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When questioned about it later, Sizhui will stand his ground and admit to nothing, because he’s a good kid who doesn’t rat out his friends, and because this was at least partly on him, too. 

Privately, though, he will know with certainty that it was Jingyi’s fault.

“I know what we should do for our final project,” Jingyi says one afternoon. They’re visiting the rabbits, technically, but Jingyi’s booming voice has caused them to scatter away within twenty seconds of their arrival, and they have not returned since.

“For our lecture on inter-sect politics?” Sizhui asks sceptically. “I think most people just write a summary of all that we have learned.”

It’s one of those lectures that used to be taught by Zewu-Jun before his seclusion, and that has now been taken over by Old Master Lan. Not all junior disciples are allowed to attend, so Sizhui knows what an honour it is that among the dozens of disciples, it was he who was picked.

Jingyi was picked too, but he seems slightly less grateful.

“Who cares what most people do? Senior Wei isn’t most people.” Jingyi makes a grab for one of the rabbits that has slowly been approaching, and slumps slightly when the rabbit retreats instantly.

“That is true,” Sizhui says thoughtfully. “He isn’t.”

Sensing weakness, Jingyi presses on. “And neither is Hanguang-Jun, you know! Senior Wei wouldn’t like him if he was.”

Sizhui cringes at the inappropriateness of this entire conversation. But Jingyi isn’t wrong. “So what’s your idea?”

Usually their lectures end with an exam, but back when Zewu-Jun was still teaching, he’d announced that their grade would be determined by a practical project instead, to be handed in at the very last session. Old Master Lan could have changed it back to an exam when he took over the class, but Sizhui suspects that at the time, he was still hoping that his nephew might return to teaching soon. With just over four months left, the chance of Zewu-Jun leaving seclusions is getting progressively slimmer, but their curriculum has remained the same, and the project stands.

There are no guidelines for it. Just show me that I haven’t been shouting into a void for a year, Zewu-Jun had said with a smile.

Sizhui, too, had been planning to write a summary. He’s halfway finished with the first part already. He made a chart. He read up on all the additional secondary literature that Zewu-Jun and Old Master Lan mentioned, and cross-referenced it. Tomorrow, he was planning to find more primary sources.

If Jingyi’s triumphant expression is anything to go by, he shouldn’t have bothered.

Jingyi grins. “We,” he declares loudly, “are going to write a newsletter.”

From the corner of his eye, Sizhui can see another rabbit fleeing.

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Spring Edition

TROUBLE IN PIERADISE?  

Eyewitnesses report that Sect Leader Jiang (36) has started the journey from Lotus Pier, his current residence, to Cloud Recesses, cultivation hotspot and main residence of His Excellency, Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji, and the alleged Yiling Patriarch Wei Wuxian, no less than five separate times, only to return back home before he reached Gusu. Anonymous sources claim that Sect Leader Jiang is, as they say, “losing it”. Sect Leader Jiang did not respond to our inquiries for a personal statement, so we are left to speculate what this unusually erratic behaviour might mean for Yunmeng Jiang’s relations with Gusu Lan. Furthermore, (…).

 

***

Jingyi isn’t stupid. He knows that plenty of people question his place as one of Gusu Lan Sect’s junior disciples. Not his place as a cultivator, necessarily. Just as a Lan. And it’s not like this has given him many sleepless nights, or some sort of inferiority complex – it hasn’t. But sometimes, he does wonder, a bit.

So when Zewu-jun invited him to attend his annual lecture on politics, Jingyi felt – not vindicated, exactly. He’s one of the best cultivators in his grade, and he doesn’t need any additional classes to tell him that. But it had been nice regardless. A good moment, a good day.

That’s what prompted him to think outside the box for this project. Old Master Lan will receive ten beautifully written and dreadfully dry reports on what he already knows, because he was there teaching it. He doesn’t need an eleventh version of that. What Old Master Lan needs, Jingyi thinks, is something to liven it up a little. Stir up the pot, so to speak.

“It will be good for him,” he says. “An opportunity for personal growth.”

“If you think it will be good for him,” Sizhui reasonably asks, “then why are we on our way to lie to him?”

“He doesn’t need to grow immediately,” Jingyi says.

He tries to make Sizhui wait outside. After all, Sizhui has many talents, but not looking suspicious is not one of them. But when he voices this out loud, Sizhui merely says, I thought you wanted this to work. Which is mean and unnecessary and also probably true, so they enter Old Master Lan’s office together.

“Grandmaster,” Sizhui says, and they both bow. “May these disciples have a moment of your time?”

“Take a seat,” Old Master Lan tells them. “What can I help you with?”

Jingyi takes the lead, because it was his idea and he doesn’t trust Sizhui to describe it properly. “It’s about our final project,” he says. “We wanted to clear our idea with you first.”

“Go on then,” Old Master Lan says. He’s stroking his beard, which Jingyi gets momentarily distracted by until Sizhui elbows him.

“Right. We’d like to focus on a narrative approach to everyday sect life, both of Gusu Lan and of other sects. Like a book, only shorter. Maybe we can find someone to draw a picture or two as well.”

Old Master Lan does not look convinced. Jingyi tries to say something, but Sizhui elbows him again and takes over.

“Grandmaster Lan,” he says earnestly, “you’ve taught us the importance of maintaining good relationships with other clans. We believe a project like this will result in closer communication and promote intersect relations in both long and short term. Also, it will provide us with an interesting challenge to put our acquired knowledge from your lecture into a practical application.”

Jingyi stares at him, stunned, and almost misses it when Old Master Lan speaks up. “That,” he says, “sounds like an excellent idea.” He sounds mildly surprised by that. “You have my permission.”

“Thank you, Grandmaster!” Sizhui bows.

Jingyi, sensing an opportunity and taking it, says, “Any statement you would like us to include, Grandmaster? Just to round it all up?”

Old Master Lan thinks for a moment. “Practice restraint,” he says.

Jingyi frowns. “That’s all?”

“Restraint is important,” Old Master Lan says.

Jingyi opens his mouth to protest, but is saved from what might have ended in disaster when Sizhui stands, thanks the Grandmaster for his time, and bodily drags him away.

“Practice restraint,” Jingyi mimics bitterly once they’re back outside and well out of earshot. “Thanks for nothing. Oh, well,” he continues, brightening, “we’ll figure something out. For now, let’s talk topics.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Spring Edition

QUESTION OF THE DAY

Who would be more likely to win in a fight: Wen “Ghost General” Ning or Xiao “Hero” Xingchen? Send in your answers to the address below!

***

“Do you really think people will send in answers?” Sizhui asks. After commandeering one of the study rooms in the library, they’ve spent the better part of the day collecting topics and drafting articles. “What will we even do if they do?”

“Publish the results of our poll in the second edition, of course.”

“Second edition?”

Jingyi looks up from where he’s bent over one of the books they’ve found on genealogy among the different sects. “Of course,” he repeats, like the mere question is offensive somehow. “Hey, did you know that technically, Xiao Xingchen and Senior Wei are related?”

“Really?” Sizhui asks, but Jingyi has already slid the book over to him. “Huh. So if Xiao Xingchen and Cangse Sanren were both taught by Baoshan Sanren, then that makes Senior Wei-.”

“Xiao Xingchen’s nephew. Hey, I wonder if we could ask Baoshan Sanren for a statement. We’re already paying a messenger to send an inquiry to Yunmeng, might as well make sure we get our money’s worth, right?”

“By asking him to find Baoshan Sanren,” Sizhui says flatly. He should be more surprised by this, probably, but he’s been friends with Jingyi for over ten years now. They’ve had weirder days.

“Why not? What could happen?”

“She hasn’t been seen in centuries. No one even knows where she lives,” Sizhui says. He tries to say it like Hanguang-Jun would say it, in a tone that brooks no argument. Then it occurs to him that Hanguang-Jun wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, and he deflates.

Jingyi points a triumphant finger at him. “Song Zichen does. Everyone knows that Xiao Xingchen took him to see his old teacher to restore Song Zichen’s eyesight. But what not everyone knows is that Senior Wen-“

“-has been corresponding with him for the past few months,” Sizhui interrupts, too excited to care that he just broke a rule.

When Senior Wei first returned from his travels, they’d pressed him for details and he had happily obliged. From what Sizhui can tell, most of his stories were either blatantly exaggerated, or just outrageous lies to begin with, but some things rang true. That story about the water spirit and the child, for one. Or that time he’d been bedridden for two weeks because he’d gotten poisoned without realising.

Also, perhaps most stunningly, the story of how the infamous Ghost General and Song Zichen started to exchange letters. The way Senior Wei told it, he’d just run into Song Zichen on a night hunt one day. They’d defeated the mountain demons together and shared a campfire afterwards. They’d talked, or rather, “I talked and he ignored me,” Senior Wei had laughed, and at some point, Senior Wei had mentioned Wen Ning.

“That was the first time he really looked at me,” Senior Wei had told them. “Without Lan Zhan there, he couldn’t exactly ask questions, but I could tell he wanted to know more. So I told him where to find Wen Ning, suggested that they go talk, one fierce corpse to another. A few months later, I went to see Wen Ning and found out that they’re pen pals now. I asked what they talk about, but Wen Ning refused to tell me! Can you believe he’d betray me like this? Me, his truest friend?”

Now, Jingyi and Sizhui share a look. “Sizhui,” Jingyi says, “you should write to Senior Wen – or better yet, go see him in person. You can ask him for an interview while you’re at it.”

“About Song Zichen?” Sizhui asks, feeling like the conversation has gotten away from him.

“No, we’re asking him to ask Song Zichen to talk to Baoshan Sanren, remember?” Jinyi says patiently. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the Ghost General for an interview. People will want to know what he’s up to.”

“They will?”

“Meanwhile,” Jinyi says, no longer listening, “I’m going to see Senior Wei about speeding up the printing process.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Spring Edition

WE GOT GHOSTED! An Interview with Ghost General Wen Ning

I: Senior Wen, what does being a fierce corpse feel like?  

WN: I- I don’t really know, it’s alright, I suppose? There are worse things.

I: What do you miss most about being alive?

WN: Food, I guess, I’m not really – look, I’m not really sure, it’s been so long ago. But probably food.

I: What do you think about the rumours that Hanguang-Jun and the man who calls himself ‘Yiling Patriarch’ are getting married?

WN: Oh, is that a rumour? I kind of thought they – but no, I suppose not. I- I mean, I guess I’m happy for them? Yes. I’m happy. Wait, why did you make air quotes?  

I: I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear it. Now, moving on, let’s talk more about cultivation.

(…)

 

***

Precisely three weeks after Jingyi and Sizhui got official permission from Old Master Lan, the newsletter’s first edition is published.

(“I really wish you’d stop calling it ‘first’ edition, Sizhui had said.

“Don’t be so negative,” Jingyi had replied.)

The original plan was to just hand it out among the Lan disciples, wait a few days to see what kind of reaction it would get, write a report on the whole thing and call it a day. But once Senior Wei helped Jingyi modify their printing process with talismans, bits and pieces of assorted machinery, and several inspired ideas, it kind of seemed a waste not to distribute their newsletter on a larger scale. Country-wide scale, even.

(“So Senior Wei knows about this?” Sizhui had asked, the relief evident in his face at the thought of an adult involved.

“Of course he doesn’t know!” Jingyi had exclaimed, looking around frantically to make sure no one would overhear. “I told him it was for a project. I didn’t give him details.)

So now they’ve sent three messengers to the three other great sects, each with thirty copies. And since messengers don’t come cheap, it stands to reason that the newsletter doesn’t get handed out for free.

(“Profit from a school project,” Sizhui had said, more to himself than to Jingyi. “When the Grandmaster hears about this-“

“Not profit,” Jingyi had been quick to assure him. “Just so we can recover the money we gave the messengers. And, after all, we are providing them with a service. It’s only fair that they give us something in return.)

The final thirty copies are given out in Cloud Recesses, as had always been their plan. Upon Sizhui’s instance, no member of Gusu Lan has to pay. Jingyi had lost that fight, but he vows to have a rematch when they’re ready for the second edition.

On the evening before, everything is finished and printed, and all the newsletters are ready to be handed out tomorrow, Jingyi and Sizhui are just done congratulating themselves on a job well done, when one of the outer disciples enters, bows, and hands Sizhui three letters.

“Who’s writing you letters?” Jingyi asks with interest. “Are they from Jin Ling? All three of them?”

“One is,” Sizhui says, sorting through the envelopes. “He’d write to you, too, if you ever replied, you know. Oh, this one is from Wen Ning – he’ll probably want to know how our project went, we have to make sure to send him a copy. And-“ He stops. His mouth has dropped open as he’s staring at the letter in his hand.

Frowning, Jingyi takes the envelope from Sizhui’s unresisting grip.

His mouth drops open too.

“Sizhui,” he says slowly, “is that-“

Sizhui straightens. “We have to go to print again,” he says.

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Spring Edition

BREAKING NEWS: BAOSHAN SANREN BREAKS SILENCE TO ACKNOWLEDGE GRANDSON WEI WUXIAN AND ADVISE LAN DISCIPLES NOT TO STUDY TOO HARD

The Woman, the Myth, the Legend! In a recent correspondence, the legendary Baoshan Sanren (age unknown) divulged details on the heritage of the man who claims to be the ‘Yiling Patriarch’, and gives advice on life, cultivation, and the dangers of overworking. Read more on page 2.

***

News has always travelled fast. This time, it travels by sword.

It reaches Yunmeng first, closely followed by Lanling. Qinghe is the last to receive it, but not by far.

Three days after the first disciples in Lan held the PRESS in their hands, all the major sects have got a copy. Multiple copies, in fact. Thirty of them.

And, of course, news reaches not just the disciples and the common folk, but also the sect leaders.

Jiang Wanyin takes one look at the front page, ignoring the main headline as his eyes focus instead on one of the smaller headlines, which reads: DO WE HEAR WEDDING BELLS? Hanguang-Jun and ‘Yiling Patriarch’ spotted holding hands. Jiang Wanyin clenches his fists until his palms bleed, and gets ready for his sixth journey to Cloud Recesses – this time to be completed.

Jin Ling skims most of it, but gets stuck on page seven: FASHION: DO’S AND DON’TS.

Avoid gold unless you can pull it off. Which you probably can’t., one line reads. When in doubt, go white, another. Jin Ling self-consciously touches the hem of his golden robe, then remembers that his sect has been wearing them for centuries and  this is clearly ridiculous. Who do they think they are, giving unsolicited advice like this?

Within the hour, Jin Ling, too, has arranged a journey to Cloud Recesses. He makes sure to wear his best robe. In gold, of course.

Nie Huaisang, for his part, reads the entire newsletter from cover to cover. Twice. Then he smiles, amused by a joke only he is in on, and drafts a reply.

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 2nd Spring Edition

A brief word from our sponsor! Qinghe Tourist Enterprises would like you to know that there is no cleaner air than in the Unclean Realm. Visit Qinghe to bathe in the hot springs, experience local traditions, and don’t forget to pay a visit to the statue of Sect Leader Nie Huaisang, which is said to bring good luck to those who leave offerings next to it. Book your trip now!

***

“Quick, we need to hide,” Jingyi says as he bursts into the study room that he and Shingyi have started to think of as their headquarters. “Get up, get up, get up.”

“Is everything okay?” Sizhui asks, carefully recapping the ink bottle and putting his latest article on the right stack.

“Come on,” Jingyi says nervously. He keeps looking over his shoulder like he expects someone to suddenly materialise right behind him. “Why are you taking so long? We need to hide now.”

“Hide from whom? What are you talking about?”

Jingy takes a deep breath and looks at Sizhui, his eyes wide and scared. “Sect Leader Jiang has just arrived and demanded to speak to the editors.”

Sizhui freezes. Then he says, “I think probably no one will remember to check the Cold Pond.”

They don’t get the chance to find out. Sect Leader Jiang spots them as they leave the library, and Sizhui is too well-raised and Jingyi too scared to do anything but bow and greet him.

“I want to speak to whoever is responsible for this garbage,” Sect Leader Jiang says angrily. He holds up the newsletter, as if they need a reminder.

Sizhui resigns. He’s a Lan disciple, and they don’t bow down from challenges. “That would be me, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Next to him, Jingyi throws him a dark look before admitting, “It’s both of us, actually. Would you maybe like to have a word about this in private?”

“What I would like is for you two jokers to explain, then beg my forgiveness, then destroy all copies in front of me and vow to never write a word again.” Sect Leader Jiang is getting louder with every word, and several of the Lan disciples have wandered over while trying to look like they’re not paying attention. It’s only a matter of time before one of the teachers or, worse, Old Master Lan comes to see what’s caused the commotion.

Realising at once that allowing Jingyi to respond would make things much worse for everyone, Sizhui does his best to smile at Jiang Wanyin. He’s going for a Zewu-Jun impression, polite and friendly and as movable as a brick wall. “Sect Leader Jiang, are we not allowed to write what we want? We wrote it on our sect grounds in compliance with our sect’s precepts, and with permission from Grandmaster Lan himself. So as long as neither the Grandmaster nor His Excellency have objections, why should you?”

“Why should – fine. Fine. I want to speak to His Excellency then.” As always, when Sect Leader Jiang says His Excellency, he makes it sound like an insult.

Sizhui keeps his smile firmly fixed on his face and ignores Jingyi’s fidgeting. “I’m sorry to inform you that Hanguang-Jun is not available right now. He left Cloud Recesses on sect business, and has not informed us when he will return.”

His eyes fall on Zidian, which is crackling dangerously around Jiang Wanyin’s wrist. “I want to know who else got a copy,” Sect Leader Jiang snaps, changing tactics. “How many people did you give those to?”

“Probably around one hundred and fifty,” Jingyi says at the same time as Sizhui says, “we don’t have an exact number.”

It’s a bit worrying how quickly Jiang Wanyin’s face goes purple. “What?”

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui says, careful to project an aura of calm and not seem like he’s calculating how long it will be before Old Master Lan comes out of his office. “If you would like to give us an official statement on behalf of Yunmeng Jiang, the PRESS will gladly print it for you.”

“I don’t care who you think you cleared this with,” Sect Leader Jiang says, his voice thunderous, “but if the Grandmaster is going senile in his old age and your Zewu-Jun is still hiding himself away, then I can still guarantee you that I’m not the only one who will take offense. And the next person who comes knocking might not be as patient as me.”

Sizhui doesn’t have to glance over to know that Jingyi has just mouthed, patient?

“The PRESS thanks you for your time,” he says. “We will be sure to give your words the consideration they deserve. May these disciples escort you out?”

Sect Leader Jiang turn on his heels and storms in the direction of the front gates without another word. Sizhui and Jingyi wait until he’s gone before collapsing to the ground.

“I thought we were gonna die,” Jingyi keeps saying, “I thought he was gonna kill us, oh my gods, I can’t believe we got away with it.”

“He made a good point,” Sizhui says once he no longer feels like he’ll have a heart attack.

“He what?”

“The PRESS will upset a lot of people. I think it’s time that we got some sponsors.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 2nd Spring Edition

JIN TONIC! Sect Leader Jin Ling offers top secret family recipes for the best cocktails!

‘I’ve only recently become old enough to drink,’ Sect Leader Jin (17) told the PRESS in an exclusive interview. ‘It’s all still pretty new and mostly it tastes really bitter. But you guys told me it was this or another fashion special, so I asked one of our cooks to show me. Did you know that working in the kitchen is actually surprisingly hard? I can’t believe people do that willingly.’ After offering his opinion on the working class, the sect leader and only son of war heroes Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli went on to say that making cocktails involves ‘a lot of trial and error’ and is ‘not for everyone’. Without any more preamble, here are four exclusive cocktails from the esteemed Jin family!

***

Jingyi is on his way to the library for what feels like the thousandth time this month. He’s sorting through the newly-arrived letters as he walks and doesn’t pay attention where he’s going – so of course, just as he’s skimming the contents of yet another complaint, he bumps into someone.

“This disciple apologises- Zewu-Jun?”

Zewu-Jun smiles at him. “That’s quite a bit of mail you have there. Getting a lot of love letters from your classmates, are you? I remember that phase.” He sounds wistful about it. Jingyi’s mind is so busy reeling over the fact that Zewu-Jun once went to school, as a student, and got love letters, that he almost forgets the most important bit – almost, but not quite.

“I thought you were in seclusion,” he blurts out.

Zewu-Jun keeps smiling. It’s a little unnerving, actually. “Oh, I am. I just came out to grab a quick cup of tea, and then I’ll be on my way.” When Jingyi keeps staring at him, he helpfully explains, “Wangji keeps the best brands for himself in the Jingshi. He usually brings me some, but he hasn’t been to see me in a while. Is he very busy at the moment?”

It takes Jingyi a second to realise that he’s been asked a question. “Hanguang-Jun was called away on urgent business a few weeks ago,” he says. “We don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“He hasn’t returned yet?” Zewu-Jun asks, eyebrows etched in a frown. “Well, thank you, Jingyi. I’ll be taking my leave now. Wait- you were in my politics class, weren’t you? How’s that practical project going for you?”

It’s a trap, Jingyi thinks. There’s no way Zewu-Jun doesn’t already know, not if he asks like this. But Zewu-Jun’s face betrays nothing, his expression as politely interested as ever. “Good,” he manages to get out. “It’s going good. Really, just, it’s great. Great project.”

“I’m happy to hear it. Oh, and Jingyi? I’d be happy to give an interview. We could call it, I don’t know, 27 useful tips for entering seclusion. Oh, but what am I saying? You’re the boss.”

“Zewu-Jun,” Jingyi says, and watches helplessly as Zewu-Jun winks at him, smiles, and then makes off in the direction of Hanguang-Jun’s rooms, presumably to steal his tea. “What,” Jingyi mutters, “the fuck.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 2nd Spring Edition

YELLING PATRIARCH AND HANG-WHO-ANG-JUN SECRETLY ELOPED?

Where is Hanguang-Jun? It’s a question frequently asked in Cloud Recesses these days, and one that has yet to be answered. His Excellency, Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji, has been missing for several weeks now. His presumed fiancé (as the PRESS reported in its 1st edition), alleged “Wei Wuxian” or “Yiling Patriarch”, has been unavailable for a statement, as he couldn’t be found, either. Witnesses report that His Excellency has been seen last in Cloud Recesses, where the Chief Cultivator currently resides. His probably-fiancé was with him at the time and was seen accompanying His Excellency on this mysterious trip. Coincidence? We think not! Find out more about what this probable secret wedding could mean for the future of Gusu Lan Sect on page five.

***

For the second edition, they plan one hundred copies per sect, and it’s not just the major sects this time, either.

(“Everyone wants to be on top of the cultivation world,” Jingyi had argued. “Just ask Senior Wei.”

“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Sizhui had replied, “and I’m very uncomfortable with you talking about Hanguang-Jun like that.”)

More messengers means more money, but with more copies, they will make back what they lost in no time. In the budget that Sizhui has carefully drafted, there’s even a small profit planned.

(“I thought you said we’re a no-profit organisation,” Jingyi had said.

“We are,” Sizhui said, batting his hands away before he could mess up the ink, “but we’ve got other expenses, too. And we should establish some savings, just in case.”)

They have also set up a business address that will direct all incoming letters to an office in Caiyi Town. Not only is it just a matter of time before people get suspicious about the amount of mail Jingyi gets – literally not a single person in this earth except Zewu-Jun will seriously believe that it’s love letters –, but also, this way they might avoid another personal encounter like the one with Sect Leader Jiang.

And, finally, they’ve found a sponsor.

“When we got your letter, we thought you were joking,” Jingyi says, and scowls when Sizhui steps on his foot. “I mean. Thank you for meeting us, Sect Leader Nie.”

Sect Leader Nie Huaisang takes a delicate sip of tea and looks at them over the brim of his cup. “Of course,” he says. “I’m a firm patron of the arts. Qinghe has the highest density of museums in all the realm, did you know?”

He pauses. It takes Sizhui a moment to realise that a reply is expected. “I did not, Sect Leader,” he says.

“You do now,” says Sect Leader Nie. “So when I saw this little project – called into life by upcoming cultivators of the esteemed Gusu Lan Sect, no less – I knew I would simply have to do my share. That’s why I’ve decided to sponsor you.”

“That’s very kind of you, Sect Leader.” They both bow.

Sect Leader Nie smiles. “And I won’t hear of getting anything in return. That’s how rumours start! No, I’m doing this solely to support a group of young entrepreneurs. Of course,” and at this, he takes another sip of his tea, “-if you wanted to write an article – perhaps some sort of special feature – on the Unclean Realm, I wouldn’t be opposed. But don’t let me tell you what to do! This is your newsletter, and I’m but an onlooker. An onlooker who lives in the city that has won Most Beautiful Public Parks for the fifth time in row this year.” He smiles again.

Once he’s left, they turn to look at each other. “I’m not sure I understood what just happened,” Jingyi admits.

Sizhui pats him on the shoulder and says, “Capitalism.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 3rd Spring Edition

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Stop the press

I’m saddened to see that this is what the cultivation world has come to. Relying on gossip rags for news about our fellow cultivators? Shame on you all! Besides, it’s widely known that Hanguang-Jun would never disgrace himself by spending time with the likes of Wei Wuxian. Perhaps you should hire a fact-checker.

They’re after us!

Thank you to the editor for finally revealing the truth about what’s really going on behind the scenes! It’s about time those sheeple get the wool pulled from their eyes. For your next edition, I think you should investigate Wen Ruohan’s whereabouts. If you look at all the data from that night, you’ll realise that his ‘death’ is actually really improbable. I know I’m not the only one who suspects a cover-up. Would be great if you could get the word out there!

 

***

“Okay,” Jingyi says, collapsing onto a cushion with the air and scowl of an old man, “but you’ve got to admit that the whole thing with Hanguang-Jun is odd.”

“What thing?” Sizhui asks mildly. He’s currently drafting a letter to Ouysang Zizhen, but he’s willing to be distracted.

“No one has seen him in weeks!”

“I know,” Sizhui says. “We wrote an article about it.” Or, more accurately, Jingyi wrote an article about it. He’d showed it to Sizhui, beaming with pride. Sizhui had read it, nodded his agreement to go to print, and washed his hands off it forever.

“Yes, but that was just a bit of fun. No one actually believed it. But this morning I overheard-“

“Eavesdropped,” Sizhui mutters under his breath.

“-the Grandmaster and Zewu-Jun talking when Zewu-Jun was taking his daily walk.”

This is news to Sizhui. “Isn’t he in seclusion?”

Jingyi makes a vague hand motion that’s presumably meant to indicate that it’s of no importance. “He is, he just likes taking walks.”

“That doesn’t sound like seclusion,” Sizhui insists, frowning.

“Whatever,” Jingyi says, apparently done with this topic now. “Focus, Sizhui! The point is, when I overheard them this morning, Zewu-Jun said something like, When is Wangji coming back?” His voice has adopted a high pitch in what seems to be an imitation of Zewu-Jun. “And Old Master Lan said, He has yet to send word.”

“Is there something stuck in your throat? Do you want me to get some water?” Sizhui asks politely. Jingyi ignores him.

“And then Zewu-Jun said, Do you know where he’s gone, and Old Master Lan was looking at him like he always looks when he catches you having no homework, and I thought he was going to make Zewu-Jun write lines or something, but then he said, How do you expect me to know, it’s not like Wangji tells me anything anymore, and Zewu-Jun kind of patted his arm or something, and then Old Master Lan was gonna say something else, but then I tripped and I think they heard me because they stopped talking, and I had to hide in a bush until they were gone.”

That, Sizhui thinks, explains why Jingyi’s hair has a leaf in it. He reaches out to brush it away, and frowns when Jingyi catches his hand and yanks it upwards. “Do you know what this means?”

“That you don’t have enough duties to occupy your time with?”

“It means,” Jingyi says triumphantly, “that we were right. Hanguang-Jun is missing! Just like we wrote in our last edition! And it’s our sworn duty to find him.”

Sizhui finally removes his hand from Jingyi’s sweaty grip and resists the urge to wipe it on the front of his robes. “It is?”

“Of course,” Jingyi says. “It’s the responsibility of the PRESS.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Special Feature

HANGUANG-JUN ABDUCTED?

Reports on the Chief Cultivator’s disappearance have been piling up as His Excellency has been missing for several weeks now (as the PRESS reported in its 2nd edition). While we can only speculate at this point, Grandmaster Lan Qiren (>60, probably) has been reported to have expressed his concern over the situation. It stands to reason then that Hanguang-Jun’s absence is not, in fact, planned, unlike previously suspected. This leaves us with one question: Where is Hanguang-Jun? For this, the PRESS has decided to ask its loyal readership for help. If you think you know his whereabouts, write to the address below. The reward has yet to be determined, though there have been rumours that Sect Leader Jiang is looking for a cultivation partner right now. Help us find His Excellency!

 

***

It’s not lying if they really do go on a night hunt at the border between Jiangang and Lanling. There really is a horde of dream spirits that have been snatching villagers’ dreams for weeks now. And it only makes sense for Sizhui and Jingyi to go. They are now at the age where they are allowed to go on smaller night hunts without senior disciples to guide them. So why wouldn’t they go on this one?

And of course it’s only to be expected that they run into Jin Ling and his group of junior disciples. He may have taken over as sect leader, but sect leaders go on night hunts all the time, and his training has yet to be completed.

And when, after they’ve defeated the dream spirits, they realise that they’re all staying at the same inn, then that’s a lucky coincidence. They’re all friends, after all.

“We’re not friends,” Jin Ling declares haughtily that night at the inn. He somehow convinced the owner to serve him liquor and now grimaces at every sip. “Acquaintances, maybe. Very distant acquaintances.”

“You sent Sizhui letters every week,” Jingyi points out.

Jin Ling’s face turns the shade of his vermillion dot. “That’s not true! And even if I did, it’s just to keep up with your ridiculous newsletter.”

Sensing an opening, Jingyi says, “That’s actually what we wanted to talk to you about.”

“Of course,” Jin Ling mutters angrily. “Of course it is. Let me guess – you want my money?”

There’s a brief pause.

“You do have a lot of it,” Jingyi says then.

“I do,” Jin Ling acknowledges. He’s scowling, but that’s already his default expression, so Jingyi doesn’t worry too much. “I do have a lot of money. But so does Gusu Lan. What do you need me for?”

Jingyi and Sizhui share a brief, yet meaningful look. Sizhui relents first. “We were hoping,” he begins, “that Gusu Lan Sect wouldn’t need to know about this.”

Predictably, Jin Ling perks up slightly at the promise of secrecy and, more importantly, at the promise of being in on it. “Well,” he says, “I suppose I can lend you some. But I thought you had sponsors now. Why else would you keep writing about how great Qinghe is? Everybody knows that place is a shithole.”

Another look is shared. This time Jingyi gives in.

“Actually, we don’t really need your money as much as your permission. We want to hire an official Lanling correspondent.”

“Why?” Jin Ling asks, too baffled to remember being angry about it.

“More contact with the major sects means less relying on gossip,” Sizhui explains. “So far our articles have been somewhat-“ He falters, apparently failing to find a polite word for it.

“Stupid?” Jin Ling suggests diplomatically. He ducks automatically when Jingyi throws a loquat at him. “Hey!”

“You try writing something, then,” Jingyi says. “That’ll teach you how hard it is to write something people actually want to read. It’s not as simple as it looks!”

“Seemed pretty simple to me,” Jin Ling says. “It’s all, Hanguang-Jun eaten by bear? Anyone could write that.”

At this, Jingyi and Sizhui share one last, and final, look. It’s one of mutual agreement.

“Jin Ling,” Sizhui says, “how would you like to write for the PRESS as our official Lanling correspondent?”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 4th Spring Edition

SECT LEADER JIANG LOSING HIS MIND?

It’s not too long ago that Sect Leader Jiang was threatening this very newspaper in a clear violation of what we like to call the freedom of the PRESS. This volatile and unstable behaviour has long been public knowledge. But recently, the sect leader seems to have taken a turn for the worse: He has been rumoured to have gone on extended trips in the recent past, the destination of which is unknown, and to return muttering angrily to himself. Could this be the final straw?
In other news, the PRESS is happy to report that Sect Leader Jiang is, presumably, still seeking a cultivation partner. We have been reliably informed by inside sources that the sect leader enjoys long walks around lakes, dogs, and spicy food. That sounds appealing to you? Then write to us now!

 

***

The invitation gets delivered by a stony-faced messenger in the Yunmeng Jiang Sect’s purple robes. Sizhui knows this because the Jiang disciple does not send it to their Gusu office, but instead comes to Cloud Recesses to hand it over in person – and to stay until he receives a reply.

Sizhui watches Jingyi rip open the envelope, and patiently waits until Jingyi hands the letter to him, saying, “He wants us to go to Lotus Pier?”

The messenger raises an eyebrow and says, “I’m instructed to escort you there personally. For your protection, of course. Sect Leader Jiang would be distressed to see something happen to you.”

Jingyi turns to Sizhui, then back to the messenger, then back to Sizhui, and with one final look at the messenger, he says, “We just need- just give us five minutes.”

Sizhui follows Jingyi into an alcove where they’re safely out of earshot. “What’s our strategy?” Jingyi whispers.

Turning the letter over in his hands, Sizhui says thoughtfully, “I think we should do it. He does say that he wants to give an interview.”

“Yes,” Jingyi hisses, exasperated, “because he’s lying. We’ll be beheaded if we go there.”

“I don’t think Sect Leader Jiang goes for beheadings,” Sizhui muses. “He would probably just use Zidian to-“ He pauses when he sees the look on Jingyi’s face. “Anyway,” he says, “he wouldn’t. He will just threaten to.”

“Let’s just stay here, then. No beheadings, no threats. Besides, we’re almost finished with the fifth edition.”

Jingyi is right. A little more than two months have passed since they published the very first edition of their newsletter. Now, with improved messenger systems and the help of Senior Wei’s printing machine, they’re up to one edition a week.

“If we take our swords, we can be there tomorrow by nightfall,” Sizhui argues. “We’ll return the next day.” Jingyi does not look convinced. Taking a deep breath, Sizhui prepares to use his last weapon.

He smiles.

“Please, Jingyi,” he says. “Just this once.”

Jingyi stares at him. Sizhui keeps smiling. Finally, Jingyi relents. “Ugh,” he says, “fine. If we die and Hanguang-Jun uses Inquiry to ask us what happened, I’ll tell him it was your fault.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 5th Spring Edition

QUIZ OF THE WEEK: WHICH FAMOUS CULTIVATOR IS YOUR SECRET SOULMATE? ANSWER 43 QUESTIONS AND FIND OUT

  1. Pick your ideal date. Would you rather a) perform music together, b) cross blades on the battlefield, c) adopt an animal of choice, or d) get trapped in a cave for a week?
  2. What’s your favourite colour?

 

***

Neither of them have been to Lotus Pier since the Yunmeng Jiang Sect played reluctant host to all the other sects out of necessity. They ride their swords the entire way, not even taking a boat for the last leg of the journey, which was a battle that Sizhui refused to fight and that Jingyi won in his name because he’s a good friend like that and doesn’t like to see Sizhui puking his guts out.

The last time they were here, Jingyi didn’t pay much attention to his surroundings, but now he can’t stop thinking about how this is where Senior Wei grew up. Senior Wei doesn’t often talk about the past, claiming that he’s forgotten more than half of it and doesn’t want to bore them with the other half. But sometimes, he’ll talk about the infinite superiority of Yunmeng’s food, and other times, he will tell them the story of how he once got so drunk that he fell in the lake and almost drowned before befriending a water spirit that lived there.

“Do you think it’s still there?” Jingyi asks Sizhui, who frowns at him like he’s insane. Probably the nerves, Jingyi thinks. They’re waiting for Sect Leader Jiang in one of the reception rooms – have, in fact, been waiting for almost an hour now. Any longer and Jingyi is literally going to die of hunger. He’ll starve right here, and Sizhui will have to continue their newsletter on his own.

I think-“ Sizhui starts, but Jingyi will never find out what, exactly, it is that Sizhui thinks, because now the doors open and in comes Sect Leader Jiang.

“I didn’t expect you to come,” he says, once they’ve risen from their bows. “Thought you’d hide on your mountain like your Hanguang-Jun always preferred.”

Jingyi grips his sword, only to be stopped by a vicelike grip on his wrist, holding him back.

“You invited us,” Sizhui says politely, like he’s not currently stopping Jingyi from doing something that would get them locked up. “These disciples would not dare offend Sandu Shengshou.”

Jiang Wanyin looks pointedly at Jingyi before turning his attention back to Sizhui. “Of course not,” he says sarcastically. “I know how much you two hate offending people.”

“Offending people is against the precepts,” Sizhui agrees, and does not falter even when Sect Leader Jiang narrows his eyes at him. Abruptly, he looks back at Jingyi.

“Put that sword away,” he snaps. “Lan Wangji can stand up for himself, he doesn’t need you to do it for him. Besides,” he adds, smiling unpleasantly, “unlike these paragons of virtue in front of me, I don’t mind offending people. I like to think I’m quite good at it.”

Since there is nothing much to say to that without escalating the situation, Jingyi lets go of his sword and they all sit down. So far it’s been going better than expected: They have been in Lotus Pier for an hour and no blood has been spilled yet. Hopefully it will stay that way.

“So how about that interview?” Jingyi asks once they’re seated and a servant has poured them all tea. Because the thing is – he knows that there won’t be an interview, he knows that Sizhui knows that, and he knows that Jiang Wanyin definitely knows it. But it’s worth a shot.

Jing Wanyin gives them another one of those smiles that don’t have the faintest hint of humour in them. “I forgot how ambitious you are,” he says. “Right to the point. Working diligently, just like it says in your rules. Tell me, does it also say anything about your rules about spreading false rumours?”

They have prepared for this. As discussed, it’s Sizhui who takes the lead.

“Sect Leader,” he says, “we have never claimed to be in possession of the full truth. Such a thing would be impossible. In fact, we’ve made it quite clear in our articles that sometimes, we’re just speculating.”

“There’s also a disclaimer about it on the last page,” Jingyi adds helpfully.

“If you are concerned about what the PRESS is writing about you,” Sizhui continues, like Jiang Wanyin isn’t growing steadily redder in the face, “then I suggest you turn your aggression towards our sources.”

“Which we can’t disclose to you,” Jingyi jumps in. “They’re all anonymous.”

“How convenient for you,” says Sect Leader Jiang. He sips his tea, and Jingyi does as well, mostly to have something to do with his hands. “I want you to print something for me,” he says abruptly.

This was not in the script.

“We will gladly discuss it,” Sizhui says slowly, carefully, like he suspects a trap. He should be. Jingyi is definitely expecting a trap.

“A correction,” Jiang Wanyin clarifies. “About something that you wrote.”

Jingyi can’t resist. “Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, “this disciple would like to offer his congratulations on your continued search for a cultivation partner.”

He thinks he hears Sizhui sigh, but he can’t be sure, because most of it gets drowned out by Sect Leader Jiang choking on his tea. When he looks back up, his eyes promise murder.

“Don’t push it,” he says. “In fact, if you ever so much as think about setting me up again, I will- what are you doing?”

Sizhui looks up from where he’s been silently taking notes. “Sect Leader?”

“What are you writing?” Jiang Wanyin demands. There’s a brief silence as both Jingyi and Sect Leader Jiang attempt to read what Sizhui has written down.

- said Sect Leader Jiang (36), whose violent threats against the PRESS persist. The Sect Leader went on to say, “In fact, if you ever so much as think about setting me up again, I will-

“I’m making a transcript of our conversation,” Sizhui says, his pen poised over his notebook. “Since you raised concerns about our integrity. This way, we can all be sure that nothing false gets printed.”

“You-!“ Sect Leader Jiang starts. Then he closes his eyes, just for a second, and when he opens them again, his face has returned to a healthier shade of red. He sounds surprisingly calm as he says, “Write what you want, I clearly can’t stop you. And however ridiculous it is, that nonsense about cultivation partners is not why I asked you here. Look-“ He pauses, and apparently attempts to force his expression into something marginally friendlier. The result makes Jingyi shift uneasily in his seat.

“Look,” Sect Leader Jiang says again, “you need to stop with that bullshit on Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian gone missing.”

The tip of Sizhui’s brush breaks, causing ink to spill over the page. Sizhui ignores the way his robes are getting soaked, and his voice is tight as he speaks. “Sect Leader Jiang, do you know something about that?”

There is a long pause. Jingyi’s leg keeps bouncing up and down and he’s still hungry, but this doesn’t feel like the right time to mention it. Sizhui, of course, appears as calm as ever, but he’s frowning slightly, which is basically Sizhui-speak for impatience.

Eventually, Sect Leader Jiang says, “No one is missing. So you’d better stop with this- this witch-hunt.”

“It really sounds like you know something,” Jingyi says. But Sect Leader Jiang must have decided that he’s had enough of them, because he stands, ignoring their protests.

“You’ll spend the night here,” he says. “I will have rooms prepared for you. Tomorrow, you leave, or else I will change my mind about letting you go unpunished. And if you could target someone else for a few weeks, that would be much appreciated. What on earth possessed you, anyway? Writing gossip rags doesn’t sound much like Lan disciples.”

Jingyi says primly, “It’s for a school project.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 5th Spring Edition

NEW SUSPECT IN MISSING PERSON CASE: SECT LEADER JIANG CONFIRMED TO BE INVOLVED IN HANGUANG-JUN'S DISAPPEARENCE

***

“We have a problem,” Jingyi says, to Sizhui, to himself, to the room at large. And they do.

The problem is that, following the past two editions, people have been sending in sightings of Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch. They have not sent them in unsolicited – after all, this is exactly what the PRESS asked for. They’d asked for clues of Hanguang-Jun’s whereabouts, and now they’ve gotten them.

Hundreds of them.

I spotted His Excellency in The Golden Fan, Qinghe’s finest restaurant. Hanguang-Jun was enjoying a prime rib steak and sipping our local wine, which topped taste testers’ lists from all over northern China. If you want to dine like war hero and famous cultivator Hanguang-Jun, come to Qinghe.

Their study room has been taken over entirely by alleged sightings, and Sizhui’s head hurts just to look at them.

When I saw your paper, I said to my wife, didn’t we see a fellow like that just last week? And we did, mark my words. I was out in the garden when this fellow in white passes, or maybe it was blue, my eyes aren’t too sharp anymore these days, the wife says I should go see a doctor but I told her, I’m not seeing a doctor in my life. And this fellow in white or blue was passing, and then he was gone, and when I read your paper, I said to my wife, didn’t we see him just last week? The wife says to tell you that we don’t actually know, because we’ve never seen a cultivator before and my eyes aren’t too sharp anymore these days, but I’m feeling confident.

“What are we supposed to do with these?” Jingyi asks desperately. “We can’t read them all. And even if we did- look at this one!

I’m surprised and saddened that in your recent articles, you reveal the mysterious absence of both Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch, but you don’t seem to make the obvious connection: If our beloved Chief Cultivator is indeed spending time with Wei Wuxian, then the only possible explanation is that it’s Wei Wuxian who is responsible for the kidnapping. I’m once again disappointed by the lack of research your newsletter does.

“They’re all like this,” Sizhui says. “I sorted through some of them while you were at archery practice. I tried to divide them into categories.” He gestures at the table, where there are three neat stacks of papers amongst all the mess.

“What are the categories?”

“Useless, offensive, and creepy.”

“What are we going to do?” Jingyi asks again. “This isn’t even our job. We’re studying to be cultivators, not – investigators.”

“I think we made it our job,” Sizhui points out. “Besides, Senior Wei says that night-hunting is investigating. There’s no clear path, and you need to follow all kinds of clues before you get to the monster.”

“I can’t even tell if you’re joking anymore,” Jingyi says. “What if there really is a monster? Should we write an article about that? Did we already? There’s so many theories, Sizhui, do you even realise just how many theories there are?”

Sizhui thinks for a moment and then says, “What’s our endgame here?”

Jingyi blinks. “Endgame?”

“Do we want a good grade on our project? Do we want to drive Sect Leader Jiang into qi-deviation? Do we want to burn these letters, disable the printing machine, and forget the newsletter ever existed?”

When Jingyi finally answers, he sounds more thoughtful than panicked, which is precisely what Sizhui wanted to achieve. “I think the project ship has pretty much sailed,” he admits with a wince, accompanied by Sizhui’s nod – Sizhui suspected this was the case about four editions ago. “But people are reading our paper. They want to know what’s going on. And why shouldn’t they?”

He’s right, Sizhui thinks. No one said it’s only the key players who need to know the layout of the board.

“I don’t know that we need an endgame,” Jingyi says. “I say we continue this until it’s no longer fun, and then we do something else.”

“Cultivating,” Sizhui agrees.

“I kind of figured we’d open a restaurant or something,” Jingyi says. “But, you know, we have options. That’s all I’m saying.”

“So we sort through these letters? And then print the ones that sound most likely?”

“I guess,” Jingyi says, sounding unconvinced.

“Maybe-“ Sizhui says, and breaks off, uncertain of what it is he really wants to say. “I mean, no one knows, right? Everyone claims they know where Hanguang-Jun is, and whether Senior Wei is with him or not, but no one knows.”

“Sect Leader Jiang probably does, though.”

“We don’t know that,” he says. “And even so- Jingyi, they didn’t tell anyone. Senior Wei wouldn’t, I suppose, but Hanguang-Jun would have told the Grandmaster and Zewu-Jun.”

Jingyi shrugs. “It’s Hanguang-Jun. He does what he wants. You’re not saying that they have actually been kidnapped, right? Because I know we wrote that, but that was just a joke.”

“No,” Sizhui says, “I don’t know. But what I’m saying is – what if they just left?”

“They wouldn’t!”

“They did,” Sizhui says. It feels strangely freeing, to finally voice this fear that has been bugging him for the past several weeks. “They’ve done it before. And we wouldn’t know, would we? They could have left the realm entirely, and we’d never hear a word from them again.”

“Hanguang-Jun wouldn’t do that,” Jingyi insists. “He’s always come back. And- I don’t know Senior Wei like you do. But I think, if you look at his past, that Senior Wei has a good track record of coming back, too. Don’t you remember that he came back from the dead?”

There’s a pause.

Sizhui says, “Allegedly.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 6th Spring Edition

OUR WEEKLY ADVICE COLUMN: HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR NON-CULTIVATOR FRIEND. 17 HELPFUL TIPS

Not sure if your friend can take a friendly punch to the arm? Will they be able to catch your sword if you throw it to them, or will it dislocate their shoulder? Cliff-jumping: A fun activity to pass an afternoon, or a death trap? Read this week’s advice column to find out!

 

***

It ends with a bang.

“Wow,” Jingyi says, looking mournfully at the scorched printing press that’s still smoking a little, “I didn’t really know it could make that noise. We’re lucky it hasn’t exploded.”

Lucky, Sizhui thinks, is not quite the right word for it. Their printing machine may not have exploded, but catching fire isn’t much of an improvement. The press itself is mostly unharmed and the broken parts should easily be replaced, but that’s not the main issue.

Talismans are very, very flammable. And there were a lot of talismans keeping the machine going.

They don’t know what happened; they only came running when they heard the noise. But it’s not like it matters much, anyway. Sizhui can guess well enough. When Senior Wei drew these talismans, he presumably did not expect them to be used for three months straight. And not even (alleged) Yiling Patriarch Wei Wuxian can create talismans that last that long without hitch.

What happened here today was a hitch. A pretty big one.

“It’s okay,” Jingyi is saying, interrupting Sizhui’s musings. “We can fix it.”

“We don’t know how,” Sizhui says. It comes out more resigned than anything else.

“We’ll figure something out, then. If Senior Wei could do it, so can we.”

It’s unclear whether Jingyi is saying this for Sizhui’s benefit or his own, but Sizhui knows that they’re both aware of the very simple fact that Jingyi is lying. They’re teenage cultivators whose studies focus on music and sword fighting, respectively. They are at the top of their class. But they are not inventors, and they are not Senior Wei.

Jingyi lays one hand solemnly on the press. After a second, Sizhui does the same. The machine is still warm under their touch, both from the fire and the printing that had taken place before.

“We’ve managed to make enough copies for the sixth edition, at least,” Sizhui says. “We can still send it out tomorrow. People will be glad to know their letters reached us. And the term is almost over, anyway. Maybe it was meant to be.”

“Maybe,” Jingyi says, giving the press one firm pat. “We had a good run. Now, we’d better clean this up. And then I think we should probably think about what we should do with all that free time next year, since I don’t think we’ll make it into Sect Politics 201.”

For a moment, they look at each other. Then they both burst out laughing.

It feels like an oddly fitting end to the PRESS.

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 6th [and last] Spring Edition

MYSTERY ON HANGUANG-JUN AND ‘YILING PATRIARCH’S DISAPPEARANCE STILL UNSOLVED

In our last edition we asked our readers for help. We’ve compiled all the most compelling evidence you sent to us and printed it down below. We may not yet know what, exactly, happened to His Excellency and Wei ‘I swear it’s me’ Wuxian, but rest assured that the PRESS will continue to investigate.
Since our investigation began, we have received numerous threats, but the PRESS shall not be silenced. Our weekly newsletter will continue to act as a shining beacon to the cultivators everywhere until the world grows dark around us, or until we get bored. 

Also, we’re still looking for sponsors! If you’d like to sponsor us, write to the address below.

***

It’s surprisingly hard, settling back into their usual routine. Jingyi got used to carrying a notebook around everywhere just on the off chance that he might hear something of value. He got used to going to Gusu two or three times a week to collect their mail, and then sort through it with Sizhui afterwards in the study room. He got used to evading questions from his elders and avoiding Old Master Lan at all costs. Now, he goes to class, he practices sword fighting and archery, he goes to the meals and sleeps at 9 pm, only to rise at dawn with all the other disciples. Life goes on.

On the day that they would have published their seventh edition, Jingyi exits class only to be called back by the Grandmaster. He looks around for Sizhui, but it’s no use; Sizhui must have gone straight to guqin practice.

With a wince, Jingyi turns around and walks back into the classroom. “Grandmaster,” he says as respectfully as he can manage, which is never as very respectful at all.

“Jingyi,” the Grandmaster says. “You haven’t spoken up in class much lately. Your teachers have informed me that you’ve seemed absent these past few months.”

He has not, strictly speaking, asked a question, but Jingyi feels like he needs to answer anyway. “I’ve been busy,” he says. It’s an excuse that sounds like Old Master Lan would approve of it.

And, as it turns out, he does. “That is good to hear,” the Grandmaster says. He’s not smiling, because that would be insane, but his mouth does that weird thing that Hanguang-Jun sometimes does as well, where he looks like he might be smiling, if he had a soul. “We should all strive to be hard-working. With students as diligent as you, the future seems bright indeed.”

The worst thing, Jingyi thinks as he tries not to choke, is that Old Master Lan says it without even a trace of irony.

“Thank you,” he manages to get out.

“On that note, are you making progress on your project? The deadline is fast approaching.”

“Yes,” Jingyi says, hoping that this conversation will end soon, and he’ll be released from his misery. “So much progress. We’re progressing greatly, Greatm- I mean, Grandmaster.” This is why he needs Sizhui, he thinks hysterically when Old Master Lan frowns. He can’t be trusted with lying to an elder’s face like Sizhui can.

“Good,” Old Master Lan says. He studies Jingyi for a few more seconds, while Jingyi sweats through his robes at the scrutiny. Finally, the Grandmaster nods. “Off you go then. I’m looking forward to what you hand in.”

That, Jingyi thinks darkly, is the problem.

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 6th [and last] Spring Edition

ANSWERS TO LAST WEEK’S QUIZ: WHICH FAMOUS CULTIVATOR IS YOUR SECRET SOULMATE?

Option A: You prefer silence over words? Facial expressions are a foreign concept to you? Swords are sexy but music really gets you going? Congratulations, your secret soulmate is Hanguang-Jun!

(…)

Option F: Bloodshed makes you laugh? Your hobbies include killing small animals for fun? Then you might be just the right match for Xue Yang!

(…)

Option H: You have what people might call a slightly unhealthy relationship with death? You spend lots of time around graves? You will get along great with Ghost General Wen Ning, fierce corpse and self-proclaimed connoisseur of good books!

 

***

A crash sounds through Cloud Recesses. It’s coming from the direction of the room where they kept the printing press.

Sizhui has started running before he’s realised it. Did the press catch fire again? Is Jingyi destroying it on a whim?

Neither of those things, Sizhui thinks, bursting through the door and coming to an abrupt halt.

Senior Wei is standing in front of the press and taking it apart.

Another crash – he’s removed one of the planks and let it shatter to the ground.

Sizhui is still frozen by the time that Jingyi catches up to him. He must have heard the noise as well and, like Sizhui, suspected a disaster.

Unlike Sizhui, Jingyi is physically incapable of keeping quiet. “Senior Wei?”

Senior Wei turns around. Until this moment, Sizhui wasn’t totally sure. He was sure, because he knows what Senior Wei looks like and he’s met and interacted with him numerous times over the past year, but it’s like part of his brain refused to accept that this was him, returned to Cloud Recesses at last.

But only one man can smile like that, only to point at them accusingly with his flute the next moment. Pointing it at Jingyi, to be more accurate. “Is that what you do in my absence? Do you just wait until I’m gone before making a mess of things? Just look at this poor machine. You’ve killed it.”

“Who’s making a mess?” Jingyi exclaims. “And besides, it’s not like we could ask you to fix it for us! The nerve of you.”

Senior Wei clutches his hands to his chest like Jingyi has delivered a mortal wound. “Don’t speak to your senior like this,” he says. “Gone for such a short while and already you’ve forgotten your manners! If Hanguang-Jun hears about this-“

“So he’s back?” Sizhui interrupts. It’s impolite, and violating a rule, but he couldn’t care less. “Hanguang-Jun is back? And you are too? You’re both back?”

“Ai, Sizhui,” Senior Wei says, grimacing, “you’ll make me feel bad if you go on like this. It hasn’t been that long!”

“It’s been three months,” Jingyi says, and Senior Wei winces.

“We didn’t mean to be gone that long, anyway,” he mutters.

Sizhui can’t seem to stop staring at him. Senior Wei is back. He’s back. And Hanguang-Jun is back, too. Just like that. After all that has happened, they’ve returned like no time has passed at all.

He looks at the printing press again. The fire had mostly burned all the talismans, but hadn’t managed to melt the machine itself. Now, Senior Wei has ripped it apart to the point where it’s no longer salvageable.

Senior Wei follows his gaze. “Don’t worry about it,” he advises. “I’ll fix it for you. It might take a day or two, but-“

“It doesn’t matter,” Sizhui says. “As long as you fix it at all, Senior Wei.”

He meets Senior Wei’s eyes without flinching. A couple seconds pass, then Senior Wei smiles again. “I’ll work as fast as I can,” he says. “We’ve got to make it in time for your next edition, don’t we?”

Sizhui and Jingyi share a brief, yet deeply panicked look. It was your idea, Sizhui’s eyes say. He’s your weird stepdad, Jingyi’s eyes respond.

“Ah,” Sizhui says awkwardly, “so you heard about that?”

Senior Wei laughs. Scratching his head with his flute, eyes twinkling, he says, “Heard about it? I’ve instructed your Hanguang-Jun to hang up all your best articles in the Jingshi as we speak.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 1st Summer Edition

BREAKING NEWS: HANGUANG-JUN AND ‘YILING PATRIARCH’ BACK HOME

You heard it here first – His Excellency and supposed Wei Wuxian have finally come back, drawing a close to the thrilling case that kept the cultivation world in suspense for the past few months. They gave the PRESS an exclusive interview to explain what, exactly, they’ve been doing all this time.

I: What, exactly, have you been doing all this time?

WWX: Everyone’s always asking that. You, Jingyi, Zewu-Jun, the Grandmaster. No one ever asks, how have you been? I’m heartbroken.

I: How have you been, Senior Wei?

WWX (tearing up): Lan Zhan, you raised him so well! Look at him, all grown up.

LWJ: Mn.

WWX: I’ve been excellent, thank you. Hanguang-Jun has been taking good care of me.

LWJ: Wei Ying has taken good care of me, too.

WWX: Lan Zhan!

I: So, about those past three months-

WWX: Ha, well, we actually have you boys to thank for that.

I: Us?

WWX: The PRESS, of course! Lan Zhan originally left for some cross-sect-negotiations, and I accompanied him. No more than a week, we said. But then your first edition got published. Do you remember what you wrote?

I: Baoshan Sanren?

WWX: Exactly. No one thought she could be found, so no one ever tried. But you managed to send her a letter, and she replied! So we tracked down Song Lan – such a clever idea you had – and he brought us to her. Right, Lan Zhan?

LWJ: Mn.

WWX: That’s all there is to it, really. We came to say hello and stayed for three months. She likes Lan Zhan better than me, and who could blame her? Look at that handsome face.

I: There have been rumours that Jiang Wanyin knew your whereabouts.

WWX: I had to tell him, of course. He’d have been so worried if I had missed one of our monthly shouting sessions. So we told him to keep quiet about it, and he did. That’s Jiang Cheng for you – he’ll shout and threaten to rip out your throat, but really he’s a great brother. Right, Lan Zhan?

LWJ (sips tea)

WWX: Aha, that’s- yeah. Are you writing this all down?

I: Yes, Senior Wei.

WWX: Write this down: [redacted]

 

***

“What he kicks us out?”

“He won’t kick us out,” Sizhui says, sounding more confident than he really feels.

“He kicked out Senior Wei,” Jingyi argues. Sizhui contemplates pointing out that Senior Wei is simply the kind of person who evokes in others the pressing need to make him leave, now, at all costs, and decides against it.

“We will be fine,” he says without much conviction. “And he did give us permission.”

“That’s true,” Jingyi says. “He did. So really, we’ve done nothing wrong here.”

His face has turned a sickly green colour, and Sizhui is sure that his own doesn’t look much better. They are currently on the way to class, the last session of the semester. After this, the disciples will have one week to visit their families before the lectures pick up again, this time with different subjects. Sizhui plans to visit Senior Wen – that is, if Lan Qiren doesn’t send them into seclusion for the next decade.

“Nothing wrong at all,” he agrees, mostly because he can’t stand the silence right now.

They arrive at the classroom, and hastily take their seats. The Grandmaster isn’t here yet, but most of the other students are. Everyone has a stack of papers in front of them, their final project ready to be handed in.

Lan Qigang leans over and whispers, “So what did you do? Me and Lan Jinhai discussed it for ages, but we couldn’t come up with something, so we just wrote a summary of all our sessions together.”

“Yeah,” Jingyi says, still looking vaguely nauseous, “we did something pretty similar, I think.”

Lan Qigang nods, satisfied with that answer, and returns to his desk. Sizhui is counting down the seconds – any moment now, the Grandmaster will arrive.

He does.

They all bow as Old Master Lan takes his seat at the front of the classroom. “You’ve all done adequate work this year,” he says. Next to Sizhui, Jingyi lets out a little whimper. “I realise that this class might not have been what you originally expected, and it certainly was different from what Zewu-Jun would have done. But circumstances can’t be changed, and I just want you to know that I, for one, am proud of these disciples I see before me.”

Everyone bows again. Sizhui wonders absently if it’s too late to become a rogue cultivator after all.

“Now,” the Grandmaster says, “pick one member from your group to briefly present your project. I will have them all graded by next week.”

Sizhui is the one to do it, if only because Jingyi seems to be on the verge of hyperventilation. He stands in line with the other disciples, listening to the other groups explaining, over and over again, how they summarised the class.

Finally, it’s Sizhui’s turn. “Sizhui,” the Grandmaster says. “Another summary for me? Or- no, you and Jingyi asked my permission for something else, I recall. What was it? A narrative approach to cultivation politics, promoting closer relationships between the sects?”

At the back of the classroom, Jingyi starts coughing. Sizhui ignores him. His mouth feels dry. Has speaking always been this hard?

“Grandmaster-“ he says.

And then the classroom doors open, and Zewu-Jun walks in.

“Xichen,” the Grandmaster says. He turns to his nephew, Sizhui forgotten – at least for the moment.

Sizhui dares to glance at Jingyi, who’s finished coughing and who is now mouthing seclusion, followed by a series of vaguely offensive hand gestures. “Are you alright? Did something happen?”

Zewu-Jun smiles and joins them at the front of the classroom. “Nothing happened, Uncle,” he says. “I’ve simply remembered that I have a class that I shamefully neglected. I hope these disciples can forgive me.”

All over the room, people are bowing and urging him not to apologise. Sizhui would, too, if he wasn’t so busy staring. That’s why he catches Zewu-Jun looking at him, just for a second, before he smiles at his uncle once more.

“We’re almost finished,” Old Master Lan says. He sounds conflicted, like he can’t decide whether to be happy that his nephew has apparently left seclusion or irritated at the interruption.

“I heard,” Zewu-Jun says. “Thank you, Grandmaster, for doing such an exceptional job teaching them in my stead. I hope you won’t begrudge me the honour of taking over now?”

Old Master Lan is frowning. “We’re almost finished,” he repeats. However, that does not seem to deter Zewu-Jun, whose smile gets simply a little wider.

“Please,” he says. “Allow me.” He pauses, and adds mildly, “It is my class.”

After what feels like a really long time, Old Master Lan relents, stepping aside to allow his nephew to take his place. He opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it again and ends up simply saying, “Welcome back.”

“Welcome back, Zewu-Jun,” Sizhui repeats once the Grandmaster has left, and the other disciples echo it.

Zewu-Jun thanks them with his usual grace. And, at last, he looks from the papers that Sizhui is holding, all tied together with a piece of string, up to his face. “Is that your project?” he asks. Sizhui manages to nod. “Of course,” Zewu-Jun says warmly.

“Reminds me of my own days here. All long in the past now, but sometimes one wonders what might have been.” He sounds rather wistful.

Sizhui has a brief, yet fierce internal battle with himself, and his inner voice of Senior Wei wins. He nods. “Yes, Zewu-Jun. I did hear about the love letters.”

Zewu-Jun startles in what might be genuine surprise. Then he smirks, and carefully takes the stack of papers from Sizhui’s hands. “Days long gone,” he says. “Hardly worth mentioning, really. Unlike what you came up with for your project, I’m told.” He pauses, and then he says, very slowly and deliberately, “I’m most excited to read it. In fact, you might almost say that I have a pressing need for it.”

Jingyi, who at some point has wandered up to Sizhui without him noticing, puts one firm hand on Sizhui’s shoulder and says, “Maybe you mean a need for the PRESS, Zewu-Jun?”

Zewu-Jun winks. “You could say that.”

 

***

Excerpt from Pretty Radical Everyday Sect Secrets (PRESS), 4th Autumn Edition

THEY MAKE A LOVELY PIER: HANGUANG-JUN AND WEI WUXIAN-IMPERSONATOR GET MARRIED IN YUNMENG

It’s a wedding that will surely be remembered for years to come. This week, Hanguang-Jun, who has recently announced his withdrawal from the position of Chief Cultivator, and Yiling Patriarch-lookalike Wei Wuxian exchanged their vows in front of hundreds of cultivators, including representatives from all the major sects. Baoshan Sanren, martial grandmother of one of the grooms (as previously reported), did not attend, but has been said to have sent a wedding gift, the exact nature of which is as of yet unknown.

The ceremony took place in Lotus Pier. Sect Leader Jiang refused to give the PRESS an interview; however, inside sources say that wedding location had been Sect Leader Jiang’s idea.
The happy couple is now off to enjoy a honeymoon that will take them “all over the realm”, as Wei Wuxian (21 / 37) told the PRESS. An exact date for their return has not been set; however, we have been assured that they will, eventually, return. And isn’t that enough?