and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Wei Wuxian woke up at home.
He woke up peacefully, bit by bit, cold winter sun bathing his face out of some uncovered window. The smell of incense filled his nose and made his eyelashes brush open. Though awareness came to him of his own body’s weakness, greater than he had experienced from any previous heat, he felt very little fear. It seemed to him that he had fallen asleep less lonely; that someone must have watched over him and kept him from harm.
He smelled something familiar. Tilled earth, damp forest grounds. The aftermath of a storm. “Uncle Jiang,” he breathed with no voice at all.
There came the sound of soft steps on a wooden floor, of fabric shuffling through the air. Jiang Fengmian sat by the edge of his bed and replied, “A-Xian, how do you feel?”
Wei Wuxian opened his eyes.
He was indeed home. He saw before even meeting his sect leader’s eyes the old drawings he had hung from the wall when he was just a child—him and Jiang Cheng and his shijie, playing and holding hands, the three of them keeping an awkward-looking dog at bay with swords too big for their tiny hands. He smiled faintly.
“Drink first,” Jiang Fengmian said.
His hands were not hesitant when he helped Wei Wuxian sit. Wei Wuxian allowed the touch, still dazed, and took with shaking fingers the cup of warm tea that was offered to him. It soothed his throat and quieted his empty stomach. He wondered if Jiang Fengmian had waited long by his side, keeping the tea hot with bursts of spiritual energy.
“Why am I here?” he asked, setting the cup back on the cabinet by the bed.
He knew that Jiang Cheng must have found a way to free him from the cave and bring him back to the Lotus Pier. He just couldn’t understand why he was here, in his bedroom, instead of waiting out the fever in the kunze house. His body told him that there were still a few hours to go till he was completely free of it.
Jiang Fengmian must have understood his meaning. “You were very ill,” he answered. “I thought it best to have you recuperate here.”
Wei Wuxian looked at his hands. The scrapes on his palms and fingers had scabbed and did not hurt at all, even if the burn on his chest ached distantly. “Won’t Madam Yu be unhappy?” he asked at last.
Jiang Fengmian sighed. “Don’t worry about this,” he replied, pressing a wide hand over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “She made an exception.”
Wei Wuxian very much doubted it.
Jiang Fengmian called for food to be brought over. Wei Wuxian settled more comfortably against his pillows, fists clenching weakly in the sheets, bothered by his own lack of strength. His mind felt as muddled now as it had upon waking up. He felt that he was forgetting something—something very important.
It came back to him as a maid came into the room, her face red with disgust at Wei Wuxian’s state, holding a steaming bowl of soup over a platter. White cloth marred with blood and dirt, bleeding hands strumming bowstrings into music, the scent of sandalwood over the stench of death. A soft voice singing to him.
Wei Wuxian suddenly lunged from his bed and said in a panic, “Lan Zhan!”
The maid yelped in surprise. Jiang Fengmian caught Wei Wuxian as he struggled out of the sheets, pushing him back and quickly ordering the woman to leave. “A-Xian, calm down—”
“Uncle, Lan Zhan was hurt—is he okay? Is he here?” And then, with more horror: “What about shijie’s arm?”
He hissed in pain as the wound on his chest flared with the movement, cutting off his air. Jiang Fengmian lowered him back onto the sheets as he struggled to breathe, saying, “They’re fine. A-Li’s arm is on the mend, and young master Lan was brought back to the Cloud Recesses by A-Cheng. They’re both fine, A-Xian.”
Wei Wuxian took in a deep inhale. His fingers clutched the fabric of his clothes over his now-bandaged wound. “He didn’t even want me to help with his injuries,” he muttered. Then he laughed, “He killed that monster all by himself! The Jade of Lan truly deserves his title.”
“That is odd,” Jiang Fengmian replied. “Lan Wangji told A-Cheng that you were the one who killed it.”
“What? Of course I didn’t.” Seeing Jiang Fengmian’s disbelief on his face, Wei Wuxian insisted, “I’m not lying. I only lured the beast into a trap, but Lan Zhan was the one who fought it for hours until it died. I barely did anything.”
“It was a joint effort, then. You should not give him full credit.”
Wei Wuxian waved a hand dismissively. “You weren’t there, uncle. If you were, you’d think differently.”
“Of course,” Jiang Fengmian said placatingly. “Now eat. Your body is very weak.”
The broth was mostly flavorless so as not to upset Wei Wuxian’s stomach, but it was warm. It was more food than he had eaten in over a week. He had to pace himself, to force himself not to swallow all of it, while by his side Jiang Fengmian cut fruit into slices. The man’s expression had grown thoughtful.
“A-Xian,” he asked once Wei Wuxian had emptied the bowl. “What do you think of Lan Wangji?”
Wei Wuxian remembered suddenly in what circumstances Jiang Cheng must have found them. He pushed away from the backing of his pillows and said, “Uncle, it wasn’t his fault. If I’d kept taking the tea Madam Yu gave me—”
“Tea?” Jiang Fengmian cut in, frowning.
Wei Wuxian hesitated.
He had thought that Yu Ziyuan must not have told her husband of the moonless tea. She had given it to him in something like secrecy, accepting to touch him even, just so that she could make sure no one could see what it was she was handing him before he left. He could not lie to Jiang Fengmian, however.
“Madam Yu gave me a tea for stopping fevers before we left,” he explained, chest tight. “I kept it with me always. But the water in that cave was poisoned, so I couldn’t take it. I tried to chew on it, but it didn’t work.” He raised his head and added, “Lan Zhan did nothing wrong. I know the circumstances were completely improper, but if you must blame someone, please blame me. He had nowhere to go either.”
Jiang Fengmian looked at him for a long moment without speaking.
“I don’t believe Lan Wangji took advantage of the situation,” he said at last. Wei Wuxian’s shoulders relaxed all at once, the burn over his chest almost a relief in contrast. “He swore he would not tell anyone, and I believe him. But that is not what I asked.”
It was Wei Wuxian’s turn to be confused.
Jiang Fengmian gave a brief smile. “What do you think of him?” he asked again. “You spent almost a week in that cave with him. How is your relationship with him?”
“I don’t think we have much of a relationship,” Wei Wuxian replied. “He disliked me when we met in Gusu years ago. I suppose his feelings didn’t change with what I put him through.”
Jiang Fengmian spent another moment in silence, his fingers rubbing the length of what looked like a jade hairpin. It seemed to have broken in half. “I want you to have a good life, A-Xian,” he said then. “Perhaps I could have done more for you over the years. Perhaps I made some mistakes, but I can’t regret them, even knowing how much they cost you.”
“Uncle,” Wei Wuxian started.
A raised hand silenced him. “That mess with Jin Zixun made me realize that I might have robbed you of more than I thought in my selfishness,” Jiang Fengmian said.
“No,” Wei Wuxian replied. “No, you didn’t. I didn’t want to marry him—I don’t want to marry anyone.”
“But what if you change your mind?”
I won’t, Wei Wuxian thought.
He had spent too many nights haunted by the thought. He had spent too many days in the Wen kunze house, watching Wen Linfeng crush herself down under the expectations put upon her, watching Wen Yiqian and Wen Yueying cling desperately to childhood. He had watched Jin Zixun look through him rather than at him; he still remembered, with a frisson of fear, Wen Chao creeping close to him and saying, I wonder how sweet you smell during heat.
“A-Xian,” Jiang Fengmian said, and Wei Wuxian snapped out of his thoughts. His throat was dry. “For as long as I live, I promise you will never be forced to marry.”
Wei Wuxian nodded silently. His chest was too clogged with relief to allow him to speak.
“But I am your clan leader. You are my…” Jiang Fengmian hesitated, looking over his shoulder quickly. “I care about you,” he settled on at last. “I care about your happiness. It could be safer for you to marry someone willing to understand you, even without love, than to risk the alternative.”
“I’ve not met anyone like this,” Wei Wuxian laughed, joyless.
“What about Lan Wangji?”
Wei Wuxian was so surprised that for a long while, he could not answer. “Lan Wangji is very rule-abiding,” he said at last. “He could never stand to marry someone like me, especially… especially not now.”
Speaking of Lan Wangji in such terms felt so wrong. Blood rushed to Wei Wuxian’s face like it almost never did—he had never thought of anyone, and especially not Lan Wangji, in that light. No matter how beautiful and talented the Lan heir was.
Lan Wangji hated to even touch him. How could he possibly marry Wei Wuxian? They had barely spoken in that cave. Wei Wuxian had no doubt insulted him more than ever before by falling into fever in front of him, even more than when he had watched him bathe all those years ago. He would be lucky if Lan Wangji ever accepted to be in his presence again.
The thought saddened him.
“Never mind, then,” Jiang Fengmian said. Wei Wuxian had almost forgotten what it was that the man had asked. He blushed more as he remembered. His hands itched for the handle of his sword or the tense string of a bow, any way to externalize the odd energy now running through him. “I did not intend to make you anxious. Forgive me.”
He rose from his chair; Wei Wuxian immediately bowed as properly as he could while still sitting upon the bed. Jiang Fengmian patted his shoulder once, and Wei Wuxian accepted it with guilt weighing down on him.
“I’ll leave you alone now,” Jiang Fengmian declared. “A-Cheng and A-Li will surely visit you as soon as your fever is gone.”
“That’s good,” Wei Wuxian replied emptily.
He didn’t dare ask why Jiang Fengmian had visited him before that.
Soon enough, he was alone in the bedroom. At this stage of heat, all that remained was the eponymous fever and some soreness in his back. Wei Wuxian lay still over his bed, trying his best not to toss and turn, else his chest wound burned fiercely. He touched it often, tracing the swelling under the bandages with the tip of his finger. He had yet to actually look at it.
Why bother; he knew what he would find. Seeing Qishanwen’s sun branded onto his skin would only worsen his mood.
The rest of the day abated like this. Slow and uneventful. Sometimes Wei Wuxian heard noises from outside his door, no doubt servants going from one place to the next, or cries from the window of an apprentice or two training by the water. He wished he could join them. He wished he had his sword; the thought of Suibian in Wen Chao’s clutch, so far away in Qishan, made him queasy.
He thought of the three Wen kunze he had left there.
He thought of Lan Wangji’s ashen face as he realized that Wei Wuxian was in heat.
He closed his eyes and willed his shame away.
Wei Wuxian spent one more day confined to his room before deciding that he had enough of lying around and doing nothing. He left for the training grounds despite Jiang Yanli’s urging—and it was hard to look at her as well, to know that the arm she kept cradled to her chest was broken because of him—and shot with bow and arrow till his numb fingers stopped aching. He bruised his knuckles, splitting target after target, Jiang Cheng standing silent by his side. They spoke very little.
There were swords aplenty at the Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian took a spare one out of storage and trained as fiercely with it as he could. It felt off, different, lacking compared to Suibian. It held no spirit. It couldn’t make him fly. No need to ask Jiang Cheng what he thought of his, either; each sparring session had him looking at the sword in his hands in frustration. No doubt he wished for Sandu as much as Wei Wuxian did Suibian.
Day after day, Wei Wuxian sat at the edge of the Pier and looked into the horizon. Though sunlight was more frequent now, the weather was still cold. Jiang Yanli often sat by him in worry, but he had not the heart to tell her what it was he was waiting for.
He just couldn’t chase off the apprehension that kept him awake at night.
It became obvious within a few days that Jiang Cheng was holding thoughts to himself as well. He acted as normally as possible in his sister’s presence, but whenever he found himself alone with Wei Wuxian, he became morose. His words came sparsely. He sparred in silence, frowning, avoiding Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
It would take heartbreak and argument to make him open up—What about me? What about sister? We trekked for days without food and water, but did father acknowledge us?
Jealousy and guilt all mixed into the ugliest of fears, the antonym of sympathy. Wei Wuxian had known for a long time how much Jiang Cheng envied him, how ashamed he was of envying him. He had always tried his best to uplift the one he considered a brother; he had always tried not to overstep his freedom in this.
He still wanted to reply to him: Do you envy this?
He burned to show him the lonely little shack, the tea he drank every morning, the memory of three children trapped in a silk prison. Soft clothes on his body as he was sold to a man twice his age. Nightmares of nameless hands touching him as he tried to run away. Qianyuan-scent choking him, freezing him more thoroughly than snow and iced mud did—I wonder how sweet you smell during heat.
Do you envy this, Jiang Cheng?
“One day you’ll be sect leader, and I’ll follow you,” Wei Wuxian told Jiang Cheng, one hand over his shoulder and the other clenched by his side. “Just like my father and yours. And if anyone says you’re not fit to be heir, I’ll beat them up!”
Jiang Cheng’s smile in that moment was such a fragile thing. Wei Wuxian had glimpsed in that cave the man he would become; he saw now the child he had always been, the one who chased Wei Wuxian around and basked in his attention, the one who felt such pride at keeping dogs away from him, at scowling at those who stared and whispered.
“Gusulan has its Jade; well, Yunmengjiang has its hero.”
Not even Jiang Cheng could afford to envy a kunze. Wei Wuxian could not allow him to. No matter how he felt about it.
Jiang Cheng started speaking to him again. Jiang Yanli’s worry abated. They laughed in those suspended days of peace despite the ache of what had happened and the fear of what was to come; they trained, fooled around, rested. They warmed themselves in the sunlight. They waited for the other shoe to drop.
Yu Ziyuan lived in a pavilion at the far end of the Lotus Pier. It stood so close to shore that oftentimes water would spill against the walls and wash away their paint. She never ordered them to be fixed; she seemed to like the sight of red bleeding into pink and then bright, pure white. Hers was a place Wei Wuxian had always avoided as he grew. There was no way to know beforehand if she would simply ignore him or take time out of her day to insult him when their paths crossed.
He could not avoid it now.
He hesitated in front of the doors for a long time. The wooden path linking her home to the rest of the manor was empty. He knew that at this hour, she must be meditating. Although it may not be the ideal time to interrupt her, it was better to do it then, away from servants’ eyes, than in full sight. At least if she grew angry, he would be the only one to know.
His arm felt very heavy when he raised it to knock on the door. He snatched it back almost immediately, almost afraid to feel wood burn at his contact, so strong was Madam Yu’s dislike of him. The wood did not singe his hand, however. A moment later, a maid opened the way and allowed him inside.
It was Wei Wuxian’s first time entering Yu Ziyuan’s quarters. The maid did not offer him a seat in the parlor where she left him, and he did not take one. He didn’t think he would be able to sit still anyway. Instead he looked at the ink paintings decorating the walls and the ancestral weapons laid onto dark cushions all around.
One sword caught his attention more than the rest. He approached it without much thought, feeling for it the way he used to feel for Suibian—the way he failed to feel for the sword he was using now. To his surprise, the sword called back to him. Wei Wuxian blinked as he examined it. It was a rough thing, ugly compared with the fine blades and bows around it. Its wooden pommel bore neither gold nor silver, no gemstones or fine carvings.
Its sharp blade gleamed softly. A bird-like shape was engraved on it where wood met metal. Wei Wuxian extended a hand forward with the vague intent to trace it with his fingers.
“What are you doing here?”
He took his hand back. Yu Ziyuan stood in the frame of a door that must lead to her chambers, the same maid as before following behind her.
Wei Wuxian bowed to her. “Madam Yu,” he said, “I apologize for taking time out of your day. I have something I need to ask you.”
She did not answer. When Wei Wuxian straightened up, he saw that she was looking at the sword he had almost touched.
She murmured, “Leave us,” to the maid, before making her way toward the wide couch at the other side of the room. Once more, Wei Wuxian was left standing, but it was nothing he hadn’t expected. “Speak, then,” Madam Yu said, and Wei Wuxian put a hand inside his belt.
He took out of it the pouch she had given him before he left for the Nightless City. At the sight of it, Madam Yu’s face grew somber.
“Don’t just show this around carelessly,” she snapped at him.
“So you do know what it is,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“Of course I know what it is. Would I have given it to you otherwise? Foolish child.”
He hid the pouch again. All the words he had come here prepared to say refused to come out of his mouth; he stared at his clan leader instead, hoping without reason that she would give him anything to go on.
She said nothing, of course. Wei Wuxian had to force open his own mouth and declare, “There’s no more left.”
He had drunk the tea diligently since coming back, but a small bag’s worth was only so long-lasting. There hadn’t been much of it left after Qishan anyway.
Madam Yu huffed uncaringly. “What do you suppose I should do about it, Wei Ying?”
“You were the one who gave it to me. Can’t you…” He hesitated. “Can’t you give me more?”
“You’re here now. Why should you have more?”
Wei Wuxian ground his teeth together.
There was no way for him to make her understand, he knew. Even if Yu Ziyuan had not lacked sympathy wherever he was concerned, it would be hard to make her understand. Wei Wuxian did not think even Jiang Yanli would.
“My fevers are incapacitating,” he told her, forcing himself not to look down. “I would prefer to continue avoiding them.”
“You are mistaken if you think I gave this tea to you out of concern for your feelings,” Madam Yu replied. “The Jiang sect simply can’t afford to have its only kunze getting knocked up unmarried.”
Nausea settled at Wei Wuxian’s throat.
Madam Yu knocked twice onto the wooden arm of the couch. The maid came back with a pot of tea in hand and busied herself by pouring it for her, before being dismissed once more.
“Why are you still here?” Madam Yu asked, bringing the tea to her lips.
Wei Wuxian licked his own. They were dry. “Why do you think I would end up…” he couldn’t finish.
She laughed coldly. “Who knows what you get up to when no one is watching?” She took a sip of tea, unflinching, her eyes piercing through Wei Wuxian with the strength of a loosened arrow. “It’s what your mother did, after all.”
She put such disgust, such hatred into the words, that Wei Wuxian felt the hair of his arms rise. Your mother.
“You won’t get more moonless tea unless circumstances call for it,” Madam Yu went on. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to obtain? How humiliating it is? You should be thanking me on your knees, boy.”
“I won’t,” Wei Wuxian replied.
Yu Ziyuan’s teacup tapped loudly against the tabletop. Liquid spilled over the rim and wetted her fingers.
“Wei Ying,” she hissed, finally showing the anger he had grown used to bringing out of her.
Wei Wuxian refused to cower this time. “Why do you hate my mother so much?” he asked.
“Did Jiang Fengmian put you up to this?”
“He did not,” Wei Wuxian answered hotly. “He would never, because he has too much respect for you.”
Madam Yu rose to her feet. She was tall, so much taller than him, the very image of qianyuan-kind; strong and beautiful and absolutely deadly. She must have grown up praised by her family, nurtured for greatness, pushed forth toward glory.
Wei Wuxian had never known such bitter jealousy.
“You have no idea what you speak of,” she seethed. “Get lost!”
“Of course I don’t have any idea—how could I?” Wei Wuxian scoffed. “You’ve made it so I could never know. Well, I’m asking now.”
“I should’ve killed you when you were a child,” Yu Ziyuan said.
A few years ago, such words would have frozen him to the bone. If he had not experienced how cold she could be toward him, how cruelly she took to his status and existence, he would have stood breathless. Now all he felt was hollow.
Madam Yu was not done speaking. “I knew the moment I laid eyes on you that you would end up as rotten as her,” she said. “Blood doesn’t lie, Wei Ying, and you have in you the worst blood that this age has known.”
“Did you even know her,” he replied emptily.
His mother, whose memory was but a faded dream, a hint of applescent and laughter. His mother whose name was enough to make Jiang Fengmian look grieved; his mother who could make Yu Ziyuan exude such hatred.
Where was the truth?
Madam Yu laughed so loudly that she bent forward with it. “Did I know her?” she repeated at him. Wei Wuxian saw with great shock her look turn to something like despair. “Which clan do you think Cangse Sanren fled from!?”
She was shaking with anger now. “I was there when she was born,” she said in that same haunted voice. “I was the one who found her the first time she fled from the Yu kunze house—she was so small I could lift her up with one arm. She kept laughing. She thought I was playing with her.”
Wei Wuxian could not speak at all anymore. He watched with wide eyes as Yu Ziyuan covered her face with her hand; he saw her long nails dig into her temples and leave red marks in their wake.
“It was on my watch that she escaped for real,” she said. “For years until she came back, I was blamed for her death. I was estranged from my own clan. Just because a stupid little kunze couldn’t understand the meaning of duty.
“And then she was back!” Madam Yu’s voice grew louder and angrier, her face red from the strength of her memories. “She came down from that mountain acting like the world belonged to her—and of course, I was charged with putting her back on the right path.” She sucked in a deep breath. “I was the one who let her escape, so I was the one who had to reign her back in! I had to follow her around, I had to watch over her every move, I had to convince her to go back to seclusion. But who could compare to Cangse Sanren? It didn’t matter how ugly she was, oh no,” she laughed. “She was brilliant. She was the greatest cultivator of her time. Many qianyuan forgot their manners around her and begged their sect leaders for the authorization to marry her, even—even—”
She needn’t finish that sentence.
“That ungrateful little bitch never appreciated anything she was given,” Madam Yu spat. “It’s only right that she died the way she did. She took everything out of everyone, made everyone love her, and never gave anything back. The world is well rid of her.”
She sat back down with trembling hands. Wei Wuxian could only watch as she rubbed her face again and made a mess out of her makeup. She seemed not to notice at all.
He felt very far from the moment. In his mind he recalled the mourning so stark on Jiang Fengmian’s face whenever the man praised him, whenever he made him a promise. For so long he had wondered why such a proper man had raised him so improperly. For so long he had wondered how Yu Ziyuan could allow it, no matter how much she raged and spat, no matter how close to a beast the matter of Cangse Sanren made her look.
“Did you learn about the tea from her?” he asked softly.
The look Yu Ziyuan gave him in answer was ripe with resentment. “How else would I know?” she snapped at him.
Wei Wuxian nodded. He bowed again, though she wasn’t looking at him, and made his way toward the door. His eyes once more caught the gleam of the oddly rustic sword she had added to her renowned collection.
There was only one person at the Pier who shared the same love for weapons that Madam Yu did. Wei Wuxian went to find Jiang Yanli that night.
“A sword with a bird engraved below the handle?” she asked as she prepared tea for the both of them. Her arm was almost fully healed now. “Where did you see it?”
Wei Wuxian accepted the tea with a nod of thanks. “I just heard someone talking about it and got curious,” he lied.
Jiang Yanli hummed in thought. “Mother has one of those, I believe. They’re very rare. She told me that only the sage in the mountains makes them and that no one but their owner can ever unsheathe them.”
The teacup burned against Wei Wuxian’s fingers. “Baoshan Sanren?” he asked weakly.
His shijie nodded. “Your mother probably had one too. How lucky.”
Wei Wuxian remembered the day Yu Ziyuan had lost her father.
The news had come to them from the Yu sect a few days after the fact. It hadn’t come with fanfare, for the man had been kunze. Wei Wuxian knew through Jiang Cheng’s knowledge that Yu Ziyuan was not always the Yu heir. That she had an elder qianyuan sister, once, who had died before her time: the daughter of her sect leader father and his legal wife. The direct heir, as opposed to her, who was born of a kunze concubine.
It was sickness, he thought, that had taken her kunze father away. Wei Wuxian had still been very young then; still very new to the Jiang clan. He still woke at night in a cold sweat, thinking he had heard dogs in the distance. But he remembered that messenger who had come on horseback and delivered the news to Madam Yu. He remembered how angry she had been at the servants that night. She had even scolded Yu Jinzhu.
She hadn’t shed a single tear. He remembered being more terrified of her then than ever before.
Always, anger was the weapon which Yu Ziyuan held most avidly. Always she directed it toward those around her as if the smallest inconvenience was her being scorned by the gods; as if she suffered a great injustice every day that she lived.
She made everyone love her and never gave anything back.
Perhaps hatred wasn’t the only reason Yu Ziyuan had kept that sword with her for so long.
The other shoe dropped.
The cry came as the day died: “The Wen clan took sixth shidi!”
It was only days after Wei Wuxian had been denied more of the tea by Yu Ziyuan. Madam Yu had been angrier than usual since then, never missing an opportunity to berate her husband and children. Earlier, he and Jiang Cheng had seen Jiang Fengmian stalk away to the docks without a word, while his wife screamed at him from behind, and Jiang Cheng had asked, “What happened this time?”
His voice bore such fatigue that Wei Wuxian had immediately dragged him away to hunt. He had found his smile again, then, happy to race him for the fattest birds they could find.
Now Wei Wuxian’s third shidi was running at them, desperate and out of breath, tears spilling out of his eyes. He told them that a man and woman wearing the Wen sect uniform had come and beat up their youngest disciple. He said that the woman was waiting now to meet Yu Ziyuan.
Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng dropped their catches and ran toward the main house.
They found Jiang Yanli on their way; there were tear tracks on her face and blood on her fingers. They all came in to face their enemy.
“I’ve come here to ask for punishment on behalf of my master,” Wang Lingjiao said gleefully.
She smelled, as always, like rot.
In the end there was not much that Wei Wuxian could do. He withstood for the first time in his life the burn of Zidian on his back, once, twice, as many times as it took for his skin to break apart and bleed. Through the ringing in his ears he heard the sound of Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli’s pleas; through the shaking in his hands he felt the cold, hard ground, the heartbreak of a promise he had once made to himself and not managed to keep.
Yu Ziyuan’s face looked wild in the early hours of night.
“Madam Yu,” Wang Lingjiao laughed, gleeful, “I didn’t think you had it in you. You whipped a kunze!”
She came closer, her footsteps so loud in the silence that they seemed to echo through Wei Wuxian’s head. With one long-fingered hand, she grabbed him by the hair.
“You brought this on yourself,” she murmured to him. “Don’t think my master is done with you.” Then, louder: “So very obedient, Madam Yu! I can see that we shan’t have any problems building a supervisory office in Yunmeng.”
Wei Wuxian was too dazed by that time to truly follow along what happened. He heard Wang Lingjiao’s screams of terror. He saw Wen Zhuliu’s glowing hand face off against Zidian. He cried out when someone grabbed him under the arms and pulled him away, making the wounds on his back burn deeply.
His nose picked up the sharp scent of Jiang Cheng, “Come, we need to build the barrier—”
“I’ll take care of it,” Jiang Yanli said from Wei Wuxian’s other side. “You two get some help.”
“Father took most of the disciples with him earlier! We need to warn him!”
A sword was put into Wei Wuxian’s hands. It had never felt as foreign as it did now, in the face of such danger. All around them, Wen cultivators emerged, bows at the ready and swords unsheathed. Wei Wuxian tightened his grip on the borrowed sword and wished with all of his power that Suibian was here.
There was nowhere they could go. No one they could call. Wen Zhuliu killed the cultivators who brought up the shield and tried, again and again, to take away Madam Yu’s core. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng fought as close to her as they could against the endless numbers facing them. The borrowed sword’s blade was slick with blood and guts, the air heavy with the smell of it, as heavy as a storm. It seemed to Wei Wuxian that Zidian was just another lightning bolt against the darkening sky.
So many dead bodies littered the ground around them now. Wei Wuxian forgot to voice the pain in his back, though it worsened when the rain started. He slid against the wet ground as he cut again and again into the bellies of his foes, watching from the corner of his eyes as Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli did the same, as Yu Ziyuan kept the Core-Melting Hand at bay.
Madam Yu slipped. Blood splattered against her open eyes and blinded her for a second. Jiang Yanli howled at the approaching Wen Zhuliu and managed to chase him off, and in the moment that followed, Yu Ziyuan had grabbed both of her children and leaped onto the nearest roof.
“Come!” she bellowed at Wei Wuxian.
She brought them all to the farthest of all the docks. From there, the sounds of battle were faint, almost identical to the rumbling thunder overhead. Wei Wuxian’s back had become numb to pain thanks to the beating rain. His heart, however, stung.
“You both need to go,” Yu Ziyuan told her children, hugging them firmly.
From behind her, Wei Wuxian saw that her back was shaking.
“Mother?” Jiang Cheng asked, achingly soft.
“You leave right now, and don’t come back. A-Li—”
“Mother,” Jiang Cheng cut in, “we can’t leave you here, let’s just wait here for father, he—”
“Listen to me!” Yu Ziyuan shouted.
The sky cracked open; for a second, everything was washed to white.
Madam Yu was holding something in her hand. It wasn’t until she slipped it on Jiang Yanli’s finger that Wei Wuxian recognized Zidian. “You take care of your brother, A-Li,” she said.
“Mother,” Yanli cried.
Madam Yu rubbed her daughter’s tears away. They were immediately replaced with rain. “My girl,” she said, kinder than ever before. “You go now.”
She snapped her fingers. Long glowing ropes shot out of the ring around Jiang Yanli’s finger and trapped all three of them. Madam Yu pushed both of her children into the nearest boat and turned to face Wei Wuxian.
He was tied with Zidian’s power too, but he felt no pain from it.
“Wei Ying,” Madam Yu said, grabbing him by the collar. Wei Wuxian had no breath left in him at all. “You will defend my children with your life.”
“Madam Yu,” he tried to say.
She shook him harshly. “No, you listen to me,” she hissed. “You protect them, understood? Don’t give me any nonsense now—I’m asking you. Will you protect them?”
He saw the fear in her eyes, the blood still clinging to her face. He saw the two people he cared the most about trapped in a boat and yelling at him, at her, to let them go. To let them fight.
“I will,” he replied, heartache bringing tears to his eyes. “I promise.”
She threw him into the boat as well.
“Mother!” Jiang Cheng cried. “Mother, come with us, let’s all wait until father gets back!”
“So what if he doesn’t come back?” Yu Ziyuan asked.
She unsheathed her sword slowly. She wasn’t shaking anymore.
“Can’t I survive without him?”
Their farewells to Jiang Fengmian were not any less hurried.
Wei Wuxian said nothing at all. He knew, deep inside himself, how things would turn out. He made no move to board the boat that his sect leader was on; he listened to the panicked words that the man’s children cried to him and met his eyes almost levelly.
It felt almost as though Jiang Fengmian wanted Wei Wuxian to confirm the truth to him. Almost as if he were waiting for everything to be a joke, as if he were ready to believe it, as long as Wei Wuxian said so.
Don’t go, Wei Wuxian wanted to say.
What right did he have to beg?
Jiang Fengmian pushed his children back into the small boat. He murmured a word, and Zidian once more snapped in place around the three of them. Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli shouted. Wei Wuxian tried to breathe.
He saw apology in Jiang Fengmian’s eyes; he felt it in the hand that the man put over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, in the words that he said to them all— “Be good.”
So did Wei Wuxian let go of his strongest protector. So did he say farewell to the man who had loved and raised him and granted him freedom. He watched Jiang Fengmian’s wide back disappear toward the burning Pier without a single word. The darkness of the storm was almost enough to engulf the glow of the man’s sword.
In such a weather, his scent was all but gone.