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Aftermath

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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.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Over the course of the week following Jin Guangshan’s death, Jiang Yanli found she was recovering from the awful experience more quickly than she would have expected. Although she still had bad dreams about it, the emotions of guilt and uncertainty had faded quickly. She attributed this almost entirely to the young handmaidens that now surrounded her, waiting on her hand and foot. She tried to tell them that their care was unnecessary, but realized after a few days that they were showing gratitude. Of course they were. If Jin Guangshan had been willing to force himself on a gentry woman, the daughter of his wife’s close friend, his behavior towards the servants must have been ten times more terrible. Even in the brief time she had been at Koi Tower, she had seen the way he leered at them, patting or pinching as they passed him by. And that was in public; she could not begin to think of how he must have treated them in private.

So she let the servants pamper her, and the guilt and anguish gave way to a grim satisfaction. She had killed a monster, and there was no shame in that. The fact that Yu Huanfa had immediately thrown her support behind Jiang Yanli kept most of the other gentry from saying anything to her about it. A few of the other gentry ladies simply asked if she was recovering well from her ‘terrible experience’ and she told them that she was. As for the gentry men, they gave her a wide berth, and she was frankly fine with that. She did not know how much they were aware of, and she did not want to know.

But as the days passed by, she found herself aching to know the answer to a question. She spent most of her afternoons with Yu Huanfa, sewing or gardening, and finally found the strength to ask. “Jin-furen, were you . . . were you and your husband an arranged marriage, like my parents?”

Yu Huanfa glanced up from her embroidery, and she seemed to sense the underlying question, because her hands momentarily tightened. But she answered readily enough. “Yes. Your mother never spoke of it?”

“No . . . my parents’ marriage was not a subject we discussed.”

“I suppose not.” Yu Huanfa sighed. “The Meishan Yu were a strong sect. But when Ziyuan-jie and I were in our early teens, Meishan experienced terrible floods. Our crops were ruined for several years in a row, and we became somewhat dependent on the neighboring provinces. As she and I were coming of age, the elders of our sect began to discuss how to either repay debts, or secure further assistance. Ziyuan-jie and I were two of the strongest cultivators, and we had already gotten many marriage proposals. After some negotiation, it was agreed that she would marry Jiang Fengmian and I would marry Jin Guangshan, and thus the Meishan Yu would be able to continue to rely on their help while Meishan rebuilt.”

Thinking of how miserable her mother had always been in her marriage, Jiang Yanli could not help but sympathize with Yu Huanfa’s fate. “Was he always . . .”

“I heard the rumors even before we married,” Yu Huanfa said. “I told myself it was nothing to worry about. I was sure that I could satisfy him. And for a while, I could. But then I became pregnant with A-Xuan. It was a difficult pregnancy. I was very nauseous in the early months, and then became even more ill. I spent the last two months on bedrest. The doctors told me I was lucky to survive his birth, and that having another child might kill me.”

“Oh, no,” Jiang Yanli said softly. “That must have been terribly difficult for you.”

“It was. I had wanted more children, and I was furious with my own body for betraying me . . . and terrified of the possibility of another pregnancy.” Yu Huanfa stared off into the distance, her embroidery forgotten. “So when Guangshan began sleeping with prostitutes, what could I say? How could I tell him not to? I could not provide what he needed, as a man . . . of course he would seek it elsewhere.”

Jiang Yanli, who was almost positive that her own parents had not had sex after Jiang Cheng’s conception, but whose father would never, ever have disrespected his own wife by seeking it elsewhere, said nothing.

“Ah, I’m sorry, A-Li, I’m wandering.” Yu Huanfa smiled and patted Jiang Yanli’s hand. “Did I answer your question?”

She had and she hadn’t, and Jiang Yanli didn’t know how to say that. She understood why Yu Huanfa had tolerated her husband’s behavior, but it still felt so strange to her. She couldn’t picture herself doing the same thing. Only, the thing was, she could. She could see herself, or at least the herself of a week ago, quietly saying nothing while her husband had affairs and slept with prostitutes, believing that she deserved no better. But she felt different now. She felt strong, in a way she had never felt before.

“Yes, Jin-furen,” she said. “Thank you for speaking so frankly with me. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me.”

Yu Huanfa squeezed her hand. “I am grateful for you too, A-Li.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

By the time Jin Zixuan got back to Langya, the rumors of his father’s death had reached it. He didn’t know what everyone thought about the manner of his death - frankly, he found his mother’s cover story of ‘he fell from a window while drunk’ to be a little wanting, but it wasn’t like he could come up with a better one. Fortunately, nobody said anything to him about it one way or another. They offered their condolences on his death and then moved on.

But now he was the sect leader, and within a week, he hated it. Why did people need to talk to him all the time? Why did they need his opinions on things? Beforehand, Nie Mingjue had been in charge of the offensive, and everyone had deferred to him, and to a slightly lesser extent, Lan Xichen. But now every Jin cultivator on the field needed to run everything by Jin Zixuan, even when a week previous they would have taken orders from Nie Mingjue without questioning.

If this was what being sect leader was like, he already hated it.

Then there was Jin Zixun. 

Jin Zixuan had never gotten along particularly well with his cousin, the child of his father’s brother who had died on a night hunt while Jin Zixun had still been quite young. He was arrogant and proud, two qualities that were common in the Jin sect (and Jin Zixuan could not maintain he did not have them himself), but he was also petty, vindictive, and cruel. He had been a bully as long as Jin Zixuan had known him, always using his position in the sect to step on others and make them feel small.

While most of the cultivators were there out of duty, to protect their homes and families, Jin Zixun actively enjoyed war. His plans were often shut down by Nie Mingjue for being too reckless, too cavalier about collateral damage, and then he would sulk about it like a child. Once or twice he went ahead with his own plans anyway, and then Nie Mingjue asked Jin Zixuan to ‘talk to him about it’. Jin Zixuan had absolutely no idea how to go about disciplining a member of his own sect, his own family - one who was several years older than him to boot. He did try, reminding Jin Zixun that Nie Mingjue was the one in charge and they were following his orders, but Jin Zixun just rolled his eyes, said fine, and then continued to make trouble for everybody.

At least the war was going well overall. They had pushed the Wen out of Qinghe and Gusu. Nie Mingjue had killed Wen Xu and sent his head back to Nightless City. Their contact there (whoever the hell that was) said Wen Ruohan was furious about his eldest’s son’s death, and it was driving him to be more reckless with his troops and rely more heavily on the yin iron.

Finally, they got their swords back. Jin Zixuan felt intense relief when he touched Suihua’s hilt. Then he saw the expression on Lan Wangji’s face as he looked at Suibian, and wondered (not for the first time) exactly what was going on there. They seemed like such an odd pair, but even with his somewhat limited social skills, he had strong suspicions.

A week later, Wei Wuxian had finally been found, and a few days after that, Jiang Yanli arrived at the Unclean Realm to be reunited with her brothers.

Jin Zixuan hadn’t seen her since his brief trip home after his father’s death, and he found he was relieved to see her looking so well. Better than he had expected, even. There was a well of cool resolve around her now that he had not seen in her before. As she held Wei Wuxian, smoothed back his hair and whispered, “Everything’s going to be all right now,” Jin Zixuan found that he believed her.

After she had greeted her brothers, he awkwardly made his way over and bowed to her. “It is good to see you well, Jiang-guniang.”

“Thank you, Jin-zongzhu,” she said softly. “I thought I would stay and help out around the camp, if that’s all right?”

What was she asking him for? He might be a sect leader, but he wasn’t her sect leader. “Ah, of course, whatever . . . whatever you think is best.”

She gave him her usual shy smile, and he was struck, not for the first time, with how beautiful she was. “Perhaps I could cook for you?”

Jin Zixuan smiled back, unable to help it. “I’d like that.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nightless City was chaotic in the wake of Wen Ruohan’s death, and Meng Yao was taking a minute to breathe after what had been an extremely long six months.

He was alone in the throne room. Lan Xichen had finally gotten Nie Mingjue to calm down long enough to take him to receive medical attention. Lan Wangji had similarly carted Wei Wuxian off somewhere. Meng Yao was intensely curious about this ‘Stygian Tiger Amulet’ he had used. Logic said it was just the fourth piece of yin iron, refined, but the fact that Wei Wuxian had used it to counter all three of Wen Ruohan’s pieces at once made Meng Yao unsure.

There were still lieutenants and disciples everywhere giving orders. They needed to round up all the Wen cultivators who were still living, both in the city and in Qishan in general. The puppets, fortunately, had died with Wen Ruohan. Meng Yao doubted the living cultivators wouldn’t meet a similar fate fairly soon.

He left the throne room almost unnoticed, but before he had taken a few steps, found himself face to face with his brother, Jin Zixuan. “Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan said, looking awkward.

Meng Yao bowed. “Jin-gongzi,” he said.

Jin Zixuan shifted uncomfortably for a few seconds before saying, “Can we speak privately?”

“Certainly,” Meng Yao said, although honestly he had no idea why Jin Zixuan would want to talk to him. They had only met for the first time at Cloud Recesses, and even that wasn’t a ‘meeting’ so much as them simply being in the same room for the first time. Jin Zixuan hadn’t spoken to him, and Meng Yao certainly hadn’t made any effort to approach.

Once they were back in the throne room, Jin Zixuan said, “Ah . . . it appears you don’t know, since you’ve been here undercover . . . our father is dead.”

Meng Yao was genuinely shocked, and for a few moments he couldn’t even process it. For years upon years, getting either acceptance from or revenge on his father (he vacillated from day to day) had been his only goal. He couldn’t simply be dead. He hadn’t even been anywhere near the war! How was Meng Yao supposed to kill him if he was already dead? “I . . . no, I didn’t know. What happened?”

Jin Zixuan looked somewhat uncomfortable. “I’m not really supposed to talk about it, but I know the rumors have spread enough that you’ll probably hear them anyway . . . he tried to force his advances on a woman and she knifed him for it.”

Meng Yao’s brain went in a hundred directions. The intellectual part of him thought that this was, perhaps, not great. It certainly would do nothing for the Jin sect’s reputation. But the emotional part of him absolutely reveled in it. For Jin Guangshan to be killed by a woman, for his abhorrent behavior to finally catch up with him, was absolutely beautiful. It was the perfect death for him, in Meng Yao’s opinion. He didn’t even care that he hadn’t gotten to kill him anymore; he never could have come up with something better than that. He hoped the woman in question was not suffering overmuch in the aftermath, and made a mental note to find out who it was so he could show his appreciation at some point. 

All of that being processed, he said, “My condolences for your loss, Jin-zongzhu.”

“Thank you.” Jin Zixuan shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable.

Having now gathered himself, Meng Yao gave him a reassuring smile. “Something else?”

Jin Zixuan took a deep breath, folding his hands behind his back and looking rigid. “Your role in the Sunshot Campaign was commendable. We could not have achieved victory without your assistance. In recognition of your courage and your skill, I would like to offer you a place in the Jin sect, as my brother, Jin Ziyao.”

Meng Yao wondered how many times his brother was going to punch him in the gut during this conversation. Not that this was a bad punch, but it certainly was an unexpected one. He had grown used to the Jin sect overlooking his talents or outright denying their existence. He absolutely deserved this reward, but had never truly thought it would happen.

It felt wrong, somehow. All these years, all he had ever wanted was for his father to look in his direction. For his father to acknowledge that he was brilliant and ruthless, just like he was. This recognition, coming from Jin Zixuan, who was neither, felt all wrong to him. What did Jin Zixuan care for him? Jin Zixuan probably hadn’t even known he had existed for most of his life, and had certainly never showed a jot of interest or concern about his many bastard half-siblings.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. He would have to be out of his mind to decline the offer, no matter who it came from. He bowed deeply and said, “I am honored and privileged to join the Jin sect.”

Jin Zixuan let out a breath, and Meng Yao realized that he actually had thought there was a chance Meng Yao - no, Jin Ziyao, he was Jin Ziyao now - would decline his offer. “I am an inexperienced sect leader,” he said, somewhat reluctantly, as if his brother did not know this. “And I have yet to assume actual control in Koi Tower, as I have been occupied with the Sunshot Campaign. Since you were aide to Nie-zongzhu at the Unclean Realm, I hope I will be able to rely on your assistance.”

“Of course,” Jin Ziyao said, and bowed again. “Anything you need.”

“I thought perhaps . . . we could host a banquet here, to celebrate?” Jin Zixuan sounded somewhat doubtful, clearly unsure if such a thing would be appropriate. “All of the other sect leaders are here, so it seems like the sort of thing people would want to do? Eat, that is. I mean, of course they would want to eat. That came out wrong. A celebration . . .”

Jin Ziyao had to bite back a smile, realizing for the first time that what he had always taken as aloof disinterest was in fact the awkward uncertainty of a man who had never really learned anything in the way of social grace. “I’m sure the other sect leaders and cultivators would be pleased if we organized such a thing. I know the palace quite well, so it should not be difficult at all. Please, allow me to take care of everything.”

Looking much relieved, Jin Zixuan bowed back. “Thank you.”

“Could you perhaps introduce me to your contingent of disciples, so that they might be able to assist me?” Jin Ziyao said, seeing that Jin Zixuan was not going to think to do this himself.

“Ah, of course. And you should have - you should - ” Jin Zixuan looked more flustered than ever. Jin Ziyao was actually finding it a little endearing. He never in a hundred years would have guessed how socially awkward his brother was. Although he supposed, this was something of a special circumstance. One didn’t legitimize their half-brother from a prostitute every day. He found himself wondering if Jin Zixuan had discussed this with his mother. Finally, he seemed to gather himself and say, “You should be in Jin gold, and you will need the vermilion mark applied. I don’t know if we’ll have anything here that fits you very well, but we can do our best.”

Jin Ziyao felt a well of emotion in his throat that he was wholly unfamiliar with. The vermilion mark, the symbol of the Jin sect, the visibility of it. He remembered when he was a little boy, how his mother would occasionally dab a bit of rouge on his forehead and then wipe it away, whispering that someday he would be able to wear the mark in public, but until his father had acknowledged him, he must never let anyone see him with it. He was at a loss for words for a few seconds. What came out was, “I am very short.”

Jin Zixuan looked intensely relieved to see that Jin Ziyao wasn’t always the perfect picture of eloquence. “We’ll get you a hat.”

“I would love a hat.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli looked up from where she was anxiously twisting her hands in her lap when there was a quiet knock on the door. Lan Wangji glanced up as well, but his guqin playing didn’t falter for a moment. Jiang Yanli got up and went to answer the door, and found Jin Zixuan along with another Jin clan member who looked familiar but she couldn’t place. “Jin-zongzhu,” she said, bowing.

They both bowed in return, and she stood back to let them in. “How is your shidi?” Jin Zixuan asked. His gaze fell on Lan Wangji and his guqin, and his forehead wrinkled, but he didn’t ask any questions.

“He is recovering well,” Jiang Yanli said. “Although he has not yet woken, Hanguang-Jun says the cleansing is progressing.”

“That is good to hear.” Jin Zixuan shifted from foot to foot, then said, “Ah, I don’t know if you have met my brother, Jin Ziyao.”

Jiang Yanli felt a flash of recognition. “Of course,” she said, with another bow. “In Cloud Recesses. You were with Nie-gongzi at the time.” She did not mention the fact that he had, obviously, been legitimized, although she did wonder if Jin Zixuan had thought of his mother’s feelings on the matter before doing so. Jin Ziyao absolutely deserved it, in her opinion, but she had a feeling that Yu Huanfa might not agree.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you again, Jiang-guniang,” Jin Ziyao said.

“I was wondering if you could perhaps do us a small favor,” Jin Zixuan said, looking as awkward as ever. “You have heard of the upcoming banquet tomorrow, I am sure?” he asked, and she nodded. “We have tried to find some official robes for Ziyao but they’re all too large. I remember you being quite skilled with a needle, and was wondering if we could prevail upon you . . . of course if you’re too busy with your brother’s recovery, I would understand.”

“I would love to help,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. “Something to occupy my hands is just what I need. Did you bring the closest fitting set?”

“We did,” Jin Zixuan said.

“Wonderful. Jin-er-gongzi, if you could change into them, I can pin them while you’re wearing them for the greatest amount of accuracy.”

“I greatly appreciate your help,” Jin Ziyao said, and went into one of the inner rooms.

Left almost alone together - Wei Wuxian being unconscious and Lan Wangji wholly focused on his playing - Jin Zixuan almost immediately seemed to freeze in panic. “Ah - I did not mention - I legitimized Ziyao yesterday.”

“I gathered,” Jiang Yanli said, with a soft smile. “He seems well-deserving of it. A-Cheng has told me of all the help that he was, gathering information on troop movements and the like, and at such personal risk. His bravery and skill will be an asset to the Jin sect, I am sure.” Her smile widened and she added, “Having a little brother is wonderful, Jin-zongzhu. I think you will like it.”

“He is helping me plan the banquet. Or actually he is planning most of it, since he knows how to do that sort of thing.” Jin Zixuan seemed to be wondering how he had come out of adolescence without so much basic knowledge. Fortunately for him, Jin Ziyao then emerged from the other room, wearing a set of robes in Jin gold that were, as promised, too large on him. But it wasn’t as bad as Jiang Yanli had feared. They would need to be hemmed, and the sleeves hemmed as well, but the shoulders and waist seemed to fit fairly well, so the outfit wouldn’t need a total overhaul. “Ah, I’ll leave you to it,” Jin Zixuan said, seeing an opportunity to escape. “Thank you, Jiang-guniang.”

As he hastily exited, Jiang Yanli smiled at Jin Ziyao, and he smiled back. “He seems quite taken with you,” Jin Ziyao said, as Jiang Yanli approached with a cushion full of pins. “I did hear about the engagement being broken off. Should I offer condolences?”

“It was my father’s choice,” Jiang Yanli said, a safe non-answer. “I suppose things might change in the future.”

Jin Ziyao nodded. “How bad is it, Jiang-guniang?” he asked in a humorous tone as she began to tug at various parts of the fabric.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly. “It is not bad at all, Jin-er-gongzi. I can hem the sleeves and the bottom, and I think perhaps I’ll take in the shoulders just a touch.” She tugged the fabric closer to him and began to insert the pins. “We would not want you to look anything but your best at your first time as part of the Jin sect.”

“I agree, so again, thank you,” Jin Ziyao said. Since she clearly didn’t want to talk about Jin Zixuan, he said, “You must be eager to get home, now that the war is over.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “I have dearly missed Lotus Pier. It will be such a relief to return.”

“I actually grew up in Yunmeng, and lived there until I was twelve,” Jin Ziyao said. “I remember it being quite lovely.”

They made small talk about the various provinces, and Jiang Yanli found herself impressed with his facility at conversation. He was obviously trying to put her at ease, even though by all rights he should be the one who was nervous - being legitimized was such a huge thing. To be representing the Jin sect for the first time would have made any disciple anxious, let alone one with his background.

When she finished pinning, he carefully took the Jin robes off and changed back into the ones in Wen colors that he had been wearing. “I’ll bring these to the Jin pavilion as soon as I’m finished with them,” Jiang Yanli said. “It won’t be any later than tomorrow at noon.”

“Thank you so much, Jiang-guniang. I hope I will see you at the banquet?”

“I would love to be there, but it might depend on how A-Xian is recovering.”

“Of course.” Jin Ziyao bowed to her and said, “Then until we meet again.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

“How does it look?” Jin Ziyao asked, straightening the hat.

“You look very nice,” Jin Zixuan said, in the tone of someone who had no idea how to pay a compliment to anybody, and almost definitely had no opinion on the matter. Jin Ziyao was amused by it, mostly because he didn’t really need Jin Zixuan’s affirmation. He looked good and he knew it. He kept looking at himself in every reflective surface he passed, checking to see if he still looked the same, if he still looked like one of the Lanling Jin. He kept doing a double take every time he saw the vermilion mark. “Is everything ready for tonight?”

“I finished all the preparations an hour ago,” Jin Ziyao said. “Rest assured, you have nothing to worry about.”

Jin Zixuan nodded and did not look any bit less worried. “There was one more thing I wanted to ask you about before tonight . . . something we could perhaps discuss at the banquet, but I’m not sure if it would be appropriate to bring it up . . .”

“Which is?” Jin Ziyao asked.

“The engagement . . . to Jiang-guniang . . .”

Jin Ziyao frowned. “I have difficulty seeing how this would be a good time to bring that up. Both you and Jiang-guniang are still in white. To discuss an engagement would be gauche to say the least.”

“I know the timing isn’t ideal. But due to the circumstances surrounding the broken engagement, I’m afraid that if I don’t indicate my interest in renewing it, she might . . .”

“She might become engaged to somebody else.” Jin Ziyao chewed on this, and had to admit that his brother had a point. The Yunmeng Jiang were going to be rebuilding. They were going to need help, need alliances. He doubted Jiang Wanyin would marry her off at the first opportunity, but if something came up . . . especially since it was Jin Zixuan who had initially been the one to proclaim his lack of interest in the engagement. It would stand to reason that the Jiang would think they could select a new suitor for her without insulting the Lanling Jin. “I can see your concern, but I still don’t feel like this would be a good time to bring it up.”

Jin Zixuan sighed and paced around the room. “Everything was already complicated enough, and then father’s death made it even worse . . .”

“What was his opinion on the engagement?” Jin Ziyao asked.

“Ah, he honestly didn’t have much of an opinion on it first. It was all my mother and Yu-furen’s doing. But he was insulted when Jiang-zongzhu insisted we call it off. Jiang-zongzhu was clearly trying to protect his daughter from being married to . . .”

“An uninterested party?” Jin Ziyao supplied, when it became clear that Jin Zixuan wasn’t sure how to phrase it. 

“Yes. But Father still took it as a slight against our sect. He said several times that he was going to find a way to renew it.”

“Before or after Jiang-zongzhu and Yu-furen were killed?” Jin Ziyao asked curiously.

“Mostly before . . . but he did say it at least once afterwards. He seemed to think it would be much easier to, to . . .”

Jin Ziyao sighed. He couldn’t decide if his brother was bad with words or if he just had difficulty saying the repellent things aloud. “Father was going to take the soonest opportunity to try to strong-arm an inexperienced, grieving sect leader into marrying off his sister. Understood. Well, the good news is, he’s dead, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

“Which makes sense, but I just . . . I don’t know what to say to her about what happened with him. It’s so difficult . . .”

“What happened with . . .?” Jin Ziyao asked, and his brother quickly looked away. He put the pieces together. “Oh, dear Heavens. Jiang Yanli is the lady that killed Father? Which means that he tried to force himself on your ex-betrothed? Just when I think he can’t stoop any lower . . . in any case, I can see how that might complicate matters, but it doesn’t have to. Do you bear her any ill will?”

“No, of course not!” Jin Zixuan said, flustered. “She was only protecting herself.”

“Do you think she bears you ill will?”

Jin Zixuan frowned. “I suppose not? I don’t see why she would.”

“Then what’s to worry about?” Jin Ziyao shook his head. He still thought it was a little tacky to make an advance now, but absolutely was not about to let this amazing woman slip through his brother’s fingers. “Don’t let it complicate matters unnecessarily. But your concern about her entering into another betrothal is valid. It might not be a terrible idea to indicate your interest, even if openly stating it would be rude due to the mourning period. Here’s what I would advise - at some point during the banquet, go and sit with her for a while. Tell her that you understand her sect has gone through a terrible time, and that’s what she needs to focus on right now. Tell her that she has the full support of the Lanling Jin while they’re doing that, and if there’s anything she needs, she should let you know. Then just say that you’re open to the possibility of discussing the betrothal further, once the mourning period has concluded.”

Jin Zixuan nodded, relieved. “I will speak to her.”

“Then if you are ready, let us go and greet our guests.”

Jin Ziyao had to admit to an almost unseemly amount of excitement about the banquet. All the gentry who had sneered at him over the years were going to see him up beside his brother, in the official robes of a Jin disciple. He was going to gloat in all their faces - politely, of course. And the first sect to enter was the Gusu Lan, with Lan Xichen looking absolutely gorgeous in his formal robes (although, to be fair, Lan Xichen looked absolutely gorgeous all the time). He greeted them with his usual lovely smile and congratulated Jin Ziyao for the second time before they headed inside. Even Nie Mingjue offered begrudging congratulations. Jin Ziyao could tell that Nie Mingjue still didn’t like or trust him, but that was fine by him, since he didn’t particularly like Nie Mingjue either. For Lan Xichen’s sake, they could get along, but Jin Ziyao doubted that they would ever be friends.

Then Yunmeng Jiang came in and Jin Zixuan completely forgot how to speak. Jin Ziyao had to bite back a slight smile as he greeted the three siblings from Lotus Pier. He was resolved that Jiang Yanli was absolutely going to be his new sister, and he was going to build a temple to her so everyone could worship the woman who had killed his monster of a father. Hopefully Jin Zixuan would manage to say what he had been told to say without messing it up too badly.

The brothers from Lotus Pier had a bit of an odd dynamic to them, especially compared to how easygoing they had been back at the Unclean Realm. Of course, Jin Ziyao knew they had had a terrible time lately, but still, there was something odd, particularly about Wei Wuxian’s behavior. He thought back to what he knew had happened, from his time as Wen Ruohan’s assistant. He supposed three months in the Burial Mounds was probably enough to drive anybody a little crazy. How could Jiang Wanyin still cultivate, though? Jin Ziyao knew that Wen Zhuliu had crushed his golden core. A puzzle.

Once everyone was assembled and they had drunk a number of toasts, Jin Ziyao moved around the crowd for a little while, just listening to what people were saying. It was kind of the Lanling Jin to organize the banquet. Poor Jin Zixuan, who’d had to take over for his father after such an ignominious death (Jin Ziyao had to hide a chuckle). They hoped the Lanling Jin would recover. 

It irked him slightly, to hear everyone talking about his brother in such a manner. Jiang Wanyin was equally new and inexperienced, but since his father had died honorably, in battle, nobody was talking about whether or not his sect could recover. All the sects had suffered losses in the war with Wen Ruohan, but nobody spoke of the others with such pity.

Jin Ziyao was seated next to his brother - after some deliberation they had decided to leave the table at the head of the room empty, to signify that all four clans had played an equal role in the war - and during one of the courses, he leaned over to make a quiet suggestion. Jin Zixuan frowned but agreed after Jin Ziyao explained his logic. At the next opportunity, Jin Ziyao stood and invited all the sects to Lanling in six months, for the Baifeng Mountain Night Hunt. There was a ripple of applause and praise for the generosity of the Lanling Jin. The crowd hunt was a massive undertaking. No sect who could hold it needed pity.

Satisfied, Jin Ziyao devoted the rest of his evening to enjoying his wine and watching Lan Xichen be beautiful across the room from him.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli spent most of the banquet worrying about her brother.

She knew that Wei Wuxian had gone through terrible things, worse even than what Jiang Cheng had gone through. She knew that although he denied having been left in the Burial Mounds to die, that was very obviously what had happened to him. She knew that he flinched at loud noises and unexpected touches, that he was struggling to control the resentful energy he now seemed intent on using, that he could barely stand to be around other people except his two siblings and Lan Wangji.

What she didn’t know was what to do about any of that. She could only hope that the peace and quiet of Lotus Pier would be good for him, that now that the war was over, he would be able to heal. 

He wandered in and out of the banquet as if he was a shadow. It wasn’t entirely appropriate, but she supposed it was better than him being forced to stay, or causing a fuss. The banquet was loud and lively, and it was clear that he couldn’t tolerate it. She saw Lan Wangji leave several times to check on him, and it helped soothe her nerves.

Equally helpful was Jin Zixuan’s kind, if entirely stilted and obviously rehearsed, speech to her about how the Lanling Jin would support Yunmeng Jiang while they rebuilt, that he knew her focus had to be on the whole clan right now, but that he hoped they could, perhaps, discuss a future together once they were both in a better condition to consider it. She saw Jin Ziyao’s eloquent fingers all over the words, but they were heartfelt, and to be honest she had no problem with Jin Ziyao teaching his older brother how not to put his foot in his mouth at every opportunity.

It was late before they got back to their guest house. Wei Wuxian was already there, meditating, and he startled when they came in, thrusting Chenqing out as if to ward off an attack. “It’s only us,” Jiang Cheng said, and if his words were a bit more rough than they needed to be, the way he squeezed Wei Wuxian’s shoulder on the way by was not. “Never seen you meditate this much. You should just stop using that demonic cultivation and then you wouldn’t have to.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Wei Wuxian said. He looked exhausted, and clearly wasn’t in the mood for an argument.

Jiang Cheng went to sleep almost immediately, but Jiang Yanli could not help but sit and worry about Wei Wuxian, who was trembling as he readied for bed.

“Come sit with me,” she said. “I’ve made tea.”

“What are you doing making tea?” he scolded her. “It’s late. You should be sleeping! We have a long journey ahead of us . . .”

Jiang Yanli took him by the hand and pulled him into a chair. “A-Xian, please, talk to me. Tell me what’s troubling you. I know that everything that happened after the attack on Lotus Pier was so awful. I know that you’re hurting in ways I can’t understand. But I want to help, and I can’t do that if you don’t tell me what’s wrong. Didn’t you always used to tell me everything?”

Wei Wuxian looked away. “When we were children, sure. But we’re not children anymore.”

“I know,” Jiang Yanli said. “Believe me, A-Xian, I know. How about - tell me one thing. Any one thing, about what’s wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. What’s bothering you right now?”

“You don’t want to hear my troubles,” Wei Wuxian said, trying for a smile.

“I absolutely do,” Jiang Yanli said. “Tell me one thing, A-Xian - I won’t sleep until you do!”

“Ah, shijie!” Wei Wuxian looked appalled that she was using such a tactic on him. He tried pouting, but she arched her eyebrows and gave him an expectant look. With a sigh, he said, “Fine, one thing. Earlier today, Lan Zhan and I were walking outside the city . . . there was a group of Wen prisoners. Jin Zixun and some of the other Jin disciples . . . they killed them.” He gave a slight shudder. “They were civilians, shijie. Women, children. They were in chains. And those bastards hunted them with bow and arrow for, for sport. How could they?” His words were dissolving into tears. “How could they?”

“The world is full of evil men, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said, smoothing his hair. “I know that it’s terrible, and it must have been awful to witness. I’m so glad you told me, so I can share some of the burden. I will speak to Jin-zongzhu about it in the morning, before we leave. He can make sure it does not happen again.”

“He can, but will he?” Wei Wuxian muttered.

Jiang Yanli smiled slightly. “I know you two have never gotten along. But like you, he has changed a lot since we all met at Cloud Recesses. I think you should give him a chance, A-Xian.”

“Absolutely not,” Wei Wuxian said, although there was a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Nobody is good enough for you. You’re going to stay at Lotus Pier with me and Jiang Cheng forever. We promised.”

She laughed. “We did promise. Now get some sleep, all right, A-Xian? Things will be better tomorrow.”

After a moment, he nodded. He let her shepherd him into bed, and a few minutes later, he was sound asleep.

It took a while for her to follow suit, thinking of what she would need to say the next morning. She woke early, made tea and breakfast, and briefly spoke with Jiang Cheng. The sect leaders had all been meeting every morning to coordinate the work that had yet to be done. Although he hadn’t planned on attending this one, since they were leaving, he agreed he would, and that she could accompany him. 

Much to her relief, Jin Zixun was not there, although Jin Ziyao was. It would be better if Jin Zixuan could deal with this as an internal matter. The men were clearly quite surprised to see her there, but none of them objected. After the formal greetings were concluded, she said, “Jin-zongzhu, I was wondering if I could have a word.”

“Of course,” he said, although he looked puzzled.

“Yesterday, outside the city, there were a number of civilians taken as prisoners. They were already apprehended and in chains, yet for some reason your cousin, Jin Zixun, and his men, killed them. They treated it as if it were a game, hunting them for sport. My brother A-Xian witnessed this and was quite upset by it.”

Jin Zixuan grimaced, and Lan Xichen looked deeply troubled by the news, although Nie Mingjue seemed neutral. “I agree that such behavior is out of line . . . I will address it with him.”

“May I ask what the plan is for these prisoners?” Jiang Yanli asked.

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan looked a little uncomfortable. “Manual labor projects around the provinces, mainly. There is much that needs to be rebuilt.”

Jiang Yanli thought about this for quite a long second before saying, “Begging your pardon if you think I am speaking out of turn, but I do not feel it is appropriate to take civilians prisoner and force them into labor camps. The cultivators, the disciples who fought for Wen Ruohan, certainly, I understand that they are being executed and of course they would be. But the civilians are innocent. They had no control over Wen Ruohan’s actions and they certainly were not complicit in them.”

“So you would have us do what, then?” Nie Mingjue asked. “Let them all go back to their farms?”

“Can you offer me a compelling reason why they should not be allowed to?”

“Civilian or not, complicit or not, they are members of the Qishan Wen. The blood of that ambition, that hunger for power, that disregard for life - it runs in all their veins. How can we be sure that they will remain at peace? How can we know that they will not desire revenge for the downfall of their sect?”

Jiang Yanli was quiet for another second. “Nie-zongzhu, with respect, I do not think we are controlled by the blood in our veins. I do not think our parentage controls our future - and I think there are some people in this room - ” She here cast a lingering glance at Jin Zixuan and Jin Ziyao - “who would also take offense at that statement.”

Lan Xichen hid a smile behind his sleeve, then gently reached out and touched Nie Mingjue’s arm. “Mingjue-xiong, I agree with her. The civilians should not be held responsible for the crimes of Wen Ruohan and his disciples. There is need for caution, yes. Perhaps we can send regular patrols through Qishan, just to make sure everything remains stable. But I do not see the purpose in dragging all these people from their homes.”

Nie Mingjue looked somewhat sour at this, but Jin Zixuan, clearly seeing an opportunity to gain a little of Jiang Yanli’s good grace, said, “I agree. Where labor is needed, we could perhaps ask for volunteers and compensate them accordingly.”

“I’ll handle my own labor in Qinghe,” Nie Mingjue muttered. “I don’t need those Wen dogs rebuilding my province anyway.”

Jiang Yanli directed a smile at Jin Zixuan and was gratified to see him flush pink. “Thank you very much for listening. I feel much relieved to know that we are all in the hands of such excellent men.” She bowed, and so did they, and she saw Jin Ziyao smiling at her, clearly quite amused at how thoroughly she had taken control of the narrative and won the argument. 

“We will be heading back to Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng said. “Please let me know if there’s anywhere we’re needed.”

As they left the palace, she saw him shaking his head, and asked, “What?”

“Nothing, just . . .” A smile tugged at his lips. “It’s amazing how you can say all the same things Mom would say, but coat them in honey instead of daggers, and win just as efficiently. More efficiently, really. She would have ended up having a shouting match with Nie-zongzhu and everyone would have left unhappy.” He bumped his shoulders against hers and said, “I’m really glad you’re going to be helping me rebuild Lotus Pier.”

Jiang Yanli smiled back. “I am, too.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Zixuan told all his disciples the new orders less than an hour after the meeting, then pulled Jin Zixun aside and asked if there would be a problem. Jin Zixun smirked and said there wouldn’t be.

An hour after that, Jin Zixuan found out that he had released one of the groups of prisoners as instructed, then killed every single one while they fled. When Jin Zixuan tried to say something, he just shrugged and said, “You told me I had to release them. You never said they had to make it home safely afterwards.”

That evening, Jin Zixuan was finally packing up to leave Nightless City, throwing his things in his bags with more force than required, when there was a quiet knock and Jin Ziyao came in. “What?” he snapped.

“You can’t let him get away with it,” Jin Ziyao said frankly.

“What am I supposed to do?” Jin Zixuan asked, torn between feeling furious and feeling humiliated. “I gave him the orders. I can’t make him follow them.”

“No, but you can punish him when he disobeys, and you should. You must. Don’t you understand what’s happening here? He thinks you’re weak - and to be honest, he’s not wrong. I understand you’re inexperienced. I can see how it must be difficult to discipline someone you have never been in charge of before, who’s older than you are. But it still needs to be done.”

Jin Zixuan looked away. “I feel like it will only make things worse.”

“In some ways, it will,” Jin Ziyao said, then saw the look on his brother’s face and sighed. “Xiongzhang. There are two things that can happen now. Two paths to choose between. In one, you scold Jin Zixun for his behavior but overall he gets away with it. Everyone, including him, will take this as a sign of weakness. A sign that you are not fit to rule the Lanling Jin, that you are too soft to make hard choices. Not only will Jin Zixun continue to do whatever he pleases, further weakening you, but other members of the gentry will look to steal your power.

“In the other, you make an example of him. You punish him for disobeying you, severely and publicly. It sends a message to everyone that you know what must be done, that you can control your own men, that you will not show favoritism to your own family. And although Jin Zixun will definitely be furious, and probably continue to try to unseat you, the other gentry will respect you. At least that way, we’ll know where the knife is coming from.”

Jin Zixuan felt his jaw clench. Jin Ziyao was right, and they both knew he was right, and he hated it. He knew that politics in general were awful and Lanling politics were even worse. But he had never imagined that his first challenge would be coming from his cousin. He had never envisioned having to punish a member of his own family for disrespect.

Finally, he took a deep breath. “What would you suggest?”

“How many prisoners did he kill?”

Jin Zixuan felt his stomach turn. “Eleven, including two children.”

“Then I would have him whipped. Fifteen lashes. One for each prisoner he killed against your orders, plus two extra lashes for each one who was a child.”

“I can’t - ” Jin Zixuan struggled to keep his voice even. “I can’t have my cousin whipped.”

“Of course you can. If you don’t like that punishment, come up with one of your own. But let me ask you this, xiongzhang - do you think he doesn’t deserve it? We’re not talking about petty theft or nasty gossip. He murdered innocent people that you had specifically told him were not to be killed. If he doesn’t deserve punishment for this, then what?”

After a long moment, Jin Zixuan took a deep breath and nodded. “You’re right, of course. It’s just . . . I never thought any of this would happen. I thought I would gradually assume more duties as I got older, that Father would die in his sleep someday, that I . . . I thought I would know what I was doing. I don’t, and I hate it. I hate feeling so helpless and unsure.”

“It will pass,” Jin Ziyao said. “A lot will change after we get back to Koi Tower. I will help you in any way I can.”

Jin Zixuan felt some of his nerves ease, and he gave another nod. “Thank you, Ziyao. I don’t know that I could do this without your support.”

Jin Ziyao gave a quiet smile. “I am honored to be of service. And if it helps at all, on Jin Zixun’s punishment, you’ll have a few days to steel your nerves for it. I think it’s important to wait until we’re back at Koi Tower to do it - to make sure everyone who needs to see it does.”

That was going to be a spectacle and a half, Jin Zixuan thought, but at least he would, as Jin Ziyao said, get a few days to prepare. Plus, he could run it by his mother to see what she thought, before doing anything that could not be undone. “All right. Again, thank you.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“No, you should have seen her, it was fantastic,” Jiang Cheng said that evening, as the three siblings sat down in their inn room. Jiang Yanli smiled slightly and did not gainsay him. “You wouldn’t think she could stare down Chifeng-Zun but she totally did.”

“Shijie is amazing,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning. Then, slightly more seriously, he said, “No, really, shijie . . . thank you, for saying something to them. If I’d had to do it, I would have lost my temper and probably made an ass of myself.”

“You? Make an ass of yourself?” Jiang Cheng pretended to be shocked. “I mean, it has been a couple days. Are you going into withdrawal?”

Wei Wuxian punched his shoulder, but he was studying their sister. “Shijie, what happened in Lanling? You just seem kind of . . . different.”

“So do you,” Jiang Cheng said, scowling at his brother.

“Yeah, but I’m like,” he gestured broadly to himself, “you know. Shijie seems different in a good way. You’re a lot more, I don’t want to say brave? Because you were always brave. But you’re . . .”

Jiang Yanli reached out and squeezed his shoulder. She had been thinking for a few days about how she wanted to broach this topic with her brothers. She did not think she could keep the truth from them forever, particularly not if she did become engaged to Jin Zixuan again and they spent time at Koi Tower. Since they would inevitably find out, she would prefer if they heard it from her directly, but they were almost definitely going to be upset about it.

After a long moment, she said, “It has to do with Jin Guangshan’s death. Can you tell me what you’ve heard? So I know where to begin?”

Wei Wuxian shrugged. “All I know is that he’s dead. I was . . . gone, when it happened, so I didn’t hear any of the gossip.”

“I heard different stories,” Jiang Cheng said. “A lot of people said he got drunk and fell from a balcony, but then some people said that was just what the Lanling Jin wanted everyone to think because the truth was worse. I heard he got in a fight over a woman, or maybe with a woman? But lots of people told different versions.”

“Just as Jin-furen wanted it, I’m sure,” Jiang Yanli said. “You know that Jin Guangshan was well-known for the fact that he frequented prostitutes and had many affairs. But it was worse than that. When Jin Guangshan set his sights on a woman, he did not like to take no for an answer. The night he died, he chose the wrong woman to target, and she put a knife in his heart.”

“Good for her!” Wei Wuxian said, leaning back in his chair. “Ah, although I suppose it might not have been so good for the unlucky lady, in the long run . . . do you know her? Do you know if she’s all right?”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “She is. As you said . . . she learned how strong she really is.” She withdrew the knife from her belt and studied it, hearing both of her brothers go still in shock. “Mother gave me this when I was only ten years old. She told me to polish it every day, to never let it go dull. I asked her what she thought I would ever need it for. I couldn’t imagine ever doing violence to someone else . . . but when I needed to, I did.”

“Shijie,” Wei Wuxian whispered. Both he and Jiang Cheng looked stricken. “Oh, fuck, I, I’m the one who sent you to Lanling – I sent you there alone, without either of us to protect you, and you – ”

Jiang Yanli took each of their hands in one of her own. “But I didn’t need you to protect me, A-Xian, A-Cheng. I protected myself. And when I did, I learned that I could. I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever learned.”

It was a moment before either of the brothers could speak. Jiang Cheng managed to choke out, “And you didn’t – get into trouble? There wasn’t any – ”

“No. Jin-furen understood why I did what I did. She told everyone who knew never to speak of it, although clearly a few of them did anyway.” She squeezed their hands. “I’m all right. It was a horrible experience, but I have recovered, and now I know how strong I am. Now I can protect you both.”

Jiang Cheng nodded. Wei Wuxian clutched at the front of his robes, a habit she noticed he had picked up at some point during his absence.

Gently, she said, “Are you in pain, A-Xian?”

“What? Oh, no, I . . .” Wei Wuxian looked away and shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m just upset that you had to go through something like that. I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Me too,” Jiang Yanli said. She paused a beat, then said, “We were separated from each other for so long . . . I think it’s good to talk about the things that happened, while we were away from each other. We always used to know what was going on. A-Cheng, why don’t you share something that happened while you were looking for A-Xian?”

Jiang Cheng nodded, and even managed a wan smile. “When I met up with the others at Langya, I told Hanguang-Jun that I was going to search for you and he just nodded, so I thought maybe he didn’t really care that much. But when I left the next morning, there he was. All packed and ready to go. He didn’t even say anything about it – like he thought I had known he was going to go with me.”

“He’s not really chatty as a general rule,” Wei Wuxian said, a faint smile touching his face.

“Now you, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli prompted. She saw the look on his face and said, “One thing. Tell us one thing.”

Wei Wuxian swallowed and looked away, then said in a thin whisper, “They caught me at the inn.”

It was all he said, but the words clearly cost him a great deal. Jiang Yanli pulled him into an embrace and held him tightly for a long minute. “We are together again,” she said, “and we will protect each other. Yes?”

Both of them nodded, and Wei Wuxian murmured, “Yes, shijie.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jin Zixuan was relieved to get out of Nightless City, to be reunited with his people who had lesser status and weren’t invited to the banquet, particularly Luo Qingyang. He worried somewhat about introducing her to Jin Ziyao, unsure of how they would react to each other. Luo Qingyang was one of the strongest cultivators he knew, and he trusted her implicitly, and had decided to make her the head disciple - since it certainly couldn’t be Jin Zixun. He had worried that Jin Ziyao might take offense at that, but he seemed aware that his own cultivation levels were fairly low, and merely nodded and said that, as Jin Zixuan knew her better than he did, he would trust his brother’s judgment.

Luo Qingyang seemed less trusting, and asked him several times if he was sure, before he finally managed to reassure her that he was. He explained why it couldn’t be Jin Zixun, and hesitantly asked her opinion on the punishment, which still seemed so severe to him. Much to his relief, Luo Qingyang was immediately one hundred percent behind this decision, saying it was about time someone taught Jin Zixun that he couldn’t get away with anything he wanted.

That being settled, Jin Zixuan said, “Ah, Mianmian, I don’t think you’ve met my brother yet . . .”

Rumors of Jin Ziyao having been legitimized had clearly traveled to the camp, because Luo Qingyang did not seem at all surprised. She bowed and said, in a tone that was formal but not stiff, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jin-er-gongzi.”

“Likewise, Luo-guniang,” Jin Ziyao said, returning the bow. “I hope I can rely on you to help me take care of my brother.”

“It’s a lot of work,” Luo Qingyang said, straight-faced. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Absolutely,” Jin Ziyao said. “Tell me, has he always been so tongue-tied around women? He seems fine speaking to you.”

Luo Qingyang giggled. “Only one woman.”

“I see. We’re going to have a lot of work to do.”

Jin Zixuan’s fear that the two would not get along was quickly disproven, as they spent the next twenty minutes absolutely roasting him over his treatment of Jiang Yanli thus far. He was more embarrassed than he wanted to admit, but let them get away with it because he was so relieved they were becoming friends. 

When he’d finally had enough, he said to Jin Ziyao, “You know, you talk a lot about this subject for someone who spent an entire hour last night making heart-eyes at Zewu-Jun from across the banquet hall.”

Jin Ziyao flushed gratifyingly pink. “Ah, that’s not fair, xiongzhang! I’m perfectly capable of speaking to him, but he was busy with other things.”

Luo Qingyang giggled again. “Besides, who wouldn’t make heart-eyes at Zewu-Jun? He’s beautiful, brave, kind, powerful - literally the perfect man! Do you know him well, A-Yao? Ah, may I call you that, since you’re my shidi, now?”

“Of course,” Jin Ziyao said, smiling. “And yes, I do. Unlike some people, who avoid the person they’re interested in at all costs, I actually spent almost two weeks with Zewu-Jun. I had heard that Cloud Recesses was going to be attacked while I was still at The Unclean Realm, so I went there to see if I could be of any help. Zewu-Jun was injured, so we sheltered together for a while, before he was well and we were able to start hunting down the Wen encampments in Gusu together.”

“Ah, that’s so romantic,” Luo Qingyang said, somewhat wistfully. “To hide out together, tend his injuries . . .”

Still somewhat pink, Jin Ziyao said, “He is my sworn brother now, and I care for him very much. That being said, you can stop playing matchmaker in your head - as the head of the Gusu Lan, he will need to marry a good woman and have children, since he certainly can’t rely on his brother to do it. Besides, I wouldn’t want to marry into another sect. I’m finally part of the Lanling Jin - why would I wish to change that?” Seeing the chance to get the subject off of himself, Jin Ziyao added, “Speaking of Hanguang-Jun, what is going on with him and Wei-gongzi? Because it’s definitely not nothing.”

“You noticed that too?” Luo Qingyang asked excitedly, and they began to gossip like schoolmaids. Jin Zixuan rolled his eyes but decided to be glad they were a) enjoying themselves, and b) no longer dragging him over the coals.

He did not envision that introducing Jin Ziyao to his mother was going to go as well, and wasn’t looking forward to it. He hadn’t thought about her feelings at the time, being solely focused on his brother. Hoping that Jin Ziyao wouldn’t be upset, as they approached Koi Tower the next day, he said, “Ah, I know this might be a little rude, but could you hang back a little? I’d prefer to speak with my mother privately before introducing you . . .”

“Of course,” Jin Ziyao said, with that understanding smile which Jin Zixuan interpreted as someone who was accustomed to people being rude. He made a mental note to make it up to him later. And honestly it didn’t turn out to be a big deal; there was so much fanfare over their return that literally everything got lost in the background.

An hour later, he had finally managed to get a chance to speak to his mother in private. She hugged him for several minutes, fussing over her ‘brave warrior’ and telling him what a good sect leader he was going to be. He saw an opening and took it. “I feel a little unsure of that, honestly. There’s still so much I don’t know, that Father never bothered to teach me. There is someone who I think can help very much . . . but I think you might not like him very much.”

“And that is?” Yu Huanfa said, giving him a questioning look.

Jin Zixuan decided to break the news a piece at a time. “Meng Yao,” he said, and saw the lack of recognition on her face. That was better than outright loathing, he supposed. “He is my younger brother, by about a year. He was assistant to Nie-zongzhu in The Unclean Realm after Father turned him away.”

“Oh. That one.” Yu Huanfa’s lips pursed. “The son of a whore who came here to beg for a position.”

“No,” Jin Zixuan said, his unease intensifying. “Mother, he didn’t come here to beg. He came here to offer his services as a disciple, and frankly, I think Father missed an opportunity by denying him. He is extremely clever and talented. During the Sunshot Campaign, he went undercover in the Qishan Wen and passed information along to Zewu-Jun. It is only because of this that we were successful.”

Yu Huanfa sighed. “I suppose I am probably predisposed to dislike any of Guangshan’s bastards. Very well, A-Xuan. You may have him as an assistant if you wish.”

Jin Zixuan’s stomach tightened. “I don’t want him as an assistant. I want him as a disciple. As a brother.” He took a deep breath and plunged into it. “I have legitimized him, as a reward for his role in the campaign. He is now Jin Ziyao, the second young master of the Lanling Jin.”

His mother stared at him in outright astonishment. “You just . . . legitimized him.”

“Yes.”

“It did not occur to you to check with me first.”

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan felt bad. “Honestly, no. I met him in the aftermath of the campaign. I had been struggling to deal with all my duties, and I had heard Zewu-Jun praising him. I needed help, and I saw somebody who could help.” He saw his mother’s expression tighten further, and he continued, “But it was more than that. What Father did to him was wrong. He is my brother, and he deserves a place here. Please don’t hold him responsible for Father’s sins. You don’t have to consider him your son. I would never ask that of you. But please, do not be cruel to him for things he could not help.”

After a long moment, Yu Huanfa sighed. “You’ve grown up so fast, A-Xuan,” she said. “I turned my back for a few minutes and suddenly you’re a sect leader.”

“You never turned your back, Mother,” Jin Zixuan said, smiling slightly. “I just ducked around corners.”

That made her laugh. “I am so proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Jin Zixuan said. “May I ask your guidance on one more thing?”

“Of course.”

Jin Zixuan gave her a quick blow-by-blow of what had happened with Jin Zixun. She looked disgusted with his behavior, but not particularly surprised. Jin Zixuan said, “I know I can’t let the disrespect go unanswered. But he’s my cousin. Is it wrong to punish him?”

“No,” Yu Huanfa said, without hesitation. “No, he must be punished, immediately and publicly. Anything else would make you look intolerably weak. You would be painting an enormous target on your back.”

“Ziyao suggested having him whipped, one lash for each prisoner he killed, plus two extra per child. Is that too harsh?”

“Not at all,” Yu Huanfa said. “It’s a very proportionate response. Anything less would make it seem like you were showing favoritism, but more would be cruelty for cruelty’s sake. It was an excellent suggestion.” She paused, then added, “Ziyao does seem to have a good head on his shoulders. I wish you had consulted me first, but I think you made a good choice.”

Jin Zixuan smiled, relieved. “Thank you, Mother. Ah . . . one last thing. I did . . . tell Jiang-guniang that I hoped we could discuss a potential future together, after the mourning period concluded. I know it was perhaps a bit inappropriate, but I did not want to let her go back to Yunmeng without having told her that.”

Yu Huanfa pulled him into an embrace. “It would make me so happy if you two were to marry, A-Xuan. I know you’ve had your reservations, and perhaps a childhood betrothal was unfair to you. But she is such a good woman. I think she will make the best wife you could possibly have.”

Feeling much more sure of himself, Jin Zixuan went to his own chambers to get ready for bed. They had been traveling most of the day, he was tired, and the next day promised to be a long one.

He spent the morning with his council of advisers. There was a lot about being sect leader he didn’t know, but was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a lot he did know. His tutors had taught him all about Lanling’s geography, their imports and exports, their ties to the other sects. He knew almost all the disciples, what their abilities were and how they might best be deployed when night-hunting needed to be done. Much of the day-to-day business had been neglected during the war. They discussed compensation for the families of the cultivators killed in battle, and the priorities of rebuilding. Lanling had been spared the worst of the war, and Jin Zixuan wanted to be sure his people were available to help the other sects, if need be. 

Then, of course, there was the crowd hunt to prepare for. His advisers seemed a little wary of Jin Ziyao for the first few hours. They had no idea what to expect from him, but he won them over with his detailed plans for how the preparations might best be made, a thorough timeline of what would need to be ready and when, but then immediately deferred to his brother on who would be best equipped to handle certain things. By the end of the council session, they seemed more relaxed around him. And if a few of them wouldn’t look directly at him, or surreptitiously wiped their fingers off after he handed them things, as if his low birth was something they could catch, Jin Zixuan expected that would get better.

Once all the business was handled, Jin Zixuan called in Jin Zixun.

He had debated when and where to do this. It needed to be public, but it also could not, or at least he did not want it to be, a spectacle. He did not want everyone in the whole of Koi Tower to be gawking at his cousin during his punishment. This, he thought, would do nicely. There were enough people to witness that the news would surely spread quickly, but it would still be treated as a private matter, that of discipline among his disciples.

“Jin Zixun,” he said, carefully keeping his tone even. “I would like to discuss with you what happened before we left Nightless City. There was a group of prisoners that were ordered to be released. Instead of doing so, you killed them. What is your explanation for this?”

Jin Zixun, still with that lazy smirk that clearly showed he believed he was untouchable, bowed and said, “Zongzhu, I was ordered to release them. Nothing was said about what needed to happen afterwards. I must have misunderstood.”

“I do not see how you could have misunderstood,” Jin Zixuan said. “I have checked with the other disciples, and they found my orders quite clear. I did not simply state they were to be released. My orders were that they were to be released because all the sect leaders had agreed they should not be punished for Wen Ruohan’s deeds. What would you call killing them, if not a punishment?”

Clearly not having expected to have been called out, Jin Zixun looked more annoyed than anything else. “I didn’t figure the lives of a few Wen dogs were that meaningful, in the grand scheme of things.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion on their lives,” Jin Zixuan said. “I gave you an order and you willfully disobeyed.”

“My apologies, Zongzhu,” Jin Zixun said, although he didn’t sound sorry at all. “It won’t happen again.”

“No, it will not,” Jin Zixuan agreed. “As to the matter of your punishment - ”

“My what?” Jin Zixun asked, caught off guard.

Jin Zixuan didn’t respond to the question, and instead continued speaking. “I am hereby sentencing you to fifteen lashes - one for each of the adults you killed and three for each child.”

“You’re ordering me whipped?” Jin Zixun actually laughed. “Get off it, Jin Zixuan. Just because you’re the sect leader now doesn’t mean you have to go all disciplinarian.”

Jin Zixuan had to take a deep breath. “I gave you an order. You disobeyed it. And this was not a small thing, Jin Zixun. These were the lives of innocent people. It demands an answer. This is mine.”

“You’re joking,” Jin Zixun said. His gaze snapped to Jin Ziyao, who was standing silently behind his brother. “This is all his doing, isn’t it - you brought in that bastard son of a whore to advise you and now suddenly you don’t know who your real family is - ”

“The decision was mine,” Jin Zixuan said. “Nobody else’s.”

“Bullshit! The son of a whore - ”

“Call my brother that one more time,” Jin Zixuan said quietly, “and I’ll add another ten lashes.”

Jin Zixun went pale and silent for a long second before he sputtered, “Well, go ahead then! Or did you want to do it on the steps of Koi Tower, just so everyone can see?”

“Here is fine,” Jin Zixuan said, and nodded to the weapons master. 

“Aren’t you going to do it yourself?” Jin Zixun sneered.

“I’m not trained with a discipline whip,” Jin Zixuan said, “so I might inflict more damage than intended. But if you’d rather it be me, I will.”

Jin Zixun glared at him for a long minute. Jin Zixuan looked back without blinking, and Jin Zixun ducked his head. “Let’s get it over with.”

An hour later, Jin Zixuan was in his rooms, hands still shaking, hoping he never had to leave them again. There was a quiet knock, and he sighed but went to answer it. Seeing that it was Jin Ziyao, one of the very few people whose company he felt he would not mind, he stood back to let him in.

“Are you all right?” Jin Ziyao asked.

“No,” Jin Zixuan admitted. “But you were right. Like you said, at least now we’ll know where the knife is coming from.”

Jin Ziyao nodded, then added, “Thank you. For what you said.”

Jin Zixuan took a deep breath and returned the nod. “You’re my brother, Ziyao. People are going to have to get used to that.”

“We’ll see,” Jin Ziyao said, with a slight smile, before he bowed and left the room.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Over the next few weeks, Jiang Yanli slowly drew information from Wei Wuxian about what had happened after they had been separated. It was never easy. But if the three of them sat together for a while and she told stories about Lanling, and Jiang Cheng told stories (often unintentionally hilarious ones) about traveling with Lan Wangji, eventually he would stir slightly and drop some horrific fact on them. He couldn’t remember what he ate for the first few weeks in the Burial Mounds. He had carved Chenqing out of a bone he found. He had been so cold for so long that coming down into the gentle spring air of Yiling had felt like a hot spring.

She knew why he didn’t want to tell them. They had all gone through horrors, but his were by far the worst. And Wei Wuxian had always been like this - always wanted to hide his own pain, minimize it, as if by doing so he could convince himself that it didn’t matter. He never wanted to share it with others.

As the days went by and turned into weeks, she became more and more convinced that there was some crucial piece she was missing. When his siblings didn’t shrivel and turn to dust upon hearing his time in the Burial Mounds, talking about it became easier. He was able to tell them about mastering the resentful energy, about refining the amulet, about the overall struggle of surviving there.

But as talking about the Burial Mounds grew easier, everything else became worse. He was drinking far too much, going into town every night and coming home staggering. He refused to even touch Suibian, let alone wield it, and shirked his other duties around Lotus Pier. He avoided the other disciples, particularly the new ones, who would ask him for help training. Jiang Cheng grew frustrated with him, and scolded him frequently despite Jiang Yanli urging him to be gentle. Wei Wuxian reacted to the scolding with what seemed like a lazy disregard, which Jiang Yanli could tell was painted on over an ocean of hidden agony.

There was something she was missing.

“Just tell me,” she said one night, when he came home drunk and Jiang Cheng had excoriated him for the fact that he hadn’t polished Suibian since they got back to Lotus Pier. “Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me why you won’t wield Suibian. All you’ll say is that you ‘don’t feel like it’ but I know that’s not why. You love this sword, A-Xian. You devoted a lifetime to it. Tell me why you won’t wield it anymore.”

“Resentful energy’s better, that’s all,” Wei Wuxian slurred out. “More powerful. I have to . . . have to protect you and Jiang Cheng.”

“Xianxian, I know that’s not why. I know how much faith you have in your own talents. You could protect us just as well with Suibian - or with both! Wanting to keep using the resentful energy - I don’t approve of it, but I accept that you’re doing it - it isn’t a reason not to also wield Suibian.”

“I can’t, shijie,” Wei Wuxian murmured, tears running down his face. “I just can’t.”

He passed out, and she put him to bed.

What was she missing?

A few days later, Jiang Cheng was telling the story - with a great amount of difficulty - of how he had come down from the mountains and found that Wei Wuxian wasn’t at the inn. How his joy at having had his golden core restored had quickly been swept away by a wave of fear. Jiang Yanli held his hand and Wei Wuxian wiped his eyes and she wondered if, maybe, she had been focusing on the wrong part of the story.

“Xianxian,” she asked over tea the next day, after he had gotten out of training exercises by claiming illness, “can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” he said, not saying what they were both thinking, that just because he let her ask didn’t mean he would answer.

“Why did you send me alone to Lanling?”

Wei Wuxian had been twirling Chenqing beneath his fingers. At this, he went still. “You couldn’t come with us. It was too dangerous.”

“Nothing about the story A-Cheng has told made it sound dangerous,” Jiang Yanli said. “You walked to the mountain. He went up alone, and you went back to town. I understand that you were caught by the Wen soldiers, but you had no way of knowing that was going to happen. We didn’t even know they were anywhere near there. Wouldn’t I have been safer with you?”

“Clearly not,” Wei Wuxian said. He saw the look on her face and said, “Ah, I’m sorry, shijie. I shouldn’t have just sent you away while you were sleeping. I just thought it would be easier that way. No sad goodbyes.”

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “Song Lan was clearly a good man, and he took care of me on the trip and delivered me safely to Koi Tower. But he was practically a stranger to you. Why did you trust him, instead of wanting to keep me with you?”

“It was too dangerous,” Wei Wuxian said, and then added, “Ah, thanks for the tea, shijie. I can see Jiang Cheng scowling his way towards us to harangue me for skipping training exercises this morning, so I’m just going to - ” He ducked out the window of her room and fled. Jiang Yanli went to the door, but she didn’t see Jiang Cheng anywhere. Her brother had literally just climbed out a window to escape the conversation.

Why had Wei Wuxian not wanted her along for the journey, and why was he so intent on not discussing that now? 

What did she know about Baoshan Sanren? It was generally agreed upon that disciples who left the mountain would not be welcomed back. Why would she have helped Jiang Cheng the way she did? Wei Wuxian wasn’t even her disciple, just the son of one. They had never met. Why would she help a stranger? Had she demanded something in return? Had Wei Wuxian known she would demand something? How had Wei Wuxian even known where to go? He had always said he had no memory of his childhood.

She asked Jiang Cheng, and his explanation that Wei Wuxian had remembered being told the name of a place, of a mountain, fell quite short in her eyes. And the theater of it all - wearing a blindfold, not allowed to say his own name - it seemed designed to distract from any larger questions Jiang Cheng might have asked. 

What had Wei Wuxian done on that mountain? 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Ziyao found that he was enjoying Koi Tower more than he had expected.

It was the sort of environment that was really tailor made for him. Nobody actually liked anybody else. Everyone gossiped and spread rumors all the time. He could easily keep track of everything going on because nobody knew how to keep their mouths shut. Within a week of Jin Zixun’s punishment Jin Ziyao knew exactly what everyone in Lanling thought of it.

Overall, the reaction was positive. Jin Zixun was not well-liked. Although nobody seemed to care whatsoever about the Wen citizens he had killed, they agreed that such flagrant disobeying of a direct order demanded a response. The one Jin Zixuan had given was carefully measured and proportionate. People approved of it. 

There were some people, mainly older men, who didn’t hold the same opinion, but didn’t have strong feelings about it. Men who believed that punishing an immediate family member was unbecoming, or that the punishment had been too public, or that the order had been flawed to begin with and Jin Zixuan never should have given it. These were minor quibbles, and they would harumph and stroke their beards but agree that at the end of the day, Jin Zixuan was sect leader, and had been within his rights to both give the order and punish Jin Zixun for his misbehavior.

Then there was the small minority, the dangerous minority, who felt that the order itself showed that Jin Zixuan was weak and soft, that Jin Zixun had been right, and his punishment was going too far. Jin Ziyao carefully made a note of each of them and settled down to watch them. Nobody would act right away. Jin Zixun would almost definitely do something as soon as he was finished with his convalescence, and people would wait to see his response before deciding on one of their own.

Fifteen lashes with a discipline whip was no small thing, although Jin Zixuan had allowed Jin Zixun to have medical care immediately afterwards. Even so, Jin Ziyao anticipated that Jin Zixun would be off his feet for several months, and he had time to prepare.

The first thing was security. Jin Zixuan seemed somewhat discomfited when Jin Ziyao gave him the immediate order not to eat any food that he had not prepared himself, or had been prepared by one of a very few people that Jin Ziyao had denoted as trustworthy. He was not surprised to learn that Jin Zixuan could not cook, and told him to have his mother teach him.

“We have poison tasters,” he pointed out.

“So what? There are dozens of poisons that take hours to have an effect. All a poison taster accomplishes is two dead bodies instead of one.”

Jin Zixuan winced. “Father never worried about this.”

“And once you’re established, you won’t have to, either. For now, please, xiongzhang, do not take any unnecessary risks.”

“All right . . .”

Then there was the matter of Jin Zixuan’s personal guard, which he didn’t even want to have. Jin Ziyao had to go to Yu Huanfa, and have his first actual conversation with her. Fortunately, it was about something with which she whole-heartedly agreed with him. She convinced Jin Zixuan that, for the time being, he needed to have a few guards around his chambers at night, or while he was meditating. 

Once that was established, Jin Ziyao promptly hired a few intermediaries and began trying to bribe the guards. The first one took the bribe, and Jin Ziyao had him quietly removed. The second went directly to Jin Zixuan. Jin Ziyao gave him twice the offered amount and told him to make sure everyone knew about it.

“But who tried to bribe him?” Jin Zixuan asked, a little anxious.

“Oh, I did,” Jin Ziyao said, and Jin Zixuan blinked at him. “What, did you want me to wait until an actual enemy did in order to show them what the outcome would be?”

“I . . . I suppose not . . .” Jin Zixuan sighed. “I doubt Father had to deal with this, either.”

“He absolutely did,” Jin Ziyao said, and gave a slight smile. “You think I never tried to bribe my way back into Koi Tower after what he did to me?”

“Ah - ” Jin Zixuan blinked at him. “Truly?”

“Three times, before I gave up and went to Qinghe. But he paid his security well.”

“What - what would you have done if you had gotten inside?”

Jin Ziyao was amused. “What do you think?”

Jin Zixuan looked away. “I can’t blame you for wishing him ill. I’m sorry for what he did to you.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. It was not of your making, and you’ve undone as much of the damage as you can.”

Which certainly wasn’t all the damage. The Lanling gentry still treated him like he was worth less than dirt most of the time. They giggled behind his back, whispered salacious rumors about him. Jin Ziyao took note of them and circulated a few rumors about them in return, just as salacious and often true. The gentry would learn, eventually. 

What was more insidious was when the rumors about Jin Ziyao collided with the rumors of Jin Zixuan. That Jin Ziyao was manipulating the young, inexperienced sect leader, that he had convinced him to cruelly punish his own cousin, that his very presence would inevitably corrupt Jin Zixuan.

None of these rumors surprised Jin Ziyao. He had heard them in Qinghe, too, although Nie Mingjue had always been quick to shut them down. And Nie Mingjue was a strong, established presence, so he had been able to do so. Things were different with Jin Zixuan. And the rumors weren’t exactly untrue. Jin Ziyao had convinced him to punish Jin Zixun, although he knew that Jin Zixuan had run it by both Luo Qingyang and Yu Huanfa before he had made up his mind. 

This, too, would pass. As Jin Zixuan became more confident in himself, as he made decisions in council meetings without conferring with others first, as he established himself as sect leader, people would stop worrying about it. For now, Jin Ziyao was fine with letting people continue to speculate.

Like he had told Jin Zixuan, he wanted to know where the knife was coming from.

What Jin Zixuan hadn’t yet realized was where the knife would be going - and that it wasn’t his own back that was the most likely target.

Jin Ziyao cooked all his own food. He avoided falling into a routine and kept his movements unpredictable. He didn’t have a personal guard, because there was nobody he trusted. He set up warding spells and defensive magic around his chambers and worked to improve his cultivation. When that knife came, he would be ready.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Jiang Cheng asked, after Jiang Yanli announced her intention to take a brief trip to Lanling. 

“I am very sure,” Jiang Yanli said. “I will be just fine. I’ve already asked several of the disciples to go with me. The Wens are defeated and the journey should be safe.”

The problem was, there was only one person she could think of who might be able to answer her questions about what had happened after her brothers left Wen Qing’s residence. And she had a feeling her brothers might throw a fit if they knew where she was actually going. So she went to Lanling, to talk to someone she knew was good at keeping secrets.

“Jiang-guniang, what a pleasure,” Jin Ziyao greeted her with a smile. “Thank you so much for your visit. Jin-furen will be delighted to see you.”

She spent the day having tea and catching up with Yu Huanfa. Jin Zixuan came in to greet her, and although he was as stilted as ever, he had either thought about what to say or been told what to say. He told her she looked well, inquired after how her brothers were doing and how the Yunmeng Jiang were recovering overall. He sat with them for about an hour, spoke four sentences, and then said he had duties to attend to.

At dinner that night, Jiang Yanli watched the interactions with interest. They elected to have a private meal, since she was visiting. Yu Huanfa was a little stiff and unfriendly towards Jin Ziyao, but he took it in stride, not seeming bothered by it at all. Luo Qingyang joined them as well, and they talked about how both sects were doing in the aftermath of the war.

Afterwards, Jiang Yanli pulled Jin Ziyao aside and said, “This may seem like an odd request, but I was wondering if you could accompany me somewhere tomorrow.”

“I would be happy to,” Jin Ziyao said.

“It’s several hours away, so I do apologize to take you away from your duties,” she said, “but there’s someone I need to speak to and the trip must be treated with discretion. Neither of my brothers really know the meaning of that word . . .”

Jin Ziyao chuckled behind his sleeve. “Don’t worry, Jiang-guniang - I will make sure nobody finds out. Where are we going?”

“The Snow White Pavilion,” she said. “I need to speak with Song Zichen.”

“Ah, one of the cultivators who was there at the Chang manor?” Jin Ziyao asked, and Jiang Yanli was somewhat surprised he remembered. They had only met for a few minutes, and that had to have been six months ago now. “I will arrange a carriage. Are you familiar with the garden by the west gate? Meet me there tomorrow after breakfast and we will be on our way.”

Jiang Yanli bowed and said, “Thank you, Jin-er-gongzi.”

The next day at breakfast, Jin Ziyao told Yu Huanfu and Jin Zixuan that he had arranged for a tour of the city for Jiang Yanli, and they both seemed pleased by this news. He asked Jin Zixuan to please forgive him for not being available for duties, but Jin Zixuan seemed absolutely fine with someone other than himself making sure Jiang Yanli enjoyed her trip.

“Aren’t you going to ask?” Jiang Yanli asked, once they were in the carriage.

“A lady’s business is her own,” Jin Ziyao said, with a smile. “Although of course I will admit to being quite curious.”

Jiang Yanli returned the smile. “May I ask you a question, Jin-er-gongzi?”

“Of course.”

“When you were undercover with Wen Ruohan, did you hear anything about what was done to my brothers?”

“Not very much, honestly,” Jin Ziyao said. “I had only just taken my place in the lower ranks when the attack on Lotus Pier happened. I heard later a little about Jiang-zongzhu - people were puzzled that he was still able to wield his sword after Wen Zhuliu crushed his golden core. If you don’t mind my asking, how was it restored?”

“By Baoshan Sanren,” Jiang Yanli said.

Jin Ziyao nodded. “Is that why we’re going to see Song-gongzi? Do you feel he might know something about how it was done?”

Jiang Yanli gave him a sideways glance. “You are quite clever, Jin-er-gongzi.”

“I beg your pardon,” Jin Ziyao said. “I did not mean to pry.”

Jiang Yanli sighed. “Of course you would be curious. But until I have answers, unfortunately I do not really wish to share my thoughts on the matters. There are things I think my brothers would rather people not know, and I do not wish to upset them.”

“Naturally,” Jin Ziyao said, and changed the subject. “I am still getting used to having a brother, but I quite like it.”

They chatted for a while about how things were going in Lanling, and Jiang Yanli ended up almost as concerned for Jin Zixuan as she was for her own brothers. Although she could see Jin Ziyao’s point that it was better to know where the knife would come from, she hated the fact that Jin Zixuan was in danger. But when she mentioned that, Jin Ziyao told her not to worry. He was handling Jin Zixuan’s security personally, and they had time to prepare, since Jin Zixun was still laid up and likely would be for several more weeks.

The Snow White Pavilion, like so many other places, was still being rebuilt. Their losses had only been tangentially related to the war, but Jiang Yanli knew they had suffered greatly. Song Lan greeted them courteously, if a bit curiously, and invited them in for tea. After they had exchanged pleasantries, Jiang Yanli asked if she could speak to him privately, and Jin Ziyao graciously took his leave.

“Before you took me to Lanling, did my brothers say anything to you about where they were going?” she asked.

Song Lan nodded. “They were going to seek out Baoshan Sanren to see if she could mend Jiang-zongzhu’s golden core. Wei-gongzi seemed confident, although . . .”

Jiang Yanli saw him hesitate, and pressed, “Although?”

“I worry that I might have given him false hope,” Song Lan said. “I spoke to him about how Baoshan Sanren had restored my vision. But it turns out that’s not what happened at all. Xingchen brought me to see her, yes, but in the end all he could do was give his own eyes to me . . .”

Jiang Yanli felt her breath catch in her throat.

“Oh,” she whispered.

all he could do

“Oh no . . .”

was give his own

Tears started down her cheeks.

to me

“Jiang-guniang?” Song Lan asked. “Are you all right?”

Jiang Yanli took a deep breath. “No,” she admitted, “but I will be.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian really thought, all things considered, that he was doing very well.

So he was drinking too much. He’d admit to that. He’d always loved his liquor, and the only way he could sleep without being consumed by the gaping emptiness inside him was if he had knocked back a few. That was preferable to not sleeping at all, right? And it was certainly preferable to waking all of Lotus Pier with his nightmares.

All right, he was also ignoring letters from Lan Wangji. But they were always about all the studying he was doing, finding new methods of cleansing, heavily sewn with hints about why Wei Wuxian needed this. What could he write back? ‘Sorry, Lan Zhan, but if I let you play cleansing for me much more, you’ll realize that underneath all the resentful energy, there’s nothing else left’? He couldn’t tell Lan Wangji that. He couldn’t tell anyone that.

He knew Jiang Cheng was annoyed at him for how much he was skipping out on teaching the new disciples, but eventually Jiang Cheng would realize he didn’t need Wei Wuxian’s help. He would figure out that he was fine on his own, that Wei Wuxian’s presence would only complicate matters. The disciples were uneasy around him, anyway. They all knew what he had done in the war. He was still a part of the Yunmeng Jiang, but he was starting to think that it might be better if he wasn’t. That way he wouldn’t stain their reputation. That way Jiang Cheng would be able to rebuild a sect that his parents would be proud of.

He had no plan for what was going to happen after that. At the moment he could barely see further than the bottom of whatever jar of alcohol he was polishing off. It would get better, he told himself. Surely, it would get better.

“A-Xian,” a soft voice said, and he jumped.

“Ah, shijie, you’re back!” He beamed at her, and the smile was mostly genuine. It was hard to smile now, and always felt a little bit fake to him. But he tried, because as everyone had always told him, he could endure anything and come out on the other side with a smile. “How was Lanling? That peacock didn’t give you any trouble, did he?”

“No,” Jiang Yanli said, with a gentle smile. “Will you come sit with me?”

“Sure.” Wei Wuxian managed to get to his feet. It was late afternoon, and he was mostly sober. He tried not to drink too much during the day. A few bowls with lunch could get him through until it was late enough that he could really devote himself to it.

There was something wrong, he thought, as they went into her rooms. He couldn’t quite figure out what the look on her face meant. She was upset about something, but it wasn’t the kind of anxious sadness that he was used to from her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, sitting down and tucking his legs underneath himself.

She sat down across from him and reached out, gently touching his chest the same place he always did, trying to massage away the pain when it grew to be too much. “A-Xian,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

He froze.

She knew.

“Ah, what?” he said, trying to laugh it off, trying to pretend he didn’t know what she meant. “What are you sorry for?”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” she asked, her fingers grasping at his outer robe. “Why would you hide it? You gave A-Cheng your golden core - did you think he would not be grateful?”

“No!” Wei Wuxian protested, then he realized he had admitted it, and looked away. “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I just didn’t want him in pain.” The last few words were spoken through a rapidly closing throat. “I didn’t want either of you in pain. Wasn’t it easier when you didn’t know? When you could just pretend it, it was some sort of miracle?”

“A-Xian!” Jiang Yanli protested. “Of course it was not easier! You are sick, and hurting, and I knew that but I did not know why! Can’t you understand how difficult that was? To watch you in so much pain and not know what to do?”

“But there’s nothing you can do,” Wei Wuxian said. “There’s nothing anyone can do. It’s done. And I don’t regret it.” He managed a wan smile. “Shijie, I don’t regret it. Please don’t tell Jiang Cheng. You know he’ll be upset.”

“He’s already upset!” Jiang Yanli said. “For the same reasons I was. He needs you right now. He needs your help rebuilding the sect. Don’t you see what this is like for him? He needs you and you’re not there. You’re pushing him away and he doesn’t know why!”

“He doesn’t need me,” Wei Wuxian said, swallowing the lump in his throat. “He’s doing great. I can’t contribute anything anyway.”

“Even if that were true, which I really don’t feel it is, he doesn’t know that. He just knows that he’s asking you to do things, to teach the disciples, to attend the training exercises, and you won’t do it. He feels that either you don’t respect him as sect leader, or you don’t care about the sect. I know those two things aren’t true,” Jiang Yanli said when Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to object, “but can’t you see why it looks that way to him?”

Frustrated, Wei Wuxian just shook his head and wiped the tears off his cheeks. “It doesn’t matter. He’ll get used to it.”

“Get used to it!” Jiang Yanli sounded outright appalled. “Is this what you want him to get used to? A world where he can’t rely on you? Where he thinks you don’t respect him or care about him? Is this what you want to get used to? Every room that the two of you are in together being filled with the pain of so many unspoken words? No, A-Xian. We, the three of us, we will always be together. We all made that promise. Yes, it will hurt. But right now your lies are like the poison inside a wound. They’re festering. I know why you lied!” she added, when he again tried to interrupt, and then her tone gentled. “I understand why you lied. I understand you were just trying to spare him from pain. But these wounds will not heal until he knows the truth. Neither his wounds nor yours. We don’t have to tell anyone else, not even Hanguang-Jun - although I think you should, as now I finally understand why you’re so resistant to him trying to help you - but we are going to tell A-Cheng.”

Wei Wuxian tried to choke back the tears and was unable to. “But what if he hates me, shijie?”

“Hates you?” Jiang Yanli smoothed down his hair. “Why would he hate you, A-Xian?”

“Because he’s stronger now. We both know it. He’s tried not to notice it, but as soon as he knows, he - he’ll know - that that strength isn’t his own. It’s just, just rubbing it into his face that I was the stronger of the two of us.”

Jiang Yanli sighed. “Xianxian, I know how it was always difficult for both of you that you had more raw strength than A-Cheng. But raw strength is not all there is. Whatever disappointment or anger or pain there is, we will deal with it, together. But believe me, A-Xian, he will not hate you. He could never hate you.”

Wei Wuxian wanted to believe her. He mopped up a fresh wave of tears, and she pulled him into an embrace. 

When he finally stopped crying, she said, quietly, “Does it hurt all the time?”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Sometimes worse than others, but it never . . . never really goes away.”

“Then we will find things we can do for the pain. Medicines, or acupuncture, or - we will find something, A-Xian. I will search the farthest reaches of the world in order to find something to help you.” She stood, and extended her hands to him. “Come. Let us go talk to A-Cheng.”

“Right now?” Wei Wuxian asked, cringing.

“No time like the present,” Jiang Yanli said. Wei Wuxian saw that she clearly wasn’t going to be talked out of it, and undoubtedly was insisting on doing it now to keep him from trying to find a way to get out of it. She towed him out of her rooms and into the courtyard, where Jiang Cheng was practicing with the disciples. He looked puzzled when she insisted that they go somewhere and have a chat right that instant, and even more puzzled when Jiang Yanli opened with, “A-Xian has something to tell you.”

Wei Wuxian was still trying to find a way out of it. He knew that if he didn’t tell Jiang Cheng, then Jiang Yanli would. How had she even figured it out? His sister was too clever for him. “Ah . . . Jiang Cheng . . .” He gave Jiang Yanli a pleading look. “Can’t you do it?”

“No,” Jiang Yanli said, her voice firm but kind. “You need to say it, A-Xian.”

Wei Wuxian sighed. Fine, then. He would rip the bandage off, get dead drunk, and possibly, depending on Jiang Cheng’s reaction, flee Lotus Pier altogether. “I lied to you, Jiang Cheng,” he said, staring at his hands. “You never met Baoshan Sanren. I just told you all that stuff so you would think she restored your golden core.”

Jiang Cheng stared at him in confusion. “But . . . she did restore my golden core.”

“No, she didn’t. Nobody did.” Wei Wuxian swallowed hard and forced the words out. “In Wen Qing’s books, I found a, a method to repair a golden core. But it wasn’t really a repair, wasn’t a restoration. It was a transfer. Someone could, could remove a person’s golden core and give it to someone else.”

“A transfer?” Jiang Cheng just frowned. “So I have . . . someone else’s golden core? Who the hell would give up their golden core?”

Wei Wuxian tried to smile, failed utterly, and said, “It’s mine.”

“What? Yours?” Jiang Cheng shook his head as if in denial. “No, it can’t . . . you couldn’t . . .”

“Shijie, I can’t,” Wei Wuxian whispered, trying to keep himself from falling into pieces. “I can’t.”

Jiang Yanli seemed to decide he had done enough. She reached out and squeezed his hand. “A-Xian gave you his golden core, A-Cheng. That’s why he can’t wield Suibian anymore, and why he isn’t able to help you train the new disciples.”

“But . . .” Jiang Cheng still didn’t want to believe it. “But why would you . . .”

“You were in so much pain,” Wei Wuxian managed. “I thought you were going to die of it. If not that day, then in a week, a month, a year. You didn’t seem to want to live anymore. How could I sit by and do nothing?” He kept trying to smile. “I don’t mind going without . . . it’s not important to me if I can’t cultivate. You’re the head of the Yunmeng Jiang and I’m your subordinate, just like my dad and your dad. Just like we promised.”

Jiang Cheng grabbed him so suddenly that Wei Wuxian almost flinched away, but before he knew it, his brother was practically crushing him into an embrace. He relaxed into it, letting Jiang Cheng clutch at him and hide his tears in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “Why wouldn’t you just tell me that, you stupid asshole?” he choked out. “All these weeks I’ve thought you were just fucking off.”

For the first time in months, Wei Wuxian felt a strange sort of peace settle into him. He realized that he was exhausted. His sister had been right; it had been too much weight to carry on his own. “I couldn’t ask you,” he admitted softly. “What if you said no? Or worse, what if you said yes? I don’t think either of us could have lived with knowing your answer, no matter what it was. Better if I just went ahead and did it without asking.”

Jiang Cheng winced. “Okay, I can see that, but afterwards - you could have told me afterwards.”

“I just didn’t want to upset you,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Oh, and you thought avoiding me, shirking your responsibilities, and getting head-over-heels drunk every night wasn’t upsetting me?” Jiang Cheng asked, exasperated. “You are the dumbest genius I’ve ever met.”

Wei Wuxian smiled. It felt real. “Guilty.”

Jiang Cheng finally let him go. Wei Wuxian reached out and wiped the tears off his cheeks with his thumb.

Jiang Yanli reached out and took each of their hands in one of her own. Jiang Cheng reached across the table and snagged Wei Wuxian’s other hand. “Tomorrow,” Jiang Yanli said gently, “we’re going to sit down and talk about what we can do for A-Xian, whether or not we feel anyone else should know, how we might be able to help him. But for tonight, I am going to make some soup, and then A-Xian, you are going to sleep.”

With a nod, Wei Wuxian said, “Soup and sleep sounds like my dream right now.”

She kissed the crown of his head. “Come. You can help me cut the lotus.”

“Okay.”

Despite having agreed, he fell asleep curled up in a corner of the kitchen, listening to her work, finally feeling like he could breathe again.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Ziyao noticed within a few days of Jiang Yanli’s departure that his brother was moping. There was just no better word for it. He had to admit he found the entire thing amusing, but suspected he had missed some vital context. He still didn’t know why exactly the engagement had been broken off to begin with, why Jin Zixuan had been, as he had put it, ‘an uninterested party’. How could anyone be uninterested in Jiang Yanli? If it hadn’t been for familial complications, Jin Ziyao would have married her himself.

After some debate, he decided to ask Luo Qingyang, as she would almost certainly know. She sighed and said, “It’s kind of a two part answer. The first part is fair and the second part is because he’s a spoiled brat. Which do you want first?”

Jin Ziyao laughed. “I’ll take the spoiled brat part first.”

“He thinks very highly of himself. He’s a powerful cultivator and the first son of one of the great sect leaders – and much of this happened before he had his eyes opened to what kind of person his father really was. Simply put, he felt Jiang-guniang wasn’t good enough for him. She’s not a strong cultivator, doesn’t really have any special skills when it comes to cultivation.”

“Presumably that opinion was also formed before he found out what kind of person Father really was, and Jiang-guniang put a knife in his heart for it.”

Luo Qingyang nodded. “And the second part is, the lack of choice irked him. He didn’t like being told what to do, didn’t like his future being decided for him. His cousins and friends were all excited about courting, about seeing the matchmaker, about being able to choose a lady and woo her. They teased him for his mother picking his bride. It bothered him to be left out of that.”

“That does seem fair,” Jin Ziyao said, even though he felt, privately, that Jin Zixuan should have gotten over it.

Armed with this information, he waited for a quiet evening where he could have a word with his brother without being interrupted and opened with, “You know, if you are missing Jiang-guniang, we could plan a visit to Lotus Pier.”

Flushing pink, Jin Zixuan stammered, “What – that’s not – you – ”

“You have been sulking ever since she left,” Jin Ziyao said. “Even though the mourning period hasn’t yet concluded, there’s no reason you can’t visit her. Our sects are friends. There’s nothing wrong with building a relationship with Lotus Pier, both one between two new sect leaders and yourself and Jiang-guniang.”

“I don’t really have any reason to go there, though . . .” Jin Zixuan said, squirming.

Jin Ziyao couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Please, xiongzhang. Give me two minutes and I can come up with a dozen reasons you might need to visit, of varying levels of transparency. We’re preparing for the crowd hunt. Why not go to Lotus Pier and discuss how many disciples they’ll be bringing, what sort of accommodations they’ll need? Or go to discuss trade and imports. Or it could be – ”

“Yes, thank you, Ziyao, you’ve illustrated your point,” Jin Zixuan said. “It’s just – I never know what to say to her.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Jin Ziyao said, amused. “Given that when she visited, I had to instruct you to ask her how her family and her sect were doing, questions that a literal eight-year-old could have figured out to ask on their own.”

“Is this supposed to be helpful?” Jin Zixuan asked, scowling.

“Not particularly, no.” Jin Ziyao bit back a smile. “All right. You want help? Then let’s practice. Pretend I’m Jiang-guniang. You’ve just arrived at Lotus Pier. What are you going to say?”

“Ah – ” Jin Zixuan seemed taken aback by this sudden offer to practice. “I hope you’re well . . .”

“Good. Solid opener. Being a refined young lady, I would of course say I’m very well, thank you for asking. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.”

There was a beat of silence that definitely would have been awkward if the conversation had actually been taking place with Jiang Yanli.

“Okay, first rule of the art of conversation,” Jin Ziyao said. “Don’t give close-ended answers if at all possible. Just saying your mother is fine might be true, but it ends the conversation. It doesn’t invite a response, doesn’t indicate that you want the conversation to continue. You can say she’s fine, but you have say more than just that. So again, let me ask, how is your mother?”

Jin Zixuan appeared to think about this so hard that Jin Ziyao was waiting to see if smoke emerged from his ears. “She is well . . . she has been teaching me how to cook.”

“How lovely!” Jin Ziyao said, then added, “That was a good answer. It gives Jiang-guniang multiple avenues. She can talk about cooking, or your relationship with your mother, or why you’ve suddenly decided to learn this skill. She’s smart enough not to do the last, so she would probably pursue the cooking avenue. Do you think you can successfully converse about cooking for a few minutes?”

“I suppose so . . .”

Seeing that the answer was really ‘no’, Jin Ziyao said, “One of the mistakes you make is that you assume you and Jiang-guniang have nothing in common. And one of the mistakes you’ve made is that you thought yourself above her. You have to show her that you no longer think that. A good way to do that would be a humorous anecdote, like last week when you burned the rice so badly that your mother threw away the entire pot.”

“Ah, why would I tell her that?” Jin Zixuan asked, his cheeks flushing pink. “I don’t want her to think I’m incompetent!”

“You wouldn’t want her to think of you as incompetent at a skill you’ve practiced for years. But cooking is new for you. Some mishaps would be inevitable, and I’m sure Jiang-guniang would have had some of her own. And showing her some humility will definitely help your relationship with her, I guarantee it.”

Jin Zixuan sighed. “I suppose so. Very well, I can tell her I burned a pot of rice. But if she tells me about one of her own mishaps, how should I react? I don’t want it to seem like I’m laughing at her . . .”

“You can laugh at a mishap she had without laughing at her,” Jin Ziyao said. “The two things are very different, especially when whatever mishap she shares would be long in the past.”

“All right. I think.” Jin Zixuan didn’t seem like he trusted this piece of information, but wasn’t sure how to argue. “Might I also say that I know my mother misses her very much? I know that she does . . .”

“Of course. That’s a wonderful thing to say. It implies a closeness between your families that you’d like to maintain, as well as giving her the opportunity to talk about her time in Lanling.” Still trying not to smile too openly, Jin Ziyao said, “Should I arrange for a visit, then? I could write Jiang-zongzhu and let him know of our intention to come discuss the preparation for the crowd hunt.”

“You truly think it wouldn’t be an imposition?” Jin Zixuan asked.

“Trust me, it will be fine. She just visited us, didn’t she? And she didn’t even bother with pretext; she just came for a social visit.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Jin Zixuan brightened up somewhat. “All right, yes. Let’s arrange it.”

Jin Ziyao bowed to his brother and said, “I’ll take care of it.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

The first thing that Jiang Yanli insisted her brothers agree upon was that if Wei Wuxian was now an ordinary person, his body at least needed to be treated like one. If he was tired, he needed to sleep; if he was hungry, he needed to eat. Jiang Cheng agreed that he would no longer chide Wei Wuxian for not being up as early as he felt he should be, and in return Wei Wuxian agreed he wouldn’t stay in bed for purposes of avoiding people rather than sleeping.

Wei Wuxian was adamant that nobody else know about his coreless state. He admitted that both Wen Qing and Wen Ning knew, but that he had sworn them to secrecy. Both Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli agreed that it was best not to tell anybody else, except for the fact that Jiang Yanli thought they should tell Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian refused. “He won’t look at me the same way,” he said. “He’ll pity me, or think I’m weak. I can’t, okay?”

Jiang Yanli decided to let that go for the time being. The wounds were still so fresh. Hopefully, he would change his mind. Either way, she wasn’t willing to go behind his back and tell Lan Wangji without Wei Wuxian’s permission, so for now, the secret would stay at Lotus Pier.

One of the conditions Jiang Cheng wanted to insist upon was that Wei Wuxian would cut back on the drinking. “It’s embarrassing,” he said. “You come home staggering every night. The other disciples talk about it when they think nobody can hear. You’re setting a bad example.”

“I can handle my liquor,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s not my fault if the disciples talk.”

“Your tolerance isn’t what it used to be!” Jiang Cheng protested. “Three nights ago, while a-jie was gone, you threw up on my feet.”

Wei Wuxian winced. “Ah . . . I don’t actually remember that.”

“Of course you don’t, because you were blackout drunk,” Jiang Cheng said. “Drink if you want, but stop before you’re ruining my best shoes!”

“And drink here,” Jiang Yanli added. “Bring the liquor back with you, if you want to drink. That way nobody will see you and it won’t be an embarrassment for the sect.”

Wei Wuxian sighed, but nodded and agreed. Jiang Yanli wasn’t in love with the compromise, but like the situation with Lan Wangji, hoped that having time to heal would allow him to cut back on his own, without needing to be forced.

He agreed he would attend training exercises, and Jiang Cheng agreed to be attentive and step in if he was asked to give a demonstration of something he could no longer do. Jiang Yanli made a mental note to keep an eye on this agreement, because she knew how hard it was going to be for Wei Wuxian to do that. Jiang Cheng even told him that he didn’t have to attend if he didn’t want to, but they were all smart enough to know that people would question his continuing absences. As long as Wei Wuxian was intent on hiding his condition, he had to attend the exercises or risk damaging Jiang Cheng’s reputation as sect leader. If he couldn’t make his own brother obey him, how could he possibly rule a sect?

But for the first week it went well. Wei Wuxian did all the exercises, offered advice to the new disciples, and joked around with them. Jiang Cheng explained his previous absences by saying he had been healing from injuries taken in the Sunshot Campaign, and although it wasn’t the world’s most believable lie, the disciples accepted it. On the few occasions someone asked him to do something that he couldn’t, they deflected it to Jiang Cheng without drawing too much attention.

It wasn’t a long-term solution, but Jiang Yanli thought that until Wei Wuxian had healed well enough for other people to know, it would do. There was one day where he went to Jiang Yanli in the morning saying that the pain was too bad and he didn’t want to go, but he was afraid that Jiang Cheng would get angry. Jiang Yanli gently soothed him and gave him chores to do around the house, then had a quiet word with Jiang Cheng. With Wei Wuxian visibly helping Jiang Yanli, none of the disciples questioned his absence.

She was unsure what to do about the pain. There was very little literature on recovering from the loss of a golden core. She assumed that if Wen Qing had been familiar with any of the long-term effects, she probably would have told him. She asked Wei Wuxian if the alcohol actually helped with the pain, and he admitted that it didn’t, but just dulled his senses enough that he didn’t care for a while. They tried transfusions of spiritual power, but it just dissipated as soon as it was inside him and did nothing.

But he was getting better, and he was talking to them, and she couldn’t complain a bit about that. She would keep looking.

A week after her return, Jiang Cheng got a letter from Jin Zixuan stating he intended to visit to discuss some trade agreements and arrangements for the crowd hunt. It was a little too early to discuss such arrangements – the crowd hunt was still four months away – so it seemed as if the purpose of the visit is more to be social, which pleased her.

“Are you really gonna marry that peacock?” Wei Wuxian moaned, when they were discussing the visit.

“You know, I think he’s matured quite a bit,” Jiang Yanli told him.

“I don’t care.” Wei Wuxian pouted. “He disrespected you. Has he ever actually apologized for that?”

“Ah . . .” Jiang Yanli turned a delicate pink. “Not technically.”

“Then I’m not talking to him,” Wei Wuxian declared.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng said, and punched him in the shoulder. “You’d just embarrass yourself anyway.”

Wei Wuxian made a face at him.

“Boys,” Jiang Yanli said, smiling. “Let’s prepare for their visit.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Zixuan had been to Lotus Pier a few times, but not since he was very young, and Jin Ziyao had never been there at all. The Jiang siblings arranged for a tour, not just to see Lotus Pier, but to show them how the sect was recovering. Jin Ziyao watched the dynamics in interest, as they were quite different from the last time he had seen the three of them together. They seemed much more relaxed around each other now, the two brothers joking around. All the disciples they met were respectful, and things there looked to be going well.

Jiang Cheng, like Jin Zixuan himself, was a little stiltedly awkward, clearly not accustomed to acting in his official capacity with another sect leader. Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, had a tendency to hang back and give Jin Zixuan the evil eye. Jin Ziyao caught his sister gently nudging him once or twice when it looked like he might say something rude. Usually that was because Jin Zixuan had failed at the art of conversation. Fortunately, on a group tour, Jin Ziyao was able to step in and smooth over whatever faux pas he had just made.

The next morning, when Jin Zixuan was sitting down with Jiang Cheng about official sect business – hopefully both of them could manage an hour of that – Jiang Yanli asked Jin Ziyao if he wanted to have tea. “Certainly, thank you,” he said, and followed her to a beautiful outside pavilion. They chatted for a few minutes about how things were in Lanling and how he had enjoyed the tour. “May I ask you a question, Jiang-guniang?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Firstly, a disclaimer,” Jin Ziyao said, and Jiang Yanli hid a smile behind her sleeve. “I hope you know how devoted I am to my brother. I dearly wish for his happiness. I will be frank with you and admit that, although the mourning period is not quite concluded, I am hoping that the engagement can be renewed afterwards. I believe you would bring so much to my brother’s life, and I respect you greatly as both a lady and a cultivator.”

“Thank you, Jin-er-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli said. “Your words are very kind.”

“Jiang-zongzhu has seemed fairly open and accepting of my brother,” Jin Ziyao continued, “but Wei-gongzi does not. In the interest of smoothing over any possible issues before you would have to actually refuse an offer, I thought I should ask you directly what the problem was, and what might be done to mend it.”

“Ah . . .” Jiang Yanli sipped her tea. “A disclaimer of my own, then. I love A-Xian dearly, but he has had a very hard time lately. What he went through while lost in the Burial Mounds is still affecting his mental state. I hope you will not hold his behavior against him.”

“We are all still recovering from the Sunshot Campaign in some ways, I think,” Jin Ziyao said. “He has certainly not done anything I would consider bad behavior. But there is a tension there, which I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “A-Xian believes himself responsible for the engagement being broken to begin with, and he is not entirely wrong. At Cloud Recesses, he heard Jin-zongzhu tell his disciples that he did not wish to marry me and that he wanted them to stop bringing it up. A-Xian found that extremely insulting, and although I respect his desire to protect me, unfortunately he resorted to physical violence.”

Jin Ziyao thought that was pretty reasonable, because although Jiang Yanli was much too polite to say so, he was guessing that wasn’t all Jin Zixuan had said at the time. “And the fight resulted in the broken engagement?”

“Both your father and mine traveled to Cloud Recesses to discuss the issue. When my father found out what Jin-zongzhu had said, he decided it would be better to break off the engagement. He did not believe Jin-zongzhu should be forced into it. That may have been for the best, all things considered.”

“I agree,” Jin Ziyao said, because he truly believed that Jin Zixuan had needed to lose Jiang Yanli before he possibly could have appreciated having her. “That being said, it’s all in the past.”

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said, “but A-Xian is extremely protective of me. He said before your visit that he would not forgive Jin-zongzhu until he had apologized for what he said that night.”

“Ah, I see,” Jin Ziyao said. He nodded, then blinked. “Wait. Am I to understand that my brother has not yet apologized for saying, in front of other people, that he found you unfit to marry him?”

Flushing a slight pink, Jiang Yanli ducked her head. “He has been quite occupied with other things . . . I suppose it simply has not come up.”

“It has not – ” Jin Ziyao felt a migraine coming on. His brother did not deserve this fantastic woman. If he had been in her shoes, he would have refused to even look at Jin Zixuan until that apology had been delivered. Apparently, unlike him, she didn’t hold grudges. He felt like she should, at least over this. “It should have been the first thing he said the next time he saw you. But never mind that. Do not worry, Jiang-guniang. I will take care of the problem.”

“Thank you, Jin-er-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli said, with a soft smile. “I know that A-Xian only wants me to be happy. He and Jin-zongzhu will learn to get along, I am sure.”

Jin Ziyao nodded and decided to change the subject. “And how about Wei-gongzi? Have the matchmakers had any candidates for him? I know choosing a bride for Jiang-zongzhu will take more time, as he is head of the sect, but you could gain an excellent alliance with another sect through your brother.”

Still smiling the same soft smile, Jiang Yanli said, “Oh, I am sure the matchmakers have already come to the conclusion that A-Xian does not need any help.”

Amused, Jin Ziyao said, “Hanguang-Jun?”

Jiang Yanli laughed. “Oh, he’d be appalled to know he’s that obvious. Yes, Hanguang-Jun, of course. They are desperately in love but neither of them has been able to admit it yet. As you said, we are all recovering from the Sunshot Campaign. They’ll get there.”

“I could not imagine a better choice for him,” Jin Ziyao said. “The Twin Jades of Lan are the pinnacle of mankind.”

“I had heard you spent several weeks with Zewu-Jun after Cloud Recesses was burned,” Jiang Yanli said, and when he looked somewhat surprised, she added, “Mianmian mentioned it. She said you seemed quite taken with him.”

Jin Ziyao made a mental note to make sure that Mianmian hadn’t told everybody that. “I did enjoy his company very much. And of course, he is my sworn brother now. I am sure that now that the war is over, the matchmakers will have an eye on him, as well. He can’t stay the cultivation world’s number one bachelor forever.”

Jiang Yanli got the hint, and changed the subject off her interest in Jin Ziyao’s relationship with Lan Xichen, saying, “I am hoping A-Xian will go to visit Cloud Recesses sometime in the next few weeks or months. It is so peaceful there, and I know he misses Hanguang-Jun. But right now he is of course focused on helping A-Cheng rebuild the sect.”

“Of course,” Jin Ziyao said, and they talked for a little while longer about Yunmeng in general and what sort of things they might need over the upcoming months. Jin Ziyao listened in interest, made helpful suggestions, and took mental notes. One never knew what might come in handy.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Zixuan felt like his brother was annoyed at him. In a way, he was glad of this. For the first month or so after returning to Koi Tower, Jin Ziyao had been so solicitous, so deferential, that it could get uncomfortable. Of course, he understood why he would be that way. He had finally been legitimized, and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to risk that. But he had seen how most brothers interacted with each other, and this was not that. Even Lan Wangji had the ability to look annoyed at his brother, usually after his brother had been teasing him. Jin Ziyao acted more like a servant than a brother sometimes, and that wasn’t how Jin Zixuan wanted him to feel.

So finding Jin Ziyao in his guest house at the end of the day, arms folded over his chest, foot tapping impatiently, and severely annoyed expression on his face, was actually something of a relief to Jin Zixuan. “Something wrong?” he asked uncertainly.

“That will depend very much on your answer to several questions,” Jin Ziyao said. “For starters, what, exactly, did you say before Wei-gongzi kicked your ass at Cloud Recesses?”

“He did not kick my ass,” Jin Zixuan immediately protested.

“Well, that’s a disappointment, because I’m sure you deserved an ass-kicking,” Jin Ziyao retorted. “Answer the question.”

Jin Zixuan felt his cheeks flush. “Mianmian was giving me a hard time about why I didn’t light a lantern with Jiang-guniang. I told her the marriage wasn’t something I wanted and told her not to bring it up again.”

Jin Ziyao’s eyes narrowed. “And?”

“Wei-gongzi asked me what I just said and got in my face and I . . .” Turning an even darker pink, Jin Zixuan admitted, “I may have said that my mother shouldn’t be trying to force me to marry someone so far beneath me.”

“I see,” Jin Ziyao said. “And then he kicked your ass?”

Jin Zixuan hung his head and said, “A little, yes,” wondering if he was in for a second ass-kicking from a little brother. He immediately added, “But I barely knew her then! All I knew was that she was frail and her cultivation level was low, and that everyone kept congratulating me on something that I had never asked for and didn’t want . . .”

“All right,” Jin Ziyao said readily. “That’s good, because if you’d said that after getting to know her, I would have greatly feared for your intelligence. Now all I have to worry about are your appalling manners.”

“I mean . . .” Jin Zixuan decided he didn’t have a good defense, saw the look on Jin Ziyao’s face, and wisely shut his mouth.

“Now, here is the current problem,” Jin Ziyao said. “Apparently some members of the sect are still upset about the blatant disrespect you showed their beloved shijie, which I can understand, and are concerned about the fact that you have yet to apologize for your harsh words that day.”

“Ah,” Jin Zixuan said.

“Which leads me to my final question, which is why you have not already done so.”

“It just . . .” Jin Zixuan shook his head. “The first time I saw her again, after Cloud Recesses, was when she came to Koi Tower after the attack on Lotus Pier. She was already so upset, and the betrothal issue suddenly seemed so small and petty. Her parents had just been murdered and her sect nearly wiped out. What I had done couldn’t compare to that. And how could I remind her of how rude and disrespectful I had been, when she had come to us for shelter, for comfort? Then the more time that had gone by, the more awkward it seemed to bring it up . . .”

Jin Ziyao sighed. “I have to admit, those are better reasons than I had figured I would get.”

“What did you figure you would get?” Jin Zixuan asked, frowning.

“Oh, probably some bullshit Father had taught you about how real men never have to apologize.” Jin Ziyao waved this aside. “But it must be done. Not just as a personal matter. You are a sect leader, and you disrespected Jiang-zongzhu’s sister. Your apology must be on both levels – political and personal.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “And how do I do that?”

“Personal comes first. Take Jiang-guniang aside. All you need to say is that you’re sorry for the disrespect you’ve showed her in the past. Don’t try to explain it away by saying you didn’t know her then. That was your choice, to make assumptions about her instead of getting to know her. Don’t make excuses; don’t complicate matters. Just apologize.”

Since Jin Zixuan preferred to speak as little as possible, this sounded great, and he nodded. “And then to Jiang-zongzhu?”

“Same deal. No excuses, no explanations. But this one needs to be public,” he added, and Jin Zixuan grimaced despite himself. “Again, keep it short and sweet. For any and all disrespect you and the Lanling Jin have showed the Yunmeng Jiang, you apologize.”

Jin Zixuan nodded again. “I can do that.”

“Good. In that case, they may actually invite you to visit again.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

A few weeks after Jin Zixuan’s visit, they got a visit from another Sect Leader, this one unexpected. “I’m sorry to just drop by like this,” Lan Xichen said, smiling beautifully as Jiang Yanli served him some tea. “I was in a nearby city on business and thought I would stop by and see how you were doing.”

Wei Wuxian could clearly see that what he really meant was, ‘I was afraid if I gave advanced notice of my trip, Wei Wuxian would find some reason not to be at Lotus Pier,’ and he couldn’t blame him for thinking so. He had written back to Lan Wangji’s letters a few times, but only briefly, finding excuses not to come to Cloud Recesses as Lan Wangji clearly wanted him to.

It was stupid, he thought. His sister kept dropping hints that he should go to Gusu. And he missed Lan Wangji. He missed his deadpan expression and his devotion to the rules and his way of saying ‘ridiculous’ or ‘shameless’ every time Wei Wuxian acted like himself. He kept thinking back to the way he had agreed to let Lan Wangji help him, but now couldn’t bring himself to actually do so. Lan Wangji would inevitably figure out he had lost his golden core, and what then?

What then?

It was the question that haunted his sleepless nights, whenever he tried to go to bed without drinking himself into a stupor first. How long could he keep pretending to be a disciple and a cultivator? But what happened if he stopped pretending? What the hell could he possibly do with the rest of his life? He had never thought of being anything besides a cultivator. Was he just supposed to find a new career? Open a bakery, learn how to sew or something?

He and Jiang Cheng had fallen into something of a routine with the new disciples, with Wei Wuxian focusing on the physical aspects of swordplay and archery while Jiang Cheng taught more of the spiritual aspects. It worked, he supposed. Being unable to wield Suibian with spiritual power didn’t mean he had forgotten how to fight. It just felt different. It felt wrong.

The truth was, he dreaded it every morning. He kept waiting for the moment where he would try to use spiritual power on instinct and pass out. He kept waiting for someone to ask him to demonstrate something he no longer could, and for him not to be able to find an excuse for Jiang Cheng to do it instead. He kept waiting for the disciples to look at him with pity in their eyes.

He had promised he would help his brother rebuild the sect. How could he do it like this?

He realized he had lost track of the polite conversation that his siblings were having with Lan Xichen about the recovery of their sect when he heard his name. Lan Xichen had said, “What do you think, Wei-gongzi?”

“Ah, of course, you’re right, Zewu-Jun,” he said, not wanting to betray that he had tuned out.

Jiang Yanli smiled, delighted. “I’m sure Hanguang-Jun will be so happy to see you again, A-Xian.”

Wei Wuxian realized he had just agreed to a trip to Cloud Recesses. His mind churned furiously for a way out of it. Then he sighed and gave in. Maybe a few days or weeks away from Lotus Pier would be good for him. At least he could worry about something different for a while. “Okay, but I’m gonna sneak in alcohol,” he said, and Jiang Cheng choked on his tea.

Amused, Lan Xichen said, “Just please don’t give any to my brother this time.”

“All right,” Wei Wuxian said, with a much-put-upon sigh.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly. “I hope you will stay for dinner, Zewu-Jun.”

“I would be delighted.”

The next day, Wei Wuxian dragged his feet as Jiang Yanli packed a bag for him (as he had not been able to bring himself to pack one for himself). She kissed him on the forehead and said, “You don’t have to tell him on this trip, not if you’re not ready. Just visit your friend and try not to worry about anything for a little while.”

After a moment, Wei Wuxian nodded. “You’re sure you and Jiang Cheng will be all right without me?”

“We will be fine, A-Xian. You need a break, so please, take one.”

He could hardly argue with that, so an hour later, he was on the boat with Lan Xichen and a handful of Lan disciples. Lan Xichen took the opportunity to give Wei Wuxian a well-meaning lecture on the importance of self-care, but Wei Wuxian was getting somewhat used to that, since Jiang Yanli talked about it often. And to be honest it was kind of nice to hear it from Lan Xichen, to hear about how much Lan Wangji had been concerned about him.

“I don’t mean to worry him,” he finally said. “I just don’t know what to say to him.”

Lan Xichen smiled gently. “Well, one of the wonderful things about my brother is that you don’t have to say anything to him. In fact, he will probably prefer it if you don’t. Meditate by the waterfall with him in silence and it will be the happiest he has ever been.”

That made Wei Wuxian laugh. “I guess you’re probably right about that!”

In the end, though, he found that he did know what to say to Lan Wangji.

It was clear that Lan Wangji hadn’t been expecting him to actually show up. Lan Xichen said Lan Wangji knew that he was going to stop in at Lotus Pier and see if Wei Wuxian would like to come back for a visit, but neither of them had really expected he would agree. Wei Wuxian sheepishly confessed that he hadn’t really been listening, which made Lan Xichen laugh, but then said Jiang Yanli probably would have pestered him into going anyway.

So when they arrived, Lan Wangji was meditating in the jingshi, and when he saw Wei Wuxian come in, his eyes lit up. Wei Wuxian was always so surprised to hear people talk about Lan Wangji like he was emotionless, or like they could never tell what he was thinking. He wasn’t demonstrative, but the small shifts of his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth spoke volumes. “Wei Ying.”

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said, feeling his eyes sting. “I missed you.”

Lan Wangji’s head dipped slightly, and he got to his feet. “I have been learning new music for you.”

“Yeah, I know. I got your letters. Sorry I’m a lousy correspondent.” Wei Wuxian felt a smile tug at his lips. “I’ll make a deal with you, Lan Zhan. I’ll let you play cleansing music for me, if you’ll go up into the back hills and go fishing with me afterwards.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrowed, but then he nodded. “Mn.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jin Zixun was back on his feet, and Jin Ziyao did not like that at all.

It was difficult to keep an eye on him without being too obvious. Jin Zixun hated him, and made no secret of it, and none of his acquaintances wanted to get anywhere near Jin Ziyao. In public, his behavior was perfect. He treated Jin Zixuan with respect and never spoke about his punishment. It was obvious to Jin Ziyao that he wanted everyone to think that he wasn’t holding a grudge over it.

Towards Jin Ziyao, though, his behavior always toed the line of what he could get away with. He called him A-Yao, which was technically permissible since Jin Zixun was older, but edged on disrespect because he had never asked Jin Ziyao if that was all right. (Jin Ziyao would have said yes, because to do otherwise would have been to imply that he didn’t consider Jin Zixun his shixiong, but it would have been out of obligation and everyone would have known it.) He talked over him in meetings but then apologized before being asked. He made comments about people of low birth but then added ‘present company excluded, of course’. If anyone called him on the rude things he said, he laughed and said he was just joking.

“Your jokes aren’t funny, so please refrain from making them,” Luo Qingyang said after one particularly ribald remark, winning Jin Ziyao’s respect forever.

Jin Zixun didn’t like Luo Qingyang much more than he liked Jin Ziyao. He clearly hated the fact that the first disciple was a woman, and commented to his friends that Jin Guangshan never would have done such a thing. Jin Guangshan had said more than once that ‘the worst kind of woman is a literate woman’, because they always caused trouble. Jin Ziyao, who vividly remembered the other prostitutes mocking his mother for being well-read, burned silently every time it came up.

But as long as Jin Zixun didn’t do anything flagrantly disobedient, there wasn’t much he could do besides tolerate him. Jin Zixuan, knowing the two disliked each other, kept them separated as much as possible. Jin Ziyao was mostly in charge of organizing the crowd hunt, and he didn’t need Jin Zixun for that. Jin Zixuan had a tendency to send Jin Zixun out on night hunts, knowing that killing monsters was what he preferred to do the most anyway.

Anything that kept Jin Zixun out of Koi Tower made Jin Ziyao happy, but he wasn’t surprised to note that there was an uptick in rumors after he was up and around again. He found people treating him with suspicion, and easily discovered that many people were whispering about how all the decisions Jin Zixuan was making were actually Jin Ziyao’s. There were elements of truth to this, of course. Jin Zixuan had very little experience with some aspects of ruling a sect, and Jin Ziyao had been an assistant to Nie Mingjue for years. Of course he gave him advice, and Jin Zixuan often took it.

But the rumors concerned Jin Ziyao enough that he discussed them with his brother, who reluctantly agreed to get in some public disagreements with him. They carefully crafted a few arguments, on subjects that were of little actual importance, where Jin Ziyao could give advice that was not actively harmful, but Jin Zixuan could still take a different course of action. They scheduled them over the course of the next several weeks, and Jin Ziyao was satisfied to find the rumors diminishing, and people actively disagreeing with them.

“Maybe Jin Zixuan relied on him a bit too much at first,” many people said, “but now that he seems to be getting his feet under himself, it’s clearly not going to be a problem.”

The whole affair irritated Jin Zixuan. “Why do people consider it such a bad thing if I take your advice?” he asked over dinner. “You are clever and knowledgeable.”

“I am the son of a whore,” Jin Ziyao said.

Jin Zixuan scowled. “So what? Does that make your knowledge less accurate?”

Jin Ziyao sighed. “I suppose I should be glad that I have to explain this to you, that the idea has never entered your mind. The son of a whore will never be trustworthy. He will never be looking out for anything other than his own future. He might give decent advice at first, but only to prove to you that he knows what he is doing. Over time, he will corrupt you to his indecent ways of thinking, and begin convincing you to take actions you otherwise never would have taken.”

“People really believe that?” Jin Zixuan asked, appalled.

“Of course they do. Have you never listened to the way people talk about prostitutes? Have you not seen the way the courtiers refuse to touch things I’ve touched, how when a cup of wine is shared, they wipe off the section my mouth was on? They consider low birth a deficiency of moral character that is unavoidable and contagious. To them, I will never be anything other than the son of a whore who acts insolently above my station.”

“But I’ve legitimized you.”

Somewhat amused by his brother’s naïveté, Jin Ziyao said, “Yes, which I greatly appreciate. But they’ll never truly accept me as one of them, xiongzhang. As much as you might rely on my advice, we need to make sure that the gentry never thinks so.”

This, of course, led to a whole new set of rumors, undoubtedly started by Jin Zixun – that if Jin Zixuan began to distance himself from Jin Ziyao and no longer fall victim to his influence, Jin Ziyao would begin to scheme to supplant him.

Jin Ziyao had a headache.

The first assassination attempt was clumsy. A ‘gift’ of some delicacies left on his doorstep, quite obviously poisoned. He fed one to a rat to make sure, and was quickly proven right. It wasn’t even a delayed poison. He felt insulted.

The second assassination attempt wasn’t much more sophisticated, a simple attack on his bedchambers at night, although it was a little more difficult to fend off. But Nie Mingjue had taught him well, as much as he had never advertised that fact, and he fought off his attackers after his defensive magic warned him of their approach.

“How do we deal with this?” Jin Zixuan asked, looking at the bodies in clear discomfiture.

“Dispose of the bodies,” Jin Ziyao said, “and don’t acknowledge it happened. Internal struggles make the sect look weak to outsiders.”

“Shouldn’t we try to find out who hired them?” Jin Zixuan asked.

“We know who hired them. We just can’t prove it.”

Jin Zixuan’s jaw set. “I’m appointing a guard to you, the way you did to me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t, xiongzhang. It would draw attention, and would do nothing to deter further attempts.”

“So we just let the Lanling Jin gentry continue to attempt to kill you?” Jin Zixuan sounded appalled at the suggestion.

“For the time being, yes. Eventually someone will slip up and we’ll be able to prove it and remove the problem.” He saw the look on his brother’s face and sighed. “It will pass, xiongzhang. Once a few of the worst offenders have been punished, everyone else will grumble about it and settle down. It’s politics. Get used to it.”

“You know, I really don’t think it is,” Jin Zixuan said. “I don’t think this is normal and it certainly isn’t okay. None of the other sects have this ridiculous level of intrigue and infighting. You treat an assassination attempt on a sect leader’s brother as something that simply must be expected from time to time, but I am quite sure that both Zewu-Jun and Chifeng-Zun would object to that concept most strenuously.”

“Their brothers aren’t bastards, or prostitute’s sons.”

“That’s exactly my point!” Jin Zixuan argued. “You act like you deserve this. Like it makes sense that people would want to kill you for those reasons. It’s entirely unacceptable.”

Slightly amused and heart-warmed despite himself, Jin Ziyao said, “Well, I will tell you what, xiongzhang. Once we’ve have punished the perpetrators, you can make a statement of how unacceptable you found their behavior, and hopefully your impassioned speech will sway public opinion to your side.”

Jin Zixuan narrowed his eyes at Jin Ziyao. “You’re making fun of me.”

“A little, yes. I find myself often surprised by how decent a person you are. It should not surprise you how people treat me, especially not after these few months, and yet it still does. I keep waiting for you to get used to it, and accept it, yet you never do. But you can’t change the entirety of Lanling Jin culture. You can’t simply make a rule that prostitutes and their children should be treated with respect.”

“No,” Jin Zixuan admitted, “but I can make it clear that you will be treated with respect. I can lead by example. And maybe over time, things will change.”

“Maybe,” Jin Ziyao said.

He didn’t really believe it. But he thought it was nice that his brother did.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian came back from Cloud Recesses looking more alive than he had since the attack on Lotus Pier, and Jiang Yanli was thrilled to see him with an actual smile. The break definitely had been good for him. “Did you let Hanguang-Jun play cleansing music for you?” she asked.

He nodded. “Plus I made him let me take him fishing, and we went kite-shooting, which he had never done before? So that was fun.”

“And did you talk about your feelings?” Jiang Yanli asked.

“Not once!” Wei Wuxian said proudly.

Jiang Yanli gave a quiet laugh. She wasn’t surprised. They both needed time. Lan Wangji was so unaccustomed to expressing his emotions, and she knew from Jiang Cheng’s stories how hard it had been for him to accept that Wei Wuxian might have been lost to him forever. “Did the cleansing music have any effect? On your sleep, or your temperament?”

“Ah . . . will you be upset if I say no?” Wei Wuxian asked, then added, “Will you believe me if I say no?”

She squeezed his hands. “Just tell me the truth, A-Xian.”

Wei Wuxian sighed. “I guess I don’t really know. Did I feel better overall? Yes . . . but was that because he was playing for me, or was it just because in Cloud Recesses I didn’t have to worry about what all the disciples thought, what Jiang Cheng needed . . . I really don’t know. And it . . . it left me feeling so empty, shijie. I think it made the pain worse.”

“I see.” Jiang Yanli drew him into an embrace. “Then we will keep trying to find a way to help.”

With another sigh, he agreed. Jiang Yanli made a mental note to invite Lan Wangji to visit Lotus Pier sometime in the next few months. That way, they could test whether or not the cleansing improved his mood, even under the current stress of being Jiang Cheng’s first disciple.

But first, they had to do something about the pain. It was clearly affecting his mood, his sleep, and his ability to help Jiang Cheng. After some thought and a few weeks watching Wei Wuxian around Lotus Pier, she decided that she knew who the best person to ask was. If she didn’t know, she might be able to find out.

“So where are we going, shijie?” Wei Wuxian asked, as the carriage began moving down the road.

“Yiling.”

“Nope,” Wei Wuxian said, opening the carriage door.

Jiang Yanli grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him back onto his seat. “Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “Wen Qing is the one who did the procedure. It was her books that had the method you used. Even if she doesn’t know how to help you, she’s the person best equipped to find and test different treatments.” Her gaze softened as she looked at her brother. “I thought this would be better than having to tell somebody else. Wen Qing already knows. She and her brother helped us. Why do you not wish to see her?”

Wei Wuxian looked away. “She didn’t want to do it. I talked her into it, and it was horrible. I don’t think she realizes, but I saw her crying afterwards. She couldn’t even look at me.”

Jiang Yanli was quiet for a long moment. They still hadn’t talked about the actual procedure. Softly, she asked, “Did it hurt?”

After a moment, he nodded.

“How long did it take?”

“Two days.”

“Two days?” Jiang Yanli could not keep the horror out of her voice. She had thought that it might have taken several hours, but days? “And you had to be awake the whole time?”

Another nod. “Wen Qing said that if I passed out, there was a risk of the spiritual power dissipating. She couldn’t give me any anesthetics for that reason . . .”

Jiang Yanli took a deep breath. She understood how awful that must have been for Wen Qing. She was a doctor, and underneath her sharp edges, she was a gentle and loving person. To inflict such pain upon another person, even when they had asked her to do it, must have left deep scars on her. “You didn’t force her, A-Xian. She chose to help you. You might have had to convince her, but Wen-guniang was a strong-minded woman. If she had not been willing, she would have refused. Both of you were hurt deeply, but I do not believe it was your fault. I do not believe the break between you cannot be mended. If anything, I think asking for her help will make her feel better.”

After a few minutes, Wei Wuxian nodded. Then he said, “But let’s go to her village, and send a message to her. I can’t go back to that place, shijie. Please don’t make me.”

“All right,” Jiang Yanli said.

It turned out that they didn’t have to send a message. Wen Qing and Wen Ning were both back living in the small village by Dafan Mountain. It seemed like they didn’t have any better memories of the former supervisory office. Jiang Yanli remembered suddenly that Wei Wuxian had invited a bunch of evil spirits into it and used them to murder Wang Lingjiao and torture Wen Chao. It was possible that the residence wasn’t even inhabitable any more. It would probably take time to thoroughly cleanse it of all the resentful energy.

Still, Wen Qing did not seem unhappy to see them, and Wen Ning was actively thrilled, all smiles and bows and, “It’s so good to see you again!” He immediately set about making tea.

“I’m glad you’re both all right,” Wei Wuxian finally said, the words clearly difficult for him. “I was worried about you . . . afterwards.”

Wen Qing nodded. “We were imprisoned for a while . . . and then the Jin drove us from the village during the later part of the war . . . but fortunately, it seems they decided to let us return once the war was over. For whatever part you may have played in that, I am grateful.” She glanced up at him and then looked away. “How are you . . . healing?”

“Shijie knows,” Wei Wuxian said, and some of the tension left Wen Qing’s shoulders. “She went and figured it out all on her own, which was very unfair of her, I might add,” he said, nudging her shoulder. She just smiled at him. “And then she made me tell Jiang Cheng. I could be worse, I guess? I started cultivating resentful energy during the war but everybody hates that I’m doing it and lectures me all the time.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Wen Qing said, in a voice that clearly implied she thought Wei Wuxian was an idiot.

“Haha, yeah,” Wei Wuxian said, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to ask for help on his own, Jiang Yanli said, “He still has a great deal of trouble with pain. We thought you might be able to help with that.”

Wen Qing frowned slightly. “What is the nature of the pain?” she asked, and saw Wei Wuxian’s somewhat confused look. “Is it sudden or chronic? Sharp or dull? What is its location?”

“Ah . . .” Wei Wuxian looked away and rubbed a hand over his chest. “It strikes about here but then spreads outward. It’s sharp and sudden for several minutes, then fades to a sort of, of dull throbbing. No, more of a burning, I guess.”

“Much like phantom limb syndrome,” Wen Qing said thoughtfully, and both Yunmeng siblings gave her a questioning look. “People who have lost arms or hands often report sensation where they feel it should be for a time afterwards. Itching or burning, and occasional sharp pain.”

“Is there anything that can be done?” Jiang Yanli asked, anxious despite herself.

“Perhaps,” Wen Qing said, clearly not ready to commit to an answer. “I would prefer to make an attempt during an attack, rather than make a promise I cannot keep. Wei Wuxian, when the pain starts, let me know immediately and I will see what can be done.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. Since they would be there for a while, he began to ask about the village and how things were going there. Wen Qing inquired after how Jiang Cheng was doing and Wei Wuxian suddenly remembered that they’d had enormous crushes on each other that had gone nowhere and began regaling her with stories of how amazingly well Jiang Cheng was doing at becoming a sect leader and rebuilding the Yunmeng Jiang. Wen Ning jumped in to talk about how amazingly well Wen Qing was doing at keeping Yiling in order despite having no official position and being a doctor to everyone nearby.

By the time an hour had passed, Wei Wuxian was actually feeling all right. He had forgotten how much he genuinely enjoyed the company of the Wen siblings, and hadn’t realized how much he had missed them. Jiang Yanli joined in the fun of dropping little hints about how Jiang Cheng was going to be looking for a wife at some point and she remembered how well he and Wen Qing had gotten along.

Wei Wuxian was in the middle of a sentence when the pain suddenly stabbed into his chest. He immediately choked off the word, trying to ignore it, forgetting what Wen Qing had told him. He was so used to masking it, hiding it, that it was difficult to do anything else. But it was as obvious to her as it had been to Jiang Yanli. She immediately stood up and withdrew a case of acupuncture needles. “Wei Wuxian, take off your outer robe and your hanfu,” she said crisply, and he did as he was told, trying not to whimper as he moved his left arm.

“This may or may not be effective,” Wen Qing said, but her movements were as efficient as ever as she began to insert needles into Wei Wuxian’s chest. It was a little disconcerting, really, to have needles so close to his heart, but he trusted her. The pain subsided to the dull burning sensation, but it was more diffuse than usual, easier to bear. “How is it?” Wen Qing asked.

“Ah . . . it’s not gone, but it’s . . . better.” Wei Wuxian reached for Jiang Yanli, and she slid her hand into his. “What did you do?”

Wen Qing continued to channel spiritual power into the needles. “The problem is similar to phantom limb syndrome, although not exactly the same. Your body is accustomed to there being a golden core, so it continues to try to channel energy through it even though one is not there. The energy then . . .” She pursed her lips, trying to think of a way to explain it. “Picture your body as a network of rivers. The energy is the water that moves through it, and your golden core was a reservoir of that power. Your body is still pushing water into that place, but it’s dammed up now. There’s nowhere for the power to go, so it spills out of the river, flooding spaces where it should not be. I believe that is what is causing your pain. The purpose of the needles is to try to redirect that energy back into a more comfortable path, where it will not hit the dam.”

Jiang Yanli nodded. “That makes perfect sense to me.”

“It may take some time to hit upon the best placement of the needles to direct the energy,” Wen Qing said, “but once we do, then with repeated treatments, your body will grow accustomed to the new pathways and stop trying to send energy to where your golden core used to be.”

Wei Wuxian managed to swallow. “So it won’t . . . it won’t be forever?”

“It won’t be forever, Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing said quietly. “Please bear with it a little longer.”

Jiang Yanli squeezed his hand, and seeing that he was unable to speak, said, “Would you come back to Lotus Pier with us for a little while, Wen-guniang? So you might refine the technique, perhaps teach me? Or would you rather – could we perhaps stay here with you for a while?”

“I am sure you are needed at Lotus Pier,” Wen Qing said.

With a gentle smile, Jiang Yanli replied, “And I am sure A-Cheng would be happy to see you both again.”

“We should go, jiejie!” Wen Ning said, with his usual good-natured excitement. “I’ve only been to Yunmeng that one time and the way Wei-gongzi talked about it always made it sound so beautiful!”

After a few moments, Wen Qing nodded. “Perhaps for a little while.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Zixuan was looking forward to their trip to Cloud Recesses to discuss the arrangements for the crowd hunt. For one thing, he really wanted to get out of Koi Tower for a little while. He was sick to death of all the intrigue and whispers and rumors. He didn’t know how his father had dealt with it – well, he thought he probably did. His father had just ignored them, because he didn’t care.

“Why do you care so much?” Jin Ziyao asked, when Jin Zixuan brought that up as they headed to Gusu. “Because you’re right. You think Father ever spent two seconds on what the gentry thought of him? It’s not like they approved of his constant womanizing or the half dozen bastards he had. If not more . . .”

“But that’s just it,” Jin Zixuan said. “I don’t care what people say about me. I care about what they say about you, and Mianmian, and I’m terrified of what they’ll say about Jiang-guniang, if she does marry me . . .”

“Listen,” Jin Ziyao said, “gossip is a problem everywhere. People talk. You can’t stop them. The only place that has ever managed that is the place we’re going right now, and you can’t possibly convince me that they’re normal. I don’t know how the Lan sect works the magic they do. No alcohol, no fighting, no gossip – how they find any disciples who can adhere to those standards, I don’t know.”

Jin Zixuan thought about that for most of the rest of the trip. Then he watched in amusement as Lan Xichen greeted them, and Jin Ziyao looked absolutely smitten. He could barely hold Lan Xichen’s gaze without having to look down and smile at the floor.

Thinking of everything Jin Ziyao had done for him, to help him build a relationship with Jiang Yanli, he couldn’t help but worry a little about it. He didn’t know how Lan Xichen felt about his brother, although he certainly had a soft, dare he say adoring, smile every time he looked at Jin Ziyao. And the two of them certainly had plenty to talk about, discussing music and art in a way that left Jin Zixuan far behind.

Of course, it was going to be difficult to find an opportunity to discuss things with Lan Xichen, when he and Jin Ziyao were practically joined at the hip. It wasn’t until their third day there, which happened to be their last, that Jin Zixuan managed to find an opportunity while Jin Ziyao was putting everything together for their trip home.

“May I ask you something, Zewu-Jun?” he asked, and Lan Xichen gave him a reassuring nod. “I was discussing with Ziyao how different our two sects are. We have such trouble in Lanling with gossip and rumor, and I don’t know how to, to quell that.”

“I’m guessing there’s a reason you chose to wait until your brother was otherwise occupied to bring this up,” Lan Xichen said.

Jin Zixuan nodded. “People say such horrible things about him. That he’s manipulating me, that he doesn’t deserve his position, that I should prevent him from marrying and having children because it will pollute the bloodline. He tells me just to ignore it, that it doesn’t bother him. But I know that it does. How could it not?”

Lan Xichen poured them both a cup of tea. “Of course. But there’s also a good reason to tell you not to address it. Because you coming down on people, telling them what not to say, will only draw attention to it. That would be mortifying to him. Do you recall what happened when you first came to Cloud Recesses?”

“Very well,” Jin Zixuan said, not pointing out that it was hard to forget the moment his brother had fallen head over heels in love with a man he just met.

“Some people were telling the same old tired rumors about him. The ones that had followed him his whole life. To ignore the rumors would embarrass him, but to call the gossips out would have been worse. Suddenly everyone in the room would have been staring at him; everyone in the room would have been focusing on the fact that he was the illegitimate son of a prostitute and a sect leader. So what I did was simply show the room how he should be treated. That he was someone who would be treated as an equal while he was in Cloud Recesses, even if nowhere else.”

“Lead by example,” Jin Zixuan said, recalling his previous conversation with Jin Ziyao about it.

Lan Xichen nodded. “Exactly.”

“Which is what I’m trying to do,” Jin Zixuan said. “Everyone knows that as long as I’m in the room, they have to be respectful. But then as soon as I leave, not only do the rumors start again, but then they start about me. About my relationship with him, his so-called influence over me.”

“It takes time,” Lan Xichen said. “I understand that it must be hard to listen to that. So surround yourself with people who aren’t like that. Promote and reward people who never speak ill of your brother. The others will learn.” He saw the look on Jin Zixuan’s face and said, “You are starting from a place of enormous disadvantage, Jin-zongzhu. Your father had a way about him that attracted a certain caliber of people. He had no problem with people spreading rumors, telling nasty gossip. In fact, he encouraged it, because he could use that against people.”

Jin Zixuan frowned. “How do you mean?”

“Jin Guangshan turned the Lanling Jin into a place where intrigue and backstabbing was the norm. He partook in it. Political rivals were eliminated by spreading rumor, by airing dirty laundry.”

“Is that . . .” Jin Zixuan hesitated. “Is that something you know for a fact, or is it a supposition?”

Lan Xichen smiled slightly. “It is a fact, Jin-zongzhu, I am quite sorry to say. All the other sect leaders knew this about him. This is the sect you inherited, Jin-zongzhu. But it doesn’t have to be the sect you lead. You can turn it around, but it won’t happen overnight. You have to be patient.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “Thank you for your counsel, Zewu-Jun.”

“Of course.” Lan Xichen’s smile widened. “Your brother is a remarkable individual, Jin-zongzhu. I’m glad that you’re so invested in making sure he is comfortable in Lanling.”

“And I’m grateful that you are such a good friend to him,” Jin Zixuan said, and then hesitated. “Can I ask something that might be a little improper?”

Lan Xichen laughed quietly. “By all means.”

“What . . .” Jin Zixuan struggled to find the correct words for what he meant. “What are your intentions towards my brother?”

That made Lan Xichen’s eyebrows go up. For the first time since Jin Zixuan had met him, he looked a little nonplussed. “Ah . . .”

“I’m not meaning to make you uncomfortable,” Jin Zixuan said, “but I want my brother to be happy. It’s my job to protect him, and that doesn’t just mean from rumors from the Lanling Jin gentry. It’s also from a broken heart.”

“I care for A-Yao very much,” Lan Xichen said. “So to first of all answer your question, you are not seeing things that are not there. But I have been giving him space to come to terms with any sort of potential relationship on his own.”

Jin Zixuan frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean. If the two of you both feel the same . . .”

“A-Yao spent most of his life being told he had no place in the gentry,” Lan Xichen said. “You legitimizing him was an enormous thing to him. Right now his only interest is keeping you happy and helping you become a successful, confident sect leader. He will give up absolutely any aspect of himself, in order to do that. That’s something that’s a little difficult for the two of us to understand, I know. But he’s completely focused on that, and he doesn’t have room for anything else. He might care for me, but he isn’t in the right mindset to pursue a relationship.”

“If I told him that I thought he should – ”

“Please, Jin-zongzhu, I beg you not to do that,” Lan Xichen said. “To him, that will look like you are pushing him away. That you do not want him in the Lanling Jin long-term. I know that this probably seems very silly to you, but to do that would hurt him greatly.”

Jin Zixuan sighed. “I suppose you might be correct. The few times I have addressed it with him, he has always been so quick to say that he does not wish a place in another sect. But then – I don’t know what we could do. I believe the two of you are so well-suited for each other. Watching you these past few days has only reinforced that belief. How can we convince him?”

“We can’t,” Lan Xichen said. “In this, too, we must be patient. A-Yao has had such a difficult life. It is not easy for him to accept the love and praise of others, even when he knows, intellectually, that he deserves it. Perhaps, with time, he may be able to accept that I love him. Perhaps, with time, he may be able to accept that you can desire a good marriage for him without it meaning that you don’t want him as part of your sect or your family. But he’ll have to come to those conclusions on his own. All we can do is support him, love him, show him how much we appreciate him.”

With another sigh, Jin Zixuan said, “I’m beginning to think I am a very impatient person.”

That made Lan Xichen smile. “I imagine that as the heir to Jin Guangshan, you are not overly accustomed to having to wait to get what you want.”

“It’s true,” Jin Zixuan said, feeling glum.

“Don’t worry so much, Jin-zongzhu,” Lan Xichen said. “Some things can’t be rushed. And really, things have changed so much for A-Yao in the past year. He is still getting used to it. Let him take things at his own pace. That is the surest path to his happiness.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “Thank you again for your help.”

“It’s my pleasure, Jin-zongzhu. I look forward to seeing what the Lanling Jin will become under your guidance.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Despite all his angst about going to Yiling, and then his continued angst about going back to Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian had to admit to no small amount of glee at his brother’s reunion with Wen Qing. Although Jiang Yanli had told Jiang Cheng that they were going to see her, it had not come up that she might accompany them back. She had not realized it might be necessary until Wen Qing had described the course of treatment.

So to see Jiang Cheng’s eyes absolutely light up when Wei Wuxian turned and gave Wen Qing a hand out of the carriage made the trip wonderfully worth it. His cheeks flushed faintly pink as he bowed and welcomed her to Lotus Pier, and Wen Qing curtseyed, which absolutely delighted Wei Wuxian. He thought he had seen her do that a few times before, but only ever to Jiang Cheng, never to anybody else. Normally she greeted people with a cultivator’s bow, but for some reason she reacted to Jiang Cheng differently, suddenly going into ‘lady’ mode instead of cultivator mode.

“Wen-guniang thinks she will be able to help A-Xian with the pain,” Jiang Yanli said, “but that the treatment might take some time.”

“Of course,” Jiang Cheng said. “You are welcome to stay at Lotus Pier as long as you like. The Yunmeng Jiang is deeply in your debt.”

That made Wen Qing look away somewhat guiltily. “No . . . of course you are not. After what happened . . .”

“What happened,” Jiang Cheng said, “is that when we were attacked, you saved us. Especially you, Wen Ning. You helped Wei Wuxian rescue me from Lotus Pier. I am only alive thanks to you.” He bowed again. “You will both always be honored friends of the Yunmeng Jiang.”

Wen Ning bowed back, clearly flustered. “I was only repaying Wei-gongzi for all the kindness he had showed me . . . there’s no need for such gestures.”

Wei Wuxian punched him in the arm. “You had already paid that back during the Indoctrination Camp and you know it. You saved my brother’s life; you saved our sect from ruin. So don’t hide in your shell like a turtle. And stop calling me Wei-gongzi! Aren’t we friends?”

Flushing dark pink, Wen Ning said, “All right, if that’s really okay . . . Wei Wuxian.” A broad smile touched his face, as if he could not quite believe his own boldness.

Wei Wuxian grinned. “Come on, I’ll show you around.” 

Hearing the unspoken, ‘let’s leave my brother and your sister to stare moonily at each other without interruption’, Wen Ning nodded eagerly and followed Wei Wuxian into Lotus Pier. 

Everything was fine for the first few hours. Wei Wuxian remembered that Wen Ning was excellent at archery, so he took him out to where the new juniors were kite shooting. Archery was one of the few things Wei Wuxian felt he was still good at without his golden core, so the two of them had a short competition, which thrilled all the younger disciples. Wei Wuxian won, but only barely; towards the end Wen Ning was really getting the hang of how the kites moved and doing much better.

Wen Ning clearly thought that Lotus Pier was one of the most beautiful places he had ever been. They peeled lotus seeds and threw them at each other, trying to catch them in their mouths, and plotted how best to get Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing to admit their feelings for each other. 

It wasn’t until they were heading back in from the docks that the pain suddenly seized Wei Wuxian again. His hand curled over his chest and he tried, as always, to fight through it. “Ah, Wei-go - Wei Wuxian, don’t worry, let me help,” Wen Ning immediately said, getting Wei Wuxian’s arm over his shoulders and guiding him inside. “Which way are your chambers? I’ll get jiejie . . .”

A few minutes later, Wei Wuxian was lying on his bed with Wen Qing sliding needles into his chest. He winced a little, unable to help it, but the pain quickly faded, much more successfully than her first attempt. In its absence was a sort of quiet he didn’t think he’d ever felt before, similar to the emptiness that his golden core had left behind, but so much more peaceful.

“Better?” Wen Qing asked.

“Mm hm,” he murmured.

“Is it gone completely, or just lessened?”

“Still a little ache . . . here.” He pressed two fingers against his chest about two inches below his heart. “But not too bad. More like a pulled muscle than anything else.”

Wen Qing made a few notes. “As I said, it might take some experimentation to figure out the best placement for the needles.”

“Mm hm,” Wei Wuxian said again. “Hey, Wen Qing . . . I’m really sorry.”

She frowned at him. “What are you sorry for?”

“I know you didn’t want to do it. Take my core out. I saw you crying afterwards. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Wen Qing sighed quietly. “Do you regret it?”

“No.” Wei Wuxian managed a wan smile. “I haven’t regretted it for a minute. Watching Jiang Cheng rebuild the sect has been worth it, no matter how much it hurts.”

“Then I don’t regret it either.” Wen Qing closed her notebook and tucked it away. “I hated doing it. I hated hurting another person like that. But you don’t have to apologize, Wei Wuxian. I did it because you asked me, but I could have said no. I made my own choice. Don’t take it on your shoulders.”

After a moment, Wei Wuxian nodded.

“And you’re not in our debt,” Wen Qing added. “I was talking to Jiang Wanyin about that earlier. Yes, we helped you. My brother saved your brother’s life. But you saved us right back. Do you think the other sects were going to just let us live in peace, after the war was over? I know that it was because of you. The men who came and freed us from prison, let us go and told us we were being allowed to return to our village in Yiling, were from Yunmeng Jiang. They were talking about how generous and kind their twin heroes were, to say that even the dogs of the Wen clan deserved a chance to live in peace.”

“They did not call you that,” Wei Wuxian said, a scowl settling on his face.

“I didn’t take it personally. They suffered losses. It’s so much easier to hate a group than it is to acknowledge that they aren’t responsible for your pain. To say that the guilty have been punished and it’s time to put that pain in the past and move on.” Wen Qing removed the last needle. “Can you sit up?”

“Yeah . . .” Wei Wuxian did, and felt momentarily dizzy. “Oof, but I don’t want to. I’d rather lie down for a bit. Get some sleep while I can.”

“All right. I will tell your brother and sister that you are going to rest for now.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Thank you, Wen Qing.”

Wen Qing stood up and left the room, and Wei Wuxian dozed for a little while, but woke when his door opened. He opened his eyes to see Jiang Yanli coming in with a tray. She saw him and whispered, “I’m sorry, A-Xian, I did not mean to wake you.”

“S’fine.” Wei Wuxian yawned. “The smell of your soup would wake me anywhere.”

Jiang Yanli smiled gently and took the seat next to his bed as he sat up. “How are you feeling?”

“Pretty good. A little ache, but that’s all. Wen Qing is a genius, so . . .” Wei Wuxian accepted the tray, which had a bowl of soup and one of rice, along with some tea. “I just keep wondering . . . what now?”

“What do you mean?” Jiang Yanli asked.

Wei Wuxian kept his gaze trained on the bowl, so he didn’t have to look at her. “I mean, what now? What is my life going to be? I’ve never thought of being anything but a cultivator. I don’t know what else I would do. But I know that unless I’m using the resentful energy to hide why I’m not using spiritual power, I can’t keep pretending I have a golden core. I would do that, if you and Jiang Cheng were in danger, if there were an enemy to fight. But I can’t just . . . do that forever. So I don’t know what to do.” He swallowed hard. The soup felt thick in his throat. “I don’t know who I am anymore. That’s why I can’t tell Lan Zhan. He was my partner. He was the person who would understand me the best. We would walk the same road, suppress evil and protect innocents. He was the first person I met who truly seemed devoted to that, the same way I was. I love Jiang Cheng, but he’s different. For him it’s all about the sect. And that’s fine! I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing. He’s different and that’s okay. But Lan Zhan and I . . .”

“You had a picture of what your future would be,” Jiang Yanli said quietly.

Wei Wuxian nodded and wiped away tears. “And now I can’t walk that road with him. What if I . . . what if I tell him that and he doesn’t . . . doesn’t look at me the same way afterwards? What if he doesn’t want . . .?”

Jiang Yanli reached out and took his hands in hers, squeezing them gently. “I can’t speak for Hanguang-Jun, although I would be very surprised if that was how he felt. But you know that eventually, he has to know. Eventually, he will find out. Don’t you think you’ll feel better once he does? Once it’s out in the open and you can decide together what your future will hold?”

“I don’t know. What if . . .” Wei Wuxian could barely choke the words out. “What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

“But A-Xian, what if he does?” Jiang Yanli squeezed his hands again. “Would that not be wonderful?”

Wei Wuxian nodded, but then shook his head. “Doesn’t he deserve better, though? Doesn’t he deserve a partner who can walk that road with him, who can uphold those ideals by his side?”

“A-Xian, it’s not up to you what Hanguang-Jun deserves, what he needs, what he wants. Only he can decide that, and only once he knows the truth. Regardless of your capabilities, you still hold the same values. You still treasure the same things. Even if you cannot walk alongside him, you can still support him on his journey.”

“I want to tell him,” Wei Wuxian said. “But I just . . .”

“You’re frightened,” Jiang Yanli said, and Wei Wuxian wrinkled his nose at her. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, A-Xian! But Hanguang-Jun is brave and just and kind. He can honor your sacrifice without it meaning he pities you. He can take care of you without it meaning that he thinks you’re less than you were. I promise you, Xianxian, you will feel better once he knows.”

Wei Wuxian sighed. “Yeah. You’re probably right. I mean, you were right that I felt better once you and Jiang Cheng knew.”

“You don’t have to be ready yet,” Jiang Yanli said. “Just think about it.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian picked up his bowl of soup. “Thanks, shijie. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Jiang Yanli reached out and stroked his hair. “The three of us, we will always take care of each other,” she said, and he nodded.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The crowd hunt was three days away, and Jin Ziyao was exhausted.

In the past six months, he had been to each of the provinces twice and sat through countless meetings with smaller sect leaders who seemingly could not keep from unhinging their jaws and offering their bullshit opinions on every damned thing. He’d survived five assassination attempts, one of which had been quite clever. He was ready for the whole thing to be over so he could sleep for a week. Lan Xichen had already offered to have him come back to Cloud Recesses for a short trip afterwards, which Jin Ziyao had gratefully accepted. Cloud Recesses was the only place he could sleep soundly without worry of people trying to kill him.

Overall, Lanling was improving. Jin Zixuan’s intent to ‘lead by example’ was at least leading people to be quieter about the rumors. They didn’t spread as far or as quickly, and they tended to be less terrible in nature. As months had gone by and Jin Ziyao had clearly been nothing more than a devoted disciple and younger brother, people didn’t so much forget his background as stop caring. 

It wasn’t perfect, but he supposed that nothing was.

“Everything’s ready,” he said, sprawling into one of the chairs in Jin Zixuan’s room in an uncharacteristic display of how he really felt. He wondered when he had started being so unguarded around his brother. He hadn’t really meant to. Jin Zixuan was just so adorably naive, an amazingly pure little peony flower despite the filth he was surrounded by. He seemed to genuinely want his younger brother to be happy for some reason, and it was hard not to respond to that.

“With three days to spare!” Jin Zixuan said. “I’m impressed. I know it’s been a lot of work.”

“Mm,” Jin Ziyao said.

“Walk me through the schedule?” Jin Zixuan said, so Jin Ziyao did, from the opening ceremonies through to the floral banquet. 

“But don’t worry; I’ll be by your side the whole time,” he added. “Except for the opening tournament which for some reason you’ve insisted I take part in.”

Jin Zixuan frowned. “That’s where all the young masters will be; it’s where you belong.”

Jin Ziyao sighed. They had argued back and forth about this several times and Jin Zixuan steadfastly refused to agree that Jin Ziyao was not the typical young master and, as the event’s coordinator, he should be facilitating, not participating. At least he had finally argued him into agreement that Jin Ziyao did not need to take part in the hunt itself. His cultivation level was really still too low to do much night hunting, and although Jin Zixuan had said they would work on it together, that would clearly come after the crowd hunt.

But the opening ceremony was non-negotiable, Jin Zixuan said. Lan Wangji, Nie Huaisang, Wei Wuxian - all the other sect leaders’ brothers would be participating. He had been adamant enough about it that on their last trip to Yunmeng, Jin Ziyao had taken Wei Wuxian aside and asked if he could help with his archery. He had gained some basic proficiency at Qinghe, but the idea of embarrassing his brother was giving him nightmares. Fortunately, Wei Wuxian was both an excellent archer and a decent teacher, and Jin Ziyao improved enough over the course of their three-day stay that he had agreed to participate.

Once he had finished going over the schedule, Jin Zixuan said, “What about Jiang-guniang?”

“What about her?” Jin Ziyao asked, amused.

“Well, I thought - ” Jin Zixuan flushed faintly pink. “The mourning period is concluded. I thought perhaps . . .”

“Ah,” Jin Ziyao said. “Yes, this would be a fine time to propose to her. Just make sure to do it when she’s alone, or only with her brothers. Asking her in public might make her feel pressured to accept an offer before she’s ready.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “All right. Thank you. Perhaps I’ll ask if she’d like to go walking during the hunt.”

Jin Ziyao thought about pointing out that the sect leaders weren’t participating, but he knew it wasn’t uncommon for them to observe from the mountain, rather than waiting at the stands. Maybe he would take the opportunity to ask Lan Xichen if he wanted to go walking as well. They got precious little time alone together. “If you’d like. I see no reason it would be inappropriate.” He saw the look on his brother’s face and couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t worry, xiongzhang. I’m sure she’ll say yes.”

“I hope so,” Jin Zixuan said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It was hard for Wei Wuxian to believe that it had been six months since the end of the Sunshot Campaign. Each day individually seemed to have lasted an eternity, but surely there couldn’t have been so many of them? But there had been, and now they were on their way to Lanling.

He didn’t care much about the crowd hunt, and had been arguing with Jiang Cheng for weeks about how to handle it. If he declined to participate, it was an insult to the Lanling Jin. If he used demonic cultivation, it reflected poorly on the Yunmeng Jiang, as well as possibly causing him damage. Which left him the option of trailing along with the other disciples, participating but not actively hunting, which to him seemed like an excellent way to advertise to everyone that he couldn’t do normal cultivation anymore.

Jiang Yanli settled the argument by saying, “Why don’t you ask Hanguang-Jun if you can tag along with him?”

It was a good idea, Wei Wuxian thought, even though it was a thinly veiled attempt to convince him to tell Lan Wangji the truth. Lan Wangji certainly wouldn’t need his help night-hunting, so it wouldn’t seem odd if he didn’t jump in to assist. And Lan Wangji wouldn’t want him using demonic cultivation, either. Wei Wuxian could flirt and tease and tell Lan Wangji he was counting on his protection.

Besides, a few days in Lan Wangji’s company was almost sure to improve his mood. Jiang Yanli had invited him to stay a few days two months previous. Wei Wuxian had showed him around Yunmeng, pestering him into trying local delicacies and dragging him to the different shops and overall having a great time.

Every day with Lan Wangji was a better one than had come before it. And the days without him were less awful than they had once been. Wen Qing and Wen Ning had stayed at Lotus Pier for a month. He still sometimes got an ache in his chest, but it was nothing compared to the spasms of agony that had been happening before.

It was clear that Jiang Cheng had wanted them to stay longer, but Wen Qing had said she needed to get back to Yiling. There were people there who needed her. But she and Jiang Cheng had exchanged several letters since then, and Wei Wuxian had hope that someday she would be able to accept his feelings.

They were the first sect to arrive in Lanling, but the Gusu Lan arrived only about an hour later. By then, Jiang Yanli had been whisked away by Yu Huanfa for tea. Everyone exchanged bows and then Wei Wuxian gave Lan Wangji a friendly wave. “You want to team up during the hunt?”

A faint frown creased Lan Wangji’s forehead. “We are each to score kills for our own sects. Would that not defeat the purpose?”

“Yeah, but Jiang Cheng made me promise, no demonic cultivation,” Wei Wuxian said, lifting three fingers. “And I’m out of practice with the regular stuff! I can go with you, right? You’ll protect me.”

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji scoffed, which Wei Wuxian could easily interpret as a yes.

A few hours later, they were at the archery tournament, and Wei Wuxian was a little relieved to see that Jin Ziyao was joining them. He knew he had been anxious about it, and they had spent quite some time on his archery when Jin Ziyao had last been at Lotus Pier. He had started to like Jin Ziyao quite a bit – particularly the way he had taught his brother how to stop being an asshole – and he knew that Jiang Yanli liked him as well. He felt somewhat bad for Jin Ziyao, who had missed so many of the fundamentals due to his childhood and still had relatively low cultivation overall. Knowing how snooty everyone could be about that sort of thing, he could understand why Jin Ziyao so badly feared a subpar performance in the archery tournament.

All of which crossed his mind in a bare instant before a Jin sect member he vaguely recognized from the Sunshot Campaign scoffed and said, “What are you doing here?”

Jin Ziyao’s neutral smile didn’t falter. “As one of the young masters, xiongzhang felt it was appropriate for me to participate in the opening tournament, even if my duties will prevent me from taking part in the hunt itself.”

“Oh, is that what’s preventing you?” Jin Zixun looked amused. “I’m sure it couldn’t be because you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself.”

Annoyed, and seeing that Jin Ziyao was far too polite to defend himself in front of the other young masters, Wei Wuxian said, “Hey, why don’t you shut up? Jin-er-gongzi arranged the whole hunt. Nobody would be partaking in anything if he hadn’t done all this work.”

“Ah, it’s fine, Wei-gongzi,” Jin Ziyao said. “I appreciate it, but – ”

“How dare you speak to me in such a manner?” Jin Zixun demanded. “Is this how the Yunmeng Jiang treats their peers?”

“I don’t even know who you are,” Wei Wuxian said. “But if you’re not going to respect your peers, why should I respect you? I’m not one of those ‘respect is not given until it’s earned’ people; I try to think more in a ‘respect should be given until it’s proven undeserved’ but boy you sure met that criteria in a hurry – ”

Jin Ziyao cleared his throat. In a firmer tone, he said, “Wei-gongzi, I do appreciate your concern for me, but don’t take offense on my behalf at some teasing from my cousin. It’s all in good fun.” He still had that same smile on his face, the dimples in prominent display, and Wei Wuxian wanted to protest because it was clear that this was not in good fun. Besides, he remembered Jin Zixun now. How could he forget the man who had killed civilians while they ran away from him in chains? “Jin Zixun, please don’t be angry; Wei-gongzi was just speaking up in my defense. He worked with me a great deal on my archery skills for just this reason.”

Jin Zixun scoffed. “Shoot, then, and we’ll see if either of you deserve respect.”

Wei Wuxian opened his mouth, then saw the look on Jin Ziyao’s face and closed it. He hated Lanling politics more than ever. Why did his sister want to marry into this pit of vipers? He shook his head and watched as Jin Ziyao took out a deep breath and let it out slowly before taking his bow and nocking an arrow. Wei Wuxian felt the tension in his back and shoulders and reminded himself that Jin Ziyao had been quite proficient by the time he had left Lotus Pier.

Jin Ziyao released the arrow. It sang through the air and landed a perfect bullseye.

The relief in Jin Ziyao’s shoulders was practically tangible. He turned and bowed to the sect leaders as there was a smattering of light applause.

“Is that all?” Jin Zixun sneered.

Yet again, Jin Ziyao did not rise to his baiting, merely smiling and saying, “I would love a demonstration of your superior skills, cousin.”

Jin Zixun grabbed his bow and leapt into the air. From a position about ten feet above the ground, he fired off three arrows in quick succession. Each one hit a bullseye. There was more applause, somewhat more enthusiastic.

“How very impressive,” Jin Ziyao said, joining in the applause.

His manners didn’t make an impression on Jin Zixun at all, who merely sneered even harder and said, in a tone too low for the sect leaders to hear from the stands but more than loud enough for everyone nearby to hear, “Yes, it was, so you can go back to licking your brother’s boots and let the real cultivators do the hunting.”

“Hey, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian said loudly. “Let me borrow your forehead ribbon.”

Lan Wangji gave him an incredulous look and did not dignify the request with a response.

“All right, all right,” Wei Wuxian said, laughing. “I get it. Some other time, maybe.” He slowly, deliberately unwrapped his forearm covering and tied it over his eyes. “You want to see how a real cultivator shoots?” he asked, drawing five arrows out of his sheath. He listened to the ghosts whispering about the targets, took a breath of the resentful energy hanging in the air, imbuing a bit of it into each arrow. “Let’s see what you think of this.”

Still blindfolded, he released the five arrows. Each one hit a bullseye, evenly splitting all of Jin Zixun’s arrows in half.

Jin Zixun turned dark red. “Why don’t you do the whole hunt blindfolded, if you’re so impressed with yourself?”

“Sure,” Wei Wuxian said, but then pulled the blindfold off and added, “I don’t want to miss the great Hanguang-Jun taking his shot, though.”

Lan Wangji scoffed. “You are both ridiculous. There is no reason for such flashy tricks.” He drew back one arrow, loosed it, and hit a bullseye. “That is sufficient. Do not do such excessive things.”

“Ouch, Lan Zhan, don’t put me on his level,” Wei Wuxian said, pretending to sulk. But he understood why Lan Wangji had done it. It cleared the way for the rest of the young masters to make normal shots, instead of having to do something showy. Nie Huaisang didn’t even hit a bullseye, which further loosened the atmosphere.

Gradually, they proceeded up onto the mountain. Wei Wuxian forgot all about his argument with Jin Zixun as soon as he was alone with Lan Wangji, trying to decide what to say, if he wanted to say anything at all.

 

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jin Ziyao let out a slight sigh of relief as he watched Jiang Yanli accept Jin Zixuan’s offer to walk in the forest. The two of them headed out, and she was walking quite close to him, all of her own accord.

“Shall we?” Lan Xichen asked, shaking him out of his thoughts.

“Of course,” he said with a smile, and accompanied Lan Xichen down one of the smaller trails, where there would probably (hopefully) be fewer people.

“You look quite pleased with yourself,” Lan Xichen said. “Which of course you deserve to be. Everything has run so smoothly so far. Your brother must be very impressed with you.”

“He is, but that isn’t why I was smiling,” Jin Ziyao replied. “He was hoping Jiang-guniang would agree to walk with him for a while, and it seems she has.”

“Does he intend to propose to her?” Lan Xichen asked, and Jin Ziyao nodded. “How lovely. I hope she accepts.”

“I think she will. I’ve spoken to her about it. So there’s really no reason for me to be surprised, but I still found myself more pleased than I would have expected, to see her agree to walk with him.”

Lan Xichen smiled. “You care for your brother very much, don’t you.”

“I do.” Jin Ziyao felt another smile, unbidden, rise to his lips. “He’s really nothing like I would have expected. Seeing him that first time in Cloud Recesses, he seemed so arrogant and snobbish. But now I’ve realized that he’s just insecure and awkward. He was really never taught much of anything in the way of social grace, and certainly couldn’t learn it from watching his parents. He’s gone so far to make me feel welcome and comfortable in Koi Tower, which is not what I would have expected him to do at all.”

“I think he’s quite glad to have a little brother,” Lan Xichen said. “Did I mention, he actually spoke to me about you while the two of you were in Cloud Recesses? Wanting to know how he might help curb the rumors and gossip.”

“Did he?” Jin Ziyao laughed. “That’s so like him, considering that I had already told him how to handle it. I hope you backed me up.”

“I doubt it very much,” Lan Xichen said, also laughing. “You seem altogether more accepting of people spreading gossip about you than either he or I would like to be.”

Jin Ziyao felt his cheeks flush slightly pink. “Perhaps that is true. Is it strange, though, that in the end, I’m glad he was the one who legitimized me? There was a time when I would have done anything to get that from my father. When xiongzhang first spoke to me about it, there was a part of me that was disappointed. I would never get from my father what I . . .” His voice trailed off, and Lan Xichen let him have a moment to gather his thoughts. “But now that I’ve been in Lanling for a while, it’s clear to me that if my father ever had legitimized me, it only would have been to use me. I’m sure he never would have actually treated me like a son, and certainly would not have cared if I was comfortable or happy at Koi Tower. My brother did in part legitimize me because he thought I could help him become a powerful sect leader, but he also did it because he wanted a brother, and because he felt what our father had done to me was wrong. It’s . . .” Softly, he concluded, “He’s a genuinely good person. It’s an honor to have his trust and serve him well.”

“I do not think it is strange at all,” Lan Xichen said. “You are seeing two paths that your life could have taken, and this one seems preferable indeed.” Gently, he added, “There is no shame in having come to a point where you understand your father’s character well enough to put your need for his approval and recognition to rest.”

Jin Ziyao nodded. “Thank you, er-ge.”

They walked for a few moments in silence, before Lan Xichen said, “How are things going with Jin-furen?”

“Ah – better, as it happens,” Jin Ziyao said. “We had a good discussion a few weeks back. I told her I had gone to Jiang-guniang to clear the way to renew the betrothal, and she was quite pleased with me. She dearly loves Jiang-guniang, and of course I respect Jiang-guniang greatly. It gave us something to – bond over. Which felt very odd, to be honest. But she has been notably less stiff around me since then.”

“That’s good.”

“And how is your brother? I noticed that he and Wei-gongzi headed off onto the mountain together.”

Lan Xichen laughed merrily. “Oh, yes. Wei-gongzi’s adorable excuse that he was ‘out of practice’ with regular cultivation and needed Wangji to protect him. I hope they have a good time.”

“Your letter said Hanguang-Jun had visited Lotus Pier last month, if I recall correctly?”

“Yes. He didn’t speak much about it, but he came home a day later than I had expected, which spoke volumes on its own. It seems he was reluctant to leave. And then – ” Lan Xichen was clearly fighting the effort to laugh. “Ah, he would be so annoyed with me if he knew I was telling you this. He asked me to help him interpret one of the disciplines.”

“Which one?” Jin Ziyao asked curiously.

“Well, as you know, the Lan sect chooses one partner for life. Wangji wanted clarification on, let us say, demonstrating to this partner that they had been chosen. When it was appropriate to do that, and in what manner.”

“Oh, goodness,” Jin Ziyao said, and now he was laughing, too. “Wei-gongzi won’t know what hit him.”

Lan Xichen nodded, covering his mouth with one hand. “It’s going to be a lovely day, I think.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian watched Lan Wangji for a while, trailing behind him while he fought various monsters with economic grace, beautiful force. It made him ache inside in a way that had nothing to do with physical pain. How could he ever measure up to this man again? How could he admit to him that they would never be able to walk the path they had imagined they would walk?

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said pensively, in a quiet moment. “If you hadn’t been a cultivator, I mean, if you hadn’t been born with the ability . . . what do you think you would be?”

He expected Lan Wangji to scoff and tell him it was a ridiculous question. What was the point in such hypotheticals? He had been born a cultivator. Why imagine himself to be anything else? But Lan Wangji seemed to take the mental exercise seriously, frowning slightly for a few moments before saying, “Some sort of scholar, most likely. A librarian or a historian.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. You’d be a great librarian. Always shushing people.”

Lan Wangji infinitesimally rolled his eyes, but didn’t bother to rebuke him. “You?”

“I guess I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian said. “I envy you for how quickly you can answer. Even without cultivation, there are still things you enjoy, still things you’re good at . . .”

Lan Wangji’s frown intensified, wrinkling the corners of his eyes. He stopped walking and turned to face Wei Wuxian. “And you think there are not, for you?”

“I sure as hell can’t think of any off the top of my head . . .”

“But there are so many.” Lan Wangji looked genuinely perplexed at Wei Wuxian’s statement. “You have more interests and passions than anyone else I have ever met. You’re good at fishing and archery. You can play the flute and your drawing skills are excellent.”

“Well, all right,” Wei Wuxian said, uncomfortable with the praise. “But none of those things are, are careers. None of them make the world a better place, the way being a cultivator or even a librarian would.”

Lan Wangji still didn’t seem to understand. “There is nothing wrong with a quiet life of sustenance, Wei Ying. My ancestors were monks. They grew their own food, raised their own families, and lived mostly in seclusion. Nobody would look down on that. Why do you?”

Wei Wuxian didn’t know how to answer. Because in a way, Lan Wangji was right. He had seen that at Wen Qing and Wen Ning’s village. How the people there were genuinely happy to return to their lives of farming potatoes and radishes, occasionally selling them at the nearby market and otherwise being left alone. It was only because he kept thinking of what he could have had that he could not find the joy in such things.

They stood in silence for a few moments.

“I miss being my young, stupid self,” he finally said. “I miss the days where going fishing with my friends was something fun I could look forward to, where drawing a portrait could keep me occupied for a while. Days where I didn’t spend so much time just, just waiting for things to go wrong. Constantly being on the defensive, looking over my shoulder . . .”

“It will get better,” Lan Wangji said. “The aftermath of war does not vanish overnight. The things you are feeling are normal. But do you not feel better today than you did six months ago?”

Wei Wuxian managed a slight smile. “A lot better.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “It will pass. There will be a time when you can find joy in the simple things again, Wei Ying. Of this, I am sure.”

Wei Wuxian had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak, nodding and saying, “Thanks, Lan Zhan.” He saw a few other cultivators coming down the path, and not wanting to be interrupted, headed off of it, finding a quieter area and leaning against a tree. “Hey, Lan Zhan . . . what am I, to you?”

Lan Wangji’s gaze remained steady. “What do you see me as?”

Wei Wuxian couldn’t meet that gaze, looking away. “I used to think of you as my soulmate in this life.”

Stepping closer, Lan Wangji said, “I still am.”

The silence sat between them for a moment, because Wei Wuxian didn’t know how to explain that he wasn’t, that he couldn’t be, not anymore. And then he forgot all of that because Lan Wangji had taken another step closer, and Lan Wangji was reaching up to touch his face, and Lan Wangji’s mouth was pressed against his, and Lan Wangji was kissing him and he forgot about everything else.

He would have expected that Lan Wangji would be shy or uncertain about such a matter, but in this, Lan Wangji was just as graceful - and forceful - as he was with everything else. Wei Wuxian felt his knees grow slightly weak as Lan Wangji explored every corner of his mouth, keeping him pushed against the tree. By the time Lan Wangji pulled away, Wei Wuxian was breathless. “I,” he said, and Lan Wangji kissed him again. Wei Wuxian surrendered to it completely, reaching up to rub his thumb over Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon and feeling a thrill in his stomach when Lan Wangji allowed this, even leaned into it. He flung an arm around Lan Wangji’s neck and the kisses grew even more passionate as their bodies pressed against each other.

Finally, Lan Wangji pulled away. “Were you going to say something?”

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian replied, his head completely empty of thoughts and words. Had he been planning to say something? Wasn’t there something important he was supposed to tell Lan Wangji, maybe before they did something that couldn’t be taken back later? “Ah . . . Lan Zhan, I . . .”

From a little ways away, they heard shouting. Wei Wuxian might not have worried about it - it was a hunt, after all - but Lan Wangji’s head whipped around. “That is my brother,” he said, and immediately abandoned their clearing to run back towards the path. Wei Wuxian followed, puzzled, mostly because he couldn’t imagine a circumstance where Lan Xichen would raise his voice. Then he realized that he was calling for a doctor.

As they came around a corner, they saw Lan Xichen crouched over Jin Ziyao, who was protesting, “I’m fine, er-ge, just a bit scuffed up - please don’t make such a fuss - ”

“What happened?” Lan Wangji demanded of his brother.

“We went for a walk and we got ambushed,” Lan Xichen said.

“Ah, it’s a hunt, er-ge, it’s not - ”

“A-Yao, please do not do me the disservice of telling me that you had demons of that caliber here for a friendly crowd hunt.” Lan Xichen sounded angrier than Wei Wuxian had ever heard him. “Someone deliberately targeted you. If I hadn’t been here - ”

“But you were here, and I’m fine, so - ”

There was more noise, and a few moments later Jin Zixuan came around the corner with Jiang Yanli. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but roll his eyes, because of course everyone (including himself, so unfortunately he couldn’t lecture) had decided to use the crowd hunt as an opportunity to get a little private time. At least Jiang Yanli was smiling, so Jin Zixuan hadn’t been inserting his foot into his mouth, but her smile vanished as soon as she saw Jin Ziyao, still sitting on the ground while Lan Xichen knelt next to him.

“Are you all right, Ziyao?” Jin Zixuan sounded equally concerned. “What happened?”

Lan Xichen stood and bowed to Jin Zixuan, saying in an extremely formal tone of voice, “Jin-zongzhu, A-Yao and I were ambushed by demons of a much higher caliber than you would have brought for the crowd hunt. I believe it was a deliberately targeted attempt on his life.”

Jin Zixuan paled slightly, but not to the degree Wei Wuxian would have expected. Lan Wangji saw it too, his eyes narrowing as he said, “This has happened before.”

“That’s why I kept saying not to make a fuss.” Jin Ziyao managed to get to his feet. “There are some elements of the Lanling Jin gentry who are still upset at my close relationship with my brother, who believe I hold too much influence over him. Please don’t - ”

“Don’t what?” Wei Wuxian asked. “Don’t worry about the fact that someone just tried to assassinate you in broad daylight?”

Jin Ziyao winced. “I have been defending myself adequately against the problem. I would never have ventured out onto the mountain had er-ge not agreed to go with me.”

Jin Zixuan quickly spoke up to support him. “This is an internal matter for the Lanling Jin. We are handling it, so please, I would ask you not to interfere.”

Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Wangji, saw the scowl on his face and the tight set of his shoulders. Lan Xichen didn’t look much happier, but Wei Wuxian knew they wouldn’t say anything. He had learned a long time ago that the words ‘an internal matter’ were impossible to argue with, without being incredibly disrespectful. To say anything further would be to directly imply that Jin Zixuan could not control his own sect and protect his own brother.

After the silence had gone on a beat too long, Jiang Yanli gently intervened. “Jin-er-gongzi, why don’t you accompany me and your brother back to the stands? We can have the doctor check on you, just to be sure that you did not receive any injury.”

Jin Ziyao nodded and bowed to her. “Thank you, Jiang-guniang. I would be delighted.” He turned to the other three and bowed again, saying, “I will see all of you at the banquet. Please, enjoy the rest of the hunt.”

The Twin Jades bowed, so Wei Wuxian did too, frowning slightly as he watched the Jin brothers and his own sister walk away. He doubted another attempt would be made after the failure of the first, but was somewhat relieved when Lan Xichen gave them just enough space for it to be polite before conspicuously trailing behind them. Wei Wuxian glanced at Lan Wangji, and he nodded, so they followed as well.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Lan Xichen said, finally seeming to realize their presence. “Were you two busy? I hate to have interrupted.”

“Nothing that cannot be picked up later,” Lan Wangji said, with a gleam in his eye that made Wei Wuxian trip over his own feet.

Lan Xichen hid a smile in his sleeve. “I’m glad to hear that.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Ziyao sighed as the doctor examined him briefly before concluding that although he had a few bruises from where he had been knocked to the ground before Lan Xichen had intervened - brilliantly and gorgeously, Jin Ziyao thought - he had received no major injuries. Jin Ziyao saw the look on his brother’s face and said, “See? I’m fine.”

“It was too close,” Jin Zixuan said.

“It wasn’t close at all. Er-ge never even let them get near me.”

Jin Zixuan’s mouth tightened further. “You know what I mean. These attempts are getting more bold and flagrant. We cannot let it continue this way. And now it’s no longer a private affair, either - to attempt during the hunt like this! Everyone will know by nightfall.”

“That’s true.” Jin Ziyao couldn’t help but think that might have been purposeful. The attempt had been incredibly public, but it had also been extremely unlikely to succeed. Everyone knew that Jin Ziyao was not taking part in the hunt, which meant if he had gone up onto the mountain, it would have been with his actual brother or one of his sworn brothers, any of whom could have protected him adequately. The people behind this - Jin Zixun and his lackeys - wanted the other sects to know. They wanted the Lanling Jin to look weak in front of them, to cause the gentry to wonder if Jin Zixuan was ruling the Lanling Jin adequately.

After thinking all this over, he said, “Er-ge had already invited me back to Cloud Recesses for a little while after the hunt. Perhaps I’ll stay a few weeks instead of the previously planned few days. That will give you some time to see how people react to my absence - see who tries most to influence you while I’m gone. It will give us some clues we didn’t have before.”

“But we don’t need clues,” Jin Zixuan said, frustrated. “We know who’s doing it. How do we prove it?”

“By getting one of them to admit it to you,” Jin Ziyao said. He saw his brother’s frown and said, “We don’t need a signed confession. Once one of them says ‘can’t you see how much better off you are without your brother’ that’s all the excuse you need for an actual interrogation. Any one of them will give up their co-conspirators the instant the pain starts.”

“You’re suggesting I torture people?” Jin Zixuan sounded aghast.

“I don’t mean physical pain. Just threaten to strip them of their lands and titles, have them exiled from Lanling.” Jin Ziyao didn’t bother to point out that yes, he absolutely thought torturing these people might get them somewhere. He could deal with that if it was necessary. “But you’d better steel your nerves, xiongzhang, because the only conclusion this leads to is executions.”

“I know,” Jin Zixuan said, his expression bleak. “I’ve been trying to prepare for that ever since it started happening.”

Satisfied, Jin Ziyao nodded. “Now, please, let me rest for a little while, before the banquet.”

“Of course.”

Not that he really needed rest. He didn’t have any injuries. What he had was a headache. He didn’t want to think about what Lan Xichen thought about this, how he was going to react the next time they saw each other. He knew that Lan Xichen was well-mannered enough not to intervene after being asked not to, but he hated the thought of Lan Xichen pitying him, of Lan Xichen thinking he needed to be taken care of.

At least, he thought, the banquet would give him a chance to show off. He had spent almost as much time on that as he had on the hunt itself. The seating arrangements alone had been a nightmare, plus the careful documentation of which sect leader and which young master would want what meal, what alcohol, what tea. But everything had been carefully prepared, and once Jin Zixuan was seated at the head of the room with his mother beside him, toasting his guests, everything was perfect.

Which meant, naturally, that Jin Zixun needed to take this opportunity to turn his unpleasant personality up to eleven, sauntering over to where the Twin Jades were sitting with a jar of alcohol and a gold cup. Jin Ziyao had to take a moment to pray for patience before he hurried over. “Ah, cousin, the Lan have a prohibition against alcohol.”

Jin Zixun just smirked. “The Jin sect and the Lan sect are close friends. If you don’t drink, it means you are looking down on me.”

Jin Ziyao’s temper, already strained from worrying about what Lan Xichen would think after the assassination attempt, was worn further thin by the uncomfortable look on Lan Xichen’s face. Although he was careful to keep his neutral smile on his face, he could not completely keep the harshness from his tone. “With all due respect, cousin, you are the one in the wrong. The Gusu Lan adhere strictly to their disciplines and we must show respect for their culture - ”

Ignoring him entirely, Jin Zixun said, “Lan-zongzhu, we are not strangers. Will you drink or not?”

“Jin Zixun!” Jin Ziyao snapped, and snatched the cup out of his hand. “You are being extremely inappropriate right now. Zewu-Jun and Hanguang-Jun deserve your respect. You are embarrassing yourself and you are embarrassing the Lanling Jin. Go back to your seat. Do not make me tell you again.”

Jin Zixun was flushed a dark red, but he saw that Jin Ziyao wasn’t going to back down, and when he looked at Jin Zixuan at the head of the room, saw that he didn’t look much happier. He took the cup back and huffed away.

“Please forgive his disrespect,” Jin Ziyao said, bowing to the Twin Jades.

“Of course, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “Please don’t think on it any further,” he added, and as Jin Ziyao headed back to his own seat, he heard Lan Xichen say, “It’s very warm in here all of a sudden, isn’t it? Is anyone else warm?”

Lanling Jin banquets were elaborate affairs that went on for hours. Being such a big occasion, with so many sects present, Jin Ziyao anticipated that this one would last well into the night. Due to that, it was not unusual for people to come and go, mingling with others at Koi Tower, or just to get some fresh air. He was not surprised when, after about an hour, Jin Zixuan approached Jiang Yanli and asked if she would like to go for a walk in the gardens with him.

Jin Ziyao trailed behind, wanting to be nearby in case he was needed, but staying out of sight for the sake of propriety. That was easy in the gardens, which were dense with flora. 

“Jiang-guniang,” Jin Zixuan said, sounding a little more stilted than usual, more like his previous self. “I’m glad we have this opportunity to speak privately. I wanted to ask you a question.”

“What is it, Jin-zongzhu?” Jiang Yanli asked, in the tone of voice of someone who knew exactly what it was.

“When your father broke off our betrothal, I believe he was in the right. I was ill-mannered and immature. I did not know you then, but I chose to believe rumors and make assumptions rather than trusting my mother’s judgment and reaching out to you. I know I have apologized once for my behavior, but I would like to take a moment to apologize again, and beg your forgiveness.”

Gently, Jiang Yanli said, “I forgive you, Jin-zongzhu.”

“Now that I know you better, and after everything we have gone through, I can of course see that my mother was correct . . . that if anything, I am undeserving of you, rather than what I thought previously . . . but even so, I would be honored if you would accept my proposal to renew our engagement and begin planning our wedding.”

Jin Ziyao couldn’t help but smile. He still sounded a little rehearsed, but the words were clearly heartfelt. His brother had come a long way, really.

“Nothing would make me happier,” Jiang Yanli said, and Jin Ziyao’s smile widened. He could imagine his brother’s relief.

He left them alone for a few minutes - they deserved a little privacy - and went to get Jiang Wanyin. He would need to be the first to know, before the announcement was made. He pulled him aside and quietly said that Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan wished to have a word with him. From the heavy sigh, it was clear that Jiang Wanyin knew what it was about. Even so, he gave Wei Wuxian a reassuring nod before following Jin Ziyao out to the garden.

Jin Zixuan didn’t seem surprised to see the two of them appear, although Jiang Yanli arched an eyebrow at Jin Ziyao, as if to say she wasn’t thrilled at his eavesdropping. He just smiled back. Jin Zixuan bowed to Jiang Wanyin and said, “Ah, Jiang-zongzhu, as your father would have wished, I have discussed the engagement with your sister directly, rather than approaching you to ask for her hand. I hope I did not offend.”

“Not at all,” Jiang Wanyin said, and if he sounded a little unfriendly, that was the norm for him, so it didn’t bother anyone present.

“Your sister has honored me with an acceptance, and now I would like to ask for your blessing,” Jin Zixuan said.

Jiang Wanyin bowed and said, “Of course, anything for my sister’s happiness. I am happy to give my blessing to the arrangement.”

They exchanged a few more pleasant formalities before heading back to the banquet hall. Jin Ziyao glanced over at Wei Wuxian and saw Jiang Wanyin nod to him, confirming that it had been what they figured. Wei Wuxian’s nose wrinkled, and Jiang Wanyin gave him an exasperated look, so he huffed and went over to congratulate them. Yu Huanfa joined them and was immediately overjoyed at the news, throwing her arms around Jiang Yanli and squeezing her tightly.

Jin Ziyao gave them a few minutes to chat before he caught his brother’s eye and rang a small bell to get everyone’s attention. Jin Zixuan cleared his throat, a little uncomfortable with the fanfare but knowing it was required. “Again, I’d like to thank you all for joining us here at Koi Tower. I would like to announce some joyous news: the betrothal between myself and Jiang Yanli has been renewed, and we look forward to seeing you all at the wedding sometime soon.”

There was some polite applause, and a lot of smiles and shouts of congratulations and approval from the minor sect leaders who always thought their opinions were needed.

Then Jin Zixun rose from his table. For a moment, Jin Ziyao thought he was going to lead a toast, but then he saw the smirk hovering at the corner of his mouth. “My esteemed cousin and sect leader,” he said, “with all due respect, I cannot offer my congratulations.”

A few hushed gasps when through the crowd, and then a few mutters. Jin Zixuan honestly looked more perplexed than anything else, while Jin Ziyao braced himself for the fallout. Jin Zixun was going to do this here? Now? He was going to force a conflict with his sect leader in front of everyone?

Of course he was, Jin Ziyao thought. Making Jin Zixuan look weak was half the point. This should have been an internal matter, but he wanted everyone to know about the Lanling Jin’s strife. The spectacle was half the point. Which meant, more than anything else, that Jin Ziyao would not be able to intervene. Jin Zixuan would have to handle this by himself.

“I beg your pardon,” Jin Zixuan said, after a slight moment of hesitation. “I can’t imagine what the problem is.”

“Can you not?” Jin Zixun sounded more serious than usual, even a little sad, putting on a grand facade for the audience. “There are so many good women in the world, Jin-zongzhu. Yet out of all of them, you chose the woman who murdered your father.”

That garnered loud gasps, and even the upper levels of gentry looked shocked. Although by now it was generally accepted that the rumor of Jin Guangshan’s death at the hands of a woman was actually true, very few people knew the identity of that woman. Jin Ziyao glanced at Jiang Yanli and saw that she looked anxious, and then looked at her brothers and saw that they looked furious. He hoped, for Jin Zixuan’s sake, that they would manage to stay quiet and let him handle the conflict. It looked like they knew they had to - Wei Wuxian opened his mouth to speak but then Jiang Wanyin pinched his arm, hard, and he closed it.

Jin Zixuan was taken aback for a moment, and it was a moment too long, allowing Jin Zixun to continue to speak. “Of course, I am sure I know whose idea this engagement was,” he said, casting a look at Jin Ziyao, which then caused everyone to look in his direction. Having expected that, he was able to keep his neutral expression. “How convenient that once your father was out of the way, he was able to convince you to legitimize him - he knew you would rely on him, as an inexperienced sect lea - ”

“Jin Zixun!” Jin Zixuan had two spots of color on his cheeks and his voice was a little higher-pitched than normal, but he was holding it together adequately. “You will cease making such vile accusations at once. I decided to legitimize Jin Ziyao, without input from anybody else, including him. I chose Jiang-guniang as my bride because she is intelligent and kind and talented. You will not put these choices onto anyone else’s shoulders! How dare you suggest that Jiang-guniang and Ziyao conspired together to murder my father? What sort of mind do you have that would even conjure up such an idea?”

“Is it true, then?” someone shouted - Sect Leader Yao, Jin Ziyao thought. “Did she murder Jin Guangshan?”

“I reject that characterization of the situation completely,” Jin Zixuan shot back. “Jiang-guniang did nothing wrong. She was assaulted and defended herself and anyone who blames her for that is not welcome in my home.”

“He assaulted her?” Jin Zixun gave a loud, disbelieving laugh. “Is that the story you were told?”

Yu Huanfa looked up at that, then looked at her son. He shook his head, and said, “I do not like to speak ill of the dead, especially not of my own kin. But my father was well-known for his excesses. Over the course of his life, he - ” Jin Zixuan faltered for a moment, but then rallied. “He forced himself on many women, both servant and gentry. And you, Jin Zixun, knew this quite well when you decided to air the Lanling Jin’s dirty laundry in front of all of the other sect leaders. So since you are intent on having this discussion despite the fact that your opinion was not at any point requested, let us have it.”

“You - ”

“I did not give you permission to speak!” Jin Zixuan brought him up short. “I recognize that there are elements of the Lanling Jin who have not been pleased by some of my decisions since I assumed control of the sect. So let me make this abundantly clear once and for all: every decision I have made has been my own. Yes, I ask Ziyao for advice. He is knowledgeable and clever. I also ask my mother for advice, and my head disciple, and occasionally other sect leaders or experts on whatever subject pertains to the matter at hand, be it taxation or cultivation. And I am well aware that not all those decisions have made people happy. I am not my father. I am not going to run the Lanling Jin the same way he did. If that upsets you, so be it. Anyone who is discontent with my leadership is welcome to leave the sect and seek out another to be part of. But I will not be shamed or bullied into ruling this sect the way Jin Guangshan would have, just because it would make some of you happy. I am in charge of the Lanling Jin! Not my father’s ghost, and certainly not you, Jin Zixun.”

Jin Zixun was slowly turning an even darker pink. His jaw was clenched and trembling.

“So again, because I do not want to risk any possible misunderstandings: Jiang-guniang will be my wife. My brother Ziyao will continue to advise me. Both will be treated with respect, and this is the absolute last time I will speak of the subject. Anyone who wants to leave will be allowed. Anyone who will not adhere to my guidance on the issue will leave whether they want to or not. Is all of that perfectly clear?”

There was a very long moment of silence. Then Jin Zixun bowed, silently, and turned and stalked out of the room.

Jin Zixuan let out a breath. “To all my guests, you have my profound apologies that you had to witness that. I hope you will continue to enjoy our hospitality.”

For once, Wei Wuxian chose the right moment to speak up, lifting his cup and saying, “I for one am enjoying myself immensely!”

Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes; Nie Huaisang chuckled nervously. It broke the worst of the clouds from the atmosphere, and people began to socialize again. Jiang Wanyin lifted a bowl and said, “To Jin-zongzhu and my sister - may they have a long and bountiful life together.”

There was a chorus of agreement and people raising bowls, and Jin Ziyao allowed himself to relax. He went up to the dais and resumed his place.

“How badly did I just ruin everything?” Jin Zixuan murmured to him.

“On the contrary, xiongzhang, you hardly could have handled it better. I think Jiang-guniang was very impressed - and the other sect leaders definitely were.”

Some of the tension went out of Jin Zixuan’s shoulders. “All right.”

Jin Ziyao refilled his bowl with alcohol and started counting down the minutes until he could go to Cloud Recesses for a few weeks and get the hell away from this circus for a while.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Although there was a part of Wei Wuxian that wanted to immediately return to Lan Wangji’s lap and resume kissing for the rest of the evening, there was also a part of him that was itching to celebrate with his siblings and plan his sister’s wedding, and that part won. Lan Wangji would still be there in a little while; his sister didn’t get engaged every day. Even if it was to the peacock, he supposed he was all right with that. Jin Zixuan had really improved remarkably over the past year.

So once it was late enough to acceptably leave the banquet, the three siblings went back to their guest house and Wei Wuxian spent the next two hours arguing with Jiang Cheng over tiny minutiae of the wedding plans. They had been waiting for this opportunity for years, and both were determined that their sister was going to have the most spectacular wedding seen in a century. Jiang Yanli sat with them and laughed gently and tried to steer them away from particularly outrageous plans.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng fell asleep, and Jiang Yanli saw the look on Wei Wuxian’s face and laughed, telling him that she would be fine on her own if he had somewhere else to be. He grinned and headed towards the guest house that had been given to the Twin Jades.

Of course, at this point it was far too late for him to knock on the door. Wei Wuxian climbed up onto the roof and took out a jar of alcohol, smiling at the nostalgia of it all. 

He wasn’t surprised at all when a few minutes later, Lan Wangji came out the door and gracefully jumped up to the roof to sit next to him. “Where were we?” he asked Lan Wangji, giving him a cheeky grin.

“Here,” Lan Wangji said, leaning in for a kiss.

Wei Wuxian enjoyed it; he more than enjoyed it. He had been so numb and so cold for so long. Lan Wangji’s kiss felt like life was being breathed back into him, like he was waking up from being sealed in Cold Pond Cave. It was a little different from their kisses in the forest, which had been so forceful. This was gentler, easier, trading kisses back and forth but taking the time to breathe in between. It felt like being welcomed home after a long absence, like a puzzle piece sliding into place. A resounding feeling of everything being where it was supposed to be.

He had to tell him. They couldn’t move forward - he couldn’t move forward - until he did. Until he no longer had to worry about the day Lan Wangji found out. He would never stop worrying about that until he knew.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he whispered, into the space between kisses. “I have to show you something.”

“Mn?” Lan Wangji pulled away, looking gorgeous, a little flushed and clearly ready for more kisses. 

Wei Wuxian hated to ruin it for him, but he knew he had to. He had to trust Lan Wangji, trust that they would be okay, even if this irrevocably changed things for them forever. He took Lan Wangji’s hand and moved it to his wrist, placing Lan Wangji’s fingers against his pulse. For a brief moment, he gave a soft smile, feeling the beat of Wei Wuxian’s heart underneath his fingers. Then the smile faded as he realized what he wasn’t feeling - what should have been there but wasn’t, the current of Wei Wuxian’s spiritual power.

Lan Wangji didn’t say anything. He let out a burst of his own spiritual power, letting it travel through Wei Wuxian’s skin, settle into those pathways. Wei Wuxian sat quietly while it dissipated, because there was nowhere for it to go. 

Finally, Lan Wangji looked up at him. He was no longer smiling, but he didn’t look angry. “Wen Zhuliu?”

Wei Wuxian shook his head. “No. Well, sort of. Jiang Cheng told you about his trip to the mountains while you two were looking for me, right? About meeting Baoshan Sanren,” he said, and Lan Wangji nodded. “That wasn’t really what happened. I just put some theater together to make him think so, because I didn’t want him to know . . . there really is no way to repair a golden core after it was crushed. The only thing that could be done was a transfer.”

Lan Wangji’s hand curled around Wei Wuxian’s wrist. “You gave your golden core to him.”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian let the word sit between them. “I couldn’t stand for anyone to know at first. Shijie figured it out, and she convinced me to tell Jiang Cheng. But those two, and Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who helped me do the transfer - you’re the only other person who knows now. But I think, now that I’ve told you, it will be easier to tell others. Because I can’t keep pretending. I’m so tired of pretending, Lan Zhan. I know that, that a lot will change, but I don’t know . . . I don’t know if this will change.”

After a long silence, Lan Wangji pulled Wei Wuxian’s wrist to his mouth and pressed a kiss against his pulse. Then he leaned in for a kiss on the mouth. “I do not want it to change.”

“But it does, though,” Wei Wuxian said, even as his heart ached to have to say it. “Because we, we were drawn together by the fact that we had the same goals, the same ideals. That we wanted to fight for justice and protect innocents. And I can’t do that anymore, not the way I thought I would. I wanted to walk that path with you but now I can’t.”

Lan Wangji was quiet for another long minute before he finally said, “Your golden core, your ability to cultivate, is not everything you are. You are still Wei Ying.”

“I wish I knew who Wei Ying without the ability to cultivate was,” Wei Wuxian said.

“Mn. I understand that this is an immense loss to you, and I will not pretend to understand how it feels. But you should not use it to define yourself. Every day . . .” Lan Wangji, unaccustomed to speaking so many words, seemed to stop and struggle with them for a few moments. “Every day, all of us go through losses and gains. All of those change us. You think of yourself in such static terms. That there is Wei Ying with a golden core and Wei Ying without. But the loss of your golden core is not the only thing that has changed you. The war changed you. The Burial Mounds changed you. The loss of your parents changed you. But meeting me also changed you. Our search for the yin iron changed you. Everyone is a different person every morning they wake up from the one they were the day before. That is the way life is. Finding a partner is not about finding someone who will be the same every day. It is about finding someone that you can grow and change with. No matter what happens, Wei Ying is Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian stared at him for a long second before he realized he was crying, and hastily wiped the tears away. “Ah . . . that was really beautiful, Lan Zhan.”

Flushing slightly pink, Lan Wangji only said, “Mn.”

“No, I mean it,” Wei Wuxian said. “Thank you. I just . . . I still wish I could walk that path with you. I guess that will probably always hurt.”

Lan Wangji nodded. “No matter what you may have thought, I do not need you to fight by my side to consider that we are on the same path. I see nothing wrong with coming home to a husband who has been drawing or fishing, or teaching our children archery or music.”

Wei Wuxian flushed. “Oh, you went straight to ‘husband’ and ‘children’ while I was still back here trying to process that you kissed me for the first time today.”

Lan Wangji gave him a sideways look. “Is that not what you want?”

“I didn’t even know I could want something so much until you said it out loud,” Wei Wuxian said, and Lan Wangji kissed him again. When they finally separated, several minutes later, Wei Wuxian said, “Will you come back to Lotus Pier with me? I need to tell the disciples . . . need to explain that while I’ll always be part of Yunmeng Jiang, I can’t teach them the way I wish I could . . .”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, with another nod. “I will speak to my brother about it tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Wei Wuxian leaned against him, tucking his head into Lan Wangji’s shoulder, and they watched the stars in silence for a little while before he realized Lan Wangji had fallen asleep. He laughed and shook him awake. “Go inside and go to bed, fuddy-duddy,” he said, and Lan Wangji glared at him. “I’ll see you in the morning?”

Lan Wangji kissed him and said, “In the morning.”

Wei Wuxian jumped down off the roof, relieved that Lan Wangji didn’t offer to help him down, and yawned as he headed back to the guest house. His brother and sister were both asleep, and he grinned before he flung himself down onto Jiang Cheng’s bed and began jabbing him in the ribs. “Wake up, Jiang Cheng!”

“Mrrrgrr!” Jiang Cheng instinctively grabbed a pillow and smacked his brother in the face with it. “What - it’s the middle of the - leave me alo - stop poking me! You dumb jerk - ”

“Lan Zhan wants to marry me,” Wei Wuxian said with a grin, as he continued to poke Jiang Cheng in the side. “He said I’m gonna be his husband. Now we get to plan two weddings!”

“Can we plan them in the morning,” Jiang Cheng groaned. Then he blinked. “Wait. What? Seriously? Lan Wangji is going to make an honest man out of you?”

“In as much as anyone can,” Wei Wuxian said, still grinning.

“And you woke me up to tell me that?”

“Well, I can’t wake shijie. She needs her beauty sleep! You, on the other hand - ”

Jiang Cheng hit him with the pillow again.

Feeling good about everything, Wei Wuxian sprawled out on his bed and went to sleep, hoping that his siblings would sympathize with how late he had been up and let him sleep in.

Instead, he was woken quite early by someone knocking loudly on the door. He was barely sitting up, rubbing one hand over his face, when Jiang Cheng went to pull it open and reveal Jin Zixuan, looking more anxious than he had ever looked on a battlefield. “Jin-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng said, frowning but bowing. “Is something wrong?”

Jin Zixuan hastily returned the bow and said, “Ziyao is missing.”

Jiang Yanli, who was pouring a cup of tea when Jin Zixuan arrived, went bolting out of her chair. “Missing? Are you sure? Have you checked - ”

“Here’s what happened,” Jin Zixuan said, interrupting her without thinking. “When I went to breakfast this morning, he wasn’t there. That was odd because he’s usually there before me, although sometimes he’s up so early that he’ll eat on his own and leave before I get there. But I didn’t think that could be what had happened today because I was up so early myself. So I went to his chambers to see if he was still there, to see if I could find him, and he wasn’t in them.”

Jiang Cheng frowned. “There are so many places he could be. It doesn’t - ”

“No, it doesn’t,” Jin Zixuan said, and held out Jin Ziyao’s hat. “But this does.”

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng exchanged a glance. “I mean, he could have been in a hurry,” Wei Wuxian said.

Jin Zixuan shook his head. “He never goes out without it. He loves this stupid hat. I gave it to him the day I legitimized him and, and to him it represents that he has a place in the gentry, in the Lanling Jin. Other than when we’ve been alone together since then, I’ve never seen him without it. He’ll even put it on before he opens the door and lets the servants in. He has a stand for it. But this morning it wasn’t just that it was there and he wasn’t - it was on the floor. He, he would never - ”

Jiang Yanli reached out and gently squeezed his arm. “We understand,” she said, and truthfully, they did. Jin Ziyao was hardly one to be careless of his possessions in any case. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“Last night, towards the end of the banquet. I insisted he leave before me and had one of my own guards - the ones we’ve tested thoroughly for loyalty - escort him back to his chambers. I went to bed about a half an hour later.”

“Have you said anything to anyone else?” Wei Wuxian began throwing some clothes on.

“My mother and Mianmian were both at breakfast, so they know he wasn’t there. I told them I was going to go see where he was, but didn’t talk to them afterwards, so they don’t know that I didn’t find him.” Jin Zixuan’s fists clenched at his sides. “I trust both of them, but I don’t know that they would be discreet enough and I hate the fact that I can’t trust my own people - ”

“No, you were right,” Jiang Yanli said. “It’s better to keep this quiet, at least until we have more information. The closing ceremonies for the hunt will be in two hours, I believe?” she added, and he nodded. “All the sect leaders will need to be there. But I don’t think anyone would particularly notice or care if A-Xian wasn’t, or Hanguang-Jun.”

“Yeah, we definitely need to tell him and Zewu-Jun,” Wei Wuxian said, and saw Jin Zixuan’s fists tightened further. “I know we need to keep it quiet, but if Zewu-Jun finds out that Jin-er-gongzi went missing and you didn’t tell him, he’ll be furious. I’ve never seen him furious and frankly don’t care to find out what it looks like.”

Jiang Cheng hesitated, then said, “I hate to be the one to ask this, but why does everyone keep saying ‘missing’? Isn’t it more likely that he was killed?”

Jiang Yanli gave him a look, but Jin Zixuan didn’t flinch. “No. Ever since the attempts began, Ziyao has made it clear that he never had any spirit-soothing performed, in the hopes that it would deter attackers. They wouldn’t kill him - likely just take him somewhere and leave him to die.”

“Well, we see how well that worked out for Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian said, somewhat more cheerfully than Jiang Yanli felt was appropriate. “Bet it won’t work for Jin Zixun any better.”

“Have you seen Jin Zixun?” Jiang Yanli asked.

Jin Zixuan shook his head. “But I haven’t looked. He must be long gone by now.”

“Actually, I doubt that,” Jiang Yanli said. “Jin Zixun’s goal isn’t to kill Jin-er-gongzi and then run away. It’s to seize control of the Lanling Jin. He can’t run because that makes him obviously guilty. He’ll bank on the fact that we don’t have proof - there’s no body, after all - and won’t risk doing anything in front of the gentry from the other sects. I bet as we speak he’s starting some vicious rumors about why Jin-er-gongzi might have left - something people would be predisposed to believe because of his background, like an affair.”

“So what do we do?” Wei Wuxian asked. 

“First off, we act as if everything is normal. If you hear a rumor, change the subject, don’t even dignify it with a response - but note who’s saying it. A-Xian, go to the Lan’s guest house. Tell them what happened. Hanguang-Jun can help you search Koi Tower - but be as discreet as possible.”

Wei Wuxian made a face. 

“How much time do you think we have?” Jin Zixuan asked anxiously.

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “Unfortunately, there’s really no way to know. We have absolutely no idea what sort of circumstances they left Jin-er-gongzi in. Could be days - could have been minutes.” She saw Jin Zixuan pale and squeezed his hand again. “We will act as quickly as we are able, but we must be careful not to rush things. Searching is first. It’s possible, even if unlikely, that they stashed him somewhere close by with the intent to move him later. Once the other sects are gone, after the closing ceremonies, we will be able to ask more questions.”

“And what about Jin Zixun?” Jiang Cheng asked.

Jiang Yanli’s face was as cold and remote as it had been the day she had killed Jin Guangshan. “Let me handle Jin Zixun.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Ziyao woke with a headache, and after the two seconds it took him to recall the events of the previous evening, it intensified into a migraine.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, he cursed, trying to get to his feet. He had been reading in his chambers after retiring for the evening when one of the servants had knocked on his door and said there was a problem with the lodgings of one of the smaller sects. Of course he had known it might be a trap. He had made sure to take a long, convoluted route to get there. Once at the guest house, he stayed outside while the problem was explained, rather than going in. The sect leader had fallen ill after dinner and was requesting a restorative. “Too much of your fine rice wine,” the head disciple said in an undertone.

Annoyed that they’d gotten him out of bed when any servant could have gotten what he requested, he had directed that the restorative be made up and sent to the guest house. He took a similarly long, convoluted route back, opened the door to his rooms, and promptly been knocked on his ass by a blow of spiritual power. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He hadn’t had time to shout before something had been stuffed into his mouth and then a bag tossed over his head, and after that all he had been able to do was curl up on the floor to try to protect his vital organs from the worst of the beating. Every inch of his body still ached from it. 

Wherever he was, it was cold, and dark. He was lucky that they hadn’t killed him outright, but not entirely surprised by this. He had taken care after the first two attempts to make sure everyone knew that he’d never had any spirit-soothing ceremonies performed as a child. He was, after all, only the bastard son of a whore. They didn’t get such things. So to kill him directly, even though his level of cultivation was relatively low, posed a risk. Dumping him in a hole in the ground and leaving him to die from the elements was a much safer plan.

He felt around carefully, trying to gauge the size of his prison. After a few moments without success, he quickly lit a fire talisman. He was relieved to note that his spiritual power hadn’t been sealed - or if it had, he’d been down here long enough that the seal had worn off. But probably the former. He was not hungry and only a little thirsty; it had not been twelve hours since his abduction.

The talisman didn’t reveal much. He could see stone walls surrounding him. The room was circular, about three feet in diameter, and the walls were fairly smooth. This had been dug for a purpose, probably a well of some sort, long before someone had decided to dump him in it. 

He could not tell how far up the walls went. After some thought, he used his spiritual power to jump, touched lightly against the wall, and jumped again. Three jumps and he slammed somewhat painfully into the top, and fell all the way back down to the bottom.

Muttering profanities to himself, he got back to his feet. Whatever he had hit had been as hard as metal or stone. He was sealed in, and given the diameter of the well, whatever was on top would be far too heavy for him to move, even if he had a solid place to stand while he attempted to do it.

But he had to try. What else could he do? Everything surrounding him was solid stone. He had no tools, no weapons, nothing but his clothing, and out of that, only his innermost robe. Even his shoes had been taken. He supposed he was lucky they had allowed him the dignity of keeping any clothing at all. 

He felt along the walls. They were smooth, but not so smooth that he couldn’t find a handhold here and there. He had learned to climb fairly well at Qinghe, as part of the basic training. It was fairly rocky and mountainous there. Of course, he had never prepared for anything like this, but he took it slowly and carefully.

What would happen first, he wondered. It was cold, but was it cold enough to freeze to death? Or would he run out of air? He had heard of that happening to people who had accidentally gotten sealed into places during construction. Was this place airtight? How much air did a person consume, and how much was in a given space? If neither of those things, he supposed he would die of thirst. That would take three or four days. He knew high level cultivators could go longer - Jin Zixuan had mentioned at one point that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had been in the cave of Xuanwu for seven days, and hopefully they hadn’t been drinking that water. But his cultivation wasn’t developed enough for something like that.

He shook off the morbid thoughts as he reached the top. Keeping hold with one hand, he lifted an arm and pushed at whatever was on top of the wall. As he expected, it didn’t budge. He summoned all his spiritual power into his fist and slammed it upwards.

“Fuck!” he hissed, feeling the rebound travel all the way back down his arm. Spiritually sealed. There was no way he was getting out. 

He tried to climb down, but his arm was aching and weak from the blow, and he lost his grip about halfway and fell again. The landing knocked the air out of him, and he coughed and gasped for several moments.

He had to stay calm. The others would know he was missing in the morning, and it wasn’t like it would take a genius to figure out who was behind his disappearance. They would find him. He would just have to wait, and hope that they found him in time.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian was really not looking forward to what was going to happen once the door in front of him opened. He had thought it was going to be a nice day. He deserved a nice day, didn’t he? He was going to tell his sister he had told Lan Wangji the truth and Lan Wangji wanted to marry him. They were going to tell Lan Xichen who was undoubtedly going to be thrilled. They might even make a formal announcement. Everyone was going to know that Lan Wangji loved him and wanted to marry him. He was going to roll around in it all day and kiss Lan Wangji a thousand times.

But no. Because Jin Zixun was an ambitious piece of shit who was pissed off that he could no longer do whatever he wanted without repercussion, he had kidnapped Jin Ziyao and thrown him in a hole somewhere, and now Wei Wuxian was tasked with the thoroughly unenviable task of explaining that to his sworn older brother.

Lan Wangji opened the door, and his face went from the neutral expression to the soft smile in a heartbeat, and God, Wei Wuxian wanted to make out with him. Life was so unfair. His thoughts must have showed on his face, because the soft smile vanished and Lan Wangji greeted him with, “What’s wrong?”

Wei Wuxian went into the guest house, closed the door, and drew a quick talisman to shield them from any prying ears. Lan Xichen looked up from where he was pouring his tea, and his polite greeting wore a look of concern. Wei Wuxian didn’t bother to sugarcoat it, both because it wouldn’t help and because they didn’t have a lot of time. “Jin-er-gongzi wasn’t at breakfast this morning, and his brother can’t find him.”

Lan Xichen was immediately on his feet. “Did he check the gardens? A-Yao sometimes likes to go in the morning - ”

“His hat was on the floor in his chambers,” Wei Wuxian said, cutting off Lan Xichen’s train of thought with a vicious blow. Lan Xichen paled. “The good news is, Jin-zongzhu is fairly sure he wouldn’t be killed. Most of the attempts have been indirect - like the one on the mountain yesterday. Jin-er-gongzi never had any soul-calming ceremonies performed because of his status, and he made sure everyone was well aware of that. Jin-zongzhu thinks the most likely possibility is that he was abducted and taken somewhere that he could be left to die from exposure or thirst.”

“Then we will find him,” Lan Wangji said.

Quietly, in a tone of voice Wei Wuxian had never heard from him before, Lan Xichen said, “Where is Jin Zixun?”

“He’s at the breakfast banquet that you two were probably about to leave for,” Wei Wuxian said. “Laughing it up with his buddies. He knows we can’t prove anything without a body, and is helping everyone theorize that Jin-er-gongzi probably knocked up a prostitute and took off with her.” He saw Lan Xichen’s face darken further. “Don’t worry about Jin Zixun. He’s going to tell us where they took Jin-er-gongzi, if we can’t find him ourselves. But first, we need to make sure that things don’t get out of control. Jin-zongzhu asked me to ask you, Zewu-Jun, if you would please go to the banquet and the closing ceremonies to represent the Lan sect and keep the other sects from realizing what’s going on. Meanwhile, Lan Zhan and I, along with Mianmian and about half a dozen disciples that she says can be trusted, are going to search Koi Tower. If he’s here, we’ll find him.”

Lan Xichen took a deep breath. It was clear that he didn’t like it, but he understood what was at stake. They had to keep the other sects from finding out about this, and his absence from the closing ceremonies would cause too many questions. He glanced at Lan Wangji, who gave him a reassuring nod, and said, “Very well.”

“If anyone asks where Lan Zhan is, you can just tell him that he and I are off, you know,” Wei Wuxian waved a hand, “doing stuff.”

Amused despite the situation, Lan Xichen said, “I’m quite sure everyone will draw that conclusion on their own.”

“Ah, did you tell him?” Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but ask, he was so eager to celebrate at least a little

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian thought about this. “You know, I don’t actually know if that’s a yes or a no.”

“Tell me what?” Lan Xichen asked, answering the question.

Lan Wangji shook his head. “Xiongzhang, it will be better to discuss this later.”

Wei Wuxian wanted to protest, but he knew why Lan Wangji was saying it. Lan Xichen was in no mood to celebrate their engagement right now, with Jin Ziyao missing. And although Wei Wuxian certainly would not have accepted ‘we can talk about this later’ from his younger brother, Lan Xichen accepted it without question. “As soon as the closing ceremonies are over, I will meet you at the banquet hall.”

Lan Wangji nodded, so Wei Wuxian bowed and the two of them headed out. “Why didn’t you say anything to him this morning?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“I wanted to tell him together,” Lan Wangji said.

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian hesitated. “I told Jiang Cheng as soon as I got back to my guest house last night.”

He was worried Lan Wangji might be annoyed, but he just nodded and said, “I would not expect you to have the self-control not to say anything.”

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian nudged his shoulder. “Don’t be rude.”

“Stating a fact is not rude.”

Wei Wuxian made a face at him, then sighed. “At least your brother took the news of Jin-er-gongzi’s disappearance well. I thought he might, I don’t know, be more upset than that.”

“Do not mistake my brother’s calm for indifference,” Lan Wangji said. “He cares for Jin-er-gongzi very dearly.”

“No, I know that. I just don’t think I’d be able to sit through the banquet and the closing ceremonies and smile at everyone, knowing what’s going on.”

“Self-control,” Lan Wangji murmured.

Wei Wuxian nudged him again, but then they were in the palace. Luo Qingyang greeted them, clearly worried but under control. “Now that the banquet is starting, the palace and the grounds are emptying of people, so we should be able to search relatively unimpeded,” she said, “but if anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them that a guest had some possessions go missing during the night and we are looking for them. Still a bit of a scandal, but - ” She waved this aside and then gave them each an area to search. “As soon as you’ve completed your search, meet back here. If the ceremonies are still ongoing at that point and we haven’t found him, we’ll expand our search to the area around the tower.”

Lan Wangji gave Wei Wuxian’s hand a quick squeeze, and the two of them separated.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jiang Yanli could not help but breathe a sigh of relief as the closing ceremonies concluded. A few people had mentioned Wei Wuxian’s absence to her, and she had simply smiled and said, “Yes, I’ve noticed Hanguang-Jun didn’t make it either . . .” and let them draw their own conclusions. As the varying sect leaders and their entourages headed back to their guest lodgings to prepare for departure, she made her way over to Jin Zixun. He was talking with several other Lanling Jin disciples, smirking and clearly quite proud of himself.

“Jin-gongzi,” she said, bowing to him, and he gave her a look that was somewhere between disgust and curiosity. “I think perhaps we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot . . . I was hoping that you would join me for tea this afternoon.”

Jin Zixun scoffed, but despite himself, he looked a little intrigued. It was incredibly forward of Jiang Yanli to approach him like this, in front of others. She knew that he had to be curious about why she might issue such an invitation. But he couldn’t accept right away, couldn’t be too obvious about it. “I’m sure you’ll be busy with your new betrothed, wouldn’t you?”

Jiang Yanli gave a soft smile. “My new betrothed is exactly what I would like to discuss . . . I think you and I might be of the same mind on a certain subject . . . and that we could perhaps help each other with a problem that we’re having.”

Now Jin Zixun was definitely intrigued. The only problem she could be referring to was that of Jin Ziyao’s ‘influence’ over his brother. She could see him wondering, was it possible that Jiang Yanli didn’t like Jin Ziyao any better than he did? She was a proper lady, after all. She might not want the son of a whore whispering into her husband’s ear.

That problem, as far as Jin Zixun saw it, was solved, so there was no need to involve her, no matter her opinion on it. But Jin Zixun was smart enough to know that even if Jin Zixuan couldn’t prove Jin Ziyao hadn’t simply wandered off on his own accord, he wouldn’t be given to look kindly on Jin Zixun after this. Jiang Yanli could be a bridge between them, and she was offering to help him get back in Jin Zixuan’s good graces.

“I would be delighted,” he finally decided.

“Two o’clock, perhaps? In the elegance room? Jin-zongzhu was showing it to me yesterday and it is so beautiful.”

Jin Zixun bowed and agreed.

Jiang Yanli bowed and went to find Yu Huanfa.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to do anything like this,” Yu Huanfa said, when Jiang Yanli told her what she needed.

“You’re still a daughter of the Yu sect,” Jiang Yanli said. “Jin Zixun might not have any idea what you’re capable of, but I do.”

After a long moment, Yu Huanfa nodded. “I’ll make the preparations.”

Satisfied, Jiang Yanli went to meet the others. She greeted Wei Wuxian with a quick squeeze of his forearm and said, “No luck in finding him?”

Wei Wuxian shook his head. “No. They must have taken him out of the city last night. He’s miles away by now.” He glanced up at the sun, looking a little anxious. “Do I really have to leave, shijie? You being alone in this place even an hour is more than I’m comfortable with.”

“I can take care of myself, A-Xian,” she reminded him. “All the sects are leaving. I will let you, A-Cheng, and the Twin Jades back in through the side gate as we discussed. In order to keep people from asking too many questions, it must be done.”

Wei Wuxian sighed but nodded and did as he was told, heading back towards the guest house. Jiang Yanli went to check on Jin Zixuan and found him with Luo Qingyang, discussing the outcome of the search. They hadn’t really expected to find anything, but it would have been far easier if they had. Jin Zixuan was anxious but in control. “Did he accept your invitation?”

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli said. “Don’t worry, Jin-zongzhu. It may take a little while, but we will find your brother.”

An hour later, she was at the side gate, opening it to let the four men back through. Like Jin Zixuan, they were tense but keeping it together. There was nothing for them to do, not yet. Once she spoke to Jin Zixun and knew where to go, they would be needed. Until then, all they could do was wait.

Jin Zixun was late to the meeting, which did not particularly surprise her even as it made her slightly anxious. It was only by a few minutes, clearly engineered purposefully to indicate his lack of respect for her. She didn’t let her annoyance show, greeting him warmly and pouring him a cup of tea. 

They exchanged pleasantries, and then Jiang Yanli opened with, “My dear betrothed is quite put out that Jin-er-gongzi was not at the closing ceremonies.”

“Hm,” Jin Zixun said, almost a laugh. “It does reflect poorly on him, particularly after his vigorous defense of Jin Ziyao yesterday.”

“I’ve heard all manner of disturbing rumors,” Jiang Yanli said, sipping her tea.

Jin Zixun drank as well. “It’s a shame, but we really can’t expect any better from him, can we? I’m sure you know the difficulty of having someone like that in your family. That Wei Wuxian - isn’t he just the son of a servant? Yet he acts like a young master, swanning around arrogantly.”

Jiang Yanli, who had gone into this conversation prepared to trash Jin Ziyao as much as necessary, was slightly taken aback by this divergence onto Wei Wuxian’s character. She had to pause and remind herself that Jin Zixun’s opinion of her brother was quite irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. “A-Xian does have his faults, that’s true. But I do believe there is a world of difference between the son of a servant and someone like Jin-er-gongzi. A servant, despite being lower class, at least chose an honest living for themselves.”

“That’s true, I suppose,” Jin Zixun said, somewhat begrudgingly. 

“If Jin-er-gongzi left of his own accord,” Jiang Yanli said, pouring Jin Zixun a second cup of tea, “I suppose the problem has solved itself.”

Jin Zixun smirked. “Why would you say if, Jiang-guniang? Isn’t it clear that’s what he must have done?”

Keeping her voice carefully even, Jiang Yanli said, “Were my husband-to-be to suspect otherwise, would he find any evidence of that?”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t!” Jin Zixun smiled broadly. “After all, Jin Ziyao must have taken off to live a life of depravity far away from us decent people.”

“That’s true,” Jiang Yanli said, “but it seems that it might be uncomfortable for the people who have spoken ill of Jin-er-gongzi in the past. Jin-zongzhu might not be predisposed to accept their advice or counsel, now that Jin-er-gongzi is gone.”

Jin Zixun shrugged. “I’m sure that once he’s had a little time without that son of a whore whispering in his ear, he’ll realize he’s better off without him. And if a little gentle persuasion is necessary, well, I’m sure a good wife could steer him in the right direction.”

Jiang Yanli smiled through her hatred of this disgusting man, who clearly had never cared that she had killed Jin Guangshan, but only wanted to use one of the worst days of her life to his political advantage. “Ah, but there is going to be a small problem with this, Jin-gongzi . . . can you guess what it’s going to be?”

“What’s the problem, Jiang-guniang?” Jin Zixun said, still smirking.

“You’re going to be dead long before the wedding,” she said, and he frowned. “You don’t truly think Jin-zongzhu is going to let you get away with murdering his brother, do you? Or that he doesn’t know it was you?”

“He can’t act without proof,” Jin Zixun said. “The other gentry would never stand for it.”

“Of course he can’t. That’s why I poisoned the tea.”

“You - ” Jin Zixun gaped at her. “But you drank it too!”

“I took the countering agent beforehand.” Jiang Yanli’s gentle smile never faded. “Have you never thought about what the ladies of the Yu sect are capable of, Jin Zixun? It is more than a knife in the heart when danger is imminent. Poison is actually one of their specialties. Not that my mother ever taught me . . . but Jin-furen was happy to oblige, at my request.”

“You!” Jin Zixun sputtered. “You’re lying!”

“You’ll start to feel it in a few minutes,” Jiang Yanli said, and glanced over as the door to the elegance room opened and her brothers came in. “You can decide then, whether or not you believe me. But I do have a little of the antidote left, Jin Zixun . . . and I certainly would like to know where you’ve taken Jin-er-gongzi.”

“You bitch!” Jin Zixun jolted to his feet, only for Zidian to wrap around him, keeping him in his chair. He grunted in pain. “I’m not going to tell you anything!”

“As you like.” Jiang Yanli took the pot of tea and walked to the window, emptying it out onto the ground and then pouring a pitcher of water after it, washing the evidence away. She calmly rinsed the pot and placed it on a shelf to dry. All the while, Jin Zixun struggled against Zidian. “Is your vision blurring yet? That’s one of the first symptoms. Increased heart rate . . . although that would be understandable, given your current situation . . . as well as the sweating.”

She took out a clear vial and set it down on the table. Jin Zixun’s gaze fixed on it, but it was clear that he was having trouble focusing. His breathing was starting to become rapid and shallow, his face turning a dull red.

“You can let him go, A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli said. “The paralysis will have kicked in by now.”

Jiang Cheng nodded, and pulled Zidian back. Wei Wuxian gave Jin Zixun’s shoulder a gentle nudge, and he toppled from the chair, his body shuddering. “Is it painful, shijie?” he asked, in a tone of clinical curiosity.

“I’m told it’s quite excruciating,” Jiang Yanli said, and Wei Wuxian smiled, placing his foot on Jin Zixun’s stomach. “Ah, that’s right, A-Xian, I almost forgot how he treated the Wen civilians . . . I would have let you take a more active role, if I had remembered.”

“This is fine,” Wei Wuxian said, still smiling. “Are you going to talk, Jin Zixun?”

Jin Zixun wheezed and grunted. “Don’t - know - ”

“Guess not,” Wei Wuxian said, digging his heel into Jin Zixun’s abdomen.

“I don’t know!” Jin Zixun managed to gather enough air to shout. “Had to - stay here. The others - they took care of it. I only know - it was a mine. Mining for the project - at Qiongqi Way. But I don’t know - nng! Exactly where. Had to - knew I could be - promised them I would - reward them later - ”

Wei Wuxian didn’t seem to know what to make of this string of words, but Jiang Yanli did. “You had your underlings take care of the details. You knew you could be interrogated, so you didn’t let them tell you exactly where they were planning to take Jin-er-gongzi, so you couldn’t give it up. After all, if his body is found, your vile rumors won’t stand up. Since they can’t come back, you promised you would make it up to them, reward them once you were in charge.”

Jin Zixun was nodding. He stretched one hand out towards the antidote.

“Their names,” Jiang Yanli said, picking up a sheet of paper. “Then the antidote.”

“You - ” Jin Zixun was going from red to purple. After a moment, he began to list the names. Jiang Yanli wrote each one down. There were four. Jin Zixun reached for the antidote again.

“Is that all you know?” she asked, and he nodded. “You’re very sure? Nothing else you want to tell us?”

“Please,” Jin Zixun said, making grasping motions.

Jiang Yanli handed the vial over, and he managed to pour the liquid into his mouth. She waited patiently while he drew in one ragged breath after another. Finally, he pushed himself to his hands and knees, then struggled to his feet and lunged at her. “You bitch! I’ll – ”

There was the ring of steel and the flash of a blade. Jin Zixun staggered backwards, blood gushing from his throat, and collapsed.

Jiang Yanli offered Jiang Cheng a clean cloth. He took it and cleaned Sandu before sheathing it again.

“What now?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“Now, we go see if Jin Zixuan knows where the mining was done for the project at Qiongqi Way.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Qiongqi Way was a vanity project that my father started not long before he was killed,” Jin Zixuan said, frowning as he paced back and forth in his chambers. “A monument to the Lanling Jin he was building. When the Jin were drawn into the war, most of the laborers either went home to protect their families, or went to the front lines. There was talk afterwards of restarting the project, but it was a low priority for me, so everything related to it would be abandoned, including the mine.”

“Do you know where it is?” Lan Xichen asked.

“Not exactly. Ziyao would - ” Jin Zixuan pinched the bridge of his nose. “But he’s not here, of course. Let me find someone who will know.”

A few minutes later, he was back with a map. He spread it across the table, weighing down the corners. Wei Wuxian winced. “Tell me that the mine isn’t as big as it looks.”

“Unfortunately,” Jin Zixuan said, “it is. And not only that, but it’s not mapped out very well. It was not well-managed. I remember Ziyao talking about this, actually - how my father tended to give big projects to his friends or people who had done him favors, rather than who was best suited for the job. The management of the mine was haphazard at best, with new tunnels often being explored but unmapped, as well as other problems.”

“I don’t know anything about mining,” Jiang Cheng said, shaking his head. “I guess all we can do is explore the place and see what we find.”

“You know,” Wei Wuxian said, “I really need to get on inventing some sort of locating talisman if people are going to keep throwing us in mineshafts and graveyards and stuff.”

Jiang Cheng gave a snort. The Lan brothers looked less amused. Lan Xichen, still studying the map, said, “It looks like this is several hours away, so we had better get going.”

“I’ll get some - ” Jin Zixuan began.

Jiang Yanli gently squeezed his arm. “Jin-zongzhu, I know you are worried about your brother but it is better to leave this to the others. You will need to be seen around Koi Tower today on your regular schedule, as if nothing is wrong.”

Jin Zixuan’s jaw tightened, but Lan Xichen bowed and said, “I will not leave the mine until I have found him, Jin-zongzhu.”

After a moment of hesitation, Jin Zixuan returned the bow and said, “Then I will leave this in your capable hands.”

The others exchanged a round of bows as well, and Wei Wuxian gave his sister one more reassuring glance as they headed out of Koi Tower, and then out of the city. As soon as they had passed the gates, Lan Xichen said, “I’m going to go ahead and ride the sword. Wei-gongzi, are you carrying yours today?”

“Ah, no,” Wei Wuxian said.

“I will take him,” Lan Wangji said, and Lan Xichen nodded.

Even riding the sword, it took almost two hours to get to the mine. The place was huge, easily the size of a small city, packed not only with the mines themselves but the living quarters that the miners had used, any of which could have been converted into a cell. 

“A-Yao!” Lan Xichen yelled, as soon as they touched down. “A-Yao, can you hear me?”

Silence met this, but none of them had really expected they would get anything else. Wherever Jin Ziyao was, it was probably deep in the mine. They wouldn’t have taken chances, wouldn’t have wanted to risk him getting out or someone else stumbling across him. Lan Xichen took out the map, and each of them chose a section to search.

As soon as Wei Wuxian ventured below the surface, he realized that cold was going to be the biggest problem. The further he went down, the more the temperature dropped. Jin Ziyao, with his low cultivation level, wouldn’t be able to keep himself warm for very long. He wasn’t sure if nightfall would change the temperature that much underground. He tried to remember if it had changed in Xuanwu’s cave, but that whole week was so blurry in his memory.

He devoted himself to the search. It was slow going. A lot of the tunnels didn’t match the map. Some dead ended when they weren’t supposed to; others forked or branched off in unlabeled places. Several had collapsed in rockfalls or mudslides, and there were places that could be difficult to get through. At one point the tunnel dipped suddenly and he found himself suddenly knee deep in water.

The worst part was how easy it was to get turned around or confused. There were times when he thought he had been somewhere before according to the map but didn’t recognize it, or when tunnels looked familiar even though he couldn’t say how he might have gotten to them before. He didn’t risk leaving any avenue unexplored, so there were places he was fairly sure he had searched twice or even three times, because that was better than missing one by accident.

He emerged when he felt his section was finally complete with barely any idea of how long he had been there. He glanced up and saw that the sun was much lower in the sky. It would be dusk in about an hour.

Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng were both already done with their sections, and he sat down beside them and took out some rations. Lan Xichen took about another half hour. Wei Wuxian doubted it was because he was slower, but figured he, too, was probably searching multiple times.

Since he came out empty-handed, they looked over the map and chose new sections. But Wei Wuxian headed back into the mine with a sinking feeling in his stomach. It would be fully dark by the time he finished this section. His hands were getting numb from the cold. Jin Ziyao was still alive, wherever he was, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure he could last the night.

There had to be a better way.

He left the mine after a much less thorough exploration of his section - and even that still took nearly two hours. The sun had completely set and the last of the light was dying away.

He was the only one who had emerged, so he sat with Chenqing in his hands and began to meditate. A mine like this, with so many dead ends and collapses and safety problems, was sure to have restless spirits and resentful energy. 

“What are you doing?” Lan Wangji’s voice startled him out of his trance.

“Making friends with the locals,” Wei Wuxian replied.

Lan Wangji’s face set in a scowl. “You are channeling resentful energy.”

“Call it whatever you want, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’m trying to keep there from being one more dead body sealed into this mine. Let me concentrate, and you can play cleansing for me later.”

“We could - ”

“We’re never going to find him like this!” Wei Wuxian yelled. He saw Lan Wangji’s scowl deepen, and his gaze flicked to the side, and Wei Wuxian glanced over his shoulder to see Lan Xichen emerging from the mine. He winced but held his ground. “Look, I’m sorry, but you both know I’m right. We could search this place for days and never find him. I don’t know about either of you but I can barely be sure of what I’ve searched before and what I haven’t.”

“But we have time,” Lan Wangji said. “Of course I do not like to leave Jin-er-gongzi suffering, but we can continue to make attempts before you begin using resentful energy again - ”

“Feel my hands,” Wei Wuxian said abruptly. Lan Wangji frowned and took them, then pulled in a breath and withdrew. “Feel how cold they are? I can’t feel my feet. And,” he added, gesturing to the horizon, “Clouds are rolling in. If it starts to rain, it will be even colder, and that’s if the part of the mine he’s in doesn’t flood, which parts of it definitely have in the past. You two, Jiang Cheng, you aren’t noticing because your golden core automatically keeps you warm. But Jin Ziyao doesn’t have high enough cultivation to do that. We can’t be sure he’ll last the night, and he definitely won’t if whatever mineshaft they threw him down fills with water. We have to find him now.”

“What, exactly, are you doing?” Lan Xichen asked, his face troubled.

“I’m exploring the mine with resentful energy,” Wei Wuxian said. “Talking to the spirits. They don’t like living people trespassing on their turf. They can sense our yang energy. That means they can sense Jin Ziyao’s, too - I only need to have them lead me to him.”

Lan Xichen looked thoughtful for a few moments, and glanced at his brother. “I’m sorry, Wangji, but I agree with Wei-gongzi. We don’t dare wait any longer with the way the temperature is dropping.”

Lan Wangji scowled, but didn’t argue, merely nodding and saying, “Mn.”

It took a little while. Jiang Cheng emerged from the mine, looking tired and frustrated with the fruitless search. He accepted what Wei Wuxian was doing much more quickly than the Twin Jades had, before sitting down.

After what seemed like a small eternity, but still a vastly shorter time than it had taken to explore one section of the mine, Wei Wuxian heard a voice whisper in his ear about yang energy, a flame flickering at the end of the spirit’s senses. Without waiting for the others, he got up and followed the voice. He didn’t bother with a torch, as the spirit led him forward unerringly. He walked for about five minutes, going deeper and deeper into the mine, before he finally stopped.

“This is a dead end,” Lan Xichen said, sounding - not impatient, Lan Xichen didn’t get impatient or frustrated, but - concerned.

“Forward, yeah, but down?” Wei Wuxian leaned over and rapped on the ground with Chenqing. There was the hollow ring of metal and a flash of blue light. “Think any of the other shafts are sealed with spiritual energy?”

“How are we going to unseal it?” Jiang Cheng asked. “If we throw around spiritual energy, we could collapse the whole tunnel around us. We barely have room to move.”

Wei Wuxian shrugged and said, “I mean, you and I would collapse the tunnel for sure, but I’ve heard that in the Gusu Lan they practice this thing called precision - ”

Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, but Lan Wangji was already drawing a talisman. It hit the floor at Wei Wuxian’s feet and a wave of blue light rippled upwards. Before Wei Wuxian had even had a chance to move, Lan Xichen was kneeling, trying to lift whatever had sealed the tunnel shut. Wei Wuxian knelt beside him. In the end, it took all four of them, barely able to fit in the space allowed, but the metal lid began to budge.

They shifted it about an inch and then Lan Xichen called out, “A-Yao! Are you there?”

“I’m here!” Jin Ziyao shouted, his voice full of relief. “Er-ge, I’m here!”

They heaved at the lid with renewed energy, and finally got it to shift enough that a person would be able to fit through. All of them half-collapsed in relief and exhaustion. “A-Yao, I’m coming down!” Lan Xichen shouted, carefully lowering himself through the gap. Wei Wuxian wasn’t worried - they couldn’t be sure of how far the drop was, but Jin Ziyao’s voice was close enough that it couldn’t be too bad. Lan Xichen let go, and they all waited in silence for a few moments before he called up, “I’m sending him up on Shuoyue; he’s too weak to climb. I’ll be back up in a few minutes.”

A few seconds later, the tip of Shuoyue emerged from the slice of darkness, then the hilt, with Jin Ziyao’s hand. Lan Wangji grabbed his wrist, and they carefully pulled him out. He was dressed only in a thin robe, although he now had Lan Xichen’s outer robe wrapped around his shoulders, and was disheveled and shivering. “We have him,” Lan Wangji called down to his brother.

Wei Wuxian noticed that his feet were bare, and both his hands and feet had a slightly bluish-purple look to them. Lan Wangji was already transferring him healing energy. “Come on, let’s get him to the surface,” Wei Wuxian said.

Lan Xichen emerged from the mineshaft and said, “I’ll take him.” Without waiting for permission, he lifted Jin Ziyao in his arms.

“I’m f-f-f-fine, er-ge,” Jin Ziyao managed through chattering teeth.

“Just like you were fine yesterday in the forest, when you assured me that the problem was under control?” Lan Xichen asked, and Jin Ziyao winced. Then Lan Xichen sighed. “Never mind. We can talk about it later. I’m carrying you whether you like it or not.”

“At least carry me on your back,” Jin Ziyao mumbled, but his request went unheeded.

Once they reached the surface, Jiang Cheng lit a fire while they wrapped Jin Ziyao in several more layers of fabric. “I’m really all right,” he protested, but in the marginally better light, it was clear that he was in terrible shape. His face was darkly bruised and blood had dried on his lower lip. Wei Wuxian doubted the rest of him looked any better.

Even so, he was alive, so things could be a lot worse. Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, “I mean, to be fair, he’s doing better than Jin Zixun.”

Jiang Cheng gave a snort. Jin Ziyao looked up with keen interest. “And how is Jin Zixun?” he asked.

“Not in any danger of becoming a ferocious ghost,” Wei Wuxian said, “thanks to his spirit-soothing ceremonies. But not anyone we need to worry about trying to kill you again.”

Jin Ziyao paused, then said, “It has been a very long day, so - he’s dead, right? That means he’s dead?”

“Yes, he’s dead,” Jiang Cheng said, then muttered, “Don’t be such a drama queen, Wei Wuxian.”

“What about the rest of them?” Jin Ziyao asked.

“They fled Lanling, but we have their names,” Wei Wuxian said, “so even if we can’t find them, I doubt they’ll ever come back to Lanling.”

“How’d you get their names?”

“Shijie can be very persuasive, it turns out,” Wei Wuxian said, then added, “The ladies of the Yu sect are terrifying.”

“Mm.” Jin Ziyao was clearly warming up, between the fire and the layers of fabric and the spiritual energy that both the Lan brothers were transferring to him. “Is it safe to sleep? I’d really like to sleep now.”

“Go ahead and sleep, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “We’ll be heading back to Lanling as soon as you’ve warmed up enough for me to feel safe taking you up on Shuoyue, but that may be a little while. Your brother is very worried about you.”

“I’m sure.” Jin Ziyao’s head drooped onto Lan Xichen’s shoulder. “He’s a good brother, all things considered. I’m very lucky.”

“The man who just nearly froze to death in a mineshaft considers himself lucky,” Wei Wuxian said, and shook his head. “And you guys think I’m the drama queen.”

“Because you are,” Lan Wangji said. Everyone laughed except Jin Ziyao, who was already asleep.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

Jin Zixuan didn’t even attempt to sleep, knowing it was a fruitless endeavor. He sat with Jiang Yanli and Luo Qingyang, and they did their best to keep him distracted. It would take time to search the mine, he knew. Jin Ziyao might be a little thirsty and hungry when they found him, but he would be fine.

“I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t legitimized him,” he said, turning Jin Ziyao’s hat around in his hands.

Jiang Yanli and Luo Qingyang exchanged a look, the kind of look he found ladies often exchanged around him, where they were silently communicating about what a dumbass he was. Jiang Yanli said, “Given his role in the Sunshot Campaign, he likely would have gone back to Cloud Recesses with Zewu-Jun.”

“Then I shouldn’t have!” Jin Zixuan said, feeling wretched. “His life would be so much better if he had done that. He and Zewu-Jun clearly care for each other so much, but Ziyao won’t accept his feelings because he doesn’t want to leave the Lanling Jin. Instead, because of how uncertain I was feeling, I selfishly put all my problems on his shoulders . . .”

“Mm hm,” Luo Qingyang said. “How very selfish of you to give him the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world.”

Jin Zixuan frowned at her. “Are you making fun of me?”

Luo Qingyang shrugged, as if to say she didn’t have to admit it.

Jiang Yanli reached out and gently touched Jin Zixuan’s arm. “She’s right, Jin-zongzhu. All his life, Jin-er-gongzi wanted to be part of the Lanling Jin. You legitimizing him was a dream come true for him. And it isn’t as if he was blind to the fact that some people wouldn’t like it. It isn’t as if you lied to him about the fact that you needed him. There was nothing wrong with you asking for his help, or with him for granting it. I know that he is immensely, immeasurably grateful to you for giving him what your father would not. He told me that himself, when he first visited Lotus Pier – how much he dearly wished for your happiness.”

“But my happiness is coming at the expense of his own!” Jin Zixuan protested. “Not just because people are trying to kill him, as if that is not bad enough on its own! He has to stand every day knowing that people are saying such awful things about him, that people resent him – ”

“Because they are jealous of him!” Luo Qingyang interrupted. “Do you think their resentment bothers him? On the contrary, Jin Zixuan, he absolutely loves it. He loves the fact that they hate him so much for being in a place so high that they can never reach it. Nobody was ever, ever jealous of him before he came here.”

“Even so,” Jin Zixuan said. “He and Zewu-Jun . . .”

“Are grown adults who can make their own choices,” Jiang Yanli said. “Jin-er-gongzi isn’t giving up a relationship with him in return for nothing. He’s doing it because his place here, being a part of this family, is more important to him. That’s his choice to make, Jin-zongzhu. It isn’t yours. You can wish for his happiness, but you can’t decide what will make him happy. Only he can decide that.”

“Besides,” Luo Qingyang said, “you’re talking about it like he can be with Zewu-Jun tomorrow or never. Give him some time. In a few years, once you’re a little more sure of yourself and everyone has stopped giving you trouble, he might feel differently.”

“That’s what Zewu-Jun said, too,” Jin Zixuan said, and sighed. “I just feel bad.”

“You’re upset because someone tried to kill him,” Jiang Yanli said. “Of course you are. Today has been very hard for you. You’ll feel better once he’s back.”

Jin Zixuan felt like this was probably true, except then it wasn’t. He ended up feeling even worse when Jin Ziyao got back, his face covered in bruises, limping slightly, hair undone and face wan and pale. It was the worst Jin Zixuan had ever seen him looking, and not only was he seeing him like that, everyone had seen him like that, even Lan Xichen, who he admired so much. Jin Zixuan’s mouth worked for a moment, the tiny amounts of eloquence he had worked so hard to achieve during the previous six months completely abandoning him. He thrust out the hat and said, unnecessarily, “I have your hat.”

A smile twitched at Jin Ziyao’s mouth. “Thank you, xiongzhang,” he said, taking the hat out of Jin Zixuan’s hands and placing it on his head even though his hair was down.

“Are you all right?” Jin Zixuan asked.

“I’m very hungry and a little sore, but other than that I’m fine,” Jin Ziyao said.

“Oh, well, we should – food – that is, I’m sure we can – ”

Jiang Yanli stood and bowed to Jin Ziyao, smiling. “I’m glad to see your return, Jin-er-gongzi. I will get you something to eat.”

“Thank you, Jiang-guniang,” he said, returning the bow.

There was a moment of awkward silence, then Wei Wuxian yawned loudly and said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m exhausted. This was one hell of a day. I’m going to go sleep for ten hours.”

“I will go with you,” Lan Wangji said. “Xiongzhang?”

Lan Xichen looked momentarily torn, but Jin Ziyao said, “Honestly, er-ge, I’m fine. I’m just going to have something to eat and then get some sleep; staying with me wouldn’t be very exciting right now. I’m sure that my brother has no plans to let me out of his sight so I’ll be fine.”

After a moment, Lan Xichen nodded. “Then I will see you in the morning, A-Yao.”

Jin Zixuan bowed to Lan Xichen and said, “Thank you for your help. All of you,” he added, and bowed to the others as well. “The Lanling Jin are in your debt.”

The Lan brothers and the Yunmeng brothers departed back to their own guest houses, although apparently Lan Wangji was going to stay with Wei Wuxian, surprising nobody. Luo Qingyang cleared her throat and said she would go help Jiang Yanli, before leaving the room. Jin Ziyao sat down somewhat gingerly with a wince.

“Are you injured?” Jin Zixuan immediately asked, going over to the tea they had been drinking, figuring that his brother might be thirsty and wanting something to do with his hands.

“Of course I am. They kicked the crap out of me. Plus I tried to climb out of the mineshaft a few times and fell every damn time. But nothing’s broken, I don’t think. I’ll be fine in a few days.” Jin Ziyao accepted the cup of tea with a nod of thanks. “It’s my ego that’s bruised the worst. I can’t believe how stupid I was. I was so intent on them not catching me as I came and went to my room that I never stopped to think they might just wait for me there. I should have gotten a guard to escort me back.”

Jin Zixuan nodded, then shook his head, not wanting his brother to feel bad. “At least it shouldn’t happen again. Jin Zixun is . . . no longer a problem, and his underlings won’t be stupid enough to come back after they hear you’re alive and he’s not.”

“True. Er-ge said you had kept it quiet, although I imagine people will figure out what happened when they see my face,” Jin Ziyao said. “I suppose I could head for Cloud Recesses, but I feel like people might question an extended absence right now. My visit might have to wait. Since I missed the closing ceremonies, I’m sure everyone is full of theories on why . . . an attempted assassination is probably less embarrassing than what they’ve come up with.”

“Do you wish I hadn’t legitimized you?” Jin Zixuan blurted out.

Jin Ziyao choked on his tea and nearly spit a mouthful of it onto the floor. He stared at his brother for a long minute before he pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, I do not. Now, I understand that you had a very long day today, xiongzhang, and I appreciate your concern, but I spent twenty hours at the bottom of a mineshaft and I am really not up to parsing whatever weird guilt complex you’re struggling with right now. So please accept that answer without asking for further discussion.”

“Oh. Um. All right.” Jin Zixuan hesitated, then said, “I don’t see any problem with letting people know that there was an attempt on your life, but perhaps we should make it sound like you didn’t need to be rescued.”

“Yes, I would prefer to be spared the embarrassment of that, thank you,” Jin Ziyao said, amused. His face brightened as Jiang Yanli and Luo Qingyang came back in, each with a tray. “My heroines arrive.”

Jiang Yanli laughed. “It’s just something simple. I figured you wouldn’t want to wait for me to cook something special.”

“You were absolutely correct,” Jin Ziyao said, and set to the food with a healthy appetite. “It wasn’t as bad as all that, you know. Of course I was cold and thirsty, and I doubt I’ll want to be in any dark, enclosed spaces for a little while. But I wasn’t frightened. I knew that you would find me.”

“I barely did any of the work,” Jin Zixuan said. “Other than telling the others you were missing . . . Jiang-guniang gets the credit for making Jin Zixun give up your basic location, and then the others went to get you and I had to stay here.”

Jin Ziyao sighed and looked at Jiang Yanli. “He’s just determined to be mopey and miserable about this, isn’t he.”

Gently, Jiang Yanli said, “He was very worried about you, Jin-er-gongzi. Don’t make fun.”

“All right, I’m sorry,” Jin Ziyao said. “At least a little. But they helped because you asked them to, because you trusted them and they trusted you, because, despite all the odds stacked against it, you’ve built strong alliances with good people. Give yourself a bit of credit for that, at least.”

Jin Zixuan nodded and said nothing while Jin Ziyao continued eating. Jiang Yanli and Luo Qingyang both said their good nights; Luo Qingyang said she would walk Jiang Yanli back to the guest house that the Yunmeng trio were staying in.

It didn’t take long for Jin Ziyao to eat everything he had been given, and then he yawned, rubbing both hands over his face. “Now, was I right when I said you would stay with me while I slept?”

“Are you going to make fun of me for that, too?” Jin Zixuan asked suspiciously.

“No. I – ” Jin Ziyao looked away suddenly and had to swallow before he continued to speak. For the first time since he had gotten back, he looked the way Jin Zixuan felt – small and young and frightened. “I would appreciate it very much, actually. If you stayed.”

“Then I will,” Jin Zixuan said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli came into the guest house to find Jiang Cheng already asleep and Wei Wuxian, surprisingly, meditating. Lan Wangji was sitting by the bed, playing the guqin, and Jiang Yanli could sense the cleansing spiritual power he was channeling with it. It was reminiscent of the days after the Sunshot Campaign, and she walked over and smoothed down Wei Wuxian’s hair. “Did you use resentful energy today, A-Xian?”

“Don’t be mad,” Wei Wuxian said, opening his eyes. “Lan Zhan already lectured me. But yeah. That mine was way too big and complicated to search physically, but a lot of people had died there, so I got them to guide me to where Jin Ziyao was tucked away.”

“I’m not mad,” Jiang Yanli said. “I’m glad that you were able to find him in time. It would have broken Jin-zongzhu’s heart if he had been killed.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess he’s not so bad,” Wei Wuxian said, with a dramatic sigh, and Jiang Yanli laughed quietly. “Hey, shijie. You were right.”

“Of course I was,” she said, smiling gently, “but about what?”

“I told Lan Zhan. About my golden core.” He glanced over at where Lan Wangji was sitting, and Lan Wangji looked up but did not stop playing. “I guess it does change things a little, but . . . not the important things. And I feel a lot better.”

Jiang Yanli smoothed down his hair again and said, “I’m glad.”

At this, Lan Wangji did stop playing. He put his guqin away and walked over to where Jiang Yanli was sitting in the chair beside Wei Wuxian’s bed, and bowed to her. “Jiang-guniang, thank you for taking care of Wei Ying for so many years, especially during this difficult time recently,” he said, and she could not help but smile slightly at the formality in his voice. “It was not appropriate to discuss it earlier because of the situation with Jin-er-gongzi, but I have asked Wei Ying to be my husband, and would like to ask you for your blessing.”

Jiang Yanli felt her eyes fill with the happiest tears she had ever cried. “Oh - oh, I am so happy for you both. Of course you have my blessing, Hanguang-Jun. Thank you so much, for loving A-Xian as much as he deserves.”

Wei Wuxian’s cheeks colored slightly, but he was smiling, the beautiful sunny smile that Jiang Yanli had so dearly missed over the past six months and change. “I asked Lan Zhan if he would come back to Lotus Pier with me for a little while, to, to be with me while I explain things to the disciples . . . ah, but shijie, if you’re going to come live at Koi Tower, shouldn’t I stay at Lotus Pier long term, to take care of Jiang Cheng? I can’t go live in Cloud Recesses . . . even if they did allow alcohol and things like running and, you know, fun.”

“Cloud Recesses is in good hands,” Lan Wangji said. “I will stay with you in Lotus Pier, as long as you need to be there.”

Jiang Yanli cried harder, because for the first time in months, she knew that her family was going to be okay. “Thank you, Hanguang-Jun.”

Wei Wuxian reached out to his sister and gave her a hug. “Come on, we should all get some sleep. It was a hell of a day. You’re amazing, by the way - in case I hadn’t said that earlier. You’re so strong - Yu-furen would be so proud of you.”

Wiping the tears away, Jiang Yanli said, “I hope so.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Ziyao woke feeling about as well-rested as he assumed was possible in the aftermath of a serious assassination attempt. He shooed Jin Zixuan out of the room (although he did thank him for keeping watch over him; he had manners, after all) so he could wash up and get dressed. He winced slightly when he saw his bruise-covered body in the mirror. But he felt better once he was dressed in his formal robes, the blood washed off his face, hair back to its usual precise arrangement and hat fastened underneath his chin. He looked like himself again.

When he emerged, he found Jin Zixuan still waiting, and accompanied his brother back to his chambers so he, too, could get dressed and ready for the day. Several of the servants gawked at the bruises that were still visible on Jin Ziyao’s face, but he just smiled and didn’t mention it, asking them to prepare to have breakfast outside. He wanted a chance for the gentry to see him.

While Jin Zixuan dressed and prepared for the day, Jin Ziyao asked him questions about what had happened the previous day - who had said what, who knew that some of the other gentry were still there, what exactly had happened to Jin Zixun. When he was out of questions, he was satisfied that his brother had handled the whole situation about as well as could be hoped. He was also somewhat amused by the rumors surrounding his absence. “There’s a real lack of creativity there,” he said, and Jin Zixuan just gave him a look.

A lot of the gentry would be quite confused to see the Twin Jades and the Yunmeng brothers, especially after they had been seen departing the previous day. He was somewhat annoyed about this, although there really hadn’t been a better solution at the time since so many sects had been present. Making sure they all thought everything was normal had been paramount, but the Lanling Jin gentry would know something had happened as soon as they saw his face. So it would be easy to explain that the four men had decided to stay and make sure he was all right after somebody had tried to kill him.

With that decided, he sent servants to both the guest houses to invite them to have breakfast with them, and half an hour later, was directing the set up of the tables for the meal. He looked up as the Twin Jades arrived, smiled, and bowed.

“How are you feeling, A-Yao?” Lan Xichen asked.

“Much better now that I’ve gotten some rest,” Jin Ziyao said. Aware of the listening ears of the servants, he added, “Thank you again for all your help yesterday.”

“Think nothing of it,” Lan Xichen said. He, too, was clearly aware of the servants, and said, “May we speak privately?”

“Certainly,” Jin Ziyao said, since it would be at least another fifteen minutes before the food was actually served. He gestured for Lan Xichen to walk with him, and headed towards the gardens. He loved the gardens in Koi Tower. The Unclean Realm hadn’t had anything like them, and he found them particularly beautiful. He went to one of the inner courtyards and sat down on the bench, and felt his stomach give a nervous flutter as Lan Xichen sat down facing him and gave him a serious look. “Ah . . . I’m sorry if I upset you, er-ge. It’s just that . . .”

“I’m upset because you didn’t tell me,” Lan Xichen said. “I had no idea anything was wrong. If we hadn’t been attacked during the crowd hunt, I only would have found out when you went missing. Why did you hide it from me?”

Jin Ziyao looked away. “You know that we had to handle it ourselves.”

“I absolutely do not know that,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m your sworn brother!”

“And if the threat had come from outside - if there was some other sect that was threatening us - of course I would have gone to you and da-ge for help. But that’s not what was happening. It was an internal matter. To invite interference from the other clans - ”

“Is that what you consider my concern? My protection? Interference?”

“Yes!” Jin Ziyao bit the word out and then looked away. “Er-ge, please don’t be angry. My place here - it always feels so precarious to me even though intellectually I know it isn’t. To need to be taken care of - to need to ask someone from another sect to protect me - how could I do that? Don’t you realize how weak that would have made me look?”

“Nobody thinks of you as weak,” Lan Xichen said. 

Jin Ziyao managed a weary smile. “If they didn’t yesterday, they certainly will today.”

“No, they don’t,” Lan Xichen said. “I don’t. Nobody expects you to be able to take on the entire world and win. Alliances are important for a reason. Sworn brotherhood is sacred for that same reason. Because nobody is alone in this world, A-Yao.” Quietly, he added, “Especially not you. How can you not see how loved you are?”

There was a long silence. Finally, Jin Ziyao said quietly, “I think a part of me will always be at the bottom of the steps of Koi Tower.”

Lan Xichen let out a breath. “A-Yao, what your father did to you was horrible. I know it must be difficult to move past it. But he is gone. Try to let it go, if you can.”

“I do. Every day, I do.” Jin Ziyao sighed. “But I’m not used to relying on other people, er-ge. When someone wanted to hurt me, I always handled it myself. Whether it was a bully on the street when I was a child, men spreading rumors in Qinghe, underlings in Qishan who were jealous of how quickly I gained favor with Wen Ruohan - I never had anybody else to rely on. Maybe I would have been able to ask you if things between us were not so . . . complicated.” He looked away from Lan Xichen and said, “I’m not what you want me to be, and I hate to disappoint you.”

“A-Yao, nothing about you is a disappointment to me,” Lan Xichen said gently.

“I beg your pardon, er-ge, but I know that’s not true. I know you wanted me to go back to Gusu with you, after the Sunshot Campaign. I know you thought we would - ” He couldn’t bring himself to say the words aloud. “But I chose the Lanling Jin.”

“You didn’t owe me anything, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “On the contrary, I was in your debt. Of course you would choose the Lanling Jin. I was never upset with you about that. I would not have wanted you to turn away a chance for your dream, just for me.”

Jin Ziyao said nothing. It was rare for him not to know what to say, but Lan Xichen seemed to bring out that quality. He always felt so torn whenever he was with Lan Xichen, wanting to love him unreservedly, but not wanting to make promises he couldn’t keep, knowing that his priority would always be the Lanling Jin. 

Since he didn’t speak, Lan Xichen continued, “I was, and am, happy for you. I know how important being legitimized to you was. I know how devoted you are to your brother, who granted you what your father would not. Nothing about that troubles me, A-Yao. Nothing about it disappoints me. I love you as you are, and would not want you to be any different.”

“But does it not bother you?” Jin Ziyao asked, still not looking at him. “That I cannot accept your feelings?”

“We are young, A-Yao. I am not in any hurry. Stay with the Lanling Jin. Help your brother turn it into the sect he wants it to be, a sect you can both be proud of. Plan his wedding, dote on his children, support him in his endeavors. A day may come when you can accept that being with me does not mean you are not part of the Lanling Jin. Where you can live in both worlds at once without feeling like you are neglecting one or the other.”

Jin Ziyao shook his head. “That day may be a long time from now.”

“I know,” Lan Xichen said, “but you are worth the wait. Of this, I am certain.”

Feeling his cheeks flush pink, Jin Ziyao ducked his head. It didn’t work, because Lan Xichen put a finger underneath his chin and tipped it up, making Jin Ziyao look at him for the first time since the conversation began. Jin Ziyao wanted to pull away, but he also didn’t, and Lan Xichen was so beautiful that he could not help but stare a little. “I can’t ask you to wait for me.”

“I know,” Lan Xichen said. “But just because you can’t ask, doesn’t mean I can’t wait.”

All Jin Ziyao could do was nod. “I do love you very much.”

“I know,” Lan Xichen repeated, and smiled. “Then do this for me - next time you’re in danger, tell me, so I can protect you.”

Jin Ziyao nodded again. “All right.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Wei Wuxian tugged on Lan Wangji’s sleeve as Lan Xichen emerged from the garden with Jin Ziyao, whose cheeks were faintly flushed pink. “Hope they were having a good time in there!” he whispered, and Lan Wangji rolled his eyes slightly. “Come on, let’s go grab him before they start serving. We need to tell him we’re getting married so we can spend the rest of the day celebrating.”

“Shameless,” Lan Wangji murmured, with a look that made Wei Wuxian suddenly feel extremely warm. But he did not argue, instead approaching the two of them and saying, “Xiongzhang, Wei Ying and I would like to speak to you.”

“Then back into the gardens I go,” Lan Xichen said, clearly amused. He gave Jin Ziyao a lingering touch on the shoulder before Jin Ziyao bowed to the three of them and headed towards the breakfast table. “What is it that you wanted to tell me?”

In the exact same tone of formality that Lan Wangji had used with Jiang Yanli, something that amused Wei Wuxian to no end, he said, “I have asked Wei Ying to be my husband, and he has accepted.”

“That’s wonderful!” Lan Xichen said immediately, smiling broadly. “Not exactly what I expected, but - I am so happy for you both.”

“What did you expect?” Wei Wuxian asked, curious.

“Oh, well - I thought perhaps it was about your golden core,” Lan Xichen said. “Given what you said yesterday . . . about how the three of us had our golden cores to keep us warm . . . it did make some pieces suddenly fall into place.”

“Ah, yeah.” Wei Wuxian rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I wasn’t really thinking about that, but I guess I knew subconsciously that I was giving myself away. I was going to start telling people about it anyway . . . I guess I’m finally ready to do that. I gave mine to Jiang Cheng . . . that’s how he’s still able to cultivate.”

Gently, Lan Xichen said, “I am sorry for your loss, Wei-gongzi. I hope you know that you are one of the most courageous, selfless people I have ever met. I’m glad you’re finally able to talk about it.”

Wei Wuxian didn’t really want to dwell on it, so he said, “I asked Lan Zhan if he would stay with me at Lotus Pier for a while, to help out while I, I adjust to the way things are going to be there from now on. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said, and smiled at his brother. “I will miss you, Wangji, but I believe you know best where you need to be.”

Lan Wangji nodded and said, “Thank you, xiongzhang.”

“Since Jin-zongzhu has already announced his engagement, we should let them have their wedding first,” Lan Xichen said, “but I will begin making some preliminary arrangements, as I have a feeling that you two will not want to wait too long.”

“Agreed,” Wei Wuxian said, and smiled. “I want to be Lan Zhan’s husband as soon as possible.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agreed.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

They sat at breakfast far longer than they really needed to, and Jin Zixuan found himself relaxed and smiling for the first time in days, possibly weeks. Jiang Yanli was on one side of him and Jin Ziyao on the other. He managed to compliment the earrings she was wearing without sticking his foot into his mouth. They discussed wedding plans and Lan Xichen announced that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were now also betrothed. Jin Zixuan was the only one who was surprised, but he was happy for them.

“For now, I must go back to Lotus Pier,” Jiang Yanli said, as they finally parted. “But I will see you very soon, I am sure, as we begin preparations.”

Jin Zixuan nodded and said, “I’ll count the days until I see you again.”

A few minutes later, the guests were gone. The servants began clearing away the dishes.

“Well,” Jin Ziyao said, “looks like I’ve got a wedding to plan.”

“Plus we need to start work on developing your cultivation,” Jin Zixuan said. “Remember, we said we would start those lessons after the crowd hunt was over.”

Jin Ziyao nodded and said, “I’m looking forward to it.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jiang Yanli watched the others as they started down the road back to Lotus Pier. Wei Wuxian was talking loudly and excitedly about the wedding, but also about his plans for the future in general. He could still teach archery and sword forms, he said, while Jiang Cheng focused more on things that required spiritual power. Maybe Lan Wangji could even teach them a few techniques - although, Wei Wuxian teased, he doubted that anyone in Yunmeng had the rigid discipline necessary to use Gusu Lan technique.

Jiang Cheng listened to all of this and rolled his eyes and made some jokes about how once Jiang Yanli had gone to live at Koi Tower, Wei Wuxian would have to cook for all of them. Lan Wangji gave a quiet shudder, so apparently he’d had Wei Wuxian’s cooking at least once.

Wei Wuxian agreed, saying, “Nobody wants me to cook for them. We’ll have to hire somebody. I’m not just going to sit around and be a wife, you know!”

“Nobody thought you were,” Jiang Cheng said, then added, “It’s not like Mom did the cooking.”

“True,” Wei Wuxian agreed. “What about you, Lan Zhan? Can you cook?”

“I have basic proficiency,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng exchanged a look. “Yeah, we’ll hire somebody,” Jiang Cheng said.

Jiang Yanli laughed quietly at the offended look on Lan Wangji’s face. “Come now, Hanguang-Jun, you do not want to be responsible for this. Believe me, they can eat an enormous amount. Hiring someone will be better.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji muttered, and Wei Wuxian grinned at him, bumping their shoulders together as they walked.

Jiang Yanli had no doubt that Wei Wuxian’s good mood would dissipate after a little while. He would continue to have good days and bad days. He was healing, and she knew it would take time. But she also knew that as long as they gave him that time, gave him their love and support, that he would heal.

“I wonder if Wen Qing can cook,” Wei Wuxian said thoughtfully, and Jiang Cheng flushed pink. “Ah, doesn’t matter, since someone can’t manage to confess his feelings to her.”

“I keep telling you, I’ll do it when the time is right!” Jiang Cheng said. “You took six months to confess to Hanguang-Jun, so you can’t talk!” He looked wounded as Jiang Yanli hid a smile behind her sleeve. “Why are you laughing? It’s not funny!”

“I’m just so happy to have so many little brothers now,” Jiang Yanli said. “I started with two and now I’ll have four. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

“Seems like it would be the opposite,” Wei Wuxian said, chuckling. “Having to look after all of us.”

“Not at all, A-Xian. Having little brothers is one of the best things in life.”

“I bet the only thing better is having a big sister,” Wei Wuxian said, smiling at her. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you have a big sister now! Can she call you A-Zhan? That would be so cute!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said, fortunately with a nod.

“You’re so lucky, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, nudging him again. Lan Wangji slid an arm around his waist, pulling him close, probably to stop Wei Wuxian from continuing to bump up against him. “There are a lot of big sisters in the world, but none like shijie. She’s one of a kind and absolutely amazing.”

Jiang Yanli smiled and linked her arm with his, then pulled Jiang Cheng over so she could walk between them. “Yes, I am,” she said, “and so are all of you.”



~fin~