Warnings: parental abuse, attempted forced marriage
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Summer dusked into fall that year with the heaviest rains seen in Yunmeng in living memory.
Wei Wuxian’s last fever of the season was spent trying to keep the kunze house relatively dry. Although the shack didn’t possess much in terms of furniture—no one had lived here in years, after all—he found vases and bowls to put under where its holed roof leaked. It was almost a game, he found, in his immense boredom. Listening for raindrops and catching them in their fall. His life was never as slow as in those isolated days.
It was enough to make him wish that someone could spend them with him one day.
In the last days of his heat, when the fever was only some remnant of warmth in his neck and forehead, Wei Wuxian had more than enough clarity for thought. He sat in the dryest corner of the rundown house and ate lotus seeds from a bag his shijie had given him. His mind ran the country over in the pitter-patter of the rain; crisp and cold in Gusu, dry and hot in Qishan. He smiled at nothing in particular, waiting for his time to be done so he could come back out.
Yunmeng gorged itself with water. Lotuses drowned one after the other, finishing their bloom submerged. Paths became covered in mud. Near the mountains in Yiling, landslides killed innocent travelers and buried their bodies.
To Wei Wuxian’s surprise, Yu Ziyuan came to fetch him herself at the end of the last day.
He scrambled to his feet at the sight of her, stumbling somewhat under his own weight. “Madam Yu,” he told her, bowing low. Belatedly, he remembered to put both hands forward and finish the salute. “I hope you are well.”
“Follow me,” she said without returning his greeting.
She had come alone. Usually Wei Wuxian would receive a knock on the door when the sixth day brightened, and Yu Jinzhu’s sharp voice would call out to him and tell him to get out. Then he would walk down the dirt path, bathe a moment in his room, and join Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli for breakfast. Neither of them ever asked him where he had gone. Life simply picked up where it had left off, the days of soreness and fever forgotten in the minds of all.
But Yu Ziyuan had come this time. Not on the sixth morning but on the fifth night. Wei Wuxian did not fear any loss of composure, but the fever lingered, warm around his neck and through his chest. He must smell awfully to her—she had always hated his scent—yet she said nothing. She didn’t take him to his room. She didn’t bring him to the main hall.
She took him to the mansion’s kitchen, where a bowl full of lotus root soup waited, and gestured for him to sit.
Wei Wuxian was so surprised that he almost forgot to obey.
“Thank you, clan leader,” he said once he had taken place. He took the bowl in one hand without touching its content, his stomach too knotted now to allow for hunger. “Did you want to speak with me?”
“I do, actually,” Madam Yu said curtly.
She did not sit down. She would never want him to think the both of them equal like this.
She took a long piece of paper out of her wide sleeves and put it down in front of him. Then she put another next to it, similar if not for the seal at its end. “These came in the past few days from the Jin and Wen sects respectively,” she said. “About you.”
Wei Wuxian needn’t ask what they were.
“They are marriage offers,” Yu Ziyuan explained anyway.
“I imagine you have replied already,” Wei Wuxian pushed past the ache in his throat.
For once, Yu Ziyuan didn’t punish his insolence. “We do not deal with Wens,” she said harshly. “Not even with Wen Ruohan’s favorite son. He has more than enough kunze spouses to satisfy him already.”
I would not have married Wen Chao even if he were single, Wei Wuxian thought through his relief. Never.
“The Jin sect, however…”
He unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth and asked, “Who is it?”
The memory came to him, unbidden, of a rocky alley on a hot summer day; of a boy in golden robes bowing to him with his hand pressed over his heart.
“Jin Zixun,” Madam Yu answer briskly. “You’ve never met him. He’s a cousin of Zixuan’s. He isn’t a very good cultivator, nor is he near the top of the Jin line of succession, but he is still a qianyuan of the Jin clan. This is a more than admirable prospect, Wei Ying.”
Something was very wrong.
It had nothing to do with Jin Zixun’s supposed love for him, spread over the letter for Wei Wuxian’s clan leaders to read. Poor line after poor line of poetry about Wei Wuxian’s virtues blackened the paper in-between a lengthy introduction and even lengthier offer for monetary compensation. Jin Zixun probably hadn’t even written them himself. This was nothing more than a business transaction, as all kunze unions were.
No, what surprised Wei Wuxian was that Yu Ziyuan was talking to him about it instead of Jiang Fengmian. That she looked, for all intents and purposes, as if she were asking his opinion.
Something is very wrong, Wei Wuxian thought again.
“Have you replied yet?” he asked her tentatively.
Yu Ziyuan stared him down for a silent moment before replying, “Not yet.”
“My husband will not hear of any marriage prospect that does not come out of your mouth. He would refuse if I came to him with any letter, no matter whose hand wrote it.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed. In his hand, the bowl of soup burned, untouched.
“Will you refuse, Wei Ying?” Madam Yu asked him.
So this was what it was all about.
Wei Wuxian thought in a small corner of his mind that it was a good thing he had never hoped to win Yu Ziyuan’s approval. If he had ever believed that he could one day grow to meet her standards, to make her look past who his parents had been and appreciate his character instead… Perhaps that was what she was counting on in this endeavor. Wei Wuxian had never seen her as someone prone to manipulation—she was too strict and blunt, too direct in her manners, a woman of the strongest temperament—but perhaps she had thought this would work better on him than mere orders.
Yu Ziyuan didn’t sit down, for that would bring her to his level, but she put her sword over the table. She took Zidian off of her finger and slipped it into one of her long sleeves. “Wei Ying,” she said, “you owe this clan reparation.”
Wei Wuxian replied, “I know.”
“You stole Jiang Cheng’s birthright from him by being named senior disciple. You thanklessly humiliated him in Qishan.” She breathed in, taking some time to ease the fury growing in her dark eyes. “You destroyed A-Li’s future prospects and irreparably damaged Lanlingjin and Yunmengjiang’s long-standing alliance with your actions.”
“What!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed, ready to rise from his seat. “I did not—”
“Sit down!” Yu Ziyuan bellowed. “You did, you know you did, or how else do you explain Jin Guangshan’s lack of invitation to Golden Carp Tower’s banquet?”
It was the first Wei Wuxian heard of any such thing. He knew he had been the cause for Jiang Yanli’s broken engagement—he knew that guilt like the back of his own hand, could experience it anew every time he caught his shijie looking into distance with sadness in her eyes—but no one had said anything of Jiang and Jin’s alliance coming undone.
It was true that Wei Wuxian had not seen Jin Guangshan at all since Qishanwen’s archery competition. The Jin sect leader used to come to Yunmeng regularly, not always with his son in tow, to share Jiang Fengmian’s table and conversation. Madam Jin and Madam Yu would often write and visit each other as well, the both of them full of plans for their progeny.
Yet neither Jin Guangshan nor his wife had set foot in Lotus Pier since before the competition. Wei Wuxian couldn’t even remember seeing the Jin sect leader talking to Jiang Fengmian during it.
Wei Wuxian sat back down. “Now do you understand, boy?” Yu Ziyuan asked darkly. “It is not just face we are losing by letting you roam around. My husband took you in and raised you as a son—” her voice ripened with disgust, “—and you would refuse him this much?”
“Uncle Jiang wouldn’t…”
But did Wei Wuxian truly know? Had Jiang Fengmian ever been truthful to him, he who neither confirmed nor denied all the gossip, all the rumors calling him lovesick, calling his wife abandoned, calling him Wei Wuxian’s true father?
Perhaps Jiang Fengmian did wish for Wei Wuxian to marry and unburden him at last. Perhaps he only did not wish to tell him so out of kindness.
Wei Wuxian’s heart beat off-tempo in his chest. The last dregs of his fever heated in his temples and awoke all soreness in him, making him wince, causing Yu Ziyuan’s nose to twist in disdain.
“I don’t want to marry,” he said in a rough voice.
“You will eventually have to do things you do not wish to do,” Yu Ziyuan replied. “As do we all.”
Her comparison seemed unfair to him. What could she, a qianyuan born to a wealthy Yunmeng clan, know of his situation? She had never had to face disapproval at her own upbringing. She was a powerful cultivator, a beautiful woman. Even if Jiang Fengmian had never loved her, he had always treated her with the utmost respect and courtesy. They were cultivation partners.
Wei Wuxian realized even as he thought it that he was wrong. Even if she had never faced abuse of that kind, she was unhappy. And even if he had known disapproval, Wei Wuxian had still lived in immense privilege.
The lonely house by the river was not his home, after all, for most days of the year.
“You will meet him,” Yu Ziyuan said after the silence stretched beyond bearable. “You will meet Jin Zixun and you will hold his attention and you will marry him.” Wei Wuxian felt her every word like whiplash; as if Zidian were tearing into his back as it sometimes did his shidi’s. “You will repay your clan leaders’ kindness by doing your duty, Wei Ying.”
Her tone was final. She stared at him for another second, and in that span of time Wei Wuxian saw something incredible, something akin to pity, simmer in her vivid eyes. Yu Ziyuan seemed a second away from saying something to him. For the first time since he had come to Yunmeng held in Jiang Fengmian’s tired arms, Wei Wuxian saw her not as a figure to fear.
She said nothing of what she thought, in the end. She picked her sword from the table and told him, “You don’t have a choice.”
Wei Wuxian was left alone in the kitchen. Five days’ worth of fatigue and hunger weighed upon his sore back and made his hold over the soup bowl weakly. He didn’t touch any of it.
He said nothing to Jiang Fengmian.
Every day he felt Yu Ziyuan’s eyes on him. She seemed to have adopted another strategy: she did not say one word to him anymore, good or bad, as if waiting for something to happen. Perhaps she wanted her husband to announce during dinner one day that Wei Wuxian was to be wed. Perhaps she was waiting for Wei Wuxian to come to her himself and say, “I accept.”
But he could not.
He tried, at first. He attempted to ignore how uneasy the thought of marrying someone made him; how petrified the knowledge that marriage could only mean being locked up had him. He tried to think of his fevers differently. He tried to imagine someone keeping him company during them, touching him during them.
Wei Wuxian woke up at night with his tongue dry and his hands fisted in the sheets of his bed. Images ran behind his eyelids of invisible hands on him when he was in that very state. Of someone doing with him as they wished. Of exchanging five days of company, five times a year, for a lifetime of loneliness.
He could not. He didn’t think he would ever be able to. In those dark nights, as Yunmeng thickened with rain and the lotuses slowly withered and died, Wei Wuxian came to understand what he was lacking.
It wasn’t that he had spent his life avoiding other kunze on purpose. He knew enough not to blame himself for this. He had been young when Jiang Fengmian had brought him home and decided for him how his upbringing should be; and while traveling with his mother and father, Wei Wuxian hadn’t known any better. In their company, he had never been made to feel different from anyone else.
But he had grown up outside. He had run through the wilderness around Yunmeng, not fully realizing perhaps what the disapproval he was faced with meant. He had been sheltered in a way that no one else of his status could aspire to be.
Going to Gusu two years prior had been like stepping into ice-cold water. Lan Qiren’s disgust tasted differently that Madam Yu’s did, for at least she had reason beyond his status to hate him. Lan Qiren knew nothing of him and of his character. He simply hated Wei Wuxian for being kunze. Wei Wuxian had overcome that unfairness by being as obnoxious and terrible to the man as he knew how to be; he had coped, in Lan Wangji’s quiet presence, by harassing the boy until his composure cracked.
It was easier to forget like this. With the Jade of Lan looking at him like this, anger quickening his breaths, skin creasing at his forehead—with such a powerful cultivator, the best of anyone their age, calling his birth name and fighting by his side—Wei Wuxian didn’t feel so powerless. Even if he still couldn’t explain to himself why he had gone to the spring that night. He still couldn’t understand why he had looked at Lan Wangji like this, why he had acted as he did, why he had wanted so badly to say, Please never change.
But Wei Wuxian had never spoken to another kunze in his life.
Try as he might, he couldn’t even remember meeting another kunze who was not his mother. What little he had known of his status as he grew up came from the few scrolls that Jiang Fengmian had felt the need to have him read; from the stilted conversations held between the both of them about fevers that someone needed to give Wei Wuxian eventually. But he had never met someone of his kind, never talked to them, never shared experiences with them.
He asked Jiang Cheng one morning, “Is there any kunze in Yunmeng?”
Jiang Cheng was training his archery. His aim faltered for a second, though he thankfully managed not to lose his arrow. “What kind of question is that?” Jiang Cheng replied, frowning and taking aim once more.
“Well, it’s only that there isn’t any in the sect.”
“There’s you,” Jiang Cheng pointed out. He blushed as he said it, as he was never so at ease with referring to Wei Wuxian in any such way.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
Jiang Cheng shot. His arrow embedded itself right above Wei Wuxian’s, only slightly off-center.
“That’s much better,” Wei Wuxian said. He patted Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and handed him another arrow. “The trick isn’t in aiming with your eyes, more in aiming with your body.”
“It’s not that easy,” Jiang Cheng complained.
“You’re the one who wanted to learn! I never said it would be easy.”
Jiang Cheng grumbled some insult or another under his breath. Wei Wuxian laughed brightly. They had left their cloaks by the side of the training field after coming out—the day was clement, sunlit and bright-blue—and Wei Wuxian could smell Jiang Cheng’s lightning-sharp scent as cleanly as if he had the other buried in his arms.
On sunlit days, Jiang Cheng smelled like his mother.
“About kunze in Yunmeng,” Wei Wuxian prompted as Jiang Cheng took position once more.
“Of course there are kunze in Yunmeng,” Jiang Cheng replied at last. He sounded hesitant, almost brusque. “Just because there isn’t any in the sect besides you doesn’t mean there’s none in the region.”
“But where do they live?”
Another shot. Another arrow just an inch to the right, hitting bull’s eye but missing its true mark. Jiang Cheng groaned. “How should I know?” he said, annoyed. “Probably in their family homes, or in some kunze house somewhere. I don’t go spying all over for them.”
“Who knows what you do, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian smirked.
“Nothing! I do nothing!”
Laughter sweetened all of that day. Wei Wuxian stopped asking questions once he understood that Jiang Cheng truly did not know. Instead he focused on teaching his shidi through the warm afternoon hours, until the sun had almost set overwater, until at last Jiang Cheng’s arrow split Wei Wuxian’s.
He laughed at Jiang Cheng’s cry of victory. He put a hand over his shoulders, ruffled his hair, breathed in his familiar scent.
That night Wei Wuxian thought of walking down to Yunmeng and wandering around. He thought of knocking on people’s doors, of saying, May I speak to your kunze?
He amused himself by thinking of how people would react. He built make-believe arguments in his head, smooth-talking his way into what he imagined a family inn to be like, down to a comfortable room somewhere where someone similar to him lived. Someone older and married, out of their kunze house. Someone who could tell him what exactly it was he was missing.
He thought of finally getting answers as to why each fever left him so lonely and scared. He thought of asking advice about whether or not he should marry.
But Yu Ziyuan had warned him that the choice was not his, and she seemed determined despite her distance to keep her word.
A delegation came from Lanling as autumn edged into winter. Wei Wuxian saw the golden glare of their swords before he ever saw their faces. They were stark against the blue-white of the Pier’s frozen waters, where he was sitting and watching fish get caught in the spreading ice.
Yu Jinzhu appeared by his side and said, “Wei Ying. Come with me.”
Wei Wuxian had expected nothing more than to be summoned to the main hall for a scolding or another when he followed the woman back. Instead he was taken to his room and ordered to bathe and change.
“But why?” he asked, confused.
Yu Jinzhu only looked at him impassively.
There was a set of clothing resting on his bed. Purple silk slid between his fingers like water when he touched it; a bell different than the one he carried was tied to the belt that would no doubt go around his waist, but it wasn’t any sort of belt he knew. It was wider. The fabric of it was thin and translucent.
This was kunze wear.
Wei Wuxian bathed as succinctly as he could. With growing horror, he noticed that powders and perfume had been put next to his bed. He rummaged through his closets for traces of his usual clothes, but found not even one forearm brace. The silk robes on his sheets seemed to mock him from afar in all their pristine glory.
Yu Jinzhu knocked on the door and barked at him to hurry and dress. Wei Wuxian considered the dirt-stained training wear he had on minutes ago, trying to evaluate the risk of showing himself in them despite Yu Ziyuan’s obvious order.
It was with wary hands that he took hold of the purple robes. And that was another offset of habit, was it not? The color, and the meaning it held. For some reason, Yu Ziyuan wanted Wei Wuxian to be undeniably part of her clan; she who had fought her husband for almost nine years now, trying to make him see that Wei Wuxian was no child of his, not worthy of his name, was the one now calling him hers.
Wei Wuxian dressed slowly. He didn’t touch the cosmetics, though their flowery smell wafted thickly through his room and made him want to sneeze. He struggled with the silk belt as he never did with leather; in the end he strapped a leather one around it anyway and strung Suibian from it, comforting himself with its weight.
He didn’t touch his hair or face. He wore the same boots he had worn outside earlier. He was certain he looked ridiculous, clad in such fine clothes, and that whoever looked at him now would only see what he was and was not. A boy of eighteen, too tall and rough and with too-big hands. Callused hands.
Suntanned and messy and not at all kunze-like.
Yu Jinzhu did express disgust with her face, but she made no comment to him. Wei Wuxian felt a whole new sort of humiliation at being walked around like this, and could only rejoice in Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli’s absence. He never wanted them to see him like this.
“Let me look at him,” Yu Ziyuan said when they entered the hall.
Servants were already pouring tea. Servants in the Lotus Pier almost never poured tea outside of official visits or banquets with many guests—they had better things to do. Madam Yu walked around a bowing Jinzhu and took in Wei Wuxian’s appearance from head to toe.
“Fix your hair,” she told him with a sneer. “And get rid of this ridiculous sword.”
“Madam Yu,” Wei Wuxian said, trying not to let alarm move his voice. “What is going on?”
“Jin Zixun will be here any minute, and I want you to at least look like you won’t disgrace this clan in front of him, Wei Ying.”
Anything Wei Wuxian could have said to her stopped dead on his tongue.
He didn’t hear any of what she said after—about his footwear, his posture, his hair again—for he was too busy reigning in the panic now flowering through him.
“Where’s Uncle Jiang?” he asked.
Yu Ziyuan had been in the middle of delivering orders. She looked at him in anger, her lips thin and white, and Wei Wuxian had no doubt that she would have grabbed him by the hair to fix it herself, were she not raised with manners. “Away,” she replied. “You don’t need him here for this.”
He knew then that he had crossed a line.
A hush fell over the room. Servants scurried away quietly, their heads bowed, and even Yu Jinzhu’s presence faded. Yu Ziyuan observed Wei Wuxian with such cold eyes that his blood seemed to turn to ice.
“Are you presuming to tell me what I can and cannot do?” Yu Ziyuan asked him. Every breath that Wuxian took carried in the smell of her; it seemed that air itself were as sharp a bite as Zidian. “Are you presuming to order me around, boy?”
“I don’t want to marry,” Wei Wuxian said. He was grown enough now to recognize that his voice bared all of his panic, but he couldn’t pretend. “You can’t force me.”
“I can and I will.”
“What makes you so special?” Yu Ziyuan shouted.
She may as well have grabbed him by the throat—he couldn’t swallow without aching.
“This is what every kunze does, Wei Wuxian,” she said, her eyes flashing with hatred. “They are married. They produce heirs. They don’t have a choice. What makes you so special that you should be treated any differently? What makes you so special that you should be given such privilege?”
What makes you so special that my husband must love you so much?
Yu Ziyuan was talking to someone, Wei Wuxian felt distantly, but it was not him anymore.
“You have trampled over every tradition that the Jiang sect upholds,” she continued, “you have taken and taken and brought nothing but shame to us since the day you stepped foot in this home. You don’t even realize, you ungrateful rascal, everything we’ve sacrificed for you.
“You are unsightly in every way. You are a thief and a liar, ugly, insolent, a blight on everyone who shares your status. You were never worth the kindness you were shown, you were never worth the price we pay in letting you roam free and expose yourself to scandal. You will marry. And then you will leave.”
Wei Wuxian’s ears rang in the silence that followed.
Yu Ziyuan didn’t seem otherwise upset. Her face burst with anger and disgust, her tongue sharp on every word she threw his way, but she was standing tall. She didn’t waver or tremble or even breathe more quickly. With gold in her hair, with Zidian shining at her hand and her sword hanging from her hip and her face prettier and more deadly than any Wei Wuxian had witnessed, she looked every way the part she was supposed to play.
He could hear her say again what she had said to him without words, over and over through the years—You are inferior. I am superior.
He had never truly felt it till this day.
“Fix your hair,” she said again, turning away from the sight of him. “I feel scorned just looking at you.”
Yu Jinzhu held a white ribbon his way. Wei Wuxian took it from her hand without touching her and tied his hair with it in silence, nausea clogging his throat, apprehension shaking through him. The color of it reminded him of Lan Wangji; with a weak heart he wondered what anyone should say, if he decided to wear it over his forehead instead.
Jin Zixun was at least fifteen years older than him. Only the barest hints of resemblance marked him as Jin Zixuan’s kin, in the shape of the eyes and nose, in the way he postured. Perhaps this was a Jin clan trait, just as sneering was to Wens. He entered the dining hall in a full set of golden clothes, his lackluster hair loose over his nape, his eyes roaming over the walls and floors with satisfaction. No one followed after him like they should for such negotiations.
He nodded to Madam Yu. He looked at Wei Wuxian sitting next to her with cold interest. He bowed to him with his hand over his chest as his cousin had once done, offered his name and congratulations in an even tone of voice, and went to sit where he should, at the other end of the hall. The seat on the dais next to him seemed conspicuously empty.
“I was happy to receive your answer, clan leader Yu,” he said as drinks were served. “I have long been looking for a kunze to take as concubine.”
“So I heard,” Madam Yu replied pleasantly.
“Is sect leader Jiang not here today?”
She did not even hesitate. “He offers his apologies,” she lied. “Urgent business took him away.”
Jin Zixun seemed not otherwise distressed. “As long as he approves of me,” he said, drinking from his cup. The sound it made as it touched upon wood made Wei Wuxian’s hair rise. “You have to understand my surprise—I heard that every offer he has received for Wei Wuxian was rejected.”
Wei Wuxian listened to the curt explanation she gave—protectiveness, other offers, time for consideration—and wondered in vicious humor how she felt at having to defend Jiang Fengmian and him from shame.
She was never one for such underhanded ways. Never. Not for lies or deceit or manipulation. He realized with a heavy heart that he had always found faith in her for this before.
“I didn’t want to marry any of them,” Wei Wuxian cut off.
The conversation came to a halt. Wei Wuxian felt Yu Ziyuan’s eyes burn into the side of his face and looked at her with a thin smile.
“Ah, yes,” Jin Zixun said. Shock made his voice climb a little higher; he cleared his throat before continuing. “I did hear Zixuan say that he had been raised… somewhat oddly. Out in the open, I believe were his words.”
“A fancy of my husband’s,” Yu Ziyuan replied before Wei Wuxian could. “The boy has talent for cultivation.”
“It’s nothing that can’t be fixed with time. Any young kunze can be put back on track with a little effort. I believe Zixuan and my uncle have discussed the topic many times—the young master was very, very shocked when he came back from studying in Gusu, I remember.”
As it turned out, Wei Wuxian’s opinion of Jin Zixuan could sink lower.
I’ll punch him again the next time I see him, he thought, distracting himself from how terribly uncomfortable he felt. What right does he have to speak behind my back? I’ll bruise that face he’s so proud of.
All the Lan Qirens in the world would not stop him this time, he swore solemnly.
Silk clung to his skin with every minute move he made. It wasn’t soft enough, too dry with manual labor, too tanned. Wei Wuxian thought Lan Wangji would look better in those robes than he ever could.
Lunch carried on in the same tense atmosphere: Madam Yu spoke only when spoken to, Jin Zixun ate and bragged with all the subtlety of a sword through the chest, and Wei Wuxian kept rigidly silent. He needed to figure out a way of canceling the whole affair without bringing scandal.
He started wishing that Jiang Cheng and his shijie were here when Madam Yu shifted the topic from sect relations to payment.
His hand shook when he drank from his cup—tea, not liquor, not now that he was in plain sight of a qianyuan wishing to marry him and with the whole household playing part in this farce. Wei Wuxian had known, distantly, that kunze were rare and pricey. He had not fully understood it until numbers left Yu Ziyuan’s mouth that made his whole head spin. Negotiations began without further ado, each side of the room bargaining in turn.
“Too much, clan leader, far too much,” Jin Zixuan said again and again, “have you seen the look of him? I met the Zhu clan kunze before Wen Chao whisked him away—he was a beauty, I promise you, and his father never asked for such compensation!”
And again and again for more than two hours. When it wasn’t Wei Wuxian’s posture, it was his hair, his complexion. His hands were too rough. His eyes were not bright enough. When not those, then his manners—He slouches, see? Yueyangchang has a beautiful kunze, immature still, you could strap a pole to his back and not see a difference—
Such negotiations were usually held in closed quarters. Such negotiations were held in presence of the sect leader. Such negotiations were akin to unboxing a gift, to unveiling a painting, the kunze brought out so that their suitor could look and estimate and their clan leader dispute until all reached an agreement.
(He was ten and practicing with weights at the back of the training field, servants murmuring from afar at the sight of him sweat-drenched in sunlight, his arms strengthening each time he moved. He could see Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli on the ground some distance away, the both of them out of breath, and Jiang Fengmian stood in front of him, smiling with pride, hiding from his sight the whispers and curses. “Very good, A-Xian,” he said. “Very good…”
He was twelve and the best archer out of all the disciples. He was shooting an arrow into the trunk of a tree in front of Jiang Cheng, and then another which split the first in two—Jiang Cheng cried with shock and ordered, “Teach me that, Wei Wuxian, you have to teach me that.” And Wei Wuxian laughed and replied, “I will.”
He was thirteen in the fire of the forge, with a list of names all as unsuitable as the other in hand. Paper crinkled in his fist as he watched Jiang Fengmian work the iron for him. Sweat dripped from his temples and the underside of his lips. He smelled earth smoked by the sun in that firing heat, watching his sword be born to him, and long gone were the thoughts of Jiang Cheng’s jealousy when he had learned that Wei Wuxian would have a sword before him—this was his sword, glowing red now as Jiang Fengmian struck again and again. His sword. It was panic he felt when the blade was put to cool and Jiang Fengmian asked for the name and he replied, “Whatever!”
Jiang Fengmian laughed. Jiang Fengmian had never laughed thusly that Wei Wuxian could remember. Sweat was dripping from him too; in the silence and dark of the forge he did something he never did—he put a hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and squeezed and said, “That’s a good name.”)
“Clan leader Yu,” Jin Zixun said, “I admit I am getting impatient. I would pay this much for a kunze of good upbringing, even one from the most minor sect, but please remember what it is you are offering.”
“I am offering a kunze of the Jiang sect,” Yu Ziyuan replied, hot with rage.
“You are offering the son of a servant.” Jin Zixun seemed disinterested now; his leftover food had cooled over the table, untouched for a long time, and Yu Ziyuan signaled to have it taken away. “I have heard of Wei Changze’s talent, but he was still only zhongyong… Still only Jiang Fengmian’s shidi.”
Wei Wuxian hadn’t touched his food at all. He paid no attention to the girl who took it away and made sure to avoid his eyes—for the first time the conversation caught his interest and made him stick out of the thick stupor that the whole day had him in. He so rarely heard of his father.
“You know, they say he didn’t marry that kunze,” Jin Zuxun said. “He took her as a cultivation partner! She walked around with his child without marrying him!”
Yu Ziyuan’s thin nostrils flared ever-so-slightly. For a second her eyes met Wei Wuxian’s.
“Wei Ying will be no one’s cultivation partner,” she declared.
“I should hope not.” Jin Zixun drank from the liquor before him—his cheeks had reddened and his voice roughened, diminishing his faint resemblance with Jin Zixuan. Now he looked like nothing more than an arrogant and slightly drunk man who thought too highly of himself. “Ah, I am a hard man to deal with, clan leader. Truly, I find Wei Wuxian to my satisfaction, and I am sure his faulty upbringing can be fixed. Now if only the price—”
The doors of the hall opened loudly.
The scent that reached Wei Wuxian’s nose was such that he had never smelled before. Earth and grass turned over by storm, wetted through by rainfall, like the aftertaste of a landslide. So strong was it that for an instant he wondered if his fever was upon him, if he was sitting in the shack and trying to keep dry as the whole world around rained and rained.
Jiang Fengmian walked into the dining hall with fury in his steps and let all who saw him feel it in their bones. He didn’t greet Jin Zixun. He didn’t call the handmaids’ names as he often did in greeting. He walked straight to his wife without bothering to dry at all, and water dripped from his long hair and the sword he had not yet sheathed. It glimmered on the floor behind him.
He stopped once he was level with Yu Ziyuan. “My lady,” he greeted coldly. And then to Wei Wuxian: “A-Xian. It’s good to see you.”
“Uncle Jiang,” Wei Wuxian said blankly.
The smile he got in return was very brief. Jiang Fengmian asked, “What is the meaning of this?”
Silence froze over the room.
There was more movement near the entrance. Wei Wuxian turned his head and saw, through his surprise and shame, Jiang Yanli’s timid figure enter after her father. Following her was Jin Zixuan, and his eyes were fixed onto his cousin in fury.
“Zixuan,” Jin Zixun called amiably. “What are you doing here?”
“I should be the one asking this,” Jin Zixuan replied through his teeth.
“What do you—”
“Silence,” Jiang Fengmian called.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened.
The Jiang sect leader kept looking at his wife for a moment longer. He seemed entirely unbothered by the rudeness of his own attitude. Yu Ziyuan held his glare with all the dignity she possessed, showing not a hint of shame or regret. She said nothing to him.
Finally, Jiang Fengmian turned away. “I must ask you to leave,” he told Jin Zixun. “You may stay the night to wait out the storm, but in the morning, you will be gone.”
“Wait just a moment, sect leader Jiang,” Jin Zixun replied, raising from his seat at last. His gait was uneven as he rounded the table. “I was invited here—”
“I heard of no such invitation,” Jiang Fengmian said frostily.
Jin Zixun’s face reddened with outrage. “I was told to come for negotiation of your kunze’s future,” he expelled. “Is this how the Jiang clan treats its guests? I came here with the intent to buy, and I will not leave without good reason!”
“That’s right,” Yu Ziyuan said. “What reason could you possibly give this man for refusing him after inviting him, Jiang Fengmian?”
Jiang Fengmian’s face turned dark with anger. The sword he held in one wet hand still shone faintly from the travel; he must’ve flown back, Wei Wuxian realized, as soon as he heard of what was happening in his absence. A knot of tension in his heart loosened all at once.
This marriage offer was not Jiang Fengmian’s plan for him after all.
“Good reason?” Jiang Fengmian repeated slowly. “You want a good reason?”
No one quite dared interrupt him, not even the fuming Jin Zixun. Near the entrance, Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan stood their ground.
Wei Wuxian met the eyes of the one he had never dared to call father. They were as kind as ever.
“Do you wish to marry this man?” Jiang Fengmian asked him.
It was the same tone he had asked, years ago, “What do you want to call it?” The same voice he had used for encouraging his training, for congratulating him, for naming him senior disciple. The voice that Wei Wuxian had heard laugh out loud in a rare spark of honesty as he answered, panicked, “Whatever!”
“No, Uncle,” Wei Wuxian with as much sincerity as he had then. “I would rather die.”
Jiang Fengmian smiled. “There,” he told Jin Zixun with a dismissive wave of the hand. “You have your good reason.”
Wei Wuxian slipped away in the outrage that followed. Jin Zixun all but yelled his embarrassment out until Jin Zixuan himself stepped in to silence him. Jiang Fengmian sheathed his sword and left the hall as quickly as he had entered it, Yu Ziyuan hot on his heels, the both of them headed to yet another night of arguing. Wei Wuxian kept all of those things out of his mind and walked among scurrying servants, joining his shijie as quickly as he could. She took his hands in hers when he held them forward.
“I’m sorry to be so late,” she told him secretly.
Wei Wuxian stared at her, mouth open and eyes wide. “Were you the one who went to fetch him?” he asked.
“Of course. Father was called away yesterday evening—you were already asleep, I think, but a group from Lanlingjin came to ask for help about an incident in Yiling. Father and A-Cheng went with them… ”
That must be when Yu Ziyuan seized the occasion. She must have heard that Jin Zixun was in the region, or maybe Jin Zixun had been part of the group itself, and she knew that her husband would be gone for the day, that she could negotiate Wei Wuxian’s marriage before he came back home. Wei Wuxian could have gone away for good with Jiang Fengmian none the wiser.
Wei Wuxian squeezed Jiang Yanli’s hands. “Thank you,” he said. “Shijie, thank you.”
She laughed sweetly. “A-Xian,” she sighed, taking one hand back to push away from his forehead some stray strands of hair. She tugged on the thin collar of the robes—it was crooked, he knew, to hide much of his throat. “You have no idea how to dress properly.”
“I look ridiculous, don’t I?” he chuckled.
“I always think you look very beautiful,” she scolded. “But yes, these clothes don’t suit you at all.”
They smiled like this for a moment, their hands still linked. Jiang Yanli was wet from flying in the rain; Wei Wuxian took her further inside, near to the hearth in the wall where a fire was burning, so she could warm herself. She took his fussing in good humor. Wei Wuxian felt a peculiar satisfaction when he ordered a servant—one of those who had watched him be bargained over like a piece of meat—to get her something to eat. The boy hurried away.
Both Jin clan cultivators were still here. Wei Wuxian had stopped paying attention to them, but now he saw Jin Zixuan murmur unintelligible things to his cousin, his perpetual frown even deeper than usual. Jin Zixun bowed to him and walked away. He didn’t pay Wei Wuxian any attention anymore. His face was red with more than just wine indulgence.
Some weight lifted from Wei Wuxian’s chest after his departure. This, he thought, was a man he never wanted to see again.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan greeted awkwardly, noticing his stare. He took a few steps toward them. “Please apologize on my behalf to Madam Yu and sect leader Jiang for intruding like this. I will be leaving with my cousin in the morning.”
Next to Wei Wuxian, Jiang Yanli shrunk in on herself. Her cheeks were red.
“Are all your cousins so rude?” Wei Wuxian asked.
To his surprise, Jin Zixuan answered, “This one more than the others.”
He seemed to realize what he had just said just as he said it: his cheeks turned red, and he looked away, shifting from foot to foot.
Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh again. A strange euphoria had taken him from the moment he had rejected Jin Zixun so openly, and he felt freed of all boundaries. He wanted to approach Jin Zixuan and either punch him, as he had promised himself earlier, or put a hand on his shoulder as he often did Jiang Cheng’s. Jiang Yanli held him back with her presence alone; the mix of shyness and misery on her face reminded him of exactly what his past actions had led to.
She and Jin Zixuan had once meant to marry. And she may try as often as she could to convince Wei Wuxian—to convince herself—that she held no feelings for the Jin heir, the truth was obvious to Wei Wuxian.
“Thank you for warning me,” Jin Zixuan told Jiang Yanli, nodding toward her politely. With the way he had spoken of her years ago, it made Wei Wuxian want to shake him.
But Jiang Yanli straightened up. She bowed at the shoulders with her fist against her palm and replied, “Of course.”
Wei Wuxian entertained the thought of leaving them alone for a moment. It wouldn’t be so improper in the great hall, not when any servant could come back with Jiang Yanli’s food and chaperone them. But before he could, Jin Zixuan turned to him.
He still felt terribly awkward with the way he was dressed. He hadn’t stopped longing for his training wear and Suibian’s weight by his hip in hours, after all. But Jin Zixuan only looked at him with an oddly red face, his eyes avoiding the sight of the silk robes, his mouth opening and then closing again.
Finally, he said, “Excuse me.”
He bowed as he had taken to around Wei Wuxian—as his cousin had earlier: his face looking at the ground and his hand splayed over his chest. He stayed down a second longer than what seemed necessary.
“He’s just becoming weirder and weirder,” Wei Wuxian commented once he was gone. “Shijie, look at how weird this guy is. You’re well rid of him.”
Jiang Yanli didn’t seem to hear him. When Wei Wuxian looked at her, she was staring at the spot that Jin Zixuan had occupied with shock writ all over her. “A-Xian…” she said.
“What? What is it?”
Sadness flickered over her face. Wei Wuxian only saw it briefly enough to wonder what he had done this time—in what way he had hurt her—but she seemed to chase it before he could ask. “Nothing,” she said, smiling brightly at him. She gripped his hand more tightly than before. “Let’s get you something else to wear, shall we?”
She dragged him out of the room, one step ahead of him, her face firmly turned away.
This day in Yunmeng felt like one unending night. No sun had shone from dawn to dusk, hidden by thick clouds and heavy rain. The halls near Yu Ziyuan’s pavilion echoed with the sound of her voice, of Jiang Fengmian’s, of a decade of hurt digging deeper between them than it ever had before. Servant walked around the house with fear lightening their steps. Disciples stayed inside looking out, bemoaning the weather, resting their weary limbs. Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun didn’t come out of their guest quarters before leaving the next morning.
This autumn at the Lotus Pier would forever feel washed out in Wei Wuxian’s memory. As pale and fleeting as smoke. Two or three years later he would think upon it as if caught in a haze; he would remember the smell of rain gorging every dirt path, the sight of dying lotuses drowned underwater, the word, “No,” leaving his mouth with all the confidence of those who believed in safety.
Jiang Yanli’s wet hands in his. Jiang Fengmian’s fury filling his nose with stormscent. The leaking kunze house where he had spent five days catching raindrops before they fell.
His last autumn in Yunmeng. His last autumn whole and hale.