Dirk started at the mental image Lan Wangji offered them both. A Jianghu woman walking through a rough-built village; robes cut like the Nies, only far simpler and plainer muted browns and dark gray. Her hair was pulled back with a wooden comb, carved with a plum blossom. She would have been pretty, even beautiful….
Then she turned, dodging an older man with a limp, and ducked her head – but not before Lan Wangji had seen the brand scarring one cheek. A near-round shape of many petals Dirk suddenly knew as well as he knew foreign heraldry.
:The Jin peony. Sparks-in-Snow.: Fury came with that thought, and pain. :That is a spiritual brand. The scar cannot be healed; not with time, not with magic. Before that day I had only seen such brands used by the Wen. On their enemies.:
The cultivator withdrew behind his shields again, mind leaking rage and guilt before it sealed. Dirk shook himself, and glanced to be sure Elcarth had not been lost in that horror.
The historian looked alert, if thin-lipped with fury. “One of ours is scarred like that, from Hulda’s clutches. To brand another human being, as if they were no more than property, livestock to be slaughtered-!”
Privately Dirk agreed with every fuming word of that. But for now, he had to focus. “That wasn’t the prison camp.”
“A night-hunt took me close to a town between sects, where the Wen Remnant had sought refuge in a… perilous place.” Lan Wangji glanced away. “I violated the Elders’ orders and went to see.”
Huh. He’s dodging about- WHAT? “Are you telling me no one knows what happened except the Jin’s word,” Dirk sputtered, “and your Elders ordered you not to even find out?”
Lan Wangji looked between the two of them, ice over turmoil. “What is black and what is white? What is good, and what evil? How can a man know what is right, and act, when he knows all swords will rise against him?”
Dirk nodded slowly, feeling the shape of the misery under that rage. :Sister?:
:Kellen is asking,: his Companion reported. :Patience.:
“How can a man act,” Lan Wangji whispered at last, “and why could I not?”
Oh gods. Bright Lady, how long has this been gnawing at him?
Dirk rested his hands on Elcarth’s little table, careful not to disturb a pile of texts on the reign of King Randale. “You know, my wife wasn’t born a hero.”
Lan Wangji barely blinked. “Herald Talia?”
“The first time I saw her,” Dirk recalled, “she was just a confused girl on Rolan’s back. Hardly more than a little herself. Holderkin – we found out from Talia they hadn’t even let their children know leaving the Holds was an option. A girl married who her elders picked, or she became one of their veiled priestesses. That was it. Talia didn’t want either, but she didn’t see any way out.” He smiled. “Only there was this lost horse. Surely it wasn’t bending the Elders’ rules too much if she just rode over to the next Holding to return him?”