Warnings: aftermath of child birth, heavy trauma symptoms of derealization/depersonalization and post-partum depression.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian woke up to winter-light filtering through the blinds of a bedroom window. He woke up to the awful feeling of sweat having cooled over his skin and made his hair greasy, like waking after a night breaking out of a fever. He moved one hand under the hot and heavy blanket spread over his body, and found that even this much effort was enough to shake him. The inside of his legs was dry where blood and other fluid had crusted as he slept, and echoes of great pain throbbed through all of his back and pelvis.
He opened his eyes to the bleak and shadowed room, only traversed by daylight in lines of white over black wood. He breathed in the smell of persimmon and understood that the warmth around his unmoved hand was caused by someone else holding it.
He tried to ask, “Why are you not hiding?”
Except for that time in Lanling, Wen Qing had never not hidden her scent around him. She had brewed again the drugs she used for this purpose as soon as Wei Wuxian had taken her to safety, and distributed it to those in the Burial Mounds who, like her, desperately wished to hide. Her running out of the strong-smelling tonic had been the reason she and Wen Ning were discovered by Jin Zixun in the first place; Wei Wuxian could not imagine that she ever wanted to be out in the open again.
Wei Wuxian tried to ask her, but his voice was weak and his tongue very dry. The words vanished into thin air. His hand in Wen Qing’s warmed again when she squeezed it. Without a word, she brought to his lips a little cup of water, and helped him lift his head off of the hard pillow when he could not do it by himself.
The water helped. Wei Wuxian felt a little less like any word he uttered would pull the whole breath out of him after he drank it.
Her hand lowered his head again slowly. Even this much movement ached through all of him, and Wei Wuxian grunted out a short breath. Wetness once more ran down the inside of his thighs.
“Your scent,” he said more succinctly.
Wen Qing put the empty cup down on the table by the bed. “I thought you might prefer it, right now,” she replied. “I’ll hide again in a moment.”
There was another scent in the room, one still new and unsettled, and yet to Wei Wuxian, it felt like air itself had ripened with it. He was very glad indeed for Wen Qing’s sweetness by his side.
Wen Qing shifted on her chair. She said, “I don’t suppose you want me to tell you anything about…”
“I don’t,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I don’t want to know.”
She nodded. She did not scold him or lecture him, as he expected; she did not even look surprised.
Wei Wuxian tried to take his hand back from her. He saw her forehead wrinkle miserably before she let it go, and the heat of her skin was missed as soon as he left it behind.
He still left it behind. Too much of this, of her kindness, and he felt that whatever was left of him to crumble would do so at last.
“You must think me very foolish,” he told her in as even a voice as he could make it. He looked at the blurry ceiling above which was striped with grey light. “For not saying anything.”
He could faintly recall that she had cried out such words the night before as she looked at his body. Or was it two or three nights ago? His own skin felt so far from him, so tender and weak, that Wei Wuxian would not have been surprised to learn that he had slept a whole month of his life away.
“I always think you’re foolish,” Wen Qing replied, “but even if you had hidden it from me by choice, I would not have the heart to blame you.”
He almost laughed. “You should.”
“Wei Ying. I could tell by the state of your body. I know you had no idea.”
He said nothing in answer.
Wen Qing sighed. She put her hands in her lap, where her fingers linked together so tightly that her knuckles turned white. “I’ve delivered many children of the Wen sect,” she said. The words dug at him and made him want to hide away, to press his face into the pillow so that she would see him no longer; he clenched his teeth and stayed still. “I know of such cases, when the body refuses to admit to itself what it is going through. You couldn’t have known, not while this was happening. You were barely even showing.”
“I knew a few days ago,” he retorted. “I could have told you then.”
And even then it had not been knowledge so much as panic; even then it had been nothing more than the slow acknowledgment of a weight in his belly, and fear encroaching to his heart and making his chest twice as heavy as before.
He had woken up in the bloodpool cave one morning and known; and he had left the Burial Mounds with Wen Qing immediately in search of another house, of new people to set free. He had walked aimlessly with her through the lands near the Burial Mounds while she asked again and again where he was planning to go. He had refused every ache in his body until he had fallen before Lan Xichen’s eyes and been forced to accept them.
Wen Qing’s forearms still bore the marks of his nails digging into her skin as he begged her not to let it happen. I don’t want it; take it away.
“I don’t have a choice,” she had said, miserable, her hands already dirtied with his blood. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it now.”
Now, Wen Qing told him: “I will not blame you for this, so stop antagonizing me.”
At that moment, a short and hiccuping breath echoed through the room. Wei Wuxian had only enough time to feel his heart leap up his throat before cries crawled out of a nest of sheets pushed into a corner, placed as far from him as could be.
His body seized with pain when he threw himself aside, and he tore the blanket off of himself for lack of something else to throw away. He felt sickening wetness over the sheets at his hips, and heard Wen Qing’s call of his name as he tumbled from the bed and into the narrow space between mattress and wall. It hurt terribly, and made blood seep again out of the dressing she had wound over his lower half, but he could hardly care.
“Make it stop,” he yelled at her.
Each cry out of those tiny lungs seemed to tear through him bodily. It was not like his perpetual nausea, and not either like the taste of grass on his tongue whenever something set off the memories of that day, but it was worse. It made all of his skin run with shivers, as if some small animal were scurrying over him and pecking him with its claws.
Wen Qing stood frozen a moment longer, halfway bent over him to assist him; but she must know, or guess, that she could be of no help now. She disappeared from his sight when she walked around the bed.
Wei Wuxian did not move from the floor between bed and wall until those cries softened into hiccups, then fast little breaths. His own blood pumped past his ears and neck so loudly that he could not even hear the sound of her steps above creaking wood.
He calmed down eventually. He found enough strength to grab onto the sheets and crawl again atop the covers, and lay there panting for a while before daring to look aside.
Wen Qing had her back turned to him. She was holding—she was holding it, and rocking her arms back and forth. Another cabinet stood at this end of the room, and she had put over it a bowl of what looked like goat milk, in which she dipped a piece of cloth for the—for it to suck on.
Wei Wuxian wanted to retch. He wanted to be the one crying.
Instead, he slowly gathered his clothes, left in a pile by the bed after Wen Qing had stripped him. He dressed himself with weak and shaking hands. He ignored how painful each twist of his spine was, huddling close to the gap in him where the golden core once lived. He grew cold. He felt over his skin the familiar whisper of resentful energy.
“What are you doing?”
Wei Wuxian lifted his head slowly.
Wen Qing had put it back into the nest of sheets, out of view of all who did not stand directly by it. She was looking at him with wide eyes.
“We’re leaving,” Wei Wuxian replied.
At last, she became angry. “Are you mad!?” she yelled at him. “Do you imagine I’ll let you walk, let alone ride a horse like this? You almost died last night!”
“I’m fine, Wen Qing.”
Her voice broke over the words. Though the blinds were still closed and the light dim and diffuse, he saw that her eyes were shining with tears.
But Wen Qing in tears was not a sight he could stand even on the best of days; and thus he turned away from her and said, “We need to leave. We can’t afford another night here anyway. And if we stay, the people who own this place will start to suspect something.”
They must already know. Wei Wuxian had noticed the woman down the stairs who had not stopped staring at him the day before, her nostrils flaring ever-so-often in search of a hint of his status.
They must have seen the cultivator in white who brought him in last evening while he was bleeding and confused. They must have heard—
A deep tremor ran up the length of his body and made his whole head ring. He lowered it between his shaking hands, pressing harshly onto his own skin in hope of feeling a little less as if it were about to tear from him entirely. Sitting down was terribly painful.
“Please,” he begged. He strained the neck to meet her eyes again. “I can’t stay here a minute longer,” he said, hoping that she would understand. “If I stay here any longer, I’ll—”
I’ll suffocate. I’ll die.
Wen Qing looked almost like a painting of a person. A ray of light filtering through the wooden blinds fell diagonally across her face, shadowing her nose and one of her round eyes, stroking a spot of dark at her exposed neck where his own blood must have dried. She touched it then as if noticing it for the first time—scratching at it until it fell under her nails, until her own skin reddened with friction.
“Please,” Wei Wuxian said again.
Her resolve broke. “Fine,” she expelled. “Fine, but if I notice you getting worse, we’re stopping. You’ve lost too much blood.”
Wen Qing took a deep breath. “And I need to know what you want to do with…”
She gestured to the bundle of sheets in the corner of the room.
The ringing was in his head again. His skin pricked and shivered under the tiny claws of a beast. “I don’t care,” he said. “I just want to leave.”
In a way, Wei Wuxian was thankful for how messy and muddy his memories of the past night were. Everything from the moment he had met Lan Xichen and until his eyes had opened the morning after was like mist: the shame of Zewu-Jun knowing, the begging he had done to Wen Qing, the pain and exhaustion that had followed. He was forced to ride sideways on his horse, so deeply did he ache, but this too was faraway. Everything was, except for the cries which sometimes rang through the silence and made Wen Qing stop to feed and clean up her burden.
Every single time, Wei Wuxian dismounted his horse and walked as far away as he could without collapsing, as far away as was needed till he could hear nothing.
She did not abandon it at the door of a house or at the gate of a village for someone to pick up. Wei Wuxian wished that she had, though he knew that it would not survive the night in such cold weather.
“He won’t tell anyone,” Wen Qing told him that night, after she had made him lie on a patch of damp grass, knowing that he was in too much pain to ride on.
Still, she did not scold him. She cleaned him and dressed him and made him swallow medicine, and she never spent a second of ire on him.
“You can’t know that,” Wei Wuxian replied weakly.
“You didn’t speak to him that night, Wei Ying. Lan Xichen is known for his wisdom and kindness through all the sects. He will not betray you.”
“If he does,” Wei Wuxian said, turning over to his side in spite of how much he hurt, “I’ll kill him.”
Wen Qing remained silent for the rest of the evening.
Wei Wuxian breathed in the smell of wet grass, the smoke from the fire she had built within the little cave they had found on the way. He smelled the soup she was making out of the vegetables they had bought. He smelled, also, the third scent around them which had settled as its owner settled to life: petrichor so vivid and strong, so warm and humid, he felt as though summer rain were plundering his skin.
Wei Wuxian knew not if he would have felt differently, had it been kunze; but it was not.
Your last victory over me, Wen Chao, he thought.
It took them two days to ride to the Burial Mounds. Wen Qing had to be slow for what she was holding, and he had to be slow for the terrible pain. When they did reach the haunted hills, his protective arrays had already weakened. Crows and lizards had come to the edge of half-built houses and started pillaging the food reserves. The Wen sect people were frightened, but not more so than the dozen other folk Wei Wuxian had gathered in the months since the discussion conference of Lanling.
He ignored their welcoming and relieved calls when he arrived. He stepped down from his horse and went to work on fixing the barriers he had built so that the people here could live without being poisoned. Meanwhile, the kunze gathered around Wen Qing curiously, asking about what she held and where it had come from.
“We found him,” Wen Qing said simply.
“This is a newborn,” a woman whispered. Wei Wuxian had taken her out of a lavish house at the border of Yunmeng, after she had looked at him with empty eyes, entirely unable to speak. Even weeks later, her voice was rough with lack of use. “It’s a miracle he didn’t die in this cold.”
And other such things from the rest of the group, even from the old Wen sect members, after they had enough courage to approach.
This was an interesting dynamic, he wondered often: how the zhongyong and qianyuan people he had taken with him from Lanling hesitated to come wherever the kunze were. How the kunze had avoided them at first, and looked at the ground in shame each time one of them was near. How, little by little, those boundaries had thinned.
Wei Wuxian had placed a haunted corpse at the separation of their encampments every night for weeks until the kunze themselves had asked him to stop.
The Wens still cowered before him, afraid of the looks he gave them. Frankly, Wei Wuxian wished to be rid of them; if not for the debt he owed Wen Qing, he would have left them at the edge of the Burial Mounds to die.
Wen Qing’s voice became quieter. “I will need some of you to care for him…”
Wei Wuxian walked away.
No one stopped him. No one even called for his name. He reached the opening of the bloodpool cave without a hitch, tired again with the effort of fixing the arrays, aching and bleeding and a second away, he felt, from turning into dust. He walked until he could sit on a small cushion by Wen Ning’s preserved body.
“You need to wake up soon, Wen Ning,” he said uselessly.
The many talismans stuck to Wen Ning glowed and glimmered.
He spent a very long time in the cave, hearing the soft cooing of the kunze outside and hearing, once, another bout of awful crying before it was taken away. He recalled Lan Xichen’s ashen face as he had fallen before him, and his expression when Wen Qing had opened Wei Wuxian’s robes and seen the truth he was hiding. When he understood.
He wondered for a brief second whether this expression would have graced Lan Wangji’s face, too. If Lan Wangji had found him and not Lan Xichen, and Wei Wuxian once more disgraced him in the worst of ways, would he have still kneeled in silence? Would he have had enough?
He felt detached from even the cold by the time Wen Qing joined him. She cursed to see him sitting there without a fire to warm him, but he could not hear her words, or the crackling flame she started with a flick of her wrist. There were no shivers on his skin at all.
He let himself be laid onto the floor. He let Wen Qing cover him with a woolen cloak. He felt her grab his hand, and heard very faintly that she was calling his name, again and again.
Her hand was shaking.
With difficulty, Wei Wuxian squeezed it. He breathed in all at once, feeling cold air rush through him in spite of the warm fire. Goosebumps erupted on his skin as he regained the ability to feel them, and he shuddered.
“Wei Ying,” Wen Qing said in a strangled voice.
“Yes,” was all he could manage to answer.
She bent over him and took him in her arms.
He was so tired, he realized. Rid of even the strength to tense or push her away, pained through the hips and back and in-between his legs, emptied out and hollow. What he had feared would come out of her touching him like this finally broke true: his very skin turned to dust under her touch, his awkward skeleton rendered bare by how little life kept it together, and he wanted nothing more than to vanish and nothing less than to cling to her like this.
“Please,” she said, her wet face sticking his hair to the skin of his neck; “Please, let me have this.”
It was the most terrible embrace he had ever suffered, much more terrible than Jiang Yanli’s, who had not known what she was comforting him for. Wen Qing held him as if she could hold Wen Ning through him. Wei Wuxian let her, and felt not human at all.
He could not have told how long it lasted, only that it did. At least until he told her, “Let me go,” because he knew that a second longer in her arms would kill him.
So Wen Qing let go. She let him rest again upon the cold and hard floor, with only a thin cushion below his hips to minimize his pain. She wiped her face and tried to find her voice.
She said, “Grandmother said she’d take care of him.”
‘Grandmother’ was not any grandmother of hers, but an old kunze woman.
She had been the first that Wei Wuxian brought with him to the Burial Mounds. He had found her nary a week after the discussion conference, in an old and dusty house at the far-end of the village below the hills. She was ugly, he supposed, for having been left here all of her life. She must have seen others come and go before her, more beautiful or well-educated than her. She had watched him open the oakwood door and squinted her eyes at daylight. When Wei Wuxian had asked her if she wanted to leave, she had said, I’ve always wanted to live under the sun.
“I told everyone that he was an orphan we found. No one suspects anything.”
“Just keep it away from me,” Wei Wuxian said.
Wen Qing nodded to him curtly. She seemed to have recovered herself, and was now looking in the direction of her brother’s body. There were no more tears in her eyes.
“I’ll bring him back,” he told her after silence had settled.
He saw her jaw tense slightly. “I know,” she replied. “I trust you.”
“I promised that I would, even if it takes me years.”
“I know, Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth felt dry. His words as heavy as mountains. “I want moonless tea,” he said.
Wen Qing said nothing at all, but her next look was full of pity.
He pushed himself up with both hands until he could sit. She made as if to help him, but he kept her hands away; only when he was certain that he would not fall or cringe from pain did he speak again.
“I can’t risk… this, happening again,” he forced out. “I didn’t even notice that I was—even when—”
He could not say the words, but he knew she would understand what he meant. He had not even known he was fevered when Wen Chao had found him that day.
“The loss of your golden core threw your body upside-down,” she said. “I could feel it, even on the first day after I operated on you. You didn’t smell of anything anymore, and I had a feeling… I thought, perhaps you wouldn’t even go into heat again. Perhaps you weren’t kunze anymore.”
But then what would I be? he thought.
“My father,” Wen Qing told him. Longing washed over her face, forcing her to take a breath before she could go on. “He used to say that there was no difference between any of us. He came from a long line of doctors just like him, who hid themselves in plain sight and were never found out. A-Ning doesn’t remember him, but I do. And I’ve seen enough bodies of all statuses, enough people of all walks of life, that I can believe him now.”
“And yet kunze houses exist,” Wei Wuxian said evenly.
“Yes,” she replied. “They exist.”
For a moment, he thought she would remain silent. That she would sit by his side and watch her brother’s corpse, and he would once more slip away unseen through the webbed tendrils of his mind.
But Wen Qing said, “You’re doing the right thing.”
She took his hand again. She grabbed his arm until he felt the shape of her fingers through the cold and stiffness.
“No one ever dared to do it before, but it is the right thing, Wei Ying,” she said. “And for this, even if you could not bring A-Ning back, I would still follow you. I would still be right beside you. Don’t ever doubt it.”
Her voice was absolute.
In the months that followed, Wei Wuxian freed over fifty kunze.
He would have freed more if he could; if angry spouses and families did not march upon the edges of the Burial Mounds, frightened but angry, and claim that he was robbing them. The protective barriers he put there for the people inside not to be bothered necessitated regular care as well, preventing him from venturing too far.
They were difficult to find. When he did find them, not all of them wished to be let free, as Wen Qing had warned him. The youngest and oldest were those who came with him more readily: the young for the excitement of novelty, the old for they knew how their remaining days would be spent otherwise. But those in-between, those of still marriageable age who had never known anything else—they almost always refused him. They almost always looked at him as if he were a heretic come to shatter their lives.
And then there were those who came to him by themselves.
It did not happen until six months had gone by since that loathsome winter day. Wei Wuxian was fetched out of the cave by a girl a year or two younger than him called Luo Fanghua, who was tall and gnarly like a tree, and whom he had found chained to a wall of her kunze house. Luo Fanghua told him that someone had come again to the narrow path down the hill. Her words were clipped and severe because she still resented herself for the decision to flee.
So Wei Wuxian went to the bottom of the hill and found a man waiting for him. A man broad and short and with a mason’s hands, whose scent was frosty, and who bowed to him with all of his back.
That night, many were regaled with tales of the man’s life. He spoke long and wide of his journey and his trade. He showed Wen Qing the drug he was using to hide himself, one which had come from his kunze mother and was different from the one she knew. One, it turned out, which was much easier to brew for those among them who wished to mask their scents.
The man did not stay. He had a life and a family, and had only come out of curiosity for the rumors. He was happy, he said, to see so many of his kind out of bonds. By the time he had made his mind to leave, night had fallen, and the scent of him had sweetened again.
He was not the last: three more came to meet with Wei Wuxian, one of whom decided to stay. All of them bowed to him with the kind of respect he did not feel he deserved. All of them shed a tear at some point or another.
Once, it was one of Wei Wuxian’s own who decided to leave. She packed her meager belongings; she learned to brew the drugs from Wen Qing; she said she wished to travel, and that she would visit again whenever she could.
Two months after that day in winter, Wen Qing figured out how to grow the white flowers that moonless tea were made of. Their attempts to plant them into the soil of the Burial Mounds were all unsuccessful, for the flowers were fragile and exiging, even if they did sprout all year long. Wei Wuxian brought in entire carts of dirt from outside. Two elderly men of the Wen sect built wide pots out of clay to hold it in. At last, in the cool air of the cave, the flowers bloomed.
After that, Wei Wuxian never spent a day without drinking the tea.
So life went on. Wei Wuxian spent little time in the Mounds, preferring to roam the lands in search of little houses with heavy doors. His people in Yiling grew used to seeing him arrive week after week with another person or two, and sometimes with no one. They welcomed the newcomers warmly. They squeezed all together in a group of makeshift houses. They learned to grow their own food, and those who knew other crafts such as sewing or embroidery made a trade with the village down the hills. Oftentimes, money was short, and they had to tighten their belts. Oftentimes, the elders of the Wen sect had to stand guard behind the barrier and throw stones and dry branches at unwelcome visitors asking for their kunze back.
And the child in the widest of the houses where Grandmother lived remained out of his sight. Sometimes, Wei Wuxian heard it cry, or smelled petrichor on a dry day, and felt himself be filled with ice. Wen Qing then had to lead him away from this misfit group of people he had assembled but knew not how to speak to, as she saw that his mind had gone from his body. Some wondered why he so disliked the sound of a baby crying; others figured that he was simply mad, no doubt.
But Wei Wuxian only saw it once between the day Wen Qing pulled it out of him and the day of Lanling’s hunting competition. And for almost half of the nights he spent watching Wen Ning’s dead body absorb the remnants of its own spirit, or sleeping under stars as he searched for prisoners to free, he could pretend that it did not exist at all.
Seasons passed one after the other. Spring was well underway on the day Wen Qing walked into the cave and told him, “Sect leader Jiang is here.”
Wei Wuxian had been in the middle of tinkering with compasses on the floor of the cave, sweating under his clothes beside the hot fire. Red light gleamed out of the bloodpool and shone upon the barrels of liquor he had put here to brew in peace.
“Wei Ying,” she snapped when he gave no answer.
“Yes, I heard you,” he replied. “Just tell him to go away.”
It was not the first time Jiang Cheng had tried to talk to him, and it would certainly not be the last.
Wen Qing sighed loudly. The sound of her steps echoed less loudly, now that all walls of the cave were covered in items of all kinds—talismans and papers, crates full of seeds or necessities, pots wide enough for two adults to sit in where the moonless flowers grew. Cloaks and robes made by Luo Fanghua, who had proven herself to be a wonderful seamstress.
She crouched by Wei Wuxian’s side and pulled the compass out of his hands.
Wei Wuxian looked at her at last.
“He came with his sister,” she said. Her face was serious, devoid of any mockery. “The two of them alone.”
“Why should I care?” he asked.
“She was crying and begging me to let her see you.”
He saw her eyes look above his head and to the back of the cave, where Wen Ning still lay where they had first put him, preserved by the blood array around him.
“Wei Ying,” she said softly, “they just miss you.”
It felt like an eternity later that Wei Wuxian pushed himself to his feet.
The day was fresh and wet still with the night’s dew. Wei Wuxian had not slept, and did not know if the morning was still young, but either way people already went to their occupations. He saw the backs of a few working the vegetable garden; he saw Luo Fanghua by the door of her shack, pulling needle and thread through cloth with unshaking fingers. Most who saw him paused to greet him with bows. Wei Wuxian wished he had something he wanted to tell them other than to stop doing it.
Then he went down the narrow path in the hills; he walked out of the barriers and into the cold, resentful air of the Mounds; he smelled Jiang Cheng before he could even see him—overturned earth and stormy air, like his mother and father at once. The aftermath of a landslide.
It was not Jiang Cheng who called his name first, however, but Jiang Yanli.
“A-Xian!” she cried at the very first sight of him.
He was not even yet past the last of his talismans. Jiang Yanli still ran ahead, threatening to shock herself with the barrier if he did not cross it first, and so he did; and she mistook this for a welcoming sign, and took him in her arms.
Wei Wuxian stilled deathly. He did not return the gesture, only tensed and tensed as she tried to soften him with her embrace. He met Jiang Cheng’s eyes over the top of her head—saw the anger laid into them as it had been when they last spoke—and looked away.
Jiang Yanli pulled away from him and called his name again. He tried to smile at her.
Her answering smile was feeble. “A-Xian,” she repeated. Her hand crawled from his back to his shoulder and squeezed it. “Oh, you’re so thin…”
Wei Wuxian finally managed to speak. “I’m fine, shijie,” he said, dislodging her hand. Her face fell in unhappiness. “What are you two doing here?”
“We came to see you, of course,” she replied.
Judging by Jiang Cheng’s face, and by the cultivators of the Jiang sect he had taken with him for each of his previous attempts to enter the Burial Mounds, there was more to it than that.
“Have you been eating well?” Jiang Yanli asked, taking him by the arm again to lead him further away from the path. There was a high-raised, crooked root at the base of a bare tree; she made him sit on it beside her and took both of his hands in hers. “You look so pale! Have you been sick again?”
Wei Wuxian’s stomach twisted at the memory of vomiting behind the kitchen of the Lotus Pier. “I’m just fine,” he replied.
“It’s been so long since we saw you, why won’t you…”
In front of them, Jiang Cheng clicked his tongue angrily. Jiang Yanli reared back slightly, cutting off her own words in the making.
“It’s his problem if he prefers to stay here rather than live in his own home,” Jiang Cheng declared. “He knows there’s a room waiting for him there if he decides to show some shame, he just refuses to.”
They were the first words he had spoken to Wei Wuxian in months, and they were delivered frostily. So Wei Wuxian replied in kind, “Glad to know we are on the same page.”
It only served to make Jiang Cheng’s fist clench around Sandu’s pommel.
“You are so ungrateful,” he spat at Wei Wuxian; his own rage made him shake in place, taking away any hint of the relief Wei Wuxian had glimpsed on his face when he came around the winding path a minute ago. “Don’t you know what people are saying about you? Don’t you know how much of my time I have to spend defending you, apologizing for your constant stealing!?”
“Don’t defend him, sister,” Jiang Cheng snapped at her.
Jiang Cheng had never spoken to his sister so. It was enough to have Wei Wuxian stand again and place himself before her, so that she would be spared his awful mood and awful words.
“What is it I am stealing, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian asked. “What is it that people think I owe them?”
Jiang Cheng’s face flushed violently. “You know what!” he exclaimed. “Everyone knows what you’ve been doing—it’s all every sect within hundreds of miles of here can talk about!”
“And you believe them?”
“I don’t know what I should believe anymore!”
Jiang Yanli had risen too, and her hand had fisted into Wei Wuxian’s sleeve. She looked at the edge of tears again. If Jiang Cheng had stood sufficiently close, she would have grabbed him, too.
Wei Wuxian pulled away from her, heedless of the mournful, “A-Xian,” she begged him with. “I’ll tell you what to believe,” he said coldly. “I’ll tell you to believe this: that a day before the discussion conference in Lanling, Jin Zixun noticed two kunze siblings hidden in the group of Wen sect prisoners he was in charge of. That he attacked them, and managed to drag away one of the two to do with as he saw fit.”
Jiang Cheng looked mortified. “You say this,” he muttered, “but you hate Jin Zixun, don’t you? Shijie told me how you two met—”
“Should I call Wen Qing here, then?” Wei Wuxian cut him off harshly. “Should I bring her here so she and I can tell you in what state we found her brother’s body? Do you have so little faith in me, Jiang Cheng, that you think I would go around saying such lies just because I dislike one person?”
“I’ve met Wen Ning before,” Jiang Cheng spoke back. “He’s not even kunze!”
“He was hiding! Wen Ning and Wen Qing have hidden themselves their whole lives, because they knew what they risked if they were ever found out!”
Jiang Cheng threw his head to the side as if to avoid a blow, red in the cheeks and pale everywhere else, in that peculiar ugly way of blushing he only ever sported when he was truly embarrassed.
Through all his life, Wei Wuxian had avoided embarrassing him with this.
He had known. Even when they were just children, even when Jiang Cheng pushed past his own upbringing in order to grace him with a friendly shove, with a pat to the shoulder, he knew how Jiang Cheng felt about the topic of statuses. About the topic of Wei Wuxian’s status. Jiang Cheng had never even uttered it if he could avoid it; he had never thought of Wei Wuxian as kunze as long as people did not remind him of it, and the anger he displayed for those occurrences, the prideful words he said, were all in his own defense.
Wei Wuxian is a disciple of the Jiang sect. Wei Wuxian is a skilled archer.
There was a time when Wei Wuxian welcomed this, when he took this as a reason for pride, as proof of his difference from others who shared his status, but he was no such child anymore.
He did not wish to be apart from his own kind and remain alienated from them and their lives. He did not wish to go on living blindly. The reluctance Jiang Cheng still showed for acknowledging who he was felt only puerile now.
“This is what happens,” he told his once-shidi, “when they are found out. This is what happens to those of them who try to escape being locked up for life. Can you look me in the eye and tell me you blame them, Jiang Cheng?”
“A-Xian, we would never let this happen to you,” Jiang Yanli said with tears in her eyes. “You know we would never let it happen to you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Wei Wuxian replied, tearing away once more from the grip of her fingers on his sleeve. He spoke to her next, willing her to understand even as he knew she would not. “Shijie, it doesn’t matter who it happens to. I can’t just stand here and leave things as they are. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
And he was; he was sorry for her tears, sorry for the anger and confusion on Jiang Cheng’s face, sorry for the long-lost days of their youth in the Lotus Pier. He was sorry for how forlorn she must be without him to walk by the river with her. He was sorry for the empty space at Jiang Cheng’s right side, where he had once promised he would always be.
The great sorrow in him was only matched by fatigue. “I owe these people,” he told the both of them. “I owe it to them to do whatever I can to help them.”
“And what about what you owe our clan?” Jiang Cheng asked him.
The red blood in his face had not receded, but he still looked angry. He looked the same as he did when he was young and his dogs were taken away from him—when his helplessness turned to tears and screams of rage, and he locked Wei Wuxian out of his room for three nights in rancor.
“I helped you avenge Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu,” Wei Wuxian said tiredly. “I helped you win the war. I killed Wen Chao.” He ignored the guilty whisper through his chest and belly, which said: You avenged yourself. “I will not get in the way of Yunmengjiang. I won’t cause you trouble or defy you in public, I still…”
I still consider you my family.
But Wei Wuxian had lost the right to those words on the day the Lotus Pier burned. “I just want to be left alone,” he said instead. “Me and all the people who live here. We just want to be left in peace.”
“You won’t be left alone for long if you keep taking them.”
Another glance Jiang Cheng’s way revealed him tense, unhappy. “I know that,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Jiang Cheng bristled, “Then why? Why do you keep doing it?”
Wei Wuxian thought of Grandmother, locked within the same four walls all of her life, who would have died without walking into the sun like that man in the Lotus Pier if Wei Wuxian had not come. He recalled Luo Fanghua whose ankle bore permanent bruises from the chain that had been wound around it for years. He thought of Wen Ning who had risked his whole life to help him only because Wei Wuxian had been of his kind.
But appealing to such kinship to Jiang Cheng was a fool’s dream, he knew; so he replied, “You wouldn’t understand.”
And like every single time he had said it before, Jiang Cheng’s face closed off with anger.
Still, he did not seem inclined to pursue the matter further. “They want to come after you, Wei Wuxian,” he said warningly. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you have been avoiding the greater sects’ territories during those trips of yours. They’re staying quiet for now, but the minor sects…”
“Let them come,” Wei Wuxian sneered. “You think I’m scared of a few mediocre cultivators?”
“A-Xian, we’re just worried,” Jiang Yanli pleaded. She did not try to touch him again, and only stood by his side with her wide eyes turned to him. “You don’t know what A-Cheng’s had to go through since you left, everyone accuses him of using you to conspire against them.”
“Sister,” Jiang Cheng tried to interrupt; but Jiang Yanli, in a rare show of defiance, raised a hand to silence him.
“They say that he is the one to steal their kunze,” she went on. “Or that you are a loose weapon, and proof that he can’t control his own sect. He has started being isolated from the rest of the clans.”
Wei Wuxian could believe it.
Even if he did not believe Jiang Yanli incapable of lying to him, he would have seen the truth of her words over Jiang Cheng’s face: his former shidi grew red and ugly once more, shamed by the knowledge of his own failure, disgusted to have to ask him for help.
He did not reject Jiang Yanli this time when she once more touched his arm. “We came here to see you,” she said quietly. “This is true before anything else, A-Xian, and we will not force you to do anything.”
“Because we can’t,” Jiang Cheng spat out.
Jiang Yanli ignored his input. “But your absence has caused a lot of troubles to our sect,” she continued placatingly. “People have been talking. You haven’t been seen publicly in almost a year, and those who did see you have so little good to say. If they don’t see you with us, if they imagine that you fell from under our protection, or that A-Cheng fell from yours…”
Wei Wuxian needn’t hear her say more to understand what she meant.
He was silent as she nodded to her brother, and Jiang Cheng pulled from within his belt a rolled piece of paper. Wei Wuxian took it when Jiang Cheng handed it to him. He recognized Lanlingjin’s seal in red wax, already broken through when Jiang Cheng read the missive.
It was an invitation to a hunting competition. Green-black ink sloped over paper in many a flowery idiom, asking for the master cultivators to come and enjoy the festivities, to show off their skills. Jin Guangshan’s signature was burned to the page at its bottom, looking no different than it had been over a year ago, as he had asked for the three Wen kunze to be returned to him like well-deserved spoils of war.
“I should believe,” Wei Wuxian said softly, “that Jin Guangshan wants to see me, after the last time we met?”
“He sent an invitation to us,” Jiang Yanli replied. “He knew we’d ask you to come.”
“Then let me ask you differently, shijie; should I want to see Jin Guangshan, considering that he threatened me?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said exasperatedly. “Won’t you think of someone not yourself for once? If not for us, then at least be smart enough to realize that the—the people you’ve taken also need as much protection as they can get!”
“I know this,” Wei Wuxian snapped.
“Then come,” Jiang Yanli said. Her hand squeezed around his arm, and he saw and felt her worry at finding it so skinny. She did not linger on it again, however. “Please, come with us. Show them that you are too powerful to risk messing with. Show that you still consider us your family, and that A-Cheng and you both benefit from each other’s protection.”
He should refuse, he thought, looking into her pleading eyes.
Lanling was not so close, and the competition would last days. Those days would have to be spent without him to strengthen the barriers surrounding the Burial Mounds which kept fierce spirits at bay, or to chase away angry families come to steal what they should have never possessed. Wen Qing was becoming apt at keeping the barriers, and a few of the Wen sect people could fight, Wei Wuxian knew; but it would still be a risk.
If he came, he would probably have to see Jin Zixun again and prevent himself from killing him. Or perhaps he would have to deal with Jin Guangshan himself rather than his nephew; or even his son Jin Zixuan, who had never missed a chance to make a nuisance of himself to Wei Wuxian through the years.
If he didn’t go…
He licked his dry lips. “Fine,” he conceded. “I’ll go with you.”
Jiang Yanli’s face brightened so vividly, it looked as if the sun had pierced the heavy cover of clouds to fall onto her eyes and lips.
Wei Wuxian accepted her embrace more readily this time. It still pulled heavily at his heart and made him feel thick-skinned, unbending, tough. Like the standing bark of a tree giving the illusion that its insides remained, even after they were eaten through by rot. If Wen Qing had been there, she would have put a hand on his shoulder and guided him away from the source of his unease.
He could not even feel anything for Jiang Yanli being the source of his unease, now. Not sorrow and not shame.
“You should visit us, A-Xian,” she said as she released him. He could tell that his stiffness had worried her, and that she wished to cry again. “A-Ying and A-Qian have grown so much, and they miss you terribly…”
Wei Wuxian turned his back to her.
He stepped up the path that winded up and down the hills. He passed Jiang Cheng silently, knowing how many questions and words of anger burned on the man’s tongue, unable to answer any of them. “I’ll join you in Lanling in two months,” he said simply; then he crossed the first of his barriers and felt sound and rotten air clear from around him.
Wen Qing was waiting for him at the top of the path when he reached it. So were a few of the kunze, the more curious ones who always awaited an occasion to speak with him for some reason. “Don’t worry,” he told them, “Jiang Cheng was only here to ask me for something. He’s not going to attack us.”
“Is it true what they say,” said a man of thirty, delicate and pretty-faced, one of the rare few of that age and appearance whom Wei Wuxian could convince to leave their houses. “That you are this sect leader’s shixiong?”
The others did not move away either. Some exchanged looks of awe or disapproval; most stared at Wei Wuxian with an oddly hopeful glint in their eyes.
“I suppose so,” Wei Wuxian replied. He knew not if he should still call himself any such thing. “Jiang Cheng is… we grew up together. Yes, he was my shidi.”
His shidi and his brother, who pulled him out of the mud and cried when Wei Wuxian got the both of them lost in the woods. Who embraced him, once, in the darkness of an abandoned fort, and begged him not to die.
“Excuse me,” he told the group around him.
None of them tried to stop him as he left.
The bloodpool cave was as he had left it: cool and fire-lit and as silent as a tomb. Wen Ning’s body lay unchanged, its spirit absorbing slowly, still so far away from waking.
“They just want to know more about you.”
Wei Wuxian looked over his shoulder.
Wen Qing did not fear the sight of the cave so much now. She had become used to Wen Ning’s preserved state and never shied away from sitting by him, holding his cold hands, whispering to him. She was looking at Wei Wuxian now with a small smile on her severe face.
“You hardly ever speak to them,” she said. “All they know is what you tell them when you free them, and then what they can get out of me with bribes.”
“I don’t know what to say to them,” Wei Wuxian replied.
The kunze were sometimes quick to speak to each other, sometimes not. Some went so far as to be friendly with the qianyuan and zhongyong of the Wen sect who shared three houses between them all at one end of the budding village. Others remained isolated and silent, like Luo Fanghua who sat by her house every day and sewed clothing together.
But she sat out in daylight, no matter how cold or hot the weather was. She stopped her work sometimes to let sunlight bathe over her face, closing her eyes to feel it more clearly, showing such deep emotion that Wei Wuxian always needed to turn away from the sight.
Wen Qing joined his side. She said curtly, “They are not your enemies. They just couldn’t believe that you were raised in such a way until they saw you with sect leader Jiang earlier.”
“So you were all spying on us, then.”
“They just peeked. We couldn’t hear any word you two or the young lady said.”
It tore a smile out of him; his mouth ached at pulling in such a way, so long had it been since he gave any.
“Jiang Cheng and shijie asked me to come to Lanlingjin’s hunting competition in two months,” he told her, handing over the invitation he was still holding in one hand. It had crumpled badly when he clenched his fist earlier. “I said I would.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Wen Qing replied. “You could stand to make a show of yourself once in a while, remind them not to mess with us.”
“Who knows. Maybe Jin Guangshan will finally have me killed while I’m there.”
Wen Qing did not share his humor with the topic. She read over the letter quickly, frowning, her fingers touching the jade pendant at her hip in the shape of a twisted snake. “I’ll take care of protection while you’re gone,” she told him, rolling up the paper again.
“I know,” Wei Wuxian said.
As he walked her to the opening of the cave at the end of the day—as the sun set over the hills bloodily and turned grey stone to gold—he called again, “Wen Qing.”
She stopped ahead of him.
Already the inhabitants of this hastily-put-together village were preparing for the night. Luo Fanghua sat by her house with tea in hand, always eager to feel the sunrays over her until they vanished beyond the mountains, always alone and unspeaking. The pretty man who had questioned Wei Wuxian earlier had dressed a wide table for about a dozen to dine on.
Grandmother sat at one end, rocking gently in place, holding a squirming child against her. Its black hair swayed in the evening breeze. One tiny hand raised from between their bodies and grabbed her collar awkwardly.
Wei Wuxian looked away, and his heart beat so strongly at the hollow of his throat that his skin felt a second away from splitting open under its blows.
“If I die,” Wei Wuxian said in spite of the shaking in him which she must have noticed. “If I die—you have to take care of them.”
“Don’t speak like this,” Wen Qing snapped at him.
“Please, just promise me.”
He knew what she must see when she looked at him: how skinny and sleepless he was, how sick food and water made him, how he was shaking now with proximity to his greatest and deepest wound. He knew she must be thinking of all the times she had to ply him into resting and all the times he spent out of his own mind, standing or sitting in place and waiting to feel again.
Her eyes shone. “I will,” she said shakily. “But you’re not allowed to die, Wei Wuxian.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“I won’t let you die.”
Wei Wuxian looked at her and thought that he had never had a friend like her; and that, should they be separated one day by death or other things, he never again would.
If Wei Wuxian had more meat on his bones on the day of Lanlingjin’s hunting competition, perhaps he would have been as burdened by the heat as some of the cultivators there seemed to be. Those dressed for hunting fared slightly better than the rest, who scurried in-between shaded spots to avoid the worst of it, but only Meng Yao, who was nevertheless wearing a full set of golden robes, looked well-rested and dry-skinned.
Then Wei Wuxian saw Lan Xichen standing at another end of the wide and flat promontory where the stone path had emerged, and not even the scorching heat could have warmed him any.
He heard Jiang Cheng call his name angrily as he left him and Jin Zixuan behind. He walked far to the border of the woods where the hunt was to take place, trying not to look in the direction of the Gusu delegation, failing every time. He never met Lan Xichen’s eyes, who looked for all intents and purposes as if he had not noticed his presence, but it hardly mattered.
Every time he blinked, Wei Wuxian could see him kneeling before him. The ghostly image of that day in the snow followed and haunted him, and he felt that if he were to breathe in with his nose, all he would smell would be the frosty scent of the man as he carried him sideways.
He should not have come. He should have known to expect this, and should have known better than to think he could handle it with any grace.
Wei Wuxian ignored the dark looks he could feel following him around. He resisted the need to let his forehead touch the cool bark of a tree, or to fist a hand into his outer robe, level with his stomach, in hope of chasing away the twisting and shaking he felt there. It would not do to show weakness in front of so many.
“So they did bring you,” said a voice behind him. “The Jiang clan has truly gone rotten.”
Jin Zixun stood there with an arrogant and spiteful look to his face. The bruises at his throat from where Wei Wuxian had stepped were long gone, but he still grabbed his collar with one hand when Wei Wuxian looked down to it. The veins of his forehead bulged under his sweaty skin.
When he was certain that a good amount of fear had darkened the man’s confidence, Wei Wuxian said coldly, “If you value your life, Jin Zixun, you will stay far away from me. I spared you a year ago on the orders of a friend, but she is not here now.”
“You mad bitch,” Jin Zixun spat in outrage. “Do you know how many people here want your head? You’ll be lucky to escape with your life.”
Wei Wuxian knew the names of the sects he had stolen from, and that some of them were here, their representatives burning with hatred at the sight of him. He didn’t care. He stared down Jin Zixun, allowing himself the pleasure of imagining his head speared at the end of a sword.
“You had better watch yourself in those woods, Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixun said despite his growing and visible fear. He took a step backwards, looking quickly around them, noticing too late that no one was within easy distance to help. “People like you have no place in our world.”
“Is that what you told Wen Ning when you left him to die?” Wei Wuxian asked softly.
Jin Zixun’s face reddened as if cooked. He made a frightened and choked sound, looking at Wei Wuxian’s hand, which had taken a piece of black iron out of his sleeve. One half of the Stygian Tiger Seal.
“I could walk around blindfolded and not be threatened by you or any of your ilk,” Wei Wuxian said, lifting the half-Seal up, watching Jin Zixun step away again. “You think you have what it takes to kill me, senior Jin? Go ahead and try.”
“Wei Wuxian,” the man cried, as hateful as he was terrified. “You dare threaten my life—”
“What is the problem here, cousin?”
Jin Zixun jumped as if the very ground had shaken under him. He turned to face the newcomer: Meng Yao and his pleasant smile, who still looked fresh-faced despite the heat and constant walking around.
“Bastard,” he greeted him in an uneven voice.
Meng Yao went so far as to nod to him again, both of his hands clasped together before him. “The hunt will be starting soon,” he said. “I have been tasked by sect leader to gather all the competitors, so that we may proceed. You should head back to your uncle’s tent, Zixun.”
Jin Zixun looked between the both of them—Meng Yao and Wei Wuxian—and, as he was wont to do in his unending cowardness, turned away from them in a huff of theatrical displeasure. At least his hands still shakily grabbed at his own collar, Wei Wuxian noticed.
He hid the half of the Seal again. When he looked at Meng Yao, he found the man’s eyes lingering in the direction of his hands.
“I won’t use it,” Wei Wuxian told him.
Meng Yao’s face lightened with surprise before smoothing over. “I’m certain most of the guests here would prefer if you did not, young master Wei,” he replied.
“It couldn’t be called a competition at all if I used it.”
Wei Wuxian frowned.
He studied Meng Yao from the corner of his eyes as they walked back to the wide tents which the Jin clan had set up for shade. He was a short man, pleasantly-scented in spite of his qianyuan status, with thin hands and gentle eyes. He carried no sword that Wei Wuxian could see, but there were calluses between the index and thumb of his right hand. The same that Wei Wuxian had once sported, when he still used Suibian.
As if sensing that Wei Wuxian was looking at them, Meng Yao linked his hands behind his back. “We’re here, young master Wei,” he said.
They had reached the thin line of paper talismans keeping the forest sealed. Before Wei Wuxian could say a thing, Meng Yao nodded and declared, “I wish you the best of luck.”
He left without waiting for an answer.
Wei Wuxian stood in the middle of all those sects and cultivators, in the midst of people he had once called allies or friends or at the very least, trusted to have in mind the same ambitions. Nie Huaisang was there in his grey-and-green robes; Ouyang Zhi stood not far, his head resolutely turned away; Lan Wangji was with his brother, whose eyes met Wei Wuxian’s in something like an accident and made his belly turn to ice.
Lan Xichen looked away quickly. He did not bow as he once had in the Nightless City, offering Wei Wuxian the first congratulatory words he had heard in over a year. Wei Wuxian let the sickness wash over him until he felt numb again.
None of these people were friends or allies of his, he thought. Not even those he could recognize but not name, those who had been trapped with the Xuanwu of Slaughter and fled while he faced the beast alone.
No, not alone, he recalled. He eyed the pristine silhouette of Lan Wangji across the crowd. Lan Wangji turned his head toward him as if sensing his gaze and nodded his head at him gently.
Wei Wuxian’s next exhale felt a little warmer.
He made his way into the woods with Chenqing in hand and immediately separated from the rest of the clans. He thought he heard a call of his name through the haze, but he did not heed it. Whoever wanted to see him now, out of all those people, could not have anything good to say.
Jiang Cheng had remained with the sect leaders outside. Jiang Yanli was strolling with Madam Jin, who no doubt wished to speak to her again of her once-engagement to Jin Zixuan.
This was no competition to Wei Wuxian even without the use of the Stygian Tiger Seal. The cadavers walked to him with one note of the dizi, following blindly to wherever he pointed, and where he pointed was always the same: to a group of cultivators in Yunmeng robes whose names he had never learned. The boys and girls were astonished to find so many targets on their way. Wei Wuxian saw them struggle from a height to capture the corpses, hesitant and new still despite the months since Jiang Cheng had recruited them.
He felt nothing at all, not even a shadow of pride, for these strangers. When he had still lived at the Pier, none of them had so much as spoken a word to him.
He remembered a time when his shidi used to play with him with their feet in the water.
He was bored. He felt angry. The possibility of seeing white robes appear behind the wide trunk of a tree, and of finding himself once more in front of the Lan clan’s elder heir, unnerved him. Even the prospect of crossing paths with Lan Wangji, whom he was always at least happy to greet, could not diminish this fear.
The sight of that squirming child in Grandmother’s frail arms had not left him at all. Wei Wuxian moved about the woods as if expecting that great pain to strike him again and make him realize that he had never escaped. That his nails, crusted with dirt, had never pulled him away; that the taste of grass in his mouth may never vanish.
So was it that he was found almost an hour later—reaching the edge of a clearing where a narrow stream ran, feeling moss and grass under his boots rather than hot, cracked earth, and hearing his own name called: “Wei Wuxian!”
Wei Wuxian’s hand grabbed Chenqing again, but it was only Jin Zixuan. The man emerged from above a row of thick and tangled bushes, the branches of which caught at the fine training uniform he wore and made him curse loudly.
“What do you want?” Wei Wuxian asked him.
The Jin Zixuan he had known as a child had been mostly harmless, but Wei Wuxian had heard of his exploits during the war. If he was here to demand reparation for his cousin’s pride, perhaps things would, at last, come to a fight.
Jin Zixuan untangled himself from the bushes. He crossed his half of the clearing breathlessly, red in the face as if he had run for minutes on end, his sword Suihua gleaming sharply in the sunlight. When he arrived before Wei Wuxian—only a few steps away—he stopped. Reddened even more. Asked in a strangled voice: “Was it you who took away all the targets? I could hear the sound of a flute from below the mountain.”
Wei Wuxian dearly wanted to roll his eyes, or perhaps to hit him again as he had done when they were both children. “If your lot had been faster, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to,” he replied curtly. “I left a few. If you run some more you’ll catch them.”
He turned away, well-intent on leaving, but Jin Zixuan’s voice came again hurriedly: “Wait! Wait, please. I wish to speak with you.”
It was how polite the request was, Wei Wuxian supposed, that made him abide it. This or the lost expression on Jin Zixuan’s face which made him look like a child again. He faced the man once more and replied, “Then speak.”
Jin Zixuan moved oddly. His sword hand rose and fell twice, and he licked his lips. He seemed at a loss despite his earlier words; Wei Wuxian considered leaving anyway, when Jin Zixuan finally blurted out, “How did you like Golden Carp Tower?”
Either he realized for himself how his words could be taken, or he saw Wei Wuxian’s face darken with the awful memories, for he went back on his words hastily.
“No, I meant… I meant the place. The Tower. Did you like it?”
Wei Wuxian stared at him without answering for a long second. “I suppose so,” he said at last.
His one and only visit at the Tower only ever came back to him in painful images of rain and blood, in the sound of Jiang Cheng’s voice trying to hold him back, in Wen Qing’s scent of persimmon. But he had liked the town well enough, hadn’t he? He had found the stairs beautiful. He had admired the golden halls before he tainted them with resentful energy.
“The view was beautiful,” he said, recalling the little bluff of stone where he and Lan Wangji had met and he had watched over the open land. He could still picture how the light had stroked Lan Wangji’s face, so high up in the mountains, with so little distance between him and the sky. As if it were painted on him. “I wish I’d had the chance to visit the famed gardens,” Wei Wuxian added, figuring that Jin Zixuan was looking for such compliments.
Jin Zixuan’s lips curved into a smile. “Yes,” he replied, his voice thin and breathless. “Yes, they’re beautiful. You would love them. I remember, you like flowers.”
Do I? Wei Wuxian wondered.
Perhaps he did. He had loved the lotuses of the Pier, loved picking them and watching them grow, loved planting them with the peasants who cultivated them along the river, when they would allow him too. He liked, also, to take care of the white flowers in the cave in Yiling. Wen Qing had made such a comment to him once, telling him that he seemed more at peace with his hands full of water and dirt.
But how did Jin Zixuan know this?
“Why are you asking me if I liked Golden Carp Tower?” Wei Wuxian asked Jin Zixuan, whose breathing had quieted but whose face remained pink. “It’s not like I’ll ever set foot there again, considering how your father and I left things last time.”
“But if you could,” Jin Zixuan said. He did not protest the rude mention of his father. “If… If there was a way, and you could go back there. If you could live there. Would you like it?”
“Why would I want to live in Lanling?” Wei Wuxian replied curtly. “Are you asking me if I’d like to come nicely and give myself up for my crimes, Jin Zixuan?”
The Jin sect heir may look as flustered before him as he had been every time they interacted before, but Wei Wuxian could already feel unease overcome the confusion in him.
Had Jin Zixuan come to demand reparation for his clan? Should he truly ready himself for a fight?
But: “No,” Jin Zixuan said empathetically.
He looked Wei Wuxian in the eyes. His face twisted into something pained and vulnerable. He took a step forward, and Wei Wuxian realized, between that second and the next, just how wide he had become.
How the delicate appearance of his youth, held in place by Wei Wuxian’s memories, had gone. War had scarred his temple and hardened his face, and his shoulders and back seemed to occupy so much width, draped in those golden clothes. The scent of him swelled through the clearing and trees as if to become one with them, like a harsher and bitterer echo of his half-brother Meng Yao’s.
Wei Wuxian could not remember ever paying attention to this peculiar qianyuan-scent before, this smell of warm and bitter pine trees, but now, he did. Now ice gathered up his chest and pain tightened in his throat. It was all he could do not to step away carefully.
“No,” Jin Zixuan was saying, wide-eyed and flushed, a childish expression on the visage of a man. “Of course not, I would never… If I were allowed to—”
“What do you want,” Wei Wuxian cut him off.
Silence shivered between them. Jin Zixuan’s hand lowered; it was only when it did that Wei Wuxian noticed it had risen at all.
“Do you remember the first time we met?” Jin Zixuan asked softly.
But even if Wei Wuxian had remembered, he could not have told him so. No words could have pulled themselves out of him now, while his lungs filled with such icy air that it felt like water. That it felt like drowning.
It could not be, he thought over and over again, struck by disbelief and fright all at once. The idea alone was preposterous, was wrong. Surely, it could not be.
But Jin Zixuan was stepping closer, flushing thusly in the shade, an eager look in his eyes, which never stopped meeting Wei Wuxian’s.
“I was sent to the Lotus Pier to spend time with the young lady Jiang,” he was saying. “I was only thirteen, and you must have been fourteen or so. I was sitting with young lady Jiang over the docks, and you…” Jin Zixuan hesitated, his throat shaking as he swallowed. He then gave a near-reverent smile at memory he was speaking of. “You got angry at me for some reason or another,” he told Wei Wuxian. “You pushed me into the water, using a piece of wood because Jiang Wanyin had told you that you would get in trouble if you touched me. It all ended in a terrible scandal, and my father was quite angry. I’ll never forget how he scolded me for letting you approach me.”
Wei Wuxian watched him as if through a smokescreen. He could not say anything.
Jin Zixuan stepped closer again. His voice swelled with emotion. “But all I could remember was you,” he said. “All I could think about was you, in that pond, smiling in the sunlight… How bright you were. How bright you always were.”
Jin Zixuan opened his mouth again, and Wei Wuxian managed to tell him, “Stop,” in a rash voice. The breath felt caught below his tongue entirely. “Stop talking now.”
Jin Zixuan did hesitate. Wei Wuxian saw it even with the bright panic making color wash away from his sight—Jin Zixuan stopped speaking, stopped stepping toward him, and drew away the hand he had lifted again.
It only lasted a moment.
“I can’t,” Jin Zixuan said. “I have to tell you.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Each word was difficult to form and difficult to speak, but Wei Wuxian did it anyway. This could not be happening. “Jin Zixuan, you’re mad,” he said. “You’ve always hated me, you’ve always found me disgraceful—”
“I never did,” Jin Zixuan cut him off, and he took another step forth, so that he stood in front of Wei Wuxian like so many times before with only the thinnest of respectable distances between them.
Wei Wuxian had never minded before. He had never been frightened of it before. But every breath he took in smelled of bitter trees, and everywhere he looked showed nothing but grass, but soil; nothing but places for his body to be pushed down onto if he should fail in his escape.
“I never found you disgraceful. I admit that I am awkward, I often say the wrong thing, but I always found you—”
“Stop talking,” Wei Wuxian snapped at him.
Fear seized him once again when the heel of his boot touched a root, and he realized that a tree stood behind him and cut away his only safe route.
“I will not,” Jin Zixuan replied. Already he had crossed through that added distance to stand once more before him. “Please, listen to me.”
And then his hand which had not stopped rising and falling reached forth and grabbed Wei Wuxian’s.
Wei Wuxian would have liked to say that he pushed him away and fled; that he kept enough of his mind to avoid the mess that was sure to follow, or even to beat Jin Zixuan to the ground and walk away unscathed, but he did not. His head rang with the sound of a child’s cries. His skin shifted and moved about his bones, and he stilled entirely, his heart and his lungs gone icy with terror.
Jin Zixuan’s hand was warm, but he could not feel it. It cradled his clenched fingers, opening them one by one to separate his nails from where they dug into his own skin. It slid palm-to-palm against his, a little damp from the hot day.
Wei Wuxian could not feel it at all.
“My father tried to reason with me so many times,” Jin Zixuan said in nothing more than a whisper. “I tried to reason with myself so many times, too, but you…”
Wei Wuxian swallowed and said, “Jin Zixuan.”
“You were always so much, you were always… You tormented me. I couldn’t stop thinking about you. For years I tried to tell myself that my father would never agree, and I knew all the rumors about Jiang Fengmian, about how he refused everyone so much as an audience with you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I do,” Jin Zixuan protested. His warm yet unfelt hand squeezed around Wei Wuxian’s, more terrible somehow than if Jin Zixuan had grasped him by the wrist to pin him to the tree-trunk behind. “When young lady Jiang came to get us that day—when I saw my cousin try to buy you in secret, I discovered rage like I had never felt before. When I thought you were dead after the Lotus Pier fell, I did not sleep for three days. I had no sword anymore to fly, but I wanted to run there for you. My father had to lock up all the horses to prevent me from fleeing.”
His relentless words halted, but only because Wei Wuxian had raised his other hand and pushed it over his own brow as if it could ease the ringing ache under his skin. As if it could put any sort of a barrier between them. “You were engaged,” he breathed, mortified. Nausea fitted snugly to the hollow of his throat. “To my shijie. To my sister.”
“How could anyone look at Jiang Yanli when you stand next to her?”
Wei Wuxian dug his fingers a little more into the thin of his forehead. He pushed them into his skull until he felt skin split under his fingernails.
Jin Zixuan made a small sound, something worried and kind, and released the hand he was holding. He reached for the other instead, pulling it from Wei Wuxian’s face, and Wei Wuxian could not look at him in the eye when he appeared again into his line of sight. He could only look at their linked hands; at Jin Zixuan pressing them to his own chest, his touch as careful as if he were holding sculpted jade instead.
He bowed like this as he had a long time ago: stiff and proper, the only difference being that Wei Wuxian’s hand was there, pressed between his own and the white peony sewn to his chest, and that if he had the ability to, he would have felt Jin Zixuan’s heartbeats right at the hollow of his palm.
The most deferential of all qianyuan greetings.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan said. His other hand touched the cut skin of Wei Wuxian’s forehead, wiping blood off tenderly. It was shaking as badly as Wei Wuxian felt his own body should shake. The Jin heir called again, hesitantly: “Wei Ying.”
“Don’t call me that,” Wei Wuxian said. His own voice was so thin and faraway, he could barely even hear it. “You don’t know me. You never even liked me.”
“I love you,” Jin Zixuan replied, and Wei Wuxian’s whole chest felt like an empty, gaping void. He wanted to cringe and curl up on the ground, to smother himself down to nothing, to never be seen again. “I’ve loved you since we were children. I want to marry you… No, there’s no one in the world I could marry but you.”
His fingers touched down from forehead to cheek, to the emaciated curve of bone under Wei Wuxian’s skin, and Wei Wuxian heard him breathe again, felt the air move over his lips, as Jin Zixuan leaned forward and stroked his temple and his ear softly.
He wondered if he would dare.
He wondered if Jin Zixuan would try, and he wondered if the qianyuan before him would survive the call for death already rumbling through Wei Wuxian and slithering into his sleeves, into the hearts of the Stygian Tiger Seal. If he would even manage to come close enough to touch before the life was torn from him savagely.
But Jin Zixuan had more restraint than Wen Chao. He had better manners than Jin Zixun. His fingers left Wei Wuxian’s face, and he pulled back and away, Wei Wuxian’s hand still held in his. He gave a weak smile, blushing to the ears. As if to apologize for his rude behavior of a second ago.
He took a breath. He caressed the back of Wei Wuxian’s hand with his thumb. “Marry me,” he said again in earnest. “I’ll never lock you up. I’ll speak to my father, I’ll take over the sect now if I have to. I’ll never prevent you from being you, Wei Ying, I promise you this.”
Wei Wuxian felt a breath away from imploding, fury pulsing up his throat and resentful energy shaking at his fingertips. He wanted nothing more than to reduce the man before him to ashes. The idea of it burned like a premonition and showed under his eyelids every time he blinked: that foolish smile erased from Jin Zixuan’s face, the man’s body melting into fire.
Then the sound came to him of a branch snapping underfoot; of someone running away unseen, carrying with them the unbearable knowledge of what had just transpired, and he shoved Jin Zixuan away.
Jin Zixuan stumbled upon another root and nearly fell. His voice when he called, “Wei Ying,” longed for more than what Wei Wuxian could name.
Wei Wuxian had to stop himself from thrusting Chenqing through the man’s chest like a blade.
“Do not ever,” he told him in a rasping, gasping voice, “speak to me again. If you approach me again, If you…” He swallowed back bitter bile, so much bitterer than the qianyuan-scent over the air which clung stickily to the skin of his hands and face. “I’ll kill you,” he promised. “I’ll kill you before you can say another word.”
Jin Zixuan looked at him with an open face, an open heart, and grief so evident in his eyes and mouth that Wei Wuxian felt the echo of it at his throat.
He ran into the woods.
The person who had spied on them was long gone, leaving behind themselves only a short trail of broken leaves. They must have taken flight when they were far enough and rejoined their clan. Wei Wuxian still looked and looked, shaking through all of his body, uprooting stones and bushes in his search for any clue. Perhaps the witness had left one of their belongings behind; perhaps a piece of cloth hung from one of those gnarly little branches that had torn into Jin Zixuan’s uniform—
He heard a breath beside him and turned on his feet, enraged, Chenqing brandished before him like a sword; and the hand that grasped its other end was pale and thin-fingered, callused by the sword and guqin.
Lit by a light of its own, poured directly from the sky. As if it were painted upon it.