Yu Ziyuan meets Wei Ying when he is nine years old- a wild, underfed, dirty little thing. Jiang Fengmian has him cradled in his arms, tucked under his chin, purple robes dusty where they touch Wei Ying. The boy is bone-thin and bloody; a life on the streets has not been kind to him.
Disgusting, is her first thought, as a leader and a woman of respect. Pitiful, is her second, as a mother.
Wei Ying turns big, grey eyes to her. Her heart hardens. Those are Cangse Sanren's eyes.
"Jiang Fengmian," she snaps, flicking her hair out of her face, "what is this?" Wei Ying averts his eyes, fingers twisting together nervously; the dip of his throat is sharp and cavernous, his hair tangled and matted, perhaps beyond saving.
Jiang Fengmian smiles evenly and hoists him higher up in his arms, bouncing him like he weighs nothing. She almost reprimands him- he's jostling the boy a little too much, certainly you must be gentler with children-
She has let many almosts slip by her. This is just another one. She raises an eyebrow at the duo.
"My lady," he says, smooth talker that he is, as if her resentment means nothing, "this is Wei Ying, Wei Wuxian. I found him."
"I can see that," she bites out. "I suppose you can return to your sect leader duties, now that you've hunted him down?"
"Of course," he replies, and her lip curls at his pleasant, neutral tone. She wonders if he will ever be anything but neutral towards her. "Allow me to show him around and get him settled in, first." To the boy in his arms, he says, "This is Madam Yu, my wife. Say hello, A-Ying." Her snarl deepens at the man's familiarity.
"Madam Yu, hello," the boy chirps, meeting her gaze despite his earlier hesitance, and smiling. He's missing a tooth, and the smear of dirt on his cheek cracks at the width of it- but it's a child's smile, bright and carefree and without thought. Jiang Cheng smiles like that. Jiang Yanli smiles like that.
She turns away. "Do what you will. Keep him out of my sight."
She doesn't look back as she stalks to her rooms, Jinzhu and Yinzhu following close behind.
Wei Ying joins them for dinner.
He eats very little; if he ate too much, he'd undoubtedly throw it up again, his body unused to the weight of a full meal. He's been cleaned, black hair tied back neatly, wearing a simple set of grey robes. Neat, clean white bandages peek out from the folds when he moves- from this angle, he could be a friend of Jiang Cheng's, staying for the night. But he is not.
Yu Ziyuan resists the urge to laugh. How ridiculous, that they've stooped so low as to allow a stranger to dine with them?
Her children are quiet, observing this outsider as they eat: Jiang Yanli with curiosity, Jiang Cheng with hostility. Jiang Fengmian eats his meal serenely; she has not touched hers. Behind her, she can feel the heavy gazes of servants and disciples alike- she can feel the rumours, the pity, the mocking. So Jiang Fengmian really did favour Cangse Sanren. So Jiang Fengmian really will favour her son.
She sets her chopsticks down with a sharp crack that echoes through the room. Silently, she stands, and nods to her son and daughter before sweeping out, not sparing her husband nor Wei Ying a glance. It's an unsubtle snub, and an even less subtle dismissal. She can feel grey eyes on her back as she leaves, followed only by her maids once more.
She will not, however, be chased from her own halls by a mere child. She returns the next night to find that Wei Ying has once again joined them, and has apparently lost any form of manners and restraint in the half-meal she was not present for. He is chattering to Jiang Yanli ceaselessly when she enters, several minutes late. Jiang Yanli takes his liveliness in stride, an open, gentle smile on her face as he rambles on about the beauty of Lotus Pier. The servants lingering in the shadows and corners all bear indulgent expressions, and even the small frown that had made itself near permanent on the edge of Jiang Cheng's lips has loosened to brag about how he is the best at lotus picking in the summer. Wei Ying's bowl is empty, undoubtedly given little food again, but he bounces from subject to subject with all the energy of a healthy child. The entire hall seems to glow brighter.
She almost pauses to take in the scene, to thaw under the heat of a child's warm laughter. It is the small, fond smile on Jiang Fengmian's face that has her speaking up.
"If you are done with your meal," she says icily, cutting Wei Ying off midway through asking Jiang Cheng about the best sorts of lotus seeds to pick and eat, "you will excuse yourself and leave." Wei Ying glances down at his cleared bowl as the eyes in the hall turn towards her, tall and imposing in the doorway. The family usually remains together in the hall until every member is done eating. Her message is clear-
Wei Ying is not family.
"Yes, Madam Yu," he doesn’t dare argue, bouncing to his feet and bowing to her, the motion sloppy and unpracticed. She almost reaches out to right his robes and wipe his face- she almost forgets herself- but he straightens and smiles with those grey eyes, and she sniffs before moving to her place at the table. His footsteps fade quickly, and the hall descends into quiet.
Shockingly, it's Jiang Yanli and not Jiang Cheng who stands next in a mild display of rebellion, having quickly finished the remainder of her food. She bows, back straight, all grace and poise, to her mother and father.
"May I be excused?" she asks. "I was reorganizing the practice blades before dinner was served, and I would like to finish."
"Hm," Madam Yu says, unable to deny her given her excuse. "You may. You will stay for the remainder of dinner tomorrow as usual, I expect?"
"Of course," Jiang Yanli smiles, cheeks dimpling, and bows again before swiftly making her exit.
She watches Jiang Cheng with a critical eye, daring him to pull the same trick. He sits through the rest of the dinner, but barely manages to complete his bow to her and Jiang Fengmian before his feet carry him from the dining hall, undoubtedly to find his sister and Wei Ying, wherever they have run off to.
She glances at Jiang Fengmian from the corner of her eye, and turns when he looks at her, neutral smile still in place. “How bold they’ve become,” she says, the sharp edge of a blade under her tongue, before leaving him alone in the hall.
Yu Ziyuan doesn’t seek out Wei Ying, and he doesn’t seek her out, either- survival instinct is necessary on the streets, so he knows better. However, Lotus Pier is only so big.
It’s a rainy, cold day, not even a week after he arrives, and she is making her way back to her rooms after the rain had picked up near her floating pavilion when he crashes into her as she rounds a corner, little body falling to the floor with his momentum. It isn’t a bad fall, by any means- undoubtedly, one could fall from a tree at this age and bounce back up, mostly fine- but Wei Ying came to Lotus Pier injured, and has not yet cultivated a core capable of healing himself. Red seeps into the bandages around the arm he used to catch himself, and his lip wobbles dangerously. He sets his expression, though, and bows to her after he scrambles to his feet.
“Sorry, Madam Yu,” he apologizes earnestly, eyes wide. She pulls a scowl to her face.
"Imprudent," she snaps, voice harsh. "If I had been a servant bearing hot tea, or a visiting official, or one of the youngest disciples, do you really think an apology would have healed burns or sect relations?
Wei Ying's brow furrows, a comically serious expression on his face. "Um," he says, "no?"
" No is correct," she flicks her sleeves behind her, staring down at him. He shifts under her scrutiny, and she wrinkles her nose. "Return to your room and reflect on your actions. One day, you careless child, not even Jiang Fengmian will be able to save you from ruin."
It's a threat she doesn't bother to veil, because it is true. Wei Ying doesn't react to it other than his head dipping, and he bows only barely low enough to be proper before he's setting off, slower this time. She watches his ponytail disappear around the corner, the back of his robes slightly darker where he'd landed on the rain-damp wood, and she almost goes to the medical wing to find new bandages for him. Instead, she walks alone to her floating pavilion and sits, staring out over the restless water until she is called for dinner.
Surprisingly, it's not her children who speak out about her treatment of Wei Ying. It's not even her husband.
It's Jinzhu and Yinzhu- her longtime servants, and most loyal friends.
“Madam Yu,” Jinzhu says as night darkens the sky and the water of the lake, her and her sister readying Yu Ziyuan for bed, “may this humble servant speak her mind?”
Yu Ziyuan glances at her in the mirror, where her maid is carefully unknotting her damp hair with a comb, and snorts in an entirely unbecoming manner. “Jinzhu,” she says, “has my lack of permission ever stopped this ‘humble servant’ from speaking anyway?”
Neither Jinzhu nor Yinzhu laugh, and she sighs, gently prying the comb from her friend’s hands. “Is everyone in Lotus Pier conspiring against me?” she wonders aloud, only partly joking. “Sit, Zhu-jie, Zhu-mei, and say your piece so this one can sleep.” Despite her using their old, childish nicknames, she still cannot pry a smile from them, but both of them settle on cushions, facing her with solemn looks.
“Madam Yu,” Yinzhu begins, voice gentle, “surely you remember how we came to Meishan Yu sect?” It takes her a moment, and she has to wrack her brain- the two sisters had been in the sect almost as long as she can remember, but-
“You were brought in by my mother’s sworn sister,” she recalls, and they nod. “You… you had both lost your parents in a night hunt.” Their parents were both part of a smaller sect, in a village at the edge of Meishan Yu’s territory- a peaceful coexistence. She can remember how many times Meishan Yu cultivators teamed up with their sect members on night hunts in the area- her own mother included. Suddenly, she can see where this conversation is going. Before she can gather the energy to be angry, to truly accuse everyone in Lotus Pier of conspiring, Jinzhu speaks up.
“Zhu-mei and I were lucky,” she says, with more certainty than her younger sister. “Your sect was very kind to us, and we grew up happy despite being orphans. We never suffered on the streets, and we were able to pursue cultivation like we wanted to. We slept under a roof, we ate our fill of food.”
Madam Yu rubs at her temples. “This is about Wei Ying,” she sighs.
“Yes,” Jinzhu says, before earnestly, Yinzhu cuts in.
“The way Jiang Fengmian treats you and your children isn’t right,” she bursts out, leaning in. “It isn’t. You are his wife, regardless of how he may or may not have felt for Sanren-daozhang. His children are his, too! But,” she holds up a hand when Madam Yu’s temper surges at the mention of his name, words leaving her in a rush, “None of that is Wei Ying’s fault.”
“Wei Ying is nine,” Jinzhu continues when Yinzhu stops to breathe, “a child- he didn’t ask for the marriage between you and Master Jiang, he didn’t ask to be born to Sanren-daozhang, and he certainly didn’t ask to lose both his parents and be taken in here.” Yinzhu takes her hand, and they both turn to her. “You were so kind to us when we entered your sect, A-Yuan,” she murmurs. “Of all people…”
“Of all people,” Yinzhu finishes as Jinzhu gathers her composure, “you should know better.”
And that stings- she should know better. Wei Ying is nine, and his parents are gone; he had lacked the comfort of home and family for who-knows-how-long on the streets of Yiling, only to be brought to Lotus Pier, a place so bright and unfamiliar. Whatever sins her husband may have committed, whatever feelings he may have harboured, whatever he may feel towards her, or her children-
Those are his. Not a child’s.
She stands, as do Jinzhu and Yinzhu. “You are dismissed,” she says, with a fluttering wave of her sleeves. They both bow to her and bid her goodnight, but as she lies in her bed, staring at the ceiling in the quiet of her room, she does not sleep.
The next day, she doesn't see Wei Ying in the halls of her home, as usual. She does not seek him out, as usual. She enters the dining hall a little late, face set coldly, as usual.
But this time, when Wei Ying rises after finishing his meal despite dawdling as long as possible on his half-serving of rice and meat, she clicks her tongue at him.
"Where are you going?" she asks sharply, and he blinks at her, face open and confused.
"I've finished my meal, Madam Yu," he says, eyes shifting to his plate. She scoffs.
"I can see that," she snaps. "Sit back down and wait for the rest of the family to finish."
The quiet hall settles further, as if even the wind outside has held its breath. Jiang Cheng gawks at her, a disgraceful expression, while Jiang Yanli smiles, eyes soft. Beside her, her husband has paused his eating, and though she cannot see him, she knows the surprise that gentles his face. Wei Ying stares at her, something like hope in his eyes- Cangse Sanren's eyes, because she is his mother and now she is gone.
She won't be the reason that that hope folds in on itself, burns itself to nothing.
"Well?" she snaps, and sound resumes- the clink of her husband's chopsticks against the side of his bowl, the servants murmuring in the alcoves, Jiang Cheng's quiet inhale, sharp and shocked. She doesn't look to them.
In front of her, Wei Ying smiles- a child's smile, bright and carefree and without thought. Jiang Cheng smiles like that. Jiang Yanli smiles like that.
She allows herself to thaw, just a little, when Wei Ying sits back down and his voice picks up in an excited ramble once more.