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The Earth Rings In Your Ears

Chapter Text

“I will go this way.”

“Mn. I will head that way.”

A few minutes later, a shout rings out.

“Lan Zhan!”

It’s joyous. Confident. Hopeful.

“The green mountains remain unchanging, the rivers ever flowing. We will meet again.

Hearing this, Lan Wangji’s heart thrums. He stands on a bustling wharf, east of Gusu, surrounded by oblivious merchants and fishermen. It is a crisp, cold morning. The ocean laps at the shore.

His eyes are fixed, quiet and steady, on Wei Wuxian.

On Wei Wuxian, who is leaving.

Already, the other man is growing smaller, skipping up the gangway onto the waiting ship, dragging his donkey. Common black clothes, no mark of a sect. Jostled in the stream of other travelers around him.

A bag slung over his shoulder. Wayward strands of hair frame his face. Flute tucked in his belt. In his hand, Suibian—

The name as casual and cocky as the rest of him.

Lan Wangji feels breathless. How could he have known, when he first encountered that infuriating stranger, what this beloved person would come to mean to him?

They’d met three years ago. That moonlit moment, on a rooftop in Cloud Recesses. The dark tinge of the sky. Tension like a knife, giving way to this softness…

Now, Lan Wangji holds himself still, letting none of his feelings show on his face. He gives a gentle nod to Wei Ying, across the division of the water. The ship starts to move away.

Wei Wuxian looks bright and determined, swaying as the deck moves beneath his feet. Something unreadable in his eyes.

The smallest of smiles twitches Lan Wangji’s lips.

All is well, Wei Ying. Go.

He will hold this memory in his heart, he thinks, as Wei Wuxian slowly turns and leaves the ship’s railing. As the flash of Wei Ying’s red ribbon disappears among the passengers. A sea breeze swoops down and swirls Lan Wangji’s robes. The air is biting, shocking, exhilarating—

He will hold this memory: Wei Wuxian black-clad, shining, laughing, whole.

We will meet again, Lan Wangji thinks fiercely.

He doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know when.

Already, he longs.

Lan Wangji keeps watch, as the ship fades in the distance. Birds are swooping and keening above him. He smells sweet steamed buns, copper. Keys jostling, creak of food carts, swell of waves. He stands until the ship is just a shimmer in the blue horizon.

Until it disappears.

Wei Wuxian is gone.

Wei Wuxian is gone.

Using every inch of his discipline, Lan Wangji turns from the sea and walks away.

+

He walks through the crowded seaport, leaving the docks.

His steps are measured. The people and shops blur around him.

The promise like a pulse in his head.

The green mountains…The rivers…We will meet again.

You and I will meet again. Even if it takes our whole lives.

Even if it takes time beyond our lives.

If they are to die, Lan Wangji thinks, this bond will stretch on, somehow. It feels large enough, vast enough.

Sad enough.

This ache in his chest. This feeling inside of him.

Wei Ying, my Wei Ying.

We will meet again.

+

He leaves the city and walks into a wide, green plain. The main road stretches in two directions, straight as a ruler.

Birds are chirping. The meadow is sunny.

One direction leads toward Cloud Recesses, toward home and relative safety. Back to his brother. To his family, his clan.

The other way leads toward Nightless City.

As Lan Wangji walks, he assesses himself. He isn’t afraid. He feels…at peace. What he is doing is right.

For most of his life, he had not felt at peace. He had felt like a storm inside: chaos, confusion, and secret terror.

But now he feels calm.

He knows there will be pain to come.

He understands the depths of the sacrifice he just made.

But when he pictures Wei Ying’s fading figure: black-clad, laughing, hair flowing in the sea breeze, Lan Wangji cannot bring himself to feel regret.

He travels all day, until he is deep in Qishan Wen territory. Until Wen Ruohan’s guards surround him, until the red of their garments clash against the blue sky. Until a ring of Wen swords point at his throat.

Until he finds himself in a crimson throne room, kneeling, supplicant, before Wen Chao. He does not fight. He is willing. He is here.

Wen Chao looks astonished, shifting on the throne. “You actually came. Hanguang Jun actually bows.”

Wen Sect disciples throng around them, staring and disbelieving. On the walls, blood-red banners sway.

“It is as we discussed.” Lan Wangji’s voice doesn’t tremble, though he’s on his knees, surrounded by enemies. His gaze is fixed on the ground before him. “Wei Wuxian is gone. I am here in his place.”

Wen Chao smiles. It’s an ugly, cruel sight.

Lan Wangji doesn’t falter. He holds out Bichen in surrender.

“I offer myself, in Wei Ying’s stead. Take me for the full measure of his punishment.”

+

It had only been three years ago, when Lan Wangji had first come face to face with Wei Wuxian. But it felt like a lifetime.

So much had changed since then.

The cultivation world had changed.

The sects had changed.

The rules had changed.

And his heart…

Three years ago. On that night, Lan Wangji had recently turned nineteen. Everything seemed silvery and silent in Cloud Recesses. The pathways were still. A velvet blue darkness.

The moon seemed like a ghost in the night.

He had been keeping watch over the gates, one hand tucked in the small of his back, when he heard movement. Someone clambering over a rooftop. A soft curse, under their breath.

An intruder.

Good.

Lan Wangji’s grip tightened on Bichen. He was tense. Raring for a fight. Tonight, he would relish it.

Today had marked the beginning of the guest lectures at Cloud Recesses, and disciples from all the major clans had been filtering into Lan Clan’s territory.

Such a mingling would always be fraught. The words and the meetings of powerful young disciples would have ramifications in coming alliances, trades, battles…

But this year, especially, with the way Wen Clan was pushing the others…with the way Wen Chao was doggedly, obsessively seeking to assert his father’s dominance…Uncle and Lan Xichen were worried.

Already, Cloud Recesses was filled with strain.

Lan Wangji felt the tension acutely. A few months ago, Wen Ruohan had ordered two smaller sects razed. The Wen Sect leader had also subsumed several family clans, taking hostages, desecrating treaties, enforcing punishing taxes. Always pushing his territory outward, with far more violence and aggression than they’d ever seen from a major cultivation clan, even one as powerful and vast as the Wens.

Even more, the Nie Sect leader, Nie Mingjue’s father, had recently died of an unexplained illness. He’d been in the midst of a heated land dispute with Wen Ruohan.

There were rumors Wen Ruohan had used dark arts to assassinate him.

That the Wen Sect leader had murdered his peer. Nothing proven. Nothing tangible.

Still, Lan Wangji was on edge.

He hated injustice. Hated tyrants, hated disregard and exploitation. Hated the kind of arrogance that was blunt, that tried to run its will straight over others.

There had been much of all these things today. With every veiled insult and strategic interruption, Wen Chao had made his clan’s strength clear, as well as their ambition to subjugate those they deemed weak.

Lan Wangji, for the good of his family, had stayed polite and impassive.

So now, it was almost a relief to watch an intruder crest the roof and stand up, stretching boldly. A shadowy figure. Dark lacquered sword. Two bottles of Emperor’s Smile dangling from fingertips. Movements graceful, but wild. Possibly tipsy.

Breaking curfew. Breaking the wards. Trespassing. Illegal substances.

Someone truant, someone disrespectful. This kind of disobedience was easy, unlike the Wen Clan’s tangled show of force and diplomacy. This would be straightforward. Skill against skill.

Someone was trodding their will over Lan Clan, and Lan Wangji would show them they could not.

He stepped out of the darkness, revealing himself.

The intruder stiffened, but didn’t face him immediately. There was pride to that decision. Stubbornness.

Interesting.

Most people, even Wens, were almost painfully deferential to Lan Wangji. They could tell immediately he was a Lan of high status. Could tell his capabilities.

Still facing away, the stranger lifted his chin.

Lan Wangji leapt closer.

Usually he liked to take his time, to observe his foe with care before they got a chance to see him. But today he felt reckless, maybe over-confident. Ready.

That simmering tension had built up in him all day, as the strain increased. Already he felt energy humming beneath his skin. And by the way the stranger moved, his easy fluidity…Lan Wangji could tell…

This might be a good fight.

He landed lightly right beside him, drawing Bichen in a challenge.

The stranger grinned.

He was lanky, attractive, long hair rustling—

And then he turned.

Faced Lan Wangji.

Oh.

Something in Lan Zhan shifted. He didn’t know then, what it was.

His chest clenched. A spark down his body.

The stranger was boyish and slender, no older than Lan Wangji. Gaze sparkling. Smile.

That look. Those eyes.

Lan Wangji’s heart was suddenly racing.

“Alcohol is forbidden in Cloud Recesses.” Somehow Lan Wangji was speaking, voice low and assured, as if his feelings weren’t spinning for absolutely no reason. As if his inner state had not been tilted upside down by an intriguing smirk. What was this reaction? He had seen beautiful people before…

“Breaking through the wards is forbidden,” he continued. “Those who arrive late shall not be admitted until 7am the next morning.”

“I see. Lan Clan is privileged to have such a diligent guard.” The boy spoke easily.

Lan Wangji’s ears went warm. He was being mocked.

The stranger twirled the jars of alcohol over his wrist—a careless, competent motion, and then extended one toward Lan Wangji. He moved with confidence, as if expecting the world to be charmed by him.

“Diligence must be wearing. If I spare you one jar, will you forget you caught me?”

Lan Wangji could barely believe his ears. To attempt such petty bribery was absurd on numerous levels.

But this boy’s gaze was…lively. Intelligent. And there was something else. A lack of fear, yes. But also a lack of cruelty.

Lan Wangji had witnessed cruelty in people’s faces, plenty of it, by this time. It usually went hand-in-hand with this kind of carefree assurance, with people lucky enough to hold power.

But this seemed different. Despite his mocking tone, this boy did not seem malicious. Nor was he frightened. Instead, he seemed playful. Daring and delighted. Open.

Beneath his mocking behavior he seemed…good. Like a good person. To Lan Zhan.

Is that it? Lan Wangji wondered. Is that why I’m reacting this way?

Ridiculous. Outrageous and baseless. He didn’t even know this person’s name.

The boy blushed, withdrawing his outstretched hand, seeing that his offer had not been well received. Flash of a frown.

Dark robes, purple accents. A silver bell engraved with a nine-petaled lotus.

Ah.

Jiang Clan.

Pieces clicked into place.

The Jiang were a much smaller sect, fiercely independent, descended from rangers. For most of Lan Wangji’s life they’d been a minor presence to the west. Excellent archers. Decent cultivators. Mostly irrelevant.

But in recent years that had changed.

Jiang Sect had grown rapidly, so much so that Jin Guangshan planned to formally ally with them through his son Jin Zixuan. For as the Wen Clan grew more aggressive, pushing into their lands, many of the small clans near Jiang Fengmian had merged and rallied under him, seeking his leadership and protection.

Now, the Yunmeng Jiang Clan held enough economic and diplomatic power that they were here. Invited, for the first time, to the Gusu Lan lectures. The Four Major Clans had become Five.

Attempt the impossible.

That was the Jiang Sect motto.

And this stranger appeared to embody it.

“It will be impossible for you to bring that further into Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said.

The boy’s eyes flickered. “Is that a challenge?”

“An order.”

“I was going to concede, but now you’re tempting me.”

“Ridiculous.”

The boy’s grin widened. His hair swung in the night breeze. Red ribbon fluttering.

“Lan Zhan. I like challenges.”

They held eyes. Lan Wangji’s face remained unchanged.

Something seemed to shiver in the breeze between them.

Bichen arced through the night—

Zrriing!

Fast as lightning, the Jiang boy blocked with his scabbard.

And they were off.

Light as dancers, they raced and leapt across the rooftops. Trading blows, a swift exchange of skill. Then the stranger dashed onward. Lan Wangji pursued, coolly confident. His sword glinted in moonlight. Almost had him—

Always just out of reach.

The boy leapt, landed on a buttress, and spun, glancing back at Lan Wangji with a devilish grin.

Exhilaration rushed through Lan Wangji. He felt a thrill. Frustration. Admiration. No one his age had ever matched his sword.

And this boy hadn’t even drawn yet.

And there was something on the other boy’s face, assessing Lan Wangji in the respite. Narrowed eyes, chin tilted. Surprised.

This stranger, too, was shocked.

This boy wasn’t used to being matched.

At that thought, something silken and confident flashed through Lan Zhan. He moved like water, streaming forward, all speed and grace.

No time to think. Blades and bodies. The alcohol like treasure, flashing in the night, lightly tossed. Two white jars spinning on their blue binding thread.

There.

Lan Wangji saw an opening. Knew what he had to do.

Flicking his blade upward, he nicked the thread. The jars went flying.

Shock flashed across the boy’s face. He faltered, one small misstep—

And Lan Wangji was there.

Forcing him backward, knocking his weapon aside. The boy gasped as his defenses went down.

Lan Wangji pushed his advantage, drove into personal space. And then—

It was like electricity, the sudden charge between them. Breaths mingling. Crackle of want.

A surprised meeting of their eyes.

Lan Wangji recovered first, jumping backward.

The boy spun off the roof like a cyclone. Landed in a crouch on the ground. Eyes shot up—

Dismay—

“No!”

One of the jars of liquor smashed to the ground.

The boy’s yell was tortured. He sprang up, entire body straining—

And managed to catch the second bottle before it crashed.

He caught it right on the tip of his scabbard. The bottle tilted. The boy swayed, limbs flailing, trying to hold

Lan Wangji watched from above, feeling smug.

The boy’s tongue stuck out. Totally focused. Utter concentration.

No luck. The bottle tipped—

And shattered on the ground.

Lan Zhan! You pay for my Emperor’s Smile! You owe me!”

“I do not. You violated our rules.”

“You destroyed my property.”

“You forfeited the property when you entered our grounds.”

“Is everyone here so stuffy? Humorless. Horrible. Fuddy duddy. Lan Zhan—”

Third time. “My courtesy name is Lan Wangji.”

“But Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. You’ve done me discourtesy.

Lan Wangji’s lips snapped shut. He wouldn’t honor that with a response.

“And yes, of course I know who you are.” The boy put his hands on his hips. “One of the famed Jades of Gusu. Ranked second of your generation. I must say I expected more.

“More what?” Lan Wangji growled, despite himself.

“What do you think.”

Lan Wangji waited. More skill? More strength? He was genuinely curious. He’d won this encounter, yes. Still, the boy had not drawn his sword.

“Can you believe it?” the boy said softly. “More stuffiness.

Lan Wangji blinked. Then his breath hissed. “Who are you?”

The boy smiled. A knowing glint to his eyes. “I guess it’s rude. You don't know me, but I saw you on the path this morning, bringing that corpse with your disciples into Cloud Recesses. It wasn’t completely dead, was it? It was more like a puppet. Wen Ruohan’s work?”

Lan Wangji ignored the boy’s attempt to pump him for Lan Clan information. “Who are you?” he repeated. “What’s your name?”

There was a sinking feeling in Lan Wangji’s chest. He thought…he already knew the answer.

The boy tapped his scabbard against his chest. “I’m nobody.”

“Impossible.”

“Nobody. Nothing. I’m a blank.”

He wore Jiang Sect’s style, yes, so functional it was almost plain. But his robes were black. Not rich, not opulent. And that red ribbon was not typical of the clan.

Nobody.

Lan Wangji shook his head. He was suddenly fed up with the games.

“Come.”

“Where?”

“I’ll take you to the Jiang Sect heir. Your master will address the misdemeanors.”

The boy’s voice was flat. “Just add it to the list of our clan’s infractions. Trust me. Jiang Cheng doesn’t care.”

He spoke flippantly, but his face turned almost wistful. Lan Wangji followed his gaze down, to the shards of broken porcelain on the ground.

White and blue shards, glinting in the moonlight.

Breeze sliding around them. Wind through trees.

“Hmm.” The boy’s voice was gentle. “I guess it was impossible after all.”

Lan Wangji opened his mouth, about to say something cold, and then paused.

For the moment had changed.

There was a strange look on the other’s face. He looked preoccupied, almost afraid, suddenly. Small.

The smell of liquor surrounded them, sharp and pungent.

“I’ve never fought with someone like you before,” the Jiang boy said finally. He ran his hand over the back of his neck. “You might be good enough to beat me.”

“We plan to fight again?”

Little huff in response. Then a chuckle. “You never know, right, Lan Zhan?”

The boy lifted his gaze, and the full force of it hit Lan Wangji like a punch in the gut. Conflict. Pain.

“Who are you?” Lan Wangji’s voice was hoarse.

Then, the moment broke.

The boy rushed forward and slapped a hand on Lan Wangji’s chest, using him as a vaulting board to leap back into the air. Over the wall.

Irritation flooded Lan Wangji.

He wasn’t sure why he’d allowed the touch. He wasn’t sure why he was letting him escape now.

“Just add it to our list. Jiang Cheng doesn’t care.”

“Spare me one more night of freedom, at least!” The boy shouted, dashing away in the night. “Please, oh please, Lan Zhan! Before I’m caged by your three thousand rules!”

A toss of the head, a wink over the shoulder. Disappearing in darkness.

+

It was only later that night, when Lan Wangji returned to his room, that he truly understood the skill that he’d witnessed.

It was when he removed his money pouch, intending to store it, and discovered it felt…lighter. He spilled the contents on the table.

Gone. A precise amount of money. Enough for two bottles of Emperor’s Smile.

And in it’s place, a scrap of talisman paper. Scrawled handwriting.

Lan Zhan, you could call me Wei Ying.

+

That night, Lan Wangji couldn’t sleep. He stared at the ceiling, thoughts whirling inside of him.

That messy handwriting, the scrap of paper on the table. The glimpse of pain.

Wei Ying.

It was as he guessed. The boy must be Wei Wuxian.

The Jiang Clan whipping boy.

“I’m nobody.”

Lan Wangji frowned. That description was true in terms of status, but not in terms of reputation.

Wei Wuxian was infamous.

The son of a servant. The son of Cangse Sangren. A commoner who had gotten himself embroiled in sect politics.

Uncle and Lan Xichen had been bracing for his arrival.

Lan Wangji reached for the scrap of paper. Watched moonlight filter through the ink.

“I’m nobody.”

To be a whipping boy was, according to some, a role of high honor within a cultivation clan. To grow up side-by-side with a sect heir, to be their symbolic representative, to take on every single one of their punishments.

A role of honor and prestige, yes, but deeply humiliating.

Whipping boys, especially in the most elaborate sects like Wen and Jin, were punished publically and often.

And you could never rise in the ranks. People treated you differently. You carried the taint of embarrassment, of shame.

It was an archaic practice and Lan Wangji didn’t care for it, had done his best to make sure he never did anything that forced his own whipping boy’s punishment. But with all his best efforts, he couldn’t avoid it entirely.

The last time had been when he was fourteen. He’d fought and growled at the sidelines, trying to get free as Su She was flogged by the clan elders. Flogged, for something Lan Wangji had done.

An insult he’d made to Wen Xu of Wen Clan.

That insult, at least, had been real. But sometimes the pretexts were flimsier. Sometimes, the pretext for punishments barely existed at all.

Because whipping boys, for hundreds of years now, had been a tool to help maintain stability between the major clans.

Even at the best of times, relations between Wen, Jin, Lan, and Nie had been subtle and fragile. Conflicts, inevitable. There were differences in philosophy, in cultivation styles, in boundaries and values. Money, power, and land. The balance could always tip so easily into violent conflict.

Which is why each sect invested heavily in gestures, symbolic lines in the sand, assertions of power and claim. So that the boundaries could be drawn metaphorically. So that everyone knew where they stood.

In many ways, the Lan's three thousand rules were such a symbolic gesture. It was a statement of power, to force outsiders who entered Cloud Recesses to follow these rules. And it was also a statement of power when Lan Sect disciples kept to these elaborate rules, abroad.

Each time Lan Wangji refused alcohol at Jin Clan events, for instance, he was making a statement.

And each time Jin Guangshan witnessed it, he was acknowledging Lan power.

Whipping boys were another such acknowledgement.

When one sect demanded or deserved a concession from another, the whipping boy often bore the fallout. Because the whipping boy stood for the sect heir, the act held significance. Was a statement to the entire cultivation world.

A huge amount of sect battles—the aggressions and the surrenders—were enacted on whipping boys’ backs.

When Su She was flogged, he represented Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji represented the Lan Clan culmination; he was currently the next in line. Still young enough to be punished, for the humiliation to be deemed appropriate.

Of course, the actual Lan Wangji would never be treated so. That would be an outrage.

Thankfully, these incidents were usually not too painful. No lasting physical harm was done, and for the most part whipping boys lived privileged, pleasant lives at the fringes of high society. Only occasional shocks of humiliation—

Of brutality—

By default, sects tried to avoid such incidents.

That is, until Wen Clan decided to up the ante.

It was part of today’s tension. In the last year, as Wen Ruohan pushed harder and harder to dominate the cultivation world, the Wen Clan had become incessant and exacting in their demands for punishments. The other sects had had to follow suit, trying not to lose face, and now there was an elaborate tally, every possible insult weighed and argued. It had been stressing the other sect heirs out.

Lan Wangji had come through mostly unscathed, but Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan were not used to lives of unfailing discipline, moderation, and obedience.

So punishments were happening often.

Today, as the lectures began, there had been a whole levy of accusations, lists of harsh discipline to come in the morning.

The whipping boys: Meng Yao, Mian Mian, and both of the Wen Clan proxies, Wen Ning and Wen Qing—

All were looking haggard.

The only entourage that seemed completely unconcerned was that of Jiang Clan. Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli acted resigned, even amused at the other clans’ tension.

This resignation was an act.

In truth, Jiang Clan was the only clan that was overtly resisting.

“The Jiang Clan has been refusing punishments?” Lan Wangji had asked, confused. It was right after he’d returned to Cloud Recesses this morning, when Uncle and Lan XIchen had beckoned him to a private conference for a quick briefing.

“No. Even worse,” Lan Xichen sighed. “They’ve been provoking it.”

“I don’t understand.”

Welcoming the punishments. Embracing them.”

Lan Wangji did not consider himself an adept at politics. Until now, he’d made it his life mission to stay as out of it all as possible. His cultivation skills and battle prowess were needed elsewhere, on countless night hunts and investigations for his sect. He was endlessly thankful that it was his brother, and not he, tasked with leading Lan Clan.

He’d managed to make himself so removed, in fact, that he’d only heard faintly of the drama that had happened earlier this year the annual cultivation conference, held at Carp Tower. It had been one of Jiang Clan’s first outings as a new acknowledged major power.

Apparently, Jiang Cheng and his whipping boy had caused trouble. The two of them were arrogant and shameless. They laughed in the face of punishment. They mocked Wen Clan’s attempts to tame them.

“They’re growing more and more popular,” Lan Xichen said in the meeting.

The Twin Heroes of Yunmeng. The common people of all clans seemed to love them. Loved the idea of them. When they weren’t provoking punishment at sect conferences, they were roaming the western countryside, making a name for themselves in night hunts. Saving villages. Defeating monsters.

Defying Wen disciples.

The two boys fought side by side. The prince and his underling.

“It’s a rebellion against orthodoxy,” Uncle sneered. “And Madam Yu is behind it.”

“You’ve met her, Wangji,” Lan Xichen said. “The Violet Spider of Meishan. She’s fierce, strong-willed, and used to be one of the most formidable cultivators in any of the clans, before she gave up the path for Jiang Fengmian. Now, she wants Jiang Sect to stake their claim. She’s not afraid to gamble.”

“Not with a whipping boy’s life, at least,” Lan Qiren said.

Lan Wangji was starting to understand. Out of all the big sects, Yunmeng Jiang was geographically closest to Wen Sect. They were constantly bullied and dominated by Wen Ruohan. Even though they’d managed to become a major power, they were still the weakest, the poorest, and the most vulnerable. The more they grew, the more they became a target, in the eyes of the Wen Clan.

Snuffing out Jiang Clan would be costly but doable, for a clan of the Wen’s power. Lotus Pier was always on the edge of danger, about to be swallowed.

It was clear to everyone, as Wen Sect was pushed and destroyed the smaller clans, that Jiang Clan could very likely be next.

“So this is…bluster.” Lan Wangji said. “They’re calling Wen Sect’s bluff. They’re trying to assert their power by subverting Wen Ruohan’s moves.”

“Lan Clan is stable. We try not to disturb the balance.” Lan Xichen said, helpfully. “Jiang Clan is not stable. Nor can they risk open defiance; they don’t have the forces to win a war alone. So they bark and provoke, and they have just enough backing to get away with it. Each time Wen Clan does not retaliate, Wen Ruohan looks weaker. And each time he does retaliate, but Jiang Clan seems not to care, seems strong enough to simply take it, even to laugh at it—to laugh at the punishment—”

“People love it,” Lan Qiren says. “People from their sect. People from the other sects. People who’ve been made, all their lives, to feel afraid because of the Wen Sect's invasions. Now, this makes Wen Ruohan look weak in a different way. Everyone is watching.”

Lan Wangji looks between them. “We are watching,” he guesses. “We, the Lan Clan.”

Lan Xichen shrugged. The picture of perfect neutrality. “Every clan is watching. It’s a dangerous game, that Madam Yu is playing.”

“Wangji, keep a close eye on Wei Wuxian.” Lan Qiren stroked his goatee.

“The whipping boy?” Lan Wangji asked. “Not Jiang Cheng?”

“He’s no ordinary whipping boy,” Lan Xichen said. “Apparently he’s intelligent and impressively skilled. Madam Yu personally oversaw his training. We don’t know where he would rank among the official cultivators, but the rumors are that his cultivation level is…high. High, and unpredictable.”

“They say he’s the son of Cangse Sangren,” Lan Qiren said darkly. “She was also unpredictable: shameless and wild.”

“Do you hear me, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asked. “It’s likely that the full scope of Jiang Clan’s resources have been put toward making this boy as fierce and unshakeable as possible.”

“Why?” Lan Wangji asked. “Why train a whipping boy to do all that?”

“For this kind of moment. For the performance. For the disobedience, the rebellion, the punishment. You think they want Jiang Cheng to be the one who hurts and gets hurt in turn? No. They needed a different kind of tool.”

“A tool?”

“Yes, I think they see him as a tool,” Lan Xichen said simply. “Maybe even a weapon. His whole job is to push boundaries.”

Lan Qiren sighed, rubbing his brows. “Climbers. Ugh.”

True to form, when the Jiang Clan entourage had arrived in Cloud Recesses today, they had been incredibly late. Later, even then Wen Clan. So late they’d upstaged the Wen Chao’s introduction, Jiang Cheng coolly striding into the Orchard Room just as Wen Ning was presenting gifts on Wen Chao’s behalf. The entire room, representatives of every clan, had held their breath.

Undoubtedly, it was disrespect.

Quickly, Lan XIchen had reprimanded them. He’d prescribed punishment on the spot: Jiang Chen’s proxy must kneel and beg forgiveness from Wen Chao. Then he must kneel at the front of the room for the rest of the day, holding bamboo rods.

These instructions were quickly prescribed, with no hesitation. Lan Xichen wanted the altercation over, Lan Wangji guessed, with little fuss. Before Wen Chao could make a bigger ceremony of it.

But Jiang Cheng had just shrugged at Lan Xichen.

“Okay. Punish Wei Wuxian when he arrives. He’s even later we are.”

Everyone had stared.

“Your whipping boy is not here?” Lan Xichen asked. “He’s not with you?”

“I can’t control him.” Jiang Cheng sounded annoyed. “He wandered off. He’s delinquent.”

Beside him, his sister Jiang Yanli had smiled sweetly. She’d even lowered her head, as if ashamed of their whipping boy’s actions. It seemed almost genuine.

Lan Wangji stared at her, disconcerted.

“Of course, he’ll come along eventually, when he get’s hungry,” Jiang Cheng continued. “He’ll come crashing in, demanding spicy food. He’ll complain if he doesn’t get what he wants. It’s really obnoxious.”

“Jiang Cheng,” Jiang Yanli chided gently.

“But what about your punishment?” Nie Huaisang asked. He was fluttering his fan on the side, watching the proceedings with interest. Wen Chao was growing more and furious. But he hadn’t yet called foul play.

“Forgive the offense,” Jiang Cheng bowed deeply. “When Wei Wuxian arrives, I beg that you punish him double.

Now, in his room, with the night breeze cool through the window, Lan Wangji continued to stare at the note in his hand.

Wei Ying.

He swallowed. For some reason, his mind kept returning to that image. Wei Wuxian straining, with his whole body, to balance the white bottle of Emperor’s Smile on his scabbard.

Then—

The bottle breaking.

That moment of wistfulness. Teasing tone gone. Something like bitterness. Broken shards.

Pain. Even anger.

“I guess it was impossible after all.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth felt dry. His skin felt almost feverish.

This…this was playing with fire. In his heart, he was reading certain signs.

Lan Wangji was not inexperienced. He knew what he liked. Whom he liked.

Flashes appeared in his mind. Past encounters. Tender skin of the wrists. His fist tangled in hair. The press of lips to his cock. A few boys in Caiyi Town. One or two Lan Sect disciples. Always lovers who admired him. Deferential, contained, mindful.

Wei Wuxian was none of those.

He was not contained. He was all slack.

All slack, but all beauty. Wild lines and untamed movements. Huge grin. You’ve done me discourtesy.

The arrogance in those lines. The playfulness.

Lan Zhan, you can call me Wei Ying…

Lan Wangji looked down. His fist was clenched on the paper. He felt constricted and filled with conviction. He knew what he wished for. They’d seemed to share a moment of want.

But there would be no way.

Not with their roles. Not with Wei Wuxian’s position.

Lan Wangji could not imagine dignity in a relationship between them. Not for either of them.

And—

Already, he wanted to fiercely guard Wei Ying’s dignity.

It was strange for him. This feeling of tenderness. With something like awe, Lan Wangji inspected the feelings inside of him. He’d never felt this before. Was this how Lans loved? Did it happen so suddenly? One turning—

Face to face. A swordfight on a rooftop. That was all it took, for him to know:

This was a person who could set his whole soul afire.

But fire was the wrong metaphor. Lan Wangji felt like deep snowfall. He felt muffled, sinking, strangely calm. Buried deeper and deeper.

Is this how a love starts…

Is this how devotion starts?

One by one, he made his resolutions.

He would never impose. Never say a word. Not in the midst of these sect games, these stakes. The nets already surrounding them. Not with Wei Wuxian’s freedom impeded. A whipping boy. The gulf between them was too wide. How could Wei Wuxian ever have the same feelings for Lan Zhan?

And so, perhaps this was how Lans loved. Perhaps his passion was really that simple and certain. It felt final.

For Lan Wangji knew his own temperament. Knew that if this were real, he would go his whole life, gladly, in quiet, hidden devotion. He would never act. Simply…help. When he could. Try to keep the other safe. Try to understand him, to smooth the path toward whatever he needed.

For Wei Wuxian was his own person. Not a Jiang weapon. Not Lan Wangji’s soulmate. Lan Wangji’s love should be inconsequential to him. After all, it was heavy and ridiculous. To fall in love at one glance. To want with such certainty. At that time, Lan Wangji believed in the purity and righteousness of his feelings.

And he didn’t know, back then.

The lengths to which his love would grow deeper and wider.