This is hammered into her, right from the start: You are not good enough, Jiang YanLi.
It must have begun the day she emerged from the womb; in her mother’s retelling she was an exceptionally small baby, wide-eyed and quiet, only starting to wail when her mother pinched at her sides. If you believe her mother - and who else is there to ask? - Jiang YanLi was behind on everything. Slow to talk, to walk. An exceptionally dull child.
“Apart from smiling,” her mother says, but it is not a compliment. “You smiled far too early.”
There is never any talk of Jiang YanLi leading the sect.
Of course there isn’t; while not unprecedented, it’s highly uncommon for women to act as Sect Leaders. It is uncommon for women to have high cultivation levels at all. It is biological, Jiang YanLi hears, women are physically weaker. Women’s arms tire from holding up swords, and they are too emotional for the intellectual puzzles of night hunting.
(Her mother holds her head up high, when people allude to the inferiority of women; after all, Madam Yu is the exception.)
(Jiang YanLi is not.)
Jiang YanLi knows from an early age that she is promised to a different sect, that someday she will serve their sect leader, carry his babies, pour his tea and live in his house. She is not good enough to lead YunmengJiang. So her mother’s belly swells again with child, and one day Jiang YanLi is handed a snivelling baby - large and vocal, nothing like her supposed quiet after birth, this baby shrieks until his face is red and snot dribbles from his nose - and she is told, “This is Jiang Cheng, our future sect leader. Your little brother.”
Jiang YanLi cares for the baby. She changes him, feeds him, pats him when he gets gas - and she plays with him, dangles toys in front of his face, humours the nonsense he babbles and responds as though they’re really talking. In return he gurgles when she draws near and reaches out with grabby, chubby fingers. “You coddle that child too much,” Madam Yu scolds her, but it doesn’t matter; Jiang YanLi has long since learnt that she will be scolded no matter what she does. Her mother, as the servants say in hushed tones, is a difficult woman. So Jiang YanLi holds her tongue and pretends to know slightly less than she really does, and speaks nonsense words to her brother.
Jiang YanLi is expected to form a golden core.
After all, both her parents are accomplished cultivators. So although she is weak and stupid - she would certainly never be selected from the hoards of civilian children, if she hadn’t been born into her position - Jiang YanLi is taught how to form a core. It is slow and painful; it does not come naturally to her. Her teachers despair at her lack of progress.
Jiang YanLi is taught how to fight with a sword; she is struck down again and again, even by children half her age, and her arms never seem to grow stronger.
Jiang YanLi is taught to meditate; she fidgets, she falls asleep, her fingers tap arrhythmic beats against her folded legs and her fledgling core remains strained and weak.
“Their eldest daughter is so unintelligent,” people whisper when they think Jiang YanLi can’t hear. “So untalented and plain! It’s a good thing they have another child now.”
Before long, her instructors give up.
(Jiang YanLi slips away from her parents and learns how to cook properly, so she can make food the way she prefers it. She copies the illustrations from her favourite manuscripts until the lines flow smooth and fluid from her brush, and she can capture someone’s face with just a few strokes. She learns the art of diffusing tension after a long day when A-Cheng is wailing and her parents are snapping at each other; she learns how to sit in silence and peel the shells from lotus seeds. She does not hide her skills, but they are unnoticed.)
At various points throughout her youth, Jiang YanLi meets her fiancé.
She likes him; she likes his pretty features, those rich robes that he wears and the neat dot of vermillion between his eyebrows. Jin ZiXuan is regal and serious, just like a prince from one of the books that Jiang YanLi’s mother tells her she shouldn’t read because they're for commoners. When he looks at her, she blushes and glances aside.
Jin ZiXuan is somewhat difficult in his personality, but Jiang YanLi doesn’t let that put her off. After all, plenty of the people that she loves are difficult.
A-Cheng grows to have similar features to Jiang YanLi - a broad jaw, a well-defined nose, and small dark eyes - except on him, those same features are called handsome, and people sing the praises of the heir of the Jiang clan.
A-Cheng takes strongly after their mother, and before he can even walk he is issuing commands in his sharp voice, hands clenched into fists. The servants rush to obey him. Their mother shouts back at him, smacks him sometimes, ignores him other times. Their father is eternally disinterested. Only Jiang YanLi enforces manners onto the child, makes him sit still in his chair before she will feed him spoons of soup and carries him wriggling into bed at the same time every night.
Jiang YanLi spends hours with A-Cheng and helps him practice his reading and writing. She plays with him and his wooden swords, his child’s archery equipment that couldn’t pierce a stretched sheet of paper, and sometimes she sits in silence with him beside the lakes. A-Cheng learns fast. Before he even understands what a golden core is, he is started down the path of cultivation.
Everyone says, “What a clever child! He’s nothing like his sister!”
And Jiang YanLi is proud.
And then, one day, there is another boy.
Somehow, her father’s favouritism is even more insidious than her mother’s anger; he looks at Wei WuXian with more love than he ever managed to summon for Jiang YanLi or A-Cheng, and they all see it, and their mother crackles with lightning and rage and A-Cheng scowls and stomps his feet.
Jiang YanLi is old enough, mature enough, to move past that sting (she already knows she is more sensible than her own parents) and embrace the scruffy child that has come to them - and A-Xian is so easy to love, with his gappy teeth and wild hair and big, wondering eyes like a puppy.
But A-Xian is also difficult .
Jiang FengMian took ‘responsibility’ for raising A-Xian - but it is Jiang YanLi, his thirteen-year-old daughter, who wakes up in the night to search when he goes missing. Jiang YanLi is the one who comforts him when he cries. She is the one who is called to his room when he awakens plagued with nightmares again, and again, and again . Their teachers send her when A-Xian and A-Cheng fight, which happens frequently. After all, Jiang Cheng is not really old enough to understand who this new brother is, and he’s certainly not old enough to understand why Jiang FengMian wears his love for Wei WuXian so openly while only ignoring or criticizing Jiang Cheng. And so Jiang YanLi plays peacekeeper, mother, and nanny, all in one.
(And Jiang YanLi thinks, I am a child too, who will comfort me in the night? Who will sit with me after my nightmares and hold my hand? But she recognises the selfishness in those thoughts, and dismisses them.)
To her relief, her brothers learn to love each other - although there is always a heavy strain between them, and nothing Jiang YanLi does can solve everything . There is a weight that Jiang YanLi can’t eliminate, and it lives in the very fabric of their family. She is intimately familiar with it. The bitterness between her parents has run down like rivulets and soaked into everything, and she plays dumb, she misdirects her mother’s anger and compensates for her father’s absence, she peels lotus seeds like it’s a nervous tic.
Jiang YanLi keeps them afloat, but only just.
She loves her brothers with her whole heart. But she cannot deny that she is excited, too. One day she will leave, and finally have her protector; Jin ZiXuan, with his handsome face and his deep pockets, will whisk her away from all of this, and Jiang YanLi will never be yelled at or belittled at again.
As her brothers grow, they become their own people. A-Xian is bright and charming, A-Cheng is brash and proud.
Jiang YanLi grows too, although she is not sure what she grows into. She is quiet and meek, but effective; when she wants something to happen, she learns how to move behind the scenes and get her own way.
Her brothers should, by all rights, be bitter and twisted with envy and resentment for each other, but Jiang YanLi fights tooth and nail to allow them to bond properly. She quietly removes servants who speak ill about A-Xian’s background, and the cultivators at Lotus Pier learn not to speculate on his parentage. Her brothers never hear a whisper of the rumours that abound regarding Jiang FengMian’s infidelity. Jiang YanLi gently silences those who complain that A-Cheng is too inferior, that A-Xian should lead the sect. She learns how to argue with people so that they don’t even realise she’s won, or that they were arguing at all, and how to gently suggest an idea that seems so natural people assume they’ve come up with it themselves. She cannot control everything , but she can minimise and abate.
In other words - she builds her brothers a home and fills it with as much love as she possibly can.
In return, her brothers love her back. A-Xian sits with her and learns to draw. He has a real talent for it and soon he can copy Jiang YanLi’s portraits with smooth lines and an adorable look of concentration. A-Cheng joins her on boat trips out across the lakes, his face calm and smooth when they are alone, and they spot species of birds together and steal lotus pods. Both of them clamour for her food and her company.
"I wish you could stay here forever," A-Xian says, ten years old and fidgety as they row together along one of the most rural nearby lakes, where the waterfowl are so unused to humans that they fly away at the sight of a boat.
"Stay on the boat, A-Xian? But then," she pretends to be concerned, "how would I cook soup for you?"
"Stay at Lotus Pier, shijie ," A-Xian says with a roll of his eyes, but his smile gives him away. He loves being babied. "Why should you have to leave and marry ZiXuan? Neither me or Jiang Cheng are engaged! You should stay here forever with us."
"Ah, but my marriage will join the Jin and Jiang Sects," YanLi says smoothly. "It'll be much easier when A-Cheng is sect leader, if we forge this strong alliance now."
A-Xian purses his lips. He takes Jiang Cheng's future rule very seriously. "Well," he says in the end, "you must have the most beautiful wedding in the world. That's what you deserve. And you should come back and visit Lotus Pier every week!"
"Every week might be too often, A-Xian."
"Every month, then."
Jiang YanLi laughs, ruffles his hair, and then gazes out over the still water of the lake.
They resent her fiance. In idle hours they will criticize his looks, his personality, his riches and his arrogance. Jiang YanLi understands, in a vague way - after all, her brothers idolise her. They do not see the deficiencies of character that have been drummed into her skull. But truth is truth: Jiang YanLi is inept, plain, and weak. If she had not been born into a high position, she would have no worth at all. Therefore, it is only logical that Jin ZiXuan resents their engagement. He’s drawn the short straw
Maybe it would be honourable to call off the engagement entirely. But Jiang YanLi cannot forsake the part of her that yearns for Jin ZiXuan and all he stands for. She still blushes, on those sparse occasions when they meet and their eyes catch.
And then Wei WuXian returns early from Gusu, and her engagement is broken.
Although he hides it, A-Xian is upset and somewhat humiliated at being sent home early like an ill-behaved child. Jiang YanLi lends him a sympathetic ear, listens as he complains to her about the rules (three thousand!) and the Second Young Master Lan (so strict and beautiful!) and the punishments (all those copies!). He weaves a long tale about a waterborne abyss that he investigated beside Lan WangJi. Jiang YanLi cooks a lotus root soup for them both, and they stay up long into the night together, talking and laughing.
When she is alone in her room, only then does she let herself cry.
(And Jiang YanLi thinks, who will nurture me? Who will hold me when I cry at night? Who will tell me that everything is okay?)
Now that she is living at Lotus Pier indefinitely, her duties change.
With an air of great reluctance, her mother begins to take Jiang YanLi into meetings and she sits, quiet and meek, on the sidelines as her mother argues and barters and trades. Madam Yu does not really have the disposition for diplomatic work. She causes offence even where it is not necessary. Sometimes she is too stubborn; other times, bored of debating, she gives in too quickly to unreasonable demands. Jiang YanLi sits and watches and never lets on that she understands her mother’s failings. In the evenings she paints, cooks for her brothers, or reads alone in her room. It is difficult to adjust to this new reality, where she is not living for a far-away dream of a life but instead ticking over listlessly, day after day. After all, what good is she here? At least she had a purpose when she was engaged. Now Jiang YanLi can bring nothing to her sect, besides her own rather lacking talents.
In the end, however, this period lasts barely six months; a temporary reprieve.
Her parents begin holding meetings that Jiang YanLi is not invited to. Red-robed elders arrive who sneer at Lotus Pier as though it is nothing more than a ramshackle hut; the Wen Sect are known for both their arrogance and their splendor. “They’re marrying you off again,” A-Cheng complains with a scowl one morning as a troupe of Wen diplomats pass them in a field, a flurry of golden hairpieces and crimson silk. “That must be what’s happening!”
“Maybe,” Jiang YanLi says. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
“I hope it’s not Wen Chao,” he says, and knocks another arrow into his bow. It shoots straight, as ever; Jiang Cheng is unparalleled by anyone except his brother when it comes to archery, and he can seemingly hit the kites no matter how high they float. “I’ve heard that Wen Chao is very ugly.”
“I wouldn’t judge by looks,” Jiang YanLi says.
“Really? Not even if he was old and smelled bad and had a droopy moustache?”
YanLi giggles, and shakes her head. “Not even then,” she says.
Before the month is out, the news is official: Jiang YanLi has a new fiance, a political match with the Wen Sect. This time the arrangement is different. She will not leave Lotus Pier - instead she is getting a bride, a woman her own age named Wen Qing, who will join the Jiang sect. “Unconventional,” Wei WuXian says, grinning, when he finds out. He eavesdropped on the discussion, of course, even though he wasn’t invited, and joins Jiang YanLi and Jiang Cheng as they leave the meeting room, looping his arms between theirs in a way that makes YanLi smile and Jiang Cheng roll his eyes.
“It’s not that unusual,” Jiang Cheng says. “Political matches needn’t produce heirs if they’re not between sect leaders, after all.”
“Sure, but how many marriages have you attended between two women, Jiang Cheng?”
He scowls and shrugs out from Wei WuXian’s grip. “I don’t know. It must happen sometimes. Don’t people say BaoShan SanRen has a female cultivation partner?”
“Ah, that’s just baseless rumours.”
“How would you know?”
“I’d know better than you!”
“Boys,” Jiang YanLi interrupts them, and their attention snaps to her, bickering forgotten. “I am perfectly happy with the arrangement.”
“But shijie ,” Wei WuXian whines, “wouldn’t you prefer to marry someone you really love? This is an even worse match than the Jin Sect peacock. At least you had feelings for him. Besides, this Wen girl isn’t even the daughter of the Sect Leader! She’s just some cousin’s child.”
The reminder of her broken engagement to Jin ZiXuan bites, but Jiang YanLi masks it carefully, and squeezes Wei WuXian’s arm against her side, rumpling the pressed smoothness of her robes. “I thought you’d be happy, A-Xian. This way, we all get to stay at Lotus Pier.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think,” Jiang Cheng snaps, “the match is very useful to us politically. Wen Qing may not be the sect leader’s daughter, but everyone knows she is a favourite because of her knowledge and skills. Tensions have been very high with the Wen sect. If we can secure a pact with them now, then it’ll be a lot easier for us in the long run. Although of course,” Jiang Cheng turns, and the second he starts to address Jiang YanLi his voice loses its harsh edge, becomes placating, “if you don’t like the match, jiejie , I’m sure our parents would listen to reason.”
“As I said, I find it suitable,” Jiang YanLi replies smoothly.
After all, what does it matter? At least with a woman, she won’t be expected to bear a child - she wouldn’t have minded, with someone young and handsome like Jin ZiXuan, but Jiang YanLi had also heard plenty of tales in which young maidens are married to awful old men who mistreat them and get them pregnant with baby after baby. In comparison to that, a political marriage to a woman her own age seems like a blessing. Perhaps they can become best friends - Jiang YanLi has never really had friends her own age, always too busy with her responsibilities and her brothers. It could be nice, she dares to hope. Not the fairytale she’d dreamed of when she was younger, but something pleasant and familial nonetheless.
At that year’s LanLing Jin Discussion Conference, Jiang YanLi accompanies her parents and younger brother. The formal reason for this is that she will assist with running the Jiang Sect in the future, and needs to learn the art of diplomacy and etiquette; the informal reason is to give YanLi the opportunity to meet her new fianceé.
The evening before the conference, there is a banquet. Jiang YanLi sits through the toasts, the endless compliments and praises that the Sect Leaders sing for each other, and when she eats she allows herself a small smugness as the food is nowhere near as nice as what she cooks at home. By her side, Jiang Cheng points out the various cultivators of their own generation that he has met. “That’s the infamous Second Young Master Lan,” he says, gesturing to a sour-faced teenager in long white robes, a pristine ribbon wrapped tight around his forehead.
“The one our A-Xian was so enamoured with?”
“The very same.”
“I expected him to be more handsome,” she whispers, and is rewarded with a barking laugh from Jiang Cheng that draws a few disapproving glares from the surrounding tables.
“ Jiejie ! He’s one of the most eligible young masters, you know. Second only to his brother.”
“Ah, I suppose I prefer men who smile.”
“You say that, and yet Jin...” Their conversation falters and Jiang Cheng snaps his mouth shut, looking alarmed by his own slip. Jin ZiXuan has become an unspoken topic between the three siblings; her brothers know that YanLi is still saddened by their broken engagement, and try not to prod the wound. It doesn’t help that, throughout the banquet, Jin ZiXuan has been seated at the head of the room, beside his father. He is just as regal as Jiang YanLi remembers - apart from now when their eyes meet, rather than blushing, she feels a cold weight settle in her stomach.
While her family isn’t looking, she downs all the remaining wine in her cup.
Jiang YanLi is introduced to her new fianceé the next morning, in the dewy early light, and she feels strangely exposed in a way she never did with Jin ZiXuan.
Her family stands at her side to meet the Wen entourage arriving at Carp Tower. Jiang YanLi has a buzzing in her stomach and an uncomfortable prickling feeling working its way down her back.
Perhaps it is because they are both women, and so rather than aesthetically complementing each other like a man and woman might, they draw visual comparison instead - a comparison that Jiang YanLi does not emerge favourably from. Wen Qing is so beautiful, it immediately makes her conscious of all her flaws. Jiang YanLi feels like a child under her mother’s scrutinising stare again, waiting for criticism; her hair is limp and dull, her manner too gentle, she has a plain face and low cultivation and no real talents to speak of. Wen Qing has fierce, unmissable good looks. Her skin is tan brown and smooth, her eyes are intelligent and dark, and her hair is piled into a terrifyingly complex golden structure above her skull. The Qishan Wen Sect robes are always decadent, with their rich crimson fabric and ornate details, but Wen Qing's clothing is embroidered with flames that lap at her chest as though she's a phoenix mid-reincarnation.
They greet each other formally, bow low, and Jiang YanLi is mesmerised by the shorter strands of hair that curl around Wen Qing's face, and her sleeves that glow orange in the light as though they're the dying embers of a fire, and her red lips that curl into a polite smile. It is forced, too formal, the smile of someone who has memorised a book on etiquette but taken none of it to heart. "I was hoping I would find you here," Wen Qing says, "I am honoured to meet you."
"Likewise," Jiang YanLi murmurs in return, and wills her face not to flush. She did not expect this embarrassment to well inside her.
Wen Qing nods. Her expression is cool. "Perhaps I can speak with you later? I'd like to have a conversation, before we marry."
Jiang YanLi detects a trace of bitterness there - but is Wen Qing reluctant to marry a stranger? Reluctant to marry into an inferior sect? Or reluctant to marry Jiang YanLi, specifically? "Of course we can speak," she says.
Wen Qing bows again, shorter this time, and then strides off with the rest of her entourage. The Wen Sect did not attend the banquet last night, and it looks as though only a few have shown up for the Discussion Conference, which is a sign of disrespect; Wen RuoHan is notably absent, and Wen Qing appears to be the most senior of those attending. "See you," Jiang YanLi says, but her words are too quiet, and Wen Qing doesn't so much as turn her head.
"She is pretty," Jiang Cheng admits later when they break for lunch, "and she seems to have a spine. Perhaps she won't be too bad a match after all, jiejie ."
"We'll get to know her soon," Jiang YanLi says, which is carefully neither a agreement nor disagreement.
She cannot imagine Wen Qing being the best friend she'd hoped for. Wen Qing is intimidating and regal. She will look over Jiang YanLi like everybody else does, and Jiang YanLi is going to spend her entire life like this, on the sidelines of Discussion Conferences and fluttering around in the background like an extra limb.
She stares down at her food, which is bland and watery. "Perhaps I should leave," she says, mostly to herself.
"Leave? But I thought you were meeting Wen Qing later?"
"Oh, yes. Of course.”
Jiang Cheng looks at her in concern. She does not want to worry her brother; she chokes down the tasteless food.
Carp Tower is beautiful, but not the way Jiang YanLi appreciates beauty; it is all clean surfaces and opulence. Wen Qing, in contrast, is beautiful like a predatory cat. Angles and shadows. She waits for Jiang YanLi at the foot of the steps in a swirl of red and black. Once again, they bow to each other. "Mistress Jiang," Wen Qing says, "accompany me into town?"
This would be indecent, if they were normal fiances - absconding off into town together, away from their families. But they are both women, and Jiang FengMian nods and says, "off you go," in the tone he uses when his mind is elsewhere.
The road is cool, shaded from the sun's heat, and as they walk they quickly leave the crowds behind. Trees line their path. Wen Qing walks with proper posture, and even though she is physically no larger than Jiang YanLi she somehow seems to take up more space.
"Your father bosses you around," is the first thing Wen Qing says.
Jiang YanLi's instinct is to freeze, but she forces herself to keep walking. "I respect my father," she says mildly, "and he's the sect leader."
"And you needed his permission, just to walk with me?"
Jiang YanLi has the distinct impression that she should be offended by Wen Qing's judgemental tone. But she doesn't allow herself to show any annoyance; she just smiles and inclines her head.
(Whatever game Wen Qing is playing, she's met her match in Jiang YanLi.)
After a few moments of silence, Wen Qing continues. "I'm just trying to understand our situation, Mistress Jiang." Her face is haughty as ever, but perhaps there is something deeper underlying her tight expression, something that Jiang YanLi cannot yet decode.
"I'm not sure what you mean," Jiang YanLi admits with an apologetic smile.
"When I come to Lotus Pier, what shall my role be? What will I do?"
"I'm sure you'll fit in," says Jiang YanLi, reassuring - is this just a case of nerves? - but Wen Qing's face remains stormy and torn. She turns to the side, and in profile the dark sweep of her eyebrows catches Jiang YanLi's gaze. "Wen Qing," she says, softer, "what is troubling you? If you want to break the engagement, I won't take offence."
"We cannot break it. I know better than to go against Wen RuoHan's will," Wen Qing says. Wen Qing does not say, I don't want to break the engagement.
It is a flicker of confirmation that once again Jiang YanLi is unwanted by her betrothed; once more, this engagement will be a source of irritation and pain. Tears spring unbidden to her eyes, but she wipes them away discreetly. Wen Qing doesn't notice. "Perhaps," Jiang YanLi tries in a too-thick voice, "perhaps I can make it easier for you? If something specific is causing you to dread our marriage, then please, don't keep your silence."
"I don't dread ..." Finally, Wen Qing faces her again, takes a step closer. Her eyes are so dark. Narrowed with concern, her irises look midnight-black."I apologize, I didn’t mean to upset you. I know I am being obscure."
Jiang YanLi shakes her head. "Speak your mind," she says, and even attempts a smile, though it’s probably a bit wobbly.
Wen Qing glances up and down the road as though checking that they are alone. "I have a brother," she says in a low voice.
Jiang YanLi knows this. "Wen QiongLin."
She is familiar with her fianceé's family tree, but nobody has gone into detail about Wen QiongLin; he appears to be uninvolved in politics, and has not accompanied his sister to this Discussion Conference.
"I'll spare you the details, but I worry for his safety. Mistress Jiang, I know that this is highly unusual, and I know that it has not been discussed during the negotiations for our marriage - but could there be space for Wen Ning at Lotus Pier?"
Jiang YanLi blinks in surprise at the urgency of the request. "Of course," she says.
It will not be difficult to engineer, especially given Jiang YanLi's close relationship to her own brothers; a few words in Jiang Cheng’s ear, and she can ensure that Wen QiongLin will have a space in whatever quarters Wen Qing is given. It is unconventional, perhaps - but their entire situation is unconventional.
Wen Qing closes her eyes. "Thank you," she says quietly.
They walk to town in silence, and then Wen Qing begins to ask about Lotus Pier and YunmengJiang, and they hold a polite conversation about politics and regional differences. By the time they return to Carp Tower, the sky has grown dark. Wen Qing bows to her. “Jiang YanLi,” she says, “please take care of yourself.” It could be an innocuous way of saying goodbye, but in Wen Qing’s serious tone, it sounds almost like a warning.
Jiang YanLi goes to sleep in her guest rooms and the bed feels unfamiliar and lumpy despite the fine materials it is made from, and she tosses around for a long time before she can sleep.
"Well?" Wei WuXian ambushes them the second their boat pulls up at the bustling docks between the merchants and the other boaters. His hair is in disarray, and there is a scuff of mud on one of his sleeves. "How did it go, shijie ? Did you meet Wen Qing?"
"Back off, let us get out first," Jiang Cheng says, shoving at Wei WuXian, who springs about and easily avoids his arms.
"Wei WuXian!" snaps Madam Yu, her face taut, “show some respect!"
In the ensuing silence, Jiang YanLi glides forward and links herself in between her two brothers. Her mother glares, but it does not matter. "Yes, I met Wen Qing," she says, and starts them walking up the pier. "She seems very nice."
"I approved of her," says Jiang Cheng.
"So she's good enough for our YanLi?"
Jiang YanLi giggles, but Jiang Cheng just frowns in consideration. "Maybe," he says, "if anyone is good enough. Wen Qing certainly impressed me at the conference. She is very bold and knowledgeable."
"Jiang Cheng! It sounds almost as if you like Wen Qing!"
Wei WuXian isn't quick enough to escape the slap around the side of his head that Jiang Cheng gives him, but it isn't even hard enough to make a sound, let alone interrupt Wei WuXian's throaty laughter. "Wei WuXian!" He says in outrage. "That's jiejie 's fianceé!"
"Was she pretty, Jiang Cheng? Did she make you blush?"
"She was very pretty," Jiang YanLi interrupts to spare her brother, "far prettier than me, A-Xian, I felt quite outmatched."
That causes both brothers to unite in spluttering indignancy, each racing to compliment Jiang YanLi and insist that she is an unparalleled beauty, and she smiles at them both and tries to quell the unease in her heart.
The next year passes with alarming speed.
Tensions across the cultivation world worsen; YanLi's mother remarks more than once that she is surprised Wen RuoHan doesn't call off the engagement, given the brazen way that Wen cultivators begin to treat the Jiang Sect with less and less respect. The Wens have always been haughty, but now their behaviour verges into worrisome. They oppress smaller sects and make unreasonable demands.
Jiang YanLi remains unaffected by the politics around her. She attends meetings, she cooks, she paints. On their free days, she accompanies her brothers into town, or goes boating with them, or walks around Lotus Pier. Sometimes her mother shouts at her; angry tirades about Jiang YanLi's weakness, about how she treats Wei WuXian equally to Jiang Cheng even though one is a future sect leader and one is the son of a servant, about how they couldn't even secure her a marriage to a Sect Leader because she is so plain and simple. Madam Yu took the split from Jin ZiXuan very seriously. She is friends with his mother, after all, and the breaking of their engagement only increases her dislike of Wei WuXian and her disdain for Jiang YanLi.
Jiang YanLi shells lotus seeds. Her fingers still tremble, but she is older now, an adult woman; she does not let any discomfort show on her face.
Her brothers are useless with her wedding dress. No matter what she wears, they insist she looks beautiful. Jiang Cheng even gets teary when she holds up different rolls of red fabric in the merchant's shop, although he scrubs frantically at his eyes when Wei WuXian starts teasing him. Then they proceed to offer the most awful fashion advice Jiang YanLi has ever heard.
They have grown up so fast - it seems like mere moments ago that they were waist-height children, running around with toy swords and terrorising all of Yunmeng. Now, suddenly, Jiang YanLi's brothers both tower over her. They frown at the betrothal gifts and make sensible comments about the value and styling of what they send to Qishan Wen in deep voices. "I don't see why we have to send them gifts," Wei WuXian complains, " shijie isn't a groom."
"But Wen Qing is joining our sect, idiot," Jiang Cheng says, "of course she needs a bride price."
"Ah, but Qishan Wen is so much richer than us! They better send a good dowry."
In the meantime, arrangements are made for where Wen Qing will stay. True to her word, Jiang YanLi quietly works with Jiang Cheng and arranges quarters for Wen QiongLin - although, naturally, her mother disapproves - and they thoroughly clean and renovate one of the disused wings of the main building. Sometimes Jiang YanLi stands in the empty rooms and imagines the vibrant woman from the Discussion Conference trapped here, like a pretty bird in a cage, and she feels a deep and irrational guilt.
The truth is, Jiang YanLi does not expect the wedding to go ahead.
Wen Qing was clearly reluctant, when they met last year at Carp Tower - and she does not come across as the sort of woman to bow meekly to fate. Surely, if Wen Qing does not desire the marriage, then it will not go ahead.
But the days keep passing until suddenly it is time, and Jiang YanLi is wearing her red dress, hair pulled up elaborately atop her head, and facing her entire family. Even a cluster of her mother's relatives have arrived for the ceremony.
The bridal procession is rich in a way Jiang YanLi has never seen rivalled, not even by the Jin clan - the sedan alone must be worth whole villages, with its glimmering gold details and fiery red body. Wen Qing's dress is richer and darker than Jiang YanLi's. She is wearing a veil through which only the barest hints of her face are visible and it makes Jiang YanLi feel somewhat off-centre, unable to gauge her emotional responses.
Feeling faintly ridiculous, Jiang YanLi kowtows.
"You look beautiful," Wen Qing says to her at the banquet - she is in a good mood, with a genuine smile on her lips, and her bridal clothing is so breathtaking that Jiang YanLi can only blush and wave the compliment away, because her own understated looks surely cannot compete with Wen Qing.
"Your dress is lovely, too," she responds, and hopes Wen Qing cannot hear the raw honesty in her voice.
The banquet is a lively affair - apparently nobody is put off by the fact that this is a strictly political marriage between two women, and half of the Wen clan already seem to be drunk, with YanLi's relatives following hot on their heels. "Come and meet my brother," Wen Qing says as soon as etiquette allows them to leave their places, and Jiang YanLi nods and greets Wen QiongLin, who turns out to be a painfully shy young man with a delicate face and a mild stutter, and who struggles to even meet Jiang YanLi's eye. He is nothing at all like his authoritative sister. "Bow, A-Ning," she reminds him sharply, and he obeys immediately.
"It's an honour to meet you, Lady Jiang," he says.
Jiang YanLi meets his bow and says, "likewise, Young Master Wen. I understand that you shall be staying with us at Lotus Pier?"
"Yes, I will! I mean," he glances at Wen Qing for reassurance, "if you allow it."
Jiang YanLi smiles. "Of course you are allowed. You are always welcome to be here with your sister."
As though they've been called, Jiang YanLi's own brothers materialise by her side, and the next few minutes are spent introducing everyone in a chaotic mess of names. Embarrassingly, Wen QiongLin and Wei WuXian have already met, but Wei WuXian doesn't remember. "Your memory is so crap, I'm worried you're going senile," Jiang Cheng says with his customary ire, but there's no heat to his words, and Wen QiongLin insists that he is not offended, and a small smile flickers across Wen Qing's face, and Jiang YanLi makes the mistake of allowing herself to relax.
It is a mistake because for the next round of introductions, Jiang YanLi is not on guard like she normally is, and misses the disparaging curl of Wen Chao's smile. He is Wen Qing's youngest cousin, son of Wen RuoHan but apparently lacking any of his family's usual gravitas. He bows to Jiang YanLi and Jiang Cheng, and then hesitates at Wei WuXian. "I'm sorry," he says to Jiang YanLi in a flimsy attempt at confusion, "did you say that you have two brothers? I heard there was only one Jiang Sect Heir."
"Wei WuXian is adopted," Jiang YanLi says, pretending not to notice how the atmosphere in their corner of the room turns icy.
"And yet you treat them both so similarly! Almost as though they were both your blood relations. But then, small wonder - if you'll pardon my asking, Lady Jiang, I have even heard speculation that -"
"Young Master Wen," she says firmly, "please remember your manners. This is my wedding day. Also, you forgot to bow to my brother."
Wen Qing stares at her in alarm, but Jiang YanLi does not back down, does not break eye contact with Wen Chao.
It is clear that he was not expecting to be reprimanded, much less by Jiang YanLi, and he snaps his mouth shut with a sour expression. His bow is shallow. "This is an even better match than I expected," he says, "our Wen Qing is also fiercely protective of her younger brother. I suppose you must be dreading the separation, cousin?"
Wen Qing stiffens at Jiang YanLi's side. Worse, Wei WuXian opens his mouth - probably to unthinkingly correct Wen Chao and give away the fact that Wen QiongLin will be remaining at Lotus Pier - and so Jiang YanLi swoops in again, with a smile to soften her words. "Marriage brings both joy and pain, especially to the bride" she says, "we at YunmengJiang are so thankful to QishanWen, for allowing Wen Qing to leave her family and join our sect." Then she bows, far more respectfully than Wen Chao deserves. Her back is beginning to ache from all the bowing she is doing with her heavy robes and hairpiece dragging her down. "Excuse us, please. I am going to speak with my parents."
Wen Chao scowls, but she ignores him, gently looping her arm with Wen Qing's and steering them to the other side of the room.
It is only as she walks that Jiang YanLi realises this is the closest she has been to Wen Qing, and she feels the traitorous beginnings of a flush at her neck. Her arm is narrow but solid beneath her robes, and pressed together Jiang YanLi can feel how slender and strong she is, and smell traces of a flowery perfume. When Wen Qing turns, their faces are dangerously close and Jiang YanLi can see the way her eyelashes bunch up at the sides of her eyes when she smiles. "Well done, my wife," Wen Qing says quietly, "I think that may be the most efficient way I have ever seen someone deal with Wen Chao."
The combination of the word 'wife' and the unexpected compliment definitely make Jiang YanLi's creeping blush visible, and she turns away, feeling exposed. "You are too kind," she whispers back.
At night, Jiang YanLi thinks about how nice it would be if her wife was asleep in a marital bed alongside her, and the strangeness of the thought makes her sit up and frown, sheets pooling at her waist. The night is blessedly cool after the sweaty day she has spent in her wedding dress. Jiang YanLi breathes deeply, tries to banish the strange thought, rearranges her hair and her pillow, and curls up alone on her soft mattress, in the room she has always slept in.
(Once it has entered her mind, though, it cannot be made to leave.)
The next few days are mostly spent on logistics. Thankfully, neither Wen RuoHan nor his sons linger, and so Jiang YanLi is free to work alongside her new wife to organise her belongings and quarters, and settle her into life at Lotus Pier. It feels surreal, to be married after all of this time - she has lived the best part of her life engaged, but now finally she is done, and the waiting is over.
She only realises a tiny part of her heart was still hoping for reconciliation with Jin ZiXuan when that hope is snuffed out forever.
Wen Qing is somewhat haughty; she is clearly used to being obeyed. "No, don't put those scrolls by the window," she says as a belaboured Jiang Sect junior hauls yet another crate into her quarters, "they're delicate! They mustn’t get too much sunlight! Put them beside the bed - no, at the corner - oh, I'll do it," and then she takes the crate herself, setting it into the precise position she requires. "Don't stand around uselessly, go and fetch in the rest," she says, and the junior scurries off, clearly happy to escape. Maybe Jiang YanLi should take offence at Wen Qing's brusque manner, but she treats everyone with the same forcefulness, even her own brother. She is also staggeringly intelligent. Jiang YanLi had already known that, in a vague way, but it is different to see the stacks upon stacks of dense medical volumes that Wen Qing has brought.
"Your collection is very impressive," Jiang YanLi says. She gazes over the books that have already been unpacked, but is careful not to touch them - Wen Qing already bit a disciple's head off for leafing through a heavy tome he was carrying, and insisted that the grease from fingerprints can damage ancient texts.
"A lot of it is nonsense," Wen Qing says with a flick of her wrist. "Every doctor gets to seventy years olf and thinks he's qualified to write a book."
"So why do you keep them all?"
"Reference. Besides, half of my job is filtering out misinformation."
"I see," Jiang YanLi says with a smile. "It's all so complicated, I really do think I'll struggle to keep up with you, Wen Qing."
"Why?" She raises a sharp eyebrow, pausing where she is crouched on the floor unpacking her scrolls. As ever, her gaze pins Jiang YanLi on the spot. "Why should you struggle to keep up? None of this is too difficult for you."
"Ah, reading was never my strong suit…"
"But I've seen you reading plenty of times, and I've only been here two days!"
Jiang YanLi stares at her feet. "Those aren't proper books, though. I like romances, fairytales. Light reading. I'm just not that intellectual." Then she forces herself to smile despite the fact this conversation is making her want to turn tail and run. It feels humiliating to admit that she is - as she has heard a hundred times - a rather boring and stupid person.
"Don't be so self-deprecating," Wen Qing snaps.
Jiang YanLi blinks in surprise.
"Anybody who is literate can be educated on the basic principles of medicine. Even students who come from very poor families, and who never learnt to read or write as a child, only require a few years' additional support before they become just as competent as the next person. Why should you be any different? Is there a specific reason why, with the correct training, you couldn't decide to become a medical expert of equal or higher rank to me?"
"Well…" Jiang YanLi has no idea what to say. "I suppose not."
"Exactly. And not to mention," Wen Qing continues, "that medicine is just one possible field of study. No doubt you already have skills that surpass mine in other areas."
"I really don't." Now Jiang YanLi feels panicked. Didn't they tell Wen Qing beforehand what she was signing up for? Didn't they tell her that her future wife was the dull, uninspired one of the three siblings? Was she expecting a prodigy like Wei Wuxian or Jiang Cheng? "Wen Qing, I really -"
Wen Qing interrupts her. "Didn't you fend off Wen Chao at our banquet?"
"That's just what I do," she tries to explain.
"I have lived with Wen Chao my whole life," Wen Qing says, "and I've never learnt how to deal with him in a way that doesn't lead to a shouting match. But three seconds after you were introduced, you were able to read his intentions, nullify them, and shame him for his behaviour, all without making a scene or causing offence. Then you mislead him regarding Wen Ning's whereabouts, while avoiding telling a direct lie that can be charged against us at a later date. I have seen trained diplomats who are less proficient than you - and even more impressively, everyone seems unaware that you are capable of any more than cooking soup!"
After that outburst, even Wen Qing looks slightly surprised. Jiang YanLi has no idea at all how to respond. It is nonsense, of course - she is not the master manipulator that Wen Qing is implying. "Well, I am good at making soup," she says in the end, because it's the one part of Wen Qing's speech that she can agree with.
Finally, the junior returns with a new stack of boxes and Jiang YanLi busies herself with unpacking. At some point Wen QiongLin arrives to help, which elevates the mood, but Jiang YanLi's panic doesn't quite dissipate until she is alone again a few hours later, free from the heavy weight of Wen Qing's eyes.
In her room that evening, she finds that somebody has left A Medical Student's Guide to Human Anatomy on her table. Its pages are well-worn and yellowed, as though they have been turned too many times to count.
Mostly to prove a point, Jiang YanLi sits down and reads a few chapters.
Her first instinct is to shut the book and never open it again. The diagrams are repulsive and the details either make her nauseous or else send a crawling sensation beneath her skin. It is all very well in theory, knowing about veins and wombs and muscles and bone, but seeing them splayed out across a page - even only as illustrations - is just wrong. The words are equally troubling. Some of the anatomical descriptions make Jiang YanLi blush, and often the explanations only augment the nausea-inducing qualities of the diagrams. No doubt that her brothers and parents would deem her far too delicate for a book like this. They'd probably be angry if they knew Wen Qing gave it to her.
Jiang YanLi keeps reading, though. The more she reads, the more her curiosity triumphs over her other emotions. She flicks back to the diagrams, this time examining them to better understand the text, and only stops when darkness falls and her eyes begin straining to pick out the characters. When she dreams it is of peeled-back skin and organs that feel like raw meat beneath her fingers.
The next morning she visits Wen Qing's quarters to return the book - she has read as much as she can manage - and finds her sitting with immaculate posture at a desk, frowning at a letter. "Jiang YanLi, I'm glad to see you," she says, and hands the letter over. "What do you think of this?"
It is short and to-the-point; Wen RuoHan has already discovered that Wen QiongLin is missing from his usual residence, and writes to Wen Qing that she had better not be trying to undermine his authority, and that he expects Wen QiongLin to return as soon as possible. "He writes rudely," Jiang YanLi says, "and he seems angry that your brother's gone." She is unsure what else is expected of her, or what her wife wants her to say; usually, her parents and Jiang Cheng do not bother involving her in official correspondence.
"I hoped we'd have a longer grace period," Wen Qing says. "Usually he will ignore Wen Ning for months at a time."
"Why does it matter so much to him? Surely it makes no difference where Wen QiongLin lives."
Wen Qing bites her lip. "Because Wen RuoHan needs to control me," she says, "especially now that I am here. Everyone knows that A-Ning is my weak point. By threatening my brother, Wen RuoHan knows he can get me to do whatever he wishes - that's why it was so important for him to accompany me here, Jiang YanLi, so that I can keep him safe."
Wen Qing looks so haunted that Jiang YanLi is reluctant to ask the next question on the tip of her tongue - why on Earth would Wen RuoHan need to threaten your brother? What is he trying to force you into? - and instead hands the letter back and attempts to give a comforting smile. "Oh, I came here to return your book," she says, and passes that to Wen Qing as well.
"Did you not like it, Jiang YanLi?"
"No no, I finished it already," she says, and is rewarded by the way Wen Qing's face lights up.
"Oh, so you found it interesting! Here, let me find you something else."
Jiang YanLi holds her hands up. "No, it's fine. Thank you so much for sharing your interests, but I don't think medical studies are for me."
"Why not? Is this your idea that you're not good enough? Because if it is, I -"
“No, no,” Jiang YanLi interrupts, “I just found the illustrations, um, difficult to look at. And the descriptions were too much for me."
Comprehension dawns in Wen Qing's eyes. "You're squeamish," she says. "Well, it can't be helped. Are you sure I can't lend you anything else? Not even a guide to acupuncture?"
Jiang YanLi imagines a long, sharp acupuncture needle in her hand, imagines the sensation of sliding it into someone else's flesh, and shudders. "Thank you, no," she says with a bit too much force.
Luckily, Wen Qing just smiles, apparently not offended. "Fair enough," she says. "Can I ask you a favour?"
"Of course," says Jiang YanLi. They are married, after all.
"Will you help me write a response to my Uncle? I have a feeling I'll need a dose of your tact. No self-deprecation," she insists, preempting Jiang Yanli's automatic response, "will you help me or not?"
Jiang YanLi swallows her complaints that she is not good enough to help - after all, there is no point in annoying Wen Qing, even though it's true. "I'd be happy to help so far as I'm able," she says instead.
"You spend all your time with Wen Qing now," Wei WuXian complains as they eat lunch together, "you've forgotten about me, haven't you, shijie ?"
"Oh, I could never forget my darling A-Xian," she says, playing along and patting his head like a child's.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "It's only been a week since the marriage, of course they want to get to know each other! Can't you stand the attention being away from you for a second? Tell us, jiejie , do you like her? Is she nice to you? Even though she's married into the sect now, I could always banish her if she treats you badly."
"Thank you, A-Cheng," she says, and ruffles his hair too, because it's funny to see the regal sect heir enjoying being treated like a puppy. "Fortunately, Wen Qing is very kind to me, so nobody needs to be banished."
"She's not very kind to me ," Wei WuXian complains, "it's like having another Jiang Cheng around!"
"Good," says Jiang Cheng.
"She's so bossy, and has no respect for me at all!" Wei WuXian's harsh words are offset by the way he smiles; clearly he likes Wen Qing too. "At least Wen Ning is fun."
Jiang Cheng scowls. "You just like him because he's easy to bully!"
"That's true," Wei WuXian admits easily. "Don't worry, you're still my favourite, Jiang Cheng."
"As if I care!"
"She worries me, though," Jiang YanLi admits, because her mind has not left the subject of Wen Qing.
"In what way?" asks Jiang Cheng.
"She seems so intimidated by Wen RuoHan, and worried about his plans." Jiang YanLi finds it hard to articulate what she means. It all makes sense in her head, but with her brothers staring, suddenly her concerns seem ridiculous. "She brought her brother here to protect him," Jiang YanLi says anyway, "why does he need protection?"
"I'm sure it's nothing," Wei WuXian says, "don't worry about it. After all, wouldn't you be scared if Wen RuoHan was your uncle? He's a monster! And Wen Qing is overprotective of her little brother, but that's not a crime. Wen Ning is kinda sensitive, after all."
Jiang Cheng nods along, but he is frowning. "The Wen Sect have been more and more aggressive recently," he says. "This marriage was supposed to repair our relations, but their cultivators are ruder and more presumptuous than ever - and they're even worse with the other sects."
"But they must have good intentions, since they sent Wen Qing," Wei WuXian argues.
At that, Wei WuXian falls silent. Jiang YanLi stares at her food, which is growing cold, and forces herself to eat.
A few months later, news reaches them; Sect Leader Nie has gone into qi deviation following the shattering of his saber. Apparently Wen RuoHan was involved. It is announced during their evening meal, and everyone breaks out into a buzz of chatter and rumour almost immediately.
(Only Jiang YanLi notices the way Wen Qing's face pales.)
Later, at the point she would usually retire for the evening, Wen Qing draws her aside. "Come back to my rooms," she says lowly, "I want to talk with you, wife."
By now, Wen Qing has fully integrated herself into her new position at Lotus Pier. She works alternating days at the Jiang Sect infirmary - apparently she clashes with the lead healer on a semi-regular basis - and spends her free time either conducting her own research or else seeing her patients. Jiang YanLi knew that Wen Qing's medical prowess was highly respected, but even she is surprised to learn just how many loyal patients are willing to make the long trek to Lotus Pier just for appointments. From grannies who insist Wen Qing is the only one that can ease their aching joints, to aristocrats who swear by her lotions and tonics, Wen Qing is always in demand. Visiting Wen Sect cultivators have become a common sight at Lotus Pier. Word of her skills has even spread to the local population of Yunmeng. There have been more peasants seeking help for tumours and infections in the last few months than Jiang YanLi has seen in her lifetime - some days Wen Qing is too busy to even stop for lunch.
Therefore, it's unsurprising that Wen Qing's quarters are starting to look very lived-in. They are neatly disordered. Of course, all the books are stowed carefully on the shelves - but there are piles of notes left out on her desk, and empty ink pots weighing down stacks of unread letters, and two of her gold hairpieces left haphazardly on the floor as though they aren't each worth a small household.
Once the door is closed, Wen Qing relaxes.
"My Uncle is becoming more brazen," she says, and her face is calm but her hands grasp each other until the skin at her knuckles turns white. "Wen RuoHan intentionally damaged Sect Leader Nie's saber just a few days ago. I am sure this qi deviation is his fault."
Jiang YanLi isn't sure what they want her to say - after all, she knows nothing of Wen RuoHan, and the most she's ever seen of Sect Leader Nie is across the room at discussion conferences. He is a serious man, not the sort to be interested in chatting with anyone other than other Sect Leaders. "You're worried, Wen Qing," she says in the end, following her emotional sense rather than attempting to come up with diplomatic advice, and then she steps forward and takes Wen Qing's hands in her own. Gently, she levers them apart and then runs her own fingers along the crescent-shaped indents left by Wen Qing's nails.
"There's more," Wen Qing says. As ever, her proximity makes Jiang YanLi feel hypnotised, those dark eyes boring into her soul. Wen Qing hesitates. "My Uncle has been writing to me again," she says.
"Is it about Wen Ning?" asks Jiang YanLi. Last time, the letter she'd helped compose - a polite statement that Wen QiongLin was already settled in at Lotus Pier, that everyone was fond of him, and that sending him back to Yiling would surely damage her relationship to the Jiang family - was met with nothing but silence. They'd assumed that Wen RuoHan had decided to pick his battles and step down. Maybe they were wrong.
Wen Qing squeezes her hands. "It's not Wen Ning," she says, "Wen RuoHan is asking me for information. About Lotus Pier."
Jiang YanLi has never dealt well with fear. She does not like the way it washes over her now, but Wen Qing clings tight to her hands, like a lifeline, and she manages to stay afloat. "What do you mean?" she asks. "What information about Lotus Pier?'
"Your defences, the strength of your disciples, your wealth."
"And have you responded?"
"No," Wen Qing says, "but I will have to. Wen RuoHan is not the sort of man that you can disobey easily. Everything he does has a purpose. Sending me to join YunmengJiang - I suspect that his end goal was always to use my position here to his advantage."
"So you came as a spy," Jiang YanLi says. She barely believes the words coming from her own mouth.
Wen Qing shakes her head. She looks pained, and if anything her grasp on Jiang YanLi's hands grows tighter. They are so close now. "Please don't believe that I came here knowing I would jeopardise your home, Jiang YanLi. My intention was never to harm you or your family. I am not involved with Wen RuoHan's schemes."
Jiang YanLi closes her eyes. The force of Wen Qing's stare is too much.
"Well," she says after a pause, "thank you for coming to me, Wen Qing. Will you excuse me now? I am tired, and want to sleep." Wen Qing nods, drops her hands and steps back, and Jiang YanLi immediately mourns the loss of closeness. Even in circumstances like this, Wen Qing's face is so beautiful. Jiang YanLi wants to take it between her hands and hold Wen Qing still, so that she can never turn that dark gaze upon anyone else. Even better, she wants Wen Qing to hold her . She wants them to lean in together - and suddenly, desperately, she wants to kiss Wen Qing. The instinct is so strong that, if they were still stood close enough, Jiang YanLi might even have tried.
Instead she forces herself to breathe, imagines the repetitive motion of shelling lotus seeds, and tries to calm herself. All of Jiang YanLi’s emotions are in turmoil. She must be confused because she is upset by the news.
"I can return in the morning, if you'd like me to," she says, testing the water. "Perhaps I could help you reply to Wen RuoHan."
Wen Qing smiles, and it is weary but genuine. "Thank you."
"You are my wife," Jiang YanLi says, and even though that's not the real reason, it's close enough.
At night she cannot sleep, cannot think beyond Wen Qing, and she wonders how this fever has sneaked into her heart.
If only Jiang YanLi was a poet, she would be able to come up with a stunning metaphor to describe Wen Qing; something about her skin and her eyes and her teeth, and the harsh way she talks and the soft way she smiles. Jiang YanLi wishes that she could capture the way Wen Qing's face lights up at a new challenge or interesting conversation and distil it down to its essence so she could keep it with her forever. And the curve of her lips, the shape of her bare hands, and her waist where her belts wrap tight across her torso, and the sound of her voice when she says Jiang YanLi's name, and the darkness of her eyes, and…
...and she is a spy for QishanWen.
Jiang YanLi will always put her family above her own happiness, but as she works with Wen Qing on the letter, she hopes that she will not have to make the choice between her wife and her brothers.
Wen Qing is uncharacteristically quiet, offering none of her usual critiques and inquiries as Jiang YanLi writes. Mostly, she stares through the window. It is grey weather outside and the odd spatter of rain falls from the swollen clouds, and that is the only interruption to the silence. Jiang YanLi tries to only write information that would be public knowledge. She carefully implies that YunmengJiang is poorer than Wen RuoHan would expect, with very little that would be of interest to him. I have been unimpressed by the level of cultivation , she writes, even the head disciples are lacking by Qishan Wen standards . Jiang Cheng will be furious if he ever gets his hands on this. Luckily, Jiang YanLi does not care much for her sect's pride - not in comparison to its safety.
"I should return to Yiling," Wen Qing says when they are done.
"Why do you think?" She scoffs. She does not meet Jiang YanLi's eye. "I should have done more to prevent this marriage. It thought - well, it does not matter what I thought." Wen Qing has a peculiar way of holding her head up high and making her eyes steely, even when she is clearly upset. She is using the commanding tone she rarely breaks out with Jiang YanLi - the one that says, 'you better not argue', and cements all her words as facts.
Luckily, Jiang YanLi can see through the act. "I don't think that's true," she says gently. "There's no need for you to leave unless you want to."
"But Jiang YanLi -"
She holds up her hand, and Wen Qing stops. "Listen," she says, "did our marriage cause Wen RuoHan's interest in Lotus Pier? You have said it yourself - he only desires power. Whatever his plans are, he'd be making them anyway,, with you here or not."
"But my presence will make things worse," Wen Qing says.
"How? If anything, it is a blessing." The ink on the page is dry now, and Jiang YanLi passes her the letter. Wen Qing scans the characters with a crease between her eyebrows. "You see," Jiang YanLi says, "perhaps we can use your presence to our own advantage."
"Using me as a double agent."
Wen Qing bites her lip. "If Wen RuoHan suspects I am feeding him lies, the consequences will be hellish."
"So would you prefer to betray me?" Jiang YanLi asks. "Because if that is the case, feel free to pack your belongings and leave, and take your brother with you."
Wen Qing stares at her for a long moment. Outside, the rain pours down as though the clouds are weeping. Eventually, she sighs, stares at her folded knees, and the tension eases. "I am lucky to have you as my wife," she mutters. "I am beginning to suspect you are much wiser than me, Jiang YanLi. I will send this letter."
"We need to inform my family of Wen RuoHan's interest, too."
Wen Qing nods. Jiang YanLi can sense that her presence is no longer wanted, and she leaves with a heavy heart and a squashed desire to reach out and take Wen Qing's hands again.
Jiang YanLi's mother, predictably, is furious.
She never got on well with Wen Qing - and not just because she still resents the fact that Jiang YanLi's first engagement was unsuccessful. Madam Yu is used to being obeyed and feared by her family. Wen Qing rocks the boat; she is quite happy to argue, especially when Madam Yu criticises Jiang YanLi and her siblings. They are both highly strung and neither likes to back down. Plenty of shared meals have ended in frosty silence.
(Secretly, Jiang YanLi likes it when her wife defends her.)
"I suppose I should not be surprised," she says in a voice so hard it could chip stone, "after all, why would anyone choose to marry my eldest daughter, if not for their own gain? YanLi is so unattractive and stupid! I should have been suspicious the second that the Wen clan approached us!"
"Let's focus on the political issues," Jiang FengMian says in the placatory tone that only ever winds his wife up further.
"I'll focus on what I want! Or is it not a significant enough issue for you, that our eldest daughter is married to a Wen Sect spy?"
"She's not a spy," Jiang YanLi tries to interject, but she is silenced by a thunderous look.
Wen Qing's attitude does not help matters. Gone is the quiet, regretful side she showed Jiang YanLi while they were alone; now she stands with her head high and her face blank. "I should strike you down!" Madam Yu snaps, and it is no idle thread. Zidian flares and unwraps from its position around her wrist, although she does not lift her arm to strike - not yet.
In the end, it takes a very long and very tiring conversation in order to convince her parents of what Jiang YanLi already knows - that Wen Qing is not a threat, just a victim of circumstances, and that long-term it will be more beneficial to have her working on YunmengJiang's side than it would be to kick her out into the street. When it comes time for her parents to discuss their political strategy moving forward, Jiang YanLi is finally told to leave. On one hand, it is a relief to escape. On the other hand, she feels stung by the exclusion - isn't she the most involved in this matter? Shouldn't she be included, and have her opinions heard, while they discussion their strategy against her own wife’s family?
But Jiang YanLi is forgetting her place. It is easy, when Wen Qing treats her as though she's special, to forget that she is actually considered untalented and dull, even by her own parents.
Wen Qing has already cancelled all of her appointments for the day, meaning both she and Jiang YanLi are left at a loose end. "Come boating with me," Jiang YanLi offers, in an effort to lighten the dark cloud that has settled over them. Wen Qing hesitates. "Bring your brother," Jiang YanLi says, "I can cook lunch for us."
That is enough to persuade Wen Qing, who will do anything to please her Wen Ning. Jiang YanLi retires to the kitchens and tries to distract herself with the familiar motions of cooking; she doesn't make soup, since they'll be on the lakes and a stray wave (or overly-enthusiastic brother) could cause half of it to slop out of the sides of the pot. Instead she makes dumplings. Each is symmetrical, with perfectly folded pastry and the lingering indents of her thumbs. There are cooks at work in the kitchens too, but Jiang YanLi does not disturb them; by now they leave a station clear for her out of habit, and most are not at all perturbed to see her doing servant's work, since she's been coming here for so long. The head cook even makes idle conversation as they work.
At least by the time they set off, the rain has stopped. It is still a cool day. Jiang YanLi wishes that she had worn another layer; she can feel the goosebumps forming beneath her sleeves.
Somehow, Wei WuXian has tagged along with Wen Ning, and the second he's in the boat he starts asking about the Wen Sect and the argument and everything that Jiang YanLi was trying to avoid. "You said what about our disciples?" he asks in dismay when Jiang YanLi describes the letter they sent back, and Wen Qing stares out over the lakes listlessly, Wen Ning fidgeting at her side.
They stop at an overgrown meadow where trees line the bank, their knotted roots protruding into the water like claws. As Wen Ning clambers out, clearly unused to manoeuvring on water, he almost capsizes the whole boat; Jiang YanLi has to use some of her spiritual power to float herself down to the shore, or else she would've fallen face-first into the lake. " Shijie !" Wei WuXian exclaims, forgetting even to reprimand Wen Ning in the way he usually chastises those who inconvenienced her. Instead he points at where her feet have landed amongst the tree roots. "I didn't know you had high enough cultivation to do that!"
Embarrassed, Jiang YanLi looks away. "I've been meditating more," she admits, "Wen Qing showed me how."
"And it's a good thing I did," Wen Qing says harshly. It is the first thing she's said since they left Lotus Pier. "Why on Earth has Jiang YanLi not been taught to properly cultivate her core, like you and Jiang WanYin? Did you all just give up on her? I thought there must be an underlying illness, when I first felt the weakness in her core, but there's nothing wrong with her. Nothing other than neglect. How is it, that both of her brothers receive so much support and training, while Jiang YanLi has been left barely able to so much as draw her sword?"
Wei WuXian stares at her, aghast. "I didn't think…"
"You didn't think what? Didn't think that your sister's cultivation mattered, so long as she is still available to treat you like a baby, and make your food for you, and clean up after your mistakes?"
Wei WuXian looks as though he doesn’t know whether to argue or run away. At his side, Wen Ning bites his lip and says nothing.
"Wen Qing, go easy on A-Xian," Jiang YanLi says.
"Isn't he supposed to be a genius cultivator? Yet he can't even notice the state of his own sister's golden core!"
"If anyone is to blame, it would be my parents and tutors," Jiang YanLi says firmly, "not my younger brother, who was also just a child."
"Wen Qing," she warns.
After a moment, Wen Qing relents. Her shoulders relax and she suddenly seems much smaller and more tired. "You are right. I am speaking too harshly to the wrong person."
"Anyway," Jiang YanLi smiles, and puts her hand on her brother's arm because he looks upset, coaxes a smile from him in return, "the past doesn't matter, so long as I am improving now. Imagine, A-Xian, some day I could even learn to ride the sword like you and A-Cheng. Wouldn't that be nice? We could go on much longer day trips."
Wei WuXian shakes his head, grinning. "You know, shijie , I was worried that Wen Qing would bully you, but now I see it's the other way round."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Wen Qing asks.
"Nothing. Just that my sister clearly has you wrapped around her finger -"
"A-Xian!" Jiang YanLi scolds him, and pokes at his ribs. But she cannot bring herself to be annoyed, because when she glances up she sees that, finally, Wen Qing is smiling.
The next few months are tense.
More Wen Sect cultivators start visiting Lotus Pier; they are picking up injuries at an alarming rate. "That Wen RuoHan will be the death of us all," one disciple whines in the infirmary while Wen Qing sets his leg into a brace and Jiang YanLi mashes up a blend of roots and spices to make medicine for him. "He is making us stray farther and farther from Qishan, and get involved in all sorts of stupid night hunts. Why can't we just stick to our own territory?"
"Pipe down," says another disciple, who is missing an eye and came to Wen Qing for a prosthetic. "Who are you to question Sect Leader Wen?"
"I would never have broken my leg, if he didn't overwork us!"
"You should be honoured to be injured in the line of duty!"
Wen Qing interrupts them with a sharp look on her face. "Honoured to be injured? Do you think my time is so cheap, you can use it as you please?"
Both of the disciples shrink back. "No, Lady Wen," they say in unison.
"There is no honour in becoming injured," she snaps, "and even less honour in traipsing all the way to YunmengJiang, to see a doctor who is not even of the Wen Sect any more! Or have you forgotten that I married into YunmengJiang? I am perfectly within my rights to send you both back to Nightless City this instant."
"Ah, but the new doctor at Nightless City is useless! When he made my prosthetic eye, it irritated the socket so bad that the old wound reopened and got infected!"
"Well," says the one with a broken leg, "I have half a mind to defect from QishanWen anyway."
"Don't say that!"
"Why not?" He holds his nose up high. "Since I've come to Lotus Pier, I see how much better the disciples are treated here. Lady Jiang, do you think your sect would take me?"
Jiang YanLi looks up in surprise at being addressed. "Oh," she says, "I don't know. I suppose my sect would be interested in anyone with high enough cultivation. We are not very strict about bloodlines." They have taken in promising rogue cultivators and civilians before, but never defectors. "GusuLan also hold exams for outsiders to join," she offers, "although my brothers attended lectures there, and apparently there are three thousand rules to obey while you stay at the Cloud Recesses."
"Well then, I'll wait until my leg is healed enough to walk on, and then I'll come back here and petition to join YunmengJiang. My cultivation level is very high," he says confidently, "not to mention, I'm a skilled swordfighter. I only broke my leg because I was so exhausted I fell off my sword while flying - I've never lost a fight. If you won't accept me, I'll go to GusuLan. And if they won't accept me, I'll just become a rogue cultivator!"
"If you do that," the one-eyed disciple sneers, "I'll never speak to you again, traitor."
"More fool you, when Sect Leader Wen sends you to your death! I'm getting out while I still can!"
"Silence while I work!" says Wen Qing.
Immediately, they both stop arguing, although the silence is sullen. Wen Qing uses the moment to wrench the disciple's leg into place, and there is a grinding bone-on-flesh noise that makes Jiang YanLi wince. The disciple grits his teeth but manages not to cry out. Maybe his cultivation level really is as high as he boasts. Then she wraps him into the splint with a practiced speed.
"Well done," says Wen Qing. "Please could you pass me the medicine, Jiang YanLi?"
Their hands brush as Jiang YanLi gives her the little pot. Wen Qing spreads it gently over the disciple's broken skin - it was a compound fracture, and he is lucky that Wen Qing didn't just decide to amputate and lower the risk of infection. For all her harsh words, Wen Qing is careful, almost tender in the way she applies the medicine. When she hears the disciple's breath hitching, she stops for a moment and then continues with an even lighter touch. "Take this paste," she says when she is done, handing the pot over to him. A thin sheen of sweat has formed across his forehead. "Use it once in the morning and once at night, to prevent infection. If your skin becomes discoloured or swollen, return here as soon as possible."
"Thank you, Lady Wen," says the disciple in a strained voice.
Jiang YanLi has the bizarre thought that she wishes she, too, could break her leg, just to feel Wen Qing's fingers running so gently along the skin of her calf. The idea is so ridiculous that she shakes her head at herself, bites the inside of her mouth, and turns back to mixing up the next poultice. She suddenly feels sweaty. It seems like a cruel irony, to be married to the one she wants and still not be loved.
(Jiang YanLi wonders if this is how her mother feels; she resolves to never let herself give in to bitterness the way Madam Yu has.)
Wei WuXian, bless his heart, has taken Wen Qing's lecture to heart and is now fiercely interested in improving Jiang YanLi's cultivation.
Unfortunately, this means she no longer has so much spare time - between joining her parents at diplomatic meetings, and spending time with Wen Qing in the infirmary, Jiang YanLi is now also expected to meditate with Wei WuXian and do core-strengthening exercises. The progress is very slow now that she's an adult. She envies how the child disciples pick up the flow of spiritual energy so easily. For her, every small increase in power takes gargantuan effort.
"Don't worry," Wei WuXian reassures her, "Wen Qing says some of the best cultivators in the world actually started pretty late."
Another new development - Wen Qing and Wei WuXian have formed a tentative friendship with each other. It mostly appears to consist of Wen Qing telling him off, and Wei WuXian teasing and ignoring her.
"I don't need to be the best cultivator in the world," Jiang YanLi says mildly, "I don't expect that'll happen."
"Hey, you never know!"
"I'll be happy if I get anywhere at all," she says, "these exercises still tire me out, A-Xian, and we've been doing it for weeks. I'm beginning to doubt I'll ever wield my sword for more than a minute."
"You're definitely improving," he replies, with such confidence that Jiang YanLi almost believes him.
She does manage to wield her sword for more than a minute, after months of careful work. Wei WuXian even helps her learn to duel. Technically speaking she should be embarrassed - a grown woman, flailing around ungracefully as her younger brother tries to teach her sword fighting - but although she has no talent for it, Jiang YanLi enjoys herself nonetheless. Wei WuXian is a surprisingly good teacher. He goes easy on her, but not enough to feel patronising, and they almost always end their sessions sweaty and panting with laughter.
They receive more letters from Wen RuoHan.
He instructs Wen Qing to start vying for power at Lotus Pier. Everyone knows that your wife is weak-willed, and has little involvement in politics, but she is still the daughter of the Sect Leader , he writes. If you use your position carefully, you will become very influential within the clan. Take on the role of Jiang YanLi and assert your dominance over decision-making at Lotus pier; if necessary use threats of the Wen Sect's power. Report to me regularly on your progress. Remember, if the fancy strikes me I am just as capable of harming your brother in Yunmeng as I was before. My assassins are not afraid of long-distance travel. Soon we will be striking at the Cloud Recesses, so it is more important than ever to have the other major sects under our control .
Jiang Cheng snorts when he reads it. "Weak-willed? Clearly Sect Leader Wen has never tried to argue with you, YanLi."
They are all sat in Wen Qing's quarters, and Jiang YanLi is frowning as she tries to write an appropriate response.
"Maybe we could request cultivators," says Wen Ning timidly. He has slowly been coming out of his shell since his arrival at Lotus Pier, although he still watches with wide eyes after he speaks, as though waiting to be ridiculed. Wei WuXian pats him on the shoulder.
"Cultivators?" Wen Qing asks.
"Our own people, I mean. They're very loyal to you."
"That's true," she says, "and it could be useful, to convince Wen RuoHan that we were using manpower to assert our dominance, whilst actually building a force opposed to him. I'm not sure Sect Leader Jiang would agree to have so many foreign cultivators in Yunmeng, though."
"A force opposed to Wen RuoHan?" Wei WuXian asks. "Do you really think the situation will become so dire that we'll need an army?"
Wen Qing shrugs.
"Read this part," Jiang Cheng says darkly. "It looks as though Wen RuoHan has an interest in the Cloud Recesses. Who's to say we're not next?"
"We ought to warn GusuLan," Wei WuXian says.
"And give away our own knowledge?"
"Yes! What about Lan Zhan, and the other teachers and disciples that we befriended there?"
"Neither of us befriended Lan WangJi," says Jiang Cheng sharply. "Why are you so obsessed with him, huh? He didn't even like you."
"Maybe we could help in a subtle way," Jiang YanLi interjects, because Wei WuXian tends to take comments about Second Master Lan very personally, and she doesn't want the conversation to get sidetracked. "We could disguise it as a regular diplomatic visit. Father and Lan QiRen are allies; there would be nothing unusual about it. Then he can warn Sect Leader Lan and support him, without arousing suspicion."
"I'll suggest it to Father," says Jiang Cheng.
Wei WuXian nods. "Well, if we're sending cultivators to the Cloud Recesses, I definitely need to go!"
"If you get involved, my mother will never agree," Jiang Cheng says. "Leave the talking to me, Wei WuXian." Then he turns to Wen Qing. Of everyone, Jiang Cheng is the most suspicious of her; sometimes he will even refuse to discuss private Jiang Sect issues in front of her, as though she's going to rush away and send it all off to Wen RuoHan at first opportunity. Jiang YanLi has told him how rude it is. "Wen Qing," he says stiffly, "how loyal are your people?"
"They would stand with me against Sect Leader Wen," she answers, "I hand-picked them, in the time before I was engaged to your sister, and I know they are trustworthy."
"Then I will ask my father about the possibility of moving some of them here. But I don't make any promises."
I suspect that the Jiang Sect shall be easy to subdue , Jinlang YanLi writes as her friends and siblings talk over the details of their plan, may I request a small military presence, to keep them in check?
In the end, Wei WuXian gets his wish; he wheedles his way into accompanying Jiang FengMian to Cloud Recesses, while Jiang Cheng is left behind to help his mother in running the sect. A large number of YunmengJiang cultivators leave too. Jiang YanLi goes down to the docks to see them off. "We don't know how dire the situation will become," Jiang FengMian says, "it is best for us to take a small fighting force, just in case. If I wasn't worried about Lotus Pier's safety in my absence, I'd take more."
"No, just leave us in the capable hands of Wen Qing's lackeys," Madam Yu says scornfully. "What could go wrong?"
"Mother, those servants and cultivators are highly trusted," Jiang Cheng says as he helps load supplies onto one of the boats. It has the air of an argument that has been repeated many times.
"I should never have agreed to that damn marriage," Madam Yu responds, but argues no further.
Jiang YanLi waves as half of her family disappears across the water.
Without Wei WuXian, she struggles even more to cultivate her golden core; Jiang Cheng tries to help her, but he does not share his brothers' patience and easy-going attitude. Even Jiang Cheng himself admits he’s not a good teacher.
In the end, Wen Qing is the one who offers to meditate with her.
"Are you sure?" Jiang YanLi asks the first time they sit together, on an evening when the sun is low and red in the sky and the birds are wittering far overhead. Something predatory swoops across the clouds, the harsh curve of its wings almost imperceptible through the haze. "You have such busy days, the last thing you need is -"
"I need to maintain my own core too," interrupts Wen Qing. "And besides, you are my wife."
'You are my wife'. It's something they've taken to saying to each other, to justify the little acts of kindness they give each other throughout the day. When Jiang YanLi cooks soup just for Wen Qing, she will not accept thanks, and merely states that they are wives. Likewise, Wen Qing waves away gratitude for mending Jiang YanLi's clothes - a hobby she apparently finds therapeutic. Both of them avoid mentioning the situation with the Wen Sect unless it is strictly necessary, but when it cannot be avoided, there's an easy way to justify their loyalty to each other: they are wives.
So Jiang YanLi sits, and waits for her mind to fall still. She has grown better at meditating since her first disastrous attempts when she was a child, but she still fidgets too much, and wishes she had something to occupy her hands.
Wen Qing's presence also does not help. Jiang YanLi is too attuned to her; she keeps opening her eyes and taking little glances, admiring Wen Qing's effortless posture, the regal set of her neck and the fan of her closed eyelashes against her high cheekbones.
"My wife," Jiang YanLi wonders to herself, and only realises she's said the words aloud when Wen Qing's eyes flutter open.
They stare at each other.
Slowly, a smile quirks its way onto Wen Qing's lips. "Yes," she says, "your wife."
"Were you ever disappointed?" Jiang YanLi asks. She's not sure precisely what she's asking - was Wen Qing disappointed to be married off so young? Disappointed to be married to another woman?
Wen Qing keeps smiling. "No."
"Not even -"
"Jiang YanLi," she says, "you could not disappoint me if you tried. Now be quiet."
It is even harder to meditate than it was before, now this strange energy hums in the air between them. Jiang YanLi does not even try to relax. She just watches Wen Qing, who closes her eyes and settles back down, her lips still twitching. "I was happy," she says quietly, "happy to marry you, I mean."
Jiang YanLi cannot imagine someone being happy to marry her. "Why were you?"
"Because I like you," says Wen Qing.
And then everything seems to fall apart all at once.
News from Cloud Recesses: there has been an attack. When Jiang YanLi hears she cries. Jiang Cheng does not cry - at least, not in front of her - but he holds her in a too-tight embrace that lasts so long Jiang YanLi's tears dry up, and then he wants to leave immediately and check on his father and Wei WuXian. "You will stay here and fulfil your duty as heir to the sect," Madam Yu reprimands him. "Jiang FengMian and that boy are either alive or dead, and your presence won't make any difference."
"Mother, they could be injured!"
"And Wen RuoHan could be turning his attention here next. You will stay."
At the same time, they receive news that the Wen Sect is demanding disciples to be sent to Nightless City for indoctrination. Twenty, and at least one of the main family. "I'll see what I can do," Wen Qing says with a pinch between her brows. "Jiang YanLi, do you think we'll be able to manipulate things so that Jiang Cheng can stay here?"
"Maybe," says Jiang YanLi, but she is exhausted.
That night, she does not want to go to bed alone. Her heart has not left her throat since she heard the news - she cannot stop seeing horrendous images of Wei WuXian dead on the ground, her father beside him, both of them covered in blood and smelling like the infirmary after Wen Qing performs the sort of operation that makes even sedated people scream. She tries to sleep but she cannot bring herself to lay down, let alone close her eyes. So she shrugs her outer robes on over her shoulders and walks quietly from her room to Wen Qing's quarters.
In the dark, the room is almost unfamiliar with its high stacks of paperwork and medical research. A few scrolls have been left on the floor. Gently, Jiang YanLi raps her knuckles against the supporting wooden beam of Wen Qing's door, and hopes that she is not making a mistake in coming here.
A few seconds later, Wen Qing opens the door to her adjoining bedroom.
"Jiang YanLi," she whispers into the dark. "I thought it must be you."
Then, without waiting for an explanation or apology, she takes Jiang YanLi's hand and leads her through. Wen Qing's bedroom is small and cosy. It is full of even more books than she keeps in her main room, and some of them are left splayed open on her desk. As though it is the most natural thing in the world, she drags the sheets down and pulls Jiang YanLi into the bed beside her. It's easily big enough for two people but they lay close anyway. Jiang YanLi tangles her fingers between Wen Qing's. She feels tears brimming at her eyes again, although she is sick of crying. "I'm scared," she says wetly.
Wen Qing doesn't respond - what is there to say? - but she does pull Jiang YanLi closer until her head rests on the crook of Wen Qing's shoulder and their ankles hook together. Like this, Jiang YanLi can feel her wife's heartbeat. She falls asleep not long after.
Wei WuXian absolutely preens with all the attention upon his return.
If you believe his stories - and they are probably at least inspired by the truth - he single-handedly fought off at least a dozen other cultivators. There was a small army lead by Wen Qing's older cousin, Wen Xu, in an attempt to burn down the Cloud Recesses. Sect Leader Wen has since claimed he did not authorise the attack.
(Wen Qing rolls her eyes when she hears this. "Typical," she says, "if it had been successful, Wen Chao would be boasting non-stop.")
A few Lan Sect disciples were badly wounded, but nobody was killed - nobody except Wen Xu’s soldiers, anyway. Apparently, when Lan WangJi was injured for refusing to comply, Wei WuXian jumped in and turned the confrontation violent. Outnumbered by the whole Lan Sect and the additional cultivators from YuengJiang, Wen Xu was sent back to Nightless City with his tail between his legs; no doubt there will be an influx of injured cultivators for Wen Qing within the next few days.
"I know you're the best doctor in possibly the whole world," Wei WuXian says to her in a sweet voice, after he is done singing his own praises. "That's why I bought Lan Zhan to you! Look, he broke his leg because he was the first to take a stand against the Wen Sect, and refused to burn down the library! Isn't he brave? Lan Zhan, I think you're an even bigger hero than me."
If Lan WangJi feels embarrassed by Wei WuXian'd excessive praise, he doesn't show it. He doesn't show much of anything at all. Jiang YanLi wouldn't even have noticed that his leg was broken, if Wei WuXian hadn't insisted on supporting him as he stood.
"Wei WuXian, you really are something. You assume I have spare time to treat such a minor injury?" Wen Qing gripes, but nobody can bring themselves to be truly sharp with him today. They are all too happy to see him and Jiang FengMian alive and well. Even Jiang Cheng, who often struggles to express himself, managed a hug and a gruff "good to see you" when Wei WuXian first stepped off the boat.
"If it is inconvenient," Lan WangJi starts to say, but Wei WuXian flaps his hand around and interrupts him.
"Don't pay any attention to Wen Qing. Her bark is worse than her bite, she's not really mad."
"My bark is worse - Wei WuXian! I'll show you my bite, if you're not careful!"
"You’re threatening to hurt me? I'm a war hero, now! Jiang Cheng, tell our sister-in-law that she can't threaten a war hero!"
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and the expression has never looked so fond. "Shut up," he says. "Lan WangJi, let me show you to the infirmary."
When she first saw him, what now seems like an aeon ago at the LanlingJin Discussion Conference - has it really only been two years? - Jiang YanLi was struck by the coldness of Second Young Master Lan. He was beautiful, but only in the far-away sense that a statue might be beautiful, impersonal and regal. She had felt sorry for her brother, falling for someone unreachable and pretty.
Jiang YanLi learns how wrong she was as she watches Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi together in the infirmary.
When Wei WuXian is near, his face loses all of its closed-off chill. His eyes soften, his mouth relaxes. He does not smile , exactly, and perhaps if you were not observant you'd notice no change at all - but Jiang YanLi is good at reading people and she cannot miss the way Lan WangJi stares after her brother with a look like an adoring puppy, the sort Jiang Cheng raised in his youth. In return her brother dances around and teases even more than usual. He is like a ball of frantic energy.
Lan WangJi surprises Jiang YanLi by turning towards her, once his leg is sorted and Wen Qing has moved to the next patient. "Lady Jiang," he says in his customary brief way, "would you like to train together?"
"Hm? What do you mean?"
"Ah," Wei WuXian explains, "I told Lan Zhan about our attempts to help you cultivate a better core, shijie . He thinks he can help."
Lan WangJi nods. "I have started teaching basics to GusuLan juniors."
"Well," says Jiang YanLi, touched by the thoughtfulness, "I wouldn't want to take up your time, especially given your injury. Don't you want to rest first?"
"It is no bother."
"You'll stay here at least the next few weeks while your leg heals, right, Lan Zhan?" Wei WuXian asks. "You're not gonna head off straight away, are you? So you can rest first, and then help shijie tomorrow instead."
"I will stay if you want me to, Wei Ying."
"Well, your leg needs time to heal…"
Really, they're both too ridiculous. Jian YanLi leaves them to it, and goes to help her wife with the next patient.
Although the immediate danger has passed, Jiang YanLi is still rattled, and decides to push her luck. That evening she returns to Wen Qing's bed.
She does it the next day, too.
And the next.
She does not know why she is being allowed to return day after day, but she does not want to question things lest they all fall apart. Instead, she treasures all the little indulgences she gets. Wen Qing is comfortable to sleep beside, and sometimes they wake up draped over each other, and their evening routines blend together in a way that makes Jiang YanLi’s heart brim over with joy.
"Wei Ying said you can duel."
Jiang YanLi is starting to get the hang of interpreting Lan WangJi; when he makes blunt statements like that, it's his way of asking for more information. She nods gestures to the sword now hanging from her belt, even though she's not strong enough to beat anyone in a real fight. "A-Xian humours me with mock-fights, sometimes," she says, "but I'm afraid that if you're looking for a real match, you'll be disappointed."
“Hm,” says Lan WangJi, "let's try," and then he draws his sword using just spiritual energy, without so much as touching the hilt. Jiang YanLi gapes.
“Lan WangJi, that’s amazing!”
If she didn’t know any better, Jiang YanLi would almost think that Lan WangJi was embarrassed. “It is a trick,” he mumbles.
“Don’t be humble, it’s very clever! I mean, I’m sure I couldn’t do it.”
Lan WangJi stares. “Why not?”
“Well - I don’t have enough spiritual power, and -”
Lan WangJi interrupts her by sheathing his sword with a hissing clang, and then repeating his original movement slowly, letting Jiang YanLi see the way he does it. “A trick,” he repeats, “it takes little power.” Then he gets a resolute look in his eye. “I will teach you.”
“Ah, Lan WangJi, I’m honoured but there’s really no need -”
“It will make Wei Ying happy, if you learn.”
At that, Jiang YanLi can think of no protest. It is nice to meet someone else with the same priorities as herself.
Wen RuoHan concedes that Jiang Sect disciples need not come for indoctrination, since they are already beneath the control of his puppet Wen Qing. Lan WangJi leaves and heads to Nightless City, but neither of Jiang YanLi's brothers follow.
By now, she has been spinning an increasingly elaborate web of lies in the letters she sends. At some point it will inevitably fall through - Wen RuoHan will make some demand that she cannot meet - but until then, she is keeping the spotlight off Lotus Pier for as long as possible. She writes that Wen Qing has subdued Jiang FengMian through a combination of threats and military force. In reality, her staff have integrated well into the ranks of other disciples and cultivators. They mostly keep to themselves, and still wear their crimson Wen Sect robes rather than Jiang Sect purple - although plenty of them are just civilians, or too old or young to be any use if a battle did break out. Temporary housing has been erected in the fields around Lotus Pier. Their vibrant red tents dot the landscape like ants, and they live peacefully.
When they first arrived, Jiang YanLi did the rounds and met all of Wen Qing's uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews, or at least the ones who liked her well enough to trek all the way to Lotus Pier. Wen Qing played coy but was clearly proud. "This is my wife, Lady Jiang," she said to everyone they encountered, which made Jiang YanLi blush, and prompted much cooing from the older relatives.
How 'political' is their marriage? Now that they sleep in the same bed, they are doing more than Jiang FengMian and Yu ZiYuan have in years. Not to mention the decidedly un-political way Jiang YanLi's stomach flutters whenever her wife brushes close up against her, which is often. Sometimes as they walk together, they hold hands. It makes them look like infatuated teenagers, and Jiang YanLi loves it, is always disproportionately happy to be allowed to cling onto Wen Qing's birdlike wrist, or lace their fingers together and pass reassurance just through gentle squeezes.
Life is not all hand-holding and fun and games, though. Talk turns more and more to war. The training exercises that Madam Yu leads in the courtyards lose their playful edge and become rigorous and strict. Everyone knows that the dam of peace is soon to burst.
"I heard that the Nie Sect are ordering more new weapons than ever before," the Wen disciples who visit Wen Qing begin whisper. "I heard that Gusu Lan's sect leader has finally come out of isolation after the attack, and he's preparing for war."
Some of them say that they're scared of the war, they're petrified that Wen RuoHan will send them to their deaths.
Others are worryingly hungry for blood.
For some reason, word spreads that YunmengJiang will take on Wen Sect deserters. "This is your fault, Jiang YanLi," her mother moans each time an injured 16-year-old or an embittered old man turns up at the door seeking refuge. "We never should have messed about with this propaganda campaign. The second we knew Wen RuoHan's motives, we should have lead an offensive attack!"
"I am not leading a propaganda campaign," Jiang YanLi argues, "they're coming of their own accord."
She begins standing up to her mother. Bizarrely, it improves their relationship no end.
Coming back to Wen Qing's rooms after a long day is like balm against Jiang YanLi's skin. Her own bedroom is almost forgotten.
She is not sure of the rules of this dance; perhaps it is sleeping, and nothing more. But she starts to allow herself little luxuries. In the morning, she brushes the hair out of Wen Qing's face, stares deep into her eyes before either of them speak. She learns the lines of Wen Qing's neck and back. She traces them with her eyes. Never her hands, no matter how much they itch with repression. In return, Wen Qing brushes her hair, running the comb along her scalp in steady sweeps that make Jiang YanLi shiver. They press close in the night. Wen Qing's hand falls to the dip in Jiang YanLi's waist and rests there, heavy and warm. It does not wander any farther.
It's a tentative thing.
When the time for war comes, it is not the form that anyone expects.
The story goes like this; Luo QingYang, a female cultivator of no particular repute, is one of those called to QishanWen for indoctrination. Wen Chao takes the kidnapped disciples down into a cave. His mistress Wang LingJiao brands Luo QingYang's face in some sort of kerfuffle - apparently there was a monsterous tortoise, the reports aren't clear - and in retaliation, Luo QingYang finds a heavy stone and smacks it against Wang LingJiao's head. After this a full-blown rebellion takes place. The disciples - including some very prominent cultivators, such as Jin ZiXuan and Lan WangJi - turn against the outnumbered Wen Sect guards, fighting even without their swords, and escape back to their own families. Wen Chao and his entourage have still not been found, and are suspected dead. Wen RuoHan wants their lives repaid with blood.
There is a list of the dead. Not every disciple escaped alive. Jiang YanLi reads it, and is relieved to know that she doesn't recognise the names: Su She is the only one that Jiang Cheng picks out, apparently a Lan disciple that he'd met during the lectures at Cloud Recesses.
"This is just typical," Wei WuXian complains. He is hanging his legs over the edge of a pier when Jiang YanLi finds him, kicking idly through the water.
"What is typical, A-Xian?"
"That something so dramatic and fun happens, and I'm left out! I should have gone with Lan Zhan when he left."
"I'd hardly call it fun," Jiang YanLi says.
"They started a whole war without even using swords, shijie ! Doesn't get much more fun than that." He sighs, and kicks the water again. "I bet Lan Zhan was very graceful while he fought. Maybe he used his guqin . He can summon it from thin air, you know!"
Jiang YanLi wonders if she is as obvious with her affections as her brother is.
In the next few days, it seems as though half of Nightless City defects to Lotus Pier, which causes a significant housing shortage.
The tents are not spacious enough to house all of the extra bodies. Jiang YanLi recognises many of them, from wounded visits to Lotus Pier - apparently Wen Qing has something of a fanbase, and they'd rather stand with her than her uncle. Others are friends, or siblings, or simply people who oppose Wen RuoHan's megalomania. "I'd never have dared to defect normally," one of them admits to Jiang YanLi in a hushed tone, wringing her hands as they try to find space for her to sleep the night. "Sect Leader Wen is far too scary. But when I heard that there was a splinter faction of the Wen Sect opposed to the war, I knew I had to come."
Wen RuoHan is furious. If your grasp on Lotus Pier is half as strong as you have lead me to believe , he writes in a calligraphy that stretches sloppy and sharp across the letter he sends, then you should have more than enough power to immediately return my cultivators for disciplinary action. If you are even thinking of turning against me, Wen Qing, then I will torture your brother before your eyes. I will cut off each of his fingers and force you to eat them, I will peel the skin off him, and I will... and so on, and so on. Jiang YanLi finds it so distasteful that she tells Wen Qing not to read it. Predictably, she does anyway, and her lips press together so tight that they become a thin bloodless line. When she hands the letter back to Jiang YanLi, there are marks left from where her fingernails have ripped through.
"I think we've delayed long enough," Jiang YanLi says gently. "We can't send all these cultivators back."
"I wasn't going to suggest we did!" Wen Qing says. She is not really angry, but the stress is making her clench her fists and snap. Wen Ning, who is also in the room, puts a placating hand on her shoulder. She sighs. "I am a doctor," she says in the end, "I do not want to harm people. Not even Wen RuoHan, not really, although I wouldn't be sad if he drops dead tomorrow."
"I'm sorry," Jiang YanLi says. "You got involved the moment you married me."
"I got involved the second I was born into the Wen Sect," Wen Qing argues. "At least this way I'm not on my uncle's side."
Wen Ning nods in agreement. "It's better to be here than back home."
"How do you want to respond?"
"Is there any point responding?" he asks. "We've made our choice."
"With the full power of Yunmeng Jiang and all the Wen Sect defectors, we may even stand a chance of surviving if Wen RuoHan attacks Lotus Pier," says Wen Qing. "But people will die."
It is only later that night, in the dim light of their shared bedroom, that Jiang YanLi realises how scared Wen Qing truly is. Her hands shake as she tries to undo her hairpiece; the pin which holds it all together gets stuck in a tangle. "Let me," Jiang YanLi says, and stands behind Wen Qing. They watch each other in the mirror as she takes the hairpiece apart, slowly working the hair through its segments so that it doesn't pull against Wen Qing's scalp. Her hair is always very silky and fragrant. Today, it is also moist with sweat at the roots. Once she's free, Jiang YanLi fetches a comb and spends a few silent minutes working out the tangles, brushing her scalp which is no doubt aching after being pulled into such an intricate style all day.
"We could die," Wen Qing says quietly.
"Don't say that, I'm sure we -"
"We could die," Wen Qing insists. "You don't understand. You have not grown up like I have, with people dying around you. You have not grown up with Wen RuoHan."
Jiang YanLi brushes the hair slowly through her fingers. She remembers that Wen Qing and Wen Ning are orphans, and plenty of the people at the encampment outside are missing parents and siblings and partners, each a tiny patchwork of grief and mourning. "I'm sorry," she says, which seems woefully inadequate.
"An army could show up tomorrow," says Wen Qing. Her voice is not despairing. It is worryingly matter-of-fact. "This could be our last night alive."
Jiang YanLi hums. "It's not been a bad life," she says. "I wouldn't mind."
"Of course, I don't want to die. But I've had a good life. I think that, if I was killed tomorrow, I would not feel that the world has wronged me."
Suddenly, Wen Qing turns to face Jiang YanLi eye-to-eye. The ends of her hair slip from her fingers. "Really?" she asks in a low voice, her eyes searching. "Is that true? If you died tomorrow, you'd have no regrets?"
"I didn't say that," says Jiang YanLi. Her lungs feel stiff and useless. She is sure that she is giving herself away and Wen Qing is about to flinch back with disgust at any moment.
"So you would have regrets?"
"What would they be?"
This is unbearable. "You," says Jiang YanLi, and then feels too choked off to explain further.
Wen Qing's eyebrows draw together adorably. "You'd regret me?"
"But you'd regret things to do with me?"
"Yes," she whispers.
"Like what, my wife? What would you regret?"
"I'd regret…" Jiang YanLi takes a shuddering breath. Steels herself. If she does not say this now, then when? "I'd regret not touching you."
"But we're touching now," says Wen Qing. She is right; Jiang YanLi's hands have fallen to rest on her shoulders. She can even feel the jump of a pulse, where the edge of her knuckle just brushes Wen Qing's soft neck.
"More," admits Jiang YanLi.
Wen Qing considers this, and then steps towards Jiang YanLi. Now they are so close that their breath mingles hot in the air between them. Slowly, she brings her hands up to mirror the way Jiang YanLi is cupping her own face. "Like this?" she asks.
Jiang YanLi does not even trust herself to nod, they are so close. She can feel the whole shape of Wen Qing's body against hers. "More."
Wen Qing moves even closer. Their foreheads touch. "Like -"
Jiang YanLi leans a fraction closer, tilts her jaw, and they are kissing.
It is not really like she's heard described in romances, because she is still scared and she knows Wen Qing is too. Her heart is ice. But it feels nice anyway. Wen Qing's lips are plush and her mouth is blood-warm. Jiang YanLi likes it, a lot. Too much.
(She'll be ruined if she can't have this again.)
She forces herself to pull away after only a moment. All of her face must be flushed bright red. They barely even kissed, really; it was nothing more than a brief press of lips, even less force than you might use kissing a friend's cheek. Jiang YanLi's lips are tingly. She feels the urge to brush a finger against them, check that this is real, but she ignores it in order to stare into Wen Qing's deep eyes.
"Jiang YanLi," says Wen Qing - and oh, no, her voice does not sound happy. She sounds broken.
Jiang YanLi pulls away immediately, cold. "I'm sorry - I shouldn't," she stutters, but she is interrupted when Wen Qing steps forward and closes the gap between them again, holding Jiang YanLi's face between her hands.
"Don't leap to assumptions," she says in that same broken voice, "don't be sorry."
"But you don't want -"
"I want," Wen Qing says, "I promise you, I want."
"Then what's wrong?"
"I want it too much," Wen Qing says. She breathes through her nose once, twice, as though warding away tears. "I won't be happy if we die tomorrow, Jiang YanLi, I can't accept it gracefully like you."
"We won't die," says Jiang YanLi with conviction she doesn't feel.
"There is so much I want," Wen Qing continues, "I want it so much I could burst. You're my wife. That should be enough, but I'm greedy. Don't kiss me again unless you will never stop kissing me for the rest of our lives."
Jiang YanLi, ever obliging, kisses her again.
This one is not so shy. Wen Qing must have done this before; she opens her lips in a rhythmic slide against Jiang YanLi's, presses forward almost desperately until their bodies are wrapped together at every junction, hands at waists and backs and throats. At one point she sinks her teeth into the curve of Jiang YanLi's lower lip, and when she elicits a gasp she licks at the sting slowly, then does it again.
The next time they break away Jiang YanLi feels hot and shuddery and weak. She always thought that descriptions in books when young women's knees gave out after a passionate kiss were just for dramatic effect.
"Did you mean it?" asks Wen Qing.
Jiang YanLi knows exactly what she is talking about. "Yes," she says, "I mean it."
By now it is almost pitch black. They always sleep close together, but tonight when they get into bed they are wrapped around each other like a complex knot. Wen Qing strokes Jiang YanLi's cheek.
They do not die the next morning.
Nor the morning after that.
It takes a week for Wen RuoHan's forces to arrive.
Jiang YanLi is many things, but she is not a warrior. When news comes of an approaching army, her family insists that she evacuates alongside the civilians.
And of course, Jiang YanLi knows that she must leave - what else is there for her to do? For all her schemes, she is still only capable of holding a sword in her hand for half an hour or so; she is weak, and if she tried to fight she would just be a liability.
It still wounds her pride to be sent away.
Maybe she would feel better if Wen Qing was coming too, but apparently she is needed at Lotus Pier. Jiang YanLi cannot hide the dread this inspires. "I won't be on the battlefield," Wen Qing says in an attempt to be reassuring, "I'll be in the infirmary, helping to deal with the wounded."
"Promise me you'll be okay," says Jiang YanLi.
"I can't promise that."
"Hey!" shouts Wei WuXian when he sees the way Jiang YanLi's lip wobbles. "Don't be so harsh, Wen Qing, you'll upset shijie !"
"If she says to promise her, then promise her," Jiang Cheng adds.
"Your brothers are bullying your wife," Wen Qing says wryly.
"Perhaps my wife needs bullying."
"Fine." She throws up her hands in mock resignation. "Jiang YanLi, I promise that I will be okay."
"You better promise too," Jiang YanLi says to her brothers, and they obey immediately and in unison, which makes her laugh.
There is no laughter during the evacuation. Jiang YanLi knows almost all of the civilians - either they have been living at Lotus Pier for years, or else they are Wen Qing's relatives - but the mood is too sober for chatter. People move with heavy boots and fear in their eyes. They are heading for an abandoned village, half a day's walk out from Lotus Pier, which has long fallen into disrepair and been forgotten by everyone other than locals.
There are a few children, and Jiang YanLi takes her turn carrying one of the babies. He has thick black hair and gorgeous eyes. There was a time when Jiang YanLi wanted babies, she reflects as she carries the warm little bundle tight against her chest. Maybe, if the world heals in the next few years, she and Wen Qing can…
The baby wakes, and starts screaming. Jiang YanLi winces as his mother comes to scoop him away and coo at him, patting at his back even as his ear-splitting shrieks clear a circle around her.
She can wait a few more years before figuring it out with Wen Qing, she decides.
They spend a miserable two days at the abandoned village.
Someone brought rice, so Jiang YanLi and the other women help make congee for breakfast, and there are fruit trees in the surrounding forests. A few young boys trap rabbits the second night, and an old woman makes them into a stew.
Other than meals, nothing breaks the tense atmosphere. It drives the children wild; they play in the rocks and mud, whining that they want to go home. Jiang YanLi wishes that she had lotus seeds to shell. She wishes she had her wife here, so she had someone else to brush out her hair in the evening and lay beside her to sleep. It is not only the hard ground that keeps her awake. The lack of Wen Qing's warm body beside hers is what really hurts, and Jiang YanLi didn't even know she was reliant on it until it was gone.
On the morning of the third day, a speck appears in the sky. Everyone gathers to watch as it grows larger and larger, talking the shape of a flying man with long hair and black robes.
"A-Xian," Jiang YanLi says as he lands, and she could almost sob in relief.
Wei WuXian is grimy and blood-stained, but alive. He manages a weary smile for the collected civilians. "We won," he pants, "we did it!"
A somewhat muted cheer follows his words. People will not be truly happy until they know who has survived, and who has died.
"I'll give you a ride back, shijie ," Wei WuXian offers.
By now, she's capable of riding the sword herself, but only for short distances, and Jiang YanLi is tired enough today to take up her brother on his offer. She steps daintily onto Subian. "Is everyone okay?" she asks. "A-Cheng, and our parents?"
"Yes," says Wei WuXian, and this time the relief is so heavy that she clings to his shoulders to avoid toppling off the sword.
"And my wife? And Wen Ning?"
"I've not seen Wen Qing, she was at the infirmary. Wen Ning got a cut but it wasn't too deep. He's asleep now."
"And how is Lotus Pier?"
"We managed to keep most of the fighting away from the buildings and in the fields," says Wei WuXian, "but I think there was some damage near the docks. A small group of Wen Sect soldiers came in a secret boat, probably to try and attack from our rear, but they were chased away before they could do any real damage."
"A secret boat of Wen Sect soldiers?"
Wei WuXian waves a weary arm. "It was nothing," he says, "spies or something. Forget it. Do you want to hear the good news?"
"Of course, A-Xian."
"GusuLan came to our aid halfway through the battle! At that point it almost looked as though we would lose. When I saw an army of those white robes descending, I really thought that I was dreaming!"
"GusuLan?" Jiang YanLi wonders. "Did our father request their aid?"
"Ah." Sheepish, Wei WuXian rubs the back of his neck. "No, I did that accidentally."
"I've been writing to Lan Zhan," he admits. He is uncharacteristically shy when he says it and Jiang YanLi bites down a grin. "Ever since we helped out at Cloud Recesses, we've been friends, sort of? I don't know. It's difficult to say with him. But anyway, in my letter I wrote that we were expecting Wen RuoHan's army to attack. He only received it yesterday but he set off to help us the moment he heard!"
"A-Xian, if he's so willing to leap to your aid, you're definitely friends."
"Ah, he's just paying back our help from a few months ago."
Jiang YanLi shakes her head. For the first time in days she is beginning to feel light again. Their flight is smooth, but not fast - no doubt Wei WuXian is far more tired than he's letting on - and they eventually land in the woodland right outside Lotus Pier.
Lan WangJi and Jiang Cheng are waiting, and Jiang YanLi hugs her brother, smiles at Lan WangJi, and then glances around. "Where is Wen Qing?" she asks.
Jiang Cheng is distracted by an incoming report from a disciple in red robes, and Wei WuXian is already turning his back, all his attention focused on Lan WangJi with laser precision. "Don't know," he says, "she was working at the infirmary. Lan Zhan! Hey, Lan Zhan, over here! Did you see…"
Sighing, Jiang YanLi moves on. The mood is jovial despite the casualties. People seem unable to believe that they're still alive; disciples hug each other and recount their tales of battle, Wen defectors and YunmengJiang and GusuLan alike.
The infirmary is bustling with people. "Excuse me," Jiang YanLi says to a nurse, "where is Wen Qing?"
"You tell me!"
"What do you mean?"
"She left, right when the fighting hit its peak! We could really have done with a warning before she vanished! Now, move out of my way, Lady Jiang, I need to see to my patients."
She asks a few more doctors, just to make sure, but all of their stories agree. Wen Qing went missing without any warning. Some of the staff seem worried; others are annoyed. Nobody has any idea where she has gone.
Jiang YanLi starts to think about the boatload of Wen Sect soldiers seen skulking around the docks. The ones that Wei WuXian said not to worry about. The ones that arrived secretly, on some obscure mission, and left in a boat immediately after.
She feels a dread that is becoming painfully familiar.
By the evening, they have accounted for the dead. Wen Qing is not among them.
Jiang YanLi knows, because she has walked along the rows of corpses. There are thousands, and checking each face takes hours. She will be happy if she never sees another dead body for the rest of her life.
Wen Qing is not in the kitchens, nor the training grounds, nor the gardens. Jiang YanLi searches both their bedrooms more times than she can count. Wen Ning helps. After a while, her brothers help too. They find nothing.
Wen Qing is not at Lotus Pier.
Worryingly, Jiang YanLi does not cry.
Wen Ning sobs, and even Jiang Cheng starts to look wavey and red-eyed, but Jiang YanLi does not cry. She does not want to give up her search at all, but as the evening draws to a close her brothers convince her that it is pointless to spend more time searching the same rooms.
"Are you okay, shijie ?" Wei WuXian asks when they are crowded at a low table together, and she is feeding herself a tasteless bowl of soup that she was handed at the door. It is not as nice as her own cooking.
Jiang YanLi shakes her head. How could she be okay? Wen RuoHan has kidnapped her wife.
"I know she was your best friend, but -"
"We weren't…" Jiang YanLi trails off. "I don't know. It wasn't exactly friendship."
Finally, Wei WuXian's eyes light up in comprehension. "Oh," he says, "wow. So the marriage wasn't just political, after all? Shijie , I never would've expected this! It's scandalous!"
Jiang YanLi nods. If she wasn't so depressed, she'd probably be blushing at this conversation. "It's very new," she admits, "we've not done anything more than kiss."
Jiang Cheng frowns. "What more can two women do than kiss, anyway?"
"What more, Jiang Cheng?" Wei WuXian's face lights up with glee. "What's this? How old are you! And you don't even know -"
"Stop," Jiang Cheng snaps, "I don't want to hear -"
"- but it's so important! Think of your future wife, Jiang Cheng! Don't you want to be able to pleasure her? Imagine how sad she'll be, if all you do is -"
"Don't do this to me in front of jiejie ," he moans, and that finally gets Wei WuXian to stop running his mouth. His eyes are still dancing, though; Jiang YanLi is sure that her brother will get plenty of teasing before the day is up. She laughs despite herself. In return, she gets two cautious smiles, and Jiang YanLi wonders if they're playing up their usual antics to try and reassure her.
"We'll find her," says Jiang Cheng firmly. "You get to sleep now, okay? We'll work in the morning."
Her own bed is too large and cold.
Just like the first night she sneaked through Lotus Pier to her wife's bed, Jiang YanLi shrugs her outer robe over her shoulders and ventures out to Wen Qing's quarters.
The bed here is equally large and cold. At least it smells of Wen Qing.
Jiang YanLi lays down. She tries to settle herself in to sleep; she forces her eyes closed, forces her limbs to stop twitching. Unfortunately she cannot force her mind to stop running.
Jiang YanLi sits up.
First of all, she knows her wife is still alive. Wen RuoHan sent someone deliberately to kidnap her during the battle; that was not the move of someone who wanted an immediate execution.
No, he will keep Wen Qing alive. Probably to use her for information and to torture her. Jiang YanLi feels cold and unreal as she considers this, and her fists clench unconsciously. She wishes she were big and strong, someone like the new Nie Sect Leader, who could match into Nightless City and lop Wen RuoHan's head off with a giant saber.
But Jiang YanLi will never be a person like that, so she has to think harder.
Wen Qing's red robes are still stacked neatly in her wardrobe. Jiang YanLi slips out of bed to examine them. They are a similar size, and although Jiang YanLi is not as skinny as her wife, she could wear the robes without making any alterations and still look sensible.
Jiang YanLi tells herself she is just investigating a hypothetical as she picks out Wen Qing's simplest outfit. It is red but slightly worn, and made of cheap material; Wen Qing only wears it when she is in surgery, and Jiang YanLi tries not to dwell on that fact. At least most of the blood has been thoroughly washed out. When Jiang YanLi puts it on she shivers at the unfamiliar feel of cheap, rough fabric against her skin.
Then she returns to her rooms and fastens her sword to her belt. When she puts her hair into a simple bun and looks in the mirror, she is greeted by a sight she has seen many times before; a nondescript Wen Sect cultivator.
Jiang YanLi leaves a note in the middle of her bed for her brothers to find. It reads:
I am sorry. Do not follow me.
She knows it will make them very angry, but there will be time to deal with that later. If there is a 'later'. Then she slips out into the night and is gone.
Riding the sword is not easy at all.
Jiang YanLi knows her best opportunity is to strike now, while there will be chaos as the remnants of the Wen army return to Nightless City. She jogs a stretch first. It amazes her how much her fitness has increased, since she started exercising each day with Wen Qing; in the past, Jiang YanLi had never been able to run for more than a few minutes, but now she keeps it up for almost two hours before the burn in her lungs becomes unbearable. Then she takes her sword out, gathers all the spiritual energy she can, and manages a steady wobble a few feet above the ground.
It is not very impressive. Her brothers reached this level aged twelve. But it will serve her purposes, and so she glides forward at a speed faster than a human's sprint, conserving her energy by never straying far from the ground.
On a sword, a person can cover stretches of land that take hours on foot in only a few minutes. What's more, the Wen army is weakened, moving at a stumbling pace. It barely takes another two hours to catch up with them. Once she is close enough, Jiang YanLi dismounts and ignores her burning knees as she starts to jog again, hoping to slip between their ranks without being noticed, but while she is still far behind the pack, her ankle unexpectedly gives. She slips and falls with a dramatic crash into a heap of undergrowth.
One of the soldiers whips around. "You!" He calls. "You there! Who's lagging behind?"
Jiang YanLi picks herself up wearily. Her face is scratched. She has never been this exhausted in her life; her spiritual energy is so depleted, she feels as though she has no golden core at all.
"Keep up," says the soldier, but with more sympathy this time. "I thought I'd rounded up the last of the stragglers. Are you injured? Do you need a stretcher?"
Jiang YanLi shakes her head, but she hobbles over anyway, exaggerating her weariness to win the soldier's sympathy. It works just as she expects, and he supports her gently with one arm. Bizarrely, Jiang YanLi feels bad for lying to him. Then she remembers that this man is returning from his attempt to ransack her home and kill her family, and her sympathy dwindles.
"What's your name?" asks the soldier. "I'm Wen Xiang."
"I am Yu Juan," she lies, choosing one of her aunts' names at random.
"Any relation to MeishanYu?"
"Not that I know of," Jiang YanLi lies again.
"I knew a girl from the Yu Sect once. Kinda scary."
The soldier is clearly trying to make conversation, but Jiang YanLi just nods, and offers no words of her own. She is not here to make friends. At least she looks at place amongst the soldiers, now that she is sweaty and dirty and tired. Once they catch up to the rest of the pack, she sees some of them are limping, others on stretchers. Almost everyone has visible wounds of some nature.
Up ahead, two of the soldiers are having a heated argument. From what Jiang YanLi can make out, one is bemoaning the fact she didn't defect to YunmengJiang while she still had the chance, and the other is telling her off.
"Traitors like you are the reason we lost that battle! Imagine if our army had been at full strength! Lotus Pier wouldn't have stood a chance."
The walk takes a very long time. When the sun rises, they all stop for water and food. Wen Xiang shares some of his rations with Jiang YanLi. He appears to be some sort of general; the other soldiers obey everything he says. "I notice you don't have many friends," he comments as they eat alone beside the river they've found, "are you a new recruit? Do you have any battle experience?
Jiang YanLi nods as she eats the dried food. "I've never been in a battle before," she says, and it is not a lie.
"Haven't you even been on night hunts?"
Wen Xiang shakes his head. "To think, Sect Leader Wen expects me to win with soldiers like this," he mutters. "You look barely able to wield a sword."
Because everyone is exhausted, Wen Xiang allows them to rest for a few hours and Jiang YanLi falls into an uneasy sleep. She is woken by his large palm shaking her shoulder. When she rises to her feet she is seized by the stiffness of her legs, but she forces herself to walk anyway. The li pas slowly beneath her feet.
Ideally she would slip away unnoticed, but the second they arrive at Nightless City after many nights of travel, they are called to speak with Wen RuoHan.
Because the army is too large to fit in his normal chamber - even depleted, there must still be over a thousand of them - Wen RuoHan meets them outside at the foot of a grand staircase. He is strangely anticlimactic in person. To think, that all Jiang YanLi's problems could be solved if that one collection of sinew and bone was shot or stabbed in the right place.
Suddenly, fiercely, she wishes she'd taken up Wen Qing's offer to train her in acupuncture.
"Where is your General?" Wen RuoHan bellows once they have marched into columns. Jiang YanLi has never received military training but she's watched her mother criticising formations before, and so she knows easily how to fall into the correct place between the other soldiers.
Nobody dares mutter, but Jiang YanLi heard it on their trip: the Wen General was one of the first to fall.
"He is dead," says Wen Xiang after a few too many seconds of indecision. He is beside Jiang YanLi, and would probably swoop in to help her, if it looked like she was falling again. There is sweat on his brow. "I am the highest ranking officer remaining."
"Come to the front," says Wen RuoHan.
Wen Xiang visibly steels himself. He walks up slowly, his head high. "Sect Leader," he says respectfully, and bows.
Wen RuoHan runs him through with his sword.
It happens so fast, Jiang YanLi almost thinks her eyes are playing tricks on her; but then Wen Xiang falls to his knees, lets out a high keening sound, and there is blood splattering onto the stone ground. Wen RuoHan kicks him aside, and then addresses the rest of the army. "You are all disgraces to the Wen name! How dare you turn back around, and leave your goal unachieved? Didn't I tell you to take Lotus Pier? Why have you returned back to Nightless City? Answer me!"
Nobody dares to speak.
Wen RuoHan spits on the ground. "Pathetic," he says, and leaves in a swirl of his pristine red robes. He wipes Wen Xiang's blood away as he walks.
Jiang YanLi remains frozen in place for a long time. Eventually, when it becomes clear that Wen RuoHan is not returning, the soldiers begin to relax out of formation and speak amongst themselves. Wen Xiang had been a popular man; they are upset by his needless death, but seem resigned to the fact that their Sect Leader periodically murders his own underlings. Cautiously, Jiang YanLi approaches the corpse where it has fallen. She is not a doctor. Still, maybe she can help - but she feels his neck for a pulse and finds his skin already cooling beneath her fingertips, and jerks back automatically, sweating.
Nightless City is a massive structure. Like most things belonging to the Wen Sect, it lives up to its boastful name; it truly is the size of a city, and Jiang YanLi blends easily into the bustle of the corridors and the walkways as she wanders around, trying to figure out where to go from here. Jiang YanLi has never been more happy to be plain and forgettable. She doesn't draw a second glance from anyone, even though she is a stranger in a sweat-stained, muddy disguise. All they see is a 20-something-year-old disciple with disheveled robes and a wary look in her eye.
Maybe she would have stayed wandering fruitlessly for hours, but Jiang YanLi does not have the chance. After only a few stumbling attempts to orient herself, a familiar face meets her across the corridor. Jiang YanLi ducks, but it is too late; she knows she has been recognised, and even as she tries to walk away, the Wen cultivator follows.
"Lady Jiang?" He asks in a whisper. Jiang YanLi shakes her head. The man steps closer. "It is you," he says, although he keeps his voice quiet, a small blessing. Jiang YanLi's hand hovers over the hilt of her sword. "Lady Jiang, what are you doing here?"
A black prosthetic glints out of the man's left eye socket.
"If you have any thankfulness for that eye," Jiang YanLi says quietly, "you will not give me away." She is bluffing, but she feels oddly cool; her hairs prickle down her back.
"What are you doing ?"
"I'm here for my wife."
The man with the prosthetic eye pauses. He purses his lips, which are thin and very red. "Follow me," he says, and sets off down the corridor without waiting for a reply.
Jiang YanLi follows. For all she knows, she is about to be handed over to Wen RuoHan - but what other choice does she have? If she has found an ally here, she needs to grasp the opportunity with both hands. She ignores the fear thudding through her veins. The man leads her down a winding set of corridors, and through a few doors that Jiang YanLi would never have thought to try herself. "Lady Wen refused my payment," he explains himself beneath his breath as they walk. Jiang YanLi keeps her head down, makes no sign that she acknowledges what he is saying. "She knows that my family is very poor. When I offered to pay for the eye, she said that I should stop insulting her, and that she was plenty rich enough on her own."
That sounds like Wen Qing. Kindness disguised with a flimsy veneer of irritation. Jiang YanLi smiles despite herself.
"So, this is my repayment. Don't get the wrong idea. I am still loyal to my clan. Once I've shown you the way, I hope never to see you again, Lady Jiang."
"What would you have done," she asks, "if you hadn't met me?"
"I would have left Wen Qing to die," the disciple says without a shred of shame. "It is suicidal, to try and free her."
"So you think I'll fail?"
"I know you'll fail." He shrugs. "Better to die in a failed escape attempt than be tortured to death by Wen RuoHan."
Jiang YanLi feels almost sick at this conversation. "How can you stay loyal to such a man?"
"My family is Wen."
Apparently, that is all the explanation needed.
They wind their way deep into Nightless City, until the corridors start to run empty and Jiang YanLi can hear nothing but the sound of her own footsteps. When they reach a certain turning, the disciple with the prosthetic eye pauses. "This is as far as I'll take you," he says. "Any farther, and I'll draw suspicion to myself if I'm caught."
Jiang YanLi peers down the empty corridor ahead. "Where should I go?"
"Follow the path until it splits into three routes. I'm not sure which houses Wen Qing; they all lead to holding cells for prisoners."
Then, to Jiang YanLi's surprise, he bows. "I wish you luck, Lady Jiang," he says, and turns back the way he came.
Now she is alone, her footsteps sound even louder. They echo no matter how quietly she tries to walk.
The corridor is long and poorly lit. Jiang YanLi creeps along its edges, and wonders what on Earth she is doing here. She is not clever enough for this, not smart enough to escape and not strong enough to fight her way out. The voice in her head that sounds like her mother is clamouring for attention. Stupid child. Can't speak well, can't read, can't cultivate. And she is so, so tired - because by now it has been two days since she left Lotus Pier, longer since she had more than a few hours' fitful sleep. Longer since she saw Wen Qing. Her vision is lopsided and hazy.
When she meets the branch in the corridor, she chooses the far right, as though she's starting at the beginning of a scroll. It leads her to nothing but empty cells. They are bare, with matted straw and blood on the floor, and a cloying smell that catches in the back of Jiang YanLi's throat and makes her gag.
Next she tries the middle branch. This one takes her up a set of stairs, and the cells are nicer. One holds the slumped figure of an elderly man. Jiang YanLi is sorry that she cannot free him.
The left branch is the only one remaining. This is the darkest, Jiang YanLi realises as she walks down it, and the cells are in so much shadow, it's almost impossible to pick out what they contain. She walks slowly and stares. More of these cells contain human-shaped lumps. Jiang YanLi does not know if they are sleeping, or dead, or simply laid on the floor awaiting their fate.
In the very last cell, just as she is beginning to give up hope, Jiang YanLi finds her wife.
Wen Qing is slumped against the wall, but she is still recognisable by her posture alone, the set of her shoulders and her bedraggled hair pulled into a sensible bun. Her eyes are closed and her head is tilted back to the ceiling. She is still beautiful, even here in the muck and filth with her robes ripped and blood crusted on her face. "Wen Qing," Jiang YanLi whispers. She does not dare to raise her voice in this place, but it is enough; as though she's been stung Wen Qing sits up straight and stares at her with wide eyes. The half of her face not in shadow is bruised. Usually her skin is a mellow light brown; today it is broken purple in places and bloodless in others.
"I didn't realise I was drugged," Wen Qing says. Her voice is careful, but not worryingly sluggish.
"You weren't," says Jiang YanLi, "or at least, I hope not. I'm really here."
Wen Qing closes her eyes and reopens them. "I am hallucinating. There's no way - Jiang YanLi, what are you doing? Get out of here! Why are you dressed like that? Why are you in my uncle's dungeons?"
"Because you are my wife."
She shuffles over, and Jiang YanLi kneels so that they are face-to-face. "Gods, it really is you," she says, and reaches out a hand to feel Jiang YanLi's brow, traces it down to her cheekbones, her lips. She is shaking slightly. "Is that my surgical gown?"
"It's my disguise," Jiang YanLi admits, and is graced with a pained smile in return.
"You shouldn't have come. There's no way we can escape from the middle of Nightless City."
"I walked in here unharmed and unquestioned."
Wen Qing shakes her head. "If so, that was dumb luck. People know my face. Every guard in the city will stop you, if you try to carry me out."
"Then I'll fight every guard in the city."
"Jiang YanLi, you're barely in a better state than I am. Leave while you can still escape."
"Would you leave without me, if our positions were reversed?" she asks. "Don't be stupid. I came all this way. I won't leave now."
"What's your plan?"
Jiang YanLi draws her sword. The sound of it is harsh in the silent dungeon. "My plan is to cut you out," she says with more confidence than she feels.
"The spiritual energy that would require -"
"Are you going to argue with me," Jiang YanLi asks, "or are you going to help? It's true that my energy is depleted and my core is weak, but maybe, with your help and -"
She stops talking suddenly. The sound of a new set of footsteps echoes down the long hall.
These are not halting and slow like her own footsteps; it is the confident stride of someone who belongs in this warren. Jiang YanLi freezes. Luckily, Wen Qing is quick - she hands Jiang YanLi an empty tray and whispers, "hurry, pretend to be a servant and leave."
"But he's coming to torture you!" Jiang YanLi whispers back, her voice cracking with her need to keep quiet.
They both know who is walking down the corridor.
"Keep your head low," urges Wen Qing. "Walk past him without looking him in the eye. He does not like being bothered by servants."
"But what about you , Wen Qing?"
"I'll be fine. Go! Go now, before it's too late! You can rescue me later, but you can't help me if you're killed!"
Jiang YanLi sheaths her sword and obeys. She fights to keep every step slow and unfrightened as she walks, head down, the tray balanced on her two trembling hands. The footsteps grow closer and closer. They are loud; Wen RuoHan throws his feet down as he walks.
And then she turns a corner, and he is there. She halts despite herself. Then she keeps walking, but she knows she is speeding up, she can't help it, she is too scared and her legs are moving too quickly and she is looking too suspicious and she can't help it and she's going to fall over or trip or cough or -
"You," says Wen RuoHan as they pass each other.
Her heart freezes over with fear.
"You, girl, turn around! Who are you?"
Jiang YanLi bows low to obscure her face. "I am a servant, Sect Leader; I often assist -"
"No, that's not it," Wen RuoHan snaps. "Stand up properly! Let me see your face!"
Heart in her throat, Jiang YanLi straightens her spine.
This close, she can see the odd round intensity of Wen RuoHan's eyes, and smell the acrid tang of his breath. "You're a servant?" he says suspiciously, staring into her face. "Why are you wearing such filthy robes? I'm sure I've seen you before, and…"
Jiang YanLi can see the second she is recognised.
Wen RuoHan's face morphs from suspicion into a parody of a smile, his lips pulling up towards his cheeks but his eyes never changing. With a movement as fast as a striking pond-heron on a Yunmeng lake, he pulls Jiang YanLi into his grasp, digging his fingers around her arms and making her release a shocked breath of pain. The tray clatters to the floor. "You're the Jiang girl!" he says wonderingly. His breath is even worse up close. In a way, he is almost handsome; he never appears to have aged past twenty, and if anything he looks younger than Jiang YanLi, and she is seized by the strange urge to scold him for his behaviour. Unfortunately, she doubts Wen RuoHan will be as receptive to scolding as her brothers are. "Wen Qing's little wife! I barely recognised you without all your finery. What are you doing here, little mouse?"
"I'm - I'm sorry, sir, you must be mistaken -"
And then, to Jiang YanLi's absolute horror, Wen RuoHan throws back his head and laughs.
It would have been one thing, if he stabbed her through the chest and was done; the sound of his laughter is far worse, because Jiang YanLi does not understand it. He barks so loud it hurts her ears. His hand is like a vice around her arm. When she tries to pull away there is no give at all, not even the usual squash of muscle and fat - Wen RuoHan must be using his spiritual energy to hold her in place. What does it matter, anyway? Even if Jiang YanLi could run, she'd never be able to escape. He finishes laughing and his eyes are glossy with unshed tears of delight. "Don't play games with me, girl," he says in a sugar-sweet voice that chills her deeper than anger could've. "Why, Lady Jiang, I attended your wedding. How times have changed."
"Let go of me," she says. The words barely touch her vocal chords as she says them.
"I don't think I shall. This is too perfect. I thought it was unfortunate that my men couldn't capture A-Ning, but perhaps my fortunes have turned."
"A-Ning? You dare address him so familiarly?"
"Of course I dare," says Wen RuoHan, clamping her arm even tighter. This time she manages not to make a noise. "I raised both of those ungrateful brats. I'll call them what I like. I always dreamed," he says wistfully, "of following through with some of my threats. My niece is such a protective woman. I can make anyone scream through physical torture - it almost becomes almost boring. But little Wen Qing always did care more about her brother's safety than her own."
"You'll never have Wen Ning," says Jiang YanLi. If she is going to die here, she will at least hold her head up high. "All of YunmengJiang will protect him."
"I don't need Wen Ning any more," Wen RuoHan says. "I have you."
Then with a neat motion, he whacks the hilt of his sword into Jiang YanLi's temple, and she is out cold before she hits the floor.
When she next wakes up, she is strapped into a high-backed chair. There is a bruise on her temple that is thudding red-hot and loud. The air smells of blood.
As she fades into consciousness, she can hear Wen RuoHan's voice. "... always did lean that way, didn't you, niece?"
The only reply is angry, muffled noises. Jiang YanLi dares to open her eyes and is greeted by a terrible sight. Wen Qing is strapped into a chair opposite her, with her limbs wrapped tight and her mouth bound so that she cannot speak. Whatever torture chamber Wen RuoHan has moved them to, it is better lit than his dungeons, and Jiang YanLi can see the dried blood that flakes black and crimson down her wife's face, as well as her swollen, bruised skin and her weary eyes.
"Yes," says Wen RuoHan, clearly basking in Wen Qing's pain. "I knew you'd like a little lady to settle down with. And Jiang YanLi is so perfect. Who’d ever dream that the Violet Spider would have such a meek little daughter?" He makes a tutting noise. "I thought you would be pleased with me, niece. It's not easy to arrange a union like this! All of my elders told me Jiang Cheng would be a better match, but I insisted on the girl, just for your sake. Aren't you going to thank me?"
He keeps talking. Jiang YanLi's head shoots with pain and for a moment her ears stop working, or maybe she can still hear but not understand; either way, she gasps in pain and wriggles in her bonds, and something bounces against her ankle. Something dangling…
Then she realises: her sword is still hanging at her hip.
Jiang YanLi can't believe it. Surely Wen RuoHan, by all accounts a genius, would not make such an oversight.
And then she wriggles more in her bonds, and realises that this is just another way of taunting her. He's secured her wrists tight to the arms of the chair she's sat in, so tight that her fingers are already beginning to look purple; there's no way that Jiang YanLi will be able to so much as brush her fingers against the hilt. Wen RuoHan must think that this will torment her.
Finally, she understands why Wen RuoHan laughed as he caught her. She feels the same laugh bubbling up inside her now. It is a triumphant, exhausted feeling, deep and slow, and she smiles despite herself.
Wen RuoHan does not know that she's been developing her spiritual energy. He does not know about the meditation, the exercises, the slow and stifling progress. He does not know about the little trick Lan WangJi taught her.
He thinks that Jiang YanLi is stupid and weak and untallented, just like everyone says.
(and slow to speak, and bad at reading, and ugly, and only good for marrying off, and…)
And Jiang YanLi has been underestimated for the last time.
It is an immense strain on her depleted golden core, but Jiang YanLi doesn't even feel the burn, she is so focused. Slowly, carefully, her sword slides from its sheath. Wen RuoHan is still talking. He really doesn't know when to shut up. Another inch. Another.
"I think I'll start on your wife's fingers," he says. "What do you say, little niece? Shall I crush them and leave them attached, or chop them off neatly one by one?" He laughs at the muffled sounds Wen Qing makes behind her gag. "Ah, you're right! I can do both. Let's break her delicate little bones first." And then he turns, reaches for a tool that's hung on the wall. Wen Qing's eyes widen as she sees what Jiang YanLi is doing, but she can't be distracted, can't mistime this by a second. All of her nerves are on fire. Her stomach muscles tremble with exertion.
Her sword flies through the air.
Wen RuoHan doesn't even have time to turn and investigate the ring of metal against metal. Jiang YanLi's sword pushes straight through the back of his head. It is moving at such momentum that its tip stabs through his skull and brain as though they're as soft as butter, skewering his entire head.
For a second he sways on his feet, and Jiang YanLi wonders if his cultivation is so high, he can even survive an attack like this.
But then the rank smell of brains fills the air, and Wen RuoHan topples lifeless to the ground, a puppet with its strings cut. The sword clangs where its protruding blade hits the stone floor. Almost immediately, copious spurts of blood squeeze out from Wen RuoHan's wound, ghastly rivulets that will make Jiang YanLi look away from people biting into overripe fruit for years to come.
She breathes fast and hard. She still expects something to go wrong; but seconds tick into minutes, and Wen RuoHan is still dead on the floor. By now the blood has formed a maroon pool.
Wen Qing says something muffled.
She looks, Jiang YanLi realises, as though she's been crying for a very long time. Her eyes are so red and raw they're almost unrecognisable. "It's okay," Jiang YanLi says slowly. Her voice is high and wispy, as though it might float away. "He's dead. I killed him."
Wen Qing nods. Wriggles in her bonds, which are even tighter and harsher than Jiang YanLi's.
"I don't think I can lift my sword again," Jiang YanLi says. She wants to laugh or cry, or both. In fact, she feels hysterical. "I think we might be trapped here. Oh dear."
And then, even though she's only been awake a few minutes, she faints again
This time she dreams. Jiang YanLi dreams that Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng have raced to Nightless City to find her, that her younger brothers are cutting away her bonds and helping her stagger to her feet. They are smiling. It is good. Everyone should be smiling.
In her dream, Wen Qing is speaking. Her voice is so melodious and perfect that Jiang YanLi can barely pick out the words. "I'm worried… concussion…"
She smiles, and sleeps.
"You know," says her mother when she awakens properly, head swimming and throat dry, "I was wrong about you."
This is definitely not a dream, although she doesn't quite understand how it could be reality, either. Jiang YanLi is in a clean, unfamiliar room. There is sunlight and a dull pain where Wen RuoHan hit her temple. She pushes herself into a sitting position and discovers that her whole body is achingly sore. "What happened? Where is Wen Qing?"
Madam Yu does not make her usual fuss at Jiang YanLi lumping the two of them together, blood brother alongside adopted. She just says, "They're busy too. It's been a very long day."
"I don't remember…" Jiang YanLi tries to think through what happened. She killed Wen RuoHan, that much is certain, but her memories grow murky afterwards. "What happened at Nightless City?"
"This is still Nightless City, can't you tell from the ugly decor?" Her harsh tone is undermined by the way she keeps twisting her fingers around zidian. It reminds Jiang YanLi of her own anxious fidgeting. "We were worried," her mother blurts out at once. "Very worried about you. When we saw that you'd disappeared off in the night. I thought that you'd be dead."
Jiang YanLi nods. She does not apologise; she is not sorry.
"But I was wrong about you, wasn't I? We were all wrong. You are a very smart woman, and a surprisingly strong cultivator. I didn't even know you could use your sword! Why have you hidden your talents for so long? Wen Qing says you killed Wen RuoHan without even touching your sword with your hands!"
Years ago, these words would have lit Jiang YanLi up with joy. Now she just feels tired. "I never hid," she says, "you just weren't looking."
Her mother scowls. "YanLi, that's not fair."
"No, it's not." She doesn't want to argue. "Will you explain what happened?"
Her mother says that Jiang Cheng, Wei WuXian and Wen Ning started to gather a force the second they found Jiang YanLi missing. "I think they were planning on fighting their way through Nightless City to get you," her mother says in a disparaging tone. "Ridiculous."
Apparently, when they arrived, they found the city already in chaos. Barely anyone challenged the troupe of foreign cultivators; Wen RuoHan was missing and his tightly-maintained structure collapsed the second he wasn't lurking in the background and executing those who displeased him.
"Your wife and my husband are working now, to try and come to an agreement for the handover."
"For Wen Qing to become the new sect leader."
Jiang YanLi can't believe it. "Surely Wen RuoHan's soldiers won't agree so easily. Some of them are very loyal." She thinks of the disciple with the prosthetic eye, and of Wen Xiang, who bowed even as the Sect Leader's sword ran through his guts.
"The elders seem amenable," says Madam Yu, "Wen Xu is not a popular candidate, even though he's technically the next in line. He has all of his father's megalomania with none of the charm."
"Still," says Jiang YanLi, "we're at war, aren't we?"
She shrugs. "Some of the soldiers are still resisting us. Wen Xu is leading a small army as we speak; your brothers are out with the other Sects, quashing the rebellion, but the vast majority of the Wen Sect have seen sense and are calling for an immediate end to the conflict. Now the tides have changed, they're all claiming that they never supported the war, or that they were only a few days from defecting. Ha! Tell that to the dead Jiang Sect disciples they murdered!"
"Why are you here," asks Jiang YanLi, "and not fighting alongside A-Cheng and A-Xian? Or helping with the negotiations?"
Madam Yu stares at her with a familiar expression that says, the answer is obvious, stop being stupid . "I'm watching you," she says. "Should I leave my concussed daughter to wake up alone in a foreign city?"
And then, to Jiang YanLi's shock, her mother sits down on the bed and hugs her.
She remains tired and dizzy for the next few days, but it is better when Wen Qing visits.
"How are you feeling?" she asks with a doctor's intensity, and Jiang YanLi smiles. "Does your head still ache?"
Her hand reaches out, and Jiang YanLi grabs it, and then her hand is so soft that she can't resist kissing her knuckles and her fingertips. This is a luxury that she thought she'd lost for good. "My wife," she mumbles.
"Your wife," Wen Qing agrees, and sits on the bed.
When they kiss, it is not like any of the kisses they've shared before; Jiang YanLi realises that this one tastes of hope. They kiss and pull away, repeating it again and again until they are both restless and drunk on the sensation. It makes her whole body feel warm. She smiles and then can't kiss any more because her mouth is stretched too wide and she feels so happy she could burst. "Wen Qing," she says, "we really survived."
"And we can live happily now."
Wen Qing draws back slightly. She has that pinched line between her brows that Jiang YanLi always wants to smooth away. "I have been in negotiations," she says cautiously, "and it's looking as though I'll become the new Wen Sect leader."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"Well, yes, but means me and my family will no longer live at Lotus Pier. I'll have to stay here for at least the next few years, to get everything stable and running smoothly." Surely it should be impossible for a person to be as finely crafted as Wen Qing. Even here after far too many hours awake, with dark bags beneath her eyes and stray frizzes of hair escaping from her bun, and the bruised remnants of Wen RuoHan's abuse staining her face - even here, she is so beautiful. "Jiang YanLi, I understand if you want to stay with your family instead of me."
"Oh, I'd prefer to come with you."
Clearly that's not the response Wen Qing is expecting. She pauses. "It's okay if you don't. We can still meet as frequently as our schedules permit, and -"
"Wen Qing," interrupts Jiang YanLi, "I'd really prefer to come with you."
"But what about your family?"
"I love them very much, but perhaps some time apart would do us all good."
“But won’t Wei WuXian be bullied without you?”
“It’s my own life,” Jiang YanLi says mildly, “and besides, I think that A-Xian is making arrangements of his own. Have you seen the way he sits chatting with Lan WangJi?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Second Young Master Lan ‘chatting’ in my life,” Wen Qing says. “I’ve certainly seen them walking together, and Wei WuXian talking his ear off.”
Jiang YanLi holds up a finger. “Mark my words. Before the year is out, A-Xian will find some way or other to abscond with Lan WangJi. And anyway, we’ll all still see each other as often as we like. It’s not as though I’m abandoning them for good.” Then she reaches out to touch Wen Qing’s face, careful to avoid her bruises. Her eyes watch Jiang YanLi, dark and open and trusting. “I want to stay with you, Wen Qing. I want to help you rebuild your sect - and I want to wake up next to you every morning,” the words are embarrassing but she says them anyway, “I want to kiss you every day. And more. Wen Qing, I want you .”
“Well,” Wen Qing murmurs, “I suppose that can be arranged.”
She has plenty of visitors; it seems that the whole cultivation world wants to make up for ignoring her, and she is visited by Nie MingJue (angry that he cannot cut down as many Wen soldiers as he’d like, but trying to hide it) and Lan XiChen in place of his father (genuinely happy that the war has been brought to an early end) and Jin GuangShan (too leery for Jiang YanLi’s tastes; Wen Qing chases him from the room after only a few minutes) and dozens of others, until her cheeks ache from smiling. A lot of Wen Sect soldiers come to thank her too. Jiang YanLi knows there is an equal amount who despise her, but she still appreciates everyone who comes and bows, and says that without her, they'd be dead on a battleground or mourning their family.
The most surprising visitor is Jin ZiXuan, her ex-finacé.
His visit is precisely a week after the fall of Nightless City. By now Jiang YanLi is capable of leaving bed, and she meets him in a modest reception hall where the sky shines faintly through the doorways and rich paintings are hung on the walls. "Lady Jiang," he says stiffly, colour high in his cheeks, and he bows to her. His hair is wrapped tightly into a regal bun and his face is white and round. "I hope that you are doing well."
"Thank you, I am."
For a second, Jin ZiXuan pauses. His eyebrows screw together. "Do you remember," he stumbles, "that we used to be engaged?"
To think, that only a few years ago she'd been desperate for their marriage to work. Now she looks at Jin ZiXuan and feels only nostalgia for a time long past.
He blushes furiously. "Would you…"
"Would I?" Surely she is mistaken. Surely, he's not asking what he seems to be asking.
"Wen RuoHan is defeated, and nobody would hold you to promises made in his name. That is - if you didn't want - I mean, if you were looking for a way out -"
Jiang YanLi takes pity and interrupts him. "Did your mother put you up to this?"
"So it was your own idea?"
"I'm flattered," she says carefully, "but I am perfectly happy with my wife. And in the future, avoid proposing to married women, ZiXuan.”
After that, he cannot leave the room fast enough.
A few years later, they receive a wedding invitation.
“Are you excited that your dads are getting married, A-Yuan?” Jiang YanLi asks her nephew, who seems to get bigger every day.
(When she tells him he’s grown, A-Yuan solemnly replies that this is because his father had planted him as a radish.)
“Yes,” he says, “I like the presents.”
Jiang YanLi pretends to look disappointed at his materialism. It’s difficult, when he’s almost certainly the cutest child to exist. Someone has put his hair up into a little bun - it definitely wasn’t Wei WuXian, who barely even has the patience to fix his own appearance, and the image of Lan WangJi carefully brushing A-Yuan’s hair into place is so sweet that Jiang YanLi smiles every time she sees it.
“He’d better like the presents,” says Jiang Cheng peevishly. “Do you know how much we sent GusuLan? We’re bankrupt now.”
“Bank-rupt,” A-Yuan repeats. “Ban-krupt.”
Jiang Cheng sweeps him up into a stiff hug. He is hilariously awkward with kids, but luckily A-Yuan doesn’t mind, and wraps his arms around his uncle’s shoulders. “Yes, bankrupt. You don’t have to rub it in, okay?”
They are travelling to Cloud Recesses together, on a boat that set off from Lotus Pier, and Wen Qing is asleep on the wooden bench behind them. She worked through the night making sure that her Nightless City patients would all be safe while she visited the Cloud Recesses. Even as Jiang YanLi tried to shuffle her out of the door, she was still shouting commands to the medical staff about who needed what powder and who couldn’t be allowed to stand for the next three days. “I know, Lady Wen,” the deputy healer had said wearily, “we’ve been over all of this a thousand times. I promise I won’t let anyone ingest suspicious pills or re-break their bones.”
“You’d better not,” Wen Qing replied sharply, “or else I’ll set my wife on you.”
Jiang YanLi had only giggled at that. She is eternally amused by the reverence that most Wen Sect cultivators hold for her - after all, while she did technically kill Wen RuoHan, she can hardly take all of the credit. She only succeeded using Lan WangJi’s technique, and Wei WuXian’s lessons on how to ride the sword, and Wen Xiang’s kindness while she marched with his army, and the one-eyed disciple’s directions into the dungeons - and even with all of that aid, Jiang YanLi only managed to kill Wen RuoHan through pure luck.
“This is exactly reason you’re scary,” Wen Qing tried once to explain to her. “My people would understand it if you were boastful and proud. Wen RuoHan held feasts every time he defeated a great enemy.”
“Exactly! You’re subtle, Jiang YanLi, that’s why people are scared of you. At least they knew what to expect with a megalomaniac. You smile and talk as though you’re just an ordinary woman, and yet you stabbed their fearsome tyrant through the head.”
“But I am just an ordinary woman.”
Wen Qing had sighed, and given up her explanation.
At least the cooks are on friendly terms with her now. Beneath Wen RuoHan, the feudal system at Nightless City was very strictly enforced, and it takes the servants a long time to trust that Jiang YanLi isn’t trying to trick them or shame them, she really does enjoy making her own food. “Wen RuoHan used to make us kneel every second we were in front of him,” a timid girl admits to her, “it was really hard to serve food."
(Jiang YanLi still has not found out what happened to the disciple with the prosthetic eye. Hopefully he realised that the tide was turning when Wen RuoHan first went missing, and escaped Nightless City; more likely, he was one of the soldiers that fought behind Wen Xu at the final battle. She did not check the bodies. Jiang YanLi does not like the idea that one of her brothers might’ve killed him. But that is life, after all.)
Now Wen Qing is laid with one of her hands trailing along the floor and her mouth slightly open. She always looks oddly vulnerable in sleep. Without her straight posture and tilted chin, it’s obvious how small she is, and how delicate her limbs are. “Wen Qing,” Jiang YanLi says quietly, and rests her hand on her wife’s shoulder. “Wen Qing, it’s time to wake up.”
Wen Qing makes an undignified nose and then rolls herself into an upright position. Her eyes are still heavy. Jiang YanLi’s heart could burst with fondness just from looking at her. “Already?” she asks. “Surely we can’t already be at Cloud Recesses.”
“No, we’re stopping for lunch.”
A-Yuan has already run ashore to greet his fathers as they disembark from their own boat - he isn’t great with separation, though they’re trying to ease him into it - and Jiang Cheng is following after him, grumbling beneath his breath. Wen Ning has already arrived and is laying out a blanket for them to use.
Since they have the boat to themselves, Jiang YanLi indulges herself and presses a long kiss into Wen Qing’s lips. It is warm with familiarity. “Come on,” she says after a long moment, “I cooked us all soup. Oh, I do hope that -”
Like clockwork, Wei WuXian calls from the shore. “ Shijie ! Something terrible’s happened!”
“A-Xian, did you spill it? I told you that soup and boats do not mix!”
His head appears in the doorway. “But my boat was so large and slow, I was sure we’d be okay! Are you guys going to come ashore any time soon? You realise that me and Lan Zhan are the newlyweds, not you guys, right? Stop sneaking away!”
“Don’t call yourselves newlyweds before you’re even married,” Wen Qing huffs. “It’s bad luck.”
“Says me, ungrateful brat! Don’t start arguing with me after spilling my wife’s soup!”
“Ah, Wen Qing, have mercy on me!”
“Stop fooling around, both of you,” Jiang YanLi says, with far too large a smile to be convincing.
“It’s probably for the best,” Wei WuXian admits to both of their surprise. He ducks his head sheepishly. “A-Yuan doesn’t really like our Yunmeng style of cooking yet, shijie . Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll train him soon.”
“It is very spicy,” Wen Qing says. “Even I cry sometimes when I eat your soup.”
Jiang YanLi plays mock offended. “How dare you! My brother and my wife ganging up on me and insulting my food. See if I ever cook for you two again!”
They all hop ashore together, and Wen Qing is so tired that she almost stumbles into the water, much to A-Yuan’s delight. He is still giggling when Lan WangJi passes him a steamed bun and says, “no talking during meals,” a rule which everyone else blatantly ignores as they gossip about the details of tomorrow’s wedding. Wen Ning shoves far too much food into his mouth and then spits it out at a joke Wei WuXian tells. Jiang Cheng pulls a list from somewhere in his sleeves and tries to go through last-minute details; he is ignored by everyone except Lan WangJi, who does not reply because he is eating.
Everyone is distracted. Jiang YanLi leans in again, for no reason other than she feels like it, and gives Wen Qing another kiss; then she lays down, and leans against her wife’s thigh. The trees rustle and the river beside them flows steadily. It is warm in the sun.