and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
The day the summons came started, as always, with an argument.
All who lived in Yunmeng had taken to wearing furs and capes atop their clothes. Perhaps it was the water all around that caused the Lotus Pier to feel so very chilly; fires burned in every room, tended to by servants with gloved hands, and the cold seemed to seep through every wall and floor and chase Wei Wuxian through the late hours of night. For breakfast that day he warmed himself in the kitchens with Jiang Cheng, eating out of the reserves cooked there, exchanging fencing tips.
“You never make any sense,” Jiang Cheng told Wei Wuxian in-between mouthfuls of burning soup. “I can fly on Sandu just fine, and I’ve never had to practice like this.”
“I’m telling you,” laughed Wei Wuxian, “it’s not about meditation. The more time you actually spend fighting and the easier it gets.”
“Yet I’m the faster one.”
For once the cooks around didn’t seem to mind Wei Wuxian’s presence. Something had changed since the scandalous end to what would have been Wei Wuxian’s union to Jin Zixun.
The servants had never been mean to him, exactly; they just hadn’t been kind. Outside of Jiang Fengmian and his children and Wei Wuxian’s other shidi—who had seemed to realize who he was and what fraternizing with him entailed only when he came into maturity—no one in Yunmeng saw very well to his presence and behavior. Yet ever since the last storm of the season and Jiang Fengmian’s vocal opposition to seeing Wei Wuxian wed, something had changed.
Wei Wuxian did not meet so many wary eyes on his way anymore. He didn’t have to stop in the middle of hallways of outdoor paths for others to slither past the way he once did. People’s steps may turn hesitant, but they simply walked ahead. He felt less like to be around others was a physical inconvenience.
The cooks had greeted him that day. When he had opened one of the wide pots full of steaming soup to breathe in the warm and spicy smell, one had even offered him a bowl.
Wei Wuxian was about speak again when a young voice asked, “What is it like?”
He and Jiang Cheng turned their heads at once.
He was a boy of roughly their age. The smells around the kitchen made it impossible to guess at his status, but he was shorter and thicker than the both of them, with wide hands and a pleasantly broad face. He smiled awkwardly at being so scrutinized and asked again, “Flying, I mean.”
Behind him, the old qianyuan cook—the one who had worked here for as long as Wei Wuxian could remember and who used to curse him for stealing treats behind her back—said nothing. She must be his mother, he thought distractedly. There was a familiarity to the boy’s face and hers. A dimple in the exact same spot when they smiled wide enough.
Wei Wuxian asked, “Do you want to learn?”
The boy stilled for a second at being addressed by him. Then Wei Wuxian’s words seemed to catch up to him, and he flailed and shook his head. “No, no, of course not—I was just curious.”
“You’re too old to begin training anyway,” Jiang Cheng said indifferently.
“Indeed, young master Jiang.”
Wei Wuxian elbowed Jiang Cheng in the ribs until his shidi hissed. “Don’t be such a killjoy, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “Why would it be too late? They say Lan An started cultivating at twenty years of age.”
“I know you like to think highly of yourself, but even you are no Lan An.”
Wei Wuxian laughed loudly.
The cook boy watched their bickering with apprehension in his eyes. He seemed not to know what to do with himself now that he had their attention; Wei Wuxian saw him glimpse quickly toward where his presumed mother kept working.
“Flying is the best thing in the world,” Wei Wuxian told him. “To think our ancestors had no idea that it was possible! Cultivation wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without flying.”
“You’re shameless,” Jiang Cheng said, pinching his nose. “Flying isn’t all there is to cultivation,” he told the boy in a more serious voice. “And some can never rise to that level no matter how long they try.”
Wei Wuxian accused him of growing old before his time. Jiang Cheng called him a child. In-between their good-natured spats, they found time to talk to the boy a little longer, until what was left in their bowls had cooled, grease congealing at the surface of the broth. The boy’s qianyuan mother took those away without a word, but Wei Wuxian thought he saw a smile on her face, too. A shadow in her dimpled cheek.
Although the cold was harsher this year than it had been in a long time, Wei Wuxian still dragged Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli with him to the training field. There was a sharpness to the air in such frosty weather that felt to him as if each inhale cleansed his body vein by vein.
They trained and shouted and laughed without much discipline. Wei Wuxian was determined to show Jiang Cheng the truth of his words, and challenged Yanli to a spar in front of his judgmental eyes. He made her fly over the field once they were all done and sweaty. His shidi had joined them in the late morning hours, as the sky overhead turned blue and bright, as the lone clouds drifting by started to look like ice.
Jiang Yanli’s sword was a thing of beauty. Wide and cold and gorgeous, it reflected the piercing light as if made of crystal. She flew on it close to the ground with Wei Wuxian doing his best to race her on foot. Jiang Cheng made for the poorest referee, of course; he had never had the strength to deny his sister victory for as long as they had all played together.
It was a good day. A warm day in every sense but the literal. Wei Wuxian picked at the seeds that Jiang Yanli had brought as they debated the approaching fencing tournament in Qinghe, encouraging her to join even as Jiang Cheng tried to dissuade her.
“Why wouldn’t she come?” Wei Wuxian scoffed. “Shijie, you should’ve been there in Qishan. The Nightless City is very beautiful.”
“Mother would have been too lonely,” Jiang Yanli replied with a smile.
“You should’ve stayed in Qishan if you loved it so much,” Jiang Cheng added, kicking Wei Wuxian’s leg. “Sister, he hasn’t stopped talking about this Wen Ning person one second.”
“He’s a great guy.”
“You barely know him.”
Jiang Yanli smiled a little sadly and said, “I would not want to embarrass young master Jin.”
This stopped Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng’s argument on the spot and made them redirect their energy toward consoling her. Yanli laughed less brightly now than she had months ago; but she smiled, anyway, and teased Wei Wuxian with as much vigor as her brother.
Wei Wuxian forgot anything he was supposed to be while in their company. Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng did as well. They mocked him relentlessly over his oft-repeated comments about Wen Ning-—whether he would be there, whether Wei Wuxian would get to compete with him one day. They said he must have a crush. Wei Wuxian denied it in fake outrage, although the joke made him feel odd.
The three of them climbed to their feet at the sound of Yu Ziyuan’s voice. She stood wrapped in furs and with her hair free of decoration, Yu Jinzhu by her side as always, Zidian glowing at her finger like a gemstone.
She glanced at Wei Wuxian but did not say a word to him.
“Come get warm inside,” she ordered. “It’s too cold for lazing around. Your father needs to speak with you both.” She paused for a second before amending, “You three.”
In the long winter months, Qishan seemed to turn to ice.
It was still as dry, still as unwelcoming as it had been last they visited. Parts of the mountains were thick with trees and rivers, but everywhere around the Nightless City was devoid of life, as if the Wen clan’s presence had sucked the soil dry. Dust still rose after their steps as it had in the summer; but when Wei Wuxian touched the rocky sides of the paths they traveled, all he felt under his fingers was cold.
Such a harsh land to live in.
To say that Yu Ziyuan had taken badly to Wen Ruohan’s sudden summons would be a vast understatement.
Every heir and senior disciple, the lengthy missive that had come through the hands of servants said. “Not even cultivators,” Madam Yu had seethed, “servants!” They had come on horseback. Some had come by foot. But Wei Wuxian had been a lot less worried about the rudeness of Wen Ruohan’s envoy than he was about the face that Jiang Fengmian made upon reading the man’s words.
Every heir and senior disciple must come to Qishan to undergo training.
Wen Ruohan had asked every sect leader to deliver hostages willingly. He was no longer just playing at ruling over them all; he was putting plans in action that Wei Wuxian could only guess at.
He slept very little that night. He could remember a time, he thought, when such news would have left him unconcerned. When he would have volunteered to go even without being summoned, when he would have remained carefree and full of laughter. A time before Gusu; a time before fevers, before Jin Zixun’s attitude reminding him of what he was supposed to be.
Wei Wuxian could not remain carefree now. He felt in his bones something like the echo of rain, like dampness in the air making old wounds surge back to life. Plots were brewing undercloud that he felt would soon change his life.
Wei Wuxian walked past Jiang Fengmian’s study when he gave up on sleep and went out for a walk. Light filtered in from glowing candles; from inside the quiet room, Yu Ziyuan’s voice came, softer than he had ever heard it.
Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Yanli had made for Qishan the following day. Madam Yu had burdened her children with as much food as they could bear to transport. She had hugged Jiang Yanli to her chest; had placed a kiss on Jiang Cheng’s red forehead.
Then she had looked at Wei Wuxian for a long moment before handing him a small pouch and whispering to him, “Drink this tea each day.”
He hadn’t had the time or privacy to check what the pouch contained yet.
The Nightless City came into view under a dark grey sky. They had walked past a promontory earlier, the same one where Wei Wuxian had met Wen Ning and seen his talent at archery play out, but the boy had not been present this time.
“Don’t get lost again,” Jiang Cheng said to him.
“I won’t, I won’t.”
It was said in the same voice they bantered with, but Jiang Yanli did not smile at them in faint reproach, and Wei Wuxian did not laugh.
There weren’t as many people present now in front of the City’s imposing gates as there had been during the competition. Wei Wuxian recognized the lone Ouyang heir as Jiang Cheng walked toward him, and Nie Huaisang some distance ahead, who was not fanning himself for once. He only gave Wei Wuxian a passing glance.
In the far distance, Gusulan’s delegation stood. Lan Wangji was looking at the ground with an expression Wei Wuxian had never seen on his face.
He didn’t have time to run to him and pester him with greetings and questions, for at this moment someone climbed up the wooden dais that had been placed at the bottom of the stairs.
Wen Chao fell onto a wide couch almost bursting with pillows. His clothes were more extravagant than Wei Wuxian could remember—thick and fur-lined, with Qishanwen’s red sun embroidered everywhere that the eye could see, so that no one could mistake either his name or wealth. A woman with very delicate features sat next to him almost instantly; he wrapped an arm around her in such a scandalous way that Wei Wuxian felt he could hear Lan Qiren’s voice ring loudly at the display.
But Wen Chao didn’t mind, and neither did the servants standing around him. “You’re all here to undergo training,” he declared loudly. The woman simpered next to him; her very beautiful features suddenly seemed much uglier. Wen Chao cooed at her for a second before continuing, “The sects have become lazy. Complacent. All of you bring shame to the names you bear, and my father has decided, in his great wisdom, to put you back on the right path.”
The murmurs around Wei Wuxian turned to shouts of disapproval. He thought he heard someone yell, “And he put you up to the task, Wen Chao?” Next to him, Jiang Yanli crossed her arms over her chest and slouched.
“It’ll be okay, shijie,” he told her softly.
She gave him a weak smile.
“Of course he told me to do it,” Wen Chao yelled back arrogantly. “You,” he pointed to one of the manservants next to him, “make sure this one gets no food tonight.”
More outrage arose from the crowd of disciples, but Wei Wuxian almost laughed. If being deprived of dinner was the harshest punishment one could be subjected to here, perhaps Wen Ruohan’s cruelty was not so legendary after all.
Wen Chao spoke for a while longer. He insulted their families, their sects, their manners. He made way at some point for a very old woman, who proceeded to read for a long time the scroll she held in her wrinkled hands, and which detailed the great deeds of past Wen sect leaders.
Wei Wuxian yawned. Although there had been no trace of sun the whole day, he could feel that it was setting. He had flown all morning and then walked the rest of the way to the City; he wondered when they would be let off to sleep.
Wen Chao was not done, however. Once the old woman was done boring all of them to death, he rose from his seat and declared, “Now hand over your swords.”
Jiang Cheng had come back to Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli’s side after he was done greeting the Ouyang heir. Like Wei Wuxian, he had done a very poor job of hiding how bored he was through the endless speeches, but now he looked alert once more.
“What?” he exclaimed.
It saved Wei Wuxian the trouble of asking it. His hand grabbed Suibian’s pommel without thought.
Jiang Cheng was not the only one to wake up and protest. All around them, young cultivators of all sects took a step forward, some even drawing their swords, and their shouts got more indiscernible the louder they became. Through the movement Wei Wuxian saw the hem of a golden cape; Jin Zixuan had not drawn his sword, but his hand was firmly upon it as well.
“You’re not worthy of those swords!” Wen Chao bellowed. His foot hit the stage loudly enough to be heard through the noise. He didn’t seem to notice how child-like this made him look. “Now hand them over. You’ll get them back before you leave, if I’m satisfied with your training.”
A braver disciple than most stepped forward and replied, “A sword is a cultivator’s soul and strength. You have no right to ask for this, you Wen dog!”
There was a man standing behind Wen Chao who had not moved or talked all evening. A tall man, dark and unbecoming, with serious and clever eyes watching over the assembly. Wen Chao did not howl or curse at the insult thrown at him; instead he made a decisive gesture of the hand, and the still man moved at last.
Such was his speed that he became almost impossible to follow with eyes alone. Wei Wuxian saw him step off the dais and then saw him emerge behind the young cultivator, his right hand glowing red with power, his expression somber.
For a moment, no one understood what had happened. The disciple who had spoken wavered under the blow delivered to his chest, but his clothes weren’t torn, and there was no trace of blood.
Then he choked, dark red spilling out of his mouth, and fell to the ground at once.
Wei Wuxian faintly heard a name be cried out—the boy’s name, no doubt—but he was too busy staring at him to take notice of anything else. His feet took him forward, Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli by his sides, as they rushed toward his fallen form.
The somber man’s hand had stopped glowing. He was now walking back toward his master, who looked over the scene with satisfaction.
“Is he dead?” Wei Wuxian asked, wishing now more than anything to be able to just touch and make sure for himself, no matter how many people could see.
Jiang Cheng took a moment to answer. “I don’t think so,” he replied, “but something feels off.”
To hell with propriety, then. The boy’s fellow sect members obviously looked too scared to check on their comrade themselves. Wei Wuxian fell to his knees in the dust and put two fingers against the boy’s neck. If some around him found the energy to be shocked, he had more important things to do than care.
The boy was alive. His pulse beat against Wei Wuxian’s fingers in the same rhythm a bird’s would, but his skin felt deathly cold.
It wasn’t until Wei Wuxian pushed some of his spiritual energy into him to try and soothe whatever ached him that he understood.
He jerked back his hand in horror.
“Jiang Cheng,” he said. He had to swallow before speaking again. “His golden core is…”
Jiang Cheng needed no more than that to understand. “Wen Zhuliu,” he hissed between his teeth.
“Do all of you understand now?” came Wen Chao’s strident voice.
Wei Wuxian turned his head to look at him once more. He had never thought of Wen Chao as someone worth worrying about, not even with the man following him around a maze and throwing insults at him, but now, with Wen Zhuliu by his side, he seemed much more impressive.
“If you disobey, my Core-Melting Hand will deal out punishment,” Wen Chao said. His eyes met Wei Wuxian’s for the first time; the grin on his lips seemed to stretch infinitely. There was no doubt who he was addressing his next words to. “So unless you want to end up like this scum, you know what to do.”
Wei Wuxian made to stand up; a hand grabbed his shoulder and firmly kept him kneeling.
“Don’t,” Jiang Cheng whispered. “Wei Wuxian, obey for once. Do you want to risk your life?”
There are things more important than my life, Wei Wuxian wanted to say. But he met Jiang Yanli’s eyes a few feet away, and the fright he saw in them kept him grounded more firmly than any hand.
He rose quietly. All around the other disciples stood with lowered heads, their fear overwriting their shame as they handed out their weapons. They piled up in the hands of the Wen clan’s servants: swords and bows and Nie Huaisang’s gleaming saber.
Wei Wuxian looked sideways. “Wen Chao,” he greeted back coolly.
He had meant to insult, but Wen Chao seemed to find reason for joy in his attitude. His grin grew again. “So they did send you,” he said, looking Wei Wuxian up and down as he had the first time. The only difference was that instead of incredulity, satisfaction shone over his face. “Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan have lost reason at last.”
“You requested all senior disciples,” Wei Wuxian replied with clenched teeth.
He couldn’t get the sight of that boy on the ground out of his mind.
Wei Wuxian knew of Wen Zhuliu’s Core-Melting technique as he knew of the Lan clan’s Killer String, of Qinghenie’s deathly saber style. It was famous to those who had any interest in cultivation. And although he had heard that the Core-Melting Hand had joined the Wen clan, he had never expected to meet him, let alone to have him be used as a threat against all who were present.
Wen Chao extended a hand forward. “Your sword, kunze,” he ordered. “I came here to pick it up personally.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed?” Wei Wuxian replied.
He felt more than saw Jiang Cheng’s worried gaze on him. Wei Wuxian’s hand had gone back to Suibian’s handle, whose fine engravings had smoothed over years of use already.
He didn’t want to give up his sword to Wen Chao. He didn’t want to give it up to anyone. This was his sword, the sword that Jiang Fengmian had forged for him, the sword that bore the name Wei Wuxian had given it, however ridiculous the name.
More than anything else he possessed—clothes, freedom, the Jiang clan’s acceptance—this sword was his.
But what choice did he have, in the end? Already he could feel how much Jiang Yanli wanted to tell him to comply. Already he could see Wen Zhuliu’s brow furrow at watching his master take so long to gather just one weapon. Wei Wuxian let his hand slide from Suibian’s pommel and to the middle of its scabbard; he untied the leather band keeping it attached to his waist and gave it over.
Wen Chao’s greedy eyes shone greedily as he grabbed it. He took a moment to examine it, going so far as to unsheathe a fraction of the blade to let light shine off of it. Wei Wuxian’s hands turned to fists.
“Very well!” Wen Chao announced then. He threw Suibian onto the pile of other swords in his servant’s hands—Jiang Cheng had to grab Wei Wuxian’s shoulder again to keep him from jumping forward in outrage—and said: “All of you will now be accompanied to your encampments. Qianyuan on one side and zhongyong on the other. Guards will be posted around your tents to ensure you don’t try to do anything foolish.”
Just like that, Wei Wuxian forgot all about the swords.
He said nothing as the other disciples started splitting into two groups. The Jiang siblings didn’t move, no doubt as surprised as he was. The original letter had said nothing about encampments. All of them had expected to be given guest rooms—the Nightless City was big enough to host hundreds, after all.
Wen Chao’s amusement was almost palpable. “Is there something you want to say, Jiang Wanyin?” he asked unpleasantly. His eyes didn’t leave Wei Wuxian’s. “Do you perhaps find your accommodations unsatisfactory?”
Wei Wuxian near felt Jiang Cheng’s anger through the air; his scent seemed to crackle in his nostrils, to burn down his throat and lungs. Jiang Cheng hissed, “You—”
“Young master Wen,” Jiang Yanli interrupted.
All eyes turned to her.
Yanli had always been a shy person, not at all prone to confrontation, although brave in her own right; she bowed now, the arc of her shoulders almost painting-perfect, as she addressed Wen Chao. “May I ask where Wei Wuxian will reside during his stay here?” she asked. “I’m sure you can understand our clan’s worry.”
Wen Chao snorted rudely. “You and your brother go where you belong,” he said, saving a hand dismissively. “Wei Wuxian will of course reside in the City’s kunze house.”
“I will not,” Wei Wuxian retorted hotly.
Wen Chao’s eyes shifted to the right—toward Wen Zhuliu’s imposing figure. Even the off-white of his robes seemed to bleed black in the coming darkness.
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli murmured worriedly. “Please.”
Wei Wuxian’s fists clenched even tighter. His nails bit into his palms almost strongly enough to draw blood.
She didn’t know, he tried to reason himself despite the anger and betrayal now aching in his throat. Jiang Yanli had no idea, and neither did Jiang Cheng, of how much he hated the Lotus Pier’s kunze house. Neither of them knew the pain that his days of fever brought. Neither of them could understand the sheer terror that the sight of the house dragged up in him—the constant, haunting knowledge that had Jiang Fengmian not made the choices he did, Wei Wuxian would have grown up knowing nothing but the inside of that derelict place.
Neither of them could understand how much he feared being locked up after learning how to fly.
He saw in Jiang Yanli’s face that her plea was only out of worry, and he saw in Jiang Cheng only anger, and that this anger was not directed at him but at the despicable man standing before them all. The pretty woman who had clung to him during the speeches had joined them, her whole body plastered against Wen Chao’s side, her zhongyong-scent filling Wei Wuxian’s nose with mildew.
“You two go ahead,” he said. He didn’t know by which miracle he managed to smile, but the relief on Jiang Yanli’s face was worth the lie. “Go on, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It was Jiang Cheng’s turn to speak. “You must let me accompany—”
“I don’t need watching over,” Wei Wuxian cut him off.
Jiang Cheng looked at him in both anger and surprise. Before he could say anything, Wen Chao laughed.
“As if I would let an outsider know where our kunze are kept,” he mocked. “Out of my sight now. You’ll need your rest come morning, Jiang Wanyin.”
It took a moment for him to comply. Wei Wuxian saw irritation and worry war over Jiang Cheng’s face in a very different way than they did whenever Wei Wuxian pulled pranks. In the end, he took hold of his sister’s shoulder and dragged her back toward where the two groups of disciples waited.
Jiang Yanli joined the zhongyong group with timid steps. A Qinghenie man Wei Wuxian faintly remembered meeting over the years—a friend she had made during her understudies in Gusu and who sometimes visited her in Yunmeng—immediately approached her to talk.
Jiang Cheng was not welcomed so warmly among the qianyuan group, but that was probably due to how furious he looked. Su She stepped away from him as he took place among them and knocked into Lan Wangji; Wei Wuxian looked at the Lan heir and found, to his surprise, that the heir was looking back.
Lan Wangji stared at him fixedly for a second longer, his gaze as impenetrable as ever. Then he turned away before Wei Wuxian had the time to salute.
Wei Wuxian remembered the words that Lan Wangji had spoken to him the last time they met: “Don’t bow.”
His anger abated somewhat.
“You follow my Jiaojiao now, Wei Ying,” Wen Chao crooned, dragging Wei Wuxian out of his stupor. “She’ll show you the way.”
“Even you have some manners, then,” Wei Wuxian said, turning his back to the other disciples. “That is a surprise.”
Wen Chao’s grin vanished at last.
“I heard your clan leaders rejected my proposal,” he said.
“They did,” Wei Wuxian replied with a sneer of his own. The thought of marrying Wen Chao seemed even more unpleasant than that of marrying Jin Zixun.
“Yet they sent you here anyway, all by your lonesome? Who is the one without manners?”
Wei Wuxian gritted his teeth. He wished more than anything to have Suibian within grasp and feel the weight of its scabbard at his hip, or to at least hold a bow and arrows like all those months ago. There was nothing he wouldn’t give to shoot precariously close to Wen Chao’s haughty face once more.
He straightened his back and replied, “Your father asked that all senior disciples come. I am the senior disciple of Yunmengjiang. That’s all there is to it.”
“We’ll see,” Wen Chao spat back.
He walked away in a cloud of white dust, firelight making his hair shine like bronze and turning the red suns on his clothes blood-like.
“Come, come, Wei Ying,” the Jiaojiao woman said. Wei Wuxian noticed that another zhongyong was with them—a boy a little younger than he, probably a servant. He bore with him a lukewarm and watery scent. “I need to bring you to your quarters.”
Her way of speaking belied the jewels and silks wound all over her. She was probably a mistress and not Wen Chao’s wife; as far as Wei Wuxian knew, Wen Chao and Wen Xu had only married kunze apart from their main spouses.
He bowed in a parody of politeness and replied, “After you, my lady Jiaojiao.”
Her smile turned into an ugly frown. For a second she looked like she wanted to hit him, but no doubt her need to look mannered held her back, for she yelled at the zhongyong boy instead: “Hurry up now!”
The boy yelped and led them forward.
They climbed the steps to the wide gates in silence. Wei Wuxian remembered too clearly in what circumstances he had ascended them last—with his bow around his shoulders and dust marring his tired face, and the knowledge of having bested all of his competitors. He did not feel so victorious now.
Although it was his first time walking through the gates, he saw very little of the mansion behind. Jiaojiao and the zhongyong boy led him through several garden paths around the house, then to a small pond, then further along toward the side of the mountain. He saw emerge from the darkness the flicker of a flame; the silhouette of a shack not unlike the one in Yunmeng; the two zhongyong guards outside of it whose faces looked very tired.
“Open the door,” Jiaojiao ordered.
The two guards jumped. At first they stared at her without understanding, but then their eyes went to Wei Wuxian by her side, and their noses must have picked up the scent of him. They nodded in acknowledgment.
The door opened. The smoke from the lanterns, the smell of oil and burning wood, had masked it at first; but now Wei Wuxian smelled it.
Sweet, warm, almost heady. A flower of some kind, born through rocky desert soil and so much sweeter for it. Young liquor, too acidic but still soft on the tongue. Berries.
He moved forward with something heavy in his chest—a half-forgotten memory, apples, a laugh, a hand in his as he was put on the shoulders of a man who seemed so, so tall to him. But he had barely stepped into the house when the door closed loudly behind him and tore apart the dream, and when Wei Wuxian turned around, the sound of a key turning inside its lock could already be heard.
He still tried futilely to open the door. He still banged upon the wood and yelled, “What’s the meaning of this!”
“Did you really think that master Wen would let you out with the others?” came Jiaojiao’s answering shriek. Wei Wuxian moved to the tiny window by the side of the door to try and look through it, but it was in vain: someone had hammered wood all over it. “Did you really think you could be a cultivator, Wei Wuxian?”
“I am a cultivator!” he snapped back, hitting the wall for good measure. “Unlock the door! The letter said nothing—”
“The letter said my master would train every disciple in the way that your sects failed to,” Jiaojiao laughed at him. “Including you, kunze! You’ll stay in here until my master deems you ready to be sent back.”
It was useless; he could hear her walk away already, laughing boisterously through the night. Whoever was posted outside to guard the house obviously had no intention of listening to him either. Wei Wuxian hit the wall another time. His knuckles ached fiercely at the blow, but he ignored it.
He let himself fall to the floor and rubbed furious hands through his hair.
He should have seen it coming. He who had become so wary of unexpected situations since Jin Zixun’s coming to the Lotus Pier, who had taken to avoiding Yu Ziyuan as ostentatiously as she did him, who kept his sword by his side always… Now he was unarmed and alone and with seemingly no way out. He did not expect that there would be any other exit to the house, or any window he could jump out of.
His gaze lingered over the inside of the house thoughtlessly. It looked nothing like the abandoned shack of the Pier; candles lit up the place and diffused another layer of sweetness, making every breath almost nauseating. There were tables and chairs layered with thick cushions, elegant drapes framing the barred windows, trinkets of all sorts lying around. Weren’t it so dark and locked, the place could almost be called homely. Wei Wuxian looked away from a cream-colored cape hanging from one of the chairs and met a pair of bright eyes.
There was a child hidden underneath the desk.
He blinked. The child blinked back.
“Hello,” he said.
The child gasped, and then put both hands over her mouth. Despite the hopelessness of his own situation, Wei Wuxian chuckled at the sight. Another noise came from the only other door of the room; someone murmured, “A-Ying!” pressingly, making Wei Wuxian jump at the too-familiar name, and then the door opened and a young girl came rushing.
She gasped at the sight of him. She quickly looked around the room before locating the child and then bent down, her silk clothes flowing about her as if moved by wind. She pulled the little girl out from under the desk.
Wei Wuxian had no time to talk to her at all. With the child held in her arms and without another look behind, she rushed into the other room and closed the door.
Only the smell of wine lingered behind her.
Wei Wuxian found himself with no idea what to do. It wasn’t hard to guess that she and the child must live here—he hadn’t caught the child’s specific scent through the heady fumes of the candles, but hers was distinctive enough to mark her as kunze even if he had not seen how pretty she was. Though he had thought half-baked thoughts for months now of meeting another of his kind, he knew not how to proceed now.
He had never been one for inaction, however. Wei Wuxian pushed himself to his feet once more, dusting dirt off of his pants and boots, and made his way to the door on the opposite side of the room.
He knocked. There came the sound of something falling, then a muffled voice, too childish to belong to the girl he had just seen, before some said, “Shush!”
Silence hovered in the air. Wei Wuxian knocked again. “I’m sorry to intrude,” he said with an odd itch in his chest. “It looks like I’ll be living here for a while. I promise I’m not dangerous.”
Well, he amended silently. Not very much.
There was no response. Wei Wuxian looked again around the small room; there was ink on the desk, and a brush, and a childish drawing of a bird next to another hand’s careful calligraphy. “Who drew the bird?” he asked. “It looks very life-like. You’re a very good artist.”
An excited cry came from the other side of the door.
It seemed the girl wasn’t able to restrain her protégée anymore. Someone shook the handle and then pulled it open widely. It was the child from before, looking at him with bright eyes, her hair in disarray.
“You’re kunze!” she said loudly.
Behind her the older girl stood, and half-hidden in her clothes was another child, not much older than the first. A boy. He was the one who smelled of fruit. The older girl was staring at him with fear shaking in her hands.
“I am,” Wei Wuxian said a little hesitantly. He was replying to the child but looking at the girl—she must be only a few years younger than he was. Perhaps thirteen or fourteen. “My name is Wei Wuxian. I won’t stay long, I promise.”
It didn’t seem to matter to the child how long he planned to stay; as soon as he confirmed his status, she threw herself at him.
Wei Wuxian found himself in the very unprecedented situation of having someone hug him. Even though the child’s full height only brought her head to his hip, his heart gave an awkward leap.
“A-Ying!” the older girl called, making both Wei Wuxian and the child look at her.
“He smells like honey!” the child told her, her hands still linked tightly around his waist. “Linfeng-jie, he smells very good!”
“Did you draw the bird?” Wei Wuxian asked faintly.
He both wanted to put a stop to the embrace and to never let go. There was something caught in his chest, something warm and painful, that he had no way of deciphering. His hands stayed lax by his sides.
The child smiled at him with all of her very white teeth. “I did,” she giggled. “Is it very life-like?”
“I’ve never seen a better bird.”
“He’s lying,” the boy hiding behind the older girl said. As soon as Wei Wuxian looked at him, he hid even further. “A-Ying is very bad at drawing,” came his muffled voice.
“A-Qian is just jealous that I saw that bird and not him,” A-Ying declared proudly.
“Why are you here?” Linfeng asked, cutting through the children’s bickering. She was talking to Wei Wuxian as if every word cost her; her hands shook still, he noticed, although by now she must have smelled the truth of his status as well. “Are you a Wen kunze?”
“Wen Linfeng, was it?” Wei Wuxian asked.
The girl jerked backward and bit her lips. As soon as she noticed, she stopped, shame flooding her face red.
He bowed to her as he had been taught to. “I’m a cultivator of the Jiang sect,” he told her. “My shidi, shijie and I were summoned to the Nightless City to be trained by Wen Chao, but it seems I fell into a trap. I will leave as soon as I find a way out of the house, I promise.”
Although Wen Linfeng’s face shone with relief, then incredulity, she had no time to reply. “Don’t go!” A-Ying cried at him. Her hold on him tightened almost to the point of pain. “Please, please don’t go, they never come back when they leave—”
“A-Ying,” Wen Linfeng hissed, “mind your manners.”
It was as though something had changed in the little girl entirely; she dropped her arms and stepped back, bowing in a perfect arc despite her tearful face.
It was enough to make Wei Wuxian’s head dizzy.
“There’s no way out of the house,” Wen Linfeng said curtly. “Dinner has already been served, so no one will be back until morning either.”
Behind her back, the two children exchanged a quick glance.
“I have to go,” Wei Wuxian said. “I don’t belong here.”
Wen Linfeng frowned at him. “Why are you here if you are of the Jiang sect?” she asked. “Don’t they have a house of their own?”
“They do. I’ve just never lived in it.”
All three children looked at him with their mouths open.
“But where did you live?” the boy, A-Qian, asked.
And suddenly, despite how dearly he had wished for such a moment to come, Wei Wuxian did not want to say what he had prepared to say or ask what he wanted to know.
He was tired from the journey. Although A-Ying had said he smelled good, Wei Wuxian had no way of knowing his own scent except for the sweat and rain that had drenched him on his way to Qishan. He wanted nothing more than to make use of any basin or bucket full of water to clean himself—nothing more than to drop onto the thick pillows of the couch and sleep the whole night round.
They were only children. Wei Wuxian had always wondered how one could tell the maturity of a kunze from scent alone, but now that he had Wen Linfeng in from of him, he knew just how young she was. Some part of him simply knew that she would not always smell as she did now. All of them were too young for the questions he wanted to ask and the words he wanted to say.
Perhaps Wen Linfeng sensed his fatigue. “I’m Wen Linfeng,” she said, bowing more properly to him than he would manage in a lifetime of trying. “And these are Wen Yiqian and Wen Yueying.”
Wen Yiqian bowed to him too. Wen Yueying, having already bowed, only grinned at him again.
Wen Linfeng showed him around the house after that. It was in fact bigger than the one in Yunmeng, though not by much. Aside from the room with the only door that led outside, there was a bedroom and a washing room. Wen Linfeng explained to him that water came in from a spring outside and that twice a day, servants from the Nightless City brought their meals.
It was every bit the nightmare that Wei Wuxian had envisioned since his first fever: a closed house, a fully hermetic place, suffocating him day after day while the world shone outside, forever out of his reach. Yet Wen Linfeng seemed not to notice anything strange in what she was saying. She seemed not to see the harm that was done to her.
She had only ever known this house.
Wei Wuxian watched her tuck in the two younger children side by side in the wide bed. There was room still for herself. He watched her pick up Wen Yueying’s odd drawing after making sure it was dry, and gather the toys that the other two must have played with and put them inside a finely-carved chest.
Perhaps, he thought, she had reason not to despise her life so much.
And yet Wei Wuxian understood why Wen Yueying had clinged to him so tightly earlier despite having just met him.
“I thought the Wen clan had no kunze of its own,” he told Wen Linfeng as she served him tea.
“We do not come from the main clan,” she explained to him. “A-Qian and A-Ying weren’t called Wen before being brought here. We are children of distant parents by marriage… but sect leader Wen prefers to have us take his name and live here than too far from the City.”
“So we can carry our duty,” she said, surprised. “Once I am mature I will be wed. I will make my clan proud and produce many heirs for my qianyuan.”
Wei Wuxian’s chest ached. “Why?” he asked again.
Wen Linfeng’s face colored with either shame or anger. It was impossible to tell. “You ask such strange questions, Wei Wuxian,” she accused. “Who raised you to be so ignorant? I’ve never seen a kunze like you.”
Wei Wuxian had never seen a kunze like her either.
Her name must not have been Wen when she was born, just like A-Qian, just like A-Ying. She must’ve had parents before Wen Ruohan decided to lock her up in a house upholstered with silk.
“I think I’ll call you Fengfeng,” he told her.
Wen Linfeng swallowed her next sip of tea the wrong way. “You most certainly will not!” she said to him in as high a voice as he had ever heard from her, coughing this way and that until she could breathe again. “Wei Wuxian—!”
“I’m your senior, aren’t I?”
“That is no reason—I barely know you!”
Flushed and lost in her words, her composure slipping every which way, she looked exactly how a child of fourteen should. She did not yell at him any more, but she pouted. She turned her head aside to avoid the sight of him and crossed her arms over her chest.
She reminded him of Jiang Cheng at the same age, and the thought made him smile.
Wei Wuxian found sleep that night much more easily than he would have thought. He washed himself in the cramped room where a wide tub full of cold water was kept, making sure to scrub all the day’s dust away. He lay on the too-soft couch of the first room, looking through cracks in the wooded windows for a hint of starlight.
He dreamed of nothing at all.
In the morning, he woke to the feeling of being closely watched.
His heart hurried, his fingers clenched. He slid one hand upward under the blanket spread over him in search of Suibian’s handle; then he breathed, and the scent of sweet flowers filled his nose, and he remembered.
Wen Yueying’s eyes were even brighter from up close. Wei Wuxian blinked slowly at her; she put a hand over her mouth to muffle her giggles.
“Hello,” he rasped.
She had to wait a moment and regain her calm before answering, “Hello.”
With a groan, he rose to a sitting position.
No candles burned inside the house now. Though the planks blocking the windows were thick, there were enough interstices in-between them for daylight to peer in and bathe the room with its glow. In that penumbra, morning felt even earlier; Wei Wuxian did not think he had been up so soon in years.
“Where’s A-Qian and Fengfeng?” he whispered to Wen Yueying.
She laughed again at his nickname for Wen Linfeng. “Asleep,” she replied in kind. Then she put her index over her lips and tugged harshly on his hand so he would follow her.
There were not many ways to go inside such a small house, so he was not surprised when she led him to the bedroom. Wen Yiqian and Wen Linfeng were indeed still asleep on the bed, cuddled next to each other for warmth.
Wen Yueying pulled him along again; he followed her into the bathroom.
“There is a way out,” she said then, kneeling near the tub. The water in it was murky now from Wei Wuxian’s bath the night before, but he paid no attention to it at all.
“Yes, yes, come look.”
He crouched next to her. Her small hands were roaming over the wall, patting here and there with more or less strength. Wei Wuxian wondered for a fleeting second if she had been serious or if this was a game that she wanted to play with him.
He needn’t have worried; soon the sound of wood shifting reached him, and light broke out of where a piece of wall had once stood. Wen Yueying immediately crawled through the hole, calling after herself, “Come along, quick!”
It was a tight fit. Children like her or Wen Yiqian would have no trouble slithering out of such an opening, and perhaps Wen Linfeng was thin enough for the feat to be easy, but Wei Wuxian was much taller and broader than any of them. It took more than a minute before his feet finally came out of the opening.
Fresh, cold air washed over his face. He didn’t think he had ever appreciated it so much in his life.
Wen Yueying sat close to the wall, inhaling deeply too, her eyes closed to appreciate the caress of wind on her face. “Me and A-Qian come here to look at the birds,” she told him. “But we can’t stay long or the guards will smell us.”
He nodded gravely to her. “I’ll keep your secret,” he promised. “Thank you for showing me.”
“You’ll come back, right?”
He had been in the middle of rising to his feet, but her question stopped him. Despite her smile, there was an air of desperation to her young face.
“Everyone who leaves never comes back,” she said. “They always say they will come back and say hi, but they never do.”
“Where do they go?” Wei Wuxian asked, though he knew the answer.
Wen Yueying brought her knees close to her chest. “They get married,” she replied.
There was no mistaking the fear in her voice.
Wei Wuxian sat back onto the dirt. He hesitated; but remembering how gladly she had held him the night before—how delighted she had been at learning that he was kunze—he let his arm circle her frail shoulders. She immediately cuddled closer to him. Once again, his heart stumbled.
“I’m not getting married,” he told her. “Never.”
“Don’t you have to?” she asked, looking up at him.
“If someone tries to make me, I’ll punch them.”
She laughed into his shoulder.
It was still rather early. The clear sky overhead was one of pre-dawn; luminous without the glare of sunlight, even in the middle of winter. Wei Wuxian knew he would have to hurry if he wanted to find Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli and join them in training, but he was loath, suddenly, to leave his spot on the ground.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said.
The effect was immediate. “What secret?” Wen Yueying exclaimed.
She really was so like himself. Wei Wuxian placed a finger on his lips to remind her to whisper and said, “We have the same name.”
“But I thought your name was Wei Wuxian!”
“That’s my courtesy name,” he told her, grinning. “My birth name is Wei Ying. My sect leader used to call me A-Ying, just like you.”
Wei Wuxian had never cared one way or the other about his birth name—it was a name like any other to him, often said without much respect. Jiang Cheng had never called him by it despite Wei Wuxian’s insistence on using his. Jiang Yanli and Jiang Fengmian had both called him A-Xian since his courtesy name was given to him. He could not think of one person who called him Wei Ying and did not mean to be discourteous.
Except for Lan Wangji.
But Wen Yueying said, “A-Ying,” with wonder in her eyes, and suddenly Wei Wuxian did not care at all that Yu Ziyuan used to say his name as one spat out bile.
“That’s my secret,” he told her, though it wasn’t truly. “I promise I’ll be back.”
A-Ying stared at him without a doubt in her eyes.
Wen Chao’s face upon seeing Wei Wuxian arrive at the field where both encampments had met was a thing to remember.
“You,” he breathed, staring with such wide eyes that they looked ready to pop out of their sockets. “You—”
“What are you going to do, master Wen?” Wei Wuxian asked, gently elbowing Jiang Cheng to inform him of his presence. Jiang Cheng immediately turned around, his face torn between smiling and frowning. “Grab me and drag me back yourself?”
Now all eyes were on them. Wen Chao’s face turned purple with anger—to be accused of enough impropriety to physically harm an omega must be hard to live down in the presence of so many. “Don’t drag us down!” he spat at last, turning on his heels and walking away almost grotesquely.
The Jiaojiao woman from the previous night welcomed him with more simpers. He seemed to suffer her embrace more bitterly than before.
“How was your night?” Jiang Cheng asked as they walked, still unarmed, toward whichever monster or spirit Wen Chao would have them all fight for him. “I’m not going to survive weeks of this. My back is killing me.”
“Be grateful you aren’t meant to sleep near Nie Huaisang, A-Cheng,” said Jiang Yanli. She had joined them after Wen Chao had walked away. “He complains so much about every little thing.”
“We should have you compete with him, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said.
“If I had Sandu with me…”
“How was your night, A-Xian?” Jiang Yanli asked as they broke their fast near the edge of dry pine woods an hour later.
Wei Wuxian could hear all the guilt in her without her needing to apologize. He remembered how betrayed he had felt the night before as she insisted on him going to the kunze house; those feelings seemed harder to muster up now that he had seen the house and met its inhabitants.
Warmth had followed him since leaving the kunze house and despite the biting cold. Snow crunched under their feet as they struggled along forest paths, but Wei Wuxian didn’t shiver. He still had at the corners of his lips the smiles he had given Wen Yueying.
“It was educating,” he said.
Jiang Yanli, confused, asked no more questions.