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Blame Absent (but alive) Parents

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A new moon flung dark gossamer over the corpse strewn battlefield, the stars speckling the mirrored blood. The scent of rot stuck to the wind, carving itself onto far cliff faces, its path skimming over stagnant water. So many had perished under all banners, simple pawns heaped in a mass grave, knights beheaded by the enemy and bishops taken home for lavish funerals. 

As the final light fell below the charred horizon, an unknown soldier reared its shattered head, viscous drool sticking to its cracked lips, dry skin jutting out like fallen leaves. It scraped its jagged ankles in the sodden earth, bones cracking and straining as it hobbled towards the forest. Frost bloomed over its skin, but it did not shiver. Stray sharp branches pierced its hardening muscles, but it did not cry out. Flint encrusted its sore soles, but it did not moan. 

Unseeing eyes glazed over with old blood gazed up to the sky.  

I hope it’s full of stars. 

Hidden between the trees sat an abandoned shack. Fierce corpses raked their flaked nails against the splintered wood, picks of wood puncturing the tough skin. Sheltering inside are two cultivators, keeping hope like a candle in a storm.

A warm, intense feeling of comfort overcame the unknown soldier as it stumbled towards the talisman covered shack. They placed a ravaged hand on the wood, wanting to immerse itself in the feeling’s plushness. The wood wouldn’t give, the door wouldn’t open. The unknown soldier felt a hot spike spear its want and it scraped its fingernails into the wood, changing from a soldier to a corpse. 

“To the heavens.” They bowed.
“To our families.” They bowed.
“To each other.” They bowed.

Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren took each other by the hand, their knees and noses touching. They could hear the corpses tearing at the walls, could hear death surrounding them. 

Wei Changze cupped his wife’s face, running his thumb over the scar that ran from her ear to her chin. “I’ll marry you properly when this is over,” he whispered.
“What if I leave you a widower tomorrow?” Cangse Sanren asked, nudging her forehead against his, feeling the warmth of her husband’s skin against her own. 
“I won’t be left behind.”
“Changze!”
“Sanren.”

They mapped each other, committing every peak and river in their minds; from the mole below Cangse Sanren’s lip to Wei Changse’s birthmark that splattered his coccyx. She kissed him, scared but hopeful, feeling his warm breath against her breast. There was little security, with the threat of separation looming over every touch like an indifferent spectre.

As she lay on her back, her husband sleeping peacefully with an arm slung over her soft belly, Cangse Sanren prayed to any god that was listening, to the wind, to the trees, to the dark. For protection, for luck, for at least one more day together. 

A raven sprung off a nearby branch, swiftly flying away. 

-

The First War was brutal. The end forever hid beyond the horizon; no matter how far or fast you ran, it could not be found. You could win one battle then arrive at the next village to find the melted flesh of children dripping down the execution stake, women violated and strung up across the river, men tortured, their intestines strewn across trees still attached to the body. A gruesome stalemate.  

Yet, as sunlight washed over the sleeping lovers, so it announced the final battle. Victory, who lay in the sleeping arms of  her beloved, hid in a shack in the woods, no longer beyond the horizon. 

 

-

 

Delicate sheet of ice, a hair-breadth’s width, slid off the azalea leaves and shattered on the stones below as Nie Mingjue swung Baxia. He watched his breath pillow into soft pufts of warm air as he focused on his breathing; a slight inhale, then a deep exhale, emptying his lungs. 

A warm heavy hand broke his meditation, holding his shoulder. Mingjue’s eyes widened as he breathed in a familiar smell of windchill and damp stone. 

“Imagine yer core,” said the owner of the hand, “and shape it like clay - too hard, it’ll crumble and misshape, but do too little and it’ll never change.”

Mingjue’s arm drooped, scraping Baxia on the stone, as he turned. “Father,” he said, cheeks reddening and eyes hot and itchy. "Father!"

“Four years is a long time, isn’t it?” Sect Leader Nie smiled his usual lopsided grin. He pulled his trembling son into his arms, scratching his salt and pepper beard on his cheeks. Mingjue looked over his father’s shoulder at the sabre attached to his back; the metal sheath was scuffed and a dark red-brown now lined the engraved characters ‘難保’ or ‘NanBao’. “I only remember you starting to get potty trained and now you’re holding your own sabre!” 

Sect Leader Nie pushed Mingjue away, looking him up and down, lips quivering a bit. His eyes had become watery, and eyebrows furrowed slightly before he turned his head away, breathing deeply. “Your own sabre,” he repeated, voice cracked at the edges. They stayed like that for a time, Sect Leader Nie breathing in his son's smell, far different from the one he remembered. 

Sect Leader Nie took Baxia from the floor and put it back into its sheath, tightening the buckles around his son’s back. “I’m so proud of you, Mingjue.” He ruffled his hair. “Come on, let’s go and see yer mothers.”

Yun Yaoxia was a tall, angular woman, elegant and controlled, softly spoken and strict. As she turned her head to look at her son, she tutted. “Mingjue, it is rude to stare.”

“But A-Niang! Your eye!” Her fingers brushed over the patch covering her left eye. 

“It does not hurt anymore,” Madame Yun said simply, now opening her arms and beckoning her son over. As she folded them around him, she felt another weight press against her side. 

Looking down, she saw a small mess of badly braided hair. “A-Hui, did you do your own hair today?” Zonghui nodded. “Did A-Jue teach you?” He nodded again. She smiled slightly, lowering herself to the floor and gathering both boys in her lap. 

Mingjue absentmindedly played with one end of her forehead ribbon, gazing at the white fabric embroidered with dark grey and silver thread. Zonghui put the other end in his mouth. She rolled her eyes and took it out. 

She turned her head to her husband, who was gazing at the domestic scene in front of him. “Where is our wife?”

“I don’t believe it,” a shrill voice rang through the halls, “I do not believe it, I tell you, I don’t! This is utterly ridiculous, pompous - oh not this room either, excuse me Elders - absolutely presumptuous!” A smaller woman, Feng Mishu, rounded the doorway, plump with curves, energetic and lively, loud and talkative. She waved a fragrant yellow letter in her hand. “Who do they think they are?” 

Sect Leader Nie caught Madame Feng around the waist. “My love, who has incurred your wrath today?” He sniffed the letter and pulled a face. “Ah. The Jins.”

“Of course the Jins! That Jin Guangshan, who does he think he is, ordering us all around! Like they did anything during the war at all!” The owlish eyes of Mingjue and Zonghui caught her eye, causing her to drop the letter, only for it to be caught by Sect Leader Nie who held it at an arm’s distance.

“Oh, my babies!” Madame Feng cried. “I missed you so so so much! Oh, A-Jue, you’ve lost your baby smell already, and A-Hui, oh you can walk so well now! Oh, oh!” She collapsed on them, holding them tightly. “I’ll get the kitchens to make sweets, and we can put the fire on and everything! Oh yes, a lovely birthday celebration for A-Jue, happy birthday my darling - I need to make up for all the lost cuddles and kisses!”

“Not a baby!” protested Mingjue. “I’m grown up!”

Madame Feng gasped, hands slapping on her cheeks. “What! What! Do grown-ups not need Mama Mishu’s kisses then? No sweets? No-” she tucked her hand into her robe and presented a small package, “-dragon’s beard candy? No birthday present? All for Mama Mishu and A-Hui?”

Mingjue frowned and pouted, deep in conflict. He stared at the package of dragon’s beard candy for a long time, reaching for it then shaking his head and pulling his hand back with his other hand then reaching for it again. Finally, he came to a decision. 

He held his head up authoritatively. “Being a grown-up doesn’t mean not having sweets or kisses from Mama and A-Niang, it means making good decisions.”

“Then, what’s a good decision?” Madame Yun asked, curious.

Mingjue thought again, drawing on memories of his parents when he was very young. “Making Mama Mushi the middle spoon, so Papa doesn’t sleep on floor.”

Sect Leader Nie froze, Madame Yun choked slightly on a cup of tea in her hand and Madame Feng yelped out in laughter. With a hand on her belly, she composed herself.

“No, A-Jue,” she sang, “that’s an ultimatum.”

-

The fire burst into life, quivering and spitting as the talisman shrivelled up in the grate. Warm golden light flickered across the stone walls of Sect Leader Nie’s private chambers, warming the family lounging on thick furs and feather-filled pillows thrown about the floor. 

“So,” Madame Yun started, gently picking apart Mingjue’s braids as he dozed in her lap, “what was the letter about?”

“Oh, I know you’ve read it, Yaoxia,” pouted Madame Feng, making Madame Yun smile.

“I have indeed, but I do like hearing your announcements.”

“Oh, if you insist!” Madame Feng took a long sip of her tea before launch. “Those audacious ar - oh, the children - those raging narcissists-”

“What’s a narcissist?” asked Zonghui sleepily, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

“Mishu.”

“Oh, fine! Those golden glub glub fish-” 

“Mishu.”

“You said you liked my announcements!” She preened herself, jutting her chin up in retaliation. “Oh well, I’ll skip that part. They, as in the Jin, I quote, ‘cordially invite Sect Leader Nie and his consorts’ - first of all, consorts, I mean there is a pluralisation of the word wife, is there not, those snakes, next they’ll be calling me a concubine-”

“A consort is defined as a husband or wife; spouse, especially of a reigning official,” Madame Yun recited, “therefore it’s technically correct.”

“It’s about the subtext, Yaoxia, and I do not like what they are implying! Anyhoo, they have invited is ‘to a celebratory banquet of our victory in the war occurring from the first of May.’ I mean, that’s only two months away! What do they think we are, maidens planning a tea party? Who can sort out their sect from the aftermath of a war and have enough time to figure out what present to get the Lanling Jin Sect?”

“We got them some precious stones from th' mines before, maybe-”

“No, no! This is a battle, my darling husband, a battle in itself! Prepare something to extravagant, they’ll say ‘oh they didn’t spend money on the war for political after pursuits’ and if we spend too little, it’ll be ‘oh, how the might have fallen - they’re poor now, let’s invade their land!’ I can’t stand it.”

“I recall you listing your speciality at the match makers being people watching and commentary,” said Sect Leader Nie thoughtfully, kissing Madame Feng’s temple as he pulled her into his lap. 

“Yes, but I’m tasteful!” Madame Feng looked at the letter again, carefully scrutinising each character. 

“What are you doing?” asked Madame Yun as her wife brought the letter closer to her face.

Madame Feng put the letter down, smoothing it out. She scrunched her nose. “At the end of the day, it’s just war after war. At least in a political war, it’s in lovely palaces rather than a battlefield, and poison rather than a sword through the chest.”

The adults looked over to the children, Mingjue asleep with Zonghui tucked up next to him. 

“I just don’t want to leave them too soon. So soon. I don’t want to be away for an hour, for a minute. We’ve already missed so much.” 

"I know." Madame Yun shifted towards her wife, kissing her and her husband both gently, before settling them both in her arms. "I know."

 

-

 

Glimmering ostentatious flags draped themselves along the curves of the wind which swept down across the ‘sparks amidst snow’ meadows, tickling the closed buds. A new carving now adorned the walls of the brick courtyard, a couple of craftsman knocking in the final touches; it detailed the great bravery shown by the Lanling Jin sect throughout the war, swiftly bringing the invaders to their knees with the help of the other sects. 

Madame Yun rolled her eyes. 

Instead of taking refuge within the Glamour Hall, Madame Jin and Madame Yu stood at the top step, waiting for their eldest sworn sister. Madame Jin was dressed in an intricate qixiong fuqun of golden embroidered silk and glittering brocade misted in pale peach gauze while Madame Yu was dressed more simply, the overlapping pink and violet layers forming silk lotus petals, brushing against the silver Jiang bell tinkling in the wind. 

“Da-jie!” called Madame Jin, bowing before her sworn sister, tiny tintinnabulations ringing from the ornate ornaments looped with fresh flowers adorning her marital bun. “Da-jie, tell Er-jie that entertaining my guests will not kill me!” 

“It will not,” answered Madame Yun, correcting her sister’s slipping hairpin and smoothing out her collar, “but you are entertaining a cold in this weather.” 

“Always so wise, Da-jie! Come, come, let’s get you settled in - there’s no one else I want to blown about for!” Madame Jin glided in, effortlessly giving instructions to servants and maids, smiling at everyone she passed before half-collapsing onto her freshly plumped throne of cushions. “Da-jie, sit with us. Surely-” she gave a pointed smile to Sect Leader Nie and Madame Feng “-sister and brother have other they would rather see than listen to our dull conversations?”

After Sect Leader Nie and Madame Feng left swiftly, Madame Yun turned to her sworn sisters. “So, what do you want to discuss?”

“Hundreds of things, but first meet my little princeling, A-Xuan!” She gestured to a small girl hiding behind her mother’s sleeve, holding a baby. Madame Yu pushed the pair forward, scolding the girl lightly for her shyness. 

The girl didn’t look more than two years old, and was very shy, avoiding eye contact at all costs. In her arms lay a baby, swathed in fine silk. The baby was reaching up towards the little girl, tugging on her plaits to get her attention lest it be diverted, or chewing one of her dress ties. “The little monster refuses to be removed from A-Li. He’s been enamoured since she arrived, screeching until she picked him up like a fussy kitten. Watch.” Madame Jin went to pick up her son.

The instant her manicured nails touched his sides, he screeched like a banshee. “No mama! No! Want Yi-yi!” He was promptly placed back in Yanli’s arms. But he didn’t stop flailing quite yet. 

Yanli pressed a kiss to his forehead. “A-Xuan,” she asked politely, “good for Yanli?” A-Xuan looked up at her with wide eyes and popped his thumb into his mouth. “Good A-Xuan.”

A-Xuan patted her face. “Yi-yi!” he babbled. “Yi-yi pwetty!”

“Were you two not going to marry your children?” Madame Yun asked, sparing a glance at the fruit of her own womb, who seemed to be staring stars at something outside. Probably one of those peacocks they have roaming around. 

“It has been seven generations since our sects intermarried for alliances, so it’s timely.” Madame Yu stroked her daughter’s hair, occasionally pinching a bit of fat here and there. “I’m not fond of such arrangements, but we all now what the Wen are planning. I’ll be damned if I let him lay claim to Yanli, heaven knows that my lord would be intimidated into it.”

Madame Yun fixed one of her slipping earrings, the gold clattering. “My lord would marry A-Xuan to some second rate Wen princess willingly - at least someone had a daughter.”

“Your lord?” Madame Yun raised an eyebrow.

“The walls have ears, Da-jie,” Madame Jin stated simply, now fanning herself, people-watching. Her eyes settles on the newest arrivals. “Oh my!”

The Gusu Lan delegation arrived at exactly midday in a wash of sombre white and blue. They were silent, floating in like moths, but the attention they garnered sprouted a flurry of whispers. 

Qingheng-Jun sat down at his table, golden eyes not meeting anyone else's, his expression as melancholic as ever. Behind him, his younger brother, Lan Qiren, fussed over a small child who didn’t need to be fussed over. 

What Madame Yun found more interesting was that now they were inside, she could see who her own child was looking at. She excused herself from her sworn sisters. 

“Qingheng-Jun, Second Young Master Lan,” she greeted. As the brothers looked at her, Lan Qiren let a gasp slip from his mouth.

“Shijie, your eye!” he blurted then caught himself. “Rather, Madame Nie-” 

“Please call me Shijie, it feels wrong for you to say that.” 

“Then please call me shidi; I’m not young master anymore, just master.”

Madame Yun looked at Qingheng-Jun. “Shixiong, children?” 

He nodded. “Xichen,” he started, lifting his sleeve to reveal a small boy, between toddler and child, pressing himself into his father’s robes, “is my eldest. He is three. Wangji is my youngest. He is four months and has remained in the Cloud Recesses.”

Lan Qiren gave Xichen an angry look. “He was just behind me, xiongzhang, I swear! Xichen-” 

“Thichen wanted to be with father,” Xichen mumbled, looking coyly up at Qingheng-Jun whose expression, Madame Yun could tell, had become pained. He looked at his eldest son, forehead creasing slightly before turning away. Xichen looked ashamed, as if he had misbehaved. 

“Xichen looks like sister-in-law,” Lan Qiren explained quietly. “Her eyes.” Madame Yun look at the child, and it was true. He had her dark honey-brown eyes, and she suddenly felt angry. 

That little lively girl who spoke of wanting the happiest family, climbing mountains, cultivating for the rest of her life, now locked up in a cottage surrounded in the alpine flowers she had loved to sing to. That girl’s, that woman’s son now sat in front of her, on the verge of tears because he wanted to be with his father. 

“How come you are here, shixiong?” Madame Yun asked, ice spiking her tone. “I thought you would enter seclusion immediately after the war?”

“Officially, for the celebration of the end of the war,” answered Qingheng-Jun. "I did fight in it, after all."

“And actually?”

“Wen Ruohan is attending.” They both looked at Lan Qiren, who was sorting out Xichen’s already impeccable robes. Xichen wasn’t focused on his uncle telling him off for interrupting, for speaking out of turn, and for invading personal space. 

He was staring at something. She followed his gaze. Someone. Someone who was looking at him too, and had been since before he entered the Glamour hall. 

“May I ask a favour?”

-

On the other side of the Glamour Hall sat Jiang Fengmian, resplendent in purple and teal clothing. He was conversing with a man in purple and black, and a woman in purple and white, both with red hair ribbons trailing down their backs. 

“I haven’t seen Master Wei in purple for a long time,” observed Sect Leader Nie as he and Madame Feng approached. 

“I believe it suited his purpose more during the war,” Madame Feng answered, spreading her fan in front of her face. “I wouldn’t want to be on the other side facing him and Sanren. They're demons in battle.”

“Cangse Sanren!” she cried, trying to catch the attention of her friend. The woman looked up. 

“That’s me, that’s me!”

“I can’t believe you’re alive! I saw you go down-”

“You’re absolutely right, Feng-mei, I am actually a fierce corpse and my husband here is in denial,” Cangse Sanren said with a flat tone, looking very serious, but her lip started to wobble and she burst out laughing again. “Come, let’s drink to me being alive!”

“Sanren!” cried Wei Changze and Jiang Fengmian. Wei Changze took the cup from her hand while Jiang Fengmian called over a servant to exchange the wine for some tea. They looked at her sternly. 

“This is the fifth time today!” Wei Changze reprimanded, holding his wife’s hand. “The fifth!”

“Sanren-mei, please be more careful!”

Madame Feng started slapping Sect Leader Nie’s arm in excitement and shock while Cangse Sanren groaned. “And you’re telling me I’ve got another five months of this?” she whined at her husband, who raised his eyebrows humorously. “I tell you, any child of mine will like wine, so what’s the harm in starting them early? Hm, husband?”

Madame Feng couldn’t contain herself any longer. “You’re pregnant!” she squealed, shuffling closer to her friend and grasping her hands. She looked back at her husband, determination in her eye. “I want one too! Tell A-Xia!”

Sect Leader Nie blushed to his roots, stammering, “My love-”

“I want our children to be friends - surely a mind like yours and mine being friends again will be fun!”

“Does ‘reproducing specifically to give Lan Qiren a heart attack when he inevitably has to teach them’ count as murder?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Brilliant!”

“How far are you along?”

“Four months - I think I'll wait a bit longer to announce the news though,” she smiled, a hand placed protectively over her stomach. “Only A-Ze and Mianmian know, other than you of course, and only because my husband can’t keep his mouth shut.”

“I’m not the one who told him that your new fabric was for the baby-”

“Hush now, husband.” She turned back to Madame Feng. “So it might’ve been me. Maybe. Anyways, how have you been? Mushi-mei? Feng-mei? Fengfeng? Mumu?”

“I heard you the first time, Cangse-jie.”

“Mianmian? What’s wrong?” Wei Changze interrupted, peering at his friend’s face. Jiang Fengmian was usually ever serene, ever smiling  - like an undisturbed lake in the morning, lapping gently up at the pier. 

However, a storm had come and disturbed the water’s surface, creating angry ripples and waves frothing on the shore. His eyes had narrowed and his eyebrows now jutted forward, darkening his face. He stood up abruptly and strode over to Madame Yu, who was leaning over Yanli, rearranging her plaits and inspecting her now spit soaked dress ribbons. 

What was more disgusting was the sight of Jin Guangshan reaching a lecherous hand towards her slightly raised rear, licking his lips, eyes bulging out of his head. Inches away from the soft purple silk, the hand was stomped down by Jiang Fengmian, who seemed to be an undisturbed lake again, but with something lurking in the murky depths. 

“Oh dear. I’m afraid-” he ground his heel sharply down, “I didn’t see your hand there, Sect Leader Jin.” He smiled softly,  blades in his eyes, as he lifted his foot. 

Yu Ziyuan looked surprised at the noise while Madame Jin smiled from behind her sleeve; she moved quickly away, taking Yanli with her, face flavoured with disgust. She looked at her husband suspiciously, analysing his expression before turning her head away. 

“My lady, there’s a cold draft.” Jiang Fengmian took off his outer coat and draped it around her shoulders. She shrugged it off. 

“I’m not so weak to succumb to a cold. Yanli and I are returning to our seats anyway.” Jiang Fengmian nodded, slipping his coat back on, but not before shooting a cold look at Jin Guangshan, who gulped and went pale. He scrambled back to his seat, shaking his hand weakly. 

As Madame Yu returned to the Jiang delegation, Madame Feng leant over to Cangse Sanren. “I think Sect Leader Jiang was saving Sect Leader Jin. Can you imagine the hell Lady Dou and Lady Yu would have rained down upon him?”

“Yu-jie would have slapped him and kicked him downstairs, and Lady Dou would have cut his dick off - she’s got her son now, it’s got no use anymore. We all know who is the actual Sect Leader here.”

“Cangse-jie, I’ve got to admit I’m disappointed!” Madame Feng clacked her fan in her palm, snapping it shut. “Those punishments were far too tame for A-Xia’s sworn sisters. Far too tame.”

“Castration isn’t enough?”

“Definitely not. I would say chilli powder in the underwear would be Lady Yu’s plan - the only taste of Yunmeng he’ll ever get.” Madame Feng opened her fan again, covering her smirk, as she got up to return to her own table.

“I like that one,” answered Madame Yu, taking her seat in front of Cangse Sanren. “Perhaps some firecrackers as well.”

Cangse Sanren laughed. “I’ll drink to that!” she said, raising her husband’s cup rather than her own. 

“Sanren!” pleaded Wei Changze and Jiang Fengmian again. Wei Changze yanked the cup out of her hand  while Jiang Fengmian asked for all the wine to be replaced with tea. 

“This is the sixth time, Sanren-mei,” sighed Jiang Fengmian. Cangse Sanren pouted, childishly pouring her tea. 

“A-Ze!” she whined, sipping her tea. “Now Yu-jie can’t have any wine and I’m sure she needs some.”

Madame Yu’s hands rested on her belly, carefully puffing out the loose dress so it wasn’t tight around her body. “You’re pregnant?” she said, words clipped more closely than normal. 

“Four months, Yu-jie. I wanted to wait a bit longer, but these two keep giving the game away!”

Wei Changze rolled his eyes. “Actually, it’s you trying to drink wine?”

“Hush, husband. Now, someone get Yu-jie some wine! Heavens know that she needs it.”

“No, I don’t,” Madame Yu answered coolly. Cangse Sanren watched as her hands tensed around her stomach for a second before dropping onto her knees. Oh. Her eyes darted over to Jiang Fengmian, who looked concerned. Oh. 

“My lady-”

“You know, all this talk of alcohol has got me needing a trip to the little girl’s room. Yu-jie, come with me?”

Cangse Sanren, for once, was not smiling. Madame Yu understood. She followed Cangse Sanren into a small unused room, free of servants and prying eyes, sticking a privacy talisman on each wall. 

“You’re pregnant.”

“Obviously.”

“Fengmian doesn’t know.”

“Obviously.”

“How long?”

“Four months.”

“You should tell him.”

“It’s not any of your business.”

“It’s not. But I’m not one to observe suffering.”

“I’m not suffering,” Yu Ziyuan bit, a little too quickly. “And it’s still not any of your business.”

Cangse Sanren looked at her with a raised eyebrow, before sighing. “Who else knows? Yinzhu and Jinzhu, of course.”

Yu Ziyuan nodded. 

“Why aren’t you telling him?” 

“Why is it your business?”

“It’s not! But-”

“But what? You assume to know my business, to know my husband’s mind? Because he loved you first? How do I know that that child in your womb and the one in mine haven’t the same father?” she accused, snapping Zidian out and cracking it against the floor. Cangse Sanren parried it away with Fajiu, her sword, eyes ablaze. 

“Yu Ziyuan!" she growled. "Make whatever assumptions you want on your husband’s character, but do not make them on mine. I love Changze with my soul! Don’t you dare stoop to such insults.”

They hit out at each other in frustration for a time, sword meeting whip every time, neither one landing a hit. They stood chests heaving, purple and grey eyes wet with anger. They could hear the distant chatter of the Glamour Hall. Finally, Yu Ziyuan spoke. 

“I’ve been pregnant twice before, after Yanli. The first, I told him as soon as I knew. It lasted three months. The second, I thought I’d be more careful and I told him in the third month. I lost it the next week.” She moved to a window, eyes looking at somewhere far away. “Both times, he moped around uselessly for a month or so. Never blamed me. Never comforted me. Just sad. He wouldn’t talk to me, or touch me for months, and when we had to interact, he pitied me! It was always all about him.” She traced her finger over Zidian, regaining her composure. “I don’t need pity. I won’t tell him - he’ll have to figure it out this time. If I lose it, he’ll never know.”

“I didn’t know, I-”

“Of course you didn’t know. You would have never known, if you’d only stop meddling for five minutes.” Her hands once again rested on her stomach, stroking the small bulge with a tender look in her eyes mixed with something a bit more melancholic. "I wasn't sad either," she lied. "It just wasn't the right time."

“For all his uselessness, you love Fengmian,” Cangse Sanren stated, reaching out to take one of Yu Ziyuan’s hands. 

“I wish you had loved him.” Yu Ziyuan snatched her hand away. “Then he wouldn’t be saddled with a disagreeable, hot-tempered bitch.”

Cangse Sanren stared at her hard. “I wish you had more respect for yourself,” she muttered, shaking her head. She headed to the door, not wanting to try and move this particular tree any longer. “Shall we return, then?”

“Please.”

-

As the evening sun dipped behind the city walls of Lanling, burnt orange replaced with shadowed blue, Wen Ruohan strode into the Glamour Hall, trailing a boy behind him. 

“Apologies for our tardiness, Guangshan,” he drawled, smirking at the murmurs from the crowd. How scandolous. “Sect Leader Jin, rather - formality is lost on me.”

Jin Guangshan jumped to his feet, sloshed on wine. “No, no, no apology needed, Sect Leader Wen! Sit down, have a drink, enjoy!” He turned around, spraying wine over the tables seating the minor sects. Madame Jin covered her fact with her hand. “Everyone,” he slurred, “please, please, don’t stay at your tables! To- oop-" he squeezed the bum of a passing maid "-tonight is a partayyy!”

As he stumbled back to his seat, grabbing a couple more maid’s rumps on the way, Wen Ruohan made a beeline for the Lan delegation. Lan Qiren stiffened. A metre away from their tables, Wen Ruohan smirked and turned on his heel towards the Nie delegation. He bowed before Sect Leader Nie, Madame Yun and Madame Feng. Sect Leader Nie and Madame Yun sat straight, pushing their arms closer together to shield Madame Feng, who now shielded her face with her whole fan. She reached out a hand behind to the boys, grasping tightly onto their hands but pretending to cut up Zonghui's meat. 

“Good evening, Sect Leader Nie and your… what do I call them? Concubines, was it?”

“Wives,” spat Sect Leader Nie. “And you're not welcome here.”

“Come now, the war is over! Weren’t we allies back then, fighting side by side?”

“I wouldn’t describe an ally as someone who uses my brother and sister in law as bait.” The room fell silent. 

“Harsh accusation. Is this their little one here?” Wen Ruohan asked, peering over Madame Feng at Zonghui. “He should be proud that his mother and father sacrificed their lives to save thousands of lives! How did they die again?” He tapped his chin. “I remember now. An arrow through the eye for your father-” he leaned closed to Zonghui, Madame Feng shielding him as much as she could, “-and for your mother, eaten by a fierce corpse trap pit. Horrible really.”

Blood drained from Zonghui’s face as his chest started convulsing in panic, gory images now filling his head. The room burst into whispering again. Wen Ruohan straightened up, glancing over the crowd, pleased. 

“Stop it!” 

Wen Ruohan cocked his head to the side, looking around for where the voice came from. His eyes drifted down. “And who is this?” he smirked. 

Nie Mingjue had stood in front of Madame Feng and Zonghui, arms spread out. “Nie Rong, courtesy name Mingjue,” he answered. “My father says only cowards torment children.”

“Mingjue!” Sect Leader Nie scolded. 

“Coward?” Wen Ruohan tapped his chin again, eyes growing mad and wide, drool hanging in suspension between his lips as he bared his teeth in a mock smile. “Coward! You’re a sprightly child, aren’t you? Sect Leader Nie, what are you going to do? Your son just called me a coward - I would like him punished. I suggest cutting out his tongue.”

Sect Leader Nie clenched his fist, fighting to maintain his composure. He took a deep breath, only to be interrupted by Madame Yun. “Mingjue didn’t call you a coward. He simply gave his father’s definition for a coward.”

Madame Feng continued. “So by confirming that you think he called you a coward, you agree you were actively trying to torment our nephew, our four year old recently orphaned nephew?” 

“Sect Leader Nie, control your women!”

“They can speak freely, just as you have t' my nephew. Please, Sect Leader Wen, this is a celebration,” Sect Leader Nie responded quickly with a tight smile. “Let’s behave like it.”

Wen Rouhan’s face contorted into a fearsome image before he swiftly turned back to the Lan delegation, where the boy he brought with him was peering at Lan Xichen, whose eyes flicked from this boy in front of him to Mingjue. 

“Xu-er, it’s rude to stare.”

“But Father, he’s so pretty!” Wen Xu scooted around the table, putting his face so close to Xichen’s, that their noses nearly touched. 

“Thank you,” Xichen shyly replied, offering a small smile. 

“Can I have him?” Wen Xu asked, tilting his head, his eyes wide and owlish. Xichen tugged on his father’s robes, smile remaining but eyes widening. 

“No.” Qingheng-Jun serenely placed down his cup of water. “You may not.”

Wen Xu scrunched his face up. “Why not?” he demanded petulantly, addressing Qingheng-Jun directly. Wen Ruohan looked at Lan Qiren, dragging his eyes up and down his figure. Lan Qiren looked in the opposite direction. 

“I thought we put our history behind us, Qiren.”

“You do not talk to him, you talk to me,” clipped Qingheng-Jun. “You do not address him, you address me.”

“What do I do when you go into seclusion for marrying that murderess of yours?”

Qingheng-Jun’s eye twitched. “You send me a letter. I will leave seclusion just for you.” Qingheng-Jun maintained eye contact with Wen Ruohan, not even blinking until Wen Ruohan looked away, chuckling. 

“It seems I’m not welcome here!” he cried, now turned towards Jin Guangshan. “Guangshan, I fear I will have to take my leave. I will have to forgo delivering your investment’s earnings this year as well.”

“No!” Jin Guangshan sloppily walked towards Wen Ruohan, “No, no, I’m sure the Lan would approve of a match between First Young Master Wen and First Young Master Lan! Wouldn’t you, Sect Leader Lan?”

“No.”

Jin Guangshan started to splutter in desperation. “But why not?” he demanded, shaking an accusatory finger. “Qiren, really you need to get over it-”

“You do not address him, you address me,” rumbled Qingheng-Jun, teeth gritted. “If you need to address him, you address him as Second Master Lan, not by his courtesy name.”

“But why reject the match?” asked Wen Ruohan, recognising the question was left unanswered.

“Xichen is already betrothed.”