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江山如有待 | It Seems the Hills and Rivers Have Been Waiting

Chapter Text

Fan Dingxiang is sixteen the first time she sees a Wen cultivator.

She’s still sixteen when she kills him, since it happens about a minute later. Truly, it’s hard to say which one of them is more surprised by this. Fan Dingxiang supposes, when she thinks about it afterward, that he must have been more surprised, since he ended up dead.

It goes like this:

Fan Dingxiang steps into the barn with a slop bucket for the pigs, ducking through the door, which in spite of the current generation’s height, remains stubbornly built for people the size of her much shorter ancestors four generations back. The thump of the door startles the man also in the barn, which startles Fan Dingxiang because who the fuck is in her barn? Bandits, again?

The man turns, revealing red and black robes and a gold crest she half-recognizes. The sword in his hand lets her mark him as a cultivator, but why would there be a cultivator in the barn? Is one of the pigs haunted? And why isn’t he in the purple of Yunmeng Jiang? They stare at each other for a long second in silence and then the cultivator says, “This farm is under the jurisdiction of the Wen Clan now!” Fan Dingxiang has just enough time to think, Fuck that, before he draws the sword and now there’s a fucking sword pointed at her.

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t hesitate.

She throws the slop bucket at him.

Fan Dingxiang has been wrestling pigs since she was six years old. Fan Dingxiang could carry an entire barrel of pickled pork by the time she was twelve. Fan Dingxiang had a growth spurt at thirteen that means she stands a good hand’s length taller than this man, and even with the way the potions from the apothecary make it harder for her to put on muscle these days, she’s still strong enough to lift a full-grown person off the ground with one hand.

All this to say, when Fan Dingxiang throws the bucket, she throws it hard. It hits the cultivator square in the face, slop exploding everywhere and the bamboo shattering from the impact. The cultivator staggers backwards, blinking slop out of his eyes, and as soon as the bucket left her hand Fan Dingxiang picked up a hoe from next to the door and followed the bucket’s trajectory across the barn. The cultivator doesn’t get a chance to react before she hits him like a charging boar. The metal of the hoe cracks bone as it connects with his head, terror and anger surging up inside her like a thunderstorm, every muscle she knows and some that she doesn’t and her full weight behind the blow.

The cultivator drops like a stone, and the only sound in the barn is Fan Dingxiang’s panting and the unperturbed grunting of the pigs. She thinks for a minute that she should check the cultivator’s pulse, and then she looks down to the end of the hoe to find that it is fully inside the man’s skull. She’s pretty sure that, no matter your cultivation level, there’s no coming back from that one. The bits inside your skull are supposed to stay there--once they’re outside of your skull, you have a real problem.

Fan Dingxiang makes it to the pig trough before she vomits, because even with her knees shaking from horror she’s nothing if not practical. It’s not like the pigs care. They’ve eaten worse.

“Granny,” she says when she’s back in the house, “I think we’re at war.”

Granny looks up from the bowl of rice she’s currently picking rocks out of, eyebrows high, forehead creased. “What makes you say that, A-Xiang?”

“The dead cultivator in the barn is a pretty big clue,” Fan Dingxiang says, having passed through panic and into a strange kind of calm.

Granny blinks and gets up from the table.

---

“Yep,” Granny says, poking the dead cultivator with her foot. “That’s a dead cultivator, all right.” She squints at his embroidery. “You said Wen Clan?”

Fan Dingxiang nods, trying her best not to look above the man’s waist. The hoe is still in his head. She couldn’t bring herself to remove it. “And he said the farm was under their control now.”

“Fuck that,” Granny says, succinctly, which makes Fan Dingxiang stand up a little straighter, because yeah, fuck that. Granny squints into the middle distance. “Remember some stories about the Wen Clan a long time ago,” she says eventually. “Seem like bad news. Good work, A-Xiang.”

“Thank you,” Fan Dingxiang says, because any compliment from Granny requires a polite response. “Granny, what do we do?” She waves at the sort of everything on the floor of the barn, a little queasy still.

Granny looks at the body for a long, considering moment. “Pigs need feeding,” she says, crouching down to untie the dead man’s belt. “Perfectly good fabric, this. No reason to let it go to waste.”

Fan Dingxiang realizes that perhaps, in her sixty-three years of life, Granny has seen some shit. Or, more accurately, seen more shit than Fan Dingxiang had previously understood. “Granny,” she says, reluctantly pulling the hoe out of the man’s skull and setting it aside, “what do we do if they come back?

Granny gives her a sharp look. “We protect what’s ours,” she says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. “Pigs always need feeding, after all.”

Fan Dingxiang goes to bed that night with a dead man’s sword tucked under the loose floorboard in her bedroom. She lays awake for hours, the bucket flying through the air every time she closes her eyes. If she’s been a handsbreadth to either side, or the tiniest bit lower, she would have missed. She’d be dead, and Granny would probably be dead, and her brother and mother would be dead, and who would feed the pigs then?

I have to be better, she thinks to herself, and falls asleep to uneasy dreams.

---

Fan Dingxiang spends the next three weeks on a new training regimen she invents for herself. It involves throwing rocks at targets and hacking at a half-dead tree with a hoe and sprinting back and forth across the farm fields and doing a lot of push-ups. It’s as close as she can come to what’s described in the adventure novels she buys when she’s scraped up enough money. She’d like a sword, but she doesn’t have the first idea how to use one so she figures it’s better to stick to the hoe. There’s already muscle memory attached to that. (Using the dead man’s sword is out of the question for multiple reasons. Fan Dingxiang thinks it would be rude. Also, it sealed itself and she can’t draw it, not that she tried other than the once when she put it away.) She carries fist-sized rocks in her pockets and sleeps with the hoe next to her bed. No one in her family questions this, not after getting a good glaring from Granny.

Fan Dingxiang is in the middle of her morning chores, halfway into the fourth week since her world changed in a spatter of blood and a cracking of bone, when she spots the second Wen Clan cultivator through the window of the barn. He’s heading for the house, and she can’t get out ahead of him, but she can slip out behind him. She pulls a rock out of her pocket, runs her thumb over the warm stone, and waits.

The training works. The cultivator takes a rock to the skull so hard that when Granny slits his throat it’s just a formality. The pigs eat again, and Fan Dingxiang goes to bed with two swords under her floorboard and thinks about the man’s back turned away, about how both times now, she’s had the advantage of surprise and that’s what saved her.

I have to be stronger, she thinks. I’ll be able to do more if I’m stronger.

---

“How is the medicine working?” the apothecary asks her, gently probing around her jaw. “Any side effects? Are you having any facial hair come in yet?”

“No,” Fan Dingxiang says, submitting to this examination with her usual patience. She thinks for a second. “At least, I don’t have to pluck any more than Granny does, and she’s a woman who didn’t need outside help to grow her boobs.”

The apothecary laughs, a rich sound, and swats her on the shoulder. “Well, you let me know if anything changes. We can always alter the prescription if you need it.”

Fan Dingxiang nods, like she usually does, and waits, like she usually does, for the greying woman behind the counter to grind and mix up her usual order. It’s all very normal and boring and she wants to pound her fists on the wood and scream about the men she’s fed to the pigs and the swords under her bed and the bloodstain that won’t come out of the barn floor.

She doesn’t.

She takes the packet, stows it away in her robes, and picks up the basket with the weekly farm shopping in it. The apothecary fusses after her as she leaves, and Fan Dingxiang makes it a few strides down the road and slows to a stop, considering something. She could go straight home. It’s what she usually does. But in spite of the village carrying on around her, nothing is usual, right now, and there’s someone she could ask about it. It can’t hurt to ask, can it?

Fan Dingxiang nods to herself, lifts her eyes from the road, and takes another path.

The cultivator (there’s only the one living in the village, so they all just call him “the cultivator” if they’re not talking to his face, in which case he’s Chen-xianshi) lives in a house with a very neat garden and a carp pond. Technically, she supposes he’s a rogue cultivator, except that he doesn’t really travel around like they do in the stories. He just lives with his husband and takes care of the occasional ghost or spirit or fierce corpse when they crop up. He tells good stories, and one time when Fan Dingxiang was very small, he’d bought her a replacement pork bun after she’d dropped hers in the mud. Granny doesn’t much care for cultivators, and even she, grudgingly, allows that this one’s all right.

The cultivator is out in the garden when she walks up the path, which is nice because Fan Dingxiang already thinks this might be a weird conversation and if she had to knock on a door she’d probably turn around and go home. He smiles at her, eyes crinkling. “Well, if it isn’t little Fan Zhu’er!” he says, like he’s been calling her since she was actually little. “What brings you out this way?

“Chen-xianshi,” she says, bringing her hands up into the most proper bow she can while also juggling a basket. “This one wondered if she might impose upon you to ask a few questions.” When she stands again his eyes are on her, considering, his mouth quirked with something that might be interest.

“Why don’t you come in for some tea?” he says, waving her through the gate. “It’s always nice when someone stops by to offer some company to an old man.”

They don’t speak again until the tea has been poured, on opposite sides of a low table in Chen-xianshi’s house. His sword is on the table, and Fan Dingxiang’s eyes track to it after a moment. “Well,” the cultivator says, setting a cup in front of her, gaze assessing. “What brings you out to see me today, Fan Zhu’er?”

Fan Dingxiang takes a slow sip of her tea while she gets her thoughts in order. Across the table, the cultivator waits with the patience she associates with someone who spends a lot of time meditating. She appreciates it--Chen-xianshi never treats her like she’s slow just because she wants to be sure of what she says before she opens her mouth.

“Chen-xianshi,” she says, eventually, grassy tea on her tongue, a memory of blood in her nostrils. “What’s the best way to fight a cultivator?”

Chen-xianshi blinks, a moment of surprise rolling across his face before it goes back to his usual calm smile. “Why, Fan Zhu’er!” he says, friendly. “Have I done something to offend you, that you need to fight me?”

Fan Dingxiang looks at him for another moment. He’s rogue, but he’s in Yunmeng Jiang territory, and she doesn’t think there are any issues between him and the sect. She decides to risk the truth. “Two cultivators have come to the farm in the last month. They tried to claim it for the Wen Clan.”

The surprise on Chen-xianshi’s face is more pronounced this time, his grizzled eyebrows climbing his forehead. She can see the shape of the question before he asks it, when he looks at her in front of him, hale and hearty and definitely still alive. “Where are those cultivators now?”

“Dead,” Fan Dingxiang says. The word lands on the table as though carved from stone and dropped from a great height.

“At whose hands?” the cultivator asks.

“Mine,” Fan Dingxiang says, dropping another stone into the conversation. Honesty compels her to add, “Granny helped with the last one.” She takes another sip of her tea, so she can think again. “I think we’re being invaded.”

The cultivator nods, running his hand over his beard in a way that makes him look very wise and scholarly. “I had heard things,” he admits. “I had hoped we were far enough away for it to not be a problem.” He fixes his gaze on her again, worried and a little apologetic. “The best way to fight a cultivator, little Fan Zhu’er, is to be a cultivator.”

Fan Dingxiang nods. “Would it be possible for this one to learn, Chen-xianshi?” she asks, because she has to. Someone has to be able to defend the farm, and Granny, and her mother and brother.

“Hm,” says the cultivator, and he extends a hand expectantly. She offers him hers, and he takes her wrist carefully in his grip and does some kind of cultivator thing she doesn’t understand but it makes him frown. When he releases her arm and looks up at her, it’s with a full apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Fan Zhu’er,” he says, his voice as gentle as she’s ever heard it. “Perhaps if you had started much younger it would be possible.”

“Why can’t I?” Fan Dingxiang asks. She’s only a little bit disappointed--it’s not like she had her heart set on cultivation. “I’m not trying to argue, Chen-xianshi,” she adds, bowing again over the table. “I would like to understand.”

“It’s your golden core,” the cultivator says, pouring them both another cup of tea. “It would be the source of your power, if you were to cultivate. Yours is…” he pauses in a way that Fan Dingxiang recognizes means he’s trying to be tactful. “Undeveloped,” he says delicately. “You wouldn’t have the spiritual power needed to follow the path of the sword.”

Fan Dingxiang nods again, sips her tea, and thinks. Chen-xianshi lets her do it, drinking his own cup in a companionable silence.

“Forgive this one’s ignorance,” Fan Dingxiang says, raising her eyes at last, “but not every blade requires spiritual power, does it? Isn’t…” she trails off, struggling for the clever way to phrase her question. She gives up after a moment and finishes, “Isn’t a sword just a really long knife, when you get down to it?”

The cultivator opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again, then cocks his head. “I suppose that’s one way of putting it,” he says, like he doesn’t entirely agree with her.

“And I don’t need spiritual power to fight, now,” she continues doggedly, because she doesn’t. Leaving aside the two Wen cultivators, most of the village bullies know to leave her alone. Fan Dingxiang doesn’t start fights, but she sure as shit finishes them, and there’s at least one broken arm to prove it. “If I needed spiritual power to throw a punch I think it’d have come up.”

“I suppose,” Chen-xianshi says again, stroking his beard. He looks even more thoughtful now.

“And, I mean,” Fan Dingxiang forges ahead, because she spent a lot of time getting this speech figured out so now she’s gonna finish it, “Granny always says a man’ll die same as a pig if you gut him.” She makes eye contact with the cultivator, her jaw firming. “I’ve gutted a lot of pigs, Chen-xianshi.” And two cultivators, she doesn’t add but thinks very hard.

Chen-xianshi looks at her for a long, long time. It’s uncomfortable, and Fan Dingxiang kinda wants to squirm, but Granny taught her well. She sits with her spine straight and her shoulders back and her eyes respectfully on the table and she waits. It’s only polite to give him time to think, when he’s done the same for her.

“Why do you want to do this?” he asks, eventually. “It’ll be dangerous. I can’t promise I can teach you anything. It’s amazing you’ve survived so far. Why, Fan Zhu’er?”

Oh, this one’s easy. She doesn’t even think about it. “Because someone has to, Chen-xianshi.”

He makes a satisfied little huffing sound. “Well, little Fan Zhu’er,” he says, pouring her another cup of tea. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do?”

Fan Dingxiang feels her face crack into a grin, hopeful and huge and not at all the kind of face you should make at a respected cultivator. “Thank you, Chen-xianshi,” she says, pushing back from the table so she can bow all the way down to the ground, her forehead brushing the floor. “This one will do her best not to disappoint you.”

“And I’ll do my best not to kill you,” the cultivator says. “It’ll liven things up around here, that’s for sure.”

---

It goes like this:

Twice a week, Fan Dingxiang goes to Chen-xianshi’s house in the early morning. He proceeds to attack her with a sword, and she tries not to die.

(“If you were in a sect you’d be training every day,” he says.

“I’m not in a sect, and the pigs still need feeding,” she replies, and climbs back to her feet for the twenty-sixth time that morning.)

Fan Dingxiang tries to hold his sword once, as a test. She drops it and passes out almost immediately, which certainly answers any questions either of them had about her ability to weird a spiritual weapon. The next time she comes back, she’s carrying a boar spear and the wickedly sharp knife she uses when she butchers pigs, the one that slips between bone and sinew as though through water. The cultivator looks at the knife and says, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to see that on a dark night.”

“You wouldn’t,” Fan Dingxiang says, which is more ominous than she intended. “I mean, it’s best if the pigs don’t see it coming,” she clarifies, lest Chen-xianshi think this has been an elaborate ruse and she’s planning to murder him after all. He gives her an amused smile as he hands the knife back, so she thinks it works. Just in case, she adds, “I’m not planning to murder you, that just came out very creepy.” That makes him laugh until he cries.

“Thank you, little Fan Zhu’er,” he wheezes, wiping his eyes. “Sometimes it’s nice to hear people say so out loud.”

Fan Dingxiang doesn’t learn how to use a sword, but she does learn how to avoid a sword, and that seems just as important. If she keeps him on the other end of the boar spear, she’s pretty safe. Failing that, if she can manage to get inside his guard, she’s also pretty safe, though the process of getting there is dicey at best. She learns some basic parries with her carving knife, but then it gets a nick in the blade and she has to carefully grind that out at home and re-sharpen it, so she stops bringing it. “Probably best if we stick to developing your other skills,” the cultivator says when she explains why. “If it comes down to an actual swordfight you’ve already lost.”

Chen-xianshi has never trained a non-cultivator before, so sometimes he tells her to do something that makes no sense and she just pretends like she understands it. He can’t seem to help making comments about her core (as though she could do anything with that anyway), so she starts clenching her abs whenever he mentions it and that seems to work okay. It’s all serving to make her stronger and faster, at least, which is what she wanted.

“They won’t expect you to fight back,” he tells her, over and over. “That will be your greatest weapon.”

“The boar spear’s pretty good,” she says before she can stop herself, and Chen-xianshi lets out a belly laugh that makes her flush with pride. “The boar spear is a close second,” he amends. “Surprise, and the boar spear.”

“I killed one with a rock.”

The cultivator narrows his eyes at her. “Are you sassing me?”

“Of course not, Chen-xianshi,” Fan Dingxiang says with a little bow and a straight face. “I’m only making sure you have all the information to make an informed ranking of my weapon choices.”

“That’s definitely sass,” he says, and points his sword at her. “Go get your spear so I can try to stab you again.”

“Yes, Chen-xianshi.”

A month or so into this new routine, a Wen cultivator finds Fan Dingxiang in the woods while she’s foraging for herbs, a basket in her hand, rocks in her pockets, and her small utility knife tucked into the back of her belt. Fan Dingxiang knows the warnings about what happens to girls alone in the woods with men, and she thinks, looking at the cultivator’s greedy eyes, that he knows the warnings, too. She makes herself small, flirts and apologizes and lets him back her into a tree, waits until he’s so close she can feel the sick heat of him.

Then she kicks him in the dick so hard his eyes cross and his feet leave the ground for an instant. Instinctively he hunches forward, curling himself around the wicked pain, and as his face comes down she buries her knife in his eye. Bone cracks, blood welling around her hand as the hilt meets his face. Fan Dingxiang steps away from the tree and the body hits the ground.

That’s three.

Carrying that one back to the farm isn’t fun, and heretically, Fan Dingxiang wishes he’d been considerate enough to attack her closer to home. Another sword goes under the floorboard. The pigs eat again. The laundry water goes pink with blood until it finally washes clear. Fan Dingxiang is used to washing blood out of her clothes, but she’s pretty sick of it to be honest.

(“Do you all just think we’re, what--wusses? That we’re incapable? Are we babies to you?” she asks Chen-xianshi at her next lesson.

“It’s easy to become arrogant when you have power,” he admits, which isn’t a no.)

Lotus Pier falls. The news reaches the village long after the events, as most news does. Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu are dead, the heirs vanished, the sect in disarray. Granny sniffs and goes back to stirring the congee. “Serves ‘em right,” she mutters. “Always flying around like they own the place, fighting over who can do the prettiest magic. Useless.”

“Granny,” Fan Dingxiang says, not disrespectful but pleading. None of them have ever met the sect leaders, or their children, but when purple-robed cultivators come through the village to hunt things Chen-xianshi can’t handle on his own, they’ve always been respectful. (A short, sturdy woman with a sword that shone like light on water once bought her a moon cake. Fan Dingxiang is a food-motivated person. She still remembers that moon cake.)

“Troublemakers,” Granny insists, but her heart’s not in it.

---

Jiang Wanyin re-takes Lotus Pier.

There are four swords under the floorboards.

Fan Dingxiang can turn a cartwheel and do a backflip from standing. Sometimes she does this in between chores, just because it’s actually pretty fun.

She doesn’t let down her guard.

---

Fan Dingxiang is seventeen years old when she hears that the Wen clan has been defeated and the Yunmeng Jiang sect is recruiting. Her brother’s new wife has moved into the house. There are five swords under her bed. She’s stronger and faster than she’s ever been. She can knock a persimmon out of the air with a thrown knife. (Then she picks up the persimmons and washes them off and makes preserves--she’s still a farmer. No sense wasting food.)

She feeds the pigs, and she does the laundry, and she trains with Chen-xianshi, and she thinks. If the war is over then she doesn’t need to keep training, but she’s come to like it. Fan Dingxiang likes the challenge, likes spending time with the old cultivator, likes failing at something a hundred times but knowing if she works, she can succeed. She likes knowing that she could protect her family and her village. She likes the idea of protecting other people, too.

“Granny,” she says as they weed the bok choy, “I think I want to go to Lotus Pier.”

Granny snorts loudly. “Can’t imagine why you would,” she says, throwing a weed into the basket with more force than necessary. Fan Dingxiang opens her mouth to try and make the case she’s been carefully working on when Granny continues, “When will you leave, A-Xiang?”

Fan Dingxiang closes her mouth and blinks. “Soon?” she says. “After this year’s slaughter.” A pause, where she shakes some dirt off a weed and adds it to the basket. “You’re not angry?”

“Oh, A-Xiang,” Granny says, rocking back on her heels. “If you stay here your mother is going to try and marry you to the blacksmith’s son--”

“And he’s a cutsleeve,” Fan Dingxiang finishes, rolling her eyes. “He and I have spoken about it. He’ll be so relieved.” He’s a nice enough boy, and they get along as friends, but Fan Dingxiang would like to marry someone who actually like likes her.

“And maybe you can knock some sense into that sect leader while he’s still young, keep him from turning into a pompous preening rooster,” Granny finishes, because sentimentality is for other people and will be immediately discarded if there are cultivators to insult.

“I’ll try,” Fan Dingxiang says, and Granny makes a pleased sound and goes back to weeding.

---

“They won’t accept you as a cultivator,” Chen-xianshi says when she tells him about her plan. 

“I know,” she says evenly. “But I can be of use. And who knows? Maybe the sect leader will go on a boar hunt and need my expert opinion.”

“Stranger things have happened,” the cultivator says, his eyes sparkling. “I have enjoyed training you, Fan Zhu’er. Don’t forget to write.”

---

Fan Dingxiang is seventeen years old when she sets out for Lotus Pier, a boar spear in her hand and five Wen cultivator swords strapped to her back.

---

Jiang Cheng is having a bad fucking day.

Really, what the fuck else is new? It’s been a series of bad fucking days, one right after the other, ever since Lotus Pier burned and his parents died and his brother disappeared and then his brother came back but different and then he fought a war and then his brother won the war with a fuckload of ghosts. There’s a nasty little tension headache hovering behind his eyes, and he has like fifteen meetings scheduled, and Wei Wuxian has fucked off again to who knows where. God. He’s the sect leader, but he’s also seventeen years old and he’d rather die than admit this out loud to anyone ever but it’d be really fucking nice if there was a single reliable person he could talk shit out with, other than Yanli who is the best sister of all time but sometimes he just wants to be able to swear at-and-or-with someone about things, and that’s not a-jie.

Anyway.

Jiang Cheng refocuses his eyes on the hall in front of him, where the latest supplicant is explaining an issue that only he, the noble and devoted sect leader, can solve. It sounds like an ordinary night hunt, possibly a fierce corpse. There are a lot of those, since the war, and he mostly listens and nods at appropriate parts and then directs the man to speak with one of the few senior disciples left so they can gather more details. There’s a line to walk between being accessible to the people and being bothered every time someone hears the wind sounding extra creepy, and Jiang Cheng is trying to walk it with mixed success.

The next person to enter is wearing the roughspun robes of a farmer, and his heart sinks just a little bit at the inevitable idea of being asked to weigh in one some petty land dispute. Just farm the same fucking land and split it equally, who cares? he thinks reflexively as they--she comes to a stop, and then he blinks as he parses her size. Namely, how she’s fucking huge. The lotus throne is raised on a dais, but he guesses that if he was standing she’d be a good hand or so taller than him and her shoulders are easily as broad. That, in and of itself, is interesting enough that he stops half-worrying about his brother’s whereabouts and actually pays attention as she folds herself to the ground and presses her forehead to the floor.

“Jiang-zongzhu,” she says to the floor, in the most purely rustic accent he thinks he’s ever heard. Is that--does she have a spear with her? This is already more interesting than anything that happened yesterday, and he sits up a little straighter. “Thank you for granting this one an audience.”

“Yes,” he says, a little impatiently. “Why are you here?” Oh, maybe that could have been a little less blunt, but he’s been hearing the same stories about hauntings for weeks and he just doesn’t have enough cultivators yet for all the night hunts and if he needs to add another one to the list he wants it over with already.

She sits back up on her heels and keeps her eyes at approximately the level of his feet. “This one came with the understanding that the Yunmeng Jiang sect is recruiting,” she says in that country voice, her shoulders back and her spine straight. Her face is plain, with a strong jawline, her hair braided and wrapped around her head simply. She looks nervous but not like she’s about to wet her pants, thank god. (That was… certainly a morning, when that had happened.)

“Yes?” Jiang Cheng says, again, this time in question. “Did you have a child for us to train?” He glances around, briefly, but it looks like this girl came alone. Where did she come from? She can’t be much older than he is.

“No,” she tells his feet. “This one wished to join the Jiang sect, if they would have her.”

“Are you a cultivator?” She could be a rogue, though he can’t see a sword with her, just the spear and a bundle on her back.

“No,” she says, steadily. “This one doesn’t possess the core for it.” She pauses and raises her eyes to his, so boldly he finds it a little startling. “I believe that I can be of use to the Jiang sect in spite of that, and I have brought a gift to prove it. May I show you?”

Fully intrigued now, Jiang Cheng nods. The girl unslings the bundle from her back, unties a couple of straps, and unrolls it on the floor in a smooth motion.

Jiang Cheng is on his feet before he even consciously realizes it’s happened, and the reaction murmurs out through the hall. There, on a blanket that belongs on the back of a horse, are five Wen cultivator swords, offered to him by a girl who looks like the word “bumpkin” was invented specifically for her. What the fuck.

“Where did you get those?” he asks, instead of asking “What the fuck?” out loud, because that would be unbecoming of his status as sect leader.

The girl meets his eyes again, lifts her chin, and says simply, “I killed the men who carried them.”

That ripples out through the hall in a second set of whispers, and Jiang Cheng sits back down and arranges his robes. Calm. Dignified. He looks at the girl, and then at the swords, and then at the girl again. “How?”

She reaches out one work-roughened hand to hover over the hilt of the sword to his left. “Crushed his skull with a hoe,” she says, then moves her hand to the next. “Threw a rock at his head and slit his throat.” The next. “Knife through his eye.” The next. “Pinned him to the wall with a spear, then slit his throat.” The final sword. “Gutted him like a pig.”

What. The. Fuck. Jiang Cheng eyes her again, then stands. He crosses the hall until his toes nearly touch the roughspun blanket. This close he can see the dust on her clothes and the sweat in her hair. She’s come a long way to get here, that’s clear enough. He holds out one hand expectantly, and after a moment she hands him a sword, the first one, from the man she claims to have killed with a fucking hoe. He’s not even entirely sure which farm implement that is--one of the ones for digging, right?

The sword weighs heavy in his hand, the workmanship unmistakably of the Wen Clan. He sets a hand on the hilt and tries to draw it, as a test. Absolutely nothing happens--it belonged to a cultivator, and that cultivator is dead, his sword sealed. Jiang Cheng looks down at this common girl. Either she’s telling the truth, and she actually killed the bearers of these swords, or she’s lying and she… What, snuck in somewhere and stole them? Haunted a battlefield like a fierce corpse, gathered them up, and brought them here? Why the fuck would she go to all that trouble, if it was a lie? He shoves the sword back at her roughly, out of sorts with the questions in his head.

“What are you?” he asks, which isn’t exactly the right question, so he follows it up with, “Who are you?”

“This one is Fan Dingxiang, courtesy name Zhu’er,” she says, bowing again. “I’m a pig farmer, Jiang-zongzhu.”

“Fan Zhu’er.” Jiang Cheng repeats. “Is there a story behind that name?”

“Yes.”

Jiang Cheng waits, but she doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate, so he moves on. “How old are you?”

She sits back up again, her eyes meeting his. “Seventeen.”

Seventeen. Not even a cultivator. Five Wen clan swords in front of her. It’s not a difficult decision in the least. “The Yunmeng Jiang sect welcomes Fan Zhu’er.” Jiang Cheng nods to one of his secretaries, and the man bustles forward to begin the administrative side of things.

“This one thanks you,” Fan Zhu’er says, bowing over her hands. Jiang Cheng gives her a perfunctory nod and returns to the throne. The next supplicant has the kind of self-important face of someone who is about to take up a lot of his time. The tension headache comes back again, full force, and he grinds his teeth. Fuck his life.