and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Jiang Yanli traveled the way to Lanling faster than she ever had before. Though she missed her sword terribly, she saw too often the shadow of Wen cultivators roaming the air above to risk trying to fly on the poor replacement she had taken out of Yunmeng’s armory. It had taken her months to learn to channel energy through a weapon forged for and with her; even if she did try, she knew this one would not obey her for twice that time.
Thinking of her sword made her think of her mother—Yu Ziyuan framed by the halo of flames as she worked iron and ice together almost ten years ago, Jiang Yanli standing by her side, wide-eyed and a little scared.
“There is nothing to fear, A-Li,” her mother had told her.
She had briefly touched her head with her hot fingers. She had smiled that smiled reserved for her and no one else. Not her father, not Wei Wuxian, not her brother. Too often had Jiang Yanli experienced selfish pleasure at being the one person around whom her mother could smile so.
“Don’t be scared.”
And Yanli had not been.
When she touched Zidian fit so snugly to her finger, Jiang Yanli yearned for that pleasure. She had longed for the day her mother would gift the ring to her—she had known she would, after one day in the silence of the Pier Yu Ziyuan had said so: “You’re my heir. You’re my child.” She had carried this secret in her for years, knowing that A-Cheng thought he would be the one to inherit this as he would everything else. She had never told him otherwise; sometimes A-Cheng could be a little selfish, she thought, and Yanli ought to have some selfishness for herself too.
She only had to use it once during the trip, when a man in a village where she stopped at for food recognized her face from one of the Wen clan posters. Jiang Yanli’s scent was mild enough to lose itself to most things around her. She wore her hair differently, wrapped herself in cloaks, smeared dirt over her face to mask the last thing that could give her away, and it was enough. Mostly.
When this man had grinned and grabbed her arm, no doubt planning to collect the bounty for her head, she had called Zidian for help. The whip had appeared in her hands with barely a thought from her, as if it had always meant to one day obey her.
She walked far from roads. She lost herself through woods and rock and fields. She preferred the cover of night despite the risks that came with it, crouching low among bushes as she waited for the way to be clear. For days she walked and ran her way through the countryside, avoiding all bigger towns, keeping an eye out for white robes and red suns.
At night she dreamed of her home burning. She dreamed of Yu Ziyuan’s smile as she put Zidian on her finger; she dreamed of A-Cheng’s empty rage and A-Xian’s fear, which he so poorly concealed from her. She woke up longing for the smell of honey.
The entrance of Lanling’s Tower was always guarded. The day she reached it, those guards were aplenty, qianyuan and zhongyong scents locked together round the gateway and making her head ache. She hadn’t eaten in two days. She hadn’t slept in three.
“Please,” she told one of them, “I need to speak with Jin Zixuan.”
“The young master isn’t here,” he replied curtly. He no doubt thought her to be a vagabond, and Jiang Yanli knew with a bitter heart that she must look the part. She couldn’t remember the last time she had bathed. “Now leave, girl.”
For a second she let her hope fade into despair. If truly he was not here, if she couldn’t ask for his help…
She felt so cold when she remembered Wen Chao’s sharp silhouette against the backdrop of flames and smoke. She froze over at night recalling his hateful words, his loud laughter, his foot on the face of her dead mother as he commented idly that she had once been beautiful.
“Then take me to Madam Jin,” she said in a louder voice.
Weeks ago, one could not have asked of her to make a commotion. Jiang Yanli hated bringing attention to herself almost as much as she hated the secret and jealous parts of her, the ones who still recalled her father’s proud face when A-Cheng had been born, when A-Xian had joined them, in foul loneliness.
But that was before she had seen her home destroyed. That was when her father and mother still stood between her and any danger she could know.
“Take me to her!” she shouted, pulling the hood of her cloak away and baring her filthy face fully. “Take me to see her, I need to speak to her—”
Another guard grabbed her around the wrist, saying, “You can’t make a scene here! I’ll beat you to an inch of your life and see if you learn manners.”
How she wished to use Zidian again and bind them all to the stone pillars. She wanted to scream her name in their faces and demand to see not Madam Jin, not Jin Zixuan, but Jin Guangshan himself. She would make him hear her; she would run him through the memories of her home laid to waste and ask him, then, if he still wished to remain Wen Ruohan’s lapdog.
She couldn’t. No matter how angry and desperate she was, she couldn’t let them know who she was without the support of Madam Jin or Jin Zixuan.
For a minute more she struggled against one, two, three guards. She walked on their feet and knocked them away with the scabbard of her sword. She was caught every time before she could step foot into the Tower, and she saw with a rush of fear that one woman was now unsheathing her sword and preparing to attack.
“Madam Jin!” she cried as loudly as she could, held in the grasp of a burly zhongyong man while the woman advanced, her sword glinting in sunlight. “Madam Jin!”
“What’s going on here?”
She could have wept from relief at the sound of his voice alone.
Jin Zixuan came in through the wide hall of the tower, his sword in hand, stained with dirt from head to toe. He must be back from training, she thought, and then she thought nothing at all as he squinted at her and suddenly dropped the bow he had been holding.
“Young master,” the burly man holding her said, “please forgive us, the girl was trying to enter the Tower by force.”
“Release her,” Jin Zixuan ordered.
The moment it took for the three guards to obey seemed to be too long for him. He approached with quick steps and pulled the man’s hands off of Jiang Yanli’s arms himself, looking over her, checking her for injuries. He frowned when he saw the bruises and cuts she had acquired on her journey.
“Did she not tell you to fetch me?” he asked the guards briskly.
“Why didn’t you, then?”
The three cultivators mumbled and stuttered their excuses. Jiang Yanli was shaking when she bowed, hitting her fist to her palm as quickly as politeness allowed, then said, “Please, I need your help, we don’t have much time.”
Jin Zixuan nodded. “Follow me, please.”
“Sir!” the others protested.
“Silence! You’re not to speak of this to anyone, not even my father. Any word reach anyone’s ears and I’ll send my horsemaster to whip all three of you.”
He turned around and walked away, gesturing for Jiang Yanli to follow.
They soon left the main hall she had so often visited as a child. And oh, how heartbreaking it was to be back here again, to think that she had once walked through these golden doors and been called little mistress, been thought of as the future clan leader of these grounds, the wife holding Jin Zixuan’s hand. She never would have imagined to be welcomed so callously in her life.
“No one will bother us here,” Jin Zixuan said, holding a door open. “Come quick.”
“Thank you,” Jiang Yanli replied.
What lay behind was a small and dusty study. They were near the tiny gardens of the servant quarters, she knew. The smell of spring flowers reached them through the open window.
Jin Zixuan closed it before saying anything. “I heard about what happened to your family,” he said once he was sure no one could hear. “Words cannot convey how sorry I am for your loss.”
Words could not convey how sorry Jiang Yanli was either. “Thank you, young master Jin,” she said, blinking tears away. “You must know why I am here, and I apologize for asking this of you, but please.” She swallowed. “We need help. We need somewhere safe to stay.”
“Golden Carp Tower isn’t safe for you,” he replied. “My father… I have tried to make him see reason, but he refuses. I tried to ask for help to be sent as soon as the news reached us, but he fears that sheltering you and your brother would be seen by Wen Ruohan as treason.”
Jiang Yanli’s heart sank. Her hand found the surface of a table for balance, Zidian knocking against wood with a small hollow sound.
“Maiden Jiang,” Jin Zixuan said, visibly distressed. “I can try again. If you come with me and we both present my father with evidence of the Wens’ wrongdoings… my mother, she loves you, she’ll support you. Sheltering you at least shouldn’t be an issue, but your brother…”
“I won’t abandon him,” Jiang Yanli cut in, shaking her head. “I can’t. I’m—”
For a terrible moment, she thought she would shatter in front of him. The long trip ached in her legs and back. She worried for A-Cheng and A-Xian so fiercely that too often her heart leaped out of her chest and forced her to stop and gasp for air. She was standing in front of the man she loved, filthy and homeless and begging, and the crushing shame of the fact weighed on her like mountain rock.
She jumped when his hand came to rest on her arm. “Please stay,” Jin Zixuan said, his brow tense with worry. “At least a few days. I can hide you for that long while I plead with him, my father will have no idea. You’re exhausted. I’ll find you a room and some food.”
“I can’t,” she replied.
Zidian was warm against her skin. She stroked the ring with her thumb and felt some of her mother’s strength suffuse her heart.
“My brother and A-Xian are in Gusu,” she said. “I need to join them and make sure they’re safe.”
“Wei Wuxian?” Jin Zixuan said then in shock.
Jiang Yanli looked at him again; his face had gone very pale.
“Wei Wuxian is alive?” he asked her in that same strange voice.
“Yes,” she answered. “He’s with A-Cheng.”
Jin Zixuan stayed silent for a moment, looking troubled. “When we learned of what happened in Yunmeng, they told us that everyone except you and your brother had been killed,” he said.
Jiang Yanli shook her head, throat tight with misery. “A-Xian escaped with us. We probably would have been caught by the Wen sect before even leaving town if not for him.”
Jin Zixuan opened his mouth and closed it again quietly. Jiang Yanli wondered through her fatigue and pain what about what she had said was so incredible to him; then, at last, she remembered.
A-Xian dressed in purple silk and looking so very lost in the main hall of the Pier, while her father chased away the man who had come to buy him. Jin Zixuan who, upon hearing from her very mouth the reason why she had come to fetch Jiang Fengmian from their night-hunt, had immediately chosen to ride his sword with them. Jin Zixuan bowing to A-Xian with a hand over his heart, his face pink with affection and his eyes full of longing.
She had ached then as she thought, naïvely, that she would never ache again.
“Wen Chao hates him,” she found herself saying to him now. “He hasn’t forgotten what happened in the tortoise cave. He said—he said he wants to kill A-Xian himself, use A-Xian’s own sword to do it.”
Every word she said hurt her in small and silly ways. Urgency made the pressing weight of grief feel distant and allowed for pettier things to move forward in her—jealousy, envy, the spark of pained anger in her every time she thought, He gets father’s love and he brings mother sorrow and he makes Jin Zixuan look at him in such a way.
Silly things. Childish things. Things she should not even consider now that her parents were dead and A-Xian, who had asked for none of this, faced so many dangers.
“I’ll talk to my father,” Jin Zixuan said with renewed urgency. “If—If Wei Wuxian—he should not be running around now.”
“He’ll never stop,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling emptily. “That’s just who he is.”
“I’ll protect him,” Jin Zixuan replied.
She did not think she was meant to hear those words, or that he fully realized he had said them. Understanding tightened in her chest. Jiang Yanli yet again said goodbye to one of her precious few childhood dreams.
“I’ll protect him even if he doesn’t want me to.”
Wei Wuxian was nowhere when Jiang Cheng came down from the mountain.
There was no trace of him among the trees where they had last seen each other, only hours ago. There was no trace of him at the inn where they had slept the night before either. The woman at the counter whom he asked if she had seen him replied, “Oh, that young master with you? No, he hasn’t come back yet.”
Young master? Jiang Cheng thought, something nagging at him oddly.
It was rare for strangers to show so much respect for Wei Wuxian.
Perhaps Wei Wuxian had simply left for a stroll. He wasn’t one to sit still for long, after all. Far too often in their childhood, he had left in the middle of night, knocking sometimes on Jiang Cheng’s door to wake him up and force him to follow. Jiang Cheng had so often insulted and bemoaned in those dark and quiet hours. He couldn’t understand the pain that Wei Wuxian took to bring him somewhere in the cold until he saw what he was meant to see.
Sometimes it was a flower. Sometimes it was an odd-shaped tree become all black against the starlit sky. Sometimes it was nothing, and Wei Wuxian ran around the sleeping pier and pushed him in the water, as if he couldn’t stand to see any surface that wasn’t rippled, to spend any hour without sound or movement.
Jiang Cheng slept deeply and easily that night. The excitement that had shaken him when Baoshan Sanren had told him, “Now use your spiritual energy,” and he had felt that energy in him, different and somehow familiar… It hadn’t faded, no. How could it, after those days of emptiness, the perspective of his own bleak future without power to hang on to?
He wanted to see Wei Wuxian. He wanted to tell him that his plan had worked and to thank him for his idea. He wanted to say the words that he had not quite managed to as they split up in the mountains: I’m sorry for what I said, and Thank you for being here.
But Jiang Cheng was tired from climbing up and down the mountain and whatever else the old sage had done to fix him—surprisingly little—and so he slept. Deeply and more easily than he had since the Lotus Pier had gone up in flames.
When he woke up, Wei Wuxian was still gone.
He searched for days through the mountain where he had last seen him, through the small town at its foot and through the neighboring villages. The money that Wen Qing had lent them ran out and he was forced out of the inn, but he didn’t leave. He slept under the canopy of trees, tired and famished, and wondered where Wei Wuxian had gone.
Had he died? asked his twisting, painful guts, so fresh with grief and horror that the prick of a needle should be enough to make him recoil. Had Wei Wuxian had enough of Jiang Cheng, had he felt such resentment over Jiang Cheng’s unfair words that he had decided to leave?
He wondered, in the darkest hours, if Wei Wuxian had joined the enemy for a chance at his own safety. Even Wen Chao would surely stop short of killing a kunze, no matter what the young lord had declared at the burning Pier.
But Wei Wuxian had promised that he would be there; he had found someone who could give Jiang Cheng his golden core back; he had nursed him back to health and not made use of his many opportunities to flee before. If he wasn’t at the foot of the mountain after promising he would be, then it must be because something happened to him.
People started throwing Jiang Cheng odd looks as he wandered between mountain and town. Parents started pulling their children close at the sight of him. There were no posters of his face here, no Wen cultivators ready to take him away. No one thought of him as a man on the run, only as a vagabond, but he found that the difference was only in name.
Then one day a voice from behind him in the mountains said, “Jiang Wanyin.”
Jiang Cheng turned on his feet with the training sword in hand immediately. It was blocked by the silver scabbard of an elegant, unfamiliar sword—by a man dressed all in white he had last met covered in blood and grime in a cave, kneeling a few feet away from a fevered Wei Wuxian.
“Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng said with only a hint of hostility; his confusion was stronger.
Then he saw the small silver bell held in the man’s hand, and fury turned his vision white.
He seemed to come to only a moment later, sword drawn again and blunting itself to the white blade’s sharp edges, words coming out of his mouth as a river: “… did you take him, where is he, I’ll kill you.”
“I do not have Wei Ying with me,” Lan Wangji replied.
He sounded as if he had said it many times already, but Jiang Cheng only heard it this once.
He lowered his sword at last. Lan Wangji did the same with his without another word, completely unruffled by the attack, looking as poised as ever. Dislike squirmed in Jiang Cheng’s belly.
“Where is he?” he repeated, more harshly perhaps than was warranted.
Lan Wangji looked away from his eyes. “I do not know,” he replied. “I found this yesterday.” He held up the small bell.
Jiang Cheng extended a hand to take it, but Lan Wangji brought the bell back toward himself almost protectively. “I shall need it for Inquiry,” he said.
“You can find him with it?” Jiang Cheng asked, forgetting about the strange gesture.
Lan Wangji stepped toward the city and replied, “Only if he is dead.”
The words weighed heavily in Jiang Cheng. He sat by Lan Wangji that night as the man played the guqin, watching blue light surround them, feeling it brush his skin coolly. Like this the scent of sandalwood almost vanished from the air around the Lan sect heir; instead, he seemed to smell like his brother Lan Xichen, river-like and frosty. When the man finished his song and told Jiang Cheng that the dead had not heard of a Wei Wuxian joining them, Jiang Cheng realized that his nails had bitten his palms till he bled.
Lan Wangji sent him to Gusu with one of the two junior cultivators accompanying him. He told Jiang Cheng that he would stay behind and look for Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng wanted to protest—he wanted to bark at Lan Wangji that he remembered his promise, that he would never again allow him to be in Wei Wuxian’s presence—but then, he remembered his own words to Wei Wuxian. His own baseless and crude accusations upon what he glimpsed to be one of Wei Wuxian’s worst fears.
How dare he now put himself in the way of Lan Wangji saving Wei Wuxian again? Jiang Cheng had not been the one to kill the Xuanwu of Slaughter who had swallowed Wei Wuxian whole. He had not been the one to save him from drowning, or the one who had sat with his back turned away as fever slowly consumed him.
Jiang Cheng had been the one who ran away and left his clan’s kunze behind.
So to Gusu he went with a very heavy heart. In Gusu he stayed in the weeks that followed, waiting for word of his sister, for word of Wei Wuxian. He found one of the two when delegations arrived from all over the country, clan banners held high in shades of gold, green, white.
“A-Cheng!” Jiang Yanli cried at the sight of him, dismounting from the horse given to her by Lanlingjin.
She held him. She cried for him. She cried for Wei Wuxian, once he told her that he was missing, and then for the remains of their parents that Wei Wuxian had given him, telling him that Wen Ning had been the one to find them. He tried to hold his sister as tightly as he could.
“Lan Wangji is looking for him?” Jin Zixuan asked minutes later as all of the delegations slowly joined the rebuilt ancestral hall of Gusulan. “Wei Wuxian,” he added.
Jiang Cheng nodded, surprised to even be addressed, let alone about such a thing. “He was in Yiling when we parted, but I don’t know where he is now.”
“My brother has been slowly approaching Qishan in his search,” said a voice nearby them.
They all turned around.
Lan Xichen had changed very little since the last time Jiang Cheng had met him. Cool-scented and composed and a tinge less glaringly-perfect than his younger brother. His months of missing did not seem to have changed him much outside of faint outward signs of fatigue.
“Wangji has not found sign of young master Wei, but the dead are still positive that he is not one of them,” he told them.
Jiang Cheng felt something in him loosen. “What is going on, master Lan?” he asked, gesturing to the horses and servants gathered at the gate of the Cloud Recesses.
Lan Xichen smiled and replied, “War.”
The little bell had been almost buried under-earth, almost crushed flat by someone’s heavy foot. Lan Wangji saw it only because there and then the sun had shone and flickered off of it and caught his eyes.
After taking it in hand—after recognizing it, in a pang of crushing helplessness, as Wei Wuxian’s—he examined his surroundings. He saw within the dirt the footprints of animals. There were traces of a fight, as faint as dust on glass: torn grass ripped off the soil by hand or boot, a burned spot of earth, a gash left by a blade in the bark of a tree.
Dry blood on the leaves of a crushed flower.
It was a miracle that dew had not washed it away. Lan Wangji picked the blue flower between his fingers, rubbing against the flaking spots of brown. They crumbled away until the leaves were green once more.
There was no sweetness on the wind, no call for him to follow, no trail of breadcrumbs or stones. Even the bell in his hands only wore the faintest trace of honeyscent, as if already all traces of its owner had started vanishing.
Wei Wuxian was long gone.