Curse the impractically ornate sense of style in Lanling, thought Su She. Why did they have to have so many winding garden paths? Why did all the peony beds look exactly the same? He didn’t like to admit it, though there wasn’t really anyone around to admit it to, but he was very, very lost. Around the next corner, a figure wearing the Sparks Amidst Snow robes was standing, and Su She hurried up to them, hoping to ask for directions.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me how to get back to—” and then the figure turned around, and apparently Su She had the worst luck in the world, but what else was new.
“What, are you lost?” asked Jin Zixun, turning a perfectly innocent question into a disdainful remark.
“I was just wondering if you could tell me the way back to the front of the tower,” said Su She, in what he considered an impressively measured tone of voice given his current state of humiliated frustration.
“You couldn’t bother to remember it yourself?” said Jin Zixun, unhelpful as ever. “What a way to treat your hosts, whatever your name is.”
“I didn’t choose to get lost,” said Su She.
“Well you should have just tried harder,” said Jin Zixun. “You’d better learn your lesson this time.”
“Can you just tell me how to get back? Please?” asked Su She through gritted teeth.
“Over here, you oversized brat,” said an annoyed voice. For a moment, Su She thought his day was about to get even worse, but when he turned to look, the speaker was staring straight at Jin Zixun with clear dislike. Jin Zixun, for his part, appeared to return the animosity.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. The newcomer, a lanky young man dressed in black and gold who appeared to be in the same age range as Su She and Jin Zixun, rolled his eyes. The phoenix-shaped ornament on the front of his belt winked in the sun as he approached unhurriedly, shifting and pushing his sleeves back in a way that clearly broadcast that he was ready for a fight.
“Telling you to lay off this poor guy,” he said. He spared a glance for Su She, then added, “can’t you see he’s a Lan disciple? You don’t want to mess with him, do you?”
To Su She’s surprise, Jin Zixun appeared deeply discomfited by the remark.
“That’s what I thought,” said the newcomer, leveling a satisfied look at Jin Zixun. “Leave, or I’ll floor you and sit on your back until Qingheng-jun gets here.”
Su She was barely exaggerating when he decided that the angry flush on Jin Zixun’s face was more beautiful than any landscape he’d seen. So too was the furious spluttering sound he made in response before snarling something about continuing this fight later and turning tail to disappear into the labyrinth of Koi Tower’s gardens.
With that, Su She’s unlikely rescuer turned to look at him and break into a bright grin that was completely at odds with his previous passive-aggressive confidence.
“Hope he didn’t bother you too much,” he said with a brief, casual bow to Su She. “What a dick, huh? I’m Wen Chao! And you’re, uh… wait, don’t tell me. Su Minshan, right?”
“Um, yes,” said Su She, taken aback. He did, in fact, recognize Wen Chao— the second young master of the Wen sect and the leader of the indoctrination camp what had to have been years ago by now. He just hadn’t expected someone on that level to come by and rescue him.
“Well that’s good,” Wen Chao was saying. “I’m kind of terrible with names, I thought I’d gotten yours wrong. But I know you, right? You came to Qishan.”
“That’s right,” said Su She. “I like your clothes,” he added before he could shut himself up. Wen Chao blinked for a moment, and then he beamed. Su She had not been prepared in the least for the force of that smile.
“Thanks!” Wen Chao said, practically glowing. He spun on his heel and let the hems of his robes flow. “I designed them.”
“Wow,” said Su She, eloquently.
“You’re lost, right?” asked Wen Chao.
“Okay, yeah. And Jin Zixun couldn’t be helpful if his life depended on it. Not that he could find his way out of a one room house anyway, probably. Want me to take you back the way I came out here?” Wen Chao offered.
“That’d be nice,” said Su She. “Thank you.”
As they walked, Wen Chao and Su She found that they had common ground in disliking Jin Zixun.
“I’ll tell you a trick, though,” said Wen Chao. “Just remind him you’re a Lan disciple. He’s terrified of Qingheng-jun.”
“I’ve never even talked to Qingheng-jun,” said Su She, the old inferiority welling up in his chest. Wen Chao shrugged.
“Zixun doesn’t know that,” he said cheerfully. “Also, honestly? I don’t think Qingheng-jun talks to most people. Not out loud. I wouldn’t feel too bad about it.” Well, that was fair, Su She supposed. It did make him feel a little better.
“I will,” he said. “What’s Zixun’s problem with you, anyway?”
“He just doesn’t like me,” said Wen Chao, sounding rather satisfied about it. “He also won’t stop being rude about Meng Yao. Also, he picks on Wen Ning. Also, he keeps insulting Lan Xichen for some reason. Nobody ever did anything to him! I really can’t understand why he keeps saying stuff like that.”
The mention of Meng Yao and Lan Xichen made Su She feel something he didn’t quite know how to classify. Jealousy, maybe, but if Jin Zixun hated them too… well, Su She couldn’t do the same, just as a matter of principle.
“Are you okay?” asked Wen Chao.
“I’m fine,” said Su She. “Did he say he was going to fight you later?”
“Yeah, probably,” said Wen Chao. “We’ve fought so many times, I wonder why he still thinks he can win.”
“He’s bigger than you,” Su She pointed out.
“He’s a big baby, that’s what he is,” replied Wen Chao. “If he hits me and I hit him back, but only he goes crying back to his uncle, then who wins?”
“You, I guess,” admitted Su She.
“Damn right,” said Wen Chao. He stopped, and Su She looked up to see that they were standing in the shadow of Koi Tower proper. Wen Chao was smiling expectantly at him.
“Thank you,” said Su She.
“No problem!” said Wen Chao. “And hey— if you want to see me kick Jin Zixun’s ass, come outside right about when the evening banquet is ending. Should be fun.”
He waved goodbye and ran off, leaving Su She standing by himself, confused but rather pleased. Maybe it would be fun. Only one way to find out, he supposed.
It was coming up on dusk when Su She went back outside. He hoped he wouldn’t have to get lost in the gardens again to find Wen Chao, but then again, he didn’t have anything better to do at the moment. Fortunately, it was only a few seconds before he picked up the sound of raised voices drifting over on the summer evening air.
“There’s nobody here to call for help now,” Jin Zixun was saying.
“Oh, please,” Wen Chao scoffed. “I’m not the one who needs help. Are you trying to get me to back down ‘cause you’re scared? I will, you know, I’m nice like that. Just say you’re scared of me and I’ll let you off the hook this time—”
There was a shout of frustration and the sound of a scuffle breaking out. Su She picked up his pace from a walk to a run. He skidded around a corner and down a small set of stairs just in time to watch Wen Chao throw himself to the ground to avoid Jin Zixun swiping at him, roll over behind him, and land a solid kick to the back of Jin Zixun’s knees that had him folding like a paper fan.
“Hey!” said Wen Chao, bouncing to his feet and grinning at Su She before ducking backwards to avoid a strike aimed right at his face.
“Hey,” said Su She. “Need any help?”
“I’m good,” said Wen Chao, catching Jin Zixun’s fist with a small oof sound, grabbing his wrist, and throwing him to the ground.
“You—!” snarled Jin Zixun, clearly insulted beyond measure. He kicked Wen Chao’s legs out from under him, then aimed another punch at his face, this one managing to make contact. Wen Chao yelped, but recovered his feet and struck back in kind. Wen Chao had been right, observed Su She. There was blood dripping from his nose and probably into his mouth, but he still seemed more of a victor than Jin Zixun, who had suffered no such visible damage but appeared to be in quite a bit more pain.
“What?” said Wen Chao, baring slightly bloodied teeth in a grin and raising one eyebrow. “You done?”
Jin Zixun didn’t answer. Wen Chao wiped the blood off his face and turned to smile at Su She, much less aggressively.
“So what were you fighting over anyway?” asked Su She, glancing warily at the still-furious expression on Jin Zixun’s face.
“Being discourteous to guests,” said Wen Chao promptly. “Can’t have the Jin sect being ungracious hosts, right? Not when they’re so rich that their gardens are a giant maze.” He winked. Behind him, Jin Zixun’s hand strayed to the hilt of his sword, and before he even fully knew what he was doing, Su She had pulled out his guqin, set it in front of him, and struck a chord that sent Jin Zixun and his drawn sword crashing into the side of a small terrace. Wen Chao whirled around to look, then glanced back at Su She.
“He was going to,” said Su She weakly, waving vaguely in Jin Zixun’s direction.
“I see that now,” said Wen Chao. He looked surprised, then relieved, then angry, but not at Su She. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, then rounded on Jin Zixun, who had struggled to his feet, dazed by the slightly panicked wave of spiritual music that he’d been hit with.
“You coward,” he spat. “I should’ve known you’d stoop so low. What were you gonna do, kill me? You think you could get away with that, huh? Spineless brat.” He fell into an offensive position between Jin Zixun and Su She, poised to draw his own sword, but before the fight could rise to a whole new level, another presence made itself known.
Jin Zixun paled visibly. Wen Chao relaxed and dipped into a respectful bow before rising with a smile on his face once again. Su She turned to see what all the fuss was about.
Oh, he thought, immediately folding into a bow of his own and taking a moment or two to stare at the floor and get his heart rate under control. What in the world was Qingheng-jun doing here? Was he about to be in trouble?
“I heard a chord,” said a soft voice. It wasn’t Wen Chao’s or Jin Zixun’s, so it must have been Qingheng-jun speaking. Su She raised his head tentatively. Jin Zixun seemed to have vacated the scene in quite a hurry. Su She realized with a start that he was being beckoned to stand up straight, which he did, shifting to hide his guqin behind his back, not that it would make any difference.
“It was to fend off Jin Zixun,” said Wen Chao with a slightly sheepish grin. “He pulled his sword. I wasn’t prepared.” He brushed absently at the blood drying on his face and fingers. Qingheng-jun seemed satisfied with that answer, but the slightest skyward flicker of his gaze betrayed deep exasperation. Probably, Su She was now mostly confident in assuming, towards Jin Zixun.
“Mn,” said Qingheng-jun, who was apparently very much Lan Wangji’s father. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. “Wen Chao. Su Minshan,” he said by way of a dismissal that somehow didn’t leave Su She feeling dismissed, and then he turned and left the way he had come.
“Well,” said Wen Chao, “Now you’ve talked to Qingheng-jun.”
“I wouldn’t call that talking,” said Su She. Wen Chao laughed, loud and bright despite the blood and the bruise that was starting to form along his cheekbone.
“It’s the best anyone’s gonna get,” he said. “Besides! It couldn’t have come at a better time. If Zixun ever messes with you again, you can just threaten to call him. Or you could just ask me instead, right? As a friend. A friend who will gladly get into another fight with Jin Zixun for any possible reason. What do you say?”
“That sounds great,” said Su She honestly, and found that he could match the amusement on Wen Chao’s face. His friend’s face, slightly battered but lit with joy. Maybe, for once, Su She had been lucky.