There was a certain amount of grumbling from the members of other sects, when it became clear that the rule forbidding alcohol in the Cloud Recesses was going to be upheld even for the final banquet of the week. Lan Xichen managed to defuse the situation easily enough, and even snuck in a calm comment: he was sure the Jin would be able to more than rectify the situation when they hosted next year's meeting.
Lan Wangji, seated in the second row with the other senior Lan disciples, looked at his tray and hid a smile. His brother had been wrangling the difficult personalities and puffed-up egos of the world's most powerful cultivators for a week's worth of meetings, and was becoming as practiced at it as was possible for a man with such an honest, straightforward personality.
"At least we'll be back on the road tomorrow," said Nie Huaisang, off to Lan Wangji's right. He had leaned forward to catch the ear of the Jiang sect heir, who sat in the front row next to his father. "Jiang Cheng, did you manage to try—"
His words, and all the sounds of the room, were swallowed by the wind that shocked the pavilion doors open. Wood thudded against wood. The wind danced around the hall, gleefully snatching half-begun sentences from mouths, and dragging its thick coolness over Lan Wangji's cheeks and the backs of his hands. He could smell smoke, and the dampness of a forest after rain.
Into this situation walked a man. He strode through the open doors with easy leg-swing and erect spine. His robes were pitch dark, all textured black on black. A silver mask obscured his face from the hairline down to the lowest part of the nose, and black hair spilled loose over his shoulders and down his back, losing itself against the black robes, flicking here and there like feathers.
He was playing a black lacquered flute, and from the end of the instrument spilled plumes and reaching fingers of ashy smoke.
Lan Wangji's skin crawled all over with the energy that this man carried like perfume. Power, and restlessness, and the sense of an ocean cave being eroded slowly from the inside. He shook his sleeve to banish a curl of the smoke which had been gusted in his direction. If there was also music coming from the flute he could not hear it over the sound of the wind.
Gradually the wind settled, and the music rose through it, until a simple and eerie melody was the only sound in the hall.
The song ended and the man lowered his flute. His manner was unhurried. He didn't seem bothered that half the room was on its feet, hands on the hilts of swords.
"Good evening," he said. The voice was somehow both the wind and the music at once, including the roughness of eroded rock and the coldness of sea water. "Who's in charge here?"
What a question to ask, in this place. It was testament to the hard work of the previous week that more heads than not turned in the direction of Lan Wangji's brother.
"This is a meeting of equals, sir," Lan Xichen said calmly. "But I am the leader of the Lan Sect, and therefore your host."
The black-clad man lifted his flute like a sword and bowed over it. "Ah, you would be the great Zewu-jun, then. I should have guessed from the mere sight of you. Such an honour!"
"And what might we call you?" asked Lan Xichen.
"I'd hoped you might have guessed from the mere sight of me," said the man, with a hint of stern petulance. "I am the Yiling Patriarch, of course."
If what he wanted was a reaction, the Yiling Patriarch would not have been disappointed. Shocked murmurs ran around the room. Some people shrank back. Next to Lan Wangji, Nie Huaisang flicked his fan open and raised himself high on his knees to get a better look.
"I had heard," the Yiling Patriarch went on, "that this was where all the best and most renowned cultivators were meeting. So I thought, where better for me to go, in order to challenge myself against them?"
Half the stories about the Yiling Patriarch that Lan Wangji had heard were sheer nonsense, things to frighten children. None of them could agree on his age or his appearance. This man's stance was strong and his hair unsilvered, and the capes and sleeves of his outer robe made it hard to discern the true lines of his figure. The voice was ageless; though it had sounded young, for a moment, when he announced his name.
Lan Wangji looked at the dark smoke which still whispered around the man's hand, closed around the flute. Remembered that edge of malevolence to the energy when the Yiling Patriarch entered. He wanted to tell his brother to be careful.
Lan Xichen did not need such a warning. He frowned thoughtfully, and was clearly thinking before he spoke.
Into the pause someone else said, "How do you intend to challenge with nothing but a flute?"
"Would you prefer a sword?" The Yiling Patriarch shrugged. Between one moment and the next, he moved and a sword appeared in a swift line of metal, drawn seemingly from the air itself.
And he stood with a bare blade in his hand, here in the innermost hall of the Lan, on a night of peaceful celebration.
Now everyone was on their feet, Lan Wangji included. The Yiling Patriarch looked around and his mouth formed a smirk. "Well, now it's not a fair fight at all, is it? All of you, against poor little me."
"If you want a duel, Yiling-laozu," said Lan Xichen tightly, "you may have one. But not tonight. You must have travelled some way to get here. Why don't you sit and eat with us?"
That got a new round of dismayed murmurs, then silence tight as a bowstring. The Yiling Patriarch rocked slightly on his feet, as if he'd been surprised. He recovered; the smirk deepened.
"I saw the sign on the way in," he said. "No alcohol, right? It's barely a feast worth the name, in that case. No, I think I must insist on my challenge being answered tonight."
"Perhaps," said Lan Wangji, "you did not have time to read the rules forbidding disruptive behaviour and rude speech."
He was barely aware of having walked forward, of putting himself a sword's length from the Yiling Patriarch. But there he was.
The Yiling Patriarch looked right at him. Stepped closer, until a sword's length was less than an arm's length. Lan Wangji kept his hand on Bichen's hilt and did not move. The eye holes in the silver mask were small and deep, revealing the thickness of the metal; it must have been heavy to wear. It was disconcerting, trying to hold a gaze almost shadowed into nothingness.
"And what is your name?" the Yiling Patriarch asked.
Lan Wangji told him. The Yiling Patriarch's smirk feinted closer to a true smile.
"I've heard of you, too. Hanguang-jun, the Second Jade of Lan. Peerless in the virtues of discipline, honour and integrity." Now the voice was edged with suggestive delight. "And even more beautiful than the stories say. It would be such a pity to kill you. Are you sure we can't find someone else to volunteer?"
Lan Wangji did not think he had volunteered. But now he wanted nothing more than to be allowed to fight this person, who stood there reciting Lan Wangji's virtues as though they were pieces of clothing to be unpeeled and tossed aside.
Before anyone else could speak, he said, "No."
"No?" echoed the Yiling Patriarch.
"You have entered my home and flouted the hospitality of my sect. Your insolence does not allow you the honour of standing against my brother. If you must fight someone, you will fight nobody but me."
"Very well," said the Yiling Patriarch. "I accept you as my opponent." He sheathed his sword, or at least did something that looked like sheathing, and it disappeared. He reached out and moved his hand rapidly as if creating a spell, then flattened his palm over Lan Wangji's heart.
Pain like fire-heated metal erupted under his fingers, and Lan Wangji couldn't help the small noise that escaped him. It was searing, surely he should be able to smell burning flesh—should be able to see blood blooming through his robes, beneath the Yiling Patriarch's fingers.
He did not move at all. After another agonising heartbeat, the pain vanished just as suddenly and totally as it had appeared.
There was no blood. No char. There was nothing to see except the strange softening of the Yiling Patriarch's mouth, as if just for a moment he was another person entirely.
"There is the mark of our bargain, and here is the challenge," said the Yiling Patriarch. "You may strike at me, exactly once, with your sword. I will not fight back; I will not resist you at all, Hanguang-jun." That silvery suggestiveness crept into his voice again. "And a year and a day from now, you will come to me and I will deliver exactly the same to you."
Lan Wangji heard his brother's voice raised in sharp and incomprehensible protest. His own heart was beating too loudly for him to hear anything else.
Backing out was impossible. The conditions of the challenge were beyond absurd, but he had made a declaration and—and it seemed that he was tied to it, now. The mark of our bargain. Lan Wangji could hear his uncle's voice—that will teach you to ask more questions, Wangji—and wanted to protest that usually, he would have. Usually he would have been the sensible one, the reasoned one. He prided himself on being difficult to goad. Yet there was something about the smirk below that mask, the mocking throb of the smoke-wreathed voice, that had reached under his skin without effort and made him unwise.
So. It was done now.
"Very well," he said.
"Excellent," drawled the Yiling Patriarch, taking a few steps backwards. "Do you need a few moments? Whenever you're ready."
Lan Wangji needed a few moments. Or at least he had them enforced upon him by his brother, who was suddenly by his side, taking his arm.
"Wangji," said Lan Xichen, low and pained. "You know you will have to kill him."
Lan Wangji nodded.
His brother looked at him with sadness and strain sketched around his eyes, and nodded in return.
Nobody spoke as Lan Wangji walked further into the centre of the hall, towards where the Yiling Patriarch now stood—right on the central point of the inlaid wooden floor's pattern, like a stage actor who had confidently found his mark—and drew Bichen.
"What a lovely sword," the Yiling Patriarch said, approving. "Exactly the sort of spiritual weapon the Second Jade of Lan should have. And it looks very well tended. I bet you sharpen it and polish it every day."
"I do," said Lan Wangji, ignoring the edge of manic flirtation. Perhaps the man was capable of nerves after all. It didn't matter. He'd set this in motion and they would both see it through.
The Yiling Patriarch removed the outermost of his robes and tossed it aside. There was less of him than there had seemed to be. He was still swathed in layers of clothes; he parted the opening of the next one, exposing a deeper V of black undershirt. Lan Wangji knew he was being mocked. His head had begun to ache with tension.
But what choice remained? None. Only action.
Bichen entered just below the Yiling Patriarch's ribs and sliced up, through the heart.
At the end of the blow, Lan Wangji paused. He had grabbed the Yiling Patriarch's shoulder with his other hand, to steady them both and keep the blow fast and true. They were very close together. Lan Wangji could just make out the faintest hint of brown eyes deep in the shadowed sockets of the mask.
The man he had killed gave a small cough, producing a delicate fleck of blood on the lower lip.
Lan Wangji pulled his sword clear.
Black smoke poured and billowed from the wound in place of blood. The Yiling Patriarch remained on his feet—wavering, but upright—with one hand clutched to his chest. Lan Wangji's chest burned as well, as it had when the bond was laid. The black smoke kept rising, and thickening; it nearly enveloped the Yiling Patriarch entirely, now. The room was in uproar. Lan Wangji stood very still, and held onto his sword. Bichen shone as unbloodied and bright as ever.
Slowly, just as the wind had settled, the smoke cleared. The Yiling Patriarch's posture was firm once more. The thin-lipped smirk was back on his face.
"Very nice," he said. "A textbook blow. Good aim, good strength of spiritual energy behind it. I couldn't have done better myself."
Visibly, he watched those words spread out and sink in. Then he bowed to Lan Wangji. "A year and a day, Hanguang-jun. Come and find me in Yiling, and we will finish this."
And he turned around and walked out of the hall, and Lan Wangji watched him go.
It was a normal year. The seasons rose and fell in their comforting, predictable patterns.
Lan Wangji tried to learn all he could about demonic cultivation, and about the Yiling Patriarch. He let it be known that he was keen to collect all the stories and rumours there were; he must be writing a book, people decided. He travelled widely and collected the stories in person. He visited corners of the world that he had never seen before. He sat beside jewelled lakes ringed by bright spring wildflowers, resting his horse and meditating. He met a lot of people and tried a lot of new foods.
He continued to practice the guqin, and to hone his cultivation technique. He spent time in Gusu with the Lan disciples and with his brother, who treated him exactly and perfectly the same as always, and for which Lan Wangji loved him so much that it barely fit inside his ribs.
In pre-dawn moments he let himself have thoughts such as: if this is to be my last year in the world, then let it be a useful one.
Mostly, though, his thoughts were about the man who had challenged him and been stabbed by him and who had not died.
They say that the Yiling Patriarch is an orphan, whose mother was a very powerful cultivator. After his parents died he was taken in and raised by the great Baoshan Shanren herself. She taught him strange secrets and powers, and then he left and learned even more of them from the demons and unquiet spirits he summons to do his bidding.
They say he has a school of dark magic in a cave, where he welcomes those who have been cast out of other sects, and trains them to take their revenge.
The mark on Lan Wangji's chest looked like a brand long-healed, even on that first night. Sometimes during the year it ached, or itched. One night it gave him a sharp pain which woke him from sleep and then remained, niggling and unquiet. After a while Lan Wangji got out of bed and went to sit in the night air, looking out at the midnight-shrouded gardens and hills of the Cloud Recesses, thinking about another man, somewhere else in the world.
Because the Yiling Patriarch was still a man. He had to sleep; and perhaps sometimes he couldn't. Demonic cultivation always took its toll on the body and the mind. How much of the man remained?
For the first time it occurred to Lan Wangji to wonder if he was not the only one of them who had experienced that exquisite moment of shock and dismay, when the Yiling Patriarch's wounds closed over and he continued to live.
He went to the Jingshi, where he would not disturb anyone else, and took his guqin. The place smelled of wood and emptiness and dust. He played one of the simplest songs for soothing a troubled mind; he played it for nearly an hour, until the pain in his chest eased and was gone, and his own eyelids grew heavy once more.
Lan Xichen embraced him, when he left for Yiling.
"I want to believe that I will see you again, brother."
Lan Wangji nodded. He wanted to believe that too. But regardless of what happened, he would not turn away. He would not deny the bargain that he had made, or the man he had bound himself to. This was his fate, and he would ride to meet it.
Lan Wangji arrived in Yiling town with four days to spare. Now that he was at his destination, he felt off-balance. Time was out of kilter. The journey here had swept by him like a river in first thaw; four days now seemed a veritable wealth of time.
He sold his horse; it would be easy enough to buy another, if he needed to. If.
Stepping back out into the street, he nearly tripped over a bundle of cloth that turned out to be a small boy, no more than a few years old, with a dust-smudged face and a look somewhere between wariness and hope.
"Are you—" Lan Wangji paused. No convenient family members presented themselves to extricate himself and the child from this situation. "Are you lost?"
After a moment, the boy nodded.
Lan Wangji looked around. Nobody in the vicinity seemed like a parent in frantic search of their child, and it was a busy market day. Everyone was attending to their own business. Besides, Lan Wangji had been in enough towns and cities to know that there were always children who belonged to no one, surviving—or not—on the streets.
They were still blocking the entrance. Lan Wangji took the child's sticky hand and guided him a little way away, stopping just inside the mouth of an alley, where it was quieter but they were still in full view of the main street. He knelt down.
"Did you come here with someone? Will they be looking for you?"
The boy nodded with more confidence. That was something, at least.
"I will help you," Lan Wangji informed him. "We will find whoever owns you. Now, tell me—"
"Hey! A-Yuan, there you are!"
Lan Wangji stood, and turned. The speaker was a slim young man in casual but neat robes of black and red, his hair pulled up in a simple style, carrying a cloth market-bag. He was laughing and he moved like water, all unconscious ease. He slid to a stop next to them like someone who had never in his life been scolded for running.
A jolt of sensation happened in the vicinity of the brand, when those laughing eyes met Lan Wangji's.
The eyes widened in a flawless face, and the man's smile faltered. Then he slapped hand onto fist and bowed deeply over his bag, as if he'd realised that Lan Wangji was someone important. Lan Wangji missed the smile all through the long seconds of the bow, and was impossibly relieved to see it still there—smaller, but present—when the man straightened.
"Is this boy—" Lan Wangji began.
"Mine? Yes, he is, though I'm thinking of burying him in a field and waiting to see if he turns into a turnip, instead, if he runs away like that again. Isn't that right, a-Yuan?" He made a mock-terrifying face at the boy, who gave an uncertain sniff and then burst into a gurgle of laughter. "I hope he hasn't caused you too much trouble."
"No," said Lan Wangji.
A-Yuan took the man's hand in a trusting gesture that wiped clear any misgivings Lan Wangji might have had about handing over the child to a stranger.
"He said he would help. He said he would find my owner," a-Yuan informed the man.
Lan Wangji now wished he'd used a different word. But the man was nodding along, as a-Yuan was explaining laboriously that he was lost because he'd seen a bird and wanted to make friends with it, and then the bird was gone.
"So you made friends with this gentleman instead," said the man. He hadn't stopped smiling. He looked back at Lan Wangji. "Seriously, thanks for looking out for him. You have to let us buy you a meal, in return!"
Lan Wangji tried to refuse. The man refused to let him refuse. He hooked his arm around Lan Wangji's and introduced himself as Wei Wuxian. Then he hooked Lan Wangji's name out of him in turn, and tugged him down the street, and not much later Lan Wangji found himself eating in a dining house with the two of them. The food was very good, despite the fact that Wei Wuxian had ordered a vegetable dish rendered nearly inedible by chillies.
"So, Lan Wangji," Wei Wuxian said eventually. "What has brought you to Yiling?"
"I have business with the Yiling Patriarch. A year ago I made a bargain with him that must be fulfilled."
Wei Wuxian's expression wavered. Lan Wangji had braced himself for any sort of reaction; he was expecting disgust, or fear, or earnest warning. But Wei Wuxian recovered and said brightly, "Ah! Then it must be fate that delivered you to a-Yuan and myself! We live in the Burial Mounds, which is also the Yiling Patriarch's home."
A-Yuan set down his spoon and said, very seriously, "The Yiling Patriarch is my father."
Lan Wangji stared at the boy.
Wei Wuxian laughed. "Oh, shit. We told him to say that if he was ever in trouble, so that people would be less likely to do anything to him, and would know to bring him back to the Burial Mounds. I wonder why he didn't say it to you. He must have seen at once that you are kind, and not at all dangerous." That bright smile wafted across the table again, and its effect was such that Lan Wangji was almost distracted away from his next question.
"He is the Yiling Patriarch's son? I had assumed he was yours."
A-Yuan looked at Wei Wuxian, all big querying eyes above a soup-stained mouth.
"He is," said Wei Wuxian, swift and comforting. He stroked the boy's hair. "Maybe not by blood, but… it's complicated." All at once an idea seemed to light him, straighten his terrible posture, and he grinned. "You said you had met the Yiling Patriarch himself? Didn't you find him so powerful, so commanding and handsome?"
Luckily, Lan Wangji did not have time to answer that before Wei Wuxian went on: "Perhaps he is not so impressive to a noble cultivator like you, but for a poor country boy like myself… I admit, I found myself quite unable to resist him." His head was now at a shy, coy angle on his neck. He adjusted his chopsticks on their rest.
There was a strangled feeling in Lan Wangji's throat. He had to clear it twice to say, "You are the Yiling Patriarch's…" and then was completely unable to decide on a word.
"How polite you are, Lan Wangji, to avoid saying whore," said Wei Wuxian cheerfully. "Worse than that has been flung at me in my time, believe me. And it's quite wrong in any case. The Yiling Patriarch may have his faults, but he respects and cares deeply about those he loves. It would be best for you to think of me as his husband."
Lan Wangji looked at Wei Wuxian and experienced another quick, unidentifiable emotion. Of course the Yiling Patriarch—who strode into places like he owned them—would have no hesitation in demanding whatever he wanted from the world. There had probably been no time at all between his laying eyes on Wei Wuxian, with his beautiful face and his kind laugh, and claiming him. And somehow managing to win his affection and loyalty in return.
Lan Wangji's appetite had vanished.
"I would be grateful if you could show me the way," he said.
Wei Wuxian nodded. "I should warn you, Yiling-laozu spends all day away from the Burial Mounds. Sometimes hunting, and sometimes on his own business. But he always is back for the evening meal. He likes to eat alone, but I am sure he will honour you with his company, as you have travelled all this way to keep a bargain with him. And I'm so curious about that, too! Will you tell me the details of it?"
Lan Wangji glanced at a-Yuan, and shook his head. It was so absurd when spoken aloud. And he did not want to break the spell of this pleasant afternoon by saying: I am here because in four days' time your husband will stab me through the heart and kill me.
Wei Wuxian smiled. "Very well, keep your secrets. Come on, a-Yuan. Time to go home."
"I'm tired," said a-Yuan. "Will Xian-gege carry me?"
"You terrible boy," said Wei Wuxian fondly. "No. You can walk."
A-Yuan laid his arm on the table and rested his little head on it. "But I'm so tired."
"How about you walk as far as the city gates, and then we'll see."
"I will carry him," Lan Wangji found himself saying. "It is no trouble."
Wei Wuxian looked startled, but a-Yuan's head shot up delightedly. He came and snuggled himself into Lan Wangji's side. Lan Wangji had a pulse of an odd, bittersweet feeling, like missing something before you could even know to want it.
"You'll spoil him," Wei Wuxian warned, but he was smiling again.
Wei Wuxian left Lan Wangji at the entrance to the Burial Mounds, a crumbling waist-high stone wall on either side of a forest path. He told him to wait while Wei Wuxian went in to adjust the border wards, and to tell people not to be alarmed at the appearance of a new face—"We don't get many visitors!" he finished cheerfully, and was gone up the path with a napping a-Yuan now transferred from Lan Wangji's arms into his own.
Lan Wangji waited. It was nearly two hours before someone came to fetch him, and it wasn't Wei Wuxian, but a pretty and unsmiling young woman who introduced herself as Wen Qing. She led him the rest of the way down the path and into the Burial Mounds themselves. The home of the fearsome Yiling Patriarch struck Lan Wangji as nothing more than a farming town. The clothes were plain, the faces turned curiously in their direction well-rounded and content.
It was a late enough hour that darkness was settling into the trees. Wen Qing showed him to a small empty hut where a bedroll and blankets had been laid out. Lan Wangji thanked her and asked after Wei Wuxian, who he had not seen in their walk through the town.
"Wei Wuxian comes and goes," Wen Qing said dryly. "He's usually around for the evening meal. But I've been told that you will eat with Yiling-laozu."
And so he did.
During the year, Lan Wangji had begun to mistrust his memory of the man, to feel it coloured by a horde of complicated emotions and the inescapable fact of their bargain. At first glimpse, waiting patiently for Lan Wangji on the other side of a low mat spread with dishes and cups, the Yiling Patriarch came suddenly into focus once more. Those layers of forbidding dark robes. The silver mask and unbound hair. That presence that pulled and held all of Lan Wangji's attention.
The cave-palace where the Yiling Patriarch lived was well lit with lanterns and candles. Lan Wangji had surprised himself by wishing he could eat instead in the village's communal hall, which contained the sounds of raised voices and laughter when he walked past it.
But no. This man was why he was here. This was his fate, sitting cross-legged and unsmiling across from him.
"I am very pleased to see you again, Hanguang-jun."
The smoke-roughened voice sent a shiver down Lan Wangji's spine, half fear and half not.
"I keep my word," he said stiffly.
"I didn't doubt that you would. But you are a few days ahead of schedule. Well! You are welcome to stay here if you like. I think my husband has taken a liking to you. He will be angry with me if I insist on sending you back to an inn in Yiling."
Lan Wangji had already been brimming with questions—about the village, the people here, the space between this man and the stories told about him. At the mention of Wei Wuxian he found himself full of even more questions again.
Before he could begin to sort amongst them for one that was possible to ask, the Yiling Patriarch started eating, and silence reigned. Wei Wuxian had talked all through the meal in town; Lan Wangji wondered if the Yiling Patriarch ever told him, as Lan Wangji had wanted to tell him, to be quiet. The Yiling Patriarch drank two bottles of liquor and didn't seem offended when Lan Wangji declined.
"Hanguang-jun," he said, when the meal was over and the dishes had been cleared by a quiet, pale-faced man who did not meet Lan Wangji's eyes. "Now you are here, and now that we have three more days together than I expected, shall we play a game?"
"After the last one," Lan Wangji said slowly, "I am not sure it would be wise of me to agree."
Although he couldn't exactly make his situation worse.
The Yiling Patriarch's smirk appeared. "Don't look like that. This is a harmless game, I promise, and you might even enjoy it. I'll explain the rules beforehand, this time, as a gesture of goodwill."
There was nothing for Lan Wangji to do but nod.
"Here are the terms," the Yiling Patriarch said. "For the next three days I will be away from the Burial Mounds, hunting, during the day. You are free to do whatever you please. The game is that whatever I win on my hunts, I will bring back for you—my guest—as a gift. And in return you will give me whatever you earn during the day. We'll exchange the gifts after dinner each night, which is the only time I will insist on your company."
It was just as nonsensical as the last bargain, and despite the Yiling Patriarch's assurances, it probably contained as many sharp edges. Lan Wangji tried to see past the mask, tried to find a glint of firelight on brown eyes.
This is just a man, he reminded himself, and fate has brought me to him. I will continue to follow its path for now.
"Very well," he said. "I will play."
Warmth pulsed in the brand on his chest, not painful at all.
On the first day of the last days of his life, Lan Wangji did something he'd never done before: he worked farmland. He spent a long day under a clear sky developing blisters on his palms as two of the villagers patiently explained a ploughing and planting technique to him. They did this with a lot of laughter and many respectful glances at Wei Wuxian, who had his sleeves rolled up and was pitching in cheerfully.
As the Yiling Patriarch's husband, Wei Wuxian clearly had a position of high status within the Burial Mounds. People brought their problems to Wei-gongzi; he knew everyone's name, and their sister's son's name, and their small struggles of the moment.
After the midday meal, Lan Wangji sat with Wei Wuxian and they brushed dirt from large sacks full of vegetables destined for sale at the Yiling market. A-Yuan sat nearby and busied himself brushing off those that were too ugly or otherwise unsuitable for sale, which would become part of the night's dinner. The village bustled quietly around them, but they were otherwise undisturbed.
"Tell me about your life," Wei Wuxian said. "It must be very different to this."
His brother would have been very surprised, Lan Wangji thought, to know that he was spending his time scrubbing vegetables and talking to a young farmer about life in the Cloud Recesses: the library, the disciples, the comfort of meditation practice, the mist that swallowed the green-drenched hills and released them again. The calls of birds cutting through a cold and pristine dusk. Lan Wangji had no idea he had so much poetry inside him about his home, until Wei Wuxian turned his bright torch of a smile upon him and found it all.
"It sounds a bit dull," Wei Wuxian said. "But peaceful. And beautiful. Perhaps I'll go there one day, and see for myself."
His elbow bumped Lan Wangji's. Lan Wangji basked in his smile and tried not to be too obvious about it.
"Here," said Wei Wuxian, setting down his brush, "you have—"
He reached for Lan Wangji's forehead. Lan Wangji ducked away from Wei Wuxian's fingers, his muscles moving before he could think.
"It's—nothing you did wrong," he said hastily. He wanted to clear the flicker of uncertainty and hurt from Wei Wuxian's face. "The Lan forehead ribbon should only be touched by family, or by one's spouse."
"Oh, I see." Wei Wuxian's smile reappeared at once, with a flirtatious edge that Lan Wangji refused to acknowledge. He was probably imagining it in any case. Wei Wuxian was essentially married, to the Yiling Patriarch, and he was friendly and warm to everyone.
Wei Wuxian talked, too. He told Lan Wangji about the various sorts of people who ended up in the Burial Mounds: people fleeing bad home situations, or rogue cultivators who were sick of wandering, or just desperate folk with nowhere else to turn. The Yiling Patriarch took them all, and the community enforced its own rules for decent behaviour. Anyone seeking a rules-free haven in which to indulge themselves was swiftly turned out. Most people stayed, and contributed.
Lan Wangji found himself telling Wei Wuxian about the bargains that he had made with the Yiling Patriarch. Both of them: the challenge, and the game of gifts. It seemed silly to keep secrets from the man's own husband. Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows at the terms, but didn't seem surprised. Perhaps Lan Wangji was only one in a long stream of cultivators with whom the Yiling Patriarch had chosen to play these kinds of games.
"No," said Wei Wuxian, when Lan Wangji stated this. He gave an odd smile to the radish in his hands, and an extra few harsh flourishes with the brush. "No, you're the first, I can tell you that."
Lan Wangji looked at his own hands, where dirt encrusted the lines of his palms. He was tired, and had a mild headache from the glare of the sinking sun. More than likely he would die in a few days. He felt… content.
"I think we can stop there for the day," said Wei Wuxian. He stood and stretched, and Lan Wangji followed his example; muscles in his neck and back sent soft signals of unfamiliar strain. "Oh! So, you're meant to give him what you've earned." Wei Wuxian looked around and plucked a radish from a-Yuan's pile, which had been abandoned an hour ago when a-Yuan got bored and wandered off with the quiet man called Wen Ning, to play somewhere else.
Lan Wangji accepted the radish. He was going to feel foolish giving it to the Yiling Patriarch that evening, especially as it was the Yiling Patriarch's radish in the first place, but it wasn't as though he had any other options.
"Mn," he said.
Wei Wuxian's eyes were sparkling when Lan Wangji looked up. "Then again. You have worked very hard, Lan Wangji, and at work that many noble cultivators would turn their noses up to even contemplate. I think you've earned something better than that."
He darted in. His hand was light on Lan Wangji's elbow; the kiss he delivered was equally as light, a quick brush of lips against lips.
Lan Wangji stood frozen to the spot. Wei Wuxian gave a laugh bright as water, and was gone.
Dinner with the Yiling Patriarch included an extra dish, that night: pink slivers of deer meat, which were the contribution from his day's hunting.
"I also did some of the other kind of hunting," the Yiling Patriarch said, as they sat across from one another. Wen Ning poured Lan Wangji's tea, nodded at him with something that was almost a smile, and disappeared. "I helped bring down a tree that had been corrupted by an evil spirit, but I don't think you would have liked the taste of that."
They ate the meal. The tea was of higher quality than the previous night's had been; Lan Wangji wondered if someone had been dispatched into Yiling with instructions to buy something better. Lan Wangji ate very little meat, as a rule, but the venison was tender and lean and flavoursome. He savoured each mouthful of it.
Afterwards he sat quiet and sick to his stomach despite the good food, awaiting the teasing demand for his own gift. None came. The Yiling Patriarch settled himself with elbows on knees and drew the cork from a new bottle of liquor.
"Well, Hanguang-jun, what have you been doing in the year since we last met? I want to hear some stories of the great cultivators. I hear the usual rumours, in my travels, but don't often have the chance to sit down with one for a proper conversation." He smiled. It was not a smirk, this time. It was thin and uncertain, but a smile nonetheless. "And I think you are not a man who talks much, Hanguang-jun, and so to hear your voice is an honour."
Lan Wangji told him different stories to those that he had told Wei Wuxian. He spoke more about cultivation politics, and described a few grand night hunts of his own. He asked about the corrupted tree spirit, and what techniques the Yiling Patriarch had used in banishing it, and stared fascinated at a talisman that was quickly sketched for him in water on the dry stone floor.
The evening passed far more quickly than he'd expected. He had nearly forgotten the game. Then the Yiling Patriarch left a longer than usual pause, let it fill with heavy meaning, and it all came rushing back.
"So, Hanguang-jun. What have you earned today? What do you have for me?"
A bargain was a bargain. Lan Wangji crossed the space between them without a word, knelt down and and kissed him, brief and light, on the mouth.
A stutter of the Yiling Patriarch's breath followed him when he drew away. The man's eyes were wide enough that the whites were visible in the holes of the mask. After an interminable moment he laughed, the rough sound of it low and dark as winter shadows.
"Well, you have been busy, to win such a gift. Who was it from?"
"That information was not part of our bargain," Lan Wangji told him. "The gift itself, and nothing more."
The next day, Lan Wangji talked to Wei Wuxian about demonic cultivation. It had been hovering in the back of his mind, the question of whether his fate had brought him to this place in order to help. To persuade the Yiling Patriarch to get off the path he was on before it destroyed him and those around him.
"There must still be a good man in there," he said to Wei Wuxian. "To have earned your love."
Lan Wangji accepted a ladle of water from a passing girl, and nodded his thanks. His throat was dry. The day was overcast but still very warm, and the farm work was steady, and he had never talked so much in his life.
"He doesn't take it well, when people try to discuss it," said Wei Wuxian. He was avoiding Lan Wangji's gaze. Sweat plastered the strands of his hair to his face, where they had escaped the band that collected it high on his head.
"If you care about him," said Lan Wangji, "you should try."
"Why?" A snap. Wei Wuxian straightened and looked him right in the face.
"Because this kind of practice is dangerous. There has never been a case of anyone mastering it without losing themselves to corruption."
"That doesn't mean that someone with the right techniques, the right control—" Wei Wuxian broke off, shaking his head. "I can't argue this with you. I don't understand it well enough. I'm just a farmer. I've picked up some talisman craft because everyone here does it, but that's all."
Lan Wangji could read evasion in that, but he was too weak to push it. He didn't want them to waste time snapping at one another. He returned to his work.
That afternoon, the heat hung heavy in the air, and Wei Wuxian dragged Lan Wangji to the river to rinse off the dirt and sweat of the day's labours. Lan Wangji had seen some of the sickly, tainted streams that ran by the Burial Mounds, and was wary. But a half hour's walk brought them to a surprisingly broad and lovely field, one corner of which was crossed by a curl of wide, fast-running water.
Wei Wuxian stripped off with no hint of self-consciousness. Lan Wangji's cheeks burned as he saw pale skin and work-muscled flesh emerge from the layer of red undershirt and trousers. He was parched all over again. Hastily he turned away and removed his own clothes, and waded into the river. The water was a cool shock, but nothing compared to the cold springs back in the Cloud Recesses, and it quickly refreshed him. He ducked his head beneath it and felt it dig cold fingers into his scalp, releasing the fine knots of tension that the sun's heat had woven in his temples.
"What's that?" asked Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji swiped the wet fall of his hair away from his face. Wei Wuxian was very close. Beads of water lay on his cheeks like pearls adorning a dragon's brow. He reached out and laid a gentle finger on the pattern of the brand where it sat over Lan Wangji's heart.
"The mark of your bargain," Wei Wuxian went on, answering his own question. His finger traced up, down. Tingles of bliss spread out over Lan Wangji's skin. Wei Wuxian's thumb was next, brushing in slow strokes over Lan Wangji's nipple.
Lan Wangji needed to pull away. He did.
"I—do not think your husband would find this appropriate," he managed.
"My husband would probably find it more arousing than anything else." Wei Wuxian laughed up at whatever expression was on Lan Wangji's face. "He loves me, but he is not jealous of me. I make my own choices."
Wei Wuxian's other hand slid up Lan Wangji's torso, from his lower stomach all the way to join its fellow on his chest. Lan Wangji's breath dried up entirely. He could tell he was growing hard, thankfully unseen beneath the water.
"Wei Ying," said Wei Wuxian, intimate and intent. "You should—please, call me Wei Ying."
Lan Wangji was breathing shallow and fast. He couldn't drag his eyes away from the beautiful planes of Wei Wuxian's face; from the way that mouth had shaped the word please. He was so full of want.
"Wei Ying," he said.
He was rewarded with a smile more brilliant than gold. "And what can I call you?"
"I. Lan Zhan."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying breathed, and wound his arms around Lan Wangji's neck and kissed him.
This was no cursory brush of lips. This was—lush, serious, mouths opening against one another and wet skin sliding against skin. Wei Wuxian made small moaning sounds and kept pressing closer, even though there was no closer to be; no space left between them. Lan Wangji choked on his own breath when Wei Wuxian's leg slid between his, and Wei Wuxian hissed a curse that Lan Wangji swallowed eagerly. His heart battered against its cage of flesh and bone like a furious bird. His heart—
He thought of a sword flashing silver, and entering under ribs.
Carefully, he disentangled himself. Took three small steps backwards, his feet steady in the coarse sand of the riverbed.
"Wei Ying," he said. It was a plea to be kissed again, and a plea for Wei Ying to leave him alone.
Wei Ying's eyes were very dark, the pink outline of his lips blurred with the swollen evidence of what they had done. He reached out again, but let his hand drop before it made contact. A smile grew on his face like the first green shoots of spring.
"I should get back," he said. "I'm helping in the kitchens tonight. I'll see you tomorrow, Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji stood in the cool river for some time after he'd left, waiting for the air to dry his skin so that he'd stop feeling the warmth of his intimate name, spoken in that laughing tone—Lan Zhan—as though it were sunlight.
He'd been duly warned. Lan Wangji raised the subject of demonic cultivation anyway, after dinner that night. The Yiling Patriarch took it both better and worse than he'd feared; he didn't seem angry, but was inclined to brush the topic off and speak of other things. When Lan Wangji spoke of good and evil, black and white, he sighed and raised two fingers: silence, let me talk.
"There are shades of grey in the world, Hanguang-jun. It can be difficult to live in them, that is true, but sometimes it is the better choice."
Lan Wangji persevered. "Using this kind of malevolent energy is damaging—"
The laugh stopped him short, it was so bitter. "Well, then. Perhaps I am already damaged beyond repair. Perhaps I wear this mask because I am hideously scarred."
"No," the Yiling Patriarch said, and his mouth quirked as if he had not meant to admit it.
"Let me play for you," said Lan Wangji.
"Did someone serenade you today, Hanguang-jun? Is this your gift?"
His own had been the sweet white fish of their meal, served in a fragrant broth.
"No. This is to calm your mind."
The Yiling Patriarch looked at him for a long moment and then shrugged and unfolded himself, leaning back on his elbows. It was the most relaxed his posture had ever been in Lan Wangji's presence.
"All right. I suppose it can't hurt."
"It could hurt," Lan Wangji told him. "If I did it incorrectly."
A small snort. "I'm going to bet money on the fact that you've never done anything incorrectly in your entire life."
Lan Wangji fetched the small guqin he'd carried all the way here from Gusu, carefully wrapped. He knew what he was going to play. He took two breaths, settling himself, and began.
The cave lent the music new echoes, new harmonics. It was an interesting effect—and, Lan Wangj satisfied himself after a minute of careful listening, not harmful. The Yiling Patriarch lay in his half-sprawled position and didn't say anything. His eyes might have been closed behind the mask. Lan Wangji couldn't tell.
After a long time the Yiling Patriarch said, still unmoving, "I've heard this before."
Lan Wangji's fingers did not falter, but only because he had drummed the pluck and glide of this melody into them for hours upon hours. He looked down at the strings, concentrating. The song to soothe a troubled mind flowed out and found the crannies of the rocks.
The Yiling Patriarch sat up. "It was you. You were playing for me, when I couldn't sleep."
Lan Wangji nodded.
"Even though you knew what I planned to do to you."
He nodded again. There was not much of the song left; he let it flow to its conclusion, and added the ending coda instead of letting it loop effortlessly back to the beginning. Then he wrapped the guqin, set it aside—it might as well stay here—and stood.
The Yiling Patriarch climbed to his feet as well.
"If that wasn't my gift, Hanguang-jun, then I am waiting."
His hands were not extended. He simply stood, as if he knew—as if, after the kiss Lan Wangji had delivered yesterday, he was correctly expecting more of the same.
Lan Wangji thought of what Wei Ying had said, about the Yiling Patriarch finding the thought arousing. For a moment he imagined what it might be like if Wei Ying was there with them—how Wei Ying might press himself against Lan Wangji and kiss him as the Yiling Patriarch watched, the weight of his gaze like hot firelight on their skin—the Yiling Patriarch giving approving comments in that rough, musical voice—
Lan Wangji blinked. He was shivering with desire. It felt very easy, like succumbing to the tide, to walk over and to put his hands at the back of the Yiling Patriarch's neck, on all that feather-ink hair, and to kiss him as deeply and as hungrily as he himself had been kissed.
The Yiling Patriarch tasted like alcohol and the hot spice of the meal. Lan Wangji's nose was going to be sore from the force of bumping up against the rigid mask, but he didn't care. He lost himself in kissing, in the firm grip the Yiling Patriarch had on his lower back, dragging their bodies together. His blood was on fire.
Dimly he remembered that he should be making this fair. Giving as much as he'd been given, no more and no less. How long had that kiss in the river lasted? How long had he been standing here, kissing a man who was going to kill him?
He didn't know. He took one last kiss, dragging the Yiling Patriarch's lip between his teeth—a move which had made him shudder, when Wei Ying did it to him—and stepped away.
The Yiling Patriarch raised two fingers to his own mouth, as if unthinking. It took him a long moment to catch his breath.
"Hanguang-jun, you keep on surprising me," he said finally. "You still won't tell me who gives you these delightful gifts, will you."
It sounded like a statement, and felt like a game.
Lan Wangji didn't mind. He said, solemnly, "No."
Everyone in the Burial Mounds had made a point of informing him that Wei-gongzi slept late or else was a stormcloud of grumpiness in the mornings, so Lan Wangji was surprised to find Wei Ying joining him for breakfast on the third day. Wei Ying did not look cloudlike. He looked his usual sunny self, almost unbearably gorgeous in his black robe with a flash of red undershirt and a red sash around his waist, his hair bound up with a red ribbon.
Like Lan Xichen over the past year, Wei Ying showed no sign of wanting to spoil the mood between them by mentioning the obvious.
So Lan Wangji surprised himself greatly by saying—right in the middle of the meal, between mouthfuls, like a child poorly taught—"This could be the last day I have in this life."
Wei Ying paused with rice bowl and chopsticks half-lifted. He set them down. For once, his face was unreadable.
"That is true," he said. The smile flashed on. "How would you like to spend it, Lan Zhan? I am at your disposal. Anything you want."
Lan Wangji pulled his gaze from the line of Wei Ying's throat, which seemed even longer and smoother and more appealing today than yesterday. He searched himself carefully for an answer. Never before had he been presented with a day devoid of agenda or duty or suggested task. He was not used to being asked what he wanted, because it was so often irrelevant. He took a deep breath and decided to simply open his mouth and see what came out.
"I would like to buy a-Yuan a toy," he said.
They spent the morning in Yiling town, the three of them together. Lan Wangji bought a-Yuan a toy. And some sweets. And another toy, until Wei Ying scolded him in the middle of the market for being a terrible influence on a young mind, he really expected better from the prize of the Lan; and Lan Wangji smiled a little, and Wei Ying threw his head back and laughed. He was so lovely. He deserved lovely things as well.
Lan Wangji spent nearly an hour in search of the loveliest and most suitable thing in the market, and then bought it. It was a hair ornament of elegant silver, in the shape of two waves curling around one another, suspended in the moment before they broke.
Wei Ying's eyes were wide. He traced the tip of one wave with his finger.
"What am I supposed to wear this with, Lan Zhan?" he muttered. "Really, it's a waste." But he touched it again, before the stallholder wrapped it safely in fabric for them to take away.
"You want good clothes," said Lan Wangji, already scanning the market.
"No! No, I don't!" Wei Ying laughed and attached himself to Lan Wangji's arm, as if to bodily prevent him from approaching any more stalls. "Thank you for the ornament," he said formally, and kissed Lan Wangji's cheek. "It's very nice."
They ate at the same dining house as last time, and a light spatter of rain began to fall while they were inside. They returned at a near-run to the Burial Mounds, a-Yuan shrieking with the twin excitements of being carried and being damp. Wei Ying delivered the boy to an elderly woman to be taken indoors and dried off.
"Now what?" said Wei Ying, grinning, and Lan Wangji said, "I would like to play music." It was getting easier to find the shape of his wants in his throat. Perhaps with time he would have been able to make a habit of it.
He fetched his guqin from inside the cave, and Wei Ying took him to a hut set apart from most of the others. It was neatly furnished, including a plain bed—not just a bedroll—and a floor mat of bright, intricate yellows and reds.
"This is where come to I sleep, sometimes," Wei Ying said. "When I want to hear the sounds of water and night-birds and crickets."
When he wasn't sleeping in the cave, in the bed of the Yiling Patriarch.
Lan Wangji settled himself with his guqin, and Wei Ying surprised him by pulling out a bamboo flute.
"Did your husband teach you?"
"I taught him," said Wei Ying, with a half-smile.
Their shared repertoire dried up after a handful of folk songs that had managed to spread in one form or another across most of the world. Wei Ying spun the flute around his fingers and said, "Play whatever you feel like. I'll pick it up."
Lan Wangji let his fingers pluck out whatever they wished, just as he'd let his tongue speak. It was a song he'd written himself, half-finished and then set aside because he was unsatisfied with it. One of many things he'd assumed he would have a lifetime to finish, and then found unimportant when faced with the dwindling of his final seasons.
True to his word, Wei Ying listened for a short while and then lifted his flute and embroidered. He added excitement as a layer over slow meditation; he added hope, where there had been only yearning. The small hut filled with music until it was nearly palpable on the skin.
Between the two of them, the song changed further. What had been a slow, majestic river became a stream tumbling over itself, a steady rush toward white foam crashing on rocks. Lan Wangji's fingers were barely keeping up, but they were, and so were Wei Ying's. He could feel where the music was dragging them. He thought, is this what being drunk feels like?
—and jerked his hands away from the strings, suddenly afraid and suddenly beyond self-control.
The flute continued for another piercing flurry, like the arc of a falling arrow, before Wei Ying lowered it from his lips. They stared at one another.
"Get that thing out of the way or I'm going to crush it to splinters," Wei Ying said hoarsely. "Now."
Lan Wangji's mind was a blank hum of desire, but his body was still paying attention. It swept the guqin protectively to one side, just as Wei Ying fell to his knees in front of Lan Wangji and then surged forward to sit straddling him, fingers on either side of his neck, tilting his face up for a kiss that was everything the music had been turning into. Thundering and drowning and vast. Lan Wangji grabbed hold of Wei Ying's waist to keep afloat. Wei Ying made a broken sound into his mouth and leaned forward, all his weight bearing Lan Wangji down to the ground.
Lan Wangji's own hair ornament was digging painfully into his scalp. Wei Ying had somehow gained possession of both of his wrists, and was pressing them into the colourful mat. He gulped for breath.
"Lan Zhan." Wei Ying bent to brush his nose back and forth over Lan Wangji's neck, then kissed it, open-mouthed. "I told you. I want to give you whatever you want." Quieter, as if bestowing a secret: "I am yours."
It was a lie, but a kind one. Wei Ying was a man who made his own choices. And for today, the last day, Lan Wangji could pretend it was true: that Wei Ying was his in every way that mattered.
Lan Wangji tensed his core muscles. He pushed up and rolled them sideways until Wei Ying was trapped beneath him: eyes wide and mouth twitching in delighted surprise, hair coming out of its ribbon in a mess of strands.
"I want you," Lan Wangji said. They were the only words left in the language.
"Yes," said Wei Ying.
The rain was heavier now. It percussed the roof as Lan Wangji began to remove Wei Ying's clothing in between savage kisses; it thrummed against the walls as Wei Ying shoved at Lan Wangji's chest and laughed, "There is a bed, Lan Zhan," and then moved snakelike to stand and pull him towards it. He removed Lan Wangji's white robes, stained and dirt-marked from the last few days.
Wei Ying had so much fearless joy to him, and of the two of them he was the one who knew the most about what to do with another man. It surprised Lan Wangji to see Wei Ying's fingers shaking, his eyes darting uncertainly, as he pulled Lan Wangji's undershirt over his head and reached for the string of his trousers.
"Wei Ying," he said gently. He smoothed his hands over Wei Ying's shoulders, down the trim muscles of his arms.
Wei Ying leaned in and bent his head to rest it at the base of Lan Wangji's throat. His red ribbon had come loose and vanished. His hair was a cascade.
"Please," Wei Ying said. "Please, please," and Lan Wangji forgot that he didn't know how to do this; forgot that he was going to die with a sword in his heart; forgot everything except the man in his arms, who wanted him and was begging for him.
He removed his own trousers, and then Wei Ying's. He shivered in the cool air, and then forgot that too, because Wei Ying was stretched out on the bed and it was Lan Wangji's turn to sit astride, feeling Wei Ying harden beneath him, taking as many kisses as he wanted. Sucking and biting at that pale skin, leaving marks that might last a week and might last less. Ephemera. The past year had taught him you couldn't control what you left behind in the world.
When Lan Wangji moved further down and took Wei Ying's cock in his mouth, Wei Ying made a soft, startled sound and his hips bucked up. Lan Wangji first managed not to choke, and then to hold him down. The muscles of Wei Ying's abdomen and thighs tensed and released under his hands like guqin strings. He concentrated on not scraping with his teeth, keeping his mouth soft and wet, and Wei Ying spilled over his tongue just as Lan Wangji was starting to feel that he had the trick of it.
It was a new taste. It was a new aspect of Wei Ying. Lan Wangji wiped his mouth with his hand and sat up, feeling absurdly proud of himself.
"Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying breathed. He was staring at the ceiling. He looked like a man who had tripped over a rock and had the wind knocked out of him. "Fuck me. I mean—I didn't mean—" and colour spilled over his cheeks, yet another new thing as wonderful as all the rest. "Fuck it. I did mean it. If you wanted to."
They were back in the realms of Lan Wangji's vast inexperience. He was so hard, and wanted everything so much, that it tangled his tongue up like fishing nets. Wei Ying looked at him for two heartbeats and then laughed, fond, and dragged him down to be kissed some more. It was Wei Ying who pulled out of his grasp to fetch oil, which Lan Wangji did at least know was necessary. Wei Ying who whispered into Lan Wangji's skin, and coaxed his fingers to the right place, and who shuddered like breaking earth when Lan Wangji finally pressed into him. His eyelids fluttered shut; fluttered open.
There were lines of red fire between Lan Wangji's cock and other, strange places on his body. His palms. The base of his sternum. He was shaking so much with the effort of not spilling immediately that he was barely keeping himself upright over Wei Ying's body, between Wei Ying's bent-back thighs.
Wei Ying smiled at him and wrapped his hands around Lan Wangji's sides. His thumbs brushed over ribs, one by one. "It's all right," he said, nonsensically. "I'm all right, I don't—I want you, Lan Zhan. That's all."
Lan Wangji closed his own eyes, desperate. Something about the sweetness of Wei Ying's easy admissions was making him shake even more. He was not going to cry. This might be the only sex he ever had in his life, he was not going to spoil it by crying.
"I want Wei Ying," he whispered.
"And you've got him." Wei Ying moved himself, and somehow Lan Wangji sank even deeper into him. They caught their breath in unison. "Fuck, Lan Zhan, will you just—"
Lan Wangji's hips snapped forward. Maybe he did it consciously. Maybe not. Wei Ying gave a strangled cry and held him tighter.
The act of love could have a rhythm, Lan Wangi learned, like music. Like music it could accelerate and drag two players towards a glorious, breathless ending. He let himself fall into it, this time, and shed his fear to meet Wei Ying in the place where fear was useless. Where it was just bodies and laughter, and kindness and fire.
When it was over, he lay on the bed and Wei Ying lay half-crushing one of his arms, and Lan Wangji felt muscles that had been tight for months decide that tension was far too much bother; they'd rather melt into balls of over-boiled rice beneath his skin. He yawned. Some of Wei Ying's hair got in his mouth, and he angled his head to absently kiss the side of Wei Ying's head.
"Shit, I should have jumped you in that alley in Yiling," said Wei Ying. "We could have been doing this for three days." He sounded somewhere between fervent and languid-drunk.
"Mn. A-Yuan would have been startled."
Wei Ying shifted a little to poke a finger into Lan Wangji's chest. "Ha, you have a sense of humour. I knew it. I shall remember you by your jokes, Lan Zhan." The atmosphere between them flickered and drew tense. Time was moving again. Wei Ying made a face. "And that uselessly fancy hair ornament, of course."
Wei Ying should have more of him than that. It seemed vital, suddenly. Lan Wangji retrieved his tingling arm from beneath Wei Ying's body and untied his forehead ribbon, which had been forced wildly askew by their proceedings, but had stayed on.
"You said anything I want."
Wei Ying hesitated, then nodded.
"I want you to have it."
"You said it was for family and spouses."
Lan Wangji held out the ribbon and said nothing else. Wei Ying's face collapsed like a paper tower, folding around a broken attempt at a laugh, and he took the ribbon and wound it around three of his fingers. Lan Wangji's heart swelled and cracked, watching him do it. Wei Ying closed his hand around the neat bundle when he was done, and leaned down to touch his forehead to Lan Wangji's.
"Lan Zhan, I will make you a promise. If I were to marry anyone else in this world… if I were to marry someone, it would be nobody but you." A light, lingering kiss. There was an echo of something in Lan Wangji's mind, like a poem heard long ago. It dissolved in the way it felt to run his fingers through Wei Ying's hair. "And I also promise that I won't let anyone else's hands but mine touch this."
Lan Wangji tightened his grip in Wei Ying's hair and he gasped, and the next kiss was deeper. For a minute or so the rhythm of their desire picked up, but it settled naturally, back to a slow easy pace, and left them lying comfortably, just breathing together. Wei Ying's knee was tucked between his, and his body fit so well in Lan Wangji's arms. They could have been pieces made by a wood-carver to slot together, always, perfectly, just like this.
Wei Ying murmured something into Lan Wangji's chest.
Wei Ying lifted his head. His eyes were warm and serious. "I said, if I could keep you alive tomorrow, would you want that?"
The question made no sense. Lan Wangji was slow with pleasure and fatalism. He frowned. "I will not run from my bargain."
"No, of course you won't," said Wei Ying. Exasperated, fond. "But—" He dropped another kiss onto Lan Wangji's collarbone and pulled out of his arms to rummage in the pile of clothes scattered on the mat. He extricated his red sash. Then he fetched ink and a brush, from a small chest, and came back. He appeared totally unconcerned that he was doing all of this with no clothing on, and Lan Wangji would rather have bitten off his own tongue than complain.
"Here," said Wei Ying. With quick sure strokes, he inked characters along the sash, turning it into a long and complex talisman. "This is very strong protection. If you wear it beneath your clothes, you cannot be killed."
The characters were familiar but the array was not. Lan Wangji touched the edge of the sash. Power tingled ambivalently beneath his nails and pooled in his palm. It was undeniably strong, no matter what else it was.
"Wei Ying. Thank you."
"Don't thank me," said Wei Ying. "This is a gift."
That, too, took a moment to make sense. Lan Wangji's chest tightened. He looked at Wei Ying and felt his expression settle into its own kind of mask. Wei Ying grabbed his wrist.
"Lan Zhan, I know, but you can't give it away. And you can't let the Yiling Patriarch know you have it. You will still be fulfilling your bargain," he added. "No moving, no resisting. One strike of the sword. And then it's over, and we can beg his pardon afterwards. This is how you can keep your honour and your life. Not everything is black and white. There are greys, and—"
He cut himself off, as if he'd heard the echo of his husband in his words and was embarrassed. The same echo was in Lan Wangji's mouth too. He finished the sentence.
"And it can be hard to live in them, but sometimes it is the better choice."
Wei Ying's grip was painfully hard. "Lan Zhan, swear to me you won't tell him."
Lan Wangji said, "I swear."
That night he walked into the cave-palace before Wen Ning came to fetch him, burning with mingled emotions—memory and shame and desire and simple rash daring. The Yiling Patriarch was not sitting calmly waiting, as he usually was; he was instead wandering one of the shadowed corners of the cave, spinning his own black flute in one hand. He looked around at the echo of Lan Wangji's footsteps on the ground.
The flute fell from his hand when Lan Wangji pushed him up against the rough rock wall of the cave and kissed him.
Without the usual preceding meal, without the twin burns of alcohol and spice, the Yiling Patriarch tasted only—like a man. Like Wei Ying. Probably most men tasted similar; how could Lan Wangji know, with only these two examples? And likely men who knew one another intimately learned to kiss in similar ways, too. Perhaps if Lan Wangji were to spend years allowed to kiss Wei Ying whenever he wished, or offer himself nightly up to the Yiling Patriarch's embrace, or both—
He was coming unhinged.
He broke away with a gasp.
"Hanguang-jun," the Yiling Patriarch said. There was even more fire and rasp in his voice than usual. He said, "Lan Wangji."
Lan Wangji held his gaze and put his hands to the fastenings of his own clothes, which had already been removed and reassembled once today. He felt at the top of a steep hill, wanting nothing more than to surrender to it, to rush downwards far too fast for safety. To feel the wind of this against his cheeks and know himself alive, more alive than ever before, for as long as it lasted. He thought of Wei Ying's eyelids fluttering, and wondered what his own face would look like when the Yiling Patriarch fucked him; if he would come apart with even half so much wondering beauty.
The Yiling Patriarch sagged back against the rock and laughed unevenly, raising his hand to cover his face even though the mask was already doing so. "You are going to ruin me, Lan Wangji."
"You know who I won this from," Lan Wangji said, low. He did not say, I am trying to save you.
"Yes," said the Yiling Patriarch. He straightened. He put out a hand to still Lan Wangji's own. "Yes, I do. And I will not take it from you, when you are bound only by honour and not by a true choice of your own desire."
Lan Wangji couldn't find the words to say that it would not be honour alone. He wanted this, too. He was a stranger and more complex person than he had ever thought, and he was stepping out of black and white and onto paths that wound in shadowed circles.
He was so lost.
"It's enough that you kept your word," the Yiling Patriarch said, "and have truly offered me all that you earned today."
Lan Wangji re-fastened his clothes. This was where he should have said, That is not all I earned.
He didn't. He wanted so very badly to live, if he could walk that narrow bridge between honour and dishonour, find the grey path, and manage it. His heart was sore, or the brand was punishing him; he couldn't tell the difference any more.
They ate dinner in silence. Afterwards the Yiling Patriarch gave Lan Wangji his last gift, in a small wooden box. It was an ornament to hang at the waist: a string of pale jade beads ending in a rabbit carved from gleaming red stone.
"Before you ask, I did earn it," the Yiling Patriarch said. "I banished some violent spirits that were haunting a village well, and one of their master-crafters gave me this in gratitude. She said it was for long life, and good fortune."
Lan Wangji looked sharply at him. He wanted to tell the Yiling Patriarch to take off that stupid mask, to let Lan Wangji see his face, just once. But he couldn't bring himself to sit through the pain of refusal.
He thought, out of nowhere, He has not said anything about my forehead ribbon being missing.
The Yiling Patriarch said gently, "Lan Wangji. I want you to have it. I'd like it if you wore something of mine, when we meet tomorrow."
Lan Wangji slept well, the night before his death. He woke and dressed at his usual hour, and left Bichen in the hut. He had no further need for it.
Wen Qing was just outside his door, as patient as if she had stood there all night.
"The Yiling Patriarch is waiting for you," she said.
She led him down to the Burial Mounds' central courtyard, where all the people of the village had gathered. The Yiling Patriarch was there: dead centre, finding his place. Daylight sparkled off his mask. His hair was neater than usual, brushed smooth and half caught up at the back.
He stood very still, and he seemed distant. More like a symbol than a man.
"Where is Wei Wuxian?" Lan Wangji asked of Wen Qing, as they reached the edge of the courtyard.
She shook her head, and stepped away from his side.
So Wei Ying did not want to see him die, or be there to face his husband's anger if Lan Wangji did not die. Lan Wangji was sad not to see him again, but he had the memory of him, tucked close. And he had the red talisman sash wrapped unseen around his waist.
They exchanged bows as if Lan Wangji had only just arrived in Yiling. As if the past three days had never been.
"Yiling-laozu," he said. "A year and a day have passed, and I am here to keep our bargain. One strike. I will not resist, or defend myself."
The Yiling Patriarch drew his sword, the one which was nowhere and then somewhere. He came close to Lan Wangji, who forced all of his muscles into absolute stillness as the sword's blade drifted near to his shoulder.
"And here we see the famed discipline of the Lan," said the Yiling Patriarch. The sword-tip was within half an inch of Lan Wangji's skin as it moved across the front of his neck. If either of them breathed wrongly, it would slice him open. "Ah, what a waste to the cultivation world it will be to lose the Second Jade." The sword floated in a line down Lan Wangji's chest. "A man so perfectly virtuous, so peerlessly beautiful—"
"Enough," Lan Wangji said between his teeth. "This is cruel, and you—" startled to find the words in his mouth, but meaning them "—you are not cruel."
"Am I not?" said the Yiling Patriarch quietly. "To play such games with you, when you do not know all the rules before you agree?"
"Perhaps would not have agreed to your challenge, had I known the conditions," he agreed. "But I did. And I have done what I can to help you, these three days. I have no regrets." He drew himself up. Death was kissing his fingers, wrapping its tail around him. He had nothing to lose. He said, clear and loud: "If you find yourself hesitating because you are unwilling to contemplate the world without me in it, Yiling-laozu, you have nobody to blame but yourself."
Gasps and murmurs sounded around them.
"That is true," said the Yiling Patriarch.
The blade flashed true toward Lan Wangji's ribs and—and flicked aside at the last minute, sliding through the tiny gap between his arm and his side. There was a small, sharp sting on Lan Wangji's inner arm where the blade had only just bitten into his skin. His feet were frozen to the ground, his breath arrested in shock.
Carefully, the Yiling Patriarch retrieved his sword. Lan Wangji could not read at all the emotion that warped his mouth.
"A strike for a strike," the Yiling Patriarch said. "You have fulfilled the challenge."
Lan Wangji found his breath, though not all of his composure. "Was that…did you pull the blow, or…"
"Or did the talisman sash work to protect you?" The Yiling Patriarch shrugged. "Does it matter?"
Lan Wangji looked down. The careful slice of the sword along his side had exposed a glimpse of the sash, scarlet as blood against the white of his split robes.
"You knew I wore it," he said.
"If you knew—then he—"
Then Wei Ying had told his husband everything, after making Lan Wangji promise not to. After forcing him into a position where he had sworn two things in direct opposition to one another, to two men who both held his honour and his heart in equal measure. Lan Wangji was light-headed with life, and cracked open with shame, and utterly furious.
The Yiling Patriarch laughed, bright as water. He sheathed his sword and pulled something from within his robes. "Ah, my beloved Lan Zhan," he said. "I told you. You have been playing games without knowing the rules."
What he held was a slender length of blue fabric. Sunshine gleamed on the silver cloud plate just as it did on the Yiling Patriarch's mask, as Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon dangled from his fingers.
For a moment the world stopped, and Lan Wangji's heart stopped with it.
Then it started again with an unbearable, incredulous pound, as truth rushed into him like a river in flood. He took two strides forward and put his hands on either side of the mask, and then he paused.
"Lan Zhan," whispered the man in the mask. "I'm sorry."
"You will marry nobody but me," Lan Wangji said. "Did you mean it?"
Wei Ying's wonderful smile spread across the Yiling Patriarch's mouth. He said, "Yes," his voice overflowing with laughter and relief, and neither of them paid any attention to the mask as it came off, or as it fell to the ground, or as Wei Ying kicked it aside in his haste to hurl himself into Lan Wangji's arms.