When Xichen told him that there was to be a victory banquet, of all things, organized by Jin Guangshan of course, Meng Yao buried his head in Xichen’s chest and positively whimpered.
“Does there have to be a banquet?” he groaned, indulging in the luxury of complaining while he could. He could clearly forsee an evening-long political siege, in this.
Xichen huffed a rueful laugh and gathered him closer, stroking his hair. “I’m afraid so, my heart; I’m sorry. As you’ve said, though, better to know what he’s doing than have him start trying to work the smaller sects around behind our backs.”
Meng Yao grumbled under his breath and stretched out more comfortably against the length of Xichen’s body under the luxurious (and admittedly very comfortable) covers of their appropriated Wen bed. Xichen made a soft, pleased sound and settled Meng Yao snuggly against him. The simple security of being held so close, of being able to rest his head on Xichen’s bare shoulder, relaxed him. “Thank you,” he murmured. “For trusting my perception of this.”
Xichen dropped a kiss on top of his head. “I love you, among other things, for your brilliance,” he said softly. “Of course I trust in it.”
Meng Yao smiled, nestling closer and twining a leg around one of Xichen’s. “As I trust the dictates of your heart, above all things,” he offered back, softly. It was the one thing that truly guided him, these days.
Xichen turned, settling his weight over Meng Yao. “A heart that is wholly for you,” he murmured, eyes dark. “Shall I show you how much?”
Meng Yao’s whole body unwound under the shelter of Xichen’s, and he draped his arms over Xichen’s broad shoulders, smiling up at him. “Please do.” He gave himself up willingly to the slow heat of Xichen’s kiss, and left strategy for another time.
When Meng Yao entered the banquet hall at Xichen’s side and saw the arrangement of seats, and Nie Mingjue’s stiff shoulders ahead of them, he had to bite back a snarl. Nie Mingjue had done well by him, and just because the man had more moral rectitude than wits should not mean Jin Guangshan felt free to toy with him. Jin Guangshan had to have known exactly how Nie Mingjue would react to the prospect of being seated before the Wen throne. So now, of course, it would be Jin Guangshan seated there, and nothing to be done about it at this point.
Meng Yao pasted on a polite smile, bowed at Xichen’s side, and set himself to watch Jin Guangshan like a cat watching a grain warehouse for mice. When he found himself seated in front of Yao-zongzhu, for once he was grateful. The man’s gossiping ways would be a boon just at this moment, if Meng Yao could shape them in his favor. As they all milled around and started to settle, he stepped over to the old blow-hard and made his eyes just as wide and doe-like as possible. “Yao-zongzhu,” he said softly, clasping his hands before him as if nervous, “might you lend me the wisdom of your experience? I’m sure it’s only my own youth, but…” he hesitated artfully, nipping at his lower lip before finishing in a rush, “it’s Jin-zongzhu. To seat himself before Wen Ruohan’s throne, isn’t that a little…” He trailed off and cast an entreating look up at Yao Chenzhuo, brows delicately furrowed in concern.
Yao Chenzhuo paused, looking toward the head of the room as if he’d only just noticed, which Meng Yao didn’t doubt in the least. “Hm. Hmph. Well, now.” He was starting to frown, himself, and Meng Yao ducked his head.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. I beg your pardon for troubling you with it.” He brushed just a faint note of doubt over the words, and slanted a troubled, sidelong glance at where Jin Guangshan was seating himself and looking quite helpfully pleased with himself.
Yao Chenzhuo patted his shoulder and Meng Yao firmly restrained the urge to take his hand off at the wrist. “Ah, don’t worry your head about it. We sect masters will take care of matters.”
Meng Yao bobbed a deferential bow to him and slipped back to his seat at Xichen’s side. Xichen was watching him with brows faintly raised, probably at the frankly overdone acting. Meng Yao offered him a wry smile. “One uses the tools that fortune provides in the way their capacity demands,” he breathed, just between the two of them. Xichen glanced over at Nie Mingjue’s still-stiff shoulders, and his eyes darkened. He nodded quiet agreement.
So Meng Yao spent the first half of the banquet waiting for Jin Guangshan to make his move and listening to the increasingly disgruntled whispers behind him with a demure smile.
When the move came, though, even he was caught aback by its boldness, and he felt a surge of genuine moral outrage for once. How could the man broach betrothal when the entire Jiang sect had finally entered their mourning period for Jiang Fengmian and Yu Ziyuan? How did even Jin Guangshan have the nerve to usurp a father’s place while Jiang Yanli wore a white sash for her true father? Meng Yao darted a glance at Xichen, and found him exchanging a troubled look with Nie Mingjue. He could see why. Jiang Wanyin was hesitating, his inexperience obvious in his struggle to decide how to respond, but if anyone else intervened, it would only weaken him further.
At least up until Jiang’s very own black-clad lightning rod strolled in, wine jar dangling from his fingers, and threw the decision into his sister’s lap. At which point, Yao-zongzhu spoke loudly enough to be heard through the hall.
“Well said! Jiang-guniang is a capable lady as we all know from the campaign. Let her speak!”
Xichen cast Meng Yao a rueful smile, silent acknowledgement of the success of his tactic, and Meng Yao hid a smirk behind his wine cup. Finally, Yao Chenzhuo was being good for something.
Jiang Yanli stood, quiet and composed if you didn’t notice the fire snapping in her eyes. “I am of Jiang. My duty is to rebuild our sect. I thank you for your consideration,” if those polite words had been any sharper, they’d have drawn blood, “but now is not the time to think on such things.”
A murmur of approval went around the room, and Jin Guangshan yielded with a small toast toward her with his wine cup. Meng Yao took considerable pleasure in the gritted teeth he was pretty sure he could see behind the man’s smile.
Wei Wuxian, mission apparently accomplished, wandered back outside without another word to anyone. The whispers behind him turned disapproving, and Meng Yao sighed. He appreciated powerful allies, but this one was really quite troublesome at times. He composed himself and took care to peer after Wei Wuxian in a concerned manner as he murmured, just loud enough for the minor sect masters behind him to hear, “I wonder if his injuries still pain him very much…”
“Hm?” Yao Chenzhuo interjected, predictably. “Wei Wuxian was injured?”
Meng Yao turned, eyes wide. “You hadn’t heard?” He leaned toward them, as if just a bit excited to have a juicy piece of gossip to share. “It was Wei-gongzi who held back Wen Ruohan’s final, evil sorcery. He fell, after, and didn’t wake for three days! Even now, I hear the physicians refuse to let him resume his training.” Or, at least, Wen Qing did, and everyone else had sensibly refused to cross her word.
Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu exchanged a knowing look, which Meng Yao valiantly refrained from laughing at. Yao Chenzhuo sat back and nodded wisely. “Ah, that will be why he’s always with a wine jar in his hand. Trying to dull the pain, no doubt.”
Meng Yao gave silent thanks that none of the Jiang sect were close enough to hear and, no doubt, burst out laughing. Lan Wangji, sitting just behind Xichen, was having enough trouble keeping his face straight, brows twitching a little as he listened to the sect masters rapidly elaborating on Wei Wuxian’s heroism and injury. The look he turned on Meng Yao was disapproving. Meng Yao took a delicate sip from his cup and murmured, “Every word I said was true.”
Lan Wangji did not appear impressed with this fact, but Xichen was smiling, albeit a bit wryly. “Thank you for looking after him.”
“Mm.” Meng Yao listened to the tenor of the room’s various discussions and watched Jiang Wanyin chatting with He-zongzhu, awkwardness smoothing away as he relaxed. Jiang Yanli sat quietly beside him, straight as a sword, dark eyes moving over the room. Meng Yao watched Jin Guangshan glance at her, and then at Jin Zixuan, who hadn’t looked up from his food and drink for rather a while. Jin Guangshan’s gaze stayed on his son for a long moment before he seemed to snort a bit and settle back on his cushion, attention turning more covertly to Xichen and Nie Mingjue.
Meng Yao glanced back at Jiang Yanli and found her looking straight back at him, eyes hard. He gave her a tiny nod, and she returned it before lowering her gaze, drawing her poise around her like a shield. “I think I’m going to need to speak with them soon about more active measures to defend themselves,” he said softly.
Xichen’s hand rested at the small of his back with such sure and immediate support that Meng Yao couldn’t help leaning into him. “You have my trust, as always,” Xichen murmured, and Meng Yao smiled up at him, knowing his heart was probably on display to anyone looking and not caring. The knowledge of Xichen’s trust was sweet as honey on his tongue. To keep this, to be worthy of that trust, he knew he would do anything.
As the banquet drew on, and drink flowed freely, Meng Yao let himself relax in the curve of Xichen’s arm. Further political maneuvering could wait for tomorrow. For now, he would enjoy the place he had, here.
An invitation to consult with Jiang Yanli about organizing the withdrawal from the Nightless City arrived promptly the next morning, and Meng Yao thanked her messenger calmly, as if this were just another bit of campaign business. As he’d fully expected, both her brothers were waiting in her sitting room with her.
“Jin Guangshan’s target is the Yin Tiger Seal,” he said, once she’d set out tea all around. “So he’s been aiming to control Wei-gongzi, in case that thing is one of the spiritual tools that’s loyal to its master. I don’t think he’ll try to do it through Jiang-guniang again, but he will keep trying.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Meng Yao thought he might have already reached that conclusion on his own.
Jiang Wanyin frowned. “Why would he imagine anyone would let him take custody of it? He only ever showed up in person to a single meeting during Sunshot!”
“Which is why he’s been trying to undermine you,” Meng Yao explained patiently. “If he could absorb Jiang into his own sect, then Wei-gongzi and the seal would both fall right into his control.”
Jiang Wanyin’s expression turned hard and cold, and Meng Yao nodded approvingly.
“He will not have Jiang,” Jiang Yanli said steadily, hands folded on the table before her. “But he could make trouble, couldn’t he? Would it be wiser for me to accept his son and seek to influence them in our favor from inside?”
Wei Wuxian promptly lost his brooding air and flailed upright. “Shijie!”
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Jiang Wanyin agreed stoutly.
Meng Yao shared a brief, silent moment of agreement with Jiang Yanli—they were sweet, but so naive. He considered it, but shook his head after a moment’s thought. “If Jin Guangshan or his son were older it might be worth trying, but unless Jin Guangshan suffers a major loss of face, Jin Zixuan won’t be a significant influence within the sect for many years.” His voice turned harder without him quite meaning it to. “And Jin Guangshan is not known for accepting the influence of any woman.”
Jiang Yanli’s eyes widened in realization, and she reached out swiftly to lay her hand on his arm for a moment. “What would you recommend, then?” she asked, brisk tone setting the awkward moment firmly aside.
He accepted her redirection gratefully. “Nie-zongzhu and Lan-zongzhu will probably both be willing to disclaim concern about the Yin Tiger Seal as long as Wei-gongzi isn’t seen to be acting alone too very often. But they can’t support you directly too often without weakening your position at the same time.”
“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian had settled back and had his eyes on the flute he was spinning lightly through his fingers. Slowly he smiled, a fey and edged smile. “If it’s the power of yin metal that Jin Guangshan wants… why not give it to him? It can’t easily be destroyed, after all. So give each of the major sects a piece.”
Abruptly, Meng Yao remembered one of the first things he’d heard Wei Wuxian say about yin metal—that Wen Ruohan was in poor control of it because he tried to use his own spiritual energy to shape it directly. It was the natural approach for any cultivator. He laughed, delighted. “And let him find his own destruction, if he wants it so badly?”
Jiang Wanyin looked like he might approve but didn’t want to say so out loud. Possibly because Jiang Yanli immediately shook her head at them. “Meng-gongzi. A-Xian.”
Wei Wuxian’s smile softened a little. “Well, yes. But I was also thinking of all the sects being better balanced again, if everyone has a piece. I think that’s probably how it started out, after Xue Chonghai.”
“And that’s not a bad thought either. Actually,” Meng Yao turned the thought over and rather liked it, “that could be a very good excuse to keep a closer eye on what the Jin sect is up to.” More, if the rationale was to prevent another Wen Ruohan, it might prevent Jin Guangshan from too openly pursuing his apparent desire to be the next Wen Ruohan.
“Who could be a neutral enough inspector, though?” Jiang Wanyin wanted to know, understandably Meng Yao supposed, if he were thinking about who might wind up wandering around secret parts of his sect compound.
“Nie Huaisang,” he proposed. “He’s the best scholar of our generation, and he already looks after the fragment at the Unclean Realm.” Though that reminded him of something else, and he cocked his head at Wei Wuxian. “Will having a piece at Lotus Pier make things more difficult for you?” He’d seen how strongly Huaisang had had to reinforce the seal on the Nie piece before Wei Wuxian had been able to work on the fifth fragment.
“I’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian said, so quickly and lightly that Meng Yao couldn’t help giving him an exasperated look.
“Would Wen-daifu agree with that?”
Wei Wuxian stopped looking dismissive and looked briefly hunted. Having been Wen Qing’s escort, a few times, to come and examine him—which always seemed to involve considerable ire on her part—Meng Yao was unsurprised. Jiang Yanli’s mouth crimped up as if she were trying not to laugh. “What about the Hundred Year Magnolia?” Wei Wuxian suggested hastily. “That could suppress a fragment. It’s yang-natured, and the water pool it grows in should disrupt the metal’s advantage in the destructive cycle.”
The subtle tension that had been in Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders and hands ever since Wei Wuxian suggested distribution of the fragments eased, and he finally nodded. “I’d be willing to try that.” He gave Wei Wuxian a sidelong look and elbowed him. “Especially if Nie Huaisang comes and checks your work, to be certain.”
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian elbowed back, grinning.
Jiang Yanli ignored them with ease that spoke of long practice and nodded judiciously. “We will welcome Nie-gongzi’s visit, then. It will be good to distribute more of these responsibilities among our generation, I think. These are the arrangements that will last as long as possible.” She took a sip of her tea, meeting Meng Yao’s eyes briefly over the rim, and he gave her a tiny bow.
“The Yunmeng Jiang sect is fortunate to have you to advise, Jiang-guniang.” Because, of course, that single, eminently reasonable sentence delicately cut Jin Guangshan out of the future of the cultivation world.
He did like having strong allies.
The Sunshot alliance was finally packing up to leave the Nightless City. Campaign friends were bidding each other farewell. Retainers of the larger sects were arguing over who was leaving first and who had to eat whose dust. Jiang Yanli was controlling the final distribution of supplies with a gentle smile and an iron hand. The recovered fragments of yin metal had been given into the keeping of Jin, Jiang, and Lan, and Jin Guangshan had carried his off with such open greed in his eyes that Meng Yao had a small bet with himself on how long it would take the sect master, or perhaps his proxies, to succumb to corruption from working with the stuff.
It was also, he thought, time for him to discuss some of the things he’d been keeping to himself with Xichen. He waited until Xichen had sent Lan Suyin off with instructions to go ahead of the main group and let Lan Qiren know they were coming, and closed the door of their quarters behind her.
“A-Yao?” Xichen asked, brows raised, though he also held out his hands as Meng Yao came to him.
“Xichen-ge, there are some things I need to tell you of.” He laid his hands in Xichen’s and settled beside him as Xichen drew him down at their sitting room table. “There are things I know about the Jin sect that I’ve held in reserve. We may need them still, but…” he hesitated, trying to put words to the growing feeling he’d had. “I think some of them, you would not wish me to wait on.”
Xichen smiled and stroked his thumbs over the backs of Meng Yao’s hands. “Tell me, then.”
Meng Yao laid it out for him, piece by piece: Jin Guangshan’s attack on the wife of an ally, Jin Zixun’s even more cowardly drugging and assault on the daughter of another, the debts that had somehow disappeared after the Lanling merchants who were owed suffered sudden misfortune, the disappearance of the Taishan Gao sect after a disagreement over jurisdiction. All of them traceable back to the Jin sect under Jin Guangshan. He watched Xichen’s eyes darken and bit his lip, wondering again whether he should have kept this to himself.
Xichen seemed to notice; at least he gathered Meng Yao into his arms and held him close. After a long, quiet moment, he spoke softly. “There are none of Taishan Gao left alive to require justice; that we may hold for a time, yet. The merchants of Lanling who have been harmed, I think we might seek new homes and markets for, at least to offer them. They may not wish to leave if they have clan in Lanling, but if they are willing then there may at least be succor for them while we wait. If Madam Qin has not told her husband, I believe we must seek a way to assure her of continued secrecy if that is her final will, after she knows that her cry for justice will be heard, should she choose to raise it.” He paused and looked down at Meng Yao, whose eyes had gotten wide listening to that deep, quiet voice so easily outlining the shape of compassion and ruthlessness, wound together like the fibers of silk thread, breathtakingly strong. “I know a little of Pan Daiyu from Lan Yunru, our best archer among the seniors.” The line of Xichen’s mouth was sober, almost sad, but his gaze was steady and sure. “I believe we may tell her of what was done, and know that she will demand justice in her own time.”
Meng Yao thought distantly that it was possibly a bit inappropriate to feel such a wave of visceral desire response to Xichen’s cool judgement. He didn’t care. “Yes, Zongzhu,” he murmured, a little husky.
The straight line of Xichen’s mouth eased into a smile and he pressed a kiss to Meng Yao’s forehead. “Thank you, my heart, for opening the way to righteousness for us.”
Meng Yao’s cheeks warmed. “It’s you who does that,” he said softly. “I only look for ways to keep us safe.”
“Then I thank you doubly.” Xichen tipped his chin up and took his mouth in another gentle kiss, and Meng Yao gave up arguing. Xichen cuddled him close with a small, satisfied sound.
After a few minutes of quiet, or as much quiet as could be had with several thousand people preparing to travel all around them, Xichen murmured against his hair, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to speak with you about, as well.”
Meng Yao tipped his head back to look up at Xichen. “What is it?”
“It was the Jiang sect that reminded me, when they took up their mourning.” Silent laughter danced in Xichen’s eyes. “Of course, my thoughts went in a very different direction than mourning. But now that the campaign is over, we have time for proper ceremony and observances.” He lifted a hand to cup Meng Yao’s cheek, thumb stroking along his cheekbone. “You will always be first in my heart, regardless, but it would please me greatly to declare that in ceremony and celebration, as well as in actions.”
Meng Yao’s hands tightened in Xichen’s robes, clinging to Xichen as a shock ran through him. “But…” His voice was husky. “But so many of the rituals… we couldn’t… I have no…” His thoughts spun in circles; he’d always known proper ritual would be out of his reach, with his mother dead and no other family that he knew of save his father, never acknowledged and now a political enemy in any case.
Xichen’s brows rose. “Well, if you like, I suppose I could always travel to claim you from the Unclean Realm. Shall I offer Mingjue-xiong betrothal gifts and see what dowry he might offer for you?” There was a tiny, teasing smile at the corners of his mouth, and Meng Yao laughed helplessly.
“I’m sure Huaisang would be pleased to challenge my worthiness, on your behalf,” Xichen added, and Meng Yao buried his head in Xichen’s chest with a faint groan, because he could envision that all too easily.
“Xichen-ge.” He could feel the vibration of Xichen’s quiet laughter.
“I’m sure Uncle would quite enjoy your tea brewing—” Xichen broke off, laughing out loud as Meng Yao whacked at his shoulder blindly, and gathered Meng Yao up tighter in his arms. “My heart,” he murmured, soft and intimate, “may I bring you to the Lan ancestral hall?”
Meng Yao thought his own heart might burst out of his chest with the swell of joy he felt, sweet and bright and overwhelming. “Yes,” he whispered. “Please.” He lifted his head to kiss Xichen, lips trembling a little against his. The gentleness of Xichen’s answering kiss promised him that it was all real, all his, and he smiled, breathless with happiness.
Even a year after repairs had begun, the Cloud Recesses were not fully rebuilt. The core buildings and many of the personal rooms were complete if not as elegantly furnished as they once had been, but the pavilions that had been scattered in various curves of the river were now merely open areas waiting new timbers, and the guest houses were mostly skeletons.
One guest house had been fully restored, however, and Meng Yao had found himself installed in it when they returned. He was fairly certain this was Huaisang’s fault, because Huaisang had arrived only a few days after, to take up residence along with Meng Yao, and had promptly begun planning for just as much in the way of the more light-hearted marriage rituals as could be managed.
Which was why Meng Yao was currently waiting in the guest house’s receiving room, listening to Huaisang challenging Xichen to demonstrate his musical ability, just past the doors. Which Xichen would presumably do as soon as he stopped chuckling.
Really, Huaisang’s and Xichen’s senses of humor were far too alike.
By the time Huaisang finally consented to open the door for them, Meng Yao was smiling helplessly, not quite able to stop. Though he did lose track of exactly what his face might be doing when he stepped forth and saw Xichen. Pale blue robes fell around him like a sweep of moonlit mist, draping finely enough to show the true breadth of his shoulders and chest, flowing around the easy power of every movement. He was stunningly beautiful, but even that couldn’t distract Meng Yao too much from the warmth of his eyes, the tenderness of his smile, as he stepped forward and held out his hands. Meng Yao was distantly grateful for the excellent fit of his own robes, or he might have tripped over himself as he stepped forward under Huaisang’s grin and Lan Wangji’s look of quiet exasperation at the nonsense, to lay his hands in Xichen’s.
Lan Jianghui had all but pounced on both of them, when he’d heard of the upcoming ceremonies—decorously, to be sure, but also very firm in his insistence on befitting robes for the occasion of the sect master’s marriage. Silk whispered around Meng Yao like the wind over the river, white over deep blue, and silver wound through his hair, rising in sleek curves. For once he felt that he at least looked fine enough to be worthy of Xichen. That was a passing thought, though, more habit than true fear any longer, not under the weight of Xichen’s gaze and the possessiveness of Xichen’s hands as he gathered Meng Yao into the curve of his arm and guided him down the walkways toward the heart of Cloud Recesses.
The Lan ancestral hall stood at the foot of a tall peak, flanked on one side by one of the springs that fed the mountain’s river and on the other by a grove of ancient birch, stretching silvery branches over the hall. Inside were rank on rank of tablets, lit more gently than Meng Yao had quite been expecting by graceful blue and green ceramic lamps. Delicate, metal wind-bells hung under the eaves, chiming softly in the swirl of air between the flames of the lamps and the cool of the spring. In that quiet pool of sound and light, Meng Yao knelt beside Xichen to make their bows and, for the first time since his mother’s death, genuinely prayed that he might be welcomed here.
When he rose from his last bow and looked into Xichen’s eyes, he saw all the confirmation that he could ever want.
Xichen gathered him close, tipping his chin up with gentle fingers for a soft kiss. “Are you ready to go to the banquet, my heart?”
Meng Yao pressed close, burying his head in Xichen’s shoulder for a long moment to gather his composure. Xichen’s fingers combed slowly through his hair, perfectly patient, and after a deep breath Meng Yao raised his head again and nodded firmly. “Yes.”
Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji were there when Xichen guided him out of the hall, their only witnesses for the ceremony itself. Lan Wangji still looked very solemn about the whole thing, but he offered Meng Yao their brief bow and murmured, “Xiaoxiong.”1
Meng Yao had to bite his lip for a moment to keep from laughing, though it was, he supposed, a proper enough choice. “Wangji,” he returned, when he could keep his voice steady.
Lan Qiren was smiling faintly, looking a bit more openly approving. He greeted Meng Yao with his new courtesy name, the one that Lan Qiren had chosen for him after a certain amount of grumbling about propriety and the negligence of jumped up, would-be-noble sects who didn’t take their responsibilities seriously enough. “Ruyan.”2
Meng Yao ducked his head and took a breath for courage. “Uncle.” At least he managed not to squeak, saying it. Xichen’s hand squeezed his shoulder, encouragingly.
The banquet was in the largest hall, the one normally used for lessons. Tonight it was filled with white, with a scattering of darker colors showing where the outside guests sat. Meng Yao looked around, once he was settled beside Xichen, realizing how many of these people he knew, now. Nie Mingjue offered a tiny, private toast to Xichen, and Huaisang, beside him, offered the same to Meng Yao. Lan Suyin, the youngest of the senior disciples, rolled her eyes a little over the giggling group of juniors she was supervising. Lan Jianghui exchanged satisfied looks with his wife, Chen Jinghua. Lan Zhengli, who had led the attacks that cleared Wen occupation out of Suzhou while Wangji retook the Cloud Recesses, was smiling faintly as he ate. Lan Mingxia, the sect’s foremost apothecary, sat with her head together with Wen Qing, obviously talking shop. On Wen Qing’s other side, her brother looked both relieved and excited, and beyond him was Wei Wuxian, both representing Jiang and bringing Wen Ning to see with his own eyes that his sister was safe and well. Lan Meiling was one of the clan elders but still active in searching out new texts for the Lan library, often taking her grandson along on her trips; he sat beside her now.
Face after face, Meng Yao knew now, could put names and lives to. They were his, now.
Xichen’s arm slid around him, and when he looked up Xichen was smiling down at him as if he could hear the thought. “I could not possibly have chosen better, for our sect as well as for myself,” Xichen said under the soft talk and quiet laughter that filled the hall. Meng Yao couldn’t help leaning closer in the curve of his arm, though he blushed at the little coo that ran around the room, especially among the juniors.
At least that caused Lan Qiren to leave off glaring at Wei Wuxian in order to clear his throat meaningfully and make the juniors all straighten up and try to look decorous. During this distraction, Wei Wuxian tossed a wine jar over to Huaisang, who caught it and swept it into his sleeve without a flicker in his mild smile. The look Wangji gave Wei Wuxian was more exasperated than disapproving, even as several juniors broke down into scandalized giggles again. Meng Yao leaned against Xichen’s shoulder, trying not to join in.
His, now. Heavens help him.
It was full night by the time they left the banquet, Xichen’s arm around him guiding him up to the rooms he’d been in only a few times before. Xichen paused in the broad receiving room, looking down at him with a soft smile. “Welcome home, my heart.”
“Thank you, husband,” Meng Yao murmured, rising up on his toes so he could catch Xichen’s mouth and kiss him, open and warm with his certainty of Xichen’s welcome. Xichen’s arms closed tight around him, catching him up almost completely off his feet, and Meng Yao made a satisfied sound.
Wen Qing was intensely annoyed.
She’d been able to pin Wei Wuxian down for another treatment of his meridians, when he’d visited for the wedding banquet, and while they’d been working Lan Wangji had apologized that he hadn’t been able to finish his research into more efficacious music to help. Wei Wuxian had looked very startled at the idea of Lan Wangji doing such demanding work for the sake of his healing, which had made her roll her eyes. She had no idea what he’d thought Lan Wangji’s solicitous attentions since he’d returned from the Burial Mounds had been about, and didn’t really want to know. She already had a little brother to look out for; she didn’t need to take on another. She was happy to leave that be.
What she couldn’t leave be was anyone interfering in her healing. Through all the madness Wen Ruohan had led their whole sect into, through all the terrifying and abhorrent and plain idiotic things she’d had to do to keep her brother and clan safe, this one thing she’d held fast to: she was a physician. She would let no one stand in the way of her work.
As she stalked through the Cloud Recesses, disciples in white gave way before her as courteously as they did the physicians of their own sect. This was not, she supposed, a terrible place to live. A little damp, but she was a mountain girl, herself; she liked the clear air up here. If she’d had her brother under her eye, she thought she might have been reasonably happy here, wholly free of arrogant asses debauching themselves on cruelty. And at least she did know that Wei Wuxian was looking after her family, which was not a small assurance.
But for that assurance, she needed him healthy!
Wen Qing swept in through the open doors of Lan Qiren’s rooms and seated herself neatly before his writing table. “Lan-xiansheng.1 We must speak.”
Lan Qiren lifted his brows. “Must we?” He did set down his brush, though. Wen Qing fixed him with the stern look she’d perfected on an active and sometimes mischievous younger brother.
“What’s this I hear about you forbidding Lan Wangji from research to assist with one of my patients?”
Lan Qiren’s face immediately darkened. “Patient?” he snorted. “You are a renown physician, Wen-guniang, but even you can’t heal the darkness of mind that causes that boy to choose a crooked path.”
Long experience with unreasonable sect elders kept her from arguing over Wei Wuxian’s cultivational choices. It was an argument she wouldn’t win, not head-on. Instead she recited flatly, “Wei Wuxian was severely wounded during the attack on Lotus Pier. By the time they left Yiling, I had managed to save his life, but little more than that. He was cast into the Burial Mounds with the paths of his qi still injured, and no sooner did he escape them than he cast himself into the war and stressed the flow of his life almost to the point of destruction. At no point in the past year has he been allowed, or allowed himself, to heal. Until now.” She folded her hands and watched Lan Qiren levelly, waiting for his response to that string of facts.
His expression was still hard and suspicious, but at least he seemed to be thinking about it. “How was he injured?”
“That is his to reveal, not mine,” she said inflexibly, and waited some more. He narrowed his eyes and sat back a little, one hand slowly unclenching to spread against his table.
“If it’s an injury to his meridians that you treat, how does Wangji’s music help?”
“It helps keep the injury from worsening,” she answered promptly, concealing a breath of relief that he seemed to be on the track she wanted. “Without that, I have to spend far more of my own spiritual power before I can even start actual healing.”
And she still had no idea whether she would be able to do more than calm the disorder in the flow of Wei Wuxian’s life, staunch the hemorrhage of his qi out of its proper paths. No one had ever re-generated a Golden Core, that either of them knew of. But his qi was strengthening, now he wasn’t tearing at his meridians with resentful energy every day, and the fact that no one else had ever done it hadn’t stopped her before. One stubborn elder certainly wasn’t going to stop her now.
An elder who was starting to look a little more shrewd than stubborn, finally. “Wen Zhuliu was at the attack on Lotus Pier, wasn’t he?”
Wen Qing kept her face still. “He was Wen Chao’s favorite enforcer.”
“And you think you can heal Wei Wuxian?” Lan Qiren murmured, sharp-eyed and interested, now.
She lifted her chin. “The extent of healing possible is still uncertain. But some has already been accomplished. The more assistance I have, the more I will be able to attempt.”
“Hmm.” His finger tapped a few times against the papers spread over his table. When it stopped, Wen Qing tensed just a little, knowing a decision had been reached. “Very well. Wangji may assist you. Only here in Cloud Recesses, however.”
Only under Lan Qiren’s eye and the influence of maximum possible propriety, she translated that to herself, dryly. “Very well.” She rose and bowed to him, and strode back out. On her way back to Lan Wangji’s rooms, she made a mental note to write to Jiang Yanli and make sure she knew the treatment schedule, so Wei Wuxian couldn’t weasel out of it.
She was going to make this work.
1. Riffing off the very formal "Xiongzhang" that Lan Wangji uses for Lan Xichen, and taking into account Lan Wangji’s covert troll streak, I figured the most likely thing for him to call Meng Yao at this point is "Xiaoxiong" or "little elder brother". back
2. The courtesy name chosen for Meng Yao is 儒烟, Ruyan, "scholar" and "mist". It seemed suitable for the spymaster of Cloud Recesses, and the kind of name Lan Qiren would consider welcoming. Bonus, it’s a homophone of pretty/nice to look at. back