Lan Wangji woke into a freezing winter morning in Haven, dripping with sweat, his hand pulsing green in time with the Breach in the sky out his window.
It wasn’t the first time pain from the mark had woken him; he assumed it would not be the last. But the Breach had not grown bigger, which meant the morning was a victory, and he was not dead, which meant he would be able to go on and ensure that the next day began with victory, too. And on, and on, until they found the strength and power needed to close it.
Outside his window, Haven was waking up; the snow-covered mountains glittering with reflected green light from the Breach and golden light from the rising sun. People were spilling from the Chantry and the small buildings that had been erected around it, and beginning the day’s work as the sun rose. Nie Huaisang, yawning and for once without his ever-present fan, was cooing to his ravens and feeding them their breakfasts, checking for his correspondence. Much farther from the Chantry, next to the frozen lake, his older brother was beginning the unenviable task of morning drills with his saber balanced over one shoulder.
Lan Wangji climbed out of bed, pressed his back to the cold stone wall of his room, and slid down onto the floor to meditate. This was an old habit from living in the Circle that he didn’t think he would ever truly break; he could hear his uncle’s voice, still, telling him to correct his posture, to breathe even and slow. To tame the fire of magic burning inside of him until it stilled, and went pliant, like a trained animal. Unchecked, it would raze everything in its path. Or so he had always been told.
The same inner stillness that he felt when he had attacked the Breach, weeks before, filled him now. The light emanating from his palm flickered, and dimmed. It did not fade entirely, but it was still another victory. Lan Wangji breathed through it, and tried to celebrate it, but any pride he might have felt was swallowed quickly by pressure. Herald, people were calling him. Herald. Of a new battle, one against the sky itself; of Andraste, if the more devout among them were to be believed. Lan Wangji could not believe: not in the blind, wide-eyed way some people now believed in him. It was humbling and bewildering; it made him want to run away, or stand before them and tell them I am not what you think I am. He was and would only ever be himself, not an instrument for something holy. He believed only in his own hands.
One of which now glowed a lot more often than it once had, but still.
He opened his eyes again. The Breach loomed in the sky above the mountain, a gaping-wide, inhaling mouth.
Lan Wangji took a deep breath and stood to dress.
When he arrived at breakfast, there was a folded piece of paper, magically sealed, laying across the plate next to his brother’s.
“Good morning, Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, absently. He had one hand wrapped around a cup of strong tea and the other holding open some of his own correspondence, likely from angry Chantry officials or, if he was unlucky this morning, Knight-Commander Jiang.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said in greeting, and picked up the scroll, meaning to slip it into the sleeve of his white robes to read later—he had been getting the same irate letters his brother had been getting, in even larger quantities—but froze, still standing, at the way it was addressed.
Lan Zhan, messy, in black ink. He couldn’t think of anyone who might call him that, in a letter, except—except.
He tore it open and scanned it.
As he read, Nie Mingjue came in from drills and sat down at Lan Xichen’s other elbow. Lan Xichen, nose still buried in his own letter, loosened his death-grip on his cup of tea in favor of putting food on Nie Mingjue’s plate.
“Xichen, I can feed myself,” Nie Mingjue said, batting his hands away. “Worry about your own plate. What’ve you got there, then?”
This was addressed to Lan Wangji. He had to swallow, twice, before he could respond.
“It is from Wei Wuxian,” he said.
His brother’s head shot up, instantly alert. Nie Mingjue looked impressed.
“The blood mage who used to be the ward of the new Divine?” he said. “What’s he writing to you for?”
Lan Wangji looked at the letter again. The words on it had not changed.
“He wants to see me,” he said.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said. It was not a warning, quite. More a reminder. “Will you at least be taking a party with you?”
“I will go alone,” Lan Wangji said, and left without eating any breakfast.
Lan Zhan, the letter read.
Surprise! It’s me. After all this time, who would have thought! I’m sorry I never reached out to you before, but I don’t expect you’ll have been bothered by it too much. After all, there was a lot going on these past few years. I’ll bet you were busy. I’ll bet you’re even busier now, to tell you the truth, and you’ll be wondering, why is Wei Ying bothering me now that I’ve been declared the Herald of Andraste? Some people are even starting to call you Hanguang-jun, you know—it’s driving every chantry sister I see up a wall.
I’d love it I bet you don’t like it very much.
Well, to the point: the long and short of it is that I need your help. I’ll explain when I see you. I’ll be in Redcliffe—I have allies there, sort of. I don’t know if they let you out by yourself anymore, oh great Herald! But if they do, try to come alone.
Ask for me at Redcliffe’s inn. With luck, you won’t have to ask; I’ll be there waiting. But even if you come in the dead of night, I’ll open the door.
Lan Wangji did not arrive in Redcliffe in the dead of night. He arrived around mid-afternoon, after two days of hard riding. The letter was folded four times until it was a tight square, and tucked into the inner pocket of his white robes. His hand, sparking green, seemed to be wilder than usual. He tried to ignore it, to focus his breathing. To ignore, as well, the plaintive call of his heart. He had looked everywhere he could think of for Wei Ying, travelling wherever he heard rumors for years, and had never found a sign of him, nothing to even give him hope. To have him appear, now—
He knew what it would look like. He knew what Lan Xichen would think. He knew what the world would think, with all the eyes on the Inquisition, waiting to see their next move. But Wei Ying was so near, for the first time in years. Lan Wangji knew he would willingly fight any manner of demon just to see his smiling, beloved face again—compared to that, angry letters from the Chantry about consorting with blood mages were nothing.
He snapped the reins and rode on.
The inn in Redcliffe was nondescript, but Wei Ying had never been fussy about where he slept as long as he could get alcohol.
You’re telling me, nothing? he’d said, once, sixteen and indignant, behind the walls of a Circle for the first time in his life. He had been found as a child on the streets, adopted by the prominent Jiang family of Kirkwall—he had been old enough that he had already discovered that he had magic and how to hide it. The strategy had served him for years, until he saved his adopted brother from an attempted attack by freezing the attackers solid where they stood. Two weeks later, he was standing in the library next to Lan Wangji, a frighteningly bright and frenetic beacon of energy, moving from shelf to shelf and table to table and talking all the while.
Lan Wangji, who had lived there since he was six, had not known how to answer him.
No wine, no liquor? he’d asked. What do you all do here all day?
We study, Lan Wangji had told him. Train. Learn restraint.
This last part was pointed. He had never seen a less restrained person in his life.
Ugh, Wei Ying had said, and tapped twice at his nose, slumping against the wall. Thinking. Well, I won’t be staying long, anyway. Jiang Cheng will come for me.
Lan Wangji stopped at the inn’s bar and cleared his throat. “I’m looking for a friend. Wei Wuxian.” Too late, he wondered if Wei Ying had used a false name, but the barkeep was already smiling in a friendly, bemused kind of way and nodding at a table in the corner.
“He’s not here, but his friend is,” she said. “I’m sure he could tell you where he went off to.”
The friend in question, Lan Wangji saw, was a round-faced elf with long, dark hair, anxiously drumming his fingers over the table. There was a bow and quiver slung over the back of his chair, and the hint of the armor Lan Wangji could see under his cloak, and his bare feet, marked him as Dalish. He wasn’t too young, a few years younger than Lan Wangji himself was; there was something earnest in his expression, even pinched with worry, that made him seem far younger.
He walked over, and cleared his throat again.
The young elf jumped up. “Are you Lan Zhan? Wei-ge told me to wait for you.”
Wei-ge, Lan Wangji thought, but it was barely an ache. He didn’t really have the right to begrudge Wei Ying intimacy with others, as much as it made the back of his neck prickle jealously. He nodded, instead.
“I’m Wen Ning,” he continued, throwing some coins on the table and waving hurriedly at the barkeep as he grabbed his arrows and quiver, and headed for the door. “Come on—we should hurry—he and A-jie have been there alone for ages—”
“The Chantry,” Wen Ning said, adjusting his cloak so it concealed the quiver, which now hung from his hips. That was the Dalish style, too—to reach down for an arrow instead of behind. “He wanted to wait for you. He said to tell you he’s sorry he couldn’t.”
His face was so worried that Lan Wangji had to look away. “It is no matter,” he said. “Is he well?”
“I mean,” Wen Ning said, “at the moment, probably not?” They were on the road, then; he broke into a jog. “We should hurry.”
Lan Wangji took his staff from his back, and followed. In his free hand, tucked under his own cloak, his spirit blade began to form.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying said, spinning on his heel in the middle of the ruined Chantry. He was pale from blood loss, cuts on his arms still leaking, and beaming wide and unselfconscious, and he was the most beautiful thing Lan Wangji had seen in three years. Even with the demons snarling around him and the green glow cast over the room, Lan Wangji could only focus on him, his heart lurching painfully in his chest. “You made it! Ah, would you help me close this thing?”
He gestured above him, at a rip in the Fade, glowing green and faintly pulsing.
Lan Wangji slammed his staff into the wood floor of the Chantry, and released a small earthquake with it that sent all the demons stumbling. Then he left it there, sticking straight up, tossed his spirit blade to his staff-hand, and walked forward, stretching his Fade-touched left hand up into the sky.
Next to Wei Ying, a woman with chin-length hair and a sword and shield sliced the head off a lesser terror that had fallen to the ground, writhing as if in slow motion; Wei Ying himself sliced another cut into his left arm and spread the blood in the air around him, turning it to tiny shards that pierced through the eyes of the two terrors to his right. Wen Ning, who had raised his bow, took each out with swiftly placed arrows once they were blinded. Almost too fast, those arrows. Faster than they should have been able to move.
Lan Wangji closed the portal with a wrench of his fist.
Bichen faded back into nothingness, and he took up his staff again, slinging it onto his back.
Wei Ying was smiling, the same wide lovely smile he had always worn.
“You’re still so good at that, Lan Zhan,” he said.
“Flirt later,” the woman to his left said. “Drink this, now.”
She handed him a muddy, green concoction, glowing from within. Wei Ying scowled at it, plugged his nose, and drank. “Eugh,” he said. “That gets worse every time.”
“Cut yourself open a little less and you won’t have to take it anymore,” she said, frostily, as the open wounds on his arms began to magically stitch together. “A-Ning, come here.”
Wen Ning smiled at Lan Wangji cheerfully and left his side, leaving Wei Ying to roll his neck until it cracked and walk across the now-echoing wood floors, smiling again.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he said. “Your hand.”
Lan Wangji flinched, and folded it behind his back, as he was used to doing.
“Oh, no, let me look at it,” Wei Ying pleaded. “It’s so interesting—I mean, it has to be something to do with the Fade, right? These holes are all holes in the Fade—maybe part of your hand exists in the Fade now? Do you have any theories?” As tactile and tactless as ever, he had peeled Lan Wangji’s hand from behind his back before he could really think to resist it, and was running careful fingers over his palm, turning his hand over to look at his knuckles. Lan Wangji held his breath, for a second, and then let it out slowly, hopefully unaffectedly.
“Wei Ying,” he said, too quiet. “Why am I here?”
It could not have just been for a Fade-rip, or so Wei Ying could examine his palm. Those were curiosities, bumps in the road on the way to the truth.
Wei Ying looked up at him. His eyes were sharp and grey, intelligent and kind. “Because I trust you to hear me out,” he said, “when I tell you there’s something very wrong here.” He did not let go of Lan Wangji’s hand. “Will you?”
He thought of Wei Ying in the Circle tower, the two of them seventeen. Fumbling, fighting each other until the fight became competition, until the competing became showing off. Wei Ying in his doorway in the moonlight, leaning there grinning. Happy birthday, Lan Zhan. All his odd kindnesses and odder jokes, his fierce loyalty. His eventual escape, and Lan Wangji’s punishment for destroying his phylactery as he fled.
He could still remember standing over the shattered vial, the vivid red of the enchanted blood sinking into the stone floor of the tower. An hour later both his uncle and brother had been staring at him with fear and astonishment: he had been forced to undergo every test they knew for demon possession or undue influence from evil spirits. In the end, they’d been forced to punish him with solitude. But with the phylactery destroyed, Wei Ying could not be tracked by the tower’s mages. And anyway, he was long gone. Alone in his room, Lan Wangji had been happy to think of Wei Ying walking through green forests and past gleaming rivers, with his freedom secured.
Clearer still than this was the dizzying, frantic kiss they had shared, a day before Wei Ying left. The start of something, and the end of it; a clean enough break that it was probably premeditated. Lan Wangji had thought about hating Wei Ying for only kissing him when he was about to run, but the feeling had shifted into understanding, instead. I want to pursue justice, Wei Ying had told him once, and to live without regret. Sometimes Lan Wangji thought he would have been swallowed by regret if he had never kissed Wei Ying when he had the chance. Sometimes he thought he was swallowed by regret anyway.
“I will,” he said.
“I knew you would,” Wei Ying said, with terrible relief. “Lan Zhan, something’s gone wrong with time around here.”
“Absolutely not,” Nie Mingjue said.
“What are you talking about, Da-ge?” Nie Huiasang said, his feet kicked up on the war table and his fan fluttering. “I think it’s an excellent idea.”
Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow, surprised into honesty. “You do?”
“Don’t sound like that, I’m backing you,” Nie Huaisang said. “I think it’s all very romantic. And clever. Who is this Wei-gongzi, again? Some sort of magical genius, right? It might be good to have him and his friends on our side.”
“He’s a blood mage and an apostate,” Jin Guangyao said. He was sitting ramrod straight, and looking at Huaisang’s feet. “And his friends are escaped criminals. There’s nothing romantic about it, Huiasang. Taking him in would be political suicide. Even working with him would be—”
“So fix it,” Nie Huaisang said, waving a hand. “Isn’t that what you came here to do? Make us palatable?”
“That does not make me a miracle-worker,” Jin Guangyao said. “Do you have any idea what would happen if we took them in, or do you need it explained to you?” His smile was utterly pleasant, and showed his teeth. Nie Mingjue’s hand flexed against the saber at his waist.
“Wei Ying is honorable,” Lan Wangji said, before a fight could break out. “He would not lie to me. If he believes something is wrong, then something is wrong.”
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m not saying I don’t think we could use the support of the mages, it’s just that—” He rubbed his forehead, stopped, started again. “Do you worry,” he said, very carefully, “you’re seeing only what you want to see in Wei-gongzi? You two were . . . close, once. Could he be using that to get to you?”
“Why would he reach out now, if it was influence or support he wanted?” Lan Wangji said, tightness in his jaw. “Xiongzhang, our name is the weakest it has ever been. Even a few months ago, before the conclave, if I had spoken to the right people I could have gotten him a full pardon. He never wanted it. He never asked me.” I would have tried, if he had asked. “He only wants to help people.”
They all looked at him. He tried to look unfazed. It was not in his nature to make long speeches; they all knew him well enough to know that, at least. Lan Xichen’s face was softening with a slightly embarrassing look of understanding.
Finally, Jin Guangyao wrinkled his nose. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said, casting a sideways look at Lan Xichen, “but if you think the Chantry hates us now, just wait. ”
“They’re going to hate us no matter what,” Nie Mingjue said, in the ‘reasonable’ tone he generally used when he was trying to get under Jin Guangyao’s skin a little.
Lan Wangji wished fervently for better advisors.
“I think we should do it,” Nie Huaisang said. He snapped his fan closed. “Da-ge is right. The Chantry is going to hate us no matter what, until we close the breach and they decide that they like us again, and once we close the breach they’ll either conveniently forget Wei-gongzi helped us, or they’ll give him some kind of meaningless pardon. It’ll drive the new Divine insane, but by then he probably won’t be our problem. Right now, he’s the best way into that whole—” He waved his hands gingerly. “Situation.”
“And what makes you think that Lan Wangji can just walk in there,” Jin Guangyao said, in the tone of someone talking to a very small child, still smiling wide, “and not immediately be killed?”
Lan Xichen winced.
“Sorry, Er-ge, but,” Jin Guangyao said. “It’s, it’s. Ridiculous.”
“Ah, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang said, mournfully, flicking his fan open again. “It’s just that a while ago, I heard about a secret passage into Redcliffe Castle through the sewers, and up through the dungeons, and surely it wouldn’t be too much trouble for some agents to go in that way, while our Herald here acts as a distraction? Forgive me if I don’t understand it correctly, San-ge.”
His fan fluttered slowly. The room was silent for a moment, and then Jin Guangyao slowly raised two hands to rub at his temples.
“Is there a reason you didn’t lead with that, A-Sang?” Nie Mingjue said, and cuffed him lightly on the side of the head. There was an even mixture of pride and annoyance in the gesture.
Lan Xichen studied the map, his brows furrowed. “You still trust him, Wangji?” he said.
Lan Wangji inclined his head.
“All right, then,” Lan Xichen said. “Take whoever you need and start out tomorrow.”
Lan Wangji thought about taking his own people, but in the end, he only asked his brother, who seemed about to comment on the futility of sending two mages into what might be a slaughter before thinking better of it.
“We should concentrate our best into the invading force,” Nie Mingjue agreed. “You’re a spirit healer, Xichen. You’re the best to accompany him anyway. They don’t see you as immediately threatening.”
“Wei Ying has allies,” Lan Wangji added.
“And you trust them?” Lan Xichen said.
Lan Wangji considered the point. “Wei Ying trusts them,” he said, and then found that this was not enough. Wei Ying had ushered them all into the inn after the battle, squeezing himself against Lan Wangji’s side in the booth they had shared, Wen Ning and Wen Qing across from them. He had been stupidly, self-consciously focused on the weight and warmth of Wei Ying’s body against his, but he had also seen Wen Qing’s small, amused smiles and been subject to Wen Ning’s eager questions about what lands outside Ferelden and the Free Marches were like. He had liked them. The realization was a surprise. “I trust them, as well.”
Lan Xichen nodded, and that was that.
“To be fair to us,” Wei Ying said, later, as the two of them pulled themselves from what appeared to be dirty sewer water and shook it off their robes, “we did try to negotiate.”
“You are not very good at it,” Lan Wangji said, as mildly as he could, trying to muster the mana to form Bichen in his hand. The ‘negotiations,’ if they could even be called that, and not an obvious trap, had gone poorly; the magister they had been meant to talk to had driven himself to distraction talking about how Lan Wangji’s glowing palm was a gift he had never deserved, and about someone called the Elder One and his desire to re-shape the world so that mages ruled it.
That all seems really dramatic, Wei Ying had said, wrinkling his nose. Another idiot confusing freedom with tyranny, eh, Lan Zhan?
Then he had elbowed him in the side and beamed. That had been nice. Lan Xichen and Wen Qing had shared a look, united in exasperation.
The magister had enjoyed it less, of course, and had scowled and raised his hand. Lan Wangji had only seen what looked like a magical portal burst open in front of Wei Ying before his mind had gone blank and he had jumped in front of him, in an instinctive surge of protectiveness that had only managed to get them both pulled inside. He remembered hearing surprised gasps, the Wens shouting—and Wei Ying’s hand around his wrist, trying to push him back out, unsuccessfully.
And now they were here, in a water-filled dungeon, red lyrium growing heedlessly from the walls. Lan Xichen and the Wens were nowhere to be seen.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Wei Ying said, his mouth thinning as he tried to wring out his robes.
Lan Wangji shook his head. “We’ve been . . . displaced?”
“Displaced,” Wei Ying echoed, thoughtful. “It’s something like that, I think. Maybe the portal moved us to the closest site of arcane energy? But we’re still in the castle, so I don’t think that makes sense . . .” He stared at the red lyrium sprouting from the walls. “Unless it’s not about where we are.”
“This didn’t grow in a day,” Wei Ying said, and gestured at it with his staff. “I think we moved through time, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji felt a low, thin thread of panic, somewhere in his spine. “Did we move forward in time, or back? And how far?”
“Good questions,” Wei Ying said. “Very good questions. I don’t know.” He gave Lan Wangji another of those sunny, perfect smiles, and the panic dissipated a bit. “Let’s find out?”
Lan Wangji nodded and stepped in front of him, Bichen held aloft.
“Ah, and, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said. “I might be a little useless right now. I don’t have any potions or anything—so I can’t—unless there are corpses nearby, I mean, I can’t use too much blood magic. Unless I use my own blood, and, yeah. Limited supply.”
“I will keep you safe,” Lan Wangji said. Their eyes met, then, a jolt of light in the dim, grimy dungeon.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, in a tone nearing wistfulness, “you really are too good.” Then he shook out his hair one last time, and leaned on his staff. “Let’s go.”
They found Wen Ning in one of the lower cells, curled into a tiny ball against the wall, his skin glowing wickedly red and pulsing with energy. Wei Ying let out a wounded noise and fumbled with the lock, bashing it open when he couldn’t get any of the keys they had found to fit.
“Wen Ning, Wen Ning,” he said, frantically, wrenching the door open. “Here, let me—”
“Stay back,” Wen Ning said. His voice was hoarse and his face thin; there was none of the childish roundness that had been so endearing when they sat around the inn table in Redcliffe and ate. Streaks of red climbed his neck, like the stone from the wall had climbed into his body. “I’ll hurt you—”
Wei Ying stilled, though it seemed like it pained him to do so. “Wen Ning,” he said. “Look up at me.”
“You’re dead,” Wen Ning said. It was plaintive, and observational; his eyes were open, now, and they swam with red, too. “You’re both dead. We all saw it.”
“We went through time, Wen Ning,” Wei Ying said. “We didn’t die. You can pinch me and see if you like.”
“I can’t touch you,” Wen Ning said. “If I do, you’ll end up like me.” His eyes found the chunk of red lyrium growing out of the wall, on the opposite side of the cell from him. “Can you make it be quiet? It’s so loud. It used to just whisper, and now it’s screaming, all the time—”
“Wen Ning,” Lan Wangji said. “What happened?”
“They killed you,” Wen Ning said. “They put me down here, with the lyrium. Sometimes they took me out.” He rubbed at a spot on his wrist that seemed to have bubbled, and turned to stone. “I don’t know how long it’s been.” Then his face bloomed with a sudden hope, and he began to struggle to his feet, seeming for the first time to notice that the door was wide open. “A-jie. A-jie!”
He pushed past them and ran, clumsily, up the stairs. Wei Ying took a breath that nearly caught on a sob, and took Lan Wangji’s wrist in his hand, and they followed.
Wen Qing, when they eventually discovered her, seemed utterly uncaring of whether they were alive, dead, or ghosts; all that registered with her was that her brother was there in front of her. Her skin, too, was tinted red. But there were no marks on her skin that seemed to be turning to lyrium themselves, and her eyes were clearer than his. “A-Ning,” she said, smoothing her hands over his face and shoulders, and then seemed content just to look at him for a few long, devastating seconds that Lan Wangji did not feel able to interrupt.
“Wei-ge is going to fix it, A-jie,” Wen Ning said, and nodded firmly at Wei Ying, whose hands were shaking against his staff.
“Can you tell me what happened?” he asked, voice raw, and she told them.
So the empress had died, Lan Wangji thought, as they climbed the stairs, attacking magisters as they went. So she had died, and so had they: the fledgling Inquisition useless against the invading army and the forces of the Chantry too scattered to fight. So they had lost.
Wei Ying did not react except to grit his teeth and dig two deep cuts into his arms at the next group of soldiers they found, the blood splashing around him as he drew sigils and cast spells. Lan Wangji took a strike to the shoulder in order to grab his wrist again and perform the only healing spell that he knew. He remembered the shape of Wei Ying’s sorrow, enough to work around it—the way he would give and give until nothing was left. He had given up his most long-held secret for his brother, once. He would give blood for the Wens, even when he didn’t have to.
He wished briefly for Lan Xichen and his steady hands, for someone who could be trusted to heal Wei Ying better; abruptly, though, they found him, and he was sorry for wishing for it at all.
His brother was skeletal and fierce-eyed in his own cell, hardened into a person Lan Wangji barely recognized. He did not exhibit any of the signs of the lyrium-sickness that the other two did, but he was twitchy and accusing, demolished by loss.
“You’re alive,” he said, to Lan Wangji, and sounded as if he didn’t know if he wanted it to be true or not.
“I’m sorry,” Lan Wangji told him. “If I could have come sooner—”
Lan Xichen’s mouth thinned. “Don’t waste time, didi,” he said, and the word fell clumsily, making itself an insult on the way out of his mouth. Sharpened around the edges with lack of use. “We don’t have much of it.”
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji said, helpless. His hands found his brother’s elbows; his fingers wrapped all the way around. He was so thin.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said, even. “Do you think it was easy to lose you? Do you think it’s any easier to see you come back?” He turned his head and pulled away, looking for his staff. “I knew how to be calm, once. That’s useless now.”
This time it was Wei Ying’s hand, not around his wrist, but slipped into his. A gentle squeeze, then he let go. An acknowledgement, however brief, that he could see Lan Wangji’s sorrow, too.
“Let’s go,” Lan Xichen said. “The magister is probably in his chambers.”
“If he isn’t?” Wei Ying said.
Lan Xichen did not smile. His brother’s face was a mystery when it was so stoic. “Then we will look until we find him elsewhere,” he said.
The sky outside was a nightmare, the breach in the Fade ripped across the entirety of the sky. Lan Wangji stumbled at the sight of it, leaving Wei Ying to catch him again at the elbow; Lan Xichen looked over his shoulder at him with unmistakable pity and did not try to comfort him. This was all right, because Lan Wangji did not feel he deserved to be comforted. It was true that in this world, all he had done was die, but he still felt the weight of it, the responsibility he should have borne as the sky tore open above the people and places he loved. He could not shake the feeling that if he had been there, with his Fade-touched left hand, he could have done something to fix it.
Perhaps he could try, if they did not succeed in turning back the clock.
Wei Ying spoke to fill the silence, his voice echoing in the empty halls as they hunted down magisters for pieces of a key. Lan Wangji was pathetically grateful for it: Wei Ying seemed like the one real thing in all the chaos, the person who was still the same, still fighting. He anchored himself with the sound of Wei Ying’s voice, whispering over his shoulder and rattling off the stone walls in turn. The voice said, I am real. The voice said, I will still be real, when this is over, no matter the outcome.
Lan Xichen walked alone ahead of them, his back straight and body skeletal. The Wen siblings trailed behind, humming with slow lyrium poisoning. Wei Ying was pale-faced and horrified but he was whole, and living, and he was a blessing.
“We’re going to get out of this,” Wei Ying said, a mumble just for him in the near-silent building, “I swear, Lan Zhan, I’m so sorry I dragged you into this. We’re going to go home.”
“I would have followed anywhere you asked me,” Lan Wangji told him, too tired and afraid for subtlety. He thought again of their kiss in the Circle tower, of living with no regrets. “You never dragged me into anything.”
He kept walking. There was nothing more to do but walk slowly towards another morning, and hope it would be a victory. To try to hold the sky together, so impossibly broken, in his shaking hands.
The magister was wizened when they found him, decaying from the inside. Another victim of the lyrium sickness. His son swayed next to him like a puppet on strings, and Wen Qing’s sword was at his pale throat before the magister himself could do anything but moan in sorrow and fall to his knees. Wei Ying winced, brief and deep, and put the blood from the corpse to good use.
It was quick, at least, for both of them. He was an old man, weak with loss. And he carried the amulet they needed with him.
“Give me an hour,” Wei Ying was saying, “no, half an hour, I can—”
“You don’t have that kind of time,” Lan Xichen said, level in the way he was in the war room when Nie Huaisang was drawing something out, being dramatic without cause. A flicker of familiarity that hurt worse, somehow, than being unable to recognize him.
“Go, Wei-ge,” Wen Ning said. There was a hint of that old earnestness flickering in his face, and Lan Wangji saw it go through Wei Ying like an arrow. “A-jie and I will give you time.”
“I’m not just going to let you walk out there and kill yourselves—” Wei Ying began, choked, and Wen Qing fixed him with a look.
“We are dead already,” she said. “The only way we will not die is if this never comes to pass.” She shifted her grip on her sword, seeming like she wanted to say something more, but in the end all she managed was, “A-Ning, come.”
They jogged out the door, and shut it behind them. Wei Ying took two trembling steps forward, and then choked down a sob, and turned to the amulet.
“You’ll have as much time as I can give you,” Lan Xichen said, and then, as if it had been ground out of him, “I watched you die once, Wangji. Don’t let me see it again.”
Before Lan Wangji could answer him, he turned and walked to the door, and cast two spells—one, a protective barrier around Wei Ying and Lan Wangji; the other, a smaller, more fragile barrier around himself.
Wei Ying drew frantic sigils on the ground, dripping blood, mumbling to himself.
“Take mine,” Lan Wangji said, offering his arms, and there was a noise from above—the scream of a dragon, or a demon, or both—the doors rattled, and Wei Ying sobbed once, dry, as he sliced cleanly into Lan Wangji’s arms. “It’s all right—it’s all right,” Lan Wangji found himself saying, as Wei Ying traced designs against the stone floor, hands only shaking a little. As the doors broke down, the Wens nowhere to be found, and as his brother let go of the small, useless barrier he had put up around himself in order to feed more mana into the one around the two of them.
The stone at Wei Ying’s feet sparked green. A portal began to widen, behind them.
“ Go, ” Lan Xichen shouted, face contorted, and Wei Ying took Lan Wangji’s hand again, pulling him forward. The tears had left him; he looked carved from stone, now, vengeful. Lan Wangji wondered what he looked like.
He looked over his shoulder once more to see his brother being swarmed by shades. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, gripped Wei Ying’s hand, and they went.
The present seemed too sunny, too bright, after the dim horror of the future.
The magister had surrendered; Wei Ying had fallen to fussing over the Wens, hugging them both and beginning to talk frantically and quickly about what they had just seen, and somewhere in the midst of all this, Lan Wangji had offered the mages an alliance with the Inquisition. He did not remember doing it.
Then he had gone outside to stand on the balcony of Redcliffe Castle, and to look at the blue, wide daylight. This, he remembered: he had surfaced to find himself staring out at the clouds, at the unchanged color of the sky. The breach was contained in Haven. The empress was not dead. They were safe for one more night, one more morning. There was still a chance, after all, for the mark on his palm to be of some use in protecting the people he loved.
He tightened his hands over the wall of the balcony, hiding the mark against the stone, and tried to breathe evenly.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said from behind him, ten minutes or so after he had left.
“I’m all right,” Lan Wangji said, still feeling distant, as if he didn’t quite exist in the present yet.
“Didi,” Lan Xichen said, chiding, and then Lan Wangji really was all right, when the horrified edge to the word was gone, when his brother was looking at him calmly and with affection, sliding a hand onto his shoulder. “Tell me.”
“I’m glad to be back,” Lan Wangji said, and left it at that.
Back in Haven, their new retinue of several dozen refugee mages, Wei Ying, and the Wen siblings—Wen Qing very irritable at the cold and Wen Ning lobbing snow at a few of the younger children of the village—attracted some very strange looks.
Nie Mingjue was waiting for them outside the Chantry, arguing passionately with someone Lan Wangji didn’t recognize about trebuchet defenses.
“You’re back,” he said. It was addressed more to Lan Xichen than to Lan Wangji.
“Mm,” Lan Xichen said. “My brother has news.”
“So does mine, I think,” Nie Mingjue said. “I told him to sit on it until you two got back. Wangji,” he added, “I got the letter you sent ahead. There’s a space set up inside for the mages. Rooms for your friend and his friends, too. Lucky there were still two empty.”
“We can just take one if it’s easier,” Wei Ying said. “Lan Zhan—”
“Whatever you like,” Lan Wangji told him. “I want you to be comfortable.”
Wei Ying smiled at him, the force of it wrinkling his nose a little. “Lan Zhan,” he said, “I was just going to say, we don’t want to make trouble for you. You’ve done a lot already.”
“You really have,” Wen Ning added, head bobbing. His sister said nothing, but her face was wrapped in two layers of cloth to guard against the cold, so it was likely that she couldn’t.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji said; he would do more, if he had any say about it.
“There is a tavern, down the hill, if you’d like to warm up,” Lan Xichen said, gesturing to the group at large, and then turning to walk with Nie Mingjue to the war room. Wei Ying made as if to turn, too, following the Wen siblings; Lan Wangji caught his sleeve before he could.
“Will you stay?” he asked.
“You’ve asked me for so little all these years, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, “how can I deny you? Anyway, this place isn’t so bad.”
Lan Wangji’s mouth was dry. Did he mean—?
“For the debriefing,” he felt the need to clarify. “But—”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said. “Oh. Sorry! Sorry for assuming. Let’s go, we shouldn’t keep them waiting, huh, Lan Zhan?”
He hurried off down the Chantry hallway after Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji called after him, flummoxed, his hand still outstretched.
“Hmm,” Nie Huaisang said, appearing behind him. “Well done.”
He patted Lan Wangji once on the shoulder in what seemed like commiseration, and then joined the crowd on their way to the war room, jogging until he caught up with Wei Ying and then bowing briefly to introduce himself.
Lan Wangji remained behind them, hand falling to rest at his side again, fist clenched and holding nothing.
When Lan Wangji snapped out of his daze and arrived at the war room, the table was crowded. Wei Ying stood a little ways away from it, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and one leg folded over the other, his black robes making him look like an errant shadow. Lan Wangji circled around the table to stand next to him, avoiding his brother’s inquisitive look.
“Wei Ying,” he said, quietly, but Wei Ying waved him off.
“It’s starting, you’re needed,” he said. “Go on, Lan Zhan, I’m excited to watch the Herald at work.”
Before he could say anything more, Jin Guangyao walked in, smiling wide in the way of his that meant he was particularly upset about something. “You could have begun,” he said, without preamble. “I think the past few days have proven you don’t need me in order to make decisions.”
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said mildly. “An alliance with the mages was—”
“I’m not talking about that, I’m all for that,” Jin Guangyao said, waving a hand, his smile fixed. “It’ll show Orlais that we should be taken seriously, and we’re not just some foolish group of zealots huddled away up here on the mountain. Very clever, Wangji.”
Behind him, Lan Wangji sensed rather than saw Wei Ying go tense.
“Ah. Wei-gongzi, we’re all very grateful to you for your assistance, and grateful to your companions as well,” Jin Guangyao added, and turned his bright, dimpled smile on Wei Ying, which only served to make him more nervous, as far as Lan Wangji could tell. “You’re very popular. In twenty-four hours, the Divine has written to me once, Knight-Commander Jiang has written three times, one of them enchanted so I couldn’t burn it, and Lady Jiang Yanli sent this .” As he spoke, he marched over, handed Wei Ying a carefully folded letter with crisp black ink. “I hope you won’t send your personal correspondence through me in the future? I don’t mind, really, but I receive so much as it is.”
Wei Ying reached out and took the letter, and shared a brief, frantic look with Lan Wangji as he tucked it into his sleeve. Jin Guangyao settled into his chair, and raised his quill and writing board, and then looked at Lan Xichen as if daring him to say something.
“You can forward some of those letters to me if you like,” was what he eventually came up with, his own smile strained. “I’ll handle them.”
“It’s my job,” Jin Guangyao said pleasantly, stabbing the paper with the tip of his quill as he wrote. “I don’t mind, Er-ge.”
Nie Mingjue was glaring daggers at him, which he was ignoring.
“Right,” Nie Huaisang said, snapping his fan open and hiding behind it, raising his eyebrows over it at Lan Wangji. “You said you had some news for us?”
Lan Wangji explained what they had seen in the future as quickly as possible. Wei Ying chimed in once in a while to clarify a point, but all in all remained very quiet and well-behaved, leaning against the wall. It was unsettling. Lan Wangji wished he would joke and tease, the way he had just hours before on the way back to Haven.
“There’s the matter of Wei-gongzi and his companions,” Lan Xichen added. “You’ve done the Inquisition a great service. We meant it when we said we were grateful.”
“Well,” Wei Ying said. “You know. Anything to help Lan Zhan. Uh, the Herald.” He still sounded nervous. Lan Wangji turned around to look at him, and Wei Ying avoided his eyes, studying the war table instead. “He did me a huge favor in the past, so it’s me who owes him, really—”
“No need,” Lan Wangji said. “For debts, between us.”
Wei Ying smiled. It was a strange, sad smile, his face pale. “No, I suppose there isn’t.”
Wei Ying, Lan Wangji thought, fighting the urge to step over and cradle his face in his hands, to turn his head until their eyes met. He felt that if Wei Ying would only look at him he would know in an instant what was wrong and how to fix it, but something had cut off between them, like a river blocked by a rockslide.
“Yes,” Lan Xichen said, more cautiously this time. “Well, the least we can do is offer you sanctuary if you need it. Even for just a few days.”
“Wei-gongzi is welcome to stay as far as I’m concerned,” Nie Huaisang said, bobbing a nod in his direction. “I think some of your contacts could be quite useful; you’ve met people all over the continent, haven’t you? While travelling? Any news is good news.”
“I don’t mind,” Nie Mingjue said. “Might get that friend of yours to teach some of the archers if he’s willing. They’re bordering on hopeless.”
Wei Ying looked between the three of them, brow creased. “We could make ourselves useful, I think,” he said. It was one of the more deliberately neutral statements that Lan Wangji had heard him make. “I’ll have to speak with them. We won’t stay if it’ll bring you trouble.”
“No trouble,” Lan Wangji said, hoping it would make Wei Ying look at him again, feeling crushed when it didn’t.
Jin Guangyao looked from him to Wei Ying, and then back to Lan Wangji. Then he smiled, in his pinched way, and stood. “If that is the war council’s decision,” he said, “then I suppose I am going to draft a letter to Knight-Commander Jiang.”
“Ooh,” Nie Huaisang said, and winced. “Well, there’s wine in the cellar, I ordered some last week.”
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you don’t have to go to all this trouble on my behalf,” Wei Ying said.
“It is not trouble,” Lan Wangji insisted. Jin Guangyao made a face which said he disagreed, but didn’t speak, only accepted a fortifying squeeze of the shoulder from Lan Xichen and left the room. The Nie brothers left after him, leaving Lan Xichen to give Lan Wangji a slightly nonplussed look before he followed and left them alone.
“I really shouldn’t stay if—” Wei Ying protested again, and Lan Wangji’s heart faltered.
“Then don’t,” he said. “If what you want is to leave, I won’t stop you.”
It was belligerent, unkind. But he meant it, in a way. Wei Ying had spent a year trapped in the Circle tower and had been little more than a foggy-eyed shadow after all those months confined; Lan Wangji would not be the one to pin him here, even if it was with something as seemingly insubstantial as tasks to complete. He knew all too well that a role to fill could end up feeling more like a shackle sooner or later.
“Ah,” Wei Ying said. He straightened against the wall. “I see.”
“Do you?” Lan Wangji asked, quietly. He looked at Wei Ying, who at last was looking back. It did not reveal the secrets to him that he had hoped it would; it did not unspool the tangle of Wei Ying’s thoughts and share them with him. He only saw the flat unhappy line of his mouth, and the dullness of his eyes, and knew he had said something to prompt it, but did not know how to fix the mistake.
“I think so,” Wei Ying said softly. “Excuse me, Lan-er-gongzi.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said. Low, pleading.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said, and left.
Lan Wangji found him again a day later, reclining on the dock of the frozen lake of Haven, his hair whipping around him in the wind. He was wrapped in a fur-lined cloak, his cheeks and nose red from wind. One leg dangled off the side, the other was tucked into his chest, one arm wrapped around it. There was a flame dancing in his palm as he watched the frozen lake, his expression fixed and his eyes far away.
“You haven’t left,” Lan Wangji said. Relieved, almost to the point of being flustered. He had been stewing over the way the air had felt between them for the entire night and most of the morning.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying said, startled, and clambered to his feet. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstay my welcome—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and stepped forward, which stopped him from continuing to speak. “I am not trying to get you to leave.”
The breath left him in a rush, and for a moment they only looked at each other. Lan Wangji took another step forward, thinking of how easy touch and intimacy had been when they were both so frightened, stuck in a future that would never exist, and wondering if it could ever come as easily when they were at peace.
“Did you mean what you said?” Wei Ying said, abruptly, looking away. “When we were in the future. About—about following me?”
He was not looking, so Lan Wangji could be honest. “I wished I could have followed you then,” he said. “When you left the Circle.”
“You liked the Circle,” Wei Ying objected. “You believed in it.”
Lan Wangji shrugged. “Yes,” he said. “And I would have gone with you, anywhere.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying wailed, burying his face in his hands. “What am I meant to do with that?”
“You don’t need to do anything,” Lan Wangji said. “Only know it.”
“When I kissed you,” Wei Ying said, “I thought about staying.” His eyes were wide and a little damp; he tore his hands off his face and clasped them awkwardly behind his back. Lan Wangji watched his mouth form the word kissed, and waited for him to finish. “I thought—I thought it would be enough to do it once. It was so stupid, it was never going to be enough. And I thought for a second maybe I could stay and it would be enough to be with you, but I knew it wouldn’t be—not because of you, but it felt like I was drowning in there. And then I heard how you were punished for helping me, Lan Zhan, and I thought you’d never want to see me again, I thought you must be so angry. And so I didn’t write or try to talk to you, but I heard so many things, about how good you are, all the people you’ve helped all over the continent—Lan Zhan, when I wrote to you, it wasn’t because I needed your help, not really. It was because I thought you must be alone up here in Haven, and the whole world was saying you were a heretic or an evil mage and I wanted to be there, if there was any chance.”
“That you might want me here,” Wei Ying said. He was trembling, standing there, from the cold and from emotion. “That you might still—”
“I did,” Lan Wangji said. “Wei Ying, I looked for you everywhere.”
“Oh,” Wei Ying said, a small, punched-out noise. “You did?”
“We are not in the Circle any more,” Lan Wangji said. “I won’t—I could never keep you anywhere that you didn’t want to be. But if you wanted to stay, this can be your home.”
“I want to be where you are,” Wei Ying said. “As long as the Wens can come too. I’ll have to explain so many things to you, Lan Zhan, it’s all so complicated, but I just—Lan Zhan, I’ve been missing you all this time, so badly. I thought you would never know. I thought you would never need to.” He walked closer across the pier to him, and slid his arms carefully around his neck. The touch was slow and fragile and exploratory, and Lan Wangji’s heart thudded so he could feel it in the tips of his fingers. “Is this, is this—”
Lan Wangji kissed him in response, his mouth warm and welcome in the chill of the afternoon. And kept kissing him, licking into his mouth, and it was all he had ever wanted for so long, Wei Ying back in his arms and shuddering and pleased, biting down on his lower lip. “Wei Ying,” he said, ducking down to kiss it into his throat, “Wei Ying—”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, you can’t ravish me out here in the cold, I’m very delicate, you know,” Wei Ying said, but his voice was trembling as hard as his body had been a moment ago. “Look at me—look up.”
Lan Wangji kissed the hinge of his jaw, the high point of his cheek, and then he pulled back and met his eyes. He was shaking, too; he could feel it through his whole body, a maelstrom, a fire burning.
“It’s not as easy as this, I know it’s not,” Wei Ying said. “But I think I’ve loved you since I met you, Lan Zhan.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji managed, and kissed him again, frantic and wet, his hands sliding under the warmth of Wei Ying’s cloak to hold him by the waist and pull him closer. Wei Ying kissed him back, knotting his fingers into his hair, and this went on for a few glorious seconds before he pulled back, pouting.
“Lan Zhan, you have to say it back, or I’ll feel very bereft,” he said, then his smile went fixed. “Unless, ah—”
“I love you,” Lan Wangji said. “Wei Ying. Of course I do.”
Red flooded Wei Ying’s cheeks. “Oh no,” he said, “oh, no, Lan Zhan, I thought I could hear it, but—you’re so—”
He buried his face in Lan Wangji’s shoulder, his voice a low whine that might and might not be forming words. Lan Wangji smiled into his hair and kissed his temple, his forehead; he was fantastically warm with Wei Ying in his arms and his breath against the side of his neck.
“Stay with me,” he told Wei Ying. “Please.”
“If you think you’re getting rid of me now, after you’ve told me all these nice things, you’re an idiot,” Wei Ying said, “and I never once took you for a fool, Lan-er-gege. Stuffy and too serious, maybe, and caring about rules too much. But never once a fool.”
“Hmm,” Lan Wangji said, trying to work out whether he should be insulted or not.
“I love all those things about you, by the way,” Wei Ying said. “I like your seriousness, because it means I get to feel proud when I make you smile. I like that you care about rules because it makes it mean something when you bend them for me.” He pulled back and scowled. “All that and not even a blush! You’re so stone-faced, Lan Zhan, I’ll cry, I really will, I’ll never compliment you again—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, and kissed his nose. Wei Ying was silly and shameless and talkative, even now, and he loved him so much. A pink blush was dusted over the bridge of Wei Ying’s nose when he pulled away. “You’ll stay?”
“All I wanted from the moment I heard about what happened was to be by your side,” Wei Ying said. “To help you bear it. Even a little.”
“You do help,” Lan Wangji told him. “You always help.”
“Then I’ll stay,” Wei Ying said. “You can rest easy with me around, Lan Zhan. I’ll keep all those stupid nobles from sending you letters, and I’ll distract the Chantry sisters they send here to spy on you, and I’ll stay by your side and fend off attackers, and I’ll try to make you smile at least once every day, all right?”
“All right,” Lan Wangji said agreeably. “And I will take care of you.”
“I look forward to finding out what that entails,” Wei Ying said, “but right now it had better involve kissing me again,” and leaned in.
Above them, vengeful and bright green, the Breach stood, a crack in the heavens, a nightmare waiting to happen. It had been another night, another morning, and there were so many more ahead; days and days and days where Lan Wangji would be expected to hold the sky together with his bare hands. But not alone, now. Never alone.