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debt of a knife

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The wind was bitterly cold, and Wei Wuxian was in nothing but his ancient leathers. Around him, the Lan were in cloaks of deep white and blue, lined with fur. The moonlight lent their impassive faces a strange, cruel glow as they watched him stumble, panting, blood trailing sticky and hot down from the wound in his abdomen to the snow-covered ground.


“Fuck you,” Wei Wuxian said pleasantly. “And you know what? Fuck your mothers too. And your fathers. I’m not picky.”


“Just give him to us, Hanguang Jun,” a voice said from behind Wei Wuxian. One of the Jin, he was sure. There was no mistaking that haughty tone. “Our young lord wants him.”


“With all due respect,” one of the Lans said, “this is our lord’s land. Honoured brother Jin, you are trespassing-”


“We’re retrieving a traitor.”


“-a slight our lord is graciously choosing to forgive.” The Lan boy’s face remained cold, his tone polite. He wasn’t saying fuck you, but Wei Wuxian was pretty sure it was implied. “But Wei Wuxian is upon Hanguang Jun’s land now, honoured brother, and his fate now lies in our lord’s hands.”


Their lord stepped forward.


The Lans were all shining and strange, more beings of ice than men, but not a single one of them shone as brightly as their lord. He strode forward, his cloak a whisper of noise against the snow, his black hair glittering with frost.


“Kneel,” said Hanguang Jun. His voice was deep.


“Oh, I’d love to,” Wei Wuxian said, aiming for a purr – that was promptly ruined by the way his teeth were chattering. “But as much as I’d love to be executed by you – really, I’d just love it – I need to get going. Things to do, you know.”


Perhaps the blood loss was making his reflexes slow, because he didn’t see the moment Hanguang Jun crossed the snow and took hold of him. He felt lean, strong fingers close in his hair. Felt the barest press of nails against his scalp, a touch that made sparks of sensation fly through him, and felt his head wrench back.


He was forced down to his knees with a yelp.


“You were defeated upon my land, Wei Wuxian,” said Hanguang Jun. “According to the laws of the empire, I have the right to claim one of your household as my own.”


Wei Wuxian laughed shakily.


“I’m afraid I’m a disowned, orphaned traitor, my lord,” he said. “I don’t have a bride to offer you.”


“You have yourself,” said Hanguang Jun.


Wei Wuxian suddenly felt very, very lightheaded.




“Warlord Lan,” one of the Jin said, horrified. “What can you want with him? Wei Wuxian is a – is a….” He choked for a moment, and Wei Wuxian wondered through the sheer panicked hum of his own mind struggling to catch up with what the hell was happening, whether he’d say traitor or man or just horrible nuisance that you’ll stab within a week because he never shuts up




Well. That answered that.


“The law allows for it,” said Hanguang Jun. He did not seem inclined to say anything else. His gaze was still fixed on Wei Wuxian’s face. With a firm but not unkind hand, he moved Wei Wuxian’s head, left then right, slowly inspecting his features with cold, unreadable eyes.


There was a cough from the Jin. A shuffle of feet.


“Our young lord will want to witness the marriage,” one of the Jin blustered, after a beat of flustered silence. “He will need an assurance that you do not seek to assist this traitor to escape our righteous justice.”


“Would you question our lord’s honour after his generosity in allowing you to live despite your trespass?” the Lan boy shot back.


Hanguang Jun raised one elegant hand.  Behind him, the Lan boy fell obediently silent.


“This lord does not seek to aid a traitor,” said Hanguang Jun. He sounded contemptuous. Bored. “This lord merely seeks to claim his rights. Wei Wuxian is pleasing to look upon, and I would have him.” His gaze ticked up, glacial cold. “Emperor Jin is familiar with the concept.”


Wei Wuxian nearly laughed, but managed to restrain himself. Still, he jerked a little, and felt Hanguang Jun’s grip tighten in response.


Emperor Jin is familiar with the concept. That was putting it mildly. Jin Guangshan had, at minimum, hundreds of minor wives claimed in battle, locked away in his palace. He was a letch and a monster, but ah – that was fine, wasn’t it? Lawful. And how could a thing done lawfully be wrong?


As if powerful men were not the ones who wrote the empire’s laws. As if Hanguang Jun didn’t hold all the power here, while Wei Wuxian had none.


“Forgive us, Hanguang Jun,” another Jin said. This one spoke more softly, his voice deferential and elegant. “Hanguang Jun has not previously expressed his – interest – in the spoils of war. We were taken by surprise.”


Hanguang Jun made a noise of acknowledgement.


“Your lord may attend the ceremony,” he said. And then he released Wei Wuxian, turning calmly away.


And Wei Wuxian – with the kind of suicidal impulse his brother had always yelled at him for – tipped forward and grabbed the lord’s cloak. He didn’t know what he was hoping to accomplish, and by the time his brain began screaming warnings at him – all of them in Jiang Cheng’s voice, no surprise there – his bloody hand was already closed on cloth.


The lord froze. Looked down.


Wei Wuxian released him with an awkward laugh he couldn’t quite hold back. Hanguang Jun’s eyes narrowed. He kept on walking.


The bloodstain on his cloak was a deep, furious red against white.


“Allow me to see to your wound, Wei Wuxian,” said one of the Lan, leaning down before him.


“Right,” Wei Wuxian said shakily. “Yes.”




His sword was taken, and his favourite dagger removed from his boot. He was given a blanket and a fresh bandage for his abdomen, and some kind of medicine that made his head feel cloudy. (He’d tried to refuse that, but the Lan were all singularly terrifying, and he hadn’t been able to disobey in the face of the flat, cold stare that had been turned on him.) Then he was led to a horse-


-and hoisted up in front of Hanguang Jun.


He made a strangled sound as he felt large hands close on his waist, lifting him as if he were some delicate waif instead of the full-grown, battle-hardened man that he was.


“Did I hurt you?” Hanguang Jun’s voice. Wei Wuxian couldn’t see his face from this angle; only feel the warmth of his body, and the brush of his heavy cloak against Wei Wuxian’s back.


“N- no.”


Lan Wangji said nothing. The horses began to move.


Wei Wuxian turned his head a little, craning to see the Jin at the back of the Lan contingent. He felt a hand tighten at his waist.


“Stay still,” said Hanguang Jun.


The breath caught, briefly, in Wei Wuxian’s throat.


“What do you want me for, my lord?” He kept his voice low. No need to draw attention.


“I have explained.”


“I heard. You think I’m – pleasing to look upon,” Wei Wuxian felt a smile twist his mouth at the ridiculousness of that idea. He wasn’t a naturally ugly man, sure, but it had been months since he’d last had a good meal or, hells, a proper bath. He knew how he looked. “But Hanguang Jun is a handsome man. And even if he were not – Hanguang Jun is a rich man. He doesn’t need to pluck up someone like me for his bed. So what does this lord want with me?”


The wind howled, a faint whistle of noise through the pale mountain trees.


“You were once a brother to Sandu Shengshou,” said Hanguang Jun, eventually.


“You won’t get anything from him for me,” said Wei Wuxian. “I told you, my lord. I have no family. I was disowned.”


“On what basis?” He could feel the murmur of the lord’s voice against his hair. Soft. Hanguang Jun’s thighs were warm against his own; his skin hot, where it pressed against Wei Wuxian’s own, through layers and layers of clothes, in sharp contrast to the chill of the night air.


“I committed a dishonourable murder,” Wei Wuxian said, throat strangely dry. Focus. “Blackened my name. Broke imperial law. Jiang Cheng – Sandu Shengshou – couldn’t allow me to stay, if he wanted to rule Jiang lands with the emperor’s support. My name was erased from the Jiang family scrolls. They’ll give you nothing for me.”


“Who did you kill dishonourably?”


He closed his eyes. The memory of Lotus Pier burning flickered through his mind.  He leaned back against Hanguang Jun, side aching. Even through the soft weight of the man’s cloak, he could feel the rise and fall of his ribcage; the breadth of him.


“Wen Chao,” he said finally. “Wen Zhuliu. Wen Xu. I cut their throats in their sleep.”


He’d thought it a fairer death than they’d deserved. A shame that that rules of honourable combat – a just war demands a meeting of swords, at an agreed upon place; a just war cannot be a knife in the dark - did not concur.  


“And how,” Hanguang Jun asked, “did you come to anger Jin Zixun?”


“Ah. I didn’t commit dishonourable murders,” he said, feeling the bitterness curl his mouth into an ugly smile. “You of all people should understand, Hanguang Jun, that there are things you can’t do when you’re a warlord under the Jin Emperor. You can’t take land or hold it without proving your strength in battle. You must obey the rules of combat. You have to pay your taxes into Jin Guangshan’s fat coffers. And you can’t kill women and children who’ve never held a sword. But you can ask a mercenary to do it. And if that mercenary says no…”


Wei Wuxian shrugged. Tried to look back at the lord. Could see nothing but that blood-stained cloak; the edge of his dark hair.


“But you haven’t answered my question,” he went on. “What do you want from me, my lord?”




Shut up, Jiang Cheng’s voice said. Shut up, Wei Wuxian, shut up-


“Perhaps you like men who’re hurt,” said Wei Wuxian, ignoring common sense. “Or men who can’t fight back. Is that it?”


If anything, Hanguang Jun’s silence seemed to grow – colder. There was no sound but Wei Wuxian’s own breath; the cry of the wind, and the clatter of hooves.


“You can do what you like to me,” Wei Wuxian said, suddenly tired. He’d been running from the Jin for days on end. He couldn’t go on much longer. “Whatever it is. You’re not bad looking Hanguang Jun, and I…” He swallowed. He didn’t think saying, I suppose I’ll get enough food and a warm bed and maybe even a halfway decent fuck, which is more than I’ve had in longer than I can remember, and that’s not so bad, would go down well. “…I don’t mind.”


“Wen Xu,” Hanguang Jun said abruptly.


Wei Wuxian blinked.


“What about him?”


“When I was a boy, Wen Xu broke my leg,” said Hanguang Jun. “Murdered my father. You killed him. I owe you a debt.”


“So,” Wei Wuxian managed, after a moment. “You knew everything about me already. That makes sense. I knew you didn’t want me for my pretty face.”


“It is unwise to anger the Jin,” Hanguang Jun went on, ignoring that comment. “Jin Zixun has the emperor’s support. He will kill you with impunity. Marry me and you will live.”


If it’s unwise to anger the Jin, why are you claiming me?


But Wei Wuxian didn’t ask. He wasn’t quite that stupid. He wanted to live. He wanted it very, very much.


Somewhere, the Wen Remnants were waiting for him. He couldn’t let them down.


“Ah, Hanguang Jun,” he said instead, laughingly shakily. “How noble of you. How can I refuse?”


“You were not asked,” Hanguang Jun said. And there was something dark in his voice that made Wei Wuxian shiver despite himself, shifting uneasily. Hanguang Jun's hand pressed to his uninjured side. The lightest, faintest hint of fingers.


“Stop moving,” the lord said. “You will reopen your wound.”


Wei Wuxian swallowed. “As Hanguang Jun says.”


After that, they rode in silence.