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By The River-side

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When Wei Wuxian first came to Lotus Pier, he couldn’t swim. This wasn’t a completely novel condition in Lotus Pier; the youngest shidis often couldn’t. He was set to take lessons with them, and in the meantime, forbidden from entering water above his knees unless a senior disciple or the sect master was instructing him to.

The youngest shidis, however, weren’t sharing a room with Jiang Cheng, who could swim like a tadpole.

“What’s a tadpole?” asked Wei Ying.

“It’s a frog,” said Jiang Cheng. “Don’t you know anything?”

Wei Ying felt like he didn’t know anything. Everything was new, at Lotus Pier. He didn’t know that at the first bell, everyone went to the courtyard behind the dining hall, and at the third bell, everyone went to a different courtyard. He didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to let his Jiang Sect bell get wet, and if he did let it get wet by accident, he was supposed to set it next to the stove until it got dry. And then he wasn’t supposed to touch it with his bare hands, but to leave it until the morning when the stove had gone out.

The point was, everything was new, and Wei Ying didn’t know anything, and Jiang Cheng knew everything, including how to swim.

It was a hot day, hotter on the lake, the sun glinting off the water, but cooler, because the lake was always cool. Wei Ying sat on the edge of the dock (a dock was like a pier, but different, somehow) with his legs in the water. This was allowed, so long as he remained seated on the dock. Jiang Cheng was in the lake, because he was allowed, stripped down to his undershorts. It must be nice to be able to get the water all over, unlike Wei Ying, who had the sun beating down on every part of him that wasn’t in the lake.

He noticed that a corner of his Jiang Sect robes had slipped free of where he’d tucked them in his belt and gotten in the lake water, and guiltily pulled them back up. Jiang Cheng, meanwhile, was skimming across the water as if he were a fish which he was learning lived in rivers and lakes and streams and not just in tiny pots at market.

Wei Ying kicked his feet to make the water splash, and then, a half-dozen body-lengths out into the lake, Jiang Cheng gave a strange yell, thrashed his arms, and disappeared under the water.

Wei Ying waited. The surface of the lake stilled.

“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Ying called, and then felt dumb. He wasn’t allowed to go in the lake without supervision, but he had practised when da-shixiong led swim lessons, and knew how sound didn’t reach you underwater. He wondered if it counted as going in above his knees if he knelt down on the dock and stuck his head in to see if he could see. “Jiang Cheng?” he called again, anyway.

The lake was silent. He heard the buzz of countless insects, and some quiet water sounds. In the distance, he could hear the voices and sounds of the household, but no Jiang Cheng. Far away, there was a faint rhythmic thumping, distorted as it came from over the lake, maybe someone with a hammer? Some animal?

“Jiang Cheng?” He could hear his voice getting tight and high. “Jiang Cheng, I don't—”

A frog hopped onto one of the lotus leaves directly below him. Wei Ying looked at it.

The frog seemed to be looking at him directly. “Raa rao,” it said, not “GuaGua,” as it ought. It sounded very judgemental.

Wei Ying gripped the edge of the dock tighter. “Jiang Cheng?”

“Rao rao rao” said the frog, again.

“Jiang Cheng, is that you?” asked Wei Ying, feeling very foolish. Slowly, so slowly he reached out to… Jiang Cheng? The frog? The frog regarded his advancing hand with a gimlet eye.

“I don’t know what to do, Jiang Cheng! Does Uncle Jiang know you turn into a frog?”

“Turn into a what?” asked Jiang Cheng, from behind him.

Wei Ying tried to turn around, but he was overbalanced, and he fell face-first into the lake, instead.

There was a scary, nasty bit, cold and mucky, and then Jiang Cheng was pulling him up, and he realised the water was only—

“It was a joke! You were supposed to—” he said, hauling Wei Ying to the edge of the lake where he could walk out instead of having to haul himself and all his wet clothes onto the dock.

“I thought you had drowned!” said Wei Ying, crying. “I thought you were gone.”

“You thought I was a frog,” Jiang Cheng accused. “I heard you.”

“I thought you were a frog,” Wei Ying howled, starting to hiccup. “I thought you were a frog forever, Jiang Cheng!”

“You’re an idiot,” said Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng helped sneak him into dry clothes, though, and didn’t tell anyone he’d broken the rule about the lake.

The next day, he saw a frog sitting on the middle of a walkway outside the inner family section, and he laughed so hard Jiang Cheng came to see what was so funny.

There was a passage on the way to Qishan where they had to move through a valley between two parallel lines of mountains. Jiang Sect no longer had enough men for Jiang Cheng to assume responsibility for logistics the way he longed to do when he saw Nie outer disciples struggling to move men and supplies onto their flat barges, loading them unevenly and poling out of rhythm. He looked for Wei Wuxian half by reflex, knowing their incompetence would register on his face as something between disdain and amusement before he remembered. Of course Wei Wuxian wasn’t there. He was drinking, in all likelihood, hidden away somewhere in the supply train, if he wasn’t all the way back with the camp followers.

And although he might make what he imagined to be sly hints about what he had been doing there, Jiang Cheng found he didn’t even particularly believe that. No, he was just curled up in some corner, like a beaten dog, although he wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, that flinched away from Jiang Cheng’s every opening, instead of sidling inside them the way he ought.

They traversed four lakes that day, and had to camp between two instead of pressing to the end of the passage, because to do otherwise would be to risk being caught split in half. Jiang Cheng didn’t think Wen Ruohan was scouting the mountains on his southern border, but then again, thinking he knew what Wen Ruohan wouldn’t do hadn’t exactly paid off in the past. In his tent, the sound of the frogs at night was almost deafening, a chorus, slightly different than the one in Yunmeng, as if the frogs, too, spoke a different dialect.

He woke up in the middle of the night when Wei Wuxian finally snuck in to join him in the tent. The frogs’ chorus had faded now, and he only thought he could still perceive it faintly.

“Did you hear the frogs? They sing different,” he said, on registering the presence that had woken him. He didn’t know why he woke up feeling like he needed to say it to Wei Wuxian.

“What?” said Wei Wuxian. “I was. Checking the watch lines.” He said it like he didn’t care that it sounded like a lie.

“Never mind,” said Jiang Cheng, and rolled his back to him.

For no particular reason, although Jin Ling had not known it at the time, no one showed him his father’s sword until he was ten years of age. It might have been reasonable to keep him away from the temptation of its bright ornamentation and sharp edges, but the truth was that no one with the power to unlock the treasure room thought of the sword and Jin Ling’s hunger for every scrap of his father as two things that might bear upon each other.

But when he was ten years of age, his education began to include accompanying his little uncle on some of his duties, a thing that had briefly seemed exciting and quickly turned almost unutterably tedious. It was worse than even banquets, because while he had to be very still and not talk, and look attentive, and not get his clothes dirty at banquets, at least there was food to eat, and sometimes his little uncle would whisper secrets to him about various guests.

But most of his uncle’s duties, it turned out, were not about rude secrets, or even banquets. Most of them involved a great deal of paper, or old men who thought they were important and had to be flattered, or both at once. And Jin Ling merely had to stand there and look attentive, Jin Ling, this will be your job some day.

Jin Ling would get rid of all this, he thought, when he was sect leader.

And then his little uncle brought him to the treasure room one day to pick out a gift for a visiting… person, Jin Ling didn’t care, and led him straight to a shelf full of precious calligraphy.

“What?” said Jin Ling, feeling betrayed. “This isn’t treasure, it’s boring.”

His uncle focused on him. “Jin Ling?”

“Where’s the sword that cut a mountain in half?” he asked, looking around, but everywhere around him were identical shelves separated into small boxes, each containing a scroll.

“What?” asked his little uncle, sounding like grown-ups did before they told you to go find somewhere else to be, but Jin Ling wasn’t paying attention.

“The founder’s sword. Our clan’s founder. He cut a mountain in half, you know.” Jin Ling thought maybe he didn’t know. “I’ll tell you the story, I remember it. The mountain was very big, the biggest, and—”

“Jin Ling,” said his uncle, running a finger along the racks that held the scrolls, “would you like to see your father’s things?”

His little uncle didn’t even show him his father’s treasures, only led him around a shelf, and then pointed, so Jin Ling was alone when he first saw Suihua. Which was lucky, because no one was there to witness him thrust it aside in anger when he saw its hilt was plain.

It wasn’t plain, of course; it was the sword of Jin Zixuan, his father, the heir apparent to the clan; it was richly ornamented. But there was no hiding what it didn’t have: an animal.

Jin Ling sulked about this for an evening, and then mostly forgot, except that the next time his other uncle was passing through, Uncle Jiang took him out into Lanling and let him pick out sweets at a sweet shop and Jin Ling saw his uncle’s sword and remembered.

“Why doesn’t my sword have an animal?” he asked.

Your sword,” his Jiang uncle repeated, sounding amused, in a way that sometimes Jin Ling liked and sometimes made him feel stupid. “I didn’t know you had a sword.”

“My father’s sword is going to be mine, anyway. I want an animal.”

“Who told you swords have animals?” said his uncle, still sounding amused.

“You!” said Jin Ling, pointing not at his uncle but at his sword, Sandu. “You have a frog! I want one!”

His uncle’s face suddenly changed. His hand was tight on his sword, and Jin Ling was a little bit scared.

“Don’t—It’s not something you should want,” said Uncle Jiang, but he wouldn’t look at Jin Ling. “I made a mistake.”

Jin Ling suddenly realised that probably his uncle had wanted a more martial animal, and now regretted the frog, and was angry to be reminded of it.

“Could I get a horse, though? Or a tiger?”

“You can’t—” His uncle sighed. “You’ll realise, when you’re older, that it’s not the, the fanciest ones you should value, it’s the ones that stick around.”

Jin Ling didn’t think he would learn that, and besides, swords stuck around, didn’t they? Where would they go?

Wei Ying seemed always somewhat tentative when they were in Gusu. In his time in Gusu as a youth, he had seemed to be always expressing a challenge: am I too unruly, too excessive? Very well, then I am! Now, though, he acted as though he might step wrong and have his welcome withdrawn. Lan Wangji hated it, but was a little at a loss to know how to give Wei Ying what he wished to give him: certainty of his belonging, a place. Gusu was the only home he had to offer Wei Ying, at the moment. Although, perhaps…

In any case, it occurred to him that the stream that ran close to the Jingshi could, with a little work, be diverted to fill a pond, which might help Wei Ying, if not by calling to mind the waters of Yunmeng, at least by making visible his imprint upon the landscape of Gusu. He arranged to have some of the labour done while they were travelling together, and directed some of it himself when he was in Gusu without Wei Ying. By the time Wei Ying returned to see it, there was a large body of water, although it lacked the flowers and greenery that would need time to establish themselves.

“Lan Zhan, what is this?” said Wei Ying, delighted. “You’re not stealing Jin Zixuan’s courting ideas now, are you?”

Lan Wangji did not know what this was in reference to, but he said “Does Wei Ying desire courting?”

“Ah, no, Lan Zhan, you have me, you have me!” said Wei Ying, laughing, but Lan Wangji thought Wei Ying liked that idea, too, so made a note.

The pond slowly grew to look less like a thing dug by men with shovels and more like a creation of nature as the plants settled in. A pair of hwamei birds began to visit. Only the artemisia was ready to bloom the first summer, but the lotus Lan Cong had convinced him to transplant from a little gully where the laundry run-off was dumped put forth surface leaves that delighted Wei Ying, even if it didn’t deign to flower.

“Give it time,” Lan Cong advised him, when he went to pester her about its recalcitrance. “The lotus knows its business.”

Lan Wangji had yielded very reluctantly to her advice to use one of Gusu’s native lotuses, rather than attempt to send to Yunmeng for specimens, which he knew from his visits were larger and showier than the ones that resided in Gusu. “Our lotuses already know our weather; those Yunmeng lotuses will take the change very badly.”

Lan Wangji had disliked being told this, although he knew Lan Cong thought only of plants in this particular situation, and also in general. He had also very badly wanted lotuses in the pond, so he had yielded to her wisdom, and now, in the pond’s second summer, it was paying off.

The lotus was now lifting leaves up to the sky, and Lan Cong and Wei Ying both thought it very likely to bloom in autumn. There was duckweed that appeared, attracted a duck, and disappeared again, several times. The rushes around the pond had ceased to look like lonely straws stuck in the mud, and Lan Wangji had even, once, seen a rabbit drinking there, early in the morning.

Wei Ying was of course not awake at the hours when Lan Wangji saw the most life in the pond, but he also noticed signs of life Lan Wangji did not. “That’s a dragonfly,” he said one quiet evening. “I wouldn’t have said a dragonfly makes noise, but I just heard that buzz and knew it was a dragonfly by its wingbeats.”

Lan Wangji hadn’t heard the noise, but they waited in silence until the sound came again, so that he could learn the sound of a dragonfly's wings.

Particularly, though, Wei Ying seemed delighted by the frog. “Lan Zhan, there’s a frog,” he yelled, from outside, while Lan Wangji was inside replacing a string on his qin. He had snapped the second highest string under the force of Wangji’s spiritual attack the night before, and since he had to loosen its neighbour string to replace the broken one, he was carefully examining them before he started to see if they might also benefit from replacement. His nose was almost touching the strings he was squinting at, and Wei Ying startled him so badly at first he thought the sharp tone in his voice was fear. He had half summoned Bichen before he realized it was joy and shock.

He carefully pushed himself back from the qin, and upright, and through the back of the Jingshi and down the short path to the pond from which Wei Ying’s voice had come. Wei Ying was on his knees in the mud next to the pond (not on the paved area, barely a half step to his left) and had one hand placed on a decorative stone Lan Zhan had had to outbid Nie Huaisang for, and that Wei Ying had not previously shown any sign of knowing existed. He was looking at, perhaps as Lan Zhan should have expected, a frog. It was quite a small frog. It looked… like a frog.

When Lan Wangji’s shadow fell across him, Wei Ying seemed to freeze for a second. “Ah, Lan Zhan, our pond has a frog.” He pushed himself to his feet.

“Mn,” said Lan Wangji, since this didn’t seem to require a response.

Wei Ying laughed, awkwardly. “It’s only that I didn’t think you had frogs in Gusu.” He cleaned the muck from his hands on the hem of his over-robe.

“Mn,” said Lan Wangji, not sure if he should pretend to believe this.

But Lan Wangji noticed him looking for the frog again later that week. He thought that Wei Ying was, for some reason, quite fond of that one particular frog. Sometimes, if it was warm enough, Wei Ying would lie out by the pond, and he usually tried to find the frog before he selected a spot, so that he could watch it.

Lan Wangji even thought he talked to the frog, when he was alone, much like he knew Wei Ying talked to Little Apple, at times, because sometimes when he was returning to the Jingshi he would hear Wei Ying’s voice from the direction of the pond, although it would go silent before he got close enough to make out words. There was no reason for him to think that Wei Ying was talking to the frog, of course; it could have been to the crane that had begun to appear, or a water beetle, or the hwamei birds, or even his own reflection. But Lan Wangji suspected he was talking to the frog.

It was a little strange that he would go silent at Lan Wangji’s approach, though, because although it was perhaps silly to talk to a frog, Wei Ying was not usually ashamed to be silly, especially in front of Lan Wangji. But Wei Ying seemed happy, and not like he was carrying some secret that weighed him down, so Lan Wangji let it be.

Until the crane ate the frog.

“No!” Wei Ying shrieked. “Put him back!” and then, flying into the Jingshi, “Lan Zhan, hold me, I’m so mad I want to kill that bird!”

Lan Wangji held Wei Ying, since that was the comprehensible part of his speech. “What has happened?” he asked.

“That bird, the, the crane! It just! It ate the frog!”

“The bird has eaten Wei Ying’s frog?”

“He was… It was the same kind, or it looked like,” said Wei Ying a bit incoherently. “It looked like Jiang Cheng.”

Lan Wangji did not know how to respond to that. He could not, no matter how he stretched his imagination, see any resemblance between Jiang Wanyin and the frog, and he was willing to be quite ungenerous to Jiang Wanyin in the comparison.

“No, I mean. There was a frog. When I was little. And later I used to pretend, I’d find a frog, and I’d tell Jiang Cheng, ‘Look it’s you!’ and it was a joke.”

Lan Wangji blinked. He didn’t understand, precisely, but now that he understood that, for Wei Ying, the frog was in some way associated with Jiang Wanyin, certain things made a sort of sense.

Wei Ying… had been talking to the frog.

“I just. For a second I wanted to murder that bird and wouldn’t that be a stupid thing to use demonic cultivation for, revenge on a bird that just—But the frog!” said Wei Ying, sounding really distressed. “But he was always there, I thought he would just… keep being there. I thought.”

Lan Wangji held him silently. He wasn’t sure what he should say. It was highly likely that where one frog had been, more would appear in the future. The frog in the pond had not, so far as he was aware, behaved in any special way that another frog would not.

On the other hand, there seemed a strong possibility that Wei Ying’s distress was not about a frog, really.

“You have not responded to Jin Ling’s letter,” he said. “Do you wish to join him for Qing Ming?”

He knew the reason Wei Ying had not was that Jin Rulan’s uncle would be there, and not, as he had said, because “Who knows how the Jin celebrate Qing Ming, it could be awful. Acres of peonies and gold vases!” Lan Wangji had thought that the prickly state of affairs between Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin was as good a state as was possible, and while he was not happy with it, precisely, he preferred it to the certain pain of Wei Ying making himself tender in hope, again, only for the Jiang clan leader to lash out.

“Perhaps Wei Ying ought to go.” If he wrote a letter warning Jiang Wanyin to behave, it would only make it worse, he thought. He wanted Wei Ying’s visit to be painless, but that wasn’t something he could give him.

“I can stay and pay respects to the Lan ancestors, like a proper wife,” said Wei Ying into his shoulder.

“Mn,” agreed Lan Wangji. Jin Rulan would be visiting his parents’ grave. He wasn’t sure where the Jin interred their dead. It had never been a question that concerned him, before. If it was halfway up a mountain, Wei Ying would be out of breath, and Jiang Wanyin would be short-tempered at being reminded that Wei Ying had sacrificed his golden core. On the other hand, perhaps the presence of their sister’s grave would keep him polite.

On the other hand, Wei Ying had made himself happy, this summer, pretending a frog was Jiang Wanyin and talking to it.

“I guess I could go,” said Wei Ying, “for Jin Ling.”

“There will be new frogs next spring,” he told Wei Ying.

“There’s always frogs,” said Wei Ying, as if it was good news, “if you’re looking.”