“Xiongzhang, shufu, I wish to court Wei Ying.”
WangJi had decided to be forward about his desire. Most would approach such a conversation in a roundabout way, starting with idle conversation, but WangJi preferred to be direct, especially in this.
Truthfully, he would have sought permission before now, but Wei Ying was fragile, even after he had finally broken through to him.
When he had brought him to his siblings after his admission of hunger, Jiang YanLi had cried when he actually ate, kept filling his bowl, and had since made it her personal mission to get him back to a healthy weight. Jiang Cheng’s reaction had been stronger; he had given Wei Ying an almost violent hug and demanded he never worry them like that again.
“I’ll try not to,” Wei Ying had said.
“If you… I was going to kill a-niang if you didn’t get better. She’d deserve it. She does deserve it.”
Jiang Cheng’s voice had been filled with vitriol.
Neither sibling had wanted to part from him, particularly after he admitted to having nightmares, and the four of them had stayed in the jingshi that night, with XiChen as an amused chaperone due to Jiang YanLi’s status as a young maiden. WangJi had not expected to be included in the sleepover, but he had been pleased by it nonetheless.
“I was there, but I wasn’t,” Wei Ying tried to explain, struggling both to find the words and stay awake. “I knew what was going on around me, but I didn’t really feel anything. Interacting was hard, like trying to run underwater.”
He had fallen asleep long before hai shi, after Jiang YanLi had stuffed him full of lotus and pork rib soup, spicy baozi, and osmanthus cakes she had personally prepared in the kitchen. He had sprawled on a blanket in what was normally an anteroom of sorts in the jingshi. Jiang Cheng had covered him with a second blanket with a surprising amount of tenderness.
“How did you get through to him, second master Lan?” Jiang YanLi had asked in the quiet that followed. “We were so worried.”
Answering that question was not easy; he had not then been ready to admit his feelings to anyone but Wei Ying.
“I composed a guqin piece for him,” he finally said.
The smile Jiang YanLi had given him was knowing, and made it clear she was pleased and accepting of his intentions toward Wei Ying, though he knew he would still need to formally request permission of her and Jiang Cheng in the future if he wished to court him.
Jiang Cheng, thankfully, had not seemed to get the implication and just shook his head.
“He always was more musical than anyone else in the family. A-Niang hated that, wouldn’t let him play the dizi. Just another thing she decided to be awful about,” he had muttered angrily.
“‘An angry man is full of poison,’” XiChen had advised softly, quoting Confucius. “Your anger will not change her, only yourself.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, but his lips twisted.
“She wanted me to hate him. Kept pitting us against each other, comparing us. Still, I never thought she would…”
He shook his head, and Jiang YanLi squeezed his shoulder gently.
“Blood or not, a-Xian is our beloved brother,” she had said. “And she hates that. It may be unfilial, but we choose him.”
WangJi had insisted Jiang YanLi take the bed, as was appropriate. He settled in for the night beside Wei Ying, xiongzhang on his other side. Jiang Cheng slept on the other side of Wei Ying, sandwiching him between friendly bodies; if he woke from nightmares, he would not be alone.
But it had been WangJi who woke to hear Wei Ying’s soft whimpers and panting in his sleep, to see his furrowed brow and the fear and pain in his features, even asleep.
“Wei Ying,” he had whispered. “You’re safe.”
Wei Ying hadn’t stirred, but had curled toward his voice, wound up burrowed against his side, and let out a soft sigh, his brow relaxing as he fell deeper into sleep, away from the nightmare that had been plaguing him.
WangJi’s last thought before falling back to sleep had been that Wei Ying fit against his body like it was meant to be.
Shufu’s cup froze halfway to his mouth, but his expression was one of resignation. Xiongzhang simply looked pleased.
“He has been doing better these past weeks,” XiChen commented.
WangJi only nodded.
‘Better’ was the best descriptor. At times Wei Ying still seemed more absent than present, but the mind healers were able to speak with him more than they had before and seemed optimistic. He ate more, though he sometimes needed prompting or reminders of the food if he seemed to fade from reality. He was starting to look healthier.
“Sometimes,” Wei Ying had confessed after one of his fading episodes, “it’s like the world is too bright and loud.”
Even in the serenity of Cloud Recesses. The mind healers, he had said, told him his mind was protecting him when the world was too much for him, as it apparently had been for a full year after his near-death.
Wei Ying had, haltingly, started to play the dizi WangJi had bought him, sometimes losing himself in the music entirely. The battered dizi among his possessions, he explained, had belonged to his father, something he had left behind at Lotus Pier after eloping with his mother. Jiang FengMian had stored it away for his return, but instead Wei ChangZe and CangSe SanRen had died on a night hunt.
The dizi had been given to Wei Ying when he was found and brought to Lotus Pier, the only item he had of his parents’, but he had been banned from playing it by Yu ZiYuan. Instead he had hidden it away in his room.
Playing the dizi also often overwhelmed Wei Ying, leaving him beyond exhausted, the memories associated so fraught. WangJi had seen tears spill down his cheeks as he played more than once. But when WangJi mentioned the idea of attending music classes to learn GusuLan cultivation songs, he had smiled.
WangJi had set up a meeting with the instructor, Lan MingKai. Despite the rule against gossip, all of GusuLan knew what had happened at the Lotus Pier discussion conference. Normally this would be displeasing, but the result was not: Wei Ying was treated with kindness. Not only had the instructor been welcoming, he had even offered individual morning music lessons. Wei Ying was, in fact, attending a lesson while WangJi had tea with his brother and uncle.
Overall, Wei Ying was more present, more expressive—nothing like he had been before, but after so long without seeing him smile at all even the small ones were precious.
“Yes,” WangJi said. “It is gratifying.”
Shufu cleared his throat and took a sip of tea, setting down the cup before speaking.
“Why seek our approval, WangJi? Why not his siblings’?”
“Wei Ying is of GusuLan now,” he reminded softly; it was polite to seek sect approval. “I will seek their approval following yours.”
This explanation seemed to please shufu, who nodded, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“It has been troubling to see Wei WuXian so… quiet,” he finally said. “I never thought I would say I prefer him more lively, but…”
In conversations over the last year, shufu had expressed concerns. He had seen people severely traumatized in the past, their personalities changed by pain. He had kept up with the mind healers and offered suggestions on activities WangJi could use to try to engage Wei Ying.
“There have been times the mind healers have not been able to help,” he finished after a moment. “I was becoming concerned this might be one of those cases.”
WangJi set down his teacup, afraid he might break it in reaction, his entire body clenching at the idea that Wei Ying could die.
Shufu watched him, something in his face softening.
“He will still need help in his continued recovery, WangJi. And he may never recover fully.”
“I wish to be by his side regardless,” he stated, and his voice came out hoarse.
Xiongzhang placed his hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently as though to soothe.
“You have my blessing, WangJi. You always have.”
WangJi almost smiled at that, remembering how XiChen had pushed him to form a friendship with Wei Ying, how he had resisted. He hadn’t known how to handle his burgeoning emotions, had been afraid of them. Xiongzhang had known long before he himself had.
“You have mine as well,” shufu added. “A marriage would make GusuLan’s acceptance of Wei WuXian more concrete and indisputable.”
XiChen nodded, looking thoughtful.
“After what he has been through, and what I have heard of his childhood from Jiang WanYin, that stability would likely help him heal.”
WangJi resisted his immediate urge to ask after that information, but if Jiang Cheng wanted it known to him, it would be. He refused to violate Wei Ying’s privacy by asking others or even him. If Wei Ying wished him to know, he would tell him.
Shufu interrupted his thoughts.
“WangJi, you need never fear he will face ill treatment here. No physical punishment. No seclusion. He will not be turned out. He has suffered enough.”
Tension WangJi hadn’t known he’d been carrying eased all at once, the fear that Wei Ying would, once healed, face these punishments and, if they were married, be subject to the same treatment his mother had suffered... The last thing he wanted to do was add to the trauma Wei Ying had already been subjected to by making him a prisoner. He had already watched him nearly die and then wither away into almost a ghost once; he refused to do it again.
“Thank you, shufu.”
“He may have a penchant for… antics,” shufu continued. “But none of them have been harmful. They’re simple pranks, nothing worth what he has suffered.”
Silence fell between them, and WangJi did his best not to remember mud-caked pale skin and blue lips, the gurgling gasp of Wei Ying’s desperate breaths under Jiang YanLi’s screams. He feared if he closed his eyes, that would be all he would see, not the gentle whorls of the dark table, the condensation on the teapot, not the steam rising from its spout.
They had been among the first to respond to Jiang YanLi’s screams for help, having happened to be nearby at the time. Shufu, having the best knowledge among them of healing, had not hesitated to dirty his robe in the mud, passing qi to Wei Ying as he lay bleeding from his nose, eyes, ears, coughing up blood and river water, dangerously close to qi deviation after his desperate and dangerous use of his spiritual energy to free himself.
Shufu had ordered xiongzhang to get help, ordered WangJi to help him, clearly knowing WangJi would refuse to leave if asked. Wei Ying had moaned in pain when shufu turned him onto his side, and that was when they saw the tears in the back his clothing that left him almost naked, the blood seeping from lash marks, had noticed the bruising on his face and neck, the bloody fingers that curled in the mud as though seeking something to hold onto.
WangJi had removed the outermost layer of his robe to drape over him, to preserve his dignity in front of the array of faces that were coming to investigate Jiang YanLi’s screams. He had taken his hand then, had watched Wei Ying, eyes wide and terrified, try to focus on him, saw him mouth his name. All he could do was assure him he was there and keep holding his hand when Wen Qing arrived and started snapping orders to everyone.
“It probably helps that he has never gone near your beard,” xiongzhang commented, his tone almost forcibly light, an attempt to dispel the tension.
Shufu seemed to shake himself, as though dispelling the same memories haunting WangJi, or memories of his own.
“CangSe SanRen probably considered her crowning prank the time she shaved my beard while I slept,” shufu said, his voice almost fond. “I rather hope he doesn’t attempt that.”
WangJi hesitated before speaking.
“Wei Ying knows very little about his parents,” he said softly. “He would probably appreciate any stories of his mother you would tell him.”
After a moment of hesitation, shufu nodded.
“She was a very bright person,” he murmured. “Much like Wei WuXian was, before.”
His countenance had a sort of sorrow to it, and WangJi wondered if Lan QiRen, like Jiang FengMian and others of his generation, had also loved CangSe SanRen. Whether she had upended him like Wei Ying had upended WangJi. Or perhaps shufu felt the loss of Wei Ying’s light, and it reminded him of her death.
“Tell him I will speak to him, when he is ready,” shufu said.
WangJi wondered if shufu was ready, but he held his tongue. That his uncle was thinking of Wei Ying’s condition, letting Wei Ying decide if and when he was ready to learn more about his mother, was a kindness. He was still recovering from the damage his adoptive mother, however much she didn’t deserve and had refused the title, had done to him.
“I will let him know.”
They paused to sip at the cooling tea, to enjoy the breeze coming in through the window and the sound of the windchimes gently clinking beyond, the peace of a morning in Cloud Recesses.
“Please also let young master Wei know that he is not required to invent talismans so regularly,” xiongzhang said as he poured more tea. “His recovery comes first. And he need not feel he owes GusuLan for offering sanctuary.”
“Not simply sanctuary,” shufu clarified. “Wei WuXian is a GusuLan disciple, should he wish to be. He need not offer compensation for his care.”
WangJi frowned, considering all that had occurred. Certainly, shufu’s words to Madam Yu had made Wei Ying’s welcome clear, but he didn’t know that Wei Ying had been capable of listening then, so soon after his near death and in the midst of insults and verbal abuse. The announcement of such so publicly at the discussion conference meant that Wei Ying’s status as a GusuLan disciple was known to the cultivation world.
But it didn’t necessarily follow that it was known to Wei Ying.
“Has Wei Ying been informed? Formally invited?”
He watched as his uncle and brother had a silent conversation that left them both looking abashed, and knew this was something that had been lost in the chaos of what had happened, had somehow not been noticed in the last year, an oversight.
“I will speak with him,” xiongzhang insisted. “He already wears GusuLan robes, so we thought…”
“He wears them because they are white,” WangJi reminded him. “He grieves still. I gave him blue robes, and he has not worn them.”
Shufu frowned, his expression almost pinched, close to a wince. XiChen closed his eyes, as he always did when overwhelmed by emotion. WangJi felt the same guilt they did; it had been a year, and none of them had clarified his welcome, too focused on his dissociation with the world, his healing, when this information could have aided in his recovery. None of them had clarified that this was his home.
“I will have a forehead ribbon prepared as well,” shufu said. “We will present it to him, and apologize for the delay.”
“Perhaps you should also make sure his siblings are aware,” WangJi said gently.
Shufu actually winced, which told him the issue had also not been discussed with them, either. WangJi wondered if the Jiang siblings had realized Wei Ying would stay at Cloud Recesses, or if they had planned to follow Wei Ying wherever he went after Gusu.
“I would recommend speaking to them first,” WangJi advised. “Perhaps before I ask about courtship, so they do not assume the two are related.”
“Or dependent,” xiongzhang murmured, as though he had read WangJi’s mind. “We owe them a tremendous apology. After what nearly happened… they’ve feared for his future all this time. It must be one of the reasons they’ve stayed.”
They had many, WangJi knew, and he was certain both XiChen and shufu knew as well. The biggest one was the lady of Lotus Pier, who may have given birth to both of them but could clearly not be trusted.
“We will rectify this,” shufu assured him. “Wei WuXian is of GusuLan.”
“And when he is ready to stop wearing white, that can certainly be accommodated,” xiongzhang added. “He seemed rather fond of black and red, as I recall.”
Shufu twitched but did not protest.
The bell indicating si shi rang, and WangJi rose, bowing properly to his brother and uncle. It was time to collect Wei Ying from his lesson.