Warnings: off-screen rape and murder, denial of pregnancy, off-screen child birth.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
The Golden Carp Tower of Lanling reigned over the peak it was perched upon in an obvious show of power. It gave out the same impression of grandeur and timeless magnificence that Qishan’s Nightless City did, something neither the Lotus Pier nor the Cloud Recesses had ever reached for. Perhaps Qinghe’s Unclean Realm did as well; perhaps this foothold of the last great cultivation sect also towered overland, its masters greedy for renown, but Wei Wuxian doubted it.
The city laid under the Tower was flourishing, too. Colorful and noisy, threaded with quick mountain rivers flowing downstream in a hurry, trodden upon by merchants and craftsmen in a flurry of voices. But there was no mistaking the distance put between those people and the golden gate of the Jin clan’s household. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng were arrested at the foot of hundreds of stairsteps leading to the great halls. They were asked to dismount their horses by a pair of qianyuan women clad in golden robes.
“Damn Jin Guangshan,” Jiang Cheng muttered as they started their ascension.
Over their heads, a few cultivators rode in on swords. None of them were asked to tire themselves by climbing the magnificent stairs. This was a statement, Wei Wuxian thought darkly. A sign of unwelcome laid in all the underhanded ways that the Jin sect leader prized.
It did not give him incentive to reply to Jiang Cheng’s words, however.
Jiang Cheng perhaps felt that this was due to resentment, though it was not entirely. He remained silent as they walked up the stairs side by side, one hand grasping Sandu’s scabbard in irritation, the other balled by his hip into a fist. Wei Wuxian did not touch Suibian which hung at his own waist.
The hole within him pulsed with every tiring step. He felt not sleepy with it, although for a few nights now, dread had kept him awake, whispering dark omens of the discussion conference to be held that very evening. Ever-present nausea crawled just shy of his throat instead, as it had been wont to for months now.
He stopped when they reached a small promontory about two-thirds of the way up. From here, the city was far enough below them that more of the land around could be glimpsed; and it was the sight of a familiar red flag at the foot of the mountain that halted his steps.
It seemed to be speared into the ground in the middle of a small encampment. Ant-sized people scurried there from one end of a wide enclosure to the other, surrounded by guards on horseback.
Prisoners of war.
“Wei Wuxian,” came Jiang Cheng’s hesitant voice.
Wei Wuxian looked up.
Jiang Cheng had gone a few steps above and beyond before realizing that Wei Wuxian was no longer following him. He called him now subduedly, as had become his habit since Zhu Yuansu had left the Lotus Pier. He had barely spoken to Wei Wuxian since then, and looked full of awkwardness every time, even when he had shared with him Jin Guangshan’s invitation, which requested Wei Wuxian’s presence rather than his alone.
Wei Wuxian still had not made up his mind about whether this was a bad or terrible thing. He could hardly think that Jin Guangshan, who had ignored his existence whenever he visited the Pier, would want for his company now in order to be friendly.
“I’m coming,” Wei Wuxian replied at last.
It was only a few words, and devoid of much meaning, but Jiang Cheng’s brow smoothed over immediately.
At the entrance of the sunlit hall where the conference would take place, they were greeted by a servant boy who told them all the usual pleasantries—that they would be shown to their rooms soon, that his sect leader would welcome them in a few minutes, that refreshments would be served to them. His deference showed no sign of the rancor which Jin Guangshan must feel for them now. Before he could take them away, however, a man opened the doors to the dining hall from within.
More than the red mark drawn between both of his eyes, the air of arrogant boredom he exuded showed him to be part of the Jin clan.
Wei Wuxian would have only glimpsed at him for a second before looking away, but the man stopped short at the sight of him and Jiang Cheng, a scandalized expression tightening the inelegant lines of his face.
“You,” he said in obvious fury.
Wei Wuxian realized a tad lately that it was him the man was addressing.
“Yes?” he replied, skipping ceremony altogether.
Perhaps he would have bothered with it if the man’s weakly qianyuan-scent had not reached him then and made him want to sneer. As it was, the thought of dealing with yet another crisis of status from a stranger annoyed him to no end, and he would rather hasten it so he could reach his guest room and be alone at last.
But the man seemed to know him; he called, “Wei Wuxian,” in such deep and embarrassed anger, that Wei Wuxian had no doubt they had met before.
“Is there a problem?” Jiang Cheng asked loudly, having noticed that Wei Wuxian was straggling behind him again.
The face that the man pulled at the sight of someone of higher status than himself was almost comical. Yet it was not enough to cow him, for he barely nodded in Jiang Cheng’s direction before spitting to Wei Wuxian, “How dare you come here.”
“I was invited,” Wei Wuxian replied evenly. “Do I know you?”
He was so tired of it all. At least in Yunmeng, even those who cringed away from him had learned not to make a fuss.
The man spluttered and reddened, and it seemed that his whole face swelled under the strength of whatever grudge he held. “Do you ‘know’ me?” he parroted, seething. “How dare you!”
His hand came to the handle of his golden sword as if he meant to unsheathe it and ask for a duel there and then; but another voice joined him from within the dining hall, calling, “Jin Zixun!”
Jin Zixuan emerged from behind the door, his own forehead wrinkled with annoyance as he looked between Wei Wuxian and his clansman.
Wei Wuxian was not looking at him, however.
It was coming back to him, now: that oddly-delicate sword in the man’s grasp, that name which Wei Wuxian had already heard Jin Zixuan call in such a voice, years ago. The sight of a rude qianyuan seated by the dais in the Lotus Pier’s welcoming hall, exchanging pleasantries with Madam Yu, bargaining for ownership of Wei Wuxian light-heartedly.
Bile spread over his tongue so bitterly that for a single second, he feared his own anger would make him retch again.
“I remember now,” he said out loud.
The two men before him turned to him at once.
“Jin Zixun,” Wei Wuxian muttered without an ounce of respect within his words or voice. “You’re not any less unsightly now than when I last saw you.”
Jin Zixun’s thick face reddened in outrage.
“Wei Wuxian!” he cried, and this time he did unsheathe part of his sword.
“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng answered angrily.
Wei Wuxian had no doubt that those words were half-directed to him, although Jiang Cheng was only looking at Jin Zixun.
Surprisingly, it was Jin Zixuan who broke the fight-to-be.
He grabbed onto his cousin’s arm tightly, forcing the half of the sword back into its sheath with the strength of one shoulder alone. “Wei Wuxian is a guest here, Zixun,” he said in a tight voice. “My father asked for his presence.”
“Oh, your father did,” Jin Zixuan replied mockingly. With his face as shamed and furious as it was, the effect was lost to all. Still, he shook his arm out of Jin Zixuan’s hold and said, sneering, “Yes, I’m sure Uncle was the one who asked for this kunze to be here.”
“Enough,” Jin Zixuan cut in harshly.
His own face had flushed with blood.
Jin Zixun seemed to have some modicum of manners left to him. He huffed like a bothered horse and turned his back to them all, leaving the way he had come with not a word of salute to Jiang Cheng, who watched all of this in confusion.
“What did you do to that man?” Jiang Cheng asked Wei Wuxian.
Neither he nor Jiang Yanli had ever told Jiang Cheng of what Madam Yu had once tried to do while he and Jiang Fengmian were away on a hunt. Wei Wuxian felt very little like disclosing it now; Jiang Cheng never liked to speak of such things about him, and anyway Wei Wuxian was too mortified still by the ordeal to wish to dig up the memory.
Jin Zixuan cleared his throat. He nodded shakily to them, his face still red, his sword hand moving oddly before him, as if he did not know what to do with it. “Sect leader Jiang,” he greeted. “I apologize on behalf of my cousin. He is rather ruder than the rest.”
His eyes met Wei Wuxian’s when he said this, something like a smile lifting his lips at the corners, though it quickly vanished.
“Is your sister well?” he asked Jiang Cheng rather brusquely.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng replied, surprised. “She has remained in Yunmeng to oversee reparations while we are here.”
“I hear the Lotus Pier is well on its way to regaining all of its former glory. I would like to visit in the future and reassure my father of our greatest ally’s health.”
“Yes, of course…”
Wei Wuxian lost interest in the conversation when it veered toward matters of war again. He looked over the spotless white-and-gold of the hallway they stood in: the unstained and gleaming floor below their feet, the aching neatness which hung even from the leaves of carefully-tended potted plants. He longed for home.
Wen Yueying had been so distraught upon learning that he would be gone for a few days. Wen Yiqian and Wen Linfeng were less effusive than she was with their emotions, but he had still understood their fear at being left alone, even with Jiang Yanli there to keep them company.
No matter how much he tried to reason with himself, Wei Wuxian could not parry away the fear that one of them would be gone when he returned.
“Let me take you to your rooms,” Jin Zixuan was saying now, showing with one arm the length of corridor extending to their left in the direction of guest quarters.
The servant boy who had waited to do just that since they arrived looked almost angry at his words.
“I’ll take a walk,” Wei Wuxian declared.
Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan both looked at him in surprise.
“You must be tired,” Jin Zixuan said, his face pinched oddly. “You have all of the next three days to visit if you want, you should rest now.”
“I’m not,” Wei Wuxian retorted, though he was.
Exhausted and hollow and sleepless, and feeling all the while as though something simmered beneath his skin that he could not give a name to, pulling it inside-out, swelling like sickness through him.
He felt like vomiting again. “Your father never graced me with an invitation before today,” he told Jin Zixuan, who must truly feel off, for his face once more twisted weirdly. “I would like to visit the city.”
“Of course, but…”
Jin Zixuan looked helplessly from Jiang Cheng to Wei Wuxian and back, waiting perhaps for Jiang Cheng to deny Wei Wuxian, as so many people did whenever Wei Wuxian expressed something not dictated by the people of higher status who stood by him.
He was out of luck, however. Jiang Cheng had been avoidant of Wei Wuxian since the incident with Zhu Yuansu, and surely would not insist on being in his presence now if he could avoid it. Indeed, Jiang Cheng only nodded once and quickly before walking away.
Wei Wuxian turned his back to them both and walked once more down the endless stairs.
He stopped only when he reached the same little stone bluff he had paused by while they were ascending. Here the air came more clearly to his lungs, soothing his nausea and clearing his thoughts until he felt something like himself again. The prisoner camp at the foot of the mountain was still as visible as before, the red Qishanwen flag planted in its middle still just as stark against the sloped grey land.
Wei Wuxian looked away from it and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. He near-jumped when light footsteps echoed behind him, followed by the glide of metal on leather and wood—a sword unsheathed—
But his next intake of air filled him with familiar sandalwood, and it was only Lan Wangji he found when he turned on his own feet, Chenqing held in one hand.
Lan Wangji’s movements paused when their eyes met. He must have come flying and touched ground a few yards behind Wei Wuxian, for he was in the middle of sheathing Bichen. He held still until Wei Wuxian breathed out and took his hand off of his dizi.
Bichen’s pommel knocked against the edge of its scabbard softly, the blade entirely settled now.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian greeted once it was out of sight. “I didn’t see you, my apologies.”
“No need to apologize,” Lan Wangji replied in his usual even voice.
It had been less than a month and a half since Wei Wuxian had last seen him. He should not be surprised that Lan Wangji looked the same as before: troublingly beautiful, unwasteful of so much as movement or air, ethereal again now that he was not covered in the sweat and dust of months of war.
He remembered once comparing him to the great beauties of ages past, to Lan An or Wen Mao, as they both stood above the stairs of the Nightless City. The comparison felt apt again with the white light of coming fall painted thusly over him.
Wei Wuxian felt himself smile as he had not in a long time. Lan Wangji’s pale eyes caught onto light wetly; for a still and breathless second, he looked more like a statue than a man, before he blinked and looked away.
“It’s good to see you. Did you come with your brother?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji said softly.
As if called by the mention of him alone, Lan Xichen appeared down the harsh slope of the stairs, walking up slowly in company of a familiar man in golden robes. The both of them stopped a few steps below the bluff where Wei Wuxian stood. They bowed to him, one at the shoulders, the other at the neck.
Meng Yao, Wei Wuxian remembered, eyeing the man in gold.
The spy who had infiltrated Wen Ruohan’s ranks and offered the man’s head on a platter to Nie Mingjue.
Lan Xichen was the one to speak first as he rose. “I was wondering where Wangji had gone,” he said, looking at his brother fondly. “He must have seen you from below, young master Wei.”
“Lan Zhan has a keener eye than me,” Wei Wuxian replied, “I hadn’t seen any of you at all.”
His words were perhaps a bit rude, but none of the three men seemed to mind. Nor did they point out his lack of manners for not bowing back to them.
Wei Wuxian was unsure of what his own reaction would be if they did.
“My apologies for not greeting you and sect leader Jiang when you arrived, young master Wei,” said Meng Yao. “I’m afraid my help was needed elsewhere, and then I wished to wait for er-ge and Wangji to arrive.”
He said nothing of the fact that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng were asked to climb the mountain by foot. Perhaps he did not know, Wei Wuxian thought blithely. He had heard that Meng Yao was an illegitimate child of Jin Guangshan’s; he must not be privy to the man’s moods and decisions like his half-brother Jin Zixuan was.
“Jiang Cheng was greeted by your brother,” Wei Wuxian replied at last. “So no harm done, Meng Yao.”
His use of the man’s bare name was a test of sorts, but Meng Yao showed no offense. He simply nodded to him and gave him another of those weak and pitiful smiles he seemed so fond of.
Lan Xichen was the one who spoke next. “If I may, young master Wei,” he said subduedly. Wei Wuxian tensed before he could even finish. “You look… rather tired. Are you in good health?”
His eyes swept between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji quickly.
“Have the servants not shown you to your quarters?” Meng Yao asked worriedly. “Then allow me—”
“They have,” Wei Wuxian interrupted. Suddenly, all the ease he had felt in Lan Wangji’s presence was gone. He turned away from them all and left the flat expanse of stone he had stood on a second ago, saying, “I wanted to take a walk, that’s all. Excuse me.”
Although only soft and polite parting words reached him, Wei Wuxian felt three pairs of eyes upon his nape until the long and winding stairs took a sharp turn around the curve of the mountain.
He had no wish to know what Lan Xichen or Lan Wangji thought of his appearance. His shijie had done quite enough aimless worrying over the past few weeks.
The city was no less bustling now than it had been when he first arrived. People walked and shouted across the maze-like streets; merchants seemed to have come from far and wide for the discussion conference, knowing how many wealthy cultivators would be here to play the part of unwitting clients. From the first fifty steps of the stairs and to the bottom of the town, calls came to him from smiling vendors, asking if he should like to taste this liquor or delicacy, to touch the soft fabric of this or that winter cloak and buy it for the winter. Wei Wuxian was not in enough of a daze that day not to feel awed at being treated with such civility.
A scent was all it took, then. If a hint of sweetness had still clung to him, none of these people would be smiling or speaking to him. If the smell of honey had still followed in his footsteps, not a kind look would be directed his way. It was almost enough to make him wish he still looked and felt to them all the part what he truly was. Their eager eyes turn hostile and give him incentive to curse each and every one of them.
If his scent had not gone away with the loss of his golden core, then perhaps the sickly feeling in his chest would not be there. Perhaps he would sleep at night rather than spend hours pushing memories away, and perhaps Zhu Yuansu would still live in the Lotus Pier.
So taken was Wei Wuxian with those thoughts that he did not see the person who stumbled against him approaching.
He had walked away from the broader streets and on to narrow alleyways. He would not have thought anything of the haggard woman who knocked into him as she walked, if the scent of persimmon had not reached him and made his entire body still.
“Sorry,” she said; and she stumbled on thin air, weak and helpless as he had never seen her before, until he reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder.
It was the wrong thing to do.
She cried out and struggled against him in violence, shaking, wild with the need to escape him. Her head nearly knocked into a wall of the alley. Wei Wuxian let go of her with his heart pushed so far up his throat that not even nausea could be felt anymore, and he called her name in anguish, “Wen Qing!”
Wen Qing froze, her very wide eyes meeting his at last.
Wei Wuxian could find nothing at all to say. He stared at her in shock, noticing the pallor of her skin, the dirt smeared over her face and clothes, the bruises purpling around her temple where something or someone must have struck her.
“Wei Ying,” she whispered in shock.
Wei Wuxian forced open his mouth. “Yes,” he said, “yes, it’s me.”
“Wei Wuxian,” she called again, and she was the one this time to grab onto him fiercely.
Her fingers were so thin, it felt as though skin had gone from her entirely, and those were bones digging into the meat of his forearm. Any layer of muscles or fat on her face had been carved away. Her cheeks were sunken in, her lips cracked and bloodless.
“What are you doing here?” Wei Wuxian asked. He held onto her hand, finding it as cold as ice, as dry as scorched earth. “What happened to you? Where is Wen Ning?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said again breathlessly.
She burst into sobs.
As if all strength had fled her, she fell to the ground, taking him with her. Wei Wuxian could only think to cushion the back of her head with one hand and prevent it from hitting the corner of a house fence, and then again she did not seem to notice. All she did was cling to him and cry, so unlike the cold and fearless woman he had asked to do the impossible. Wei Wuxian sat wordlessly onto the dirt path, allowing her to hold onto him painfully, not knowing how to comfort her.
“Please,” she begged, “please, you have to help me, you have to—”
She could hardly speak at all. Her own words died, cut out of existence by her halted breathing, by just how quickly air came and went out of her. He called her name again when her eyes rolled backward and she slumped against him. He laid her onto the ground, holding her hand tightly, wishing that anyone were here to tell him what to do.
“Wen Qing,” he called, shaking her shoulder. “Wen Qing, please, wake up.”
It took such a long time for her to do so. In that time, Wei Wuxian lifted her unconscious body and walked away from the entrance of the alley, far off to the back of it where fewer people risked seeing them. He found a patch of untouched grass there to lay her upon; he folded his outer robes underneath her head to make the pressure of the ground a little kinder. Even so, an eternity seemed to pass before she moved again. She breathed in harshly, coughing, unresisting when he pulled her to her side to free the way out of her lungs in case she started vomiting.
She did not, but her face was as pale as death. The hand he was holding grew damp and cold with sweat. Her eyes flickered weakly to his as she regained her bearings, and he was not surprised when she did not answer his smile with one of her own.
“Wei Wuxian,” she said in such a broken voice that the sound alone felt painful.
“I’m here,” he replied.
She looked so frail. Seeing her like this, after only knowing her in the shadow of the Lotus Pier, confronting him head-on, tearing the spirituality out of him with her bare hands, heedless of his screaming…
Wei Wuxian felt like something had knocked his heart sideways.
“A-Ning,” she told him. Tears once more shone in her eyes as she held tightly to his hand and tried to rise up. “You have to help him.”
“What happened to Wen Ning?” Wei Wuxian asked her, though dread was already digging in him a hole in the shape of her answer.
Since he had fallen to the Burial Mounds, he had believed her and her brother safe and far away from harm.
He had thought she would flee with her brother. He had believed that once her promise to him was fulfilled—once she had fooled Jiang Cheng into thinking she was the sage Baoshan Sanren and had rebuilt his core—she would go far away with Wen Ning and never set foot near the Wen clan again.
But he had seen the camp at the foot of the mountain; he had glimpsed, from high above, the shape of scurrying people followed around by Jin sect guards on horses.
He had smelled the unmasked scent on her body.
“What happened to him?” he asked again with his heart in his throat.
Wen Qing dug her nails into his hand and told him.
If asked about Wei Wuxian decades after the events that of that day took place, most of the cultivation world would recall the discussion conference of Lanling as the day the Yiling Patriarch, the thief kunze of the Burial Mounds, Jiang Cheng’s traitor of a sect-brother, lost his sanity.
Accounts would differ as to what exactly went down. For a few years after the fact, it would rather feel like the truth: that Wei Wuxian had come in drenched by the rain; that he had threatened Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixun; that he had left the calls of his sect leader unheeded, and that his eyes had glowed red with the awful energy he dispersed. That corpses had crawled over the widest hall of Golden Carp Tower and left behind trails of dirt, of rotten flesh, of powdered bones.
Some would even remember how Jin Zixun had reacted to his accusations: he had called him scorned and unfit for marriage, questioned his virtue and his acts of war, and mockingly told his sect leader that Wei Wuxian was proof of why kunze-kind should live away from the world. And that Wei Wuxian, upon hearing those words, had stepped onto the man’s throat until he grew purple with lack of air, and said coldly: “Tell me where you took him.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jin Guangshan had called in fury and outrage. He had risen from the dais where his table was set in the terrified silence, his dumbstruck son by his side, and declared, “You are a guest of my house, and you dare lay a hand on a member of my family?”
“I dare,” Wei Wuxian had answered.
Of all the esteemed guests lining the golden walls, none had known how to act. All had looked in fear upon the haunting silhouettes of dead bodies crawling in from the shadows.
Jiang Cheng of Yunmeng had risen as well; and perhaps for a while, for a few days or weeks, a fraction of those present would recall that he had begged his sect-brother to stand down.
None but one would remember, however, that Wei Wuxian had looked at him with apology in his eyes before he refused him.
“Sect leader Jin,” Wei Wuxian had said into the miasmic silence, as his puppets poisoned the air and as Jin Zixun choked and whimpered beneath his foot. “Why should I not dare to lay a hand on this man after what he did? Is loyalty only reserved for blood? Should I not avenge my own kind?
“Are all of you here above blame, then, for every person you presumed to call yours?”
Jin Zixun had grabbed at his leg and ankle and begged for his life, promising to tell Wei Wuxian what he wanted to know.
There would the recollections fall apart and start veering into fantasy, as many would say that Wei Wuxian called upon monsters and divine beasts, or that he had killed Jin Zixun in front of so many eyes, and Jin Guangshan, and Jin Zixuan, and then went on to rampage and pillage the Tower.
If asked about that day in Lanling, Wei Wuxian would say that he did not remember much.
He remembered Jiang Cheng telling him, “Stop it, let’s talk about this,” and refusing to abide.
He remembered declaring to the whole assembly, “I would rather take them all from you, whether they be your children or your siblings or your spouses, before I allow a single one of you to touch them again.”
And he remembered Wen Ning.
The place that Jin Zixun had given him the name to was a path snaked between the sides of two mountains. The rain that had started falling as Wen Qing told him everything beat down more harshly here than anywhere else, dribbling from the thickly-clouded sky and from the torrents and slopes of the two neighboring peaks. He and Wen Qing trod through mud up to the knee under the moonless night. They fell and cut open their hands on slick rocks. They searched for hours until their voices grew dim and painful, and the very name they were calling ceased to feel like a name at all.
And Wen Ning was laid upon a flat rock where the path dipped to the other flank of the mountain, a Qishanwen flag pierced through his belly, his clothes hastily put over his corpse in a parody of modesty.
“No!” Wen Qing screamed at the sight of him.
Her voice cracked and bled, and it sounded the same as if the sky had opened above them and struck the earth with lightning.
Wei Wuxian remained knee-deep into the mud. He watched her weep and sob and cradle Wen Ning’s body in her arms, rocking back and forth under the pouring rain as if she could will him back into a child. As if she could will the life back to him.
He would remember this forever.
“Wen Qing,” he called in misery.
It hurt too much to look at Wen Ning and to read upon his face the loneliness and terror he must have felt as he was left to die. Wei Wuxian looked at her instead, knowing that this would be another thing to haunt his sleepless night, that the sight of her, starved and ravaged with grief, would never leave his heart again.
“Loquats,” Wen Qing cried. Her fingers shook as she ran them through her brother’s drenched hair, as she petted his face as if to comfort him. She looked at Wei Wuxian and said, “When he was small, he smelled of loquats.”
Wei Wuxian remembered when he was the one begging her for the impossible. Promising to do the impossible and bring her brother back from the dead was only the right way to repay her.
The rain had rendered Chenqing slick and useless, but Wei Wuxian had no need for it. Not with Wen Qing so hollowed by loss that the spirit of her brother must be tied down to earth with her regret alone.
He let Wen Ning’s woken corpse loose onto the encampment of Wen prisoners at the root of the mountain. The starved and exhausted people there looked on in terror as Wen Ning killed each of the guards surrounding them, and most of them were old and weary. They did not protest at all when Wei Wuxian ordered them to mount the horses and follow him.
Jiang Cheng found them as they rode southward. He flew above and beyond them and touched ground before Wei Wuxian, surprising his horse into stopping and drawing back, frightening the men and women behind him who were so very scared that this was just another trap they were being led to.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng pleaded.
He was drenched too, his uniform gone black with wet, his sword glistening with rivulets of water.
“What are you doing?” he asked in despair. “Where are you going?”
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, the way he used to say his name to comfort him when they were both children.
Jiang Cheng’s face twisted with anger. “Why did you do this!?” he yelled. His unarmed hand pointed to the Wen sect prisoners, to Wen Qing on her horse who held her brother’s corpse against her. “What is wrong with you!? Don’t you realize what you’ve done, don’t you know how many grudges you’ve sown tonight?”
“Jiang Cheng, get out of my way.”
He was breathless after saying it, shocked by his own words. For a second, speechlessness struck him silent and pale; then his slippery hold on Sandu tightened, and he once more bared his teeth.
“I will not,” he repeated harshly. “Not until you come down from that horse and go home with me.”
“I’m not going home,” Wei Wuxian replied.
The reality of it had not solidified for him until he said it so plainly. It did so then, pulling heavily at his heart, unable for all of his regrets to make him change his mind.
He laughed. He felt like crying. “Jiang Cheng, you can’t understand,” he told his shidi. “You’ll never be able to understand. Please, just—let it go. Let me go.”
“I can,” Jiang Cheng said, looking as brave and foolish as he did on the day he had first asked Wei Wuxian for tips in archery or when their sparrs had ended in his victory for the first time. “I can understand if you just tell me.”
But this was no trick to split an arrow in two; this was no training to pull each other up from afterward, and no heartfelt reunion in the shape of awkward sideways touches.
“Say goodbye to the kids for me, please,” Wei Wuxian told him.
He kicked into his horse’s side to hurry it forward, calling for the others to follow, ignoring the cry of his name that split the sky behind them as surely as wind and rain did.
The Wen sect remnants followed him through the hills of the Burial Mounds with fear haunting their every step. They huddled close together, qianyuan and zhongyong scents gone sour with fright, all of them old enough to have seen another generation grow and take power.
None of them knew what they were doing here; only that Wen Qing had taken the lead from them and told them that they were now safe. So the twenty-odd people walked along the dead land, scared of the crows perched on tombstones over the way, wary of the scentless man in black who was guiding them forth.
Wei Wuxian took them to the cave he had inhabited after his fall. They creeped together for warmth once he built a fire, and the twenty of them found sleep at some point or another.
Wen Qing was the only one he showed to the deep end of the cave, where a bloodpool had grown out of all the spirits haunting the hills.
“How can we even breathe here?” she asked as he set Wen Ning’s body down by another fire.
Wei Wuxian had no talisman paper on him that was not turned to wet paste by the rain, but the ground was smooth enough. He cut his thumb with Suibian’s edge, bowing when the strength of the sword’s spirit pulled at his coreless body, and drew an array twice as big as himself on the floor. Thrice more did he have to reopen the cut in order to finish the design; by the time he was done, he was panting with effort.
“Wei Wuxian, we can’t stay here,” Wen Qing told him again.
“I’ll keep the spirits at bay,” he replied to her. A stitch ached sharply in his side. “Come, help me put him there.”
Wen Qing was still weak and shaking, but she obeyed. She held her brother’s feet while he carried him by the shoulders and head, and together they placed him as exactly as they could within the blood circle.
Wei Wuxian fell over when they were done. Wen Qing hurried to his side, ignoring his protests as she opened his collar and checked the center of his neck and chest with her fingers.
“The energy in your body is all over the place,” she told him after a few seconds of silence. Her fingers left his skin and came to rest on his shoulder, trembling badly.
“You knew that,” Wei Wuxian replied weakly. “You know why.”
“I can barely even feel your pulse, Wei Wuxian, every vein in you is so thick with resentful energy. You’ve lost too much weight as well.”
“You should tell me about losing weight, Wen Qing.”
“I didn’t have a choice in the matter,” she snapped at him.
It silenced any answer he could have given her.
Wind blew in from the far-off entrance of the cave, making the firelight shiver and the shadows creep over Wen Ning’s still body. Wen Qing left Wei Wuxian’s side to kneel by her brother’s. She fixed the bloody clothing on him so that it aligned once more neatly on his shoulders and arms.
Wei Wuxian looked away when her breathing hitched painfully; when her hands seized Wen Ning’s cold ones and she once more shook with sobs.
“I said I’d bring him back,” he told her after she quieted.
The way the light trembled told him that she must have nodded. It wasn’t a minute later that she rose again to her feet, her face free of tear tracks, looking almost like the woman who had once yelled at him for kneeling.
Wei Wuxian rose shakily. All the strength in his body had left after the horse ride and the trek up the hills, and using Suibian for the first time without a golden core for the sword to latch on to had been a ravaging experience. He was not surprised to feel light-headed and see black spots before him, or to have to stumble to the edge of the poisoned pool in order to retch there.
He was surprised, however, to feel Wen Qing follow him and put a hand over his forehead. For a terrible second, he hoped that she would cry and hold him as Jiang Yanli did.
“You’re feverish,” she told him.
Her touch left him before he could indulge in such childish, selfish needs. He rose again and leaned against the wall, and hoped that none of his heartache showed on his face. “I’ve been sick for a while,” he replied haltedly. “Ever since you operated on me.”
Even breathing exhausted him. He had to take in air slowly and carefully after speaking so that his head felt a little less dizzy.
“How sick?” Wen Qing asked with a frown.
“Not much. It’s only my body getting used to the loss of the core. I’ve had trouble eating without feeling nauseous.”
She did not look as certain as he was, but Wei Wuxian had no desire to explain to her how little he cared about his own body, in the face of everything.
They sat next to each other in the light of the fire, watching the array around Wen Ning’s body, as Wei Wuxian told her of how he hoped to bring the young man’s spirit back. I can’t give him a life back, he told her. It will not be the same.
He did not tell her of how little faith he had in his own success; Wen Qing must be able to read it on him, and either way, all she seemed to care about was the possibility of her brother opening his eyes and looking at her with his own spirit back to him. A pulsating heart meant little next to that.
“What will you do now?” she asked him in the small hours of morning.
Rustling noises had started coming to them from the entrance of the cave, where the twenty prisoners of Lanling had started waking up. Daylight shimmered at the curve of the tunnel, reflected onto walls by the bloodpool at the far back.
“Wei Wuxian,” she called. “What will you do? You’ve made many enemies last night. Jin Guangshan will not be happy with you, even if you let that wretched man live.”
He had let Jin Zixun live because Wen Qing had asked him to. She had told him that if he killed an heir to Jin Guangshan in full view of the man and his allies, they would all be murdered before they could leave the city.
It did not change how deeply he wanted to have crushed Jin Zixun’s throat under his foot until the man stopped squirming.
“I’ll do as I told them I would,” he said.
He stood up. He walked to the front of the tunnel, where the place opened into a wider cave and he had let the prisoners rest together. They looked at him in exhaustion and weakness, all of them pale with lack of food and shaking over the ground. Many bore bruises, like Wen Qing did. Some more had blood seeping through their clothing; Wen Qing let out an affronted noise at the sight.
Outside, Yiling’s Burial Mounds shone out of a different light than the one he had known when he had been forced to live here. With Chenqing as an anchor to keep the vile haunts and creatures at bay, sunlight did pierce through the cover of clouds and fall upon the dry earth. The ragged and naked trees bordering every path cast long and twisted shadows, and the cold stream where Wei Wuxian had once quenched his thirst now sparkled with freshwater.
He could live here, he realized.
All of them could live here.
“I’ll take them,” Wei Wuxian said. “Their kunze. I told them I would, and that’s what I’ll do.”
Wen Qing grabbed his sleeve weakly. “It won’t be that simple,” she replied. “Most of them… They won’t take your offer as kindness, Wei Wuxian. You don’t know what it’s like for those of us who have never set foot outside.”
“I do know.”
Zhu Yuansu’s face was still burned into his eyes. His voice still rang through him ceaselessly.
“But those who want to come, those who want to escape,” he said, “I’ll take them. Even if I have to fend off a thousand angry spouses. If even one of them wants to be free, then that’s enough for me.”
If there was another Wen Yueying out there whose fate he could change, then his life would not have been worthless.
Meng Yao’s quarters in the Golden Carp Tower were nowhere as grandiose as the rest of the palace, but there was a sophistication to them that Lan Xichen greatly enjoyed. Whenever he visited, Meng Yao would have some new book of spells or ancient songs to show him or ask him about. He would be shown to the room at the back where Meng Yao collected paintings of great beauty and elegance. He would be made to taste teas imported from far and wide as they sat on either end of the centerpiece table and discussed clan affairs.
Always, A-Yao’s comforting scent basked the space around him with such homeliness that Lan Xichen felt just as comfortable as he did in the hanshi. Candles and incense meshed well with this woodsiness, and often, he thought of the rainy days in Gusu; of the pale light of morning above the damp grassy paths, and the smell of petrichor he had loved since he was a child.
By his side, Wangji sat still and silent, his whole body thrumming with unease.
This was the lone reason Xichen did not feel so content, even when Meng Yao handed him his gift of the day: a stack of talismans as old as the Jin sect itself whose ink had blurred and weeped in places.
Meng Yao was always rather good at picking up on Xichen’s quiet brother’s moods. “Wangji,” he called kindly, “would you like for me to close the window? The day has been quite cold.”
Wangji shook his head and took his tea in hand, though he did not drink it.
Meng Yao closed the window anyway. Each time Lan Xichen saw him, he seemed to wear finer clothes than the previous, as his standing with Jin Guangshan seemed to rise. Xichen regretted that Meng Yao would never be recognized as the man’s child, but at least his sworn brother seemed to live comfortably and happily.
“I asked the two of you to come here because sect leader Jin will not be long in asking you again for permission to install watchtowers at Gusu’s border,” he said once he was seated again. “I know your uncle was firm in his refusal the last time, but I was wondering if he may have changed his mind.”
It was as Lan Xichen had expected.
Meng Yao must want for more than a simple opinion, if he had asked for Wangji to come rather than simply Xichen. Although the both of them had shared the duties of sect leader since their father’s death, as their uncle thought Wangji to still be too young to inherit the position in full, Xichen held, in truth, very little power.
He traveled between the sects to deliver messages and gifts. He received envoys in Wangji’s place when his brother was busy. But any decisive power he held had to run first through his uncle, then through his brother; and then, Wangji was the one whose word the other sect leaders asked for in order to conclude dealings of any kind.
Seeing as Wangji seemed in no state to speak now, Xichen spoke in his stead. He already knew the answer to this question. “Our uncle still disagrees with your father’s plans,” he said. “I fear the memory of Wen Xu’s attack is still heavy on his mind. He is loath to give so much control to any one sect and risk another Sunshot Campaign.”
“This is what I said as well,” Meng Yao replied, sorrowful.
He went on to explain to them why his father thought those watchtowers of his to be so essential—for the general peace and protection of people, and because they would allow for any sect to be warned of dangerous spiritual activity even in the most remote of places. But his tone was clipped and hurried, and Lan Xichen could tell that those were Jin Guangshan’s words and not Meng Yao’s.
Still, he entertained them. He discussed the pros and cons. He kept himself from agreeing to anything, smiling when ought to and nodding seriously when the discussion called for it. He kept an eye on Wangji all the while, worried for how wordless he had been since they both arrived at the foot of the tower.
Although perhaps the reason for his silence was not so difficult to guess. Lan Xichen had come and gone many times between Lanling and Gusu in the past three and a half months, and still he could not look upon the entrance hall of the Tower without remembering Wei Wuxian’s terrible anger.
As luck or lack thereof would have it, they crossed paths with Jin Zixun while leaving Meng Yao’s quarters.
“Ah, Zixun,” Meng Yao said agreeably. “What brings you here?”
Jin Zixun froze at the sight of them. His face paled; his fingers clutched the front of his winter cloak until it closed tightly over his neck, almost as if to choke himself.
Considering the accusations leveled against him by Wei Wuxian, it was not a very good look.
Xichen bowed to him in greeting nonetheless. Wangji did not. When Xichen looked at his brother, he found him staring at Jin Zixun with such thinly-veiled disgust that all around would have been able to read it off of him for once.
Obviously, Jin Zixun was not yet this clever. “Meng Yao,” he muttered, heedless of Wangji’s burning hatred. “I need a word.”
“Of course,” Meng Yao replied. “Let me just see my guests out—”
“Now, you bastard.”
If possible, the cold thickened around them all.
Meng Yao never showed so much as a hint of offense, however. He bowed his head with a smile, saying, “Very well. Er-ge, Wangji, I’m afraid I have to leave the both of you now.”
“I look forward to seeing you again soon, A-Yao,” Xichen replied, bowing in kind. “Take care.”
Wangji did nod at Meng Yao, albeit very curtly. Jin Zixun spared him one furious glare before stomping loudly away, apparently expecting his cousin to follow in his steps unquestioningly.
Their walk out of the Tower was uneventful, after that. Wangji said nothing at all until they were far from the city and flying through icy winds; he shivered, however, which prompted Xichen to offer that they make a stop on their way back home and spend the night in Yiling.
Wangji seemed a little shocked at his words. Lan Xichen only understood why once they set foot onto the ground again and his eyes landed upon the cart of a vendor in the street, which bore many ugly paintings of a man.
The Yiling Patriarch, each of the pictures read.
Of course. Yiling was where Wei Wuxian had elected to live after running away from his sect.
The portraits looked nothing like Wei Wuxian at all. They showed many variations of the same disgusting design, a man with balding hair and pustules over his face, his eyes leaking with greed and perversity.
Lan Xichen had never known Wei Wuxian to be less than handsome, even after the war when he had looked so ill. He wondered where this idea of the man’s visage had come from.
The merchant who sold the drawings was in the middle of telling tales of the Yiling Patriarch to a ground of children; he seemed to be under the impression that Wei Wuxian was of a different status as well.
“He builds himself a court of stolen kunze; they say his palace runs with them, that he comes and steals them from under their spouses’ noses so he can marry them all instead…”
“Ridiculous,” Wangji spat through clenched teeth.
He left, turning his back to the spectacle entirely. Lan Xichen followed behind him a little more measuredly, but then Wangji was speaking up again, saying, “I’ll go back to the Cloud Recesses now.”
He wished to be alone, that was evident. Lan Xichen could easily have accompanied him—after all, Gusu was not so far, and even as tired as he was, he could have made the trip before the sun rose. Yet he could only reply: “Very well. I feel tired, I shall rest here for the night, but I’ll see you and Uncle tomorrow, Wangji.”
Wangji nodded awkwardly. He stepped onto Bichen once more and took flight. The white glare of the blade vanished near-instantly into the thick grey clouds, and the sandalwoodscent of him lingered only long enough for Xichen to breathe in and out once.
It was not difficult to guess why his brother would have wanted to flee such a place.
For the past three and a half months, such rumors had crawled over all the cultivation sects like a disease: Wei Wuxian is fomenting evil plots of overtaking the sects. Wei Wuxian has holed himself within the legendary Burial Mounds of Yiling. Wei Wuxian is roaming the lands and breaking open kunze houses, stealing their inhabitants unscrupulously, taking away from the riches of many clans and villages.
Lan Xichen had no idea what to make of it all. The only thing he knew for sure was just how upset Wangji had been after the discussion conference; how sick he had looked with anger and grief, when after Wei Wuxian had left and taken a camp of Wen sect prisoners with him, Jin Zixun had called upon all present to ‘put an end to this ill-bred kunze’.
Xichen had felt no sympathy for Jin Zixun then, even with the purpling bruises at his throat. Though he knew not if Wei Wuxian had told the truth when he accused Jin Zixun of kidnapping and defiling a kunze, there was no mistaking Wei Wuxian’s own hatred for a deception. Wei Wuxian whole-heartedly believed in what he was saying at the time.
The village Xichen was in was small, spread only over two streets and a handful of faraway houses. Winter this year had been a cold and unforgiving affair, and even so near the end of it, all those who walked outside were wound in all manners of cloaks and hats. They advanced through the frozen air, hunched forward in the hope of warding it off.
No doubt this was the reason Lan Xichen took no notice of yet another hunched figure by a dark wall—at least until he walked by it and a familiar voice called, “Lan Zhan?”
He stilled. He turned to the man who had just called his brother’s name. He thought faintly that it must be a play of words on the cold wind, or that his thoughts had been plagued by Wei Wuxian enough to make him mistake another voice for his.
But it was Wei Wuxian. Pale and sickly and with bruises under his eyes twice the size of those he sported the last time they met, but it was him, leaning against the wall of a house, clutching a bag full of vegetables to his middle.
Wei Wuxian seemed only to recognize him after Xichen regained enough of a mind to speak. “Zewu-Jun,” he said, straightening his back.
His eyes seemed unfocused. They blinked once, twice, until they finally met Xichen’s more steadily.
“Young master Wei,” Lan Xichen greeted belatedly.
An odd smile twisted Wei Wuxian’s mouth. “Are you here to kill me, then?” he asked in such a light voice that at first, Xichen did not understand his words at all.
Before he could even think of answering him, Wei Wuxian changed the topic completely. “I thought I’d seen Lan Zhan pass by a little while ago,” he said. “I suppose the two of you look very similar from afar.”
“My brother was here only a few minutes ago, but he’s gone ahead to Gusu,” Lan Xichen replied. And then: “Young master Wei, what happened to you?” he asked, unable not to let worry slip in-between his words.
It was even clearer, now that Wei Wuxian was no longer hunched in on himself—he looked ill. Not simply sick and too-thin as he had in Lanling or at the end of the war, but ill, with fever-sweat running down his temples and tremors shaking through the bag he kept held against himself tightly. He hardly seemed to even notice those tremors; he hardly seemed to notice Xichen at all, what with the way his eyes opened and closed and looked around blearily.
His breathing was shallow. His skin was pale, gleaming with transpiration, and he looked to be hanging to the wall behind his back with his nails to keep himself upright.
“Are you here to kill me?” Wei Wuxian asked again.
His tone was so odd, so shaky and feeble, that Xichen could not help but shiver. “No,” he replied in shock. “No, I—I was only passing by. I had no idea that you were here.”
“Haven’t you heard,” Wei Wuxian said. “All of Yiling is mine, now.”
He sounded like he was in excruciating pain.
There was no injury that Xichen could see on him, not even so much as a scrape, nothing at all but how deathly ill he looked. But Wei Wuxian’s voice kept resounding with the same quality that those in agony exuded. His arm squeezed the bag he was holding so tightly that Lan Xichen knew, without needing to ask, that it was taking all of his strength not to cry out. The hand beside his thigh that he kept plastered against the stone wall was now scraped and bleeding.
Xichen stepped closer. “Young master Wei,” he murmured insistently, “is anyone here with you?”
“Why should I tell you, Lan Xichen,” Wei Wuxian let out.
It gave Xichen pause for a moment. Wei Wuxian had never addressed him so rudely before, not even once. He had been nothing but polite even during his studies in Gusu, when Xichen had known his uncle to be targeting him in class and done nothing to stop him. It was only too easy to notice, however, just how Wei Wuxian was cringing by the wall again—just how quick and whistling his breathing was.
For some reason, he did not want Xichen to be helping him with whatever was wrong with him. He wanted to make him leave.
Xichen sighed. “I will leave as soon as I can ascertain that you are not about to die, young master Wei,” he told him. “It’s quite obvious that you’re unwell.”
Wei Wuxian said nothing.
“I only wish to know if you have someone with you to help. Is there a doctor in this town, someone who could—”
Before he could finish, Wei Wuxian’s legs gave out.
“Young master Wei!” Lan Xichen called, crouching by him in the muddy snow.
It seemed he had simply slid with his back against the wet wall rather than fallen outright; but even so, a grunt of unmistakable pain escaped him and made Xichen’s heart shake with worry. He put a hand just shy of touching Wei Wuxian’s nose in order to feel him breathe. He called him again and again, going so far as to touch his shoulder and shake it slightly in spite of his own shame and as to call his name in full: “Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, can you hear me?”
But there was no answer. Wei Wuxian sloped against the wall and looked like a corpse, and then Lan Xichen looked down and saw that blood was now staining the snow that he was slumped over. A coppery taste spread over Lan Xichen’s tongue. Something was tightening in his chest, almost causing his own hands to shake.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, pushing the words out in spite of everything.
He was thinking both of Wei Wuxian’s status and of his own upbringing.
You must never touch them.
He picked the unconscious Wei Wuxian up by his back and the crook of his knees. Even if worry and fear were not eating him alive, distracting him, he would have found the man terribly light, and lighter still when the bag he had held against him all this time fell abandoned by his feet. His chest was heaving, his teeth knocking together. There was more blood dripping down his legs and sliding down Xichen’s arm warmly.
Wei Wuxian regained consciousness as Lan Xichen was carrying him around the village, out of view of the people who braved the winter wind to go about their daily activities. He shook with a terrible tremor, and then tensed so tightly that Xichen’s hold on him nearly slipped.
“What,” he slurred. “Who…”
He seemed to recall their meeting, then; or perhaps he simply saw Xichen’s face above him, and the sight was enough to make him push against him in a rage. He fell roughly onto the muddy snow, and a shout of pain escaped his mouth.
Lan Xichen thought he must have said something, too lowly and furious for him to decipher, but then Wei Wuxian was on his knees and retching painfully. One of his hands fisted into the cloth level with his belly. Each of the breaths he draw came with another agonized moan.
When Xichen crouched by his side once more, Wei Wuxian kicked him away.
“Get away from me,” he said, crazed-looking, saliva dripping from his open lips above the spot of snow he had tainted with clear bile.
Lan Xichen could hardly care that his uniform would be stained with water and mud, or that his chest was throbbing where Wei Wuxian’s boot had struck him. He could not look away from the sight of this pale-faced and terrified Wei Wuxian.
“Young master Wei,” he tried to say.
Wei Wuxian recoiled as if had been hit, his bare hands slipping against melted snow. “Get away from me!” he screamed.
“You’re sick, I can’t leave you here—”
“I would rather die,” Wei Wuxian spat, violent spasms shaking his whole body; “I would rather die than let another qianyuan touch me.”
I am not qianyuan, Lan Xichen thought in a mix of confusion and fright; but then he saw the terror writ so starkly over Wei Wuxian’s face, and he remembered the hatred which had suffused the wide hall of Golden Carp Tower months ago, when Wei Wuxian had come in wrought in shadows and called Jin Zixun a rapist.
Whoever Wei Wuxian was seeing now, whatever memory of his was cutting his body apart with fear, it was not Lan Xichen’s doing.
Xichen realized that his own air was coming in thinly. That an ache had developed below his throat like oncoming sobs. He breathed in shakily, slowly, and said, “Let me help you. Please.”
For a second, he thought Wei Wuxian may attack him again. His grey eyes were swallowed in black, unseeing. His frostbitten hands were pulled into fists by his sides, red and dried by the cold snow. He stared at Lan Xichen like a wild animal about to jump at his own predator in a last try for escape.
Then, he moaned again. His mouth opened laxly, his hands loosened, his back bowed unto itself. He slid sideways onto the snowy ground, curled in on himself like a child, and pain was the only thing anymore that could be read off of his face.
“Wen Qing,” he said. His eyes closed against another ache of his body, no doubt, before he found the strength to continue: “She came with me. She said she’d wait for me at the inn.”
“I’ll take you there,” Lan Xichen promised.
He had no idea how Wei Wuxian knew Wen Qing, the famous doctor of Qishan, but if she was here—if she was someone that Wei Wuxian felt safe enough to allow to examine him—then Xichen would not look a gift horse in the mouth. He approached the man slowly and carefully, making sure at all times to keep both of his hands far from the sword at his hip.
“Can you walk by yourself, young master Wei?” he asked once he was but a step or two away.
Wei Wuxian shook his head, eyes closed. His lips looked almost as pale as the snow he was laid upon.
This time, Lan Xichen did not apologize as he touched his arm. He slid it above his shoulders and rose slowly, pulling Wei Wuxian’s weight up with him. Despite how thin he was, he felt heavy now against Xichen’s side as they struggled through mud and snow in the direction of the village’s only inn. Wei Wuxian said nothing at all to him, though his body occasionally shook greatly. Lan Xichen saw the stains of blood left in their tracks, and as understanding started blooming in him, he tried not to let sickness incapacitate him, too.
There was a qianyuan woman waiting in the dining room of the establishment. She was wide-eyed and tall, the pepper-like scent of her a gentle warmth after the freezing cold outside, and when she saw the both of them enter, she dropped the tea she had been drinking. Her face whitened at the sight of Wei Wuxian all but hanging from Lan Xichen’s side.
Her chair creaked against the wooden floor when she rose. “Wei Ying,” she called, all but forgetting Xichen’s own existence as she rushed to their side.
She took Wei Wuxian from him with no ceremony. In spite of his earlier words about being touched by qianyuan, Wei Wuxian showed no reluctance to be assisted by her up the stairs and to the bedroom he must have bought for the night. He even went so far as to grab her by the wrist after she laid him upon the bed.
“Wen Qing,” he called weakly.
“What happened?” she asked. “Were you attacked?”
“He collapsed,” Lan Xichen told her.
She turned to him in faint surprise, having forgotten that he was here at all.
Lan Xichen told himself not to stare at the pathetic slump of Wei Wuxian’s body over the bed sheets. He told himself not to think of what he had realized as they walked. He looked at her instead. “I met him by chance outside,” he said. “He looked to be in pain. He’s been vomiting, and he’s… bleeding…”
He interrupted himself. The rest of the words would not come.
“Where?” Wen Qing asked him urgently. “Where was he bleeding?”
“I’m—I’m not certain.”
But he knew. He knew where that blood had come from.
Wen Qing must have seen something on his face, or perhaps she was simply that good of a physician, for she immediately started stripping Wei Wuxian down.
Lan Xichen turned away from them with blood rushing up his face hotly. It was not enough to mask the sound of struggle behind him, as Wei Wuxian held her back and said, “Don’t look,” with the voice of a man who knew exactly what was wrong with him.
There was a silence. There was a sob, coming out of a throat Lan Xichen had never believed could sob at all, shaking in the voice of a young man he had always thought to be admirably proud.
“Why didn’t you tell me,” Wen Qing moaned, shaking audibly. “Oh, Wei Ying, why on earth didn’t you tell me…”
Lan Xichen left the room.
He did not leave the inn, however; he did not even leave the hallway beyond the door. His legs bore his weight feebly, and he had only the strength to drag himself to a wooden chair sitting by an unlit candle before he was the one to collapse.
A few minutes later, Wen Qing came out of the room as well. She hurried past him and down the stairs, coming back up a moment later with two buckets full of steaming water and a pile of clean sheets, and Lan Xichen did not make the mistake of looking at her face or asking her any questions.
What voice could he have asked them with anyway? His throat felt swollen and clogged, and it was all he could do to breathe at all.
His right hand was covered in blood.
Wen Qing did not ask for his help in any way as she worked, and Lan Xichen did not offer it to her. He could not help in any way. He felt that night had fallen, though there were no windows in the corridor—only the candle which a tenant had lit when he had come upstairs earlier. Hours passed in the flickering light, beating deeply, loudly, along the blood in his neck. He could not have told whether any sound of pain came from the closed door of the room, for his ears felt as if someone had stuffed them with cloth.
The fog-like haze that he had been under broke as noise finally reached him. They were sharp and high-pitched cries, screeching out of newborn lungs, and Lan Xichen suddenly sucked in air, the way one did after breaking out from underwater—greedily, sobbingly—and bent over his own knees till his hands could press against his own forehead and temple. Until he felt the ribbon there twist and loosen under the strength of his grip.
He closed his eyes so tightly that his jaw ached, and still he could not stop seeing Wei Wuxian’s face oversnow; and the face of his brother came to him unbidden, that young face and those bright eyes years ago as Wangji watched Wei Wuxian fly over water in evident admiration. In charmed and flustered attraction. Grief seemed to tear through him like a blade.
Wen Qing found him like this when she exited the bedroom. The awful sound from within had ceased some while ago whilst Lan Xichen struggled, prostrate. She sat on the floor beside his chair with a thump. Her legs and hands became visible to him through the gap between his own thigh and elbow, and he saw that they were stained with blood, too.
Lan Xichen wondered if ever he would look at his own palms again and feel that they were clean.
“He would never believe me,” Wen Qing said, breaking apart the silence. “But for his sake, I am not above kneeling.”
“Do not,” Lan Xichen replied.
His own voice felt foreign to him.
“I will never speak of what I saw here today,” he went on after a shuddering breath. “Not to anyone.”
“He never wants to see you again.”
Xichen let his hands fall away from his face. He knew that his skin would be red where he had pressed onto it, trying and failing to push the knowledge of the past few hours so deeply within him that it would be forgot.
“Then he won’t see me,” he said. “And if he does, if it can’t be avoided, I will not speak to him.”
Wen Qing nodded her head slowly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I will not forget this, Zewu-Jun.”
The thought of being owed by her—by Wei Wuxian—for this made him feel sick again. He said nothing of it to her, not knowing how she would take it, but he knew he would never call upon that debt. Not even if his life depended on it.
He rose from the chair. His whole body felt weak and sore, as if he had trained with the sword for days rather than sat upon hardwood and waited for time to pass. Wen Qing did not stand to bid him goodbye, and he held her in no resentment for it, knowing how tired she must be.
Xichen tried to say, “I’ll pay for your stay—”
“No,” she interrupted, curt and heavy. “No, master Lan, I think you should just leave and forget about us.”
She rested her head against the wall at her back. The flickering candlelight dug shadows out of her skin, out of the dip of her neck, where somehow blood had also found a way to stain her. No, Xichen thought, letting his eyes linger lower: blood had stained her over the sleeves of her robes and all over her middle as well.
He stood in silence in the dark corridor, his heart pushing up his throat, his shoulders almost twitching under the invisible weight of secret.
Finally, when he could not stand it anymore, Lan Xichen asked: “Who did this to him?”
Wen Qing laughed.
Lan Xichen suffered in silence the sight of her shaking above the floorboards of the inn. The jumping of her chest and shoulders could have looked like sobs to anyone standing further away.
“Does it matter?” she asked him after she had caught her breath. “Does it matter who did it? It was all of them. Every single one of them.” With a brown-stained hand, she roughly rubbed away the tears streaming down her face. She said, “It’s all of you every time one of you does it, and when it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.”
She said, “This is the only true difference between us all.”