It isn’t often that rogue cultivators -- like herself -- run into other cultivators. It happens on occasion. The area she frequents for night hunts is far enough out of the way that she doesn’t stumble across many, or any familiar faces from the old cultivation world. She night hunts alone, usually, or her husband accompanies her if she expects it to be a long hunt.
Usually they come from smaller sects, rarely any from the larger ones. Out here, one must expect to protect themselves from danger. It doesn’t mean that help isn’t appreciated, but it’s unexpected all the same.
“Hey! Look out!” It’s a boy’s voice -- young enough he probably shouldn’t be hunting alone, but that’s not her biggest concern for the moment.
“Hey! Look out!” It’s a boy’s voice -- young enough he probably shouldn’t be hunting alone, but that’s not her biggest concern for the moment.
Her instincts, her training, and her sword don’t fail her -- and neither does the warning.
Something behind her gives way with a shriek. Not that it slipped her attention, but it’s a close call. The fierce corpse screams and, despite the sword lodged in it’s chest cavity, lunges forward once more.
She counters it with her own steel and twists away. The head is freed with the graceful swipe of her blade. Nodding to the boy, his features barely visible between the dark and the trees, she resumes her hunt.
Wordless agreement inspires her -- and the other boy -- to remain within hearing distance. They uphold the silent pact until dawn breaks and Qingyang declares to herself the worst of the hunt to be over. The boy comes to the same decision and sheaths his sword, marching over to her where she’s seated on mossy stones by the cold brook that she uses to find her way home.
He calls out a greeting, although it takes her aback at the force of it. A demand, especially from someone with such a young face, is particularly off-putting. Face scrunched with confusion, a frown in the lines of his mouth. “Who are you?”
A lifetime ago she wore the same pale yellows and golds like the boy before her. It takes barely a moment to recognize those colors and patterns, the blessings of a Jin cultivator. Her distraction is momentary, a flash in the forefront of her mind that alights with recognition, but she returns to her task at hand. Now in the sun, the features of the boy’s face sink into the old spots of her memory. The upturn of his nose; the scowl of his mouth, the lift of his brow. She stops in her steps and looks, looks --
His sword. Those engravings. The gold lined markers; a pale twirl of finery hanging from the hilt. She recognizes this sword. She remembers this sword. She knows the call of this sword; she knows it’s name, she knows the sound of this blade like she knows her own. Even if she didn’t catch the engraving near the hilt, she wouldn’t need the characters to place this sword’s familiarity. Suiha.
“Ah—so many ghosts walk among us these days,” Luo Qingyang murmurs to herself. She’s not so foolish as to actually think the boy standing before her is the ghost of Jin Zixuan. She knows of his son. From his facial features, even his mannerisms -- there is no doubt this is Jin Rulan, the son of her former master.
“Well?” Jin Rulan asks snappishly. Not quite arrogance but toeing the line of something that resembles a lack of respect. She doesn’t pay mind to the gossip that blows through the villages but she hears them all the same. They say the new sect leader is unkind, that he’s a foolish child, that he’s a tyrant who hasn’t even graduated beyond the level of a junior disciple.
“Apologies, Sect Leader Jin.” Luo Qingyang remembers herself and salutes him. “Please forgive me for my lack of decorum.”
Jin Rulan startles, as though surprised to be caught out. But he picks up his chin and, in a manner so eerily reminiscent of the man of her memories says, “It’s -- fine. I didn’t announce myself.” His eyes sharpen, curious and wary. “And you are?”
“This one is Luo Qingyang,” she salutes again. “Thank you again for your help on the night hunt -- I am very grateful and honored for your help. But it is dawn, and I must return to my family. I wish you safe travels, Sect Leader.” All truths -- she must return to her home and greet her husband and daughter. Or likely wake them on her arrival, but she expects her husband will be waiting for her.
“Wait, I --” Jin Rulan drops his wary tones, leaving pure curiosity in its place. “-- I’m sorry. I don’t recognize your name but I recognize those forms. And your sword is from the Jin Sect, is it not?”
She offers him Zaochun, still sheathed. The gold ribbon engravings on her sword have aged, some of them flaking with use, but the markings still distinguish her as a previous Jin disciple. “It was,” says Qingyang. “As was I. But no longer. I left your sect a lifetime ago.” She hesitates to add, “I am a rogue cultivator. I don’t hold ties to any sect.”
Still eyeing her sword, Jin Rulan says, “You recognized my sword.” A sure statement. “You knew my father?”
“I did.” That was another life. She remembers herself. “Ah—I apologize. I really must be going.”
There’s still a question in his face as he nods. She didn’t lie, then, that she has no sect ties, but it must be that nostalgia; her own fondness for that youthful memory that lets her say: “If you ever should need it, you can follow this stream, then north to the hills. You will find my house along the traveling roads. You are always welcome to visit, Sect Leader.”
He stills. His mouth twists like he isn’t sure if he should smile, but he nods and salutes her in return. Qingyang departs and follows the brook as she said, and eagerly accepts the welcome arms of her husband at the door of her home.
She doesn’t forget the offer, but it does recede in her memory for a while. It returns, like spring in a sudden rush of warmth, the morning she rises and greets a tentative knock at her door.
She startles upon drawing it open. “Sect Leader Jin.” No doubt the surprise evident in the hurried way she brushes her robes and straightens. “I -- oh. Welcome.” She almost says, I wasn’t expecting you, but decides against it. No reason to make this poor child doubt himself before he’s stepped foot in her home. And it’s not like he would have reason to announce his arrival. He likely passed through the area. Happenstance.
“Lady Luo,” he returns politely. He observes her small house and, heavens he’s clearly trying, fumbles through compliments. “Your home is...nice. Um. Thank you for -- uh. Allowing me to visit.”
She replies, “We are honored. You’re always welcome.” His lip curls and twitches. Smiling. She introduces him to her husband and daughter, who say little while watching with curious inspection.
The young sect leader surely has plenty of other people and matters to care for, and he leaves shortly after arriving. His shoulders are still stiff and upright, in that haughty way his father wore, but he seems...mellower. And he’s nice enough to Mianmian, although he barely speaks to her and she senses it’s out of awkwardness rather than disrespect. It’s a difficult age for boys, she thinks with a smile. Let alone someone who’s shouldering the weight of an entire sect before they come of age. He bids her a serious farewell and carries on with whatever brought him across her home beforehand.
Wrongly, she assumes that will likely be the last she sees of him for a while -- unless they were to cross paths again on a night hunt, which she counts as unlikely. Within the month she opens her home once more at the impatient knock once more to the young clan leader at her door.
“Sect Leader Jin,” Qingyang says, after it becomes apparent from a long silence that Jin Rulan refuses to move or say anything else about his presence outside her cabin. “...for what do I owe the pleasure of your visit this time?”
Back straight, shoulders squared, mouth scrunched with frustration -- he really is the shade of Jin Zixuan. He wears the same awkward determination, uncomfortable but persistent in his efforts to execute whatever undignified matter at hand.
“You knew my parents,” Jin Rulan says at last. “Didn’t you?”
“I trained under your father,” Qingyang answers slowly. “We studied and cultivated together for many years together. I didn’t know your mother as well. By the time she married and lived in Jinlintai, I had already left the sect. We did study together at Cloud Recesses, for a time, and we frequently crossed paths during the war within the camp grounds.”
That’s not the answer he seeks from her answer if his frown is any indication. As young as he is, he is still a clan leader, and some questions are too direct and childish for his pride. It is Qingyang who offers, “Would you like it if I told you some stories about them?”
Not betraying his own eagerness, Jin Rulan nods twice like that’s agreeable. His eyes merit something else -- almost desperate, still the eyes of a boy still searching for his parents.
“Then I shall tell you.” Smiling, Qingyang drops her folded hands into her lap. “Ai, I’m not much of a story teller, but I will tell you what I remember of them.” There is much to tell, although she must tread lightly on some matters over others. And it is never dignified to speak ill of the dead, but neither did she hold any grievances towards the Jin Zixuan she knew in her youth.
Jiang Yanli was a different matter. She knew her in scattered, brief separations of time, friendly returned conversation, but she did not know Jiang Yanli for as long or as strongly as Jin Zixuan.
There’s a long silence that follows. “My father,” Jin Rulan asks, almost shy. “Did he...did he love her?”
“Your mother, you mean?” Ah. What a poor child. “Yes. Your father was so many things, and their lives before you arrived were -- challenging, and different. They loved each other very much.” These stories are studded gems of a history she’d almost forgotten, as everyone else who was a part of them she’d fallen out of touch with -- or beyond the grave. A careful field to walk upon, so she treads with care.
She lightens the tale with a different tale about Jin Zixuan’s many attempts to earn Jiang Yanli’s attention after they called off their betrothal. Maybe one day she will tell him about Jiang Yanli’s soup and that day where her former sect leader finally understood what kind of person he’d rejected because of his rude immaturity. She will wait until there’s a way to tell it in a way that doesn’t bely any of their earlier heartache.
Jin Rulan listens, and even chuckles when she tells him about the explosion of rumors that erupted after Jin Zixuan peeled away his own shoes and outer robes to plant lotus in Jinlintai. “It was such a strange time in all of our lives,” Qingyang sighs, not unhappily. “But by far, the strangest was seeing him covered in mud, happily planting and gardening lotus by himself in the garden. I’d never seen him dirty so many robes at once!”
Maybe one day she will also tell him about the Jin Zixuan she knew as a junior cultivator, or what she remembers of his first time wielding Suiha on the training grounds and grinning with untempered pride. Maybe she will tell him about the day she tore her own outer robes and cast them aside, leaving only with her sword and her name from that bitter tower. She thinks he’d like that, maybe, and her terrible storytelling hasn’t warned him off yet.
“Thank you for your tea,” Jin Rulan says as he departs once again. He’s definitely lying through his teeth, she knows the brew she offers here is nothing like the refined pale white and green teas preferred in Lanling. “And your stories. Until we meet again, Lady Luo.”
This carries on, with Jin Rulan entreating her over months and seasons with no announcement and politely requesting more stories. Sometimes his visits invite gifts; fine teas from the pale tower, or spices and dates, little treats for Mianmian. On one memorable occasion he carries a stack of talismans for gifts to strengthen the protective wards of her property.
Luo Qingyang recognizes the handiwork and smiles. She hasn’t heard much of that old acquaintance, but it fills her with a secondhand joy to know Jin Rulan has his pick of aid. He blusters at the recognition she voices and scowls, “He’s always leaving these things with me! I have so many I don’t even know what to do with them.”
She’s sure there’s a bridge of respect between them that’s thick enough for her to counter, “And I suppose he’s the one who taught you the art of regifting.” An embarrassed flush overtakes his scowl. Qingyang laughs.
After he’s forgotten his accountable shame he demands, “How do you know it’s him, anyway. It’s not like he’s the only one making these things.”
“I knew Wei Wuxian then,” answers Qingyang. “As I know him now.” Or at least from his last visit: a strange encounter indeed.
She hasn’t heard or seen of Wei Wuxian since his last accidental trespassing. Jin Rulan mentions he’s travelling, scowling deeper. He doesn’t smile much for a boy of his age, she reflects. “He said he was going west. I get letters sometimes but -- not for a while.”
“He is Wei Wuxian,” she offers delicately. “I am sure he hasn’t forgotten you.” The frown she receives in return rings with doubt. “You are his nephew, after all.” That only earns her an even deeper scowl. Jin Rulan mutters under his breath but drops the conversation there.
Six months pass between that visit and the next. He comes in the wet season, knocking at dusk looking far more harried and hunted than their last meeting. Luo Qingyang is...not surprised -- surprised to see him here, yes -- but she heard strains of whispers about the young sect leader’s upcoming marriage arrangement. She heard it was allegedly a fortuitous match. But other whispers also bring words of concern. He’s too young. And, no marriage festivities could cover the shadow of tragedy from that tower. Or, the child clan leader is already being forced into marriage.
Often rumors are made from the minds of people with imagination and nothing better to do.
Jin Rulan waits outside her door wearing dark grey robes and a sword wrapped in black silk. Some rumors reflect little notes of truth.
He grimaces at her quick inspection of his attire. His hair is still tied back, but no gold embellishments or finery. At first glance he could easily be mistaken for a rogue cultivator, except for the air of pride and the set of his shoulders. “...this isn’t what it looks like,” he says.
“Yes -- come in,” Qingyang answers, although he asked no such question of her.
His eyes search her house like he’s expecting someone to leap out of the corner and attack him. Or more likely drag him away, kicking and screaming, back to the tower. He shakes his head. “I -- I know it’s past--”
She reassures him, “You’re always welcome in my home.” He makes no response to that so she makes the generous assumption, “If you’re here for any night hunt in the area, I would be happy to accompany you.”
“I’m not here for a night hunt,” Jin Rulan replies. His hand goes to his hilt despite that declaration. “I -- I needed somewhere to go. Just for tonight.”
“Of course.” He shrinks under her concerned scrutiny. “But may I ask why?”
“I --” The young sect leader swallows. Unable to voice his own reasoning. “I must -- I need your help. Please do not send me back to Jinlintai,” Jin Rulan blurts out. Then he amends, far more dignified, “...please do not tell anyone I’m here either. They don’t know I left.” Her frustration softens. A desperate plea, if she’s ever heard one.
“Ah,” says Luo Qingyang, understanding.
Under low lamplight, in the dark, she watches him pace through the window. She offered the extra futon -- while it’s not comfortable, nor up to the comfort of what he’s used to at home -- and he accepted only to fall into an anxious loop. She rises, careful not to rouse her husband, and follows him outside.
She finds him sitting outside her fence, looking into the twilight. No words pass between them. She can’t offer words of comfort, and even if she knew what to say she knows it would likely fall shallow and short of actual encouragement. She has no sect ties. She has no concerns over the dealings of sects. She has no duty to any clan. He is tied by all three.
He clears his throat. “I don’t know what you’ve heard,” he says, then frowns. “It’s not -- and I’m not -- I’m not looking for advice, or anything like that. I just…”
“It’s alright,” murmurs Qingyang. “I’ve told you that you are welcome here.”
Jin Rulan turns, facing her, but not looking at her directly either. His youth is evermore apparent under the low lunar light. With a note of surprise, she realizes she doesn’t recognize Jin Zixuan in him for a moment -- the smile at the corner of his mouth is all the kindness of Jiang Yanli. “I don’t remember if I’ve said it to you before. But thank you for letting me -- come here all these times. You barely knew who I was and I’m -- I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. But thank you.”
Across the year or so he’s made the trips to her home, he’s never spoken like this. Qingyang, although stunned for a moment, repeats, “You are always welcome here. It’s no hardship to be in your company, Sect Leader Jin.” She pushes through to explain, before he can stun her with more sincerity, “Things are different here, where I am. People rely on the kindness of strangers and in turn offer their help because there is not an obligation, nor any duty to honor, but because that is the way things are.”
“Even so,” the young clan leader insists. “Thank you.”
They lapse into quiet. Reflecting aloud, Qingyang shares, “Things are simpler here. It’s a simple life.” She imagines he must envy her, at least in this moment. No responsibility. No duty to an entire group of people who have no matter for anything except their own self-interest.
Gently prodding and nudging from Qingyang takes Jin Rulan back inside, urging him to rest while it’s still dark. In the morning she wakes to loud voices outside her house and Jin Rulan’s among them, arguing and cursing despite the early hour.
“-- told you I don’t need you to come and look after me--!” comes the huffing tail of Jin Rulan’s shout.
The other replies are quieter and indistinct. Qingyang wonders if she should retrieve her sword, but it doesn’t sound like that kind of argument. Outside she discovers three more boys, all Jin Rulan’s age -- or older, if she were to guess from the stylings on their robes. Two Lan disciples. One deep red-purple, colors from a smaller sect.
They speak in familiarity. His friends, most likely. He’s spoken of such friends before, but she can only make broad assumptions. The Lan disciple with the gentle voice says, “You shouldn’t leave without telling anyone.”
“Or at least tell us about it,” the other Lan disciple offers. “Because then we can hide you somewhere, and that way nobody will find you. Then you don’t have to worry.”
The Ouyang disciple -- proper elimination of all other names -- whines, “But then Sect Leader Jiang will break our legs!”
“Ah, you’re right. Nevermind. Jin Ling, you’re on your own.”
“Shut up, Jingyi!” Jin Rulan’s enraged shout is met by laughter from the other two.
The first Lan disciple notices her before the others and hurriedly bows, the others elbowing each other to fall into a respectful greeting. “Our apologies if we woke you,” says the one who introduces himself as Lan Sizhui. “We won’t be much longer. Thank you for taking care of Jin Ling.”
Jin Rulan’s face is cherry-ripe. “Stop talking for me! You -- you!!”
“Stop yelling at Sizhui,” Jingyi tells him. “He already spoke to Hanguang-jun on your behalf. You should be worshipping him right now.”
“I didn’t ask him to!”
Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen link their arms over his shoulder and break into a fit of boyish roughhousing. Luo Qingyang remains quiet, meeting the eyes of Lan Sizhui who reflects her amusement.
“It’s nice to meet your friends, Sect Leader Jin,” says Qingyang, once she’s ushered the boys into her small kitchen and seated them beside her daughter and husband. Zizhen and Sizhui bully him back into his pale yellow and gold robes, although he looks strangely bereft without his usual hair ornamentation. He keeps smiling as well, between moments where he remembers to scowl, elated by their presence but desperately trying to conceal it.
A hint of teasing won’t be remiss either. “I was beginning to think you made them up.” Jin Rulan squawks with outrage, while Jingyi guffaws.
“They aren’t my friends,” Jin Rulan huffs. “They’re just annoying and won’t leave me alone.”
“Because we care about you,” Zizhen sighs, long-suffering in a way that speaks to this ongoing disagreement of values.
“Because we are your friends,” Jingyi adds.
Jin Rulan scoffs. Mianmian demands Jingyi show off his sword, which is met with admonishment from Qingyang because they’re eating and no swords at the table. Sizhui is quiet for the meal, but despite the Lan sect rules the other Lan disciple talks Jin Rulan’s ear off. If she didn’t already know all the disciplines and their attire she would assume he wasn’t a Lan disciple at all.
“It’s so amazing to meet you Lady Luo,” Zizhen adds, after they’ve cleared away the plates and prepare the group to depart. “Jin Ling is always gushing about you in his letters, I’m glad he met you.”
Luo Qingyang blinks, and then smiles, pleased. Jin Rulan swipes at him with his sword (though sheathed) and gives chase. “You!!!”
The boys take off as they came, running briskly down the worn road. Jin Rulan stops halfway and turns back, smiling, offering his hand up and waving. Qingyang waves back.