The borders of the Burial Mounds had spread.
Once, it was a small barren plot of land, untouched by cultivators and common-folk alike. The Burial Mounds—such as it was, in the days of Lan Wangji's father—lay far from their borders. It didn't touch Yunmeng's territory, much less Gusu's.
But since the appearance of the Yiling Patriarch, the land changed. The Burial Mounds expanded, edging around Yunmeng and claiming a lotus lake. Now it encroached upon Gusu and swallowed up two or three empty fields.
Lan Wangji chafed at this erosion. Yet no matter how far the Yiling Patriarch's influence spread, the elders refused to lift a finger. They talked of taking action, but their debates always came to nothing.
Across the land, cultivators saw that the Burial Mounds' border had expanded again. Yet they averted their eyes. They feared even to whisper complaints among themselves. It was said that even uttering the Patriarch's name could summon him.
He has taken none of our people, nervous elders murmured. He has not touched our livestock or our crops. If he wants only empty land, let him take it.
But from the moment the land fell under the Patriarch's command, it was no longer empty. The Burial Mounds was once a cold and inhospitable place. Now it overflowed with strange plants. Travelers claimed that the hills were rich with crops, green as far as the eye could see.
The Gusu territory had once been rocky and grassy. Then the Patriarch took it, and he changed it overnight. It became home to a field of herbs and flowering fruits. But the Yiling Patriarch's touch was unmistakable: even as the plants flourished, the land itself seethed with resentful energy. The discordance was frightening.
It is not right, one of the elders whispered in a rare moment of honesty. Such powerful resentful energy should destroy all living things. It is not right that plants should grow under his touch.
It was blunt speech, uttered only because the elder knew he was safe behind Cloud Recesses' wards. But the restive murmur traveled quickly. Lan Wangji could feel curiosity spreading throughout Gusu. All eyes turned to the east, where the small forest thrived.
The wisdom of the ancients said that resentful energy destroyed all it touched. No living being—plant, animal, cultivator—could survive where resentful energy flourished. The Patriarch has disproved that wisdom, and Cloud Recesses was soon in a quiet uproar.
No one knew what the Yiling Patriarch was. No one knew how he had accomplished his strange feats. After all, the Burial Mounds changed so gradually. For many years, the cultivation world did not understand that there was a single mind behind these changes. They failed to notice the being in the shape of a man, remaking the land according to his design.
Once it became known that a man—or something which pretended to be a man—lived in the Burial Mounds, many tried to investigate. But most who sought the Patriarch did not return from their quest. Those who did, returned…lesser. They lost part of themselves. If they returned home, they were not whole.
So it had been since Lan Wangji was a child. So, perhaps, it would always be. Restless common-folk whispered that someday, there might come a power capable of opposing the Patriarch. So far, none had dared.
But then his territory stretched out and touched the edge of Gusu.
Once the report came, Lan Wangji flew out to watch the slow creep of vegetation. The resentful energy flickered and bent as flowers unfurled and trees took root. When he saw all there was to see, he went to the elders.
He told them the truth: there were many valuable plants growing within. There were herbs that the Lan Sect had always struggled to grow in the thin mountain air. Herbs that healed sickness, sealed wounds, strengthened golden cores.
The elders grew restless at this news. A tempting array had been placed before them, and it was more than some could bear.
A few argued that the land remained part of Gusu. It was subject to the Lan Sect's claims. The territory had never been formally ceded to the Patriarch. Should they not harvest whatever grew there? Was it not their rightful property, just like the rice that grew in their fields?
Others opposed this argument. If any cultivator sets foot onto this territory, they said, it would surely draw the Patriarch's attention.
No one said, We cannot hope to stand against a being who can harness resentful energy. We lack the strength to oppose an army of the dead. If we anger him, we are lost. Yet all knew it was the truth.
Lan Wangji waited in silence. His elders debated, and his brother listened with a troubled face. When the arguments ceased, Lan Wangji stepped forward and asked permission to go alone, as a scout.
His brother's eyes grew more troubled than ever, and the elders objected at once. But Lan Wangji knew they would agree in time.
What would happen if their sect entered the Patriarch's newly annexed territory? They did not know. But how could they live in such ignorance? How could they see a threat at their doorstep and fail to investigate?
The elders retreated, to argue and debate behind closed doors.
Lan Wangji counted off the days. He flew each morning to the borders of Gusu and watched the small forest grow. He played his guqin and marked how the resentful energy shivered and surged in reply.
On the morning of the twelfth day, his brother came to him.
"It is decided," his brother said.
Lan Wangji nodded.
He did not need to ask the elders' decision. His preparations were already made. He was packed, and he had asked the healers which herbs they needed most. He could leave at once, and he told his brother so.
But his brother stopped him and held out a small box.
"You must take something," he said. "An offering."
It was said that the Patriarch would be pardon trespassers if they gave him compensation. He would not accept common silver. Only the most valuable offerings could persuade him to spare your life.
The romantic said he demanded something precious to the owner: a lock of their child's hair, a ring that belonged to their father. The vulgar said the Patriarch claimed the trespasser's virginity.
If you fail to placate the Patriarch with an offering, legend said, he will tear out your beating heart. You will become a foot-soldier in his army of corpses, and you will belong to him forever.
Such talk was common among credulous peasants, and it was embarrassing for cultivators to heed these rumors. But Lan Wangji loved his brother, so he took the box and opened it. Within, he found his mother's favorite hairpin. Their father had given it to her on their wedding day. In every one of Lan Wangji's memories, his mother wore this hairpin.
He would surrender one of his limbs before he gave this away. But he merely nodded to his brother. He placed the box into his travel bag.
At dawn, he made the familiar journey to the border. The forest seemed to have grown overnight. During his daily expeditions, Lan Wangji marked its borders with wooden stakes. In a fortnight, the forest had spread half a li. If such growth continued, it would reach the foot of Cloud Recesses within two years.
He surveyed the forest from the air. Then he landed, stepped off his sword, and settled it at his side. His guqin was within reach. But he left it untouched as he stepped past the border. Within a single heartbeat, he passed from rocky soil into thick vegetation.
The forest was not natural. Even if with no cultivation ability, Lan Wangji could have sensed it: the lack of birdsong, the absence of animals scurrying between the trees. If Lan Wangji were fanciful, he might have called the forest silent as a graveyard.
When he crossed the borders, he met no resistance. The resentful energy ghosted over his skin but did not penetrate. Shadows lurked in the corner of his eyes, but none pierced his flesh. He was allowed to enter.
Lan Wangji walked for a quarter of an hour before he found what he was looking for.
The healers had asked for ginseng. The autumn had been dry, and half their sources had failed to yield. But in the forest, there was ginseng in abundance. The jagged leaves curled around the base of several tall trees.
So Lan Wangji knelt and brushed aside the dark soil. He laid his bag and his sword aside. He curled his fingers around the stalk of the plant. And he drew up the roots in one smooth pull.
At once, the air thickened. Though it was early morning, the sky darkened as if a thundercloud had passed overhead.
"My," a voice said. "How very impolite! Not even a greeting to me before you started robbing my garden!"
The voice was astonishingly normal: a man's voice rather than a spirit's. But Lan Wangji did not turn to see whether the voice had a man's shape.
"It is not your garden," he said.
He brushed the soil from the ginseng roots and tucked them into his bag. Footsteps crunched on the dead underbrush as something drew near. Lan Wangji ignored the slow approach, though he kept an eye on his sword.
"Is is not? I could swear I was the one who planted these."
There was a theatrical sigh. The footsteps slowed as they drew closer.
In his periphery, Lan Wangji saw a figure in black. Still, he did not turn. There were five roots left. He cleaned them one by one.
"Well, my memory is not what it used to be!"
A hand stretched out and rested on Lan Wangji's shoulder. It felt like a man's hand.
"Perhaps I am wrong," the voice said, sweetly. "But tell me, honored cultivator. How are you so sure it is not my garden?"
Lan Wangji set the last of the ginseng into his bag and sealed it shut. Then he lifted his eyes to the Yiling Patriarch. He was a man, Lan Wangji saw. A man, or something that looked very like one. He seemed young, about Lan Wangji's age. But perhaps that was only a trick.
Peasants claimed that the Yiling Patriarch could take different forms at will. If the rumor was true, then he had chosen this form: a young man, handsome, with a dark smile and laughing eyes. Lan Wangji wondered what that meant.
The Patriarch waited patiently as Lan Wangji studied him. His face was amused, but something dangerous lurked behind his eyes.
Lan Wangji ignored the spike of heat in his blood and dusted the soil off his hands.
"This land belongs to the Lan Sect. It has belonged to our sect for seven generations." He met the Patriarch's eyes steadily. "I have seen the treaties with my own eyes."
The Patriarch's amusement deepened.
Lan Wangji wondered how long it had been since someone last challenged this man. If the Patriarch was amused by his gall, perhaps he would spare Lan Wangji's life. Or perhaps he would cut Lan Wangji's throat before he had a chance to reach for his sword.
"Is that right?" The Patriarch's hand lifted from Lan Wangji's shoulders. His fingers carded through Lan Wangji's hair. "But treaties can be changed, can they not?"
"Through the proper channels." Lan Wangji kept careful eye contact. The Patriarch's fingers strayed perilously close to his forehead ribbon. "We have received no missives or offers for negotiation."
The Patriarch laughed, a rich sound that held an unearthly resonance.
"How remiss of me!" His hand cupped Lan Wangji's jaw and tilted his head back. "Honored cultivator, please let us negotiate at once!"
Lan Wangji nodded. He had come prepared for negotiation, after all. But he did not reach for the hairpin in his bag or the jade ornament at his waist.
The Patriarch hummed.
"You would like some of my plants?" he asked.
A rhetorical question, of course. Lan Wangji gave him another small nod.
"I would," he said.
The Patriarch's thumb brushed against the edge of Lan Wangji's jaw. His fingers curved around the back of Lan Wangji's neck.
"Surely you are willing to pay for what you've stolen," the Patriarch remarked.
Lan Wangji resisted the urge to moisten his lips. But he allowed himself to swallow. The Patriarch's eyes locked onto his throat.
"What does the Patriarch ask as payment?"
It was another rhetorical question, surely. Lan Wangji had considered the matter already. Before he set foot in the forest, he asked himself what he was prepared to offer.
Anything, he decided. Anything, aside from human lives.
The Patriarch hummed with interest.
"Do you know what they say about me?" he asked. "What sort of payment I demand from trespassers?"
"I do not listen to rumors." Lan Wangji said with dignity.
The Patriarch threw his head back and laughed. He had a very fine laugh, bright and sharp as a knife's edge.
"The honored cultivator is honorable indeed!" he cried.
Lan Wangji measured his words carefully, like rice on a scale.
"My brother is Sect Leader," he said.
The Patriarch made a sound of mild interest.
"He gave me a hairpin that belonged to our late mother," Lan Wangji said. "It was given to her by our father, on their wedding day."
The Patriarch tilted his head. The dark, knowing smile never left his face.
"I will not give it to you," Lan Wangji finished.
He had decided that too, before he entered this place.
"That is your right, I am sure!" The Patriarch's voice was amiable as he toyed with a strand of Lan Wangji's hair. "I would not give away my mother's treasures, either. Those who wished to take them would have to claim them from my corpse."
Lan Wangji gave that some thought. The assertion would suggest that the Patriarch had once had a mother, had once been a man. It would further suggest that this being—who was once a man—could be reduced to a corpse.
The Patriarch watched with an ever-present smile as if he knew what Lan Wangji was thinking. His fingers worked their way through Lan Wangji's hair, tightening against his scalp.
"Would you rather give me your corpse, beautiful one?" He spoke almost idly. "It would be very pretty, no doubt. But it seems like such a waste."
It would be a waste in any number of ways. Lan Wangji had never feared death, but neither had he sought it out. He would protect his life if he could.
He parted his lips and spoke.
"What else would you take in payment?"
The Patriarch's smile widened, deepened. He reached for Lan Wangji with both hands and drew him from the forest floor.
"Come with me," he said.
Lan Wangji let the Patriarch guide him deeper into the grove, where the trees grew so thick that they blocked out the sky. It was dark in that grove, carpeted with moss. There was a faint, sweet smell of decay.
He let the Patriarch push him to the ground and climb on top of him. He let the Patriarch touch his throat, his hands, his robes.
"They call me a defiler of virgins," the Patriarch said abruptly. "They say I rape innocent young men and women, corrupt them with my vile sorcery."
The smile never left his face but his voice was no longer amused. Lan Wangji inclined his head respectfully.
"As I said. I do not listen to rumors."
The Patriarch studied him. His eyes were very dark, a bottomless black. But they were not empty. His eyes were not the black of the void, but of the deep night which concealed a thousand living creatures.
The Patriarch ran a hand over Lan Wangji's robes, modestly folded and fastened tight. But he did not remove them, no matter how long Lan Wangji waited.
"I don't take things that are not offered to me," the Patriarch said, after a long pause. "Not from the living, anyway."
Lan Wangji understood then.
He opened his robes himself. First, he unfastened his sash, thinking that perhaps he would need to part his robes just enough. Just enough for what came next. But the Patriarch reached out impatiently and pushed the robes off Lan Wangji's shoulders.
"Let's do away with these entirely," he murmured. "You'll only get grass stains on your nice robes! How would the honored cultivator explain those away?"
Lan Wangji had no intention of explaining any of this, not even to his brother.
Perhaps the Patriarch knew that, for he said no more. Instead, he helped Lan Wangji strip out of his robes. He smiled at the layers of pristine white silk.
"Were you intending to go to a funeral?" He rubbed the inner robe between his fingers before tossing it away. "Is this what they tell you to wear when you go to beg the indulgence of the Yiling Patriarch? I confess I was never very fond of white."
Nobody had told Lan Wangji what to wear, but there seemed no point in saying so. The Patriarch pressed his mouth to Lan Wangji's bare flesh and soon Lan Wangji found he could not speak at all.
The Patriarch spoke a great deal. He used language Lan Wangji had never heard before, language never uttered in the respectable classrooms of Cloud Recesses. He used his mouth for other things too, and Lan Wangji spent himself twice before the Patriarch even entered him.
He had thought that part might hurt. He thought the Patriarch might make it hurt. This was, after all, a penalty. A trade, a punishment, an act of restitution. Surely it was meant to hurt.
But the Patriarch touched him slowly and worked him open. He watched Lan Wangji's face, and he smiled when Lan Wangji keened with pleasure.
When it was over, Lan Wangji lay on the soft moss, sweat-damp and exhausted. The Patriarch kissed him three times: on his throat, his mouth, and his brow.
"Let me give you a word of advice, honored cultivator." His voice was full of sweetness, full of darkness. "Do not return to this place. Next time, I may not let you leave."
Lan Wangji nodded. Then he gathered up his robes and his bag, and he left the quiet grove.
When he returned to Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji told the elders that he had met—and temporarily placated—the Yiling Patriarch. He said the Patriarch had requested payment, which Lan Wangji duly gave. The Patriarch had allowed him to leave, whole and unharmed, but warned him not to return.
The elders murmured and frowned. They argued amongst themselves once more. They sent scouts to track the spread of the Patriarch's borders, but warned the disciples to keep far from the forest's edge.
Lan Wangji concealed his mother's hairpin under the floorboards in his rooms. He gave the herbs to the healers. He washed the dark, sweet-smelling soil from his flesh. Then, he tried to forget.
The first symptoms were easily ignored or explained away.
If he felt fatigued, it was only because his duties were challenging and often took him far from Gusu.
If he felt dizzy, it was only because winter had come and the mountain air had grown especially thin.
If he felt nauseated at mealtimes, staring down at a bowl of fish, it was only because he had never been fond of seafood.
Then his clothing grew snug. That proved difficult to ignore.
By midwinter—three months from his visit to the forest—Lan Wangji could deny it no longer. One morning, he rose early. While half of Gusu was still asleep, he uncovered the mirror in his bed-chamber. He parted his sleeping robes and took a careful look.
In the winter, the sun rose late. There was only candlelight to dress by. But even the dim candlelight showed the gentle swell of his belly. Lan Wangji stared at himself for a long time. Then he swathed himself in his robes again.
For now, thick winter robes would conceal the problem. It might be another month—perhaps even two—before anyone noticed the changes in his body. Yet Lan Wangji knew he could not hide this forever. In the meantime, though, he tried to behave as he always did.
In this, he knew he did not succeed. His brother drew him aside one day. He said Lan Wangji had not been himself since he returned from the forest.
Lan Wangji made his excuses. But his brother's eyes followed him around Cloud Recesses, and they were uneasy.
Upon his return, the healers had examined him and pronounced him free from resentful energy. It had evidently been too early for them to see the truth: that he had indeed carried something with him when he left the Patriarch's territory.
But his brother was temporarily placated, and Lan Wangji tried to let the matter be. There was time yet.
Winters in Cloud Recesses were peaceful. With so many duties suspended due to the snow, he had a great deal of time to think. He often spent hours—alone in the jingshi— in meditation. He used the time to make and discard a thousand ill-considered plans.
By the fourth month, it was difficult to conceal his stomach. The swell was nearly visible, even behind furs and his thickest robes. One evening, Lan Wangji felt the first flutterings inside his belly. He knew then that the time had come.
In the morning, he dressed for travel. He left a letter for his brother within his chambers. Then he took to his sword and departed from Cloud Recesses without his Sect Leader's permission.
The transgression was great. Yet compared to other matters, it was nothing at all.
Flying the sword was difficult in his current condition, but he reached the forest safely. From the air, he saw that the border had stretched again, ranging far beyond the wooden stakes.
Once again, Lan Wangji stepped from his sword. Once again, he walked into the thick vegetation. Once again, he set aside his blade and his guqin to search through the plants.
But this time, he needed no ginseng. He had spent the winter searching through the healers' texts, making excuses to any who questioned his choice of reading material. The texts had told him what to look for. There was even a diagram, depicting the plant he needed.
Once he saw the drawing, Lan Wangji made an agreement with himself: I will go to the forest and find this plant. If he comes and he stops me, I will stop. If he does not, I will do what I must.
There was no alternative, of course. He could not go to his sect with this matter. They would neither accept the child as his heir nor allow it to stay within Cloud Recesses.
Lan Wangji knew better than to hope that someone else—a kindhearted family far outside of Gusu—could be prevailed upon to take the child. They would never adopt the child if they knew the father's identity, and Lan Wangji could not deceive them. Who knew what this child would become, what powers it would possess?
If the Patriarch would not claim the child, he decided, then it could not live.
A part of Lan Wangji's heart hoped that he wouldn't find the herb. Its absence would not resolve the problem, but he hoped nonetheless. Yet after a short search, he spotted the long stalks and the small lavender flowers. There was plenty, enough to brew a full pot of tea. Enough to do what must be done.
Lan Wangji studied the plant for a long time. Then he grasped the stalks and tore the plant away from the soil.
At once, there was a sigh like a gust of wind.
"And here I thought I had made myself perfectly clear!"
Lan Wangji's hands went very still. But he didn't move back from the plant, and he didn't turn around. He held himself motionless as the Patriarch drew near.
"Honored cultivator, why didn't you heed my warning not to return?"
He laid his hands against Lan Wangji's shoulders. They were very warm.
Lan Wangji had not expected that, the first time. He thought the infamous Yiling Patriarch would be as cold as the grave, as stiff as the corpses he controlled. It was a surprise to discover his body was warm and supple, like that of an ordinary man.
But he was no ordinary man. Lan Wangji knew this, and he had not bothered to rehearse this conversation. The Patriarch was not an ordinary man. So Lan Wangji could not begin to guess how he would respond to this situation.
Would he cast Lan Wangji out of the forest and erect wards to prevent him from returning? He was capable of that, surely.
Would he kill Lan Wangji on the spot? He was surely capable of that too.
Lan Wangji tried not to think of that possibility. The idea of his own corpse added to the Yiling Patriarch's army was disquieting. But the thought of his child turned into a small corpse puppet made him sick.
The longer he had thought on the idea, the warier he grew. He knew it might be unwise to let the Patriarch discover the results of his first visit. But there was nowhere else Lan Wangji could turn. He sensed—he believed—that the Yiling Patriarch was once a man. Perhaps he still had some humanity left. Perhaps this would mean something to him: a child, an heir of his own blood.
The Patriarch's hands rested lightly on his shoulders. At first, his touch was almost playful. But then he saw the plant in Lan Wangji's hands.
His grip tightened at once, sharp nails digging in. Lan Wangji held himself still and waited.
"Now, why," the Patriarch's voice was slow, methodical, "do you have that, I wonder?"
There was a subtle darkness in his tone. It erased any doubts Lan Wangji held about whether the Patriarch knew the purpose of this plant.
For a moment, the Patriarch did not speak. Then:
Lan Wangji could not bring his body to obey, and the Patriarch did not wait for his obedience. Instead, he turned Lan Wangji himself with rough hands on his shoulders and back. He kept Lan Wangji on his knees.
He faced the Patriarch, and the man stared down at him. Lan Wangji stared back and kept his face blank.
"Open your robes."
Again, he did not wait for Lan Wangji to comply. His hands tore at Lan Wangji's robes, the way they hadn't the first time. He pushed the winter cloak from Lan Wangji's shoulders, ripped open the sash, and spread the outer robe wide.
He left the inner robes untouched, but it was enough. Lan Wangji knew the pregnancy was clearly visible now. The swell of his belly was noticeable even when he was fully dressed...if the viewer knew what to look for.
No one had discovered his secret yet. But that was only because no one expected the Second Jade of Lan to find himself in such a state: a child in his belly and no spouse at his side.
The Patriarch stared for a long time. Then he moved suddenly, like smoke, like floodwater. He tore the plant from Lan Wangji's hands and it was gone, reduced to ash before Lan Wangji could draw breath. His body was hauled forcefully to a nearby stream.
The Patriarch plunged their hands into the water. He scrubbed Lan Wangji's hands with his own, as if trying to remove any trace the plant may have left.
"You may not. You may not. Do you understand?" He spoke feverishly, his eyes wild.
Lan Wangji nodded. The Patriarch drew his hands from the cold water and clutched at Lan Wangji's wrists.
"I'll take you back to the Burial Mounds. I'll trap you inside if I have to." His grip tightened. "My puppets will watch you every minute. You will never have the chance to harm my child. Do you understand."
Were Lan Wangji in his right mind, he would be horrified by these threats. He would not allow the Patriarch—or anyone else—to take him prisoner. He would draw his sword and defend himself, cost what it may.
But he was not in his right mind. From the moment he set foot into the Patriarch's domain, he knew he had gone slightly mad. Lan Wangji couldn't even blame the influence of resentful energy. After all, the healers swore it left him untouched.
He could not blame anyone for this mess, except perhaps himself.
It was often said that Lans were unlucky in such matters, unwise in matters of love or lust. Lan Wangji never supposed that he would be proof of this legend. But he had already been wrong about so many things.
The Patriarch kept a firm hold on his wrists. Such restraint was unnecessary: the plant was long gone, turned to dust.
The child stirred inside Lan Wangji's belly, as if it knew it would live. As though it understood that it had not been rejected by its father. The quiet flutter, the pulse of life from within, made Lan Wangji sick with relief.
"Yes," he murmured. "I understand."
The wild, feverish look did not leave the Patriarch's eyes for a long time. He held Lan Wangji as though he might disappear at any moment. His eyes were locked on Lan Wangji's belly, hungry and intent.
Lan Wangji saw that his hopes were not in vain: this news did mean something to the Patriarch. He wanted this child, would claim it, would accept it as his own.
He tried not to seem too desperately relieved. But he knew he didn't succeed.
The Patriarch's gaze softened. He reached up, traced Lan Wangji's face with his thumb.
"Did your family throw you out, I wonder…?"
Lan Wangji let him touch what he would. There was no point in refusing now. He didn't mind the man's touch, though that admission filled him with a quiet shame.
"No." He shook his head. "I didn't tell them."
The Patriarch's mouth crooked, an awkward attempt at a smile.
"Entirely sensible," he said.
Without the dark, mocking smile, he somehow seemed more human. The sultry stare had vanished, along with the honeyed drawl of his voice. His hands hesitated over Lan Wangji's body.
But Lan Wangji took those hands anyway. He put them on his belly.
The Patriarch took a great, shuddering breath. He touched Lan Wangji's stomach gingerly, tracing the swell with his fingertips. After a moment, he sighed.
"Didn't I warn you?" He reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind Lan Wangji's ear. "If you return, I won't let you leave."
"You said so. Yes."
It had not mattered, of course. Lan Wangji understood that now. He could never leave the Patriarch, even if he stayed away. His fate was already sealed. The man had allowed him to walk away after their first encounter. But Lan Wangji was still marked by him, and always would be.
Lan Wangji did not say this. But the Patriarch nodded anyway.
"You belong to me now." He smoothed his hands over Lan Wangji's belly. "This belongs to me, too."
"Yes," Lan Wangji said.
He understood this, too. There was no alternative, not if he wanted to keep his child. He had spent weeks searching for another solution, to no avail.
During his hours of meditation, he often thought of his parents' marriage. As a child, he had not understood how such a match came to be. He understood why they had married: his mother's crimes had left no alternative. But he hadn't understood why they remained married.
When Lan Wangji was twelve, he realized that his mother could have left Cloud Recesses at any time. If she were unhappy in her genteel imprisonment, she could have escaped. His mother had been clever and strong, and could surely have found a way. The Lan sect would not have confessed to losing their prisoner. It would have been too embarrassing. His father, too, would have been ashamed to chase after her a second time.
If his mother escaped, they would not have dared to pursue her. She would have been free then. She could have traveled the world in disguise, as a rogue cultivator. As a boy, Lan Wangji had wondered why she had never done this. His mother had been a free spirit, and had withered in confinement. Why had she never seized the chance to escape?
But he understood now. Her children lived in Cloud Recesses, so that was where she stayed. No doubt she would have endured even greater suffering if her children remained within reach. Perhaps she, too, would have submitted to confinement at the Burial Mounds if it meant she could keep her sons.
It had taken a long time to comprehend this. But now, Lan Wangji found he understood his mother's decision perfectly.
The Patriarch gazed at his face with an odd intensity. His fingers skimmed along the trailing edge of the forehead ribbon.
"It doesn't have to be one-sided," he said, almost gently. "The belonging."
Lan Wangji supposed it didn't. His parents had a similar arrangement, after all. His father had claimed a wife, but he belonged to her too. They married, and they imprisoned each other.
The child fluttered again, and Lan Wangji touched his belly.
It was a strange thing. He and his brother often worried that they would someday make their father's mistake. Lan Wangji had neglected to consider that he might make his mother's mistake, instead.
He said nothing. The Patriarch grimaced and stood.
"Come with me." He pulled Lan Wangji to his feet again. "We'll find somewhere better to talk."
Lan Wangji could not have said how they traveled. One moment, they were within the small forest near Gusu. The next, they were somewhere else. The ground shifted beneath him and he stumbled.
The Patriarch caught his arm, with a small sound of surprise.
"Apologies." For a moment, he sounded almost sheepish. "I don't usually take people along when I do that."
When his feet felt steady again, Lan Wangji looked around.
They were at the Burial Mounds, surely. He had never seen this place before, but there was a strange darkness in the sky and a peculiar tint to the soil. The ground rose in gentle hills, each valley covered in lotus flowers.
Wooden buildings ranged across the northern hills. Lan Wangji smelled cooking fires and heard a low, pleasant rumble of voices. It might have been an ordinary settlement, if not for the corpses patrolling the borders. Lan Wangji glanced at them, then tried very hard not to look their way.
The Patriarch pretended not to notice how Lan Wangji kept his face turned away from the puppets. He steered Lan Wangji toward the back hills, to a cave filled with candles and a deep soft bed. Lan Wangji waited in silence while the Patriarch summoned a healer in his service.
But when the woman arrived, she didn't carry herself like a servant. She strode into the cave with her head held high. The Patriarch slunk behind her, like a dog chastised for nosing its way in the kitchen.
The healer introduced herself to Lan Wangji quite civilly and asked permission to examine him. He agreed.
It was a peculiar tableau: Lan Wangji sitting on the Yiling Patriarch's bed, as the man himself sulked near the entrance. But the healer was businesslike and she asked no awkward questions.
From the way she glared at the Patriarch, she clearly knew it was his child. She did not seem pleased with this discovery. Lan Wangji felt a dull sensation of horror, and wondered if she was his wife or his chief concubine.
But there was no bitterness in the woman's eyes when she looked at Lan Wangji. Her hands—as they pressed on his stomach and traced his meridians—were gentle.
When she was done with her examination, the healer stepped back from the bed. She surveyed him from head to toe, and her eyes lingered on the forehead ribbon.
"The child is fine," she said. "It seems to be developing normally."
Lan Wangji let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
He thought all was well. He saw no signs of illness or disruptions in his qi. But there had been no opportunity to speak to a healer at Cloud Recesses. He hadn't realized how afraid he was—that something might be amiss with his child—until the woman spoke.
"You're a little over four months along," she added.
Lan Wangji didn't need a healer to tell him that. But he nodded anyway.
"You should eat. I'll bring food." She gave the Patriarch a mutinous glare as she swept from the cave.
Somehow the Patriarch—the most feared man in the cultivation world—contrived to look like a kicked dog as he slunk over to Lan Wangji's side.
"She's mean," he whispered.
Lan Wangji blinked and cast a doubtful glance toward the cave entrance. The Patriarch gave a soft groan.
"She was kind to you," he admitted. "But you didn't hear what she said before. When I told her who you are, and what you're doing here."
Lan Wangji wondered what she was doing here. He had glimpsed other men and women—living souls—from a distance. What were they doing here in the Burial Mounds?
But the Patriarch told him nothing that night or the next. He hardly spoke to Lan Wangji at all. The healer brought him food and clean clothing, and he was left alone.
Lan Wangji understood, of course. He was not here to be the Patriarch's confidant. He was here because he carried a child and the Patriarch wished to claim it.
By morning, he saw that his needs would be provided for. The healer brought more food, along with blankets and pillows. She muttered to herself about the nuisance of finding a cradle, and how Lan Wangji would soon need larger robes.
The Patriarch claimed he brought Lan Wangji here to talk. But he showed no signs of wanting to do so. During the days, he was nowhere to be found. During the nights, he remained within the cave. Yet he did not join Lan Wangji on the bed. He certainly didn't try to touch Lan Wangji again.
Lan Wangji tried to be content with this. He had food, shelter, warm clothing. The Patriarch did not put him in chains or set Lan Wangji under strict guard. And his child was active now, fluttering several times a day. The healer said he would feel more movement soon.
On the third day, she told him who she was. They were sitting together in the sun, near the houses that sheltered her family.
The people of the Burial Mounds regarded Lan Wangji with great interest. Out of politeness, perhaps, they had not asked what Lan Wangji was doing here. But Lan Wangji supposed that they already knew the truth. The Patriarch was their overlord, after all. If he took a concubine—Lan Wangji disliked the title, but had no other for his situation—his serfs were sure to hear of it.
The healer ignored their curious stares as she pushed a heap of fabric onto Lan Wangji's lap. The baby would need clothes, she said. Nappies and blankets. They may as well start their preparations now.
Lan Wangji had a basic knowledge of sewing. The Lan sect believed that cultivators should know how to care for their own clothing and supplies. But in Cloud Recesses, he was not expected to do more than simple repairs and straight seams.
The healer took it for granted that he would work alongside her, though. So Lan Wangji took the fabric into his hands and copied her movements. The nappies were easy enough: straight blocks hemmed on each side. Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the needle and thread as the woman talked.
"We're Wens," she told him, squinting down at the needle in her hands.
They were what remained of the Wen sect, she explained. The only survivors after Wen Ruohan's mysterious death a decade prior.
"He started meddling with resentful energy," she said bluntly. "The Patriarch didn't like it."
Lan Wangji nodded silently and asked no questions. What was there to say, after all? He had been young at the time, a boy of eleven. But everyone knew how the Wen household had been wiped out overnight. Wen Ruohan. His sons, brothers, and cousins. Virtually all of his disciples. All of them, dead within a few hours.
It was this massacre that drew the attention of the cultivation world. Wen Ruohan's death gave the vague whispers—there is something living in the Burial Mounds—a name. After the Wen massacre, the words Yiling Patriarch were in every mouth.
But some Wens had survived. The children and elderly, Wen Qing explained. The healers and servants. Those who were not cultivators and had never held a sword. The Patriarch took them back to the Burial Mounds with him. He started using resentful energy to grow crops, to feed their settlement.
Lan Wangji watched the Wens as they trotted cheerfully around the Burial Mounds. They were stout and healthy, clearly well-fed. Wen Qing did not need to confirm that the Patriarch had succeeded in taming the energy for plant growth. Lan Wangji saw the evidence with his own eyes back in the forest beside Gusu.
He did not ask how the Patriarch had done this. If Wen Qing knew, she refused to say.
"He was young when he found us and brought us here." She knotted the thread, bit off the excess. "He's young now. Younger than you'd think."
Lan Wangji said nothing.
But when the Patriarch joined him in the cave that night, Lan Wangji spoke.
"Do you not sleep?" he asked.
The Patriarch had settled himself behind the desk he kept in the corner. He was always working at various talismans and artifacts. When Lan Wangji fell asleep, the Patriarch was still hunched over the desk. When he woke at dawn, the Patriarch was gone, walking his territory.
The bed was large, but the Patriarch had not touched it. Not since Lan Wangji had taken up residence there.
The Patriarch froze, his hand hovering over the calligraphy brush.
"I don't have to," he said.
That was not the question Lan Wangji had asked. He stared pointedly until the Patriarch took the hint.
After a moment, his mouth crooked in a strange smile. He rose slowly and joined Lan Wangji on the bed. Then he shuffled around a good deal, evidently trying to make himself comfortable.
Lan Wangji waited until he settled down.
"Do you know how old you are?" he asked.
He had originally intended to ask, How old are you? But as he reflected on his talk with Wen Qing, it occurred to him that the Patriarch may not know.
Wen Qing gave him several sharp, assessing glances during their conversation. She had not asked his perception of the Patriarch or the circumstances of their child's conception. It was clear that she knew the Patriarch well.
Yet he was still a stranger to her. She did not know where he had come from, she said, or how he became what he was. He had strange powers that she did not understand. She had never seen anyone do what he did. His heretical methods were fearsome, and there was little he could not achieve through the use of resentful energy.
Lan Wangji kept turning her words over and over in his mind: He is younger than you'd think. He studied at the Patriarch now, and he found he could not guess the man's age.
The Patriarch made a neutral sound.
"I haven't kept track, no."
He clearly felt Lan Wangji's eyes on him. But he kept his own averted, staring up at the ceiling.
"You have been here a long time," Lan Wangji said.
It was not a question. The Patriarch might be as young as he looked—Lan Wangji's age, perhaps a little older—or far more ancient. Nevertheless, it was clear he had been in this place for a long time.
Lan Wangji felt the currents of resentful energy that seeped into the very soil. They skimmed lightly over his flesh, not troubling him or his child. The Wens were also spared.
The Patriarch, Wen Qing said, had found a way to keep resentful energy from harming the living.
But the Patriarch had not spared himself. Resentful energy had found a home in his bones, in his blood, in his flesh. It moved behind his eyes every time he looked at Lan Wangji. There was an old power inside of him. Lan Wangji knew it must have dwelt within this man for many years.
The Patriarch did not speak. He remained silent for so long that Lan Wangji nearly fell asleep, the weight of the child pulling him toward slumber.
"I came here as a child," the Patriarch said.
Lan Wangji opened his eyes. He did not twitch, but it took effort.
"I think someone threw me in!" The Patriarch's voice was admirably light.
For a moment Lan Wangji thought he might be joking. But he wasn't. His eyes were dark and hooded.
Lan Wangji thought of the Burial Mounds. He knew what they were in his father's era, before the Patriarch tamed them. He thought of someone hurling a child into those forsaken lands crawling with resentful energy. His hands found his stomach without conscious thought.
"Your parents?" he asked.
He did not like to think of this: what he would do if someone hurt his child. Lan Wangji had never considered himself a vengeful man. He was brought up to value mercy, justice, tempered judgment.
But then he thought of his child, alone in barren plains, ripped apart by dark spirits. He felt as though he could kill something, if he only had Bichen in his hand and a target for his rage.
The Patriarch shrugged, deceptively careless.
"I don't remember," he said. "I don't remember anything from before."
It might have been a lie. Lan Wangji knew better than to think that he was uniquely privileged to hear the truth—whole and unadulterated—from the Patriarch's lips. He was within the Patriarch's domain, in his very bed. They had lain together, created a child together. Still, the Patriarch could still lie to him if he wished. Lan Wangji did not forget this.
But he didn't think this was a lie.
The Patriarch stared up at the ceiling, his face full of thwarted misery. He looked like a man who did not understand something, and bitterly resented his own ignorance.
Lan Wangji knew that expression. He had worn it himself, oftener than he might have liked.
"Do you have a name?" he asked.
The Patriarch's lips formed a humorless smile.
"I must have had one at some point." He glanced slyly in Lan Wangji's direction. "I didn't sprout from the ground like a radish."
Lan Wangji knew then that the topic was closed. But before he fell asleep, he whispered his own name to the Patriarch.
The man smiled and repeated it in a teasing drawl: Lan Zhan. And that was enough.
Lan Wangji didn't bother to keep track of the days. For once in his life, there was no need to measure days or hours. Every hour was similar, each day like the last. His growing belly kept the count for him anyway. The child flourished and kicked, marking off the days and weeks.
He had not realized how much preparation a child required. But he did not tend to the preparations alone. The Wens were eager to help. There was an old woman among them, who had borne many children of her own. She told Lan Wangji what to expect from childbirth, and laughed at his expression of mute horror. She made the child a blanket, too. One of the old men built a cradle. Wen Qing's brother approached shyly, and offered to help with the sewing.
As the days passed, Lan Wangji learned how the settlement operated. The fields provided lavishly, and they mostly ate their own crops. What the Patriarch could not provide, they bought in town.
Every fortnight, one of the Wens made the journey to the nearest village. They sold the surplus crops there, to a terrified populace. Villagers bought them, likely because they were afraid of what would happen if they did not.
Lan Wangji suspected that the villages fed the crops to their pigs, or buried them in the dead of night. But Wen Qing had assured him there was nothing wrong with the food. After eating the crops for a month, Lan Wangji admitted he had seen no ill effects. Still, it was unnerving to dice radishes, knowing they were grown in blood-soaked soil and harvested by walking corpses.
In the village, the Wens bought what the land could not supply: ink and paper, soap and thread, cloth and nails. They received fair prices, and merchants dared not cheat them. Wen Qing said that some of the townspeople refused to leave their homes when the Wens were nearby. But whatever hardships the Wens faced when they walked among the living, they always brought back a generous store of supplies.
A good deal of it ended up the cave: new clothing and books for Lan Wangji, the cradle and blankets for the coming child.
When the Patriarch saw the cradle, he stared at it for a long time. That night, he joined Lan Wangji in bed again.
He didn't always share the bed, and he never touched Lan Wangji. Not as he had in the forest, anyway. Sometimes he reached out to rest his hands on Lan Wangji's belly. Once the child's kicking could be felt from the outside, the Patriarch touched his stomach often.
He did it now. The Patriarch lay on his side, face to face with Lan Wangji. Then he cupped Lan Wangji's stomach with both hands, as if holding the child.
"I was somewhere else," he said, without warning. "I was someone else. Then I was here."
Lan Wangji understood that this was an unexpected continuation of their conversation, a month prior: Who were you, before you were the Yiling Patriarch? Where did you come from?
"It took me a long time to learn how to use the energy properly." The Patriarch stroked his stomach absently. "To use it, and not let it use me."
Lan Wangji gave that some thought.
"How do you use it to grow things?" he asked.
The Patriarch showed him the next day. He took Lan Wangji with him as he replenished their fields.
He had access to an almost bottomless well of resentful energy. It did what he wished, obeyed his commands. If he told it to strike, it struck. If he told it to lay dormant, it did. If he told it to turn in on itself, fueling the cycle of creation, it did that too.
But it took effort. Lan Wangji noticed that, watching the Patriarch's face as he worked. Controlling the energy took effort, control, and sacrifice. The Patriarch's mouth was lined with tension, his eyes rimmed red.
Lan Wangji almost said something foolish: Let me play Cleansing for you. But he caught the words before they escaped.
Playing Cleansing for this would be like trying to empty the ocean with a spoon. There was nothing he could do to alleviate the effects of the task. This task was too great. It should have been beyond any man.
But when the Patriarch was done, he merely wiped the sweat from his brow. He gave Lan Wangji a weary, human smile.
Lan Wangji kissed him then. He could think of nothing else to do.
The Patriarch made a small, shocked noise. For a moment, he did not respond and Lan Wangji thought he might have made a terrible mistake. But then the Patriarch took him in his arms and drew him back into the cave.
He pressed Lan Wangji onto the bed and returned the kiss. First, on his mouth. Then, on every part of Lan Wangji's body that he could reach.
"I can't leave," the Patriarch told him one day.
Lan Wangji was six months along by then. His body felt heavy. But Granny Wen told him—gleefully it seemed—that the worst was yet to come. She also told him that no matter how many nappies he thought his child would need, they would need more. So Lan Wangji took the pile of sewing with him to bed while he waited for the Patriarch to finish his talisman work.
His words made Lan Wangji glance up. He found the Patriarch frowning down at his desk.
"I can stretch my territory pretty far." The Patriarch held out his hands. He studied the wisps of resentful energy that often swirled around his palms. "I think I could probably stretch it as far as I like."
Lan Wangji lowered the sewing into his lap.
He had guessed this already. The Patriarch was clearly able to extend his will far beyond the borders of the Burial Mounds. It was astonishing, that he should have so much power at his disposal.
Yet there was no triumph in the Patriarch's voice. Instead, he wore a lopsided smile. He let the resentful energy flicker around his hands, then extinguished it.
"But I take the energy with me whenever I leave." He waved a hand absently, toward the Burial Mounds. "Once it's someplace new, I can't put it back. It stays there, and takes on a life of its own."
Lan Wangji considered that. He thought of Nightless City, dead and forsaken after the Patriarch conquered it. He thought of the places that had cropped up on the borders of the cultivation world: peculiar groves and swamps that no one dared to enter.
The great sects feared each new incursion. They saw these sites as evidence that the Patriarch was extending his territory ever-farther. They believed he was trying to swallow up the entire world.
There was something heartbreaking in the discovery that the Patriarch was a prisoner. These strange regions were no attempt at annexation. They were only a sign that the man sometimes gave in to the temptation to see the world, to break free of the confines of the Burial Mounds.
Lan Wangji was quiet.
After a moment, the Patriarch shrugged. He tried to smile.
"Anywhere I go," he explained, "it ends up like your forest."
Lan Wangji ignored the flutter of pleasure in his chest at those words: your forest.
It was not right, to take pleasure in any part of this conversation. But he liked the idea that the forest belonged to him as well as the Patriarch. He liked the idea that this place—where their child was conceived—belonged to both of them.
"You knew when the plants were uprooted," he said.
The Patriarch nodded.
"The link is still there. Between me and the energy. I can feel when someone trespasses on that territory." He paused and flexed his hands. "I can go there, just like I can go anywhere in the Burial Mounds."
Lan Wangji nodded absently.
He had already perceived this: the way the Patriarch could travel almost instantaneously between different parts of his domain. The resentful energy spoke to him, told him all that occurred in his lands. If Lan Wangji had hoped to keep secrets from the Patriarch—here in his new home—he would have been disappointed.
But there was nothing he wished to keep unsaid. Not even his quiet anxiety about how the resentful energy affected this man. Every day, he saw the remoteness in the Patriarch's eyes, and he worried.
After a moment, the Patriarch sighed.
"It's tired of staying in the Burial Mounds," he admitted. "There's too much of it, and it doesn't know where to go."
Lan Wangji felt a throb of dismay.
If the cultivation world—such as it was, generations ago—had done its job, there would not be such an abyss of resentful energy. It was the duty of cultivators to eliminate this energy, purge it from the world. But for too long, cultivators of the great sects had focused on other things. They nurtured their own power, cultivated to immortality, built up political influence. They ignored the seething resentment of the Burial Mounds until the power finally became unmanageable.
Now there was a vast ocean of resentful energy. It was no longer content to remain here, on this mountain of corpses. The Patriarch had won control and turned the energy to his will. But Lan Wangji had an uncomfortable suspicion that this was only a temporary solution.
The Patriarch scratched a thumbnail over the battered surface of his desk.
"Sometimes I think that's why it let me live," he said, almost idly. "It wanted someone to use as an instrument, someone who could carry it somewhere else."
Lan Wangji clenched his hands on his lap.
If that was what the resentful energy wanted, it would eventually have its way. The Patriarch was not a man to be confined forever. Already he had strayed past the borders of the Burial Mounds. He knew the cost, knew what he brought in his wake. But how could such a man be content forever, kept to one small corner of the earth?
Someday, he would want to leave again. He would wish to see new lands. Then the resentful energy would spread again, taking root in some foreign soil.
"You could stop using it," Lan Wangji said.
The Patriarch's voice came swift and sharp.
"No." He pressed his palms flat against the desk.
"Why not?" Lan Wangji moved the sewing aside. He stared directly at the Patriarch, who did not turn his way.
The Patriarch was silent for a long moment.
"Without it," he said, "I would be weak."
"You have a golden core," Lan Wangji pointed out.
They had lain together several times in the past month. With such intimacy, it was impossible not to notice the Patriarch's golden core.
Lan Wangji had been shocked when he first felt it. How could a golden core survive, steeping year after year in resentful energy? Somehow, the Patriarch had found a way to manage it.
When the first shock passed, Lan Wangji realized the core's presence made sense. Who else but a cultivator could tame resentful energy in this way? If the Patriarch had been an ordinary child, dropped into the Burial Mounds, he would have surely perished. But he had been a budding cultivator, a child with a strong golden core. He had survived.
His core survived too. It remained intact. But when they lay together, Lan Wangji could feel the creeping decay, the slow infection spreading throughout the Patriarch's body. If he continued using resentful energy, his core would not last forever. Someday—perhaps far in the future, but someday—the energy would overwhelm him. His golden core would be snuffed out.
"You could break the link between yourself and this place," Lan Wangji suggested. "You could be free."
The Patriarch's face grew tense.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he hissed.
Lan Wangji didn't. He didn't know how the Patriarch had tamed the resentful energy. He didn't understand how the link worked, or how it might be broken.
But he knew that if it was not broken, the Patriarch would be lost. The resentful energy would destroy his core and hollow him out. Something might remain, but it would be a vessel for resentful energy and nothing more. The Patriarch would become like one of his own corpse puppets, a mindless slave.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Patriarch did not wish to think of this. When Lan Wangji tried to speak of it, he stormed out of the cave and they did not speak for three days.
Lan Wangji spent those days alone, lost in thought.
In spite of the resentful energy's influence, the Patriarch remained himself. He looked and spoke like a man. He smiled at the Wens and teased them. He whined when Wen Qing scolded him. He touched Lan Wangji gently when they were in bed together. He gazed reverently at Lan Wangji's stomach. Sometimes, he wondered aloud what his child might look like.
If the resentful energy continued its spread, Lan Wangji knew this man would disappear. The Patriarch's body might remain. He might still have a form which paced through the cave by day or rested beside Lan Wangji at night. But there would be no warmth in those eyes, no tenderness in those hands. Whatever was left behind, it would not be a man who cared for his child.
On the third day of the Patriarch's absence, Lan Wangji found himself thinking of his brother.
He couldn't say much in his farewell letter. At the time, Lan Wangji had wondered if he was going to his death. But he hadn't wanted the letter to sound too grim. It was equally possible that he would return to Cloud Recesses within a matter of days.
Of course, he hadn't known what state he would return in. The child might still be inside him, or it might be gone. In any event, he hadn't wanted to confess to his pregnancy in the letter. His brother would only be upset if he knew the truth.
So Lan Wangji merely wrote that he could not remain at Gusu at present. He said that he must be absent for a time, but he hoped to return someday. He apologized for abandoning his duties without permission. He asked his brother to refrain from searching for him. But he knew that was a vain request. In all likelihood, his brother was searching even now.
The Lan sect could not find him here. No one could. The wards were too powerful, and cultivators were afraid to even approach the borders. If Lan Wangji perished here—or if he lived for years, his child at his side—his brother would never know.
Lan Wangji dwelt on that as he helped Wen Qing prepare herbal remedies. She gave him a quizzical glance, and he realized he was frowning.
The other Wens helped for a while. But once they stepped away from the workbench—once they could not overhear—she leaned in.
"Did you two have a fight?" she asked in an undertone.
"No," Lan Wangji said. He strained the herbs as Wen Qing had showed him. Then he sighed. "Perhaps."
Wen Qing gave that some thought as she ground herbs with a pestle.
"There aren't many people who dare to argue with him," she said, after a pause. "I'm glad you're one of them."
Lan Wangji nodded. He kept his eyes on the boiling water and the powdered herbs. As they finished their work, Wen Qing let out a quiet sigh.
"He'll come back soon, with his tail between his legs." She bottled the remedies and tucked them into her bag. "He doesn't have what it takes to stay angry with you."
Lan Wangji spent the afternoon dissecting those words.
Perhaps she was only trying to say that the Patriarch was not the type of man to hold a grudge. But perhaps she meant something more. Perhaps she believed the Patriarch would not stay angry with Lan Wangji, in particular.
If it was the latter, Lan Wangji wasn't sure how to interpret her words. Of course, the Patriarch clearly treasured his child. If he was kind to Lan Wangji, perhaps it was only for the child's sake. That should have been enough—Lan Wangji should have been grateful for his kind treatment, no matter the cause—but it wasn't.
On the fourth night, the Patriarch slipped back into the cave. Lan Wangji was already in bed, and the Patriarch crept over to his side. He sat on the edge of the bed, as if he feared he wasn't welcome.
"I made you something," the Patriarch whispered. He held out his hand.
His palm cradled a bracelet with red and black beads. Lan Wangji took it with careful fingers.
"It has protection charms on it," The Patriarch explained.
Lan Wangji could feel them, etched into the surface of the beads. They were powerful charms, the kind that could only be worked with sweat and blood from the maker.
"For the baby?" he asked slowly.
The Patriarch gave a sigh. It was the same sigh Uncle gave when disciples asked something foolish. Lan Wangji felt a painful prick of nostalgia. But it softened as the Patriarch took his wrist and put the bracelet on.
"What an absurd question," he muttered. "It's obviously too big for a baby! See?"
He tilted Lan Wangji's wrist to show how carefully the bracelet fitted.
"I'll make another one for the baby," he added. "A smaller version."
He refused to look Lan Wangji in the eye. But Lan Wangji understood, and he pulled the Patriarch into bed with him.
They spoke often, after that. The Patriarch talked of the places he had traveled—in disguise, naturally—and the things he had seen. Lan Wangji spoke of night-hunts, trips to Caiyi Town, lessons in Cloud Recesses. They discussed the rotation of the crops in the fields, the new houses the Wens were building now that spring had come. They spoke of the Wens themselves, and the people in the village nearby.
But when they lay in bed together, they mostly talked about the child. The birth was drawing near, and Wen Qing examined Lan Wangji every other morning. Today, she said the child would come within six weeks.
"Firstborns are often late," she said, as Lan Wangji tugged his robes back into place. "But we should prepare for an early birth, just in case."
That night, the Patriarch came to bed with a frown.
"Shouldn't we marry," he said, "before the little one comes? Isn't that the proper thing to do?"
Lan Wangji waited until the Patriarch was settled comfortably at his side. Then he laid a hand on the Patriarch's wrist.
"I am not willing to share my husband," he said slowly.
The Patriarch gave a startled laugh.
"Share me with whom?" he asked. "Do you see concubines in this place? Have you ever caught me sneaking dancing girls into our bed-chamber?"
The Patriarch had claimed no one else at the Burial Mounds or in the village. Lan Wangji discovered that long ago. There were no concubines tucked away in other parts of his territory, either. No bastard children, he said, scattered across the land. There was only Lan Wangji, and their child. The Patriarch even said he would refrain from taking other lovers or fathering other children.
Unless I find another beautiful young cultivator stealing my ginseng, the Patriarch added mischievously. If that happens, perhaps I won't be able to control myself!
Lan Wangji gave him a sharp, reproving bite on his collarbone, and the Patriarch laughed long and loud.
So they had an understanding: there was no risk of future concubines. Lan Wangji knew that he was already the Patriarch's spouse in all but name. He had begun to think of the Patriarch—privately, within his own mind—as his husband.
He had never been good at sharing, though. Not with anyone, anything. So he explained his terms to the Patriarch now.
"If my husband will be tied to me, he will be tied to me alone." He brushed his thumb along the Patriarch's wrist. "No one else. Nothing else."
The Patriarch was silent. Lan Wangji waited, counting his own heartbeats.
"If this condition is not agreeable to you," he continued, "then we will not marry."
It did not matter if they never married. The Patriarch was still his husband, in all ways that counted. Their child would be valued, and they would have a place of honor within their small community. If a wedding never occurred, it was of no consequence.
Lan Wangji knew the terms of their arrangement—a child conceived and birthed out of wedlock—should bother him. But they did not. Ironically, though, it was the Patriarch who seemed vexed by the child's illegitimacy.
His face grew tense as he listened. But he did not pull away or refuse Lan Wangji's terms. He didn't snarl: Who do you think you are, to deny me what I want? If I say I will marry you, then I will marry you. How dare you interfere with my will, or set limits on my power?
Lan Wangji waited and watched.
The resentful energy swirled viciously around the Patriarch's hands. But when he spoke, his voice was calm.
"You don't know what will happen if I break the link."
"Neither do you," Lan Wangji pointed out.
The Patriarch swung around and stared.
"That's your rebuttal?" he asked incredulously.
Lan Wangji only shrugged. It was, perhaps, not a compelling argument. But it was the truth: the Patriarch did not know what would happen when he broke the link. He had never attempted it.
The Patriarch's face clouded.
"Young Master Lan, let me speak plainly." His voice grew dark. "If I break the link, I may die. I may go insane and kill everyone here. Yourself included."
"Do you think that's what will happen?" Lan Wangji asked.
He passed lightly over the Patriarch's formal address. He used Lan Wangji's given name so freely, it was strange to see his lips shape the words Young Master Lan. He only used the title now because he was annoyed, and Lan Wangji chose to ignore it.
"Do you think this energy is stronger than your will?" he pressed.
The Patriarch made an irritated sound.
"What an insulting way to phrase it!" he muttered.
Then he fell silent for a long time. Lan Wangji fingered the beads on his bracelet.
"I think the energy is very strong." The Patriarch's voice was low and heavy.
Lan Wangji understood that he was afraid.
"You mastered it as a child," he said gently.
The Patriarch sighed.
"It mastered me, too." He spoke with a hush, as if making a terrible admission.
But Lan Wangji had known this for a long time. He touched the Patriarch's wrist again.
"You are not a child any longer."
The Patriarch was not a child now, abandoned to the cruel whims of resentful energy. He was a man, and he understood the resentful energy as well as it understood him.
He was not alone, either. He had been alone, Lan Wangji knew, for several years. He had struggled by himself to conquer the restless spirits, bend them to his well. But he was not alone now, and would not have to shoulder this task by himself.
The Patriarch was quiet again.
"Even if I break the link and force the energy into submission," he said, speaking in sharp bursts. "Even then! I might not be able to draw on it again. It might reject me, and look for a new master. I might be left without my powers."
"Good," Lan Wangji said mildly.
He did not fear his husband, not even with his strange and heretical powers. But it would be no loss, to have his husband reduced from a legend to an ordinary man.
The Patriarch stared in shock. Then he pressed his palm to his head and let out a groan.
"You're so stubborn!" He turned his face into Lan Wangji's shoulder. "Ah, how did I get myself saddled with such a stubborn husband?"
"I am not your husband yet," Lan Wangji reminded him.
Yet it took effort not to smile. It took even greater effort to keep his face still as the Patriarch grumbled and rolled onto his side, reaching for Lan Wangji's belly.
"Let me feel my son." His voice was pleading, like a spoiled child asking for another sweet.
Lan Wangji gave in and stroked his fingers through the Patriarch's hair.
"You don't know it's a boy," he said, with some amusement.
The Patriarch groaned again.
"Once upon a time, I commanded respect." He shook his head sorrowfully. "Famed cultivators would cut out their tongues before contradicting me!"
Lan Wangji hummed peaceably. He wondered what his fate would have been if the Patriarch truly wished for obedience and deference from his husband.
It would have been an unpleasant fate, surely. Lan Wangji would not have found the happiness he enjoyed here, in this strange cave. The happiness given by this strange man, who whined and sulked and stuck out his tongue when Lan Wangji reproached him.
"I do so know it's a boy," the Patriarch insisted.
They had grown close, and the Patriarch spoke like this often. His speech patterns had a childish humor, a unique personality at odds with the resentful energy that swirled around them, like waves lapping against a boat.
But his husband insisted the child was a boy, and Lan Wangji decided not to argue. Instead, he toyed with the Patriarch's hair and relished the way his husband's hands stroked his swollen belly.
"We should think of a good name," the Patriarch said thoughtfully.
"I will pick one," Lan Wangji agreed.
The Patriarch made a noise like an offended cat.
He looked as if Lan Wangji had snatched food out of his very mouth. Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow.
"You would like the honor of choosing your son's name?" he asked.
It was not customary for fathers to provide their illegitimate children with a name. According to tradition, the Patriarch only had the right to name children born to his lawful spouse. But Lan Wangji had already set the terms of their marriage. Now it only remained for his husband to accept or refuse.
The Patriarch grew quiet, brushing his thumb over the place where his son slept. When he spoke, his voice was rough with emotion.
"You had better be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain." He held Lan Wangji's belly tight, as if seeking an anchor. "If I do this, you've promised to marry me. And let me pick our son's name. And the next baby's name, too!"
He raised his chin imperiously.
Lan Wangji did him the kindness of pretending he couldn't hear the way the Patriarch's voice shook. He pretended he could not see the banked fear in the Patriarch's eyes.
"That was not part of the bargain," he protested lightly.
They had not spoken of this—the next child—but Lan Wangji found he didn't object. It would be pleasant if their son could have siblings. He wouldn't mind letting the Patriarch name all their children.
But it seemed inadvisable to let his husband have things too much his own way. Granny Wen recently cautioned him on this very matter. She said that one must take care to keep one's husband in line. Lan Wangji had listened attentively to her wisdom.
The Patriarch grumbled. He leaned forward, pressing his mouth against Lan Wangji's throat.
"I'm making it part of the bargain," he said. "I am throwing aside the power and authority of the Yiling Patriarch. I don't even know what will be left once that's gone. Let me have this."
He spoke with commendable lightness, but Lan Wangji knew it must hurt him to utter these words. He tilted his head, to give the Patriarch better access to his neck.
"You may have it," he said.
The Patriarch gave a small sigh of satisfaction.
They kissed for a while, and Lan Wangji thought of leaving the conversation there. But he discovered he had more to say. He drew back from their embrace so he could meet his husband's eyes.
"You will be left," he said. "The parts of you that are solely your own. That person will remain."
The resentful energy would be dispersed. His husband's powers would be reduced in the process. They might be halved, quartered. They might disappear altogether. Perhaps his golden core wouldn't survive the severing of the link.
Lan Wangji found he didn't care about that. Whatever happened, surely this man would remain: his husband who laughed and teased and complained.
The Patriarch gave a small, pained smile.
"Ah, I wonder what that person is like?" he murmured. "I hope he's nice! You deserve a nice husband."
It was not a question of deserving, Lan Wangji realized. It was only a question of what he wanted. He wanted this man, and none other. So it was an easy thing, to reach up and untie his forehead ribbon.
The Patriarch watched, blinking. Lan Wangji took their wrists and tied them together, knotting the ribbon securely.
"This is how betrothals are performed in my clan," he explained, when the Patriarch continued to look bemused.
The Patriarch's face softened into a smile.
"What does the wedding involve?"
There was a mischievous look in his eye, and it made Lan Wangji sigh.
"The bows," he said. "That is all."
A proper Lan wedding was traditionally overseen by an elder or the sect leader. They would have to omit that portion here. But as long as they performed their bows together—of their own free will—the marriage would be binding.
Lan Wangji had never dreamed of his wedding day, so the thought of a simple ceremony in a dark cave was not disappointing. But the Patriarch squawked in protest.
It developed that they would need red robes and wine, and all the proper accouterments. If these were absent, the Patriarch would not consider the marriage binding. He outlined his plans as Lan Wangji listened with amusement.
"Should I send bridewealth to your family?" the Patriarch asked, through smothered laughter. "Do you think they'll take radishes?"
Lan Wangji imagined his uncle's face after discovering a cartload of radishes on his doorstep. He couldn't conceal his smiles any longer.
The Patriarch leaned over and touched their foreheads together.
"We should do it soon," he whispered. "Before the baby comes."
Lan Wangji knew he wasn't speaking of the wedding. He was visualizing an attempt to break free from the resentful energy. He was thinking of what would happen if he lost control. He was thinking, perhaps, of what might become of his newborn child, if he lost possession of himself.
Lan Wangji would die before he let the child come to harm. But it seemed so much easier to protect their son while he was still inside the womb. He nodded.
"Soon," he whispered back.
They spoke to Wen Qing first. She needed to know, the Patriarch said. They didn't know what would happen when he tried to break the link. The Wens deserved a chance to take themselves to safety. Lan Wangji had agreed.
Wen Qing listened in silence as the Patriarch explained what he meant to do. Afterward, she stared at his face for a long time. The Patriarch's expression was tense, as if he expected opposition. But Wen Qing only nodded.
"Good," she said emphatically. "It's what you should have done long ago."
The Patriarch's mouth dropped open. Wen Qing rolled her eyes, finishing off the last of the herbal remedies she was preparing for the birth.
"If I'd known having a husband would knock some sense into you," she said, "I'd have married you off ages ago."
With that, she folded up the remedies and set them aside. The Patriarch gawked at her.
"We'll leave for the day," she added, her tone businesslike. "Then I'll come back alone, to see how things went. You'll stay with him?"
She turned to Lan Wangji, who nodded. They both ignored the Patriarch's furious protests. Wen Qing gave him an arch look.
"If you don't want anything to happen to us," Wen Qing told him, "then don't mess this up. Remember: if you die, I'll kill you."
It seemed to be an old joke between them because it made the Patriarch smile. But his face quickly grew anxious.
They stood outside the cave and watched the Wens file past the wards. Her family would wait just beyond the borders, Wen Qing said. When the Patriarch tried to apologize—for depriving them of the home and protection he'd promised—Wen Qing had threatened to stuff him full of acupuncture needles if he said another word.
"You saved our lives," she said, silencing his protests with a hard stare. "You gave us ten years. No matter what happens next, those years were a gift."
She hugged him roughly and marched away with her head held high. The Patriarch watched her go with eyes so full of pain that Lan Wangji wondered if he was making a mistake.
But when the Wens were clear—once the Burial Mounds were home to nothing but corpses—the Patriarch sighed. He took Lan Wangji's hand.
"I think I need you to stay with me for this part," he said.
He sounded almost ashamed, and Lan Wangji frowned.
"My place is at your side," he said, and meant it.
His husband sighed again.
"Don't say things like that with no warning," he whined, kissing Lan Wangji's palm. "My heart can't take it."
Together, they entered the cave.
This was the place, the Patriarch said, where he had become what he was. This was where he had made himself, and where he must unmake himself. This was where the resentful energy was strongest. If he could not master the energy here, he could not master it at all.
They sat on the edge of the bed in silence.
"It'll fight back," the Patriarch said. His voice was grim. "I don't know what it will do to me. When it took me the first time, it changed me."
He traced uneasy palms over his thighs.
"It changed my body, I mean. It changed me into different things. I think this is what I actually look like." He gazed down at his own hands doubtfully. "But I don't know what I'll look like once this starts."
"It does not matter," Lan Wangji said. He took his husband's hand again.
The Patriarch gripped his hand tight. Then he turned and met Lan Wangji's eyes.
"Lan Zhan." He bit his lip. "Just let me say this. Just in case."
Lan Wangji knew he wouldn't like what came next. But he nodded anyway and met his husband's gaze steadily.
The Patriarch brushed a strand of hair away from his face. Lan Wangji could see a flash of white: his own forehead ribbon now tied around his husband's wrist.
"I'm sorry," his husband said gently. "And thank you."
Lan Wangji kissed him.
"No need," he said.
He watched as his husband arranged himself into the lotus position on the bed, shutting his eyes as he drew forth the resentful energy. But Lan Wangji had already made up his mind: he would not accept that there was any need for apologies. His husband felt he must apologize, in case one or both of them did not survive this endeavor. But Lan Wangji refused to accept that outcome, and he was—as his husband often told him—extremely stubborn.
The resentful energy gathered around the Patriarch gently at first, like an animal darting out to play. But it thickened quickly, and the atmosphere of the cave grew oppressive.
His husband had told him to play his guqin if he thought it would do any good. His tone suggested that he anticipated no benefits from Cleansing. But he said Lan Wangji should play if it might protect himself and the baby.
Lan Wangji drew forth his guqin now and ran through the Songs of Clarity.
The shadows flickered when the first notes touched the air. But then they returned, crowding thickly around the Patriarch until his body was plunged into darkness. Lan Wangji could see little of his husband, save for the white of the ribbon and the curve of his face. The Patriarch's dark eyes turned red, glowing in the dim cave.
For a very long time, he did not speak. Lan Wangji could hear nothing by his husband's breathing—sharp and harsh—and Cleansing. But then the Patriarch stretched out a hand, as if something was very nearly within reach.
"I can see it," he gasped.
Lan Wangji knew he was speaking of the link, the strange umbilical cord that tied him to the resentful energy.
The Patriarch's fingers worked in the air, clenching into a fist. His hand shook.
"It doesn't want to let me go." He gave a ragged wet gasp. His lips were flecked with blood. "Lan Zhan."
Lan Wangji abandoned the guqin and took his husband's shaking hands. He wound his fingers around the forehead ribbon, pulling it tight against the Patriarch's skin.
"I am here," he whispered. "I am here."
The air grew denser than ever. Lan Wangji thought he could hear voices, screaming a thousand different names.
How many people, he wondered, had died in this place? How many spirits had melded together into this seething cauldron of resentment? How many souls yearned to break free of the confines of the Burial Mounds and wreak their vengeance upon the world?
The Patriarch made a small, broken sound.
"I don't know what to do with their bodies," he whispered.
Lan Wangji's heart cracked open at the grief in his husband's voice. But he did not hesitate in his answer.
The proper method for disposing of corpses was to lay them to rest. A funeral, a coffin, burial rites. It was because these rites were neglected that this place became what it was. Because the corpses were never properly buried, they could be summoned and used as puppets.
But now that the spirits had turned resentful, the teachings of the Lan sect were clear: First, liberate. Second, suppress. Third, eliminate.
The time for liberation and suppression had passed.
"Burn them," he told his husband softly. "Turn them to ash."
At once, he could feel the ground heat beneath his feet. The voices in the cave shrieked louder, as if they knew their earthly forms would soon be destroyed forever.
The air in the cave grew hot, choking. Sweat dripped down Lan Wangji's face. But he kept a tight grasp on his husband's hands.
The spirit's cries grew desperate, like wild animals. The Patriarch said his name once more—Lan Zhan—and then he changed.
His body seemed to shift beneath Lan Wangji's hands, stretching and twisting. Lan Wangji felt heat and fur. Through the cloud of resentful energy, he thought he saw the shape of a bear. But he dug in his fingernails and the Patriarch shifted again. Scales erupted against his flesh, his shape twisting like a snake. But the forehead ribbon was still there, tied against some part of the snake's writhing form. So Lan Wangji held on.
The child kicked furiously in his belly. But he didn't loosen his grip, not even when the Patriarch's flesh scalded his palms. He changed again, his shape becoming that of a man's. Then, suddenly, his body was wreathed in flames.
Lan Wangji reacted on pure instinct. He wrenched the Patriarch off the bed, hardly noticing that their bedding had turned to ash. There was a small, deep pool at the farthest edge of the cave, filled with brackish water. They did not bathe there under normal circumstances. But in this moment, Lan Wangji did not hesitate. He pushed his husband into the water and plunged in after him.
The flames vanished at once. When they were out, Lan Wangji pulled himself—and his husband—above the water's surface, gasping for breath.
The cave was quiet and very still. Heat licked the air, pressed against the earth's surface. But the voices were gone. Something else was gone too, and Lan Wangji found his ears ringing with its absence.
"Lan Zhan." His husband's voice shook.
Lan Wangji touched him everywhere. The flames had been real, and he half-expected to find scorch marks and blackened flesh. But there was nothing. He was whole and unmarked. When Lan Wangji traced his husband's meridians, probed his golden core, it was clean and untainted. The resentful energy that always lurked beneath his husband's skin was gone.
He raised his eyes to his husband's white face.
"Lan Zhan," his husband whispered. "I remember my name."
Then he fainted.
Dragging his husband's body from the pool was no easy task when seven-and-a-half months pregnant. But Lan Wangji managed it. Their bed was badly charred, and his husband's clothing had turned to cinders. In the end, he searched through the pile of baby supplies and retrieved a sheet to spare his husband's modesty.
A signal flare brought Wen Qing running.
Lan Wangji hardly knew what to say to her, or how to explain what had happened. But once she laid eyes on them, she asked for no explanations. She examined the Patriarch—the man who was the Patriarch—first. Then she insisted on checking Lan Wangji and the child. When she was done, her brow furrowed.
"There's nothing wrong with any of you," she said. "Nothing physically wrong, anyway."
Lan Wangji had already tried rousing his husband, to no avail. He didn't respond to Wen Qing's needles either. Neither of them knew what to make of that.
"Let him sleep," Wen Qing decided. "I'll bring the others back, and we'll see about replacing your bed."
His husband slept for three days and two nights. Lan Wangji refused to leave his side, but Wen Qing brought news.
The corpse puppets were gone, she said. Every corpse in the Burial Mounds had vanished without a trace. The wards held, but they were considerably weaker. The crops were still coming in, but without the puppets to tend them, the Wens were busy planting and fetching water.
"It'll do us good," she said briskly, as she performed her daily examination. "We were getting too lazy."
His husband woke on the third day. Lan Wangji was half-asleep beside him on their new makeshift bed. He felt hands in his hair and he looked up to discover his husband staring down at him, with a baffled sort of wonder.
Lan Wangji reached for his hand, and his husband twined their fingers together at once.
"Wei Ying," his husband said softly. His voice cracked. "That was my name."
Much to Wei Ying's disgust, his recovery was slow. It was a week before he was strong enough to leave the bed, and two weeks before he could leave the cave.
"I gave up godlike powers for this?" he muttered, as he limped around the cave.
Wen Qing had told him to practice walking, to rebuild his strength. But Wei Ying resented his body's weakness after nearly a lifetime of inexhaustible power.
Lan Wangji ignored his complaints. He drew his husband back onto the bed and showed him what he gave up his powers for. Their son kicked between their bodies.
Once Wen Qing judged him well enough, they walked across the Burial Mounds together. Their progress was slow. Wei Ying was still healing, and Lan Wangji couldn't move quickly either. The birth, Wen Qing said, was only a few weeks away. But in time, they managed to circle the entire territory.
It felt strangely empty without the constant press of resentful energy. The crops were still growing, though. The soil no longer appeared steeped in blood. It was ordinary soil now, with simple green shoots thrusting their way toward the sun.
Wei Ying sighed and crouched down to rub a lotus leaf between his fingers.
"Now I can't use the resentful energy to keep the fields producing," he said. "We're going to have to learn farming."
His voice was full of disgust, but he was smiling. He smiled so broadly that his eyes crinkled with it.
"That's fine," Lan Wangji said, and touched his husband's shoulder.
He wanted to sit down beside Wei Ying, but he knew he'd never be able to get up again. His son kicked, as if in agreement, and Lan Wangji rubbed his belly absently.
Wei Ying reached up to touch it.
"Is this really the life you dreamed of when you were young?" He wrinkled his nose. "Married to a farmer?"
They had completed their bows as soon as Wei Ying was well enough to stand. The red silk and wine, Wei Ying admitted, would have to wait. Lan Wangji didn't care if they never appeared.
"I did not allow myself to dream of anything," he said, pensively.
Cloud Recesses had not encouraged dreaming. During his childhood, Lan Wangji had known only duty and structure. There had been some satisfaction there. But no joy, no discovery. No warm soil beneath his fingers, ripe with growing crops. No husband smiling up at him.
Wei Ying's smile turned faintly sorrowful.
"I've had lots of dreams." He let go of the lotus leaf and patted the earth around it. "There was a lot of time for dreaming when I was here alone."
Wei Ying had remembered some fragments of his life before. His parents were cultivators, he said. They died on a night-hunt when he was a young child. Wei Ying had kept himself alive through begging and stealing.
But one day, he had been caught stealing produce from a merchant's stall. The shopkeepers had turned him over to Wen soldiers, who had found amusement in tormenting a hungry child. They threw him into the Burial Mounds and told him that ghosts would eat him.
Wei Ying guessed that he was six or seven at the time. He remembered little between then and when he left, seeking revenge against the Wens. Wen Qing believed he might have been eleven when he slaughtered Wen Ruohan. That left several years unaccounted for.
Lan Wangji hadn't wished to press his husband for details about that time. But he reached for his husband's hand now.
"What did you dream?" he asked.
Wei Ying smiled as he rose to his feet.
"I wished I could have my own family." He smoothed a hand over Lan Wangji's belly. "But I also wished I could found my own sect. One that didn't worry about prestige or bloodlines. Only about helping others, teaching orphans, seeing justice done."
He had fire in his eyes when he spoke of such things. It was different from the blazing heat that sometimes took possession of the Patriarch. Lan Wangji had loved that heat, too. He had loved everything about this man. But this passion was better, more human.
"That is a good dream," he said, resting his hands over his husband's.
Wei Ying laughed.
"Maybe we can make it come true someday!" He tilted his head. "Though, I don't know if I'm ready to be a teacher. Aren't they supposed to be very good at things like poetry and swordplay? I never learned much about that."
He had no time for proper education, as a neglected child. His parents had taught him to read and write, and helped him form the base of his golden core. The Wens, too, had done what they could for Wei Ying. He had a natural genius, and he was a skilled autodidact. But there were still some gaps in his learning.
Lan Wangji was not troubled by them.
"I can teach you," he said, and enjoyed the way his husband's eyes warmed.
He leaned forward, and Lan Wangji expected a kiss. But Wei Ying paused, tracing a hand over his swollen belly.
"I picked out a name," he admitted.
Lan Wangji nodded. He had not forgotten their bargain. He had promised Wei Ying marriage, and the chance to name their children. It was a very good bargain, and Lan Wangji had no cause to regret it. Still, he was curious.
"Tell me," he said.
Wei Ying laughed softly, staring at the lotus flowers that surrounded his feet.
"Yuan," he said. "As in 'garden'."
Lan Wangji thought of the small grove where their son had been conceived, and the medicinal plants that grew there. He wondered if that garden remained, even after the resentful energy had been extinguished.
They must go back someday, he decided. They must go and see for themselves. There was no reason why they shouldn't. Wei Ying was free now. He could go where he liked, without fear. Lan Wangji could go with him, wherever his husband wished.
"My husband has chosen a good name," he said.
Wei Ying's answering smile was like the sun.