Wei Wuxian stood up. “Where?” he demanded. “How?” Jiang Cheng was frozen, still. He’d seen her -- they had all seen her. Her injury had not been one that could have been survived, even with immediate care, which she had not received.
“Here, at Koi Tower,” said Wen Qing, her voice weak and thready as she explained. “She hasn’t woken since she was injured, but her spiritual cognition was still circulating when they brought her body back from Nightless City. I’ve been keeping her alive while they have attempted to use your notes to wake her as you woke my brother.”
“How?” asked Wei Wuxian again, his voice raw. Jiang Cheng abruptly remembered that Wei Wuxian had not had years to remember that their sister was dead; to him, it had been mere days ago.
“Her golden core wasn’t strong, but it was stubborn,” said Wen Qing. “It’s keeping her alive, in a way.”
“Who is it that’s trying to wake her?” Jiang Cheng asked. He couldn’t even identify his emotions at the thought that jiejie was alive, that he could see her, that she might wake up and smile at him again. He looked down at Jin Ling on his hip, who had long since forgotten his mother, whom he had only known for scant months.
“Jin Guangyao and some terrible teenager,” said Wen Qing. “I’m not often there when they are.” She hesitated. “I had the impression that Guangyao had hoped to revive her in order to marry her.” Jiang Cheng felt his face twist in disgust and fear.
“Could you take us there?” asked Wei Wuxian. “I want to see her, I want to see what they’ve done.”
“She’s under heavy guard,” warned Wen Qing.
“I’ll kill them,” said Wei Wuxian immediately, as though it weren’t even a question.
Lan Wangji rested his hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm. “Perhaps we will try other methods first,” he said.
“But if we can’t, we’ll kill them,” said Wei Wuxian. He turned slightly, resting his forehead against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng saw his shoulders move, as if in a silent sob.
“You don’t want more of a plan than that?” Wen Qing asked. “I’m too sick to help, still, and there are children here. And where will you take her? How? Think for once, Wei Ying.”
“What if she dies before I can save her?” Wei Wuxian chokes out. He turned his face more fully into Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Ignoring that question, Jiang Cheng mentally went through their fighting assets -- Lan Wangji, himself, Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning -- and their deficits -- Wen Qing, Nie Huaisang, and the two small children whom he was not willing to risk in any way. He wasn’t even sure they could manage to fly away by sword, especially if they were carrying a fragile, unconscious person. They’d have to travel over land, or by water, which meant that Wei Wuxian’s ‘kill them all’ plan would need significant refining.
“Does Madam Jin know?” asked Jiang Cheng, remembering her willingness to release Jin Ling to him in order to ensure his safety. Could she be involved in this deception and look him in the eye still?
Wen Qing shook her head, but it wasn’t a no. “I don’t know who knows,” she said. “I’ve only ever seen those two, but I’m a prisoner, not a guest. They weren’t overflowing with information for me.”
“We’ll need a boat,” said Jiang Cheng. “We’ll be safe if we can get to Lotus Pier, and we won’t be able to fly.” He caught Lan Wangji’s eye. “Should we enlist your brother’s help?” he asked.
Lan Wangji considered this, his arm still tight behind Wei Wuxian’s back but his gaze caught in the middle distance. “Do we want to act in secrecy? Bringing my brother means acting openly.” Wei Wuxian lifted his head, looking between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng.
“He’ll tell Jin Guangyao,” Jiang Cheng translated easily, and Wei Wuxian scowled. “We would run the risk that they’d deny it, and hide her elsewhere. So, just us, and we should act quickly.” He looked around the room, which was a scant step above a prison cell. “If you leave, how quickly will they notice?” he asked Wen Qing. “Your brother destroyed the door pretty thoroughly, I don’t know if we can repair it enough to escape notice.”
“They come daily,” she said. “They would know by evening if I am gone.”
“Hours, then,” said Jiang Cheng. “We’ll take you to the docks, then, and hire a boat. Then you’ll remain and guard the children while--”
“I’m the one who knows where she is,” interrupted Wen Qing, sounding annoyed. She flung the blanket aside and sat up. “If you can get me ingredients for medicine, I can be up for a fight by this afternoon.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “That’s Qing-jie,” he said, sounding fond. “Okay, boat, medicine, what else?” he asked. “It sounds like we almost have a real plan.”
“I’ve been leading a sect by myself for years,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “Don’t sound surprised.” He gave Wei Wuxian a moment for a retort, but he held his tongue, so Jiang Cheng continued. “We’ll hire a boat, get Wen-guniang her medicine, and get the children safely under guard. Then we’ll return to Koi Tower. I’ll get an audience with Madam Jin, ask her to come with me to a meeting point. Wen-guniang, you’ll have to be veiled, but you can lead us from there. Madam Jin can get us through the guards, and either she will help us, or she’ll serve as an excellent hostage. We’ll know which it will be once we are near the place where jiejie is being held.”
Wen Qing had her head cocked as she thought it over, and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian also looked thoughtful. “Can you trust her to help, if she truly didn’t know?” asked Wen Qing.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “She can’t be predicted one way or the other; her temper is legendary. But she was very fond of jiejie. If there’s a chance she can be awakened, I can’t help but imagine she’ll help.”
“Where are we in this plan?” asked Wei Wuxian, indicating himself and Lan Wangji.
“Guarding the children, or hidden as near as we can,” replied Jiang Cheng promptly. “Madam Jin will be suspicious of too large a group, it must be myself and Wen-guniang only.”
“I don’t like it,” said Wei Wuxian immediately.
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “You can’t run away and be a lone hero,” he said. “If you try to act on your own, you’ll get jiejie killed, again.”
Wei Wuxian looked down, and Jiang Cheng bit his tongue. The pain where jiejie wasn’t was an aching scar for him, but a sharp wound for his brother. He could have softened his words, and he hadn’t. He looked at Lan Wangji, and wished he hadn’t, scorched by the heat of his glare.
Had he lied, though? He pressed his lips together and waited to see what Wei Wuxian would say.
“I won’t,” he said softly, his head bowed. “But I want to be there, in case something goes wrong as we move her to travel.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll find a reason to have a second disguised person. Why not have Wen Ning, I’ll have an entire retinue of formerly deceased persons.”
Wei Wuxian brightened. “Do you think so? He’d be great to have along if there was a struggle.”
Jiang Cheng threw his free hand, the one not still clutching Jin Ling, in the air. “No! Bad enough that you’re coming!”
Lan Wangji intervened with a quiet, “We should depart quickly,” and Jiang Cheng refocused.
“Do you need to bring anything from here?” he asked Wen Qing, and she shook her head.
“Just hand me some outer robes, and help me walk,” she said. “I’ll be happy to leave this place behind.” Wen Ning quietly handed the robes to her, and all but lifted her out of bed, one arm around her waist. Wei Yuan went to her other side, and she smiled at him, putting her hand on his shoulder as though he was helping to support her, too.
“Wait,” said Jiang Cheng. “Nie Huaisang.” He looked around, and Wei Wuxian nodded, even if the other adults in the room looked puzzled. “If we let him know about this, his brother will know, and then who knows what might happen,” he explained. “We should send him back to Qinghe before we do anything else.”
Wen Qing nodded. “Do you want to send him off before I come out? Did he hear that it was me?”
“I don’t know, but if he didn’t, I’ll go now and send him off,” said Jiang Cheng. He went through the doorway and blinked in the newly bright day.
Nie Huaisang was standing a few paces off, looking into the middle distance. He startled slightly when Jiang Cheng came close. “Is everything all right?” he asked. “I was thinking that I should get back to Qinghe soon, so I don’t have to rush to beat sunset.” He smiled and tipped his head to the side, the very picture of an indolent young gentleman.
“I think that’s a good plan,” said Jiang Cheng, relieved that he wouldn’t have to try to persuade him. “Please wish your brother well for me, I hope he recovers quickly.”
“I’ll tell him you said so,” said Nie Huaisang with a smile. He drew his saber and took a deep breath before mounting it and rising, a touch wobbly, into the air. He waved a cheerful farewell, and Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling waved back as he quickly faded from view.
“That was easy,” he told Jin Ling, who solemnly nodded back, then raised his voice slightly. “All clear out here!”
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji came out first, checking the vicinity for themselves, and then Wen Ning, Wen Qing, and Wei Yuan emerged, awkwardly navigating the doorway from their three-wide little bunch.
The grounds were quiet at this time of day, and they met no one. It was less of a daring escape, and more of a dignified hobble, but Jiang Cheng was just as glad to remain relatively inconspicuous. It would certainly make their task later that day much easier.
Once they were nearly in Lanling City, Jiang Cheng drew Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian a step away. “I’ll accompany them through the city,” he indicated Wen Ning, Wen Qing, and Wei Yuan, who had paused as well to allow Wen Qing to catch her breath. “You engage a boat to Lotus Pier. Try to talk them out of sending a boatsman, we can navigate perfectly well. Buy the damn boat if you have to.” Lan Wangji nodded.
“You’re forgetting something very important,” said Wei Wuxian.
“What?” asked Jiang Cheng, not trusting Wei Wuxian’s light tone.
“It’s nearly lunchtime,” he said, chucking Jin Ling under the chin.
Jiang Cheng looked back at Wen Qing, who was pale where she leaned against her brother and young cousin. “We should get the medicine first,” he said. “But we can get some food for lunch also. We’ll meet you at the docks.”
“A-Ling should come with us,” said Lan Wangji. He looked at Jiang Cheng. “You will have your hands full as it is.”
Jiang Cheng drew Jin Ling close for a moment, considering that. “Will you go with gege?” he asked Jin Ling, who reached his arms out for Lan Wangji. “Fine,” he said, tipping him into Lan Wangji’s receiving arm. “Get a bun or something for him on the way, will you?”
Lan Wangji sketched a nod, and he and Wei Wuxian turned to walk away. “Gege?” Jiang Cheng heard Wei Wuxian say, his voice teasing, before he turned his attention back to his other charges.
Wen Qing had straightened up and was looking ready to continue. “What do we need?” Jiang Cheng asked. “Do you know where we should go?”
She nodded. “Unless the shop I’m thinking of has closed, but I used to go there before --” She took a deep breath and didn’t resume.
Jiang Cheng looked at Wen Ning, who was still covered in chains. “We should have sent you off with the others,” he said. “Take all that mess off, we can’t draw attention.” Wen Ning looked down as though he’d forgotten, and obligingly stepped away to shrug them away and stash them inconspicuously under some shrubbery. Wen Qing leaned a little harder on Wei Yuan, who braced himself and looked up at Jiang Cheng proudly. He nodded back at him, very slightly.
Once Wen Ning looked relatively normal, if pale, Jiang Cheng allowed them to continue. Wen Qing directed them in a quiet voice, and they found the shop amongst the winding warrens of Lanling City.
The four of them nearly filled the shop by themselves. The sharp, medicinal smell hung heavy in the air. A few quiet words from Wen Qing were all that it took for several small packets of herbs and needles to be prepared, and Jiang Cheng was ready with his money pouch. It was mere minutes before they were back out on the street.
“We should get provisions for the trip as well,” said Jiang Cheng. “Even using talismans for speed, it will take most of the evening to return to Lotus Pier. We’ll make our way toward the docks, and stock up on the way. Do you need anything else?” he asked, and Wen Qing shook her head.
Their progress through Lanling City was slow; Wen Qing was clearly tiring. Jiang Cheng couldn’t see how she imagined any amount of medicine or acupuncture would heal her enough for their mission that afternoon, but he tried to focus only on the task in front of him. She was a cultivator, after all, and she knew her business well.
By the time they had arrived at the docks, Wen Ning was all but carrying her, while Wei Yuan carefully toted several tied parcels from various food vendors.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had managed to obtain a boat of sufficient size, and were easily located. At some point in their venture, Wei Wuxian had gained a hat in addition to the baozi and some skewered meat that he was teasing Jin Ling with, offering the stick and snatching it away, when Jiang Cheng and his small group found them. Lan Wangji was watching them, but he easily noticed them when they arrived.
Wen Ning carried Wen Qing into the boat, settling her at the stern. She quickly withdrew her packets, and he squatted in front of her, helping her unwrap. Jiang Cheng left them to it.
“Did you bother to feed your nephew at all?” he snapped, and took the skewer, offering it to Jin Ling, who wrinkled his nose and shook his head, then crammed the last of the bun in his hand into his mouth.
“Ugh,” he said, and handed the stick back to Wei Wuxian, looking away from his nephew’s poor manners, only to be treated to Wei Wuxian’s, as he finished the last of the skewered meat just as rudely. “Ugh!”
Lan Wangji was helping Wei Yuan unpack what he had carried, and Jiang Cheng joined them. He’d wanted to get to the docks quickly, and they hadn’t stopped to eat. He and Wei Yuan made short work of their lunch, saving a portion for Wen Qing once she felt well enough to eat.
But when Jiang Cheng looked aft again, Wen Qing was asleep, or unconscious, and Wen Ning sat over her, fanning her gently.
After that, there wasn’t much to do but wait. Jiang Cheng spent some time stowing their things, and checking the boat over, but until Wen Qing was capable of her part in their plan, he couldn’t think of anything that could be done.
He sat in a shady spot with Jin Ling, who was dozing on his shoulder, and Wei Yuan, who was too old for naps now, sat nearby, staring out at the water. The boat was large enough for all of them, but not large enough that any of them could sit spaced particularly far apart, and Wei Wuxian sat next to Wei Yuan, and Lan Wangji fit himself on the other side of Wei Wuxian.
“Tell me about living at Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian said, nudging Wei Yuan with his shoulder. “Do you swim every day and shoot arrows at kites like we used to do?” Jiang Cheng looked into the middle distance. If it was going to be reminiscence as though Wei Wuxian had been a happy Jiang disciple his whole life, he would have to fling himself into the river.
Wei Yuan nodded, smiling. “Yes, baba.” He didn’t elaborate, and Jiang Cheng was grateful. A small silence fell, and Jiang Cheng let himself move past all the planning and think about seeing jiejie again. Would she look the same? Would she be well, and simply look like she was sleeping, or would she still be injured? He’d have to ask Wen Qing so that he could prepare himself.
He almost couldn’t bring himself to hope that Wei Wuxian would be able to bring her to life again as he had with Wen Ning. If he let himself hope, and she never awakened, it would be as bad as losing her the first time had been. He clenched his jaw against the fresh wave of grief and closed his eyes.
When he awoke, it was because Jin Ling had just kicked him in the gut trying to squirm away. The angle of the sun told him that they’d slept for an hour at least, and he glanced around to see if he could catch a glimpse of Wen Qing to see if she was still sleeping as well.
She was awake, and looked as though she’d slept for a week. Her color was high, and her eyes bright as she spoke quietly with Wen Ning and Wei Yuan, who had migrated toward them at some point while Jiang Cheng had slept. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were still sitting where they had been, Wei Wuxian’s head tucked against Lan Wangji’s shoulder and his eyes closed, though Jiang Cheng couldn’t tell if he was asleep in truth. He avoided catching Lan Wangji’s gaze.
While he had looked away, though, Jin Ling had begun attempting to depart the boat the quick way, and Jiang Cheng didn’t have further time to take stock before he had to snatch him back, narrowly avoiding a dunking in the river. “Hey,” he said roughly. “Do you have a death wish? What do you think you’re doing?”
“Swimming, jiujiu,” said Jin Ling serenely.
“No swimming,” said Jiang Cheng. “Listening to your elders.”
“No,” said Jin Ling with a pout.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Well, you’re going to,” he said, “or I’ll break your legs and then what will you do, huh?”
Jin Ling leaned down and bit his arm, though whether it was out of frustration or just demonstration, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure. He yelped, either way; Jin Ling’s milk teeth were as sharp as a puppy’s. “Here,” he said, and shoved him at Lan Wangji, who received him placidly and somehow without disturbing Wei Wuxian, and turned to the stern where Wei Yuan was watching with amusement, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing with alarmed concern.
“He’s a menace,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wen-guniang, are you recovered?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I can leave whenever you like.”
It was what Jiang Cheng had hoped to hear. “The sooner the better,” he agreed. He looked at Wen Ning hard. “Can I trust you to guard the children?” he asked. “You won’t listen to any fool who comes along with a flute?”
Wen Ning shook his head. “The only fool with a flute I’m compelled to obey is Wei Wuxian,” he said softly, and Jiang Cheng laughed, startling both of them.
“Fine,” he said. “Listen to Wangji and protect the children, that’s all I can ask.”
“I will,” said Wen Ning.
Jiang Cheng nodded and turned his attention to Wei Wuxian. “Get up,” he barked. “If you’re coming, it’s time to go, so get moving.” He didn’t watch to make sure his edict was obeyed, trusting Lan Wangji to nudge Wei Wuxian out of his doze, instead turning to help Wen Qing out of the boat and quickly check to make sure he had all that he needed.
By the time he and Wen Qing were on the dock, Wei Wuxian was bright-eyed and ready to leave as well.
“I’ll get Madam Jin and meet the two of you at the edge of the Serene Garden,” Jiang Cheng said. “Remember to put up your hoods.” He directed this mainly to Wei Wuxian as he was fairly certain that Wen Qing would be perfectly capable of remembering to disguise herself. “Don’t do anything stupid on the way.” This was directly to him.
“I wouldn’t,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. “It’s shijie. I have to see her again.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t reply. The three of them walked together for the first part of the way, Jiang Cheng splitting off without a word at the entrance to the grounds as he went to the front doors and the other two slid quietly around to the warren of the gardens.
Madam Jin was easily found and fetched by the disciples at the front entrance, though she seemed surprised to see Jiang Cheng.
“Given what you told me yesterday, I would have thought you’d be at Lotus Pier already,” she chided. She looked pointedly around them. “Leaving your nephew to his own devices?”
“He’s safe,” said Jiang Cheng. “But I learned something this morning that quite disturbed me, and I wanted your advice. Will you walk with me?”
Her eye sparkled. “Of course,” she said, and she seemed quite happy to have been consulted, slipping her hand onto his arm and letting him guide her along.
“I have discovered a person that has been kept on the grounds,” said Jiang Cheng as they walked. “I--”
But Madam Jin cut him off with a terrible scowl. “Her? The doctor?” The title was said with terrible sarcasm, and the amused pride had washed fully off her face.
Jiang Cheng, taken aback, said, “You knew about her? About everything, and you kept it from me?” He held her hand tightly on his arm when she might have slipped away, and kept walking. She was forced to come along, keeping pace with Jiang Cheng’s long strides by doubling her own steps.
“Is there anything my husband does that can be kept secret?” she asked bitterly as they walked. “I knew he had some woman installed here, besides his visits to the whores of the city, and although he tried to disguise it by calling her a doctor, I knew the truth.”
“The truth,” he echoed, feeling sick. “Then you will certainly want to help me take her away and solve your troubles, at least.”
“That wouldn’t even start to solve my troubles,” she said, still bitter. “All the men in my life are worthless, not one can be trusted to know what--” she broke off when two hooded figures loomed in front of them. “What is this?” She demanded.
“Our guides,” said Jiang Cheng. “Lead the way, please,” he directed the disguised Wen Qing, and she bowed slightly.
Madam Jin refrained from continuing her complaint in front of these unknown people, to Jiang Cheng’s relief, but her thunderous expression boded ill for him, he knew. He was not concerned; either she was mistaken about her knowledge and seeing his sister would melt her heart, or she was fully aware and her feelings as a hostage would no longer be a concern to him.
The small house that Wen Qing led them to was, indeed, guarded. Jiang Cheng pressed Madam Jin’s hand meaningfully, and she cleared her throat.
“When is the next change of guard due?” She asked one of the men.
“Hai hour,” he replied with a respectful nod.
“Open the door and leave,” she said. “We have private business here and that will be sufficient.” The men hesitated. “Now,” she barked, and they bowed hastily. One of them unlocked the door, and their small party watched as they walked stiffly away.
It was Wei Wuxian who opened the door for them. The room was small but much better lit and ventilated than Wen Qing’s little prison had been, though it carried the same general feeling of sickness in the air.
In this room, there was a table set up, medical instruments littering its surface, and a screen blocking the view of a bed. Wei Wuxian, still carefully hooded, moved the screen while Wen Qing, Jiang Cheng, and Madam Jin were still coming inside and closing the door behind them.
Jiang Yanli looked as though she was merely sleeping, her face peaceful and calm. The only sign of what she had endured was a large scar at her throat. Jiang Cheng let Madam Jin’s hand fall from his arm and took two steps forward so that he could fall to his knees at her bedside.
He didn’t remember, later, if he had said anything. It was several minutes before he was able to look up against the desperate wild hope that he had been trying so hard to suppress. Wei Wuxian was next to him, hood discarded and face wet.
When he looked behind himself, Wen Qing had also abandoned the hood, and was standing next to Madam Jin as if guarding her. But Madam Jin’s face was a revelation to Jiang Cheng. She hadn’t known, then, he knew. She had never been much of an actor, her emotions right at the surface, and she would not have been able to conceal this shock.
“You have to help us take her,” Jiang Cheng said, his voice raw. “I don’t know why she has been kept here, like this, for so long, but as long as she still lives, she must come to Lotus Pier.”
Madam Jin only nodded. “Yes,” she said. “May I--” she hesitated, then moved jerkily to Jiang Yanli’s bedside as well, caressing her hand gently. “Ah, my girl,” she said to her softly. “What have they done to you?”
Madam Jin looked around, seemingly for the first time since they had seen Jiang Yanli, and registered the presence of Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing for the first time. She gasped, pressing a hand to her heart, and grabbed Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as she swayed in place.
“My son,” she said frantically, turning to Jiang Cheng. “If you’re bringing people back to life, where is he, where is he?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head slowly. “It is not me returning them to life, only that their lives had been concealed,” he said, choosing to gloss over Wei Wuxian’s return to the living. “I’m sorry, Jin Zixuan’s death was too public for there to have been doubt or concealment.”
Her face crumpled, and she leaned her face against his chest, shoulders heaving with the grief of rising, then dashed, hopes.
He let her cry, tentatively patting her shoulder then letting his hand fall to his side again. “Can you prepare to move her?” he asked Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian quietly.
Wen Qing went to Jiang Yanli’s side, checking her over, while Wei Wuxian began to rustle through the small room for useful things, turning up an extra robe and blanket, and fidgeting with the implements on the table. Wen Qing took the robe and deftly began to dress her, and Jiang Cheng averted his eyes.
He attempted another pat on Madam Jin’s shoulder. She wrenched herself away and stared at him, hastily wiping her face with the back of one hand.
“I knew nothing of this,” she said. “I knew that there was a doctor on the grounds, a woman, and nothing else, I swear it.”
Jiang Cheng inclined his head in acknowledgement, and she kept going.
“My life here is one humiliation after another. I have been forced to stand by and watch my lech of a husband make a mockery of me, and I have watched as he installed that bastard in my home, and I know there are more waiting for their own chance, and I will not stay to watch it happen again.”
By the time she had reached the end of this speech, Jiang Cheng knew what she was going to say.
“Let me come with you to Lotus Pier,” she said. “It will protect you as well, if I am traveling with you.”
Jiang Cheng blew out a sharp breath. “Fine, but you have to come only with what you have right now,” he said. “We are taking Yanli and leaving. I won’t have you passing by Guangyao and tipping our hand.”
She looked alarmed, but firmed her mouth and nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
Jiang Cheng looked to Wei Wuxian, who was hovering next to Jiang Yanli, and nodded. Wen Qing helped him pick her up, then tugged his hood forward, then replaced her own. She drew a corner of the blanket across Jiang Yanli’s face to partially disguise her, and led the way out the door.
As they left the palace grounds, they were not as lucky as they had been earlier that day; they came across other cultivators several times. Each time, Madam Jin only nodded and didn’t address them, and they only nodded back, eyes out on stalks at the sight of her accompanied by the Jiang sect leader and two hooded figures carrying what appeared to be a body. Jiang Cheng resolved to double up on speed talismans once they had reached the dock and set sail; if it were to be reported, he wanted to be on his home soil before Jin Guangshan or Jin Guangyao caught up to them.
Lan Wangji did not react visibly when they arrived accompanied by Madam Jin, but she seemed visibly surprised, and especially so when she caught sight of Wen Ning. She didn’t comment, however, and only settled herself delicately at one side of the boat, staying out of the way. Jiang Cheng devoted his attention to getting Jiang Yanli comfortably situated, then making sure they were all on board. He did a head count -- Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, sitting with Jin Ling and Wei Yuan and watching Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who were supporting Jiang Yanli and quietly talking medicine over her unconscious form. Madam Jin, stowed quietly.
He cast off the bow and stern lines, then guided the boat away from the dock. He couldn’t help but watch over his shoulder until they had gotten safely through the harbor traffic. Once he was able to place the speed talismans, he spent his time and energy piloting, rather than watching for pursuit. Traveling at double or triple speed was not for the faint of heart.
The trip, even halved, was not short. Lan Wangji had prepared a makeshift dinner from the provisions that Jiang Cheng had acquired that afternoon, and even Jiang Cheng was able to carefully eat while guiding the boat’s progress. The children, wide-eyed when they had returned to the boat with Jiang Yanli, had drifted into sleep by the time they arrived at Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng carefully lifted Jin Ling, and Wen Ning just beat Lan Wangji to Wei Yuan. Wei Wuxian had gathered up Jiang Yanli with Wen Qing’s watchful supervision. The rest were on their own power, though stumbling slightly sleepily in the chilly dark.
Lotus Pier never truly slept, and before they reached the main pavilion, they were met by the night guards, who bowed in welcome. Madam Jin, Wen Qing and Wen Ning were shown to guest rooms, though Wen Ning detoured to deposit Wei Yuan in his own room. Wen Qing insisted that Jiang Yanli be placed near her, which Jiang Cheng felt was only wise.
He frowned at Wei Wuxian. “I put Lan Wangji in your old room when he first came here,” he said. “You have to stay with him or find yourself somewhere else, I don’t care where. I have to put A-Ling to bed or he’ll be a demon tomorrow, get out of my sight.”
He didn’t bother to look for Wei Wuxian’s reaction. He’d find somewhere to sleep or he’d sleep up a tree and it was all the same to Jiang Cheng.
He put Jin Ling down onto his bed and watched his peaceful face for a long minute. “Maybe tomorrow you can meet your mother,” he whispered. “You’ll like her.”
Breakfast in the morning was tense. Nearly all of Jiang Cheng’s guests were early risers, and they were uneasy together, with sideways glances but no conversation. Madam Jin in particular stared openly; she seemed most discomfited by Lan Wangji’s presence, strangely enough, and watched him gently interact with Wei Yuan as though she’d never seen him before in her life.
Wei Wuxian stumbled in late, throwing himself down next to Lan Wangji, who had been lingering at his table even though Wei Yuan had long since excused himself to go to the training yard. From the way he immediately began to serve Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng guessed that he had been waiting for the chance.
Though he wanted to grab Wei Wuxian by the ear and drag him to Jiang Yanli’s room so that she could be awakened immediately, now, right this second, he restrained himself, allowing Wei Wuxian to eat and slowly return to true wakefulness; he remembered how useless Wei Wuxian was in the morning, after all.
Instead, he turned to Wen Qing. “Tell me more about the treatment you provided,” he said.
She looked up. “I strengthened her qi, to encourage it to keep circulating, and tended the wound in her throat. I've tried also to keep her muscles from going slack, so that if she was able to eventually awaken, she might not be too weak to move herself.”
Jiang Cheng nodded. “Thank you for your care and attention,” he said seriously. “Will you be present for her this morning?”
Wen Qing raised an eyebrow. “If I am permitted.”
He inclined his head and she smiled briefly in acknowledgement.
He turned and directed Jin Ling’s attendant to take him to play outside, in an inner courtyard, so that he should be close but not underfoot, and then there was nothing to do but wait for Wei Wuxian. Madam Jin excused herself to follow after Jin Ling, which he supposed was as good a place for her to spend the day as any. He glanced over, and he saw Wei Wuxian still leaning on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Jiang Cheng stood. “Please follow when you are ready,” he directed Wen Qing, and darted a look over to Lan Wangji's table as well. If he was going to sit and wait, he'd do it at jiejie’s bedside.
She was more beautiful than he'd remembered, he thought, kneeling next to her bed and gently putting his hand over hers. “Hello,” he said softly. “Your son is here, and he's wonderful. Just as stubborn as you but three times as loud. Every time he learns something new, I wished I could tell you about it; you'd be so proud.” He had to stop for a moment. “I missed you, jiejie,” he confessed quietly. He pressed his head to the bed next to their hands, and stayed there until he heard soft footfalls outside the door.
Wen Qing let herself into the room, followed by Wen Ning, and she didn’t immediately approach the bed, which allowed Jiang Cheng to compose himself. She didn’t seem to notice him at all, quietly directing her brother as she set the water to heat and started to arrange her needles and medicines, carefully unpacking the parcel they had obtained the day before.
“They didn’t summon me every day,” she said, not looking at Jiang Cheng. He wouldn’t even have been sure that she was talking to him, and not to her brother, if she hadn’t raised her voice slightly from the tone she had been using with him. “A few times a week, only. Less as time has gone on; I suppose they were losing hope that she would awaken. She’s been weakening. I think you’ve come in time,” she said when Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop a low, hurt gasp from escaping, and she finally looked toward him as she spoke. “She’s still circulating qi as strongly as last week when I was allowed to see her. But not too much longer, not months or years.”
Jiang Cheng tightened his grip on Jiang Yanli’s hand. “Is there anything we can do to help strengthen her will while you and Wei Wuxian attempt to awaken her?”
She smiled at him fleetingly before continuing with her work. “Speak with her, especially about her son. Be here with her as much as you can.”
It was no hardship to do so, and Jiang Cheng turned his attention back to his sister, squeezing her hand.
Wei Wuxian arrived soon after, looking bright-eyed and interested, as he always did before a challenge. He came first to Jiang Yanli and greeted her with a cheerful “Good morning, shijie!” before engaging Wen Qing in a discussion of her medical cultivation that Jiang Cheng didn’t follow. Lan Wangji had accompanied Wei Wuxian, of course, and he carried his guqin.
Jiang Cheng rose and ceded his chair, and Lan Wangji took it with aplomb. He began to play at once, a song of healing that Jiang Cheng recognized from the three-day vigil that Lan Wangji had sat for Wei Wuxian after the Sunshot campaign.
While Lan Wangji played, Wei Wuxian began to carefully place talismans alongside Jiang Yanli. He directed Wen Qing in the placement of a few more on her chest and stomach. Jiang Cheng watched as he activated them, Wen Qing watching with a sharp eye. There was no immediate effect, and he nodded at her.
The morning was long, and Jiang Cheng watched as Jiang Yanli slept through it, taking no notice, though her room was full. By lunchtime, she was nearly blanketed by talisman paper and Wei Wuxian was frowning.
“The flow of qi--” Wen Qing was saying, “if we could just get a similar --”
“Ah, yes, that might -- A-Cheng, come here and --” Wei Wuxian gestured to Jiang Cheng, who jumped a bit at suddenly being called to action.
“No,” insisted Wen Qing. “He won’t do, it won’t help--”
“Let’s just try,” said Wei Wuxian. “Here, Jiang Cheng, come and send a little spark of qi, I want to see if the relational--”
Jiang Cheng glanced at Wen Qing, who was frowning, and Wei Wuxian, who was looking hopeful as he chattered, and lifted Jiang Yanli’s wrist. He sent a tiny, careful tendril of qi, and her body absorbed it with no effect. He looked up at Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian curiously. “Was that what you expected?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian frowned. “I thought surely the sibling energy -- it helped Wen Ning so much to have you sending qi --”
“Well, they’re not siblings anymore, are they?” snapped Wen Qing at Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng reared back as Wei Wuxian blanched as white as the sheets of the bed. Even Lan Wangji seemed taken aback, and she looked somewhat abashed. “Sorry, that came out wrong, of course you’re still siblings,” she apologized. “But the golden core operates at the absolute essence, most basic level, so of course it wouldn’t recognize--” She wheezed as Wei Wuxian thumped her indelicately on the shoulder, still pale, eyes wide.
Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to think. “Is my core damaged?” he asked, pressing a hand to the scar at his lower dantian and reaching for the familiar warmth within himself.
There was a knock on the door, and Jiang Cheng forced himself away from Wei Wuxian’s wide eyes and Wen Qing’s shifty ones to answer it.
“Guests, Jiang-zongzhu,” his first disciple said, looking extremely nervous, and Jiang Cheng frowned at her.
“I gave instructions --” he started, and she twisted her fingers and shook her head.
“It’s just that it’s Lan-zongzhu and Nie-zongzhu and they insisted very much that I tell you they were here,” she said, in a single breath.
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Of course they are,” he said. “Thank you, you have acted correctly. You may go.”
She saluted and vanished. Jiang Cheng stepped back inside. “Your brother is here with Nie Mingjue,” he told Lan Wangji, who received the news with a slightly raised eyebrow. He looked at Wei Wuxian, who avoided his eyes, and Wen Qing, who met them, and reluctantly left them to their own devices.
It was not just Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, he discovered, but also Nie Huaisang, with a faint air of guilt lingering around the edges of his glances. Jiang Cheng saluted the three of them, feeling grimly determined to bear up under whatever inquisition he was about to experience.
“We’ve come to help you in whatever way we can,” said Lan Xichen, and Jiang Cheng just stared at him. Lan Xichen’s smile was sympathetic, and Nie Mingjue looked neutral, which was practically a smile, for him.
Jiang Cheng looked from one to the other, suspicious now about what lies Nie Huaisang might have fed them, or what wild idea he might have gotten on his own. “Help with what?” he asked, guardedly.
“With your sister,” Lan Xichen said gently, and Jiang Cheng looked away. “Has she awakened?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head.
“Then please allow me to play for her, at least,” Lan Xichen urged.
“You might not find the company to your taste,” Jiang Cheng said, glancing at Nie Mingjue. “My sister was not the only person whose life the Jin clan concealed.”
“The Wens, you mean,” said Nie Mingjue.
Jiang Cheng nodded jerkily. “The Wens.” He didn’t feel particularly protective of them for themselves, but if Wen Qing, with her brother’s help, was able to help revive Jiang Yanli, he would defend them to the death. He scrutinized Nie Mingjue for his reaction, for some clue as to what he might be thinking.
Nie Mingjue’s face was unreadable, and he kept looking at Lan Xichen, who was smiling back each time. “As I have said,” he said finally. “Family is the most important thing. If they have kept and cared for your sister, of course you would wish for them to remain.” At the end of saying this, he shot another look at Lan Xichen, who gave him a soft smile, and nodded firmly back.
Whether his acceptance was forced or not, Jiang Cheng was grateful for it. “Come, then,” he said. “Perhaps you and Wangji playing together will wake her.” He turned to lead the way back to the sickroom.
Nie Huaisang’s steps behind him were quick, and he fell into step with Jiang Cheng. “I’m sorry, Jiang-xiong,” he hissed. “You know what da-ge is like, it’s like he can smell when I have news, he made me tell him.”
“You ran straight home and spilled the whole story before he poured you a cup of tea,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “You and your little ‘oh I’m so terrible at riding the saber, I had better go now’ routine.”
Nie Huaisang hid his face behind his fan, and Jiang Cheng was certain it was to hide a smile. He rolled his eyes and tapped on the door of the room where Jiang Yanli slept, and let himself and his new guests inside.
Little had changed in the few minutes that he’d been gone. Wei Wuxian had regained his face enough to continue working, and Wen Qing had shaken off her challenging mood, but Jiang Yanli lay still, and Lan Wangji continued to play the guqin in his corner. The notes faded as he rose to greet his brother.
“Please continue, Wangji,” said Lan Xichen. “I will join you.” He came inside, manifesting his xiao and tucking himself off to the side of a room that now seemed to be bursting at the seams.
“I won’t stay,” said Nie Mingjue, who had only looked inside from the doorway. “Wen-guniang, Wen-gongzi,” he said. “Wei-gongzi. I see you are all unexpectedly well.” He nodded at them as they gaped, and he stepped back into the hallway. “Huaisang, come with me to --” he looked inquiringly at Jiang Cheng.
“Blossom Pavilion is pleasant this time of year,” he said, and Nie Mingjue nodded decisively.
“To the Blossom Pavilion,” he finished. “We’ll wait there for the afternoon.” He towed Nie Huaisang away, ignoring his protests. Wen Qing, Wei Wuxian, and Wen Ning exchanged wide-eyed looks.
Jiang Cheng settled himself next to Jiang Yanli, leaving room for the others to work around him, and spent the afternoon alternating between meditation and simple contemplation. He was ragingly curious about whatever Wen Qing had alluded to regarding his golden core, but he was not willing to bring it up again in front of Lan Xichen.
Dinner was crowded that evening. Madam Jin sat next to Jin Ling, and Wen Ning sat next to Wei Yuan, his head bowed attentively to listen to him. Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing talked quietly, their heads together, continuing their discussion from the sickroom. Lan Wangji sat near them, listening without contributing, and if Jiang Cheng didn’t know better, he would have guessed that he’d been served vinegar instead of water. Lan Xichen was on his other side, joining him in observation of the Lan eating rules, but looking much more amused.
“Did you have a peaceful afternoon?” Jiang Cheng asked Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, who had drifted in last of all.
Nie Huaisang nodded. “How was it with your sister?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head, reflexively. “She still hasn’t woken.” He glanced at Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian, then looked back. “Will you be staying?”
“We had hoped not just to offer assistance but also to discuss the broader implications,” said Nie Mingjue. “It’s a gift to see your sister alive but I am wondering why it is that she has been kept secret from not just her family but the wider cultivation world.”
“Wen Qing had indicated that experiments in demonic cultivation were performed,” said Jiang Cheng. “Perhaps to test the Stygian Tiger Seal, or to --”
“The what?” asked Nie Mingjue, leaning forward. “I thought it was destroyed?”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Only partially. And it was recreated.”
Nie Mingjue’s jaw was tightly clenched. “Do you know where it is? Who--” he looked at Wei Wuxian with narrowed eyes.
“No,” said Jiang Cheng. “That is --” he hesitated. “It’s been destroyed.” He caught Nie Huaisang’s eye but looked away quickly. “When we were attacked on our way to Gusu, we defeated the cultivator who wielded it against us, and it was destroyed in the process.”
“Who was the cultivator who wielded it?” asked Nie Mingjue.
“How was it destroyed?” asked Nie Huaisang, neatly laying down his chopsticks and looking slyly at Jiang Cheng.
“He gave his name as Xue Yang,” Jiang Cheng said, ignoring the second question entirely. “He looked familiar to me, but I would not have said that I knew him. He did not claim a sect but he implied he had a powerful patron or protector who had recruited him to cultivation.”
Nie Mingjue shook his head slowly. “It does seem like a strong coincidence, that a demonic cultivator should attack you with a powerful device at the same time that your sister was being held in secret.”
“There are no coincidences,” said Jiang Cheng sourly. He looked at Madam Jin, who was gingerly dabbing at her robes where Jin Ling had spilled the remains of his dinner, and who did not appear to be listening to their quiet discussion, but he leaned back and declined to speak further. She had chosen to leave Koi Tower with them, but he was still not certain that she could be trusted fully, if the evidence against her sect was too damning. Nie Mingjue took the cue from him and the discussion ended.
Before Jin Ling’s attendant could sweep him away to bed, Jiang Cheng intervened. “I’ll put him to bed,” he said, dismissing her. “A-Yuan, you come with us as well.” The other adults in the room remained, most still talking quietly, though Madam Jin excused herself to bed at the same time.
He took the two boys to Jiang Yanli’s bedside. They had seen her on their mad flight from Koi Tower, of course, and they had been present for the discussions about her, but Jiang Cheng had not yet taken the time to be sure that they understood who she was and how important she was.
“A-Ling, this is your mother,” he said. “She has been asleep like this since you were a very small baby.” Jin Ling looked at her, eyes wide, then back at Jiang Cheng. He took Wei Yuan’s hand and held it tightly. Wei Yuan patted his hand with his free one and looked between Jin Ling and Jiang Yanli.
“Jiejie, A-Ling is here,” Jiang Cheng told her. “You need to wake up soon and see him.”
On the bed, Jiang Yanli moved. Just a breath, louder than before, and a line appearing between her brows where before her skin had been smooth and relaxed, but it was more than he had yet seen from her.
“Fetch Wen Qing,” he told Wei Yuan. “Quickly now.” Wei Yuan carefully let Jin Ling’s hand go and rushed out the door. Jiang Cheng took Jin Ling’s hand and together they watched Jiang Yanli for any other reaction.
When Wen Qing arrived, slightly out of breath, Jiang Yanli’s slight frown had returned to the unnerving placid calm of before, and her breaths were quiet once more. Wen Qing leaned close to examine her.
“Tell me what you saw,” she said, not looking up.
“When I told her that Jin Ling was here to see her, she stirred,” Jiang Cheng said, feeling slightly foolish, as though he’d overreacted, but Wen Qing beamed at him.
“There you go, I should have thought of that,” she said. “You’ve done more to wake her than anyone yet. Keep talking about him, allow him to stay if he wants, tell her he needs him.” She leaned over Jiang Yanli and spoke loudly. “Do you hear that, Yanli-jie? Your son needs you, you have to wake up right now.”
This time, Jiang Yanli’s next breath was closer to a low moan. Wen Qing looked up, satisfaction on her face. “That’s got her,” she said. She looked at Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, and her mouth twisted a bit. “Maybe you should go off to bed.”
Jiang Cheng looked down at Jin Ling, who was crying quietly into his sleeve. He picked him up, pulling him close. “Bedtime, A-Ling,” he said. “We’ll come see a-niang in the morning.” He turned to Wen Qing. “Will you sleep in here again?”
She nodded, and he left to put Jin Ling to bed. If he sat with Jin Ling for long minutes after the boy had fallen asleep, who was to see him? Who was to say anything about it?
When Jin Ling slept, he looked very much like his mother.
Jiang Cheng woke in the night to shouts and the sound of running feet. He didn’t bother to dress, only grabbed Sandu, Zidian still in place on his hand, and ran. His feet directed him first to the room Jiang Yanli was occupying, and the shouting grew louder as he approached. He couldn’t distinguish any words, but whoever was yelling certainly had some strongly held feelings.
When Jiang Cheng skidded into the room, it was already full to bursting. In the center, hair loose, shrieking at the top of her lungs, was Wen Qing. There was a man on the floor, lying still and faintly groaning, held in place by Wen Ning, and both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had preceded Jiang Cheng by only moments, and behind him he heard Lan Xichen’s footfalls. Jiang Yanli was the only person in the room not exclaiming or shouting; she lay still yet.
“What is going on?” Jiang Cheng snapped, and Wen Qing turned to face him.
“This -- this wretch, this scoundrel!” She was panting from the force of her indignation. “He was leaning over her bed! In the night! Ready to do her some harm!”
The man on the floor gave a low groan of protest.
“Is she okay?” asked Wei Wuxian, who was closest to Jiang Yanli, and bent over her to worriedly check her over.
Jiang Cheng went to the man on the floor, and pulled back his hood, exposing his face.
Familiar, but the name escaped him. He sat back on his heels, frowning. “Who are you?” Wei Wuxian looked over as well, then looked at Jiang Cheng and shrugged.
The man turned his head, refusing to speak, and Lan Wangji volunteered the information instead. “This is Su She,” he said. “Although why he should be here, I cannot imagine.”
The man lifted his head to glare at Lan Wangji. “I came to check on the young mistress,” he said. “She was taken from her caring family and stolen in the night.” His voice was thin because of the fierce corpse on his chest pinning him to the floor, but he managed to sound stubbornly self-righteous nevertheless.
“Stolen!” said Jiang Cheng, outraged. “We are her family! This is her home!”
“Koi Tower is her home,” Su She retorted.
“You aren’t even a member of the Jin sect.” Jiang Cheng frowned, trying to remember. “Weren’t you trying to start your own sect somewhere?”
“Moling,” supplied Lan Xichen, from the doorway. Jiang Cheng exchanged a glance with Lan Wangji.
“How did you even get in here?” he asked. Su She turned his face away. Jiang Cheng looked up at Wen Qing. “What happened, exactly?”
“I woke up and he was leaning over the bed,” she said. “I thought it was one of you at first, but then I saw the hood over his face and I exclaimed.” Exclaimed was putting it mildly, Jiang Cheng thought, but he wouldn’t dare to complain about her protectiveness for his sister.
“I heard her shout and came inside,” Wen Ning contributed. “However he got inside, it was not through the door past me.” He eased back slightly as Wen Qing leaned down and casually stuck a needle into Su She’s neck.
Su She slumped where he lay, and Wen Qing rose back up. “That should keep him,” she said. “May we continue this in the morning?” She wrapped her sleep robe more tightly and Jiang Cheng abruptly shifted his gaze away. Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen went so far as to fully turn their backs, and Wei Wuxian, who Jiang Cheng could clearly see now, winked at her.
Without thinking, Jiang Cheng flicked him in the forehead. Wei Wuxian winced and cried out in playful hurt, and Jiang Cheng scowled. “Go to bed,” he said.
“Jiang-zongzhu, can you find a place to hold him until morning, when we can question him further?” Wen Qing asked. “I have faith in my paralytics but it’s unsettling to have him here.” Wen Ning hauled Su She’s unresisting body up and over his shoulder, looking expectantly at Jiang Cheng for direction.
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “Of course,” he said. “We can guard the room as well.” He glanced at Lan Xichen, who moved back, out of the doorway, and Jiang Cheng led Wen Ning to a small room, generally used for storage or for receiving annoying leaders of small sects, although typically when he did so, they were conscious.
He left Wen Ning there with him, and returned to guard the door of Jiang Yanli’s room himself; he certainly wouldn’t be sleeping anymore that night anyway, he might as well.
In the morning, Su She had woken, but was no more communicative. Nie Mingjue, whose rooms had been too far to have heard the commotion the night before, and Nie Huaisang, who had certainly slept through any shouting, joined in the questioning. Even Madam Jin, at her most imperious, could inspire nothing from him.
“We may have to let him go,” said Lan Xichen at lunch, and Jiang Cheng scowled.
“He came in the middle of the night and snuck somehow into ladies’ quarters. He may have been stopped before he could do any mischief, but that doesn’t mean he should simply be excused and allowed to walk out.”
Lan Xichen bowed his head, acknowledging the point.
“Perhaps he’ll feel more like talking after a few days in there by himself,” Wei Wuxian suggested.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Just because you go crazy after a day of nobody talking to you, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work on him.” He frowned, considering. “But it’s not the worst idea. I’m tired of looking at his face, anyway, and it’s distracting us from more important matters. Fine, but I’m not wasting Wen Ning’s time by guarding him at every moment.”
Jiang Cheng locked the door, and Wei Wuxian sealed it with a talisman, but by dinnertime, Su She had vanished.
Also by dinnertime, Jiang Yanli’s sleep had become markedly restless, and Jiang Cheng found that far more pressing of a concern. “She’ll be awake soon,” predicted Wen Qing, and Jiang Cheng could not tear himself away from her bedside.
Jin Ling stuck close by his side, alternating between watching Jiang Yanli with a quiet longing and playing with the little tools and devices on the small table near her bed, that Jiang Cheng suspected Wen Qing or Wen Ning of placing there for that express purpose, though they always seemed to be looking away when Jiang Cheng glanced between them.
Wei Yuan, also, haunted the room, though he seemed more interested in talking to the new, and awake, family members that he had discovered. Wen Ning was happy to be prompted to tell stories of their family and Wei Yuan’s babyhood, and Jiang Cheng tried to listen along, but each time that he focused on the sound of Wen Ning’s voice, Jiang Yanli would toss on the bed, or moan, and he leaned forward, watching intently for her eyes to flicker and open.
The music from Lan Wangji’s guqin washed over them, each note trembling with spiritual energy, and Jiang Cheng did his best to ignore Wei Wuxian, sitting vigilant on the other side of Jin Ling.
Jin Ling yawned hugely and slumped sleepily against Jiang Cheng’s side, and he gathered him into his lap, head bent for just a moment, and so of course it was at that time that Jiang Yanli opened her eyes, and Wei Wuxian who noticed first.
“Shijie,” he breathed, and Jiang Cheng jerked his attention up from the toddler on the edge of sleep in his lap to see her blinking up at the ceiling, awake.
“Jiejie,” he said, and leaned forward to touch her hand, holding Jin Ling fast.
She turned her head and looked at them, and Jiang Cheng could have wept to see his sister, awake and alive after these long years of living while he thought she was dead. She smiled vaguely at them and her lips formed a word, but no sound emerged. Her forehead creased in a gentle frown, and she tried again, but again there was not even a breath behind her words.
Wen Qing elbowed Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian out of the way. “Good evening, Yanli,” she said, briskly but kindly. “Are you in any pain?”
Jiang Yanli shook her head slightly, but her hand came up to brush her throat, where the thick scar from her injury had healed into a wide white line.
“Are you trying to speak?” Wen Qing asked, and Jiang Yanli nodded, and her mouth moved once more. Jiang Cheng watched her form again the round shapes of the word she had tried three times to say.
“Are you asking about A-Ling?” he asked, and Jiang Yanli’s eyes lit up. She nodded eagerly, and she gestured with her hands. Jiang Cheng stood up, Jin Ling asleep in his arms, and brought him close, but Jiang Yanli’s reaction was alarm, not joy. She shook her hands in negation, then brought her arms together in a small circle, rocking slightly.
Jiang Cheng stopped, stymied. Jiang Yanli had wanted to see Jin Ling, or to hold him, but was he wrong in some way, he wondered. She didn’t want him after all, or that wasn’t what she had meant?
Lan Wangji had stopped playing, and he and Wei Wuxian were watching Jiang Yanli as closely as Jiang Cheng had been. “Perhaps she is expecting him to be as small as when she last saw him,” he suggested. “Wen-guniang, can we explain to her how much time has passed since she last was awake?”
“This is Jin Ling,” said Jiang Cheng directly to his sister, showing Jin Ling as clearly as he could without waking him. “He’s three now, jiejie, not a baby.”
Jiang Yanli shook her head in sharp negation, then turned her face away. Her body shook with sobs, soundlessly wracked.
“Perhaps you should take him to bed,” suggested Wen Qing quietly.
Jiang Cheng stood there for a long moment, watching his sister grieve for her son’s lost babyhood, before nodding jerkily. “You might as well go to bed too,” he said to Wei Yuan. “Come on.”
Once Jin Ling and Wei Yuan had been safely delivered to their beds, Jiang Cheng hovered in the hallway for a long minute, indecisive.
Finally, he went to his room, alone, to spend a long, restless night trying, and failing, to sleep.
The morning brought little peace. Jiang Cheng was reluctant to bring Jin Ling back into Jiang Yanli’s room without assurance that she would be happy to see him, and Jin Ling himself was restlessly refusing to go to or talk with anyone else, as if he had subconsciously understood his mother’s uncharacteristic and unexpected rejection of himself the night before. He even crawled into Jiang Cheng’s lap at breakfast, which was a habit Jiang Cheng deplored and hoped he had outgrown long since.
Instead of putting him to the side so that they could both eat comfortably, he tucked a protective arm around his back and allowed Jin Ling to finish his breakfast. He wasn’t hungry, anyway.
Neither Wei Wuxian nor Lan Wangji was at breakfast, he noticed. Lan Wangji had probably broken his fast much earlier than Jiang Cheng had risen, and Wei Wuxian might still be sleeping, or he might have spent the night sleeplessly at Jiang Yanli’s bedside, he supposed. Either was likely, and he never knew what Wei Wuxian might do. Neither of the Nie brothers, nor Lan Xichen, were there either. Had they left? He wracked his brain for any memory of a decision having been made the previous day, whether they would go or stay, and came up blank. What a host he was, he thought viciously. Guests everywhere and none of them had been attended to.
Madam Jin swept in, interrupting his self-recrimination, and seated herself nearby. “How is Yanli?” she asked. “It has been so hard to find space at her bedside, but I would like to see her soon if I might.”
“She woke briefly last night,” he said, and Madam Jin stared at him.
“Well!” she said. “I should certainly like to see her, then! Has she seen A-Ling yet?”
Jiang Cheng reflexively drew Jin Ling a little closer. “I don’t think she realized how long she had been asleep,” he said carefully. “She was expecting to see a small baby, I think.” He rested his chin for a moment on Jin Ling’s head in brief illustration. “Not this tall lad.”
Madam Jin’s eye’s lit up with understanding, and Jiang Cheng looked away. “Let me have a quick bite and we’ll go to see her again this morning,” she said briskly. “I’m sure she’ll feel better this morning, and this one needs to see his mother awake at last.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and let Jin Ling continue playing with his spoon as Madam Jin quickly served herself. No one else joined them for breakfast in the brief minutes before she was ready to leave, and he wondered again if his guests had tired of entertaining themselves and departed.
When they arrived at Jiang Yanli’s room, he did not need to wonder further. Jiang Yanli was propped up in her bed, looking around herself with wide, sparkling eyes, and every other guest had managed to squeeze inside and were trying to capture her attention. Wei Wuxian was closest to her, of course, but Nie Huaisang’s voice was piercing. Wen Qing was trying to shush them, with little effect. It was a surprisingly merry group for such an early hour.
“What is this?” Jiang Cheng said from the door, frowning. “Jiejie, are you throwing a party?” Madam Jin had paused in the hallway, as indeed there was no room for her to enter the room at all.
Jiang Yanli spread her hands in mock helplessness, smiling, then stretched them out to him, motioning with her fingers. She mouthed the same word as the night before, but now she seemed determined and aware, and Jiang Cheng brought Jin Ling near with no fear.
She traced his cheek with a soft finger in wonder, and Jin Ling, in a sudden fit of shyness, buried his face into Jiang Cheng’s chest. Jiang Yanli’s smile was tremulous, and Jiang Cheng sat on the side of her bed. “Give a-niang a smile, A-Ling,” he coaxed, and Jin Ling poked his face back out hesitantly.
The tears were pouring down Jiang Yanli’s face when she held out her arms, though silently, and Jin Ling allowed her to take him onto her lap, though he still looked quite shy. The room was quiet, now, and Jiang Cheng almost couldn’t bear to watch as her hand, trembling, stroked her son’s hair.
Instead, he turned away to glare down the rest of the various guests, family members, and assorted hangers-on. “This isn’t a party, why are you here? Get out.”
Nie Huaisang was the first to fold, slinking out of the room without a backward glance. Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, who had been mostly talking to each other, rather than at Jiang Yanli, bowed politely before departing. Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who had been talking quietly over the medical table, drifted out. Jiang Cheng inclined his head in a nod as they left, and Wen Qing raised an eyebrow at him.
That left Lan Wangji, looking uncomfortable, Wei Wuxian, looking stubborn, and Wei Yuan, looking confused. Jiang Cheng glowered at Wei Yuan. “You might as well be useful, fetch a seat for Madam Jin,” he said, and Wei Yuan’s face cleared as he jumped to obey. Jiang Cheng ignored the other two; they could go or stay, he did not care.
When Madam Jin had entered and seated herself, Jiang Yanli had looked up from Jin Ling, though she still clutched him tightly, and her tears had not stopped. He was clinging to her as well, his face buried in her soft robes. She bowed as best she could from the bed, and Madam Jin saluted back with the gentle smile that only Jiang Yanli ever received from her.
“I’m so glad to see you, my daughter,” she said. “We have missed you. Your brother has raised your son well, but there is nothing that can replace a mother.”
Jiang Yanli looked at Wei Wuxian, then at Jiang Cheng. Brother? she mouthed.
Wei Wuxian smiled weakly at her. “I’ve been dead, shijie,” he said.. “A-Cheng’s been raising both our sons.” He indicated Wei Yuan, who was still standing a little behind Lan Wangji, where he’d retreated after fetching the seat. “Look how tall they both are, can you believe the nerve of these little ones? Getting so big without our permission!”
“You both left me here alone,” said Jiang Cheng. “What else was I supposed to do?” He crossed his arms and looked away. “They’re good boys.”
“Of course they are,” said Madam Jin smoothly. She turned back to Jiang Yanli. “It must have been such a surprise to wake after so much time had passed. Do you remember anything at all while you slept?”
Jiang Yanli, her eyes filled with fresh tears but a smile on her lips, shook her head.
“It seems my husband and his….young person have kept you a bit of a secret,” she said. “None of us knew that you yet lived; for us it was as though you died on the battlefield.” Madam Jin did not acknowledge the tears flowing down her cheeks, even to swipe at them. “Now that I know you are awake and alive, my dear, I promise you that Koi Tower will change.”
Jiang Yanli pressed her lips together and shook her head vehemently. She patted her bed and pointed to the floor.
“You want to stay here?” Madam Jin guessed, and Jiang Yanli nodded. Madam Jin sighed. “Well, please think about bringing that boy up to see me a few times each year, at least, once I’ve cleared house. He’s still the heir.”
Jiang Yanli leaned forward as best she could and pressed Madam Jin’s hand, her smile tremulous.
“You’re welcome, my dear,” she said. “I’ll stay a few more days, if that’s acceptable, but then I really must go back.”
“You’re very welcome to remain,” said Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Yanli nodded, then reached up to gently wipe a tear from Madam Jin’s cheek.
“Oh, forgive a silly woman some sentiment,” Madam Jin said. “Now then, Yanli, let me tell you some stories about A-Ling that will curl your hair.” She settled in for a visit, and Jiang Yanli gave her her full attention.
Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian; this time, a raised eyebrow was enough to roust them from the room, and he and Wei Yuan followed, leaving Madam Jin and Jiang Yanli to catch up over Jin Ling’s head.
Wen Qing was loitering in the hallway -- nothing so inelegant as hovering, but definitely waiting to be permitted back into the sickroom. Instead, Jiang Cheng sketched a bow and said, “Will you come with me?”
Her expression showed that she was perplexed by the request, but she saluted back and fell into step with him. He sensed, rather than saw, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian peeling away from them, with Wei Yuan accompanying them. To the training grounds, he hoped, but he was willing to look the other way for a few days if not.
“Several days ago, Nie Mingjue nearly fell into a qi deviation,” Jiang Cheng told Wen Qing quietly, once the others were out of earshot.
She cocked her head to the side. “Was he training saber?” she asked.
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Yes, I believe so,” he said.
Wen Qing huffed a sigh. “It’s a form of demonic cultivation, you know,” she said quietly. “They use the energy from the spirits they’ve killed; it’s not far off from using the energy of the restless dead. It’s not good for him.”
“Can you help?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Your position is tricky, politically, and while Lotus Pier will shelter you unconditionally due to the service you’ve shown to my sister, perhaps it might be well to demonstrate what a waste it would be to have you killed.” He didn’t look at her at all during this speech, knowing its pragmatism might offend.
Unexpectedly, she said, “Thank you.” Her tone was cool but unoffended. Jiang Cheng dared a glance down and her head was held high, her back straight, the picture of determination.
Not knowing where his guests had gone after being unceremoniously thrown from his presence, he steered them to the pavilion in which Nie Mingjue had spent the day previously, and he was rewarded for his guess. Lan Xichen and both Nie brothers were there.
Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang both had their flutes out, and Lan Xichen seemed to be teaching Nie Huaisang some piece of music, but they stowed their flutes as Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing approached.
Wen Qing bowed. “Nie-zongzhu, will you permit this humble doctor to approach?”
Nie Mingjue studied her warily for a long, tense minute, but waved his hand in assent at last. “I’ve seen doctors,” he said. “Do you think I haven’t?”
“How many cases of demonic cultivation had they treated?” she asked, almost absently, as she took up his arm to begin her examination.
Nie Mingjue made a startled and offended huff. “Demonic cultivation?” He started to pull away but she patted his arm and he subsided. Nie Huaisang looked impressed.
“It’s very similar,” she said, her head bent. “Yes, you have the distinctive signs. It’s not quite like Wen Ruohan, though. More like Wei Wuxian, after he had lost his core. The energy signature is--”
“After Wei Wuxian had what?” Jiang Cheng cut in.
Wen Qing lifted her head and looked around. “After he lost his--oh--” And she swore worse than Jiang Cheng had heard from anyone since the war, when she saw four sets of wide eyes and astonished faces looking at her.
“When Wei Wuxian returned, he was surprised to find that his core was intact,” Jiang Cheng said slowly.
“Yes, I imagine that he would have been,” said Wen Qing. She tried to return attention to Nie Mingjue. “Now, if you could please--”
Jiang Cheng turned to face the water, ignoring Wen Qing’s attempts to move past her slip and treat her stubborn new patient. He thought back to all the times in the past that Wei Wuxian had refused to help him, all the times that he had refused to carry his sword. Jiang Cheng gripped the railing and fought back a wave of sickness at the sudden realization.
A second, lagging, realization came to him as well. He lifted his head and spoke without turning. “How did he lose it?”
Wen Qing’s questioning voice trailed off, but she didn’t reply. Jiang Cheng turned to face her and asked again, louder. “How did he lose it?”
She looked aside, uncharacteristically reticent. “It’s not for me to say,” she said quietly. “I should not have mentioned it to begin with.”
Jiang Cheng felt rage surge within himself, and turned to go. Wei Wuxian couldn’t tell him himself before, but he damn well would now or --
But Lan Xichen stepped in front of him before he could leave the pavilion. “Before you go, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said apologetically.
“What,” said Jiang Cheng, more a breath than a question.
“We have agreed between us that our sworn brother has done harm to your family, and likely to others, and he may have attempted, in some way, to harm da-ge.” The flutter of Nie Huaisang’s fan caught Jiang Cheng’s eyes, and he saw Nie Huaisang roll his eyes as he mouthed ‘may have.’
Lan Xichen ignored him and went on. “We have decided to take Jin Guangyao to Cloud Recesses, to live in seclusion and remove from him the opportunity to continue in his misdeeds. Will you approve these actions? The harm to your family has been great.”
“Do whatever you want to him,” gritted out Jiang Cheng. “Don’t let him talk you around with his pretty dimples the way he did last time.” Lan Xichen flushed, wrong-footed, and Nie Huaisang choked back a laugh.
“Da-ge and I will be there as well,” said Nie Huaisang when Lan Xichen seemed unable to come up with a reply. “We’re immune to dimples.”
Jiang Cheng sent him an ironic glance, and Nie Huaisang covered his face with his fan, only his laughing eyes showing.
“Will you leave today?” Jiang Cheng asked, still itching to track down Wei Wuxian and beat some answers out of him.
“As soon as possible, now that we have spoken with you,” said Lan Xichen.
“Then I will say farewell now, and thank you,” Jiang Cheng said, almost automatically. “If you could retrieve Wei Wuxian’s sword while you are there, now that he can wield it again,” he gritted his teeth until he was able to continue, “I would appreciate that very much.” Lan Xichen inclined his head.
He bowed and departed from the pavilion without further ceremony, leaving the men to their own devices, and Wen Qing to her examination.
Wei Wuxian was not on the training grounds, as it happened, although Wei Yuan was. Jiang Cheng spared a wave to him and continued on his search. He was luckier on his second guess.
At some point in the morning Madam Jin had departed from Jiang Yanli’s bedside, and Wei Wuxian was now kneeling there, his head lying in her lap as she gently patted his hair. “--even more handsome, it’s terrible,” he was saying.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said, as calmly as he was able. “Why didn’t you tell us that you lost your golden core?”
Jiang Yanli’s hand stilled, and Wei Wuxian stopped talking but didn’t raise his head. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, voice bright. “Didn’t you see my cultivation? Didn’t I show you --”
“Before you died. You know what I mean,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice sounded raw even to himself. “Was it when they threw you in the Burial Mounds? Did I take away your only chance of recovering your core when I went to Baoshan Sanren?”
“I didn’t mind,” said Wei Wuxian, still looking away. “It should be you, if only one of us were to have a golden core, anyway, so you could lead the sect.” He sat up, finally, his voice turning cheerful. “And now I’m alive again, and I have it back. And we both have shijie,” he added, turning to Jiang Yanli.
Jiang Cheng thought that he would find in her no solace. Her face was full of sorrow, still. Like Wei Wuxian, her memories of the war and its aftermath were clear and fresh, without three years of grief and work and child-rearing to begin to soften the edges. She remembered well the torments that Wei Wuxian had suffered, the barbs and admonishments and slights. Jiang Cheng shared a long look with her and wordlessly shared a promise. Never again.
Biting back his bitter regret, he drew closer, and joined Wei Wuxian in kneeling. Jiang Yanli sat further up in bed, and they shared a three-way hug the way they had not done since before Jiang Yanli’s wedding. Jiang Cheng just breathed, not willing to draw away until one of the others did.
It was Wei Wuxian who broke the moment at last, though accidentally; his stomach grumbled, very audibly, and the three of them drew back, nearly giggling. “Are you feeling up to making some soup, shijie?” Wei Wuxian asked, teasing, and Jiang Yanli nodded emphatically, motioning as though she would draw back the covers. “Ah, no, no, I’m teasing!” he said. “Rest!”
But Jiang Yanli stubbornly motioned for them to step away, and she rose unsteadily from the bed. She teetered and nearly fell after her second step, though, and Jiang Cheng caught her and helped her to sit. “Slowly, jiejie,” he said. “Be kind to yourself and rest.”
She smiled and tapped his nose meaningfully.
Soup was brought there for their lunch, and Wei Wuxian loudly proclaimed it to be far inadequate compared to Jiang Yanli’s, and she smiled widely at both of them as they ate together.
“I suppose you had better go and see my head disciple,” said Jiang Cheng off-handedly to Wei Wuxian as they were finishing their meal. “I had to strike your name from the rolls after our fight in Yiling, he can properly add you back.” He glanced over, and Wei Wuxian was watching him, mouth open. He frowned. “Unless you don’t want to?”
“No, I do, I do,” Wei Wuxian said, almost before he finished. “Thank you, zongzhu.”
“Shut up,” said Jiang Cheng, and swiped at his head, which he avoided with a duck and a laugh.
That evening, Jiang Yanli was feeling strong enough to be carried to the main hall for dinner by a meekly helpful Wen Ning, who could barely meet her gaze, though she seemed to bear him no lingering ill-will in the part he’d played in her husband’s death.
For the first time in longer than Jiang Cheng could remember, it felt truly like a family dinner. Even Madam Jin seemed to feel it, speaking casually with them and laughing more than Jiang Cheng remembered her doing any time before.
Partway through the meal, Jiang Cheng recalled a question that had been whispering in the back of his mind ever since Wei Wuxian had returned to life.
“Will you be remaining at Lotus Pier?” he asked Lan Wangji.
“That remains to be seen,” he said. He darted a look at Wei Wuxian, who was looking down at his plate.
Outraged, Jiang Cheng said, “Wei Wuxian, have you been toying with Lan-xiong’s affections? Why haven’t you asked him to stay with you yet? What are you waiting for?”
Wei Wuxian’s head shot up. “I thought that you--” His eyes were wide. He looked between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng. “That the two of you were --”
Before Jiang Cheng could react, absolutely staggered at this assumption, Lan Wangji threw his head back and laughed.
Two weeks later, Jiang Cheng was sitting with Jiang Yanli in a courtyard, Jin Ling playing at her feet. She had walked there herself, as every day her strength returned, though her voice had not yet. Wen Qing had shrugged over it; it would return in time, perhaps, she thought. She nonetheless managed to make herself well understood, if not in words.
“I have letters, jiejie,” said Jiang Cheng. “Would you like to hear the news?”
She nodded, her head cocked attentively.
“The first is from Madam Jin. It appears that Jin-zongzhu has suffered an unfortunate and embarrassing accident, and passed away. How tragic and sudden,” he said, putting the letter down and looking over at her, face exaggeratedly solemn. She twinkled back at him and he let the mask dissolve into a smile. “And so Madam Jin, that brave widow, has taken control of the sect, and wishes to discuss the topic of the towers in a more equitable way once the worst of her mourning is complete. Delightful.”
Jiang Yanli nodded in agreement, and solemnly accepted the toy that Jin Ling handed her, exchanging it for another she held in her lap, before turning back to listen.
“Next is Wei Wuxian, who writes from Gusu,” Jiang Cheng went on, looking at the next of his messages. “He has reclaimed Suibian and he and Lan Wangji plan to tackle that problem on the northern borders. He hopes that you, Jin Ling, and Wei Yuan are all well. He says that he might try to invent some kind of device for transmuting thoughts to words so that you might communicate more easily.” He looked up again. “Please write to him and dissuade him, that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Third and final letter is--” he paused, despite himself. “Wen Qing, from the Unclean Realms.” He avoided his sister’s knowing gaze. “She says that she has done what she can to cleanse Nie Mingjue’s spirit in order to avert his qi deviation, and taught Nie Huaisang all that she can as well, and wishes to return to Lotus Pier if it is convenient to us.” His eyes lingered on the closing of the message despite himself, before he could force himself to look up. Jiang Yanli’s sparkling eyes met his reluctant gaze. She raised a single eyebrow.
“Hush, you,” he said, and leaned back in his seat, allowing out the smile that wanted to dance in the corners of his mouth. They watched Jin Ling in silence until Wei Yuan dashed by and swept him away for some rowdy game. Things could be worse, he thought.