Warnings: parental abuse.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian came to maturity on a heavy summer day, submerged knee-deep into water, Jiang Yanli’s eyes following him as he lazed around his shidi.
He would not have noticed so soon if he were on his own. At the peak of lotus season the heat was always too damp, too heavy, clinging suffocatingly to skin and cloth every way he moved. Shipments came from all around in direction of Yunmeng, the men and women aboard calling their greetings in loud voices. The shallow waters where lotuses flowered were lukewarm, almost more uncomfortable than one’s own sweat. Wei Wuxian took no notice that he was feeling hot, because he always felt hot these days.
“I don’t believe you,” said his sixth shidi to him, grinning from ear to ear. He was always the one least hesitant to approach him and talk—a heavy boy with gentle manners and no heart for cultivation, which his parents unfortunately failed to understand. “I don’t believe you carried someone else on your sword.”
“Are you doubting your senior?” Wei Wuxian answered with a grin. “I told you, I grabbed him, just like that.”
“You can’t carry two people on a sword!”
“Sure you can. Lan Zhan carried the both of us too.”
Yunmeng was too familiar for Wei Wuxian to take much care of what he said and who he said it to. Though he felt the weight of his shijie’s worried eyes on him, though the boy next to him took his hands out of the water and gasped, Wei Wuxian only felt a distant sort of awkwardness.
“Anyway,” he said in the silence, “just wait till Jiang Cheng comes back, he’ll tell you I’m not lying.”
“When is he coming back?” his shidi asked, impropriety forgotten for now.
Wei Wuxian paused to wince. His back had been sore all day long, but it often happened whenever he ran too hard and for too long. Air came from his lungs as if from a furnace, but there was the hot sun over his back to contend with, the thick humidity floating over the riverbed where heat converged and stagnated.
“Are you all right?” another of his shidi asked.
Wei Wuxian smiled and waved a hand. “I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s hot today.”
His juniors agreed in concert, moaning here and there as they trampled the water. Too hot for training, they complained, why is Madam Yu so harsh?
Wei Wuxian walked more slowly. The thick haze he had struggled with all day had become thicker still. Suddenly the water and heat seemed agonizing instead of simply troublesome. He loosened the line of his collar and wished to be alone, to walk deeper into the river, where the water was cool and the current stronger, to divest himself of all clothing.
He wiped sweat from his brow. His steps became sluggish. The very act of closing his fists felt disagreeable, for his hands and fingers were warm and stiff and painful. Breathing in was like inhaling smoke.
“A-Xian?” Jiang Yanli said when she saw him approach the pier where she sat. She put down the embroidery she was working on—a Yunmengjiang cloak threaded with enchantments for Yu Ziyuan’s coming birthday—and rose to her feet. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian said. “Can I sit down for a while, shijie?”
“Yes, of course.”
He sat down. He tried to talk to her of unimportant things, to take her mind off of her broken engagement as he had tried to do since coming back from Gusu weeks ago. Not one word he said to her could distract him from how cloying air had become.
“Da shixiong!” his sixth shidi called, approaching quickly, his grinning face marred with mud from one scuffle or another. “Should we go hunting now?”
Wei Wuxian took in a shaky breath and jumped to his feet. “Sure,” he said.
The next thing he knew, Jiang Yanli was pulling him out of the water, repeating his name over and over again in anguish.
Wei Wuxian understood none of the trip back to the main house. He only knew that his shidi’s faces bore looks of either horror or shame, that something in his lungs burned like firewood, that Jiang Yanli was holding him upright and tugging him forward step by step. The world turned around him in an unending dance. Nausea crept up his dry throat. Soreness spread through each of his muscles and made him want to cry out.
Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian were seated inside the dining hall with their advisors, pouring over scrolls and speaking in low voices. Wei Wuxian heard Jiang Yanli tell the other disciples to stay behind before pushing him in, and as soon as he was inside, all eyes were on him.
Jiang Fengmian seemed to have frozen on the spot.
Yu Ziyuan recovered from her shock faster than he did. She rose stiffly, her purple robes flowing around her like a halo, and her eyes gleamed with disgust as she took in the sight of him.
“You pitiful thing,” she spat without any pity at all.
Jiang Fengmian rose as well. “Leave,” he told his advisors, who obeyed in a hurry. “A-Xian.”
“Uncle,” Wei Wuxian managed.
“I will accompany you to your room—”
“His room?” Yu Ziyuan said the word as if it had insulted her, her thin nose scrunched as if she were protecting herself from the worst of smells. “He’s not staying here.”
“You did this,” she seethed. Jiang Fengmian closed his mouth, somber. “You knew this day would come, you knew the moment you took in this worthless child that this would happen. He’s not staying in this house while his fever runs its course.”
It was only then that Wei Wuxian understood what was happening to him.
Yu Ziyuan walked around the table, calling for one of her handmaidens. The zhongyong one. “You take him to the kunze house now,” she told her, “and don’t let him come out till the week is over.”
“He will need food,” Jiang Fengmian said tensely.
“He knows inedia.”
“You cannot possibly let him—”
Wei Wuxian slipped from Jiang Yanli’s hold. He heard her cry out in worry, her thin hands trying to hold his much heavier weight.
“Stop touching him,” Yu Ziyuan snapped, “do you want your reputation to be ruined, A-Li? Jinzhu, take him away from here. If anyone approaches the kunze house while he is fevered,” she added more loudly, “I will personally see to their fate.”
Jiang Fengmian left after her when she exited the room. Through the fog and pain muddling his mind, Wei Wuxian thought he heard the sound of their yelling.
Yu Jinzhu did not touch Wei Wuxian as she accompanied him to the other side of the Lotus Pier. She did not say a word to him. Wuxian dragged himself behind her step by excruciating step, unable not to notice the looks and whispers following him like shadows. Some people had covered their noses with their sleeves, while others fanned the air in front of them to chase away the smell of him.
“This is obscene,” he heard one say.
The kunze house of the Lotus Pier was a forlorn little shack at the edge of the river, long deserted by its last inhabitants, its foundations rotted by humidity. There had not been a kunze in the Jiang sect since the old man who once lived there died unmarried a few years ago. Wei Wuxian had only ever seen it from afar, had never even talked to the man, but Yu Ziyuan had often threatened to have him locked up there. It was her favored method of insult, really: telling Wei Wuxian that she would lock him up and wait for the day he either got married or died.
It seemed she had at last kept her promise.
Wei Wuxian’s first heat was spent alone with the dust and spiders. For days he rode out the fever and aches, thirst gnawing at his throat and hunger digging out his stomach. There was no way for him to properly practice inedia, no way to ignore both the crushing warmth and the sheer emptiness—the hollowness of him, as if he were being carved from the inside, as if he were but a bag of skin blown full of air.
He quenched his thirst from the river when he found the strength to walk out into the fenced little backyard. The heavy oakwood door was not locked. He avoided the burn of sunlight as much as he could. He saw neither head nor tail of Yu Jinzhu during that time, though he knew she must be close.
He wasn’t exactly surprised by the turn of events. Yu Ziyuan had never made her intentions for his future fevers a secret. It was not enough to stop the fear cutting into him with each hour he lost to the haze.
There was no coming-of-age ceremony waiting for him once the fever abated. No celebration held in Yunmeng for the maturity of a kunze, as Wei Wuxian knew there would be had one been born to the sect. He lay over the soil on the dawn of the fifth day, his mind clear for the first time in what seemed like weeks. Dry-mouthed, empty-handed, with for all company the sound of air tearing itself out of his wrung-out body.
Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan stayed angrier at each other than ever before in the days that followed. Their voices echoed through the hallways as summer unfolded over Yunmeng, wet and heavy, as the lotuses bloomed and the days stretched infinitely.
“He needs to be married now that he is mature—”
“Enough. I will not hear of it unless A-Xian himself brings it up.”
“It is not his place! It is not any kunze’s place to bring it up!”
Wei Wuxian ate in silence, feeling their words wash through him oddly. He felt there and not-there. Present and far away. There was a version of him sitting in the dining hall and bringing food to his open mouth, and another floating somewhere far above, drinking in the sunlight, walking upon clouds.
It seemed to him that the air up above would be fresher. Cleaner. That there may smell the way that the Cloud Recesses did: that the cold and quiet would spice itself with sandalwood in some secluded corners. Above the wall separating inside and out. At the edge of a forbidden spring.
“Here,” Jiang Yanli said to him, helping him to another glass of wine.
“Thank you, shijie,” said the Wei Wuxian who sat at the table.
“A-Li,” Yu Ziyuan barked at her daughter. Jiang Yanli jumped in fright. “Do not serve him, you foolish girl. You shouldn’t talk to him anymore, people will start gossiping like they do about your father.”
“Yu Ziyuan,” Jiang Fengmian said, the way he only did when anger truly gripped him.
“Jiang Fengmian,” Yu Ziyuan replied in kind.
And on and on they went. Yu Ziyuan kept to her study most of the day, writing delicately-worded letters to some minor sect or another, looking for someone to take Wei Wuxian as a spouse. Every refusal she received made her mood fouler. Every agreement had her ranting to her husband, spilling vitriol like bile, trying to convince him. Qianyuan she may be, but her husband was one, too. Neither held dominion over the other. Both had to be in agreement for such a thing to be decided.
Wei Wuxian lay on the pier one evening with his shijie, the both of them quiet, the both of them looking at the stars. Water licked at their bare feet in little waves, carried out by the sparse late-summer wind.
“Do you want to get married, A-Xian?” Jiang Yanli asked him in a secretive voice.
Did Wei Wuxian want to be married?
He could not remember when his status had started truly troubling him. It had not mattered in the shards of memories he still held of his parents, and not either when he had been a small and filthy thing roaming the streets of Yiling. He knew Yu Ziyuan’s hatred of him by heart, could predict her every word to him as if he were reading her thoughts, but never before had it been so directly aimed at his being kunze. Wei Wuxian had been raised a disciple of Yunmeng. He had torn through any awkwardness with his shidi, with Jiang Cheng, thanks to the bull-headedness of his own character.
They said Jiang Fengmian had loved his mother. Wei Wuxian had never dared to ask him about it. He dared not even say her name, or the name of his father, where either of the Jiang sect leaders could hear. No matter how much he wished to know.
In the small memories he had of her—broken voices and laughter, the world from high up on her shoulders, from the crook of her arm holding him against her breast—Cangse Sanren had been happy. She had smelled of ripe apples, of wind. She had sung to him and laughed with him and held the hand of Wei Changze with no shame whatsoever.
“If I could find a cultivation partner,” Wei Wuxian told his shijie, “then I don’t think I would mind marriage so much.”
It was a fool’s dream, of course. Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze had been cultivation partners only because their sham of a union was less scandalous than if Wei Changze had been qianyuan.
No kunze could become a cultivator, and therefore, no kunze could ever have a partner.
Jiang Yanli took his hand in hers and squeezed it gently. Wei Wuxian tried to etch the feeling of her skin and affection into his very heart, wondering how much longer he would be allowed such innocent gestures.
At that time of his life, Wei Wuxian decided on two things.
The first was that he would never let Jiang Fengmian’s gift to him go to waste. He was a cultivator, the senior disciple of Yunmengjiang, the one his shidi called da shixiong, and he had earned this title. No matter how differently some looked at him now that he was mature and no longer just the weird kunze child running wild through the Pier. He was a cultivator of the Jiang sect. The golden core he had nursed to life was only here because Jiang Fengmian had stood up to his wife to allow him freedom. He would never let go of it.
The second was that he had never much cared for interdiction before. As long as he helped serve Yunmengjiang, as long as his actions didn’t lead to irreparable harm, he would keep breaking rules everywhere he went. He would keep being himself.
He wouldn’t let anyone push him down into the dirt or lock him away from life.
Jiang Cheng came back to the Lotus Pier as winter melted into spring.
He returned with a straighter back than he had left with. His demeanor seemed to have changed as well. Sitting on the ornamented boat carrying him over to the main house, clad in his clan colors and wearing Sandu at his waist, he looked every bit the young heir to his parents’ household.
Wei Wuxian tricked him from the water, splashing his clothes and laughing in his face. Jiang Cheng insulted him back with as much vigor as before, grabbing his hand to be pulled upright and accepting the brief sideways embrace that Wei Wuxian forced upon him. From behind them, the woman rowing the boat breathed in, scandalized. Jiang Cheng shoved Wei Wuxian away with his fist and pretended to be mad, ignoring her completely.
He did show some awareness. For a moment after the hug, he looked at Wei Wuxian in faint surprise, breathing slowly, taking in whatever must have changed with Wei Wuxian’s maturity. He said nothing, however. The worry in his eyes made way for embarrassment, but nothing more.
Wei Wuxian felt a knot of tension in him loosen.
The Wen sect had settled somewhere the sun shone hard and dry over the earth. In summer the soil cracked in long and jagged lines, and each footfall rang loudly through the mountains, raising dust clouds wherever people went.
The Nightless City was supposed to be a fair sight in these scorched lands. Wei Wuxian erred along the mountain paths, finding only empty houses on his way, and doubted that he would ever reach it. Jiang Cheng had gone ahead earlier while Wuxian lingered; now Wei Wuxian wondered if he should not have followed more closely.
What a shame it would be for him to miss the competition, after all the begging he had done. After Yu Ziyuan had accepted to let him go.
The sound of a bowstring cutting the air led him to a plateau some way ahead. There he found a lone junior of Qishanwen, a young man whose light brown hair painted him as part of the Wen clan more surely than the sun motif on his robes did. Wei Wuxian watched him shoot for a moment, admiring his posture and precision, before making his presence known.
“Archer boy,” he called, waving a hand in the other’s direction. “You’re very good!”
He must have broken the disciple’s focus; the boy yelped, his hand releasing the string by mistake, and only Wei Wuxian’s sharp reflexes allowed him to catch the arrow before it went off course and hit him in the chest.
And then something never-before-seen happened.
The boy seemed to regain his bearings. He turned to Wei Wuxian, shaking through all of his thin body, his mouth open in apology. But it closed the second he breathed in to speak, and his red face paled all at once.
He made a sound like a frightened animal and hid behind a boulder.
Wei Wuxian had met many a surprised person through his life. Some had looked at him in pity, some in anger or disgust. Some, in the year since his first fever, had watched him with an added layer of darkness that he wished he didn’t know the reason for. He had never met anyone scared of him before, however.
“Wen lad?” he called again, walking toward the boulder.
The boy was obviously still there. His scent came from around rock and filled Wei Wuxian’s nose with smoke—a strangely heady smell for one who looked so un-qianyuan.
“You can’t be here,” was the answer he got. The weirdest thing was that the boy’s voice was not accusatory; if anything, he sounded apologetic.
“Sure I can,” Wei Wuxian replied, more curious than ever. “Say, can you tell me which way is the Nightless City? I’m lost.”
For a moment he thought that the boy would flee and leave his question unanswered. But footsteps rang against the hard ground, and the boy circled around the boulder with half of his body pressed to it.
“Why do you want to go there?” he asked Wei Wuxian nervously.
Wei Wuxian showed the bow strung over his shoulder. “For the competition, of course.”
The Wen boy stared at him in disbelief.
It occurred to Wei Wuxian that though he couldn’t help but refer to this disciple as boy, he must not be much younger than him. The thinness of his face already proved his adulthood.
Wei Wuxian waited for the expected end of the sentence. The Wen junior never finished it, and instead stuck closer to the rock at his back.
He decided to stop tormenting him, then. “I’m Wei Ying of the Yunmengjiang sect,” he said, bowing for once as lowly as his status demanded. “Courtesy name Wuxian. Who am I speaking to?”
“Wen—Wen Ning, of Qishanwen,” the boy replied almost inaudibly. He bowed as well—shoulder-level only. Zhongyong, then. “Wen Qionglin.”
“You’re a very good archer, Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning blushed to the roots of his light hair.
Wei Wuxian chuckled. He threw the arrow back to its owner, who fumbled around before catching it. “Will you be participating in the competition too?” he asked. “I look forward to fighting against such talent.”
“I… I will not,” Wen Ning answered quietly.
“Why not? Are the other Wen clan archers so good that even your skills pale next to theirs?”
Wen Ning only shook his head, his words seemingly caught in his mouth. Wei Wuxian spent another minute coaxing him into speech, curious about this boy whose gentle nature made him look as frail as a leaf in the wind. He had not called him by his birth name on purpose; it was only that Wen Ning seemed so young and eager for company, Wei Wuxian felt older in comparison.
“The Nightless City is this way,” Wen Ning said, pointing in the direction Wei Wuxian had come from. “Not very far. Just follow the path straight ahead.”
Wuxian bowed again. He grinned when he straightened up. “Thank you.”
“I, I should accompany you…” The rest of Wen Ning’s sentence trailed into nothingness.
“I’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian replied. “It’s not far, you said?”
Wen Ning stood still for a moment longer, his brow furrowed in what looked like embarrassment and worry alike. In a surer voice, he said, “I will accompany you. If you will accept me.”
It was all so proper. All things Wei Wuxian cared very little about. But Wen Ning’s blushes and stammering seemed to stem from his own shyness rather than any sort of rule-abiding, and as they walked and talked side by side, he never stopped looking Wei Wuxian in the eye.
“Where have you been?” Jiang Cheng growled at him after Wei Wuxian reached him in the wide plaza where all the Wen drums were gathered. Wen Ning had bowed to him again before joining the ranks of other Wen juniors, his smile genuine despite its timidity. “Father will arrive any minute now, if he thought I’d left you alone…”
“You worry too much, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “Did you think I’d fallen down the gorge?”
“You would, if you were too busy looking at the clouds rather than your own feet.”
Wei Wuxian laughed and dropped his elbow atop Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. It always infuriated Jiang Cheng when he did it; his shidi had yet to catch up to the last inch of height that Wei Wuxian had over him.
All around them stood hundreds of disciples from more than fifty clans in total. Wei Wuxian glimpsed faces he had met during his time in Gusu: Ouyang Zhi not far talking to another Yunmeng boy, Nie Huaisang waving at him from behind a thin fan. Jin Zixuan stood only a few steps away. He met Wei Wuxian’s eyes briefly before turning on his heels, his face suddenly bright red.
It was impossible in the midst of all these dark uniforms to miss the spotless white of Gusulan. A handful of their disciples stood on the other side of the biggest war drum, among them Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji.
They shone, otherworldly it seemed, against the backdrop of rocks and mountains. Wei Wuxian had often wondered during his time in Gusu how one achieved the poise that these two did; if it was their natural inheritance, or if Lan Qiren’s acerb tongue had sharpened it out of them.
He dropped the arm he had put over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Lan Zhan!” he called. “Second brother Lan!”
Lan Wangji’s head turned aside almost as soon as his mouth had opened, and Wei Wuxian had not advanced three steps before the smell of sandalwood reached him.
“Young master Wei,” Lan Xichen greeted him with a smile. He was about to bow when he seemed to notice what everyone else had noticed about Wei Wuxian for a year now; but instead of shame or disgust, his face bore only a smile. “Congratulations,” he offered, bending down at last. “I’m sure your skills have improved since we saw each other. I look forward to the competition.”
No one had congratulated Wei Wuxian on reaching maturity yet. “Thank you,” he replied a little awkwardly. Then to Lan Wangji: “Lan Zhan, it’s good to meet you again.”
Lan Wangji said nothing. He looked Wei Wuxian in the eyes for a second before bending the neck stiffly in his direction and walking away.
“I’m sure he’s looking forward to it as well,” Lan Xichen said in apology.
“I know he hates me,” Wei Wuxian replied with a laugh. “Hey, Lan Zhan, your forehead ribbon is crooked.”
His humor seemed unstoppable; he watched in glee as Lan Wangji actually stopped in his tracks to check, then laughed again at the vicious glare that the Lan sect heir gave him over his spotless-white shoulder.
Lan Wangji was too proper not to rile up every once in a while.
It was with a cheer in his heart that Wei Wuxian took his place among the other disciples. From down the steps of the Wen gate, he saw Jiang Fengmian sit between Lan Qiren and Nie Mingjue. Jin Guangshan had taken place close to the dais where Wen Ruohan would supposedly make his appearance.
It wasn’t Wen Ruohan who appeared next, though, but a much younger man. He sat upon the dais with his legs spread wide and asked for drinks in a voice so disagreeable that it carried downwind and to Wei Wuxian’s ears. The rich ornaments he had put his brown hair in were not enough to draw elegance out of him.
“Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian heard one of the Ouyang disciples murmur to Jiang Cheng. “Wen Ruohan’s second son.”
“Who does he think he is, sitting above father?” Jiang Cheng seethed.
“The Wen clan really thinks itself at the top of the cultivation world.”
“I heard Wen Chao was the one who annexed the Zhu sect a few months ago. He took everything, even their kunze…”
Wen Ruohan entered the stage a step above his son, backlit by the sun in an obvious show of power. All whispers ceased. Wei Wuxian watched in incredulity as every Wen disciple fell to their knees at once and praised his name like one praised an emperor’s. At the very back of their neat row, he saw Wen Ning mimic them, his face twisted with unease.
The shields barring entry from the competition field loosened. One after another, the disciples entered through the rock maze to look for the haunted targets.
One of Wei Wuxian’s shidi told him, “Maybe you shouldn’t participate after all.”
“Why not?” Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng retorted in the same voice.
The boy seemed to hesitate. “It’s just, it’s just… won’t the Wens cause trouble for us if they notice?”
“The Wens know not to cause trouble today,” Jiang Cheng said. “Not with all five main sect leaders present. This is Qishan, but Father wouldn’t let that stop him.”
“I’d participate even without Uncle Jiang here,” Wei Wuxian added, lightly elbowing Jiang Cheng. “You all have no chance of winning without me, after all.”
The sound of the Wen disciples’ voices reached them then. Everyone turned to look at them and find out the source of the commotion: it seemed they were arguing over who would and would not enter the competition. Wei Wuxian stilled as he heard Wen Ning’s name leave one junior’s mouth.
“I’ve never seen you shoot an arrow before,” he was telling the shrunk-up form of Wen Ning, sneering the whole time. His scent tagged him as qianyuan. “Wen Ning, do you think this is a game?”
“He’s a great archer,” said Wei Wuxian.
Behind him, he heard Jiang Cheng sigh. Wei Wuxian grinned and walked the distance separating him from the Wen group until he reached Wen Ning’s side.
“I saw him earlier in the mountains,” he told the group of shocked youth, not a single one of whom seemed to know what to make of his sudden arrival. “He hit bull’s eye every time. You’d be foolish not to let him participate.”
“Young master Wei,” Wen Ning said shyly. “There is no need to—”
“What’s going on here? Why are none of you idiots on the field yet?”
The ten-odd disciples of Qishan parted around Wen Chao, letting him walk up to where the boy Wei Wuxian had talked to stood. Wen Chao was holding a cup in his hand. He took a sip of it as his eyes roamed over the assembly. When they reached Wei Wuxian, he spit the wine out, staining the dry earth every way.
He coughed so loudly that one of the youngest disciples approached to pat him on the back; Wen Chao chased him off with one violent shove.
“You, kunze,” he said, causing most around him to blush and look away, causing Wei Wuxian’s irritation to boil over into anger. “You—who are you?”
“Wei Wuxian of Yunmengjiang,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He didn’t bow. He didn’t raise his hands in salute. He did not call Wen Chao’s name or title.
Wen Chao barely seemed to notice. “I’ve heard about you,” he murmured. There was a sneer on his face too—perhaps sneering was a common Wen trait—but he did not look away from Wei Wuxian, staring him up and down and up again, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “You’re Jiang Fengmian’s kunze, the one he raised as a cultivator. Why are you here?”
“To compete, of course.”
“Wen Chao,” came Jiang Cheng’s voice.
He had walked toward them until his elbow almost touched Wei Wuxian’s. His face now frowned in a way that terribly resembled his mother, his anger hot and evident.
“Wei Wuxian is the senior disciple of Yunmeng and a skilled archer,” he said. “If you have a problem with his participating, you’re welcome to take it up with our sect leader.”
Wen Chao looked briefly toward where the different leaders sat, his own father above them. All but Wen Ruohan seemed interested in the scene going on below, though there was no way they could hear through that distance what words were being exchanged.
It seemed Wen Chao had no interest in bringing up the matter with Jiang Fengmian. “Then why is Wei Wuxian here with my lot?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian said, “I heard them talk about leaving this young master out of the competition, and I thought I would tell them that they have better chances of winning with him.”
The whole affair was solved within a few minutes. Wen Chao didn’t believe that Wen Ning could hold a bow and arrow together; he openly mocked Wei Wuxian’s words, the ugly expression on his face never abating.
Wei Wuxian would have cared more about himself if he had not seen Wen Ning’s own face shatter at each hurtful word thrown his way. He couldn’t get out of his mind how eager the boy had been for praise—for praise coming from Wei Wuxian. How he had marched him to the Nightless City without ever looking away from him, drinking in his conversation as if parched for bonding, calling him young master and bowing in obvious respect.
Wei Wuxian offered to have Wen Ning shoot a target in front of everyone. His idea, once repeated by Jiang Cheng, found approval in Wen Chao, if only for the potential to laugh. Wei Wuxian tried his best to encourage Wen Ning from where he stood, but it was no use; the boy shook and faltered, and his arrow missed the target by a wide leap.
Wen Chao looked at Wei Wuxian like he was dirt when he approached to comfort the young zhongyong, but at least Wen Ning’s shamed face regained some confidence.
“You always have to shove your nose into things that don’t concern you,” Jiang Cheng told Wei Wuxian once they finally entered the maze.
They split up from the rest of their shidi and from the Ouyang disciples, most of the juniors going their own way in search of feral ghosts. They were the very last to enter the competition. No signal had been sent yet to mark anyone’s points.
“He really is a good archer,” Wei Wuxian said.
“I don’t doubt it. You don’t praise people off-handedly. But it’s still none of your business.”
“I don’t like bullies.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t grace that comment with an answer. “Beware of Wen Chao,” he simply said, drawing his bow and marching left where the road between the rocks opened. “He’s the worst of his kind. You just had to go and make him notice you, didn’t you.”
As Wei Wuxian shot down his first target—the first of the whole competition—he thought idly, Wen Chao will forget me soon enough.
Yunmengjiang’s lotus bloomed over the mountains, bathing everything in its light.
Wei Wuxian ran his way through every narrow opening he found, climbing rocks and crawling down holes, shooting every ghost he encountered without missing any. Soon the disdain with which Wen Chao had addressed him vanished from his mind, cleanly swept away by focus and effort. His face and hands became dirty. Dust stained the hem of his clothing. The arrows he used and then picked up started blunting at the head.
There was some comfort to be found in this loneliness, Wei Wuxian discovered. There was a thrill to being unchaperoned while night-hunting, no matter that this night-hunt was not the real thing, or that people watched over the competition from high up the mountains to make sure no one cheated. Here he was alone with no one to judge him. In front of the ghosts he shot out of existence, he was no one’s inferior.
He was understandably annoyed when he emerged from a thin rocky alley and found Jin Zixuan at the other end.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
Jin Zixuan humphed. His quiver was empty by a third, and most of his other arrows were in the same state of use as Wei Wuxian’s. He had not been idle.
“Where is Jiang Wanyin?” Jin Zixuan asked him after a moment of silence.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “No idea. He went his own way.”
This seemed to shock the Jin heir immensely. His face, which had shone with exertion and sweat a moment before, paled noticeably. “He left you alone?”
“What,” Wei Wuxian said sweetly. “Don’t you know I’m capable of throwing a punch?”
Jin Zixuan’s reaction to mentioning how their time together in Gusu had ended was not what Wei Wuxian had expected. He had only ever seen Jin Zixuan as a pompous little master with too much pride for his own good; when he visited Jiang Yanli before their engagement was rescinded, he barely talked to her. He barely looked at her. Wei Wuxian could remember each and every time those judging eyes had followed him around, full of somber feelings, when they should have been looking at his shijie instead.
Yet now Jin Zixuan was in the same state as he. Dirty and a little tired, sweat shining on his face, words struggling out of his mouth. The golden robes of Lanlingjin had absorbed much of the dust around. His cheeks turned red under Wei Wuxian’s staring.
One could almost believe them equal.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan finally said. Even so much seemed an inconceivable effort; he blushed further. “I have been meaning to… to speak to you.”
Wuxian frowned. “Then speak,” he replied, confused.
Now Jin Zixuan looked even more lost, as if he had not expected Wei Wuxian to hear him out at all. The hand not wrapped around his bow lifted and then lowered hesitantly.
Wei Wuxian half-hoped for Jin Zixuan to insult him, so that he may have the excuse to insult back; instead Jin Zixuan said, “I offer you my congratulations for coming into maturity.”
And then he bowed in all the proper ways a qianyuan should, his head held as low as it could go without moving his shoulders, his free hand splayed over his chest.
The most humble and deferential of all qianyuan greetings.
“I heard no news of a ceremony, or I would have come,” Jin Zixuan said, mistaking Wei Wuxian’s silence for something it wasn’t. His head was still turned to the ground. “It has been so long since any of the main clans had one—”
“There was no ceremony,” Wei Wuxian cut in.
Jin Zixuan’s head lifted. “Why?” he asked in surprise.
Because it had been so sudden. Because Wei Wuxian had grown so used to things always being the same, to his status being nothing more than a flicker of distaste in the eyes of strangers, that he had forgotten. Because the harsh lesson he had learned during the three months he spent in the Cloud Recesses—that it did matter, that he was different—had seemed like a dream after coming back home.
Yu Ziyuan had not wanted one. When Wei Wuxian had come out of the forlorn shack at the edges of the Pier, hollowed out by the fever and loneliness, and Jiang Fengmian had walked to his room to ask about preparations with shame distorting his very scent. Wei Wuxian had said, “No need.”
He was not a child born to wealth. He was not part of the Jiang clan. Having a ceremony would have only worsened all the things tearing Jiang Fengmian’s marriage apart.
A shadow appeared in the distance. Wei Wuxian walked around Jin Zixuan and drew back his bowstring, focusing on his aim to forget about everything else.
Before his arrow was let loose, another was already piercing the target’s ghostly forehead.
Laughter echoed loudly against the rocky walls of the clearing, boisterous, arrogant. Wei Wuxian looked up and saw Wen Chao hand his bow over to one of the two lackeys accompanying him.
“You know,” he told Wei Wuxian as he jumped off of the boulder he stood on, “some Yunmeng juniors I saw on the way told me you’re a skilled archer, Wei Wuxian.”
Jin Zixuan’s voice was cold when he greeted, “Wen Chao.”
Wen Chao ignored him. “But you didn’t even shoot fast enough for a target right in front of you,” he continued. “I told them, I said, ‘there’s only one thing that kunze are skilled at, and it’s not archery.’ I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Those are some words coming from someone who can’t carry his own weapons,” Wei Wuxian replied, annoyed. “Or find his own targets.”
“Only the poor take care of their own things,” Wen Chao said arrogantly. “Why should I live as a peasant? Ah, but you wouldn’t know about that, would you. Still, I was surprised by your behavior!” Here he turned to the other Wen cultivators who had followed him, and who immediately nodded their approval. It was as though their minds had gone and been replaced by lifeless devotion, Wei Wuxian thought with disgust. “A kunze playing cultivator, here in Nightless City! Jiang Fengmian must have the thickest skin in the world to still call himself qianyuan. If you’d been of Qishanwen, this spirit would have been taken out of you in no time.”
“If I’d been of Qishanwen,” Wei Wuxian mocked, “the sun would have dried out my wits like it seems to have dried yours.”
There was a silence. Then Wen Chao let out a forced laugh, shrill and open-mouthed, bouncing again and again on the smooth rocks around.
“Oh, you have wits, I’ll give you that,” he said when he was done. The quiet that followed his outburst sent chills up Wei Wuxian’s spine. “I guess I can see why Jiang Fengmian likes you so much. But now it all makes sense, after seeing you with that man—” he gestured rudely to Jin Zixuan “—you’re not here to night-hunt at all, are you! The valley is a great place to lose a chaperone in, you smart thing.”
Jin Zixuan’s thin control finally snapped. “How dare you!” he said, one hand over his golden sword. “I wasn’t—”
“Save your breath, brother Jin,” Wei Wuxian interrupted.
He was tired of it all. He didn’t feel like hearing Jin Zixuan defend his pristine virtue while throwing Wei Wuxian’s to the dogs.
“Young master Wen here doesn’t look like he can make sense of anything more complex than his choice of clothing for the day,” he said. “I think you shouldn’t trouble him with your affairs.”
“Watch your tongue, kunze,” Wen Chao snapped, angered at last.
Wei Wuxian shook his head and laughed. “You said you didn’t believe I had any skills to show?” he asked. Wen Chao’s eyes narrowed as Wei Wuxian walked around him. “Fine, then. I’ll win this competition, and then you may talk to me, Wen Chao.”
“This isn’t any way to speak to your superiors—”
But his voice was drowned already as Wei Wuxian slipped between rocks. Muffled down to nothing as the very tone of it, harsh on the ears, erased his words’ meaning.
Wen Chao followed him, as expected, but Wei Wuxian did not let that affect him. He was quite confident in his advantage over the other participants—he had lost count of how many targets he had shot, but he knew there were many—and he could afford to lose some time.
He looked for feral ghosts in the shadows of the valley. Wen Chao nicked them from him each and every time, shooting them when Wei Wuxian’s focus was turned to pinning them in place. The judges watching the competition stayed conspicuously silent to his cheating.
“Lower your head when I talk to you, Wei Wuxian!” Wen Chao yelled from behind or above him, the two lackeys carrying his affairs panting by his side.
He made an odd picture with his cream-colored robes rumpled with effort, and each time he stumbled and had to reach for dirt to push himself upright, Wei Wuxian laughed just loudly enough to be heard.
“My father will have you sold for nothing,” Wen Chao fumed.
“Yunmengjiang loses face with every second you spend here!” Wen Chao bellowed.
“Enjoy this farce while you can, kunze—”
Wen Chao slipped in the middle of that one, causing the fall of the junior he grabbed to steady himself, raising a dust cloud around where his behind hit the ground. Wei Wuxian shot his target as they stood and dusted themselves. He was grinning overtly.
Wen Chao’s face had dirt on it now. His anger was such that he did not stop to let his lackey wipe it off for him and simply walked to Wei Wuxian, his steps heavy on the cracked-open ground.
“You filthy little—”
“What’s going on here?”
That was Jiang Cheng’s voice. He emerged from another path between rocks, followed by a shidi whose defeated expression said he must have been eliminated. Jiang Cheng had said the words to Wen Chao, but now he could see who exactly Wen Chao was talking to, and his expression grew darker the second he met Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
His hand grabbed the pommel of his sword firmly. “Wen Chao,” he said. “Get away from him.”
Wei Wuxian wanted to tell Jiang Cheng to let him handle it. He was fine. Wen Chao was nothing more than a fool with an overblown ego; if anything, dancing around him like this was proving more entertaining than the competition alone. But Wen Chao and Jiang Cheng were of a status, and Wen Chao struggled so obviously not to offend another qianyuan sect heir that a vein popped over his red forehead, which was just as amusing to watch.
Wen Chao turned to Wei Wuxian again and spat, “One day, you’ll be put back in your place.”
Wei Wuxian lifted his bow, took aim, and shot.
His arrow split the air so close to Wen Chao’s shocked face that his cheek bore a faint red line. Its head burrowed into the haunted target that had risen behind him. The ghost fell to the ground before Wen Chao even found time to recover thought and turn around.
“My apologies,” Wei Wuxian said. He gave a brief salute and added, mocking, “You didn’t seem to have seen it, master Wen.”
“You bitch,” Wen Chao heaved. “You lowly little bitch.”
Many things happened at once.
Wen Chao grabbed his sword from the youth by his side so harshly that the girl fell over, her forehead hitting the ground and immediately spilling blood.
Jin Zixuan arrived, panting, to the place where they were gathered. Wei Wuxian’s name died off of his lips as he took in the blade now swinging through the air.
Sandu came out of its sheath at the same time as Suibian, and Jiang Cheng like Wei Wuxian knew that neither would be quick enough.
Then a great whistling shocked the air around them. The sound of metal striking metal rang through the hazy silence as an arrowhead touched the gleaming edge of Wen Chao’s sword, deviating its trajectory so that it embedded into dirt.
Lan Wangji dropped to the ground with as much grace as ever, the white of his robes barely bearing traces of dust. He put his bow back over his shoulder and stood motionless between Wei Wuxian and Wen Chao, his beautiful face sharpened by the black-and-white light of the elimination signal.
Its shape was that of Gusulan’s cloud.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian let out, breathless with shock.
Lan Wangji took a moment to answer. “Dueling is forbidden,” he said.
Then he dusted his robes, fixed his forehead ribbon, and left for the Nightless City.
Wei Wuxian laughed like he had never laughed before.
His face still ached from smiling as he joined the other disciples at dusk for the results of the competition. The ethereal coming of Gusulan’s Jade had broken Wen Chao out of his rage, and it seemed that the amount of witnesses to his would-be assault was enough to put him out of trying again. How terribly shameful would it have been for a sect leader’s child to wound a kunze in public? He had left another way and not bothered Wei Wuxian for the rest of the day.
He stood now with the other dust-stained Wen participants, looking a lot less put-together than even the youngest of them. His face paled and then reddened as the results were announced and the first Wen name to make rank—a name not his—was in sixth position.
When he glared at Wei Wuxian from afar, Wei Wuxian smirked back.
“Da shixiong, congratulations,” his shidi said, looking at him in admiration.
For a golden while of talking and laughing, Wei Wuxian forgot that all of his juniors had grown distant from him since he first fell fevered.
Wei Wuxian walked up the stairs of Qishanwen’s imposing gate with the other winners. He received and gave back Lan Xichen’s congratulations on the way, nodded to a silent Lan Wangji, ignored Jin Zixuan as the other ignored him. Jiang Cheng followed him up silently.
“A-Xian, A-Cheng,” Jiang Fengmian said, rising from his seat once they were in front of him. “Congratulations. You made the Jiang sect proud today.”
“Thank you, Uncle Jiang,” Wei Wuxian said, bowing.
Jiang Cheng hesitated before nodding. His face was uncertain as he replied, “I didn’t make top four, father.”
“You came in fifth,” Jiang Fengmian smiled. “With such competition against you, that is more than admirable.”
Jiang Cheng’s face lit up. Wei Wuxian’s heart swelled with warmth.
Wen Ruohan had already left his throne-like seat, and the dais where his son had sat arrogantly earlier was empty too. Wei Wuxian let Jiang Cheng speak with his father of the mistakes he had made during the day and how he promised to fix them, and allowed his gaze to linger.
The Lan brothers seemed to be receiving a much colder welcome from Lan Qiren, which was not surprising considering the man’s temper, but did not look to bother Lan Wangji or Lan Xichen in any way. The both of them bowed, one at the neck, the other at the shoulders. Jin Guangshan was crooning something at his son, probably some promise or another of wealthy recompense when they came back to their golden tower. Jin Zixuan met Wei Wuxian’s eyes for a fleeting second before turning away.
There was no sign now of the courtesy he had shown in the valley.
Nie Mingjue was the only one of the sect leaders not to have a winner to celebrate. He didn’t seem to mind so much, as he was walking toward Jiang Fengmian now with a brash smile on his face.
“So that’s your infamous kunze, then,” he said, nodding quickly to Jiang Fengmian. His eyes then bore into Wei Wuxian’s with much curiosity. “I thought Huaisang was taking me for a fool, speaking of him all this time.”
Jiang Cheng tensed by Wei Wuxian’s side, but Wei Wuxian felt no worry. There was not a hint of disgust, not a shadow of double-entendre, in Nie Mingjue’s voice. “It’s an honor to meet you, sect leader Nie,” he said.
Nie Mingjue grinned brashly. He spoke to Jiang Fengmian again. “All this time I’ve been lecturing my brother for making up tales, but now I’ll have to tell him I saw Wei Wuxian best Lan Xichen in archery!”
“Is Huaisang-xiong not here?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Nie Mingjue laughed. “Gave up around noon, the useless boy,” he replied. “He’ll be well on his way back to Qinghe now, I believe.”
He went on for a bit longer about this useless brother of his. Wei Wuxian escaped the conversation and watched the plaza below empty itself until only the war drums stood in their elongated shadows.
Sunset was crawling over the land, bleeding to red every rocky crevice, every sparse greenery. In the absence of Wen Chao and his pack of empty-headed followers, Wei Wuxian could understand why such a place might be called beautiful.
“You sure showed them, sect leader Jiang,” Nie Mingjue was saying now in no more than a whisper. Jiang Fengmian’s posture didn’t change, though his earthly scent shifted, acid and watery. “A kunze winning in Qishan… Wen Ruohan will have to bed every one of his spouses before he feels qianyuan again.”
At those words, Wei Wuxian’s guts seemed to twist in discomfort. Something crawled up his throat and settled there nauseously.
“Wei Wuxian won out of his own merit,” Jiang Fengmian replied. “And with no aim but fair competition.”
Their words turned softer still. Secretive.
Jiang Cheng stepped beside Wei Wuxian to watch the setting sun with him. Already the mountain flanks were turning grey, the sky bleeding into black. Wei Wuxian thought of nothing but his name upon the competition scroll and how to celebrate once he arrived back home.
The Gusulan delegation walked past them, beginning its descent down the stairs, their white robes pinked by the light.
Wei Wuxian breathed in and called, “Lan Zhan!”
They all stopped in their tracks. Lan Qiren glared death upon him as he approached, but Wei Wuxian paid him no mind; he hurried to Lan Wangji’s side, passing by Lan Xichen, who by some stroke of luck pulled his uncle down the stairs and gave them privacy.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said evenly.
Even with darkness spreading overhead, he looked beautiful. As if he couldn’t be touched by anything. It was the kind of beauty that only immortals achieved; the kind of otherworldliness that Wei Wuxian had heard of in relation to Baoshan Sanren, to Lan An, to Wen Mao.
Wei Wuxian bowed like he only ever did in front of one person and said, “Thank you for your help earlier.”
He poured as much honesty as he could in his words, for he knew how little Lan Wangji thought of him. But Wei Wuxian had never hated Lan Wangji despite their many arguments and clashing personalities. He had never thought of the Jade of Lan in as ill a manner as he did Jin Zixuan or any conceited qianyuan he had met in Gusu.
Wei Wuxian knew he had pushed Lan Wangji to the limits of his patience before in the worst way; but he wished to make him understand that at least this time, his gratitude was sincere. Not a joke, not a game.
At first he thought he had misheard. Wei Wuxian straightened out his posture and looked at the boy—almost a man—in front of him in askance. “What did you say?”
Lan Wangji was not facing him. His profile cut against the red sky and made him look statuesque, like an altar in a cave; lit only by burning incense, given life to by worship.
“Don’t bow,” he said, glancing at Wei Wuxian from the corner of his pale eyes.
He perhaps meant it as You’re welcome. He probably meant it as Do not talk to me.
Lan Wangji turned away to follow his brother and uncle down the stone steps of Qishanwen. Sandalwood heated the air he left behind like smoke; when Wei Wuxian inhaled, he felt a little like he had during that night by the cold spring. Excited and flustered and warmed from head to toes.