Meng Yao was almost, a little bit, starting to sympathize with Lan Qiren on the subject of Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian.
Just a little bit.
Because he seemed to be tripping over them everywhere, no matter what corner of the Cloud Recesses he’d sought out, usually for some quiet. He’d found them in the river pavilions.
“Lan Zhan, you cannot possibly tell me that this piece was meant to be tuned that high, not with that many overflowing sounds in it! It’s got to be a lower tuning.”
He’d found them in the library.
“Lan Zhan, you didn’t tell me that Lan has a copy of Songs of the South, and I just said the other day how bored I was! Now, was that nice?”
He’d found them around back by the waterfall.
“Honestly, Lan Zhan, what’s the point of rules that constantly contradict each other? It’s not like you even can obey all of them!”
“The point is to reflect on the contradictions.”
“All right, then, what kind of personal enlightenment are you supposed to get out of embracing the entire world when every other line is telling you what to reject?”
He found them in the forest.
“Look how many there are, now! You take such good care of them, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian held up one of the, admittedly copious, rabbits, apparently so it could rub noses with Wangji, and Meng Yao turned right around in his tracks and made his way back down the path. He’d take the long way around.
“Can’t Wangji just kiss him already and have done?” he asked Xichen under his breath, as they both watched Wei Wuxian and Wangji chase each other over the roofs. Wei Wuxian really did retain remarkable control of his qi, for a man they suspected of a losing encounter with Wen Zhuliu.
“I’m not entirely sure Wangji knows that’s an option, yet,” Xichen admitted ruefully.
Which at least succeeded in quashing Meng Yao’s sympathy for Lan Qiren, whose fault that probably was.
So when Meng Yao heard their voices around the corner, as he was looking through one of the library pavilion shelves for a history of the Nie sect that he wanted after a rather alarming mention of tombs in Huaisang’s latest letter, he just sighed to himself, resigned, and kept looking. If he was fortunate, perhaps he could escape with his book before the horseplay really got started.
At least until he heard Wangji say, low and serious. “Wei Ying. Your Golden Core—was it wounded in the Burial Mounds? Or did it happen earlier?”
Meng Yao froze and peeked around the corner just in time to see Wei Wuxian try to laugh off his own frozen moment with an airy wave of one hand.
“Why would you think anything ever happened to my Golden Core?”
Wangji just looked at him for a breath, perhaps noticing that Wei Wuxian hadn’t actually denied it, and then he spread a hand toward the books of tablature spread open on the table beside him. “When Wen-guniang asked for the music of concentration, rather than of cleansing, it became clear to me.”
Wei Wuxian dropped his laughing front like shrugging off a cloak, leaving him darker, almost the grim edge he’d had during Sunshot. “You can’t tell anyone else.” When Wangji didn’t answer at once, he stepped forward, seizing Wangji’s arm urgently. “Lan Zhan!”
Wangji bent his head just a little, voice steady when he answered, “I will not.”
It cut through the desperation running under Wei Wuxian’s anger, and left uncertainty clear to see, hope and hesitation tangled together. “Really?”
Wei Wuxian still hadn’t let go, and Wangji laid a hand over his. “You have my word,” he said, so openly earnest that he almost looked like Xichen. “I did not understand your reasons, during Sunshot, yet you still had them. If you ask this, you must have a reason now.”
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian’s voice had gone soft and his eyes as wide as if Wangji had just proclaimed his love in the main courtyard. “You… really?” The hope so clear in his face was fragile, this time, but when Wangji nodded he broke into a genuine smile, brilliant and sweet.
Perhaps that was what emboldened Wangji. “May I ask a different question?” At Wei Wuxian’s nod he edged a step closer and asked, “What am I to you?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile quieted into something softer. “Before all this,” he pressed his free hand to his chest, “I thought maybe you would be the one who understood.” He looked down as if he couldn’t hold Wangji’s eyes any longer. “Who knew me, heart and soul.”
“I am. I will be.” Wangji’s voice was soft, but the words rang through the air like a declaration, like a vow. Wei Wuxian looked back up, searching Wangji’s face. Whatever he was looking for, he seemed to find at least the promise of, because he wet his lips before matching Wangji’s tiny step forward.
“Then… what am I to you?” he asked, low.
Calm seemed to settle over Wangji. “You are the question and the answer.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him, lips parted. “Oh.”
They stood together in the soft light of the library, still holding on to each other, and didn’t say another word. Meng Yao carefully tip-toed out with his book, closing the door silently so as not to disturb them.
He wondered, smiling to himself, if all Lans fell so completely, when they fell in love.
Of course, with Wangji and Wei Wuxian just possibly starting to sort themselves out, something else had to come up. On reflection, Meng Yao couldn’t imagine why he might have thought it would be otherwise.
He leaned over Xichen’s shoulder to read the handsomely written letter that had arrived, grandly inviting them to attend a gathering of cultivation sects for a night hunt at Phoenix Mountain. This gathering was hosted, the invitation told them, by the Lanling Jin sect, who hoped the sects could come together in good fellowship and friendly competition, as it should always have been between them. “Does he expect anyone, besides perhaps Yao-zongzhu, to buy this?” Meng Yao asked, flicking his fingers dismissively at the fine paper. “I cannot be the only one who notices just how hungry he is for power.”
Xichen smiled crookedly. “I’m afraid you’re one of the few, my heart.” He huffed a soft laugh at the disbelieving look Meng Yao gave him. “I’m sure I’ve told you before that your perception is beyond the ordinary.”
Meng Yao’s cheeks heated. “Well, yes, but… he’s not even hiding it!”
Xichen tossed the letter onto his writing table and reached up to tug Meng Yao forward, tumbling him down into Xichen’s lap in a flurry of white and blue. Meng Yao went willingly, perfectly confident that Xichen would catch him, relaxing into the curve of Xichen’s arm behind his back and smiling up at him. “I will not have you discount your abilities, a-Yao,” Xichen said, gentle but firm about it. “Jin Guangshan is skilled at talking people around to his way of thinking, and doing so in terms he can deny at once, should he need to shift his ground.” He cupped Meng Yao’s cheek in one broad hand. “Your clear sight is an extraordinary gift, and I expect to rely on you to know if and how we should move to counter Jin, at this event.”
Meng Yao turned his head into Xichen’s hand and pressed a kiss to his palm. “Yes, my husband,” he murmured, savoring again the warmth and satisfaction of how Xichen knew and valued him, giving back the assurance of how he belonged to Lan, now. Xichen made a satisfied sound and caught his chin, lifting it so he could kiss Meng Yao, slow and possessive.
At least until someone cleared their throat, in the open screens of the receiving room, and they both looked up to see Lan Qiren pretending to examine the windchimes beside the entrance. Xichen grinned, positively impish for a moment, and lifted Meng Yao easily out of his lap, setting him lightly back beside the writing table.
The casual show of strength only flared the heat running through Meng Yao higher, and Xichen was perfectly well aware of how Meng Yao responded to such things. Meng Yao gave his husband a look that promised revenge when they were alone again, before straightening his robes and putting on an attentive expression.
“Yes, Uncle?” Xichen asked smoothly, with only a bit of a feline curl at the corners of his mouth.
Lan Qiren entered, giving them a stern look. “On the topic of appropriate behavior within the Cloud Recesses,” he said, “I have observed Wei Wuxian taking up some sword training again.”
“It seems Wen-guniang’s treatment has been successful.” Xichen’s tone was agreeable, but Meng Yao noted that his words weren’t quite, and focused his attention.
“Mm.” Lan Qiren stroked his beard. “I was willing to wait on her success or failure, but now we know which it is, and Wei Wuxian’s disrespectful and wild ways still require curbing. You are sect master here, Xichen. It is your place to ensure our ways are upheld.”
“To be sure.” Xichen was wearing his faint, public smile. “But Wei-gongzi is not part of our sect. Surely it cannot be our place to dictate his behavior.”
“Then dictate your brother’s.” Lan Qiren’s voice was growing sharp. “Wangji gives that boy far too much leeway. He should know better than to tolerate anyone who insists on disorderly ways, who would lure those around him into questioning what is righteous!”
The more Meng Yao’s focus on the exchange sharpened, the more clearly he felt the balance of power in the room, and it was tilting more and more heavily toward Lan Qiren. When he saw Xichen’s faint sigh, he also felt that balance start to tip all the way over, and his hand flashed out to close on Xichen’s wrist. Xichen blinked and paused in the midst of drawing breath to speak, glancing over at Meng Yao. Meng Yao met his eyes, lips tight. If Xichen trusted his perception, if he was Xichen’s eyes in this, then he could not let this tipping point pass by. No matter how annoyed Lan Qiren might be at him later.
His first loyalty was to Xichen.
“Zongzhu,” was all he said, almost a whisper between them. Xichen’s brows jerked up, and slowly drew down into a frown.
“Now?” His voice was barely a breath. Meng Yao bit his lip, not entirely sure what fire he might be touching off, but certain of what he saw. If Xichen were not to spend years wresting the Lan sect out of his uncle’s hands, he needed to act now. Meng Yao nodded, quick and faint but determined.
Xichen closed his eyes and let his breath out. As Meng Yao watched, it almost seemed that Xichen grew larger, his presence in the room flowing outward, weighting the air around him. When Xichen opened his eyes they were sharp and level as his sword blade, and when he lifted his head the simple movement commanded attention like a shout.
Meng Yao was glad he was already sitting, because it made his knees weak just to see, sent heat pooling low in his stomach.
“Uncle,” Xichen said, quiet and courteous but utterly certain in a way Meng Yao had rarely heard, “I have attended to Wei-gongzi’s discussions with Wangji, and I am satisfied that his heart is dedicated to what is just. If he leads Wangji to question what the Discipline of Lan truly means, that is well. Wangji will reach a deeper understanding of his way than unthinking obedience would yield.”
Lan Qiren stood very still, eyes fixed on Xichen, and Meng Yao could see how his jaw tightened, as if he’d clenched his teeth on a demand for obedience—an approach Xichen had just neatly closed off. “Wei Wuxian still walks too near a crooked path,” he finally said.
“Does he?” Xichen’s question sounded genuine rather than rhetorical, and when Meng Yao remembered what Xichen had told him about Xichen’s mother, he thought he knew what other question was hanging in the air between Xichen and Lan Qiren.
Is it his feet you see on that path, or hers?
Lan Qiren’s face darkened, but his gathering ire broke against Xichen’s bottomless calm like wind against stone. Meng Yao shivered at the unmoving weight of that calm, and the choice it presented Lan Qiren with—to yield or to openly start a fight with his nephew. And with his sect master. In the end, Lan Qiren spun on his heel, lips tight, and swept back out of their rooms without a word.
Xichen let out a long breath and reached for Meng Yao, pulling him in and holding him tight. Meng Yao pressed close, arms sliding around Xichen. “I’m sorry,” he said, softly. “I know you didn’t want to—”
“No,” Xichen cut him off, face still buried in Meng Yao’s hair. “I always knew it would have to come some day. If you think it had to be now, then I trust your judgement.”
Meng Yao sighed, curling up in his lap so Xichen could hold him more comfortably. “If it hadn’t been, if you’d let him continue to dictate Wangji’s course, or try to, you’d have had to truly fight to turn it around later.” He hesitated and added, softer, “Or else Wangji would have fought.”
Xichen straightened with a sigh, though his smile had returned to dance at the corner of his mouth. “My brother is not skilled at compromise of any kind. Better it be me who stands firm now than him who shatters things into pieces later.”
Meng Yao had to pause simply to admire the understatement. That undeniable fact brought up another, though. “If Wangji isn’t comfortable with compromise… will he choose to go to Jiang?”
Xichen’s expression was briefly both appalled and full of stifled hilarity. “Not soon, I hope. I doubt Wangji would find that an easy fit.”
“Well, Wei Wuxian does seem to enjoy challenges,” Meng Yao murmured, mischievous. “Perhaps he will choose the Cloud Recesses instead.”
Xichen broke into his rare, open laugh, catching Meng Yao close. “Uncle would add a new rule to the Wall every week!”
Meng Yao snuggled close with a soft snort. “Well, that’s one way to reduce its importance.”
Xichen looked down at him with a secret gleam in his eye. “There’s the clear vision that I love. I will rely on it, at this Phoenix Mountain hunt.”
Meng Yao smiled back, slow and sharp. “Yes, husband.”
At the opening of the Phoenix Mountain hunt, Meng Yao sat quietly at Xichen’s side, on the shaded platform that had been erected for the sect masters, and listened to Jin Guangshan’s fulsome welcome. He had a private bet with himself regarding the archery targets set up to one side, and was waiting to see if he was right.
“In the spirit of friendly competition,” Jin Guangshan declared, with the kind of smile that made Meng Yao wonder yet again whether he could really be the only one who saw how it never reached the man’s eyes, “let us have a shooting match to decide what path everyone will take into the mountain!” He swept a hand out at the targets. “Each target has seven rings, one for each major path. The closer to the red your arrow strikes, the more advantageous your entry!”
Meng Yao absently awarded himself a win; anyone who knew Jin Zixuan’s reputation as an archer might have seen it coming. Though he was still just a bit surprised that Jin Guangshan seemed to be ignoring Wei Wuxian’s reputation. Perhaps he didn’t believe it because he hadn’t seen much evidence of it during Sunshot?
Jin Zixuan stepped forward at his father’s genial wave to begin. Meng Yao was an indifferent archer, himself, but even he could see that Jin Zixuan’s form was clean and correct, if a bit stiff during his showy leap to release from the air. The arrow flew straight and true to the center of one of the targets, and a murmur of approval went through the ranks of Jin sect cultivators and a few of their allied sects as well. Jin Zixuan lifted his chin and remarked, “Not difficult at all,” as he strode back to his place.
And then Jin Zixun stepped forward, which made Meng Yao straighten, interested. Did Jin Guangshan have a bit of intimidation planned, here? With a disdainful sidelong look in Wei Wuxian’s direction, Jin Zixun declared, “Does anyone dare challenge that? Step right up if you do! I want to see anyone who thinks they can shoot better than my cousin.” He swept his habitual sneer over the entire gathering. “Who else?”
Meng Yao clapped his sleeve over his mouth to hide the grin he couldn’t help. Was Jin Zixun really going to be this stupid? Perhaps it wasn’t a planned gambit after all, but just Jin Zixun’s inability to keep from making a fool of himself. Huaisang’s eyes met his, wide with anticipation, and Huaisang snapped open his fan to hide his own amusement behind.
When Wei Wuxian promptly turned to Wangji and asked for the loan of his headband, Meng Yao had to bite back actual laughter, shoulders shaking. It was probably a good thing Lan Qiren had stayed home; hearing this might have given him an actual stroke from sheer rage. Xichen sat beside him, the image of serenity despite Nie Mingjue’s own sidelong glance and raised brows, and Meng Yao hid another chuckle at that silent statement of support for Wangji and Wei Wuxian. He didn’t think it would be lost on any cultivator who was friends with a Lan disciple.
Wei Wuxian huffed a bit over Wangji’s exasperated, if silent, refusal, and strolled down the range, unwinding one of his cuff wrappings instead. Meng Yao restrained a gleeful sound as Wei Wuxian raised the ribbon of black and bound it over his eyes. This was going to be even better than he’d hoped. By the time Wei Wuxian drew five arrows, Meng Yao was glancing around to appreciate the shocked expressions surrounding him, and most especially Jin Guangshan’s. He looked like a man in the path of a runaway wagon who knew it was too late to run.
All five arrows sang home into the centers of the targets, and the crowd of cultivators burst into applause, led enthusiastically by Nie Mingjue. Wei Wuxian sauntered back to his place, with a bright smile for his sister, who was very obviously laughing behind the painted silk of her fan, and a grin for Wangji, who refused to smile back openly but did look quietly satisfied.
Meng Yao did not clap much, being too busy trying to bury his helpless snickers in Xichen’s shoulder. “What did they expect?” he gasped, blotting tears of laughter on his sleeve. On his other side, Jiang Wanyin snorted with what sounded half exasperation and half agreement. When Meng Yao looked, though, he was smiling, habitually tight expression brightened with pride.
Jin Guangshan finally managed to smile too, albeit with a very tight jaw. “Excellent show! Both Zixuan and Wei Wuxian will take the most direct path. Who shall be next?” Meng Yao didn’t miss the sharp gesture, down by his side, that made Jin Zixun step back, glowering. Jin Guangshan was not terribly intelligent, he reflected, but the man was cunning, and he knew how to adjust his strategy on the fly.
Other cultivators started coming forward, many with a laughing air of being well content to come in second best to a display like that, which Meng Yao suspected was not what Jin Guangshan had been after. As little groups broke up and started up the mountain, he noticed Jin-furen drawing Jin Zixuan aside for some fiercely whispered words, after which Jin Zixuan came to stand below where Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli were seated, looking just faintly hangdog. “Good afternoon, Jiang-guniang.” Apparently feeling his mother’s glare on his back, he bowed briefly. “I would be honored to escort you, if you wish to see the hunt.” He didn’t sound particularly honored, but the way his attention stayed fixed tight to her suggested that there might be true desire there, under the considerable awkwardness.
Jin Guangshan was ignoring the byplay completely, which suggested he didn’t think an alliance with Jiang would be to his benefit any more. But his wife did. Interesting. Meanwhile, Jiang Wanyin was making irritated ‘go ahead’ gestures at Wei Wuxian, who was hanging back at his gate, Wangji beside him. Wei Wuxian made considerably more violent gestures in Jin Zixuan’s direction, and Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes and shrugged impatiently. Jiang Yanli seemed amused by them, at least. She’d stopped looking uncertain and started smiling, which in turn had made Jin Zixuan brighten. Meng Yao wondered if Madam Jin was concerned enough with her son’s happiness to not care about the politics, or if perhaps she was building her own strength within Jin, courting an ally and binding the sect’s heir to her in the process. She was close-mouthed, even in private; even Meng Yao’s information from his network couldn’t tell him which was more likely.
“Perhaps we could walk for a little while,” Jiang Yanli agreed, and rose to let Jin Zixuan assist her down from the platform. Her voice was soft, but her body language was reserved. Meng Yao thought that she hadn’t, herself, decided about Jin Zixuan yet; he would refrain from trying to interfere, then.
It wasn’t as though she lacked for people to look after her interests, after all. Beside him, Jiang Wanyin spread his hands sharply, miming the most irritated helplessness Meng Yao had ever seen across the grounds at Wei Wuxian, who was now sulking. Meng Yao was fairly sure he saw Wangji roll his eyes before drawing Wei Wuxian away with a word or two. As the last archers took their shots and the sect masters started to stand, Xichen smiled down at Meng Yao and held out a hand. “Shall we, my heart?”
Meng Yao laid his hand in Xichen’s, blushing a little at such open solicitousness. “It should be an interesting afternoon,” he murmured, which made the corners of Xichen’s mouth curl up.
It was quite a pleasant afternoon, actually. Meng Yao was proud of the skill he’d learned under Xichen’s tutelage, but it still delighted him to walk in Xichen’s protection, to know without doubt that he didn’t need to attend to the haunts and spirits around them unless he chose to. It was also helpful, today, because much of his attention was on political affairs rather than hunting.
Jin sect members were scattered over the entire mountain, keeping watch, readily assisting any cultivators caught alone with prey a little beyond them, obviously keeping Jin benevolence on everyone’s mind.
Wei Wuxian and Wangji tore through swaths of the mountain with an ease that clearly reminded more than one person of just who had won some of the harshest battles of the Sunshot campaign… at least when the two of them could be bothered to take their eyes off each other and notice the prey. Meng Yao heard more than one party laughing (or even cooing) as the two wandered by.
Yao-zongzhu was strolling with Ouyang-zongzhu, gossiping more than hunting. Meng Yao paused to drop a word in their ears about how many Jin cultivators were hanging about, and how he hoped they didn’t intend to steal anyone’s credit. Both of them liked the juicy possibilities of that gossip, and Meng Yao chuckled with them, conspiratorially, before parting ways again. He felt the weight of Xichen’s eyes on him the whole time, and the quiet certainty of Xichen’s nod, as they walked on, warmed him.
Jin Zixuan, when they crossed his path, seemed to be dealing with his uncertainty in Jiang Yanli’s presence by lecturing endlessly on the ghosts and monsters of the mountain. If Meng Yao was any judge, Jiang Yanli found it equal parts amusing and annoying.
Jin-furen was subtly shadowing the pair, and appeared to have a headache.
Jiang Wanyin was taking out his temper on every spirit that had the misfortune to be in his way, and might just come out of this hunt with the highest tally of anyone.
He didn’t see anything to be concerned about until they ran across Wei Wuxian and Wangji again, this time in the middle of an altercation with Jin Zixun.
“…still don’t bring your sword!” Jin Zixun was declaiming, more to their audience than to Wei Wuxian himself. Meng Yao stiffened when he noticed that the audience included Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu. They were exactly the kind of people Jin Zixun’s words could easily stir up fear in. “Such a grand occasion, and yet you still show no care for courtesy, no respect for other cultivators! Is this the measure of the Yunmeng Jiang sect?”
Meng Yao started forward, and Wangji immediately laid a hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm, obviously knowing the weaknesses of his temper well by now. This could get ugly very fast.
Both of them stopped short, though, when Wei Wuxian tipped his head back and laughed. “My sword? I wasn’t going to, to be fair, but I suppose if you really insist…” He closed his eyes, still smiling, fingers raised as if to summon a sword that he obviously wasn’t carrying.
One moment passed. Another.
And just when Jin Zixun was starting to recover himself from his own startlement and draw breath to attack again, cries of shock started echoing up the flank of the mountain, closer and closer, until a dark-and-silver streak flew through the trees and halted, hovering before Wei Wuxian.
He opened his eyes, smile curling wider, and reached out to wrap his fingers around the hilt. “There. Happy?”
While everyone stared, Jin sect cultivators started scurrying into the clearing. “The loose monsters!” one of them cried. “So many of them, so fast!”
“What?” Jin Zixun snapped. “Make sense!”
Another, who had sensibly stopped to catch her breath, straightened and bowed quickly. “Just now, a sword flew up the mountain and struck down many of the un-caught monsters on the way!”
Wei Wuxian smiled wider as every eye turned to him, and spun his sword casually in his hand. “I wanted to wait, so everyone would have a fair chance.”
Yao-zongzhu broke into guffaws of laughter. “Fair enough, fair enough! At least you didn’t steal anyone else’s prey. Well done!”
Part of Meng Yao was pleased that the gossip he’d seeded earlier in the day, the suspicion that it was Jin who wanted to steal everyone’s glory, was bearing such fruit now. Most of him, though, was leaning back against Xichen, weak-kneed. “Three months,” he whispered. “Barely more than three months since Wen-guniang declared him healed, to regather that much spiritual strength.”
Xichen squeezed his shoulder, and satisfaction was heavy in his voice. “Wangji has found a good match.”
Indeed, Wangji was watching Wei Wuxian with a very smitten look on his face.
Jin Zixun, on the other hand, was scowling, face dark with something approaching hatred. “We need to turn this around a little further, to be safe,” Meng Yao murmured.
“Very well.” Xichen stepped forward, strolling into the clearing with a light smile. “Wei-gongzi, so that was you? Congratulations on your tally of monsters.” His light tone did the trick, and Meng Yao watched everyone relax, save for Jin Zixun, who slunk back a few steps. Meng Yao followed along and cast his eyes down demurely as everyone greeted them, watching under his lashes as the weight of the confrontation thinned and blew away like smoke before the breeze of Xichen’s easy smile. Jin Zixun obviously saw it, too, because he turned on his heel and stomped away into the trees. Wei Wuxian watched him go, just as closely as Meng Yao.
At least until Jiang Wanyin stalked into the clearing. “Wei Wuxian! Your damn sword dropped this on me!” He brandished a sheath at his brother, who burst out laughing and then promptly ducked behind Wangji for shelter. Wangji looked disapproving, but Meng Yao noted that he didn’t move aside. The knot of cultivators broke up, most of them chuckling.
When they all got back to the Jin guest quarter, Meng Yao found Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan walking through the pools and flowering gardens of Golden Unicorn Tower while he explained eagerly why a rose went better in some particular nook than irises would have. She looked considerably more entertained by this than by the lectures on hunting. Meng Yao also noticed Huaisang standing in a nearby archway looking smug, and strolled over to him.
“How did this happen?”
Huaisang flicked open his fan and smirked behind it. “Did you know that Jin Zixuan gardens?”
“I did, actually.” Meng Yao made a small face. “It’s his hobby, as much as he’s permitted to have one.”
Huaisang’s eyes turned hard for one moment as they flickered over Jin Guangshan, in the stream of returning hunters. “Mm. He was out planting some new cuttings, the first time I visited to check on how that Golden Swords array of theirs is containing their yin metal fragment. By the time I talked him down from challenging me over having seen, he’d admitted that he designed almost all the gardens, here.” The smug smile returned. “So, when I ran across them on the mountain, I just asked whether he’d shown Jiang-guniang yet. She smiled, and that was really all it took.”
They both looked over at where Jiang Yanli had bent to take in the scent of a prettily pruned gardenia bush. Her smile did indeed make Jin Zixuan light up, so pleased by this small thing that Meng Yao moved ‘making her son happy’ higher on his list of reasons Jin-furen might be pushing this match.
“I was thinking of redoing the water lily pool in the third courtyard,” Jin Zixuan told her, eyes bright. “I could put lotuses there. I mean.” He glanced aside and his words started to stumble. “If you’d like to see it. If you visit, I mean.”
Jiang Yanli’s smile softened, and before he could reverse completely, she said quietly, “I’d like that.”
The raw hope in Jin Zixuan’s face, when he raised his head again, was almost painful to see.
“That seems like a job well done,” Meng Yao murmured to Huaisang. “Shall we leave her to take care of the rest?”
Huaisang closed his fan, beaming. “Let’s.”
As they strolled back to join the stream of returning guests, they passed Jin-furen, so clearly relieved that she actually returned Meng Yao’s bow with an absent nod instead of ignoring his existence as she normally contrived to.
The banquet that evening was very full. Jin Guangshan had managed to fit every visiting sect master and any spouse or heir that had come along into the long, blue and gold draped hall, and there wasn’t a great deal of room left except in the center. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian sat close enough to elbow each other whenever Wei Wuxian got his brother to forget his dignity for long enough. Wangji sat on Wei Wuxian’s other side and attempted, with middling success, to distract him from his teasing with a discussion of cultivation theory. Jin Zixuan sat across the hall, frankly mooning over Jiang Yanli, who was smiling a private, satisfied sort of smile. A little ways down from him, Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu were on their way to being drunk while Qin-zongzhu shook his head over them. Xichen quietly discussed the day’s hunt with Nie Mingjue over Meng Yao’s head.
It would have been quite pleasant if Meng Yao hadn’t felt the need to stay alert in case Jin Guangshan intended to add any refinements to a day that had already netted him a reasonable amount of good will.
In the event, it was Jin Zixun who moved first, clearly still smarting from being routed on the mountain, earlier. “Lan-zongzhu! Hanguang-jun!” he called across the hall, lifting his wine cup. “Let me offer a toast to you, for your kind assistance during today’s hunt!” When neither Xichen nor Wangji reached for their own cups, both looking a bit startled at the very idea, Jin Zixun’s smile showed his teeth. “Surely you won’t refuse my sincere respect?”
Yao-zongzhu laughed in an inebriated and drew breath to speak, and Meng Yao sighed. The problem with Yao Chenzhuo’s usefulness was that he was useful to absolutely everyone. Meng Yao widened his eyes just as ingenuously as possible and cut in neatly before Yao-zongzhu’s words. “Surely Jin hospitality does not require a guest to violate his family’s ways?” He cast a look of innocent uncertainty at Yao-zongzhu and Ouyang-zongzhu, watching to make sure they both reversed into drunkenly thoughtful frowns before he turned the same look on Jin Guangshan.
Jin Guangshan looked almost equally annoyed at both Jin Zixun and Meng Yao before he pasted on a smile and tried to wave the whole thing aside. “Of course not!”
“Of course it would!” The words rang out hard and clear from the doorway, and most of the room turned to see a young woman standing there in austere, green robes, with fury burning in her eyes. The heat of it trailed after her like a cloak as she stalked into the hall. “Jin Zixun would dare demand anything, for the sake of his convenience and his desires. And if it isn’t given, he’ll try to take it!”
“Pan Daiyu,” Xichen murmured, beside him. When Meng Yao glanced up at him, his brows were drawn in, troubled. “Alone, it seems. So this was her choice.”
To come alone so that whatever she did today could be disavowed by her sect, if necessary? Meng Yao took a slow breath. She had chosen to seek blood, then.
Jin Zixun had recovered from his frozen moment of shock, on seeing her, and apparently decided to bluff. “What are you talking about?” he scoffed. “Pan Daiyu isn’t it? What could I possibly want from such a scruffy little sect?”
“What you took after you drugged me unconscious while my father was visiting here, both of us under the hospitality of the Jin sect.” The quiet in the hall dissolved into shocked whispers, and she lifted her chin, mouth a hard line.
“You would accuse me of something you weren’t even awake for?” Jin Zixun looked around with a bark of laughter, inviting the guests to mock the accusation with him.
Pan Daiyu’s flat voice cut through the rising murmurs. “Call for the servant Zhao Shuang, then, to ask what happened after she brought me tea you had interfered with.”
Jin Zixun jerked back, eyes suddenly wide, and the murmurs in the hall picked up an edge. Everyone had seen him react. Pan Daiyu drew her sword and pointed it straight at him. “Draw your sword and answer me for your crime, or I will cut you down where you stand, coward!”
The murmurs became a roar and Jin Zixun leaped back, sword flying to his outstretched hand barely in time to block her lunge.
The two of them spun around each other, in the open center of the hall, steel flashing between them, but Meng Yao didn’t pay the duel much attention; there was nothing he could do any more, there. Instead, he watched the responses of the guests. Qin Cangye was angry and troubled, both, probably knowing Jin Guangshan well enough to know how likely the accusation was. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian shared a tense frown, eyes flicking now and then toward Jin Guangshan; beside them, their sister sat dangerously still. Across the way, Jin Zixuan stared at the fight, openly shocked. He Su and Nie Mingjue both looked sternly approving of the duel, while Yao Chenzhuo and Ouyang Qiang both looked stunned. Sun Jingfei and Yu Qingzhao whispered urgently together, frowning at Jin Guangshan, while Tang Guotin and Xu Jinhai looked like they might cheer Jin Zixun on.
Jin Guangshan himself sat almost as still as Jiang Yanli, and Meng Yao saw calculation in his eyes.
Jin Zixun forced Pan Daiyu back, and back again, and finally smashed her sword out of her grip entirely. He laughed again, breathless, yanking her in close with his sword poised beside her throat. “Try to strike me now, and you’ll kill yourself, too! Did you really think—”
Silver flashed and his words cut off with a choked sound.
Ignoring his arm still locked around her neck, Pan Daiyu made another tight summoning gesture, and the point of her sword emerged from his chest, sliding past her ribs without more than a hair’s breadth to spare. “Did you forget who I am?” she asked through bared teeth. “I can hit a bird flying above the clouds. It doesn’t matter how close I am to you.”
She wrenched away from him and he fell heavily to the floor, blood starting to stain his robes back and front.
And Jin Guangshan shot up to his feet, pointing a trembling hand at her. “Murderer! Right here in my own hall!”
Meng Yao’s focus sharpened as the fading roar turned into uproar. Wei Wuxian’s head was coming up with a darker look than Meng Yao had seen in months, and neither Jiang Wanyin nor Wangji looked inclined to stop him this time. Yu Qingzhao was scowling and He Su drawing breath to argue, but Qin Cangye was nodding, whatever doubts he might have set aside to support his ally—Qin-furen must have chosen not to speak. Ouyang Qiang was looking to Qin for his own cue, and several of the other small sects likewise. That was a dangerous rallying point. If enough of the minor sects gathered with Jin, against the other three major sects, Jin Guangshan could present himself once again as one who stood against the tyranny of brute force.
And Pan Daiyu said nothing, standing straight and still in the middle of the hall, apparently satisfied to give her life for her vengeance. Jin Guangshan’s eyes were gloating over his scowling mouth.
Meng Yao looked over at Xichen, finding Xichen’s eyes already on him, questioning, and he bit his lip. “She won’t speak on her own behalf, not in time, and before long it will be dangerous for the major sects to override the accord of the smaller ones forming around Qin,” he whispered. “Should I speak?” There were, after all, a number of other crimes by Jin that he could lay open for the other sects to see, though he didn’t look forward to the results if it wasn’t enough to take Jin Guangshan all the way down.
Xichen’s gaze turned inward for a breath, and then he shook his head. “No. There was righteousness in the path she chose, if not a very measured kind. I would not have us look away from that. This time, let me.” Gathering himself, he rose and stepped forward into the hall.
Just as when Xichen had faced down his uncle’s ire, his bearing became silently imposing, demanding attention without a word spoken. One head after another turned toward him, and voices fell in face of Xichen’s grave quiet. When there was finally silence, he bent to pick up the black sheath that had fallen beside his table when Pan Daiyu cast it aside, and paced slowly, gracefully forward to stand beside her. By now the silence was so deep that his soft words carried clearly, when he spoke.
“Jin Zixun still lives.” He held out the sheath to Pan Daiyu. “Pan-guniang, will you sheathe your sword again and stand down, so that he may be tended to?”
She hesitated, clearly not having expected this, but finally gave him a small, respectful bow. “I am satisfied. I will stand down, Lan-zongzhu.” She made a sharp circling gesture, summoning her sword with a little wrench to free it of Jin Zixun’s body, and stooped to wipe it, fastidiously, on the hem of his robes before sheathing it. Jin Zixun groaned faintly.
At that, Jin Guangshan, who had been caught in the same silence as everyone else, drew a quick breath and started to gesture sharply to the Jin attendants. “Seize—”
Xichen turned his head to look at him.
He made no other gesture, but the cool, distant look in his eyes cut off Jin Guangshan’s words like a garrote. Meng Yao shivered, feeling the weight of Xichen’s presence and power sweep the room like a ripple over water. He could see one sect master after another sit back under the force of it, either cowed or respectful, each one remembering exactly who stood before them.
The Master of Lan.
The Lord of Wild Brilliance.
The guiding hand of the Sunshot Campaign, and the one who was served by both Lan Wangji and Meng Yao himself.
Finally, Jin Guangshan sank back into his seat, jaw tight.
“Mingjue-xiong,” Xichen said at last, not looking away. “Will it please you to see Pan-guniang to safety so this matter may be discussed with all due consideration?”
“Yes, of course,” Nie Mingjue rumbled, pushing up to his feet. He gave Pan Daiyu a short bow and swept a hand toward the door. She returned it silently and walked ahead of him out of the hall, back straight, head held high. Meng Yao observed with some satisfaction that Nie Mingjue’s hard smile of approval made Tang Guotin flinch back as they swept past.
“Now perhaps Jin Zixun’s injury can be seen to.” The very mildness of Xichen’s words was cutting, and pointed up the fact that Jin Guangshan’s first action had not been to see to his injured nephew.
Jin Zixuan shot to his feet, face as white as the tile of the room’s floor. “I’ll take him.” He hurried to turn his cousin over, careless of the blood that soaked into the knees of his robes. One of the Jin cultivators came to help him lift Jin Zixun, not hesitating though her shoulders hunched a bit under Jin Guangshan’s glare. Meng Yao noticed that the carved jade of Jiang Yanli’s expression softened just a bit, watching. She still favored Jin Zixuan, then.
Xichen stepped aside for them to take Jin Xizun out of the hall and directed a brief, graceful bow at Jin Guangshan. “Jin-zongzhu. While the end may have been marred by these serious matters, this gathering has been a fine opportunity to meet in peace and renew our friendships. I thank you for hosting it.”
Meng Yao did not think it was his imagination that the quiet weight of authority Xichen had gathered around himself lent his words the air of a ruler thanking one of his nobles. He didn’t think Jin Guangshan missed that, either, given the way he was grinding his teeth when he returned Xichen’s bow. Meng Yao reached over to tap two fingers on Wangji’s table, drawing his attention, and both of them were on their feet when Xichen reached them, with the kind of attentive obedience that would solidify the sense of Xichen’s ascendency, among those watching.
“Let us take our leave for the evening,” Xichen said softly, and glanced down at Huaisang with a tiny smile. “Will you walk back to the guest quarter with us, Nie-gongzi?”
Huaisang looked up at him for a long moment before rising and bowing deeply to Xichen. “I would be pleased to; thank you Lan-zongzhu.”
Meng Yao bent his head to hide a smile of pleasure that Huaisang would support their move this way.
Wei Wuxian popped up to his feet, too, and offered Xichen a courteous bow, almost as deep as Huaisang’s. “What he said. Thank you.”
Xichen’s mouth quirked. “How should my sect make any claim to righteousness if I stood aside and let nothing more than hasty emotion decide this situation? I believe ‘uphold the value of justice’ is one of the few rules you and Wangji have not debated over, after all.”
Wei Wuxian’s serious look turned into a bright grin before he looked down at his brother and sister. “Shijie, do you want to…?”
Jiang Yanli rose, smoothing her robes around her. “Jin-gongzi must be very troubled by this.”
Meng Yao took a long, slow breath, impressed all over again and remembering exactly where his first lesson in immoveable poise had come from. If she meant to fan Jin Zixuan’s disquiet, she might be able to use this lever to separate Jin Zixuan from his father’s plans and policies. Possibly even to support Jin Zixuan to take control of the sect. “I believe he will be,” he agreed, meeting her eyes. “He’s never had occasion, before, to think about the uglier things his cousin does.” Or who might have ordered or permitted them.
She nodded faintly and held out a hand to Jiang Wanyin, who promptly took it on his arm. “A-Cheng, will you escort me to say good evening to Jin-furen?”
He agreed, glancing back and forth between them a bit warily. Meng Yao left it to his sister to explain the power base she intended to build in Jin. Wei Wuxian sighed heavily, apparently resigned to whatever part of that he’d caught, and trailed after them.
As they left the hall in the wake of the Jiangs, Huaisang strolled at Meng Yao’s side. “So,” he murmured, furled fan gesturing toward Xichen for just a moment. “Chief Cultivator?”
Meng Yao smiled. “I think so, yes.”
Huaisang flicked his fan open with a graceful turn of his wrist. “All right. I can support that.”
“Thank you,” Meng Yao said softly, letting himself relax into the knowledge of what powerful support he had these days. Once again, he gave silent thanks that he had come into Lan’s hands, rather than Jin’s.
Everything had followed from that.
Wei Wuxian trailed Jiang Cheng back into their rooms, having dropped Shijie off for whatever discussion she was about to have with Jin-furen. Quite possibly about how she was going to take over the Jin sect, given the steely glint under her smile. Shijie was going to be occupied for a while, was the point. Which meant now was probably the time for Wei Wuxian to say something he’d been avoiding.
He didn’t want to. Everything was fine, now, why did he have to say anything? Even thinking that, though, immediately brought the memory of Qing-jie’s glare to the front of his mind. Even worse, these days it was joined by the memory of Lan Zhan’s troubled look. He didn’t push or nag, just looked quietly concerned, and that was worse. Wei Wuxian slid down cross-legged by the guest room table and flopped across it with a faint groan.
“Did you eat too much?” Jiang Cheng needled, over his head, and he huffed a soft laugh.
“Didn’t really have time to.” He pushed himself upright with a sigh. “Jiang Cheng. There’s something I need to tell you.”
The rustle of his brother getting out of his formal over-robes stopped abruptly. “Is this about Lan Wangji? Or about whatever Wen Qing has been working on?”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help snorting. “I am never talking about Lan Zhan to you, don’t worry.”
Jiang Cheng came back to sit on the other side of the table, face tight with worry. “What is it, then? What happened? Why didn’t you say anything? I had to get some idea of how serious whatever-it-is was from Zewu-jun!”
Wei Wuxian winced a bit. “Sorry?” Jiang Cheng huffed at him.
“Just tell me now.”
Deep breath. Start at the easy end. “So, you saw me use my sword today. The reason I didn’t before is… I couldn’t.”
“You couldn’t? Why? Wait, but if that was the reason… all that…” He could see Jiang Cheng adding up time—more and more time, all the way back to their reunion over their mutual prey. As soon as he had that remembered thought, tinged with the darkness of ghostly rage, he pushed it away. It was getting easier, these days. “That was why?” Jiang Cheng’s voice had gone thin with horror, hands utterly still on the table before him. “All that time, you were… because you couldn’t…?”
“Mm.” Wei Wuxian looked down, stomach twisting tight as he came closer to the bit he really didn’t want to say. “In the Burial Mounds… They were drowning in resentful energy. I had to figure out some way to control it.” He smiled, so tilted it felt more like a snarl. “I figured out very quickly what talismans worked and what didn’t. But that still wasn’t enough.” He shrugged, examining the grain of the table’s wood, tracing it with a finger the way he’d traced the paths of life through himself, to redirect the rage of the Burial Mounds. “All energy needs a channel.” He looked up at the hissed intake of breath, and winced again at the shock and alarm on Jiang Cheng’s face. He shouldn’t have said that much. This was why he hadn’t wanted to start talking at all!
“The Burial Mounds,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “They really did cast you in there? But if it was then, was it…” He reached across the table to catch Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, hand tight with far-too-late panic. “Was it Wen Zhuliu? Ge!”
Wen Wuxian’s breath caught and his eyes went helplessly wide; Jiang Cheng hadn’t called him that in years. “I…” He swallowed hard. It would be so easy to say yes. It would answer all the questions; it would make sense, given what Jiang Cheng thought he knew.
He couldn’t do it. Not with that urgent, half terrified ge ringing in his ears.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and let it out, and at the bottom of it he said, very softly, “No. It was before that.”
Jiang Cheng eased back just a little, frowning. “Before…? But you weren’t injured while we hid. Were you?” The last words were low and uncertain, and Wei Wuxian reached up to take Jiang Cheng’s hand from his shoulder and fold it between his own hands.
“I’m okay, now,” he said firmly, squeezing the hand between his. “I need you to remember that. Okay?” Jiang Cheng nodded slowly. “Okay. So.” Another deep breath. “When you went up that mountain, it wasn’t Baoshan-sanren you met. It was Wen Qing. She transplanted my Golden Core into you.”
Jiang Cheng stared at him, shaking his head slowly as if the words didn’t make sense. “…what?”
“I found a theory in one of her medical texts. She worked out how to do it, in practice. And when Song Lan mentioned what had been done to restore his eyes, I thought… well, if I really did know where she was, Baoshan-sanren probably would have helped you.” Wei Wuxian tried a smile.
“You… She…” Jiang Cheng jerked his hand out of Wei Wuxian’s to press his palm just over the arch of his ribs. “That’s not possible.” White was showing all the way around his eyes, now, and Wei Wuxian patted at the air soothingly.
“Well having someone re-constitute your Golden Core in three days is pretty impossible too, isn’t it? And Wen Qing really is a genius at what she does. I mean, she healed me again, too.” Probably best if he kept that point at the front of their minds.
“But how… I mean, why… If she could do that, then why would you even think of doing something so…?” Jiang Cheng shoved his fingers through his hair, disordering it thoroughly, starting to look panicky again.
“Because your core was destroyed.” Wei Wuxian flatly recited the facts Wen Qing had explained, back then. “It was burned away, and your meridians were cauterized. She had to cut things away before the graft took, and she said it only worked in the end because my Golden Core was as strong as it is. She thinks maybe my willingness had something to do with it, too.”
“Willing?!” Jiang Cheng’s voice is rising. “Willing to be… to be mutilated? Why…?”
Wei Wuxian reached over to catch Jiang Cheng’s wrists, the way he used to do a lot once he’d realized how easily Jiang Cheng could hurt himself in a temper. “Anything to save you,” he said, low and steady, “even if it costs my life. Isn’t that what your mother said?”
“She shouldn’t have!” Jiang Cheng yelled, and both of them stopped still, maybe equally startled by the words. Jiang Cheng was shaking, in his hands. “She shouldn’t have,” he whispered, choked. “I heard that, in my head, when they were about to find you. It’s why I went, to try to draw them off. And look how that ended!” The last sentence was nearly a scream, and Wei Wuxian scrambled around the table, wide-eyed, to haul Jiang Cheng into his arms, holding him tight as Jiang Cheng broke into harsh sobs. Jiang Cheng’s hands fisted tight in his robes even as they pushed against him.
Wei Wuxian stared blindly at the wall, over Jiang Cheng’s bent head, remembering. He had almost been found, hadn’t he? Right before they ran off after someone else. And then he’d come back to their rooms and found Jiang Cheng gone. “A-Cheng,” he sighed softly, since Shijie wasn’t here to say it, and held him closer when another rough sob tore out of him. “Thank you,” he whispered against Jiang Cheng’s now very messy hair. “And see? She wasn’t that wrong. That’s just what families do for each other, isn’t it? So you saved me, and then I saved you, and Wen Qing probably saved both of us, so I guess you really do need to get it together and marry her, huh?” Jiang Cheng pummeled his shoulder with a wordless sound that was finally more embarrassed than wrecked. Wei Wuxian smiled. “I’m glad that my strength can serve you. It’s what I promised, isn’t it?”
Jiang Cheng scrubbed his sleeve roughly over his face and sat straighter, scowling at him. “That isn’t what you promised at all! You promised you’d be with me. So…” he poked Wei Wuxian roughly in the chest—or rather, just below the chest. “You’d better be recovering.”
Wei Wuxian laughed softy and took Jiang Cheng’s chin to wipe his face dry, a bit more gently. Jiang Cheng let him, worried eyes fixed on his. “I am. Promise.” And then he grinned. “But you do know, right, that if you really want me to be with you always, you’re going to have to get used to having Lan Zhan at Lotus Pier all the time?”
Jiang Cheng choked, looking completely horrified in a very different way this time, and when Shijie returned it was to find the two of them throwing pillows and blankets at each other.
And even though Jiang Cheng made him explain it all again, to Shijie, the warmth of knowing what Jiang Cheng had done for him, as family, burned deep and steady in his chest.