After three days at Koi Tower, Jiang Yanli wished she was just about anywhere else. She had traveled a great deal; her father liked to bring her with him on his trips to see the other clan leaders. It was always good to have a woman’s touch on a trip, he said, and although he always invited Yu Ziyuan, she often declined to join him. So as she sat in her gilded room at Koi Tower, she wished fervently for the lively cheer of Lotus Pier, the quiet beauty of Cloud Recesses, even the rough military discipline of The Unclean Realm.
It was, of course, Lotus Pier that she longed for the most. But she understood that she was never going back there, or at least, never going back to the Lotus Pier she had grown up with. Even once the war was over and they reclaimed their home (and she did not allow thoughts of this not happening to enter her mind), it would be different. It was a place of mourning and loss for her now, and she doubted it would ever be anything else.
She knew that the people of Lanling, in general, meant well. They thought to distract her from her grief with loud parties, delicious food, potent alcohol. Women from the gentry clustered around her and hustled her from one place to another - here a garden, there a musical performance, here an art gallery. It was partly to distract her and partly to show off. Nobody had forgotten about the broken engagement. At least they did not blame her for it, but thought to coax her to re-enter it by convincing her of Lanling’s charms.
Jiang Yanli had never felt less charmed.
But it wasn’t their fault, and she knew that. Most of them were trying to help, and only a few were truly obnoxious.
Of course, the fact that Jin Guangshan was one of those few did not help her temper. Although he didn’t address the engagement with her - no doubt thinking that she had no say in the matter herself - he did like to show off the beauty and wealth and extravagance of Koi Tower. Jiang Yanli let herself be shuffled around, because where she went truly made no difference to her most of the time. When it got to be too much, she pled fatigue, and Yu Huanfa always scolded her husband into letting Jiang Yanli rest.
She missed her parents, and she missed her home, and she ached with fear and longing over her brothers, whom she had not heard from since her departure from Yiling. She even missed Jin Zixuan, who had awkwardly tried to comfort her for the first few days, before he left to join the troops at Langya.
She hated Koi Tower, and was not sure if that was because of her grief or simply because of the type of place it was. She could not quite put it into words. Lotus Pier had also been loud and lively, and she had not minded that. But at Lotus Pier, somehow it had been more genuine. Everything at Koi Tower seemed done specifically for the reason of showing off, making a display, not just to her but to each other.
After the first week, she received a letter from Jiang Cheng, saying that he and Wei Wuxian had been successful in restoring his golden core, and he was heading to Langya to rendezvous with the forces of the Nie and the Lan sects. She held that letter to her chest and wept with joy for a long time. She was so relieved to hear that Jiang Cheng had gotten his golden core repaired that she did not even notice he used the singular pronoun when he wrote of his current journey.
“You are looking better, A-Li,” Yu Huanfa said at dinner that night. She insisted on Jiang Yanli eating with them every night. Despite the broken engagement, Jiang Yanli was still the daughter of her sect sister, and she treated Jiang Yanli as her own daughter. If she could be a little patronizing sometimes, Jiang Yanli didn’t let it bother her. It was still a far cry from the way Yu Ziyuan had treated her, as if she could barely dress herself in the morning. “Did you receive good news from A-Cheng?”
Jiang Yanli had not told anyone of Jiang Cheng losing his core, having known he would prefer people not know, so she simply nodded and said, “Yes, he told me of how he is gathering the remaining Yunmeng Jiang disciples and heading to Langya to fight on the front lines. I am worried for him, but glad to hear that he is doing well.”
Jin Guangshan gave a snort. They were only on the second course but he was already deep in his cups, which always had the effect of making him extremely rude. “A ridiculous notion, fighting on the front lines. The sects never should have challenged Wen Ruohan. If they hadn’t, none of this would have happened.”
Jiang Yanli said nothing, twisting her napkin between her hands. She had been with her father when he had traveled to Lanling with the injured Sect Leader Yao, and Jin Guangshan had said similar things then. He would take in the injured, as a favor to Jiang Fengmian, but they shouldn’t otherwise get involved. Let Wen Ruohan do as he liked. What did it matter if he wanted to sit on his volcano and play with yin iron? He would probably end up killing himself with it and solve the problem for them.
She had accepted that at the time, although she did not like it, but now, after Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu had killed her parents and all but wiped out her sect, it was much harder to swallow. Especially since, from some things Wei Wuxian had said, they had said the same things. That if Wei Wuxian had behaved himself in Qishan, none of it would have happened. She disagreed, forcefully. The Nie and the Lan sects had also been attacked. This clearly had nothing to do with Wei Wuxian’s behavior in Qishan, no matter how appalling it had been (and reports varied).
“Don’t be so insensitive, Guangshan,” Yu Huanfa scolded. “The poor girl lost her parents to this war.”
Jin Guangshan grunted and, rather than apologize, poured himself another cup of wine.
Jiang Yanli waited for the meal to be over.
When it finally was, after a great deal more running commentary from Jin Guangshan which alternated between the Jin sect’s superiority and the other sects’ obvious flaws, Jiang Yanli felt like she needed some fresh air before she could possibly return to her chambers. Rather than giving her a guest house of her own, they had given her rooms inside the palace. She would have preferred the former, but they had not asked.
She sat outside for quite a long while, breathing in the cool night air, before heading back into the palace. She had barely taken half a dozen steps when Jin Guangshan came around the other corner. Despite the urge to make a one-eighty and escape, Jiang Yanli bowed and greeted him politely.
“A-Li!” he greeted her gregariously, his sour mood from earlier gone. “I hope you were enjoying the gardens. They are lovely in the evening, unparalleled in any other city I’ve been to!”
Jiang Yanli, who far preferred the lotus ponds at her home, smiled politely and nodded. “They are quite beautiful.”
“Although, nowhere near as beautiful as you.” Jin Guangshan chuckled. From the flush of his cheeks and the slight slur of his voice, she gathered that he was still quite drunk, so she decided not to point out how inappropriate the remark was. Everyone knew how Jin Guangshan was with ladies.
Instead, she merely said, “Good night, Jin-zongzhu,” because she wasn’t about to argue with him but she didn’t have to thank him, either. She turned and headed back towards her room, then let out a quiet yelp despite herself when he gave her rear end a solid smack. “Jin-zongzhu!”
He laughed uproariously. “You ladies are all alike. All prim and proper until you get your clothes off - ”
“Jin-zongzhu, that is quite enough,” Jiang Yanli said firmly, and walked away towards her rooms. How did Yu Huanfa stay married to this man? How did she tolerate the disrespect? Was she not a daughter of the Yu sect? Jiang Yanli tried to imagine how her mother would have reacted and was sure it would have involved violence. Yu Ziyuan had barely tolerated her husband having possible feelings for a woman who had died over ten years previous. If Jiang Fengmian had ever actually touched another woman, Yu Ziyuan would have removed precious parts of his anatomy and -
Her train of thought was broken off when she realized Jin Guangshan was following her.
She walked a little faster despite herself. It was probably a coincidence. Her rooms were close to the main suite of the palace, so surely he was just going there, hopefully to sleep off the massive amounts of alcohol he had clearly consumed. By the time she reached her bedroom, she was about ten paces ahead of him. She quickly began to slide the door closed behind herself.
He caught it.
“Ah, Jin-zongzhu,” she said, flustered despite herself as he pushed it back open. “You are extremely drunk. You should - ”
“Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do,” Jin Guangshan said. “Let me explain something to you. I am the sect leader here. When I want to do something, I do it. When I want to have something, I take it. What are you going to do to stop me? You’re just a weak little girl.”
Jiang Yanli backed up several steps. Her mind was struggling to keep up, frozen with fear and disbelief. There was a voice in the back of her head that kept saying surely he wouldn’t, surely he wasn’t like this, surely at any moment he would realize how far over the line he was and back away -
But he wasn’t. In fact, he was advancing, and now he had her pinned against the wall and was pawing drunkenly at her clothes. Jiang Yanli squeezed her eyes shut and screamed for help. He put one hand over her mouth and pushed her harder against the wall. She could smell the alcohol on his breath, his face was so close to hers. It was taking him a minute of fumbling to undo the belt, but she knew that once he did, the rest of her clothing would quickly follow, and what would happen after that would be - unthinkable.
A-Li, if you remember nothing else I teach you, remember this, Yu Ziyuan said in the back of Jiang Yanli’s mind. She was suddenly a twelve year old girl again, sitting at her mother’s feet and watching while she polished her sword. All your life, people will tell you that you’re weak. They will not be wrong. Your cultivation level is low and your body is frail. These are things that cannot be changed. But there is weakness of the body, and then there is weakness of the spirit. Do not ever, ever let anyone convince you that just because your body is weak, that your mind and spirit are too. You are a daughter of the Yu sect. You keep your mind sharp and your knives sharper.
The belt came undone.
Jiang Yanli grabbed the knife she kept there just before it could fall to the floor, and thrust it into Jin Guangshan’s side.
On the left side, between the ribs here and here - that is the way to a man’s heart, A-Li.
The force of it drove the breath out of him. He stumbled back, looking at her in shock, before she yanked the knife out. Blood went everywhere, and he staggered and then fell.
Jiang Yanli sat down right where she was standing, gasping for breath. She did not move for several moments, letting Jin Guangshan’s life drain onto the floor next to her.
A servant, drawn by her scream, hurried into the room. She took one look at Jin Guangshan’s body and she screamed. That drew more people, and suddenly the room was flooded with not just servants but members of the gentry. They gawked at her, still sitting on the floor, holding the knife, unmoving. A few of them checked on Jin Guangshan and saw that he was already dead.
“A-Li!” Yu Huanfa came in at a rapid clip. “What happened? Are you - ” She saw her husband’s body and gasped. “Oh - oh dear Heavens - A-Li, what - ”
Jiang Yanli lifted her eyes up to Yu Huanfa and said, calmly, as if from a hundred miles away, “I am a daughter of the Yu sect. Did he think my mother only taught me how to pour tea?”
“Oh,” Yu Huanfa said, sounding as if the breath had been kicked out of her. “Oh, A-Li. I’m so sorry.” She sagged down next to her, pulling Jiang Yanli against her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, A-Li, I’m so sorry.”
Jiang Yanli felt something loosen inside her. The cold vanished and she began to sob, turning her face into Yu Huanfa’s shoulder.
Around her, the men were growing loud, demanding explanations. The sect leader was dead on the floor. Shouldn’t somebody say or do something about that? The women, far more aware of the type of person Jin Guangshan was, said nothing. Some were even looking on with a steely sort of satisfaction.
Finally, Yu Huanfa said, “Please take care of the body. I will take care of notifying the other sect leaders. The manner of his death is not to leave this room. He was drunk. He stumbled and fell from a high window. Do you all understand? If I hear a single one of you talking about what happened, you will be cast out of Lanling.”
Jiang Yanli was smart enough to know that the rumors would spread anyway. Too many people were here to really stop it. But it would allow Yu Huanfa to control the narrative long enough to keep her safe, and notify Jin Zixuan of his father’s death before he heard about it through gossip.
“But she killed - ” one of the men started.
Yu Huanfa gave the man a look that would have made Yu Ziyuan proud. “He was drunk. He stumbled. He fell. That is the end of the story. A-Li, come with me. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Still trembling, Jiang Yanli allowed Yu Huanfa to help her to her feet. She did not speak again until hours later, after she had washed up and changed into clean clothes. The old ones, soaked with Jin Guangshan’s blood, had been burned. Her things had been moved into a different suite of rooms, so she wouldn’t have to go back to the one he had died in. Yu Huanfa made her a calming cup of tea.
“I miss my mother,” Jiang Yanli finally said.
Yu Huanfa squeezed her hand. “I miss her too, A-Li.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Jin Zixuan was both puzzled and alarmed to receive a letter from his mother which merely told him he was needed at home immediately for an urgent matter. He made his apologies to Nie Mingjue before leaving Langya and heading home with all due speed. His alarm grew when he saw a number of people wearing white.
His mother was waiting for him, and immediately had him follow her to her private chambers. “I have some news,” she said, pouring him a cup of tea. “Please sit.”
“What’s wrong?” Jin Zixuan asked, trying not to look as worried as he felt.
Yu Huanfa took a deep breath and said, “Your father is dead.”
The news hit Jin Zixuan like a hammer to the gut. He’d had his disagreements with his father. To be honest they had never really been close. Jin Guangshan had always gotten him anything he had wanted, spoiled him beyond reason when it came to material things, but he also never had time for his son beyond a few minutes here and there, and his idea of affection was a quick pat on the head and a ‘go run along to your mother’. As Jin Zixuan had gotten older and begun to realize what the gossip of the other courtiers meant, he liked his father less and less, realizing the disrespect he showed to Jin Zixuan’s mother. But even so, it was still his father. “What - what happened?”
“I want to tell you the full story,” Yu Huanfa said, “but before I do, I want you to understand something. I know that this will upset you. I’m not telling you because I want you upset, or hurt. I’m telling you because you will find out, sooner or later, and I would rather you hear it from me.”
Jin Zixuan nodded mechanically.
“You know your father was overly fond of women,” Yu Huanfa said. “There was a particular young woman who he set his sights on, to have an affair with. She declined his offer. He refused to take no for an answer and attempted to force himself upon her. She defended herself, and in doing so, killed your father.”
Every one of those words sunk deeper into Jin Zixuan’s aching stomach. “And you - you believe he did this? That she is not just - trying to get away with - ”
Yu Huanfa was quiet for a few moments. “Your father has done this many times before,” she finally said, and Jin Zixuan felt his gut twist even further. “Typically, he confined this to the servants. I cannot tell you how many young handmaidens I’ve sent away with a year’s pay and a letter of recommendation so they no longer have to work here at Koi Tower after he assaulted them. However, there were occasions when he went after ladies of the gentry. So the description of his behavior is in line with his character, and the young woman in question is, in my opinion, a sweet young lady who never would have attacked him unprovoked.”
Jin Zixuan wrestled with all of that for several long minutes. “Why didn’t you ever stop him?” he finally asked.
“Stop him how?” Yu Huanfa asked. “He knew it was wrong. He simply didn’t care. Short of killing him myself, what would you have me do?”
Jin Zixuan had to remind himself that they weren’t just talking about his father. They were talking about his sect leader. To take action against him would have been difficult. There were plenty of men in Lanling who undoubtedly thought Jin Guangshan had the right to whatever woman he pleased. People would ask why Yu Huanfa had been fine with him sleeping with prostitutes and fathering bastards but drew the line at gentry women - not even thinking about the issue being consent, not class. And up until extremely recently, Jin Zixuan had been too young to take control of the sect himself. If Yu Huanfa had spoken out against Jin Guangshan, even if she had managed to get him removed from his position or imprisoned, other members of the Lanling Jin gentry would have undoubtedly swept in and tried to seize his power.
Finally, he nodded and said, “I understand.”
Yu Huanfa let out a breath. “There is one more thing you must know. The young lady in question, who killed your father, is Jiang Yanli.”
Jin Zixuan’s stomach gave another, more pronounced, lurch.
It was true that he had never treated Jiang Yanli very well, and now that he was a little more mature, he felt bad about it. Her cultivation level was low and her body somewhat frail. She had no special talents. Even being the daughter of one of the great sects, he had felt as if she was beneath him. Besides that, he had never gotten a choice in the matter. While his cousins were free to brag about courting young ladies, selecting the one they felt was the best match and would bring them the most benefit, he couldn’t participate. They teased him about his mother having picked out a bride for him, as if she didn’t trust him to do it himself.
He had met Jiang Yanli several times over the years and always had the same opinion: she was too meek, too timid, too weak. He wanted a strong woman, one who could father children he could be proud of.
But it was only after the engagement had been broken off that he realized that she hadn’t had any more choice in the matter than he had. That just as he was upset he wouldn’t be able to choose a woman who was a powerful cultivator, she wouldn’t be able to choose a husband who admired and respected her for what she was - not spurned her for what she was not.
All of this had left his feelings on the matter so tangled that he had almost been glad when he had been sent to Nightless City, if only so he could get his mind off of it for a little while. But in the past few weeks, after the attack on Lotus Pier, knowing that Jiang Yanli was now staying at Koi Tower, she had been drifting back into his thoughts.
Now he knew his father had done a terrible, unforgivable thing, one that he perhaps would not have done if Jiang Yanli had still been his betrothed. He had failed to protect her, and in that moment, he loathed himself for it. “If I had been here - ”
“This was not your fault, A-Xuan,” Yu Huanfa said immediately. “What your father did is on his head and his head alone. That being said, A-Li is distraught over the entire experience. I think it would help her very much if you could offer her a few kind words.”
Jin Zixuan nodded, although he was thinking that he could never seem to manage words when Jiang Yanli was around, kind or otherwise. They had never had an encounter where he had felt he knew what to say, or that he had not said something that was somehow rude and thoughtless. Now, when the stakes were so much higher and the situation so much more emotionally charged, what could he possibly say?
“Is she . . . all right?” he finally asked. “You said he . . . he attempted to force himself on her . . . so he was not . . .”
“He was not successful,” Yu Huanfa said, which brought some relief to him. “She is quite upset, of course, but physically she was unharmed.”
Jin Zixuan nodded and said, “I will go speak to her.”
A few minutes later, he was outside her chambers, feeling just as awkward as usual and a great deal more wretched. He knocked on the door, determined to get it over with. She opened it with her gaze upturned to see who was there, and as soon as she saw it was him, it dropped to the floor.
“Ah, Jiang-guniang,” Jin Zixuan said stiltedly. “My mother told me what happened.”
Softly, Jiang Yanli said, “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Jin Zixuan said. She glanced up, then away, and he felt his cheeks flush pink. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
After a moment, she nodded and said, “Thank you, Jin-gongzi.”
Silence lingered in the air, awkward and miserable.
“Well,” Jin Zixuan said, “I just wanted to tell you that.”
“How is the war going?” Jiang Yanli asked. “Have you seen my brothers?”
“Ah - ” Jin Zixuan realized a beat too late that she didn’t know of Wei Wuxian’s disappearance. Why was he the one to have to break that news to her? Should Jiang Wanyin not have already told her? He probably didn’t want to upset her, but now Jin Zixuan had to either lie to her face or give her terrible news. He hedged. “Jiang-zongzhu is doing well. I have not seen Wei Wuxian in some time.”
Much to his relief, she accepted that, knowing as she did that Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian didn’t get along and would probably be kept separate in such a situation. “Please give them my love.”
“I will.” That sounded like permission to run away, so Jin Zixuan immediately did so. “Take care of yourself, Jiang-guniang. I will see you again soon, I am sure.”
~ ~ ~ ~