Lan Zhan, firstly you must promise not to worry!
The first letter Wei Ying sent him from Hefei starts with a plea, and that in itself makes Lan Wangji worry. He feels the beginning of a frown on his brows, one only Xiongzhang and Wei Ying would have noticed, and chases the lines of Wei Ying's haphazard penmanship for an explanation.
I did tell you that I was heading West, right? Well halfway across the Huangshan path, I had a little accident while assisting a man beset by bandits. Turns out the man was actually a local ruling lord in disguise while surveying his domain, like a character in those novels Nie-Xiong is so fond of! How fanciful is that? Long story short, the man - Lord Zhang - is housing me while I recuperate, "As a token of his gratitude", which is ridiculous! Anyone would have helped a fellow traveller on the road!
Over the months since they parted ways on the borders of Gusu, Wei Ying's letter had come sporadically, mostly carried by trade caravans passing by Caiyi. Each wait between letters had been a lesson in patience and quelling his fears for Lan Wangji, thinking of Wei Ying being out in the world, without a jindan and yet still very much the Wei Ying he knows, who would bodily throw himself into danger if it means others would not get hurt.
There had been letters where he alluded to minor injuries and scrapes, even then downplaying it with lines of jokes and meandering stories. But so far, Wei Ying has never had to change the course of his journey much in the wake of such setbacks, and for someone like Wei Ying to voluntarily let himself stay in one place to recuperate must mean that his injury is serious enough to do so.
Lan Wangji feels his grip tighten on the parchment between his fingers, and draws a deep breath.
Anyway, you shouldn't worry, because I'm in good hands! The people here are really nice, none of that snobbery or compulsive backstabbing you'd expect from the gentry, because Lord Zhang would have absolutely none of that. Apparently, he used to be a common soldier who rose to be an army general before he took over from the previous Lord around the time of the Sunshot Campaign - Which is crazy because I've never heard about any of this - We're really behind in following secular politics, aren't we? Makes me wonder what else we missed, mired as we always are in our circle of Cultivation Sects and matters.
And speaking of which, rather than worrying about your poor old friend, how is Your Excellency and the Cultivation World doing?
The rest of the letter is usual enough, Wei Ying spinning an uncannily accurate imagining of his life as Xiandu, as well as creative suggestions on what Lan Wangji should do if certain Sect Leaders keep giving him trouble or if the work gets to be too much. The familiar cadence of Wei Ying's words soothes him after the initial worry brought by the letter, especially when he realizes that unlike with Wei Ying's previous letters from the road, this time Lan Wangji could actually write back.
Lan Wangji's fingers loosens around Wei Ying's letter, catching the unfamiliarly finer grain of the parchment, the familiar scent of spices and smoke that is Wei Ying's and Wei Ying's alone. Doesn't imagine the selfsame scent being so close to him, mere months ago after a lifetime of wanting.
Wei Ying, he writes, the crown of the Chief Cultivator heavy on his brows, and assures himself that this is enough.
Wei Ying's letters, lengthy as they are, has always been light and possessing of a certain immediacy - Always talking of things that were happening to him or the thoughts he had on anything he encounters along his path - As if Lan Wangji is there beside him, and Wei Ying is simply giving him his usual running commentary whenever they are together on the road.
Wei Ying's letter from Hefei are less so - Less immediate, less candid, almost pensive in nature. And it's a Wei Ying that Lan Wangji himself rarely encounters, this Wei Ying who is not on the move, who's probably had many sichens to think of his words as he lies in a safe, warm chamber waiting for his body to mend. It makes him wonder if Wei Ying has had many of these moments - Of being safe and settled, and it makes something uneasy and cold bloom in the pit of his stomach.
I have been thinking that we were never taught much regarding the possible uses of Cultivation outside of quelling spiritual disturbances and furthering one's cultivation towards immortality, and why is that? Lan Zhan, when we were young we vowed to uphold justice and protect the weak - But more and more I realize that there are so many things people are to be protected from, not merely curses and yaos and the sinister machinations of others. There is hunger and sickness, there are landslides and floods and unbuilt roads, and rules that are unjust towards the weak.
And even if we were to solely focus on spiritual disturbances as our domain, there are so many places that yet remain untouched by the Sects, for lack of gold or importance. The Cultivation world revere you for being where the chaos is - and rightly so! Lan Zhan is truly the best! - But were you not merely doing what you could with the means you possessed? Had they wanted, won't half the Cultivation world also be able to be where the chaos is as you were?
Lan Wangji runs a thumb over Wei Ying's words, feeling the slight indents and the pooling ink like the lively cadence of Wei Ying's voice. Were the other man in front of him, he'd be waving his arms, eyes flaring alive as his voice rises and falls - Always slightly too loud, too untamed for the sedate hush of the world Lan Wangji was raised in.
He looks at the correspondences stacked neatly before him, a missive left spread open in his haste to read Wei Ying's letter. As with many other of the correspondences directed to the Chief Cultivator, the matter is paltry yet fraught - Tangled threads of Sect relations and the balancing of faces that Lan Wangji has to navigate through to even begin to change the slightest thing, to right the slightest wrongs in the web that has become his dominion.
Lan Wangji longs to be on the road, to be where the chaos is, to have Wei Ying by his side - twirling his flute and wrapping him in the warmth of his voice as he talks about nothing and everything.
But Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, that is why what you are doing is so important! It's been so long since the Cultivation world has someone in power who doesn't wield it for their own gain, who actually thinks of what they could do for others instead of what others could do for them. Perhaps one day you'll wrangle those stubborn Sects enough that they too, would see that we could do so much more. If anyone could do it, then it would surely be Hanguang-Jun.
And like this, Lan Wangji remembers his decision to stay, to fulfil their vow in the best way he possibly could, to let Wei Ying walk his own path and fulfil the selfsame vow in the way he wants to, out there in the endless open road. To let Wei Ying have the freedom and choices he was denied so many times before in his first life.
To have Wei Ying this way, his words scrawled across pages upon pages of crinkled parchment, instead of spoken beside him, is enough.
"Senior Wei would probably have a great solution for this," Jingyi sighs, adding the missive in his hand to the pile that represents their ever-growing water spirit problem along the Huai river, "Like none of the Sect Leaders would be happy about it, but the matter would probably be resolved much faster and we won't have so much possible collaterals from the people along the riverside while we stay idle."
It had been an offhanded suggestion on Wei Ying's part, on his first letter from Hefei - Lan Zhan, ah, with Zewu-Jun in seclusion and your Chief Cultivator duties, you must be swimming in correspondences right now! Do you know that Wen Qing used to be Wen Ruohan's assistant during his Chief Cultivator days, before he went all red-eyed and evil? Not that you would ever get red-eyed and evil, but don't you think it would be nice to have someone take care of the more inane of the correspondences and pleasantries for you? Have someone shoo away unwanted sect leaders and the like? I would say our radish is perfect for the job, but then again, he's a bit too polite, isn't he? What about Jingyi? Now that's a boy who won't take any sort of nonsense!
Lan Wangji had kept the idea with him afterwards, turning it over in his head like one would a smooth river stone in one's hand - and had summoned Lan Jingyi to his office for a day's trial, where he's been ever since. Despite some Elders' clear consternation, Jingyi is proving to be a very capable and ruthlessly efficient assistant - The way he cuts to the heart of every matter and doesn't abide with any meandering nonsense while still maintaining a level of Lan politeness and decorum easing many, previously frustrating parts of Lan Wangji's duties.
Lan Wangji picks up the letter Jingyi had just set down and scans the contents briefly, finding it to be in line with many other, previous missives. The fact that this particular water spirit infestation is affecting a river running through several regions means it falls to several different Sects to handle the fallout, and the push and pull between said Sects on how they should handle it has been delaying any direct action. It is not the first, and definitely not the last time this will happen under his watch - This kind of back and forth regarding responsibilities and just how much one Sect should contribute as opposed to the other. Despite his title, he could not simply bully the Sects into action if he wants to keep everyone's face and good relations intact, and Lan Wangji finds himself ill at ease with such a trivial balance to keep while people's livelihood hangs in that selfsame balance. Finds himself wondering as Jingyi did, on what Wei Ying would do to solve it.
"He would," Lan Wangji assents, folding the letter and settling it back to the pile, "I shall write to him about this while we wait for the Sect Leaders to deliberate. Perhaps Wei Ying would have suggestions that we could relay to the Sects."
Jingyi shifts in his seat, the hesitation so foreign on the boy that Lan Wangji peers quietly at him.
"Is - Is Senior Wei well? I only saw a bit of his letter to Sizhui. Is he still in Hefei?"
Wei Ying's last letter had indeed come from Hefei, still written on that fine, heavy parchment, still carrying the scent of smoke and spices. And if the things written in it is anything to go by, then it would seem that Wei Ying would be in Hefei for some time still.
Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you're really too good. You could have just asked outright in your last letter how I managed to stay put for so long to recuperate! Ah, you truly know me too well! Well, the truth is, Lan Zhan, I haven't been staying put - Ah hah, don't frown now, I can't see it but I know you have that cute little frown on your brows right now, don't think I never noticed! The truth is I've been making things for Lord Zhang, just a few talismans here and there and figuring out a system for more effective ways of planting crops and road safety, things like that.
I've thought a lot about the things I said in my last letter and your reply, and I guess there is so much I could try to solve with what I have right now, just as you did as Hanguang-Jun. Lord Zhang and his advisors have been very succinct in delienating the problems they have, and have been really supportive and accommodating of my ideas - which is so strange, honestly. No suspicions whatsoever against the Yiling Patriarch! No fear that I shall raise an army of the dead to work the millet fields! How strange to not be looked upon as if you would suddenly slaughter everyone at the slightest provocation.
Also please don't worry - I'm not overexerting myself, I swear! The Zhangs' head healer is almost as scary as Wen Qing, so I really don't dare. And I have been working most comfortably too! Would you believe that Lord Zhang's deputy lent me a whole workshop space? With a forge nearby and everything! And oh, you'll love this - Someone to hang around just to make sure I'll remember to eat and drink water! How ridiculous is that? Right now I'm working on some soil problems down South, since planting season is right around the corner - All those times trying to plant radishes in the Burial Mounds finally paying off, huh?
"He is well," Lan Wangji replies, realizing he had stayed silent for a measure too long and hastens to add, "The people in Hefei are good to him. He's helping with some matters in Court."
"That's good. I was afraid - There were rumors, that some Cultivators were looking for the Yiling Patriarch -" Jingyi says, and blanches as he abruptly stops, eyes straying wildly over at Lan Wangji, "I mean, it's - It's good then, that he's safe in Hefei! And I'm sure it's just a rumor anyway, Hanguang-Jun!"
And there it is again, the cold, heavy thing blooming, ever wider now on the pit of Lan Wangji's stomach. Surely he would know, if such a thing were happening to Wei Ying? Gusu Lan's network of eyes and ears might not be as extensive as Lanling or Qinghe's, but surely they would have caught wind of any plot against the Yiling Patriarch were it to happen? Or would that not be something Gusu Lan would deem important to the Sect and the Cultivation World in general?
How strange, Wei Ying had written, to not be looked upon as if you would suddenly slaughter everyone at the slightest provocation.
Would it be something that the Cultivation world would get behind and rejoice at, instead?
"Mn," Lan Wangji hums noncommittally, even as he resolves to ask Wei Ying about it in his next letter - Perhaps also to warn him, if Wei Ying is oblivious to such a thing happening, "I am sure Wei Ying would be safe."
Lan Wangji does not sleep well that night.
Wei Ying's next letter comes with a bundle of talismans and a map of the Huai river area - carefully annotated with Wei Ying's handwriting in red cinnabar.
Lan Zhan, I hope this letter reaches you quickly enough - even though I suspect the Sect Leaders are still in a deadlock and giving you a headache. So, about that! The problem with the Sects involved seems to be some weird worry that they'll have to expend more resources than the others, like because it would be unfair to them or something? You know how these people get, Lan Zhan. And honestly, what you said each Sects were proposing to do are incredibly expensive and labor-intensive. And also kind of hilariously ineffective.
So I was thinking that what you could do is to assemble a Night Hunt party comprised of two or three members of each Sect - So it's fair! - and have them tackle the spirits from upriver down to Lake Hongze, where the bulk of the spirits seem to originate. From the copy of Night Hunt reports you sent, it would seem that these are ordinary water spirits, so they won't have too many problems with it, especially with your own Lan disciples thrown into the mix. I've enclosed a more detailed instruction for the disciples, but the gist of it is that they have to tackle the river in sections, and then use these talismans to make sure the cleared section is blocked to the spirits before moving downriver. Meanwhile you could send your own Disciples to take care of whatever is happening in Lake Hongze that caused this, since that's still within Gusu Lan territory.
You'll probably have to fib a bit and say that the talismans are from the depths of the Lan secret library or something, lest the Sect Leaders be suspicious that it's a ploy by the Yiling Patriarch to poison their rivers, but It's definitely cheaper than some of the suggestions you mentioned, and the Night Hunting party could probably get this done under two weeks at most! Whatever method you'll end up using, I know you'll push for this the best you could, and I'm sure the Sect Leaders will capitulate quickly enough when it's Hanguang-Jun instructing them. But also make sure they're not giving you too much grief over it, or I might have to pay them a visit and remind them why exactly they feared me in the first place!
Lan Wangji frowns at Wei Ying's letter, a familiar unease unfurling in his chest at Wei Ying's light handling of his own infamy. Once, when he was young and confused still with the way the world worked, Lan Wangji had been angry at how flippantly Wei Ying seemed to take everything - Laughing at every reprimand and censure thrown his way.
But now that he's walked through the selfsame world that had taken Wei Ying away, now that he's seen how unkind it could be to anyone who does not stay firmly in their expected place, Lan Wangji thinks that all the flippancy and laughter might have been what kept Wei Ying going. Even now, after he's lived and died for his choices and is hunted and ridiculed still. As Lan Wangji had survived losing Wei Ying by forcing himself to keep moving, perhaps Wei Ying too, had survived this far by holding everything lightly in his grasp - By being without envy, without dragging the burden of other people's ire in his wake.
But something in Lan Wangji twists and burns nevertheless at all these unkind words and pointed fingers, even as Wei Ying breezes past them with a smile. Wants to brandish his blade at each and every one of the people who question Wei Ying still, wants to question back whether they themselves are free of accountability, whether their hands are free of blood from decades past.
In any case, our first trial run of the soil-purifying talismans I told you about had been a success! We rode to Changsa ourselves to survey the results and it was so good to see the people being able to work the fields again just in time for planting season - We even had a nice little feast on one of the villages, nothing fancy, but it was a lot of fun! Lan Zhan, it feels so strange that the people in Hefei just listened to my suggestions and actually made all this happen? Ah, Lan Zhan, I know now that you've always listened to me, even when I'm being silly, but you've also always been too kind for this world! It's just so strange to hear my name be spoken without fear by others, without it being a part of a curse or a threat. It's just nice, you know?
And surely Wei Ying deserves this, more than anything, more than anyone else - To have somewhere he is free of rebuke and condemnation, to be acknowledged for his merits and his boundless resolve to help -
"Hanguang-Jun, this is great," Jingyi gasps from across him, his usually loud presence almost forgotten with how absorbed the boy was in the Night Hunt instructions Wei Ying had sent along, "This could totally work, and with less than half of the proposed budget too! Although -"
At this, Jingyi's wide grin turns into a grimace, "It's probably better if the Sect Leaders don't know that Senior Wei suggested this, isn't it?"
"Mn," Lan Wangji's affirming nod feels like a heavy, unpleasant thing in his chest, "Have a disciple copy the instructions for each Sect, and send out a summons for them to gather in the Cloud Recesses within a forthnight. I shall rephrase Wei Ying's suggestions for their perusal."
Lan Wangji expects Jingyi to leave immediately, swift as he always is when there's finally concrete action to be had. And yet the boy stays in his seat, a frown on his brows and his lips drawn into a taut line.
Years of raising a child of his own taught Lan Wangji to wait, to look at Jingyi's eyes as the boy shifts his gaze upwards, eyes burning with the kind of anger that comes with youth, so much like his and Wei Ying's own at that age.
"It's just-" Jingyi finally lets out, "It's just unfair isn't it? I know Senior Wei never did anything for acknowledgement or fame or anything, but isn't it messed up that he couldn't just…openly help people? Because then the people won't want that help, just because he's - Senior Wei."
"I know, Jingyi," Lan Wangji says, and reaches out to lay a hand on the boy's ever-shifting shoulders, even as his own heart rages at the knowledge, at the world for being what it is. At himself, for bowing down to it while another gets to give all he couldn't for Wei Ying.
"Wei Wuxian is in Hefei?"
Lan Wangji had no intentions of eavesdropping, but Jin Rulan's voice is high and familiar amidst the raucuous din of drunken conversations surrounding them, their table too close by in the packed floors of the Yingchuan Wang's dining hall. Flanked by Sizhui and Jingyi, the three might be the only other sober individuals left in the banquet, high as everyone is on the success of vanquishing the river spirit infestation that's been plaguing them for months.
"Yeah, he's been sending his last few letters to Sizhui and Hanguang-Jun from there. Why, young mistress, I thought you'd know?" It's Jingyi who answers, shaking a half-eaten chicken leg as the young Sect Leader clamps his mouth shut with an audible snap, his face taking on a shade of purple that reminds Lan Wangji of Jiang Wanyin. Sizhui sits silently on the side, eyes quiet and unreadable to anyone else, but apprehensive to Lan Wangji's familiar gaze.
"How would I even know he's alive, much less in Hefei?" Jin Rulan huffs, crossing his arms over puffed-up chest, "I haven't even seen him ever since, you know, since Yunping."
There is a moment of silence. Any mention of the events of the Guanyin Temple still does that to many, would continue to do so for a long time. But then Lan Jingyi startles, breaks the silence as he turns incredulously towards Jin Rulan.
"Wait, what do you mean - Senior Wei has been travelling for some time, right? I thought you'd have met him when he visited Jinlintai or Lotus Pier?"
"Wei Wuxian had definitely not come to visit Jinlintai nor Lotus Pier," Jin Rulan shoots back, and this time there is indignation and anger in it, and once, Lan Wangji would have been indignant in turn. Now, he sees the glancing of hurt in its edges, of familiar, unspoken fears.
"I don't think Senior Wei feels -" Sizhui finally speaks up, voice soft and level in that way both he and Xiongzhang has when they are choosing their words carefully "-Necessarily welcomed in either places. Considering what happened the last time he was there."
"Well-" Jin Rulan says, then halts, a myriad of emotions chasing each other across his face before he blusters on, "Well I run Jinlintai now. And he's definitely free to make a nuinsance of himself at Lanling whenever he likes. It's not like I could stop him or anything!"
"Maybe Senior Wei wouldn't know that," Sizhui says gently, grey eyes steady and unflinching as he meets Jin Rulan's gaze, "If no one told him."
Something shifts, uneasy and intangible, inside Lan Wangji at Sizhui's words. Something nebulous, like an unformed thought, an important memory that alludes capture.
Lan Wangji wonders.
Lan Zhan, I have something to tell you.
The newest letter Wei Ying sent from Hefei is written in perfect calligraphy, and that in itself makes Lan Wangji worry. Despite Wei Ying's newly-found thoughtfulness in his correspondences, his penmanship has always retained that spontaneous flair to it, the characters slanted and rushed, as if his brush is constantly chasing the speed of his thoughts.
This neat row of characters is something else. It reminds him of the rare times when Wei Ying goes quiet, when his stream of words recedes and leaves the space between them heavy and wrought, and Lan Zhan is still very much unfamiliar, ill at ease with this Wei Ying.
I know, I know, when have I ever not have something to tell you? Ah, Lan Zhan, to think that I've been telling you so many useless things ever since we were seventeen, and you've just been letting me!
Lan Wangji finds himself falling into a frown, a familiar frustration whenever Wei Ying speaks of himself as if he's some kind of burden, some kind of a chore for Lan Wangji. As if Lan Wangji's simply being generous by letting him hear Wei Ying's voice, and not the other way around.
The letter is ordinary enough, not dissimilar to the previous ones Wei Ying's sent from Hefei. They went for a second trial run of Wei Ying's soil-cleansing talismans, and has started a network of arrays along the Huangshan path that would alert nearby guardposts and watchtowers of bandits or other emergencies in a timely manner. And then.
Yesterday, Lord Zhang's deputy brought up the possibility of implementing similar measures for the crops and trade routes on the other parts of Lower Qishan. It's something of a long-term project,especially since Lord Zhang is also trying to reach out to other regions where the Great Sects don't reach, and Lord Zhang offered me something of a permanent position in his Court for it. He asked me to stay, and build a home in Hefei as we build the land around us.
He asked me to stay, the letter said, and something heavy and cold sinks in Lan Wangji's stomach. He's on his feet before he even registers it, hand reaching for Bichen, the realization a staggering, almost physical thing. The letter crinkles in his other hand, slipped hastily beneath the folds of his robes.
"Hanguang-Jun—" Jingyi scrambles up to match him, eyes wide and bewildered at his uncharacteristic conduct.
He asked me to stay, Wei Ying said, and all Lan Wangji could think of is that day on that branching path in the woods and the look in Wei Ying's eyes then. The day Lan Wangji didn't' ask Wei Ying to stay.
Wei Ying, who had lost all the home he's ever had, who has had nothing to his name as he tried to do right by the world that constantly took and took from him.
"Maybe Senior Wei wouldn't know," Sizhui had said, "If no one told him."
He had thought that the open road was the path that Wei Ying wanted, that day Wei Ying asked him where they'd go next. He had thought he'd given Wei Ying a choice. And all the while, he had not given Wei Ying the choice to stay -
"I have to be in Hefei."
"Hanguang-Jun, is Senior Wei-" Jingyi pales, fear palpable in his voice, and Lan Wangji forces himself to take a deep breath.
"Wei Ying is fine," he says, not wanting Jingyi and Sizhui to worry, nor the host of juniors he knows also look forward to Wei Ying's letters, "I trust you'll inform any delegations that I am indisposed for the day, and reserve all pertinent correspondences for my further perusal when I return."
And with that, Lan Wangji strides past a still stricken Lan Jingyi, past the quiet, white paths of his home, and then the batting wind of Gusu's late spring as he mounts Bichen Westward, the letter's last sentence burning beneath his robe, over his heart.
Lan Zhan, I think I might say yes.