Sizhui gets home from his sojourn with his zombie uncle, and finds the other juniors in the garden outside their common room, having a feverish debate.
“It’s a butterfly,” says one of them. At Jingyi’s withering look—“What? He keeps bunnies, why not butterflies?”
“It’s a talisman,” says a second disciple sensibly.
“Maybe it’s our homework,” says a third.
Jingyi flings up his hands, in the heart of the commotion like he always is. “Does your homework sprout limbs and wriggle away when you look at it?”
“I don’t know,” says the disciple, worrying at the tassel of his sash. “It was a pretty bad essay.”
“What is it?” says Sizhui.
Jingyi’s face lights up. “There you are,” he says. “Come and tell them I didn’t make it up.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
After some back-and-forth Sizhui gleans that it is a papery object of some kind, oft seen fluttering about Hanguang-jun’s person, but also scurrying down hallways and across furniture by itself, and at least once—Jingyi swears—winging among the dusty tomes in the forbidden section of the library. What Jingyi was doing in the forbidden section must be left, however alarming, a mystery for another time.
Sizhui has a solid guess as to what the object in question is, but he lets them bicker on, and heads into the juniors’ pavilion for a cup of steaming oolong. One needs some entertainment in the Cloud Recesses.
* * *
Fresh flowers, not quite a bouquet: two orchids, a blue carnation and a peony, laid out beside Wangji’s pillow when he wakes in the twilit hush before dawn. Certainly they were not there when he went to bed the night before, and these days the Chief Cultivator turns in a lot later than nine. The petals are bejewelled with dew—a little scuffed and bent, as if the flowers have been dragged over the ground and arranged by something smaller than themselves. A bird, or a beetle, maybe.
The wards around the Jingshi are unbroken. The rabbits are puddled together and drowsing in the warmth of their hutch, not fretful as they would be if they had been woken by an intruder in the night. No need for alarm. Wangji deposits the flowers on his nightstand, among the miscellany of his everyday: his seal; his coin pouch; a paper figure that occasionally houses the consciousness of one Wei Ying, whereabouts currently unknown, its stick-limbs creased and stained with soil.
* * *
“I didn’t know you still came here,” he says, when Wangji visits him that morning. “All these books! I wondered where they’d gone.”
“I neglected to bring them back,” says Wangji, over the thrum of his qin. Not Clarity or Cleansing or any of the compositions they learnt to fight the demons of the world; there are no songs for those who mourn. Instead he plays the silly nursery tunes their mother used to sing for them, and lets them speak for him.
“All of them?”
“My mistake, xiongzhang.”
“I was just making a remark,” says Xichen, with a rare bite of annoyance.
The caverns beneath the Cold Pool are exactly as Wangji remembers: the tiny alcoves that served him as bedroom and study; the daylit shaft through which, at dawn and dusk, faceless hands reached down with trays of food. Other memories are older than his seclusion. Here, at the water’s edge, is the stony seat where Lan Yi meditated; here the spot where Wangji bound his wrist to Wei Ying’s; here the ground on which they knelt, and spoke a vow.
“When you were down here,” says Xichen, “I used to worry that you’d never come out. That you liked this place so much, you’d stay in seclusion your whole life.”
The rabbits gambol around the coiled hem of his outer cloak. They find their way in here somehow, from their burrows closer to the sky, perhaps drawn by some ancestral memory of their first mistress. Xichen scratches one behind the ear. “Like Father.”
“I didn’t bring Wei Ying home,” says Wangji.
Xichen nods, half to himself. “That’s what I told Uncle.”
Wangji does not care to ask for context. Xichen is always talking about him, it seems, or anyone in the world but himself. Every visit is full of, How is Uncle’s gout? How did Sizhui’s night hunt go? How is Huaisang? Any word from your Wei-gongzi? “And how are you managing as Chief Cultivator?”
“With patience and longsuffering.”
“So the same way you do everything else.”
Wangji watches his own hands on the strings. Seclusion is the most senseless punishment Xichen could have chosen for himself, his open heart spinning its wheels like a wagon caught in mud. “It should be you.”
“Should it?” says Xichen. “But how can I trust my judgement?”
“You trusted mine.”
“And it landed you here for three years. Don’t be tiresome, Wangji.”
Wangji finishes his song, and says nothing. During his own seclusion Xichen kept him company for longer, and for less thanks. They both remember the stern white curtains that veiled the Jingshi’s front windows; the silent attendants whose cold hands beckoned them into the sunless study, who ushered them back out at nightfall and dropped the latch on the closed door. Wangji would hurry down the path with his fingers stuffed in his ears, so he wouldn’t have to hear that metallic click.
Into the silence Xichen says, “Will you not go to him?”
“I have work.”
“And there are things he must do on his own.”
Wangji has been at Wei Ying’s side ever since his resurrection. He would have happily stayed there, if Xichen had not needed him more. He can hardly keep Wei Ying stashed away from his uncle’s hawk-eyes while he hosts meetings and shuffles papers and tries to balance the ledgers that Jin Guangyao left behind. Wei Ying, too, has to walk the world in his new body, fill the spaces in his own mind, and relearn what it is to be alive.
“He didn’t have sixteen years, like you did,” Xichen agrees. “Or a cave to meditate in.”
“Or a patient brother,” says Wangji.
He stands to put his qin away. Xichen does smile, then, the closed-off smile that would be unreadable to anyone else. “Here are your rabbits. Or will you neglect to take them back, too?”
Wangji has too many rabbits. He can spare a few. He wades through the clear water of the underground pool, colder than ice, towards the tunnel that will take him back up to sunlight on the back hill and a job he loathes, but will do as long as his clan needs him to. Xichen calls to him as he splashes away. “You’ll come back soon, won’t you?”
Wangji looks back. “I said I would.”
Xichen is quiet for a moment. “People don’t always do what they say.”
* * *
Sizhui is learning a new song, supposed to help with digestion, or the bowels, or something. He dozed through most of it. Hanguang-jun is too busy to take them for lessons these days, and Old Master Lan would probably die before he let Senior Wei teach a class. “I don’t know how we’re related, exactly. I don’t know what else to call him.”
Jingyi rests his chin on the stack of books in his arms, as they meander their way through the network of bridges that link the main buildings of the Cloud Recesses. “What was wrong with ‘Ghost General’, anyway?”
He has been sullen of late. Sizhui has always shared everything with him, but before Jingyi there was a field of turnips and lotuses and a dark house in the Burial Mounds, and that he cannot share. Sizhui thinks over this quandary for a moment. “Don’t you want to hear where we went?”
“Dare I ask? You’d never shut up.”
“We went back to Dafan Mountain—I was born there, you know—”
“How could I know when you never told me?”
“I’m telling you now, dumbass. We paid our respects, and Wen-shushu set up a wayhouse for travellers, in memory of my Auntie Qing—are you listening?”
Jingyi is gaping into the distance. “Look!”
“On that bridge, over the lily pond!” He flings up an arm to point, half blinding Sizhui with his sleeve. Their books go flying. “There it is!”
“There what is?”
Jingyi has a voice to wake the dead; a hazard on night hunts, they joke. Heads are turning, windows and doors banging open as disciples come out of their pavilions to see what is happening. “The thing! I didn’t make it up! Look!”
Sizhui spots it at last. A tiny red figure no bigger than his palm, inching along the wooden railing of the bridge ahead of them, tugging a jasmine flower with both arms. At Jingyi’s shout it startles about three inches in the air, drops the flower and scuttles off in the opposite direction.
“No!” yells Jingyi. “Come back!”
“Um,” says Sizhui. “Maybe it doesn’t want—”
Too late. Jingyi breaks into a sprint, and in a cacophony of shouts and thudding feet, the other disciples stampede after him. People follow Jingyi. It’s hard not to, when he talks more than everyone else in Cloud Recesses combined, and before long he’s amassed a tail of a dozen juniors and quite a few seniors too, crashing along the bridges amid cries of, There! and Over here! and This way!
Sizhui starts after them. Then he pauses on the bridge over the lily pond, and picks up the fallen jasmine. It is someone else’s property, after all.
“Stop!” Jingyi roars, at least three times louder than the permitted volume. Somewhere Old Master Lan is coughing up blood and doesn’t know why. “Sizhui! Hurry up! It’s right there!”
They dash through the sunlit courtyard in front of the library, towards the circuitous goat path that climbs to the Jingshi and its lonely gardens. Sizhui puts on a burst of speed and catches up to the front of the herd, in time to see the familiar white-clad figure come round the corner of the pavilion ahead of them.
They skid to a halt. Someone runs into Sizhui from behind, and he nearly falls over. “Oh, Hanguang-jun,” says Jingyi, windmilling his arms. “It’s just—we were just—the paper man—”
A flash of red catches Sizhui’s eye from the rim of a nearby bonsai pot. Hanguang-jun reaches down. The paper figure scampers up to him, and vanishes into a capacious sleeve. Jingyi looks heartbroken. Then Hanguang-jun holds out his other hand, not quite looking at any of them, and Sizhui places the jasmine flower into it.
“We wouldn’t have hurt it, sir,” he says. “Jingyi just wanted to see what it was.”
Hanguang-jun folds his sleeve behind his back. “What did Old Master Lan do the last time you caused a disturbance?”
“He had an aneurysm,” says Jingyi promptly. “Then he made us copy the whole passage about the ills of running in hallways.”
“Do that,” says Hanguang-jun, “twice.”
He is already turning to go. “Sizhui too?” says Jingyi, dismayed. “He wasn’t even running, just walking very fast—what is that thing, anyway?”
Sizhui cuffs him upside the head. He’d been hoping to get through an entire week without having to write lines. “You still haven’t guessed? Tian ah, you really deserve to be punished.”
* * *
“You could have just given me the flowers,” Wangji tells the paper man.
It was pink magnolias this morning, waiting on his nightstand to greet him when he woke. The paper man hangs its head, and plops itself down to lounge on a pile of extremely important letters Wangji should be reading right now. Wei Ying is shameless about some things, oddly shy about others.
“It must be draining,” says Wangji, “sending your consciousness here from so far away.”
An elaborate shrug of spindly shoulders. Wei Ying has an endless collection of paper men, and he is as careless with them as he is with himself. Wangji crushed one between his fingers the first time they had lectures together, some twenty years ago. This particular specimen has been in his safekeeping since they broke into Fragrance Hall. Wei Ying imbued it with more energy than ever before, and—true to form—forgot to retrieve it in all the excitement that followed, and so it has lived in Wangji’s coin pouch till now.
Wangji likes to picture Wei Ying bent over a sheaf of coloured paper, brow creased in concentration, cutting out a bright array of little paper selves. He says, “Have you been well?”
The paper man gives another wriggly shrug, and waves both arms at him. “I am fine,” says Wangji. He would not lie. “Busy.”
The figure hops in place. A quiet Wei Ying is a disquieting one, but even without the constant ripple of expressions over his changeable face, without his endless chirruping Lan Zhan Lan Zhan, Wangji finds he has no trouble understanding the paper man’s gesticulated speech. “I am doing my brother’s duties,” he says. “And you still have wandering to do.”
The paper limbs droop a little. Then the figure flits to the floor, out of sight, and reappears a moment later clutching the jasmine in both arms. It deposits the flower next to Wangji’s hand, as if to say, That’s why I bring you gifts!
“I know,” says Wangji.
They both understood, parting ways on the mountain, that this was no time for an elopement. And so Wei Ying is in an inn somewhere, or on a boat, or lying in a field under the starred heavens—asleep as far as anyone can tell, his cheek pillowed on an open palm, while his soul picks flowers for a man a thousand li away.
Wangji picks up the paper man and slides it into a fold of his inner robe, close to his heart. “Thank you for the flowers,” he says. “I like them very much.”
* * *
Sizhui has been looking forward to this for weeks: in part to see Jin Ling and Zizhen, in part because—and he would never say this aloud—watching outsiders talk at Hanguang-jun is the closest thing one gets to comic theatre in the Cloud Recesses. The Chief Cultivator is standing on the porch of the main pavilion above the stairs, in his pointiest hairpiece yet, and a robe with a train about five feet long. He looks frosty and pristine, and—to Sizhui’s glee—perfectly unwelcoming.
“Here comes Da Xiao Jie,” murmurs Jingyi. “Oh, good, he brought Fairy.”
The purple-robed delegates loom up the broad path, led by the brisk figure of Jiang Wanyin, drawn entirely in hard lines and sharp angles. At his right hand is Jin Ling, with Fairy trotting between them. She’s fatter than ever. Sizhui tears himself from her wagging tail and jiggling haunches, and bows to her humans. “Greetings, Clan Leader Jiang,” he and Jingyi chorus. Jiang Wanyin sweeps past them with a curt nod and starts up the stairs. “Hello, Jin Ling. Hello, Fairy.”
Jin Ling always glowers so hard, his forehead dot looks like it might fall off (which, Jingyi has opined, would only improve his looks). “You’re both terrible at writing letters. And you have to call me Clan Leader Jin now.”
“Aw, look at you,” says Jingyi. “You and your uncle have matching glares.”
“Don’t you dare shit-talk my jiujiu—Fairy! Come back!”
Fairy slips between Sizhui’s petting hands and bounds up the stairs to the porch, where Clan Leader Jiang is menacing Hanguang-jun with a smile. “Congratulations,” he says, “on your appointment as Chief Cultivator. Enjoying the work, I hope?”
“I abhor it,” says Hanguang-jun.
Fairy runs headlong into his ankle and rears to sniff his hand. She barks so hard, her entire rump waggles. A flurry of movement ripples up Hanguang-jun’s left sleeve, as if something very small and very scared is trying to scurry into his armpit. Sizhui says, “Oh, no.”
Jingyi elbows Jin Ling. “Can’t you control your dog?”
Jin Ling starts up the stairs, his ears bright pink. “Fairy! Stop embarrassing me!”
Hanguang-jun folds his arms over his chest to stop Fairy from climbing fully into his sleeve. It’s about the one thing he could do to look less welcoming. Clan Leader Jiang watches, dagger-eyed. “Pardon my nephew,” he says. “He wouldn’t have brought Fairy here if we’d known Your Excellency was afraid of dogs, too.”
“Too?” says Jin Ling. He grabs Fairy’s collar and tries to pull her away. “Is it Wei Wuxian? Where is he?”
“He’s not here,” says Sizhui.
“Isn’t he?” says Jiang Wanyin. “I thought you two were inseparable, Excellency. I must offer my congratulations on that, too. Or maybe my condolences.”
Jingyi is staring, open-mouthed. “Where is he?” asks Jin Ling again, his voice rising an octave. He’s still struggling to reattach Fairy to her leash. “I want to see him!”
Hanguang-jun gazes down the road, where the line of delegates stretches to the front gate and possibly halfway down the mountain: minor clan leaders and private cultivators, all standing on tiptoe and craning to see what is holding them up. “I thought he was at Lotus Pier.”
Jiang Wanyin’s jaw twitches. “Well, he’s not.”
“Oh, shit,” says Jingyi faintly. “Someone get Old Master Lan, they’re going to duel.”
The frantic wriggling reaches Hanguang-jun’s shoulder, and subsides. Clan Leader Jiang stares at it. Then he throws back his robe with a noise like a whipcrack, and steps past Hanguang-jun. “Come, A-Ling,” he says. “Your other jiujiu has no time for us.”
“I haven’t said hello to Sizhui and Jingyi yet!” Jin Ling protests. “Wait for me!”
They cross the porch into the pavilion, Fairy trotting behind them. Jingyi breathes a sigh of relief. Hanguang-jun has not moved a muscle. A sliver of red emerges at his collar, and a tiny head peeks out to stare through the pavilion doors, where uncle and nephew have vanished.
* * *
“He’s alone,” Wangji points out, after about two hours of this.
The paper man peers around the corner of a vase, shamefaced. Wangji picks it up and carries it over to the window, where he sets it gently on the sill. “Go and talk to your brother,” he says. “I talk to mine.”
* * *
He goes to the cave beneath the Cold Pool, and finds it empty.
He retraces his steps, trying not to think the worst and thinking it anyway; and there is his brother, waiting for him on the porch outside the Jingshi.
“You’ve grown fond of flowers,” says Xichen. He’s commandeered the chair Wangji has placed beside the rabbit hutch, for the nights when he wants to sit and think but not be entirely alone. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Xiongzhang,” says Wangji.
The rabbits he left in the cave have rejoined their brethren in the sleepy hutch-puddle, plump and glossy and bright-eyed. The paper man lies dormant on the porch railing above them; Wei Ying has made himself scarce. Wangji takes an instinctive step towards it.
“Wei-gongzi was stuck in the windowframe,” says Xichen. “I helped him out.”
“Thank you, xiongzhang.”
Xichen sighs. He is thinner now, his eyes unfocused in the sheeting daylight. Liebing leans against a leg of his chair, next to his sword; he has left nothing behind in the cave. “You’re angry with me, didi.”
Wangji cannot remember the last time Xichen called him that. It might have been here, on this very porch, before the Jingshi shut its doors to them. “Why would you think that?”
“I’ve left you alone for a long time.” Xichen smiles: a small, tired smile that answers nothing. “You know, Huaisang came to see me.”
“That,” says Wangji, “is news to me.”
“It’s all right. I was happy for the company. He said you and Jiang Wanyin nearly came to blows at the front gate, with all the disciples watching. What was I thinking? You’d sooner start a war than talk to people.”
“Clan Leader Nie exaggerates.”
“So I’ve seen,” says Xichen mildly.
Wangji turns from him, and slips the paper man into its customary place inside his robe. “So you’ve come out of seclusion because you think I’m mishandling your job.”
“I’ve come out of seclusion,” says Xichen, with determined calm, “because you shouldn’t have to do my job.”
He lets a moment slide past in silence, watching the rabbits nuzzle in a shaft of sun. “You don’t tell me, but I know. Half your days are spent appeasing people A-Yao wronged in one way or another. I’ve saddled you with my faults. Every day you have to make them right.”
“Not your faults.”
“His faults are mine. His crimes.”
“Every day I find new ones in his ledgers.”
“Has anyone,” says Xichen, “told you how tactless you are?”
“Jiang Wanyin,” says Wangji. “Repeatedly.”
Xichen rises to pace across the porch, long, measured strides, the tension in them belied by grace. He’s grown restless, cooped up these long months by himself. “And who can blame you? Our tutors taught you music and poetry and swordplay. I’m the one they taught to read hearts and lead men. To know what everyone wants and thinks.”
Wangji hears the unspoken, And yet. Such bitterness in his brother’s voice is foreign to him. He remembers the temple courtyard, Xichen standing by Jin Guangyao while the garotte closed around Wei Ying’s throat. He remembers, too, Xichen standing by him in their uncle’s study as the whips rained down; in the cave, bringing him poultices and books; earlier still, outside their mother’s closed door, the porch filling up with snow.
“I spent longer in seclusion,” he says. “You let me stay as long as I needed.”
“Yes,” says Xichen gently. “So I should have known you would never have said a word in complaint.”
He joins Wangji by the rabbit hutch, and puts a cool hand on his shoulder. “Give me A-Yao’s ledgers,” he says. “Let me make things right. Go back to teaching. Go and find your Wei-gongzi.”
For a moment Wangji’s throat closes up and he does not trust himself to speak. He does not have Wei Ying’s sunny nature, or his brother’s merciful one. There are grudges he holds, people he will not forgive in this lifetime or the next; but he will forgive Xichen anything, anything but self-hatred.
He says, “Yes, ge.”
* * *
“The juniors are distracted,” says Lan Qiren, from his armchair by the window. He has too much heatiness; his gout is flaring up again. “Now that you’re back to teaching them, you’d better take a firmer hand.”
In lieu of a response, Wangji strums Clarity. The paper man is snug against his chest, quiet and still. Wei Ying is sleeping, or night hunting, or—one can only hope—at Lotus Pier, giving his sole attention to a conversation long overdue. But tomorrow there will be flowers at dawn again, and someone to listen when Wangji plays his qin at night.
“Discipline has gone to pieces,” says Old Master Lan. “When I was a student—why, when Xichen was a student—no disciple of ours would be caught running and screaming on the public paths.”
When the paper man reawakens, Wangji will tell Wei Ying that he is missed, and loved, and awaited. He will do this with just the right degree of sentiment, not too much—he does not want Wei Ying to cut short his travels on his account. He will ask Wei Ying to meet him somewhere, in Yunping maybe, or the Tanzhou inn. He will stand the paper man on a map and tell him to pick a place, and Wangji will be there, even if it were at the very edge of the world.
“And then he came,” says Lan Qiren.
Wangji looks up, at that. His uncle at sixty is a forbidding figure still, his silhouette cutting harsh planes against the bright window. “Flouting all our customs, teaching everyone to do the same… I suppose you intend to hare off after him again, now you’re free.”
“I intend to marry him,” says Wangji.
He changes key, plucking and strumming till his uncle’s coughing fit subsides. “Of course,” says Lan Qiren. “Of course you do. It’s not as if you still care what I think, I who brought you up, do you?”
“I doubt it. Where is he then? Why haven’t you brought him here?”
“I feared for your health, shufu.”
This only fuels his uncle’s temper, as he knew it would. “And so you’re going to—what? Piss off into the wilderness with him, abandon your family and all these young boys who look up to you?”
That wouldn’t be too bad, Wangji thinks, not bad at all. He and Wei Ying can live on the road, in a house by the wayside, like Mianmian and her merchant-man. “They can still come to us for lessons.”
His uncle splutters again, this time with such violence that Wangji gets up to pour him some more tea. “Feared for my health,” says Lan Qiren, between sips. “As though you were ever going to be anything but the death of me. How can I allow this? How could I face your father if I let you turn your back on your clan and walk away?”
Wangji stops, halfway back to his seat. Qingheng-jun is a thorn even among the various other touchy subjects in this household. “When,” he says, “have I ever turned my back on my clan?”
His uncle only harrumphs at him and turns his face to the window overlooking the courtyard. “For heaven’s sake, play something else. I’m not possessed.”
It is easier said than done. Now that he is prompted, every chord of every tune Wangji knows seems to flow downhill into the familiar notes of Wangxian and the accompaniment of a phantom flute, skirling softly at the back of his mind. Soon. Soon.
“Isn’t there room in the Jingshi?” says Lan Qiren. “Too many rabbits?”
“You heard me.”
Wangji lets his hands fall to his lap. “There is plenty of room.”
“So bring him here. What’s wrong with the Cloud Recesses? Not good enough for him?”
“No,” says Wangji. Again he cannot trust his voice; this time he cannot even trust his ears. It has never occurred to him that his uncle would, in a thousand years, give him and Wei Ying his blessing.
“Does he hate it here? With all our rules?”
“Only the food.” Wangji holds the moment like a sparrow in his hand, unmoving, almost unbreathing, lest it take flight and flurry away. “Uncle—”
“Bring him here,” says Lan Qiren again. “Present him to me, make it good and proper. I shouldn’t need to tell you this, for heaven’s sake. One would think you’d been raised by tramps.”
* * *
“He’s smiling,” says Sizhui.
* * *
And then he is on the road to Caiyi Town to join the juniors on a night hunt—nothing particularly exciting, just a series of disappearances in the fields—when he feels the familiar stir of stumpy limbs against his chest, and the paper man pokes its head out of his robe.
“Where have you been?” asks Wangji.
The paper man squirms free of his collar to stand on his shoulder, and stretches up to press a feathery kiss to his cheek. Then it scampers down his arm, along his sword, and flaps to the ground, where it looks up at him as if waiting.
“I’m working,” says Wangji reproachfully.
Summer is beginning; the sun is still high for this late in the afternoon. He’d hoped to meet the juniors in time for a quick lecture before any ghostly activities began. The paper man flutters a few yards away—off the road, into the tall grass, in the entirely wrong direction—and back again, tugging at the hem of Wangji’s robe. It’s never tried to lead him anywhere before, and certainly not with this much urgency. “What’s wrong?”
The paper man waves its arms in exasperation, and hops off into the grass again. Wangji glances down the road. Sizhui and Jingyi can handle the Caiyi case themselves. If things go awry—and he’s proud to say they seldom do—they can always summon him with a flare.
He picks up his robes, and follows the paper man off the road.
A soft breeze has picked up. The little figure glides from stone to soil to twig, skimming easily through the grass. Wangji keeps a hand on Bichen’s hilt. This is wild, hilly country, the fields undulating in steeper and steeper folds that no farmer has yet bothered to terrace. No one lives on the high windswept ridges, or the shadowed valleys in between. Somewhere far off is the faint crash of a river thundering over a cliff, a waterfall whose misty plumes Wangji remembers well, though he has not seen it in months. The wind croons an old melody. This he knows, too.
He bends to scoop up the paper man, and breaks into a run.
He crests the last wooded slope and comes out on the ridge where he and Wei Ying parted ways, and there is the source of the music: the dark figure turned away from him, like a cutout caught against a sky so vast and blue it hurts to look at it.
Wangji says, “Wei Ying.”
The flute falters, and falls silent. So does the paper figure in Wangji’s hand. Its work is done; the soul in it can return to its master. Little Apple the donkey wanders along the clifftop, oblivious, content to nose in the grass. Wei Ying’s smile is not the same feckless thing Wangji fell in love with as a boy—seasoned now with weariness and care—but it is all Wei Ying, still, and it is heartstopping.
Wei Ying says, “Lan Zhan!”
Not a dream, not a ghost: he fills Wangji’s arms, warm and heavy and breathless, his grip crushing. His hot mouth demands violence and enacts it; his hair is everywhere, blowing into their eyes, catching between their faces. As they pull apart he is laughing, chattering away as though their last conversation never ended. “Did you miss me, Lan Zhan? Look at you, funereal as ever. How are you? How are the children?”
This is far too many questions, so Wangji settles for holding Wei Ying’s hands and lets his face answer for him. Wei Ying has been looking after Mo Xuanyu’s body. The stark hollows of his face have filled out a little; his cheeks glow pink from fresh air and sun; and he seems not to have acquired any stab wounds or curse marks, or lost any vital bits of himself. “Aiyo, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying, looking at the paper man still in Wangji’s hand. “Trust you to keep that dumb thing around. Look, it’s all crumpled and yucky.”
“I think it’s fine.”
“It better be! It had so many adventures, you know. Your juniors run very fast. It’s scandalous. And one time one of your fat rabbits fell asleep on me while I was checking on their water trough and I couldn’t get the paper man free for a whole hour.”
“Mm,” says Wangji. He tucks the little red figure into his robe. Wei Ying will be careless with it, if he gives it back.
“I’m going to get jealous.” Wei Ying pokes at Wangji’s collar with a teasing forefinger. Then his smile softens. “I’m glad you kept it. I was so afraid you’d be lonely while I was away. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? But in a way it feels like no time at all.”
“Just under a year,” says Wangji.
Wei Ying sticks out his bottom lip. “I wanted to come back earlier. I knew you’d be too busy to leave Cloud Recesses. But I just kept putting off going to Lotus Pier, and visiting other people first. Bit cowardly of me, I guess.”
Wangji squeezes him tight. “You did go.”
“Only because you made me.” He shrugs, loose-limbed and easy. “It was—maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. I’m glad I went. Jin Ling’s a sweet kid. Jiang Cheng’s done right by him.”
Wangji recognises here, in a different form, Xichen’s tendency to talk about everyone but himself. He says, “So have you.”
Wei Ying laughs, poking him again. “What’d I do besides die and come back?”
Wangji does not answer, content to let Wei Ying chatter on. “Where shall we go now, Lan Zhan? I’ve been so many places this year, I feel like all I really want now is to wake up in the same bed two mornings in a row.”
“We can do that,” says Wangji.
“I quite liked some of the towns I passed through. And just between us, I think Jiang Cheng would let me live at Lotus Pier again if I asked. But I don’t know that you’d like it—plus the damn man’s got so many dogs—”
“Wei Ying,” says Wangji.
“Wei Ying.” He can’t stop saying it, a mantra, a magic word. “If I said my uncle wanted you to live with me in Cloud Recesses, would you believe me?”
He watches the ebb and flow of expressions over Wei Ying’s face. Laughter, first; then his eyes go wide, brimming with light in the sweet, tentative way that always makes Wangji want to crush him close and draw his cloak over both their heads and never let go. “No way,” says Wei Ying. “Old Teacher Qiren? What’ve you done to him?”
“Is it true? Did he really say that?”
“Would I lie?”
Wei Ying grins. “The sky’d fall first.”
Wangji cannot help but mirror Wei Ying’s broad, irresistible smile. He is effervescent, almost thrumming with joy, with the solid warmth of the man in his arms. “You’ve already helped me decorate,” he says. “Come and see.”
* * *