The principles of Gusu Lan Sect have much to say about alphas. Most of it can be condensed into the word avoid. Arrogant, violent, cruel, domineering, and sexually voracious by nature, alphas are incapable of ordering their behavior by the Gusu Lan principles. They are not accepted into the sect.
Although it is not forbidden for other sects to bring alphas as guest disciples for the lectures—one of many accommodations made for guest disciples, who cannot be expected to order their entire lives according to the principles when their stay is so brief—no sect has ever dared to do so. Until Jiang Fengmian informed Lan Wangji’s uncle that Yunmeng Jiang’s head disciple, one Wei Wuxian, would be attending with the Yunmeng Jiang party.
Shufu speaks to her about the matter in advance. “As disciplinarian,” he tells her, “you will doubtless be called upon regularly to correct her behavior. Such a person is likely to lash out in response to such attempts, perhaps even with violence. Be on your guard.”
Privately, Lan Wangji thinks that a person who poses such a danger to others should not be permitted within Cloud Recesses in the first place. There may be no rule against accepting alphas as guest disciples, but new rules can be made.
But Lan Wangji was not consulted on the matter. It is Shufu’s decision.
Returning from a night hunt, she encounters the Yunmeng Jiang party on the steps. In the lead are a boy and two girls. They have forgotten their invitation; they bow and ask for an exception. They introduce themselves. The taller of the two girls is Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji studies her.
Wei Wuxian is dressed no differently than the others, which is surprising – she would have expected an alpha to be dressed inappropriately. Provocatively. She is assertive, demanding. Likely she is used to getting her way by bullying. She will not find it so easy to bully Lan Wangji.
Still. The other members of the Yunmeng Jiang party are not responsible for their head disciple’s faults. There is no entrance without an invitation; but the principles require disciples to prevent unnecessary suffering. When night falls, Lan Wangji allows them to enter.
Later, when the moon is high, Wei Wuxian attempts to climb over the wall, carrying liquor. She attempts to bribe Lan Wangji with said liquor—further evidence that she is used to getting her way.
Be on your guard, Shufu said. When Wei Wuxian makes a sudden movement, Lan Wangji unsheathes her sword.
The battle that follows is perplexing. Although Wei Wuxian shouts and whines and refuses to accept responsibility for her behavior, she never draws her own sword, defending herself only with the sheathed blade. And although Lan Wangji would have expected an alpha to lack the self-discipline to advance far in swordplay, Wei Wuxian is skilled. Very skilled. Perhaps Lan Wangji’s equal.
Later, Lan Wangji shares this insight with Lan Xichen, who frowns. “Wangji. How did you think she came to be head disciple of Yunmeng Jiang if she lacked self-discipline?”
And both gossip and making assumptions are forbidden, so Lan Wangji cannot say, I assumed, because I heard others say so, that she was chosen because Jiang Fengmian is her father. It was an unfair assumption, and one for which Lan Wangji has never heard any evidence worth the name. She assigns herself three hours of handstands as punishment.
That night is an exception, not the rule. Wei Wuxian otherwise demonstrates herself to be everything that Lan Wangji knows alphas to be.
She, a teenager, argues with Shufu, a far more experienced cultivator, about using resentful energy in night hunts.
She forces Lan Wangji to drink alcohol against her will, and mocks her in her impaired state.
She smuggles pornography into the library and tries to force Lan Wangji to look at it with her.
She insists on joining Lan Xichen’s night hunt at Baling Lake, refusing to take no for an answer.
She breaks the rules with no remorse, laughing as she disrespects the heritage of her hosts; making no promises to amend her behavior, apologizes without sincerity…
It is clear to Lan Wangji, now, why alphas are not and can never be accepted in Cloud Recesses.
Wei Wuxian draws a portrait of Lan Wangji, with a flower in her hair. Lan Wangji is still waiting to discover the cruelty of this.
Wei Wuxian saves the life of Wen Ning. Perhaps she wishes the Wens to owe her a favor.
Following the drinking incident, Lan Wangji rests her bruises in the Cold Springs. Her eyes are closed; she is at peace.
Fear spikes through Lan Wangji’s body. An alpha coming upon her, alone, undressed—
She dons her clothes as speedily as she can, and keeps Bichen close to hand. Her heart is racing.
But Wei Wuxian makes no move to touch her. She does climb into the springs and say, “Lan Zhan, there are many benefits to being my friend,” while stripping off her own clothes, which is inappropriate, and would have shocked Lan Wangji a month ago—but Lan Wangji is now, to her detriment, desensitized to such things.
Before Lan Wangji can issue any punishment for such shamelessness—even if it no longer shocks, it must be discouraged—the water pulls them down into a cave. Here, a white guqin attacks Wei Wuxian. Contrary to expectations, Wei Wuxian does not retaliate. She merely shuffles backward, hiding behind Lan Wangji. She is wet and cold and in pain and looks utterly pitiful.
Lan Wangji sees the rabbits in their Lan forehead ribbons. She reaches for her own, then freezes.
This is the truth: that some part of Lan Wangji had wanted Wei Wuxian to touch her, in the Cold Springs. It would not be her fault, if Wei Wuxian came upon her there. If Wei Wuxian could not resist the temptation that she presented. If she fought, but somehow was overcome. Her naked body pressed to the rock.
This is the truth: that Lan Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian to touch her in the library. That Lan Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian to touch her in the lecture hall, and on the sparring ground, and at the archery range. That Lan Wangji lay awake long after haishi, imagining what would happen if Wei Wuxian really did lash out at Lan Wangji, frustrated at being punished. If she followed Lan Wangji home and was even now climbing the steps, intent on—on taking her.
Wei Wuxian was very beautiful. Wei Wuxian could spar with Lan Wangji and not tire, not falter, not err. Wei Wuxian was dangerous. She was unlike anyone Lan Wangji had ever met.
Lan Wangji assigned herself punishment of every kind. She copied the principles on conduct; did handstands; knelt for hours; struck her own flesh. Nothing corrected her thoughts. She, no less than Wei Wuxian, is incorrigible. And she burns with shame.
She removes her forehead ribbon and binds their wrists with it. She tells herself it means nothing, as Wei Wuxian does not understand the significance of the act.
Lan Wangji would never, of course, perform a true handfasting with Wei Wuxian. She would be forced to leave Gusu Lan Sect if she did.
And she does not want to. She does not want to.
The great Lan Yi appears behind the white guqin. Wei Wuxian, incurably arrogant, chirps, “You’re like me!”
Lan Wangji glares at her, attempting to communicate that Wei Wuxian should not consider herself in any way similar to the great Lan sect leader, inventor of Chord Assassination—
“You’re an alpha!” Wei Wuxian says, with cheer, and Lan Wangji’s breath catches in her throat.
It cannot be. But Lan Yi nods.
Lan Wangji attempts not to reveal her confusion as the conversation continues. She focuses her attention on the Yin Iron, and on the task that Lan Yi confides to her, for which Wei Wuxian also attempts to take responsibility.
Upon their escape from the cave, Lan Wangji finds herself in a position familiar from her most ungoverned thoughts: lying on her back, trapped underneath Wei Wuxian’s body, heart pounding—
The Wei Wuxian of her fantasies would bite Lan Wangji’s lips, rip open her robes, demand that Lan Wangji service her.
The real Wei Wuxian’s eyes go comically wide the moment Lan Wangji tells her to move, and she levers herself up off of Lan Wangji chanting, “Sorry, sorry!” She does not try to touch Lan Wangji at all.
On the walk back to Cloud Recesses to speak with her brother and uncle, then, she has nothing to think about but Lan Yi’s revelation.
Alphas are not allowed in Gusu Lan Sect.
But an alpha once led the sect. One of the greatest leaders of the sect. Famously unorthodox, of course. But revered, even outside of Gusu.
Lan Wangji knows, of course, that rules are added to the Wall of Discipline. Not all of the 3000 principles were drafted by Lan An. But it is remarkably unsettling to imagine such a significant set of rules simply… not existing. To imagine a version of Cloud Recesses where alphas were permitted to make a permanent home and hold positions of honor.
To imagine a Gusu Lan Sect where cultivators were virtuous and noble despite living under very different rules than Lan Wangji lives under today. As if it is not the rules that create virtue.
As if, perhaps, the rules are unnecessary, for virtue comes from some deeper spring.
Eavesdropping is forbidden. Lan Wangji does not intend to overhear a conversation between Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing.
“I don’t understand you,” Wen Qing says, low. “You know if you give them the slightest excuse, they’ll not only kick you out, they’ll make it impossible for future alphas to attend. Don’t you care that you’re taking that from them?”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “You mean, the opportunity to be on their best behavior so they can preserve other alphas’ opportunity to be on their best behavior, so that the next alphas can be on their best behavior, and on down?”
“Yes,” Wen Qing says sharply.
“No. Because there’s no end to that chain. If every one of us has to be on our best behavior so the next one doesn’t get kicked out, then none of us actually gets to be here. Be themselves, be comfortable, be happy. It doesn’t change the rule that alphas are forbidden in Cloud Recesses. It just hands out a limited exception, and a leash. I don’t value that leash enough to wear it just for the sake of passing it on to the next one.”
Wen Qing is silent. Gusu Lan Sect does not approve of omegas, either: cunning, shallow, promiscuous, disloyal. But they are not banned from the sect. Lan Wangji’s teachers tried to raise her to pity such persons, rather than fear them.
They did not know that Lan Wangji knelt at such a person’s doorstep for days, waiting for her return.
At Qixi, Wei Wuxian paints Lan Wangji a lantern with a rabbit on it. Once, Lan Wangji would have searched the gesture for hidden meanings, hidden motives.
Her mind travels that well-worn path and finds it blocked.
The lantern was painted to please her. Because Wei Wuxian likes her, and wants to be her friend. If she wished to seduce Lan Wangji, she would do something much more shameless.
(If she wished to seduce Lan Wangji, she would have to do very little.)
At Qixi, Wei Wuxian makes a vow: to protect the weak and curb the strong, and to live with a clear conscience.
At Qixi, Wei Wuxian starts a fistfight with Jin Zixuan. Lan Wangji’s first thought is to wonder what Jin Zixuan did to deserve it.
Wei Wuxian is expelled from Cloud Recesses. The elders propose a rule banning alphas from attending lectures as guest disciples.
Lan Wangji is entrusted with taking the Yin Iron into the world in search of its other pieces; Wei Wuxian’s idea.
She is not even slightly surprised to find Wei Wuxian waiting for her, pouting about being excluded from her “quest.”
There is still a part of Lan Wangji that flinches back from the thought of traveling alone with an alpha – falling asleep with no locked door between them, walking isolated roads with no one in sight, no one to hear a shout for help.
It is stupid. If Wei Wuxian climbed into her bedroll in the dark of the night, or pushed her down in a roadside field, she knows, shamefully, she would allow it. She would not fight. The only thing she has to fear from traveling alone with Wei Wuxian is her own disgusting weakness.
She fears and hopes for such an advance in equal measure.
When Wei Wuxian captures her with a binding talisman, Lan Wangji thinks, heart in her throat, This is it. This is the moment when she pushes me down and—
“Should I call it ‘binding’ or ‘bonding’?” Wei Wuxian asks, with cheerful mischief. She comes no closer.
“Boring,” Lan Wangji says tightly, and she turns away.
Lan Wangji does not understand Wei Wuxian. This has always been true. Today, she does not understand why Wei Wuxian does not touch her.
Wei Wuxian does touch her—in ways no one has ever dared. Casual with a hand on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, around Lan Wangji’s wrist.
But she does not touch Lan Wangji in invitation, or temptation, or demand.
Even in Tanzhou, where she catches Wei Wuxian looking at her with unmistakable desire as petals cascade through the air around them, where Wei Wuxian books them into a shared room at the inn “to save money,” Wei Wuxian makes no approach.
She flirts indiscriminately. She is clearly sexually experienced and of varied appetites. Lan Wangji has been told by others that her appearance is pleasing. But Wei Wuxian does not touch her.
It becomes increasingly difficult for Lan Wangji to take seriously her own heated thoughts about Wei Wuxian touching her in violence, taking her in anger, forcing her despite her protests, despite her struggles. It is hard to imagine, now, Wei Wuxian forcing herself on another, unless it were a sort of game, between two players who knew the truth of their willingness.
The thought of such a game is… appealing.
The thought of simply saying Yes—simply saying I want—is anathema. Terror. To speak it would be to scrape her throat bloody and scarred. She could never speak again.
Xue Yang is everything Lan Wangji was taught an alpha would be.
“They all think you’re me anyway, Wei-guniang,” he says, as Wei Wuxian pats him down. “So you might as well just be me.” He winks. “It’s a lot more fun.”
He continues to needle Wei Wuxian all the way to Qinghe.
One night, keeping the watch, making a circuit of the camp, Lan Wangji hears his voice.
“I bet you’ve never even had a real rut, have you, guniang? Bet you just lock yourself in your room. You could charge top dollar for the privilege.”
“Is that what you do?” Wei Wuxian sounds unconcerned – amused, even.
“Sometimes.” Xue Yang is incapable of shame. “Food tastes better when you buy it with the money of people who think you’re a monster and want your cock in them anyway.”
A rustling sound, and the crunching of leaves, as if Wei Wuxian rose to her feet and began to leave.
“Oh, sorry, Wei-guniang. I misspoke. It’s not that they think you’re a monster and want you to fuck them anyway. It’s that they want you to fuck them because they think you’re a monster.”
This was something Lan Wangji had learned about alphas: that they were seized by frenzies of lust, going on rampages, violating anyone who crossed their path.
Lan Wangji had imagined Wei Wuxian caught in the grip of such a frenzy – teeth bared, hands tearing, bruising, vicious—
She thinks about the way Xue Yang had talked about it: they want you to fuck them because they think you’re a monster.
She burns with shame in a different way, now.
Lan Wangji leaves Qinghe at night. As she departs, she sees Wei Wuxian lounging on one of the rooftops. She never could sit properly. Lan Wangji used to see arrogance in it.
When you are taught to look for arrogance, she thinks, you will find it.
Wei Wuxian’s legs are sprawled out; her head is tilted; her mouth slack, almost pouting.
Lan Wangji has wanted Wei Wuxian to do unspeakable things to her – filthy things, ugly things, dangerous and bloody things.
Standing in Qinghe, sword in hand, in dim lantern light, she wants something new. She wants to cradle the sharp plane of Wei Wuxian’s cheek in her palm. She wants to know Wei Wuxian in tenderness.
“Wei Ying,” she murmurs – too quiet to wake the girl on the roof. “Farewell.”
She plans carefully what she will say to her brother. He has always given Wei Wuxian—Wei Ying—unusual leeway. Even seemed fond of her. His was the strongest voice in favor of admitting her, and against a rule banning others of her kind in the future. She thinks she can speak to him honestly.
Xiongzhang, she recites silently. I think the principles are in error—
Xiongzhang, Wei Ying is good. We are friends. She never touched me, even though I wanted it more than anything—
Xiongzhang, it is not right to train our disciples to fear alphas. “Judge each person on merit alone.” How can we do that if we judge them by the shape they bear at birth?
But when she returns to Cloud Recesses, it is in flames, and her brother is nowhere to be found. Her home is destroyed, her people murdered, her body beaten, by Wen soldiers who are betas, and alphas, and omegas. No one group surpasses the rest in cruelty, or in violence. Some people are vicious. Some people are kind. Only their actions reveal which is which.
Wei Ying defends her, at the Wen Indoctrination, and suffers for it.
She returns, shaking and bloodied, from a night in the dungeons, and Lan Wangji’s stomach lurches. She was trained so single-mindedly to see alphas as a threat that it comes as a shock to learn that Wei Ying can be the victim, rather than the author, of cruelty.
Bleeding from her own wounds, she offers to carry Lan Wangji. The thought of being pressed that close to Wei Ying’s body, held by her—
“Boring,” Lan Wangji replies, hoping her terror does not show.
In the cave, two terrible things happen. First, they are both gravely injured by the monster.
Second, Wei Ying becomes convinced that Lan Wangji harbors a passion for Luo Qingyang.
“Lan Zhan has such good taste!” she announces, approvingly. “Mianmian is so smart and pretty, a nice beta girl – she’ll fit in well in Cloud Recesses. Ah, Lan Zhan is ahead of the game – she has a wife picked out already!”
A third terrible thing happens: Wei Ying lies in her lap, bleeding, feverish, gray-skinned, delirious.
“Sing to me,” she gasps.
Lan Wangji does. Wei Ying smiles, and her eyes close, and suddenly all the terror Lan Wangji felt at the thought of saying I want and please is a single grain of rice compared to the terror that her eyes will not open again. How stupid, how petty, to fear such things, when anything could be borne if Wei Ying were still in the world. When nothing could be borne if she were not.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji sobs. “Wei Ying. Stay with me. I love you. Stay. Stay.”
Wei Ying breathes long enough for help to arrive.
It had not mattered, in the moment, whether Wei Ying was conscious enough to hear her. Lan Wangji wanted her to hear. Lan Wangji wanted Wei Ying to know that she would not pass out of the world unloved.
But now, the thought of Wei Ying opening her eyes and looking into Lan Wangji’s face and knowing, knowing…
Lan Wangji bows to Jiang Wanyin and Jin Zixuan. “Wangji must search for her brother.”
She walks away, knowing herself a coward.
“I thought she’d come to you,” Jiang Wanyin says to her, in Lanling. The skin around his eyes is tight with worry. “You really haven’t seen her?”
Lan Wangji shakes her head.
It has been a month since Jiang Wanyin last saw Wei Ying.
At two months, Lan Wangji finds him again.
“No sign,” he says, mouth hard.
They return to the Indoctrination Bureau together.
She’s dead, the Wen soldiers say, the Jiang alpha bitch. We threw her into the Burial Mounds.
“They’re lying,” says Jiang Wanyin. He doesn’t really believe it, but he has to believe it. Lan Wangji understands. She and her troops remain with him as they advance from garrison to supervisory office, courier station to scouting post. Always asking, Where is Wei Wuxian?
“I didn’t think you’d care,” Jiang Wanyin says bluntly, sitting by the campfire, sharpening his sword. “Everyone knows how the Lan are about alphas.”
“Wei Ying is good,” Lan Wangji responds, because she cannot say I love her.
It is nearing haishi. Lan Wangji should prepare for sleep.
Instead, she asks, “What is the position of Yunmeng Jiang Sect regarding alphas?”
Jiang Wanyin glares at her. “Normal. Our position is normal. We’re not weird about them like all the other sects. We don’t hate them like the Lan or worship them like the Wen; we’re not creepy about them like the Jin.”
Lan Wangji could ask what he means by “creepy.” She thinks of Xue Yang—a former Jin disciple—saying, they want you to fuck them because they think you’re a monster. She shivers.
“And the Nie?” she asks
Jiang Wanyin turns his glare on the fire. “I don’t know what their deal is. They’ll accept alphas and omegas, but not into the inner disciples. But they won’t say why. Some big secret. As if anyone cares.”
The fire crackles. Lan Wangji’s eyelids are drooping slightly. “You are correct that Gusu Lan thinks poorly of alphas.”
He snorts. “Yeah, I could tell, from the dozens of principles about them that your uncle read out loud, right to my head disciple’s face. Made her sit there while he said shit like ‘Do not leave children unattended in the presence of an alpha’ and ‘Alphas lack the discipline to advance in cultivation.’”
There was a time when it would have made Lan Wangji intensely angry to hear a disciple of another sect call the Gusu Lan principles, or any set of them, “shit.”
She has changed. They have all changed.
But none of them have changed more than Wei Ying.
The Yiling Supervisory office is strewn with bodies like petals on a banquet table. The sheer number stops them in their tracks, battle-hardened as they are. The ingenious variety in the deaths they died speaks to a sick delight in killing.
Wei Ying plays with Wen Chao like a child plays with her food, pushing it from one side of the bowl to the other, picking it up and dropping it – he is a man destroyed long before he is dead, blanketed in sores, gibbering, trembling.
She looks Lan Wangji in the eye and says, with a razor smile, “How can others know my temperament? And what business is it of theirs?” Her laugh makes Lan Wangji shudder. “Who do you think you are? Who does your Gusu Lan Sect think they are?”
“This is Yunmeng Jiang business,” she says, in a tone that expects obedience. “Get out.”
Shell-shocked, Lan Wangji walks down the stairs without feeling her feet.
They have found Wei Ying.
But not her Wei Ying.
This is what Lan Wangji was raised to expect. By her training and education, she should conclude that this is who Wei Ying was all along – as she thought, Wei Ying lacks the self-discipline to pursue decent cultivation; as she thought, Wei Ying thrives on violence and respects no authority but her own whim.
It is not true. Lan Wangji knows Wei Ying.
Somewhere within this hard and brutal creature wreathed in resentful energy is the true Wei Ying. Lan Wangji must bring her back. Before there is no way back.
Lan Wangji tries warnings.
There will be a price to pay for following the heretical path. It harms the body, and the temperament worse.
Lan Wangji tries offers.
Let me play for you. Let me help you pick up the sword again.
Lan Wangji tries speaking to those close to Wei Ying, which backfires powerfully.
Lan Wangji tries appealing to Wei Ying’s pride, terrified by how easily she could have killed her.
You are the one who has not advanced. You are no longer at my level. Where is Suibian?
Wei Ying turns her away. She leaves a bloody trail of corpses behind her as the Sunshot Campaign advances; acts as if the generals are beneath her; behaves in every respect as the picture of an alpha out of control.
You should just be me, Xue Yang had said. They all think you’re me anyway. A monster.
Wei Ying would not do that. She would not give in. She would not allow herself to be corrupted like that.
She is not Xue Yang. She still loves her brother and sister; treats the Jiang disciples kindly; jokes with Mianmian. And with her terrible cruelty lives, side-by-side, a terrible sadness.
This hurts Lan Wangji most of all: that Wei Ying knows she is slipping away. And will not fight back.
Lan Wangji forgets once, soon after Wei Ying’s bloody return – says, “Come back to Gusu with me.”
Wei Ying’s eyebrows lift in mock-surprise. “Hanguang-jun. It’s been too long since you’ve stood in front of the Wall of Discipline! Even this disreputable one knows that alphas are not permitted in Cloud Recesses.”
She is right. Lan Wangji wants desperately to take Wei Ying somewhere safe, but Cloud Recesses will not be that place.
The desire does not go away, though. So Lan Wangji invites Wei Ying into her tent, into her rooms—when they have the luxury of four walls—please, come back with me, come into my space where I can care for you.
Wei Ying always says no.
Lan Wangji’s hands clench in frustration.
As they close in on the final push toward Nightless City, she asks, as she always does, “Wei Ying. Come to my tent with me.”
Wei Ying laughs. The rest of them grow ever more tense as they approach the end of the campaign; only Wei Ying seems lighter, as if she is traveling to a wedding rather than a bloodbath. “Ah, Hanguang-jun, how scandalous!” She seems genuinely amused, for once, not mocking or cruel. “All these invitations to your tent – I’m going to start thinking you have something shameless in mind. Something… intimate.” She flutters her eyelashes, and there’s something there, some warmth, some echo of their old closeness.
Would that be enough? Would that keep her close, would she let Lan Wangji in long enough to help her if—
“Yes,” Lan Wangji says.
Wei Ying looks thrown. “Yes what?”
“Yes. I.” It is impossible to meet Wei Ying’s eyes for this. She does not try. “You may. Come to bed. If you wish.” Perhaps Wei Ying will not even want to—she did not want Lan Wangji before… but no, Lan Wangji had not offered, then. Surely…
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, stepping closer; Lan Wangji’s heart thrums like a mouse’s. “What are you—”
Then, her whole face changes. “Oh,” she says quietly. “Of course. I should have known. Everyone knows this is how you get an alpha to behave. We can all be led around by our—”
An icicle spears through Lan Wangji’s gut. “Wei Ying,” she says, desperate, “no—”
“Truly,” Wei Ying announces, with a bitter twist of a smile, “there are no bounds on the nobility of the great Hanguang-jun – offering herself up to be ravaged by a slavering alpha, to placate the ravenous beast. What a noble sacrifice. Truly, nothing Hanguang-jun will not do, however dangerous and degrading—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji implores, “no, that is not—”
“Stay away from me, Lan Wangji.” Wei Ying turns on her heel and walks away.
There is no chance to explain or apologize. Nie Mingjue leaves on his assassination mission, and the rest of them must press on toward Nightless City without delay.
In the great courtyard before Scorching Sun Palace, they are cut down like sheaves of wheat. Lan Wangji loses track of Wei Ying only for a moment. When she turns, Wei Ying is gone.
Her hands clench around Bichen’s hilt. She searches the battlefield frantically.
There, at the top of the steps: Wei Ying, holding some dark object in one hand and Chenqing in the other.
The course of the battle instantly changes. Wen Ruohan’s puppets turn on their fellows; Wen Ruohan himself emerges; he leaves Wei Ying crumpled on the ground; he is slain.
The Sunshot Campaign is over, in one virtuosic feat of demonic cultivation and unflinching violence.
Wei Ying does not wake up for three days.
Wei Ying told Lan Wangji to stay away from her. But Lan Wangji can help.
She plays for Wei Ying for as long as her fingers can bear each day, and punishes herself with kneeling each night, for ignoring Wei Ying’s express wishes.
When Wei Ying awakens, she looks at Lan Wangji softly. “I heard you came and played for me every day.”
“Forgive me.” Lan Wangji bows. “You told me—”
“I was nasty to you,” Wei Ying interrupts, lifting Lan Wangji’s arms. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. I don’t want to fight with you anymore.” She sighs and sinks back on the bed. “I wasn’t really expecting to live through that,” she remarks idly; Lan Wangji’s breath turns to sawdust. “I’ll have to figure out what to do now, I guess. Will you come visit me, Lan Zhan?” She peeks up at Lan Wangji.
Come back to Gusu with me, Lan Wangji wants to say, but she cannot. And she has learned her lesson about inviting Wei Ying into her rooms.
“Mn,” she says, nodding. She hopes it is the truth.
“But when you come…” Wei Ying frowns with mock-sternness. “No lecturing me about my wickedness, or my temperament, or making me sit still for your healing music! If I wanted that, I’d go sit at the gates of Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Wangji says nothing. She cannot promise to stand by as Wei Ying destroys herself.
Except she must. Shufu will not permit her to do otherwise.
She is assigned to restore the principles. She kneels before Shufu, holding the book, and her stomach churns.
Shufu, I cannot, she wants to say. I cannot pass down to the next generation the hateful things these principles say about alphas. They are wrong. I cannot assist in disseminating such dangerous falsehoods.
But then what?
Would she even be a Lan anymore? If she openly declared her disagreement with the principles—more, declared herself unwilling to obey or teach them…
She knows what would happen to any other disciple who took such a position. They would be expelled. Before, she would have said that such expulsion would be right and necessary. The principles are what make a person a disciple of Gusu Lan: not all can master the qin, not all master the Lan sword forms, but the disciplines are universal. All can conform their conduct to them, and must.
Except alphas, she thinks. Who are not given the chance.
She accepts the assignment. The principles regarding alphas come toward the end of the collection. She need not decide now. Another assignment may interrupt. The question may never arise.
If it does, she will decide then.
She is permitted to leave Cloud Recesses for the crowd hunt at Baifeng Mountain.
In the woods, the sound of a dizi draws her to the top of a hill. Wei Ying is perched there. The look in her eyes is as grey as rain.
I wasn’t expecting to live, she hears, like an echo.
Was it only a year ago, or perhaps two, that Lan Wangji would have been afraid to be this close to an alpha, alone, in the woods? That she was afraid, of Wei Ying, in that way?
“Who am I, to you?” she asks. She can feel her pulse beating in her hand, curled tightly around Bichen.
“I thought, once, that you would be—” Wei Ying breaks off, with an unhappy smile. “It’s stupid. I know what you Lan cultivators are like.”
Lan Wangji cannot escape the feeling of something essential, something irreplaceable, slipping out of her fingers. “Wei Ying, what do you mean?” she asks, desperate.
“Before I even showed up at Cloud Recesses, you thought you knew me, didn’t you?” Wei Ying turns away, giving Lan Wangji her profile. “You thought you knew everything you needed to about Wei Wuxian. Because I’m an alpha, and we’re all the same.” Her eyes and the curve of her mouth are soft. Sad. “I never had the chance to be known by you. Even if it felt like it. Even if I wanted that so much.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says. Her eyes are hot. “No. Wei Ying. I know you.”
Jin Zixuan appears, and for a moment, Lan Wangji could kill him, with no remorse.
I know you, she wants to say again. She waits, she looks for an opportunity; unusually for her, there is so much more she wants to say.
But the next time she sees Wei Ying, there is no chance to discuss such things.
Wei Ying counts down from three. She snarls each number. Her body is wreathed with resentful energy, as it was on the steps of Scorching Sun Palace. Her teeth are bared, and her eyes hold nothing but murder.
It is as if the alpha of Lan Wangji’s childhood lessons has come to life here in front of her: violent, arrogant, domineering, cruel. She gets what she wants with threats and force; insults the Chief Cultivator, her host; does it all with a smile on her face.
Lan Wangji wants her. Wants to kneel at her feet, kiss her hands, offer herself up for use. Not because Wei Ying is a monster. But because Wei Ying is good.
Wei Ying is arrogant, and domineering, and threatening, and even cruel.
But Wei Ying puts this part of herself at the service of justice, just as she vowed long ago. She is loyal to those who have aided her; undaunted by obstacles and threats; fierce in the defense of the defenseless; uncompromising in morality. In every way, she embodies the best of the Gusu Lan principles: the ones that Lan Wangji has held close to her heart. The ones she clung to when Wei Ying was missing and her brother was missing and her home was burnt and hope seemed like nothing but air. Shoulder the weight of morality. Do not tolerate injustice or oppression. Protect the weak. Do not close your eyes to wrongs.
When she leaves to follow Wei Ying, Lan Xichen encourages her. He thinks she means to stop Wei Ying.
Lan Wangji means to save her. Or, if she cannot, she means only to see her again. Just to see her face. She does not know if there will ever be another chance.
When Lan Wangji arrives at Qiongqi Dao in the pouring rain, it is worse than she feared.
Survivors are running – not just overseers, but prisoners, fleeing the woman who came to free them. The stench of resentful energy and death is so thick, even the deluge cannot cleanse it. Those who flee babble tales of Wei Ying raising the dead, turning her friend Wen Qionglin into a puppet and using that gentle boy’s corpse as a weapon of slaughter. Of terror.
It has happened, Lan Wangji realizes, sliced apart by grief. Wei Ying has lost herself irreparably. There will be no coming back.
Lan Wangji did not come to stop her. But now, there is no other way to save her. There may be no way at all.
Wei Ying appears before her on horseback, some fifty others behind her.
Panicked, desperate, Lan Wangji says something about orthodoxy. She tells Wei Ying she will not be able to come back to the world they share. She hopes that still means something to Wei Ying.
Then Wei Ying speaks, and Lan Wangji is cast into utter confusion. She thought that Wei Ying was lost; that her acts of necromancy spoke of a fundamental break with Wei Ying’s self, her values, her heart.
But Wei Ying speaks of her Qixi vow. Of justice.
This rain-drenched, bloody-handed woman who has used the dead to rip apart the living is somehow still the woman who stood in the midst of the Flower Banquet and spoke for those for whom no one else would speak.
How can Lan Wangji reconcile those things? How can they be the same?
When Wei Ying says, “If I could be killed by Hanguang-jun, it would be no injustice,” something snaps inside of Lan Wangji. She may continue to stand here, but it will accomplish nothing. She will not fight Wei Ying. She knows better than to enter a fight to the death with someone she cannot countenance killing. Do not make empty threats is less a principle of moral advice than tactical advice. If she is not willing to take the last step—if the mere thought makes her sick to her soul—then she should not take the first.
Instead, she stands aside. She clenches her hand around the umbrella. She presses her lips together so tightly that they hurt. She locks her knees.
Anything, to keep her from stepping forward, reaching upward. Anything to stop her from saying Take me with you. Take me to a place where I can be with you.
Shufu is disappointed in Lan Wangji for failing to stop Wei Ying. But he acknowledges, also, that no one else even made an attempt. Lan Wangji’s punishment is light.
She advances through the restoration of the principles slowly. She is no longer forbidden to leave Cloud Recesses, and she finds every possible reason to do so. She dreads the moment when the first principle regarding alphas comes to her hand; the confrontation that will force. She night hunts constantly.
She learns of Jiang Yanli’s engagement. For a foolish moment, she imagines it will be an opportunity to see Wei Ying.
But of course, Wei Ying will not be invited.
Perhaps Wei Ying will not even be informed.
Lan Wangji sincerely wishes to inform Wei Ying of her sister’s upcoming wedding.
But it is also an excuse. She can admit that to herself. She would have found one sooner or later. She is parched with thirst for Wei Ying – the sight of her lovely face and strong body, the sound of her voice, the easy way she touched Lan Wangji, if never in the way that Lan Wangji longs for.
She departs for Yiling.
Lan Wangji looks up from the small child currently attached to her leg, and there is Wei Ying: smiling a true, honest, happy smile. Happy to see Lan Wangji. She had not hoped for such a reception, after the way they parted. It wraps tendrils of baseless hope around her heart.
She is very conscious of how the three of them look, in the tea house, sharing a meal: like a family. Like she and Wei Ying are the little boy’s dam and sire, teasing one another and the child gently, with the ease of deep affection and long acquaintance.
She thought she already hungered for Wei Ying in every possible way. She did not even know there was such a want waiting for her.
It burns just as sharp, and just as impossible, as all the others. Lan Wangji knew it in Cold Pond Cave, when she wrapped her forehead ribbon around Wei Ying’s wrist. There is no place for them. She cannot bring home an alpha spouse at all, much less the now-notorious Yiling Laozu. And an alpha spouse might beget an alpha child—equally forbidden.
Still, she clings to it – the facsimile of it. What little she can have. She holds A-Yuan on her lap and helps him eat; she tells him automatically to be silent during meals, as she would the young children of her clan. Then she freezes and looks up at Wei Ying; but Wei Ying’s smile is fond. It is the longest conversation they have had without sharp words or raised voices since before Cloud Recesses burned.
Wei Ying is called back to the Burial Mounds by a talisman; there, they must subdue Wen Ning, who Wei Ying has brought back to something resembling life. It takes Lan Wangji’s breath away, leaves her wrestling with a deep, almost existential confusion.
Demonic cultivation, Wei Ying’s cultivation, is evil. She knows this like she knows the rising and setting of the sun.
The tears in Wen Qing’s eyes. The love on Wen Ning’s face when his sister takes his hand. The joy of their people, gathered around.
Can evil means produce such ends? Can corruption in the service of love create love instead of simply more corruption?
No. The principles are clear on this. Shufu’s teachings are clear on this. The lessons of centuries of cultivation history are clear on this. Evil begets evil. The works of death lead only to death. There is no exception throughout history.
She puts the images of the reunion from her mind. They will only lead her into error. They will only cast her further into a maze.
When Wei Ying leads Lan Wangji around her cave, and Lan Wangji takes in the bare and ragged furnishings—if a pile of straw atop a stone plateau can truly be called such—it prompts her to take a look at Wei Ying herself with fresh eyes.
It confirms what she feared. Wei Ying is too thin. Her skin is cold. There are no blankets on her bed.
They are poor. That is plain. But A-Yuan was a healthy-looking child, plainly well-fed, full of energy.
So they are getting money from somewhere. But it is not enough. Lan Wangji knows only one way to make sense of that conclusion.
Her throat feels thick with fear. She takes out her money pouch and presses it into Wei Ying’s hands.
Wei Ying tries to give it back, shaking her head. “Lan Zhan, this is—this is too much, we’re—it’s hard, but we’re surviving.”
But how – that is what terrifies Lan Wangji.
“Xue Yang said…”
Wei Ying boggles. “Xue Yang?”
“Said he sold his ruts.” It is quiet enough in the cave that Lan Wangji can hear Wei Ying’s sharp inhale. “I—please, take it—”
Wei Ying will not. Instead, incredulous, she says, “Lan Zhan, are you trying to buy my rut?”
“No.” Lan Wangji is mortified. She did not think about how it would look, how it would sound, but Wei Ying’s interpretation was not unreasonable. She must be clear, but it is painful. She tries her best. “I do not want Wei Ying to need to do such a thing,” she says, low.
Wei Ying smiles at her. “Oh, Lan Zhan. You’re sweet.” She ignores Lan Wangji’s money pouch as if it is not even there. “Don’t worry about that, Lan Zhan. I mean it. I promise you: we’re not that badly off.”
Wei Ying has always been a talented liar. She is careful with her phrasing.
Lan Wangji hopes she is imagining the silent anymore at the end of Wei Ying’s sentence.
“Too bad, though!” Wei Ying is teasing her again, after Wen Ning and Wen Qing have come with water and then gone. “I thought I was witnessing the first, greatest, and only absolutely scandalous act in the life of Hanguang-jun! I was going to have to tell you you’re a day early, though.”
Heat flashes through Lan Wangji, like the inverse of a shiver. Wei Ying’s rut will be tomorrow. It is almost upon her. “What will you do?” It is an intrusive question, and she has no good reason to ask.
“Wen Qing will help me.”
“Ah.” Lan Wangji nods mechanically. Yes. An alpha and an omega – it is a natural pairing. They are close, of course, she knew they were close—
“No, not like that!” Wei Ying waves her hands, looking embarrassed. “I just mean, I used to lock myself in my room, but you’ll notice our grave shortage of doors that lock, so. Wen Qing will stab me with her needles, and keep me paralyzed until it’s over.”
That sounds horrific.
Wei Ying is watching Lan Wangji’s face closely. Her shoulders hunch inward, and she says softly, “Not that I think I’d… I don’t think I would, even in—even when it’s strong. But I know I—scare people. I don’t want to scare anyone.”
Lan Wangji asks, “Is there no person here who—”
“No. There—no.” Wei Ying looks away.
That is the end of the discussion. That should be the end of the discussion. It is time for Lan Wangji to leave.
Prevent unnecessary suffering, she thinks, and then is immediately ashamed of herself for the sophistry. What she is about to do cannot be justified by the principles. What she is about to do is a stain on those principles. She should rip off her forehead ribbon. Her self-restraint has failed her.
“Wei Ying. If it would be welcome.” She swallows. “I would stay.”
Wei Ying blinks. “To guard me.”
An easy escape. Lan Wangji does not take it. “No. Unless that is Wei Ying’s wish.” Her fist is pressed tight to the small of her back. “No.”
Her gaze is on the ground. She can tell Wei Ying is studying her. The suspense is like a fishhook tugging at her flesh. Then Wei Ying speaks, warm and kind.
“Oh, Hanguang-jun—you’re really just too good, aren’t you? I was so nasty to you during the war, but later I figured out you were just—you weren’t trying to control me, you just pitied me. And here you are again, so noble, offering yourself up—”
“No.” Lan Wangji cannot dare to look up. But she will not be misunderstood again.
“Not noble.” She is trembling. “Wei Ying. I.”
Words fail her now. They have failed her often, with Wei Ying. She forces herself to look up. She meets Wei Ying’s eyes, and hides nothing. Leaves her face bare, and waits, barely breathing.
“Oh.” Wei Ying’s voice is faint. Her expression is soft with shock. “Oh. L-Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji feels horribly exposed. She waits.
“Back then, too?” Wei Ying asks.
Lan Wangji nods.
Wei Ying steps closer. Lan Wangji can feel the slight shift in her robes; their hems are brushing.
Pink-cheeked, Wei Ying breathes, “Lan Zhan, you—you really want…”
Lan Wangji nods.
“Oh,” Wei Ying whispers. “But Lan Zhan, you—have you ever even been touched?”
Lan Wangji shakes her head.
Wei Ying steps back sharply. “Then no,” she says. “That can’t be your first time, it’s—no. It’s too much—”
It is the same as it was at Qiongqi Dao. There is no purpose in beginning down a road you do not intend to follow to the end.
“Lan Zhan, what… what are you talking about?”
“Tonight.” She holds Wei Ying’s gaze. “Then tomorrow will not be the first.”
That night, there is a feast. A man introduced to Lan Wangji as Fourth Uncle provides wine. Wei Ying does not touch it.
Lan Wangji shivers. Little else could have brought home so clearly the weight of what they will do.
After the feast, Lan Wangji follows Wei Ying into her cave. She expects knowing looks from the Wens, but receives none.
She forgets, sometimes, that other sects, other people, are not raised with the presumptions about alphas with which she was raised.
Why should there, after all, be any reason to suspect a beta and an alpha, close friends, sharing a room or even a bed?
“I don’t have a lot of experience,” Wei Ying murmurs. “But I have some. Let me lead, mn?”
Lan Wangji’s breath comes only shallowly. She nods – a quick, rabbit gesture.
“Oh, Lan Zhan—no. I won’t do this. You’re scared—”
“Nervous,” Lan Wangji corrects, breaking the rule against interruptions without compunction. The distinction is important.
“Nervous,” Wei Ying echoes. She smiles ruefully. “Well. Me, too.”
“Don’t ask about my scars,” Wei Ying begs, as Lan Wangji begins to unwrap her. Her mouth is red with kissing. “Please. Please. I’ll just have to lie to you.”
“I will not ask,” Lan Wangji promises. Already she can tell Wei Ying’s bones are too prominent.
“I, uh, should warn you,” Wei Ying says, stopping Lan Wangji’s hands as they reach for her inner layer. “I’m sure Hanguang-jun never reads spring books like I did, but they’re not—very accurate about alphas, and people have a lot of, ah, expectations and then get disappointed…”
Lan Wangji cannot imagine being disappointed by Wei Ying. She says so.
Wei Ying presses a hand to her own cheek, which is flushed. “Lan Zhan! How can you say such things? I just mean, ah… so far everyone I’ve met who wants to go to bed with an alpha wants me to ravage them with my enormous cock, but I don’t have one of those except in rut, and even then, I wouldn’t call it enormous—”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji nuzzles the soft hair at Wei Ying’s temples. “I do not want to go to bed with an alpha. Just with Wei Ying.”
There is a powerful fluttering in her stomach, like flying, like falling. That is the closest she’s come. The closest to saying, I want you. Perhaps that line is already crossed.
“What should I call it?” Lan Wangji asks, cupping the handful of tender hardness between Wei Ying’s legs.
Wei Ying is bright red, but she bravely meets Lan Wangji’s eyes. “My—I call it my nub. I don’t know if—if that’s what other alphas call it. Like I said, in spring books, it’s all giant cocks.”
It is larger than Lan Wangji’s pearl, but small enough to fit comfortably in her mouth. Wei Ying sobs when Lan Wangji wraps her lips around the base and sucks. She has never been more beautiful.
“Let me—let me take care of you, this is your first time, I should take care of you—and you made me feel so good, it’s only fair, let me try—”
Lan Wangji has only touched herself twice. It is forbidden. When she was fourteen, her curiosity overpowered her self-restraint; she punished herself with handstands. When she was nineteen, Wei Ying came upon her in the Cold Springs, and that night, she had to know what it might have been like. She truly felt she would die if she did not. She assigned herself handstands for that time as well.
She has never climaxed. She has never put anything inside herself.
By the end of the night, she is a new person. Her body has shaken and stretched and clung. It will now always be a body that was a home for Wei Ying, however briefly. It will now always be a body that has been opened and taken. Broken into shards of pleasure. She cries.
It frightens Wei Ying. Lan Wangji reassures her.
They fall asleep curled into themselves and each other like dying leaves.
The next day, Lan Wangji lends her strength and her spiritual power to various useful pursuits; hauling lumber, clearing ground. She cannot sit still.
After the midday meal, Wen Qing suddenly lifts her head. She turns, slightly, toward the entrance of Wei Ying’s cave. Then, she turns to Lan Wangji. “Go to her,” she says.
Lan Wangji has survived a war. She hates the fear that coils inside her. This is Wei Ying.
Wei Ying tries very hard to put Lan Wangji at ease. She pours Lan Wangji a cup of water, though her hands are shaking so badly that the water spills in every direction.
Lan Wangji covers her hands. In a strange way, it feels as if everything, from their very first meeting, was always leading them here.
“Hanguang-jun is strong,” Wei Ying whispers, eyes pleading. “Hanguang-jun can stop me if—if she has to.”
Lan Wangji nods. She is, and she can. But she will not have to. She can swallow every drop of violence that Wei Ying has to give. She is resolved.
“I am not afraid that Wei Ying will hurt me,” she says.
“Then what are you afraid of?” Wei Ying whispers. Her face is in shadow.
Lan Wangji shakes her head.
The look on Wei Ying’s face is more than Lan Wangji can bear.
She closes her eyes and forces herself to say, “I am afraid I will like it too much.”
When Lan Wangji opens her eyes, Wei Ying is smiling at her, with all the understanding in the world. She nods. They come together.
It is different from the night before. Wei Ying is frantic, desperate – a constant stream of noise pours from her lips. Her hands are rough. Her cock is bigger than her fingers. Her teeth seek Lan Wangji’s skin and dig deep.
Lan Wangji says, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Wei Ying.”
She was right. She likes it too much. There is no time to think about that. She is very sore. She keeps reaching for Wei Ying, and Wei Ying keeps coming to her.
Her thighs are smeared with something more opaque than her own wetness. It drips from her when she rises to her knees to take Wei Ying inside again.
She has become deranged; that is the only explanation for why she lies against Wei Ying’s chest, feeling Wei Ying’s cock soften inside her, and thinks, I hope it takes.
In the morning, almost too mortified to speak, she asks Wen Qing for a tea.
Wen Qing does not make her say to clear my womb, which is more mercy than Lan Wangji deserves for her recklessness. She has the tea prepared already, and gives Lan Wangji the further mercy of silence while it steeps.
When Wei Ying wakes, Lan Wangji says, “I must leave.”
Wei Ying nods. There are dark circles under her eyes. “Did I hurt you?” she asks, voice cracking.
Lan Wangji shakes her head, because she cannot say, Yes. More. Please.
She kneels in the snow. The punishment centers her.
Wei Ying is good. But Lan Wangji is not good around Wei Ying. She is greedy and selfish and shameless and reckless.
The things she did that felt so beautiful and right before, when Wei Ying’s skin was touching hers, make her ashamed. She begged and moaned and displayed herself, her innermost parts, panting and lost. Her mind was gone. Nothing more than an animal.
She blames Wei Ying for none of it. Wei Ying did only what was natural.
Wei Ying gave her only what she asked for.
The fault was in the asking.
She does not go to Yiling again. She knows that if she goes, she will be weak again. Turn into that begging, empty thing.
She does not touch herself. Even to wash there in the bath makes her shudder. She was sore for days. She enjoyed it – feeling Wei Ying every time she clenched. But now the soreness is gone, and all she remembers is the sickening gut-swoop vulnerability of exposing herself, feeling the cold air of the cave where she had only ever been covered, by cloth or by water.
She would ask herself what she had been thinking, but there was no thinking. Only impulse. Whim.
Only love, she thinks, late, late, and unable to sleep.
She kneels until sunrise, in punishment. Wei Ying deserves a better kind of love than this animal hunger. Wei Ying deserves something clean.
People are not meant to be ungoverned. She understands it now: Set up laws. Then goodness is everlasting.
She throws herself into the task of recopying the principles. Even the ones regarding alphas. They are wrong, she knows. But what is the alternative? To have no rules at all? No guidance, no walls – nothing to prevent everyone from taking what they want simply because they want it, whether they have a right to it or not? Even if they hurt someone, in the taking? A world of Wen Ruohans and Wen Chaos and Jin Guangshans and—
And Wei Yings? Doing what she pleases without regard for the rules, yes, but—for justice. For the weak.
Must it be so? Must the same rules that rein in a Wen Chao or a Jin Guangshan also stand in the way of a Wei Ying? Could there be rules that achieve justice in all times and places, all situations?
She recopies and recopies and recopies the principles, as if repetition will quiet her mind. As if each copy is an offering to a god that will give her the answers if she only pays fitting homage.
Shufu is proud of her.
Lan Wangji does not know how to tell him that, when she is alone with her thoughts, she feels more like her father than she ever has. And more like her mother, too.
Wei Ying is invited to Jin Rulan’s celebration. Lan Wangji writes the invitation. She is formal, of course, but she tries to be warm. This is good news. Perhaps there is a place for Wei Ying and her people at the table, after all. Perhaps the world of rules and the world of Wei Ying can coexist; merge. Perhaps there is a way to be in Wei Ying’s life without returning to the scene of her shame.
Lan Wangji’s students are dead. Not all of them. But, more advanced than the other cultivators her age, she has taught even many disciples older than her. Some of those disciples went with Jin Zixun to Qiongqi Dao.
They are dead because she failed them. Wei Ying may now die because she failed them.
Lan disciples know not to make assumptions. They had no reason to believe that Wei Ying was the caster of the Hundred Holes Curse.
No reason but that she is an alpha. And every Lan disciples knows what alphas are like. Every Lan disciple is aware of their viciousness – that they stoop to cruelties no decent cultivator would countenance. Surely only an alpha would cast such a virulent curse.
Lan Wangji knew better. But she remained silent. She pressed her lips together on night hunts with her peers, when they spoke about Wei Ying as if speaking of something less than human; bit her tongue when they refused to stay at inns or purchase supplies at establishments where the proprietor was an alpha; said nothing when they kept their swords always between themselves and an alpha witness, while investigating a haunting.
And now her sect-siblings are dead—dead in the course of ambushing Wei Ying, who had been promised safe passage—because Lan Wangji did not speak. Her own students will rot in the ground for no better cause than the accusation of a man who has always treated Gusu Lan Sect with contempt.
Lan Xichen sends her back with the remains. “I know you will treat their bodies with the utmost respect,” he says gently. Meaning, I know you will not detour through Yiling, or abandon their bodies on the road to travel there yourself.
He is right. It is perhaps the only thing that could have kept her feet on the path to Cloud Recesses. Every step is a knife. They are going to try to kill Wei Ying. They are going to try to kill Wei Ying. The only reason she can bear it at all is that she does not think they will try it soon. They are afraid of the Burial Mounds. They will need time to summon their courage. She will beat them there.
After she delivers the bodies to Cloud Recesses, she departs. She does not even pass through the gate. Shufu yells after her. She pretends not to hear him.
But when she reaches the Burial Mounds settlement, Wei Ying is nowhere to be found. She searches frantically, calling Wei Ying’s name. Her own panicked breathing almost drowns out the sound of a faint cry.
Nightless City is not a place to which she ever wished to return.
Wei Ying is as pale as a corpse. Her eyes are red. Her laugh is hectic, frightening. The resentful energy is so strong in her that the air is dense with it, like the sky just before a storm.
She is so small, arrayed against the thousands of cultivators who have come to take her life.
But the battle seems far from certain.
That is no consolation to Lan Wangji. If Wei Ying dies—
Her mind can take the thought no further.
But if Wei Ying survives by the slaughter of thousands, what will be left of her? Can any human mind survive intact, soaked in the red stink of that much blood?
There is nothing Lan Wangji can do but try to keep Wei Ying alive long enough to find out. Her attempts to tell Wei Ying the reason she was delayed are ineffectual—she cannot shout it on the battlefield, and she has no talent for subtle words—so all she has is the sword.
She cuts down cultivators of every sect, guarding Wei Ying’s back; she cuts them down again and again, and still more come. There is no end to them. She is surrounded, and distracted every time Wei Ying is in danger, and swords make it through her guard, injuring her arm, her leg. She shakes the injuries off. She cannot tire. Wei Ying needs her.
Jiang Yanli’s voice rings across the battlefield. Lan Wangji’s heart leaps. If anyone can get through to Wei Ying, persuade her to flee rather than continue the slaughter, it would be her sister. She moves with renewed fervor, hoping, hoping—
Lan Wangji thought Wei Ying looked like a corpse before. She was wrong. There was something inside Wei Ying, then – some spark, some spirit, some stubborn will to survive.
It is gone. When she looks at Wei Ying now, she sees only pain.
And then Wei Ying falls backward, and she sees nothing at all. She dives, hand outstretched.
Wei Ying is hanging from Lan Wangji’s hand. She does not look afraid. It could not be clearer that she does not want to live.
That is not Wei Ying’s choice to make, she thinks, fiercely, desperately. There is no world without Wei Ying in it. So Wei Ying must live. Wei Ying must live.
“Lan Zhan. Let go.”
The words land like a kick to the solar plexus. How could she? How could she?
How could she not know—
But Lan Wangji never told her, except once, when Wei Ying could not hear her. When it cost her nothing – eased her guilt without giving Wei Ying anything, in the end.
Lan Wangji will tell her now. Lan Wangji will tell her why she cannot let go, why she will never let go, why she would rather follow Wei Ying off the cliff than let her go into the dark alone—
Jiang Wanyin. His blade unsheathed. Lan Wangji has no strength to spare to fend him off.
He strikes. The rock shifts. Wei Ying’s eyes go wide.
She rips her hand from Lan Wangji’s.
Lan Wangji is empty. She feels things—rage, grief, fear—but they orbit her heart. They do not live within it. Nothing does.
She wishes to kill Jiang Wanyin.
She does not. It would serve no purpose, and she knows it would grieve Wei Ying.
She takes her rage to the Burial Mounds instead, to the vultures who have come to pick over the cultivation work of the woman whose cultivation they condemn. Having taken Wei Ying’s life, they come now to take her work. To desecrate her home. To strip the world of the last vestiges of her self.
She kills many. Wounds others. She feels no remorse. Only grief, and more rage, when her wounds and her exhaustion finally overcome her. Before her eyes close, she sees them ripping up Wei Ying’s lotus flowers.
She will see that every time her eyes close, for years.
The loss of Wei Ying is too large for tears. But she cries, every year, on the anniversary of this day. For Wei Ying’s lotuses.
She wakes in Cloud Recesses. She wishes she had not.
But no. The child.
There is one thing dear to Wei Ying left in the world. One star of Wei Ying’s love remaining.
Lan Wangji could protect nothing else.
Perhaps she will fail the boy, too.
But if she does not get out of this bed, she will fail before she even begins.
She rises. Dresses. She walks through Cloud Recesses.
It is beautiful, in its austere, elegant way. It is orderly. She was taught to prize that above all.
In the Jingshi, as she belted her robes, she saw on the table her copies of the principles. The ones she spent the past year dutifully scribing, while thinking fevered, useless thoughts about justice.
The urge came to her to set them on fire.
All that time spent on philosophy, when she could have had Wei Ying in her arms. The strength of her feelings frightened her—what of it? What kind of excuse is that?
If she had been strong, if she had been brave, she could have been by Wei Ying’s side, instead of curled in the Jingshi like a snail in its shell, obsessively scratching out copies of a set of rules that her people obey when it is convenient and discard when they do not wish to pay the cost of obedience.
Shoulder the weight of morality. But they will not.
Love all beings. But they will not.
Do not associate with evil. But they will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other clans and watch as the sick and the helpless and the old are massacred, and then seek to murder the one woman who cared enough to defend them.
Lan Wangji gave her life to the principles.
If she had given it to Wei Ying, Wei Ying would still be alive. And Wei Ying was worth a life.
The principles are not.
The weight of morality, in the end, is nothing compared to the weight of regret.
Shufu tells her to kneel for punishment; her sentence will be thirty lashes.
“No,” she says. She gives him her forehead ribbon. “I secede. Therefore you have no right to punish me. I will take the boy and go.”
Lan Xichen comes to her, to try to persuade, to ask for her reasons.
“I will not have Wei Ying’s son raised to believe his mother was a monster,” she says.
Lan Xichen flinches.
Yes. She had thought that might hit home.
It takes less than a week for Lan Wangji to think of going back.
She is alone, with a sick child she does not know how to parent, dwindling funds, attempting to make a living as a rogue cultivator for which she now knows she is pathetically ill-equipped. She does not know how to set prices for her work; she does not know how to keep A-Yuan safe while she night hunts; sometimes she cannot bear to charge at all, when the clients are poor and desperate, but then how will A-Yuan eat? She is accustomed to night hunting with the full power of Gusu Lan infrastructure behind her: equipment and supplies, funds for food and lodging, assistance rarely far away when needed. Without that, she often finds herself in greater danger than she expected, having run out of talisman paper, or having made an error out of exhaustion because she slept in a field the night before.
A-Yuan is feverish and does not know her. He calls out for Xian-jiejie, and Lan Wangji weeps.
After a month, Lan Xichen finds her.
She knows she is too thin. She has not eaten in a week. What little money she has goes to feed A-Yuan. But her appearance no longer inspires confidence in her skills: she is dirty and gaunt, with purple circles under her eyes. Without her Gusu Lan ribbon, she cannot trade on her reputation as Hanguang-jun – no one believes it. If kindly older women had not taken pity on her, there would have been days when A-Yuan did not eat at all. She is failing him.
She is failing Wei Ying. She had thought there could be no more of that – had thought it had ended with Wei Ying’s death. How wrong she was.
“Wangji,” he says. A perfect crystal tear streaks down one cheek. She hates him, in that moment. “Wangji, come home. Please. You cannot teach the boy anything if—”
If he starves to death. If you starve to death. If he catches another fever and you have no money for a doctor.
“He will live with me,” she says, voice ragged. “In the Jingshi.” She is in no position to dictate terms, and knows it. But Lan Xichen nods.
“The sentence has been reduced to twenty lashes,” he says.
“I did not ask for that.”
For the first time, Lan Xichen looks frustrated. “Would you orphan him a third time?”
Chastened, Lan Wangji looks away.
For three years, Lan Wangji devotes herself entirely to A-Yuan, and to recovering from the discipline whip. In the end, she is grateful for Xichen’s intercession. Thirty lashes would not likely have killed her. But they would have made it impossible to care for A-Yuan for months, at least.
When she leaves her ostensible seclusion, the world has, in some ways, moved on. The use of Wei Ying’s inventions is increasingly prevalent, although not among Gusu Lan cultivators.
(Lan Wangji will change that.)
The Yiling Laozu is fading into folklore, becoming a story with which to scare children. The sect against which Lan Wangji rebelled has forgiven her, although their forgiveness tastes like blood in her mouth.
She is invited to return to teaching.
She teaches by question:
What would you do in this scenario? Why? What if that didn’t work? What would you try next? Why? What would you expect to happen then? Why?
She teaches them to question, in the same way that she herself learned.
What is principle 2,489? Suppose, then, that you met a rogue cultivator who was an alpha. Suppose, then, that you could not handle the yaoguai on your own. Would you work with her? What if the yaoguai came down the hill while you were waiting for Gusu Lan reinforcements? How would it be, working with her? How do you know? Do you know any alphas personally?
Some of her students, she is surprised to discover, do know alphas personally. She had assumed they would not. But the outer disciples, who were not raised here in Cloud Recesses, often have alpha cousins, siblings, neighbors.
There have been such disciples all along, she realizes. Taught to fear and despise the people they love after they have come to love them, not before.
Some of them, she learns, come to shun their families, absorbed in the principles past the power of love. But some, she knows—she sees it, on their faces—come to hate the principles instead. Or doubt them, at the very least. Resent them, in some cases.
She makes a point to speak to those few. More often, to listen. There is even more power than she realized, in being Hanguang-jun. More than once, when she says directly, “The principles are wrong about alphas,” a student cries. It means something, coming from Hanguang-jun, that it would not mean coming from anyone else.
For the rest, she makes them know alphas personally. Who could complain, after all, about joint night hunts with Qinghe Nie disciples, or Lanling Jin, or smaller sects?
(Never Yunmeng Jiang.)
The Lan disciples are wary of the alphas, at first; as the alphas are wary of them.
I know what you Gusu Lan cultivators think of alphas, Wei Ying had said. Lan Wangji understands.
Shared danger, though, has a way of breaking down such distance.
Each class leaves with a wider mind.
In this work, she thinks, Wei Ying would be proud of her. In this work, and raising A-Yuan, there is still some worthy reason to be in this world.
The principles regarding alphas are still contained in the books, and carved into the Wall of Discipline. But Lan Wangji knows well that each rule matters only as much as the disciples of Gusu Lan believe in it. When it comes to alphas, each year, the body of Gusu Lan disciples is infused with new members who do not believe. And so the body of disciples as a whole believes less and less, with every passing year.
In time, if she devotes her entire long life to it, she believes she can break the power of those rules completely.
Outside of teaching, night hunts, and A-Yuan—now Sizhui—Lan Wangji’s life holds little. She considers herself a widow.
She touches herself, now, sometimes. Now that Sizhui has moved out into the dormitories.
It is a stubborn thing—an act of trying to remake herself as she has tried to remake others, opening her own mind as she has tried to open theirs.
If she had not been so ashamed of her body, and afraid of pleasure, how different might things have been?
She might have stayed, after Wei Ying’s rut. Might have traveled to Yiling for the next one. Might have had the courage to say I want you even before that. Might have said I love you. Might have been by Wei Ying’s side.
These are speculation. She knows one thing for certain: she would have hurt Wei Ying less, and given Wei Ying more. She wants to be that person, even though it’s too late. She doesn’t want to be ruled by fear of herself anymore.
She thinks Wei Ying would be proud of her for this work, too.
It hurts, because it makes her think of Wei Ying every time, and how Lan Wangji failed her. But she doesn’t stop. It feels like an offering. If Wei Ying sees her from wherever she is now and laughs at the middle-aged woman sloshing water over the side of the tub with her hand between her legs and her head thrown back… good. Lan Wangji would be glad to bring her that joy.
In the twelfth year after Wei Ying’s death, Lan Wangji succeeds in accomplishing the repeal of the rule prohibiting alphas from attending the lectures as guest disciples.
They may not come, she knows. Only one did before. And there will never be such a one again.
Still. In her name. They may come.
She hopes they will.
They are called to a night hunt at Mo Manor. Lan Wangji sends Sizhui and the other junior disciples, reminding them that she will be nearby to respond to a flare if needed.
The flare comes; she goes; there is a sword, there, bearing the trace of a tool she thought destroyed long ago.
“There was a person there,” Sizhui says afterward, looking thoughtful. “Mo-guniang. She acted as if she were crazy, but… Hanguang-jun, I think she was a very strong cultivator. She helped us.”
“She seemed to know you,” Jingyi chimes in.
Lan Wangji’s heart leaps in her chest. No one knows her anymore, except Sizhui. She does not make herself an easy person to know. “Why do you say that?” she asks, voice steady.
“She, ah… she kept using Hanguang-jun’s personal name,” Liu Mengqi contributes, looking nervous.
Lan Wangji has to remind herself to breathe – to do the work of expansion and contraction. It does not come easily, in this moment. “Lan Zhan,” she says quietly. “The woman called me ‘Lan Zhan.’”
“But like we said, she was crazy,” Jingyi says quickly.
There is that possibility – that this Mo-guniang—
Lan Wangji knows. She could not say how. But she knows.
Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Wei Ying. The beat of her heart.
Jiang Wanyin, who Lan Wangji hates more than any person living, strikes the masked figure with Zidian. This being accomplished, everyone is satisfied that the woman is not Wei Ying, thanks to Jingyi’s helpful but inapposite explanation.
The other sects’ cultivators disperse.
Lan Wangji commands Bichen to hover and gathers Wei Ying up in her arms. Wei Ying has weight, has shape, has presence, breath—she is alive. She is alive.
Lan Ran, one of the older disciples, looks at her askance. “H-Hanguang-jun? What are we doing?”
“We are taking this woman back to Cloud Recesses.”
Timidly, Liu Mengqi ventures, “Hanguang-jun, forgive this disciple, but—Hanguang-jun may be unaware, this woman is an alpha.”
“I am aware.”
The disciples look at Lan Wangji; at Wei Ying in her arms; at each other, silently broadcasting, I don’t want to say anything, you say something.
“Alphas are… forbidden in Cloud Recesses?” squeaks Liu Mengqi. It is, without a doubt, a question rather than a statement.
Lan Wangji spares the group an inquiring look. “Are you frightened of her?”
“What?” Jingyi snorts. “No. She looks like the wind could blow her away.”
It is unfortunately true. She is distressingly light in Lan Wangji’s arms.
Lan Ran has been watching Wei Ying closely. At Jingyi’s words, she nods, once. “Love all beings.” Her voice is soft, but clear. “Judge others on their merits, not on birth. Prevent unnecessary suffering. Do not turn away the sick and injured.”
With that, she nods again, and mounts her sword. The others follow suit.
Lan Wangji does not allow her eyes to close or her grip to weaken. She breathes in the moment with a clear gaze and mounts her sword as well.
An inner-clan disciple. A person who would likely never have known an alpha personally if Lan Wangji had not intervened.
Lan Ran is the product of generations trained by the principles to fear and despise Wei Ying’s kind. But today, she had quoted those same principles to justify bringing an alpha—and not just any alpha, but the fearsome Yiling Laozu herself, a demonic cultivator—into Cloud Recesses.
Lan Wangji had thought that the moment she knew it was Wei Ying, that Wei Ying was alive, was her greatest triumph.
She was wrong.
This is that moment. This is proof.
Lan Wangji has failed many times. Her failures have hurt and even killed the people she loves. She has been a coward. She has been ignorant, has been arrogant, and cruel, and controlling. But despite all that. Despite all her many regrets.
Her living has not been in vain.
Even if Wei Ying were not safe and warm in her arms—even if Wei Ying were still lost to her—it would not, she thinks, have been in vain.
When Sizhui helps Lan Wangji carry Wei Ying into the Jingshi, he says, “They all said she couldn’t be Wei Wuxian, but… she is, isn’t she? She’s my Xian-jiejie.”
Lan Wangji has never lied to her son. When he asked her where he came from, she told him. Selectively, at first: some parts were too frightening for a small child, or were secrets too dangerous to share with a child too young to keep them. But he has been old enough for such secrets now for several years. He knows who taught him to peel lotus seeds.
Sizhui nods and says, shyly, “I thought so. Even before. Something about her—she made me feel safe.”
Lan Wangji’s own voice echoes to her, out of the past: Wei Ying’s son will not be raised to think his mother is a monster.
For a moment, her throat is thick with tears.
Lan Wangji gathers herself. “I’m sure she will appreciate a visit, once she is awake.”
Sizhui’s eyes light up. “Mn!”
She kisses him on the cheek before he goes. Her beloved son. Their son – always, and again.
Wei Ying sleeps through the day and the night. The next morning, she stirs.
Lan Wangji’s hands go still on the strings of her guqin.
Wei Ying pushes herself up to half-sitting. Her eyes first land on Lan Wangji, then travel the interior of the Jingshi. “Lan Zhan? Wh-where am I?”
Wei Ying falls back against the pillow, as if winded. “Cloud Recesses?” she asks, incredulous. “Lan Zhan – I can’t believe I have to remind you of this again, but alphas aren’t allowed in Cloud Recesses. I know it’s been thirteen years, but the rules can’t have changed that much.”
“Mn. The rules have not changed.”
“But the willingness to enforce them has.”
Wei Ying stares.
Lan Wangji explains, then, what she has done for the last ten years. The students she has taught. The way they see the world. The way they helped her bring Wei Ying here. The openings for guest disciples – an alpha from Qinghe Nie Sect will come next year, she has learned. The first since Wei Ying herself.
Wei Ying stumbles out of bed, falling to her knees almost immediately. Lan Zhan goes to her, worried. “Wei Ying, you are still not well, you should—”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says hoarsely. There are tears in her eyes, but she is smiling. “Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan.” She strokes Lan Wangji’s hair back from her face. “You made a place for me in Cloud Recesses. Me and my kind.”
The interior of the Jingshi glows gold with morning sunlight. It gives everything an aura of unreality, of suspension – caught in amber.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, with the tenderness of a calyx cupping a flower. “Oh, Lan Zhan, I love you, too. I love you more than anything.”
There is a mystery to solve; a sword driving them onward.
But there is time to close the doors and re-learn each other’s bodies, too.
“I am not afraid anymore,” Lan Wangji tells Wei Ying, shyly proud of this, too, as she takes Wei Ying’s weight in the cradle of her hips.
Wei Ying’s eyes are dark in the candlelight. “Not even of liking it too much?” She presses a kiss in the valley between Lan Wangji’s breasts.
Lan Wangji shakes her head. “That least of all.” She gasps as Wei Ying enters her. Here, too, she has prepared a home for Wei Ying, and Wei Ying does not find it wanting.
When it is all over, she and Wei Ying stand side-by-side atop a waterfall; Wei Ying with a jar of wine, Lan Wangji with empty hands. She has something to tell Wei Ying.
“My bleeding is late.”
Wei Ying freezes. She turns her whole body to Lan Wangji, searching her face for – something. Lan Wangji does not know what.
Voice trembling, she asks, “How late?”
“A month.” She wanted to be very sure.
The wine jar slips from Wei Ying’s hand and smashes on the stone. She pays it no attention. “Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry,” she whispers, “I should have been more careful—”
“Do not be sorry. I am not.”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji smiles.
“You… you really…” A few tears drip from Wei Ying’s wide eyes. “There’ll be—oh, Lan Zhan…” She’s smiling through her tears. “A little one. A little Lan Zhan, all solemn and quiet, with that shiny black Lan hair—”
Lan Wangji shakes her head. “A little Wei Ying,” she counters. Before Wei Ying can argue, she shares the rest. “They have asked me to be Chief Cultivator.”
“I will accept, unless Wei Ying wishes me not to.”
A broad smile starts to sweep across Wei Ying’s face. “Are you going to do to the whole cultivation world what you did to Cloud Recesses? Radicalize the youth?”
“Ah, Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan is so good. Lan Zhan is really too good. She’s my favorite.” Wei Ying ducks her chin and looks up at Lan Wangji with a mix of shyness and mischief. “Can I help?”
Lan Wangji nods. “I could not do it without you.”
When their daughter is born, the midwife places her in Wei Ying’s arms first. Wei Ying looks down at her small form, enchanted, and inhales. Her head jerks up to meet Lan Wangji’s gaze.
“She’s an alpha,” she says.
Lan Wangji did not realize that the scent appeared so early. But she is glad.
“We will take her to bow before Lan Yi’s tablet,” she says.
Their daughter will have no shortage of examples for how to be. How to be a person. And how to be an alpha. The principles will not define her.
She may be cruel. Some people are. Or arrogant. She may be mischievous, like her sire; inventive, like her great ancestor; brash, like the new Nie guest disciple, of whom Wei Ying is very fond. She may be gentle, like her brother; quiet, like her dam; warm, like her grandmother.
But whichever of these things she may be, she will be loved. And she will be a Lan. The first alpha Lan in many generations.
Lan Wangji does not believe she will be the last.