The last time you knelt before your clan, it was to pick up your brother’s bloodied, brutalized body, to lift him over your shoulders and take him to the Jingshi, commanding your stiff-faced shufu who still clung to that whip like a talisman to summon the physicians immediately .
Your voice shook. It was not the kind, friendly voice everyone knew from you.
But of course, they understood. Your didi, born only eleven months after yourself, was possibly killed.
And he bore all the agony without a word. A moan here or there, a collapse at the twentieth strike, only to force himself up on shaking arms for five more before he collapsed and did not rise again.
And you wished he would scream, wish he who always hid his heart had indeed taken Master Wei here before all of this happened, so you could help him, keep them both safe.
You would have helped him, before. But after that massacre, Master Wei’s fate was sealed and you knew you would be required to help kill the man your brother loved.
The man your brother bore those wounds for.
He came there that evening, as he had every evening since the Nightless Day.
“Did Wangji return?” he asked, as if Wangji was his didi, too.
Your face cracked, and when the phrase “thirty-three lashes of the discipline whip” crossed your lips, his shock and horror stunned you.
Because you weren’t not alone. He , of all the clans, had reason to loathe Master Wei, but he cared for your brother more than he loathed.
He was gone the next minute, but you had faith in him. When he returned – past nine in the evening, but he was so sly no guards would ever see him – he had the best poultices from Lanling and laypeople in Yunmeng. He gave them to you, but you could not allow him to see Wangji.
He understood. He embraced you, and let you cry – in anger, in worry, in a broken xiongzhang’s heart. Xiongzhang – that impossibly formal word Wangji always uses, the word that showed the distance between his heart and yours, when you wanted to share . You said it aloud then, and he laughed a little, and you remember he never was allowed to call Jin Zixuan anything so familiar.
You should have asked more. Inquired into his emotions.
But would he have answered?
Now, fourteen years later, it is your turn.
Today, you kneel before your uncle, but you are not facing him. Your back is.
You know the clan elders think your mother did this, think you have proved their misgivings right from the start.
Wangji is happy, now, eloped with Master Wei. You hope he can prove them wrong again, because after this, you will follow your father’s path.
You echo your father’s actions, and yet they will blame your mother.
Just like they blamed his mother.
Just like he always said.
He was right about so much. (And so, so wrong. So wrong, you cannot fathom the depths of his wrong).
They ask you. Your shufu, for once in his life, may actually be pleading.
But your answer is resolute. Your words simple.
It is exactly what it looks like , Wangji said in his quiet voice nearly fourteen years ago.
So it is, for you, too.
No madness made you do this. No spell.
They ask if you collaborated, and you say the answer is worse: you didn’t. You were that stupid, that naive you didn’t notice when one brother killed the other.
(Maybe Wangji was right to hold you at a distance).
They ask who wrote the letter, and you lie.
(Huaisang, brother Huaisang, wanted you to hurt. You know this deep down, his hatred latched onto you as much as him, for what you failed to see).
((Maybe a part of you just didn’t want to see it)).
(((And still, you can’t hate Huaisang))).
They ask where he is now. But Wangji and Master Wei are eloped, Jin Ling has said nothing about his xiao-shushu, and Jiang Wanyin for once is honoring his nephew’s supposed confusion.
You say nothing.
(You wish him a long and happy life in Dongying).
“Clan Leader Jin, if you try anything, I will not hesitate to take your life,” you declared a week ago, and you didn’t recognize your own voice.
“Thank you, Zewu-Jun,” he whispered in a weak voice.
And you Silenced him, and those impossibly long lashes flutter closed for the briefest of moments. You could see tears in his eyes, hear a small whimper in his throat as you checked his stomach.
And yet, he seemed to flinch when you touch him, as if he didn’t want to dirty you any more.
But when you moved to examine his arm, he looked upon it with such dejected, such hopeless eyes that you hesitated.
A-Yao will never hold a sword again.
A-Yao had lost everything.
(He threw it away, you know).
((But you really wanted him to have everything)).
Unable to look any more on him, lest you weep yourself, you turned to Nie Huaisang. “The pills?”
“Oh, right.” Nie Huaisang rummaged through his sleeves.
He handed you a pill bottle, but as he did, his eyes widened. “Xichen-Er-ge, look out!”
Your heart broke for the hundredth time as you grabbed Shuoyue and thrust it behind you.
“What happened?” shouted Master Wei.
You turned and looked behind you, and his face – his face is full of shock, and a trace of despair.
Your sword is in his shoulder. Relief flooded you even though it’s more proof of your failure; a few cun lower and it would be a far deadlier wound.
He spat out a mouthful of blood. “Lan Xichen!”
Breaking the Silence Spell by force.
“Clan Leader Jin, I warned you,” you insisted, trying, desperately, to remind yourself of this. To feel righteous.
“Yes! I heard you loud and clear! But did I move?” he cried out.
You feel cold.
Of course you trusted the right person. For once.
“You!” He whirls to Nie Huaisang. “Apologies for missing your genius for all these years!”
And then he slumped over, panting for breath, whimpering, because now there’s a sword in his shoulder, too.
“I really s-s-s-saw–”
“Lan Xichen! You said it yourself! What evil haven’t I committed?” he demanded, and you no longer had the resolve to silence him.
“I’ve killed my father, my brother, my wife and my child, but, Lan Xichen, I’ve never… thought of harming you!” he gasped.
His eyes met yours, and as his words reminded you of all he’s done for you, helped you with, you couldn’t take it any longer.
You had no faith in him left.
(You had no faith that he would survive this, that is. That he would be able to convince the clans to spare him).
He has done too much.
(But in those moments you thought you killed him, you wanted to die too).
You stood, and his one poisoned hand grasped desperately at your robes, and you remember the time a burned and injured young man fell on the ground and grabbed the robes of a young man, and you didn’t care who he was, you just begged him to please help you.
And then his arms were around you and despite how small you would later realize he was, he had lifted you onto his back and carried you to safety.
It takes a shout from Wangji for you to realize that A-Yao is in your arms, that you are halfway to the door of the temple already.
The discipline whip cracks, and you feel fire and intense agony across your back.
(It’s a feeling besides grief, and in a way that’s it’s own relief).
If Wangji bore thirty-three lashes, you will bear one-hundred.
(You will die, of that there is no doubt, but they will be delivered).
He said nothing to you the entire time you fled.
(He tried once. You Silenced him).
You stayed one step ahead of the searchers until you reached Zhoushan, which had a ship to Dongying.
You gave him your own robes to disguise him.
(You wish you could have given him more).
You got him on that ship yourself, laid him in a cabin with all the medicine you were able to buy. You tucked blankets around him and changed his bandages and recalled how he did that to you, how he held you at night when you cried about your father.
(In a few minutes, you knew you would never have the chance to hold him again).
You kissed his forehead, and hoped he would remember it, cherish it. And when you turned to leave he tried to grab your hand, but his own hand was missing.
You could see a wail build in his throat, and his stump of a wrist still waved for you desperately, but the Silence Spell would last half an hour longer.
You turned away and left him to life.
(Outside the room, when you turned the corner, you thought you glimpsed him bowing to you, and it hurt because it reminded you of all the times you told him there was no need).
((There may be a need now)).
You led the hunters to Tingshan instead. On the river, not far from the coast, where they might suspect a ship to leave.
(You missed him).
((You considered alcohol, but one of the few times you got drunk was with him, in those happy days back when you were A-Huan and he was A-Yao and you were afraid the Wens would recognize you, so you held a bowl of wine to your lips and drank, and when you drank too fast and realized you were looking at an empty bowl and rather suspicious, you kissed A-Yao to block your face)).
(((You said it was the wine))).
When that thought broke through, you closed your eyes in relief. You knew you were in love, just like Wangji.
And you knew what you had to do.
When the clans surrounded you, only you, in Tingshan, you held up the blade that pierced A-Yao’s shoulder and let it all to the floor with a deserved clatter and undeserved relief.
You kept Liebing at your side, recalling all the times you duetted Liebing with his guqin.
(His guqin’s name was a secret).
((It was Xichen )).
They find you with your hands up in surrender, and you are taken into custody as an accomplice.
What you feared would happen to Wangji fourteen years ago is happening to you.
Your name is ruined. Your clan in chaos.
(Your heart is not).
Your Shufu visited you in prison once.
(He, for once in his life, said nothing).
You were brought to a trial meant for A-Yao. You answered honestly all but two questions.
You don’t say where he is.
And you don’t say why you did this.
They’re able to negotiate that the Lan Clan will punish you, not the rest of the world. You were innocent in A-Yao’s crimes, after all.
((You were stupid, blind, foolish)).
But they cannot release you, not only because you saved him, but because when you were fleeing, they surrounded you once.
You recalled all of your close escapes during the Sunshot Campaign. To you, this moment was no less vital. In that moment, you were back in the Sunshot Campaign, but fighting by A-Yao's side as you always wanted.
In the end, you heavily injured one-hundred cultivators with Shuoyue to escape.
You cannot undo that, you admitted. But you will bear a strike from the discipline whip for each one.
For once, the never-ending mouths of the crowd are quiet.
They know this will mean your death.
But they wanted it anyways.
(They just didn’t think you would offer it).
((It would have been more delightful to see you unwilling to accept for downfall than to willingly offer yourself)).
(((Just as Qin Su, your sweet sister-in-law, refused them in her own way, so you shall))).
Shufu, in order to honor the ancestors, will be the one to do it.
By the tenth strike, you quiver uncontrollably. A brief inhale of air is the only sound you make, but you won’t last much longer without a cry.
You loved him.
You still do.
And that sustains you as the whip shreds off flesh piece by piece, as you feel cold and finally break, just a little, into a sound that resembles a newborn’s mewl.
You swing forward onto your hands and knees. How many is that? Twenty? No, it cannot be so few.
By the twenty-fifth, your robe falls from your shoulders, shredded too much to cling to your skin. You sway, and hope for a fall, for unconsciousness soon.
You don’t see that Shufu is crying.
You don’t see that Lan Sizhui, that child Wangji saved and brought up in your sect, isn’t present. Nor is his friend, Lan Jingyi.
You do see when they arrive.
“ No !” screams a voice you don’t recognize.
You don’t recognize because it’s a voice that has never in your life screamed.
Your lips move, but no sound emits, when you see Lan Jingyi’s face hovering before you. “Zewu-Jun, are you conscious? Zewu-Jun, focus on us.”
Lan Sizhui’s arms are hoisting you up.
You’re too weak to fight.
(Is this how A-Yao felt when you lifted him at the temple?)
You turn your head, just enough, to see Wangji holding the crowd off. You don’t see Master Wei, but you do see something weighing down the discipline whip.
A gluttonous ghost.
Master Wei is here, always with Wangji, even if you can’t see him.
(You are happy for Wangji).
“Xiongzhang!” Wangji turns to you, looking close to panic.
(You’ve never seen him so emotional. Not even when you, your heart heavy, entered the Jingshi to tell him that Master Wei was gone. He turned his head from you, and said nothing. You felt the urge to say you weren’t there, that you were caring for him, but you didn’t think it would help. You stayed silent because you wanted to help).
((You stayed silent because you felt guilty)).
And then someone else appears, hobbling forward. He leans against Master Wei, who holds him up as if they are old friends and not antagonists.
He ignores them until he is in front of you.
“Why would you do that? Why?” whispers his broken voice.
You can’t answer.
And then, his eyes flashing, he kneels.
In front of you.
His voice is resolute, loud. “ He was not my accomplice .”
“ He was innocent. ”
“ I forced him to do it .”
“Then why would he not say so?” shouts a junior.
“I cast a spell where he couldn’t say so,” A-Yao answers, as if he’s already thought through every question they could ask him.
“Why did you return, then, if you were so desperate to pin the blame on him?” rasps Shufu.
A-Yao bows his head. He says nothing.
You’re confused. Surely he knew they would ask this.
(There’s a familiar gleam in his eyes).
((A gleam only you will recognize)).
“ Why won’t either of you say why ?” Shufu finally shouts.
“Do they have to say? Can’t you see it well enough?” grunts a voice you weren’t expecting. Jiang Wanyin.
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling’s voice squeaks out from the crowd, as if he has come to assist his friends.
“I knew you were up to something, didn’t I?” snaps Jiang Wanyin. “You can be a clan leader, but I can still break your legs!”
He snorts, calming himself. “Lan Qiren: both your nephews are cutsleeves.”
Shufu whirls around to you, but your eyes aren’t on him; they’re fixed on the one you love.
“I love Clan Leader Lan; it is true,” says A-Yao with a sob. As if he is eager to feed their frenzy. “But I used and betrayed him.”
Shufu is hyperventilating. His reddened eyes, reddened at least since he visited you in prison, leak. He is devastated, disappointed, tormented.
The crowd has their own opinions.
(It’s one opinion: they are righteous; they are the only ones).
“He corrupted Zewu-Jun!”
“Son of a prostitute!”
You hate those words flung against him.
(You hate even more that they are understandable now. That he proved them right).
((You hate the words he spoke the most of all)).
A whimper emerges from your lips. “ Er-ge .”
At that name, A-Yao looks straight at you, and something breaks in his eyes. It’s as if a mask has been removed, and his inner cunning and resolve finally, finally show forth.
And his terror, too. He is terrified of each and every one of them gathered here.
And yet, he would give himself to the mob to spare you.
(No, he wouldn’t).
((Not because he is selfish)).
(((But because he’s smart enough to think of a way out))).
“I’ve done every evil under the sun,” he says, with fat tears rolling down his face. “But I… I would never want to hurt Zewu-Jun. How could you? How could you hurt him?”
“Aren’t you tired of righteousness that has to tear your family apart? Yes, I know what you did to Hanguang-Jun all those years ago. Zewu-Jun told me. And now you stand by Lan Wangji’s side, with the very one he protected has come back, and you praise him! Who’s to say it won’t be the same here? You will stand by Zewu-Jun’s side, against a new evil – unless of course you kill him first.” His voice cracks at the word ‘kill.’
“What’s more,” says Master Wei, “who’s to say Lianfang-Zun doesn’t come back in another thirteen years, and we repeat this cycle with whomever wrote the letter?”
“The letter-writer was a man of justice!!”
“He murdered dozens of monks and Lanling Jin cultivators,” Jin Ling says fiercely, drawing himself up. “As the leader of Lanling Jin, I do not think their deaths justice. So guess again.”
He resembles his Jiujiu then, and you don’t have the energy to turn your eyes but you’re certain Jiang Wanyin is pleased.
“So what now? Shall we root out this man? Pull him out into the streets, shave his head, burn him as well? I’m sure with Sisi as witness, his voice will be easily identified.” Master Wei crosses his arms. “And let’s find any accomplice he has, and kill them too. And then those we kill may kill us. And so on we shall go.”
“Or, here’s the way I see it,” he says, turning to Shufu. “Master Lan: you spare Zewu-Jun and Lianfang-Zun today. What can the other clans do to you? You will have me, your nephews, and the wily Lianfang-Zun on your side.”
“You will have Lanling on your side!” adds Jin Ling.
“And Yunmeng Jiang,” grouses Jiang Wanyin, folding his arms.
You frown. It should not be enough to protect you... And Nie Huaisang is a dangerous enemy.
But then you remember.
This is the Yiling Patriarch.
Everyone believes nothing is too hard for him.
Just like A-Yao said.
A-Yao and Master Wei thought this through.
(The thought of them plotting together amuses you, you who struggle for every breath).
“I will not forsake righteousness,” Shufu says tersely. “Nor rely on your heretical path.”
“Shufu.” Wangji stares at him. “Then we will leave. I will not lose another family member to righteousness.”
(Mother’s name is unspoken. You’ve never known it).
((But you can almost hear it right now)).
Your eyes close.
You awaken to Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi hovering beside you. “He’s awake!”
You’re on Wangji’s back.
You look around frantically. Did you escape? Why? Where can you go?
But no. You’re… approaching the Hanshi.
You’re home .
Tears prick your eyes as you finally spy A-Yao walking behind you, beside Jin Ling, murmuring to him. Both of them have red eyes.
But when he sees you, he stumbles.
Jin Ling pushes him towards you.
(You want to grab him).
Master Wei opens the door, and Wangji hauls you inside before you can touch A-Yao.
“You’re home, Zewu-Jun, you are,” Lan Jingyi says quickly, eagerly, as if trying to comfort you.
(Jingyi, the bastard son of an elder who broke his vows).
((He’s a good boy)).
“Both of you are too injured to do anything but rest,” Wei Wuxian says respectfully. “Lie down, Lianfang-Zun. Yes, you can stay next to him.”
A-Yao nods, as Lan Wangji lays you down, facing the bed so that he may treat your wounds.
A-Yao stares down at you, and you up at him.
“Why aren’t you in Dongying?” you whisper.
“Because Wen Ning hunted us down at Sizhui’s request the day of your arrest. Lan Zhan and I flew to his ship the second. It took an entire day to find it on the ocean, but it was worth it,” Master Wei explains. “We developed a plan on the way back.”
You are amazed. Your brother-in-law is smiling at you, as if he doesn’t hate you for ruining his honeymoon.
“Xiongzhang,” says Wangji, softly, achingly.
You look at him, letting him see that you are broken.
(He never let you see that).
((But you knew it anyways)).
A-Yao leans forward. He looks as though he wishes to shake you, but he doesn’t have the hands or the strength to do it, and you don’t have the strength to tolerate it. “Why did you save me? Why? You told me you had no faith left in me, but then you took me away. Why ?”
You bow your head. Your brother, who evidently flew for over a day just to save you and must be spent himself, rubs a burning salve into your back.
“Because,” you whisper, “I had no faith left in you. That is, I didn’t… have faith enough that you would save yourself.”
He looks crushed. His jaw trembles. “Oh.”
All you can do is stretch out your hand for him, hoping you can hold it.
“I think he means that he loves you, Xiao-Shushu,” says Jin Ling timidly.
A-Yao grasps your hand with his left hand. His grip is weaker, softer than before.
But the feeling of his skin on yours is stronger than ever.
“Jiujiu and I will assist your clan if needed,” adds Jin Ling, as loudly as he dares. “No one will oppose this.”
You will be in seclusion for a few years, you know. Recovering.
Both of you. Together.
Together in the Hanshi.
(That doesn’t sound so bad).
“I won’t stop lying,” says A-Yao that night, when you lie awake whimpering over your wounds and hating yourself for being noisy.
(But he seems to like taking care of you).
((He is more mobile than you now)).
He gives you a sad smile. “I don’t know how… Er-ge. But I’ll try.”
(He sounds lost).
((He sounds honest)).
“I will try… to ask,” you say.
“Have I done too much?” He won’t meet your eyes for this question.
“Yes,” you say, honest yourself. “But I love you.”
“I know.” He presses a fist to his lips. “I… should have chosen you.”
“You had a dream.”
“It wasn’t worth the cost,” he says, shaking his head. “But you are.”
“There’s thousands of people from the Lookout Towers who disagree,” you maintain.
He brightens a little.
“What’s the first thing you want to do after recovering?” He asks, setting besides you, spooning soup into your lips.
You shake your head. “I don’t know… do you?”
“Of course. I'm going to get my mother’s body back.” He nods resolutely. Tears shimmer in his eyes. “I have to, Er-ge.”
“Yes,” you say. “But not alone.”
“No murdering of Huaisang…” He speaks with dry humor, with the humor he wore as a bookkeeper who saved you.
“The cycle must end,” you croak.
“With my nephew and Wangji’s son, I have hope. And Jingyi, your son in a way… you are the reason he was accepted into the clan, after all.” A-Yao smiles slightly.
(The unspoken name weighs on you both).
((You’re surprised, encouraged, when he speaks it first)).
His voice wobbles. “But not A-Song.”
You force your words out. “Did you…”
His voice is barely audible. “If I tell you it’s not what it sounds like, but I am responsible, would you believe me?”
“Yes,” you say. “I believed you that night in the temple, didn’t I?”
“You had enough faith to believe that I didn’t kill Jin Zixuan intentionally, but not that I would survive?” He glances sideways to meet your eyes.
“I couldn’t risk you.”
His expression melts. “Then… Er-ge, I have enough faith in you to tell you.”