The Golden Prince arrived at the Cloud Recesses with about twenty Jin and ten Jiang disciples behind him, requesting an audience with the sect leader.
Jin Rulan did not move with as much flash as previous leaders of the Jin sect. Even since he had been elected Chief Cultivator, he had kept to a martial presentation more in keeping with his mother’s Jiang roots: practical ornamentation, fancy swordbelt, well warded vambraces. The men and women marching behind him were all top-notch and battle ready, armed with swords and an array of top-notch spiritual tools. His spiritual dog kept pace beside him, a dog that was now the size of a small pony in keeping with his own level of cultivation. While his reputation in the cultivation world was one of a peacekeeper -- he’d ended more than a few sect wars before they started -- it actually took some work to convince the sentries he’d come in peace.
“Fine, my men can stay here if you’re that bothered by it,” he said, with the high chin and the glare that was just as much Jin as it was Jiang. “We brought our own provisions. I’m not here to ask for rabbit food. I’ll even leave Fairy, if that will convince you. But I need to see Zewu-jun. I have a request, and I think he should like to be informed. If I wanted to just march in, I would. I have a jade token. I’m trying to be polite, you know.”
The sentries murmured to each other suspiciously, but ultimately they let him pass.
“Your people stopped me at the gate,” accused Jin Ling, by way of a greeting, as he swung into the Yashi. “What do they think I am? An invading army?”
“We have had a few of those in recent history,” said Lan Xichen, who arrived with unfailing speed. His years of seclusion had left him more thin and frail than the Zewu-jun of the past, but he had recovered some of his color in recent months, and had never lost his unfailing poise. “Forgive us for our caution, Chief Cultivator.”
The gentle but pointed reminder of his new title caused Jin Rulan to scowl, just a bit. “Oh, right. That. You can relax. I’m not here under that capacity.”
His eyes trailed hopefully to the back door of the yashi. Two people had entered behind Lan Xichen. Jin Rulan saw them and frowned. One of these people he wanted to see: Lan Sizhui, the sect leader’s nephew. The second was Nie Minglin, Zewu-jun’s assistant.
The first he hoped to speak to in private after this audience. The second was just generally obnoxious. Nie Minglin took aggressive notes about everything.
She beamed up at him just then, from her too-close position at Lan Xichen’s right arm. Jin Rulan had to pretend he didn’t see that. There were rumors about this particular dynamic -- the way there would always be rumors about a beautiful young disciple who suddenly attached herself to a sect leader with such ease. Anyone who really knew Lan Xichen personally knew how ridiculous such rumors had to be. He’d kept himself apart from such worldly things for nearly two decades. Deep penance, it was said. Deeper mourning, it was whispered. Sure, he’d shown a bit more pep in the last year or so -- he’d even attended the confirmation vote and ceremony in person-- but that hardly meant--
“The position of Chief Cultivator is not so easily set aside,” said Nie Minglin, beaming over her ledger. “My uncle most certainly knows.”
Her uncle was Nie Huaisang, who was just, very happily, finishing up a near 20 year stint as Chief Cultivator.
“He seems to be managing fine at it!” Jin Rulan had not enjoyed being named Nie Huaisang’s successor. What’s worse: he’d won in a landslide vote. Evidently, his reformation of the Jin clan had been considered excellent qualifications.
“Please,” said Lan Xichen, “You are not unwelcome. But it is curious that you have come in such urgent circumstances.”
“That’s because it is urgent,” said Jin Rulan. “I need to borrow my uncle.”
A strange quiet filled the room. Nie Minglin’s fingers went a bit tight on her brush.
“The one who lives here,” continued Jin Rulan. “The obnoxious one. Is he in? No offense, Sizhui. Good morning, by the way.”
He added that last bit of hurried courtesy as an afterthought.
“Good morning, Chief Cultivator,” said Sizhui. Jin Rulan bristled. He hated hearing the title applied to him, especially from Sizhui, but how could he object? At least there was the smallest hint of mischief in the younger Lan disciple’s eyes as he continued: “It’s fine. I’m sure Senior Wei would take that remark with pride. He’s out on a night hunt, I’m afraid.”
“With Hanguang-jun?” Sizhui nodded, a little wryly. Jin Rulan let out a deep sigh. He could’ve brought Fairy in after all. “Ugh! Typical. How many honeymoons do those two need? When did they leave? How far out are they?”
Lan Sizhui glanced up at his uncle. Zewu-jun, his expression carefully blank, inclined his head slightly. Lan Sizhui took that as permission.
“We might send word,” said Lan Sizhui. “If it’s urgent. What do you need him for?”
“What else?” grumbled Jin Rulan. At this point he gave up standing still and, ignoring Lan Xichen’s generous offer of a seat, began to pace back and forth across the yashi, so very like his Jiang uncle it was almost unsettling. “Some absolute bullshit, is what it is. We found some tomb out behind a waterfall near Chewang. It’s been spewing resentful energy into the river. A whole district caught corpse poisoning before we found where it was coming from. We’ve got it warded, but we need to find the source. The real source. I’m assembling a team for it. Uncle’s lent me some muscle, but the other Great Sects are being prissy about manpower. Also, valley’s now seething with a whole small army’s worth of fierce corpses. They’re guarding something. Don’t know what, but a demonic cultivator could be really useful around, hm, now? Before, you know, all that resentful energy overflows and gets into the districts proper. Chewang’s pretty big, by the way.”
The Lan’s met this with a long, awkward silence. Nie Minglin slowly hid her face behind her notepad and walked out of the room.
“Oh,” said Lan Sizhui.
“So. Yeah,” said Jin Rulan, who had, in the span of one rant, gone from seeming impatient and irrational to surprisingly measured, all things considered. “Some back-up would be nice.”
Zewu-jun left to make arrangements. Jin Rulan stormed out back towards the gate. Several young initiates and Lan Sizhui trailing after him.
“Jin Ling!” called Lan Sizhui, with a familiarity that might have turned heads in the Koi Tower, most of the Cloud Recesses staff had come to expect. “You heard Zewu-jun. You’re welcome to stay--”
“I’m not staying here while my men camp out on the mountain,” said Jin Rulan, with the frankness that had earned him many friends and many enemies in the same stroke.
“At least -- stay for dinner?”
“Rabbit food. No thanks.”
“I meant from the kitchen, not the back mountain.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Lan Sizhui touched his arm.
Jin Rulan froze, staring straight ahead. He did a good job of glaring at nothing. His bottom lip only shook a little.
With clear intention, Lan Sizhui pressed a little more firmly into the gold cloth. He could feel the seam of the bandages beneath. Jin Rulan drew a sharp breath.
“The cold spring, maybe?” asked Lan Sizhui. Jin Rulan shook his head, face grey. “My room, then. You weren’t planning to lead the siege with a curse mark, were you?”
“Why would I do something stupid like that?” Jin Rulan let Lan Sizhui steer him through the courtyard towards his private quarters.
Around them, the Cloud Recesses bustled with life. They were preparing for the next discussion conference, and construction was just finishing up on an expansion of the Library Pavillion. The flow of contractors and junior disciples didn’t quite match the frantic energy of the docks of Lotus Pier, or even the aggressive formality of Koi Tower in full ceremony, but it was more energy than Jin Rulan had come to expect from the place.
In the safe interior of Lan Sizhui’s study, he remembered his protests: “You needn’t fuss. I was going to get it checked out. It’s not even at my elbow. I just wanted to make sure we were well on our way first. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to start.”
“Hmph. Now you’re beginning to sound like Lan Jingyi.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes flickered with a mischief that reminded those who knew him he was, technically, as much the son of the Yiling Patriarch as he was Hanguang-jun. He sat the new Chief Cultivator down on the nearest stool and shoved his sleeve up past his elbow, inspecting the wards on the bandage. “I could call him in here to help, if you’d like.”
“Don’t you dare!”
He held out his arm with unquestioning trust. Despite the dark energy that writhed through the bandages, Lan Sizhui managed a fond smile as he, very carefully, unwound the wards and the bandages that kept the injury in check.
The burns across the skin were light. Painful, no doubt, but nothing crippling. It would have been nothing to rub some salve into them, or offer some spiritual energy to encourage the flesh to heal -- but a more potent wave of resentful energy writhed around Jin Rulan’s wrist, preventing prolonged contact. Lan Sizhui was too professional to whistle like the Yiling Patriarch might have at the way it crawled in circles over the newly confirmed Chief Cultivator’s skin, but his lips pursed, very slightly. “You contained it well,” he said. “But it’s strong. Whatever threw this must hold a powerful grudge. Was this from the tomb?”
“I think so,” said Jin Rulan. “Got it when we were setting up the wards on the river. One of the corpses snatched at me. Sloppy of me, but I managed to suppress it in the end. The rest, though… feh.”
“The corpse -- was it conscious?”
Jin Rulan glared at his crossed ankles. “I didn’t think to say ‘hello.’”
“There’s intent in it,” said Lan Sizhui, quietly. “Stronger than your standard Fierce Corpse.”
“I said it was some bullshit, didn’t I?” Jin Rulan rolled his eyes, despite himself. “Should I show myself to the Mingshi, instead? Do you want to call some juniors in for a lesson? Show them what happens when Sect Leaders get careless?”
But Lan Sizhui gently laid his hand on his shoulders and sat him back down.
“It’s fine,” he said, eyes warm. One of his hands traveled, butterfly-soft, to trace the side of Jin Rulan’s jaw. It was a phantom of a touch, but the Jin Sect Leader leaned towards it without thinking. “Let me do this for you. You’ve suffered enough indignities, I think.”
Lan Sizhui unpacked a spirit pouch and summoned his guqin across his lap. He plucked his way through an evocation. Jin Rulan’s eyes drifted shut. At first, his skin seized and clammed up at each note, but slowly his body and the curse infecting it eased. Each measure drew the noxious energy out from around his wrist, where it turned in ribbons between them, like wisps of incense, before the last lingering notes coaxed it into the bag.
Lan Sizhui nodded. Jin Rulan’s hand snapped out, drawing the bag shut.
“Hah!” he said, he had just the amount of energy to grin like a wolf -- before the strength left him and he pitched forward. Lan Sizhui banished his instrument to reach out and catch him.
Next thing Jin Rulan knew, he was lying on his back staring up at the ceiling. Lan Sizhui had hung up a set of paper lanterns off the beams. One of them had a rabbit on it. It turned gently in the cross breeze.
Outside the light had changed. Jin Rulan smelled soup. His arm had been rebandaged. It didn’t hurt at all. When he craned his head to locate it, he realized his pillow was warm and very much alive. He was resting with his head in Lan Sizhui’s lap.
“...the staff will talk,” he muttered.
Lan Sizhui leaned down and kissed him, upside down. Jin Rulan was too tired to do much but tilt his head up into it, but he enjoyed it a good long while. Lan Sizhui’s hair tickled his cheeks as he pulled away.
“Senior Wei gives them more to talk about,” he whispered, in a voice like a welcome night breeze.
“I don’t want to compete with my uncle for something like that.” Jin Rulan couldn’t help but shut his eyes again and rest against him just a little longer. “I hope you didn’t let me sleep all day.”
“No, just a incense stick or two,” promised Lan Sizhui.
“A few, maybe,” admitted Lan Sizhui, without a trace of regret. When Jin Rulan tried to sit up, he rested a hand on his chest and pushed him down with surprising strength. “But you needed it. And Zewu-jun needed it, too, to prepare everything before we depart.”
“Before we depart?”
“I’m coming with you, after all,” said Lan Sizhui. “We’ll be meeting up with Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun, won’t we? It will be all of us together again. It’s been much too long.”
When Lan Xichen returned to his offices, he found Nie Minglin waiting, a set of ledgers laid out across the Zitan wood table. Her brush hurried over a sheet, running lines.
“You wasted no time,” he said, kneeling across from her.
Nie Minglin’s eyes flicked up, briefly. Her brush slowed. “I thought you would need them, Zewu-jun,” she said. She nodded to the nearest stack. “We received a 23% raise in donations this year from the districts this year. Our larder is currently in surplus. We are able to provide a basic set of rations for at least three units. The personal medicinal stock from our own lands has been favorable. We would be able to send along at least 40 medical kits on short notice. Our personal fighting force is low, owing to the fact it is between terms and many of our senior disciples are in private cultivation, your brother and uncle included. We have no guest disciples in residence at this time. … besides myself, that is.”
Lan Xichen looked as though he was about to say something. Nie Minglin cleared her throat and moved on.
“But there are at least four junior disciples we might recommend to attend with Lan Sizhui. I’m afraid our supply of spiritual tools is similarly low. We have enough to cover our own force, but equipping a full expeditionary unit will be difficult. And with the Yiling Patriarch not in residence, I am afraid we are overdue for a restock.”
“He usually leads the workshops in crafting them,” said Lan Xichen. “I should have considered that earlier. My review of our training schedule has been… shamefully overdue.”
His brother and uncle had managed it for the past ten years. They’d wanted as little to trouble him as possible. A darkness passed over his face. Nie Minglin watched him for a moment, pressing the end of her brush against her bottom lip.
“I’ll pull the lesson plans this month,” she offered, at last.
“Ah, but one thing at a time.” That shook him out of it. “Thank you, Miss Lin. Is there anything else I should know?”
She placed her hand over the sheet of paper in front of her, turned it, and pushed it across the table for him to see: A carefully sketched map of a river valley, the ink still drying. On it were distance markers, a symbol for a waterfall, three entrances, and several markers denoting ward placements.
Lan Xichen’s eyebrows went up.
“If they’re coming from the waterfall it means the north and northeast arrays have failed,” she said. She re-dipped her brush and dotted it across the page. “There is a high chance of fierce corpses emerging or amassing here. Here. And here. There is a back entrance if you approach it from the southwest, but an old dirt barricade has been built there, and the security talismans may still be active. They were based on the Nie entombment practices. I would not take them lightly.”
It was a lot of information in a very short amount of time. Lan Xichen eyed her thoughtfully.
“Those wards were supposed to last at least another decade,” said Nie Minglin, bitterly. “Minshan was sloppy.”
Lan Xichen, who very much recalled the man in question, was much too graceful to agree with her assessment outright.
Instead, he tilted his head to one side and said, without the slightest hesitation or surprise: “I thought you’d used up your store of Fierce Corpses in the Second Siege in Yiling.”
It was Nie Minglin who hesitated. A few drops of ink beaded on the end of the brush, spattering on the upper edge of the map. She laid it aside quickly. “I did,” she said, taking measured breath. Her voice didn’t shake. “What could be used at any rate. This was an earlier facility. It was created under my father -- under Jin Guangshan’s direction. We brought remnants of the Wen armed forces there for what we called examination and conditioning of new cultivation techniques -- after their deaths, of course. I can give you the specifics, if you’d like.”
“Do I need them?” asked Lan Xichen.
“In this case? ...it’s unlikely.”
“Perhaps later, then. Continue.”
“Thank you.” She meant it. “I won’t deny this place was one of the facilities where we stored countless fierce corpses -- no, not countless, twenty-three … and three quarters. But we’d cleared it out years before the siege. It was too… obvious. And that project ended with the death of Jin Guangshan, besides. The place remained sealed for ten years. Until--”
She hesitated. Lan Xichen waited, intently. He didn’t give her the mercy of a prompt this time.
“--we needed to store another body,” she said, quietly. “Just one.”
Now Lan Xichen spoke. “Whose body?”
Nie Minglin closed her eyes and told him.
Lan Sizhui brought the captured curse to the Mingshi for examination. Lan Xichen and Lan Jingyi joined him.
“Sect Leader Jin?” asked Lan Xichen, as Lan Sizhui set the spirit bag down on the array.
“Resting in my rooms,” said Lan Sizhui. “With medicine, he should be fit to travel by evening. I don’t know that he can be persuaded to linger longer.”
“Surprised you convinced him of that much,” said Lan Jingyi. “He looked ready to take off as soon as he arrived. Ready to be the hero as always.”
“He was,” said Lan Sizhui, “But he listened to reason.”
“Miracle worker. Good thing the young mistress has his soft spots, doesn’t he? Convince him to be more honest about it.” Lan Jingyi thought he was being quiet. Given the Mingshi had been built for spiritual evocation, the walls had excellent acoustics. His words carried uncomfortably as a matter of natural law.
“A-hem,” said Nie Minglin, from behind Lan Xichen.
Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui both assumed their positions at the edge of the array. Nie Minglin stepped back.
“Oh, Miss Nie,” said Lan Sizhui, summoning his guqin with the graceful, yet economical flourish that must have been drilled into him since age 6. “Would you like to join us? It should be good practice for you.”
Nie Minglin froze. She was, for a rare moment, completely startled and tongue-tied. “...ah, no. My musical skills are -- erm -- best not, Young Master. Two seniors and Zewu-jun -- I fear I would only hold back your resonance.”
Lan Xichen eyed her, but said nothing. She took a careful spot out of the range of the array. The Sect Leader raised his flute. In truth, it had been a very long time since he had presided over such an investigation himself -- but Lan Qiren’s was getting on in years and Hanguang-jun was night-hunting with his husband. Lan Xichen had found some cause to emerge from seclusion more often of late. It was a miracle in of itself, according to the whispers of the younger disciples, who had only ever known him as an elegant, composed, but intermittent figure, focused on solitary cultivation and escaping the complications that had once laid him so low.
The notes of the evocation flowed through the hall. It would have been magnificent under any circumstance -- Lan seniors were all masters of their arts, but the thrum of power behind it added a different quality, one which caused Nie Minglin’s fingers to tingle as she listened. She knew better than to close her eyes. Left loosened, the spirit bag shifted. Lit by the spiritual power amassing in the array, the dark energy began to seep out.
It was not a full spirit. A curse mark could only at best harbor the shadow of an evil intent -- but the strength of the malice was unmistakable as it formed and twisted into a nasty miasma, hovering just above the bag in a cloud shaped like a curled fist. That Jin Rulan had made the trip to the Cloud Recesses with such an evil gnawing at his arm and little more than a particularly foul mood was suddenly an impressive feat.
The curse stayed in place, writhing against itself, before a jet of it shot out, aiming for Lan Jingyi’s head. Unflinchingly, the Lan’s moved with ruthless grace into the higher octaves of the song. The curse succeeded only in snapping itself against the edge of the array. A flash of blue light filled the room. The smokey entity doubled back, agitated, before surging forward again. This time it changed targets, aiming with a renewed rage for Lan Xichen. It slammed into the borders of the array well before it could reach him. Another flash of blue light filled the room, casting their shadows in sharp contrast to their replesent whites and blues. Lan Xichen continued to play with unfailing calm.
Nie Minglin, standing in the Sect Leader’s shadow, looked up. Even behind the protection of the array, and the Lan’s music, and Lan Xichen himself, she could feel the icy stab of the intent behind that curse. It was possible it had truly targeted Lan Xichen. It was possible, even, that it mistook him for someone else. But somehow, she doubted both of those things. She reached into the front of her robes.
Unable to seize a warm body, the curse roiled and rolled over itself, desperate to reform against the dispersion of the array. Two notable scents filled the room. The first was the stench of burial soil, of rot barely hidden by incense. The second, which overpowered the first, was a sickening sweetness. Sugary, cloying, suffocating.
Nie Minglin stepped up to the edge of the array, beside Lan Xichen. The energy drifted after her, confirming her theory. It began to twist and writhe, banging itself against the barrier with an increasing fervor.
Her lip curled.
“So it is you,” she murmured, softly, lower than the music around her. “How nice of you to pay me a visit. I would say I missed our little talks, but you are as foul and ill-mannered as ever. I tried so hard to teach you better. But you were, truly, an awful student.”
That got a reaction. Snap. Snap. Snap. Curse rammed itself against the barrier with a fury. The Lan increased their tempo. Now, the miasma began to twist and disperse, like a kite fighting a fierce wind.
“Maybe I don’t have the right to say it,” hissed Nie Minglin, her voice dangerously low. She pulled her hand out of her robe. “But how dare you touch a hair on that boy’s head.”
Where one might have expected a knife, she held a honey candy, freshly unwrapped. She flicked it into the array. The curse wrapped around it, keened, and then shattered into a thousand swirling pieces.
The light of the array throbbed out.
“But of course you’d try,” she said, softly, feeling the evil energy fade along with the final, extended notes of Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi’s guqin. “You didn’t have the grace to stay dead the first time I ordered it.”
A hand closed over hers. Lan Xichen. The sound of his flute had faded ages ago.
“Ah, Zewu-jun. Did I say that outloud?” she whispered, tonelessly, because she already knew she had. “I forgot myself.”
“I don’t believe you’ve ever forgotten a thing in your life,” he murmured, lowly. “But can you confirm it?”
He released her. Across from them, Lan Jingyi stared at the array. The spirit pouch lay deflated and empty. The charred remains of the candy sizzled next to it.
“That smell,” sputtered Lan Jingyi, his previous poise and grace replaced by sheer disgust. He covered his face in a remembered nausea. “Like a pig died in a candy store. I haven’t smelled that since -- since-- ugh.”
“Yi City,” finished Lan Sizhui, softly. Half in his own recollection, but also half to stop Lan Jingyi from dissolving into swears. “No wonder it attached itself to Jin Ling so fiercely. He was there, too. Maybe it recognized him. Zewu-jun, the intent behind this curse, I think I know it. It comes from a demonic cultivator.”
“Well, fuck,” said Lan Jingyi, emphatically.
It said a lot that Lan Sizhui could only give a pained smile in agreement with that assessment.
“Who do you think this ill will belongs to?” asked Lan Xichen, with the soft patience of one who already knew the answer. Had already heard in, in fact, a few hours ago in his office, when Nie Minglin and offered him the identity of the one body left behind the waterfall in Chewang.
Chapter 2: river goes where the water flows
Lan Jingyi rages. Lan Sizhui worries. Jin Rulan grumps.
Jin Guangyao feels a slight modicum of shame.
At the top of the steps to the Cloud Recesses, Lan Jingyi threw a fit.
“What do you mean Zewu-jun said I can’t go? I have a score to settle!”
“You have a score to settle with Xue Yang,” said Jin Rulan. He did not look terribly impressed.
Lan Sizhui frowned. “You do?”
Lan Jingyi glared. “He gave me corpse poisoning. Remember?!”
Jin Rulan rolled his eyes and went back to allocating supplies among the disciples gathered in the clearing. Zewu-jun had been as generous as he could be: they had fresh food, medical supplies, and four Lan disciples, in addition to Lan Sizhui, who would serve as senior. Lan Jingyi had made a point of escorting Lan Sizhui down to the clearing where Jin Rulan’s general forces picked themselves up from a much needed recoup. Now, in the shadow of the mountain face and its rules, Lan Jingyi tantrumed in direct defiance to a good chunk of them.
“Don’t ‘ah’ me! It was my first time! And I had to eat Senior Wei’s awful congee. It was terrible. It was one of the worst memories of my life. And he did all that awful stuff to Song Lan, Xiao Xingchen, and A-Qing, too. He deserves a thousand hells for that.”
“So yes,” said Lan Jingyi, fierce. “I -- no -- we should take him down together.”
Lan Sizhui smiled in that gentle, tried and true way he did when his dear cousin got particularly bellicose. He did not mention that score had most certainly been settled with Xue Yang’s death, over 16 years ago. “I understand your feelings, Jingyi. But I also understand Zewu-jun’s decision. We can’t send all prospective heirs of the Sect out on one mission. You are the next in line.”
Lan Jingyi’s foot nearly skipped a step.
“Next in…” He glared. “Since when?!”
A thousand centuries old Lan family trees went scrolling through their heads collectively. Lan Sizhui took a measured breath, like the recitations his father drilled him in when he was young. “Since I'm Hanguang-jun's only son and I'm definitely not going to be the next Sect Leader and Zewu-jun doesn't have any children and…”
“...” said Lan Jingyi, emphatically.
Jin Rulan glanced back over. “Please tell me this isn’t news to you.”
“...” continued Lan Jingyi.
The Chief Cultivator, who knew the lines of succession in the Jin sect as a matter of self-defense, almost dropped a bag of rice. “And isn’t Lan Qiren your grandfather?”
“FUCK,” said Lan Jingyi, throwing up his hands.
“What is wrong with your sect?!” hissed Jin Rulan. He handed the bag to Fairy who, with amazing obedience, carried it to the front of the war party to be portioned out accordingly. “You know what, nevermind -- eh -- Ziyi. Count those flares.”
“He does know this,” said Lan Sizhui. He tugged on Lan Jingyi’s sleeve, a little urgently. “Jingyi. You do. You’ve known this for years.”
Lan Jingji slumped against Lan Sizhui’s arm. “There’s knowing and knowing,” he groaned, burying his face without shame against Lan Sizhui’s shoulder. “I just assumed Zewu-jun was going to achieve immortality and run the sect forever.”
“Few things are truly forever,” murmured Lan Sizhui.
“Still,” muttered Lan Jingyi. But he must’ve come around to the idea, because when Jin Rulan scoffed at him, he looked up, swept his arms behind his back in the stiffest approximation of Hanguang-jun he could affect, and fixed the leader of the Jin Sect with a particularly lofty expression. “In which case, as future sect leader, I demand he treat you with proper respect on your journey. Since you will be my second in command. Like Hanguang-jun is for Zewu-jun.”
Lan Sizhui was caught between gentle laughter and a growing exasperation. “Jin Ling treats me fine.”
“He could treat you finer. He should. You are a prize and he should know it. Everyone should know it.”
Now, Lan Jingyi’s volume caused Lan Sizhui to flush, very slightly. “Jingyi--” he said, sharply. It was that sharpness that finally broke Jin Rulan from his illusion of apathy towards Lan Jingyi’s antics. He turned with a visible twitch in his jaw. With one hand on his hip, he moved up a step or two, ready to shoulder between them if need be.
“So rabbits can bark,” he huffed. The dappled light of the setting sun flashed notably over Suihua’s hilt, and the minimal gold ornamentation, braided in his hair. He could look like a proper Prince of Lanling, when he wanted to. “Since when does Lan Jingyi have the authority to scold anyone?”
“Since I’ll be your equal some day, Sect Leader.”
“I’m Chief Cultivator,” said Jin Rulan, flatly. “So piss off.”
“Why did I vote for you!” grumbled Lan Jingyi, dropping his arms back to his side. There wasn’t a lot of fighting that.
With a gentle, "Nevermind him, really,” Lan Sizhui tugged him away. There was really no fighting that. Jin Rulan went back to reviewing his men. Glancing back at him, Lan Jingyi skipped up one of the steps and lowered his voice at last:
“But, Sizhui, are you really okay with this?”
“Okay with what?” asked Lan Sizhui, pointedly.
Lan Jingyi sighed, and squeezed his arm. “You know what I mean. I can come anyway if you need back-up. Zewu-jun will understand--”
“Do you have everything you need, Sect Leader Jin?” asked Zewu-jun, his warm but formal tones cutting through the growing agitation in the clearing. He didn’t even have to lift Leibing to do it.
The three men looked up. Zewu-jun stood ten steps above them, wearing his formal overobe. His shadow Nie Minglin trailed behind him. Standing a step behind him she still only just cleared his shoulder. The Lan disciples bowed first, followed by the scattering of Jiang and Jin disciples bustling to pack and gear up. Jin Rulan, gripping his fist tightly, bowed most graciously of all.
“This’ll do,” he said, stiff but firm. It was hard to say which of his list of illustrious and infamous uncles he did proud by the gesture, but it certainly must have been one of them then. In more formal tones, he added: “Thank you, Zewu-jun.”
“Jingyi?” asked Zewu-jun. For all his expression remained serene, the slight lilt in his voice had the snap of a command. All of the Lan disciples present exchanged quiet looks over their still clasped hands. It had been a long time since many of them had personally seen Zewu-jun pass the sentries to see a group of cultivators off, and only Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui were old enough to remember when he carried this firmness with more regularity.
Sighing, Lan Jingyi gave Lan Sizhui one last squeeze, and shuffled over to his Sect Leader’s side. He found himself standing beside Nie Minglin, who offered him a bright but stiff smile. Lan Jingyi stared straight ahead. Delicately, Nie Minglin hopped down the few steps separating them, and handed a wrapped packet to the waiting Jin Rulan.
“What’s this?” he asked, dubiously. Any sort of envelope from Nie Minglin was like receiving a cask full of spiders, filled with a great great web of unsourced information and many stinging little bites.
“Construction surveys from the tomb interior,” she said. “Annotated. You will need them.”
Jin Rulan shuddered. Any Sect Leader who had attended a conference or ceremony run by the previous Sect Leader Nie Huaisang in the past seven years had a healthy wariness of any time his young niece offered anything involving ‘annotations.’ She was infamously thorough. “And you just had those records here in the Cloud Recesses? Chewang’s my territory.”
“The Cloud Recesses holds a wealth of information,” said Nie Minglin, enigmatically.
“That’s… ominous,” said Jin Rulan. But he took the package and shoved it into his satchel. His arm caught. He looked over. Nie Minglin’s fingers were curled over his vambrace.
“One more thing.” She didn’t quite look at him. She pressed a bag full of honey candies into his hand. If it were anyone else, one might assume she was a shy little junior, confessing something to her crush. But this was Nie Minglin, Zewu-jun’s assistant and the bane of Nie Huaisang’s tenure as Chief Cultivator. “You’ll need these.”
“Uh,” said Jin Rulan.
“I’m told Xue Yang is a most formidable spirit,” said Nie Minglin. “Please take care.”
Then, before he could formulate any kind of meaningful response, she ducked back and returned to her place at Zewu-jun’s side, quite mindful not to trip on the steps.
“I have sent word to my brother and his husband,” assured Zewu-jun, who had long made a career of politely ignoring awkward moments like this.
The waiting disciples didn’t ignore it. They muttered amongst themselves. Wasn’t that Nie Minglin? Didn’t she hate most men? Well, the Chief Cultivator is still unmarried….
“It’s nice to be fussed over sometimes,” murmured Lan Sizhui, as Jin Rulan tromped past him.
“That girl is a menace,” gritted Jin Rulan between. “Fairy, to me.”
Fairy had delivered the requisitions and done her tasks, but her master’s agitation had brought the Spirit Dog back to the steps. She lingered, her ears pricked forward, her tail low and cautious. She gazed up at the Lan Sect Leader and his assistant. The assistant gazed back, with a face as equally blank and unreadable. The dog gave a few tentative sniffs. She gave a low, confused whine.
“Fairy!” Jin Rulan called again.
The dog snuffed, shook her head, before turning in a great ripple of luxurious fur, pressing her mighty flank against her master’s legs as they departed.
As their backs vanished around the curve of the mountain pass, Lan Jingyi could no longer contain himself:
“You do it for the bright moon and gentle breeze!” he cried, in a great passion. “You do it for the distant snow and cold frost! And A-Qing! And also, maybe an extra one for me!”
His voice echoed imperiously off of the rock face of the great Lan wall of rules. One might have the distinct impression he’d been hoping for the chance to make such a dramatic farewell for many years. The distant golden form of the retreating Jin Rulan lifted one exasperated fist in acknowledgement as they faded from view.
“Spirited,” remarked Lan Xichen, eyeing him fondly. He nodded in gentle dismissal.
“Zewu-jun,” said Lan Jingyi, with great dignity. He bowed, crossed his arms behind his back, and strutted back up the stairs.
Lan Xichen and Nie Minglin waited a moment longer.
“I should go with them,” she said, unbidden.
“It’s my mess isn’t it?”
“That is objectively true,” said Lan Xichen, mildly. “I’m just surprised to hear you volunteer. Do you want to go with them?”
“Of course not!” said Nie Minglin, without hesitation. “Why would I want to go anywhere near that man again?”
Lan Xichen looked away from the road and down at her. Realizing what she’d just said, Nie Minglin lowered her head and added, in a thicker voice: “But I hate to think of that child managing it. He’s hardly qualified.”
“That ‘child’ is the newly elected Chief Cultivator and twice your age, Miss Lin,” Lan Xichen reminded her. “But I appreciate your honesty. May I indulge in some of my own?”
“When has Zewu-jun been anything but?” breathed Nie Minglin, despite herself.
“You are at present a young junior cultivator of mid-level talent and poor aptitude for your sect’s saber techniques,” said Lan Xichen. “While your base understanding of many interdisciplinary techniques is, hm, beyond your years, I doubt this body of yours yet has the aptitude to make full use of your natural versatility.”
“And from the curse’s behavior in the Mingshi, this spirit would specifically target you on the field. And I believe that confronting it would be a bit above your level at this time.”
Lan Xichen gave her one of those soft, sympathetic smiles that hit her like the thrust of a knife. “So, no, Nie Minglin, it would not do anyone any good to send you with the others, except perhaps if you are feeling especially self-punishing. Is that a fair assessment?”
“More than fair. I will recommit to my studies, Zewu-jun.”
“I hope that you do.”
Nie Minglin bit the inside of her cheek. “There may be… similar locations that the previous Chief Cultivators may have missed during their tenures.”
“...” Lan Xichen was a very patient man.
“None so troublesome as this,” she said, quickly. “They were smaller, and the wards should have remained untouched. But it might be best to check on them before they become a headache like this. I may be able to map them out for you, if you think that would be useful in the future.”
“It would be.” The sect leader took a deep, measured breath as he considered this information.
Then he held his hand out to her, palm up. Nie Minglin blinked at it.
“Walk back with me, Miss Lin?”
And with a wry smile, Nie Minglin let him lead her back up the steps to the Cloud Recesses proper, as the sun hung low over the dappled mountain path.
Jin Rulan’s party had just cleared the last set of the mountain’s wards when a dark figure shivered out from the forest. A Fierce Corpse, long-limbed and seething with a fierce energy. Its lank hair covered its face, thorns caught in its dark robes. All of the Jiang and some of the Jin disciples reached for their swords, but the sect leader held out an arm.
“Hold,” he commanded, pressing his mouth into a fine line. “It’s fine. Lan Sizhui?”
Lan Sizhui had already stepped past him, an urgent whirl of white robes. He was already helping the Corpse pluck at its clothes by the time it occurred to the assembled who’d never been near the Cloud Recesses just who this might be. “Senior Wen! Are you all right? You didn’t fall into any of the spirit traps, did you?”
“Only one,” mumbled the infamous Ghost General. He held up one white wrist. Several long, crossed lacerations had bit into his wrist. The flesh there was knotted, still in the process of knitting back together. He’d clearly found some meat to repair himself before moving to join them, but the injury still looked ugly. “A thorn snare. Didn’t think Master Wei had finished it…”
“He hasn’t,” admitted Lan Sizhui, sheepishly. “But he’s been field testing it. The juniors must have gone a bit out of bounds. I should have warned you. Please forgive this one’s carelessness, won’t you?”
To the surprise of most of the Jin and Jiang disciples and absolutely none of the Lan, Wen Ning thrust one pale hand out to grip Lan Sizhui’s forearm like a dear friend. Despite the corpse-glassiness of his eyes, and his grey pallor, there was a great warmth in his face nonetheless.
“You’re never careless, A-Yuan,” said Wen Ning. “But mm. There is trouble, isn’t there?”
Jin Rulan gave a theatrical sigh and stamped his foot. “If you want to come just come, Ghost General. Don’t mince around. We don’t have time.”
“Ah, Jin Rulan.” Wen Ning brightened, and swung his lanky, ragged arms around into a gracious bow. Pieces of thorny vines were still dangling from his clothes. “Thank you! I will do my best by you, I swear it!”
“Just don’t freak out my people,” said Jin Rulan. “Some of them haven’t been night-hunting with you before.”
It was well into night by the time they arrived at the scattered base of operations, a hastily fortified camp, built around an old fishing dock. A powerful set of talismans flapped in the wind as they arrived. Even Wen Ning, who having his wits was resistant to most forms of evil repelling spells, hesitated at the boundary.
“It’s all right, Senior Wen,” said Lan Sizhui, gently. “I’m sure we can make allowances for you.”
“No,” whispered Wen Ning, shuffling in place. “It’s not just that. Definitely not. There are eyes on us. Many of them. You feel it too, don’t you?”
There was no denying it. Ever since river had come into sight, and they’d all felt the power of the wards, they’d all felt the crawling sensation at the back of their necks: like the prickle of gathering clouds, like the lonely howl of a storms first gust of wind, but far less clean.
“Don’t weaken the wards with my presence,” said Wen Ning. “Let me scout ahead.”
“Be mindful, Senior Ning.”
“You are kind to worry about me, A-Yuan.” Wen Ning smiled even as the carrion birds screamed in the distance. “But they will not think anything of me if I am quiet. Without my voice, I am all the same to them, after all.”
He slipped away into the darkness.
“He’ll be fine,” said Jin Rulan, watching out of the corner of his eye. “He’s not the Ghost General for nothing.”
“I know,” said Lan Sizhui, but his eyes lingered a little longer after Wen Ning. Jin Rulan shifted, moving as though to touch his shoulder -- but remembering all the eyes on him, he laid the hand on the wards in front of him instead, bidding them to allow them entrance.
And what an entrance it was. No sooner had the Golden Prince and his reinforcements swept in than he was overtaken by adjutants, all ready with updates on the situation in the last few hours.
“Wards are holding for now, but the Fierce Corpses have been bashing about them for the last few hours.”
“Chief Cultivator! We’ve collected all the poisoned civilians. We’ve been cooking non-stop like you suggest.”
“...signs of recovery in the survivors. But the movement of the corpses behind the barrier has been--”
“Jiang reinforcements arrived like you said they would. We have also received disciples from the Ouyang, Qin, and Nie Sects--”
Jin Rulan paused at that one. “Huh. So the watchtower sentries actually showed up.”
No one actually called it the watchtowers anymore. One of the first things Headshaker had done in his tenure as Chief Cultivator was to change the name of all of them. It proved easier than tearing them down. Nevertheless, Jin Rulan, who had grown up steeped in the politics of building them in the first place, had never gotten out of that habit. He caught himself. “From the Cultivation Retreat. Glad they didn’t fuck off on us. How many of them we got?”
Enough to keep the situation stable. For now, anyway.
“How many were poisoned?” murmured Lan Sizhui, keeping to Jin Rulan’s side as they surveyed the camp. Villagers were laid out carefully behind the barricades, swathed in blankets to promote sweating while disciples fed them bowls of congee. Lan Sizhui nodded at Lan Yan, who quickly took the other Lan disciples to begin distributing the more effective antidotes among the worse cases.
“Too many. The Watchtower --” Jin Rulan rolled his eyes, patting Fairy’s side idly as he gestured orders at the nearest disciples streaming past him to take up their posts. “I mean, the Cultivation Retreat got the reports of the change in the river first. Blackened water. Nets rotting too fast. Shrine icons breaking. I sent some people to follow up and bam. Corruption was everywhere. We stopped it before it got all the way down into the main river but. We evacuated the fishing village -- you’re seeing the survivors now -- but Chen Merchant Post a little further up got completely fucked. Half of the population’s probably dead now. And walking around anyway. It’s not like he has a Stygian Tiger Seal anymore, right? But why are these things acting so coordinated anyway?! God damn it to hell. Wei Wuxian could get here any time now.”
Lan Sizhui placed a hand on the small of his back, feeling the tension there. Jin Rulan jolted, once. He let it stay there for a second before he turned away. Lan Sizhui pulled back with a sigh, tucking his hands back into his sleeve.
“Do we have boats?” he asked, instead.
“Riverboats from Yunmeng, yeah,” Jin Rulan rubbed his head. “Don’t know how much good they’ll do us.”
He led Lan Sizhui to the docks, where eight boats rocked against the docks. They had protective talismans hanging from their posts. Up river, light talismans marked the array points -- one of which had been painted on a rock sticking out from the middle of the river. In the occasional lull of the sounds of the camp, both of them could hear sound bodies thrashing in the water. Like dozens or so men or women, tromping in the mud.
Bashing themselves against the barriers, without a care of who they trampled along the way. With that many fierce corpses swaying in the shallows, getting one boat through would be a challenge, much less eight.
Jin Rulan stared grimly ahead. The hand on Fairy’s flank went a little tighter. She leaned her shoulder against him, and rippled her fur comfortingly. He allowed that point of contact, at least.
“Before you ask: I told Uncle Jiang not to come,” he admitted. “He wanted to. But -- agh. It’s a pain. You know there are still people out there who think I only lead the Jin sect because of his help? Can’t let them think the same about me as Chief Cultivator.”
“Wouldn’t it be the other way around at this point?”
“You’re the Golden Prince, aren’t you?”
“That’s just -- for politics-- Eh!”
“The one who revitalized the Jin. The one who has kept the Cultivation World from falling back into civil war. The one who bravely led some of the most impressive night hunts of recent years personally -- with or without some help from his friends. He shows no favoritism. He shows no interest in furthering personal ambitions. He refuses even beneficial marriage alliances. He has even so graciously avoided the greatest office -- until now, when he has inevitably been voted in.” Each line of praise made Jin Rulan twitch even harder, until finally he stormed away from the docks, Lan Sizhui strolled after him.
The worst part about it was that, in the last few years, much of what Lan Sizhui said was true. Even if at the time it’d felt more like damage control. Endless, annoying, exhausting damage control.
“Since when are you my propaganda piece,” growled Jin Rulan. “I won’t hear that from you.”
“You won’t. But I’d think the Yunmeng Jiang risk relying too much on you,” said Lan Sizhui. “Not the other way around. It was good of you to allow your uncle to save some face.”
“That’s not -- bah.” Still, the corner of Jin Rulan’s mouth softened. “I can fight some battles on my own, can’t I?”
“You can. But I’d prefer to fight them with you.”
He tried to press forward, but he felt a tug on the back of his golden overrobe. Lan Sizhui, with his fingers curled over the white embroidered peony. He came up in a whisper of cloth. The pull was firm -- Lan Sizhui had never been a slouch when it came to the highly regimented training demanded by his sect -- but he didn’t need to pull hard to get Jin Rulan to turn to face him. Or to bend to meet the hand that rested on his cheek, cool and careful.
“Jin Ling,” murmured Lan Sizhui, “You’re not without your own merits.”
“Careful,” muttered Jin Rulan. The camp wasn’t exactly quiet. Sure, there was every kind of distraction whirling around just then, but --
Lan Sizhui quirked an eyebrow. “Shall you order me to stop bothering you?”
“Just -- augh.” But Jin Rulan grabbed a kiss from him. A brusque, firm one that was a bit more teeth than it necessarily should’ve been. He would’ve liked to have made a better go of it -- but he heard the scrape of boots from around the fishing shacks, and he just had time to straighten as an avalanche of adjutants came pounding down the road to meet them. “Chief Cultivator!”
Jin Rulan fixed them with glare that could have knocked through the wards on its own.
“What is it?”
“The Ghost General is waiting out at the border! He, um, says he has intel….”
Lan Sizhui trailed behind him at a now-safe distance, arms folded behind his back, a beautiful echo of all the cool distance that would have done Hanguang-jun proud.
Jin Rulan nocked the arrow and lined up the shot. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wen Ning do the same.
“Now,” hissed the Chief Cultivator. The arrows flew, the cloth wrapped around the shafts unfurled as the points buried themselves in the thatch roof of the cottages, flapping as the hoards of crows scattered from the rooftops. The Fierce Corpses occupying the town paused in their advance, swaying uncertainly.
Jin Rulan reached for another arrow. Neither he nor Wen Ning missed. Jin Rulan hated to admit it, but he found himself glancing at the Ghost General for clues on the angle he should be taking -- Wen Ning was a genius when it came to calculating a shot, even long-dead with fingers that often fought the stiffness of rigor mortis.
Using the arrows to plant the spirit attraction flags had been Lan Sizhui’s idea.
At last, a line was planted in the roofs of the houses that ran along the village’s irrigation ditch. The pull was enough. One by one, the prowling fierce corpses turned their milky eyes behind them, lumbering towards the overflowing, muddied ditch. Their boots sank in, dirty water seeping in around them almost to their waists.
“Now!” snapped Jin Rulan, louder this time. In a whirl of white, Lan Sizhui shot past them, the clear notes of his guqin overpowering the groans of the dead. The rest of the Jiang and Jin retainers charged in next, closing on the disoriented, distracted force of the undead.
From a strategic standpoint, the retaking of the Chen Fishing Hamlet could be considered a success.
If you ignored the fact that every enemy they fought was also a victim, anyway. No one really could pretend that wasn’t the case. Two of the Fierce Corpses were still moving when they were done. Lan Sizhui stopped over the most ferocious, struggling under a Jiang disciple’s spear. She’d been an older woman, her once neatly tied hair now hung half in her face. A dark smear of dried blood caked her cheek, long gone stale. As she caught sight of the white hem of his Lan robes, she began to thrash. Her arms were solid from years of hauling fishing nets. The nails on her left hand were broken and blackened from clawing at the ground.
“Just her left hand, though,” observed Lan Sizhui. “Odd. Brother Ning--” He could call him that, just then. Jin Rulan and the other disciples were checking the houses for any corpses they might have missed. “--can you restrain her for me? Don’t hurt her more.”
It was doubtful she could really feel it anymore, but he wanted to be safe. Obligingly Wen Ning pinned her to the ground, one of his hands holding her by the back of her head. These fierce corpses were hastily made from the bodies of non-cultivators; none of them were nearly his level. She spat and twisted, but a knee at the center of her back kept her down while Lan Sizhui felt around her matted hair for the pin.
She went slack the moment it was removed. Her head tilted upwards, once, her eyes bulging askance.
“You can go now, if you’d like,” said Lan Sizhui, softly.
The woman’s lips formed the faint shape of a stuttered, ‘Thank you’ before the body gave one last heave and then turned completely to ashes under Wen Ning’s hand.
Together, they swept the ashes into one of the spirit pouches. When that was done, Lan Sizhui held the pin up. He lit a light talisman to get a better look.
“How many do you think he had?” asked Lan Sizhui.
“I don’t know,” admitted Wen Ning. “I only, mm. My memories of when he kept me aren’t the best. He stopped coming after awhile. But he had them in ...erm, different widths. He had to keep using larger ones. To keep me from fighting him too much while he did, er, other things.”
He gripped one of his arms in the echo of a memory. A fierce corpse of a certain quality could recover from extensive damage, so long as the spirit and cultivation level of the deceased remained strong. But it didn’t mean the damage had never happened at all.
“That sounds awful for you,” said Lan Sizhui. “How long?”
“I still don’t know. Years, I think? Master Wei might know more now.” Seeing his cousin’s concern, Wen Ning smiled shakily. “Oh, A-Yuan. Please don’t be too sad for me. It was a painful time for a lot of people, but I’m all right now, aren’t I?”
Lan Sizhui bit down the wave of feeling that came over him at that. As a Fierce Corpse, ‘all right’ could only go so far. But Lan Sizhui never dared question the happiness that Wen Ning seemed to have found in their time together -- or why he’d never felt the need to move on, like the woman just had. It seemed insulting to question his resolve.
“A needle with a gauge like this,” said Lan Sizhui, instead, turning the pin carefully in his hand. “Would he try to use it on you again?”
“It wouldn’t work,” said Wen Ning, with a surprising amount of pride. “Besides, he would need more than that if he wanted to control me. Wanted to try, I mean. And even so, it really wouldn’t work! Not in a thousand years! Unless, maybe, it were Master Wei. But he’d never. He always, always asked if he could.”
It was true. The pins only suppressed the will of a corpse. They didn’t actually issue the commands themselves. To control one fierce corpse required the skills of a demonic cultivator, wielding a medium for control like a flute or sometimes chimes. To control the fifteen or so they’d suppressed in the fishing hamlet -- that would require a spiritual tool of a higher level.
“The remade Stygian Tiger Seal was destroyed,” murmured Lan Sizhui. “Jin Guangyao--”
“My uncle lied a lot,” came a bitter voice. “Why not about that, too?”
Lan Sizhui turned. Jin Rulan stood behind him with a grim expression. Hanging limply over his arms was a wheezing young boy -- 14 or 15 at the oldest, thin and grey-skinned, covered in cuts that no longer bled.
“Got an antidote?” he asked, laying him down.
The boy was pretty far gone, but Lan Sizhui reached for his medical pouch while Jin Rulan laid him out. With some coaxing, he convinced him to take pills -- both for the corpse poisoning and the pain, but his pulse was weak and his head tilted listlessly from side to side. He didn’t have much more color than the corpses who attacked them. Wen Ning went to fetch some fresh water to heat, if any could be found.
“Found him in the north cottage,” explained Jin Rulan. “Only one.”
“...you managed to evacuate so many,” offered Lan Sizhui.
“Don’t,” said Jin Rulan. “I don’t want to count lives like that.”
“I just want to say,” said Lan Sizhui. “You’re doing the very best you can.”
“Mm,” said Jin Rulan.
The boy shuddered. Something was wrong. He began to mutter under his breath, twitching and twisting. Lan Sizhui moved to hit one of his pressure points -- and noticed for the first time, he had dirt under his nails on just one hand.
His left hand.
Fairy let out a long, warning howl.
“Hey….hey….,” whispered the boy. “Master...Jin...”
His eyes flew open. Under his filthy bangs, Lan Sizhui made out a glint of red.
“Rich….brother,” gasped the boy. He spat out a cloud of ashes. Fairy let out a deep-throated growl. “Mind buying me lunch?”
He threw himself at Jin Rulan at the same time Fairy threw herself at him.
Lan Sizhui was closer, and his reflexes slightly better. He managed to grab the boy’s arm and twist it behind him before he could get far, but the boy dislocated his shoulder in the process of jerking back around to go for him instead. Fairy grabbed a mouthful of the boy’s tunic in her teeth and dragged at him. Lan Sizhui plunged a talisman against his chest. The power in it hit the boy like a shock, causing his entire body to spasm like a toy on a string. Fairy let him go. The tip of Jin Rulan’s sword rested next to the boy’s neck.
The bright red eyes fixed on Lan Sizhui. The face pulled into a distorted smile, revealing blackened, broken teeth.
“White…” he muttered, black curse energy began to wisp from his mouth, his eyes, his nostrils. He fell onto his knees, before tipping face forward into the dirt. He lay still. Fairy began to circle, growling. She kicked dirt at him.
“A trap,” began Jin Rulan.
Lan Sizhui summoned his guqin.
Far from subdued: The boy went from limp to raging in an instant, his body shooting forward with the speed of a striking snake. He didn’t care for how the talisman sizzled against him as he did any more than he cared about the edge of the guqin crashing against his chest. His pale hands wrapped around Lan Sizhui’s face. He shoved himself forward, pressing his cracked lips against Lan Sizhui’s jaw, in the vicious parody of a kiss.
“Ah, Daozhang…” sang the youth, in a breathless voice, as Lan Sizhui plucked a deft, repelling chord, and the boy fell backwards -- stiff limbed and now truly dead. The evil energy wafted off of his body like smoke from an old firecracker. A few more notes, and it twisted and dissipated.
The air smelled sickeningly sweet, drawing out the last note -- Lan Sizhui touched the crawling energy against his cheek. It was sticky, like spun sugar. He met Jin Rulan’s eyes over the body of the unfortunate survivor -- who’d been no survivor at all.
They found the needle hidden in the roof of his mouth.
“It’s the same energy in the mark on your arm. It’s not the Stygian Tiger Seal that’s controlling them,” said Lan Sizhui, calm, even as he began, grimly, to press a talisman into his own wrist, hard enough to burn. “They’ve all been possessed.”
Chapter 3: you can't take that which isn't yours
Lan Sizhui takes a gamble. Xue Yang causes problems. Wen Ning has a no good very bad day.
The morning light was the blue of a drowned corpse.
The wind whistled plaintively through the gap in the clay tiles.They’d done their best to patch it, but in the worst of weather there was nothing to be done for it. The cold tickled your ears regardless.
Lan Sizhui slept through it. He may have lived most of his life protected from the mountain’s cold by Lan elegance, but his first three years had been spent in abject poverty. With effort, he could recall warm soup and laughter and the sound of a flute among the creaking trees, but for a long time his only early memories were of that corpse grey. So he thought little of a gap in the roof, or the hiss of the wind.
But as his eyes opened, the thought that nagged him was: Ugh, that’ll keep him up.
Of course, he meant Jin Ling. Jin Ling was restless even in the calmest times, which certainly wasn’t the present circumstance. Jingyi often teased the Jin sect leader for his fussiness on night hunts, teased him about his picky eating, about the need to sleep in Lanling silks (as though Gusu silk wasn’t just as fine), but Lan Sizhui had always known Jin Ling’s unease was born more of mind than body. When one cared a great deal about a great many things, there was a lot to lose sleep over. It’d taken Jin Ling years to learn to rest properly on a night hunt, and even then -- well, a Lan understood how habit was its own discipline, sometimes.
The cottage was empty. The wards swayed like chimes off the cross beams. The murk of pre-dawn resolved itself into simple shapes. What little furniture had survived had been pulled against the wall, to allow for more empty bed mats. A few bodies lay strewn across them -- living bodies. Lan Yan was one of them. No surprise. She must’ve spent a better part of the night administering antidotes, sharing spiritual energy, saving who they could. She’d joined the Lan sect later in life than Lan Sizhui. Before that, she’d lived simply if a little warily. She slept with her back against the wall and her face turned towards the door.
Hm. Smart girl.
Most of the disciples who were awake had settled in to secure the borders of their new encampment, setting walls and wards. But someone must’ve convinced the Chief Cultivator to take some rest, because Lan Sizhui found him slumped by a burnt down firepit in the shadow of the cottage: elbow on knee, face buried in his palm. The white sword lay next to his knee. Lan Sizhui knelt beside him, and laid his hand over the sheath.
His thumb teased at the ornamentation: graceful, familiar, spotless, wealthy as hell . He leaned over his leg, brushing it with his. The man beside him stirred, lips moving slowly. He pressed nearer, feeling what little warmth there was in his body flow into his own. That body tilted towards him instinctively, craving the stolen heat. In return he reached up to rest his fingertips along his jaw. Elegant lines of hair, loose from its bindings, covered the waking man’s eyes.
Not that it mattered all that much.
“Silly,” he whispered, “Why did you sleep outside again?”
“You weren’t scared of waking me, were you?”
“So careful with me. You needn’t bother.” Press nearer, a hand on the knee. It shouldn’t have been so easy to slip into the arms of a man so renowned for his cool and his caution. There was a thrill in the accomplishment. Every time. Testingly, he pressed his face into that space between jaw and neck, nosing at the pulse there. “I don’t lose any sleep over you, you know.”
He slid his hand down the front of the robe. The pouch is just where he expects it, tied to his waist. He fishes out one of the candies there, and pulls away just enough to pop in his mouth.
It melts pleasantly on his tongue. “You’re so sweet. Let me return the favor, hm?”
And in that muzzly place between sleeping and waking, it’s so easy to open his mouth against his pulse, that beautiful soft bit of flesh that thrums at the attention. It’s so easy to drag his lips up to follow his jaw. So easy to make the other body do what he wants, he didn’t even have to whistle to do it. For now, it was much more fun to take a hot breath against his lower lip, to watch him shiver in response.
Whisper, “I can be sweet for you, too.”
Observe the knitting brow. The mild confusion. So easily confused, when the world was nothing but grey.
Oh, but it’s impossible to miss that tiny little nod. It’s impossible not to steal that kiss, searing and open-mouthed with the sweet of the honey candy between them. He passes the candy to him with his tongue. The shared heat banishes the morning’s corpse stiffness. And it’s easy, it’s so fucking easy. It’s not something he ever got over. How easily the other man not only yielded to him, but gave back tenfold. He felt the hand drape across his waist, palm pressed hard against the small of his back and he almost giggled in the sheer need in it. He swung his leg over his knee, straddling him like a girl at a winehouse.
“C’mon, let me. Please?” He hummed into his lips, begging although he never actually had to. He just liked the way it made the man’s hands go tight against his hips. Liked how urgent it made him.
He was spilled onto his back. A hand closed over his wrist, pinning him.
He felt the grin ache at the corner of his lips. “Daozhang,” he laughed, delighted.
“Sizhui,” said Jin Ling. He’d spit out the candy awhile ago.
Lan Sizhui stared up at him.
“Oh.” The heat was gone.
“Appeasements not an option.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
“Then why did you do this?”
Lan Sizhui stared quietly into the smouldering fire. They’d had time to pull their clothes straight. Jin Rulan had drawn the containment array with Suihua. The cut on his forearm had already knit shut.
Lan Sizhui sat obediently in the center. Wen Ning’s hands rested on his shoulders. It didn’t hurt. Wen Ning could never take an action that could ever cause him any sort of harm, but the ghost of firmness hovered in those stiff fingers.
" First, liberate; second, suppress; third, eliminate ,” recited Lan Sizhui.
Jin Rulan bristled. Beside him, Fairy backed her ears. “I know that.”
With the patience of a model student, Lan Sizhui continued to recite the old case study, the story of the executioner, in perfect diction, his beautiful cadence a soft shadow of Hanguang-jun: “The initial approach is to utilise the gratitude of his relatives and grant his dying wish, set free what he could not let go of. If it fails, suppress it. ”
“I know that.”
Lan Sizhui took a measured breath. On his lap, his hands curled into fists. Wen Nings hands tightened over his shoulder. Not enough to hurt. It was more like a squeeze of reassurance. Lan Sizhui’s intention was clear: If he could still recite, he could still think. If he could still think, his mind was still his own. He remembered Lan Qiren’s lectures well. He remembered reciting them back to Hanguang-jun even more sharply. Hadn’t he told Jin Rulan once, how much he’d loved showing him his power of recollection? “ If the crimes were extremely wrongful, and its energy of resentment does not dissipate, exterminate it completely. The cultivation world should precisely keep to this order of measures. No errors should be allowed."
Jin Rulan’s fist came down hard across Nie Minglin’s map.
“No errors?” Jin Rulan put his hand across Fairy’s back to keep from flipping the entire war table over. “How exactly is getting possessed by a raving psychopath not an error? How is that not, like, the biggest error there is?!”
Wen Ning put his arms more firmly around Lan Sizhui’s shoulders, as though to shield him from Jin Rulan’s shaking glare.
“It’s manageable,” said Lan Sizhui, stiffly.
Jin Rulan held out the candies. Lan Sizhui’s hands twitched, reaching for it. Jin Rulan pulled it away last minute, observing the brief flash of annoyance in the Lan disciple’s dark eyes.
“Manageable?” Jin Rulan bared his teeth in place of his shaking spirit dog. He could see the sweat standing out on Lan Sizhui’s brow. He could still feel the stickiness from the candy -- which he’d spat out, thanks -- on his lips. “Is that what the Yiling Patriarch said before he took Qiongqi Path?”
“Jin Rulan,” whispered Wen Ning, in a wounded voice.
Jin Rulan brought his hand over his eyes, glaring into his palm as he waited for his breath to level out. He waited until he’d stopped shaking, before he settled his hand back on the map.
“I’m sorry. That was beneath me,” he said, his harshness faltering, but Lan Sizhui just watched him with that deep, impenetrable stare: one of the many gifts from his own still living father. Wen Ning just dropped his head against Sizhui’s shoulder. He had no breath to catch. It was the only reassurance he could take.
Jin Rulan forced himself to continue: “But, A-Yuan --” He cut himself off. “Lan Sizhui. Why? You’re not a demonic cultivator. This isn’t your way. You’re a Lan. You’re one of the most Lan Lans to ever Lan--”
“Not by birth.” Lan Sizhui’s pale hand brushed the back of Wen Ning’s arm, squeezing it gently in return. There was none of Xue Yang’s particular possessiveness in the gesture, though Jin Rulan couldn’t help but watch for it. Just care. Just an aching amount of care and concern, and Wen Ning held him a little tighter.
Jin Rulan had to look away. There were very few people who’d ever held him like that and one of them was presently looking through his very soul.
“Fine. You’re still one of the best cultivators I know,” he said. “And one of the bravest. And compassionate. And the smartest . So why did you do something this risky and stupid?!”
“Because now I know Xue Yang’s body is interred in the fourth passage behind the second waterfall,” said Lan Sizhui. He released Wen Ning, gesturing instead with one extended finger, towards the general corresponding point on the map. “It is guarded by twenty-three fierce corpses. Former military grade cultivators.” Then, in an even more tight and distant voice: “Qishan Wen Sect.”
“Ah,” said Wen Ning.
“I know,” said Lan Sizhui, as a soft aside. “I’m sorry, Brother Ning.”
Jin Rulan swore viciously. “Twenty-three cultivator-grade corpses?! But -- my uncle -- Lianfang-jun --- fuck. The notes Nie Minglin gave us said those bodies shouldn’t be usable. They should be in pieces.”
“A Fierce Corpse can repair most damage,” said Lan Sizhui -- and was there a bit of smugness in his lips there, a bit of a personal pride in the anatomy of an animated corpse. That definitely wasn’t him. “Provided they can find the flesh to supplement it.”
Wen Ning had the grace to look a little ashamed of this bit of information. “It, um, doesn’t always have to be human.”
“Augh,” said Jin Rulan.
The glint of pride faded from Lan Sizhui’s lips. “There’s more.” His words grew slower, as though struggling against a silence spell. “In front of the entrance. There’s a….barrier. Five points. I can show you the design, I think. I know it--”
“ He knows it, you mean,” said Jin Rulan. “No. You’re not going under again. We’ll dispel it ourselves.”
“But I can--”
“No.” Jin Rulan rolled up the map and shoved it into his belt. “It’s enough to go on. You’re going to stay here until Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun get here and exorcise the shit out of this bastard -- or I get back after burning the hell out of his corpse.”
Lan Sizhui’s blank stare broke. “Jin Ling!”
Jin Rulan refused to look at him. “No.”
“Song Zichen faced him without Xiao Xingchen.”
“We’re not Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen.”
“I…” Lan Sizhui’s hands fell onto his lap. He looked at them.
Jin Rulan finally relented. “I’m not going alone anyway.” He snapped his fingers. The array dampened. Lan Sizhui blinked. He moved to go get up -- but Wen Ning swept to his feet faster. The Fierce Corpse stepped out of the array fast enough for Jin Rulan to close it again before Lan Sizhui could follow.
“B-brother Ning?” stammered Lan Sizhui.
“I’m sorry, A-Yuan.” Wen Ning’s bottom lip shook a little, but he moved to stand beside Jin Rulan. “I don’t want Xue Yang to hurt you. And I don’t want you to have to fight… those men. Let me go in your stead. Please?”
“I…” Lan Sizhui slowly turned to his seated position, crossing his legs and resting his hands on his knees, in a meditative pose. He shut his eyes. His face smoothed out. “I understand your concern. Please don’t feel guilty for it. I don’t blame you.”
“A-Yuan.” Wen Ning couldn’t cry anymore, but oh, was he trying. “We’ll be back soon.”
“....thanks,” said Jin Rulan. “Both of you.”
But as he turned to walk away, Lan Sizhui’s voice followed him in a deadly whisper, throatier than normal:
“Putting me in a cage again, huh?”
Jin Rulan ignored it. “He can’t hurt himself in that array,” he said, as much for his own reassurance as for Wen Ning’s. “Go tell the others to get in the formation we discussed. I’ll brief them before we head out.”
“You like me like this best, don’t you?” called Lan Sizhui’s voice. “Pretty and obedient and behind closed doors.”
“And set off some signals to let Wei Wuxian know where we are,” continued Jin Rulan. “For whenever he wants to get his ass in gear.”
“Daozhang never hid me away.”
“Only because you lied to him. I don’t want to hear about your weird thing with Xiao Xingchen,” snapped Jin Rulan. He was tired of letting him talk shit.
“Oh, ha. You thought that was my grievance?”
Jin Rulan left him in the array.
Jin Rulan loosed three arrows at once. The whirling talisman exploded mid-air. Streaks of flame rained down in ribbons around them. The sparks caught in the treetops above them, spreading with an unnatural hunger.
Wen corpses didn’t fear fire.
Wen Ning swung his arm around upwards, and with a quick crack broke one of the trees and levelled five others, cutting off the flame’s path -- but the smoke marked their location. The swarm of corpses ahead began to shuffle and moan.
Well. Better them than the boats.
“To the river,” shouted Jin Rulan, shoving his bow back over his shoulder. “Now!” He led the advance force down into the marsh, where their sloshing held the attention of the undead unit. Lan Yan played an invocation -- Jin Rulan couldn’t help but notice it sounded suspiciously like a popular love song.
Jin Rulan had heard stories about the Sunshot Campaign. The distant ones, like the burning of the Cloud Recesses, and the defeat of Wen Xu at the hands of Nie Mingjue. The more personal ones: the sack of Lotus Pier, the final siege on the Nightless City, both told to him by men who’d really been there. There was nothing more convenient to the world than a sole enemy. The cultivation world loved to gossip about the wicked schemes of Jin Guangyao, the heretical resourcefulness of the Yiling Patriarch and his army of corpses, but once upon a time, the enemy of choice had been the Qishan Wen and their blazing sun.
Jin Rulan had only ever met two members of the Wen Sect. One was the man who’d killed his father. The other -- well, neither of them had been what he expected. It was hard to see a convenient enemy in someone you’d spoken to. Someone you’d had dinner with. Someone who stumbled when figuring out if you wanted to be called by your courtesy name or your personal one.
But, sweeping his sword low to drag up a wall of water against a fresh barrage of flames -- an old Yunmeng child’s game-- proved terribly handy just then. Jin Rulan had to admit, these talismans were kind of a huge pain in the ass.
Their attention drawn, Lan Yan followed instruction, leading the other Lan disciples to switch to a song of vigor. The piece was played at such a suspiciously high tempo Jin Rulan wondered if Lan Jingyi hadn’t been behind its composition, or at least the adoption of it into Lan combat canon.
Overall, it was a mad, stupid dash. But it drew attention off the boats, and it gained them a crucial bit of territory in the advance. Jin Rulan shot a couple of arrows at the feet of the shambling corpses ahead, a few delayed explosive talismans stuck to the shafts detonated as they connected, wreaking confusion if not habit. He called over his shoulder to two of the Jiang disciples bringing up behind him. “Guo. Li. Draw up the next boundary.”
A moment later he felt the shiver of power behind him. Good. They’d reclaimed just a bit more of the river.
Bolstered, the rest of them pressed forward. After the spur in the river bank, the chokepoint opened up ahead, to the rise in the hill, and the cascade ahead -- the third of the three spills, the first encountered if approached from Chen Town, where they’d set out. Just like the map had said. Just like Lan Sizhui had warned, Jin Rulan also saw the subtle way the spray of the waterfall warped as it fell. The flow slanted too soon as it met an invisible obstacle. A sloppy tell. This kind of crude, temporary barrier that wouldn’t last more than a week, would’ve required a life-threatening amount of blood to maintain, risked terrible backlash, and would’ve given any basic tutor in array theory an absolute conniption. An undead demonic cultivator didn’t have to worry about any of these things. Especially when they had a plum supply of bodies that weren’t theirs to begin with.
Thinking they had an advantage, the Fierce Corpses closed in on them in two columns, their Wen colors ragged and faded over their broken bodies. They weren’t clean corpses. A Fierce Corpse in its very best condition, was, well, Wen Ning. But these ones had clearly been pieced together from whatever was leftover in the tomb. Their limbs were uneven, some of their faces entirely distorted, but the hatred that burned in what remained of their eyesockets were unmistakable. The Jin gold, especially, was a waving lure all on its own. Whether it was Xue Yang’s grudge, or the grudge of those Wen soldiers, it didn’t really matter on that point.
Fairy grew to the size of a horse. She threw her head back and gave a long, baying call. Wen Ning threw himself on the advance with a valiant recklessness. Jin Rulan traded his bow for the whip at his hip. He cracked one corpse across the face before Wen Ning slammed it into the stones piled up at the base of the falls. Another corpse caught the end of the whip as he sent it lashing at its feels. That suited Jin Rulan fine. He brought his foot down on the taut line and pulled the corpse into two of its fellows. It caused enough confusion for Wen Ning to behead one of them and kick his boot through the chest of the other.
The numbers weren’t ideal. The rest of the Wen corpses had enough remaining intelligence to pull back up the cascade, to keep the advantage of height and their seemingly endless supply of flame spells. But that was fine. The boats would be in range soon enough, and from there they could pull back and really unleash hell--
A shiver ran through the assembled corpses. Some of the less broken ones dropped to what remained of their knees. The ones who had been disabled twisted and squirmed into a seated position. Someone leapt over the heads of the battling cultivators -- a graceful white figure landed among the assembled corpses. Not one of them raised a hand against him. Several of them lifted what counted for their arms in a parody of a bow.
Lan Sizhui lowered the leaf from his lips.
“Hm,” he said, giving his hair an uncharacteristic toss. The eyes that bore down on the rest of the cultivators were a deep, flicking red. His right arm hung at his side, limp and useless. “You’re not as boring as I thought you’d be. You’re no Wei Wuxian, but as starters go -- heh. You kids learned a thing or two, huh?”
Jin Rulan bared his teeth. “How the hell--?!”
“Hey, Discount Chief Cultivator. Don’t worry. Your array wouldn’t shame your uncle.” He led the leaf go and reached down the collar of his robe. Xue Yang held up a slither of long, brittle black hair. “Brother Ning just left a bit of a medium behind. A corpse past your gate’s still a corpse past your gate. Didn’t even have to figure out how to make this body bleed under the conditions you set. Isn’t Brother Ning just the best ?”
He hummed, minutely. A spark of flames ran down into the strand of hair. It dissolved into a crumble of ash. A Wen technique.
“Turns out, this body’s got a lot of neat little secrets.” And with Lan Sizhui’s gentle face, Xue Yang’s eyes danced. “But you know that already, don’t you? … when it suits you, anyway.”
Wen Ning exploded from a pile of seething corpses. “A-Yuan!” he cried. He stumbled forward, knee deep in marsh with pieces of his former sect members still clutching at his robes. Lan Sizhui raised his eyebrow, drew his sword and held it against his own throat.
Wen Ning froze. Jin Rulan raised a fist. The creak of drawn arrows eased.
“Wen Ning,” sing-songed Xue Yang. “Join your people”
Wen Ning made a soft, miserable whine somewhere in the back of his throat. He hunched, shuddered, and then, sparing only the briefest of grief-stricken over his shoulder, leapt to land beside the waiting Lan Sizhui, now surrounded by the rest of the Wen fierce corpses. Xue Yang whistled, and the ones who had arms lifted them in the gruesome parody of a bow. Xue Yang nodded, approvingly, letting the point of the sword shift just slightly, teasing the edge dangerously close to his borrowed throat.
Wen Ning squeezed his eyes shut and dropped down. Xue Yang laughed.
“You finally do what I say,” he said, with relish. “Good, good. What a good grocery run this has been. Two prize cabbages for Wei Wuxian. And Lan Wangji, to boot. When are they putting in an appearance, anyway?”
Jin Rulan was already trying to gauge the distance he’d need to get his whip around Lan Sizhui’s ankle. Xue Yang noticed, rolling his eyes.
“Bah, nevermind. They’ll show up eventually. C’mon, Ghost General. You’re my toy now. I’ll even let you have your sect brothers back. How’s that sound?”
With another few notes of a whistled invocation, the Wen corpses began to withdraw, the barrier in front of the waterfall wavering to allow them passage.
Jin Rulan saw Lan Sizhui’s eyes flicker black again, meeting his across the spill pool. He saw Lan Sizhui’s lips mouth: ‘Now.’
But when Jin Rulan forced himself forward, something shot out of the marsh and clenched around his leg. He looked down. A snake. Or at least what had once been one. It was rotted and skeletal, but it still managed to open its shattered jaws and hiss.
Beneath all their feet, the water began to churn.
Lan Sizhui’s eyes were red again. Xue Yang laughed and licked the sword. He made Wen Ning take his arm as they hopped cleanly backwards through the barrier.
“Don’t worry,” he called. “I wasn’t going to leave you lonely or anything. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
The charred trees began to rustle. Slashing the undead snake down the middle, Jin Rulan called a quick regrouping. The cultivators fell back to the bank, back to back, but in the distance, from the boats he began to hear the sound of arrows firing wildly around them.
Xue Yang’s voice echoed off the rocks, in Lan Sizhui’s stolen timbre: “Did you know that humans aren’t the only one who can get corpse poisoning?”
He didn’t need to spell it out. Out of the water, the white and grey bodies drifted to the surface, gaping and spasming. Out of the trees, ragged birds came pelting out of the crooked black branches, half of them dropping into the underbrush, but charging forward nonetheless, grass blackening under them.
“Everything dies, you know.”
ain't no party like a necromancer party 'cause everyone's dead and a significant amount of things are on fire.
Chapter 4: everything goes dark
A reunion of sorts.
Jin Ling stared up at the ceiling. The ancient gold moldings of Carp Tower stared back at him. He grasped at the handle of his sword. He’d passed out with it again. Who could expect him not to? The stupid peacocks had been screaming again, and now there was a servant hovering outside his door, going on about how Lianfang-zun was worried about him. Jin Ling was late for yet another carefully arranged breakfast service. Sandu Shengshou had arrived at dawn, and surely Jin Ling wasn’t still feeling ill? At his age it was only proper for a young man to account for himself and while of course he would not be expected to attend, it might be good to put on a good face, after all one must always be very careful about presentation, and appearances of strength. You are feeling strong, aren’t you, Jin Ling? I heard you lost another fight. How unfortunate. What do you think led to that? Have you considered…
The servant’s voice had slowly morphed into Lianfang-zun’s and then, more bizarrely, Nie Minglin. He suspected if he looked at the door he’d find her there with her stupid notebook, marking down his every response.
Jin Ling groaned and dragged the blanket over his face, smothering himself in blue and gold, to hell with what it did to his hair.
Jin Ling stared up at the ceiling. The old polished wood of Lotus Pier hung over his head. He crawled out of bed, fighting his sheets as he struggled to shrug his way into the purple overobe of a disciple in training. He pinned his gold braid up as best he could. Uncle didn’t approve of it hanging in his face during drills. But by the time he’d stepped out across the dock, the water had turned black and the fish were all skeletons, and out in the courtyard he could hear the screams and the snap of a whip like thunder.
Ah, damn. Uncle had caught another one last night.
Jin Rulan stared up at the ceiling. The rabbit lantern dangled over his head. He smelled sandalwood. A stick of incense burned on the desk nearby. He was actually in the Yashi. Which was an odd place to be having a nap, among the half laid out reception service, but Lan Sizhui’s arms were warm and comfortable around his head. It was enough to shift more comfortably in the pillow of his crossed legs and not think about logistics just then.
Lan Sizhui toyed with the red ribbon that trailed over Jin Ruan’s shoulder, humming quietly. He had a good voice, Jin Rulan pressed his head harder against his chest, so he could feel it vibrate against his cheek. Most Lan knew how to carry a tune, but Lan Sizhui was especially gifted. It was a soft, yearning tune: that weird Lan love song Wei Wuxian could sometimes be caught whistling. If you asked him the name he always just laughed. He changed the answer every time.
“Someone’s going to see us,” muttered Jin Rulan, cracking open an eye.
“I don’t mind,” said Lan Sizhui, dreamily.
‘I mind,’ Jin Rulan was about to say, reaching for Lan Sizhui’s chin at the exact moment the doors to the Yashi banged open, and in poured an army of people he knew: Zewu-jun, Hanguang-jun, Wei Wuxian, Uncle, Lan Jingyi, Wen Ning, Nie Minglin, Lianfang-zun…
‘Nope,’ decided with great force, then and there. ‘Nope, nope, nope. I am absolutely done with this.’
Jin Rulan opened his eyes and stared up at the empty sky.
Fairy lay over him. She’d shifted out of her battle size, and into a more manageable quilt size. As his breath shifted from deep sleep to a ragged wakefulness, she stuck her muzzle against his neck. Normally he’d have just grumbled and shoved her off, but from the prickle in his wrist, he knew he was lending her spiritual energy.
Instead he buried his hand in her mane and jangled the bells on her collar. “S’alright, Fairy. I’m good now. Save some for yourself.”
With some reluctance, Fairy shifted to splay across his lap. Jin Rulan pushed himself onto his elbows. The rocking under him told him he was on a boat. The sound of men and women hauling nets told him they were alive. The sounds of a flute told him why. On the boat’s prow, a man in black stood with his back to him, playing the last few lingering notes. The water beneath them stopped sloshing, as if to listen.
It was that weird Lan love song. “Which song is that, anyway?”
The man lowered his black flute. The red tassel swung in time with the boat.
“It’s called ‘Wishing for a Nephew Who Doesn’t Bite Off More Than He Can Chew,’” he said, tapping Chenqing against his hip.
Futile as always. Bah. Jin Rulan eyed him cautiously, glancing between him and the dog. “You let Fairy stay?”
Looking back at him, the man blew his messy bangs out of his face and squatted down next to him.
“We’ve declared a truce.” He didn’t look at the dog as she began to pant, her tail thumping tiredly. He held his hands apart. “Long as she stays about, hm. This far away. Maybe a little farther. Out of biting distance anyway. I’ll manage. Bravely. Be honored, Jin Ling. Such horrors this uncle is willing to put up with, if it’s you!”
“This uncle,” muttered Jin Rulan, “Could’ve showed up a bit sooner.”
“And my adorable nephew has overslept.” Wei Wuxian reached into his pack and held out some lotus seeds. “I’d normally be bursting in pride to see you take one of my habits to heart but it is a little inconvenient right now.”
“Who’s habits are whose?” But Jin Rulan shoved a fistful of seeds into his mouth. Life seemed to pulse back into his limbs as he ate. “How long have I been out? And what are you doing fussing over me, anyway? We’re surrounded by demonic fish. Where are my people? How many are injured? How many are still fighting?”
“Oh, Chief Cultivator, excuse me for my impertinence!” laughed his uncle, with that sincere insincerity only driven home by how he squeezed his shoulder before he swept to his feet. Wei Wuxian managed the dip of the boat with all the confidence of one who had bounded up and down the docks of Lotus Pier since he was a child, propping his foot up on the starboard outwale. He spun his flute and pointed with it “Not to question your powers of observation, but you really should take a look for yourself.”
Jin Rulan slowly rose to his feet.
The boats were moored in the river, all present and accounted for. He could hear the sound of fighting in the distance, but no screams or cries of pain. The water beneath them wasn’t completely calm. Every now and again something trashed or writhed, but the boats stayed untroubled. With the waters no longer choked black by resentment, Jin Rulan could see why: from each side of the river, the roots of the trees had extended outwards, forming a series of interlocking cords. These interlocking chords had further woven themselves into nets, each now entirely coiled around the mass of flopping, twisting fish corpses. Each time one of those flapping half-rotted bodies tried to squirm free, the resentment bleeding from their bodies inspired the branches to pull a little tighter, closing the net further.
Wei Wuxian watched him take this in. He’d crossed his arms, unaccountably smug.
Jin Rulan almost wished he could just let all this go without taking his obvious bait, but it was so weird he had to ask. “What’s all this?”
“Glad you asked,” said Wei Wuxian, beaming like a man a third his age. “Thorn snare. Heh. Well. More like a root snare in this case. Same idea, though. Xue Yang’s resentment has killed a lot of people. And vegetation. Seems only fair everyone should get a little of their own back, hm?”
“Uncle Wei, that is super interesting but I … couldn’t care less about how it works’ Jin Rulan resisted the urge to draw his sword and poke at the netted corpses. Besides keeping them trapped, it looked as though most of the resentment in the water had seeped into the tangled roots, filling them with seething energy but leaving the water mostly clear. “But it does work right? Are my men alive? Did you get all of them?”
“Ah, how unfair! And your uncle was doing his best to show off how cool he can be. But to answer your question -- yes. Yes. And as to that last point.” Wei Wuxian ticked down his fingers. “He should be able to tell you better.”
Wei Wuxian tilted his head towards the river bank. A figure in white marched proudly out of the blackened woods. Jin Rulan straightened a little hopefully -- but no, it was Hanguang-jun, not Lan Sizhui. One arm folded behind his back, sharp profile stark as he approached the water, he lofted from the bank to the boat in one effortless leap. To most anyone in such a dire situation, the appearance of the second most highly ranked disciple of the Lan sect was by no means a disappointment, but somehow Jin Rulan still let out a breath and sank back down sullenly onto one of the benches. He draped one arm over Fairy and stared moodily at the prow, where Hanguang-jun landed, so light on his feet the boat barely stirred under his weight.
Wei Wuxian brightened, at least. He shoved off the side, more or less throwing himself at his husband. “Lan Zhan! There you are! What took you so long? Leaving me to care for the children on my own! Is that any way to treat your wife?”
Hanguang-jun intercepted Wei Wuxian with a firm hand on Wei Wuxian’s chest. For a moment, he stared at him, narrowing his eyes. The hand traveled to his chin and he pulled him near, not quite letting their mouths touch. His eyes flicked over his face searchingly.
“The music stopped,” he murmured. “I could do naught but come.”
Wei Wuxian gestured grandly at the nets. “Good fishing today. We should eat well.”
One of Hanguang-jun’s arms came up around Wei Wuxian’s waist, a stark flash of white on Wei Wuxian’s dark overobe.
“You’ve devoured enough of those dark things.” With a dancer’s grace, Hanguang-jun pulled Wei Wuxian close, letting their foreheads touch before he whirled him down to sit in the far bench, hands firmly keeping him from springing back up again. “Backlash will ruin you, if left alone.”
“Yes, yes, and I’ll suffer the anger of a thousand pissy fish. Perhaps I’ll grow fins. I’d be a pretty fetching water goblin. Lan Zhan, don’t fuss. I’ll be fine.”
Hanguang-jun knelt, summoning Wangji with the flick of his wrist that Lan Sizhui echoed so perfectly Jin Rulan had to look away. “Allow me to be the judge of that.”
“So fussy.” Wei Wuxian put his leg up on the bench and stayed there, submitting to the ministrations of the healing song even as he muttered something under his breath about ‘fingers’ and ‘better uses.’
Jin Rulan lowered his head. “Every time,” he muttered. Fairy whined in agreement. “Eh, honeymooners, mind giving me an update before you two go off and get lost in each other’s eyes again or something? Those are my people out there.”
“And your men are yet alive,” answered Hanguang-jun, “Now hush.”
“Be nice,” chided Wei Wuxian, now stretched out on the bench. He cracked an eye open. “Ouyang Sect Leader insisted on escorting us. He brought reinforcements.”
Jin Rulan sat up. “Zizhen’s here?”
Ouyang Zizhen had inherited the Ouyang Sect two years ago following his father’s most exasperated retirement. He’d been the first of the Sect Leaders to arrive at the Selection Conclave to put in a vote for Jin Rulan as Chief Cultivator. ‘Put in a vote’ included marching upon the Unclean Realm with each of his disciples wearing peonies and red ribbons, declaring his Sect’s undying support for Jin Rulan’s bid for the position, and recommending very strongly and loudly that all friends of his sect do the same. Jin Rulan had not asked him to do this -- in fact, he hadn’t wanted anyone to campaign for him at all -- but Ouyang Zizhen never lacked for a cause to throw himself behind. Passionately.
“What? Can’t hear him from here?” Wei Wuxian tilted his head backwards to peer over the edge of the outwale. “He’s been giving very rousing speeches about the promises of boyhood. Says you’re practically sworn brothers. Are you?”
“No?” Jin Rulan blinked. “I mean, I said I’d help him out sometimes, if I could--”
“Damn,” said Wei Wuxian. “That’s practically married. You should let his wife know. She’ll want to know she’s sharing.”
“Wei Ying,” said Hanguang-jun, a little sharply. He stilled the strings. He didn’t exactly deign to look at Jin Rulan so much as incline his head in his general direction. “The wounded rest behind the line. The rest move on the pool. The barrier yet holds strong. It has yet to fall.”
Jin Rulan bit his lip. He had to ask, as much as it shamed him. “Sizhui and Wen Ning?”
Hanguang-jun banished Wangji with a particularly emphatic sweep. Something seemed to twist behind his eyes, though his face remained controlled. “Behind the falls. They’ve not emerged.”
Jin Rulan’s fist tightened. “Then what are we still doing here?”
Hanguang-jun turned. It seemed he may have had something to say, but a hand closed over his arm from behind. Wei Wuxian leaned comfortably against him. It might’ve seemed flirtatious, even indecent, but his grin faltered, and there was a tired cast in his eyes as he rested his head on his husband’s shoulder.
“Fishing,” he said, with a dark little laugh.
Jin Rulan had heard enough. Clattering to his feet, he unsheathed Suihua and leapt from the boat. Fairy bounded quickly after him, a blur of fur. Wei Wuxian practically jumped into Hanguang-jun’s arms.
The defensive formations held. Most of the cultivators had cycled out who maintained the rear arrays. The wounded were safely evacuated. The poison had been mostly cleared and the bodies of the defeated undead burned or exorcised. Jin Rulan followed the lingering noise of battle, taking quick stock from the adjutants who rushed to meet him on the way.
Moving past the main line without a thought for the hurried shouts of, ‘Chief Cultivator! A moment!’ He found Ouyang Zizhen and his disciples little further up the bank, out in the thick brush of the river’s spur, his spear deep in the body of an undead boar.
A strike from Suihua beheaded it. A second strike shattered the skeletal rooster as it attempted to crow for more aid.
Ouyang Zizhen’s face shifted from determined to excited as Jin Rulan sheathed his sword.
“Chief Cultivator!” He dislodged his spear and gave a gesture, a number of Jiang and Ouyang sect members joined them “You needn’t worry. We have it handled here.”
The sounds of battle were thicker up ahead: the thrash and scream of undead wild beasts, and the hum of a blade as the dead trees shook. “What about the spill pool?”
“Ah, that….” Ouyang Zizhen scratched his nose. “That is a different issue.”
“A different issue.” Jin Rulan bristled despite himself. “But Hanguang-jun talked like it was practically secured. Who’s still fighting up ahead? Advance to back them up!”
“Say the word and my sect will gladly follow you to hell.” Ouyang Zizhens’ eyes flashed with his typical flair for romance. “But we were told not to interfere.”
“Who? Who said that?” Jin Rulan raised his arm to signal the rest of his men.
Hanguang-jun landed in front of him with an effortless whirl of sleeves, one arm extended outwards to block him.
He didn’t have to confirm it with words. That icy look was all Jin Rulan needed. “Ugh. Should have known.” He shut his eyes and waited for the sound of footsteps behind him. That careless step that could only be Wei Wuxian.
“Jin Ling, you left too soon.” Wei Wuxian had the courtesy to at least throw an errant talisman to shatter an undead goose as it attempted to fly at them from the underbrush. He closed his hand over Jin Rulan’s shoulder before he could attempt to advance past the positively stony Hanguang-jun. “You didn’t let me finish. How dare you make your uncle run!”
Up ahead something massive crashed into the water past the tree line. The water that rained down in the dead grass around them sizzled as it hit. Hanguang-jun summoned Wangji. A chord sent the rest of the spatter splashing in the opposite direction.
Out of sight, something hissed with a fury that no living throat could ever produce.
“Fishing,” said Jin Rulan flatly.
“For snake demons. Big ones,” admitted Wei Wuxian. His grip got harder as Jin Rulan tried to move forward again. There was no getting out of this particular lecture. “Looks like Xue Yang’s theatrics has gone and called up a whole nest of them. The poison in the water’s what’s been feeding them. Get anywhere near it while it’s still twisting around like that and not even my congee will be enough to save you.”
Jin Rulan crossed his arms and began to tap his foot in irritation. “You said it was secure.”
Hanguang-jun’s cool tones cut in like a sword. “It will be.”
The hiss was cut off suddenly by a sharp rushing sound.
“Who’s in there fighting those things?!”
The thrashing hit a different pitch. The trees ahead shook. Branches cracked. A thick, fetid wind tickled the dead grass. Even the bones they’d put down seemed to groan in misery from it.
“Wei Ying,” said Hanguang-jun, suddenly.
Wei Wuxian understood what he didn’t say. “I’ll be fine.” Nevertheless, his husband came to his side, pressing a hand to the small of his back as though he might turn to ash if he didn’t. Wei Wuxian smirked, shook out his hair, and lifted his flute. “Hand feed me before you play for me again, Lan Zhan. I want the full service.”
“You’re in public,” said Jin Rulan, mortified.
“How uninhibited,” said Ouyang Zizhen, starstruck.
The Yiling Patriarch began to play. It was a rousing song, filled with more power than the cleansing song he’d played by the river. The rotted winds abated almost instantly. Resentment rose from the dead plants and from beyond, running like black water towards the river, where the roots twisted and locked together to receive it. A flash of silvery light resounded from a break in the trees. Then nothing.
Wei Wuxian closed his eyes and slowly let his flute drop to his side. He laughed, raggedly. When he leaned his hip against Hanguang-jun’s, it wasn’t just to be flirtatious.
“Whew,” he said, “That thing had a lot stored up. Well. Should be breathable now.”
“We advance,” declared Jin Rulan, but he only made it a step before his uncle caught him by the sleeve. “What? What now?!”
Wei Wuxian pointed with his chin. “Look.”
A man separated himself from the blackness of the broken tree line, straight-backed as he sheathed his sword. His skin was grey. His robes were black. Jin Rulan’s heart clenched, caught somewhere between alarm and relief: the whole range of feelings that went through him whenever he greeted Wen Ning, no matter how many years passed.
But the man was much too tall, and across his back he carried two swords: one white, and one black.
“Oh,” said Jin Rulan.
His uncle laughed. “Sorry we were late. But this was worth the slight detour, I think.”
“You could have said something sooner.”
“Could have,” said Wei Wuxian. “If my cute nephew hadn’t needed some spoiling.”
Wei Wuxian’s ‘cute nephew’ shook off his hand and approached the Fierce Corpse. Song Zichen had been dead for many years now, but he still carried himself with the grace and poise of a Taoist of great renown, despite continuing to maintain no affiliation with any of the Great Sects. If it weren’t for the pale cast of his skin and the black cracks peeking out through his collar, it would be hard to guess the man was not strictly alive. His clothes remained in perfect condition. The tools on his back were well cared for, and the spiritual energy of his presence was unmistakable. The spirit bag hung from his hip. He showed no expression as Jin Rulan approached, eyeing his Jin gold robes, and the blazing gold peony.
Jin Rulan bowed. “Song Zichen,” he said, and behind him, he could hear Wei Wuxian hum in approval and no doubt amusement at this show of manners. Screw him anyway. He wasn’t raised by wolves! Just two very different uncles. “Thanks for involving yourself. We appreciate your help.”
He kicked up a stick off the ground at his feet. He was just about to offer it to him by way of communication, remembering all too well the condition Song Zichen had been in when last they met, when the rogue cultivator replied, in a scratchy, slow voice: “Your senior tells us you are now Chief Cultivator.”
“Er,” said Jin Rulan, surprised. “Yes?”
“Do you follow the example of Lianfang-zun?”
Jin Rulan stood a little straighter. There were few these days who dared to ask such a bald question so openly, let alone an undead rogue cultivator who should have, by all counts, been completely mute. “Does it look like I’m doing that?” He gestured to the surrounding cultivators. “We’re here to clean up these kinds of messes, not make them. Didn’t Wei Wuxian fill you in on the way?”
Another long, evaluating stare. “Then you have grown into an interesting young man.”
“And you sure seem to have a lot to say!” Then, more carefully. “That’s new.”
Wei Wuxian began to laugh. “Ah, yes, funny that. Didn’t you know, Fierce Corpses can repair a lot of different kinds of damage as long as--”
Jin Rulan shot him a glare. “I heard that already. I don’t need the step by step!”
“Eh? Who beat me to it?”
Jin Rulan looked away. “... Sizhui.” All too aware of the searing stare of Hanguang-jun on his back, he inhaled as he turned back to Song Zichen. “And speaking of -- Song Zichen. Forgive us if we’re a little off balanced. But we need to know the condition of the spill pool. Two of my people are behind that barrier.”
“Your people,” murmured Hanguang-jun, in a cutting tone, “are mine as well.”
“Lan Zhan,” said Wei Wuxian, quickly.
Jin Rulan grit his teeth, but continued as though he hadn’t heard that aside. “And I take it you know who’s responsible.”
“We do,” said Song Zichen, his voice went a few degrees cooler.
“Then can I count on you?”
“You may count on our aid. Not our affiliation. Your people…” A thick pause. Whatever express method Song Zichen had used to repair his tongue, it hadn’t been perfect. There remained a reverb in his voice. His throat bobbed in what in life would’ve been a swallow. “Your sect has not always been forthright with us.”
Ah. Politics. Somehow even death hadn’t taken away Song Zichen’s dream of a wandering cultivator, with no particular ties to a great sect. It might’ve been charming -- and Jin Rulan could practically hear Ouyang Zizhen well up at the romance of it all. “I get it,” said Jin Rulan. “Well. Let me make it official as I can. As Sect Leader, I renounce my predecessors judgment in the matter. Help us get Lan Sizhui back without hurting him, and I’ll leave the matter of Xue Yang to you. It should’ve been that way from the start. ...and I promised a friend, I’d give you your due. If you want it.”
He could practically hear Wei Wuxian nod in approval. Even Hanguang-jun shifted slightly. Jin Rulan squared his shoulders a little more. Fine. Let them be surprised. He had more important things to deal with right now.
“I accept responsibility for him,” said Song Zichen, in a slightly different pitch, and his flat eyes took on a sadder, softer expression. Jin Rulan paused. Something was off about it. He couldn’t quite tell what. But he didn’t have time to waste asking about it, because Song Zichen’s gaze fell on Wei Wuxian next. “Young Master Wei. Regarding that barrier--”
And then from beyond the ragged treeline, they heard a loud crash.
Lan Sizhui didn’t so much as wake up as he did come back to himself.
He’d reviewed the blueprints documenting the inside of the tomb. They’d been thorough and annotated, in Nie Minglin’s elegant handwriting. ‘Torture tools were stored here. Strong likelihood of resentful energy.’ And ‘doors cleansed regularly, low likelihood here.’
She had not, it seemed, seen fit to mention the dining room.
It’d once been one of the containment rooms. Lan Sizhui could still see the empty slabs propped against the wall, chains trailing off of them. Wards hung off of the walls. Their robes broken, the shadows of the useless binding talisman’s flickered in the light of the frail little candles on the table in front of him. Lan Sizhui was seated in front of a makeshift dinner spread. The furniture was old, but well used. It showed signs of scratches. The food was cold, but fresh. The rice was still sticky, but the tea no longer steamed, and the soup had begun to congeal.
He must have taken it from the village. “So you don’t just want him like that.”
His voice was hoarse, but usable. He felt no resistance getting the words out. The second consciousness in his mind was still there, its awareness barely brushing his -- but in a distracted, cursory way. Whatever the presence inside him truly wanted, it wasn’t to chat -- not just then anyway.
The answer came from across from him. His dinner companion had been draped across the chair opposite. “A-Yuan.”
Wen Ning smiled weakly. Lan Sizhui quickly lunged across the table to take his grey hand.
“Oh, good. He didn’t suppress you.”
“I wouldn’t be able to obey him if he did.”
Lan Sizhui winced. “That’s right.” Xue Yang had never been able to control Wen Ning through his demonic cultivation, even when rendered unconscious under the pins. The Fierce Corpse needed to have the awareness to know something would happen to Lan Sizhui if he disobeyed. “...I’m sorry. I should’ve known he’d think to use you. I’ve made a real mess for you, haven’t I?”
“It’s what Master Wei would have done,” whispered Wen Ning. Lan Sizhui knew it was true. But he’d forgotten how often Senior Wei’s plans forgot two key factors: his own wellbeing as he marched into hell, and the army of people who loved him enough to go with him. “I’m glad I’m here with you, at least.”
“Brother Ning.” Lan Sizhui squeezed his hand. It wasn’t cut or injured, at least. But it was hard for him to recall how long he’d been sitting there, and what else had been done with his body while his own mind had wandered the halls of Xue Yang’s scattered memories and emotions. “I didn’t do anything to you, did I? Like with, um.” He could still remember the taste of the honey candies in his lips, the hot press of Jin Ling’s lips against his own. Except it hadn’t been Jin Ling’s he’d been looking for just then. It’d been Xing Xiaochen. Daozhang. Daozhang. You’re late for dinner. I got your favorites. Little Blind can come too, if she doesn’t bitch about the sugar--
The foreign memory faded. It was still Wen Ning in front of him.
“He, um. Did my hair.” Wen Ning shook his head. Most of the blood and dirt from the battle had been washed clean. It was freshly conditioned, and pinned out of his eyes expertly. “You told me I’d done it crooked. And, um. Touched my mouth a little. And tried to feed me, some. He…didn’t seem to care I couldn’t eat it.”
Lan Sizhui’s cheeks burned. “He’s very lonely, isn’t he?”
Wen Ning bit his lip. “Yes.”
“Do we have any idea where he might be keeping his body?” A ghost’s ashes were their greatest weakness.
“I didn’t have to look,” said Wen Ning. He nodded at the wall. Lan Sizhui followed his gaze.
Most of the slabs were empty, dust freshly disturbed. Their iron chains, vibrating with the weak imitation of a Stygian Amulet, hung empty. The occupants had been repurposed for the shambling guards patrolling the halls of the tomb. But one corpse remained at the far end of the room. Lan Sizhui pushed himself to his feet. He lit a light talisman to get a better look. Good. Both his arms worked, and he could still use his own cultivation, even as he could feel the sluggish ache of corruption in his meridians.
Wen Ning knocked the stool over, stumbling after him. He touched his shoulder. “Careful.”
“I-- I will try to be.”
The body was surprisingly well-preserved. Through Su Minshan’s efforts, possibly, but most likely through the lingering resentment that made the light talisman flutter even several meters away. He hung at an odd angle. Iron pins had been driven through all his qi points, but as Su Minshan had failed to retrieve his right arm, only his left wrist could be nailed down, leaving him sinking on one side. The skin was grey and cracked, shot through with black lines. The hair was brittle but hadn’t crumbled to dust. His youthful, handsome face had gone sallow and emaciated, but even in death, his bruised lips seemed to form a mocking smile.
Blackened resentment practically bled from his mouth and his empty, glassy eyes. Before Lan Sizhui could barely summon the thought of laying a hand on his corpse, of burning it here and now, while he had the chance, his right hand suddenly went slack. His left hand redrew his sword and pressed it to his neck.
“I’m the delinquent here,” he whispered, to himself.
Then the conscious dispersed, sending him flying backwards into Wen Ning’s arms.
“Of course, he’d protect it,” muttered Lan Sizhui. Of course. Of course. Wen Ning held him near, making a distressed sound. Lan Sizhui leaned against his chest, and for a second he couldn’t actually tell if Wen Ning’s robes were the black silk he’d gifted him, or a scratchy white. But the recollection dispersed, along with the laughter in his throat. “Ah. But it’s hard for him. He doesn’t have a Stygian Tiger Seal. He has to use his own consciousness, to control all those poisoned bodies. He can’t concentrate on everything at once. So if I -- if I-- the barrier-- I may be able to -- that at least --”
He reached up and took Wen Ning’s face in his hands. His hair had come a little unbound when he’d rushed after him. He reached up with shaking hands to comb it aside, pretending for a moment that he was blind-folded.
“A corpse past the gate is a corpse past the gate,” whispered Lan Sizhui. “Brother Ning, may I borrow another strand of hair?”
The barrier shattered with a force that could be felt by every cultivator within four li, a terrible rush of power not unlike skeletal fingers running up the back of the neck. The more exhausted cultivators collapsed, hands clutching their noses, which now rushed with blood.
“Lan Yan,” snapped Jin Rulan. She was the nearest disciple with medical experience on hand. She rushed to tend to the collapsed. It was only after her white blur vanished into his periphery he realized he’d just pulled rank over Hanguang-jun. He charged forward before he could think too hard about that, grabbing at Fairy’s collar so that she could bound with him to the water’s edge.
“The rest, with me!”
Song Zichen had done thorough work. The bones of the undead serpents lay shattered and strewn across the bank. Wei Wuxian had done even more thorough work -- the water was clear as Jin Rulan leapt from stone to stone.
The ropes hung crooked over the stone cavern. The water flowed inhibited. The barrier had shattered, as though ripped open from an inside force far too powerful to be contained.
The Wen corpses waited. Jin Rulan drew Suihua and prepared to meet them head on.
Ouyang Zizhen assumed temporary command of the Jiang and Jin disciples, keeping the bulk of the corpses busy in the cave entrance. Fairy, mercifully, stayed behind. The tomb’s interior stretched out ahead of them. Multiple entrances. Multiple paths. Multiple rooms for storage and experimentation. It was one of the many defenses in the place, both to prevent enemies of the Jin from accessing it easily, and to prevent the ghoulish contents from escaping it. Guided by the consciousness of Xue Yang, the dead Wen could navigate the tunnels by instinct. Xue Yang had been intimately familiar with these passages.
It’d been one of his playgrounds after all. Lined up like puppets all his favorite toys had come, too. Another line of corpses in the Wen colors. At the sight of them, waiting so obediently, Wei Wuxian swallowed hard.
Song Zichen showed no such hesitation. “I will free them of this nightmare,” he declared, before throwing himself bodily into the mass of them, drawing the black sword on his back, leaving the white one untouched.
One corpse hung back. At the sight of him, Wei Wuxian stuck out his arm, pushing Jin Ling back by his chest.
“Master Wei,” said Wen Ning, waiting at the first fork in the hall. He hunched almost bashfully, but in the light of the flame talismans, his shadow stretched long across the stone floors. A new set of shackles dangled from his wrists. The chains dragged along the floor.
Wei Wuxian skidded to a halt. “Wen Ning,” he said, and for a moment his eyes ached as he saw the way the shackles had rubbed Wen Ning’s wrists raw. “Ah, damn. He chained you up again. Don’t suppose you could just us through?”
Wen Ning shivered, sadly. “I’m sorry, Master Wei,” he said, staring at his feet. “He will know if I go too easy on you.”
Wei Wuxian held out his hands. Lan Wangji hissed in alarm. “Wei Ying. What do you think you’re--”
“He wants the same thing as before, doesn’t he?” asked Wei Wuxian. “You could just take me to him. I’ll negotiate. I’m good at that.”
“You are not,” snapped Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian shot him a wounded look as Wen Ning shook his head. “No. It’s not the same this time. There’s only one person he really wants. Wei Wuxian might be of some help with that. But, er, Hanguang-jun….”
The pulse of a particularly grievance seemed to vibrate through the walls, making the talismans flutter. The light wobbled. The shadows at their feet danced and twisted.
Wen Ning winced, his hair shaking in the sudden sweet wind. “I think he’s still mad about his arm.”
“And I’m not leaving Lan Zhan to do this alone.” Wei Wuxian sighed as he tapped his foot. “Ugh. How impossible. Guess it was too much to ask a ghost like Xue Yang to listen to reason straight up. You’re a really devoted senior, you know that, right?”
Lan Wangji cut to the heart of the matter. “And how is he?”
Who ‘he’ was immediately obvious. Wen Ning raised his head in relief, even as he extended his arm and began to swung the chain. It scraped across the floor. “Unharmed, for now. Xue Yang won’t harm him if he’s still of use to him as a host. But if I don’t do my very best….”
He raised his arms meaningfully.
Lan Wangji assumed a similar fighting stance. “So if this is how it must be…”
Wei Wuxian sputtered as he stepped between them, arms out. “That’s still Wen Ning.”
“No matter. I will fight to subdue.” He nodded in the Fierce Corpse’s direction. He summoned Wangji, his fingers poised over the strings. “That is truly what you want.”
Wen Ning nodded as he wound his chained arm back. Wei Wuxian dropped his arm and sank back on his heels. Out of the corner of his eye, he shot Jin Ling an exhausted look.
“What we do for love,” he said, with a rueful grin. More seriously, he added. “...go on ahead. Rescue that bad little boy of ours.”
Jin Ling snapped out of himself. “But--”
“Wen Ning would hate himself if he had to hurt you any more than he already has.”
Jin Ling pale and stricken. But he nodded. What a good, dutiful person he’d turned out to be. He gripped his sword and charged past the line of corpses. When Wen Ning moved to block his path, Wei Wuxian moved first, blocking his hand with his flute.
“Thank you,” said Wen Ning, smiling weakly. “I would appreciate it if Hanguang-jun would allow Master Wei to play. I don’t really want to be awake for this any longer than I have to be.”
Jin Rulan left the sounds of battle and music behind him. The strum of Wangji, and the piercing notes of Chenqing.
Among the pages of maps, Nie Minglin had offered him notes on the best passages to take to the inner chambers of the tomb. The ones with the least switchbacks, lowest possibility for ambush, best width to swing a sword. She’d taken it all into account. He knew which trap wards to spring before he advanced. He knew which pieces of tile to avoid on the floor.
How she’d had the time to dig out all that research among the Cloud Recesses records, he had no idea. Nie Huaisang’s niece was nothing if not thorough.
Still, nothing could have prepared him to find Lan Sizhui waiting for him in the inner chamber, elbow deep in the chest of one of the broken Wen corpses. It’d dragged itself back half-shattered. It lay half draped over the stone slab. Lan Sizhui bent over it, humming to himself.
“I thought I was A-Yuan to you,” pouted Lan Sizhui, in a voice that was his but also wasn’t. He pulled his good arm out with a sickening squelch. The body of a pig lay at his feet, partly eviscerated. Lan Sizhui stepped over it, not caring for how the ends of his beautiful Lan robes were streaked in blood. “But I guess the others are pretty close, huh? Should’ve known you’d never want them to know. So Brother Ning let you by.”
He held up his bloodied hand. “How sloppy. I’ll have to lose one of these fingers after all. Too bad. It was kind of fun, having the full set.”
Jin Rulan’s whip wrapped around his wrist before it could close over his sword, jerking him away from the stone slab. The corpse on the table screamed to life and rushed him, forcing him to let the whip go slack. It’d been ripped in half and hadn’t finished repairing itself. Jin Rulan was able to dispatch it with a sweep of Suihua, but he barely had time to raise it again to stop Lan Sizhui’s sword from cutting into him.
“You don’t mind playing rough with this body, huh?” asked Xue Yang, leering. It was an obscene expression on Lan Sizhui’s gentler features. “I mean, I guess he can take it! Need to blow off steam? Need your special someone? I know being Chief Cultivator’s kind of stressful. You all like having your Lans to pant over in secret. He thought I didn’t know. But I did. Their incense smells real expensive.”
Among the many awful things he needed to know about his dead uncle, his sex life was pretty far on the bottom of them. What he did know was already enough of a nightmare. Ugh, Xue Yang really was just complete trash.
Jin Rulan kicked him back into the slab. “Tell that to someone who cares. It’s been 16 years! I’ve heard worse!”
He punctuated that by twirling his sword backwards and attempting to jam the pommel against him. It didn’t work. Xue Yang just dropped, forcing him back to avoid a sword slash at his legs. When they locked swords again, Xue Yang had leapt onto the slab, allowing him to smirk down at him.
Even one-armed, his strength was insane. Lan Sizhui’d really been holding out in their practice duels.
“You don’t care about me, A-Ling?” he cried, his big eyes welling with tears.
Jin Rulan headbutted him. With his head still ringing, he seized him by his wrist and dragged him down with him. They rolled together across the floor, landing near -- of all things -- a fully set kitchen table. Jin Rulan on top.
“He’s better than this,” growled Jin Rulan, as he wrestled the thrashing man down. “I know he is.”
“Who’s better than anyone,” laughed Xue Yang. “We’re all the same when we get down and dirty. You know, Daozhang let me suck his--”
“Lan Yuan,” hissed Jin Rulan. He pinned Xue Yang down under his arm, elbow against his neck as he fumbled for the tools strapped to his belt. He found his silver bell on the third grab, pulling it free. “Come out already. Stop letting this freak talk shit.”
The clear tones of the bell bounced easily off the stone walls. Lan Sizhui went slack under him, lying alarmingly still, before he began to cough.
“Ah, Jin Ling…” he gasped, in the more light, airier voice that made Jin Rulan’s chest ache with relief to hear it. “What did I…”
Jin Rulan eased his arm off his neck, and pulled Lan Sizhui into a sitting position, leaning him against the table.
“Talismans,” whispered Lan Sizhui. “Before he comes back.”
“Right.” Looping the ribbon of the bell around his middle finger, Jin Rulan bit his index finger and started drawing the array. Lan Sizhui remained pinned under his legs, rubbing at his bruised forehead before peering up through his fingers.
He saw the blood there and blanched. “Ah, Jin Ling, did I--”
“Not mine,” said Jin Rulan, quickly.
“But not mine either,” whispered Lan Sizhui, tilting his head backwards as he exhaled. His hair fell in his face. There were dark circles under his eyes. “If you’re here, then the barrier came down, at least. The rest. Are they here?”
“Yes. Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian are fighting down the hall.” Lan Sizhui tried to sit forward. Jin Rulan paused in marking up the array to press him back down. “They’ll be here soon enough.”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes got as big as a junior who’d been caught drinking in the back mountain. “But they’re-- oh, they must be so-- and you -- I’m sorry, Jin Ling. Those things I said to you--”
“Nothing. It was Xue Yang.”
But Lan Sizhui’s eyes were already bright with tears.
“It’s not like I didn’t understand,” he burst out, shaking over. He moved to wipe his hand -- realized he only had his robes, and settled for scraping it across the floor instead. “I knew what being with you would mean. It’s not like I didn’t know--It’s not like I expected anything in the first place--”
“Sizhui--” That seemed to make the shaking worse. “Lan Yuan.”
“--with who I really am, how could you ever?”
“Lan Yuan!” Jin Rulan grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him against him, shoving his head under his chin. “It wasn’t that. It really wasn’t that.”
Lan Sizhui coughed on his sobs. “I know.” His lips moved weakly against Jin Rulan’s collar. “But you had to worry enough...about the Jin...and all those alliances….I’d have made a pretty bad bride, ha, all things considered…”
“It wasn’t about that either.” Jin Rulan clutched at him a bit more fiercely. “Look. Stop talking. The others’ll be here any minute. We’ll get this asshole out of you. We’ll get back to the Cloud Recesses. And then--”
“But it would’ve been nice.”
Jin Rulan froze. Heat flared in his side, followed by a spreading, crackling bloom of pain. He rocked backwards, his gaze dropping between them. Lan Sizhui’s bloodstained hand was curled around the handle of a kitchen knife, now buried in Jin Rulan’s side.
“Oh,” said Jin Rulan, he tried to bring his hand down, tried to activate the array, but it was much too late. “Oh, you motherfucker--”
“Boy, you’re easy.” Lan Sizhui’s face split into a delighted grin. Xue Yang pulled the knife out with a laugh and kicked him over. Jin Rulan struggled to pull himself up, but a white boot stomped down on his middle, keeping him there. He grabbed Jin Rulan by the hair and slammed his head into the stone, dizzying him. “You’re not as sharp as your uncle, are you? You're easier to rile up, I’ll give you that. Aah, but it would have probably made him a little mad if I’d messed around with you a bit. Hm. What should I do? Pull your tongue out before I make you into one of my corpses or after? Hey, what do you think?”
But as Xue Yang reached for his face, the doors to the inner chamber slammed open and Jin Rulan heard a number of feet come pounding into the room. There was a whole lot of shouting. Jin Rulan squeezed his eyes shut to concentrate and rolled, using the momentary distraction to twist free, despite the throbbing heat in his side. He jammed his fingers into an accupoint, and the blood stopped. Forced himself to breathe, and the ringing faded. He groped around for Suihua, his whip, anything, really--
Arms came around him, pulling him close. He fought back on principle. But someone hummed in his hair.
“Ah, Jin Ling, sorry you had to continue the tradition...”
Uncle Wei. The music had stopped down the hall. Jin Rulan felt himself go slack.
“Senior Wei!” caroled Xue Yang, his voice doubling up again. Now he moved like Lan Sizhui’s body could barely contain him, his red eyes practically blazing. “Nice of you to show up -- finally -- but I don’t really need you just now.”
“Good,” said Wei Wuxian, tucking Jin Rulan into one arm as he pulled up a protection talisman and slapped it on the ground in front of him. “Because I didn’t come here for you.”
Xue Yang feigned offense. “No? Hah. What a deadbeat. You gentry, always talking big, but you’re just as trash as anyone else--”
A deeper voice out of sight said:
“Who is gentry?”
Xue Yang’s smile fell. He froze, eyes wide. Then he began to shake all over. He took a deep, borrowed breath in his borrowed body, before he stepped back and out of the way of Fuxue’s first expert thrust.
“Song Lan. So you fixed your tongue. Get any better at swearing?”
Song Zichen pulled back, held out the flat of his blade, and said, with a completely straight face, and at least four octaves higher:
“Oh, go fuck a dog, you ass-licking piece of shit ingrate.”
“...” said Jin Rulan.
“...” Wei Wuxian looked mildly impressed.
Xue Yang blinked. “L….little Blind?!”
He dodged Song Zichen’s next strike, but only barely, spinning out of control and slamming into the table. Food and cutlery scattered everywhere. Xue Yang made a noise like an injured cat as he rolled back to his feet, Lan Sizhui’s hair now half knocked out of its ponytail.
“Song Lan…” He seethed. “Little Blind… the fuck are you doing here -- why you-- you’re not the one I--”
He charged, wildly. Song Zichen only had to mildly slide one foot behind the other to move out of his way. His arm shot out as he did, catching Xue Yang in his borrowed shoulder and sending him crashing to the floor.
Concerned for Lan Sizhui’s body, Jin Rulan struggled weakly to get up -- but Wei Wuxian held him firmly. “Shh. Wait for it. Just wait for it.”
He sheathed his sword like it was barely of use to him. Xue Yang followed the movement, his eyes fixing on the rise of the second sword on Song Zichen’s back: the white hilt, like fresh snow. Shuanghua.
“Give it back,” cried Xue Yang, his own voice overpowering Lan Sizhui’s, and cracking as he staggered to his feet. “That sword-- why do you have it -- give it back--”
Song Zichen’s hand paused on Fuxue’s hilt. Then, lowering it, he reached with his other hand to grasp Shuanghua instead. Xue Yang shook with rage as he drew it and held the engraved blade out, the point aimed directly at his chest.
“Then come for it,” he said: now in a third, different voice. A softer, more melancholy tone, his eyes filled with a deep sorrow and an even deeper regret. “If it means that much to you.”
“Ah,” said Xue Yang.
“Yes?” asked Xiao Xingchen, waiting.
Xue Yang swayed on his feet. For a moment, his eyes darted around the room. To Wei Wuxian. To Jin Rulan. To Song Zichen -- no A-Qing -- no, Xiao Xingchen. To Shuanghua, still raised. Then with a thin, reedy laugh that didn’t match the wild-eyed expression at all, he clutched his head, fell to his knees, and then to his side, and lay still. The resentment poured out of him in a dark pool.
Jin Rulan had just enough time to think, muzzily, ‘Seriously, that’s it?’ Before the screaming started on the other side of the room. Screaming and clanking. A corpse hanging from the wall, which Jin Rulan had missed the first time he’d come charging in, shook to life with a piercing wail.
It only had one arm, but it ripped it free from the chains holding it as though it were a gauze veil. It had dozens of nails holding it in place, lodged in its qi points, but these began to pop free, little fountains of blackened resentment spurting out of the holes left behind. The body landed gracelessly on the ground, like a sack of grain, before rolling to its feet. As it swayed and straightened, its head lulled to one side. The ratty, dried hair fell limply out of its face. Even shot through with black marks, even grey and cracked in death, even with 16 years between now and the brief time Jin Rulan ever encountered this man, he didn’t need to guess whose body this belonged to.
“Daozhang….” He husked in a gravely voice. “You … woke up….”
Xiao Xingchen, wearing Song Zichen’s body, nodded once. His sword didn’t waver.
Xue Yang took an unsteady step forward, unaccustomed to his missing arm. “Daozhang. You came back….for me?”
“I am here now,” said Xiao Xingchen, in a measured voice.
“Ha…” Ashes fell from Xue Yang’s mouth as he laughed. “Hahaha…about fucking time...”
Running his knuckles over his dry lips, he threw himself forward.
He didn’t make it all the way. His legs gave out short of ever even reaching Xiao Xingchen’s blade. He dropped onto his knees, his one arm scrabbling forward -- not, as Jin Rulan would’ve guessed, to try and claw at his opponent, but instead he clutched at his robes. He dragged himself forward on his stomach. He wrapped his arm around his upper thigh, and buried his ruined face against Song Zichen -- no, right now, Xiao Xingchen’s-- legs.
“You let your dinner get cold,” he rasped, half muffled by cloth. “I made soup and everything…. aah….I even made it with those fat bitter roots you like….I don’t know why you don’t like meat… but the old man gave me a great discount. Isn’t it good you’ve got me to do the shopping for you…? One of us knows how to haggle…”
Xiao Xingchen’s lips moved, slightly. He lowered his sword.
“I’ll even let Little Blind have some,” continued Xue Yang, dreamily, “If she shuts up for once.”
Slowly, Xiao Xingchen sheathed his sword. He sank to his knees. Xue Yang pressed himself further into his lap, butting his head against his stomach. His back began to heave.
Xue Yang's voice was cracked and broken by tearless sobs. “The one with the roots was your favorite, right?”
“Yes.” Xiao Xingchen’s hand rested on his head, stroking the dusty strands. “I always liked how you made it.”
“You’ll eat with me tonight right?"
“That would be nice.”
“Good,” sighed Xue Yang, his head listing. “Good. It should just be us, anyway. It’s better like that anyway. Don’t take so long next time, all right? I missed you…”
“Rest. I will set the table,” promised Xiao Xingchen.
“Good. You’d better. Be there when I wake up, okay? If you let me sleep in, I’ll never cook for you again--”
Xiao Xingchen picked up Xue Yang’s face and held it close to his own, letting their foreheads brush.
“Cook for me however many times you’d like.”
The sobs subsided. With a final, relaxed sigh, the body draped over his lap crumbled to ash. Xiao Xingchen stared blankly down at the white, chalky streaks across his lap, his hand brushing through them as though searching for something.
Then, with a matter-of-factedness that seemed at odds with his unearthly bearing, he stood, walked to the table, and began to set the cups and bowls back in place.
Alex, why did you write Lan Wangji as speaking in iambs?
Look, I don't tell you how to live your life.
Chapter 5: blue and gold
Wei Wuxian has a rare moment of shame. Lan Sizhui learns his lesson. Jin Ling comes to a resolution. Nie Minglin has a revelation.
“It went a little like that,” said A-Qing. “But tell me again how I looked.”
Some of the assembled disciples groaned. One or two got up to return to their erstwhile duties. But a few leaned forward with renewed interest, and Ouyang Zizhen was more than happy to oblige.
“A young girl, but steeped in the weight of all she’d experienced in life. Covered in dirt and blood, but with a strong bearing -- one could see her beauty and courage through all her hardships. Will that do, Lady Qing?”
“Lady Qing! I like that.” A-Qing clapped her hands and swung her legs in delight, as she was currently in the body of Song Lan, this was a bit of a sight in of itself. “Tell me, was I really pretty?”
“The most beautiful young woman I’d seen in my life,” swore Ouyang Zizhen. “... until I met my wife.”
“Oh, boo,” said A-Qing, pouting as prettily as Song Lan’s face could allow -- which turned out was quite a bit. “You could at least pretend to be a little unfaithful. Oh, well. Guess it’s nice to see not all gentry are complete pervs. Hey, tell me again about how Hanguang-jun cut off Xue Yang’s arm. I liked that part.”
It’d been a favorite among the rest of the disciples too. Pleased by the audience, and having forgotten entirely that this was meant to be a debriefing, Ouyang Zichen settled in to tell the story of Xue Yang’s first death all over again -- when no less than the Yiling Patriarch himself emerged from the shadows, drawn in by the sound of their voices.
“Oh, Senior Wei.” Ouyang Zizhen nearly bounced to his feet. “Will you join us? I was just telling my juniors about Yi City -- but we’d love your account. Senior Wei was the true hero, you know. It’s like they say, when you’re caught in a nasty trick -- the Yiling Patriarch is the one you want to trick your way right out! Please, we’d be honored to hear your take on it.”
He explained this, sagely, to the assembled cultivators, apparently not for the first time if their somewhat dutiful nods said anything. Wei Wuxian crooked an eyebrow and put a fist in front of his mouth to keep from laughing.
“Oh, no. I’m sure you’d tell it better,” he said. That was practically guaranteed. The Baling Ouyang Sect had become one of the most generous patrons of the arts under the current sect leader, who himself had no lack of histories published under careful, but recognizable, pseudonyms. “I need to borrow our distinguished guest. That would be…”
“Didn’t you hear?” A-Qing batted Song Lan’s lustrous eyes -- well, actually, Xiao Xingchen’s lustrous eyes, now that Wei Wuxian really thought about it. “I’m Lady Qing, now!”
“Lady Qing.” Wei Wuxian bowed as was proper to a woman of her newly promoted station. “May I speak with you?”
A-Qing tapped her bottom lip in entirely feigned consideration. “Eh, I allow it.”
She hopped to her feet.
The river bank was quieter than it ought to have been. Most of the resentful energy had been cleansed or contained, but the surviving wild life had long fled. The local watchtower would monitor the rehabilitation and dismantling of the tomb, but it would take some time for life to return properly to this region. The survivors of the fishing village would have a time of it yet. The relief efforts would be bound to keep Jin Ling and his office running around for the next few months -- but eh, that was one way to break in his new position.
Wei Wuxian stared across the too-still water. “My most honored guest cultivator,” he said, just to watch Song Lan’s body giggle, really. It was kind of adorable in a weird way. “Us full-of-ourselves gentry are greatly indebted to you. Is there anything we may do to repay the debt?”
A-Qing stuck out her hand. “Money’s good,” she said. “Daozhang never asks for anything and Master Song is just too proud. Since you’re married to that rich brother in white who kicks so much ass, you should pay us well. So!”
“Oof, you are one hard miss.” But Wei Wuxian laughed. It was nice to hear her so lively somewhere that wasn’t a memory. “I’ll ask Lan Zhan to give you something before we go. Don’t expect you’ll be going our way, after this?”
A-Qing stopped suddenly. Her hands went down to her side. She turned slowly and purposefully, the set of her jaw becoming much more stiff and severe.
“We do not require the recognition of the Great Sects. We will continue on our own path, as we have sworn to.” Song Lan frowned, slightly. “But if she is bothering you, you may say so.”
The shift was truly impressive. “It’s fine. She can be as much of an imposition as she wants. I’m the one who asked you to relive something pretty nasty, after all. Thank you, by the way.”
“Hmph. It was an account I was glad to settle.”
“And, ah, my sect uncle?”
Song Lan hesitated. When he turned back, his eyes had gone a shade darker. “It was a long time coming,” murmured Xiao Xingchen, his voice came out a little thicker, as though holding back a great well of feeling. “I hope you will forgive my lateness, Young Master Wei. But I thank you for seeking me out. Xue Yang was... complicated, to the very end. But I think I am glad to have been there, nonetheless.”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but ease back in relief. “Still here, then.”
“In this world, you mean?” Xiao Xingchen’s lips curved faintly. Even touched by sadness, Wei Wuxian understood at once why that was the kind of smile that could knock even someone like Xue Yang for a loop. “I have reason to remain a little longer. Our dreams -- mine and Zichen's -- remain unfulfilled. I’d like to stay by his side a little longer. He waited so patiently by mine while I slept.”
A Fierce Corpse couldn’t exactly flush, but Wei Wuxian thought the slight twitch in his hand might have been Song Lan’s response to this particular declaration. Good. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grin a little stupidly. It’s not like it was his conflict to work out but still, it made him feel light to know they had that, at least.
“I think you’re a little closer than next to him now,” he said. “You know, there might be something for that. It is possible to transfer a soul into a puppet. If you think you might want to live separately for awhile--”
But Song Lan returned to the surface with a shake of his head.
“That will not be necessary,” he said, firmly. “Xingchen gave me his eyes, all those years ago. I paid him much too coldly, then. My body is the least he can have in return, now.”
“Besides have you seen how tall I am now?” added A-Qing, with her own eyebrow quirk. “I’d like to see some spoiled fuck try to grab my ass now.”
Which was so amazing to hear coming out of Song Lan, Wei Wuxian could no longer hold back a laugh. “All right, all right. That’s fair, I guess. Though speaking of … if I might be so impertinent as to ask one more thing -- of my sect uncle, that is?”
Xiao Xingchen had had the same master as his mother, after all.
Song Lan's features softened into Xiao Xingchen's mildly curious expression. “Yes, Young Master Wei?”
“If it’s not too personal.” Here, Wei Wuxian found himself growing almost oddly shy. “...what called you back? I didn’t lie to Xue Yang when I told him it would be nearly impossible to bring a soul back in that condition. It’d been nearly impossible to bring me back, after all.”
And plenty had tried, in the intervening years. Some of them had been demonic cultivators, eager for some unearthly help. Some of them had been members of the Great Sects, looking to do away with him for good. One of them had been Lan Wangji, who’d loved him more dearly than Wei Wuxian could have ever guessed in his last life. But none of them had succeeded. In the end, it had taken circumstances so convoluted and beyond anything anyone could have predicted, Wei Wuxian was still a little amazed to think about it.
But none of it had been through his own choosing. Wei Wuxian had fallen to pieces long before they’d cut his body up. He hadn’t answered any calls. He hadn’t wanted to. Of course, it’d taken the darkest of rites, to drag him back.
As for Xiao Xingchen…
“I’m not very good with stories,” he said, a little bashfully. This Wei Wuxian already knew, but he didn’t dare interrupt. “But I will try. Zichen carried us with him for some time. He traveled the world. He fought evil. He asked for nothing in return. But he spoke to us, nonetheless. Sometimes, he told us of his regrets. Sometimes, he told us of the people he’d met while searching for me. What he saw, that I could not. Until one day, he did something he had never done before. Something he had never once thought to even try…”
Xiao Xingchen lit up with a smile. A full one this time. It was like the moon emerging over the dark shadow of a mountain. Oh, yes, there was an ache in it. His lips were the bloodless grey of a Fierce Corpse. And the marks of everything he’d suffered in life and in death were clear in the creases that formed around his eyes, but still he lifted his chin without a small amount of pride. This, truly, was a memory he could cherish, and would continue to cherish, despite all the pain that had brought him to it.
“...he made me laugh.”
Feeling heart-heavy and free at the same time, Wei Wuxian picked his way back to town. He found Lan Wangji holding court with Lan Sizhui near the docks. He must’ve just woken up. There were dark bruises under his eyes. Wei Wuxian shrugged out of his overobe and laid it over Lan Sizhui as he passed him, choosing a spot along the fishing shack to lean most artfully. It gave some illusion of privacy.
“...then I was right about that,” said Lan Sizhui, picking up from wherever he’d left off, before Wei Wuxian had shown up. He pulled the robe tighter over his shoulders, drawing visible comfort from its warmth. “Liberation was an option.”
The sun had long vanished under the trees. The evening was cool in that prickly way that only happened after a long rain -- but at least it was still.
“Wei Ying thought so,” said Lan Wangji. He sat across from Sizhui, plucking at his guqin. He’d been playing cleansing songs for several hours now. He cast a glance at his husband. Wei Wuxian, contrary to the normal set of this sort of interrogation, did his best to affect a certain nondescript silence. Don’t mind me, he told his husband in little more than a quiet nod. I’ll let you take this one.
“That’s why you took the time to find Song Zichen…”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji waited, patiently. He’d always been a firm, but patient instructor. “Why did you think that it would work?"
Lan Sizhui smiled weakly. He drew himself up like he was in class. “His hatred was indeed quite strong,” he said, measured and clean. Lan Wangji’s brow twitched in faint approval. “...but resentment, while powerful, is hard to control. Without a Stygian Tiger Seal. Which was destroyed…. Um, right, Senior Wei?”
“It would be news if it wasn’t,” said Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui looked at him. “Oh, it’s gone. Continue.”
He lapsed back into that uncharacteristic silence, but he watched them carefully, hand flicking at his nose in thought.
“There is one emotion that is more reliable than hatred,” said Lan Sizhui. “More encompassing. More fortifying. More able to creep into you unawares. But seldom embodied in spirits.”
“Which is?” It was clear from Lan Wangji’s expectant gaze he already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from his best student.
Lan Sizhui felt his ears color. “Why, it would be love, of course.” His hands tugged tighter on Wei Wuxian’s overrobe.
“Why do you think it is so rare?” asked Lan Wangji.
“By the nature of spirits themselves. They are typically formed by resentment. To be able to embody both love and hate in equal measure. To such a destructive but passionate effect. It could only take someone like Xue Yang. I thought, ‘Ah, he must have felt something for Xiao Xingchen. He must be willing to make the world rot if he could just wake him up.’ But by the nature of his life and death, that could only ever be expressed through destruction. Still…”
Lan Wangji waited. Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows.
“Still…it’s an awful lot to do, to want to see someone again. So, I thought, perhaps, if I performed Empathy there would be a chance to resolve what was holding him here -- but then, I think maybe, he saw that chance in me instead.”
And all at once, Lan Sizhui’s head came down. He bowed deep and low.
“Hanguang-jun, I made a terrible mistake,” he said. “My actions endangered our people and wounded the Chief Cultivator. And what’s more, for you and Senior Wen to have to come to blows -- there is no excuse for my reckless action.”
He stayed there, despite the ache from his newly cleansed body. He could feel Lan Wangji’s gaze on him. He could hear the faint stirring of his cloth as he nodded.
“A rare misstep coming from you,” murmured the man who was his oldest, dearest teacher, second only to the other man beside him. “Why do you think that it occurred?”
“My own weakness. I thought my will alone was strong enough to resist a spirit like that.”
“My will,” said Lan Sizhui. “But not my heart. I overestimated my capabilities. I’m sorry, seniors.”
Wei Wuxian shifted uncomfortably, but he said nothing. Lan Sizhui picked himself up off the ground, returning to his seated position, his gaze clear despite the redness in his cheeks.
“Of course I accept full responsibility.” His voice and bearing matched his age and rank, but rumpled and bandaged as he was, with his hair only hastily retied -- his look painfully echoed a little boy who once played in grave dirt. “I will face whatever judgment the sect makes on my actions.”
Lan Wangji raised his fingers. That was enough. Lan Sizhui fell silent. “We shall await a full report,” said Lan Wangji. “But how might you judge such a case?”
“How might I --” Lan Sizhui blinked. “If it were a junior disciple, you mean?”
“If it were anyone at all.”
“I suppose….I would feel some concern for them,” admitted Lan Sizhui. He seemed startled by the thought. “But I would recommend recommitting to their studies for at least six months before returning to active night hunts. And a week of contemplation, at the very least. Perhaps a few courses in musical composition in the clarity school, to encourage stronger discipline in the future.”
“Fair but not unduly harsh.” Lan Wangji nodded. “I shall advise Zewu-jun thus. Three months is the more likely course.”
“Take this lesson from the ghost you’ve faced,” said Lan Wangji. “Love will never make you weak. But willful blindness ruins all.”
It was true for more than one man in their family. Lan Sizhui went very quiet, and slowly composed himself. “I will consider Hanguang-jun’s words very carefully.”
“You always have.” The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth shivered in the phantom of a smile. Lan Sizhui couldn’t help but offer his own in return. “Now rest, Sizhui.”
Carefully, still mindful of his bruises and bandages, Lan Sizhui stood, bowed, and took his leave. He moved across the docks, where Wen Ning waited for him, watching the water. Silhouetted in the lights from the Jiang boats, he sat down beside his cousin, exchanged a few words. After a moment, Lan Sizhui leaned their shoulders together. Wen Ning put a ragged arm around him. It seemed to set them both at ease.
“So, that’s what it’s like,” said Wei Wuxian, watching this play out.
The rest of the camp had given them their privacy. Most of them attended Jin Ling -- who still insisted on organizing the clean-up, even bandaged like a rice ball and hopped up on pain medication. He barked orders from his bed mat like the informed little lord he was, Fairy draped behind him like a big fuzzy throw pillow.
At the image of the massive, bristling spirit dog, Wei Wuxian decided then and there he was done with that thought. He gave up on looking cool and aloof, abandoning the fishing shack in favor of his husband’s arm. He didn’t quite press in just yet, just laid his hands over his sleeve, watching the river, and Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui.
“That boy,” said Wei Wuxian. His eyes glittered in the firelight. He wrinkled his nose and scrubbed at his face. “Why does he take all the worst lessons from me? His heart is too big. He’ll hurt himself running around so much. You should tell Zewu-jun to stick him in the gardening shed. Let him nest in with the seedlings until spring.”
“That boy will accept no true restraint. Nor do you.”
“I’m a real pain, aren’t I?”
“Yes. The worst.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan! You weren’t supposed to agree--!”
But Lan Wangji’s eyes warmed. “And the best, as well.”
Lan Sizhui returned to the makeshift medical pavilion with a new remedy recipe from Wen Ning and a lot on his mind.
Jin Ling had long finished up holding his impromptu court. He lay on his back, eyes screwed shut, as though sleep had had to fight him to finally drag him down. Lan Yan had just finished playing another healing song. She started as Lan Sizhui came in. At Jin Ling’s feet, Fairy snorted, opened an eye, saw Sizhui, and let her tail thump quietly against the bed mat.
“Senior. Is there anything I can--”
“It’s fine. I can take it from here.”
“But what about you?”
Lan Sizhui paused, touched by her thoughtfulness. “Hanguang-jun has already tended to me. You needn’t worry. Please, you need rest, too.”
“Thank you, senior.” She left. Lan Sizhui wondered what he’d done of late to deserve such respect. Certainly none of his conduct in the past day or so was the mark of a professional.
He knelt beside Jin Ling. The Chief Cultivator lay in his overrobe, though his undershirt had been stripped off to allow his dressings room to breathe. Lan Yan knew her work. The poulstices were correctly applied, the dressing well-layered. Jin Ling’s nose wrinkled. He turned his head,
blearily, to blink up at Lan Sizhui with unfocused eyes.
“Chief Cultivator,” said Lan Sizhui.
“None of that,” bit out Jin Ling, in a voice slurred by exhaustion and pain medication. “Been hearing that all day. Don’t need to hear it from you. The boats repaired?”
“I have no idea,” said Lan Sizhui. “Would you like me to check?”
“Hell no. You should be sleeping.”
“So should you.”
“I’ll sleep when you sleep.”
A soft laugh caught in Lan Sizhui’s throat. His eyes stung. “Sorry,” he swallowed. “I’m being very silly-- this is my--”
Jin Ling’s hand shot out to grip his wrist. He couldn’t hold it very hard. He’d taken a lot of drugs after all.
“Say it’s your fault and I’ll break your legs,” he said. Then, a little sheepishly: “....I mean, not really, but…”
“All right. I won’t,” said Lan Sizhui. He’d still feel it though, just for a little while longer. “In which case, may I make a very selfish request?”
Lan Sizhui swallowed, hard. “Can I rest here with you? I don’t want to be alone.”
Jin Ling stared up at him with glassy eyes. Then, after a moment of attempting to fight out a response through a too slack jaw, he pulled at Lan Sizhui’s wrist, tugging him down to him.
“So stay,” he grunted. “Don’t go anywhere else.”
“Alright,” said Lan Sizhui. He settled carefully next to him, nestled his face against his neck, and fell into a restless slumber.
He dreamt of a narrow dirt road, of returning from a night hunt, of toying with the strings of his companion’s bamboo hat.
He dreamt lying in the half-light of dawn, hearing a weight on his bed. He saw a long white hand place a little candy next to his head. He pretended to shift in his sleep, so his lips brushed the man’s knuckles. He mouthed them, barely masking his smirk, savoring the soft inhalation that was somehow just as sweet as the candy next to him.
He dreamt of opening the doors to an inn, and finding every surface covered in white rabbits. He had to step carefully among them. His father was seated among them in front of the open window, wearing the light whites he’d worn during his time in seclusion. He picked up the largest, and fattest, most lordly rabbit and said, “I leave this one to you.”
And, cradling that fat old rabbit close to his chest, Lan Sizhui walked out of the room, and back into a mind that was his, and his alone.
Jin Rulan’s eyes shot open. He knew he was back at the Cloud Recesses from the smell. That particular mix of sandalwood and medical herbs. He heard someone chewing messily, just crunching away like a rabbit with a root. Jin Rulan opened his eyes and glared.
“Can you not?” he growled. “That’s right next to my ear.”
Slumped over the table next to the daybed, Lan Jingyi straightened up with an imperious air he immediately ruined when he took one more bite of his cracker and wrinkled his nose. “So, the young mistress awakens. About time.”
“Where am I?” Jin Rulan got up on his elbows to look around. The answering ache in his injured side made him swear under his breath. Jingyi watched him without sympathy, taking another bite of his cracker, munching heartily.
“The Cloud Recesses,” he said, without blinking. “Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian brought you in this morning.”
“I know that,” snapped Jin Rulan. The doors were open to let in the breeze, but the make-up of the room was unfamiliar to him. No rabbit lanterns, for one. “I mean, where in the Cloud Recesses?”
“The guest apartments,” said Jingyi. “Zewu-jun said you should have your privacy. These are for you, by the way. I’m supposed to make sure you eat them.”
He picked up a dish off the table and shoved it in Jin Rulan’s face. Jin Rulan nearly rolled to keep from getting conked in the nose. The sweet smell was strangely familiar.
“Haw flakes? Really?” Jin Rulan picked one up and gave it a tentative nibble. The sweetness that filled his senses was achingly familiar. His healing body remembered it was desperately hungry. He shoved the rest of it in his mouth with minimal bites, and then coughed until Jingyi finally, finally, handed him some tea to chase it down. “Where’d these come from?”
“Nie Minglin brought them by a few hours ago,” said Jingyi. “I thought she was going to give me one of her lists, but she just gave me this dish. Said you’d be less likely to be fussy about them, since they were your favorites.”
“Nie Minglin said that?”
“What the fuck.”
“I know, right? She’s really weird. Do you think she’s got a thing for you? Because everyone’s trying to figure out if she’s after you or Zewu-jun--”
“What? Ew. No. She’s, like, twelve. I meant these are from Lanling,” said Jin Rulan. “Where the hell did she find them in the Cloud Recesses?”
“Why would I know? How’s your wound?”
“Eh?” Jin Rulan looked down. He touched his hand carefully to the nest of bandages. It felt sore, like he’d bruised it badly, but it didn’t twinge or spark. “Better. What, afraid I was going to die on your watch?”
“No,” said Lan Jingyi. He put down the plate. Stood up and rolled up his sleeves. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Then he picked up one of the cushions and began to beat Jin Rulan over the head with it.
It didn’t hurt, but it made him shout.
“Hey.” Jin Rulan seized the cushion. Jingyi substituted it with his sleeves instead, twisting them up and whipping at him like a particularly irate octopus. “Hey! What! The hell! Is this!”
“This is for being a GIANT IDIOT!” cried Jingyi, the picture of vengeance, if vengeance wore white and blue and was covered with haw flake crumbs. “The biggest! And also the worst! What did I say before you left? What did I say?!”
“You say a lot of things!”
“Treat! Sizhui! With! Respect!” When Jin Rulan grabbed his sleeves, Jingyi resorted to poking. He got the Chief Cultivator in the forehead at least twice before he managed to grab his wrists. Jin Rulan was pretty sure this constituted some kind of treason.
“How the hell does that have anything to do with--”
“You got him possessed!
“Xue Yang got him possessed!”
“No, he performed Empathy and the ghost overtook him!”
“Which was stupid, I agree!”
“You’re not allowed to call A-Yuan stupid!” cried Jingyi, his face now flushed with feeling. “He’s been stupid because of you. He cares so much about you. He always has. He does everything your way, thinking about your feelings, and because of you some lonely ghost was able to take advantage of his heart. Which was weak. Because of you!”
“What?” Jin Rulan stopped fighting and stared, bewildered. It was the first time he’d heard it spelled out quite like that. “Did he tell you that?”
This time, when Jingyi came for him with his sleeves, Jin Rulan let him thwack him across the nose uncontested. “You think he likes being all secretive about this kind of thing? He loves you! Like, a lot! And he likes being open and close with people he loves! He hates that he can only be with you here or behind like five locked doors in Carp Tower. He hates that he has to stand apart from you in night hunts. He hates that he has to wait for you to marry someone else. And he doesn’t have to tell me for me to see it. He shouldn’t have to tell you, either. Think about what kind of person he is! Just think!”
...it was true. There was no one Jin Rulan knew as warm or as loving as Lan Sizhui. There was no one as gentle and patient. There was no one as able to make a light scolding still feel like an endearment, even while Jin Rulan blushed. Jin Rulan wanted to protest. Wanted to say, ‘But I let him know my feelings all the time!’ But it occurred to him: it was always at the Cloud Recesses. It was always behind three -- not five, Jingyi! -- locked doors in his private suite in the Carp Tower. It was always a quick, secret kiss when no one was around. It was always--
“Does he really think I’ll marry someone else?” asked Jin Rulan, wonderingly.
Jingyi glared. “Why else haven’t you married him?”
“Because--” Actually, Jin Rulan didn’t have an answer for that. He stared ahead blankly. Jingyi stopped smacking him when he noticed he’d stopped reacting to it. “Was he ever going to say anything?”
“Of course not. He was going to keep it a secret until he died. Beautifully and for the one he loves. It doesn’t matter if they know or not! That’s not what’s important!”
“But that’s stupid.”
“Yeah, but we’re Lan,” screeched Jingyi. His voice hit a near operatic pitch. “It’s what we do.”
“Jingyi,” asked Jin Rulan, between his teeth. The world had gotten Very Quiet and Very Calm and he had a Very Important Question that needed to be answered Right The Hell Now. “Where is Sizhui now?”
“In his disciplinary hearing with Zewu-jun,” said Jingyi, sniffing. “Because of you.”
“Right.” Jin Rulan gripped the edge of the daybed as he pulled himself up. “Got it.”
And, ignoring the ache in his side, Jin Rulan threw off his blanket and swung to his feet.
“Hey,” cried Lan Jingyi, as Jin Rulan stomped past him. “Coward! How dare you run from me! I’m not done!”
Jin Rulan threw the doors open and plunged into the courtyard. The two Jiang disciples on duty, Guo and Li, jolted after him. Fairy, who’d been having a designated sniff break in the courtyard, pricked her ears. Realizing it was Running Time Which Was Therefore The Best Time, she barked and galloped after him, tail swishing like an oar.
Running was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, but Jin Rulan was Chief Cultivator. What were they going to do? Make him do handstands? He must have torn through at least four courtyards and two contemplation gardens, and startled the ever living hell out of at least six initiates, before he finally found the administrative buildings in relation to the guest pavilion. He shoved open the doors and strutted in. He was still in his underclothes. Who cared. He was a Sect Leader. He was Chief Cultivator. He was the Golden Prince of Lanling. He was--
He was just Jin Ling, and he was staring down the startled faces of Wei Wuxian, Hanguang-jun, Zewu-jun, Nie Minglin, Lan Qiren, and several other assorted Lan seniors.
To say nothing of Lan Sizhui, who was at present kneeling in front of the desk, where Zewu-jun had been, until a moment ago, reviewing his report on the Chewang operation. Nie Minglin was taking studious notes behind him.
And just then, Jin Rulan remembered, very distinctly: ‘Oh, right. This is kind of one of my worst nightmares.’
Still, he squared his shoulders and said, in the booming voice he saved for battlefield commands. “Zewu-jun, I need to speak with Lan Sizhui.”
Zewu-jun masked his confusion quickly behind a cordial if somewhat wary smile. “Chief Cultivator,” he began, “I’m glad to see you are well. Can the matter wait? Lan Sizhui was just finishing up his report.”
“No, it can’t,” said Jin Rulan. “It’s important.”
Zewu-jun put on his famous bodhisattva face. That long measured breath he did when he was cleansing himself of earthly feelings like serious exasperation. “Then please, wait in the antechamber, Chief Cultivator. This is a private sect matter. We can speak as soon as--”
“Then I’ll say it now,” shouted Jin Rulan. He stomped over to Sizhui, not caring if he had to cut across a stunned Lan Qiren to do it. He dropped messily onto his knees, seized both his hands, and said very loudly, and very clearly: “Lan Sizhui, will you marry me?”
“...” said Lan Qiren.
“...” said Hanguang-jun.
“Lan Zhan, he does get something from me,” said Wei Wuxian.
“...” said Zewu-jun.
Nie Minglin just grabbed Zewu-jun’s sleeve and produced an extremely high-pitched squeak that only a seventeen year old girl could manage.
Zewu-jun looked at her in stunned amazement.
“Um.” Lan Sizhui blinked, staring down at their joined hands. Then he stared up into Jin Rulan’s face. “Jin...Ling?”
“I mean it,” said Jin Rulan. He was bright red and he didn’t care. He didn’t care who saw and he didn’t care what they thought. “I want to. I really want to. I’ve wanted to for a while! It’s just -- I’ve always thought of marriage as dangerous. Like when a mouse marries a cat. It’s this stupid, careful, political thing you have to do and if you put a ton of thought into it and do a lot of research and are very lucky you don’t end up miserable or dead. I didn’t want you to end up miserable and dead. You’re the last person I ever want to be miserable or dead. But I almost made you both of those things!”
“Jin Ling, it really wasn’t--”
“Don’t say it wasn’t my fault,” bawled Jin Rulan, pressing his hands to his chest. “It is! I’ve been so busy being scared of something since I was like twelve and how scared I was of having something that was just mine that I didn’t even think about your feelings at all. What kind of man have I been, letting you suffer so much in silence? And don’t tell me you haven’t. You’re a genius. There’s no way a cultivator like you could mess up a technique like that unless he was compromised in some way.
“So I’ll say it plainly: if it’s about alliances, I want to be allied with you. If it’s about politics, I want you to be my chief confidante. But if it’s about danger, we should face it together. But if it’s about being with someone who’s your companion -- someone you just want to walk with wherever they go, for me it’s you. It’s always been you. And it’s never going to be anyone else. So. Fuck it, let’s get married.”
Jin Rulan took a deep breath. That’d been a lot. The assorted faces around him had all turned various shades of red -- or in Hanguang-jun’s case, red in the ears. Wei Wuxian whistled. Nie Minglin dropped her notepad.
“I mean,” Jin Rulan added, into the hanging silence. “If you want, anyway.”
“Jin Ling.” Lan Sizhui’s eyes welled. “Oh, Jin Ling.”
For a brief, panicked moment, Jin Rulan wondered if he’d just completely ruined everything forever -- but then Lan Sizhui threw his arms around his neck, and nearly strangled him in joy, and he knew all at once, he’d finally managed to say the right thing.
The meeting broke up not long after that. It seemed the merciful thing to do. The written report was due the next day, anyway, and Lan Qiren needed to lie down for a bit. Wei Wuxian had to bodily restrain Lan Wangji from pursuing Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui as they stumbled, half laughing, half crying, out into the courtyard. Fairy danced around their legs as they went.
Nie Minglin made a careful exit through the side door. She snuck lightly out onto the walkway. In the courtyard across from her, the young couple were having an animated back and forth. By now, both of them were an absolute mess. They were flushed and wet-eyed, but they hadn’t let go of each other’s hands, even as they’d fled from the offices in a whirl of blue and gold.
Nie Minglin felt the air shift behind her.
Lan Xichen opened his mouth. She held out a hand to shush him. It did not much matter. Their voices were lost on the wind. Jin Ling was stomping his foot. ‘No, child,’ she thought at him, desperately. ‘Now is not the time to pout.’
“I thought your uncle might collapse,” she said, with more relish than she meant. Lan Xichen held out her notebook, his head tilted expectantly.
“You forgot your notes, Miss Lin,” he said, dutifully quiet. “They were very informative.”
Her notes were mostly ‘Xue Yang, you tacky bitch’ repeated several times, in a cypher used only by Meng Yao during the Sunshot Campaign, meant for the eyes of one man and one man alone. That man was currently smiling pointedly at her. She shut her eyes and sighed.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I know. Eavesdropping is against the rules.”
“You hardly need reminding,” murmured Lan Xichen. “But I expect, in this case, old habits are hard to break.”
“I did once make a career of it,” agreed Nie Minglin. But she hardly had to use any particular skill just then. Jin Ling had obviously started rambling nervously, and Lan Sizhui hadn’t yet realized he hadn’t, technically, formally accepted. It was clear from their faces it would take a minute more for that to happen. In the meantime, Jin Ling would start to doubt, and eventually spur himself to ask again, just to be sure...
“That boy,” murmured Nie Minglin. “Really. And all those etiquette classes. … well, there was never going to be anything for it. He never did have the best examples in such things.”
She looked up at Lan Xichen. Staring at him in the late afternoon light, she was struck, all at once, by how strongly it matched a particular memory of him. A time when he’d rushed down the walkway to catch him before he left, holding his robes, so he wouldn’t stumble --
“Zewu-jun,” she said heavily. “It seems I’ve given you even more administrative headaches to deal with.”
“Those boys are going to be married by next fall,” she said. Sure enough, Lan Sizhui had begun to cover his face, and Jin Ling was tugging at his wrists. “It will be lovely, and an event -- whether you like it or not. Jin wedding requirements are cumbersome, you know. There is a manual. Your brother will need to begin negotiating now. And I will have to contact contractors tomorrow, if you expect it all to come together by then.”
“Then I suppose it is just as well,” murmured Lan Xichen, “you have some experience in this field.”
“Oh, I’m the best at it,” agreed Nie Minglin. She was already tallying up initial costs in her head. And of course, there was the matter of the dowry -- once it was decided who would be marrying into whose household, at any rate. She smiled, very faintly. Oh, but she’d have fun making the textile houses hold a bidding war, for the privilege of providing silk for them. “I’ll make it the talk of the cultivation world. It’s the least I can do for him. I’ve troubled him greatly in two lives, now. I’d like to make one thing easier for him.”
She really was smiling now, wider than she had in some time. How peculiar. It would be a logistical mess. She’d be perfectly in her element.
Lan Sizhui was finally smiling, too. He must have remembered to say yes. Jin Ling grabbed at his hands eagerly. Fairy bumped into both of them.
“They’ve been together for some time now,” offered Lan Xichen. “Sizhui’s a fine companion for him. Intelligent. Compassionate. Patient. They balance each other well.”
Jin walked off together hand in hand. Jin gold and Lan blues and whites swayed as they rounded a corner and away. Nie Minglin didn’t dare close her eyes again. The blue and gold would still be there, but it would be someone else wearing it.
“If it had been us…” She laughed a little, despite herself. In another lifetime, it had been them -- walking down the courtyard together, at least. They’d been on their way to the offices, or to the Hanshi for late night tea. So blindingly simple. So unbearably complicated. All at the same time. “If it’d somehow been me making the fool of myself back there -- would you have married me?”
Lan Xichen looked at her.
“If you had asked?” And, then, with no hesitation at all: “In a heartbeat.”
She felt his words in her chest sure as any blade. “Oh,” she said. She held her hands together, and her breath. She didn’t even realize she’d been rubbing her thumb raw, until his hand came over hers to calm her.
It was a wild, wonderful idea. How strange, in all of Jin Guangyao’s thousand plans, that one had never occurred to him at all.
Thank you for reading!
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