The war was not going well.
In fact, it was going quite badly. Each day brought fresh defeats. Their supplies dwindled and their forces were pushed back, again and again. Lan Wangji had lost track of how many funerals he attended in the last two years. But he kept a careful tally of the hours and days and months.
The days were growing short. He wasn't sure how their forces could survive a second winter on the battlefield. Yet there was nothing to do but press forward.
So every morning, Lan Wangji woke early. He dressed in the white robes of his sect and he fought in another battle. Afterward, he tended the wounded and allocated their meager supplies. Once that was done, he joined his brother inside the meeting tents.
After two years of fighting alongside the various sect leaders, he knew them fairly well. They knew him, too. None of them expected him to speak during the meetings. Instead, Lan Wangji had the luxury of listening in silence. His brother marshaled a fresh set of battle plans with his fellow sect leaders, and Lan Wangji paid close attention.
But the sect leaders had grown restless, their attention wandering during meetings.
No one dared to whisper the truth: We are losing, losing badly. But it was written upon their faces. Even the lowliest foot-soldiers and servants could see it. There were reports of defections each week. Peasants fled nearby villages, while servants quietly packed their bags and disappeared into the night.
By Double Seventh Festival, the truth could no longer be denied. The Sunshot Campaign was failing. It was only a matter of time before their forces were overrun.
Wen Ruohan's power seemed limitless. Countless puppets had been destroyed, and scores of his soldiers slain on the battlefields. But the results of each battle were meaningless. If their forces slaughtered dozens of Wen Ruohan's men, he simply raised them as walking corpses. They tried to burn as many corpses as possible, but they couldn't destroy all of them. Wen Ruohan had ways of securing more bodies whenever his supply ran low.
Victory over such a foe was impossible, and Lan Wangji knew it. But though he sought desperately for a solution, he couldn't find one. During the meetings, the sect leaders seemed equally helpless. Not one had prepared his people for this type of war. A decade ago, fighting a man who raised the dead would have been unthinkable. Not a single sect leader had prepared countermeasures for such an enemy.
Lan Wangji never knew who first spoke the Yiling Patriarch's name. But within hours, it seemed to be everywhere. Soldiers murmured it as they burned the day's dead. Servants whispered it as they cleared the tables after another fruitless meeting. By the next day, cultivators and sect leaders spoke the name openly.
Shall we not ask the Yiling Patriarch for his aid? Who else could hope to defeat Wen Ruohan? If we cannot fight his wicked tricks, should we not seek the aid of an immortal?
Lan Wangji listened with a growing sense of unease.
Little was known of the immortals who dwelt within their lands. There were not many of them. Most, like Baoshan Sanren, had withdrawn centuries ago. They shrouded themselves on remote mountaintops, teaching a select group of cultivators. They never meddled with politics.
The Yiling Patriarch was no different. But he was by far the youngest of the immortals. He had cultivated to immortality—so it was said—less than a decade ago. And he could still be found by those who sought him. He had made his home in the Burial Mounds, less than a shi's walk from Yiling.
But few cultivators dared to approach him. Rumor had it he lived on a mountain made of corpses. Like Wen Ruohan, he knew the vile secrets of reanimating the dead. He, too, used corpses as servants and serfs. It was even said that the Patriarch had perfected a method of controlling resentful energy. He didn't just raise corpses. Spirits and demons also did his bidding.
To the profound relief of the cultivation world, he seemed to prefer solitude...with a few exceptions. Wandering cultivators claimed that he had taken a handful of disciples. And every now and then, a score of weary peasants might beg him for succor after a hard winter. Those who entered the Patriarch's domain disappeared behind the wards of the Burial Mounds.
They emerged later—still alive, villagers whispered—to trade in the markets on the Patriarch's behalf. But his followers were relatively few. No matter how many souls he claimed, he never communicated with the world outside. He never spoke to sect leaders, much less appeared at discussion conferences.
His power was said to be great. He was an immortal, beyond any doubt, and had once been a cultivator. No one seemed to recall his name or sect affiliation. Shuddering over rumors of his abilities, the cultivation world had always seemed grateful for his indifference.
It is best, Uncle once muttered, not to draw the attention of such a being. Leave him to his forsaken lands and his cursed people. Let the immortals meditate in silence and solitude.
Lan Wangji let the name—Yiling Patriarch—rest on his tongue. But he did not speak it, and he watched his brother as the sect leaders debated.
Their forces were depleted, and Wen Ruohan was stronger every day. If they lost the war—and it was clear now that they would—the cultivation world would be swallowed up by the Wen sect. Every cultivator would be dead or wearing the Wen crests.
They would be fortunate to survive the winter. If they somehow managed to last till the spring thaw, Lan Wangji knew that the cultivation world would be forced to surrender by summer. They would have to beg Wen Ruohan for peace on any terms, and Wen Ruohan was not known for showing mercy.
It was once unthinkable: consulting the Yiling Patriarch, begging him to use his wicked tricks on their behalf. Now, it had become inevitable.
Lan Xichen's face was tired and resigned. But when the sect leaders took a vote—shall we send a letter to the Patriarch, asking him for aid?—the result was unanimous. The letter to the Patriarch was drafted and dispatched within hours.
Two days later, a reply arrived in the shape of a ghostly black butterfly. It alighted on the table in the war tent, then unfolded itself into a sealed scroll. The message was short, yet potent.
I will come in person. Every sect leader must be present. Every sect leader must be accompanied by their heir and their first disciple.
He named a date for the conference, a fortnight away. There was no post-script, no salutations or closing remarks.
The letter passed from hand to hand. Brief as it was, it was picked to pieces. The Patriarch had not promised his aid, and many of the sect leaders saw that as a bad omen. His demand—the presence of the most valued and powerful members of every sect—was equally concerning.
But it was too late to retract the message. They couldn't shy away and try to evade the Patriarch's notice. He was coming in person, the letter said. He would speak to the sect leaders himself.
Lan Wangji listened as the sect leaders made contingency plans. They speculated wildly on the Patriarch's response, trading the letter back and forth to support their theories.
When it was his turn to examine the letter, Lan Wangji gave it an indifferent glance. The penmanship was remarkably poor. Whoever was responsible for the Patriarch's calligraphy lessons had clearly done an abysmal job.
But perhaps he had never received such instruction at all. Some claimed that the Patriarch was the son of a rogue cultivator. Others said he was not a man at all, but a demonic creature masquerading as a cultivator. No cultivator, it seemed, had met him and returned to tell the tale. If there lived a teacher responsible for the Patriarch's upbringing and education, he or she had never come forward.
Lan Wangji set the letter aside and tried to put it out of his mind. His expectations for the meeting were low. But when they spoke privately that night, his brother was cautiously optimistic.
"He has never attended any political meeting before." Lan Xichen's brow furrowed with thought. "I hardly think he would take the trouble of coming here, only to tell us that he refuses to offer his aid."
Lan Wangji conceded this point with a nod.
But why should the Patriarch be so evasive? Why should he refuse to discuss the matter by letter? Why should he refuse even the smallest commitment: If we can come to a suitable agreement, I am willing to help you?
"Perhaps he feared the letter would be intercepted." His brother's voice was doubtful.
That, Lan Wangji knew, was unlikely. It was Nie Mingjue's hand who had written the first letter. The response had been bespelled, and no one but Nie Mingjue was able to break the scroll's seal. How could such a missive be intercepted?
His brother had no answer for that. But the mystery of the scroll didn't bother him. He had saved his concern for the scroll's contents.
"Of course, I understand why he wants the sect leaders present." Lan Xichen studied the table for a moment. "But I don't know why he wants our heirs and first disciples to be there."
His brother was not alone in his worries. Half the afternoon had been wasted debating this matter. Some sect leaders feared that the Patriarch meant to slaughter them all at once. Perhaps, they murmured, perhaps he is on Wen Ruohan's side, after all.
Others were more hopeful. It may be, they said, that the Patriarch wishes to take our measure. He might wish to see whether the most powerful cultivators of this age are worthy of his assistance.
A few speakers had suggested that the Patriarch might plan to take hostages or servants. But this seemed unlikely.
After the Patriarch's existence became public knowledge, a handful of smaller sects had tried to win his friendship. They had offered him disciples and servants. But their offers were coldly rejected. The Patriarch absorbed some wanderers into his sect, it was true. He took a few rogue cultivators and orphans. But he had accepted no emissaries from the sects.
Lan Xichen suggested that he might have changed his mind. Perhaps he desired a closer relationship with the sects now. But there was no use theorizing about what an immortal might do. They could not begin to guess what such a man wanted, or planned, or believed. Such matters were not Lan Wangji's concern, in any event. His only duty was to keep his fellow disciples alive until the Patriarch came.
Some days, he succeeded. Others, he failed. But their forces struggled and fought, and most survived the following fortnight. On the appointed day, a large tent was erected to shelter the sect leaders and their heirs. When the designated hour arrived, they were ready.
Lan Wangji sat at the head of the tent, at his brother's left. Nie Mingjue was seated to his brother's right. Nie Huaisang and their sect's first disciple had been given chairs nearby.
Across the tent, Jin Guangshan was flanked by his son and nephew. Jiang Wanyin shifted restively, his sister at one side and his first disciple on the other. The remaining sect leaders ranged across the tent, ranked by precedence. Their heirs and chosen disciples clustered around them.
Nie Mingjue had much to say—in private, of course—about their sudden appearance. For months, several sect leaders had been conspicuously absent from the war efforts. They appeared only for discussion conferences and vanished when the fighting grew bloody. Now they had turned up for a glimpse of the Yiling Patriarch, conveniently forgetting to take part in the day's battles.
Lan Wangji had noted this, too. He gritted his teeth.
He couldn't fault Jiang Yanli or Nie Huaisang They held a high rank, but their cultivation was weak. It would be foolish for either of them to venture near the battlefield. There were others, too: sect leaders who were feeble or elderly, hardly able to lift their swords. But many of the faces inside the tent were youthful and vibrant, yet they had contributed nothing to the war efforts.
Last night, Nie Mingjue had growled over the arrival of Jin Guangshan's elaborate carriage. He remarked that Jin Guangshan never missed a discussion conference or a party. Yet he always had excuses for why he was 'needed in Lanling' during the bloodiest battles.
Nie Mingjue had watched the man climb from his carriage, beaming and nodded to his fellow cultivators. He gripped his calligraphy brush so tightly it snapped in two.
During their brief meeting outside, Jin Guangshan had done nothing to soothe his temper. Lan Wangji could see for himself that Jin Guangshan was smugly pleased to have the chance to speak to an immortal. The fact that his own forces had contributed few victories to the war efforts didn't seem to weigh on his conscience.
Lan Xichen had wasted half the morning trying to calm Nie Mingjue. Then he was forced to spend half a shi soothing his brother's temper, too.
This is not the time for in-fighting, he murmured. We must present a united front when the Patriarch arrives. Wangji, I know we're all annoyed with Sect Leader Jin. But please try to bear with it for now.
Lan Wangji agreed to hold his tongue, and Nie Mingjue did the same. The sect leaders—lining up according to rank and precedence—clearly felt the gravity of the moment, too. They arranged themselves with remarkably little squabbling. Even Jin Guangshan refrained from taunting others.
Then they waited. And waited. And waited.
Lan Wangji tracked the movement of the sun as their guests shifted restlessly inside the tent. The Patriarch had indicated that he would arrive early. But the morning faded away, mists burning away with the rising heat. Then, when the sun was at half-mast, the silks covering the tent door were brushed aside.
The Patriarch arrived without warning, pushing his way inside as thick tendrils of resentful energy followed. The servants outside, tasked with announcing his arrival, rushed after him. Their faces were terrified and bewildered, as if they had somehow missed his approach.
The tent had been full of idle murmurs and casual conversation. But as the Patriarch entered, the assembly fell utterly silent. Half the guests stiffened, and Lan Wangji wondered if they hadn't expected the man to appear.
His appearance itself was something of a shock. The Patriarch was young, or powerful enough to keep a boyish face even during old age. Lan Wangji watched him with a careful eye.
If the Patriarch had been a non-cultivator, he would have guessed the man to be in his early twenties. But among cultivators, age was never easy to judge. In any case, the Patriarch had a firm, youthful body. His complexion was unlined and unblemished. He had a loping walk, and he entered with jaunty carelessness. As he gazed around the tent, his eyes were dark and amused. His lips curled into a faintly mocking smile.
"Don't get up on my account!" He dropped into a chair a white-faced servant had provided.
No one had, of course. Some of the sect leaders stared, too petrified to move. The others—like Lan Xichen, like Nie Mingjue—were clearly struggling to make sense of the situation.
The Patriarch had arrived alone, without disciples or attendants. There was no sword at his side, merely a flute tucked into his belt. The fabric of his black robes was of good quality, but the robes themselves were plain and unadorned. He looked like nothing more than a well-to-do rogue cultivator.
His appearance might be disarmingly simple, but sheer power rolled off his body. It was dizzying, and for a moment, Lan Wangji felt faintly nauseous. He glanced at his brother and saw that Lan Xichen's brows had drawn together. Jiang Wanyin looked pale, and even Jin Guangshan had been momentarily struck dumb.
No one had risen at the Patriarch's arrival. But at the sound of his voice—drawling and sardonic, with a faint reverberation of power—the guests scrambled to their feet.
Lan Wangji rose and joined them as they knelt before the Patriarch. Such obeisance rankled. Nie Mingjue's jaw was tight, and he clearly despised kneeling before this man. But the Patriarch was an immortal, and they were begging his aid. Kneeling was imperative.
They must demonstrate their humility, and Lan Wangji knew he ought to keep his eyes lowered. Yet he found himself stealing glances in the Patriarch's direction. The man had poured himself into a chair and slouched lazily against the side. He slipped the flute from his belt, twirling it between his fingers. Every gesture reeked of insolence, and he rolled his eyes when they knelt.
"Yes, yes." The Patriarch waved a hand. "I feel very honored and respected. For heaven's sake, get up. I didn't call you here to lick my boots."
They returned to their seats in silence. A servant slipped forward timidly with a cup of their finest tea. It was fresh and steaming, but the Patriarch gave it a contemptuous stare.
"What?" He let out another sarcastic laugh. "There's no wine? I hope your plight isn't as desperate as that!"
Lan Wangji bit his tongue and dug his nails into his palm. He was sorely tempted to stand and reprimand the Patriarch for his shameless request. It was scarcely noon, and none but Jin Guangshan would have considered drinking wine this early. To refuse tea and demand wine in its stead was a shocking breach of etiquette.
But he forced himself to remain still. He counted his breaths.
The servant girl tripped over herself in a rush to bring the Patriarch their best wine. She offered him a cup, but the Patriarch ignored it. He plucked up the bottle and drank straight from it. Then he waved his hand again.
"Everybody who isn't a sect leader, or an heir, or first disciple had better leave. Otherwise, you'll just confuse me."
No one dared contradict him. The servants, attendants, and lesser disciples hastily withdrew. In fact, they nearly climbed over each other in their rush to leave. Lan Wangji felt his jaw clench once more.
Nie Mingjue was nearly grinding his teeth to splinters. But Lan Xichen had managed to keep his face politely blank as the Patriarch swilled the last of his wine.
"Now, the sect leaders should name themselves and the people they've brought with them."
The Patriarch leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and smiled at the company. It was not a friendly or welcoming smile. It was the smile of a man who knew he held the whip-hand. Lan Wangji took his eyes off the Patriarch long enough to scan the tent.
Nie Mingjue was not the only cultivator plainly outraged by the Patriarch's imperious manner. But they were petitioners and in no position to take offense. Lan Wangji watched the fury rise in their faces, then watched as each sect leader swallowed their anger
Lan Xichen began the introductions, his manner perfectly tranquil. He named himself and his brother: Lan Wangji, heir presumptive and First Disciple of GusuLan.
Lan Wangji felt the Patriarch's eyes rest heavily on him. But Jin Guangshan—never one to pass up an opportunity to hear his own voice—seized the opportunity to introduce his own family. Nie Mingjue and Jiang Wanyin followed suit.
Under different circumstances, the introductions might have been a lengthy process. Lan Wangji had suffered through dozens of meetings with endless back-and-forth: the praise of accomplishments, the polite demurrals, the reciprocal compliments. Such introductions were always tedious and time-consuming.
But the Patriarch complimented no one and sought no praise in turn. None of the guests, it seemed, were thickfaced enough to boast of their own skills before an immortal. So the introductions were concluded with remarkable speed.
The Patriarch listened in silence, scrutinizing each face. Then, when the last sect leader had finished, the Patriarch slouched back against his chair.
"Fascinating." He tipped the wine jug thoughtfully from side to side before taking another sip. "Forgive me if I forget your names in the next five minutes. I'm afraid I tend to do that."
No one dared reply. But Lan Wangji saw several sect leaders—Jin Guangshan in particular—bristle. They were not accustomed to being disregarded.
The Patriarch took his time finishing the wine. When he was done, he tossed aside the empty jug and surveyed the room.
"Humor me for a moment." His voice was pleasant and dark-edged. "I have a few questions. I've heard rumors, of course, but I like to check my facts."
Lan Wangji saw his brother straighten slightly. His own body tensed in anticipation as the Patriarch's eyes roamed from face to face.
"Who among you are the strongest cultivators?"
Another time, there might have been a rush of voices. Dozens of cultivators would have offered a few modest compliments to their fellows, then proudly declared their own accomplishments. But today, the room was silent.
The Patriarch threw his head back and laugh.
"My! We've very modest, aren't we?" He smiled, revealing astonishingly white teeth.
Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the Patriarch's face, dissecting each feature.
He was—Lan Wangji felt sure most would agree—a handsome man. There was something magnetic about his presence. The Patriarch had fine features, long limbs, dark and expressive eyes. He exuded power with every breath.
Yet there was something in his manner that Lan Wangji did not like. He was insolant, true. But that was nothing. Powerful men often swaggered around, and there was no reason why the Patriarch should be any different. Immortals were supposed to be above such pettiness. But perhaps immortals were only humans writ large, with the same flaws and foibles.
The Patriarch slung a leg over the edge of the chair, throwing back a cloak lined in red silk to reveal dark riding trousers. His eyes were sardonic as he gazed at his petitioners. Lan Wangji was not troubled by that. What bothered him was the speculative gleam in the Patriarch's eye. This man had come with a purpose. Lan Wangji was not sure anyone present would like it.
"Let's see." The Patriarch tapped his chin as if in thought. "I've heard a great deal about Sect Leader Lan and his brother. I've heard of Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Jiang."
He went on, naming half a dozen disciples. The Patriarch pointed to each one in turn. Then he spread his hands.
"Is it safe to say I've named the most capable individuals?" He smiled, full of honeyed sweetness. "Anyone I've missed?"
Those who had not been named squirmed, but did not protest.
The Patriarch had indeed named the ten cultivators generally regarded as the most gifted. He had named those with the strongest golden cores. These cultivators were well-known for their swordplay, their scholarship, their prowess in battle. So the assembly gave an uneasy murmur of agreement.
"Very good." The Patriarch clapped his hands. "Now, let's do this quickly. Everybody who's married or betrothed, stand up."
It was a profoundly odd request. Astonishment kept the guests frozen for a few seconds. But slowly, half the tent shuffled to their feet.
Lan Wangji watched the Patriarch's face as he surveyed the results. About two-thirds of sect leaders had risen. But most of the heirs and disciples remained seated. The Patriarch studied each person still in their chair. Most, Lan Wangji saw, were trying to evade his gaze.
When it was his turn, Lan Wangji stared back stonily. The Patriarch seemed to mark that. For a moment, his eyes were almost amused. He had the temerity to wink at Lan Wangji. Then his attention slid to the left, passing over Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixun.
Lan Wangji stared at the floor of the tent, mortified and bewildered.
"Marvelous." The Patriarch motioned for them to be seated again. "Thank you for your patience."
Everyone sank into their chairs. Lan Wangji saw several guests exchange baffled looks. After a moment, Jin Guangshan gave a forced chuckle.
"The Yiling Patriarch has caught us off guard!" He stroked his beard. "I thought we were going to discuss war matters. Does he have something else in mind?"
The Patriarch didn't appear to be paying attention. He had abandoned his own chair and crouched beside the cabinet where the servants kept the refreshments. The Patriarch rifled through, pushing items aside. There were platters of dried fruit and nuts, but the Patriarch ignored those. He retrieved another bottle of wine and uncorked it, wandering around the room.
"Oh, your little war isn't very important!"
The guests hissed at one another in muted indignation, and the Patriarch laughed quietly.
"Ah. Excuse me. It's very important to you, and to the peasants being slaughtered by the Wens. But there's not much to discuss there."
He plucked at the maps spread out on tables. Then he pushed aside a few markers, toppling a diagram Nie Mingjue had spent the morning constructing. Nie Mingjue's fists clenched. Lan Xichen laid a quelling hand on his arm.
"You want Wen Ruohan dead," the Patriarch continued idly. "You want his corpse puppets eliminated. You want his halls burned to the ground and his soldiers disemboweled and begging for mercy. Have I about covered it?"
He sounded as if he were assembling a list of things to buy in the marketplace. Lan Wangji watched his brother—like Jin Guangshan—assume an artificial smile.
"The Patriarch is correct that we would let to see Wen Ruohan deposed." His brother's voice was mild. "We certainly would like a way to counter the cultivation methods he's using. If you could offer your wisdom on this matter, we would be very appreciative."
The Patriarch laughed around his next mouthful of wine.
"Oh dear." He swiped a hand over his mouth, wiping away the spilled wine. "I'm not so sure I have any wisdom to share. But I would also like to see him deposed. He's become very annoying!"
Lan Wangji felt as though every guest in the tent suddenly let out a breath. Shoulders lowered, hands unclenched, eyes brightened. A few of the sect leaders nodded to each other in relief. The Patriarch was no friend of Wen Ruohan, then. He was here to offer aid. That, their wry smiles seemed to say, is worth a certain amount of humiliation.
"So, you want him dead." The Patriarch waved a hand. "That's fine. You want everyone who has fought under his banners dead. No argument."
He paused. His tone darkened slightly.
"We're not going to go around killing peasants, or non-cultivators unlucky enough to be born with the Wen surname." He let his eyes rest on each sect leader in turn. "But I'll agree to the rest."
I'll agree to the rest. He spoke as if matters were that simple. As if the assembled sect leaders merely needed the Patriarch agreement, and their enemies would fall.
Several guests perked up. But Lan Wangji saw in a few faces the same quiet unease he felt. Victory could not possibly be so simple.
His doubt was quickly justified. The Patriarch set down his wine and turned to study the room.
"Now, then!" He gave another knife-edged smile. "What will you give me in return?"
Lan Wangji realized later that the sect leaders had likely planned for such negotiations. But the thought of bargaining had never crossed his mind. If the Patriarch deigned to appear, Lan Wangji had expected him to offer help out of pure altruism.
Immortals were said to the best and noblest of all cultivators. The Patriarch's existence—his cultivation methods—had certainly challenged that belief. Yet Lan Wangji had thought that any cultivator who achieved immortality must be motivated by benevolence and a sense of justice.
But the Patriarch gazed around the tent with a sort of amused expectation. He seemed to be waiting for a counteroffer, a bribe, an offering. Lan Wangji's breath stuck in his throat.
He was not fit to be Sect Leader. Lan Wangji had always known this, and he thanked the heavens that his brother was born first. He could not do what his brother did, negotiating with obstreperous politicians. It was all he could do to hold his tongue and keep from challenging the Patriarch on the spot. Even that, he did for his brother's sake rather than his own.
It was difficult, though, to swallow his fury. Withholding aid in a time of crisis—demanding something as crude as payment—should be challenged. The Patriarch should be publicly shamed for bargaining over human lives. Lan Wangji felt his face grow hot with anger.
But Lan Xichen did not flinch. When he spoke, he sounded perfectly calm.
"As you can imagine, our coffers have been much depleted by the war." He gave the Patriarch a polite, rueful smile. "But if you can tell us what you have need of…"
The Patriarch pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the table. He paid no mind as the maps crumpled beneath him.
"Not money," he said briskly. "Not gold or silver. Not rice or salt or pigs. I have enough of those things. You can have too much money, you know."
His eyes lingered scornfully on Jin Guangshan's gold and silks.
Lan Wangji felt more than heard Nie Mingjue's snort of approval. The Patriarch garnered a great deal of ill-will during his entrance. But Lan Wangji knew he had dispelled the budding resentment with that remark. As far as Nie Mingjue was concerned, anyway.
The Patriarch swung his legs idly. He looked as if he were bargaining over the price of radishes, rather than the fate of the cultivation world.
"What else do you have to offer?"
"We would be willing to offer quite a bit in return for Wen Ruohan's defeat," Lan Xichen admitted. "But I'm afraid we don't know what an immortal such as yourself desires. Please advise us."
Lan Wangji watched the Patriarch with narrowed eyes.
He couldn't imagine what use an immortal might have for gold or silver. An immortal wouldn't even require food. He could practice inedia for centuries, living off his own powerful qi. Even immortals needed shelter and clothing, of course. But the Patriarch's needs were already provided for. Many sects—including the Lans—sent annual tribute.
It was considered courteous to offer immortals cloth, ink, books. Some sects even offered up silks, furs, or costly medicinal herbs. Immortals had achieved the goal toward which all cultivators strove. They deserved reverence and material support.
In the Patriarch's case, the tribute was also a subtle bribe. Publicly, sect leaders denounced his unorthodox cultivation. But in private, Lan Wangji knew they schemed for ways to make him their ally. Lavish tributes, then, served as a request: Open your gates, lower your wards, and teach our disciples. They were also a plea: If you will not share your power, then leave our lands in peace. Do not use your abilities to harm us. We will offer you tribute if you will leave us alone.
Lan Wangji resisted the urge to shift uneasily. Whatever motivated the sect leaders to send a tribute, the gifts had been given. So the Patriarch could not possibly require more money or supplies. He needed no livestock or crops. What, then, did he intend to ask as compensation?
The Patriarch seemed to be considering the question himself. His mouth twitched, and he laughed aloud.
"You used to try and send me concubines." He shook his finger at the sect leaders. "Do you remember that? It was very funny!"
He sounded sincerely amused. But Lan Wangji felt the tension in the room rise.
Lan Wangji hadn't heard about that. A few sect leaders, though, looked openly panicked. Their faces had drained of color. Lan Wangji realized that they must have sent such disgraceful offerings, and he gave them a sharp glare.
"I heard those offerings were rejected." Nie Mingjue's voice was brusque. "Have you developed a taste for them now?"
He regarded the Patriarch with a stern frown. No trace of guilt marred his face. But then, Nie Mingjue could not have been involved in such plans. Lan Wangji couldn't picture him walking into a sitting room that held a concubine, much less buying one as a gift.
"No, no." The Patriarch chuckled. He drew up a leg, resting a muddied boot on the map's surface.
Lan Wangji narrowly resisted the temptation to flinch. Such reckless disregard for reference materials would earn a harsh punishment in Cloud Recesses. But there were not in Cloud Recesses, and he had no authority to punish an immortal. So he clenched his hands inside his sleeves and remained silent.
"I just wondered why those gifts stopped!" The Patriarch tilted his head. "Did you run out of attractive young men and women, willing to share the Patriarch's bed?"
A few sect leaders turned to each other. They shared a meaningful glance.
"The Wu Sect has quite a few lovely courtesans," Sect Leader Wu remarked hesitantly, "if the Patriarch wishes."
At once, the dam was broken. Other sect leaders leaned forward, their voices rising as they offered courtesans of their own. Jin Guangshan loudly declared that he would personally examine the brothels of Lanling.
"I shall find the most beautiful and talented prostitutes for the Patriarch," he declared, in the tone of a man making a noble sacrifice.
This time, Nie Mingjue did not bother to hide his snort. No one but Lan Wangji seemed to notice, though. A dozen people were speaking at once, seizing eagerly on the Patriarch's apparent interest.
But Lan Wangji saw at a glance that the Patriarch was not truly interested. He listened to the clamor with sardonic amusement. There was contempt in his eyes, and Lan Wangji felt a sick twist in his gut.
The purpose of this meeting was to win the Patriarch's favor. To accomplish that goal, Lan Wangji had expected the sect leaders to display their strength and virtue. He thought they would demonstrate that they were worthy of the Patriarch's help, that their spirits were pure and their ideals noble.
As he stared into the Patriarch's dark eyes, Lan Wangji knew they had failed.
Their forces had fought hard. Many disciples had been brutally slaughtered. Others were permanently injured. They would never hold a sword again, and they had become a burden to their sects rather than an asset.
If nothing was done, the survivors would fall to Wen Ruohan one by one. Every sect would be snuffed out, the cultivation world united under Wen Ruohan's tyrannous rule. Their very existence was at stake. The sect leaders should have appealed to the Patriarch with grace and dignity. They should have calmly outlined their plans and discussed the requested compensation.
Instead, half the guests were naming prostitutes and courtesans far too readily. Lan Wangji felt bile rise in his throat. It was plain that most sect leaders were entirely too familiar with such individuals. They were appallingly quick to trade them to the Patriarch, too.
He could hardly blame the Patriarch for his contemptuous smirk as his eyes roved around the room. When his attention fell on Lan Wangji, the smirk deepened. Lan Wangji could feel the helpless indignation on his face and he tried to school his expression to neutrality.
Sect Leader Chen opened his mouth.
"And of course," he spoke over Sect Leader Zhou's lavish descriptions of local brothels, "if you have a mind to marry, my eldest daughter-"
But he never finished his sentence. It was Sect Leader Zhou's turn to interrupt him.
"Of course!" Sect Leader Zhou lurched forward. "Nearly everyone here has a son or daughter eligible for marriage. Immortal One, you saw that yourself."
Lan Wangji expected the Patriarch to give another sharp laugh, paired with a cutting remark. Instead, he clapped his hands twice. A strange smile crossed his face.
"Ah, how nice of you to bring that up!" The Patriarch slid off the desk and paced around the room. "It's such an excellent solution. If you provide me with a spouse, I will surely do all in my power to help win your war. How can I turn my back on my new in-laws?"
The conversation in the room ground to a halt.
Lan Wangji felt the sudden burst of tension among the guests. Then the sideways glances began.
A few sect leaders shrank back. But others drew themselves up with interest. Perhaps they were already picturing it: their son or daughter, married to an immortal.
Once again, Lan Xichen interjected calmly.
"If the Patriarch wishes to make a marriage alliance, surely we can discuss this."
The polite smile was back on his face. But Nie Mingjue shifted at his side. Lan Wangji saw that he was frowning. He seemed no more pleased with the idea of providing a spouse than a concubine.
The Patriarch returned to his seat as he polished off the second jar of wine.
A few of the sect leaders murmured amongst themselves. Sect Leader Nie wasn't the only one frowning in displeasure. Other guests looked as though they were connecting the dots, too.
The Patriarch lifted his head as the murmurs reached a crescendo. He smiling at two sect leaders who had whispered to one another.
"You have to speak up, you know! Some of us are hard of hearing."
Sect Leader Yu cleared her throat.
"The Patriarch has asked us to bring our heirs and first disciples to this meeting," she observed. "Does that mean he intends to choose a spouse from among those assembled here?"
Her face was carefully neutral. The Patriarch only shrugged in response.
"Of course." He tipped the jar, shaking out the last few drops of wine. "Why else would I have asked you to bring them? I had to see what my options are."
The reaction was instantaneous but muted. Under different circumstances, Lan Wangji suspected that half the guests would have left in a huff. But when faced with the Patriarch's overwhelming power, most sect leaders only whispered and stared.
Sect Leader Ouyang puffed himself up like a chicken, though. His bushy brows drew together. Sect Leader Yao took matters even further, exclaiming in indignation. His son joined the outcry.
"Outrageous!" Young Master Yao thumped the arm of his chair. "To parade all the young masters and mistresses before him, like pigs at auction!"
Several pairs of eyes watched the Patriarch anxiously. Lan Wangji felt the resentful energy surge and flicker. For a moment, he wondered if the Patriarch would strike the young man dead.
Instead, he only threw his head back and laughed.
"You're so angry!" The Patriarch cast aside the wine bottle. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "There's really no need to be. Surely the young master doesn't think my favor will fall on him?"
Young Master Yao flushed a vivid red, and his father made another affronted sound. But before anyone could protest this remark—or apologize on Young Master Yao's behalf—the Patriarch spoke carelessly.
"The choice is obvious." He waved at hand at the front of the tent. "I want Second Young Master Lan."
Lan Wangji had long practice in remaining still, so he did not flinch. But his brother did, subtly and almost imperceptibly. Nie Mingjue's flinch was considerably less subtle.
Within an instant, Lan Wangji found himself in a most undesirable position: every single person in the tent had turned to stare at him. The Patriarch's eyes, however, had shifted to Lan Xichen.
No one spoke. After a long silence, Lan Xichen parted his lips. He took a slow, deep breath.
"Immortal One." His voice was flawlessly, impeccably gracious. "May I ask. Why have you selected my brother?"
The Patriarch raised a theatrical eyebrow. He rubbed his chin, as if deep in thought.
"Well, he's clearly the most beautiful among you. The strongest cultivator, among all the heirs and disciples. You're asking me for quite a favor, you know. Don't I deserve the best you have to offer?"
Lan Wangji was careful to keep his face blank. But he let his hands, hidden beneath the fabric of his sleeves, curl into fists.
The most beautiful. The strongest. The best you have to offer.
Like pigs at auction, indeed. Young Master Yao's words were impolitic but his sentiment was perfectly accurate.
Lan Xichen's smile grew rather tense.
"Certainly, we understand that we are asking a great deal." He inclined his head respectfully. "But if we are discussing the terms of a marriage, perhaps we should move this negotiation to a private setting."
Such negotiations were never carried out in public. Marriage talks took place behind closed doors, with the proper intermediaries. Lan Wangji knew this, like everyone else present. Surely the Patriarch knew it too.
But he only sighed, as if Lan Xichen had disappointed him.
"Sect Leader Lan. There's really nothing to negotiate." The Patriarch's tone was almost kind. "I have no interest in squabbling over dowries or bridewealth, and you know that. You will give me your brother, and I will hand you victory on a silver platter."
He let the word linger in the air, allowing each guest to savor it.
Victory, after so long. An end to the fighting. An end to the Wens' tyranny. The survival of their clans, their sects, their families. Justice for the dead and protection for living. Victory.
Would anyone believe that one life was worth more than that victory? Could Lan Wangji prize his own freedom above the lives of every man and woman in the cultivation world? Every servant and peasant threatened by Wen Ruohan's depravities?
He could not, and he knew it. The Patriarch must know it too.
"That's the deal I am offering." The Patriarch spread his hands. His impudent smile had disappeared. "You can take it or leave it. But if you refuse, I'll know that nobody here plans to negotiate in good faith. You'll have to fight this war on your own."
Lan Xichen's eyes were agonized. He stared mutely at the Patriarch and did not reply.
He never would. Lan Wangji knew it with sharp, sudden clarity, as if he'd been struck by lightning. His brother would never sell him for any price. Lan Xichen would waste hours, days, weeks looking for another solution. In the meantime, people would die and the war would be lost.
His brother would never speak. So Lan Wangji's duty was clear.
"We accept," he said.
His brother drew in a sharp breath.
"Wangji," he murmured, brokenly.
But Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the Patriarch. He didn't turn to his brother. If he allowed himself even a brief glance, he feared his resolve would weaken.
He couldn't let himself think of the future: parting from his brother, leaving Cloud Recesses, disappearing into the Patriarch's domain. He couldn't think of what he was giving up. He could only think of what the cultivation world would gain.
The Patriarch smiled with teeth.
"Very good!" He clapped his hands again. "I like a decisive spirit! Second Young Master, I am sure we will be very happy together."
Lan Wangji inclined his head in polite agreement. But he was sure of no such thing.
"Let me give you a betrothal gift. Come here." The Patriarch held out his hand.
It was, perhaps, another power-play. He wanted to Lan Wangji to rise and walk to him, symbolically. Lan Wangji felt a sharp burst of resentment, and then crushed it mercilessly. He must not think of such things. He forced himself to think of Lan Mingzhu instead.
She had been his third cousin, almost exactly his age. Since they were four years old, they had shared every class. Her cultivation had been high, and her skill with a blade exceptional.
But she was weary from many months of fighting, as they all were. Yesterday, her guard had slipped. It had been only a momentary lapse. But in that instant, a Wen sword had gutted her.
She bled out in seconds. Lan Wangji could do nothing but grip her shoulders as blood streamed from her mouth. Afterward, he burned her body so Wen Ruohan could not raise her as a puppet.
Lan Wangji thought of his cousin, dying in his arms before her twentieth birthday. Then he swallowed and rose from his chair. He reached the Patriarch's side in seven short steps.
The Patriarch smelled like petrichor and smoke. He gave Lan Wangji a teasing smile.
"Hold out your hand."
Lan Wangji obeyed. The Patriarch removed something from his own hair. There was a flash of silver, and a lotus hairpin was placed gently into Lan Wangji's palm.
It was almost quaint in its simplicity. Lan Wangji had seen such hairpins often while traveling in Yunmeng. But the Patriarch folded his hand around the pin as if it were a priceless treasure.
"Wear this during your next battle," he said softly. "I'll send for you within a month."
Lan Wangji slipped the pin into his sleeve and retreated to his seat.
The clamor of voices rose again. Lan Wangji didn't bother to listen. The other sect leaders wanted to know what the Patriarch planned to do. What sort of help did he plan to offer? How could this token—most of them had not even seen what it was—possibly win a war?
But the Patriarch dismissed their concerns, rising smoothly to his feet. His eyes were dark and humorless. When he spoke, it was only to Lan Wangji's brother.
"If the battle goes against you—if I fail to uphold my part of the bargain— of course you'd be free to keep your brother."
He tossed his head, as if the idea was unspeakably foolish.
"But when you win, I'll expect you to uphold your part. I'll send an escort to Cloud Recesses on the next new moon. Don't keep them waiting."
Naturally, Lan Xichen had other questions. But there was no time to ask. The Patriarch pushed through the flap of the tent, and he was gone.
A few sect leaders tried to pursue him. They returned seconds later, gasping in shock. The Patriarch hadn't drawn a sword and flown away. He had not mounted a horse. He had simply vanished, leaving nothing behind but a dark, wicked pulse of energy.
Voice rose, frantic and furious. Each sect leader seemed to be trying to speak over the next. But Lan Wangji did not bother to listen to any of it.
He rose and bowed to his brother. Then he pushed his way out of the tent. No one followed him. The sect leader standing by the entrance leaped out of Lan Wangji's way, as if he carried a contagious illness.
Within his own tent, Lan Wangji knelt on his bedroll and stared at the silver hairpin for a long time. The etchings were softened from heavy wear, but he saw no trace of tarnish. Lan Wangji turned the pin over in his hands.
Nothing felt out of the ordinary. But the Patriarch would not have staged this display for no reason. So Lan Wangji tucked the pin into his hair. Then he waited.
His brother joined him hours later. He looked as if he'd aged several decades in a single afternoon. At first, he only stared at Lan Wangji in silence. Then he took Lan Wangji into his arms, the way he had when Lan Wangji was very small.
They did not speak. But then, there was really nothing to be said.