After matters come to a head at the Jinlintai, Jin Guangshan is denounced and dethroned within a span of only three days.
Jin Zixuan replaces him as Jin-zongzhu on the fourth morning, looking so young and nervous on his father’s throne that Lan Xichen’s heart aches with pity for him, and Jiang Yanli remains at Lotus Pier; Madam Jin thought it would be unwise for her beloved daughter-in-law to enter a sect so fraught by its master’s crimes, and so advised her to delay her wedding another year. It was also hinted (very gently, by none other than Jin Zixuan himself) that she might regret leaving Lotus Pier so soon, so she decided to stay and help rebuild Yunmeng Jiang at least until the next summer.
The sect that the Jin had nearly ruined would have to be brought to rights by the Jin themselves, and such a household would be nothing but a danger for Jiang Yanli until Jin Zixuan can drag his clan firmly under his heel.
And after Jin Zixuan’s ascension ceremony, Lan Xichen found himself alone on a balcony with Jin Guangyao, wondering how the peace that followed the Sunshot Campaign could have gone so completely wrong within a bare year of Wen Ruohan’s death.
All it takes for evil to triumph is for good to sit by and do nothing, he thinks, as Jin Guangyao stands beside him with his arms folded on the railing. And by so doing it would no longer be good at all. That old saying would have spoken of me, if I never met Lan Sizhui.
“What made you think of it?” Jin Guangyao asks, staring straight ahead at one of the tinkling fountains. “Searching the room in my chambers, I mean.”
Lan Xichen blinks. “Ah?”
“What made you so suspicious of me?” There are tears in his friend’s eyes, but Lan Xichen finds that he can no longer trust them. “That you would come to the Jinlintai under the guise of comradeship, and search through my rooms for—I cannot tell what you expected to find!”
“Mingjue-xiong knew that you collaborated with Xue Yang,” Lan Xichen says dully. “That captain was a bully and a boor, but loyal to his master. He would have cut off his own hands before freeing a prisoner that Mingjue-xiong had condemned, so if it was not him who let Xue Yang out of that cell, whom could it be but you? And those letters asking him to work for your father...who but you could have sent them?”
“So just because of Da-ge’s grudge against me, you did such a thing?” Jin Guangyao sobs. “Er- ge, I thought we...but I should have known that no matter what I did for you, I could not hold a candle to him in your heart, even if I saved your life when the Cloud Recesses were in ashes.”
He took a page from the song of Turmoil, and sang Nie Mingjue to death with his guqin, Sizhui told him. You tried to save his life, and nearly killed yourself doing it.
“Do you know the difference between you and Mingjue-xiong, A-Yao?”
Jin Guangyao’s eyes are swimming. “Of course I do! In his eyes he is righteous, while he looks down upon me when I must take actions he dislikes, and never bothers to think about why I must do them, or that I might have been dead if I had not disposed of his clansmen at Nightless City—and he will hold that against me until the end of my days!”
Lan Xichen shakes his head.
“I dare not judge a person’s heart,” he says slowly, “or what drives them to act, especially if they have suffered if you have. Mingjue-xiong believes that righteousness takes only one form no matter the circumstances, and in that he is mistaken.”
“But you still—”
“It is true that the war might have been lost if Wen Ruohan suspected you too soon, but the lives of the Wen prisoners you had tortured for knowledge of the yintie were not a just price for your father’s approval,” Lan Xichen sighs. “Clearly you thought otherwise, or we would not have been here.”
“I know your friendship for me is true, A-Yao,” he whispers. “But if even Da-ge had been party to this, I would not have helped conceal it.”
“You would have!” Jin Guangyao insists, weeping harder than ever. “Lan Xichen, how can you stand before me and claim that there could be a thing you would not do for Nie-zongzhu? Was I ever of any importance in your eyes, beside him?”
“If one day you drew Hensheng and attacked me, I would defend myself,” Lan Xichen replies, instead of giving him a straight answer. “But if I were bleeding to death with a wound Mingjue-xiong dealt to me, I would have smiled and kissed his hands upon Baxia as I died. If he turned his saber upon me, I would consider it justice.”
He turns around and leaves the balcony, bowing to Jin Guangyao before he goes, and turns his thoughts back towards the family still waiting for him at the Cloud Recesses.
“I am half a Wen, by the way,” he calls, as A-Yao’s slim figure dwindles from view. “Had Wangji and I not put a stop to this, our silence would have been taken as a warrant for our own grandmother’s execution.”
* * *
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says helplessly, as the two of them sit in the jingshi with their children clustered around them. “May I hold A-Lan, sweetheart? Please?”
“One more minute, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying coos, nuzzling the baby’s little round head with the tip of his nose. “A-Lan, do you know who I am?”
Shuilan squeals and kicks her feet up into the air. “Ma!”
“And who’s this?” Wei Ying points to Lan Yu. “You know him, right?”
Lan Wangji blinks in astonishment. “She is very bright,” he notes, as A-Lan burrows deeper into Wei Ying’s arms and sucks greedily at the spout of her milk bottle. “Those were proper words, my heart.”
Xiao-Yu climbs into Lan Wangji’s lap and dives in between the two outermost layers of his robes. “A-Lan is the best baby,” he says proudly, after his little body is safely bundled up in a thick layer of cloud-embroidered silk. “She knows everything. One time, A-Niang set a big fire in the jishi in the middle of the night, and meimei cried as loudly as she could until Papa woke up and saved him!”
At this, Lan Wangji casts a despairing glance at his beloved and kisses his hand. “Wei Ying.”
“That was another me!” Wei Ying protests, hitching A-Lan up higher against his stomach. “I promise I won’t set any fires after we’re married, Lan Zhan! I wouldn’t dare damage anything you built for me that way! Xiao-Yu, your A-Niang sounds very ungrateful to do such a thing.”
“I don’t know what that means, but my Papa has a calendar for fires,” Xiao-Yu says serenely. “Every time A-Niang goes one week without a fire, Papa lets A-Niang ride on his back.”
Wei Ying bursts out laughing. “Really?”
“Mm!” the little boy pouts. “But A-Niang always sets fires, so Xiao-Yu never gets to watch.”
Lan Wangji feels his heart quiver at the thought of Wei Ying being hurt in a fire, so he wraps his arms around Xiao-Yu and squeezes him as tightly as he can. “There will be no fires,” he promises. “Your A-Niang will always be safe from now on, A-Bao. I will build him a workshop just behind the jingshi, and outfit it with wards to make sure it does not burn.”
They have lunch after A-Yu gets tired of talking, and then the little ones go down for their naps in Lan Wangji’s room. Lan Xichen is still traveling between Qinghe and Lanling, taking part in the trials of Jin Guangshan’s clansmen and aiding in the resettlement of the Jinlintai’s last political prisoners, and Sizhui is in the meishi with Lan Wangji’s uncle, so he and Wei Wuxian pile into the double bed and rest beside their children while they wait for Sizhui to return.
“How are you going to send the children back home?” Lan Wangji whispers, after Xiao-Yu falls asleep. “Do you know anything about the talisman that brought them here?”
Wei Ying nods.
“I’m going to send them back tomorrow,” he says quietly. “Sizhui took me to the spot in the woods where they first arrived, and I found the talisman still lying in the dirt. There was a line of sigils preventing it from moving once it had been activated, so it fell from A-Yu’s hands and remained behind when he left.”
“So if you activate it once again, then…”
“It should bring all three of them back to where they began, and when,” Wei Ying mutters, turning his face away to hide his tears. “We can’t keep them too long, Lan Zhan. Every day they spent here is another day they’ll age in their own time, and A-Lan is so little that every day matters.”
Lan Wangji reaches out to take his hands, determined not to let the man he loves suffer alone for something like this. “We will have A-Yuan. He will grow up into Lan Sizhui, only a Sizhui who did not have to suffer as this one did, and Yu’er and A-Lan will come back sooner or later. All we must do is remain patient, and trust that if they found us once, they will find us again.”
A tear runs down Wei Ying’s cheek.
“How are you so good, sweetheart?” he sniffles. “Of course, there’s no need to worry about it. The Wens will be safe, and so will A-Yuan, and—Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji springs upright in a flash. “What is it?”
“I’ll be able to go to my shijie’s wedding,” Wei Ying cries, throwing his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck. “And I can help her get ready for it, since Jin-furen had it delayed! Xingan, after we send the children back—let’s go to Lotus Pier and visit her, ah? Jiang Cheng probably won’t want to see me, but he’ll have to put up with it. Shijie will want me there, and I’m not going to stay away!”
“He has not forgiven you for agreeing to marry me,” Lan Wangji observes, returning the hug with all his might and squashing poor Xiao-Yu between them. “I fear that my presence at Lotus Pier might make things difficult for both of you, if he finds the idea of you marrying out of Yunmeng so unthinkable.”
His zhiji waves a dismissive hand. “If we’re going to get married, then he’ll just have to get used to it,” he shrugs. “I’m not part of the Jiang sect anymore, but I’m still Shijie’s didi, and I’m going to be your husband. He’ll want to make up eventually, so I don’t mind.”
“Does it not trouble you, that your brother would treat you thus? That you gave back his jindan and his sect only to be repaid with exile?”
Lan Wangji’s opinion of Jiang Wanyin sank several levels after A-Yu revealed the truth about Wei Ying’s golden core, and dug itself into the ground when Wei Ying fainted from pain on the journey to Gusu due to the wound Jiang Wanyin dealt him, which never properly healed, and reopened when Wen Ning struck it during his return to consciousness.
And Wei Ying might have broken Jiang Wanyin’s arm during their staged duel, but there was no risk of infection with such an injury, and Jiang Wanyin had every comfort of Lotus Pier at his disposal while he recovered; but Wei Ying had no food to nourish his healing or even a warm bed to lie down on while Wen Qing treated the wound in his belly, and Jiang Wanyin knew such would be the case and stabbed Wei Ying anyway.
Lan Wangji will never forgive himself for leaving Wei Ying alone on Qiongqi Dao, but his bitterness towards Jiang Wanyin runs even deeper than his own miserable regret—a fact that was not helped when his soon-to-be brother-in-law flew to Gusu to upbraid him for stealing Wei Ying away, and then for daring to love him when all the world had spurned him and cast him aside.
Swords were drawn, and matters escalated. Lan Xichen was not there to mediate, what with everything that had taken place in Lanling, and Shufu had to be called out of the meeting chamber to make Jiang Wanyin listen to reason. The resulting argument ended with Wei Ying in tears, Lan Wangji furious, Shufu and Jiang Wanyin barely less so, and little A-Yu declaring that his jiujiu had clearly not been kissed by his shenshen that day, and ought to behave properly lest the future Jiang-furen find someone else to kiss instead.
Lan Sizhui managed to clap a hand over A-Yu’s mouth before he could identify Jiang Wanyin’s future wife by name, but A-Yu’s timely arrival surprised the fight right out of him, and Jiang Wanyin spent the next hour asking Wei Ying why Xiao-Yu called him jiujiu until the child wriggled out of Sizhui’s restraining arms and answered the question himself.
“A-Niang is Xiao-Yu’s A-Niang,” Xiao-Yu explained, patting Wei Ying’s tears away with one of Lan Wangji’s handkerchiefs. “And jiujiu is my A-Niang’s didi. Auntie is jiujiu’s wife, and—”
“Lan Yu,” Sizhui began, clearly preparing to cast a silencing charm on his indignant baby brother. “What did I say about telling people—”
“And Xiao-Hua is jiujiu’s baby!” Xiao-Yu finished, brightening up at the thought of his little cousin(?). “But she’s bigger than A-Lan, so she’s not a baby anymore. Jiujiu, you and Auntie should hurry up and give A-Hua her own meimei.”
Jiang Wanyin glared at him. “I’m not married, and I certainly don’t have a baby. Who are you, anyway?”
In answer, Xiao-Yu pointed to Lan Wangji. “I’m Lan-xiao-gongzi,” he said, puffing out his little chest with pride. “My name is Lan Yu, and I’m your zhizi!”
That began another outcry, one that ended in laughter over Jiang-zongzhu’s confusion rather than tears, but Lan Wangji could not quite forget the man’s accusations of betrayal: as if the lives of the Wens meant nothing to him, or that nothing was truly at stake even with all Wei Ying had suffered to rescue them from the Jins.
“Jiang Cheng is the way he is. It doesn’t bother me,” Wei Ying says now, shaking Lan Wangji out of his gloomy reverie. “How else could it have been between us? I’ve spent all my life consoling him, and mincing my words to comfort him, and he’s taking it badly now because I won’t go on like we used to.”
“I never thought you would mince your words with anyone.”
“I know, Lan Zhan, but it was different with Jiang Cheng. Whenever Jiang-shushu praised me, I had to tell Jiang Cheng that he could afford to indulge me because I wasn’t his son by blood, and I always pretended that there was nothing to praise no matter what happened, even after we killed the Xuanwu. And Yu-furen wouldn’t praise anything Jiang Cheng did unless he surpassed me, and then she insisted that Jiang-shushu’s kind words for him were insincere, so…”
“So Jiang Wanyin grew up in two minds, inherited from both Jiang-zongzhu and his mother,” Lan Wangji surmises. “His head took his mother’s words for truth and his father’s for a lie, but his heart chose differently, and the clash between them only angers him further.”
Wei Ying only shrugs again. “It’s always been that way. He was jealous and not jealous, and angry and not angry, and trying to clear his head made it worse. But he’s the master of Jiangshi now, so this can’t go on forever.”
And then, very quietly:
“I’ve never been able to bring him any peace,” Wei Ying murmurs. “Even my jindan couldn’t do it. Everything was all right for a while after the war ended, but you know what happened then.”
“Peace is only found within one’s own self. If Jiang Wanyin cannot find it there, then he will never have it.”
“En, that’s true enough.”
He punctuates the sentence with an enormous yawn, so loud and breathy that the three little faces lined up between them wrinkle their chins up and yawn, too, and Wei Ying throws his head back and bursts into laughter at the sight. “Aren’t they adorable, Lan Zhan?” he giggles, kissing A-Yuan’s button nose and then baby A-Lan’s. “Aiyah, I wish we could keep all three of them.”
But they cannot keep Sizhui, or Xiao-Yu, or even A-Lan; and the realization sombers them both, bittering the sweetness of this last precious day all six of them will have together.
Wei Ying falls asleep first, and Lan Wangji presses his zhiyin’s hands to his lips before following him into slumber.
If either of them had realized what Jin Guangyao’s demotion would mean for one of the children in their arms, the thought was wholly forgotten, and would not return or be spoken of until it was far too late.