The kitchens are hot and busy with dinner preparations and Jiang Yanli mops her sweaty face with a handkerchief, smoothing back damp tendrils of hair that have fallen over her eyes. She usually helps with the communal dinner but today she's making up a special meal for the eighteen disciples who returned from the indoctrination camp only three days ago. Their physical condition wasn't worryingly bad, but as Yu Ziyuan had predicted before they left, the Qishan Wen Sect had not fed them well at all. Young as they were, none of them were used to practicing inedia and now they were struggling to adjust to eating regularly again.
It didn't help that all of them were practically sick with worry about Wei Wuxian. They had begged to accompany Jiang Cheng on his rescue mission, but Jiang Fengmian had put his foot down and decreed that only senior disciples would be allowed to go, much to Jiang Yanli's relief. It's still a risky proposition to venture beyond Lotus Pier when Qishan Wen has claimed every night-hunting area for their exclusive use, but the senior disciples are well-rested and prepared for the dangers of open combat.
Jiang Yanli hopes it doesn't come to that. Every disciple with Jiang Cheng will put their life on the line to get him back safely, but she would rather they not lose anyone at all. She knows every disciple and every servant in the walls of Lotus Pier and any loss would be felt in such a tight-knit sect. They are not like Lanling Jin, where servants come and go without any notice by the lofty cultivators who depend on their work.
"Shijie, shijie!" Jiang Yanli looks up from the pot she's been tending as one of the younger disciples skids to a halt in the middle of the kitchen. She squints through the steam—sixth shidi, just like she thought. No one else is quite as loud or brash.
"Come here and tell me, what's wrong?" she calls, beckoning the boy over to her little corner so he doesn't disturb the well-rehearsed dance flowing through the rest of the kitchen. He comes eagerly, round little face bright—he's always reminded her of a-Xian at that age, just settling into Lotus Pier.
"Shijie, Jiang Cheng is back with da-shixiong! They brought back another really pretty guy too," sixth shidi says, tripping over his words in his excitement. "Sect Leader Jiang said that you should come to his residence right away!"
"Of course, thank you for passing on the message, you've done well." She's already turning to prepare three bowls of her special congee to take with her. Wei Wuxian and the mystery man will surely be hungry, and Jiang Cheng as well, though he would never admit it. She only pauses to make sure that someone else will take over getting the returned disciples their dinner before she's walking as fast as she can towards her father's quarters while keeping a heavy tray balanced in front of her.
She nearly trips up the last set of steps up to the residence in her haste, but nothing spills. She doesn't knock on the door, only slides it open with her foot and enters. The moment she crosses the threshold of the silencing array she's greeted by the familiarly discordant chorus of her little brothers, seated around the table with her parents.
"A-Xian! A-Cheng! Welcome back," she says, joy welling up in her chest, but her eyes widen as she realizes who the 'really pretty guy' sharing the side across from her parents with Wei Wuxian is. "Hanguang-jun!" She quickly sets down the tray for the ravenous boys to descend on and salutes Lan Wangji. "I've brought food for you as well. I'm sure you and a-Xian must be starving."
He returns her salute without rising from his seat, posture still as perfect even though he's wearing purple Yunmeng Jiang robes and there's an unfamiliar sword in his hand, definitely not Bichen. "Many thanks, Jiang-guniang."
"A-Li," Jiang Fengmian says, "come and sit with us. You've already heard the story from the disciples who returned, yes?"
"Yes, die," she says, settling down gracefully between her father and Wei Wuxian at the free end of the table.
"What story?" Yu Ziyuan says. If it wasn't an unrefined habit, Jiang Yanli is sure that she would have snorted in disgust. "Those little fools have surely exaggerated the truth so far as to be unrecognizable. Wen Chao would not have dared to do anything serious before Wei Ying started stirring up trouble." Jiang Yanli stares at the table in front of her, waiting out the familiar tense silence of Yu Ziyuan daring anyone to contradict her.
"Apologies to Yu-furen, but I must disagree." Jiang Yanli, like everyone else around the table, looks up at Lan Wangji in shock. He continues, unmoved by Wei Wuxian's increasingly frantic tugging on his sleeve, "It was only luck that Wen Chao's arrogance and carelessness had not killed one of our number before then. Many disciples were already injured and weakened by the conditions in which we stayed and I do not believe some of them would have survived much longer. Had Wei Ying not acted when he did, Jin Zixuan and myself would have been seriously injured to appease Wen Chao's ego, rendering us easy targets for the xuanwu."
Yu Ziyuan looks as if someone has just slapped her across the face and Jiang Yanli feels much the same. No one but Jiang Fengmian dares to intervene when Yu Ziyuan has decided to blame something on Wei Wuxian, but here is Hanguang-jun, second on the list of young masters, blatantly contradicting her in front of Wei Wuxian himself. The surprise melts from her face quickly, replaced by anger as Zidian sparks purple on her hand. Yet whatever she would have said in response to Lan Wangji's defense is forgotten when Lan Wangji keeps speaking.
"Therefore, I must apologize to Sect Leader Jiang and Yu-furen for my own reckless actions which endangered the disciples of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, as well as the actions of the Gusu Lan disciple who shot carelessly and injured Wei Ying, preventing our escape with the group led by Jiang Wanyin and causing more trouble for the Yunmeng Jiang Sect." He bows his head deeply as he apologizes, the very model of courtesy and manners. Yu Ziyuan cannot respond with anger to such refined self-effacement without losing face and her eyes blaze even brighter with all of the stifled words she holds behind her lips.
"No need, Lan Wangji," Jiang Fengmian says when it becomes clear Yu Ziyuan will not speak. "Mistakes made in the confusion of battle should not be held too harshly against the young and inexperienced."
"Sect Leader Jiang is gracious as always. My thanks as well to Jiang Wanyin for ensuring the safety of the Gusu Lan disciples that escaped with you." Lan Wangji speaks in the same tranquil manner, unruffled by the baleful stare of Yu Ziyuan as he bows to Jiang Cheng as best as he can while still seated.
"It was nothing," Jiang Cheng says, face screaming his discomfort at being dragged into the conversation. "You and Wei Wuxian did all of the hard work of distracting the xuanwu and figuring out the hole was there in the first place."
"Jiang Wanyin was the one to confirm its existence, as well as carrying most of the disciples who were unable to swim. Your efforts secured the avenue of escape for everyone else, and your return in such a timely fashion assured the safety of myself and Wei Ying. Should I not express thanks for this?"
Jiang Yanli has to cover her mouth to hide her amusement at Jiang Cheng's discomfort. He looks like he's receiving a scolding rather than earnest praise from a distinguished peer.
"If Hanguang-jun says so, it must be true, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian chimes in, "so if you won't believe it from me, you have to believe it from him!" Yu Ziyuan glares at him for speaking so informally, but it's much less poisonous now that Lan Wangji has mollified her rage by also speaking out in favor of Jiang Cheng.
"Shut up and eat your congee," Jiang Cheng says. "No one wants to hear what you have to say right now!" Wei Wuxian pouts but obeys, shooting Jiang Yanli a sideways look of approval after he tastes it. Jiang Yanli smiles back at him, ignoring the disapproval radiating off of Yu Ziyuan at his abominable table manners. At least he hasn't tried to start talking through his food with Lan Wangji sitting right there.
"Regarding the xuanwu, these past few days the Qishan Wen Sect has been celebrating its death at Wen Chao's hands, though he sadly lost his sword in the process," Jiang Fengmian says, nodding sardonically at the sword in Lan Wangji's hands. Looking more closely at it, Jiang Yanli can see now that the decorations on the hilt and the overall design are characteristic of the famed forges of Qishan. "Thus they are claiming that they are too busy to return the swords of the foreign disciples who fled like cowards, abandoning Wen Chao to his brave stand against the xuanwu of slaughter."
"What a bold lie that is," Wei Wuxian grumbles into the last of his congee. "Wen Chao was the one who couldn't even keep hold of his sword and he was the first one out of there once the xuanwu woke up. What a brave stand it must have been when he couldn't even look at the beast without screaming for Wen Zhuliu to protect him."
"How humble of you," Yu Ziyuan says with arched brows. "Are you really passing up an opportunity to brag about how you slew the xuanwu?"
"Even my face isn't thick enough to start bragging about things I didn't do!" Wei Wuxian protests. "Lan Zhan was the one who killed it, not me."
"I could not have done it without Wei Ying." This whole conversation has involved Lan Wangji saying more than Jiang Yanli has ever heard him say at once and she attended classes with him for a year at the Cloud Recesses. Half of it has been either defending or complimenting Wei Wuxian with the same conviction he might use to answer one of Lan Qiren's questions.
"I didn't even remember that Wen Chao's sword was still in the pool until you brought it up and you're the one who spent hours cutting through its neck with your clan's Chord Assassination technique, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian demurs, doubling down on his uncharacteristic humility.
"Who retrieved the sword? Who distracted the xuanwu so I could ambush it? Who cut the xuanwu's neck so that the chord could cut through easily?" Lan Wangji asks.
"Yes, that was me, but—"
Lan Wangji looks ready to continue questioning Wei Wuxian in the same vein, but he raises his hands in surrender in front of his flushing face. "Fine, fine, I give up, we killed it together, you can stop now, Lan Zhan!"
"I thought you two didn't get along," Jiang Cheng says, staring between the two of them incredulously.
"We killed a giant turtle monster together and then we spent a whole week trapped in a cave, Jiang Cheng. It felt like a lifetime, which is more than long enough for me to finally wear him down, right, Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian throws an arm around his shoulders, but he falls utterly silent when Lan Wangji turns his intense golden stare on him.
"Mmn," Lan Wangji says, clarifying nothing of his stance on the matter. He doesn't shrug off Wei Wuxian's arm, though, just turns to Jiang Fengmian, who has been watching the interplay with an indulgent look that fades back to sobriety when Lan Wangji produces a jade slip marked with the insignia of the Gusu Lan Sect from his sleeve. "I must take my leave to return to the Cloud Recesses, but the message that shufu sent contained news that you should hear."
"Please, speak freely. Any information on the state of affairs right now is welcome." The seriousness of her father's voice cuts right through the levity that Wei Wuxian had managed to inject into the conversation. Jiang Yanli holds her breath in apprehension and her brothers are quiet now too, staring at the message from Lan Qiren.
"No disciples from Qinghe Nie were present at the indoctrination camp, but I did not know why until now. Shufu writes that open combat broke out on the border between Qinghe Nie and Qishan Wen shortly before the Cloud Recesses were attacked, most likely to preempt any assistance we might offer to Qinghe Nie."
"What of Lanling Jin?" Yu Ziyuan asks. Madame Jin is her closest friend and Jiang Yanli feels a pang of worry herself at the thought of Koi Tower under attack and Jin Zixuan on the front lines.
Lan Wangji frowns. "Sect Leader Jin has already informed shufu that he will not move against Qishan Wen openly, and unless Jin Zixuan manages to convince him otherwise, Sect Leader Jin will remain neutral until he must pick a side. With Lanling Jin not posing a direct threat to Qishan Wen, I fear that their next target will be Yunmeng Jiang."
All of Jiang Yanli's fear for Lanling Jin is eclipsed by the terror that flows through her at the thought of her home under attack. Yu Ziyuan clenches the hand that bears Zidian into a fist, purple lightning traveling in lazy sparking waves up her arm.
"You mean to say that the rebellion of the disciples sent for indoctrination will provoke reprisal against Yunmeng Jiang?" Jiang Fengmian asks. He places a calming hand on the table in front of Yu Ziyuan when her eyes immediately dart towards Wei Wuxian.
"I think that such an attack would come regardless of any rebellion," Lan Wangji says firmly. "Yunmeng Jiang has always been resistant to Qishan Wen's dominance, and it lies on the southern border. Wen Ruohan will not wish to fight a war on two fronts against Qinghe Nie in the north and Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan in the south."
"And what would you recommend that I do in the face of such an ambiguous threat, when an attack could come at any time?" Jiang Fengmian asks. It's not the sort of question a sect leader would usually pose to a cultivator barely over eighteen, but Jiang Yanli remembers abruptly that with Qingheng-jun dead and Lan Xichen missing, Lan Wangji will be the acting head of Gusu Lan when he rejoins the rest of his sect. It's a sincere question from one clan head to another.
Lan Wangji sits in silence for a moment, clearly gathering his thoughts. Then he replies, "Qishan Wen will come in force, and strike when you believe you are safe from reprisal. Your ties to Meishan Yu make evacuation along the river feasible and no one would question Jiang-guniang being sent to stay with her mother's relatives in such a troubled time. Her public journey and entourage would keep watchful eyes away from any other movement of people and cargo out of Yunmeng."
"You would suggest that we abandon Lotus Pier?" Jiang Fengmian doesn't sound overly shocked by the proposal, and Yu Ziyuan isn't getting any angrier; have they talked about this before? Jiang Cheng looks ready to spit fire, but he subsides with a stern look from their father. Jiang Fengmian glances towards Jiang Yanli with a thoughtful look.
Jiang Yanli drops her eyes under his scrutiny, avoiding the eyes of everyone else around the table as well. She has never thought of her relative weakness compared to her brothers as a strength before, never thought of herself as a leader, but if she is the only one of her family who can leave Lotus Pier, the only one who can stand as a beacon without also becoming a target, then can she refuse? She doesn't know.
"Is a sect a place or the people within it? A place can be rebuilt once destroyed, but only if the people who live there survive," Lan Wangji says, and it sounds like he's quoting someone, but it's what he's not saying that resonates the strongest in Jiang Yanli's heart. The Cloud Recesses of Lan Wangji's childhood is already gone, and his father with it; he has to believe that it's more important to look to the future, to the new home that they will build. "Wen Ruohan will not stop until he crushes all who oppose him." Unsaid again: or until he is overthrown himself.
"I thank Hanguang-jun for his thoughtful words," Jiang Fengmian says. He rises to his feet and the rest of them follow suit. He and Yu Ziyuan exchange a salute with Lan Wangji before he turns to his children. "A-Li, a-Cheng, a-Xian, make sure that Hanguang-jun sets off safely."
The four of them salute and make themselves scarce. Lan Wangji looks a little confused at how suddenly the conversation has ended, but the Jiang siblings and Wei Wuxian know to get out of range before the yelling really starts. Yu Ziyuan only stays that quiet when she's waiting to tear into Jiang Fengmian behind closed doors and away from guests, and this is not a fight about sect matters that her parents can easily settle or compromise on. Once they've fought it out, they'll present a unified front to everyone else, but the fight itself will surely be long and bitter.
Jiang Yanli carries the tray almost all the way back to the kitchen with the boys in tow before she realizes that Lan Wangji has yet to eat his dinner. "Lan-er-gongzi, you should eat before you leave. Are you sure you don't want to stay the night?"
"I must return to the Cloud Recesses as soon as possible."
"You won't be able to return quickly if you fall off your sword because you finally ran out of spiritual energy," Wei Wuxian says, slinging his arm back around Lan Wangji's shoulders. Again, no protest. "Also, you should really get your leg checked out by a physician while you're here. Mianmian's herbs were good, but they can't fix everything!"
"Mmn." Away from serious discussion, Lan Wangji seems to have reverted back to speaking as little as possible.
Wei Wuxian takes it as agreement and drags Lan Wangji through Lotus Pier towards his room, babbling the whole time about whatever catches his eye. Jiang Cheng ducks out as quickly as possible to let a physician know to meet them there, or maybe just to escape Wei Wuxian's recountings of his most embarrassing moments as a young disciple. But Jiang Yanli listens and watches Wei Wuxian as he talks without pause, but hesitates at odd moments, stumbling over names and stories, and pained expressions flash over his face at mundane, everyday sights. She doesn't comment, but she notices.
Once they reach Wei Wuxian's room, Lan Wangji eats neatly and completely silently, not responding to Wei Wuxian's chatter, which is now mostly directed at Jiang Yanli anyways. While Lan Wangji eats and they wait for the physician, she catches him up on a good bit of the gossip that he missed while in Qishan, reveling in the fleeting feeling of normalcy after the quiet weeks filled by the simmering tension between her parents.
"My thanks, Jiang-guniang," Lan Wangji says, setting aside the bowl once he's finished.
"That means he really liked it, even though his tastebuds have been permanently damaged by the terrible stuff they serve in the Cloud Recesses. Shijie's food is always the best, because it's made with love," Wei Wuxian says from where he's sprawled across the floor so that Lan Wangji can sit on his bed and prop his leg up.
"If I had known a-Cheng would be back with you so soon, I would have had a pot of lotus root and pork rib soup ready," she says, smiling down at Wei Wuxian from her own seat behind his desk. "Even die expected it to take another day at least."
"It's only because Lan Zhan remembered about Wen Chao's sword. We could fly up to where they blocked off the cave and we managed to get at least part way through by the time Jiang Cheng showed up."
"Partway, he says," Jiang Cheng cuts in as he enters with the physician. "You made a hole barely big enough to hear your screaming through, that's not partway. You saw the boulders we had to lift off of there to get you out."
"If we'd had to depend on your sense of direction to find us, it would have taken you even longer!"
Luckily the physician is well used to ignoring their antics and goes directly to Lan Wangji, talking with him in low tones as he examines his leg. From what Jiang Yanli can see, it seems to have healed up well, thanks in no small part to Lan Wangji's high cultivation. The physician only applies some ointment and fresh bandages before quickly vacating the site of yet another sibling showdown between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng.
"You're lucky I didn't just leave you there the moment I heard your annoying voice again!"
"A-Cheng, a-Xian." She doesn't raise her voice, but they turn to her sheepishly anyways. "I'm glad both of you made it back safely."
"Me too, shijie," Wei Wuxian says, smiling up at her. He's pale and tired and there's sadness lingering at the corner of his eyes that wasn't there before he left, but his smile still shines like the sun brought down from the sky.
"Lan-er-gongzi, are you still determined to leave tonight?"
"I must." Unlike Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, both of them rumpled and slouching with exhaustion, Lan Wangji stands tall and straight even on his recently broken leg. If it weren't for the purple of his robes, Jiang Yanli would say he looked the same as ever.
"Then we won't keep you any longer. You won't be able to take off inside the compound, but we can see you off at the edge of the barriers."
The training field will be deserted by this time of night and it lies in the less protected public spaces just outside the internal compound barriers that mark the heart of Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng walks by her side and soaks up her recounting of the weeks he missed while Wei Wuxian pesters Lan Wangji behind them.
"Wei Wuxian, leave the man alone, he's already been trapped with you for a week, he doesn't need to suffer through anymore of your chatter," Jiang Cheng barks when they reach the center of the training field and Wei Wuxian shows no sign of shutting up. "Lan-er-gongzi, thank you for keeping this idiot alive and not murdering him." For all his show of disgruntlement, Jiang Yanli knows that his thanks are sincere; his perceived failure to rescue Wei Wuxian had weighed heavily on his shoulders.
"Thank you for your prompt rescue," Lan Wangji says, returning Jiang Cheng's salute. As before, Jiang Cheng struggles to accept the genuine gratitude and just bows again before walking away quickly as Wei Wuxian snickers at him.
Then it's only Jiang Yanli left, watching the two of them stare at each other again. Not for the first time this evening, she feels as if she's watching two people converse from the wrong side of a silencing barrier.
Lan Wangji turns and offers her the same salute he made to Jiang Cheng. "Jiang-guniang. Yunmeng's hospitality is as exceptional as Wei Ying described."
A startled smile spreads across her face as she returns the unexpected compliment. "Lan-er-gongzi is as handsome and talented as a-Xian described as well."
"Shijie!" Wei Wuxian makes a betrayed face at her and unexpectedly blushes when Lan Wangji turns to look at him. They stare at each other for another long, charged moment. "Sorry I made you talk so much, I know it's not your favorite." His voice is low and intimate and if Jiang Yanli felt like she stood on the outside of a barrier before, she feels very much like she's intruding now.
"Mn. Such important things need to be said. No apology necessary." Lan Wangji hesitates for a moment before he reaches out and lays one hand on the left side of Wei Wuxian's chest, over his heart and the brand that now marks his skin. "Wei Ying. Stay safe."
Wei Wuxian returns the touch easily, fingers curling into Lan Wangji's borrowed robes. "You too, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji nods back and they stand like that for a brief moment. Then their hands drop in unison and Lan Wangji turns away, launching himself into the sky on a stolen sword. They stand there watching in silence until he fades into the night sky, dark purple silhouette blending easily into the midnight blue that falls over them.
"A-Xian, do you think he's right? About Lotus Pier being attacked?" Jiang Yanli can't bring herself to speak above a whisper, as if saying the words more loudly would make them true.
"Yes." Wei Wuxian's voice is just as quiet as hers, and he comes to stand by her, holding her hand in his when she reaches out and meeting her worried stare with haunted eyes. "I want him to be wrong, and he'd prefer to be wrong about this too, but in all the time I've known Lan Zhan, he's never said anything he doesn't believe is true, and he's never been wrong."
"Do you think I'm right?" She doesn't know what she's asking. Is she right to hope for Lan Wangji to be wrong, is she right to disdain fighting and violence, is she the right person to lead her sect into exile to save their lives, will she be enough? The darkness of night is no longer comforting, but menacing, and every shadow seems to hide a threat to the safety and light of her home.
"A-jie," Wei Wuxian calls softly, bringing her out of the seething cloud of worry and fear that surrounds her like gnats on the water. He hasn't called her that since he was very young and she only realizes that she's crying when he brushes away her tears with a gentle thumb.
"A-jie, you've always been the strongest one of us, no matter your cultivation level. Even when we were little, you carried me and a-Cheng home in the middle of the night all by yourself when we were too scared to ask for help from anyone else. Everyone in Lotus Pier knows you and everyone trusts you to do the right thing. It's not weak to be afraid of the difficulties in your path, only to refuse the path because you fear failure."
He's quoting Jiang Fengmian now, a familiar lecture that her father gives to every crop of new students on the meaning of their sect's motto. She's heard it a thousand times at this point, but this is the first time that it's weighed so heavily on her heart.
She laughs wetly, wiping away her tears with her sleeves. "When did a-Xian get so wise? I feel like I looked away for a moment and you've grown up ahead of me."
"Lan Zhan must have rubbed off on me after I was stuck with that fuddy-duddy for so long, ahh, Lan-lao-xiansheng would be so proud that his best student has finally had an impact on me!"
She can't help her laughter at that, more cheerful this time, just as Wei Wuxian must have intended. Lan Qiren's frustration with Wei Wuxian's conduct had been the subject of many jokes during their time at the Cloud Recesses and even after Wei Wuxian had been expelled, the mere mention of his name had been enough to get Lan Qiren tugging at his beard.
Wei Wuxian keeps up the jokes all the way back to his room, yet the moment his head hits the pillow, he's snoring away without even pulling the covers up. Jiang Yanli shakes her head but tucks him in anyways before checking in on Jiang Cheng and heading to bed herself, content in the knowledge that her family is safe tonight, no matter what dangers the future holds.
In the morning her father summons her to his residence and asks her if she will go to her mother's family in Meishan Yu. His eyes are red and tired and the tell-tale branching marks of Zidian cover the table they sat at last night. Jiang Yanli bows her head and agrees. He announces it to the rest of the sect the same day.
That night her mother summons her to her residence and hands her a letter for her grandmother, Sect Leader Yu. She hasn't left her residence all day and her eyes are red and angry. Jiang Yanli bows her head and accepts the letter and the embrace and scolding advice that follow.
Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian hover around her more than usual as she prepares to leave, seeking reassurances that she cannot give them. She walks around Lotus Pier with them in what spare time she has, etching familiar sights into her memory and speaking with as many people as she can. She does her best to breathe through the fear and keep walking, one step more down this path and then another step and then another and so on.
Her boat leaves a week after Jiang Fengmian's announcement, trunks full of clothes and the contents of the treasure rooms of Lotus Pier, packed in qiankun pouches that will only open to her touch. Her parents and her brothers see her off at the docks. No one cries but their smiles waver at the edges.
Her attendants are clumsy in their new finery and she has to keep sixth shidi from tipping over the edge of the boat in his excitement when they finally reach the end of the familiar lotus lakes that surround Yunmeng and set off up the river towards Meishan.
She gives her mother's letter to Sect Leader Yu in private and watches as her stern old grandmother cries, long, heaving sobs that she can do nothing to halt or ease. She doesn't ask to read the letter and she doesn't protest when her grandmother insists that she carry her sword at all times.
The people of Lotus Pier join her in Meishan in drips and drabs, like raindrops coming together to form a steady trickle. She organizes their housing with her grandmother and takes command of the household staff who turn to her for guidance and watches over the training of the younger disciples and comforts the children who miss their home without understanding why they had to leave and doesn't think about how many of the senior disciples she may never see again. She listens intently to every scrap of news that comes from the east or up the river.
The last boat from Yunmeng Jiang arrives in Meishan Yu a month after she does, charred at the edges and unnaturally swift against the current. It brings only her youngest brother, Zidian curled around his hand and a terrible, yawning abyss of grief in his eyes, the most senior disciples in various states of injury, no small number of them bearing the marks of Zidian, and the news that she is an orphan.