Becoming the Phoenix – Seven

The war reaches its climax. Meng Yao refuses to stay back for the final battle, which turns out to be a very good thing, especially when Jin Guangshan tries to grab whatever power he can in the aftermath. Wen Qing calls on Jiang Wanyin to honor his word to her, and ends up in Lan custody while Jiang protects the rest of her clan. Drama with all the politics, Action with some violence, I-4

Coordinating an aggressive campaign was extremely wearing. Time to prepare or double check decreased, the Wen commanders became more close-mouthed the worse things went for them, and Wen Ruohan was becoming both less predictable and more isolated, neither of which were conducive to getting information on his plans. On top of that, no one could predict when the appalling new corpse puppets might appear. Meng Yao might be the only one who took the uncertainty as a personal affront, but it was wearing on everyone.

When Jiang Yanli, of all people, arrived at his tent to go over his projected numbers and her supply lists looking downright frazzled, Meng Yao tied his tent doors firmly shut and made them tea. He was absolutely not letting one of the campaign’s pillars of calm snap.

One explanation later, he was sitting with his hand over his eyes, tea gone cold. “So Jin Zixuan accused you, the woman in charge of this encampment, of lying about who brought his food. Allegedly to try to get his attention. And Wei-gongzi punched him.”

“Yes,” Jiang Yanli sighed.

Meng Yao dragged his hand down his face, mentally taking back all his thoughts about Jin Zixuan being less of a fool than his cousin. “Well, at least he deserved it.”

“Meng-gongzi, that’s not the point,” she scolded, though he could see a tiny quirk upward at the corner of her mouth. That was better.

“No, I suppose not.” He folded his hands and added this to the growing pattern of Wei Wuxian’s current temper. “It isn’t actually much of a change, you know. Remember the incident after the lantern-painting, at the lectures two summers ago?”

Jiang Yanli’s eyes darkened again, troubled. “It’s harder for him to restrain himself, now, though. I can see it. His temper is… heavier.”

Meng Yao couldn’t argue with that; it was his own conclusion, too. “It is,” he agreed quietly, “but his reasons have not changed. If you trusted his heart before, I believe you can trust it now.” Which was as close as he thought it safe to come to telling Jiang Yanli that the only thing stopping her little brother from burning down the world to keep her safe was the fact that she wouldn’t like it if he did.

Meng Yao had recognized that weight in the way Wei Wuxian looked at her, with no trouble at all.

Jiang Yanli’s smile softened again, though it also turned a bit rueful as she cradled her cup between light fingers. “I’ve always trusted a-Xian’s heart, to do everything except look after himself.”

“He is one of my allies, here,” Meng Yao offered, and ducked his head at the warm smile she gave him.

“I know you take care of your people.” She patted his arm. “Thank you.”

Not for the first time, Meng Yao reflected that, while he’d learned the politics of the cultivation world from Xichen, it was Jiang Yanli who’d shown him the most about how to turn them to his advantage.

On this point, Meng Yao had to agree with Wei Wuxian: Jin Zixuan really didn’t deserve her.

“Nie and Jin will draw off as many as possible with an attack on the Nightless City from the east. Jiang and Lan will come from the south and make directly for Wen Ruohan’s hall.” Nie Mingjue looked around the table at the gathered leaders of the Sunshot campaign. “This will be our final push.”

Meng Yao felt nothing but a weightless sort of emptiness, hearing it. He was finally done. All the desperate pressure and rush of maintaining communication with his network, balancing who was willing to say what with who worked where, making strategic guesses based on every bit of other information he collected to fill in the blanks before someone was ambushed… it was done.

Except for one thing.

As people started to leave the tent in ones and twos, he turned to look up at Xichen with as much calm as he could muster. “I will be coming with you.”

Xichen took in a sharp breath. “A-Yao…”

“Xichen-xiong,” Meng Yao said softly. “One of the greatest cultivators and one of the best teachers of our age has spent two and more years tutoring me in the sword. I am not defenseless. I’ll stay to the back, if you wish it, but I will not remain behind when you go into such danger.”

“You most certainly will not stay to the back; you’ll stay beside me,” Xichen said, as close to sharp as he’d ever gotten with Meng Yao. Meng Yao smiled up at him and agreed demurely, “Yes, Xichen-xiong.” Xichen sighed and gave him the rueful look of a man who knew perfectly well he was being maneuvered around. “Promise me you’ll keep yourself safe,” he demanded, laying both hands on Meng Yao’s shoulders.

Meng Yao rested a hand on his chest, in turn. “I promise.”

It was a reasonable request. After all, if he wasn’t safe himself, how was he to destroy anything that dared threaten Xichen? He’d collected a good deal of information on Jin Guangshan, by now, and was confident that the threat he would present would appear very soon after the final battle.

As a child, Meng Yao had been used to the often brutal violence that ran underneath the commerce and politics of brothels. He’d liked night-hunts better, once he’d been taken in by the Nie sect, with their element of tracking and deduction, even of trapping. He’d fully expected a battlefield to be a return to the brutality that human conflict seemed inevitably to involve, and he’d been right.

The part that he hadn’t expected was to find beauty here.

The sweep of Xichen’s sword was so clean, so driven by perfect awareness of every movement around him, that even Xichen’s speed seemed unhurried, never pressed despite the multiple attackers that hemmed them in. It was as if he drew a circle around them in white and blue, traced out by the fall of his sword and the flow of his sleeves following after every blow, and within that circle was calm.

In that calm it felt easy to move with Xichen, to find the rhythm Meng Yao knew from their lessons and sparring, and turn his own sword outward without the slightest concern that an attacker’s would find his back.

The relative calm didn’t entirely prevent his attention from catching on odd things, bits of disjointed observation to keep his thoughts busy while his body got on with surviving, and he was momentarily amused to note that he wasn’t the only one encircled by a white wall of defense. Wei Wuxian moved so effortlessly with Lan Wangji, through and inside Lan Wangji’s strokes as Wei Wuxian turned away blow after blow on his flute, that Meng Yao thought they’d probably been doing this for the entire second half of the campaign.

Meng Yao stepped through another half circle at Xichen’s back, aware that the core of this attack—Xichen, Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng—were moving ever closer to the stairs up to Wen Ruohan’s own hall. The pace was starting to accelerate with each red-clothed cultivator that fell, and Meng Yao thought he could see the end approaching.

Until a wave of palpable, burning darkness rushed out from the hall and swept over the field.

A breathless moment of hush followed, as every person still alive and standing paused, wondering, waiting to see what would come next. Meng Yao resettled his feet and took a breath, feeling the steadiness of Xichen behind him.

What came was the slow rustle of many, many footsteps, as what looked like three times their number of corpse puppets emerged from the south gates and spilled around the sides of Wen Ruohan’s hall. Maybe more than that—they were still coming when Meng Yao had to tear his attention away and do something about the sword coming at him. The battlefield dissolved back into a whirl of bodies pressing in on them, and Meng Yao’s focus narrowed and narrowed again, down to nothing but the angle of his sword, the next exhale, the sharpness of Xichen’s movements. And under it all, as far down as he could push it, the thought that they might not make it out of this courtyard alive.

The piercing note of a flute cut every thought short.

Meng Yao had never before been on a battlefield with Wei Wuxian. Listening to that music, he thought he understood why the people who had been whispered of magic that pried into the soul. The eternal core of rage that lay beneath his daytime thoughts resonated to those notes. To cultivators who thought they were beyond the influence of the blind, bottomless rage of ghosts, Meng Yao had no doubt it felt inexplicable. Perhaps even like possession. But that wasn’t it. It was only Wei Wuxian’s song calling to the malice and fury that living minds tried to bind down or weed out, if they weren’t already mad with it.

Fortunately, Meng Yao had known for some time that he was probably a bit mad, by most people’s standards. He breathed through it, let the rage surge up and channeled it through his next breath.

Except that there was no next attack coming.

The most advanced corpse puppets, the ones that seemed to be able to spread their corruption, turned on their fellows with a roar, leaving the Jiang and Lan cultivators in slowly widening spaces with nothing to fight. Meng Yao backed up to Xichen’s shoulder, looking around, and spotted Wei Wuxian, standing above the battlefield on one of the stone beasts that flanked the stairs. That position, careflly separated from any other combatant, yanked at his attention, and he took in a quick, harsh breath, groping for Xichen’s arm.

“Xichen-xiong. I need to move; don’t follow yet, please. I swear I’ll be all right.”


Meng Yao thought he would be in for a scolding, later, for ignoring Xichen to dart up the steps on the far side from Wei Wuxian. Xichen waited as he asked, though, so he set all that away in his mind for later. One flight, two, and he dropped his sword and flung himself down to his knees as if struck and perhaps struggling to rise. Just in time, as Wen Ruohan burst out of his doors and glared around.

And, exactly as Wei Wuxian had probably intended, the Wen sect master focused only on him. On him and on the seal Wei Wuxian had forged from the fifth piece of yin metal.

Meng Yao breathed slow and even, as Wei Wuxian baited Wen Ruohan, shifting his focus from his sword to his knife and concentrating his spiritual energy into Hensheng. Breath by breath, he deepened that flow, as Wen Ruohan seized hold of Wei Wuxian and Wei Wuxian let him, smiling as he releasing all the force he had gathered through the Yin Tiger Seal. As every corpse puppet on the field fell, exactly like dropped puppets, in the moment when Wen Ruohan’s attention was split between Wei Wuxian’s taunting smile and the glint of Lan Wangji’s sword coming at him like a bolt of lightning from the steps, Meng Yao cast Hensheng free. He brought it sweeping around from directly behind Wen Ruohan, with all the force he’d been able to concentrate, and drove it into Wen Ruohan’s spine. He almost thought he could hear the meaty thunk and brittle snap of Hensheng stabbing in. For one instant, all was still.

And then Wen Ruohan fell.

Lan Wangji was just in time to catch Wei Wuxian, as he too collapsed.

Which was when Nie Mingjue and Jin Zixuan stormed through the east gates and ground to a halt at the spectacle laid out before them. After a dumbfounded moment, though, the Jin contingent set up a victory cry.

Meng Yao dropped back down to the stairs and buried his head in the crook of his arm, trying to stifle the unstrung giggles that swept him as all the tension in him released in a rush.

“A-Yao?” Xichen’s hand on his shoulder was warm and steady, and Meng Yao took a few deep breaths to master himself.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. Just…” he raised his head and looked up at Xichen with a rueful smile. “Help me stand up?” He wasn’t at all sure he could, on his own.

Xichen helped him up and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Try not to scare me like that too often?” he asked, and his voice was soft but the grip of his hands around Meng Yao’s shoulders was tight.

Meng Yao lowered his eyes, contrite even if there hadn’t really been time to explain. “Yes, Xichen-ge,” he murmured. “I’ll try.”

Xichen’s mouth quirked, probably at the qualified agreement. “All right, then.” He kept a hand under Meng Yao’s elbow as they climbed the last flight of stairs to the three at the top. Wen Ruohan was very clearly dead, but Wei Wuxian didn’t seem too far behind him. Lan Wangji cradled Wei Wuxian close as he looked up at his brother with open entreaty. “Xiongzhang.”

Xichen brushed gentle fingers over his brother’s head. “Let’s get all of the injured down to the Wen guest quarter. That’s where the physicians should be setting up.”

Lan Wangji nodded and gathered Wei Wuxian up in his arms as he rose, turning down the steps. Meng Yao thought the physicians might have to pry them apart to do any treatment, and firmly stifled another fit of helpless giggles. Instead, he knelt and yanked his knife out of the back of Wen Ruohan’s neck, cleaning it on the dead man’s robes. When he stood, Xichen was smiling at him, soft and satisfied.

“I see you’ve found your balance between Hensheng and Zaisheng, just as I thought you would.”

Meng Yao stared up at him, eyes wide, breath suddenly shaking in his chest. At the reminder of Xichen’s faith in him. At the reminder of how clearly Xichen sometimes saw him. At the reminder of how much of him seemed to truly be welcome in the shelter of Xichen’s arms. “Because of you,” he whispered. “Only because of you.”

Xichen touched his cheek, tender as another kiss, and let his hand fall lightly down Meng Yao’s back, sweeping him along as Xichen went down the steps to meet Nie Mingjue. Meng Yao walked quietly beside him, letting the end of this campaign settle into his thoughts, a steady weight of this is accomplished.

Now would come the less obvious campaign.

It took Jin Guangshan three days to show up at the Nightless City, about as fast as one could make the trip from Lanling to Qishan by sword. Meng Yao frankly suspected he’d been much closer, and had only arrived by sword to remind people he still had one. Xichen and Nie Mingjue had gone to meet him, and Meng Yao attached himself quietly and firmly to Xichen’s elbow.

He remembered the coldness of Jin Guangshan’s eyes moving over the gathered alliance, as if tallying up how much he could get for each one of them at market.

Jin Guangshan also tried immediately to insert himself into the circle of the campaign commanders. “No need to trouble yourselves with sweeping up the Wen remnants that escaped,” he declared. “I’ll have Jin Zixun take care of that.”

Nie Mingjue looked absently approving, and even Xichen only a little troubled. Meng Yao’s mouth tightened briefly before he smoothed his expression. This man was good at what he did.

“I hope Jin Zixun will not have made any hasty moves,” Meng Yao interjected. “I will need to speak with the captives to locate my informants. They served us well; the least we can do in return is keep them safe, if they survived the fighting.”

Xichen’s chin lifted at the reminder of just how hasty Jin Zixun tended to be. “Very true.”

Jin Guangshan clearly saw it too, and waved a hand. “Of course, of course.” He gave Meng Yao a tolerant and yet dismissive glance. “But now is the time for deciding policy, not the little details.”

Meng Yao made his eyes wide and earnest. “I do apologize, Jin-zongzhu. If I’d known that was your purpose, I’d have sent someone for Jiang-zongzhu at once, when you arrived.” He felt more than saw Xichen and Nie Mingjue react to that: half a blink, a tiny shift back onto heels. They hadn’t been thinking about the fourth sect master, even after Jin Guangshan mentioned policy decisions.

The image of Jin Zixuan clicked into place, in Meng Yao’s mind. Jin Zixuan commanding Jin forces and taking part in the leadership councils, even though he was still only heir. Still young. The same age as Jiang Wanyin.

That hadn’t been a choice made only out of cowardice or an attempt to assert the superiority of Jin, though Meng Yao thought both of those things still entered in to it. It had also been an attempt to make the more seasoned leaders discount Jiang Wanyin, to forget a little that he wasn’t still heir to Jiang but rather the sect’s master, now. Meng Yao poised himself and waited for his opening. Neither his need to protect Xichen and Lan nor his deal with Wei Wuxian could let this bit of maneuvering stand.

Sure enough, Jin Guangshan chuckled at the mention of Jiang Wanyin, avuncular and dismissive. “Ah, Jiang Wanyin is still very young for all the responsibilities he’s taken on…”

Meng Yao inserted himself neatly into the pause for breath as if it had been a full stop, smiling happily. “I hadn’t imagined that such an experienced leader as Jin-zongzhu would admire Jiang-zongzhu’s staunch sense of responsibility as I do! Truly, it’s astonishing how firmly he’s taken up his duties.” He kept his breath light and even, and his smile impenetrable, as Jin Guangshan’s eyes narrowed, now intent on him.

As the pause drew out, while Jin Guangshan tried to find a way around the block Meng Yao had created without taking back his own words, Meng Yao pounced on the opportunity and turned to look up at Xichen. “Xichen-xiong, shall I go and find Jiang-zongzhu for you, so all the sect masters may discuss policy?”

Xichen’s faintly raised brows quirked up another hair at the delicate emphasis Meng Yao put on ‘all’, and he nodded slowly. “Yes, a-Yao. Please do.” His smile was a little wry but still warm. “What would we do without you to think of these things?”

Meng Yao bent his head, graceful and obedient, and felt with satisfaction how the current of power in the room shifted around his gesture, settled more firmly on Xichen.

He felt, too, the weight of Jin Guangshan’s eyes on his back as he left. That was fine. Let the man wonder whether that had all been deliberate or not.

He found Jiang Wanyin with his wounded sect-members and stifled a sigh. If he was right about Jin Guangshan’s intent to either break or absorb Jiang, they’d need to work on Jiang Wanyin’s political awareness. “Jiang-zongzhu,” he said, with a brief, polite bow, “the sect masters are meeting to consider what’s to be done with the remnants of Wen. Will you attend?”

At least it didn’t take long for Jiang Wanyin to re-focus. “Yes, of course.” He nodded to one of his only surviving senior disciples and stood to follow Meng Yao.

“You need to delegate more,” Meng Yao murmured, as they made their way back to Wen Ruohan’s hall. “You’re about to start having to spend more time with the other sect masters. Jin Guangshan is trying to dismiss and downplay your capability as Master of Jiang.”

Jiang Wanyin’s sharp look turned hot and furious. “He’s what?”

“Be calm,” Meng Yao ordered, just as sharply, not looking around. “Don’t try to engage with him. Leave that to me. What you need to do is defend yourself; demonstrate to Lan and to Nie that you are a responsible leader who can take measured thought on larger matters. Such as,” he added, pointedly, “what should be done with the surviving Wen servants, dependents, and elders. Will you argue for their deaths? Or for mercy? And if mercy, who shall have control of these people, who will have use of any skills they possess?”

Now Jiang Wanyin was looking a little overwhelmed, and Meng Yao couldn’t entirely blame him. It was obvious, to him at least, that Jiang Fengmian had been educating his son gradually, and had put cultivation and character ahead of sect politics. It was really no wonder Wei Wuxian was so fierce in protecting him. Meng Yao thought for a moment, as they started to climb the stairs, and finally asked, “What direction do you wish to lead Jiang in? What is the guiding principle of your sect?” Perhaps that would help Jiang Wanyin focus.

And, indeed, after one halting, almost stumbling step, Jiang Wanyin straightened, head lifting as he looked up the last steps. After one long, uncertain moment, his mouth firmed to a hard line. “To protect.”

Meng Yao paused at the top of the steps and looked back at him. “Then perhaps you have your answers.” He swept a hand toward the open doors, bowing Jiang Wanyin inside.

Jin Guangshan had been busy in his absence, he noted. Apparently he’d called Jin Zixun to come, as well, and bring whatever prisoners he’d rounded up so far along with him. Jin Zixun didn’t stay, though; rather he left his huddled prisoners under a handful of guards and strode off with a smirk on his face. Jin Guangshan welcomed Jiang Wanyin jovially enough, and turned at once to Meng Yao. “You said you will need to review all Wen prisoners to identify your informants, yes?” He waved a permissive hand toward the twenty or so men and women in the middle of the hall. "Go ahead, then."

Meng Yao blinked at him, and turned an innocently confused look on Xichen, making sure to speak to him rather than let Jin Guangshan continue to act as if he directed things here. “I thought the sect masters wished to decide on a general policy of disposition for the prisoners, first?” He didn’t react in the slightest as Jin Guangshan stirred, as if he were so focused on Xichen he hadn’t seen.

“I believe we are agreed that we will all be more settled in mind if we are sure our decisions will catch no allies by mistake,” Xichen said quietly.

Agreed for very different reasons, Meng Yao had no doubt, but so be it. Let Jin Guangshan glean what he could of Meng Yao’s methods, from this. It wouldn’t help him with the network Meng Yao had created within the Jin sect.

He moved out into the hall, to stand near the prisoners and recited, “The high tower is a hundred feet tall.”

Two heads jerked up, both women in the clothing of lower servants. Their voices tangled with each other as they responded over top of each other.

“I raise my head and look at the bright moon.”

“The River Chu cuts through the middle of heaven’s gate.”

The women both stumbled to a halt, blinking at each other in clear confusion. Meng Yao smiled and held up a finger. “From here one’s hand could pluck the stars,” he said to the first, and turned to the second to finish, “You ask for what reason I stay on the green mountain.”

The older woman sagged in clear relief, and the younger pressed her clasped hands to her trembling mouth. Meng Yao nodded and held out his hand. “Come. All will be well.” A cool look at the Jin guards cleared their way. “Go to the Hall of Embers, in the guest quarter,” he told them quietly. “Wait for me there. You will be safe.”

They both bowed to him and made haste out, the younger woman helping the elder along.

“Poetry, eh?” Jin Guangshan’s mouth smiled under cold, cold eyes. “Not something that comes naturally to the lower classes.”

Meng Yao breathed out the surge of rage that wanted to break free, smile smooth and unbroken. “You might be surprised, Jin-zongzhu.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Jin Guangshan chuckled, and beckoned to the Jin guards. “Carry on, then.”

The first knot of prisoners was led off, into the interior of the hall, and another lot prodded inside. Meng Yao let his smile curl just a little wider, perfectly serene. If Jin Guangshan thought he would be able to break Meng Yao’s code, he was very mistaken. Because, of course, there was no code to break—it all depended on Meng Yao’s own memory of lines cut from dozens of poems and matched at random for each new informant he added.

One little group of prisoners after another were brought through the hall, and Meng Yao ran through his individual recognition signals and culled out his informers in ones and twos. Twice, over the course of the afternoon, someone he was fairly sure did recognize the first line of his signal refused to give the counter. He marked them in his mind to check on later, out from under the very public eyes in this hall. Perhaps they had family they would not leave. He would see.

The more knots of ragged, fearful prisoners came through the hall, though, the more he wondered. Xichen’s mouth was getting very tight, and Nie Mingjue had outright pity on his face, by now. They were only settling deeper into the conviction that these people were no threat. There must be something Jin Guangshan hoped to gain that was worth such a risk.

When Jin Zixun returned in person with the last group of prisoners, Meng Yao realized exactly what that thing was with abrupt clarity. Because the woman at the head of this group was no servant. Her cloak was ragged and dirty, and the robes under it torn in places, but they were still a fine, deep red. He recognized her at once from the Lan summer lectures, two and more years behind them: Wen Qing, adopted by the main branch of the clan, Wen Ruohan’s personal physician, a powerful cultivator even without a sword in her hands. Exactly the kind of person who would be the greatest threat to leave alive and the most valuable to control. The parade of other prisoners had been little more than a delaying tactic so that she could be brought.

Jin Guangshan intended to base their prisoner disposition on her example, and based on her, it would be easy for him to argue against leniency, against the compassion that Meng Yao knew Xichen would wish for.

“And were any of your informants from among these?” Jin Guangshan inquired silkily.

Meng Yao did have one piece of information that might serve Xichen’s wishes, here, but he needed an opening to bring it forth. So for now he said only, “There were not,” and spread a welcoming hand toward the little group, as if it were his permission that let Jin Guangshan go forward. Cannily, Jin Guangshan did not step forward to answer it, but turned to Xichen and Nie Mingjue.

“The servants, perhaps, can be released or taken in by other sects,” he declared, obviously having tracked Xichen’s and Nie Mingjue’s thoughts on the previous groups, “but there remain far more dangerous prisoners. Wen Qing was said to be high in Wen Ruohan’s favor! Who is to say what rebellion she might not raise, if left free?” He shook his head, brows drawn together in a concerned frown. “We must take responsible thought, here. The yin metal is recovered, but it is an element of nature and cannot be destroyed. What, then, if someone like her were to lay hands on a piece? We have only just finished subduing Wen, and she might raise it anew!”

Listening carefully for what might be implied, Meng Yao tried not to have a heart attack on the spot. Taken in by other sects, yes, he’d suspected Jin Guangshan might want to snatch up any cultivators still alive to make his own use of, but he hadn’t realized the man might also be aiming for the yin metal!

…and possibly even for Wei Wuxian and the Yin Tiger Seal, if that emphasis on responsible thought meant what he thought it did.

Thankfully, Jiang Wanyin, who had been staring at Wen Qing the entire time, looking pale and shocked, finally stepped forward. “I do not believe she would. After the attack on Lotus Pier, it was Wen Qing and her brother who hid us, in defiance of the orders of her clan.”

Seizing on the opening, Meng Yao nodded soberly. “Indeed. My informant in Wen Chao’s household did say it was on suspicion of not fulfilling Wen Ruohan’s own orders that Wen Chao imprisoned her.”

Nie Mingjue only grunted, eyeing her narrowly, but Xichen smiled. “To withhold your hand from unjust actions, even when it is your own clan that demands them, is not the mark of a small heart.” Nie Mingjue eyed him for a long moment, at that, but finally sighed and nodded his agreement, the straight line of his shoulders softening a touch. Meng Yao gave silent thanks that Xichen knew how to handle his friend, and had also picked up on Meng Yao’s push away from the language of defiance. If he was right, that would only feed into a play to control Wei Wuxian.

He was starting to feel very frazzled, trying to keep track of all this at once.

Jin Guangshan pulled a thoughtful expression. “It is as you say, Lan-zongzhu, but such conviction does not make her, or others who may be equally defiant, less of a danger to leave at our backs.”

Meng Yao was reciting some of the filthiest curses he knew behind a bland smile, and trying to think of some way to cut off Jin Guangshan’s momentum before he really did reach Wei Wuxian, when Wen Qing tossed her cloak back with a sharp gesture and stepped forward herself.

“Enough!” She ignored the reflex jerk of the guards’ swords, head high as her eyes raked over the equally startled sect masters before her. “If the lives of my clan are to be a bargaining chip once again, then I will bargain myself.” She reached into her robes and pulled out a small, scarf-wrapped package, and held it out to Jiang Wanyin with an imperious look. “Jiang-zongzhu. I call on you to honor your word. The lot of you may do what you like with me. But my brother and my clan—them you will protect.” She ignored the immediate protests from behind her and held Jiang Wanyin’s eyes steadily.

He stared back at her, very still, and Meng Yao wondered if her demand—to protect her own, the every thing Jiang Wanyin had just declared a guiding principle of his—was resonating in his heart the way Xichen’s words sometimes did in Meng Yao’s. Jin Guangshan stirred as if to step forward, and perhaps try once again to override Jiang Wanyin, and this time Meng Yao thought Jiang Wanyin caught it. His eyes flickered aside at the other sect masters, and the line of his mouth firmed. In the end, it was he who stepped forward to take the silk packet from Wen Qing’s hand.

“Wen Ning and his immediate clan are under the protection of Jiang,” he declared.

The currents of the room shifted again around that flat declaration, the tight, exclusive circle of attention between Xichen, Nie Mingjue, and Jin Guangshan finally breaking open. Meng Yao almost felt he could reach out and touch the shards of it falling to the floor.

“They will be your responsibility, then,” Nie Mingjue said, as much an acceptance as a warning.

“Perhaps that will be the best approach after all,” Jin Guangshan was quick to agree, calculation flickering in his eyes before being hidden under a judicious expression. “With her brother in the keeping of one of our sects, perhaps she could be trusted in the custody of another.”

That turned out to be a miscalculation (finally!), now that whatever uncertainty had held Jiang Wanyin quiet seemed to have broken, because he rounded on the other sect masters. “Did we fight Wen only to try to take their place? These people are under Jiang’s protection, not hostages!” There was entreaty as well as anger in his voice, but perhaps that was just as well, because Xichen stepped forward to answer it.

“We did not defeat them only to become them.” For all that Xichen didn’t raise his voice, that was a declaration too, and Meng Yao saw Nie Mingjue settle under it and Jin Guangshan ease back, retreating from potential confrontation. “Nevertheless, some form of oversight is needed.” The smile he turned on Jiang Wanyin was kind and understanding, but also held a momentary flicker of warning. Jiang Wanyin’s given word could shield Wen Qing’s brother and clan, but not her, not directly, not when she’d disclaimed it herself.

That gave Meng Yao an idea, though.

“Let the Lan sect take her in, then,” he said, and spread his hands, smiling in his best self-deprecating manner, when everyone’s attention shifted to him. “Jiang has a personal debt to Wen Qing, it seems. In turn, I bear a person debt to Jiang.” Or, at least, to Wei Wuxian and his transparent attempt to keep Lan Wangji out of his confrontation with Wen Ruohan, thoroughly unappreciated as it had been by Lan Wangji himself. Close enough to ring true. “Let her reside with Lan, in an environment with strict oversight that will not encourage any sort of rash action.”

He did not miss Jin Guangshan’s quick, narrow glance at Xichen, or the way his mouth flattened into a hard line when Xichen nodded.

“Lan will undertake to look after her, yes.” His eyes were warm on Meng Yao, and it wasn’t difficult at all to return a soft, grateful smile—perfectly genuine but also another opportunity to emphasize Xichen’s power, here.

“That will be quite acceptable,” Nie Mingjue agreed, and Jiang Wanyin was swift to follow. Meng Yao carefully refrained from gloating at the bow Jiang-zongzhu offered Xichen. It was the perfect touch to cement Xichen’s authority over this matter.

It had been a very close thing, but he thought Jin Guangshan had lost the footing to make a try for the Yin Tiger Seal, at least for now. He was grateful for that, because he hasn’t wanted to use the information his network in Lanling had uncovered, not yet. That was a move he’d only be able to make once, and he would either have to destroy Jin Guangshan in one blow or spend the rest of his life watching his back for a knife. Better, if more stressful, to counter the man by maneuver for as long as he could.

It was very stressful, though, and he was nearly stumbling with weariness when they finally all departed, Jiang Wanyin with his new people in tow, Jin Guangshan speaking tight and quiet words to Jin Zixun, Nie Mingjue toward the inner rooms of the hall after exchanging a firm nod with Xichen. Probably to see to freeing the prisoners who were neither valuable targets nor beholden to Meng Yao.

Xichen beckoned Wen Qing to come along with them. “Wen-guniang, I know you must be in need of rest and some time to recover, but when you have, I wonder if I might impose on your medical knowledge.”

She pulled her attention away from the retreating form of her brother, following after Jiang Wanyin but glancing back at her often, and straightened up with a deep breath. “Yes, I’m sure there are still injured to care for.” She walked steadily behind Xichen’s shoulder, pulling her cloak tighter around her as they reached the guest quarter and came under the eyes of cultivators of the Sunshot alliance.

“In particular, I am concerned for Wei-gongzi,” Xichen said, guiding them both toward the halls that Lan had taken over. “He invoked a great deal of malicious energy, in the final battle, and he hasn’t woken for the past three days.”

Wen Qing stopped short and whirled to stare up at Xichen. “He what?! Malicious…” She pressed a hand to her forehead and made a wordless, furious sound. “That idiot! Take me to him at once.”

Meng Yao couldn’t hold back an exhausted laugh, and Xichen stopped blinking down at Wen Qing to give him a concerned look, one hand coming up under his elbow. Meng Yao shook his head. “I need to see to my informants. Please, go ahead.” He snickered again. “Wen-guniang will surely be welcome aid to Jiang-guniang.” Who had expressed very similar sentiments, albeit in less forceful terms.

The quirk of Xichen’s mouth said he agreed. “Very well. I’ll see you in a little while.”

Mind still half submerged in reading the currents of the sect masters’ conversation, Meng Yao had no trouble decoding that as an order to rest soon. He smiled up at Xichen and agreed obediently, “Yes, Xichen-xiong.”

Xichen stroked his hair back with a gentle hand, and waited until he was at the doors of the Hall of Embers before turning away to guide Wen Qing toward the halls Jiang had claimed. Meng Yao held tight to the warmth of that touch, using it to steady himself as he stepped into the hall and over a score of anxious eyes turned to him at once.

“Be at ease,” he said, with calm he hardly felt himself at the moment. “The campaign is over and you are safe.” He stepped forward and held out his hand toward the open seats in the hall’s wide receiving room. “Come. Tell me what you wish to do, now. If you wish to work for another sect, that can very likely be arranged, as can work in any of the cities of Gusu or Qinghe.”

He set himself to listen to the people who had trusted him with their lives and, in many cases, their revenge, pushing aside his weariness.

He hoped countering Jin Guangshan’s next move would be less wearing, but he wasn’t counting on it.


Wei Wuxian was just about to see Lan Zhan out of his rooms, and possibly put on some more clothes, when the door nearly slammed open and Wen Qing, of all people, stalked through it, trailed by Lan Xichen. Her head swiveled, eyes pinning him as if she were sighting down an arrow.


Wei Wuxian promptly hid behind Lan Zhan, and was not ashamed in the slightest for doing so. Wen Qing bore down on him, undeterred.

“Is this right, what I’m hearing? Have you been channeling resentful energy? Do you have the slightest idea what that has to be doing to the paths of your qi? What possessed you to do such a stupid thing?”

“It’s not like I had a lot of choice,” he protested from behind Lan Zhan’s shoulder. Lan Zhan gave him a sidelong look, heavily weighted with satisfaction at having an ally, and stepped out of her way, the traitor.

“I did not make sure you would live just so you could kill yourself a different way!” She pointed imperiously at the bed. “Sit.”

Wei Wuxian edged back from her glare. “I really don’t need…” The glare intensified, cutting him off.


He sat.

She poked and prodded him, listened to his pulse points, and dug mercilessly into his major meridians to gauge the sluggish flow of his qi, ignoring all his winces. Finally, she sat back, glare slightly less fierce. “Well. You’re not as badly disrupted as I was expecting. Quite.” She turned to eye Lan Zhan, who still had his guqin out, thoughtfully. “Have you been trying to rebalance him while he was sleeping?”

Lan Zhan nodded, looking hopeful for the first time since Wei Wuxian had woken up. “I have.”

“I believe it did help. Continue please.” Lan Zhan gave her a respectful bow of acknowledgement, and she returned it with a firm nod.

Wei Wuxian wilted. He’d never escape, not with both of them determined on this. He did protest, though, when she produced several silvery needles from inside her sleeve, because he recognized those. “Oh, come on!”

“Do you want me to get your brother down here to make it an order?” she asked, brows arched in challenge.

All humor dropped away and he gave back a fierce glare of his own.

“I didn’t think so.” She turned to the Lans still hanging in the doorway. “Lan-zongzhu. Lan er-gongzi. I must ask for some privacy during actual treatments, please.” The courtesy was so obviously in form alone that Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes.

Lan Xichen was equally obviously stifling a laugh. “I believe we can do that, Wen-daifu.1 We will be outside, when you’re done.”

Lan Zhan bowed deeply to her, gratitude so obvious that Wei Wuxian had to huff over it, and followed his brother.

Wen Qing rolled up his sleeve briskly, and said, much lower, eyes fixed on his arm, “My brother is under Jiang’s protection, now. I will be in the care of the Lan sect.”

The remains of Wei Wuxian’s anger collapsed. He didn’t think he’d be a quarter as calm as she was, threatened with separation from his family. “Then he’ll be under my protection,” he promised softly. “I won’t let any harm come to him.”

She looked up at him, mouth tight but eyes soft and sad, and nodded silently.

He sat still and bore the prickle of needles and the uncomfortable yank on the reluctant flow of his qi without complaint. When she was finally done, he ignored the nasty tremble in his limbs to lay a hand on her wrist. “I’ll bring him to visit, whenever I can.”

She blinked back sudden brightness in her eyes and jerked a nod before re-gathering herself and making her way to the doors to meet her… new sect? Or new overseers?

Wei Wuxian slumped back on the bed with a sigh. They had fought tyranny and won. Couldn’t they make something better than all the same mistakes again?


1. Daifu 大夫: doctor or physician. back