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Decisions are more difficult than they had once been, but away from the Wēn is an easy enough direction that leads her by foot and wagon and boat and mule, up to Qīnghé, the foothill fastness into which her shījiě vanished twenty-five years ago, the night she met the Lán heir. She works as an armed escort to pay her way, for the wagon of Gūsū silk, first, and then the boatload of salt and palm-sized fish. Stinky sweaty work, but easy with every little threat hiding and every big one turning to, against, the Wēn. She took a sword off a corpse on her way out of the Yúnshēn Bùzhīchù, knives off another. It had been harder to scrounge medicine: not more difficult, but distasteful. The dead pharmacist had aided her in childbirth and through the ailments attendant on her constrained cultivation.

She makes friends on the long nights and weary days, her qì racing to leap the gaps between what her cultivation is and what it might have been, the jīndān ripening in her belly like paddy in the flooded fields of that autumn awaiting war with bated breath. First a farmer from the Cǎiyī villages who thinks her of an age with his niece, then a merchant and her young daughter, finally a cultivator from the Cāngqióng Shān Pài, scurrying home to the mountains with her teacher's seal as safe-pass. Her first friends in twenty years, more.

She thinks, of nights, of her sons, utters the old hope of forlorn mothers that they might be safe even sheltering under the open skies as she often is. The younger more often, dragged the Cǎiyī farmer told her behind the Wēn train, stumbling on a broken leg. Her little Zhànzhàn.

The elder, lost and thought dead, it is harder to mourn.

She meets neither of them for months. Behind her, Huàn-er is riding into little villages and family sects, shoring up the landslide debris of the Yúnshēn Bùzhīchù and its old alliances, ahead Zhànzhàn is falling deeper in love with a boy's irrepressible smile and indomitable spirit.

She has seen neither of them for twelve years: Huàn-er was nine, the night she was found out of bounds and hustled into a stronger cage, Zhànzhàn an uncomprehending six. Zhào-shījiě, who she hasn't met in twenty-five, is no longer Niè fūren, is dead six years.

But the gates of the Bùjìng Shì are open as they never were in her youth, too-young and too-old guards helping, hustling, even hauling in limp refugees and cabbages, protesting herds, bleating kids. Liánhuā Wù has fallen. Yú sān niáng, heroine of her girlhood, is dead.

The mistress of the Bùjìng Shì is a cultivator, perhaps, but weak. Weaker than Lán Xīchén's mother, who gave her eldest her polite smile, her youngest her unbending temper, the little girl dead in-between the shape of her lotus-petal eyes, her lotus-bud mouth. But a competent woman regardless, to judge by the willingness of her maids and few grumbles of her overburdened stewards. She has had long practice in judging the leaders of a sect by the speed of their servants' hands at unpleasant tasks. Qīnghé Niè is well content with Zhào-shījiě's girl.

They do not speak, of course. She has neither reason nor respite. Perhaps later, once Zhào-shījiě's tángdì isn't roving in Wēn colours. Perhaps never, since to be known as Zhào Míngxī's shīmèi is to be known as Qīnghéng-jūn’s ill-starred bride, veiled in Lán blood. She passes well enough as a wandering cultivator, an anchorite woken out of seclusion by Wēn raids and eager to do her little part in the war. Tell No Lies has never been part of her own arsenal, only Never Be Caught. And it is true enough for Qīnghé Niè.

In the second month she toys with offering her name to the friend who shares her bed in the women's quarters of the Bùjìng Shì, but for less time than an incense stick takes to burn. Chìfēng-zūn is in residence for the winter, and such of his allies as have raised their banners.

She remembers the boy, fat and dimpling at his hundred day ceremony, a little jewel being passed from father to cousin to grand-aunt till his mother reclaimed him. Qīnghé Niè’s only hope, now. Popular among his farmers & merchants. She shares the stories she learns with Zhào-shījiě over incense.

There is a place for Zhào Míngxī in the family shrine, of course. A plaque of gleaming brass burnished with the perfumed smoke of night-burning incense. But there is no place for a rogue cultivator in that shrine, and it is easier, anyway, underneath the tall pines & broad skies. They used to sleep rough on the path, she and Zhào-shījiě and Shīfu, the five years after she left home and before they met Niè Zhuànglì hunting wolf yāo guài. The year after that, she started hunting alone, still sleeping under the stars, snapping bright in the Qīnghé cold.

Early in the third month, she stirs from meditation to find herself watched by a boy who looks like Niè Zhuànglì cast in tofu, every sharpness rendered delicate: a preciosity of a young man, shrunken in his grey robes, winter-pale skin stretched in the way of quick starvation. A coddled child exposed to sudden strain, with those eyes and that jaw and knife-blade nose.

"Niè èr-gōngzǐ, this one apologises for intruding in your solitude."

The boy. Niè what? Zhào-shījiě had written, and Lán Qǐrén had told her. No matter. The boy blinks. Titters, brings up a beautiful fan. "This Niè Huáisāng isn't even here, honoured guest, how can you intrude upon him?"

They smile at each other in relief. Huáisāng. Had she known this pretty child's pretty name? Did she forget it in the grief of Zhànzhàn being taken from her?

He had been only three months old. They had let her keep Huàn-er till he was nearly a year old—eating soft rice and mashed vegetables—but Zhànzhàn she saw only once a month after his hundred day ceremony. Some Lán aunt, having lost her own child, had volunteered to feed him with the milk that would have gone to waste.

"And where is Niè èr-gōngzǐ instead?" she asks, hoping to see the boy colour. Niè Zhuànglì had blushed at the smallest trifle, ears going bright red. "Ah, I don't know, āyí, I really don't. There's some meeting going on, but they don't need me there at all."

Brazen little thing, but the looks he darts over his shoulder into the shadow of the rock-hewn entrance belie his insouciance. He certainly should be, if not at that meeting then elsewhere, helping his mother or biding by a teacher's words. It will be entertaining.

The shout comes soon enough that Niè èr-gōngzǐ must have ducked ahead of pursuit, Niè Huáisāng echoing down the entryway, shortly followed by a boy in dark purple and trailing him one in mourning whites. The little Jiāng zōngzhǔ, by his lotus guān: Yú sān niáng’s son.

Niè Huáisāng squeezes his eyes shut, momentarily haggard, and opens them with a bright smile, swinging to meet his pursuers. "Jiāng-xiōng! I must've lost track of time, I really don't know, come meet my guest: āyí, this is Jiāng Wǎnyín; Jiāng-xiōng, this is..."

"Māma?" says Jiāng Wǎnyín’s pale shadow, shouldering past him into the garden, the Lán ribbon white on his forehead, silver medallion flashing. A tall young man of the Lán, bearing down on her with recognition in his golden eyes. A man of the Lán, here, and no escape.

Her sword, her sword, but what use is her sword when the Bùjìng Shì is bespelled against unauthorised swordflight and the freedom of the sky a smothering lie? The man keeps coming towards her, his hands out and empty as though he could not in an instant pull qín or xiāo from a qiánkūn fold.

"You must be mistaken," she demurs. Have they... have they had the opportunity to circulate a sketch of her? Is this man one of her guards come hunting? Any Lán might be in mourning, with the destruction of her prison, their home. "I am but a humble wanderer on the path."

"No. You are Chén Cháoliú, who was kept in confinement by the Lán for killing an elder. You were the wife of the last Lán zōngzhǔ. You have... you have two sons," the man says, finally faltering. He is very young. Very beautiful. Like a pine, like all the Lán.

Chén Cháoliú, who killed her mother in childbirth, says, "I hope you find the criminal you are hunting, Lán gōngzǐ. Niè èr-gōngzǐ, Jiāng zōngzhǔ, this humble one will leave first."

Yú sān niáng’s son blocks the way, his mother's whip sizzling on his wrist. “Lán Wàngjī?"

"You have," Lán Wàngjī says, "an elder sister, two younger cousins and three older. You wore duck earrings, you smiled at... Māma, Mā, I waited for you, I waited in the snow, why didn't you come back, I waited so long."

Had one of her guards told her? She was in a healing trance for months afterwards: she had fought like a cornered yāo, failed like one. No matter. Any of the Lán might know her stubborn Zhànzhàn waited for his mother. But the cousins, the earrings. "Not mandarin ducks."

"Black ducks," the boy says, and goes to his knees, face upturned. He has Zhànzhàn’s pouting mouth, and the tilt of his eyes, and his stubborn chin. He closes his eyes in the same way when she touches his hair. Zhànzhàn. Her son. Her littlest one.