No matter how well Wei Wuxian thought he could hide away his things, Jiang Cheng was always better at finding them, in the way that younger brothers always were. Even when they had been young men trying to hide wine, or illustrated books, or any manner of forbidden items from each other, Jiang Cheng could always discover Wei Wuxian’s caches.
The small child Wei Wuxian tried to conceal was no different. Jiang Cheng took a moment to curse him for never improving his hiding places, as he swept the child up amidst the confusion. Disciples from all sects were still swarming around, cleaning up from the slaughter and poking through the assorted small possessions the Wen remnants had managed to acquire, and Jiang Cheng deemed it time to depart with all speed, Wei Wuxian’s dizi already concealed in his sleeve. He wouldn’t be expected to stay anyway, not now that his brother was --
The child was silent all the way to Yunmeng, a warm weight against Jiang Cheng’s side as he balanced them on his sword. Too warm, he decided after they landed, and he went straight to the doctor who had tended his family when they were all children.
“Is he ill?” he asked, shortly, handing over the boy.
To his credit, the doctor blinked for only a moment before receiving the child. He peered at him, touching his cheek, his forehead, and circling his wrists to check his meridians. “Resentment poisoning, which will fade over time. There's a fever, and he’s underweight, but he seems hearty enough otherwise, Jiang-zongzhu. A few hours more wherever he was and he'd be worse off.” The man hesitated. “May I ask --”
“You may not,” Jiang Cheng said, and he subsided.
True to the doctor’s word, the boy recovered quickly. The fever passed after only a night, and though he refused to speak, the next morning he ate like -- like a wild thing, Jiang Cheng thought, savagely suppressing memories of another young boy eating soup like he’d never seen food.
There were a few young disciples at Lotus Pier without parents, now, and most had come without much notice or fanfare. Nobody in Yunmeng was going to question him about the new shadow he’d acquired. It would have been more discreet, Jiang Cheng allowed, if he had found a nursemaid to tend the boy, but he was happy to keep him nearby, even if he wasn’t willing to think about why. The boy was hardly a burden to him, sitting quietly by his desk and playing with the tails of the kites and moving around rocks on the floor.
He wished he had reconsidered when the Second Jade of Lan appeared, scarcely two days later, looking next door to death.
“Lan-er-gongzi,” he said from between his teeth. “What.” He considered the man in front of him -- he looked like he might keel over with a strong breeze. Then again, he knew first-hand about discipline at the Cloud Recesses and he was surprised, in a distant and unpleasant way, that he had strength enough to stand there before him.
He was not the only person in the room to observe their visitor.
“Rich-gege!” The boy said from next to his desk, the first words Jiang Cheng heard him say, and ran to attach himself to Lan Wangji’s white-clad leg. Jiang Cheng saw him sway, as though he would fall from that slight impact, and he sat back, watching narrow-eyed to be sure that he wouldn’t fall on the child.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said, his face blank as always but a world of emotion in his voice. “I am surprised to see you here.” The boy buried his face in Lan Wangji’s robes and began to cry. Lan Wangji put one hand down on top of his head but otherwise did nothing else to comfort the boy.
He didn’t feel particularly inclined to make the man more comfortable in this moment. Was he here to steal even this from him? Bad enough that the Jin clan had jiejie’s son.
“When you’re done tormenting my disciple, state your business,” Jiang Cheng said. “And then you can go.” to hell, he hoped, was understood.
“Your disciple?” Lan Wangji repeated, nearly showing an expression.
“My disciple,” Jiang Cheng said, trying -- not very hard -- to keep his voice level. “Wei Yuan.”
The crying child attached to Lan Wangji’s skirts didn’t seem to notice his abrupt re-naming but Lan Wangji took a small step backward with his free leg as though he had received a physical blow. “This child is a disciple of GusuLan,” he said. “It’s what his family would have preferred.”
Family, what did Lan Wangji know about Jiang Cheng’s family? How dare he, Jiang Cheng thought. “His family is dead,” he said baldly.
Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow. “At whose hands?”
A wash of mingled shame and rage -- very familiar emotions to Jiang Cheng, but never easy to bear -- clouded his vision. “You may leave at any time, Lan-er-gongzi,” he bit out. “The boy will be safer here than any remote mountain he could be hidden on, and at least here he’ll eat well and become healthy and not poisoned by resentment.” He took a deep breath and clenched his teeth. “Besides, you’re in no shape to do anything for a child, you’re about to fall over where you stand.”
“I will take this child with me back to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said, his voice even.
Jiang Cheng couldn’t have stopped Zidian from flashing even if he had been inclined to do so. He didn’t allow it to strike Lan Wangji where he stood -- he was still being clutched by a child whose cries echoed in the room -- but the purple flash made his feelings on this proposal fully evident, he hoped. “You will return to the Cloud Recesses alone,” Jiang Cheng said. “If you wish to see the child again, you will not test my patience.”
“Patience?” Lan Wangji said, his tone skeptical.
Jiang Cheng breathed out through his nose, hard. Rather than reply -- had he ever felt as though he had won an argument against this carved piece of jade? -- he went and gently pried the boy off Lan Wangji’s leg. His cries had become tired, his sobs coming more weakly, and Jiang Cheng was reminded that he was still recovering from illness and weak from his long sojourn at the Burial Grounds. He hoisted him up to his shoulder and patted his back like he had seen jiejie do for the baby, and it seemed to comfort Wei Yuan, who sighed and melted against him.
“That’s right,” he said softly. “Shushu will keep you safe.” He turned and left the room. Lan Wangji could rot there as far as he was concerned.
He must have gone, as none of his household staff alerted him that an obstinate block of ice was cluttering up his main hall. Jiang Cheng had more to be concerned with, namely the small child he had inherited. The child slept well, and ate well, and amused himself well, and Jiang Cheng was, overall, pleased with his own parenting skills. There was one place, though, where he didn’t feel quite up to the task. Wei Yuan had started to ask him, every day, where his Rich-gege had gone.
Jiang Cheng was tempted to tell him that Lan Wangji had met some horrible end, just to make the questions stop, but Wei Yuan never asked about any other family member, never mentioned his Xian-gege or any of the Wens, and Jiang Cheng had a sinking feeling that the boy had seen more from his hiding place than a child should.
“Do you want to go meet a baby?” he asked Wei Yuan one morning at breakfast. “My sister had a young son, and I think we should go to see him.”
Wei Yuan lit up. “Shushu, yes, a baby!” He cradled his arms as if rocking one to sleep, then darted a look at Jiang Cheng. “A-Yuan holds the baby?” he asked, his voice wheedling.
“We’ll see,” said Jiang Cheng. “Eat your breakfast and don’t play around.”
Wei Yuan rededicated himself to his congee, sending looks to Jiang Cheng that seemed to be saying: look, I’m good, I’m so good, look how good I can be. His sweetly sly little sideways glances sparked a memory in Jiang Cheng of Wei Wuxian giving their father that same entreating look the morning after they’d gotten in trouble for some bit of mischief, and how mad he’d been when it worked.
It was Jiang Cheng who couldn’t eat, after that.
After the meal had ended, he gathered a small group of disciples to accompany them on a trip to Koi Tower. Jin Guangshan would consider it an insult to arrive unannounced, of course, but it would be even worse if he arrived unaccompanied. Jiang Cheng wished to knock them off their guard with an impromptu visit, but it wouldn’t serve his purposes to antagonize them fully.
It was a relatively short trip by sword, and Wei Yuan held himself carefully still in front of Jiang Cheng. Once or twice, he turned his head or pointed at some object of interest, but no mischief worse than that.
“Good boy,” he said gruffly as they stepped down, and Wei Yuan glowed. “You can stay with me if you can be quiet and listen very carefully. Can you do that?”
Wei Yuan pressed his lips together tightly and nodded, eyes big. Jiang Cheng nodded at him, then turned toward the front doors of Koi Tower. Wei Yuan and the other Jiang disciples followed him.
They were greeted at the door by Jin Guangyao, who bowed with a soft, cautious smile. “Jiang-zongzhu, we were not expecting you,” he said. “Shall I have rooms prepared for you?”
“Might as well,” Jiang Cheng said. “How is my nephew?”
“He is fine,” said Jin Guangyao. “Perhaps a bit more fretful at times than in earlier weeks.”
Jiang Cheng did not want to stand and discuss with Jin Guangyao what reasons their mutual nephew might have for crying more than he had before. He moved further into the entryway. “I wish to see him. Can you have him brought, or shall we seek out the nursery?”
“Oh, I’ll have him brought to you,” said Jin Guangyao quickly. “Please, come and sit.”
Jiang Cheng and his men, along with Wei Yuan, settled into a small sitting room. Jiang Cheng let his eyes roam over the room and its furnishings. It was a lavish room, practically shouting that its owners were wealthy, decorated in gold as all of Koi Tower was, filled with accents and ornaments. It was, Jiang Cheng thought, one of the ugliest rooms he’d ever seen. A child, living in a house like this, unable to run or play without fear of breaking some priceless artifact? That was no way to raise children, he thought comfortably, his few weeks of surrogate parenting behind him as experience.
When Jin Ling drew near, his entrance was preceded by some moments by his wailing. The nursemaid bearing him wore a resigned expression and she was gently patting him as she walked, and it seemed as though she had no expectation that he would stop crying any time soon.
Jiang Cheng reached out and took Jin Ling from her at once. When Jin Ling had been born, he had been frightened to hold him; jiejie had had to trick him into taking him the first time. He had just seemed so small.
He seemed scarcely bigger now, these few months later. He was red from crying, and his cheeks were plumper, but he seemed fragile in his arms. “Does he eat well?” he asked the nursemaid.
She hesitated. “The wet nurse does her best,” she said. “He’s a fussy lad. Sometimes he doesn’t want to stop crying so he can eat.”
It certainly seemed as though he would never stop crying. Jiang Cheng bounced slightly, like jiejie had shown him, and it had no effect. Suddenly he remembered his promise. “A-Yuan,” he said, turning to find him. “Come meet the baby.”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure if the crying would scare off Wei Yuan, but he seemed unphased as he darted over. “Hi baby,” he said, stretching up on tiptoe to peer at Jin Ling’s face where Jiang Cheng held him.
“Here,” said Jiang Cheng, kneeling down so Wei Yuan could see. “He’s Jin Ling, my sister’s baby. Your aunt's son.”
Wei Yuan seemed entranced, and he stared at Jin Ling’s red face. He gently reached out to touch one little cheek with a single finger, and it seemed to startle Jin Ling, who turned to look at him, and his cries petered out.
The nursemaid looked startled, and she drew a breath as though to exclaim, but the words died on her lips as Jiang Cheng looked up sharply at her. He jerked his head at the door, and she obediently stepped outside, quick as a wink.
Wei Yuan looked at Jin Ling for far longer than Jiang Cheng could have guessed his attention would last. Jin Ling captured his finger in one dimpled fist, and brought it to his mouth to gently gnaw on, and still Wei Yuan stared.
“Shushu,” he said finally. “The baby comes home with us?”
“He’d better,” said Jiang Cheng grimly.
Wei Yuan nodded and continued looking at Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng was willing to kneel there and hold him until his arms fell off, especially now that the wailing had stopped.
Jin Ling had fallen asleep by the time the nursemaid returned, this time accompanied by Madam Jin.
“I hear you’ve worked miracles, Jiang-zongzhu,” she said. Her bright eyes took in the scene immediately, Jiang Cheng could see -- Jin Ling asleep, Wei Yuan standing nearby, gently petting his soft baby head, Jiang Cheng kneeling down. His embarrassment at being seen in such a tableau was hot, but he wasn’t willing to risk sudden movements. He slowly rose.
“Jin-furen,” he said, bowing as much as the child in his arms permitted. “It is good to see my nephew. I hope he has been well.”
“He’s been fine,” she said sharply. “Babies cry, it’s very common.”
“So much that they can’t eat?” he asked, and she glared.
“Who’s this?” she asked, looking at Wei Yuan. “He seems to be quite the young charmer, putting our little menace to sleep like this.”
“He is Wei Yuan,” said Jiang Cheng, and her eyebrows flew up nearly to her hairline.
“Indeed?” she asked. “Well, well.” She clucked her tongue. “That’s a shame.”
“He’s a very promising boy,” Jiang Cheng said. “We cannot always help who our fathers are, can we?”
Madam Jin closed her mouth with a snap and her sizzling glare reminded Jiang Cheng of his own mother. He ducked his head. “We just came to see Jin Ling,” he said again. It was as close to an apology as she would get from him.
“He’s fine,” she said again. “Was your unexpected visit only for this?”
“And to experience the fine Jin hospitality that is so prized,” said Jiang Cheng, trying as hard as he could to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Come then,” she said. “Bring A-Ling, bring all your disciples. I’ll have the kitchens prepare food spicy enough that you Yunmeng boys can enjoy it.” She turned and left, not looking back to make sure they followed; they followed. Wei Yuan kept one hand gently clasped around Jin Ling’s foot where it emerged from the blankets as they went.
Dinner was as awkward as Jiang Cheng could have predicted. Madam Jin had snapped at Jin Guangyao three times before they had all sat down, and as they were seating themselves, she hissed at him once more, and tilted her head. Jiang Cheng watched him sigh and step down, further away from the head table to an even lesser place.
“It is such an unexpected treat to see you, my boy,” said Jin Guangshan, drawing Jiang Cheng’s eyes away from that little drama. His words were layered with meaning, as they always were, but Jiang Cheng chose to take them at face value, refusing to be needled on the first exchange.
“It is always an honor to be at Koi Tower,” he said coolly. “I am happy to see my nephew. I had hoped that he would be well.” He hoped the insult was veiled enough to pass, and he saw Madam Jin narrow her eyes, but Jin Guangshan seemed unruffled.
“Of course, of course, the boy is doing fine, seems like a perfectly normal baby to me. The Jin sect can be proud of its heir.”
“He’s the heir to the Jiang sect as well,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Ah,” said Jin Guangshan, sounding startled in a very fake way. “Not this lad here?” He indicated Wei Yuan. “A likely-looking young fellow, and I hear he’s nearly family?”
Jiang Cheng smiled, just as falsely. “I could say the same thing,” he said, waving a hand in the direction of Jin Guangyao. The air between them froze with tension, Madam Jin’s face full of anger, and then Jin Guangshan laughed so hard he pounded on the table a little.
“My boy, my boy,” he said, as his laughter trailed away. Neither Madam Jin nor Jin Guangyao were laughing in the slightest. “Always so quick-witted. Yes, I see what you mean, Jin Ling is our little shared hope, is he not?”
“I hope he will grow to be as proud of Lotus Pier as he is of Koi Tower,” said Jiang Cheng.
“No doubt he will,” said Jin Guangshan carelessly. “I’m sure that once he’s older and can visit, he will like it there too.”
“How can a person visit a place that is their home?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Even the smallest of children can travel, and Lotus Pier misses its heir.”
Madam Jin leaned forward. “Do you mean to take Jin Ling back with you to Lotus Pier?”
“Lotus Pier should know his voice as well as Koi Tower does,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why should he not go there?” He looked at Jin Guangshan and forced some levity into his tone. “Besides, I hear he’s a very loud child, wouldn’t you like a break from the crying?”
Jin Guangshan laughed again. “You have a point! Yes, yes, he should visit with you. Perhaps a nice month, enough for a good look around before he returns home?”
“Six months of each year,” said Jiang Cheng. “His claim to Lotus Pier is equal to Koi Tower.”
“When a daughter marries, she leaves her family,” said Jin Guangshan. “Jin Ling is first a Jin.”
“Koi Tower is rich in disciples,” said Jiang Cheng. “Lanling boasts many of the Jin clan. The Jiang clan must hold onto those that they have. Our losses in the war were many, and Jin Ling is our heir. Six months of each year, though I could ask for more.”
Jin Guangyao leaned forward slightly, the movement in the corner of Jiang Cheng’s eye catching his attention. Jin Guangshan looked at him narrowly for a long moment.
“Fine, fine,” said Jin Guangshan, the cheerful bonhomie drained from his voice, leaving it sour. “If you want children around your skirts like ducklings, take the boy for a spell. I’m sure you’ll be tired of playing mother before too long, and we’ll be happy to take him when you’re finished with the game.”
Jiang Cheng closed his mouth around his immediate retort and nodded. It was a victory, and he would take it as such. “Thank you,” he said once he had breathed through the first rush of anger at the jabs. “We will depart in the morning, and return him before the new year begins.”
The rest of the meal was tense but civil and Jiang Cheng was glad to escape the hall, leading Wei Yuan and the rest of his disciples to the guest wing they had been assigned. Jin Ling would remain in the nursery until the morning.
Breakfast at Koi Tower was always a quiet affair, while the inhabitants slept off the wine from their lavish dinners, and Jiang Cheng was not expecting to see any of the family at the early hour he had designated for himself and his disciples to eat before their departure. He was surprised when Jin Guangyao sat next to him and smiled gently at Wei Yuan on his other side.
“Good morning, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. Jiang Cheng only raised his eyebrows in response and after a moment he went on. “Lan Xichen-ge sent a message for you this morning, and I wished to pass it on.”
“He sent a message for me...to Koi Tower?” Jiang Cheng asked. “How interesting that he knew that I was here.”
Jin Guangyao ducked his head. “We exchange messages often,” he said, his voice soft and a little proud. We gossip like old ladies, Jiang Cheng translated mentally. “He has asked me to express his sincere desire for a visit from Jiang-zongzhu if it is convenient for you.”
“What could be more convenient than traveling to Gusu with an infant?” Jiang Cheng said, laying the irony on thickly. “Certainly, we must see Lan-zongzhu without delay.”
“Wonderful, I’ll tell him to expect you,” said Jin Guangyao cheerfully, popping up from the table with alacrity. He was gone before Jiang Cheng could protest and he turned with a frown back to his meal. It seemed that they were now going to Gusu, and he had an overland journey to plan.
On the way out of Lanling, Jiang Cheng rented a cart for the children and the Jin clan nursemaid, and the disciples took turns riding in with them. The rest of them traveled on donkeys, surrounding the cart.
Wei Yuan was worth his weight in gold on the trip -- he was already deeply in love with Jin Ling, and spent all his time trying to get him to smile or laugh. After half a day, the disciples were fighting each other for their turn in the cart to play with the little ones, and Jiang Cheng heard laughter nearly every minute.
For some reason, it left his throat tight with unshed tears, and that annoyed him, and he kicked his donkey’s sides and rode ahead. Better to scout for trouble anyway.
He sent a disciple ahead of them to Cloud Recesses when they arrived in Caiyi. The rest of them stopped to eat before heading up the mountain. Something Jiang Cheng had learned very quickly was that little children ate nearly constantly, and trying to make them wait for their meal was a recipe for disaster.
Besides, he remembered the food at the Cloud Recesses.
When they arrived at the gate, Lan Xichen was there waiting for them. He saluted, and Jiang Cheng returned the gesture. “I received your message from Jin Guangyao,” Lan Xichen said. “Many thanks for altering your plans, I am glad that you came.” He turned to Wei Yuan, at Jiang Cheng’s side. “My brother will be happy to see you, Young Master Wei,” he added, his smile friendly.
Wei Yuan, sleepy and full from the meal and the long walk, the cart having been left at the foot of the mountain, smiled and shyly turned his face into Jiang Cheng's arm. Jiang Cheng shook him off. “Wake up,” he said, “when your elder says something nice to you, what do you do?”
Wei Yuan made a crooked salute in imitation of Jiang Cheng's own, and he said, “thank you, gege,” and Jiang Cheng saw Lan Xichen hide a small smile behind a sleeve.
“Lan-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng said. “Not gege.” But he took hold of Wei Yuan's shoulder and squeezed it gently, fondly.
“Who is your brother?” Wei Yuan asked.
“You know him well,” assured Lan Xichen. “I believe you call him Rich-gege?”
“We’re visiting Rich-gege?” Wei Yuan’s eyes were wide. “Shushu, thank you!” He wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s leg and buried his face in his robe.
“Well, let us go, then,” said Lan Xichen merrily. He led the way up the stone steps, as they headed into the very clouds. After twenty steps, Jiang Cheng found that he was carrying Wei Yuan, without having made a conscious decision to pick him up, but the child closed his arms around Jiang Cheng's neck and laid his head against his shoulder, and Jiang Cheng just hoped the stairs stayed perfectly even beneath the feet that he could no longer see.
When they arrived, finally, Jiang Cheng considered adding “carry a sleeping child up hundreds of steps” as a new training exercise, as his arms were as tired as they'd ever been.
He could see that the nursemaid was tired too, Jin Ling growing heavier in sleep, and he cocked his head at a disciple until the man realized what he wanted, leaping forward to gingerly take the sleeping baby and let the poor woman shake out her arms. Another disciple stepped forward, his hands reaching out for Wei Yuan, and Jiang Cheng recoiled, drawing the child further in toward himself protectively before he recalled himself and relaxed, shaking his head at the offered help.
“Let me show you to the guest quarters,” Lan Xichen said. “You can refresh yourselves before greeting anyone officially. I hope you will be staying long enough to rest well?”
“How long will you require our presence?” asked Jiang Cheng sharply. “We’ll stay if we’re needed, but I had planned only a short trip.”
“Ah, we’ll see how long our business takes,” said Lan Xichen, who never seemed to take a single thing personally, which was utterly baffling to Jiang Cheng. “This way.”
He led them to the nicest guest houses Jiang Cheng had yet seen at Cloud Recesses. “Are these new?” he asked. “Since the fire?”
Lan Xichen winced at the reminder. “Yes,” he said. “Nearly everything had to be rebuilt. Most things we tried to recreate faithfully, but there were a few places with room for improvement, as I’m sure you’ve found in your own rebuilding process.” He slid the doors open, gesturing for Jiang Cheng to precede him inside. The disciples with him, and the nursemaid, he waved to the next door, but Jiang Cheng caught the eye of the disciple carrying Jin Ling, and he veered from the group to join Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng considered that. “We didn’t make things the same, mostly,” he said, walking inside and easing the still-sleeping Wei Yuan onto the first couch he saw. “It would never be the same, so why try? But then, Lotus Pier wasn’t as continuously old as the Cloud Recesses -- we’ve lost buildings to flooding and had to begin again before.” Arms now free, he took Jin Ling from the disciple and quietly dismissed him to join his fellows.
Lan Xichen nodded as though he had made a profound point, but changed the subject entirely. “Will you rest and return to the main pavilion when you are ready?” he asked. “Lan Qiren would be happy to greet you, along with me.”
“And Lan-er-gongzi?” Jiang Cheng asked, quick to catch the omission. “Is he away?”
“My brother is…” Lan Xichen seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “He is recovering. Even with strong cultivation, some injuries are difficult to heal.”
Jiang Cheng suppressed a huff of disdain, hiding it against Jin Ling’s sleepy head on his shoulder. “I hope we will not be disturbing him, then.”
“He will welcome it,” Lan Xichen said, serene. “He did much damage by flying away to look for this little one, and for signs of Wei Wuxian.”
Jiang Cheng felt a muscle in his jaw jump as he clenched it so hard he heard his back teeth grind. “He needn’t have,” he managed to say. “There were none.”
“Sometimes a person has to see for themselves,” Lan Xichen said, still calm. “Will you join us at shēn hour, once the children have rested and you and your disciples refreshed yourselves? We will have tea and then the children can visit Lan Wangji.”
“That’s fine,” Jiang Cheng agreed, and started looking for a soft place to lay Jin Ling.
Lan Xichen saluted and left him to it.
Tea with Lan Qiren was no more enjoyable as a sect leader than it had been as a disciple attending lectures. Despite being a grown man, the head of his family, and a sect leader, discussing important intersect matters, Jiang Cheng still couldn’t shake the sense that he was being viewed with the same general tolerance as the little boy sitting with great solemnity at his side.
Despite the near-summons, there was no business brought up initially that could have been urgent enough to require a personal visit, and Jiang Cheng’s suspicions that they had been called there only to allow Lan Wangji to see Wei Yuan were borne out, as the meeting ended and Lan Xichen came forward with a smile.
“Let us call upon Wangji,” he said. “He is spending much of his time in meditative seclusion, but I am sure he will be more than happy to see Wei Yuan so well.”
How can you tell? was Jiang Cheng’s first sour thought, but he held it behind his teeth. He just jerked his head in a nod and took Wei Yuan’s hand in his. He nodded at the disciple holding Jin Ling, who came to follow them.
At that, Lan Xichen paused. “My brother is not taking many visitors at this time,” he said. “Perhaps I can walk there with Wei Yuan, and you can return to your quarters with the baby?”
Jiang Cheng stopped. “Or we could leave right now,” he said. “We’re still packed up, there’s light enough to get to Caiyi and find space at an inn, and it seems that our sect business is concluded.”
He had dented Lan Xichen’s calm, whose smile now looked pained. “Perhaps Young Master Jin and his retinue could return and rest, and you could accompany our young friend alone?”
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth, then turned to take Jin Ling from the disciple, who was looking like he wanted to melt into the ground. “Go,” he said, and the boy fled at just below a run. He adjusted Jin Ling along his side so that he could hold him with a single arm, his scabbard held in the same hand so he could still draw his sword, then took Wei Yuan’s hand again. “Well?” he said, and Lan Xichen smiled at him, good humor apparently restored at this concession.
Lan Xichen led them to a small house, set back from the main part of the grounds. He tapped lightly on the doorframe but didn’t pause for a response, sliding the doors open for them himself. He allowed them to enter, but declined to come in himself, closing the door behind them.
Lan Wangji was waiting for them in the middle of the main room, sitting upright. The room was nice, decorated modestly but comfortably. He looked terrible, though -- perhaps worse than he had when he had come looking for Wei Yuan. Thinner, if Jiang Cheng was any judge, and he hadn’t been sleeping. He looked much as he had during the worst of the war, or when they had been searching together for --
“Rich-gege!” Wei Yuan exclaimed, and flung himself into Lan Wangji’s lap. Lan Wangji’s exhalation of pain, quickly cut-off, nonetheless caused the child to look up at him. “Rich-gege is hurt,” he said, putting one little hand on Lan Wangji’s face.
“I am happy to see you, A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said. “Yes, I am hurt.”
After a moment of indecision, Jiang Cheng sat off to the side with Jin Ling, allowing Lan Wangji to speak with Wei Yuan while Jiang Cheng amused Jin Ling by letting him chew messily on Sandu’s hilt. He was not going to permit another suggestion that he should leave -- he trusted Lan Wangji about as far as he could throw him, and he wasn’t about to take his eyes or ears off either of these children while he was at the Cloud Recesses.
Permitting a visit, however contrived, was one thing, but Jiang Cheng hadn’t forgotten Lan Wangji’s insistence that he would take Wei Yuan away.
Meanwhile, Wei Yuan was chattering about the trip, about Caiyi Town, about Jin Ling. His baby lisp meant that the flow of thoughts were only intermittently intelligible -- enough to determine the topic and enthusiasm, if not the actual content. Nonetheless, Lan Wangji nodded along as though it were the most engrossing tale he’d ever been told.
“Where is Xian-gege?” Wei Yuan suddenly asked, the question clear as a bell. It was the first time Jiang Cheng could remember him asking after Wei Wuxian, since the first time Jiang Cheng discovered him in the tree stump in the Burial Mounds. “Rich-gege, where is he?”
Lan Wangji bent forward slightly and rested his forehead against the child’s head. “He’s gone,” he said.
Wei Yuan sniffled. “I miss him,” he said, and Jiang Cheng wanted to scream, or cry, or throw all of Lan Wangji’s perfect, beautiful, stupid ornaments against the walls.
When Lan Wangji replied, a long moment later, it was almost too low for Jiang Cheng to hear. “I miss him too,” he said. They all sat in silence. Jiang Cheng suddenly, desperately, wanted his sister. Jiejie would have known what to say or do, he was sure, but she wasn’t here and she’d never be here again to tell him what to do.
After a long moment, Wei Yuan jumped up and off Lan Wangji’s lap, and ran to a low shelf. “Butterflies,” he said. “My butterflies, rich-gege, you found them.” He snatched the little grass toys and held them up. He ran to Jiang Cheng. “Look, A-Ling, butterflies! Shushu, butterflies!” He twirled the toy in front of Jin Ling, who watched Wei Yuan with wide-eyed devotion. He returned to Lan Wangji, who this time guided him to sit next to him rather than dropping directly into his lap.
“I found them when I went to look for you,” Lan Wangji said. “I thought you might want them back.”
“I do, gege, I do,” Wei Yuan vowed, and started talking directly to the little toys. He had missed them and hoped they had been well, Jiang Cheng gathered.
“Will you stay long?” Lan Wangji said, and it took a moment for Jiang Cheng to realize that he was being addressed, because Lan Wangji was definitely not looking at him.
“We do not currently have any pressing business,” he said. “You know how that can change in a moment, but as of now we can remain.”
“I still wish for him to become a disciple here,” Lan Wangji said, and Jiang Cheng felt his body lock up with rage.
“Pressing business has just come up,” he said, hearing his voice shake slightly, not quite able to keep it under control. “We shall depart for Lotus Pier in the morning.” He watched Lan Wangji press his lips together until they turned white, his hands clenching in his lap.
Wei Yuan's head shot up. “Shushu, no,” he said, pleading, with his big eyes fixed on Jiang Cheng.
“That’s up to your gege,” Jiang Cheng said, glaring at Lan Wangji.
“Please remain,” Lan Wangji said to the air next to Jiang Cheng’s left ear. “I apologize.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, his eyes still locked on Lan Wangji in suspicion.
“While you are here I can show you the rabbits,” Lan Wangji told Wei Yuan. “We will wake early in the morning and go to feed them.” Wei Yuan looked rapturous, clutching his newly rediscovered toys and leaning hard into Lan Wangji’s side.
Jin Ling chose that time to start making grumpy sounding noises that Jiang Cheng knew, even with his short experience with babies, would very quickly escalate to highly unpleasant ones.
“It’s dinnertime,” said Lan Wangji. He indicated a side table, where some covered dishes stood, the corners of warming talismans showing beneath them. “Will you eat?”
Jiang Cheng nodded and rose. He started to set Jin Ling down on the floor, then hesitated. “Here,” he said, and handed him to Lan Wangji who received him with only a slight tightening of his expression that Jiang Cheng couldn't begin to decipher. Pain, perhaps, or anger. “If I set him down now, he’ll scream. A-Yuan, get up, lazy, you need to help. It's your filial duty to serve your elders.”
Wei Yuan beamed and set down his toys at once as he popped to his feet. “Yes, shushu! A-Yuan will help!”
The meal passed in silence, in the Lan way. Jiang Cheng tried not to wince at the bland sweetness of each dish, but Wei Yuan seemed to enjoy the meal well enough. Before the meal had ended, he could see that Lan Wangji was drooping with tiredness, and so were the children. It seemed that the strict Lan bedtime would be observed in full, and so Jiang Cheng removed himself, Wei Yuan, and Jin Ling before they had the unpleasant opportunity to see Lan Wangji actually lose composure and nod off in front of them.
The morning bell at the Cloud Recesses was abysmally early, as it had always been. Jiang Cheng spent a full minute lying in bed, hating the bell, hating the Lans, hating morning, hating the world, before heaving himself to his feet to prepare for the day ahead. On the pallet across the room, Wei Yuan was staring at him, trembling with excitement already.
“Well, get up, what are you waiting for,” said Jiang Cheng. He tossed a clean cloth at him. “Wash your face, you’re disgraceful.”
Wei Yuan laughed and obeyed.
When they arrived at Lan Wangji’s house, he was sitting on the porch, straight-backed as usual, waiting for them. Wei Yuan carried the basket of green vegetables he had been handed and chattered without requiring much of a response as they slowly walked from the jingshi to a stretch of the back hill where Jiang Cheng had often found --
Anyway, he recognized it. Lan Wangji sat, and beckoned for Wei Yuan to do the same. Jiang Cheng sat with Jin Ling, a little apart, but Jin Ling fussed and reached for Wei Yuan, his favorite person in all the world, and Jiang Cheng relented and moved closer to avoid the screaming he knew would come quickly after.
Lan Wangji greeted Jin Ling solemnly and said, “You must both remain very still and quiet for the bunnies to come to you.” He reached into a nearby bush and pulled a small white rabbit, holding it close and petting it carefully. “Do you see how I hold it, and how to gently touch?”
Wei Yuan eagerly nodded, and reached his hand out yearningly toward the rabbit Lan Wangji held. At his side, Jin Ling imitated him, little fingers grabbing.
“Your cousin is too little to be gentle on his own,” Lan Wangji said. “But you can sit quietly and help him.” He deposited the rabbit on Wei Yuan’s lap, and the boy looked like he had been delivered the moon. He patted the bunny then looked over at Jiang Cheng with big eyes.
“Shushu, a bunny! I have a bunny!” he said rapturously. He took Jin Ling’s pudgy hand carefully and guided it into a soft patting motion, and they giggled together. Jiang Cheng had a sudden vision of Lotus Pier overflowing with small creatures, smuggled home in pockets or sleeves, and decided to check the luggage very carefully before leaving the Cloud Recesses.
The children looked as though they could contentedly care for the rabbit for hours, and the rabbit didn’t seem inclined to move, though whether it was happy or terrified, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure.
Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the children and animals, but addressed Jiang Cheng quietly. “It is good that you are able to have Jin Ling with you.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t look at him. “It’s only right that he should know his mother’s sect as well as his father’s,” he said.
“He looks very like her,” Lan Wangji observed quietly. Jiang Cheng had nothing that he could -- or would -- reply to that. Lan Wangji let some time pass, then quietly said, “If you won’t hear of A-Yuan coming to Cloud Recesses, would you accept me as a disciple to the Jiang sect?”
Jiang Cheng, very visibly and obviously, recoiled. “What, no,” he said before he thought. “What?” Lan Wangji at Lotus Pier? He couldn’t imagine it.
“Jiang-zongzhu. Please.” Lan Wangji’s voice was calm but there was an undertone that Jiang Cheng refused to categorize. “What do I need to do? What can I do? He's all that’s left of Wei Ying.”
“Shut up!” Jiang Cheng said, and shot to his feet. “Shut up, don’t say that.” The children looked up in alarm, and the rabbit saw its chance and took it, flinging itself out of Wei Yuan’s lap. Jin Ling started to cry and Wei Yuan didn’t look far behind. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath, in through the nose, and bounced Jin Ling in an attempt to distract and comfort him.
“You can visit Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng said finally. He had teased Jin Ling back into cheerfulness and now he set him down on the grass, and Jin Ling reached over to Wei Yuan, who was still sitting quietly and looking longingly at the bushes for another bunny. Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, who was still watching the children. “Don’t do anything like renounce your sect. But you can visit.”
Lan Wangji didn’t speak in response, but he dipped his head in acknowledgement, and after a moment, he reached out to retrieve another bunny to hand to Wei Yuan, and his shoulders rounded slightly, his perfect posture relaxing a single notch.
When the sun was higher in the sky and it seemed to be time to return, Wei Yuan sprang up. Lan Wangji tried to rise, and failed, his typical grace deserting him, and his descent catching Jiang Cheng’s eye. Lan Wangji clenched a fist in the grass, and Jiang Cheng turned his head away before he could be caught staring. After a moment, Wei Yuan went to Lan Wangji.
“A-Yuan will help, gege,” he said sweetly. He tugged at Lan Wangji’s sleeve with no visible effect, and after a moment, Lan Wangji seemed to gather his strength enough to roll to his feet, leaning hard on Wei Yuan’s shoulder. “Shushu, you help too,” Wei Yuan directed.
Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, alarmed, and though Lan Wangji was looking anywhere else, he nodded slightly. They walked slowly back through the hills, Lan Wangji leaning heavily on him to the distaste of them both but the joy of Wei Yuan. When they arrived at Lan Wangji’s home, Lan Wangji lowered himself to sit on the stoop with obvious relief, and Wei Yuan sat next to him, so close he was nearly on his lap, and gently patted his knee.
Jiang Cheng reached a decision he hadn’t fully known he was contemplating, and forced out the words before he could think better of it. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” he said. Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan looked up with twin faces full of wordless distress. Jiang Cheng sighed inwardly. “We’re traveling by land,” he went on. “We’ll rent another cart in Caiyi. If you’d like to ride with the children, you’d be welcome to visit Lotus Pier while you continue to recover.”
“Brother has let it be known that I am in seclusion,” said Lan Wangji. “However,” he hesitated, looking at Wei Yuan. “If my trip can be a quiet one?”
“Who am I going to tell,” Jiang Cheng scoffed.
The next morning, all went smoothly. Lan Xichen came to see them off, pressing a qiankun bag into Lan Wangji’s hands, and smiling genially at them both. He walked with him down the stairs as far as the gate. Jiang Cheng could see him standing there, watching as they went, until they went past the first curve in the road.
The cart they hired in Caiyi was a smaller one than the one they had hired in Lanling; Jiang Cheng had assumed that since Lan Wangji would be staying with the children, and they didn’t need to rotate through the disciples, that it would be fine.
It was not fine. Lan Wangji was the most stoic piece of carved jade that Jiang Cheng had ever seen, but by the end of each day of travel, he was clearly worn through, and the third morning, Jiang Cheng heard him vomiting, though when he came from his room into the inn’s main room, he looked his usual self.
“We’ll be staying here another day,” he said. “Go back to your room.”
Lan Wangji remained where he was. “I can--”
“You can’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “We’ve travelled together before, I know what you look like when you can’t. Don’t test me. Go.”
At the reference, Lan Wangji’s already pale face went white to the lips and he turned and went upstairs without another word. Jiang Cheng regretted -- nothing. It was fine. The children probably would appreciate a day to run around the little village and play anyway.
While they were idle, Jiang Cheng directed his disciples, the ones who weren’t needed to guard the boys, to walk through the town and talk with the townspeople, ask about strange happenings or rumors of demonic cultivation, just in case. They were getting close to Yunmeng, and he wanted to take advantage of any opportunity for catching wind of trouble before it started. The recent disappearance of the entire TingshanHe clan had been disturbing, and Jiang Cheng was on his guard.
The next morning, Lan Wangji seemed to be more himself. Wei Yuan and Jin Ling seemed to be in good spirits as well, and Jiang Cheng had received no reports of any strange or suspicious goings-on from his disciples. It was a good day for travel, and they were on their way once more.
They arrived at Lotus Pier a day and a half later, and Jiang Cheng had never been happier to be home. He walked Lan Wangji to his rooms, a guest suite not far from where the boys slept, and gave only enough of a tour on the way to point out the doctor’s room and the kitchens. The pain lines had returned to Lan Wangji’s face, and they left him to rest. Wei Yuan, who had insisted on accompanying them, gave him a hug around the legs that nearly pushed him over, before Jiang Cheng peeled him away.
Over the next two weeks, they saw only enough of Lan Wangji to be sure that he was eating regularly, and Wei Yuan made his displeasure at this well known. He took breaks in his pouting to show Jin Ling around Lotus Pier, as best as a small person could show a place to a baby who couldn’t walk and who they weren’t yet allowed to carry around.
In practice, this meant that Jiang Cheng carried Jin Ling from place to place as Wei Yuan imperiously led them to all of his favorite places, the training grounds and lakesides and trees and one very mysterious corner that Wei Yuan liked for no reason that Jiang Cheng could see, ending each day outside Lan Wangji’s room, peeping through the door to hopefully inquire whether his gege was fit to ‘come and play.’
Once Lan Wangji had recovered from the trip and was once again capable of sitting upright to spend some portion of each day with Wei Yuan, this previously undisplayed clinginess vanished once more. Jiang Cheng was grateful for it, because the work that had been left while he had been kicking his heels at the Cloud Recesses had overflowed from his desk onto the floor next to it.
Jiang Cheng had sent the Jin nursemaid back to Koi Tower when they arrived at Lotus Pier, and a trusted auntie from Yunmeng had been engaged to nurse Jin Ling and watch over Wei Yuan while Jiang Cheng carried out sect business. He found, however, that he didn’t like to have them far out of his sight and hearing for too much of the day. So he either carried his paperwork and a travel desk outside to watch them play, or let them play quietly on the floor of his office as the auntie dozed gently in the corner.
One afternoon, when Lan Wangji was resting and nowhere to be found, the boys were on the floor, Wei Yuan directing Jin Ling while Jin Ling largely ignored him to shake his rattle bell or chew on his fingers. Jin Ling was going through a fussy spell, and Jiang Cheng was focusing so fully on his correspondence with Sect Leader Yao that he didn’t register at first when Jin Ling’s little cries stopped.
When he looked up, it took him a long moment to register the source of Jin Ling’s contentment. At first, it looked like a polished stick that he was gleefully gnawing on. “A-Yuan,” Jiang Cheng said slowly. “What is it that Jin Ling has?”
“I found Xian-gege’s flute on the shelf,” Wei Yuan said. “It’s for babies to chew, shushu!”
Jiang Cheng forced himself to move slowly as he walked to Jin Ling and carefully removed the dizi from his grasp, which of course moved Jin Ling from grumbly grouchiness to a full roar. The nursemaid in the corner sat up, winking sleep from her eyes as she began to get up to comfort him.
Jiang Cheng laid the dizi on a corner of the desk and picked up Jin Ling himself. “Go outside,” he said. He thrust a training kite at Wei Yuan. “Take this, see if there’s enough wind. Don’t fall in the water.” He let the nursemaid take Jin Ling and shepherd the boys out the door.
He sat at his desk, staring at the dizi. He didn’t get the letter finished that afternoon.
That night was one of Lan Wangji’s rare appearances at dinner. Jiang Cheng was in no mood for making conversation, and of course Lan Wangji never seemed to have grasped the concept of small talk. Wei Yuan talked rapturously about having met a shixiong who had shown him how to fly the kite and told him about learning archery by shooting kites.
Lan Wangji laid his chopsticks down neatly, signalling that he was finished eating and would now speak, and said seriously to Wei Yuan, “Wei Ying was a very good archer when he lived here. Perhaps your shushu could tell you how it is to learn to shoot like him.”
Jiang Cheng shot to his feet. “Perhaps you could teach him yourself,” he said, and left the room before he could carry out the violence that itched at his knuckles, Zidian crackling as he went. Whether either Lan Wangji or Wei Yuan had a response to that, he didn’t hear it.
The next morning, Wei Yuan greeted him somewhat cautiously at breakfast, and Jiang Cheng made a conscious effort to nod normally and speak calmly, and Wei Yuan seemed to relax. Lan Wangji did not show his face at all, but then, he usually didn’t.
The days flew by, and sooner than Jiang Cheng could have imagined it, it was nearly the new year and Jin Ling was due back at Koi Tower. His fussiness had eased somewhat, and he was turning into quite a hearty child. The idea of sending him away troubled him, and he regretted now having given the six-month terms; perhaps he could have found a way for more time.
“Jin Ling must return to Koi Tower tomorrow,” he said one evening at dinner, after Wei Yuan had finished telling them about his shooting practice with the Jiang juniors. Jin Ling, whose face and hands were still being wiped down by the nursemaid, had no objection, but Wei Yuan lifted his face in immediate protest.
“Why?” he asked immediately. “No, shushu, I don’t want him to go away.”
“That’s how it works,” said Jiang Cheng. “We get Jin Ling for half the year, and they get him for half. He’s the heir to both sects, so he must know and understand them both.”
“Can’t the Jins find someone else to be the sect heir?” asked Wei Yuan plaintively. “He can be ours and they’ll get another one and he can stay here forever.”
“That’s up to the Jins,” said Jiang Cheng. “For now this is how it will be. I’ll go by sword, since it’s just him. I can be back by dinnertime if we leave early enough, and if the Jins don’t insist on throwing some kind of welcoming banquet.”
“Hm,” said Lan Wangji, who was sitting on the other side of Wei Yuan and who had thus far not offered an opinion one way or the other on Jin Ling’s departure.
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “I’ll pack a bag,” he said grudgingly. “Of course there will be a banquet. Are you going to stay here and keep an eye on this one while I’m gone?” he added. “You can make yourself useful for once.”
“I must stay,” Lan Wangji said. “Officially, I am still in seclusion and I should not be seen.”
“Gege, what’s seclusion?” Wei Yuan asked.
“It is when a person stays away from the world in order to think or to recover,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Yuan nodded. “I’ll be in seclusion with you tomorrow, gege,” he said. “I’ll need all day to recover from Jin Ling being taken away from me.” He sighed gustily.
“He’ll come back,” said Jiang Cheng, nettled.
“Not for forever,” said Wei Yuan mournfully, and looked down at his hands, lip trembling.
“Perhaps when Jin Ling is at Koi Tower, we can go on a nighthunt together,” Jiang Cheng suggested. Both Wei Yuan and Lan Wangji shot their heads up to stare at him, one with hopeful longing and one with shocked outrage. “An easy one,” he said defensively. “It’s never too early to start.”
Lan Wangji didn’t say anything in front of Wei Yuan, but Jiang Cheng could tell from the speaking look he was sending over Wei Yuan’s head that he had some very firm opinions on that.
Jiang Cheng smirked at him and sat back.
The next morning, Jiang Cheng flew with Jin Ling to Koi Tower. His retinue was modest, and consisted mostly of senior disciples. It was never good to bring the little ones to Koi Tower, not until they could handle themselves well in less politically charged circumstances.
Jiang Cheng endured the delivery of Jin Ling to the nursery, and the greetings of Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin, and tried hard not to think about the next six months without his nephew. The banquet was reasonably interesting, watching Madam Jin barking orders to Jin Guangyao while Jin Guangshan practiced strategic deafness.
As the evening wore on, there seemed to be an endless parade of disciples in gold robes coming and going, and Jiang Cheng took advantage of the swirls of activity to make sure the Jiang disciples knew they were freed from duty and might leave or stay as they liked, but he was leaving, and then did so.
He detoured through the gardens on the way back to his rooms, enjoying a moment of cold fresh air after the heat of the banquet hall. A strange squeaking noise caught his attention, and he turned a corner swiftly to see a pair of Jin disciples with their heads bent together in conversation. The taller of the two seemed to be holding the other’s hands, but as Jiang Cheng drew quietly closer, he could see that the disciple was bending back the smaller boy’s pinky in a way that looked very painful, and he coughed.
The boys sprang apart, and the smaller boy looked deeply relieved, discreetly shaking out his newly released hand. The older disciple looked sulky, mostly, an expression that looked very comfortable on the dark prettiness of his face. “What’s going on here?” Jiang Cheng said.
“Nothing,” the older disciple muttered. He shot a look at the boy he had apparently been tormenting, and the boy shook his head without speaking.
“Go,” said Jiang Cheng, jerking his head at him, and the boy fled gratefully. He eyed the boy. “What tricks are you up to, boy?”
“Fuck off,” said the disciple, and turned and left without another word.
Jiang Cheng stood there a moment, then shook his head and went to his rooms. Whatever it was, it was a Jin matter and not his business.
He didn’t see either disciple on the way out of Koi Tower in the morning. His mood at leaving Jin Ling there, already a weight in his chest, turned the whole day sour, and he would have loved a chance to beat that lad if he’d had the opportunity. How dare the Jins allow their disciples to be treated thusly.
He didn’t speak much for the rest of the day, although he did allow Wei Yuan’s hug of greeting upon his arrival.
A few days later, a courier arrived from Gusu very late at night, and Jiang Cheng declined to wake Lan Wangji, passing it to him as he arrived in the hall for breakfast. Lan Wangji opened the note but not the package, setting it aside.
“You got a present, gege,” said Wei Yuan, eyeing the small wrapped box that sat on the table between them.
Lan Wangji’s mouth softened as he looked at Wei Yuan. “My brother often likes to send a small token for my birthday, if we happen to be separated on the days before it comes,” he said.
“When is your birthday, gege?” Wei Yuan asked.
“It’s today,” said Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng looked at him sharply.
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
Lan Wangji nodded but Wei Yuan was the one who spoke. “Oh, then I’m five now,” he said cheerfully.
Jiang Cheng frowned. “It’s Lan-er-gongzi’s birthday, not yours,” he said.
“Mine was already this month,” Wei Yuan explained, and added a sprinkle of yuk sung to his congee before starting to eat. “So I’m five.”
Jiang Cheng stared at Lan Wangji, whose shocked and unhappy face mirrored his own feelings, then turned to Wei Yuan. “How do you know when your birthday is?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell us when it was?”
“Xian-gege said my birthday was right before gege’s,” said Wei Yuan. He had been placidly eating but he started to look concerned. “Is it bad? Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” said Lan Wangji swiftly, recovering faster than Jiang Cheng, whose head was still spinning. “We wanted to wish you well and we are sorry that we have missed it, that’s all.”
Wei Yuan looked worried. “Am I not five?” he asked. “Am I still four after all?”
“You are five,” said Lan Wangji. “We will remember for next year to celebrate your birthday before mine.”
Wei Yuan brightened. “Thank you, gege, thank you, shushu,” he said. “Next year I’ll be six!”
Jiang Cheng coughed to clear his throat, which was tight. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “It seemed like yesterday you were only a very little person.”
“Now I’m big,” Wei Yuan said, pleased with himself. He ducked his head and looked up at Jiang Cheng from under the hair that fell in his face. “Big enough for a bow?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng had not intended to commission a bow for Wei Yuan until he had grown more; it didn’t make sense to craft them individually while children were so small, and the youngest disciples all used the common bows until they were the same size for more than a season at a time.
“Big enough for a bow,” he found himself agreeing, and avoided Lan Wangji’s gaze. This was his nephew, and the Jiang sect was growing stronger and richer. Surely he could afford one bow for one small child without hearing anyone else’s opinion on the matter!
In the temporary absence of Jin Ling, Wei Yuan meshed well into Jiang Cheng’s daily life. He was old enough now to attend training regularly with the other disciples of the sect, and while Jiang Cheng led the training for the oldest disciples, not the youngest, he found a burst of pleased pride when he caught glimpses of Wei Yuan’s studious and hard-working little self across the grounds. He couldn’t help but picture years to come when Wei Yuan and Jin Ling would train together, bringing pride and honor to the Jiang sect.
Lan Wangji did not mesh well into Jiang Cheng’s daily life, although thankfully he saw little enough of him. He had remained at Lotus Pier without discussion or explanation, taking Wei Yuan’s free time whenever Lan Wangji was feeling strong enough.
Lan Wangji had not discussed it, of course, and he would never ask, but the pattern of his recovery seemed clear. He would overexert himself, then seclude himself to rest for several days, often appearing feverish or confused if he was disturbed during that time. Then he’d reappear, making little mention of his previous absence.
Lan Wangji was in the latter stage now, appearing at the edge of the training ground at the end of the day, when Wei Yuan was sure to see him when the disciples were dismissed. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at the way Lan Wangji gripped the edge of a pillar. Not as recovered as he could be, if he still needed to brace himself, then.
When Wei Yuan spied him, he took off at full speed across the training grounds. Jiang Cheng winced in anticipation, but Wei Yuan was wise far beyond his years and slowed his feet for the last several paces so that his hug for Lan Wangji was gentle, rather than the full-bodied collisions with which he frequently gifted Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng was too far to hear their conversation, but he could imagine it from the looks on their faces. Wei Yuan was pleading with Lan Wangji, who was shaking his head. Jiang Cheng gave him only a few moments before he caved -- and there it was, Lan Wangji giving a sigh and a nod, whereupon Wei Yuan dragged him off and out of Jiang Cheng’s sight.
Jiang Cheng rededicated himself to his work, bearing down with a shout on a hapless junior who kept missing steps in his form, and if he had any memories about being a youth at the Cloud Recesses watching his brother charm Lan Wangji in much the same way, he kept them to himself.
The bow that Jiang Cheng had commissioned for Wei Yuan was sleek, and he carried it everywhere with him; Jiang Cheng had even caught him sleeping with one hand resting on the limb. He had been making great progress in training and he listened very well. Lan Wangji had not had anything to say to him thus far on the plan he had offered to Wei Yuan, admittedly somewhat impulsively, to bring him along on a night hunt, but then again, Jiang Cheng had not brought it up either.
He tapped the note he had just received against his mouth thoughtfully. A request for assistance from a possessed beast that was tearing up crops and menacing villagers -- it was a simple enough task that he would usually have sent a small team of younger juniors to take care of, to give them a little bit of seasoning and experience. It was something that he could probably handle in his sleep. An ideal hunt to take Wei Yuan on, in other words.
He wouldn’t want the boy actually getting in the way, of course. He was a little young for a true hunt, although not terribly so. He’d take a small team only, perhaps give an older disciple a chance to practice solving this kind of problem while also keeping protection in mind. And he’d be there, of course, to ensure that Wei Yuan would only ever be in enough danger to be exciting.
When he gathered Wei Yuan and his second disciple, he didn’t deliberately plan their departure for a time when Lan Wangji was not in the courtyard, but he was conscious of not wishing to discuss the matter with him. Wei Yuan was practically vibrating with excitement as he clasped his bow and stepped onto Sandu with Jiang Cheng.
They spoke quietly on the way to the site that had reported the beast most recently. “You’ll listen carefully,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’re bringing your bow but I don’t expect you to use it, I expect you to use your eyes and ears -- you’re coming to watch and learn. I’ll be looking for your report and observations after, so I expect you to pay attention.”
“Yes, shushu,” said Wei Yuan. Jiang Cheng saw him start scanning the countryside already, and let himself smile into the wind, unobserved.
When they descended to the farm with disturbed fields, the farmer came to greet them. He blinked at Wei Yuan’s presence, but didn’t comment, which Jiang Cheng appreciated.
“Well met, sect leader,” he said, bowing. “Are you here to eliminate this cursed beast?”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng said shortly and stepped back slightly. He looked to his disciple, indicating that he should take the lead in questioning the man.
Once the disciple had pulled the most relevant information out of him, that the beast had been seen in the west, the day before, and it had disrupted most of the crops there but had run away when confronted by the farmer’s son, despite being easily thrice larger than a normal beast of its type.
As they walked west, swords at the ready, the disciple summarized the plan to Wei Yuan. “The beast seems to have been taken by a spirit, but he does not yet fully realize it. Our goal is going to be to injure, but not kill, the beast, and liberate the spirit before it can be parted from the animal. If it receives a fatal blow too soon, it may try to possess the nearest person, and that may be you, xiao, so be careful!”
Wei Yuan looked up at him with large eyes and nodded respectfully. “Yes, er-shixiong!”
Jiang Cheng hung back slightly, letting them feel as though they were in the lead, though he was really using the distance as an opportunity to scan the horizon, as well as activate his qi slightly, feeling for disturbed spirits that might be wandering nearby. He sensed it first, but it was not long before the disciple stiffened and said quietly, “There, A-Yuan, do you see it?”
The beast was on a ridge half a li away, facing away from them. The disciple nocked the arrow that he had been resting against his bow but kept his arm loose and his voice low. “We’re still a little far for a well-aimed shot. We’d want to cover about half this distance, and closer if we can do it without disturbing him. Move quietly now.” Wei Yuan watched him carefully, imitating his toe-heel, foot-rolling movements, doing a fair job of remaining quiet as he went.
They made it very close, within perhaps 50 chi, before the beast began to toss its head and begin to look around nervously, and the disciple didn’t wait for him to sight them, bringing up, drawing, and letting his arrow fly in one smooth motion. The shot was true, piercing the beast’s shoulder and forcing it to the ground with a bellow. “Talisman to subdue,” the disciple muttered to Wei Yuan, as he threw it. “Another to liberate. Cleanse and summon.”
His aim was true, and the talismans hit their marks. The beast shouted again, sounding almost like a yell of human anguish, then slumping and shrinking before their eyes as the spiritual energy surrounding it dissipated into the ground. The disciple stopped and waited, longer even than Jiang Cheng might have done, before approaching the beast. “Two approaches,” he said. “We can pull the arrow and release the beast, if the injury is small, or we can put him out of his misery and deliver him to the farmer as recompense for the lost crops. The meat is still good, now that the spirit is gone.”
“Another reason to injure, not kill, while liberating,” added Jiang Cheng. “If the beast had been killed while still possessed, the meat would be poisoned.”
The disciple made a face of ultimate disgust at Wei Yuan, and he giggled. “If I were alone in this case,” the disciple said, “I would probably bring the beast back to the farmer. That field looked to be in rough shape.”
“Your judgement is sound,” said Jiang Cheng. “Carry on.”
The disciple tried to hide his pleasure at the praise from Jiang Cheng as he went through the steps of slaughtering and preparing the animal for transport back to the farm, explaining to Wei Yuan as he went as before. Jiang Cheng made a mental note to allow this disciple to take juniors to more challenging night hunts; he had been pleased with his teaching skill as much as with his easy disposal of the spirit.
The farmer was overjoyed at the gift of meat, almost bowing to the ground in his thanks. Jiang Cheng endured it only long enough not to be rude before mounting his sword once more to head back to Lotus Pier, and allowing Wei Yuan to bounce back on.
That night after dinner, Wei Yuan was full of his observations, recounting the story to Lan Wangji breathlessly. Jiang Cheng was pleased over the amount he had picked up, repeating his shixiong’s words almost verbatim.
“It seems that you did very well,” said Lan Wangji seriously. “I am glad you listened to your shixiong.”
Jiang Cheng braced himself for Lan Wangji’s cold glare, but Lan Wangji ignored him fully through the evening as he listened to Wei Yuan chatter. As they all rose to depart for their rooms, Lan Wangji took a deep breath and said, not exactly addressing Jiang Cheng, but rather the air to his left ear, “This was not the worst night hunt he could have gone on, despite his tender years.”
Jiang Cheng had many possible responses to that but he also took a moment to breathe before letting his worst impulses fly. “The juniors must not be coddled but they must also step on solid ground first.”
Lan Wangji only nodded and departed. Jiang Cheng, as he so often did when testing his wits against Lan Wangji, found himself gritting his teeth against harsher words for the rest of the evening.
The next day, he was happy to let them fly. “What are these,” he said flatly, picking up, then throwing down, a sheaf of notes onto the desk Lan Wangji had claimed as his own in the library. It was not a question and they both knew it. Wei Wuxian’s terrible handwriting sprawled across the pages of cheap paper, and Lan Wangji’s neat characters lined the margins, annotating the notes that had clearly been retrieved from the Burial Mounds. “How dare you bring his work here, what were you thinking!” Despite himself, his voice was rising.
Lan Wangji simply gathered the pages and tapped the edges square. “Wei Wuxian was brilliant,” he said. “His scholarship --”
“Scholarship nothing!” Jiang Cheng shouted. “He was a traitor to our sect!”
“Do you really believe that?” Lan Wangji said, jerking his head up from the papers to glare.
“Of course,” bit out Jiang Cheng. “What else are we to think of his actions? He killed thousands, he lost himself entirely, even when he had every chance--”
“Chance?” Lan Wangji cut in, sounding more heated than his usual icy demeanor allowed. “He had no chance and you know it.”
“You’re awfully forgiving of someone who tried to kill you and your whole family,” Jiang Cheng said. “You were there at Nightless City, you saw the results of his demonic cultivation, and now you want to use the things that he created from it? I have allowed you to stay at Lotus Pier, but I do not have to allow this!” He reached for the papers, but Lan Wangji made them disappear with a flick of his fingers.
“You would be a fool to cast his work aside,” said Lan Wangji. “He was always your superior in skill and knowledge and to let your feelings outweigh his contributions, even after you helped to kill him --”
“His work killed him!” Jiang Cheng roared. “He was torn apart by his own demonic cultivation! I went there to save him!” He stopped to breathe and only then realized what he’d said. He and Lan Wangji stared at each other for a long minute, and then Jiang Cheng turned and fled.
It was impossible to fully avoid Lan Wangji, but Jiang Cheng found that it was relatively easy to let his existence at Lotus Pier sink into the background and bury himself in work. Wei Yuan, at least, didn’t seem to notice much difference, which was a small mercy.
Soon enough it was time to return to Koi Tower to retrieve Jin Ling for his next stint at Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng welcomed the distraction and chance to travel, despite the unfortunate destination. Going by sword made it a swift trip, but that was usually the only thing that went quickly at Koi Tower.
He arrived, landing as close as he judged he could with any politeness, and walked to where Jin Guangyao was waiting for him. Jiang Cheng saluted, and Jin Guangyao returned the gesture. “How’s Jin Ling?” Jiang Cheng asked as Jin Guangyao escorted him inside. “Where is he?”
Jin Guangyao was looking a little wild around the eyes. “He’s very well,” he said. “He’s really increased in many ways over the past months.” Jiang Cheng had no idea what he could have meant by that but Jin Guangyao didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.
They heard Madam Jin coming before they saw her. “Useless! Lazy! Insolent! Where is that boy, fetch him here! He’s hiding, I know he--” As she came into view and realized that a guest was present, her ugly scowl smoothed quickly into a hospitable smile and her tone faded into a croon. “Jiang-zongzhu, how nice to see you today. Has it been half a year already? Absolutely unbelievable. Is all well at Lotus Pier?”
Jiang Cheng bowed without looking at Jin Guangyao, but he felt the air around them move as he retreated from view as quickly as he had ever witnessed someone move. “Thank you, Jin-furen. Yes, all is well, thank you. Is all well here? Has Jin Ling been well?”
She laughed. “Oh, he’s grown so much you may not recognize him! How dare babies do this to us, he’ll be an adult in a blink. Why don’t you come with me to the nursery and you can see for yourself how he is?”
“Wonderful,” said Jiang Cheng, and as they walked, Madam Jin chatted lightly at him without requiring much of a response, which was perfectly fine with him.
Jin Ling had indeed grown, his babyish roundness fading into toddler awkwardness, but he recognized Jiang Cheng and lit up, pushing himself to his feet and lurching to throw himself against his legs. Jiang Cheng patted his head.
“I’ll let you get reacquainted,” said Madam Jin. “I have preparations for dinner tonight -- you’ll be staying, of course?”
Jiang Cheng bared his teeth and hoped it looked like a smile. “Of course,” he said.
Her smile turned dark. “I need to find that worthless person,” she said. “Did you see where he slunk off to? I’ve been trying to arrange an engagement for him, far above his reach, but he’s been avoiding the subject.” When Jiang Cheng only shrugged, she nodded. “We’ll just see,” she added, ominously, and Jiang Cheng turned back to Jin Ling and the nursery before he could display any reaction to that.
Jin Ling was a pleasant companion for the afternoon, bringing toy after toy to Jiang Cheng to inspect, then snatching them back lest he keep them. He was talking a little, in a language that seemed to make sense only to himself, but he seemed well to Jiang Cheng’s critical eye. He was sorry when it was time to leave for dinner.
He was even sorrier once he was at dinner. Madam Jin’s changeable moods seemed to have swept from polite hostess to enraged virago over the course of the afternoon, and her sniping at first Jin Guangyao and then Jin Guangshan, however much they may have deserved it, made it difficult for Jiang Cheng to enjoy much of the meal. It was not much consolation that nobody else seemed to be enjoying it, either.
“Ah, you’re hardly eating,” said Madam Jin silkily to her husband. “Perhaps we should call a doctor?” Her raised eyebrows seemed to imply that this was meant to be an insult, and Jin Guangshan took a larger than wise swig from his liquor cup. “I’m sure your son can recommend someone?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” snapped Jin Guangshan.
“Of course, I forgot, you have an iron...constitution,” said Madam Jin. She rolled her eyes.
The dinner seemed endless -- course after course, entertainment, even a round of toasts that amounted to speeches -- and Jiang Cheng wanted nothing more than to flip the tables over and go retrieve his nephew and leave. But he waited until enough of the Jins had slid under the tables from an excess of wine that he could slink out the side door.
It was very late, of course, and he didn’t expect Jin Ling to be awake at this hour, so he simply went to his guest room, which was quite fortunately very close to the nursery. If he rose early enough, it was just possible that he would be able to leave without much ceremony.
There was no way he could have predicted the manner of his awakening. It was just past dawn, the light still not reaching much past his window, when Jiang Cheng flew awake suddenly, a weight on his chest pressing him down as though he was being crushed alive. When he opened his eyes, there was Jin Ling staring intently at him, knees against his neck, inches from his face, waiting for him to awaken.
Jiang Cheng struggled to free his arms from his blankets and reached up to carefully remove Jin Ling to a safer distance. If he snuck a hug while he was doing it, who was to say? Jin Ling, who curled up in the bed next to him and went back to sleep, wasn’t objecting. Jiang Cheng spent longer than he would have admitted just staring at his sleeping face, cataloging from this close view all of the changes that had occurred since he’d seen him last.
He eventually was able to rise and prepare for the day’s travel ahead of them. Because he’d traveled by sword, this time the nursemaid wouldn’t accompany them on the trip. He left Jin Ling sleeping in his bed and went to the nursery to stow some of Jin Ling’s things.
The nursemaid that greeted him had Jin Ling’s clothing and a few toys packed up already, which he appreciated. “It’s good that you’re young,” she said, which he didn’t. “You have all the energy in the world to chase after him.” Jiang Cheng just raised his eyebrows, no idea how he was supposed to respond. She laughed. “Ah, you’ll see, my lad!” She leaned in. “My advice: never take your eyes off him. In fact, what have you done with him?”
Jiang Cheng took the bag she offered and hurried back to his room. Jin Ling had emerged from the bed and was engaged in removing each item from Jiang Cheng’s bag, carefully examining its capacity for flight, and either hurling it out the open window or leaving it in a tangled mess on the floor, depending on the result of his assessment. Jiang Cheng shouted and leaped forward, trying to save his comb from joining any other of his items that were now littering some courtyard.
Jin Ling startled at the shout and began to cry, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Jiang Cheng found himself picking him up in order to comfort him, and Jin Ling hit him solidly in the mouth with one flailing hand. Jiang Cheng had learned his lesson, and held his shout in, while still firmly holding Jin Ling’s hand away from his face.
He had gathered and resettled his things that remained in the room, and added Jin Ling’s to his bag, when there was a gentle knock on the door. He swooped to pick up Jin Ling when he answered it, rather than turn his back on him for even a moment. When he opened the door, he discovered Jin Guangyao with an armful of small items, looking amused.
“Is this a trick you’re used to?” Jiang Cheng grumbled, gesturing for Jin Guangyao to enter and set the things on a small table.
Jin Guangyao hid a small smile behind his sleeve. “I have to admit that it’s more amusing when it’s not ancient or precious artifacts,” he admitted. The stressed look that he had held the night before had vanished. “May I suggest that you secure him to you as you fly? He has traveled short distances by sword lately and it has become a perilous venture, as he is inclined to fling himself down if he’s given half a chance.” Jiang Cheng looked at Jin Ling, alarmed. Jin Ling reached out to investigate Jiang Cheng’s hair ornament, pulling a lock of hair so hard that it made Jiang Cheng’s eyes water. “Have a pleasant journey,” said Jin Guangyao, his cheerfulness now at a level that Jiang Cheng found highly irritating. He turned and left as Jiang Cheng was still untangling Jin Ling’s fingers from his hair.
Jiang Cheng returned with Jin Ling to the nursery. The nursemaid who had spoken with him before looked up in curiosity. “How can I help, young master?” she asked.
“Do you have a way to tie him to me?” asked Jiang Cheng. “I had hoped to travel by sword back to Yunmeng, and it’s quite far. Jin Guangyao has told me about his inclination to send himself down to investigate the scenery.”
The nursemaid laughed and produced a long strip of fabric. Jiang Cheng pressed Jin Ling to his chest at her instruction, and she weaved and wound the cloth around him until Jin Ling was secure, despite his best efforts to wiggle free. He saluted, and she waved back, pressing a kiss onto Jin Ling’s head, which was the only part of him still visible.
“Ah, if you’re flying, you’ll get cold,” she said, and handed Jiang Cheng a small cap, and watched while he carefully covered Jin Ling’s head. This was a step too far for him, and he began to cry at the indignity. The nursemaid didn’t even try to conceal her smile, and Jiang Cheng left, feeling extremely annoyed at the world.
After all that, Jin Ling slept most of the way to Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng descended to the courtyard to find Wei Yuan, escorted by Lan Wangji, waiting impatiently for their arrival. Jin Ling had started to perk up as the sword descended, and he reached his arms out for Wei Yuan, grunting with impatience as Jiang Cheng puzzled out the intricacies of the sling. In the end, Lan Wangji had to step forward to help untie him so it could be unwound. By then, Wei Yuan was practically leaping from one foot to another with impatience.
Jin Ling burst free from the imprisonment like a tiger from a cage, and roared forth to Wei Yuan’s arms, permitting a brief hug before escaping to run to the edge of the courtyard, his steps swift despite their unsteadiness.
Wei Yuan looked up, grinned at Jiang Cheng, and followed after Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji looked at him. “We’re in for it,” Jiang Cheng said grimly, his first words to Lan Wangji in weeks, and followed the boys.
Despite Jin Ling’s newfound inclination to mayhem performed at top speed, he slotted back into Jiang Cheng’s life like a button into a loop. The auntie who had minded him as a baby came back, this time all of her focus on preventing Jin Ling from destroying Lotus Pier entirely. Jin Ling couldn’t be permitted to play in his office until his criminal tendencies could be controlled, but the late summer weather was fine and Jiang Cheng was happy to do as much work outside as he could.
Wei Yuan was also now old enough to be trusted to look after him, when he wasn’t training with the other juniors, and he took his responsibility seriously. His absolute shining love for ‘his baby’ had only grown while they were parted, and Jiang Cheng often heard Wei Yuan speaking with Jin Ling with great seriousness, describing his own training or telling him stories.
Jiang Cheng was finishing a letter on a lap desk in the courtyard, listening to Wei Yuan chattering away to Jin Ling as they played some kind of game of Wei Yuan’s invention with a ball and a stick. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have chosen to give Jin Ling a stick, but Wei Yuan seemed to be dodging it reasonably well. Perhaps that was even part of the game, he supposed.
“I remember being little,” said Wei Yuan to Jin Ling, and Jiang Cheng hid his smile. “Xian-gege said that I would grow big and strong if I was planted in the earth like a radish. We ate radishes most days,” he continued thoughtfully, and stepped aside from a swipe of Jin Ling’s stick. Jiang Cheng’s smile had vanished. “It’s better here because there’s more food but I wish you had met Xian-gege. Being buried in the dirt is fun.” He threw the ball and Jin Ling shrieked and ran to retrieve it. Wei Yuan ran after him.
Jiang Cheng stared down at the letter he was working on, listening to their distant yelling. The ink dried on his stone before he picked up the brush again.
Lan Wangji was usually found in the library, now that Wei Yuan’s time was being monopolized by his young cousin, and Jiang Cheng encountered him there again one evening after the children had been ushered to their beds.
The previous night had been a late one for him; he had led a group of juniors in a night hunt to clear out a pack of ghouls in Yunping City, in what had looked like a group of concubines or prostitutes from a building that had burned down but had been improperly cleansed afterward. He had had to be very sharp with several of the disciples; the spirits of slain women were always fiercer, and they had been insufficiently forceful in suppressing and eliminating their ghosts.
He was looking now for the exact volume he would have them copy; a small treatise that had been brought from Meishan on specific cultivation differences in the liberation of female spirits versus male ones. The Jiang library was not on par with the one that GusuLan boasted, of course, even after the war, but he did pride himself on its depth, if not breadth.
It was not until he had retrieved the volume that he even realized that Lan Wangji was there. He was in a small desk near the back wall, sitting with his typical graceful posture and reading some work or letter written on rough, cheap paper. “Isn’t it nearly nine?” Jiang Cheng said gruffly, and Lan Wangji jerked his head up, looking startled.
“Mn,” he said in agreement, and began to stow the papers carefully, laying blank sheets between them in order to protect them. Jiang Cheng stepped closer, a little curious, and Lan Wangji turned one page a bit unluckily at that moment.
The handwriting on the page was perfectly, uncannily recognizable. Lan Wangji was once again reading some letter or note from --
Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth and left the library without saying another word.
Soon after, Jiang Cheng received a visitor to Lotus Pier. Nie Mingjue had been a strong ally to the Jiang sect, and he was never afraid to stand up against the Jins, so when he had written to ask if he might come to discuss sect business, Jiang Cheng had been glad to agree.
He had warned Lan Wangji the day before, so that if he wanted to maintain the fiction that he was in seclusion, he could make himself scarce. Sure enough, the next day when he was alerted that Nie Mingjue had arrived, Lan Wangji was nowhere to be seen.
“Chifeng-Zun,” Jiang Cheng said in greeting, saluting respectfully.
“Greetings to you as well,” Nie Mingjue said gruffly. “Good to see you.”
Jiang Cheng served tea, and they settled in to discuss sect business, which Jiang Cheng had to admit sometimes didn’t look a lot different from gossiping on the face of it. Nie Mingjue was especially well connected to the latest news, and Jiang Cheng suspected Nie Huaisang’s hand in that.
“This tower scheme,” said Jiang Cheng finally, which was what he had most hoped to discuss that day.
Nie Mingjue sighed and rolled his eyes. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “Ancestors help us, it’s a good idea. But it can’t happen.”
Jiang Cheng echoed his sigh. “You’re right, of course. But there’s been rumors of demonic cultivators to the northwest of here, and I’ve been getting letters from minor sects asking for help. They’re borderline with Lanling and here, but they say they haven’t gotten any response from the Jin sect.”
“I’ve been getting letters like that as well,” Nie Mingjue admitted. “We do what we can, but it’s been hard to figure out where to target once the letters have finally arrived. Lately it seems like we’ve been doing cleanup rather than being any actual help. That’s where those damn towers would come in handy.”
“Is there a way we can make it happen without making LanlingJin the center face of it?” asked Jiang Cheng. “If we could get the smaller sects to agree--”
But Nie Mingjue was shaking his head. “If we tried to do it without them, suddenly it would be the worst idea, a gross overstep, impossible. It seems to be the Jin way or no way, and personally I’d prefer no way.”
Jiang Cheng had to reluctantly agree, and they turned onto the topic of the demonic cultivators, trying to devise a strategy for communicating about them so they could pool information, when the door to the room they were in banged open and Wei Yuan rushed in, trailed as usual by Jin Ling.
“Shushu, shushu, we --” he stopped abruptly. “Oh, shushu, I’m sorry!” he said, and bowed low. “I didn’t know you had a guest, this disciple regrets interrupting!”
“A-Yuan, come here,” said Jiang Cheng. “Let me introduce you to Chifeng-Zun, the Nie sect leader.” Wei Yuan stood and grabbed Jin Ling’s hand, then walked closer. “Chifeng-Zun, this is Wei Yuan, and of course you will remember Jin Ling.”
“Wei Yuan!” echoed Nie Mingjue. “Is that so!”
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and sat up tall. “Yes,” he said, daring him to say something about it.
But Nie Mingjue only crooked a smile. “A nice lad. I’m sure you’re glad to have him around.”
Jiang Cheng agreed but it wouldn’t do to say it out loud. “When he remembers his manners,” he said instead and Wei Yuan ducked his head in embarrassment. “What did you need me for?” he asked.
“It can wait, shushu,” said Wei Yuan meekly.
“Fine, then,” said Jiang Cheng. “Go.” Wei Yuan obediently went, remembering to make his farewell salutes just in time, and Jin Ling copied him as best he could.
He turned back to Nie Mingjue, both dreading, and, strangely, looking forward to some mention of Wei Wuxian, but the crooked smile was gone and Nie Mingjue was all business once more, leaping back into the problem of the demonic cultivators and devastated border villages.
Nie Mingjue stayed for dinner that night, and Wei Yuan was quite sheepish at the start, but he warmed up to him quickly, to Jiang Cheng’s surprise. He would never have thought that Nie Mingjue was good with children, but he spoke seriously to Wei Yuan, like an equal.
“Where is Lan Wangji?” Nie Mingjue said partway through the meal. “Is he still unwell? Xichen hasn’t been sure how he has been, and asked me to ask after him while I was here.”
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “He was under the impression that he was understood to be in seclusion.”
Nie Mingjue laughed. “Perhaps to most of the world, but Xichen and I are sworn brothers, of course he would ask for my help.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and turned to Wei Yuan. “Go and see if Lan Wangji will come to dinner. Say Nie-zongzhu asked for him specifically, that’s important.”
Wei Yuan hopped up from his bench and bowed, his face bright with happy importance. “Yes, shushu,” he exclaimed, and vanished. Jin Ling wiggled in his seat, looking as though he would try to follow, and Jiang Cheng had to frown at him for a long minute before he settled back down, a sulky pout across his face.
Wei Yuan returned quickly, Lan Wangji trailing behind him. He saluted Nie Mingjue and sat, Wei Yuan taking the seat next to him. Lan Wangji put a hand on his shoulder, a brief squeeze. Jiang Cheng could see Nie Mingjue watching, his eyes sharp but his face politely bland.
“I see you’re well, Wangji,” he said. “Your brother worries about you.”
“I write often,” said Lan Wangji, his eyes on the table in front of him.
“It’s not the same,” said Nie Mingjue, and his tone was so older-brotherly that Jiang Cheng looked away. “I’m glad you’ve made new friends. What have you been working on? You’ve told your brother a little about it and I confess I’m intrigued.”
Lan Wangji looked up. “A spiritual compass,” he said. “It can detect resentful energy. I’m working now to see if I can expand the range beyond a few li but for now it’s very precise within that distance.” He looked at Jiang Cheng, then deliberately back at Nie Mingjue. “It was created by Wei Wuxian before his death,” he added. “I can send you the notes on how to create one for yourself if you like.”
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath but waited to see Nie Mingjue’s reaction. It was underwhelming -- he raised his eyebrows only, and nodded slowly. “Sounds very interesting, if it works,” was all he said, and Jiang Cheng was forced to keep his feelings behind his teeth. Admittedly, a device for detecting resentful energy did sound...useful.
The dinner was soon over, and Nie Mingjue excused himself soon after Jin Ling was swept away by the nursemaid. “I’ll leave very early,” he said. “So I’ll say goodbye tonight. Wangji, do send me that compass. Jiang-zongzhu, please write to tell me what you plan to do about the requests you’ve had, and I’ll do the same. A pleasure, as always.”
Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji bowed, and Wei Yuan imitated them, hiding a little yawn and leaning hard into Lan Wangji’s side as he came up. Nie Mingjue patted his head gently. “I’ll see you again, lad, I’m sure. Take good care of your little shidi.”
Wei Yuan’s returning smile, though tired, was sweet.
After Jin Ling had returned once more to Koi Tower, but before the New Year, Jiang Cheng took the time to sit down with Wei Yuan to determine his exact birthday, so that they could be certain to celebrate it this year. The boy’s memory of the specifics was somewhat shaky, but he pinned it down to perhaps ten or twelve days before Lan Wangji’s, which was a satisfactory date, and he committed it to memory.
He didn’t think he’d ever forget having missed Wei Yuan’s first birthday with him.
When the day itself arrived, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji spent the day in a silent competition. Jiang Cheng had arranged for Wei Yuan’s favorite foods to be served, while Lan Wangji, his face expressionless, had slipped Wei Yuan several sticks of candy and lucky money as he arrived at the table. Jiang Cheng excused Wei Yuan from his training for the day and took him to the docks to buy him little gifts, only to watch Lan Wangji gift him with a bamboo xiao just before dinner.
Watching Wei Yuan’s happy face as he patted his new beloved possessions at his side was a distinct pleasure, but so was watching his face as the servants brought forth small and beautiful osmanthus cakes to finish the meal. Jiang Cheng almost never got the last word with Lan Wangji, but somehow, he felt on this day that he had.
As he was retiring that night, something about that feeling tugged at him, and he pulled it out to re-examine it. It reminded him almost of the feeling he had had when he was preparing gifts for Jin Ling’s one month celebration, when he had been so determined to outshine Jin Zixuan. Was Lan Wangji comparable with Jin Zixuan, then? he thought. He certainly felt the same resigned, reluctant kinship toward him.
As he began to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, he shut it off, horrified. It was not the same situation at all and he would not contemplate it further.
Though he did not allow any such thoughts to enter his mind again, he could not escape the sense of familiarity that was growing around Lan Wangji’s annoying presence. He had been living at Lotus Pier for nearly three years, after all, as he recovered from his mysterious ailment and maintained his fiction of seclusion from the cultivation world.
He could admit to a reluctant sort of gratitude, as well. Lan Wangji had an abundance of patience with small children in a way that Jiang Cheng found incredibly difficult to maintain, and while he would not consider any suggestion that Wei Yuan or Jin Ling should live elsewhere unless absolutely required, he could, in the privacy of his own mind, admit that the raising of children did not come naturally to him.
While Jiang Cheng was turning these revelations over in his mind, Jin Ling had returned to Lotus Pier, three cun taller and through with wreaking random destruction. His destruction was much more targeted, now, and starting to be capable of being concealed to avoid detection and punishment. He had also learned to argue with more sophistication than bellowing NO in his interlocutor’s face, although that was often how he ended his arguments.
Jiang Cheng would have torn apart any danger with his bare hands in order to protect him, he would give his life for Jin Ling, but that didn’t help him understand how to convince him to eat properly at mealtimes or go to sleep at night or even bathe occasionally. Lan Wangji’s icy control meant that often, it was he who outlasted Jin Ling’s flares of temper, where Jiang Cheng had a hard time refraining from shouting.
On one such occasion, Jin Ling had thrown himself onto the floor and was wailing because Wei Yuan had eaten the dumpling that he had wanted, despite the five remaining identical dumplings, and Jiang Cheng was clenching his jaw, when Lan Wangji said, “Wanyin, please go and retrieve a blanket from A-Ling’s room, if you would.”
Jiang Cheng was glad for an excuse to go. He was up and out of the room before he fully comprehended the change in address, and it slowed his steps. He walked slowly and thoughtfully to Jin Ling’s room, chose a blanket, and returned.
“Here, Lan-xiong,” he said as he handed it over, a sense of mischief stirring despite the yells emanating from somewhere along the wall where Jin Ling had thrown himself. Lan Wangji stared at him for a long minute, and Jiang Cheng bit his cheek, hard, to keep his face straight.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said finally, and went to roll Jin Ling up in the blanket, which made his yells fade into weepy giggles.
Well. That was that, then, supposed Jiang Cheng. Fine with him.
When he wasn’t screaming with temper, Jin Ling was a charming child, prone to grabbing the hand or outer robe of the closest adult and trailing after him, imitating actions and posture to an exact degree. Jiang Cheng tested it once, putting his hands on his hips and seeing Jin Ling do the same, then crossing his arms and watching him change as well. He scowled to keep from smiling and giving away the game, and saw Jin Ling scowl as well, and he had to chew the inside of his cheek not to laugh outright.
Jin Ling was more confident and demanding than Wei Yuan had been at that age, and he accepted the affection of both Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji as his due, trotting after them equally. It was this habit that drew Jiang Cheng’s attention to the fact that it had been a longer stretch of time than usual since Lan Wangji had withdrawn to his rooms due to ill health; Jin Ling had chosen Lan Wangji to escort him around several times in a row, and Jiang Cheng could see none of the winces or hastily hidden signs of pain that he recalled from before.
“You seem recovered,” he said one afternoon in Lan Wangji’s direction. They were sitting outside watching Wei Yuan teach Jin Ling to play jianzi with limited success but great hilarity, Jiang Cheng with a lap desk and some correspondence that he was mostly ignoring, and Lan Wangji with a small book of poetry.
“Mn?” Lan Wangji said.
“I can’t recall the last time you were ill,” Jiang Cheng elaborated. “Are you well, now?”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji. There was a long pause, and Jiang Cheng had even looked back to the letter he was trying to read, before he added, “Thank you.”
Jiang Cheng jerked his head back up in surprise. He stared at Lan Wangji, who was studying the book in his hands.
“It has been good,” Lan Wangji continued. “To be here and see A-Yuan as he grows.”
“Well,” said Jiang Cheng, startled. “I guess you haven’t been completely useless.”
Lan Wangji quirked the edge of his mouth in a faint smile. “Perhaps now that we understand each other better,” he said, “I could take A-Yuan for a visit to the Cloud Recesses. My brother has written several times now to ask for me to come and demonstrate my recovery in person, and I would like it if he could visit as well.”
Jiang Cheng thought it over. It wasn’t the worst idea in the world to allow Wei Yuan to make the trip. It was already drawing near time to return Jin Ling to Koi Tower; perhaps he could take advantage of that to make a closer inspection of the northern borders, if he were not concerned about being home within a day or two.
“That would be fine,” he said. “He’d have a good time.”
Jiang Cheng got the sense that he had startled Lan Wangji with his easy agreement, and somewhat contrarily wished he’d argued more, to see what Lan Wangji had been planning to bargain, but he let it go after a moment.
“Shall we leave the same day that you depart with Jin Ling for Koi Tower?” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Exactly my thoughts,” he said. “I have things to investigate at the northern border, I had been thinking that I might need to take a week or more. If A-Yuan is safely in Gusu, I can look into the situation without hurrying.”
Lan Wangji nodded, then reached out and grabbed the shuttlecock a moment before it would have hit him, before Wei Yuan’s shout of warning even reached them.
“Show them how it’s done,” Jiang Cheng suggested, halfway between a tease and a dare, and Lan Wangji handed him the book of poetry and rose.
It was only a few minutes before Jiang Cheng was drawn into the game as well.
As Jiang Cheng prepared to take Jin Ling back to Koi Tower, he found that the boy, at three, was now too big to carry as he flew by sword, too big to carry tied to his chest or even back. He would have to trust the boy to stay calm, standing with him for the flight, or go by boat. He spent a long minute looking at Jin Ling, there in the courtyard, looking guilelessly up at him.
Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan, however, seemed settled enough for their trip. Jiang Cheng had not seen Lan Wangji ride Bichen in years, but he seemed to have lost none of his smooth facility as he mounted the sword, helped Wei Yuan step on, and rose to hover, waiting to depart.
“Bye, shushu!” said Wei Yuan, waving merrily. “Bye, A-Ling! Be good!”
Jin Ling made a dreadful face back at him but waved. “Bye, Wei-xiong! Bye, gege!”
Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling watched them rise up and out of view, then turned and looked at each other, and at Sandu. “Can you behave?” asked Jiang Cheng, scowling.
“Yes, jiujiu,” said Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng kept scowling and drew Sandu, bidding it hover so they could mount. “I trust you,” he said, and stepped up. “Come.”
The flight wasn’t as bad as he had feared. Jin Ling seemed to be enjoying himself, and he held still almost the whole way there, which Jiang Cheng found himself reluctantly impressed by. Still, he was glad when they arrived. As was usual, Jin Guangyao was waiting for them, and he welcomed Jin Ling warmly.
“Will you stay?” he asked Jiang Cheng, and though perhaps it would be considered rude, he was delighted that he was able to answer in the negative.
“No, I have urgent business at the border,” he said. “There have been troubles in some outlying villages.”
Jin Guangyao smiled. “You know, it really would be helpful to be able to have cultivators stationed in the more remote areas, to take care of these problems as they arise,” he suggested.
“Of course it would,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “Nobody is saying it wouldn’t be. Getting it done with all the sects cooperating, that’s the problem.”
“The Jiang sect has grown quite a bit in power and influence,” Jin Guangyao said, “You have been recovering well from the position you were in after the war.”
Jiang Cheng waved him away. “I don’t have time for this right now, I need to go. I’ve heard of a group of demonic cultivators to the northwest with more nerve than sense, and the villages are begging for assistance.” Jin Guangyao’s smile became pained, but Jiang Cheng didn’t care. He embraced Jin Ling, despite the boy’s impatient squirming. “Be well, be strong,” he murmured. “I’ll see you soon.”
He mounted his sword and left.
The situation to the northwest was indeed quite dire, and it was closer to a month of travel before he was confident that the rogue demonic cultivators were eliminated or cowed into submission. He was more glad than ever that he had allowed Wei Yuan to travel with Lan Wangji; this had been no task for the most junior of disciples to witness.
He sent a courier to Lan Wangji that he would be traveling to Gusu to join them at Cloud Recesses; he was sure that if he asked, they would meet him back at Lotus Pier, but he wanted to get Lan Xichen’s opinion on any progress that had been made on the tower scheme.
He hadn’t been expecting to see Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan before arriving in Caiyi at least, but a good day’s journey out, there they were, unexpectedly turning up outside of Moling in the early evening.
“Shushu!” shouted Wei Yuan, and ran toward him. His face and robes were dirty, he looked thinner, he looked taller, and Jiang Cheng had missed him. He allowed the hug despite the dirt.
He held the boy back to look at him. “What have you been doing?” he asked, and gave him a little shake.
“Ah, we were on a night hunt, and we had to help a farmer rebuild some stuff,” admitted Wei Yuan. “Another possessed beast but this one got in the barn and tore some things up, so we stayed and helped clean up.”
Lan Wangji, traveling more sedately behind them, arrived. “Wei Yuan offered our assistance,” he said, and smiled slightly at him.
“Good,” said Jiang Cheng. “Now, are we going to get back to Gusu tonight or shall we make camp?”
Lan Wangji squinted up at the sky. “A fair night,” he said. “We had planned to camp before returning to Cloud Recesses. There is no need to rush.”
And so they set up camp in a likely-looking spot, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji keeping Wei Yuan busy fetching wood and water, and made an early night of it. Jiang Cheng’s last thought before he dozed off was that it had been nice to see Wei Yuan sooner than he had expected.
It was only a whisper of a sound but it was enough to jolt Jiang Cheng from light sleep directly into full awareness. It was a shoe scraping through a pile of dried leaves, the edge of a robe rasping against a tree trunk, and he took only enough time to pinpoint the direction before he was in motion, Sandu in his hand and Zidian ready to flash. He could see the glow of Bichen through the night’s gloom, and Lan Wangji beckoned him with it, signalling for him to flank their interloper. He intended to catch whoever it was in a pincer and interrogate, then. Jiang Cheng would prefer to attack first and ask questions later -- or never -- but if Lan Wangji had a plan, he’d follow. He slunk through the tents, circling their prey to flush them toward Lan Wangji.
The sudden clash of swords disturbed the night’s peace, and Jiang Cheng followed the forms of the battle from the slight distance he’d been afforded. The attacker used a flurry of blows, then danced back, a mixture of sheer strength and sloppy footwork -- a Jin disciple, or one of their minor sects, then. He waited for the next retreat, then let Zidian loose, as he could see the moment before he would step back.
A successful hit -- the pained gasp made it clear he’d scored a direct blow. What he didn’t expect was the low chuckle that followed it. “It’s time to play for real, then?” came a voice that seemed out of place. His tone was light, conversational, even playful. “I brought friends, Jiang-zongzhu. Zidian would like to play with them, I think.”
The scent of the grave hit him a moment later. Fierce corpses, high-level ones. To command corpses like this was an affront; to have them so close to the camp where Wei Yuan still slept peacefully was an obscenity. Jiang Cheng took a moment to activate a talisman, one that protected his mouth and nose from breathing in corpse dust. It had been developed before Sunshot by --
The fight began. The cultivation world had been at peace for years now, but Jiang Cheng still lived each battle inside his head at night; his reflexes were not dulled by time. This demonic cultivator had not fought in the war -- Jiang Cheng could see it in the maneuvers he used, brutal but clumsy. A Jin or formerly Jin disciple, probably quite young, who used demonic cultivation, then. He did not like the conclusions he was drawing from this attack, one made after Jin Ling was safely at Koi Tower and not before.
As he dealt with the corpses, he could tell that Lan Wangji continued to engage the demonic cultivator with Bichen, slashing through the corpses that tried to delay or interfere with him as though they were made of paper. The man, now freed from the constraint of silence, frequently gave out comments that sounded almost flirtatious as they fought, praising Lan Wangji’s sword or arm.
The corpses were many but not well-managed. Jiang Cheng had them subdued before Lan Wangji had fought his opponent to a standstill, and he paused a moment to follow again the pattern of their movements. As the mysterious assailant tired, he became even more predictable, and Jiang Cheng took his moment. He swiped the binding strokes of a rope-throwing talisman, and flung it to the spot where the man would be a moment later.
A thump let him know that he’d been accurate, which he had expected. The giggle that followed -- he had not. He came to check his ropes, and secure them further. The face indeed belonged to quite a young man, and while he looked familiar, Jiang Cheng couldn’t call his name to mind. “Who are you,” he barked as he secured more ropes around the man, paying careful attention to keeping his sleeves well out of the grasping range of his hands, and securing his hands closely to the ground for good measure.
He searched the sleeves carefully, patting down for talismans or spiritual objects, and what he found nearly took his breath away.
“I’m nobody to you,” he said as Jiang Cheng leaned over him, very cheerfully for a man fully pinned to the ground and unable to move. When he saw the object in Jiang Cheng’s hand, though, his smile faltered.
Jiang Cheng stood and moved back, striking with Zidian. He aimed for the soft, vulnerable spots -- beneath the chin, the sides of the belly, the inner arms, less- or unprotected by robes, and delivered solid, unflinching blows.
“Ah,” said the man, when Zidian coiled around his finger once more. “How forceful, sect leader!”
“Your name,” said Jiang Cheng. He felt, more than saw, Lan Wangji moving into place behind him. He glanced back and Lan Wangji nodded; the camp was secure, then, to his satisfaction. He refocused on their captive.
“I am Xue Yang at your service,” said the man promptly. “I would love to bow properly; why don’t you remove these ropes and I will pay proper respects.”
Jiang Cheng knelt, and unsheathed Sandu. “Why don’t you explain why you attacked our camp before you die, properly? Who is your sect, who sent you? Why do you have the Stygian Tiger Seal?” He heard a small exhalation from Lan Wangji as he held his sword over Xue Yang’s throat, letting it press just enough to show blood at the edge.
“It was fun,” Xue Yang replied. “I was having a good time. It’s a pretty little bauble.” Jiang Cheng pressed Sandu a little closer and the man gave a light laugh. “This is no way to conduct an interrogation,” he chided. “How can I possibly give you good information if I cannot express myself properly? You’re asking so many questions at once, it’s very confusing.”
“Demonic cultivators cannot be tolerated,” Jiang Cheng said. “Especially not one who brings corpses to menace a child. I am fine to live without answers.”
Lan Wangji said, “Wait.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t look away from where he had Xue Yang pinned. “I’m not taking him back to the Jins for their brand of lackluster justice. He has to die tonight.”
“If he has the amulet, we must take this chance to fully destroy it,” Lan Wangji said. “And he must be alive when it is done. I have--” he stopped for a long moment. “You know I have some of Wei Ying’s notes. I have the notes on how the first half was -- how it was originally planned. We need a -- we need a body. Alive.” Jiang Cheng could hear the thrum of his angry grief freshly called to life beneath his halting words.
“That’s going to take some demonic cultivation,” Xue Yang said, smiling despite the thin line of red at his throat from Sandu, and the blood showing on his teeth from injuries that Lan Wangji had inflicted upon him. “Need some pointers?”
Jiang Cheng leaned back, leaving his sword in place but without pressure behind it. “It has to be destroyed,” he said. “And if it takes him with it, that’s no loss. But the first time --” He swallowed hard. “There was backlash.”
“I’ll set up a containment array,” Lan Wangji said. “It was supposed to be done the first time but I understand that there may have been a time constraint.” His voice was neutral but Jiang Cheng felt his shoulders rising. He relaxed them with an effort.
“Yes,” he said, and refused to elaborate. “Will you set up the array? I’m not letting my eyes off this snake.”
Xue Yang pouted at him, and started to say something, but Jiang Cheng pressed Sandu deeper. “Shut up,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Lan Wangji was busy around him. Jiang Cheng could feel the movements more than he could see them -- it was full night, still, and he was focused on watching Xue Yang for last-minute desperate tricks. Finally, Lan Wangji said, “It’s nearly ready. Lay the amulet on his chest as you go and open wounds at his temple and right wrist.”
Jiang Cheng rose, carefully flicking Sandu without disturbing the ropes that bound Xue Yang to the ground, and rested the amulet on his chest. Xue Yang’s perpetual cocky grin had vanished, and he thrashed against the ropes that held him.
“Look, do you want information?” he said, sounding desperate. “I can tell you everything, you'll need to take me alive, you won’t ever take them down without me. They told me to do everything, I’m their disciple, they’ve been looking for demonic cultivators. They made me do it all!”
Jiang Cheng looked at him with great skepticism. “Dying men will say anything,” he said.
“I have details,” said Xue Yang. “They had me kill the He sect, and the Changs, and many, many mediocre people. They told me what to do. I’m just a kid, not yet twenty,” he added. “I don’t know any better. They took me in off the streets.”
“We were younger than you when we went to war,” said Jiang Cheng, looking down at him in disgust.
He backed away, and Lan Wangji finished the final point of the array behind him. He drew Bichen and sliced his own palm, drawing a talisman with the blood. Jiang Cheng recognized the basic form of it, a curse-destroying circle, with some embellishments that Lan Wangji had even managed to capture in a style of handwriting that Jiang Cheng knew well.
“Should we believe any of this?” he asked, and Lan Wangji just shook his head.
When Lan Wangji pressed the talisman to the ground just within the array, quickly withdrawing his hand, the amulet began to smoke, the wisps rising to the air but not extending beyond the array that had been prepared. Xue Yang redoubled his struggles and Jiang Cheng watched him carefully. They’d had trouble enough getting him subdued and tied, he wasn’t about to let him run now. But before he could break free and escape, the amulet’s smoke grew thick and solidified around him.
Jiang Cheng could hear him screaming. It was fainter than he might have expected from how close they were -- it sounded like Xue Yang was being dragged away, though he could still faintly see the outline of his body. There was a flash, and a low, ominous thump, and the coiling resentful energy rebounded and cleared.
“Was that it?” Jiang Cheng asked Lan Wangji, who was standing at his side, staring. “Last time it was -- louder.”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji. “Let the smoke dissipate and we can remove the array to be certain that the amulet and Xue Yang are both gone.”
The smoke took a long time to dissipate. It flowed only upwards, not breaching the sides of the array, and it seemed inclined to linger. As it went, it became clear that a man’s body remained, and Jiang Cheng exchanged a disappointed glance with Lan Wangji. It hadn’t worked, then, or had only partially. They waited patiently until the smoke was gone before opening the array.
When they approached him, it was clear: the man lying on the ground was not Xue Yang. It was Wei Wuxian.