NOTE: I’ve edited the story to replace the terms alpha/beta/omega with those used by Chinese authors of omegaverse fic. Alpha is now qianyuan, beta is zhongyong, and omega is kunze. I think it suits the story better 🙂
Warnings: sexual harassment of a minor, suicide, Jiang Cheng’s Very Bad Not Good Day.
and the calm is deep where the quiet waters flow
When he still lived within the house of his ancestors, He Xiwang had heard of the forsaken kunze of Yiling. The teacher who came once every few days to teach him and the lone other inhabitant of the place informed them, with pinched and pale lips, of the one called Wei Wuxian; he warned them, in words heavy with disgust, that one day the Yiling Patriarch would come fetch them if ever they strayed out of path. Come and take their bodies and their souls.
Be obedient, she would say. Be virtuous, or he shall come for you.
But when the Yiling Patriarch did come—when the red oakwood door split in two in the dark of the night, and cool and fresh-smelling air invaded the stuffy space of the shack for the first time since the teacher had last come—He Xiwang had not done anything reprehensible.
“No,” moaned He Xiwang’s housemate as talismans burned over the debris of the door; “Oh, why us, why this!” she cried.
Through the smoke came the silhouette of a tall man; and he stood before them, looking them in the eye and speaking plainly— “My name is Wei Wuxian. I’ve come to offer you a choice.”
He did not cover his nose with a fan or a hand, as their teacher oft did, for He Xiwang was told his scent had become overbearing in the years since his maturity. He stared at the cowering form of He Xiwang’s housemate and then into He Xiwang’s eyes; and the Yiling Patriarch’s eyes were a clear grey, He Xiwang realized; and he was not a man grown, wearing a demon’s mask, but a young one, handsome and agreeably-voiced. As young as He Xiwang himself, in fact.
He came not with darkness behind him, but starlight. Sweet and kind starlight pricking the velvet-black sky which He Xiwang saw in full for the first time.
The night and day of travel that He Xiwang spent with guilt and fright burning down in his throat were the longest he ever was in Wei Wuxian’s company. They had left as soon as He Xiwang had nodded his assent, without a word addressed to the other kunze of the house who had wept and wept until they were too far to hear her. Wei Wuxian never spoke to him then outside of necessity— “Here,” he would murmur as he handed He Xiwang food and bitter-tasting medicine to hide his scent; or, “Sleep now, the road will be long tomorrow,” said with eyes averted as he sat by the entrance of a cave they had picked for shelter. His solid back casting a long shadow overground.
He Xiwang wondered, faintly, if Wei Wuxian intended to sleep. But he was too shy and frightened to ask, and too tired as well after the hours of riding. His back and thighs burned with fatigue. He slept over the ground as if cuddled into the sheets of his bed, and when he woke as the sun set, Wei Wuxian had not moved.
Wei Wuxian rose. He folded the cover which He Xiwang had slept in, handed him food again, smothered the small fire he had built for warmth.
In the Burial Mounds of Yiling, He Xiwang found not an army of starved corpses, but a village. He met the sharp-scented Wen Qing who introduced herself as kunze and put him to work with a stern-faced seamstress. He saw an old woman play with a child in the gentle spring sun, and flowers budding on trees only now recalling how to grow them.
“Can we not leave?” he asked one day after weeks had gone by.
Life here was not unpleasant. The other kunze were gentle, except for Luo Fanghua who said nary a word. The qianyuan of the Wen sect kept far from him, although they smiled to him whenever he looked their way, as if they knew very well the embarrassment that being seen by them meant to him. But He Xiwang had long imagined himself free; he had yearned for travel, for the sight of mountains and rivers as he glimpsed them while coming here on horseback, for the sea, even, which he had read about in books.
“Of course,” said Grandmother. Luo Fanghua had only looked at him in mild disdain. “See with maiden Wen, she will provide you with moonless tea. Although A-Yuan will be sad to see you go.”
He Xiwang had to admit that the young Wen Yuan was a cheerful and adorable child, and that he did not mind at all seeing him run around and bother everyone’s habits. Even now, he napped in Grandmother’s lap, his little face scrunched cutely.
“Whose child is he?” he had asked after the first day. And Grandmother had stroked the sleeping child’s brow in silence with her lips stretched sadly, and Luo Fanghua had put food before He Xiwang with more strength than necessary, and replied in a harsh voice, “No one’s.”
“Why do you want to leave?” Luo Fanghua asked sharply.
He Xiwang stilled with his hands in the water.
He was dyeing fabrics with her. She, too, had blue stains over her wrists and forearms, and was sweating a bit under the bright daylight. Luo Fanghua walked with a limp and an ever-creased brow, but she was intimidating. He Xiwang often regretted accepting to share a house with her.
He was more beautiful than her. In fact he was more beautiful than any of them here, he knew, save for one man whose name he did not know, and who slept every night in one of the oldest houses. His marriage prospects had been great when he lived within his sect. If he were to leave now and roam the world, he could find a love like in the stories. He could be accepted again.
Emboldened by the thought of finally sharing the frustration he felt, he told her, “I did not think I was trading one prison for another when I came here. But all of you act like you cannot leave either. You do not even trade with the merchants in the village yourself, maiden Luo.”
Luo Fanghua looked at him as though he were filth beneath her foot. Her lips thinned and whitened, and she squared her skinny shoulders and rose to all of her tall height.
Grandmother laughed suddenly. She called, “Young master, you’re back,” and Luo Fanghua bowed the neck again immediately.
He Xiwang turned to look where Grandmother was looking—Wei Wuxian was approaching, looking more exhausted than the last time He Xiwang had seen him, his black robes stained with dirt from his journey. Behind him, a fearful-looking girl was being led away by Wen Qing.
Wei Wuxian nodded to He Xiwang quickly, to Luo Fanghua as well. He seemed to hesitate when he saw Grandmother and A-Yuan; he greeted her in a soft voice so as not to wake the child, and made as if to leave again, his pale face now even paler.
“Young master,” Grandmother said before he could. Wei Wuxian’s back tensed. “Little master He says he wishes to leave us.”
He Xiwang blushed harshly, almost spluttering, looking between the old woman and Wei Wuxian in sudden fear. Never before had he confronted Wei Wuxian on anything, and he had not planned to, despite his brave words earlier. The man was too fearsome! He Xiwang could barely speak a word of greeting to him, once a week, without feeling frightened. Wei Wuxian had never answered him with more than a passing nod.
Wei Wuxian did not grow angry, however. He faced He Xiwang with no surprise on his lips or in his eyes—which were a familiar pale grey, He Xiwang thought amidst his embarrassment. Like Wen Yuan’s.
“Do you?” Wei Wuxian asked him directly.
They were the first words he had addressed to He Xiwang since breaking down that redwood door and standing, silently, as He Xiwang looked at the stars and cried.
“I—I simply wondered if, if that was a possibility,” He Xiwang stuttered. He had to bite down on the title of master which tried to leave his lips—Wei Wuxian was no master of his. No one was, not anymore. “Of course, if—I mean—I am grateful, I wouldn’t want you to think—”
But his words lost themselves and knocked into each other uselessly. He could feel the weight of Luo Fanghua’s gaze by his side, mocking, judging. She had no need of words to carry over her opinion of him.
Wei Wuxian did not interrupt him. He waited till He Xiwang finally ceased trying to make sense of his own words and looked at the ground between them, his face all hot with blood.
Only then did he speak. “If you want to leave, you can come with me,” he declared. “Wen Qing will be done showing maiden Xu to her home soon, we can brew the drugs for you and help you pack your things.”
He Xiwang’s heart beat wildly.
Wei Wuxian’s voice—from what little he knew of it—did not sound angered or disappointed. He wore no ill feelings on his sharp face either when He Xiwang looked up, only that same endless neutrality. Only that look of strength which had made He Xiwang follow him into the night, and that same breadth in his shoulders which had allowed him to sleep despite the guilt.
“No need to trouble yourself, young master,” said Grandmother, making Wei Wuxian look at her. “Truly, you are too kind, always insisting to help by yourself.”
“I hardly do anything. You’re the master of this place, Grandmother.”
Was that a joke? Had the frightening, dry-tongued Wei Wuxian meant to make her laugh?
Grandmother tutted, but she looked cheerful. She then falsely chided him: “If Qing’er could hear you, she would have words for you about this, pretending she doesn’t have us all walking to her every order!”
Grandmother laughed at her own words. Several kunze had approached when they saw Wei Wuxian stop in his track to converse with her; all of them hid giggles behind their hands and sleeves, sharing happy glances. Luo Fanghua looked at the ground, her mouth twitching, and Wei Wuxian…
Wei Wuxian smiled.
His face loosened suddenly. Tension ebbed out of his brow and chin, and the sternness of him vanished at all once. He had dimples, He Xiwang realized, little creases of skin around his mouth that looked as though a grin were always meant to fit there. He Xiwang felt the fear in his own chest eke out and be replaced by warmth; and as Wei Wuxian looked at him again with that smile, younger and healthier-looking than a second ago, He Xiwang wondered distantly that anyone could have beheld this man and called him a monster.
It left almost as quick as it had come: Wei Wuxian’s mouth thinned again amidst the still-breathed looks given to him, once more become distant and inscrutable. He Xiwang blinked; the sunlight seemed to have dimmed.
“You’re busy now,” Wei Wuxian said to him. “But come see me or Wen Qing when you’re done.”
With great effort, He Xiwang opened his mouth. “I was only thinking of it, I… I haven’t made a decision.”
Wei Wuxian nodded. He turned his back to them, saying, “Take your time, young master He. This offer will always be standing.”
Then he left in the direction of his cave, out of which he hardly stepped when he was here and not roaming the lands for kunze to free. For people to free. He Xiwang stared at his back dazedly.
He heard more giggles around him, amused and light-hearted. His head snapped aside to the group: many of them were giving him sly, sympathetic looks or nodding to themselves, and Grandmother was smiling as well, patting A-Yuan’s head. The child smiled in his sleep. The plump skin of his cheeks dipped into creases as he did, just like Wei Wuxian’s had.
“You too, little master He, mmh,” Grandmother said contentedly.
Luo Fanghua plunged her hands back into the dye with abrupt strength, her back swaying with the motion. Her lips shivered and stretched, softening the flushed skin of her face. She looked tender and loving.
A piece of fried fish landed on the cloth stretched over Jiang Cheng’s parted knees, slipping out of his wooden chopsticks, and he cursed under his breath. With a habitual glance in the direction of the Wen children dining and conversing a few steps away, he quickly brushed away the food. He had to let go of the wooden scroll he had been perched over in thought; and then, it was the cup of lukewarm tea that the scroll knocked against, spilling drop over its length, threatening to blurry the inkstrokes of Nie Huaisang’s flowery calligraphy.
One of those days, then.
He sighed to himself softly. His hand came up to rub over his tired face, and he felt with a wince the remnants of dust and grime from his long journey home. Stubble scratched at his fingers when they came to the low of his cheeks. With another moue of dislike, he thought of what his sister would say if she could see him now.
As if called by the thought of Jiang Yanli alone, Wen Yueying leant over her side of the table she shared with Wen Yiqian and asked, “Sect leader, when is Yanli-jie coming?”
Wen Yiqian next to her looked up at him as well, his forlorn eyes blinking slowly.
I’ve told you at least five times, he thought. As he was never very at ease with speaking to her—to either three of them, truly—he simply replied, “In six days,” curtly.
It mattered not which tone he chose to speak with anyway. As always, Wen Yueying laughed, jovial; and she leant backwards with her knees spread widely under the low table, in that peculiar way of hers that he could never quite look at. The shadow that her body cast against the wall behind never seemed to belong to her when she did, and the laughter which Jiang Cheng heard came out of a different voice.
He cleared his throat, pawing blindly at the table to grab hold of Nie Huaisang’s missive again—cursing the useless man for preferring wood to paper like a caveman as it once more bumped into the tea. At her side of the room, Wen Yueying was bent over Wen Yiqian and telling him, “Did you hear? That means Linfeng-jie’s coming home soon, too.”
“I’m not stupid,” replied Wen Yiqian dryly.
His voice was always raspy with unuse, never mind the fact that he did speak to her daily. It was only Jiang Cheng he never spoke to—Jiang Cheng and, it seemed, the whole of the world.
Wen Yiqian was a quiet boy, a picky eater, and the years since he had come to live in the Lotus Pier had not erased those habits out of him. If anything, they had become sharper and finer. Whereas Wen Yueying had become louder, brasher, and made the very sight of her so difficult for Jiang Cheng to withstand with every year that passed, the boy never mimicked her. He kneeled for dinner with his back as straight as a ruler. He never let a piece of food escape him in the uncouth way Jiang Cheng did. His eyelids brushed down the length of his wide eyes with a delicacy reserved for portraiture, and for all that the boy was only fifteen, he seemed more mature than even the ever-terrified Wen Linfeng was.
One of those days, Jiang Cheng thought once more, fitting his forehead to the curve of one tired hand, massaging his temples futilely. He swiftly chased away his usual musings of why, exactly, Wen Linfeng could never stand in his presence without shaking.
It would be fine this time, he told himself. Yanli would be there to quiet her, and little Jin Ling too. She could take care of distracting Wen Linfeng in his presence and soothe away the girl’s fear that Jiang Cheng would one day turn on his heels and strike her.
Jiang Cheng pushed away the table before him abruptly as he rose. He hesitated with another glance to Nie Huaisang’s letter—deciding at last that he didn’t care for it, or for whatever new bout of insanity the man’s brother had been plagued by that Huaisang felt the need to beg him about. Nie Mingjue had Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao to take care of him. Jiang Cheng was no spiritual musician and, in honesty, hated to be in the presence of those who were.
“I won’t dine with you tomorrow,” he told the children brusquely. The lone step he took down the elevated corner his table was set upon ached through his back. He longed for a hot bath and for the kind touch of a bed. “Sect leader Ouyang will be coming to discuss the next archery competition.”
The sound of breaking porcelain cut sharply through the silence.
When Jiang Cheng turned the head in surprise, he found a tea bowl rolling across the wide length of the hall and settling, loudly, not far from his own feet. A chip shaped like an arrowhead now cut diagonally across the finely-polished paint of it.
Wen Yueying was standing upright behind her own table. She seemed flustered all of a sudden, the training clothes she wore still stained with the day’s dust and fluttering across her chest. No, not fluttering, Jiang Cheng realized, bewildered; she was shaking and breathing audibly.
The heady flowerscent of her twined with each of her sharp exhales. It was a glare she was giving him now, and Jiang Cheng saw, astonished, that tears were gathering in her bright eyes and threatening to fall down her violently-flushed cheeks.
What? he wanted to snap at her. The same unease he always felt in her presence and the presence of the other two Wen children always made it so hard to speak to them without being abrupt.
But he had never seen her like this before. Wen Yueying had never shed a tear in his presence that he could recall.
Wen Yueying turned her tearful face to the boy by her side silently.
Wen Yiqian was holding his own bowl in hand. As he lifted it to his mouth with the poise imbued in him, the golden tea in it shivered.
Jiang Cheng had no idea what to do. He had no idea what to think, in fact. Some great and twisted weight seemed to have settled over the room; and as always when faced with something he found confusing, he chose to let irritation take over.
What’s wrong with you two now, he thought, and said, “Go and do whatever you want. I’ll take my leave.”
Without further ado, he left the hall behind.
He tried to let his mind wander to other things as he made his way through the winding pathways of the Pier’s manor. He bent the head to step out of a covered corridor and onto the wooden bridge leading to his quarters, avoiding the low roof’s edge in habit—too often had he knocked his head there in distraction. He reexamined the last few days of hunting through the ghoul-infested border between Lanling and Yunmeng, close to Yunping City where that great Guanyin temple had been built a year ago. Strange things kept showing there for no reason that he or any cultivator of the region could understand. Ghosts and wandering corpses and even the odd fierce beast, whose rotten cores always ended up on the ground after their bodies vanished in black ashes. Glimmering in the moonlight like an omen.
Thinking of the hunt, however, made Jiang Cheng think of crossing paths with Lan Xichen who had gone there alongside a few Jin disciples, and that memory was not any better than the rest.
“Mind the path you tread on, Zewu-Jun,” he had bitterly reminded him. “Keep hiding that brother of yours if you want him to live.”
Zewu-Jun had bowed the shoulders to him in silence, his frosty eyes level with Jiang Cheng’s on.
Fury still simmered in him at the picture of it. He thought a part of him would never stop aching to march upon the Cloud Recesses and ransack the mountain whole until he could drag Lan Wangji out of whichever hole the coward had curled into.
Then Jiang Cheng’s tumultuous mind could think of nothing at all, for two hands had grabbed his sleeve and were pulling him back harshly.
“What the—” he bit out, ready to cleanse each floorboard with the blood of whoever had the gall to grab him, but when he slapped away those hands and turned around, Wen Yueying was standing there.
Standing there and heaving, the echo of her running steps still shimmering along the still water beneath their feet.
They looked at each other in silence for a second. Wen Yueying’s face was still crimson, and the fists that her wide hands had clenched into were shaking by her sides.
Before Jiang Cheng could find anything to say at all, she asked snappishly, “Why is he coming here?”
He frowned. “Mind your manners,” he ordered.
He may be more lenient with her and the other two Wen children than he was with his disciples, but he would not suffer being addressed so casually.
Wen Yueying did not heed his words, however. She blinked her bright eyes at him, still shaking through the shoulders. “Why is he coming?” she repeated. “Sect leader Jiang,” she added, giving him another rueful glance.
“Why is who coming?”
“Sect leader Ouyang.”
Jiang Cheng stared at her in silence for a moment. “That’s none of your business,” he replied at last. “Just keep to your end of the house while I deal with clan affairs. You’re old enough to survive a few days unsupervised.”
Servants would be there to watch over her and Wen Yiqian anyway.
But Wen Yueying, far from looking satisfied at his answer, finally let tears drip out of her eyes. The red skin of her face looked hot enough that he thought, faintly, that they should vaporize before reaching her chin.
“I hate you,” she sobbed at him then. She sucked in a loud breath, saying again: “I hate you!”
Jiang Cheng could only stare at her with his mouth open like a fool.
She sobbed some more, tremors making her body sway where she stood. Both of her hands came to press over her leaking eyes, making her back bend forth as if to bow, and for no reason that he could name, this was what made him suddenly snap out of his stupor.
She was so tall now. Taller than Wen Linfeng and Wen Yiqian and many of his own disciples. The top of her head came only a bare inch short of his own shoulder, and he was no small man. Seeing her curl unto herself like this was all sorts of wrong.
Jiang Cheng had lifted a hand before he could ask himself why—or ask himself where he meant to put it—but Wen Yueying lifted her head again, disheveled and furious, and gave him a glare filled with loathing.
She spat at him, “A-Ying would be ashamed of you.”
And as those words froze within him, knocking his whole lungs out of air, making him feel like falling in a lake mid-winter, Wen Yueying ran away.
The sound of her footsteps seemed to resonate around him for eons. Jiang Cheng stood still and breathless for longer than he could fathom, his mind washed of all thought and his body made out of stone. When at last he managed to move, it was to catch his weight upon the ledge of the woodbridge.
Servants skittered before him and greeted him softly. One of his younger disciples sneaked behind a corner of the mansion and yelped to see him there, but Jiang Cheng could hardly find the words to berate her for being out after curfew. He could not even remember the girl’s name.
A-Ying would be ashamed of you, Wen Yueying’s voice echoed within his head. A-Ying would be ashamed of you.
As he bathed, as he slid into clean clothes at last, as he lay upon soft sheets for the first time in days, those words sussured along his ears like the cool breath of winter wind.
Ouyang Zhi arrived the next day with the coming of midday warmth. He greeted Jiang Cheng with a wide smile and a firm grasp of his arm, which Jiang Cheng gave back in earnest. Though his sleep had been fitful and soreness lingered in his limbs after the days of hunting, Ouyang Zhi’s presence was always a relief to him. Too few of his friendships had remained as solid as this one through the years.
“It’s so good to see you, Wanyin-xiong,” said Ouyang Zhi as Jiang Cheng led him through the main hall of the manor. “Ah, the Lotus Pier is always so beautiful. I wish my home were half as splendid as yours.”
“It hasn’t been that long,” Jiang Cheng replied.
Oddly enough, there was a man following behind Ouyang Zhi, who bowed to Jiang Cheng in a way reminiscent of a trembling rodent. The tepid zhongyong-scent following him was almost non-existent.
As Ouyang Zhi showed no intention of introducing the man at all, Jiang Cheng simply ignored him.
“Six months are enough to drive one mad, my friend,” the Ouyang sect leader was saying now. “Heavens be blessed, my wife has been too busy taking care of Zizhen to be over my back, but I still miss the old days.”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure what old days the man was referring to, and elected not to ask.
They spent the afternoon in the most lavish study of the house: a room perched above a wooden dock and under which the lake spread. At this time of the year, lotuses were emerging along the blue-green waters and filling the warm wind with pleasant sweetness. Each of the walls here was in truth not a wall, but a sliding door which could be opened in full. With the tea-flowers Ouyang Zhi prefered steeping next to them, and despite the mind-numbing affairs of planning the competition, Jiang Cheng found himself relaxing.
Wen Yueying’s words slipped out of his mind to make way for more important things.
All the while, however, the skittish man Ouyang Zhi had brought with him kneeled in a corner of the room. He seemed not to wish to say anything; he spent the hours looking around, drinking from a cup of his own, fiddling with what looked like a stack of paper tied together with string. When Jiang Cheng met his gaze, the man smiled nervously. When the lukewarm noon sun turned to languid evening heat, he tugged at the collar of his robes and simply stayed where he was.
Jiang Cheng could not help but feel that something was evading him. Although Ouyang Zhi never showed any sign of being less than his usual self, and Jiang Cheng and him focused only on the money to be spent on food, service, entertainment, the zhongyong man’s presence was like an itch. A scratchy patch of skin at the center of the back where fingers could never quite reach.
When the blue sky set in tones of pink and red and the hot wind finally turned cooler, Jiang Cheng called an end to their work. He watched Ouyang Zhi rise to his feet and stretch his back with a frown. The man in the corner of the room had jumped upright as well, a nervous smile agitating his face.
Jiang Cheng hesitated; figuring that he risked nothing by asking, and that he was foolish for being so careful in his own home, he called: “Zhi-xiong.”
He gestured to the man in the back with a hand. He did not rise. “Was there something else you needed?” he asked.
“Oh!” Ouyang Zhi exclaimed. His own smile was much warmer than the zhongyong man’s was, and he laughed unabashedly. “This is one of the finance masters of my sect. I meant to talk to you about something else.”
“You want to buy something?”
“It’s nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow,” Ouyang Zhi replied.
He lent a hand forward to help Jiang Cheng stand up. Jiang Cheng accepted it with a grunt of displeasure, the way he used to as a child, and as Ouyang Zhi laughed again and went on his way to fix himself for dinner, the worry slipped from his mind.
There were many things to buy in the Lotus Pier, among them the items in his mother’s famed armory. Many people had already come with offers for such or such treasured weapon. Yanli usually took care of those affairs; she had been the one their mother taught about her collection, and she knew better than he could what could be given up and what was meant to stay.
As his sister was supposed to visit in a few days, Jiang Cheng assumed that Ouyang Zhi wanted to wait for her to discuss things. He was less worried about that than he was about what Wen Yueying planned to do with little Jin Ling this time.
He still refused to smile at the memory of the toddler entirely dressed in lotus leaves, shrieking out of his horridly loud lungs, Wen Yueying laughing herself to tears next to him.
Wen Yueying had only ever lived like this under his eyes. Laughing. Running around, staining herself with mud, making the peasants of the Pier complain about her theft of lotus seeds.
He had not been in her company at all in the months after Jin Ling’s birth; this time was spent by his sister’s side as the awful gash tearing her back from hip to nape healed, so that he could help her care for the baby. Wen Yueying must have cried then, he supposed, when the carefully-evaded musings of those days slipped in-between the shades of wakefulness and dreams. She must have mourned.
The vision of her telling him I hate you, sobbing and swaying, despair exuding out of her, clenched him by the chest each time he lingered on it.
He was on his way to the dining hall when the sound of her voice reached him. It was not laughter this time either, nor was it the excited yells he had learned to let slide with only faint displeasure through the years. His own disciples were not allowed to be so rambunctious, after all. She was the only person here whom he granted such leeway.
But it was not laughter or excitement. It was that same rage-filled voice she had used on him the night before.
Something shook in him then that he had no name for. Jiang Cheng found his steps hastening in the direction of her yells. They took him around the edges of the main house and into the shadowed path of a hallway behind the dining hall—and he found her there in company of Ouyang Zhi, standing before him with her teeth bared to him like a feral dog. Behind her, Wen Yiqian stood against a wall with all the airs of a statue.
“What’s going on here?” Jiang Cheng called harshly.
Ouyang Zhi startled at the sound of his voice.
Wen Yueying turned her gaze to him, flushed and furious, and Jiang Cheng found that meeting her eyes was too difficult.
He looked at Ouyang Zhi instead. “Is there a problem?” he asked him.
Ouyang Zhi gave him an odd smile. “No, not at all,” he replied. “It’s time for dinner, right? I’m famished.”
Another moment of heavy silence settled over them all. Jiang Cheng observed them all in turn: Ouyang Zhi whose burly face showed that odd glint he could not decipher, Wen Yueying with her gangly limbs arched like a beast’s, ready to strike.
Wen Yiqian in the far back who seemed not to be breathing at all.
Jiang Cheng turned back toward the Ouyang sect leader. “Let’s go,” he told him, not knowing what else to say.
“Lead the way, Wanyin-xiong.”
Ouyang Zhi walked past him agreeably, but his eyes were lingering across the hallway. Some sort of a smile hung at his lips, evasive and thoughtful.
Jiang Cheng noticed only then that the skittish zhongyong man was there too; he gave him a weak smile, and there was an inkbrush in his hands as he walked in his sect leader’s steps, stroking quickly over a thin piece of paper.
Jiang Cheng then looked at the children, meaning to tell them something along the lines of, Go have dinner in the kitchen.
But Wen Yueying was not facing him anymore. She joined Wen Yiqian’s side hurriedly, grabbing the boy’s arm with an unusual fierceness. And Wen Yiqian, whom Jiang Cheng had only ever seen reacting to such touches with a disdainful shove, allowed her to. He let himself be dragged away by her. His face seemed more static than simply poised now; it looked as though his back had to be detached from the wall inch by inch.
Ouyang Zhi led the conversation that night in-between mouthfuls of tanguy wine. Jiang Cheng let him, replying when needed, staying otherwise silent. Alcohol had filled his friend’s face with blood and made him more loquacious. He seemed not to mind at all that a layer of disquiet had filled the room like the heavy air preceding a storm.
The whole while, Jiang Cheng felt that the beating of his heart was slightly off.
The next morning found the both of them at one end of the archery field. As the night had been cool and damp, mist still roamed between them and the targets ahead. Ouyang Zhi had thought that it would make for a good exercise.
The disciples were undergoing their own training not far. They both could hear the voice of a teacher calling them back in line and commenting on their postures.
“You’ve done an admirable job, Wanyin-xiong,” said Ouyang Zhi after loosening one more arrow. It hit the side of the target a fair way off its center, which made him click his tongue in ligh-hearted annoyance. “Your parents would be proud of you,” he added, shaking the bow in his grasp. “One could hardly believe this place was once so savagely destroyed.”
Jiang Cheng ignored the tinge of discomfort that such words always caused, no matter who uttered them. He notched an arrow to the string of his own bow.
“The new generation will soon forget that the Yiling Pa—”
The arrow flew away from him with almost enough strength to make the bowstring snap; it cut into the length of the one Ouyang Zhi had just shot, splitting its shaft meticulously, lodging itself in its place.
A brief and awkward silence held Ouyang Zhi back. He must have swallowed or coughed under his breath, for his next words came roughly: “Ah, impressive as ever.”
Jiang Cheng settled his bow on the table beside him with a brusque shove. “Enough play,” he declared, stepping away. “We have work to do.”
The zhongyong man was waiting for them in the shade of the mannor’s edge, where servants were coming now to prepare tea and delicacies. He sat next to Ouyang Zhi, spreading his papers before him and smiling at Jiang Cheng weakly.
Jiang Cheng had no hunger in him. As he watched Ouyang Zhi and the man before him exchange knowing glances, queasiness twisted in him and made the smell of osthmanthus cakes nauseating.
“What is it?” he asked curtly.
Ouyang Zhi nodded to the man, who quickly pulled a roll of paper out of the mess spread before him.
“I’d like to talk about some more private business before we go back to planning,” Ouyang Zhi said, as the man handed Jiang Cheng the papers. “As I told you yesterday.”
The scroll in Jiang Cheng’s hand was a deed of property. The space meant to indicate the property itself had remained blank, but the Ouyang sect’s seal already rested at the bottom alongside Ouyang Zhi’s thumbprint. A few more sheets of paper were attached as well—money, Jiang Cheng realized, and a great amount of it too, printed and all folded together.
He looked at Ouyang Zhi without understanding.
“As you know,” Ouyang Zhi told him, smiling, “the Ouyang sect has flourished quite a bit since the war. I’m very proud to say that our expanding number of disciples, and the number of people who request our help over the region, have earned us quite the comfortable fortune.”
Jiang Cheng’s brow creased. He knew all this already. “So?” he prompted.
“So,” the man replied, “as Zizhen is growing up and my wife is busy with him and other clan matters, I was thinking I could allow myself some leisure time. A fitting recompense for so many years of work.”
Jiang Cheng remained silent. He looked unseeingly at the deed and money in his hands, Ouyang Zhi’s words making a confused mess out of his head.
And within him the sickness grew.
“What does this have to do with me?” he asked at last.
Ouyang Zhi chuckled. He leaned back in his wooden chair, one of his rough hands holding on to the tea cup before him. “That kunze of yours, of course,” he said. “Wen Yiqian.”
He exchanged a smile with the man next to him.
Perhaps he believed Jiang Cheng’s silence then to be thoughtful over the proposal. Perhaps he even believed it to be implicit agreement. He took a sip of the tea in his hand, speaking ahead leisurely, “I’ve been looking for a kunze to take as a concubine for a year now, and I must say Wen Yiqian has a charm which the others I’ve seen lack.” He laughed at his own words. “This is one thing we can thank the Wen clan for, I suppose. They did always hoard the finest of all things in that wretched city of theirs.”
The paper in Jiang Cheng’s hand might as well have been air. The voice he spoke with then came like fibers of torn silk, veiled and distant. “Wen Yiqian,” he said, “is fifteen years old.”
“He’s mature, isn’t he? I’m willing to pay more if you think this isn’t enough.”
Wen Yiqian’s maturity had come two months prior. The terrorized face of Wen Linfeng when she had to come and inform him of it herself was still burned in Jiang Cheng’s mind in excruciating detail.
Wen Yiqian’s maturity had come two months prior, and a bare week after it, Ouyang Zhi had sent a letter asking to come and help with the competition’s preparations, offering goodwill and long-lasting friendship for all cause and reason.
Jiang Cheng’s knees knocked into the edge of the table when he stood up. He could hardly care for the ache of it. “Men,” he called loudly, knowing that at least a couple older disciples must be nearby.
Indeed, they were. One of them came running at the sound of his voice, bowing to him and to Ouyang Zhi. “You called, sect leader?”
“Walk sect leader Ouyang out of the manor. Tell a servant to gather his belongings and bring them as well.”
Although the boy was surprised, he acquiesced readily. He walked to the other end of the table, where Ouyang Zhi sat with now-wide eyes, saying, “Please, sect leader Ouyang.”
“Wanyin-xiong,” Ouyang Zhi said nervously, ignoring the boy. “Do you not want to separate from him? Is he being difficult about it? I know it’s been difficult not to meet with issues of all kind concerning unwed kunze these past two years—so many of them want to butt heads with their masters now—”
Jiang Cheng shoved the property deed and money into the whimpering zhongyong’s face, wishing he had the forethought to bring a fire talisman with him.
He wanted to burn the whole table to the ground.
“Wanyin-xiong!” Ouyang Zhi raised his voice, his good humor leaving him at last.
“That’s sect leader Jiang for you,” Jiang Cheng spat back at him.
His hand clenched by his side as if to reach for Sandu’s pommel. Sandu was not here, however; it had remained in his chambers along with his other weapons, as this was meant to be a day of business and not battle.
His tongue was dry within his mouth. A searing flame had lit in him in the space where his heart should be. He felt that each word out of his mouth ought to come amidst smoke and ash, and that he would not be satisfied till the man before him suffocated on it.
He had not felt rage such as this since he had pushed Lan Wangji into the mud and tried to strangle him to death.
“Get out,” he said to Ouyang Zhi. “Get out of my sight.”
“Get out of here before I kill you!” he roared with all the strength of his lungs.
Ouyang Zhi fell silent at last.
He stepped backwards and out of the roof’s shade. After another moment of staring at Jiang Cheng in shock, he said to his clansman, “Let’s go,” weakly.
Jiang Cheng did not watch them leave with the young disciple in their steps. He turned on his heels hastily, crossing the wide length of the training fields until he reached a side of the manor he never wished to set foot in.
One of the cooks was walking there with buckets of water in hand. As she was about to greet him, he asked her, “Where are the children?”
She looked at him in surprise and, he noticed faintly, a fair bit of caution. “I haven’t seen them all day…” she said hesitantly.
As he asked nothing more of her, she bowed and hurried away, her buckets spilling drops over the floor behind her.
Noon would soon come, he realized. Hot summer wind would be quick to surround the mansion. Wen Yueying and Wen Yiqian could be anywhere at this time of day; the servants knew to leave food for them at the foot of the bridge ahead, which they would come and fetch whenever it suited them. They were always away during the day. Always far from his eyes and far from his thoughts as long as he did not have to sit in their presence.
If his sister did not insist that he sit in their presence, he would not do it at all.
They could have run away, he thought in a haze. He should call for his people to start searching around the Pier and perhaps even to the mountain paths farther away. Yunmengjiang’s territory was wide enough, though nowhere near as immense as Lanlingjin or the fallen Qishanwen, and Wen Yueying was hardy, quick on her feet, clever beyond what people expected of her. She could have taken Wen Yiqian with her at dawn; no, he realized in something like panic, she could have taken him away as the sun set the day before—after he had found her in front of Ouyang Zhi with all the airs of a desperate beast and not bothered to ask anything about it. He had not made sure that they had dined at all. They could have both left under the cover of night with no one the wiser.
Yet his feet did not take him back to the training fields or toward the servants’ quarters. They carried him along the steps ahead which he had not climbed in years; past the room he had inhabited as a child and which now stood empty; to the very end of a dark corridor he would never, could never, walk through without guilt seizing him.
The door there was older than most in the rest of the manor. It had not burned down on the day Wen Chao destroyed everything. As such, nothing but time had ever eroded it, and there was still a drawing etched at the bottom of the doorframe.
Two stick figures of boys, one kneeling, one standing before him; brandishing a small gash of a sword at the unrecognizable figure of what he knew to be a dog.
Jiang Cheng knocked. Silence hovered for a moment from the other side of the wall; until the door was pulled back just far enough for the eye of a girl to peek through.
He shoved his boot into the interstice before she could shut the door in his face, ignoring both the ache at the sides of his foot and the gasp she let out. Wen Yueying had no strength to match his, and so Jiang Cheng simply pushed ahead and made her stumble back.
“Get out!” she yelled at him as he stepped in and watched over the dusty room. She went so far as to grab his arm and dig her fingernails into the cloth of his robes, trying and failing to shake him away. “Get out, you’re not allowed here!”
“Be quiet!” Jiang Cheng snapped at her.
But although he could have easily shoved her off, he did not.
Wen Yiqian was sitting in the farthest corner of the bedroom with his head bent between his knees. He looked up slowly at the sound of his voice, his wide eyes glimmering in the daylight which filtered through the closed blinds behind. At the sight of him, the boy seemed to still entirely.
Wen Yueying was eyeing his arm now as if she wished to bite it. He would not put it past her, Jiang Cheng thought in anger—in regret—and so he lowered it and told the boy across the room, “He’s gone.”
Wen Yueying did not seem to care what he had to say. “I hate you,” she was heaving now with her face once more red and tearful, shaking visibly in the shadow. “You’re a terrible person, I hate you—”
Jiang Cheng had enough. He shoved her off of him at last and barked, “Are you deaf, girl? I told you Ouyang Zhi is gone.”
A tense second passed by as she took in his words; then, with the precaution of a cat stepping back from one bigger and louder, she took her hands off of him.
It did not soothe her anger, of course. She walked away from him with that same violent contempt in her eyes, until she reached Wen Yiqian’s side and crouched before him like a shield.
I won’t let any dogs approach you, Jiang Cheng had said in that same room, a whole lifetime ago.
But he did. He did let the dogs approach.
He rubbed a hand against his face, feeling dustier and grimier, if possible, than he did two nights ago. As each inhale in this place threatened to make him cough, so thick had the air become after years of abandonment, he exhaled forcefully to try and cleanse his chest somehow. Chasing the bitter memories away, he made his way toward the children.
He thought it more prudent to stay out of arm’s reach from Wen Yueying, who still eyed him in a rage. He lowered himself to the ground before them with some distance and sat cross-legged on the floor.
“He’s gone,” he said again. “He won’t come here again.”
The third time seemed to reach them better than the last two. Wen Yueying’s kneeling stance loosened until her backside rested on her feet. Wen Yiqian, behind her, stopped holding onto his knees quite so tightly. They both looked at him now with wide and frightened eyes, and Jiang Cheng…
Jiang Cheng had no idea what to say. He did not know if there was anything to say.
Surprisingly, Wen Yiqian was the one to break the silence. “He won’t come back?” he asked in his thin and raspy voice.
In the dense dust of the old bedroom, the sound of it was even fainter.
Jiang Cheng nodded. “If he does, he’ll only have himself to blame for leaving in several pieces.”
Wen Yiqian did not smile. He never smiled.
Jiang Cheng settled a hand over his own ankle, feeling the need for anything solid to grab onto. The floorboards which his knuckles rubbed against were so filthy that the touch was enough to send a cloud of dust flying and make him cough at last.
The itch in his throat took an infuriatingly long time to vanish, and by then the two children before him seemed less likely to flee if he should move so much as a finger.
He did not want to ask, but he had to. “How long has this been going on?”
His voice echoed for longer than necessary. He watched them both the whole time, although he wanted nothing more than to leave and never have to think of all of this again.
“Six months,” Wen Yueying said suddenly. Wen Yiqian’s hand grabbed her by the wrist tightly to stop her words, but she gave him a furious glance and shoved him off. “He kept following A-Qian the last time he was here. He said—”
“Shut up,” said Wen Yiqian.
“You shut up,” Wen Yueying bit back to him. She turned to Jiang Cheng again and glared at him. “He said you’d sell A-Qian to him,” she told him. She accused him. “He kept talking about it, and you weren’t doing anything.”
Mind your manners, Jiang Cheng thought, irritated.
Would that the irritation could overcome the guilt.
“He wouldn’t leave A-Qian alone, and Linfeng-jie is too scared of you to say anything and Yanli-jie is never here, and A-Qian didn’t want to let me say anything either—”
“Enough,” Jiang Cheng cut in. She glowered at him. He glared right back. “It’s over now,” he declared. “He won’t bother you again. You don’t have to keep hiding here.”
“I like it here,” Wen Yiqian said softly.
And, well. There was nothing to say to that.
Jiang Cheng did not know why he did not move then. He could have simply risen to his feet and walked out, and left behind this room full of shadows where everywhere he glanced seemed to bring back another ghost. He could not look at the floor without seeing the shape of children moaning in boredom amidst scrolls of rules and teachings. The cobwebs over the desk only brought back to him the memory of breaking apart a vase and standing silently as his mother lectured him—lectured them.
And to look at the bed beside him was unthinkable; for a glimpse there would be enough to see Wei Wuxian laid over it with all of his scars bared, wheezing out breath after breath, dying in front of him as Jiang Cheng watched uselessly.
But Jiang Cheng did not leave. He looked at Wen Yiqian before him and asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me?” hoping to convey calm rather than frustration.
Wen Yueying bristled and said, “I told Linfeng-jie to tell you, but she’s too scared—”
“I’m not asking you,” Jiang Cheng said, interrupting her again. Her glare became all the fiercer for it. “Wen Yiqian,” he called. “You should have told me.”
Wen Yiqian curled further unto himself. Jiang Cheng realized that he had never before seen him behave so unmannerly, so childishly. Wen Yiqian was always calm and composed, as if born to balance out the girl next to him to whom composure was antithesis.
He had never talked to him for so long either. To him or to Wen Yueying.
“Sect leader was going to sell us one day anyway,” the boy muttered. “If not to sect leader Ouyang, then to someone else. Sect leader Ouyang doesn’t live far. If I am allowed to go outside there, I can still visit A-Ying and Linfeng-jie.”
Wen Yueying grabbed the boy’s knee in pleading, crying once again, her back shaking with unheard sobs. She wrapped herself around his side and let him rub a hand against her shoulder. The both of them stayed like this before Jiang Cheng, and tremors moved them together as if running through one body.
His sister would know how to handle this, he thought wearily.
From the first day, Yanli had taken to those children as if they were her own. She was so kind with them that Jiang Cheng often wondered if they would one day take advantage of it somehow; but they never took anything from her aside from her time and affection, and even now, with her living so far away, all of their reunions ended with joyful tears.
Wen Linfeng had spent years now stuck to his sister’s side like a shadow. Drinking in her every word, delighting in her touch, hiding behind her when Jiang Cheng was within sight. And the two before him now loved her as well like a sister of their own. If Jiang Yanli were here, she would know how to quiet the fear now slithering through the silence.
She was not here, however. And Jiang Cheng was not so bitter a man yet to have forgotten the meaning of responsibility.
He told them, “I’m not going to sell you.”
They both breathed out, their dust-streaked clothes sending more clouds to fly around, and looked at him in tandem. But there was no faith in him there—not yet.
“I won’t,” he said. “Either of you, or Wen Linfeng. I won’t sell any of you to anyone. So if this happens again, I don’t want to hear any excuse about not telling me. Am I clear?”
Neither seemed willing to reply.
He exhaled in frustration. “Am I clear?” he said again, louder.
“Yes,” Wen Yueying muttered. Next to her, Wen Yiqian nodded.
He stared at her. “Yes, who?”
Her teeth clenched visibly. “Yes,” she let out at last, “sect leader Jiang.”
It would have to do for now.
Jiang Cheng pushed himself to his feet, grimacing at the dirt he felt clinging to his hands and his clothes. He spent a futile moment trying to rub his fingers free of grime before giving up with a grown. He walked to the open door behind him until daylight reached him again.
He looked back to the two of them, still huddled together in the same spot as if afraid to move.
There was a space there, he felt, that someone else ought to occupy. Sitting by them in the dust and ruffling their hair. Dragging the tip of a knife into the wooden floor to draw foolish, childish things.
“You’re both filthy,” he told them once he found his voice. “Get out of this room and go clean yourselves up.”
He made it out of the old quarters before Wen Yueying caught up with him. He was trying in vain to brush the dirt off of his thighs, cursing inward at the thought of this set of robes especially being ruined, when he heard her hurried breathing approaching from behind. He turned around to look at her before she could reach him, unwilling to give her the chance to grab or scratch or, heavens forbid, bite him.
She looked even more disgusting in the sunlight. Greasy cobwebs stuck to her hair every way, and her face was so marred with grey dust that she might as well have walked out of a charcoal mine.
At least the robes she wore were nothing fancy.
“Sect leader Jiang,” she panted over her bent knees. “I’m—”
But a fit of coughing halted her then as she inhaled some of the dust, and Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, waiting for her to find her breath.
When she did, she straightened up. She met his eyes in that peculiar way of hers—direct and proud and, he knew, the slightest bit defiant. As if to probe everyone in front of her into trying something.
She looked at him thusly, wearing Wei Wuxian’s memory around her like a cloak, and said, “I’m sorry for what I said the other day.”
He could only watch her in silence.
She must be blushing under the layers of dirt. The fold of skin between her neck and chin, where the dust must have had a harder time sticking to her, was reddening. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “For saying A-Ying would be ashamed of you. I know he wouldn’t be.”
She stood there, withstanding his presence, as unyielding as iron.
Jiang Cheng looked away first. He walked past her and toward the main hall, shoving her out of his way with a gentle press of hand to shoulder, and told her, “Get lost.”
He walked the way to his quarters in silence, guided by the feeling of filth clinging to sweaty skin, now that the sun shone so hotly. Once in his room, he peeled the outerwear off of himself with a grimace; as he had feared, there would be no way to clean this, and he threw the robe away to a corner of the room.
He bent over the bucketful of cold water set atop a table and cleaned himself as best he could with it, shuddering along the back at the icy touch of his own hands. The water soon became grey. Years of dust and sorrow clouded it as if pulled out of his skin. Jiang Cheng watched his own reflection in the dark surface of it, unthinking, unblinking. He pressed a hand to the center of his chest, where his ribs pulled apart under the end of his sternum, and felt there the glow of his golden core.
“He has no core,” came the voice of the physician. It was still as stark now as it had been two years ago in the dark of that childhood bedroom.
That bedroom he had returned to after all was over only to find Wen Linfeng begging him not to throw her away, her voice almost extinct from crying, her hands clenched so tightly to the floor that her nails had split open.
“I let him go,” she had told him, and he could only watch her without saying anything. “I let him go, it’s my fault, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She had never looked at him since then without shaking in fear.
“Why didn’t you tell me,” Jiang Cheng breathed, his knuckles tight and bloodless at the edges of the bucket, supporting his own weight. The dirty water’s surface simmered under the touch of his words.
He managed, somehow, to rise up. He found the edge of his bed to sit on; he let the daylight wash over the bedsheets around him, over his thighs and his naked belly, stopping just under the vertical scar there.
He had never wondered about it after that day of blindfolded trekking up the mountains of Yiling. He had never even thought to question how it was made; how the intricacies of fixing one’s core worked, how the sage Baoshan Sanren could possibly have learned them.
Not until he saw that same scar on Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng’s forehead came to rest onto his own palms. The digging weight of his elbows drew a faint ache out of his thighs.
“Damn you,” he pushed out of his knotted throat. He crushed the wetness out of his eyes much like Wen Yueying had two days ago. White and grey spots emerged under the press of his hands, and he said, “Damn you, Wei Wuxian.”
Why didn’t you tell me? he wondered for the thousandth, the millionth time.
About the core. About the sickness. About those marks spread over his belly, those marks which Jiang Cheng could not find the strength to tell his sister about; and which lingered in him in terrible, earth-shattering doubt.
Why didn’t you tell me? he wondered.
And then, always: Why did I never ask?
On the day he finished drawing the array, Mo Xuanyu climbed to the top of the hill overseeing Mo Village.
He wanted to watch the sun rise. He had thought so in the odd quiet of those weeks since meeting that man again: When I die, I want to see the sun.
It wasn’t as if he had been deprived of it his whole life; he had been allowed outside, after all, like all other kunze. But although ten years had passed already since he first stepped out of the house, he could never quite forget the darkness of before. Fright whispered in his steps and in his dreams, a shade of doubt, a trembling in the limbs. Being deprived of sunlight seemed like such a horrible thing after all those years of refusing himself to take it for granted.
He watched the villagers at the foot of the hill come alive to the calls of the roosters. Many gathered in the centerplace, as had become their habit since the wandering corpses had started showing up, no doubt to share gossip and tales and frighten one another further. If he were to walk down now, he thought, he could distract them by becoming the target of their mocking once more.
How odd. Part of him almost regretted that he would never again be.
He thought of the man’s words as he came back to the empty house: “He’ll never let you live. You can hide here for as long as you want, but he will find you one day. He will come back for you.”
Run, Mo Xuanyu. Run far away and never look back, no matter what you know, no matter what you saw.
But he was so tired of running. Even as he trampled down the stairs of Golden Carp Tower with poison burning him alive, he had wished to simply stop and let it have its way. If that man had not found and cured him, he would have.
The blood array on the dirt floor of the shack had been colored a deep brown for weeks since he started drawing it. It glimmered, now, with the first breaths of resentful energy. It shone bright and ruby-red, and the yellow talismans suspended above it swayed as if borne by a breeze, although no air moved between the weary wooden walls.
Mo Xuanyu sat in its center. Peace had gathered in his chest for the first time in years, and he hardly felt the last cuts that the array required be bled out of his skin. He closed his eyes. He let the cold crawl over his skin and pour into his lungs.
I can’t do it, he thought. I can’t understand this, I can’t deal with it, but you can.
“If the Yiling Patriarch were still here,” the man had said mournfully, “he could have saved you.”
If the Yiling Patriarch were here.
“Wei Wuxian,” Mo Xuanyu murmured with the last of his breath. “Please come back and fix this.”
Wei Wuxian could not save him, but he could save others.
He could fix it all.
NOTE: It’s been a terribly long time, and I feel like I owe you guys an explanation. I almost died last year, and then stuff alternated between health issues, losing my job, health issues, family trouble, and health issues. Funny enough, none of those health issues had anything to do with COVID. I’m just lucky like that.
I’m really, deeply sorry for the wait, but the past year has been tumultuous. I hope you can forgive me. Please leave a nice word! I really must ask you to comment, as I’ve lost pretty much all of my readers since deleting AO3. It’s very difficult to write so much and receive so little support.