Index: Prologue – Chapter 1 – Chapter 2 – Chapter 3 – Chapter 4 – Chapter 5 – Chapter 6 – Chapter 7 – Chapter 8 – Interlude 1 – Chapter 9 – Chapter 10 – Chapter 11 – Chapter 12 – Chapter 13 – Chapter 14 – Chapter 15 – Chapter 16 – Interlude 2 – Chapter 17 – Chapter 18 – Chapter 19 – Chapter 20 – Chapter 21 – Chapter 22 – Chapter 23 – Chapter 24 – Interlude 3 – Chapter 25
Length: 278,900 total
Warnings: off-screen rape, oppression, violence, sexual assault, grief/mourning, unwanted pregnancy.
APRIL 30, 2021: I have decided to edit this story and replace the terms alpha/beta/omega with words used by Chinese fic authors, as I feel it suits the setting better. Alpha will therefore become qianyuan; beta, zhongyong; and omega, kunze. Nothing else will change. Hope this doesn’t affect anyone’s enjoyment of the story! Happy reading (or, well, as happy as possible).
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
Cangse Sanren was not beautiful.
That was what people who never knew her recalled the easiest. She was tall and lean from cultivation, her face too handsome to be called pretty, her hands hard and callused. Not soft as they ought to be.
Boisterous, Lan Qiren had called her in seething outrage. Irreverent. Disrespectful. Cangse Sanren refused affiliation with any sect, came and went wherever she pleased, offending masters left and right. Lan Qiren declared with all the wisdom of a man only a handful of years older that she may never find a spouse; that no cultivator with a shred of dignity would wed her.
Those masters were once boys and girls, after all. Children suckling lies at the teat of their mothers, about beauty and frailty, about rarity and desirability.
They live secluded, they would learn. Surrounded by a sickly smell, like flowers, like fruit. One must never harm them.
Fragile. Unsuited for combat or cultivation. Made to be owned like jewelry, like carved jade jailing light, like lacquered boxes exposed on dusty shelves.
When Cangse Sanren came down from that mountain wielding powers unknown to all, she turned a page in history.
Jiang Fengmian remembered her in sweetness and in pain, and to him, she was the most beautiful any human could hope to be.
She was older than him. A sister perhaps, to make up for the family he had lost, though Jiang Fengmian never held the illusion that his feelings for her were close to brotherly. She was something of a dream he could never let go of even after being wed to beautiful and deadly Yu Ziyuan, even after watching Cangse Sanren fall in love with Wei Changze and become round with his child.
He remembered seeing her in that bed with little Wei Ying in her arms after hours of labor; he remembered the scent of the child, milky and sweet, remembered how Cangse Sanren had held Wei Changze’s hand and said, laughing, “He’s just like me.”
Such simple pride. Such honest pleasure. Jiang Fengmian looked at the sleeping babe and fell, if possible, a little more in love.
Yu Ziyuan gave him an heir not a week after that. A-Cheng was born strong and loud, smelling of storm, of upturned earth—smelling of his mother. Jiang Fengmian sat by his wife’s bed as she fed the wailing child, a finger touching A-Cheng’s plump hand which would one day wear Zidian. Yu Ziyuan said nothing at all to him, to her son, except for a few words:
“You will never touch me again.”
A-Li loved the babe. She spent all the time that her parents did not by his bedside, singing to him, rocking him in her arms, whispering love to Jiang Cheng’s wrinkled little ears as if afraid that he would grow deaf to it.
Jiang Fegmian thought of Cangse Sanren holding her little boy, of his sworn brother Wei Changze looking at his partner and son with pride, entirely heedless of what a world like theirs wanted, and felt jealousy and shame war through his very flesh.
He wished for a child smelling of milk and honey.
It would take him years to regret this wish. He kept his word to Yu Ziyuan; he never again laid a finger on her, suffered her bitterness in silence, let her rule over her half of the Lotus Pier so that she may cling to this much freedom.
Jiang Fengmian loved his children. Perhaps it wasn’t as immediate and all-consuming as he had wished, perhaps he would never achieve the sort of aching sincerity found in the Wei family’s nursery, but he loved them fiercely. A-Li’s kindness made him proud. A-Cheng’s temper made him laugh. He walked the both of them through their first steps of cultivation under his wife’s oddly peaceful watch, and for a while, he thought that perhaps he could make family work.
Then the day of Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze’s death dawned frostily over Yunmeng.
In his grief, Jiang Fengmian all but forgot about Wei Ying. For days on end he kept secluded to his quarters. He didn’t go to the funeral. He didn’t pray or kneel. He took no part in the chasing of the corpses that had torn apart his friends.
He sat on his wooden bed and weeped unseen tears until the day seven-year-old A-Cheng pushed open the door to see him.
Jiang Fengmian looked at his son without understanding a word of what the boy was saying. A-Cheng’s temper simmered rather than boiled, but now he seemed upset, the scent of him heavy and damp in the face of his childish emotions, and Jiang Fengmian remembered.
It took him two years to find Wei Ying. He hadn’t seen the boy in so long then that when he first laid eyes on him, he thought his mind must be gone. The child was filthy, a skinny little thing fighting dogs for food in some abandoned town in Yiling, his scent almost erased by the stench of unwashed bodies. So wild did he seem that Jiang Fengmian almost walked past without recognizing him; he chased the dogs away, offered the poor boy food, and was ready to leave when Wei Ying lifted bright grey eyes to him and said Thank you.
He smiled like Cangse Sanren smiled.
“Wei Ying,” Jiang Fengmian called. “Come here.”
It took a while. Perhaps the boy had been too young, had forgotten the sound of his own name. But eventually he did come.
Jiang Fengmian didn’t suffer Yu Ziyuan’s anger passively that night. He stood his grounds despite her vitriol—What foolishness is this? What of A-Cheng? Where shall you raise a kunze child in this household, what of gossip, what of me?
They would’ve done the same if you and I had died, Jiang Fengmian told her. A-Cheng will learn to accept Wei Ying as a brother. I do not intend to raise him any differently than my own children. You are stronger than anything servants could say.
Yu Ziyuan broke a vase standing by her dresser.
And for the years that followed, his every prediction came true. A-Cheng threw tantrums and screamed and cried, but Wei Ying was mischievous and bright, and soon enough rancor was replaced with laughter. Jiang Fengmian succinctly announced the coming of a new member of the Jiang sect to his disciples and taught Wei Ying everything he knew, paying no mind at all to the gossip, to the sideways glances and murmurs.
No doubt this would have been easier had Wei Ying been zhongyong or qianyuan, but he was not, and others would learn to deal with it just as they had learned to deal with Cangse Sanren. Jiang Fengmian would not deprive her son of power when she herself had been so talented, and had strived so hard and for so long to prove herself.
Wei Ying had inherited it all from her. He took to cultivation like a starved animal to freshwater, progressing faster and better than any other disciple his age. Jiang Fengmian named him senior disciple, despite the bare five days separating him and A-Cheng in age. Yu Ziyuan seethed and simmered in her unending bitterness.
Those days at the Lotus Pier were filled with laughter despite the tension. Wei Ying soon learned to laugh and smile wide and unhindered, to move and touch and run like the worst of them. Like his mother, he grew handsome rather than pretty, tall and lean and scrappy; a very far cry from the stories of silks and sweetness taught to all young qianyuan. He wore clothes fit for running around in. He tied his hair up with a simple red string. Everywhere he went the scent of honey followed him, marred only by sweat, by dust, by the smell of cooked meat.
Then they all grew. From children to teenagers, to almost-adults. Jin Zixuan came to visit more often now that A-Li came close to being of marrying age. Jiang Fengmian saw the boy’s eyes trail off of her to look at the newly-named Wei Wuxian instead; he thought of his own eyes leaving Yu Ziyuan’s pretty face to follow the sound of Cangse Sanren’s laughter, and he said nothing at all.
In his heart of hearts, he deplored that A-Cheng never seemed to develop the same affection. It would’ve been a comfort to secure A-Xian’s future so close to home. It would be soothing, a balm, a quiet happiness, to know Cangse Sanren’s son to be family.
He knew better than to try and force it upon them.
Time went by like a trickling stream. High voices and unruly brawling and the sound of A-Li’s quiet disapproval. Yu Ziyuan grew colder and colder, keeping to herself and her trusted pair of handmaidens. A-Cheng’s admiration for A-Xian tinted itself with jealousy. Jiang Fengmian stopped knowing how to placate his son’s moods—he stopped trying.
Wei Wuxian bloomed, filled to the heart with water and sunlight, the shape of his smile permanently etched inside Jiang Fengmian’s heart, next to the memory of his mother.
When Wei Wuxian woke up gasping from the bleak depths of the afterlife, he didn’t move at all.
Someone was beating him, he felt. Kicks and shoves more annoying than truly painful, which only served to clear his sluggish head, to make him wonder—where am I? Why am I here?
Whose body am I in?
He lay on the dirt floor of the shack without hearing a word spouted at him. His head seemed fogged, memories and feelings alike blended into each other, entirely incomprehensible. He knew he was dead; he remembered breaking apart the seal, breaking himself apart; he felt deep within his heart that years had passed between then and now, and he felt as though he had experienced those years, although already his knowledge of the afterlife slipped through his fingers like smoke.
It was as if trying to remember a dream. The harder he tried, the less he knew.
Only hours later did he bother moving. The very act of breathing felt like so much effort. He took in the bloody array he was laid in, watched a stranger’s face stare back at him in the small mirror poised against a shabby table, felt his left arm sting from unhealed cuts.
Mo Xuanyu, he thought blearily. That was the name that the young man who had kicked him around had called him.
Something weighed deeply in his chest. Something he hadn’t felt in years, a badly-scarred wound whose pain he must have grown used to. Now in its absence, it felt more tender than ever. Wei Wuxian clenched the fabric over his chest and tried to remember how to breathe.
He had forgotten how heavy a heart was.