Meng Yao laid his brush aside and sat back from his writing table, scrubbing his hands over his face. Plans to get the hostages out of Wen hands were going slowly. He was developing a remarkable information network among the lower servants; apparently the Wen were nearly as brutal to their own menials as they were to the other sects. But the very brutality that made people so willing to pass on information also made people fear taking action to cross their masters.
And, of course, even the major sects were cautious of appearing to contemplate alliance, let alone action, while their children and siblings were vulnerable.
He frowned at his growing stack of timeline notes, mouth tight. He might be wrong, still, but he didn’t think he was. And if he wasn’t, then delaying was the worst thing the major sects could do. Every day that passed increased the chance that something would—
“Meng-gongzi!” One of the youngest Lan disciples popped through his door in a whirl of excited white. “They’re back!” The girl disappeared again before he could ask who, but ‘back’ could only really mean one thing. Meng Yao scrambled up and strode for the front gates.
Sure enough, both Huaisang and Lan Wangji were in the first courtyard. Xichen was already there, holding his brother by the shoulders, relief bright on his face. Nie Mingjue arrived on Meng Yao’s heels and nearly knocked Huaisang over in his rush to check for injuries. Meng Yao watched the brothers for a long moment, smiling, before he turned to herd the rush of onlookers back out of the courtyard with assurances that everyone was fine, they’d see everyone later, go make sure the rest of the returning disciples were settled.
Then he went to go check Huaisang himself.
“I’m fine, I’m fine! I promised to keep my head down, and I did.” Huaisang’s eyes darkened with his rare, deep anger, the slow, cold rage he almost never showed. “Not that it would have made much difference.”
Meng Yao sighed. “So it’s true? Wei-gongzi was drawing Wen Chao away from Jiang-gongzi and Lan er-gongzi?”
Both Huaisang and Lan Wangji looked at him at that, equally startled each in his own way. Xichen chuckled, one arm still around his brother’s shoulders. “A-Yao gets word of much that goes on in the Nightless City, these days.”
Meng Yao ducked his head at the warm look Xichen gave him. “Only what happened inside personal quarters, or what the guards boasted of, first hand. So I wasn’t entirely sure. That’s what it sounded like, though.”
“It was foolishness,” Lan Wangji huffed, with such open (for him) upset in the way he looked aside, brows pinched, that Meng Yao put another tally mark in his mental column labeled ‘Lan Wangji cares for Wei Wuxian’. Xichen shared a speaking look with Nie Mingjue, and Nie-zongzhu gestured them all further inside.
“Both of you wash the dust of that place off you, and then we’ll speak of it.”
When they re-gathered in the Nie receiving hall, Meng Yao observed that Lan Wangji was moving far more easily than he had been in the courtyard, and took a slow breath to suppress his snarl. Lan Wangji wasn’t his the way Xichen was, but all of Lan was becoming his through Xichen, and Wen would regret laying hands on them.
Though he supposed, if his growing suspicions were right, he might be willing to let Wei Wuxian go first in this particular case.
The more Huaisang and Lan Wangji told of Wen Chao’s actions, though, the more troubled he became. He hadn’t been wrong at all, and that did not make him happy.
“Jin-gongzi, at least, seems prepared to take action,” Xichen mused, when the tale was done.
“Mm.” Huaisang looked down at his clasped hands. “His father seemed… less so.”
Meng Yao’s mouth tightened. “That’s not good.”
Xichen tipped his head, inquiring. “Why not? A little more time to prepare won’t do us any harm.”
“It’s getting worse, though. According to their own servants, Wen Xu was always harsh and Wen Chao was always arrogant. But now Wen Xu is little better than a rabid animal and Wen Chao is attacking other sect’s holdings on a whim.” Meng Yao gestured at Huaisang and Lan Wangji. “And now, abandoning all the heirs of the major sects, unarmed, to what he obviously thought would be the death of many of them?”
Xichen and Nie Mingjue exchanged an uneasy glance.
“Five years ago,” Meng Yao pressed. “This started five years ago, and it’s been getting worse. It’s been worsening most quickly for those closest to Wen Ruohan. If we’re right about when he found the first fragment, and if he has another two now,” Meng Yao looked the question at Lan Wangji, who nodded tightly, “then it’s likely to accelerate again. There’s something coming, and coming soon. Something even worse than what happened to the Cloud Recesses.”
Nie Mingjue’s face hardened. “Then we will start readying to attack. With or without Jin.”
Xichen bent his head with a sigh. “If that’s what you think best.” And then he smiled faintly. “Actually, that may be just what it takes to get Jin Guangshan to move.”
Nie Mingjue snorted. “You could always offer to give him custody of the fourth fragment. If Meng Yao is right, I’d be just as happy to have the thing out of here. Let Jin Guangshan’s own greed make him a target, and he’ll have to move.”
“Mingjue,” Xichen scolded, though he also looked a bit tempted by the idea.
“It’s here?” Huaisang squeaked, eyes huge.
“Don’t worry, it’s sealed. Actually,” Meng Yao eyed Huaisang thoughtfully. This might be a good opportunity to advance his side project of raising Huaisang’s credit with his own sect. He turned to give Nie Mingjue a short bow. “Nie-zongzhu. I have heard from some of your most trusted men that Huaisang is the Nie sect member most skilled in the celestially sourced seals. If you permit, perhaps he could make the fragment’s containment more secure.”
Nie Mingjue grunted and waved a hand at them. “True enough. See to it, then. Xichen, is there any way we can get Jiang Fengmian to a meeting without setting a spark to the fuse?”
Huaisang looked torn between pride and alarm as Meng Yao led him toward the below-ground work rooms. “We’re keeping the fourth piece here?” he hissed. “Really?”
“Wei-gongzi was right,” Meng Yao said, making a note to remind Huaisang of how much trust his brother was showing in his cultivation, once Huaisang was calmer. “Xue Yang had it. And the Lan sect obviously accumulated a very deep knowledge of the resonance properties of yin metal, over the years they kept a fragment sealed. Xichen-xiong only played for a minute or two, and the fragment dropped right out of Xue Yang’s sleeve. Where,” he added, unlocking the work room door, “four different searches didn’t find it, before.”
“Well, the Twin Jades of Lan, after all,” Huaisang pointed out, and then stopped short, staring at the low-glowing circles that enclosed the innocuous looking piece of metal in the middle of the room.
Innocuous looking, but not, by any stretch of thought or perception, innocent. The very air of the work room was heavier, made the lungs labor if one stayed inside too long. Huaisang pressed his sleeve over his mouth, eyes narrowing. Meng Yao smiled, a bit wryly. After what he’d seen over the summer, he’d thought that a palpable threat to Huaisang’s people, and especially his brother, would bring this side of Huaisang out again. And Huaisang might not care much for the sword, but according to everything Meng Yao had seen and more that he’d heard while Huaisang was hostage, his more scholarly skills were very advanced.
Sure enough, Huaisang paced a slow circuit of the room, eyes flickering over the carved stone anchors on the floor and the paper seals ringing the walls. And when he was done, he planted his hands on his hips and looked downright exasperated.
“Huaisang?” Meng Yao asked, trying not to laugh despite the dire atmosphere of the room. Huaisang looked like someone had tried to make him wear clashing colors of robes.
“Honestly,” Huaisang huffed, “am I the only one in the whole sect who actually bothers to calculate exact angles?” He paced to the east side of the room and settled into a relaxed stance, closing his eyes. “Don’t speak until I’m done,” he murmured.
Meng Yao closed his mouth and held still. After all his recent months of sword training under Xichen, of working to build the correct base techniques to focus his qi, he could feel it a little when Huaisang drew his in, a deep internally focused shift that barely stirred his robes. At least until Huaisang’s whole stance shifted, and visible lines of force connected him to the four stone anchors. They slid and shifted, one after the other, a ripple of change running around the circle. For one breath, the strange, harsh scent of the yin metal’s presence bit into his sinuses, and Meng Yao had to swallow down sharp words of alarm.
Huaisang’s stance shifted again, one hand sweeping up, and the paper seals fluttered as if caught in a sudden wind. Another wave of movement rippled around the room, and when it reached Huaisang again he breathed out hard, driving both hands down.
Abruptly, the heaviness in the air vanished.
“Whew!” Huaisang stepped back, shaking out his arms. “That should hold a little better, now, but I can see why Da-ge wouldn’t want this thing around.”
Meng Yao was impressed. Obviously, Nie Zonghui was correct that Huaisang could bring considerable strength to bear, using talisman arrays. He had an entire summer of teasing to pay back, though, so he observed, “I notice you didn’t actually calculate the angles, either.”
Huaisang shrugged. “I can see where they are. Most people can’t seem to, so I suppose it’s just the eye I have.” And then he snatched at Meng Yao’s sleeve with a grin. “Speaking of which, these are new robes, aren’t they? White over blue, hm? Much lighter texture than usual.”
Meng Yao swatted at him with the sleeve in question. “Oh, hush. It was a gift.” And if he was privately amused by how very firmly some of the older Lan disciples seemed to feel about making sure their sect master’s partner was dressed like a Lan, well that was his business.
Huaisang smirked, but left off and followed him out of the work room. More seriously, as they climbed back upward, he asked, “Do you really think something will happen that’s even worse than burning the Cloud Recesses?”
Meng Yao thought about the terror and disgust that ran underneath even brief reports that came from his informants who were closest to the main branch Wen family. “I’m very afraid so,” he said quietly.
Meng Yao would have given a great deal to have been wrong. Or even a little less right. He sat in the Nie receiving hall beside Xichen and listened to the halting words of Jiang Wanyin, describing atrocity and slaughter, watched his frozen face and lost eyes, and offered silent thanks to the gods he barely believed in that Xichen had escaped the Wen net at Cloud Recesses, that even Wen Xu hadn’t quite been so bold (then) as to seek the wholesale death of Lan’s leaders.
“This atrocity will not go unpunished,” Nie Mingjue declared tightly. “All the sects will join together, for this,” he hesitated and finished, almost gently, “Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Wanyin jerked like he’d just taken an arrow, but mastered himself after a breath and gave Nie Mingjue a bow that only wavered a little further down than another sect master’s should. “Thank you, Nie-zongzhu.”
“A-Yao,” Xichen said softly, under the sound of Nie Mingjue calling for Nie Zonghui, who had taken up most of Meng Yao’s old duties, to arrange rooms for the bare handful of surviving Jiang sect members, “will you please see to Jiang Yanli?”
Meng Yao couldn’t help giving him a rather narrow look, because Huaisang’s teasing about the Lan sect finally having a ‘Lan-furen’ had caught on annoyingly well. Xichen’s mouth quirked in wry acknowledgment, but he added, still very soft, “I think you may be the best suited here to provide what she needs right now.”
Meng Yao cast a measuring look over Jiang Yanli. She’d walked in at her brother’s side and stood with him, quiet and contained. And… rather blank. Meng Yao’s mouth tightened. It was true, he’d seen that kind of blankness before; he hoped very much that hers didn’t have quite the same causes behind it. “All right,” he agreed, and darted out a hand to catch Huaisang’s sleeve before he could sneak away. “You’re coming with me, in case I need anything commanded quickly.”
Huaisang, who had looked extremely pale by the end of Jiang Wanyin’s story, winced, but followed along behind him without complaint. Meng Yao approached slowly and kept his motions clear and simple as he bowed to her from just beyond arm’s length away. “Jiang-guniang?” he asked, quietly.
She blinked and turned slowly to face him. It took a long moment before recognition registered in her eyes, and Meng Yao cursed silently to himself. He’d only been the one who had to handle somebody in this condition once or twice before. “Meng-gongzi,” she finally answered and, after another long moment, added, “Nie-gongzi.”
“There are rooms here for you and your people.” Meng Yao stood aside and slowly swept his arm out in invitation, choosing the least populated path out of the receiving hall. “May I take you there?”
“Oh. Yes, of course…” She hesitated, though, glancing over at her brother. He was currently conferring with Nie Zonghui, and looked drawn so tight he might ring if you tapped on him.
“Your rooms will be beside your brother’s.” Meng Yao would have Huaisang make sure of it, if Nie Zonghui hadn’t already. He gave her a tiny, encouraging bow, arm still held out. If she refused to leave her brother, well, he’d try to herd them both and hope they made it before she started thinking again and (most likely) broke down. Jiang Yanli nodded, though, slow and stiff, and started to walk. Meng Yao stayed beside her, matching his steps to hers and glaring at anyone who looked like they might get in the way. He wasn’t sure she’d start again, if she stopped.
It wasn’t until they approached the smaller western courtyard that she did stop, sudden enough that she swayed. “My brothers,” she said abruptly, “a-Xian.” She looked up at Meng Yao. “There should be a room for our brother, Wei Wuxian. When he’s found.”
Despite her disjointed manner, that reassured Meng Yao. It was family she was focused on, not the security of the rooms. This was the shock of death and loss, he thought, not of an attack on her person. “It will be arranged,” he assured her. “Huaisang?”
“Yes of course,” Huaisang said, and made off hastily. Jiang Yanli blinked after him for a moment, and then at Meng Yao, before finally seeming to understand.
“Oh. Oh yes, of course.” She summoned up a faint smile. “I meant to congratulate you, Meng-gongzi.”
Meng Yao laughed softly, mostly with relief that she was still capable of that much. “My thanks, Jiang-guniang.” He hesitated, old uncertainty nipping at him, but finally added, “The surviving Lan sect also shelters here, off the larger western courtyard. May I call on you, when you’ve rested?”
“I think,” she drew a long breath and let it go, and looked just a bit less as though her very bones ached, “I would like that. Yes.”
Perhaps, Meng Yao allowed in the privacy of his own mind, Xichen had known what he was doing, asking him to do this. He might be reminding Jiang-guniang of her brother, also raised up from the gutter, but right now that might not be a bad thing.
Over the next few days, Meng Yao made time each afternoon to visit Jiang-guniang, and was relieved to see her beginning to return to the steady calm he remembered from the summer lectures. She still had frequent moments of distraction, of staring into space silently, followed by immediately seeking out Jiang Wanyin wherever he was, but Meng Yao thought she was recovering as well as anyone could, from the slaughter of her entire clan. It was only the intensity in her eyes, when she mentioned her missing brother that made him a little nervous.
“Xichen-xiong,” he asked one evening, “is there anything Jiang-guniang can do, in the preparations or the search for Wei-gongzi? I didn’t get to know her well, this past year, but she seemed capable.”
“Is she stable enough?” Xichen asked as he settled behind Meng Yao and reached up to take his hair down, something he seemed to have acquired a liking for. Or possibly he just liked the way it made Meng Yao blush hot every time.
“I think it will help keep her stable to have something to do.” Meng Yao shivered as Xichen’s fingers brushed his neck, but clung to his topic for once; this was important. “Can you really imagine what Jiang Wanyin would be like, right now, if he weren’t concentrating on plans to destroy the Wen sect and find their brother?”
Xichen huffed softly, not quite a laugh. “I’m afraid I can; you make a good point.” After a quiet moment, he asked, “Do you think she would be suited to the kind of work you’re doing? Or does she need more… direct work?”
Blood for her vengeance, Meng Yao translated that. He considered it. “She’s kept her sword drill up, but not with the enthusiasm I’d expect in someone longing for a fight. And she was interested, when I described a little of my network, but I think that was only because there was chance of word about Wei-gongzi, through it.” Which he had promised to search for, and not only because he’d been a little afraid of the intensity with which she’d asked. “What she’s focused on the most, these last few days, is organizing the surviving Jiang disciples, ensuring everyone has the resources and care they need.”
Xichen made a thoughtful sound, drawing a comb gently through Meng Yao’s loose hair. “Logistics, then, perhaps. Or charge of our central encampment, when we need to move forward from Qinghe. I will speak with Mingjue-xiong about it.” And then he drew Meng Yao’s hair aside and brushed a kiss over his nape.
A breathless shiver ran through Meng Yao. “Xichen-ge,” he gasped.
Xichen’s arms folded around him, gathering him back against Xichen’s chest. “Will you come to bed, and leave planning for the morning?” Xichen murmured against his ear.
Meng Yao rested his head back against Xichen’s shoulder, and let his eyes drift closed as the warmth of this belonging settled into him. “Yes, Xichen-ge.”
Jin Guangshan had finally arrived in the Unclean Realm to speak with the other sects about putting Wen down.
Meng Yao was not impressed.
He was more than happy to admit that Lan Xichen was a bit of an impossible standard to hold anyone else to, but after a year at Xichen’s side, a year of watching the quiet, thoughtful grace with which Xichen moved through the world, and now these months of watching the way Xichen and Nie Mingjue worked together, each filling in where the other hesitated, of watching Jiang Wanyin, no older than Meng Yao himself, doing his best to hold together the ravaged remnants of his sect… well, after all that, Jin Guangshan’s cold-eyed pretense of camaraderie as he greeted his peers grated. Meng Yao was more grateful than ever to the chance of fate that had brought him to Xichen’s attention, brought him into Lan.
That didn’t keep him from having to stifle a flinch at Jin Zixuan’s sidelong look, to say nothing of Jin Zixun’s open sneer.
A hand brushed his and he glanced at Jiang Yanli, who stood beside him with Huaisang on her other side. She gave him a brief look and patted his hand again before she faced forward, drew in a slow breath, and straightened, whole body shifting into perfectly poised neutrality. Meng Yao’s eyes widened. In the space of a few breaths, her presence became deeper, her bearing reserved but stately. Her faint smile was still kind, but also very quietly immoveable. Meng Yao, personally, would not have wished to cross her. And it suddenly occurred to him that he’d seen Xichen look a bit like this. Often, in fact. He’d just never observed Xichen becoming this. Meng Yao watched, a little awed, as Jin Guangshan’s gaze veered off from her while Jin Zixuan’s fixed on her as if nailed in place.
When she glanced at him again, there was a tiny sparkle in her eyes, as if inviting him in on a joke, and she nodded encouragingly. Abruptly, Meng Yao remembered his own observation that Jiang-guniang was coping by organizing and taking care of people, and he had to duck his head to hide a laugh. She tapped a toe, and he straightened up obediently, shifting his body and qi to seek a neutral stance while still standing firmly upright and rooted. It took a few breaths, but when he finally slid into it, he felt the flow of his own energies smooth and expand into a sense of readiness and poise that calmed him at once.
“Oh,” he breathed softly.
Her faint smile widened a touch. “There you go. Hold on to that. It helps.”
Nie Mingjue turned to conduct the assembled sect masters into the receiving hall, and Xichen glanced over at Meng Yao, beckoning. Meng Yao took a slow, steady breath. “Thank you, Jiang-guniang,” he murmured. “Your timing was perfect, it seems.” She gave him a steady nod and he walked forward to enter the hall at Xichen’s side.
The balanced, stable feeling, and the still expression that radiated out from it, worked on the younger Jins; he could see that. Jin Zixun, especially, cast him several hooded glances, leaning just a little forward each time, and each time he settled back without speaking. Jin Zixuan merely stopped noticing him in particular. Jin Guangshan, though, raised his brows at Xichen, as if at something improper, and Meng Yao had to concentrate very hard on the sense of his own center to keep rage from knocking him out of this covert stance.
“Lan-zongzhu, your…” Jin Guangshan trailed off on the faintest of dubious notes.
Xichen’s eyes turned opaque and hard, but he smiled as graciously as if he’d been asked for an introduction, effortlessly deflecting Jin Guangshan’s hinting. “My cultivation partner is the one who has created, and maintains, our network of agents within the Nightless City.” Meng Yao inclined his head, silent, spine straight. For all Huaisang was teasing when he called Meng Yao ‘Lan-furen’, he could almost feel the honor of Lan settled over his shoulders like an over-robe, or perhaps a shield. Xichen’s honor. He would not allow this man to disregard it, blood father or not.
Jin Guangshan burst into a smile, such that anyone not on their guard, or not watching those cold eyes, might think they’d never heard that note of doubt. “Of course, of course!”
“Meng Yao is the only reason we’re as ready as we are. Nie and Lan senior disciples are all prepared to move immediately, and I know Jiang-zongzhu,” Nie Mingjue nodded to Jiang Wanyin, “has already started word moving through Yunmeng that Jiang is re-building.” He spread his hands flat against his table, gaze focused intensely on Jin Guangshan. “How many are you prepared to commit to this campaign?”
“Senior disciples, hm? Wise of you to choose only the experienced, I’m sure.” Jin Guangshan smiled like a wei qi player who’d just laid down the final enclosing stone. “Jin can field four hundred.”
Meng Yao saw the lightning-quick glance between Xichen and Nie Mingjue, and the hair on the back of his neck rose.
“That will improve our chances somewhat.” Nie Mingjue smiled a bit tightly.
Meng Yao resolved immediately to extend his network into Lanling, and the Jin sect. If he was right, and Jin Guangshan was committing less than the full strength of Jin’s seniors, then he almost certainly meant to let the other sects bleed themselves dry and come along in the wake of this campaign to sweep up any power and influence the other, exhausted sects might let fall from their hands.
He felt Jin Guangshan’s attention sweep over him like the cold dash of a rain front, and locked his mental hands on the memory of Jiang-guniang’s seamless poise. He lifted his head to look back at the Master of Jin out of the stillness of perfect neutrality, and after a moment, Jin Guangshan’s gaze passed on.
Yes. Meng Yao would see about extending his network immediately.
Lan Qiren unrolled the scroll he was reading another turn and sipped his tea before setting it down with a slightly wistful sigh at the heavy taste. He was grateful to the Nie sect for sheltering Lan while they all dealt with the Wen sect, but he did miss his own teas. He entertained a brief, sneaking thought of mentioning this to young Meng Yao, who did seem to have a remarkable network of resources to draw on, now they were all put to it, but he put the thought aside as unworthy. Rebuilding must come first, for Lan; they would re-establish the Cloud Recesses once Wangji had cleared out the interlopers, and provide a proper example of righteousness for the cultivation world once again.
Wangji. He frowned absently down at his scroll. His nephew had flung himself into the campaign to evict the Wen from Yunmeng with a grimness that Qiren couldn’t help worrying over. Dedication to the safety of the sect was only right, but he couldn’t help but wonder whether it was that alone or something more personal that drove Wangji.
Something like finding Wei Wuxian.
Qiren sighed, one hand rising to rub his forehead. He still couldn’t imagine what about that wild, thoughtless boy could have caught his careful and upright young nephew’s attention. He found himself hoping a little that the most likely answer to Wei Wuxian’s absence was the correct one—that Wei Wuxian had been killed in the first rush of the Wen attacks. It wasn’t that he wished the boy harm, but a man had the right to put his own blood first, surely. It would make life easier for Wangji if the likeliest answer turned out to be correct. There might be pain, yes, but a briefer, simpler pain than that of years on end struggling to stay on the right path against the constant influence of someone taking the wrong one.
He’d watched that once, watched his older brother hide himself away, heart and soul wrung out by just such a conflict, and in the end it had been a mere handful of years before he’d followed that woman into the darkness of death. Qiren would not stand by and watch such a thing happen to his family twice.
Resolved to that once again, he turned back to his scroll and let the astringent taste of the black tea wash away pointless speculation.
Wei Wuxian sat in the center of an array. Not a repelling array—there was no point when the very soil that he wrote in was screaming with the voice of the furious dead. No, what he had inscribed was a channeling array.
It was directed outward.
He couldn’t close out the maelstrom of rage around him, not when it was so concentrated, not when his own rage burned so high and wild. That one simple fact had seared into his mind, inescapable, from the moment he’d hit the ground. That being so, the only way to stay whole was to let it flow through him, out of him.
The problem, of course, was that resentful energy didn’t flow. It clung. It dug in to his flesh and spirit like claws. So he couldn’t just let it do anything. He had to direct it.
And the only channel he had for doing that was the path of his own life.
Breath by breath, he pushed with the faint flow of qi left to him, turned his spirit and mind to slide those claws past him, through him, redirecting the wild force outward.
The talismans and arrays helped. They buttressed his redirection, lent more precision and force, but they weren’t enough. Soon he was going to have to find something else, some lever, some tool that would give him at least a moment’s respite from this constant push. He kept thinking he knew something that would work, if only he could have one moment without the dead screaming through his thoughts. Just one moment.
He had to find a way to rest.