When his mother was still alive there were peonies in her garden beside the gentian, great effusive heaps of flowers like foam on a stream. When the last frost retreated they seemed to burst up overnight, coloring the world in white and palest pink. She would cut the heads and float them in bowls as they opened and the house would smell of grass and earth and something softer, fresher, that was both like and unlike roses: their scent was lighter than roses, and greener, and wilder. As spring melted into the heat of high summer a second snow of petals would cover the grass. He’d find them days later, single fading bits stuck to his hems, sticky and paper-soft. She’d had them planted when she was first married; by the time she died the bushes were nearly as high as a man. There is a meaning in flowers, he knows.
White peonies are for shame.
There is a point at which his back goes nearly numb; the whip is still knocking him forward with every blow, but the flesh it lands on might as well be a rotting log, deadened to sensation. He feels the percussive force of the strikes but the sting—the cut—is gone. His vision blurs. He can’t feel his legs and there is a tingling in his arms. Maybe it’s a drug, something passed to him in his breakfast. He had abstained from food, thinking that the only thing worse than being beaten for his violations would be vomiting on himself midway through, but his brother had urged him to at least take a fortifying broth. He’d thought about it, and then lifted the bowl to his lips. If he’s decided to live then he may as well tend his body correctly. But now he sees Xichen had an ulterior motive. He’s not angry about it, he doesn’t think. Numbness is preferable to all the alternatives that he’s been cycling through.
Someone is counting.
He takes a hit and sags forward, the world lurching sickeningly around him. He might purge after all, even if it’s only bile and blood. But after a moment the vertigo passes and he pulls himself back. He can no longer sit entirely straight; the muscles along his spine and sides have gone unresponsive, so he clenches his stomach to bear himself up. His skin feels hot and cold. He’s not sure how much longer he can keep from planting forward onto his face. When he does, he’ll fold his arms under his chest, braced against his knees, and go on taking it. It’s not strictly against the rules to bend over for punishment, even if it’s considered a compromise, an admission of physical and spiritual weakness. Boys and women are corrected that way, if they cannot bear the blows without falling. For them there is no shame in it. For him… but it doesn’t matter. There’s no weaker position than the one he’s currently inhabiting. In the greatest trial of his life, his vaunted strength was immaterial and meaningless. There’s no point in being precious about it now.
Another hit. And another. His stomach clenches and rebels, and finally he leans forward to spit foul-tasting fluid onto the ground. His body shivers. It’s time. He leans forward and rests his forearms onto his thighs. Bow his head. Faces the gravel. Waits. There’s a brief murmuring, as he knew there would be. Hanguang-jun has lowered himself to take his lesson like a reedy, misbehaving child. Hanguang-jun, he thinks—in a voice that is not his own—is no longer upright. In any sense.
He liked foolish things like this: words with two meanings. Liked things that could be teased out, turned over and toyed with, like a bird pecking at chestnuts. His mind and spirit were all curiosity, and they reshaped the world they moved through. Everything he touched was made new, was changed.
Even me, he thinks. Even this. He's never taken punishment with anything but focus in his mind, seeking the scrubbing clarity of pain and the clean blank feeling afterwards. But now instead his mind is floating towards memories, towards fantasies, caught in them like the breath of a dandelion. He sees the cold spring before him, vapor and mist, and the curled shape of naked shoulders. The moon rising above the pines; a woman's voice humming above his bed. His old life, his old dreams, melt around him like fog.
Meanwhile, the whip-hand resumes.
After a while he can feel a palm against his face, gentle fingers soft and soothing. It’s not real, not exactly: he can tell the difference between a ghost’s touch and a living person’s, between a spirit-vision and an overactive imagination. His education has been thorough. But the beating has also been thorough, so for now he forgets what he knows and leans into it, into the hand cupping his cheek. It’s soft and dry as those forgotten petals, as the touch of a pillow. He can smell wildflowers, can taste blood and dirt. My baby, his mother says, and he closes his eyes. My treasure. He barely remembers the sound of her voice, but the feeling of it is just the same. Just the same as ever.
According to the elders, they have not beaten a Lan disciple like this in fifty years. Among his generation his back will be a novelty. But even still, they have the equipment for the procedure ready, every civilized accessory and ritual tool in its place: there is even a padded circular headrest affixed now to his bed in the jingshi, for the first weeks or months when his back will not be able to bear the weight of itself. He is still theirs; there are limits to how far they are willing to demean him. He is certain he should feel more grateful for that than he is. Another failing. He is not in a hurry to confess it.
He is lying on his stomach with his face pointed down through the headrest and his arms at his sides, drifting in and out of consciousness. He’s not sure how long he’s been like this; he doesn’t remember being carried back to the house. Xichen probably would have arranged to hold him in a trance for the first few days. Or maybe the first few weeks. It is possible to survive on spiritual energy, even if the bodily aftereffects will be less than pleasant. There is something cool covering his back: bandages soaked in salve and more of the numbing agent, most likely. This is more of his brother’s hand at work. Lan Qiren has certain feelings about the decadence indicated in the use of analgesics.
Someone is talking. For a moment he wonders if he’s fallen asleep mid-conversation; the thought is mortifying. He blinks and tries to clear his head and rejoin the stream of speech, struggling for attentiveness.
“—of a woman like her, what do you expect?” the voice says, low and muted. “I still see that creature in my dreams, floating around like a—”
“You should watch your tongue.”
“Oh, should I?” There’s a thump. It sounds like a bundle of cloth. “Or what?”
“Shush," the other hisses. "Don’t speak ill of the young master.”
“I’m not speaking ill of the young master.” There is a shuffling sound, like a basket being dragged across the floor. “I’m talking about the sorceress who birthed him. Is that his fault? More like his bad fortune.”
“Oh, what do you know!” the other voice says, and there’s another thump, and a door sliding shut. “Fool. As if you’re a cultivator too. Stick to laundry.”
Footsteps, and then the voices are fading away. There is a hand on his hair again, stroking it back down the curve of his skull. His uncle had the peonies pulled out when she died, he knows. By the roots.
It’s another three weeks before he can sit up, and two after that before he can pull a robe over his back, even loosely, or bear a bite of solid food. He is banned visitors at this stage, the better to focus his mind on contemplation of the virtues, or his lack thereof. But when he can dress again, and pull his own hair into a knot—it’s still too difficult to raise his arms fully—and cleared for the attentions of family, he finally answers the monitoring talisman from Xichen that has been waiting for him, hovering above his bed like a circling fly. In response to his slight acknowledgement his brother brings what seems like a wagonload of food up the hill, and books, and musical scores. Wangji looks everything over politely without comment and nods his thanks. Privately, he wonders when he will be able to eat again without the sourness in the pit of his stomach, the leftovers of his long involuntary fast; or when he will be able to touch the guqin again without wanting to rip the strings out until his fingers bleed. But Xichen does not deserve to hear his feeble miseries voiced.
“You’re looking well,” Xichen says. “I’d like to send the physician this afternoon, if it’s not inconvenient.”
“As you wish,” Wangji says. And then, if only to satisfy the strangely Wei Ying-like voice in his head, he asks if anything strange has happened while he was beginning his recovery. Xichen makes a tired face.
“It might be better not to speak of it.”
“Better how,” Wangji asks, and wonders at himself. Xichen looks as if he might be wondering, too.
“Our… mother,” he says, at last. “Chose to appear. Here, in the jingshi. When we’d gotten you into bed and dressed your back, she… chased the servants from the house, and prevented anyone from returning for two weeks.”
Something in his chest tightens, like a string.
“She was persuaded to leave peacefully.” Xichen smiles, faintly. “I played her a few of her favorite pieces, and that was all.”
His throat fills with a hundred questions, a hundred thoughts, and they are all equally humiliating to contemplate. He swallows them and gives his brother another nod of thanks, and they settle into silence, teacups warm in their hands. The doors of the house are open; the morning sun rises across the back of the house, throwing long slanted shadows across the porch and gilding the railings. The gentians are in their full, late bloom, turning the ground below the porch into a carpet of blue mist. The day is unseasonably warm and fine. Autumn is fading and the nights will grow cold, colder; when he can walk steadily again he will have to begin his vigil, the second part of his punishment. By then it will be snowing. He thinks of that: of winter, of frosted lanterns, of faces pinking in the cold. Wangji sets his bowl down. There is a question he’s been putting off. At first he had no way of asking it, but now if he hesitates any longer it will become a matter of cowardice.
“Brother,” he says, softly, and Xichen raises his head from his chopsticks and looks at him curiously. “Have you… seen the boy?”
He was still feverish and sickly when Wangji was called away from the healers and obligated to fulfill the duty of submission he’d been neglecting; he had gone despite himself because there was nothing he could do for the child that the physicians could not. His innocent life was completely in their hands. But it had felt like another small death to leave that bedside in uncertainty. Nobody has yet seen fit to tell him if the child survived, but then only three people in all of Cloud Recesses have any inkling of who the foundling really is, and therefore what it means for Wangji to foster him. If the child is dead then at least his brother will tell him honestly.
“He thrives,” Xichen says, and Wangji jerks upright without meaning to, and has to breath through his mouth for a moment while the pain recedes. Xichen graciously ignores it. “The nursemaids say he runs them ragged.” Wangji finds suddenly that he has put a hand to his heart, as if to hold it in place, without meaning to. “He’s a sweet child, they tell me,” Xichen adds, with growing warmth in his voice. “A good temperament. Eager to share with the others.”
He can picture that so clearly, so easily. If he lives to be a thousand he will always remember A-Yuan lifting his spoon in the teahouse, soup dribbling down his tiny hand. In his dreams Wei Ying smiles and dips his head and accepts it, and thumbs the baby’s cheek with love in his tourmaline eyes, kind and soft and young and still alive.
It's too much; his own eyes are growing hot and tight. Wangji lowers his face, but it's too late. His brother is already rising to his knees, coming around the table to rest a hand lightly against his arm. "A-Zhan," he says, gently, and this is finally too much: they haven't called each other such things in years. Wangji feels a terrible strangling sensation in his chest. It comes out like a choking sob. He masters himself, just barely, and makes no other sound. But hot tears still run silently down his face. "You should rest," Xichen says, and when Wangji makes no protest he is helped to his feet. He is resettled in bed like a doll, pliant and uncomplaining; Xichen pulls a blanket over his body and touches his face briefly, checking for fever, and when he's satisfied there's no danger he wishes Wangji a recuperative sleep and departs.
Lying on his stomach, Wangji drifts. In his memories Wei Ying laughs and lifts the child into his arms again and again, forever, perfect in his beauty and perfectly preserved; in his most maudlin, vulnerable fantasies Wei Ying passes him the baby to carry and touches Wangji’s own face with the same unbearable tenderness. In those fantasies there is no urgency, no fear, no hurry: they walk side by side through the market and into the hills under the warm benevolence of an eternal afternoon sun. If he could live a whole life in the span of a day it would be that one, even burdened as they were by circumstances, by the distance placed between them. That distance only widened as time went on; he should have stepped across it while he still could, should have made that outcast ground his own and stood it proudly. He wasted so much time believing that the most important thing was to draw Wei Ying back to the opposite side, back into the world. To see him set again in his right place, where he would be honored, trusted, welcomed, home. He waited for that perfect moment, for the safety of a bridge to cross, and meanwhile the earth shook to pieces around their feet and collapsed. When he shuts his eyes he can still see him falling into nothingness. Into the dark. He should have surrendered himself, surrendered his own place in the world and his pride. He should have gone to Yiling with nothing but Bichen and the clothes on his back and kneeled at Wei Ying’s feet and begged to share his fate. To share everything. He should have lived that way. He should have died with him.
After a while he is too tired even to cry, so he is still in bed as the sun reaches a zenith and begins to climb back down, slowly. In a few hours sunset will fall over the far side of the mountain, and the jingshi will lie in cool twilight, and the wind will rise and move the trees in a rushing whisper, like the sound of lovers’ voices in the dark.
What is there to live for, he thinks, not despairingly. His question is real, and he poses it to himself in the hope of an answer. He lived for years thinking it was enough to inhabit well and rightly the place that was meant for him. It might have been, if they had never met. But something like a screen has been torn off living for him: he sees the inner meat of human life exposed and pulsing, naked and mechanical. Wei Ying did not live to merely inhabit a correct place. He lived to meet a purpose, and the purpose was his own. Whatever he carried inside that made him live so wildly, so purely, was his own secret; but his actions, his expressions, were plain enough to see. His life’s purpose drove him with an animating force like a fire, like a surging wave. It shone out of his face like starlight.
Wangji is not capable of giving off starlight, he doesn’t think. But purpose? Yes. He longs for it. And it stands before him at last. He will serve the world. Protect the weak. Go where he is most needed. And he will be a father. Not only in name, distantly, but presently, as Wei Ying would have wanted for the child: a father in his every intention, in his every act. He will teach and protect and love him. The penance still ahead of him is a trifle, compared to that duty. He will pass through his trials like a sword passes through fire and water to be tempered, and then he will give A-Yuan everything he is. He will put himself at A-Yuan’s feet. He will show his child a life worth living.
How did you do it, he thinks. It has just occurred to him that his mother must have lain awake at night in this same house, with thoughts not unlike these.
Whatever has been said about her, she was a cultivator like him. But she was prevented from doing the work she trained for. She was also a daughter, separated from her family. A traveler forced to live in confinement, a stranger among strangers, a mother whose sons slept under another roof. Her life was severed at the joint, and yet she went on living it. He shuts his eyes and tries to remember her face; it disappears and blurs at the edges, more so every year. Sometimes he passes a woman in a crowd and thinks he sees the shape of her ears, her nose, her long thin neck, but he is equally afraid that he has begun reconstructing her differently, unwittingly reshaping her in his memories until she is all of his making and none of herself. He is afraid of someday doing the same to Wei Ying.
Mother, he thinks. Help me go on.
A-Yuan is drooping like a flower, one that’s too heavy for its stem; his chin is resting in his small hand and his elbow is resting on the table, and from the way he’s swaying he is in imminent danger of slipping to the floor. His child’s stubbornness is the only thing keeping him awake. “Another story, father?” he says, around a yawn. “Only one.”
“Not tonight,” Wangji says. He slips the book onto his desk and kneels up, to tuck his hands beneath the boy’s armpits. “It’s time for bed.” Other children throw small fits at bedtime, he’s been told; A-Yuan just blinks and nods dutifully and smiles at him and lets himself be hoisted up. He is nearly seven, slightly small for his age. If he were not so sleepy he might protest at the gentle treatment; lately he has been keen to establish himself as a rising junior, tracing the steps of the practicing disciples and imitating their sword-forms with a reed. But here, now, he is more like the round-cheeked infant he once was. It’s nothing for Wangji to pull his slight weight into his arms and carry him to the opposite end of the house, where there is a cot behind a screen for him, a set of embroidered blankets in the Lan crests, a pillow with a running trim of ribbon—indulgences for him as much as for the child, small things of fine make. He is not the most demonstrative person, he knows. He’s been told. He can at least make sure A-Yuan is surrounded by comfort, by grace, by beauty and charm. A-Yuan has a bed in the juniors’ dormitory, too, where he spends a good portion of his nights. Wangji’s confinement period has long since ended and he is increasingly out and abroad on hunts, visiting places where it is either too dangerous or the journey too dull to bring a boy of seven. His own father was gone or in seclusion just as often, but there was no cot in his house for his sons, and no storytimes. If Wangji heard stories it was from the nurses, or from the other boys.
And from his mother. The boys told each other ghost stories, but fantasy and legend were her domain: she read them tales of gods and dragons, great love affairs and sleeping princesses, moths that cultivated with their felted wings, frogs that swallowed the moon. Lan Qiren used to remark on their inappropriateness. Wangji is currently reading from one of the same books to A-Yuan.
The boy is half-asleep already when he’s lowered to his pillow; he blinks and smiles again, so sweetly it could wound. Wangji strokes a hand across his forehead, brushing the hair out of his eyes, and wishes him good night.
He clears their cups from the table and straightens the mats; somehow with a child underfoot they are always going crooked, more so than he ever remembers in his life. A-Yuan has left cut-paper dolls around the floor here and there, so he plucks those up as well and tucks them into the pages of a folio, where he keeps some childish drawings and first attempts at calligraphy. There is more paper everywhere than he remembers, too. When the room is neat he settles again to finish his own reading; a set of reports from a recent night hunt of mountain yaoguai near the border of Tingshan. Half a dozen cultivators were sent, when three or four would have sufficed, and so their notes have an unnecessary thoroughness that speaks of boredom. He rarely travels with more than a second, mainly to handle the equipment and lodgings and to monitor the traps once set. More rigorous training will increase their independence, and by extension increase their capacity to assist where and when they are needed. He makes a few notes of his own, and looks up to find that the moon is high and full, and the mild evening has passed into night.
Normally rest claims him easily; he has a practiced habit of evening meditations to avoid the circular patterns of thought that rise unwanted at this hour. But tonight he finds himself lying awake slightly longer than he might wish. It could be the wind, which has begun to pick up, and brush branches rhythmically across the overhang of the roof. It whistles through the cracks and carries notes of pine and damp cold earth, reminding him that autumn has come and gone again, and it’s nearly time to bring the heavy winter shutters out. Since it’s far too late to begin such a task, he can worry about that tomorrow. He shuts his eyes and wills himself to sleep.
The breeze wafts across his face, touching lightly at him, and when he inhales there’s—
sweat and linen, flattened red date cake that’s been carried in a pocket too long; split lotus seeds and the dusty stink of the practice grounds, and the dry sweetness of bound books and boiled skin glue; bonfire smoke, a burning paper lantern, and ink, dried ink on fingertips—
—and above it all a high effervescent odor of flowers. It is not the familiar, clean-grass smell of the wild gentians. This smell comes from flowers that no longer exist; it should not be there at all.
She has never appeared again, as she did on the day of his punishment, but she comes at night sometimes, like this. In a breeze, a caress of his hair. She comes to watch her only grandchild sleeping, he thinks. A-Yuan says he dreamed of her once, a tall grave woman in Lan white who offered him a cake and sat beside him on the porch in the sun while he ate it. It was just a pleasant dream to him, and is long forgotten. Better that way. Only one of them needs to remember.
The scent of peonies is as good as a lullaby; he may be grown but he is not immune to her, and he finds himself relaxing. It’s a shame, he thinks, that there are no more peonies on the mountain. Not anywhere. He’s looked.
A thought strikes.
He could, he realizes rather slowly, plant some of his own. It's embarrassing simple, this idea. It’s also wondrously strange. But why not, he thinks. Would there be any harm in it? It’s never occurred to him before that such a thing was possible, but suddenly he sees it with the sharpness and clarity of diamond: great heaping hedges of peony flowers, as tall as A-Yuan. A-Yuan with armfuls and armfuls of them, his small hands brown with dirt, carrying ramshackle bouquets into the house, dropping a trail of bruised petals. They could dig out the old beds together and lay a new path in white gravel. It would be disruptive to say the least: there is his schedule to consider, and A-Yuan’s education, and the difficulty in sourcing the appropriate cultivars. It would have to wait until spring at the earliest; the ground will soon be too hard for planting. And there are other factors to consider. Lan Qiren would be disgusted. His brother might see it as an unhealthy fit of pique, or even a belated mourning practice. There are plenty of rational reasons to turn him aside.
But, he thinks. Children do love a garden.
That night he dreams he is on his knees, sweating as he scoops out earth with a trowel and his bare hands. He does not know what he is looking for in the ground, but he knows he must find it. He digs and digs, and his hair falls into his face, and the hand that tucks it back over his neck is not his own: a man's hand, strong but fine-boned, browned by sunlight. He leans into that touch as it cups the back of his neck, stroking with one gentle thumb.
Wei Ying, he says, in the dream. My love. Help me dig. But there's no answer.
There is never an answer, that is part of the problem. When his confinement was over he followed in the footsteps of the Jiang, turning over every stone they’d overlooked. The valley below Nightless City was a deathtrap, filled with noxious pools and steam-vents so hot they could scald a man to death, and picked over by rangy carrion-eaters; there was little chance of finding anything, and he’d known that going in. But not looking would have been worse. Since then he’s gone back to Yiling twice, and hunted beasts and ghouls methodically in every corner of the map, following any whisper. At first he stayed in the same inns and ate in the same teahouses, traced their old steps until he was nearly at risk of becoming a ghoul himself: a cannibalizer of the past. A man frozen in place. He drew himself out of those dangerous, recursive patterns for A-Yuan’s sake. There is a limit to how far you can walk forward while facing backwards.
If he still, sometimes, plays summoning songs until his fingers bleed, that is his business.
If he could just know for certain Wei Ying was at peace—if he could know for certain his soul was not in torment; not trapped, not fraying, alone and wailing in the hollow of the world—but all he knows now is what he knew then: nothing. In this he is as helpless as any villager locking their door against a ghost. He’s burned paper money. What else could he do? But Wei Ying was never very good with money. So he’s burned paper ribbons, paper robes. And paper talismans. Charms for navigation, for protection. For staying warm and dry. Talismans for luck, for listening. For seeing your way in the dark.
And paper flowers, ones that A-Yuan makes. Tissue-light poppies and layered chrysanthemums, tied in their middles with string.
When A-Yuan is a gangling eleven, and several inches taller every subsequent morning, the peonies are up to his chin. Wangji often finds him after lessons with his face buried in the blooms, wearing a rapturous expression.
“They smell like cut fruit,” he says. “And rosewater. Smell them, father,” A-Yuan says, and holds up a handful for his attention. He’s right, of course. His son rarely speaks anything but the truth. This varietal of peony is slightly different from the ones that grew in the garden of his own childhood. They are still pale, voluminous, and showily irrepressible, but their color runs towards a faint golden yellow, and their scent towards lemons and spice. They make the air around the jingshi noticeably sweeter than the rest of Cloud Recesses, and as an unforeseen consequence every spring his porch is slowly overrun with the most junior disciples sunning themselves and chatting and dreamily plucking at petals. They have games for counting them, he understands, with their own arcane meanings. He neither encourages or discourages this behavior, as long as they are not shirking their duties. It is not a situation he could ever have imagined—for years the jingshi was treated by most people as a place to be avoided, and whether that was due to him or the house’s own intrinsic hauntedness is an immaterial question—but it seems to make A-Yuan happy, to have this private nook where he and his friends can retreat to. It doesn’t hurt that A-Yuan is the type to pick up his wayward peers by the handful and invite them everywhere; for all his soft-spokenness and sincere manners, he has become something of a leader among them.
Privately, Wangji thinks that his son is much like the rabbits on the back of the mountain, who invite attention merely by their silence and their simplicity, and who engender devotion by their gentleness and humility. He is unlike the rabbits in that he is missing a front tooth. "The last one, do you think?" A-Yuan says, and wriggles his fingers near the open spot, rather grotesquely. He must make a face, because A-Yuan puts his hands down again and sits on them.
"None of the others are loose?"
"No," A-Yuan says, excitedly. "And Jingyi's had his last one, too. He pulled it out with a… never mind."
He can only imagine. Lan Jingyi would, of course, attempt to relieve himself of a milk-tooth in the most vulgar and dramatic way possible.
They eat their lunch on the porch in the clear midday light; the wet half of the spring has gone and now the road is paved for summer’s slow arrival, but the air is still pleasantly mild, an appealing combination that will have them taking most of their meals, meetings, and lessons out of doors for the next month. A-Yuan will plead to be allowed to sleep outside, and he will be granted his wish, mainly because he usually returns again in an hour or so with his blankets around his ears and his teeth chattering. A warm day is rarely an equally warm night in the mountains, at least not until midsummer. Wangji will have a warming charm and tea ready for him when he surrenders to reason. “What are we planting this year?” A-Yuan says, at the very earliest moment when it would be appropriate to speak again; there is still a bulge of congee in his cheek that he hasn’t finished chewing, but Wangji allows it without comment, because the topic is one he also wishes to discuss.
“Beans,” he says. “Rhubarb. Radishes.” A-Yuan’s smiling face briefly flags at the mention of radishes, which he has to be coaxed to eat, but picks up again gamely. Wangji contains a smile at this small bravery.
“Good choice, father,” A-Yuan says, cheerfully, though Wangji is fairly certain he has no idea what those are. “What color will it be?”
“Oh, I love orange flowers,” A-Yuan says. In anyone else it might seem like a mindless politeness; in A-Yuan it is merely honest delight. Sometimes it seems that this child loves nearly everything. His joy in the world is perhaps overabundant, considering the state of said world. But Wangji is given to understand that this is normal, for a good-tempered boy his age to be anticipatory and eager so often. It would be more distressing if he were sour, closed-off. If he were more like Wangji was when he was growing up: cold and sad and distant from his peers, without meaning to be. Thankfully this is not the case. Instead he takes after the father he’s forgotten.
Wangji has tried to test his memories, but according to the physicians the fever thinned away much of the texture of his life before he awoke in the Lan infirmary. He doesn’t speak of the man who taught him to face his trials cheerfully, though he seems to live by those lessons regardless, their roots buried too deep to be clipped off. There is a painful sweetness in watching him navigate life like a hardy little coracle, bumping off the rocks unharmed and buoyant and gracious. While he walks the earth, Wei Ying will always be a little bit alive.
When A-Yuan is engrossed in his composition books on the porch, Wangji unfolds his diagram for the garden and continues his annotations; safflower roots deeply and will have to be placed carefully. Much of the mountain’s topsoil is relatively shallow and coarse, except for the area around the jingshi, which in the last several years has been built up further with wagonloads of good earth. In his mother’s time she must have done the same thing, for the ground of the yard was already relatively fertile and deep when he began his experiments. It was a surprise; the Lan are not known for their gardens, though the grounds of Cloud Recesses are immaculately tended, and the extensive farm on the flatter side of the mountain feeds them abundantly. Other sects are more famous for their husbandry, and take greater pride in it: the Jiangs, for example, with their long practice of breeding lotuses. What the Lan are most interested in growing is scholars.
But then, his mother was not originally Lan.
When he took full possession of this house he was still in his early, strict confinement; he passed most of those solitary hours in meditation and study and, if he is being honest, a kind of deadened misery that threatened to consume his mind. A-Yuan was permitted to visit once per fortnight and no more, which Wangji found more than fair but also torturous and grief-inducing. At first it was devastating to separate from him, from his solemn eyes and chubby hands and innocent attentiveness, from the bright joy he brought blazing into any room: in the hours after his child departed he would sit in a black pool of despair, frozen to the neck as if he’d fallen asleep in the cold spring. Once, deep into this routine, he’d bent in half and pounded the floor silently with his closed fist, breaking the skin. And opening a loose floorboard.
Inside the floor was… how to describe it. It was a vault, in a way. But the treasure inside was his mother’s mind. Not her thoughts and musings, not exactly. Her work.
Her notebooks must have been left just as they were by her own hand, wrapped in a length of blue linen; if Lan Qiren knew they’d existed he very likely would have burned them. Reading them was like stepping through a window into a past he barely recognized. He’d known even as a child that his mother was kind and intelligent. He’d never known that she was… brilliant. Even witty. And a somewhat unconventional thinker, at least for the sect she’d married into. He’d known she was a cultivator, but this was not cultivation as he knew it. For one thing, there were flowers. The notebooks were filled with detailed notes on plant cultivars, diagrams for arrays mingled with plotted gardens sketched in green and white ink; charts of soil types, a catalogue of trees, hand-drawn topographical maps of Gusu and surrounding territories. Her notes focused on extant environmental qi and complicated theories of spiritual correspondences between animal and vegetal bodies. In her neat handwriting there were meditations on the breath of the earth and the pulse-like movement of mountains; the essential relationship between groundwater and blood; the formation of natural spirit-traps using caves and glades. And on and on and on. Things he’d never read about or even imagined. He’d realized, cradling the slim stack of notebooks in his hands, that he was holding the collected masterwork of a great but unknown mind. He’d also realized that for all his own mastery, he understood only a fraction of it.
The forbidden section of the library—when it was opened to him again—shed little light on the subject. Her notes spoke of an early form of cultivation, relying on earthworks and gardens and terraforming; it seems this was an archaic system replaced over a thousand years ago by the first forged cultivation swords. Most authors, he finds, either mention this far-flung history in glowing but uselessly vague terms, or they dismiss it as ancient fumblings. Earth mounds were the cultivation tactics of peasants and farmers: time-consuming and labor-intensive, their results were slow and accumulative rather than direct. Imbuing portable objects with spiritual power was not only quicker and less diffuse but allowed cultivators to meet the problem on whatever ground was currently under their feet. The adjustment was nearly universal. Only a few clans held onto earth cultivation in any significant measure, particularly in remote places where external contacts were few. One of these was, presumably, the small sect of a village in Shudong where his mother was born. He doesn’t even know its name.
Some of the notebooks were old and battered; they were splashed with water and smeared with campfire smoke, with pages torn out. These, he thinks, must have been in her possession before she came to Gusu. Their sketches are hasty and the notes extensive; the later notebooks are in reverse, filled with fine miniature renderings of their subjects and a few short explanatory annotations. She copied her own work, over and over, it seems. Refined her own knowledge of subjects she could no longer study in the field. But one of the freshest notebooks, the one on the top of the pile, is also lightly dirt-marked on its cover. Inside it are studies of the flowers in the old jingshi garden, the gentians and peonies, and others he must have forgotten, their names marked neatly beneath each illustration.
He picks it up now, thumbs through the index of flowers, looking for safflower: he’s not certain which volume he found it in the first time, but it must be there. He stops at the midpoint to admire a small sketch of a roof corner, the fine lines of the building’s ornamental carvings and hanging talismans set neatly in their places. He’s not sure he’s reached this page before. One more step, she’s written, at the bottom. There is no other explanation.
There is something odd about that drawing.
He thinks about that for a long moment, and then stands up. He holds the book in his hand, thumb keeping his page. From the open doorway he looks down the stepped path that leads back to the main complex; looking from this position there is a turn, a cut into the side of the mountain, that obstructs the view down the hill. He steps forward. It is still obstructed; only the downward path leading between the thin trees is yet visible.
Wangji steps forward again, into the hard sunlight of the porch. “Father?” A-Yuan says, looking up. “What is it?” He has, like Wangji, stuck a finger into his book to save his place. Do not bend your books, he almost says, but that would make him a hypocrite.
“Focus,” he says, and indicates the unfinished passage. A-Yuan sighs and bends his head back to his brush.
He goes down, onto the top step. Then the middle step. And now the lowest step. If he places his foot on the ground, it will be outside the bounds of the house. She could not have taken such a step. The binding was to the house, and in the house she remained for the rest of her life. When she tended the peonies, it was from the broad porch. She would bend down and snip the heads with a small paring knife, and offer them to him gently. She could not stand in her own garden, could not feel the soil beneath her feet.
Unless, he thinks.
Wangji puts his foot down. He takes three more steps away from the house, to the edge of the gravel path. Then three more steps. Then three more, and three more. Until he is standing in the cleft of the rocks, at the head of the downward path. When he turns his head he can see a thin line of wood and the jut of a roof, the very highest corner of the mingshi, with its hanging lamps and talismans swaying in the wind. He opens the book to the little drawing and holds it up for comparison.
It is, unmistakably, the same. And he is standing in the precise spot. The angles match. There would be no other view of the mingshi that looks quite like this.
Mother, he wonders. What did you do?
It takes him less than a month to get his answer. Her notes are vague on the subject of the boundary, as if she realized the uproar that breaking it would cause and therefore hesitated to put her actions into writing. Whatever she was attempting, the peonies feature more prominently than he would have supposed; aside from their use in herbal medicines he was not aware that peonies possessed any great spiritual powers. He is still not certain that they do. But one thing he is certain of: the terms of her confinement, and the talisman that bound her there, limited her strictly to the house and its porch. Stepping off onto the gravel should have triggered either a backlash—for her—or an alarm that would have alerted his father and the other senior disciples. Was such an alarm ever raised? He doesn't think so, but he was only a boy at the time. This information will not be difficult to get, but his source has to be chosen carefully. Lan Qiren is rarely forthcoming on the subject of his mother. Xichen is older, and likely has more accurate memories than Wangji, but he is sometimes loath to bring them up. Wangji waits for his opportunity carefully.
It presents itself in the form of a very long sect leaders’ meeting that simply will not end. The heads of the Jin and Jiang and Nie sects and their gigantic retinues have descended on Cloud Recesses, eating and drinking and shouting for no reason and passing in crowds through the guesthouses at every hour of the day from morning until night. It’s the first time such large delegations have been sent to Gusu in some time; the Jiang sect has lately been insisting on playing host, probably to show off the supposedly splendid additions to Lotus Pier and their increased membership rolls. For all his complaints about the Jiang notion of hospitality Lan Qiren appears secretly glad to have avoided hosting for so long. The junior disciples are delighted at the excitement, but this is no surprise. They are regularly delighted by passing birds.
Wangji has not gone to Lotus Pier. At first his confinement prevented it. He has since unavoidably missed the major conferences three times in a row by having a very complex schedule of distant night hunts, but his luck will probably not hold. At any rate, Jiang Wanyin is currently on the grounds of the mountain, so Wangji has tightened his circle even further. He plans to remain in the jingshi on a meditation cycle that should last at least three very crucial days. He is, as he explains plainly to A-Yuan, not avoiding Jiang Wanyin. Not exactly. He is not a child, to hide from an unpleasant conversation. Meditation is very important to one’s spiritual health. And he and the leader of the Jiang sect simply have nothing to talk about.
And if they do start talking, Wangji may be tempted to violence. He does not mention this to A-Yuan.
On the final evening of his meditation, when he has begun to creep back into his own consciousness and is feeling the smaller pins and needles settle into his awakening limbs, there is a small shuffling noise and then the door is pushed aside and closed again with slow caution.
“Sizhui,” he says, without opening his eyes. “What are you doing?” He is genuinely surprised at the interruption. They had an understanding; the house was off limits until tomorrow, when the entourages would depart, and in the meantime A-Yuan could stay in the shared boys' dormitory and enjoy the rare treat of what was probably going to be three nights of wild unsanctioned juvenile gossip. There is another shuffling noise, and then the thump of A-Yuan settling onto the floor near his knee. He opens his eyes with a slight stiffness, and— “WHO,” he says, much more loudly than he means to, reaching for A-Yuan’s chin, to turn his face to the side and examine the fresh, spreading purple bruise circling his right eye. A-Yuan squirms out of his reach and sits with his small fists closed at his sides.
“It’s nothing,” he says. Wangji stretches his hand out and Bichen shakes in its stand and flies across the room to land into his palm with a cracking slap. “Father,” he says, mortified. “We were only—playing. It was an accident.”
“Name. Sect,” Wangji says, through his teeth. A-Yuan stares at him and does something strange, a kind of odd wriggle that pushes his chin upright. It takes Wangji a moment to recognize that his son has just squared his shoulders at him, for the first time in his short precious life.
“I’m not a tattletale,” A-Yuan says, evenly, in his sweet high voice, which has suddenly gained an adult note of calm solidity. Where on earth did he acquire it, Wangji wonders. How long has he had it? Who has allowed this? Not him. “He didn’t mean me any real harm,” A-Yuan says, but there is a word in that sentence—real—that is not as reassuring as A-Yuan seems to believe it is. Wangji thinks about it.
He gets A-Yuan a cold washcloth for his eye and sends him to bed with only a minimum of fuss—tucking in a protesting eleven year old does not count as fuss, surely—and then stands in the main room for a long moment in the dark, thinking.
When he arrives outside the main reception hall there are half a dozen juniors, Lan and otherwise, huddled on the steps; they scatter like mice when they see him coming, but it’s too late. He gets a firm grip on Jingyi and the rest duck out of reach, making apologetic noises.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Jingyi cries, pathetically, and tries to squirm his arm away. Wangji holds onto him.
“What,” he says. “Wasn’t your fault.”
“Oh,” Jingyi says, and looks up with surprise. “Did you not see Sizhui’s eye?” Wangji stares at him and Jingyi wilts, realizing. “Oh. You did see Sizhui’s eye.”
“Explain it quickly,” Wangi says.
Inside the hall there are still about fifteen people emptying their cups, most with dour expressions, as if they would all rather be doing something else but lack the opportunity. The content of the cups, he knows, is tea. Jiang Wanyin is there, with two unfamiliar disciples in vivid blue beside him. When he looks up and his eyes register Wangji approaching he makes a surprised face and then a sour one, not unlike the one Jingyi is making underneath Wangji’s elbow.
“Huh,” Jiang Wanyin says. “What do you know. The Second Jade of Lan honors us with his presence.”
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Wangji says, and inclines his head, somewhat short of respectfully. Jiang Wanyin does not look like he notices. Perhaps if he educated himself on protocol he would observe its absence. “I would speak with you privately.”
“About what?” Jiang Wanyin wonders aloud, looking genuinely perplexed. Wangji grits his teeth.
“The behavior of your juniors.”
“What?” Jiang Wanyin huffs. “How is the behavior of my juniors any of your business?” Wangji breathes through his nose. Does the word privately mean nothing to you, he thinks, and gathers himself.
“I have been informed,” he says, and shakes Jingyi lightly until he squeaks, “of an unsanctioned sparring match. Instigated by a Jiang disciple. A Lan disciple has been injured. Unnecessarily,” he adds, in case that wasn’t already obvious. He lets Jingyi go. But Jingyi does not have any sense, so he doesn’t inch away, merely stands still and rubs his neck and whines. “Please keep order in your household.”
“Order,” Jiang Wanyin repeats, tightly, “in my household. That’s rich. I heard it the other way, you know.” Wangji raises his eyebrows. “None of my disciples would start something… unsanctioned like that,” he says, which is patently unbelievable, considering even the most recent membership roster of Jiang sect. “Maybe you should keep a tighter eye on your own juniors, huh, Hanguang-Jun?”
“They’re children,” one of the Jiang disciples adds, apologetically. “Hanguang-Jun, sir. Surely—”
“Half a decade, and this is what it takes to bring you down the hill?” Jiang Wanyin interrupts. “I thought you'd glued your doors shut. A couple of dumb kids starting a little—”
Wangji becomes aware that he is clenching his sword.
“My son,” he says, coldly, before he can stop himself, “does not start fights.” He immediately regrets the words. His regret is only slightly tempered by the goldfish-mouthed expression that now spreads across Jiang Wanyin’s face.
“Your,” says Jiang Wanyin. There is a pause. “Son.”
“This is excellent tea, Hanguang-Jun,” somebody says, faintly.
“How on earth did you get a son,” Jiang Wanyin asks, and then colors. “Never mind. Forget I asked.” He shakes his head, throws back a cup of tea as if it were liquor, and grimaces. “A son,” he says again, as if it becomes more remarkable every time he repeats it. “I thought you," he says, trailing off, and then makes a bitter smile. "You know, I still remember when Cloud Recesses burned." There is an odd look in his eyes. If Wangji were inclined to analyse him—which he isn’t—he might call it pain. "How quick the Lan are at rebuilding."
The room goes very still.
“Ah, it’s so late,” a disciple tries, but Jiang Wanyin keeps looking steadily at Wangji, as if waiting for him to react. He very nearly does. Instead Wangji grips Bichen and thinks, intently, this is Wei Ying’s only brother. It works; for a moment he can almost feel a phantom hand on his wrist, over Bichen. Long fingers twined to his pulse. Holding him steady.
“Don’t speak about things you don’t understand,” Wangji says, low and soft.
That is all he’s going to say. If Jiang Wanyin wishes to continue, they will have to move to another method of communication. But Jiang Wanyin only looks at him and looks at him and then his eyes slide away to the pillar, to the window. He suddenly seems very tired.
“I’ll,” he says, and flounders for a moment. “I’ll speak with my disciples. About respecting Lan—hospitality,” he says, roughly, as if the word was dragged out of him by hooks. It’s good enough. Wangji turns unceremoniously on his heel and goes. Whatever will be said about him in that room, behind his back, is nothing he will ever care about.
His own brother climbs the hill in the morning, passing A-Yuan on his way back down.
“He seems to be in good spirits again,” Xichen says, watching him race down the terraced steps. Wangji frowns. Disconcerting, to watch him hurrying to meet the same degenerates who elbowed him in the eye not twelve hours prior, so that they can all take their kneeling penance for fighting together. This will, as he is starting to understand, probably make them all best friends. Children are incomprehensible. “He reminds me of you,” he adds, and Wangji turns his stare. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten,” Lan Xichen says. “That beating you took for drinking.”
He’s right. That punishment did nothing to turn him away from the person he took it with. The realization is… no, he doesn’t have a word for this feeling.
They stand on the porch together for a while, taking in the morning air in silence. Xichen is the first to break it. “I heard you… met with Jiang Wanyin, last night.” He smiles, mildly, as if he already knows and accepts Wangji will not provide an explanation for his part in it. “You should have come down earlier,” he says. There is no rebuke in his voice. “Your counsel was missed.” By who, Wangji thinks. His brother looks at him for a long minute. “By many,” he adds, aloud, as if Wangji’s face was a book. “Or are you thinking… of another seclusion?”
“No, he says, and his brother relaxes, fractionally.
“You’ve been traveling so much,” he says. “I thought you might be… becoming tired. Of the world.”
He is. But that’s no reason to avoid it. Avoidance of duty, especially when that duty is so crucial to the wellbeing of others, is a sin.
“Not,” Wangji says, and swallows. “While Sizhui is so young.” I would not be our father, Wangji thinks. And not our mother either. Not absent, not trapped. Not a ghost at the edges of his life. A-Yuan has enough dead parents.
“Ah,” says Xichen. The peonies sway back and forth beneath the porch railing, brushing against the wood like feathers. “Your garden is surpassing itself this year,” he says, mildly. “She’d be proud.”
Did you know, Wangji thinks. Did you know what she was? Did father ever speak of it to you? Did she? But he doubts that. If Xichen had found her books beneath the floor he would have taken them to read long ago, or—no, he’d rather not doubt his brother that far. No matter what, neither of Lan-furen’s sons would have turned her books over to their uncle. Even if Xichen had felt uncomfortable with the irregularities of her theory, he would have kept them safe and intact. At least, Wangji hopes he would have.
“Did she ever… speak to you, about it?” Wangji asks. “The garden?”
“Not as such.” Xichen looks thoughtful. “I do remember the house was always full of flowers. I know it was important to…”
After a moment of quiet, Wangji looks at him. He’s staring out into the cleft of the rocks, where the path leads down, away. His face looks strangely lost.
Oh, Wangji thinks. He lays a hand on Xichen’s forearm, lightly, and holds him when he startles. “I,” Xichen says, and his mouth closes again. His eyes flick down and up again with an uncharacteristic anxiousness.
“Please,” Wangji says. “Tell me.” Xichen frowns and shakes his head, and Wangji tightens his grip on his wrist, with just the barest pressure.
His brother sighs.
“You’ll understand,” he says. “Why I never told you. It’s a foolish story. But I… thought I saw her once. Out in the garden. Late at night. I think I was seven. I’d had a nightmare, and I thought,” he says, and frowns at himself again, at the child he was. But Wangji understands. Better than he might have. How many times has Sizhui crept across the jingshi, blanket over his head and his steps trembling? How many times has Sizhui curled silently into his side when he was sure Wangji was asleep? He is learning what fear and need are like in reflection, from the opposite view; when he was young and in need of comfort he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be the one who comforted. It’s humbling. Frightening, at times. To realize how vulnerable his mother must have felt in his place. “For years I thought it was a dream, but… she was standing there,” his brother says, and points to the far edge of the path. “She had an armful of peonies, and she… saw me, and stood for a long time and watched. And then she… waved.”
“Where,” Wangji says, “exactly?”
“There,” Xichen points. “By that fourth tree.” Wangji feels himself tense all over. At least twenty more paces from the point where she’d stopped to draw the mingshi. She’d been capable of ranging even further than he imagined. “It must have been a dream,” his brother sighs. “There was no way she could have stepped off the porch, let alone come down that far.”
“The binding was that specific?”
“She was bound to the house,” Xichen says. “I… studied the talisman that was used. Later.” His eyes flick away again. “It was tied to her physical body as well as her spiritual energy. It registered all her movements. If she’d tried to leave… but that would have been nearly impossible.”
Tied to her body, Wangji thinks. Her spirit. Not the house itself, as he once imagined. Tied to her. Suddenly, he understands.
When Xichen has gone back down to supervise the other sects’ departures, Wangji pores through the last notebook again, lingering on the watercolors of petals and stems and the small cramped notations in their margins. Then sorts through the books looking for the volume that dealt most extensively with vegetal qi; this leads him to diagrams of natural arrays, and then to sympathetic bonds. When the house grows dark he lights lamps and candles and keeps reading, organizing the books in front of him in small thematic piles. When A-Yuan comes home from his vigil, staggering stiffly up the path and bending every few steps to rub his knees, Wangji points him at their dinner tray—and a charmed cooling compress, he’s not without compassion or sense-memory—and then keeps reading. He adds a bookmark to the most crucial pages and soon there is a small forest of them peeking out from the volumes spread around his feet. He knows how she did it, now. It is shockingly simple in principle, and yet the magic behind it is so rich and layered it staggers him.
His mother… made herself into a flower. This is too reductive, perhaps, because the reverse was also true: she made the flowers herself.
It must have taken her years. All the remaining years of her life, he thinks. To first create hospitable growing conditions, with added soil and fertilizers. She may even have requested soil from a specific region, selected for certain intrinsic properties. He’s not certain. Next would have come the design of the garden: her beds and paths were drawn by spirit-compass, though she had to rely on the hands of laborers and servants to create the specific alignments and lay the gravel, limited as she was. And then there was the long slow work of linking herself body and soul to the garden as it emerged. If her core had been unsealed, it might have been a faster process, to imbue the surrounding ground with spiritual energy. As it was, she’d fed the flowers blood. And spit and hair, and the contents of her chamber pot, after ritual ablutions. It was crude, but years of it combined with the creation of small embedded talismans buried in the ground as her boundary widened—talismans for communication, bizarrely, as if she was also feeding the flowers her voice, her thoughts, and listening in return to their vegetable consciousness—created something like a two-way joining of minds. The garden had no mind, but that was of little consequence: it had a spirit, and that would have been enough. Enough to overpower the binding talisman with the sense of being everywhere, both around the house and in it, and in the ground below it. It didn’t hurt that she filled the house with cut flowers: to the talisman’s limited senses, it might have felt as if she was there even when she was not.
When Xichen had seen her on the descending terrace steps, it was no dream. His mother had been testing the edges of her world. Another few years, and she might have had the run of the mountain, with nobody the wiser.
Another few years, and she might have been free.
He finds it difficult to fall asleep.
His mind spins and spins. There is pain here, amidst the revelation of her genius. Pain in the realization that this was not the work of a contented person. She was nothing but gentle and dear to him, his mother. He has many doubts, but the assurance of her love was never among them. He never blamed her for leaving him, never imagined it was by her own design. He only ever wished her back. Still, he is a cultivator, a specialist in unsettled things. His mother’s magic was beautiful, and imaginative, and utterly desperate. Nobody spends a decade of their life building themselves a door they don’t wish to open.
He has no desire to lie awake in the dark and doubt now, but he does it anway. He wonders, childishly, if she would have taken them. If she would have stolen her two Lan sons and carried them out in the night. Or if she would have left them here. Left them behind. He does not know, and he cannot ask her, and anyway he has no right. It is enough, more than enough, that he should come to know her magic. Her motivations were her own. He has no wish to dig them up past this point.
A-Yuan stirs and mumbles, in his bed across the house; even small sounds are magnified in the close silence that comes past midnight. Wangji tucks his hands across his chest and wills his mind to quiet. It’s slow in coming.
If A-Yuan remembered Wei Ying, he thinks, would it be fondly? Perhaps it would be precisely this complicated. The junior Lan disciples are not given to gossiping overtly in Wangji’s presence, so he has no idea what kind of tripe they repeat about the Yiling Laozu. What rumors and taunts and curses they lay on his name. It might be difficult for A-Yuan to hear those things. Difficult to reconcile what he knew, and what he felt, with the so-called common knowledge. Difficult to understand why he’d been left behind. It’s hard enough for A-Yuan, he supposes, having a living father who is sometimes a block of ice. He has tried hard to thaw himself. To soften his expressions for his child. He knows his own reputation, and it has never bothered him, except in moments when he watches A-Yuan smile and laugh and befriend the world with gentle ease, while Wangji stands behind him like a pillar of cold marble. He watched Wei Ying do the same when they were young. If Wangji had softened then; been a better friend, a sweeter companion, more open with his affections, his words—but wishes are useless, he knows. They crowd in, in the dark, because he is alone.
In his dreams that night he lies in perfect darkness, under a layer of something soft and loamy. He smells bonemeal and dirt, and feels crumbling moss and fine root-hairs between his fingers, under his toes, between the soft insides of his thighs. In this dream he thinks he might be dead. But still someone is holding his hand, though he cannot turn his head to look, for the weight of the damp earth on his chest, on his face, pressing him gently down.
Lan Zhan, they whisper, stretching the sound of his name in their mouth. Why are you here? Why would you come down into the muck?
Because you’re here, he thinks, and squeezes the fingers in his.
In the morning Wangji goes out to the garden with a pruning-knife, his cleanest. He has heated it over a candle flame to be sure the cut will not fester. He stands in the middle of the unplanted section of the garden and shuts his eyes, listening. He plants his bare feet into the ground and lets himself sink just slightly into the overturned earth. And then he rolls his sleeve and makes a shallow cut on his forearm, holds it down until the blood drips into the dirt and disappears. He counts as he does it. He does not need to break a barrier, but there are other things one can do with a link to the ground, to the trees, to the rocks deep below your feet. He will learn what they are.
If his mother could do it, so can he.
En route to Baling there is a broken dam and two bridges washed out, and seemingly half the world stranded on the eastern side of them. His first impulse is to fly the remaining twenty miles to the site of the recent disturbances, but the torrential rain that's flooded the river is still coming down in sheets, and the wind is whipping fast enough that the two teenaged disciples who've accompanied him would likely have difficulty managing their swords. The risk of being separated in midair by the storm is too great.
It takes a little work to find an inn with two available rooms—the Lan are not spendthrift, but neither does he need to listen to these children tossing and snoring—but thankfully it is a quiet, clean property somewhat set back from the center of town. The owners bring them tea and a strong onion soup and dense wheat buns, and when dinner is over Wangji retreats to his room. For a while before bed he attempts to meditate, but the pattering sound of the storm outside lulls him into a restless mood. His fingers long for strings, and there is no reason not to indulge himself.
He plays as softly as he can, conscious of the rooms around his. At first he plucks through a set of warm-ups, coursing through simple hand exercises and tonal shifts. And then he plays in earnest. Songs he remembers from his childhood, bits of compositions he is fiddling with, and then… his hands move before his heart does, and then he is playing a song he hasn't touched in a long time. He used to play it for A-Yuan before bed most nights; now, at thirteen, a lullaby is a rarity. He has a guqin of his own and is beginning to be more than adequate with it. His training in the musical modes of cultivation is advancing, and so most of their recent playing has been instructional duets. He hasn't yet taught A-Yuan this song, and he's not certain if he will. It has no power to cultivate. Only to remind.
In the morning the sky is grey and thinned, but the storm has exhausted itself, and so the flight to the old cloth-dyers' village is unremarkable. There's been three weeks of hauntings and one recent death, and most people above Baling seem convinced the culprit is one of the old cloth dyers. This is possibly because, if local rumors are to be believed, one of them committed a murder ten years ago—this month—and buried the body in a latrine pit. She was imprisoned and executed for the crime, though she never confessed. It’s a jumbled story, full of holes.
"We should set up traps along the perimeter," says Lan Shuhui, confidently. “To make sure nothing gets past us.” Shuhui is eighteen years old and perpetually leaving his own sword behind when he exits a room.
"Oh?" Wangji raises a brow at him. "Which type?"
"We could," Lan Jingyao says, hopefully, "put up one… of each?" He is sixteen, and seems roughly five feet tall. Wangji stares down at him. "Or. Not that."
Field experience, he thinks to himself. This is invaluable field experience for their future responsibilities. He should be grateful that they are so green, so untested. That they can afford to be. His own generation's skills were bought at a heavy price.
The current cloth dyers have a workshop and warehouse closer to the new river-road that stretches between Baling and Yunmeng; the old huts and dyeworks have been abandoned for at least six or seven years, judging from the saplings growing out of their roofs. The air is filled with dust and pollen, and the only sound is the derelict whine of unsecured shutters swinging on their hinges. But they’ve barely stepped foot into the center of the village when a whistling noise starts to rise in the wind, jumping to a shriek. Fluttering white shapes like scattered doves flick at the edges of their vision, ducking behind the houses and popping out of the windows. His companions are quick to throw clarity talismans, in the hopes of forcing the ghosts out, but Wangji waits and thinks and then paces a slow path around the outskirts of the village, arriving at last to the back row of dye-vats. When he comes to the open door of the old workhouse he feels a cold touch at the back of his spine, a yank on the back of his robes, hard and fast. A shove against his shoulders, trying to force him back. When he turns to look back there are three women standing by the dye-vats, dressed in white. One is older, the age that his mother might be now, if she’d lived. There are rope-marks around her neck. The other two are just girls. If they were twenty when they died, he’d be surprised.
There’s a small shocked cry from the opposite end of the yard; he sees the two boys raise their swords with shaky hands.
“No,” Wangji says, and their eyes swivel to him. “Wait.”
The older woman raises her arm and there’s a sensation like a drum thudding against Wangji’s chest; it rocks him backwards on his heels. But it throws the junior disciples into an old pile of straw, kicking and yelling. The woman raises her hand again, and Wangji drops into a cross-legged sit, drawing his guqin from his sleeve as he goes. The first notes of Inquiry are so familiar he doesn’t even think before he starts; his hands flow into the shape of the question with practiced ease.
Who are you, he asks. There is a light resistance, and then three names. Two are unfamiliar, but one—the youngest girl—is the one who was killed just weeks ago, traveling the path from her grandmother’s village to Baling, which runs along this river.
How did you die?
In answer to his question the older ghost flashes forward in a blink, crouching at his feet in a jerky inhuman motion. She tugs her collar aside and bears her brutalized neck, where the rope burned and bruised and slit the skin. She grins at him coldly. But it confirms at least one suspicion: the rope also broke her voicebox before she died. Her ghost is silent, and will remain so. The others say nothing, but the dark finger-shaped bruises around their throats are eloquent enough. Why do you want us to leave, he plays, plucking lightly around the thought. The woman looks at him and then over her shoulder at the girls; her eyes are briefly sad. Sad, and resigned. She shakes her head at him, and jerks a thumb at his junior disciples, who are cautiously plucking straw out of their hair. She makes a slashing motion across her throat.
“She wants to kill us,” Jingyao breathes.
Wangji ignores him. Is there something here that wishes to hurt us, he asks. The woman and girls all nod now. The girls are particularly emphatic; the youngest one’s head bobs up and down anxiously. What is it? She bends down, sketches her finger in the packed dirt.
WHO, she writes. He adjusts his question. The girl trembles, but sets her jaw and kneels and again, and writes THE WOLF. The older woman flickers and reappears at her side, wrapping her arms around the girl’s thin shoulders. The three of them stare at Wangji for another moment and then vanish. Across the courtyard, his disciples sigh audibly. Shuhui perks up.
“Liberate?” he says. And it is Wangji’s turn to sigh.
When they circle back around the workhouse there is an overgrown path leading down to the thrashing, swollen river; it falls away quickly into a sandy slope and the remains of an old dock. The posts and railings are still faintly evident, despite yesterday’s flooding, though the stairs have rotted and the dock itself is half-submerged. When they turn around to go back, there is an old man standing at the top of the path. He waves his walking stick cheerfully.
“Welcome young masters!” he cries. “So you’ve heard about our ghosts?”
“Yes sir, we have,” Shuhui calls back.
“Oh wonderful, wonderful,” the man says. He smiles, showing clean and prominent teeth. “Shall I show you around, young masters?”
They both look at Wangji, who says nothing. They’ll never learn if he continues to make every decision.
“Yes?” Shuhui says. He draws himself up. “Yes, thank you,” he calls up the path, and off they go. They follow the old man on a winding tour of the old village; he points out the former houses of the overseer and chief dyers, recounts the production yields for their most prosperous years, informs them of interesting technical details in the dyemaking process, and all the while he pinches the disciples’ elbows and grins and compliments the nice young masters, the polite young masters, and Wangji watches them grinning along, pleased to be appreciated by this unexpected, helpful stranger. He doesn’t bother to correct them, not yet. When they return to Cloud Recesses he will be putting a more attentive eye to the juniors’ training regimens. Someone has been overemphasizing nets and attacks and forgetting that the most important tool of the cultivator is not a tool at all.
The girl was killed on the road, he knows. A young woman traveling alone. Someone who might be glad for a small kindness.
When the sun begins to sink the old man complains of his old knees and compliments the young masters on their spry ones, and protests that he must be going. He apologizes that he was not more helpful, that he somehow did not manage to show them anything that would reveal the solution to his dreadful haunting. He looks at Wangji with his mocking, insincere eyes and says, “Go carefully, young masters.” And then he winks and turns his back and walks away, tapping his stick as he goes.
“What a great old man,” Shuhui says.
“It’s strange, though,” Jingyao says. “Isn’t it?” Wangji looks at him curiously, and he flushes, as if he’s done something wrong, when it’s quite the opposite. It’s the first spark of genuine sense he’s seen from either of them. “I thought this village was empty.”
The hour is late and the task unfinished, so they build a fire in the old workhouse hearth and settle in for the night. Wangji sets wards around the perimeter of the building and keeps watch after the disciples have fallen asleep. He has a feeling that subtlety and patience are not this creature’s strengths, and he will take the chance presented to him. But there’s no need to frighten the boys with that possibility. He watches the fire and they lie curled into themselves like children do, like A-Yuan still does, hands under their chins.
Shortly after midnight he lies down as well, and shuts his eyes, though he has no intention of sleeping. He lies still and listens, and after a while there is a soft sound like the tread of a cat. The air chills, and there is a crackling sensation that raises the fine hair on his arms. The junior disciples shiver in their sleep, but do not wake. The ward on the southern door trembles. Someone laughs, very softly. So softly it could almost be the wind. There is a thin scratching sound, like human nails itching idly at a door. The wards tense. Wangji’s breath comes out in cold clouds, in vapor, and the wards vibrate and suddenly snap. There is a sensation of a body passing above him; Wangji sits up and yanks Bichen from its sheath, just in time to swing it to meet the arc of a massive, ragged claw. Bichen slices through dead flesh and bone and whips the claw-hand off in midstrike, and then the wolf is screaming, and then the boys are sitting up and screaming, too. The creature collapses, clutching the stump of its arm, and for a moment it melts, horribly, into a blurred shape the color of tar and iridescent oil. And then it is the old man again, and he is howling; thick black blood pours from his arm, and when Wangji stands over him he spits at Wangji’s feet.
“You fucking interfering bitch,” he hisses, and Wangji cuts his head off. It rolls to the ground with a wet thump.
“How dare you, you dog!” Shuhui says, a beat too late, enraged.
Wangji shakes his head and points over his shoulder; framed by moonlight, in the open window, are the three ghosts. That insult was not for him, he knows. It was for the one who hunted him first. Wangji sheathes Bichen and nods at them, and the older woman inclines her head respectfully. One of the girls—the one whose death likely started this chain of killing so many years ago—steps forward, almost shyly. She stretches out her hand, as if to take his, and waits. When he finally extends his palm out to her, she traces thin lines along it, shaping words in the air and pressing them into his skin. The letters are blue, like veins, and they send a shock through his heart, through the crown of his head. He stares into them without understanding. He looks up with a catch in his throat, wondering, but it’s too late. The three ghosts are fading slowly, like mist. Like the end of a dream.
“She was a killer, after all,” Jingyao says. Wangji looks at him. “But not without reason.”
“But,” Shuhui protests. “How could such a nice old man—”
“Men,” Wangji says, “can be wolves.”
He curls his fingers around his marked palm; to hide it, or protect it, he’s not sure. The lines are still there for the moment. He’s afraid to look at them again. Afraid to look back and find them gone. YOU ARE EVERYTHING HE SAID YOU WERE, she wrote.
He never really looked at the faces of Wei Ying’s itinerant ghosts, his undead hangers-on; to look at them closely would have required facing more truths than Wangji had been ready to face. Sometimes souls flowed around him like water, like smoke. Wangji knows they weren’t there because they were compelled to be. They came to be listened to. To be cared for. They came to him because he was the only one who might.
He clenches his fist until it cramps.
He knows it’s a dream by the clothes he’s wearing; Lan blue, in a deeper shade than he can presently bear to touch. It’s been a decade since he wore anything but white. His outer robe is undone and someone is unlacing his inner one, long fingers picking at the ties. Wangji smiles in his dream and runs his hands through Wei Ying’s unbound hair, tilts his face up to look into his handsome, fever-bright eyes. It makes sense now, that he’s wearing blue. When Wei Ying was alive, the world was still in color.
“Lan Zhaaan,” he complains. “You’re distracting me. Keep still, I’m trying to unpeel you.”
“Like a loquat,” he says. “But no loquat ever gave me this much trouble.”
In his dream Wangji bends at the waist and kisses him, and Wei Ying’s mouth tastes like fruit and flowers, like warm body and bitter tea; he kisses him and licks his tongue and sucks his mouth open like he is tasting for the rind, and Wei Ying is drawn up, up, his bare thighs over Wangji’s, and he squirms and pants and makes musical noises as he grinds himself into Wangji’s lap. In his dream they’re outside, under the sunlight, and when he falls back into the grass Wei Ying comes over him like a cloud, an eclipse, blinding out the world. He feels drunk and giddy and so hard that he might die. He tells Wei Ying as much, because in his dream sometimes his mouth opens and words fall out, easy as anything, and Wei Ying is a wonderful listener. “Ridiculous,” Wei Ying says. “You don’t dare die. I would whistle you back in a heartbeat. See if I wouldn't.”
Wei Ying is in his underrobe, plain red, arterial blood. It falls open around Wangji and he looks down at Wei Ying’s bare chest, his bare pale stomach, and then somehow his flushed cock is in Wangji’s hand, smooth and hard and warm as worn silk. He pulls it and Wei Ying looks down at him and says, “Hold on, if you love me, hold onto me,” and then Wangji is starting awake back at another nameless inn, alone in his plain room and gasping, so hard and so close under the covers there is actually wetness at the juncture of his thighs. But it sinks down again as he lies in the dark with his hands over his face, willing himself not to cry, not to sink into the feeling of the shame that is cutting below his ribcage, a hot line of pain beneath his heart.
Hold onto me, he thinks. He could have borne hearing anything but that. But the Wei Ying of his dreams knows him just as well as the real one did.
The garden is—different, now.
Feeding it, communing with it: these things have slowly opened foreign windows in his mind. When he focuses, he can nearly glimpse another world through their muted light, a world composed of choral shapes and interwoven sensations that his single mind can’t quite hold. He understands, now, why this work was meant to be done so slowly, in trickling drops, over the course of a lifetime. If he’d joined himself to the world’s vegetal consciousness all at once—well, his own body exploding into pieces might have been the least harmful outcome. There is power in the world, vast yawning power that no living person should or could comprehend in its totality. It is not unlike the powers Wei Ying held tight in his slim fists: the thrum of ten thousand voices, ten thousand-thousand, a cacophonous roar of life, life, life. And death. Death, decay, rebirth. Flowers know all of this intimately. And so he meditates, he listens. He reaches out, and feels himself examined with something like animal curiosity: the rootlike fingers of the garden touching down, seeking the groundwater of his thoughts. The dreaming, voiceless, dissonantly harmonious songs he hears are nothing like the ones that he can play. They are nothing like human songs at all. He has no idea how he could explain this to others, if indeed he ever will. If he is ever forced to, he will not lie. He is not ashamed. This is still cultivation, of a kind.
But then, so was Wei Ying’s.
Three days after the first peonies open for the year, he is unexpectedly summoned by Xichen. The disciple who sprinted up the hill to fetch him had nothing to tell him except that it was urgent. He arrives in the forecourt and his brother is already coming out to meet him.
“Two dead in a single night,” Xichen says. “I would go with you, but,” he says, and glances over his shoulder. There is a small retinue already gathered inside the hall; Wangji sees the gilded shoulder of Jin Guangyao among them. Beyond it, a flash of Jiang purple. Wangji looks back at his brother and Xichen shifts imperceptibly, but keeps his face still. So he means to catch two birds in the same net, Wangji thinks. To stop one problem, and avoid creating another. He understands. There was a time several years ago when he’d merely hated Jiang Wanyin. At that time, his brother had often counseled him—if not in so many words—to make his peace. But this was before Wangji learned about the thumbscrews, the heads on pikes. The dead Yiling pretenders. These days, Xichen merely endeavors to keep them apart.
Wangji lowers his head. Signals his understanding. His brother smiles, a little tiredly. “Thank you. I leave this in your hands.”
He picks five disciples to accompany him: two seniors and three juniors. He and the seniors should be more than sufficient to handle the creature, and the rest can have the opportunity to watch and learn. Besides, A-Yuan’s never hunted anything bigger than a river ghost, and he’s freshly sixteen now. Time he faced a real hunt. He is cleverer than most of his peers, but shares their inexperience. If life has taught Wangji anything, it’s that it is better to expect giant ancient murderous turtles around every corner than to meet them unprepared.
“I’m ready, father,” A-Yuan says, when Wangji tells him they’re leaving. Seconds ago he was jumping up and down, but he’s mastered himself and is now making a measured, if unnecessary, bow. “I won’t let you down,” he says. “And neither will Jingyi.”
“Jingyi,” Wangji says, “is not coming with us.”
“Oh,” A-Yuan frowns. “But he’s next after Jingyao. And Jingyao has a broken arm.” Wangji looks at the ceiling. “I’m sure I told you that.”
Mo Village is in an uproar; last night’s deaths included the son of the local head, a minor gentry family without a history of strong cultivators. They meet Mo-furen on the steps of her receiving hall, where she is being supported by the arms of her husband and a small gaggle of nervous servants.
“Murder!” she cries, when she sees Lan white cutting up through the crowd. “Justice for my son!”
Wangji bows and makes his brief introductions, but then allows his seniormost disciple to ask the questions; he concerns himself with watching the faces in the crowd, his eyes searching and sketching their expressions in his mind, turning them this way and that. He looks for the twitch of anxiety, the sickened sweat of guilt on a flushed brow, but also for… he’s not sure what. There’s been a strange feeling in his gut since they dismounted and entered the village, a creeping sensation of wrongness, of tangled energy that picks and tugs at theirs. His spiritual energy recoils from it, and yet is drawn to it, in its confusion. Something’s happened here, something big enough and disruptive enough to be sensed and rejected by a golden core. There is, for lack of a better word, a tear in Mo Village. A tear in its seams. What he feels is the wind pouring in through the hole.
Before he can grasp it firmly, there’s a scream from the inner courtyard.
“A-Tong!” someone shrieks, and the terrified crowd picks up the cry. “A-Tong, A-Tong is dead! Murder!”
That word again, he thinks.
They investigate the body; desiccated and contorted, the man’s face is a rictus of agony. The other servants gasp when they roll him over. Wangji looks down at the body, at the stained belly and wrenched neck and then, the empty sleeve. He lifts the corner of it with Bichen, carefully. Raises it for the others to see.
“He was not one-armed,” he says, and it both is and is not a question. The servants crouched around them tremble and nod and confirm it, and the disciples make perplexed faces.
“It took his arm, without any blood?” A-Yuan says, consideringly. “Not a beast, then.”
“Could it have… possessed the arm only, and removed it that way?”
“What about a false arm? Perhaps he—”
They go on like this for a little while, his disciples, throwing theories back and forth; he leaves them to it. He returns to Lady Mo, who is now in full collapse, being fanned vigorously. She sits up straighter when he comes into the hall. Murder, and not killing, he thinks. That word rarely appears without the speaker having a culprit in mind. He asks Lady Mo as much, and when he does her face quivers with rage, and her eyes glitter.
“That little bastard,” she hisses. From her tone, this is a literal descriptor as well as a judgement. “My sister’s son. Ungrateful and degenerate. He has always been jealous of his cousin. I have no doubt he’s behind this.” She gives him directions to the house, and he goes on alone, leaving word for the disciples that he’ll be back shortly.
It’s easy to find the house, once he knows what he’s looking for; as he draws closer he feels something like an itch on the back of his neck, a pricking awareness that grows sharper as he moves closer. It yanks at him with an invisible, intangible grasp. Draws him up to the gate. It’s a shabby house with an overgrown garden; he notes with distaste that someone has been digging holes randomly and thoughtlessly breaking the stems of the weedy, untrimmed azaleas. They could be lovely, if they were nurtured. The house is peeling and the steps are dirty. There is, he notices now, a bracing-bar and a lock on the outside of the door, hanging loose in its hasp. A madman, the servants whispered. He wonders. Many names are leveled at prisoners, by those who live beyond the walls. He is well aware.
When he opens the door he is hit by a stench as strong as a slap: filth and blood. There are hanging flags and talismans papering the walls and rafters like a sea of festival flags; they rattle in their places like a forest of leaves, in the shaking breeze from the open door. A trail of blood leads into the central room, and on the floor is—
a body hanging in midair, floating, falling; red eyes and a red mouth and a black river of hair spun in the wind—
Wangji staggers in the doorway and then throws himself onto his knees beside the body, drags it into his arms and reaches for the bloodied face and cups it in his hands and turns it up to his, shuddering like one of the paper flags. He is far above his own skin, as if he is watching someone else perform these motions from the sky. He rubs his thumbs under the bruised eyes and for a moment he can’t see clearly, can’t focus his pupils on what’s before him; he blinks and stares and then feels himself freeze inside, harden and go still. It’s not—it’s a stranger, in his hands. The young man, Mo Xuanyu. He lets him go, gently. Pulls a scrap of cloth from the wreckage around him and rests his head upon it. It was an easy mistake, in that moment: he is fine-featured and willowy, nearly beautiful, beneath the marks and dirt. He could be a cousin, a brother. And yet—there is something else, something unmistakably familiar. Not a feature but a feeling. Wangji stares, but he cannot place it. He glances around at the bloody array smeared on the floor, and up at the talismans again. He pulls back Mo Xuanyu’s torn sleeves. There are three long shallow cuts on his forearms, and two pink fading lines. He is, somehow, connected to the deaths here. Although it’s hard to say how, considering that he is lying in a puddle of his own blood, the obvious victim of a massive backlash. Whatever powers he sought to summon up, they were far beyond his control or his capabilities. He’s paid the price with his own—
—a drop of blood wells from the shallowest cut, and the heart inside the body thuds, slow and soft and irregular. Wangji starts in surprise. He wouldn’t have felt it at all, if he hadn’t braced himself with one hand on Mo Xuanyu’s gut, as he examined his opposite arm. As it is he feels that faint heartbeat, winding down, against his palm. The space between each beat is growing. Another few moments, and it will cease.
He doesn’t know why he does it, not exactly. Only that there is still a heartbeat, and… that tug, the feeling that pulled him here in the first place. Wangji wraps his fingers around that narrow wrist and then he is feeding it with himself, pushing spiritual energy in small pulses into that battered body.
He’s not certain exactly how long they sit there, but when the heartbeat starts to even out, Wangji lets go. It’s still slow, but regulating itself. He checks the pulse and pulls the eyelids back to study his unresponsive pupils. Tries to heal the cuts on his arms, but as he suspected they will not close completely, being part and parcel of the spell that nearly killed him. And just what was that spell, he wonders. The characters of the array were scrambled by the backlash, but when he moves Mo Xuanyu aside slightly, he sees there are more smeared but intact characters beneath him. They are for access and permission, for invitation. For resurrection, troublingly. But one of them is even more troubling than this: the characters for destruction of a soul. This is a curse they are forbidden from using, except in the direst need: facing a spirit of unsurpassed evil, who cannot be contained or even banished by lesser means. It is the kind of symbol most cultivators live and die without ever considering. To erase life—not merely to kill, but to empty—is not only cruel and final but dangerous. That Mo Xuanyu would attempt it explains the results Wangji sees before him.
Who did he empty? It can only be himself, Wangji thinks. The hand that drew these characters added others—a stroke here, a changed turn—to indicate that this destruction was a localized abnegation of his own being. It does not explain the missing arms, or the dead relatives, but it explains this broken circle, the intensity of the backlash. But if this body were truly empty, would the heart beat? Would it accept spiritual energy and begin to heal itself? Wangji has little practical experience with erasure curses, but as he understands them this would not be possible. The emptied body would slowly but surely decay. One could not even make a fierce corpse out of it. This all leads to the same disturbing but inevitable conclusion: Mo Xuanyu might have incurred a great deal of pain and trouble on himself, but he did not fail.
There is, still—or again—a spirit inside this body.
Wangji lifts his eyes to the spirit flags and talismans lining the ceiling. He feels a chill again inside his body, and out of it. The idea that has occurred to him is improbable, ridiculous. But the chill rises anyway. He stands up and examines the paper strips, turns them over, rifles through them; he scans the room and sorts through the signs nailed in every corner, unfolding the ones that have fallen, thumbing their torn edges. He thinks he knows what he is looking for, but he hasn’t yet found it. Maybe it’s not here at all.
His eyes drift down to Mo Xuanyu’s body, lying boneless and peaceful on the floor. All except for his opposite hand, which is curled up like a flower bud. Like an unopened peony. Wangji kneels and pries his fingers open, as gently as he can, and there is a scrap of paper wadded up inside his grasp. He smooths it out and then drops it, his fingers numb with shock. The picture is ugly; a caricature of ugliness no human being could match. The eyes are beady and cruel, the mouth a rictus-grin. The face is squat and the hair stringy and the teeth are like razors, and the characters above this grotesque carnival head say MAY YOU ENJOY THE FIERCE AND ETERNAL PROTECTION OF THE YILING LAOZU.
Wangji watches himself read it at a distance, as if still in a dream. His breath is suddenly very loud in his ears. He looks at Mo Xuanyu’s body again.
Mo Xuanyu’s body, with its steady beating heart.
“Hanguang-jun?” a young voice calls, from the steps. “Are you here?” A shadow falls over him; someone is blocking the light from the open door. There is a hand on his shoulder, and then A-Yuan is crouching next to him, tucking his head close to Wangji’s. A-Yuan calls him by his title when they are not at home, which is technically appropriate but also strange. He will never tell A-Yuan this. “Father,” adds, in a whisper, by his ear, and something in Wangji cracks further. “Are you alright?”
He looks worried. Wangji cannot imagine the expression his own face must be wearing, but neither can he currently stop his face from making it. He is not alright, he thinks. But A-Yuan does not need to share his burdens.
“Sizhui,” he says, and his son smiles tentatively. “Have you made progress?”
“Yes!” he says. “There’s something wrong with Mo-furen’s husband’s arm. It took fourteen people to tie him to a board but we did it, and he’s in a trance right now. Two of us played Cleansing but nothing happened. And then... Jingyi played an inquiry by accident? But then the arm started writing… very vulgar nonsense in the dirt, and it hasn’t stopped,” he adds, and Wangji blinks. “Is that alright? Father?”
“It’s…” he searches inside himself for a word that will encompass everything he’s just been told, and doesn’t find it. It may not exist. “Adequate,” he says, and A-Yuan beams. “He should return to Cloud Recesses with us, so the arm can be removed safely.”
“I’ll tell the others,” A-Yuan says, but as he’s getting up and shaking out the hem of his robes there’s more screaming from the yard. Wangji stands, clasping Bichen, and they stride out to the porch together.
“Arm’s loose!” Jingyi shouts from the path, waving his own over his head. They seem to be still attached, which is—probably for the best, Wangji thinks, gritting his teeth. “Arm’s loose!”
Wangji looks over his shoulder, into the house. Only for a second.
“Guard him,” he says to A-Yuan, and goes. He doesn’t bother waiting for A-Yuan to nod or reply. He knows his son well enough to know there’s no need.
When the arm is free and subdued he packs it in a net of talismans and gives it to the senior disciples to transport back, along with a note for Xichen. He instructs them all to hurry home and not wait for him, which A-Yuan instinctually resists, though not in so many words. He can see it only in the line of his son’s shoulders, the sad questioning cast of his eyes, as he sends them all away. He is grateful to his son for his sense of propriety, his boundaries; another man’s child might think himself above others, might demand an unearned pride of place. At the same time it chafes him not to give his full honesty, though that honesty may come at a cost.
He does not want A-Yuan painted with the same brush as him, if it comes to that. What he is going to do breaks at least a hundred rules. He has no doubts for himself. No hesitation at all. But there is no reason for A-Yuan to be implicated in his actions.
When he returns to Mo Xuanyu’s house at twilight, he finds that A-Yuan had covered his limp unconscious body with a thin blanket and set a cup of water by his head. When he was a boy he used to play that way, feeding and rocking his toys, tucking them into his own bed, making clothes for them from the scraps of his own. He is the most generous person Wangji has ever met. Wei Ying was generous, too, to a fault. He doled himself out in handfuls, until there was nothing left. Wangji is proud of his son’s giving nature, but he hopes, selfishly, that it will have limits.
Wangji kneels on the floor and looks at him.
He is still the wrong height, the wrong age; the length of his face is off, and his eyes are set differently. The body is not Wei Ying’s. Still, it’s possible, inside… and he has lived thirteen years without even a hope as slim as this one. If there is even the slightest chance, Wangji must chance it.
He scoops his arms under Mo Xuanyu’s back, under his knees; lifts him to his chest, and takes him away.
It’s long after dark when he returns from Mo Village. The gate to Cloud Recesses stands shut and unguarded. At the top of the stairs he turns and takes a less-traveled path around the main complex, the long road, and passes no one. His luck holds all the way to the jingshi, but when he reaches the top of the terraced steps he hears faint voices and sees the flicker of lights. A burst of boyish laughter rings across the yard. A-Yuan’s friends, he thinks. Too excited to sleep, reveling in their first hunt. He stands in the woods with the weight of a warm body in his arms and feels for a moment like an interloper, a wild thing come out of the night.
There is a shed on the slope above the jingshi, where bulky things like the winter shutters and the wheelbarrow and the hand-scythes are kept; he goes to it now and deposits Mo Xuanyu into the wheelbarrow with a muttered apology, wrapping his limbs in the thin blanket and bracing his head with a bag of seeds. He stands back and feels every inch a kidnapper. He is, technically. Even if Mo Xuanyu is not in this body, as he suspects, the body itself would be wanted by the family. Although, he thinks, reasoning against himself, Mo Xuanyu’s family did believe him to be a degenerate and a murderer. If he’d asked, they would probably have cheerfully handed his body over to the Lan for purification.
This is only slightly comforting.
He sits with his hand on Mo Xuanyu’s wrist for a while, pushing more spiritual energy into the strange hollow of his body, and then sets talismans for warmth and sleep and protection all around the shed, finishing with a warding talisman on the outer door. And then he stands outside of the shed for a long moment, wondering. Feeling something that is not quite shame, and not quite excitement, and not quite fear, and yet all of these things swirled together, into an incomprehensible weight against his heart. It clunks against his ribs like a stone on a string as he walks back down to the house.
When he opens the door, three junior disciples leap to their feet. He eyes them all silently, and two of them make a little hopping step and then bow sloppily and skid out of the house and down the steps at almost a dead run. The third one is A-Yuan.
“Welcome home, father.” He bows correctly, albeit with a hint of pink in his face. Wangji gives him a flat look, and A-Yuan frowns and then brightens and says, “And... goodnight?”
“Correct,” says Wangji, and A-Yuan hops uncomplainingly to bed.
In the early morning he walks with A-Yuan down the hill; while they go he asks if A-Yuan would mind moving to the dormitory for at least a few days. A-Yuan says that would be fine and then falls silent for the rest of the walk. At the bottom of the hill, in front of the mingshi, he asks in a small voice if he’s been too disruptive, and Wangji stops and curses himself for carelessness in his head.
“No,” Wangji says. He tries to make his face soft; he’s not sure how well it works. “I have—things on my mind,” he says, which is true but also woefully inadequate as an explanation. Still, saying more could compromise A-Yuan’s honesty. His standing. Wangji would rather die than add a blemish to his son’s radiant future, or his spotless golden soul.
“Oh,” A-Yuan says. His face lifts, a little. “I understand,” he says, in a different tone. He stands up straighter. “Reflection is the path to greater knowledge. I support your journey, father.”
There is a mild percussive feeling in Wangji’s chest, like a bubble popping on the surface of soapy water. It’s unfamiliar. This may be a symptom of hysteria. He stifles it, and thanks A-Yuan for his mature comprehension, and goes into the mingshi alone. Lan Xichen is there already, guqin in his lap. The severed arm is suspended before him, still tightly wrapped in a net of charms and wards; it trembles when Wangji walks in, and grey smoke mists out of it slowly, like a leak. But the nettings hold. Xichen shakes his head.
“It’s the same as yesterday,” he says. “The music tempers it, but there’s little else I can do. It’ll have to be destroyed.” Wangji hums acknowledgement, but he doesn’t have much to add; his mind is elsewhere, going in preoccupied circles. He paces around the arm, considering it. He is aware, through his brother’s silence, that he is also being considered. “Something else is bothering you,” Xichen says.
It is, Wangji thinks. Very much.
“When the arm is dealt with,” Wangji says, haltingly, “I’d like a few days. To myself.” Xichen studies his face.
“Take them now.” Wangji shakes his head, but his brother frowns at him, insistent. “I mean it. This,” he says, and gestures at the obscene severed limb, “is going to have me in the library for a week. There’s no need for two of us to be caught up in it. Besides,” he adds. “I’ve been rusting away in meetings. Let me have this, so I can call myself a cultivator again.”
Everything in Wangji resists, except for the part of him that is screaming to be taken back up the hill, to be taken back to—the possibility that rests up there, left behind in a wheelbarrow. He would not and cannot neglect his duty, but that is more than duty.
“Thank you,” Wangji says.
“The thanks should be mine,” his brother says, and turns back to his work.
Mo Xuanyu’s body remains utterly unresponsive, deeply asleep, not even waking to the taps on his arms or the lifting of his eyelids. Still, his heart beats regularly and his breath comes even and slow: he is, unmistakably, alive. And increasingly healthy. Wangji can feel traces of a consciousness, when he presses his spiritual energy to its edges, but it is muted and faint. It is also, he’s certain, not Mo Xuanyu’s. It is jumbled in this body, placed at wrong angles. It is fighting its own shape, confused and bent. Wei Ying or not, there is a stranger inside, and no trace of Mo Xuanyu.
Regardless, he can’t stay in the wheelbarrow.
Now that Wangji’s cleared the house and cleared his schedule of demands, he carries Mo Xuanyu’s body down to it. He means to tuck it safely into his own bed, but the smell and the state of his clothes and hair and skin make that impossible. It did not seem so bad last night in the dark, but in the light of day the bruises and blood and stains on him are unbearable. Wangji can’t leave him like this. Instead he folds up a blanket on the floor and rests him on it, then rolls out the tub and fetches buckets to fill it. When the talisman-heated water is steaming and comfortably warm, he strips Mo Xuanyu’s body with perfunctory efficiency and props him against the side of the tub. He scrubs and rinses his long tangled hair until it’s sleek and shining, then washes his face and scrubs his body briskly. He’d thought it might be strange to bathe a body that could be housing Wei Ying’s spirit, but his helpless vulnerability strips everything else away, and Wangji finds washing him is not much different than washing A-Yuan was when he was still a silly, charming, continually messy child. When he’s clean he dries Mo Xuanyu and dresses him in spare robes of Lan white.
Feeding him energy was simple, thankfully. Feeding him dinner takes a little more imagination. The weakened state of his body makes inedia or a spiritual fast impossible, so the solution will unfortunately be a messy one. He finds that Mo Xuanyu’s body will drink and swallow, at least, if he holds him up correctly to prevent him from choking. So he is able to get water and vegetable broth down his throat. Afterwards, when he is certain it’s ended up in his stomach and not his lungs, Wangji tucks him into the bed and pulls the screen in front of it, just in case anyone should come to the house by happenstance. He has no idea how he would begin to explain what’s happening.
And what is happening, he wonders.
He reads long into the night: resurrection spells and possession curses, talismans that render their subjects incapable of communicating, the living death curse. He notes down instructions for waking souls from a spiritual coma caused by trauma, for reviving the half-dead slowly so as to preserve their senses. He assembles bells and talismans and everything he might possibly need to safely wake and assess the spirit inside Mo Xuanyu’s body, and then he curls into a dreamless sleep on the floor, and wakes with a strange eagerness, as if things might have changed during the night. As if he might look over and see Wei Ying’s bare feet dangling to the floor, a sheepish expression on his face—but no, the body in his bed is still and remains still, and only checking his breath and wrist confirm that life pulses on quietly, below the surface.
That day he plays the guqin and lays talismans around his head and feet. He recites invigorating mantras and rings a bell for gentle waking that reverberates softly and tingles his own nerve endings. He performs exercises with breath and sound and clapping hands that are designed to wake spiritual energy and send it zipping to the brain and heart and limbs. He claps Mo Xuanyu’s hands for him in the appropriate places. Nothing works. He reads more and sleeps again on the floor, this time under A-Yuan’s quilt. The next day is much the same. On the third night he sleeps in A-Yuan’s bed, at least, because his back is not as young as it once was.
He makes reviving tea, steeped in a pot of copper, that is meant to stimulate the heart and warm the body with vital energy. He feeds Mo Xuanyu more water and broth as well, with the probably obvious but embarrassingly overlooked result that he now also needs to change his robes and the sheets of the bed. He soaks and scrubs the linens himself in the tub and dries them on the railings of the porch; he can’t imagine what would be said if he brought them down to the laundry, and doesn’t care to find out.
By the seventh day, he is exhausted. He’s changed the sheets two dozen times and made cauldrons of tea and strong broth and inked so many talismans his writing-hand is stiff and numb. He’s rung every spiritual bell that exists. He’s played until the tips of his calluses cracked and bled. He doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong. He’s afraid he isn’t doing anything wrong at all. On the morning of the seventh day he is finally too tired to keep repressing the fear that sits in the gutter of his heart: that this is it. That there is no spiritual energy left inside to wake up. That the backlash shredded his soul after all, and the faint ripplings inside that he thinks he feels sometimes are a dream, a weak man’s hopeless fantasy. What will he do, then? What will he do?
Wangji sits and stares at the body in the bed for a long time. Mo Xuanyu’s thin chest rises and falls.
Tired as he is, there is only one answer. He will care for Mo Xuanyu, for his body, and for whatever is left inside—whatever piece of Wei Ying that might be mixed in, somehow—for the rest of his life. He will swallow his pride and seek help, and find better ways to make him dry and clean and comfortable, to keep him nourished. He will make sure his limbs are exercised and his hair is brushed, and he will keep playing the guqin, that his dreams might be sweet. If that’s all he can do, he will do it. It fills him with grief to consider it, but it is not a task he would shirk from. He would do anything Wei Ying required of him.
He lies on the floor again that night, by the side of his own bed; falls asleep listening to the thin soft sound of air going in and out of Mo Xuanyu’s chest. In his dreams he is still in the jingshi, still on the floor by the bed, but when he sits up it is Wei Ying under the covers, Wei Ying alive and awake in the dark, eyes wide and frightened, hands clutched still against his chest.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, in his dreams. “Wei Ying, look at me.” But Wei Ying can’t. His mouth is frozen, with chattering teeth behind it. His lips are bluing. His hands look pale and cold. “Wei Ying,” he says. “Wake up.”
“I’m not ready,” Wei Ying says, and shuts his eyes, and covers them with his stiff, icy fingers. “I’m not ready, I’m not safe. I’m too cold. I can’t be born.”
“You are safe,” Wangji insists. “You’re safe, I’m here.” He climbs up onto the bed and takes Wei Ying into his arms, but Wei Ying explodes into a pile of dirt. Wangji screams, and chokes awake, breathless and afraid. He sits up and checks Mo Xuanyu’s pulse, his eyes, his breathing, but everything is the same. He’s fine, just sleeping. Wangji slides back to the floor, going half-boneless as the fright slides out of him, and sits staring sightlessly at his knees.
Is that possible, he wonders. To be alive, but too afraid to live? He doesn’t know. Doesn’t know how much is dream-nonsense. But the fear in Wei Ying’s eyes was real. It felt real, even now, awake.
Too cold, he thinks. Not safe. Not ready to be born. But infants in the womb are warm, he understands from his studies. And from his simple human perception, knowing that human bodies are hot inside, fired by blood and often magic. Golden cores are warm, and warming, too. Even beyond human beings, most young must be kept warm. Eggs must be warmed and muffled, and insects are hatched after the thaw. The only living thing he knows for certain can feel the cold before it’s born, and survive, is—
—is a bulb, Wangji realizes. A flower.
He throws off his blankets and sits beside his desk, unkempt and wild, plucking books off and setting them aside onto the floor. At the bottom of the pile are the books he hasn’t touched in days, hasn’t even thought about: his mother’s notebooks. He did not even consider them in his fugue of waking spirits, silent curses. He has been a fool. Here he is, living in the center of a giant natural array, built up for years with his blood and his sweat and his careful arrangement of alive vegetative things. Things that know how to sleep, and sleep safely, and rise again at the right time. Things that can spend a winter under the ground and still raise their faces to the sun.
Wangji works through the morning and the afternoon, stopping only to feed himself and Mo Xuanyu and to clean up when needed, and by nightfall he has pages of sketches, of ideas. Of fresh hope. That evening he fills the tub with hot water and flowers—gentian and safflower, wild rose and aster—to heat his blood. He wraps him in quilts and puts him to bed and keeps working.
By dawn there is an answer here, but he’s not sure he likes it.
He goes out into the garden anyway, walking the perimeter slowly, breathing in and out. He can feel it alive, asleep, decaying, blooming: all of it at once, again and again, forever. Five years he’s fed it blood and breath in ritual gifts, and harvested the flowers, and played music to the roots every year: not only music but a composition not dissimilar to Inquiry, of his own design. Every year he calls them, and listens for their answer. He has shaped the plant beds as if they were meridians in a body, tended them with his hands. And A-Yuan’s assisted him. He has tried to teach his son the useful parts of this work, without explaining exactly where it originates; as a result he’s found that A-Yuan has a better natural sense of landscape and orientation, of surrounding energy, than anyone else his age, and most of the older disciples as well. The garden and the earth it springs from see him, speak to him now. There is no fault in it, no sin or crime. But the old ways are not always seen in their true light, like so many things. Someday Wangji will have to tell him why, and how, he is connected to these practices, though so far he has faltered from that truth.
He understands his mother better every year.
What her notebooks tell him is something he already knows: that life is an endless cycle, birth and death intertwined, as night fades into day. And a cycle is cyclical: inane, perhaps, but also profound. There cannot be birth and then birth. Or death and then death. Each comes in its turn, like spokes on a spinning wheel. This is true of plants, who cannot make seeds from seeds or trees from trees. Seed and plant are trapped in their relationships, in their patterns, in their cause and effect. One grows from the other, while the other dies to make a place for it to grow. When Mo Xuanyu destroyed himself to make room for the Yiling Laozu, he left a hole. And something stepped into that hole, but the shape of the hole was wrong, or else the act of stepping inward caused the backlash that left the body so battered. What happened instead of an awakening was another kind of death: an explosion, a scattering, a conflagration. No resurrection is entirely clean, but this one was violent. Catastrophic. If Wei Ying is really inside this body, it would be easy for him to believe he was dead. Dead again, and again without release. Without any acknowledgement, without any rest. Trapped and afraid. To get himself free, he will have to be mourned, and then he will have to be born. Placed back into his cycle and spun again.
This is the part that Wangji doesn’t like. Bulbs, he knows, must be buried before they can sprout. If he had another way, he would do it. But he doesn’t. And the longer he waits, the more afraid he’ll be of trying.
The hole is not too deep. Not because of any ritual reason, but because Wangji can’t bear the thought of him being so far below ground. As long as he’s in contact with the groundsoil of the garden it should work. Wangji would like to line the hole with sheets, to keep him clean and dry, but again, that would defeat the purpose of planting him in the soil. Instead he fills the hole with cut flowers, until it is a fragrant bed in every shade of yellow and pink, and slits his fingertips above the dirt and repeats, under his breath, the new words he’s written for this purpose. There is no set process for this, of course. How could there be? He is doing his best, though he has nothing like Wei Ying’s improvisational genius.
When twilight falls, he carries Mo Xuanyu’s body out into the garden and kneels down with him beside the hole. He has been very carefully not calling the hole a grave in his mind, but now that he looks at it, it’s undeniable. He has dug a grave for Wei Ying with his own two hands. The thought winds him, bends him in half; he lies breathing shallowly, lightheaded.
He is very glad A-Yuan’s not here to see this.
His arms shake but he manages to set Mo Xuanyu’s body into the hole, and arrange him so that his arms are crossed comfortably over his chest, his head pillowed on flowers. Wangji takes a deep breath, and then cups his hands and shoves some of the mound of dirt back over him. It spills across his legs, and Wangji bends in half again, unable to breathe.
I am burying him, he thinks. I am burying him, which is as bad as killing him. As bad as letting go. The thought makes him see stars. Wangji breathes slowly through his nose and works to master himself. He is mourning, not killing. He is giving Wei Ying his full due. And Mo Xuanyu as well, though he feels guilt about that. He is giving Wei Ying the rites he was denied, the tears and grief and quiet vigil. He is giving Mo Xuanyu’s body a gentle, restful ending, instead of a loud and terrible one. These thoughts are enough to stop him from hyperventilating again. He sits up and shoves the mound of dirt across Mo Xuanyu’s legs, his torso. If he can keep going, he can finish. But then he stops, and reaches up, and with the paring-knife he cuts a stand of peonies, an armful of them, pale and unruly, smelling of citrus and mild ginger. He tucks them into Mo Xuanyu’s arms, arranges them around his chin, his face. So that they will be all he can smell, all he can sense, when he starts to wake. So that he will know he is not in a cemetery but a garden, a place for the living and not the dead.
Yellow peonies are for beginnings.
He covers Mo Xuanyu’s body with the rest of the dirt, leaving his face uncovered for last; when it’s time he puts a deep woven basket over him, to keep a layer of air against his face, and a reed between his lips that will poke out through the fill, and then covers the rest of him shallowly and carefully with soil, until he is completely buried from head to toe, touching earth at every point of his body. Wangji sketches talismans into the loose ground, shapes that glow and sink in: characters for easy sleep, for protection against crawling things and predators. And then Wangji sinks forward and lies over the grave with an emptiness in his soul that feels like it could swallow him bodily; it is like entering a deep cave, airless and dark. It would be right to cry now, he thinks. It would be correct. But he’s not sure if he can. The years he’s spent, pushing himself to contain these feelings. To dam them up, so that they will not flood his heart and sweep him away. For a moment he wonders if he has any tears left at all. Anything inside himself that—but then hot tears are running down his face, blinding him, and choking in his throat. Wangji fights it, nonsensically, stubbornly, and then he lets himself go. He cries helplessly, like a child might. Holding nothing back.
When his mother died he didn’t know how to cry; he knelt and knelt and knelt and no-one ever came, but he barely cried. He was so confused, and unable to ask or to understand, so he lived in endless doubt, in endless waiting. He knows what others thought of that, of him: the unfilial son, who couldn’t shed a tear. But he is older, and the world has taught him many things. He knows how to cry now, and so he does. There is only nobody to tell him how to stop.
He does anyway, after a while. He feels washed away, like sand. As if he’d let every drop of his spiritual energy go into the ground. In fact he’s given much more of it than he planned. But that’s good, he thinks. That’s right. The natural array is tied to him, to his mind and his body and his will; he hopes it has taken everything it needed, to give him this miracle. To give him this second life. There is only the final part, the last thing, and then he will have to leave Mo Xuanyu’s body in its grave, to wait for dawn and whatever will come after. So now Wangji lays his hand over the shaken earth, inches over Mo Xuanyu’s still-beating heart.
Come up, he whispers, into the dirt. Come up. I’m here, you’re safe. It’s time. It’s spring. Come home.
That’s all. There’s nothing else he can do. He kneels at the foot of the hole with his hands braced on his thighs and settles in to wait. He has no way of knowing how long this ritual will take, how long the garden array needs to do its work. He can only hope that Wei Ying will wake at all. If he does, Wangji will be here, prepared for him, for his every need: he has spread out a blanket on the ground where he will keep his kneeling vigil, and two lanterns for if he rises in the early dark. The night is cool around him, and the stars high; after a while he is too tired to keep his eyes open, so he shuts them for a moment. Only for a moment.
He will be ready when Wei Ying stirs, will dig him out and raise him with his own two hands. Set beside him is a bucket of water and a clean rag to wash his face of the dirt, and clean robes to dress him in. When he is awake and clean Wangji will take him inside and put him to bed if he is tired and keep watch over him as long as he is needed, and when he wakes Wangji will feed him and comb his hair—
—someone is shaking his shoulder.
Wangji wakes halfway and sits up with a start of terror and Bichen flies into his hand, a reflex he regrets when he blinks and sees A-Yuan sprawled beside him.
“Father,” he cries.
He drops Bichen onto the dirt and reaches for A-Yuan, grasping his arm and running an examining hand over his head, his shoulder, in mute fear. But he’s alright. He’s intact. “Father, I’m fine,” A-Yuan says, still wide-eyed, and squirms out of reach. Wangji stares at him, not certain what to do. It is morning, the sun is high on his face, high and dazzling and overbright. He realizes with a cold spike of shame that he must have fallen unconscious outside on the ground, half-drained as he was from bleeding too much spiritual energy to the array. He should have been more careful, he should have been more alert, he can’t believe— “What happened to you?” A-Yuan says. “Are you hurt?”
Wangji looks down at himself; there is a dark smear of dirt on the side of his white robes, a spray of dirt down his knees, over the blanket. He turns and looks at the grave in dawning panic, and it is—empty. There are squashed flowers flung around the hole, and haphazard handfuls of dirt pushed out in mounds, and a crushed basket, and bare footprints around the hole in scattered patterns, leading away. Wangji sucks in a breath and stands up. “What’s happened to the garden?” A-Yuan says. “Did you—did an animal do this?”
He woke up alone, Wangj thinks, suddenly sick with horror. He woke up alone, and crawled out of his grave, and I laid like a clump of dirt and did nothing.
“A-Yuan,” he says. “Stay here.”
He flies down the side of the hill, following the faint muddied footprints on the white gravel path, and then on the stones; soon the treads veer off the path and go into the woods, trampling the fresh grass and dew as they go, leaving the faintest of marks. He follows the trail past the cold spring and up through the back forests, curving around the mountain. His heart beats wildly as he leaps through the woods, and his cultivator’s mind—used to another kind of hunting—supplies an endless series of possibilities, each more terrible than the last. Wei Ying has woken up angry, and has marched out of Cloud Recesses and will never be seen again; Wei Ying has woken up disoriented and wandered into the wilds and become the prey of beasts. Wei Ying has not woken up at all, and Wangji has raised a monster that he will have to destroy, a creature with a handsome face that will shred all their lives to mince; Wei Ying has woken up mad or terrified and has flung himself off the peak, only because Wangji was not there to calm him, and his body lies in pieces at the foot of Cloud Recesses, and Wangji will have to bury him a second time—
Please, shut up, Wangji thinks at himself, and runs.
But he doesn’t have to go much further. He stops at the head of the path to the waterfall, heart in his throat. Between the thin trees he can see a dark shape reflected and shimmering in the water, roughly the size of a small boulder. There is a man crouched in the waterfall pool, with long dark hair plastered to his back. Wangi breathes hard and heavy until his chest eases, and then he walks down slowly, softly, keeping his steps light.
The man is looking at himself in the water, turned away from Wangji and towards the clear, gently rippling pool. His hands are by his face, moving them a little—here, and here—as if he is watching his reflection, watching the movement of his own hands, caught by the image as if it were a mirror.
When he reaches the edge of the water the man startles and turns around, and the heart in Wangji’s throat seizes and skips a beat. His body jerks in one long convulsive shock, and his fingers grip Bichen until they crack. For a long second he and the man only stare at each other, and behind them the falls pour and pour and pour over their edges in a dissolving wash of water and sound. The rest of the world falls away. Wangji feels as if he might still be dreaming. The man in the pool is not Mo Xuanyu anymore. Not in the shape of his jaw or his mouth, the slope of his shoulders; not in the length of his delicate fingers, the set of his eyes. It is not Mo Xuanyu at all.
The man in the pool is Wei Ying.
Wangji looks at him, and goes on looking, as if under a spell. There is nothing else on earth he can see. His familiar black pearl eyes are red-rimmed. His expressive, always laughing mouth is a narrow line. The hair that Wangji longed to brush in his youthful daydreams is a wet tangled mass hanging in strings over his shoulder. He is still in the white Lan robes, but they’re smeared with dirt and he is soaked to his skin, wet and muddy and bedraggled. His arms cross over his chest now, and his fingers clutch in the fabric of his sleeves. His back is a hunching curve, a wary shell. He looks stricken, afraid, but also past fear, as if there was nothing more that fear could do to him. He looks the way he did in Nightless City, just before he’d thrown himself out into the dark. He is a terrible mess, thin and shaking. He is the most dizzying thing Wangji has ever seen in all his life.
This can’t possibly be happening.
While Wangji is still staring, Wei Ying stands up. It’s hard for Wangji to keep from gasping. Water streams down Wei Ying’s body and his legs and the thin white robes cling to him, both obscene and innocent in their starkness, in the almost inhuman intensity of his beauty. He looks like a water nymph, a god, and also like a drowned cat. He looks vulnerable and afraid and dangerous. It’s him, Wangji thinks, stunned to blankness. It’s really him. Nobody else could inhabit so many contradictions at once and remain so utterly himself.
Of the two of them, Wei Ying speaks first. Of course. He is so much braver than Wangji, so much braver than anyone.
“Are you real?” Wei Ying asks. His voice is hard, as if he expects an unpleasant answer. Wangji opens and closes his mouth. He is not sure he can make anything useful come out.
“Real?” he manages, finally.
“Real,” Wei Ying says, grimly. Something comes loose inside Wangji, just looking at him. Something that’s been held tight like a fist for thirteen years. It aches. It burns. Wangji could be sixteen again, standing here before him. Confused and inflamed by the sparkling life in his body, by the flashing intelligence of his eyes. “If you’re not real,” Wei Ying says, and his mouth trembles. “Then this is still hell.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says. His voice cracks on the name, though he tries to keep it steady. His heart feels like it’s breaking. “This is not hell.”
“You were dead,” Wei Ying says. “I saw you, on the ground.”
“I was asleep.”
“You didn’t wake up,” Wei Ying says. “Even when—so I knew, I knew this was—”
Wangji stretches out a hand.
“I’m awake now,” he says. “Please.”
Wei Ying looks at him, at the hand outstretched, and then up at his eyes, and then he sets his jaw and sloshes mulishly forward through the shallow edge of the pool, over the rocks, frowning; he yelps and stumbles over a sharp stone and Wangji comes forward and catches him in his arms, hands braced tight and sure around his biceps, and Wei Ying freezes and looks up and says, "Lan Zhan?" in a soft, disbelieving voice, and then Wangji is pulling him into his chest, heedless of anything, heedless of the wet chill of his robes and the strangeness of the gesture and the surprised flailing of Wei Ying’s elbows. Wangji folds him into his arms and holds him, alive, against his own heart. It is overwhelming. He is barely conscious of burying his face in Wei Ying’s shoulder, of breathing heavily against the damp crease of his clothes. Wei Ying’s heart beats frantically, and his arms go stiff, and then curve around Wangji’s back hesitantly, like the touch of moths’ wings.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, again. His hands grip now at Wangji’s shoulders; his wet fingers twist in Wangji’s dry robe, as if for dear life. “How,” he says, in a gasp. “How, where—how did I get here, why are you—”
“I can explain,” Wangji says. “I will. But please. Let me,” he says, and he can’t finish. Instead he holds onto Wei Ying, and Wei Ying tenses again, and then he relaxes slowly, one muscle at a time. Wangji feels him make a nervous little laugh. It rattles through his own chest like the shaking of a leaf.
“Okay,” Wei Ying says, strangely quiet. He rests his head on Wangji’s shoulder. Presses his fingers into his back. “Alright.”
They stay like that for a little while, until Wangji can bear to peel his arms away. When he does, Wei Ying’s eyes are wet. He rubs them with the backs of his hands, which are still slightly smeared with dirt. “Ah,” he says. He pats the dirty smear on the side of Wangji’s robe, which doesn’t do it any favors. “Oh, oops,” he says. “That’s—I shook you a little, when I—woke up, I guess. So messy of me.” He gives Wangji a lopsided, bluffing smile. He probably means it to look confident, but it looks terribly sad. He dug himself out of a shallow grave, Wangji thinks, and he is apologizing to me. It’s unbearable and Wangji tells him there’s no need. Wei Ying just shakes his head. “Lan Zhan, you looked so peaceful! All my fuss for nothing, eh?”
“How do you feel?” Wangji asks. He runs his hands again over Wei Ying’s shoulders. “Are you in any pain?”
“No,” Wei Ying says, automatically. Wangji gives him a narrow look. “No,” he says again, more slowly. “No, I feel… good. I feel fine.” He shakes his head. “I feel better than I have in—”
He stops, and turns his face away.
“Was it me?” he asks, without turning back. “Did I do this somehow, without—you should tell me if it was. I should know. This body feels like—well, it feels like mine. But I have the strangest sense that it was—that I did something, that this doesn’t belong to me.” He looks up now, and his coral-lined eyes are raw and tired. “Tell me the truth, Lan Zhan. Tell me what I did.”
“Nothing,” Wangji says, honestly. “You did nothing wrong. You did nothing at all.”
“The body was a gift,” Wangji says. “The one it belonged to emptied it, for you. I don’t know why. But you have nothing to be ashamed of.” He takes Wei Ying’s wrist, and Wei Ying lets him, uncharacteristically subdued. “There was a backlash, when you entered his body. It may have left… this feeling.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying’s eyes go unfocused for a minute. “That’s a dangerous one, emptying a soul. But somehow I still—it doesn’t explain how—wait,” he says. “Wait a minute. Do I look like myself? Lan Zhan, do you recognize—you did. So I look like myself to you. That shouldn’t have worked. Putting my cognition in a body shouldn’t have changed the body.”
“No,” Wangji says, mildly. Wei Ying looks at him.
“Then what did?”
“I... did,” he says.
“What,” says Wei Ying.
Wangji explains it, as simply as he can. At first Wei Ying stares at him like he’s never seen him before, and then his curiosity overtakes him and he begins interrupting to ask pointed questions. Some of which Wangji can barely answer. No, he didn’t know the garden would… change him, so thoroughly. That hadn’t been factored in at all. Yes, he’d tried bells. Several. No, there’d been nothing left of Mo Xuanyu in that body—Wei Ying was neither a thief nor a second passenger. No, Wangji had held no idea of how long the process would take. He’d had to make up the patterns of the array himself, absolutely yes, because there was no guidebook for using peonies to resurrect the half-dead love of your life.
He doesn’t say that part out loud.
“Which flowers, specifically, though,” Wei Ying is asking, perplexed and fascinated, when he shakes once and screws up his face and sneezes, loudly. Wangji frowns and takes him by the arm again.
“Up,” he says, and tugs him to the path. “Now.”
It was almost warm enough under the mild spring sun, but Wei Ying is still soaked to the skin and by the time they pass into the dappled shade under the trees he begins to shiver. By the time they are as high as the cold spring Wei Ying is shaking, his teeth chattering and his skin bluing like in Wangji’s dream. Wangji pulls off his own heavy outer robe and wraps it around Wei Ying’s shoulders, rubbing his arms with his own hands and then holding him tight against his side as they walk. Wei Ying still shivers, and protests that he’s fine and perfectly alive and capable of walking and therefore doesn’t need to be babied, but he curls into Wangj’s side anyway, and tucks his cold hands greedily between their bodies to be warmed. It’s wonderful. Everything is so bizarrely wonderful and unreal that Wangji feels as if he might be floating.
This is how they meet Xichen. By accident, with no warning. Still wrapped around each other.
He is coming down the path to the cold spring with another set of robes in his hands and a vacant, thoughtful expression; his footsteps proceed him, but only by a few seconds, and then he is standing shocked at the turn of the steps, and Wangji and Wei Ying are staring up. Wei Ying starts and tries to pull away, but Wangji keeps his arm set around him, holding him in place, and meets Xichen’s eyes with an even stare.
“Zewu-jun,” Wei Ying says, faintly. There is a tinge of hysteria in his voice. “You look—very well. So well!”
Xichen’s mouth is open, but no words are coming out. He looks like he is considering whether or not this is a terribly confusing nightmare. But it doesn’t matter. Wangji would have had to tell him, regardless. He was not planning to hide Wei Ying, to keep him a secret. He could have wished for a better moment to reveal his presence here, but what’s done is done. And so Wangji merely inclines his head slightly in greeting, and tugs Wei Ying onward. Xichen still says nothing. His face is curious. Concerned. Wei Ying’s face is frozen with embarrassment; he makes nervous little shoulder bows to Xichen as they pass him, and squeezes Wangji’s arm with some ferocity on the opposite side.
“What are you doing,” Wei Ying hisses, when they’ve made it around the corner and up the hill, and are in sight of the jingshi. “What’s he going to think?” Wangji gives him an incredulous look. “Do they know—you can say I broke in. You were… containing me.”
“Wei Ying,” he says. “I have no plans to contain you.”
“Pfft,” he says. “Your uncle thinks I’m a thrice-cursed demon beast anyway. Don’t give them any reason to think you’re—”
Wangji stops on the path and Wei Ying bumps into him, hard.
“Enough,” Wangji says. “You’re safe here, Wei Ying.” Wei Ying’s eyes widen slightly and then dart away, and his pink mouth twists unpleasantly, like a soured smile. Wangji realizes with some wonder that he is embarrassed. Embarrassed at being caught out so transparently, for the fear that is rushing him to speak these self-disgusted, apologetic words.
“Of course I’m safe,” Weu Ying says, without meeting his eyes. “I’m a demon, aren’t I?” Wangji scowls at him, which somehow he can tell without turning around. Wei Ying makes a dismissive snort. “Fine, fine. So your brother can think I’m back to… wait,” he says, tripping on a thought Wangji can’t see. He turns back now, anxiously. “Wait, how long has it been? How long have I been—have I been dead long? How many days?” He clutches at Wangji’s sleeve and searches his face, and then his own pales slightly. “Months?” he says, reassessing, his brain running quickly behind his eyes. Wangji doesn’t know what Wei Ying is seeing in his expression. “Years? How many years, Lan Zhan. Is my brother alive? Who’s alive? How old are you? And my sister’s son? Was he strong, did he—”
“Thirteen years,” Wangji says, as gently as he can. Wei Ying’s eyes grow tight and shining. His weight sinks a little in Wangji’s arms, so Wangji holds him up. “Your brother is well. The Jiang thrive. Your nephew is healthy. Nearly a man.”
“Nearly a man,” Wei Ying repeats, and Wangji has to take a little more of his weight. “Ah.”
He stops speaking, but lets Wangji move him; Wangji takes him up the terraced steps and past the garden, heading for the porch. He means to get him up and straight into the house, but Wei Ying stops at the foot of the stairs and looks past the hedges with a sudden, wary alertness. Wangji knows what he is looking towards. Wordlessly, Wei Ying pulls himself away and walks through the hedges on bare feet; past the rows of safflower and the low beds of unbloomed green gentians, to the place between the peonies where Wangji dug his grave.
A-Yuan is there, filling it in with a trowel. He startles and sits up on his knees when they come around the bushes. Wei Ying looks at him, and the half-filled grave, with red, wild eyes.
“Sizhui,” Wangji says, softly, and A-Yuan jumps up and comes to his side. “Fetch water. Enough for a bath.” A-Yuan nods and hops away, glancing over his shoulder once, twice, as he goes.
“Were we ever that young?” Wei Ying murmurs.
“Once,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying lapses back into silence. But we are not the same age anymore, Wangji thinks, with an edge of pain. He is older than Wei Ying, by thirteen living years. Thirteen years of relative peace—or at least not open war—compared to the short, chaotic time that came before. He wonders if Wei Ying can tell. If he looks older, to his eyes. If he looks changed.
“You did this for me,” Wei Ying says, finally. Wangji looks at him with surprise. Wei Ying studies his face, and then smiles. It’s hesitant and slim, but it’s the first real smile Wangji has seen from him in—oh, it feels like a hundred empty years. “What can I say to that,” Wei Ying asks him. “How can I ever repay you?”
Repay him? There is no debt between them, and if there were it would be Wangji’s. Wangji is the one who let him fall, who let him walk the narrow path alone. Wei Ying is the one who opened his life like a door at the end of a long stifling winter, to let the light and air in. He’d transformed Wangji as surely as if he were a fallow field, seeded and watered him until new shoots came up. If Wangji is green and alive now, it is Wei Ying’s doing. Before they met Wangji was sure he’d never love. And now he feels so full with it there is barely room for anything else.
Wangji puts a hand to Wei Ying’s cheek, and Wei Ying wavers in surprise but he does not pull away. Wangji rubs his thumb against the soft skin under his eye, above the bone.
“You owe me nothing,” Wangji says.
“Oh, that can’t be true,” Wei Ying says, but softly, and his great liquid eyes watch Wangji’s like candle flames.
There is a bath waiting by the time they go back to the house. The tub is full and steaming, and A-Yuan is hovering around it like a dragonfly, hands behind his back. Wei Ying’s own nervous energy seems to be fading into something like exhaustion, so Wangji slides his borrowed robe off Wei Ying’s shoulders and asks A-Yuan to pull a screen across, in front of the tub, and then tries to unpick the ties of Wei Ying’s sodden clothes.
“I can manage,” Wei Ying complains, reviving slightly just to bat at Wangji’s hands. “I’m undead, not an invalid,” he says, which seems inaccurate from either direction, but the set of his jaw is hard and tight and strangely unhappy.
So Wangji leaves him to it.
He leads A-Yuan to the porch, and they stand together for a few minutes, taking in the afternoon sun.
“Is he alright?” A-Yuan says. Wangji feels a tug at his heart at that, for the simple kindness in the question. His son is very true to himself, in all things. He follows his own grave sense of duty, his own desire to care for others, as if they were supreme rules enshrined in his being. This must be Wei Ying’s mark, still; a handprint pressed into his early clay. It could hardly be his own, he thinks.
“He will be,” Wangji says. “He was unwell.”
“Did you… did you fix him with the garden?” A-Yuan says, and Wangji turns a startled look in his direction. “I saw the hole. Did you need a lot of dirt? It’s a medicinal garden, after all. Isn’t it?” Wangji makes a stiff, surprised nod. “I thought so. I always feel better when I look at it,” A-Yuan says, with breezy confidence, and Wangji feels a momentary rush of worry and pride and something like plain wonder. He was a fool to think these years of tending the array would have left no trace in their lives, even or especially A-Yuan’s life. He has brought his son into this magic whether he meant to or not. He hopes that was not a mistake. “How did it work?”
Wangji is very tempted to say, I’ll tell you when you’re older.
“There are… strong energies here. You’ve felt them,” he adds, and A-Yuan nods. “Being in—proximity to them brought him out of his sickness.”
“Wow,” A-Yuan says. He looks out over the peonies thoughtfully. “Our garden is really amazing.”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you this morning,” A-Yuan says, stepping pink-cheeked right over Wangji’s abortive sentence. “I know you wanted privacy. I only came to get my music scores. I’ve got them now,” he says, and lifts his sleeve. “I can go again, if I’m not needed.” He starts for the steps, but then looks back with a little worry in his face. Worry that he is obviously trying to hide. “I won’t say anything,” he adds. “If your guest isn’t... ready for company.”
If Wangji lived a thousand years, and spent them all performing deeds of service, he could not deserve this child.
“His presence here is not a secret,” Wangji says, and means it. He will not try to keep Wei Ying hidden in the dark. But, he thinks. A little more time would be—prudent. Before they have to face the world. He would rather Wei Ying was at his full strength, that he had a chance to catch his breath, his bearings. “But he is still… healing,” he says, and A-Yuan nods vigorously.
“I understand,” he says, and then solemnly adds, “I hope he will have a good recovery,” and then he is skipping down the steps and out of sight.
Wangji looks into the house, at the privacy screen drawn across one side. There is only silence from the tub, but that’s something he doesn’t feel capable of investigating at the moment. His fingers clench and unclench at his sides. Music scores, he thinks, and goes inside. That is something that feels… surmountable.
He changes into a clean outer robe and settles on the mat in front of his bed and draws his guqin across his lap, flexes his fingers and then touches them lightly to the strings, running up and down in a pattern of scales and intervals, warming up. He plucks the first notes of a song idly, unconsciously, and recognizes it as a song of healing and clarity. Perfectly appropriate, he thinks.
There is a rippling sound; the water in the tub sloshing against the sides.
“If you play Cleansing,” Wei Ying says, faintly, from the opposite side of the screen. “I’ll scream.”
Ah. Wangji wasn’t planning on it, but he feels the old sting behind those words all the same, and switches his finger positions to a very different scale. He dips into another composition, lighter and simpler. There is no need to push his already depleted spiritual energy behind this one. It’s merely a lullaby, a song he used to play for A-Yuan when he was especially restless. It rises and falls in small shifts, the melody twining with the resonance, and Wangji feels himself relax into his body, into the simple meditative push and pull of the music.
Wei Ying does not say anything else. He does not say anything at all for the next five songs.
When Wangji’s fingers begin to burn pleasantly, he sets the guqin aside and stretches his hands and gets up. The doors of the house are still open, and the lowering sun is cutting in a red line above the trees and hills, but the night air will be colder, so he goes outside to the fire pit and stacks logs and lights it, opening the flue that will circulate warmth beneath the house, and comes inside and shuts the doors after himself. Wei Ying is still in the tub. The charmed water will not grow cold for hours, so there’s no danger of him catching a chill. Wangji stands for a moment, thinking, and then sets about making a modest dinner: more broth, and sliced white tofu and cold pickles. He sets it on two trays and makes tea and drinks it and waits. Wei Ying does not get out of the tub, or make much of any sound. The house remains just as quiet as if Wangji were alone.
Cold fear pinches at Wangji, suddenly: they have no way of knowing how his awakening worked, how long it will last. What if he’s lying limp in the water, unconscious again, or—
—Wangji stalks around the screen, his body rigid with fright, but Wei Ying is alive in the tub, and awake, with his wet hair plastered to his skull and floating like seaweed around his shoulders, slumped so low that his bony knees stick out of the water. His gaze shoots up guiltily, startled, when Wangji comes around the screen. His eyes are puffy from crying and his cheeks are still wet. From the bathwater or from his silent weeping, it’s hard to say. “Ah,” he says, hoarsely. “I’ve—I’m taking too long, aren’t I. I’m coming out now,” he says, and pushes himself up a little, revealing his naked chest and wiry arms. Wangji turns away. There are splashing noises, a thump, and then the screen rocks as he pulls off a clean robe from the set Wangji left hanging for him. “The water’s still warm,” Wei Ying says in a minute, over his shoulder. “If you want it.” Wangji turns to look at him. He’s damp and pink-skinned, in only an under-robe. His hands are fiddling with the ties. His hair is in a loose loop at the base of his neck, and he’s splashed water on his face again to hide his crying. It still hasn’t worked.
“Come and eat.”
“I’m fine,” Wei Ying says. “Not really hungry.”
“You’ve had nothing but broth for days,” Wangji says. “Sit and eat.” Wei Ying looks at him and then shrugs into an outer robe and comes to the table, his wet hair knotted into a toweling-cloth. They eat in more silence, Wangji slow but steadily and Wei Ying in fits and starts, picking at his tofu and drinking only half the broth. He doesn’t say anything else. It might be the first entirely silent meal they’ve ever shared. It fills Wangji with a strange dread. He nearly speaks himself, just to break the quiet.
“Things look different here,” Wei Ying says, eventually, without looking up from the scattered remains of his tofu. He is poking and cutting at it without intention, as if to torture it for its transgressions. “In a good way. That junior, he’s,” he says, and trails off. Wangji realizes what he means when his eyes dart to the second small room, the neatly-made bed, the second guqin resting in its stand, the composition books stacked by the desk. A-Yuan is everywhere, even in his absence. “He’s not just another disciple, huh?”
“He’s my son,” Wangji says. His throat feels tight. Wei Ying still won’t look at him.
“That’s good,” he says. “I always thought you’d make a good father. Children always,” he says, halting and soft, and then makes a false, neat smile. “Children always listened to you. I bet he’s a good student, huh? Making you proud.” He is, Wangji thinks, and nods. He does every day. “Short, though,” Wei Ying says. “A little short. Cute and short, that kid. Was his… he takes after his mother?”
Wangji doesn’t actually know. He never knew anything about A-Yuan’s parents, and there was nobody left to ask.
“He takes after you,” he says, instead; surprising himself, with a feeling like he is plunging off a great height. He meant to find a better time, a gentler way—but this secret is not really his to keep. Thirteen years is long enough for those two to have been kept apart.
Wei Ying looks up.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” Wangji says, carefully, “that he was yours before he was mine. And he is still yours.”
Wei Ying sets his chopsticks down.
“I don’t understand,” he says, but Wangji can see that a part of him does, that a part of him is working it through, and has arrived already at the only possible answer. Wei Ying is the quickest person he’s ever known, the most inventive; his eyes are searching Wangji, searching this house, turning everything over and shaking it out. He does understand, he’s just—afraid, Wangji thinks. I’ve really scared him, without meaning to. “That doesn’t—”
“I raised him for you,” Wangji says. “Because you couldn’t. But A-Yuan is still your son. He’s everything you meant him to be.”
Wei Ying pushes back from the table so violently that their drinks slop out of their cups, spreading in puddles across the lacquered wood.
“Are you telling me,” he says, through his teeth, “that you’re—that you’re raising the last child of the Qishan Wen… in Cloud Recesses?” He laughs once, incredulous and hollow. “Is that what you’re telling me?” Wangji nods, slowly, and something aching and terrible passes across Wei Ying’s face. “So after… I left him—to die, you just,” he says, and then cuts himself off with another horrible mirthless laugh.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, alarmed. But Wei Ying just tips forward onto the middle of the floor with a thump, as if he were drunk and unbalanced, and hiccups painfully with a hand to his chest. He stares at the mat underneath his braced hand, then looks back at Wangji. He’s stopped laughing.
“Is he safe?” he says. “Does anybody else know who he is?”
“My brother knows,” Wangji says. “My uncle. Only them.” Lan Qiren, predictably, had been against it. But when his confinement ended Wangji had made it clear that he would be staying with the child or leaving with him, and his uncle had at least left it at that. Thirteen years later, nobody is more glad than Lan Qiren to have a junior disciple of A-Yuan’s temperament and caliber. He is always pretending he was in favor of keeping him. The way things are going, a Qishan Wen will probably lead the Gusu Lan someday. Wangji tells him as much, and Wei Ying sits stunned for a minute, absorbing it.
“You said I didn’t owe you anything,” Wei Ying says, after a while. He looks out, briefly, through the open doors. As if he were a bird, thinking of flying away. “But that’s not true at all, is it.”
“It is,” Wangji says.
“We have different ideas of what things are worth, don’t we,” Wei Ying says. “Is he happy?” he asks, before Wangji can respond. “Does he have friends?”
“A hundred irritating children, yes,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying’s eyes water. He hides it in a crooked smile, resting his chin on the arm folded over his knee.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, in a quiet voice. “You’ve gotten even funnier. I hope everyone appreciates your good jokes now.”
“They don’t,” Wangji admits.
“Ah,” says Wei Ying. “Fools.”
That night rain comes, a deep soaking rain that heralds a lush green summer, and gives the jingshi a muted, oyster-shell quiet. Water runs down the windows in narrow torrential streams, blurring the world outside to blue-grey watercolor softness. The flowers will be drinking deeply and shedding some of their petals; the ground will be caked with them in the morning. Wangji lies in bed in the dark, his unquiet mind fixed on the opposite end of the house, where Wei Ying has gone to sleep in A-Yuan’s bed. Wangji is trying to resist, but cannot help imagining him: the slim pale hands above the covers, fingers loose and lax; the long dark hair swept across the pillow; the delicate eyelashes against his cheek. The warm body that he longs to press his own body against, that he carried tight to his side only this morning. It was impossible not to feel the coiled strength in him, lithe and fine as he is. Wangji is hardening a little under his robes, just thinking about it. But it’s inappropriate, he’s certain. He was only cold and vulnerable. He would probably recoil from Wangji’s desires, from his hungry, covetous touches—
—but he didn’t, Wangji thinks. His cheek was so soft against Wangji’s hand, and he didn’t pull away.
The rain is battering so steadily at the roof that at first he doesn’t hear it: the light sound of bare soles against the mats, footsteps coming closer. Wangji goes still and silent. It’s almost pitch-dark in the jingshi, but he can see the hint of a tall shadow moving behind the drawn curtain of his room. The shadow stands there, hesitating, for a long moment. And then it moves away. Wangji lies still, holding his breath. There is a sound of the door being pushed slowly open, and then the rain hammers more loudly in the house, pattering against the porch in sheets.
The door is closed again, muffling the raindrops. Wangji sits up in bed.
“Wei Ying?” he calls, not loudly. There is a silence, and then movement beyond the curtain again. After a minute, Wei Ying pulls it aside. There’s a cloth bag in his other hand. Wangji stares at it, and then at him, his eyes not quite focusing all the way in the dark. He feels oddly numb. “Are you... leaving?”
Wei Ying looks down at the bag in his hand as if it surprises him, as if it got there without him knowing. He drops it onto the floor. It’s so light it barely makes a noise at all. He was going to steal out of the house at night like a thief, but he barely bothered taking anything. He couldn’t even be selfish enough to help himself to what Wangji would have offered.
“Ah,” he says. “No. The rain’s so heavy, tonight.”
“And tomorrow?” Wangji hears himself ask. His voice sounds unexpectedly hard. Wei Ying flinches minutely.
“I can’t… impose on you,” Wei Ying says, plainly, flatly, as if this were obvious to everyone in the room. “You’ve done so much for me. More than enough. Can’t have people saying—”
Wind creaks, and rain hits the window beside Wangji’s bed with a slap.
“You know what,” Wei Ying says, more softly. “I’ve brought enough people down with me already, don’t you think?”
He means to leave more than this house, Wangji realizes. More than to vacate Cloud Recesses or even Gusu. He means to leave Wangji’s life entirely. To vanish into the world again, like a wisping cloud. He means to be alone, to be undefended and alien.
Like the last time.
Wangji considers it, then folds his blanket back. Sets his feet on the floor and stands. He paces forward, and Wei Ying paces a step back reflexively. He is only a day and a night away from death, Wangji thinks. A day away from losing everything, including himself. Wangji doesn’t stop his advance: he just goes more slowly, as if he were trying to keep from startling a fawn. When Wei Ying is close enough to touch, hands raised to his waist as if to ward off whatever this is, Wangji kneels at his feet. Wei Ying freezes and then huffs a laugh, as if Wangji were playing some kind of game with him. As if he were given to games of this sort. It’s a little insulting. But Wangji sets his jaw and stays put on his knees. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, breathlessly. “What are you doing? Isn’t it a little late to start… rehearsing a play?” He laughs, high and bubbling and anxious. “Go back to bed.” Wangji looks up at him, and Wei Ying’s mirth dies back. His face, almost hidden in the gloom of the house, is wary and distant. “Get up, Lan Zhan,” he says. “Enough.”
“No,” says Wangji.
“Get up,” Wei Ying snaps. He grabs the shoulder of Wangji’s robe and tugs him upward, hard. “Stop.” But Wangji only wraps his opposite hand around Wei Ying’s wrist. Holds him lightly but firmly.
“This is my place,” Wangji says. “From now on. Do you understand? Whether you stay or you go.”
“You’ve lost your mind,” Wei Ying says, and shakes his hand off. He backs away, cradling his wrist. Wangji didn’t grip him tight enough to bruise, but he holds himself there anyway, at the place he was touched. “Go to sleep and stop talking nonsense.”
“If you go, I’ll go with you.”
“Sure,” Wei Ying says, sourly. “Sure, of course! What perfect logic. The second jade of Lan will go with me, so we can both be hunted like dogs. That’s a great—”
“If it must be, then so be it,” Wangji says. “Would you rather I left you to that alone?”
“Yes, of course,” Wei Ying hisses, and then falls abruptly silent, as if he did not mean to say it. But he did say it, and for a long moment they only look at each other in the dark, while the rain pours over the roof like small rapids in a stream. “Yes,” he says again, finally. “Don’t try to die for me, Lan Zhan. I’m… that’s no trade at all.”
“I would rather live for you,” Wangji says. “But I’ll take what you give me.”
Wei Ying turns his face away. There is a roll of thunder, far-off and resonant, and the rain pounds harder, and for a moment the room is so dim that Wangji can’t see his averted expression at all, not even the faint refracted light of his eyes. It’s just a blank mask at the top of his neck, a shadow. His hair is tied back at his neck, but it’s come loose in the ribbon already, as it always does—as it always did. Part of it is falling across his brow, his cheek, like a veil.
“Why?” Wei Ying says, in a voice that’s barely a whisper. He looks back, and his hand lifts from his side, just a little, as if he means to touch Wangji’s face with his fingertips. He doesn’t. But Wangji holds his breath for a moment anyway. He knows, Wangji thinks. He must. He only means to make me say it aloud. But as the silence lengthens, and Wei Ying starts to fidget, Wangji realizes this is not the case. His heart stutters, and then begins to race. “Why would you do it,” Wei Ying says, and Wangji can hear real confusion in his voice.
Wei Ying sinks down to his knees, and then he’s level with Wangji, his beautiful hands knotted in his lap.
“Any of it,” Wei Ying says.
Very easily, Wangji thinks. How can he not know that? For all his brilliance, his sensitivity, the sharpness of his wit—can he really not see? After they met Wangji spent years afraid that his gazes were as subtle as a hanging teahouse sign. And Wei Ying knows him as well as anyone ever has. But then, Wangji thinks, he is not very good at looking at himself. And that is the direction Wangji’s head has been turned since he was sixteen.
“Wei Ying,” he says, amazed.
“A-Yuan,” he says. “You love him. Don’t think I can’t tell. How could you—even love someone, like that.” He takes a breath. “For a… friend.”
“For you,” Wangji corrects.
“It’s too much,” Wei Ying says. “Isn’t it?”
“Nothing would be.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Wei Ying says, frustratingly, and fists his hand in the folds of his robe, too dangerously close to Wangji’s knees. “You rearranged your life. Lan Zhan, it’s… it’s too much. I didn’t—”
“It wasn’t a trade,” Wangji says. “I had no expectations. I chose it.”
Wei Ying’s throat bobs.
“Why,” he says, in a small voice, one more time.
There are a dozen good things that Wangji could say, and he’s imagined several. Imagined putting himself at Wei Ying’s feet just like this and confessing this deepest, most fundamental truth in the most tender, careful words that anyone could summon. He is not much for speeches, even in his imagination, though he’s certainly had the time to craft them. But they all fail him in this moment.
“Because I love you,” Wangji says.
He may as well be honest. There’s no more time to waste. The words are so small and inadequate for his feelings, but they’re all he has. It’s all there is, for him. He could have loved anything that Wei Ying loved, for only that reason, but life is so unfair. He meant to carry Wei Ying’s burdens—it would’ve been his honor—but instead they were no burdens at all. No yoke to bear, no weight to stagger under. Just the love in his heart that burned constant as a banked fire. A clarity of duty in his work. And a perfect son to cherish and defend. Wei Ying had gone, but not without leaving him everything he would need.
He might've followed him into that abyss. He would have. A part of him wanted to. But Wei Ying left him so many reasons to live.
Wei Ying doesn’t move. Doesn’t breathe. He sits there saying nothing, and then very slowly he bends and sinks and lowers himself to lay across Wangji’s legs, as if in some kind of surrender. Wangji doesn’t know what to say, what to do. His fantasies did not really prepare him for the weight of Wei Ying’s body across his knees. But Wei Ying just lies there and turns his cheek into Wangji’s thigh, as if he were ashamed. His back convulses shakily, as if he were about to cry. And then he laughs lightly and bitterly at himself, pretending he isn’t.
“You shouldn’t,” he says. “You shouldn’t love a,” he starts, and then muffles his face entirely into Wangji’s robe and swears. The scion of such a distinguished cultivation sect should probably not even know the word he uses. Wangji reaches down. Lays a hand at the back of his neck, and feels him go boneless and quiet like a small exhausted animal.
“I don’t,” Wangji says. “You’re the most righteous man I’ve ever known.”
“Ha,” Wei Ying says. “Maybe you don’t know me very well.”
Wangji sighs and strokes his hair, which is coming undone. It’s as smooth and perfect as a length of black silk.
“I know what you are,” Wangji says. “You’re my beloved.”
Wei Ying turns his face up, mouth parted and eyes watering.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, nakedly, and Wangji feels a rush of something like battle-wildness, like the feeling that comes over him when he has thrown all his power at something, when his sword-arm is cutting and unstoppable as time’s advance. Wangji reaches for him and pulls him up by the shoulders, and then Wei Ying is reaching too, throwing his arms around Wangji’s neck, and then Wangji is pressing their mouths together, lips and gasping breath and teeth. It’s a hard, awkward kiss—Wei Ying is scrambling to yank him down, while he’s yanking Wei Ying up—but then Wangji scoops an arm around Wei Ying’s waist and heaves him bodily into his lap, thighs around his waist, and Wei Ying moans and turns his face down and kisses him harder, better, their faces angling the right way, and Wei Ying’s searching tongue slides inside his mouth. Wei Ying’s cheeks are damp, and his body is trembling. Wangji sucks his bottom lip, grabs at the back of his robes and the slender meat of his waist, and then thinks about it and hoists him again higher, and—stands up, staggering, Wei Ying clutched tight in Wangji’s arms. He pants into Wangji’s mouth and knots his legs around his waist.
Wangji carries him to his bed and drops him onto it and then crawls after him. And then Wei Ying is beneath him, red-mouthed and handsy and still wide-eyed, red-eyed, like a startled rabbit. He pulls Wangji down for another kiss and then wraps his legs around Wangji’s waist again, arching up, grinding their cocks together through their clothes, and both of them jolt. Wei Ying stares up at him, flushed, with something like shock in his eyes. “You really,” he says, and to answer him Wangji leans down and kisses him again, gently this time, thoroughly and deep.
He presses kisses onto the corner of Wei Ying’s mouth and down his jaw, behind his ear; sucks at his neck and peels the edge of his borrowed robe away—Wangji’s oldest robe, he can’t believe Wei Ying would take this one, would take only a castoff when Wangji would blanket him in satin and brocade if he allowed it; just a threadbare pale blue robe he hasn’t touched in years, not since—and Wangji kisses his collarbones and the dip of his throat. Underneath him Wei Ying is panting and his hips are jerking into Wangji’s and he is making little moans and gasps and muttered exhalations, a stream of praise and filth and wonder and begging that’s not unlike music. He tastes like sweat and bath oil, like clean linen, and underneath it somewhere like gentians, crushed flowers and grass. He smells like the only home Wangji’s ever known.
Wangji unties both their robes and slides his own off his shoulders; Wei Ying sits up and slides his arms out, and they shuck off their thin pants, and then they’re naked in the velvet blackness of the jingshi, bodies sliding over one another, electric and heated and strange. Wei Ying’s cock bumps his hip, and a smear of fluid trails across his skin, and Wei Ying is so startled he actually apologizes.
It makes Wangji laugh. It rises up out of his gut, looking at Wei Ying’s pinking cheeks, the luminous perfection of his body in the room’s shapeless dark. It’s not really so funny, not exactly. It’s only a catalyst for this feeling, the feeling of joy and weightlessness and surprise that wells up from his legs to his stomach, his stomach to his lungs, to the top of his head, bursting out of him like a beam of strong daylight. It’s only a small laugh, but it feels huge as it bubbles up under his heart, out of his mouth. Wei Ying stares at him, and his handsome face splits in a smile, a pure and lovely one. He looks, in that moment, as young as Wangji suddenly feels. “You laugh now?” Wei Ying says, not unkindly. “Out loud?” He sounds happy, too. “What else do you do? Eat chilis? Folk dance? You madman. What else do I have to learn about you?” he says. He touches Wangji’s cheek, traces Wangji’s mouth with his thumb. His face is open now, honest and bare and unfurled as a late peony. He’s never been so beautiful, even though he was already the most beautiful thing in the world. There is nothing like him on earth, not above it or below it. “I’ll study you,” he says, softly. “I’ll copy you down a thousand times if I have to.”
Wangji’s heart lurches and his eyes grow hot; he leans down again and smothers Wei Ying with the full weight of his body, relishes the way he squirms and laughs beneath it, the way he pokes at his waist and then sighs and cries out when Wangji takes his cock in hand and holds it, squeezes it lightly and strokes root to tip. He’s so warm here, so soft and smooth; he pulses in Wangji’s palm. “Oh, yes please, oh please, please,” he babbles, and Wangji runs his fingernails along his shaft and then spits into his own palm and starts to jerk him sure and steady, impatient to touch him, to please him. Wei Ying knots his fingers in Wangji’s hair and kicks one foot reflexively and grunts with every pull of Wangji’s hand. Finally his groans speed up and his back arches and he says, “I’m going to,” and then he pumps into Wangji’s fist and comes loudly across his own stomach, his wiry thatch of hair, all over Wangji’s hand. He goes boneless almost immediately, limp and sweet and smiling dizzily. Wangji looks at his wet hand for a second and then smears it along the length of his own cock to stroke himself; he’s so twitchingly hard that the first touch almost hurts, like prodding a nerve. When Wei Ying looks up and sees him doing it his mouth falls open and he sits up on his elbows and says, “Lan Zhan, I want you to, please, do it,” desperately. He curls a hand around the back of Wangji’s tensed thigh and pulls him closer, higher, until Wangji is straddling his stomach, and Wangji trembles and strokes himself harder and comes in a spatter across Wei Ying’s chin and neck and chest with a choked-off grunt of surprise.
Wei Ying sinks back onto the bed and sighs dreamily, throwing an arm over his head. One hand is still locked onto Wangji’s thigh, at least until Wangji tips to his side and lies next to him. He can’t stop looking at the bead of come running down the hollow of Wei Ying’s throat. The way he’s marked, unkempt; messy and pink and ravishing, as new and pulsingly alive as a rosebud.
They lay collapsed for a moment, side by side, and then Wei Ying starts complaining about feeling sticky and wiping himself off with his borrowed robes and Wangji gets up to find a washcloth. They wipe each other down, murmuring and whispering for no reason, except to preserve the pattering hush of the rain all around them. When they’re an approximation of clean Wei Ying glances across the house, in the direction of the other bedroom.
“Will you,” Wangji asks, at the same time that Wei Ying starts to say, I could, and then Wangji is pulling him into his arms and they are drawing the blanket over their naked bodies in the same bed, folding into each other like nesting doves. Wangji cannot get him close enough: he hides his face in the back of Wei Ying’s neck and presses his front to Wei Ying’s spine and tucks his knees into his thighs and wraps an arm around his chest so tightly he can tuck his fingers into Wei Ying’s opposite armpit. His skin still feels hot and his heart is still pounding. But Wei Ying doesn’t protest at the enveloping warmth of him. He only wriggles closer. This is not Wangji’s usual posture in bed; he’s well aware he may wake with a crick in his neck, a knot in the small of his back. His sect’s recommendations around sleeping are not without cause. But all his Lan ancestors would have to pry his arms off Wei Ying with a stick if they wanted his observance.
In his dreams that night Wangji rests in the same bed, wrapped around the same warm body. There is nowhere else on earth he would prefer to be. No fantasy that could compare.
Early in the morning Wangji wakes to the warm solidity of an arm slung across his chest, a head against his shoulder. He must have rolled into his customary position overnight, but Wei Ying merely adapted: his leg is hooked over Wangji’s, possessively. It fills Wangi with longing and delight and aching fondness, and also something like pride, for the memory of his stunned face and shouted exclamations as he came apart in Wangji’s hands. It could have been a dream. Except for the slight tackiness in the creases of his hands. He rolls onto his side and Wei Ying grumbles and shifts without opening his eyes, and Wangji climbs over him and goes out naked to relieve the pressure in his bladder. He comes back to find Wei Ying sprawled out to the four corners of the bed, arms and legs spread wide like a flying squirrel. Wangji prods at his back.
“No,” says Wei Ying, muzzily, still without opening his eyes. “You... check ‘em. Wards.” Wangji sits on the edge of the bed and Wei Ying tenses and snorts into the pillow. “No thank you,” he mutters. “Radishes.”
Wangji’s small smile fades. It was yesterday, for him. Wangji can’t forget that. Can’t be careless with him, in his own rising happiness. Wangji strokes a hand down his back, rubs small circles into his shoulderblades. Wei Ying stops twitching and settles, breathing evenly through his mouth.
Wangji lets him be; he pulls the curtain in front of the bed, washes his face and hands, ties up his hair and dresses. He sets a pot of water boiling and lays out cups and bowls, then goes out to survey the effects of the storm. As he predicted, the heavy rain shed an amount of petals, but what’s left is springing up cheerfully. He’s sweeping the porch when Wei Ying wobbles out onto it. He’s hastily dressed in a set of Lan robes but still barefoot, with his hair up in a haphazard topknot, tied with a white ribbon. Strands of his hair are loose around his face, and his cheeks pink ever so slightly when he sees Wangji looking. Wangji longs suddenly to untie the rest of that hair, to watch it cascade around his face and spill down his bare shoulders; maybe even to tie that ribbon around his wrists, and make him beg sweetly—Wangji jerks imperceptibly and looks out over the bushes, and Wei Ying’s smile lifts, slyly. “Ah,” he says. “Got a little taste of me, and now—”
Yes, Wangji thinks. Now. Now that you’re within reach. Now that I know what you look like, what you feel like, in my hands.
Wei Ying is still laughing under his breath when Wangji sets the broom against the railing and then goes for him, gripping his biceps and walking him backwards into the house. Wei Ying’s laughter goes breathless, nervous and excited; Wangji slides the door shut behind him and then yanks Wei Ying into his body by the hips, his hands spanning his narrow waist, and he buries his face in Wei Ying’s bared neck and smells their mingled scents—salt and bedlinens and underneath it, come. Wangji gets hard so fast it actually makes him stagger. He backs Wei Ying up, aiming for the bed, but Wei Ying’s heel catches the table and he stumbles and starts to fall; Wangji tries to catch him but overcompensates badly for maybe the first time in his life, and they both tip to the floor together, Wangji looming between Wei Ying’s sprawled knees. Wei Ying stares up at him from his elbows with a strange expression. “Manhandling me, huh,” he says. It’s not quite a question. Wei Ying’s voice is too strangled for that. But his eyes are rapt and hungry. Experimentally, Wangji presses a hand to his shoulder, pushing his back to the floor, and Wei Ying’s hips shudder and jerk; he swallows hard, and his knee knocks against Wangji’s hip. “Lan Zhan,” he says, softly. “Take what you want.”
Wangji leans down and kisses him and Wei Ying’s hands slip around his waist, tugging at his sash; they undress each other just enough to get a sliver of bare skin to bare skin, their sleeves hanging onto their shoulders. Wangji kisses down his chest, sucking small pink marks into his sternum, then pulls Wei Ying’s hardening cock out of his pants and strokes it, watches it bead at the tip, and then leans over to wrap his lips around it thoughtfully. “Ah, you don’t,” he hears Wei Ying say; there’s a sound like a head hitting the mats. “Have to,” he murmurs, blurrily, and Wangji sucks him down.
The taste is—not especially strange. Salt and skin, not unlike kissing and licking at Wei Ying’s neck or his fingers. The fluid that leaks from his tip, not as thick as come, is a little bitter, but hardly distasteful. He sucks at the fattening head and opens wider to run his tongue along the vein. Wei Ying cries out, gratifyingly, and Wangji tries to get more of him into his mouth. He can’t quite fit it all at once without taking him deeper into his throat, which is a little uncomfortable, or maybe just unfamiliar; it bulges out when he tries to cram it all into his cheek, and drool runs down his chin. Wei Ying is tensed all over, his fingers just touching Wangji’s hair lightly, like he’s trying to keep himself from levering his hips up, thrusting into Wangji’s mouth. The feeling of his fingertips flitting around Wangji’s head is—oddly distracting. Wangji sucks once more and draws off, lips and cock both spit-slick, and thinks. Wei Ying’s face looks like he’s been running, or maybe like he’s been hit in the head with a board. Or maybe both at once.
“Here,” he says, and takes Wei Ying’s hands in his own, puts them on the side of his head, firmly. Wei Ying’s fingers curl in, cupping him, and Wangji hums his approval and dips his head again, this time hollowing his cheeks and sucking Wei Ying in deeper. He’s getting used to it. Something about it actually feels good: the possessive way Wei Ying is holding him steady between his palms, pushing his hips up in little helpless circles, cock dipping up in and out of Wangji’s mouth in a wet slide. Wangji hums again and sucks harder, angles him fully into his throat. His skin is so smooth here, his blood so hot; Wangji cups his balls, rubs his thumb through the wiry hair, relishing the feeling of holding Wei Ying’s warm secret softness in his fingers, and Wei Ying gasps and his cock swells further inside Wangji’s mouth. Wangji’s own cock is leaking through the front of his pants; the wet fabric is at once uncomfortable and a startlingly good kind of friction as he grinds himself unconsciously into the mats. Wangji skims his touches lower, to the split behind his thighs, and Wei Ying spreads his legs, groaning, jerking into Wangji’s mouth, until the tip of Wangji’s finger finds the flexing pucker of his hole and circles it.
And Wei Ying comes. Immediately and unceremoniously, with a choked cry. Wangji’s throat convulses once in a gag but he schools himself to take it, and Wei Ying trembles and shoots into him and then he lets go and his arms and legs hit the floor with a thump. Wangji sucks at the flesh of his cock as he pulls off, and then wipes his wet mouth on his sleeve. Wei Ying is panting helplessly, with a hand over his reddened face.
“How,” Wei Ying gasps. “What did. How.” He peers out from underneath his fingers, cheeks the color of roasted beets. He looks at Wangji’s damp chin with mute awe. “Where’d you learn that?”
Wangji is dangerously close to laughing again.
“From you,” he says, and Wei Ying tilts his head.
“You don’t,” he says, and flicks his gaze away from Wangji’s for just an instant. “Need to pretend. It’s been thirteen years. If you… if there was someone else, who was good to you—”
“Wei Ying,” he says. “There wasn’t.” To Wangji’s surprise, though, Wei Ying’s gaze narrows. He sits up, wobbling slightly, and pokes a pointed finger into Wangji’s bare chest.
“Rule two,” he says. “That’s how important it is. The second Lan rule ever. Don’t tell—”
“You showed me how in my dreams,” Wangji says, and then feels himself flush. It’s true, but it sounds too much like lover’s talk, nonsense, like an empty flirtation to satisfy a jealous wife. But Wei Ying only looks at him carefully. The pointed finger softens into a loose hand that strokes Wangji’s chest.
“You dreamed about me?”
“Not always like this,” Wangji says, awkwardly. Wei Ying smiles. For no reason that he can tell, it makes Wangji start to sweat.
“Ah,” Wei Ying says. “Then… I guess it’s your turn to teach me, Er-gege.”
Wangji comes in his clothes a few minutes later. It’s probably for the best that he’s gotten so good at laundry.
It can’t last, as it is. As they are. Hiding from the outside, touching and talking and listening as if they were the only people left in the world. Wangji knows it can’t remain this way, maybe better than most. But for a few days he forgets. He makes himself forget.
He thinks Wei Ying must be doing the same: every now and then, especially when he believes Wangji isn’t looking, he stares out the window, or off the porch over the hills. Wangji knows he is still thinking of leaving. Thinking that he might, that he should. But at night he wraps himself around Wangji in the bed they now share, and holds tight to his waist, tucks his hands into Wangji’s arms, his face into Wangji’s neck. As if he were just as afraid of going as of staying.
On the morning of the fifth day, Lan Qiren sends for his youngest nephew. Xichen brings the message himself. There’s no question what it could be about. Or where his uncle’s information originated. A-Yuan is far too loyal and circumspect to have revealed anything. Wangji stands stiffly on the porch and listens to the summons, stubbornly not meeting his brother’s eyes. Behind him, leaning in the doorway, Wei Ying is playing idly with a new bamboo flute. Wangji helped him cut it yesterday.
“I’ll follow you down,” he tells Xichen, but his brother merely stands with his arms folded at his back, a hesitant look on his face. Xichen glances at Wei Ying, who meets Xichen’s eyes and slowly stops turning the flute in his hands. Wangji looks between them, at the conversation passing between their blank faces.
“Zewu-jun,” Wei Ying says, in a falsely cheerful voice. “Won’t you come in and catch up? My gossip is sorely out of date.”
Xichen looks mildly uncomfortable, but inclines his head.
“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”
Wangji stares between them, realizing the situation at last, and feels heat and anger rising fast in his face. Before he can say anything, though, Wei Ying prods him in the back.
“You go ahead,” Wei Ying says. “You think I can’t entertain a guest by myself? I was raised just as nicely as you.”
That is simply not true, but the brittle tone of his voice is something Wangji can’t argue with. Wangji nods his head stiffly at the two of them and stalks away, down the hill, without looking back. His uncle’s secretaries scatter when they see him coming into the office, when they catch sight of the look on his face; Lan Qiren remains seated, finishing his cup of tea, while Wangji fumes in silence on the mat before him.
“Nephew,” Lan Qiren says, without lifting his gaze. “I’ve heard a troubling rumor.”
“Is that why you sent my brother,” Wangji says, through his clenched jaw, “to go and guard my house?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren says. “Since your house has the Yiling Laozu in it.”
Wangji can actually feel his own spine stiffening.
“The Yiling Laozu was an invention,” Wangji says. “Yiling was never more than a campsite of harmless villagers.” Lan Qiren makes a dismissive snort.
“Will that matter?” he says. “When the Jiang and the Jin come to Cloud Recesses in all their might, to cut off his head?” He points across his desk. “How many times do you want to make the same mistake? Bad enough that he misplaced your trust once. That’s no excuse for this carelessness now. For you to… defend him again, would be madness.”
“Then I am mad,” Wangji says, very softly. Lan Qiren’s eyes narrow down on him, flat and cold.
“You want to pick fights with our allies over one man?” he says. “You want to throw away the Lan reputation for one man? You want our disciples to draw swords and lay down their lives, for one who did nothing but heap shame upon—”
“No,” Wangji says. “I ask nothing. My actions are my own.”
“No, they’re not,” Lan Qiren says. He laughs, short and sharp. “Your glory and your shame will all be ours. If you don’t understand that, you’re not the man I thought you were.” He picks up his cup. Turns it slowly in his hand. “Your father understood it,” he says. “He made a mistake. And I sympathized. No man is infallible. But he knew how to protect his sect. He kept his mistake from poisoning our well. We had our disagreements, my brother and I, but he knew his duty and he did it. Could you?” he asks. “Would you, for the good of the Lan? For your own good?”
Wangji goes cold all over; from the tips of his toes to the skin of his scalp.
“What are you asking?”
“It’s one thing to host the Yiling Laozu,” Lan Qiren says. He looks up at Wangji. “And another to subdue him.”
The bottom drops out of the floor. The roof flies off, into the wind. The mountain crumbles into pieces. But only for a moment. For a held-in breath. And then Wangji is back in his uncle’s office, staring down at him, taking distant note of the folios and papers piled in the corner of his desk, the way the tables are lined up perfectly with the mats on the floor, right angle to right angle.
“I would rather die,” Wangji says. His uncle looks at him for a long time, without rancor in his eyes.
“Be careful, nephew,” he says. “His friends do.”
Wangji’s not entirely certain how he leaves the hall. Or how he circumnavigates the walkways and then the training grounds, or how he gets back to the path that leads up the cleft in the rocks, up to the jingshi. He comes back to himself halfway up the terraced steps. He is staring at his own feet, going up the steps slowly, one by one. When he lifts his head, Xichen is coming down from the opposite direction.
“Wangji,” he says, but Wangji averts his eyes coldly and takes the next step, and Xichen takes another, and then Wangji is above him, and Xichen below. “Wangji,” he repeats. “Can we—”
Wangji looks at him now, and Xichen’s mouth snaps shut. When Wangji turns around he can feel Xichen staring at his back, but he doesn’t turn around.
“Wei Ying?” he calls, as he comes up the path. But Wei Ying doesn’t answer. He’s not sunning himself, catlike, on the porch. He’s not in the house, in any of the rooms; not pawing through a stack of music scores or scribbling in a book, not dozing under Wangji’s blankets or lounging in the tub, pouting to have his back washed. He’s nowhere. Wangji goes out blankly in the garden, still feeling as if he’s detached from his body, flying above himself like a pennant on a stick. When he comes out between the hedges, though, he sees Wei Ying sitting on the ground in front of a circle of raked gravel. Beyond it is a ring of gentians and a little pavilion set behind the trees, a place he knows his father used to sit sometimes. Looking up at the house, no doubt. He’d never understood his father. Not when he was young. He’d wondered how you could stand so close to what you wanted; moreover, so close to something you’d already sinned for, that had already cost you your pride. How you could come right to that edge and still turn back, and do it over and over again. But then he’d walked out of Yiling. He doesn’t wonder anymore.
Wei Ying doesn’t turn around as Wangji comes closer. His knees are drawn up, and his face is distant, watching the leaves of the gentians ripple in the early afternoon breeze. Wangji kneels beside him, and Wei Ying turns his face up for a second. His slight smile is like a sheet of translucent paper plastered over his face, masking him from Wangji’s searching eyes. “What did he say to you?” Wangji says, worried and unable to stop himself. Wei Ying fiddles with the little piece of gravel in his hand, a white rock the size of a thumbnail.
“Oh, nothing much,” he says. “Funny to think that little A-Yao is the Jin-zongzhu, huh? Or maybe not funny at all,” he muses.
“We were just gossiping,” Wei Ying says. “Your brother knows everybody, and I don’t know anybody anymore.” They sit for a while, and then Wei Ying tosses the rock into the gravel, where it skips and lands and goes still. “Have you ever thought about a lotus pond?” he says. “I know the climate’s not exactly right, but it couldn’t be any harder than growing them on corpse mountain.”
“Do you want a lotus pond?” Wangji says, feeling slightly confused. It’s hard to grasp him when he’s like this, moving and changeable as the sky. But Wei Ying only smiles that faint, hollow smile.
“Would that be so bad?” he says, not looking at Wangji. He almost seems like he’s talking to himself. “Staying put, making a lotus pond.” He brings a knee up to his chest and rocks just a little, clasping his hands around his leg. “It’s not a terrible idea,” he says. “Me going… domestic. Nobody would be afraid of the Yiling Laozu if I stayed here with just my little trowel and bucket.”
There is a suspiciously resigned tone in those words. And the words themselves are too close to Lan Qiren’s for comfort.
“What did Xichen say to you,” Wangji grits out.
“He wasn’t the one who tattled on me, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Wei Ying says. He wraps his elbow around his knee now, to leave his hands free to pick at the trim of his robe. “I went around the back hill the other morning. While you were still asleep.” Wangji knows this. It’d been remarkable for its strangeness; remarkable too that he could already be so used to the rhythms and pitches of Wei Ying’s routines, inconsistent as they are. The bed was already cooling when he’d risen, and he’d felt a stab of fear, but then Wei Ying had come in chilly and damp with a stolen handful of eggs and made Wangji cook them for him, and had complained for an hour about a lack of peppers to go with his omelette. He hadn’t gone wandering again. “I thought I saw someone in the trees, and I guess I did. Betrayed by a junior,” Wei Ying says, and shakes his head. “These late generations have no respect.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“No,” Wei Ying says. “He just couldn’t hide how he felt.” Wangji feels a brief pang for having snubbed Xichen on the steps. But it passes when Wei Ying sighs and says, “He loves you. I think he only wants you to be… happy. To be safe.”
It’s obvious in his voice that he’s thinking of his own brother. The one he doesn’t yet know is catching and killing his imitators.
“What do you want?” Wangji says. But Wei Ying just stares off across the gravel.
“Not to make the same mistakes over and over again,” Wei Ying says. “How about that, for a start.” He smooths down the picked-over hem of his robe with his fingertips. “Maybe it’s time I was tamed.”
Wangji feels a vertiginous rushing in his ears, as if he was going to faint. He puts a hand on the ground to steady himself. Wei Ying doesn’t seem to notice. He’s started weaving a string of grasses together in his quick, elegant hands. Wangji gets up, without dusting off his knees, and Wei Ying gives him an absent, faraway look and goes back to his braiding.
Wangji walks up the steps and into the house and then stands in the middle of it, staring into the far wall without seeing anything in particular. He stands like a statue, his hands dangling uselessly at his sides, and his brain circling and circling so fast he can’t catch the tail of his own thoughts.
This house was a prison first, before it was anything else. He’s lived in it for almost thirty years but he’s never forgotten. There were no bars and no chains and no dogs and no racks but it was a prison nonetheless. He has the notebooks to prove it. The garden he’s tended all these years was not just a garden but a lockpick, one his mother spent half a decade filing to a point. That its magic revived the great love of Wangji’s life was a miraculous blessing. But not even that can erase the past. Not even that can erase what Wangji knows about boundaries. About traps. His mother died trying, not even getting down the steps. Not even reaching the other side of the mountain. She died with only a taste of freedom on her lips. She starved to death for lack of it. Wangji looks down at the floor. At the floorboards. There would be more notebooks hidden there, twenty years from now. Maybe for A-Yuan, or A-Yuan’s children to find. But the handwriting would be Wei Ying’s.
Tamed, Wangji thinks. Harnessed. Broken and subjugated. Pressed flat, like a flower in the pages of a book. Just as she was.
Wangji can’t breathe. His hands paw at his own throat helplessly, until he closes his eyes and inhales through his nose slowly, in and out, falling naturally into meditative counting. He feels as if he is standing in the middle of a very long tunnel cut beneath the mountain, unable to see light or feel warm air from either end. And then the crushing pressure is too much, and he goes slack and still beneath it. It’s better. Now he is looking at the problem through a glass, through a shallow pool of water. This house is a trap, Wangji thinks, with crystal sharpness. A millstone to be tied around a human neck until they drown. This house is a curse.
But Wangji knows how to break curses.
The firebox is at the side of the house. He keeps a cast-iron poker there, to stir the coals or turn the logs. He goes and gets it now, and brings it into the house. There are linen bandages in one of the cabinets; he wraps them around the end of the poker, and then pours oil onto it from one of the lamps. He looks around the room again and then pours oil onto the floor, onto his desk, splashing it haphazardly around the mats until the lamp is empty. And then he strikes a flint and lights his makeshift torch on fire, and holds it up as it catches. It blazes quickly, almost merrily, in a dance of yellow-orange light. Wangji touches it to the floor, to the pool of oil, and it spreads from there—slow at first, and then fast, racing like a line of lightning. He watches it jump and crackle and glaze the floor in iridescent color. It’s actually very beautiful. The house is growing warm, warmer, but Wangji feels still and white and sparkling inside, like snow. The floor won’t be enough, he thinks. It’ll burn too slowly. He is putting the torch to the curtains when Wei Ying shouts behind him and tackles it out of his hands. The torch clatters to the floor and rolls beneath the desk, igniting the dry underside of the wood. “What the fuck!” Wei Ying shouts. He stamps his feet on the burning mats and the flames die back a little and then blaze up again, fed by the flapping air from his robes. “What are you doing? What are you doing?”
“It’s a prison,” Wangji says, calmly. “No one can bind you to it if it doesn’t exist.”
“What on earth,” Wei Ying hollers, and shoves him backwards, pushing and yelling until Wangji is forced out of the doors. He goes back in and throws the desk out of the open door, then drags the burning mat out onto the porch and flings it into the yard. Wangji grabs his arm as he’s headed back in.
“You don’t understand,” he says. “My mother—”
“I know!” Wei Ying shouts. He tears his arm out of Wangji’s grip. “I know about your mother! For fuck’s sake, it’s burning down! Can you get a grip and help me?”
“What?” Wangji says, bewildered. Wei Ying looks at him, really looks, for the first time since he came up the hill.
“Your brother told me. Okay? I know! I know already, I didn’t think—you’d burn your fucking house down over it!” He throws his hands into the air. Black smoke is starting to come out of the double doors. “It’s not—it’s hardly the worst that could happen, is it? You think I want to be hung from the top of Carp Tower?” he shouts. “I don’t actually want to die! Again. And besides,” he says, more quietly, deflating a little like a torn kite. “You—you actually want me.” He reaches for Wangji’s arm. “You actually want me, and you—everything you’ve done for me, don’t you deserve—”
Wangji recoils from him, like he’s been slapped. He feels slapped. His body is awake suddenly, and in pain. He feels beaten, cut to the bone.
“I would never,” he says, “ask you for that.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Wei Ying says, sharply. “You’d let me walk out. I know you would. And you’d follow me. You promised. You’d let me trample your future and steal you away from your family and turn the whole world against you for no reason just because you’re a noble piece of—”
“I would,” Wangji says. “But I would never trap you. Never.”
“Yes, I see that,” Wei Ying says, gesturing at the smoke. “You could have just said. You didn’t have to burn the fucking—”
“I don’t need you tame,” Wangji says. He takes hold of Wei Ying’s flailing wrist. “I would rather lose you again than put a fetter on you.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying sighs. His eyes are copper-colored in the light of the fire, molten and shining. He yanks Wangji in by the collar and kisses his cheek, and Wangji goes shocked and limp in his arms. They break apart, and Wei Ying touches Wangji’s face with his palm. “I don’t deserve you,” he says, and when Wangji starts to protest he puts that same palm over his mouth. “Ah, don’t dare fight my silencing spell,” he says, and his mouth quirks in a half-smile. “I understand now. Alright? I understand. I do. Thank you. For being so—” he says, and then he kisses the back of his hand, gently, where it’s pressed over Wangji’s mouth. “For being everything you are.” Wangji swallows, his own mouth dry against Wei Ying’s flattened palm. “Now please, help me put this out.”
“Not to A-Yuan,” Wei Ying says, cutting him off. “Isn’t this his home? He doesn’t have another one.” Wei Ying smiles again, with aching tenderness. “It’s hard, that kind of life.”
Wangji’s landing is abrupt. He sees it, suddenly, what Wei Ying is seeing: the blighted fields and the bodies hung along the wall, not faded at all in his memories but vivid and awful and raw. He was too late so many times, in so many ways. But here, now, there are battered books by the second bed and the smaller guqin in its stand and curtains embroidered with little running clouds and suns, that Wangji had made for him: marked for his dead blood family and his living one, that was trying to love him with all its might. Even Wangji’s mother kept his clumsy childish drawings. She used to hang them up with pearl-topped pins. They were still hanging on the walls when she died.
He can’t burn this house down.
He doesn’t want to anymore. Only he doesn’t want it to be a cage, ever again. He wants it to just be a house for once. Forever, from now on. Just a place where people live and eat and sleep and make love, walls and a roof for them to cry and laugh under. A place to raise their children.
Wangji swallows and nods, and Wei Ying lets go of him. Together they wrap their hands and douse them in the water pitcher and then manage to pull the curtains and wall hangings down and toss them outside before the ceiling catches fire, and to smother the flames spreading across the floor with heavy blankets. The desk and one of the cabinets are a complete loss, and there’s an oily black scorch stretching fourteen feet wide across the main room, and one of the windows has blown out and shattered. But the posts and beams weren’t damaged, and when they fan most of the smoke out and Wei Ying tests the floor, poking and prodding at the most damaged boards, he sighs and pronounces it salvageable. “No thanks to you, fire-god. Mighty lord of the flames,” he says, shaking his head.
Wangji feels his face color with shame. His actions were deranged, he thinks, with a sudden painful clarity. He doesn’t understand what possessed him. The last half-hour feels like a walking nightmare that he has just blinked away. But Wei Ying notices him frowning and pokes his arm. “What a gesture, though,” he says, and leans his cheek on Wangji’s sooty shoulder. There are streaks of damp ashes under his eyes. “Other men only wish they could impress their lovers with that kind of deep sincerity.”
“Oh?” Wangji says, faintly.
“Yes,” says Wei Ying. “Ah, look at you. How I love your little pink ears,” he says, and reaches up to pinch one. Wangji plucks his hand out of the air, to hold it against his chest. He can breathe again. Wei Ying has turned him over, somehow, like good aerated soil. He is leaning over to press his mouth to Wei Ying’s, and Wei Ying is lowering his lashes and angling up eagerly, when the sound of distant screams finally makes it up to the jingshi. “Won’t they shut up,” Wei Ying says, cracking one eye open with a scowl. He shuts it again and tilts his chin up higher. “They probably think I’m burning you alive. Kiss me quickly, before someone comes to purify me.”
Wangji obeys. They both taste horrible, like inhaled smoke and burnt silk, but Wei Ying’s mouth is hot and his hand clutches Wangji’s back. They kiss another moment, with a rising edge of desperation, until Wei Ying pulls away and wipes his mouth and clears his throat and says, “Okay, ah, I’m ready to be in trouble now.” He adjusts his robe, and Wangji feels his own ears might be betraying him again. But he’s not so befuddled that he doesn’t summon Bichen before he goes down the steps, or that he misses the expression on Wei Ying’s face when he does it.
They stand out on the gravel path, waiting, for a long tense moment. Nobody comes. The screams continue, but they don’t sound any closer. Wei Ying taps his foot on the grass at first, but then he brings his thumbnail to his teeth and chews it thoughtfully. “Lan Zhan,” he says. “Is there… maybe another demon beast loose in Cloud Recesses, that you didn’t tell me about?”
There is, of course. Wangji manages to describe it as they run.
“Wow,” Wei Ying says. “You know, before I saw it, I thought to myself, how’s an arm going to make so much trouble without a body?” He ducks behind a pillar and another chunk of debris from the wall flies by. “But now I’m thinking, I won’t underestimate a limb again.”
“Focus,” Wangji says.
They sprint down the covered walkway, pushing juniors behind them as they go. When the arm burst from its containment it must’ve blown a hole in the mingshi, right through the storage room where dangerous artifacts are kept. Wangji counts no less than three enchanted swords flying around in the chaos, being chased by dozens of disciples to varying levels of success. One of the swords darts down and zooms in on Wei Ying, who bats it neatly aside with the flute, as if this were just another boring round of training. Wangji makes a mental note: however distasteful it might be, someday soon he is going to have to interrogate Jiang Wanyin about the whereabouts of Wei Ying’s own sword. Wei Ying glances at him sharply, as if he can hear Wangji thinking.
“See?” he says, and twirls the flute with his raised hand while he leaps over a railing with the other. He lands lightly in the gravel. “Who needs a sword, eh? It’ll only make me lazy.”
Show-off, Wangji thinks, and makes the same jump, slightly higher.
They nearly bump into A-Yuan, who is shepherding a handful of younger children away from the chaos, sword drawn and nose bloodied. Wei Ying’s face goes tight and murderous when he sees that, but Wangji watches him swallow it down. “You alright?” he barks, and A-Yuan nods. “Good kid. Down the hill now, go,” he says, and A-Yuan looks at Wangji and then takes off running, the little ones scurrying before him like wild goats. Something rushes above their heads and Wangji strikes out with Bichen, sending another sword flying into a roof. “Okay, the arm was exciting, but that’s just irritating,” Wei Ying says.
He puts his back to a wall and lifts his flute and hits a high, piercing note that dives into a flirtatious, wandering melody; the swords start vibrating out in the courtyard, and there’s a ringing sound in answer from the disciples’ swords as they regroup and barrel forward. Xichen rushes by, with a glowing net-trap in his hands; Wangji looks at Wei Ying and Wei Ying just waves a hand after Xichen,as if to say go, go. So Wangji ducks out and follows his brother.
He and Xichen manage to net the arm, at least enough to hold it steady while Wangji draws his guqin, and Wangji is halfway through a song of suppression when the flute wavers into voice somewhere behind him. It soars and sighs and twines with the vibrations of the guqin, darting in and out of the voids and harmonics and sending shivering tendrils of familiar energy along the back of Wangji’s neck like a caress. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like. He’s touched this feeling, nearly, in his dreams. But the jolting pleasure of Wei Ying’s music, their music, streaks along his nerves like wildfire. He has nothing to compare it to but the sensation of dipping into the cold spring and coming out again into the hot brightness of midsummer, the overwhelming heightened fullness of stepping back into your body after being away so very long. Wangji throws himself into the song and feels Wei Ying push into him, bracing him up, and the wall of sound and power that hits the arm blows it across the courtyard and into the dirt, where it stays, its own powers spent.
Wangji looks up, and finds Wei Ying sitting on the edge of the roof, one leg bent and the other swinging idly. “I guess it’ll do,” Wei Ying says, tapping his flute against his opposite palm. “Could use a little sanding.”
“Wangji,” Xichen calls, from the ground. Wangji gets up and pulls him to his feet, careful of the little blood on his sleeves; there are small cuts on his brother’s hands from holding the net down. Xichen looks at him for a moment, and then up at the roof. “Wei-gongzi,” he says, and inclines his head. “Thank you for the assistance.”
“No trouble,” says Wei Ying. He hops down and drifts to Wangji’s side. “It’s quite a cursed arm you’ve got. Whose is it?”
“We don’t know,” Xichen says. “We know it was set loose in Mo Village, but there were no reports of a mutilated corpse or a missing arm before it arrived. Hard to say where it originated.”
“Hm,” Wei Ying says. He points at the far wall. “Maybe from that way?” Xichen gives him a curious look.
“What makes you say so?”
“Oh,” Wei Ying says. “Just a suspicion.” He scuffs his feet and Wangji and Xichen both look down. The tightly-knotted fist has relaxed, beneath the grip of the spirit net. The fingers have curled into a pointing gesture, and the forefinger is pointed resolutely… at the same wall.
Wangji hides his smile in his collar. Mostly.
“It’s good to see you again, Wei-gongzi,” Xichen says, thoughtfully. “It really is.”
Before they leave, Wangji takes A-Yuan into the garden with a bowl of coneflower seeds and a clean pruning knife. He slits his own arm and bleeds a little into the bowl, onto the seeds, and then wraps the cut. And then he holds his hand out for A-Yuan’s hand. A-Yuan gives it without hesitation. But Wangji just pricks one of A-Yuan’s fingertips, and holds it dripping over the bowl for a count of ten. He stirs the seeds and writes a talisman over them in the air, finishing with a flick and letting it sink into the bowl. He hands the bowl to A-Yuan, who stares down into their mingled blood solemnly.
“Plant them,” he says. “Twenty now and twenty in the fall.” And then the garden will answer you, Wangji thinks. He has left A-Yuan his mother’s workbooks, along with a long explanatory note. It will be up to him what he does from this point.
“I will,” A-Yuan says. He looks up. “Will you ever come back?”
“Yes,” Wangji says. “I will. For you. But this is your house, now. And your garden. Yours as long as you want it.”
“Oh,” A-Yuan says. He thinks about that for a moment. “I think I’ll want it forever,” he says, at last. “This is the best place in the world.”
Wangji reaches up and cups A-Yuan’s face in his hands, traces his cheeks with his thumbs. He hasn’t done that since A-Yuan was small, no higher than Wangji’s waist. A-Yuan doesn’t squirm away from him now, like he used to do at twelve, impatient to grow up and join the seniors. He just sits quietly and watches Wangji with his huge, serious eyes. His face is still slightly round and soft like a boy’s, but not quite. He is as old as Wangji was when his life’s true journey began. He’ll be a man soon, seeking his own destiny. But he will always, regardless, be Wangji’s baby.
Wangji pulls him forward, leans in and kisses the top of his head, lightly.
“I love you,” he says, and lets him go. A-Yuan blinks and smiles. “And I have something to tell you.”
Hours later on the road, after Wei Ying has protested for the hundredth time that he did not, in fact, cry until he choked when A-Yuan tackled him, Wangji will let his mind drift up and away from the dirt for a while, imagining the house as it will stand and change across the seasons, the unseeded gardens yet to come. Wangji is looking forward to it, with an odd anticipation. If A-Yuan chooses, he could pull it all apart and begin again, with a different purpose in mind. A different plan. Or he could build from what’s there: take the bones of the pavilions and the gravel paths, and strengthen his own new designs. He could plant ferns in the shade and azaleas in the sun, or a dove tree, or a golden larch, to shade the porch in summer.
Or a cinnabar maple, with its starlike leaves; a proud maple with good roots, crowned in vivid Wen red.
“We’ll see him soon,” Wei Ying says, and Wangji startles out of his reverie and looks at him. He’s sitting sidesaddle on the ridiculous speckled pony he bought in Caiyi Town—or rather, the ridiculous speckled pony Wangji bought for him—with the air of a great lady reclined on a sedan chair. He should look ridiculous. Instead he looks charming. At least some things remain the same. He smirks at Wangji’s look of bafflement. “I can see you over there, brooding over leaving him. But I bet he’ll be around the next corner. Juniors have a way of popping up in strange places, don’t they? We always did.” Wangji snorts.
“You always did.”
“Hey,” Wei Ying says. “I’m not the one who tied me up and carted me around an ice cave, am I.” Wangji is forced to admit he has a point.
They camp outside Moling, and hobble the pony so it can feed without roaming too far. The evening is mild and warm, much warmer here in the foothills than at the top of the mountain, and instead of throwing their tent over a branch Wangji only lays out their bedrolls side by side beside the campfire, and pulls Wei Ying into his body, pressing his nose into Wei Ying’s hair. “I missed this. I think,” Wei Ying murmurs, weaving his fingers into Wangji’s. “Being alive. I don’t know for sure. I don’t remember anything after… you holding my hand.” Wangji squeezes him tighter, until he huffs a little laugh. “I said I wanted to live,” he protests, falsely; meanwhile his backside is only grinding further into Wangji’s lap. “And you press me like tofu? How am I going to breathe with—”
Wangji turns his complaining head around and kisses him until he rolls under Wangji and abandons all the pretexts, and then Wangji pulls some of his clothes off and rummages around in his bag—preparation is a cultivator’s weapon, he says, with a straight face, when Wei Ying guffaws at the sight of the oil jar—and then they fuck slow and all-consumingly in the dark under the moonlight, with the stuttering radiance of the campfire turning Wei Ying’s skin to bronze and honey, and his sighs to divine prayers. In the harsher light of day there are leaves and twigs in his hair, and purple marks dotting his chest. Wangji may have, it’s true, gotten a little carried away. “Brutality,” Wei Ying agrees, looking down the front of his robe all morning with ill-concealed delight. “You’ve really sullied me good.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says, appalled. “You’re not—”
“You’re responsible for me now,” Wei Ying says. “Since you stole my virtue.”
Well, Wangji thinks. Better steal it a few thousand more times, just to be sure.
At night on the road to Qinghe, with his arms wrapped around Wei Ying, Wangji dreams of the jingshi, walking through its rooms on his bare child’s feet, though when he looks in the mirror it’s his own grown familiar face staring back at him. In this dream his mother is alive and young again, almost the same age as him, teaching A-Yuan how to train a plum tree in a pot. They smile and nod as he passes through the open doors into the garden, where Xichen is pruning the hedges, raising his hand in a silent wave. Wangji walks and walks and walks over the hills and down the river path and into a forest, thick and deep and cold as water, with dark shapes moving in the trees. And then his skin prickles and he is striding into a patch of sunlight, where there is another house, half-finished, barely more than a pavilion. Wei Ying is planing boards on the lawn, sleeves rolled up and his robe tucked into the waist of his sash. His bare hairy legs are sweating and dirty, as if he’s been digging. The ground around the house is all mud and seedlings, only started. Ah, Wei Ying says, in the dream. You’re home. And Wangji is, at last.
Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers,
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground...
...take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning