Song Lan does not burn Xiao Xingchen’s body. He stands above the coffin, all papered over with Xue Yang’s preservation talismans and protection spells and finds he cannot bring himself to light the flame and render his friend’s body to ashes, not quite, not yet. Deep down, it seems Song Lan still deals in the currency of hope. They shared that in life, he thinks.
So instead, he slides the stone slab cover back over the coffin and hides Xiao Xingchen from the eyes of the world before he leaves Yi City, two swords across his back and two souls carried beside the silent cavern of his ribs.
Bear Shuanghua and wander the earth. Exorcise evil with Xiao Xingchen. These are his stated intentions, so this is how he proceeds.
Song Lan moves through the world much like a ghost walks the familiar planks of a house that once belonged to their living body. Unbidden, unintentionally, he finds himself retracing the same paths as if trying to sew up the old wounds they cut across the swathe of his remembrance. The dead have always had longer memories than the living, after all.
Things… progress. Or rather, time progresses while Song Lan feels it rush around him as a river slips around a boulder. He stops at every town that views an unsmiling, tongueless, voiceless daozhang with curious respect rather than fearful hostility, accepts the meagre offerings they pay as he cleans the countryside and lays the dead—the other dead, that is, to rest. Against his chest, the souls of Xiao Xingchen and the young A’Qing pulse faintly like twin stars.
After spending nearly ten years as thrall to Xue Yang, having full command of his own limbs and actions remains novel and marvelous in its own strange way for some time. Eternity is long, so he experiments. What is this corpse body of his capable of? He uses the money to buy food and cooks it over a fire the way he remembers just to see if swallowing food into his belly makes any difference.
The ghost of taste in the back of his throat shocks him. It’s so faint as to be hardly noticeable, but it’s been a decade. The food, however, sits as a weight in his stomach, unmoving, until he finally vaporizes it with a burst of his own corrupted spiritual energy. He doesn’t buy food again.
Song Lan doesn’t feel heat the way he used to. When he sets campfires, the light flickers across his gray skin and gives it the illusory warmth of life. Can you imagine? He decides he likes it enough to set fires more often.
He travels nonstop during his nights for a whole year before he thinks to try sleeping. He isn’t even sure if he can, but then he’s waking to the gentle rays of the sun peeking over the horizon and oh! There is wonder left in the world. He spends most of his nights sleeping from that night onwards, if only to see the dawn with fresh eyes. Xiao Xingchen’s eyes.
This is how Song Lan spends the first eight years after the events of Yi City, silent and exploratory.
In that time, he learns to dual-wield, Fuxue in his right hand, Shuanghua in his left. It doesn’t make him any more efficient, especially not with the way Shuanghua tugs at his hand and tries to turn its point against him, but it’s worth it to see the way Shuanghua glints and blossoms in its wake. It’s worth it to hear the sounds of their swords cutting the air in tandem, a relic of simpler times. There’s a steadiness to it, a rhythm to his days.
And then, one morning, A’Qing bursts out of the spirit pouch without so much as a warning, whipping around and jabbing her bamboo pole towards Song Lan’s face.
He dodges out of instinct, slapping it aside with the flat of his palm. Her chest is heaving out of some phantom reflex, and she glares at him suspiciously with unseeing, bloody eyes. Song Lan opens his mouth automatically, ready with words to try and set her at ease, then stops. He can’t speak. Carefully, slowly, he takes one of her hands in his own and begins writing against her palm, but she yanks it away. He tries again, to no avail.
She shakes her head, protests with garbled syllables, stomps her feet, glares some more. Song Lan reaches for her hand a third time, and she growls with frustration, scribbling randomly in the dirt with her pole, then crossing it out firmly, shaking her head once more for emphasis.
A’Qing can’t read, he realizes. This… complicates things. He draws Shuanghua.
At the sound of a sword being taken from its sheath, A’Qing immediately brings her pole up again in a defensive position, taking a step back. She snaps out a sound, what might be a word, but one that Song Lan can’t understand. He presents Shuanghua to her, guides her hand over the hilt. He writes the characters—shuang hua —into her palm, useless though it is, hoping the motions will soothe her. He draws his own sword, guides her hand over it as well, traces fu xue into her palm too for the sake of it. He hopes it explains.
Finally, finally, she relaxes her posture a fraction. She tries to speak again.
“Daozhang?” she asks, and though the consonants are frazzled and jumbled, Song Lan understands. “Daozhang?”
He places her hand on his cheek and nods.
This won’t do. He writes out a brief explanation of the situation and how he proposes they ought to proceed, then tucks the paper into his robes and takes A’Qing by the hand. He takes her to the nearest town, searching for someone literate who will read his note aloud to her.
This proves more difficult than he had hoped. This was not a friendly town to begin with, and the presence of A’Qing, the animated ghost of a girl with blood in her eyes and on her lips, sends most people running at the sight of them. What a pair they make, Song Lan thinks wryly. A grim corpse, a bleeding ghost.
He bows to the townspeople who stand their ground, present the paper to them, but many shake their heads helplessly. The ones who can read are reluctant, even when he offers money. He wonders if they’ll have to wait until they can find a bigger city, one less suspicious. He can’t really blame them.
He tries one last merchant, a man selling potatoes with a pinched expression and wary eyes. The man holds up a hand as they approach, palm out.
“I don’t want you here,” he says gruffly. “Take it elsewhere.”
A’Qing has been growing increasingly restless and angry, and at this flat dismissal, she lets out a cracked wail that sounds like the fury of the resentful dead. In reality, Song Lan knows, it’s a wail of frustration, and one of grief, and one of hurt. He doesn’t know how she experienced time passing, if she experienced it at all these last eight years. For all he knows, the events of Yi City are her yesterday.
The merchant flinches and grabs a broom fearfully. Song Lan raises one arm to hold back A’Qing from him, the other as a gesture of peace. A’Qing growls, but doesn’t try to push past him, just turns her back, shoulders hunched. Song Lan bows to the man.
A quick pitter-patter of light feet and someone crashes into his side. Song Lan doesn’t even pause, twisting his body and catching the young woman before she falls to the ground.
She stands, unembarrassed, smoothing down her skirt and hair, breathless. “Gege! I heard you need someone to read something for you! And that you’ll pay!”
“Xiao Zhu!” the merchant barks, tone scandalized.
“Gege, please!” She holds out her hand. “I can read!”
Song Lan unsheathes Fuxue, much to the merchant’s growing alarm. It’s not ‘gege’, Song Lan scratches into the dirt. It’s ‘daozhang’.
She squints at the characters, mouths them carefully, then nods. “Daozhang, then! My apologies.”
“Xiao Zhu!” the merchant snaps again. “Go somewhere else!”
Others are beginning to stare, so Song Lan offers him another formal salute, takes A’Qing by the hand, and jerks his head for Xiao Zhu to follow.
A’Qing’s head follows Xiao Zhu’s footsteps with interest. Xiao Zhu herself seems remarkably unperturbed by the whole affair, but Song Lan can see the way she puts on a front, how her eyes flit towards the unnatural pallor of his skin, the blood in A’Qing’s eyes, the two swords he carries. There is tension in her shoulder blades and fear under her skin. How desperate must she be to approach them so boldly? Or perhaps, how insatiably curious?
Song Lan brings them to a deserted side street and pauses.
“Here?” Xiao Zhu asks. Song Lan nods and hands her the paper.
Read it for her, he writes on the ground, gesturing to A’Qing.
Xiao Zhu takes the paper from him, takes a breath and struggles through the text. Every so often, an unfamiliar character trips her up, and Song Lan scratches a homophone into the dirt.
“A’Qing,” she says hesitantly. “I am Song-daozhang. We met only briefly. Your soul has been scattered for eight years. Xue Yang is dead. You know that I have no tongue, but if you cannot read, then we will have to find another way to speak. I will take us to Gusu to seek out Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. The journey will take a month, less time if we do not rest. They will help us.”
At the words, ‘Xue Yang is dead’, Song Lan sees A’Qing’s posture relax into a boneless relief.
Dead! she seems to ask with a tilt of her head. Are you sure? Song Lan places her hand on his cheek and nods. He turns back to Xiao Zhu to find her staring intensely.
Thank you, he starts to write, but she interrupts.
“Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji—Yiling Laozu and Hanguang-jun?” she demands, fingers clenching around the paper.
Song Lan nods carefully. What’s the matter? he writes.
Xiao Zhu seems to have a quick and furious argument with herself before she bursts out, “Take me with you!”
Song Lan blinks.
“I’ll read for you along the way! Anything you need! And you don’t need to pay me or—or anything. I won’t complain! I’ll help you carry things! I’ll cook meals! I’m very skilled, you know! Or—or I could sew up your clothing, or—polish your swords!”
She breathes fast, staring hard at him. “Please, daozhang. It’ll be more convenient for you, won’t it? You won’t have to stop and search for people to read your notes every time.” Her voice grows more confident. “I’m very good to have around, you’ll see! Everyone says so. You need me!”
This… sounds like a lie, given the merchant’s attitude towards her not five minutes prior. But then, A’Qing starts to laugh. It burbles out of her like a gushing fountain, and she darts forward to plaster herself to Xiao Zhu’s side.
Song Lan sees her visibly restrain a flinch, observes the way she bites down on a gasp that threatens to worm its way out of her mouth.
“Daozhang!” A’Qing gurgles with her tongueless enunciation. “Daozhang!”
“S-see?” Xiao Zhu manages. “She wants me to come!”
Song Lan doesn’t want to take her. She’s too earnest and eager to please, with a mouth that runs like a stream in the spring, too fast and too desperate. It tires him with its incessant rush.
You are afraid of us, he writes on the ground. It is half accusation, half question. What pushes you to make this demand, that you would willingly tie yourself to the walking dead?
She reads it silently and glares at him. “Let me prove myself to you, then,” she says, as if he’d written something entirely else. “I promise not to make any trouble, for either of you.”
“Daozhang!” A’Qing insists again, grip tightening against Xiao Zhu’s thigh.
Song Lan can’t argue with A’Qing against taking Xiao Zhu because he would have to use Xiao Zhu to do it. He can’t physically drag her away from Xiao Zhu without causing a scene. He can’t have a conversation with Xiao Zhu because Xiao Zhu is just going to ignore his words, or spin the discussion into something else.
This isn’t worth the trouble.
How is your name written? he asks instead.
“You’re letting me come with you?” she asks, surprised.
Annoyed, Song Lan gestures sharply to the question again.
“Oh! Sorry. Zhu as in bamboo.” She crouches down and draws it in the dust with a fingertip. “Small bamboo.”
A’Qing visibly perks up. She waves and gestures to herself.
Xiao Zhu stares for a moment, then realizes. “Oh! A’Qing! Yes! Our names match!” A real smile blooms on her face for the first time as she grins at A’Qing’s excited, fluttering hands. For a moment, the fear leaves her expression.
Song Lan sighs. We leave now, he writes.
“Now?” Xiao Zhu asks, the undercurrent of panic returning in an instant.
Song Lan nods.
“I have to get my things,” she says. “You—you won’t leave without me?”
Song Lan regards her impassively. Hurry, he writes.
“I’ll be quick!” she says immediately.
A’Qing tugs on Xiao Zhu’s sleeve, smacks her own chest with her hand twice as if to say, don’t worry, I promise we won’t leave you.
Xiao Zhu blinks. “Thank you!” she says, bowing with terribly affected form. He wonders where she learned it. “I won’t be long!”
Song Lan and A’Qing are left alone as Xiao Zhu zooms off in the direction they came from, kicking up dust as she goes. There’s nothing to do but wait. After all, Song Lan cannot speak to A’Qing and A’Qing cannot speak back.
This doesn’t seem to bother her. She amuses herself by phasing her hand in and out of a wall and scribbling meaningless doodles on the ground with her bamboo pole.
Song Lan watches her silently. What does he want to tell her, exactly? He’s rehearsed their first conversation in his mind endlessly over the years. What does he say to the girl who protected Xiao Xingchen when he could not? To the girl who stayed by his side when Song Lan had pushed him away? The girl who died seeking revenge?
What do you say to someone like that?
He owes her a great and terrible debt, one that he has no idea how to repay. All the words he’s considered, every iteration of gratitude escapes him now that she stands before him, humming tunelessly and playing in the dirt.
He supposes letting Xiao Zhu accompany them to Gusu is a start.
Xiao Zhu returns to them with a single pack on her back, out of breath and sweating. She looks a mess, even more so than when she first dove headfirst into Song Lan’s side. Her hair is coming undone from its loose bun, wisps of it sticking to her flushed face. There’s mud spattered all across the hem of her skirt, and a fine layer of dust over her whole outfit. Even though the fabrics are varying earth tones, the dirt makes itself known. Her shoes are faded grey with age, and threadbare besides. Her clothes are not neat, the ties askew at her waist, her collar rucked and crinkled.
Underneath the dust and sweat, her face is soft, baby fat still clinging to her cheeks, but her eyes cut sharp and quick above cheekbones that stand a little too prominent on her freckled face. There’s a bright and nervous curiosity in her expression that suddenly reminds Song Lan of Xiao Xingchen, all those years ago, fresh from the mountain, adrift in a rude and bustling world. It comes like an unexpected blow.
He turns away, takes A’Qing’s hand, and gestures for Xiao Zhu to follow.
True to her word, Xiao Zhu doesn’t complain. She doesn’t say anything for the first hour of their walk, until A’Qing apparently grows bored of their sombre march and starts skipping ahead, darting back, knocking everything with light and rapid little clack-clack-clacks from her bamboo pole. Xiao Zhu watches her flighty movements with the open ogle of someone who knows they cannot be observed.
Song Lan wonders about what A’Qing can sense. She moves with such surety and speed he suspects that though she cannot see, she can still feel the living world around her. He tests this by waving at her when she turns his way. She pauses, brow wrinkled, then hops over and takes his hand again. He pauses in his steps and unsheathes Fuxue.
You can sense me waving, he writes, then beckons Xiao Zhu over to interpret.
“Oh!” A’Qing nods.
Like an image?
“Mn-mn!” A’Qing refutes, shaking her head. She starts to play some kind of charades game, pointing at his sword, grabbing his wrist, making whooshing noises with her mouth.
Song Lan is bad at charades.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand, he writes regretfully.
A’Qing blows out a dramatic breath, but shrugs.
Can you sense me nodding or shaking my head? he asks.
A’Qing wrinkles her brow. “Hmmm,” she hums, thinking about it, then makes an uncertain noise.
It isn’t really worth the delay to try and test out the limits of A’Qing’s perception, so they keep moving. Song Lan has grown accustomed to his limitless strength and lack of urgency. Seldom does he have to run to his destination, but he always makes good time because his needs are fewer.
It has been a long time since he’s traveled with the living.
It takes several hours before Xiao Zhu finally starts to stumble. Song Lan pauses as she finds her footing again, swaying slightly. A loud growl rumbles from her stomach, which she covers with embarrassment.
Hungry? he writes.
“No!” she says quickly. “We don’t need to stop if you two don’t need to stop.”
We will never need to stop, he writes, trying to convey gentleness with his expression. He isn’t sure he succeeds. It is important to respect your needs.
“I don’t want to hold you back,” she protests nervously. “I promised.”
A’Qing makes a sudden noise and plops down on the ground, pouting exaggeratedly, stretching her arms and pointing at her feet. I’m tired! she seems to say, and then tugs at Xiao Zhu’s skirts.
This is obviously a lie. Ghosts don’t get tired.
We’ll rest after we buy food at the next town, Song Lan writes. It’s less than an hour’s walk from here. Read this to A’Qing.
A’Qing, upon hearing this, springs back to her feet without a hint of exhaustion. Song Lan offers Xiao Zhu a stale mantou from his bag. It was given to him yesterday by a kindly old woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. He had meant to give it to someone in need, but A’Qing’s return had swept all thought of it from his mind. Well, Xiao Zhu is in need now, isn’t she?
She takes it with timid thanks, but eats it in great gulping swallows. It’s gone in a matter of seconds. Song Lan feels a pang of remorse. She almost trips over her own feet again after a few more steps. He stops again and takes out Fuxue. Careful, he writes, and offers her his arm.
“Oh.” She takes it shyly as they continue.
Their arrival in the town presents a whole new tableau of complications. Song Lan doesn’t have very much money at all—he gives away the majority of what little he earns with his exorcisms because he simply doesn’t need money for the most part. What use does a corpse have for currency? If they buy food, where will they cook it? Will he make Xiao Zhu sleep under the stars? The nights are getting colder. Does he have enough money for a room at an inn? And will anyone let them stay? Even if they hide A’Qing’s face, he will still be a man escorting two young women.
He explains all of this to Xiao Zhu in a drawn-out and frustrating conversation that takes an interminable amount of time.
“If we build a fire, I’ll be fine sleeping outside,” Xiao Zhu says once she understands the problem. “And I can cook!”
So it’s settled. Thus they pass the first night. Xiao Zhu thoughtlessly offers them some of the food she cooks, plain vegetables roasted on makeshift skewers before she realizes her mistake, blushing. A’Qing laughs at her for it, the sound of it bright and natural amidst the crackling flames.
“I forgot,” Xiao Zhu grumbles. “Can you blame me?”
“Blegghh~” A’Qing mocks good-naturedly, opening her bloody mouth in a horrifying fashion. Xiao Zhu stands her ground.
“Bleaggh!” she retorts in kind, sticking out her tongue.
Song Lan rubs a hand over his face.
It takes all of one day for Xiao Zhu to overcome her initial trepidation around the two of them. Where she was once anxious and eager and dressed in bravado, she now carries herself with a careless ease. She’s quick to warm up to A’Qing’s antics and charades, oftentimes interpreting her rapidfire gestures and pantomimes with far more acuity than Song Lan.
After the third day, she cuts Song Lan off in the middle of a long conversation with A’Qing that’s taken the better part of an hour to carry on with very little headway. “We need to go to a town,” she declares.
Why? he asks, trying not to be peeved about the situation. He’s always had a quick temper. It’s his greatest shame, and so he tries to rein it in.
“We have to get you chalk and board,” she says, as if it’s obvious. “It’ll be so much faster than using your sword all the time.”
A’Qing, of course, thinks this is a fabulous idea, so they detour to another town. At this rate, it really will take them a full month to reach Gusu, if not longer. Still, Song Lan admits that the chalk and board are immensely helpful, more so than he had expected. In all his prodigal years, he had never considered purchasing one. After all, he’s not had much opportunity to have long conversations—not since the massacre at White Snow Pavilion, if he’s being honest. He’s never been very talkative, and grief cuts out a tongue faster than a sword. Would that it had stopped him from lashing out at Xiao Xingchen—but it’s useless to dwell on such things.
Xiao Zhu and A’Qing fill the silent void that Song Lan creates, Xiao Zhu with her quick chatter and leaping mind, A’Qing with her garbled squeaks and hums. Even without language, A’Qing relates better to Xiao Zhu than he does. He supposes that isn’t surprising.
Still, he learns some things about Xiao Zhu, when she isn’t lying through her teeth about her past. For this, Song Lan forgives her. Everyone carries something unspeakable. He knows that better than most, he expects.
It turns out she doesn’t have any special connection to Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji—all she’s after is an audience with a prominent cultivation sect.
“It’s all I’ve wanted!” she says determinedly as they walk. “My whole life! I knew I could do more. But those big clans won’t see anyone off the street, even though I know I could do it. I just need a chance to convince them.”
You are already almost an adult, Song Lan writes on his board. Does this worry you?
“So what?” Xiao Zhu demands. “I’m not old yet! Just because some people have a head start doesn’t mean I won’t be able to catch up!”
These disciples have more than just a head start, Song Lan thinks, a little helplessly. Most have been training since they were barely toddlers, and most of them value bloodlines.
Why a big sect? he asks instead. There are many smaller ones that accept disciples from all backgrounds.
She shakes her head. “Not good enough. It has to be a big sect, so that no one could say I wasn’t worthy.”
I come from one of those smaller sects, Song Lan writes.
Xiao Zhu’s eyes widen. “O-oh, Song-daozhang. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
He cuts her off with a wave of his hand as he continues to write. What others think of you doesn’t matter. You should know your own worth. Understand?
She nods, chastised. “Then, why aren’t we going to visit Song-daozhang’s sect? Where are they?”
Gone, is all he writes, and ends the conversation.
The trip to Gusu really does take longer than a month. Their money runs out quickly, and Song Lan goes nighthunting to earn something to keep Xiao Zhu from going hungry. When he returns to their campsite with an armful of ingredients, it’s to find Xiao Zhu doing A’Qing’s hair. Her living hands sift through the ghostly strands, combing out the tangles, plaiting them expertly against A’Qing’s scalp as she sings a silly love song from the countryside. A’Qing sings along to the tune with happy ba-ba-bas. Song Lan approaches quietly so as not to interrupt. Xiao Zhu’s fingers are dextrous and clever as they twist A’Qing’s hair into a simple and elegant knot, fixed in place with her fox hairpin. It’s a familiar tune with many verses. The two girls keep going even after Xiao Zhu finishes with A’Qing’s hair, determined to carry the song out to the end. Song Lan knows it well—a song of his homeland. Xiao Xingchen had asked after it early on in their acquaintance, when he was still interested and inquisitive after every new experience.
“What song is that?” he’d asked, eyes wide and delighted at the little snatch they’d heard in passing. “Zichen, do you know?”
And Song Lan, heavens help him, had sung it for him despite his self-consciousness because he was young and foolish and smitten. He would have torn the moon from the sky and walked on the backs of birds for Xiao Xingchen to smile at him.
Now, as they build the fire, Song Lan looks at the two young women—one with vibrant and naive dreams that remind him of a friend long-dead, and the other who had died seeking revenge. He finds that for all his stoic awkwardness, he wants to join them. So he hums—very quietly! He’s never been very fond of his own voice, singing or not, and now that most of the noises he can make feel strange and broken and frightening in his own mouth, he likes it even less. But humming barely holds a character. It carries only the melody.
He sees the moment they both notice, the excited, mischievous shock in their expressions, but they don’t stop the song and draw attention to it. For this, he is grateful. When the song is finished, A’Qing drapes herself across his back with affectionate playfulness. She looks lovely with her hair cleaned up—less like a vengeful spirit, and more like a girl playing at one.
Xiao Zhu’s hair and outfit continue to be disastrous and dirty. She keeps her hands clean, but otherwise shows little care for her appearance, letting her hair tangle itself in awful snarls and only fixing her clothing when Song Lan points out something particularly egregious. It’s odd now that he knows she certainly has the ability to keep herself neat, but it’s an argument he isn’t sure he wants to have. Song Lan has always kept himself as tidy as he can with his ever-crumbling corpse of a body, bathes every few days to remove dirt and grime and black blood. He combs his hair and washes his clothes and beats the dust out of his shoes. Appearance is all he has to convince people to trust him sometimes.
He has his fair share of tears and holes in his body from almost twenty years of battles without healing. He packs them in with river mud and straw, patches himself like an old roof. One day, he will probably be careless, and a fierce corpse will punch a hole through where his heart is. He’ll place Xiao Xingchen’s soul where it used to be, if it comes to that.
Xiao Zhu has started telling A’Qing stories before they rest for the night, tales ranging from epic loves to bawdy tavern jokes. Song Lan frowns when she swerves towards the latter because his sensibilities still disapprove, but Xiao Zhu has apparently grown comfortable enough to ignore his pointed looks and warning gestures. A’Qing finds them hilarious, which of course only encourages her.
It’s more liveliness and warmth than Song Lan has experienced in—well, a long time. Since White Snow Pavilion, perhaps, since he woke, disoriented, in the middle of a field with Xiao Xingchen’s eyes letting the sunlight in. Everything seems to have been long ago. It makes his skin crawl a little, makes him want to run away and pull closer all at once. Instead, he hovers like a gruff and awkward eldest sibling, neither able to participate nor leave.
But A’Qing likes to remind him of her affection, so freely given, with tugs at his robes or at his hair, tight hugs around his waist and pecks on the cheek. She doesn’t even know him, really, Song Lan thinks, even as he pats her head with a stiff hand. They exchanged all of one conversation before his death, but still she takes to him, still she comforts him. He doesn’t know what to do with it, but he tries.
They cross the border into Gusu on a sunny autumn day, arriving at the gates of Caiyi a little before sundown.
It’s less than an hour’s walk from here, Song Lan tells them both. We’ll rest for the night so we can greet them in the morning. It’s improper to seek entrance after curfew. He takes out his money pouch, significantly heavier now than it had been at the beginning of the trip, though that certainly isn’t saying much. The people of Caiyi are friendly. We should seek an inn and make ourselves presentable to meet the Lan clan.
“Isn’t daozhang worried about what they’ll think?” Xiao Zhu asks skeptically. They haven’t spent a single night in a town the entire trip.
It will be more proper if we can take baths and clean our clothes, he writes crisply, tapping his chalk on the board for emphasis. Come with me.
He leads them to an inn he stayed in once many, many years ago during a nighthunt with his old master. They were passing through, on their way home from a minor haunting somewhere out in the countryside, he no longer remembers exactly. But he does remember the warmth and approval of his master, the pride in his expression as he treated Song Lan to meal.
“You conducted yourself well, Zichen,” he’d said as Song Lan poured the tea. “You’ll be ready to lead a hunt on your own soon.”
The food had been delicious and the service excellent, but Song Lan isn’t sure if it’s the joy of the memory that makes it so. It’s been over thirty years since then. He’s sure much has changed.
Xiao Zhu drapes her cloak over A’Qing’s shoulders, bringing up the hood to hide her bleeding face as they enter the establishment. It’s uncertain whether this makes them seem more or less suspicious. Xiao Zhu and Song Lan look as they always do, like an unkempt street urchin and a sad priest.
Is this the beginning of a joke? A dead priest, a dirty orphan, and a blind ghost come to a tavern seeking shelter. Song Lan isn’t much good at jokes either.
But he needn’t have worried. The woman who greets them makes no comment on their party, save for a few curious glances. “How many rooms, daozhang?” she asks.
Two, he writes. Xiao Zhu shoots him a look and opens her mouth to say something, but he cuts her off with a wave. Please send one meal to their room, and baths for both. A laundry basin for each would also be appreciated.
“Understood,” the woman says pleasantly. “Daozhang isn’t looking to eat? Our food is very good, you know! Old recipes.”
Song Lan looks at her young face and professional demeanor. The last time he was here, she would have been a small child, running round underfoot.
I’m fasting, he writes, because it isn’t technically false. Thank you.
“And… only one meal for the girls?”
“I’m fasting too!” Xiao Zhu blurts out, panicked into a lie.
Song Lan closes his eyes.
“Are you now?” the woman asks, a little surprised.
Thank you for your trouble, Song Lan writes quickly. One meal will be fine.
“All right, if you’re sure,” she says, marking down their order. “I’ll have someone show you to your rooms in just a moment.”
Song Lan turns to Xiao Zhu and A’Qing. Don’t make trouble, he writes sternly. Eat properly and take care of each other. Do your best to clean up. Xiao Zhu, make sure to bathe and wash your clothes. Help A’Qing with her hair. We will leave early tomorrow. Be prepared.
He takes out a few coins from his purse and hands them to her. If you need anything else, you can use this money at the front.
“Daozhang,” Xiao Zhu says, closing her fingers around the coins. “You really aren’t staying with us?”
Improper, he writes.
He circles it on the board. Xiao Zhu’s face falls, and he takes pity on her, gently patting her cheek. It’s better for women to help each other with their intimate affairs. A man like me has no business there.
Xiao Zhu sighs unhappily. “It will be strange without you.”
I’m sure you’ll make do, he writes.
Their rooms are on the second floor beside each other. Song Lan writes his thanks and bows to the man who brings them up.
He expects to find some relief in solitude, at a night of respite away from the boundless energy of Xiao Zhu and A’Qing, and he does at first. He bathes carefully, as he always does. This body is not fragile exactly—he no longer feels pain, and any pieces can be reattached, given that they are large enough and he doesn’t lose them in the fray. The strange energies that hold him together mean he doesn’t decay or rot, but a break in the flesh is still a break in the flesh.
He cleans his old wounds and his makeshift patches, stitches a few superficial cuts back together with clumsy fingers that are still so ill-suited to detailed work. They’re all hidden under his clothing, so it matters little. He washes his robes nude because he no longer feels the cold and hangs them up to dry. Dressing himself in his alternate inner robes, he sits on the bed and reads a section of a book he’d purchased some months ago on regional cultivation techniques. It’s terribly dry, but informative, so he’s been making his way through it a bit at a time. It’s all theory to him now anyways. There’s very little he can glean from it practically.
As he snuffs out the lanterns to prepare for sleep, he hears the muffled laughter of A’Qing through the wall, followed by a loud splash and a bitten-off shriek from Xiao Zhu. Well. He hopes they’re having fun.
It’s many hours later, when he’s lying immobile in the bed, still awake as all the city is quiet and dark, that he realizes how discomfited he is. The bed is soft and pleasant, and he can’t recall when exactly it was he last slept in one, much less one of any quality. And he feels—alone. Xiao Xingchen is held tight against his chest as he always is, silent and weak, but—
Song Lan throws off the quilt and makes his way to the adjacent room.
The instant he slides the door open, there’s the whistle of a bamboo rod through the air. He catches it in his hand, A’Qing’s alert and defensive expression coming into hazy focus in the darkness. She tears the rod from his grasp, jabs it towards his face.
Song Lan doesn’t think before he acts, humming the refrain of the song from his homeland. A’Qing’s rod pauses. She sighs theatrically and lowers it.
“Daozhang,” she says gargles reproachfully.
Song Lan takes her hand in his and squeezes it in apology. He closes the door as quietly as he can behind her. In the bed, Xiao Zhu is snoring gently. Song Lan sets down Fuxue and Shuanghua, which he’d grabbed on his way out. A’Qing plops onto the ground beside him as he lays himself down on the floor beside the bed. He can’t explain himself to her, and she can’t ask, but she pats him on the forehead and offers her hand silently. He takes it, curling in on himself and feeling cracked open.
A’Qing sits there with a casual grace, one hand in Song Lan’s, the other around her bamboo rod, watching the door with the stillness of someone accustomed to danger. Song Lan is reminded of the fact that for all that she acts like the young girl she was when she died, A’Qing spent nearly a decade in Yi City, alone, in fear, hiding from Xue Yang and chasing passersby to safety. How old does A’Qing feel, he wonders?
He supposes he’ll have to wait to ask her.