Violet Spider’s Choice – 1/2 – T. K. Benjamin

Reading Time: 155 Minutes


Title: Violet Spider’s Choice
Author: T. K. Benjamin
Fandom: The Untamed, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, Mo Dao Zi Shi
Genre: Family, Kid!fic, Paranormal/Supernatural, Romance, Slash
Relationship(s): Wei Wuxian/Lan Wanji
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: References to past child abuses
Author Note: I haven’t been in a mental space to really write for the past two years. But I watched this drama and read the translation and the damned thing ate my brain. So I had to save the murder gremlins and give them some happiness.
Word Count: 62,300
Summary: Yu Ziyuan was a bitter and angry woman who saw her world burn. With her last she knew she had to change and had the ability to do so. That one decision gave her a family, a gang of devious children and a Cultivation world she could be proud of.
Artist: Angelic Insanity



CHAPTER 1

Jiang Fengmian rolled over in his sleep. He’d been sleeping on his side, then abruptly he rolled onto his back and threw an arm up as if to protect himself. “Yes wife,” he mumbled. “Yes, I am listening.” He drew in a breath. “A’Ying. Yes, I understand. Meng Yao.Yes, I see. Xue Yang, him too. Yes. Yes. I shall. I shall,” he agreed fervently. Then he kept listening. He nodded. “I love you too. I know we hardly speak of it. It’s not our way, but I shall endeavor to tell you, and often.”

Moments later he woke with a start and sat up alone in his bed. He swallowed hard and thought about the dream he’d just had. It had felt so real, yet it had been a dream. His glacial and volcanic beautiful wife had seemed older in his dream. Still as beautiful as she had been just earlier in the day, yet older and infinitely sadder. As if her entire world had been destroyed around her and she couldn’t stop it. His dream wife had given him a mission. One that would save their children from death and misery. He wasn’t sure he believed any of it, but there was one way to find out if his dream was just a dream, or not. He stood from his sleeping pallet and shrugged into an outer robe.

Quietly he left his rooms and walked along the bridges of Lotus Pier to the rooms his wife had claimed as hers the day they had fulfilled their betrothal contract and married. He entered her living area quietly, coming to a standstill when he was met by twin swords. His wife’s servants and childhood confidants, the sisters she’d brought with her from her natal Sect stood before him. They were Yu Ziyuan’s maids, friends, and bodyguards. Had been so their entire lives and stood ready, willing, and more than able to defend and protect their Mistress with everything they had, no matter the odds.

“Sect Leader, Madame is asleep.” One said, her voice disapproving.

“I know. I do not wish to wake her. Yet I need to see she is safe and well with my own eyes.” He replied quietly. He’d speak with his wife about the dream later. Now he’d just check on her.

“Sect Leader,” she said thoughtfully. “That is a rather strange phrasing. Judging by your state, you were asleep. Did you perhaps, have a dream?”

Fengmian ran a shaking hand over his face and nodded. “I saw my wife. She gave me a mission to complete in the coming years. But she was older and well, unlike her anger towards me now, she was just so very very sad. Her sadness was heartbreaking.”

“If I gave you a mission, husband. You must do your utmost to complete it.” Madame Jiang stood in her open doorway. Her hair in a plain braid, over her shoulder. Her body was covered in her white sleeping robes. Zidian, her spiritual weapon, which had earned her the cultivation name of Violet Spider, wrapped quiescent for once around her finger and wrist.

“My Lady wife. I did not wish to disturb your sleep.” Jiang Fengmian bowed to her.

“Your wish in this instance matters little,” Yu Ziyuan snapped at her husband. Then she sighed and smoothed her robes over her hips. “My Sect has training and abilities we hold from outsiders. Dreaming is one such I was trained in. I had never thought I’d have recourse to make use of it. Yet it seems I have done so.” she held up her hand when Fengmian drew in a breath. “No, do not tell me what mission I gave you yet. Just complete it. One day I may ask you for the details. But this is not that day. Now be on your way and complete the mission I have set you on.”

“As you wish, wife. I shall leave in the morning.” He turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder. “What if the mission displeases you?”

Madame Jiang shrugged an elegant shoulder and turned back to her bedchamber. “I am certain it shall displease me. Many things displease me. Just remind me this was the mission I set for you. Goodnight husband.” Her voice came to him out of the darkness.

“Goodnight wife,” he returned with a small smile.

“Good night, Sect Leader,” the twin maids said together while sliding their mistress’s doors shut.

“Good night,” Fengmian said and returned to his rooms. He had a few hours of rest yet before he had to leave.

*****

Wei Ying eyed the dog growling at him. He looked at the small pear in his hand. It was tiny, but he was starving. It was all he’d found in the last day or so. But the dog was eyeing him like Wei Ying was dinner. The sun was setting and Wei Ying knew he had to get to cover before nightfall. No one walked the streets here at night. Except for the night gangs, and anyone they found wandering the streets at night was never seen again. But this dog was between him and his dark little shelter. A tiny space, just big enough for him to climb into, between two buildings, where a piece of tin formed a roof and a piece of wood formed his door.

The dog growled and pounced. Wei Ying screamed and threw the pear at it. It contorted itself in midair and snapped it up. Crunching once, then swallowing it. It turned back to Wei Ying and growled again. Wei Ying held back a sob and took a step backward, only to come up against something behind him. His squeak of terror was held behind the hands he stuffed into his mouth. Terror flooded him at what was to become of him now. The growling angry dog in front of him and something behind him. Gathering his courage he turned and saw a man standing there. He was tall. He had a sword at his side like his mother and father used to carry. His robes were purple.

The man looked at the still growling dog and narrowed his eyes at it. The dog spun in place and ran away. Wei Ying saw it run off and cross the street from the corner of his eye, his gaze had never left the man in purple. Strangers were dangerous when you were a child alone. He tried to step away, but a hand fell gently to his shoulder.

“Wei Ying? A’Ying?” The man asked softly.

Wei Ying’s breath caught. No one but his parents had ever called him A’Ying. He nodded slowly.

“A’Ying. I am Uncle Jiang. Your father was my best friend, my Sect brother. And I admired your mother greatly. I am very sorry they are gone from this world and away from you. Do you want to come home with me, to live with me and my family?” The man’s voice almost broke.

Wei Ying had a vague memory of his A’Niang and his A’Die speaking about someone with that name. He remembered his father pulling out robes of the same purple as this man’s robes and talking about a place where most people wore this color. The memories felt safe to Wei Ying. This man felt safe to Wei Ying. Wei Ying smiled and nodded. In a second he was swept into the man’s arms and being carried away.

*****

“Wei Ying, wake up.”

The voice whispered in Wei Ying’s ear. Wei Ying was dreaming. He was in his mother’s arms. They were flying. It wasn’t the way they usually traveled. Usually, he and his mother sat on their donkey and his father would lead it along. Mother would tell him stories all the way. Stories about her life, before his father. About her Master the Immortal Baoshan Sanran. Long tales about cultivation. About meeting his father and a place full of lotus flowers.

His father would tell him stories at night before he fell asleep about his friend, Wei Ying’s Uncle Jiang. His father’s friend was powerful and loyal and someday they’d go to visit him.

His mother and father always told him stories on those long days on that donkey and nights sleeping in inns or under a blanket of stars. On rare occasions, they’d travel on mother’s sword, or rarer still on father’s. Then they’d bundle him up between them to keep him safe and warm as they flew through the air with his mother’s strong arms around them both as his father held onto her. When he’d asked why they usually used Mother’s sword, they said simply that Mother was stronger at flying. He didn’t quite understand but it didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was he loved being held between them. All safe and snug.

Wei Ying sighed and turned his face further into his father’s chest. “I had a bad dream, Didier. I dreamt you and mama went away one night and left me.” He heard a sharp gasp and took in a deep breath. The scent in his nose was not his father’s. He remembered it all. “It wasn’t a dream, was it uncle Jiang?”

Jiang Fengmian rubbed his cheek over Wei Ying’s hair. “No child, it wasn’t. But uncle Jiang is here now. I’ve brought you home. Here you’ll have many brothers and sisters. Older and younger. You’ll never be alone again. A’Li and A’Cheng are my own children. As soon as I can we’ll hold the adoption ceremony to make you mine too. Your father was my brother after all. He’d want that. You can keep Wei if you want. The name is honorable and that way I can keep a little of my friend and brother with me. What do you think?” Jiang Fengmian asked as he landed his sword softly on a wooden pier.

Wei Ying grinned and nodded. He looked around him as his uncle carried him in his arms. Everywhere he looked he saw lotus flowers and water. “Uncle Jiang, where are we? Are we on water?”

“You are in Lotus Pier.” The voice was cold and hard, it was the voice of a woman suppressing her anger. “Explain yourself, husband. Who is this child?”

Uncle Jiang stopped and carefully bowed with Wei Ying still in his arms. “Wife. This is Wei Ying. My brother’s son. He was orphaned and only has us left now.”

“Why did you bring him here? To insult me?” She almost screamed.

“Never my heart.” Uncle Jiang sounded so calm while Wei Ying was trying very hard not to shiver. “I am following your orders, wife. For many years to come, I shall strive to complete the mission which you set for me that night so that all you said befell us and our children shall not come to pass.”

The woman gasped and clutched her hand at her chest. With a hard swallow, she stepped forward and looked closely at Wei Ying. She lifted her hand and carefully tugged at his matted hair. “You have your mother’s face and your father’s eyes. You look like sunshine. Even as you are. Our lives are changed now you are here, I can already feel it. Very well, husband. Take him to A’Cheng. As they are now brothers they’ll share rooms. It’s high time that boy learned to play with children and not just his dogs.” Then she turned and walked away from them. Before she had turned a corner she stopped. “I’ll have my girls move your things into my pavilion in the morning, husband.” Then she strode away.

Uncle Jiang swallowed and sighed. “Well.” Was all he said.

“Uncle Jiang? Ddddogs?”

“A’Cheng has puppies. Three right now I think. You’ll love them.”

“Nooo! They’ll bite me!” Wei Ying struggled in his uncle’s arms until the older man had to set him down.

Wei Ying looked around for a place to hide. They were in front of another pavilion, maybe he should jump into the water.

“Father? What is happening? Who’s going to bite who?” The voice was of a boy close to Wei Ying’s age, just a little younger and smaller maybe. He carried a golden brown bundle in his arms.

Wei Ying stuffed his fist into his mouth to stop from crying and hid behind his uncle.

Chuckling softly, uncle Jiang pulled him around. “A’Cheng. This is your new brother Wei Ying. Where he comes from, dogs used to fight with him and bite him because they were not looked after or trained to be good, so he’s afraid of them. You’re going to have to help him.”

A’Cheng scoffed and came forwards, his puppy clutched firmly to his chest. “This is Little Love. She’ll lick you but she won’t really bite you to eat you. She only bites when her teeth are itchy. And if she tries to bite my gege I’ll break her legs. Understand Little Love? You can’t hurt my new gege. I’ve been asking for a gege for a long time now. So now I have one, we have to look after him.” He told the puppy seriously.

Uncle knelt on the wooden pier and carefully held Wei Ying’s hand to Little Love who sniffed it before licking it. Then he showed Wei Ying how to pat her gently. “And who have you been asking for a gege from A’Cheng?”

“The heavens of course father. Having Shijie is great, but she’s busy. I wanted a gege to play with and now I have one.”

“Yes, now you do,” his father agreed. “Wei Ying will be in your pavilion until you are both older. Tomorrow we’ll bring him new clothes and a new bed. Can he share your things tonight?”

A’Cheng giggled and grabbed Wei Ying’s hand dragging him into his pavilion. Wei Ying followed eagerly giggling as well. They ran up the steps and into the room. Wei Ying skidded to a stop and stifled another scream, hiding quickly behind A’Cheng. “Mmmore dddogs.”

Jiang Cheng looked around confused. Then he hit his forehead with his palm. He knelt on the floor putting Little Love down and patting the other two puppies. “Oh don’t worry about them. They are Little Love’s jiemei. This is Jasmine and this is Princess. Here come pat them so they’ll get to know you.” He pulled on Wei Ying’s hand until they were kneeling side by side. Wei Ying, still trembling. Jiang Cheng carefully took Wei Ying’s hand and just like his father had done he let the puppies smell it before carefully showing Wei Ying how to pat them gently. “See, they don’t hurt you. But now you need to wash and change because you stink and mother would be upset if I let you go to bed without washing. She makes me wash every night too. My bathwater should still be warm and I wasn’t very dirty today. You can use it tonight. Tomorrow night we’ll get you your own.” He showed Wei Ying behind a screen as he talked then pushed him towards a small wooden tub. “I’ll find you some nightclothes. Get clean.” And he was gone.

Wei Ying blinked twice before he threw off his robes and jumped into the water. He scrubbed himself vigorously. Washing off the hopeless despair along with the dirt of the streets he’d survived on since his parents had gone. He had a home and family again. He felt safe.

“Are you hungry?” Jiang Cheng asked him as he put some robes and a towel on the stool beside the tub. “Shijie brought me some lotus and pork rib soup. It’s still warm.” Jiang Cheng poked at Wei Ying’s hair. “We need to wash your hair. Here let me help. My sister helps me with my hair all the time. I know what to do. Lean back.” He pulled on Wei Ying’s shoulder while stretching for the soap his sister used for his own hair.

A second later Wei Ying came up spluttering from the dunking he’d been given. He started giggling, Jiang Cheng followed quickly. With lots of giggles and tugging Wei Ying’s long hair got washed. More dunking finally had him fully rinsed and out of the tub, dried and wrapped in borrowed robes with his hair in a towel.

Jiang Cheng pushed him into a stool next to a warm brazier, he poured a bowl of soup and handed it over. “Shijie makes the best soup. Drink it. I’ll oil and comb your hair to dry it. So, if you’re my gege, am I your didi?”

Wei Ying grinned and turned to him.

*****

Wei Ying was warm and dry. His belly was full. He felt safe and happy. He also felt a little confused. He could hear a noise. It was a sort of snuffling. His brain thought about it for a few seconds, trying to wake from sleep. Then he understood. It was a dog. A dog was snuffling. How had a dog gotten into his hiding place? What did it want? His food? Did it want to eat him? His eyes snapped open. He looked around him quickly. Looking for the dangerous beast. His hiding place looked different. He was in a sleeping pallet. Inside a room with walls and screens. He was sleeping against the wall and another body slept beside him.

He remembered Uncle Jiang bringing him home and A’Cheng caring for him. Washing his hair and giving him soup. Calling him Gege, and meeting A’Cheng’s puppies. A’Cheng had even slept between him and the puppies. It was one of the puppies he was hearing now. It was snuffling at the screen door. As he watched, it pushed the door open with its nose and walked out.

Wei Ying panicked. He didn’t want it to get lost or get in trouble. A’Cheng would be so upset. He didn’t want to get in trouble for it either. If they thought it was his fault the little beast had gotten out they’d kick him out for sure. No, he only had one choice. He’d have to go and bring the thing back. Screwing up all his courage he carefully got out of bed and crept out. Looking around he saw it running over a bridge and took chase. The stupid thing was already three bridges away from him and running fast. Before he knew it he was knee-deep in grass and the puppy was nowhere in sight. It was dark too. He hadn’t grabbed a torch when he’d left the pavilion area, now he only had the light of the moon to see by. He was lost, he was scared and he was only just stopping himself from crying.

He heard a snuffle to his right and turned toward it. His foot came down, but the ground wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He felt his foot land wrong, then he felt pain and fell forward. He bit his lip to not cry out but his ankle hurt and he wanted to cry. He was in pain. He had felt one pain or another ever since his parents had left. Now it was his ankle. He felt wetness on his face and knew he was crying. He sighed deeply and let the tears fall quietly while he sat up carefully and pulled his foot into his lap. He didn’t know what to do, so he sat there to think and cry softly.

He heard the quiet snuffling get closer then the puppy walked out of the grass and plopped itself down on its bottom to watch him. Wei Ying knew he should be afraid of it, but he couldn’t be bothered. He was in pain, he was lost and really just unhappy. “Go away,” he hiccoughed. “This is all your fault. If you hadn’t run off I wouldn’t have followed you and gotten hurt. Shoo. Go away.”

Instead, the tiny beast just walked forward until it was nose to nose with him then a tiny pink tongue came out of its mouth and licked his nose. Wei Ying spluttered and pushed it away. The thing bounced back and did it again, and again and again. Its entire body wiggled as it tried to lick any part of him that it could. Its front paws even held his shoulder so it would have better access. He knew he should be scared, the beast could easily bite him, but all the licking just tickled him and suddenly he went from crying to giggling. From feeling sad and sorry for himself to happy. Even hurt and confused as he was, he felt happy.

“Well there you are,” a soft voice said.

Wei Ying looked up from the licking puppy to see a pretty girl, a few years older than him standing there.

“You must be Wei Ying. I’m Jiang Yan Li. Call me A’Li. A’Cheng came to get me when he found you were gone. I told him I’d come to find you. Are you hurt? Afraid?”

He pointed to his ankle. “I didn’t mean to worry anyone. This puppy left. I didn’t want A’Cheng to worry about it. So I followed so it wouldn’t get lost. Then I got lost and fell and hurt my leg. But the puppy found me.”

A’Li looked at the puppy sitting still in Wei Ying’s lap and smiled.”It’s a good thing too that she found you. If you hadn’t been laughing so hard I wouldn’t have found you. This one is Princess. She lets herself out at night when she wants to. You shouldn’t worry about it. Now let me see your leg, then you can get on my back and I’ll carry you.” She turned around and waved behind her. “Over here A’Cheng. I’ve found him. Bring the lantern closer.” Then she knelt beside Wei Ying. She waited until a lantern was brought over before gently touching his ankle.

“Are you stupid or something?” A’Cheng growled at him.

“Hush A’Cheng. You didn’t tell him the puppies let themselves out of your rooms whenever they want. He didn’t know and thought Princess was running away. He followed so you wouldn’t worry,” A’Li told him softly, but sternly.

A’Cheng huffed but didn’t say anything more.

A minute later and A’Li had Wei Ying on her back and the three were headed back with an excited puppy bouncing around them. “I don’t think life is going to be boring for us from now on, do you A’Li?” A’Cheng asked his sister as they walked.

A’Li chuckled but didn’t say a word.

CHAPTER 2

Ostensibly Jiang Fengmian had accompanied his disciples on a night hunt. A night hunt that had started as an itch between his shoulder blades and whispers of a dream.

He hadn’t understood why he was walking through a town not too far from home until he heard an angry voice. Turning to look he saw a stallholder shaking a young boy by the shoulder.

Walking over Fengmian gently but firmly removed the child from the other man. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Oh oh Daozhang. There’s no problem. This brat wants what he can’t afford. Little scum is always begging here. Shoo. Go away before I beat you,” he flapped his large hands at the child.

Fengmian placed the boy behind him and raised an eyebrow. “Your stand is an apothecary stand, correct?”

“The best apothecary around,” the man puffed his chest out proudly.

Fengmian cast a side-eye to the actual apothecary shop only a few steps away, all clean and well presented with a steady stream of people going in and out. Only a non-committal “Mmmm,” passed his lips, however.

Turning his back to the man he knelt in front of the boy. Tears flowed down his cheeks. Frustration, fear, and impotence shone through his eyes, behind them lay a fierce determination. Fengmian used his own sleeves to wipe the boy’s face. “Now tell me what has happened,” he said gently.

“I can tell you Daozhang-” the stallholder began loudly.

“Sect Leader Jiang was not speaking to you.”

Fengmian bit his lip to keep from smiling. His Head Disciple and cousin Jiang Mao Lou was using his best, you are dirt, voice. He obviously did not like the stallholder, but then Jiang Mao Lou had five children already.

Fengmian nodded gently to the boy to speak. After a hiccough, a soft voice began.

“Mother is ill. She needs medicine. He says we haven’t paid our bill so she can’t have any until it’s paid. Mother cannot work if she is ill. She cannot see her customers. So we have no money to pay the bill. She will pay it as soon as she is well. If she cannot see customers, then Madame Meng says we’ll have to leave the house. So you see she needs the medicine.” The young boy had started by wringing his hands. Now his small fist clutched at Fengmian’s sleeves.

Fengmian swallowed once. His mind putting together certain things the boy had said and coming up with a sad story. “And where does your mother work? Where do you live?”

Red swept over the boy’s face as he clenched his jaw, but his eyes involuntarily turned a swift glance to the Flower House across the street.

“I see,” Fengmian said standing. He could see helplessness sweep over the boy. “Jiang Mao. Pay this family’s bill. We shall be at the apothecary when you are done.” He bent and picked the boy up. He was small and light, easily carried on one arm.

As Fengmian placed a hand on the boy’s belly to help steady him, he felt a strange little warmth. With furrowed brows, he extended his qi a tiny bit and found a tiny golden core struggling for survival. He looked closely at the child’s face. Yes, he knew those eyes. He sighed and shook his head. Now he fully understood why he was here.

They entered the store and he put the child down. “Well young master, why don’t you tell the Apothecary your mother’s symptoms.”

Instead of speaking he turned and clung to Fengmian’s robes. “I cannot.” He whispered.

Fengmian was surprised. He looked between the boy clinging to him and the man behind his wooden counter guarding hundreds of tiny drawers and jars. “Well, ah…” he pulled at an earlobe at a loss.

The Apothecary looked carefully at the child then sighed knowingly. “He is from the Flower House. I’m afraid my distant cousin has a long temper and can hold a grudge from the days of our childhood. Those of the flower house are not allowed in my shop for fear of being thrown out.”

“Hmm, well, perhaps you can tell me what ails your mother. Then I can let him know?” Fengmian suggested.

The child seemed to think about it for a few seconds then nodded. “She coughs blood. Cannot breathe nor keep food down. It happens every few months. She gets weaker every time. And the illness takes longer to leave each time.”

Fengmian saw the Apothecary leap to work as soon as the symptoms were listed. “Ask if she’s ever been in a fire? Is the blood dark or bright red?”

“She spoke of a fire as a girl and the blood is bright.” The child slapped a hand over his mouth, realizing he’d spoken to someone he wasn’t supposed to speak with.

Fengmian placed his big hand over the boy’s head and rubbed gently, finally noticing the threadbare black hat he was wearing. He heard rustling behind him. Looking over his shoulder he saw Mao Lou enter while two guards at the door ensured privacy.

“The debt has been paid Sire if you can consider it a debt. Just a few coins. Anything else I can do for you?” Mao Lou asked differentially.

“Yes. Please send Su Choo and Minn Guo to me. Also, see if you can find a decent palanquin we can fly on our swords.” Fengmian told him.

With a bow, Mao Lou left and Fengmian saw two of his disciples enter. They were young. On one of their first night hunts. Just into their double digits in age. He looked at them carefully. His Sect was always so careful with the young under their charge. Su Choo and Min Guo looked well and excited. Eyes bright and backs straight. Proud hands on the hilts of their newly issued spiritual blades. He was as proud of them as he was of the rest of his Sect.

They looked at him inquiringly. He smiled at them sadly then looked at the child still clutching at him. Su Choo looked too, then he narrowed his eyes and craned his neck for a better look. When he saw it his small shoulders sagged. He gave a sad nod and whispered to a still confused Minn Guo.

He handed his sword to Minn Guo so he couldn’t hurt the child and stepped forward, then he knelt and placed a hand on his shoulder.

The boy looked at him, worry all over his face.

“Hi, I’m Su Choo, this is my half-brother Minn Guo. What’s your name?”

“I’m Meng Yao, Young Master.”

“Well, Meng Yao. Can I ask you a few questions? You won’t be in any trouble. I promise.” Su Choo said softly.

Meng Yao nodded.

“Have you ever met father?”

Fengmian heard a gasp and looked at the Apothecary who had his hands over his mouth and packages waiting on his bench. He was blinking rapidly so his tears wouldn’t fall.

Meng Yao shook his head. “Mother says he is a famous Cultivator and someday when I’m old enough he’ll come to get me.”

Minn Guo stepped forward and placed a hand on Meng Yao’s cheek. “Your mother is half correct. He is a famous Cultivator. Meng Yao, if your mother permits, will you come with us?”

“Why? Why would you want me?”

Fengmian’s heart broke then. He looked at the Apothecary who was dashing tears from his cheeks.

Minn Guo knelt beside Su Choo, placing their swords on the ground. “Because you’re our brother,” he said softly.

Meng Yao gasped. In a second he’d thrown himself into his brothers’ arms and was crying. They held him tightly, tears glistening.

Fengmian stepped to the counter. “Our herbs?”

The other man cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, yes. This one,” he tapped one package, ”is a tea. Take it three times a day. The other needs to be inhaled in a steam bath. Cover the patient’s head with a thick cloth while she is over the pot of hot water and sprinkle a pinch into the water. Then inhale as much steam as possible. The longer you can keep it steaming the better.”

Fengmian nodded and slipped both packages into his sleeve. “How much do I owe?”

The other man put his hands behind his back. “You are a good man, Master, I will not take your money.”

Fengmian chuckled. “You are also a good man. I’ll not deprive you of your living.” He dipped his fingers into the money pouch in his robes and dropped two pieces of gold on the counter.

“Too much. Too much, Master.” He protested.

“You have given us medicine for three months?” Fengmian asked. At the other man’s reluctant nod he continued. “Not too much. You have a good heart Master…” he trailed off waiting for the man’s name.

“Master Apothecary Meng Chin,” he supplied softly.

“As I was saying Master Meng, you have a good heart too. If you ever wish to leave and settle elsewhere you would be welcome in Yung Meng. If you wished you could even ally yourself with the Sect. You would be most welcome.” With a bow, he turned back to the children to find Minn Guo carrying Meng Yao and making him giggle. He herded them out of the shop with a grin.

They heard a commotion as soon as they stepped onto the street. Almost directly across from them a woman was screaming and throwing things. Another woman was on the ground, clutching at her torn robes and coughing while crying. A young woman, barely older than a girl stood angrily between them. Meng Yao gave a startled yell and struggled to leave his brother‘s arms. Instead of letting go, Minn Guo glanced at their Master and within a blink, Fengmian had grabbed the back of the boy’s robes and leaped them all to stand between the screaming woman and her victim.

“Lady. Some decorum. Please,” Fengmian said calmly.

“Decorum? Decorum? She deserves to be beaten. And you,” she turned to point at Meng Yao. “This little snake went where he knows he is not allowed. After everything, I have done for them. No. No more. They are out of my house. On the street with them where they belong!” The woman’s voice kept rising. Her arms waved around her in her agitation as if they had a life of their own.

Fengmian ignored her. He knelt next to the woman on the ground and held out a clean handkerchief for her sodden cough. “My name is Jiang Fengmian. I am the Leader of the Jiang Sect in Yunmeng. I believe it would be in your best interest and that of your young son for you to come with me. You will be safe with me, you have my word, and your son can train and be made ready to take a place within the Cultivation World.”

She stared at him between coughs. Her hand clenched in her son’s. Fengmian took her hand and checked her pulse, then he glanced at his cousin. The man searched through Fengmian’s sleeve and pulled out the tea packet. With a few snaps of his fingers, another disciple handed him a small teacup filled with water. Minn Guo searched himself for a talisman which he slapped on the teacup as his Shixiong sprinkled the tea leaves over the water. A quick swirl and he handed the now hot tea to his Sect Leader with a very proper bow.

Fengmian took the teacup and heard the irate madam hiss in a breath. He hid his grin when Minn Guo stepped between them, a hand not so discreetly on his sword hilt. “Drink this please,” Fengmian urged the sick woman.

“Yes mamma, please drink some. I have so much to tell you. Can we please leave with Sect Leader? Please?” her son begged.

The woman took a sip, and then another as the hot brew worked some miracle on her. In seconds she’d finished the tea and held the cup to her chest as she breathed deeply in careful measured inhales and exhales.

“A’ Yao,” she shook her head sadly. “As grateful as I am for the revered Sect Leader, you know your father asked us to remain here so he’d know where to find you later.”

“Lady Meng, can you please look at my face?” Su Choo knelt in front of her, his hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Do you see any resemblance? Or perhaps you should look at my brother, Minn Guo.” The other boy looked over his shoulder at the woman still on the ground from where he held his ground between the screaming harridan and his Sect Leader.

The lady did as he asked and then bit her lip as recognition entered her eyes.

“Yes, Lady. Your son is our baby brother. The same Cultivation blood runs through our veins, and I, we, can promise you that he’ll never return for your son. In fact, an elder brother of ours, also a Cultivator, went to him to be of service after he came of age. He was met by our father telling a guard to throw him down the stairs. Our brother broke his leg. Two rogue Cultivators had been passing by and gave him aid. Father will not acknowledge any children but his legal heir. Father has made many promises to far too many women and keeps none of them. Guo and I were lucky to be found by Master Jiang as children. He made us a part of his Sect. we have never looked back since that day. Please allow A’Yao to come with us to Lotus Pier. He’ll have a much better life there.”

Meng Yao clutched at his mother as they cried. She patted his cheeks, his hair and kissed his hands. “He’s all I have. But if giving him up gives him a better future then I must do so.” She wiped tears as she spoke.

Fengmian stood slowly and sighed. “Madam, I would never separate a child this young from his mother if I could help it. We have a palanquin for you. You shall come with us. My people shall help you. I’m sure my good wife will find something useful for you to do.”

She was still gaping at him as two disciples carried her into the palanquin that had just arrived. “Wait, wait my Lord.” She looked at the young woman that had tried to protect her from the madam.

Fengmian didn’t think twice, he nodded to the young woman and gestured for her to enter the palanquin along Lady Meng. “I’m sure your friend can help look after you during the trip and at home until you are fully healed.” He fished in his money pouch and drew out a bar of gold about the size of his smallest finger. Without a glance, he tossed it to the still fuming Madam. “I’m sure this will cover any bills they owe you,” he said. Then he drew his sword and stepped on it, waiting for Minn Guo to take his young brother in his arms and then step on his own sword. Four older disciples fit their swords under the palanquin and then stepped on them. In less than a few blinks of Fengmian’s tired eyes, they were carefully flying on their swords and heading home. “My wife is going to kill me,” he sighed.

Multiple chuckles from behind him were all he heard.

CHAPTER 3

Yu Ziyuan stood quietly around the corner from where her son and that brat her no-good husband had foisted on her and listened.

“A’Cheng, you and me, we have to get really big and strong,” the voice was of the brat, Wei Ying. What was that mongrel about to get her son into? How dare Fengmian run off again and leave her here with this creature. Wei Ying, or as everyone kept whispering, her husband’s love-child, his disgrace, and her embarrassment.

“What are you talking about, A’Xian?” her son asked, sounding cranky and distracted. “Sit Princess, good girl.”

“For A’Li.” Wei Ying insisted.

Yu Ziyuan narrowed her eyes. What was that boy up to?

“A’Li, shijie, doesn’t have a very strong Golden Core, does she? So we’re going to have to get extra strong to look after her. She’s too good to let her get hurt and people out there can be mean and awful. We can’t let anyone be awful to her. Ever.” Wei Ying’s voice was adamant.

Yu Ziyuan’s heart clenched. She thought about the time before Fengmian had found this child. His time on the streets. Yes, he would know how awful people could be. She sniffed and fingered Zidian on her finger. This little brat was arranging to spend his life protecting her daughter from the world. And he was making these plans with her own son. This wouldn’t do.

Lifting her head higher she walked around the corner. The two boys were patting her son’s puppies. Wei Ying a little warily, but not afraid any longer, A’Cheng had done well.

“Mother,” A’Cheng smiled at her.

“Madame Jiang,” Wei Ying bowed to her, his hands clasped in front of him as he’d been taught.

She pursed her lips. “A’Xian, who do we bow to?” she asked.

“Uncle Jiang said we bow to our elders, betters, ancestors, and those we respect.”

“Does my son bow to me, A’Xian?”

“No Madame.”

“At this age, my children are not expected to bow to their parents. So, at this age, do not bow to me. I am as your mother, though I cannot take her place. You are as my son. I will tell you when you need to bow to me. It will be when you are older and only on formal occasions. Understood?” she asked.

Wei Ying nodded slowly, carefully.

“And call me Aunty Ziyuan. Not Madame. At least in private, anyway. Madame makes me feel old, and those I consider my children, have no need to call me Madame. Except in formal occasions as society demands.” She patted their cheeks and walked by them with a tiny smile. That brat was struggling to hold back his smile even as she’d walked away. That smile that made one feel as if the sun shone on them. Oh boy, whoever married him would have their hands full. There would be nothing a man with a smile like sunshine couldn’t wheedle out of someone who loved him.

With a small shake of her head, she crooked her finger and waited for Jinzhu and Yinzhu, her faithful servants and bodyguards to come up beside her.

“Madame,” they bowed.

“Find somewhere flat and sturdy to build the Yu climbing frames. Bring me the Yu teaching manuals. My daughter might not have as robust a Golden Core as most Cultivators but I’ll not leave her weak and helpless. She’ll not be the responsibility of her brothers nor her husband. And bring me the Apothecary. There are herbs and powders to strengthen a Golden Core, the old Apothecary was useless. We have a new one don’t we?”

“We did Madame, but he was taught by the previous one and just as useless. He married and left to join his father-in-law’s trading business. We are waiting for a new Apothecary to come. The frame, Madame, shall it be for one?” Yinzhu asked.

“No, make it large and sturdy enough for all my children to run it ragged. I want Jiang Cheng and Wei Ying in it along with Yan Li. Daily. It shall be a part of their training.” Yu Ziyuan bit her lip and thought.

Jinzhu cleared her throat and spoke softly. “Madame the climbing frames are a secret of the Yu Sect. The manuals too.”

“My daughter is a daughter of the Yu Sect. Even if she was not sworn as one. All daughters of Yu have daughters of Yu. I however shall not teach the manuals to the boys, only to Yan Li. The Jiang Sect however shall have the best-trained warriors to lead it that I can give it. Now go. Find the carpenters and whatever else you need. I want at least one frame by day after tomorrow.” She watched as they bowed and scurried off. Yes, she’d pass on every bit of her knowledge she could. Looking around to see she was alone, she kicked herself in the ankle, and her mother would be so disappointed in her. She’d let her family down, her natal Sect and the Sect she’d married into.

She had been trained to be a Sect Leader’s wife. She knew what needed to be done. Instead, she’d allowed rumors about her husband to color her view of him and thus her children. Well no longer. The past was past and staying there. She had let her children down. Her daughter especially. Her natal Sect treated all women equally, as warriors. Whether they fought with the whip, sword, powders, potions, or from the kitchen. A woman’s place was irreplaceable. So she would show her daughter the strength she carried inside. Yan Li was as much a daughter of Yu as her mother was. Perhaps she’d even be able to pass Zidian on to her instead of Jiang Cheng. Perhaps not, they’d have to see.

As if thinking Yan Li had called her she came around the corner of the walkway and stopped before her mother.

“Mother,” she smiled and bobbed her head.

Ziyuan tskd and held out her hands, sighing when her daughter took them. “A’Li, walk with me,” Ziyuan said and gently pulled her daughter toward the open-air pavilion she’d been headed for. On the way, she caught the eye of a servant and motioned him over. “Tea for my daughter and myself in this pavilion, and send some to my sons as well. It’s time they ate something before they make a nuisance of themselves in the kitchens.”

She heard A’Li stifle a giggle as the servant went about his orders. “Yes, I know what those two scamps get up to without you. Now let’s sit and talk.” She sat on the bench and pulled A’Li to sit with her. “I know you spend a lot of your day corralling those two miscreants and keeping them out of trouble. You won’t have as much time to do that from now on.”

“Mother?” Yan Li questioned. “Have I done something wrong?”

“No A’Li, you have not. The wrong done was mine, and towards you children, all of you. But I’m going to rectify that. From tomorrow you’ll start coming to me for lessons from the Yu Manuals. The secrets of my Sect. In the afternoons you and your brothers shall start training on the Yu training frames. We’ll fit everything around other studies and duties, for you and your brothers. The Manuals are only for you. And Jinzhu and Yinzhu shall teach you the climbing frames. I believe you will enjoy your lessons and benefit from them.”

“But mother, my Core…” Yan Li trailed off.

Yu Ziyuan took her daughter’s hand and kissed her knuckle. “Your Golden Core may not be as strong as some, but you do have one. We shall do everything we can to strengthen it. However, nothing I’m about to teach you actually requires a Golden Core. The Manuals as you’ll see are mainly about potions, powders, and pressure points. The Frames will strengthen your body and increase your fitness. Not to mention hopefully exhaust your brothers so they’ll not be such a nuisance to the servants.”

Yan Li giggled. “Brothers?” she asked hesitantly.

Ziyuan scrunched her face but nodded. “Yes, brothers. Do you know what I heard today? A’Xian, planning to be your protector for the rest of his life because the world can be awful. Well anyone planning to protect my child deserves much from me. It also opened my eyes to how badly I’ve let everyone down. So yes, brothers and lessons. Now pour the tea and we’ll chat before we both return to our duties.” She gestured to the tea tray as a young girl placed it carefully on the table in front of them and smiled approvingly as her daughter poured tea for them perfectly. Why had she been so blind to her family? Well no longer, they deserved better. They deserved all she had to give. She stroked Zidian again and marveled at how very calm her ring whip felt.

*****

She was going to be a widow, any second now she was going to rip her husband’s head off and feed it to whatever lived under them and Lotus Pier. There were fish in that water, she’d seen them. They could have a good meal. He had brought a whore into her home. Not one but two. Two whores. Two obvious whores. And another boy. She could just hear the rumors starting already. Even if the boy looked a little familiar. She saw her husband straighten his shoulders, waiting for her to strike. She ran a finger over Zidian, expecting sparks. But her ring was quiet. She looked at it. It felt fine, not broken, but it wasn’t angry, it wasn’t sparking.

She looked at the people before her. The sickly whore, her friend proud but frightened and hovering. The boy clutching his mother’s hand and the two disciples hovering around him. At her husband. Then the gaze whipped back to the two disciples. She blinked and sucked in a breath.

“You child,” she pointed to the boy. “Come here.”

Reluctantly he released his mother and came over. She placed her hand over where his Golden Core would be and felt it. She looked at the two disciples and saw it. She sucked in a breath then nodded at her husband. “If he were my husband I’d castrate him. This one shall need to train with our sons and A‘Li. Yinzhu, take him to wash, feed him then take him to the Frames. And be quick about it. Husband you may leave, these ladies and I have much to discuss.” She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, then she noticed just how sickly one woman was. “Fengmian!”

“Yes, wife?”

“Zhangfu, we are in desperate need of an Apothecary and Healers.” She said without turning to look at him.

“Then we are extremely lucky one followed us home. I’ll have someone help him settle then you should speak with him.”

“Very well then. Now go and make yourself useful,” she dismissed.

“Hmm, perhaps I shall go and find the children in a little while. Have them join me for tea.” he mused softly.

“Do not interrupt their training. They have at least two more hours on the frames. Go and watch them if you wish, but do not interfere. I have no doubt I shall see you there or at dinner.” She listened as his footsteps drew further away. Her gaze was still on the women before her. She felt Jinzhu move behind her, no doubt her friend thought her whip would be needed. Ziyuan fingered Zidian, again finding it quiet. “Ladies, I have a question to ask, and your future might depend on your truthfulness.”

The women glanced at each other then back at her. They nodded once. They are brave at least, Yu Ziyuan thought.

“Why did you become whores?” Her question was to the point and sharp. She expected demurrment, or scandal and insult. Instead, the healthy one scoffed and the ill one raised an eyebrow at her.

“I doubt being a whore is anyone’s idea for a lifelong career. Meng Shi wanted to be a musician, is a musician. Then a man who wanted what was not his ruined her reputation and made sure she had no choice. My own family sold me to pay debts. Why did you become a Cultivator?” The woman showed no fear.

Yu Ziyuan admired her. “I was born to a Cultivation Sect. Trained to develop a Golden Core almost from birth, then trained in the Sect ways. I was born to be a Cultivator.”

“Then you are lucky. Most women are not so fortunate. My name is Sisi.”

“I am Yu Ziyuan, the Lady of this Sect. Your Judge and Executioner should you betray me. What do you plan on doing now? I will not allow your old profession upon my Pier. You said one of you is a musician?” She looked between them.

“Meng Shi is one of some renown,” the other woman, Sisi said proudly. “She was teaching me.”

Yu Ziyuan looked at the sickly woman. “What do you play? And can you truly teach?”

“I play the Qin Madame and when I have the breath I play the flute. And yes I can teach,” Meng Shi’s voice was soft and breathless. She was beautiful even Ziyuan could see that but illness made her beauty fade.

“Very well, once you feel stronger you can begin teaching the disciples to play. The Jiang Sect is not known for musical Cultivation but I think we can change that. We only need a proper music teacher. You cannot teach them to Cultivate through music but once they know how to play then we can look further for a musical cultivation Laoshi. And you, Sisi, what can you do?”

“My idiotic father was a merchant in fine fabrics and clothing. A good one too. He taught me to read, write and manage his accounts. I can also design and sew.” She replied, her arms tightly crossed over her chest.

“And yet you were sold to a brothel…” Yu Ziyuan trailed off.

Sisi scoffed again. “When I found my older brother was stealing from my father I confronted him. That was my mistake. He killed our parents and then sold me. I had nowhere else to go. No family to turn to. So I stayed. Of coarse one day when I was in the market, a knife found its way into my brother’s ribs, right to his heart. It was only a coincidence my hand was clutching the knife at the time.”

“Yes, quite a coincidence,” Yu Ziyuan grinned sharply at both women. “Welcome to Yunmeng Jiang, to Lotus Pier. I think you shall be quite an addition. Lady Meng Shi, our new music Laoshi and Lady Sisi, our newest Robe Creator. And oh Ladies, given that I shall have to eventually whether my sister’s sharp tongue on your behalf. If anything goes wrong with your duties, I shall have your hides removed, one strip at a time. I shall be watching.” She turned to her maid. “Arrange for rooms for the newest members of the Jiang Sect. And arrange for the Apothecary to come here.” Without waiting for an acknowledgment she strode to a chair and sat. She watched as the three women left her alone and bit her lip.

Everything had changed. Her husband had told her about a strange dream. A dream of her and a mission she had set for him. Then he was off and returning with Wei Ying. On the recent mission, he’d returned with two whores and an illegitimate boy. The illegitimate child of a Cultivator who was known to be a scandal, yet one married to her sister. Of coarse this child wasn’t the first one she’d met nor even had in this Sect. There were two disciples here and at least two more Rogue Cultivators out there. Jin Guanshan may be a reprobate but he made strong Cultivators. She really couldn’t stand him and wondered how her sister could. If her husband disrespected her in the same way Jin Guanshan disrespected her sister, he’d find himself impotent at the very least.

She smiled wickedly thinking about the lessons Yan Li was so quickly mastering. Jin Guanshan might not have had such a wonderful time once Yan Li was married to Jin Zixuan. They were children for now of course but the marriage contract had been signed the day after Yan Li’s birth. Her daughter would marry her Sect sister’s eldest son when they were old enough. Yes, teaching Yan Li the secrets of the Yu Sect had been a very good idea. She fingered her bottom lip and wondered if she should warn her sister. Her smile became snakelike as she thought about it.

A noise at the door caught her attention. Her gaze snapped to it. A new man was there. In his middle years. A guard accompanied him. “The Apothecary Madam,” the guard announced with a bow. She nodded once and waved him out. She reached into her sleeve and pulled out a small silk bag. She threw it at the Apothecary.

“Open it,” she ordered.

He opened it carefully and gently sniffed at the contents. Then he shook them out onto his palm and used the long nail on his little finger to sift through them, eventually taking a tiny pinch between his fingers and allowing himself to taste. He swilled the stuff around in his mouth while he poured everything back into the silk bag quickly. Then removing a square of fabric he spit his mouth out thoroughly.

“If I mixed that into my husband’s wine what would happen?” Yu Ziyuan asked.

He raised his eyebrows but lowered his hands to his waist. “You’d either have a very sleepy husband or wake up a widow. Depending on how much you used. The herbal mix can be used sparingly as a sedative or more liberally as a poison.”

She nodded and motioned him forward. “Good. I think you may stay. The previous Apothecary was little more than a charlatan. I couldn’t let him near my family and Sect. When I asked him the same question he told me it was an aphrodisiac. Apparently, everything was an aphrodisiac to him. Tell me why you followed my husband home.”

He walked toward her slowly. “Truthfully I only wanted to ensure my patient was looked after. But when your Head Disciple explained you needed an Apothecary I thought I might as well expand my business. I’ve left my eldest to look after the other shop. I’ve trained him well and he is as capable as I am. My wife will follow after me with our youngest. While the eldest will look after the business with his wife. It will be good for him and my wife will be happy to return to her childhood home.”

“Your wife is from Yunmeng?” she asked.

“Yes, her father still lives here. He has a small Lotus Pond which he cultivates and sells during the season. We send him money when he needs it. She’ll be happy to be able to move him in with us and look after him. He can teach the younger children to look after the Lotus Pond. It will be good for them to get out from under their studies too.”

“Well, that is quite fortuitous.” Yu Ziyuan clapped her hands and waited for a servant to look into the room. “Seating and tea. The new Apothecary and I have much to discuss.”

She turned back to the other man. “Master…”

“Meng Chin, Madame. What shall we discuss?”

“Well, Master Meng, what do you know about strengthening a Golden Core?”

CHAPTER 4

Jiang Fengmian wasn’t sure what he was looking at. His children were chasing each other around a wooden structure. It had ladders and slides. Poles one could slide down and ropes they could climb up. There were sandbags on ropes swinging around, rope ladders, and flimsy-looking bridges. He gasped as he watched first Wei Ying, followed by A’Cheng dodge and weave from one end to the other as they tried to chase down his daughter who practically flew over the structure. Everything in him told Jiang Fengmian that A’Li should not be able to escape her younger brothers with her weakened Golden Core. The two boys should be able to catch her easily. Yet there they were, fighting to keep up with her. The three of them were squealing and laughing all over the structure.

“What is this?” He kept whispering to himself. He’d been watching for at least a few incense sticks and still had no answer.

“This is how the Yu Sect trains their daughters. A’Li is a daughter of the Yu Sect after all as well as the Jiang Sect. I was being neglectful of her needs and training. Our sons accidentally reminded me of that. So I shall rectify the mistake. She has taken to her training better than I had even expected.” Ziyuan’s voice was soft and proud. He turned to look at her and saw a small happy smile on her face.

“This is your doing?” He asked softly.

“Hmm. Of course, who else?” she asked. “Oh, that boy. He’s going to be the death of me.” She growled and clutched at his robes.

Fengmian had quickly looked back to the children and would have run to them if his wife hadn’t been holding him. On the structure Wei Ying had used one rope to swing himself around the outside of the frame, then he’d jumped onto a sandbag, scrambled up a slide to flip himself into a leap to land in front of Yan Li. All the while cackling like a little fiend. For her part, Yan Li had stopped short in her run as Wei Ying had landed before her and spun on her heel to get away. Only to find Jiang Cheng behind her. With her own little whoop of joy, she had leaped up, somersaulted in midair, and landed on the other side of her younger brother, then taken off again.

Jiang Fengmian could hear his younger son growl from where he stood. “How is A’Li escaping them so well? Her Core…”

“We all believe a Golden Core is so important, but in my natal Sect, we start training our minds and bodies before we train our Core to expand. I had forgotten this. My great grandmother was Sect Leader for many years, yet she had what one would consider a rather weak Core. But no one ever thought she was weak, did they?” Yu Ziyuan answered.

“Yu WeFong? She was one of the most formidable women I’d ever met. I can’t even say I was a child when I met her. Yes, I was young but no one before her or since has frightened me as that woman did. Her entire presence radiated strength and power. She entered the room and everyone stopped talking and scurried to get her whatever she might want. I don’t think I ever tried to feel her Golden Core.”

Yu Ziyuan grinned wickedly. “I won’t make A’Li into another Yu WeFong, but I will not send her into that viper’s nest at Koi Tower without any way to protect herself. Honestly, I don’t think that place will know what hits it once our Yan Li arrives.”

“What happened while I was gone?” Fengmian asked quietly.

Yu Ziyuan sighed, she paced a few steps away and sank onto the deck, letting her feet dangle over the side of the dock. With a grumble to herself, she pulled her feet up and slipped off her slippers, then dangled her feet into the water. “Come sit with me zhangfu.” She patted the pier next to her and smiled up at him.

Fengmian’s breath caught in his chest. He sat carefully, also pulling off his boots to let his feet dip into the delightfully cool water. Slowly he put an arm around his wife and marveled as she let herself sag against him and snuggle in close.

“I was walking along the pier the other day,” she began softly. “I was considering how annoying and humiliating it was to have Wei Ying here. How people gossiped about him, about you and his mother. No, don’t interrupt. Just listen. I was in quite a mood really. Then I hear him talking to A’Cheng and I was ready to strangle him. But then I listened to what he was saying. He was making plans to get strong and powerful, both of them, so they could protect A’Li. Because they would need to keep evil people away from her. Just a child talking and planning. Not very feasible really. But I finally realized that child knows what evil people are capable of and was planning on saving my child from that. It opened my eyes. Too many things. To how he is. To A’Li. To my duties. To a great many things.” She raised her face to her husband. “I’m sorry zhangfu. I should have behaved like a woman, not a guttersnipe. I’ll not make that mistake again. The Jiang Sect shall have everything of me there is to give. Our children shall have a mother and Sect Leader’s wife they can come to for anything. All three of our children, because even if that boy is not of my body, I’m still going to claim him as mine. I hope you don’t mind?” She grinned up at him.

He chuckled and kissed her forehead. “I truly do not mind. I’m not sure, should we offer to make him ours formally? I’m afraid that would be unfair to his parents. I told him I’d adopt him when I found him, but I haven’t fulfilled that promise, not yet.” He sighed.

“Hm. We’ll adopt him. But he should keep his name. His mother was the Disciple of an Immortal. We should help him to learn about Baoshan Sanran. I’ve told him to call me Aunty. We’ll let him get used to being family. Then make the offer. He is barely five. I cannot imagine what would have happened to him had you not found him so soon after his parents died. He is such an earnest child. So sickeningly sweet and loyal.” Yu Ziyuan said sadly.

Fengmian kissed her forehead again. “Who are you and what have you done with my wife?” he asked gently.

She scoffed at him and elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to make him wince. “Do you want me to unleash Zidian and show you just how much I am your wife?” She looked up at him and saw his smile. “How can I be upset with a child who’d give up his future so he can protect my daughter?”

“That boy would give up everything he has to protect the ones he loves. He’s a Wei. Loyal to the end. Just like his father, his father’s father, and the many others before him. Did you know I had to threaten to kick Changze out of the Sect if he didn’t stop being so loyal to me and the Clan? He refused to marry the woman he loved with everything in him because he knew she was a wanderer. He adored Cangse Sanran. The sun rose and set with her smile. But he refused to marry her because it would mean he’d have to leave me and his duties to the Sect. Sometimes a small part of me wonders if I hadn’t made him leave, would they still be with us today? So, what are you planning?”

Yu Ziyuan shrugged a sad little shrug in answer to his sad wondering. She answered his other question, however. “I am planning on making our children as strong as possible so that maybe they can protect themselves and each other from the hurt and evil in this world.” She told him seriously. “I’m including Jin Guanshan’s latest bastard in that too. I’m going to help that boy become strong enough that his father can’t hurt him nor use him. His other children are old enough to understand what their father is. That boy isn’t and the stigma of having a whore for a mother will haunt him forever. By the way, she’s going to be our new music teacher and her friend has talent as a robe designer and seamstress. I’ve also decided you’re going to have to prowl through a lot of brothels and buy out any contract of any woman that wants out, then we’ll find them a future. I’m also going to open our doors to other women and street children. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them yet.” She tapped her lip with her finger then glanced back at her husband. “Fengmian? Are you well?”

He nodded slowly and swallowed hard. “Are you planning on changing the Cultivation world wife?”

She smiled at him almost innocently. “Do you think I can?”

Jiang Fengmian started to laugh, loud and hard. “I think you can do anything. Well, I might as well help. What do you think about inviting as many children of cultivation Sects as possible to come to play with our children? If we can create a friendship between the children we might be able to stop the silly rivalries, the clan wars.”

Yu Ziyuan nodded at him. “You’d better start writing those letters then.” She wriggled around until she was standing again, then held out her hand to her husband. “We have a lot of work to do,” she kept hold of Fengmian’s hand as they walked back to where they could watch the children. Now there were four of them all running around and chasing each other. Each one laughed and giggled just like a child should.

“I’ll start on those letters tonight. I’ll try to make sure they are sent before I have to leave again. I’m unsure how long I’ll have before I must leave, for one reason or another.” Fengmian told her.

“Will you be leaving soon then?”

He shrugged. “ I shall enjoy the pleasure of your company and our children for a few days yet, I think. I wonder who I’ll bring back this time.”

“Well the first time you left, you brought home a street rat that smiles like the sun. This time the son of a Cultivator and two whores. I can’t wait to see what’s next.” She lifted her eyebrows teasingly then gasped.

Fengmian had pulled her to him. His strong hands held her hips firmly. “You haven’t teased me since we first met. Perhaps we should try to give our children another sibling the old-fashioned way,” he crooned softly.

A blush rose on Yu Ziyuan’s cheeks. “Zhangfu?”

“My wife is a very beautiful woman. Always has been. I find myself unable to look away from the woman my wife has become.”

“Fengmian,” she whispered, her hand clutched in her husband’s robes. “I-”

With a soft smile, he took her other hand and kissed her knuckles. Slowly he turned them away from the children and led them back to her pavilion.

*****

The first time Yu Ziyuan had laid with her husband was on her wedding night. She’d been young. Just barely twenty. She hadn’t loved him. She had admired him, but night hunts were far more important to her than being married. So she had done her duty. No more, no less. As had

her husband. They had lain together as required and eventually Yan Li had come along. She had been so angry when her daughter had been a weak child that when they lay together again to beget another child she had almost been angry. Perhaps that would explain A’Cheng’s quick temper. However, after all these years she couldn’t ever remember Fengmian worshipping her as he was now.

He’d unrobed her gently. Kissed every patch of skin slowly and deliberately. She’d also never noticed just how strong her husband was. So she gasped and clutched him tightly when after he’d finished using his mouth, making her a quivering wreck he had lifted her by her hips. She wrapped her legs around his waist and groaned when his cock entered her ever so slowly. She shivered in his arms and wrapped herself bodily around him. Surrounding him as much as she physically could. Her skin craving his. Her body was one whole mass of sensation. Making everything more, every breath, every movement. She couldn’t decipher one touch from another. Everything was all and all was everything. She felt him move within her. She felt him move against her. She felt his body move against parts of her that made little explosions happen inside her. Until all those little ones built and built in pressure into one huge one that had her shaking apart and holding her breath. She clenched every muscle she could control and let others do as they wanted. Then she felt him tremble against her and slowly sink to his knees. She felt him pulse within her and heat flooding her. He was gasping and moaning softly against her throat. “Zhangfu, we have wasted a lot of time,” she said softly.

“We have a lifetime to make up for it, wife,” he whispered back.

She ran her fingers through his hair. “Yes, we do.”

Eventually, they cleaned off and crawled into bed, wrapped in each other, and fell asleep.

*****

Jiang Fengmian woke abruptly and bolted uptight in bed.

“You must leave?” Yu Ziyuan asked softly, her hand carding through his unbound hair.

He nodded slowly, still obviously not fully awake.

His wife sighed and got out of their bed, wrapping a soft robe around her to cover herself. “I shall miss you while you are gone. I’ve grown used to sleeping in your arms these past nights.” She kissed his jaw. “I’ll call the servants to make ready. A dozen disciples? Different ones than the ones which went with you before. They all enjoy traveling with their Sect Leader and having his attention. I’ll have the kitchens prepare some food for before you leave and some to take with you. Will you need anything else?”

He rubbed his hands over his face. “Ask the Apothecary to arrange medicinal herbs and such for first aid as we travel. We won’t need them for ourselves but there are plenty of mortals on the roads that could use them.”

“Very well,” she said as she made for the door. She turned back before she could open it and ran to him, throwing herself into his arms. She kissed him quickly and then ran off again. She heard him huff in surprise. “You didn’t behave like that when you were a girl. I feel cheated.” He yelled after her. She laughed like the girl she once had been as she made for the kitchens. “Jinzhu! Wake a dozen disciples to accompany my husband. They must be ready to leave when my husband is!” She didn’t bother to look around to see if she’d been obeyed. Jinzhu and Yinzhu never let her down.

*****

Jiang Fengmian and his dozen disciples were two days from home as the sword flew. They walked down the street in a town he didn’t care to know the name of discussing where they’d stop to eat. He heard a child yelling something about sweets at the same time as he heard a horse and carriage rushing down the street. He looked over. A child had run into the street, in the way of the carriage. The driver whipped his horse faster and Fengmian swept into action. He knew he wouldn’t be fast enough when the child ran toward the rushing carriage however instead of away from it. Then the child was on the ground. He was screaming and holding his hand.

Fengmian rushed to him, followed by some disciples while the others followed the speeding carriage. He gathered the boy into his arms. Crooning at him to help him calm. The boy was crying but even in his pain, he was furious. “He promised me, sweets. He promised me, sweets. He lied. He lied. He lied.”

“Hush child. Hush. Let me see your hand. Please let me see. Maybe I can help.” Fengmian told him.

“I’m hungry. Will you give me sweets?”

Fengmian smiled and nodded. “Yes. If you let me see your hand, I’ll give you sweets.”

Nodding, the boy extended his hand. Fengmian winced internally. The boy would lose his finger. No mortal could save a finger this badly damaged. Adjusting the child in his lap Fengmian placed him so the boy leaned his back along Fengmian’s chest. “Someone go and buy this child something sweet to eat,” he said distractedly as he fished in his voluminous sleeve for his medicinal pouch from the apothecary. A pouch each of his disciples now carried.

“Will he really get me sweets?” the boy turned around to ask.

Fengmian quickly wrapped his arm around the boy to stop him from moving. Then he felt something. He adjusted his hand to near the boy’s belly. There. There was, yes there it was. A tiny Golden Core. Undefined. Undeveloped. But there. “Oh, child. Yes, he’ll get you, sweets. But first, open your mouth and swallow the powder I’m going to sprinkle on your tongue, don’t argue with me. Just swallow it. Then the pill too. They won’t taste very good but they’ll keep you from losing your finger. Then I promise you’ll get plenty of sweets. Okay?”

The boy squished his face in thought. After a second he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. Acting quickly Fengmian sprinkled the herbs on it and watched the boy swallow. He made a face that Fengmian had to bite his mouth to keep from laughing at. Children were children everywhere. After a few more seconds the boy opened his mouth again and Fengmian popped the pill in and watched him swallow that too.

“The pill wasn’t bad, but the powder tasted like poison,” he declared with the certainty only a child has. “Where are my sweets?”

“Here Sect Master.”

Jiang Fengmian glanced at the bag being held out to him by one of his disciples and took it with a smile of thanks. “Here you are,” Fengmian opened the bag and removed the osmanthus cake inside. He handed it to the boy. “What’s your name?”

“Xue Yang,” he answered with his mouth full of cake.

“Well Xue Yang, where is your family?”

The boy shrugged and kept eating. Fengmian looked at the boy, obviously a street urchin. Similar to Wei Ying. Just a year or so older. “Are you alone?”

Xue Yang gave him the side-eye.

“I run a Sect of Cultivators. There are other children there too. You could come with me. If you want. We have healers and a very good apothecary. Your finger will be healed. You’ll not be hungry or cold again. You’ll be safe and trained as a Cultivator. Do you want to come with me?” Jiang Fengmian asked.

Xue Yang didn’t answer. He ate his cake in silence until the last crumb was gone. “Will there be more cake? More sweets?”

“Yes. Mainly Lotus cake and a spicy tanghulu, because we live at Lotus Cove, but yes there will be cakes and sweets.” Fengmian answered.

“I’ll come then.” Xue Yang said and stood from Fengmian’s lap.

Fengmian knelt and held his hand out for Xue Yang’s injured hand. With a sniff, the hand was placed into Fengmian’s. Gently Fengmian cleaned the wound with water from a water pouch he’d been handed, then he wrapped it, carefully placing the mangled finger in the correct position. “Well then. Let’s go home.” He said and lifted the small boy in his arms before taking out his sword and stepping on it.

“Why did you help me?” Xue Yang asked in a small voice.

“Because it was the right thing to do. Have others not helped you?”

Xue Yang shook his head then burrowed into Fengmian’s chest and wrapped his arms around Fengmian’s neck, holding on tightly. Fengmian felt the tears run down his neck and held the child tighter. Thank you Yu Ziyuan. Thank you for coming to me in a dream to change the future. This ugly world needs to change and the Jiang motto is to do the impossible. Well changing the world is supposed to be an impossibility. But maybe changing one life at a time was all it would take.

*****

Yu Ziyuan sighed and leaned back into her husband’s arms, enjoying the feel of his strong chest against her and his breath whispering past her ear as he held her close. She sniffed and wished she was still as angry with him as she had been. “Zhangfu,” she said with a sigh. “You have given me two wonderful children. You have brought me a child that only knows how to be loyal. You’ve brought me a child who only wishes to prove his worth and two women that are strong and resourceful. All of this I’ve known what to do with. But now? Now. now you’ve brought me a-a-. I’m sure Lan Qiren would call Xue Yang an unredeemable sociopath. I’m seriously wondering if he’s going to kill us all in our sleep one day.”

“Hmm. Likely.” Fengmian agreed.

She huffed out a chuckle and elbowed him roughly in the ribs. “You don’t have to agree with me.”

“Really?” His voice was ever so earnest. “Wasn’t that a part of our Marriage Negotiations? That you are always right?”

“Arrgg,” she mock growled and turned in his arms, claiming a fast kiss from his smiling lips. “His strong and resilient. Unlike Wei Ying, he has seen even more of man’s evil. Like Wei Ying, he is still a child. We shall do our best to give him what he needs. He has been here less than a week and already they are a strong team of five. His loyalty to Yan Li practically shines in his eyes. I feel sorry for Jin Zixuan. If we thought A’Xian and A’Cheng were going to be protective over her. Then adding A’Yao and A’Yang is like adding venomous serpents which can only be controlled by guard dogs. Oh well, if he can’t stand up to them and he can’t protect my daughter as will be his duty…” She pulled away from her husband and let her hand slide down his arm to twine her fingers with his. “Now, your letters of invitation were delivered days ago. The clans are responding quickly. I think some may worry that this is all a ploy for us to have hostages, even though that is not the Jiang Sect way. So I wrote an invitation of my own to invite a parent or guardian to come as well after the first few tentative responses. Is that something you find agreeable?”

He nodded his head. “I should have thought of that. Thank you wife for your forethought.”

“You husband are not devious. I would have been surprised if you had thought of it.”

“So I assume I have correspondence waiting for me?” he sighed and pouted.

She smiled at him and kissed his cheek. “Yes, you have correspondence waiting in your office. I am also overseeing the extra frames being built to accommodate the other children. So we both have work to do. Also, we’ll have to corral A’Yang so the Healer can check his hand. He was very happy with the progress. He almost has full movement already. The finger has been re-attached perfectly. In his old age, he will undoubtedly feel an ache, but for now, he has his full hand again. Although, I’m not sure the boy feels pain, not physical pain anyway. And a part of me shudders that before you received me in a dream and set us on this new path, I might have wished to test whether a street urchin felt pain at all.”

Fengmian squeezed her hand. “I am ever grateful for that dream Ziyuan. I think my happiness, our happiness, and the longevity of our Sect hinge upon your ability to ‘dream’”

CHAPTER 5

Yu Ziyuan bit her lips savagely. She wasn’t going to say anything. She wasn’t going to get involved. She would keep her mouth shut. “Did any of you fine, gentlemen, ever ask the Lady why she did it? Why she killed that man? I understand you hint at her illness for her seclusion in public, yet speculate about her evilness in private. But has anyone actually asked her why? No? Well, most female Cultivators rejoiced at that man’s demise, especially at the hands of a woman. Honestly, he was lucky she killed him quickly. I would have made him suffer and prolonged his death had he come after me the way most assume he went after her.” She ran her finger over Zidian and felt its anger. Interesting. Zidian was quiescent with the children yet angry with this.

“Madam Jiang,” Lan Qiren spoke with a slight condescension to his voice, even as he bowed to her.

He was a brilliant man, yet his attitude to any other than his Sect always set her teeth on edge. He looked older and older every time she saw him, older than his years

“You are speaking quietly of Madam Lan? Aren’t you?” she asked her husband softly as she bowed a greeting to the other men in the room.

Jin Guangshan gave a superior little grin while his gaze ran over her. She felt oily and decided to increase the hours Yan Li spent learning about poisons. Just in case. Her husband held out his hand to her and she gratefully let him lead her into his arms for a kiss on her cheek.

“Yes, Ziyuan. Lan Qiren was commenting that she seemed ill and the Lan Healers couldn’t help her.” He told her.

“Hmm,” she turned to face the rest of the room. A small thoughtful smile on her face, while her gaze sought out Yinzhu in unspoken command. Her bodyguard’s face never changed, but she quickly glided past the other men her shoulder brushing Lan Qiren’s robes before exiting the room. Leaving her sister there as a guard.

“You have thoughts, wife. Share them. Please.” Fengmian said the glared at any man who opened his mouth to object.

“As you wish, zhangfu. If Madam Lan is ill and not getting better, perhaps she does not have the will to get better. From everything we know from the Lan Sect, she lives alone. No woman wishes to be alone forever. I know you say it’s seclusion Lan Qiren, but we all know it is punishment. Punishment for protecting oneself is not punishment. It is torture. So that poor woman has been under torture for almost ten years.”

Lan Qiren drew himself up to object.

Fengmian spoke first. “You obviously know more than we do, please explain.”

Yu Ziyuan huffed and then started to pace. “The man she killed. The Lan Laoshi. All of you, men, idolized him as a perfect example of Cultivation. You loved him. However, women Cultivators avoided him. We were all warned not to ever be alone with him. Never make eye contact. And to protect our virtue around him. There are many mortal women, non Cultivators, I’m rather sure who never stood a chance against him. Honestly, it was a wonder he lived as long as he did. He did not understand that a woman has a right to say no. Her body was not for him to purge his lusts on. He was dangerous and he only lived as long as he did because no one wanted to curry the anger of the Lans of Gusu. Do you understand yet? Let me explain this further Lan Qiren, the Lans protected a viper, and we, all of us should be ashamed we let it go on for as long as it did. Not to mention that a woman who only protected herself has been made to suffer for it.”

She watched as Lan Qiren sank slowly to his knees as the impact of her words reached him. Her own husband was pale-faced. Other Sect Leaders in the room had hands covering their mouths or eyes. “Yes, I see you understand. That is good. Because if any man, Sect Leader, Cultivator, or mortal behaves this way and I find out about it… well let’s just say that Zidian demands justice. I swear this from this day forward.” She turned back to look at her husband. She bowed to him, spun on her heel, and left the room. Jinzhu was a step behind her.

Around the corner, they found Yinzhu, who handed Yu Ziyuan the Cloud Recesses entrance token she had slipped off Lan Qiren’s belt. “I assume we’re headed to The Cloud Recesses of Gusu?” Yinzhu drawled.

With a smirk, Yu Ziyuan drew her sword and stepped on it. “We are headed for a rescue. There are a husband and wife there that should talk, and Madame Lan needs to see something other than her four walls, otherwise those children will be motherless before the year is out. And fatherless not much after that.”

“How are we going to find her?” Jinzhu asked.

“We’ll fly over and look for houses away from the main settlement. There will be at least two. One further than the other. Sect Leader Lan will live closer to the main buildings. His wife should live further out. We’ll find her,” she grinned over her shoulder, showing the carefree young girl she had once been and was rapidly finding again now she’d released her anger. The three of them kept flying, occasionally giggling as they had so many years ago when they’d night hunt for the fun of it.

Gusu was hours by sword flight from Yunmeng. It was almost sunset as they flew over The Cloud Recesses. Yu Ziyuan felt the Wards open to them as they recognized the entrance token now tied to her belt. They didn’t land, they just kept flying using the advantage of height to see as much as they could. It was Jinzhu who eventually pointed out the tiny house surrounded by red gentian flowers. Yu Ziyuan nodded and they landed in the front garden. Yu Ziyuan knocked peremptorily on the door. She didn’t wait for it to be opened, she slid it open and stalked in. Lan Alix, Madame Lan knelt alone at her table, drinking alone from her bowl of soup. She looked ill and tired.

Yu Ziyuan tsked her tongue. She bowed and grinned at the other woman as she introduced herself. “Do you want to spend some time with your sons? On a Lotus Lake? At Lotus Cove?”

Madame Lan put her soup down carefully, her hands shaking. “I’m afraid my husband and his Sect would not allow this.”

Yu Ziyuan scoffed and snorted. “Your husband and Sect Elders can allow or not allow whatever they want. I am asking you if you would want to leave here and be a mother to your children.”

Lan Alix stood slowly and bowed, shakily. “Yes I would,” she answered.

“Good, then Jinzhu shall fly you back to Lotus Cove. We have a lot of Sect Leaders and their children there currently. Don’t worry. My husband shall protect you. You’ll never have to put up with this nonsense again. Go and fly safely. There is someone else I’ll need to see before I’m done here.” Without waiting Yu Ziyuan set off, stepped on her sword, and flew up, knowing Yinzhu would be right behind her and that Jinzhu had Madam Lan well in hand.

It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for, a small house just off the main buildings of The Cloud Recesses. It was surrounded by a walled garden that could only be reached through a narrow laneway, locked gates stood at the entry and exit of the laneway. Yes, she thought as she narrowed her eyes, that’s exactly where one could be in seclusion but still run a Sect. Still close enough to contact but locked away from everyone else. She scoffed at these men, hiding away from the world. She’d heard there was a bird somewhere that hid its head in the sand when it was afraid. The Lan Clan sounded as if they could be related to it. With a humph, she angled her sword down to land right before the front door. She was the Violet Spider, she was not about to negotiate locked gates and alleyways. Yinzhu landed quietly behind her.

Yu Ziyuan crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her head. “Qingheng-Jun!” she called. “Qingheng-Jun, the Violet Spider wants to see you. Now!” her voice was an order, and no one would mistake it for a request. She counted her breaths slowly as she waited. When her count reached 30 the door opened and a man near her age stepped out. He clasped both hands in front of himself and made a bow.

“Madam Yu,” he greeted her carefully.

She returned his bow gracefully. “Sect Leader Lan. And it’s Madam Jiang. We need to talk.”

He inclined his head and gestured for her to walk inside.

She sniffed once and entered the tiny house. A flick of her wrist had Yinzhu going to make tea while she and her host sat carefully at the table. “I won’t beat around the bush, Qingheng-Jun, I’ve already sent your wife with my servant to Lotus Pier. she looks ill and ready to pass beyond, she’s younger than I am. The Lan clan had a lot to answer for. You are no better. Hiding yourself away because of a lecherous teacher. It is high time you stopped feeling sorry for yourself and joined the rest of the world. It needs you. Your wife needs you and your sons sorely need you. Hell, even your younger brother needs you. Qiren is aging faster than his years. Raising your children. Dealing with greedy Elders, and don’t tell me they’re not greedy. Even if greed is against the Lan principles, your elders are human and humans have faults.”

“Madam I-” he stopped speaking when Yinzhu put a teacup in front of him, the tray set in the middle of the table, Ziyuan already held her teacup in hand.

“Did your wife ever tell you what happened that night?” Ziyuan asked him softly.

He nodded his head. “This is what I cannot forgive myself for Madam. I put her in that position. I made her do what she did. It was as if I handed her the sword and bade her to strike and kill.”

“You did no such thing,” Ziyuan scoffed. “Stop thinking the world revolves around you, Qingheng-Jun. Believe me, it took a child to show me it does not revolve around any of us. It revolves and we deal with the consequences. Yes, you sent a man you trusted and revered to her to arrange your meeting. Yes, you married her to protect her from your Clan. Ye,s you allowed her seclusion. These are your fault. However, it was that man’s choice to attack her. Something he had done many times in the past. It was her choice to protect herself, something no woman would ever begrudge her, something I would have done myself. He can be grateful she killed him quickly with her sword, I would have whipped him bloody with Zidian, removed every bit of skin from his body until he’d declared his evil in front of everyone and his dog. So yes, there are many faults here to lay at many feet. Yours, hers, his, the Elders included. Even the rest of the Cultivation world knew what a monster he was yet we allowed him to live anyway.

The time for faults and blaming is done. It’s time for you to step outside. To live. To make things up to your wife and children, to be a husband, father brother, and Sect Leader they deserve and can be proud of.” she finished her little speech and drank her tea, her eyes trained on the man before her.

Qingheng-Jun sighed. “The Eld-”

She set her cup on the table loudly, she was already sick and tired of this man. He was infuriating. “Is this the example you wish to set for your sons? To run and hide from their mistakes. To stop living after they make one because I can tell you, I have two sons and they make mistakes by the breath. They breathe, they make a mistake, they learn from it and don’t do it again. That is the way of life. To make mistakes and grow from them. This is not living.” She indicated the room around her. The small table they sat at. The small stove with its shelves in the corner. A desk filled with paperwork and a hard wooden chair behind it. “This is not living, Qingheng-Jun, it is barely existing. This will make your sons orphans before they are grown. Stop punishing them. Be their father. Be the husband you dreamed of being when you first met Alix. be the Sect Leader we all need before it is all too late.” Yu Ziyuan stood carefully and bowed once. “We shall await your decision outside.” within a few heartbeats she and Yinzhu were sitting outside on the steps.

“Do you think he’ll come?” Yinzhu asked softly.

“It depends on whether he can get his head out of his ass long enough to stop feeling sorry for himself and actually do his duty instead of what the Elders have been shoving down his throat for all these years. Did you see his sons? They could be walking ghosts. Only Wuxian can get any sort of reaction from the youngest one and A’Yao makes the older one trip. Even Lan children have more spirit than those two. I will not have any of my boys hurt because the Jades don’t understand emotion.”

“Jades?” A voice asked from behind them.

Looking over her shoulder Ziyuan saw Qingheng-Jun standing there, his clothes had been changed into something quite beautiful and refined. His hair was up and pinned with an ornate silver headpiece and in his hand, he carried his sword.

Ziyuan smirked and stood. “Your sons. They’ve been nicknamed the Twin Jades of Lan.”

His brow furrowed. “Why? They are not twins.”

Yinzhu snickered behind her hand. Ziyuan smacked her softly on the arm. “Just what I need, another man who thinks he’s a comedian. If you are ready? Shall we go?” She dropped her sword to float above the ground and stepped on it. She set off, leading them all back to her home and the people there.

*****

Lotus Pier was in sight when the first drops of drizzle started to fall. Yu Ziyuan scowled at the droplets and increased her speed. She had no wish to enter her home looking like a drowned rat. Still, they were all rather damp as she stepped off her sword and onto the dock outside the main hall. She laughed as her husband swept her into his arms, covering her with a soft blanket to keep the damp at bay.

“You are back,” he kissed her cheek in greeting. “I see you not only sent a guest but brought back another one.” He released her slowly to bow and greet his old friend.

Once the bows were over Qingheng-Jun opened his arms and stepped forward, hugging his old friend. “I believe your wife washed my brain and opened my eyes, swept the fog away so to speak.”

“My wife is ever practical. And has little patience for self-sacrifice. Your wife is in with our Master Healer and Master Apothecary. Your sons are with her. Come, I’ll show you the way.” He gestured the way and the two men walked off talking softly.

“Mission accomplished Madame?” Yinzhu asked quietly.

“Hmm, maybe. Get me a fresh robe and come to me in the infirmary.” Ziyuan walked after the two men. She wanted to see the reaction between husband and wife with her own eyes. She wouldn’t allow Lan Alix to suffer any longer.

She was only a few seconds behind them but as she entered the infirmary pavilion she saw her husband leaning against a doorway. She walked up to him quietly and looked over his shoulder. When his arm moved to wrap around her waist she leaned into him and settled her head against him. In the room, a family surrounded a woman laying on the bed. One hand wrapped in her husband’s and her other clutched in her sons. The four of them weeping openly. Ziyuan blinked back tears of her own. A glance at her husband showed tears on his cheeks. He looked down at her then glanced back into the room, a suspicious grin trying to lift his lips.

Ziyuan followed his gaze and bit her own lips to keep her face stoic. In a corner stood Lan Qiren. His gaze flew to everyone in the room. To his brother and sister-in-law with fondness on his face. To his young nephews with an unadulterated look of love. To Wei Ying, with suspicion.

Yu Ziyuan blinked and pinched her husband. “What is Wei Ying doing there? Go get him.”

“Second Young Master Lan will not allow A’Xian out of his sight,” Jiang Fengmian whispered and drew her away from the doorway and down the hall a few paces.

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“Just what I say.” Fengmian began. “Yan Li told me that at the meal today, A’Xian decided they needed to be best friends. The little Lan called A’Xian ridiculous and ignored him for all of four incense times, Yan Li thought. Even though he’d kept a close eye on everyone and everything. He apparently did that pretending to ignore everyone that A’Cheng used to do, just before he’d erupt and start yelling about breaking legs before A’Xian came to us? Remember that? Anyway then somehow A’Xian tripped on the frame and started to fall. Young Wanji flew from where he stood to catch Wei Ying before he hit the ground and then declared he’d only be safe in Wanji’s sight and that was that. He ripped off his forehead ribbon and tied their wrists together, and they’ve been that way ever since. Where one goes, both go. Young Xichen almost choked when he saw them bound. Lan Qiren looked like he would Qi deviate. He even started to try and pull the boys apart until Wanji stepped forcefully on his uncle’s foot and, glared at him. And that child can glare. He could glare the skin off your back if he wanted. Do you know what’s going on? The parents just smiled and patted them on the head. Qingheng-Jun even went as far as to say like father like son.”

Yu Ziyuan sighed and rubbed a hand over her cheek, remembering she was still damp and looking around her. Yinzhu stood behind her with a dry robe and a drying cloth over her arms. Jinzhu quickly helped their Lady change out of her damp robe and into the dry one even as Ziyuan dried her hands and face. She looked into her maids’ faces and saw them stifle grins. Yes, at least these two knew what was going on.

“Yinzhu, tea.” she motioned around her to encompass all of them including the family in the sickroom.

“Jinzhu, guard.” Then she steered her husband to her indoor Pavilion. “We’re all going to need tea, maybe even something stronger after this. Trust A’Xian to get married even before Yan Li does, and not even of age either.”

“What!”

CHAPTER 6

Jiang Fengmian drank the second cup of tea his wife had pushed on him in as many seconds. It was just hot enough to feel on his tongue, yet not hot enough to scald him. She still had to explain what she’d said. Yet she refused to until he’d drunk his tea. He looked into his cup suspiciously and wondered if it had calming properties. His cup was refilled for the third time and he sipped from it slowly, noticing his muscles releasing their tension. “A calming tea, wife?” He asked.

“Do you blame me? I don’t need you to qi deviate when we’ve got half the Cultivation world here on my doorstep. If you died I’d have to deal with them and I’m more likely to start a war with my sharp tongue.” Ziyuan told him as she sipped from her own tea.

Fengmian nodded his head once and raised his eyebrows. “Well now I’m calm, please enlighten me.”

Ziyuan looked at him and sighed. “How is it you’re great friends with Qingheng-Jun and yet you don’t understand the significance of the forehead ribbon?”

“It’s private to them. I never asked and he never divulged. Why? How do you know? I’d always heard its meaning was a secret, only divulged to the Lan Sect themselves.” Fengmian told her.

“Hmm. Well, perhaps Yinzhu, Jinzhu, and I only understand because a Sect Sister married into Gusu Lan many years ago. The beginning of their marriage ceremony is the binding of the wrists of the couple with the forehead ribbon. Three intricate knots, the ribbon wrapped twice around the wrist and a length of ribbon left hanging between them. The double wrap indicated the two people involved. The three knots are a promise of the three bows. The length of ribbon left, the understanding they’ll not hold the other captive, but even if one should roam away for a time they will still hold true. Very sweet really.” She set her cup down and refilled it after she refilled her husband’s.

“A’Xian will be like the proverbial cat set amongst the pigeons of Gusu. The very pretty white pigeons,” Fengmian said and started to chuckle.

Yu Ziyuan couldn’t help it, she joined in until they were both laughing uncontrollably.

“Do you think they’ll take it seriously?” Fengmian asked when he sobered, rubbing his chin with his hand.

Ziyuan shrugged. “I’m unsure. However, Wanji has ever been the serious child. We’ll have to speak with Master and Madame Lan, perhaps arrange a betrothal for once they are of age. Like Yan Li and Zixuan. Which reminds me, are the Jins here yet?”

Fengmian nodded. “They arrived while you were gone. Madame Jin seemed surprised at the Frames. JIn Guanshan barely noticed them. He seems to think this is an impromptu Conference. He’s being rather annoying already actually.” Fengmian finished his tea and poured himself another one. “There was a time I liked the man. These days I can barely stand to be in the same room with him. His attitude is quite insufferable. His roaming eyes are disgusting. If he weren’t the father of Yan Li’s intended I’m sure I’d just challenge him and beat him until I felt better about him.”

Ziyuan quickly swallowed her mouthful of tea before she spat it out in shock. “Zhangfu, I’ve never heard you speak like this. I thought I was the only one who wanted to beat that scoundrel to within an inch of his life.”

Fengmian sniffed but looked unrepentant. Then his gaze fell to Zidian and he grinned. “Wife,” he began sweetly, “have you given any further thought to introducing Zidian to Yan Li?”

The smile that creased Ziyuan’s lips was full of very sharp teeth. She delicately looked in her pouch and pulled out a beautiful silver and amethyst bracelet. “Yan Li’s core might not be strong enough for Zidian, even as it has grown stronger with the aid of our new Apothecary, I had the Weapons Master fashion something else for our daughter. And seeing as she loves to cook, and rings are an encumbrance while cooking, I had him make it into a bracelet. Should I give it to her now?”

Fengmian stood gracefully and extended his hand to his wife. “I believe there is time before dinner.”

*****

Wei Ying followed the sound of excitement. The servants had been practically scurrying. “Come on Lan Zhan. There is something happening in the practice field. Let’s go. Hurry.” He pulled at his friend’s hand to make him run but the other boy refused to run with him.

“There is no running in The Cloud Recesses,” Lan Zhan said.

Wei Ying screwed up his face. “Lan Zhan, this is Lotus Pier. We run everywhere in Lotus Pier.” He watched as his friend cocked his head to the side as if thinking, then with a short nod Lan Zhan tightened his hold on Wei Ying’s hand and they set off at a dead run.

Wei Ying pushed through the crowd to the front, then spotting his brother, he made his way to Jiang Cheng. “Didi, what’s happening?”

“Xian-Ge. Mother presented A’Li with a spiritual weapon. She said A’Li’s Golden Core was now strong enough to be able to support one. She’s teaching her how to use it now. Look.” He pointed to the field where his mother and sister stood. Each with a sparking whip in hand.

Wei Ying stuck a finger in his mouth to bite on, he was so nervous. He barely noticed Lan Zhan taking hold of his hand and holding it carefully away from his mouth. His attention was on the two on the practice field. The Purple Spider and her daughter. The purple of Zidian deep and bright. Yan Li held a similar whip, its color a light purple, closer to a pastel, yet just as bright and strong. She was copying her mother’s moves. Almost a mirror image. When Yu Ziyuan flicked her wrist Zidian’s tail whipped forward. Yan Li copied the movement and the tail of her own whip whipped fast and true, just as Zidian had.

Wei Ying went to grab his brother, then noticed both of his hands in Lan Zhan’s, with a shrug he started to bounce on his feet in excitement. “Jiejie must be so happy. We weren’t sure she’d ever be strong enough. But she is. She is. A’Cheng she is.”

Jiang Cheng grinned at him. “She’s going to be as scary as mother.”

Wei Ying giggled. “No one can be as scary as Aunty. But no one will be able to hurt our jiejie now,” he finished softly.

Jiang Cheng nodded at him and together they went back to watching.

“Look at that. Young A’Li. trying to be like her mother. I wonder how Fengmian allows this?”

Wei Ying stiffened and glanced around to find the speaker. Two Sect Leaders stood behind them. One dressed in gold, the other in red. He elbowed Lan Zhan. “Who are they?” he whispered.

Lan Zhan glanced behind them, his lip almost curled in distaste. “Sect Leader Jin and Sect Leader Wen,” he whispered.

“Jin? Madame Jin’s husband? The family A’Li is betrothed into?” He asked.

Lan Zhan nodded once.

“Technically, Sect Leader Jin is my father,” A’Yao’s voice whispered into Wei Ying’s ear.

Wei Ying whipped his head around to look at the boy who’d quickly become another brother to him. “I’m sorry.” Wei Ying told him seriously. “I don’t think he’s a very nice man.”

“He’d be a great man if someone stuck him like a pig,” A’Yang drawled from beside A’Yao.

“You always want to stick someone like a pig,” A’Cheng said, his voice just as quiet as the other boys. “But A’Li is doing wonderful, isn’t she?” He asked, his smile almost larger than his face.

“Shijie is the best,” A’Yao said brightly. Then he dropped his voice again. “And no A’Yang, you cannot stick a Sect Leader like a pig. Uncle Jiang would just have to apologize and then Aunty Yu would be upset.”

“Can I cut out his tongue then?” A’Yang almost pouted.

“Hmm, maybe. We’ll see if he gets any better by the time A’Li has to marry his son. If he’s still an ass, then you can cut out his tongue.” Jiang Cheng’s voice was definite.

“Good. I’ll wait.” A’Yang said with a grin.

“Oh dear,” said a quiet voice behind them.

Looking back, the Jiang boys and Lan Wanji saw some other boys, one in white, two in grey and black, and two in red. They all looked surprised.

“Are you really planning on cutting out, his, tongue?” The younger boy in grey and black asked.

“If he hurts jiejie, yes,” Wei Ying answered for them all.

“Jiang Yan Li,” began A’Yao, “is very important to all of us. She loves us all like her little brothers. She looks after us all, as a big sister should. Uncle and Aunty care for us, but A’Li is very special to us. There is little we wouldn’t do for her safety and happiness. But I’m afraid we haven’t all been introduced.” He indicated Jiang Cheng first as his station decreed, then went along until he introduced himself as Meng Yao, son of the Jiang Sect’s music teacher.

“Well, allow me as you all know who I am,” Lan Xichen began. “These are Nie Mingjue and Huaisang of Qinghe Nie, and these are Wen Xu and Wen Chow of the Qishan Wen.”

Everyone bowed politely. Wen Chow however strode off to meander about the crowd as soon as he was done.

“My didi doesn’t like to stand still,” Wen Xu said uncomfortably, his gaze darting around as if looking for something to distract him and them from Wen Chow’s bad manners. He stopped when he noticed the white ribbon about Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji’s wrists. “What’s that all about?” he asked, pointing.

“Oh, umm-” Lan Xichen began uncomfortably.

“I’ve decided Wei Ying and I will marry when we get older.” Lan Wangji spoke quietly, with as much dignity as his tiny body held. “So I have betrothed us. As is Lan tradition.”

Wen Xu blinked at them rapidly. “You’ve agreed to this?” he asked Wei Wuxian. “Your parents have?”

“Oh, well, my parents are dead. Uncle Jiang and Aunty Yu haven’t said no. And umm, yeah, I’m good with it. I knew Lan Zhan was special when we met.” Wei Wuxian answered.

“And when did you meet?” Nie Mingjue asked, a smile playing about his lips. He crossed his arms over his chest, puffing it out as only a teenager could.

Wei Wuxian bit his lip and thought hard. “We met forever ago, this morning, didn’t we Lan Zhan?”

“Mn,” the other boy answered with a tiny nod.

“Wait, wait,” Nie Huaisang was bouncing on his toes. “So you two met today and decided you were going to get married when you were older? Just like that? And no adult has said anything about it?”

“They cannot refuse,” said Lan Wangji, holding up their bound wrists to emphasize his point.

Nie Huaisang narrowed his eyes and fingered a ribbon from his own hair. With only a blink he ripped it out of his braid and pushed his brother back. A few seconds later he had his wrist tied to Wen Xu’s and was grinning up at the older boy. “There,” he said, very satisfied with himself.

Wen Xu just blinked at him in confusion, lifting his now bound wrist and looking at it.

“Huaisang!” Nie Mingjue yelled.

“What?” Nie Huaisang asked, bewildered, his tiny bottom lip jutting out and trembling. “Don’t yell at me Da-Ge. I haven’t done anything wrong. H-h-have I?”

Nie Mingjue sighed and knelt in front of his baby brother. “Didi, the ribbon thing is a part of the Lan traditions, not the Nie. Besides, you are too young to be making these rash decisions. The person you marry will have to be decided by our mothers and father. It’s not just something that you can decide right now. You are far too young. And no doubt Sect Leader Wen will decide who his sons will marry. Now take your ribbon back and we won’t say anything more about it.”

Nie Huaisang turned to Wen Xu and bit his trembling bottom lip. He sniffled as tears fell from his overly bright eyes. “I’m sorry Wen Xu. I didn’t think about it. Here, let me unknot the ribbon, so you won’t get into any trouble.” He held up his hands.

Wen Xu huffed and rolled his eyes, he knelt before the crying boy. He used a thumb to wipe away the tears, eventually putting a finger under his chin and lifting it gently. “Nie Huaisang. I’m flattered you would even consider me, but your brother is correct. My father will eventually decide whom I will marry. Wen Chow might get to make his own choice as the youngest, but even that would be debatable. So, if the ribbon is the Lan way, why don’t you tell me the Nie way?”

Nie Huaisang sniffed but smiled a little. His free hand rose to his own hair where his fingers twined around a braid. “We have Nie braids. We weave the betrothal braids into our intended’s hair, then we replace them with the Nie braids after we’re married.”

“Then why did you wrap a ribbon around our wrists, instead of braiding my hair?” Wen Xu asked, a little confused.

Nie Huaisang shrugged. “I really don’t know. Perhaps I didn’t think you’d let me close enough to braid your hair? I thought this would be easier.”

“What would be easier? Huaisang?”

They all jumped at hearing the older voice. Looking up Wei Wuxian noticed Jiang Fengmian and all the other Sect Leaders had joined Sect Leaders Jin and Wen. Even Lan Zhan’s father was there. The man in black and grey was looking at Nie Huaisang, and Sect Leader Wen was watching Wen Xu, his gaze going from boy to ribbon and back.

“A’Die, umm. Da-Ge?” Huaisang turned to his brother, then for some reason ran to hide behind Wen Xu.

Wei Wuxian tried very hard to stifle a laugh but just ended up sounding like he was choking.

“A’Ying, perhaps you can explain,” Jiang Fengmian said indulgently.

Wei Ying sighed then looked at the other boys, after receiving shrugs he finally nodded. “Perhaps, I can try. But it’s a really long story. So. Umm. right, well Nie Huaisang saw the ribbon on Lan Zhan and me and got this idea, after Lan Zhan explained what it means. Then he tied himself and Wen Xu together. Nie Mingjue and Wen Xu were explaining that’s not how it works for their clans, that their fathers will choose who they marry. Which I’m not sure is fair, but anyway. Nie Huaisang was just about to take the ribbon off when you all got here. Hmm, maybe it wasn’t such a long story.”

Sect Leader Nie sighed and turned to Sect Leader Wen. “Wen Ruohan, allow me to apologize for my youngest’s behavior. No disrespect was meant.” He said with a bow.

Wen Ruohan narrowed his eyes, but only nodded, making a small bow to acknowledge the apology. Then he turned to look at his oldest. “A’Xu, you have done nothing about this?”

“If he’d done that to me, I would have slapped him. How disrespectful. How dare he even think himself worthy of marrying a Wen. Stupid ugly child.” Everyone turned to look at Wen Chow as he spat the words.

No one spoke until Wen Xu stepped towards his brother, pulling a still bound Nie Huaisang behind him and before anyone could say a word, Wen Xu had slapped his younger brother so hard the boy fell to the ground. “You will not be so disrespectful to others A’Chow. You will learn manners and respect, even if I have to beat them into you myself. You will not treat A’Sang in this way. Ever. If I would be so lucky as to be chosen as his intended I would consider myself to be blessed. Because he is sweet and innocent and more than worthy of my protection and even devotion. I have known him for only a matter of hours and I already know he has a sweet disposition and temperament. He’s not malicious and jealous. And if father would allow, I’d be honored to be betrothed to him. Now apologize and after that be silent.”

Wen Chow stood carefully, his gaze spitting venom. He turned to their father. “Father. Are you going to allow A’Xu to treat me this way? Father! Punish him!”

“A’Chow. You have shown disrespect to the Sect Heir. He is well within his rights to discipline you. Especially since you have also disrespected his current intended. Whether we Wen’s use the ribbon to affiance ourselves or not is irrelevant. It is a well known method, a hand fasting of a sort. So currently Nie Huaisang and your elder brother are betrothed. You will show them the respect their positions are due. You will apologize, then you will stand silently until A’Xu gives you leave to speak again.” Wen Ruohan’s voice was icy quiet.

Wei Wuxian shivered and felt his hand get tugged until he stood a step behind Lan Zhan. the other boy had stepped between him and what felt like danger. Wei Wuxian leaned into the other boy’s back and enjoyed the feeling of being protected. He watched Wen Chow visibly fight with himself and bow grudgingly to his brother and Nie Huaisang before going to stand a few steps away from everyone. His lips were pursed tightly together and his gaze kept darting between everyone.

“And I thought I was murderous,” Xue Yang whispered into Wei Wuxian’s ear.

“You are,” Wei Wuxian whispered back. “But you always have a reason for wanting to stab someone. Usually anyway,” he added with a shrug.

“Oh yeah, I’ve always got a reason.” Xue Yang said. “Not always a good enough one though according to A’Yao. But him, he wants us all dead because he thinks he’s better than everyone. I’m pretty sure Wen Xu has a target on his back. I think someone should keep an eye on him while he’s here.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan nodded.

“A’Yang?” A’Yao began softly.

“What?” The other boy asked.

“I’m not sure, but, is something strange about Sect Leader Wen? I don’t know, but something feels dark about him.” A’Yao looked worried.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to talk about my father in front of me?” Wen Xu asked with a wry twist to his lips.

“Would you rather we asked really inappropriate stuff about your dad behind your back?” Xue Yang asked him.

Wen Xu snorted. “You’re all very strange.”

“Of coarse we are,” Xue Yang grinned. “A’Xian and I are from the streets. And A’Yao started life in a brothel. The only normal ones are A’Cheng and A’Li. And I think we’ve sort of corrupted them too, at least a little by now. So, spill about your old man.”

Wen Xu blinked for several seconds then shook his head when Nie Huaisang tugged on his arm. “Umm, father has been looking for something. He recently found a piece of it, but while he was getting it some cousins were hurt. Now we have their children living with us. A’Qing and A’Ning are fine, quiet. But A’Ning got hurt too. I think father is worried about it all. I heard him say he’s not sure if the pursuit, of whatever it is, is worth it. But then he changed his mind and said everything was worth it. So I’m not sure, I’m confused about a lot of things. Including how he’s reacting to the ribbon binding.”

“Hmm, I think I’d better get my baby brother to undo his knots on the ribbon. He’s very good at tying knots no one can undo. A’Sang, please.” Nie Mingjue pointed at the ribbon and raised his brow to his brother.

Nie Huaisang took a deep breath and started to poke at the knots. He had one undone and was working slowly on the others in short order.

“A’Sang, wait.” His father called to him.

Nie Huaisang stopped and looked at his father.

“Sect Leader Wen and I have spoken. We’ve decided to let this betrothal remain for now. After all, both Jin Sect and Yu Sect believe in early betrothals. The Nie have not been a part of this tradition as of yet. So we might as well try and see how it goes. If as you both grow older the idea is distasteful to you then we’ll break it off without rancor nor penalty.” Sect Leader Nie looked to Sect Leader Wen to receive his nod before turning back to his youngest. “However, yes, you’ll need to remove the ribbon, then your brother and I will help you place the Nie braids into Wen Xu’s hair.”

“Fengmian, zhangfu. What have you done now?” Madame Yu and Yan Li had come up to them while they were distracted.

“I have done nothing wife. I believe young Lan Wangji has started a trend.” Jiang Fengmian said. He gave his wife a hug and kissed her cheek then hugged his daughter so tight she squealed and giggled.

“Stop all of this sentimentality husband and explain yourself.” Yu Ziyuan demanded even as Zidian sparked softly.

“Well, since second young master Lan has betrothed himself and Wei Ying, without consequence, second young master Nie has done the same to first young master Wen. their fathers have decided to let the betrothal stand for now.“ Fengmian explained.

“Hm. Well, as you know the Yu Sect has a long tradition of arranged marriages, so I see no problem there. However, it is rather unorthodox to allow the children to make this decision for themselves. Especially at this age. However. We are stepping into an interesting age and our children are showing themselves to be strong and capable. I look forward to what shall happen in the future. Now come A’Li, we must change for dinner. Fengmian, I expect everyone in the dining pavilion at the appropriate time.” Then she swept away from them as if they didn’t exist, with Yan Li a step behind her and Yinzhu and Jinzhu bringing up the rear.

“Hmph,” Jiang Cheng grumbled. Getting everyone’s attention. “With all of this going on,” he waved a hand at their whole group. “I got distracted and we forgot to watch the rest of A’Li’s training.”

Wei Wuxian giggled and threw his free arm over his brother’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it A’Cheng. I’m sure A’Li will be able to kick our buts with her new spiritual weapon soon enough. Then we’ll be able to watch her train from very close.”

“You think?” A’Cheng sounded very excited by the whole idea.

“Aha,” Wei Wuxian agreed, just as excited. He saw the strange looks the other boys exchanged. After all, they were happy about the possibility of being beaten by their sister, but only they and to a lesser extent, A’Yao and A’Yang understood just how important and wonderful it was that A’Li could fight for herself now. Their sister had always been strong, her heart and soul the strongest of all of them. But now her body and golden core no longer betrayed her. Now they were just as strong, and it was wonderful. Wei Ying thanked the gods every day that Uncle Jiang had found A’Yao and his mother, and with them had come that Apothecary. Between his knowledge and the Healers at Lotus Pier, they had worked miracles.

His gaze slid to A’Yao. His sect brother worked hard to strengthen his golden core and took the same medicines and herbs that A’Li did. He could see the happiness in A’Yao’s eyes because now that A’Li had received her spiritual weapon from Aunty Yu, he knew he had a good chance of receiving his own sometime. Wei Ying hoped all the boys would receive theirs together, at least their swords. It would bring them another step closer to being sword brothers as well as Sect brothers.

He looked down at the ribbon around his wrist and tugged until he had Lan Zhan’s attention. The other boy raised his eyebrows at him in inquiry. “Thank You, Lan Zhan. For everything.”

“There is no need for thank you’s between us, Wei Ying. and I have done nothing.” Lan Zhan said softly.

Wei Wuxian shrugged, he knew technically Lan Zhan had had nothing to do with the majority of these events, but they had mainly happened after the Lan’s arrival. “It feels like you’ve done everything. It feels like the minute you set foot on Lotus Pier, everything changed. And you have barely started your stay. I wonder what the remaining days will bring?”

Lan Zhan didn’t have anything to say to that, so he gave a tiny smile and held Wei Ying’s hand a little tighter. “Mn, we shall see.” He said eventually.

CHAPTER 7

“Wei Wuxian, do you have the invitations?” Jiang Cheng asked. The Jiang contingent was at the entrance of the Cloud Recesses, waiting to be granted entry to this year’s set lectures there. The Lan guards in front of them looked stern and imperious. Jiang Cheng looked irritated and tired. The trip had been long and annoying and now they had to wait while Wei Wuxian patted himself down as he looked for an invitation scroll.

“I, I, I can’t find it,” Wei Wuxian said, looking confused. A tiny chuckle from behind had him relaxing and grinning as he looked over his shoulder. “Probably because A’Yao has it. Sorry, I forgot. What took you so long A’Yao? You were right behind me.”

A’Yao motioned his head for Wei Wuxian to look to the side with a small grin.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed and ran for the young man in white, who stood next to his older brother, Lan Xichen.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said softly and clasped Wei Wuxian’s outstretched hands. “Why is the Jiang Sect waiting outside the entrance?”

“Oh, we were looking for our invitation. I forgot A’Yao had it.” Wei Wuxian answered, even as he leaned his head on Lan Wangji’s shoulder, sighing when Lan Wangji’s arm wrapped around his waist.

“Since when has my betrothed ever had to wait to be admitted to my home? I was granted an entrance token for him for that very reason, was I not?” The second young master of Gusu asked his gaze on the entrance guards. His voice was soft, yet as hard and sharp as his sword, his face as impassive as the jade he and his brother were thought to represent.

The guards almost fell over themselves in their hurry to apologize for the misdemeanor. “We are sorry Second young master. We were given orders by Lan Qiren. He told us no one was to enter without the invitation. We were following his orders.”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said softly, his hand resting on Lan Wangji’s sword arm. “These disciples are still new to the Cloud Recesses. They have only been members of our Sect for a few months. They have never met your betrothed and did not know who he was, nor the import of the Jiang Sect to us. Be calm brother, it is not a mistake they shall make again.”

“Yeah, Lan Zhan, the last time we saw each other was when you visited me at Lotus Pier. The only members of your Sect that would know me on sight would be your family and a few of the elders. Your Uncle almost has a coronary whenever I visit because I’m too loud, that’s why you usually come to see me, so I haven’t been here in months. Don’t get so upset, they didn’t mean anything by it. It’s all good, all good,” Wei Wuxian tried to reassure his betrothed because while an angry Lan Zhan was fun to tease, a happy Lan Zhan shared kisses, and Wei Wuxian wanted kisses. What teen-aged boy didn’t want kisses. All the kisses.

“Mn,” was all Lan Wangji said before taking Wei Wuxian’s hand in his and leading the way into his home.

“Please, the Lan Sect welcomes the Jiang Sect into The Cloud Recesses, for the lectures. If you’ll follow me I can direct you to where you will be staying for the next few months.” Lan Xichen’s voice was smooth and welcoming, a smile on his face and a smile in his voice. Wei Wuxian stretched his hearing, just listening and waiting. “It is very good to see you Jiang Eryu. Did you have a pleasant journey?” Yes, Lan Xichen always had a soft word to say to A’Yao.

“Your brother just called A’Yao by his courtesy name,” Wei Wuxian whispered to Lan Zhan.

“Mn. As is proper,” Lan Zhan replied quietly.

“But he’s known A’Yao for years. Why call him Jiang Eryu now?”

“Because my brother is trying to be proper. Your brother is not our brother and should be treated with courtesy and respect. There are many at these lectures who would not show respect. Brother wishes to make things easier for your Sect brother.”

Wei Wuxian bit his finger thoughtfully. “Am I going to have to hurt someone because they’re stupid?”

“One should not be punished for stupidity. However, there is no excuse for willful ignorance. If one does not learn a lesson well or refuses to do so, then, perhaps they should be shown to the back hills and re-educated.” Lan Zhan said carefully.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian crooned. “Do you know how much I love you?”

“Mn. I believe I do, but you can demonstrate later on.” The smile may not have been on Lan Wangji’s face, but Wei Wuxian heard it in his voice nonetheless. “However, while most here will address you by your courtesy name of Wei Wuxian, as is right and proper, I shall with your permission continue to call you Wei Ying.

“I’m always your Wei Ying,” Wei Wuxian told his betrothed sweetly.

“If you two don’t shut up, I’m going to throw up,” Jiang Cheng muttered from behind them.

The scandalized look Lan Wangji sent him over his shoulder was enough to send Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng into peals of laughter that slowed them down because one had to be able to see if one was to follow a path, and tears in one’s eyes made seeing rather difficult. Soon Lan Xichen and Jiang Eryu, known to Wei Wuxian and most everyone else as A’Yao, overtook them and started to lead the way into the Cloud Recesses courtyard. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji followed after everyone else.

*****

“That’s my bed, yours is the other one.” Jiang Cheng ordered with a smirk. He’d taken the bed closer to the door, meaning that if Wei Wuxian wanted to sneak out in the middle of the night, he’d have to go past Jiang Cheng.

Wei Wuxian cocked an eyebrow, accepting the challenge, and grinned when his brother started laughing.

“Well whatever you do, don’t let him get you pregnant. Shijie has to get married first. Once the peacock figures out how to string two words together without tripping over himself that is. Then you can marry your Lan Zhan.” Jiang Cheng told him eventually. “I sometimes miss the days when the peacock dismissed A’Li as being too weak for him. Then she had to show she could hold her own against his father in training that one time and it was heart eyes from then on. Almost as bad as you and your jade statue.”

“A’Cheng! How can you say that?” Wei Wuxian gave a mock wail.

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “We all know the little peacock can’t put a sentence together around shijie. In the beginning he never even looked at her, nowadays he can’t stop looking at her. That Jin is besotted. Good thing too. I’d run to let A’Yang loose on him otherwise. Speaking of, I should go check on A’ Yao and A’Yang next door. Make sure they’re well settled.” Jiang Cheng made for the doors when a pillow hit him in the back.

“What the?” he demanded.

“You-You-you s-said Lan Zhan could get me pregnant. What the hell A’Cheng?” Wei Wuxian looked scarlet.

Jiang Cheng smiled softly. “I know you guys haven’t done anything yet, but it’s okay if you do. Just make sure you’re both ready for it and want it. No pressure, no rush. And I’m pretty sure you can’t get pregnant, but, he is a Lan, and they do have interesting

abilities. Not to mention that you’re the epitome of the Jiang Sect motto and always strive for the impossible. If any couple can do it, you two can.” Then Jiang Cheng was grinning his way out of the room and Wei Wuxian was left alone to think over what he’d been told. He went over to a chest by the wall and knelt before it. Then he banged his head on it a few times so he could get the images of himself and Lan Zhan, nude and entwined around each other out of his head before he could even start his unpacking and settling in for the long months of lectures to come.

The sun was setting, the sky a beautiful blazing orange and multiple pinks later that evening while they headed to the dining hall for the dinner Wei Wuxian was not looking forward to. They had spent a lot of time at Cloud Recesses over the years, since his betrothal to Lan Wangji, yet he’d never gotten used to the bland nature of their food, nor the utter vegetarianism, so dinner was not something to look forward to. His gaze was flitting here and there when he noticed Jiang Yanli looked tense. So did the majority of his Sect. he turned his attention to what was happening around him and quickly started to understand the whispers.

“The bastard son-”

“He has a face-”

“He should not be here-”

“How dare he-”

None of it was a surprise to him. He’d heard varying forms of it for years. He stepped a little faster and caught up with A’Yao, quickly slipping an arm through his elbow. He sent his Martial brother a grin which widened as A’Yang mirrored him on the other side of A’Yao. “So, A’Yang, who do you think they’re talking about?”

A’Yang gave a feral grin and shrugged. “Oh A’Xian, it could be so many people. The strange part is that gossiping is forbidden among the Lans of Gusu, no? Isn’t there a rule or something about it?”

“Hm, yes there is, but after so many rules. Perhaps they’ve forgotten. And maybe we’re wrong and it’s not the Lans that are talking like petty little fishwives.” Wei Wuxian said thoughtfully.

“True, true.” A’Yang conceded. “Still it begs to wonder who they’re talking about. It could be me. Not really sure who my parents are. Long dead as far as I know.”

“Yes, could be.” Wei Wuxian said. “Of coarse, it could be me. After all, there were so many rumors about me too. Groundless of coarse, I was born long after mother and father left Lotus Pier.”

“Could be me, young master Wei. After all, everyone knows who my father is.” Su Choo said from behind them.

“Could be I am the topic of discussion, no half brother?” Minn Guo threw in. “Perhaps they’ll stop talking after we leave for home in the morning with your other honor guard.”

“Yes, yes. So many Jiang disciples to insult. And so little time to run away if we decided to take offence.” Jiang Cheng’s voice held the sharp bite of a whip and his smirk was deliciously hungry. He stroked the ring on his finger, a delicate chain attached it to the bracelet on his wrist and the entire piece sparked a bright vicious blue.

A gentle little laugh came from Jiang Yanli who looked as innocent in her white student’s robe as the freshly fallen snow, yet the light purple sparks around her hand made that innocence sound deadly.

“Well, this isn’t boring at all,” A’Yang said around a sharp-toothed grin. “I think I’m going to enjoy this lecture thing after all.”

They walked with wicked little grins into the dining hall with Jiang Cheng in the lead, they looked forward, heads high and a cloud of deadly intent surrounding them.

“Oh, dear. Who pissed off Jiang Wanyin?” The voice was to the side of them. Nie Huaisang waved at them and offered his table.

“Some ignorant people that wouldn’t even make a decent fierce corpse. When did you get here?” Jiang Cheng led everyone over to Nie Huaisang’s table and plopped down in a seat.

Nie Huaisang raised a delicate eyebrow as they joined him. “Well, it seems you have made quite the impression, Jiang Wanyin. Anyone I should keep a lookout for?”

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “Just all the closed-minded and deliberately blind people. Now stop calling me Wanyin. I’ve known you forever. Call me A’Cheng so I don’t feel weird calling you A’Sang.”

Nie Huaisang chuckled and unfurled his fan, bringing it to flutter over his face before he snapped it closed again. “Fine, but I wanted to show respect. The ceremony where you were given your Courtesy names by Master and Madame Jiang was quite lovely and I wanted to make sure the Nie Sect appreciated the invitation. And now that I know all your courtesy names,” he started to look in his dimensional sleeves before pulling out some slim boxes. After a quick look at each one, he handed them out. “They’re fans. I made them and painted them for your Courtesy Name celebration. You may now be humbled by my talent.” He finished with a flourish and a narrowing of his eyes.

Wei Wuxian gave a chuckle and an exaggerated bow. Then he opened his box and took out his fan. He gasped in delight and looked back up at Nie Huaisang. He drew out the delicate-looking fan. Unfurling it proved it was as beautiful as he’d thought it was. The fan itself was delicate silk. The ribs appeared thin bamboo. The painting was of delicate clouds floating above a lotus pond. The reflection of the clouds in the pond almost gently hugging each lotus flower. The symbolism was warming to Wei Wuxian’s heart. He looked closer at Nie Huaisang’s fan as he used it to fan himself gently. Also silk with a delicate painting, this one of a sun shining on a seated ox in a lush field. Wei Wuxian started to sense a theme here.

He looked at the other fans around the table. Jiang Yanli’s had a painting of peonies and lotus circling each other, petals touching at times or entwining. Jiang Cheng’s had a lotus pond in full bloom, A’Yao’s had a bouquet of lotus, dropping their seeds into a pond and A’Yang’s had lotus petals flying free on the wind, with a lotus pond in the distance.

Wei Wuxian grinned softly. It seemed Nie Huaisang knew his friends well. The betrothed couples had fans symbolizing their forthcoming unions. The others showed their inner hearts. A’Cheng, Jiang Cheng would be the next Sect Leader of Lotus Pier, thus the Sect would bloom in his hands. A’Yao wanted to set roots down, to belong, so his lotus bouquet was planting seeds. And A’Yang would ever be the free spirit, yet even as he’d wander he had a home to always come back to. Home and family. Wei Wuxian inclined his head at Nie Huaisang and carefully placed his fan back into its case. “It’s beautiful A’Sang. Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said.

Nie Huaisang beamed at him and after a few more flutters of his fan, he put it away into his sleeve. Then he clapped his hands. “Our meal is coming.”

Quickly fans and cases were slipped into sleeves and things removed off the table as Lan Sect members brought trays of food to them. After a look at the offerings, everyone grabbed some rice and various other bowls to share and set to eating. Wei Wuxian knew the rules about not speaking while eating so he wasn’t surprised at the quiet. Yet the silence coming from so many people in one dining hall was unsettling, to say the least. So when the derisive comment came everyone heard it.

“Son of a prostitute.” The statement might not have been meant to be so loud. But in the quiet hall, it was deafening. And everyone turned to look. The young Jin disciple wasn’t even looking up from his meal, yet everyone knew it was him. Mainly because everyone at his table was staring at him. He didn’t expect the sharp slap on the back of his head that was delivered by Jin Zixuan.

Then Jin Zixuan stood and bowed to everyone. “Please excuse my cousin for his behavior. He shall mind his mouth and manners from this time forward, or he’ll answer to me. Now he’ll also apologize to my brother for his comments.” Jin Zixuan looked pointedly at the young man beside him who was still rubbing his head.

“Why? Why should I apologize for speaking the truth?” He demanded. His voice was a little hurt and a lot confused.

Jin Zixuan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Zixun-”

A clearing throat took their attention. A Lan disciple was standing self consciously. “Excuse my impertinence. My name is Lan Su She, courtesy name Su Min Shan. I have often had to apologize for many things in this hall. Perhaps I could take this Jin disciple outside and I can explain to him was has occurred. After all, there is no harm in being uninformed, only in remaining so.” The young man looked to the head table where Lan Qiren and the elders all sat, as did Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji. Lan Qiren finally nodded and Su She walked to the Jin table. Carefully he helped a very confused Jin Zixun from his place, then from the hall.

Jin Zixuan again bowed in apology, then sat and resumed eating his meal along with the other members of his sect. Eventually, everyone returned to their own meals. Wei Wuxian snuck glances at his family. Everyone seemed rather tense, but there wasn’t much he could do about that right now, so he just kept eating, imagining his steamed vegetables swimming in chili sauce. Perhaps tomorrow they could go to Caiye town and he could buy some chili oil from there. Why hadn’t he thought to bring one from home? He caught movement from beside him, he smelt sandalwood. “Lan Zhan,” he breathed softly enough to not be heard. Looking to his left he found his betrothed holding out a small stopper jug to him.

“For Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispered, then he turned and left as soon as Wei Wuxian had taken the jug. Wei Wuxian watched him go back to his own table. He noticed the narrowed eyes of Lan Qiren and the small grin on Lan Xichen’s face. Blinking confused, Wei Wuxian looked at the small jug. He carefully took out the cork and sniffed at it. Then he smiled widely and poured a little of the contents into his meal. The red was brilliant. Wei Wuxian was almost sure it could be seen in the dark, it was so bright. The chili fumes were so strong his eyes began to water if he got too close. A few drops would be sufficient to appease his palette. Before he could protest the jug was taken from him and was shared up and down the table. As everyone from Yunmeng had a taste for spicy foods. It finally made its way back to him. It was still rather full, thankfully, so he stoppered it quickly and then hid it away in his own sleeves. The chili oil was for him from Lan Zhan after all. Dinner was quite palatable after that.

CHAPTER 8

“I wonder what happened to Jin Zixun?” Jiang Cheng mused aloud while he and the rest of the Jiang Clan walked around the grounds of Cloud Recesses before the nighttime curfew. “I wonder if he ever got to finish his dinner?”

“I believe Su She took him for a walk and a discussion,” Lan Xichen answered as he and Lan Wangji came over to join them.

“Pepepe, stop that. We’re practically family. Stop bowing and greeting all the time. It just annoys me. Bow and greet strangers, or people you don’t like. Not family.” Jiang Cheng slapped at Lan Xichen’s arms as he made to bow and formally greet everyone.

Lan Xichen smiled and nodded in appreciation. “Forgive me if I regress occasionally. Our lives here are rather structured and a certain formality is expected. However, even Nie Mingjue gets annoyed at me. How is everyone this evening?”

“Fine, fine. And thanks to Lan Wangji’s chili oil, we’re not even hungry.” A’Yang smirked then ducked the slap heading at the back of his head from Wei Wuxian.

“Lan Zhan, they took your gift from me. Can you see how mean they were?” Wei Wuxian pouted then took the arm Lan Zhan offered him.

“I will purchase more spice oil for Wei Ying while he is here. There shall always be enough chili and spice for Wei Ying. I shall ensure it.” Lan Wangji swore solemnly.

“Where did you get the idea for the chili oil, Lan Wangji?” Jiang Yanli asked softly.

“From Madame Yu. She said it would be easier for Wei Ying to be happy and content here if he had spice in his meals. So I purchased what she recommended. A happy and content Wei Ying will not be distracted and will enjoy his time here far more. She also suggested that my uncle will have less chance of a Qi deviation if Wei Ying was less of a distraction.” Lan Wangji told them even as his arm pulled Wei Wuxian into his side.

Xue Yang started to giggle. “Trust Aunty Yu to know how to keep A’Xian in check.”

“Hey!” Wei Wuxian said loudly, even as he tried to kick out at his martial brother and hit him on the ass. “I’m not that bad.”

“Wei Ying is not bad. However, he does enjoy burning his mouth with fire.” Lan Wangji told him seriously.

“Please just shut up.” Jiang Cheng told them. “Before I throw up. You two are so sweet watching you is like eating sugar. Bowls of sugar.”

“What did we say?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“What did we do?” Lan Wangji followed as he looked at his brother.

Lan Xichen smiled softly. “You did nothing untoward Wangji. The affection you two have for each other is rather obvious. It practically shines from the both of you, especially when you are together.”

“A’Cheng doesn’t mean anything by what he said.” Jiang Yanli spoke up softly. “He finds emotion hard to express. It is his way. However, A’Cheng, perhaps you need to moderate your tongue, especially as you are Sect Heir, and will be Sect Leader eventually.”

Jiang Cheng huffed and screwed up his mouth, then stuffed his hands into his sleeves and stormed off.

Wei Wuxian quickly kissed Lan Wangji’s cheek. “I’ll catch up with you.” He said as he set off after Jiang Cheng. He caught up with him before the next corner and tackled him to the ground. With a laugh, he pinned Jiang Cheng’s arms to his sides, then sat on the Sect Heir like he was a sack of potatoes.

“Get off me,” Jiang Cheng growled as he struggled.

“No. Not until you tell your Xian gege what’s got you like this suddenly. You haven’t been this grumpy in forever. Even at home. But you’ve been grumpy and angry since we got here. What’s going on?” Wei Wuxian wanted to know.

Jiang Cheng struggled a little longer then he sagged into the ground and shrugged. He looked to the side and bit his bottom lip. Wei Wuxian got off him and helped pull the other young man to his feet. “What’s going on A’Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng sniffed, then sniffed again and a tear rolled out of his eye. “Got something in my eye now, thanks for that.” He said brusquely even as he used a corner of his sleeve to wipe at his face.

“Aha,” Wei Wuxian answered noncommittally. “Spill.”

Jiang Cheng growled softly in frustration then spoke. “It’s too many happy couples. Shijie and her peacock. You and Lan Wangji. Wen Xu isn’t here, but, you know how he spoils Nie Huaisang any time he can. Then there are the heart eyes Lan Xichen and A’Yao make at each other. When the honor escort leaves us, then you’re all going to be coupled up and I won’t be. I’m not upset or jealous about it, just, well, what’s wrong with me? You know mother had the astrologer look into my future, and they just said there was no one out there for me. No one. That is so stupid and depressing.”

Wei Wuxian threw his arm over his didi’s shoulder and hugged him close. “You will never be alone. Ever. Got it? Even if we are betrothed it doesn’t mean we don’t want you around. And really, what does the astrologer know? Besides all they can read is what has happened in the stars, not what will. That probably just means that your person hasn’t been born yet, that’s all. How long ago did the reading happen?”

Jiang Cheng sniffed.” Last year. She had all of us done.”

“Well, that means the reading is out of date. What did Aunty say?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“She didn’t say anything. Just called the man an idiot and threw him out. Then she threw out the reading scroll. I grabbed it and took it away. I wanted to read it later, but my reading was first, so I read that and then I couldn’t read any further.” Jiang Cheng admitted.

“Do you still have it?” Wei Wuxian asked.

Jiang Cheng nodded. “I brought it with me. I didn’t want one of the servants finding it and giving it to mother. You know how she can get about some things.”

“Hm, especially when she thinks someone is too stupid to keep breathing, and if she thought this man was a fake, then she really wouldn’t want you to read what he thinks.” Wei Wuxian said, rubbing his hands together. “Okay, let’s grab everyone and go read this thing.”

“What? No A’Xian, that’s embarrassing.” Jiang Cheng squealed, grabbing hold of his older brother’s arm.

“A’Cheng. Please remember that Lan Xichen is training as an astrologer too. He can read this man’s findings and tell you if he’s right or not. So come on,” Wei Wuxian pulled Jiang Cheng after him as he went to find the rest of their party.

*****

“So what do you think?” Wei Wuxian asked Lan Xichen after the other man had read the scroll and consulted charts and made copious amounts of notes.

Lan Xichen looked up. “Wangji, I need mother.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji said. He quickly got up and left the room.

“What?” Jiang Cheng sputtered. Then he covered his face. “This is so embarrassing,” he muttered into his hands.

“Not embarrassing A’Cheng. I just wanted to be sure about the accuracy of my reading. Mother is more proficient than I am. More accurate. However, I can say that the man your mother hired, then fired was an idiot. Did you read the rest of the scroll? It said none of you would ever marry nor find love. Yet A’Li and A’Xian are both betrothed. Unless calamity happens, they should both wed as soon as they are of age.”

A soft knock at the door got their attention and three people came in. Lan Wangji led his mother into the room and then Jin Zixuan followed her.

“A’Huan, you have something for me to check?” Lan Alix said quietly after she bowed slightly to greet everyone in the room.

Lan Xichen took his papers and went to her even as the others bowed in greeting. “Yes mother, I just need your opinion,” Lan Xichen told her, then handed her the papers and led her to a desk in the room.

Yanli held out her hand to Jin Zixuan who went to her and with little urging everyone sat on the floor again.

“A’Li,” Jin Zixuan smiled and kissed her cheek. “What’s going on?”

“Lan Xichen is running our astrological charts. Mother had ones done for us, but she thought the man a charlatan. So now we’re getting them done by someone who knows what they’re doing.” Jiang Yanli told him.

“Is that what we’re doing?” Jiang Cheng asked, his face was confused.

“Of coarse. What did you think was taking so long?” A’Yao asked.

“Well, I thought he was just checking what the other one wrote.” Jiang Cheng answered.

“He is, but doing his own charts is the best way to check someone else’s.” A’Yang told them while he played with his fingernails.

“Oh,” Jiang Cheng finished.

Wei Wuxian caught his eye then shrugged. “I thought the same as you did A’Cheng. I think they got all the brains in the family.”

“And the looks,” Jiang Cheng added. “Have you looked at shijie lately?”

“A’Li is as beautiful as the dawn,” Jin Zixuan said softly. Then he blushed while Jiang Yanli giggled.

“You’ve done well A’Huan. Very well. I shall let your astrology Laoshi know he should be proud of you.” Lan Alix said before she kissed her oldest son’s cheek. “Now everyone, remember it’s almost bedtime. You must all be in your rooms by curfew. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Madame Lan.”

“Goodnight mother.”

Wei Wuxian clapped his hands together. “So Lan Xichen, is my brother fated to be alone for the rest of his life?”

Jiang Cheng threw a pillow at his brother and scowled at him.

Lan Xichen sat down and arranged his paperwork. “A’Cheng, according to your stars, you shall not be alone. Your partner however is younger than you and is as yet a child. You won’t meet for some time to come. So enjoy bachelorhood while you can. Do not break hearts, however, and if you should father children, claim them as your own because the one you marry cannot birth any for you.” Lan Xichen put down his paper and looked around. “Yes?” He said into the silence.

Jiang Cheng threw himself backward onto the floor and covered his face again. “Mother is going to kill me. No, first she’ll skin me with Zidian, then she’ll kill me.”

“What? Why?” Lan Xichen asked, bewildered.

“Brother,” Lan Wangji spoke first into the silence. “A’Cheng will be Sect Leader. It is expected he’ll marry a wife and have children, an heir. Like you are expected to.”

“Yes, and?” Lan Xichen asked.

‘’Wellll,” A’Yang drawled the word out. “Your reading rather sounded like our dear A’Cheng would marry a man. You know since there won’t be any birthing of children from the union.”

“Oh. Well. Hmm. Oh, dear.” Lan Xichen didn’t know what else to say. “Perhaps I’m wrong?” he finished lamely.

“A’Xian, hand me the pillow I threw at you,” Jiang Cheng said from where he still lay on the floor.

Wei Wuxian handed it over, then watched as it sailed through the air to hit Lan Xichen in the face.

“Don’t be an idiot Xichen. I can handle telling mother I’ll probably have to have children out of wedlock. Just as long as I can also tell her she won’t have to worry about me getting married. She’ll probably even be fine with me marrying a man. She’ll watch me like a hawk just so I won’t ever behave like Jin Guanshan. Sorry A’Yao, A’Xuan.” Jiang Cheng patted his martial brother on one side of him and his future brother-in-law on his other side in apology.

A’Yao shrugged and looked at Jin Zixuan who shrugged back.

“Father might be an embarrassment, but he did give me many half-siblings. And most of them don’t have to worry about living in Koi Tower.” Jin Zixuan said.

Everyone turned to the Jin Sect Heir. “Koi Tower has never been anything like Lotus Pier, but is everything alright A’Xuan?” A’Li asked.

“Sometimes the Jinlin Tai is fine and sometimes it feels like you live on a knife-edge. But I am Sect Heir. My safety is paramount. Oh A’Yao, Zixun wants to apologize to you tomorrow. It seems that young Lan disciple opened his eyes a little.” Jin Zixuan said.

“Really? What did Su Min Shan tell him?” Lan Xichen asked, truly interested.

“Mn.” Lan Wanji added.

“Why do you both sound so interested?” A’Yang enquired, eyes shining.

Lan Xichen looked to his younger brother, then looked away.

“No hedging, either of you,” Nie Huaisang reached over to tap his fan on each brother’s shoulder.

“It’s just that,” Lan Xichen began, looking rather uncomfortable. “Well Su Min Shan, Su She can be rather difficult. He yearns for acknowledgment. For people to see him as more. I’m rather glad he could help, I am however surprised by it.”

Jin Zixuan huffed. “You’re surprised? I’m surprised Zixun even talked to the guy for more than a second and even more that he listened to him. Zixun can be…Well, honestly he can be an ass. My father made sure he thinks rather highly of himself. To the point that he’s Sect Heir after me.”

“Doesn’t that put you in danger? You know if Jin Zixun ever decided he wanted to have all the power?” A’Yao asked, worry over his half-brother in his eyes.

“If Zixun wasn’t so lazy I’d be worried. But he just wants tonight to hunt and play around. Sect Leaders have too much work to do.” Jin Zixuan shrugged it off. Then he pointed to a white jug on the floor. “Is that wine?” he asked.

Nie Huaisang quickly grabbed it and hugged it to himself.

“No alcohol is allowed in Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wanji said automatically, even as he took the jug from Nie Huaisang and poured a small cup for Wei Wuxian.

“Aha,” Jin Zixuan said, eyebrows raised skeptically. He watched as the jug made its way around and everyone but the Lan brothers poured a small cup for themselves. When it reached him, he poured a measure and looked at it, before taking a small sip. “Well, is this fermented chrysanthemum cordial?”

“It is. It’s made from chrysanthemum tea and honey.” Lan Xichen said quietly.

“So, that’s not alcohol?” Jin Zixuan asked.

“If left longer, yes. At this point, no.” Lan Wanji told them. His voice bringing an end to the discussion.

“Oh Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian sighed as he leaned against his betrothed. “I think A’Cheng would rather get drunk after this discussion.”

Jiang Cheng shrugged. “If we weren’t here I would get drunk, so pass me that crazy tea, and I can pretend. This has been the weirdest night I have ever spent with any or all of you guys.” Jiang Cheng took another cup full of not wine then fixed his gaze on Jin Zixuan. “Okay Peacock, answer me this. Your mother and mine are from the same Sect. Mother would castrate father if he shamed her the way your father does your mother. Now don’t get upset, we all know it’s true. So how is he still alive? Enquiring minds want to know.”

Jin Zixuan huffed and grabbed the jug for another drink before answering. “Mother said it is written in her wedding contract. She can’t do anything to stop him because it would void the contract. Then the Yu Sect would have to pay the Jin Sect more money than they have. The Sect would have to be dissolved. The Jin Sect paid a hefty bride price for mother.”

“Wait, wait. How did that type of contract even get past the Yu elders?” A’Yang asked.

Jin Zixuan shrugged again. ‘Rumor says it was blackmail. But I don’t know. I do know however that there is a tiny clause in the contract that it becomes null and void when I am of age or marry. So mother is biding her time and making plans. I think your mother A’Li, is even planning on helping her.”

Everyone turned to look at Jiang Yan Li and saw the small grin on her face. “I believe it has been decided to wait until after our wedding,” she said calmly.

“Does that mean, I shall become Sect Leader at a young age?” Jin Zixuan asked.

She didn’t answer beyond smoothing out her robes.

“He’s our father, should I feel badly about this?” A’Yao asked.

Jin Zixuan looked at his half-brother. “A’Yao, we’re half brothers. We even share a birthday. We have unknown numbers of half-siblings, all because father thinks he has the right to stick it where ever he wants, regardless of whether it’s welcome there or not. I’ve been raised by the man. You were taken in by the Jiang Sect, along with other siblings. We were the lucky ones. Our mothers stopped believing in his lies and moved on. Can you imagine how our lives, your life would have been otherwise? Do not be sorry if he gets what he deserves. He didn’t and doesn’t care about you, about any of his children really, so don’t you dare care about him. You can care about his children, but not about the man who created them.”

“Well, tell us what you really think,” A’Yang drawled as he filled Jin Zixuan’s cup again and watched him drink it down in one swallow. Then A’Yang looked into the jug seriously and sniffed at it. “This smells like liquor.”

Lan Wanji shrugged. “The kitchen said if one doesn’t drink it right away, it can develop some alcohol.”

“And how long have you had it?” A’Yao asked innocently.

“Hmm. Two months.” Lan Wanji answered as he straightened his sleeves.

Wei Wuxian was the first one to laugh, followed by the others. Then he leaned over and kissed Lan Wanji’s cheek before resting his head on his shoulder. “I love you, Lan Zhan,” he whispered.

“Love Wei Ying,” Lan Wanji whispered back.

“Wanji, does that mean you have more of these jugs?” Lan Xichen sounded stern.

“Would not wish to lie to XiaongXang,” Lan Wanji answered, without answering.

Lan Xichen sighed and pinched his nose, trying not to grin. “Very well Wanji. I won’t say anything, especially since they were not alcohol when you stored them. However, if anyone shows any ill effects at the classes once they begin, I won’t be held responsible for you and will not lessen any punishment Uncle asks for. Understand? And that goes for all of you. Now it’s almost time for curfew. I suggest we all make our goodnights and return to our own rooms. Wanji, I’ll walk you to the Jingshi before heading to the Hanshi.” Lan Xichen stood and started to make his bows goodnight.

Lan Wanji stood slowly, pulling Wei Wuxian up with him. He pulled him behind the dressing screen in the room and kissed his betrothed breathless for a few minutes before bidding him goodnight and leaving the room with a scant bow to everyone else.

The room was empty but for Jiang Cheng, by the time Wei Wuxian made his way around the screen. His mouth stretched in a huge smile. His eyes were unfocused and his body resembled a wet noodle. Jiang Cheng huffed shortly and helped his brother to his bed. He stripped off Wei Wuxian’s outer robes quickly before Wei Wuxian felt himself being put to bed. “Thank you Chengcheng,” Wei Wuxian said dreamily. He heard Jiang Cheng chuckle softly before the candles went out and he heard his brother settle into his own bedding.

“Goodnight A’Xian,” Jiang Cheng said quietly.

“Goodnight A’Cheng,” Wei Wuxian replied.

CHAPTER 9

Wei Wuxian was valiantly trying to not yawn, again. Last night’s strange style of drinking and the gathering in his and Jiang Cheng’s rooms hadn’t gone past curfew, and honestly, he’d fallen asleep almost as soon as his head had hit his pillow. But then the Lans woke at an unholy hour. The sun was still asleep and they’d been awakened by a disciple knocking on their door, loudly. And then announced breakfast was to be served before sun up. So Wei Wuxian was not awake even now that the sun was truly up, breakfast had been eaten and they were all in Master Lan Qiren’s classroom, each delegation was making their traditional offering to the man. The Jiangs had made theirs and were now seated and watching the Nie’s make their own offering.

A loud banging from behind woke Wei Wuxian from his stupor and he turned to look at the door, along with everyone else. The doors had been swept open and a group of people dressed in red walked in. Wen Chow in the lead. Looking as arrogant as ever. He opened his mouth. “Master Lan,” he began disdainfully. His eyes popped wide when a slap hit the back of his head.

“Master Lan, please excuse my younger brother. It seems there is no teaching him manners. Please allow this humble former student to make the introductions and offerings.” Wen Xu said with dignity.

“We are honored by your presence, Wen Xu.” Lan Xichen spoke from his place behind his uncle. “It has been many seasons since the Wen Sect came to our lectures. You were the last one. Were you not?”

“Yes, first master Lan. I was. My brother decided not to accept the invitation to study here. However, our cousins would like to take the opportunity offered to them at this season’s lectures if they would be so allowed.” Wen Xu told the room. Then he indicated the two people behind him. “My cousins, Wen Qing and her younger brother Wen Ning.”

The two stepped forward and laid a box in front of Master Lan, shooting apologetic looks to the Nie Sect whose place they had usurped. They stepped back into line quickly. Wen Xu waited while Lan Xichen picked up the box and after opening it carefully showed the contents to his Uncle who nodded and waved Xichen to place the box with the other accepted gifts.

“Thank you, Wen Xu. Your cousins are welcome to learn with the rest of the class. You and your, brother, may leave.” Lan Qiren slipped his hands back into his sleeves and turned to give his attention back to the Nie Sect who were waiting patiently.

“If I may, Master Lan. I have an apology to make to someone else here, someone who can make my life rather miserable should he so choose,” Wen Xu said uncomfortably rubbing the back of his neck.

Lan Qiren visibly bit the side of his lip but nodded once.

Wen Xu turned to Nie Huaisang and dropped to his knees. “I’m sorry A’Sang. What can I do to make you forgive me? Name it. Anything.”

Nie Huaisang huffed loudly and tapped his closed fan against his chin a few times, his eyes narrowed and a grin threatened to escape his pursed lips. After a few seconds, he rapped his fan on his betrothed’s head rather hard. “Well, you may take me out to dinner tonight. To Caiye town. You won’t drink, so I can get drunk. Then you can carry me all the way back to my rooms, before curfew. And I want some new inks and paints. And you can ask da-ge for where he gets the silk for my fans from and get me some of that too.”

Wen Xu nodded and smiled. “As my A’Sang wants, so shall he have.” Then standing gracefully he bowed to Masters Lan Qiren and Xichen. Making a bow to the rest of the room and grabbing his brother by the shoulder he dragged him out. They could all hear Wen Chow complaining as they went.

“That one’s a problem,” Jin Zixun muttered, gaining all the attention in the room. He blushed rapidly before crossing his arms over his chest and sighing. “Whatever, I’m not that bad,” he muttered.

“No cousin. I believe there’s actually hope for you. Especially after we all saw you apologize to A’Yao over breakfast this morning.” Jin Zixuan said with a smile.

Jin Zixun shrugged. “Well someone pointed out that the circumstances of your birth are pure luck. It’s what you do with your life and the connections you make for the betterment of the world that shows what kind of person you are.”

Everyone turned to look at Su Min Shan who sat in the back of the class. He blushed but nodded. “I had a strange dream. That’s what the scary woman said to me. It made sense so I remembered it and told it to second young master Jin.”

Lan Qiren nodded. “That is good advice. Perhaps we should add that to our list of rules. What do you think, Xichen?”

Lan Xichen looked thoughtful. “We should bring it before the Elders, Uncle, and mother and father, but I think it has merit. And as such then Su Min Shan, Su She shall be memorialized within the recitation of rules for the Lan Sect. Thank you, young master Su for such an important contribution.”

Su Min Shan looked like he was going to faint. He trembled as he bowed his thanks to Lan Xichen, then sat back behind his desk, his face pale and hands trembling.

“Is he going to be okay?” Wei Wuxian whispered to Lan Wanji.

Lan Wanji nodded. “Mn. Su She has always wanted to be recognized and thought of as important. All his dreams have come true all at once. He cannot believe it yet. A part of him will be immortalized within the Sect rules. The majority of the rules were made by inner clan sect members. He’ll be one of the very few non-blooded Lans to have contributed in such a way.”

Wei Wuxian nodded. He turned to grin at Lan Wanji. “If being recognized was his dream come true, what’s your dream come true, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked with a wicked little grin.

Lan Wanji didn’t speak to answer, he simply turned his face to Wei Wuxian, his burning gaze traveling over Wei Wuxian’s body, blatantly owning him from head to toe, before turning to face forward again.

“Lan Zhan, you can’t-” Wei Wuxian began, his voice starting to whine before it was cut off. When everyone turned to look at him, Wei Wuxian just looked innocent. Knowing how he was, his betrothed had put the Lan Silencing Spell on him so he wouldn’t get into trouble with Lan Qiren. Wei Wuxian quickly cut out a paper man from a sheet of white parchment and sent his consciousness into it. Then he sent it flying to Lan Wanji, where it briefly kissed his cheek before Lan Wanji let it settle on his palm. Then he slipped it inside his robes, right next to his heart and Wei Wuxian almost combusted from the sweetness of the whole thing. He pulled his mind back into himself and settled in for the rest of the day.

*****

“Master, I understand that the use of resentful energy is dangerous, but can it be used, in an emergency?” Wei Wuxian asked the question quietly. He’d known Lan Qiren most of his life and knew the older man was almost suspicious of him, so he knew anytime he asked anything controversial he’d better ask in a quiet voice.

Lan Qiren sighed. “If one were to make that excuse, where would one stop? To save a village? A town? A Family? Oneself? The distinction becomes muddy and the idea then becomes normal. Some Clans use Resententful energy for their cultivation, true, yet they often die young and suffer from instability of core and Qi. Yes, it can be done, but the price you’d pay would be high. And often you do not pay this price alone.”

“What do you mean, Sir?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“Well, let’s just say you had a problem and had to resort to using resentful energy, perhaps even demonic energy since that is yet another form of resentment. Who would be hurt by your use of it? Firstly, no one you did not want to be hurt. Whoever you set it against. However, we cannot siphon away the resentment that has now entered your core, because that is what happens. Resentment enters your core and from there you direct its power. Yet the resentment remains within you. So, you have used its power. Your enemy is slain. Those you wished to save are safe. Now what? The resentment will start to eat at you, at your insides. You become ill, physically and mentally. You lash out and hurt your family. Your brothers, sister. Your Uncle and Aunt. Your betrothed. Would you ever want to hurt Wanji?” Lan Qiren asked softly.

Wei Wuxian gasped and pulled his hands to his chest, shaking his head frantically. “No, no I wouldn’t, I couldn’t I-I.”

“That Wei Ying is why one must be careful. Even with the best of intentions, one would still hurt the people one loves. The people who love you. We can only hurt the people closest to us after all. Resentment can be like a demon. The more you feed it, the stronger it becomes, until it consumes you and those around you.” Lan Qiren turned to his younger nephew. “Wanji, perhaps you should escort young master Wei to the library, and stay with him. See he is calm before dinner time.”

Lan Wanji stood and bowed to his Uncle. He gathered his supplies, then gathered Wei Wuxian’s too. He helped lift Wei Wuxian from his seat and with his arm wrapped around Wei Wuxian’s waist he led him out of the room, down a corridor, across a pebbled courtyard, and down a pathway until he slid open a door and led Wei Wuxian inside. He quietly slid the door closed and pulled them both away from it until there were several shelves between them and the doorway. In seconds Lan Wanji had dropped their book bags from his shoulders and wrapped Wei Wuxian in his arms.

“Wei Ying, Wei Ying,” he whispered. “What is it? Why are you so upset? What has happened?”

Wei Wuxian just held on while tears fell from his eyes. He shook his head and wept silently for a few seconds. Then he sniffed and pulled himself together. “I would never want to hurt you, Lan Zhan. Never.”

“I know this Wei Ying. But why are you so upset? You have not done anything to hurt me.”

“But I could have Lan Zhan. I was even thinking about resentful energy. About using something like a fierce corpse to destroy the corrupt. But now I know that would just hurt you and those I love more than it would hurt anyone else. I should thank your uncle for explaining it to me in a way I would understand. If he’d just quoted rules at me I wouldn’t have listened.”

Lan Zhan kissed Wei Wuxian’s temple. “Do you have such resentment in your heart Wei Ying? Because resentment calls to resentment. Even had you wanted to do such a thing you would have to hate with every fiber of your being. I’m not sure the ray of sunshine in my arms can harbor such intent, nor for long.”

Wei Wuxian chuckled wetly. “Lan Zhan, you always know how to make me smile and feel good.”

“Would like to make Wei Ying feel better.” Lan Wanji’s voice was suddenly dark and honey-smooth.

Wei Wuxian looked up into his eyes and gasped at the heat in them. “Whatever you want Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian breathed.

Lan Wanji bent forward and their lips met. Lan Zhan claimed his mouth within a breath and Wei Wuxian forgot everything. He leaned into his betrothed, letting the young man take his full weight until Wei Wuxian had been backed up against a wall. A solid wooden beam kept them both upright. Lan Zhan ran his long-fingered hands down Wei Wuxian’s ribs and wrapped them around his waist, pulling him in closer.

Wei Wuxian sighed and wrapped his arms tighter around Lan Wanji’s neck, then with a tiny stifled giggle, he lifted his legs and wrapped them around Lan Wanji’s hips. Hitching himself higher until Lan Wanji had to shift his hands under Wei Wuxian’s bottom so he could hold him safely.

“Oh that famed Lan arm strength,” Wei Wuxian cooed when he pulled back for a breath.

“To be used for your advantage,” Lan Wanji whispered then he bit at Wei Wuxian’s jawline for a few seconds while he pressed them into the wall at Wei Wuxian’s back so it would help keep them steady and allow Lan Wanji a little freedom of hand movement. Just enough to slowly massage the flesh cupped in his hands. The effect the touch had on Wei Wuxian was instant. Lan Wanji shivered as his betrothed wriggled in his hands. He gasped as the legs tighten around him. Then groaned when Wei Wuxian adjusted his position and slowly rub himself on Lan Wanji’s hard stomach.

Lan Wanji pulled his mouth back from Wei Wuxian’s skin. “Wei Ying? What are you doing?” He asked after dragging in a breath.

“Not sure, but it feels good,” Wei Wuxian answered, starting to speed up his rubbing.

Lan Wanji narrowed his eyes with a wicked gleam.

Wei Wuxian gulped. “I mean I sorta know. Feels like when-but never with-only my hand. Ah Lan Zhan s-stop looking at me like that.” Wei Wuxian whined and buried his face in Lan Wanji’s neck.

Lan Wanji hid his smirk in Wei Wuxian’s shoulder before giving the area a sharp little nip. He cast his gaze around the private study area he’d chosen and forced himself to listen beyond their private space. Quiet greeted him. Mind made up he turned with Wei Wuxian in his arms and sat the other young man on the small study table. He grabbed a talisman paper from a stack and a brush. Inking it quickly he drew out a silencing talisman and threw it at the door Wei Wuxian hadn’t even noticed them passing through. More talismans flew around the little room to adhere to walls and shelves and window, ensuring privacy. A different talisman locked the door and Lan Wanji gave his full attention back to the young man still seated on the desk.

Wei Wuxian grinned up at Lan Wanji. “Whatever are you planning Lan Zhan?” the voice and question more a suggestion than anything else.

Lan Wanji didn’t answer him with words. Instead he swooped down to kiss Wei Wuxian again. This time he followed the kiss by moving his hips and rubbing himself along Wei Wuxian. He kept rubbing and shifting until Wei Wuxian groaned. Then he stopped and pulled away enough so Wei Wuxian could see the gleam of triumph in Lan Wanji’s eyes. Lan Wanji smirked and pulled Wei Wuxian’s arms from around him. He put his hand around both of Wei Wuxian’s wrists and lifted until Wei Wuxian was stretched out under him with his arms trapped above his head.

“Show me your neck,” Lan Wanji said in an almost broken voice.

Wei Wuxian stretched his head back which moved his neck into a graceful arch.

“Beautiful. And mine.” Lan Wanji whispered and lay down over Wei Wuxian again. He licked and kissed the neck under his lips and rubbed his hips how and where he knew made Wei Wuxian groan.

Wei Wuxian was burning. Burning from heat inside him. Burning from the heat of Lan Zhan over him. And burning from the heat of what they were doing. They’d never done anything like this before. Even on the times they visited one another all they’d done was kiss and hold each other. Never anything like this. “Jiang Cheng told me not to let you get me pregnant. At least not before shijie gets married.”

Lan Wanji froze for a heartbeat then looked right into Wei Wuxian’s eyes. Wei Wuxian found he couldn’t breathe. “You like that idea?” he asked in a tiny voice.

Lan Wanji looked a little embarrassed but nodded once.

Wei Wuxian shivered and gave a husky chuckle. “Well, I don’t know how successful we’d be, but we can definitely start trying in a few years.”

“Mn. Right after the wedding.” Lan Wanji agreed and returned to torturing Wei Wuxian with pleasure.

“Lan Zhan? Lan Zhan, does that mean you’re gonna make me wait until we get married?”

“Mn. No sex before marriage.” Lan Wanji answered, his hips now moving in delicious circles that made Wei Wuxian shiver.

“Oh. Um. But what is this?” Wei Wuxian asked as he bit his lips to hold on a heartbeat longer, prolonging the pleasure.

Lan Wanji pulled his head away and looked straight into Wei Wuxian’s lust blown eyes. Then sucked in a deep breath and ground himself against his betrothed until Wei Wuxian shook apart under him. “Practice,” he gasped out and trembled to his own completion, before falling onto the young man under him.

Wei Wuxian chuckled weakly and ran his fingers through Lan Wanji’s long hair, absently playing with it and the long white forehead ribbon. Wrapping the hair and ribbon around his fingers and releasing it all, time and again. “Then can we practice more?”

“Mn. As often as we can.” Lan Wanji agreed.

Wei Wuxian chuckled again. “Great idea Lan Zhan. you always have the best ideas. Maybe we should carry a change of clothes too while we’re at it.”

Lan Wanji sighed. “Mn. Sticky. Will need to change soon.” He made to move, then instead he shifted to not crush his lover and just let the two of them wrap around each other. “Change soon. Before dinner. Nap now.”

Wei Wuxian smiled as he and Lan Wanji began to slip into a doze, his breathing evening out. He couldn’t say he was very comfortable, but he was sure he could doze for a while himself. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of sandalwood, Lan Zhan, and himself. Well, today had not turned out how he’d planned. The thought was the last as he fell into a light sleep just after his Lan Zhan.


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TKBenjamin

I’m an Author. I’m a Chef. I’m a mum to multiple fur kids. And on weekends I corrupt young women into thinking for themselves and asking multiple questions.

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