Lan Wangji’s first impression of Yunmeng is that it is hot. He’s sweating in his robes already, only five minutes away from leaving the boat, and he misses the cool mists of the Cloud Recesses. His second impression is that the entire town is festooned with riotous colors. The common folk here dress themselves in bright jewel tones, and the Jiang clan all wear differing shades of amethyst and sapphire. It’s a far cry from the white palette of the Cloud Recesses. As the Jiang clansmen bring them towards Lotus Pier where the Jiang clan proper is awaiting their arrival, Lan Wangji, along with his brother, uncle and a handful of disciples are offered a warm welcome by the people of Yunmeng. Lotus pods and loquats are pressed into their hands, and Lan Wangji ends up holding a lotus flower in full bloom without knowing quite how in the hustle and bustle.
“The people of Yunmeng certainly are friendly, aren’t they?” his brother says, admiring the ripe lotus seed head he’s holding. “I feel more at ease leaving you here already.”
At that, Lan Wangji feels a premature pang of longing at the reminder that a week’s time, his brother and uncle will leave Lan Wangji and some Gusu Lan sect disciples behind in Yunmeng for a year. The stay is ostensibly to promote friendly relations between sects, but it’s common knowledge that the main goal is for Lan Wangji to get to know his betrothed, the Jiang clan’s adopted son Wei Wuxian. When the betrothal was first brought up, his brother had assured him that everything was on a provisional basis: if Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had incompatible personalities, Lan Qiren would gently break off the engagement with Madam Yu with no hard feelings between the two sects.
It's a comfort to him that his feelings will be taken into consideration, but in Lan Wangji’s view, he already knows that he will put aside any personal feelings for the sake of the Lan sect’s success. Even at the age of fourteen, he knew that the needs of the sect outweighed his own wants, and he had a responsibility to his sect.
The reasons for the betrothal were well thought-out: the Gusu Lan sect, while not lacking in connections, had not had a marriage linking themselves and the other clans for a generation. His father’s unconventional choice of a wife notwithstanding, his uncle had also taken no spouse. As the two blood heirs of the Lan sect, Lan Wangji and his brother were the best candidates for an arranged marriage. His brother was the heir presumptive, and so any potential candidates would have to be willing to join the Gusu Lan sect and reside in the Cloud Recesses.
As the second heir, Lan Wangji’s choices were wider: he could move elsewhere and join another sect in marriage. It was this reason that motivated his uncle in choosing Wei Wuxian as his betrothed: although he was not related to the Jiang clan by blood, he had been brought up in the Jiang family like a son. He was not expected to be the next head of the Jiang clan, but nonetheless was a valuable member of the family. If, for whatever reason, and Lan Wangji can read between the lines, and he knows that his uncle is hinting at a scenario where his brother is indisposed and can no longer lead the Lan sect, Lan Wangji has to reside in the Cloud Recesses, it would be no trouble for his spouse to travel with him and leave Yunmeng. Vice versa, as the second heir Lan Wangji could easily move to Yunmeng and join the Jiang clan. With neither of them bearing the responsibility to continue the bloodline of their clans, it was no problem that they were both men. It helped that rumors of Wei Wuxian’s exceptional cultivation level had reached the Cloud Recesses, and indirectly, the ears of Lan Qiren as well.
On Lan Wangji’s part, his uncle had not told him much about his betrothed at all, except some information regarding his parentage and status as an adopted son of the Jiang sect, in order to avoid missteps in conversation, especially around Madam Yu. Lan Wangji wonders what his betrothed will be like, a son of a rogue cultivator and her chosen love, raised in the colorful environs of Yunmeng.
“Welcome, Grand Master Lan. Yunmeng is honored by your presence,” Sect Leader Jiang says.
The image of the Jiang family arrayed around the Sword Hall is an impressive sight. The head of the family, Sect Leader Jiang, is at the head of the congregation, a welcoming smile on his face. Madam Yu, Zidian on her wrist, is flanked by two handmaidens while the younger members of the family are standing in a neat line, heads bowed respectfully towards their guests.
As the elders exchange pleasantries, Lan Wangji lets his eyes wander over the three figures. The girl dressed in pale lilac robes can only be Jiang Yanli, the only daughter of the Jiang family. Standing next to her is a boy whose straight brows and mouth resemble those of Madam Yu, undoubtably the young master Jiang Wanyin. Finally, at the end of the line, a boy with messy black hair, dressed in black and red robes that are a touch incongruous with the rest of the Jiang sect’s purple colors. That can only be Lan Wangji’s betrothed, Wei Wuxian.
“Come, let me introduce you to my children,” Sect Leader Jiang says, gesturing towards the subjects of Lan Wangji’s attention. “My daughter, Jiang Yanli, my son, Jiang Wanyin, and Wei Wuxian, our head disciple.”
They each bow in turn when their names are introduced, and Lan Wangji notices Wei Wuxian’s curious glances at the Lan sect. When Wei Wuxian’s eyes meet Lan Wangji’s, Lan Wangji holds the gaze until Wei Wuxian breaks off first, red brushed across his cheeks. The heat must be unbearable even for those who live in Yunmeng, Lan Wangji thinks.
After his brother introduces himself, Lan Wangji does the same, raising his hands and cupping one fist in a gesture of respect. “Lan Wangji of the Gusu Lan sect. Well met, Young Master Jiang, Miss Jiang and Young Master Wei.”
“Lan-ergongzi. There’s no need for formalities. Treat Yunmeng as your home during your stay,” Sect Leader Jiang says.
Later that night, there is to be a banquet held in honor of the Lan sect, but for now the weary travelers are all showed to their rooms. His uncle and brother are led to guest chambers in a different part of Lotus Pier, while Lan Wangji is guided to rooms located within the residential wing of Lotus Pier reserved for family, due in part to the length of his stay and his unique position as a potential future member of the Jiang clan. The three younger members of the Jiang clan shoo away the servant assigned to Lan Wangji, and take it upon themselves to show Lan Wangji to his rooms and around Lotus Pier.
“Second Young Master Lan, you must be tired from your travels. Why don’t we show you to your room?” Jiang Yanli opens, gesturing in the direction of the family quarters.
“Mn.” Lan Wangji nods respectfully in Jiang Yanli’s direction.
The silence as they walk to his chambers is a little awkward, interspersed only by Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian elbowing each other and shooting meaningful looks in Lan Wangji’s direction. Jiang Yanli looks on with a knowing look that must be universal to all older siblings, because Lan Wangji has seen this exact expression on his brother’s face, and eventually takes pity on her younger siblings, engaging Lan Wangji in small talk that he replies monosyllabically.
When they reach his rooms, Jiang Yanli says, “Take your time to settle in, Second Young Master Lan. There’s a basin of water in your room already. I’ve prepared some tea and snacks in the central pavilion of the family wing. Please come out when you are ready, we will be waiting for you.”
As he washes his face and hands and freshens up, Lan Wangji can hear the three siblings jostling outside, the gently chiding voice of Jiang Yanli mixed with the complaints of Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian. The noise fades off gradually, and Lan Wangji assumes that they’ve moved away to the pavilion.
The chambers he has been allocated are quite beautiful. Lotus carvings adorn the light wood panels around the room, as well as the wooden frame of the bed. There are purple swathes of cloth tastefully hung as decoration along the rafters, and a small wooden tub and privacy screen set in one corner of the room. It’s different from the Jingshi, lacking the books and items he’s amassed over the fourteen years of his life, but for the next twelve months it will be perfectly serviceable as Lan Wangji’s refuge from the world.
“He’s your fiancé, talk to him! Why are you leaving all the heavy lifting to A-jie?”
“You’re the same too! Future Sect Leader of the Jiang clan, unable to open his mouth in front of the second Jade of Lan.”
“It’s not my fault he looks so unfriendly! Anyway, just talk to him, what’s the point of him staying here for a year if you two don’t even interact?”
“Fine, fine, I got it.”
The people of Lotus Pier talk loudly. Or rather, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian seem to have loud voices, because Lan Wangji can hear their argument from ten meters away where he’s stepping onto the walkway connecting the pavilion and the rest of the building which houses the residential chambers. The pavilion hovers over an idyllic pond, its surface rippling with the movement of orange and black koi fish and dappled by the shade of lotus leaves rising gracefully from the water. There’s a table set with dishes overfilling with food and a steaming pot of tea that Jiang Yanli is fussing over. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian are on the farther side of the pavilion, their backs facing towards Lan Wangji, still unaware of his presence. Jiang Yanli is the first to notice him.
“Second Young Master Lan! Please, take a seat,” she says.
He does, and accepts the tea that Jiang Yanli pours for him. The four of them settle around the table.
“That’s lotus tea, it’s famous in Yunmeng. It goes well with these walnut cakes.” Wei Wuxian nudges the plate towards him.
“Mn. Thank you,” Lan Wangji replies.
He answers questions posed by Wei Wuxian (“How many days did you travel?” “Seven.”) and Jiang Wanyin (“How many disciples does the Lan sect have?” “One hundred and thirty-seven.”) as he eats his fill and empties three more cups of tea. The tea snacks are exquisite and entirely on-par with the food of the Cloud Recesses, if of a different style than Lan Wangji is used to, and he makes sure to tell Jiang Yanli.
“Of course it’s delicious! My shi-jie’s cooking is unparalleled!”
“A-xian…” Jiang Yanli chides, punching his shoulder gently in an embarrassed manner.
It’s a fascinating sight for Lan Wangji, witnessing the three siblings interact in this manner. Behavior and conduct in the Cloud Recesses is always restrained, the numerous rules of the Lan sect having been inculcated in all the disciples from a young age. Even with his immediate family, Lan Wangji has only ever been respectful, and never this casual. The closest memory he can muster is one of his mother, nudging his nose with her curled index finger to cajole him into laughing when she thinks he’s being too serious, and Lan Wangji batting her hand away playfully.
Lan Wangji already feels like he sticks out in this family.
“Second Young Master Lan, our parents need our help setting up for the banquet later, so we’ll leave your tour of Lotus Pier up to A-xian,” Jiang Yanli says, standing up and tugging her brother away from where he’s eyeing another sesame cake.
“Wha- I thought we said we were going to do the tour together!” Wei Wuxian sputters.
Lan Wangji gets the distinct impression that the two of them are being set up, judging from the sly look on Jiang Wanyin’s face. Regrettably, over the next twelve months such situations will happen far too frequently for Lan Wangji’s liking.
“You’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. Have fun!” Jiang Wanyin says, popping a sesame cake into his mouth as he saunters off with his sister.
“Have a good time, A-xian, Second Young Master Lan!” Jiang Yanli adds.
“Well. I guess it’s just you and me,” Wei Wuxian says.
He scratches the back of his neck awkwardly, the pose emphasizing the toned muscle of his biceps through his robes, before bouncing out of his seat. There’s a bright smile on his face, shining with the megawatt force of the sun, and his eyes are crinkled in an attractive way, Lan Wangji notes absently.
“What do you want to see first?”
“Training field.” Lan Wangji rises from his seat.
“Alright, let’s go!” Wei Wuxian leads the way.
On their way towards the training fields at the back of the Jiang estate, Wei Wuxian points out other points of interest: “That’s my room over there, and Jiang Cheng’s room on the other side. Shi-jie’s room is in another part of the mansion, as is Uncle Jiang’s and Madam Yu’s.”
(At this, Lan Wangji raises his eyebrows. It’s common knowledge that Sect Leader Jiang’s relationship with his wife is tolerant at best and tempestuous at worst, but he had not known that they kept separate chambers. Then again, it is not as if Lan Wangji is in any position to judge, given the dysfunctional relationship his parents had.
Wei Wuxian misses his raised eyebrows, and continues to prattle on.)
Lotus Pier is a large estate, sprawling inland from the river bank. The grounds are dotted with buildings and carefully tended gardens, bustling with people. Lan Wangji passes through elegant moon gates (月亮门) and under the eaves of intricately carved roofs, always a few steps behind Wei Wuxian. Although Lotus Pier is a respectable size for the abode of a Sect Leader, it is dwarfed by the Cloud Recesses, which occupies a large part of the Jade Mountain. Besides the main building housing disciples, there is an annex housing the female disciples. Combined with the classrooms and libraries, that accounted for most of the mountaintop. The foothills were occupied by the residences of Lan family members.
As he leads a winding path from one spot to another in Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian talks incessantly about everything and anything: the wooden beam where he, Jiang Cheng and his shi-jie had marked their heights on for years, the best places to sneak in and out of the mansion without detection, and other minutiae that Lan Wangji absorbs silently and files away as information about his fiancé.
Lan Wangji is beginning to suspect that he never shuts up, when Wei Wuxian guides him to a pavilion for a rest and lapses into silence, staring at the far-off water shoreline.
When Lan Wangji looks up at the carved wooden signboard, it reads 'Pavilion of Vesperal Beauty (夕佳亭)'. The pavilion is located at a quieter part of the grounds, accessible by a single winding walkway that leads to a quiet bend of the river. The water flow is calm and gentle below Lan Wangji’s feet, and the setting sun paints the river surface a warm orange. It will soon be time for them to return to the banquet hall.
The lotus flowers here are in bloom as well, but of a different cultivar. The bobbing stalks bear many-petalled white blooms surrounding yellow centers, and the pure white color of the petals reminds Lan Wangji of the Cloud Recesses. One of the blossoms is within arm’s reach, and Lan Wangji bends down and stretches out, wanting to feel the softness of the petals for himself.
Before his fingers make contact, he’s interrupted by Wei Wuxian. “Are you always this quiet?”
When Lan Wangji turns around, Wei Wuxian is still staring off into the distance, elbows leaning on the railing of the pavilion. The honeyed light limns his features, emphasizing his long eyelashes and smooth skin.
“Do you only ever nod and say ‘Mn’? Isn’t there anything you’re interested in at all?” Wei Wuxian turns around, a frown marring his face.
“There is. Guqin. Cultivation.” You, Lan Wangji does not say.
“Ah, so he speaks. That’s the longest I’ve heard you speak since you introduced yourself in the afternoon.”
Wei Wuxian steps closer. His head only comes up to Lan Wangji’s nose, but Lan Wangji is tall for his age, and they are young yet. In time to come, Wei Wuxian might catch up to his height, or even exceed it.
“One should minimize unnecessary chatter.” It’s an admonishment Lan Wangji has issued countless times in the halls of the Cloud Recesses, but it doesn’t seem to have its usual effect, because all Wei Wuxian does is grin cheekily.
“You Lans and your rules. You’re all so uptight! What does it take to get a reaction out of you?”
If Wei Wuxian is trying to get a rise out of Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji will not grant him any response. He stares placidly at the water surface, and tries to reflect the calmness of the river in his mind.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t last for long before Wei Wuxian’s utter shamelessness gets the better of his temper.
“Lan Wangji. Look at me! Lan-ergongzi. Second Jade of Lan.” Wei Wuxian is poking at his shoulder. His tone turns wheedling. “Lan-ergege? Lan Zhan!”
“You–” Utterly shameless person, Lan Wangji wants to say, I can’t believe you’re the person I’m betrothed to!, but he gets cut off by Wei Wuxian’s cackles.
“I finally got you to look at me! Alright, I’ve got it now. I’ll call you Lan Zhan from now on!” His shoulder nudges Lan Wangji’s in an overly familiar manner. “If you wanted me to call you Lan Zhan you only had to ask, you know. Tell you what, I’ll let you call me Wei Ying too! Come on, we’re going to be late for the banquet, and you’re the guest of honor!”
Wei Wuxian skips off, and Lan Wangji carefully suppresses his desire to strangle him. It wouldn’t do to murder his fiancé, not when he still has a year to go at Lotus Pier.
The remaining week passes in a blur of sight-seeing boat rides and meetings with minor sect leaders. Wei Wuxian is an omnipresent figure, constantly pestering Lan Wangji and shouting his name far too loudly, attracting stares from everyone. Lan Wangji tries desperately to inch away and distance himself from Wei Wuxian, but somehow they end up on the same boat every single time due to some none-too-subtle nudging from Jiang Wanyin, and Lan Wangji has to put up with his exclamations and rowdiness and the too-familiar way he says Lan Zhan all the time.
Even on dry land, there is no avoiding him. Lan Wangji, ever the dutiful student, sits on the sidelines of sect meetings with his brother and listens attentively to how his uncle and Sect Leader Jiang mediate disputes between minor sects. Unavoidably, however, Wei Wuxian will emerge from somewhere like a wisp of smoke and sidle up to Lan Wangji’s side to mock-whisper insulting things about the visiting sect leaders until Sect Leader Jiang clears his throat and allows them to excuse themselves before Lan Qiren succumbs to his throbbing forehead vein and throws Wei Wuxian out himself.
When the time for parting comes at the end of seven days’ time, Lan Qiren only has a few exhortations for Lan Wangji.
“Uphold the tenets of the Lan sect. Don’t let our clan lose face (丢脸).” He breaks off, frowning. “That fiancé of yours looks a little too unruly, but there’s nothing that a year in the Cloud Recesses won’t fix. Try to get along, the marriage alliance would be beneficial for us.”
Lan Qiren’s gaze softens. “Take care of yourself, Wangji. This will be the first time you spend such a long time away from home. It’s a good chance to learn different skills. But take care that you don’t pick up bad habits.”
On that note, he nods and joins the rest of the departing Lan sect members where they are lined up in the Sword Hall, ready to pay their respects to Sect Leader Jiang for his hospitality.
At his side, his brother starts to speak.
“Wangji.” His brother smiles. “Take care of your health. The environment here is very different from the Cloud Recesses, but I have no doubt that you will adapt to them. Remember to write to me. A year will pass in no time, and you’ll be home.”
He pulls Lan Wangji into an embrace, who returns it, stunned. His brother whispers into his ear, “Remember, this is just a trial period. If you wish for it, we can break the betrothal.” When he pulls away, he continues, “But I’m relieved. It looks like you and Young Master Wei are getting along just fine.”
“He is infuriating.”
“But he managed to get you to call him by his personal name within a day of meeting you,” Lan Xichen says, referring to the incident during the welcome banquet where Lan Wangji had hissed Wei Ying rather vehemently in a bid to stop him from nicking flasks of wine from a dozing elder’s table.
“This will be a good chance to make new friends. Keep an open mind, Wangji.” He pats Lan Wangji’s back avuncularly. “Ah, look at that. Sect Leader Jiang has arrived. I had better get in place. Keep in mind what I said, Wangji.”
The departing delegation pay their respects to Sect Leader Jiang and board boats that will wind their way upriver, depositing them at Caiyi Town in a few days’ time. Lan Wangji watches the white-clad figures on the boat fade into the distance like so many white cranes flying away, and squashes down any feelings of loneliness that arise.