It started with a wedding.
In the cultivation history books, it was marked as a joyous occasion—a marriage joining two of the top four sects at the time, an alliance that would solidify the relationship between GusuLan and YunmengJiang.
On the streets, people gossiped about the engaged couple. Both parties were men, and on top of that, two out of the four most promising talents of their generation. While seeing cutsleeves was not unusual, it was unusual for them to be married in such a public way and from such prominent families who would surely expect heirs. The whispers said that the two were like the cowherd and the weaver girl, so captivated with one another that they’d argued their case against the entire cultivation world. There had been a special meeting held in the Golden Pavilion on Koi Tower where fifty sect leaders gathered. Then the mutual sect leaders had met for a month before the engagement was announced.
That was what was shown to the public.
The wedding itself occurred on an auspicious day but with little fanfare. Only the Lan clan and the Jiang family were present. The ceremony was quiet, the three wedding bows exchanged before the GusuLan Ancestral Hall, and with that, Wei Wuxian, the notorious Yiling Patriarch, became the cultivation partner of the Second Jade of Lan, Lan Wangji.
“Lan Zhan! Just one drink!” Wei Wuxian said, grinning at his new husband from where he sat at the opposite side of the sitting table. After the short wedding ceremony, Wei Wuxian had been herded off to the Jingshi, Lan Wangji’s private living quarters, where a servant had brought them one of GusuLan’s plain, tasteless meals. Having expected this, he’d given Wen Ning instructions to procure a jar of Emperor’s Smile for him—he wasn’t sure how long it had taken him to do it, but by the time Wei Wuxian entered the Jingshi, the jar was already waiting for him at the door.
Wei Wuxian tried again. “Come on, it’s our wedding. You can at least have a drink on your wedding day.”
“Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said. He slowly took the plates off the tray they had been sent on, placing the portions equally between himself and Wei Wuxian.
“Just one celebratory bowl, Lan Er-Gege,” Wei Wuxian bargained.
“No exceptions,” Lan Wangji answered.
Wei Wuxian pouted. “Fine, if you won’t drink, then I’ll just have to drink myself.”
“No exceptions.” Lan Wangji pinned him with a look. “That includes you.”
Wei Wuxian reached for his jar of Emperor’s Smile, only to have Lan Wangji reach for it at the same time.
“Oh, don’t tell me you changed your mind?” Wei Wuxian said, grinning wider.
“It’s confiscated,” Lan Wangji answered, and pulled it out of reach to set on the ground beside him.
“Ugh, you’re so boring,” Wei Wuxian said, but he didn’t want to get in a fight with Lan Wangji. At least not tonight. “I can’t believe I, Wei Wuxian, would get married to you of all people!”
Lan Wangji gave him another flat look and began to eat.
“It’s supposed to be my wedding banquet. At least let me have some spices,” Wei Wuxian muttered as he also picked up his own pair of chopsticks. He sighed, looking at the food—plain white rice, pan-boiled bok-choy, and tofu. Not even meat! Tofu!
Because the truth was, the marriage was not one of hard-won love like the street gossip claimed. It wasn’t even one of alliance like the genealogy books recorded. It was one arranged out of desperation.
After Wei Wuxian stormed Qiongqi Path and killed four of the Jin Sect cultivators there, he’d barricaded himself and the remnants of the Wen Clan in the Yiling Burial Mounds. The fifty-sect emergency council had not been held on behalf of two cutsleeve cultivators, but a council quickly configured to decide on a course of action for the founder of demonic cultivation who had gone rogue. YunmengJiang was still considered a weak sect, recovering from the Lotus Pier Massacre, and Wei Wuxian had made enemies of nearly everyone, either because they feared him or because they couldn’t control him. Jiang Cheng had been left with a clear message—cut ties with Wei Wuxian or else.
Pressured on all sides, Jiang Cheng had gone to the only sect he felt he could reason with—GusuLan. Apart from the girl, MianMian, only Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji had spoken on their behalf at the council. A month of negotiations went by in the Cloud Recesses before a marriage was arranged between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. Under watch by the strictest and most morally upright of all sects, no one would dare openly criticize GusuLan if they took in Wei Wuxian in order to reform him. Furthermore, he would be married to Hanguang-Jun, whose reputation was unbeatable in the cultivation world, and who was not the Lan Sect Leader, so even if he never had children, it wouldn’t be as big of a problem. It was a marriage of convenience arranged to save Wei Wuxian.
So of course, there was no wedding banquet. As soon as the ceremony concluded, Lan Xichen had accompanied Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli back for Lotus Pier to take care of all the other affairs they had to smooth over for Wei Wuxian, but Jiang Yanli had promised to bring his favorite lotus rib soup the next time she came to visit.
“Speech is forbidden when dining,” Lan Wangji said.
“Lan Zhan, you’re killing me here!” Wei Wuxian complained. He ate as fast as he could, finishing his portion so he could keep talking. “Normal weddings should have alcohol! Good food! Lots of people and lots of talking!” he said with mouth full.
Lan Wangji continued eating, chewing each mouthful carefully and swallowing before he would take another bite. This meant that by the time Lan Wangji was finished eating, Wei Wuxian had gotten so bored that he’d lay down on the floor and was trying to reach the jar of alcohol with his foot. Every time his foot got near, Lan Wangji would move the jar further away.
“Are you done eating?” Wei Wuxian said, finally sitting back up when Lan Wangji put down his chopsticks. “Does that mean we can talk now?”
Lan Wangji shot him another look. Wei Wuxian hadn’t stopped talking the entire time anyway.
Wei Wuxian grinned. “So, Lan Zhan, where are the Wens staying?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian liked to think that although he’d just been saddled with the most boring person in the world as his new husband, he’d taken the news pretty well. Jiang Yanli had protested more than he had—after all, even though he was marrying a man and it couldn’t exactly be called a loving marriage, it wasn’t like Wei Wuxian had any particular girl he was interested in. As long as he could move the Wen clan up to the Cloud Recesses with him, he knew the GusuLan Sect would never mistreat them and they’d be well-protected. And this way, YunmengJiang wouldn’t be forced to cut ties with him, which meant he would be able to see Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng when he wanted, even attend Jiang Yanli’s wedding no matter how much he disapproved of Jin ZiXuan.
He’d also secretly looked forward to seeing the look on Lan Wangji’s face when Wei Wuxian showed up as his bride. But even though he’d talked his shijie into putting a bit of rouge on his cheeks and lips, Lan Wangji’s eyebrow barely twitched when he saw him. It would have been more effective, Wei Wuxian decided, if he’d been decked out in full wedding attire. Unfortunately, the entire thing had been so rushed that there was no time, and really no reason, for either party to acquire any wedding clothes.
“They are temporarily housed in the disciples’ quarters. We will begin construction for their permanent living quarters tomorrow,” Lan Wangji answered. He gathered the various plates and chopsticks, stacking them neatly on the tray the meal had been brought in, and left it in the hallway outside the door for a servant to pick up later.
“Oh good, I’m going to go visit them then,” Wei Wuxian said, jumping to his feet. “Have a good night!”
“Wait,” Lan Wangji said, blocking his way out.
Wei Wuxian paused. “What?”
“Bedtime,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian’s grin began to widen again. “Bedtime? Wow, Hanguang-Jun, you’re being so forward,” he teased.
This time, Lan Wangji finally had a better reaction, although only the very base of his earlobes turned pink. “Curfew,” he bit out.
Wei Wuxian had completely forgotten about the nine o’clock curfew the GusuLan Sect enforced. “It’s not that late yet, just a few minutes.”
“It’s time,” Lan Wangji said.
“Lan Zhan, I can’t believe you’re so eager to get in bed with me.” Wei Wuxian tried a different tactic. If he couldn’t convince Lan Wangji to loosen up on his rules, maybe he could disgust him into kicking Wei Wuxian out. Jiang Cheng had told Wei Wuxian that it had taken ages to talk GusuLan into arranging a marriage for him even if they’d been sympathetic to the situation, and then even longer to convince Lan Wangji. He was actually extremely curious how exactly they’d finally talked Lan Wangji into accepting the marriage. “Well, if you insist.” He leaned forward and draped himself up against Lan Wangji. “Lan Er-Gege, be gentle with me.” He fluttered his eyelashes at him.
He felt Lan Wangji stiffen beneath his touch and congratulated himself, bracing himself for impact when Lan Wangji inevitably kicked him out.
Instead, Wei Wuxian felt his entire body go weak all of a sudden—he hadn’t experienced it before, but he’d heard of the body-locking spell. Before he could slide to the floor, Lan Wangji caught him and tossed him over one shoulder.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian protested. “Come on, that’s not fair! When did you even learn this spell? Isn’t the silencing spell bad enough already? You GusuLan bunch of—”
Wei Wuxian’s lips sealed themselves shut in the next instant, and no matter how much he tried to make noise or move, he couldn’t do anything. Lan Wangji opened a second door and walked toward a bed. This room was clearly the bedroom judging by the enormous bed that took up one entire side of it. The sheer size of the bed, the color of the wood, the frame of it—none of it matched the rest of the almost non-existent decor in this suite, so Wei Wuxian concluded that someone must have brought it in especially for them. He wondered what had happened to Lan Wangji’s old bed, because this one could fit at least five grown men on it. Someone had also put out red blankets and stuck a big red paper with the character for “luck” painted on it right over the bed. Wei Wuxian wanted to laugh—he and Lan Wangji would certainly need luck to make this marriage last.
Lan Wangji put him down more gently than he expected, holding his head so that it wouldn’t hit anything as he was set on the left side of the bed. He felt Lan Wangji arranging his limbs until he was lying flat, and then pulled a blanket over his immobile body.
He heard shuffling, and felt the bed frame move—Lan Wangji must have lay down on the other side. He wasn’t even close enough for them to be touching on that giant bed. A moment later, Wei Wuxian heard a quiet rush of wind and the lanterns were blown out, and then everything was silent.
Lan Wangji really wasn’t going to touch him at all. Wei Wuxian huffed an exhale and resigned himself to a few boring hours counting rabbits in his mind before he could fall asleep.
By the time someone knocked on the door, the sun was already high in the sky and Wei Wuxian’s back ached from sleeping in the same position all night.
“Are you going to sleep all day?” He recognized Wen Qing’s voice drifting from somewhere outside of the Jingshi. “Get up already!”
“Let me sleep,” Wei Wuxian complained. “I was done by Hanguang-Jun all night. Have mercy.”
“As though he would touch you,” Wen Qing said.
Wei Wuxian dragged himself up, pulling on his robes as he did. “Why wouldn’t he? He’s my cultivation partner now,” he said as he opened the door.
Wen Qing stood on the other side, now dressed in the pristine white of GusuLan robes. She gave Wei Wuxian a probing look from head to foot and declared her diagnosis. “He didn’t touch you.”
“Then explain this.” Wei Wuxian pointed to his aching waist.
“He probably put a body-locking spell on you to keep you from harassing him ,” Wen Qing said dismissively. “Let’s go. Lan Qiren wants to speak to everyone.”
“You’re so cruel,” Wei Wuxian complained, though he followed her out.
With the wedding the day before, he’d been too busy to pay attention to anything else. It had been awhile since he’d been anywhere further than Yiling. Constantly surrounded by the resentful energy in the Burial Mounds, he’d forgotten how nice it was up in the Cloud Recesses. The sun shone bright up in this altitude, and the air was fresh and held that slight crisp bite of autumn turning slowly to winter. Wei Wuxian took a deep breath and stretched, grinning from ear to ear.
“Ah, it smells so much better than the Burial Mounds,” he said.
Wen Qing rolled her eyes. “That was a corpse mountain—anywhere would smell better than there.”
“So you should be more grateful I brought you all with me up here,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Yes, yes, thank you great Lord of Evil, Yiling Patriarch,” Wen Qing said dryly.
Wei Wuxian winced at the embarrassing title. “You are so mean to me,” he complained as he followed her up the pebbled pathway, heading further into the depth of the Cloud Recesses. The As per its name, the mountains and valleys Cloud Recesses were often ringed with clouds of fog, so Wei Wuxian didn’t notice the small plain until they’d followed the footpath through a bank of fog. The area that the Lan Sect had designated for the Wen clan was a beautiful, verdant little valley further out from the main complex of the Cloud Recesses. The only building currently there was a small cottage ringed with purple gentians a little distance away from where a group of craftsmen were already hard at work.
Piles of wood and stone and other construction materials had already been assembled, and like Lan Wangji had promised, the work had already begun. The group of Wens were standing a little distance away in the middle of a lecture Lan Qiren had apparently already begun, so A-Yuan was the only one to notice the newcomers.
“Xian-Gege!” he called and ran up to him, crashing right into Wei Wuxian’s legs and hugging him.
“Oh, A-Yuan is so happy to see me today,” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully and picked up the toddler in his arms, carrying him back over to the rest of the family. “Are you making trouble for everyone?”
“A-Yuan is good,” A-Yuan said, playing with a lock of Wei Wuxian’s hair, holding it between his chubby fingers.
“Ouch, don’t pull,” Wei Wuxian said, loosening his hair from the child’s grip.
The group had been distracted when A-Yuan shouted, and had gone silent, watching as Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing walked up to them. Lan Qiren looked at Wei Wuxian like he’d just been forced to swallow something sour. He grinned at the Lan elder. “Good morning, Uncle!”
Lan Qiren’s whole face turned purple. “What did you call me?”
“Uncle,” Wei Wuxian repeated, grinning wider. “I’m married to Lan Zhan now, aren’t I? Which makes you my—”
“Don’t say it!” Lan Qiren shouted.
Wen Qing elbowed him in the back.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Ah, I forgot how much fun the Cloud Recesses are,” he said. He transferred A-Yuan’s weight to one arm to wave the free one at Lan Qiren. “Continue, Uncle!”
“You—” Lan Qiren took a deep breath and recomposed himself. “As I was saying,” he said. “We know that many of you are already cultivators. If you so wish, you may take the GusuLan exams and formally apprentice into GusuLan Sect. If you do not wish to do so, you may live as civilians. However, everyone living in the Cloud Recesses is expected to follow our sect rules, which are carved on the stone wall at the entrance. Our next round of exams begin in three days, so you have until then to consider,” he said. “And for those of you interested, to study. I will now inform you of the requirements of the examinations.”
It was a more generous offer than Wei Wuxian had expected. While some of the wealthier Wen families had bought their way into other cultivation sects during the Sunshot Campaign, GusuLan had refused to accept even one disciple they had not personally selected out of their examination process. Although protecting the Wens had been a part of the marriage negotiations, Wei Wuxian had thought it would be fine if the Wen clan was left alone in some corner of the Cloud Recesses to farm and take care of themselves. At best, he thought they might become servants for the GusuLan cultivators. He didn’t expect this offer to include allowing the Wen clan the privilege of taking the GusuLan cultivation exams.
Wei Wuxian sat down on the plush grass, playing with A-Yuan as Lan Qiren droned on about the various requirements of joining GusuLan. He was ready to lay down and take a nap when Lan Qiren barked, “Wei Wuxian! Get up!”
“What? I married into GusuLan so I don’t have to take the exams, and you already made me copy the rules so many times I could write them out blind-folded,” Wei Wuxian said.
“You have other responsibilities,” Lan Qiren said. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” Wei Wuxian obediently got to his feet and brushed off his clothes. A-Yuan latched himself onto Wei Wuxian’s leg as he started following Lan Qiren away.
“At least in name, as a member of the Lan...household…” Lan Qiren sounded like he was forcing the words out, “there are certain expectations of you,” he said. “You also are expected to follow our sect rules, and most importantly, you are forbidden to continue practicing demonic cultivation—Wei Wuxian, are you listening?” he snapped when Wei Wuxian bent to adjust A-Yuan’s grip on his leg.
“I’m listening, I’m listening, but Uncle, demonic cultivation isn’t as bad as you think,” Wei Wuxian said, grinning. “My hypothesis ended up being right—it is possible to harness resentful energy, and—”
“Forbidden!” Lan Qiren shouted. “It’s forbidden! ”
He shouted so loudly that A-Yuan burst into tears, still clinging to Wei Wuxian’s leg.
Lan Qiren immediately stopped shouting, staring down at the child. Wei Wuxian would bet that Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen had probably never even cried as babies, so of course Lan Qiren had no idea what to do.
When Wei Wuxian was about to pick up A-Yuan, though, he heard another voice speak up behind him.
“Uncle. Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian turned to see Lan Wangji standing there, looking down at the crying child clinging to Wei Wuxian’s leg.
When A-Yuan heard the new voice, he looked up, and recognizing Lan Wangji, he wailed and raced for Lan Wangji’s legs. “Rich brother!” he cried.
Lan Qiren looked like he was about to spit blood. “You—you know this child?”
Of course, Lan Wangji knew him. During that month of marriage negotiations, before Lan Wangji had been appointed the job of being Wei Wuxian’s husband, Lan Wangji had once visited Yiling for a night hunt. Although Wei Wuxian never found out what the assignment was, Lan Wangji had also met and consequently spoiled A-Yuan during that short visit. A-Yuan hadn’t shut up about his “rich brother” ever since, and mistook at least one white-robed person for him every single time Wei Wuxian brought him to Yiling after that.
“I gave birth to him,” Wei Wuxian said cheekily to Lan Qiren. “He’s ours.”
Lan Qiren turned a shade of purple that even Wei Wuxian, with all his experience of angering Lan Qiren had never seen.
Wei Wuxian laughed so hard he had to hold onto Lan Wangji’s arm to stay standing. Lan Wangji, meanwhile, patted A-Yuan on the head.
“A-Yuan missed Rich-Gege,” A-Yuan said, beaming through his tear-streaked face at Lan Wangji. “Xian-Gege said you wouldn’t come see us anymore.”
“Hey, it wasn’t a lie,” Wei Wuxian said, raising his hands. “He didn’t come see us—we came to see him.” He grinned at A-Yuan. “Anyway, stop calling him Rich-Gege.” He grinned. “You should call him dad from now on.”
“I never called him dad!” A-Yuan blushed and buried his face in Lan Wangji’s leg.
“You—you—” Lan Qiren stuttered.
“And you can call him Great-Uncle,” Wei Wuxian continued, pointing over at Lan Qiren.
“Wei Wuxian!” Lan Qiren shouted.
“Shh, Uncle, shouting is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses, you know,” Wei Wuxian said. “You’re going to make your grand-nephew cry if you keep yelling.”
“Wei Ying, stop provoking others,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian pouted. “All right, all right,” he said. “A-Yuan, call him Lan Er-Gege, okay?” He winked at Lan Wangji.
A-Yuan nodded, his face still buried in Lan Wangji’s leg.
“Wangji, have you brought the item I asked you to bring?” Lan Qiren said to Lan Wangji, apparently choosing to ignore Wei Wuxian altogether.
Lan Wangji gave a short nod.
“The both of you come with me,” he said without even glancing at A-Yuan.
“A-Yuan, go play by yourself now,” Wei Wuxian said, patting him on the head. “You can see your Lan Er-Gege anytime you want now.”
A-Yuan looked like he wanted to stay longer, but upon seeing Lan Qiren’s face, didn’t quite dare protest, and toddled back down the path toward the rest of his family.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji followed Lan Qiren into the library where Lan Qiren sat at one of the tables, and gestured for the other two to do the same. After they did, Lan Wangji pulled out a small wooden case, placing it in the center of the table, and opened it. Sitting on red cloth was a stone about the size of Wei Wuxian’s hand, shaped in a perfect circle. The stone was made entirely of white jade and pulsed gently with spiritual power.
“This is one of the Lan family treasures, the Purification Stone,” Lan Qiren said. “Do you remember how it came to be?”
Wei Wuxian thought back to all those lessons he’d suffered long ago. “One of the Lan ancestors found the jade perfectly formed at the top of a mountain where it had sat for hundreds of years, gathering spiritual power from the ice and the snow,” he said slowly. “It had been purified by the elements, and can be used to purify...resentful energy,” he finished.
“So you did pay attention to some of my lessons,” Lan Qiren said. “What are the limitations of this stone?”
When Wei Wuxian hesitated, Lan Qiren gestured for Lan Wangji to answer. “As it is a stone, it gathered spiritual energy slowly, and can only discharge it slowly. Dependent on the level of resentful energy built up, it may only have limited effectiveness.”
“Very good,” Lan Qiren said. He pinned Wei Wuxian with a stare. “I’m afraid the amount of resentful energy you’ve gathered to yourself with demonic cultivation will be too much for this stone—if only you had come to GusuLan earlier,” he said. “But what’s done is done. From now on, you will spend every day purifying yourself of resentful energy here in the library,” he ordered.
“Uncle,” Wei Wuxian whined. “It’s already bad enough I have to follow all these rules, you’re really going to lock me up here too?”
“Wangji, watch him and make sure he does it,” Lan Qiren said, ignoring Wei Wuxian altogether. Then he rose and left the building.
Wei Wuxian sighed as soon as he left and draped himself over the table. “I already told you I can control it,” he said.
“Begin,” Lan Wangji ordered.
Wei Wuxian picked up the stone. “Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ll do it. You don’t need to supervise me.” He assumed the pose for meditation, cross-legged, with his hands cupping the stone in his lap. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again. “You’re really going to just sit here and watch me? Even if you aren’t bored, I’m going to get bored just watching you,” he said when Lan Wangji didn’t move. He sighed. “Fine, it’s your own time you’re wasting,” he said and shut his eyes again.
In order for the stone to work, Wei Wuxian had to pass his resentful energy into it, and allow the spiritual power to enter him. At least that was the way it would have worked if Wei Wuxian still had a golden core. As it was, any spiritual power entering him had nothing to purify. Holding the stone like this, at most, it might dispel a bit of the resentful energy gathered to Wei Wuxian, but ultimately, it wouldn’t do much good.
Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji didn’t have to know that, though, because Wei Wuxian had no intention of stopping demonic cultivation. Since he no longer had a golden core, it was the only path left for him if he wanted to still be a cultivator, if he didn’t want anyone to know he’d lost his golden core, if he wanted to protect the people he cared about. If it took being bored out of his mind sitting for hours at a time in the library pretending to purify himself with a stone, he’d just have to deal with it.
By the time Lan Wangji let him out of the library for dinner, Wei Wuxian had been bored nearly to tears and had thought up at least three new spell talismans he wanted to try with demonic cultivation. Lunch had been served in the library, and although Lan Wangji had started reading a book after a few hours, he never left Wei Wuxian alone.
“I’m going to have dinner with the Wens,” Wei Wuxian said as soon as he heard the gong sound for dinner.
“Wait,” Lan Wangji said. “The resentful energy hasn’t improved,” he said after looking at Wei Wuxian for a few moments.
“You said yourself the stone works slowly,” Wei Wuxian said. “I’ll see you later!” he shouted and took off before Lan Wangji could make him do anything else.
Wei Wuxian had eaten with the Wens ever since that one dinner party they’d thrown him that day Lan Wangji had visited. He’d forgotten how much he loved having company around, people to talk with, to eat with, and he’d gotten used to the loud chatter of the Wen clan as they gathered around every night to eat. But until the Wens had their own living quarters, there was no place for them to eat except with the rest of the Lan Sect cultivators. And as Lan Wangji had so eloquently schooled A-Yuan a few weeks ago, there was no talking while eating under the Lan household rules.
The Wens, although they were sitting together at a few of the tables in the hall, were as silent as the rest of the GusuLan Sect, picking at their bland meals in silence. Wei Wuxian felt like he’d walked into a cemetery.
“Someone say something,” he muttered, taking a seat next to Wen Qing.
“No speech while eating,” Wen Qing hissed, clearly having studied those three thousand rules, and continued to eat.
“You too?” Wei Wuxian complained. “Where’s Wen Ning? I haven’t seen him since yesterday.” He could at least bully Wen Ning into talking to him.
“In seclusion until they decide what to do with him,” Wen Qing said. “He’s fine. Safe.”
Wei Wuxian frowned. “They can’t just lock him up. I’ll talk to—”
“Don’t you dare,” Wen Qing hissed. “GusuLan is already being good enough to us. Once they realize he’s harmless, they’ll let him out on their own. Don’t you interfere,” she ordered.
“He’s your brother,” Wei Wuxian said.
“Wei Wuxian, speech is prohibited while eating!” Lan Qiren barked from the head table up front where he and a few other elders of the sect were dining.
Wei Wuxian jolted in his seat. Even eating with Lan Wangji was better than this, he thought, picking at his food. At least he was fun to tease.
Even A-Yuan quietly ate and ignored all of Wei Wuxian’s attempts to make faces at him, so he had to suffer through a boring dinner too. Even after dinner, no one would pay attention to him. The Wens were busy—all of them studying the GusuLan Sect rules or practicing their cultivation in preparation for the exam.
Bored almost to tears, Wei Wuxian gave up trying to find entertainment or a sympathetic person. At least it was easy to break out of the Cloud Recesses when no one was paying attention. As soon as Wei Wuxian had jumped the wall the same way he’d done so many times before, he legged it down the mountain. On foot, the trip took longer than it used to by sword, but he was still in Caiyi Town by the time an hour had passed. He sat himself down in the nearest tavern, and called over a jar of Emperor’s Smile from the innkeeper with extra spicy peanuts to go with his alcohol.
“Ah, I was going to die from boredom! This is what life is about,” Wei Wuxian said after downing his first bowl. He hugged the jar. “Emperor’s Smile, how I’ve missed you!”
He drank and ate alone for awhile, thinking about where he wanted to go once he was done. One perk of having been moved to GusuLan was that he no longer had to suppress the numerous corpses of the Burial Mound, and he could go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted. He was debating if he wanted to rent a boat and see if he could find any lotus ponds nearby, when a commotion started at another table.
“I’m telling you, I saw what I saw!” one young man was shouting at another. “I’m not taking that way again even if you pay me—”
“We’ve taken that bridge a thousand times,” the other young man said. “It’s the fastest route. No one has even reported a fierce corpse in that area.”
“If I say I saw it, I saw it!” the first man said. “Call me a liar again, and—”
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Wei Wuxian said, walking up to them. “What was it you said you saw?”
“A ghost,” the first young man said. Both of them were young, maybe around fifteen or sixteen years old, and dressed in matching green robes. They were clearly having dinner judging by the half-eaten dishes at the table.
“Nothing,” the second one said.
“It’s a ghost, I’m telling you!” the first man insisted. “What else would you call a woman you can see through?” he demanded.
Wei Wuxian pulled up a bench to their table. “Tell me what you saw,” he said, interested.
“Don’t indulge this one,” the second young man said. “He sees ghosts everywhere. His old woman raised him to be paranoid.”
“I’m not paranoid—it’s called being cautious,” the first man shouted. “You listen to my story and see if you think I’m just being paranoid,” he said to Wei Wuxian.
So over the next half hour, Wei Wuxian found out the two young men were a pair who worked for the Tang family delivery business. The paranoid one was named Liu Fengya, and his skeptical friend was Guo Yi. The Tang family was a well-established family based in the Lanling area who had long run a delivery service. The original Tang to start the business had started out as a rare, rogue cultivator. When his first wife had been robbed and killed by bandits on her way to visit her mother, the original Tang had started this delivery business to ensure that anyone who hired the Tang family would never have to worry about either goods or people being robbed. Three generations later, the most current Tang clan leader had no talent for cultivation, but was a shrewd businessman, and hired cultivators from smaller sects to transport the goods.
Liu Fengya and Guo Yi were two such young cultivators from small local sects—not terrible in their cultivation, but not outstanding talents either. They’d been tasked with a job a week ago to deliver a certain package from Yantai City to Caiyi Town. When they’d dropped off the package, the head of the manor had asked for a second package to be delivered to Yantai City again. Since Yantai City was in the border between the Lanling and Yunmeng territories, there was some distance and geography separating the two locations. There were two ways to travel between the two cities—the first was a broad road constructed a few years ago that circumvented a forested gulley where the fengshui was so bad that it was easy to lose your way. The second and faster route was a bridge that stretched over the gulley that had been travelers’ primary route before the broader road had been constructed. It was this bridge where Liu Fengya claimed to have seen a ghost, and was dead set against returning that way.
“I was on the bridge too and I didn’t see anything,” Guo Yi said when Liu Fengya had finished speaking. “It’ll take at least two weeks if we use the road. The bridge will only take five days.”
“Well you never pay attention to anything!” Liu Fengya answered. “You thought you were just getting better food than everyone else because you were lucky, when Fu ShaoLin was making special meals for you the whole time because she liked you.”
“That’s not—that wasn’t because of that,” Guo Yi said, turning red.
“I’m telling you there’s a ghost,” Liu Fengya insisted.
As he’d listened to their story, Wei Wuxian had been helping himself to the dinner that the boys had ordered, picking from the spiciest dishes and pouring bowls of Emperor’s Smile from the boys’ order once he’d finished his own jar.
“Why don’t you just fly on your swords and skip it entirely?” Wei Wuxian asked, pouring himself another bowl.
“You’ve clearly never delivered anything in your life,” Liu Fengya said. “The package is this big! This big.” He gestured with his arms, some sort of large box that was about as tall and wide as their table. “We couldn’t carry that flying.”
“Well, whether or not there’s a ghost, why don’t we go find out?” Wei Wuxian said, finishing off the last of the Emperor’s Smile. “I’m ready. Let’s go!”
The two younger cultivators stared at him.
“Hey, you finished all the alcohol!” Liu Fengya said when he reached for the jar again. “Who are you anyway?”
All three of them whirled around to stare at the fourth person who had spoken. Wei Wuxian felt his stomach drop down to his feet.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, good Lan Zhan, Lan Wangji, Hanguang-Jun, I can explain,” Wei Wuxian said, quickly putting down his empty bowl and smiling at him. “See these two young cultivators, they’ve seen a ghost plaguing Beiluo Bridge—you know how important that bridge is to civilians traveling through that area. We can’t let it go uninvestigated, right? After all, Hanguang-Jun has a reputation to keep up.”
The two young cultivators stared slack-jawed at them.
“Hanguang-Jun?” Guo Yi asked, though any cultivator would recognize him by looks alone. Apart from Lan Xichen, no man in the cultivating world could compete with Lan Wangji’s icey beauty. Even if they didn’t recognize his face, with the GusuLan robes and forehead ribbon, the guqin strapped to his back, and Bichen at his waist, there was no one else he could be. “Didn’t Hanguang-Jun just get married? If he’s Hanguang-Jun, then doesn’t that make you—you—”
“The Yiling Patriarch?” Liu Fengya yelped.
Wei Wuxian grinned and reached over to pat him on the head. “Oh, don’t look so scared, Fengya,” he said. “You were just now yelling at me for finishing your alcohol, weren’t you?”
“What ghost?” Lan Wangji interrupted with a look at Wei Wuxian that told him to stop teasing the boys.
Wei Wuxian grinned. Lan Wangji really was good—even if he’d clearly come to fetch Wei Wuxian back up to the Cloud Recesses, he couldn’t hear about a case like this and not go help. Finally something interesting. “I’ll catch you up on the way,” he said.
Now that Hanguang-Jun had agreed to investigate, Guo Yi had no protests. It was decided that they would fly over to get rid of the ghost tonight, and the boys would be able to travel on the bridge the next morning with their package. Apparently Lan Wangji’s excellent, upright reputation cancelled out Wei Wuxian’s pitch-black reputation, and the boys hadn’t run away screaming or threatened to kill Wei Wuxian on sight.
Plan decided, the boys went to settle their account with the innkeeper, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji went outside to wait for them.
“I’ll go. You return to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said once they had stepped outside. “You shouldn’t use resentful energy.”
“I won’t! I promise I won’t,” Wei Wuxian said, and seeing his chance at finally doing something fun tonight slipping away, quickly added, “Lan Zhan, you know what I’m like—I can’t stay up there anymore today. My butt is going numb from sitting so much. Come on, it will only be a short trip—take care of that ghost and come back. I won’t give you any trouble at all! I’ll let Hanguang-Jun do all the hard work! Please, Lan Zhan, Lan Er-Gege…” He whined. “I promise I’ll be good and stay in the Cloud Recesses after this. Please…”
“You’ll stay?” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Wuxian quickly nodded. “Yes, I’ll stay, I’ll stay. You won’t have to come get me again.”
When the young cultivators came back out, Wei Wuxian grabbed Lan Wangji by the arm before he could change his mind. “All right, boys, let’s go!”
“Your sword,” Lan Wangji said.
“I left it back in the Jingshi,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’s fine. I’ll ride with you. I need to tell you about the details anyway.”
“Are you...are you really married?” Liu Fengya blurted out after watching the exchange.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Does it not look like we’re a lovey dovey couple?” he asked, his girn turning mischievous as he looped both his hands around Lan Wangji’s arm this time, shamelessly hanging onto him. “You should be grateful, we are taking our newlywed time to come help you guys.” He slouched a little so he could lean his head against Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Liu Fengya turned a brilliant shade of red and started stuttering. “You—you—”
“You, you, what?” Wei Wuxian grinned. “Never seen a cutsleeve before? Or never seen a man as handsome as my husband before?” he said.
He grinned wider when Liu Fengya huffed and leapt up onto his sword to begin flying away. Guo Yi didn’t have quite as interesting of a reaction, but he also leapt up on his sword.
Wei Wuxian smiled watching them. “Shall we go, Lan Zhan?”
Just like that time at Yiling when Wei Wuxian’s talisman had warned him of trouble in the Burial mounds, Lan Wangji lifted him up with one hand around his waist to ride Bichen together. Like the other times Wei Wuxian had ridden with him, Lan Wangji’s posture and strength were both undeniable—so steady that if not for the frigid wind blowing against his face, Wei Wuxian could have been standing on solid ground.
“Tell me the details,” Lan Wangji said as they followed the young cultivators.
Wei Wuxian did as requested, telling him everything he’d heard from the boys. But partway through the story, Wei Wuxian began to fidget. Without spiritual power that could help regulate his temperature, he was more susceptible to the cold than he used to be. And while he was no stranger to suffering, he didn’t have to right now. Lan Wangji was pressed warm to his side, and he was tall—not much taller than Wei Wuxian, but tall enough that Wei Wuxian could press his face into his shoulder, protecting at least half his face from the cold. Wei Wuxian wrapped his arms around Lan Wangji’s middle, sighing when he felt warmer.
Lan Wangji, on the other hand, stiffened up. “What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m cold. As a good husband, the least you could do is keep me warm, right?” Wei Wuxian said, batting his eyelashes up at Lan Wangji. The effect was lost, unfortunately, because Lan Wangji didn’t so much as glance at him, staring straight ahead at the boys. But when he didn’t drop Wei Wuxian or do anything else to stop him, Wei Wuxian smiled and tucked himself a little closer. “Anyway, Liu Fengya says the ghost was a middle-aged woman,” he continued with the story.
After he finished telling Lan Wangji all the details, they lapsed into a comfortable silence. The moon was bright and clear in the sky, illuminating the beautiful night. He could smell sandalwood when he breathed—a cool, refreshing scent like Lan Wangji himself, and Wei Wuxian found himself smiling.
“Hey, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian asked. “Why did you agree to marry me?”
Pressed chest-to-chest like this, Wei Wuxian could feel Lan Wangji take a breath. “Wei Ying, I—”
Wei Wuxian felt the cold wind suddenly stop as Bichen came to a halt, hovering in midair. “What is it?”
He didn’t need to ask the question. As soon as he looked, he could see what had made Lan Wangji and the two boys in front of them stop flying.
They’d arrived at their destination. There was a rope bridge stretched across a fog-stained gulley just as the boys had described, but there was no ghost, at least not one they could see, because the entire rope bridge had been set on fire.