Warnings: mild description of violent murder.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
When Lan Jingyi was still very young, he had not often wondered about the reason why master Qiren refused to allow him outside of the Cloud Recesses. He had not either thought deeply of the distance put between him and the other disciples. He was a member of the clan, even if his parents had passed away in his youth, cousins of Hanguang-Jun and sect leader Lan Xichen and closer to master Qiren than them both. Lan Jingyi had grown with them until sickness had taken them away. Then he had joined the clan disciple quarters where no child but Sizhui lived, and he had not felt so lonely.
Lan Sizhui had never allowed him to feel lonely. During his first weeks in the quarters, when confusion and grief were still heavy on his heart, Sizhui had talked to him and spent time with him, often choosing to sleep in Jingyi’s room rather than his own. This way, he could be there if Jingyi woke and shivered. If Jingyi cried.
As a child, Jingyi had taken the outer disciples’ distance to be nothing more than this: their status as outer disciples, and his as a clan member.
He attended the same classes and underwent the same training, but he slept in finer rooms than they did. He played in the same courtyard where fat fish swam in ponds, but he could access the back of the mountain, where Hanguang-Jun raised white rabbits. They could not.
Sometimes, he even saw Hanguang-Jun there, coming out of his secluded home. Hanguang-Jun would nod and greet him. He would speak to Sizhui in that soft voice reserved for Sizhui alone. He would pat Sizhui’s shoulder, and his severe face would grow kind.
Jingyi could remember a time he had felt jealous of Sizhui’s proximity with Hanguang-Jun—the same time he had come to understand that he and Sizhui were different, and come to resent it.
To this day, that time was the most painful of his life.
But Hanguang-Jun had found him alone in the mountain one day. Jingyi had gone there for peace and a place to cry, after yelling at Sizhui for several minutes and watching the older boy’s face shatter with sorrow and confusion. It wasn’t Sizhui’s fault, he knew, that Jingyi had started feeling eyes and whispers on his skin when he walked around the Recesses. It wasn’t his fault that master Qiren had taken him aside that morning for the third day in a row, and lectured him about his manners, and told him that he would bring shame to Gusulan.
Yelling was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, and so Jingyi had run after yelling at Sizhui, and come to the back of the mountain to yell some more on his own.
His sight had still been blurry with tears when Hanguang-Jun found him. There was dirt on his white uniform from sitting on the cool and dew-wet forest ground—another thing he should be punished for later. Lan Jingyi’s sobs had abated and left him tired and hollow. He felt that a great hole had opened in his chest, and guilt squirmed in his stomach. He did not notice that anyone else was there until he blinked tiredly and looked above the white rabbit that had been eating grass near his foot.
He saw a tall silhouette dressed in silver and white; he hurried to his feet and wiped his face furiously.
“Hanguang-Jun,” he stuttered, embarrassed and frightened. “I, um, good morning.”
He bowed, hoping that no dirt showed on the front of his robes. He knew that Hanguang-Jun had been a supervisor for punishments in the past; Lan Qiren often told the younger disciples so, when he thought they might try to go to the forest and bother the man.
Hanguang-Jun approached him in slowly and silently. The white rabbits ran around his ankles like they did no one else’s, and it seemed to Lan Jingyi that each of the man’s steps was calculated so as not to step on them by accident.
“Sizhui is not with you,” he told Jingyi.
Guilt and sorrow once more took Jingyi by the throat. He bit his lip and replied, “No, I came alone. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
“You’re not bothering me.”
Jingyi was so used to being thought a bother, by the outer disciples and by Lan Qiren, that he found himself without words to reply with.
He expected Hanguang-Jun to go on his way. Perhaps back to the top of the mountain in that small house where he lived, or perhaps downward to meet his brother. But Hanguang-Jun stayed where he stood and bent over the ground to pick up one of the rabbits. His wide sleeves brushed over the wet grass, but he showed no sign of caring.
In his hands, the rabbit was very small. It squirmed and then relaxed when Hanguang-Jun touched its head right between its long ears, blinking its red eyes open and closed.
Lan Jingyi wondered what it felt like to be Lan Sizhui, and to feel these wide hands squeeze his shoulder.
“You are upset,” Hanguang-Jun said. He was looking at the rabbit in his hands.
“No,” Jingyi replied. And then, afraid that this would be another slip of his manners for Lan Qiren to berate: “No, I am not, Hanguang-Jun. Thank you for your concern.”
He bowed once more with his hands before himself.
“I heard you crying, and I came.”
Jingyi’s face grew hot with embarrassment. He could hear the blood pumping past his ears and jaw, and he was certain that should he touch his cheeks, his fingers would be warm.
“I—I’m sorry,” he said, staring at the ground and hoping it would swallow him whole.
How humiliating! He had yelled at Sizhui, probably hurting him deeply, and now Hanguang-Jun was here asking why he had cried. As if Jingyi had a reason to have been crying so loudly, when he was the one at fault. Master Qiren would surely make him copy the three thousand rules one more time when he learned.
“No apologies needed,” said Hanguang-Jun.
Knowing he could not well spend the whole day bent in half, Jingyi straightened up. He still refused to meet Hanguang-Jun’s eyes, and hoped with all his soul that the man would not notice how red and tearful he was.
The rabbit was laying still and blissed out in Hanguang-Jun’s hands, its ears twitching faintly.
“I had a fight with Sizhui,” Jingyi blurted out.
He wanted immediately to slap himself for it. What did Hanguang-Jun care about his childishness? What did Hanguang-Jun care about spats between children, when his cultivation was so high and respected, when he spent most of his days in seclusion?
But Hanguang-Jun showed no annoyance or boredom when Jingyi risked looking at him; indeed, he was looking back, and although his face was not as kind as when it was Sizhui he spoke to, it was not so severe either.
“Did he say something to hurt you?” Hanguang-Jun asked.
“No!” Jingyi yelled.
He forgot to feel shame for his attitude: he took a step toward Hanguang-Jun, embarrassment gone to make way for determination.
“No, he did not, Hanguang-Jun,” he said. “I was the one who hurt him, I told him… I told him he couldn’t understand, and that I didn’t need his pity. He was only trying to comfort me after master Qiren lectured me for breaking the rules.”
Hanguang-Jun nodded slowly, looking down the path behind Jingyi that led to the Cloud Recesses.
And then he said, “My uncle is still seeing the world through clouds and mist, after all this time.”
Jingyi was too surprised to think of a reply.
Hanguang-Jun came to his side. The rabbit in his hands started squirming again, so he put it down and picked another one up. This one bit at his sleeve and then sat there, blissful.
“I was truly being unruly, Hanguang-Jun,” Jingyi said belatedly. He didn’t know why he felt that leaving Hanguang-Jun with the impression that he was faultless would be to lie. “Earlier today, I was uncouth to one of the guests from Lanling.”
It was that time of year when disciples from many sects came to listen to master Qiren’s lectures, and although Lan Jingyi was still a year too young to attend them himself, he saw the children in blue, purple, golden robes walk over the quiet yards and make the air thicken with chatter.
This year, a boy came from Lanlingjin whom Jingyi had the displeasure to meet while he was spending time with Sizhui. His name was Jin Ling.
“Young master Jin Ling called me by status instead of name, and I overreacted,” Jingyi said sheepishly.
Not as much as Sizhui, who had grabbed the handle of his sword the second the word “omega” left Jin Ling’s lips, but still.
The fact that Lan Qiren had punished him but not Sizhui was the reason he had grown mad at the other boy. For three days now, master Qiren had lectured Jingyi for answering Jin Ling’s taunting and ignored Sizhui’s own harsh attitude.
“So, I know that I was in the wrong. And I should not have yelled at Sizhui.”
“Sometimes, it is okay to yell,” Hanguang-Jun said.
Lan Jingyi was once again speechless.
He let out a small, panicked sound when Hanguang-Jun suddenly handed him the rabbit he was holding; the creature turned and struggled in the seconds Jingyi was holding it, but then Hanguang-Jun’s hands were around his and helping him hold it right.
They were broad and warm. At the heel of Hanguang-Jun’s right palm, which rested around Jingyi’s left, he felt the tough bump of a callus left by sword-fighting. On each of his fingertips, hard little nubs spoke of years spent playing the guqin.
Since Jingyi’s parents had died when he was still so young, no one had touched him but Sizhui.
He couldn’t help the sudden warmth in his neck, the heat and wetness in his eyes. When Hanguang-Jun took his hands away, he had to restrain himself so that he would not chase after the contact.
“Sizhui does not understand everything,” Hanguang-Jun told him in his calm and even voice. “Though he tries.”
It seemed that his words were one with the wind and the fluttering of leaves. That Hanguang-Jun may as well have become part of the forest itself, part of the bedrock and the trees.
Jingyi swallowed and said, “He is so smart, though.”
“Some things can’t be learned. Some things you know for being you, he will never understand.”
Jingyi’s heart swelled with pride.
Sizhui was so kind and so talented, loved by all who resided here, the pride of their generation. Jingyi loved him for it and envied him for it, and although most of the time envy was very far from his mind, occasionally, it nudged at his heart and embittered his words.
Now he felt as he did on the day he understood that he was a better archer than Sizhui: selfish and a little lonely, and yet, infinitely relieved.
“You should not fight, however,” Hanguang-Jun told him.
“I will apologize to him, Hanguang-Jun,” Lan Jingyi promised.
The perspective was not so terrifying anymore.
He said his goodbyes to the man after a minute of petting the rabbit in his hands. The animal would not sit still as he did when Hanguang-Jun was the one touching it, but it only bit Jingyi once, not deeply enough to hurt. Its fur was warm and soft. It breathed quickly and silently against Jingyi’s palm, its little belly fluttering. After letting it go and watching it leap away, Jingyi started his trek down the mountainside.
He turned back only once, suddenly caught with the need to say Thank you, but Hanguang-Jun was not looking at him anymore.
He was looking up on the path that led to the old little house which Jingyi had seen only once. “Ah, we can’t go there,” Sizhui had said after a second of looking at the small windows, at the oddly-heavy door which sealed its entrance. “This is where Hanguang-Jun lives.”
“But you go there all the time,” Jingyi had replied.
Sizhui had smiled and looked away and not given an answer.
Jingyi had thought then, in passing, that living here must be boring. Why so high up the mountain, where the winter must be cold and damp? Why in such a house, where the door looked so heavy to pull open and close, where the walls were blackened in places as if licked by fire?
Hanguang-Jun was looking up the mountain with his hand on his sword, regal and disciplined as any Lan clan member should be, the ideal which all children here were taught to model themselves after.
His face showed nothing but deep sadness.
The times Lan Xichen had been struck completely, entirely out of words could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
He was numb to the feeling of the little ivory cup he held. By all means the tea in it should still be hot enough for discomfort, but his fingers may as well have been made of a ghostly substance. They were not even warm.
Jin Guangyao stared at him from across the table.
Lan Xichen knew this study better, he felt, than his own back in Gusu. Since he had taken oath with Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue next to him in the ruins of the Nightless City, much of his time had been spent in Lanling, and even more so since Wangji had been stripped of his title and the duty had fallen to him.
But now the room swayed and twisted around him. Golden floorboards moved like water under him; rows of scrolls and books shelved on the walls flickered in candlelight; the very taste of the air seemed cold and diminished, and Jin Guangyao’s woodsy scent with it.
“A-Yao,” he said in shock.
Jin Guangyao closed his eyes briefly. “I know you are surprised,” he replied. “But I implore you to think about it, er-ge.”
The name was what shook Lan Xichen out of his stupor, in the end. Jin Guangyao always said it with the affection and respect given to blood family—now, he said it with a distance that Xichen should be showing him instead, given the inferiority of his status.
“I am… surprised,” he said. “Not angry. I simply wish to know why, and why now.”
“Then it is more than I hoped for. Thank you.”
Lan Xichen nodded awkwardly. At last, his fingers felt the heat of the cup, and he released it.
“You have heard,” Jin Guangyao said softly, “of that incident three days ago in Yiling.”
Xichen could not have escaped the news even if he wished to. Even though he wished to.
Three days ago in Yiling, near the supposed location of a village most of the sects refused to speak of, a young omega woman had been killed in broad daylight. She was stabbed again and again, her body defiled and stripped, her head hung from the very omega house she had tried to escape. It had taken a whole day for Jiang Cheng of Yunmeng to hear of it and have the poor girl’s body retrieved. No more than a few hours later, the three culprits had been flogged to death.
It was a cruel tale, a horrible tale, and although Xichen had seen neither victim nor punishment, he had felt great sorrow when the news reached Gusu. He had felt great sorrow when Wangji’s back bent upon hearing of it, his burden made heavy once more.
“I hear that sect leader Jiang oversaw her funeral,” Lan Xichen said. “If he took care of the purifying, then her spirit should find some peace at least.”
Jiang Cheng was always rather good at setting angry ghosts to rest, for one so temperamental.
“This is the sixth time such a murder takes place since the new year,” Jin Guangyao declared.
Lan Xichen’s mouth opened, though he had no words to reply with.
“I have been keeping my ears open for rumors. Six is the number I could find out, but I have no doubt that several more were carried out and not reported.”
“I had no idea,” Lan Xichen said at last.
Jin Guangyao looked down at his tea with mournful eyes. “Since the new year, I have uncovered evidence of at least thirteen omega running away,” he replied. “Omega houses stand empty all over the land in complete secrecy. No one wishes to admit to losing them or killing them.”
“Where else would they go, but to that village Wei Wuxian built?”
Lan Xichen felt pained, as always, by the sound of that name.
“I know the rumors,” he told Jin Guangyao, looking at him again. “I know what they say about that village. But it has been three years already, A-Yao. The Yiling Patriarch is dead.”
Wei Wuxian was dead, and Wangji would never again sleep in the jingshi.
“There was no one left in the Burial Mounds when all the sects followed Wei Wuxian there,” Jin Guangyao said. He tastefully did not mention what it was they found there instead, though Xichen ached at the memory. “At least a hundred people must have lived there in those years, if we count the Wen sect remnants Wei Wuxian had with him at the start. Could they truly have fled every way and never been caught? Someone must have led them to safety.”
Jin Guangyao was right: nothing had remained of the Burial Mounds except empty makeshift houses, a vegetable garden, cooking pots and furniture and traces of sweetscent in the air.
Lan Xichen could remember entering such a house himself as cultivators raided the cave where Wei Wuxian must have lived. They had come out shouting, their hands full of trinkets and scrolls, while he gazed emptily at the shape of a bed where two people must have slept.
“So you think the rumors are true,” he said, blinking away the memory. “You think another village exists where those runaway omega still live.”
“I think that the omega who are running away now and getting killed for it believe it, yes.”
So this was why Jin Guangyao had invited him today; why he had served Lan Xichen tea and said, before he could even taste it, I plan to open all omega houses.
“I do not disapprove,” Lan Xichen said. He saw surprise on Jin Guangyao’s face, an odd sort of hope and delight even, before he schooled his expression. “But it has only been six months since your father died, A-Yao. I worry for your standing if you should make this decision now.”
For Jin Guangyao would not simply content himself with opening the houses of Lanling; Lan Xichen knew without the need to ask that he would see all houses open, all over the country.
Oh, Lan Xichen had no doubt that the man before him could make the other sects bend the neck eventually. He knew better than most just how hard Jin Guangyao had worked to gain his father’s recognition, to make up for the loss of Jin Guangshan’s legitimate alpha son. He had become a pillar for Madam Jin. He had protected Jiang Yanli when her own standing fell after her husband’s murder.
But it would be no easy task, and Xichen knew now what Jin Guangyao did: that some would rather see their omega dead than free.
“You are not saying what everyone else will,” Jin Guangyao murmured, breaking Xichen out of his thoughts. “That it is unnatural and wrong for them to be raised this way, that I shall only bring forth another Wei Wuxian.”
“I do not believe so,” Lan Xichen replied.
He could tell that Jin Guangyao was surprised by his answer.
Lan Xichen smiled weakly. “There is a child in the Cloud Recesses,” he said. “An omega child. He is still very young, but when the time should have come to sequester him, my uncle refused.”
“Lan Qiren refused?” Jin Guangyao asked, disbelieving.
Lan Xichen nodded. “You know that the omega of the Lan clan died when Wen Xu burned down the Cloud Recesses. My uncle… was quite changed by this event. I think it hurt him deeply to have to bury them.”
It hurt Wangji as well, though Xichen only learned how much years later.
“For a time after this, he lived in seclusion,” Xichen went on. “A servant brought him his meals every day. I was with you for a while in hiding, but when I came back, that servant came to me and told me that my uncle was often muttering to himself about the omega cultivator Cangse Sanren.
“When that boy was born—the son of a distant cousin of ours who lived in Caiyi Town—my uncle allowed his family to live in the Recesses. Even after his parents passed away, and the elders of our clan insisted that he should be taken up the mountain, my uncle opposed them. He said that he had no wish to see another child die.”
“How surprising,” Jin Guangyao said. He had not moved an inch since speaking Lan Qiren’s name.
“It was, to a lot of people,” Lan Xichen agreed. “And even now, my uncle remains stricter to the boy than he is to anyone else. But the child seems happy. I have no doubt that he will wish to become a cultivator in a few years, and I intend to allow it. So no, I do not believe that he or anyone else should be raised differently.”
Xichen felt only some mild guilt at speaking to Jin Guangyao of what was essentially a clan secret. Lan Jingyi was not the kind of secret which they could keep forever: he would grow soon enough into something like adulthood, and Lan Xichen had no desire to see him locked up. No matter what other sects may say of his leadership for it.
They said enough already, and anyway the other child in the Cloud Recesses whom Wangji looked at with ghosts in his eyes felt like a much greater secret to bear.
“They will not allow it easily,” he warned Jin Guangyao, who was deep in thought and looking at his linked hands. The man met his eyes again. “You will have to fight, A-Yao, and many will question your authority and lineage. Some may even accuse you of being the one to steal their runaway omega.”
“A second Yiling Patriarch,” Jin Guangyao said in humor.
“It is the kind of decision Wei Wuxian would have approved of.”
“I have no wish to gain a murderer’s approval.”
Lan Xichen’s hand shook in his lap for the second it took to master himself. He too often thought of Wei Wuxian in ways removed his peers’; he felt shame now, remembering belatedly that Wei Wuxian had killed Jin Guangyao’s brother and cursed his cousin Jin Zixun to die.
Jin Guangyao smiled gently at him. His homely scent always seemed to make the air around him kinder and safer to be in. “Do not worry, er-ge,” he said. “Wei Wuxian and I could not be more different. Who knows what he was thinking when he kidnapped all those people? You saw him just as I did in those last months of his life—he was entirely mad.”
Perhaps Jin Guangyao sensed how much the topic distressed Lan Xichen, for after this, he said no more words of his plans or of Wei Wuxian.
They spoke together of a few more clan affairs. They played the guqin into the late hours of night, Lan Xichen attempting to teach Jin Guangyao the healing songs he had found, buried within the Library Pavillion. Perhaps one of them could soothe Nie Mingjue’s spirit when he came to join them the next day; his temper had suffered much those last few years, and his brother Nie Huaisang had visited Gusu recently to ask for help on his behalf.
Golden Carp Tower was a beautiful place to be when springtime spread over the land and made the flowered gardens bloom. Even at night when they closed and their stalks bent from lack of light, their smell wafted through the open air pleasantly. Lan Xichen made his way to his guest rooms after the careful steps of a servant; he paused when Jiang Yanli appeared under the light of a torch at the end of the pathway.
She had a hand over her son’s shoulder; it tightened at the sight of him protectively. The boy Jin Ling simply looked up, tired and slow in that way young children are after too much playing.
“Sect leader Lan,” Jiang Yanli said.
Lan Xichen bowed at the shoulders. “Good evening, young madam Jin,” he replied. He waited till she bowed as well before rising. “My apologies for interrupting your stroll.”
“You interrupted nothing,” she replied, less obvious in her dislike than her brother was. But then again, Xichen was not Wangji. She squeezed her son’s shoulder and added, “A-Ling, say good evening to sect leader Lan.”
“Good evening,” Jin Ling muttered.
Lan Xichen smiled at him. The boy frowned and shoved his head into his mother’s robes.
“You are here to see A-Yao, sect leader?” Jiang Yanli asked him, unperturbed by the toddler now hugging her leg.
“Yes, I will be staying for a few days.”
“And your brother?”
Xichen inhaled quietly. “Wangji will not join me this time,” he told her. “He was called for a case of spiritual possession before I left.”
Jiang Yanli nodded absently, her hand in her son’s hair, ruffling it gently. To anyone else she would have seemed entirely polite, and no doubt the beta servant leading Xichen to his rooms was bored out of his mind, waiting for them to finish exchanging pleasantries.
But Xichen saw the downturn of her mouth in the flickering light. He saw how her hand moved as she comforted her child, how straight and tense her back was in spite of the injuries there which often forced her to sit or lie down.
Zidian shone at her finger.
“I will impose on you no longer,” he said, bowing again. “I wish you a pleasant evening, and young master Jin Ling too.”
“Good night,” Jin Ling said to him drowsily.
Lan Xichen left them with a smile on his lips and the feeling of being stabbed through the ribs.
That night, he slept fitfully. Vague dreams shook him awake every hour, forcing him out of bed, making him reach for the pitchet of cold water left on the nearest table. Sweat cooled over his skin and made him shiver. His underclothes felt too hot on him, but the world outside too cold to take them off even if propriety had not held him back.
He thought of Jiang Yanli, of Jiang Cheng, mourning the same man as Wangji.
He thought of his brother bleeding out of thirty-three lashes of the discipline whip. Lying prone on a bed with grief carved out of his back and heart. Telling him, I did something terrible, wearing the same face he did when their mother had died.
It felt to Lan Xichen that his palms were not covered with sweat, but blood; that he was once more sitting in the hallway of an inn in Yiling, watching Wen Qing laugh in despair, thinking that the red on her hands and his would never fully wash away.
No alpha or beta hand could be clean even if Jin Guangyao freed every omega.
The day of the hunt on Phoenix Mountain dawned bright and hot. Servants of the Jin sect had worked at securing entrances to the forest as soon as daylight broke over Lanling, shouting and running before the guests arrived, installing tables and shaded spots so that the sect leaders could rest, unbothered by the summer heat.
It was the first such competition to be held since Qishanwen had fallen almost a year ago. Meng Yao oversaw all preparations masterfully, never shying from dirtying his own hands to help despite Jin Guangshan’s frowns. He gave instructions to the cooks before they left that morning, instructing them to reserve the best meat for Nie Mingjue, to keep the alcohol away from Lan Xichen. He read over each missive that his father received and penned answers in his name dutifully.
Jin Zixuan thought his half-brother to be quite competent and helpful.
He was standing now by the open tent where his father had taken place, watching delegations arrive one after the other. He felt glad for the hunting clothes he wore which were loose enough for air to come in and cool his skin. He wondered how Meng Yao was not sweaty, walking around as he did in a full set of robes.
Meng Yao was taking a brief pause now by their father’s other side, and his scent felt cool and comforting next to Jin Guangshan’s liquor-heavy smell. Jin Zixuan took the time to thank him for his work as Jin Guangshan greeted the Ouyang sect leader.
His words were hesitant, and someone overhearing them would likely think them mocking, but Meng Yao smiled at him. He nodded to Zixuan and said, “Thank you, brother.” He never seemed to mind that Jin Zixuan had no way with words.
“Today will erase the memory of the Wen sect’s last competition,” Jin Zixuan told him.
“You’re too kind,” Meng Yao replied
Meng Yao became busy again after this when Jin Guangshan grabbed his arm. Jin Zixuan looked straight ahead once more and thought, flustered, that he could perhaps get used to having an older brother.
Because he was watching the entrance to the path leading down the mountain, he saw Yunmengjiang arrive first.
He was not the first to react, however.
“Oh, Yanli,” his mother said from her end of the tent, rising to her feet with her maid’s help and walking quickly to where the group in purple robes was dismounting their horses.
She had grieved Jiang Yanli’s departure during the Sunshot Campaign, Jin Zixuan knew, and moaned again and again at her decision to go to Yunmeng after the war rather than remain in Lanling. Zixuan himself had found that he missed Jiang Yanli during the first few days. He had gotten used to eating dinner with her and telling her news of the search for Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian. The war had taken his mind off of her after that, though Luo Qingyang had told him of how Jiang Yanli cooked for him every night.
“He came,” Jin Guangshan spat in disgust behind him. “That boy Jiang Cheng still has the audacity to bring him here.”
Jin Zixuan needed not ask who he was referring to; there was only one person that his own eyes seemed to be able to see clearly, and the warmth in his chest was not due to sunlight.
Wei Wuxian had come dressed not in purple, but in black. He should be suffocating under the weight of the sun, but Jin Zixuan was standing close enough to see how pale he was, almost as if he were cold.
He seemed to have lost weight since the last time Jin Zixuan had seen him—when he had come accusing Jin Zixun of terrible crimes and then left, taking with him a whole encampment of Wen sect prisoners. Even then, Zixuan had found him emaciated, and had thought in worry that the war must have been hard on him.
That had been almost a year ago. Wei Wuxian should not look thinner now than he did weeks after Wen Ruohan had died.
“A-Xuan,” his father said in warning when Jin Zixuan took a step outside the cover of tented cloth.
Jin Zixuan hesitated.
For years now, his name had been said in that same tone of warning whenever Wei Wuxian was around. Ever since that time in Gusu, when he had made the mistake of thinking that his father would approve of his choice.
“Do not talk to that boy,” Jin Guangshan whispered furiously. “Do not talk to Jiang Yanli either, no matter what your mother tells you. This clan will bring us nothing but trouble.”
“We will lose face if we do not greet them,” Jin Zixuan said between his teeth.
Meng Yao came back then from greeting Jiang Cheng and his guests, and he interrupted Jin Guangshan by bending down and whispering in his ear: “It seems young master Wei brought it with him…”
Their father lost all interest in scolding Jin Zixuan. Jin Zixuan seized the opportunity to leave, wondering not for the first time if Meng Yao could read minds.
The group from Yunmeng was not far, only a few meters, but he felt as though an eternity went by as he crossed that distance. Each step he took toward Wei Wuxian came lighter than the previous. There was such an odd mix of tension and joy in his heart that he could not tell one from the other long enough to name them.
For almost two years now, he had not had the opportunity to see him. Not properly.
“Sect leader Jiang,” he greeted when he reached them. “Maiden Jiang.”
“Young master Jin,” Jiang Yanli replied with a smile.
She bowed in perfect manners, her brother nodding next to her just as agreeably. Jin Zixuan could remember a time when Jiang Cheng of Yunmeng would frown and speak back to him, his omega sect-brother by his side laughing full-heartedly. Now, Jiang Cheng said nothing at all, and Wei Wuxian looked like he had not smiled in years.
How far away their studies in Gusu seemed.
Jin Zixuan turned to Wei Wuxian with trepidation. “Wei Wuxian,” he said; he nodded his head again, though he wanted nothing less than to stop looking at him.
He wished he could afford to put a hand over his heart in front of so many eyes.
Wei Wuxian did not bow to him. Jin Zixuan had not expected him to—the only time he had seen Wei Wuxian bow had been to Lan Wangji, years ago in Qishan, after the archery competition.
In fact, Wei Wuxian was looking in direction of the Gusu delegation now, his face as pale as death.
“Lan Xichen is here,” he said in a very faint voice.
Jin Zixuan’s heart leaped at the sound of it.
“Of course he’s here,” Jiang Cheng replied in annoyance. “Were you listening to a single word I said when I told you to come? You didn’t even take your sword.”
“Wei Wuxian,” Zixuan said once more. “Is something the matter?”
Wei Wuxian looked at him as if he were only now noticing his presence. Weight loss had carved lines of fatigue into his face, and his eyes were unfocused. His mouth closed. He licked his dry lips.
“Jin Zixuan,” he said at last.
But Jin Zixuan could not rejoice in hearing his name in that voice, not when Wei Wuxian looked so distressed. Before he could say anything more, Wei Wuxian started walking away.
“Where are you going?” Jiang Cheng called after him.
“I’m taking a walk, Jiang Cheng.”
The anger in his voice seemed darker and truer than what Jin Zixuan could remember of his youth, watching the two of them exchange inane spats over the quiet ponds of the Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng’s frown dug deeply into his forehead; when he clenched his teeth, Jin Zixuan saw his jawbone swell under his skin.
Next to him, Jiang Yanli stayed very proper. “Thank you for inviting us, young master Jin,” she told Jin Zixuan. He had no need to be as good a person-reader as Meng Yao to see that she was exhausted and worried; the bags under her eyes were almost as bad as when he had found her on the front steps of the Tower and taken her under his protection.
“Of course,” he replied in confusion. “Maiden Jiang, is everything…”
She smiled fleetingly. “A-Xian has not been himself lately,” she said. “Please forgive his rudeness. He seems to have come down with a cold.”
Then she took her brother by the arm and led him away with heavy steps.
Jin Zixuan stayed right where he stood, knowing not how to proceed.
For weeks now he had anticipated that day to the point of sleeplessness. As soon as Meng Yao had voiced the idea of organizing a hunt to keep up tradition—as soon as he had understood what it would mean to invite all the great sects—he had lent him his support. He had helped his father and half-brother prepare everything. He had trained with bow and sword to learn again how to compete, knowing that his experience of fighting had been tainted by war, that he should not strike to kill this time.
He had known that Wei Wuxian would be coming, and he had been eager for it. Although there had been no time to talk to him on the day he had stormed into the Tower and threatened Jin Zixun, Jin Zixuan had not forgotten the promise he had made himself after the Lotus Pier had burned.
I will help him even if he does not want me to.
Even if all the sects now feared him and called him Yiling Patriarch, even if people spoke in horror of him thieving omega all over the land.
Wei Wuxian had already walked far toward the edge of the forest. He could not enter before the hunt had officially begun, and even from afar, Jin Zixuan could see the servants of his house barring passage and looking at him rudely. Wei Wuxian did not seem to mind; he looked back at the assembly from time to time. He looked at Lan Xichen, who was not looking at him.
Lan Wangji was, however. White-clad and spotless despite the dusty ground, his silver bow over his shoulder, his somber face gone soft with worry. His pale eyes never once left Wei Wuxian’s back.
Jin Zixuan frowned and turned away.
It mattered not if things were more awkward than he had expected. Today was still the same day he had waited for, the same circumstances. He would find Wei Wuxian after the hunt had begun; he would talk to him in the forest, away from pring eyes, unchaperoned like they had been in the rocky mountains of the Nightless City.
He would bow with a hand over his heart. He would tell Wei Wuxian what he had felt for him since they were just children—since he had visited Yunmeng with his mother and been ordered to talk to Jiang Yanli, and he had sat next to her and not said a word to her and watched the young omega boy play in the water below him, the honeyscent of him so sweet that he had barely dared to breathe.
He didn’t care anymore what his father thought. Jin Zixuan had fought the war for him while he cowered in Lanling, he had protected Jiang Yanli, he had driven the Jin clan out of the shame of having given Wen Ruohan so much leeway.
He would be a coward no longer.