This story picks up immediately after the Flipside of Chapter Seven, Becoming the Phoenix.
Wen Qing left Wei Wuxian grumbling under his breath about finally being able to get dressed and stepped out of his rooms with a tired sigh. Imprisonment by the Sunshot alliance had not been restful, surrounded at all times by the simmering hostility of cultivators who hated her very name, and that was coming on the heels of several years of steadily increasing tension and fear as her kinsman and sect master went slowly insane. And now, to top it off, was yet more of Wei Wuxian’s self-sacrificing idiocy. Perhaps she’d look forward to being locked up in the Cloud Recesses, after all; it was certain to be quiet, at least. If only…
Three sets of eyes landed on her with palpable weight, and she stiffened her spine against a flinch.
“Wen-guniang!” Jiang Yanli took a quick step toward her, hands reaching out. “A-Xian, is he all right?” The near-frantic worry running under that soft voice, worry for her little brother, rang so hard and true against the feelings Wen Qing was trying to quiet in her own heart right now that she flinched after all. Jiang Yanli blinked, startled a little out of her intensity, and Wen Qing took a quick breath to master herself again.
“He is badly injured,” she said, clasping her own hands tight at her waist. “The progress of it is halted, for now. Improvement will be more difficult.” She couldn’t help the way her voice caught in sympathy with the faint, wounded sound Jiang Yanli made. “Some improvement is possible. How much, I don’t yet know.”
Jiang Yanli took a long breath of her own and visibly pressed back her crowding worry for her brother. “Thank you, Wen-guniang,” she said, quiet and earnest, and reached out to close her hands gently around Wen Qing’s white knuckles, so gentle, so careful with one of the clan that had killed her own that Wen Qing’s eyes went helplessly wide at the touch and she had to bite her lip hard to force back the prickle of water in them. Jiang Yanli tilted her head and studied Wen Qing for a long moment before turning to Lan Xichen. “Lan-zongzhu,” she dropped him a small, courteous bow, straight-backed, “may I trouble you to leave Wen-guniang with me for a little time? Jiang will take responsibility, of course, and I will see she is escorted back to you.”
Lan Xichen smiled as if they shared a secret. “Of course, Jiang-guniang.” He nodded courteously to both of them and turned away down the steps, gathering up his own little brother as he went. Lan Wangji glanced back at them, but followed obediently.
The corners of Jiang Yanli’s mouth tucked up in a satisfied manner. “There, now. Lan-zongzhu told me that a-Cheng brought your brother and people here to our halls. Let’s go find them. And perhaps afterwards you and I can talk for a while.”
Wen Qing’s next breath shook as she pulled it in. “I…”
Jiang Yanli wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Come,” she urged, gently. “You didn’t get a chance to speak with him, earlier, did you?”
Wen Qing shook her head and finally managed to unlock her muscles and move, following where Jiang Yanli guided her. They went down the stairs and through two courtyards that looked considerably scruffier and more lived-in than the guest quarter usually did, dark wood rails draped with drying laundry along one side. Jiang sect cultivators frowned at the crimson of her robes, but stepped back out of their way and bowed as Jiang Yanli swept her on by. Wen Qing’s heart clenched with how much it reminded her of Wen cultivators giving way before her as she glared them out of her brother’s path.
Finally, Jiang Yanli knocked lightly on the door of one of the guest halls and pushed it open, and there was a-Ning turning to look at her, face brightening. “Jie!”
Wen Qing strode forward and caught him in her arms, holding him tight for a long moment before she could make herself lean back enough to look at him properly, hands patting gently over him and stroking back his hair. “A-Ning. Are you all right?” She barely noticed the soft rattle of the door closing behind them.
He gave her the reassuring smile that she’d learned a long time ago not to always believe. “I’m fine, Jie. Jiang-zongzhu told everyone that no one is allowed to do anything to us.” His smile tilted a little. “He’s gotten kind of scary since he got better.”
She pressed a finger to his mouth. “We can’t talk about that,” she whispered, soft and stern. “On your honor. For Wei Wuxian, all right?” He nodded soberly and she reflected on the unforeseen advantages of her little brother’s idolization of Wei Wuxian. “Good. And yes, I suppose he isn’t completely useless. He stood by his word, at least.” A-Ning gave her an alarmingly knowing look, and she huffed at him. “Oh cut it out. Anyway, we’re going to have to be apart for a while, but I’ve just been to look at Wei Wuxian, and he promised to look after you and bring you with him to visit when he can.” She couldn’t keep her hands from straightening his robes a little, which was when she realized that he was wearing fresh clothes.
Jiang Wanyin really did stand by his word, it seemed.
“Jie.” A-Ning’s hands settled on her shoulders, and when she looked up he was giving her a small, earnest smile. “We’ll be all right. Jiang-zongzhu will make sure we’re not hurt. And Wei-gongzi will be there.” His hands tightened. “So you have to take care of yourself, too, okay?”
She blinked back water from her eyes, lips pressed tight together to keep them from trembling. It took a long moment to wrestle her voice back under control, but finally she could say steadily, “I will. I promise, a-Ning.”
He smiled for her, sweet and true, and she felt the world settle back into place a little.
When she stepped back outside, she found Jiang Yanli sitting on the steps as if at her own writing table, at least three different tallies of some kind spread across her knees. She looked up with a smile as Wen Qing emerged.
“A little better, now?” she asked, folding her lists back away neatly.
“Were you out here all this time?” Wen Qing had meant to thank her, but startlement had always sharpened her tongue. She took hold of herself, reminding herself sternly of how precarious her family’s position still was, and folded her hands. “Excuse me. We are, yes. Thank you, Jiang-guniang.”
Jiang Yanli stood, eyes dancing, and Wen Qing couldn’t help feeling that she was amused by the attempted formality. “I can do my work as well here as anywhere, at least until we start preparing to leave. This made sure no one interrupted.” She held out her hand. “Now, let’s get you cleaned up, hm?”
Wen Qing blinked down at the hand, feeling a bit of vertigo. The gesture was so very familiar, but not from this side. She genuinely thought she might kill for a proper bath right now, though, so she pushed the disorientation aside and reached out to take Jiang Yanli’s hand, and let herself be led deeper into the guest quarter.
The bathhouse made her feel human again. The weight of steam in the air opened her lungs all the way down, and the lap of hot water against her skin whispered to her that she was a full person in other people’s eyes again. Jiang Yanli came in with her, a silent, reassuring presence. When Wen Qing made a frustrated sound over all the tangles in her hair, gentle fingers took the comb out of her hand.
“Here.” She drew Wen Qing’s hair back and started working the comb through it bit by careful bit.
Breath caught in Wen Qing’s throat; her grandmother used to do this, and that was another person she couldn’t see any more. “Jiang-guniang…”
“Yanli,” Jiang Yanli corrected her. “A-Cheng took responsibility for your family. That makes you my responsibility as well. I know you understand how that goes.”
Older sister to older sister; yes, she did. Wen Qing pressed wet hands over her face. “I can’t tell you the cause of Wei Wuxian’s injury,” she whispered. “I promised that I wouldn’t.”
“I would not wish you to break a promise you made to a-Xian,” Jiang Yanli said, quiet and steady as the tug of the comb through her hair. “Tell me, instead, of what he’s feeling now.”
Wen Qing let out a shaky sigh, relaxing a little now she knew she would not be pressed to break her word. “He’s in pain,” she said, low, looking down at the reflection of diffuse daylight from the high windows on the water. “It’s as though he tore a muscle. If he tries to do that same thing again, the pain will be very bad, and even when he doesn’t, it will always be there.”
Jiang Yanli’s breath hitched, but her voice was still steady when she asked, “Is there anything that can be done to heal him? You said some improvement was possible.”
“If he rests, if he can be kept from trying to bring his qi to bear, that will help some.” She couldn’t help the rather dubious edge to that particular prescription, knowing Wei Wuxian, and his sister’s faint huff from behind her only confirmed it. “Repairing the damage…” Her voice slowed even as her thoughts sped, sorting through her learning, her knowledge of the body and spirit. His meridians, at least, she could probably heal. “I believe I can repair what pains him now, the damage he did himself on top of the original wound. But that wound…” She slapped a hand down onto the water, all the more frustrated because this was a wound of her own making, however he’d insisted on it. “I just don’t know.”
Hands folded over her shoulders, gentle. “Shh,” Jiang Yanli said against her ear. “You’re willing to try. That’s all I need to know. Thank you.”
“Of course I am; I’m a physician.” Wen Qing tried to ignore the tightness in her throat, the same tightness that had been there when she’d watched Wei Wuxian toss his own anger and pain aside to comfort her about her brother. She scrubbed her hands over her face, trying to pretend the wetness there was only water from the bath. “He’s such an idiot,” she muttered.
Jiang Yanli’s soft laugh was a little unsteady, but true. “Sometimes.” She straightened up, hands squeezing Wen Qing’s shoulders for a moment before falling. “I think all the tangles are out, now.”
Wen Qing pushed her uncertainty aside with the prospect of having really clean hair again.
There were also clean robes for Wen Qing, when she got out. They weren’t any of her own robes—the fabric was rougher and the red was darker—but they were still Wen robes, with flames stitched at the shoulders in subtle, same-color thread. That little kindness was, finally, the last thing she could take, and she slid down to her knees, robes clutched to her chest as she bit her lip fiercely and tried not to drip tears on them.
Jiang Yanli knelt beside her, only half dressed herself, and gathered Wen Qing into her arms. “It’s all right,” she said, soft and certain. “We’ll take care of you and yours. All of you will be safe.”
Long months of strain and terror and knowing there was almost nothing she could do any more to protect her family snapped all at once, and a harsh, frightened sob ripped out of Wen Qing’s chest as if it had been waiting there since the day her little branch of the clan was first imprisoned. “A-Ning!” she gasped against Jiang Yanli’s shoulder, “Grandmother…!”
“Yunmeng Jiang will protect them,” Jiang Yanli said, still soft but unbending as iron. “You endangered yourself to care for my family. I will hold your family safe.” She held Wen Qing until she quieted, exhausted by the day’s wild rapids-ride of emotions. Eventually Wen Qing managed to sit up again, rubbing the back of her hand over sore eyes and trying not to blush with embarrassment because it made her raw cheeks sting. Jiang Yanli just gave her a small, indulgent smile and stroked her still-loose hair back. “There, now. Let’s get you dressed.”
Wen Qing felt a little more composed when she was properly dressed, but still flustered by the brisk, gentle hands that helped settle her sashes and section her hair back to be bound up. She wasn’t used to it being this way around, any more, but she also couldn’t quite find any words of protest. When Jiang Yanli took Wen Qing’s hand on her arm to guide her back through the guest quarter halls, she walked quietly alongside, sheltered by Jiang Yanli’s presence and her calm, unwavering smile, marveling a little at the feeling.
When they reached what seemed to be Lan territory judging from all the white robes, Jiang Yanli turned and rested both hands on Wen Qing’s shoulders. “If you wish to see to a-Xian, or visit your brother, send word to me and I will see that it happens. All right?”
In face of her calm certainty, Wen Qing felt the rising knot of tension in her chest ease again, and she nodded slowly. “I will, Jiang-gu—” Jiang Yanli’s brows rose, and Wen Qing found herself blushing again. “Yes, Yanli-jie,” she murmured. The hands on her shoulders tightened briefly in an encouraging little shake.
Wen Qing couldn’t help wondering, as Jiang Yanli led her up the steps to deliver her back into Lan Xichen’s care, if this was where Wei Wuxian had really learned that unbending certainty that made seemingly impossible things happen—from watching his sister, when something was truly important to her.
Personally, she would bet that it was.
Ten Months Later
Wen Qing let Jiang Wanyin hand her off the river-boat and onto the pier, and tried not to feel like a woman at the end of her bridal journey, because she most certainly was not. She was, in fact, still a little dubious about the wisdom of this step. It was more than sanctuary he had promised her, this time; it was the full weight of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, to do as she wished with.
Which was a ridiculous thing to promise a refugee from a defeated sect, and if she actually had any affection for him, she should probably make him take it back. Or better, have Yanli-jie make him. But Yanli-jie had refused to, so here she was, at the landing of Lotus Pier.
“Jie!” Her brother was nearly bouncing, were he stood between Yanli-jie and Wei Wuxian, and she huffed a soft laugh and went to him. “You’re here,” he said against her ear as he hugged her tight. “You’re really here for good?”
“I think so,” she answered, low. “One way or another.” He slanted a hopeful, sidelong glance at Jiang Wanyin, as they drew apart again, and she rolled her eyes. A-Ning was such an invincible romantic.
Meanwhile, Wei Wuxian had sidled up to his own brother and draped an arm over his shoulders. “Jiang Cheng, you should have told me you were wanting to court Qing-jie! All those times I was at the Cloud Recesses for check-ups, I could have so easily carried your love tokens back and forth. Just look at all that time the two of you wasted!”
Wen Qing whirled around to smack his arm. “As if I’d take such a thing from you!”
In the same moment, Jiang Wanyin elbowed him off with an exasperated, “Wei Wuxian!”
Wei Wuxian slid out from between them, open hands held up, grinning back and forth. “See? You’re of one mind already.”
A-Ning was nodding, apparently earnest if you didn’t notice the smirk at the corners of his mouth. “Auntie Hong did say…” He laid a hand over his mouth when she glowered at him, a promise of silence that she didn’t believe for one moment. Especially not when he and Wei Wuxian were so obviously entertained by this and egging each other on.
“All right, you two, stop teasing.” Yanli-jie sounded far more indulgent than scolding, but the teasing did quiet as she came and wrapped an arm around Wen Qing’s shoulders. “Let’s get you settled, hm?”
Every now and then, over the last year, Wen Qing had wondered if she’d imagined or mis-remembered the sense of shelter she’d felt in Jiang Yanli’s presence. She’d wondered if it had been wishful thinking, or perhaps just the stress of the moment making her overestimate the protection of the one who’d been kindest to her. The feeling of safety that settled over her now, though, was just the same. It was a feeling that had been vanishingly rare, for her, for a very long time. Cautiously, she let herself relax into it, and was gathered in a little closer, settled more comfortably against Yanli-jie’s side. It felt… nice. So nice she thought she might willingly stay for this alone. “It has been a long, trip,” Wen Qing admitted.
Yanli-jie smiled as if she knew Wen Qing was talking about more than one river journey. “It’s good that it’s over, then.” She shooed the boys ahead of them, up the path from the pier, keeping Wen Qing at her side. Wen Qing looked around curiously as they walked. Merchants apparently set up on the Jiang sect’s own pier, and greeted them cheerfully as they passed. She liked to see that; she’d always thought it foolish, the way so many Wen cultivators, and especially Wen Ruohan’s own family, held themselves aloof from the day-to-day business of farming and crafting and selling. It was just asking to be swindled.
When they reached the gates of Lotus Pier itself, Jiang Wanyin looked back at her once, openly anxious, before he straightened and swept an arm toward the first courtyard, welcoming her in. Wen Qing stepped neatly over the door-sill and stopped short, looking around.
She had never been inside Lotus Pier before. The height of the outer wall had made her think it might be a little like the Unclean Realm, full of tall, straight buildings. Instead it opened out around her like… well, like a flower. Curved walls and walkways swept out gracefully from the gates. She stepped out into the courtyard, turning to see the courtyards to either side. Everywhere, water lapped against warm, honey-colored wood and light spilled through glass and paper panels. “It’s so warm,” she said softly. She hadn’t expected that, beside a river, but it was true. The lightness of the place around her felt a little like Yanli-jie’s arm around her shoulders.
“You are welcome here.” Jiang Wanyin’s voice was almost as soft as hers had been, and when she looked back at him she could see a tangle of hope and loss and longing, so plain on his face that she wondered a little how he would ever manage diplomacy between the great sects. She folded her hands tight, not sure she could actually answer all of that, or that she wanted to try, and was very grateful for Yanli-jie’s voice falling gently between them.
“There will be time later, to discuss things.” Yanli-jie took Wen Qing’s hand to lead her onward, and patted her brother’s shoulder as she passed, which seemed to be enough reassurance for now. The tension in his whole body eased, at least. Yanli-jie led the way to a set of rooms on what Wen Qing thought was the landward side of the complex; they already held Wen Qing’s things, sent on ahead when she’d finally agreed to come. Seeing them here made her feel more as though she’d committed herself to this path, and Wen Qing took a slow breath to calm herself.
“You are not a prisoner here,” Yanli-jie said quietly, behind her.
“I’m a prisoner wherever I go, for now,” Wen Qing said flatly, as much to remind herself as to remind Jiang Yanli. “A very gently held one, and I’m grateful for that, but the fact remains that the four great sects can’t let the highest ranked remaining Wen cultivator wander free.”
Yanli-jie’s tone didn’t change in the slightest, still quiet, still so very certain. “You are under the protection of the Yunmeng Jiang sect. If you choose to be under that protection in Hebei, or Jiangsu, or even Shaanxi, then you shall be.”
Wen Qing spun around to stare at her, and found Yanli-jie smiling a gentle and utterly immoveable smile. “Yanli-jie!” she protested, “I can’t possibly just… just run off to wherever! The Jiang sect’s reputation…!”
Yanli-jie laughed softly and came to lay a gentle hand against her cheek. “Wen Qing, listen to yourself.”
Wen Qing blushed hot against the cool of her palm. Jiang Wanyin had just laid Jiang’s reputation in her hands like a flower; of course she thought about it! “It’s because you say reckless things like that,” she muttered. “You and Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin; all of you.”
“All of us, who are Jiang,” Yanli-jie agreed. “This is the core of us: to know with absolute certainty what we will and will not do, or allow to be done.”
Which actually sounded very familiar from years on years when keeping her brother and clan safe defined the absolute boundaries of her world. She nodded reluctant understanding, even if it still bewildered her that the principle could be applied as broadly, as freely as she’d seen Wei Wuxian and Yanli-jie do.
“Yes, I thought you’d probably understand,” Yanli-jie murmured, reaching down to take her hands. “A-Cheng is still finding his own certainty. Perhaps, if yours is changing now, the two of you can help each other along.”
Wen Qing chewed on her lip. She did appreciate Yanli-jie’s thoughtfulness, in finding something she and Jiang Wanyin might actually talk meaningfully about, something that would tell them of each other. And she couldn’t deny that, with her entire clan here under Jiang’s protection and her now, too, there was probably a certain logic in actually becoming part of Jiang. And it was certainly the case that Wen was dead as a sect, as a school of cultivation. It was just…
Yanlie-jie smiled and shook her head. “Nothing will ever change the fact that you are Wen Qing, any more than I will become other than Jiang Yanli, even when I go to take over the care of the Jin sect.”
It was absurd, Wen Qing told herself firmly, to feel bereft when Yanli-jie hadn’t even left yet. “No, I know that,” she said, low. “I just don’t know if…” she finally found the words, and smiled wryly as she said them, “if this is something I will or will not do.”
Yanli-jie’s smile turned bright and approving, and she squeezed Wen Qing’s hands gently. “Then take your time to think, and be sure of your way.” Just as gently, she let go. “I’ll send someone to let you know when dinner is ready.”
Alone in her new rooms, Wen Qing walked through them slowly, noting all the little things she’d accumulated in the past year at the Cloud Recesses—the green and white blanket Lan Wangji had brought her a few days after she’d first found herself coughing in the damp; the apothecary chest Lan Mingxia had insisted on stocking up for her before she left, apparently convinced that Lotus Pier wouldn’t have so much as a jar of ginger root; the graceful iron and blackware tea set that she’d managed to keep with her through all her moves, and which Meng Ruyan had brought her about a month after her arrival, recovered from Yiling; the chest of new robes in deep crimson that no one had ever said a word of reproach over.
For a moment, the urge to return there was almost overwhelming, despite the way that the knowledge of her political imprisonment had always hung over her shoulder, there. At least that was a familiar weight. The weight of Jiang’s obligation to her was new and a little alarming, in comparison.
Yanli-jie had said she was free to leave if she wished, though, and Wei Wuxian was the last one she’d expect to try to influence another person’s choices, and this was the sect that had cared well enough for her brother to make him tease her over the possibility of joining it. So she took a breath and sat down firmly at the writing table in her new receiving room and used the very fine ink laid out there to start writing a brief letter of assurance that she’d arrived safely, which Lan Mingxia would want to know.
A-Ning appeared well before dinner to show her the way to the miniature village that their clan had created on a corner of Jiang land. There was a rather nice wooden walkway through the fields and woods, to reach it.
“When the children started going back and forth so much, Jiang-zongzhu said there’d better be a path, so they didn’t track mud all over the compound every day.” A-Ning’s tone was more wry and knowing than she quite expected, and she felt a sharp pang at not having been here to see what made it that way. “And then he did half the construction himself. Wei-gongzi said he’s just like that.”
“And this is the person you want to set me up with?” she asked dryly. Her own tongue was sharp enough; she wasn’t at all sure adding another would make for a good partnership.
He ducked his head and gave her an appealing look. “I’m just teasing, Jie.” She sighed and reached up to wrap an arm around his shoulders.
“I know. And he did put his sect’s reputation on the line to honor his word and shelter our clan. That’s a good basis for an alliance.” She ruffled his hair briskly. “But you know perfectly well how long I’ve been fending off marriage offers!”
“All right, all right, I’ll stop!” he laughed. “I’m not sure Auntie Hong will, though.”
Wen Qing looked up as they came out of the trees on the edge of a handful of houses and gardens, heart lightening at the sounds of excitement and welcome as people noticed them. She smiled as her clan gathered to greet her, and held out her hands to them.
Perhaps she wouldn’t mind a little teasing.
Dinner surprised her. Instead of eating in any of the halls, they gathered around a common table, just Yanli-jie, her brothers, and Wen Qing and hers. If she’d really thought about it she supposed she might have expected, but even knowing what that worm Wen Chao and his equally repellent mistress had done to Lotus Pier, it was still hard to remember when living voices rang over the water all day. Now, though, with just the five of them around a table, it came home to her again—they, too, were the survivors of a destroyed sect.
With that thought weighing on her mind she asked, quietly, “Is it going to be all right for me to walk around Lotus Pier?”
Jiang Wanyin lifted his head from apparent concentration on his fish. “You are welcome to every part of Lotus Pier,” he declared firmly.
“Even wearing this?” She tugged at the collar of her crimson robes.
She could see how he wavered, at that, mouth flinching into a tight line, and she sighed. She hadn’t expected it to be that easy, no. Not here, not once she really thought. Across from her, Wei Wuxian stirred, and she gave him a sharp look to quiet him. She already knew what he would say; now she needed to know what everyone else who lived here thought. Yanli-jie had a hand on his wrist, too.
Jiang Wanyin’s hands were tight on the edge of the table, but his voice was even. “Even so. There are a few people I’ll probably need to speak to, to make sure they understand the weight of Yunmeng Jiang’s debt to you.” The hard line of his mouth flickered with a momentary smile. “I can’t say it wouldn’t be easier if you were less obviously Wen, but… you’ve refused to abandon your sect with the same conviction that led you to such lengths to heal me, and then Wei Wuxian. It… it’s an admirable thing, to have that.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, casting a thoughtful eye around the table. That matched well enough with what Yanli-jie had called the core of Jiang. From the way both Jiang Wanyin’s siblings beamed at him, though, she suspected this was a new sentiment for the now-Master of Jiang. Perhaps one that his attraction, and then obligation, to her had drawn him toward. No wonder they approved of his bringing her here. No wonder Jiang Yanli had so delicately prompted her to discuss this very thing with him.
“All right.” She set her bowl down and folded her hands, glancing over at Yanli-jie. “I can see why you think I would be good for him. Now tell me why he’d be any good for me.” If everyone was going to be thinking about this alliance, they might as well have it out in the open.
Both of the Jiang boys choked and sputtered at her bluntness, even Wei Wuxian, who should know better. A-Ning, at least, merely spooned up more of his soup and looked on calmly.
Yanli-jie folded her own hands, smiling, and gave her back equally blunt truth in return, which she appreciated. “Your sect threatened your family, to have the use of your abilities. Would you not enjoy a sect that protects and cherishes you, instead?”
Wen Qing hesitated. Her first instinct was to ask what the price of the protection would be, which… rather made Yanli-jie’s point for her. “I would,” she admitted, slowly. “I think anyone would.” She looked back over at Jiang Wanyin, who had certainly protected her clan, so far. But cherish, really? “I’ll think about that,” she allowed, at last.
“No one would wish you to do otherwise.” Yanli-jie served a-Ning more soup with a tiny smile.
“Wen-guniang.” Jiang Wanyin leaned toward her, earnest. “I wouldn’t…” He hesitated at her arched brows, and rephrased. “I do not intend to press for any such thing.”
She smiled; he had that much self-awareness, at least, to know he might do it without intending. “I believe you. And thank you for that.”
They got through the rest of dinner calmly enough, and afterwards Wei Wuxian offered to show her around Lotus Pier. His penitent expression said it was an apology for teasing, so she agreed.
She was not surprised in the slightest when his tour of the place included two back ways into the kitchens.
He smiled when she paused at a pavilion that was out over the water, shaded by willows. “Shijie likes this spot, too.”
“I’m not surprised.” Wen Qing would bet her copy of Essential Prescriptions that Jiang Yanli was born with more than one fixed element of water. If there were ever a woman who had both water’s placid and dangerous natures, it was her. To Wen Qing, though, this space felt very calm. She leaned against one of the corner pillars, watching the river flow steadily past. She hardly noticed when Wei Wuxian slipped away, unusually tactful.
He was trying to make her comfortable. They all were, even Yanli-jie, who she was fairly sure was also trying to make her think about her future. So she supposed the question she had to answer was: could she be comfortable here?
For now, of course, the answer was yes. She had her clan here, safe under her eye. She had a debt of honor owed her, balancing out the power Jiang held over her as her custodian in the eyes of the cultivation world. She had a friend, in Wei Wuxian, and another in Jiang Yanli. Those, at least, might last even beyond the weight of the other sects’ attention and suspicion, beyond the time when she and her little clan had to stay under someone’s protection. And if her clan were eventually able to return to their ancestral home, if that much weight could be lifted from her heart… she supposed there might be room for the grace and welcome of this place to settle there.
She also had a man who thought he was in love with her, and that made her sigh, because it had never really gone well for her.
As if the thought had summoned him, Jiang Wanyin spoke from the walkway behind her. “Wen-guniang? Wei Wuxian mentioned you might still be out here. Do you know the way back to your rooms?”
“Mostly, but a guide would probably be helpful.” She turned to see him standing at the entrance of the pavilion, robes dark in the lengthening shadows as the sun dipped behind the trees. He looked quite handsome. She was sure there were plenty of young women, in the cultivation world, who would be happy to sigh and giggle over him, quite likely without ever speaking to him for more than a minute or two. Very like men got about her. She turned back to look out over the water. “Jiang-zongzhu, who do you think I am?”
“Well… you’re a genius physician, obviously,” he said, a bit hesitantly. She heard slow steps approaching, and he stopped at the rail, almost double arm’s length away, looking out across the water along with her. “I know you honor your commitments and responsibilities, from the way you’ve made sure your family is taken care of. I think you must value compassion over power, after the trouble you took to keep people safe from Wen Ruohan and his sons.” More softly, he added, “I know you have great courage. And I know that, by all rights, you’re the Master of Wen, now. If you wish to hold fast to that, and not to be the Lady of another sect, I could hardly blame you.”
With each sentence, she felt a little more tension drop away, as if the river were washing it away, bit by bit. Those were not the words of someone who saw nothing but a pretty face. Good. “I hardly know what I want to be, now,” she said, low, trading him truth for truth. “It’s been so long since it was even a choice. I chose to hold fast to being a physician; that and my brother were the things I would not give up. Everything else followed from those things.” She glanced over at him, thoughtful. “If you could do anything you wished, would it be this?” The boy she remembered somewhat from the Lan summer lectures three and more years ago hadn’t seemed to have leadership of his sect particularly on his mind.
Jiang Wanyin took a while to answer, hands working against the smooth wood of the rail. When he did finally speak, there was an edge of wonder in his voice. “I think it would be. Our sect, our tradition… being able to carry those on is important. And I’ve always loved Lotus Pier itself. If I could go anywhere… I think I would still be here.”
The way he phrased that made Wen Qing smile a little. She thought he probably cared more about the land and the people involved than about the school of cultivation. Which might not be a bad thing, considering the stupidity some sects could display over their pride in their own techniques. “So is Lotus Pier the thing you won’t give up?”
“Yes,” he said, quiet and sure. “Lotus Pier, home of the Yunmeng Jiang sect.”
Her brows rose and she turned to look more closely at him. There were more subtleties in his answer than she’d expected. Some pride in his sect after all, but far more protectiveness of it. Ambition, but for roots rather than for power—or, perhaps, for the power that deep roots brought with them. Above all, she thought, a home; a place to belong. That had never been a driving desire of hers. Necessity had taught her to be more warrior than guardian, to be the striking hand, not the guarding arm. But those two in combination were a good match. “And if I wished to travel?” she asked, barely louder than the river under their feet. “To research and to heal and to repair the name of Wen by carrying it in a healer’s hands?”
He turned to face her, eyes wide in the deepening dusk; she could see his robes stir as if he held back a step toward her, his hand lift from the rail before it curled and fell to his side. “Then the power and protection of Jiang would go with you and guard your path. Whatever choice you make.”
The hasty qualifier, and the very way he moved, made her think that the heir of Jiang had not been very used to people telling him yes. No wonder Yanli-jie wanted someone steady in place, to watch over her brothers, before she went off to wrangle the Jin sect. Wen Qing could understand that, and it was certainly something she knew how to do.
And the power and protection of Yunmeng Jiang was not a small thing, even now. To be Wen Qing, the Lady of Jiang, premier physician of the cultivation world… she had to admit, she didn’t dislike the thought. To be the partner of the young man standing a careful, courteous distance from her right now and chewing on his lip uncertainly, who thought her courageous and compassionate…
“I might like that,” she said out loud, and straightened up from the rail, smiling a little. “So. Show me the way back to my rooms.”
For one breath, it was as though her words didn’t make sense to him, and then he brightened like a tiny sunrise in the dusk. “Yes, of course!” There was such breathless wonder in his voice that when he shyly offered her his arm, she only rolled her eyes a little, and laid her hand on it lightly.
The next morning, Yanli-jie visited and brought breakfast along with her. “I was hoping we could have a talk, just the two of us,” she said, as she set out tea and dumplings on the sitting room table.
Wen Qing sighed and picked up her cup. “Yes, I’ll take care of them.”
Yanli-jie smiled as she laid her tray aside and settled on the other side of the table. “I thought you probably would, once you had a chance to think about it. I wanted to talk about how I can take care of you, though.”
Wen Qing nearly choked on her mouthful of tea, and stared at Yanli-jie, startled. Yanlie-jie sighed and looked penitent. “Yes, I was afraid you might have forgotten that part, when I pushed you so quickly to think about what it would mean to partner with a-Cheng. I’m sorry, a-Mei.”1
The endearment Wen Qing had only seen in letters until now made her cheeks warm. “Please think nothing of it,” she murmured.
“Of course I’m going to think of it.” Yanli-jie took a delicate bite of her own breakfast. “You’re my family, now, on top of being my responsibility. So I want you to be happy.”
“I wouldn’t have agreed to let him court me if I didn’t think I’d probably be happy with the results,” Wen Qing said a bit sharply, fingers tightening on her cup. She’d been taking care of herself for a very long time, and that had included fending off men ever since she’d lost her baby fat. It was just about the only thing she’d liked about being taken in by Wen Ruohan, that it had eliminated a fair bit of that nonsense.
She hadn’t agreed to consider Jiang Wanyin just because he had a nice jaw-line and good shoulders.
Yanli-jie reached over to lay a hand on her wrist. “Dearheart, listen to what I’m saying, not to the words someone else burned onto your heart,” she said, quiet and firm.
Wen Qing’s breath caught, thoughts jarred out of that familiar old track.
I want you to be happy.
“Oh.” She swallowed a little hard and turned her hand up to clasp Yanli-jie’s. “Yes. Sorry.”
Yanli-jie smiled, rueful. “I know how that goes.” She squeezed Wen Qing’s hand, and let go with a gentle pat.
“It would make me happiest if you were still here,” Wen Qing admitted softly, “but everything I’ve heard about Jin Guangshan is… very familiar. And Jin Zixuan is a skilled enough cultivator, but I never saw him show the smallest glimmer of political awareness.”
Yanli-jie laughed, sweet and bright. “He does rather need someone to look after him, at the moment. But just because we live in different places doesn’t mean we’ll never see each other.” Her smile turned rueful. “Just look at a-Xian and Lan er-gongzi.”
“I’d rather not,” Wen Qing said dryly, scooping up a dumpling at last. “I might see more than I’d prefer to.” She chewed and thought, while Yanli-jie sipped her tea, clearly hiding a smirk. “I want my clan to be able to go home,” she finally said. “Jiang has protected them. I’m grateful. But my clan belongs on our ancestral ground.”
“That should be easily enough done, now.” Yanli-jie tapped a finger on the table, eyes distant and calculating. “We will need to think about what means of communication they will have, in case someone tries to use them as leverage against you, once they’re out from under Jiang’s direct shelter. I’ll speak with Meng-gongzi about this.” She nodded firmly and looked at Wen Qing, brows raised expectantly, as if the biggest single trouble in Wen Qing’s life were already solved and Yanli-jie wanted to know the next one.
It took Wen Qing a moment to shake off her shock. If that was so easy… she supposed she was left with the more nebulous desires. She traced a finger down the curved side of her cup and said, very softly, “I want to be known for what I really am. For what my strength truly is. Not that I’m related to someone powerful, or that I could manipulate people with my looks if I wanted to.”
“But rather, for your brilliance?” Yanli-jie supplied, and only smiled when Wen Qing lifted her chin with all the hard pride she’d earned. “Well, you have a start on that, here. It’s one of the reasons a-Cheng is so smitten with you, and a-Xian certainly respects you as his equal.” She tilted her head, eyes steady on Wen Qing’s. “Do you want to start planning for your work around the Golden Core transfer to be publicly known?”
Wen Qing’s hands clasped tight on each other. She felt a bit as though the ground had just lurched beneath her. “Is that really possible?” She’d assumed political considerations would make that a post-humous monograph that she’d have to leave to be released after the death of everyone involved.
“You’re my family, now, a-Mei.” Yanli-jie’s smile was a little terrifying in its gentle, immoveable calm. “Anything is possible.”
Wen Qing swallowed hard against the sudden lump in her throat. She’d always had to be the one trying to make things happen against the odds. No one had ever offered to do it for her. “I…” She swallowed again and bit her lip hard until the huskiness was gone from her voice. “I’d like that.”
“Then we shall.” Yanli-jie sipped her tea, quite composed. “So tell me what else you’d like.” Her smile turned bright and laughing again, coaxing Wen Qing to laugh with her. “The Lan Sect seems to have taken decent care of you, but I want to know the little things. What do you like best to eat? What kind of blankets do you really want? What kind of lamps do you prefer, those nights you’re staying up far too late, reading?”
Wen Qing ducked her head a little at that last one, grinning. “I actually like candle lanterns best.” Which everyone from the servants at the Nightless City to Lan Qiren had disapproved of her profligate use of, but she’d never cared. She found the scent comforting, and it was one of her only extravagances. They could deal with it.
“Then you’ll have them,” Yanli-jie promised, and Wen Qing couldn’t help a soft smile.
This seemed to be the shape her life was taking, now.
It was Wei Wuxian who came to find her out in the little pavilion over the river, that evening.
“So.” He hopped up to sit on the pavilion rail, swinging his feet casually. “You’re gonna stay?”
“I wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t been planning on that,” she said rather dryly. He tucked his chin down and looked at her with wide and appealing eyes.
“Yes, but… really stay? I mean, be at home here?”
She reminded herself that he was brilliant in his own right, an absolute menace, and a frequent threat to her sanity, not an uncertain little boy.
All right, not just an uncertain little boy. Wen Qing sighed.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“That would be really nice.” His smile was wistful. “I’ve been thinking I might travel, with Lan Zhan. But it would be really nice to know everyone would be here, when we come back.”
“Well it’s not as though I can just leave you to your own devices, obviously,” she grumbled. “Just look at all the trouble you get into.” He grinned at her and she glowered more fiercely. “Look at all the trouble you drag me into.” His grin brightened as if it had been a compliment, and she swatted at him. He leaned precipitously aside to avoid her, so far over the water that she wound up snatching his sleeve to pull him back upright instead. “If you’re trying to make your brother look less troublesome by comparison, you can stop now!”
His smile turned crooked for a breath. “Jiang Cheng has always been less trouble than me.” She gave him a long look and leaned her elbows on the rail, looking out over the slow, inexorable flow of the river.
“I’m thinking he probably makes less trouble because you were always looking after him.” She slanted a glance at Wei Wuxian, and found him blinking at her, as if startled someone had noticed. “Thought so.” She smiled, almost as crookedly as he had. “No wonder you’re so bad at letting anyone look after you.”
“Kind of like you, Qing-jie,” he said softly.
He sounded so much like a-Ning, when he thought his sister needed comforting, that she couldn’t help laughing. It seemed she was getting a new family out of this, one who wouldn’t bother to wait on a wedding or any other formality. One who had already neatly included a-Ning, which would have been her first concern. She was still a little uncertain about being Jiang-furen, but being Qing-jie, being a-Mei… those she rather liked already.
She pushed back from the rail. “I always missed star-gazing, when I was stuck in the Nightless City,” she declared, “and I had to climb for the best views, in the Cloud Recesses, to get above the mist. Show me the best star-gazing spot here.”
Wei Wuxian smiled, so sweet and bright and happy with this simple thing that a fierce little burst of protectiveness flickered through her heart. He jumped down lightly from the rail. “It’s on the roof of the library hall. I’ll show you.”
She let the open sky and graceful walks wrap around her, as she followed along, like she’d let the stone of her mountains and the sharpness of their air, let herself settle into them as if into new robes, testing the fit across her shoulders.
She thought it might be a good one, in the end.