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because i prayed this word: i want

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Wen Qing is used to wanting things she cannot have. Sometimes she lies on her back in her room at Nightless City, feeling the mountain rumble beneath her, and lists her goals: safety, for her brother, for herself. A place to sleep. Patients, to keep her busy (there will always be patients.) An end to the exhaustion that made a home in her bones when Wen Ruohan said, in all his benevolence, you live here now. She tries to keep her goals small, achievable. 

She does not let herself dwell on the other things she wants— Wei Wuxian's shrewd friendship, the trust that seems to come so easily to her brother, to unclench her jaw. 

Jiang Yanli in the mornings at Yiling, her hair curling sweat-damp at the nape of her neck as she bends over a pot. Her wrists moving practiced and sure, the curve of Wen Qing's name in her mouth. 

If she lets herself start wanting something like that, she will never stop. She takes all those small bright memories and she puts them away where she keeps the things she cannot use. 

-

She does not let herself think of Jiang Yanli again until Wen Ruohan is dead. All of her careful calculus shatters the moment Meng Yao pulls his blade from Wen Ruohan's chest. (She had always been talented with a balance. All those weights. This much medicine, that much poison. Her own life, her family's. Everyone else's.)

Only then, when she needs any small fragmentary hope she can find, does she let herself think of Wei Wuxian's sister. Jiang Yanli must have done those same calculations, but she had come out with different algebra. How much steel could she show, before Yunmeng Jiang became a target? How much was her own future worth, compared to the future of her brothers, her sect? 

Wen Qing thinks Jiang Yanli had liked her. She'd asked Wen Qing to call her A-Li, a familiarity Wen Qing did not allow herself. She put her hands on Jiang Yanli's own intimate and vital energy. She saved Jiang Yanli's life, several times. "A-Li" was a step too close.

At Yiling Jiang Yanli had smiled, often, although there had been very little to smile about. Jiang Wanyin had been unwilling to climb out of the grave he found himself in, and Wei Wuxian had been determined to dig his way down alongside him. But still, Jiang Yanli had smiled at Wen Qing. She had laughed at Wen Qing's dry jokes. 

And she had been so patient with A-Ning, showing him her own recipes and asking him for instructions on medicine preparation. As an older sister, Wen Qing had been grateful for her kindness. Many people, Wen Qing included, were not so patient with her brother and his wide sheep's eyes. 

And one night— well. That night is of no use to her, now. She picked the losing side, and Jiang Yanli did not. And anyway Jiang Yanli is going to be married. She will have lots of sad-eyed women to smile at, in Jinlintai. 

-

Her brother is dead, and just as suddenly he is not. Wen Qing hardly knows whether to be furious with Wei Wuxian, or painfully, wildly grateful. He had made A-Ning into a weapon, her sweet kind brother who never harmed anyone. Wei Wuxian had not even thought to question the shape of his own revenge— but her brother stood up. She saw him. He held a sword in his hand, long and terrible and wreathed with the darkness that comes after blood. 

In the Burial Mounds, she has a great deal of time to think about ridiculous things she wants. Food. Water. Soil that doesn't poison everything it touches. To see A-Ning smile again. To trust Wei Wuxian with A-Ning. To trust Wei Wuxian with himself. 

She tells herself she barely remembers what it had been like to wake to Jiang Yanli's soft humming as she stoked a fire. Wei Wuxian sings, too. She wonders if he picked it up from his sister, or if all of Lotus Pier was full of song. She supposes it isn't anymore. Jiang Wanyin does not seem like a man who sings without purpose. 

She rarely thinks of Jiang Yanli anymore. It's a lie, but she tells herself many lies these days. It's a skill, like any other. This is how you keep moving. 

-

Back in the Yiling Supervisory Office Wen Qing had supervised nothing. Wen Ruohan did not care about Yiling except as a potential passage to richer lands in Lanling. He put an office there only to keep anyone from getting ideas. 

This had left her with a great deal of free time to pursue her hobbies, like caring for fugitive remnants of Yunmeng Jiang, and thinking about what safety could look like. For them, for her brother. Perhaps for her, if she was lucky. 

It really was foolish of her uncle to leave her with so much free time, even in this backwater town no one cared about. A smarter man would have crushed her under so much paperwork she could never think to raise her chin to him. 

Wen Ruohan was many things. He was not a smart man. 

She had been standing on the back porch staring at the miserable dripping trees and thinking about safety when Jiang Yanli had come to join her. 

"Wen-guniang, good evening," she'd said. 

"Jiang-guniang. How is Jiang Wanyin?" 

Jiang Yanli came to stand beside her and gripped the railing, clenching and unclenching her hands, just as her brother had, a few days ago. She had nice hands, slender, unroughened fingers with neat nails. Wen Qing had wondered, unkindly, if Jiang Yanli would develop calluses now that the people who had done work for her were all dead. She had never been able to keep her own hands clean. 

Then she reminded herself that Jiang Yanli had survived nearly everyone she knew, and that her own family had killed them all. 

"A-Cheng is— well, he's awake now, at least." Jiang Yanli smiled at Wen Qing. It was a shaky thing. Their hands had been so close on the railing, nearly touching. Wen Qing could feel a faint warmth from Jiang Yanli's skin, though not as much as she would have expected. She remembered that Jiang Yanli had cold hands, a symptom of the poor circulation of her qi. 

"And you?" 

Jiang Yanli had startled, as though she had not expected to be asked. Wen Qing watched as she smoothed down the corners of her smile. "Oh, I'm fine, Wen-daifu," Jiang Yanli had said. "Please, my health is hardly a concern."

I was not asking as your doctor, Wen Qing had wanted to say. But she had not said anything, and Jiang Yanli had removed her hands from the railing and gone back inside to care for her heedless brothers. 

-

Jiang Wanyin comes to the Burial Mounds on a gray day. Upon seeing him, Wen Qing is briefly so enraged she can hardly look at him. She busies herself elsewhere; there is no shortage of work. 

How dare he come here? How dare the great rebuilder of Yunmeng Jiang wander around and sneer at their turnip furrows, the frames of their small houses? 

The sunlight is a weak and pale weight on her outstretched wrist as she blocks Jiang Wanyin from the cave where her brother sleeps. He is a sect leader, now, with certain responsibilities. Wei Wuxian coaxes her aside; he trusts his brother with hers, apparently. Hasn’t he heard? Jiang Wanyin has promised to exile him from the sect.

He had given her a token, years ago. A boy's promise, that a man might not keep. She had thought, once, in a fit of selfish, sleepless anxiety, that perhaps they could fling themselves on that Jiang mercy. Not everyone, but surely she and A-Ning, who had saved his life. 

It had not been the kind of thought that survived the morning. 

That Jiang mercy she’d once hoped for is only the point of a sword. A clean ending, before the rest of the clans can get to them. The back of her lip is bloody from worrying it between her teeth; when Wei Wuxian finally emerges from the cave, his hand is too. 

She follows Jiang Wanyin out of the settlement like a ghost. “I’m afraid I can’t have it after all,” she says, to Jiang Wanyin, the wrapped comb in her outstretched fist. The cloth is cleaner than she had expected, but then, she hadn't exactly handled it much. It was a reminder— of what? That the wrong sibling had once bought her a courting gift? That she had had plans for her life that had never involved making a life in the dirt and bones? She had put the comb into a qiankun pouch and left it there for years, because it had made her feel guilty and uncomfortable in ways she did not wish to spend time with. 

Judging by the tremble of Jiang Wanyin's mouth when she returns it, the comb will continue to be an object of guilt and discomfort in Lotus Pier, a little wooden weight in whichever chest it's left to languish. 

-

That evening Wen Qing lies on her pallet, face turned to the ceiling. She lets herself remember how it had gone, back in Yiling, under the rain-sodden trees, the endless drip of water onto the roof.

Wen Qing had startled, when Yanli entered her rooms. She was not in bed, but it was late, far later than she would have expected Jiang Yanli to be awake. 

"Jiang-guniang!" she said, hastily closing her books. It would be unfortunate, if Jiang Yanli were to see the particular surgery techniques she was researching. If she were to draw conclusions. Wen Qing trusted Jiang Yanli with many things. She did not trust her to keep this secret. 

Jiang Yanli stood in the doorway, her face half in shadow. She took a wet, shaking breath. 

"Jiang-guniang?" Wen Qing gentled her voice— her greeting had startled out too sharp. "Is everything all right?" 

Jiang Yanli smiled, wetly. It was a horrible, shuddering thing to see on her face. "No, I'm." She dabbed at her eyes with her sleeves, her voice high and hysterical. She was wearing one of the few robes she owned; she had to cycle through them, two of plain cotton, and then the robe she was wearing when she was sent to Meishan, far too nice for Yiling. She would ruin the silk, if she cried on it. "You know me. I'm just being silly."

Wen Qing was filled with an itching need to do something. This was not a wound she knew how to cure. "I have not known you long," she said, "but I have never known you to be silly." She stood, moved to the brazier that burns hot against the Yiling chill. "Would you like tea?" 

"Oh," Jiang Yanli said, "I couldn't put you out."

"I was going to make some for myself anyway," Wen Qing said. This was a lie. She did not drink tea for pleasure; she preferred the simple iron tang of boiled water. 

But it was enough to satisfy Jiang Yanli, who sat at the table and fidgeted with her sleeve until Wen Qing brought the teapot and two cups over. Jiang Yanli took the pot from her. 

"Let me pour," she said. Her sleeves fell elegantly from her wrists as she tilted the teapot just so, warming the cups with hot water. She must have practiced doing this, back at Lotus Pier, when she had been learning all the duties of a good wife. She emptied her own cup and filled it with tea. But she left Wen Qing's full of water. 

"I— thank you," Wen Qing said, embarrassed to be caught in the lie. 

"You prefer water," Yanli said, bringing her cup to her lips. She took a sip. The porcelain must have been hot, but she did not flinch. "Wen-daifu," she said. 

"It's the middle of the night," Wen Qing interrupted. "You can use my name."

"Wen Qing, then," Jiang Yanli said, and she smiled, just a little. "Please don't cosset me. Not now."

"I'm sorry," Wen Qing said, at a loss. She sipped her water, felt the burn travel down her throat and into her stomach. 

Pouring the tea allowed Jiang Yanli to put some more of her armor on. It took two cups before it began to tremble off again. "I am sorry to disturb you in the middle of the night," she began. "It's just— with A-Cheng, and A-Xian, he looks better, he says he can fix it, all that nonsense about Baoshan Sanren. But he smiles at me like he’s lying. I know he’s keeping something from me, and I can't—" She took a deep breath. 

"It's fine," Wen Qing said. She reached out and placed her hand, careful, onto Jiang Yanli's, where she was pressing her fingertips into the wood of the table so hard her nails were white. She resisted the instinctive urge to flip Jiang Yanli’s hand over, and check her meridians. "I was awake. It's fine."

"I can't lose them both," Jiang Yanli said, quietly, to their joined hands. "They're all I have left."

You have me, Wen Qing almost said. But that was ridiculous. Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin were her family. Wen Qing was an enemy doctor who happens to be caring for her brother. She could not presume—

"Thank you, for everything you've done for us," Jiang Yanli said, her voice shaky. Her head was bowed; a tear was sliding down the bridge of her nose. "Wen Qing, I could not begin to repay you."

"Please don't," Wen Qing said, to this woman whose life her family destroyed. Her voice came out a rasp. "Please, Jiang Yanli. Don't thank me." She had to stop this, she thought wildly, and perhaps that was why she lifted her hand from Jiang Yanli's hand to her cheek. She was trying to lift Jiang Yanli from that supplicant's bow, and that was why she caressed Jiang Yanli's cheek in a way she had no right to. 

Her face was so soft. Wen Qing could not help but wonder what it would feel like, if Jiang Yanli were to smile with her hand on her face. How her cheeks might round under Wen Qing's touch. 

“A-Li,” Wen Qing said, the name Jiang Yanli had asked her to use weeks ago coming out stilted.

"Oh," Jiang Yanli said, letting out a choked half-sob. She took Wen Qing's wrist and pulled her to her, clutched Wen Qing in a fierce embrace, letting out little hiccuping half-apologies the whole time. 

"Shh," Wen Qing said, very carefully not freezing up. If she froze Jiang Yanli might think it was rejection. She might let go. Wen Qing petted Jiang Yanli's hair, the way her mother used to, when she had a fever. The way no one has done for her for years. “You don't owe me anything. Not thanks, and not apology."

Jiang Yanli smelled like the hair oil she borrowed from Wen Qing, and a bit like sweat. She was soft and warm in Wen Qing's arms. Wen Qing could feel her heart fluttering through the thin silk of her robes. 

"Oh," Jiang Yanli sobbed again, into her shoulder. "Say that again."

"You don't owe me anything."

"No, earlier." Jiang Yanli buried her wet face in Wen Qing's neck. Her hands were claws in Wen Qing's robes. Wen Qing never wanted to be released. "You said my name."

"A-Li," Wen Qing said. And Jiang Yanli let out another choked cry and tilted her face up and kissed Wen Qing, fiercely, with too many teeth. 

Wen Qing made a decision, then. Perhaps it was a selfish one. But she had planned for every branching future she could imagine since her parents died. She was perhaps the best doctor currently living, and each one of those paths she had taken had led her to this blighted backwater. 

With Jiang Yanli, wild and unexpected, in her arms, the world whittled down to a single breath. Wen Qing would let Jiang Yanli take whatever she needed from her. 

She put a hand to Jiang Yanli's cheek and tilted her head, slowing the kiss but not gentling it. Had Jiang Yanli kissed before? Was this another thing she had learned, like pouring tea? It didn’t matter. Wen Qing was the one kissing her now. 

Jiang Yanli broke away, chest heaving. Her eyes were dark and wide and her hair was a mess. "Please," she said. Wen Qing would have given her anything. She fumbled at the ties of her robes, then pulled Wen Qing's hands to them when her hands proved too unsteady. 

Wen Qing froze. This was a boundary she wanted to take care with. Jiang Yanli deserved better than an unskilled fumble on Wen Qing's floor. "Jiang Yan—" 

"A-Li," she corrected. "Please," she said. "Don't cosset me."

"I'm not," Wen Qing said. "I want to make sure—" 

"I want this," Jiang Yanli said, tugging again at the knots of her robes. "I want you. Wen Qing. A-Qing, please, I just want— everything is so horrible. I want to feel good."

“All right,” Wen Qing said, stilling Yanli’s hands in her own, taking her over to the unmade bed. The knot came apart easily, for all that Yanli had struggled with it. “All right.”

-

She thinks about the rest of it rarely. It is too tempting to remember, and too soaked with emotion to be fodder for the times when, worn and exhausted, Wen Qing slides her hand beneath her robes late at night. She understands what Yanli had meant, then, in a way that she had not at the time. Everything is so horrible. Wen Qing wants to feel good.

Sometimes, though. When the radishes will not come up. When Wen-popo’s cough returns. When A-Yuan cries all night because he is hungry, and there is simply nothing to give him. She cannot be blamed for taking a little comfort.

Jiang Yanli’s robe had fallen open. Her small breasts, her dark nipples. The curve of her stomach, above a thatch of thick straight hair. Wen Qing had touched each of them in turn, gently, and Yanli had fallen against her and nearly pushed her back onto the bed. 

“You said you wouldn’t cosset me,” Yanli had said.

Wen Qing had lifted her hand from where she had been running her fingers up the soft insides of Yanli’s thighs. “I think we’ve both felt enough pain, haven’t we?” she had said, and she had spread Yanli open with her fingers and rubbed her thumb lightly over where she was swollen. Yanli had bitten her lip, hard, when she rose up to kiss her, and Wen Qing had thrust two fingers into her in revenge. 

She did not really know what she was doing, despite any fantasies Yanli might have had about clever doctor’s hands. But Yanli had seemed to like it. She had cried out, when Wen Qing had crooked her fingers in the way that she sometimes did to herself. She had been so loud that Wen Qing had been afraid that someone might come to investigate, and had clapped a hand over Yanli’s mouth. Yanli had moaned at it, her hips thrusting into Wen Qing’s fingers, her hot breath coming fast against Wen Qing’s palm. 

Wen Qing had drawn her hand away, and Yanli had looked at her. At first glance you could mistake her for a pretty picture, all flushed cheeks and wide dark eyes. Wen Qing had thought Jiang Yanli easy to read, when she had met her. But she should have known better than to assume that because she could not see something, it was not there. At that moment, she could not tell at all what Jiang Yanli was thinking in the vastness of her black gaze. 

“More,” Yanli had said. And Wen Qing had given her more, had filled her with as many fingers as she could take, had bent to take her little clit into her mouth, because she thought Yanli might like it, until Yanli had shuddered and wept and come with a sudden rush around Wen Qing’s fingers.

She had thought that would be it. That Jiang Yanli had taken what she came for, and that she would tidy her robes and leave. But Jiang Yanli had rolled her over and pushed her flat back against the bed. She had bitten little bruising kisses all down Wen Qing’s body. She had run her fingers in little circles over Wen Qing’s nipples until even a breath of air left them throbbing. 

And then she had taken hold of Wen Qing’s narrow hips and spread Wen Qing’s skinny legs and lapped at her, so forcefully that Wen Qing had to stroke her hair and ask her to flatten her tongue, gentle her touch. It had been too much. It had not been enough. 

Yanli had not stopped until Wen Qing came gasping against her pretty red mouth. And then she had come up for air, and smiled at Wen Qing, and wiped her pruney fingers on Wen Qing’s bedsheets. “Again?” she had asked, and Wen Qing had been unable to say anything but yes.

And then, she had left Yanli sleeping in her bed and gone to the library, to prepare to cut her brother’s core from his body. And Wei Wuxian had come to her, to ask her for a powder that would put his sister to sleep. And she had said yes then too. 

Wen Qing tried her best to craft the powder carefully. For some cultivators, particularly those with strong cores, it could silence the body but not the mind, leaving the person entirely aware of their surroundings, and entirely unable to do anything about it. But Jiang Yanli’s core was weak. Once asleep, she would know nothing. She would not wake once the entire long and shifting journey to Lanling. And by the time she knew the extent of her brothers’ betrayal— of Wen Qing’s— it would be too late. 

That was what Wen Qing told herself, when she saw Jiang Yanli’s hand fall limp against Wei Wuxian’s robes. When she watched, as he laid his sister down in the carriage, and her finger twitched, just slightly. But maybe it was just the torchlight. 

She was not foolish enough to think that Jiang Yanli would forgive her. Her brothers seemed so assured as they joked about Yanli’s easy forgiveness by the carriage where their sister slept. But Wen Qing had seen Jiang Yanli unclothed, and she had seen her angry. She thought one state was very much like the other— always there, just unseen.

But then, what could any of their anger do? 

-

Wen Ning’s fingers twitch, sometimes, when she talks to him. Late at night, when she tells him stories of their childhood, when her voice falters. It is hard to tell, with the talismans wrapping him like a shroud, but she thinks she sees his eyes move beneath his black-veined eyelids. 

She burns candles for him now, in the hope that she will not have to light incense for him later. She keeps watch. She has sat at many, many patients’ bedsides, but there has always been something for her to do there. Medicine is a waiting game, but at least then she could grind herbs. Make a poultice. Something.

She cannot even dab a cool cloth on A-Ning's brow, as she had done so many times in childhood, when resentment seeped into his dreams. That beloved face is trapped behind a cage.

So she sits, so he will not be alone when he wakes. 

Of course, she fails him in that too.

He forgives her, just as easily as he always does. This is what they do: they forgive each other, endlessly. He forgives her sharp tongue and the ways she has always underestimated him, how she masks that care with cruelty. She forgives him his easy self-sacrifice, the way he gives up everything he has as easy as breathing. Everything she gives him, he gives away. And they will keep forgiving each other until they are both ashes and there is nothing left to forgive. 

Uncle Four catches her watching A-Ning, as Popo shows him how to plant the second turnip crop. "No, no," she is telling him. "Farther apart. They need more room to grow."

"Are you sure I should be doing this?" A-Ning says. His voice drops. "What if— what if I poison them?"

Wen Qing's heart clenches. What a stupid thing to think. Just because he's like this now, everything he touches is death? She wouldn't let him near A-Yuan, if that were true. 

But Popo beats her to it. "A-Ning," she says, patting him on the head as she had when he was much smaller, and not covered in black veins. "You can't be any worse for them than this soil. Besides, you don't get tired anymore. Take some mercy on this old one, don't make me bend down in the dirt!" 

A-Ning ducks his head and smiles.

 

He's always doing that, always bowing, as though if he smiled directly at someone it might be too much. Since Wen Qing has spent the better part of her life doing everything in her power to make sure he smiles as much as possible, perhaps it's best that he temper those smiles somewhat. He bobs when she tells him to go sell the turnips with Wei Wuxian, and then again when they return. But he can't really hide his smile from her— or anything, really. Her brother is not a secretive person.

But she rounds a corner into the courtyard, and there, in A-Ning’s hands, is a bowl of lotus root and rib soup. Wen Qing’s heart is beating too fast in her chest. Surely they can hear it across the clearing. Foolish, to be so affected, when probably they had just found a merchant. Yiling is not so far from Yunmeng, after all.

A-Yuan clanks the finely-carved spoon against the jade bowl, clearly not used to such dishware. All they have are hand-thrown pots. 

Jiang Yanli had been in Yiling, then. That was why Wei Wuxian had spent the whole evening ducking her gaze, stabbing his mushrooms idly as though they had wronged him. 

Jiang Yanli had been in Yiling, and had not ventured further. And they had kept it from her.

A-Ning looks up, suddenly, and sees her standing there, her sleeve pressed to her lips. “Ah, jiejie,” he says, “do you want a taste?” 

Her foolish, generous brother. He must have carried that bowl in his hands all the way back up the mountain for A-Yuan. Something is collapsing in her chest: a crumbing earthwork, a heavy step. 

“Yes,” she says, and takes a spoonful. The soup is cold and a little greasy; its time away from warming talismans has not improved it. It is the best thing she has tasted in months. 

-

A few days pass after Lan Wangji leaves, and Wei Wuxian spends the entirety of that time moping around the Burial Mounds. Wen Qing wants to shake him, to yell at him, to make him see that he is not the only person in this village of refugees ever to have lost someone. Nothing is keeping him here. She’s said that often enough, and yet he stays.

Instead she seizes the impulse of a moment; she grabs the front of his robes and hauls him into a kiss. It is bruising and very firm and as soon as he stops flailing and begins to kiss back she releases him and pulls away. 

She has no excuse. She's just so angry, all the time. And as soon as she lets that banked rage dwindle all that is left is grief. 

"Wen Qing, I had no idea!" Wei Wuxian says, grinning at her. His smile doesn't reach his eyes. These Yunmeng siblings. They never know when to quit.  

"Shut up," she says. "Don't pretend you wouldn't rather be kissing someone else."

Wei Wuxian rubs the back of his neck. "Ah, Wen Qing, you're so mean to me," he says. But he's looking at her, his eyes too sharp. His scrutiny makes her feel like one of his half-finished talismans. "You too, huh."

He doesn't know about Jiang Yanli. Or maybe he does. Does it matter, at this point, whether he knows? Whether he approves? She purses her lips; it is not an answer, but he knows her too well not to read it as one. 

Wei Wuxian smiles at her, a little rueful. "Do you want to—" and he opens his arms, in invitation. "I don't mind," he says, "if you want to pretend."

Wen Qing thinks about comfort. About giving it, and taking it. She has always been better at the former than the latter. And he had not tasted anything like Jiang Yanli— his mouth too soft, too yielding. Wen Qing feels simultaneously very young, and very old, and very foolish. She wipes her mouth against her sleeve. "No," she says. "I don't think I would be very good at pretending."

"It's not for everyone," Wei Wuxian says, half-laughing in that way he has of joking about things he finds painful. "I happen to have made a life study of it, but—" she can see the moment he takes her in, her red-rimmed eyes, how she has wrapped her hands around her sides. "Hey," he says. He tugs at her arm, pulling her towards him. She had held Jiang Yanli this way, that one long night in Yiling. 

But there is no charge between them. It just feels nice. After all she is only a body. It is pleasant, to be held. She does not love Wei Wuxian; she does not even trust him to tell the truth, most of the time. But there are many ways of being truthful. This— his hand warm against her back, his heartbeat slow and erratic against her ear— this is a pledge she will accept from him.

"You should eat more," she says, pulling back and swatting his arm. "Your heartbeat sounds like shit."

His protests carry her all the way into the weak sunlight of a Burial Mounds afternoon. 

-

When the invitation comes, it is a short note, just a few oddly formal lines in Jiang Yanli’s elegant calligraphy, tucked into the envelope marked for Wei Wuxian. But it stops Wen Qing’s breath as effectively as any talisman. 

Dear Wen Qing,

I regret very deeply that I was not able to visit the Burial Mounds when I was last in Yiling.  A-Xian says that you have done marvelous things there, and I hope to see them myself when the situation is less precarious. 

I would like it very much if you were to join A-Xian in attending Jin Ling’s 100-day ceremony. You need have no fears for your safety as my guest.  

I often think of your kindness at Yiling, and the time we shared. You taught me the importance of taking joy with both hands, wherever you can find it. And so I hope that this letter does not find you empty-handed; I wish you as much joy as you can carry.

A-Li

Wen Qing lets herself imagine it, for a brief moment. Seeing Jiang Yanli in all the splendor of her new gilded home. She lets herself believe in a world where she could have this— not Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli had never been hers. But a correspondence, perhaps, with Jin-shao-furen. Perhaps an easing of tensions, little by little. Jiang Yanli could come and visit, and see the lotus pond that Wen Qing had had no part in nurturing. 

Even in her imagination Wen Qing cannot help but feel the knives bristle underneath the surface of the fantasy. Imagine, delivering to Jin Guangshan the two things he had always wanted, the Stygian Tiger Amulet and the doctor who had kept Wen Ruohan alive long enough to use it. She might not be harmed, but she would not last the winter.

She will be sorry, to ruin whatever plan Jiang Yanli has set in motion. 

She folds the note, once, twice; she tucks it into her robes, close to the chest. It will be something to think of, when the nights grow cold again. 

Wen Ning looks at her, his eyes too wide, too knowing. “Jie,” he says, but she shakes her head. 

“Leave it, A-Ning.”

Wen Qing takes a deep breath, in through her nose. Lets the iron tang of the Burial Mounds fill her lungs. It always smells like blood here, just a bit. But now there are lotuses, to mask the rot. Maybe she will live to be able to eat the roots. 

Lan Wangji’s invitation falls back in its neat accordion folds as though she had never opened it. She smooths the cover clean. She puts on her best smile. 

“Wei Wuxian,” she says. “There’s a letter for you.”