The snow settled heavily on the roof of the Cold Room, pouring down the awning and dusting the courtyard. The wind blew it sideways, dancing in whorls around the covered garden -- the first true heavy snow fall of the year. A rare thing, in this age, but one that forced even cultivators to bow to the might of nature and shutter their pavilions, huddling around their warming blocks. Heaven and Earth each had their way, after all.
The floorboards creaked as the house settled around Nie Minglin. She knelt at the Sect Leader’s writing desk, finishing a few extra notes that had occurred to her in the interim. The plans, proposal, and projected budget for the Yiling Patriarch’s new workshop were laid out in front of her in perfect order. As she finished the last few strokes on the scroll, she glanced up at the candles and sighed.
There was no sign of the Sect Leader. It was well past Lan curfew. She had sent the attending outer disciple, Lan Yu, away at the first bell, telling him to get warm before the snow really started -- but now it left her alone, unattended in no less than Zewu-jun’s personal apartments.
He’d never intended to keep her waiting. Zewu-jun was much too thoughtful to do it knowingly. In fact, it’d been early afternoon when they’d sat down together -- Hanguang-jun staring blankly from the door -- to review the proposed building.
It shouldn’t have taken long. Hanguang-jun had already been given his preliminary review.
He hadn’t wanted to leave the proposal to Nie Huaisang’s young niece, but when it came to building projects, the young Nie Minglin had proven alarmingly skilled at logistics. Hadn’t the new wing of the library been completed within a year, exactly to budget and unidentifiable from the original structure? Hadn’t she overseen the project from start to finish, an alleged gift from her esteemed uncle, the now former Chief Cultivator? True, she was a bit young, but she’d been running the day to day operations of the Unclean Realm for years. Everyone always said the only reason Nie Huaisang made it to any meetings before noon was due to his studious and fearsome niece.
Plus, the funds came from her dowry. No one had dared to confirm, but in light of such sacrifice, it seemed right to leave her in charge.
Nevertheless, Lan Wangji regarded Nie Huaisang’s wayward niece as something like a dormant destructive talisman of unknown origin. He’d agreed to the suggestion that she oversee the construction of the workshop under the strict grounds that he be allowed to review every single one of her recommendations before approval.
“Is it to Wangji’s liking then?” asked Zewu-jun, a little playfully as they’d settled down around the table.
“I found no fault in the designs,” said Hanguang-jun, as sharp and clear as the ice forming over the pond outside.
“Is it to Miss Lin’s liking?” asked Zewu-jun.
Nie Minglin correctly read the room and turned her eyes down. “What matters is if it suits the Yiling Patriarch’s needs, of course,” she said. But then, because she really couldn’t help herself. “His happiness is Hanguang-jun’s happiness. To see them at ease sets me at ease as well.”
She dared a sidewise glance at Hanguang-jun. The man had the countenance of a statue. The kind you set out to protect a gate.
“It’s wonderful to see you reach an accord.” It’d taken a month of Hangaung-jun’s studious, obsessive review of every single piece of information presented to him. “Since you are both in agreement, I don’t expect this to take very long at all.”
Which was naturally when a guest disciple stumbled up to the door crying: “Hanguang-jun, Zewu-jun. In the Dark Room. The summoning...Lan Sizhui and Master Wei are holding it off, but...”
He sank to one knee, clutching a curse seared into his shoulder. The brothers' eyes met.
“I’ll go,” said Hanguang-jun.
“As will I,” said Zewu-jun, sweeping heroically to his feet.
“I’ll stay here,” volunteered Nie Minglin, before Zewu-jun could say something gallant to her. “I would only get in your way.”
And before Nie Minglin could even get a word in, he said, “Then wait for me. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Hanguang-jun left with the guest disciple. Zewu-jun paused.
“The talismans are in the second cabinet drawer,” said Nie Minglin, without looking. He’d need them. He no longer carried a sword.
“Ah, thank you.” Zewu-jun moved like he’d restarted. But as he gathered the sheets, he smiled gently. “My apologies. I know you wanted this settled.”
“Your brother would really do anything for that man, wouldn’t he?”
“Thank you for working so hard for this.” He didn’t just mean the construction plans. Before he left, he leaned over her. His hair tickled her cheek. He kissed her, quickly. He kissed her quickly once, and then again. And once more after that, as though he might not get another chance--
“Zewu-jun,” she murmured against his chin. “You've had your kiss for today. Go.”
“Ah. Yes.” He backed out onto the deck, before taking off across the snowy courtyard like a white winter bird.
It was nice to see him smile.
Nie Minglin touched her lips, sighed, and settled for reviewing her notes to pass the time. She added several annotations. A half shichen later, an apologetic outer disciple arrived with supper and a message. The evil was subdued -- but there was a necessary follow-up investigation. Zewu-jun and Hanguang-jun were headed to the Back Mountain, and would return before sunset.
Nie Minglin watched the cloudy skies dim in the courtyard. Lan Yu brought in some warming blocks and lit the lamps before she sent him away.
“Sister Nie,” said Lan Yu, “Will you be all right here alone?”
“Zewu-jun asked me to wait for him,” said Nie Minglin. “I would hate to disappoint him.”
‘Again,’ she added, in her mind.
As she shut the door, she was glad for her cloak. Around this time, she’d normally have been settled in the dormitories with the other female guest disciples. She’d be listening to their chatter as she organized her robes for the next day. The topics seldom changed: the latest night hunt, the upcoming student concerts, the latest mad venture of the Yiling Patriarch, the recent marriage of Lan Sizhui to the Chief Cultivator...
“Do you think Lan Jingyi will inherit the sect?”
“Zewu-jun does seem to be following in the tradition of Lan An….” Here, eyes would inevitably fall on Nie Minglin, folding her overrobe. “Does Sister Nie have any ideas of Zewu-jun’s prospects?”
“That’s a curious question,” Nie Minglin would inevitably answer. “Should I have any idea? Gossip is forbidden.”
The conversation usually ended there.
The deep sigh of the winter winds and the gentle rattle of the chimes were so very welcome by comparison.
There was a time when it would have been no scandal for Nie Minglin to stay here -- back when she was not, expressly, herself. Or perhaps she was more herself than she ever should have been. But people seldom questioned a man with power’s access to another’s rooms, whether they be a man or woman.
Or a sworn brother.
‘Second Brother, what sort of guest would I be if I did not offer my support? Let me come with you.’
She’d run out of annotations to make. She settled for some light reading. Zewu-jun kept a magnificent collection of poetry in his study. Her fingers found her favorite without even having to browse the shelf. She lit the lamp he kept on the stand and settled on the edge of the daybed. She bundled herself up in her cloak and listened to the wind outside. As the candles burned down, she tucked her feet up. As the light grew dimmer, she rested herself on her arm.
‘But if A-Yao is tired, he should rest.’
“Second Brother, there’s still so much to be done,” murmured Nie Minglin, laughing softly. She shook her head. Ah, she must have been weary, if she was entertaining such phantoms. If only Lianfang-zun had had the grace to properly rest. But alas. He could be allowed no such peace, that wicked man.
Nie Minglin let her head sink onto the cushions of the daybed. A small nap. She never slept deeply, in this life or the last. Surely, she’d hear Zewu-jun’s footprints in the snow. Surely, she’d be up by then. They could organize the upcoming discussion conference. Seating arrangements in Carp Tower were always so bothersome. It wouldn’t do to leave anyone feeling slighted by their placement. To say nothing of the entertainment. And oh, how he wished Sect Leader Jiang would go just a little easier on A-Ling. The boy is fussy enough about his meals. Do you know how long it took to find a chef for him?
She nodded off to the sound of bells.
Lan Xichen knelt in the snow in front of the wards. Inside, the spirit stirred: curiously, hungrily. He held out his hand. The silver bell lay there, still now.
“Is this what you wanted?”
The white fox lowered her magnificent head, ears twitching forward in interest.
“My mistake,” said Lan Xichen, smiling tiredly. “It wanted to come back to you.”
The fox began to hop in place, her tail trembling.
Lan Xichen placed the bell in the snow, which melted quickly from the warmth of its desire. He stood, took a step back, and turned to regard his brother over his shoulder.
“Wangji,” he said. “Please have Young Master Wei release the wards.”
The Yiling Patriarch played a flat note. One by one, the light in the talismans faded. The bell began to chime. The fox loped forward, nosing it.
She had an old white ribbon around her neck. Very carefully, Lan Xichen reached forward and fastened the bell to the center. The fox did a happy circle.
“Take it and go in peace,” said Lan Xichen, gently.
She returned to her spectral form, shaking the trees as she departed. The tinkling of the bell echoed through the hollow, icy air.
The bell had found its owner, but it had been a deep trip into the Back Mountain, and the thick snow made it too dangerous to go by sword. So they returned by foot, following the path the bell had burned through the woods.
The rabbits, at least, made fine company. They gathered about Lan Wangji’s feet as they trudged through the snow, nibbling at the trailing ends of his robes and cloak.
“Tch, still the favorite,” muttered Wei Wuxian. “Hey, hey, I feed you too. Sometimes. Lan Zhan, reason with our emergency rations, will you?”
“I believe Wei Ying has proved their point.”
There was no moon to go by as they passed the Gentian House, marking the path to the main compound, but from the feel of the air and the lack of lights beyond the bridge, it must have been late. Commending the junior disciples to the Medical Pavilion for observation and purifying the Dark Room took more time.
“Wei Ying and I shall mind the rest,” volunteered Lan Wangji, once it was clear the curse had lifted from those who’d been injured.
All that was left was the report. And Lan Wangji’s declaration had an edge of concern. Lan Xichen had participated in more and more Night Hunts of late, but he’d spent many years in seclusion before that, and his stamina was not yet what it once was.
“Very well, Wangji,” said Lan Xichen, to set him at ease. “I will read your report in the morning. Thank you.”
The lanterns were din beyond the bamboo grove. The inner courtyard of the Cold Room lay dark, quiet, and overcome by snow. No lights from within. Nie Minglin must have returned to the dorms. Good. She always needed more sleep. He knew how restless her mind was, in this life and the last.
It seemed unnecessary to wake an outer disciple at this hour to attend him, so he made his own way up the steps, pausing once or twice to listen to the chimes and marvel at the clarity the cold air brought on -- before accepting the more human tug of exhaustion behind his eyes and ducking inside.
She’d left the schematics on the writing desk. He leaned forward to brush his hand over one of the fresh annotations. Even her shorthand was flawless and unidentifiable in its perfection. He wondered sometimes how hard she’d worked at that, and when she’d done it. Had it been as a young girl, holed away in her uncle’s study? Or had it been as a boy, in the top level of a brothel? Both, probably. The girl might have had the memories, but the hand would have to be retrained.
How frustrating that must have been for her.
A stirring on the other side of the room shook him from his musings. Half hidden by the privacy screen, and curled up on the daybed, Nie Minglin bunched up tighter against the breeze from the doors. The open book dangled precariously from her hand. Instinctively, Lan Xichen reached over to take it before she could nudge it off the bed.
He stared down at her in wonder. There had been a time -- a very long time ago now -- he’d returned from some sect business to find Lianfang-zun valiantly fighting sleep in his study, a scroll or a letter in front of him. Sleep seldom won that battle. Even in the peace of the Cold Room -- one of the few places Liangfang-zun could feel at ease and speak freely-- he was always possessed with a desperate energy to keep working.
There was a time -- it really was so long ago -- when Lan Xichen had prided himself in coaxing him to set it all aside. This tea is quite calming, A-Yao. Please, speak freely, A-Yao. A-Yao works so hard. He’s earned some rest, hasn’t he?
Lan Xichen had thought of it as returning a favor: all those nights Meng Yao had stood watch over him in dingy safehouses and roadside lean-tos, resting with his back to the door and a stolen sword in his lap.
‘It’s no trouble, Master Lan. I’m quite used to it.’
Nie Minglin had pulled her cloak over herself when she’d drifted off, but at some point in the night, it’d bunched at her side. She looked terribly cold, so Lan Xichen went to his private quarters to pull out one of the quilts from its chest. He knelt over her, tucking the quilt around her. She squirmed nearer to him on pure instinct.
She murmured, “Second Brother?”
“No,” said Lan Xichen, as gently as he could.
Nie Minglin rolled over and settled back into the deeper recesses of sleep.
And curled her arm, perfectly, around the arm he’d used to brace himself on the daybed.
“Miss Lin,” said Lan Xichen, softly. “Perhaps…”
“Mm.” She pressed her face into his sleeve. Lan Xichen froze, all at once locked in place by indecision. At least a dozen songs about Emperor Ai and his lover flashed through his mind all at once. Songs that were only borderline allowed in the Lan archives. He’d read them for archival purposes, of course.
And the beautiful young man curled up on his daybed was now a woman, of course
That did not actually make the circumstance less awkward.
But she did look comfortable, and the room was cold. He ought to have lit the warming blocks, or at least conjured a talisman for warmth, but it was very late, he’d spent the better part of the night chasing a fox and a bell through the Back Mountains, and he’d long ago promised himself he would never waver so foolishly over anything again.
“...just until you’re warm,” he promised, and let himself sink down onto the daybed beside her. There was plenty of space for him. Nie Minglin did not take up too much room. And what’s more, she almost immediately pressed against him, tucking her head against his chest. Her chestnut brown hair was mildly rumpled from the day, kept at bay by the elaborate Qinghe style -- her braids wrapped neatly around her bun. In this life, she must have had attendants to help her style them so evenly.
In her last life, he’d done it himself. Lan Xichen had laughed about it with him. Jin Guangyao had always insisted that Lanling attendants didn’t understand Qinghe stylings, but Lan Xichen suspected now it had more to do with his dislike of allowing people too near his neck.
But when his hand settled carefully, protectively, over the back of Nie Minglin’s neck. She just gave a soft, contented sigh. He could just make out a trace of a dimple on her exposed cheek.
Well, she needed the rest.
By morning the snow had tapered off. A break in the clouds let light in through the doors. Nie Minglin woke to the sound of snow sliding off the awning. The courtyard would need clearing. They’d need to check on the plants. She’d need to reschedule that review. But for the moment, she was warm and better rested than she’d felt in years, so she let herself slide deeper under the quilt she couldn’t remember pulling over herself, which was odd, because she remembered most things…
An arm was draped over her shoulders.
Nie Minglin looked up.
Lan Xichen looked back, sleepy and smiling.
She touched her hair, checking to see if it was in a woman’s bun -- then she touched his chest, and knew for a fact the man resting beside her was not a dream.
She sighed. “Zewu-jun,” she murmured, voice rough from sleep. She squinted against the light. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
He shifted the quilt more comfortably around her, as if shielding her from the day. “I’ve never really seen you sleep.”
“Mm. Don’t be silly. Didn’t you and Liangfang-zun go on many night hunts together?”
“I saw him doze,” he admitted, quietly. “But never rest.”
“Ah, evil never does.”
“Shh, please don’t talk like that.”
“I’m in bed with a handsome sect leader. I suppose I ought to do what he says.”
“Don’t talk like that either.”
“Zewu-jun.” She squinted up at him. And, because she really couldn’t help herself, she reached up to touch his cheek, tracing the face she had so keenly remembered. “How like light you can be. I never did tell you that.”
Ah, such bright eyes. “No.”
“You know we promised we’d behave ourselves.”
A soft laugh. “We did.”
“Well,” she said, “I haven’t kissed you yet today.”
So she did. It was long and deep, and she delighted in pressing herself against him as she did it. He hadn’t bothered to undress from his night hunt, so he smelled a little of old sweat and stale perfumes. Ah, she didn’t mind. He was terrible at being a cad. She liked that kiss so much she went in for another, and another after.
“That’s more than one,” he warned her.
“It’s one moment,” she whispered back. He ought to be wary of someone who could bend the rules like that, but no, he just smiled brighter and bent his head to return the kiss.
Which was, as it happened, the moment one of the outer disciples chose to open the door.
“Zewu-jun?” called Lan Yu, “Apologies for the interruption, but Hanguang-jun wishes to know if… if….”
He trailed off. Zewu-jun shifted over her. From under his now raised chest, she could see the poor disciple in the door, and he could probably see her. Or at least part of her head. His eyes were very, very large.
“I’ll come back later,” he said. She could hear the clatter of his sandals on the deck.
Lan Xichen was too elegant to groan; he just winced. Nie Minglin fell back on the daybed and covered her eyes with her arm.
“Zewu-jun,” she murmured, “What time is it?”
The candles were out, but the light now positively pouring through the abandoned doors didn’t lie.
“A...bit past the first bell, I think,” said Lan Xichen, sheepishly.
“How far past the first bell?”
“Quite a bit, I think.”
“Well,” said Nie Minglin, with a rictus smile. “Well, well, well.”
“I tried in this life,” said Nie Minglin, gathering her files and fixing her hair. “You must admit, I did try.”
“He won’t tell anyone,” said Lan Xichen, watching her pace with increasing awe. “Gossip is forbidden.”
“News isn’t,” Nie Minglin shot back, with her arms full of sliding scrolls. “And I should think a long secluded sect leader at last taking some woman to bed is probably news.”
“I didn’t take you to bed.” There was a hint of regret in his voice. She wished she could have paused to think about how lovely that was.
“No, you climbed in with me,” said Nie Minglin. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll think I seduced you. A face like mine, of course I would. I look like … my mother. Oh, Zewu-jun. You know the things they always said about her. I hated it. I hated them. I hated them. I hated them. How dare they. She was better than all of them. But no, clearly she was only a whore--”
“...your mother was a Nie armswoman.”
“That’s not the one I’m talking about and you know it!” Nie Minglin practically wailed. When did she become someone who wailed?
She dropped half her scrolls. He came over to catch her arms, so she didn’t drop the rest. It was so like what he did whenever she bowed that she froze. He pulled her near him in one easy motion. The rest of the scrolls fell anyway.
“You’re being very honest with me right now,” he said, into her hair. “Thank you.”
“Zewu-jun,” she said, into his chest. “Don’t coddle me. I probably deserve this.”
He hummed against her forehead. Oh, it was comfort. Liangfang-zun would have never let him do that.
“I’ll say something,” he said. “If they do.”
“You always did,” she tried not to choke. “And look how I repaid you. Look how I drag you down--”
He stroked her hair. “I won’t pity you.”
She went quiet.
He continued: “I will say something. And because I am a sect leader who has long been in seclusion, they will believe me. And because you are now a young woman who belongs to a Great Sect, they won’t dare speak against you. For fear of me, or for fear of your uncle. You may decide which it will be. Is that acceptable?”
He placed a kiss near her hairline, then another over her eye.
“Then forgive me my impropriety, Miss Lin,” he said. “And for not waking you sooner. You waited so patiently for me. And I’m sure I’ve kept you from quite a number of tasks.”
“A mountain’s worth,” she said, smiling weakly despite herself. “But you say that like that troubles me.”
But Nie Minglin did as he suggested. She fixed her hair and her robes, regathered her scrolls, and stepped back out into the world as if it weren’t about to close around her like a snare.
Gusu Lan were not precious about the cold. They’d cleared the training courtyard for mid-day cultivation, great piles of fresh snow piled up in the corners of the yard. The guest disciples all sat gathered among the stones, doing their best to look serene and bigger than their bodies, and not cold and irritated like they must have been. Nie Minglin found an empty space between two of them and sank into an admittedly stiff lotus position. She ignored four or five sets of eyes that cracked open as she joined them.
She followed them to early afternoon mess, where the talk along the walkway was about the spirit last night. Was it a fox? No, no, I heard it was a bell. Lan Sizhui is leading classes this morning. Apparently it took no less than Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun to subdue it.
And the Yiling Patriarch, but ah, when is he not involved in some way in these things?
Nie Minglin kept her face carefully blank as she took a bowl of noodles and settled herself along one of the tables, the one nearest to the door. She was a little surprised when she was joined by two or three of her dormmates. All of whom were staring at her between bites.
But speaking during meals was strictly forbidden, and none dared to challenge their hosts in such a way.
If they’d hope to catch her that afternoon during sword practice, they were sorely disappointed. Practice was cancelled owing to the more martial disciples being called away to reinforce the Back Mountain wards. Nie Minglin took the time to return several books to the Library Pavillion -- and take out some more. She showed a special token, one that let her into the Quiet Rooms in the back, where no one was allowed to speak. If the Lan disciple turned a little red and coughed when he admitted her, he was too much of a Lan to make much more of it than that.
But the library kept its own hours, and she knew she’d need to finish her meeting with Hanguang-jun and Zewu-jun eventually. And so, with the calm of one about to face execution, Nie Minglin emerged from the archives late that afternoon to return to her dormitory. Wind blew snow from the roofs and over her cloak.
A gaggle of small Lan children were hard at work taking lessons from the Yiling Patriarch. The lessons involved creating little figures out of snow. He walked down the line of them, drawing talismans on their lumpy faces to make them move.
Wei Wuxian spotted her over the heads of one of these abominations. He’d made it dance. “Sister Nie,” he called. “Congratulations!”
“Senior Wei,” said Nie Minglin, cooly. She had no idea what he was referring to. None at all. She tucked her cloak a little further around her shoulders and walked just a touch faster.
Oh, it would be wonderful for Hanguang-jun to give him that workshop.
It would put him and his loose tongue so much further away.
The dorm chatter fell to a hush as she walked in, and Nie MInglin knew she was doomed. Ah, well. She’d faced worse ends. Shaking the water from her cloak, she passed three of them and unfolded the privacy screen. To her surprise, she found one of her own fresh robes already draped over it.
Nie Minglin stopped very slowly.
“If you wish to make fun of me,” she said, “I shall remind you I have no patience for bad jokes, and access to many, many pins.”
A very well decorated Jin disciple began to titter obnoxiously. “Oh, Sister Nie, it’s nothing like that. Sister Zhao was just on laundry this morning, and well. We thought it might help.”
“Help.” Nie Minglin lowered her hands and turned, very slowly. “How might this ‘help’?”
The Jin disciple had the nerve to waggle her eyebrows. “Well, we, ah, know you didn’t have time to change…”
Ugh, Liangfang-zun had known this one’s father. Who knew he’d throw such an obnoxious child.
“And my comings and goings interest you so?”
All at once at least three more girls crowded in with a resounding, “Well.” “Actually.” “Since you brought it UP.”
Like scavengers descending upon a corpse. Wei Wuxian might have more material by this evening. Finer things than puppets made of snow.
“It’s the least we could do!” cried a Qin disciple, at last. A quiet, mousy thing who normally spent most of her off hours sewing tiny little dolls. “Since, ah, we so misunderstood you.”
Nie Minglin slid her hands into her sleeves. “And how have you misunderstood me?”
The Qin disciple turned bright red. “Well, er. You and Zewu-jun…”
She took a breath, trying to hide the fire in her eyes as her thumb began to make circles over her other hand. “What about me and Zewu-jun.”
“Oh, fucking gods and Buddhas,” shouted a Jiang disciple who’d just been trying to sleep. She peered out from under her pillow, glaring furiously. “Everyone thought you were trying to fuck him, obviously. Can you all just shut up?”
“Sister Jiang,” said the Jin disciple, in hypocritical sharpness.
“Oh,” cried the rather virginal Qin disciple.
The Zhao disciple, who’d been glaring at her Jin sister for the last five minutes since being thrown under the cart for the laundry stunt, said, simply. “Well. I wouldn’t say it like that. But he makes a lot of time for you.”
“He lights up like a New Year’s lantern when he sees you,” admitted the Jin disciple.
“And he has such a smile when he sees you,” said the Qin disciple, with little stars in her eyes.
“So you can’t blame us for wondering,” huffed the Jin disciple.
“I can blame you all for not shutting up about it,” snarled the Jiang disciple, who vanished under her quilt. “Who fucking cares?”
“Someone who’s Sect Leader isn’t the Cultivation World’s most unmarriable lightning rod.”
“And which one of you spoke to Lan Yu?” asked Nie Minglin, calmly.
The Qin disciple turned even more red and hid behind her latest sewing project.
“I see,” said Nie Minglin. She’d liked this girl. She’d been the first female disciple the Qin had sent to a Discussion Conference, and quite skilled with a short sword despite her timid nature. Self defense had become particularly important to Qin cultivators. Her aunt had met a tragic end in Carp Tower, a long time ago. “How disappointing Qin Luying. I’d really never taken you for a gossip.”
“I’m sorry,” squeaked Qin Luying, like a mouse. “I know you were probably waiting to say something yourself. It’s just. Um. They were always making assumptions. I thought they ought to know the truth!”
“The truth.” Nie Minglin wished she had a hat just then. She would have adjusted it. She settled for standing as straight as she could and squaring her shoulders. The other girls all stepped back from her then. No one liked to be too close to a Nie with a particular stance. “And what truth might that be? That I spent the night with the sect leader? That I’ve had designs on him?”
“Well, obviously,” said the Zhao disciple. “You’re his fiancee, after all.”
That brought Nie Minglin’s racing mind to a screaming halt.
“I -- what?”
Qin Luying held up her embroidery. The beginnings of a delicate orchid was blazed across the front of it.
An orchid. For love and fertility. My, that girl worked fast.
“I… I just wanted to say congratulations,” said Qin Luying.
“I mean, like, damn,” said the Zhao disciple.
“Offering your dowry as a hello,” sighed the Jin disciple, “It’s bold, but I suppose it worked.”
“I…” Nie Minglin looked around. A crowd of excited faces looked back, bright and eager. But all she could recall was standing in the Orchid Room, presenting the plans for the library expansions. The funds for which, she’d said, were to come out of her…
“I suppose it did,” she admitted, very faintly.
The room exploded into a whirl of rolling commentary.
“Oh, Sister Minglin, you absolute legend!”
“ARE WE REALLY STILL ABOUT THIS? YOU HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT THIS SINCE THE MIDDLE OF LAST NIGHT.”
“Tell me, is Zewu-jun tender?”
“Or is he passionate?”
“Does he write poems for you? Oh, oh, songs!”
It was dizzying. Nie Minglin let Qing Xing help her to the nearest bed. She folded her hands on her lap, and did her best to regain herself. They would require an answer. They would never let her live in peace if she didn’t give one.
“Well, if you must know,” she said, very primly. “He has a musician’s touch.”
The ensuing screams were enough to wake every bird within the nearby woods.
“....it’s very well thought out,” said Zewu-jun. “I see no reason why the elders should object. It’s been long enough, hasn’t it?”
The snowmelt slowed as daylight waned. The light filtering through the droplets shone golden. It seemed the worst of the weather had passed. Cool as it still was, the true ice came from Hanguang-jun’s gaze. His eyes bore into Nie Minglin’s back. She ignored it, bowed her head gracefully, and smiled.
“Thank you, Zewu-jun.”
Zewu-jun pressed his seal into the plans and handed the scroll back to Nie Minglin.
“I will trust you to get started.”
“Of course, Zewu-jun.”
It was a formal dismissal, very technically. But Nie Minglin took her time collecting her things, and Lan Wangji lingered in the door. The air practically refroze around him.
He seemed ready to say something. Zewu-jun glanced at him, curiously. “Wangji?”
“...a matter for another time.” The shadow vanished from the door, making a rather pointed line towards the Back Mountains, where no doubt Wei Wuxian had gone off to cavort with whatever horrible thing had caught his fancy.
A fight for another day, then. Nie Minglin let her shoulders relax and stopped pretending her papers needed reordering. Lan Xichen crossed around the writing desk to help her with them, regardless. It gave him a neat excuse to take her hand.
“...so it’s reached him,” she said. “Then it’s all over the Cloud Recesses. The winter breeze is, indeed, quite powerful isn’t it?”
“I will speak to him,” said Lan Xichen. “And the rest. Are you all right?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” said Nie Minglin. She began to shake. “But, Zewu-jun, ah…”
He began to stroke her hand with his thumb to calm her, but when she gazed up at him, it became clear she was holding back laughter.
“I think you may have to speak with your uncle first,” she said, “We are, apparently, engaged, after all.”
“Yes, since I arrived.”
“And how did that happen?”
“I offered you the new library wing as my dowry. Publicly.” She guided him back to his stool. She decided to settle beside him. His arm was a welcome bit of support, after a day of feeling like one’s head was attached by mere strings. “And the Sect Leader accepted.”
“I...thought that was a joke.”
“Uncle probably did take the funds from it,” she said.
“I thought you meant you didn’t want to marry at all.”
“Oh, I didn’t,” she said. “Most men are absolute dogs. Save Zewu-jun. … oh, fine, and I suppose your brother is a paragon of gentlemanly virtue. And he won’t be bothering any women any time soon. But as I said, I had no interest in the topic. I had no interest in a lot of things. And yet, here I am, now, with you. Having boldly offered you my heart. And here I promised myself I’d live quietly. You were right. I can never lay low.”
“You’ve never done well when things spin out of your control,” admitted Lan Xichen, processing. The idea must not have completely disgusted him, because he settled his arm around her shoulders to pull her closer. “...but I can say something, if you’d like.”
“I,” Nie Minglin gestured at the empty air, but settled instead for laughing into her palm. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Now you sound like your uncle.”
“Then I should throw myself over the waterfall now. Because I’m truly doomed.”
“Nie Minglin,” said Lan Xichen, guiding her hand back to her lap. “Would you like them to think we are engaged?”
And, as the smile settled into something more wistful, she took a breath. “....would you?”
A mischievous light twinkled in Lan Xichen’s eye. “I see no reason why the elders should object.”
“Nor I, as it happens.”
A long silence ensued. Then, with great dignity, Nie Minglin picked up the ends of her outer robe, and hid her face in it.
“You realize,” she said, around the cloth. “That if we go through with this, it’s all we’ll hear about. The bold maiden who won a sect leader's heart by offering him her dowry at hello. They’re going to write songs about it.”
Lan Xichen considered this very carefully. “The short form composition exams are coming up,” he said, at last. “They’ve likely already started.”
She swatted his knee. “Songs. Poems. They’ll outlive me. They may even outlive you. They’ll outlive anything Liangfang-zun ever did.”
“Mm. I don’t know. The watchtowers are still standing.”
“That is very lovely. But this is what I’m going to be remembered for. I just know it.”
“Would that really be so bad?”
Nie Minglin dared to look at him. He was gazing down at her, and there wasn’t even a glimpse of sadness in it at all. He took both her hands in his, and he stroked them. Strong hands. Musician's hands. It always calmed her when he did that, in this life, and the last.
“Oh, I suppose not,” she said, looking away, her cheeks aflame as if she really were just a young girl. “There is some truth to it, when all is said and done.”