Wen Qing’s house feels empty. It's been a month since the cleansing array was planted at the Burial Mounds. For a short while after that her house had been full of people. But Jin Ling had gone off to Koi Tower to deal with sect politics, and a few days later Wei Wuxian had headed off to visit the Cloud Recesses. A-Yuan and A-Ning had lingered longer, but eventually they had also departed.
Wen Qing has lived in this house for many years. Sometimes she’s shared it with an apprentice and once with a family who needed help, but mostly it's been just her. Being alone like this never felt lonely before. She has her workroom set up just the way she likes it, and her living and sleeping room is cosy and tidy. But the house, having once been full of family, seems too quiet now.
So when there is a knock on the door late in the afternoon she is pleased to leave the medicine she is mixing on the table for now and go to answer. Still, she is surprised to find Jiang Wanyin standing on the other side, dressed in purple robes that look out of place on her humble street, and scowling.
After a moment to recover her composure, Wen Qing says, “What brings you here?”
Wen Qing steps back from the door, and Jiang Wanyin steps inside. He pauses a few steps past the doorway, fidgeting. So she gestures at the low table.
“Come sit, I will make us some tea and you can tell me why you came.”
While Jiang Wanyin had come to visit Jin Ling while he was her student, there’s no reason for him to visit while his nephew is at Koi Tower. Still, he’s here now, so she may well make them some tea. She finds her nicest dark blue tea cups and sets the kettle to warm.
As Wen Qing sits down, Jiang Wanyin says, “Jin Ling asked me to bring you to Koi Tower. There’s a banquet commemorating the end of the Sunshot Campaign to be held there, and he wants us both to attend.” He seems a little nervous still, but he’s stopped fidgeting, his hands resting on his lap.
Wen Qing sits back on her heels, considering. She has not left Yiling since she arrived here after her escape from Koi Tower. Now her student is asking her not just to leave but to go back to the place where she was imprisoned and tortured. But she won't be in the dungeons, and she won’t be alone this time.
She does some quick math in her head, it's close to the date of Wen Ruohan’s death so that must be what the banquet is commemorating. She couldn’t bear to go to an event commemorating her family's death, but this she can manage, though it will still be strange. She’s sure she’ll be the only one there who ever spoke to the man in any real way. She detested the man when he was alive, but he had raised her, and she can’t remember him as a simple villain.
She looks at the man sitting across from her, waiting for tea. In some ways it's easier to act like this man, her student’s Jiujiu, isn’t the same who she had once admired, but who hadn’t helped her look for her didi and who saw how they lived on the Burial Mounds and walked away uncaring. That way she can have a relationship with him, for her student’s sake. If she thinks about the past she’ll want an acknowledgement of all that, an apology. She doesn’t think she’s going to get that.
“Well,” says Jiang Wanyin, “will you come to Koi Tower?” He meets her eyes across the table and holds them for a moment.
“Why does Jin Ling want me to come? Surely most of the sect would not welcome me at Koi Tower.”
Jiang Wanyin huffs a little but nods, acknowledging her point “The sect elders wish to meet his teacher. The sect leadership is still in question.” Jiang Wanyin his brows draw together as he considers the leadership question. Wen Qing knows he’s proud of his nephew, but he frequently worries about the young man's status in the eyes of others.
The water is hot, so she measures out the tea into the teapot and pours the water over it.
“I see. And do you think my presence will help him with the elders?” Wen Qing asks as she pours two cups of tea. “I am rather notorious, and I wouldn’t want to make things harder for him.”
Jiang Wanyin takes the tea cup closest to him, holding it carefully and taking a whiff of the steam. “Well, you are going to have to meet the elders at some point before the leadership question is settled. It’s better if you meet them when Jin Ling choses.”
Wen Qing nods, and hopes that Jin Ling knows what he’s doing. She has very little idea how internal Jin sect matters stand so she’ll have to trust her student in this.
He sips his tea, but drops his eyes. “Besides, he told me that he wants the Jin Sect to apologize for what was done to the Wen remnants. I’m sure your presence at the banquet will help get his point across.”
This is the closest they’ve gotten to talking about their shared past since Jiang Wanyin discovered that she was still among the living.
Knowing that this is about more than the sect leadership makes the decision simple. “I will be there to support him. It means a lot to me that he wants to apologize.” Besides, she misses her student.
Jiang Wanyin shifts uncomfortably. “Yes, well, I can’t see why he cares at all. He wasn’t even born during most of what happened. He’s been asking me about the Chief Cultivator’s new accords on the treatment of prisoners too."
Wen Qing had been asked to read these accords in draft, and carefully annotated them for Lan Wangji, noting several possible loopholes.
“I hope your sect will sign the accords.” Maybe it's a little risky saying this, but it's not like he doesn’t know how she feels on this issue.
“I’m still thinking about it,” he says, looking away from her. He picks up his tea cup and downs the remaining tea.
Their boat is docked and Wen Qing is standing on the flat wooden prow waiting for the rest of the party, when Jiang Wanyin approaches her with something in his hands. “Here, these are for you,” he says, pushing the item at her.
Wen Qing takes the parcel, which turns out to be a neatly folded set of robes. The silk is a pale green and cool to her touch. It’s far finer than anything she’s worn since the Sunshot Campaign. And worlds away from her usual practical brown robes. Wen Qing runs her fingers over the fabric, admiring it. Then she looks up at Jiang Wanyin, who is still standing a little bit away. “Thank you.”
“It will help make a good impression if you are dressed the way Elders expect,” Jiang Wanyin says. His hands are crossed behind his back, and he’s looking down at his feet, but his cheeks are a little bit pinker than normal. “Why don’t you go change now, before we make our grand entrance?”
Wen Qing goes back into the boat and dresses behind a privacy screen. She does her hair close to her old style, with a sliver hair piece in the shape of a fish. When she emerges onto the dock Jiang Wanyin studies her carefully. “You look nice.”
He looks like he has more to say but one of his disciples comes up and asks him a question, and they both get involved in the preparations for the walk up to Koi Tower.
Wen Qing pauses to collect herself on the first landing at Koi Tower. Last time she was here, she’d arrived with her brother expecting to die. Now, she’s walking up the long steps with Jiang Wanyin. At the top, she’s expecting to be greeted by her student, the sect leader. Things have changed. This time no swords are pointed at her.
Her new robes feel strange, like she’s back in the past, except everyone around her has changed. But even her festival robes would have looked shabby in this crowd, and she wants to do her student proud. The last time she was on this landing, she had nodded to her brother just before they were taken from each other, and they didn’t even get to the top of the stairs together. This time she makes it to the top of the stairs. When she gets there she is greeted by Jin Ling, Jin Rujia, a young cultivator whom she healed back in Yiling, and Jin Ling’s dog, Fairy.
Jin Ling smiles broadly when he sees her and Jiang Wanyin. “Teacher! Jiujiu! You came!” he bows slightly.
Despite the sudden surge of affection she feels at the sight of her student, Wen Qing doesn’t hug him but instead also bows, taking care to show the respect due to a sect leader from a rogue cultivator. Jiang Wanyin hits him affectionately before he also bows, one sect leader to another.
Although he’s smiling, Jin Ling looks tense. His face is thinner than when Wen Qing last saw him, and he holds himself warily. He’s once again wearing the golden robes of his sect, instead of the simple ones he wore as her student. His time at Koi Tower does not seem to have been good for him, and Wen Qing wishes she could take him aside for a moment and make him a cup of tea.
“When will the vote be held?” Jiang Wanyin asks Jin Ling.
“The day before the banquet.”
Wen Qing looks between the two of them. “What vote?”
Jiang Wanyin looks a bit embarrassed. “Didn’t I tell you? The sect elders have to vote to confirm Jin Ling as sect leader.”
Jin Ling looks down at his feet and mutters, “If they don’t confirm me, they could pick Jin Zishi.”
Wen Qing vaguely remembers Jin Zishi as the unpleasant woman about her own age who had tried to attack her during the array planting at the burial mounds. Given the “Zi” character in her name she must be a close relative of Jin Ling’s, one of his father's generation. Still, she’s confused. “I thought you were already the sect leader?”
“Well, he is acting sect leader, and usually the vote is just a formality. However, Jin Guangyao never declared an heir, so the elder council must formally confirm the new leader. Jin Zishi has been making complaints ever since he left to go study with you, and it only got worse after she figured out your identity,” explains Jin Rujia.
“I wasn’t really thinking about how that would look.” There was a time when Wen Qing had carefully considered how everything she did would look to one sect leader or another, but after years of being a humble doctor she is used to putting her patients first. Still, she’d rather not get her student in trouble.
“Well, I think it's cool that I was treated by the best doctor in the world -- the only one to complete a golden core transfer! But some people don’t see it like that.” Jin Rujia grins at her.
Jiang Wanyin winces at the mention of the core transfer.
“Jin Zishi has been trying to convince the elders that she should be sect leader instead, since she’s part of the main family and older. Or if not that then to appoint her regent,” Jin Ling says unhappily.
Wen Qing is pretty sure that Jin Zishi would not follow Jin Ling's plan of apologising for what happened to her family. She can’t see the woman who attacked her on sight acknowledging those wrongs. She knows it's foolish to get involved in sect politics, knows that the Jins are power hungry and money grubbing, but Jin Ling’s intention had filled her with hope for a better future, one where no one would suffer like her family had.
She lifts her chin, calling up the part of her that knows how to play these games. Though it’s been years, she did once hold her own in Wen Ruohan’s court. “I’ll do what I can to support you.”
Shortly, Wen Qing finds herself mingling in one of the gardens of Koi Tower. Jin Rujia is at her side. Jin Ling had given his cousin a rather worried look before he was called to greet the next guest, but Jin Rujia had just waved cheerfully and steered Wen Qing towards the refreshments.
“Now Teacher Zhu,” she said using the name that Wen Qing had used for herself in her new life, “you really must have some of the cherries, and then I can show you the gardens.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Wen Qing says, following Jin Rujia through the crowds of cultivators, holding herself very straight.
Most of the people in the crowd are wearing Jin sect robes, though there are a few in other colors. It's been a long time since she’s been around this many cultivators, this much wealth. Still, Wen Qing reminds herself that she spent years in the court of Wen Ruohan; she can do this. She has allies now, and no one here holds her brother’s life in their hands.
Soon the two of them have platefuls of cherries and some of the square purple cakes that Koi Tower is known for.
“Let's walk around and I’ll introduce you to some of the nicer elders,” Jin Rujia says.
Wen Qing nods. “Can you tell me a bit more about this banquet? Who is coming?”
“Oh, sure. This is the reception for allied minor sects. The Jin Sect always puts on a good spread for them when they come early. The other guests rarely come to this kind of event, but you should expect to see all the sect heads and Hanguang Jun at the banquet in a few days.”
“What about my brother? Or Wei Wuxian?”
“Jin Ling wanted to invite them both, but the sect elders wouldn’t let him.”
Wen Qing’s heart sinks. If she’s going to attend to represent the Wens then she wishes that A-Ning could too. Still he is the notorious Ghost General, and that is a taller order than inviting her. Yet there are so few Wens left in the world, and while A-Yuan might attend with the Lans, his origins are not publicly known. Wei Wuxian hated banquets and was always getting in trouble trying to be the center of attention at them, but the Sunshot Campaign would have failed without him and his demonic cultivation. The least they could do was invite him.
Wen Qing catches a glimpse of Jiang Wanyin talking with a white haired woman in Jin robes and her hair up in a hairpiece covered in enamel peonies. Jin Rujia notices her glance, and says, “Oh that’s Jin Chaofeng, she’s hard to impress, let’s start with someone a bit more flexible.” And she leads the way to an arch underneath which two older women, also in Jin robes, stand drinking tea.
Jin Rujia introduces her, and everyone bows. They talk politely for a moment about medicine before the elders ask Wen Qing about Jin Ling. She tells them truthfully that he is a very good and dedicated student and a credit to the sect. After a short chat, Jin Rujia steers her to another group of elders and they do the whole thing again. Then again. Wen Qing soon loses track of how many elders she’s spoken to. It’s not very exciting, but Wen Qing lays on as much charm as she can and manages to eat bites of her food when here and there. The purple cakes are surprisingly good, filled with a dense red bean paste.
As they are walking towards Jin Chaofeng, who is no longer with Jiang Wanyin, there’s commotion at the entrance to the garden. There’s shouting and a couple of figures in white. Jin Ling seems to be yelling something.
Jin Rujia grabs Wen Qing’s hand and pulls. “Come on, we’d better go help my cousin”
At the entrance Lan Wangji stands with Wen Ning behind him. A-Yuan is there as well along with several other Lan juniors she doesn’t recognize. Several people in Jin robes are blocking the path.
Jin Ling is standing to one side shouting, “I can invite whoever I want!”
Jin Rujia and Wen Qing stop next to him, and Jin Rujia pulls her cousin’s sleeve. “What’s happening?” she asks in a low voice.
Jin Ling waves his other hand at the newcomers. “Some more guests have arrived. There is a disagreement over whether they are welcome here.” He scowls.
The other Jin cultivators start complaining all at once, but Lan Wangji raises one hand and everyone fails silent. He looks over everyone's head at Wen Qing. “There is no longer a need for us to enter. Lady Wen, I would speak with you.”
As he’s speaking Jiang Wanyin arrives, walking quickly. He plants himself behind Jin Ling and glares at the newcomers.
Wen Qing glaces at him and then Jin Ling before she steps forward to stand in the front of the crowd. “I am here,” she says.
“There is a sickness in the town, will you come?” Lan Wangji is as unmoving as a statue as he asks, but those standing behind him look worried.
Wen Qing doesn’t hesitate. “Let me grab my kit.” She looks to Jin Ling. “Apprentice, can you come?”
He opens his mouth, but Jiang Wanyin lays a hand on his nephew's shoulder, and when Jin Ling glaces up at him, he shakes his head slightly. Jin Ling frowns. “I want to but I’m needed here for the banquet.”
“Right, I’ll be back for that.”
“We all will,” says Lan Wangji behind her.
So not long after she arrived at Koi Tower for the second time Wen Qing departs, this time headed for Lanling with a group of Lans and her brother. Surrounded by so many powerful cultivators as she heads down the steps, it could not be more different than the first time she left Koi Tower.
Once they are a little ways away from Koi tower, they stop and regroup. Wen Qing runs over to A-Ning and hugs him. “Didi, I didn’t expect to see you here!”
“I didn’t expect to see you either. A-Yuan and I were night hunting nearby, but when people started getting ill Hanguang Jun issued an alert and summoned everyone back.”
He glances at Lan Wangji, who nods. “I was concerned that our medical personnel would not be able to attend in a timely manner, but Sizhui informed me that you were at Koi Tower.”
A-Yuan must have gotten the letter she wrote him while she was traveling then. Wen Qing bows. “I am glad to assist, but please tell me more about the case.”
Lan Wangji nods again. “I will tell you as we walk.”
Wen Qing’s still not entirely comfortable with the Chief Cultivator, but he did apologise for his failures to her people, and the documents he had shown her for an agreement between sects on the treatment of prisoners were very well thought out.
Lanling is a rich town, and far bigger than Yiling, but Lan Wangji quickly leads the little group off the main broad avenues into smaller streets where the buildings are a bit more worn down and the paving is a bit uneven. The various Lans explain that they were in Lanling to attend the banquet and that people staying at their inn had started showing signs of a mysterious illness. Some of the symptoms were mundane things like chills and fever, but people with the illness also developed a strange flower shaped rash. Calls to Koi Tower requesting aid had been met with only delaying responses. Wen Qing suspects that someone must be preventing Jin Ling from finding out about this -- the student she knows would want to help. The local magistrates had provided food and supplies to the makeshift hospital, but no personnel.
They quickly arrive at the makeshift hospital that has been set up in an inn. The basic setup seems sound, so Wen Qing quickly examines everyone. The rash is all over peoples faces, and some of them are very sick.
“This isn’t something I’ve seen before. We need to manage the symptoms. Then I can investigate the cause further.”
It takes the rest of the day, but she’s able to stabilize the situation with the help of the other cultivators. Several more patients are brought in while they are working, but things are under control enough by evening that Wen Qing can stop and have dinner. Lan Wangji, A-Yuan and a few other Lan cultivators join her. A-Ning doesn’t need to eat so he keeps working. The food is plain but well prepared, and since almost everyone in the group is a Lan they eat in silence. It feels strange to eat with others but not talk.
Afterward the younger disciples clean up, and Lan Wangji and Wen Qing stand out of earshot to discuss the case.
“Those flowers aren’t a normal rash, but they aren’t quite curse marks either. Still, something is drawing off their qi and making them sick,” Wen Qing says.
“There’s something out there affecting people -- I think I can trace it, but I’m going to need time and some supplies.”
“Write a list.”
Wen Qing looks around to find paper, a brush and some ink. She takes these over to the table and starts grinding the ink. Lan Wangji sits across from her and watches.
“So Wei Wuxian visited you?”
Before he left, Wei Wuxian had completed his “box of errant missives” and taught her how to make messages for them, but he hadn’t made a box for her -- so while she’s written Wei Wuxian several times, any letters he’s written to her have to travel the slow way, and she hasn’t gotten one yet.
“He was well, I trust?”
“Yes. We had a good visit. He seemed happy” He pauses for a moment considering the right words “He was more carefree than I’ve seen him in a long time.”
Wen Qing nods, “He was happy to be going to visit you.” She smiles fondly. “How long did he stay?”
“Five days” Lan Wangji looks perhaps a little wistful.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll see him again soon. If you need help making more papers to write to his box of errant missives I have plenty of supplies.” She doesn’t trust Wei Wuxian to remember useful details like people wanting to write to him.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Good. I’d better write this list now, but you know where to find me.”
Wen Qing knows it's not really her business, but she wishes those two would get their act together. However, she has far more immediate things to worry about. Her first duty is to the sick, and there are a lot of people with the mysterious illness, with new cases coming in too quickly for her liking. Thinking carefully, she writes out a list of things she’ll need to properly investigate the flower rash. Then, since she’s got the ink all ready anyway, she writes a quick note and calls A-Yuan over. Seeing him standing next to her while she’s still sitting reminds her once again just how big he’s gotten. She folds the note and seals it with her chop mark over the fold.
“A-Yuan, can you take this up to Koi Tower and give it to Jing Ling?” Her cousin nods. “I think it would be best if you went since you are his friend. He doesn’t seem to know what’s going on here, but if you can get him this note I hope he’ll be able to send us some help -- we’ll need more as new cases come in.”
“Yes, Auntie,” A-Yuan says and doesn’t quite scurry (he’s got too much Lan dignity for that now) off.
Wen Qing spends the rest of the evening organizing the makeshift hospital and tending to patients. Her brother helps out. Though he never got much medical training, he’s calm and steady with a good bedside manner. It’s good to do the work they were meant to do side by side. She only goes to bed when Lan Wangji comes and insists that she do so.
The next morning Wen Qing wakes, eats quickly and goes back to her patients. She has not been at work long when Jin Ling arrives along with Jiang Wanyin and a small group of Jin cultivators.
Jin Ling rushes into the room. “Teacher, I brought help!”
His voice is loud in the hush of the sick room, and Wen Qing thinks about shushing him but settles for a quelling look. Jin Ling glances around at all the patients and has the grace to look ashamed of himself.
Wen Qing finishes feeding her current patient while the newcomers stand around awkwardly. When she’s done she gets up and walks over to them. A-Ning looks up when he sees her stand, and she nods and gestures at him to follow her.
She bows in greeting, saying, “Come, lets go talk somewhere else -- those of you who came to help, go see Wen Qionglin, and he’ll get you started.” As all the Jin cultivators head over to A-Ning, a few with nervous glances at each other, Wen Qing leads the other two over to the side of the room.
“Teacher, I didn’t know it was this bad!” Jin Ling exclaims. “I hadn’t heard about this at all until the garden party yesterday!”
“It's not your fault. And you are here now. Thank you for bringing help.”
“What can I do? You said there was something spiritual going on?”
Wen Qing starts to explain the situation in more detail, but Jiang Wanyin interrupts. “We can’t stay, the elders haven’t voted yet. You can’t expect to be confirmed as sect leader if you keep skipping out on important meetings.” He seems annoyed but also a little fond, as though he’s given this lecture many times before.
Jin Ling squares his shoulders and sets his mouth in a stubborn line. “These people need me! I can’t just run back up to Koi Tower!”
“This vote is too important! How do you expect to run a sect if you keep abandoning your official duties to run off and help strangers!!” Jiang Wanyin’s voice is rising and his brows have drawn together.
“Well maybe I don’t want to be a sect leader if it means that I can’t help people who need me!”
Jiang Wanyin opens and closes his mouth several times. “Not be a sect leader! Your sect needs you too!”
Wen Qin glares at both of them. “Be quiet! This is a sick room!”
They are still standing there, Jiang Wanyin and Jin Ling glaring at each other, when a young Lan comes and tugs at Wen Qing’s sleeve. “I have the supplies you asked for.” She holds out a qiankun pouch.
Wen Qing thanks her, then turns to the other two. “Right, I have problems to solve. Jin Ling, your help would be valuable here, but I’m not getting involved in this argument -- why don’t you figure it out outside?”
And she takes the pouch and stalks over to the nearest table, where she is soon absorbed in solving the problem of the flower rash.
She’s busy drawing out several different possible array components, when Jin Ling returns. “Teacher, tell me how I can help.”
“Are you staying here?”
“Yes, Jiujiu went back, but it's my duty to heal and I’m staying.”
Wen Qing feels a surge of pride that her student would disregard the political risks to help. “Here, I need these herbs boiled and drained, and then we’ll work on the larger array”
They work steady through the morning. Lan Wangji comes to check on them and to update them on the situation a few times, but they are otherwise uninterrupted even as more patients are brought to the makeshift hospital. They are finished by lunchtime. Wen Qing gathers Lan Wangji, A-Ning and A-Yuan over a simple meal of rice and vegetables to discuss their findings.
“So we know that the qi is leaving these people and making them sick, but we don’t know where the energy is going,” Wen Qing says and takes a bite of rice. After she finishes chewing she goes on, “We needed a way to trace the energy”
She nods to Jin Ling, who uncovers -- with a flourish -- the object they’ve been working on. On the table sits a round piece of wood with a raised border around the edge, and within the border there is a carved movable arrow. Wen Qing flicks the arrow and watches as it quickly returns to position.
“This is a modified compass of evil that points to where the qi is going. We should be able to follow it back to whatever is stealing qi,” Wen Qing says, showing it to her little audience of three.
After lunch Wen Qing and Jin Ling set out to follow the compass. It's a bit difficult to follow the arrow, which is pointing across the tidy grid of the city, but Jin Ling knows the city well, and this allows them to follow without too much delay. The compass leads them closer and closer to Koi Tower and Jin Ling’s shoulders start to slump again and his smile dims as they approach.
Eventually, they wind up on the western edge of Koi Tower, the compass pointing up.
“It looks like we will have to go inside. It’s a good thing I brought you with me,” Wen Qing says.
Jin Ling nods and grimaces, looking tense. “I guess. Let's try to keep our heads down, or I’ll get cornered and asked about sect matters and we’ll never get out of there. Come on. I know a side door, so at least we don’t have to walk up all those stairs.”
The side door doesn’t eliminate the stair problem but the stairs Jin Ling leads them to are shorter and far less public than the main stairs. Part way up they pass through a door in a wall and enter the main complex. When they finally reach the top, Wen Qing is a bit out of breath, and she looks around trying to locate any type of landmark she might recognize, but she’s barely been to Koi Tower proper and nothing looks familiar so she just glances back down at the compass.
Jin Ling tugs at her arm. “Come on, we have to go around Fragrance Hall, it's this way!” He drags her around the corner, where suddenly they are face to face with Jiang Wanyin.
“Jiujiu! What are you doing here!” Jin Ling says, clearly startled.
“What, you mean here in a passage between the guest quarters and Fragrance Hall?” Jiang Wanyin says grumpily, “I couldn’t possibly be on my way to a meeting with your sect elders -- you know, the one you were supposed to attend?” He glares at his nephew.
Jin Ling looks just a little bit guilty. “Yes, well, that was before I knew people were sick,” he says as he shuffles his feet.
“Well, are you done treating sick people? Come to the meeting now. The elders still need to talk to you. Your teacher too!” Jiang Wanyin gives them both a demanding look.
Seeing Jiang Wanyin here standing straight and dressed to the nines in his signature purple, Wen Qing is reminded that this man is a sect leader with political clout, not just the boy she knew or her student’s beloved Jiujiu.
Wen Qing gestures at the compass which she is still holding at about waist height. “We can’t stop now; we are tracking the source of the illness.”
“Fine. A-Ling, you come along at least,” Jiang Wanyin says, waving his hands in the direction he was walking before they ran into him.
“No, Teacher Zhu needs me to find her way around here.”
Jiang Wanyin gives her a questioning look.
“I do need his help. Koi Tower is quite a maze to me.”
“Can’t you do that later?” Jiang Wanyin asks Jin Ling. “It's your duty to your sect to talk to the elders.”
“It’s my duty as a doctor to heal people!”
“Oh, and you would place that duty above your sect!”
Wen Qing is overwhelmed for a moment with pride for her student.
“Fine! Well, I do what I can for you at this meeting. Now get going!”
Jin Ling and Wen Qing follow the arrow the best they can, dodging around various buildings and pavilions. They pass the back of Fragrance Hall, and the garden where they had the party, and many other places Wen Qing doesn’t recognize. Finally they end up at a staircase pointing downward.
Jin Ling pauses. “Well, I guess we have to go down again.” Then he starts down the stairs.
Wen Qing would really rather not go underground at Koi Tower. Having spent years in those dungeons she doesn’t want to go back. So she takes a breath to steady herself, straightens her spine and follows her student. She’s not going to back off this case now.
At first the lower level of Koi Tower is pleasant, well lit with high ceilings and plenty of air, but as they go further it gets darker and closer.
Jin Ling looks around nervously. “Teacher, I think we are getting close.”
The compass in Wen Qing’s hand feels warm so she just nods. Being underground like this is making her tense; she can feel her stomach trying to form a knot. But she keeps her breathing even and follows the compass down another corridor.
Jin Ling gasps, and she looks up to find a mass of dark energy. Many long thin tendrils extend out of the room, most pointed towards the city. Something like twisting limbs are visible in the center of the dark smoke.
“Well, we’ve found where the qi is going. Now lets see if we can figure why and how to stop it.” Wen Qing looks at her student, who seems at a loss.
He gapes at the dark mass. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure. Let's see what we can observe.”
They carefully circle around.
Jin Ling pokes one of the tendrils with his finger. “Oh that feels odd! I can feel the qi flowing around my finger!”
Wen Qing’s mouth quirks downward, but she stops herself from telling him not to do that. It’s too late anyway, but a moment later she grabs his arm and pulls him back as a large hairy and clawed arm reaches for him.
“I don’t think it liked that!” she says once they are a safe distance away.
“I didn’t realise it was a creature!”
“Me either, but something must be keeping it here.”
Jin Ling stays far away from the creature but continues to circle around. Meanwhile, Wen Qing pulls out her flute and blows a few experimental notes. The black mass of energy contracts slightly, and they can briefly see the outline of a humanoid creature. It seems to be covered in black hair.
“Look, Teacher -- there’s an array on the floor!”
Glancing down at the floor, Wen Qing can see the telltale red line of the array. She’s about to kneel down to examine it more closely when she hears footsteps. She straightens up and starts to turn towards the sound, but Jin Ling pulls her through the nearest door, which he then closes firmly.
They sit on the floor, and Jin Ling presses his ear to the door. From behind the closed door they can hear voices. Wen Qing can just make out the words “angry," “tomorrow,” and “vote.”
“I think that’s Jin Zishi,” Jin Ling whispers. The talking goes on for a while, until they hear footsteps walking away. Jin Ling lets out the breath he’s been holding, and Wen Qing’s shoulders relax just a bit. However when Jin Ling tries to open the door, it won’t budge. “Teacher, there's a spiritual lock. I’m going to blast it!”
“No, don't do that! We don’t know what disrupting the creature will do to patients.” She pulls a light token out of her sleeve and sets it aglow with a small push of spiritual energy. The room is full of dust and pottery. There are rows and rows of tea cups and stacks of plates. But they are covered in a thick layer of grime. An anti-dust talisman that has been drained of power flutters from one end of the shelves. Wen Qing stands up, carefully attaches the talisman to the shelf and runs her finger over a stack of plates, admiring the pretty peacock green glaze, before sitting down again. Then she pulls a small bag out of her other sleeve.
“Come on, I’ll make us some tea while we think about what to do.”
Her student is still pressed next to the door, but he nods. Wen Qing takes a small brown teapot out of the pouch and sets in on the ground. Then she takes a talisman and forms it into a loose cone, placing the smaller end over the teapot.
Meanwhile, Jin Ling gets up, walks over to the shelves and picks up a tea cup and dusts it off with his sleeve. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this pattern. These must be very old.” He glances over at Wen Qing. “What are you doing?”
“Your Shishu taught me this trick when we lived at the Burial Mounds. It will take water out of the air and fill the kettle. We used to make bigger ones, but these days I just use them for tea making.” She lets herself remember that time for a moment, how desperate they all were for simple things like clean water, but quickly draws her mind back to the present. “Ok, it will take a little bit to collect the water, so tell me more about Jin Zishi, I don’t understand what she was doing here.” She pats the ground next to herself, indicating that Jin Ling should sit and then tucks her hands into her lap.
“Ugh, I hate her!” Jin Ling says. “She used to suck up to Jin Guangyao all the time, but now that he’s dead and in disgrace she says she never liked him. She’s always making digs at my leadership ability and going on about the great and noble history of the Jin Sect.”
Wen Qing strokes her right thumb with her left thumb “Hm…does she have political support?”
Jin Ling nods. “A lot of the seniors respect her. She’s got a good bloodline and seems to know everyone.”
“I see, but what does she need this creature for?” Wen Qing hefts the small teapot, being careful not to dislodge the talisman. It feels almost full, so she digs the tea out of her pouch.
“Well, she has been working on something to do with the wards, but she won’t tell anyone exactly what it is.”
“Hm…Well some kind of energy transfer is involved here. Could she be using the creature to transfer energy from people to the wards?”
“Well, I don’t know much about the wards. Jin Guangyao always said it wasn’t important, but there are some energy points down here, so it would be a good place for something like that.”
Wen Qing has heard enough stories to suspect that Jin Guangyao had other reasons for not letting Jin Ling get near the wards. Wen Ruohan had always mistrusted her and wouldn’t let her learn such things either, but at least with him it was clear that he disliked her.
Now the teapot is full so Wen Qing heats the water with energy from her hands, and then adds the tea. While it is steeping she gets out the two matching tea cups. Jin Ling is looking down at his hands and fiddling with the edge of his sleeve. They wait for the tea to steep in silence.
When it seems that enough time has passed, Wen Qing pours the tea into the cups and hands one to her student. Then she picks up her own cup and breathes in the steam.
Jin Ling wraps both his hands around the small cup and holds it close to his face for a moment, before lowering the cup. He lets out a breath, and she can see the tension in his shoulders loosening.
“Teacher, I really missed you.”
Wen Qing sips her tea. “I missed you too.”
“I hate it here at Koi Tower! I miss doing work that matters! No one here likes me! They hid the sickness from me!”
Wen Qing is at a loss for what to say. She isn’t really surprised that her student is unhappy at Koi Tower, given how worn he had looked when she first saw him. She wants to comfort her student, but she knows nothing about the situation at Koi Tower. She has avoided the cultivation world and its politics for many years to keep herself safe. Still she has to say something.
So she reaches out and tentatively pats Jin Ling’s knee. “Right, well, one problem at a time. First we need to get out of here, then we need to deal with that creature out there. Then we’ll see about the rest of it.”
Jin Ling straightens his shoulders. “Yes, Teacher. Sorry, Teacher.”
Wen Qing takes another sip of tea. “It’s fine. I simply don’t know anything about current sect business, so let's focus on healing people. Drink your tea and then lets have a look at that lock.”
Once they are in a calmer frame of mind, the spiritual lock turns out relatively simple to unlock since it's coded to Jin clan members. But it's old enough that Jin Ling can’t just open it. It still takes them almost an incense stick's worth of time to open it.
When they get out of the store room, they are once again faced with the creature in its knot of dark energy. They set up a few more light talismans and get to work. Wen Qing plays her flute, carefully moving small amounts of dark energy at a time until Jin Ling is able to create a complete copy of the array underneath it.
Then they break for food. Jin Ling has a charmed pouch from the Koi Tower kitchens, which includes hot soup, roast duck, steamed buns and some of those purple cakes.
“The one good thing about this place is the food,” Jin Ling remarks as he spreads out the meal.
As they eat, they study the array, the dark mass of energy and what they can see of the creature within. After some discussion they decide to try unpicking the thread that links the creature to people in the city below. So they finish the food (which, as Jin Ling said, is very good) and start by locating the densest thread. Jin Ling kneels on the floor with his hands over the thread and channels qi to carefully undoes one end of the thread while Wen Qing monitors energy.
When it's done she says, “Good, I could feel the qi flowing back towards the patient. Now, ideally we would check on them each in person before going on to the next, but that’s not practical now, so let's just keep going.” She’s pleased with how steadily and calmly her student is tackling this tricky problem despite his outburst earlier.
They are about halfway through and both on their hands and knees steady undoing threads when three people stride into the room. In the lead is Jiang Wanyin, his face thunderous. And behind him are Jin Chaofeng, who Wen Qing remembers almost meeting at the garden party, and Lan Wangji, who is holding himself even more stiffly with his face especially expressionless.
“There you are! Do you know how long it's been? And what are you doing with dark energy?” Jiang Wanyin bellows. He stops just far enough away that he’s not touching any of the dark threads and glares.
Jin Ling scrambles to his feet, and a moment later Wen Qing follows suit with what she hopes is a little bit more dignity.
“Jiujiu, I’m fine!” Jin Ling says, then he bows to the other two newcomers. “Jin Chaofeng, Hanguang-Jun.”
Wen Qing bows as well, then steps so that she is slightly in front of her student. “As you can see, we found the cause of the illness in the city.” Wen Qing puts on her most self-effacing and appeasing smile, though she worries her skills at placating the powerful might be a little rusty after all these years.
Jiang Wanyin’s eyes widen, and for a second he looks crestfallen before he pulls his face together and merely looks stern. Jin Chaofeng simply quirks one eyebrow, then smiles a little in return. Lan Wangji’s face regains enough expression to look relieved.
“As you can see, we are working to resolve the illness as quickly as possible.”
Jin Chaofeng nods, so Wen Qing goes on to explain what they have learned. Jin Ling interjects with a few of his own observations, and remains surprisingly calm.
“Wait, go back and explain about the wards,” says Jin Chaofeng when they are finished.
Jin Ling explains what little he knows, while Jin Chaofeng listens, tapping one foot on the stone floor. Jiang Wanyin remains still and stern, but he’s fiddling with Zidian. Lan Wangji is blank faced, but his eyes are on Jin Ling.
“That won’t do.” Jin Chaofeng says. "Sect Leader Jiang, you were right to ask us to accompany you to look for your nephew and his teacher. Jin Ling, go and fetch Jin Zishi at once!” Jin Ling scampers off quickly, and Jin Chaofeng turns to face Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji. “Now this is internal sect business, so the rest of you can leave.”
“The wellbeing of the patients in the city is my business, as is that of Doctor Zhu and her student,” says Lan Wangji.
Jin Chaofeng gives him a skeptical look. “Fine, fine, then you should go and see to them. I will allow Doctor Zhu to remain here to safely dismantle this mess, since she clearly knows what she’s doing.”
Lan Wangji bows. “Very well.”
As the Chief Cultivator leaves the room, Jiang Wanyin glances around uncomfortably, then looks at Jin Ling and says, “If you are going to be a doctor, I’m glad you are doing it properly.” He nods curtly to Wen Qing before he also departs.
Wen Qing and Jin Chaofeng stand awkwardly, but luckily it is not long before Jin Ling returns with Jin Zishi as well as Jin Rujia. The four Jin sect members have a tense conversation while Wen Qing stands with both hands in the small of her back trying not to overhear. Jin Chaofeng is looking very stern and the others all look cowed. At one point Jin Zishi yells “But I didn’t know!” and Jin Chaofeng scowls enough to make her hang her head. Finally the discussion ends, and Jin Chaofeng waves Wen Qing over.
“Right. I want the four of you to clean up this mess. Then Doctor Zhu and Jin Ling will return to the city to check on their patients. The rest of us will deal with the creature. However, I expect all of you to be back tomorrow to attend the meeting of the Jin Chaofeng council.”
The next afternoon Wen Qing waits outside Fragrance Hall. The elder council of the Jin sect is deliberating, and they have sent all non-councillors out of the room so she’s waiting in the garden with the rest of the witnesses for the elders' decision.
Jin Ling places back and forth, Fairy at his heels. The rest of the witnesses stand in a row at the edge of the garden. Jin Rujia seems to be looking very intently at a clump of lilies; Jin Zishi is fiddling with her sleeves; Jiang Wanyin has put on his best stern face, but his eyes follow Jin Ling; Lan Wangji may as well be a statue.
The mass of dark energy was much easier to clean up once Jin Zishi was able to disconnect it from the wards. She claimed that she had no idea that her spell was drawing the energy of ordinary people to enhance the wards. Wen Qing isn’t sure if she’s incomptent or lying. Either way it's a relief that the Jin elders seem very unhappy with Jin Zishi.
When they returned to the makeshift hospital, all the patients seemed to be recovering. The flower rash had totally disappeared. Wen Qing has examined everyone to find that their qi flows were back to normal, so she sent them all home to rest. Jin Ling had insisted on using his power as acting sect leader to give each one a purse and small peony token which the Jin sect would redeem for a favor. Such a thing would not have occurred to Wen Qing, who is used to living on her own with just enough to get by, but it's so like her student to want to help as much as he can.
She hopes that the elders will recognize Jin Ling’s big heart, but she also worries for him if he is elected sect leader and has to spend more time here at Koi Tower, where he is clearly unhappy.
Finally Jin Chaofeng walks out of Fragrance Hall, the other elders flanking her. She stops once she reaches the edge of the garden.
“We have reached a decision.” She pauses and looks around, nodding at everyone. Jin Ling has stopped pacing and now stands slightly in front of the group, Fairy sitting quietly next to him.
“We have confirmed that Jin Rulan is the new sect leader.” Both Jiang Wanyin and Jin Ling open their mouths to speak, but Jin Chaofeng raises a hand and both mouths snap shut again. “However, seeing as his medical studies are ongoing and of great value to the sect, he will continue to study with Doctor Wen Qing in Yinling. While he is absent, I will act as his steward. Jin Rulan will return to Koi Tower once a month to continue his training in his duties to the sect.”
Wen Qing breathes a sigh of relief. Her student will be coming back to her. She glances at him, and he seems pleased with the news, a small smile on his face and one hand petting Fairy, who is trying to lick him. Jiang Wanyin's stern expression has also softened. Lan Wangji looks the same as before.
Jin Chaofeng continues, “Now as for Jin Zishi, your use of ordinary people’s qi in the wards was unacceptable. The elder council is removing you from all sect duties and ordering you to seclude yourself for six months.”
Jin Zishi bows low. “Yes, Elder.”
Jin Chaofeng nods. “Very well then. Jin Rulan, come see me. The rest of you are dismissed.”
The next day is busy for Jin Ling, so Wen Qing spends most of her time in the town with her brother. In the afternoon Jin Ling manages to find time for a lesson, so her time is not wasted. Still, she’s impatient to be done with Koi Tower and return to Yiling and her life there.
Finally the banquet arrives. Fragrance Hall is adorned in mourning white for the occasion, but the tables are set with the peacock green pottery that Jin Ling found in the store room. Wen Ning has been allowed to attend, so he shares a low table with Wen Qing. They are seated among the Jiang sect delegation, Jiang Wanyin having insisted that they were his guests since he had escorted her from Yiling. Wen Qing supposes it’s part of his way of making amends for making her job difficult, so she doesn’t protest even though she'd rather sit closer to A-Yuan. Sitting there is so unlike their last trip to Koi Tower that Wen Qing finds it hard not to laugh.
Still she keeps a straight face as Jin Ling rises from his place at the head of the room to give the opening speech of the banquet. He catches her eye and begins:
“We are here today to remember the Sunshot Campaign and those who died. Today we remember those who fought the tyrant, and also the innocent civilians on all sides, including the Wen, who lost their lives.”
There is a low rumble in the room. Jin Ling pauses and nods at Wen Qing before he continues with his speech. She nods back, approvingly, and as Jin Ling continues talking she glances across at A-Yuan, who is seated with the Lan delegation. He is listening to Jin Ling’s words with a serious expression and doesn’t notice her. Afterwards, Jiang Wanyin rises and gives another brief speech, and then Lan Wangji reads a commemorative poem. The mood is solemn, and Wen Qing eats her excellent meal in silence, glad that Jin Ling’s point has been made, but also remembering her family.
The next day Wen Qing and Jin Ling are getting ready to head back to Yiling. Jin Ling is in the final stages of packing, and has strewn things all over his room. He’s explaining how Jin Chaofeng is going to help him with the Jin sect’s apology.
"She wants to do everything the slow, proper way, so it will take time," he tells Wen Qing.
He’s kneeling on the floor surrounded by scrolls trying to decide which to take when Jiang Wanyin enters. Jin Ling starts to get to his feet, but his Jiujiu waves dismissively at him and says, “Stay where you are, I just have something I need to say to your teacher.”
He bows very formally before Wen Qing. “Doctor Wen, you were right. After the Sunshot Campaign, I should have done more to help you and your family. I’m sorry. I can’t change what I did in the past, but I want you to know that Yunmeng Jiang will be signing the Chief Cultivator’s new accords.”
Before either of them can say anything in response, he turns on his heel and leaves. Wen Qing still has her mouth open, because she never expected that to happen. She pulls herself together and looks at Jin Ling.
“Well, you really are a good influence on your Jiujiu. Now finish packing up so we can go home.”