By the time the sixth small clan folds under the QiShan Wen pressure, the Sect Elders acknowledge that something must be done. They do not panic; these revered old cultivators, who had fought many wars in their youth, are much too dignified for such a base emotion. But most admit to feeling uneasy. Unease is acceptable. Unease is not fear, or dread, or that fluttering feeling in the pit of their stomachs, the one that senses the disaster on the horizon before their eyes can perceive its shadow.
They gather deep in the bowels of the Koi Tower on a calm, fragrant evening in the early summer, to discuss the matter. The Koi Tower is an obvious gathering place; the eldest among them, Jin ZiHan, has seen three wars, a dozen deadly floods, and more idiot Sect Leaders than he can shake his golden cap at, Jin GuangShan among them. The others show him little deference, but it is enough to make the Jin Sect base a natural gathering place. Nie MeiLing, only a decade younger, could reasonably argue for an equal ground between them, but she cares little where they meet. The Jin Sect lavish cushions suit her old bones well, and the black dragon tea only found in LanLing makes the presence of these old, patronizing windbags almost bearable in comparison. Lan XiaoChun, the youngest among the eldest, but the least prone to tedious verbal outbursts, settles near her. She prefers his company, for no other reason than the silence it brings. Jiang YuXuan settles on the other side of her with a polite greeting. There are others, each sect boasting of at least three cultivators who, by rights, should have been bones and dust decades ago. MeiLing has her two younger brothers with her, but unlike the others, they sit behind her in silence. She still remembers that lovely winter day, nearly two centuries ago, when she beat NianZu with her saber until he cried. The Nie men had always possessed more hair on their chests than brains in their heads, but they could learn respect if one beat it into them.
It is her opinion that Jin ZiHan should have been beaten until he cried as well. All of the Jin Sect could stand a little less embroidery, and a little more beating. Watching the old windbag flutter about with his practiced smile that never reaches his eyes, she takes a calming sip of her tea. Riches without dignity, smiles without compassion. The Jin Sect has little to recommend them except material comforts. But compared to the QiShan Wen, they are the lesser of the two plagues, and certainly not her problem to worry about. It was the Jiang Sect Leader’s formidable wife who had decided to marry her offspring into that bejeweled snake pit, and all the more fool her.
Jiang YuXuan inquires after the current Nie Sect Leader and his brother, and MeiLing gives an equally polite but superficial response. The question is only a courtesy, one she does not return. Jiang FengMian’s health holds little interest, and the Violet Spider probably chews steel and spits out arrowheads for breakfast. Their children are equally as uninteresting, although she supposes CangSe SanRen’s brat is close to coming of age these days. She would not mind knowing how this child is getting on, but this would invite more conversation than her constitution is prepared to handle.
It takes an abominably long time for all the pompous elders to settle their creaking bones, and to finish their pretentious clucking before getting to the job at hand. By then, MeiLing’s tea is no longer hot, and her patience is growing thin. She lets them fuss a while longer, but she is not the only impatient one. Lan XiaoChun is silent as always, but there is tension around his oddly-colored eyes, and the line of his jaw seems slightly more pronounced.
MeiLing sighs into her cup. Jiang YuXuan had courted her once, so many lifetimes ago, that she can no longer find the pretty youth he had been in the heavily lined face by her side. The Jiang men, with their established reputation for soft-spoken steadiness, were never of any interest to her. She had not wanted a man who bent his spine to the world like a willow in high wind.
But Lan XiaoChun had been another matter. Had he ever offered, she would have likely agreed to that match without opposition. Her spine might be steel, but his is a rocky mountain side, unlikely to bend unless the Heavens themselves upended the earth. But he had never asked, and she had long ago stopped feeling slighted. No man in the world ever knew a woman’s true worth, and the Lan men are no different.
“Lady Nie, you have said very little,” Jin ZiHan simpers, bringing her back to the present.
She takes a sip of her rapidly cooling tea. She had said nothing because they had said nothing. Oh, they had spoken at length, as all men do, loving the sound of their tongues flapping. But their plans are no more than farts in the wind, and her hip is beginning to ache despite the plush Jin Sect cushions.
“Marriage,” she barks at them, and watches their brains turn the word over for an excruciatingly long moment before tongues begin to flap again.
“My tea is cold,” she says to the air, and hears NianZu scramble up behind her.
He will find a servant, or if he must, he will brew it himself. In the meantime, she can feel her hair growing more gray with each useless string of words leaving Jin ZiHan’s mouth. A nap in a secluded garden, thick with the scent of peonies, is exactly what she needs right now.
“The arrangements can be settled between the concerned parties at leisure,” she says loudly.
Her voice, long schooled to cut across the din of useless flapping of self-important men, leaves silence in its wake. She uses this silence to turn to Lan XiaoChun, and bow her head slightly.
“I offer the hand of the Nie Sect Leader to either of the Jades of Lan. I will let you decide which one is more… suitable to the task. Now, if you will excuse me, these old bones must rest.”
The shocked silence follows her out of the meeting hall, but her thoughts are already elsewhere. She is looking forward to Lan XiaoChun’s attempts to wriggle out of the offer very much, but this is a battle for another day, one she will win with little effort. Now however, a long nap under the plum blossoms is infinitely more appealing.
A few days later, she takes herself to Cloud Recesses.
She does not announce her intention to visit prior to arriving at the gates. She has always enjoyed watching Lan QiRen become flustered when his precious hospitality rules are not being executed to the letter. It has been half a century since she had stepped foot in Cloud Recesses (her bones are no longer forgiving of the cold mountain winds), but she is not surprised to find an additional thousand rules carved into the rock.
Oh, but if the Heavens were only to love irony above all else, they would love the Lan Sect above all the others.
Not much else has changed, except a distinct presence of two fluffy creatures chasing each other across the green lawns, a sight that is both delightful and utterly unexpected. She watches them for some time, her brothers patiently still behind her. There is a soft giggle from one of the serving girls, quickly stifled by her companions, but MeiLing does not find it improper. Rabbits in Cloud Recesses are indeed something to giggle about.
Lan QiRen finds her moments later, two elders at his shoulder. Only someone who knows him well can see his discomfort at her presence, and she does not intend to put him at ease.
He bows deeply, the elders behind him following suit.
“Pets are forbidden at Cloud Recesses,” she says, and watches Lan QiRen twitch.
Lan XiaoChun is not one of the elders sent to receive her. Not that she had expected his presence. He would have doubtlessly voiced his disapproval already, then withdrawn into some horridly stark excuse for living quarters, intent on meditating these unsuitable marriage prospects out of existence. The Lan men might be as strong as the mountains, but just like the mountains, it took an act of Heavens to get them to move.
“Lady Nie, you presence is an unexpected pleasure,” Lan QiRen says.
“It is an honor to welcome you,” the elder on the right intones.
“Truly a delight,” the one on the left adds.
She huffs. They must think her a steamed bun, to blow so much hot air in her direction all at once.
“You must have had a long journey,” Lan QiRen goes on, “May I offer you some tea?”
Tea, she accepts readily. Unless the Gusu Lan cuisine has markedly improved over the last century, tea is likely to be the only palatable nourishment within these walls.
She lets them escort her to a cushion that leaves much to be desired in terms of comfort, and fuss over her until her patience starts wearing thin. The tea is passable, the conversation dull. But in the end, she is rewarded with the sight of the two boys she had come to see.
The eldest Jade of Lan is lovely to be sure, and built properly as all Lan men tend to be; their height and width of shoulder can hardly be matched in the cultivation world, and she had admired many a Lan in her day precisely for these attributes. His voice is gentle, and his smile distressingly genuine. She does not think he is soft, but he gives every appearance of pliability. That will not do.
The younger boy is eerily similar to his brother, but there is a type of stiffness to him that only the righteous youth of the Lan Sect could perceive as an admirable trait. His gaze is pale and cool, impossible to read. There is a dignity to his bearing that many men twice his age do not possess. He might do, she thinks, but neither is precisely what she wanted.
They both appear fragile in different ways. She cannot guess which one would be less likely to shatter under the onslaught of the infamous Nie temper.
After the boys are dismissed, Lan QiRen plucks at his beard, as if composing a long-winded soliloquy on the benefits and downfalls of the marriage union. MeiLing, who had never married herself, has no interest in hearing his thoughts on the subject.
“The younger boy seems suitable,” she says instead, and watches Lan QiRen’s forehead cloud.
“WangJi has received an offer from Jiang FengMian’s adopted son.”
Now, this is an unexpected development, one MeiLing may truly enjoy.
“CangSe SanRen’s boy?” she asks, and has the pleasure of seeing the old goat turn sour at the mere mention of the name.
“Of course,” Lan QiRen goes on, “the Nie Sect Leader takes precedence. An adopted son of the YunMeng Jiang Sect must give way.”
“I would not dare gainsay the Violet Spider,” she says with a smile that does not need to be faked, “After all, they are closer in age, and likely to be better suited. Do not worry yourself, Sect Leader, the older boy will do just as well.”
He talks some more, as men always do when there is nothing of value left to say. The decision has been made, and she takes her leave sooner than courtesy demands, citing the damp mountain air as the cause. In truth, she wants a meal that does not taste like boiled cabbage, and perhaps some of that famous Emperor’s Smile, none of which is she likely to see at Cloud Recesses.
She had spent very little time in the last few decades among the Sects and Clans, their petty squabbles always tiresome beyond belief. However, she dearly wants to see that stiff Gusu Lan boy navigate a marriage union with CangSe SanRen’s wild brat. She thinks this will surely be a type of entertainment worthy of any exertion.
MingJue takes the news better than she had expected. His temper tantrum only shatters a few stone posts, Baxia whipping over the heads of his cowering advisors. They scurry away as cowards that they are, and she is left to enjoy her tea without their irritating presence. MingJue paces and rants some more, his anger already giving way to complaints at the sheer inconvenience of it all, the ridiculousness of forging alliances through marriage, and the injustice of the system that requires he marry a person he has never met.
Well, fiddle·dee·dee, she thinks to herself. As if every Sect Leader’s daughter in the history of time has not already voiced those same complaints.
Finally, he settles opposite her, fury dissipating for the time being. They drink their tea in silence, a few brave servants shuffling back and forth. He is young still, and if he can only avoid fighting a war in this lifetime, she thinks he may have a few good decades before the inevitable comes.
She does feel for him. No son should ever have to bury his father so young, nor shoulder an entire Sect. But there is no use in crying over things that cannot be changed.
“The eldest Jade of Lan,” he says stiffly, “was to be the next Gusu Lan Sect Leader. Why would Lan QiRen allow this marriage to take place?”
She cannot help but snort at his words,
“You are not stupid, child. If the QiShan Wen raise an army tomorrow, who would stand against them? The world at peace seeks philosophers and poets. The world at war seeks butchers. Take what is offered, and be grateful.”
“You give me two Sects to protect instead of one,” MingJue says bitterly, “and another burden I must carry. You will have to forgive, if gratitude escapes me at the moment.”
“A husband should not be a burden.”
The incredulous gaze he sends her way is more explicit than any words. Perhaps it is a little bold of her to exalt the benefits of marriage. But she is old and can do as she pleases, and he is not brave enough to accuse her of hypocrisy.
Another period of silence follows. The servants, decidedly more confident now, start sweeping up dust and carrying away broken stones.
“He has agreed to this?” MingJue finally says, his gaze not meeting hers.
“The Sect elders have agreed. The Lan Elders have agreed. Lan QiRen has agreed.”
His palm meets the surface of the table with force, rattling the tea cups,
“That is not the question I asked.”
She sighs. Such histrionics over such a small matter. She cannot see what difference it makes; the first Jade of Lan is no temperamental Nie youth that must be beaten into submissions. Those who willingly submit to three thousand idiot rules carved into a rock are unlikely to raise a fuss over an advantageous marriage offer.
“He has agreed to begin the process,” she says diplomatically, “the rest will be of your own doing. You cannot take back the offer made, without insulting the entire Gusu Lan Sect. But I suppose, if you are truly against this marriage, you can find ways to make yourself displeasing to him.”
This is not an option he has considered before, and she immediately regrets planting that thought in his head.
“You must know,” she says, her voice stern, “the first Jade of Lan has a sweet temperament, and an infinitely kind nature. He does not deserve to be mistreated simply because you cannot reconcile to an idea of marriage. If you cannot treat him with courtesy and consideration, tell me now. I will not force that child into a life of hostility and indifference.”
Renewed fury flashes in his eyes,
“Do you take me for a savage?”
“I take you for a man who does not know how to harness his temper.”
“I would not mistreat him,” MingJue growls, all thoughts of breaking the agreement apparently forgotten.
“Good,” she murmurs into her cup.
Perhaps she should sit with the First Jade of Lan before this marriage takes place, and impart some wisdom. He may not be willing to pound his new husband into the dirt, but she could teach him a thing or two about swaying Nie men to his purpose.
The First Jade of Lan, Lan Huan, courtesy name Lan XiChen, the most beautiful Young Master of the known cultivation world, is as calm as a warm summer day.
The past few months have been demanding, requiring frequent meditation, and near-constant improvisations of his customary breathing techniques. He has discovered a great many things about himself however, and he strives to be grateful for such life lessons, as he had not had the opportunity to learn them in the past.
For example, he has learned that prolonged stress will cause him to grind his teeth at night, and so severely, that for two days after receiving the betrothal letter, he could not speak without severe pains in his jaw. He does still believe that it was perfectly reasonable of him to expect to be told of his engagement before the arrival of the betrothal letter. Since such an arrangement could have hardly been possible without him, some prior notification would have been welcome. However, by the time the betrothal letter had arrived, all the necessary permissions had already been given, the Elders had all agreed, and the first set of betrothal gifts had already been en route to Cloud Recesses. There was very little left to say on Lan XiChen’s part, and he supposes he should be grateful that the state of his jaw had prevented any momentary and unflattering thoughts from being spoken out loud.
He has also learned that he is very much uncomfortable with opulence. For months after he had learned of his upcoming marriage, gifts had arrived at Cloud Recesses almost daily, each set more extravagant than the last. Having seen the Unclean Realm twice in his entire life, XiChen has always thought of it as a stark, foreboding place, unlikely to produce such rivers of silk, or such extravagant amounts of silver and jade. Although the Elders seem pleased that Nie MingJue has “properly grasped the honor of this particular marriage arrangement,” XiChen still thinks that such lavish gifts are unnecessary. He certainly will not have use for the tenth of the gifts received, and even that tenth consists of small, useful items, such as a beautiful set of calligraphy brushes, and a few intricately carved hair ornaments.
He has learned that he has little to no say in anything, which, after all, is not much different from the way things are usually decided. However, throughout the long process, Nie MingJue was consulted more than once, despite the fact that he is in QingHe, and that full seven days are needed for the messages to travel between him and Cloud Recesses. An auspicious date their wedding day may be, but it is also one of the shortest days of the year. This particular inconvenience had caused no less than three shouting matches among the Elders, all within sights of the “no shouting in Cloud Recesses” rule. Some of the Elders had suggested postponing the wedding day to a different season altogether. Others had recommended foregoing the traditional travel methods, as if a hundred Gusu Lan Sect members, weighed down with wedding clothes and accessories, could just fly their swords for seven days straight. Finally, it was determined that the Nie Sect will not come to collect Lan XiChen as the custom demands, but that the Gusu Lan procession will arrive in QingHe day before the wedding, and take residence at one of Nie estates.
Lan XiChen has learned that he has decided feelings about preparing for his wedding day in an unfamiliar place, and that none of those feelings are pleasant. He has learned that WangJi will not be allowed to perform the ceremonial hair brushing, because the Elders insist on tradition, and that instead, his father’s cousin’s sister by marriage has been selected for the task, a woman he has never met in his life. He has learned that the dowry had been sent without anyone informing him, and that he will not be allowed to hide behind the red veil on his wedding day, because that is the one tradition the Elders decided could be abandoned.
He has learned that his inner harmony and tranquility are quite dependent on situation, and that he will make a terrible, disobedient husband. That the entire concept of marriage, as it stands, must be a well-honed torture technique, and that he must have done something terrible in his past life to deserve it, since in this one, he is hardly allowed to do anything at all, and–
“XiChen, are you well?”
His brother’s voice is low, and does not carry. Still, XiChen furtively glances around the empty hall, to ensure that no one else has witnessed his momentary tension. He is calm. He is perfectly calm, breathing deeply, hands not clutching his robe.
“I am perfectly well, WangJi. Only a little nervous, as should be expected.”
He had packed all of his belongings the day before, and early that same morning, they had been sent ahead of the wedding party to QingHe. This, at least, had been left to him alone, although he had half-expected to wake one morning and find all of the Elders in his bedchamber, discussing which books and underclothes he was allowed to take to QingHe.
Perhaps there was no need to take all of his books, but no one could tell him the state of the QingHe Nie library, and certain texts had always brought him more comfort than knowledge. It is possible that he may find himself in some serious need of comfort, at least during his first few weeks in a new and unfamiliar household. He has checked his qiankun pouch half a dozen times already, ensuring that the few items he was unwilling to send ahead are all present and accounted for, and he half-dreads being asked about it by uncle, who has been nearly tyrannical about the only appropriate clothing Lan XiChen is to wear in the days following the wedding.
There is a small, willful voice in the back of his head, hoping that his new husband provides him with Nie-appropriate clothing the moment they are wed. This would effectively negate all of Lan QiRen’s plans, which of course, amount to XiChen flaunting the superior elegance of the Lan Sect robes in front of the entire Unclean Realm, something that is surely not going to endear him to people he is supposed to consider his new kin.
“XiChen,” WangJi says again, and although his voice sounds no different, XiChen can tell that his little brother is worried.
“I am perfectly well,” he says again, “I see another letter has arrived from Young Master Wei this morning. Is this the third letter he has sent?”
WangJi looks away, the tips of his ears turning red, and XiChen feels a faint flood of guilt. He had reacted defensively, and for no other reason than a continued, unrelenting worry about his own inadequacy to deal with the task at hand. Oh, but he will make a terrible husband.
“Fourth,” WangJi says, disapproval clear in his voice.
“It might help if you were to answer one of them,” XiChen prompts, and watches that stubborn, unrelenting line, form itself between his brother’s eyebrows.
“They are frivolous,” WangJi declares firmly, as if frivolous letters are the worst thing one can receive from his husband-to-be.
XiChen had met Young Master Wei once, many years ago, during the same Discussion Conference that had first introduced him to Nie MingJue. XiChen, as a future Sect Leader, had been required to sit at his uncle’s right shoulder, and absorb everything that is said among the other Sect Leaders. He remembers finding Sect Leader Nie entirely too intimidating for a boy that is only three years older than himself. However, this is to be expected from a youth who had received his courtesy name two years earlier than other boys his age. At fifteen, Nie MingJue had already been a Sect Leader for two years, and had already adopted the countenance of someone throughly fed up with the entire cultivation world.
Young Master Wei, on the other hand, had not been required to attend any of the actual discussions, but had spent his days playing with the other second and third young masters. XiChen remembers him as a lively youth who smiled a lot, and laughed readily, his boisterous voice often the loudest one that could be heard in the Nie practice yard. But he had also seemed slightly fragile, his laughter at times a little too loud, his smiles a little too wide.
“People display their trepidations in many different ways,” XiChen says kindly, “Perhaps Young Master Wei is only trying to ease his own nerves by writing of frivolities. In his mind, he is leaving the only home he has ever known to marry a person who may not like him, or may not even want to marry him. Be kind to him, WangJi. I think he may be a lot more fragile than he appears to be in those letters.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, XiChen knows that he is no longer speaking of Young Master Wei. He is quite certain that WangJi knows it as well.
Clearing his throat, he gets to his feet,
“I believe I will rest for a while. Tomorrow will be tiring.”
The best thing about the entire wedding ceremony, Nie MingJue has decided, is that it only happens once. He would rather die than repeat the process again, and if he were forced to repeat it, he would likely die too poor to afford funeral clothes.
Over the last few months he has found great many things to be irritated by, starting with MeiLing, and ending with his own brother, who had memorized entirely too many wedding rules and regulations for someone who is, in Lan QiRen’s own words, “the worst student he has ever taught.” If Nie HuaiSang had devoted half as much energy to his saber training as he has devoted to this wedding, he would have surpassed Nie MingJue a thousand times over.
But in some way, MeiLing is worse, despite being less present. She would sweep in, a tiny terrifying force, and upend the entire Unclean Realm before Nie MingJue was even told that she had darkened his doorstep. First, it was the wedding date, then the food, then his wedding clothes and hair ornaments, then the seating and the food again, then the people tasked with building the marriage bed, then the estate in which the Gusu Lan Sect was to spend the night after their arrival in QingHe, then–
In the middle of receiving numerous reports about QiShan Wen having moved an additional thousand li into the ShuDong territory, he was forced to abandon military strategy planning in order to personally inspect this estate, as if his future husband was not going to spend twelve hours there at most.
Mei Ling had an ever-growing list of complaints about every single thing she laid her eyes on, and the last had been his future husband’s private bedchamber.
If Nie MingJue is to be perfectly honest, he had harbored many of the same thoughts she had voiced. Private bedchambers were for undeclared concubines, not lawful marriage partners, and even the simple act of preparing one for Lan XiChen could be seen as an insult, even if he were never to make use of it. But Nie MingJue is entering into a marriage that is first and foremost an alliance with another Sect. It is a political move, and one made out of necessity, or so he has been told more times than he can actually count. In the case of such a marriage, his future husband may not want to share his bed, and may prefer to have a space of his own. Happiness and comfort of a man that he is to spend his remaining years with had, at the time, seemed more important than some dusty, long-held traditions of where concubines may or may not sleep.
All of these thoughts had been perfectly reasonable and logical when he had ordered the chamber prepared, and tasked HuaiSang with ensuring that the space was as close to Cloud Recesses in beauty and comfort, as could be managed in such a place as the Unclean Realm. However, all these perfectly logical reasons were nowhere to be found when MeiLing laid into everyone around her with that acid tongue of hers, and instead, Nie MingJue had cut his favorite tea table clear in half, and threatened to break the marriage agreement.
Needless to say, MeiLing is currently drinking tea off his second favorite table, and although the subject of the private bedchamber had been dropped, he now must face the the failure of not having his husband’s new wardrobe ready in time for the wedding.
“You should not have left HuaiSang in charge of everything,” she says, “An entire wedding cannot be planned by a sixteen year-old child.”
“He insisted,” MingJue says, hating the petulant note in his own voice, “And he has done an admirable job.”
“Except for the clothes,” she says.
He will need a long session in the practice yard after this. He hopes Nie ZongHui feels up to it, because MingJue needs to fight something, and that something cannot be MeiLing.
“The girls will just have to work a bit harder to get them finished in time,” she says.
The girls being a total of twelve Nie Sect seamstresses, each one at least twenty years older than MingJue himself, and each one terrifying in her own way. MingJue would rather fight a war than have to tell those twelve women to work faster. He may not be as politically savvy as some of the other Sect Leaders, but even he knows that you do not anger your seamstresses, not unless you want your underclothes to arrive with six “forgotten” pins, each one perfectly placed to stab you in the behind.
“I am sure that the First Jade of Lan will not be arriving to Unclean Realm without clothes,” he says.
“No, he will not be. He will be arriving with an entire wardrobe especially prepared by the Gusu Lan Sect to show all the ways in which Lan XiChen is marrying beneath his station.”
“He is marrying beneath his station,” MingJue retorts, feeling mulish.
“That may be so, but we certainly do not need to make an exhibit out of it, do we?”
MingJue straightens his spine, squares his shoulders, and looks her straight in the eye,
“I am not going to ask the seamstresses to work faster.”
“Suit yourself,” MeiLing says breezily, picking up her teacup, “I am sure your husband will feel very comfortable in the Unclean Realm, stuffed in his Cloud Recesses room, and wearing his Cloud Recesses clothes. It is every man’s dream, after all, to feel an outsider in his husband’s home, the moment the wedding night is concluded.”
Later on, Nie MingJue regrets the loss of his second favorite table, but not as much as he regrets having to confront twelve hard-faced women, each holding at least six zhang worth of heavy silver brocade in her lap. He apologizes approximately three times, and bows before leaving the embroidery hall, but he knows he will pay for this dearly, some day in the future, and probably when he least expects it.
XiChen sleeps poorly the night before his wedding, and is awake long before his customary time. WangJi knocks softly on his door around five in the morning, and finds him sitting up by the window, staring out into the darkness.
The estate is a lovely one, all while staying true to the Nie Sect design and colors. In the Unclean Realm, the dark grays and greens are heavy against the background of stones and steel, never truly letting you forget that the main seat of the Nie Sect is first and foremost a fortress. The estate, however, must have been designed with warmer months in mind. As such, it resembles a home of a high-ranking magistrate or a military official; sparsely decorated and far from opulent, but very comfortable nonetheless. At least, XiChen does not feel as if the walls and ceiling are pressing down on him here, they way they are sure to do in the Unclean Realm.
He has spent the night alone with his thoughts, which are all highly anxious and melancholy in nature.
He is no child, to shed tears for leaving home, but even so, a deep sadness had settled in his chest. The loss of the Sect Leader title, and the responsibility that the title carries, is a loss he can easily bear; WangJi is certainly just as capable, and his temperament will prove more fitting to the role. But he had never imagined a day when he could no longer think of Cloud Recesses as his home.
Despite having had months to make his peace with such an immense alteration to his life and future, he cannot imagine ever seeing the Unclean Realm as a place where he truly belongs.
WangJi joins him without saying a word, and they sit in silence for a while, until they hear the household turn lively. Then they both rise, and attend to their own tasks.
XiChen drinks a little tea as the morning progresses, but does not eat much of anything at all. His stomach is twisted in knots; he would never admit that his anxiety has reached levels of physical discomfort, but WangJi seems to understand, and waylays any good-natured soul who seeks to ambush XiChen with a plate of snacks. The bathing, ordinarily a relaxing, comforting process, is an hour long procedure that requires instruction, and XiChen intends to never speak of it with another human being again, as long as he lives. It takes nearly two hours to wrap him in all the layers of red silk and brocade, and an additional two to brush and arrange his hair.
By then, his future husband and the Nie Sect escort have arrived. XiChen’s heart is in his throat as he steps out of the front entrance, and crosses the short path to the palanquin, keeping his eyes lowered the entire time. He hopes the action is taken as modesty, when in truth, he is afraid that all the anxiety lodged in his abdomen can be seen on his face.
The trip to the Unclean Realm is both too long, and not nearly long enough. XiChen focuses on breathing deeply, and not wrinkling the six layers of cloth crammed in the palanquin with him. The Lan Sect rarely ever rides horses, but nearly a hundred were produced just for this occasion, each pure white, their silver manes brushed until they shone. WangJi places himself firmly to the right of the sedan chair. Each time the wind ruffles the curtains, XiChen can see his brother’s profile by his side. He finds himself pathetically grateful for this small comfort, one he did not ask for, but desperately needed. They are not likely to see each other very often in the months to come, and while WangJi will be busy planning his own wedding, XiChen must devote his time to adapting to his husband’s household.
The Unclean Realm is as dark and foreboding as XiChen remembers it being, despite the lavish decorations, the gold and crimson distinctly out of place among the heavy stones and muted greens. The wedding robes seem more cumbersome than ever, and yet, they provide him with little warmth. His hands feel icy but damp. The winter winds carry a bitter chill this far north, and even the combined scents of the earth and forest are utterly unfamiliar. There is a tiny voice in his head insisting that it is still not too late to change his mind, but he hushes it firmly. Two people are necessary to carry the excess of brocade, and XiChen takes small, careful steps, afraid of tripping over all the layers. Among a sea of faces that are only a blur, HuaiSang’s shining eyes meet his only for a moment. Then he is facing his future husband, and time proceeds at a supernatural speed.
Logically, he knows that they bow, but later, he will only remember it in a vague, dim way, as a dream that begins to fade the moment one is awake. He knows that Nie Mingjue’s dark eyes are watching him carefully, although XiChen only meets his gaze once. The man’s face is unreadable, and he does not smile. XiChen’s hands tremble when he serves the tea, but the Nie Elders are infinitely kind and forgiving of his clumsiness. The banquet goes on forever. He exchanges a quick word with HuaiSang, and many other people he will later not remember. He eats a little, only because his husband places the food in front of him. He does not drink. His husband does not drink. Many of the others do, and as time passes, the din becomes louder, and XiChen’s smile starts to feel painful on his face.
By the time Nie MingJue rises from his seat, there is a dull pain throbbing in XiChen’s temples, and he has never felt so exhausted in his life. As they leave the banquet hall, the Nie Sect disciples close ranks behind them, stopping the well-wishers from spilling out into the hall. That is another tradition broken, but XiChen is happy for it; what he does is no longer the concern of the Lan Sect. Any tradition broken or upheld is now for his husband to decide, and XiChen thinks Nie MingJue only serves the tradition on those occasions it will serve him back.
The trip to their wedding chambers is silent. XiChen is not exactly dreading whats to come, but his nerves are strung tight, and the pain in his head is not abating. It suddenly seems ridiculous to him, that such a day, with so many trials, and so many intricate, nerve-wrecking rules, should be expected to conclude in a marriage bed. Such a day, even if shared among two people in love, is sure to end in anything but a satisfying session of lovemaking. How is he to navigate this with a complete stranger? He has never felt less desirable in his life, nor less capable of pleasing someone else.
Too soon, the doors to their wedding chambers are in front of them, and then the bed itself, a beautifully built frame of dark, heavy wood, large enough to sleep five men comfortably, side by side. XiChen feels himself freeze in place, no longer able to fall back on instruction.
Only now, he admits to himself that this had been the true source of all his panic. All else can be learned, practiced, repeated until perfected. This, he had no reference for, no knowledge of, and he is sure, all over again, that he must be a disappointment, and that Nie MingJue will regret his decision to marry XiChen before the night is over.
Although he is fairly certain that his face gives none of this away, Nie MingJue takes his elbow, and steers him gently to the privacy screen at the far end of the room. Grateful to be left alone, XiChen breathes deeply, his head throbbing in tandem with his heartbeat. The wedding clothes would be more easily shed with another set of hands, and his are now trembling, each hoop and sash impossibly difficult to undo. He does not wish for assistance, however, and he hopes that Nie MingJue is more patient than his reputation would make it seem. Removing the hair ornaments is the last difficult task, and once his hair is free of bindings and flowing loosely around his shoulders, the pain in his head seems to ease.
He washes his face with warm water, bypassing the numerous oils and scents arranged neatly by the basin. The night robes left for him are not scarlet, but a deep silvery gray of the Nie Sect, the material light and soothing against his skin.
Leaving the safety of the privacy screen, he feels no more prepared for what is to come, but for the first time since the heavy layers of cloth had settled on his shoulders that morning, he feels like himself. Nie MingJue’s night robes are a deep, dark green, the color of the moss along a river’s edge. He looks imposing and stern, even with his hair loose, and XiChen finds that he cannot meet his eyes.
He should smile. He should be warm and welcoming. Instead, he shivers, unaccustomed to the cold of the stone floors.
“It has been a long day,” Nie MingJue says, his voice low, “You should rest.”
For a few breaths, XiChen is frozen in place. He feels both dismay and gratitude, but most of all a deep sadness, and a disappointment in himself that is painfully familiar. But he obeys the instruction, sliding to the far side of the bed, and expecting his husband to do the same.
He waits for some time, but the bed remains empty, and although he eventually does fall asleep, he does so alone.
Nie MingJue has met Lan XiChen before, more than once, or so he keeps being told by people who remember it better than he does.
He, in turn, vaguely remembers meeting him only once, at some Discussion Conference, when Lan XiChen could not have been older than ten or twelve. It is hard to imagine an adult from that fleeting recollection, and MingJue does not try. He has been told, many times, that Lan XiChen ranks first in beauty among all the Young Masters of the cultivation world. He is not exactly skeptical of this fact, but the little Jin brat apparently ranks third, so by all rights, MingJue should be suspicious of this ranking system as a whole.
It matters little, in terms of their marriage. MeiLing would point out that there is a certain type of prestige which automatically comes with marrying someone handsome in appearance, but had MingJue ever been allowed to compile a list of requirements for his ideal spouse, beauty would likely land pretty low. There are many things a spouse is required do well, and most are dependent on their disposition, intellect, and forbearance. Natural beauty does tend to inspire a more favorable first impression, which may supplant some other deficiencies. MingJue has been informed that Lan XiChen does not have any deficiencies, a fact that is highly improbable, but extremely alarming if true.
As he stands patiently in the courtyard of the estate, waiting for Lan XiChen to appear, he finds himself hoping very much that his new husband has some deficiencies, otherwise he will be marrying beneath his station in more than one area. MingJue is quite aware of his own imperfections, a benefit of being raised in a clan that favors blunt honesty over dissembling, and he would hate to disappoint Lan XiChen by being unequal to him in every possible way.
Lan XiChen finally step over the threshold, and MingJue has one, very clear, very bright thought.
His future husband crosses the courtyard without looking up, eyes lowered, red silk fluttering in the breeze, and is hidden by the palanquin drapes long before Nie MingJue is capable of having any other thoughts. He does not notice that he is still standing in the same place, long moments after the palanquin is ready to move, after Lan QiRen has greeted him and not received a response, after more than one of his own men starts to glance at him in askance.
He is being rude and he does not care. A few moments are necessary to process what he had just seen, but he has still not done so by the time ZongHui decides to take the situation into his own hands by ordering everyone to mount up.
They are half-way to the Unclean Realm by the time he realizes that he is angry. All the arrogance and disdain coming so loud and clear from all of the Lan Sect Elders for the last few months now seems almost justified. Are they all so truly afraid of war, so anxious to connect themselves with someone more powerful, to marry someone like Lan XiChen to someone like MingJue?
MingJue does not hold a low opinion of himself, but he understands his own place in the world. The brutal honesty so ingrained in his day-to-day life has never allowed him any pretense of physical beauty or superiority. After all, he has seen his own reflection many times. Had his father not died so early, and had he, himself, been allowed to remain a Young Master longer, his name would have still never made the list of the most beautiful Young Masters of the cultivation world.
And Lan XiChen is flawless. Although physical perfection has never before awoken any feeling in him, other than fleeting admiration, MingJue now understands that he has never truly seen a beautiful human being before. In fact, “beautiful” seems such a poor, insufficient word to describe the man he had just seen, the man whose face would make gods weep in envy.
The man who is going to tie himself to Nie MingJue for the rest of his life.
He is very well aware that Lan QiRen’s brightest pupil did not receive his title by being the man’s favorite nephew. He is aware that the last two Discussion Conference night-hunts were won by Lan XiChen without contest, only his younger brother coming even close to him in rank. He is aware that Lan XiChen is known for his impeccable manners, his kind nature, his patience and forbearance. All of those combined with the face he just saw amount to a human being that could have had the Empire on its knees just for asking. And instead, he is marrying Nie MingJue of the QingHe Nie Sect.
He does not understand why Lan XiChen would ever agree to this arrangement, unless he was ordered, instead of being asked.
MingJue is not angry, he is furious on Lan XiChen’s behalf.
This fury does not quite abate by the time they reach the Unclean Realm, but it lowers down to a dangerous simmer. He watches Lan XiChen carefully, noticing his slight shiver when the wind picks up, the infinite care with which he takes the steps to the hall, so the lovely lines of his weeding robes never fall into an unflattering shape. Everything the young man does is exquisite, precise, and perfectly executed. They perform their bows, and composure never leaves his expression. Whatever emotion he may feel, none of it is evident on his face. The only time their eyes meet, Lan XiChen’s are dark and unreadable, and quickly lowered again.
His hands tremble while pouring the tea, and it is the first hint of the state of his nerves. MingJue thinks that if any of the Elders dare be anything but perfectly kind and gracious, he will leap over the tables, and cheerfully disembowel the entire lot of them. Thankfully, this is not necessary, but by the time the banquet starts, he is convinced that Lan XiChen’s tranquil demeanor is not likely to hold up for many more hours.
They do not speak to each other, as the custom demands they speak to a thousand other people, a task Lan XiChen seems to excel at, and one MingJue finds tiresome at best. As the hours pass, however, Lan XiChen’s face seems to grow more pale, his charming smiles for the well-wishers no longer coming as easily as they had in the beginning. Even as he rises from his seat, MingJue knows that they are leaving the banquet too early, and that many inappropriate jokes and whispers will spread in their wake. He does not care if the entire cultivation world thinks him too hasty to reach his own wedding bed. There is now a tiny, barely perceptible line in-between Lan XiChen’s eyebrows, and Nie MingJue cannot possibly guess what it means, but he thinks it is safe to assume that the banquet is no longer pleasing to his husband.
He motions to his disciples as he leads Lan XiChen out of the banquet hall, and hears them block the entrance in two rows, as if preparing for a battle. In the QingHe Nie, loyalty has always come before tradition. The guests are not aware of this yet, but any who think that the wedding chamber will be open to visitors, will find themselves with three chi of Nie steel permanently impaled through their abdomen.
MingJue has no intention of following any of the other traditions either. The fact that Lan XiChen freezes at the sight of the marriage bed stokes MingJue’s fury all over again, but he gently steers the man to the privacy screen, hoping he can regain some composure in solitude.
His own wedding clothes have long passed the point of being cumbersome, and he is relieved to shed their weight. It is hard imagine how many more layers Lan XiChen had been forced into, and how exhausting it must have been, managing them all day long. He is struck all over again by the absurdity of wedding clothes, which neither of them are likely to ever look at again.
He waits patiently for Lan XiChen to emerge from behind the privacy screen, but finds himself utterly unprepared for the sight.
Lan XiChen is wrapped in a soft gray robe, his hair loose around his shoulders, his eyes downcast. Had MingJue really thought him beautiful before? He is devastating.
Just for a moment, an unwelcome, distasteful instant, he cannot help but imagine how it would feel, to have Lan XiChen’s hair sliding though his fingers. What it would be like, if their marriage was one of affection, if Lan XiChen was to welcome him with a smile. What would a flush of desire look like, spread across Lan XiChen’s flawless skin.
Lan XiChen shivers, his hands almost imperceptibly tightening in the folds of the robe, and MingJue suddenly feels ill at the images his mind had conjured.
“It has been a long day,” he says, “You should rest.”
For a few long breaths, Lan XiChen does not move, as if he had not quite understood MingJue’s words. Just as MingJue is about to repeat them, however, he moves towards the bed, crawling in slowly, and curling up at the far end, leaving a space large enough for four grown men. Once he is settled, the curtains fully hide him from MingJue’s sight.
MingJue thinks that is probably for the best. It will be a long time before he is calm enough to sleep.
His first morning, XiChen wakes alone in the bed, in an empty room.
He does not have the time to feel relieved or abandoned. There is not a single moment of that first day that is his own, aside from those few precious moments in the early morning, and even those are consumed by details to which he had never assigned much importance before. It is a relief to find that the robes he is expected to wear are already laid out for him, three layers of mist-gray silk, delicately embroidered with the Nie Sect crest in silver and white. But everything else, from his hair ornaments to his waist pendants, is left to his discretion, and he spends entirely too much time trying to find a balance between the simplicity he prefers, and the type of elegance required from a Sect Leader’s spouse.
First, he must offer prayers to the ancestors, then he must be formally introduced to Nie MingJue’s family, receive ceremonial gifts from each member, then the midday tea, after which he must sit alongside his husband to observe the “friendly” Sect competitions in archery, and sword fighting, and hand-to-hand combat, then another banquet, greeting more well-wishers, and smiling, and smiling, and–
The second night Lan XiChen lies awake for a long time, despite his tiredness. An hour past the time he would ordinarily be asleep, Nie MingJue settles down, very carefully, on the opposite side of the bed. The bed is large enough where he may as well have settled in a different room altogether, and still kept the same distance between them, but XiChen still feels a tight coil of anxiety in his stomach.
He has managed not to worry about this part of his marriage duty for the majority of the day. Now, he can think of nothing else. Keeping his breaths deep and even, he recalls the few instances they had spoken to each other, apprehensively analyzing every word. It would be a stretch to say that any type of conversation was actually had; there had always been other people present, other things that required attention. He cannot help but wonder if he is the problem. He is not even sure how to go about initiating a private conversation with a man he has married, let alone how to go about initiating an activity of a more… intimate type. He cannot even be certain that this is something Nie MingJue would want. Perhaps nothing of such nature will ever occur between them. Perhaps Nie MingJue simply does not find XiChen appealing. For all XiChen is aware, there may be a mistress somewhere in the Unclean Realm, one who has been with Nie MingJue for years, and whose existence Nie MingJue may choose not to disclose.
Each worry somehow seems larger than the one before it, and he is still awake when Nie MingJue rises, having slept four hours at most. Once the room is empty again, XiChen manages to fall asleep, only to be woken by his internal clock minutes later.
The second day, HuaiSang attaches himself to XiChen’s side early in the morning, and refuses to be waylaid by anyone else. Somehow, he steers XiChen past the few unpleasant Elders of both Sects, manages to ensure that XiChen eats without being disturbed, then irritates Lan QiRen long enough for XiChen to be able to exchange a few quiet words with his brother. He does all of this with ease that seems completely unintentional, as if he has somehow unwittingly stumbled upon a way to make XiChen’s day a little more bearable. It is the type of maneuvering XiChen had often seen in action by well-established Sect Leader’s wives, and although the comparison is outlandish, XiChen supposes that he should not be surprised. After all, Nie MingJue has no one else by his side who could have so easily absorbed this particular skill set, and put it to good use.
Although he is grateful, he cannot help but feel guilty for the way he has judged HuaiSang’s temperament in the past. Seeing him at Cloud Recesses year after year, perpetually distracted, utterly unwilling to retain any information he found uninteresting, falling asleep during lectures, painting fans instead of studying, XiChen had simply assumed him to be an overindulged child, and not a particularly astute one either. The fact that he had so throughly misunderstood HuaiSang’s character makes him doubt his own powers of observation, yet another worry to add to his ever-growing list.
A night-hunt is scheduled for the afternoon, one that XiChen cannot participate in, but is expected to attend. He fully expects to have his every moment occupied until the event. Therefore, he is very much surprised when HuaiSang announces that he has a family matter to discuss, and with many apologetic smiles, pulls XiChen away.
The Unclean Realm is large, and to XiChen, every hallway looks very much like another. HuaiSang chatters happily as they move along, and most of it is silly, insignificant gossip. But sprinkled among all the frivolous observations, there are instructions on numerous places and chambers XiChen should need to navigate in the future. The main library, the small library, the second small library that is solely devoted to Nie family annals, the Sect Leader’s study, two additional studies, HuaiSang’s own chambers, the small receiving hall, the main practice courtyard, the second practice courtyard, the East wing, currently occupied by the visiting Lan Sect, the visitor’s courtyard–
Within an hour, XiChen is utterly overwhelmed, and no longer sure that he can safely find his way back to the main hall. As if perfectly aware of this, HuaiSang stops, grins, and pulls a scroll from his sleeve, triumphantly waving it for a few moments before pressing it in XiChen’s hands.
“It is a map,” HuaiSang says, “I thought it might be helpful.”
It is more than a map. It is a guide to every area and their use, complete with helpful notes. The Sect Leader Study: Do not disturb when the door is closed; Do not enter between the hours of nine and eleven in the morning. The main practice courtyard: In use from seven in the morning to nine in the morning. In use from one in the afternoon to three in the afternoon. The visitor’s courtyard: Always accessible. The second small library: Always accessible. Even the servant’s halls are listed, each area clearly marked, carrying a set of notes of their own.
The combination of such an unexpected kindness from a boy he had misjudged so severely, on the heels of his sleepless night and overwhelming anxiety, strikes XiChen harder than he could have thought possible. He feels his eyes misting over, and has to look away.
“Thank you,” he says softly, “But I should not need such assistance. I should manage without.”
“Do you think any person new to the Unclean Realms knows how to find anything? The Lan Elders have been wandering around like mice trapped in a maze for two days. Lan HanYing has ended up in the kitchens twice. The cook is beside herself.”
XiChen feels an inappropriate giggle building in his throat and swallows it down,
“In the kitchens?”
“The Unclean Realm was not designed as a Sect Leader’s home,” HuaiSang says, motioning XiChen down another hallway, “It is a fortress, designed with defensive capabilities in mind. The original living spaces were already built in a way that would confuse and misdirect anyone unfamiliar with the layout. But as the Nie Sect grew larger, the Sect Leaders were forced to add more rooms and more courtyards, in any way that the space within the fortress walls would allow. The result is chaotic at best. Although,” he taps his fan against his lips, “there is truly no excuse for Lan HanYing’s blundering into the kitchens. Like all the other servant quarters in every Sect Leader’s home, they are in the located in the back. Perhaps he cannot tell North from South?”
Lan XiChen feels slightly giddy. Lan HanYing is the one who had insisted on tradition for the hair brushing ceremony, and XiChen had been feeling resentful of this fact for many days now. He should not feel happy at someone else’s blunder or shame, but a small part of him does.
They are now back in the section where the wedding chamber is located, but HuaiSang stops at a different door, and grins nervously.
“Da-ge was anxious that you would feel overwhelmed and homesick, since the Unclean Realm is so different from Cloud Recesses. We both thought– well, you might as well see it first.”
He ushers XiChen into the room, and XiChen stops at the entrance, shocked into stillness. It is a large space, and bright, the walls a pale blue of the early summer sky. The stone floors present in most of the rooms XiChen has seen so far are not to be found here; instead, the wide planks of white oak shine as if recently polished. All the wood in the room is pale and simple, as if someone had chosen the most beautiful pieces from Cloud Recesses and transported them to this single chamber. All of the belongings he had sent ahead of the wedding procession are already here. His books are neatly arranged on the shelves. A beautifully built bench, which looks to be perfectly compatible with his height and build, holds his guqin. There are two empty stands, one for ShuoYue, and another for LieBing. There is even a window, when XiChen is fairly certain that none of the rooms on this particular hallway were designed to have one. If he is orienting himself correctly, he believes that the courtyard directly beyond it is the visitor’s courtyard, the only place inside the Unclean Realm where one may encounter greenery. The window is shaded by white curtains, embroidered with the Gusu Lan clouds pattern. They flutter slightly in the breeze, and XiChen catches a faint scent of winter plum flowers.
It is beautiful, and overwhelming. He turns to HuaiSang, not quite sure how to express the sheer depth of delight and gratitude he feels, when his eyes finally land on the privacy screen to the left of the entrance, and an unmistakeable shape it is meant to hide.
A bed. A large bed, built from the same pale wood, shaded by the same white curtains. The sight of it extinguishes his joy forcefully, like a cold splash of water on the back of his neck. He feels his smile falter, and fights to keep it in place.
“Your comfort was our only objective,” HuaiSang says carefully, “Of course, you may use the space as you find convenient, or not at all.”
It is remarkably considerate of HuaiSang to say so, but his words do little to reassure XiChen. If Nie MingJue had intended them to sleep apart, this is hardly a conversation he would have had with his little brother.
“It is lovely,” XiChen says, “It was very kind of you to think of my comfort. Thank you.”
HuaiSang seems to sense XiChen’s disquiet, but asks no questions, and ends their tour of the Unclean Realm shortly after, delivering XiChen back to Nie MingJue’s side just as the night-hunt is about to begin.
Nearly two hours go by, during which XiChen has no opportunity to say more than two words to a man who is now his husband. Each moment that passes further cements in him a belief that any expectation he had previously held must be shattered now. Is this an illustration of his future married life? A few words in passing, a public appearance, and a single bed of his own at the end of each day?
It is simpler this way, he supposes, to know exactly what is required of him. He does not, should not, feel slighted. It is perfectly logical for one to feel no attraction to a stranger, to have little to say when faced with a person whose disposition and temperament are utterly unfamiliar. And yet, XiChen had believed that they would both be equally invested in remedying this lack. That they would strive to learn how to care for each other, the way a married couple should.
“Are you well, XiChen?”
Being addressed startles him, and he looks up in alarm to find Nie MingJue’s full attention on himself, for the first time since their wedding bows. He feels his face grow warm, and tries to recall the last person he had spoken to, the last person Nie MingJue had spoken to, or anything else that occurred right before this very moment. Try as he may, he is drawing a blank.
“I am well,” he says quickly, “Please forgive my inattention.”
He nearly says something about having slept poorly, and manages to clench his teeth before the words escape. Oh, but he is so terrible at this.
“Have you eaten today?” Nie MingJue asks, and now he sounds troubled.
“I have,” XiChen says, wishing the earth would open up and swallow him, “Please do not be concerned. I am only– unused to observing the night-hunts, instead of participating. I am afraid my attention had momentarily wandered away.”
He is afraid that Nie MingJue will ask him if he needs to rest for a while, at which point XiChen might die of shame. Nothing has been required of him so far that could be considered difficult in any respect, and he is furious with himself for failing to perform the simple task of sitting still and paying attention. He can practically feel his uncle’s eyes, although he is settled quite a distance away. If XiChen has given the appearance of being fatigued, or even worse, disinterested in the proceedings, he has failed every basic instruction he had ever received.
Luckily, the score changes at that moment, propelling WangJi to the first place, and an uproar from the Nie Sect disciples drowns out any other words that could be said.
That evening, at yet another banquet, this one celebrating the night-hunt winner, Nie MingJue makes it a point to place more food on XiChen’s plate, and XiChen makes it a point to eat everything that is placed in front of him.
He fully intends to find an opportunity to express his gratitude for being provided with his own chambers. He does not want Nie MingJue to think him unappreciative or dissatisfied. At the same time, he hopes to receive some hint of how he is to proceed, now that he knows a different bed is available to his use. An opportunity never comes, however, and for the third night in the row, he finds himself alone in their marriage bed, mind filled with fears and worries.
Traditionally, on the third day past the wedding ceremony, both Nie MingJue and Lan XiChen would travel back to Cloud Recesses, where yet another celebration would be held.
Tentative plans were made for this trip, but abandoned within the week of the wedding day, and the Lan Sect departs alone, foregoing the slow travel of their arrival, for faster flight on the return. The QiShan Wen had moved another two thousand li into the YangYuan territory, now effectively holding the Northern block, and spreading like locusts northeast and northwest. In the view of this development, the preparations for WangJi’s marriage to Jiang FengMian’s adopted son accelerate, every sect tightening the grip on its allies. No declaration of war has been formally made yet, but it is only a matter of time. Nie MingJue sends out runners, requesting the six of the closest small sects in QingHe meet him as soon as possible, and begins preparations for the inevitable.
In the meantime, HuaiSang firmly attaches himself to Lan XiChen. There are a thousand and one details involved in the day-to-day running of the Unclean Realm, and MingJue is slightly ashamed to admit that most of them exist outside of his awareness. HuaiSang knows them all, and does them unthinkingly, hardly considering them to be work. The major, life-or-death issues, have always gone to MingJue, but the small details rarely catch his attention. In the few days following the departure of the Lan Sect, the plum trees are winterized, the cook’s assistant promoted, another found to take her place, the broken tea tables replaced, the posts repaired, new winter cloaks ordered for those disciples who have outgrown theirs, and it is all done without MingJue’s notice or approval.
Although he has rarely even been aware of these details in the past, MingJue is very much aware of them now, as Lan XiChen seems determined to learn everything as quickly as possible. He often sees them together, his little brother and his husband, conversing quietly over ordering lists, inspecting the courtyards, going through the books in the library, leaving the servant’s quarters with their heads inclined towards one another, as if they have been brothers and companions for years. On one hand, it is comforting to know that Lan XiChen is not lonely. MingJue had never expected the man to slide so quickly into the role of a Sect Leader’s husband, or to approach the duty with so much dedication and intensity. On the other hand, however, he is envious that HuaiSang has a much better claim to his husband’s time.
After HuaiSang had taken Lan XiChen on the tour of the Unclean Realm, MingJue had fully expected to find the marriage bed empty that night, and every night after. But no such thing has yet to occur. Every night, Lan XiChen is curled up on the far side, breathing deeply, hair fanning over the pillows, and every night, MingJue has to resist the urge to shake him awake and ask him why.
Why insist on sharing a bed with a stranger? Is it the impropriety of a separate bedchamber? The fear that the servants will gossip? Sheer stubbornness? MingJue does not know, and not knowing is driving him to distraction. He does not understand any of Lan XiChen’s motivations for anything he does.
Why insist on learning how to run the Unclean Realm, when HuaiSang already has the job well in hand? MingJue is certain that, had he married anyone else, they would have simply allowed things to run as they always had. Why insist on memorizing the names of all the incoming disciples? Half of them will never meet their potential, and be gone by the year’s end. Why personally keep track of all the stock and supplies? Does MingJue not already have two people specifically tasked with that job? Nothing seems beneath Lan XiChen’s notice; as the days go by, he consistently approaches every task with singleminded fearlessness that is both incomprehensible and fascinating.
MingJue finds himself watching him all the time. The way he communicates with servants and disciples, endlessly gracious, but firm in a way MingJue does not know how to be without threatening bodily harm. The way he smiles, each smile distinctly different, an entire language of them, sometimes comforting, sometimes apologetic, sometimes even firmer than his tone. MingJue is awed by the fact that one can get things done with a smile, while XiChen endears himself to the servants, and the cooks, and even the seamstresses, in just a matter of days. MingJue can hear them whispering, admiring XiChen’s sweet nature, his steadfastness, his beauty. It seems impossible that anyone could know him and not admire him.
Not a month goes by before HuaiSang is forced into daily lessons consisting of everything he had never managed to retain at Cloud Recesses. It is as much of a surprise to HuaiSang as it is to MingJue, and his little brother spends two days whining and crying about XiChen being an ungrateful traitor, who is no longer his brother, or any relation at all. In the end, he finds himself defenseless against XiChen’s determined and unwavering persuasion, and commits to two hours each day, followed by alternating music and painting lessons. It is a fair trade, MingJue thinks, and one he never would have thought of himself. HuaiSang has always loved painting, and now he has explicit permission to do so, as long as his other lessons are completed. His proficiency in music leaves much to be desired, but XiChen is patient, and even this area sees some small improvement over time.
In short, there is not a single thing in the Unclean Realm that has not been, in some way, improved by Lan XiChen’s presence, and MingJue cannot help but feel as if he has never been less worthy of the person he had married.
They do speak more often now, although neither of them seem capable of broaching intimate subjects. HuaiSang’s progress is a safe start to any conversation, and although most of the time, they shift to other inconsequential things, MingJue very much enjoys the soft cadence of XiChen’s voice, his easy laughter, his slightly teasing sense of humor. They speak of books, or poetry, or music, any subject that is an easy transition from HuaiSang’s studies. Afterwards, MingJue often finds himself thinking of their conversations when he should be paying attention to other things, and stealing hours he can ill-spare to read a poem XiChen had mentioned, or find a book XiChen had quoted from.
The first time XiChen mentions a book of poetry that the Nie Sect library does not have, MingJue sends out two runners, and has it in hand less than a day later. The following morning, he rises before XiChen as always, and leaves the book on the pillow. XiChen finds him in his study soon after, his smile warm and delighted, and in that moment, MingJue thinks he would be a fool enough to do anything, no matter how impossible, just to see that smile every day of his life.
And then, for the second time, that single, bright thought flashes through his mind, freezing him in place.
Exactly two months from his wedding day, XiChen wakes up at his customary time, to the empty bed, and a silk handkerchief folded on the pillow.
It has been less than a month since he had woken to find a book of poetry in the same place, and hardly a morning has gone by since then, without some gift or another, waiting to be picked up.
Face heating, he sits up in bed, taking care not to wrinkle his night robes. Those had been a gift too, just one among dozens. Books and rare scrolls, pendants and ornaments, belts and sashes, intricately carved combs, every item beautiful, each more personal and dear to XiChen than all the chests of jade and silver that had gone to Cloud Recesses during his betrothal.
They are tokens of appreciation for everything he has done. XiChen knows this well; none of them are lover’s gifts, not in a way they would be if their marriage was based on passion and affection. But his heart beats faster nonetheless, and he cannot help but smile, hands trembling slightly as he reaches for the handkerchief, watching it slither open in his hands.
They had spoken of magnolia trees the day before. A-Sang had brought up the bleakness of the visitor’s courtyard, and how the upcoming spring was a perfect opportunity to transform it into a real garden. Before long, they were discussing the necessary climate for the gardens at Cloud Recesses, and how likely it was that white chrysanthemum and magnolia would take to the soil in the Unclean Realm. Nie MingJue had joined them, only for a few moments, but he must have remembered their short conversation, because the handkerchief is delicately embroidered with a magnolia tree in full bloom.
For a few breaths, XiChen feels overwhelmed. More than the combs, and the books, and the ornaments, a handkerchief is a true lover’s gift, something to be carried by one’s heart. And although he knows MingJue means no such thing by it, XiChen has already determined to keep the handkerchief close by his skin, as it is meant to be carried.
A few times each week, he wakes to emotion he cannot quite shake, a combination of incomprehensible yearning and uncertainty, that ignored, refuses to ease even as the day progresses. On those mornings, he takes himself to the main courtyard while the sky is still dark, and moves through the forms with ShuoYue until harmony envelops him, and he can calmly go on with his duties.
The quickly approaching spring is obvious that morning, the air no longer sharp with chill, and he breathes deeply, for the first time aware that the scents of earth and trees he had found so unfamiliar in the beginning, now carry a certain amount of comfort. He moves through the forms, thinking back to his wedding day and all the anxiety he had carried, all the fears and trepidations, and the bone deep certainty that he would fail.
He has not failed. It is a vulgar practice, to feel too proud of oneself, but XiChen allows himself a slight amount of gratification, thinking it is well-earned. It is no insignificant thing, to be truly appreciated by one’s husband, in a marriage where no pre-existing desire or affection can cushion the inevitable failures. XiChen did not know how to make himself desirable, and this failure, to love as a man should love his husband, and be loved the same way in turn, will always weigh on him. But he knew how to offer comfort and support, how to manage a household, how to ease his husband’s burdens, and in this, he had done well enough to feel a small amount of pride.
Sometimes, he cannot help but wonder how different a marriage could be when two people loved and desired one another. There are moments when he finds himself admiring Nie MingJue’s physical appearance, the width of his shoulders, the strength of his arms, the careless ease with which he fights, each move deadly and beautiful. At those times, it is impossible not to think of the bed they share each night, and the space between them; how easily that space can be bridged, and why Nie MingJue has never made an effort to do so. There have been nights, especially in the last month, as the gifts began to appear on the pillow with increasing frequency, where XiChen has found himself almost brave enough to speak of it, to whisper in the darkness, and to ask why.
He knows MingJue’s nature fairly well now. The blunt honesty and the quickness of temper, the sharp wit and the rigid moral compass. His kindness and consideration, his affection for his little brother, and his devotion to his Sect. There is much to be admired in Nie MingJue. And yet, XiChen spends his nights in silence, on the far side of the bed, never brave enough to ask.
The voice startles him in the middle of a form, and he realizes that the sky has grown light already, the hour long past the time when he should have left the courtyard to the disciples, and their early morning drills. They are all gathered at the entrance, and he thinks they must have been watching him for some time before deciding to speak up. He feels his face heat, and sheathes ShuoYue.
“It seems I have lost the track of time,” he says sheepishly.
“That was incredible,” Nie SuShen exclaims.
They gather around XiChen like children, asking if he would practice with them, if he could teach them this move or that one, all speaking over one another in excitement. XiChen cannot get a word in edgewise, and starts to worry that he has thrown off their entire day routine, when training has always been the one area where Nie MingJue allows no flexibility or room for change.
“What is this?”
Nie MingJue’s voice cuts through the din, and XiChen finds himself freezing like the other disciples, now certain that this is to be his punishment for the gratification he had allowed himself to feel earlier, a not-so-subtle reminder that pride always comes before a fall.
“I am at fault,” he says quickly, before any of the other disciples can speak, “I was running through the forms, and lost track of time.”
“Senior Lan is amazing,” Nie SuShen exclaims, because he is still a child, and has no sense of self-preservation.
Couple of others raise their voices in agreement, as if expecting Nie MingJue to disagree with them.
Nie MingJue glowers at them, and they all fall silent again.
“Lan XiChen is the greatest cultivator of his generation,” Nie MingJue says easily, “He has never been defeated, not in a single duel, not in any of the sect competitions.”
XiChen’s face is so hot now, he thinks it must be glowing like the sun.
“Why do we never see you fight, Senior Lan?” Nie SuShen asks.
“You should spar with us, Senior Lan,” Nie YongZhi exclaims, “we practice and practice, but we rarely ever have a chance to fight someone from a different sect.”
“None of you are skilled enough,” Nie MingJue says, stepping down into the courtyard, “but if my husband is willing, we may spar, so the children can see how it is done.”
Nie MingJue has so rarely issued him an invitation for anything, that XiChen agrees without a thought.
It seems odd, as they start carefully circling each other, that they have never done this before. It should feel unfamiliar, but it does not. Although MingJue knows that XiChen has won often, he has rarely seen him fight. XiChen, on the other hand, has been watching MingJue spar for a couple of months now, and has him at a disadvantage.
Their styles are utterly different. Nie MingJue is significantly stronger, BaXia’s full weight unforgiving when it meets ShuoYue. But XiChen is slightly faster, and more than familiar with the Nie Sect sword forms by now. They are only testing each other in the beginning, both slightly hesitant, neither willing to push too far, too fast. But as neither of them show signs of faltering, their movements become faster, more instinctual, more likely to draw blood. It is utterly exhilarating, to fight with someone who is his equal, and XiChen finds himself smiling, his heart beating harder each time the saber comes close to his skin, each time MingJue twists out of the way in the last moment. He feels better than he has in months, his blood singing, his muscles burning, ShuoYue light in his hand. Oh, they should do this every day. As many times as possible.
BaXia catches the edge of his sleeve, and slices it to his elbow. XiChen reacts without thinking, shifting mid-swing, bringing up ShuoYue’s hilt instead of the blade. It is meant to block MingJue’s wrist, but in the last moment, XiChen realizes that he had miscalculated. MingJue does not step where XiChen had expected him to; he does not move at all, his gaze locked on the torn sleeve, and before XiChen can stop himself, ShuoYue’s hilt catches him in the face.
There is a faint crunch, and XiChen watches, absolutely horrified, as MingJue’s nose begins to gush blood.
For a few moments, everyone is shocked still, the courtyard as silent as death. Then MingJue begins to laugh.
He laughs so hard, that he is soon bent over, blood dripping on the dirt, his shoulder shaking. XiChen drops ShuoYue to the ground and makes himself move, horror still lodged in his throat, incapable of understanding what could be so funny about a broken nose. He grasps MingJue’s arm, pulling him upright. At that moment, he does not think of the handkerchief tucked in his pocket, but he knows the blood must be staunched by something. He gathers up the length of his sleeve, and steadying MingJue’s head with one hand, presses the cloth to his nose.
MingJue hisses, still laughing, and shifts XiChen’s hand better, so the sleeve is not covering his mouth too. His gaze lands on XiChen, and there is something in it that XiChen has never seen before, something that makes his face heat, that makes him very much aware of his other hand cupping the back of MingJue’s head, and the feel of his hair against his palm.
“That was very well done,” MingJue says, “Did I cut your arm?”
“Did– no. How is it well done? I– you are bleeding.”
“This is not the first time my nose was broken,” MingJue says, his voice still filled with good humor, “But it was by far, the most pleasurable one.”
XiChen thinks the heat from his face now must be covering his entire body, and he focuses on stopping the blood flow, no longer capable of meeting MingJue’s eyes.
The disciples gather around them, not as loud and boisterous as they were before, but none of them look nearly as worried as XiChen feels. MingJue pulls a handkerchief of his own from the inside pocket of his robes, and gently lowers XiChen’s hand, so he can press the handkerchief to his nose.
“What lesson have you learned?” MingJue asks them.
“The Lan Sect cheats!” Nie SuShen exclaims, and Nie MingJue chokes out another laugh, this one poorly covered up by a cough.
XiChen wishes the earth would open up and swallow him.
“Close,” MingJue says, “But no. The lesson is, never lose focus. An instant of hesitation can cost you your life. Now, line up. You are an hour behind with your drills. I expect to see you all here for an extra hour, no exceptions.”
A series of groans follows his words, but they move away quickly, probably afraid that any hesitation will extend their practice even longer.
“You should see a healer,” XiChen says, although the blood flow already seems to be slowing down.
“For a broken nose? He will laugh at me.”
XiChen cannot quite look at him yet; too much has happened in too short of a time, and the earlier rush of joy has left him so rapidly, that he feels shaky and unanchored.
MingJue lightly takes a hold of his wrist, the torn sleeve baring the arm to the elbow.
“I was so sure that I had cut you by mistake,” he says softly, “I am glad I did not. If you wish, I will go see a healer, but you should change your robes. The blood may not come out of that sleeve, if it is left in any longer.”
XiChen nods, and gathers up his sword. They part ways at the courtyard entrance, but XiChen feels the imprint of MingJue’s fingers on his wrist for hours afterwards, and finds his hand closing around it often, as if looking for a grip that is no longer there.
Three days later, the QiShan Wen spill into HeJian, and the Sect Leaders declare war.
It takes another three days for them all to gather in the Unclean Realm, and once they arrive, each one is worried about his own Sect, his own territory, each one determined to see the war as another treaty-making opportunity, out of which they mean to gain the most, without suffering any loses. The first day of these discussions is so unbearable, so infuriating, that MingJue swallows his pride, and asks XiChen to play the Song of Clarity in the evening. It is impossible to control his temper in face of so much stupidity, and he is afraid that a single slip-up may cost Sect Leader Yao his useless spine. XiChen asks no questions, and plays for him late into the night, until MingJue feels that he can breathe again.
The second day starts off on a better note. There are finally done with leadership arguments, the majority insisting that Nie MingJue is the only one capable of uniting them. Nie MingJue highly doubts that anyone can unite them, and he could not care less who will actually lead them. Three different reports of Wen movements have arrived since the sun rose that morning, and anything that is not planning for immediate response is, in his opinion, a colossal waste of time they can ill-spare.
He is determined to be patient. But an hour into the disagreement over their positions in YingChuan, Nie YongZhi shows up to inform him that HuaiSang has not yet shown up for the morning drills. Instantly, fury envelops him again, and he sends a servant scurrying to find his worthless little brother, who cannot even do the one simple thing MingJue has asked him to do.
Three days. All he needed to do is run the drills for three days, while MingJue is trapped in hell with the most unbearable group of men in the cultivation world. It is such a simple thing, to stand in the courtyard for two hours in the morning, and shout at disciples who fall out of line.
Moments later, HuaiSang rushes into the hall, XiChen at his back, and bows to the Sect Leaders.
Before MingJue can say anything at all, XiChen bows as well,
“I take full responsibility for A-Sang’s tardiness. I have kept him in the morning lessons too long, and we both lost track of time. Please do not be angry.”
“Do not make excuses for him,” MingJue says.
He wants to be angry at them both, but it is impossible to be angry at XiChen. Just seeing him, his unruffled calm, his tranquil expression, eases the rigid tension across MingJue’s shoulders.
It suddenly occurs to him how ridiculous it is, that half-witted fools like Sect Leader Yao are being listened to, while Lan XiChen, who was to be the next Lan Sect Leader, is teaching MingJue’s hopeless little brother how to play the guqin.
“I am going right now, da-ge,” HuaiSang says quickly, already backing up to the courtyard entrance, “I will keep them longer to make up for the late start. Do not worry.”
With that, he practically runs, and some of the sect leaders chuckle under their breath at the sight.
XiChen turns to go, and MingJue is struck with an inspiration so sudden, he does not let himself think before calling out,
“XiChen, do you have a moment.”
XiChen turns back, an uncertain smile hovering around his lips,
“Of course. What can I do?”
“Take a look at this, and tell us what you think.”
MingJue can see Sect Leader Yao opening his mouth out of the corner of his eye, and shoots him a look so murderous that the old goat should have died on the spot. Whatever he had meant to say, Sect Leader Yao seems to change his mind, his mouth closing with a click.
XiChen approaches the table, on which the map is laid out, only the Wen Sect numbers and positions set in place, as they could not agree on anything else. He studies the map for some time, long enough that a few of the sect leaders begin to whisper among themselves, none of them brave enough to question MingJue, but most of them brave enough to ignore XiChen.
XiChen’s fingers trace the path along the border of ShuDong and YiLing, stop at LaoLing, then turn back. There is a tiny wrinkle in between his eyebrows, the one Nie MingJue knows intimately by now, and he cannot help but think how unreal it still feels, that this man is his husband, that this is someone MingJue is allowed to share his life with.
XiChen’s eyes lift to meet his, and MingJue chases those thoughts away.
“Do you truly wish to know?” XiChen asks, so softly, that it goes unnoticed by others.
XiChen sighs, and nods slightly, and MingJue slaps his palm on the table to get the others to quiet down.
“The large majority of their numbers are in HeJian,” XiChen says, eyes on the map, “There is no good reason for this, except to draw out the QingHe Nie to the north, to fight a battle over mostly uninhibited and worthless territory. Wen RuoHan is counting on MingJue being uncomfortable with their proximity, and expects him to react accordingly.”
“You do not think I should send men there,” MingJue says.
“No. You should take the Nie Sect and the Jiang Sect to the border just beyond KuiZhou. The majority of his force there has crossed the river. I do not think Wen RuoHan would have instructed them to do so; it is likely to be an action of some overenthusiastic commander who has never fought a war before. It looks like their main supply for that force is in MeiShan, and poorly protected. I would strike in three– no, four places at once. But first, I would send the LanLing Jin to the HeJian border.”
An uproar is triggered by his words, and XiChen looks up, his expression surprised, as if he had forgotten that there was anyone else in the hall aside from MingJue and himself.
Jin GuangShan is standing, his beard practically quivering in ire,
“Send my sect to HeJian? Why would I do such a thing? Did you not just say that the Nie should not go there themselves? What do you mean by this?”
“Quiet!” MingJue roars, loud enough to rattle the teacups, “If you can be quiet, instead of shouting like children, perhaps XiChen can explain it in a way you would understand.”
The indignation is palatable, more than one Sect Leader taking the appearance of a goosed chicken, with all their feathers throughly ruffled. Jiang FengMian however, has remained silent and thoughtful, and so has Lan QiRen.
XiChen glances at MingJue one more time, as if looking for reassurance, and goes on,
“There will be no battle at HeJian. Wen RuoHan only intends to draw the Nie Sect there, so he can slice into YiLing before the Jiang Sect has a chance to seek help. Furthermore, he does not mean to cripple the LanLing in any way. I mean no offense, Sect Leader Jin, but your Sect is less valuable if damaged. Wen RuoHan means to leave you relatively untouched until the very end, and then force your hand in joining him, when you will have no other option. Sending the Jin Sect to HeJian would force him to reconsider all his plans, regardless of other circumstances. But there will be no time for him to do so, because–“
“Because he will be in the process of fighting both at MeiShan and KuiZhou,” MingJue finishes off, seeing it all neatly fall into place.
“Exactly,” XiChen nods, “I would send two of the smaller Sects to wait at MeiShan. The Nie Sect to attack KuiZhou from the east, and push the Wen into the river. The Jiang Sect to attack from the river, which only they can do with skill. The Wen will be caught between a hammer and an anvil, and none will consider running south, unless they lose their direction. MeiShan will be left undefended for a small window of time, just long enough to take the Yu Sect seat back, and all of the supplies the Wen depend on to hold that part of the south. By the time the news reaches him, Wen RuoHan will regret his power play in HeJian, and he will pull his forces back closer to the Nightless City. It is very likely that the Jin Sect will never have to fight,” he says, looking up at Jin GuangShan.
“What about the Lan Sect?” Lan QiRen says, his soft voice heavy in the silence.
“Here,” XiChen’s finger lands at an area some couple of hundred li outside YueYang.
“What is their purpose there?” Jin GuangShan exclaims, no longer capable of keeping silent, “It is not as if they can directly attack QiShan without being slaughtered.”
“No,” XiChen says, “They cannot reach QiShan from there. But in the confusion caused by the Nie and the Jiang attacks to the south, they can carve a slice deep enough into the Wen territory to accomplish something even more important.”
“Chaos,” MingJue says softly, staring at the place XiChen’s finger rested, “Coming on the heels of the Jin Sect showing up in HeJian, the Nie and the Jiang appearing KuiZhou, the loss of his supplies in MeiShan, the attack so close to the heart of YueYang will give Wen RuoHan no chance to consider his next move at length. He will have to react on multiple fronts, and hope that his lower command knows how to think on their feet.”
“I will wager that they do not,” XiChen smiles at him warmly, and MingJue feels his heart skip a beat.
“I am not so sure about this,” Jin GuangShan says, “I think we should reconsider before deciding.”
MingJue ignores him,
“All those in favor?”
Jiang FengMian, Lan QiRen, and six of the seven small sect leaders voice their assent. MingJue gets to his feet.
“I would ask the honorable Sect Leaders who have grasped the battle plans fully, to explain it to those who have not. KuiZhou is quite far from QingHe Nie, and my Sect must make immediate preparations for departure. I trust you can find your way out.”
Taking XiChen by the elbow, he gently steers him out of the hall, and away from whatever unflattering nonsense Jin GuangShan is about to say.
“I should be the one to lead the Lan Sect,” XiChen says, and MingJue freezes mid-step, his heart crawling into his throat.
XiChen stops as well, and takes the hand that MingJue had wrapped around his elbow, gripping it in both of his. There are two spots of color, high in his cheeks, and there is something fervent in his gaze, something MingJue has never seen before.
“My uncle is too old,” he says quickly, words leaving him in a rush, “and WangJi is too young. Although I have married outside the Sect, the men who go to YueYang will be my peers, more likely to trust my judgment than my brother’s. I am the only one who knows how far we must go to cause the greatest possible chaos, and how to do so with the least loss of life. I can do this, better than anyone else. You know this.”
“I do,” MingJue says, and he does.
This war should be fought with XiChen at its helm. His intellect, his abilities, his temper, it is all more suitable to the role MingJue is so desperately trying to fill. XiChen is infinitely superior to him in every way. He is infinitely superior to any man MingJue has ever known.
“Then you know it must be me,” XiChen says, his hands hot around MingJue’s, “Let me do this.”
I love you, MingJue wants to say, but the words do not come out.
“All right,” he says instead, and sincerely hopes he does not live to regret it.
The next time XiChen sees Nie MingJue, it has been exactly eleven days since their parting at YingChuan.
In those eleven days, XiChen had managed to successfully slice into the heart of YueYang, burn two of the Wen Sect supply columns on his retreat, and decimate the small group fleeing the slaughter at KuiZhou, who had made the mistake of veering too far east. He had lost two men, out of fifteen he had brought with him, and although in terms of war casualties, two deaths are considered an acceptable loss, they both weigh on him heavily.
It is hard to send or receive messages while on the move, so he does not bother. Word travels quickly across the rural countryside, and within two days of leaving the border of YueYang, he knows that the Jiang Sect, along with half a dozen smaller clans, is holding the line at ShuDong, preventing the Wen from moving any further southeast. It is a relief to hear, as he has gotten no word from WangJi in nearly a fortnight now.
XiChen knows that many of the elders do not understand WangJi’s insistence to join the Jiang Sect and fight along his betrothed, instead of taking Wei WuXian into the Lan Sect. Even uncle, who should know WangJi better than all the others, had attempted to change his mind.
None of them truly understand WangJi. They only see a dedicated, upright youth, who would rather suffer death than stray off the righteous path. It had never occurred to them that WangJi’s ardent devotion, once focused on a single human being, rather than three thousand rules incapable of returning the sentiment, could ever look like this. But XiChen had known, ever since those first letters began arriving at Cloud Recesses, the letters that were written to his brother, and not the Second Young Master Lan, not the Twin Jade of Lan, not the second most beautiful Young Master of the cultivation world. XiChen had known that if Wei WuXian could only see his brother as the others could not, if he could love his brother as he deserves to be loved, that WangJi would return that love a thousandfold.
The last piece of news that had reached XiChen, from three different sources, stated that the Wen have begun retreating from HeJian, and that the Nie Sect is moving back into YingChuan, lining up for a direct attack.
XiChen can only deduce that Nie MingJue means to cut them off from QiShan, to catch them in a wedge between himself and the Jin Sect.
It is a good plan, XiChen thinks, and a logical one to make. But he does not trust Jin GuangShan. If they had more time, and if the distance was not so great, XiChen would have exchanged the Jin Sect for the Jiang Sect in a heartbeat. It does not take a lot to hold the line at ShuDong, and the Jiang Sect, along with WangJi, are wasted so far from the bulk of the Wen forces. But in a war, one must work with what one is given, and he hopes MingJue realizes the same, all while keeping his temper in check. Working closely with Jin GuangShan could test anyone’s patience, and his husband does not have much on his best day.
By the time he reaches the hills above the YingChuan, the Nie Sect has already set up camp, spreading nearly two li across the countryside. XiChen picks out another twelve small clans, their banners whipping in the wind, and a few larger gold tents of the LanLing Jin, set further north. It is easy to distinguish the QingHe Nie from the others, even without the Sect colors on blatant display. A shallow row of trenches has been dug to the northwest. Beyond them, to the south, the tents are perfectly lined up, row after a row. Beyond the tents, XiChen sees the supply wagons, and even further south, long picket lines of horses.
In contrast, the other clans, including the small camp set up by the LanLing Jin, look like scattered toys of some inattentive child. The rest of the Lan Sect is still some days out, but XiChen hopes they follow the Nie Sect example.
It takes a long time to make his way through the camp. Logically, he knows that QingHe Nie is much larger than the small corner he had inhabited for the last couple of months, but the sheer amount of people who know him by sight are astounding. He is forced to stop multiple times and speak to people he has never met, answer dozens of questions, refuse multiple attempts to be steered to some cook fire or another for food or tea, all while collecting a larger and larger number of disciples along the way. He also knows, logically, that Nie SuShen and Nie YongZhi, as well as the other disciples who are now surrounding him, are all sixteen and seventeen years old, only a few years younger than himself. Still, to him they seem like children, and he wishes MingJue had opted to leave them all at QingHe.
It is nearly dark by the time he bypasses the empty Sect Leader’s tent, and continues on to the larger meeting tent to the north. The men he had brought with him turn southeast, intending to make a small Lan Sect camp beyond the Nie Sect lines, in a place where the incoming Lan Sect forces should be easily spotted, once they cross the mountains. The disciples had informed him that Nie MingJue and the twelve clan leaders have been in the same meeting since the sun was at its noon peak. Being the unrepentant gossips that they are, no doubt due to A-Sang’s influence, they also inform him that MingJue had already broken two tables, and physically thrown one of the clan leaders out of the tent the day before. They giggle about it, because to children, it is amusing to see large men being propelled into dirt like sacks of rice. But XiChen’s worry, carefully subdued for the last eleven days, flares high.
The disciples abandon him shortly after, none of them brave enough to continue on any further. XiChen finds Nie ZongHui standing guard outside the tent, and the man seems relieved to see him, bowing deeply.
The tent is large, but stifling hot, with two dozen men crammed inside. The murmur of voices stops when he crosses the entrance, every set of eyes turning to XiChen. XiChen, however, can only see MingJue, standing perfectly still at the head of the table, a thousand emotions XiChen had never seen before flying rapidly across his face. He looks tired, and his shoulder plate still has specks of blood embedded in the silver. Whoever is in charge of scrubbing his armor clean has done a poor job. XiChen will have to speak with them.
XiChen bows to the clan leaders, and is forced to listen to a string of congratulations on a job well done, only some of them genuine, and most of them patronizing in nature. MingJue has not moved to approach him, so XiChen makes his way through the crowd of men, subtly implying that he is not here to join in their discussion, but to see his husband, hoping they will take the cue and finish up quickly.
When he reaches MingJue’s side, he positions himself a few steps back from his husband’s right shoulder, making it obvious that he is simply waiting for the others to leave. Although some of them are slow on the uptake, majority seem ready to be done. The little bit that XiChen can see from the map tells him that they are hoping the Jiang Sect can push the Wen from ShuDong, while the Nie and the Jin are slicing into the HeJian retreating forces. There is also another marker, northwest of YiLing, bearing the cloud pattern of Gusu Lan. The same strategy again, except this time, if they pushed hard enough, the Lan Sect could actually reach the Nightless City, effectively cutting the Wen forces in half.
It takes forever for the clan leaders to make their way out of the tent, but even as they trickle out, XiChen moves a little closer to the map. Unless some of the information marked on it is wrong, the Wen are nearing YangYuan in their retreat. It looks as if MingJue means to hit them before they reach GanQuan, which is strategically the best option, but it also means that some of them will fall back against QingHe. Two of the smaller sects should probably be sent back, and LaoLing Qin is likely to insist that they be one of them. QingHe cannot fall, under any circumstance. There is a gaping, undefended stretch between QingHe and LanLing, where the Wen could easily swing back northwest and catch the Nie Sect from behind. It is an uncertain world, when the Nie must trust the Qin to protect their back, but a war makes for strange bedfellows.
Startled, he looks up from the map to find that all the clan leaders are gone. MingJue is watching him carefully, and XiChen smiles.
“It looks like I am heading back to YiLing,” he says, turning his eyes back to the map, “I wish I had not brought all of the man back with me now. This does seem the next logical place of attack, and with the entire Lan Sect pushing hard, we could reach the walls of the Nightless City before–“
“You are going back to QingHe,” MingJue says.
MingJue is no longer looking at him, but unhooking the shoulder plates from his armor. Disbelief keeps XiChen silent for a few long seconds, before he can come up with appropriate words.
There is no reason for this. They had agreed before XiChen left, that any supply columns they encounter on their way in or out of YueYang should be burned. They had agreed that any small Wen force they come across must be eliminated. XiChen had done exactly what they had agreed on, no more and no less.
“I should be leading the Lan Sect into QiShan. This is no different than–“
“You are going back to QingHe,” MingJue says again, dropping the left shoulder plate, splattered with blood, onto the table.
He begins unhooking the right, and XiChen feels that he is missing something here, something large and not necessarily related to the war strategy.
His stomach drops.
“You do not trust me to do this,” he says, “You do not think I am capable of leading them into the Nightless City–“
The right shoulder plate goes flying across the tent, smashes into the tea set on the side table, shattering both the pottery and the table itself.
“Eleven days!” MingJue roars, “Not a single message! Not a whisper! Three runners sent, for only one of them to return! A thousand times I pictured you dead! Wounded! Cut off in YueYang by the Wens! Bleeding out somewhere where no one could reach you!”
XiChen had flinched back in shock, but now he takes a deep, shuddering breath, and tries to remain calm,
“We have spoken of this before departure. The chances were high that any message sent could be intercepted–“
“Two dead men,” MingJue growls, his voice tight with restraint, his eyes flashing, “That is the news the only runner who returned brought. Two dead men from the Lan Sect, and no one– no one could tell who they had been.”
XiChen feels his stomach twist in guilt. It had never even occurred to him that MingJue would think him dead.
“Lan GuoZhi and Lan GongHui,” XiChen says softly, “The rest of them are back, and safe. You cannot win a war without losses–“
“Do you think I care for winning the war if you are dead!?!!”
The words strike XiChen like a blow, knocking all the air out of his chest. Something warm fills the space immediately, spreading far and wide, heating his face, making his hands tremble. There are only a few coherent thoughts flashing through his head, but they are blindingly sharp, leaving no room for others.
A heavy silence has fallen between them, and in it, MingJue seems to gather himself with some difficulty. He turns away, pulling the breastplate off his chest, and dropping it on the ground. XiChen distractedly thinks that no one will find it there when it needs cleaning, and that it is no wonder his shoulder plates still have blood on them.
The warmth in his chest throbs painfully.
There is a low platform set at the very back of the tent, holding the Sect Leader chair. It is tradition, to bring one along, and XiChen is surprised MingJue had allowed it, such nonsense traditions usually the last of his concerns. He would easily wager that Nie MingJue had not sat in it once since it was placed in the tent, and even now, MingJue proves him right by sitting down on the edge of the platform.
He no longer looks angry. He looks more tired than XiChen had ever seen him be, elbows resting on his knees, his shoulders slumped. Soundlessly, XiChen crosses the tent and settles down next to him, wanting to offer some comfort, but incapable of coming up with any words that would suffice.
“I should not have shouted at you,” MingJue says, his voice hoarse, “Forgive me.”
XiChen hums in response, and shifts a little closer, pressing their shoulders together. MingJue leans against him sightly, and takes deep, measured breaths, matching them to XiChen’s. XiChen had wondered if he should offer to play for him, but now he thinks this is working just as well. The warmth in his chest is throbbing with his heartbeat, and his body feels light all over, as if everything in the world has somehow shifted into its rightful place.
“The rest of the Lan Sect should be across the mountains tomorrow,” MingJue says, “We must strike at the Wen before they reach GanQuan. That leaves– four days to reach YiLing.”
“We will only need three,” XiChen says, “They can rest here until nightfall tomorrow.”
“Move only at night,” MingJue says, “Wen RuoHan will expect something. It is unlikely he will be prepared for another attack from southeast, but–“
“We have rattled him enough that he has probably strengthened his defenses everywhere,” XiChen says, and smiles sadly, “the only downside of the original plan.”
MingJue seems as if he might say something else, but no words come, and they sit in silence for another few minutes, listening to the bustle of the camp outside the tent.
Finally, MingJue shifts, and stands up. He extends his hand to XiChen, and XiChen takes it, warm palm sliding against his, sending a tingle through his fingers.
“You should rest,” MingJue says, releasing him, “There are reports waiting for my attention.”
“Would you like me to play for you? It may make the reports easier to bear.”
“Not tonight. You have only just arrived, and must leave again tomorrow. Rest, sleep. If you are still willing, tomorrow will do just as well.”
XiChen wants to ask if the reports can wait until the following day, but does not. He understands that a single message could make the difference between moving tomorrow, moving two days from now, or having to retreat.
“Have you eaten today?” he asks instead, and MingJue huffs a laugh.
“I have not.”
“Then I will have some food sent to you, and you must promise to eat.”
“I promise,” MingJue says.
XiChen leaves the tent knowing that something is left unfinished between them, something neither of them can address right now. But he hopes there will be time soon enough.
It has been three days since the Lan Sect had left for YiLing, and Nie MingJue is still two days outside of YangYuan, when Nie SuShen cuts across the column to reach him, seemingly oblivious to the chaos this creates.
SuShen is still young, but he is the fastest on horseback, and one of Nie Sect’s best scouts; this alone means that MingJue often tolerates his exuberance without complaint. Today, however, he feels a pressure in the air, as if a storm is building above their heads. The clear blue sky has mocked this feeling since the sun had come up that morning, but MingJue cannot seem to shake his consternation, and this has made him more irritable than usual.
“Sect Leader,” SuShen pants, as if he had ran instead of ridden, “there is someone asking to speak with you.”
“Is this the right way to carry a message?” MingJue snaps, “Who is asking? Where are they?”
“Beyond the hill right there,” SuShen points, as if MingJue could miss the hill rearing to the right of the column, “She would not give her name, but says she is from HeJian Nie.”
Nie ZongHui, riding at MingJue’s left shoulder, snorts out a laugh,
“Then she is playing a joke at your expense. There are no Nie in HeJian.”
“I did not say there was,” SuShen says patiently, “But that is what she said. She said she needs to speak to the Nie Sect Leader, and that she has an important message.”
“It could be a trap,” ZongHui says.
“The countryside is bare and empty,” MingJue says, “One woman is a poor trap to set. Keep the column moving.”
“I should come with you,” ZongHui says, and MingJue shakes his head.
“Keep the column moving. I will catch up.”
It is a a short ride over the hill, a few minutes at most. Still, MingJue finds himself surprised that there truly is a woman waiting, wrapped head to toe in a dark green cloak, a fair imitation of the Nie Sect colors. He dismounts a few steps away, but motions to SuShen to stay mounted and ready to ride. He had scoffed at the idea of one woman being enough to spring a trap, but no one who has met MeiLing would ever underestimate a woman, even one who is completely unarmed.
“Are you the Nie Sect Leader?” she says, as soon as he is close enough to hear her.
To his surprise, she bows,
“I am Wen Qing. My people and I seek asylum with the QingHe Nie.”
Nie MingJue stares at her for a few moments, his mind working furiously.
“You are a Wen,” he says finally, “why would you need asylum?”
“We are a small clan of healers,” she says firmly, “Most of us do not know how to wield a sword. We do not want to fight.”
“This is still not my concern,” MingJue says.
“I have lived in the Nightless City since I was a child. My brother is the Nightless City right now,” she says, “Wen RuoHan thinks him a fool, and keeps him by his side for amusement. But my brother sends messages, updates on the Wen movements, Wen RuoHan’s plans, anything and everything he overhears that may be important. I can get you into the palace without arousing notice. We could be of use to you.”
MingJue wonders if this is the storm he had been anticipating all day.
“Why should I trust you?”
She seems to falter for the first time,
“I– Wen RuoHan will lose. It is illogical to think he can win against all the other sects and clans combined. When the war is done, my people will be in great danger simply for bearing the Wen name. We do not want to fight. But if we must, we would rather fight on the winning side.”
MingJue cannot help but laugh,
“No pretense of loyalty from you, is there? Only self-interest.”
“Loyalty is earned,” she says, eyes flashing, “and Wen RuoHan has done nothing to earn it from us.”
MingJue glances around the flat, bare plain, and it is empty as far as the eye can see.
“These people of yours. Where are they now?”
She shifts, something in her posture hinting at anxiety, although her face is impressively smooth,
“I have sent them ahead to QingHe.”
MingJue gapes at her in astonishment. He wants to laugh again, although he knows he should be angry at her sheer audacity.
“Quite sure of my answer, were you?”
“No,” she says calmly, “Hopeful. My people are likely destined for death. It does not make a difference if they die on QiShan soil, or the soil of QingHe.”
“How do I know your brother’s messages are of any use?”
Here, she hesitates again,
“One of them told us to avoid YueYang on our way out of QiShan, but did not tell us why. Later, we discovered that the Lan Sect had attacked, and that a large contingent of Wen RuoHan’s men was sent to push them back. Some of the messages that came after–“ she takes a deep breath, “I do not always know what they mean.”
“What is the last message you received?” MingJue asks, his stomach twisting.
“YiLing is not safe,” she says, “As I said, they do not always make sense. He knows that we were heading north, to QingHe–“
But MingJue is no longer listening. He climbs his horse, and wheels it to her, extending his hand.
She does not hesitate before grasping it.
XiChen is bleeding profusely. He can hardly feel the pain, but his robes are heavy with blood, sticking to his right thigh. He can see Lan LiJun and Lan JieShen a short distance away, huddled behind a firethorn bush, their robes glowing in the darkness. Lan WenYan is crouched down by his side, clutching his right arm. It is broken in two places, bone tearing at the skin, and XiChen knows neither one of them will make it far together. Apart, only WenYan may stand a chance.
Somehow, Wen RuoHan had anticipated them. Maybe it had been a simple deduction; after all the man was not stupid by any means, and had to know that being spread so thin from YangYuan to ShuDong had left him open for an attack from southeast. It is possible that he had simply guessed that the Lan Sect would choose YiLing as their starting point. It is also possible that the Nie Sect camp unknowingly harbors a traitor. XiChen prefers the theory of a lucky guess, because he cannot stand the thought of a traitor by MingJue’s side.
For hours now, they have been trying to find any opening, any possible way to slip past west the Wen, and into the KuiZhou territory. The Jiang Sect should be well into the battle at ShuDong, but XiChen knows that Jiang FengMian had left almost the entire MeiShan Yu Sect at KuiZhou, and if they could just reach them, they would be safe.
Someone shrieks in the distance, and WenYan flinches by his side, trembling like a rabbit. There is no use, really, thinking about reaching KuiZhou any more. Aside from the four of them, XiChen cannot tell if any of the others are alive. Technically, they are surrounded here, and once the sky begins growing light, this small copse they are hidden in will give them no protection.
He leans slightly against the tree, unable to smell anything but his own blood. He remembers MingJue throwing his shoulder plate across the tent, shouting that he did not care if the war is won, if XiChen is no longer alive. What fools they both are. Why had he walked out of the tent that night? XiChen wishes that he had kissed him, at least once. All the reasons he had not done it now seem silly and inconsequential. He had known then, that MingJue cared for him deeply. He should have done it, regardless of consequences. Even if MingJue had pushed him away, at least XiChen would have gotten to kiss his husband once before dying.
He feels his body tilting to the side, and straightens up. There is no time for daydreaming now. He is lightheaded and exhausted, and the morning is quickly approaching. If one of them is to make it past the Wen, they must do it now, while they can still count on the cover of darkness.
He slides carefully down to the ground by WenYan, hoping that he can manage to get up again. His hands are sticky with blood, and he wipes them carefully on any part of his robes that is not yet stained. The handkerchief is in the inside pocked of his robes, by his heart, and he pulls it out gingerly, feeling the embroidered magnolia tree. The ribbon slithers out of his hair, and he folds it with care inside the handkerchief, then ties the edges off, creating a small pouch.
“Lan WenYan,” he says, and is surprised to hear how unsteady his voice sounds, “out of the four of us, you are the fastest. Take this and head south. We will cause enough of a distraction that you should be able to pass unnoticed. If you see Nie MingJue, tell him–“ he pauses, his chest squeezing tight, “Give him this. He will know.”
“No arguing. You have to go. Tell those left at YingChuan what happened here. Tell them we never made it close to the Nightless City. They have to know.”
WenYan looks paler than his robes, but he nods, and tucks the pouch into his sleeve.
When XiChen steps from behind the trees, Lan LiJun and Lan JieShen following his lead, his forehead feels naked and light. He regrets nothing.
The word reaches MingJue in GanQuan, eight days from the last time he had seen XiChen.
The HeJian retreat has effectively been cut in half. The remainder of the Wen, separated from their forces in QiShan, had fallen back on QingHe as predicted, where they had met LaoLing Qin and LangYa She, backed by the Nie Sect forces remaining at QingHe. It had been a short and bloody battle, and the Wen had lost. The news from the east is good, and MingJue should be satisfied. Instead, he feels driven mad by the lack of news from YiLing and ShuDong. After Wen Qing had passed on her brother’s message, he had sent ten men and four of his fastest runners to YiLing. Two runners have come back, claiming there is no way to breach the border between YingChun and YiLing. Two more did not return at all. MingJue cannot move without knowing the position of the Jiang Sect. Wen Qing’s brother seems to have fallen silent, and the majority of the Jin Sect is spread between GanQuan and YingChun, waiting for orders.
The longer MingJue waits, the harder it will be to breach the Nightless City, regardless of how far the Lan Sect had managed to penetrate into QiShan. But he feels lost, as if half of his body is missing, as he is only seeing the picture with one good eye.
The word comes in the form of a Lan Sect disciple, a boy hardly old enough to shave, his white robes no longer recognizable underneath the layers of dry blood and mud. He is found half-dead by the men MingJue had sent, three li past the YingChuan border, and carried back to GanQuan by two of them, while the rest continued on to YiLing. It takes nearly two days to stabilize him enough where he can open his eyes and speak.
Once awake, he will speak to no other than Nie MingJue. In disconnected sentences, he tells a horrifying story, of Wen already lying in wait in YiLing, of Lan Sect unable to go forward or withdraw, of slaughter that defies words. But it is the small pouch he pulls out of his sleeve that breaks MingJue completely, a silk handkerchief he would recognize among thousands of others. And inside this handkerchief, a familiar blue ribbon, stained with blood.
After the boy is moved out of the little medical tent, Wen Qing cleans her instruments, soaks the bloody rags, and wipes down her work bench, now permanently stained red. Two more Jin Sect serving girls had approached her that same morning, asking if they can be of any use. One of them is likely to be no good at anything other than holding a dying hand or two, and perhaps reciting some uplifting poetry. But the war needs all kinds. The other had been raised by a local healer in TianShou and may actually be of some use. It is unsettling to be addressed respectfully as “Nie Qing” by them both, but Wen Qing had brought that upon herself, and should not complain.
This is yet another matter, on her growing list, that she must bring up with Nie MingJue. She cannot simply take the Jin Sect servants as apprentices, no matter how desperately they will need healers once the Nightless City is breached. But these two serving girls are low on her list. The lack of supplies is nearer the top. The moment GanQuan had been taken, she had raided the local herb shops herself, wading for hours through broken crockery and sad lumps of dead proprietors, searching for supplies that she desperately needed. The Wen had broken the majority of what they could not use, and she has very little to show for her efforts.
She misses her people. She had been a healer for many years now, but every time she finds herself at a loss, she turns to Granny Wen to ask her for advice. Each time she feels like she may buckle under pressure, she turns to Uncle Four to see him smile. They are safe at QingHe; runners are sent regularly back and forth, despite the danger and the distance. The precious set of talismans she shares with her brother could not be replicated, so she must trust Nie MingJue’s men when they say that the “HeJian Nie” are safe and sound. But she wishes she could have them by her side, if only for a few moments, only so she would not feel alone among strangers.
She remembers the words she had spoken to Nie MingJue often. “Loyalty is earned.” She had not said them lightly; she understands their weight. But they circle her head often these days, coming up at the most inappropriate times, waking her from restless dreams. No, the little serving girls are not on the top of her list. The supplies are near the top, but not quite as important either. It is the question of loyalty, and the question of sacrifice, both eternally entwined. She must speak to Nie MingJue about them soon, and yet.
She had seen his face when the silk handkerchief had fallen open in his hands. She has seen him since. There are a very few people who still dare speak to him, who dare walk past him without averting their gaze. His grief and fury are terrible; one can feel it in the air around him, thick and bitter, a heavy cloud impossible to navigate. The decision she must make should be his, but she cannot trust him to make it now, not from the place of grief, and not from the place of fury. She trusts the others around him; the tall pretty one, always stationed at MingJue’s left shoulder, and the two QingHe clan leaders who seem closest to him; old, hard men who seem cut from the same cloth. They will ensure that Nie MingJue moves in the right direction, and that his grief does not steer him wrong. But this, she cannot trust him with.
The talisman she shares with her brother feels light in her hand, and surprisingly fragile for something that can carry so much weight. The characters she inscribes are a death sentence. More than one, if things go terribly wrong. She hesitates for a few breaths, the characters mocking her, asking if loyalty is worth such sacrifice. When it burns, she feels it like a brand, one that may never fade away.
Lan WangJi closes his eyes, just for a moment.
There is a very faint throb in the back of his head. The throb is not unfamiliar. Once, when he had first begun his training, he had pushed himself too far, and suffered the consequences. A few years later, he had done it again, if for no other reason than to measure his own endurance. The throbbing reminds him of both incidents, but he knows it to be different.
For one, he is far from exhaustion. They have not moved at all, in two days. Both the Jiang Sect and the Wen Sect are locked in place, neither moving forward, neither willing to move back.
He opens his eyes and gazes around the tent, where the Sect Leaders of BaLing OuYang and HangShou Fei are shouting at each other over the table. Jiang FengMian and Wei WuXian are the only two people actually looking at the map that triggered the current disagreement. Jiang WanYin is silent at the moment, but his jaw is clenched tight.
WangJi hopes that Jiang WanYin does not decide to shout as well.
There are three other clan leaders “participating” in this meeting as well, but it is apparent that none of them feel that they have the right to interrupt. Jiang FengMian seems utterly uninterested in anything other than the map. Wei WuXian is speaking to him softly, and WangJi cannot quite catch the flow of his words.
His head throbs, and he closes his eyes again. Perhaps it is the shouting.
In the back of the tent stand the three men responsible for the meeting. Two are Nie cultivators, sent to YiLing by Nie MingJue. The third is a runner, a boy of about sixteen, named Nie YongZhi. Eight men and four runners were sent, and only these three had actually managed to cross the Wen blockade in YiLing, and make their way into ShuDong. It has been eight days since his brother had reached YiLing with the rest of the Lan Sect, and no one has heard from them since. Nie MingJue is locked in at GanQuan, waiting for news that is not coming. MeiShan Yu Sect is barely holding on to KuiZhou, and not a single clan can be spared to send them assistance. And his brother is missing.
Sect Leader OuYang slaps his hand on the table, and WangJi’s head throbs.
“Hey, Lan Zhan.”
He opens his eyes to find Wei WuXian had moved closer to his side.
“Are you all right?”
“How many days do you think, from here to GanQuan?”
WangJi thinks about it for a few moments. The runner had actually gotten here a full day ahead of the two cultivators. The two had traveled together, but claimed they had separated once, in order to sneak past the Wen stationed along the river. It had taken the boy four days, the cultivators five. WangJi thinks if they were to move in groups of two, a small force taking different routes, five days would be a safe bet.
Even as he is thinking this, Wei WuXian, whose every thought is immediately on his tongue, begins to calculate it himself.
“The kid got here in four days. He is fast, but his cultivation is low. He moved on foot, and says he did not fly at all. You would think the two grown men would have moved faster? Hm.”
He taps the map, just as Sect Leader Fei insults Sect Leader OuYang’s ancestors.
“All three of them were avoiding a fight. But I think if we were to cause a little chaos along the way, just in the right places, we could cross in three days. What do you think, Lan Zhan?”
WangJi very much likes the way Wei WuXian says “we.”
“Four days,” WangJi says.
Wei WuXian leans away from the map and tilts his head,
“Yeah, I guess you are right. We should probably play it safe, just in case.”
“Attack on the fifth,” WangJi says, “At dusk.”
Wei WuXian grins,
“That might even leave us a little extra time for chaos.”
“Sect Leader OuYang,” Jiang FengMian says, “I hate to interrupt. I believe we know how to proceed.”
They quiet down, and WangJi’s head throbs again.
It was not the shouting. Interesting.
“Lan Zhan and I are going to cross YiLing,” Wei WuXian says cheerfully, “We will let Nie MingJue know to set the plan in motion five days from now.”
“You!” Sect leader Fei splutters, outraged, “Are you not too full of yourself Wei Ying? How do you mean to cross when two Nie cultivators barely made it through YiLing alive?”
“The arrogance,” Sect Leader OuYang says, “Sect Leader Jiang, you give that boy too free of a reign. For a son of a servant to–“
His mouth snaps shut. His eyes bulge. Across from him, Sect Leader Fei is making an eerily similar expression, fingers digging into his lips, as if he can forcefully pry them open.
“Wei WuXian is not done speaking,” WangJi says.
There are a few moments of silence that no one breaks. Jiang FengMian clears his throat. Wei WuXian, who had been looking at him in astonishment, now stutters, his cheeks turning red.
WangJi likes it when Wei WuXian blushes. It does not happen very often. Wei WuXian is quite shameless, most of the time.
“Uh,” Wei WuXian says, “We– we are fairly certain we can cross in three days. If we stick to the north side of YiLing, here–“
XiChen wakes in the darkness.
It is not the first time he has woken in the darkness. He remembers, vaguely, different wakings, different pains, but always the same cold stone under his cheek, and always the same darkness.
He is lying on his side, arm uncomfortably twisted underneath him. His head throbs. There is a slow drip of water nearby, and a distant grinding sound he cannot place. He blinks a few times, unable to tell if the pitch black is all around him, or if his eyes have been damaged in some way. The steady drip of water makes him aware of a thirst so terrible, that for a few moments, he can feel nothing else. His mouth is dry as dust, and shifting his tongue does nothing but trigger a sour taste of old blood. Pain is next, slowly making its way past the thrumming agony in his head. There had been a wound on his thigh; he remembers it well. Now, that same leg feels numb and immobile. The shoulder of the arm he is resting on pitches in with its own howling agony, and he tries to shift, to take some of the pressure off. A sound of chains slithering against the rock startles him badly, and he flinches away, the movement triggering thousands of other aches, in his knees, his back, and his ribs. Gasping in the darkness, he tries to convince his heart to stop hammering its way out of his chest. The chains are attached to him. He is lying on his side because his wrists are chained together in the back. Shifting his good leg, the only one he can convince to move, results in another rattle. Chains around the wrists and ankles, probably connected at his back.
He places his cheek back on the cold stone, and takes deep breaths of cold, moist air, trying to think.
The panic trying to build in his chest cannot be allowed to take reign. He is not dead. Not being dead is already a very good step in the right direction. He is hurt, but he is alive. The last thing he remembers is a large flash of pain at the back of his head, which is probably why it throbs so persistently now. He remembers receiving the wound to his thigh, and the multiple kicks to his ribs. Unless the Wen had decided to kick his unconscious body all the way from YiLing to the Nightless City, then majority of the other pains are simply due to a long period of inactivity, combined with an extremely uncomfortable way his chained body was forced to bend. If he takes the blood loss, and the lack of food and water into account, it is safe to assume that this period of inactivity, or lying on the cold floor in the dark, has lasted anywhere from three to five days.
That means that it has been anywhere from seven to nine days since he has seen MingJue last. He wonders if Lan WenYan had made it out, or if his body is lying somewhere in YiLing, undistinguishable among all the others.
Grief strikes him forcefully, and he clenches his teeth to keep it in. Two generations gone. No one left at Cloud Recesses now, but the elders and the children. He hopes, fervently, that WangJi is safe. That Wei WuXian is keeping him safe, surrounded by the might of the Jiang Sect, hopefully far from the Nightless City.
He shifts again, and his lower back locks up for a few moments, the pain nearly cutting him in half. But he breathes slowly, and waits for it to ease. Eventually he can struggle upright, but he cannot sit, or lean against the stone wall behind him. The chain stretching between his wrists and ankles does not allow for many options. His wounded leg was only numb, and a fiery, consuming agony spreads from his hip to his toes, the moment blood is allowed to flow through it again. It takes a long time to settle on his knees, every bone in his body shrieking in complaint. He has to fumble for his ankle, and twist it by hand, so his foot can fold in place.
The pitch black around him has not changed, but he closes his eyes anyway, and takes a deep, cleansing breath. Here, in the darkness, near dripping water he cannot reach, and surrounded by walls he cannot see, is not a place he wants to be. Instead, his mind takes him to QingHe, his fight with MingJue in the courtyard, and the rush of joy he had felt.
The situation is rapidly deteriorating in YiLing.
Wen ZhuLiu is no military strategist. He does not understand the purpose of holding on to this particular piece of territory. To him, the large number of Wen forces stationed here are akin to a naked limb sticking out of the armor, asking to be sliced off from the rest of the body.
They had taken YiLing to ambush the Lan Sect. The Lan Sect has been decimated. The Jiang Sect is hovering to the southwest. The Nie and the Jin are blocking the northeast. At any moment, they may decide to move against QiShan, and here Wen Chao sits, in YiLing, approximately eight hundred li away from the Nightless City.
There have been many times in the last year when Wen ZhuLiu has wondered if Wen RuoHan’s youngest son is incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. These days, he is heavily leaning toward the latter.
At first, it had seemed that they could hold on to YiLing indefinitely. No longer needlessly stretched thin between HeJian and MeiShan, the bulk of the Wen forces are now stationed in and around QiShan. This has made the constant deployment of reinforcements and supplies to YiLing relatively easy to execute. Why such an effort is necessary, Wen ZhuLiu does not know. But his duty is to protect, not question.
Now, however, the situation has altered. The consistent exchange of messages between YiLing and the Nightless City has halted with no explanation. Camps are being attacked. Three of their supply wagons have gone missing. Not misdirected, as has happened before, and not burned by the few pitiful groups of YiLing natives who had been quickly subdued the last time this issue arose. Simply missing. Gone. Disappeared into thin air in the north of YiLing, not even a set of tracks left on the dirt road to explain their absence.
Men are disappearing as well, although Wen ZhuLiu thinks that this phenomenon may be easier to explain. There is no logic to their continued presence in YiLing, and many feel uneasy about holding a slice of land between the hammer of the Jin Sect and the anvil of the YunMeng Jiang. Desertion is inevitable in any war, especially one fought on foreign soil.
But there has been a few “desertions” that Wen ZhuLiu would be hard pressed to explain. Wen ShanYuan is Wen RuoHan’s own nephew, and as ruthless as they come. Wen ZhuLiu has heard him called many things in the past, but a coward has never been one of them. Yet, two days ago, Wen ShanYuan had disappeared from a camp near LaiWei, between one night shift watch and the next, without a word or a note to anyone.
Wen Chao, utterly undisturbed by this event, seems to think that Wen ShanYuan must have been summoned back to Nightless City. Wen ZhuLiu is not so certain. Why in the middle of the night? Why not inform any of his men? Why not take an escort back?
Worse than all of this, however, are the rumors.
The men whisper among themselves, and the stories they tell carry far and wide. The dead of the Lan Sect had been left to rot in the mud and dirt of north YiLing, and now they are seeking revenge. Angry demons are walking the YiLing plains. Four of the Wen camps have been attacked so far, and none of those who had survived can tell who or what had attacked them. Black flags, inscribed with undecipherable runes, are found hanging from the trees near those same camps. Talismans, inscribed with blood, are left trampled on the ground among the dead, who look as if beasts had torn through them, no limb left attached. The men whisper of seeing the white robes of the Lan Sect fluttering in the darkness. Other speak of a monster that moves in the shadows, and disappears under the light of the moon.
Wen ZhuLiu is not superstitious, and he can see why Wen Chao may choose to ignore the rumors. But once those rumors are placed side-by-side with the other events, a pattern begins to emerge, a pattern that only a fool would overlook.
He spends a long time trying to figure out a way to bring up this pattern to Wen Chao, in a way that would compel the man to actually listen. But in the end, no such action is necessary. A message from the Nightless City comes through one morning, exactly eleven days after Wen Chao had been tasked with holding YiLing at any cost. The message, bearing Wen RuoHan’s personal seal, instructs Wen ZhuLiu to return to the Nightless City immediately, and to leave Wen Chao behind.
Wen Ning does not have much time.
He moves quickly, head lowered, hoping to avoid notice. It is rarely possible, for him to cross the length of the palace without some incident, without at least some of the guards deciding to torment him for their own amusement. Although he is under Wen RuoHan’s protection, as fickle as such a protection can be, they had learned quickly that he will bear their harassment in silence. Perhaps, if he was still allowed to carry his sword, they would not think him such an easy prey. But he thinks it is more likely his sword would have painted a larger target on his back.
The lack of his sword has been on his mind a great deal lately.
It is not the only concern crowding his mind. That same morning, a string of urgent messages from YiLing had completely annihilated every part of the plan Wen Qing had painstakingly pieced together.
The Second Young Master is dead. The Violet Spider had mounted the Second Young Master’s head on a pike, and is currently burning her way across YiLing, heading straight for the Nightless City.
The first message states that both the Jin Sect and Jiang Sect are riding at her back, something even Wen Ning knows to be impossible, as the two sects are on the opposite sides of QiShan. The second message claims that the Violet Spider is leading the combined forces of the MeiShan Yu, the LaoLing Qin, and the LangYa She. This message, Wen Ning does not know enough to dispute. The third message is even more ridiculous than the first two, claiming that it is not the Violet Spider who had killed the Second Young Master at all, but Madam Jin, and that Madam Jin is now leading half of the Jin Sect across YiLing.
Wen Ning thinks that the men who had sent those messages should probably not face Wen RuoHan again, not if they mean to keep their heads attached to their shoulders.
Overall, Wen Chao’s death matters very little in the larger scheme of things, and by itself, it should not have affected his sister’s plans at all. But the messages had triggered a string of events, like ripples across clear water, spreading to every corner of the Nightless City. Suddenly, guards are stationed in places where none had been the day before. Two of the City gates are now sealed shut. The guards around Wen RuoHan have doubled, and every servant, including Wen Ning, has had their room tossed. Wen RuoHan is now convinced that there is a spy in the palace, and had been furious that the traitor could not be uncovered. In his rage, he had pulled Lan XiChen from his cell, and had him savagely whipped in the main hall.
The day is only half over, and Wen Ning already knows that everything else which can go wrong, is likely to go wrong, and very quickly. There is no time to contact Wen Qing. There is no time to ask for advice. Their contingency plan looms large and terrifying in his mind, even more impossible to achieve now than it had ever been before.
His sister had always had such faith in him, no matter how often he failed, no matter how often he disappointed her expectations. To this day, she believes him more capable than he has ever thought himself to be. Now, that he is utterly alone, with nothing to rely on but his own wits, he hopes that she was right all along, and that he will not let her down.
Back in his chambers, he burns the talisman for good, leaving only a small pile of ashes on the floor. The room is bare of personal belongings. This had never been Wen Ning’s home, and there is nothing he regrets leaving behind.
They move at dusk.
The Nie Sect does not attack the way any other sect would. There are no drums and trumpets and neat formations. There is no warning, no battle declaration, and some would say, no honor in their tactics. But the Nie Sect is descended from men who had spent their entire lives wading through ankle-deep blood, who were born and raised in the dirt, who cared little for eternal judgment. To the QingHe Nie, honor is a fool’s prize, and glory is of no use to the dead.
The first wave appears out of the evening fog some three hundred li inside the enemy lines. Half of the Wen camp is slaughtered before any manage to raise an alarm. By the time the horn signaling an attack echoes across the plain, the cavalry is already on the move. The Wen do not expect mounted archers to follow a ground attack, and their formation falls apart as quickly as it is assembled. Blood saturates the damp grass. Rows and rows of tents go up in a blaze, one after another, the risings suns of QiShan Wen engulfed in flames.
Wen Xu, located in the main camp some two hundred li from the border between GanQuan and QiShan, is not caught by surprise. By the time the Nie Sect crosses the plains, a wall of archers is already waiting. The arrows blacken the sky. Men and horses fall, and are trampled, their screams drowned by the battle drums. The Nie Sect does not falter. Only a third of their number reaches the first line of archers, shattering the wall they hold, spilling into the sea of ground troops. They are outnumbered twelve to one, but each pushes forward, the sabers swinging wildly, leaving carnage in their wake.
A smart ruler leads from the back, and Wen Xu is safely concealed behind thirty hand-picked guards. With his younger brother gone, he had promised his father that he would take no unnecessary risks, and withdraw to the safety of the Nightless City walls the moment the battle looks to be lost. But he can see Nie MingJue in the distance, still mounted, surrounded by the sea of red robes. The beast’s head helmet, its features twisted in a terrible grimace, seems to be mocking him from a distance.
He despises Nie MingJue with a singular type of vehemence. The man’s marriage to the First Jade of Lan is an abomination; Wen Xu cannot understand how the Gusu Lan could have ever stooped so low. The fact that the rest of the cultivation world would choose such a man to lead them is abhorrent beyond belief. The Wen Sect had descended from emperors; their supremacy is nothing less than Heaven-ordained. It is no simple affront, to have the Wen Sect dominance challenged by a man who is only a little better than a peasant. It is the worst type of insolence; it is a blasphemy against the natural order.
Everyone knows that there is no honor in battling butchers. But Wen Xu wants Nie MingJue’s head. He wants to mount it on a pike, as his younger brother’s head was mounted, and he wants to carry it with him back into the Nightless City. Perhaps his father will present it to the Young Master Lan as a wedding gift. Wen Xu has no interest in Nie MingJue’s leftovers, but once the war is over, the most beautiful Young Master of the cultivation world will need to be married into the Wen Sect. First, however, Wen Xu intends to make Young Master Lan a widower.
When he moves into the fray, his guards move with him. Their bodies are a shield, but like any shield made of flesh and bone, it does not hold up for long. This does not matter. Wen Xu is not his younger brother. He does not carry a sword out of obligation or duty. The blade was his first toy, his first comfort, the first thing he learned how to carry. He has killed hundreds of men, and none had ever given him a fight worthy of remembrance. He does not need thirty guards to cut his way across the field.
Another battle horn echoes from the east, but his only focus is straight ahead. He sees Nie MingJue lose his horse, and soon after loses his own. A cultivator from the Jin Sect gets in his way, and loses an arm. Another is cut in two. There seem to be more golden robes now in the field than the deep green ones of the Nie Sect, but Wen Xu is so close, that he would not turn back now, even if he could. The Nie will fold when Nie MingJue is dead. The Jin will fold right after. The beast’s head helmet appears and disappears, it falls, then rises.
Finally, it is in front of him. His blade crosses with the heavy saber, the spiritual power of their combined force flashing brightly, knocking down both ally and enemy alike. The night is falling quickly, and the ground is slippery with blood, but Wen Xu is inconvenienced by neither. He has never wanted someone dead this badly, so badly that he can taste the victory in the back of his throat. The blades clash again and again, the saber cutting into his thigh, his own sword finding the soft flesh under Nie MingJue’s arm. The man is good, but Wen Xu had expected better. He knows he will win.
The tip of his sword catches the helmet, and the twisted, blood-spattered piece of armor tumbles to the ground. Wen Xu freezes in astonishment. It is a moment, a single breath, but it is an instant he cannot spare. The saber catches him under the navel and slices up, lodging between his ribs.
Nie ZongHui smiles.
The tunnel is dark, and hot, and damp, and Nie MingJue thinks that he has stepped in exactly the same puddle six times already.
“Are we moving in circles?” he hisses.
“Hush,” Wen Qing says, without pausing.
He can barely see the outline of her cloak ahead of him, and it feels as if he has been staring at the back of her hood for approximately three extremely long, frustrating lifetimes. He knows that the Nightless City is large. He knows that every faster route into the heart of Wen RuoHan’s palace is also more likely to make them dead. But the tunnel walls seem to be growing tighter the further they go, and he cannot tell how much time has passed. Has the Nie Sect moved yet? Are they still crossing the plains? Are they near the Nightless City already? This far underground, there could be a furious battle happening above their heads, and neither of them would be able to hear it.
“How much further?” he hisses.
She mutters something. He supposes he should be happy he cannot hear it clearly, as it is probably not flattering. MingJue cares very little for her exasperation. The last message they had received from her brother, before the talisman had burned out for good, had given them XiChen’s exact location in the palace. Being unable to act on the information immediately had been an excruciating test of his self-control, one he had nearly failed dozens of times since.
If there had been a way to postpone the attack until XiChen is safely out of the Nightless City, MingJue would have done it; if there had been a way to stop the Violet Spider from causing complete and utter chaos on the same day that three of his carefully laid plans also needed to be executed, he would have done that as well. As it is, he may very well try and strangle the woman next time he sees her. There is no sect in the cultivation world that understands impulsive violence better than QingHe Nie, but she could have damn well asked what their plans were, before mounting Wen Chao’s head on a pike.
It is her fault that the only ally they have on the inside of Wen RuoHan’s palace is no longer capable of sending messages, leaving them to literally stumble around in the dark.
The inside of his boot is wet. He blames the Violet Spider for that too.
Wen Qing pauses ahead of him, and he nearly stumbles into her back. There is nothing ahead except darkness, and nothing behind them other than more darkness. She is very still, so still that he cannot hear her breathe; he closes his eyes and tries to listen as well. It takes a few moments, but he feels it before he can hear it, a slight, barely perceptible tremor under their feet. The sound is so faint, that it is hard to separate from the beat of his own heart, but MingJue recognizes it easily.
“The gate,” he whispers.
“It is too soon,” she whispers back.
He wants to tell her that they can always resolve this issue by moving faster, but bites his tongue at the last moment. Luckily, she moves again, and seems to be actually walking faster this time, her steps no longer soundless. MingJue expects approximately another three frustrating lifetimes to go by, but only a few minutes pass before she pauses again. Her hand taps his elbow and points upwards, to the tunnel ceiling. MingJue can barely see an outline of a trap door, high enough where reaching it will not be easy.
“There was a rope ladder last time,” she whispers, “I do not like that it is gone.”
The worst possible scenario would be an ambush right above their heads, and MingJue can understand why she sounds unhappy at the prospect.
“I will go,” he whispers, “You stay.”
“Do not be stupid,” she hisses, “How will you find him? Will you shout in the halls? Take a hostage at sword point?”
MingJue shrugs. The hostage idea is not half-bad, in his opinion.
“Ridiculous,” she mutters, “lift me up.”
She is light, but it is extremely awkward to hold her up while she is fiddling with the trap door. Her sword scabbard somehow manages to hit him in the ribs, not just once, but twice, and if he did not know better, he would think she did it on purpose. Finally, there is a soft click, and a thin sliver of light appears directly above her.
Neither one of them move for a long time, both straining to listen to any sounds above them. But all seems to be quiet and still, and she pushes the trap door up slowly, dumping handfuls of dust and dirt on top of MingJue’s head. There is a faint creak of rusty hinges that sounds obnoxiously loud in the silence, then the trap door is open, and MingJue is momentarily blind. He blinks in the sudden light, his eyes watering, and she wiggles in his arms, hitting him in the ribs with her scabbard for the third time.
“You need to lift me up higher,” she hisses.
He resists the urge to toss her like a sack of rice, and lifts her up. She latches on to the edge of the floor, and after a short struggle with her skirts, manages to heave herself up the rest of the way. Jumping up to grab the same edge, he scrambles through the trap door after her. The room is small, empty, and layered in a finger-width of dust. The door leading out is reinforced with steel bars, but they are rusted as well.
MingJue tries to remember the last time the Nightless City was under siege. It was before his time, and before his father’s time too, if he remembers his history correctly. The room only exists so it can provide an easy access to the tunnel, and the tunnel is designed as an escape route, in the case the City walls are breached. Suddenly, the case of the missing rope ladder bothers him more than it should.
“When was the last time the Nightless City was under siege?” he whispers.
Wen Qing had already shifted her focus to the lock of the door leading out, and she shrugs,
“Does it matter? It is about to be under siege now. The sooner we leave this part of the palace, the better.”
The dust on the floor seems undisturbed, nothing so obvious as footsteps or scuff marks left behind. But the sheer amount of dirt that landed on him when the trap door first opened seems excessive now. The room is dusty and unused, but not dirty by any means.
“Whatever you are doing, stop,” she hisses, two of her hair pins moving delicately in the lock, “You are making me nervous.”
“I have not moved,” MingJue hisses back sullenly.
“Then stop thinking so loud. I am almost–“
A soft click echoes, and they both hold their breaths for a while, waiting. Then she straightens up, and very carefully pulls the door open. The creak of the hinges is so loud that MingJue thinks every person in the Nightless City must be able to hear it. The dead outside the City walls probably hear it as well.
The hallway beyond it is narrow and empty. Another few minutes, and he will see XiChen again. His hand automatically travels up to his chest, for the millionth time since they left GanQuan, where the handkerchief and the ribbon lay hidden next to his heart.
She pushes the hood away from her face, and moves down the hall with purpose, as if she belongs there. He, in turn, pulls his own hood over his head, and follows closely behind, mimicking an escort. It is unlikely they will meet anyone they cannot avoid in this part of the palace, but if they do, Wen Qing’s dress is red, close enough to the Wen Sect colors where no one should question her presence. Unlike her, MingJue cannot exactly pass for a Wen cultivator; someone his size could hardly escape notice for long. But he can easily pass for a mercenary, especially with a saber instead of a sword at his belt.
Twice, they hear a rush of footsteps, and manage to move out of sight just in time. Every time a hallway brings them close to a window hole, a faint roar can be heard from outside, but the sound is distant and unimportant. With each step, MingJue can feel his heart beating harder and harder, echoing in his ears.
Let XiChen be unharmed. If he is, MingJue will never raise his voice again. He will meditate ten hours a day. He will sit through HuaiSang’s horrifying rendition of the Song of Clarity as often as XiChen wants him to, and he will enjoy every moment of it. He will spend every day of the rest of his life telling XiChen exactly how much he is loved, in every possible way. And when he runs out of ways to say it, he will learn new ones.
The last three hallways are long and gloomy, heavy with damp. It is utterly silent in this part of the palace, and the cell doors they pass are all sealed shut. There could be dozens, hundreds of innocent people locked behind them.
MingJue feels a faint thread of guilt pulling on his chest. They will have to wait until the Nightless City has fallen.
Wen Qing stops at the last cell door at the end of the third hallway, her hair pins already in her hands. The lock is less rusty than the last one she had picked; it only takes her a few moments before the telltale click lets them know that it has given way. MingJue steels himself for another loud creak, but the door swings open soundlessly, and instead, he hears the sound of a dozen blades being unsheathed at once.
By the time they are pushed into Wen RuoHan’s gaudy receiving hall, MingJue has reached some semblance of calm.
All battle plans are only certain until the first arrow leaves the bow, and this one is no different. It would be easy to lose himself in rage over this betrayal; to question every word Wen Qing had ever spoken, every message her brother had sent. She had looked equally as shocked when they found themselves surrounded, but it makes little difference, whether her shock was genuine or an act. Whether he still dare trust her is equally as irrelevant.
The City gates have likely been breached by now, but the battle is still distant, and the palace is still under the Wen Sect control. Only a dozen people he trusts know his exact plans, and only half of those could accurately guess MingJue’s current location in the Nightless City. There will be no rescue. There will be no lucky escape. He must make peace with having lost this battle, and take comfort in knowing that the war will be won nonetheless.
Wen RuoHan is sitting in an exaggerated monstrosity of a Sect Leader’s chair, an enormous gold sun rising above his head, the entire contraption set on a platform, and resembling an emperor’s throne. A boy is standing at his right shoulder, his face blank and expressionless. Another dozen Wen Sect cultivators are lined up against the walls. There is someone kneeling on the floor in front of the platform, their head bent and hidden by a river of dark hair, their robes tattered and rust colored. It is the person’s back that catches MingJue’s gaze, crisscrossed with whip marks, a devastating length of torn skin and ruined flesh.
It takes MingJue a single breath to recognize the kneeling form. In the next, his calm is swept away in a fury that defies words. There are no coherent thoughts to his actions, no finesse, no calculation of any kind. He has never needed the saber to kill. The Wen Cultivator who had pushed him into the hall dies with a mask of shock on his face, the bones of his neck shattering in MingJue’s grip. The man’s sword, graceful and light, feels unfamiliar in MingJue’s hand. But a blade is a blade, and two more cultivators lose their limbs before the rest can react. MingJue can hear nothing but his own howl of rage. He cannot feel any pain. He is bleeding from dozens of cuts, and six men are dead by the time Wen RuoHan’s guards manage to knock him down to the ground.
Wen RuoHan seems completely unruffled, still sprawled on his throne, as if he had expected no less than a full blown slaughter in his hall.
“A-Lin,” he says, “is there anything you would like to say to your sister, before she is put to death?”
The boy at his shoulder is staring straight ahead, and his voice comes out thin but steady.
“I have no sister.”
MingJue hears Wen Qing make a sound of distress, but does not turn to look at her. He cannot look away from the kneeling shape in front of the platform.
He is aware that the hall is now guarded by less than a dozen cultivators, and that Wen RuoHan is unlikely to have more at hand. He can hear the roar from outside the palace, a barely perceptible sound of the Jiang Sect battle drums, but neither is growing any louder. Wen RuoHan would have sent every last man he can spare to hold the palace. The possibility of a rescue seems even less viable now, than it had been only minutes ago.
But everything is secondary to XiChen.
He is utterly motionless, his breaths barely discernible, as if deep in meditation, removed from the world around him. How can he stay so still? How can he bear the pain? The whip marks on his back cross one another so many times, that no lines can be distinguished. They must have cut down to the bone.
He does not think that he has ever truly hated Wen RuoHan before. The man is an old fool. Only old fools believe that they are somehow destined for greatness, despite their utter insignificance in the world. It is hard to hate fools, and easier to pity them. But MingJue hates him now, with a passion that feels annihilating.
“Both your sons are dead,” MingJue says, “One may have been killed by the Violet Spider, and the other on the field of battle, but they both died on the orders of a butcher. How feeble is the product of your loins, when I can have it killed without dirtying my hands? You should thank me,” he grins up at Wen RuoHan, “for eliminating such incompetence from your bloodline.”
A hilt of a sword slams into the back of his head, and he pitches forward, the blood from his mouth spraying across the stone floors.
Wen RuoHan rises from his vulgar throne, and slowly makes his way down the platform steps, the boy following behind him.
“You mean to provoke me to fight I suppose,” he says, “but there is no honor in winning against you.”
He passes by XiChen as if he does not exist, and steps lightly over the cultivator MingJue had killed. The cultivator’s sword, he carelessly kicks to the side. The boy following behind him bends over to pick it up, the movement perfunctory, as if picking up objects Wen RuoHan kicks out of the way is a matter of habit, rather than conscious thought. Wen RuoHan, who is only a few steps away from MingJue now, pauses at the scrape of the blade against the stone, and turns with a small frown.
“Put that down, A-Lin. You know I do not allow–“
There is no change in the boy’s expression. No shifting of balance, no sideways glance, no movement to his lips. The same casual movement with which he had picked up the sword, carries the sword upward, and buries the tip in the hollow of Wen RuoHan’s throat.
Time seems to stop.
No one moves. Not the boy, not the Wen cultivators utterly frozen around them, not even Wen RuoHan, whose blood is sliding down the blade to the boy’s hand. There is a soft gurgle from his throat, and his fingers twitch, as if he means to reach up and remove the tip of the blade himself. Now, there is a shadow of an expression on the boy’s face, a faint wrinkle in his forehead. He steps forward, and the blade punches out of the back of Wen RuoHan’s neck, the blade sickeningly grinding against the bones of his spine. Wen RuoHan’s knees finally fold. The boy, seemingly surprised that the blade is still in his hand, releases the hilt and steps back, which is somehow the most amazing, but also the most ridiculous thing MingJue has ever seen.
He moves before Wen RuoHan’s body manages to hit the ground, his hands closing around the hilt while the men around him are still frozen in shock. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Wen Qing moving at the same time, snatching up the sword from one of the dead men, and immediately tuning on the live ones. The battle is short and bloody, the Wen sluggish in their shock. Four of them are dead before the rest decide that dropping their blades and surrendering is a far better option.
“Run,” Wen Qing snaps at them, “Tell the others that there is nothing left to fight for.”
They are moving before the words have even left her mouth completely, not one of them sparing a glance for the motionless body of their Sect Leader.
Wen Qing immediately turns to her brother, her expression both furious and relieved. MingJue can hear her questioning the change in their plans, and Wen Ning’s hesitant replies. But he no longer cares about their failed strategies.
XiChen is still on his knees, unmoving, and MingJue feels genuine fear for the first time since entering the underground tunnel.
He kneels in front of him, noticing a thousand details at once. XiChen’s hands resting on his knees. The blood under his fingernails. Abrasions around his wrists that look raw and angry, as if the top layer of skin had been scraped off. The thickness of his hair, even dirty and matted with old blood, covering him like a cape. His head is bent, and his face not visible, but he is breathing. MingJue can see him breathing.
There is a barely perceptible flinch, but nothing more.
MingJue reaches out, then hesitates. He cannot guess how deep XiChen had drifted, or what the consequences could be, of pulling him out too fast.
Another flinch, followed by a slight tremor. XiChen’s fingers curl into the flesh of his legs, and the tremor becomes a full-body shiver, so violent, that MingJue can hear his teeth click. A soft gasp leaves him, then a slightly louder one, and MingJue does not have time to react before XiChen is gasping urgently as if he had ran for hours, his body tilting sideways and towards the floor. Terrified of hurting him more, MingJue does not dare grab any part of him to prevent the fall, but shifts his body so XiChen would sway into him instead. Even so, XiChen’s ravaged shoulder connects with MingJue’s, and he whimpers, palms coming up against MingJue’s chest, as if to push himself away.
“XiChen,” MingJue says again, feeling helpless.
The shivers do not cease, but the palms pressed against his chest curl in, gathering handfuls of material in a tight grip. His head is still bowed, and it shakes once, viciously, as if in denial.
“No,” he rasps, “Not– real.”
“XiChen,” his own voice is hoarse, something painful and bitter lodged in the back of his throat.
XiChen lifts his head slowly, eyes wide and shining, shock obvious in every line of his face. His hands scramble up, his fingers brushing over MingJue’s jaw and cheekbone, as if needing to ensure that he is real.
“Is– how?” he breathes, “Are you really–“
MingJue cups his hand over his own cheek, careful of the scraped wrist,
“I am truly here.”
“Oh,” XiChen gasps, “Oh!”
He throws himself forward with no warning, arms wrapping around MingJue’s neck, feverish cheek pressing against MingJue’s own. Just as quickly, he is pulling back, face contorted in pain. His trembling hands reach up again, and cup MingJue’s face. Fingers flutter over his temples, his cheeks, his chest. They brush over his shoulders, his arms, XiChen’s frantic gaze following the touch, as if somehow trying to see all of him at once.
It takes MingJue a few moments to understand what XiChen is doing, but when he does, the realization strikes him like a blade to the heart.
“I am not hurt,” he says, trapping the man’s restless hands with his own.
“There is blood,” XiChen rasps, “you are bleeding.”
“I am not hurt, XiChen. I am fine.”
As if only now realizing where he is, XiChen jerks his head in panic, gaze falling on the empty throne. His eyes sweep over the carnage on the floor, the bodies twisted in pool of blood, and settle on the heap of gold and crimson robes.
“Dead. He is dead.”
XiChen shivers, and closes his eyes. His hands are tight around MingJue’s, and he says nothing else, breathing deeply and deliberately, as if struggling for composure. In this moment, their fingers entwined, their heads so close together that MingJue can feel each exhale on his skin, all else in the world ceases to matter.
MingJue will give him all the time that he needs.
XiChen knows he is being selfish.
The battle is over. The Nightless City has fallen. A constant string of messages are circulating around Wen RuoHan’s palace, attempting to reach Nie MingJue, the man who had led all the sects and clans into battle, who had been the figurehead, the rallying cry, the mastermind responsible for the demise of the Wen Sect. They will want him to take Wen RuoHan’s place as His Excellency; XiChen knows this without having to be told, without having seen any of the messages. Every moment Nie MingJue is not out there, with the Sect Leaders, is a moment Jin GuangShan will use to his advantage.
A new wave of flames engulfs his back, and he hisses through his teeth, feeling tears gather in his eyes. The flow of spiritual energy MingJue is passing through their clasped hands does not lessen, but his fingers tighten, as if offering comfort.
There are far more convenient places in the palace they could have gone, but Wen Qing had steered them to a small set of chambers in the south wing, a place that had belonged to Wen RuoHan’s personal healer. It would seem that the man had abandoned his post in a hurry; none of his tools or medicines were disturbed, and even his coat still lay tossed over the worktable chair. Wen Qing had named him a hopeless coward, but a capable and well-organized coward nonetheless. Barking orders at her brother, she had rifled through the cabinets and chests with single-minded focus, gathering medicine and herbs, and muttering angrily under her breath.
The salve she had produced burns with the fire of a thousand suns, and XiChen does not understand how the cure can hurt more than the act of being whipped dozens of times. But he clenches his teeth and endures the pain, clinging to MingJue’s hand.
Six Nie cultivators stand guard outside the chambers, and no one is allowed to pass by them. XiChen cannot guess how many people, Sect Leaders and messengers alike, have been turned away so far. At one point, they could all clearly hear angry shouting outside the door, and although the voices had been unfamiliar, XiChen had felt his stomach twist with guilt.
“You should be out there,” he had said softly, without looking at MingJue.
“I am already where I should be,” MingJue had responded firmly, and no more was said on the subject.
XiChen knows he is being selfish, and childish, and that his uncle would be aghast, but he does not want Nie MingJue to leave his side ever again. He does not care about the battle. The first group of Nie cultivators who had found them in Wen RuoHan’s receiving hall had been accompanied by a dozen men from the Jiang Sect. They had brought with them the only news Lan XiChen had cared to hear, that his brother is alive and well, and that the remaining Wen had surrendered. He does not care about politics, or celebrations, or the choosing of the next Chief Cultivator. For the first time in his life, he wants only two things, and he wants them for himself alone. He wants his husband to remain by his side, and he wants to go home, to QingHe Nie.
His left shoulder lights on fire, and a small sound of pain escapes him, despite tightly gritted teeth.
“I am almost through,” Wen Qing says.
Her voice is firm, but kind. XiChen wants to reassure her that he can bear the pain, but is afraid to open his mouth, least more sounds escape. MingJue’s thumb brushes gently over his wrist, and XiChen looks up, just for a moment, just so he can give him a reassuring smile. It is a poor one, he knows, his face tight with pain, his teeth clenched, but MingJue does not seem to mind.
They are sitting across each other on the narrow cot that had been the healer’s bed, their knees brushing. It seems dreamlike, this physical proximity, when even in their marriage bed, the space between them had been infinitely wider. The pain is almost a welcome distraction. He aches for it, the sheer intimacy of breathing each other’s air, his body insisting that he should sway in closer. At the same time, he is conscious of the dirt and grime on his skin, the blood in his hair and under his nails. He cannot understand how MingJue can stand to touch him, when XiChen can barely stand to touch himself.
His torn robes are pooled around his waist, and he is achingly aware that this is the first time he has been partially undressed in front of the man he had married, and that he has never felt less desirable in his life, not even on his miserable wedding night. The fact that he must live the rest of his life with the scars Wen RuoHan had inflicted is too unbearable to think about. XiChen knows that MingJue cares for him a great deal; the man had made his affection abundantly clear. But he also understands that the depth of his affection may not necessarily translate into physical attraction. If Nie MingJue did not find him desirable before, how likely is he to do so now?
“I am done,” Wen Qing says, and he almost sobs in relief.
“Do not move yet,” she says sternly when he attempts to roll his shoulders, “I cannot cover the wounds. The medicine needs air to work.”
“How long?” MingJue asks.
“Long enough that I can look over your wounds. Strip.”
“I am fine.”
“You are not fine.”
“I am barely injured. There are plenty of others who may need you more.”
“Master Lan,” she says tightly, “would you care to weigh in with your opinion?”
XiChen thinks he likes her very much.
He looks up at MingJue, trying on another smile, and this one comes a little easier than the last.
“Let her look, at least,” he says softly, “It will ease my worries.”
For a moment, MingJue looks betrayed, but comically so, and XiChen ducks his head again, not wanting to laugh at him.
He ducks his head even further when MingJue shifts away. Suddenly, he is exquisitely alert to every tiny sound that his ears can pick up; the belt unwrapping, the layers of robes brushing against one another, the material sliding down MingJue’s back. Although his gaze is lowered, they are still sitting so close that XiChen can see each layer being deposited on the cot in front of him, the blood-spattered coat, the outer robe, the soft gray inner robe that lands on top of the others, as softly as a cloud drifting down.
He raises his eyes slightly, following the pile of material to the curve of the spine, a hint of a hip bone under the cloth, the stretch of powerful muscles above it, and his breath stutters loudly at the sight. Embarrassment floods him immediately, and he squeezes his eyes shut, his face growing hot. He nearly flinches away when MingJue’s hand seeks his out again.
“XiChen?” MingJue says, a thin thread of worry in his voice.
XiChen feels a hysterical laugh building in his throat, and swallows it down.
“Just– pain. Do not worry.”
Wen Qing snorts somewhere on the other side of MingJue, and XiChen thinks he would like to die of shame now.
“None of these need stitching,” she says, “turn. I want to see the cut on your back.”
There is a short silence, during which XiChen tries to focus on something else. Anything else. Anything that is not his half-dressed husband sitting within touching distance. It would be so easy to just reach out, and–
XiChen is fairly certain that MingJue will refuse the position of Chief Cultivator when it is offered to him. He is also fairly certain that Jin GuangShan is ready for MingJue’s refusal, and that he has already set strategies in place to make himself the next best option. Jin GuangShan would only make a decent Chief Cultivator when compared to a ruthless tyrant; he cannot be allowed to take the place Wen RuoHan had vacated, not unless they mean to fight another war in their lifetimes. XiChen should be out there, speaking to the Sect Leaders, trying to steer them to a more appropriate choice. He should–
“It is already healing.”
“I said I was fine.”
She lets out another distinctly unladylike snort,
“You can get dressed. I will check on my brother.”
XiChen had noticed Wen Ning tuck himself away in one of the side chambers, as if afraid that he will be in the way once Wen Qing no longer has need of him. However, it is equally as likely that he may not be comfortable in XiChen’s presence. He had stood witness at Wen RuoHan’s shoulder when XiChen was whipped, visibly distressed, but utterly silent. XiChen sincerely hopes that Wen Ning does not feel guilty for anything that had occurred.
Forgetting his resolve not to look up, XiChen does just that, and feels his mouth dry.
MingJue had shrugged back into his inner robes, but they are loosely tied, and they conceal nothing. Not the breadth of his shoulders, the ridge of his collar bones, the solid muscle of his chest. But it is the small pouch MingJue holds out that causes XiChen’s heart to jump painfully in his chest, and erases everything else from his mind.
Even as he is reaching out to take it, he can see that the knots in the handkerchief are not his own.
“I did not touch it,” MingJue says, as if reading his mind, “I did not know if I had the right.”
The knots fall apart easily in XiChen’s hands, and he feels too many things at once, all of them conflicting, and all of them full of indescribable hurt. That night, he had been so certain that he was moving towards his death; he had mourned all the words that had gone unsaid between them, the time that had been wasted in questions and doubts, the future that they could have built together. Everything he could not say was tightly knotted under the blooming magnolia tree, all the restraint released, given to the one person he had expected to understand.
“You are my husband,” he says, hating that his voice sounds weak and unsteady, “You have always had the right.”
Had he truly carried it all this time, on his person, near his skin, and never once held it in his hands?
“XiChen,” MingJue says softly, his tone infinitely patient, “do not dance words with me, you know I am not capable of doing the same. My rights and your desires could be worlds apart. You did not give me permission to touch it, so I did not.”
Flustered, XiChen looks up, to find MingJue watching him with the same forbearance so obvious in his tone, as if willing to wait as long as XiChen needed him to, as if nothing else mattered. The hurt he had felt bleeds away in a rush, and he gathers up the ribbon before his cowardice can prevent it, pressing it in MingJue’s palm.
“I did not send it to my husband for safekeeping,” he says, his heart beating wildly in his throat, “It has always been yours to touch. Not because you have the right, but because I wish it.“
It is devastating, the bewilderment of MingJue’s expression, as if XiChen had come out with something utterly preposterous, rather than an admission of affection. He will blame himself for this later, perhaps not too cruelly, but enough to reconsider all the ways in which he expresses himself. But at this moment, he is too impatient for such thoughts. He squeezes MingJue’s hand, feeling a sharp, daring intensity he would have never thought himself capable of before.
“I would ask my husband to put it back where it belongs. If he is willing.”
MingJue exhales heavily, but does not hesitate. The urgency with which he scrambles up to comply would be humorous at any other time. But there is nothing playful about the reverence with which MingJue handles the task, the gentleness with which he gathers up XiChen’s hair and slides the ribbon over his forehead. XiChen feels his touch from the nape of his neck to the bottom of his spine, a sweetness underneath all the ravaged flesh.
MingJue’s hand lingers near his temple for a moment, and he clears his throat,
“Did I do it right?”
XiChen does not bother to check.
“Mhm. Now, you should kiss me.”
He does not mean to say it out loud, but the words are out, hovering in the air between them. For a few breaths MingJue’s stillness is excruciating, and XiChen wonders if has asked for too much, too soon.
His next breath is stolen by MingJue, and the next, and the one after. It is chaste, each press of the lips against his own, but XiChen feels intoxicated by it, the roughness of the upper lip scraping against his own, the hot breath against his mouth. His heart feels too large for his chest, every beat thrumming loudly in his ears. He follows MingJue’s mouth blindly when it moves away, catching the soft bottom lip between his own, tasting it with his tongue. The noise MingJue makes is utterly indecent, and XiChen’s body floods with heat in response.
He wants to hear it again; he wants to be the cause of every indecent noise his husband can make, every stutter of his breath, every flush across his skin. MingJue’s hand wraps around his jaw, the calluses scraping over sensitive skin, and his tongue licks across XiChen’s own, slick and hot. He swallows the soft whimper XiChen makes, equally as indecent as his own, and shifts closer, both hands now cupping his face, tilting his head, licking into his mouth with urgency that XiChen can feel in the pit of his stomach, a burning ache that borders on pain.
The sound of the throat clearing startles him so badly, that he jerks away as if scalded. MingJue grabs his arm not a moment too soon, otherwise XiChen might have propelled himself off the cot and onto the floor.
Wen Qing has the good grace to look contrite instead of amused. This is probably a smart thing, as MingJue now looks murderous.
A soft knock echoes against the door, and Wen Qing motions toward the sound,
“That has been happening. For a little while now.”
The heat across XiChen’s skin is now solely the result of embarrassment. He thinks he had been very close to crawling into MingJue’s lap, and finding his way underneath the thin layer of the inner robe that is still precariously clinging to MingJue’s shoulders. All while Wen Qing and Wen Ning were a few steps away, perhaps unable to see them, but certainly able to hear. He wants to crawl under the cot and never come out. He wants to pull MingJue with him, and continue what they started until the restlessness under his skin is sated.
MingJue gets to his feet, pulling the outer robe over his shoulders, and Wen Qing takes it as a sign that she can answer the door.
Nie ZhongHui steps in and bows quickly, his clothes still streaked with blood, a clumsy make-shift bandage wrapped around his upper arm. XiChen can practically see Wen Qing’s fingers twitch at the sight.
“What is it?” MingJue says, worry obvious in his voice.
“Sect Leader Jiang’s son is injured. The two healers Jiang Sect had brought with them claim that nothing can be done.”
“Wei WuXian?” XiChen asks, and Nie ZhongHui shakes his head.
“Jiang WanYin. Madam Yu– is asking for assistance. She would be– grateful if Sect Leader Nie would allow the Nie Sect healer to examine her son.”
XiChen is fairly certain that Madam Yu neither asked for assistance, nor offered gratitude, but he supposes she was right to send Nie ZhongHui, as he is more diplomatic than most.
“That must be me,” Wen Qing says, her voice deceptively bright, and MingJue grunts in response.
“I suppose we must face the music sooner or later. Give us a few moments, Nie ZhongHui. Arrange an escort in the meantime. Twenty should be sufficient.”
Nie ZhongHui leaves, and Wen Qing immediately begins gathering up her supplies, face determined, as if preparing for another battle.
XiChen stands up, pulling his torn robes back around his shoulders,
“I will come as well.”
He expects MingJue to argue. To insist that he stay, and rest, and not aggravate his injuries. And for a moment, it does seem as if MingJue wants to object, each reason why XiChen should not further place himself in harm’s way easy to read in his eyes.
But he does not say any of them. Instead, he takes his outer robe off again, and lays it carefully over XiChen’s shoulders.
In the end, the official Conference is postponed for five days.
XiChen understands the reasoning behind the decision. The sects and clans that had participated in the Sunshot Campaign are determined to have a voice in something that will affect them all for decades to come. It will take time for them to gather, and it will take time for the next Chief Cultivator to be chosen. But this also means that XiChen must choose between remaining in the Nightless City for five days, at his husband’s side, or leaving for QingHe on his own.
MingJue cannot leave. Although he has made it clear that he will not take Wen RuoHan’s place, he seems to have been designated Chief Cultivator in the interim. Suddenly, no decision can be made without him, no meeting held, no task delegated. He is constantly sought after, every hour of the day, and XiChen finds himself both pleased and irritable in equal measure. His husband is a natural leader; he allows no nonsense or sect politics to influence his decisions, and it is exhilarating to watch him plow over Jin GuangShan’s veiled suggestions, Madam Yu’s blunt disrespect, and even Jiang FengMian’s patient monologues. At the same time, XiChen is no longer satisfied with a rushed kiss in the middle of the day, or the few careful ones late in the night, long after he has drifted off to sleep. Although his face heats each time he thinks of it, he wants to be back in the Unclean Realm, in his own marriage bed, with his husband at his disposal. He cannot bear the idea of being apart from MingJue again, so soon after everything that had taken place, and the thought of returning home on his own, of having to wait days to see him again, is too unsettling to even consider.
His desire to remain in close proximity to his husband is far outweighed by his urge to be far away from Wen RuoHan’s gaudy carpets, and gold wall hangings, and red linens; he decides to stay, already certain that he will hate every moment of the five days to come. On the second day however, respite comes from an unlikely source. The remainder of the Nie Sect left behind at QingHe arrives at the Nightless City gates, HuaiSang and MeiLing at their head.
They have arrived to fight, as the last message carried to QingHe had given them no certainty of victory, but all except MeiLing seem relieved to find the battle long over. XiChen is amazed but unsurprised that MeiLing has a full set of armor that is her own, a set that looks ancient and well-used. She does not discard it on her arrival, nor does she discard her saber, a heavy blade far more intimidating than any XiChen has seen so far. Instead, she barrels through the Nightless City with her brothers at her shoulders, determined to battle something after having traveled all the way from QingHe, and easily finds other things to beat into submission.
A-Sang seems slightly more subdued than he had been the last time XiChen had seen him, but his bright chatter and nonsensical observations remain unchanged. He inspects the chambers MingJue and XiChen had chosen to remain in for the next five days, and then, without a pause in some story XiChen is only half-listening to, he begins to alter the space in ways XiChen would have never thought of on his own. The Nie Sect servants are ordered to move the tea table close to the window, another is tasked with stripping the tapestries from the walls, two more are sent running to look for any cloth that is not crimson or gold. In a matter of hours, the space no longer seems as unbearable as it was, and XiChen feels overwhelmed with gratitude. He is not ashamed to admit that he tears up a little bit then, while A-Sang flutters uselessly around him, and sends more servants for another pot of tea and snacks. Afterwards, they sit in silence, and even the Nightless City suffocating breeze feels a little less oppressive.
The next day, the Elders of the Lan Sect arrive, and XiChen is forced into numerous discussions that hold no interest. He understands that this is an important decision, and he is not exactly ambivalent about the choice of the next Chief Cultivator. Jin GuangShan has been playing his games, and sowing his whispers among the other Sect Leaders, trying to secure support even while the dead bodies were being dragged out of Wen RuoHan’s receiving hall. XiChen is very much invested in Jin GuangShan not becoming the next Chief Cultivator. But he is not ashamed to admit that he is invested in little else, and finds himself often nodding along with whatever the Elders suggest, daydreaming about the next moment he and MingJue may have to themselves.
For once in his life, WangJi seems to have a better handle on the situation as a whole. He attends every meeting, voices his dissent without remorse, and continuously shows himself be just and honorable in his opinions. At the same time, Young Master Wei can often be seen rushing down the halls with a smile that could rival the sun, his robes ruffled and his hair tangled, obvious bite marks gracing his neck. XiChen is not exactly jealous of his brother, but he thinks it terribly ironic, that WangJi has so easily found the right balance, when XiChen still seems to be struggling with his own.
He does not sleep well.
Some of it is the simple inability to shift around any way he would like, without pain, without having to consciously consider how his body is positioned. He falls asleep easily, but wakes often, and each time he does, it is a little more difficult to drift back under. After three nights of this, he is exhausted by the process. MingJue had come to bed late, as he had every night since the City had fallen. XiChen had been drifting between the thin layer of sleep and deeper dreams, and he vaguely remembers lips brushing over his temple, and a sweet rush of warmth in his chest. Now, MingJue is sleeping peacefully, body curved towards XiChen’s side of the bed.
It is difficult to guess the hour in the darkness, but XiChen thinks the dawn is not too far off. He moves silently around the chambers, foregoing the trappings of propriety and status. There is no hair ornament that does not seem too heavy to bear this morning, and the clothes laid out the night before are too time consuming for his tired fingers. There is a restlessness under his skin again, one that cannot bear the idea of sitting still until the sun rises. Tying his hair off loosely with a ribbon, he shrugs on MingJue’s coat instead, and steps out into the hallway.
He has no set destination, allowing his feet to take him where they will. The palace is silent at this time of the morning, and XiChen meets no one except an occasional guard on the night duty, bowing silently before moving on. It is hard to believe, when faced with empty cavernous halls and deserted courtyards, that almost every sect and clan leader in the cultivation world is already somewhere within the palace walls. The Jin Sect Elders are still due to arrive; another handful of clan leaders who had been stationed far in the southeast, are only now crossing YiLing on their way to QiShan. But even without them, in the daylight hours, the Nightless City already feels as if it is bursting at the seams, loud, and crowded, and stifling. At this very moment, however, empty of noise, stripped of all its garish ornaments, and exposed down to its bare structural bones, XiChen thinks it does not looks so different from the Unclean Realm.
He wonders what it must feel like to Wen Qing, trapped in a place she had escaped once already, seeing the emblems of her former sect so casually tossed aside. As a child, he had loved stories of battles of wars, of empires raising and falling. But he had never thought he would see an entire sect be erased from existence in his own lifetime. He has little pity for Wen RuoHan or those who had followed him blindly, but sometimes he thinks that the cure can cause more pain than the ailment had, just as Wen Qing’s salve had done on his injured back.
Mind preoccupied with Wen Qing, he finds that his feet had taken him to the south side of the palace, where she had taken the former healer’s chambers as her own. He has no intention of disturbing her. The south courtyard is not nearly as overwhelming as the others, and he thinks he may even settle under the tung trees for some time, and wait for the sun to rise. But the main chamber, where she had set countless bones and wrapped more than one injured limb in the last few days, is wide open and lit up brightly. She is sitting at the work bench, head bent over a a book, another two dozen precariously stacked at her right shoulder. She seems to sense him rather than hear him. Although he had considered simply continuing on, he cannot do so now that she had seen him.
“Is your back giving you pain?” she asks immediately, and he has to smile, that this is the first thing on her mind.
“No more than usual. Sleep is difficult, but the pain is bearable.”
Her expression clearly says that she does not think he is being truthful, and she rises from her seat, moving to slide the door closed.
“Let me see.”
He strips down to the waist easily, as he is only wearing two layers, the outer one quite a bit larger than his own tends to be. Her fingers are careful even as they press here and there, searching for something only she can see.
“It is healing well,” she says after a while, “I believe it may be time to start treatment to minimize scarring.”
While she is riffling through the shelves, he shrugs his his robe back on, and tries to find the right words for the questions that have been chasing back and forth across his mind.
In the end, he has nothing more eloquent than:
“Have you been well?”
“I have been busy,” she says, without looking up from the small jars lined up on the counter, “Many of the sect ladies want to be of use, but know nothing of medicine, and are incapable of taking instruction.”
She pauses, then adds somewhat begrudgingly,
“The Sect Leader Jiang’s daughter is … adequate.”
XiChen does not know Jiang YanLi well, and can only vaguely picture her face. He knows she is here, in the Nightless City, but has not seen her yet, and every attempt to remember their last meeting only brings about an impression of a sweet smile.
Wen Qing brings him two jars of ointment, one thick and white in color, and the other slick and clear.
“This one is for your back,” she says, tapping the white one, “twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening. If Sect Leader Nie is too preoccupied for the task, I will find the time. It will not eliminate the scarring, but it should decrease the worst of it.”
XiChen is still flustered at the insinuation that MingJue should be the one to apply it, when she moves on smoothly to the next jar,
“I highly doubt either one of you came to the Nightless City prepared to stay, or to engage in more intimate activities. I know many of the others have not, as I have given out nearly twenty of these in three days. The supply is already low, so use it sparingly. And I do not think I need to tell you to be careful of your injury.”
XiChen feels his face light on fire, and fumbles the jar, nearly dropping it on the floor.
“I– this is– not necessary.”
She is already walking back to her workbench, unruffled by his embarrassment,
“No? Keep it regardless. Wen RuoHan had always insisted on the best quality medicine that can be produced, even in this– particular area. I will wager you will not find one of equal value in QingHe.”
Face burning so brightly that even his eyes feel hot, XiChen quickly tucks away the jars into the pockets of the coat, determined to go no further with this conversation. Still, it takes him a few moments to gather his wits, and stop the unwelcome suggestions his mind insists on providing, of every possible way the ointment could be used.
He clears his throat,
“Is– is your brother adjusting well?”
“As well as can be expected,” she says, eyes back on the book, “Considering he has to live with having killed his Sect Leader without reaping any of the benefits. If such an act can be said to have benefits.”
XiChen is not quite sure how to respond to such a statement. He had thought himself hardened to blunt speech after having lived in the Unclean Realm for months, but Wen Qing still manages to throw him off balance.
“It was kind of Sect Leader Nie to have Nie ZhongHui take my brother under his protection,” she says after a moment, looking up, “Do thank him for this consideration, as I have not had a chance to speak to him yet.”
“Of course,” XiChen says, although he is not aware of any such thing.
He does remember seeing Wen Ning by Nie ZhongHui’s side more than once, but had not given it much thought. She says nothing else however, looking as if she means to continue with her work, and would prefer to do so undisturbed.
“Thank you, Healer Nie. I will take my leave.”
She snorts at the title, but tilts her head in acknowledgment.
XiChen feels the jar of ointment burning in the pocket all the way back to his chambers.
This chapter contains explicit elements.
The Conference starts off as any other, with each Sect Leader convinced his opinion should be the highest valued, and the first to be heard.
As a result, hours later nothing has been decided, and XiChen feels a faint throbbing in the back of his head, somewhat reminiscent of his early days under Wen RuoHan’s hospitality. He is sitting to MingJue’s right, and he can see his husband’s hands tightly wrapped over the intricately carved arms of the chair, doubtlessly to prevent him from reaching for his saber, and running through Jin GuangShan first, before moving on to all the rest. XiChen thinks that the wood of the chair is going to splinter soon, and carefully brushes his fingers over one clenched fist.
MingJue turns to him, eyes flashing, but his anger melts away quickly at the expression on XiChen’s face.
He leans in close, his breath hot against XiChen’s ear,
“Should we break for a time?”
XiChen tries not to shiver visibly at having him so close, and nods, glad that he did not have to voice his weakness. At the start of the day, his inner robes had stuck to the ointment on his back every time he moved. Now, he can feel the cloth brushing against the freshly formed scars, and keeping still to prevent the constant rub has settled a deep ache in all of his back muscles.
MingJue stands up, and the rest quiet down just long enough to be told that the Conference will continue in two hours time. The arguments and shouting continue on, even as MingJue and a few of the other sect leaders leave the hall. XiChen sincerely hopes that his weakness is not providing Jin GuangShan with more material for dissent. He can practically feel his uncle’s critical gaze on the nape of his neck, and tells himself firmly that his husband’s judgement takes precedence.
Back in their chambers, XiChen sends for tea, and offers to play the Song of Clarity.
MingJue shakes his head,
“Your back is giving you pains. Six hours of sitting still, I would be surprised if it did not. Can I see?”
XiChen thinks there will be a day, far in the future, when he will not feel embarrassed to strip in front of a man he had married. But that day is not yet here, and even as he pulls the robe off his shoulders, he can see the telltale redness spreading across his chest.
“The salve has not held up well today,” MingJue says, “This cloth is too heavy on your back. Did A-Song not bring any lighter robes?”
“He did, but none are appropriate for the Conference.”
MingJue grunts, but says nothing in response. XiChen knows that MingJue cares little for formality and propriety, but he also understands why it is necessary.
“Lie down,” MingJue says, “If you mean to sit the Conference for another six hours, I will apply another layer.”
XiChen’s heart jumps in his chest, but he does as instructed, settling down on his front, and laying his head on his arms. They had done this three times already, since Wen Qing had given him the salve, and each time has been an experience XiChen would be hard-pressed to describe. There is nothing inherently arousing about being touched in places that are unsightly and painful, but he enjoys the process more than he should. The salve is cool and soothing, while MingJue’s fingers are warm and gentle; the combination leaves him feeling discomposed, but it is not an unpleasant feeling, and he has so very few chances to touch and be touched, that even this is pleasurable in its own way.
This time, his exhaustion is weighing him down before MingJue even settles next to him, the sleepless nights finally catching up to his muscles. MingJue brushes his hair to the side, and for a while XiChen loses himself in the careful movement of fingers across his back, drifting comfortably between wakefulness and sleep, thinking of nothing. He hardly notices the tea arrive, and by the time MingJue reaches the bottom of his spine, he feels as if he has had at least a day’s worth of rest.
He can hear the jar being placed back on the table, but instead of rising, MingJue’s fingers slide through his hair, short nails scratching against his scalp. The drowsiness leaving him in a rush, XiChen shudders at the sensation, and makes a soft sound of encouragement. He is fully awake now, a soft thrill racing across his skin with each brush of MingJue’s fingers, and he knows redness is spreading across his body again, this time unrelated to embarrassment.
The tension had long bled out of his muscles, but now a different agitation seems to settle in each one, akin to an itch that cannot be scratched. He shifts restlessly, tilting his head for better access, and MingJue chuckles in response, nails scraping against the nape of XiChen’s neck.
It feels lovely, but it is not nearly enough. Suddenly, XiChen wants MingJue’s hands everywhere else on his body, and he wants it with an urgency that he can taste in the back of his throat.
It seems that he has wanted for so long, for lifetimes now, and the thought of having to move away again, having to back to the Conference with this fire burning under his skin is too unbearable to even consider.
He lifts up to his knees, dizzy and reckless, not caring that his robes tangle around his legs. MingJue makes a soft sound of surprise, but his mouth opens readily under XiChen’s, yielding to his tongue. It is the first real kiss XiChen has had since the day of the battle, and he feels starved for more, shifting to bring himself closer, fingers sliding into MingJue’s hair.
There are no words to describe MingJue’s mouth, the contrast between the roughness of his unshaved skin and the slickness of his tongue, the sharp teeth nipping on his lip in one moment, the soft lips soothing the pain in the next. XiChen feels as if each part of his body is intimately connected to his mouth, throbbing in unison with every swipe of the tongue and scrape of the teeth.
He is not nearly close enough, and he tries to move without breaking the kiss. The robes twist, digging into his thighs, and he tugs impatiently at the material until it frees his legs, then tosses it to the side, not caring where it lands.
Crawling into MingJue’s lap is a revelation. They are both hard, and the first brush of his cock against the hard ridge of MingJue’s own is exhilarating, wiping all coherent thoughts from XiChen’s head. He sobs into MingJue’s mouth, even as he is rocking forward to feel it again, the sweet pressure, and rough scrape of cloth against sensitive skin. MingJue’s breath is labored, burning hot against his cheek. Both of his hands grip XiChen’s thighs, pulling his hips closer even as XiChen is grinding into his lap. XiChen thinks there will be bruises where his fingers have dug into the flesh, and the thought of being marked in such a way only makes him more desperate.
His own hands are struggling to pull apart the ridiculous layers of MingJue’s robes, searching for skin, for the muscles in his shoulders and back. Each frenzied press and drag of his cock against MingJue’s own is building up in his spine, in the pit of his stomach, at the nape of his neck. Each punches a sound out of his chest, a desperate cry that is quickly swallowed by MingJue’s mouth. MingJue is shaking under his hands, his own moans deep and destitute. XiChen can feel each one vibrate in his mouth and throat, and he wants to hear them clearly, to commit every one to memory.
He manages to push MingJue’s robes down his shoulders, but the belt is trapped in-between them, scraping roughly against XiChen’s stomach with each grind of his hips. It is enough, however, to reach some flesh, and XiChen breaks the kiss only so he can press his mouth against the curve of MingJue’s neck. The sound that escapes MingJue’s throat seems to border on pain. Encouraged, XiChen sucks the skin into his mouth, nails scraping the skin of his back, digging into the muscle. MingJue’s hips jerk against his in response, and XiChen feels him spill between them with a cry, his hands trapping XiChen’s cock against his own.
MingJue is still gasping for breath when he shifts away, just far enough to slide his hand between them. The thin underpants XiChen is still wearing are twisted around him, but they are loose enough that MingJue does not need to pull them off. They are sticking to his flesh, the cloth saturated and slick. XiChen thinks he has never been this this hard, this desperate for release. MingJue curses reverently under his breath when his fingers encounter the wet material, and the first firm press of his palm nearly finishes the job. XiChen cries out, face hidden in MingJue’s neck; even through the material, he can feel each rough callus of MingJue’s palm against his skin. It is not enough, MingJue is being gentle with him, but XiChen is so close to the edge that gentleness feels painful.
Fumbling between them, he wraps his fingers around MingJue’s, squeezing them tightly around his cock. MingJue curses again, but he follows instruction to the letter, gripping him roughly, movement jarring and uncoordinated. Coordination does not matter to XiChen, and he jerks his hips into MingJue’s hand half a dozen times before he is coming, his broken cry pressed against MingJue’s neck.
They hold on to each other for a long time, their breaths loud in the stillness.
XiChen cannot move. He is utterly boneless, every muscle liquid and trembling. His head is still tucked in the curve of MingJue’s shoulder, and he can feel the man’s pulse beating steadily against his forehead. There is a deep ache in his back now; he had somehow managed to forget about his injuries entirely, and he knows that he must have twisted the wrong way more than once. Still, at no point had MingJue’s hands reached for the ravaged skin by mistake. XiChen might have been careless with his own injuries, but MingJue had stayed vigilant the entire time.
MingJue’s hand finds his own, and tangles their fingers together. They are both covered with a thin sheen of sweat, and everything below XiChen’s waist is sticky and uncomfortably damp. And yet, all he can truly feel is a light, quiet happiness, glowing in his chest, filling him with warmth. He thinks he could stay like this forever, listening to MingJue breathe in the silence of the room, feeling the man’s thumb brushing gently over his own.
“I love you,” he says quietly, not sure that he would manage to say it until he did.
MingJue’s breath stutters, and he shifts, forcing XiChen to lift his head. The sheer intensity of emotion in his gaze is almost too much to handle. XiChen wants to hide from it, but cannot, and feels his skin flush in response. MingJue hands are shaking when he cups XiChen’s face again, his lips infinitely gentle on XiChen’s cheekbones, eyelids, the bridge of his nose and the corner of his mouth.
He presses their foreheads together, smoothing XiChen’s hair out of the way, fingers trembling against XiChen’s jaw.
“You are my life,” he breathes against XiChen’s mouth, “My heart. I never want to live a day in this world without you at my side.”
The quiet happiness in XiChen’s chest blooms bright and intense, and he lets out a sound, half-way between a laugh and a sob. Oh, how he wishes that he knew a way to speak so plainly, to describe such emotion out loud. He will learn, he thinks, and he will practice every day until he does.
But in the meantime, his joy is too large to be contained, and he presses his mouth against his husband’s, saying everything he cannot express in words.
The Conference takes three days to wind down, despite the fact that the Chief Cultivator is chosen by the end of the first day.
The margin is narrow, but the Elders carry a voice as well, and majority of them, unsurprisingly, side with MeiLing’s preference. MingJue thinks they will not soon forget the sight of her storming down the Nightless City halls with a saber in her hand, looking for something to fight, and would rather agree with her, than find out all the ways in which she means to retaliate.
In the end, it is three votes more in favor of Madam Yu, and she takes the Chief Cultivator seat calmly, as if she had expected nothing less. MingJue would have been happy to leave at that point, not caring much for any other complaints the rest of them may have, but the first issue brought forwards is the issue of the Wen Sect.
Jin GuangShan could not secure the title of His Excellency, and has obviously come prepared to make at least some people as unhappy as he is. He does not say it outright, that the Nie Sect is harboring the Wen remnants, but he talks in circles enough where more than half of the sect leaders turn nervous, and insist on knowing the truth.
MingJue has already made his peace with fighting another battle if needs be, and has no intention of yielding. He stands up, and calmly proclaims that the people currently residing in the Unclean Realm are, in fact, a branch of the Nie Sect from HeJian, seeking refuge from the war.
Jin GuangShan can hardly wait for him to finish speaking, before he is jumping back up,
“See! It is a lie! There is no branch of Nie Sect in HeJian! There never has been!”
Sitting a step below MingJue, MeiLing clears her throat loudly, effectively cutting off the murmurs around the hall.
“Sect Leader Jin is remarkably well-informed. Pity he does not keep track of his own offspring with the same level of concern.”
Hush falls at her words, and Jin GunagShan slowly turns purple, his mouth working, but no words being formed.
“Lady Nie,” Jin ZiHan says, “We had agreed to keep this discussion civil.”
“Was I uncivil?” MeiLing says, her eyes widening, “I only thought I should speak plainly. Jin GuangShan can whore around as much as he pleases, that is for his wife to worry about. But I do believe that I have the right to question the location of his offspring, if he insists on questioning the location of mine.”
Another murmur goes up, now both Jin GuangShan and Jin ZiHan wearing the same shade of purple on their face, and MingJue does not know if he wants to laugh or cry. On the other side of him, XiChen is still cool and collected, although both his hands are tightly clasped in his lap. But on XiChen’s right, HuaiSang’s entire head is hidden by his fan, and he is laughing soundlessly, his shoulders shaking in mirth.
“Lady Nie,” Jiang YuXuan says carefully, “You have never married.”
“I am old, A-Xuan, not feeble,” she says, “A woman has never needed a husband to have a child. Or three.”
"This is preposterous,” Jin ZiHun finally finds his voice, “You expect us to believe that you– that you had–“
“Multiple children out of wedlock?” MeiLing says sweetly, and HuaiSang starts to sound as if he is choking.
“You are saying that the Nie branch from HeJian are your descendants,” Lan XiaoChun says calmly.
MingJue thinks he likes this man well enough, even if he is a Lan Elder. In the entire hall, he is the only one who does not look ready to swallow his tongue.
“Yes,” MeiLing says, “Illegitimate, of course, but I gave my sons the Nie name, as is my right, and they in turn, passed it to their many children and grandchildren.”
“And great-grandchildren,” Wen Qing says softly, from her place at MeiLing’s back.
“Quite correct, my dear,” MeiLing smiles up at her, “And great-grandchildren. How large is the HeJian Nie branch now? Remind me.”
“Fifty-six members,” Wen Qing responds promptly.
“Ridiculous! Ridiculous!” Jin GuangShan exclaims, “This is all nonsense! They are part of the Wen Sect, all of them!”
“Sect Leader Jin,” Jiang YuXuan says, “Do you have any proof?”
“I do not need proof! They are Wen!”
“That is enough,” Madame Yu says firmly, “This discussion has gone on long enough. Nie Qing had arrived at the Nightless City with the rest of the Nie Sect, as their healer. Her skills have saved dozens of men from every Sect. My own son is alive today because of her, and I will not have accusations thrown around without proof. Sect Leader Jin, sit down. We have many other matters to discuss, unless you mean to spend the winter in the Nightless City.”
Jin GuangShan’s color truly does not look healthy any more, and MingJue is afraid that the man means to drop dead in the middle of the hall. It would be no great loss to the cultivation world at large, but it would keep them all here at least another day, and he would very much like to leave the Nightless City for good.
“That is settled then,” Madam Yu says, “The QiShan farmland west of YueYang is next on the list. Sect Leader Yue, what do you propose to do?”
And just like that they are moving on, as if nothing of importance had happened. MingJue glances over to find XiChen smiling at him brightly, and feels his heart skip a beat at the sight. He thinks he will never get used to those smiles, as long as he lives.
“NaiNai,” he hears Wen Qing say softly, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I would love some,” MeiLing sighs, “Fetch one for yourself as well.”
It is only as they are traveling back to QingHe that MingJue starts to wonder if perhaps, it had all gone off a bit too smoothly.
They are riding back, taking their time, as XiChen should not exert himself by flying yet. Approximately a third of the Nie Sect is riding with them, making a grand post-war procession across YueYang and YingChuan. Wen Qing had warned them to limit the riding as well, no more that six hours at a time, and although at this rate, it will take many days to reach QingHe, MingJue does not mind.
It feels very much like the trip they never got to take after their wedding, the one that was to take them back to Cloud Recesses. Although postponed once due to the war, Lan WangJi’s own wedding is to take place within a month, and MingJue supposes another trip must be planned, almost as soon as they arrive home. In the meantime, he enjoys having XiChen all to himself, for the first time since their wedding day. Their nights are spent in small inns, eating questionable spices and sharing cramped beds, and MingJue thinks he has never been happier in his life.
But he cannot help circling back to the events at the Conference, although he tries his hardest to put them out of his mind.
“Do you not think Madam Yu was too lenient?” he says, out of the blue one day, as they are half-way across YingChuan.
XiChen, who had been riding silently by his side, looks startled by the question.
“I am glad, of course, that it was all so easily settled,” MingJue adds, “But for her not to question MeiLing’s story seems… unlike her.”
It is the nicest way he can refer to a woman that he still wants to grab by the neck, and shake her vigorously for the entire Wen Chao incident, but he is trying. Heavens help him, he is trying.
“Ah,” XiChen says, smiling, “This has been bothering you for some time. I had wondered.”
“Was it obvious I was bothered by it? You did not ask.”
XiChen looks down at his hands, smile slipping away, and MingJue immediately regrets his words.
“You are always entitled to ask for my thoughts,” MingJue says, “but never obligated to do so. That was not a chastisement, do not take it as such.”
“I know,” XiChen says, “It– it does not come naturally, this. I have learned long ago not to question unspoken things, and must unlearn it now. It will take time.”
He lifts his head, and smiles, something mischievous in the curve of his lips,
“My husband should indulge me, and say things more often, without having to be asked.”
“You–“ MingJue says, spluttering, “I offer understanding, and get chastised in turn.”
“My husband is very understanding,” XiChen says, his meek tone at odds with the smile, “I am eternally grateful.”
MingJue wants to pull him from the horse, toss him on the grass, and kiss him until they are both breathless.
“Madam Yu has her own secret to hide from the other sects,” XiChen goes on, “A much smaller one than ours, but one she would dearly like to protect.”
MingJue perks up, then immediately feels ridiculous. He is no HuaiSang to get excited about other people’s secrets.
“I thought gossip was forbidden,” he says, and XiChen laughs.
“If you do not wish to know–“
“I do. I do wish to know. Tell me.”
“As it happens, the Jiang Sect has also found a long-lost member of the clan. A cousin of one of the Elders had an illegitimate son, who had a son, who– well, you are familiar with the method of these things.”
MingJue grunts. He still cannot believe that was the route MeiLing had chosen to take. She is lucky that he is shameless, otherwise he would have never been able to show his face in the cultivation world again.
“This long-lost member of the Jiang clan has a very rare, very particular skill. There has only been one other cultivator in the history with this particular skill, but this man was unfortunately killed by the Violet Spider, when the Nightless City fell.”
“She is hiding the Core-Melting Hand?” MingJue exclaims, and XiChen’s eyes widen.
MingJue can hear the men some distance behind him liven up at hearing the title, and shrinks down, feeling foolish.
“It is a secret,” XiChen hisses, and MingJue rolls his eyes.
Now it all makes sense. She probably did not have a plan when she had decided to spare the man’s life, and MeiLing’s bold strategy must have given her an idea on how to proceed. Still, he is dumbfounded by the revelation, and does not understand why she would risk so much for one man.
“Why?” MingJue says, but XiChen only shrugs.
“I suppose he is a useful weapon to have, for a Chief Cultivator. But MeiLing claims that both Madam Yu and Jiang FengMian seem fond of the man, for whatever reason.”
They are both fond of the man? MingJue does not need to know that. He does not want to think about the Violet Spider and Jiang FengMian both being fond of someone. MingJue does not know what crimes the Core-Melting Hand might have committed in his service to Wen Chao, but in his opinion, spending his life between the Violet Spider and Jiang FengMian is too cruel of a punishment for anyone.
“Would my husband think less of me if I insist that we stop for the day? I am very tired, and my back is sore. Perhaps my husband could find an inn with a large bath? One we could both share for a change?”
MingJue nearly swallows his tongue, and covers it up with a slight cough.
“Yes,” he says, “I believe that can be managed.”
“Good,” XiChen smiles sweetly, and rides ahead.