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love, in fire and blood

Chapter Text

According to tradition, a sect leader's burial involved certain rituals. A date was carefully chosen, and the other sect leaders oversaw the funeral proceedings.

But Jin Guangshan's burial was a rushed, private affair. The sect leaders had scattered, fleeing back to their homes. In the end, Jin Guangshan was accompanied to the gravesite by only three mourners: his widow, his son, and his daughter-in-law. Jin Zixun was buried the following day in an equally quiet ceremony.

As for Jin Guangyao, his body had been whisked away. Wen Qing saw it placed into a plain casket. It was interred in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Jin burial grounds. Wei Ying had looked into the matter, and he swore that Jin Guangyao had been appropriately buried. His body wasn't abandoned beside a road or thrown into a shallow lake. Jin Zixuan had provided his half-brother with a decent funeral.

Evidently, he had a pitched battle with his mother over that. Madam Jin might have bitterly resented her husband and despised her nephew, but she hated Jin Guangyao most of all. She held him personally responsible for their family's disgrace. When she learned that her son planned to have Jin Guangyao interred in the family burial grounds, she had thrown a fit.

The day after the funeral, Lan Wangji took tea with Jiang Yanli. She told him all about the argument. Madam Jin had tried to have Jin Guangyao's body ruthlessly discarded, and she expected her son to comply.

But for once, Jin Zixuan stood firm against his mother's iron will.

Jin Guangyao was also my father's son, Jin Zixuan argued. He has a right to be buried in the family gravesite.

Madam Jin fumed and stormed. She listed Jin Guangyao's crimes and lamented the shame he had brought to their household. Yet Jin Zixuan dug in his heels.

Father committed more crimes than anyone, he said bluntly. Even so, we're giving him a respectable burial alongside his ancestors. Why doesn't Jin Guangyao deserve the same?

Enraged as she was, Madam Jin hadn't managed to come up with a counter-argument for that. Jin Zixuan won the fight, much to her astonishment. But Lan Wangji thought Madam Jin's astonishment was misplaced.

Jin Zixuan owed his mother a filial duty, perhaps. Still, he was Sect Leader Jin now. He had taken his position as head of their clan. As such, he had a right to arrange funeral proceedings and conduct matters as he saw fit.

Lan Wangji sensed that Jiang Yanli had a hand in this matter, though. Jin Zixuan would not have summoned the courage to oppose his mother on his own.

Jiang Yanli merely drank her tea in peaceful silence. She took no credit for herself. Instead, she turned the conversation to the sect leaders' departure.

Her brother remained at Koi Tower, and so did Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue. But the others had scurried off as quickly as their legs could carry them.

Lan Wangji hadn't been sorry to see them go. He supposed that he would have to share a banquet hall with various sect leaders someday. Nevertheless, he preferred to delay their next meeting for as long as possible.

He pitied his brother and Nie Mingjue. In the months ahead, they would have to wrangle the other sects into shape. Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli would have to spend a great deal of time on political squabbling, too.

When Lan Wangji broached this topic, Jiang Yanli was philosophical.

"Well, I think everyone has learned something from all this." She sipped her tea meditatively. "We've all learned that secret plots and affairs and conspiracies can't stay hidden forever!"

She smiled ruefully, gazing out the window of her sitting room. It overlooked the southern part of Lanling. The town had been notably quiet since the funeral.

Lan Wangji had ridden out twice, Wei Ying at his side. The town was hushed, the people nervous. Lan Wangji felt sure that no one would forget Jin Guangshan's fall from grace in a hurry. He could only hope that Jiang Yanli was right and the sects would learn a valuable lesson.

"I don't think anyone will forget this scandal anytime soon," she added wryly. "But maybe that's for the best."

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

Sect Leaders Qin and Zhou sects had been executed, and their sects dissolved. Their disciples and servants had scattered. Lan Wangji knew that many would find their way into the service of other clans. Some might flee to Cloud Recesses or the Unclean Realm. Others would seek refuge in minors sects, unaffiliated with the Jins.

In the meantime, the Qin and Zhou treasuries had been seized. The funds would be redistributed to the Jins' victims as a form of reparations. The Jin sect would pay penalties, too.

Jiang Yanli was determined to make sure this money went into the right hands. As they discussed the matter, Lan Wangji found that she had a good head for numbers. Jiang Yanli was civic-minded, too. She had already drafted plans to build housing for refugees and former prostitutes. She would surely make the Jin name a worthy one for her sons and daughters.

"Has your brother given up on annulling your marriage?" Lan Wangji asked.

Jiang Yanli set down her teacup. A mischievous expression passed over her face.

"Yes. He had to give up.” Demurely, she selected a lotus cake from the tray. "The marriage is no longer eligible for annulment."

Lan Wangji found himself tempted to smile.

"I see."

He took a delicate sip of his tea to cover his amusement.

He'd hoped that Jiang Yanli would succeed in consummating her marriage. She had managed the task with surprising speed.

Jiang Yanli nibbled her lotus cake, then set it down.

"I never thanked you for your second-day wedding gifts." Her tone become slightly impish. "I'm so grateful for your generosity! My husband and I found your gifts very useful."

Lan Wangji glanced toward the maids, lingering beside the table.

Their expressions were admirably blank. If they understood Jiang Yanli's insinuations, they gave no hint of it. They appeared to be patiently waiting for the tray of sweets to be emptied or the pot of tea to run dry.

Of course, they were Jiang Yanli's personal maids. Lan Wangji knew that such confidential servants were conveniently deaf when it was required. Still, he strove to give a neutral response.

"No need for thanks." He folded his hands modestly in his lap. "My husband and I also found such gifts useful after our marriage. I hoped you would feel the same."

Jiang Yanli's eyes danced with amusement. She gave a casual nod and finished her teacakes.

Lan Wangji found himself smiling.

Jiang Yanli seemed happy, unruffled by the scandal. The gossip hadn't soured her mood, and the quiet resentment against the Jins hadn't cowed her. She was determined to help her husband rebuild the sect, and Lan Wangji knew she would find satisfaction in that work. It was gratifying to labor alongside one's husband, building a loving home.

She had offered to find a good home for Qin Su, too. Jiang Yanli and her husband had talked that over. In the end, they agreed to welcome Qin Su into Koi Tower. If she preferred to leave, they intended to place her in a private home on the outskirts of Lanling.

But Qin Su had refused. She and Jiang Yanli had a long, private talk together. Lan Wangji discovered that Wen Qing had struck up a friendship with the pair, as well. Together, the two women helped Qin Su review her options. Qin Su finally determined to seek refuge in the Burial Mounds.

She wanted to keep her child, and she couldn't do that if she remained within the cultivation world. So Qin Su had accepted their offer to relocate to the Burial Mounds.

Lan Wangji had spoken to Qin Su himself. During their interview, she was pale and wan. She seemed somewhat numb.

But she had not lost her self-respect, at least. When Lan Wangji entered her chambers, he found her well-groomed and flawlessly polite. She had thanked him politely for his invitation. Then she spoke at some length of Wen Qing's kindness and generosity.

During their conversation, Lan Wangji repeated the promises he had conveyed through Wen Qing and Jiang Yanli: Qin Su's child would be raised with equal status to his own children. Her child would receive lessons and cultivation training. No barriers or limitations would be placed on their education, and the child would become a valued member of their community. If anyone dared to insult the child for their parentage, that person would be expelled from the Burial Mounds.

Qin Su's eyes welled with tears. But she dashed the tears away and rose to her feet. She bowed very deeply and thanked Lan Wangji for his patronage.

Wen Qing whisked her away then. They must pack up her things and prepare for the journey, she said.

Lan Wangji left them to their work. His heart felt lighter, now that he knew Qin Su would be safe.

But telling his brother about her pregnancy was painful.

Lan Xichen had been stricken to the core by the news. He hardly seemed to know what to think. Jin Guangyao had evidently bedded her before learning of their shared parentage, but Lan Xichen found little comfort in that knowledge. The news that Jin Guangyao had fathered a child before dying still cut him deeply.

Lan Wangji struggled to console his brother. Nie Mingjue had helped as best he could, and Lan Wangji saw that he was disturbed by the news too. He seemed to pity Qin Su. In his eyes, she was merely another of Jin Guangyao's victims: she had also been deceived and manipulated.

But Lan Wangji detected a subtle disgust in Nie Mingjue's tone when he spoke of the pregnancy. Somehow, Lan Wangji sensed that Nie Mingjue thought the child would be tainted by its parentage. He seemed to fear that Jin Guangyao's child would inherit its father's depravities.

Lan Wangji swallowed down his disappointment over that discovery.

Arguments, he knew, would do no good. Not now, when Nie Mingjue's anger and grief were still so fresh. But if Nie Mingjue scorned the child for its parentage, then the Burial Mounds was the only safe place for that child. Truly, the child would be mistrusted and persecuted everywhere else. No matter where they went within the cultivation world, the child would never escape their father's reputation.

Lan Wangji was determined that this child would not grow up as Jin Guangyao had. The child must not be the target of mockery and scorn. The child's character must not be warped by prejudice and a poor upbringing, as Jin Guangyao's had been.

He consoled himself that Qin Su and her child would meet with a better fate than Jin Guangyao. Soon, Lan Wangji began to look forward to taking Qin Su into their home. Once the funerals and executions were over, Lan Wangji itched to return to the Burial Mounds.

But a letter from his uncle spoiled his plans.

Lan Wangji had taken to writing daily letters to Cloud Recesses. His brother was in no shape to describe the gruesome events that had unfolded in the banquet hall. He was even less equipped to discuss the aftermath: the political decisions, the charges laid, the convictions rendered. Lan Wangji had taken care of the correspondence in his place.

The Lan elders were aghast. Already, they had scheduled countless meetings. They began to debate, arguing over how their sect must deal with this or that person. A dozen new rules would be inscribed upon the wall, Uncle wrote. A new curriculum had been prepared for the next round of lectures.

We must attempt to root out this corruption and depravity, Uncle said. The Lan sect must lead the way, serving as a model of virtue and integrity.

Uncle plainly intended for Lan Xichen to take charge. In his letters, he implied that Lan Xichen must return to Cloud Recesses quickly. Business there required his attention. Many decisions must be made in the wake of the Jins' exposure.

On the fifth morning after Jin Guangshan's death, Lan Wangji brooded over his uncle's latest letter. Uncle had hinted, yet again, that Lan Xichen must return home at once. He listed off various tasks which required their sect leader's supervision.

As he read through the list, Lan Wangji's brow furrowed. He had given up his plan of taking his brother straight to the Burial Mounds. The first letter from Uncle had quashed that hope.

Sect Leader Lan was needed in Cloud Recesses, Uncle said. He could not go on a lengthy visit. Not now, not when the cultivation world was so unstable. Lan Xichen must return home and take up his duties.

Lan Wangji had hoped his brother might find some consolation in his usual round of duties. If Lan Xichen could keep busy, perhaps he might find it easier to carry on. But as the days passed, Lan Wangji saw that his brother was struggling.

Nie Mingjue had been a comfort, of course. Lan Wangji hoped that he'd offered his brother some consolation too.

Still, his brother had grown pale. Lines of tension had itched themselves around his eyes. He seemed to carry a heavy weight upon his heart, and it burdened him day and night.

Nie Mingjue could not always be at Lan Xichen's side. He, too, had to resume his duties. They had abolished the position of Chief Cultivator, laid it to rest alongside Jin Guangshan. But the cultivation world still needed leadership.

The Lan elders wished for their own sect leader to step forward. Yet Lan Wangji knew that was a vain hope. His brother was too dispirited to take the reins, and Jiang Wanyin and Jin Zixuan were too young. Their ascension to the role of sect leader was relatively new.

A more experienced hand was needed. It seemed that this responsibility would fall onto Nie Mingjue's shoulder's.

Lan Wangji read a quiet unhappiness in Nie Mingjue's eyes. He knew that the man was suffering for Lan Xichen. Perhaps Nie Mingjue would have preferred to remain by his side in the months ahead. But duty would separate them soon, and Lan Xichen would return to Cloud Recesses alone. He would have nothing to do but bury himself in work and linger upon painful memories.

Lan Wangji couldn't permit that.

He spoke to his husband first to outline his plans. Wei Ying wasn't pleased, but he understood. He knew that Lan Wangji couldn't bear to abandon his brother now.

After they made their private arrangements, Lan Wangji sat down and wrote to his uncle. Then he marched into his brother's chambers to help him prepare for bed.

In spite of the gossip, Nie Mingjue had begun to spend the night in Lan Xichen's chambers. He shared Lan Xichen's bed and provided what solace he could. But he could not be with Lan Xichen at every moment.

So Lan Wangji visited his brother in the morning to help him dress. He joined his brother for breakfast and kept a sharp eye on his brother's plate. He made sure that his brother had plenty to eat and drink.

He kept his brother company throughout most of the day. Then, in the evenings, he played the guqin and sat quietly at Lan Xichen's side. When it was time for bed, Lan Wangji helped his brother undress and combed out his hair. He did not leave until Nie Mingjue arrived to take his place.

Tonight, Nie Mingjue must be busy with his own packing and correspondence. He was due to leave for the Unclean Realm in the morning. Lan Xichen would depart for Cloud Recesses in the afternoon. They would not have much time to spend together this evening.

Lan Wangji tapped lightly upon the door, then slid it open.

As expected, he found his brother alone. Lan Xichen sat in silence and gazed out the window. He gave Lan Wangji a blank, listless stare.

Lan Wangji took down his brother's hair and combed it out. Afterward, he laid out Lan Xichen's sleeping robes and lit incense. He had brought a mellow blend of tea, prescribed by Wen Qing. It would promote relaxation, she said. Lan Wangji spooned the leaves into the pot and poured out the hot water. Then he knelt at his brother's side and sat back on his heels.

"I wrote to Uncle," he remarked.

Lan Xichen lifted his eyes from the table. He blinked, slow and weary. Lan Wangji smoothed his palms over his knees.

"I told him that I will join you at Cloud Recesses for the next month."

It would have been proper to speak to Lan Xichen about this visit first. But somehow, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to do so. He had talked to Wei Ying instead, and they had come to an agreement. Lan Wangji wrote to his uncle afterward to announce his visit. He had settled the matter before approaching his brother because he knew Lan Xichen would argue.

Lan Xichen's shoulders slumped at once. He let out a long sigh.

"Wangji."

His quiet misery tore at Lan Wangji's heart. But it helped to bolster his will and confirmed that he'd made the right decision. He couldn't bear to leave his brother like this.

Lan Wangji knew what arguments his brother would marshal in his own defense. Lan Xichen would say that he must tend to his own duties. He would insist that Lan Wangji must do the same. He wouldn't want to take Lan Wangji away from his husband and children. He would state that Lan Wangji must return to his own household. He'd insist that he could manage on his own.

But Lan Wangji knew better. He had spent the last several days at his brother's side. During that time, he was forced to nag his brother to eat, drink, and bathe. When the time came for Lan Xichen to dress, Lan Wangji must help with that task. If he did not, his brother would sit miserably in his sleeping robes for half the morning.

He had difficulty focusing, too. Lan Wangji brought news to his brother every day, and he saw that Lan Xichen had trouble paying attention. He tried to listen, but his eyes were far away.

If he returned to Cloud Recesses by himself, Uncle and the elders would insist that work was the best antidote for grief. They would push Lan Xichen to immerse himself in his duties. His brother would have no time to nurse the wounds upon his heart.

Lan Wangji couldn't allow that. Yet he couldn't let his brother think himself an object of pity, either. He laid his hands upon his lap and chose his words carefully.

"It has been some time since my marriage." Lan Wangji reached out and poured the tea. "But I have yet to visit my natal home. It is time that I do so."

His brother could not object to that, surely. A child who had married out ought to return to their natal home every now and then. Lan Wangji must pay his respects to Uncle and the elders. He had every right to visit his home after half a year of marriage.

But Lan Xichen only sighed.

Lan Wangji put the teapot aside, and his brother stretched out a hand. He laid it on Lan Wangji's wrist.

"You know how much we've wanted you to visit." His voice was very soft. "Everyone in Cloud Recesses will be so glad to see you. You will always be welcome there."

He drew in a sharp breath. Lan Wangji saw the arguments forming on his brother's tongue.

"But your first duty is to your husband and children!"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"Wei Ying can manage without me for a few weeks. The Wens can help him with the children."

Lan Wangji missed his children already. He didn't want to be parted from them for another month, and he wasn't looking forward to the separation from Wei Ying.

But it was only a month. After his return to the Burial Mounds, he would have years with his new family. He could afford to spend a month with his natal family.

Lan Xichen's face clouded over. He was still prepared to argue.

Lan Wangji had expected that. He knew that his brother would fiercely resist any sacrifice on Lan Wangji's part. He always sought to make things as pleasant as possible for his younger brother, even at the expense of his own health and happiness.

As a child, Lan Wangji had accepted such generosity. He allowed his brother to give him the nicer toy, the larger bag of sweets. He let his brother shoulder the most difficult duties. He hadn't known any better.

Lan Wangji knew better now. This time, he would not allow Lan Xichen to put his younger brother's happiness first.

"I don't want you to be alone," he admitted.

Lan Xichen's hand spasmed around his brother's wrist. He did not speak for a long moment. Then he took a deep breath.

"I would hardly be alone in Cloud Recesses."

Lan Wangji let out a quiet sigh.

As a child, he hadn’t noticed this, either. He overlooked his brother's quiet sacrifices, along with his brother's propensity for bending the truth. Lan Xichen certainly knew how to choose statements that didn't quite violate their sect precepts against lying. He had done so now: he had spoken the literal truth. In Cloud Recesses, he would be surrounded by people.

And yet, he would be alone. He would have no one but stern elders and awestruck disciples. They wouldn't dare to speak of his recent loss. Certainly, no one in Cloud Recesses would try to comfort him. Uncle would hope that if he never acknowledged his nephew's grief, it would disappear.

His brother would be entirely alone.

Lan Wangji pressed the teacup into his brother's hands.

"I will come with you," he murmured. "I will stay for a month. Then, when I return home, you will come with me for a visit."

He glanced pointedly at the teacup. But his brother did not lift the cup to his lips.

"It has been decided," Lan Wangji added.

His brother made a soft sound.

Lan Wangji looked up. He found his brother smiling for the first time in days. Lan Xichen's eyes were sad, but he huffed a quiet laugh.

"Has it?"

He sounded amused.

Lan Wangji might have expected that. His brother was always amused on the rare occasions Lan Wangji tried to assert his will. Lan Xichen never failed to laugh at his younger brother's attempts to argue or give orders. Hanguang-Jun might be admired throughout the cultivation world. But to Lan Xichen, he was no more intimidating than a baby rabbit.

It was vexing, of course. Yet his brother's smiles were precious, especially now. So Lan Wangji didn't bristle up in offense. He merely gave an emphatic nod.

"Yes. It has been decided."

He tapped his brother's wrist.

Lan Xichen smiled. And finally, he consented to drink his tea.

***

Two days later, after a lengthy farewell in their private chambers, Lan Wangji parted from his husband. He mounted his sword and joined the Lan delegation for the trip home. He was pleasantly sore from Wei Ying's goodbye. The ache in his muscles left him in high spirits, and the weather cheered him, too.

It had turned chilly again. But small green buds had formed on every tree and bush. The pear trees had begun to blossom, and the snows had melted. As they passed over the fields, Lan Wangji saw that the farmers had brought out their plows and tilled the soil. Birds pecked at the freshly-turned earth. The sky above was a clear, limitless blue.

By late afternoon, they arrived at the gates of Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji stopped in the courtyard and gazed at his surroundings. His natal sect hadn't changed in the slightest.

Lan Wangji took himself on a short tour after greeting his uncle. He found that the classrooms and dining hall were the same. The footpaths and the small ponds had not been altered. Everywhere Lan Wangji turned, he saw familiar faces.

Yet somehow, he felt that he had changed. He no longer belonged in his natal sect. He had come as a visitor and not a resident.

It wasn't difficult to fall into the familiar rhythms. Lan Wangji observed the strict curfews and silent meal-times without complaint. Each morning, he dressed in pristine white robes. He set aside the elaborate jewelry and bright silks. He fell into old, well-worn patterns.

Uncle watched his every movement, and his eyes were pleased.

Lan Wangji knew that Uncle was happy to see him. He was happier still, once he confirmed that the Yiling Patriarch was no villain. Lan Wangji had related a few well-chosen tales, emphasizing his husband's devoted nature.

Uncle was pleased and proud that his youngest nephew had married an honorable man with an unshakable commitment to justice. Lan Wangji rejoiced in his uncle's newfound satisfaction with the match. But his uncle still did not understand the whole story. He seemed convinced that marriage hadn't changed Lan Wangji. Yet every day, Lan Wangji felt more of a stranger in his own sect.

Cloud Recesses was beautiful, tranquil, serene. The halls were shrouded in soothing blues and greens. Soft music floated out from the classrooms, and the air was full of birdsong. The visit passed pleasantly enough. Lan Wangji was glad to speak to his old instructors, and it was a pleasure to oversee the disciples' lessons.

Lan Wangji was no longer a Lan disciple, though. He had ceased to believe in the Lan sect's precepts with his entire heart and soul. He saw the world in shades of gray now. Though he was proud of the fine things his sect had done, he saw where his sect had failed. These failings made it easy to discard certain rules, or adapt them to reflect a new meaning.

And it had become easier to oppose his elders. Lan Wangji found himself at odds with his uncle one night, a week after his arrival. They were taking tea together, and Uncle was restless.

Lan Xichen had spent most of the week in his own chambers. He tended to some correspondence, of course. Lan Wangji sifted through the pile of letters each afternoon and brought over any that required the Sect Leader's personal attention. He ensured that his brother received regular meals and that he was adequately dressed. He urged his brother to visit the younger disciples and help them with their swordwork. His brother had always liked children. He found it comforting to teach youngsters.

But Lan Wangji refused to demand anything more. If his brother wished to spend his days in private meditation—nursing his grief and writing frequent letters to Nie Mingjue—Lan Wangji thought that ought to be permitted.

Uncle disagreed.

"He must resume his duties." Uncle's voice grew brittle. "The elders are beginning to talk."

Lan Wangji counted out four deep breaths before he replied.

"He needs time."

Uncle scoffed. His eyes drifted toward the Hanshi, his mouth tense.

“How much time?” he demanded.

It was, Lan Wangji knew, a rhetorical question. But he answered anyway.

"Please allow him six months."

Uncle turned to Lan Wangji with shocked eyes.

Lan Wangji did not allow himself to falter. He met his uncle's gaze steadily.

Lan Xichen would never request six months for himself. In all likelihood, he would ask for nothing. The political situation was unstable, and Lan Xichen had a strong sense of duty. If the elders demanded that he return to his duties at once, he wouldn't argue. He certainly wouldn't shift his duties onto their uncle's shoulders, as their father had done.

Instead, Lan Xichen would submit to elders' will. He would force himself to take up the duties of sect leader again. He would, perhaps, bury himself in work. He would fill every waking hour with endless tasks, even at the expense of his own health.

That couldn't be the correct decision. Lan Xichen would do better after a rest. But Uncle looked aghast at the suggestion.

"He has suffered a shock," Lan Wangji murmured. "Jin Guangyao…was someone Brother trusted."

Uncle set his jaw. His brows lowered ominously.

"A foolish mistake." He glared at his teacup. "That creature was never worthy of your brother's notice."

Lan Wangji sipped his own tea in silence. He knew he must tread lightly here.

"His virtue was lacking," Lan Wangji allowed. "But Brother believed that Jin Guangyao had been mistreated because of his birth."

Lan Wangji paused.

"Brother always wants to help the weak and underprivileged. He strives to make sure that the disadvantaged receive fair treatment. I cannot censure him for that."

Uncle scowled.

Lan Wangji knew that his phrasing—a deliberate reframing of their sect's rules—hadn't gone unnoticed. But Uncle must view the situation in such terms. Lan Wangji feared that their uncle suspected the truth: Lan Xichen had nurtured feelings for Jin Guangyao which hadn't been purely platonic. If Uncle suspected such an attachment, he would draw parallels between Lan Xichen's situation and their father's marriage. Lan Wangji wanted to avoid such comparisons at all costs.

It wasn’t the same situation, of course. Surely their mother had been nothing like Jin Guangyao. Lan Wangji always remembered his mother as a gentle and loving woman.

...And yet, Jin Guangyao might have proved a devoted father too. No matter what other crimes he committed, he might have treated his wife and children kindly. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure of the man's true intentions or character.

He only knew that Jin Guangyao's story—like his mother's—would be twisted over time. His mother's reputation had been ruined once her crimes became public knowledge. Rumor and gossip had distorted the truth, and she had taken the tale to her grave.

Jin Guangyao's child would face a similar heartache, perhaps. Like Lan Wangji, the child would never know the truth of their father's story. Jin Guangyao had left a great deal of wreckage behind him, and none of the survivors would ever understand what Jin Guangyao had thought or felt. They would never know if he had truly Lan Xichen, or Qin Su, or anyone.

Lan Wangji swallowed hard.

"Jin Guangyao was charismatic." He knotted his fingers together. "Many people were deceived by him."

His uncle's mouth grew rather pinched.

"Your brother is not 'many people'! He is Sect Leader Lan." Uncle tapped a finger against the table. "He must be more careful in the future."

Lan Wangji bowed his head.

"He will be. Yet…"

For a moment, Lan Wangji could not speak. His brother would be more cautious in the future. He could never forget such a betrayal.

Lan Wangji refused to believe that his brother would grow hard-hearted or bitter. But Lan Xichen could never forget that he'd trusted someone who repaid him with deceit. He would carry that knowledge with him, Jin Guangyao's death would be a continued source of grief.

The knowledge that he had judged poorly and trusted the wrong person would sit heavy in his heart. Lan Xichen would find it hard to forget it. Long after the first waves of grief passed, he would remember the betrayal. He would second-guess himself. He would doubt his own judgment.

Lan Wangji let out a long, slow breath.

"He is hurt just now," Lan Wangji finished. "He needs time to think."

Uncle's face grew very blank. He stared out the window, his eyes distant and unseeing.

"There is such a thing," he muttered, "as too much time to think."

Lan Wangji felt his throat tighten.

Uncle would never utter his deepest fears. He would never admit that he feared Lan Xichen might disappear into seclusion, as their father once had. But his anxiety echoed throughout the room, as clearly as if he'd shouted aloud.

Lan Wangji lowered his eyes and stared into his own teacup. After a long pause, he spoke.

"Brother will not make that mistake."

Lan Wangji had to believe that he'd spoken the truth. Their fears must be baseless; the parallel between his parents and his brother incomplete. After all, Lan Xichen had witnessed their father's mistakes. He knew the harm their father had done to his sect—to his family—by vanishing into seclusion. Lan Xichen would never choose to inflict that pain upon others.

And Lan Wangji had married out. He could not take over sect leadership, as their uncle had done for their father. He must leave in a few weeks and return to his own household. Perhaps their uncle could take over for a few months, but he was growing old. He couldn't shoulder these secondhand burdens forever. Lan Xichen knew that.

There was Nie Mingjue, too. After their mother's death, their father had been left entirely bereft. Perhaps he had not seen—perhaps he had not been willing to see—the prospect of future happiness. Lan Xichen would not fall into that trap. There was the prospect of another love in his future.

Lan Wangji took another deep breath.

"It is not forever," he added. "Only six months. Only half a year."

Uncle gave a restless, dissatisfied hum.

"Brother still oversees lessons," Lan Wangji ventured. "He reads the disciples' night-hunting reports. He tends to some correspondence."

Lan Xichen had not tried to enter complete seclusion, at least. But he kept to the Hanshi. He seemed unwilling or unable to meet with the elders. He was pale and listless, and Lan Wangji knew his brother hadn't been sleeping well.

He wasn't ready to resume his full duties. Lan Wangji must buy him a few months of rest. His brother must have time to himself. Then he must have a visit to the Burial Mounds, a few weeks surrounded by his niece and nephews. Afterward, perhaps things would be different. He might feel ready to take up his duties once more.

Uncle disapproved of Lan Wangji's suggestion. But he perhaps he saw some sense in the idea, after all. Or perhaps he was ready to grasp at any straw. Perhaps he was willing to accept anything short of lifelong seclusion.

He shifted in his seat and grumbled. Then, after a moment, he let out a sigh.

"Very well." He finished his tea. "I will arrange for six months of modified duties."

A weight lifted from Lan Wangji's heart. But it crashed down again at his uncle's next remark.

"He must marry soon."

Lan Wangji's mouth went dry. Uncle avoided his eyes, glaring out the window once more. Lan Wangji drew in a deep, measured breath. His stomach began to churn.

He hadn't expected his uncle to draw such clear, unmistakable parallels. But if Uncle had chosen to speak of marriage now, then he believed his nephew was at risk of repeating his brother's mistakes. He knew that his nephew had fallen in love with Jin Guangyao. Worst of all, he saw an arranged marriage as Lan Xichen's salvation.

Mutinous anger stirred in Lan Wangji's heart. He breathed deeply and forced it down.

Uncle did not intend to be cruel, of course. He would never wish to inflict pain upon either of his nephews. Doubtless, he believed that marriage would offer protection against future heartache. He thought an arranged marriage would ensure that Lan Xichen wasn't deceived by another unworthy person.

But Lan Wangji knew better. A forced marriage would offer no comfort or consolation. It certainly would not keep his brother's affections fenced it. Such a marriage would only lead to unhappiness. His brother would likely be unable to love his wife. In time, his wife would grow resentful of a husband whose heart lay elsewhere. They would both be miserable.

If his brother chose to marry, then he must marry Nie Mingjue. He could not be happy if forced to wed an eligible young woman his elders had selected. He must marry someone he already loved.

Lan Wangji sipped his tea slowly. Then, for the first time in his life, he openly contradicted his uncle.

"He will marry when he is ready. Not before."

Lan Wangji set his teacup against the table with a dull clink.

Uncle's face was dumbfounded. He hardly seemed to know what to say. But after a moment of silent gaping, he straightened up.

"The sect will require an heir."

Uncle's brows drew together. He spoke sternly, as if delivering a lecture.

"You have married out, and your children are adopted. They cannot inherit the Lan bloodline."

Lan Wangji inclined his head. It was true, and he knew it.

"The clan's bloodline must continue," Uncle finished.

He sat back in his chair. His expression was satisfied. He seemed to think that he had made an irrefutable argument.

Lan Wangji hummed quietly.

"There is A-Yi."

Astonishment painted itself across Uncle's face once again. He was not accustomed to being contradicted by his youngest nephew, and his face grew flushed.

"That child is not fit for sect leadership!" Uncle sputtered.

"He is only three years old." Lan Wangji traced the edge of the table with his thumb. "How can we know yet what he will become?"

Uncle scoffed and folded his arms across his chest.

"You have not spent much time with that child." He heaved a great sigh. "When you have, you will understand. He may become a skilled cultivator someday. But he does not have the temperament for sect leadership.”

Lan Wangji finished his tea in silence. Yet he wasn't entirely convinced.

Uncle believed that certain qualities were necessary for sect leadership. But after Jin Guangshan's disgrace, Lan Wangji doubted the common wisdom on this matter. Many sects had diligently cultivated political astuteness in their sect leaders...and many sects had now fallen into disgrace.

Too many sect leaders had become cowards or criminals. Too many were smug hedonists or shameless hypocrites. Too many focused on their own power and prestige, neglecting their duty to the common people.

Such mistakes must not be repeated in the Lan sect. But Uncle said no more on the topic of marriage, and Lan Wangji accepted a detente. He did not forget their conversation, though. It weighed upon his mind. Over the next few days, he found himself silently reciting each word to himself.

Uncle had spoken truthfully: the elders must be anxious for an heir. Lan Xichen's golden core was exceptionally powerful, and his health was good. He could serve as sect leader for decades to come. Even so, the elders would insist upon an heir. They would desire Lan Xichen to take a wife and father a child.

Lan Wangji felt sure his brother didn't want to walk that path. If it could be arranged, his brother would wish to marry Nie Mingjue. The pair could divide their time between their sects. Wei Ying could provide them with transportation talismans, and that would make the arrangement quite simple. They could spend their days apart, ruling their own sect. At night, they could travel across hundreds of li in a heartbeat. They could spend their evenings together, then return home in the mornings.

His brother would surely find great happiness in such a life. But the question of blood heirs still hung over their heads.

Lan Wangji could not imagine his brother or Nie Mingjue taking a concubine for the sake of fathering an heir. Nie Mingjue despised the practice of concubinage. He had never made a secret of that. And he had already named Nie Huaisang as his heir. Nie Huaisang's spouse could marry into the Nie sect, and their children would inherit the Nie bloodline. Nie Mingjue had no need to lower himself by taking a concubine.

Lan Xichen's position was somewhat more precarious. He would find no joy in taking a concubine or fathering a child out of duty. But he had no convenient younger siblings to produce blood heirs. Uncle had been correct on that score, too: Lan Wangji had married out, and his children were adopted. They could not serve as heirs to the Lan sect.

There was Lan Jingyi, though.

After his conversation with Uncle, Lan Wangji sought the child out. He spent half a shi with the boy each afternoon. They played together and talked at some length. With each visit, Lan Wangji's delight grew.

A-Yi was a cheerful, impudent child. He enjoyed many things forbidden in Cloud Recesses. He was fond of shouting and running. He liked to climb and jump off the furniture. He clung determinedly to his drum toy and used it to make as much noise as he could.

The nursemaids were wearied by the child's inexhaustible energy. But the clamor was familiar to Lan Wangji now. He found it soothing to have a small child dogging his footsteps once more. A-Yi was energetic and curious, and Lan Wangji enjoyed his company.

One afternoon, he took the boy for a short ride on his sword. The next day, the exhausted nursemaids confessed that A-Yi had been so excited by the adventure, he was unable to sleep that night. Lan Wangji offered his apologies and tried to hide his smile.

As the days passed, Lan Wangji understood why Uncle believed the boy unfit for sect leadership. But he couldn't agree with his uncle's assessment. A-Yi was very young, of course. It was difficult to know what he would become once he reached adulthood.

But A-Yi was lively and passionate, unrestrained in his emotions. He wept over injured birds and laughed delightedly over silly jokes. He had strong opinions, and he wasn't easily dissuaded by others. If he believed that he was right about something, he dug in his heels and fought hard to defend his position.

Lan Wangji thought perhaps the boy would do their sect some good. He nurtured that thought and began to plan for the future.

"You will come to visit me sometime."

It was a quiet afternoon, and he had taken A-Yi onto his knee. A-Yi looked up with wide eyes.

"You'll meet my husband and children, and you'll see our home." Lan Wangji tilted his head in thought. "Perhaps, when you are grown up, you will join us on night-hunts."

He straightened A-Yi's robes. They were always crooked and disheveled, and Uncle despaired over the boy's untidiness. But slovenly dress hardly disqualified a person from sect leadership.

"Someday, my children will come to visit Cloud Recesses, too." Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over the boy's back. "You can help me show them the Lan sect."

A-Yi's small face flushed with enthusiasm. Lan Wangji felt a quiet satisfaction settle inside his heart.

He would help bring A-Yi up. With Wei Ying's help, Lan Wangji would show A-Yi the world outside Cloud Recesses. They would teach the boy that Cloud Recesses' disciplines were noble and honorable. But they would make sure A-Yi knew there was more to life than precepts inscribed upon a stone wall.

They would make sure that A-Yi possessed both courage and determination. A-Yi must learn to pursue justice, even if he made enemies in the process. Above all, A-Yi must never become another craven sect leader. He must not flatter others or curry favor. A-Yi must stand firm and speak his mind.

Lan Wangji felt sure there would be no trouble there. A-Yi was noisy and gregarious, never shy about hollering out his opinion. Spending time with A-Yi was a consolation. It kept Lan Wangji from missing his own children too badly.

He wrote to Wei Ying and the children every morning. Each evening, he received a batch of letters in return. Often, Wei Ying sent a package crammed full of the children's drawings and handicrafts. Lan Wangji always found a letter full of his husband's lamentations.

Today, Wei Ying wrote that he missed his husband desperately. He said that Wen Qing was angry with him. During their separation, Wei Ying insisted on working through the night.

But, Wei Ying demanded, what was the point of going to bed if his husband was not lying beside him?

Lan Wangji smiled over that letter. He sifted happily through the children's art projects and sewing samples. But after he put his correspondence aside, his spirits sank a little. It was time to visit his brother.

Sometimes, Lan Xichen seemed to find the pain bearable. Some days, his brother seemed almost happy. He cheered up as he oversaw the junior disciples' lessons. His eyes brightened as he talked with Lan Wangji about a proposal to build new irrigation canals in the southern fields. He smiled over A-Yuan's latest drawing or A-Bao's clumsy sewing.

Often, Lan Xichen confided that he had another letter from Nie Mingjue. They were planning to visit one another after Tomb-Sweeping Day. The promise of a visit helped to shore up Lan Xichen's low mood.

But tonight, Lan Wangji slid open the door to the Hanshi and found his brother desolate.

Most of Lan Xichen's evening meal still lay untouched upon the tray. Lan Wangji frowned over the full plates, yet he said nothing. He cycled through the familiar ritual of their evening routine.

Lan Wangji brewed the tea to help his brother sleep. He lit a soothing incense and adjusted the window shades. Then he combed out his brother's hair. Once Lan Xichen's hair lay smooth around his shoulders, Lan Wangji brought out his sleeping robes. He waited patiently, pouring out the tea as his brother changed behind the screen.

Lan Wangji never left the room until his brother had drunk the tea and climbed into bed. There was no need to remain any longer, of course. His brother was not a child who feared evil creatures lurking in the shadows. He did not need to be comforted and soothed through the darkest part of the night.

But when Lan Xichen stepped from behind the screen tonight, his face had a rigid quality. A quiet, desperate misery swam behind his eyes.

Lan Wangji could not bear it. So as his brother climbed into bed, Lan Wangji took down his own hair. He removed his outer robes and extinguished the lamps. Then he stretched out beside his brother on the bed.

The Hanshi was shrouded in darkness. Lan Wangji waited for six or seven heartbeats. Then he laid a hand upon his brother's arm.

Lan Xichen took a sharp, gasping breath. It was as if his pain was suddenly too great to bear. The sudden plunge into darkness shattered the last of his defenses. He drew in another ragged breath, and it sounded perilously close to a sob.

All at once, Lan Wangji gave up on dignity.

He was Hanguang-Jun, husband of the Immortal Yiling Patriarch. His brother was Sect Leader Lan, and they were both grown men. They were too old to cling to each other at night like frightened orphans. But Lan Wangji did not care. He shifted onto his side and put an arm around his brother. Then he drew his brother against his chest and stroked his hair.

Lan Xichen made another hideous, broken sound.

Lan Wangji had heard such noises before, from dying animals and vanquished creatures. He had never wished to hear such sounds from his brother's throat. He bit his lip until he tasted blood.

Lan Xichen took three or four wet breaths. Lan Wangji knew his brother was crying, but he said nothing. He stroked his brother's hair in silence and waited for him to speak.

"Do you think I cared for him more than I care for you?"

Lan Wangji's fingers—sifting through the silky strands—froze.

He had braced himself for a tirade of anger against Jin Guangyao. He prepared himself for an outpouring of grief, too. He expected a lament, sorrow over Jin Guangyao's death, despair, confusion.

But he had not expected this. He hadn't expected his brother to ask if he, Lan Wangji, had believed that his brother treasured Jin Guangyao above his own family.

For a moment, Lan Wangji was struck dumb.

His brother drew in another shaky breath. He trembled beneath Lan Wangji's hands.

“You didn’t tell me.” His voice broke. "Did you think…"

Lan Wangji's heart shattered. He pushed himself up from the mattress and stared blindly toward his brother's face.

"No," he rasped. "I never believed you would betray my trust. I thought…"

The words died in his throat.

He had wanted to tell his brother the truth. The moment Lan Wangji understood the extent of Jin Guangyao's crimes, he had ached to share the truth with his brother.

Yet he had remained silent.

He knew it would be difficult to persuade his brother of the truth. His brother wouldn't want to believe that Jin Guangyao was untrustworthy. He would look for another explanation.

If Lan Wangji accused Jin Guangyao without evidence, his brother would decide that Lan Wangji must have been misinformed. He would assume, perhaps, that Wei Ying had deceived Lan Wangji. He would see Wei Ying as a villain and continue to believe the best of Jin Guangyao. Lan Wangji had known that.

But he never believed that his brother would deliberately betray him. It had never crossed his mind that his brother might embrace Jin Guangyao and cast Lan Wangji aside. He had always known he had his brother's love and unshakable trust. Lan Wangji could not remember a time when he hadn't known that his brother cherished him. He could not remember a single moment of his life when he was not his brother's most important person. Even as he watched his brother fall under Jin Guangyao's thrall, Lan Wangji had known that his brother loved him dearly.

Lan Wangji blinked back tears. Then he lay down upon the bed. He put his arm around his brother again.

"I never believed you cared for him more than your family. But I knew this discovery would be painful for you." He smoothed the sleeve of his brother's sleeping robes. "I wished…to delay the pain as long as possible."

Lan Xichen's breaths were soft and uneven. Lan Wangji held his brother tightly.

"And I knew you would find it…difficult. If your loyalties became divided."

There was nothing his brother found more painful. He had always tried so hard to hold their family—their sect—together. Lan Xichen strove to make peace and promote harmony. It was the very foundation of his character. If he knew that Jin Guangyao had schemed against Lan Wangji and his husband—if he knew that they were plotting against Jin Guangyao in turn—Lan Xichen would have been heartbroken.

The discovery might have rendered him temporarily helpless. If they made their accusation without proof, Lan Xichen would not know whom to protect. He would have tried, futilely, to protect everyone and reconcile various parties to one another. Lan Wangji had wished to spare his brother that misery, that wasted effort.

But this reassurance brought Lan Xichen no comfort. He let out a soft, smothered sob.

"They have always been divided," he choked out.

His voice splintered and cracked.

"Divided between so many people. You and Uncle. The elders. A-Jue and A-Yao."

Tears stood in Lan Wangji's eyes. He blinked them back and squeezed his brother's arm. He despised the fact that he could do nothing more to offer comfort.

For one wild moment, Lan Wangji considered dragging his brother back to the Burial Mounds by force. He wanted to hide his brother behind their wards. In the Burial Mounds, no one could trouble Lan Xichen or force him to make any decisions. No one could demand that he carve himself to slivers to placate others. Lan Wangji could allow his brother to live in peace, surrounded by love and safety and comfort. He could spare his brother every pain or conflict.

The impulse struck like lightning. Then it vanished, leaving cold ashes in Lan Wangji's heart. He drew in a deep breath, shaken.

Had their father not done the same thing? Had he not made a prison out of love? Had he not led their mother to her doom, convinced all the while that he was protecting her?

Lan Wangji swallowed around a dry throat.

Perhaps he and his brother were more like their father than they wished. But they could not make the same mistakes. They must be wiser and stronger than their fore-bearers. They would be better than their father, at least.

Lan Xichen wouldn't allow his grief to bury him. He wouldn't waste his life and his talents in seclusion. And Lan Wangji wouldn't surrender to his desire to shield his loved ones by any means necessary. He would protect his family while leaving them free.

But Lan Wangji's heart ached. He turned his brother's words over in his mind.

Lan Xichen had been forced to balance countless loyalties. He was always expected to make peace between dozens of people. He had spent most of his life—most of his childhood—doing just that.

Lan Wangji felt a swift burst of shame.

"Brother has always carried heavy burdens," he whispered. "I didn't help enough."

Lan Xichen startled in his arms. His breath caught, cutting off a muffled sob. Then he turned to face Lan Wangji.

"No." Lan Xichen's hand found his and clutched it tightly. “Wangji, no. That's not…"

His hand trembled around Lan Wangji's.

"You had to carry many burdens, too. I didn't want to put anything else on your shoulders." Lan Xichen drew in another wet, shaky breath. "Why should you have to hear about my troubles?"

Lan Wangji frowned into the darkened room.

"You are my brother."

Hearing his brother's troubles was no burden. Rather, it was an honor. Lan Wangji was always proud to think he'd been some help to his brother. As a child, he desired nothing more from life. He wanted to grow into a strong, capable cultivator and help his brother lead the sect. He wanted to be useful, to lighten his brother's load.

Such a future was gone now, and that knowledge cut Lan Wangji to his core. Yet he couldn't regret his marriage. Nor could he leave Wei Ying. No childhood goal could take precedence over his husband and children.

In his heart, Lan Wangji knew his brother would approve of such a decision. Lan Xichen would prefer to see his brother happily married with a houseful of children. If he lost his helper in the process, it was of no consequence to him.

But Lan Wangji's heart ached. He could not fulfill this childhood dream…not in the way he had envisioned, at least.

His brother drew in another ragged breath. His voice was edged with pain, and Lan Wangji turned to listen.

"I had given A-Jue up."

He swallowed hard enough that Lan Wangji could hear it.

"He told me it was useless to keep looking for a cure. He said he'd always known he was doomed to an early death, and there was nothing any physician could do about it."

Lan Xichen made a soft broken noise.

"I always tried to play Cleansing, but it didn't help much. And then…"

He was quiet for a long time. Lan Wangji rubbed his brother's shoulders and listened to him weep in the darkness.

"He seemed to have given up. And so did I.

His voice was agonized, full of the bitterest self-reproach. Lan Wangji held his brother tightly.

"I didn't want… It hurt to think of his death. Sometimes, I couldn't bear to be near him."

Lan Xichen gave a hollow, mirthless laugh.

"I would visit, and I'd find myself counting down the minutes until I left. I'd wonder if this would be the last time I saw A-Jue alive. If this would be the last conversation we had, the last memory I'd have to hold in my heart."

A quiet whimper escaped his throat.

"And with A-Yao…"

"You saw a future with him," Lan Wangji whispered.

He could understand thateasily enough.

Lan Wangji hadn't known that Nie Mingjue was so ill, nor that he'd resigned himself to an early death. His brother had spared him that burden, too. He kept such knowledge from Lan Wangji and tried to bear the pain alone.

But it made sense now. Naturally, his brother had drawn away from Nie Mingjue. He had tried to prepare himself for Nie Mingjue's death. He distanced himself, trying to brace himself against the coming pain. It was no wonder that he'd turned to Jin Guangyao in the meantime. Lan Wangji had no doubt that the man had encouraged such dependence.

The bed quivered. Lan Wangji realized that his brother had shaken his head fervently.

“No! Not with him. But for him…yes.”

Lan Xichen sucked in a deep, rattling breath.

"I knew we could never be together in the way I wanted. I accepted that. But I saw what he could become if he only had a little more support. And I thought he…needed me. He needed my help, and A-Jue didn't."

His voice grew hushed with sorrow.

"I thought I could be of some use to him. I could build something for him.”

Lan Wangji had grown used to the ugly desire to raise Jin Guangyao's spirit and torture it mercilessly. It would be hideously wrong, and Lan Wangji would never indulge the impulse. But Lan Wangji dreamed of it, sometimes. He imagined tormenting Jin Guangyao for years on end. The dark desire haunted his footsteps every time he saw his brother's grief-stricken face.

Yet again, Lan Wangji suppressed such impulses. He kept a steady, gentle grip on Lan Xichen's shoulders.

"Brother is always selfless," he murmured.

Lan Xichen let out another soft, bitter laugh.

“I’m not. If that were true, I wouldn't have turned away from A-Jue."

Lan Wangji frowned deeply.

"He doesn't blame you."

Lan Wangji did not know what intimacies had passed between his brother and Nie Mingjue. But he saw how Nie Mingjue looked toward his brother when Jin Guangyao's crimes were revealed. He saw, too, Nie Mingjue's soft glances in the days that followed. Nie Mingjue was not skilled at dissembling, and his love for Lan Xichen was written across his face. Lan Wangji had never detected a trace of bitterness or resentment in his eyes.

"He told you to stop playing Cleansing for him," Lan Wangji added.

His brother stiffened. Lan Wangji kept his voice gentle.

"He told you to let him go. And when I met him and saw how ill he was, he asked me not to write to you." Lan Wangji drew in a slow breath. "He didn't want you worried. He didn't want to cause you pain. He thought his life was forfeit, and so he turned away from you."

Lan Wangji saw the matter clearly now. He saw how his brother and Nie Mingjue had grown divided. He saw how Jin Guangyao had capitalized upon that distance.

Nie Mingjue believed he was dying, so he withdrew from the world. He put hundreds of li between himself and Lan Xichen. He tried to make his own death easier for others to bear.

His brother, heartbroken and confused, had allowed this separation. It wasn't in his nature to pursue someone who didn't wish for his attention. Nie Mingjue pulled away, and Lan Xichen let him go. And Jin Guangyao what he needed to manipulate them both.

"But he will live." Lan Wangji spoke with sudden fervor. "Wei Ying and Wen Qing will make sure of it. You can still have a future with him."

Nie Mingjue would not succumb to an early death. He and Lan Xichen could heal their misunderstandings and grow close once more.

Lan Wangji sensed that they had already begun that process. They had turned to each other for consolation in the wake of Jin Guangyao's death. In time, they could sweep away the ugliness of the past. The misery they suffered could be forgotten, and they could enjoy a long life together. Lan Wangji stroked his brother's back.

"He still needs you."

Nie Mingjue needed his brother, and Lan Xichen needed him in return. Surely that would be enough to carry them through.

But Lan Xichen let out another soft sound of inexpressible pain.

"I wish I knew what was real," he choked.

Lan Wangji grew still.

They were not speaking of Nie Mingjue now. He knew that.

He knew, too, that this question could never be answered. The truth had died with Jin Guangyao. He had taken it with him to his grave. Even in his final moments—even as he drew his last breaths—he had not spoken the truth. Lan Wangji suspected that the man was incapable of such honesty.

And so Lan Xichen would never know if he were sincerely loved by Jin Guangyao, or if he had merely been a dupe. He would never know if Jin Guangyao treasured him or if he saw Lan Xichen as simply a useful tool. There could never be an honest answer to that question.

Lan Wangji thought hard for a few moments.

"Which would be easier to bear?" he wondered.

Lan Xichen smothered another choked sound against his palm.

“I don’t know.”

Lan Wangji sighed.

He did not know either. He supposed that it was an impossible question. Was it better to mourn a man who had been a true lover, or was it better to know that you had been cruelly deceived? Neither possibility would bring his poor brother any comfort now.

"Then let it be set aside." Lan Wangji stroked his brother's hair. "Let it pass away. Let this question be buried with him."

Lan Xichen wept softly against his shoulder.

"He is part of your past," Lan Wangji whispered. "He is not your future."

A brighter future would come someday. Lan Wangji would see his brother smile with his eyes and laugh with his whole heart.

He would attend his brother's wedding. Perhaps he would welcome a few adopted nieces and nephews. If Nie Mingjue predeceased his brother, it would not happen for many decades. His brother would have many sources of joy and comfort. Jin Guangyao would become nothing more than an unhappy memory, a part of Lan Xichen's distant past.

Lan Wangji set that future in his mind, carving it into implacable stone. He would see his brother happy. Nothing would stand in his way. If Uncle or the elders tried to oppose him—if they tried to push Lan Xichen into an arrangement that would make him miserable—Lan Wangji would show them the error of their ways. They would learn that it was foolish to tangle with the Yiling Patriarch's husband.

He held his brother for some time, and Lan Xichen cried himself to sleep. But once he had finished crying, he slept soundly.

Lan Wangji lay awake, and he made plans.

***

The rest of the month passed quickly.

Lan Wangji arranged matters as best he could. First, he diverted as much work as possible from his brother's desk. He drafted half a dozen confederates who promised to make sure that Sect Leader Lan received plenty of rest after Lan Wangji's departure. The servants would confirm that Sect Leader Lan was eating properly. They would write to Lan Wangji if he was not. The physicians would prepare teas and incenses to help him sleep.

Within a week, Lan Xichen would join his brother at the Burial Mounds. After his visit, he would make a short trip to Cloud Recesses for Tomb-Sweeping Day. Then he would join Nie Mingjue in the Unclean Realm for at least a fortnight.

The elders were not happy to have their sect leader absent for so many weeks. But Lan Wangji had fought long and hard, and he had won his victory. Lan Xichen would have time to rest and travel. He would not be bullied into accepting more work than he wished. There would be no more talk of arranged marriages.

Uncle was not particularly happy about his youngest nephew's stubbornness on this topic. But at the end of Lan Wangji's visit, Uncle bid him a fond farewell. They had already agreed Lan Wangji would bring his children to Cloud Recess for Dragon Boat Festival. Uncle was looking forward to that visit, and he urged Lan Wangji to make it a long one.

Lan Wangji sensed that Uncle would regret his lavish hospitality once the children scurried around Cloud Recesses, joining A-Yi in his noisy games.

But his brother and uncle saw him off with a smile. That was enough. Lan Wangji flew toward the Burial Mounds in high spirits.

Wei Ying had offered a transportation talisman, but Lan Wangji decided to make the trip by sword. He agreed that it might be wise to stop over in a few villages. He wanted to see how the world was carrying on in the wake of Jin Guangshan's downfall. So Lan Wangji took a roundabout path.

He stopped at a village outside Gusu. Then he drifting into Jin territory and lunched at a teahouse. As he ate, he listened to the lively chatter.

For the most part, the villagers seemed to be doing well. There was some gossip about cultivation matters, and Lan Wangji occasionally overheard his husband's name. But the people were calm and content. The trees were blossoming, and the villagers were busy with spring planting. They chatted freely about mending fences, breeding pigs, and sowing turnips.

Lan Wangji was pleased to discover that the villagers hadn't been troubled by any restless spirits or evil creatures. The sect disciples appeared to be performing their duties well. Lan Wangji had known that the Lan disciples were hard at work, patrolling and protecting the common-folk. But he was glad to learn that the Jin disciples had been equally diligent.

After lunch, Lan Wangji journeyed to a third village. Mo Village, as it was known. He found that he had just missed a trio of Jin disciples, passing through after a night-hunt.

The villagers murmured that Jin Zixuan took a far greater interest in their welfare than his father ever had. Jin Guangshan seldom sent patrols, and he was careless in responding to their requests for aid. But now, a cheerful dumpling seller declared, they had only to write to Sect Leader Jin. A disciple would be sent within two days.

Lan Wangji listened with satisfaction. Then he cast a wary glance at the sky overhead.

He thought he could cover the distance between Cloud Recesses and the Burial Mounds in a single afternoon. But he had spent too much time wandering the villages. The time had been well-spent: he had confirmed that the common people were safe and well-protected. No unrest was brewing. In fact, the villagers seemed convinced that lives had changed for the better.

It was growing dark, though. Lan Wangji had promised his husband that he would return before nightfall. Perhaps he would need to use that transportation talisman after all.

Lan Wangji drew the talisman from his sleeve and prepared to find a quiet corner. But before he could turn toward the village gates and look for a clearing, he caught sight of a child.

A small boy lingered behind a thread merchant. Lan Wangji halted at once. The child was staring at him.

Lan Wangji was accustomed to that, of course. Cultivators stood out in a crowd, and curious children always watched passing cultivators with open curiosity. The bolder children often slunk forward and begged for tales. They asked to see the cultivator's sword and demanded to know what monsters the cultivator had slain.

But this child hadn't approached Lan Wangji. He wasn't in a fever of excitement, and he didn't gaze ardently at Lan Wangji's sword. No other children clustered nearby, whispering furiously about the newcomer to their village.

This child was entirely alone. That caught Lan Wangji’s attention.

He paused before a sweetshop and cast a subtle glance around the marketplace. The child appeared to be seven or eight years old. Old enough, perhaps, to wander a familiar marketplace by himself. But Lan Wangji did not see the boy's mother or father nearby.

He didn't like the child's appearance, either. The boy's robes were made of an expensive fabric. They had been well-cut and neatly hemmed. But his clothing was dusty and tattered around the elbows. A few rips and tears skirted the hem, and the edges of the robes had begun to fray.

Lan Wangji knew—from experience with his own children—that was a bad sign. The boy's robes had not been laundered and mended in a timely manner. Someone had clearly neglected the child's clothing.

But the tattered robes were nothing. Lan Wangji's eyes caught upon bruises scattered across the child's face. A dark blue mark shadowed his left jaw, and purple splotches lurked near his hairline. Some of the bruises looked fresh, while others were beginning to fade.

Lan Wangji stood still, and he took a closer look at the boy.

Perhaps the child had climbed a tree and fallen from the top branch. Perhaps he had a small fight with another of the village children. There might be a thousand explanations for such bruises.

But Lan Wangji didn't like the child's posture. The boy seemed to cringe away from the villagers who brushed by. Each subtle flinch set Lan Wangji's teeth on edge.

Slowly, he sidled over to the child. He kept his hands away from his sword, striving to look harmless.

The child gazed at him with wide eyes.

Lan Wangji knelt. The child's eyes grew rounder than ever. Then, slowly, he edged forward.

"Hello," Lan Wangji ventured.

The child stared at his face, then at his robes. He studied Lan Wangji's hair ornaments, the jade dangling from his waist. The boy chewed on his lip.

"Gege is pretty!" he blurted out.

Lan Wangji felt an unbidden smile rise up.

"Thank you."

The compliment, he saw, was entirely sincere. Perhaps the boy was more impressed by Lan Wangji's finery than his face, but that was all right.

Lan Wangji removed one of his hair ornaments—a peony blossom carved into white jade—and slipped it into the boy's topknot.

The child's eyes grew enormous. He reached up, touching the ornament with an awed hand.

Lan Wangji couldn't help but smile at that simple gesture. Yet his smile vanished as he took a closer look at the boy. The bruises were deeper than Lan Wangji had thought. They must be quite painful.

"Your face is bruised," he remarked.

At once, the boy dropped his eyes to the ground. The tension in Lan Wangji's stomach solidified into a rock.

He had some experience with children now. Lan Wangji knew that children liked to brag about their exploits. If the boy had injured himself while playing a game or accepting a dare, he would proudly tell the story behind his bruises. He would offer to show Lan Wangji the tree he had fallen from. Or he would boast of pummeling the village boy who insulted his sister.

But the child did not speak. He did not say where his bruises had come from, and he avoided Lan Wangji's eyes.

Lan Wangji felt his mouth settle into a thin line.

"Come with me."

He took hold of the boy's shoulder, guiding him to a nearby well.

Lan Wangji dampened his handkerchief in the cold water. Then he set about wiping the boy's face. The child was quite dusty, and his hands not been washed in some time. Lan Wangji scrubbed at the dirt, trying to see what other marks might hide beneath that grime.

But the boy suddenly grew shy.

"I can wash myself," he declared.

He spoke with the decisive pride of a young child.

Lan Wangji sighed. Of course, children of seven did not appreciate being treated like infants. So he turned over the wet handkerchief without complaint.

The boy did indeed know how to wash himself. He scrubbed his face diligently. Then he washed his hands beneath a dipper of water Lan Wangji poured out for him. But as the boy washed, Lan Wangji spotted fresh marks upon his wrist. They were unmistakably fingerprints, bruises left by an adult's hands.

Lan Wangji drew in a sharp, silent breath.

It took an effort to keep his face neutral, but Lan Wangji said nothing. He offered the boy a drink of water. Then he sat back on his heels, putting aside the bucket and dipper.

"Where do you live?"

He strove to make his voice calm, and the boy answered readily.

"The big house." The boy wiped his damp face with his sleeve. "Mo Manor."

He pointed. Lan Wangji studied the rooftop in the distance.

It wasn't such a big house, not compared to Koi Tower or Cloud Recesses. Mo Manor wasn't even a quarter the size of Demon-Subdue Palace. But Lan Wangji supposed that this was the 'biggest' house the villagers had ever seen.

"Ah." Lan Wangji studied the boy's clothes. "You are Young Master Mo?"

His clothing was poorly mended, but the fabric was too fine for a servant. Lan Wangji supposed the boy must be a young master of some household.

But the boy shook his head.

"Not the young master! That's my cousin."

Lan Wangji digested that piece of information.

Somehow, it didn't fit. If the boy was cousin to Young Master Mo, he was the nephew of the village leaders. Lan Wangji's eyes lingered on the boy's bruised jaw. It was unusual for a young master to be mistreated in his own home. After all, no one could punish him except his aunt and uncle. Why should they wish to mistreat such a young child, a member of their own family?

Lan Wangji frowned.

The sun had dipped low in the sky. He had only half a shi until nightfall. The boy must certainly return to his home before dusk. If Lan Wangji escorted him there, perhaps he could get some answers about those bruises.

"We should return you to your home." Lan Wangji rose to his feet. "Your family will be worried."

The boy shook his head again. He stared at his shoes.

"They won't." His voice grew very small. "Mama is dead."

The stone in Lan Wangji's stomach doubled in size. He reached out, involuntarily, and touched the boy's shoulder.

"I see." He smoothed the child's rumpled robes. "I am sorry."

The boy didn't lift his eyes.

The jade hairpin was pitiful against his unbrushed hair and unkempt robes. Lan Wangji brushed a strand of hair from the boy's forehead.

"Where is your father?"

He inspected the largest bruise, just above the boy's brow. The skin was swollen and warm to the touch. But the boy didn't shy away from Lan Wangji's hands. He merely shrugged and shuffled his feet.

"They told me he died." The child's voice shrank further. "They said he was a bad man."

Lan Wangji paused in his examination of the bruises. Anger pulsed through his veins.

It was a hideous thing to say to a child, particularly one who had already lost his mother. Even if the child's father had been an immoral man, no one should have said so. Not to the man's young, orphaned son.

"Who told you this?"

Lan Wangji's tone was sharper than he intended, and the boy flinched.

Swiftly, Lan Wangji knelt. He laid gentle hands on the boy's shoulders and waited. After a moment, the boy gathered enough courage to lift his eyes.

"Auntie and Uncle." The boy blinked hard, as if fighting tears. "They said Mama should never have opened her legs to him."

Bile rose in Lan Wangji's throat. He struggled to remain still, to keep his hands from tensing into fists.

"Did they."

Whoever had said such a thing—to a child, no less—would answer for their actions. Lan Wangji would find the boy's relatives. He would demand an audience with the Mos, and he would require them to explain themselves. He would ask how they dared to make such a vile remark to an innocent child.

Lan Wangji's hands twitched. He was tempted to reach for his sword, but he didn't want to frighten the child. So he kept his hands right where they were. He squeezed the boy's shoulders.

"What was your father's name?" he tried.

Perhaps the boy's aunt and uncle had lied. The man might not be dead after all. His mother's family might have simply disapproved of the match. She might have conceived out of wedlock, to a man they considered below their station. The father might be a shopkeeper or laborer. Her family might have been ashamed, desperate to hide the truth. Perhaps Lan Wangji could find the boy's father and restore the child to his care.

The boy rubbed his nose with his sleeve.

"Jin Guangshan." He shrugged. "Mama said he was a rich cultivator."

The child spoke the words calmly and easily. But Lan Wangji's insides turned to ice.

After the first rough shock, he decided that this was good. It was a good sign that the child could speak his father's name so easily. That meant the boy had not yet heard rumors of his father's disgrace. His family had shielded him from that, at least.

But from the look of his bruises, Lan Wangji suspected the Mos hadn't wished to shield the child. They had likely hoped to shield themselves by burying all rumors of their association with the Jins.

Lan Wangji recalled a fleeting snatch of gossip, something he had overheard years ago. Even Lan disciples could not shut their ears to every rumor, and Lan Wangji had once heard that Jin Guangshan had a mistress in Mo Village. The Second Young Lady Mo had borne him a son, and there was some speculation that he might bring her into his home as a concubine.

But she had never passed through the gates of Koi Tower. In time, all memory of her dalliance with Jin Guangshan had slowly faded. Jin Guangshan had, as always, moved on. He had sought other paramours, caring nothing for the abandoned children and ruined women he left in his wake.

Lan Wangji wondered if the child before him had ever met Jin Guangshan. Had that wretched man ever bothered to hold his own son in his arms? Lan Wangji shut his eyes. Then he took a deep breath and tried to master his own anger.

"Mm. He was wealthy, and a cultivator."

He could say nothing more of Jin Guangshan, not to a young child. The boy should not know anything further.

But the child's face brightened. He looked toward Bichen with a fresh interest.

"Do you want to be a cultivator?" Lan Wangji wondered.

The boy gave a firm nod.

"Mama said I would!"

He spoke with pride and determination.

Lan Wangji's heart ached for the boy. His mother would not have been a cultivator, of course. Likely she hadn't known anyone—aside from her old lover—who studied cultivation. She must have hoped her son would learn such things. But unless his father took him to Koi Tower, he would never have received proper instruction.

And Jin Guangshan never would have claimed the boy. That was clear enough now. He had acknowledged Jin Guangyao only grudgingly and treated his second son as a servant. Jin Guangshan would not have welcomed his third son under his roof. He would not have trained the boy as a cultivator.

Lan Wangji forced down his own rage. It did no good to fume over Jin Guangshan's many sins. There was nothing Lan Wangji could do to punish the man now. But he could help this boy, at least. If Jin Guangshan hadn't taken responsibility for his children, Lan Wangji could do it for him.

"Would you like to learn cultivation?" he asked gently.

The boy's eyes brightened further.

"Mm!" He bobbed his head, crowding forward. "Does Gege know? Is Gege a cultivator?"

Lan Wangji nodded.

"I am. My husband and I teach our children cultivation, as well."

Lan Wangji smoothed the edges of the boy's tattered robes and adjusted the jade hairpin.

He did not intend to reclaim it. The jade hairpin belonged to this child now. Whatever path he followed in life—whether he wielded a sword, or plowed the fields, or taught in a school—he must keep the hairpin. He must have a tangible sign that someone cared about his welfare.

"Would you like to come and study with us?" Lan Wangji knelt before the boy again. "You would have…other children to study with. To play with."

He paused. Slowly, he ran a finger along the boy's bruised jaw.

"In my home," he added, "no one will be permitted to strike you. Not ever."

The boy blinked as if he believed this offer too good to be true. Perhaps he couldn't imagine living in a place where nobody struck him. But a spark of hope lit within his eyes. He nodded shyly.

Lan Wangji claimed the boy's hand.

"Take me to your aunt and uncle," he instructed. "I will tell them that you are coming to live with me."

Lan Wangji knew at once that he had made the correct decision. The boy's face lit up at the prospect of being taken away from his family. He clutched Lan Wangji's hand, his eyes bright.

But he wilted as they passed through the gates to the Mo complex. The boy shrank in upon himself, and Lan Wangji did not like that. At least no one dared to disturb the boy now. He entered the complex in Hanguang-Jun's custody. The servants gawked and stared. Then they tripped over themselves, hastening to present him to Madam Mo.

Somewhat reluctantly, Lan Wangji turned the boy over to a maid. He would have preferred to keep the child with him, but he wasn't sure what Madam Mo might say. If she intended to be vulgar—to tell the boy that his mother ought to have 'kept her legs closed'—then the interview would become very unpleasant. It was best for the boy to wait outside.

Lan Wangji entrusted the child to a young woman with gentle eyes. He allowed another servant to guide him into an opulent sitting room. Soon, Lan Wangji found himself standing before an unpleasant-looking woman who the servants addressed as 'Madam Mo.'

She looked to be in her late thirties, and her features were not unattractive. But her mouth was pinched, and an ugly gleam of cruelty lurked behind her eyes. She studied Lan Wangji from head to toe. Then she swept a bow and gave him a gracious welcome.

Lan Wangji sensed that she was wondering why he had come. Her eyes held a spark of greed as well as cruelty. She seemed to be thinking hard, trying to turn this visit to some advantage.

Madam Mo offered him tea, and it would have been polite to accept. But Lan Wangji had no wish to be polite to this woman. He refused the offer coldly, and he declined to sit. Then he plunged forward without hesitation.

"I wish to assume custody of your nephew."

Madam Mo's eyes had drifted about the room, plainly wondering what else she might offer Hanguang-Jun. As soon as Lan Wangji spoke, her gaze snapped to his face. Her eyes sharpened. Then her nostrils flared like an animal scenting blood.

"What do you want with him?"

She threw a contemptuous glance toward the closed door.

The boy, Lan Wangji knew, would be waiting outside. He was desperately glad that he hadn't allowed the child to be present for this. The boy shouldn't hear his own aunt speak of him as if he were a piece of refuse that no one could possibly want.

Lan Wangji clenched his fists inside his sleeves. It took an effort to keep his tone even.

"I want him to learn cultivation, if he chooses." Lan Wangji studied the woman in silence for a moment. "I want him to live in peace."

He placed subtle emphasis upon that last word.

It did not go unnoticed. Madam Mo might be a cruel and vulgar woman, but she clearly wasn't stupid. She understood the quiet accusation hidden beneath Lan Wangji's short speech.

Her shoulders stiffened. After a moment, she gave a quiet scoff.

"Hah. Perhaps Hanguang-Jun doesn't have all the facts!"

She gestured at the door.

"Do you know who that boy is?" Madam Mo lifted her chin. "His mother was the daughter of a servant! His father…"

She did not continue, but her face was full of scorn.

Lan Wangji knew that Jin Guangshan's offenses must have carried to Madam Mo's doorstep. But he silenced her with a cold stare.

"The child's birth is immaterial to me." He pressed his lips into a thin line. "It should also be immaterial to you. Regardless of his paternity, this child shares your blood."

Madam Mo sniffed, turning away.

"Only because my father had a few…unwise dalliances in his youth."

She folded her arms, and her bracelets jangled defiantly.

Madam Mo wore a truly vulgar amount of jewelry, Lan Wangji thought. It was an uncharitable thought, but he did not feel called upon to be charitable toward this woman. If she scorned her sister and abused her nephew because they shared blood with a servant, then she did not deserve charitable thoughts.

He bit the inside of his cheek.

"It is unfortunate that Madam Mo is so narrow-minded and short-sighted."

Madam Mo drew back as if she'd been slapped.

"I am sorry to learn that Mo Village has such poor leadership," Lan Wangji added. "The village cannot prosper under the care of such an ignorant, small-minded woman."

Madam Mo's cheeks grew quite red. But she dared not argue with Hanguang-Jun.

That was satisfactory, Lan Wangji decided. He did not like to lord his status over others, silencing them with the weight of his reputation. But an argument with this wretched woman would be entirely unprofitable. She might as well remain silent, cowed by his stature and capabilities.

There was no shame in her eyes, no embarrassment or self-doubt. He had chastised her, yet she was unwilling to consider that she might have been at fault. Certainly, she would never repent of mistreating her nephew. So Lan Wangji gritted his teeth and turned away.

"The child will come with me. He will live in my home, and I will take responsibility for his upbringing from this day forward."

He paused in the doorway and glanced over his shoulder.

"If I hear that Madam Mo has mistreated another person under her care, then we will meet again."

Lan Wangji held very still for a moment. He waited until Madam Mo's eyes fell upon the sword strapped to his back.

"For your own sake," he murmured, "it would be better if I am never forced to return to this village. Such a visit would be…unpleasant for you."

He would not dare to draw his sword upon a non-cultivator. Not unless he was forced to defend himself or an innocent person. It was unseemly for cultivators to threaten those who had no golden core. Lan Wangji had learned that as a child. But surely it was not wrong to remind Madam Mo who he was and what he could do.

She had wealth and influence. For many years, she must have ruled her household with an iron fist. She thought herself powerful, perhaps. It would do her good to be reminded that her power was illusory and would vanish when compared to Hanguang-Jun's. She ought to recognize that she not could mistreat others with impunity.

The woman paled beneath her garish makeup. She took a faltering step backward and glanced around the room. She seemed to be wondering where she might hide, if Hanguang-Jun drew his sword against her.

Lan Wangji held her eyes for a moment longer. Then he turned away.

Madam Mo was a coward, in the end. She did not argue further, nor did she apologize. She didn't beg for a chance to right her mistakes or offer to keep up a correspondence with the child. She merely shrank back.

Lan Wangji left her cringing beside the window. In the hall, he reclaimed the boy's hand.

"You are coming with me," Lan Wangji declared.

The boy's face lit up again. But then he cast an anxious glance toward his aunt's sitting room.

Lan Wangji felt a restless itch beneath his skin: the desire to take the child far away from his hideous relatives as quickly as possible. But he kept his voice calm, drawing the child closer against his side.

"Now, we must pack your things. Which room is yours?"

The young maid showed them to the correct room. She seemed genuinely sorry to hear that the boy was leaving. But Lan Wangji detected a subtle relief in her eyes. The young woman did not object in the end. Perhaps she knew the boy would be better off elsewhere.

The boy's name, Lan Wangji learned, was Mo Xuanyu. He was eight years old, and he could read a little. But he hadn't been permitted to attend lessons with his cousin. He had been excluded from hunting trips and vacations with his family. As a result, his education had been desultory and haphazard.

Lan Wangji felt sure the boy would catch up quickly. In all likelihood, it would only take a little tutoring to bring him up to speed. He would sharpen his skills and match the others soon enough. Lan Wangji drafted lesson plans in his mind as they walked to the boy's chambers.

Mo Xuanyu's bedroom was small and cramped, situated at the back of the complex. Lan Wangji frowned over the thin walls and poorly thatched roof. The room must be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It was not a fitting accommodation for any child.

The boy had few possessions to speak of. Even with the maid's help, the packing was completed far too quickly. There were only a few sets of robes and a couple of battered toys to be stowed away. He had, the maid confessed, grown out of most clothing soon after his mother died. Madam Mo had not provided him with anything new since then.

Lan Wangji frowned and packed each item with fastidious care.

"You will have better toys and clothing soon," he promised.

Mo Xuanyu's eyes lit up.

Lan Wangji expected him to ask what toys he might receive. The children of the Burial Mounds were always eager for new playthings: dolls and wooden balls, drums and kites.

But Mo Xuanyu reached out a tentative hand, stroking the edge of Lan Wangji's robes.

"Can I have pretty clothes like Gege?" he ventured.

Lan Wangji blinked, surprised. Then, he gave the boy a quiet smile.

"Yes." He reached out to refasten Mo Xuanyu's topknot. "You may keep that hairpin, too."

As they gathered up his things, the boy was radiant. Lan Wangji offered to carry the pack, but Mo Xuanyu bore his own possessions proudly. He trotted out of the gate at Lan Wangji's heels. There was no one whom the boy wished to bid farewell. No playmates or friendly servants, aside from the gentle-eyed maid.

She waved as they left, and Mo Xuanyu waved back. But he didn't even suggest saying goodbye to his cousin or his uncle. Lan Wangji's heart ached.

He held Mo Xuanyu's hand tightly and promised himself that the boy would have friends soon. His children were always happy to have a new playmate. The Wens would love the child, too. It would not matter if the boy's blood relatives were cruel and cold-hearted. Mo Xuanyu would have a loving family in the Burial Mounds.

Lan Wangji steered the boy to a quiet clearing. Then he knelt and drew a talisman from his sleeve.

"My husband invented this talisman."

He allowed Mo Xuanyu to inspect it. The boy studied the talisman with awed eyes.

"We will not have to walk or ride a horse," Lan Wangji explained. "The talisman will carry us directly to my home."

He glanced briefly toward the sky. If circumstances had been different, he might have traveled using other methods. The child was young, and Lan Wangji thought he might do better on a horse or donkey. But the sun was sinking toward the horizon. It would be dark soon, and Wei Ying was expecting him.

So Lan Wangji stepped back and activated the talisman.

Mo Xuanyu's mouth dropped open in surprise. Lan Wangji took the boy's pack and clasped his hand.

"Hold onto me as we pass through," he advised. "Nothing will harm you."

The boy kept a tight, trusting grip on his hand.

Together, they passed through the gate, and their feet landed upon damp grass on the other side. Lan Wangji drew in a deep breath of fresh mountain air. His shoulders relaxed, tension sliding from his body.

He had returned home, at last.

They were halfway up the path to the Burial Mounds. Yiling spread below, dozens of torches and burning brightly in the twilight. Ahead, the trail twisted and turned. It would not take long to pass through the wards and reach Demon-Subdue Palace.

Mo Xuanyu stumbled along the path, dizzy from the teleportation talisman. But he clung to Lan Wangji's hand and looked around eagerly.

As they walked, Lan Wangji told him about Yiling. There were sweetshops, he said, and many toys for sale. There were tailors and seamstresses, too. They would make a trip to Yiling tomorrow, or perhaps the next day. They would buy Mo Xuanyu whatever he needed. In the meantime, his children could loan Mo Xuanyu some of their own things.

Lan Wangji listed his children's names and ages. He described their lessons in cultivation, literature, calligraphy, and music. Mo Xuanyu's eyes were enormous.

They tromped up the path, passing through the shimmering wards. Soon, they were within the main courtyard. Lan Wangji heard a welcoming cry, followed by the sound of running footsteps. Within moments, he was surrounded by familiar faces.

The Wens hurried over, their eyes bright in the torchlight. Lanterns gleamed overheard. Lan Wangji suspected these had been hung in honor of his return. But he had no time to admire the decorations.

The children besieged him. A-Yuan clung to his leg, and A-Mei tugged at his sash. The older children hung back shyly, striving for dignity and refinement. But they soon pushed forward, greeting him happily. Lan Wangji examined each face, and he was happy to find all his children plump and healthy.

Wen Ning hurried forward, followed by the corpse women. Lan Wangji greeted them, too. But he could not see Wei Ying.

Mo Xuanyu's grip tightened on his hand. Lan Wangji glanced down. The boy seemed a bit overwhelmed by the boisterous crowd. He had slunk behind Lan Wangji, hiding himself from view.

Gently, Lan Wangji drew him forward. He turned and faced the crowd.

"This is Mo Xuanyu." He laid his hand upon the boy's shoulder. "He has come to stay with us."

The children peered at Mo Xuanyu with open curiosity, and the Wens smiled. Third Uncle knelt down to greet the boy. A-Yuan—always overjoyed by the prospect of a new playmate—lunged forward.

A shy, tentative smile crept over Mo Xuanyu's face. He still clung to Lan Wangji, but his grip began to loosen.

Wen Qing appeared just then. She pushed her way through the crowd and took one look at Mo Xuanyu. Then she rolled her eyes heavenward.

“Oh, you two are unbelievable.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose. After a moment, she jabbed her finger toward the entrance.

"Go inside and talk to your husband. He has a surprise for you."

Lan Wangji blinked, but Wen Qing would say no more.

She strode forward and took charge of Mo Xuanyu. Within moments, she had ordered Third Uncle to help her carry the boy's things. Liu Deshi was dispatched to prepare a bed for the boy. Lan Wangji turned the boy over to Wen Qing's care with a quiet sigh.

Mo Xuanyu still looked a bit overwhelmed, but Lan Wangji knew he'd settle in quickly enough. He was surrounded by friendly faces and gentle hands. The Wens would set up a bed for him, digging out clothing and toys from the storehouse. They would help him unpack. Then they would show him into the dining hall.

There was sure to be a banquet in honor of Lan Wangji's return. Mo Xuanyu would sit with the rest of the children and eat his fill. Afterward, Wen Qing would examine his bruises and prescribe healing ointments. The boy would be all right now. So Lan Wangji whisked himself inside and went in search of his husband.

He didn't have to search for long. Granny Wen, grinning mysteriously, showed him to a small guest chamber across the hall from their shared rooms. Lan Wangji rarely ventured inside. The room usually stood empty. He couldn't imagine what Wei Ying was doing in there.

Lan Wangji tapped on the door and slid it open. The entrance opened into a small sitting room with an attached bedchamber. Lan Wangji stepped inside and glanced around.

Somehow, the room felt lived-in. A fire had been lit. An unfamiliar coat hung on a hook beside the door. A basket of knitting sat beside a chair. Lan Wangji stared blankly at these signs of life. He hadn't expected to return to find a house-guest.

Before he could examine the unfamiliar furnishings, Wei Ying darted out from the bedchamber. He flung his arms around Lan Wangji and peppered his face with kisses.

"Ah! Lan Zhan!"

He pressed two determined smacks to Lan Wangji's cheeks, then added one more for good measure.

"My beloved husband! You're finally back! I have something I need to discuss with you! Let me explain!"

Lan Wangji swayed into his arms. It was good to be kissed by his husband again. But Wei Ying had a rather frenzied look in his eyes. He spoke breathlessly, as if he hardly dared to pause. He sounded as though he expected a scolding.

Perhaps Lan Wangji ought to interrogate him at once, but he was in no mood for questioning. He drew Wei Ying close and gave his husband a very thorough, lingering kiss.

Wei Ying's arms tightened around Lan Wangji's waist.

When Lan Wangji drew back, he found his husband flushed and delightfully dazed. But Wei Ying recovered quickly. He cleared his throat and seized Lan Wangji's hand.

"How dare you! Don't distract me like that! Do you want me to go completely incoherent? I told you, I have something to discuss with you!"

He gave Lan Wangji's hand a reproving squeeze. Then he towed Lan Wangji over to the small bedchamber. Wei Ying paused at the door and cleared his throat.

"Well. This is how it is!"

He rocked back on his heels.

"A few days ago, we found a basket just outside wards! Someone had put it there in the early morning, I think. Luckily, we found it right away. There's that alarm, you know. When someone messes with the wards—"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji interrupted.

His husband was rambling, and Lan Wangji already knew all about the wards. He did not care to hear a description of the alarms Wei Ying had rigged up. He only wanted to know what had been in the basket, and why Wen Qing had warned him to expect a 'surprise.' Lan Wangji particularly wanted to know why the basket's contents necessitated an entire guest suite.

Wei Ying ducked his head.

"All right, all right! I'm getting there! Goodness. My husband is so impatient."

He flashed a fond look at Lan Wangji. But there was a trace of nervousness lurking in his eyes.

"So the alarm went off, and I rushed outside. I ran to the gates, and I saw the basket. And, well…"

Slowly, Wei Ying edged open the door to the bedchamber. He crept inside on tiptoes.

Lan Wangji found himself mimicking his husband's gait.

Wei Ying led him past the bureau, past the bed, past the brazier. He led Lan Wangji to a small cradle, tucked against the rear wall.

A tiny infant slept within. The child was wrapped up in a tight bundle. Lan Wangji saw a small face with a crown of dark hair. The baby's mouth was pursed, eyes closed in slumber.

Lan Wangji turned to his husband. Wei Ying squeezed his hand again.

"She was in the basket, all by herself." Wei Ying swallowed. "Wen Qing says she's only about a week old."

Lan Wangji reached out on instinct. Gingerly, he traced the curve of the baby's cheek.

He was almost afraid to touch her. Lan Wangji had grown accustomed to handling children over the last few months. But there was a great difference between a sturdy toddler and a week-old infant. This child was so small.

The baby shifted within her cradle. A small hand emerged from the blankets, and Lan Wangji slipped a finger inside her tiny palm. She clamped down at once, clutching his finger with a determined grip.

Lan Wangji lifted his eyes again. Wei Ying's face was very soft.

"There was a letter," he sighed. "Her mother said she couldn't keep the baby. But she'd heard that Yiling Patriarch and his husband take in unwanted children. She hoped that maybe we'd take her daughter in and bring her up."

Wei Ying fell silent. Then he cleared his throat. He reached out, ghosting a hand over the baby's head.

"Well. I was thinking! It seems mean to disappoint the poor woman. After all, she put so much faith in us! So I was hoping..."

He faltered and lapsed into silence once more.

But Lan Wangji already knew what his husband wanted, and he knew his own answer. He rubbed his thumb over the back of the baby's hand.

"What is her name?" he asked.

Wei Ying's face softened further.

"The letter didn't say." He stroked her forehead. "I thought I should wait for my husband before I picked any names."

He slanted a glance toward Lan Wangji. Somehow, Wei Ying looked both shy and hopeful.

Lan Wangji smiled.

"Wei Lihua."

It was a highly suitable name. The child was born just as the pear trees came into bloom. She had arrived with the spring, another small miracle.

Wei Ying's face glowed, radiant in the soft light of evening. He took Lan Wangji's hand and held it tight.

"Do you want me to show you how to hold her?" he whispered.

Lan Wangji nodded. He didn't have any experience holding infants. But he supposed he'd learn quickly enough.

Wei Ying had grown rather practiced over the last few days. He confessed that he'd recruited a wet-nurse from Yiling just after the baby arrived. The woman planned to stay until the child was weaned. It was her coat and knitting Lan Wangji had spotted in the sitting room. She had already taught Wei Ying how to hold the baby, how to burp her, how to wrap her in blankets so she would stay warm. Wei Ying was always a fast learner.

He settled the child into Lan Wangji's arms and demonstrated how to support her head.

A-Hua was impossibly tiny and exquisitely beautiful. Her face, peering out from the blankets, was perfect. Lan Wangji felt his heart unfurl, making space for another beloved child. Several moments passed before Lan Wangji could tear his eyes away from his new daughter. But then he lifted his eyes to Wei Ying's.

"I also have something to discuss with you," Lan Wangji admitted.

He told Wei Ying about his trip through Mo Village. Then he mentioned the young boy waiting out in the courtyard.

Wei Ying laughed so hard that he startled the baby awake. Lan Wangji rocked A-Hua carefully as Wei Ying wiped tears of mirth from his eyes.

"We're quite a pair, aren't we!"

Lan Wangji couldn't argue with that. He understood now why Wen Qing had looked so exasperated. It was rather absurd. They had managed to adopt two more children during a four-week separation. But it couldn't be helped.

"I could not leave him there," Lan Wangji murmured. "He was being mistreated."

Wei Ying leaned against his side.

"Of course you couldn't!" He stroked Lan Wangji's back fondly. "And of course, he can stay with us. We'll take care of him from now on."

Wei Ying tickled A-Hua's cheeks. Then he turned his attention to the dimples on the back of her hands. Wei Ying inspected them thoroughly, and Lan Wangji helped with this task.

"Qin Su has settled in," Wei Ying added. "She's been helping out with the children's lessons."

His smile turned sorrowful.

"Maybe she'd like to meet her little brother?" He sighed. "It might be hard on her at first. But she's a kind person. I think she'll want to help bring him up."

Lan Wangji rocked the baby in silence.

He had forgotten about Qin Su. It would indeed be difficult for her to meet another of Jin Guangshan's illegitimate children. But Wei Ying and Wen Qing had described her as a kind, gentle soul. Perhaps meeting Mo Xuanyu would bring her some comfort. Perhaps she could draw solace from the knowledge that they had found their way to a safe harbor.

A-Hua blinked up at Lan Wangji. Her eyes were slightly unfocused, and she gazed around the room with a puzzled expression. But she had found safety, too. Lan Wangji would make sure of that.

He would not disappoint the nameless mother who had left her baby in a basket at their gates. The woman must have prayed that an immortal would raise her daughter in comfort and luxury. She must have hoped, too, that her daughter would know love. She must have prayed that her daughter would grow up to be respected, valued, adored.

Her hopes would not be disappointed. Lan Wangji would not have A-Hua become anything less than a treasured daughter. He held the baby close against his chest.

Wei Ying hooked his chin over Lan Wangji's shoulder.

"A-Yuan is excited." He squeezed A-Hua's small hand. "He's not the youngest anymore! Now he has someone to boss around."

"She is too small to boss around," Lan Wangji protested.

A-Hua gave a yawn, her mouth opening wide. Then she blinked and flexed her fingers.

Wei Ying laughed.

"She has great big lungs, though!" He tapped her cheek. "Just wait until she starts crying."

But A-Hua did not seem interested in that sort of thing. She stared at Lan Wangji with wide, curious eyes.

Wei Ying let out a groan.

"Ah, but of course. What am I thinking of? Who would cry when they're looking at Lan Zhan's beautiful face?" He prodded her plump cheeks. "Look at her!"

Lan Wangji needed no such admonition. He had hardly lifted his eyes from the baby since he entered the room. Already, A-Hua occupied a large portion of his mind. He thought rapidly, making plans for her care.

For the next few months, A-Hua would spend much of her time with her wet-nurse. But once she was bigger, she could accompany Lan Wangji and Wei Ying. They could put her in a sling across their bodies, as peasant mothers did. She could join the children's lessons and tag along on their trips to Yiling and the villages.

They would have to present her before the ancestors, as they had done with their other children. They would present Mo Xuanyu too, if he wished to be formally adopted. And they would need to think about enlarging the classrooms. They must shift in other desks and juggle the duty roster to allow for bigger classes. Perhaps Qin Su would want to take over a few lessons.

Surely they could manage such arrangements quite easily? There were plenty of resources to go around. The Burial Mounds had never lacked love, kindness, or compassion. Wei Ying had built a thriving community full of open-hearted generosity.

He claimed that Lan Wangji had helped to make his home even better. Lan Wangji hoped that was true. He would certainly strive to make it true. He would spend the rest of his days guarding the Burial Mounds and caring for the people who lived within their borders. He could think of no worthier purpose for his life.

"Look at her! She knows how lucky she is." Wei Ying sighed. "She's been taken into the strong arms of the peerless Hanguang-Jun! I'm jealous."

There was a trace of sulkiness in his voice.

Lan Wangji turned, and he saw a pout upon Wei Ying's face. At once, he shifted restlessly. He wanted to reach out and take his husband into his arms. But his arms were occupied, and he was afraid to put A-Hua down.

Wei Ying saw his husband's dilemma. The petulance on his face disappeared, and he laughed aloud.

"Well, I'll hold Lan Zhan for now!"

He slipped his arms around Lan Wangji's waist and pressed his chest against Lan Wangji's back.

"Then we'll switch." He propped his chin on Lan Wangji's shoulder again. "After a while, I'll hold A-Hua, and my husband will hold me. How about that?"

Lan Wangji leaned back against his husband's chest.

Wei Ying was warm, solid, vitally alive. Lan Wangji never tired of it. His husband's warm skin, his laughing voice, his teasing touches…such things were a source of endless pleasure.

He could not imagine ever tiring of his husband. Even if he cultivated to immortality—if he spent a thousand years married to this man—he would still crave Wei Ying's presence. Each day spent with Wei Ying would bring joyful discovery, and each night would bring peace and fulfillment. There was nowhere else he wished to be, except in Wei Ying's arms.

"An ideal arrangement," Lan Wangji murmured.

Wei Ying leaned in close and smiled against his husband's neck.