Lan Jingyi is a very different travel companion from Wen Ning.
When Sizhui is with Wen Ning, particularly in the dark of the night, it feels as though he's by himself. The Ghost General is a quiet person by nature, and since he doesn't need to breathe, his presence is barely noticeable. They had spent many an evening in companionable silence during their travels, and even when Sizhui had asked to hear more about their branch of the Wen family, Wen Ning would relate things softly, with a hint of a smile in his voice.
Jingyi, on the other hand, has never been unnoticeable in his life. It's not that he's annoying or brash – he is a Lan, after all – but Sizhui can safely rely on him to keep the conversation flowing.
He's talking now, as they unwind in an inn after a day travelling, updating Sizhui on how different Cloud Recesses feels now that Senior Wei is a permanent resident. He'd apparently appeared one day last month, accompanying Hanguang-jun on his way back in, taken up residency in the jingshi as if he's always been there, and appears to have no plans to leave.
Sizhui had seen him, very briefly, upon his own return, but he and Wen Ning had barely arrived back from their travels to Qishan for a day when this request for help had come from one of the watchtowers, and Jingyi had asked him to come investigate it with him.
And here he is, listening to Jingyi detail how the new lotus pond slowly but surely appearing in the gardens near the jingshi is the worst-kept secret in Cloud Recesses right now. He can imagine it – Senior Wei sloshing around up to his knees in muddy water, Hanguang-jun watching on and listening to him talk in the same way he's listening to Jingyi at the moment.
Jingyi stops, just before it's time to get ready for bed. "And you've done it again. You were meant to tell me all about your trip with Senior Wen, and instead I talked for the whole evening."
"I don't mind," says Sizhui. "I wanted to know what's happened at home when I was away too."
Jingyi scowls at him, but with no heat. "Yeah, but I mind. I wanted to know what happened with you! Your letters had just enough detail to be interesting but not enough to actually be interesting."
"We've got plenty of time," says Sizhui with amusement as they both stand, starting to move around each other to get ready for bed. "Who knows how long this case will take?"
Jingyi's quiet for a moment. "Sizhui. Would you mind if I took point on this one?"
Sizhui looks up from where he's shaking his sleeping robes out of his qiankun pouch. "Not at all. Is there a reason?"
"It'd be my first one. And – because I knew you wouldn't be offended if I asked."
Sizhui frowns. That can't be right. They've both been on plenty of night hunts and led teams of Lan disciples during them. When they've been in the same group together, true, he is more likely to be leading the disciples than Jingyi, but that's because Jingyi is better at getting on with dealing with the monster or the undead, rather than speaking to witnesses and civilians.
Jingyi must see his confusion, because he adds, "Just the two of us."
Oh, now he sees: when a Lan disciple is entrusted to deal with a case by themselves or in a pair, they are considered to be fully fledged cultivators. There's no particular grading for it, and it's not an official status, but just when the culmination of their skills and the case match. They are expected to be able to deal with cases from beginning to end by themselves, with little or no back-up, no relying on the group mind to come up with solutions. Hanguang-jun had reached that point by the time he was sixteen as an exceptional cultivator, so it feels good that they've reached that stage only a few years later. Sizhui has just spent almost a year travelling with Wen Ning, so he's used to the dynamic of working as a pair now, but still he's glad Jingyi picked him to be his partner for his first time.
They share a bed, as they often have in inns before – Sizhui knows disciples from other clans complain about having to share beds in certain inns, and he can't imagine that the ones from Lanling Jin would ever get anything but rooms all to themselves, but the Gusu Lan sleeping position makes it easy for him to not disturb his sleeping partner so it's never really bothered him before.
Except... except Jingyi and he haven't shared a bed in over a year now, and it seems as though they've grown in that time. Now, his shoulders are pressing against the wall on one side, and against Jingyi on the other.
"Have you put on weight?" mutters Jingyi in the dark, who must have noticed the same thing. "I'm only just all on this bed." Sizhui's pretty sure he isn't, actually, because his own feet reach the end of the bed and Jingyi is almost a handspan taller than him now.
"Have you? You seem stronger," says Sizhui.
That startles a laugh out of Jingyi. "What? What has that got to do with anything?"
Sizhui is glad they're in the dark. He's pretty sure his face would be red if they could see it. "I just meant – your shoulders seem broader. This arm you've got next to me is as solid as this wall on the other side of me. Been doing a lot of handstands?"
Jingyi huffs. "The rules are harder to keep when you're not around."
They take breakfast with the dawn the next morning, served by a still sleepy innkeeper, before mounting their swords. It's harder to converse continuously in mid-air so Sizhui is content to let the morning chill whip past his face. They touch down a little way outside a town near the border between Lanling and Gusu, exactly the kind of place that the watchtowers were designed to make more accessible to find cultivation help. The town isn't quite as big as Caiyi, so it does take them a little bit to find the person who had requested aid, one of the local potters.
They find her sitting outside a small house on the edge of the artisan quarter, in the middle of a row of houses with other potters sitting outside taking advantage of the good weather.
"Good afternoon, Madam Liu. We are here from the Gusu Lan clan. Please, don't let us interrupt. Please finish the piece you're working on and then we can discuss the help you need," says Jingyi as he and Sizhui bow.
She tsks, pleased at their manners, and sits back down. "Well, hello. Thank you for arriving so promptly! I can tell you and work at the same time if you don't mind, young masters."
"Not at all," says Jingyi, as he and Sizhui seat themselves.
Madam Liu wets her hands again and starts shaping a bowl from her clay as she gathers her thoughts. "There's been a ghost, you see, recently attacking young men about to get married. It's taken three now, all within the last month. The first time it happened, I heard about it from the town crier and I thought it was just an unfortunate tragedy for the young man, and then it happened again, and the day I sent a message to the watchtower, there was a third."
Jingyi frowns. "You have a town council, don't you? Did you bring it up with them?"
She shrugs. "They said that they're looking into it, but haven't been able to provide any details. I wanted to ask someone to investigate this soon, because my son is due to be married at the end of the week, but they said that they can't do anything without proof that he's going to be attacked and that they can't just guard every wedding that happens from now on. I suppose the sensible thing would be to put it off until we know it's safe, but we're not rich folk, we aren't able to afford changing the date."
Jingyi nods, and bites his lip in the way that Sizhui knows means he's thinking about the information he's been given so far. "And the ghost specifically targets men, just men?"
"Yes, no brides."
"And when you say attacked, what exactly do you mean?" Jingyi is good at this, at methodically making sure they get each piece of information they need.
Madam Liu sighs. "Killed, I'm afraid. Attacked, and killed."
"Ah. I see why you might want this resolved before your son's wedding then. And do you know when they were attacked? Was it always at the same time of day?"
She hums as she thinks, and then shakes her head. "I don't know."
"Alright. Do you know if we can talk to the families of the missing grooms?"
"I don't know any of them personally, I only heard the news from the crier. I'm sorry I'm not being more helpful."
Jingyi shakes his head. "No, this has been very useful, thank you. We'll talk to some of the other families and see if there are any witnesses, and then come back to you on how to keep your son safe. It might take us a while to speak to everyone, so please don't be alarmed if you don't hear from us tomorrow."
Madam Liu nods, apparently comforted by the fact that they've even arrived and taken her seriously.
It takes Sizhui a couple of moments to realise that Jingyi is prompting him, and he shakes his head. "I don't have any extra questions, you were thorough and covered everything I was thinking of asking."
It's probably unnoticeable for Madam Liu, but Sizhui sees Jingyi preen a little, and hides his smile as they bow to Madam Liu, and set off.
"Do you think it's worth going to the council offices next?" asks Jingyi. "It doesn't seem that they would be very helpful."
Sizhui considers it. They are most likely to have all the accounts of the deaths, but he's not sure they'll be the most informative either. "What about the funeral home first? They'll know the names and addresses of all the deceased, and be able to tell us about the bodies too."
A town like this isn't big enough to need more than one funeral home, so they manage to find it after asking directions only a few times. They take the time to eat a late lunch on the way, picking up street food from stalls here and there as Jingyi reminds him to tell stories of his travels. It feels terribly un-Lan-like; they should really have found a respectable inn or restaurant a couple of hours ago and had a proper meal, but Sizhui has adapted to the irregular hours of travelling, particularly with someone who doesn't need to eat at all, and he can't imagine that Jingyi is particularly bothered about maintaining proper mealtimes if he doesn't have to.
The funeral home is easy to spot – there is a high, raised step over the threshold as there was in the funeral home in Yi City, and Sizhui remembers Senior Wei telling them that funeral homes often had these to help with the occasional rise of corpses. As they step through, Sizhui realises that he's almost expecting the whisper of a spirit or lingering touch of a ghost in a place like this, but there's nothing, not even a wisp of resentful energy.
"Young masters," says a young man from where he's sweeping the ground, spotting them as they approach. He eyes them up and down, taking in their cultivation robes and swords. "How can I help?"
Sizhui opens his mouth to reply and then remembers and looks at Jingyi - who is looking back at him expectantly. They both exchange blank looks for a moment, and then Jingyi speaks up. "We're cultivators from the Gusu Lan sect, investigating the matter of a few deaths that might be linked to a ghost, and wanted to ask a few questions."
The young man nods. "You'll want my older brother, in that case. Just a moment."
When he leaves, Jingyi reaches out to softly punch Sizhui in the arm with a rueful laugh. "I automatically deferred and waited for you to speak."
"I also almost took charge," admits Sizhui.
"I don't mind, you know. It's not like... well, you know. I wouldn't worry that you were trying to take the glory from me," says Jingyi cheerfully. "Unlike some people."
Sizhui does not ask who - for one thing, gossip is forbidden, and for another, it's not uncommon amongst their generation of young cultivators all trying to make their name in a time of peace for this kind of petty competition to exist.
The door into the back opens, and a tall man comes out, wiping his hands on a cloth. "Young masters, welcome. I'm Wang Zhufeng. My brother said you're looking for some information about a ghost?"
Jingyi nods. "We've heard that there have been a few cases where young men due to be married have been murdered recently. We would like to be able to find out more about these incidents so that we can deal with the ghost or monster behind it."
"Oh, yeah, nasty work, those," says Wang Zhufeng. "Three of them, all in such a short space of time."
He beckons them in through the reception room, into a back room that smells heavily of chemicals. There are wooden tables spaced throughout, some empty and a couple with a corpse on, covered with a cloth. He points at a coffin propped open on the side. "That was the latest one. His wedding is later today, so his funeral will be tomorrow."
"A ghost wedding?" asks Jingyi.
Wang Zhufeng nods. "I advise the families that a ghost funeral is beneficial for any young person who dies close to marriage age. It helps clear any resentment they might have around the time of their death."
"Are you a cultivator?" asks Sizhui. It's usually only cultivators who learn the ins and outs of resentful energy, and how to dispel it.
Wang Zhufeng shakes his head. "Oh, no, not at all. We usually get very little trouble. But everyone who works in this business knows that every so often we get someone who comes back as a ghost or rises as a corpse and we'd never know why. Some travelling cultivators stayed nearby some years ago, when my mother still managed this place, and we learned all about resentful energy from them and some common folk ways of dispelling it. So now no matter the circumstances of the death, we try to stop the resentful energy building up here."
Sizhui nods. "That sounds very wise. You don't know what feelings people are holding on to inside that until they manifest after death. I did notice when I came in that there was no trace of resentful energy at all."
"So the family held a ghost wedding for the young man, so that he will have a bride to take with him, so that he won't rise again as a ghost," says Jingyi, and his tone makes Sizhui pause. That's the tone he uses when he's slowly figuring something out.
Wang Zhufeng nods. "The stall next door sells paper goods of all sorts for whatever needs your family has."
Jingyi doesn't add anything, so Sizhui lets him think, and moves the questioning on: "Do you mind telling us about the attack? As in, we were told that they were attacked. Do you remember what sorts of injuries the bodies had?"
They move up to near the corpse, which is dressed in red wedding clothes. Wang Zhufeng pulls aside the collar just enough for them to see black splotchy marks against his throat and collarbone, small and knobbly lines like the press of fingers.
"All three of them had their necks snapped and they have marks of fingers around their necks, arms and wrists. Any marks that are visible after the body is dressed, we cover with make-up so you can't see the ones around the neck and jaw at the moment, but they're there." He presses a finger into the loose skin at the neck and pulls it away, showing the smear of make-up that goes along with it.
"Did you have the death of a young woman recently?" asks Jingyi suddenly. "A little before the three grooms."
Wang Zhufeng frowns. "Hmm, yes, relatively recently. Let me get my records to check dates."
As he heads for the desk in the opposite corner of the room, Sizhui raises his eyebrows at Jingyi - a question. Jingyi's eyes sparkle, in the way where he's excited but he knows it's not an appropriate place to express that - and certainly standing next to the murdered body of a young man is not the time nor place.
"One young woman about two weeks before the first murder," says Wang Zhufeng, flicking through his pages. "And then before that... no young women until almost a year ago, an accident near the river."
"What do you remember about the one most recently?" asks Jingyi.
"Poor girl. Her neck had been snapped too, actually now that you mention it. What a coincidence."
Sizhui exchanges a look with Jingyi. "Was she attacked as well?"
"I don't know. Her neighbours hadn't seen her for a few days and it turned out that she'd been inside the house the whole time. We got her from the refuse collectors, wrapped in a sheet. Not even any clothes on her. Her parents had passed and no one else came to claim the body, so we had to cremate her after a few days."
They collect the addresses and names of all the families, as well as the girl's neighbours, and thank Wang Zhufeng for his time.
They do stop by the town council, because it would be irresponsible to leave it out, but apart from being told that they had also sent a request via the watchtower for help, they don't have any other information. Jingyi asks about the murdered woman as well, and it takes them only a moment to look through the painfully small file of notes. No witnesses and no family means no leads on her murder. The case might as well be closed.
Even using their swords to fly across town, it takes them the rest of the day to speak with the families of the dead men. All three have similar stories – the grooms were attacked once he had left his house on the day of the wedding, on the way to the temple with the bride. There had been plenty of witnesses to all three, mostly the groom's relatives escorting the couple and the bride herself, and they each described a woman in full wedding dress, veil over her head.
She had taken no notice of the rest of them, swooping straight past any of them and going straight for the groom and had been abnormally strong in throwing anyone else in her way, leaving bruises and concussions and broken arms. Once the victim's neck snapped, she would immediately drop the corpse and flee, wailing loudly.
"What are you thinking?" asks Sizhui as they step outside finally, leaving the heaviness of grief behind them, the crisp sun-filled air fresh in his lungs. It had been clean inside the funeral home, but it was a manufactured sort of clean, to cover up the smell of dead things.
"No jumping to conclusions," says Jingyi slyly, and Sizhui rolls his eyes at him. "But if you were to ask me for a tentative theory… I think it's a ghoul, manifested from the woman with no family. I think if we ask around, we might discover that she was engaged, or due to marry, or something of the sort, but she died before she could be married."
"She didn't have any family, so no one paid for a ghost wedding to calm her soul," continues Sizhui, used to passing a chain of thought back and forth between them, "so she keeps coming back to try and claim a husband."
Jingyi nods, satisfied. "She's already been cremated, so we can't hold one for her now. We'll have to think of another way."
Their plan is solid. They'd hashed it out between them, lying too-close on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, Jingyi making Sizhui laugh until he'd accidentally jabbed his elbow into Jingyi's side and Jingyi had nearly smacked him in the face with his arm as he squirmed away, their year apart almost no distance at all.
And just now, Jingyi had gathered the Liu family together this morning one last time to reiterate the plan and Sizhui had pulled on his disguise and then Jingyi comes back to check if Sizhui was ready and his face does something weird and complicated when he sees Sizhui standing there in four robes of bright red silk, embroidered with gold thread throughout.
"What is it?" asks Sizhui. "Do I look awful?" They'd had to acquire them at short notice from a local tailor, so they're a bit long in the sleeve, but it fits well at the waist at least so he doesn't think it's that bad.
"You look – nice," says Jingyi. "Very nice."
"Well," says Sizhui, smiling tentatively, "that's good, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I just – sorry. I knew you were going to be wearing them because it's part of the plan, but I didn't think about how you'd look wearing them," says Jingyi, and he's sort of going very red now. "You know what, ignore me."
Sizhui smiles for real now, like a flower blooming in the sun. "Shan't."
"I shan't. Ignore you."
Jingyi huffs. "Sizhui." And then – "A-Yuan." Jingyi hasn't called him that since they were children.
"Come on," says Sizhui, not quite managing to keep the smugness out of his voice. "Let's do our job first."
"Alright," says Jingyi, falling into step with him as they head out towards the Liu family.
It's strange to be part of a wedding but have no attachment to it. Sizhui has attended a couple, of other Lan family members, but he's here as an outsider, looking on as the bride's family provides tests for young Liu Heifan to pass, as people play trumpets and bang drums, the bride is carried out to great cheering and applause on her bridal chair draped with red lace and silks.
He swaps places with Liu Heifan, who takes Sizhui's green overrobe and drapes it over his own red silks, and then they step back out onto the street. He notices Jingyi's eyes sliding over towards him a few more times as they proceed, but that's all right, because he's doing something similar.
Jingyi is wearing a light green colour with darker embroidery, borrowed from one of the groom's brothers so that he fits in with the rest of the family – and because their usual Lan robes are too close to white to be acceptable for a wedding. He's carrying both their swords at the moment, tucked discreetly under the first layer of robes, and walking carefully to disguise the shape of them next to his legs. The sleeves of his robes are tight, and show off his shoulders in a way that the Lan robes do not.
Sizhui spends so long looking that he almost misses the appearance of the ghoul bride. Almost.
She slinks up a side alley towards them, a sickly translucent grey. She's swathed in fabric that must have been red in reality, and her face is completely obscured by the veil. Her head hangs at a strange angle from her neck. A hoarse screech scrapes out of her throat as she throws herself down the street, flying straight towards Sizhui.
Sizhui steps out towards it, because that's his job today – to make sure that everyone else stays safe and keep her attention on him until Jingyi can make his move, except there's suddenly a red blur in front of him – from the bridal chair.
The bride flings herself out of the litter carriage headfirst, flying towards the ghoul – Heavens, she's carrying a sword – wait, a sword with a very familiar sword glare –
"Is that Suihua?" comes from Jingyi as the two of them dash forward, Sizhui hiking up the red robes a scandalous amount as they threaten to slip under his boots.
Their observations are confirmed as Fairy comes barrelling out of a side street, snarling. The bride – Jin Ling, rather – takes a swing at the ghoul and she screeches, throwing herself to the side, her head flopping over limply with it, bouncing as it hits her shoulder.
Jin Ling tries to follow her and teeters, staggers; Fairy yelps as he manages to kick her in the side and the ghoul takes the chance to swipe at him, smacking in with the palm of the hand right under the ribcage.
Jin Ling swears in a distinctly familiar voice, which banishes all doubt that it's him, and slices viciously at the ghoul as Fairy scrabbles to get out of the way. They look disturbingly similar, the ghoul and Jin Ling, dressed in their wedding robes and veils and trading blows, if not for the fact that one of them is translucent.
The ghoul takes slashes that slice across her arms and screams, backing across the street until she jumps up onto a roof.
"Jin Ling!" shouts Sizhui. "Jin Ling, is that you?"
The bride pauses for just long enough to throw the veil back – Sizhui can vaguely hear gasps behind him since no one's supposed to see the bride apart from the groom – and then the face of the Lanling Jin Sect Leader scowls out at him. "What are you doing here?"
The ghoul takes advantage of their distraction to dash down towards Sizhui – Jin Ling raises his sword again and Jingyi raises his own to smack Suihua down.
"Don't hurt her, you idiot," shouts Jingyi with exasperation. "Liberate, suppress, and then eliminate!"
She takes a swipe at Sizhui's face and he dodges with ease; she wails, and tries again.
The thing they'd worked out was from the witness accounts is that she's desperate. She hasn't been trying to kill any of the grooms, but rather take them away with her. The snapped necks meant that she wasn't a ghost, but rather something capable of taking corporeal form. And once the men had died, they were of no use to her, and she'd left the scene voluntarily leaving the dead groom-to-be behind. She's also strong and fast in death in a way she wasn't when alive – but that doesn't make her a better fighter; Sizhui's quick footwork means that he can dodge her all day if he needs to.
He doesn't need to, of course; he only needs to keep her focussed on trying to grab him for the time it takes for Jingyi to pull a spirit-trapping net from his qiankun pouch and throw it over her. She howls and claws at the netting as it settles over her and Sizhui ducks out of the way.
Sizhui grabs the edges of the net and pushes it to the floor before standing on the edges to help to weigh it down, Jingyi doing the same with the other end, both of them heaving with the effort.
Jin Ling raises his sword again as if to run her through.
"Jin Ling, wait. We can free her. Take Jingyi's place and help me hold her down," says Sizhui.
"Don’t get so close," says Jin Ling, voice high with alarm – although he does sheathe his sword and stand on the opposite end of the net, using his weight and spiritual energy to keep the net down. "Lan Sizhui, you don't even have a sword on you!"
"Good throw, Jingyi," says Jingyi sarcastically as he gives up his position to Jin Ling. "Aw, thanks everyone." He starts rooting through his qiankun pouch, throwing stacks of paper funeral goods out of it – incense, paper money, clothes, house and furniture – and finally, a lifesize paper doll man.
The ghoul screams wordlessly when she sees that and Sizhui lets go for long enough to shrug off one of his layers of red to drape it over the doll's shoulders; the ghoul's fingers poke through the netting to curl into the fabric, pulling it towards her with scrabbling fingers as her cries turn into high, pitiful whines.
Jingyi sets everything on fire.
The paper goods flare and then crumble quickly into ash and as they do, the ghoul's screams slowly fade until he hears a woman's voice, high and quiet: "Thank you."
They stand there for a moment, heads bowed, all three of them understanding that they need to take a moment of respect.
"You forgot about the veil, didn't you?" says Jingyi eventually. Sizhui opens his eyes and looks up to see mirth curling into the corners of Jingyi's lips, and an embarrassed set to Jin Ling's mouth. "When you were planning how this was going to go down, you forgot you wouldn't be able to see, right?"
"Shut up," says Jin Ling, but with no real heat. "Stupid veil. Why are you here anyway?"
"The groom's mother employed us," says Sizhui. "Can I assume that the bride's family asked for help too?"
"You'd think they'd coordinate their efforts," mutters Jin Ling, turning as he stomps towards the civilians still hanging back. Some of them gape at him, now all too obviously walking with a wide stride and the veil pushed back, not to mention the sword that he's only just now sheathing.
"Where's Zhu Lin?" asks Liu Heifan, taking off the plain overrobe he'd pulled on over his red and pulling his wedding robes straight.
"I'm here, I'm still in the litter!" calls the actual bride from the carriage. "Heifan, is it over? Are you hurt? That screaming was awful!"
"A-Lin, I'm fine! The cultivators took care of it!"
"I thought she felt a little heavy," mutters one of the uncles carrying one of the corners of the litter. "There were two of them in there?"
Jingyi snaps to attention and Sizhui joins him in time for the two of them to bow to the wedding party; a heartbeat behind, Jin Ling does so too.
"The ghoul bride has now moved on to the afterlife," says Jingyi, no sign of the person casually trying to one-up Jin Ling a moment ago. "Thank you for your cooperation, you'll be safe now. Congratulations on your wedding."
"Ah, no, thank you!" says Liu Heifan, as they all bow in return – the wedding party proceeds with significantly more pomp and cheer, leaving the three of them on the side of the road.
"Anyway," says Jingyi once they're out of sight, "That's how you do it, not bursting out of people's carriages with a sword."
Jin Ling scowls at him. "I had it under control."
Sizhui can't help but smile. This feels so familiar. "Jin Ling."
"It's good to see you."
"I – oh," says Jin Ling, looking flummoxed. "Yes. It's... it's been a while. How was... Qishan?"
"Not bad," says Sizhui.
"Oh, you've got to tell him about the Ghost Lantern," says Jingyi, chipping in. "Come on, he can tell you on the way."
"On the way?" asks Jin Ling. "To where?"
"To the woman's house. Don't you want to solve the case?"
"The ghoul," says Sizhui when Jin Ling is looking no more enlightened. "She became a vengeful ghoul because she was killed before she could marry. We're fortunate that her dying wish was to be taken care of in the afterlife, and not vowing revenge on the one who killed her, but we should still do our due diligence and find out who killed her."
"How very thorough of you," says Jin Ling, sounding uncertain as to whether he means that as an insult or compliment.
They stop off at Sizhui and Jingyi's inn first, so that they can change back into their usual clothes; a particularly good idea because after the third person openly stared at them in the street – Sizhui dressed as a groom, Jin Ling dressed as a bride with the veil flipped up – Sizhui could see Jin Ling only barely resisting the urge to yell at people.
"You look wonderful though," says Sizhui.
Jin Ling squints at him suspiciously. Sizhui smiles.
"Really? But –" He looks down at himself, flushes, and goes back to trying to wrestle the hair pins out of his hair.
Jin Ling stops and stares at him. Sizhui learnt the art of being unexpectedly direct at the exact right time from Hanguang-jun, who uses it rarely but effectively.
"May I?" Sizhui gestures at the headpiece, and Jin Ling drops to a seat on the floor with an exhale.
"Yes please, it's a nightmare," he says.
It ends up taking both Sizhui and Jingyi to get the pins and veil off, because Jin Ling has spent enough time making it worse. Even when the veil is out, his hair is a matted, lopsided mess; Jingyi grabs his own comb and holds it up until Jin Ling nods.
"So, what do you know about the dead woman?" asks Jin Ling. "I arrived yesterday and was just told that the bridegroom might get attacked by a monster, so they wanted someone to guard him."
"A few things seem a bit mysterious," says Jingyi, settling in to comb Jin Ling's hair out. "Her parents are dead and she had no family who came to collect the body—"
Sizhui picks up, "But her neighbours did notice that she hadn't been seen in a few days."
Jingyi again: "And her neck was snapped, which you could see on the ghoul, but the funeral home said that she was brought in with no clothes."
Jin Ling looks blank.
"The ghoul was clearly wearing her wedding robes." Sizhui prompts him. "So someone must have taken the clothes from the body after she died."
Jin Ling looks revolted, as if he's going to comment on someone stealing a dead woman's wedding clothes off her body, and then thinks better of it. Instead, he says, "You know, it's weird when you two do that."
"Finish each other's thoughts and sentences."
Sizhui stops to think about it. He hadn't even realised that's what they were doing. Huh. It should bother him, he feels, especially since he's only recently returned from almost a year's worth of travelling, but it doesn't. It feels… snug, instead.
"Jealous?" asks Jingyi, in that way of his – too sharp, too intuitive.
"No," says Jin Ling, in a way that means yes.
"You do not want to be able to guess what is happening in Jingyi's head," says Sizhui calmly, and both of them turn to look at him, Jingyi in particular with unabashed glee.
"Travelling has given you a sense of humour," says Jingyi with awe. Sizhui dips his head to hide his smile.
They head out to the murdered woman's house, where they find the door unlocked; the door unlatches when Jin Ling tries the handle. He pulls back immediately, as if expecting something to spring out at him, but there's nothing. The door creaks open slowly.
"Hey, you! You, step away from there! She's got nothing left to give you!"
They turn towards the sound – it sounds like it came from the house next door, but it takes a moment for them to realise that it must have been someone calling through the window.
"The neighbours – maybe the ones who noticed her missing?" says Sizhui as their front door swings open and a pair of elderly people make their way towards them, hobbling as fast as they can. "Let's go talk to them."
"We're not here to cause any trouble, popo," says Jingyi when they meet them halfway, as an old lady makes to stab him with her walking staff. The old man behind her doesn't seem inclined to stop her, either. "We're cultivators, investigating some murders."
She squints suspiciously at them. "Well you all certainly don't look like thieves," she mutters, eyeing Jin Ling's pale gold robes up and down in particular, "but the town council came days ago."
"We spoke to them. They said they didn't have any leads," says Jingyi.
"So they outsourced it to some fancy young cultivators? Hmph. Well if you ask me, it wasn't no ghost or monster or anything of the kind."
"Oh? In that case, we would like very much to ask you what happened," says Jingyi earnestly, bowing to her. She squints at him again.
"Offer me your arm, young man," she barks, and Jingyi does, automatically, as she starts leading them back to their house. Sizhui catches Jin Ling's look of amusement over his head.
It turns out that elderly couple knew the murdered woman reasonably well. Their son spends long hours at work on construction sites during the daytime, whereas she was a seamstress who worked mostly out of her own home so once every few months or so, he would ask her to check in on her parents during the day.
"A-Yin was a quiet girl. She started seeing a young man, hmmm. Maybe about a year ago now. He was very sweet on her, we saw him escort her back to the house a few times," says the old man. "But his family didn't approve at first. They're from some wealthy merchant family and she didn't have good social standing."
The old woman nods. "Ah, he must have talked them around in the end though, because she started to sew her wedding robes. She said that since she didn't have parents, she could have whatever she wanted on them. I'd told her that I had cranes on mine when we got married, and a-yo, she said she'd put cranes on hers as well. Such a considerate girl."
"Cranes?" asks Jingyi. "Not phoenixes?"
"No, cranes. And peonies and butterflies," says the old lady. "She showed me once. Lovely needlework."
The three of them still. Sizhui knows that they're all thinking of the red robes that Jin Ling was wearing this morning, now a discarded pool on the floor of their inn room, embroidered with cranes and peonies and butterflies.
"We'd like to look around her house," says Jin Ling awkwardly. "See if there are any clues that the council may have missed."
"You and everyone else," says the old man, scowling. "When people realised she was gone, all manner of thieves and looters have come crawling around. I'd be surprised if there was anything left of A-Yin's."
They go take a look anyway, thanking the couple for their time and help. There's a faint scent of rotting flesh still hanging in the air, testament to the time she'd spent here before her death was discovered, but they're all used to that by now. There's almost nothing left in the house, and what is left is scattered over the floor. There's a stain on the floor, from where she had started to decompose, and some lingering insects scuttling around it.
"There's nothing to be found here," says Jin Ling in disgust. "Fairy might have been able to track the murderer but we can't tell what's from the original murder and what happened afterwards. The council didn't even send someone to clean this up."
"But we know it was probably the murderer who took her clothes," says Sizhui. He feels like they're so close to figuring it out, just missing a few vital pieces. "If she'd had robes on all the way up to when she was discovered and the refuse collector took her away, the floor wouldn't be so stained. There was nothing between the floor and her body when she started to decompose."
"Speaking of which," says Jingyi, raising an eyebrow.
"I've been trying not to think about that," says Jin Ling, face scrunched up in disgust. "I can't believe I was possibly wearing a dead woman's clothes. That's revolting. I feel like I should take a bath or purify myself or something."
"Where did you get them from?"
"Asked around at tailor shops for some red robes and it was the first one that had some in."
"You didn't wonder that they were completed? Don't most women tend to do the embroidery for their own wedding robes?"
"It's not like I have any experience in that area!" snaps Jin Ling, flushing. "And I'm probably never going to marry a woman anyway. I mean, Sizhui, you were also wearing red."
"Mine were mostly plain," says Sizhui after a moment's pause where he and Jingyi both stare at him. Jin Ling is furiously staring at the wall, the red creeping quickly up his neck, and Sizhui knows that this is not the time to ask. Jin Ling will tell him, when he's ready. "Also, we arrived a few days before you did so there was time to have them done up a little bit. In any case, it's a good lead, so let's look into it."
When they arrive at the tailor's shop, there seems to be a few clusters of customers already waiting for service, and only one attendant handling money and one dealing with customers.
"Young masters, my apologies," says the owner, bustling over to them after a few minutes. "I am Huang Wufei, welcome to my shop. We are unusually busy here today and my son who normally helps is feeling unwell. If you would like to browse, I will come back to you after I have attended to those who arrived first."
"That's fine, please take your time," says Sizhui.
The tailor's shop is larger and showier than any that Sizhui has stepped foot into, with brightly coloured silks draped everywhere and accompanying jewellery and ornaments ranging from carved wood to wrought gold – he can certainly imagine Jin Ling somewhere like this rather than himself or Jingyi.
The clientele, too, seems of a different ilk than the elderly couple they've just been talking to – a pair of sisters trying on every pair of slippers, an older woman accompanied by two attendants, a distinguished gentleman ordering in fine silks in tiny sizes for a newly arrived grandson.
"This seems like your kind of place," says Jingyi. Well, Sizhui hadn't intended to say it out loud.
"Please. Merchants come to Koi Tower for the privilege of showing off their wares," scoffs Jin Ling, colouring slightly. He adds, quieter, "I just thought that a bigger shop was more likely to have more stock."
"We're lucky you came across it," says Sizhui, elbowing Jingyi slightly. "We wouldn't have any real leads otherwise."
They keep to the side of the shop, trying not to get in the way. Sizhui sees a guan headpiece on the shelf for accessories, pale translucent jade carved around with koi fish and inlaid with gold. It's pretty. He points it out to Jingyi. "What do you think?"
Jingyi looks at it, and then at Sizhui, and then his eyes slide over to Jin Ling. "What for – oh, for him?" He looks at it again, more intently. "It's pretty."
"I thought so too," says Sizhui, and picks it up.
"What," says Jin Ling, looking between the two of them. "Did you say – are you going to buy that?"
"...For me?" Jin Ling looks bewildered. "You don't have to, I can buy it myself."
"We know. You could probably buy the whole shop," says Jingyi, not unkindly. "That's not the point."
"I don't understand," says Jin Ling.
"It's pretty. It would look nice on you. And also I would like to give it to you. Sometimes it's just that simple." says Sizhui. He suspects that Jin Ling gets a lot of gifts, for some occasion, or out of courtesy or obligation, or because someone's trying to curry favour. He probably doesn't get them just because.
Jin Ling looks at it uncertainly. "I... guess."
Sizhui pays for it, the attendant compliments his taste and puts it into a little box for him, and Sizhui hands it to Jin Ling. Jin Ling stares down at it.
Jingyi sways slightly, nudging his shoulder into Jin Ling's, murmuring, "Just say thank you and accept it."
"Thanks," says Jin Ling quietly. "It is pretty. I'll wear it. I mean, tomorrow. Well. Thank you."
The owner of the shop finishes up with the last of the other and bustles back over towards them. "Young masters, thank you for your patience and my apologies again. Was there something that I could help you with?"
It takes a moment, but Jin Ling snaps out of it, tucking the wooden box away into a qiankun pouch and stepping forward. "I was here yesterday. I purchased a set of red robes from you."
"Ah, yes, yes. The full bridal set, I remember. Did you need them adjusted...?"
"We want to ask where you got them from. It seems unusual that you had a full set of wedding robes here since most women sew their own–" says Jin Ling; Jingyi nods slightly when his eyes slide over as if for confirmation, "—and you don't have any other sets here."
Huang Yufei looks between them uncertainly. "Ah, yes. It certainly is unusual, especially since my family prides ourselves from making the robes from our own traded fabrics. But sometimes when a young woman dies before she's able to be married, her family might sell the robes on if they need the money. They're worth a lot of money and some families buy them for daughters who are bad at embroidery but don't want to admit it."
"Do you remember who sold it to you?"
"I'm afraid not. It was a woman – an older woman, who said that her daughter died – but I didn't ask her name. I gave her a very fair price since they were all the way completed."
There's another group of customers entering to store now – a large group of young women, giggling and cheerful. The owner looks at them, seemingly unlikely to buy anything, and then at the women, already picking out robes they like. "Young masters – please excuse me, if you don't have any more questions? I'm afraid my son is unwell at the moment, so it's just me here."
"Not at all," says Jingyi, stepping aside to let him pass. "That was very helpful, thank you. How long has your son been unwell now?"
"About four weeks, I'm afraid. Thank you, young masters, please, have a pleasant afternoon." Huang Yufei bows to them, and heads towards his next set of customers.
"What was that about?" asks Jin Ling when they get outside. "Asking about his son?"
"Do you remember what the old man said? The groom-to-be was from a wealthy merchant family. The store owner just now said that his family is in the fabric trade, and conveniently has a son who's been ill since around the same time the dead woman has been missing." Jingyi waggled his eyebrows.
"You think his son killed her?"
"Well. I think the son was the intended groom and the store owner's lying about something," says Jingyi carefully. "I don't want to jump to conclusions. We should go talk to him first."
Sizhui chipped in. "I just remembered. Jingyi and I went to talk to the funeral home owner. He said that the ghoul was the only young woman who had died recently."
"So either this older woman selling the robes stole them from the bride somehow, or didn't exist at all." Jin Ling nods thoughtfully.
It's not hard to find their destination – there’s only one textile workshop with the name 'Huang' attached to it. It’s on a large estate, with the family home on one side of the courtyard and the workshop on the other. The doors are thrown open in the warmth of the day, and the chatter of workers spill out.
When they hover at the threshold, attracting attention from the seamstresses closest to the door, a woman makes her way over to them from the back of the room. Her robes are plain but of good quality, with ribbons tying her sleeves back. At a guess, Sizhui would assume that she's in charge here.
"Good afternoon young masters. How can I help you? If you're looking for fabrics, we usually sell them from our shop near the artisan quarter. And if you're looking for robes and tailoring, we have another shop near the markets."
"We're looking for the young master of the household, actually," says Sizhui, keeping it concise. He doesn't have to worry so much about breaking the rules about lying if he doesn't say too much. (Jingyi, certainly, has never quite caught on to this trick.)
She looks them up and down properly taking in the quality of their clothing, their bearing. "Oh, you're friends of A-Tong? I'm sorry, he didn't mention that he was expecting visitors. I'm afraid my son is unwell at the moment."
Jin Ling steps forward, and draws himself up. His demeanour goes from Jin Ling, their slightly awkward friend who's still trying to get used to having friends, to esteemed Sect Leader of Lanling Jin, one of the Four Great Sects, in the blink of an eye. Sizhui has seen him do this a few times before; when they were younger, it felt like a small dog puffing itself up, but he seems to have grown into it now, like it's part of who he is without being what defines him. "We are cultivators, from Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan. We're investigating the murder of a young woman and need to speak with the young master."
His voice wasn't loud, but pitched to carry – Sizhui has seen Hanguang-jun do the same thing, and he can already see workers behind glancing at them from the corners of their eyes, picking up what sounds like gossip-worthy news. The woman – Madam Huang, presumably, has also surely picked up on it.
Her eyes glance nervously between them and then back at her workers, who are all studiously pretending to be deaf. "No, no... A-Tong would never be involved in anything like that. He's been unwell for weeks. He's not in a fit state for company, young masters."
"We will wait," says Jin Ling imperiously, eyes narrowed in a way that clearly say do not make us wait. Sizhui should disapprove of such intimidation tactics, he knows, but he's started to see things in more than black and white in the last couple of years, and it feels like Jin Ling knows when it's appropriate and not. It's a good look on Jin Ling, actually.
She laughs nervously and beckons them through. "If you could come this way, let me just send someone ahead to get him ready..."
They cross the courtyard towards the large estate, presumably where everyone lives, and she hastily beckons someone over, telling them to get her son ready for visitors. She's clearly trying to not walk too quickly, but all of them are taller than her, and Jin Ling is setting a brisk pace. It's not that big of a courtyard. Looking at Jin Ling from half a step behind, it strikes Sizhui suddenly how he would make a fine theatre actor, perhaps as the romantic lead, with his sharp profile and haughty tilt to his chin, shoulders drawn back and purposeful stride. So too would Jingyi, on his other side, who has a stern face on but mirth in his eyes hidden only by the sweep of his eyelashes. Sizhui has no such acting skills – he can keep his face a pleasantly blank palette and that's about it.
It's strange, noticing new things about his friends after a year apart. He wonders if he's equally foreign to them now.
It takes only a few minutes before they're inside the house, following Madam Huang up the stairs. She looks nervy – understandable, since they're all walking just a little too close to her for comfort. It becomes apparent where they're headed soon enough, because they can hear the sound of raised voices off to one side of the corridor.
"Please, young masters. My son has been... troubled, recently," says Madam Huang, wringing her hands. "He's usually a very fine young man."
Sizhui steps in front, and bows. "There's no need to worry. We aren't going to harm him. We require his assistance and would just like to ask him a few questions."
Usually, his reassurances work. He's not flashy with words, but he knows that there's something about his face, his calm demeanour, his politeness that puts people at ease. Madam Huang does not look reassured.
A-Tong's quarters are, simply put, a giant mess. And Sizhui has seen how Wei Wuxian prefers to keep his quarters. There's stacks of dirty dishes on the table, each half-eaten. Anything that was formerly on a shelf is now on the floor. There's a pile of robes in the corner and it looks like they've been slashed and ripped, with loose threads and cuts of fabric adrift. The young man himself is half unrobed and grappling with two servants – Madam Huang gasps when she sees him.
"A-Tong! What are you doing?"
A-Tong stops for long enough that the two servants try to pull the robe off his and put a different one on him and he snatches it back from them, snarling, the white fabric pulling taut.
"Enough!" says Jingyi, with a smart snap of his voice that makes everyone look at him. He gestures at the servants. "You two, you can stop. We work with rotting corpses half the time, an undressed man is nothing. If you could all step outside." It's not a request, as Madam Huang discovers as Sizhui gently but firmly ushers her out of the door along with the two servants, and closes the door behind him.
The key to the door, he notes, is on the outside. Odd.
"Alright. Can you two do your—" Jin Ling makes a few complicated arm gestures and yet Sizhui understands him completely. He and Jingyi throw up Silencing Talismans on the four walls.
Huang Tong glares at them all, even as he pulls his robes back up his shoulder. "Who are you? Did my father send you?"
"Definitely not," says Jingyi. "Do you have cushions in here?"
There are, in fact, cushions, strewn around as if someone had thrown them at some point. They make a little circle in the middle of the room, nudging books and clothes out of the way. They sit. It's all very civilised.
Huang Tong continues glaring at them. In return, they all study him. He looks... dishevelled. There's the stale smell of sweat like he hasn't cleaned in a while and his hair is unbrushed. But past that, there's more. He looks pale and drawn, sunken shadows pressing grey and purple under bloodshot eyes. His hands tremble, his voice is hoarse and when he breathes, his inhale is raspy and rattling.
"We're here investigating the death of a young woman," says Jingyi, more softly than before. "She was due to be married to her sweetheart, the son of a merchant family. She didn't have any family left, and didn't get a proper burial."
Huang Tong's eyes have filled with tears, only a matter of moments before the first one spills over and down his face. "Yinyin," he whispers, picking at the hems of his robes. His white robes that the servants were trying to get him out of earlier. "Chen Yin. She was going to marry me. It's my fault she's dead."
"Did you kill her?" asks Jingyi into the quiet that follows.
"No! No. I love her." Huang Tong dips his head as fat droplets fall from his face, staining grey splotches onto his sleeves. "But… still my fault."
Jin Ling looks like he's going to ask another question but Sizhui puts his hand on Jin Ling's arm. It's better to let him tell them in his own time. It doesn't take long – Huang Tong heaves in a breath, and carries on.
"My parents didn't approve. They wouldn't have let me marry her. So I pretended we had broken it off, and we were going to get married in secret. A small ceremony. One of my cousins was going to let us travel on his next caravan south with the fabrics. We couldn't have the kind of wedding she deserved, but I wanted her to have something, at least. For our special day. I took the red from our stores so she could have real wedding robes. It's silk, you know. Neither of us have worn silk before. Silly, isn't it? No one was going to see us anyway. But she was so happy when I gave it to her.
"On the day, she didn't show up at the temple and I was angry at her. So angry. I thought maybe she'd... well, anyway. I overheard my father later saying that he'd discovered the missing red silk and figured it out. He went to talk to Yinyin, and... and..."
The silent tears give way to loud sobs, heaving his chest in anguish. It's actually a good thing that his head is bowed in grief, because the three of them all exchange stricken looks over the top of his head. His own father.
"We – we talked to her," says Jin Ling hesitantly. Sizhui can see him considering, weighing his words before he says them. "We were originally asked to look into this because she was unable to move on."
"She's stuck here?" asks Huang Tong, looking up at them with wide eyes.
"Only momentarily. She's at peace now, and she's passed on."
"Oh. Good," he says, tears welling up again. "That's good."
"Her ashes are still at the funeral home," says Sizhui gently. "She doesn't have any other family, and I'm sure she would appreciate it if you could take care of them."
Huang Tong nods. "I'll do that. I'd like to do that. When they – they weren't letting me out of this room. And I... I didn't intend on leaving." His voice sinks into a guilty whisper.
"Well they can't stop us," says Jingyi, injecting a little firmness into his voice. "We'll be presenting our report to the local court right away, and ask that you give your testimony."
They stand, giving Huang Tong a moment to compose himself. He pulls his white robes straight and Sizhui is reminded for a moment of Hanguang-jun, wearing white for as long as he could remember, until one day after a disembodied arm appears at Mo Village, and then he didn't anymore. Huang Tong won't get that kind of ending. His beloved became a ghoul and killed three people, and now she's moved into the next reincarnation cycle.
"We'll have to go out of the window. I can carry Huang Tong on my sword," he says. Jin Ling, already halfway to the door, pauses and raises an eyebrow.
"The key to the door was on the outside. I'm sure by now they've locked us in. They probably don't have any concrete plans yet, because they can hardly hope to outfight the three of us, but I'm sure they felt they had to try something." Sizhui's voice is remarkably steady, but he's tired and drained.
This entire case is... sad. Chen Yin wasn't trying to kill any of those young men. She was just a young woman who wanted a special wedding day. And the Huangs probably aren't criminal masterminds. They're not plotting to kill the three young cultivators and the family heir right now, but they've reacted badly to each and every situation put in front of them. And in total, there are four young people who were due to be married dead – and a fifth who was considering it.
Jin Ling tries the door anyway. It's locked. Sizhui sighs.
The case itself is remarkably easy to wrap up. The three of them mount their swords and Sizhui carries Huang Tong on his. They ignore the shouts from the courtyard, and go straight to the town council offices. They take turns to sit with Huang Tong until he's given his full testimony. They go with him to the funeral home afterwards, to pick up a small plain clay pot. Jin Ling hesitates for only a moment, before letting him know that they have Chen Yin's wedding robes. They don't mention how they came to be in their possession, but they end up at the inn and Sizhui folds them neatly for him. Sizhui and Jingyi pretend not to notice when Jin Ling presses a purse into Huang Tong's hands so that he can travel south.
They sit down in the common room of the inn, and let the bustle of the evening's patrons pass over their heads, sitting in silence as each of them digest.
"I feel like I need a drink," says Jin Ling finally. "Except—" He waves at the two of them.
"Don't stop on my account," says Jingyi hollowly.
Sizhui puts one of his hands on one each of theirs, and squeezes. They both squeeze back. "I think sometimes it's good to have a reminder," he says thoughtfully. "Not that it's good that something like this happened, of course, but it's good to be reminded of why we do this. It's easy to get caught up in organised night hunts and sect competitions, but I want to do this to help people."
Jin Ling nods, uncharacteristically solemn. "When I took this on, I didn't think there was much to it. If you weren't here, I would have just eliminated the ghoul and then gone home."
"We should do this more often," says Jingyi thoughtfully.
An exasperated huff from Jin Ling. "I wish I could. A good Sect Leader is supposed to know how to delegate actual cases."
"We could call it cultivating cross-Sect relationships," says Jingyi. "More communication between the Sects can't be a bad thing, both for sharing expertise, but also then we can avoid situations where multiple cultivators get called to the same case."
"Well if you wrote to me more often, I might have known you were going to be here," says Jin Ling with a frown. There's no real heat behind his words though, and besides – Sizhui knows what he means now.
Sizhui looks at the two of them, Jin Ling and Sizhui, his cohort, his friends. People he's survived life or death situations with and knows so well, but also people he's getting to know again for the first time. He's looking forward to it.
He smiles, and promises, "I'll write to you more often, Jin Ling."