Xue Yang had carried her to bed under Xiao Xingchen’s order. He had even tucked her in, so content was he with his victory of the day.
Xiao Xingchen smiled as always at the dying fire. He said nothing of the feeling of Xue Yang sitting so close to him that their thighs touched above the softened ground. “I gave them away,” he replied.
“To a very dear friend of mine. He lost them in battle against an enemy of ours; so I carried him to my master and begged her to restore his sight.” He sighed softly. “She could, but only at the price of someone else’s. So I gave mine away.”
“A foolish decision,” Xue Yang declared.
Xiao Xingchen laughed, “Somehow, I knew you would say this. But I don’t think it was foolish at all.”
“How so? One of you still ended up blind.”
Xiao Xingchen’s hand found Xue Yang’s wrist. He squeezes it with warm fingers, stroking the inside of it, looking for his pulse. Xue Yang felt his own heart beat in his ears loudly.
“This friend,” Xiao Xingchen said, “had been with me for a very long time. He is my sworn brother. If I had left him to his fate when there was something I could do to help, I would never have been able to live with myself.”
Xue Yang watched the red embers in front of their feet. He felt their heat burn his eyes.
“I could never be so selfless,” he said. “It would not cross my mind to give away my sight for anyone. Not even you, Daozhang.”
“I know. I would not want you to.” Xiao Xingchen squeezed his wrist again. “Like you said, this would only end up in a foolish circle of sacrifice.”
I do not have it in me to sacrifice anything, Xue Yang thought.
He could never be to Xiao Xingchen what Xiao Xingchen was to Song Lan.
“May I ask you something?”
“Why do you still need to say this? Just ask me.”
“I was unsure,” Xiao Xingchen said, “and I am certain that you will laugh at me, but… what is your name?”
In the year since they had lived together in Yi City, Xue Yang had forgotten to fear this very question.
Xiao Xingchen’s hand left his wrist with one last stroke of his fingers, but it did not go back to the man’s own lap. Instead it rose in the red light of the fire, slowly, so that Xue Yang could see it, and landed on the side of his face, right against his cold skin.
“May I?” Xiao Xingchen asked in nothing more than a murmur.
It did not matter anymore what he was asking. Xue Yang felt himself nod in utter silence. He felt his breath catch in his throat and never leave.
Xiao Xingchen’s hands were wide and callused. His fingertips were not soft against Xue Yang’s cheek, but hard and dry, almost disagreeably so. Yet Xue Yang did nothing to stop them as they traveled from cheek to nose, to brow, to temple. He allowed them to push his eyelids down. He felt them halt over his lips as Xiao Xingchen finished drawing a map of his face.
“What is your name?” Xiao Xingchen asked again.
Xue Yang opened his eyes and looked at him, sitting there eager and red-faced and so terribly deceived. His gentle hand braced over Xue Yang’s mouth.
“Chengmei,” he replied.
His lips moved against Xiao Xingchen’s warm fingers. Xiao Xingchen did not draw them away. “Just Chengmei?”
“Then may I kiss you, Chengmei?”
Xue Yang kissed him first.
He put one hand on Xiao Xingchen’s shoulder and dug the other in the soil, feeling through the leather of his glove how cold still the earth was from the long winter months. The stump of his finger numbed with it. He pressed his lips to Xiao Xingchen’s mouth and exhaled all at once, freeing his lungs of air and of a tension he had not wished to understand for months on end. He felt Xiao Xingchen’s short nails drag through the hair at his temple. He let the man take hold of his chin and stroke it softly, gently, as he understood that this was his to have.
It did not matter that Xue Yang had never kissed anyone before: he poured into the contact a nauseated sort of affection, of attachment. His belly grew warm with want. His heart grew cold with fear.
He shuddered out a breath onto Xiao Xingchen’s mouth as they separated, and Xiao Xingchen murmured, “See, I knew you would laugh at me.”
Xue Yang could not tell him then that he was laughing at himself.
Nor could he tell him so as they kissed again near the dying fire, as his one hand grew bolder and touched Xiao Xingchen’s soft neck, feeling his pulse and his warm blood, so close under his skin. He let Xiao Xingchen pull him closer; he let himself be laid under the glinting stars and rid of all his clothes.
And under those roaming, careful hands, as his pleasure spread and crested against ever-warm skin, he realized he was the one to have been deceived all along.
Of course, the whole thing had to end one day
It came almost a year later, as Xue Yang had renounced all ideas of leaving the dark halls of the funeral home for a better place to live. His sword had stayed in its sheath for so long now that dust had the time to gather and smear his fingertips whenever he touched. He did not dream anymore of taking it in hand as Xiao Xingchen slept and plunge it through the man’s beating heart.
Yi City had become near-abandoned, though for months no new corpses were found bled out in the streets. A-Qing sprouted like a weed and outgrew all her clothes. She sometimes allowed Xue Yang to sit down next to her without insulting him; her qianyuan scent did not grate at him anymore.
Xue Yang, in that time, got used to the feeling and shape of Xiao Xingchen’s hands. He spoke with him at night about unimportant things. He lay down next to him and warmed himself with him, hungry throughout the heart for his lips and his touch.
The end came in the shape of a man dressed in black, in the scent of spices wafting upwind to the hall; it came as Song Lan laid foot in Yi City and as his feet took him to the narrow dirt road leading up the hill.
Xue Yang smelled him before he could see him. Then he spied him from afar, so austere and straight-backed, and felt the past two years crumble and make way for reality.
“Xue Yang!” Song Lan exclaimed, his hand grabbing his sword.
Xue Yang did not bother trying to explain himself. Not to this man.
“Who’s this?” A-Qing asked, frightened.
He rose with his own sword in hand and snapped at her, “Leave.”
Time seemed to slow as they exchanged blow after blow under the setting sun. The snow all around them shone red and pink, darkened only by their elongated shadows; birds flew away, scared off by the sound of metal on metal, on leather, on wood.
“What have you done to him,” Song Lan seethed in all of his righteousness.
“You must have deceived him, you monster,” Song Lan panted.
“I will not hesitate to kill you, kunze,” Song Lan threatened.
“Neither will I,” Xue Yang replied.
And he grabbed his sword with both hands and shoved it forward in a forceful, piercing blow.
There came a cry in the distance. He did not hear it well through the blood pumping by his ears and clogging up his heart. He dragged his sword out of the wound it had cut into Song Lan’s shoulder and swung it once more with the intent to kill.
This was what he was made for, after all; this was what his whole life had shaped out of him.
But it was not Song Lan’s black robes that the tip of his sword found. It was not Song Lan’s somber face which ended up paling with blood loss amidst the tainted snow. His blade dipped into a white-clad back, in-between the same long strands of hair he had tugged at only a few nights ago in the throes of pleasure.
“No,” Song Lan said.
He dropped his sword and took hold of the body standing in front of him—standing between him and Xue Yang—but it was too late. Xiao Xingchen coughed the strangled, gargling cough of those whose blood had risen up the throat. He fell against his friend’s chest and moved no more.
Xue Yang saw and heard nothing but that white-and-red body. He felt all of a sudden like the snow around him; frozen and dirt-smeared, waiting for sunlight to thaw him and make him vanish at last.
“I’ll kill you,” Song Lan roared, holding Xiao Xingchen’s body and trembling from head to toe. Tears ran down his face and sorrow twisted his spicescent, and still he looked the picture of purity, of bravery; he swore, “I will kill you, Xue Yang—”
Xue Yang picked up the black sword from where Song Lan had dropped it and plunged it through his vulnerable throat.
Silence fell over him.
On the day Xue Yang had knocked Chang Cian unconscious and strangled him with rope, he had felt exhilarated. Each drop of his own blood had coursed hotly through his veins; he had breathed in free air for the first time in his life. Through each of the murders he had enacted thereafter, he had sought that same feeling. He had looked for liveliness.
He looked for it as he approached the fallen form of Xiao Xingchen, as he drew his own sword out of the man’s back. He rolled him so that his front faced up again and he could see him properly.
Xiao Xingchen’s blood was running down his open lips. It trickled down his lax cheeks and pooled pinkly over the pristine snow with every ragged breath he took.
“You’re an idiot,” Xue Yang said coldly.
“Chengmei,” Xiao Xingchen breathed. And then, even more softly: “Xue Yang.”
Xue Yang kneeled by his side.
“You’re so trusting,” he told his fallen foe; he touched his bleeding face and found it cold already. “You took me in, healed and fed me, your enemy. I could have killed you so many times, Daozhang. It would have been child’s play.”
Xiao Xingchen coughed. His lips stretched into a feeble, tortured smile. “I knew,” he said.
Xue Yang’s heart beat through his frozen chest in one last valiant effort.
“I knew all along—”
“Liar,” Xue Yang growled, “not even you are so stupid.”
“I knew,” Xiao Xingchen said again; and he added, “I could never forget you.”
Such a memory rose almost like a whisper into Xue Yang’s mind: he saw himself held back by men from Lanlingjin, watching Xiao Xingchen holding a bleeding Song Lan, whispering with all of his malice: Don’t you dare forget me, Daozhang.
Xiao Xingchen grunted in pain in the snow. His arm rose, shaking, his hands as pale as his face. His fingers touched Xue Yang’s cheek.
“Your voice,” he said, smiling still. “Your face.”
They trailed over Xue Yang’s lips in a wind-like caress.
His hand fell; Xue Yang caught it before it could hit the cold ground.
“I shall miss it,” Xiao Xingchen laughed breezily. “Guihua flowers… such a lovely scent for one as cruel as you, Xue Chengmei.”
His head turned in the direction of Song Lan’s body. The snow around the qianyuan’s neck had turned a vivid red; he was long dead.
Whatever Xiao Xingchen’s last words to his old friend were, he did not say them out loud.
Xue Yang could not have told how much time passed between the moment life left Xiao Xingchen’s body and the moment he moved. Between that last pained breath and the sobbing gasp he heard through the shadowed and bare-branched trees. The lot of it felt like an overstretched instant, like a fragment of time lost to earthly measures.
He lifted his head and saw A-Qing between the trunks of trees. Her tall and gangly body shook with sobs, her milky eyes fixed onto him with all the hatred in the world.
“You killed him,” she gasped.
She looked at him, he realized. She saw him.
She did not run away as he moved; she did not even step back when he took his sword in hand once more and walked in her direction. He could see that she wanted nothing more than to reach Xiao Xingchen’s side and hug his dead body to her chest, sobbing the night over until she fell down, exhausted, like all children whose emotions got the better of them.
“I killed him,” Xue Yang told her once he was but a few feet away.
She hiccuped and trembled as if she had not truly believed it until then.
He could feel that trembling when his sword’s edge touched the side of her bare neck. His own hand shook around the pommel of it as if to echo her body’s tremors. She wailed and wailed in the silent city, all alone on that dirt path. Behind her back lay the nightly shapes of abandoned houses. In front of her, the body of her mentor and protector.
Xue Yang watched her cry and felt his hand slip with her shaking; he stood with blood over his damp clothes, alone in the world with this soon-to-die little girl he had always despised.
This was no ice that sunlight could thaw.