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Lessons From My Confinement

Chapter Text

 

 

“How deep a grave must I break to cover my regret.”  Taken from, Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

 

 

    It was a beautiful day in Lotus Pier.  The sky was perfectly blue and cloudless.  It was a sort of unhurried day. A gentle woman wearing deep purple robes meandered through the market, picking up pieces of fruit to check for ripeness, trying to become inspired to prepare supper for her husband.  Her youngest daughter had been recently married and the lack of utter chaos was somehow unnerving. Even though the Li family lived in the very heart of Lotus Pier, the house was too quiet. 

 

     ‘Maybe braised fish,’ Li Yu Yan headed to the vendor’s booth that lay directly at the foot of the dock.  A small group of people had gathered as the days’ catch was literally taken off the boat and displayed in the booth.

 

     “They say that Zewu-jun has been in seclusion for two years now,” a young woman whispered, but it was the kind of whisper that was loud enough that everyone else in the crowd could hear.  Li Yu Yan recognized the woman as a gossip, but a reliable one, since she was a servant in the residence of Jiang Chen himself. She found herself taking a step forward to hear the rest of what she was saying.

 

     “Jin Biyu was to marry Zewu-jun, but he wouldn’t even see her.  It was a great embarrassment to his uncle Lan Qiren,” the woman said. Then, the gossip continued to other matters.  Li Yu Yan looked down at her basket. Without saying a word, she purchased one of the fish from the fresh catch and then picked up herbs and vegetables from a booth that was on the road back to her home.

 

     “Mei mei, what would you say to your son, if you were there?  How would you comfort him?” Li Yu Yan placed the basket on her kitchen table.  Her body moved on its own, drawn to the small carved chest in her bedroom. Kneeling, the woman opened the chest, removing books, linens, and keepsakes of her 30 years of marriage to Li Yuan Bo.  In the bottom of the chest lay a stack of letters tied together with a pale blue, silk ribbon.  

 

     “Mei mei, it’s time your sons hear your voice,” Li Yu Yan held the stack of letters to her breast.


<<>>


“My sorrow was the incoming tide. Unmoving, I faced it and was overcome.”  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen


     A month later, Lan Wangji noticed a stack of letters sitting on the table as he sat down to serve tea to his uncle.  He simply sat quietly, transfixed by the handwriting on the letters. Since he was a young boy, Lan Wangji had kept many examples of his mother’s writing.  She had spent many long days copying and illustrating poems, prose, and songs. Her whimsical illustrations were one of the few things that would bring an unbidden smile to the small face of her little Lan Zhan.  Certainly, there was no one in all of Gusu that had surpassed Lan Ying Yue in the art of calligraphy, not in her generation, nor to the present day. Lan Qiren followed his nephew’s gaze.

 

     “Wangji, you recognize the writing on these letters?”  The older man motioned to the stack on the table.

 

     “Mn,” the younger Jade of Lan replied.  A tumble of feelings and questions began to bubble up in the man’s chest.  Lan Wangji closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

 

     “Uncle, why do you have those letters?”  

 

     "Read the note that came with the letters," Lan Quiren pointed to a piece of parchment that lay next to the stack of his mother's letters.

     

     The note had only one line and was written in a different hand.  It said, "Don't let him make the same mistake as his father."

 

     “Your mother's letters were originally sent to your aunt, Li Yu Yan.  She lives in Yunmeng.  She asked a traveler to deliver them here,” Lan Qiren’s response was measured.

 

     “I did not realize that Mother had a sister,” Lan Wangji spoke softly, calmly, but his hands, clenched on his thighs, betrayed him.

 

     “Li Yu Yan was ten years older than your mother, so she was already married and had moved away when you were a child,” the older man explained.

     Lan Qiren stood up and turned away from Lan Wangji.  He clasped his aged hands behind his back.

     “Lan Wangji, contained in those letters is the story of your parents' courtship and marriage, in your mother’s own words,” He sighed. 

     "It’s time for your older brother to move past his regrets.” The old man turned to face him.

     “I tried to give him the letters directly, but, he wouldn’t accept them.  I want you to read the letters to him, one every day.”

 

     “Uncle,” Lan Wangji stood up.  For some reason he didn’t understand, his hands were trembling.

 

     “Please...Wangji.  If you can’t reach him, I’m afraid you will lose him, as I lost my brother,” the older man’s voice choked and he turned his head, lest his tears betray him.

     “Take them Wangji.  I want to meditate.”  His uncle waved him off.

 

     Lan Wangji knew the conversation was over.  He carefully picked up the stack of letters and left.

Chapter Text

    “In trying to ease the suffering of another, I reached down and gave the thirsty man a drink.  Little did I know that my own brother had poisoned the well.”   -  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen



     

     Wei Wuxian walked along the path to the Jingshi carrying an earthenware pot.  His mood light, the young man took the step into his home with a leap, careful not to dislodge the lid to the pot and spill the contents.

 

     Lan Zhan resembled a statue carved in polished jade, as he sat deep in meditation in front of his guqin.  Wei Wuxian stopped. As he leaned against the doorpost, he gazed at his husband with a soft smile. The smile quickly faded, however.  Wei Ying had become sensitive to his lover’s subtle expressions. The slight wrinkle in his brow was certainly the reason for this extra evening meditation.  

 

     Everyone mistakenly thought that Hang Guang-Jun, was aloof, without feelings.  His husband knew better. Inside the 2nd Jade of Lan a flame of emotion and passion burned brightly.  It was only through years of meditation and his strong cultivation base, that Lan Wangji could control that inner fire.

 

      ‘What has happened?’ Wei Ying set the cooking pot on the table where the couple took their meals together.  On this table, he noticed a packet of letters, tied together with ribbon. The young man returned to the study and sat on a cushion next to his husband.

 

     “Lan Zhan,” he said softly

 

     “Er gege,” he said affectionately.  When Lan Wangji didn’t reply, he reached out with two fingers and gently tugged on his sleeve.  

 

     The older man’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused, like he was awakened from a deep sleep.

 

     “Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji spoke his name in a relieved sort of way.  A flash of concern flitted across Wei Wuxian’s features. He stood up and took one of Lan Zhan’s hands in both of his own.

 

     “Come see what I brought!”  He said brightly, pulling Lan Zhan to the table.  A half smile appeared on the older man’s face. Wei Ying could always pull him out of his worries.

 

     They sat next to each other around the low, square table.  Wei Ying pulled the lid off of the earthenware pot to reveal a fish stew.

 

     “I told her not to make it too spicy, since I know you wouldn’t like it. It is so delicious!  Jin Biyu is such a great cook...not as good as my shijie was, but Lan Xichen is still very lucky because the usual cooking in the Cloud Recesses is so plain,” Wei Ying seemed to say all of this in one breath, as he dished out the soup into a bowl for Lan Wangji.

 

     Lan Wangji stared at Wei Ying, blinking.

 

     “Er gege, try it.  Try it. I’ve already had three bowls.”  Wei Ying held a spoon out to his husband, encouraging him to eat.  Lan Wangji took the spoon and dished up a piece of fish. The fish was delicate and seasoned perfectly.  The spiciness imparted the dish with a pleasant warmth. It truly was just the right amount of heat.  

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji nodded his head.  Although the Gusu Lan Sect had a rule about not talking during eating, Wei Ying would certainly bug Lan Wangji to death until he got a reaction about whether he liked the soup or not.  Wei Ying was satisfied with the nod and sat back, smiling, watching his husband properly eat a bowl of the fish stew. When he had finished, he carefully laid his spoon next to the empty bowl and replaced the lid on the earthenware pot.

 

     Wei Ying was so glad that Lan Wangji was done eating because he was practically bursting to tell him the whole story of the fish stew and meeting Jin Biyu.

 

     “You said that Jin Biyu made this soup?”  Lan Wangji inquired evenly.

 

     “She did. She did.  Where do you think I met her?” Wei Ying leaned in.  He was grinning ear to ear.

 

     “Where?”

 

     “She was fishing....here, in the Cloud Recesses!”  Wei Ying slapped his hand down on the table like he had told a terribly funny joke.  Lan Wangji’s eyes got a little wider.

 

     “It’s against the rules…” Lan Zhan replied simply.  Wei Ying didn’t tell his husband about the part where he showed her a better spot on the mountain stream to catch the beautiful trout that thrived there because fishing wasn’t allowed.

 

     “Did you know that Jin Biyu has 5 brothers?  She grew up fishing and hunting. Her mother died when she was very young, so she followed her brothers around everywhere.  Also, her cultivation base is excellent. You should see her fly on her sword.” Wei Wuxian played idly with the lid of the cooking pot as he spoke, contemplating another bowl of soup.

 

     “She told me that she refuses to leave until Zewu Jun at least tells her to her face that he has refused her.  Lan Xichen should at least meet her. He could go on night hunts with her and still she would cook for him when they got home.  Isn’t that the perfect woman?” Wei Ying finished. Lan Zhan raised an eyebrow.

 

     “Er gege, don’t get jealous. Not for me, of course, you’re the only one for me.”  Wei Wuxian continued.

 

     Lan Zhan sighed.  He waited patiently while Wei Wuxian continued to share the story of every event in his day.  Really, he loved his husband’s passion for life, how he took happiness out of little things like a bowl of soup and finding the perfect spots in the Cloud Recesses for fishing. Of course, he knew that Wei Wuxian was the absolute expert on fishing spots in the Cloud Recesses.  His uncle knew. Everyone knew. Sometimes it was just easier to look the other way and shake your head.

 

     Finally, Wei Ying seemed to come to the end of his story.

 

     “Don’t you agree Er gege?” The younger man tilted his head and seemed to await a reply.

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed.  Wei Ying pulled the lid from the pot and helped himself to another bowl of fish stew in his husband’s empty bowl.

 

     “Wei Ying, my uncle has given me a task…” He explained to his husband about the letters and his uncle’s fears, as Wei Ying ate his fourth bowl of fish stew.

 

     “Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone,” Wei Wuxian wiped his mouth and put down his empty bowl.  

 

     “How?”

 

     “What if Jin Biyu started to bring him meals?  Lan Xichen doesn’t know what she looks like. Since she refuses to leave, it will give her something to do.”

 

     The couple went through their evening routine.  Wei Ying noticed that his husband kept lowering the book he was reading, staring into space.  Finally, he put down his book and pulled Chenqing off of a carved, wooden stand.  He began to play in the doorway of the Jingshi. He played their song, Wangxian, adding in spiritual power to soothe his husband's restless mind.  Soon, he felt warm arms encircle his waist.  He smiled.

 

     “Lan Zhan, have you returned to me?”  Wei Ying breathed.

 

     “Mn. Come to bed.”

 

     In the dark, Wei Ying snuggled into Lan Zhan’s side.

 

     “Wei Ying.”

 

     “What is it, Er gege?”

 

     “I’m afraid to read the letters,” Lan Zhan said softly.  “I...I loved my mother.”

     “You’re afraid that if you stir the pot, you might not like what you find on the bottom?”  Wei Ying asked, sounding very much like a wise sage.

 

     “Mn,” Lan Zhan replied. 

 

     “You sleep every night with the Yiling Patriarch.  What’s in those letters couldn’t possibly be more shocking.”   Wei Ying gave his husband a squeeze.

 

Chapter Text

“The story of my family was unspoken.  It left me with an emptiness that I could not touch, even the questions I wanted to ask were elusive.”  

  -  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

 

     

     Lan Wangji completed his morning meditation, breakfast with his husband, and then lessons with the junior disciples.  By mid-afternoon, he stood at the top the ancient carved stone steps and watched as Wen Ning walked out of the woods and joined the juniors on the path below the entrance.  Wen Ning was unable to enter the Cloud Recesses. The wards erected by the ancestors, hundreds of years before, would destroy his body if he would try to pass them. Even the jade key pendant, were one gifted to him to allow him access, would burn him if he wore it or even touched it.  Wen Ning and the juniors were going on a night hunt and had planned to meet Jin Ling at Carp Tower itself.

 

     Wei Ying didn’t accompany them on this little adventure, as he sometimes did.  He was nearing a breakthrough in developing a golden core in Mo Xuan Yu’s body.  There was raw spiritual power in the young man’s body, they knew this for certain, or he never would have been able to summon the Yiling Patriarch.  The texts written by the Wei WuXian at the height of his power, were not exactly what you would call novice level texts. Yes, the power was there, but it was undisciplined.

 

     Wei Ying was fascinated with the music library of the Gusu Lan sect.  When they wandered the countryside together, more than two years ago, searching for the answers to the mystery of the possessed left hand, the couple had learned to use music to fight cooperatively.  Now, since Wei WuXian was learning the Lan sect’s secret musical techniques, the partners were much more formidable. Lan Wangji thought of their last battle against a medium level demon in a nearby town.  Flashes of red and blue light moved around the demon in an intricate web. It was a beautiful magic, a powerful magic.  

 

     Wei Ying was still a prodigy, able to evaluate and adapt ancient techniques and still improve them.  Even Lan Qiren had to acknowledge his work as innovative and helpful to the Gusu Lan sect. The nod he gave his husband the other day in the library was high praise indeed.  A warmth began to build in Lan Wangji’s abdomen. One corner of his mouth pulled up into a half smile as he thought of Wei Ying’s interaction with his uncle. The old man’s eyes were wide, the younger man exuberant in his explanation of how Chenqing amplified the effect of an ancient Lan sect flute technique.  The second jade of Lan knew that the feeling was pride. Lan Wangji was very proud of his husband.

 

     Lan Wangji reached into his sleeve and pulled out the first letter.  He gazed down at the letter, turning it over in his hand. He sighed and began a slow walk to the Hanshi.  The name of the place used the characters that meant simple honesty. Maybe these letters would at least give them that.  As he reached the gate, Lan Wangji saw a woman in a simple white Gusu Lan robe slip out of the sliding door holding a small tray.  She looked down at the bowl in the middle of the tray briefly and smiled slightly.

 

     Stepping off the porch, Jin Biyu stopped suddenly as she saw Lan Wangji approach.

 

     “HanGuang-Jun,” she said, bowing.  Lan Wangji held his sword Bichen before him and returned the bow, as was proper.

 

     Lan Wangji looked at the tray and noticed that the bowl was nearly empty.  The broth in the dish looked very much like the fish stew that he ate with Wei WuXian the previous evening.

 

     “Thank you for the meal last night.  We enjoyed it,” Lan Wangji bowed slightly once again.

 

     “I am pleased that Zewu-Jun also enjoyed it,” Jin Biyu bowed again and then walked away.  Lan Wangji noticed that Jin Biyu wasn’t beautiful in the usual tradition of the Lanling Jin Sect's women. The Jin women tended to occupy themselves with their beauty routines, with reading, with music and entertaining.  Jin Biyu had an air of confidence and purpose. She smelled of the outdoors rather than perfume and didn’t look down or become shy in his presence. Lan Wangji remembered her usual hair and clothes were well cared for and practical. When she smiled, he had to admit, she was pretty.  Lan Wangji understood what Wei Ying meant when he declared her to be the perfect woman. She was very similar in personality to Wei Ying himself.

 

     Lan Wangji stepped onto the porch of the Hanshi and slid open the door to enter.

 

     “Wangji,” Lan Xichen smiled and poured a cup of tea.  Lan Wangji regarded his brother as he sat opposite to him at the dark cherry table.  His smile was tired and didn’t reach his eyes the way that it used to. Lan Xichen pushed the cup of tea across the table to his brother and poured himself a cup.  Lan Wangji took the letter out of his sleeve and laid it on the table by the cup. Holding back his sleeve with one hand, Lan Wangji picked up the delicate green cup and took a sip.  

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji gave a nod of his head as he reacted to the tea.  In this case, the second Jade of Lan was remarking on the quality of the cup of tea.  It was delicious.  

 

     In two years, his brother had rather perfected brewing the perfect pot of tea.  He had even experimented with adding different herbs and spices that had different healing effects.  This tea had ba jiao. It was said to improve your mood and help with the flow of energy in the body.  

 

     “Uncle gave you the letters,” Lan Xichen sighed and sat back, resting his hands on his knees.  “He seems to think that reading them will help me put the past behind me.”

 

     “Should you?”  Lan Wangji asked simply.

 

     “What?” Lan Xichen’s eyes widened.  It was not the reply that the first Jade of Lan expected at all.  He expected his brother to agree with Lan Qiren.

 

     “I stole a chicken…”  Lan Wangji said, carefully holding back his sleeve so that he could pick up the tea cup again and drink.  The younger man finished the cup and set it down. 

 

     “Lan Wangji, I know that they say that confession is good for the soul, however…” Lan Xichen shook his head.

 

     “Wei Ying had invited me to Yunmeng when he was our student,” Lan Wangji spoke as he poured himself and his brother another cup of the ba jiao tea.  It was easier for him to speak as he performed other tasks. “I never would agree to go...then it was too late. When I sat in my seclusion, I thought about all the things that we never did together, because of my inaction.  When he returned…”

 

     “You wanted to catch up for the time you lost,” Lan Xichen finished the sentence for his brother.  

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji took another sip of tea and regarded his brother.  “That’s what I want to do now, catch up for lost time. We can learn about our parents, together, as brothers.”

 

     “Won't we be heaping more sorrow upon sorrow?  I’m not sure I can carry anymore…” Lan Xichen’s eyes flitted from Lan Wangji’s face and rested on the letter.

 

     “Brother, don’t they say that while we can’t escape the birds of sorrow, we shouldn’t let them nest in our hair,” the younger man picked up the letter and opened it.  Lan Xichen nearly choked on his tea. Did Lan Zhan make a joke?



     

      Yu Yan,

     Spring is cold this year.  The flowers are blooming late.  When I look at the Cloud Recesses, all I can see is mist.  The first spring chicks have hatched and they are starting to get their real feathers.  I still love to watch them the same as when I was a child. I already have them trained to jump and pick peas from my fingertips.  

 

     I hope that the weather will be warm soon.  Father’s cough lasted the whole of the winter.  He says that it isn’t good business for an innkeeper to have a cough, that it scares away the customers.  He has been doing more of the cleaning and odd chores and is leaving the customers to me and mother.

 

     About the customers, a man from the Gusu Lan Sect comes into the inn every day recently.  He looks at me like I am his prey. Yesterday, I opened the back door to go and get water from the well.  He was waiting there. I excused myself and begged father to get the water, saying that my back was hurting.  But now, the man and father talk like old friends whenever he comes. What should I do? Please write soon.

 

                                                                     Mei Mei       

 

     “Who was the man?  Was it father?” Lan Xichen sounded rather like a child listening to a bedtime story.

 

     “It doesn’t say.  She may not have known his name at that time,” Lan Wangji carefully began to refold the letter in his hand.

 

     “Can I see the letter?” Lan Xichen held out his hand to receive it.  When Lan Wangji had handed him the letter, he began to examine it carefully, reading it again and again.  Then he turned it over like there was some magic ink that would reveal more information at his command. Lan Xichen sighed.  Then, he looked thoughtful, bringing the paper to his face, wondering if he could perhaps smell her perfume on the paper after all these years.

 

     “Mother liked chickens…” the older man smiled.  “I never knew that.”

 

     “She used to draw them,” Lan Wangji looked up at his brother with a nostalgic look.  “I’ve saved many of her drawings.”

 

     “Did you?” Lan Xichen’s eyes sparkled...just a little.  “I’d like to see them.”

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji watched his brother carefully, reverently, refold the letter and place it in the envelope.  

 

     “Will you come in the afternoon again?”  He asked, placing the teapot back on the little fire stove.

 

     “I will,” Lan Wangji stood up and bowed to his brother.

 

    “Wangji...thank you.”

 

     Lan Wangji wanted to see Wei WuXian right then.  He wanted to hold him and kiss him. Somehow, it seemed that there was already a change in Lan Xichen.  He walked a brisk pace to the Jingshi, but his husband was not there. He sighed as he stared into the empty room.  There was a restlessness building in Lan Zhan that he hadn’t felt since before he had been married. The best course of action was to soak in the cold spring.  It always calmed him and quieted his mind, except of course when Wei Ying was there. Then...he was distracted.

 

     The soak was just what Lan Zhan needed.  When he returned to the Jingshi, he felt lighter, ready to spend a pleasant evening with his husband.  A rather enchanting melody from Chenqing drifted toward him as he walked up the path to the Jingshi, however. Lan Wangji stepped through the open door to their home and saw Wei Ying seated on a cushion with an open music book on the floor before him.

 

     “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, I found something amazing in the library today.  Lan Ann wrote this book that contains a song that is supposed to put you in the mood for love.  Did it work Er Gege?” Wei Ying flashed a playful smile.

 

    “No need,” Lan Wangji picked up his lover like a bride.  Wei Ying laughed as he slipped his arms around his husband’s neck, laying kisses along his jawline.  

 

     “I’m guessing things went well today,” Wei Wuxian remarked, before Lan Wangji claimed his mouth with a kiss.

Chapter Text

       “A few days after arriving back in the Cloud Recesses, I went to the healing spring with HanGuang-Jun, after a full night and morning of meditation. When I saw the whip marks on my brother’s back, I realized with great sorrow that my brother bore the marks of my shame on his body.  I was the leader of Gusu Lan Sect. Because of my blindness to the truth, because I walked the broad path with the other clan leaders, over one hundred of the Gusu Lan Sect were killed chasing an innocent man.  

 

     I took up the discipline whip and begged HanGuang-Jun to punish me.  Then, I begged the Yiling Patriarch. Neither man would take up the whip against me and put me out of my misery. Not one would quench my guilt.  In the hills of the Cloud Recesses, surrounded by mist, I beat my own flesh, until I could no longer hold the whip in my hand. HanGuang-Jun found me and held me in the healing cold spring every day, while Wei WuXian played healing music from the banks.  Forgive me brothers. A good man can lecture about justice, but the righteous man insists upon it.”   -  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen


The Second Letter...

     Ying Yue opened the kitchen door of the inn.  It opened up into a fenced yard where the family kept their chickens and a small garden.  Right away, she knew that something was amiss. The wooden gate was unlatched and their dog wasn’t waiting at the door for his breakfast.  The young woman sighed. She would never find him in this morning fog.

 

     “Diandian!” she called.  Far off, she heard Diandian’s bark.  She had seen the pup open the gate many times.  The sturdy dog would use his head to push at the gate until the peg was pulled out of the latch.  He was truly too smart for his own good. The brown pup ran out of the morning fog and through the gate, tail wagging.  Ying Yue placed a dish of leftovers on the ground for Diandian. The dog began to eat greedily.

 

     “Slow down Diandian, you’ll make yourself sick,” Ying Yue patted the dog on the head and turned toward the garden.  

 

     Ying Yue walked up and down the rows of her kitchen garden.  She stopped and crouched down several times to pull weeds out of her patches of herbs.  Ying Yue picked a few of the vegetables, formulating an evening menu for her guests. The pup raised his head from his dish and began to growl.

 

     “Diandian, hush,”  Yin Yue admonished.  The pup whined and returned to his dish.  The young woman didn’t want to encourage the dog to push his way out of the fence once again.  Returning to her work, she dug up a large turnip and several potatoes. These, she placed in a cloth bag that was slung crossways over her shoulder.  One of the potatoes, she turned over, finding each of the eyes that would make a new plant. She expertly cut this potato into pieces, with the knife that she always carried for such jobs.  She planted the pieces into the dirt.  

 

     Since it was still quite early, she sat herself down on a low stool and began to shell peas for her beloved hens.  It was quiet, except for the clucking of chickens milling about her feet. There was a chill, but the way that the sun lit the fog, she knew it would be a pleasant day.

 

     “Good morning Jia, good morning Genji,” Ying Yue cooed, as she held out the peas for them to pluck from her hand.  Jia hopped into her lap and settled down, watching her shell the peas and pecking at them. Holding the hen on her lap was rather like holding a rock that had been warmed in the fire. 

 

     “Jia, do you think that you are a cat?” Ying Yue laughed, as she stroked the hen’s soft golden feathers.

 

     “I’ve never seen a hen act like that,” a voice called brightly from the garden fence.  The voice startled Ying Yue and she stood up, sending her peas and the hen in her lap onto the ground.  She looked around for Diandian, but the pup had curled up in a pile of straw that he used as a bed. ‘Of course, now he’s asleep…’ she thought.

 

     Ying Yue bowed. “...I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” she sputtered, picking up a vegetable that had slipped from her bag.  The young man vaulted over the low fence easily. He reached out a hand toward Ying Yue and then drew it back, realizing that he might frighten the woman further with his boldness.

 

     “It’s my fault.  I shouldn’t have called out to you...so suddenly,” he finished contritely.

 

     The young woman looked up at the young man.  He was tall and slender. His eyes were clear and striking, the color of the copper pot hanging in their kitchen.  He wore the blue and white robes of the Gusu Lan Sect. The sunlit mist, gave the man a rather ethereal aura.

 

     “It’s...it’s not proper for two unmarried people to be alone together like this.  I need to go inside,” Ying Yue turned her back on the young man and headed toward the kitchen door.  

 

     A wisp of cloud moved across the road and revealed Lan Wei Zhang.  According to Father, he was a great teacher in the Gusu Lan Sect. He was staring right at Ying Yue and a chill ran through the young woman’s body.  How long had he been there...watching her. Ying Yue turned away from Lan Wei Zhang and saw the young man’s concerned gaze.

 

     “Gunza, I...apologize.  You’re sudden appearance left me flustered.  Are you looking for food or a place to rest?”  The young man held his hands before him and bowed slightly.

 

     “Please, that would be appreciated.  I am called Qing Heng-jun,” the young man said politely.  As he once again met her gaze, a soft smile lit his features.  “Can I have your name?”

 

     “Oh...of course.”  Ying Yue held a potato in her hand as she brought them together.  “I am Chen Ying Yue. I am happy to meet you Qing Heng-jun,” she said with a bow.  Blushing deeply with embarrassment, she quickly stuffed the potato in her cloth bag. Qing Heng-jun’s smile widened, although he covered his mouth with his hand, trying to hide his amusement.  He walked ahead of the young woman and held the door open for her.

 

      Lan Wangji looked up to see Lan Xichen leaning forward in his seat, hanging on his every word.  He continued, his gaze returning to his mother’s neat calligraphy.

 

       ...Master Lan Wei Zhang was already seated at a table by the time Qing Heng-jun and I entered the dining room.  Qing Hen-jun told me that he had just returned from a night hunt and wanted to rest until the fog cleared. It’s funny how two men can be so completely different, while wearing almost the same clothing.  Qing Heng-jun seems to be a warm and friendly person, while Lan Wei Zhang is like a cold wind. I am always glad when father catches his attention. It allows me to slip from his predatory gaze. I am worried sister. What does this Lan Wei Zhang want with me?  I am a simple girl and hope to marry a simple man, maybe even a farmer, since I love animals. I have no interest in cultivators.

     Congratulations on your son.  May he have a life filled with happiness, abundance, and prosperity.

 

     Ying Yue

     

     The two Jades of Lan sat quietly for several moments.  Lan Wangji held the letter out to his brother and Lan Xichen accepted it.  He glanced down at the letter briefly, his mind obviously working.

 

     “What is it brother?” Lan Wangji inquired evenly.

 

     “I wonder why father never let mother keep chickens?  It would have given her such a simple happiness,” Lan Xichen said wistfully.

 

     “Pets are not allowed in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said simply. 

 

     “You’ve kept rabbits here for twenty years,” Lan Xichen teased, smiling.  Lan Wangji couldn’t help but notice how weary Lan Xichen’s smile looked today.

 

     “Didn’t keep them.  They thrived on their own,”  Lan Wangji said. “Although, petting the rabbits...is soothing.” Lan Wangji reached for the letter that Lan Xichen had placed on the table.  The younger man carefully refolded the letter and returned it to the pocket in his sleeve. Lan Wangji had begun to copy the letters into a book.  It was an important part of their family history and something to pass on to Sizhui.

 

     Lan Wangji took his leave and opened the door of the Hanshi.  Sitting on the step was Jin Biyu. A tray with Lan Xichen’s evening meal sat next to her.

 

     “HanGuang-Jun,” Jin Biyu held out her hands in a circle and bowed politely.  Lan Wangji returned the greeting.

 

     “Zewu-jun is tired this evening. Don’t disturb him too long,” Lan Wangji spoke softly.  Lan Xichen slid open the door behind his younger brother.

 

     “It’s okay brother.  Come in,” Lan Xichen motioned for Jin Biyu to enter.  After she had entered with the tray, the older man slid the door shut and began to walk toward the table.

 

     “What delicacies do you have for me today...Jin Biyu?”  The young woman froze. Lan Xichen took his seat, motioning for her to join him.  Jin Biyu set the tray on the table with a sigh and sat down.  

 

     ‘Is he going to refuse me right now?’ the young woman thought.

 

     “How long have you known?” Jin Biyu asked, still looking down at the tray of food.

 

     “Since the first day that you brought me my meals.  I’ve only ever eaten a dish like that fish stew in Carp Tower,” Lan Xichen smiled.  “It’s one of my favorites from that region, by the way.” Jin Biyu looked up.

 

     “Two of my brothers are picky eaters, so I know how to cook many different dishes. Tell me if you have a favorite,” the young woman offered.

 

     “What did you make? It smells delicious,” Lan Xichen pulled the lid off of a steaming clay pot.

 

     “It’s a chicken dish, with lemongrass and mushrooms.  It’s not spicy. Someone told me that you...probably didn’t like spicy dishes,” Jin Biyu said, dishing out the vegetables and meat into a bowl.  She handed the bowl to the Lan Xichen expectantly.

 

     “That’s not so.  There are many spicy dishes that I have enjoyed, while visiting other clans,” the older man explained.  He took up a set of chopsticks and tried a bite of the chicken. Nodding his head, he reassured the young woman, “This is very good.”  Jin Biyu sighed in relief.

 

     “There’s rice,” she blurted, startling Lan Xichen.  The young woman took the lid off of another clay dish.  “I almost forgot!”

 

     “Wonderful. I believe that rice will go very well with the broth,” Lan Xichen smiled, dishing a spoonful of rice out of the pot and adding it to his bowl.

 

     The pair sat in silence for several moments.

 

     “Have you eaten,” he asked.

 

     “Yes. Thank you,” she replied politely.

 

      “I hate this awkwardness,” she thought.

 

     Suddenly, Jin Biyu stood up and began to walk toward the door.  Then, she stopped and turned around, striding determinedly back to the table, she plopped back down into the same seat.

 

     “I can’t stand the suspense.  I never could stand all the games that men and women played in the court.  Being raised with five brothers, I’ve always had to speak plainly, otherwise I could never get an idea into their thick heads.  Lan Xichen, are you going to refuse me? If you are, please do it to my face. Don’t just...send me away...without speaking to me,”  Jin Biyu spoke, it seemed, all in one breath. Her eyes were bright and sparkled with unshed tears.

 

     The first Jade of Lan was flabbergasted.  His eyes were wide and his mouth hung open for several seconds.  Never, in his whole life, had another person spoke to him in such a forthright manner...nobody, except Lan Wangji.

 

     “Well, I’ve given you a lot to think about.  You don’t have to give me an answer right now.  I’ll collect your tray in the morning,” Jin Biyu stood up and walked to the door, taking a deep breath, she turned and bowed deeply, “I’ll take my leave Zewu-jun.”  By the time the older man had stood up to speak, she was gone.

Chapter Text

      "They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  I took many single steps, but without any direction, I floundered.  Strangely, my journey of healing seemed to really begin with a simple question and a piece of smoked fish."   -  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

 

     Lan Wangji awoke at 5:00 AM to the sounds of his husband’s flute, Chenqing. 

     'Did Wei Ying stayed up all night?'  He slipped on an outer robe against the cool of the morning and walked into the other room of the Jingshi.  Wei Wuxian sat on a cushion before a globe of golden light. Golden lines drew themselves in intricate patterns, pulsing as they went. It seemed like some sort of magical lantern.  The Second Jade of Lan crossed the floor without a word and sat behind his guqin. He paused only a moment before he closed his eyes and began to add to the haunting melody. Flashes of blue light began to fill the spaces between the golden lines.  A sly smile lit Wei Wuxian’s features and his eyes slid for a glance at his lover, before returning his attention to the globe of golden light turning and shimmering before him. When he finished the melody, he sat for a few moments watching the blue and golden globe dissipate slowly.

 

     “Lan Zhan. I did it,” Wei Ying breathed.  A serene smile spread across his face. Wei Wuxian could feel the power of his new core, the warmth of it coursing through his body.  He could feel it spreading, in his fingers, in his toes, up his spine. He never appreciated it until he felt the feeling gradually leave his body on that grassy hilltop...a lifetime ago.  Lan Wangji’s eyes grew wide. He was at his husband’s side in a moment.

 

     “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, in awe.  He picked up his lover’s wrist and felt for his pulse.  The older man thought of how many times Wei Ying had batted his hand away, afraid that he would discover that Wei Ying had no golden core.  But now, Wei Ying moved his wrist to rest on his knee so Lan Wangji could feel the power of that new golden core. His breath caught in his chest and his eyes began to glisten with tears.  

 

     The younger man’s eyes fluttered open at his husband’s touch, a joyful smile lit his eyes.

 

     “Thank you Lan Zhan. I don’t know if I could have…” Lan Wangji captured his lips in a fierce kiss.  Wei Ying returned the kiss eagerly, like a floodgate had broken. The tears finally ran down their faces, happy tears, relieved tears.  So much time, so much work, two years of research, study, and cultivation to awaken this little golden core in Mo Xuan Yu’s young body.

 

     Lan Zhan moved forward, cupping the back of Wei Ying’s head to protect him, as they reclined.  Lan Wangji’s hands were everywhere, laying kisses on his lover’s neck, before capturing his mouth once again. Wei Ying’s hands fumbled with the sash on his lover’s robe as they kissed.  Suddenly, they couldn’t be close enough. Lan Wangji pulled away from Wei Ying’s lips, scooping his lover up into a bridal carry. Wei Wuxian continued to lay kisses on the older man’s jawline and nibbled at his ear, as he was carried to the bedroom.

 

     Some time later, the couple lay in each other’s arms.  Lan Zhan lazily stroked his fingers up and down Wei Ying’s arm.  His expression was thoughtful.

 

     “Wei Ying. That song…” Lan Zhan said softly.

 

     “Balance,” Wei Ying replied.  He took up Lan Zhan’s hand and laced his finger into his, “It balances the resentful energy, leaving the walking corpse inert, without destroying the body or the spirit.  I figured that since my husband is an expert in inquisition, this would compliment you. The song can also hold things still so the juniors can kill them.”

 

     “It is similar to the Gusu Lan Sect guqin technique,” Lan Wangji considered, “but different also…”

 

     “Pffft, the guqin technique is too often like killing a spider with a boulder.  This is...more subtle. When the globe is complete, you have balance, a visual cue to stop.  It conserves spiritual energy. It isn’t a good technique for a solo battle, however, because it takes time.  It is more of a support role,” Wei Wuxian explained.  

 

     “Support role?  Wei Ying, it could easily turn the tide of a battle,” Lan Wangji exhaled in wonder.

 

     “Yet, it is useful when we need to perform inquiry on a single being.  It is like a tool with more than one use,” Wei Wuxian tilted his head up and yawned.

 

    Lan Wangji pulled his sleepy husband from the bed and deposited him in the bath minutes later.  Exhausted by the lack of sleep and sheer emotion of finally building a new core, Wei Wuxian could barely stay awake as the older man carefully washed his hair.  It was incredibly relaxing to be so pampered.

 

     “Er gege,” he breathed, with eyes closed.  His head lolled on his neck with every movement of Lan Wangji’s hands, massaging his scalp.

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji replied.  

 

     “You are so good at being my husband…” Wei Ying moaned sleepily.

 

     The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth tugged into a half smile.  

 

     Before beginning morning lessons with the juniors, Lan Wangji tucked Wei Wuxian into bed and sat nearby at the low table where the couple took their meals.  He started a pot of tea and opened the third letter to read ahead of time, as he had done with the last two letters. He wanted to be a source of strength and comfort for his brother and was concerned about being able to contain his own emotions as his parent’s story unfolded.  This time, Lan Wangji’s brow furrowed in confusion as he read the letter. He tucked the letter in his sleeve and poured himself a cup of tea. He looked ahead, seemingly aloof, but actually his thoughts were turbulent. Finally, the second jade finished his tea in one draw on the delicate cup.  He glanced at his sleeping husband, smiling slightly, and reached for Bichen, before leaving the Jingshi. On the path, Lan Wangji met one of the younger juniors.

 

     “HanGuang-Jun, Zewu-Jun isn’t in the Hanshi.  I was sent to bring him a message from Lan Qiren but, he wasn’t there.”

 

     

 

<<>>



     Lan Xichen found it surprisingly hard to find Jin Biyu the next morning.  At first, he had intended to simply wait for her to pick up the tray as she had promised.  But, he was worried that she would take the tray away before he could speak to her. He picked up the tray, that had been placed in the usual spot outside, on the step of the Hanshi, and brought it back inside.  He placed the tray back onto the table.

 

      ‘What if she thinks that someone else has come and taken the tray away?’ Lan Xichen returned the tray to the step and stood next to it for several minutes.  He looked like a god, elegant in his white robes, one hand held serenely behind his back.  His mind began to wander.

 

     ‘Is it intimidating for me to stand out here over the tray?’   He sighed.  ‘I’m just going to go find her.’   Lan Xichen hadn’t been outside the small garden of the Hanshi in nearly two years, except to cultivate and heal in the cold spring.  It felt strange. He paused for just a moment at the entrance to his garden and then walked with purpose to the small compound where the single female cultivators lived.

 

     Lan Xichen approached one of the female juniors who looked up at him like she had seen a spirit, eyes wide.  Quickly, she held her sword out in front of her and bowed deeply.

 

     “Zewu-Jun,” she stammered.  The older man returned the bow and spoke.

 

     “I apologize for startling you at this early hour.  I am looking for Jin Biyu,” Lan Xichen said evenly.

 

     The young junior bowed again, worried that she couldn’t be more helpful, “I’m sorry Zewu-Jun. She isn’t here right now.”  The senior bowed and took his leave of the nervous young woman.

 

      ‘I’ll try the river,’ he thought, deciding that either way, the walk would do him some good.  The river that descended through the cloud recesses was both turbulent and peaceful in places.  The large boulders broke up the swift water, leaving eddies and peaceful pools behind them. There were several very good places to see fish and other wildlife that lived in the area.  It was a pleasant place to commune with nature and leave behind the noise of every day routine. As Lan Xichen descended into the gorge carved out by the waters, he noticed a thin line of smoke coming from an area adjacent to the river itself.  The older man smiled. By her reputation, he imagined that he had just found Jin Biyu.  

 

     Lan Xichen approached quietly, curious about the young woman that had so distracted him, that he would set off to find her after nearly two years of staying in the Hanshi.  The jade of Lan noticed a flash of gold just over the tops of the trees. Jin Biyu was stalking her prey, mounted on her sword, crouched like a tiger, she held the blade itself with her right hand and leaned to the left, looking for movement below.  Suddenly, like an eagle, she dropped into a near vertical dive. The young woman pulled up right before she would have hit the water. Amazingly, she stood on her sword just above the water, a wriggling trout in her hand. A smile split her features. It was a nice sized fish.  Her sword began to glide toward a small cooking fire. Deftly, Jin Biyu hopped from the sword which circled around her impressively and sheathed itself with just a flick of the young woman’s head. She pulled a small knife from her sash and prepared the fish for smoking with a few passes of the sharp blade.  She removed a pouch from her sleeve and pressed herbs from the pouch into the center of the fish. Then, she skewered the fish onto a stick that rested over a triangular rack made of sticks, along with three other fish. The fire was low and the cooking would take some time.  

 

     “Jin Biyu...Good morning,” Lan Xichen greeted the young woman with a bow.

 

     “Zewu-Jun...I…” She sputtered, glancing down at the fire.  Recovering herself, she held her sword, Ezuoju, in front of her and bowed deeply, lingering just an extra moment in repentance for the fish.

 

     Lan Xichen approached the fire.  The smell coming from the fire was nostalgic and simply...amazing.  The first jade very much hoped this fish would be a part of his evening meal.

     “This smell...what herbs did you place on the fish?” The older man inquired, tilting his head, he tried to place the aroma.

 

     “Oh, it’s ba jiao tea. It was given to me by Wei Wuxian. He told me that it suited your tastes,” she explained.  Crouching next to the fire, the young woman added twigs and fanned the glowing coals until a low flame once again bloomed in the fire.

 

     “You’re very considerate. But, you need not go to so much trouble for me. Simple food will suffice,” Lan Xichen’s face softened.  Jin Biyu looked up and searched the older man’s face.

 

     “Maybe simple food is enough to survive.  Isn’t it time that you lived?” Lan Xichen’s mouth hung open and his eyebrows raised. Jin Biyu looked back at the fire.  

 

     “Smoking fish with tea is a trick I learned from my brothers.  After we would go on a night hunt, if it was far enough away that we had to camp, we would stop by a stream and fish.  Whoever caught the least amount of fish had to clean them all,” a soft smile lit Jin Biyu’s features as she recalled the memory.  As she spoke, she continued to feed the small fire underneath the fish.

 

     “I’ve never seen someone catch fish that way.  It was very impressive,” Lan Xichen offered. Jin Biyu shrugged.  

 

     “You should see my gege, Jin Ho.  He is impressive,” Jin Biyu looked up at the older man.  “Why don’t you come sit by the fire. Otherwise, you’ll give me a stiff neck.”  Lan Xichen rearranged his robes and sat all in one motion.

 

     “Forgive me, if I was being rude.  My company manners could use a little polish,” the older man said with a sigh.  Lan Xichen watched Jin Biyu feed the little sticks into the fire. If he reached out, he could tuck the wisp of hair that had fallen from her clasp behind her ear…

 

     “Lan Xichen...do you want to?”  Jin Biyu asked softly. Lan Xichen was snapped from his little daydream.

 

     “Do I want…?” He stammered, confused.

 

     “Do you want to live?”  Jin Biyu looked up into Zewu-Jun’s soft brown eyes.  Lan Xichen’s heart began to pound in his chest. He knew that Jin Biyu meant more than just being alive.

 

      ‘Do I deserve to live...after the ridiculously costly mistakes that I made? Do I deserve happiness after all the death...’   Lan Xichen stood up.  As he began to turn away from the young woman, he was stopped by her simple sigh.

 

     Lan Xichen stood like a figure carved in jade.  One hand rested behind him, on the small of his back, the other at his side, clutching Shuoue.  The older man heard a rustling behind him and felt a warm hand touch his back and then he felt the closeness of Jin Biyu at his side.  He felt a tingling sensation at the base of his neck.

     'When was the last time someone me touched me with such care?' His eyes closed.  Jin Biyu's clothes smelt of woodsmoke and ba jiao tea. The scent filled his nose.

 

     “I do...I do want to live.” Lan Xichen breathed.  “I’ve forgotten how.” Jin Biyu threaded her fingers into the hand resting on the small of the jade’s back.

 

     “It’s alright.  Wanting to live is the first step,” the young woman pulled Xichen’s hand and led him back to the fire.  He followed obediently. “Eating my smoked fish is the second step,” she said playfully.  

 

     Lan Xichen, the Second Jade of Lan, laughed.

Chapter Text

     “Often, that which you hide in the dark, is what most needs to see the light.”     -  Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

 

     Lan Xichen’s supposed disappearance was solved almost immediately.  A young junior had spoken to him just after dawn and knew that he was looking for Jin Biyu.  Lan Wangji felt a sense of peace at hearing this bit of news. Wei Ying’s bit of matchmaking was going rather according to plan.  He would certainly be pleased. He wondered, wryly, if the Yiling Patriarch had suddenly developed an aptitude for prophesy, along with his new golden core.

 

     Lan Wangji entered his uncle’s rooms and found the older man meditating in front of a low table.  The younger man sat opposite him and held his sleeve back with one hand, while he carefully prepared a pot of tea with the other hand.  Several moments passed before Lan Wangji had gained his uncle’s attention.

 

     “Wangji, where is Xichen,” the older man spoke evenly, as his eyes fluttered open.

 

     “Taking a walk...with Jin Biyu. I did not wish to disturb them,” Lan Wangji replied, setting the pot on a brazier to heat.  Lan Qiren’s eyebrows raised, but he did not comment further on this new development.

 

     The two men sat in silence for several moments.  When the tea was heated, the second Jade of Lan served his uncle first and then poured himself a cup of tea.  Lan Qiren nodded toward his nephew in thanks before holding his sleeve and picking up the delicate porcelain cup, bringing it to his lips.  Lan Wangji followed this example. He then replaced the cup onto the low table and directed his gaze toward his uncle, his hands resting on his thighs.

 

     “Uncle, I have perceived that there are letters missing from the stack,” Lan Wangji spoke evenly and with great control.  It was important to keep the lines of communication open with his uncle.

 

     “Those letters were not needed.  They were not important to your parent’s story,” Lan Qiren gazed into his nephew’s face.  “They make...accusations against a man who can no longer defend himself.”

 

     Lan Wangji closed his eyes briefly and breathed in and out deeply.  The second Jade of Lan’s anger kindled deep in his chest.  After several moments he spoke.

 

     “Uncle, isn’t it said that slander cannot destroy an honest man?  Why do you defend the dead against the dead?” Lan Wangji spoke with great irony, for certainly slander had destroyed the first life of his most beloved.  His very body bore the proof of it.

 

     Lan Qiren understood the irony of Wangji’s words and stood up, turning his back on the younger man.  For a moment, the younger man feared that he had taken the wrong tactic, but then Lan Wangji realized from the older man’s open posture that the conversation had not ended.  He would be patient.

 

     “Are the letters...in tact,” Lan Wangji wondered aloud. ‘How damning were these letters?’  He wondered if his uncle had burned them and for what reason.

 

     “Wangji, Lan Wei Zhang was a great teacher.  He was my mentor, he was your father’s mentor.  He had high principles for his students...high expectations.  He didn’t mean to harm…” Lan Qiren suddenly stopped and sighed.  Without another word, he pulled three letters out of his sleeve and dropped them onto the table.

 

     “Forgive me Wangji…”

 

     Lan Wangji picked up the letters from the table and placed them in the pocket in his sleeve.  Then, the younger man took up Bichen and held the sword in front of him, bowing deeply, with respect.  Whatever his uncle had just done, it was very difficult for him to do. He would honor the decision that his uncle had made to return the letters for his sake and the sake of Lan Xichen.  Lan Qiren nodded and waved the younger man off. As Lan Wangji walked out of the building, he could hear the older man sigh.

 

<<>>



     Qing Heng-jun began to visit Ying Yue every time that he came home from a night hunt.  He would find a reason to separate from his companions, making excuses for reasons that he wanted to stay in town, but all the other juniors knew that a certain inn keeper’s daughter had caught his eye.  He was absolutely smitten.

 

     Ying Yue wasn’t in love.  She promised her sister and her mother that she wasn’t.  But, she found her visits with the chickens lasting a little longer and felt a pang of sadness when a young cultivator named Qing Heng-jun didn’t appear at their garden fence in the mornings.  Cultivators were so unreliable.

 

     “Ying Yue!” Qing Heng-jun called, smiling at the fence.  The woman looked up, smiling and then tried to play it cool.

 

     “Huh, where have you been? I thought you had been eaten by a zombie,” Ying Yue stayed seated and returned to holding out green peas for her chickens to jump up and catch.

 

     “Aww, don’t be angry. I brought you a gift from Yunmeng.  Qing Heng-jun laid his hand on the fence and vaulted over it easily, even though the gate was only about four feet to the right.  “I kept these warm in my pockets for two days. They even went on the night hunt with me.” Ying Yue couldn’t believe her ears. Qing Heng-jun’s sleeve was...peeping.  The young woman stood up and approached the young man. Qing Heng-jun pulled three black and white speckled chicks from his sleeve.

 

     “You got them for me?” Ying Yue said in awe, as the young man handed her the little chicks.  The young woman sat with the little fluffy balls on her lap.  

 

     “Do you like them?” the young man sat on the ground next to her.  Ying Yue turned pink and nodded her head. “Are you crying?”

 

     “No, of course not,” the young woman wiped her eyes. “It’s the cold morning air.”

 

     “I see.  You’re welcome,”  The young man smiled.  “I brought a box of spices from Yunmeng for your mother.” 

     If Madam Chen heard the couple talking in the yard, she would suddenly have a vegetable to pick or wood she needed to bring inside.  They were an unmarried couple, after all.

 

     Qing Hen-jun told Ying Yue the story of their night hunt.  His friend Jiang FengMian was to be married soon, so they wanted to have one last big trip together.  

 

     Ying Yue listened to his stories, but soon became distracted by the chicks.  Jia, her sweetest hen, had already started to herd the little chicks to her nest.  The young woman sighed in relief at how quickly the little chicks were accepted, otherwise, keeping the chicks warm enough would be difficult.  Because of the elevation, it was still cold in the evenings, even in late spring.

 

     As Qing Hen-jun turned to leave, Ying Yue reached out her hand and touched his sleeve.

 

     “Will you come tomorrow?” She asked shyly.  The young man’s eyes sparkled like a burnished kettle.

 

     “Yes.”  The young man mounted his sword with a grin and disappeared over the treetops.



     ...I’m not saying that I’ve changed my mind about marrying a cultivator, but maybe Qing Hen-jun would be okay.  He seems to like animals as much as I do. Imagine, a future clan leader of the Gusu Lan Sect with chicks up his sleeves to keep them warm!  I was amazed.

 

     Mother really liked the spices from Yunmeng.  I thought I would tell you in case you ever wanted to send her a gift from your region.  I miss you. The traffic in the inn has been heavy lately. Father’s cough is much worse.  Some days he has to stay in bed all day. The mustard poultice doesn’t seem to soothe him the way that it did in the past.  I am considering asking Qing Hen-jun for some of the Lan Sect healing methods. I am helping all I can, but Mother is still exhausted.  We may need to hire a boy to help.

 

Ying Yue

 

     Lan Xichen looked perplexed, his hand stroked his chin in thought.

     “Lan Wangi, why were we always told that mother had no love for our father?”  Lan Xichen’s brow was furrowed as he spoke. “Doesn’t this letter show at least some affection toward him?  She even says that she would consider marrying him.”

 

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji stared at the letter.  “Why would uncle want to keep this letter from us?”  He inspected the letter carefully. He was certain that this was the complete letter.  There was no incontinuity in the timeline and the greetings seemed in context to the rest of the letter.  

 

     “There are three things that can not be hidden, the sun, the moon, and the truth,” Lan Xichen recited.  “I suppose the answer will reveal itself as we continue to hear our mother’s story.” After Lan Xichen looked over the letter himself, Lan Wangji returned the letter to the pocket in his sleeve.  The pair sat at the table and the older man served his brother another cup of tea.

 

     “Brother, how was your walk with Jin Biyu this morning,” the younger man was pleased to see how his brother’s sudden smile reached his eyes and how the tips of his ears turned red.

 

     “Jin Biyu...is rather pleasant company,” the older man said smoothly.  “We’re going on a picnic together this evening.”  

 

     “Really?” Lan Wangji was surprised.

 

    “I want to show her the sunset in the meadow,” he said with a smile.  “We decided that it’s time that I remembered how to live,” Lan Xichen walked over to the door of the Hanshi and slid it open.  The golden light of the late afternoon sun cast a warm glow into the room. “Isn’t that what we are trying to do brother - let in the light?”

 

     “Indeed.”

 

     Just then, Lan Wangji saw Jin Biyu walking up the path to the Hanshi, holding a basket and a blanket in her arms.

 

     “HangGuang-Jun,” she said, bowing politely.  Lan Wangji returned the proper greeting to her and his brother, before heading down the path that would lead him to his home and Wei Ying.

 

     Lan Xichen took the basket from Jin Biyu’s arms and led her to the meadow, whose edge featured a large flat rock and an ancient cherry tree.  They spread the blanket on the mossy rock and Jin Biyu began to unpack the basket containing their meal. Jin Biyu had made a dish with the smoked fish and some vegetables, seasoned with vinegar and chilis.  It was the perfect dish for a picnic, because it tasted good either hot or cold.  

 

     “Is it too spicy?” Jin Biyu fussed.

 

     “My palate is not as delicate as my brother’s,” Lan Xichen laughed.  “The smokey fish is wonderful with the rice. Really, I am enjoying it very much.”  For dessert, the young woman made a simple tart with loquats. Their bellies full, they turned their attention to the view over the grassy meadow.  They were surrounded by the sounds of frogs and the call of late summer cicadas. A few white rabbits appeared here and there, nibbling grass without fear of predators.

 

     The sunset, as the older man had promised, was spectacular from this vantage point.  The clouds looked as if they had been set ablaze, first gold, then orange, and then finally a dusty pink.  Jin Biyu leaned into Lan Xichen’s space after packing up their dishes. The First Jade placed his hand over hers and they sat just like that for several moments.

 

     “Jin Biyu...I...will not refuse you,” Lan Xichen said softly.  

 

     “Zewu-jun…”   The young woman breathed in and turned her head to the older man.  She thought he looked beautiful, but sad, as he was illuminated by the last rays of sunlight over the mountain.  

 

     “Although, I feel like you have been sold broken goods,” he laughed, picking up her hand and holding it in his lap.  Turning to Jin Biyu, he asked, “Will you wait for me, as I learn how to live again?”

 

     “I will,” the young woman turned and leaning forward on her knees, she reached for the older man’s face, closed her eyes, and placed a chaste kiss on his soft lips.

 

     Lan Xichen looked at Jin Biyu in wonder.  “Maybe you should call me something else now...besides Zewu-jun.”  Jin Biyu sat back on her heels, smiling.

 

     “I will call you Fu-jun.  What about me? What will you call me?”

 

     “I will call you Niang Zi,"  Lan Xichen held out his hand, "Shall we walk back Niang Zi?"

 

     "Thank you Fu-jun," Jin Biyu said with a smile, trying out the new name.  Lan Xichen walked his betrothed back to her rooms, as several whispering and giggling juniors peeked out of their windows and doors.  The older man couldn't help but smile at the scene.

     "Good night Fu-jun," the young woman said softly, turning toward her door.  Lan Xichen suddenly felt very naughty.

     "Niang Zi," he called after her.  Jin Biyu turned back to him with surprise.

     "Good night." 

Chapter Text

“Do not kill within Cloud Recesses.  Do not fight without permission. Do not commit acts of promiscuity.  Do not go out at night. Do not make noise. Do not walk too fast. Do not laugh for no reason.  Do not sit with a disgraceful pose. Do not eat more than 3 bowls. Be a filial child. Organise work properly.  Diligence is the root. Morality is the priority. Harmony is the value. Learning comes first. Do not take your own words lightly.  Do not act impulsively. Do not give up on learning. Make sure to act virtuously. Do not forget the grace of the forefathers. Be careful with your words.  Be respectful and humble” - Taken from the Gusu Lan Sect Wall of Discipline.



     Ying Yue stood by the fence, clutching two of the bamboo poles with her hands.  It was mid morning and the fog had already burned off the mountain. Qing Heng-jun promised yesterday that he would bring a tea that would help Father’s cough. He had a fitful night.  He coughed so much that in the early hours of the morning, after a terrible coughing fit, he began to cry out in pain and began to spit up blood. Mother finally calmed him by giving him sips of alcohol after the mustard poultice seemed to do nothing to help him.  They were all exhausted. The young woman had left her mother resting on the floor, her head on her arms on the side of their bed. Ying Yue hadn’t had time to wash her face or change her clothes. Wisps of hair had come loose from her braid and hung about her face, getting in her way.  Her eyes were swollen from her tears of fear and frustration. What would happen to them?

     The Chen family had a business, but there was very little extra after taking care of the upkeep of the inn and their needs.  The young woman had an image of her and her mother trying to dig a proper grave for her father. Ying Yue looked down, hearing the little noises of her poulets milling around her feet.  Their new feathers were already in and they looked like perfect little hens. The young woman was embarrassed to realize that she was slowly but surely becoming dependent on this Lan Sect cultivator.  What if something happened and he wasn’t able to come today...just when she really needed him. 

     The wind ruffled the leaves in the tops of the trees, creating a deafening roar on the mountain.  A figure in white appeared on a gleaming sword, slowly circling down into the little yard. Qing Heng-jun hopped off the slim blade which seemed to hover briefly before returning to its scabbard with a nod of the cultivator’s head.  The young man took in Ying Yue’s appearance, his eyes widening in alarm.

     “What has happened?” He asked.  His questions seemed to unleash the young woman’s fear and frustration.  She gripped the fence tighter and tears flowed freely down her face, sobs wracking her slight frame.

     “I was afraid you couldn’t come and I don’t know how to help him…” she sobbed.  Qing Heng-jun pulled her into a tight hug, cradling her head with his hand.

     “I’m here...I’m here and I’ve brought the medicine,” the young man stroked Ying Yue’s hair and tried to calm her.  He closed his eyes and imparted some of his spiritual power into her body. He could feel her breathing even out and her shoulders relax under the warmth of his glowing palms.  “Ying Yue...I’m here for you,” he whispered into her ear. When she had calmed, he pulled away slightly, holding her head in both of his hands. 

     “I’m alright now,” she said, taking a shaky breath.  “Thank you Qing Heng-jun,” She said, bringing her hand up to his own.  The young man gazed at her, his eyes soft. Considering something, he fished a jade token out of his sleeve and pressed it into the maiden’s hand.

     “I want you to call me Lan Jie.  If you ever need me, come to the Cloud Recesses and find me.  If I am not there, find my brother Lan QiRen. Tell him, “Lan Jie told me to come.”  

     Ying Yue considered the carved jade circle with a lotus blossom in the center.  It was so light green that it looked white, depending on the light. A matching braided cord and tassel completed the token.  She gazed at the young man in wonder. Lan Jie had to be his birth name. Only a close friend or family...or spouse would use a man’s birth name.  She took his hand and pulled him into the inn through the kitchen door. A fire was already laid in the clay stove and a pot of water simmered on the burner.  The young woman used a ladle to fill a teapot with hot water, while Lan Jie fished a packet of herbs out of his sleeve. An exotic, yet somewhat familiar smell filled the kitchen.

     “Take me to him. I want to help,” Lan Jie said softly.  Father’s room had the sour smell of sickness, a mixture of mustard, sweat and incense.  “Ying Yue, bring more hot water, clean cloth, and soap,” Lan Jie said softly. First the young man took out a packet of incense that would help the older man rest.  He moved the incense burner to a small table very close to his head. He filled the burner and left the rest of the packet on the table for later use. Mother Chen stirred.

     “Qing Heng-jun…” she said softly, a little startled.

     “Forgive me Mother Chen, I’ve brought Lan Sect medicine.  Let me tend to Father Chen,” the young man bowed humbly to his would be mother-in-law.  The older woman stared at him in amazement. Who was she that the successor of the Gusu Lan Sect would come to help them.  When she didn’t move, Lan Jie tried a different tactic. “Mother Chen, would you make something for me to eat? I didn’t eat breakfast in my rush to get here,” he said bowing apologetically.  This had the desired effect and the older woman thanked him for coming to help and left the room.  

     Father Chen was very still.  Lan Jie could hear a wheeze in his chest with each breath.  The young man took up his wrist and felt his pulse. Closing his eyes, he used his spiritual power to envision the pathways of his blood as it raced through his veins, his heart, his lungs, his muscles, his very bones.  The young man diagnosed the problem. Two of his ribs were cracked from his coughing. The coughing itself seemed to be the body’s overreaction to a chronic infection. When Ying Yue arrived with the clean cloths, Lan Jie explained what he had done and wrapped the other man’s ribs after applying a paste made with water and crushed herbs, including turmeric, ginger, and cat’s claw to draw out inflammation.  The Lan cultivator closed his eyes and made a sign with his two hands. Still holding a sign in front of his face, he laid his right hand on top of the poultice on the older man’s ribs. Ying Yue’s eyes grew wide as she saw a blue light surround Lan Jie’s hand. She could feel the power coming from the young man’s body. The back of her neck prickled and gave her a shiver.

     “Sister Ying, when he begins to wake, spoon some of the tea into his mouth,” Lan Jie said softly, breaking the spell.  Ying Yue poured the tea into a clean cup and watched her father’s sleeping face. It was several minutes before the young man removed his hand and made another sign that looked like him closing an invisible bag with a twist.  He opened his eyes. A sheen of perspiration covered the young man’s brow from the effort. Father Chen still did not stir. Lan Jie’s eyes knit in concern. “I need to consult my uncle about him,” he muttered. “If he wakes, have him drink the tea.”  The young man went downstairs and consulted Mother Chen about the ingredients in his mustard poultice, pulling herbs from the bundles hanging in the kitchen and adding herbs that decrease inflammation. He instructed the older woman to change it every four hours.  He brought a brazier to the room and instructed the pair to keep water simmering in the room at all times. In the small tea pot, he added vinegar and garlic to help prevent infection. Ying Yue thought it smelled like when her mother was making pickles.

     Lan Jie left in the afternoon but returned before it got dark with Lan Wei Zhang.  The older cultivator walked around the room with a stern look on his face. He paused by the outside wall and placed his hand flat on the wall for a few seconds.  Then, he left the room without a word. Ying Yue followed the man, who walked down the stairs quickly and went right out the door. He circled the building until he was right under her father’s window.

     “Here is the problem,”  the older man pointed to a board in the roof that had broken away, allowing water to run down the wall and rot some of the boards that were a part of her father’s bedroom wall.  “The damp can kill a man with your father’s constitution. That needs to be fixed and he needs to be move to a different room immediately.”  

     Lan Wei Zhang walked into the inn with determination and looked at every room, choosing the corner room on the other side of the inn.  He set the women to work cleaning the room with hot water and vinegar. The two men moved the furniture and the patient into the room as the hour approached 9:00.  Father Chen had slept through it all.

     Mother Chen made a late dinner for them and they all sat at a table in front of the fire.  Lan Wei Zhang carefully placed his chopsticks next to his plate before he began to speak.

     “Where did you get that jade token Miss Chen?” The old cultivator asked.

     “I gave it to her. She may need to find me if her father gets worse,” Lan Jie replied quickly.  

     The older man considered Lan Jie.

     “It is not usual for a jade token to be given to others if they are not a member of the Lan Sect, unless they hold the office of Chief Cultivator.”  Lan Jie looked down at his plate, but didn’t speak. Ying Yue felt a churning of emotion in her chest. She gazed at Lan Jie, waiting for him to speak for her.  He remained silent. Her mother began to clear the table. Slowly, she stood up and began to help her, leaving the jade token on the table before Qing Heng-jun. After she had placed all of the dishes in the kitchen, she returned and bowed low to both men.

     “Qing Heng-jun, Lan Wei Zhang, thank you for your help, please choose any empty room for the night,” Ying Yue spoke with all the formality that she could muster, however, Lan Jie noticed the shaking of her hands.  The lack of sleep and the high emotions of the day were taking its toll on the young woman.

     Ying Yue watched her father sleep late into the night, as her mother took care of three other late arriving guests.  The young woman was ready to give him the medicinal tea the very second that he woke up. She fell asleep, however, leaning against the wall near the door.  She awoke covered in a blanket, the jade token heavy in her hand. Had Lan Jie watched over him as she slept. She didn’t know.

      Lan Jie and Lan Wei Zhang were gone before I woke up.  Mother told me that Lan Jie left money for their rooms and to hire a man to fix the roof and the wall.  I don’t understand this young cultivator. When he held me, I thought I felt his feelings clearly, but when he didn’t confirm them to his uncle, it made me wonder is his feeling love or charity?  Who am I to compel the next leader of the Lan Sect to declare his true feelings for me? All I want is a simple existence.

 

Mei Mei

 

     The two Jades of Lan were quiet for several moments.  Lan Xichen held his hand out across the table, silently asking his brother to hand him the letter.  He read the letter carefully. He could tell that his poor mother had written the letter at the point of exhaustion.  Her letters were not as uniform and seemed more open.

     “A simple existence...I understand that desire...I wonder if it is possible,” the first Jade sighed and returned the letter to his brother’s hand.  “Lan Wangji, have you read the next letter?” The younger man looked at his brother without speaking for several moments.

     “No,” he said simply.  

     Lan Xichen nodded his head knowingly.  Lan Qiren held back three letters from the brothers.  This was the second letter. Already, they both could feel how the Lan family politics were invading their mother’s affairs.  What were the grievances that their mother had against Lan Wei Zhang, that would ultimately lead to his death? Why did Lan Qiren ask for Lan Wangji to forgive him?  

     “Will you come tomorrow?”  Lan Xichen asked.

     “Mn,” Lan Wangji replied.

     The air in the room was thick with unasked questions, unspoken thoughts.  Lan Wangji stood and began to walk to the door. One thought plagued him and he turned around to bow his goodbye to his brother.  After Lan Xichen straightened, Lan Wangji spoke.

     “Wei Ying has always been my confidant, my conscience in a way.  We made a pledge to help the oppressed and to live with no regrets,” the younger man looked away for a moment thoughtfully.  “Even when we lost our way, we eventually returned to that path together.”  

     During his evening walk with Jin Biyu, he shared the contents of the letter and Lan Wangji’s parting words.  

     “It must have been difficult for your mother when the destination seemed to suddenly change.  She wasn’t sure how she should act toward your father,” she said wisely.  

     “What do you mean by destination?” Lan Xichen stopped walking.

     “Well, when two people are heading toward marriage, they act a certain way toward one another.  A pauper accepting alms acts a different way. I think that is what Lan Wangji was saying to you.  He and Wei WuXian decided a long time ago where their path would lead - a life of service to others, a life without regrets.  Your mother wanted a simple life with her Lan Sect cultivator. But, that isn’t a simple life, Fu-jun. I know this because I grew up watching the goings on in Carp Tower.”  Jin Biyu sighed. She faced her betrothed and laced her fingers into his as they began to walk again. The moon was full and bright underneath a sky full of stars.

     “Niang Zi, what do you want?  What is your destination?” A small smile played at the curious man’s lips, his tone was slightly teasing.

     “My father used to say that all he ever wanted was to wake up next to my mother every day.  Of course, that was not to be,” She said thoughtfully. “I want...to be helpful and to cherish each day as it comes.  Every day is a gift Fu-jun.”

     Lan Xichen was overcome by her words.  He pulled her into his arms in the middle of the meadow, and kissed her gently.

     “Niang Zi...you are every bit as bright as that moon in the sky this evening.  I think that I will cherish every day I wake up next to you,” he said tenderly.  The young woman blushed pink in his warm arms, smiling. She tucked her head under Lan Xichen’s chin and rested her head on his chest, listening to the quickening of his heartbeat.

     “For now, Fu-jun, let that be our goal, to help one another and to cherish each day as it comes,” Jin Biyu said softly, holding her betrothed a little tighter as she spoke.

     “Niang Zi,” Lan Xichen breathed, cupping her cheek, he answered her with a kiss.”

     

“Before the time I remade the Lan Sect Wall of Discipline, I had a dream.  The words carved onto the stone fell off of the wall and stretched out as a long path.  At the end of the path shone the words BE RIGHTEOUS. As I walked along the path, some of the rules from the wall forked off of the main path.  I ignored those rules and walked on to my destination, cherishing each step forward.” - Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

Chapter Text

 “Is there one truth?  The truth of the highwayman is not the same truth as his victim.  The truth of the bystander differs.  The innocent, injured in the chase, has a different truth…”  - Taken from Lessons From My Confinement, by Lan Xichen

 

    Lan Wangji held the letter in his hand, as he stood in the doorway watching the morning fog drift through the Cloud Recesses.  The sky was starting to brighten, but the sun had not yet risen enough above the mountain to light the path to their door.  The Second Jade looked back at the bed behind him, trying to detect some movement.

     ‘When will he wake?’ The thought flitted through the older man’s mind, but Lan Wangji knew that Wei Ying wouldn’t awake for a few hours.  He needed him.  The jade let out a long, slow breath and walked toward the bed, stopping to carefully place the letter on the low table where they took their meals together.   Looking down at his sleeping husband, Wangji carefully removed his garments and slipped under the covers, pulling Wei Ying into his strong arms.

     “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying moaned. “I’m too tired for twice a day.”  He tried to roll over, but Wangji tightened his grip, cradling his husband’s head under his chin.

     “Stay still,” the older man said softly into his husband’s soft, black hair.  Sex wasn’t exactly what was on Wangji’s mind at that particular moment.  He craved his husband’s warmth, his closeness.  His eyes slid shut and the second Jade of Lan tried to reach a feeling of centeredness and peace that he was unable to find in his meditation that morning.  

     Wei Ying sensed the urgency in his husband’s words.  He could feel the tension in Lan Zhan’s body. He needed him. The younger man’s concern for his husband chased the sleepiness from his brain.  He slid his arm around his husband’s back and began to skate his fingertips up and down the warm bare skin in a soothing motion.  Lan Zhan’s tension seemed to lessen somewhat, but didn’t go away completely.  Wei Ying knew something was bothering Lan Zhan.  He knew about the three letters that Lan Qiren withheld from the three brothers.  

     ‘His need for me...it must be about the letters,’  Wei Ying sighed and settled into his husband’s arms, waiting for him to tell him what it was, and eventually dozing off again.

     In the early morning hours, Lan Wangji remembered the emptiness of his seclusion after Wei Ying’s death.  The memory started as a feeling of cold in his limbs.  It became an ache in his chest.  He remembered that time like the last remnants of a bad dream.  It was endless, like his own waking death.  He remembered thinking that the pain that he felt in his body was the only reminder that he was still alive.  

     The only thing that brought him back to life was the beating heart of a little boy, found at the brink of death.  He was a walking, talking, breathing reminder of the man he loved.  Wei Ying had given up everything and declared that child as precious and worthy.  Lan Wangji realized that he had been given a second chance to save some small part of Wei Ying’s life.

     ‘To defend the weak and to live a life with no regrets.  It was the promise I made with Wei Ying.’

     The name SiZhui was a reminder of the man he loved, meaning “to recollect and long for.”  The family name of Lan was his own gift of protection, declaring SiZhui precious and worthy to everyone in the Cloud Recesses.

     ‘But now, he is here in my arms,’ his heart ached with the sheer weight of the knowledge.  ‘My longing has ended…’  The older man held his husband tighter, nestling his face into his hair, taking in his scent.

     Lan Wangji began to move his hands along his husband’s side, eliciting a low, sleepy moan from his lover.

     “Lan Zhan, I am here for you,” the younger man murmured, pressing a kiss on the skin right under his collarbone.  Lan Wangji sighed and maneuvered them so that Wei Ying was on his back caged in his arms, the heat of his length pressing on Wei Ying’s thigh.

     “Wei Ying,” It was little more than a breath.  A warm caress led to needy
 kisses.  Needy kisses and exploring touches led to the union of their bodies.  

     “Closer...Wei Ying...I want to be closer,” Lan Wangji breathed into his lover’s ear.  Soon, they lay breathless in each other’s arms.

      “What’s wrong Lan Zhan? Will you tell me?” The younger man reached up to touch his husband’s cheek, gently turning the older man’s face toward him.  Lan Wangji was staring at the ceiling, slowly stroking his husband’s arm up and down.

     “The letter...the one that I am supposed to read today. I keep picking it up to read, but I can’t bring myself to open it,” Lan Wangji said softly.  

     Wei Wuxian turned over and propped himself up on his elbows so that he could look at his husband’s face.

     “Do you want me to read it to you?” He asked.  Even as he said the words, however, he knew the answer from his lover’s expression.  Lan Zhan's brow wrinkled up and he quirked his mouth to one side.  He didn’t want Wei Ying to read the letter.  “Hmm, how about if I hold you as you read it?”

     “Mn,” Lan Zhan got out of the bed and pulled on his robes.  Wei Ying sat in the bed with the blankets pooled in his lap.  He reached for his inner robe and pulled it on, as his husband retrieved the letter from the table.  Lan Wangji sat on the bed and motioned for Wei Ying to lay in his lap.  Wei Wuxian lay across his husband’s lap and snuggled in, tucking one arm under him and wrapping the other arm over Lan Zhan’s thigh.

     “Is this alright?”  Wei Wuxian asked.  It was rare for Wei Wuxian to see his husband this out of sorts.  He was worried for him, but also a little contented that the great HanGuang-jun relied on him...even if just a little.

     “Mn,” Lan Zhan sighed and opened the seal on the letter.
     

<<>>


     Ying Yue heard her mother cry out.  The cry pulled her out of a dream and she sat up in her own bed, trying to remember where she was.  She remembered the sound of that cry from her young childhood.   Her mother had found her own mother cold in her bed.  Everyone was so surprised.  She hadn’t been sick and was always quite active.  The young woman ran down the hall.  Outside the door, she could hear her mother sobbing.  Reluctantly, she opened the door, afraid of what she would find.  Her father lay very still.  At the foot of the bed, her mother knelt, hugging herself and rocking back and forth.  She crossed the room and grabbed his wrist.  He was still warm.  She could feel the movement of his blood in his wrist. His lips, however, had a tinge of blue.

     “Mother...stop.  He’s not dead,” she said evenly.

     “He won’t wake up!  Ying Yue, use the pendant and get help in the Cloud Recesses!”

     “I will. I’ll leave right away!”  Ying Yue ran to her room and grabbed the pendant from under her mattress.  Downstairs, she grabbed a cloth bag and dropped a few pieces of fruit, a gourd filled with water, and a round loaf of bread inside of it. It was a ten mile walk to the Cloud Recesses, entirely up hill.  If she left right now, it would take her three hours to get there.  Lan Jie had not visited them for two weeks.  ‘What if he was injured in a night hunt?  Would someone even come and tell me?’  Ying Yue quickened her pace.  She prayed that she would meet Lan Wei Zhang on the road.  ‘He seemed to be always skulking around, of course when he was actually wanted…’  The thought petered out.  

     She felt a little guilty for being so cross with either man.  They had helped them find workers to come and replace all the damp wood.  Father Chen had been doing so much better.  He had even been out to the garden to see the new hens that Lan Jie had brought her as a gift.  Her father had laughed and said that anyone who gave a girl chickens as a gift definitely had marriage on his mind.  Ying Yue had blushed.

     As Ying Yue walked, she tried to rehearse what she would say to Lan Qiren once she met him.  She didn’t know what he looked like, even though she knew that he was a very important man.  She walked for over an hour before hitting a bank of fog.  There was still fog on the path up the mountain to the Cloud Recesses.  

     Walking in the fog, the young woman lost all sense of time and how far she had walked.  It was like walking in a dream.  Ying Yue caught her foot on a tree root and fell head long on the path.  The pieces of fruit rolled out of the bag and away from her into the mist.  Hot tears of frustration welled up in her eyes.  She tried to take a deep breath and regain control over her emotions.  The palm of her left hand was bleeding and she had twisted her ankle when she had fallen.  She stood up and tried to wipe the dirt off of her robe and picked a small pebble out of her palm.  She would have to walk more carefully.  She used the back of her hand to wipe away her tears.  Gingerly, she took a step on her twisted ankle.  It twinged, but still bore her weight.

     The sun began to burn away the mist as she continued to walk up the path to the Cloud Recesses.  She noticed that the rock wall to her left appeared to have the marks of carving by man, instead of natural features.   Soon after, she approached a carved, white archway.  To the left, a cliff face stretched above, carved with the tenants of the Gusu Lan Sect.  It was an imposing site.  They stretched into the last remnants of the morning fog, so that they couldn’t even all be seen at once.  

     Ying Yue was disheveled.  A smear of dirt and blood marked her face from when she had wiped her tears.  Strands of hair had fallen out of the red hair ribbon that had been a gift from Lan Jie.  He had said it would bring her luck.  A young man stood wearing the white robes of a Lan Sect disciple.  He gripped his sword tightly at her approach.  She stopped and held the jade pendant in front of her like a talisman warding off a walking corpse.

     “Lan Jie...Qing Heng-jun told me to come to see him if I ever needed him,” she said firmly, trying to hold back a sob, but still her breath hitched.

     “Qing Heng-jun is on a visit to Carp Tower,” the young man seemed confused.  He took a step toward her, reaching a hand toward the pendent,  “Where did you get that pendant?”

     Ying Yue became afraid.  If he took the pendant away...if she didn’t find Lan Qiren...her father might not live.  Wild eyed, she ran past the young man in desperation.  She heard the young man shout after her, but she didn’t care.  She had to find Lan Qiren.  She had to find him no matter what.  Her ankle now throbbed with each and every step.  

     “Lan Jie, where are you?” A sob ripped from her chest.  Ying Yue was practically blinded by her tears, as she half limped, half ran.  She saw the entrance to a walled off area.  Three young disciples approached her, each was holding a sword.

     “What is it you want?” One of them asked her calmly.  Another one of the young men moved to draw his sword. The man who had spoken to her stopped him, quietly placing his hand on his arm.

     “I need to see Lan Qiren.  Lan Jie...he gave me this jade pendant.  He told me…” her voice trembled.  She was nobody.  She was just an innkeeper’s daughter, facing three armed men, three cultivators.  “Please.  Please...take me to see Lan Qiren.  Qing Heng-jun told me to say Lan Jie sent me..and to show him this pendant.  My father...he might be dying.”  Ying Yue held the pendant tightly.  It was the only piece of Lan Jie that she had.  It was the only evidence of her truth.  It was her only comfort.

     “It’s okay, I will take you to him,” the young man motioned for her to enter the walled courtyard.  In her relief, Ying Yue collapsed.

<<>>


     
     Ying Yue’s eyes blinked open.  She was inside a room that was bright and open, lying on a bed.  

     “Qiren brother, she is waking up,” a female voice said.  Ying Yue sat up suddenly.  “Rest sister.  Let me tend to your wound.”  The voice belonged to a beautiful young woman.  She wore a blue and white robe, heavily embroidered with the Lan Sect motif of rolling clouds.  It was obviously very fine and befitting this gentle woman.  Ying Yue’s ankle was in her lap.  The woman had two fingers pointed at her ankle, where a pale blue light glowed.  

     “Who are you?”  Ying Yue asked, amazed that this elegant woman would lower herself to care for someone like her...a nobody.

     “My courtesy name is Lan Meihui,” the woman replied.  “Lan Qiren asked me to tend to your wounds.  Lan Meihui smiled and rubbed ointment on her ankle, before bowing her exit to her and Lan Qiren, who was sitting quietly at a table across the room.

     Ying Yue didn’t have time to lay around.  She looked at the ground around the bed and saw her shoes.  She scrambled out of the bed and put them back on.  Lan Qiren’s eyes grew wide and he crossed the room.

     “What are you doing?” 

     “Lan Jie told me to come.  He said if I ever needed him and he wasn’t here that I should ask for you and show you this pendant,” Ying Yue checked her sleeves and her sash.  It wasn’t there.

     “It’s here,” the young man motioned to the table where he had been sitting.  “Thank you for returning it to us.  The jade pendant is an heirloom only for members of the Lan Sect.”

     “Lan Jie…” Ying Yui started.

     “Lan Jie is at Carp Tower meeting his future wife,” Lan Qiren said evenly.  He sighed.  “You must understand, that as the future leader of the Gusu Lan Sect, Qing Heng-jun is not free to marry just anyone.”

     “I didn’t come for…” the young woman stammered.

     “I know that such a marriage would be advantageous for you and your family.  This must be a very disappointing.  I am sorry,” Lan Qiren walked back to the table where he had been sitting.  

     Ying Yue’s mouth hung open and her face burned with shame.  This is what Qing Heng-jun’s family would always think of her - that she was some woman that was using her body and charms to earn a place amongst the gentry.  A burning anger welled up inside her.  Ying Yue straightened her back and raised her head.  She walked to the door of the pavilion and turned to Lan Qiren.

     “I am your humble servant.  Thank you for your hospitality and for caring for my injury,” Ying Yue bowed low.  She would not show him one tear.  She would never again accept the pity of the Gusu Lan Sect.

     She began to descend the mountain.  When she looked in her cloth bag, she noticed that someone had replenished the water in her gourd.  She wondered if it was Lan Meihui.

     Her courage and pride began to falter halfway down the mountain.  She accomplished nothing.  Her pride kept her from asking for the medicine that her father needed.  She was almost unsurprised when she saw Lan Wei Zhang standing on the path.

     “Ying Yue, Lan Qiren told me that you spoke with him,” the older man approached the young woman.  

     “Why didn’t you tell me that he was to marry?”  Ying Yue continued to walk, making him walk after her.

     “I didn’t realize that he had taken it so far...until I saw he had given you the pendant.  I planned the trip to Carp Tower to make him remember his obligations to our sect,” the older man walked just a step behind the young woman.  He reached out and grabbed her hand.  “Listen.”

     Ying Yue turned and faced him.  Her eyes were filled with unshed tears.  She averted her gaze to try and hide them.

     “What do you want from me?”  She said, her voice shaking with frustration.

     “Marry me.  I will help your family.  I am an old man, but I care for you.”

     Ying Yue’s eyes grew wide.  She started to shake her head slowly, as if that would help her better comprehend what he was saying.

     “I could never marry you,” she said softly.

    The old man pulled her close.  With one hand on her back and one on the back of her head, he kissed her forcefully.  She tried to struggle away from him, but his grip was too strong.  

     Ying Yue remembered the cold morning in the early spring, how the fog blew away revealing Lan Wei Zhang standing there...watching her.  She remembered how his icy stare had made gooseflesh on her arms, how she had been fearful to be alone in the yard for days afterward.

     She remembered how he would watch her from a table in the inn - with the eyes of a cat considering a mouse.  She would never marry this man.

     The grip on her head and her body lessened.  

     The lips on her own began to tremble and sputter. 

     Ying Yue’s eyes fluttered open.  Lan Wei Zhang fell away from her onto the ground.  He rolled onto his side and coughed and spat blood, which then dribbled down the side of his mouth.  Blood soaked the front of the older man’s robes.  Ying Yue considered it and then looked down at her own hand which held the garden knife she kept in her sash.  Her hand trembled and the knife fell to the ground with a soft thud.

     “Why didn’t you just leave me alone?”  She yelled down at him.  “Why?”  Ying Yue turned and continued her journey down the mountain.
     
     
     Father was dead.  Mother had taken her own life.  Maybe she thought that I would stay in the Cloud Recesses and leave her all alone.  In my sorrow, I killed the chickens and buried them in the yard.  I loved them and I didn’t want anyone to eat them.  I knew that I could never bury our parents by myself.  I didn’t know what to do, so I set a fire in the inn.  The wooden structure burned to the ground in just a few hours.  I think that they would be happy to always be together in their home.  

     Qing Heng-jun came for me the next morning.  Lan Wei Zhang has died.  I don’t know what will happen.  But, I am thankful that a traveler has agreed to give you this letter and take care of our beloved dog.  If this is to be the end of my life, please forgive me for failing you.  I wasn’t able to take care of our parents.  I’m sorry.

Mei Mei
     

     Wei Wuxian regarded his husband’s face.  As Lan Zhan read, his passive expression belied the turmoil in his mind.  The younger man, however, could see the way that his husband clenched his jaw, could feel how his back was stiffening.  After a few minutes, tears began to roll down the second Jade of Lan’s beautiful face.  Wei Ying turned toward him and buried his face in his middle, engulfing him in warm arms and holding him tightly as if they were weathering a storm.  As Wei Ying held his lover, he could feel a hand gently come up and caress his hair.  He heard Lan Zhan take a deep shuddering breath.

     “Wei Ying...thank you.”


<<>>


     Lan Wangji heard Xichen’s laughter in the Hanshi.  He stopped for a moment and then sighed.  He was here earlier than usual and hated to interrupt their courtship.  He knocked on the door and heard a flurry of activity before he heard Xichen reply.

     “Come in,” Xichen looked at Jin Biyu and then back at Lan Wangji.  “We must have lost track of time.”

     “No.  I was hoping to find you two together,” Wangji said evenly.  Lan Wangji looked right at Jin Biyu.

     “Stay with my brother as he reads this letter,” he placed the letter on the table.  Dropping his gaze to the letter, he continued, “Hold his hand.”  Lan Wangji turned and walked toward the door.  Placing a hand on the door jam, he turned back to his brother, who now held the letter in his hand.  “Brother, we will talk about the letter tomorrow.”

     “Lan Wangji,” Jin Biyu spoke up.  “I will stay with Xichen.  I love him.”

With the faintest of nods, Lan Wangji turned and left the Hanshi.