Warnings: gore, murder.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Autumn in Lanling City fell as golden and cool as the halls of the Tower. The last flowers of the clement seasons blossomed in the gardens, less fragrant for the lack of heat but no less beautiful. Hearths were lit in the chambers of the Jin clan and its guests, tended to hourly by servants.
Or perhaps not so, and Jiang Yanli was an exception.
It amused and worried her that they should feel the need to watch her so closely, she mused, looking at the back of the woman who had come to rekindle the fire. Jiang Cheng’s words had halted as the door to her rooms opened; he was watching the woman too, although his face bore a frown of distaste she had never quite seen on him since the war.
The woman seemed scared of him as well. She avoided his gaze, bowing only in Yanli’s direction and scurrying away wordlessly once her task was done. Jiang Yanli needed not ask what it was that made her so frightened. She had heard the whispers and the tale; she knew what they said of her brother.
She was honest enough to know, as well, that the shivers on her skin each time she remembered the sight of him covered in blood were due to shock as much as worry.
He had been so shaken. Pale and speechless, and Sandu in his hand still red and dripping.
“Come sit down,” she called him now. “A-Cheng. Please.”
Jiang Cheng did so reluctantly. He had been in such a mood since he arrived: somber and hesitant, and with guilt in his eyes no matter where he looked. He sat by Jiang Yanli’s side with quite the room between them.
He grabbed the tea before him without bringing it to his lips, though they looked dry. Jiang Yanli frowned and shifted on her knees till she was by his side, and she could reach his face with her hand and stroke his cheek and forehead.
“Are you coming down with a cold?” she asked gently.
For a second, he looked as though he would push her away. His shoulders had become so wide in the past few years, and they tensed and shuddered in anticipation for movement.
But Jiang Cheng had never rejected her. Even when he took her hand in his to bring it down, his hold was gentle. His thumb stroked the lighter patch of skin at her index—where Zidian had been until she was forced to give it away.
“You shouldn’t have asked me to come here,” was all he said. “People will talk.”
“I don’t care about gossip,” she replied. “What will they say anyway? That I miss my brother, and want to see him?”
“You know they call me…”
Kunze murderer. That was what they called him.
When Luo Qingyang had come to Yunmeng weeks ago, bearing a message from Jin Zixuan informing them that his father meant to march upon the Burial Mounds of Yiling and take back everything that Wei Wuxian stole, Jiang Cheng had been panicked. He had struck the dinner table they were all sitting around so harshly that Wen Linfeng had jumped in her seat with fright. He had left without a word, taking only a travel cloak and his sword, and leaving Jiang Yanli to deal with the three children around her who had gone pale and still.
She had not known what to do at the time. Like A-Cheng, she knew what the message did not say; that Jin Guangshan had obtained so much power in the wake of the Sunshot Campaign that all would turn a blind eye to his actions now. Who could say, after all, what truly happened in the midst of battle? Who could predict every lost arrow, every blade held forward?
Who could say that Jin Guangshan meant to kill Wei Wuxian rather than capture him, if Wei Wuxian simply found himself at the wrong end of a sword in the confusion of the fight?
But it was not Jin Guangshan whose sword Wei Wuxian was pierced by in full view of hundreds of eyes. And therefore it was not him who walked the halls of Lanlingjin’s stronghold with whispers in his trail.
“A-Xian is alive,” Jiang Yanli said.
Jiang Cheng’s hand shook around hers, trying to pull away, but she took hold of it before it could. She brought it to rest in her own lap and stroked it soothingly.
“You’ve had news from maiden Wen, you know he survived. You know he’ll be fine.”
“I know,” Jiang Cheng replied, almost spitting the words out. “He’s always fine in the end, isn’t he? Not for lack of trying to die like a fool.”
Jiang Yanli smiled, though her heart tightened painfully.
He had not told her what it was he had seen before or during the siege. Not even after she herself arrived in Lanling to speak to Jin Zixuan, and Jiang Cheng had come back from Yiling and spoken long and hard with the Jin sect heir.
She could guess, however, that it had not been easy for him to see. Wei Wuxian probably looked no better now than he had when she had last seen him in Phoenix Mountain.
A-Xian, she thought, not for the first time. What happened to you?
She should have asked him again, even if he did not wish to answer. She should have asked again and again until he had no choice but to give her the truth, and this thick shell of indifference he had grown during the war finally shattered and let her understand what had driven him so far from her.
“He hasn’t been seen in weeks,” A-Cheng said. “Some of the Wen sect refugees sometimes come and go from the hills to the village, that damned Ghost General always with them, but never Wei Wuxian.”
“He must be recovering,” Jiang Yanli replied, placating.
“I just don’t understand. He knows you’re here, he knows you’re in danger—why won’t he just give up that one kunze? Why does he have to be so stubborn?”
“Did you see her?”
Jiang Cheng’s face grew pained.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli called again patiently. “Did you see consort Jin when you were there?”
“I did,” he admitted at last.
“And how did she look? Did she seem like she wanted to come back here?”
She read the answer off of him without him having to give it to her.
Jiang Yanli smiled. She squeezed his hand in hers, feeling the warmth and pulse of it, comforting herself with it. “A-Xian has never been able to let go of someone in need of his help,” she said. “Not when they were right in front of him.”
Jiang Cheng took his hand back and replied, “Yet he could let go of you.”
He looked ashamed for his words almost immediately, but he did not take them back. Jiang Yanli knew that her own face showed nothing either. No matter how much the truth ached in her.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” she told him. The tea they were served earlier had grown tepid; she took her cup in hand anyway, and stroked with a finger the thin engraving of a bird laid into the side of it. It held within its beak the very fine painting of a peony flower. “Madam Jin has been very good to me. She will not allow her husband to see me, and she never lets me dine alone.”
“Tell me about the children,” she interrupted. “They must feel lonely.”
A-Cheng’s fingernails dug into the skin of his palms as he struggled not to question her for lies. But Jiang Yanli had told him nothing but the truth: Jin Guangshan had not seen her since the day he had come back from the siege, followed by Jiang Cheng and immediately hounded by him and Jin Zixuan both into allowing Wei Wuxian to live. Jiang Yanli only had to give up so little to make sure he agreed.
Zidian, her last memento of her mother. Her sword which Yu Ziyuan had forged for and before her when she was just a child. The promise that she would never try to flee the grounds of Golden Carp Tower, for her doing so would ensure that Jin Guangshan marched once again upon the Yiling Patriarch’s stronghold.
How odd, that only now that she was rid of it, she found herself thinking of the black-wooded house at the edges of the Lotus Pier, and of the days neither she nor anyone else spoke of when Wei Wuxian had to be locked in it.
Jiang Cheng told her tales of the three Wen kunze living in the Pier until evening came, cold and somber. She knew by the way he hesitated that he struggled to spend time with them at all; he had never liked to be close to them even when Wei Wuxian had been there with them all to curb Wen Yueying’s bright personality and keep Wen Yiqian occupied. It must be difficult for him to know that after Wei Wuxian and his sister had gone, the responsibility to care for their happiness fell to him.
She knew that Wen Linfeng must miss her terribly. The girl was so young still, immature and gentle, and she had grown used to meeting Jiang Yanli at night and speaking with her in soft voices. She was always so shy around Jiang Cheng, too. She must hide whenever he was around and not let him enquire after her well-being.
Servants avoided them as Jiang Yanli walked her brother back to the top of the white-and-gold stairs. She saw that he was looking at the wide hall there, as he did every time; that he must be remembering the day Wei Wuxian had made so many enemies and torn away from him for good.
The sound of footsteps reached them slowly as they looked over the height of the mountains around. Jiang Cheng turned his head aside immediately, but Jiang Yanli smelled the scent of pinecone and knew that she was safe.
“Jin Zixuan,” Jiang Cheng greeted hesitantly.
Jin Zixuan nodded to him with both hands before him. “Sect leader Jiang,” he replied. “My apologies for not greeting you sooner, I was busy elsewhere.”
His father must have once more summoned him for a lecture.
Yanli bowed to him as well, smiling faintly at the nod he gave her. Jin Zixuan had been nothing but polite to her since his father had so rudely ordered for her to remain in the Tower, unarmed and unaccompanied. His behavior was much the same as it had been when she had run to him after the Lotus Pier fell: he greeted and spoke to her at least once a day, sometimes shared a meal with her and his mother, and otherwise made her life here as comfortable as was in his power.
The space at his hip where Suihua always rested was conspicuously empty. Jiang Yanli wondered, sometimes, if the place it was taken after being confiscated was the same as her own sword and Zidian. If the three weapons rested next to one another.
“Are you about to leave, then, sect leader?” asked Jin Zixuan.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng replied.
He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment longer. His brow furrowed and twisted before he could bring himself to speak again.
“I must… thank you, again, for your help.” The words looked to be strenuous for him to say. “If not for you,” he added, “Wei Wuxian may be dead today. I’ll make sure he knows this, one way or the other, and present you with his own apology one day.”
If Jiang Yanli were more self-preserving, she would have kept looking downward as she was taught to in the presence of her betters; but this particular ache had never fully dimmed in her, and so she looked at Jin Zixuan’s face.
She saw just how he stilled. She saw the way his throat shivered, the guilt washing briefly over his handsome face.
“There’s no need for this,” Jin Zixuan muttered, looking away. “I bid you goodbye, then.”
Jiang Cheng, of course, had no idea. He turned to Jiang Yanli with a dark expression, one which Yanli doubted would dissipate even after she held him in her arms tightly. He gave her back her embrace tenfold. Her shoulders ached slightly where his upper arms pressed inward.
“Be careful,” he murmured for her ears only.
He sounded so much like a little boy.
“Of course,” she replied, stroking the hair over his nape. He pulled away from her, looking at her as always with emotion he had no words to express. She smiled at him. “Take care of yourself, A-Cheng,” she said. “Tell the children I’ve gotten their letters and will be replying soon.”
She and Jin Zixuan watched him fly over the mountains until he was but a speck of black in the distance; a grain of dust against the purpling sky.
It was no surprise to her when the Jin sect heir followed in her steps unasked, standing a little way behind her as she took the direction of the gardens. He had taken to walking with her like this when his mother could not, to make sure she wasn’t lonely. Jiang Yanli felt no small measure of pleasure at this, and no small measure of guilt either.
“They will be withering soon,” Jin Zixuan said softly.
She was standing before a massive bush of chrysanthemums. At his words, she stroked a yellow flower between index and thumb. “It’s a shame,” she replied. “I only saw the end of summer.”
“They will flower again next year.”
He must realize the implication of his own words—that she would still be trapped here a year ahead—for when she looked at him, he seemed guilty again.
He tried to smile at her. “I was lucky to first visit the Lotus Pier when the flowers were in bloom,” he said. “I will never forget how beautiful the docks were that day.”
Jiang Yanli’s mouth lifted at the corners. Her eyes stung.
“Was it the docks that caught your eye then, young master Jin,” she asked shakily; “or was it Wei Wuxian?”
Jin Zixuan tensed like a bowstring pulled by unseen fingers. If she were still young, still the well-mannered child that her mother so coveted and her father liked to look away from, she would have taken her words back right then. She would have never uttered them in the first place.
But she was so tired. She was so lonely, so scared, so betrayed in her ugliest of hearts that for weeks now, A-Xian had not given any sign of concession in spite of the threat on her life.
She had so longed to one day see Jin Zixuan look at her as he looked at Wei Wuxian.
“Maiden Jiang,” Jin Zixuan stuttered.
But the words had left him. She could see it on his face.
Still, she smiled. She remained straight-backed and kind. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she said. “I’ve known for quite some time now.”
His voice came roughly. “How? Were you the one who overheard…”
He stopped himself. Although he had known they were alone in the garden, he looked around them both. Jiang Yanli knew not what she was supposed to have overheard, but the worry on his face made her decide to end his plight.
“I knew on the day you came with me to stop your cousin from buying his hand,” she told him. “Even though he was so awkward in those clothes, you looked at him in such a way…”
Jin Zixuan’s face grew red and miserable, halting her before she could finish.
“I do not believe he ever noticed, if that is your worry,” she added softly. “A-Xian is… he was never very good at recognizing those things.”
Wei Wuxian had never been able to see that he was worthy of such feelings. Even before the war or before the fevers which had so shaken him. As a child, he only spoke of love to her in the farthest of hypotheticals. Jiang Yanli could hardly imagine that he was any better at it now, with how different he had looked the last time they had met.
Jin Zixuan could not meet her eyes anymore. “I know this,” he said.
The words, said in such a defeated tone, dried at her throat. “Have you spoken to him about it?” she asked. She tried so hard to keep her voice even.
She saw the answer in the way he moved; his hand flexed and then opened at the empty space by his hip, and his throat shook over a painful swallow.
She breathed out a short, silent laugh. She turned her back to him so that he would not see how her eyes shone. “Well,” she forced out. “I can’t imagine that he took it very well.”
His silence said it all.
Such bitter, bitter jealousy, so much bitterer now than it had been on the day she had come to Lanling begging for help. Even then her envy of Jin Zixuan’s concern for Wei Wuxian had shamed her deeply, for she knew that Wei Wuxian had asked for none of it, that his status was more of a burden to him than anything else. And now in the aftermath of near-war, after her own brother had had to stab Wei Wuxian, she still found it in herself to be maudlin over it all.
She was such a silly girl. A silly girl in her mother’s armory, watching her show the precious collection of blades and bows she had amassed over the years; a silly girl in front of her father, who looked at the honey-scented child before him as if he were his own.
She breathed in deeply to quiet the pressure in her chest. Air itself came to her shakily, almost hesitantly. She said, “You don’t have to tell me anything. Though, for your sake, I wish that things were different.”
“I swore that I would speak of it to no one.”
It almost made her smile. Of course Wei Wuxian would think this a terrible secret to hide.
Little by little, her heartbeats eased. Her fingers relaxed over the edge of the flowerbeds before her. The peonies and plum flowers there had turned darker with the coming of night, their petals closing together. She picked the largest she found between two fingers and cut its stem with a nail. It was still wet from the morning’s rain.
“Maiden Jiang,” Jin Zixuan said. She heard him approach her, saw him take place by her side, his back as straight as a ruler. “I must apologize for how I treated you when we were younger. I was only a child frustrated by my circumstances, but I should have known better. You did not choose to be betrothed to me either.”
“I never minded,” Jiang Yanli replied.
She felt more than saw his surprise.
“You and A-Xian have more in common than he thinks,” she said. “The both of you are proud and rather difficult to approach. You are both better cultivators than most… and neither of you is very aware of others’ feelings toward you.”
“Maiden Jiang, I—”
“Do you still love him?”
She looked at him. She braced herself atop the bannister, readying herself for meeting his eyes and trying to decipher a lie in them.
But Jin Zixuan did not give her one. “Yes,” he said roughly. “However, I…”
He interrupted himself without her input this time. She once more saw his neck tremble as he worked through his own misery.
“I know that those feelings will lead nowhere at all,” he declared at last. “And I do not intend to pursue them any further.”
He looked so sincere. He looked a moment away from putting a hand over his heart solemnly.
“Good, then,” Jiang Yanli smiled.
In his surprise, Jin Zixuan did not pull back from the hand she had wrapped around his wrist. Yanli herself hardly felt the fear that such boldness should have brought in her; she was always such a shy girl, always so quick to fall silent and let confrontation slide over her unseen, yet now she took his hand. Now she held a thumb against the veins in his wrist where his own heart beat slow and strong.
With the other, she put the peony in it. She closed his fingers around it until the petals bent, and she was certain that he would not let it fall. She took her shaking hands back.
“Maybe one day you’ll look around you,” she told him, “and notice that you, too, are loved.”
On the first day of spring, on the third year since Wei Wuxian had started living at the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing came to fetch him inside the bloodpool cave.
She pushed aside the drapes keeping the cool wind out. She sneezed as she often did when the moonless flowers were in full bloom and nearly ready to be picked and dried, having no love for the bitter smell or taste of them. She found him sat against a wall at the far end, nearby the red pool whose light never really dimmed—and even now traversed his closed eyelids and painted his darkness crimson.
She called his name: “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian blinked slowly, carefully; like one blinked after the deepest of sleeps, one moment gone and the next here. The bodiliness of breathing reached him. The weight of arms and legs hung upon him once more. His neck bent under his own head before he found the strength to lift it.
Wen Qing stood silently as she waited for him to emerge. Dressed in the cloak she wore only for travelling to the village, her boots muddy and her hair swept by the wind. Only when the breath left his lips audibly did she speak up again.
“For your information,” she said, “you’ve been in here for three days.”
This would be the reason why he felt so heavy, then.
Wei Wuxian said nothing, knowing that his throat was dry and his voice weak. He pressed a hand to Chenqing at his hip thoughtlessly; then he pushed against the stone ground to kneel and stand.
His eyesight ran dark and painful as soon as he was upright, but he did not sway.
“I won’t bother asking if you’ve eaten,” Wen Qing said. “All the food A-Ning left you is still here.”
“Wen Ning came?” Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but ask.
As expected, his words were nothing more than whispers.
Wen Qing’s lips thinned. “Of course he did,” she replied. “He worries for you.”
“Keep your lies for the others, Wei Ying, not me.”
He had not even the energy to argue with her.
Still, he followed her outside, barely blinking when sunlight shone into his eyes. For the past few months, everywhere he looked had taken on a dark tinge, as if a see-through veil rested over his eyes. Even now, in the middle of day, the village around him looked to be shrouded by dusk.
He realized too late that Wen Qing was calling his name again. “What is it?” he asked tiredly.
Her mouth closed. He thought faintly that he should feel something less distant at the sight of her worry, or at the sound of anger on her voice when she replied, “Luo Fanghua said she wanted you to deliver the new batch of clothes to the village.”
“Yes,” Wen Qing snapped. “Do you still remember her, or has your mind rotted away in that cave of yours?”
A moment passed. Wind shivered through the newborn foliage of trees.
Wei Wuxian exhaled. “Of course I remember her,” he said. He pressed a hand over his eyes, rubbing at them futilely. It did not rid him of the darkness, but it made him feel a little more present. “I just wonder why. Usually she’s fine asking Uncle Four or someone else to do it.”
“Well, she thinks you might need the fresh air. We all do.”
Would that he could argue her words, but already other eyes were turning to them. He could see some people near the closest houses knock on doors a little way farther and pointing in his direction.
They wore smiles when they looked at him. They looked relieved at his presence.
Wei Wuxian turned his back to the village. “Just get your uncles to do it as usual,” he told Wen Qing. “I’ve got better things to do.”
He tried to walk past her, but she blocked his way.
“No you don’t,” she said. Wei Wuxian stared fixedly at the arm she had lifted before him; a second later it lowered, and Wen Qing’s hand grabbed his wrist instead. “You haven’t gone outside in months,” she added. “I think you’ve had quite enough time to wallow in your misery. Get yourself cleaned up and go deliver those clothes.”
“Have you forgotten there are about twenty cultivators between here and the valley ready to pounce on me?” he asked between his teeth.
He tried to shake her hand off of him. She squeezed even tighter in answer, looking a second away from yelling at him, but then the sound of high-pitched laughter reached them. She let go reflexively, her worry taking over her frustration in a second.
But not even that laughter could still him now. Wei Wuxian took his hand back and looked briefly at the running silhouette of Wen Yuan in the distance.
Wen Qing sighed. “Going to the village is not breaking any of the rules Jin Guangshan set,” she said. “Go take a walk. I need to harvest the flowers anyway, we’ll soon run out of the tea.”
“You know I like to do that,” he replied moodily.
“Then be back before I’m done,” she retorted. “And take A-Ning with you.”
There was no arguing with her even if he had the will to.
The masons of the Wen sect had built a bath house over the river a year and a half ago. Half of it served to dye and wash the fabrics that Luo Fanghua and her assistants worked with daily; the other was a series of narrow tubs, separated by wooden walls, heated with stones left overfire. Wei Wuxian disliked going there during the day, when he ran the risk of meeting someone else, but today his feet took him to the entrance by themselves.
He washed himself quickly, scrubbing succinctly at his skin, looking nowhere but straight ahead the whole time. Even with the steam around him, the heavy smell of dyes permeated the air. He changed into cleaner clothes than the one he had taken off and walked again outside before he was completely dry.
Luo Fanghua awaited him by the end of the hillpath, a pile of folded clothing twice as big as she was set atop the cart that they all used for such travels. Her face was closed-off as always, although her eyes belied no anger toward him. Wei Wuxian felt himself nod to her in greeting, and then to Wen Ning standing by her.
“I’m sorry for my sister, young master Wei,” Wen Ning said as they began to descend down the sloping tracks. “She should not have bothered you with this.”
He was pulling the cart with his bare hands. Wei Wuxian could remember a time when he insisted that horses do the job instead, feeling faintly ill at the sight of Wen Ning doing such work, before he understood that Wen Ning enjoyed it.
Considering the other kind of work Wei Wuxian once had him do, it was all-too-easy to see why.
“No need for apologies,” Wei Wuxian replied.
He fit his back more comfortably against the clothes. Shadows emerged in his eyesight every time he blinked, sweeping between tombstones and dead trees like ghosts.
“I’ve had nothing to do for months but wallow in my failure.”
“No one thinks you failed,” Wen Ning said softly.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes. He tasted bitterness as he thought of his shijie; as he thought, also, of the now-heavily pregnant kunze living in the same house as Wen Qing and Grandmother.
“At least our little friends should get something to report out of this,” he replied at last. He blinked. Laughed dryly. “The Yiling Patriarch, deliverer of homemade goods,” he added. “I hope Jin Guangshan gets a laugh out of it.”
He had no need for good eyesight to feel the presence of cultivators near and far.
Wei Wuxian tried to lie down over the cart. He watched the blue sky over them, rendered purple by the diminishing of his eyes through the past months, and attempted to make sense of the shape of clouds as he did as a child. This memory seemed so far from himself now that it may as well belong to another life entirely—a little Wei Ying on the docks of Yunmeng, laid over old wood with his naked feet in the river. Arguing with his shijie and shidi over one thing or the next. Heedless of the years that were to come to him.
He could almost see his own face in that half-somnolence; and Wei Wuxian thought for a moment that he did, before he realized that such a face was above his; that grey eyes were peering down at him from above the edge of one of the wide clay pots the cart always carried.
He was wide awake, now. The breath caught painfully in his lungs, his fingers near-spasming with fright. Above him, Wen Yuan rubbed his nose with one small hand, looking down on him in curiosity.
“Uncle,” the boy said to him.
Wei Wuxian grabbed the edge of the cart with one shaking hand, feeling splinters lodge themselves in his skin with the strength of his hold, and hoisted himself off of it entirely.
It had rained the day before, and the soil was muddy. His boots slipped over it before he caught himself on the bark of a dead tree. He vaguely saw the cart halt after he had hopped off of it—vaguely heard Wen Ning call his name in worry, vaguely saw the child climb out of the pot he had been in all along—
“A-Yuan,” Wen Ning said in surprise, “what are you doing here?”
“You didn’t find me,” said the child.
His words were so much clearer now than that time in the bloodpool cave. Almost eloquent.
Wei Wuxian turned his back to them. He leaned against the tree, closing his eyes, breathing forcefully out of his mouth. Cold tendrils of energy roamed over his skin, ever-responsive to his moods, but he chased them away. It would not do to cause Wen Ning to lose his control now.
When at last he felt that he would not be sick, he pushed himself upright once more.
Wen Ning and the child were speaking to each other slowly. They turned to face him almost as one, and Wei Wuxian once more had to hold his breath or risk faltering where he stood.
“I’m sorry, young master,” Wen Ning said softly. “A-Yuan and I were playing hide and seek before we left… I didn’t know he was hidden in the cart.”
“You didn’t find me,” Wen Yuan repeated proudly.
As he said it, his hands grabbed the long ends of Wen Ning’s hair and pulled. Wen Ning seemed to suffer the treatment habitually, and wasted no time before pulling the child’s fingers out of his hair, a faintly scolding expression on his face.
Wen Yuan laughed.
Wei Wuxian wanted to vanish on the spot.
“Should I take him back, master?” Wen Ning asked.
One did not need to be as apt as Wei Wuxian was at reading him to know that he was concerned. Wei Wuxian had no idea if Wen Qing had told him anything of Wen Yuan’s origins, had no idea even if Wen Ning suspected anything was wrong between himself and Wen Yuan…
But they were close to the village already. Going back now would mean a delay of another few hours. And if Wen Ning ran back with the child by himself, Wei Wuxian did not know that the owners of the eyes he had felt on them all along would not try to attack him.
He could not afford to slip up and hurt one of them.
“No,” he said roughly. “I’ll just—”
I’ll just walk ahead, he meant to say; but his eyes met Wen Yuan’s again inescapably, and the words died on his tongue.
“Uncle,” the child called him again.
“Don’t call me that,” Wei Wuxian snapped.
Wen Yuan’s face fell. His fingers loosened within the strands of Wen Ning’s hair that he was still grabbing tightly. “Then what do I call you?” he asked.
It felt like a nightmare. All of it. Wei Wuxian realized slowly, thickly, that he had never before thought of Wen Yuan as more than a shadow in the corner of his eyes; that the child had never been more to him than the threat of cries or laughter, the sound of a voice and the shape of a small body.
Not words, not conversation. Not the bright gleam of intelligence in grey and lively eyes.
“You don’t call me,” he choked, and he had no idea if the child heard at all.
“Come here, A-Yuan,” said Wen Ning, offering his back to the child rather than risk leaving him to his own devices over the cart.
Wei Wuxian walked past them and led them the rest of the way toward the village, trying the whole time to hear nothing but the slow beat of his own blood.
They found the town bustling with activity as always. It had grown these past few years, and the merchant that Wei Wuxian sold Luo Fanghua’s work to had rebuilt his shop right at the center of it, twice as big as before. It was there that he headed after Wen Ning put a wide hat over his head to hide the pallor of his skin. A strip of cloth was wound around his neck in spite of the warm day, in order to disguise the black veins running there.
Wei Wuxian left Wen Ning and the child outside as he greeted the man. He watched him unfold and examine the clothes and gauge the price he would pay for them unseeingly.
“Been a while since we saw you here.”
The man’s words came thinly to Wei Wuxian’s ears. In the lapse of time it took him to react to them, the man had re-folded the silken robes he was holding and put down the glass he used to magnify his sight.
“I’ve got some more fabrics for that little seamstress of yours to look at, if she wants,” the man went on, now that Wei Wuxian was looking at him. “They’re just waiting in the back of the shop. It’s been months now since I got them.”
“You could have given them to one of the others,” Wei Wuxian said slowly.
The man gave a laugh that sounded like a cough, raucous and disagreeable. “I don’t trust that lot half as much as I trust you,” he replied. “Just wait here a moment, little master. I’ll be back with the samples.”
He rose from the chair heavily, awkwardly. The rainy zhongyong-scent of him lingered for a moment before vanishing, as did his thickset body vanish behind the drape keeping the backroom from view.
Wei Wuxian was seated in an alcove near the rear of the shop itself. From here he was mostly unseen, but he could see well, and he saw that a few people were roaming the rows of fabrics and clothes, speaking with ease to the owner’s husband who was helping them make their choice. He realized that they wore travel cloaks and boots, and that the horses tied to the front of the shop must belong to them.
“Noticing now, are you?”
Wei Wuxian looked aside; the man had come back with strips of fabric in hand, tied together with string, and a bag full of noisy silver. He placed both before Wei Wuxian on the table.
“Where did they come from?” Wei Wuxian asked, lifting a hand to take them.
“Far and wide. This shop has gained quite the reputation since you started coming here.” The man sat with a loud grunt. He continued, “Such fine sewing in such a place… well, they do say the touch of a kunze is the most delicate of all.”
Wei Wuxian stilled with his hand over the money pouch. He looked at the man in silence, feeling the air freeze over him, feeling the hole within his chest glow with power.
The man did not look afraid. “Your eyes are red now, little master,” he said evenly. “I would calm down if I were you. There’s been news that an immortal cultivator came last night to chase away some spirits.”
After another moment of stillness, Wei Wuxian dragged the fabrics and money to himself. He opened the pouch to count the silver, never fully looking away from the one before him. Once he was done, he hid it in his sleeve near one half of the Stygian Tiger Seal. Then he asked darkly, “How many know?”
“Hard to say. We’re not the brightest bunch, are we?” The man laughed his raucous laugh again, drawing toward him the fond eyes of his husband, which rested over Wei Wuxian quickly before looking away. “But I would wager most of the shops you’ve done business with for food or clothing have a hunch. They don’t care, either.”
“I rather doubt that,” Wei Wuxian said.
The man shrugged. He leaned back onto his bench until his wide back touched the wall. “As long as money is good, we don’t much care where it comes from,” he replied. “And I suppose there’s some pride in doing business with the Yiling Patriarch, what with all the folks who come here looking for you, spreading all those tales.”
Wei Wuxian should deny this and pretend to be nothing more than a merchant. He should leave the shop now, take Wen Ning and Wen Yuan and hurry back up the hills until he was safely behind his barriers again.
Instead he said, “Perhaps there’s some truth to the tales.”
“What does it matter to me anyway if there is,” the man retorted. “Me and my husband, we’re not like those cultivation sects. We couldn’t afford a kunze even if we wanted one, and none’s been born here in decades. As far as I’m concerned, you can rob them all you want.”
“I’ll take my leave now.”
The man showed no anger or disappointment. He watched Wei Wuxian rise from his seat in silence, his broad face as somber as always in spite of his smiles, his zhongyong-scent clinging to him faintly, as it did all people who shared his status.
Sunlight did not blind Wei Wuxian under the veil of his own impoverished sight. He walked past the horses tied to the front of the shop, looking slowly around for a trace of Wen Ning and the child.
The cart was where he had left it, but Wen Ning was nowhere in sight.
He frowned. “Wen Ning?” he called through the bond tying them together.
He felt an echo of acknowledgement to the right, where the broadest street of the village extended toward an inn and tavern and a quick-running river. He stepped in that direction without feeling any of the people who walked past him, carrying donkeys and horses or pushing forth carts full of straw and other goods.
He found Wen Ning in the narrow space between two houses, standing awkwardly in the shade, looking at him with guilt.
He was alone.
“Young master Wei,” Wen Ning whimpered. “I’m sorry, I—I lost sight of A-Yuan. I looked away for a moment, and then…”
Wei Wuxian remained still and wordless for a moment longer. There was a pulse to his chest, he felt, though it seemed that all it did carry was emptiness. Shadows swarmed the edges of his sight.
“Let’s just,” he tried to say. His mouth was dry. “Let’s look for him,” he managed. “Then get away from this place.”
“Yes,” Wen Ning murmured.
They separated to cover more of the village more quickly, and all the time Wei Wuxian walked his chest constricted and beat voidly, vanishing sound and sight alike as his boots crushed dirt and grass under their soles. He felt that he was walking on air rather than ground, that perhaps the valley should wash from beneath him as if he flew over it on a sword.
How far could such a young child have wandered on his own? He was so small still. He had hidden his whole body in the pot over the cart, and it must have been a rather easy fit, considering the time he allowed to let go before making his presence known. How old was…
How old was Wen Yuan?
Wei Wuxian stopped in the middle of the street, causing those next and behind him to voice their annoyance. He heard none of their words, so taken was he by the fact that he could no longer count the number of seasons. The aches of labor had never fully left him, the feel of blood and fluid over his legs never entirely washed away. He could still hear Wen Qing’s voice, her dreadful calm as she told him what to do even as he forgot to breathe, as she had to slap his face to make him tense and push; as his whole body finally detached from him and felt no more familiar than a lump of formless clay.
He could not remember how long ago he had woken in that inn and wanted so dearly to have died.
The air he breathed now felt like ice. The light around him dimmed in the way of winter twilight, quick and all-encompassing, as if any second now the moon should rise and bring about snowfall. Wei Wuxian marched on through the wide street, searching for the qianyuan-scent of petrichor as much as he dreaded it, seeing nothing around him but blackness.
Yet petrichor was not the first familiar scent he found; instead his nose filled with the first warm breath of sandalwood, and when his blind eyes rose to see before himself, an expanse of white shone in the midst of so many shadows.
As he blinked, as the light came back to him in increments, Wei Wuxian recalled the shop owner’s words: “An immortal cultivator came last night to chase away some spirits.”
Lan Wangji certainly looked the part of an immortal, even as confused as he was in the middle of a staring crowd—and with a child hugging his leg and beginning to cry loudly.
Wen Ning, Wei Wuxian thought.
Wen Ning’s awareness came to him within a minute. He spent it looking from a distance as murmurs shivered over the crowd. Wen Yuan cried over Lan Wangji’s leg; Lan Wangji looked at a loss for what to do; a woman near them said, “Be kinder to your son, young master.”
Wei Wuxian rubbed a hand over his face and tried not to let sickness rush up his throat.
The awkward Wen Ning was here soon enough. He came to Wei Wuxian’s side in confusion, before taking in the spectacle in the street ahead. Then he called, “A-Yuan,” gently, and went to retrieve the child from Lan Wangji’s side.
Lan Wangji saw him, and he was not as easily fooled as the villagers by a wide hat and a scarf. He must have noticed the color of Wen Ning’s skin and the ever-cold aura around him. One of his pale hands grabbed Bichen’s pommel, and the other took hold of Wen Yuan’s collar, ready to pull him out of harm’s way.
Wei Wuxian made himself call, “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji’s head immediately turned in his direction.
Perhaps it would have been unneeded, as Wen Yuan himself cried even louder at the sight of Wen Ning and finally released Lan Wangji’s robes to throw himself into the corpse’s arms. Either way the child was retrieved, and Lan Wangji now looked at Wei Wuxian with wide eyes.
Wei Wuxian approached carefully. “Don’t you have better things to do?” he asked the small crowd around the street, who looked at him in rancor and went reluctantly back to their tasks.
Soon enough they stood alone, and Lan Wangji spoke at last: “Wei Ying.”
It was Wen Ning who replied to him rather than Wei Wuxian, whose tongue seemed to be caught within his dry, dry mouth. “Thank you for finding him, young master Lan,” he said softly. “We’ve been looking for him.”
He rocked the child once in his arms, and Wen Yuan added a small, “Sorry.”
Lan Wangji seemed not to mind at all that part of his ever-clean uniform now bore little handprints in dirt. “He was the one who found me,” was all he said, looking not at Wen Ning but at the child he held; and then staring at Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian could not meet his eyes.
“Wen Ning, you go back to the cart now,” he said hoarsely. “You take…”
But the name could not leave his lips, and anyway Wen Ning obeyed as he always did. Perhaps such an order had carried over the bond they had, impossible for him not to comply with, through the strength of Wei Wuxian’s discomfort.
He walked away, Wen Yuan still held against his front carefully.
Wei Wuxian exhaled only after they were gone from his sight. “What are you doing here, Lan Zhan?” he asked.
Lan Wangji’s hand slid down from Bichen’s pommel at last. “A hunt,” he replied. “And I… I brought more music.”
It was a long second before Wei Wuxian’s confusion made way for understanding, and he remembered the woods atop Phoenix Mountain and the songs Lan Wangji had played for him there.
Indeed Lan Wangji’s guqin was strapped to his back in soft grey cloth, the very same that seemed to carry more items at his waist.
“You look surprised,” said Lan Wangji.
“Shouldn’t I be?” Wei Wuxian replied after a brief silence. “We are far from Gusu. You came here without warning, in spite of…”
In spite of the warnings hanging heavily over Wei Wuxian’s head in the shape of Jin Guangshan’s army.
But instead of saying anything about this, Lan Wangji told him, “I met maiden Wen this morning. She said she would tell you.”
Anger thrummed through Wei Wuxian for a bare second, vulnerable and betrayed; but he knew like Wen Qing must that had she told him the truth of why she wanted him in the village, he would never have come.
He sighed. His chest felt pained and slow. He gave a look to the man beside him, whose eyes had not drifted from Wei Wuxian’s face since he had heard his call earlier. His presence alone seemed to chase away the shadows clinging to Wei Wuxian’s sight. As if light poured out of his skin rather than the sky above.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he told him. “There are too many eyes on me now.”
Even now he felt them, roaming over his limbs like the footprints of insects.
“People will accuse you of treason. Don’t you care what your brother or uncle will say?”
“No,” Lan Wangji replied.
No more, no less. As stubborn now as he was on the day they met, and he attacked Wei Wuxian over the outer wall of the Cloud Recesses for bringing in liquor.
Some echo of a smile lifted Wei Wuxian’s lips. “Let the Yiling Patriarch treat you to a meal, then,” he said. “Or whatever excuse for a meal is served here.”
He took a few steps toward the entrance of the taver, close by, but Lan Wangji remained where he stood.
His head was turned to the long street beside him that Wen Ning had traversed as he left.
“This child,” he said; and Wei Wuxian’s empty veins iced and stilled.
The lump of clay of his body weighed so much in that instant that he felt he ought to gather upon the ground like thick mud, to lose shape and will and then solidify as he was. If a cultivator had come right then to take his head, he would not have had the strength to lift an arm and take Chenqing in hand.
The silence that followed was the longest of Wei Wuxian’s life. He spent it feeling like the knoll of a freshly-dug grave.
Lan Wangji said no more. He walked to Wei Wuxian’s level and then past him, into the tavern’s doorframe; and Wei Wuxian thought for a terrible moment that he would not look back. That the picture of his back disappearing into shadow would be the last he saw of him.
But Lan Wangji held the door open for him. He looked him in the eye in silence, his outstretched arm the same as the one Wei Wuxian had offered him years ago.
The tavern was quiet and deserted in the hours of mid-afternoon. All who would come here to drink would do so later at night, and what few were seated were travelers, weary and gaunt, wrapped in long and dust-smeared cloaks.
“You don’t drink, do you,” Wei Wuxian said after they were served. The liquor sold here was strong, yellow in color, as bitter as it was sweet. He downed a cup of it before he was able to speak, and another after his question.
“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji replied calmly.
Wei Wuxian mourned that he could no longer recall what a young Lan Wangji had looked like, saying those words to him for the first time.
“It’s just as well. The one I brew in the Burial Mounds tastes much better.”
Lan Wangji’s brow broke out of its smooth exterior and into a single crease. “Alcohol is a good way to keep warm,” he said slowly. “In winter.”
“You don’t have to be polite with me,” Wei Wuxian replied, smiling faintly. “I’ve been aware of your disapproval for many years.”
The frown on Lan Wangji’s forehead only worsened, though his gaze was kind.
Wei Wuxian drank more of the bitter liquor, wiping the spill of it at the corner of his mouth with a sleeve. It had been a while since he got to indulge, as the alcohol in the bloodpool cave could only be made in small quantities and had to be shared in-between all of them. If Lan Wangji intended to remain desperately sober, then he would drink his fill for two.
To his surprise, Lan Wangji did not berate him for it. In fact he pushed the jar set by his side of the table toward Wei Wuxian without a word. It threatened to topple after knocking into a hole of the wood, and Wei Wuxian caught it by the neck, his fingers brushing Lan Wangji’s in the movement. The man drew his away slowly.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said when it became evident that Lan Wangji was set on remaining silent. “Show me the music you brought.”
It was a second before Lan Wangji moved to open the cloth tied at his waist. He handed him a stack of paper, each sheet covered in minutious writing.
Wei Wuxian spent a while shuffling through the different songs, humming some of them to make them easier to remember later, trying not to show just how grateful he was. Wen Qing had played the ones he had badly taught her many times, and each had given his heart less peace over the years. Perhaps these would bring him some more of the quiet he had found when Lan Wangji played them.
“I won’t be able to remember all of these,” he said mournfully. “But thank you. I think the simplest ones will stick.”
“You can keep them.”
Wei Wuxian looked up from the papers in his lap.
Lan Wangji had his head turned to the table between them, one hand delicately wrapped around the tea he had yet to bring to his lips. The tips of his ears had gone red in the stuffy air of the inn.
“They are copies,” he said. “You can keep them.”
Lan Wangji nodded. His fingers twitched around the porcelain before his grip loosened.
Wei Wuxian stared once more at the sheets he was holding, noticing now that every stroke of ink on paper was even, no matter which he read; that the same hand must have drawn all of them.
“Did you copy all of these yourself?” he asked.
Lan Wangji nodded wordlessly.
Wei Wuxian’s fingers ran over the smooth, expensive paper, the very same that he had scribbled on a lifetime ago in punishment. The same he had drawn Lan Wangji’s portrait on, lost in contemplation for the boy before him who withstood silence and immobility so easily.
It had been so long since Wei Wuxian drew anything that wasn’t a spell array, since he picked up a brush for something other than formulæ or the occasional note about his aimless life. He had not even done this much since Jin Guangshan had laid siege on him, save for the notes crawling over wasted paper and which spoke in bare words of the people he had gathered and their lives. Each day he spent in the bloodpool cave became two or three before he had the time to breathe. He could not recall what he did during them, in-between the moments of clarity that shook his head and lungs.
He felt the sudden need to push paper to wood, to rub ink to inkstone, to feel the smooth length of a brush in-between his fingers. He felt that he could paint Lan Wangji like this; that he could once more attempt to catch the light emanating out of him and try and translate it the only way he knew.
The only way he used to know.
But his fingers were awkward now, bent into the shape of flute-playing and not painting, out of practice and out of time. Already the light outside had dimmed, and his own sight with it. Lan Wangji before him was but a spot of white among shadows.
“I can’t accept this,” Wei Wuxian said. He blinked, hoping to see better, unsurprised when the shadows remained.
He tried to push the sheets toward Lan Wangji, but the man shook his head. “Keep them,” he replied.
“Lan Zhan, these are songs from your sect. Even I can recognize how old some of them are. You shouldn’t show them to a stranger, let alone give them away.”
“Keep them,” Lan Wangji repeated, as unmoving as marble. “Learn them. If they are of no use to you, then I will take them back.”
“Why?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Why would you do such a thing?”
But Lan Wangji did not answer this time any more than he did the last time Wei Wuxian had asked him. He lowered the head again, almost in a nod, the tea he held lifting at last to hover before his white-clad chest.
Wei Wuxian’s hand rose over the table; before it could do anything, be it grab at the sheets or at Lan Wangji himself, he felt one of his barriers fail.
His breath caught in the second it took for one of the talismans on him to burn and scorch his skin—and then he was standing, knocking into the table outright in his need to run.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji called.
But Wei Wuxian did not reply. He rejoined the outside of the inn, watching Wen Ning run to his side in the distance, a frightened Wen Yuan clinging to his back and shoulders.
“Master!” Wen Ning said when he reached him at inhuman speed. “Master, I felt—”
“I know,” Wei Wuxian cut in. “I shouldn’t have come here, I should’ve known they would try something while I was gone—”
Lan Wangji had come out of the inn as well, the sheets of music once more rolled into grey cloth. He took another step toward Wei Wuxian.
“What is it?” he asked plainly.
“Someone is trying to break into the Burial Mounds,” Wei Wuxian replied. “I have to return now.”
Lan Wangji looked at him in stillness for a second.
Then he unsheathed his sword, letting it hover low above ground, and extended a hand forward.
“Master, you’ll be faster on sword,” Wen Ning said, his voice coming from far away. “I can run with A-Yuan, we can leave the cart for now…”
No, Wei Wuxian thought, trying to turn away; but his eyes met Lan Wangji’s above the arm he had not moved between the both of them.
The road back over the cart, even with Wen Ning running as fast as he could, would take over an hour. A second barrier fell as Wei Wuxian stood still and breathless, singeing the skin of his arm under the narrow sleeve he wore.
“You get there as fast as you can, Wen Ning,” he said, never looking away from the man before him.
The air that Wen Ning’s departure moved erased everything, even Wen Yuan’s surprised cry.
Wei Wuxian felt that he had to push forth impensable weight in order to grasp Lan Wangji’s arm and be assisted up Bichen’s wide, hovering blade. And then again he almost dropped off of it when he felt Lan Wangji at his back, when the man’s chest knocked into his shoulder, and he said—”Wait.”
His fingers were so cold. As though they had just plunged into wet earth to try and pull the weight of him away.
Wei Wuxian stepped back till his heel hit the raised edge of the sword’s pommel, leaving the space before him empty for Lan Wangji to occupy instead.
Lan Wangji asked no questions. He stepped onto the sword again, waited until Wei Wuxian’s hold on his arms felt secure enough, and followed the path Wen Ning had taken out of the village.
Wei Wuxian could not have told when the last time he flew on a sword was—save for the practice sword he had forced into obedience as he rejoined the Lotus Pier in fear, he could not recall when last Suibian had lifted him in the way Bichen lifted Lan Wangji. The familiarity of the flight, however faint it was, ended there; this was more akin to being carried on a wild horse, no matter how smooth the path that Bichen carved into the evening air was. He had no control over it except for the direction he gave to the man who wielded it, and no core within his chest either to feel the echo of spiritual energy being released around him.
They flew beyond Wen Ning quickly. They went above the tortuous path through the hills, above the macaber air surrounding the village, above even the few and far-between silhouettes of cultivators on swords watching over the road. Within minutes they arrived at the edge of the barriers, and Wei Wuxian did not have to tell Lan Wangji to slow this time. He felt the cold slither of resentfulness on his own.
Lan Wangji lowered them to the ground carefully, too slowly for Wei Wuxian’s taste, who wanted nothing more than to stop holding onto him and put distance between the both of them. It was sandalwood he smelled rather than death and decay as he dismounted the blade, and sandalwood seemed to cover even the burn of the third talisman vanishing on his skin.
He followed the there-and-gone light of the barriers in a run. He took in hand the two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal, ready to bring them together at whatever sight awaited him beyond the scorched trees.
What he found under the arch of wood which he had used as a boundary so long ago was not an army, however, but one man. Lashing talisman after talisman against the solid air before him, fracturing the barriers like glass, all the raised corpses around him unwilling to lay a finger on him.
Wei Wuxian’s eyesight grew white, grew red; he stepped over the dry ground and yelled, “What are you doing!?”
The last talisman burned after digging again into the breakline that its predecessors had caused, and Jiang Cheng turned toward him, Sandu drawn in one hand, the other holding more cinnabar-stained paper.
“Wei Wuxian,” he called; but whatever he meant to say vanished as he took in the man who stood behind Wei Wuxian.
The talismans he held fell to the ground uselessly. He walked toward them, Sandu brandished to Wei Wuxian’s left, asking: “What is he doing here?”
There was so much ire over his face. Such disbelief and betrayal as he stared at Lan Wangji, whose own sword had not gone back into its scabbard. Bichen glowed over dry earth and dead branches with white and holy light.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said quietly.
But far from keeping at bay the cold now spread through Wei Wuxian’s middle, or washing off the taste of grass from his lips, his words only made them sharper; and Jiang Cheng before them both grew pale and furious, and spoke before either of them could.
“Is this how you spend your time while my sister rots in Lanling, then,” he growled. “Is this how you repay the sacrifice she made for you, you—”
“Wei Ying,” Jiang Cheng called back in unending sarcasm. Each of his words burrowed under Wei Wuxian’s skin like a stab wound. “You’ve always thought me so gullible, so stupid, with your great acts of self-sacrifice! ‘Yunmeng’s hero’, was it?”
“Calm down,” Wei Wuxian said between his teeth, trying to see through the shadows of night encroaching upon them.
But Jiang Cheng did not obey. “Was that not what you called me? Was that not the promise you made me!?” he roared. “How many promises of yours will go to waste, Wei Wuxian, before you’ve had enough of playing people for fools? Or is your loyalty only for Lan Wangji?”
“Jiang Wanyin,” came Lan Wangji’s cold voice through the ringing in Wei Wuxian’s ears, “mind your words. You do not know what you speak of.”
“Don’t I?” Jiang Cheng spat. “Has Wei Wuxian not always been yours, qianyuan!?”
It was as though his voice traversed through the ages, as though Wei Wuxian still lay upon the grass in the mountains behind Yunmeng, Jiang Cheng’s hands strangling him: Who’s to say he’s not carrying a little Lan?
The crack of steps upon dead wood reached them, and Wen Ning appeared where they could all see him, holding a drowsy Wen Yuan in his arms.
Bile burned up Wei Wuxian’s throat, more potent than liquor, as if all of his insides wanted to retch themselves out of him at once.
By some miracle, he contained it. He managed to swallow and speak, hoarse and painful, as Jiang Cheng panted in anger. “Wen Ning,” he said. Saliva flooded his mouth bitterly. “Go up to the others. They must be in a panic.”
“Master,” Wen Ning protested.
But Wei Wuxian did not acknowledge him. After a brief moment, Wen Ning carried Wen Yuan through the barriers and vanished from all their sights.
Wei Wuxian walked forward. Sandu veered to him instead of Lan Wangji, and he saw a shadow of doubt over Jiang Cheng’s face, a trembling in the hand that held it before it stabilized. He did not stop walking until its pointed edge rested above the place it had stabbed months ago.
“Have you calmed down now?” he asked quietly.
“You don’t have a right to speak to me,” Jiang Cheng seethed.
Sandu pressed the slightest bit forward, a single point of pressure between Wei Wuxian’s ribs, but it broke neither cloth nor skin. It wavered in Jiang Cheng’s hold.
“Either kill me or sheathe your sword, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said. “But don’t leave the job half-finished again.”
He saw the breath that Jiang Cheng took shake through his throat and chest and make his face redden; and the look that his former shidi directed to him then was not one he knew how to handle anymore.
Please fix this, Jiang Cheng’s eyes said. Please just fix everything.
But Wei Wuxian had not the knowledge or power to, and Sandu fell from his chest to stroke the ground instead. Both of Jiang Cheng’s arms became lax by his sides.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes. He breathed almost forcefully, enough to feel his own body again despite the otherness clinging to him. “Lan Zhan, thank you for today,” he said without daring to look back. “I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”
“No,” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Cheng moved again at last. “Just leave,” he snapped at the man behind Wei Wuxian. “I’m not going to attack him.”
The status they shared must carry more weight to Lan Wangji than anything Wei Wuxian could say, for only then did he abide. There came the sound of cloth unwinding, of something dropping to the dead forest floor; and then white light shone again between Wei Wuxian’s feet and Jiang Cheng, and wind rang between branches as the man took flight.
When Wei Wuxian looked over his own shoulder, he saw only the music sheets that Lan Wangji had brought him, laid upon the ground.
“What was he doing with you?” Jiang Cheng asked then in a much more moderate voice then before.
“Nothing,” Wei Wuxian replied. “We met by chance. He was with me when I felt the wards fall, he just offered to carry me back.”
“He wouldn’t have needed to if you carried your own sword.”
Wei Wuxian ignored the jab. He turned to the half-broken barriers before them. He took the Stygian Tiger Seal in hand and brought the two halves together, mindless of the fatigue that threatened to drag him to his knees. He layered more of his wards again, more fragile than they had been before for lack of nurturing.
“Did you have to destroy months of work in a tantrum?” he couldn’t help but ask, his voice breezy with effort.
“How else was I supposed to make sure you’d come out?” Jiang Cheng retorted. “You haven’t been seen in months.”
“You must have terrified them all. Wen Qing will have my head for this.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him just in time to see the guilt over his face, the discomfort giving him that ugly blush again. Jiang Cheng turned his back to him and sheathed his sword at last.
His own heart still smarted from the words spoken earlier, but Wei Wuxian thought it best to put them behind him and never think of them again.
If he thought about them—if he tried to imagine the face Lan Wangji must have made, being accused of such things with him—
“Why did you come here?” he asked, having to swallow again for the nausea crawling up his torso and neck.
Jiang Cheng faced him again after one bracing second. His eyes dragged from Wei Wuxian’s face to his belly, and his hand over Sandu’s scabbard tensed and whitened. “How is your wound?” he said for all answer.
“Fine. It takes more than a sword to kill me.”
“Don’t say such things,” Jiang Cheng snapped at him.
Wei Wuxian smiled at him ghostly, though he had wished so desperately at the time that Sandu did kill him. “Just tell me why you’re here, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “I can’t imagine you just wanted the pleasure of my company.”
“I came to tell you that Sister is getting married.”
Wei Wuxian’s mouth opened and closed silently.
Jiang Cheng frowned at him. “I thought you might like to know,” he added spitefully. “Even if you won’t give that kunze back to free her.”
Even the guilt of having made this decision could not pierce through Wei Wuxian’s surprise now. Silence stretched between for a long time before he managed to ask: “To whom?”
The feeling of a hand on his face, of words spoken close to his lips as he stood cornered by his own fright and the wide trunk of a tree. The too-easy grip of Suihua in his hand as he put the blade to its master’s neck and watched him beg him to flee, his face lit from behind by a fire, four terrified kunze hiding in the entrails of a mountain cave.
“Is this another plot of Jin Guangshan’s?” The words had to tear out of him by force and sickness alike. Wei Wuxian looked at Jiang Cheng’s shuttered face, asking, “Does he intend to trap her like this too? Is Jin Zixuan trying to—”
“No,” Jiang Cheng replied with no hesitation. Frustration once more tensed at his neck and brow. “You have no idea the amount of begging Jin Zixuan did for you,” he spat, and Wei Wuxian near-flinched back, though he knew. He had known all along. “He wouldn’t harm Sister. His proposal was sincere. And you should get over that childish grudge of yours, you wouldn’t be alive without his help.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed. His throat ached and burned unpleasantly. “And shijie is,” he tried; he stopped, having to breathe again. “She is happy,” he said. “With him.”
“She is. You know she has always loved him.”
I’ve loved you since we were children.
He had never known a secret so heavy, he thought; and never a guilt quite so crushing.
“She wanted me to tell you,” Jiang Cheng said, unsheathing Sandu again. The sword’s dark glow washed over the grounds around them as he mounted it, as he looked at Wei Wuxian in anger and longing. “She misses you.”
“I miss her too,” Wei Wuxian replied softly, though he had no right to.
Neither of them moved for a moment longer. Wei Wuxian read on Jiang Cheng’s face the same regret he held so deep beneath his skin, the same ache for better and freer days, no matter that this freedom had always been a lie. The same absence of warmth at his side, when too often their arms had knocked without daring to embrace.
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, looking grieved and lonely, and Wei Wuxian wondered if he would say the words he could feel trying to escape his own lips.
But he did not. And as Sandu vanished over the gnarly branches of dead trees, carrying out of sight the person he missed the most bitterly, he found himself more alone than he had ever been.
The next-to-last time Wei Wuxian saw Jiang Yanli was seven days after Jin Ling’s birth; five days before he lay dying in the empty Burial Mounds, in the arms of the only qianyuan he had ever trusted.
He saw her then happy as she had never been in his presence, the fatigue marring her face unable to stop it from glowing, more beautiful and kind than any who stood by her. She was sitting in the wide bed of the bedroom she shared with her husband, clothed in gold and white. If any of the pain of labor followed her still, she showed no sign of it; her politeness as she greeted the ones who came to visit her and presented the newborn to them was without fail, and she looked for all intents and purposes as any new parent should.
Happy. Fulfilled. Loved and loving endlessly.
There were half a dozen people within the room when Wei Wuxian arrived with Jiang Cheng by his side. All of them looked at him in hatred before leaving it, hurried, some even holding their sleeves to their faces as if afraid of catching the scent of him.
“Why did they invite him?” he could hear them whisper before they could walk far enough; “Why call the Yiling Patriarch here today?”
“Sister,” Jiang Cheng called, unhindered by the murmurs, his voice swelled with emotion.
“Come here, A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli replied with such a bright smile that it shone even in the ever-darkness. “Come meet your nephew.”
Jiang Cheng did so in slow steps. He sat by her side on the bed, he looked at the child held in her gold-clad arms. He smiled as he touched its hand; his eyes shone when Jiang Yanli turned the head and pressed a kiss to his temple, saying, “Thank you for bringing him.”
Wei Wuxian avoided her eyes when they rested on him. He met Jin Zixuan’s instead across the room, and the rigidity that struck him then was not any better.
The Jin sect heir was standing by his wife’s other side, his face red and lax with joy. He too wore the colors of his sect, his golden robes thicker and more beautiful, the peony embroidered to his chest more detailed than Wei Wuxian could remember. He had on him the air of someone who could not believe what they were seeing; he saw Wei Wuxian, and nodded to him in greeting; and he looked again at Jiang Yanli and the child she had birthed him, and wonder illuminated him anew.
When he could not avoid it anymore—when all details of the room and its occupants had burned themselves to his mind for the ages to come—Wei Wuxian turned to face his shijie.
He did not know what he expected to see on her face. Disappointment perhaps, or betrayal of the worst kind. Some happiness for the sight of him, wasted by the worry she had always exuded in his presence since her parents had died. But Jiang Yanli smiled at him kindly. She placed her child into the crook of her right arm and extended the left to him, inviting him forward.
Wei Wuxian could do nothing but join her. Jiang Cheng left him his spot upon the bed, and he took it so slowly and carefully that the mattress hardly dipped under his weight. His arm almost touched hers when she shifted to face him.
“Shijie,” he said.
“A-Xian…” He did not move to avoid the hand she lifted to his face, the brief caress she gave to his temple and cheek. He felt her palm frame him as she took in the sight of him; as she noticed the differences between how he looked now and how he had looked the last time they had met.
He could not have told if there were any. He had not looked at himself, not in a mirror or in water’s reflection, in too long to remember.
All he knew were the worry Wen Qing showed day after day for his lack of eating or sleeping, and the same look in his shijie’s eyes as she chose not to say a word of it for once.
“Did you meet any trouble on your trip?” she asked gently. Her hand dropped once more to the burden she carried, stroking over the golden cloth keeping it warm and covered.
“No,” he found the strength to reply. “Jiang Cheng complained the whole way, however.”
“Because we could have flown instead of riding,” replied Jiang Cheng’s voice behind him. “If someone hadn’t forgotten his sword again.”
Jiang Yanli smiled at her brother. “A-Cheng, will you please fetch young master Meng for me?” she asked. “More people came than I thought there would be. I need to discuss the seating arrangements for the feast with him.”
Jiang Cheng scoffed, bothered and frustrated, but he had never had the will to refuse her even when she did not look so very tired. Wei Wuxian heard his footsteps echo upon the walls of the room as he left. He looked at the bedspread he was sat on rather than his shijie’s face or anything she held.
When he was gone, Wei Wuxian asked: “Is Jin Guangshan lying on his deathbed? I’m not certain myself how I managed to walk up the stairs without being attacked.”
A moment of silence followed; then Jin Zixuan coughed from his side of the room, replying, “No,” in a strangled voice.
“Sect leader Jin agreed to your presence here,” Jiang Yanli said, relieving her husband. “Though not immediately.”
Wei Wuxian said nothing. The only reason he could think of for Jin Guangshan approving of his presence, outside of an ambush, was to show off the hostage he had kept for over a year to his face.
There was another child in the Burial Mounds, now; another crying babe with the last name of the Jin clan in the arms of another mother, who was not so finely draped as the one Jiang Yanli held in her arms.
He looked at it before he could help it. It was only a glance, barely longer than a blink of the eyes, and still the image of the wrinkled, sleeping creature burned into his eyes and made him want to throw up.
He made as if to rise, but Jiang Yanli’s hand was on him again, pushing his shoulder down. He met her eyes with his heart beating at his throat.
“A-Xian,” she said, “we’d like you to choose his courtesy name.”
He stilled. He looked at her in incomprehension. Her face showed nothing but kindness, however, and Jin Zixuan’s behind her belied no other thought either.
Finally, he let out, “What?”
“We’ve discussed it for a long time,” Jiang Yanli explained, rocking her arms and smiling down at her son. “Ling’er is zhongyong. It does not matter to sect leader Jin who chooses his courtesy name, only those of A-Xuan’s qianyuan heirs.”
She looked up to Wei Wuxian again. “I think it should be you,” she said. “It couldn’t be anyone but you.”
It could be Jiang Cheng, or Madam Jin, or even a member of the Yu sect far away in Meishan. It made no sense at all that the choice should fall to Wei Wuxian, who had abandoned her and who stood in disgrace to all who roamed the halls of Golden Carp Tower.
He was the one who had stolen her first love from her, even if she was married to him now. He had driven Jin Zixuan into holding his hand in those woods and declaring his love.
“The next generation of Jin clan rulers will be named ‘Ru’,” said Jin Zixuan, but Wei Wuxian could not look at him now.
He had never named a child, not even the one—not even Wen Yuan. He knew not if Wen Yuan had a courtesy name chosen for him either, and he did not wish to know. When Jiang Fengmian had asked him to name his sword, the sword which now lay abandoned at the deepest of the bloodpool cave, Wei Wuxian had not known what to answer him either.
The only named possession of his was Chenqing. And Chenqing did not sound so beautiful to him, either the name or the music it produced, since Lan Wangji had played it and quieted him with it.
His mouth dried. His jaw loosened. “Rulan,” he said.
There came a moment of silence before Jin Zixuan asked, “Like the Lan clan?”
Wei Wuxian felt the hair rise at his own nape. “No. You don’t have to keep it—”
“No,” Jiang Yanli interrupted.
Her hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm pressed over cloth and skin warmly.
“No, I think Jin Rulan is perfect.”
A breath he had not known he was holding loosened itself out of his lungs. Jiang Yanli’s hand left him and came back to her child. She stroked his sleeping face, her lips stretched into the same loving smile she had worn since he had entered the room—as if she did not know any other way to be, as if happiness had settled so deeply within her that her mouth could not lose the shape of it.
Then she asked the sleeping child, “Would you like your sect-uncle to hold you, Ling’er?” and Wei Wuxian could not have moved even to flee her.
No, he thought, but she was already tugging his arm toward the bundle of golden cloth; Don’t make me, he wanted to beg, but already the light weight of the newborn was placed at his elbow, and Jiang Yanli closed his hold on it and laughed. The air she breathed felt like ice over every inch of his skin.
Jin Ling did not cry, did not squirm, as Wei Wuxian recalled the bloodied body of Wen Yuan did in Wen Qing’s hands after hours of pain. But the unsettled riverscent of him dried his throat and his lungs, and the mere sight of him, the feel of him over his hands, made his stomach twist and ache. Bile rose up his neck and bathed his tongue.
He wanted to throw Jin Ling away. He realized this in horror and in fear. The impulse was at his fingers, at his neck, in the muscles of his back already tensing and shifting. He wanted to throw him away, to make sure he could never touch him, never look or speak to him as Wen Yuan had that day.
Instead he gave him back to Jiang Yanli almost forcefully, shaking from shoulders to fingertips, doing his best not to show it. He heard her call his name through the blood rushing past his ears, but he did not heed it. This time there was no hand to hold him back as he rose, and he almost swayed on his feet, so dark had the world around him become.
“I’ll let you rest, shijie,” he heard himself say to her. “You have many more visitors to entertain.”
Wei Wuxian walked out of the wide and sunlit room, allowing his feet to guide him rather relying on his eyes. He heard murmurs and footsteps after him as he crossed the threshold; he smelled the same bitter pines that had once driven him to threats, and he was not surprised as he stopped in the middle of an unseen hallway to turn around and find Jin Zixuan following him.
“What do you want?” he snapped at him.
It was all he could do not to rest his weight on his hand against the wall. His legs had gone shaky and weak, unable to support his own weight. His heart still beat wildly far up in his own chest, and the darkness had only lifted enough for him to see Jin Zixuan who stood right before him.
Jin Zixuan went still at his question. It was a tense moment before he replied, “You do not look well,” in as quiet a voice as Wei Wuxian had ever heard from him.
“I’m a madman, as you well know,” Wei Wuxian said. “Go back to your wife before someone sees us.”
Jin Zixuan looked torn. His head turned to the direction of the room Jiang Yanli was in, and the harshness of his features seemed to loosen, his brow easing and his mouth curved; then he met Wei Wuxian’s eyes again and tensed anew, nodding his head, one hand rising to cover his own chest.
Wei Wuxian grabbed it at the cloth-covered wrist before it could.
Jin Zixuan inhaled in a deep and short burst, the sound of it ringing through Wei Wuxian’s own lungs in echo. He did not move to tear his hand from Wei Wuxian or advance upon him again. He simply stared at him with wide-open eyes.
“Do you love her?” Wei Wuxian asked him.
He felt breathless and sick, the weight of the child still hanging over his arms and making them shake. The very act of touching Jin Zixuan threatened to send him over the edge and have him retch where he stood, but he held strong.
He looked at the man’s face. He tried to search for deceit in his eyes, in the pulse of the wrist he held so tightly, but he could not find it, just as he had not found any whilst Jin Zixuan looked at his son or at Jiang Yanli herself earlier.
“Yes,” Jin Zixuan said, and the truth of it seemed written over him.
Wei Wuxian released his hold on him. Jin Zixuan’s hand lowered and did not lift again.
“You take care of her,” he told the Jin heir tiredly.
All the strength seemed to have gone from him.
“You better make her happy, Jin Zixuan.”
“I will,” said Jin Zixuan softly. “I could not forgive myself if I did not.”
Wei Wuxian supposed that such a promise would have to do. He stepped away from the man slowly, making sure that he would not be followed again, and Jin Zixuan seemed to accept it. He turned his back to Wei Wuxian and took the direction of the room they had both left.
Wei Wuxian paid no mind to the whispers that followed him as he rejoined the wider areas of Golden Carp Tower. He had known they would be there since Jiang Cheng had come again to the Burial Mounds days ago, alight with excitement, telling him of his nephew’s birth; and promptly asked him to come to the boy’s seventh day celebration, arguing that none would dare to contest his presence or harm him while he was there.
The whispers had started when they reached Lanling City. They had not ceased as the both of them ascended the long stairs around the mountain. Now they clung to Wei Wuxian’s skin like sweat, and the eyes that avoided him were not any better than the ones that followed him.
He found the entrance of a garden behind the widest hall atop the stairs, a place lush with flowers and trees, smelling heavily of sweetness. It was empty but for the birds who came to peck at the seeded soil.
He retched there away from all eyes. He held his aching stomach with one hand, near-whimpering at the pain he felt digging a hole through it. When he wiped his mouth with a shaking hand—when he finally could breathe without wanting to hurl—it came away stained with blood.
Wei Wuxian looked at it confusedly. He ran his tongue over his teeth, over the inside of his mouth entirely, looking for the sting of a cut. He found none.
“A bit weak-willed, aren’t you?”
Wei Wuxian wiped the blood off on the black cloth of his robes. He rubbed over his mouth once more to be certain that none showed there. “I wasn’t the one crying,” he retorted.
Jiang Cheng was sneering at him when he turned to face him, but it was not the sneer of disgust and hatred he had shown in front of Lan Wangji. It looked more like the playful kind he sported as a child whenever Wei Wuxian did something especially embarrassing.
“Sister told me you ran away when she tried to make you hold Jin Ling,” he said, mocking. “I’m sure most of the fools here would have a field day with this. The Yiling Patriarch, defeated by a baby.”
Wei Wuxian felt too exhausted for Jiang Cheng’s words to make more than faint queasiness rise in him. “I’m not staying,” he muttered instead of trying to argue. “I’ve seen enough.”
Jiang Cheng frowned at him. “The celebrations will last days,” he said.
“And it’ll take me days to go back home. I can’t be away for so long.”
“Home,” Jiang Cheng repeated through his teeth. “Is that what you call that place?”
But Wei Wuxian had not the will for another fight with Jiang Cheng, not with his stomach still aching so brightly. The phantom weight of the child still rested upon him hauntingly. “Yes,” he said.
He put the little box containing his gift to the newborn Jin Ling in Jiang Cheng’s hands and walked away.
No more people stopped him except for Meng Yao, who was walking near the entrance in the direction of Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan’s room. “Leaving so soon, young master Wei?” he asked with a deep nod of his head.
He had a guqin strapped to his back, like Lan Wangji the last time Wei Wuxian had seen him. Wei Wuxian realized distantly that the celebratory music he had heard upon his arrival must have been played by him.
Meng Yao, as always, seemed not to find offense in his lack of answer, though Wei Wuxian stared at him silently for a moment. He simply made way when Wei Wuxian walked again, and the feeling of his eyes over Wei Wuxian’s nape vanished soon enough.
He saw no one but civilians as he descended the stairs. Those people carried heavy loads on their backs, sometimes two at a time, going up to the great halls above to deliver their gifts. Cultivators had no such need for an effort. They flew over their heads on swordback, showing not a sign of being willing to lend the earth-bound hand.
Merchants had once again occupied the last of the stone steps for a way before the city proper, loudly proclaiming for him to approach and browse the things they sold. But Wei Wuxian had no need for anything, and no desire to linger as he had on the day of the discussion conference. He went to the stables where he had left his horses and took the both of them back.
The farther he rode out of the city after that, the easier he breathed.
Wen Ning had accompanied him and Jiang Cheng on foot on the way. He rejoined him outside the city gates and took the horse Jiang Cheng had ridden, his face absent any gratefulness or fatigue. “Young master Wei,” he said simply. “Did you meet the little master Jin?”
“Yes,” Wei Wuxian replied.
It seemed to be enough of an answer for Wen Ning, who asked no more questions as they trotted away.
Wen Ning must be thinking of his sister, whose hard work Wei Wuxian had required extensively to repair the barriers broken by Jiang Cheng months ago. Few cultivators had the core strength that Jiang Cheng did, let alone enough of it to break through three layers of defenses alone, but the fact that he did had been enough to frighten her and all the kunze who lived beyond those invisible walls. They had all felt the clear air ripen with death, the ground shake, the crows hover in the distance as they had the one time Wei Wuxian had been absent from the Burial Mounds for over a week. The newest of them had not known how to react; those who had lived there for years remembered, and not even Wen Qing’s calm had been enough to quiet them before Wei Wuxian arrived.
“I need to find a way to create more powerful barriers,” Wei Wuxian said when they reached a rocky path through the mountains.
A short cliff of stone rose along the road they trod. Vegetation was sparse here, as though scorched by the sun, and the ground below the horses’ hooves was cracked and burned like in the Nightless City. It was only the beginning of spring, but already the day felt hot and bright. Not a cloud could be seen. The rivers they had passed on their way were thick with the melting of snow.
“I need to make sure all of you can be safe even if I die.”
“Master,” said Wen Ning in worry. “Master, you should rest. You shouldn’t say such things.”
“It’s necessary,” Wei Wuxian told him, turning to look at him. Turning his back to the cliff along which they rode. “If I can’t make sure all of you remain out of harm’s way in my absence…”
He was not certain, for a second, why his words stopped. He felt a shake through his body, as if something or someone had hit him from the side, and he toppled on his saddle before sitting upright again.
But then he heard the release of a tense string, the whistling of iron cutting through the air; and Wen Ning cried, “Master!” and jumped off of his own horse, which ran away, terrified.
Wen Ning was before Wei Wuxian now and holding an arrow in his hand. Wei Wuxian looked at his own shoulder and saw that another had already pierced him, digging deeply into his flesh, so that the shaft did not shake when even he moved the arm. He had not felt it at all.
He turned his head to the top of the cliff.
Only the head of the bowman could be seen from behind rock before he rose. And then he was not alone, as Wei Wuxian hoped; several more people appeared, dozens of them, until over a hundred and fifty stood along the ridge and stared down at him with bows and swords in hand.
A man stepped forward in the middle of them all. A stout and unpleasantly-scented man, with a voice Wei Wuxian had heard first while trapped in silk and last while threatening him.
“Wei Wuxian,” said Jin Zixun in triumph. “You finally show your true colors.”
Wei Wuxian slowly grabbed the arrow notched into his shoulder. He pulled it out, keeping away the wince of pain threatening to overcome his face, and let it fall bloodily to the dry ground.
A few of the cultivators stepped back at the show of resilience. “I am leaving,” Wei Wuxian told Jin Zixun coolly. “You can go back to your master, Jin Zixun, and tell him that I obeyed his threats peacefully. I will not attack you.”
He expected Jin Zixun to resist and insult him, to lose his composure again as he was wont to. He did not expect him to grow white in the face with outrage.
“You have the gall to say this,” Jin Zixun expelled, his words nothing short of screams. “You have the audacity to come here, Wei Wuxian, after what you’ve done to me!?”
“What have I done to you?” Wei Wuxian asked loudly. “I’ve seen not even a shadow of you in over a year, you miserable worm. What is it that you’re trying to pin on me now?”
There was something nagging at him, a white-and-bright feeling of rage and despair laid parallel to his heart that he could give no name to. Wei Wuxian shivered and put it aside, trying now more than ever before to keep his head clear, to remember his shijie laid in a bed and the threat which rested over her even now.
“Shoot him!” Jin Zixun ordered the hundred-and-more men surrounding him. “Shoot him down!”
Most of them did not move, their eyes fixed to Wei Wuxian’s left where the infamous Ghost General stood. Some more withdrew in fear, now that the plot was discovered and they were no longer safely away from Wei Wuxian’s notice.
But a few armed their bows and loosened their arrows, and Wei Wuxian’s horse whinnied loudly, rearing back, almost dismounting him entirely. Wen Ning ran before him and caught as many shafts as he could with his hands. Some missed him by a wide margin, others pierced his unfeeling flesh as they would a shield; one Wei Wuxian had to duck himself atop his horse, and the last buried into the animal’s thigh.
It screamed, now nearly foaming at the mouth in fear. It bucked under Wei Wuxian and made him fall to the cracked earth with such strength that no doubt one of his bones would have snapped had Wen Ning not caught him in time.
“Wen Ning,” spat Jin Zixun from high upon the rock. “You should have stayed dead, you dog.”
The feeling was there again by Wei Wuxian’s heart: an awareness foreign to his own, gnawing slowly at his conscience.
“Wen Ning?” he murmured, realizing at last where it came from.
He tore his eyes away from Jin Zixun.
Wen Ning was still holding him upright, but his arms were shaking. An arrow stuck out of his back, another out of his belly. The black veins at his neck seemed to have spread under his skin, covering his chin and rising to his cheekbones.
His eyes were fixed to Jin Zixun above them.
“Master,” he whispered. “I—”
He reeked of fear. His ever-cool body, always slicked with a layer of resentful energy, now felt as cold and slippery as ice.
Wei Wuxian grabbed Wen Ning’s arm. He pulled the arrow out of his belly, saying, “Come on, let’s go, let’s run from here.”
The fright only grew in Wen Ning and in him, cloying, sticking to skin like sap. He understood that Wen Ning could not move at all.
Wei Wuxian ground his teeth. He blinked away the ghostly sight of a drenched mountain pass, the feel of mud over his skin as he and Wen Qing waded for eons, looking for a sign of life.
“Jin Zixun,” he called, placing himself before Wen Ning. “I’ve not attacked you or your clan in any way. You are the one breaking the peace between us.”
“Liar!” Jin Zixun screamed at him, one of his hands fisted into the neckline of his robes. “You cursed me, you mad bitch!”
And he pulled down the golden cloth covering his torso, and showed all who were present the ghastly sight of his punctured skin.
A glance would have sufficed for Wei Wuxian to recognize the Hundred Holes Curse, but Jin Zixun did not stop at a glance. He spread apart the crossed line of his outer robes, showing the blood staining his underclothes in the shape of pebble-sized dots.
In the part of Wei Wuxian’s soul occupied by his bond to Wen Ning, another image showed; that of Jin Zixun disrobing in a similar way, lit by dusk and fire, and looking down on him with his dark face cut against the sky.
The ache in his stomach tensed and shuddered. Blood filled his mouth again and made him taste iron.
Wei Wuxian swallowed it back. He held on to Wen Ning’s arm behind him and spoke to Jin Zixun: “A fitting way for you to die, but not my doing.”
“Who else could it be but you?” Jin Zixun yelled.
“What proof do you have that it was me?”
Jin Zixun looked around himself for help, but now, many of the cultivators who had come with him were distracted by the horrible sight of him. The closest had stepped away from him in shame or fear, unwilling to risk catching the curse upon themselves.
“I did not curse you,” Wei Wuxian said as evenly as he could. “Look upon your other enemies. You must have quite a few.”
Raised bows lowered, raised swords stopped glowing with power, and for a moment Wei Wuxian believed that he would be able to walk away. He believed that Wen Ning’s simmering terror would cool. He believed that he would see again the smile on Wen Qing’s handsome face, or watch from afar as Jiang Yanli flourished in marriage and motherhood.
Jin Zixun tore the bow out of the hands of the nearest cultivator and notched an arrow to its string; he spat out, “Die, you deranged thief;” and Wen Ning pushed Wei Wuxian to the ground and jumped across rock and soil faster than the eye could see.
“No!” Wei Wuxian screamed as the dry ground cut his palms, “No, Wen Ning, stop!”
But it was too late—already cultivators were falling in the corpse’s quest to alleviate the terror eating him, and Wen Ning’s white eyes were spotted with black, his spirit gone despite the years Wei Wuxian had spent tying it to his flesh again.
Blood colored the yellow rock. Necks shattered under the grip of inhuman fingers. Wei Wuxian watched the sand drip redly from the edge of the cliff, tied at the throat by the vivid memory of Wen Ning’s last moments as a living man.
He pushed himself upright, took Chenqing in his trembling hand—he played with all the strength of his frayed memory the songs that Lan Wangji had brought him, every single one of them learned by the fire of the bloodpool cave, all of them meant to appease the soul. Despair swallowed him whole and made the bright day somber. He could not see any more out of his own vision, only out of Wen Ning’s.
Wen Ning had no soul now, however. One by one he massacred them, tearing limbs apart bare-handed, crushing heads and throats under his feet. Many of them tried to flee, some blowing alarms from the horns hung about their necks, Jin Zixun amongst them; but Wen Ning was faster than any of them. He was faster and stronger than ten humans could hope to be.
“Wen Ning!” Wei Wuxian yelled when the corpse grabbed Jin Zixun by the undone collar.
But Wen Ning did not feel or hear him. Wen Ning was led only by the terrible memories of that rain-drenched day, when the man he was now holding had hurt him and left him to die.
“Please,” he saw Jin Zixun beg without hearing him, for his voice was choked out by Wen Ning’s grasp on him; “Oh please, spare me—”
Wen Ning tore his head from his neck with no more effort than he used to carry Luo Fanghua’s fabrics in his arms or play hand games with Wen Yuan.
Wei Wuxian heard nothing, saw nothing. His very heartbeat washed over his ears and eyes and made him deaf and blind. He stood frozen and alone before the rocky cliff from which blood dripped in the way of waterfalls. It was his own life, he knew, flowing thusly under the sun; his life from the moment he had lain naked over grass in Yiling and to the very second extinguishing now.
He felt only from afar as an arm wound around his front, and was held to someone else’s body and made to take flight. Cold wind slapped at his face and the field of death below him vanished, Wen Ning staring in his direction in beatitude.
This fleeting awareness of his own body did not last long. Soon enough, his lungs constricted, forcing him to take in air and smell the bitter scent of trees. His back knocked against wide shoulders, his skin shivered and crawled everywhere the arms held him.
He spat out blood. He struggled in the qianyuan’s hold, mindless of the sound of his own name called so near to his ears. The hot breath he felt there like another lash of wind made him cry out and rage.
He fell from the sword while it was still high up, and had those same arms not caught him again before he hit ground, Wei Wuxian knew he would have died. He struggled anyway. He squirmed and clawed at the hands keeping him aloft until slick blood made his nails slide on skin, until his feet touched the rocky floor and he could at last push away the body smothering him.
“Get away from me,” Wei Wuxian tried to yell, but all that came out was a dry heave of words.
His stomach seared like a blade in the belly. He retched over the ground, blood and bile dripping to his feet and the front of his soiled robes. He fell to his knees in his own sick, unable to breathe without pain tearing him apart.
Jin Zixuan tried to approach again. He tried to put a hand on his shoulder, to help him up perhaps, his voice coming unheard—but Wei Wuxian felt only the pain, the memories of Wen Ning in his head mingling with his own, and such a hand in such a place deserved only to be broken.
He grabbed Jin Zixuan by the wrist. He felt bone and tendon twist under his hold, heard the grunt of pain the man gave before pulling away. Only when he did so did Wei Wuxian push his own hands to the ground.
Never had standing up been so difficult, so painful, not even when he first fell into the Burial Mounds. The bright spot of agony through his middle made even breathing difficult, as each twist of his diaphragm seemed to blind him with pain. He blinked tears away, staring at Jin Zixuan nursing his own wrist before him and heaving until he could speak.
“Do you want to die,” he rasped out. He felt vomit lurch up his throat and blood speck the front of him. “Do you have a death wish?”
Jin Zixuan looked at him as if the very sight of him ached. He was pale too despite the sun overhead, shaken by what he must have seen in that path further away. “I can help you,” he said.
Wei Wuxian laughed. It pulled at the bright wound of him, exuded despair and not joy. He pointed wildly eastward, whence they came, and screamed, “I just killed over a hundred cultivators!”
“It wasn’t you—”
“I just killed your cousin!”
“I saw you try to stop Wen Ning!” Jin Zixuan snapped. “I know it wasn’t you, I saw!”
Wei Wuxian put both hands over his face. He wanted to tear away his own skin, to taste anything but iron, to vanish on the spot and never have existed at all. From far away he felt Wen Ning’s still-bright terror getting closer by the second, as he followed the call of his master through the bond they both shared.
“You need to leave,” he breathed to Jin Zixuan. “You need to—to go back to the Tower, you need to get shijie out of there, you need to—”
But he choked at the thought alone; at the image his mind of Jiang Yanli hung for his crimes, of her child orphaned for his deeds, of Jiang Cheng left bereft of the last of his family.
“I can protect A-Li,” Jin Zixuan’s voice replied from far away. “She is my wife, my father wouldn’t dare lay a finger on her now. I can protect you as well.”
Wei Wuxian laughed again, and felt blood drip from his lips as it had dripped over the gore-stained cliff. “How?” he asked, lowering both his hands, watching through the darkness the man who stood before him.
Jin Zixuan wore the same eyes now that he had in that forest after Wei Wuxian pushed him away.
Suihua was not yet sheathed. It gleamed in the sunlight, immaculate in his hand.
“How could you possibly protect me now?” Wei Wuxian howled. “Or do you intend to kill your own father for the sake of me? The rest of the sects would just finish the job!”
“If you,” Jin Zixuan said haltedly, “If you…”
He fell silent. His bleeding hand twitched by his side.
“My father… he could never touch you either. He could never again do anything against you.”
Jin Zixuan’s hand rose to his chest. He bowed again in all the formal ways, golden and proud, his face showing only the same despair he had once pushed so forcefully onto Wei Wuxian. It was stained with dust and blood for having pressed to Wei Wuxian’s back as they flew.
Wei Wuxian stared at him uncomprehendingly. He took in his posture and words and could not make sense of them at all.
When he did—when the terrible truth rang through him and made his chest shatter—he asked: “Are you asking me again to marry you?”
The shudder that shook Jin Zixuan, the deathly silence of him, was answer enough.
Wei Wuxian breathed out thinly. He wiped the blood off of his mouth again with one trembling palm. “You are,” he said in disbelief, “the lowest of all scum I have met in my life.”
Jin Zixuan gasped. He looked up with begging eyes. “I give you my word that I am not asking for any feelings I hold,” he said. “I know you don’t want me, I only mean to offer you protection. I swear that I would never touch you.”
“You give your word so easily, Jin Zixuan, what worth is your promise now?”
The volume of his own voice threatened to have Wei Wuxian choke again. Still he felt no pity at all to see Jin Zixuan bow under his words as if they were blows; and the hand that the man extended to try and grab his arm, still holding Suihua, made only disgust shine in him. No matter that the other still grabbed hopelessly at the peony sewn to his chest.
“Go back to your Tower,” he spat, shaking away Jin Zixuan’s hold, feeling more and more of himself let go again to the white and blinding rage. His stomach twisted, excruciating. “Go back to your wife.”
“Wei Wuxian, listen to me,” Jin Zixuan begged.
He stepped back. He bowed again more lowly than he ever had before, lower than his status asked for. Suihua fell to the ground as his fingers loosened, raising a cloud of dust. Threads pulled out of the cloth covering his heart and hung limply around his pressing hand.
“I can help you,” he said, and honesty could have worn his face, sacrifice taken his name. He extended his unarmed hand forward in pleading. “Please, let me help you.”
It thickened and lengthened before Wei Wuxian’s eyes. The beating of his heart slowed with it until he could hear it no more. Jin Zixuan suffered the same fate as red spread over his golden clothes; as the hand spread before him lowered and the one he held to himself fell.
There was another hand under it. One clawed and unfeeling, so painted by blood that only glimpses of grey skin could be seen, and only the beginning of veins turned black by resentment.
Wen Ning tore it out of the hole it had just dug all the way through Jin Zixuan’s back. It rested by his side, flesh and muscle hanging from its long fingernails, unmoving as the rest of him was now that all threats were eliminated.
Jin Zixuan coughed once; blood sprayed over his chin and neck and the ground before him; his knees gave out from under him and he crumbled to the dry soil, one hand a breath away from the pommel of his sword.
He never moved again.
There came a flutter of wind. The unmistakable sound of a sword cutting through the air. A voice, even, familiar and rough, screaming out in horror. Wei Wuxian could only watch the place that Jin Zixuan’s face had occupied before he died and which Wen Ning’s did now. He could only stare into those white, unseeing eyes; only feel the very fear and loneliness haunting Wen Ning from those hours under the rain when Jin Zixun killed him.
It’s over, he thought, and he wanted to laugh.
For the years he thought he had a right to live after his first home burned, for the corpse of Jin Zixuan taunting him over the ground, for the memory of a kind man holding a hand to him in a filthy street of Yiling—he wanted to laugh.
The voice cried and howled, the hands it belonged to shaking him, the smell of upturned earth filling his nose and head. Wei Wuxian felt not the desperate embrace that those two arms gave him; he felt not his head be crushed against shoulder and neck, or the calls of his name spoken through sobs and tears.
Neither did he feel those hands pressing to the highest of his nape, in the same three spots he had learned long ago could make a man asleep before his knees hit the ground.
The sky blackened, the air ripened, time found its flow again; and Wei Wuxian could only be glad for oblivion as his consciousness left him.