Warnings: violence, mentions of rape
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wen Qing wept for the longest time.
She was a silent crier. Wei Wuxian had known this during the one and only embrace she had given him, when the weight of her grief seemed to have surpassed his, and they lay entangled together in the bleak depths of the bloodpool cave as she tried to crush out his own distant misery. She did much the same then, hiccuping noiselessly against Wen Ning’s cold shoulder. The newly awakened Wen Ning did not seem to know how to show emotion anymore; he had no heartbeat, no pumping blood to keep his body warm or convey the biology of feeling, but his spirit was the same.
He held her back. His stiff face tensed into a smile. He nodded again and again for every trembling, “A-Ning,” she called him by. Wen Qing seemed not to want for more than this—for him to be aware and alive to a point, and the movement of his arms as he embraced her febrile body.
When she released him, she looked at Wei Wuxian. Her tear-streaked face glowed wetly under the light of the fire. She did not let go of her brother, choosing to hold his hand now rather than the breadth of him in full, but she looked at him; she rose awkwardly to her feet.
She bowed with all of her back and said, “Thank you.”
Wei Wuxian had stepped away so that the both of them could be reunited, unhindered by his presence. His own back stiffened at the sight of her acting in such a way, so used was he to her unbendingness, so clear the memory was of her scolding him the one and only time he had bowed to her instead.
But she smiled. Her skin lit up with joy and gratitude. And he realized as the fear dissipated that it had been here at all: that all along he had believed she would leave him after she got what she wanted, and that he was a fool to take her friendship for something temporary. Wen Qing dragged her confused brother by the hand until she stood by Wei Wuxian’s side, and she embraced him too. She softened his shoulders and his arms. She warmed the center of his chest with gratitude and loyalty.
Wen Ning took to life in the Burial Mounds quietly and uneasily. If the others were scared at first of his appearance, and thought Wei Wuxian was once more trying to guard their sleeping quarters and separate them from the Wen sect remnants, Wei Wuxian did not know. Wen Qing took care of explaining in his and her brother’s stead. A few weeks later, one would have believed Wen Ning to have always been part of the landscape in the dead hills. Not a single person there so much as looked at him in askance.
Wen Ning himself spoke very little: his demeanor was much the same as it had been every time he and Wei Wuxian met in the past, but his words were quieter and rougher. Born thinly out of a throat that no air came naturally through. Perhaps this was the reason he was so few-worded anymore; or perhaps, as Wei Wuxian had feared in the lonely nights of waiting, the violence that had taken him out of the world of the living remained stuck to his skin as it did to Wei Wuxian’s.
He shared not his worries with either of the siblings. Instead he looked from afar as Wen Ning got to know of what had happened since the day he died; as he discovered with wide and whitened eyes the near-hundred of his kind who now lived out of cultivating the earth and sewing clothes together. Wei Wuxian spent the most time he ever would with them all during this period—watching Wen Ning adapt to life and the kunze adapt to him; watching Wen Ning come to know Luo Fanghua, Grandmother, Uncle Four; watching him be acquainted with the young Wen Yuan.
Wen Ning loved the child.
He seemed to find Wen Yuan’s presence more soothing than the rest, than even his sister’s at times. He played often with him into the dark hours of evening, his lax face showing more lightness of heart while in the child’s presence than anyone else’s. Wei Wuxian discovered this as he came back from the very edge of Gusu territory once, with a forty-year-old woman in tow who had begged him on her knees to take her away from the lonely room she was trapped in all her life.
It was not the first time he came back to the Burial Mounds and found the child running awkwardly around, although usually Grandmother or Wen Qing were quick to take Wen Yuan away so that he could walk through. Even Luo Fanghua now looked between Wen Yuan and Wei Wuxian in worry on the rare occasion the two stood within watching distance, and although she disliked such displays of touching or affection, she took Wen Yuan in her arms and took him out of Wei Wuxian’s sight.
But on that day, she was not around. Her fever time must have come while Wei Wuxian was away, for this was the only thing that ever kept her inside rather than out. So Wei Wuxian halted at the wider end of the hillpath and watched, frozen, as Wen Ning carried the child on his back and smiled stiffly at his high-pitched laughter.
Round and round he walked and ran, tireless, voiceless. And Wen Yuan laughed as loudly as he cried, and the sound of it lodged within Wei Wuxian’s throat and made it hard to breathe.
Wen Ning stopped when he noticed his presence. “Young master Wei,” he called softly, despite the many times Wei Wuxian had asked him not to be so formal.
He stepped toward him leisurely. Wen Yuan on his shoulders was flushed with laughter; as Wei Wuxian stared at him and felt his body grow distant from himself, the child turned curious grey eyes his way.
Wen Ning’s steps halted. From behind him his sister came, looking once at Wei Wuxian before turning to him. “I need to speak with Wei Wuxian for a bit,” she said kindly. She always seemed so kind, so tender with pain and love, when she looked at her brother. “You should take A-Yuan back to Grandmother.”
“Oh,” Wen Ning said. “Yes. Come on, A-Yuan.”
The child moaned and pouted at being asked to walk on his own, but he followed obediently, his hand held delicately in Wen Ning’s own.
The woman by Wei Wuxian’s side had been tense through the whole journey, unwilling to believe him when he had told her that the moonless tea would prevent her from being fevered as they traveled, or that none could guess her true status with the tonic Wen Qing brewed. Now, she relaxed. Her handsome face peered distantly at Wen Ning’s back.
Wei Wuxian expected her to ask about the grey quality of Wen Ning’s skin, the white veil over his eyes, the black veins running up his neck so evidently; instead she said, “So there are children here,” with relief weighing on her voice.
“Welcome,” Wen Qing told her briskly. “I imagine you’d like to rest now—I’ll take you to Grandmother while we figure out where you’ll sleep. There is a new house being built by my uncles, you’ll probably live there once it’s finished, but for now…”
She was so very good at this despite her unfriendly appearance and bitter scent. The woman followed her in slow steps, exhausted from the three-day journey on horseback after so many years of stillness, but she looked trusting. Like the others before her, and no matter how desperate she had been to flee, she seemed afraid that a step further would have her scolded or punished harshly. Wen Qing’s presence always seemed to do away with such worries.
Wei Wuxian led the tired horses back to the stable. The cold was still sharp on his skin despite the winter sun shining over them. He did not experience such physicality anymore, not for a long time, but his back braced for shivers all the same. Uncle Three manned the stables most of the time, as he was too old to participate in the more strenuous kind of manual work; he took the animals from Wei Wuxian with a bright, aged greeting, his suntanned face so wrinkled by time that his eyes were buried under folds of skin.
Wei Wuxian visited Luo Fanghua next.
She lived still in one of the earliest of the houses. As such, it was small, and only three others lived there with her, sharing two beds between them. Her ripe scent of berries was riper still when he pushed open the door after hearing her call for him to enter. Luo Fanghua herself was sitting by a wall at the other end, sewing by candlelight. She had not been idle while her fever lasted: clothes of all kinds were strewn over tables and chairs, and piled onto one of the two beds.
“You should be resting,” Wei Wuxian told her.
He put the needles and thread she had requested he buy while he was away on a chair by her side. She took them immediately, testing the sharpness of a needle on her thumb in precise hands. A thin drop of blood beaded out of the prick like a tiny ruby; she sucked it dry and nodded to him.
Luo Fanghua looked very poised in spite of her fever. Sweat made light shine off of her face, and she blinked groggily once in a while, but she looked otherwise unbothered. Her fingers were nimble as she knotted thread to fabric too quickly for him to see.
“You were away for long,” she said breezily.
Wei Wuxian had been ready to leave her to her task right then, but he paused at the sound of her tired voice.
“Only ten days,” he replied. “I’ve been away longer before.”
“Cultivators came three days ago.”
“The barriers are strong enough to resist them even if I should be outside for weeks. Were you afraid they’d get in?”
She shook her head, staring at him ruefully for the accusation. It was almost enough to make him smile.
She must have been afraid, if she was fevered already when it happened. But Luo Fanghua was as stubborn and rueful as he was—she did not like to speak or show her thoughts in any way if she could avoid it, and her smiles were precious and rare.
Looking at her now, flushed and uncomfortable and still putting on such an appearance for him, Wei Wuxian was reminded of Lan Wangji.
He blinked. He breathed in her fever-sweet scent and the burned smell of the candle. “How is your foot?” he asked, taking another step toward her.
Luo Fanghua took the time to finish her row of stitches before she put her work down on the other chair. She bent over her own knees; took the boot off her left foot; raised her leg a bit so he could see better, and only Wei Wuxian’s quick reflexes allowed him to grab her calf before her balance faltered. He crouched so that the height may be less straining for her to handle.
There was a ring of blue and black around her thin ankle. He did not touch it, although he knew from Wen Qing’s words that it was not painful anymore. His eyes still ran over it carefully, burning the shape and color of it to memory.
Every second spent thusly made hatred swarm what was left of his heart.
“You know you only have to say the word,” he told her, carrying her leg back to the floor.
It touched upon wood carefully, as if she were still ready for it to hurt as it had on that day. When he had found her laid in silk and near-unresponsive, an iron chain linking her foot to the wall of her kunze house, with only enough give to it to allow her to reach the water room.
She had to crawl to go there, she had told Wen Qing. Her foot ached too much to bear her weight anymore.
“If you would like me to take revenge for you, you can ask me to. For this, they do not deserve to live.”
“No,” Luo Fanghua said, as she had every time he had given her the choice.
How he wished that she would say yes. Perhaps he would find satisfaction in punishing her tormentors, if he could not find it in punishing his.
Luo Fanghua’s face was more flushed now than it had been a moment ago. She pushed away his hands and put her boot back on. She patted the robe over her thighs and sides until he rested once more creaseless upon her.
Wei Wuxian stared at her for another moment, crouched over the floor, before he rose. She avoided his eyes all the while.
“Then I’ll leave you now,” he said. “You should stop working and rest.”
“I do not like being idle,” she replied stubbornly.
Her forehead wrinkled in unhappiness. The image of Lan Wangji struggling with his frustration once more superposed itself to her, and Wei Wuxian’s lips lifted through no will of his.
“You do not…” Luo Fanghua’s words halted. She brought her work to her lap again as if to strengthen herself. “You don’t bring so many anymore,” she said.
He could not find them anymore.
So many of the houses now lay empty. Wei Wuxian would have believed this to be chance if he were more naïve, if he had not seen the hostility on the faces of those who were present on Phoenix Mountain. As it was, he knew that the kunze were being kept from him deliberately. The greater sects had grown complacent; the small villages and families whose houses he could find entry to were now keeping their kunze somewhere else.
He had an idea where, and he had an idea of the consequences if he tried to go after them.
But Luo Fanghua only looked worried. She had suffered so much already, and was only now beginning to smile and accept to rest and to preserve her efforts. Wei Wuxian knew why she worked so hard for all of them, and he knew that no amount of reassuring would convince her heart that he would not one day send her back whence she came if the mood struck him.
“Will you dine with us tonight?” she asked him as he was about to leave, and Wei Wuxian had not the heart to tell her no.
So he ate with a group of them, far from the Wen sect people who did not need to be asked to know that they should stay away when one of the kunze was fevered. He listened without speaking to the cheer of conversation. He did not manage to answer the smiles around him, or to do more than stay by Wen Qing’s side and watch Wen Ning play with the child near Grandmother’s front door.
He cleaned the dishes they had used side by side with two elderly men. He tried to drown the scent of petrichor with water and oil.
That night, Wen Qing said, “I haven’t told him.”
She was sitting by his side with a bowl full of tea in her hands. The furs she was wrapped in hid her face to the cheeks, and although she was not shivering, she kept her naked hands close to the heat of her drink. She gave him frowns from time to time, worried that he would catch a cold with so little on him.
But Wei Wuxian did not feel cold, or heat, anymore. Weather had no grasp on him now.
“I figured,” he told her.
Wen Qing sighed. She shifted closer to him, almost close enough that her cloak stuck to his own side. “A-Ning hasn’t asked anything,” she said. “But I can tell that he wants to know why you avoid him now.”
“It is not him I avoid,” Wei Wuxian retorted.
“I know this. A-Ning doesn’t, however.”
He remained silent.
“You think he will change his attitude toward you,” Wen Qing went on softly. “But I know my brother better than anyone in the world, even better than I know you. He has adored you since the first time you two met. Telling him would not change anything.”
“I’m not worried about this.”
Or at least, not only.
Wei Wuxian had also liked the Wen Ning he met in the Nightless City. Even when he had thought him to be zhongyong, and when Wen Ning’s own shyness had gotten the better of him and proven Wei Wuxian’s bravado wrong in the eyes of so many, he had never resented him. What Wen Ning had done to help him after the Lotus Pier burned, after Jiang Cheng lost his golden core… Wei Wuxian could never repay such a debt.
And yet it was not this selfless act he thought of when affection squeezed his chest as he looked at the man, but another; one much more delicate and private, when Wen Ning had told Wei Wuxian the truth of who he was and allowed him to sob with no judgment.
Wei Wuxian could not help but fear that learning of Wen Yuan’s situation would draw a gap between himself and Wen Ning, now that the boy was so attached to him. But that was not all.
“He’s doing so well,” he said.
Wen Ning had sat upon the ground with Wen Yuan before him, caught in the middle of a hand game of sorts that the child must be teaching him. His face was stiff and unexpressive as ever, but still there was peace to be found there. His slow and careful hands, which did not know their own strength anymore, allowed Wen Yuan’s to guide and mold them as they wished.
Wei Wuxian looked away. He rose from the wooden bench he and Wen Qing occupied. “If he doesn’t remember how he died, then I won’t be the one to remind him,” he told her. “I won’t be the one to put those thoughts through his head.”
“Through his or yours, Wei Ying?” Wen Qing replied.
His jaw tensed in anger. It was all he could do, suddenly, not to turn to her again and look for a way to make her unending calm break open in rage at last.
But Wen Qing said, “Forgive me,” with enough sorrow in her voice to stay him.
Grandmother was still outside despite the cold. She sat at the table where they had all eaten, warming herself with tea. The man who was the most beautiful of them all—the one who had agreed so readily to follow Wei Wuxian here and never left, in spite of how lucky his chances were at being agreeably married—was speaking to her slowly. Wei Wuxian watched them and saw only the narrow walls around them, the heavy roofs over their heads. The silken prisons they were once left in to die.
“He remembers,” Wen Qing said.
Wei Wuxian thought of Jin Zixun begging under his foot; and like with Luo Fanghua earlier, his chest tightened and burned.
Wen Qing laughed emptily. She put a hand over his arm, bracing herself against him. “He won’t tell me anything, but I know he remembers,” she continued. “But A-Ning is like you. He’s convinced himself that relying on anyone else would be a terrible sign of weakness.”
She supported herself on him as she rose, exhausted by the efforts of the day, her half-empty bowl spilling tea over her fingers.
“I won’t break,” she told him. “I know how it goes, Wei Ying. I’m no fool, I was no fool when we first met.”
“I know,” he replied.
He had never forgotten the words she had said as she was fixing the scars left on his back by Zidian.
“I handled everything. I could keep standing after A-Ning died, I could keep my head cool when Zewu-Jun brought you to me and your labor was killing you. I can handle all the people you bring here and keep them fed and housed.”
His heart ached. “Wen Qing,” he said.
She stopped him with a wave of the hand, with another grab at the thin meat of his arm. “Do not apologize,” she barked at him. “I’ve told you already what I think of your guilt.”
He must look very stricken, for Wen Qing’s shoulders dropped all at once.
“Damn you, Wei Wuxian,” she said without heat. “After all this time, you still believe yourself at fault for anything.” She closed the cloak more tightly around herself. “Sometimes I wonder, if I hadn’t taken the golden core from you, would you be able to see how much good you’re doing? How grateful everyone here is for you?”
“Just tell me what I can do,” he found the strength to say. “Wen Qing—just tell me what I can do to make you happy. I hate to see you—”
Jiang Yanli had cried, once, when he told her that he hated to see her sad; Wen Qing did not weep, she did not laugh or smile wetly, but she wrapped an arm around his back. She gave him warmth from the side of her body, and she whispered, “I don’t want anything from you. You’ve already given me everything.”
She touched his arm and the side of his face, pushing back the limp hair that had fallen before his eyes in the cold evening wind.
“So please,” she said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
On the first day of spring, Wen Ning broke apart the oakwood door of an empty kunze house with his bare hands.
Wei Wuxian had asked him to come along with him on Wen Qing’s suggestion. She had figured it a good way to allow the both of them some time together, far from Wen Yuan who now clung to Wen Ning’s side every chance he got.
“Where are they all?” Wen Ning asked him.
Wei Wuxian walked twice through the little house. Habit had him checking under the bed, into the cupboards, between the wooden beams supporting the roof. No one was there, but the ghostly touch of sweetscent remained. People had lived here until very recently.
“They’re being kept somewhere else,” he replied. He brushed a hand against the surface of a table; his fingers came back unmarked by dust. “Probably with the greater sects,” he said, clenching his fist. “Somewhere I can’t access them so easily. I suppose it only took these idiots two years to figure it out.”
Wen Ning shuffled and shifted on his feet, twisting his pale hands together.
“Young master Wei,” he called.
“I told you to call me by my name.”
But Wen Ning shook his dead decidedly. “Young master Wei,” he repeated, as stubborn as Luo Fanghua and his sister combined. “I wish—I wish to help.”
“You’re already helping plenty—”
“No. You do not understand.”
Wen Ning had never interrupted him before. Wei Wuxian stared at him, surprised, and waited him out.
Whatever Wen Ning wanted to say next obviously came with some difficulty. Anyone else may have believed him unfeeling and unmoving, but Wei Wuxian had grown used to watching over him, to pushing past his own shame and terror when Wen Yuan was by Wen Ning’s side, if only to look for a hint of unhappiness on the man’s face.
“This body is strong,” said Wen Ning.
He picked up a clay pot over the table, turning it twice between his fingers. Then he crushed it one-handed, breaking it into sharp little pieces.
Wei Wuxian heard himself grunt in worry, felt himself move to Wen Ning’s side to open his fingers and check that his skin had not split; but although the shards of clay were fine enough to cut, his palm bore no trace of so much as an indent.
“I have to be careful,” Wen Ning said, allowing him to stroke over his palm in shock. “Once, I almost hurt A-Yuan without knowing. But I know I can lift a horse, perhaps two, and I can run very fast as well.”
“You shouldn’t push yourself,” Wei Wuxian replied, “I don’t know how solid your body truly is…”
“Young master Wei. I want to help you free them.”
Wen Ning’s lax fingers came alive. They tightened around Wei Wuxian’s in a semblance of hand-holding.
“When the master Jin killed me, I could do nothing,” he said eagerly.
Wei Wuxian tried to tear out of his hold, but Wen Ning’s strength was true. Although they never became painful, his fingers did not leave any room for Wei Wuxian’s hand to squirm out of.
“I wish I could have done something then. I was never one for violence, I always preferred to read than to hunt, even if I do miss archery…”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Wei Wuxian said tightly.
Wen Ning shook his head. “But now, I am strong,” he said. “I’m stronger than any man alive. I could help, if you wish to go against the greater sects.”
Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. He pushed his other hand against Wen Ning’s until it would finally relax and let him go.
“Your sister would never agree,” he tried to argue.
“I have already asked her. She said that she wanted me to do it, if it was what I wanted.”
Wen Ning stepped forward. His oddly-still mouth moved, twisting into a smile he meant to be encouraging.
“If I had Jin Zixun before me now,” he said, “I could kill him before he had the time to blink.”
Gentle Wen Ning, shy Wen Ning, looked at Wei Wuxian with the same quiet strength that his sister had ever-shown.
“Use me, young master Wei. Let me help you like you have helped me.”
They went to Gusu first.
Wen Ning tore apart the cultivators in the mountain villages who tried to stop them. He broke down housedoors and spiritual swords, heedless of the shouting of frightened qianyuan and zhongyong. Tempered steel could not break his skin any more than clay could, and moon and sunlight had no effect on him, unlike other corpses. His name spread over the land in quiet and terrified whispers.
They found three young kunze willing to come with them at the foot of the Cloud Recesses, after thirty strong of the Lan clan’s affiliates failed to stop the both of them. None came from the Lan clan themselves to help; the affair was too quickly put to a close, the kunze whisked away in the deepest and darkest of night.
Caiyi Town was a much different sight under steel and torchlight than it had been when Wei Wuxian chased water ghouls on Biling Lake. He had no Suibian now to help him fly, but his ghost flute Chenqing served well enough to terrorize.
One couple resisted him. A zhongyong man and his qianyuan wife, holding between the both of them a babe with the scent of berries.
“Don’t take him from us,” they cried at him in that endless first night, as Wen Ning stood before them with his black-veined hands held open.
Wei Wuxian thought of the figure he must cut to them, with his fierce corpses and black flute, with his eyes rendered red by the glare of demonic cultivation.
The child cried in his father’s arms. The man himself shook with terror, his face bearing faint traces of familiarity that Wei Wuxian could not place to a single person he knew.
He drew back. He called Wen Ning to his side again and told them, “I will come back, and if I find that he is growing locked up, I will take him from you.”
He never again saw those two people, who moved to the Cloud Recesses soon after, who died of illness before their time; but fourteen years later, his reincarnated self would crouch before their son in the main hall of Mo Manor. He would look into the young cultivator’s eyes and say, wondered and ached: “You’re kunze.”
In Lan Jingyi’s quick wit, in his unabashed freedom, Wei Wuxian would kindle the first embers of his own hope.
To Gusu Wei Wuxian first showed his Ghost General. To Qinghe then he guided him, raiding the towns around the Unclean Realm and then the Realm itself. He met neither Nie Mingjue nor his half-brother Huaisang there, as they were caught in a conference with Jin Guangshan at the time, but loose tongues would say that upon hearing of his deeds, Nie Mingjue laughed.
That he told the harrowed messenger who came to deliver the news, “Just let him have them.”
The eighty kunze of the Burial Mounds became a hundred, became a hundred and twenty, before Wei Wuxian was stopped by Jin Guangshan and Jiang Cheng. And though it had been years since he started doing away with tradition and spitting in the faces of those who upheld them, those were the things that all would remember after he died—
The weeks that the Yiling Patriarch spent going after each greater sect, taking his due from them, walking around with his Ghost General. Spreading terror and myth as he went, making all whisper that it was not people he took, but souls; that all could fall prey to the madman’s whims one day and end up one more lost spirit in Yiling.
The seventh day after Jin Ling’s birth, when the mad Wei Wuxian was invited to Golden Carp Tower in spite of all concerns by Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli; when he attacked Jin Zixun in Qiongqi Path and murdered Jin Zixuan unprovoked.
Then the confused hours after the massacre of the Nightless City. The hundred and more cultivators who rose from their wounds and hurried to asiege the Burial Mounds, only to find sect leader Jiang Cheng howling out sobs and pleas, his hands wrapped around Lan Wangji’s throat; and next to them the corpse of Wei Wuxian, his belly speared by Bichen’s white blade.
Jin Zixuan had never known his father this angry before.
Jin Guangshan was of a bad temper, but he was the kind to mellow out under authority and settle easily into complacency. When Wen Ruohan had often visited Golden Carp Tower, the sect leader of Lanlingjin thrived in his attentions, doing his utmost to please him and ascertain his allyship.
When he was young, Jin Zixuan had found this demeanor humiliating. He had never realized quite how much until his understudies in Gusu, when he had spent more time than he wished to admit watching Wei Wuxian turn his nose to Lan Qiren’s authority.
If a kunze can do it, he had thought then, torn between his own shame and the fluttering of his heart each time honeyscent reached him; If even a kunze can do it, then why is my father unable to?
Now the golden-and-white house in the far depths of the Tower stood empty of all its inhabitants, and Jin Guangshan raged and raged, breaking vases and liquor pots, terrorizing his concubines; and Jin Zixuan wished more than anything that his father would go back to his meek, cowardly self.
“I will have Wei Wuxian’s head,” Jin Guangshan bellowed at the height of drunkenness. He had not stopped either—screaming or drinking—since the alarms had been rung that very morning, when servants had come to tell him that the kunze house was empty. “I will kill this bitch if it is the last thing I do—”
“Father,” Meng Yao said as Jin Zixuan stood frozen by his side; “Father, if your allies hear you say such things…”
“Spare me your snivelling, Meng Yao,” spat Jin Guangshan. “What good is saying that killing him would be immoral now? He is so twisted and evil, he barely counts as kunze anymore! Did you feel a hint of sweetscent on him in the competition, you bastard?”
Meng Yao did not recoil at the crude word, and neither did Jin Zixuan. For the first time that day, Jin Guangshan met his son’s eyes.
He smiled. It was such a cruel and unknown thing, so foreign over his face, which Jin Zixuan had come to recognize as weak, that he found himself wordless.
“Perhaps you were right after all, A-Xuan,” Jin Guangshan slurred. Another cup shattered as he set it down too forcefully, and his soiled sleeved wetted again under the spill of alcohol. He laughed shriekingly. “Perhaps if I’d let you have the boy, we would not be in such trouble.”
“I’ll kill you,” Wei Wuxian had threatened.
Jin Zixuan had not noticed until he was pushed away that the unfamiliar expression on Wei Wuxian’s face had been fear. Not until he had thought of sealing his words with a kiss and looked up; and Wei Wuxian had been looking back at him, as unmoving as stone, cold energy spread over his skin like a layer of armor. So very still and pale under Zixuan’s touch.
His fingers had burned when he had pulled them from Wei Wuxian’s face. They burned yet every time he remembered and guilt started hounding him. He had not slept a full night since the competition without it hounding him.
Jin Zixuan left the room stiffly, shame burning once more up his chest, his hand nervously wound around Suihua.
Outside of the hall where his father’s high dais rested, servants and cultivators ran and shoved at each other, making preparations for the days to follow. So many had come already to Golden Carp Tower, and Zixuan knew that many more would come still, called by his father’s missives to rally behind him.
Only Qinghenie and Gusulan had refused. Yunmengjiang had not been informed at all.
“Maiden Luo,” Jin Zixuan called when he found her in the widest of the gardens.
It had flowered thickly with the coming of spring, and fragrant senteurs wafted over the cool air no matter where he walked. Luo Qingyang liked to help with caring for the plants, and spent much of her time with her hands in water and dirt. Jin Zixuan thought, with his throat tight and febrile, of how often he had pictured Wei Wuxian in her stead; of how often he had watched him as a boy waddling happily among blooming lotuses.
But he had been wrong to assume even this much out of the man that this boy had become. Oh, how wrong he had been, and how bitter the knowledge was now.
“Young master,” Luo Qingyang replied, nodding to him.
“You have recovered your sword from Qishan’s treasury, haven’t you?”
She looked at him oddly. “Yes,” she replied after a brief silence. “What is it that you…”
Jin Zixuan hesitated.
He could still leave. If he were to turn around now and keep silent after all, no one could fault him for anything but a moment of lunacy. Luo Qingyang was a fellow disciple of the Jin sect, a girl he had known since he was only a child, but one he would only tentatively call a friend. He knew not if he could trust her with this.
He knew not whom he could trust aside from her, however.
He took the letter out of his sleeve slowly. Already the paper had creased from being handled so many times since the early morning hours, and the wax seal keeping it closed threatened to break apart.
“I need you to… No,” he stopped himself.
Now more than ever, he could not afford brusqueness.
“I would like you to carry a message for me,” he said. “To Jiang Wanyin, in Yunmeng.”
Luo Qingyang had been reaching for the letter he held; she stilled at his words and looked at him in shock.
“Young master,” she gasped.
“I know I have no right to ask this of you,” he added hurriedly. “I know my father asked everyone to remain in the Tower whilst the other clans arrive, but—”
“Young master,” Luo Qingyang interrupted. “Are you asking me to betray our sect leader?”
His tongue burned within his mouth, but he could not deny her accusation.
He was asking her such a thing.
“Please, miss Luo,” he said.
His free hand found the place over his heart in a show of respect; the very place where it had held Wei Wuxian’s cold and unresponsive hand in such terrible selfishness.
He doubted he could ever use such a gesture again and feel that he had a right to.
“Please, you are the only one I can count on for this.”
Luo Qingyang was a pretty and mild-scented qianyuan, a short woman with a round face, with her skin goldened by the sun and a face ripe with smiles. She had been the one to tell him, once, of Jiang Yanli’s secretive kindnesses. She had berated him for his uncouth attitude when he was but a boy in Gusu, when his words had come rude and hurtful for the purpose of having fifteen-year-old Wei Wuxian’s attention on him.
“The Yiling Patriarch stole a kunze from my family two years ago,” she said, looking heartbroken. “She was a wonderful seamstress, and my family lost one of their greatest sources of income after she fled with him.”
“I know,” he replied.
He remembered when Luo Qingyang’s father had come to spend his complaints on Jin Guangshan after it happened. The man had begged for retribution, on behalf of the fact that his qianyuan heir had trained under the Jin sect since infancy, and Jin Guangshan had refused to hear of it.
Now Jin Guangshan was raising an army, because Wei Wuxian had taken the two kunze hidden in the house at the foot of a tower, and taken as well two of the man’s five concubines who lived secluded in quarters of their own near his chambers.
Luo Qingyang took the letter from him. “I will warn sect leader Jiang,” she said ruefully. “But Luo Fanghua needs to go back to my family once she is found. You cannot allow your father to keep her, as he will keep all of the people that Wei Wuxian stole if given the chance.”
Her words could be taken as treason of a kind, as conspiring; but Jin Zixuan was too caught in how guilty he felt for agreeing to care at all that they were.
He had another task ahead of him, now.
Meng Yao found him at the back of the Tower, atop a string of stairs much more decrepit than the ones at its grand entrance. He looked poised and quiet despite the agitation around them, and his voice was even as he took in Jin Zixuan’s travel cloak and sword and asked, “Where are you going, brother?”
“A-Yao,” Jin Zixuan breathed.
Meng Yao was not someone he ever wanted to butt heads with. He was too clever, too talented despite his mild-manneredness. He was now Jin Guangshan’s ears and eyes in a way Jin Zixuan had never been.
But A-Yao did not look angry or surprised. He stepped toward Jin Zixuan with only a smile on his lips, unbothered as always by all that surrounded him, his clothes devoid of dust and his brow clean of any sweat.
“I always took our cousin’s insinuations for lies,” he said once he stood by Zixuan’s side. “But what father said earlier… could it be that they are true?”
“What insinuations?” Jin Zixuan asked, though he knew them very well.
Too often had Zixun taunted him through their youth, after his studies in Gusu, after the archery competition, even on the night they had both spend in the Lotus Pier as a storm raged outside—after Zixun himself had tried to buy Wei Wuxian under Jin Zixuan’s very nose.
Zixun had been so incensed then. So terribly and profoundly humiliated by Wei Wuxian declaring that he would rather die than marry him. For hours he had talked Zixuan’s ears off, criticizing his taste, accusing Wei Wuxian of licentiousness, for how else but by the use of his body should he have secured Zixuan’s affection?
At the time, Zixuan had been only frustrated. Enraged by his cousin’s audacity, simmered through by jealousy, wanting and yearning for the brief sight of Wei Wuxian in silken robes, his neck and collar left exposed to the air.
Now he knew how Wei Wuxian reacted to a touch, to an offer for love; and the shame eclipsed even the anger.
Meng Yao did not disgrace him with an answer. He nodded his head deeply, almost bowing at the shoulders. “You shall have to be quick,” he said. “I do not know how long I can keep our father occupied until he notices your absence.”
Surprise swallowed Jin Zixuan’s protests whole.
He was no good with words. He had never been more aware of than since watching Wei Wuxian stare at him in rage rather than understanding. Still, Zixuan grabbed onto Meng Yao’s arm and promised, hoping that gratitude showed through rather than aggression: “After this is over, I’ll talk with Father. I’ll make him acknowledge you, I swear to you.”
Meng Yao’s becoming face tensed before he smiled.
Jin Zixuan flew for hours over the river-wet mountains and hills, knowing that the one he sought had hours to put distance between himself and Lanling—knowing, as well, that he was traveling with four kunze in no running shape.
Most of the people that Jin Guangshan had sent in search of Wei Wuxian had gone toward Yiling directly. But Wei Wuxian was always clever, always bolder than people assumed he was. It was true when he defied the spiteful Lan Qiren with dark ideas he would later go on to make reality, and it was true now, even with how sickly he looked and how little he smiled. He would not have taken the short road home, even at the risk of exhausting his escort.
There was another road he could take. One leading close to the ruins of Qishanwen’s stronghold, the now-deserted Nightless City. It would require long days of riding through narrow mountain paths, and could ensure that any tail was lost or killed discreetly.
Jin Zixuan was willing to take that risk.
He found them after nightfall, following the glowing pinprick of fire at the entrance of a cave. Jin Zixuan had flown lower over the passes after the sun vanished behind the dry mountains; it was the only reason he even noticed the fire, which would have been hidden by rock had he been any higher.
He dismounted at the entrance of the cave. He looked over the empty space by the fire, noticing cloaks and bags but no one at all. Then he took a step further in, and suddenly a shadow loomed over him in the shape of a grey-skinned man.
One death-cold hand wrapped around his neck and squeezed all the air out of him.
“Stop,” he rasped, dropping Suihua to the ground, clawing uselessly at the skin of the corpse’s wrist—his nails could not cut through it at all, as if it were made of leather. The hold tightened; he choked; his vision swam with black-and-white spots, and his body thrashed helplessly.
Then another voice from behind him— “Wen Ning, release him.”
Jin Zixuan heaved in such a deep, shuddering breath after that hand left his throat, that nausea burned through all of his trachea. He coughed, swaying on his feet till both of his knees hit ground, expelling bitter bile over the soil.
There came a clatter of steel on stone. The edge of a sword rested over the side of his shuddering throat. When Jin Zixuan found the strength to twist his back and look, he found Wei Wuxian holding Suihua as if the sword belonged to him.
“Is your memory so short, Jin Zixuan,” Wei Wuxian said coldly. His eyes glowed red even in the shadow of night. There was no differentiating the cold air from the stench of resentful energy. “I told you what would happen to you if you ever came close to me again.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan croaked out of his aching throat.
Suihua’s blade dug more sharply into his neck in warning.
A whimper echoed through the cave behind him. Jin Zixuan tried to turn around and look, but Suihua blocked him before he could do more than shift on his knees.
“Master,” came the lifeless voice of the corpse.
“You go take care of them,” Wei Wuxian replied. His eyes had not left Jin Zixuan. “I’ll handle this alone.”
Another whimper, no doubt from one of the kunze hiding deep within the tunnel. The corpse’s—the Ghost General Wen Ning’s—footsteps rang onto rock and water as he walked away.
Suihua did not lower from Jin Zixuan’s neck even after they vanished.
“I warned you,” said Wei Wuxian in the thick silence. “I told you that I would kill you.”
Jin Zixuan swallowed back the protest, the anger immediately rising through him, and made himself look at the man before him. He made himself see what he had refused to when he had been so focused on expressing all that he held back for years.
Wei Wuxian had looked sick ever since his return to war. He had been pale and thin in Golden Carp Tower, and emaciated during the hunting competition. Jin Zixuan had known and noticed this and had not thought more deeply upon it, or upon his behavior around the Jiang siblings that day, but now, he did.
Now he wondered that Wei Wuxian could terrorize so many by his lonesome when he looked a second away from collapsing. He saw the fear and rage he had refused to acknowledge in his stupidity that day, and the shaking in the hand holding onto Suihua’s pommel, never mind that the blade itself lay strong.
The Wei Wuxian he had known as a child, the bright and lively boy from Yunmeng who did not shy upon a touch or an insult, was not the same as the man standing before him now. No matter how much time Jin Zixuan had spent imagining the touch of his hand or the taste of his lips, or picturing him among the flowerbeds of Lanlingjin, wearing a golden uniform.
“My father is gathering an army,” Jin Zixuan said. “He will be marching upon the Burial Mounds within the week to take back what you stole. I’ve sent a message to Jiang Wanyin to inform him, and Lan Wangji and Nie Mingjue refused to accept my father’s call for rallying, but I’m afraid I can’t stop him, not after—”
Suihua left his throat. The air it moved before his lips cut him short and breathless.
Wei Wuxian did not look surprised by any of his words; he did, however, look angered.
“You told Jiang Cheng?” he asked briskly.
“Yes,” Jin Zixuan replied breathlessly.
So great did his rage seem that he could find nothing to say anymore; but Jin Zixuan could guess what it was he was thinking, and had experience not taught him better, he would have grabbed onto his arm to still him and convince him to listen.
He only had his words now, and those had always failed him somehow. “You’ll need all the help you can get,” he said anyway. He pushed himself to his feet, shocked by the weakness through his limbs after being strangled by the Ghost General. No doubt bruises already showed around his neck to tell the tale. “Wei Wuxian,” he pleaded. “You can’t survive against so many, you need your sect.”
“I have no sect,” Wei Wuxian spat at him.
He had taken a step back after Jin Zixuan rose. Zixuan tried, and failed, not to let disappointment grip him.
Silence spread over the both of them, broken only by the crackling fire at Jin Zixuan’s back. It lengthened the shadow of his body till it touched Wei Wuxian’s robes; it shone upon Wei Wuxian’s face and dug deeply into the tired lines of it.
“I don’t need Jiang Cheng’s help,” Wei Wuxian said.
He looked like he believed it, too.
“He won’t put Yunmeng in jeopardy for me either. Your efforts were a waste, Jin Zixuan.”
“They were not,” Jin Zixuan protested. “You have time to flee.”
Wei Wuxian laughed at him.
He threw Suihua to the ground between them. There had been no light to the sword, as though he had no wish to make use of its power, although Jin Zixuan had no doubt that it would obey him. His hand came instead to the black flute always hanging from his waist.
“Where’s Suibian?” Zixuan asked him.
He had not seen Wei Wuxian’s sword since it was stolen by Wen Chao.
Wei Wuxian’s fist tightened around Chenqing. “I don’t need a sword to deal with people like you,” he replied. “Now leave before I decide to take your life after all.”
But Jin Zixuan did not move. He did not look away from Wei Wuxian’s shuttered face.
And though he knew, now, how his words would be received, he still told him: “There is something else I wish to say.”
Shivers creeped up his back as the cold and unforgiving presence of the Ghost General once more made itself known. He heard no footsteps this time, and felt no hands upon his bruised neck, but he knew that Wen Ning was looking at him and readying himself to attack.
Still, it was Wei Wuxian he looked at and not the wide-open space at his back. Wei Wuxian’s bloodless face in the light of fire, Wei Wuxian’s eyes gone grey again with what Zixuan now knew to be caution.
Jin Zixuan pushed past the guilt and the longing alike. “I will not reiterate what I—what I told you the last time we spoke,” he said, the blood so thick in his throat that he feared it would spill over his tongue. “Although my feelings are still…”
But he cut himself short, shaken. His own hand lifted to his chest; he thought better of it and lowered it again.
The whole time, Wei Wuxian watched him like a hawk. Searching for any hint that he should approach or speak out of turn.
“I distressed you,” Jin Zixuan managed to say. “I didn’t mean to, I did not… realize how much until the end, but that is what I did anyway. For this, I am sorry.”
Wei Wuxian was silent for a long time. Wen Ning’s presence at Jin Zixuan’s back never vanished as he waited, as if the corpse were only a thin thread away from using his terrifying strength on him again.
At last, Wei Wuxian spoke: “I don’t understand you, Jin Zixuan.”
His fingers finally went lax around the ghost flute.
“You’ve never shown any sign of being less than faithful to your sect and father,” he went on. “Yet you go against him now. You try to warn me so that I may escape his anger, although I could not be less afraid of Jin Guangshan even if he were an insect at the sole of my foot. Am I supposed to just believe that you didn’t come here for your father’s spouses? Or for the two people he kept locked in the kunze house of the Tower?”
Jin Zixuan had never set foot into the kunze house of Lanlingjin before that very morning.
When he was woken up by a fearful servant and walked amongst the cries of the fretting house staff, it had seemed natural to walk down to the base of the Tower and see things for himself. He had known where the house was located, of course, and never thought much of it. His father had told him of the age and names of those held within it. He had participated in the coming-of-age ceremonies, in some negotiations for marriage; he had even met a few of the kunze who were sold during his lifetime.
But he had never gone to the house itself. Not until that cool spring morning, with rumors of Wei Wuxian’s sightings spreading like wildfire, with frightened tales of soul-stealing, of the terrifying Ghost General. He had found the little golden house on the shadowed mountain flank where the Tower stopped short, accessible only through a fling of narrow stairs gone fragile with age and use. He had looked at the broken oakwood door and stepped into the single room it held.
He had taken in the windowless walls, the bed on which two people had slept only hours ago, the lingering sweetscent gone acrid with despair. The inside of the door was blackened by candlesmoke. The beams supporting the roof where the house was not buried in stone barely let in any air.
For the first time in his life, he had tried to imagine what a childhood spent in such a place could lead to; and for the first time in two years, he grew close to understanding why Wei Wuxian had renounced everything he was ever given for this one hopeless cause.
“You will not convince me that you are on any side but your own,” Wei Wuxian was saying, wounded in ways Jin Zixuan could only guess at. “I don’t understand you at all.”
“I don’t understand myself either,” Jin Zixuan replied weakly. “I can only tell you that I am sincere. That I was sincere the last time, too.”
Wei Wuxian’s hand spasmed and shook before he tightened it into a fist.
“I acted mistakenly. I had no thought for your circumstances, only for what I wanted, and I came here also to tell you that I…” He swallowed. “That should you refuse me now, I will never again speak of this to you or anyone,” he said. “This, I can promise you.”
“I refuse,” said Wei Wuxian.
Jin Zixuan’s heart felt wrung dry.
There was nothing on Wei Wuxian’s face. His mouth and eyes were cast into lines of anger, his body laid like the defensive wall of a keep. Although he looked handsome still, as he had been in his youth, this beauty had wasted with the hardships of the past years. There were no creases now for his mouth to smile into.
The sound of steps surrounded him. The Ghost General appeared again before him, rejoining his master’s side, looking at Jin Zixuan with white eyes. Jin Zixuan had never truly met Wen Ning, had not even known who he was before that day at the Golden Carp Tower, but there was recognition on the corpse’s grey face.
Wen Ning, the Ghost General, the brother of Qishanwen’s famous doctor Wen Qing; and the kunze that Wei Wuxian had once accused Jin Zixun of defiling and murdering.
He looked not the part of kunze now, with his inhuman strength and lack of any scent, but there was a wariness to the way he moved around Jin Zixuan. As if he should fear Jin Zixuan attacking him rather than the other way around.
“Get them ready for departure,” Wei Wuxian told Wen Ning, who nodded at him. “We need to reach the Burial Mounds before Jin Guangshan does.”
The corpse of Wen Ning went back around, giving Jin Zixuan a wide berth.
“Pick up your sword, Jin Zixuan,” Wei Wuxian said next. “Go back to your sect. Don’t speak of this to anyone.”
Jin Zixuan feared that Wei Wuxian would step back again when he advanced, but the man held his ground. He felt his eyes over his nape as he bent down to grab Suihua. Its pommel was still warm from the touch of Wei Wuxian’s hand.
And then Wei Wuxian moved. His hand went to Chenqing again before falling limply; his shadowed face tensed and frowned, and he looked away from him.
He said, “Even if I did not have so many people relying on me now, even if I’d still been just another cultivator of the Jiang sect, I would have refused you.”
Why? Jin Zixuan thought helplessly.
But he knew better than to assume he had a right to the answer.
Wei Wuxian seemed to know what he wanted to ask anyway. “I would have refused anyone,” he replied. “Regardless of any affections. And I never held any for you.”
Wen Ning came again out of the cave, followed by four people, two of whom Jin Zixuan recognized faintly for having seen his father marry them. A man and a woman not much older than he or Wei Wuxian were; dressed in the finest silks but wearing the face of the hunted, holding on to each other shakily. Three horses were also led out of the tunnel in the hands of the Ghost General.
Wei Wuxian stepped toward them slowly. “I do thank you,” he murmured when he was level with Jin Zixuan. “For coming here today, and for that time you came to stop your cousin from buying me. I’ll repay both of those debts one day.”
“There are no debts for you to repay.”
Wei Wuxian smiled.
It did not lighten his face or wash away the fatigue that had gnawed the weight and color off of him, but it was a smile. It was the first smile Jin Zixuan had seen on him since they were both children traipsing through the mud-and-snow-covered mountains of the Nightless City.
“The both of you always say this,” Wei Wuxian murmured, turning his back to Jin Zixuan. “I fear the price of such kindness.”
As he watched Wei Wuxian help three kunze onto two of the horses, and then mount the least sturdy of them himself with the youngest against his front, Jin Zixuan thought of the archery competition in Qishan.
He recalled the moment he had seen Wei Wuxian arrive at the gathering in the company of a meek-looking man with light hair and eyes. He remembered the shock that had shaken the ranks of cultivators as the smell of honey lingered, deeper and more settled now than ever before—as they all realized that Wei Wuxian was not simply an odd kunze among his superiors anymore, but a mature one.
How long Jin Zixuan had searched for him through the maze of rocks, how delighted he had been to find him alone and bow to him for the first time with his intent as clear as day—how Wei Wuxian had already shown, then, such a deep discomfort at being addressed this way.
And then the end of it, his father’s congratulatory words at the top of the majestic stairs, while Zixuan’s attention was caught to Jiang Fengmian and his disciples not far. The sight of Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen going away with their uncle, Wei Wuxian running after them with a smile on his bright face.
The sight of him bowing to the Lan sect heir, and Lan Wangji asking him not to.
It seemed to Jin Zixuan, now, that his loss had been secured that very day. He should have realized as much long before he wandered alone through the woods of Phoenix Mountain, shocked and despaired after his words of love were met with such furor, guided by the sound of music. That he should not have been grieved to glimpse Wei Wuxian through the thick, intertwined trees: to see him sat there, lax and peaceful, his pale brow eased out of tension; and Lan Wangji playing songs by his side with the black flute to his lips.
It took them two days to reach the Burial Mounds again, and by that time the horses were weary and the kunze even more so. Wen Ning held the one he carried with unending strength, with the lack of fatigue that death had granted him, but he was the only one in such health. Wei Wuxian’s legs and back ached from the quick and tortuous journey through the mountains of Qishan. His soreness did not ease even when the terrain flattened into kinder hills.
He found the village at the foot of the hillpath swarmed with cultivators, and he found Jiang Cheng with Sandu yet sheathed waiting for him at the edges of the barriers.
He was arguing with a group dressed in the muddy robes of the Ouyang sect. In fact he was arguing with Ouyang Zhi, who was screaming words of outrage to him until he saw Wei Wuxian emerge with his following in tow.
“The Yiling Patriarch!” he bellowed, half-feared and half-vindicated.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng called in the very same breath.
But Wei Wuxian did not linger on what expression Jiang Cheng wore; he took Chenqing in hand without even dismounting, and called forth the corpses buried all around them.
They were out of the earth in a matter of seconds. Twenty, thirty of them, all in grievous states of decay, surrounding the Ouyang cultivators and those who had followed them. Many of them lost their composure before the ghastly sight and retreated on their own. Those who did not, the corpses flattened to the dirt and disarmed quickly.
Only Jiang Cheng was not attacked in any way. He was looking at the spectacle around them in thin-veiled horror, and his eyes upon Wei Wuxian felt like a blade to the neck.
Wei Wuxian galloped to him quickly. He jumped off of the riled, frightened horse, helping the young kunze boy down with him and giving him to Wen Ning. “You take them up to your sister now,” he told him in a hurry. “I’ll join you in a moment.”
“Young master Wei—”
“Just go, Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning may have gotten his spirit back, may be able to feel and speak and act of his own volition, but he was tied to Wei Wuxian inextricably. He could not disavow this bond or disobey the orders which Wei Wuxian carried through it.
Wei Wuxian had never wished to impose upon his will like this.
“You need to leave,” he told Jiang Cheng after Wen Ning had gone and taken the four terrified kunze with him. He went so far as to grab onto his former shidi’s arm tightly, repeating, “You need to leave now, before Jin Guangshan arrives.”
“And just let you die?” Jiang Cheng yelled back. “Do you have any idea the state Sister was in when that messenger from Lanling came!? You should be thanking Jin Zixuan on your knees for the risk he took for you.”
Wei Wuxian gritted his teeth. “I have no time for this,” he spat. “Just go back to Yunmeng. I don’t need your help, I’m not part of your sect anymore.”
Jiang Cheng tugged his arm out of Wei Wuxian’s hold so violently that Wei Wuxian swerved on his feet and almost fell.
“You look like death, Wei Wuxian,” he cried. “You think yourself so strong, you think you can just handle the Jin sect and its allies on your own, just you and a bunch of terrified kunze—”
“I don’t need to hear this,” Wei Wuxian cut him off.
He turned his back to Jiang Cheng and started walking up the hill.
He was not surprised when Jiang Cheng followed in his steps. He was close enough as well that the token of passage on Wei Wuxian’s body encompassed him too, and allowed him behind the barriers that years of cultivation had lain thickly over the Burial Mounds. Wei Wuxian heard him gasp at the difference in the air—as the poisoned, grimy quality of it suddenly turned breathable—but he did not stop to look at him.
He all but ran up the half-mile separating the path entrance from the village. He caught up with Wen Ning and the Jin sect kunze, and helped to carry the slowest of them, the heavily-pregnant one, the rest of the way. Jiang Cheng remained silent in his fury the whole time.
Finally, they emerged into the village. A group had gathered already, worried for the commotion of cultivators in such numbers. Wen Qing was there trying to soothe them all, although she looked tense and worried as well. Her face lit up at the sight of him and Wen Ning, before falling in disbelief when she saw Jiang Cheng behind them.
She had no time to quiet anyone this time; the kunze saw him, and smelled the overturned earth scent he carried with him, and all of them scurried away in fear, some shouting or whimpering, causing the child in Grandmother’s tired arms to start wailing as well.
Not even this terrible wail, this gut-wrenching sound Wei Wuxian always so feared, was enough to still him this time. “Get him away from here,” he snapped at Grandmother, who looked at him in shock but obeyed wordlessly.
Wen Yuan’s cries vanished slowly in the distance.
Wei Wuxian could feel that Jiang Cheng was deeply disturbed at being welcomed in such a way. He knew that if he were to look at him now and study his face, he would find it shattered.
But there was no time for this, and no time either for the guilt he felt at having betrayed all of them by bringing an unknown qianyuan here. “Wen Qing,” he called.
She snapped out of her own stupor immediately. “What is going on, Wei Ying?” she asked him. “Why are so many people here? What did you do?”
“Jin Guangshan is about to lay siege on us all,” was all he said.
Her face whitened.
Around her, the four Jin sect kunze stood still and frightened. Even the woman Wei Wuxian had found near Jin Guangshan’s private chamber of concubines, the one who had begged him for over a minute to take her with him, her terrorized face pushed to the ground and her shaking hand pressed to her swelling belly, now looked full of regret.
He saw that she was about to speak. He could guess at what she meant to offer, that she would be willing to go back to her own tormentor if only to calm his belligerency, and he spoke before she could.
“The four of you go get settled now,” he said, as kindly and evenly as he could. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll handle this.”
“Young master Wei, if I—”
“Consort Jin,” he cut in. “I swear to you, you will never again have to be in that man’s presence. Please follow Wen Qing and try not to worry.”
His own tension had gone entirely.
It was as though the simple sight of her, of all the people like her he had gathered over the years, were enough to suffuse his body with strength. He saw that some had come back after running, hiding within the shadow of houses or of the stables where the old Wen sect man ever-worked, peeking fearfully at the scene. Looking in fright toward Jiang Cheng.
“Wen Qing,” Wei Wuxian said again.
His own fear was distant now. Like the echo of water dripping from the ceiling of a cave.
Wen Qing’s teeth clenched visibly under the gentle slope of her jaw. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Wei Ying,” she replied. “Don’t you do anything stupid until then.”
Then there was only him and Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng had not said a word yet. The worst of his shock must be gone now, which was the only reason Wei Wuxian turned around to see him. He found him staring oddly at the houses and stables; at the wide vegetable gardens that would need to be harvested soon, and the rows of dyed fabrics drying on strings strung from flowering trees.
Springly light shone over him kindly, belying the anger ever-simmering within him. His voice was not so harsh when he said, “So this is where you live.”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He knew not why the word had to push out of his lips thusly, or why such vulnerability shook him, seeing Jiang Cheng standing here.
“You,” Jiang Cheng started to say.
He paused. His face tensed and twisted, his eyes shining and wide despite it all.
“There’s so…. there are so many of them,” he said at last.
“One hundred and twenty-seven, exactly.”
The number seemed to shake him greatly.
“I never—I thought people were exaggerating,” he stuttered. “You never took anyone from Yunmeng, I thought…”
Wei Wuxian would have laughed, had he not felt so weary.
“There were none to take in Yunmeng,” he replied. “All the kunze houses there are empty. Either kunze stopped being born there years ago, or more likely, people have grown clever at hiding them and marrying them in secret. I started searching in Yunmeng, after all. They must have taken precautions sooner than the rest.”
Jiang Cheng took this in stride more calmly than Wei Wuxian had expected him to.
“And they all came with you willingly,” he said. “They all wanted to come with you.”
Wei Wuxian looked away. “I know you don’t believe me, but yes. Every single one of them.”
He tensed reflexively when Jiang Cheng stepped toward him; but Jiang Cheng did not attack him or insult him, and only laid a hand on his shoulder.
The memory of his embrace fitted itself to Wei Wuxian’s mind and heart and made him want to pull away as much as it tried to bring him closer and feel it again.
“You’re going to your death,” Jiang Cheng told him, aggrieved. “Jin Guangshan is not Jin Zixun. People would look the other way if he killed you. Your…” He breathed in loudly. “Your status won’t protect you now.”
“It never has,” Wei Wuxian said.
He saw the alarm on Jiang Cheng’s face and pulled away.
“Just leave,” he ordered, before his former shidi could ask anything more. His heart beat like a drum under the fragile veil of his throat. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“I told you,” Jiang Cheng retorted in fury. “I told you you’re not allowed to die!”
“And I said you had no responsibility toward me now!” Wei Wuxian yelled. “I freed you of this, I told everyone I was no longer part of your sect, so you don’t have to stay, you don’t have to risk anything for me now—”
But Jiang Cheng was holding him by both shoulders now, forcing him to face him, to read over the man’s face what he thought would be anger but looked instead like disbelief.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng called, in that same voice he used in those woods years ago, when tears had marred him and Wen Chao whimpered and cried at their feet. “After all this time, you think I’m doing this out of a sense of duty? You think I came here because I care for the reputation of my sect?”
Wei Wuxian stared at him, at the marks of grief and exhaustion on him that should not be there at all. Jiang Cheng had his sister and clan back, he had a thriving sect despite the losses of the war—he had a golden core in his chest, shining with spiritual energy, even now giving Sandu a glow that filtered through the gap between scabbard and sword.
Jiang Cheng’s face loosened with surprise at his lack of answer. He huffed something desperate, something like a laugh. “You truly don’t know,” he said in wonder. “You truly think so little of me.”
His hands left Wei Wuxian’s shoulders. One lingered by his arm, squeezing it briefly, and Jiang Cheng’s face seemed to ache again to find it so thin, like his sister’s did so long ago.
He said nothing of it, however. He stepped back and pulled away, and his other hand lifted to his chest in a gesture too recognizable for Wei Wuxian not to see white and step back reflexively.
Jiang Cheng stilled. His sharp face grew sharper still, awash with frustration. His hand fell again to his side, clenched into a fist.
“I didn’t come here because I worry for Yunmengjiang,” he said.
And it looked as though he would say more, as if he were bracing himself for it, vulnerable and scared as Wei Wuxian had never seen him; but then Wen Qing appeared from around the corner of the nearest house with a group of Wen sect people in tow, and Uncle Four called Wei Wuxian’s title brightly.
Jiang Cheng grabbed the pommel of his sword. “I won’t let you die,” he said. “You’re not allowed to die while I still have breath in me. I’ll find a way—”
He took a breath. Unsheathed Sandu quickly and stepped over the blade of it.
“I’ll find a way,” he repeated. “I swear to you.”
He flew away from them all before Wei Wuxian could even move.
Jin Guangshan’s army spread around the hills not two days later.
Wei Wuxian had not appreciated just how many people could be gathered in such a place, looking at him in such disgust and hatred, so much more potently than they had on Phoenix Mountain. As if dripping rage from the mouth like spit.
Jin Guangshan sat upon a gold-clad horse with his seldom-seen sword in hand. He brandished it toward Wei Wuxian the second Wei Wuxian appeared out of the protective barriers, followed by Wen Qing and the twenty people of the Wen sect he had taken with him so long ago.
He had not asked them to come. He had tried to forbid them to come, in fact. But Uncle Four and the others had smiled and shaken their heads, even the elderly.
“It’s the least we can do,” the stable man had said.
So now they stood around him, some of them even wearing robes sewn with crimson suns, and Wen Qing held in her hands one of the swords Wei Wuxian had stolen over the years.
“Affiliating with Wen dogs,” Jin Guangshan sneered from his mount. His long sword pointed to Wei Wuxian, his weak face delighting in triumph. “See now the kind of person Wei Wuxian is?” he called loudly for the sake of his troops. “See what becomes of a kunze left to roam freely? And he would like to raise an army of them to do his bidding!”
“Thief!” people clamored as an echo.
“Give back what you stole, broodmare!”
Wei Wuxian fit the two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal together, and corpses sprung from the dry earth of Yiling, crowding the cultivators into stepping back.
But there were so many of them. So many rows of them armed with swords and bows, with instruments to repel the dark energy. They surrounded the hills as far as the eye could see.
“I’ll take care of Jin Guangshan myself,” he told Wen Qing coldly.
“Wei Ying, wait—”
He felt her despair as acutely as his own.
There was no coming out of this alive for any of them, but he would die before allowing any of these people entry.
Jin Guangshan did not seem scared of the terrible strength that Wei Wuxian gathered, or even of the Ghost General Wen Ning who was now sending cultivators flying every way in a rampage. He watched Wei Wuxian approach from high upon his horse. His face in the sunlight seemed to change for a second and twist into the monstrous head of the Xuanwu of Slaughter, which Wei Wuxian had gone to face on his own much the same.
He almost expected to see Lan Wangji by his side, strangling the beast with bowstrings tied together, calling his name in worry.
“You will lose, you deranged kunze,” Jin Guangshan was saying now, his face the very picture of disgust. His hand clenched over the reins of his horse so tightly, Wei Wuxian fancied that he could hear the sound of knuckles cracking in the distance. “You will be captured and taken back to where you belong, and those you have stolen redistributed to their sects and families.”
“So you don’t actually intend to kill me, Jin Guangshan?” Wei Wuxian replied coldly. “And here I thought you couldn’t prove yourself more cowardly.”
Jin Guangshan reddened in rage, and his horse huffed under the kick he gave its sweaty flank, veering forth and sideways. “I have not sunk so low as to sully my hands with kunze blood,” he spat, “but who knows what could happen? Perhaps you may suffer the same fate as that pet ghost of yours. Swords have no eyes in the midst of battle.”
Wei Wuxian called, “Wen Ning.”
Wen Ning answered him as if he had whispered the words to his ear.
Cultivators fell. Cultivators died under the power of the Seal, for the first time since the Sunshot Campaign. Rows and rows of them put themselves between Jin Guangshan and him, blocking his way each time he tried to get close enough to the man to finally stop his continued living.
And Jin Guangshan sat on his horse in the distance, watching his people die for him, secure in the strength of his own numbers—knowing, as Wei Wuxian knew, that no man alone could hope to stop him now.
A man who had insulted him too many times to count since he was just a child. A man who had sheltered Jin Zixun, who had lived for so long with the reputation of one who liked to hoard Wei Wuxian’s kin like mere possessions; who had forced a child into the belly of his youngest concubine and left her crying to Wei Wuxian on her knees, begging him to take her away.
She had broken out of her quarters by herself after hearing the commotion in the Tower, after hearing his name. She had found him, barefooted and frightened, as he was about to leave; she had wanted so dearly to be taken as she had heard others were before her.
“Where’s your son, Jin Guangshan,” Wei Wuxian called as Wen Ning kicked away one more man trying to make a shield of his own body. “Did you bring him to life with the same violence that you did your many bastards? Is this why Madam Jin can’t even stand the sight of you?”
“You mad thief,” Jin Guangshan replied in rage, “rotten like your bitch of a mother, you should have been locked and left to starve before you could grow old enough to speak—”
Like Luo Fanghua and the forever bruise at her ankle, like Grandmother who had weeped so after walking into the sun, like Wen Linfeng sobbing into his lap as she related all her fears.
Like the old man in the Lotus Pier whose name Wei Wuxian had never known.
Sandu came down from the sky like the coming of a storm, carrying with it the scent of lightning and upturned earth. The aftermath of a landslide.
Jiang Cheng was the one to parry away Wen Ning’s attack this time. He hit his sword to the side of Wen Ning’s chest and made the corpse sway aside, and he stood before Wei Wuxian with sweat shining over his brow, as if he had traveled across land and sea for days to get there in time.
“Wei Wuxian,” he panted.
Wei Wuxian felt so cold. So very distant from his own self and feelings, so very numb to all but the wish to see Jin Guangshan dead. “Get out of my way,” he replied. “Or I’ll kill you too, Jiang Cheng.”
No matter how the repercussions of such a thing would destroy him, no matter how much love even now tried to surge up his frozen heart at the sight of the one he wished to call brother.
Wei Wuxian tugged Chenqing out of the strip of leather at his belt. He pointed it to Jiang Cheng with enough meaning to it that he felt the black tip of it should flatten, widen, lighten; take the shape and feeling of Suibian in his hand and make the hole in him fill again with a golden core.
But Jiang Cheng did not move. “Just look around you!” he howled.
Sandu swerved around to show the battlefield, the decaying corpses and rage-lost cultivators, the Wen sect remnants crossing blades with enemies, Wen Qing herself caught in battle with a man twice her size.
“You can’t win this! You’ll die if you try to kill him, you’ll lose everything you ever fought for!”
“Get out of my way!” Wei Wuxian yelled.
Chenqing hit against Sandu’s blade, so much weaker to such blows than Suibian ever was; not meant to be wielded in the way of the sword.
Wei Wuxian’s hand shook badly. If Jiang Cheng meant to just push the flute out of his way, he could have, so easily. Wen Ning stood still by their side, his bond to Wei Wuxian telling him that this was foe at the same time as it told him that this person should never, ever be hurt. Jiang Cheng had no restraint to him if he should desire to put an end to it all.
But he did not. He stared at him in despair, heedless of Jin Guangshan at his back crying at him to finish it, to fix the mistake that his clan had brought in letting Wei Wuxian be raised under the sun.
“Get out of my way or kill me,” Wei Wuxian said to him, pleading. Three years of exhaustion, of hanging onto nothing but the barest of threads, pushing the words out of his cracked lips. “If I have to die here, Jiang Cheng, please be the one to kill me.”
And for a second he saw before him not the man that Jiang Cheng had become, but the child he had met on the first day of his life in Yunmeng; the stubborn boy who looked at him so jealously, until Wei Wuxian first dragged him through mud and water to play and made his serious eyes widen and shine.
His first shidi. His first and only brother.
Sandu cut into Wei Wuxian’s belly as if cutting through water. It plunged through him unfelt, emerged glistening with blood, shaking in Jiang Cheng’s hold as if he were a second away from dropping it. Wei Wuxian did not immediately feel the pain of the wound or hear the agonized cry of his name that Wen Qing gave in the distance.
Then it spread through him, crushing, unbearable; and he fell to his knees in the mud and retched blood over the hem of Jiang Cheng’s robes.
He felt hands over his back immediately, heard Jiang Cheng’s voice call in a hurry: “Take him away, take him back up the hill now.”
“Young master Wei!”
And other such words lost to the ringing in Wei Wuxian’s head and the pulsing, awful pain in his middle. A pain he had not felt since the day he had lain in his own blood and sweat and pushed out of his body the parasite put there by Wen Chao.
He recognized Wen Ning’s strength around his back and under his knees, the call of Wen Qing’s voice asking for all to retreat back to the village. The two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal came undone, now that he had no strength to keep power surging through it.
He felt tepid rain on his face, breathed in the smell of petrichor. He swayed in Wen Ning’s careful hold, hearing the whispers of his name coming from those dead lips, from that airless throat. He opened hazy eyes in the direction of Jiang Cheng, whose hold on Sandu trembled and whose face had wetted already with the rain and his tears.
He thought of the first touch Jiang Cheng had given him after his first fever; he thought of Jiang Cheng’s hands around his throat in the aftermath of his parents’ death; he thought of his embrace in the abandoned fort grown tight and stifling with relief.
He thought, Don’t look at me.
Then he thought of nothing at all.
There was music in the distance.
Songs from across the land, born up on the cool and clear mountains of Gusu. Old enough that the structure of sentences was barely more than a series of high and drawn-out notes infused with spiritual energy. The song changed and turned into another, echoing off of walls which must be made of stone smoothed over by time.
Lan Zhan, he thought; and he wanted, suddenly, for that song he had played as he lay in such a groggy state. For the sound of bowstrings pinched by bleeding fingers, and Lan Wangji’s voice humming over the faint backdrop of stillwater.
But no such song came.
Wei Wuxian opened his eyes to the familiar ceiling of the bloodpool cave. For a second, he did nothing but watch the light stripe the ridges of stone overhead and hear the fire crackling near him. One of the blankets sewn by Luo Fanghua was resting over him.
The music stopped. A warm hand slid under the cover to grab his, practiced fingers pressing against the crook of his wrist to feel his pulse, and Wei Wuxian breathed in the scent of persimmon.
“You didn’t need to,” he told Wen Qing.
His voice came thin and easily broken, and the effort of speaking alone tugged at the wound left in his abdomen.
Wen Qing said nothing. He turned the head to look at her, quickly enough to catch the little flute she set on the floor by his side. She was not wearing the clothes he had last seen her in, and her face and hands were clean of dirt, of blood.
“How long?” he asked.
“Five days,” she replied evenly.
So long, then. Longer than Wei Wuxian had ever slept before.
Long enough for everything to be taken from him.
Wen Qing must see how he tensed then, how he made as if to push out of the bedding and crawl his way outside the cave if he had to; her hands pushed his shoulders down harshly, and she told him, “Calm down. They’re all fine. If you reopen that wound now after the work it took to fix you up, I’ll kill you myself.”
“We wouldn’t want that,” he said, gasping.
She almost smiled. It almost looked as if she were crying. “No,” she replied succinctly.
The rest was routine.
Wen Qing undressed his wound carefully, going so far as to bring the torchlight closer for a better look of it. It must be nighttime, Wei Wuxian thought; the smells were different here after the moon rose, and the air that came in from the entrance of the cave was cooler. No light filtered under the curtain of furs they would soon take off for the summer.
“Sect leader Jiang was very careful in how he stabbed you,” Wen Qing said, palping the wound slowly.
Wei Wuxian did not look at it any more than he had the others—the Qishanwen brand or the line of core surgery, the shameful marks left by his once-stretched skin.
“He did not hit anything vital, or not much anyway. But your body is weak, and you’ve been pushing yourself more than ever lately. You caught an infection.”
“You took care of it,” he replied drowsily.
She gnawed at her own lips. “Your fever only broke yesterday,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you would wake up at all.”
Perhaps it would have been better if he did not.
Wei Wuxian did not share those thoughts with her, knowing how she disliked his more maudlin moods. He allowed her to clean the wound and dress it again, and her fingers on his skin only felt the slightest bit maddening.
Wen Qing had more that she wanted to say. He knew it, and she knew that he knew, but she delayed anyway. She stepped away from him to put water to boil overfire. She remained there as the tea steeped, as she sorted out the drugs she would no doubt administer to him before scolding him for not eating enough.
Wei Wuxian could not afford any more delays. “Just tell me,” he said. “Just tell me how bad it is.”
Wen Qing gnawed at her lips again. “It’s not so bad,” she replied. “Sect leader Jiang negotiated with Jin Guangshan for days, and they managed to come to an agreement. That as long as you never steal anyone again, and as long as you never attack another cultivator, you can stay here. All of us can stay here.”
Wei Wuxian scoffed, although the act pained him and cut his breath off. “I can’t believe that’s all there is to it.”
“You were skewered on a sword in front of hundreds of people. Many think that was punishment enough, considering your status. Jiang Wanyin is facing his lot of contempt for daring to do such a thing.”
I won’t let you die.
“And Jin Guangshan accepted this,” he said, feeling dried out entirely. “He would just let me go after everything.”
There, he thought, watching the twinge of guilt in Wen Qing’s ruthless face. There it is.
“He wants his kunze back,” she admitted at last. “Especially the one pregnant with his child.”
Rage simmered again under all the numbness. “He can’t have her,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I’m never giving her back to him, even if she begs me to.”
“She did beg.” Wen Qing’s voice had gone soft with misery, with understanding; the glance she gave him then was too knowing for him not to avoid it. He looked again at the ceiling. “But she wasn’t in her right mind, and her friend managed to make her see reason.”
“What did Jin Guangshan have to say about this?” he asked roughly.
Wen Qing came back to his side. She took his hand in hers, not under any pretense of caring for his health this time—only to link their fingers together and try and share some warmth with him.
“He took a hostage for a hostage,” she said quietly. “He required your shijie to live in Golden Carp Tower until the day you see fit to agree to his demands.”
Wei Wuxian sobbed out a breath and covered his face with his hands, crushing it over his own eyes in hope of stoppering a flood he knew would not come any way.
He heard no word Wen Qing said after that—none of her soothing claims, none of the It wasn’t your fault—nothing at all. He pressed onto his eyes until even darkness vanished under grey and red spots of pain, and the knot in his throat widened and cut out his airways, making him gasp, flaring pain through the wound Jiang Cheng had given him.
He tasted bile over his tongue, slick and warm, inescapable; but the bitterness he found there was only from his own failure.