Night sits uneasily on Lanling. The thousand lamps of Koi Tower have all been lit, and they shiver and sway with the cold autumn wind. Winter is coming. The peonies of late summer have come and gone, driven away by the frost, and only the sturdy plum dares to show a single flower. The trade conference is over, and the many steps have seen every half-important Wang or Li make their fawning goodbyes and take to the western wind. After so many days and so many nights of negotiations and speeches and triumphs and defeats, the halls are quiet at last. Tonight the guest rooms sit empty, and the only sound that interrupts the wind is the occasional strum of a single string as the young master of Koi Tower sits and picks at his instrument.
Jin Ling’s never been a particularly distinguished musician, nor is he an impressive swordsman, a notable statesman, or a renowned scholar. He’s just Jin Ling, and tonight he is keenly aware of every wretched inch of himself.
The trade conference is over, and Jin Ling has failed, as he fails every single year. He has failed to negotiate, failed to properly represent his family, failed to draw an ounce of respect from Lan or from Nie or from Jiang. Nie Huaisang did whatever he wanted, as he does every year, and Lan Wangji looked at him like something to step over when he tried to hold his ground. His uncle was his uncle. Every year, Jiang Cheng promises in his awkward way that this will be the year when Jin Ling is strong enough to hold his own, and every year it is a lie.
Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi were at the conference. They came with the Lan delegation, that shining crowd, and greeted Jin Ling with all the appropriate honors. During the banquet, they sat at a distant table, not important enough to merit the higher seats, and laughed and smiled and said things to each other that Jin Ling was too far away to hear. From the distance of the high table Jin Ling saw Lan Jingyi yelp and burn his finger, and he saw Lan Sizhui lift that finger to his mouth and tenderly blow over the reddened skin. In that moment, seeing Lan Jingyi wince and laugh with his pale hand clasped delicately between Lan Sizhui’s fingers, Jin Ling had experienced a desire so ravenous it left him nauseous.
He was still nauseous when the toasts began, and had to choke down the bile half-risen in his throat with his wine as the hall drank to his health. It wouldn’t do for Clan Leader Jin, displayed up on the dais like a captured beast, to vomit during his own birthday celebration.
He turned twenty that day, and it confirmed to him that no amount of waiting would ever make him the man he wants to be. At twenty Jiang Cheng had already seen Lotus Pier come spiraling down in flames; at twenty Wei Wuxian had already survived the Wen onslaught and founded a new branch of cultivation. At twenty Jiang Yanli had already lived most of her short life, and so had Jin Zixuan.
At twenty, Jin Ling has survived five assassination attempts, three of them this year, two in the years before. He isn’t sure why the assassins bothered. He went into this trade conference determined to reestablish Lanling’s reputation, to end the constant bickering between the smaller clans that have risen to claim power, and his efforts came to nothing. No one listened. No one cared.
Jin Ling could make them care, if he had the courage to threaten violence and then follow through, if he had the support of any of the minor clans, if he knew that his own guards would not turn against him, if, if, if. If only he knew the landscape of the court better, if he’d listened more closely when his uncle tried to explain why it mattered so much that one person sat here and the other person sat there. But Jin Ling never listened, and now his uncle is dead and there are so many things that Jin Ling doesn’t know.
He has men, but would those men follow him to war? Would they side with him over his vassals? Does anything tie them to him other than money? And if they didn’t follow him, if he gave an order that was refused, what then? It’s nice to pretend that he would hang himself with a silk string and end his humiliation, but he knows damn well that he would do no such thing.
Like his uncle before him, all Jin Ling knows how to do is live.
A knock at the door startles him from his sulking, and he lays down his instrument and calls for his visitors to come in. Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun are here. No one else would come so late. No one else would blow off the discussion conference just for a little night-hunting, and no one else would dare to stride in like this, blood still on the hems of their robes, and flop to the ground next to Jin Ling. Well- Wei Wuxian flops. Hanguang-jun just watches.
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian says brightly. “Whatcha doing still plucking away at that thing?”
“I like it,” Jin Ling says shortly. A very long time ago, before Jin Ling had ever seen one uncle die and another come back to life, Jin Guangyao sat by his side in this very room and patiently taught him to pluck at these strings. Jiang Cheng is and was a bad teacher, bad-tempered and rough, but Jin Guangyao was patient. His attention was infrequent, but when it came it was always a prize, a gift like sunshine in the dead of the winter. He made Jin Ling feel like his music was something worth playing, something beautiful.
“I didn’t know that,” Wei Wuxian says, peering into Jin Ling’s face.
“I don’t play for other people,” Jin Ling says. When Jin Ling grew older, he began to compare himself to other musicians and it took all the joy out of playing. It’s only been in the last couple of years that he’s taken up the guqin again.
“Aw, not for anyone? How will anyone appreciate you if you don’t show yourself off, A-Ling?”
“I have nothing to show off,” Jin Ling says shortly.
“Ouch! The trade conference was that bad, huh?”
This is an invitation for Jin Ling to pour out his complaints. It’s an invitation for Wei Wuxian to console him and advise him and ply him with enough wine to make him forget anything. But Jin Ling doesn’t want to be consoled. He doesn’t want Wei Wuxian to clap his hand on Jin Ling’s shoulder and tell him not to worry so much about politics, and to enjoy his life while he’s young, and a million other shitty platitudes that are made worse for being said as Hanguang-jun watches.
Wei Wuxian always means every word he says, and that just makes it worse. Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to care about things like reputation and prestige, because Wei Wuxian is a war hero and a monster and the most powerful cultivator for a thousand miles. He lives in his prestige like a fish lives in the sea, and if he wants to enjoy his life, who’s going to stop him? But Jin Ling isn’t Wei Wuxian, and he doesn’t have a beautiful Lan that’s married to him, he doesn’t even have the courage to say a word to Lan Jingyi, and. Well. He doesn’t want to hear the platitudes he knows are coming.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he lies.
“Really? All those people, all those documents, all that blah blah blah-” Wei Wuxian makes a gesture like a talking puppet with his hands - and it wasn’t that bad?”
“Not any worse than listening to you,” Jin Ling replies, and throws in a little smirk just to make it believable. “I guess I’m just more patient than you.”
A massive smile blooms on Wei Wuxian’s face. “Lan Zhan, did you hear that? Our little Jin Ling is all grown up and going to conferences.”
“I’ve been going to conferences for years,” Jin Ling snaps. It’s true, but it feels like a lie. As a child, he attended conferences, but he did so from behind the shield of Jin Guangyao’s robes and his smile, protected by his uncle’s political power.
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Look at you.” Wei Wuxian lunges for Jin Ling’s face like he’s planning to pinch his cheek, and Jin Ling, who’s been expecting it, dives out of range.
“Stop pinching me! Hanguang-jun, control your husband before I kick you both out of Koi Tower.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says, which means ‘No.’ Not that anyone can control Wei Wuxian, but if Lan Zhan could, he still wouldn’t. Jin Ling exhales his annoyance and then waves away his instrument. It floats into the corner of the room to sit on its stand, as delicate and elegant as it was on the day his uncle gave it to him. Perhaps someday he’ll play a song for a Lan, but not today.
“Aw, you can’t kick us out,” Wei Wuxian says, and it stings because it’s true. All the guards in Lanling couldn’t stop Wei Wuxian; he’s already an army by himself, and he’s not alone. He has Hanguang-jun.
“Thanks for the reminder,” Jin Ling says wearily. “What do you want?”
“Aw, now you sound like your uncle,” Wei Wuxian says. When he says “your uncle”, he always means Jiang Cheng. “Don’t be so grumpy. I want to tell you about our night-hunt. I’m making my official report about the incident of the snake in the night.”
“The snake in the-,” Jin Ling repeats, and then cuts himself off, frowning. “I don’t want to hear about you and Hanguang-jun.”
“Not that kind of snake! Listen. We were walking down the long road to Jiangnan when…” For all of his other faults, Wei Wuxian is an excellent story-teller. He knows how to set the scene for a mystery, how to keep the listener guessing, how to include certain details and leave others out. Jin Ling lets him talk.
“And then, of course, we buried it,” Wei Wuxian finishes.
“Of course,” Jin Ling repeats dryly. Wei Wuxian’s stories have to be about the mystery, because there’s no suspense in his fights. He just wins. He talks about his life as if it’s nothing but mysteries and games, and all his stories make Jin Ling so jealous his teeth ache with it. He hasn’t been on a night-hunt, a real night-hunt, in months. It’s dangerous. There are a lot of people who would love the opportunity to misplace an arrow into his back, and a lot more papers to sign than there are hours in the day.
“What’s with the face, A-Ling?” Wei Wuxian asks.
“I wish I could go night-hunting,” Jin Ling says bitterly.
“Oh, you should have said so. We would have brought you along.”
As if it were that easy. Jin Ling is on the verge of spitting out one of the many scathing remarks percolating in his chest when a huge yawn splits Wei Wuxian’s face.
“Sorry,” he says, and yawns again. “I really have been up for two days.”
“Go away,” Jin Ling tells him, suddenly exhausted. “Get some food from the kitchens, pick a guest room, and then go sleep. I’m going to sleep too.”
“Okay, okay,” Wei Wuxian says. He and Hanguang-jun file out, and then it’s just Jin Ling and his room. He changes into his night robes, and he seals his room and puts up the necessary protective arrays- there’s no need to make things easier for any more assassins- but he doesn’t go to sleep.
He draws his robes around him and goes down into the mirror, down through the golden frame and into the secret room that he inherited from Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangyao inherited from Jin Guangshan. It’s not a room he’s spent very much time in. After Guanyin Temple, after Jin Guangyao sank in the floundering mire of his past, every fucking onlooker and gossip was begging to pick through this room. Everyone wanted to go for a tour, to pick out something that would allow them to say- “Aha! I was a victim of Jin Guangyao too!”
Jin Ling spent years defending this room from tourists, and now that he’s here, he’s not even sure what he was defending. The ceiling is high, the air cold, and on the left scrolls are heaped together in disorganized piles, Jin Guangyao’s careful and oblique filing system long since gone to ruin. Jin Ling must have done this, though he doesn’t remember coming down to rummage through these files. He must have. The days and nights after he became Clan Leader Jin have smeared together in his memory, every moment tinted with a rage that obscured everything. He hadn’t had the least idea what he was doing then. He’d only known that he was lost.
He walks through the cool dark, a candle in his left hand, his gaze skimming blindly over shackles and knives and closed chests and closed doors, and in the end he circles back to the beginning, and finds himself in front of the scrolls. He doesn’t know the man who sharpened those knives, but these scrolls, this calligraphy- that, he knows. Jin Ling’s clear, perfect handwriting is one of his few virtues, the product of many, many days and nights of practice, and he modeled it on his uncle’s clear hand.
The first scroll is a list of purchases. Many of them are. Jin Ling wonders what these purchases were, what they meant, who they bought, and as he wonders he knows that he’ll never know. Jin Guangyao could surely have chosen to store the purchases in the flawless storehouse of his mind, but instead he chose to write them down, because they meant something to him. Jin Ling doesn’t know what.
As he goes through the scrolls, he sorts them into piles- a pile for receipts, and a pile for letters, and a pile for secrets, for things he doesn’t understand at first glance. There are a lot of things he doesn’t understand. One stack of Jin Guangyao’s papers is nothing but calligraphy practice, and as Jin Ling scans the scrolls he can see the writing move from illiterate trembling to real words. But who wrote this? Jin Guangyao was never illiterate, so why save these papers? And who chose these words?
The last sheaf of paper is an passage describing the torture of criminals, and Jin Ling shudders and sets it aside. He turns to the music. As his eyes skim over the notes, he finds himself shoulder deep in memory, as young as he can ever remember being, his little knees folded under him, sitting in the room above this room, listening to his uncle play. No one remembers it unless they need to score a political point, but Jin Guangyao was family to Jin Ling too.
Earlier today, Wei Wuxian spoke with a dead woman, and from her charred mouth she spoke the words to reveal the identity of her murderer. Jin Ling is no necromancer, but he can feel the presence of his uncle in this room, oblique as a smile, hidden in the things no one’s paid attention to. He can hear him in the piles of scrolls and the rows of glinting knives, in the precise layout of this long-used desk. Jin Ling was deaf to all these voices as a child, deaf to anything but the scream of his own heart, but he’s grown tired of his own rage, or it’s grown tired of him. He wants to stop screaming and listen. He wants to know what Jin Guangyao knew, what understanding he had that made the world dip their heads to a whore’s son.
There’s a scroll among all the other scrolls that glows when he touches it, a scroll with a dedication to him written on the inside. Jin Ling, it says, and the sight of his name in that perfect handwriting makes Jin Ling’s head hot, his thoughts racing and stirring at the old familiar cadence of his uncle’s soft voice.
“For A-Ling, in the hopes it may prove useful to him,” the scroll reads. Greedily, Jin Ling plunges in. He reads until rosy-fingered dawn is creeping into the sky, blind to the rhythms of his body calling him to sleep. The secret rooms of Koi Tower are silent, the high walls tight as a tomb, and in this dark and airless space Jin Ling hears the soft, clear voice of his uncle for the first time.
Jin Ling is listening.