"I cannot believe this," Yi Ziyuan glowered once Lan Wangji was well on his way back to Gusu. "Not a single hairpin among all the gifts he gave A-Li. Hanguang-Jun has already given hairpins to omegas of the Jin, Yao, and Lin Clans. Who does he think he is, ignoring my family?"
"Mother," Jiang Cheng sounded very tired. "He's the Crown Prince. He is not required to accept a-jie."
"He will if he knows what's good for him," Yu Ziyuan growled, twisting Zidian around her finger. "Honestly, so many young alphas these days are ingrates." She rose from her seat. "A-Li, you will write a letter to Hanguang-Jun immediately. Say that you enjoyed his company and that you implore him to return to Lotus Pier and see you soon."
Jiang Yanli set down the bolt of black silk she'd been measuring out and bowed. "Yes, Mother."
"Young Master Wei, could you come with me? It's important."
Wei Wuxian looked up from his still-full bowl of chili oil noodles—he hadn't been eating well lately—and stared at the servant in front of him.
He supposed it was inevitable that Yu Ziyuan would eventually find out. Servants were nosy, and every Jiang servant was loyal to the Lady of Lotus Pier. All it would take was one eyewitness, and Yu Ziyuan would know that Wei Wuxian had met with the Crown Prince. Unchaperoned. At night.
He set his chopsticks down and stood up; there was no use delaying the inevitable. "Lead the way." He grabbed his bow on the way. Nowadays, it rarely left his side.
The servant appeared almost nervous as they made their way down the many corridors and hallways of Lotus Pier. When they passed the main hall and started down the road that led to one of the gates, Wei Wuxian stopped.
"Did Lady Yu send you?" he asked.
The servant glanced around before shaking her head. "No, Young Master."
Wei Wuxian cocked an eyebrow. "Interesting. Will you tell me who?"
"He's just up ahead," the servant said, pointing at the gate's doors. "I'm sorry I can't say more, Young Master. I was just told to bring you here."
How very interesting. This could be anything from an elaborate scheme to physically kick him out of Lotus Pier to a poorly thought-out courtship display from one of his suitors. Wei Wuxian was still mentally recovering from the time an alpha from the Xi Clan thought it would be a good idea to send opera singers to Lotus Pier. They'd stayed for days becauseYu Ziyuan had insisted that performances counted as gifts, so Wei Wuxian couldn't let the singers go until after he'd watched all their skits.
He reached the gate, acutely aware that the guards supposedly stationed there were oddly absent. Grabbing the door's ring handles, he pulled the door open.
There, outside, dressed in hooded commoner's clothing with only the vermillion mark on his forehead singling him out, stood Jin Zixuan, his scent of peony and agarwood sharp and distressed.
Upon seeing him, Jin Zixuan pressed his lips together and gave a curt nod. "Hello, Wei Wuxian."
Wei Wuxian slammed the door shut in his face.
"Wei Wuxian!" The pounding on the door continued on. "Open this gate right now!"
"Go away, Jin peacock!" Wei Wuxian yelled back. "Jiejie doesn't want to see you!"
The pounding on the door faltered. "Is that the truth?" he demanded. "Wei Wuxian, you'd better not be lying, because if you're lying—"
Wei Wuxian opened the door a crack and held onto the handle, just in case Jin Zixuan tried to force himself through. "What do you want?"
The day wasn't particularly hot, but Jin Zixuan looked like he was sweating under his hood. "I need," he voice just barely wavered, "to speak with Young Mistress Jiang."
Rolling his eyes, Wei Wuxian began to push the door closed.
Jin Zixuan shot out a foot just in time to wedge it between the door and its frame. "Wait! Wei Wuxian, you can't send me away just because you don't like me!"
"Oh, I absolutely can." Wei Wuxian kicked the bothersome foot out of the way.
Jin Zixuan grabbed the door handle on the other side and braced himself against the door. "You'll get in trouble if Lady Yu hears you turned me away."
Two could definitely play at that game. "I won't, but you might. Why else would you be wearing a disguise?" Wei Wuxian braced himself with a foot planted firmly on the other closed door, ready to yank it closed. "And you're no longer Lady Yu's favorite non-Jiang alpha."
As predicted, Jin Zixuan only got more riled-up. "Hanguang-Jun hasn't given Young Mistress Jiang a hairpin yet," he argued. "He had the chance to, but he didn't. She's not claimed."
So word had already gotten out about Lan Wangji's visit. Yu Ziyuan was not going to be pleased.
"Unclaimed doesn't mean 'available to you'." Wei Wuxian was more than content to let Jin Zixuan tire himself out trying to open the door. He knew his own stamina far outclassed the Jin alpha's. "You had your chance, peacock. My jiejie deserves someone far better than you."
The tugging stopped. "I know." Jin Zixuan sounded miserable. "Heavens, I know. I was so stupid."
"You're still pretty stupid." Wei Wuxian couldn't resist pushing the knife a little deeper. "You know I don't like you, so why request a secret meeting? And what's with the pauper outfit?"
Jin Zixuan didn't glance down at his clothes like Wei Wuxian had expected him to. "Because," he spoke like he'd swallowed a spoonful of flour and was trying not to cough, "I know I'm not getting anywhere near her without your approval."
Wei Wuxian's eyebrows shot towards his hairline. "Why me? Why not Jiang Cheng?"
"Between you and Jiang Wanyin, it is very clear who hates me more," Jin Zixuan answered bluntly.
Good point. Jin Zixuan had obviously put some thought into this.
Wei Wuxian eased his weight off of the door, and saw Jin Zixuan do the same. "Give me a good reason why I should let you in to see her."
"Because I wish to make Young Mistress Jiang my bondmate," Jin Zixuan blurted out.
Dead silence. Wei Wuxian stared mutely at him. Somewhere in one of the trees nearby, a bird let out a warble that, in bird language, probably meant, "Oof, that hurt to watch."
Jin Zixuan's face turned beet-red, and he wrung his hands together. When neither of them spoke for the longest time, he snapped, "Well? Are you going to say anything, or are you going to continue staring at me with that dumb look on your face?"
Wei Wuxian gave his head a brisk shake to clear it. "Um," he said, grasping for words. "There's uh, usually there should be gifts that go… before."
That almost didn't make sense, but Jin Zixuan caught on. "I know there's a entire stupid courtship that goes before something like this!" He began to pace back and forth; Wei Wuxian had to open the door a little more to watch him. "But—I don't know what else to do. What else can I do? I can't openly court an omega that has been offered to the Crown Prince, but I can't let Young Mistress Jiang just walk away without—without at least trying."
Wei Wuxian's mind was still reeling. The Jin Clan was very wealthy and powerful. Noble families were practically flinging their unbonded omegas at them. As its heir, Jin Zixuan could have as many of them as he wanted for his harem, but he was willing to forsake all of that—power, pleasure, reputation, a healthy herd of potential heirs—for Jiang Yanli.
"You wish to bond with jiejie," he said, still a bit out of it.
"Yes." Jin Zixuan nodded, his hands shaking ever-so-slightly.
"Not even your own parents are bonded."
"Yet you wish to bond with her."
"Jin peacock, a bond is for life. You can't just—" Wei Wuxian swallowed hard, "It's not a decision you can make in the moment."
"I'm not making this in the moment!" Jin Zixuan's blush was spreading to his neck. "I-I still want it with her, if she will have me."
Wei Wuxian groaned and rubbed his eyes. As embarrassing as it was to hear all this, he hated the traitorous part of him that was actually beginning to feel sympathetic. "And if she turns you away?"
"I hope she won't." He toyed with his sleeves. "But if that's her wish, then she won't ever have to see me again if she doesn't want to. I swear it."
He sounded so sincere that Wei Wuxian couldn't believe he actually missed the old Jin Zixuan. At least he had no problem punching the old Jin Zixuan. He could still punch the one in front of him, but Jin Zixuan might not punch back, which would be awkward.
Two jars came into Wei Wuxian's view, clinking together. His mouth twisted at the alpha holding them. "You're giving me wine?"
Jin Zixuan scowled. "Yes."
"I'm unbonded and unclaimed." Wei Wuxian set his jaw. "Gifts of food, drink, and clothing are highly inappropriate outside of an engagement. Did you trip and hit your head on your way here?"
For a moment, Jin Zixuan looked like he was about to smash the wine jars over his head. Then, he just sighed. "It's not a gift," he muttered. "Consider it a… sign of gratitude, of sorts."
A bribe, then. Hardly surprising, coming from a Jin, but wine was a little specific. It showed deliberate thought.
Wei Wuxian sniffed. "I don't want it."
One of Jin Zixuan's lower eyelids twitched. "One jar of this costs more than ten of that stupid bow of yours!"
Mouth agape, Wei Wuxian placed a protective hand on his bow. "This is an imperial gift! How can your stupid fancy wine compare to this?"
"Oh, for the love of—just take them." Jin Zixuan shoved the two wine jars so roughly at him that Wei Wuxian fumbled to hold them without dropping one or both. "Share them with Jiang Wanyin if the thought of accepting something from me is so disgusting."
"Personally, it's the assumption that I can be bribed." Wei Wuxian dangled the jars by the twine connecting the two lids. "Do you think some expensive wine can make up for how you've treated my jiejie over the past years?"
"No." Jin Zixuan kicked at a pebble on the ground, sending it skittering off to the side. "But I do hope that you can at least understand how much I want this. I can't—I can't just stand by and watch her go into the Cloud Recesses to be Hanguang-Jun's omega. I have to try."
Much to Wei Wuxian's dismay, an ache settled in his ribcage like a rock blocking a small stream. How lucky Jin Zixuan was to be able to try, and have everything he needed for the greatest chance of success—wealth, title, protection, power, and most importantly, a bond to offer. If Jiang Yanli chose him, she would be elevated to his status and spared the intrigues of harem life. His family would immediately welcome her. She could be happy, bonded to the man she'd loved all her life.
Wei Wuxian couldn't say the same for himself. He couldn't even try. And if he could try, he had nothing to offer, except maybe his usual smile. What worth was a smile to a prince who owned everything?
He pushed away the memory of cool night air and warm fingers around his own. "If you even think about hurting her—"
"You'll knock my teeth out." Jin Zixuan ran a hand in a very un-Jin-like manner through his hair, messing up his usual ponytail. "I know."
"Glad we agree." Wei Wuxian kicked the door open. "Now come in before I change my mind, and stay close."
If Wei Wuxian deliberately took the longest and most tedious route to Jiang Yanli's quarters, at least Jin Zixuan knew better than to complain about it. They both arrived, with water dripping from their clothes and leaves in their hair, at Jiang Yanli's door, which Wei Wuxian knocked with flourish.
"Coming, A-Xian!" Jiang Yanli called from within. A patter of hurrying feet, and the door opened to reveal her smiling face. "A-Xian! How are—" Her gaze went past him, and her voice faded.
Jin Zixuan wrung the hem of his robes out, his cheeks bright red. "Young Mistress Jiang," he greeted a little unsteadily. "Good afternoon."
"Young Master Jin." She curtsied, her brows furrowed with worry. "What happened? Both of you are soaked."
"I just decided to show him around Lotus Pier for a bit." Wei Wuxian leaned happily into the handkerchief that Jiang Yanli had pulled from her sleeve to dry his face with. It smelled nicely of her. "Yunmeng's waters are so nice. It would be a shame if he came all the way here and didn't go for a swim at least once."
"You rascal. Be more nice to our guest," she scolded gently before turning to Jin Zixuan. "I hope you weren't troubled too much."
Jin Zixuan plucked leaves out of his hair. "It's no issue, Young Mistress Jiang." He pulled a red leaf from his hair and flicked it away awkwardly. "I—I know my being here is a surprise, and please, say so if you're not willing, but—" he glanced at Wei Wuxian, likely for either permission or encouragement, but all Wei Wuxian gave him was a dismissive shrug, "—I would like to speak with you, please."
Jiang Yanli was far too polite to stare at him, but she didn't say anything for the longest time. Then just before the silence stretched on for too long, she folded her handkerchief and tucked it away in her sleeve. "I'll get you some towels." She stepped out of the way. "Please, come in. Both of you."
Their meeting lasted shorter than Wei Wuxian had expected. His hair hadn't even fully dried yet when Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli stepped around the folding privacy screen, keeping a respectable distance from each other.
"A-Xian," Jiang Yanli called.
Wei Wuxian sat up on her bed, where he'd sprawled out on for the length of their discussion. He'd been watching their shadows through the screen to allow them a bit of privacy while making sure Jin Zixuan didn't try anything funny. "Yes?"
"Please escort Young Master Jin out of Lotus Pier," she said, then added with a hint of amusement, "No detours, preferably."
Wei Wuxian quivered his lower lip at her, which earned him a giggle and an affectionate flick across his nose. Clearly, Jiang Yanli did not appreciate the thought and care it took to bring a humbled Jin Zixuan to her doorstep. Nobody could look high and mighty while drenched and covered in leaves.
Jin Zixuan folded his damp towel the best he could. "Young Mistress Jiang…"
"I can take that." She stepped towards him and lifted the towel out of his arms. "Here, I can get you a fresh towel to take with you."
"Oh, no need." Jin Zixuan waved his hands. "I can—I'm alright, truly." He visibly swallowed, his throat tightening. "Thank you."
"If Young Master Jin says so." Neatly, she placed the towel on a nearby table. "Have a safe trip home."
"I will, don't worry," Jin Zixuan replied, almost too quickly, before bowing. "Goodbye, Young Mistress Jiang."
Jiang Yanli's face flushed a light, pleased pink. "Goodbye, Young Master Jin." She curtsied, then graced him with the gentle press of a hand against his forearm right before he stepped out the door.
Despite her wishes, Wei Wuxian still led Jin Zixuan through water on the way out of Lotus Pier—not out of spite, but because he wouldn't stop smiling like a lovesick idiot and it was making Wei Wuxian want to gag.
"This is the first and last time I will help you," Wei Wuxian warned him once they reached the gate. "Next time, perform your own poorly thought-out romantic gestures yourself." Then he closed the door before Jin Zixuan could properly respond.
Jiang Yanli smiled more often in the weeks that followed.
Not that Wei Wuxian had any complaints about it. More Jiang Yanli smiles were always good, even if Jin Zixuan was the cause behind them. Ever since their brief talk, Jin Zixuan had been sending unmarked gifts to her that Wei Wuxian had, on several occasions, had to pretend were from Jin Zixun to him.
The scolding he'd received from Yu Ziyuan for mistreating his proposal gifts was still worth seeing Jiang Yanli's face light up whenever Wei Wuxian brought yet another unsigned package to her.
She carefully set one such gift—a set of beautiful cream-colored ivory spoons—aside, on her bed stand. "A-Xian, I notice you haven't touched any of your courtship gifts," she said.
"Hm?" Wei Wuxian looked up from the gold-flecked wrapping paper he'd been meticulously tearing into tiny pieces.
"You haven't responded to any of your suitors." She interlaced her fingers at her lap. "And you haven't used any gift given to you, aside from the bow from Hanguang-Jun."
Wei Wuxian's fingers hesitated, then he readjusted his grip on the wrapping paper and tore a long strip from it. "Hanguang-Jun is not one of my suitors."
"Do you wish he was?" she asked gently.
Ice briefly clenched around his lungs. Could she have—no, if she'd seen him with Lan Wangji the night he visited, she would have said something earlier. It was not like Jiang Yanli to bring up an issue so long after it had happened.
Smoothing out the strip of paper in his hand, he gave her a wide, warm smile. "Me?" he laughed. "No, jiejie. I do not. Can you imagine us together? I cannot."
There was a boy in the markets of Lotus Pier.
Wei Wuxian stared down at the haggard boy clinging to the bottom of his robes. The child was young, barely ten years of age. Mud stained his clothes, and sweat stuck his hair to his skin. It was not uncommon to see refugees in Yunmeng; there were plenty of them even after the war had ended. But they usually begged from the side of the streets, not from individuals.
Then the boy called him, "Young Master Wei," and Wei Wuxian recognized the Wen Clan's red sun motifs on his robes under all that mud.
The pheasants Wei Wuxian had hunted earlier that morning fell to the ground, forgotten. "What happened?" He gripped the boy by his shoulders. "Why are you here?"
The Wen boy was exhausted and could barely stand on his own. Still, his fingers gripped Wei Wuxian's sleeves tightly, desperately. "The Jins," he answered, wheezing a little. "They've trapped us. Qiongqi Path. Please, help us. Lady Wen was supposed to meet with the Crown Prince, but—"
Wei Wuxian didn't need to hear more. He lifted the boy across his shoulders and took off at a dead run for Lotus Pier's stables.
Qiongqi Path was near Jin territory, so it wasn't unusual to see Jin clansmen in the area.
What was unusual was that there were nearly fifty of them surrounding a small group of kneeling Wens.
For the longest second, Wei Wuxian didn't recognize any of them, so covered in dirt they were. Then a piercing scream of, "A-Ning, no!" pierced him to his very core.
The last coherent thing he saw was a Jin dragging a struggling Wen Ning to his feet and the flash of a dagger's blade as it sank hilt-deep into the beta's stomach.
Wen Qing screamed, a horrendous sound cold enough to stop a heart from beating. Wei Wuxian didn't—couldn't—think. His hands moved on their own.
The bend of wood. The pull of string. The barest brush of feather fletching against his cheek as his arms strained.
The arrow flew.
"Wei Wuxian!" one of the Jin clansmen surrounding them yelled, the tip of his drawn sword wavering. "Don't move!"
Wei Wuxian ignored the golden-robed figures circling him; he was far too busy using Suibian to hack his outer robe into strips.
Grabbing the cloth strips, Wen Qing pressed them against Wen Ning's wound with one hand; her other arm hung at her side, bent at an odd angle. Broken. "A-Ning." Her gasps came out watery and fast. Scared. "Shit, A-Ning. Look at me. Look at jiejie, please."
Wen Ning was still alive, his eyes as round as full moons. One of his hands came up to wrap loosely around his sister's wrist. His blood stained the ground, the soil turning black. "Jie."
"Shh, shh, don't talk. Just breathe." She crumpled another wad of cloth against his wound and pressed it there with her knee as she tried to use her teeth and hand to wrap more strips around him. "Just breathe, okay?"
There was nothing left of Wei Wuxian's outer robe. He kneeled with the remaining fabric in his hands and began binding it around Wen Ning's torso. "Will he live?"
"He must." Wen Qing kept her knee on top of the rapidly-soaking cloth. "He must. No damaged arteries, but I need to check if there's an exit wound. Help me lift him."
Wei Wuxian moved to carefully lift Wen Ning. He'd just gotten his arms under his back when Wen Ning's gaze fixed sharply on something right behind him, over his shoulder.
"Wei Wuxian." Jin Zixun dragged his name out uncomfortably long. "Why am I not surprised to see you here?"
The sky was dark, and rain was staring to fall from the heavy clouds above. Wei Wuxian blinked against the drops as he bared his teeth at Jin Zixun. "Back off."
That brought a few snickers from the watching Jins. The rest scowled.
Jin Zixun didn't move an inch. "You sure are audacious, if nothing else." He bent over, leaning down, his face almost in front of Wei Wuxian's. "You just shot a Jin, did you know that? And for what, these Wen dogs? Do you even know what they did?"
Wei Wuxian narrowly stopped himself from spitting in his eyes. Instead, he turned back to help support Wen Ning as Wen Qing pushed makeshift bandages against the other side of her brother's wound.
This time, the taunting chuckles from observers were quieter. Jin Zixun's face darkened. "A disobedient bitch will always be trouble." His lip curled. "You're lucky I'm willing to train you right."
A sharp pain ripped across Wei Wuxian's scalp as Jin Zixun grabbed him by the hair and pulled him. He fell backwards, dropping Wen Ning as Wen Qing shrieked his name. Jin Zixun didn't let go, didn't stop. Wei Wuxian's heels scraped at the ground, kicking at mud, rocks. His fingers clawed at the hand in his hair, tearing down a sleeved arm, catching on buttons and embroidery.
Then he felt it: A tug at his collar, where no alpha should be anywhere near. A yank, then the scrape of fingernails against his neck as rough fingers slipped between the leather band and his skin.
His vision went red.
The dead answered him, songs and wails he knew almost as well as the weight of Suibian in his hand.
He felt them—their pain, their hatred, everything that still bound them to the physical world. Twisting in cold ribbons of black smoke around him, they waited, drawn by his call and the metallic taste of blood in the air.
Jin Zixun was on the ground, screaming as if he were dying and clutching the end of his wrist. Blood poured out from where his hand used to be; the hand itself was not far away, the exposed flesh torn and jagged from where Suibian had sliced through.
There was shouting. Angry shouts, from charging Jins—blades unsheathed, bows drawn. Scared, pleading shouts, from Wen Qing and at least one other Wen. Ravenous shouts, from the snake-like coils of restless spirits at Wei Wuxian's feet.
He hadn't brought Chenqing. It was in his room back at Lotus Pier, carefully hidden in a sealed box right next to the Stygian Tiger Seal: relics of a war hard-won and difficult sacrifices made.
It would have been convenient to have on hand, but he could make do.
Bringing his index finger and thumb to his mouth, Wei Wuxian whistled.
Wei Wuxian was taught that the dead should not be disturbed, for those who lingered among the living were endlessly hungry. If given the chance, they would feed, and feed, and feed, until there was nothing left to consume but bones and skin.
He knew this—had felt this when he'd touched the sword that he would later shape into the Stygian Tiger Seal. In the Burial Mounds, he'd constantly heard voices. Every time Chenqing called to the dead, he could feel their pull, their draw.
He'd always been careful. A sword wielded correctly was invaluable to its owner. Too much carelessness, and the blade could turn and wound. Direction. Control. All important. Necessary.
There were so many Jin clansmen. Too many. And they were all attacking. The braver ones charged with swords. The others shot arrows from a distance. One arrow struck through the leg of a fleeing Wen, pinning him to the ground.
The archers were too far away. Wei Wuxian couldn't reach them, not without sacrificing the thread-thin control he still had over the dead. As his reanimated corpses targeted any Jins that came too close, Wei Wuxian picked off the archers with his own bow.
Draw, sight, exhale, loose. One golden-robed figure, down. Draw, sight, exhale, loose. Another one, no longer a threat. Their numbers dwindled, but they showed no sign of yielding, and so neither did Wei Wuxian.
He had no idea how long he'd been fighting, only that he must keep the Jins at bay. Wen Qing was still yelling, although he no longer knew if it was at him or for her family to help her tend to their wounded. Either way, it didn't concern Wei Wuxian. He kept on whistling until his head felt hollow and the dead grew bolder in their urge to disobey.
Someone was yelling for him from behind. The sound of it was like a buzz behind his eyes. Wen Qing? No, that wasn't right, she never called him—
"Wei Ying!" Lan Wangji shouted, his voice far too loud in Wei Wuxian's head. "Stop!"
The command fell like a punch to his jaw. Wei Wuxian stumbled, collapsing to his knees, then onto his side. His head spun; he almost couldn't see, yet the sight of Lan Wangji standing in front of him could not be any more clear.
The rain had begun to pour. Lan Wangji stood under an umbrella held by one of his guards; behind him, his entourage visibly struggled to catch up to him through the torrent. The skirt of his silver, dragon-embroidered robes was splattered with bits of mud. A few servants broke away to chase down the white stallion Lan Wangji must have ridden in on.
Wei Wuxian sat on the wet ground, his soaked clothes clinging to his body. His hair ribbon had fallen out when Jin Zixun grabbed him, and his hair fell in tangled, wild clumps down his back. In silence, he stared at his bondmate.
Beautiful, he thought as raindrops forced him to blink.
He didn't resist when imperial guards shoved him to the ground and Lan Wangji just watched.
When Lan Wangji's entourage caught up, they quickly seized control of the situation. Imperial physicians began treating the Injured Wens and Jins, and servants covered the deceased with cloth in preparation for burial.
Wei Wuxian, in the meantime, had his hands bound behind his back and was forced to sit on the ground. The imperial guards had wanted him blindfolded and gagged too, but Lan Wangji would not allow it.
There was nothing he could do except watch—watch as Wen Qing fell to her knees before the Crown Prince, her mouth moving unceasingly with her uninjured arm outstretched towards him. She was begging. Wei Wuxian could tell by the way she lowered herself as much as possible against the ground and the look of utter loss on her face every time she raised her head.
It was not a sight Wei Wuxian ever wanted to see. The pouring rain drowned out their voices, which made things so much worse. He had no idea what Lan Wangji was saying, or whether Lan Wangji believed Wen Qing or not, and he couldn't begin to guess if Wen Qing was telling the truth of Wei Wuxin's involvement or if she was lying to protect him.
Then, as luck would have it, more Jin clansmen arrived. They came thundering down the road, mud flying up beneath their horses' hooves. Without waiting for his horse to completely stop, Jin Guangshan dismounted, his face grim as he pointed directly at Wei Wuxian. "Grab him and gag him," he ordered.
Several golden-clothed clansmen moved to obey, but the imperial guards standing by Wei Wuxian rested their hands on their sword hilts. "Young Master Wei has been detained under orders from His Highness Hanguang-Jun," the one on Wei Wuxian's left spoke. "If Lord Jin wishes to contest this, please seek an audience with His Highness."
Jin Guangshan stared at them as if they'd just said that the jewels on his coat were fake. "How dare you. Don't you know which family your Noble Consort is from?"
"We are well aware that Noble Consort Jin is from the Jin Clan," the other guard replied in the same patience-tested tone an adult might use on a child throwing a tantrum. "But not even he can go against a direct order from His Highness."
Noble Consort. Wei Wuxian racked his mind for the list of harem titles that had been in one of the lessons Lan Qiren put extra emphasis on. Noble Consort was the highest rank achievable for an omega concubine who remained unbonded. Within weeks of moving into the Cloud Recesses, the Jin omega had somehow convinced Lan Wangji to give him the highest position in the harem.
Wei Wuxian felt like he'd swallowed acid.
"I don't care." Jin Guangshan sneered at the two guards. "This omega is a traitor to the state! If you do not step aside, I will—"
And just like that, Jin Guangshan's face morphed into a more agreeable expression. Wei Wuxian could only watch, speechless, as he turned and bowed. "Your Highness. You have my eternal gratitude for saving my clansmen and preventing more senseless slaughter."
The look on Wen Qing's face from where she stood behind Lan Wangji reflected Wei Wuxian's exact thoughts: this was planned.
As usual, Lan Wangji's expression was unreadable. "I am unworthy of your gratitude. I did very little."
"No, no!" Jin Guangshan shook his head. "If it weren't for Your Highness, there would have been many more dead! I cannot hope to ever repay you, Your Highness. I can only hope to relieve you of any burden. Please, let this unworthy one take this murderer off of your hands."
The declaration stopped Wei Wuxian's heart for a moment. Lan Wangji's warning from that night at Lotus Pier came flooding back—of how Wei Wuxian needed to be more careful. With the failure of Jin Zixun's gawky attempt at marrying Wei Wuxian into the clan, it should have been obvious that Jin Guangshan would try something else, but Wei Wuxian didn't know if Jin Guangshan was after him or the Wens this time. It could even be both.
Wei Wuxian had failed to be more careful.
"No!" Wei Wuxian yelled, struggling anew at his bonds. "Lan Zhan, don't you dare agree! If you agree—"
The force with which Jin Guangshan struck him across the face sent his vision spinning. Wei Wuxian gasped from the impact and blinked rapidly, trying to clear the stars from his eyes. He tasted iron; one of Jin Guangshan's rings must have cut him, and the blood was trickling down his cheek.
"Stupid bitch," Jin Guangshan growled. "You curse His Highness by calling him—"
Wei Wuxian didn't see Lan Wangji lunge; he only saw the impact of white meeting gold, of Bichen drawn and its blade angled towards Jin Guangshan. Jin Guangshan ducked just in time to avoid being decapitated, but couldn't move out of Lan Wangji's path quick enough. Both alphas crashed to the ground, Lan Wangji snarling like something rabid and possessed. His hands clawed at Jin Guangshan's neck, fingers tearing into vulnerable flesh. Bichen lay forgotten in the mud, rain plinking off of divine steel.
For the longest second, no one moved. This was not like Lan Wangji. The dignified Second Prince had not once, in anyone's memory, acted out or behaved in a way that was not worthy of his noble family name. Not even under the Wens' cruelty had he once lost control or sought revenge. He was always the perfect gentleman, an example for all who knew him.
Wei Wuxian watched in mute shock as guards swarmed the struggling alphas. They pulled at Lan Wangji's arms, trying to pry him off of Jin Guangshan. Voices intermingled, all of them begging Lan Wangji to stop, to contain his rage, remember his family's rules. With a collective grunt, they barely managed to restrain Lan Wangji enough to allow Jin Guangshan's guards to drag him to safety.
Lan Wangji looked wild—far wilder than Wei Wuxian could remember. Though his hair wound half-loose around his slipping silver crown and his forehead ribbon was almost falling off, he made no move to fix either. He only glared unblinkingly at Jin Guangshan, his chest heaving with labored breaths.
Wei Wuxian recalled the odd sort of calm he'd felt when Lan Wangji ordered him to stop fighting. He'd heard of bonded pairs influencing each other through their connection, but he had no idea how it worked.
Trembling, he took a breath. "Lan—" he nearly bit his own tongue in a panic. "Hanguang-Jun!"
Lan Wangji's head snapped in his direction, harsh gold aflame in his eyes.
"Stop!" Wei Wuxian ordered as well as he could with a shaking voice. "Stop, please. What are you doing? Is this how a Crown Prince acts?"
At that, Lan Wangji blinked, as if waking from a deathlike sleep. His breaths slowed. His eyes remained fixed on Wei Wuxian as if he was the only person he recognized.
The servants flitted about Lan Wangji nervously, readjusting his robes, tending to the scrapes on his hands, wiping his face, and arranging his hair. The only part of him they didn't touch was the crooked, fluttering, cloud-embroidered forehead ribbon.
In silence, Lan Wangji broke eye contact to tug his ribbon free and retie it on around his head. His fingers adjusted it at his forehead, rubbing at the fabric until it was as smooth and evenly-placed as could be. Slowly, bit by bit, Lan Wangji regained his usual composure. If it weren't for his mud-soaked clothes, he might have looked his usual, elegantly-aloof self.
"This is not the place to discuss," he said. A faint rasp lined his voice, but otherwise, he sounded fine. "We will meet at camp, then we will decide what to do."
By the time they arrived at what could only be a hunting camp, the rain had stopped and night had fallen.
Jin and Lan servants alike stopped in their chores and openly stared at the sight of Wei Wuxian and the Wens being led between tents. More than a few whispered amongst themselves, their arms full of clothes, horse gear, and archery equipment.
Wei Wuxian couldn't care less about what they thought. The more he thought about the clash at Qiongqi Path, the more he was certain that it was no accident; he just needed some time with Wen Qing and Lan Wangji to sort out what had happened and what the Jins were playing at.
He got no such chance. He was pulled into a tent and made to kneel on the floor, his wrists still bound. Already in the tent were Jin Guangshan, who was being babied by a physician over the finger marks on his neck, and Wen Qing, whose face was grim as she gently massaged her bandaged arm. Upon seeing Wei Wuxian, she made a move to go to him, but a pointed stare from Wei Wuxian had her sitting back down.
They did not have to wait for long. In walked Lan Wangji, announced by a herald and once again in his usual spotless resplendence. The fabric was so white that it seemed to shimmer under lamplight, a touch of softness among the sharp, tense air that hung over everyone. His hands were covered with long half-gloves, presumably to cover up the pink, raw skin around his knuckles.
And he was not alone. An omega followed behind him—an omega draped in pale gold robes with a suet-white jade collar around his neck.
The only word that came to Wei Wuxian's mind was: delicate. The omega was short and slender, only coming up to Lan Wangji's shoulder in height. If Lan Wangji was as sturdy and unyielding as a tree trunk, then this omega was more like willow branches. Wispy golden jewelry decorated his hands and shoulders. An ox horn hairpin held his elaborately-styled hair in place, pulled up and exposing his collared neck for all to see.
Only pleasure-workers and consorts wear their hair up with their collars, Granny Wen had said.
Everyone in the tent kneeled as Lan Wangji and the omega walked past them. "Greetings to His Highness and Noble Consort Jin," they said as they bowed. "Long life and ten thousand blessings to His Highness."
"No need for formalities," Lan Wangji said as he stepped onto the dais and sat down in his chair. The Jin consort sat down in a separate chair at the corner of the dais, angled diagonally and not quite by his side. "Lord Jin, Lady Wen, your injured clansmen are all in stable condition. They are all expected to make full recoveries." He nodded at Wen Qing. "Your brother included."
Wen Qing took a slow, steadying breath, her fingers flexing at her side. Sinking down to the floor, she bowed low. "My eternal gratitude to Your Highness."
So Wen Ning was going to be alright. Wei Wuxian breathed out slowly. Wen Ning was fine. He was going to recover.
"Your Highness is most magnanimous," Jin Guangshan agreed, also bowing. "But please, Your Highness, consider the long-term effects this horrendous attack will have on my people."
Wei Wuxian couldn't help himself. Docility had never suited him anyways. "Yes, Your Highness." He lowered his head too. "Do pardon Lord Jin for ambushing the head of the Wen Clan and killing her family members. The Wens have already been defeated. Why not wipe them all out while we're at it?"
Lan Wangji frowned. "Wei Ying."
"What, am I wrong?" Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow. "Hanguang-Jun, I know you saw how many Jins there were. Did that look like a standard patrol to you? Since when do standard patrols station their archers overlooking a path? Does absolutely none of this seem suspicious to you?"
"Be silent!" Jin Guangshan ordered, nearly dropping his fan. "Murderers do not get to speak—"
"Then with all due respect, Lord Jin, shut your mouth!" Wei Wuxian couldn't hold back a disbelieving cackle. This was all so ridiculous. "You couldn't be satisfied with Lianfang-Zun as a sworn brother to the First Prince, could you? Evidently not, if you had to give that little consort—" he jerked his head at the seated Noble Consort Jin, "—to the Crown Prince. Everyone says the Wen Clan lost the war, yet looking at you, I could almost mistake you for Wen Ruohan."
Face pulsating red, Jin Guangshan stood up, staring at Lan Wangji. "Your Highness, are you just going to let him continue spewing filth?!"
"Think about it: why would the Jins attack the Wens?" Wei Wuxian demanded. He couldn't stop talking. If he had to throttle Lan Wangji to get his point across, he just might. "There is no reason for a Jin patrol to be this far south; Qiongqi Path is closer to Yunmeng than it is to Lanling. Are you a coward, Your Highness? How is it that none of the great clans see this as an obvious power grab? Might as well just hand your crown over to Lord Jin here. Everyone knows he wishes his ass were the one in your chair."
"Wei Wuxian!" Jin Guangshan roared. "How dare you speak of usurpation! Don't you fear execution?"
Wei Wuxian's taunting reply about whether or not Jin Guangshan secretly hoped to be his executioner was interrupted when Lan Wangji cut in with a tired, "Enough." Lan Wangji didn't slouch in his seat or press his forehead to his hand, but he looked like he wanted to. "Lord Jin, Wei Ying, sit down and be silent."
Wei Wuxian twitched. There was not enough compulsion behind that command to give him the same gut-instinct need to obey as he'd felt back at Qiongqi Path, but a hint of it was there—just enough to let him know that Lan Wangji wasn't joking.
He sat down, even if it was mostly to beat Jin Guangshan to the privilege of sitting first.
Once they were both seated, Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over his knee, across the fabric of his robes. "Lord Jin, Lady Wen." He regarded each of them evenly. "I will listen to both your accounts of the events, then I will make my decision. Lady Wen will start first."
Jin Guangshan's jaw dropped, and his face reddened. After a moment of hovering at the edge of speaking, he leaned back down in his seat, his fingers rubbing at his neck, and said nothing.
The whole discussion—if it could even be called that—went just about as Wei Wuxian had expected: Wen Qing told the truth, and Jin Guangshan lied his ass off. According to Jin Guangshan, the Wens had deliberately diverged from the most direct path to Gusu with the intention of using Yunmeng's rivers to sneak into the Cloud Recesses, where they could finish what Wen Xu had started.
"They couldn't produce an official imperial summons when we asked; that's why we detained them. Then Young Master Wei showed up and began killing without warning," Jin Guangshan sighed, shaking his head. "Your Highness, you know I've had my doubts on letting an omega practice such foul magic, but I never thought Young Master Wei would actually—"
And then Wei Wuxian didn't get to hear the rest, because Lan Wangji ordered him escorted out of the tent for attempting to punch Jin Guangshan. On the way out, he managed to catch Wen Qing angrily protesting that she couldn't show the summons because the Jins had set one of the Wens' carts alight and destroyed them.
The guards led him into what Wei Wuxian could only guess was the tent of a guest who ended up not showing at this Jin-Lan hunting event—because it looked nothing like where prisoners would be kept. Blue banners with the Lan Clan's cloud insignia hung from the top. There was a bed. A table. Chairs. Rugs.
"Excuse me," he couldn't help asking. "But, uh, are you sure we got the right tent? Shouldn't there be a post or something I need to be tied to?"
The guards, true to form, looked unamused. "Under His Highness's orders, Young Master Wei is to remain here until a resolution has been reached."
So that meant he could be in here for anywhere from an hour to a day—because surely Lan Wangji wouldn't let this drag on for more than a day.
With a sigh, Wei Wuxian sat on a rug, because he figured a soaked rug would be easier to clean than a soaked bed. His clothes were still wet, and he didn't have dry ones to change into. At least the tent was insulated well, so he didn't have to worry about the windchill. He hugged his knees to his chest and willed himself not to shiver.
It was alright, he decided. Everything was going to be alright. Wen Ning was alive. Wen Qing finally had an audience with the Crown Prince. Whatever Jin Guangshan's plans had been, Wei Wuxian had interrupted them. And with this incident, the Wens would know to be more vigilant, and Lan Wangji would know to keep a closer eye on the Jin Clan.
Lan Wangji was young and new to ruling, but he was also righteous and just. Whatever he decided to do with Wei Wuxian would be well-deserved.
Wei Wuxian had no regrets.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because when he suddenly registered someone calling for him, he was curled up on the floor with a towel over him.
"Young Master Wei," one of the guards said in a kind of monotone that usually came from repeating something too many times. "His Highness requests your presence."
Wei Wuxian sat up, still blinking sleep out of his eyes. "What time is it?"
"It is almost midnight," the guard answered.
Nearly three hours past his usual bedtime, and Lan Wangji was still up. An uneasiness crawled up Wei Wuxian's spine. Lan Wangji had always been strict on bedtime.
Out of the tent they went, one guard in front of Wei Wuxian while two more followed behind. None of them said a word to him as they took him through the camp to a large tent surrounded by even more imperial guards.
An exchanged nod, and the sentry by the door disappeared into the tent. "Your Highness," his voice was slightly muffled, "Young Master Wei is here."
When the sentry reappeared and held the tent's entry flap aside for him, Wei Wuxian walked in. The first thing he noticed was the elaborate interior. It almost felt like he was back at the Cloud Recesses, with how many shelves, scrolls, rugs, and tables there were. The tent was so big that it even had sections that served as different rooms; curtains hung from the ceiling, blocking off view of what must be Lan Wangji's private quarters.
The second thing he noticed was Lan Wangji and his Jin consort seated at the rear of the tent. That was expected, although Wei Wuxian did not like the implication of the Jin omega staying so late in the Crown Prince's tent.
What wasn't expected was the sight of a kneeling Jin Zixuan on the floor, his head bowed in deference.
Barely sparing him a look, Wei Wuxian kneeled down too. "Greetings to Your Highness and Noble Consort Jin." He bowed, his hands placed on the floor in front of him. "Long life and ten thousand blessings to Your Highness."
"Young Master Wei," somehow, Noble Consort Jin's voice was both gentle and aggravating—all politeness, but almost bored. His round fan with its embroidered peonies fluttered in his hand. "I wish we had met under different circumstances. I have heard a lot about you. The world owes you a debt of gratitude for your role in the Sunshot Campaign."
How funny it was that pleasantries were, ironically, often unpleasant. It was a game of manners that Wei Wuxian had no interest in. "Why have I been summoned?"
The fan stopped moving, and Noble Consort Jin sighed. "You're here because this cousin of mine—" Jin Zixuan flinched at that, "—came forward to confess that he has been courting the Jiang omega with your aid and approval. Young Master Wei, I'm sure you are aware that Young Mistress Jiang has been offered to His Highness. Do you realize what you have done?"
Jin Zixuan made an odd half-gasp, half-choke as he quickly bowed. "Noble Consort, no, please! Wei Wuxian only permitted me to see Young Mistress Jiang. I swear he didn't intend—"
"Didn't he?" Noble Consort Jin stood up from his seat, his personal attendant supporting his arm. "I can think of many ways Young Master Wei could benefit from broken relations among the Jins, Jiangs, and Lans. Revenge, in particular, comes to mind."
Jin Zixuan glanced at Wei Wuxian, his eyes wide. Wei Wuxian had never seen him scared before; even during the Wen indoctrination, he'd stayed in a constant state of frustration and indignation at the Wens' ill treatment. Now, he was scared. Conspiracy was not a light accusation.
"Politics bore me," Wei Wuxian spoke, meeting Noble Consort Jin's gaze. "My duty lies with the Jiang Clan. My—Young Mistress Jiang previously was engaged to Young Master Jin, and she still feels strongly for him despite his many, many, many flaws. I thought only of her happiness."
With small, unhurried steps, the Jin omega stepped off of the dais. "Your loyalty to the Jiang Clan is admirable." The closer he came, the more prominent the scent of tuberose became, so cloying that it almost overpowered the accompanying peony. "But before you are a Jiang clansman, you are a subject of His Highness the Crown Prince. Not only have you jeopardized a Jiang-Lan alliance for the sake of personal feelings, but you also killed several of His Highness's allies with a gift he gave you. That is treason."
Oh, Wei Wuxian thought through the numb tingle that had spread throughout his body. I lost the bow.
He glanced at the sole occupied seat on the dais. Although Lan Wangji still looked as quietly regal as ever, Wei Wuxian could read exhaustion in the way he sat in his chair, jade beads on a string passing one by one under his thumb. He watched Wei Wuxian with a somber sort of gravity.
"Young Master Jin intends to bond with Young Mistress Jiang." The words slipped out of Wei Wuxian with an ease that would have been worrying at any time other than now, when he was being accused of murder, conspiracy, and treason. "I know, given the choice between a life of distinction in His Highness's harem and a life of devotion with someone she has loved for years, she would want to be with Young Master Jin."
Beside him, Jin Zixuan exhaled shakily and swallowed with difficulty.
For the first time since Wei Wuxian entered the tent, Noble Consort Jin said nothing. He turned to face Lan Wangji, his gaze respectfully downcast. With both hands placed neatly against his left hip, he curtsied low, his knee on the floor.
Lan Wangji rose to his feet in a slide of silks. The beads in his hands clacked together. "The decision to commit to a bond is not one made lightly. Young Master Jin's change of heart regarding Young Mistress Jiang is unusual, but not unexpected." The hems of his robes brushed the edge of the dais as he walked towards them. "I do not believe conspiracy was intended."
Jin Zixuan nearly melted into the floor with relief. "Thank you, Your Highness—"
"But Noble Consort Jin is correct: a fortuitous alliance in the making has been disrupted. You are not guilty of conspiracy, but of subversion." Lan Wangji lifted his head, his voice ringing out. "Pass my decree: Young Master Jin has interfered with imperial matters and sabotaged another clan's relations with the throne. He is sentenced to three months of solitary house arrest to contemplate the meaning of 'fealty'."
Color drained from Jin Zixuan's face. He stumbled over his words, until he managed a sputtered, "Your Highness—"
"Your Highness is magnanimous and merciful." Noble Consort Jin bowed his head before giving Jin Zixuan a side-eye that made Wei Wuxian almost pity the peacock. "We will speak later, cousin," he said in the same way one might say, "I'm going to flay your skin open for this."
Jin Zixuan shrank away. "Yes, Noble Consort." He then bowed to Lan Wangji, his head nearly touching the floor. "I recognize my wrongdoing, Your Highness. I accept my punishment."
Lan Wangji gestured with a hand for him to stand up. "Rise. It is getting late. If you have any concerns, please direct them to Noble Consort Jin. You are dismissed."
As Jin Zixuan stood up and backed away towards the tent entrance, Noble Consort Jin bowed. "Now that all matters involving the Jin Clan have been resolved, your consort will take his leave. Shall I notify the Chief Steward that Your Highness will be retiring for the night?"
"No," Lan Wangji answered so quickly that the word was practically blurted out.
Wei Wuxian's eyebrows climbed up his forehead as he looked back and forth between the two of them, from Noble Consort Jin's calm expression to Lan Wangji's prominently pink ears.
Noble Consort Jin also arched one neatly-trimmed brow. "Your Highness, everything and everyone under the heavens belongs to you." He nodded in Wei Wuxian's direction. "Young Master Wei is both handsome and accomplished. If you find him pleasing, it is well within your right to have him receive you—"
Lan Wangji made a small noise, not quite a wheeze and not quite a whimper. "Noble Consort."
Obediently, the Jin omega fell silent. He curtsied, his head inclined. Then, with his golden handkerchief held against his mouth and a visible strain at the top of his cheeks, he exited the tent with his personal attendant by his side. As he left, he waved for the guards to go with him. They followed without a word.
Once they were alone, Lan Wangji sighed in a way that was very similar to a groan. "My apologies. Please disregard what he said."
There was no way Wei Wuxian could possibly do that, but he nodded anyways. "Of course," he croaked out, as if the phrase 'have him receive you' wasn't echoing in his head like a shout in a canyon. "Already forgot it."
Lan Wangji didn't look like he could say the same. He brought a hand up to rub at his face. His ears were still red.
The awkwardness was suffocating. Wei Wuxian coughed. "Your Highness, I believe you were in the middle of sentencing me, so if we could just get that over with, that would be great."
"If it were that simple, I would have already done so." Lan Wangji sighed, his hand falling back to his side. "Lord Jin wants me to hand you over to him for killing his clansmen. He said if it was a matter of you being punished by family, he would not mind if you took Jin Zixun's offer."
Jin Zixun, who was now missing a hand and was most likely cursing Wei Wuxian's name as they speak. Wei Wuxian frowned. "I thought forced marriages were against imperial law."
"They are." Lan Wangji nodded. "But as part of the Jin family, you would have more protection than you would as their prisoner. They would not be allowed to torture or kill you."
Wei Wuxian shifted from kneeling to sitting sideways on the floor, one calf tucked under the other thigh. "You know they could just shove me down that huge staircase of theirs and call it an accident, right?"
Lan Wangji made no comment on Wei Wuxian's horrendously improper posture. "They would not," he said with absolute conviction. "If Lianfang-Zun could walk away from Golden Koi Tower's staircase without any major injuries, you wouldn't have a scratch on you."
A shocked giggle escaped Wei Wuxian before he could think better of it. "Lan Zhan! He's your brother's sworn brother! He's practically an in-law. Should you be talking about him like this?"
"I can talk of whomever I wish, however I wish," Lan Wangji answered severely, but the corners of his lips twitched. "Does Wei Ying object?"
"No," Wei Wuxian snickered against the back of his hand. "I have nothing against your superior judgement. But if anybody asks me if I know anything about the Crown Prince's thoughts on the Venerated Triad, I'm definitely telling."
Many layers of silk brushed against each other as Lan Wangji sat down right in front of him, on top of the twilight-blue rug that accented his tent's interior. Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, ready to protest that a Crown Prince shouldn't be sitting on the ground, but his words died on his lips when he met Lan Wangji's gaze.
He doubted he could ever accurately describe the way Lan Wangji looked at him. It was always intense, like Lan Wangji was trying to look into his head and read his thoughts, yet it was always with something unspoken, as if Lan Wangji knew that Wei Wuxian would look back at him—as if Wei Wuxian would see, and know, what he was thinking.
And for just a moment, in the stillness between heartbeats, Wei Wuxian was back at Lotus Pier: a newly-gifted bow in his hand and a beautiful prince standing at the edge of the archery range. If he reached out, he could touch Lan Wangji.
He curled his fingers into his palms, and didn't reach out. "What will happen to me?" he whispered. With no guards inside the tent and the temporary mood lift gone, even his own breath seemed too loud. "Why can't the Jiang Clan handle my punishment?"
"You are the Jiang Clan's most powerful military asset, and Lord Jiang favors you." Lan Wangji's voice had also dropped to a whisper. "Lord Jin is concerned that your sentence would be too light."
Wei Wuxian snorted. "That won't happen if Lady Yu has anything to say about it. She might even hand me over to the Jin Clan to try and maintain friendly relations."
A look of alarm passed across Lan Wangji's face. "What?"
"I mean, she wouldn't if it would go against your decree," Wei Wuxian hurriedly clarified. "I didn't—I was just joking, Lan Zhan. She wouldn't break the law."
Lan Wangji hardly looked convinced. "On the topic of harsh punishments, she is the first person you thought of. Are you being mistreated?"
A cold sweat began to form around Wei Wuxian's brows. It was so easy, sometimes, to forget that he wasn't just speaking to Lan Wangji; he was speaking to the Crown Prince, with whom the Jiang Clan's relations were already beginning to crumble—all because of Wei Wuxian.
"Keeping me in line is thankless work, but someone has to do it." Wei Wuxian gave an exaggerated sigh. "Jiejie spoils me, Lord Jiang indulges me, and Jiang Cheng is usually bullied into doing whatever I want to do. Can you imagine how I would have turned out if I didn't have Lady Yu breathing down my neck? I would have been insufferable—like, Jin Zixun's level of insufferable. If Lord Jin worries my punishment will be too light, then Lady Yu will be glad to prove him wrong."
"Perhaps," Lan Wangji admitted, and Wei Wuxian nearly went boneless with relief that he'd accepted the change in subject. "There is still my broken alliance with the Jiang Clan to consider."
Ah, yes. Wei Wuxian hung his head. Subversion, Lan Wangji had called it; Wei Wuxian was guilty of murder and subversion.
"I am not angry at you, Wei Ying." The jade beads in Lan Wangji's hand clinked softly. "But I am disappointed. I would not have said no if the Jiang Clan asked to retract their alliance offer in favor of a happy marriage between Young Mistress Jiang and Young Master Jin."
"Would you have? Could you have?" Wei Wuxian pulled his knees up and hugged them to his chest. "I know you try your best, but you have to appease so many people with every move you make. What if you failed? Then my jiejie…"
He let his voice trail off. There was no good way to explain just how badly he wanted Jiang Yanli to have what he didn't, to live a life without regrets and sleep every night without being haunted by what-if's. Lan Wangji had grown up in a world of order and discipline. He would not understand regret.
Wei Wuxian finally settled on, "I just want her to be happy."
"You have good intentions," Lan Wangji said, which somehow felt so much worse than anything else he could have said.
"But Yunmeng Jiang can't afford to not have a voice in the Cloud Recesses." Wei Wuxian couldn't keep the waver out of his voice. "Lan Zhan, can't you—can't you swear brotherhood with Jiang Cheng, like what your brother did with the Venerated Triad?"
"I cannot be a brother to Jiang Wanyin and an impartial sovereign to a nation at the same time," Lan Wangji replied. "Young Mistress Jiang was offered to me in front of all the other noble families, so her arrangement's sudden dissolution will not escape their notice. If I show the Jiang Clan leniency by switching to an alliance by oath, it sets the precedent that there are no consequences to undermining imperial authority."
Wei Wuxian buried his forehead against his knees. Everything was unravelling so quickly that trying to keep track of it all felt like grabbing water with bare hands; he couldn't hold more than a little bit at a time. "Why can't you just hand me over to the Jins?" he blurted out louder than he'd intended. "I killed their men."
"Lord Jin and his clan are in the wrong regarding the incident at Qiongqi Path," Lan Wangji was as even, as calm, as ever. "Noble Consort Jin and I have decided that the price paid in lives lost is sufficient retribution for wrongly targeting Lady Wen and her family. That part has been resolved. What remains to be addressed is what to do with you, and by extension, what to do about the alliance with the Jiang Clan."
Wei Wuxian didn't raise his head, a million thoughts swirling within him. His two decisions, separate, one made for the sake of his jiejie's happiness and the other made to protect those in need, morphed into charges of sabotage and murder. The broken alliance. Jiang Yanli's reputation and future. Jin Guangshan's barely coherent explanation. Lan Wangji's difficult balancing act between politics and morality.
Before Wei Wuxian could get too lost in his own mind, Lan Wangji mumbled—mumbled, he never mumbled, "There is one other option."
Wei Wuxian really wasn't eager to make this any more complicated than it already was, but he peeked out over his knees. "Is it exile?"
Lan Wangji shook his head, his brows pinched together. "No."
A long, unnecessarily-tense silence followed. Wei Wuxian stared at him. "Well?"
Lan Wangji looked like a child who had accidentally dropped a pitcher and now suddenly had the attention of everyone in the room. He swallowed, his throat tensing, then relaxing. "The Jiang Clan needs representation in the Cloud Recesses."
That was already a given, and it wasn't an answer. Wei Wuxian wanted to yank his own hair out. "Yes. We know, but the Jiangs only have one omega."
Wei Wuxian saw Lan Wangji's mouth form the word more than he heard it. "No."
For an eternity, neither of them spoke. Only the rustle of wind against the tent and the sigh of coals filled in the space usually occupied by voices. No, Wei Wuxian thought, a chill spreading across his skin despite the warmth inside the tent. No, no, no, repeated endlessly until he could no longer tell if it was Lan Wangji's answer or his own.
He tried to say something. He really tried, but his voice absolutely refused to cooperate, and his brain didn't have the capacity to process all his thoughts and handle speech at the same time. In the end, he could only stare down at his hands.
"This is a difficult option," Lan Wangji said, which had to be the understatement of the century, "and it demands a tremendous sacrifice on your part, so I brought it up last."
Wei Wuxian's mouth opened, then closed. His hands were starting to shake, and he felt a little woozy. "Lan Zh—Your Highness, we're supposed to be punishing me, not the Jiangs." He gave a forced, nervous giggle. "Can you imagine me representing the Jiang Clan in the inner palace? A son of a servant in one of the highest positions in the nation? I'd cause a scandal within an hour and make you the laughingstock of the century!" He laughed, but it came out more like a cough. It was as if his lungs had been set on fire, and he couldn't speak without choking on smoke.
Lan Wangji tilted his head. There was no visible change to his expression, yet Wei Wuxian saw quiet sympathy there. "Breathe, Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian obeyed, staring down at the rise and fall of his own torso as he inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled. Exhaled. The scent of magnolia and sandalwood stuck to his throat.
He had no idea how it happened; all he knew was that when he lifted his hand—to do what, he didn't know—Lan Wangji was already reaching out for him. Both of Lan Wangji's hands came up to clasp around his, beringed fingers enveloping Wei Wuxian's own.
The next exhale Wei Wuxian gave left him lighter, calmer. His heartbeat slowed down and his mind cleared.
"I have caused you undue distress." Lan Wangji gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "I apologize. We will no longer consider this option."
"No, wait." Wei Wuxian grabbed onto his fingers, although Lan Wangji had shown no sign of pulling away. "It's a valid option. It just surprised me, that's all." He studied one of Lan Wangji's rings, a thin, delicate band of silver in the stylistic outline of clouds. "It sure would solve a lot of our issues, wouldn't it. The Jiangs would be properly represented, your authority would remain unquestioned, and the Jins wouldn't dare complain of lenient punishments if it's the imperial family sentencing me."
"Further details must be discussed with Lord Jiang before the arrangement can be viable." Lan Wangji let Wei Wuxian fiddle with his rings. "You must face punishment, regardless—even if it's just a token display."
Wei Wuxian paused in the middle of twisting the silver cloud band around Lan Wangji's finger. "Token display? Since when does imperial law permit murder?"
"It permits the taking of lives in the context of self-defense, where there is no other choice." Lan Wangji watched their hands. "I was there, Wei Ying. I saw everything."
Wei Wuxian only managed a few blinks before the unwelcome sting of tears became too sharp to deny. "Is that why you're discussing this with me?"
Lan Wangji nodded. "Mn. If the throne held more power, I would have pardoned you. But as things currently stand, I cannot afford to alienate Lord Jin."
Of course Lan Wangji couldn't risk offending Jin Guangshan—not while the imperial family still relied heavily on the Jin Clan for support. That support was likely already in danger due to Lan Wangji's earlier attack on Jin Guangshan. "I guess this is the most you can do." Wei Wuxian's smile and chuckle took more effort than they were worth. "Being Crown Prince doesn't sound as great as I thought it would be."
A soft huff left Lan Wangji. "And I'm nowhere near done for the night. I still need to meet with Lord Jiang after this."
"Oh, he's here?"
"Yes. He arrived an hour ago."
Wei Wuxian frowned as he scratched the underside of his jaw. "Then why did you ask to see me first? Was it to see if I would go with you to Gusu to be your consort?"
The tips of Lan Wangji's ears flushed a pleasing pink. "I still have not discussed this matter with Lord Jiang. He may think up other alternatives."
"He might," Wei Wuxian agreed, which was another way to say, "He won't." There truly wasn't much else they could do.
With a shaky sigh, he brought his other hand up to give to Lan Wangji, who took it without a word. Fingertips roughened by a lifetime of playing the guqin rubbed soothing circles across Wei Wuxian's skin, chasing away the cold. The sensation sent a shiver down his spine.
Lan Wangji stopped. "Did the guards not give you a change of clothes?"
"Uh." Wei Wuxian genuinely could not remember. They might have. Maybe it had been on top of the dresser or in one of the drawers. "I sort of fell asleep on the, um, rug. I was a little tired."
Lan Wangji's disapproval was brief, but sharp. "Come with me." He rose to his feet. With Wei Wuxian's hand still in his, he guided him into another part of the tent, past a curtain of beads.
Wei Wuxian tensed up when he saw the bed, but Lan Wangji led him past it to a dresser on the other side. "It might be a little big on you," he pulled out a thick robe of dark blue with white embroidered clouds and cranes on it, "but it will keep you warm."
A gift of clothes. Wei Wuxian accepted the robes with a lump in his throat. In his arms, they felt a thousand times heavier. "Are you going to give me food, too?" he made himself ask.
Lan Wangji's eyes darkened, and Wei Wuxian had to fight the urge to shudder and expose his neck. "Are you hungry?"
The last proper meal Wei Wuxian had had was breakfast, early that day, but he still didn't feel at all hungry. He slowly nodded.
"Very well." With a gentle tug, Lan Wangji led him to a tray of food on one of the tables. He picked up a perfectly square slice of osmanthus cake and looked at Wei Wuxian. Last chance to refuse.
Silently, Wei Wuxian held up his free hand, and Lan Wangji placed the cake in his palm. He bit down on it and felt each layer of the confection give away beneath his teeth.
"It's sweet," he told Lan Wangji, and forced the rest of it into his mouth.
"A decree from His Highness the Crown Prince," a beta Wei Wuxian knew as Lan Wangji's Chief Steward announced the next morning in front of a small crowd of Jin and Lan clansmen. "Lord Jin has interfered in imperial matters. No Jin Clan member may be permitted through Qishan territory for three months. Young Master Jin has interfered in imperial matters. He is to go into seclusion for three months. Young Master Wei has interfered in imperial matters, subverted imperial will, and injured allies of the throne. He is to enter the Cloud Recesses by month's end and serve as a member of the inner palace. So shall it be."
"His Highness is magnanimous and wise." The crowd bowed as one. "A thousand thanks to His Highness for his judgement."
Once the Chief Steward was headed back towards Lan Wangji's tent and out of earshot, the crowd burst into a flurry of barely-smothered indignation, shock, and confusion. Many turned to look at Wei Wuxian with disbelieving—and, from a few, enraged—eyes.
"Him? Why him?"
"Didn't that omega kill…"
"… on the Wens' side."
"… shameless, look at him. I hear he went to the Crown Prince's tent last night…"
Wei Wuxian, in his dark blue cloud-patterned robes, didn't care to stay and listen to anything else they had to say. He turned to Jiang Fengmian. "Can we please go home?"
Even the smile Jiang Fengmian gave him was different—almost subservient, with hints of disappointment at the edges. "Of course, A-Xian."
The slap Lady Yu delivered across his face was completely expected.
"My lady!" Jiang Fengmian gasped. "What are you doing? He belongs to the Crown Prince now—you can't lay a hand on him!"
"Can't I?" Yu Ziyuan seized the front of Wei Wuxian's robes and dragged him close to his face. "For almost two decades, he lived in our house, ate our food, wore our clothes, and what has he done for us? Apparently wrecking just one of A-Li's marriages isn't good enough. Now he has gone and cost our family a place in the Cloud Recesses!" She shoved him hard enough to send him sprawling on the ground.
"Mother!" Jiang Yanli cried, throwing herself over Wei Wuxian. "Please, calm down! A-Xian was just trying to protect the Wens!"
"The Wens? The Wens? Why the Wens and not us?" Purple electric arches danced around Zidian on her finger. "Did the Wens raise him? Did the Wens take him in from the streets and feed him? A-Li, stop defending him. He has never once acted in our best interest, and now he's ruined your engagement to Hanguang-Jun."
"But, Mother," Jiang Yanli's voice shook, but she didn't move away from Wei Wuxian. "Hanguang-Jun and I were never engaged. He didn't give me a hairpin."
The fury in Yu Ziyuan's violet eyes wavered, and Zidian quieted. With a sharp exhale, she turned on her heel and marched away.
"Wei Wuxian will get nothing from us," she declared. "He will go to the Cloud Recesses empty-handed. No dowry, no gifts, and no servants."
Jiang Fengmian balked. "Yu Ziyuan—"
"Prisoners do not deserve dowries!" Yu Ziyuan snapped loud enough for her words to echo around the main hall. "Because that's what he is. Let's not fool ourselves. He's going to the Cloud Recesses because he's their prisoner."
She slammed the door hard enough on her way out to make the walls shudder.
After three days, a messenger arrived at Lotus Pier.
Wei Wuxian knew the messenger had to be from the Cloud Recesses when he was summoned to the main hall. Ever since Yu Ziyuan's explosive outburst, he'd taken extra care to stay out of her sight. He'd tried to busy himself with chores or training, but the moment anyone spotted him, it was either, "Young Master Wei, you need to be more careful! You're Hanguang-Jun's omega now," or "Young Master Wei, you must stop that at once! What if you get hurt before you go to the Cloud Recesses?"
Normally, such admonishments would only encourage him to act out more, but the constant mentions of Lan Wangji and the Cloud Recesses were exhausting. He eventually resigned himself to staying in his room and spoke to no one except for Jiang Yanli and—on the one occasion when he brought supper—Jiang Cheng.
They'd both been worried for Wei Wuxian; it was not at all like him to willingly sit in his room all day and not even look out the window. But Wei Wuxian was in no mood to discuss anything with anyone, especially not the subject of his inevitable departure for the Cloud Recesses.
Upon entering the main hall he bowed to Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan. "Lord Jiang. Lady Yu. I am here."
"A-Xian," Jiang Fengmian's smile was strained and tired; Wei Wuxian never wanted to see it like that again, "a gift for you has arrived from the Cloud Recesses."
The white-robed messenger bowed, his forehead ribbon sliding down his shoulder. "His Highness the Crown Prince hopes Young Master Wei is well, and wishes to give him this." He held out a small lacquered wooden box.
Wei Wuxian took it. Compared to the other proposal gifts he'd received, this was hardly anything, and yet it was everything. He wanted to hug it to his chest and press it to his nose to see if it still held traces of sandalwood.
He did neither. He traced his fingers around the corners before unlatching the lid and pushing it up.
Wei Wuxian nearly dropped the box. Inside lay the most exquisite hairpin he had ever seen. Azure blue flowers and phoenixes lay on top of silver prongs, coiled around each other, with rubies set at the center of each flower and phoenix's eye. It was by far the most expensive item he had ever seen, and he'd seen some of the more outrageous of Jin Guangshan's outfits.
He slammed the lid shut, his heart hammering in his throat. "Thank you. It is very pretty. Tell His Highness I like it very much."
The messenger's polite smile faltered, perhaps in surprise, then reaffirmed itself on his face. "His Highness will be pleased to hear so. This servant wishes Young Master Wei a safe and uneventful journey to the Cloud Recesses."
After the messenger had left, Jiang Yanli bounced over to Wei Wuxian. "A-Xian, may I see?" she asked.
Helpless, Wei Wuxian nodded, and lifted the lid again.
Jiang Yanli's eyes grew as round as coins, and she barely clamped her hand over her mouth in time to muffle her delighted screech. "A-Xian! These—!" She did an excited little hop closer to the box. "Look at these! These are made with kingfisher feathers!"
Kingfisher feathers. Wei Wuxian didn't know jewelry could be made with those. He brought the box closer to his face to examine the hairpin better.
Jiang Yanli was still bouncing on her heels. "Pick it up! Pick it up! I want to see it!"
That wasn't going to happen. Wei Wuxian could barely trust himself to hold the case steady, much less handle something as priceless as the hairpin. "You pick it up."
"Oh, I couldn't." Jiang Yanli pressed her knuckles against her mouth. "It's an imperial gift to you. I can't just touch it."
"Jiejie, I'll drop it," he begged. "If you need permission, then I give you permission."
After a moment of consideration, Jiang Yanli nodded. "Alright." With a gentleness Wei Wuxian couldn't possibly have managed at the moment, she lifted the hairpin out of the case and held it up. "Oh, look at it."
Wei Wuxian was definitely looking. Held up, it was somehow more impossibly beautiful. Light turned the vibrant blue of the flowers and phoenixes iridescent, with subtle shifting hues of green and purple. Drop pearls dangled from the end in a gentle cascade, long enough to almost touch Jiang Yanli's wrist.
"These are gentian flowers," Jiang Yanli whispered in awe, turning the hairpin slowly. "A-Xian, it's gorgeous. Hanguang-Jun must be delighted that you're going to be his consort."
"A little too delighted, if you ask me," Jiang Cheng grumbled. He'd squeezed his way in between them and was batting lightly at the pearls to make them swing. "This is ridiculous. How much did this cost to make?"
"Kingfisher feathers are priceless." Yu Ziyuan's voice from right behind them made all three of them jump. "The process of acquiring them and inlaying them in jewelry could take months." She eyed the hairpin in Jiang Yanli's hand and scoffed, "Hanguang-Jun must have commissioned this one right after the celebratory banquet in Qinghe."
Her words cut into Wei Wuxian far quicker and sharper than any blade ever could. He shrank into himself as Jiang Yanli shrieked, "Mother!" and Jiang Fengmian shouted his wife's name. Yu Ziyuan yelled something back, but Wei Wuxian didn't bother listening in. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to snatch the hairpin out of Jiang Yanli's hand and shatter it on the ground, spilling bits of blue against the tiles.
He didn't know he was being led away until the sound of Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan arguing began to fade off. Something was dabbing at his face. "A-Xian, don't listen to her, alright?" Jiang Yanli said in the same soft, soothing voice she'd always used whenever he was injured or sick. "She's just angry. She doesn't mean it. Hanguang-Jun would never give you a hairpin intended for someone else."
Wei Wuxian blinked, and his vision cleared. Was he crying? He was crying. Odd. He couldn't remember the last time he'd ever cried.
Jiang Yanli smiled at him as she continued gingerly blotting his wet cheeks with her handkerchief. "Would you mind if I put it in your hair? I want to see how you look."
He had no idea if he'd nodded or not, but her hands were in his hair, combing through the strands and teasing them up into a rough bun. She eased the hairpin into place, the prongs almost scraping Wei Wuxian's scalp.
"There." Jiang Yanli tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and stepped back. She clasped her hands together at her mouth and looked at him with liquid eyes. "It suits you very well."