We’re all back home at the Unclean Realm with no difficulties. I know you worried, since Pan-guniang came with us, but there were no bandits, no issues with the road, no cultivation business along the way at all. Jin-zongzhu apparently decided to quit while he could, which does seem to be the way he goes about things. Every Jin cultivator we saw on the way out pretended they didn’t even see we had an extra rider with us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scandal swept out of sight so quickly. Perhaps Jin Guangshan has a bright future cleaning floors, if he finds the business of leading a sect isn’t working out for him?
Pan-guniang is doing as well as can be expected. I know she told her sect to think of her as dead, when she left, but I’m pretty sure that was when she expected to actually be dead at the end of this. I’m not sure she quite knows what to do with having succeeded and still being alive to possibly cause trouble for her sect.
Although, just between you and me, I don’t think that’s the only reason she agreed to stay with the Nie sect for the time being. It sounds like her father didn’t entirely approve of her plan, but Da-ge certainly does. I’ve walked in on them discussing moral philosophy twice already.
This is going to have some interesting effects, though. Jin Zixun won’t be able to show his face, even if Jin Guangshan doesn’t bother to actually do anything else to punish him. I won’t be surprised if Jin-zongzhu tries to get him out of sight and out of mind, somehow. Sending him abroad maybe? Everything he used Jin Zixun to do is poisoned, now, all those aggressive maneuvers and attempts to bully or overawe, so I have to wonder what other path to power he’ll look for.
I think I might take an escort along, for my next round of inspecting everyone’s fragments. Just in case.
How do you manage with these two? I thought I was prepared. I know perfectly well how stubborn Wei Wuxian can be, and I didn’t imagine he got that way by having a compliant family. But I honestly thought Jiang Wanyin was the less reckless of them!
I suppose that isn’t entirely fair. Wei Wuxian would undoubtedly still take the prize in any contest of recklessness. But really! When the Master of Jiang comes to the exiled remnant of a defeated clan, one step up from a prisoner, and bows his head to the ground before her, and declares that his entire sect bears a debt to her, without even bothering to close the screens first…
How have they both survived this long? Didn’t anyone teach Jiang Wanyin how to manage his responsibilities to his sect? I feel as though I should send him to the Library pavilion to copy out the Shenzi and meditate on the responsibility of a ruler to suspend judgement so that a path can be seen.
Please don’t think that I would deny his gratitude. It’s not that. It’s just that I’m feeling once again that nobody around me thinks even once before leaping with both feet. I was content to have us be even, if he could only protect my clan. For him to offer me the protection of Jiang, not even a full year since the Sunshot Campaign… This can’t really be a good idea, can it?
You think more calmly, and see more clearly. What is the reasonable path, here? If you say it, then I’ll trust that it’s said in wisdom. With the utmost respect,
I hope you’re doing well. The clan is fine, although we all miss you. Auntie Hong sends her greetings and specifically said to tell you that Jiang-zongzhu has a temper just like yours but is far more yielding, and so that should be a good match.
I’m just saying what she said, Jie.
The plantings are mostly doing well, though there are a few things we’re having to put in tall beds so they get enough drainage. The soil is much wetter, here, than in the mountains. Wei-gongzi figured out that our senna needed sulfur in the soil, down here, and now it’s doing much better. Wei-gongzi knows a lot of things; I think he must have read every book in both the Jiang and Lan libraries. Although I don’t know when he’s had time, considering how hard he trains in the physical arts, too. He’s kept helping me with my archery. I’ll show you, next time we visit!
He’s been much better since he went to you for intensive treatment. I’m really glad. Even when he was having trouble, he still looked after us. Lately, he’s been bringing the youngest Jiang disciples over to play with a-Yuan. Or maybe I should say, so a-Yuan and the Jiang disciples can play with him. I think they’ve climbed every tree between here and the main compound, and little Jiang Bingwen is teaching a-Yuan how to set kites for shooting practice. I wouldn’t have expected it, but Wei-gongzi is good with children.
In your last letter, you said you’d found some good books on healing, in the Lan library. It’s good that they’re treating you well, but don’t get too caught up in research while there isn’t anyone there to bring your meals. I’ll worry, if you do. Wei-gongzi says he’ll take me along again when he goes for his check-up next month, so I’ll see you soon. And maybe you’ll join us here soon? We’d all like that. Your loving brother,
I understand and agree with your reasoning, that the position of Chief Cultivator could and should be one that sets an example, provides a center for our sects to find their way from. I only question whether the one to take up that place should be me.
Not that I believe it will do me the smallest bit of good to protest, should both you and a-Yao think so, but I would have you consider first what example will best serve us, now.
My uncle would, no doubt, say that my example would be one of righteousness, though he might say it more grudgingly now than he would have a few years ago. I daresay Jiang Wanyin would think that my example is one of calm and consideration. Both those perceptions, though, are colored deeply by the nature of the viewer, and by the things they themselves need of me.
You are firm enough in your own thoughts, and know me well enough of old, that I will trust your perception of me to be truer.
If both you and a-Yao, who has seen more of my heart than any other, say that I am the best choice for this task, I will believe you.
I trust this letter finds you well. The work on Golden Unicorn Tower’s new lotus pools has been completed. Should you wish to view it, we will receive your visit.
[written small on the blank end-paper]
I’m sorry he’s like this. Thank you for your patience and forbearance, and if it isn’t an imposition please come. He’s been driving everyone to distraction over this project. He emptied the lily pond completely and scrubbed it down to stone before planting the lotuses, and then he wasn’t satisfied with their placement so he started all over again, and he won’t let anyone else help. Everyone who has anything to do with him begs your gracious indulgence to please visit, if it will not inconvenience you.
Can you believe this? Shijie is going to visit the Flower Peacock! And she won’t let me or Jiang Cheng go with her! She says I’m not allowed to scare him off. I really don’t know what my wise shijie sees in that brat.
So I’m stuck here with nothing to do but worry. Please, please tell me your uncle will let you out of
pristhe Cloud Recesses long enough to visit. Or, if not, Jiang did get a request from a family in Shitai, and you know there’s no sect there right now. We could meet up in Chizhou and head south from there. You could say with perfect truthfulness that you were going to answer the call for a cultivator.
Lan Zhan, do you ever think about how many places don’t have sects nearby? How many places are like Qishan now, just on a smaller scale? Small enough that maybe no one really noticed when the local sect or clan died out? Qishan, Yueyang, Taishan, Shitai, Jiaozuo… those are the ones big enough that we know about them. How many others?
I think about how we met my lineage uncle, sometimes, about he and his friend traveling the country wherever they think they can help. I found that admirable. Did you?
Let me know if you can meet me at Chizhou. I miss you.
I will go with you.
Meng Yao looked up from his chart of buildings yet to be restored as Xichen sighed over one of his letters. “What is it?”
“You were right.” His husband smiled at him, soft and rueful. “Mingjue-xiong agrees that it should be me.” And then his smile quirked a little. “So does Pan-guniang, apparently.”
“I’m not surprised. She had the very closest of views, of you bringing half the cultivation world to a halt simply by standing and taking no action. Even if she were shaky on her philosophy, that would have been a bit hard to miss.” He laid aside his own papers and reports and crossed the room to kneel by Xichen’s writing table. “Would it make you unhappy, to do this?” If the answer was yes, then he’d find someone else.
Xichen lifted a hand to cup his cheek gently, and Meng Yao smiled and turned his head into it. “I hope it will not. I think it will not. But I will need you beside me, to be my passionate heart and my clear sight.”
“You have me,” Meng Yao promised, lifting a hand to lay over Xichen’s. “I’ve been yours since the day you reached out your hand to take me up. You will always have me.”
Xichen reached out to gather him close, so apropos that Meng Yao was laughing softly as he curled into Xichen’s lap. “Then I shall fear nothing.” Xichen smiled down at him and leaned down to kiss him, slow and sure.
“Mmm.” Meng Yao snuggled into his arms and teased, “Not even scandalizing our sect, if anyone comes to ask you something and sees this?”
“Let them see,” Xichen murmured, watching him with dark eyes. “Let them know that all is well with us.” His fingers tipped Meng Yao’s chin up for another kiss, deeper still and tasting of Xichen’s desire for him in a way that made Meng Yao breathless. When long fingers stroked down the line of his bared throat, he moaned into Xichen’s mouth, fingers tightening in the heavy silk of Xichen’s robes.
“Xichen…” He gasped as Xichen’s mouth moved down, hot and wet against his throat. Heat turned to a sharp tingle as Xichen sucked, marking his skin above the collar of his own robes, and his eyes went wide. “Xichen!” Xichen almost never left marks where anyone else would see them.
“My own,” Xichen said, low and fierce against tender skin, and Meng Yao’s eyes slid closed with the surge of want that rolled through him.
“Yes.” When Xichen lifted his head, Meng Yao reached up to touch his fingertips to Xichen’s headband, wetting his lips. “May I?” If Xichen needed to mark how Meng Yao belonged to him, needed the reassurance that Meng Yao was and always would be his… then let there be no restraint between them.
Xichen smiled slowly, and his eyes on Meng Yao were heated. “Of course. Whenever you wish.”
Meng Yao reached back to undo it and let the ribbon of white silk slide through his fingers to coil on Xichen’s writing table, silver plaque clicking softly against the dark wood.
The moment he let the ribbon go, Xichen caught him close, kissing him deep and demanding, and Meng Yao relaxed willingly into his hold, answering each kiss with hot, open hunger. “Mmm.” A shiver of want ran through him as Xichen lifted Meng Yao in his arms and carried him into their sleeping room, not even pausing to close the outer doors.
Their clothes wound up scattered across the bed and floor, stripped away by impatient hands, Xichen’s and, increasingly as he was caught up in the urgency of Xichen’s kisses, Meng Yao’s. Meng Yao purred into Xichen’s mouth at the feel of Xichen’s body wrapped around his, sleek and bare and powerful; he always loved how completely Xichen could enfold him, and it was even better when Xichen held him this breathlessly tight. “Yours,” he murmured, nuzzling under the corner of Xichen’s jaw. He moaned out loud as Xichen’s fingers slid between his cheeks and pressed into him, slow and sure.
“Mine,” Xichen agreed, low and velvety. “My heart. My joy. Mine for all time.” He kissed down Meng Yao’s throat and across his chest, scattering love-bites as he went. Meng Yao gasped, breath catching each time at the edge of Xichen’s teeth or the pull of Xichen’s mouth on his skin, light-headed with the burning heat of his response to that forthright possessiveness, to the feel of Xichen’s fingers worked him open relentlessly.
“Xichen,” he whispered, voice husky, “please. Now.”
Xichen caught his mouth again, kissing him deep and intent, and Meng Yao answered him with all the passion Xichen’s fierce need had built in him. The easy strength of Xichen’s hand sliding under him, lifting his hips up off the bed, made a breathless thrill twist tight in his stomach.
“Is it all right, like this?” Xichen asked against his mouth. “I want to see you.”
Meng Yao wrapped his legs around Xichen’s waist and relaxed, deliberately trusting, into the support of Xichen’s hand holding him up. He smiled at the way Xichen’s breath caught, and murmured, “Oh yes.”
The slow, hard stretch of Xichen’s cock pushing into him burned down his nerves, sweet and sharp as the feel of Xichen’s teeth marking him had, and he moaned, words breaking into gasps. “Yes… oh yes… ge-ge, you feel so good…” The hand at the small of his back tightened and Xichen kissed the words off his lips.
“So do you, my own.” Xichen eased back and drove into him, hard and deep, and Meng Yao groaned with the surge of sensation, arms tightening around Xichen’s neck.
Xichen didn’t pause, and Meng Yao stopped thinking, gave himself up willingly to the pleasure of Xichen’s body moving against him, inside him, and the branding heat of Xichen’s kisses, voice going hoarse and breathless as Xichen fucked him hard. When Xichen’s mouth closed on his throat again, wet and hot and hard enough to mark, the thrill that sparked down his spine spilled him right over the edge, and he gasped, voice cut off with the force of pleasure raking through him, sweet and intense.
Xichen groaned and caught Meng Yao up tighter against him, driving into him faster, and still hard enough to push soft whimpers out of him as the thickness of Xichen’s cock worked the tightness of his hole. When Xichen stilled, Meng Yao let his whole body fall lax, only supported by Xichen’s hand, and the small sound of satisfaction he made wound together with Xichen’s.
Slowly, Xichen settled them both against the bed, not letting go of him, and Meng Yao snuggled close, perfectly content. “I’m here,” he said softly, against Xichen’s shoulder. “I’m yours. All that I am is yours.”
Xichen’s arms tightened around him, more gently now but still wonderfully enveloping. “Thank you, my heart. My treasure,” Xichen said against his hair. For long moments, they simply lay in each other’s arms, quiet and at peace.
A rustle from the receiving room made Meng Yao lift his head to see a very quickly retreating flurry of white. He glanced up at Xichen, prepared to tease, only to find Xichen wearing a small, satisfied smile. “Xichen!” he laughed.
“You did want me to set an example for the cultivation world,” Xichen murmured, fingers sliding into Meng Yao’s hair so he could tip Meng Yao’s head back for a kiss. “What better example than happiness?”
Meng Yao melted into pliancy against him, feeling the words ring in his heart. “If that’s what you wish,” he agreed.
Xichen smiled down at him. “I think it is, yes.”
Meng Yao smiled back, and spoke from the perfect calm within him. “Then it will be so.”
He would not have thought of it, without Xichen to say it, but this happiness he had found was something he could wish for more than himself, now he was sure it would not be taken from him. "You make the world so right," he whispered to Xichen, pressing close.
"Only with you by my side," Xichen said softly, against his hair.
The thought came truly clear for the first time, that what he gave to Xichen was the same thing Xichen gave to him, and Meng Yao felt like his heart might overflow with that understanding. "Then I will always be there," he whispered.
For this, he would do anything.